He was in the wrong grave.
Brad held as still as possible, assessing. Nothing hurt, which meant he hadn’t been injured. That he probably hadn’t been injured. He didn’t remember falling asleep. Knew that the grave he’d dug was ten feet over, far away from Trombley’s snoring. Knew that —
“Hey,” someone whispered, “Brad, is that you?” And then his own face appeared right above his own, pale against the dark sky.
“What the fuck.”
“I knew it,” his own mouth said, quiet but excited, and Brad knew even before he held his hand up that his body wasn’t going to be his own.
They had been in the AO for too long. This was a fever dream. A side effect of the antimalarials. He’d died and was in actual hell.
“Okay, first of all, fuck you,” his mouth said, and it was beyond fucked that Ray could take Brad’s body and still make it move and sound like Ray. “Being trapped in my body is a gift, okay, homes? It is a fucking gift and you should not look it in the mouth.”
“I think I’m looking myself in the mouth,” Brad said, straightening his back. It didn’t matter, his own body was towering over this one. Ray seemed to realize he had gotten the height advantage at the same time Brad realized he’d lost it, a slow grin spreading across his face. Brad went to take a step back but there was nowhere to go — they’d tucked themselves up against the back of the victor, out of everyone’s line of sight.
“You like what you see?” Ray made a face, eyebrows going in all directions, and if Brad never saw himself do that again it would be too soon. But after a moment it smoothed out and Ray leaned in a bit and despite all his restraint — which Ray’s body had none of, apparently — he felt his breath catch in his throat.
“Do I like looking at myself?” Brad asked, forcing his voice — Ray’s voice, this wasn’t a problem he’d ever have in his own body, this was a problem he inherited — to stay even. “It beats looking at your busted-ass ratface for sixteen hours a day, I’ll tell you that.”
“That’s because you’re a fucking narcissist, Bradley. Your —”
“Don’t use words you don’t understand, Ray.” Brad walloped him upside the head for good measure. They didn’t have time for one of Ray’s insane rants right now. Not while whatever the fuck was going on was actually going on. “How the fuck did this happen?”
“You’re asking me? I don’t fucking know, man. One second I was asleep, the next I’m you.”
“What did you do?”
“What did I do? Why’s it gotta be my fault? You’re the one who —” Ray cut himself off at the sound of footsteps nearby.
“Men,” Nate said, looking haggard but like himself. So it wasn’t a universal thing then. Brad didn’t know if that made it better or worse. Nate tilted his head like he was about to say something but thought better of it. “Godfather wants us on the move early tomorrow. You should let your team get some rest, Sergeant.”
“Yes, sir,” Brad started to say instinctively, but Ray stomped on his foot the second he opened his mouth. Right. Fuck.
“Yes, sir.” Ray nodded, his weight still on Brad’s toes. He was very carefully not making eye contact with Brad.
For one agonizing moment they all stood there, staring, and Brad waited for something terrible to happen, but eventually Nate sighed, nodded, and left them to it. It was another moment before Brad let himself relax even the tiniest bit.
“Nice one, Corporal,” Ray said, eyes bright like he was going to start laughing any second, even though none of this was funny.
“What the fuck are we supposed to do?” It hadn’t even been an hour and Brad felt like he was coming unhinged. Was this how Ray felt all the time? What the fuck was going on?
“How am I supposed to know? You think I have any clue about what this is?”
Brad hadn’t realized Ray was leading him back to his grave. The one Ray had dug. The one Brad had woken up in.
It was a terrible sign. Usually he wasn’t distracted like this. He couldn’t function if he was distracted like this. He would be a detriment to his team, to the whole unit. He would — he jolted out of his spiral when Ray thunked him on the shoulder.
“Listen,” Ray said, his voice pitched low. He was stooped a little so he was nearly eye-to-eye with Brad. “Let’s get some sleep. Maybe this is just a fucked up dream we’re both having. Maybe it’ll go away in the morning.”
“Yes,” Brad said, mustering every sarcastic bone in Ray’s body, “I’m sure that’s what’s going to happen.”
Brad woke up in his own body. For twenty blissfully quiet minutes, he convinced himself it had been a completely fucked up dream. And then he found Ray, who was grinning like a motherfucker.
Just like that, the sense of calm he had felt at being himself again disappeared.
“Son of a bitch.”
“I told you!” Ray crowed when Brad dropped into the passenger seat of the victor. “It just sorted itself out. Bam. Magic”
Brad shook his head. “We are never talking about it again.”
“Talking about what?”
Brad turned his gaze out the window and didn’t let himself smile. This body was his. He was in control. “Exactly.”
There was nearly a full minute of peace while Ray unfucked their radio for the nine hundredth time and Trombley and the reporter snuck in one last piss before they hit the road.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” Ray said, “for how rested you are.”
Brad focused on a spot on the horizon and tried to forget how shitty the walls in Ray’s grave were. There’d been dirt rolling down the back of his neck when he woke up the first time. It was appalling how some men could sleep.
Next to him, Ray was still talking. “Bet you woke up real relaxed.”
Brad allowed him the tiniest sideways glance, just enough to catch Ray’s jerk-off motion and feel his blood run cold.
“I will kill you.” It couldn’t be true. His good mood had been because he was himself again, not because… “I will tear your body limb from limb and feed you to the next camel we see.”
“Do camels eat meat?” Trombley asked, throwing himself into his seat.
“No,” Reporter said.
“This one will,” Brad said, glaring at Ray, who laughed like this was the greatest day of his life.
Ray was a lying sack of shit. Brad knew that. Knew he was all talk and that he’d probably done exactly what Brad had: laid there wondering what the fuck was going on for two full minutes before forcing himself to fall asleep.
That didn’t keep him from thinking about it. The idea of Ray-as-Brad sneaking in a combat jack had burned itself into his brain the second Ray had alluded to it and now here he was, forced to carry it around in his skull like some useless cousin-fucking redneck thought-baby Ray had knocked him up with and left him to raise on his own. He wished he’d been able to abandon it with the same speed his consciousness had abandoned Ray’s twitchy, miniature body.
“What’s with him?” Brad heard the reporter ask Trombley.
Trombley, for once, had the sense not to answer.
“Walt, real quick, yes or no.”
“Ray.” Brad wasn’t in the mood. But they’d had hours of rolling through the desert in silence, and asking for one more minute from Ray was apparently not in the cards.
“No,” Walt shouted down.
“Don’t do me like that, man, I didn’t even ask my question.”
“Whatever it is, no.”
“You can’t be like that, this is serious. This is a very serious question.” Ray was smiling, though; Brad knew without looking over. “Walt, for real, if presented with the opportunity, would you sleep with yourself?”
Brad felt like his vision was going to black out, even though it didn’t. Overhead, Walt was laughing hysterically. Everyone in the victor was laughing except Brad. Except Ray and Brad.
“What? What kind of question is that?”
“A very serious one,” said Ray. “Reporter, yes or no?”
“Yes, duh,” Trombley said. “of course you’d sleep with yourself. But not in a gay way.”
“I think it’s automatically gay, even if it’s still yourself,” said Reporter.
“See, if you’ve got Trombley on your side, you know it’s fucked up,” Brad said, feeling like he was seconds from coming unhinged.
“No offense, Brad, but,” Walt sounded apologetic about the fuckery that was about to come out of his mouth, “I think everyone would agree with Ray on this one.”
Brad blinked once, twice, willing his blood pressure to stay level. “Ray didn’t say yes or no.”
“It was implied,” Trombley said.
In the driver’s seat, Ray cackled. Brad resisted the urge to sock him. He resisted the urge to say anything at all.
Entirely without his consent, it became the hottest topic in Iraq.
“Yes, obviously,” Rudy said, pouring two cups of coffee and passing one to Pappy. “I know what I want and what I need.”
“Exactly,” Ray said, gesturing emphatically. “Plus also it would be awesome.”
Brad waited exactly ninety-three seconds before excusing himself to go chip sabkha off the undercarriage of the victor. At least there it was quiet and shady and he didn’t have to think about Ray wanting to sleep with himself while Brad was wearing him as a skinsuit.
It took twenty minutes for Ray to slide underneath with a mallet of his own.
“It’s just a joke, man,” he said.
Brad worked a particularly stubborn chunk off one of the axles and gathered his thoughts. He knew it was a joke. It just wasn’t a fucking funny one. He thought Ray’d understood that.
“I thought we weren’t talking about it,” he said eventually. That was what they’d agreed to. He could feel Ray staring at him, probably with his stupid fucking mouth hanging open. “Or were the terms of our agreement too complex for a mouth-breathing homeschool dropout to understand?”
“I wasn’t homeschooled,” Ray said after a minute. “And I fucking graduated. Jesus, Brad, it’s like you never listen when I talk.”
Ray started chipping away at one of the bigger chunks on the rear axle.
“Ray, if I listened to every word that came out of your fucking mouth, I’d have blown our whole team up on the first day. It’s called self-preservation. I know they don’t have that in Nevada, but it’s how the rest of us get through the day.”
He chanced a glance to his left just in time to see Ray’s dimple appear then disappear, like he was forcing himself not to laugh.
It didn’t make Brad feel better about everything that had been going on, but for a brief second everything felt normal, and that was something.
“What the fuck.”
It had been twenty minutes of roadside shut-eye.
“As you were, Corporal,” Fick said. Brad watched as Ray slowly climbed to his feet. To Brad’s feet. He could practically hear Ray shouting what the fuck, homes. Motherfucker, they were screwed.
Ray turned, making crazy eyes at Brad as Fick led him away. Then LT must have said something because his head whipped around and he nodded once, his back straight as they walked away. It was like getting mental whiplash, watching him switch so quickly from Ray to Brad. Watching him do a passable Brad impersonation.
Hopefully he never opened his mouth.
It didn’t matter, though, because there was nothing Brad could do about it. There was no reason to casually wander over to the TL meeting to eavesdrop, no reason to do anything at all but sit here and stare at the horizon, watching the heat warp the air above the road. Ray wouldn’t fuck this up, not intentionally, he knew that, but it didn’t help. He couldn’t get Ray’s pulse under control until his own body appeared in the middle distance, marching its way back to Brad. Back to all of them.
“We’re rolling out in twenty,” Ray said, yanking the door open and then slamming it shut behind him. He chucked his helmet onto the floor.
“Jesus,” Trombley said, leaning in through the back window, startling them both. “Never seen you so worked up, Sergeant.”
“Fuck, Trombley,” Ray said, louder than Brad normally was. He winced and self-regulated. It was like watching him put on a mask, the way he somehow made Brad’s face shift. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”
“He’s fine,” Brad said quickly, twisting in his seat to make brief eye contact with Trombley, who looked the same level of dumbstruck he always looked. “Now go the fuck away and let us sleep until we’re on the move, or else I’ll drive us into a ditch.”
“What crawled up your ass?” Trombley asked, but at least he was walking away.
“You alright?” Ray asked, eyeing Brad suspiciously.
“Just peachy, homes.” Brad shifted in his seat, tipping his head against the window frame.
“Was that supposed to be me? Brad, come on.” Brad refused to open his eyes. “Brad. That was — I was successfully you, I had all the other team leaders fooled, I said like two words the entire —”
“That’s two words too many.” He cracked his eye open just enough to see that all the noise was coming from Ray trying to contort Brad’s body into a semi-comfortable position.
“Whatever.” Ray rolled his eyes and then wiggled again, cursing when he slammed his knee into the dashboard. “Fuck this, why are you so huge? There is no fucking point for this, man. You are just tall for no reason. I’m going to chop your legs off at the knee so I can sit in a seat like a goddamn human being.”
“Shut the fuck up, Ray,” Brad said, but there was no heat in it. Sometimes Ray just had to tire himself out, like a dog or a small child, and the only way for him to get it out of his system was by complaining. Apparently it was an energy that transferred across bodies.
Brad closed his eyes and let the sound of his own voice lull him to sleep and hoped that he woke up in his own body. If he willed it hard enough, it would probably come true.
“What if —”
“No,” Brad said. They were themselves again, but that didn’t make him any less exhausted. He wished for the days when they were stuck in Buttfuck, Iraq, and everything was the exact same, instead of this new shitshow where the USMC was doing it’s absolute best to fuck them over and he periodically woke up in a body that felt like it ran on Ripped Fuel and the pure joy of chaos.
“That’s not fair, you didn’t even let me ask my question.”
“I cannot emphasize enough how much I do not care about what is going to come out about that useless, goat-fucking cavern you call a mouth.”
“Weird, that’s the exact opposite of what your mom said last night.”
Brad refused to dignify that with a response. They were stopped on the side of the road, had been for nearly an hour with no explanation and no telling how much longer they’d be here; the rest of their team was twenty feet away, shooting the shit with Garza and Poke. Any other time he’d try for a nap, but recent events meant that was a bad idea. He made his eyes refocus on the map and the hastily recounted plan Ray had drawn up for him after he’d been Brad at the TL meeting.
It was a good map, he had to give Ray that.
Next to him, Ray fiddled with the radios, switching from static to silence, static to silence.
“Leave it,” he said, smacking Ray’s hands away. Too hard, maybe, from the hiss Ray let out.
“Touch-y.” Ray made a face. “You know, you’d probably feel better if you relaxed some, man. Every time we, you know,” he waved his hand, which Brad assumed was supposed to mean ‘switch bodies,’ “I wake up feeling like my limbs are gonna snap off and my teeth are gonna clench so hard they need the jaws of life to pry my mouth open so I can eat again. And I’ve seen them use the jaws of life, dude. It would not be a fun time for us.”
“For you, whatever. You know what I meant.”
Brad rubbed his forehead and consciously unclenched his jaw. It wasn’t that bad. So he was slightly more stressed than normal. Who wasn’t?
“I’m just saying.” Ray shrugged. “You need to relax. Want me to see if I can track down Reporter’s girlfriend? She’s helping a lot of troubled men such as yourself.”
Brad was not troubled. He didn’t need to look at the come-stained picture of Reporter’s dime-a-dozen girlfriend to get his rocks off. He didn’t need to get his rocks off at all. He needed to stop waking up as Ray, he needed to get the three pounds of sand out of his asscrack, and he needed to do some of the goddamn recon work they’d allegedly been sent here to do. Preferably in that order, but at this rate he’d settle for one out of three.
“See, that’s what I’m talking about. That tic right there.” Ray’s fingertips grazed his cheek, featherlight. Brad twitched away. “That shit is messed up, Brad. Just go over there, take five, and think about a bald eagle and a sword, or your carpet rake, or whatever the fuck —”
“What is wrong with you?” Brad laughed in spite of himself, a short burst punching its way out of his lungs. “Who the fuck jerks off thinking about a bald eagle? Is that what you had taped to the ceiling of your childhood trailer? A picture of a bald eagle?”
The radio crackled before Ray could defend himself and Brad felt a fleeting moment of disappointment that whatever rant Ray was building up to was interrupted because they were oscar mike.
“Yo,” Ray leaned over Brad to yell out the window, “let’s go!”
“Jesus,” Brad said, shoving Ray back into his own space as the back doors slammed open and shut. He felt like he had whiplash, felt off-balance for absolutely no reason at all.
“C’mon, homes,” Ray said, shoving his sunglasses on as they rolled out, “Relax. It’s like our forefathers said.” He took a huge breath and in the pause Brad considered reaching over, opening the door, and shoving Ray out before he could start singing. It’d be messy, though, and they’d have no one to drive, and with Brad’s luck he’d wake up in Ray’s body, a hundred clicks away from where he needed to be. “We’ll be singing when we’re winning.”
“Ray!” Brad was not in the mood for this. His victor had clearly stated rules. “No Tubthumping.”
Ray transitioned seamlessly to a Eurhythmics song. It was only marginally better.
Brad woke up with his blood humming from Ripped Fuel. The sun was brighter than it had any right to be. He felt like he was crashing and wired at the same time. Ray’s dick was half hard. Brad pressed the heel of his hand against it before he realized what he’s doing.
“Person!” someone shouted. “Where you at?”
“Fuck off,” Brad yelled back, shutting his eyes and hoping, somehow, he’d be able to fall asleep in a split second. But his heart was racing too fast, like waking up had kicked it into high gear.
“Encino Man’s radio’s fucked again,” Q-Tip said. “Like, real bad. He asked for you specifically.”
Brad tipped his head back and let a sharp part of his helmet dig into Ray’s skull. He wasn’t going to have to deal with the bruise down the line. He’d make sure to pass out before it came to that.
“He did not sound like he was in the mood to wait, yo.”
Brad sighed. “Yeah.” He climbed to his feet. This was fine. He could figure it out. “Yeah, I’m going.”
It wasn’t as easy as Ray made it look, though. Brad was mostly banging his way through it with trial and error when Ray came storming up, moving quickly and carelessly enough that Griego took one look at him and said, “What was that? Yes, sir, right away,” and booked it.
Ray watched him go. “Was he talking to himself?”
Brad snorted. It was an undignified sound that Ray’s body made involuntarily. “I think you barrelling over here like a maniac might have frightened him, Brad.”
It was weird seeing his own face flush. Almost as weird as calling Ray “Brad.” Almost as weird as being relieved to see him at all.
Ray rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, I heard they had me fixing what I assume is some grade-A dumbassery, so sorry if I was worried you might make it worse and blow up our spot.”
Brad stopped trying to splice two of the frayed wires together. “I would not ‘blow up our spot,’ Ray.”
Ray leaned through the window and Brad had to once again reconcile the fact that his own body took up so much more space than he was used to. It was different from this side of things. He fought the urge to lean away; it wasn’t worth giving Ray the satisfaction. And besides, it was his own body. He was used to it. Theoretically.
“Those are the wrong wires,” Ray said. He reached for the radio in Brad’s hands, tipping it towards himself without trying to take it. “You want the other one. That one, yeah.”
“I tried that one.” Brad had tried them all; the two he was already holding were the only ones that hadn’t made the screeching worse.
“Yeah, I know, but you gotta —” he paused and then looked around like he was worried someone might be watching them. “Did you strip them? I usually just use my teeth because —”
“Just because you need to get electrocuted to be aroused sexually does not —”
“Fuck off.” Ray managed to elbow Brad without letting go of the radio. “Give ‘em to me.”
“What? No, I’m not going to let you electrocute my body.” Brad felt very strongly about that. He tried to twist away, but Ray was all limbs now. He pressed Brad into the seat using only his forearm. Brad knew he was trapped, felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up and his pulse elevate; it was like Ray’s body was registering a potential threat.
“Oh, but it’s okay to electrocute mine?”
Brad had to fight to keep Ray’s lizard brain in check. It was getting hotter, the air thinner, his pulse louder the longer Ray kept him pinned. He gestured futilely. “You’re the one who told me to!”
“I didn’t say to lick it, what the fuck. Why is that the first thing you think of? You probably licked batteries as a kid, you dumb motherfucker.” As Ray was yelling he relaxed, like a toddler losing steam in the middle of a tantrum. His arm was still braced across Brad’s chest but it wasn’t pinning him anymore. Brad wanted to shove him away, wanted all the air in the victor back to himself, but Ray was pointing again, explaining what Brad needed to do. “Okay, just like, with the edge of your teeth. I guess I could find you a knife.” He started patting his chest like he was checking for hidden pockets. “Or you could just try to pinch it using your fingers. Doesn’t really work if they’re that dirty though. Maybe if you just —” He scraped his thumb against his front teeth and Brad recoiled, horrified.
“I’m not putting your fingers in my mouth,” Brad said. “Fuck knows where they’ve been.”
“Hey, they’re our fingers now,” Ray said. “Mi cuerpo es su cuerpo, hombre.”
Brad rolled his eyes. Quickly, before Ray explained what the hell the alternative was, he stripped the wire with his teeth.
“See, not even a little jolt.” Ray dug his knuckles into Brad’s side, teasing, and laughed when Brad yelped. It wasn’t fair. He knew his own weak spots. “Now just — yeah, like that. Damn, is my body remembering even though it’s your brain? Is it muscle memory?”
Brad squinted as he fed the wires into the appropriate place. “Contrary to popular belief, I do understand how this works.” It hadn’t been easy but he would’ve gotten it without Ray’s help. Eventually. It probably would have taken a suspiciously long time but that wasn’t the point.
They were both quiet as Brad finished up. He was acutely aware that Ray’s hand was still tucked against his side, that Ray was breathing on his neck as he watched what Brad did, probably ready to criticize the second he fucked up.
“See?” Brad flicked the radio on, grinning when it crackled to life on the correct frequency.
“That’s why they pay you the big bucks.” Ray winked. On Brad’s face, it seemed… Brad didn’t know what it was. He wasn’t a person who winked.
“Is there a problem here?” Encino Man appeared behind Ray like the hulking idiot demon that he was.
“No sir,” they said at the same time.
Brad dropped the radio onto the seat; Ray stepped away from the door so Brad could let himself out.
“Just having my RTO walk me through some basic fixes,” Ray said, lest there be a single second when he wasn’t running his mouth. Even in Brad’s body he kept talking. “Helps to know in a pinch.”
Luckily, Encino Man was too stupid to think anything of it. He didn’t even realize Ray’s unsubtle dig, just waved them off without a second thought.
“In a pinch?” Brad hissed, Ray’s voice shrill and unexpected. This body had no secrecy, played nothing close to its chest. Brad didn’t know how Ray made it through the day, living so close to the surface like this. It was mortifying.
“Shut up.” Ray shoved him and Brad stumbled, making Ray laugh. “Look where you're going, Corporal.”
Brad glanced over his shoulder, feeling caught, but no one was paying attention to them. Ray took the opportunity to shove him again, still laughing. Brad kind of wanted to laugh, too. Ray’s whole body felt lighter, a brighter version of what Brad was used to, the same rush he got from surfing or taking his bike out. It felt like they’d gotten away with something. Like they’d had a recon mission gone right.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were enjoying this.”
“Fuck yeah I am, dude.” Ray stretched his arms out wide. “I might never sleep again! I’ll stay like this forever.”
Brad knew he was joking but his stomach still lurched at the thought. He swallowed against it.
“If you want to be able to reach the top shelf at Walmart that badly, I’ll buy you a ladder.”
“Fuck you, man.” Ray shoved him again but Brad anticipated it, ducking so Ray stumbled and Brad could sweep his leg, sending Ray to the ground.
“Nice one, Person!” someone yelled from a distance, starting people whooping and clapping.
He watched Ray lay in the dirt, grease on his face, laughing, but his own good mood had disappeared, leaving Brad with Ray’s shaky hands and a sick feeling he was going to have to deal with for fuck knew how long.
“I’m just saying,” Lilley said, as they waited for yet another roadblock to be cleared, “I meet myself somehow — like I’m a time traveler, or they clone me or whatever.”
Poke made a face. “You think if science picks anybody to clone they’re gonna clone your dumbass?”
“Maybe!” Lilley threw up his arms like whatever. “I’m just saying, if I ever meet myself, I think yeah, probably, I’m down to clown. What about you, Ray?”
It took every ounce of willpower Brad had not to visibly flinch. He and Ray had been stuck going on thirty-six hours now, no sleep in sight, and now he had to put up with this bullshit.
“Person’s the dumb motherfucker who started this sick Q and A.” Poke elbowed Ray. “What kind of twisted conversations are you hosting your ride, Iceman?”
The way Ray moved Brad’s mouth, it looked like a snarl. His eyes flitted across the road, skipping right over Brad as he said, “If you think I have any control over the perverted thoughts of a meth-mouth societal reject who thinks the pinnacle of success is marrying your step-sister and living in a double-wide, well.” Ray almost cracked a smile. “You are sorely mistaken.”
Brad was too stunned by Ray’s spot-on impression to laugh along with everyone else. But Ray would have a comeback, he knew that, and the longer Brad didn’t say anything the more obvious it’d be that something was off.
Across from him, Ray was practically smirking like he knew he’d short-circuited Brad’s brain. Well, the joke was on him because this was Ray’s brain, so it was already broken when Brad woke up with it.
“I told you about that dream in confidence,” he said, hoping Ray’s face looked fake-annoyed instead of like, constipated. But what did he care, it was Ray’s face. Let it look however it looked.
Everyone laughed harder and Brad knew Ray was struggling to keep a straight face.
“Yeah, but you’d still fuck your clone, right?” Lilley asked.
Brad looked away from Ray. “Yeah,” he said. He could feel the heat of Ray’s stare, hot as the desert sun. His pulse kicked up. Ray’s stupid heart couldn’t lie without going into overdrive. Brad didn’t understand how he made it through the day without going into cardiac arrest. “Obviously.”
It was what Ray would say, he told himself. And then he didn’t think about it anymore at all.
Eventually, Ray’s pulse settled down.
“That one wasn’t my fault,” Ray said, hours later, as they were digging in for the night. At least they’d gone to fucking half-watch.
Brad stopped digging and leaned on his shovel, bone-tired and just sick of it all. He wanted to sleep. He wanted his own body back. He wanted to not have to hear about Ray fucking himself, or Lilley fucking himself, or anyone fucking their goddamn selves for at least another six weeks. Preferably for eternity, but at this rate it felt like asking too much.
“Seriously! Lilley’s the one who brought it up!” Ray had somehow found a way to make Brad’s face look distressed, which was horrifying.
“Technically, you’re the one who brought it up — several weeks ago now — so I think ultimately it is your fault.”
Brad watched his own mouth flap around, fish-like, for a minute before Ray reorganized it into a straight line. “Alright, touché, motherfucker. But I will not apologize for Lilley.”
Brad didn’t want his apologies. He wanted his own body back.
What felt like five seconds after Brad closed his eyes, someone was shaking him awake.
“Brad,” Walt said, sounding like it was the tenth time he said it, “LT needs you.”
It took Brad a second for his brain to catch up, to realize that Walt was talking to him, that someone hadn’t come to wake him and Ray up simultaneously. That he was himself again. He shook off the dread of being stuck in Ray’s body for another day and sat up.
He was so fucking tired.
Walt stared at him, concerned. “You good?”
“Yeah.” He would be, anyway, which was essentially the same thing. He blinked, orienting himself. “Where are they?”
He went where Walt pointed, passing right by where he’d fallen asleep. Ray was still out cold, mouth open, completely oblivious.
Brad wondered if he’d looked like that asleep in Ray’s body, or if he’d slept like himself, and then he focused up and listened to their orders for tomorrow.
As suddenly as it started, it stopped. Brad fell asleep as himself and woke up as himself for two, three, four consecutive days. He wasn’t unhappy about it, but he was suspicious as fuck.
“What the fuck?” Brad ducked to get closer to Ray so no one else could hear and then second-guessed himself when Ray leaned away from him. He remembered how little space there’d been in Encino Man’s rig, how Ray’d seemed to take up so much of it with Brad’s body and how weird it had been having him that close. How claustrophobic. He took a small step back, stood up a little to give Ray breathing room. “Why’d it stop?”
Ray looked at him like he was crazy. “You think I know?” His hands were shaking.
It had to be the Ripped Fuel. He was probably taking more and more, trying not to fall asleep at the same time Brad was. That was smart. Brad should’ve thought of that. Instead here he was, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Thought you’d be like, thrilled.” Ray crossed his arms over his chest. Brad blinked. He’d been staring at Ray’s hands.
“I am.” He looked over the roof of the victor. There was absofuckinglutely nothing to see out here, a whole fucking desert worth of nothing. He looked back at Ray and forced a smile. “So stay out of my body.”
It wasn’t that he missed it. He’d been getting used to it, to the jittery racing of Ray’s heart, the way it was easier to sit in the victor, quicker to dig a grave, more comfortable to stretch his legs out when he was trying to send Ray’s body to sleep in the back seat.
He was glad they were themselves again. Sure, there was fuck-all to do in Baghdad, but Brad was happier to do nothing in his own body than in Ray’s. And Ray hadn’t even fucked up Brad’s shitting schedule, which was honestly the number one thing he’d been concerned about. Probably even before getting found out.
“Yeah, dude, it’s your body,” Ray said when Brad mentioned it. “Did you think it was like a mind over matter situation? Because let me tell you: it was not.”
Brad’s brain stuttered, stumbling over the logistics before deciding he didn’t care. He didn’t want to know.
“I’ve turned myself into a machine. You should consider doing the same,” he said, just to see the look on Ray’s face.
It was worth it.
By the time they were headed home, it all felt like a distant memory.
“I think you mean ‘a fucked-up nightmare,’ but sure.” Ray rolled his shoulders, twisted his neck so it cracked. “No offense, Brad, but you are not easy to live in. If I had to spend another hour trapped in there?” He shuddered.
Brad was, in fact, offended. “It’s not like you were a particularly good host. If I wanted to spend time inside a disease-laden, inbred hillbilly whose idea of a good time involves between two and six of the nearest barnyard animals, I would’ve called your mother.”
“You had a spectacular time up in here, don’t even front. I know you’re jealous of every inch of this.” Ray gestured down his torso, all the way down to where his midget legs were comfortably extended under the seat in front of him. Goddamn airplanes, designed for the Lollipop Guild and no one else. “Meanwhile, I was stuck in the human mausoleum you call a corporeal form. It was like being in a living library. I kept waiting for someone to pop around a corner and shush me for thinking too loud. That’s no way to live.”
“Those are called instincts, Ray. And the next time one of them tells you to shut the fuck up, you should consider listening to it.”
Ray pretended to think about it. “Nah.”
Brad looked out the window so Ray wouldn’t see him laugh. It would only encourage him.
That was how many perfect, peaceful hours of leave Brad got before he woke up in the world’s least comfortable bed. He knew even before he opened his eyes what the fuck was up.
“This is not my fault,” Ray said immediately, opening Brad’s front door to let him in.
“Yeah. You said that on the phone.”
“Well, I wanted to reiterate!”
Brad felt like rotting ass. Ray was hungover and now Brad was forced to deal with it. It was the world’s shittiest trade. He blamed that for the reason it took him far too long to realize Ray had answered the door with his fully-hard dick tucked into the waistband of his sweats.
“Jesus shitting Christ, Ray,” he said, watching his own chest go red in front of him.
“What.” Ray sounded annoyed. “I’ve been waiting for it to go away, but apparently your stupid warrior spirit extends to your boners. It has been a very tense standoff here this morning.”
Brad stood there, dumbstruck, until Ray got annoyed enough to grab him by the front of the shirt and drag him inside. He yanked so hard that Brad’s feet left the ground for a fleeting second; it wasn’t hot, but apparently Ray’s body was kind of into being manhandled like that.
He brushed it aside. That wasn’t the point and he wasn’t going to focus on it at all. Just like he wasn’t going to focus on his own dick freely associating with Ray’s consciousness.
“Maybe I’m just mentally stronger, you limp-dicked snotrag.”
Ray almost laughed. “Or,” he pointed at Brad, “and this can be considered advice, too, if you want it — some of us got laid yesterday so we don’t have permanent blue balls.”
Brad didn’t give Ray the satisfaction of being shocked by the news. It was a non-event. It wasn’t like they’d switched bodies mid-fuck.
“Congratulations to the lucky sheep,” Brad said, thinking desperately about said sheep and all sorts of farm animals to keep Ray’s suddenly-interested dick at bay.
“Fuck you.” Ray was laughing too hard to sound angry. “And fuck this, I’m going to shower.”
He was out of the room before Brad could yell, “Don’t touch my dick!”
“It’s mine now!” Ray shouted back. He punctuated it with a slam of the door.
There was little to do in the silence. Brad made himself a whole pot of coffee and tried to ignore how weird it felt to be in his own home.
When Brad woke up, it was because Ray was singing Nelly at the top of Brad’s lungs.
“What is your problem?” Brad asked. He was annoyed that Ray was so loud, annoyed that he was still in Ray’s body, annoyed that Ray’s legs were too goddamn short to reach the coffee table unless he slouched down just right and now Brad had a crick in his neck from sleeping weird.
“It’s getting hot in here, Brad!” Ray leaned over the back of Brad’s chair so he was looking at him upside-down. “Hot in herrrrrre.”
“Don’t ever make me say that again.”
“I made you eggs,” Ray said, and Brad took it as the apology for the hangover that it was.
Brad insisted they sit at the table. “I don’t trust you not to spill eggs all over my couch, jackass.”
Ray gasped. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life.”
Brad pointedly looked at the food he’d just spat on the floor. “You’re a disgrace to your mother and your country.”
“Hey.” Ray at least swallowed this time, so he wasn’t spewing everywhere. “I did a good job of being you when it counted. Nobody suspected one thing. You, on the other hand —” he wrinkled his nose and gave a thumbs down, “borderline pathetic.”
Now it was Brad’s turn to have never been so insulted in his life. Except his outrage was genuine and he could feel his mouth dropping open against his will.
“It’s not your fault! You’re just too uptight to truly be me! Every time you walk I look like someone’s shoved a stick so far up my ass I’m a scarecrow. You’re just not a natural.”
“You’re not natural,” Brad said. He’d done a perfect job at being Ray. No one had noticed, no one had even done a double-take before shaking it off and blaming it on the desert heat. “I was amazing. Fuck you.”
Ray laughed and shoveled more food in his face. At least half of it ended up on his shirt. Brad couldn’t believe this idiot had done a passable impersonation of him. He couldn’t believe there had been moments he’d actually been impressed by him.
“I know, right?” Ray said, like he could suddenly read Brad’s mind. Or maybe it was just that Ray’s face was shittier at hiding expressions than Brad’s was, so he had a head start on figuring out what the fuck was going on. “Up top, man.”
He held his hand up for a high five and Brad slapped it half-heartedly. Instead of letting go, Ray interlaced their fingers and shook Brad’s arm, still held high between their heads.
“Ladies and gentlemen-men-men-men,” and oh, great, he was providing his own echo, “presenting the 2003 grand champions. The greatest performers of all time.”
“Ray.” Brad tried to pull free but Ray tightened his grip.
“The heroes of First Battalion. The absolute motherfucking best of Bravo.”
When it became clear that Ray wasn’t going to stop any time soon, Brad picked up his fork with his free hand and finished eating that way.
“We could try again,” Ray offered, hours later, the both of them growing restless.
Brad shrugged. There was a limit to the number of naps he could take in one day, and a third was pushing it. Besides, there wasn’t a point. It hadn’t worked yet. It was like all those days they didn’t switch in the AO had caught up with them and now they had a backlog to burn through.
“Yeah.” Ray turned his gaze back to the tv. This was really all they’d been doing, sleeping and sitting and trying to will themselves right again. “I don’t know, it worked every other time, I just kind of assumed.”
There was an itch building under Brad’s skin, the kind he usually burned off with a long bike ride or a run or — “I have an idea.”
He was halfway outside before he realized Ray wasn’t following; he doubled back, knocked his fingers against the doorframe. “Come on.”
“This is not going to work the way you think it is, Brad,” Ray said, shivering as Brad zipped his wetsuit for him.
“It’ll be fine.” He reached around his ribs so he could zip himself into his own too-big suit. It would be fine for Ray, whose body knew what to do; Brad was going to have to teach Ray’s how to surf. “Let’s go.”
It went the exact opposite of how he expected it. Every time he turned around, Ray was tumbling sideways or getting smacked with his board or sitting there claiming he was “enjoying the view.”
“You’re making me look like a pansy-ass bitch,” Brad said, before trying to catch the next wave and completely eating it before he could fully stand up.
When he resurfaced, Ray was laughing maniacally. “Not so easy, is it?!”
Brad resisted the urge to blame it on the warped fit of his wetsuit or Ray’s surprisingly gangly limbs. He could compensate for those. It just required slightly more concentration than he was used to putting into surfing.
“I knew I could do it,” Ray called out nearly an hour later as Brad paddled back out after another successful run. He grinned when Brad got close enough, head tipped up to the sky.
“Laying on the board does not qualify as “doing it,” Brad said, stopping next to him. Ray had completely given up and was laid out with his wetsuit half off, everything bunched up around his hips. He should have been embarrassed, making Brad look like such a hippie dickhead. Only idiots who didn’t know what they were doing slept on their boards with their arms behind their heads so everyone stared at their stupidly flexed muscles.
Ray tilted his head to make a face at Brad. “Tomato, tomahto.”
Part of Brad wanted to argue, but he told himself it didn’t matter. Hopefully he’d wake up himself and then Ray would be the one to suffer through all the residual soreness.
The tide was starting to roll out. They should probably pack it in soon. Brad rolled his shoulders, welcoming the stretch. His ankle knocked into Ray’s as a swell moved under and past them. When Brad looked over, Ray had his eyes closed. Brad watched the rise and fall of his chest for a moment before he realized he was staring at himself. What the fuck.
“You’re starting to burn,” he said, kicking Ray’s shin.
Ray waved him off. “The sun’s setting.” But he opened his eyes and crunched forward so he could see as he pressed his fingertips to his chest, watching turn white and then pink up. “Whoops. Sorry, homes.”
It’s fine, Brad didn’t say. It would fade to tan eventually. “Can you take care of one thing that’s entrusted to you?”
“I’ll show you taking care.” Ray winked and ran his hand down his stomach slowly. That’s your stomach, Brad’s head supplied unhelpfully, as the whole outside world seemed to grow ten degrees hotter. For fuck’s sake. He was spending too much time in Ray’s body if he was starting to adopt Ray’s demented way of thinking.
He refused to break eye contact with Ray as he reached over and pushed the edge of his board hard, sending Ray wobbling, limbs flailing, as he tipped into the ocean. Brad took a calming breath. There. He felt better.
Ray popped up a second later, gasping for breath and laughing, with an insane glint in his eye that Brad recognized immediately. Did he know it from himself or was that all Ray? Some things probably translated between bodies.
“I’ll kill you,” Ray said.
Brad was already trying to paddle away, ready to catch one last wave and leave Ray to drag his board back to shore alone, but Ray had longer arms now and easily got Brad’s board in his grip and dragged it backward. It reminded him of that morning, Ray dragging him inside, and he was distracted enough by the thought that he wasn’t braced for Ray to surge up out of the water, getting both hands on the board, wedged under Brad’s rib cage. His fingers were cold, Brad realized uselessly, as Ray propelled himself upward.
He tried to roll with it, tried to keep his center of gravity on the board, but Ray had too much force. One second Brad was above water and the next he was under it, trying to swim away so he didn’t get smacked in the face by his board. He could hear Ray laughing overhead, the sound muffled but obvious.
He grabbed Ray’s ankle, used that to pull him under and closer while Ray tried to kick away. From below, everything looked warped, the fading light casting shadows on everything. It felt like a fucked-up dream. Here he was, grabbing his own knee. Here he was, getting flipped off as his own face mouthed Fuck you, Colbert! at him.
Ray planted his foot in the middle of Brad’s chest and pushed off, sending them in opposite directions. It was easy, really, to catch up, to get his arms around his chest as they fought their way to the surface.
Brad was laughing when they breached, his lungs burning. Ray gave him a split second to catch his breath and then he was under again, Ray’s palm on the top of his head, holding him down, no mercy. It was one of the things Brad respected most about Ray; even in a different, bigger body, he wasn’t about to hold back. He wasn’t going to treat Brad like he was fragile now.
Ray knew how fragile he wasn’t. Ray also got a lungful of water when Brad coiled his body tight and then launched it, as hard as he could, at Ray’s chest, sending him backward. Brad ended up with his arms around his own chest, his hands caught in Ray’s dangling wetsuit and dragging it precariously low.
“Uncle!” Ray shouted eventually, the two of them locked in a death grip and creating a mini whirlpool with all their twisting and attempted dunkings. When Brad eased up, Ray spat a stream of saltwater directly into his face.
“What the fuck!” Brad didn’t have the leverage he needed to dunk him, but he still managed to get Ray in a headlock and drag them both under. His heart was going haywire, so loud that surely Ray could feel it where Brad was pressed against his back, trying to keep him beneath the surface. All those nights he’d thought it was the Ripped Fuel sending Ray’s heart into overdrive; apparently that was just normal.
Somehow, Ray broke free. Even more amazingly, he managed to send Brad flying. He hit the water with a painful smack.
“That was an accident!” Ray apologized by landing on top of Brad with his whole body and sinking him horizontally. It was categorically unfair that Brad was stuck with such a body mass disadvantage. As it was, his face was somewhere in the vicinity of his own chest. It made sense to wrap all his limbs around Ray and try to barrel roll them; at least then, Ray would be the one sinking.
He realized the futility of his plan — aforementioned body mass; that they were still tethered to and therefore tangled in their boards; the fact that Ray’s legs were still free to kick — at the same time he realized Ray’s half-hard dick was digging into his stomach. Brad’s own dick had some feelings about that — or Ray’s dick had feelings of its own, which seemed more likely — but Brad wasn’t going to let that stop him. Surrender was for the weak.
“Give up, you competitive motherfucker.” Ray had gotten them vertical again, the slippery motherfucker. Brad tried to wrench away but he was pinned.
Ray’s breath was warm against Brad’s ear when he laughed; it was like he knew Brad knew there was no way out of this. But Brad could outwait him; he’d always had infinitely more patience than Ray, and even now, with the wind picking up as the sun melted into the horizon, he was prepared to wait. The only way out was victory. Or death. Or — Ray’s hand on his dick, apparently.
Everything in Brad bottomed out for a brief second, like the soundless instant between seeing an explosion and hearing it. He froze, prepared for Ray to use the distraction to topple him back underwater and finally claim victory, but then Ray’s hand curved around the outline of his dick again, unmistakably intentional, and time slowed, the same way it did when Brad was in the field.
This is fucking unexpected, Brad thought, and then he realized that was a lie. It wasn’t unexpected at all. Ray’d been priming him for this since the first morning after, and now, inevitably, here they were. He could feel Ray’s breath, warm on the back of his neck; Ray’s hand, even warmer where it cupped his dick; Ray’s hand — it was Brad’s hand, Ray was using Brad’s hand — big enough that it nearly fit in his palm.
Brad lived his life by a set of rules, chief among them that he had friends and he had people he fucked and never again the twain should meet. He’d been burned before and survived; it didn’t seem likely he’d walk through fire twice.
But sometimes the stars aligned.
Maybe it was Ray’s body, the way he seemed to live his life by chance, always gambling on a wing and a prayer and still managing to land on his feet, that pushed Brad over the edge. That made him say fuck it and choose door number two without hesitatiing. In for a penny and all that. Who was he to deny Ray his apparent lifelong dream of fucking himself? If Brad had something to gain from it too, well. It was either selfish or opportunistic, but it didn’t matter because no one ever needed to know.
It didn’t keep his heart from hammering when he said, “Inside.”
He started making his way to shore before Ray had fully let go of him.
It felt like he was running into battle at full tilt. By the time they were inside, he was so hard his dick ached; he could feel it in his palms, the itch to get off, the anticipation so sweet his brain couldn’t think beyond it. He could still feel the phantom touch of Ray’s hand and he wanted it again. Wanted more.
God, Ray’s body was filterless. Brad couldn’t believe he lived like this every day. If Brad was permanently this out of control he would’ve thrown himself off a bridge.
“Shower,” he said, his voice unrecognizable. No one wanted sandburn on their dicks. He stumbled when Ray hurried him in the right direction, his palm huge in the middle of Brad’s back.
The water wasn’t even warm when they crowded inside, but Brad didn’t care because Ray was reaching around to get his hand back on Brad’s cock. He was so much bigger than Brad like this, in the wrong body; it should have been insane, should have been a mindfuck, but in reality it made Brad feel like he was on fire. He braced himself against the wall but not even that could steady him. Christ, he recognized his own callouses on Ray’s hand — his hand, fuck — and for a second lost his breath entirely.
He tried to stifle his groan, choking on it, but Ray was right there and heard him, even over the running water. “Yeah, I knew you were into this, you fucking freak,” he said, his free hand digging into Brad’s hip, pinning him there. “Knew you wanted to screw yourself six ways to Sunday.”
That wasn’t it, but Brad didn’t have the brainpower to argue. Not that he wanted to complain about their current situation.
“You’re the one grinding one out against his own ass,” he gritted out, hissing at the sting of Ray’s nails across his hip.
“Fuck yeah I am,” Ray said, breathlessly delighted. Probably by the sight of his dick in the crease of his own ass. Which was fucking stupid; Brad knew there was no way it looked nearly as hot as it felt. It wasn’t like he was splitting Brad open, which was an idea that took up shop in Brad’s brain as quickly and subtly as an atom bomb. He made a sound like he’d been punched, his dick twitching in Ray’s grasp. “See? You love it.”
“Fuck.” This is going to be over so fast he should be embarrassed. He was never going to get Ray’s dick in him and it was a tragedy. “What?” he said, mostly to himself. He couldn’t keep up with his own brain, didn’t understand where these thoughts were coming from or why it felt like he was base jumping, caught in extended freefall.
“Yeah,” Ray said nonsensically, like he wasn’t the one driving this train while he jerked Brad’s last remaining brain cells out through his dick. “Come on, Brad.” He pinched Brad’s nipple, which usually did jack shit for Brad but apparently did everything for Ray because suddenly there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room.
“Shit,” Ray said, his own hips going erratic. He pressed his palm into the center of Brad’s chest, hauling him upright, holding him close. Brad could feel his heart thudding against his back, could feel his own — Ray’s, whoever’s — thudding wildly against Ray’s palm. He was unmoored, clinging to the arm Ray had wrapped around him, letting Ray take his weight, letting Ray do all the work.
Please he thought, biting his lip so he wouldn’t accidentally say it out loud.
“C’mon. Brad, Brad, Brad.” Ray was panting, his breath gusting hot against Brad’s temple as he watched himself jerk Brad off. It felt like the room got ten times hotter when Brad realized that was what he was doing.
He wasn’t expecting it when Ray pinched his nipple, but it was like there was a line directly between it and his dick. The sound he made was inhuman, loud enough that it seemed to echo off the walls. Ray laughed, delighted, before ducking to hide his face in the curve of Brad’s shoulder.
“What.” He was sure Ray had said something, but Brad couldn’t hear it over the water and the rushing in his ears. “Don’t stop.”
“Never,” Ray said, adjusting his grip and spitting out a stream of consciousness Brad barely registered. “Not gonna. Couldn’t if I wanted to.”
Brad groaned, feeling like he might self-combust. Fuck, maybe it was a good thing Ray wasn’t fucking him; Ray’s stupid body couldn’t handle it. He was too overwhelmed as it was, trapped like this with Ray’s dick so hard he could feel it leaking against his back. God, he was losing it over a fucking handjob like some ninth grade virgin. It was probably best this was it; if they were trying anything else he’d probably cry the second Ray got the tip in and then Brad would never live it down.
It wouldn’t be worth it, he told himself, biting his lip as Ray scraped his teeth against the column of Brad’s neck, and without any warning, Brad came.
“Fuck,” he said — chanted, really, like it was the only word his brain remembered. “Ray. Fuck.” His legs were shaking, turned to jelly; he probably would’ve hit the floor if Ray still hadn’t been holding on, holding him up.
He leaned forward to brace himself against the wall, gasping. He couldn’t catch his breath.
“Holy fuck,” Ray said, his wet hand smacking Brad’s ass hard, making him shudder, his dick twitching painfully. “Don’t move.” Ray slid his hand up Brad’s back, holding him in place, like Brad could move if he wanted to. It was still hotter than it had any right to be, the sounds of Ray jerking off, his mouth running a constant stream of shit about how this was, how insane it was, nonsense Brad didn’t even try to follow until Ray cut himself off abruptly and came all over Brad’s back.
The water was getting cold. Brad could feel his skin starting to prickle now that the afterglow was fading. Ray was still breathing like he’d run a marathon. At least he’d relaxed his death grip on Brad’s shoulder. His thumb was mapping the top bumps of Brad’s spine, drawing lazy circles that felt… nice. Helped him regulate his breathing.
Sweet everloving fuck, he needed to get out of this bathroom before he lost his mind entirely.
“So, did I blow your mind?” Ray asked later, once they’d relocated and gotten dressed. Well, Brad had gotten dressed. Ray had gotten distracted after putting on his sweats so he was just wandering around shirtless, poking at all the things on Brad’s carefully organized shelves.
“What?” Brad should’ve left. He would have, only that required more effort than his post-orgasm brain could muster. At least all the wretched, mortifying thoughts had faded the second he got some fresh air into his lungs. In a few days he’d probably forget he’d ever wished Person would fuck him into next week.
At the very least, he’d leave that particular fantasy behind when he finally got the hell out of Ray’s perverted body. Brad’s body understood what was appropriate jerkoff material and what was not. He would never take that for granted once he got it back.
“You heard me.” Ray took a swig of his beer and repeated himself anyway. He had far too much energy; just watching him made Brad exhausted. “Did I blow your mind, homes?”
Brad narrowed his eyes. It felt like a dare. Ray was being annoying on purpose, was probably expecting Brad to ignore him, or tell him to fuck off, or maybe even leave. Which was why Brad shrugged and said, “Lest you forget our predicament, this is your brain, Person. There’s not a lot of it to blow.”
Ray pointed at him, smiling. “That still implies I blew some of it.”
“As I recall,” Brad grinned back, “you blew none of it.”
Ray threw his head back laughing. On him, Brad’s face looked more open and happy than Brad could remember seeing on himself in a long time. It was weird. Not bad, necessarily, just. Weird. He closed his eyes so he didn’t have to see it anymore and let the full effects of the day — the stress, the surfing, the everything — catch up with him all at once.
Brad’s last thoughts as he drifted to sleep were that maybe Ray was right, he really needed to get laid more often.
He woke up to the sun in his eyes and Ray on his couch, eating breakfast.
“We switched back!” Ray said.
Brad nodded. “I noticed.” He wanted to ask why Ray was still here, but there were two eggs sunny side up and a few links of sausage waiting for him so he wasn’t entirely mad about it.
“Are you just going to stay here and make me breakfast until leave ends?”
Ray shrugged. “Maybe.” And great, now there were eggs on Brad’s couch. Ray unsubtly brushed them onto the floor. “I’ll sweep, too.”
Brad snorted. “Yeah right.” There was no way. He knew Ray well enough to know a lie when he heard one; he didn’t even need to be trapped in his body to figure it out. The few things he’d learned about Ray from that whole experience had been — Brad pulled the brakes on that train of thought. Knowing Person had sensitive nipples wasn’t to help his day-to-day life; he could file that information away in the part of his brain that kept like, radio jingles and the tv theme songs from his childhood. All the irrelevant shit he never bothered to think about.
“It was everything you dreamed about, right?” Ray said, like he could read Brad’s mind.
“What are you talking about?” It was easier to play dumb. “Do you think people can just follow along with every tiny thought that pops into your chlamydia-addled brain? Because I know I’ve told you before: they can’t, Ray.”
“Your mother can. She’s great at it. She said you should stop ignoring her calls, by the way. She misses you and you’re a terrible son and she’s going to put you up for adult adoption. You’re oh-for-two on moms.”
Brad refused to laugh. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Yes!” Ray put his plate down and hit Brad in the side. “See, I knew you knew what I was talking about. The reach-around from yourself: everything you dreamed of?”
Brad closed his eyes and inhaled. He’d walked right into it, like a dumbfuck ranger in a minefield. He had no one to blame but himself.
“You tell me,” he said, aiming for matter-of-fact but landing somewhere closer to distressingly-pinched. “It was your dream, not mine.” Ray looked disturbingly confused, which made Brad feel exasperated. Ray should understand this by now; they’d spent enough time as each other for Brad to get something out of this. He should have to explain himself anymore. He sighed heavily before he said, “You’re the one who never shut up about it, Ray. I seem to recall I was the one who continually said he did not care. Or were you dropped on your head so many times as a child you’ve lost the ability to form long term memories?”
“Oh, I can form long term memories. For example, I remember the entire gallon of jizz that came out of you last night. So, you know, I know you were into it. No need to pretend like you’re above it all now.”
“I should have smothered you when I was stuck in your body.” At least Ray’s body didn’t turn red at the slightest provocation; Brad’s face was so hot he probably could blend in with a fire truck.
Ray laughed, a loud, sharp burst. “I would have liked to see you try! Also, stop avoiding and just admit you were into it. Was it Shakespeare who said ‘methinks your dick protesteth too much?’”
“I — that — it wasn’t —” Brad started and then stopped. Trust Ray to spin him in circles so tightly he lost all situational awareness. “No one’s dick protested anything.”
Ray threw his arms up in the air. “Exactly!”
Brad dropped his face into his hands and centered himself. “Look,” he said, using the same listen-to-me tone he used on missions when he needed Ray to fucking pay attention. He wasn’t going to explain himself twice. He didn’t want to explain himself at all. “You talked about it nonstop. You wanted to, so I figured,” he shrugged, “why not?”
Sure, that wasn’t the whole truth, but fuck it. It was close enough.
Ray looked like he’d had asked him to solve one of those Good Will Hunting equations. His mouth kept opening and then shutting like he’d forgotten how to form words. Brad was just about ready to smack him upside the head, see if that rebooted him, when Ray said, “Are you saying you did it… to be nice? What the everloving fuck, Bradley? To be nice?”
“Oh my god.” Brad wanted to scream. His shirt felt itchy, too tight. “No. What the fuck.”
But Ray was on it like a dog with a bone. He was a lion and Brad was a wounded gazelle, praying for a swift death.
“Yes, it was!” Ray was crowded in his space now, as if all his righteous flailing had moved him across the couch. “Brad, you can’t lie to me anymore! I lived in your head! I am a human Colbert lie detector now!”
“I didn’t do it to be nice.” Brad wasn’t some teenage girl giving it up on prom night because she’d bought a pretty dress and thought she owed to her date. “It was because it was you.”
He wanted to swallow the words as soon as he said them. His face got impossibly hotter and he could hear Ray’s shallow, open-mouthed breathing, like he’d gone into shock because Brad accidentally said the gayest thing imaginable.
He made himself look at Ray. He was probably going to injure himself when he fell off the couch laughing and it was best if Brad could see where he split his skull open so he could write it on the note he would pin to Ray’s shirt when he left him at the hospital like an unwanted baby.
“What?” Ray said, his face blank. It was worse than if he had been laughing because he just looked shocked, and Brad was not going to explain himself or repeat himself or maybe speak again, ever. He could report to in, request reassignment to Afghanistan or Okinawa or literally anywhere he was needed immediately. Ray would forget this and eventually Brad would, too.
Only none of that mattered, because in between one blink and the next, Ray leaned in and kissed him.
Brad registered each individual detail: Ray’s hand, warm on his shoulder; Ray’s lips, chapped but not dry; the way Ray smelled like Brad’s shampoo; that Ray had twisted at some point, gotten his knees under him so they were nearly level.
“Uh.” Ray pulled back a fraction and time sped up again. “I may have read that wrong.”
Everything about this was a bad idea. Brad knew there was a ninety-six percent chance everything would blow up in their faces. Still… he didn’t hate those odds.
Ray was still staring at him, wide-eyed, his fingers twitchy like he was nervous. That, for some reason, settled the storm brewing deep inside Brad. It wasn’t a joke, wasn’t anything other than a huge fucking risk, the both of them standing on the edge of a cliff, waiting.
“No.” Brad took the leap this time, leaned in and actually kissed Ray back. There was still hot sauce on his lips and it probably should have been disgusting, but Brad didn’t hate it.
“Thank fuck,” Ray said, trying to talk and kiss at the same time. “For a second I thought I was going to have to pretend that like, Fruity Rudy had possessed me this time.”
Brad bit Ray’s bottom lip just to find out what sound he’d make; he wasn’t disappointed. “What is wrong with you?”
“Literally no one knows.” Ray tilted his head, giving Brad better access to his jaw while he talked. “They like, tested me as a kid but obviously I passed with flying colors because — “
“Ray.” Brad pulled back from what could have been a spectacular hickey. He used the hand he had on the back of Ray’s neck to shake him a little, liking the way Ray’s whole body sagged with it, like he’d let Brad do more than just scold him. “Do you ever shut up?”
“I mean.” Ray let his fingers dip beneath the collar of Brad’s t-shirt, scratching along the curve of Brad’s neck before they found the bumps of Brad’s spine and traced the same lazy pattern he’d mapped last night after he came. Judging by the shit-eating grin on Ray’s face, he knew the exact second Brad’s brain went from fully-functioning to all-systems-critical.“You could make me.”
Brad was gonna come all over those dimples if it killed him.
The thought alone sent his brain into complete overload. He was dimly aware of Ray hauling him to his feet, but fuck if he was an active participant in any of it.
“Get it together, Colbert.” Ray slapped his ass and the sharp sting jolted Brad back to reality where his blood had been replaced with a high-strung thrum of want. Ray looked at him for a moment, assessing, and then nodded. “There he is. All good?”
He waited for Brad’s quick nod, his face splitting into a grin so wide Brad didn’t know how there was any room left for the rest of his features.
“Chop chop!” Ray was already halfway out of his pants, stripping as he made his way down the hall.
Brad, God help him, followed.
He woke up to the obnoxious sounds of someone’s phone blasting Kanye West. It took Brad less than ten seconds to figure out what had happened.
“Are you shitting me?” he said in lieu of hello. It had been two years since they switched; he’d figured they were out of the woods by now.
“Are you shitting me,” Ray yelled. “I’m the one who woke up in a foreign fucking country!”
Brad scratched his chest sleepily. He hadn’t thought about how much he missed this bed until he woke up in it. The Royal Marines really had shit blankets.
“No, nuh-uh, don’t you dare fall asleep, Brad.” Ray sounded adamant about it. Brad was reconsidering how much he’d missed him. He’d been looking forward to coming home, but maybe he just missed a capable mattress and driving on the right side of the road. “Your flight leaves in three hours. I’ll be home by dinner and you’ll finally get to fuck yourself.”
“That’s not…” Brad didn’t bother finishing his sentence; Ray had hung up already. Not that it mattered what he was going to say.
He went to put a pot of coffee on and wait for his body to get back to him. Then the real fun would begin.