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Ray waited until Brad had two beers into him to break the news. It was a tense half hour, although he couldn’t put his finger on the source of the tension. Brad didn’t seem angry with him, but they were quieter than usual as they drank, and they sat at a table instead of their usual corner of the bar. There was a TV across from them, playing Jeopardy on mute with the subtitles lagging behind by thirty seconds, and both of them devoted way more attention to it than it deserved. It felt like they were waiting for something, and Ray began to wonder if Brad knew . He was the one who had asked Ray if he wanted to go out, after all.

But Brad didn’t hint at it, so Ray waited and watched until Brad’s second beer was little more than suds, and then he cleared his throat.

“Hey, listen, man… I’ve decided I’m not re-upping.” He paused, waiting for Brad’s reaction, but the Iceman only blinked. “My contract’s up in three weeks and—it just feels like enough, you know?”

“Yeah, right.” Brad sighed. “I sort of figured… do you know what you’re going to do instead?”

“Nope,” Ray shrugged. “I’ll find something.”

“Are you going back to Missouri?”

“Nah. At least not yet. My options are kind of limited there, you know what I mean? If I’ve got shit to figure out, might as well try to figure it out here first.”

“Good.” Brad looked seriously uncomfortable. He shifted in his seat and took a deep breath. “Well, um—Ray, this seems as good a time as any to tell you something… I’ve been thinking about this for a while but I—never got around to saying it, I guess. You are… you’re a good marine, Ray. I think, without you, my team wouldn’t have been as good as it was. In Iraq and Afghanistan you helped keep us together. But that’s not—that’s not what this is about. Me, personally, I—I care about you, you know? More than I ever said, before.”

His voice had gone soft, and Ray was seriously struggling to keep his grin under control. God, Brad could be so cute sometimes. Recon Marine or no, the man was a fucking marshmallow.

But secretly Ray was kind of relieved that Brad felt the need to confirm their epic bromance. Because—and he meant this in a loving way—Brad was terrible at making and maintaining friendships outside of the Corps. Partly that was because a lot of his pre-Corps friends were assholes, but still, Ray had been worried. It would be just fucking like Brad to start distancing himself from Poke and Ray not because he didn’t like them, but because he had no idea how to have civilian friends. Sure, he would make out that it was because he was a superior sonovabitch, but really it would be because he was a shy nerd.

He tried to fool you with the muscles and the glaring and the “shut the fuck up, Ray”s, but seriously. Total softie.

“Dude, you can stop. I think I know what you’re trying to say.”

“Oh.” Brad paused. “Really?”

“Yeah, pretty sure,” Ray snorted. “I’ve kind of been expecting it, to be honest. And, not to be a total pussy, but I feel the same way. So. Yeah.”

“Oh.” A genuine smile spread over Brad’s face like the goddamn sunrise. “Excellent. That’s, uh. That’s good.” He laughed self-consciously. “I was worried that maybe when you left the Corps we might… I don’t know, drift apart. So I thought, before that happened, I should—yeah.”

“Yeah, good call there,” Ray agreed, internally patting himself on the back for not mentioning how spectacularly homoerotic this whole thing sounded.

“So do you think, after you’ve been discharged, we could…?”

“We can start right now, homes.” Ray slapped his hands on the table and spread his arms wide. “Look at this, we’re on a man-date right now. I’d say it’s going just spiffy, don’t you?”

Brad laughed.

“You’re a fucking repressed hick, you know that?”

“Fuck you, man.”

“I know you want to.”

“In your dreams, Colbert.”

Brad quirked an eyebrow at that, and Ray snorted into his glass.

“I’m gonna get us another round,” Brad said, standing. “And jalapeno poppers.”

“And nachos!”

“You’re not a cheap date, are you, Person?”

“Thanks, babe.”

They had another round, and ended up vacuuming jalapeno poppers, nachos, and a plate of sliders before deciding to call it quits. Brad picked up the tab—Ray didn’t protest because, well, why the fuck would he, and also he was going to be unemployed in three weeks so fuck yeah Brad could pay for dinner—and gave him a ride back to base. He rolled down the window when Ray got out and poked his head out.

“So we’ll keep it kind of quiet around the guys for now, right?” he said. Ray leaned against the doorframe and grinned.

“Oh, yeah, homes, don’t want to make those losers jealous.”

“All right,” Brad chuckled. “But uh. Yeah. We’ll do this again soon.”

“Yeah. See you.”

Ray patted the hood fondly and Brad drove off. Ray shoved his hands in his pockets and shook his head as he turned and headed towards the barracks. Fuckin’ Brad.

---

Over the next few days, something changed. Not when they were working, but when they were hanging out afterwards—slowly, Ray noticed that Brad was being way more touchy-feely than usual. At first it wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary—a hand pressed against Ray’s back when Brad was passing behind him, an arm slung over the back of his chair at the bar—except for the fact that Brad usually wasn’t touchy-feely at all. But hey, Ray didn’t mind. He was all about touching. Touching was good for the soul. He preferred sexy touching, and ideally with J. Lo if that was possible, but in the absence of J. Lo and sex, hugging Brad would do.

(Seriously. Hugging. The first time it had happened, the only thing running through Ray’s mind was gratitude that Brad couldn’t see his face, because his eyes must have gone as round as dinner plates.)

The weird shit started happening about a week after their little friendship pact. It was a Sunday and the Tigers were playing the Rangers; the Tigers and the Rangers both sucked, and neither were from California, so they had agreed that this would be a good night to get some high-quality buffalo wings without having to deal with a bunch of assholes crowding the bar.

Ray pulled up in Brad’s driveway at six and honked, because he was a jackass. Brad appeared at the door and flipped him off.

“Let’s go, we were supposed to be oscar mike ten minutes ago,” Ray said as Brad opened the car door.

“Good thing you’re here now and not ten minutes ago, then,” Brad snorted.

“Waiting on you now, buddy.”

“Hello to you, too,” Brad said, rolling his eyes as he swung into the passenger seat.

Then, bizarrely, he leaned over and pressed a casual kiss to Ray’s cheek, and buckled his seatbelt like it was nothing. Ray stared at him.

“Did you just kiss me?”

“Yep,” Brad grinned. “Got a problem?”

Ray snorted and started the car. Stateside Brad was weird.

“Nah, bro. But I gotta tell you, Brad, your heterosexuality has taken some serious hits recently.”

“I think I’ll survive,” he laughed.

They pulled out of the driveway and went to the bar and had a totally normal night. But afterwards, when Ray was heading home, he found himself absently rubbing his cheek, right on the spot where Brad had kissed him, and thinking seriously, what the fuck?

---

A few days after that, Ray started to get his first inkling that something was starting to shift. Something… different. Bigger than some trifling PDA.

It was a late night; they had gotten pizza for dinner, and Ray didn’t want to go back to base yet so he had claimed a spot on Brad’s couch and propped his feet up on the coffee table. Brad had bitched about it, but he'd gotten the fuck over it, and they were watching stupid TV and alternating between making sarcastic comments and being quiet.

Brad was being weirdly touchy-feely again. He had sat down right next to Ray even though he had the whole couch and a loveseat to choose from, and his arm was draped around Ray's shoulder. But by that point Ray was used to it, and he didn’t see any reason to complain.

"This is good," Brad said abruptly during a commercial break. "I, uh, I'm really glad we're doing this."

"This is the same thing we used to do, dumbass," Ray snorted.

Ray was an only child; he had been hiding out at Brad’s place to avoid the barracks practically since the moment they met, because living with other people was the worst . Junk food and South Park reruns were, like, the foundation of their friendship.

“Really?” Brad said amused. “You can’t think of anything that’s different?”

He knocked one of Ray’s knees with his own, and Ray went quiet. It had been different, before. Obviously their friendship had been different before they went into combat, when they were still barely more than deadly frat boys. But even after the first deployment… Ray didn’t remember the come-down being so bad, then. Afghanistan had been dangerous, and he could think of more than one occasion where he and Brad—and the rest of the unit—had relied on each other for their lives, but back then they had been given real Recon missions. They had felt trained and ready and useful.

In Iraq, there had been a few moments where Ray had really, truly felt expendable. Like the only thing standing between him and death had been the other guys in his Humvee, because brass didn’t give a fuck. At the time, he didn’t worry about a damn thing, because he’d had Ripped Fuel. Everything was wonky on Ripped Fuel. But the crash after that was hell.

The end result was that, in the past few weeks, Ray had felt more alienated from the Marine Corps as a whole while also being closer than ever to individual marines. And—well yeah, of course Brad before everyone else. There was no fucking question of that, was there? Who had looked after him more than Brad? Who had looked after Brad more than he did? Not that they had ever talked about it. It was just—it wasn’t something you had to talk about. He would feel like a moron for bringing it up. Ride through certain death with a guy sitting side-by-side in an unarmored Humvee and you become bros. Gee, Sherlock, think of that one yourself?

“Whatever,” he shrugged. He settled back into the plush pillows of the couch, and coincidentally leaned more against Brad’s side. “Pussy,” he added for good measure.

Brad didn’t say anything, but he bent his head down and just kind of—kissed the top of Ray’s hair. Ray wasn’t sure how to categorize the tingling feeling that produced in his gut, so he reached for the remote and turned the volume up.

---

It seemed like the actual process of leaving the Corps happened way too fast. One day he was telling Brad in a bar, then three different people were simultaneously pouring beer into his mouth as he waved his paddle around and threatened the security of Brad’s table lamps and also the shins of anyone in arm’s reach.

The party was at Brad’s place, of course. Ray had gotten a little rinky-dink apartment nearby, but all of Bravo and a decent number of guys from Alpha had shown up, and if they had tried to cram everyone into Ray’s place they would break every fire code known to man. He had been a little worried that they would give Brad an aneurysm, but so far it was turning out to be a kick-ass party, and the Iceman had yet to break it up.

“Hey, give that back, motherfucker,” Garza said, swiping the paddle from Ray’s hand. “You’re not supposed to have that yet.”

“The fuck I’m not!” Ray howled. “I earned that!”

Brad materialized out of the crowd, took the paddle form Garza, and stretched his arm up so it was like ten feet in the air.

“If you can reach it, you can get it back,” he taunted, which prompted a lot of booing and barking and “ooh”ing from the rest of the marines. Ray seriously considered it—he crouched, ready to pounce, but Brad rolled his eyes and flicked his forehead. “Don’t even think about it. Okay, listen up!” he said, raising his voice. “We’re starting. Where’s Trombley?”

They dragged Trombley in front the kitchen and shoved the paddle in his hands, and thus started the round of stories. Ray was pleasantly wasted already, so he looped an arm around Walt’s neck and leaned against him as the paddle passed from hand to hand. He laughed a lot, mostly at his own antics, and blinked back tears only three times, because Walt and Rudy and Nate were motherfuckers who had to be sincere in their speeches. Assholes.

Brad was the last one to speak. Bravo parties usually went from the most junior enlisted man up to the officers, but Nate had subtly steered it around Brad, and no one had questioned that. Now he hefted the paddle for a moment and let the loud speculation about what he would come up with fade; he made eye contact with Ray for a moment before he spoke, turning slightly to address the crowd at large.

“I have often said that, if it weren’t for the Marine Corps, I would never associate with any of you. That is especially true with regards to Ray Person, who has the dubious honor of fondling more farm animals than anyone I have ever known—and also, probably, of having saved my life more times than anyone in this unit. I know you gang of inbred codependent perverts want to hear all the dirty details, but I’ll leave them to your fertile imaginations. Suffice to say that we all should have realized no one could possibly be as dumb as he looks. And Ray… it won’t be the same without you. In many ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse.”

This was met with loud, obnoxious “AWWWWW”s from most of the marines. Ray broke away from Walt and walked up to Brad. Brad held out the paddle with all the solemnity of some kind of ancient Gallic warrior-king, and for a second they were both holding on to it in a sacred Recon ritual dating back decades.

Then Ray snatched the paddle away and tackled Brad, which earned some cheers, and some catcalls, and a rumble of laughter that Ray could only hear because his ear was pressed against Brad’s chest. The hug didn’t last long, though, as other marines snatched him away to claim their own high fives and arm punches and hugs.

But as the party went on, Ray couldn’t shake his awareness of Brad. He always seemed to be right there, in the corner of Ray’s eye—which was probably due to the fact that he was the tallest guy there, and indoor trees tended to stand out. Anyway, he wasn’t surprised a half hour later when Brad grabbed him by the elbow.

“C’mere,” he said, head ducked so Ray could hear him. There was a grin playing on his lips, and Ray couldn’t help but grin back as he tripped over his feet following Brad into the bedroom.

“What?”

Brad loomed over him, face flushed, a smile still fixed on his face. Ray slumped against the door behind him.

“Whaaaat?” he repeated with a whine in his voice. “Brad, I’m having a lot of fun at my party, so if you could just…”

“Oh, you were having fun out there?” His voice was a low murmur, and a shiver ran up Ray’s spine. “I thought we could have some fun in here.”

“What?” Ray said for the third time, with a nervous laugh, but Brad was back to ignoring him.

Well. Not exactly ignoring him. Actually he was resting his forearm against the door above Ray’s head and bending closer, and then he was—kissing him?

Ray’s brain short-circuited. Like, seriously short-circuited, like something somewhere got crossed and the connection between his body and his brain, the one that was supposed to tell him what the fuck was going on, was cut and instead his entire body was just an explosive mass of fiery electric death.

Okay, maybe he was being a bit over dramatic. But he was having a lot of trouble thinking at the moment.

He couldn’t help but notice that, drunk as he must certainly be, Brad was a good kisser. A really good kisser. His lips were moving and he was introducing a little tongue into the mix, but it was slow instead of demanding, and he wasn’t slobbering at all. He’d been drinking whiskey, the taste so strong that it made Ray want to draw back and breathe for a moment, but he also… didn’t.

Brad drew back, finally, and Ray swallowed. His powers of cognitive functioning were returning and he wondered what Brad was going to say— gotcha or weirdest paddle party tradition ever, right? or April fucking fools —but Brad didn’t say anything. He just gave a dopey little smile, and Ray’s mouth twitched in an answering smile automatically. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but it looked like Brad’s head bent down just a centimeter, like he was about to kiss Ray again , and his heart hopped into his throat.

“Ray!”

Ray jumped and hit his head against the door.

“Damn, where the hell did he go?” Walt complained from the other side.

“I don’t know, brother, he was right here…”

Bradd huffed and shook his head, but Ray seized his chance.

“I’m here,” he called in a strangled voice. “Hold on, I’ll be right out. I gotta—” he said apologetically to Brad. “They’ll come looking—nosy fuckers—”

His hand fumbled against the wood of the door, and it took several tries to turn the doorknob because his hands were so goddamn sweaty. Finally he wrenched it open, stumbled back into the living room, and slammed the door behind him. The room was bright, packed with moving bodies, reverberating with music and loud conversation, and for a moment he was struck dumb. What the fuck had just happened?

“Ray!” Walt shouted again. He held both arms in the air. In one hand were two shot glasses, in the other was a quartered lime, dripping juice down his wrist. “Tequila, motherfucker!”

“Walt, you beautiful homosexual,” Ray replied, unable to hide his relief, “that’s the best idea I’ve heard all night.”

---

When Ray woke up the next morning, he was hungover. And also warm. Really warm, actually. It was pleasant, especially compared to the ache in his head and the stale tequila taste coating his mouth, which was probably why it took him a full three minutes to realize that a) he was warm because Brad was plastered against his back with an arm around his waist, b) Brad had a serious case of morning wood, and c) Brad was awake, too.

Or like, not awake. Awake enough to be curling closer to the person in front of him, very deliberately pressing his boner against their ass and burying his face in their neck and trailing his hand down their stomach, but not awake enough to realize that the person in front of him was Ray and that therefore he should maybe definitely not be doing that.

“Morning!” Ray said loudly as he began to squirm away. Brad started, and Ray slipped out from his grasp. “Morning, buddy. Ready to start this beautiful summer day ’cuz boy I sure am.”

“Morning,” Brad croaked. He sat up and affixed confused, bloodshot eyes on Ray. “Are you—”

“Taking a shower, yeah, uh huh, I’m just gonna go—and do that—” He pointed at the bathroom, to drive it home, and waved a hand in Brad’s general direction. “And you can, uh, do whatever you do in the morning, you know. Just do you, homes, okay? I’m gonna go.”

He managed to get one foot on the floor, but the other was tangled in the sheets and he hopped awkwardly while trying to yank it free. There was an attached bathroom in the master bedroom, and he dashed in and found himself slamming the door on Brad for the second time in twelve hours.

Ray ran both hands through his hair and forced himself to take a deep breath. He had a bit of a headache, and he felt dizzy, which might be due to the hangover but probably had more to do with the fact that he and Brad had been rewriting all the rules about personal boundaries lately. He turned on the sink and splashed the cool water on his face, rubbed underneath his eyes, and that helped a bit. How had he even ended up in Brad’s bed last night? he wondered with a frown. Had it been his suggestion? That would be embarrassing as hell. Had he collapsed there without Brad knowing or asking? No, there was no way Brad would have allowed that to continue.

Maybe it had just happened. Maybe that was just a thing that happened once you and a friend spent three months living in each other’s pockets. You stopped caring about living close enough to smell their B.O. every minute of the day, and shitting in front of each other, and jacking off in front of each other, and after you’ve slept in a dirt hole a few times you don’t think twice about splitting a soft mattress with a friend instead of forcing them to sleep on the ground or the beer-stained couch, because that was just what friends did.

Yeah. That was probably it.

Ray cupped some water in his hands and ran it through his hair, too, to wake himself up properly, because he sure as shit wasn’t going to take a shower right now. He opened the cabinet below the sink and grabbed one of Brad’s spare toothbrushes. His mother was a dentist, so Brad always had a million spare toothbrushes, and if he complained about Ray taking one, then tough shit. He was careful about not spilling any toothpaste on the sink, though, because he really wasn’t in the mood for a lecture this morning.

He heard a creak of floorboards, and a soft thump as Brad leaned against the wall.

“Hey,” he called through the door. “Listen, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“I’m not uncomfortable,” Ray shouted back. His voice came out muffled through a mouthful of toothpaste foam.

“No, no, it’s okay.” Why did that motherfucker sound so amused? “You’re allowed to be a prude.”

Ray spat out his toothpaste out of sheer indignation.

“I am not a prude!”

“Evidence would suggest otherwise.”

Ray stomped over to the door and yanked it open.

“Listen, motherfucker,” he said, poking Brad’s chest with the head of the toothbrush. Brad looked down at the smear of toothpaste on his t-shirt and snorted. “Just because you are the kind of horny cockmonster that likes to grind up on anything with a pulse first thing in the morning doesn’t mean anyone who’s not about that is a prude.”

“Cockmonster?” Brad repeated. He was trying to look judgmental—his eyebrow was up by his hair and everything—but after a minute he couldn’t hold back his laughter, and it burst out of him.

“Cockmonster,” Ray repeated firmly, but the tension had been broken, and he laughed a little, too, in relief. “Anyway. Doesn’t mean I’m a prude, just that I ain’t easy. You dig, Iceman? Chocolate and flowers.”

“Solid copy,” Brad laughed. He stayed where he was, leaning against the doorway, and there was a fond smile on his face. They had slept late, and it wasn’t anywhere near the golden hour of the morning, but there was something of the sunrise in that smile anyway, and Ray’s stomach gave a queasy little flutter. “Honestly, though, Ray, I am sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“No biggie,” Ray shrugged. He returned to the sink and started brushing his teeth again.

“Is that my toothbrush?”

“No.”

“It’s my apartment, Ray. All the toothbrushes in the bathroom count as mine.”

“Well, fine, then it’s your fucking toothbrush.” He spit and kept scrubbing vigorously, trying to purify his mouth of the gasoline-and-dust-bunny taste of day-old tequila. “You really want to start an argument about boundaries right now?”

“Fair enough. Are you taking a shower?”

“Nah, I think I’m just going to go home.”

“Okay.” Brad wandered into the bathroom and stood behind him. “But we’re good though, right?”

Ray glanced at him in the mirror.

“Yeah,” he said. “We’re good.”

Brad smiled again and stepped forward to kiss the top of Ray’s head. Yeah. They were good.

---

As good as they were, though, Ray didn’t go out of his way to contact Brad for the next few days. They had been seeing an awful lot of each other recently, and twice Brad asked if Ray wanted to hang out during the week. Ray claimed fatigue the first night and prior plans the second. Then Brad asked if he wanted to go out to lunch with Poke and Gina on Saturday. It was perfect—he could avoid alcohol without looking suspicious, and there would be other people around to chaperone things. Ray accepted the offer with relief.

The meal started out fine. Brad and Ray had each met Gina several times; she was the vice president of a middle school, which made her just about as tough as any Recon Marine, but with a deceptive gentleness of tone. They all met at a Mexican place near the beach, Brad and Poke ribbed each other about being stereotypical/racist, and they received their drinks and complimentary chips in a timely manner.

Just as Ray started shoving chips and salsa, though, Poke said something weird. He looked at Brad and said, apropos of nothing, “So how long’s it been now?”

“Hm?”

Brad didn’t seem confused, though. He draped his arm around the back of Ray’s chair and said, “One month as of today.”

“One month of what?” Ray asked, but he had just bitten down on a chip and no one heard him.

“Damn, dog, you’re keeping track by the day?” Poke laughed. “What is happening to the Iceman?”

“Oh, stop, Tony, I think it’s sweet,” Gina said, elbowing him softly, and Brad shrugged.

“One month of what?” Ray repeated, louder, and this time Brad actually looked at him—although only for a second, before rolling his eyes.

“Dating, dumbass.”

Ray’s jaw dropped.

“Who are you dating?” he demanded. Poke and Gina had started laughing at Brad’s reply, and Poke chuckled as he sipped his beer. They obviously weren’t being helpful at all, so Ray looked back at Brad.

“Dumb joke, Ray. Don’t encourage him,” he said to Poke.

“I know, I’m sorry—”

“It’s not a joke!” he insisted, heart pounding like crazy. Brad couldn’t be dating anyone, Brad didn’t date, and if he did he would have told Ray, right? So what the fuck? “Seriously, who are you dating?”

“Uh, Brad...” Poke said, but Brad didn’t respond. He glanced at the surrounding tables briefly and bent just a little bit closer to Ray.

“He’s talking about us , Ray.”

Well that just didn’t make any sense.

“Brad,” Poke tried again. “I think he’s serious.”

“What do you mean us?”

Gina’s hand was on her face, but didn’t totally conceal her open mouth, and Poke’s eyebrows were so high, they almost met the fuzzy line of hair that was just starting to grow back. Brad’s face was dangerously blank.

“Us like—us, Ray, like the fact that we’ve been dating for a month. You know we’ve been dating for a month.”

“I know jack and shit, homes,” Ray said, disbelief making him laugh. “Wait, wait, hold up—are you saying you thought we were—” In the middle of the sentence, the last few weeks suddenly came crashing into place. The touching, the kissing, the boner. He was going to fucking hyperventilate. He changed tactics. “What the fuck, man, were you going to ask me?”

“I did ask you!” Brad hissed, and there was something really twisted about the fact that they were having this conversation in the middle of a restaurant, with two other people at the table and a cluster of waiter singing happy birthday to a twelve-year-old halfway across the room. “The night you told me you weren’t re-upping and I started talking about after—”

“Okay, no,” Ray interrupted. “You said fuck all about dating —”

“I didn’t think I had to! I was getting there and you interrupted me, saying you knew exactly what I was going to say, and that you agreed. And I took you at your fucking word, which was obviously a stupid thing to—” He cut himself off and pressed his lips together until they were bloodless. He took a deep breath. “Ray, what did you think was happening the last few weeks? When I kissed you—”

“You were really drunk—”

“—no, even before that—”

“I don’t know, I thought it was weird for sure—”

“—and all those times you said shit about not being a cheap date, about my heterosexuality taking a hit—”

“I was joking, man!” Ray burst out, and he could tell right away that he had crossed some kind of line. Brad retreated into himself, his blue eyes icy cold. “I was just joking, I don’t… Brad, I’m a fucking idiot, okay, I didn’t know. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

Brad was silent as stone. Finally he nodded and stood.

“Okay,” he said in a rough voice. He cleared his throat. “I, uh—I’m going to go. Can you—” He glanced at Poke and Gina, both of whom had been trying to take up as little space and make as little noise as possible. “You can get Ray home, right? Okay. See you.”

“Bye,” Gina managed before he left, and then they were three. Ray felt like he was about to melt out of his chair into a puddle on the floor.

“So. What, uh, what’s new with you guys?”

“That was fucking brutal, dog,” Poke said wearily. “I mean, shit, nothing against you, but watching that play out, that was rough.”

“Living it was a ball of fucking laughs,” Ray muttered.

His elbows made a loud thump when he rested them on the table, and he dropped his head into his hands. The waitress came back; he heard her ask if they were ready to order, and Gina say that they needed some more time. He almost laughed.

Brad was going to hate him. Brad was never going to look at him again. He had been out of the Marine Corps for a week and had already managed to torpedo their friendship—although maybe that had happened before then, when he hadn’t questioned the fact that his best friend had started kissing him whenever they greeted each other and cuddling him while watching TV. Why the hell hadn’t he questioned that?

(Because if he questioned it, it might have stopped.)

“Should I like—should I go after him?” he asked into his hands. He lifted his face. “Should I apologize again? Or should I—fucking—give him space—?”

“I say you just let it pass, man,” Poke said, crunching on a tortilla chip. “You know Brad. He’s gotta go brood for a bit. Retile his roof or something. He’ll feel better after a while.”

“Unless…” Gina said slowly. She bit her lip. “Well, I guess it would depend on… what you wanted to say.”

She flashed him a look, and Ray felt all the blood in his body flush to his cheeks. Poke glanced between them curiously.

“He’s probably gone already.” He paused. “I’m just gonna go check. Sorry for—you know, all this.”

He dashed out of the restaurant and into the parking lot, looking around for Brad’s car—and there it was, parked in the corner of the lot nearest to the beach. Brad was leaning against his car, staring out at the ocean. Ray thought about calling to get his attention, and decided against it. His steps slowed as he approached the car.

“Hey.”

Brad’s shoulder twitched in acknowledgement. Ray walked past him and leaned against the car at Brad’s side, with a good foot of space between them. They were silent for a couple of minutes as Ray waited for Brad’s ire to cool and so that he himself could work up the nerve to speak.

“You know, in a way it’s kind of funny,” he suggested.

“Shut up.”

“No, seriously,” he pressed. “It’s not so bad if you try to pass it off as a joke.”

Brad took a deep breath and spoke in a tight voice.

“Ray. Every single person I tell this to is going to find it funny. Every one of them is going to treat it like a joke. So just—just fucking leave it, okay?”

“Come on, it’s not like you really have to tell anyone now. Just, I dunno, wait until it’s funny. Eventually it’s going to be funny.”

“For fuck’s sake, you’re not—Ray, I have to tell people, because I already told people we were dating,” Brad said, and now his voice was slightly too loud and there was a bright red flush beneath his tan. It was the first time he had really let the anger slip to show the embarrassment beneath, and Ray felt even smaller than before. He wanted to curl up real tight and also hide under something, like a pathetic rabbit.

“Who did you—?”

“More people than I should have,” he admitted with a sigh. “Besides Poke and Gina… Rudy, Pappy, Kocher, Kendra and Ben, and my parents.”

Ray’s jaw dropped.

“What happened to keeping it quiet?”

“I didn’t tell any of the guys until after your paddle party.”

“But your family? Jesus, it’s only been—”

“Please shut up. I know, okay, I—” He shook his head and frowned at the concrete in front of them. “I never came out to them. I never saw the point, because first I was engaged to Sarah and after that, I didn’t think my parents needed to know who I was hooking up with. But then the longer I didn’t, the more it felt like I was… hiding something. I figured dating someone I liked was as good a reason as any to take the plunge. And can you please stop acting like I’m an idiot for making a big deal out of this?” he demanded. “It’s not like you’re a stranger I’ve been on a handful of dates with. We’ve been through two fucking warzones together, and I assumed that that meant we got to skip a lot of the early-relationship bullshit. I don’t fucking care if that creeps you out, it’s what I thought and it was fair.”

“It doesn’t creep me out,” Ray said without thinking.

“Congrats, do you want a fucking medal?”

“No, I mean… I don’t think I’m freaking out as much as you think I’m freaking out,” he said slowly. His heart was beating really, really fast. Like, weirdly fast, Ripped Fuel fast.

For the first time since he had leaned against the car, Brad’s eyes flickered towards him again, narrow and suspicious, trying to read Ray’s face. Ray stared straight ahead, at the beach and the flocks of seagulls dipping over the waves.

“Listen, Brad… can I be real with you for a minute? Seriously, no bullshit, no jokes, no… whatever.”

“Go for it.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled.

“I, uh… I think I’m gay.”

Brad turned his head to look at him. Ray didn’t so much see the movement as sense it; after all that time in the Humvee, he fucking knew how it felt to have Brad look at him. He swallowed and his gaze dropped to the tips of his own scuffed sneakers.

“I guess I’ve kind of known for a while. But not like—I don’t know, homes, I guess it was just easier to tell myself sex sucked because my girlfriends were bad at it. Or I was bad at it. And if I felt anything towards guys, it was just—intellectual. You know? It was all theoretical, and in theory everybody gets a little curious, right, so what the fuck did it matter? My point is…” He took a deep breath. “It was easier to ignore it, so I fucking ignored it. Right up until you pushed me up against the wall last week. You and your fucking GQ Brad-Pitt-on-growth-hormones- looking ass. So I don’t—I don’t fucking know , man, I’ve never done this before and I don’t even know what it is and—”

Brad’s hand touched his cheek, and Ray’s brain short-circuited again. Normal brain functions ceased. He couldn’t speak and could barely breathe, and only just registered the movement as Brad lifted his other hand to cup Ray’s face and leaned down.

Eventually, Ray closed his eyes. He couldn’t coordinate his limbs enough to wrap his arms around Brad’s neck, but he balled his fist in the bottom of his t-shirt. It wasn’t the same kind of kiss as the one they had shared at the paddle party—it didn’t have the same kind of heat—but it was intense, and firm, the kind of thing one really couldn’t ignore or misunderstand.

Brad broke the kiss with a ragged breath, and the volume of the world switched back on. Doors were being opened and shut in the parking lot and seagulls were making a racket on the beach. Ray opened his eyes. Brad’s face was still so close that there was a faint peach-colored haze obscuring his vision.

“You can’t just keep doing that,” he said weakly.

“Then stop me.”

Brad kissed him again, holding his chin in one hand and tilting his head upwards. Ray was going to get a crick in his neck, but that didn’t seem important at the moment. Brad’s lips were crazy soft.

“I would have figured this whole thing out a lot sooner if you had been doing that the whole time,” Ray said, somewhat breathlessly, when Brad drew away again. “I mean, fuck, Brad, who takes three weeks to kiss somebody?”

“A pussy,” Brad shrugged. “It took me three years to even ask you out. I didn’t want to fuck this up. Ray,” he said intently. “I don’t want to fuck this up.”

“Shit, man,” Ray mumbled. He ran his hands up and down Brad’s torso. Brad had a nice torso. He had noticed it before, but he hadn’t really noticed. He definitely hadn’t actually touched it.

“So if you don’t want to do this—if you want things to stay how they were—I’m okay with that.”

“Really?”

He could see Brad’s adam’s apple move as he swallowed.

“Really,” he said in a firm voice. “I had this whole thing I was going to say in the bar that day, about how I’ve never been able to look at you as just one thing. The things I like about you, the things I admire… my respect for you feeds into my friendship which feeds into… this. You’re always Ray. You’re my best friend, and I’m in love with you, and however this turns out, I still want you to be my best friend. If that means we fizzle out in six months or we never get started, then that’s how it is.”

“Six months,” Ray echoed. “Based on the making out, I really think the sex alone should get us past six months. I know,” he groaned. “I know, I know, I’m sorry, I’m fucking obnoxious. It’s been a weird half hour.”

He looked up. He had to crane his head annoyingly far to meet Brad’s gaze—that was going to get old real fast.

“I want to give it a shot,” he said in the calmest voice he could manage. “These past couple of weeks—I didn’t know what was going on, but I think part of the reason I never said anything is because… I liked it. The hugging and stuff. You never hugged me before, did you know that? And the making out, that was great. Anyway, I didn’t want to jinx it. Plus you’re always saying how I’m a fucking dumbass hick, ’cuz you’re a snob, so. Didn’t know how this Tony-and-Maria shit would play out.”

Brad laughed and cupped Ray’s jaw. He leaned down on the other side of his face and whispered, “You are a dumbass hick. And you’re really fucking gay,” in his ear, and then pressed a tender kiss to the mass of espresso maker scars on Ray’s cheek. Ray shoved at his chest.

“Go call Poke and tell him you’re not going to commit ritual suicide, and then take me home and ravish me, you big gay nerd.”

“I don’t take orders from civilians,” Brad claimed, but he took his cell phone out of his pocket anyway. “Hey, Tony. Yeah, he did, we’re fine. Listen, we’re going to go back to my place and talk about our feelings and all that bullshit—”

“And make out!” Ray shouted in the direction of the speaker.

“—so you and Gina have a nice day, and we’ll reschedule for some other time, all right? Shut the fuck up, Poke, no one fucking asked you.”

He snapped his phone shut and Ray moved to get into the passenger seat, but Brad’s hands fell to his hips and held him in place for a moment.

“Hey,” he said with a grin. “Let me be very clear: I am asking you out on a date. We are going to go to In-n-Out, and eat food, and then we’re going to go to my place and engage in romantic kissing and possibly groping or fucking. This is going to be our first date.”

“I do love a man with a plan, sergeant, but you’re wrong about that,” Ray said, running his hands up Brad’s chest again because seriously, he was really hot, and being able to touch all that was just great. “This is not our first date. It’s actually our one-month anniversary, and that sounds like the best whiskey tango anniversary date ever. Happy one month.”