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This Is the Worst Trip

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Brad's been asleep in his chosen corner of the soccer stadium for thirty-two minutes when Ray drops down on the ground beside him and says, like he's already in the middle of one of his rambles, "It's kind of like in that movie where Bill Murray is the cranky weatherman and he's trapped in Pennsylvania and he learns to like play the piano and do ice sculpture and he figures out everything he needs to know so he can get this chick to fall in love with him in a single day--"

Brad thinks this is going to lead to something about snow, or rodents, or Ray fantasizing about fucking Andie McDowell. He figures the sooner he gets this over with the sooner he can go back to sleep. He says, "Groundhog Day?"

"Yeah," Ray says. "That's what's happening to me. I would have just said the name of the movie but you react better when I describe it and let you tell me."

"Groundhog Day," Brad repeats, opening one eye to actually look at Ray, who nods glumly.

"I don't know what it's for," Ray says. "I don't know if I just tripped some kind of hajji curse, and this is my hell, or if I'm supposed to learn some kind of lesson, or make things turn out exactly the right way, or if this is all just some kind of cosmic freak thing. I don't know if it's ever going to stop, Brad. I don't know what to do."

"This isn't a thing you're making up because you're bored," Brad observes.

Ray shakes his head. "Countdown to shit blowing up at my five o'clock--four, three, two," and instead of saying one Ray just tilts his head back over his right shoulder. On zero Brad sees a flash of smoky light in that direction; it takes another fraction of a second before the sound arrives, but Ray had the timing precisely right.

So either Ray's suddenly in league with bad guys setting off explosions with split-second accuracy, or Ray is really not making this up because he's bored.

"Well," Brad says, trying to think logically about an impossible affliction based on a movie about Bill Murray and a rodent. "What have you tried so far?"

"Oh man," Ray says, sounding impossibly exhausted and faintly relieved. He flops over sideways next to Brad's bedroll, and a puff of dust rises around him. Brad is eighty percent certain he's actually awake right now.

"What have I not tried, man? I went to Rudy first thing, right, because I figured it was my fucking karma or dharma or some shit, and he helped me like meditate and stuff, which is useful for keeping track, I guess, but in no way solves the actual problem of living the same fucking day over and over and fucking over.

"After Rudy I went to the LT, on the off chance that this is like a thing that the hajjis are doing to us, like we're caught in a time loop to stop the invasion and I'm the only one who can tell, but the LT says we're still in contact with the outside world so it can't be that, and it turns out he was completely right about going directly to Godfather being a really truly incredibly bad idea. But he did come with me and try to smooth things over when I did it--I mean, until things went totally to hell, then he cut me loose."

"When you say totally...."

"Yeah, I freaked out and took a swing at Ferrando when he wouldn't listen to me," Ray sighs. "So the LT was right, not a great idea. Even without that it wasn't a good idea. He's not going to believe me and we're still getting BBC radio so either the radios are fake or it's happening to the whole fucking world and we can't tell."

Brad is suddenly conscious of being deep in hostile territory. The soccer stadium may be full of Marines, but they're just a few thousand, in a country of millions--and apparently the hajjis themselves aren't even the worst thing they're facing. He has a brief, dizzying sense of the entire universe as hostile territory, his own men as a tiny holdout within that infinite vastness, and then Ray is talking again and the vision is gone.

"It doesn't make my top ten list of worst ideas at this point, though," Ray adds. "I mean, nobody actually died. Things weren't looking too good for me, but I guess if that had been the last loop I'd have had a shot at making it through my court martial by sticking to the truth and sounding completely psychotic."

Brad shifts over to stare up at the sky. "Who died, Ray?"

Ray laughs a little, and the sound is high and light and totally disconnected from the question. Brad does not look over.

"You did, yeah. I did. All of Team One, including Reporter. Reporter's actually harder to kill than you'd think, but still. Everybody died a couple times when I fucked up real bad. I didn't even know I could fuck up that bad, but it turns out I am totally capable of getting the entire platoon killed if I really put my mind to it. Also other platoons. All kinds of people."

"Ray," Brad says quietly.

"And for a while I thought maybe that was what I was supposed to do, that I was supposed to get somebody killed--"

"Ray," Brad repeats more sharply.

"It's okay, no one can hear us over here," Ray says. "So, yeah, I tried that, but it turns out that no matter how much you think a certain officer is a waste of fucking space and a hazard to everyone around him, fragging him just turns him into a dead guy and it's actually pretty sad once you've done it, and it doesn't really help anybody. I killed myself that time just to get it over with."

"Ray--"

"Which, I know, if that was the thing that I was put in the loop to do, that could have been it, but I wouldn't have known the difference and there was no way anybody was letting me out of that court martial. Trust me, Trombley walked me through the game theory of all of this a bunch of times."

"Trombley?"

"I grant you he is lacking in a lot of attributes of functional humanity, like morals and the ability to carry on a conversation without being creepy as fuck without knowing it, but if you find yourself living in a video game where you keep getting reset to your save point he has some helpful insights."

"What the fuck, Ray."

"Yeah," Ray sighs. "Yeah, it was a pretty bad day when I figured that out. But recognizing that even Trombley exists for some purpose wasn't what I had to do, apparently, because that was a while ago and here I still am."

"Okay," Brad says, wanting nothing more than to get away from that whole disturbing concept. "So maybe the weirdest thing about your situation is that you can't shoot your way out of it."

"Not even the high-powered explosives helped," Ray mutters. "Not even when the lion showed up."

Brad considers asking about the lion, and then he reaches over and lays his hand on Ray's arm. "So tell me what you've tried in the way of not getting anybody killed."

"I figured maybe it was some kind of true love shit. I thought of that just about right away, after I ruled out my aura and enemy action. In the movie it's true love, or at least getting into somebody's pants--I mean, Bill Murray and whatsherface may not even be speaking to each other a week later, but the point is he gets it on with the hottie and that's it, problem solved."

Brad doesn't get a bad feeling about where the conversation is going. He just recognizes it, with a resigned feeling like he's done all this before, which, according to Ray, he probably has. Ray says nothing, like he's waiting for Brad to say his line, so Brad says it.

"How's that working out for you?"

"Dude, turns out I am an easy motherfucker, I bet you had no idea. And I'm bi even when I'm not curious anymore. And a lot of guys will just shut their eyes and let you go down on them, but it takes some work to get them to fuck. I thought fucking might be necessary, right, like maybe oral isn't enough for... whatever this is. But I only had to find out where I could get lube once, and now I can get it there every time, which is cool."

Brad offers no opinion, and tries not to even think of one.

Ray sighs. "It's going to take a wiser man than me to get into the LT's pants in a single day--even when I tell him the truth it just turns into a big philosophical debate until I fall asleep or run out of time. And Rudy, man, he just keeps wanting to talk, it's fucked up. And guys who just punch you when you hit on them aren't that bad. The ones you gotta watch out for are the ones who take the blowjob and then freak out and try to kill you in your sleep."

"Jesus Christ," Brad exhales, hard as a gut-punch, his hand tightening hard on Ray's arm. "Who--"

"No," Ray says. "Don't. It didn't happen anymore. I tried the obvious guys first and then I started trying everybody who I knew was the worst possible idea. I knew it would go bad and it went bad. That's all."

Brad forces himself to relax his grip, and says nothing about obviousness. Or bad ideas.

"Second," Ray says, answering the question Brad's not going to ask. "And, like, a bunch of other numbers. But second. I tried Walt first, because he was less intimidating. But you were awesome, I didn't have to hurt my brain at all to be in love with you. And you taught me to give a truly mind-boggling blowjob."

For the first time, Brad finds himself angry at what Ray is saying; he's suddenly uselessly furious that this cosmic impossibility has taken that from him. Not just blowjobs from Ray--not just Ray being in love with him--but the whole thing, those first substandard attempts and the process of teaching him better. Even if, later--even if, there will be no getting that back. There's just the possibility that Brad will never know what he's missing, and he refuses to hope for the comfort of ignorance.

"I know," Ray says quietly, covering Brad's hand with his own. "That always pisses you off. But you always say you'd rather know than not know."

What Brad feels then isn't nearly as simple as anger or horror or recognition.

"Ray, how many times have we had this exact conversation?"

"Never," Ray says firmly. "I always change it around so we don't repeat precisely. It's fucking creepy when you turn into a robot going through your script, so every time I tell you it's different and we have a different conversation. Although sooner or later you always ask that question. I guess that one's hardwired."

Brad squeezes his eyes shut, wondering what Ray needs from him, what he can possibly do, trying to map some kind of strategy while crushingly aware that his vision of the AO is essentially nonexistent.

"Tell me what I can do," Brad whispers, demand and plea. "Tell me how to help you."

"Yeah," Ray says, and pats his hand. "You always ask that one, too. I fucking wish I knew, Brad. We've talked strategy a few times--I've talked strategy with everybody I can get to even pretend to believe me. The one I'm working on now was your idea--I'm hanging out with Meesh and learning Arabic so I can talk to hajjis, because maybe I need to fix something for one of them or fall in love with one or something. And, bonus, Meesh's stash comes back every day, so hanging out with him is a pretty good time. Very chill, dude," he adds, in Meesh's Kuwaiti-stoner accent.

Brad doesn't say anything, and Ray sighs again.

"Other than that, I don't know. It could be some totally random thing, like I gotta fart on just the right butterfly, or I gotta get the lion to eat an officer on the same day I kiss a hajji and watch the sun set while holding hands with the LT and listening to him talk about the fucking Sacred Band of fucking Thebes. Or I gotta learn some cosmic lesson that didn't get through the first two hundred times.

"I'm just telling you now because in about half an hour I reset and you won't have to know anymore, and I can't sleep lately. So you can't really do anything except listen to me and, I don't know, I guess trust me to eventually find the turn we're supposed to make. It's either that or I drive us all off a cliff, right? Sooner or later either I get out of this or it all ends and none of us know the difference."

Brad is pushing himself up to sit before he's decided to move; Ray, still lying down, twists a little to face him.

"You tell me, Person. You tell me every fucking day. You should not be alone with this shit."

Ray blinks a couple of times, and then he smiles and shakes his head, looking older and farther away than ought to be possible when he's still right next to Brad, still under Brad's hand.

"No," he says calmly. "No. Brad, even if it ended in fucking amazing sex every time, I could not have this conversation every day. I just can't, man. I might not even--no. No way. I won't tell you every day."

Brad opens his mouth to argue, but Ray sits up. He pushes Brad's hand away gently as he stands. Brad rises too, and standing takes this out of the realm of possible dream, makes it starkly obvious how insane, how impossibly real, this is. Ray's still standing there with that sad smile and that ancient look in his eyes. He shakes his head again and backs away, and Brad knows he can't chase him.

"It doesn't matter," Ray says, when he's out of arm's reach but still close enough to speak softly. "Even when you don't know, you're always here. Even if I don't tell you, I'm never alone."