It starts with Rudy’s invite.
“Can you believe this shit, homes?” Ray asks, tossing an envelope onto the kitchen table; it skids across the tabletop and falls off the other side. “We just got invited to Fruity Rudy’s love bond ceremony.”
Brad’s facing away, dropping some bread in the toaster, but he can still picture it in his head: Ray, his hair a mess, the collar on his white shirt stretched obscenely low and revealing a string of bruises along his collarbone.
“The fuck is that?” Brad asks, tossing a glance over his shoulders in time to see Ray roll his eyes.
“Some kumbaya zen wedding bullshit. Our little Rudy is getting married.”
“Little?” Brad asks, and thinks of how fucking ridiculous it all is, Rudy and his love bond. Rudy feeling the need to tell everyone how soft he’s gone over one person, how fucking compromised he is. It makes Brad feel uneasy, watching someone put their weaknesses out there on display like that. “Rudy takes shits that are bigger than you.”
“Now, now, Bradley,” Ray says. “Don't be jealous.”
Brad snorts, because he’s not, and feels Ray’s amusement coming through the bond, feels Ray feel his sudden unease. Brad’s only been back home for two days, and being this close to Ray again, after such a long time away, the bond is going crazy, everything so open between the two of them. Brad has to stop himself from constantly reaching out to tug Ray closer. Ray gets it, anyway, and now, as Brad grabs the deli meats from the fridge, Ray sighs loud and longsufferingly, and plasters himself to Brad’s naked back, kissing Brad between the shoulder blades as he reaches around to pinch a nipple.
“Jesus,” Brad says, knocking Ray’s hand away. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” Ray says, pressing his smile into Brad’s skin. “You like it.”
“When I'm not making us lunch, you fucking degenerate hick-octopus hybrid,” Brad points out, not bothering to lie because Ray already knows the truth, anyway. Brad wonders if Sheree knows the truth about what Rudy likes and doesn't like, wonders how she could even be sure without a bond. He grabs a knife and the mayo, and Ray drags the flat of his thumb back and forth over Brad’s still stinging nipple.
“Nah, homes,” Ray says. “You like it all the time.” He runs his palm down Brad’s chest and tucks his fingers under the waistband of Brad’s running shorts, his palm flat against Brad’s skin. The muscles of Brad’s belly twitch.
“You going to get me off in my PT gear?” Brad asks, his fingers tightening around the butter knife in his hand, and Ray lewdly drags his tongue as far up Brad’s spine as he can.
“In ‘em, out of ‘em,” he says, biting Brad’s shoulder, “I don't care.”
Brad finds that he doesn't care much, either.
They spend most of the afternoon and well into the evening riding along the coast on Brad’s bike, stopping off to make fun of all the gay shit they can find in an Encinitas antique store and to grab Ray a donut at Coffee Coffee. There’s no end of surf shops, and Brad buys new wax, the two of them walking through the store together, Ray dipping his fingers in and out of Brad’s back pockets when he feels like Brad’ll let him get away with it.
“Hey, homes,” Ray says by the boards. “How ‘bout tacos on the way home?”
“You just ate,” Brad points out, although he's hungry and can feel that Ray is, too.
“Yeah, a fucking donut,” Ray stresses. “You took me on a fucking death march of a run this morning, and then practically begged me to guzzle your come afterwards—”
“Hardly,” Brad denies, the both of them uncaring about ruining the delicate sensibilities of their surf rat cashier.
“Plus!” Ray steamrolls on, “Plus, you made me ride bitch all day. All day, Brad, and it is in the opinion of this Marine that you give into my demands, or face my wrath later at home.”
“You ride bitch because you are my bitch,” Brad reminds him, a joke that’s lost most of its humor due to the frequency with which Brad says it, “and you're no longer a Marine, you buck-toothed, sister-fucking, hair-brained hick.”
“My grill really is fucked up,” Ray agrees easily, running his tongue over his top teeth, and it makes Brad feel guilty because he knows that's actually a sore spot for Ray, and that's not how Brad meant it, anyway. Ray’s not mad, doesn't feel hurt through their bond or any of that weak bullshit, but Brad still feels bad.
“Hey,” Brad says, and then he rolls his eyes at himself. “Hey, idiot,” he says again, and grabs Ray by the wrist. It's only once he has Ray’s attention that he realizes he doesn't know what to say.
Brad looks at Ray for a beat longer and then says, “I love your fucked up teeth.”
He knows the second he says it that it was the wrong thing to say, because he can feel Ray’s glee hit him like a ton of bricks, only then Ray smiles so widely that Brad forgets to regret it.
“Why, Bradley,” Ray says in falsetto, fluttering his eyelashes, “aren't you going to buy me dinner first?”
Brad takes a page from Ray’s book and flicks him off, and when Ray darts in to steal a kiss before ducking away, laughing, Brad lets Ray get away with it.
Brad always lets Ray get away with it. With everything.
It's fucking embarrassing, he knows, but he likes the way Ray wants everyone to know that they’re together. Its nice to be wanted like that, that much. Brad wants Ray just as much in return, and has just as much of a fucking caveman brain as Ray does about it: he leaves bruises all over Ray’s hips, and bite marks on Ray’s neck and the inside of his thighs. He just doesn't fucking mention it. He keeps that thought pushed away into the back of his mind, where he knows Ray won't look out of some sense of privacy, because talking about it sounds fucking agonizing.
He thinks about how easily he could push his bike past one-ten without Ray on it. Without worrying about Ray. Thinks about Ray straddling the back, arms lazily wrapped around Brad’s torso or sometimes not at all. They go speed limit, then, or as close to it as Brad has ever gotten. It's still better, somehow. Better with Ray.
“I could go a lot faster on the bike,” Brad tries to explain, out of nowhere. “If you weren’t riding with me.”
“So then don't fucking take me with you next time, if you hate it so much,” Ray responds, and he feels just as easy as he says it, calm and undisturbed, like it doesn't matter to him either way. He just keeps walking, fingering everything on the shelves.
Brad watches Ray walk away, and out of nowhere, he’s thinking about Rudy. About how maybe, despite all of his homoerotic manscaping and meditation, maybe he’s more like Brad than Brad has ever given him credit for. Rudy is doing what he wants, just because he wants to, and fuck biology. Fuck bonding. Rudy’s getting himself some, oohrah, and Brad’s fucking bitching out and settling for bruises in the shape of his own mouth on Ray’s skin.
“Do you want to get married?” Brad asks. It’s out of his mouth before he can question it, his heart hammering in his chest and threatening to follow. He looks at Ray as he asks it, because at the end of the day, there’s really nowhere else to look.
Ray smiles lazily and says, “Nah, homes,” and that—
Brad wasn't expecting that, and doesn't know what to do, either, because there’s a bond between them and Brad can tell that Ray means it, means no, through and through. So Brad doesn't do anything, just stands there in a surf shop and tries to remember that he didn't want to get married either until a minute ago. He didn't even want this whole fucking bond to begin with, but apparently what he wants doesn't fucking matter in the grand scheme of things.
“Hey, homes, check this shit out!” Ray says gleefully from by the towels. His arms are out wide as he models one. “It's a fucking towel poncho!”
And since there's nothing else he can do about it, and since he’s bonded to Ray whether Ray wants to get married or not, Brad makes himself smile and respond, “Who the fuck let you out of the house?”
“Your mom,” Ray retorts, and then he rubs his palm over the front of his neck, pinches his shirt between two fingers and fans himself with the material. He lolls his tongue out and wheezes. “The hell are you so cranky about all of a sudden? I feel like I’m about to have a fucking panic attack, homes, shit. The poncho’s not even for you.”
They fuck when they get back home, because even though Ray doesn't want to marry him, and even though Brad is loath to admit it, he loves Ray and loves Ray’s body, and has been in England for too long, and back only going on two days. So they fuck.
“Shee-yit, homes,” Ray says from where he is, pressed against the wall next to the front door with his ratty t-shirt rucked up to his armpits. Brad’s pinning him there with his hips, his hands scrambling to pull Ray’s open pants down over his ass. “What did I do to—fuck—knew you couldn't resist this fine piece—"
“Ray,” Brad says, sinking to his knees. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Right, yeah,” Ray says, but it's apparently too much to ask for because, as Brad is kissing his way up Ray’s thigh, his hand slowly jacking Ray’s cock to fullness, Ray says, “You know, I always worried you only wanted me for my body, but it turns out I don't even care.”
“Ray,” Brad says again, biting Ray’s hip and dragging his blunt fingernails down the backs of Ray’s thighs.
“Yeah. Yeah,” Ray says, but it comes out stuttered and less annoying than Ray probably meant it.
Brad takes Ray’s cock in his mouth and sucks him off like he was born to do it. And maybe he was; it's easy to tell what Ray wants, with the bond, and even though Brad’s feeling the way he’s feeling, he wants to give it to Ray. He tugs on Ray’s balls, just on the right side of too much, and wraps his fingers around the base of Ray’s cock, covering what his mouth can't, and it's different with Ray. Different than with anyone he’s ever been with. Part of it is because Brad knows that, even if they never get married, even if they change their minds about each other, even if they get in a huge blowout tomorrow and never touch each other again, Ray’s the last person Brad’s ever going to fuck.
But the other part—the bigger part—is because of how the bond works. Because when they fuck, Brad knows what Ray’s feeling. What he’s thinking, when he's thinking it. What he wants and how much he wants it, and what he’s willing to do to get it. Because Brad knows, without a doubt, that Ray is mesmerized by the way Brad’s lips look, stretched wide, and the way his cock looks, printing through the side of Brad’s cheek. Ray is so thoroughly and so completely everything Brad wants, and he looks at Brad every time like he can't fucking believe it, like he can't believe Brad is his, even when it's just fucking, quick and rough and raw, and nothing more than that.
It's nothing more than that, now. It's just fucking to get off, but it feels so fucking good that Brad doesn't feel like he’s missing anything. Just one thing, maybe, but none of that fucking matters. He tells himself that, because it doesn't matter; it can't, not if Ray doesn't want it.
If Ray doesn't want it, Brad doesn't want it either. He takes Ray’s cock deeper in his mouth, holds Ray steady with both hands bracketing his hips, pressing him tight. Pressing his nose as deep into Ray’s pubes as he can manage, blurring the lines of where Ray ends and he begins. Ray likes the way Brad’s fingertips are dimpling the skin on his hips, and so Brad holds him tighter, gets off on the way Ray groans as he tests Brad’s hold, and the way everything in Ray’s head narrows down to Brad and his fingers and his mouth.
“Hey,” Ray says. “Fuck, yeah, hey—hey, look at me. Look at me.”
But Brad can't, because Brad’s trying but he still wants to marry Ray and wants everyone to know it, to know that he married Ray because he wanted to, because he chose to, and no other reason. Not because of their bond, not because of science or religion or anything other than his brain and his logic, and him deciding that Ray is it, because Ray is it. Because he is Ray’s, until the day he’s fucking feeding the worms, and their bond has nothing to do with it.
But Ray said no.
“Hey,” Ray says again, softer this time, and then his hand is cupping Brad’s jaw, pushing Brad gently away. Brad blinks his eyes open just as Ray’s cock slips from his mouth, dragging with it a trail of spit from Brad’s lips that Ray breaks with a swipe of his thumb.
“What?” Brad snaps. If Ray asks him what’s wrong, he's getting up and walking out the front door.
But they’re not bonded for nothing, and instead Ray asks, “D’you want to fuck me?” His hand is pushing back Brad’s short, short hair.
“Yeah,” Brad says.
Ray looks down at him, and Brad looks up. Ray’s cock is in the way, still hard and jutting out from his body. He drags the pad of his thumb over the space between Brad’s eyebrows, and that’s when Brad realizes he’s been frowning.
“Okay,” Ray says. “Come on, homes.”
He steps around Brad and strips on his way to the bedroom, leaving his clothes everywhere in an attempt to be sexy that Brad will never—and doesn't have to—tell him works.
Instead, Brad calls after him, “Who the fuck raised you to leave your shit everywhere?” And then he follows Ray into the bedroom, presses Ray face first into the mattress, opens Ray up, soft and easy, and fucks him hard and fast.
He can feel just how much Ray loves him through every minute of it, and that used to be enough for Brad. Used to be too much, for Brad, for a time, and now Brad thinks he finally gets it, how it was for Ray, when Ray wanted more—wanted everything—and Brad wanted nothing to do with him at all.
Brad pulls out in time to flip Ray over and come on the soft, pale flesh of Ray’s stomach. He uses his full, open palm to rub his come into Ray’s skin, hoping idly that some part of him will remain even after Ray showers it all away.
“And they say I'm the fucking sexual deviant,” Ray says with a breath of laughter, and Brad thinks, It's not a ring.
For all that Brad can sleep like the dead in a poorly dug grave in the middle of mortar fire, he sleeps like shit that night, Ray half on top of him and drooling on his shoulder, limbs wrapped around Brad like a fucking octopus. It's a nice weight, Ray's body, heavy and familiar, and Brad hadn't even realized he was missing it when he was passing out in England.
But now, back in the People’s Republic of California, with the sun barely rising and Ray weighing him down, Brad can't even find it in himself to keep his eyes shut.
“Mm?” Ray asks, startling out of his sleep with a jump. “What’d you say?” He rolls himself off of Brad and back onto his own side of the bed, still so close. Brad can see the light freckle on Ray’s closed eyelid, each of Ray’s individual eyelashes.
“Nothing,” Brad tells him. “Go back to sleep.”
“Mm,” Ray says again. Then, “Why th’fuck are you being so loud?”
“Can't sleep,” Brad admits, and regrets it when he does because he knows—he knows—how that comes across to the people at home when they know that Brad is a death-dealing, blood-crazed warrior who only just got back.
There’s a long pause where Ray just looks at him without saying anything, and without trying to read Brad through the bond. Ray just looks at him the same way Brad looks back: like he is a topo map of Iraq; like he is a berm; like he is a fresh jar of lube for the MK-19 in miles of city and desert, a jalapeno and cheese hidden at the bottom of the ratfuck bag.
“Something happen back there?” Ray asks, and Brad hates this shit, but coming from Ray, it's not as bad.
“What, in England?” Brad doesn't know why he doesn't just say no, because nothing did.
“If that's what you want to call it, homes,” Ray responds, not bothering with Brad’s bullshit. They both know he wasn't in England the whole time; they both know he went back, this time without Ray. Brad doesn't know why he’s being evasive, same as he doesn't know why Ray won't marry him. Brad knows fuck-all these days.
“This whole line of questioning is an affront to my warrior spirit, Ray. It's just jet lag.”
“Hah. Okay. Oohrah, Iceman.”
Ray shifts in the bed, flinging one arm over Brad’s chest. He’s got the dumbest tattoos, and Brad stares at them now, at all the dumb ink that means nothing to Brad and, more than likely, really means nothing to Ray, either.
“Stop thinking. Go to sleep,” Ray mumbles, scraping his teeth gently over the skin of Brad’s shoulder, and then pressing a kiss into the same spot.
Brad waits until Ray is back asleep and then slips out of bed. Maybe he’ll go on a run or go surfing, just to get out. Just to be moving.
Brad walks to the living room, where he finds his flip-flops under the coffee table, and then heads to the kitchen for some tap water. Ray has been bitching non-stop about chemicals ever since he saw Erin Brockovich with Brad’s mom, but Brad has plans to put an end to that by both buying Ray a water filter and forbidding Ray from ever hanging out with Brad’s mother unsupervised again.
Standing there in the kitchen, Brad takes a second to look at all the pictures stuck to the fridge. It's his house, but it's also not, in a lot of ways, and there's a lot that’s new to him. Things that weren't there before England. The pictures. Brad coming out of the surf, the top half of his wetsuit pulled down and his board tucked under his arm; Brad at the London Eye in the rain; Brad, drunk, his red face pressed against the side of Poke’s at the LT’s paddle party; Brad and Ray in beach chairs, four beers between them, Ray’s chest just starting to burn; Brad and Ray at Matilda, hunched over a WIRED magazine; Brad and Ray in Nevada, Missouri; Brad and Ray napping on the couch.
When Brad was finishing out the rest of his exchange program in England, Ray had sent him a lot of pictures, but they were nothing like this. For starters, they were mostly only ever of Ray, and mostly only ever the kind of softcore nudes that made Ray laugh because he thought they were especially gay. The fridge is something else, though. Ray was the only one here to ever see the fridge.
“Okay,” Brad says to the photos. “You fucking Whiskey Tango piece of—okay.”
He gets it. Time to live and learn and move the fuck on.
Rudy’s wedding invite is still on the floor from where Ray flung it the day before, but Brad doesn't bother to pick it up. He goes out to buy bagels instead.
Brad’s back by the time Ray wakes up. He’s only just taking things out of their bags when Ray shuffles into the kitchen, rubbing the sleep out of one eye, and wearing only grey briefs and a white tee, which Brad refuses to admit is something he finds incredibly attractive.
“Hey, homes,” Ray says, and Brad can feel Ray’s happiness and surprise over something as small as realizing Brad is standing in the kitchen. “Figured you were out surfing or something.”
Brad shakes his head and says, “Decided to get bagels.”
“I fucking worship at your altar, Brad,” Ray tells him solemnly, sitting down heavily at the kitchen table. Brad can tell by the way he’s holding himself that he slept like shit, too, and Ray must be able to sense that, must be able to feel how Brad is torn between saying shut up and I’m sorry, because he tells Brad, “Don't make me come over there and fight you, homes.”
“I distinctly remember you trying that in Kuwait,” Brad says. “Remind me: how’d that go for you?”
“Got me through my first three combat jacks,” Ray says, his cheeks dimpling, and Brad turns back towards the counter so Ray won't see him smile.
“Glad to be of service,” he deadpans.
“Everyone’s good at something,” Ray says through a yawn, and then takes the to-go cup that Brad hands him, no cream but a shitton of sugar. Then, as if to stop Brad from blaming himself for Ray’s yawn, he says, “What kept me up was that I had the fucking weirdest dream last night.”
“Do I even want to know?” Brad asks. He hands Ray a bacon, egg, and cheese on everything, and Ray makes sure to take a giant bite before responding with his mouth full.
“We were in Mexico at that, fucking—what's the name of that first cave we’re going to?”
“Chac-Mool,” Brad says without missing a beat. He's been looking forward to their trip for months, put in for the leave and booked every flight, rented every car, made sure they had everything they needed to hit each of the five caves they planned to dive in the Riviera Maya.
“Yeah, yeah, Chac-Mool,” Ray agrees.” And we were diving and you, like, one minute you were you and then you fucking turned into a shark and ate me.”
Brad puts down his bagel and snags the one bottle of OJ they shared between them. “Poke’s six-year-old has shark nightmares, too. Maybe you two can form a support group.”
“No, homes, it wasn't a nightmare; it was romantic.” Then, when Brad raises an eyebrow in question, Ray cracks a grin and says, “You know, a metaphor for how you ate my cock last night.”
“Imagine the dreams you'll have next time I eat your ass out,” Brad says.
Ray hisses in a breath and says, “Damn, homie. Okay, like, I have band practice in an hour, but I come like, embarrassingly quick when you do that, which I know I shouldn't brag about, but that means an hour is plenty—”
“Gotta head out to see Poke,” Brad interrupts, because if he doesn't, Ray will go all day.
“Brazenly parading your boyfriend around in front of me,” Ray says, and Brad rolls his eyes. “Tasteless.”
“I'm working Poke up for a threesome,” he deadpans.
“Homes, can you imagine?” Ray crows. “His dirty talk would just be him complaining about getting fucked by the white man on all sorts of levels. I couldn't bust a nut to that. Fuck no.”
“Just to the thought of goats and your sister, then?”
Ray smiles. “And Viking Christ-killers with giant horse cocks, homes. Don't worry.”
Brad can feel Ray’s laughter, but also just how much Ray means it, how much he does love Brad. He says it like a joke, but feels it like Brad is everything, like he'd do anything for Brad.
And in return, for Ray, Brad will get the fuck over himself.
Traffic is a fucking mess by the time Brad makes it out of the house, rumpled and bearing a fading mark of Ray’s teeth on the side of his neck. He’s on his bike, and couldn't imagine this fucking stop-and-go in a truck—or rather, he could, if he's thinking of open-top Humvees rolling down an Iraqi highway, Trombley and Reporter in the back, and Ray where Ray always is. It's different though, in the U.S., more unbearable, and so Brad splits traffic without thinking about it, blasting past minivans and F-350s that have no place in L.A.
He parks at the apron of Poke’s driveway when he gets there and doesn't bother with the front door, just lifts the latch on the wooden gate off to the side of the house and steps into the backyard, helmet in hand. He can hear Gabriella screaming and laughing, and some of her friends, too, and then he sees Poke standing there, drinking a beer and filling a small pool with water from a hose as the girls throw themselves at a Slip-n-Slide.
“How the mighty have fallen,” Brad calls out by way of hello as he crosses the lawn, and he would mean it except for how Poke looks better and more relaxed than Brad has ever seen him. “Former death-dealing warrior, left to just keep the pool wet for the ignorant youths of the cul-de-sac, none the wiser to conquering hero that they've got leashed on the lawn, pinned under their tiny, pink-polished thumbs. This is just plain undignified, Poke.”
Poke turns and with a wide grin says, “Nah, that’s the white man’s agenda, dog. Trying to spread the family life as a negative so I don't sow my seed and populate all of L.A. with little brown children.”
“You don't live in L.A., Poke,” Brad reminds him. “You sold out and live in the suburbs.”
“And I got a four bedroom house, dog, so what's not to love? Other than that they let your turncoat ass back in the country.”
“You know how it is, Poke,” Brad says, tossing his helmet and backpack down onto the lawn. “I’m white; they'll forgive me anything.”
“Shit,” Poke says. “Yeah, and now it's my burden to deal with your sorry ass.” He smiles wide and drops the hose into the pool, reaches out to give Brad a hug. The cold from Poke’s beer bleeds through the back of Brad’s shirt. “Fuck, dog, it's good to see you back.”
“Good to be back,” Brad says, because that's the correct response. And it's not a lie: there's only so much toad-in-the-hole and fucking spotted dick that one can eat.
“Lemme get you a beer,” Poke says, walking over to a corner of the patio where a cooler rests in the shade. “You drink light, right?” Brad must make a face at that, because then Poke’s laughing and saying, “I'm fucking with you, dog.”
Brad’s got a couple responses on the tip of his tongue, but he holds them back in favor accepting the Blue Moon from Poke’s outstretched hand. Poke drags out an extra lawn chair for Brad, and the two of them spend the afternoon watching Gabriella live it up large as they fall back into their old pattern of oscillating between shooting the shit and being serious. At one point, Brad feels a wave of frustration from Ray, followed by a wave of triumph. The girls get hungry a little after one, and Poke brings out fruit kebabs that he wife had made, and grills up some hotdogs, which he cuts into pieces for one of Gabriella’s friends. He whips up some guacamole, too, real quick in the kitchen, and puts some on each plate with a handful of Tostitos Scoops.
“Alright, let’s hear it,” Poke says once the girls are happily eating at plastic picnic table.
“Hear what?” Brad asks, just to be contrary, and since he’s feeling magnanimous, he leaves it at that. If Brad can't get it all—he can come close, with Ray, so close but still just shy of it all—he’s glad Poke is the one who can. Poke’s good people, always has been and always will be.
Later, everyone heads inside and Poke puts a movie on for the girls. Brad thinks about asking and then chickens out, and then makes himself go out of his way to ask, because he’s a hardened warrior, not a fucking POG going all the way out to battle only to pussy out and hang back.
So he asks, “You and Gina ever fight?”
“Fight? Ha,” Poke says. “Just yesterday, dog, she told me she invited her mom to come stay with us for two months. Brad, we had it out. But we’re bonded, not perfect, so it happens. Why? You and Person get into it?”
Brad shakes his head. “Ray and I hardly ever fight.”
“Yeah. You know, I don't think I ever saw him pissed, other than that football thing. Is this where I remind you of how worried you were a year ago?” Poke pulls a sorry excuse for an imitation of Brad and says, “Antonio, Person’s trying to steal my manhood. Dog, he’s not gonna let me do extreme sports! Send help!”
Brad looks out the sliding glass doors to the patio and squints into the sun, just to keep the smile off his face. He asks, “Who the fuck is Antonio?”
“You wound me, dog,” Poke says, a hand to his heart. “Tell you what, though: you keep this up and you won't even have to go back to Iraq. I'll kick your ass here and save you the trouble.”
This time, Brad doesn't bother to hide the smile.
When he leaves, Poke walks him back out front to his bike and then lingers, like he's not quite ready to say goodbye. It’s go-go dancing, crop-top-wearing, Pride Parade float-riding gay, but Brad feels the same. Poke is his best friend, other than Ray, and Ray’s in a different category all his own, anyway. It’s still strange, going from seeing Poke all day, every day, to seeing him almost never.
“I’m glad you're good, Poke,” Brad says honestly, one hand on the bike handles. “Not the same going back without you, but you got a good thing here.”
“Fuck, dog, I look back and I don't even know how I kept ahold of all this,” Poke responds. “I spent the first month home waking up every morning thinking I was still in that factory. That's fucked up.”
“Yeah,” Brad says. It’s never been like that for him, but he knows it has for some of the other guys: Walt, Christeson, Ray. It's normal, and he tells Poke as much.
Poke thanks him by saying, “Yeah, yeah. Look, tell your crazy white boy to tag along next time, alright?”
“But Poke, maybe I want to keep you all to myself.”
“Fuck outta here, dog,” Poke says with a smile and a shove.
“I'm trying. But hey, before I forget, this is from Ray.” He slings his backpack off his shoulder and opens it up, pulling out a white plastic bag, which he tosses to Poke.
“I would be touched, but I'm mostly just worried,” Poke says, and unties the knot at the top of the bag. He pulls out the towel and unfolds it, confused.
“It's a poncho,” Brad tells him. “Because you're a Mexican.”
“That's fucked up, dog,” Poke says, but he loves it, Brad knows; Brad can read him pretty easily, after everything. And maybe Poke can read him pretty well, too, because he explains, “What? It's practical, dog. My little girl likes water parks.”
Ray cooks dinner that night, fajita quesadillas with some up-and-coming IPA, and then he tells Brad all about how practice with his shitty band went. Ray calls it that, too: his shitty band. Still, Brad can feel just how much Ray loves it, and Ray plays him all four songs they've recorded, telling Brad stories behind each guitar riff and each lyric that he wrote or that he isn't sure of. The songs aren't great, but they’re not bad, either; Brad could work out to them, and he tells Ray as much. Ray rolls his eyes, but his heart flips over in Brad’s chest anyway.
Afterwards, they watch an illegal copy of The Matrix Reloaded that Brad was able to get on his computer, and Ray stretches out on the couch. Brad sits closest to the lamp so he can read a PopSci article called Robot Submarines Go To War, which he has been wanting to read since he walked through the door on libo, and Ray reacts to that in a predictably Ray way.
“You’re such a fucking nerd, homes,” he says, putting his feet in Brad’s lap. “You literally come home from war just to read about war. You need a hobby.”
“I have a hobby,” Brad says. He means: surfing, working on his bike, rebuilding computer hard drives, diving, climbing, jumping. He says, “Fucking you.”
Ray laughs. He knows everything Brad was just thinking, but that's not the point. Brad lets him know that stuff.
“Well, you're going to have to find a new one,” Ray says. “I only put out after good dates. You think this counts as a good date? We could be at the movie theater right now. Eating Raisinets and shit.” Instead, he’s eating gooey butter cake out of the tray, which is propped up on his chest. It’s disgusting, both the cake and the way Ray is eating it, but that Brad thinks that is a large part of the reason why Ray does it in the first place.
“But that would require us going out in public together,” Brad says. “You'd have to shower for that.”
“Nag, nag, nag,” Ray says, rolling his eyes despite smiling just enough for his cheeks to dimple. He looks at Brad even though the opening credits are running, and he feels—
Ray feels happy.
Brad’s glad. Brad’s glad that he’s happy. He doesn't say it, because saying it is pom-pom-waving, lip balm-wearing, Love Bond Ceremony gay, but he loves Ray. Obviously Brad wants him to be happy.
There aren't many other things that Brad does want: to not die in Iraq, to continue pushing the limits of what he is capable of doing, to be with Ray. Brad’s mother laughs when she sees them now, I told you so in not as many words. His warrior spirit is diametrically opposed to the bond, but every other bit of Brad has come around to it, has folded like a cheap card table left to rot in the back of a dark, dusty garage.
Brad never wanted to be bonded, and that's the truth. Despite being career military, Brad doesn't like being told what to do, by biology or god or anyone. But being married isn't the same as being told what to do; marriage means doing the telling, and Brad likes that. He needs a wedding like he needs a hole in the head, but marriage sounds nice. Marriage isn't mystical, spiritual bullshit. Marriage is commitment. A choice that he would make.
A choice that Ray chose not to make.
“Earth to Brad,” Ray says. He pokes Brad in the thigh with one toe. “Want to watch it later?”
“No,” Brad says. He needs to stop wasting time thinking about things that don't matter. “Now is good.”
Ray squints at him for a moment longer and then says, “Okay, cool. Remember: there is no spoon, homes, but if you play your cards right from here on out, I'll still let you fork me later.”
Brad doesn't dignify that with a response.
They fuck, that night and then again first thing the next morning, Ray bent over the kitchen table as the coffee brews, barely awake and with a pillow crease down one cheek. Ray’s shirtless, the moles on his back on display, and Brad leans down so he can suck at Ray’s skin.
This. This is what war is missing. The only thing.
“Fuck yeah, shit,” Ray says, his elbows sliding across the tabletop, and to keep Ray where he wants, Brad grabs Ray by the shoulder and pulls him back to meet each thrust. That, Ray loves. Brad can feel it through the bond, just how much Ray likes when people manhandle him a bit. “Just you,” Ray says in response to what Brad’s thinking. “Love your cock.”
Which—they're bonded. They've been together for longer than Brad can usually stand. They share a house and an SUV, share bond rights, share a bed. They've talked about kids, in the nebulous sense, talked about being cremated and put in the same urn, tossed together out into the middle of the Pacific. Talked about helping Ray’s mom with the bills and Brad’s dad with the stairs, talked about their own retirement and where they want to spend it. Just because Brad doesn't like to talk doesn't mean he can't, and he knows what Ray really means when he says, Love your cock. Brad’s not a fucking idiot.
“Ray, Jesus,” Brad says, meaning shut the fuck up, and Ray breathes out a strangled laugh, nearly drowned out by the sound of skin on skin. Brad fucks into him harder for that laugh, and Ray groans, tries to snake a hand down to his own cock.
Brad grabs Ray’s wrist and pins it to the table. Keeps him there, right where Brad wants him.
“Come on, get me off, homes,” Ray begs. “Come on, come on.” He drops his forehead loudly to the kitchen table and feels so fucking much, loving and wanting and needing and Brad, and Brad, and it's too fucking much. He doesn't know how Ray can handle it; Brad is suffocated by it.
Brad fucks Ray like that, hard and pinned to the kitchen table, until his balls tighten up and his own mind tunnels in on only Ray. Then, finally, he lets go of Ray’s wrist and wraps his fingers instead around Ray’s cock, tugging until Ray practically forgets his own name.
Ray comes harder than Brad’s felt in a while, his come all over the kitchen tile, and Brad comes not long after, his come in Ray.
“Hey, check it out, homes,” Ray says, his forearms braced on the edge of the table, his head hanging heavy. “I got my jizz all over Fruity Rudy’s wedding invite. Is that a party foul?”
Brad pulls out. He’s got nothing else to say. He picks up Rudy’s invite, the envelope ripped open and the card sliding out, and tosses it in the trash.
“Brad?” Ray asks.
“For once, Ray,” he says grabbing a dish towel, “just be quiet.”
“O-kay,” Ray says, dragged out like that, and it makes Brad feel like an undignified little bitch, just how shitty he feels, both because Ray said no, and because it’s got him acting like a prepubescent middle schooler who just got turned down for junior prom and has lost all dreams of palming 15-year-old tits out behind the gymnasium.
Brad catches Ray by the wrist as he turns away, and presses the dish towel into his hand. If Brad were different, he’d wipe down Ray’s thighs himself, but Brad’s not, and Brad doesn't. Ray smiles small and lopsided anyway.
Ray stares at him and, a second later, shakes his head and blinks hard. “Shit, homes, never mind. I think you fucked the thought right out of me.” He smiles again, light and easy in a way that he doesn't feel to Brad.
“I'm going to shower,” Brad says, and it might be an invite. He's leaves it up to Ray to decide if it was or not.
With a shrug, Ray asks, “Waffles good?”
Brad nods, says, “Yeah,” and ducks out of the kitchen.
Instead of making waffles, Ray ambushes Brad in the bedroom as he’s getting dressed. Ray’s got Brad’s boxer briefs on, and they're too big, sit too low on his hips. Brad likes that.
“Okay, actually, no,” Ray says, and then he pauses. Brad can feel him hesitate. “Do I get to ask what's wrong, now, or am I supposed to keep pretending I don't know? Because all that made me feel pretty shitty.”
“Don't know what?” Brad says. Ray might know something, and Ray might be able to feel what Brad feels, but he doesn't know everything, and can't know this. Brad kept his shit tight.
“That there's something wrong,” Ray says slowly, and Brad can hear the meaning in each word, You are a fucking idiot. He crosses his arms defensively. “That something happened back there that's fucking you up.”
“You think I'm fucked up,” Brad clarifies.
“No,” Ray says. “Homes, I'm not—I'm just saying that you're always so fucking sad all the time, since you got back. I just want you to be okay.”
And Brad gets what Ray means, had said the same to Ray when Ray was the one bad off, but with the roles reversed, Brad can't stand the pity.
Ray looks at him incredulously and asks, “Do you really think I'm that shit of a fucking bondmate that I just don't realize anything about you?”
And then Brad’s the one on the defensive, only his best defense is and always has been a good offense, so he says flippantly, “Well, a good bondmate wouldn’t have to ask.”
“Fuck you,” Ray says, as honest as Brad’s heard him. “Fuck you, homes. I don't ask because you don't want me to ask. I don't go in your head to figure it out because you don't want me to. I don't fucking call up your mom, or call up Poke. You want to go to Iraq? Fine. Go to Iraq. You want to go surfing? BASE jumping? Bouldering? Have at it. You want us to live in California and be a fucking Red Vine family? Anything you want, Brad. Whatever you want. I am a great fucking bondmate, homes, and you are the shit one.”
And Brad—Brad is the shit one. He’s always known it. And since there's nothing to argue, he just doesn't say anything.
“Just fucking level with me here, homes,” Ray says. He brings his hands up and then drops them, a gesture of futility. “The fuck can you go to Poke with, but not me?”
“Nothing,” Brad says. “I didn't go to Poke with anything.”
Ray rolls his eyes and says, “Bullshit you didn't, Brad. I'm not a complete fucktard, you know.”
“Well, apparently you fucking are,” Brad says, evenly. He looks Ray in the eyes and says, “Tell me if I'm fucking lying. Actually look and tell me. I didn't go to Poke to cry on his shoulder about the horrors of war, or whatever you’re all spun up about.”
Brad can feel him, then, feel Ray reach out and lightly touch the bond, looking for a lie. He’s not going to find one; Brad’s not lying.
“Then what the fuck is up with you, homes?” Ray asks, and Brad can't can't look at him, at his big eyes and the downturned slant of his mouth, so instead he looks over Ray’s shoulder. “There you—this is what I'm talking about, homes! You're fucking Iceman-ing me out like I'm some liberal dicksuck civilian who’s never seen a fucking body. Like I don't already fucking know you.”
“It’s not about—Jesus, how many times do I have to say it?”
“Oh, I don't know, Brad. Fucking once?” Ray suggests.
“You don't know what the fuck you're talking about.”
“Then what is it?” Ray demands.
“You don't want to get married,” Brad says, even. Steady.
Ray makes a face like, How the fuck is that relevant? and says, “No.” Even. Steady. As if Brad had been asking a question. He feels confused as fuck, but he's not lying. “What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”
“You don't want to get married to me,” Brad clarifies. He’s still calm, face devoid of any emotion, but wonders what Ray’s feeling through the bond that might give him away. Brad reminds himself that he’s the Iceman, and the Iceman is a cold-blooded, war-hardened, death-dealing warrior; the Iceman doesn't get married.
“No?” Ray says, both an answer and a question. “Homes, we’re bonded. We already got the real thing.”
A pause, because of course Ray sees it like that, and then Brad says, “Right.”
“Why?” Ray asks. He looks at Brad through squinted eyes, and pokes at him through the bond. Asks like it's a joke, “Did you want to get married?”
Brad lets out a breath of laughter through his nose and says, “Well, Ray, that could be why I proposed.”
“You never proposed, homes,” Ray says with a real laugh. “Are you shitting me? That'll be the day.”
Brad looks sharply at Ray and says, “The fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Brad,” Ray says slowly, feeling amused and confused and an old, muted hurt, “I was barely able to get you to accept the bond and let me touch your giant Hebrew cock in the first place; you don't want me to be your old school ball and chain, dude.”
“Apparently no more than you want to be my ball and chain,” Brad shoots back.
“Homes,” Ray says, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like anyone cares that we’re living in sin.” He fingers air quotes as he says that, like the idea is ridiculous, like the thought of Brad wanting to marry him can only be based on something as fucking stupid and outdated as extramarital sex. “And I mean, like, I wouldn't mind converting for you, that's probably a mitzvah or whatever, but you're a fucking atheist, and it seems like a shit-ton of work, so that's not happening—”
“Right,” Brad sarcastically agrees. “Let’s not get married because it's too much work.”
“Brad,” Ray finally snaps, and that gets Brad’s attention. Ray never snaps, only ever sulks. He takes a deep breath and then looks somewhere over Brad’s right shoulder as he explains, “You wanted to marry her, and then she fucked you over and just plain fucked your asshole best friend. I don't want—homes, I don't want you thinking of her when you're with me.” He pauses, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable, and it's all Brad can do to not reach out. He balls his fists at his side so as not to press the backs of two of his fingers against the soft skin at the inside of Ray’s forearm. The thought of touch startles Ray into looking at Brad, and he says, “I mean, Christ, homes. Why would you even want to get married after that?”
And it's strange—or maybe it just speaks to how much Ray means to him—but after hearing Ray say all of that, Brad thinks that maybe he gets it, too. Not feels it, but gets it, and would be okay with not letting everyone know that he chose Ray, that biology did nothing that Brad didn't already do himself.
Brad doesn't need to be married. He wasn't thinking of her when he asked, but if Ray was, that's all that matters. Brad doesn't need marriage to choose Ray; Brad’s already chosen, and that was the whole point of it, anyway.
“I did ask,” Brad says, because for some reason, it's important for Ray to know that. “Because I wanted to. I chose to.”
Ray’s heart stops in Brad’s chest, and for a split second, Brad feels nothing at all through the bond.
“Homes,” Ray says slowly, like he doesn't quite believe it. The confusion in his chest slowly dissipates, replaced by something much colder—dread, maybe—and Brad feels it as if it were his own, tries to ignore it. “Were you Big Gesturing me?”
“Look, you wanted to know what was wrong. I asked if you wanted to get married, and you said no. I get why now; it's fine.”
“No, it's not—it's not fucking fine, Brad,” Ray says. His heart rate is picking up, and his eyes dart back and forth between the two of Brad’s own. “What the fuck, it's not—I don't even even remember this.”
“It's not a big deal, Ray,” Brad says, even though for a while, it was. To Brad, at least, it was. And maybe it still is, because she's still taking things from Brad all these years later, but dwelling on her won't fix things with Ray. “You said it yourself: we’re bonded. Marriage is just a lot of work with no actual benefit.”
And at that, everything Ray’s feeling hits Brad like a tidal wave, the dam between their two minds finally breaking, and Ray is anxious and scared and hopeful, and regretting so much that Brad can't stand it. He feels uncomfortable around such a blatant display of emotion, feels equally as uncomfortable for having caused it.
“Brad,” Ray says, his voice wrecked. “The benefit is that you actually want—and how was I supposed to know? I honestly don't even remember this.” He balls his fist in the front of Brad’s shirt and gives him a little shove, not letting go. “You should've, fuck, I don't know—used your Big Gay Al voice or something and actually gotten my attention. I'm a fucking ADD head case, you know that. This is fucking—no, we can still do this, right? I chose you when we first met in Afghanistan; I want you to choose me back. Okay? Fuck. Will you marry me?”
Brad smiles, breathes out an honest laugh because it makes him happy, the way Ray wants him to be happy. But Ray wouldn't be happy if Brad said yes, because Ray’d be thinking of Brad’s ex-fiancé, who got to Brad first and fucked him up good, and Brad can't stand that, the thought of Ray thinking of her.
“No,” Brad says simply, lightly. He gives in to impulse and touches Ray’s arm, feels the pressure building behind Ray’s eyes when his fingertips find skin. “I'm okay how we are.”
“That’s some bullshit, homes,” Ray says, pushing Brad away and snatching his arm back. It's less that he doesn't want to be touching than it is that he doesn't want Brad to see everything. “So, what? It's just one and done? I miss it the first time because I'm a stupid fucking hick, and that’s it, no do-overs? I don't look at bonding the way you do, Brad. I didn't realize what you meant, you emotionally stunted, crazy fucking—”
Brad cuts Ray off with his hands cupping either side of Ray’s face, smushing his cheeks and lips. He looks so fucking stupid like that, but Brad loves him so much. “Well, hello there,” Brad says in his best Big Gay Al, and if his voice is shaking, or if his hands are shaking, it's not like Ray’s going to tell. And then more seriously, Brad says, “Marry me.”
“That's hardly asking nicely,” Ray responds, his eyes bright and his voice muffled, and even now, even when Brad’s proposing for the second time in three days, Ray’s an inbred, Whiskey Tango, mannerless little shit.
“I'm pulling rank,” Brad says. “It's an order this time. Marry me, Ray.”
“Yeah, alright,” Ray says with a shrug and a smile so wide that his cheeks press hard into Brad’s palms. “What the hell.”