Brad knows he’s in the shit, that much is fucking obvious. He’d know even if he couldn’t hear the heart monitor that’s beeping in time with the stabbing ache in his head.
“Fuck,” he says, only no sound comes out, and moving his mouth makes his lip split so now he’s got a headache and a bloody lip. Fucking wonderful. He hasn’t even been back in the USMC’s clutches for a year, but right about now he’s missing the Royal Marines and their pansy-ass ways. At least those clowns never landed his ass in medical.
“Shit, homes,” Brad hears, and then someone’s pushing at his arm as he tries to wipe the blood off his face. “Oh shit. Are you – Brad? Hey, hey, if you can hear me squeeze my hand. Or like, open your eyes. Can you open your eyes? Shit.”
Brad’s eyes feel like they’re glued shut, which is making it really hard to glare at Ray, but eventually he gets them pried open and manages, all while Ray curses at him and tells him to stop struggling.
“Shut up, Ray,” he rasps, tasting blood on his tongue. Ray is far too close for comfort, his nose nearly touching Brad’s, and for a second he looks like he could cry. He doesn’t, thank fuck, but he does lean even closer. Brad twitches away. It makes his back twinge, pain flaring up his spine. “Jesus, what the fuck, Person?”
Ray blinks at him. He’s farther away now, at least, reaching for something on the side of Brad’s bed. With his free hand, he swipes the blood off Brad’s mouth. Brad flinches again, even though it means everything hurts for one long, sharp moment. Ray frowns, a crease forming between his eyebrows. Brad hates that crease. He always gets the stupid fucking urge to touch it, to make it disappear under the pad of his thumb. Thank god he can’t fucking move right now, because he feels just drugged out enough to actually do it.
“Fuck,” he says, closing his eyes.
When he opens them, Ray hasn’t moved. He looks weird – disconcerted and tired, like he’s been here a while. Brad tries to remember what happened – maybe it wasn’t a Corps fuck-up, maybe it’s Ray’s fault. He’d moved in while Brad was in England, ostensibly to watch the house while he was going to school, and when Brad came back he just kind of… never left. It had seemed fruitless to try to get rid of him, especially since he had a job and kept the fridge stocked and the lawn mowed.
“Hey,” Ray says, softer this time, his hand nudging Brad’s where it’s laying on the sheets. “You’re gonna be okay.”
Brad rolls his eyes. “No shit.”
Ray laughs and sets his hand gently on top of Brad’s. It’s nice for the fleeting moment Brad allows it, even though it makes him feel like a fucking sad sack. If anyone ever finds out that he let Ray hold his fucking hand in the hospital when he wasn’t actively dying, well. He’ll probably wish he had.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Ray worriedly chewing on his lip. His thumb is making restless circles on Brad’s knuckles, which is equal parts soothing and insane. He doesn’t know what kind of game Person’s playing at here, but he’s leaning more and more towards the ‘Ray fucked up’ side of the equation.
He moves his hand away, into his own lap. The TV over Ray’s shoulder is blaring the news; Brad tries to tune it out. His headache is getting worse, not better.
“What did you –“ he starts to ask, because he’d rather know now than get home and find out his car’s totaled and he’s got no way to get back to base, only the news anchor starts talking about the upcoming election. “Wait.”
Ray turns, following Brad’s gaze to the TV, and then looks back at him, worried. “Brad?”
“Well well well, look who’s finally awake!” a doctor says, coming into the room without warning.
“This isn’t funny, Ray,” Brad says, busting out the most senior officer voice he can manage right now, even though that didn’t work on Ray in 2003 so there’s no reason it should work now, but Ray looks pale, ashen, like he might lose it entirely.
Brad closes his eyes, just for a second, ELECTION 2010 echoing through the room, echoing through his head. That can’t be right, he tells himself. It has to be a joke.
They keep waking him up for tests. Asking him what year it is. Who the president is. Where he lives. His emergency contact. His phone number. His ex-fiancée’s name. His mother’s name. His mother’s maiden name. His CO’s name. His own name.
It’s exhausting, and that’s not counting the way Ray stands in the corner, chewing his lip and picking at his fingernails like some twitchy little rodent on speed.
“Person,” he barks, after some Doogie Howser kid shines a penlight into his eyes and asks him his rank and serial number for the eighth time in as many minutes, “didn’t your mother teach you it was impolite to stare? Or was medical care so rare in your trailer park that everyone came out to watch the traveling quack you called a town doctor put on his own three-ring circus?”
Ray flinches at first, but by the end of Brad’s rant he’s nearly smiling. “Shit, Colbert, and here you had me all scared you were never gonna be the same again. Slap a Band-Aid on him and send him home, doc, he’s fine.”
Doogie scowls. Ray smiles at Brad for a moment and then excuses himself to make a call.
Post-traumatic retrograde amnesia, that’s what they’re calling it. Apparently Brad was answering all their stupid questions wrong.
“The good news is,” the doctor –a real one, thank fuck, not Doogie – says, “that in most cases, people regain the majority of their memories within a month.”
“That’s the good news?” Ray’s eyes are huge.
“Ray,” Brad says. He closes his eyes for a second. Post-traumatic retrograde amnesia caused by head trauma sustained during a training exercise. Apparently the Corps is letting 2010 Brad train the newest class in some of the finer points of warfare. And he’s shitty at it, if he’s out here falling off a mountain so badly he fucks his entire brain up.
“It’s important to treat him like normal,” the doctor says, and that’s just great, now he’s talking about Brad like he’s not here. “We’re going to keep him tonight, just to make sure he’s stable, that he’s not experiencing any other issues, but if everything stays the same, there’s no reason he won’t be discharged tomorrow.”
Brad likes the sound of that. Ray must, too, because he lets out a big lungful of air and says, “Okay. That’s… okay. Hear that, Bradley? If you don’t fuck it up, you’re outta here tomorrow.”
Brad gives him a weak thumbs-up without opening his eyes. Ray pats his foot through the thin layer of sheets.
“Can I, uh, talk to you in the hallway for a second, doc?” Ray asks. Brad tries to listen in, but everything sounds muted, like in Charlie Brown, and Brad doesn’t register the moment he goes from eavesdropping to dead asleep.
They declare Brad a free man before oh ten hundred, and then he begins the long process of trying to put on civilian clothes. The road rash up his side and stitches on his thigh are an especially fun discovery that make moving more painful than he expected.
“Yeah, I told you, you’re a fucking idiot,” Ray says, shaking a pair of basketball shorts at Brad. “Come on, let’s get out of here before they change their minds.”
“Shouldn’t you be nicer to me?” Brad grumbles, hooking the shorts over his feet and then trying to shimmy them up without bending too much. Bending makes him dizzy. Doesn’t make the cracked ribs feel too great, either.
“Nope! Doctors all said to treat you as normal as possible. Gotta get you back into the swing of things there, pal.” Brad flinches away when Ray tries to ruffle his hair. It’s not even like he’s got hair to ruffle; Ray’s mostly just trying to swipe his palm over the top of Brad’s head.
“It’s 2010,” Brad complains as he eases his way into the waiting wheelchair, Ray dropping a plastic bag of his belongings on his lap before shouldering a second bag of Brad’s things. A nurse starts to push him down the hall, Ray leading the way. “I left recon. And for some reason, you’re still my roommate.”
“I know.” When Ray turns around, his smile stretches all the way across his face. Brad feels his stomach dip; he blames it on the massive head trauma. “You’re truly blessed.”
The nurse pushing Brad’s wheelchair tries to muffle her laugh. She does a terrible job.
“You’re being weird,” Brad says when he knows they’re halfway to the house. He recognizes the freeway, at least. That feels like a good sign.
“Your face is weird,” Ray says automatically, switching the radio station for the fifteenth time in two minutes.
“Maybe that’s because I smashed it into a mountain.” Ray’s burst of laughter is such a welcome sound. Brad closes his eyes and listens to him sing along to the radio, everything familiar except the song itself.
The house is exactly like he remembers it, thankfully.
And then he goes inside.
It’s not that everything’s changed, it’s just that it feels… off.
“Yeah, because last you remember, it was ’07 and we still had that shitty leather couch.”
Brad regards the new, decidedly less shitty leather couch in its place. “I liked that couch.”
“Yeah, and then someone destroyed it, so.” Ray shrugs. “New, better couch.”
Brad wants to hear more about the destruction – the way Ray’s saying it, it sounds like it was Brad’s fault, which means it was one hundred percent Ray’s fault and now he’s taking advantage of the moment and rewriting history – but Ray’s already walking away, probably chucking the duffel into Brad’s room.
“You want the grand tour?” he yells, voice echoing from down the hall.
Brad looks around. “Kitchen. Living room. Bathroom. Your room. My room. Bathroom. Garage.” He points as he talks. “I think I got it.”
“Computer parts stay in the garage these days,” Ray says, “but yeah. That’s about it. Good job.” He reaches for Brad and then thinks better of it, hand flexing before he gently knocks Brad on the arm. “Now: how hungry are you, on a scale of normal Tuesday to OIF?”
Ray doesn’t coddle him, which Brad appreciates. There are moments, especially those first few days, where Brad feels him watching from across the room, borderline hovering, but he always makes himself scarce the second Brad turns to glare at him.
It’s to be expected, he tells himself. He’d probably be freaked the fuck out too, if he’d gotten a call that Ray was being cas-evaced out of a ravine, completely unconscious. He doesn’t like thinking of it that way. The idea of Ray with his limbs twisted and face bloody, body limp and lifeless, makes him vaguely nauseous. It’s because his body remembers the accident, he figures, even if his brain is one giant blank space. Thinking of anyone laid out like that is enough to make his skin crawl.
He can’t stop picturing it, though, deep into the night. It plays through his head and it’s not a silent movie at all, there’s the loud crack as Ray’s skull hits the ground, the dull, sickening thud of lifeless flesh-on-stone. It’s relentless. Brad shifts, flips his pillow to the cool side, sprawls out in the middle of his ginormous bed, but nothing stops the scene from playing out over and over.
He can’t remember anything from the past three years but this made-up scenario he’s stuck with. Wonderful.
Eventually he gives up, gets out of bed and creeps into the living room, planning to watch whatever’s on ESPN at this hour until the image is burned out of his brain.
“Hey,” Ray says quietly, the TV making his face seem to glow in the dark. Brad isn’t surprised to see him – Ray’s always up like this. Or he was. Brad’s not sure what 2010 Ray does, if he’s better at sleeping because he’s got a full time job now, no purposefully scheduled noon start-time for his classes. They live opposite lives – or they lived them, back when Brad used to get up early to surf and then head to the base for PT before Ray was even showing signs of life.
Brad settles on the opposite end of the couch, stretching his legs out on the coffee table. Ray changes the channel without asking, from a Family Guy rerun to ESPN Classic. He leaves the volume on low.
“You don’t have to,” Brad says. He doesn’t really care what he watches. Anything is better than what his brain’s supplying.
Ray shrugs. “I wasn’t really watching it. Just couldn’t sleep.”
Brad doesn’t say anything – there’s nothing to add. Obviously he can’t sleep either. He stares at the TV and tries to concentrate on nothing else.
“How’s your head?” Brad doesn’t hear Ray at first, only realizes he’s said something when Ray stretches his leg sideways, poking Brad’s thigh with his toes. “Do you want meds?”
“What? No.” Brad looks over and finds Ray staring at him carefully, his eyes narrow and calculating. Brad stares back even though he can’t see anything in this shitty light. Even though now that he thinks about it, his head does hurt a little.
“They’re on the counter if you do,” Ray says eventually, turning back to the TV. He curls his leg in so he’s not touching Brad anymore, but it’s still warm enough that if Brad concentrates, he can feel heat radiating off it. He’s like a space heater, small and unbearably warm. There’s nowhere for Brad to go, though, so he tolerates it, focuses on the game and pushes away the fake memory of Ray’s crooked, bloody limbs.
If the sound of Ray’s breathing evening out as he falls asleep helps Brad calm down, well. Whatever. It’s just that it’s comfortingly familiar, the same slight wheeze he’s had since Afghanistan reminding Brad that no one’s body’s splattered on the ground.
“Look, you want to prove you’re fine, here, carry this shit.” Ray shoves another three plastic bags into Brad’s already full arms. He takes the last two for himself and then slams the trunk shut.
“Oh no, not the groceries,” Brad says deadpan, following Ray into the house. He sets all the bags carefully on the counter and then holds his hands out, proud. “I’m healed.”
Ray does not look impressed. “You’re a retard with retard strength. And you’re lucky you broke your ribs, not your arms.”
“And that means I can go to the store alone,” Brad says, putting too much force into yanking open the fridge; it makes his chest twinge and he fights to hide it. Ray’s too busy ranting to notice, thank fuck.
“Evaced off the floor of the Grand Canyon –“
“It wasn’t the Grand Canyon,” Brad says, shoving vegetables into the crisper.
“—and yet home for two point five days and he wants free range. You aren’t allowed to drive, what were you gonna do, walk to the store? And then carry fifteen bags back with you, three broken ribs and a black eye and a whole lotta fucking brain damage. Not just the amnesia, either, homes, you are fucked in the head, is what I’m saying.”
Brad rolls his eyes, tuning Ray out and hitting play on the answering machine, feeling pleased when the sound of Ray’s mom’s voice shuts Ray up automatically.
“Hiiiiiiii, I just wanted to say welcome home, Brad. I’m glad to hear you’re back on your feet.”
Brad turns to smirk at Ray, braced for some joke about how Brad’s MILF-bait or trailer park chum or something, only Ray isn’t paying attention, too busy putting the cereal in the cupboard. Brad watches the way he stretches up on his toes to reach the top shelf, his shirt lifting up to reveal the edge of a tattoo curling around his side. It’s new – well, new to Brad at least.
“You had us all worried there! Anyway, I’ll talk to you as soon as you stop screening my calls. I understand you’re busy,” she says, and the way her voice drops makes Brad pause, confused and then horrified as her joke registers, “but is it really so difficult to pick up the phone, Joshua? Honestly. Two minutes, the next time you resurface, that’s all I ask. Love you, bye.”
The automated beep at the end of the message echoes. It takes a second for Brad to realize Ray’s stopped shelving boxes and is staring at him, his eyes as wide and horrified as Brad assumes his own are.
“She,” Ray starts, sounding strangled. He coughs, clearing his throat.
Brad blinks, his brain stuttering, tripping over all sorts of mental images he usually keeps boxed up in the deepest corners of his mind. And then everything skips forward, back into real time, and he starts to laugh.
“That is vile,” he says. “Your mom is as fucked up as you are, Person. You never stood a goat-fucking chance at a normal life. No wonder you are the way that you are.”
Ray rolls his eyes. “A) fuck you and B) don’t come crying to me when she finds out you said that and you get uninvited from Christmas and C) –“
“Why the fuck would I want to come to Christmas in your roach-infested trailer in the first place? What kind of gay-ass NASCAR-jerking sister-humping family do you come from and why are you trying to drag me down with you?”
“Drag you down?” Ray’s voice gets all high and strained like it does when he’s well-and-truly primed for a rant. Brad can hear him screaming MORE LIKE TROMBLEY? in the non-amnesiac recesses of his brain. It’s oddly reassuring. “Drag you DOWN? I’m trying to lift you the fuck up!”
Brad has a response to that, he really does, only his cellphone starts ringing and he has a sheer moment of panic that it’s Ray’s mom, calling to uninvite him from a holiday he doesn’t want to go to in the first place. The screen says MOM though, and Brad taps it futilely, trying to answer the call on this dumbass spaceship phone he doesn’t know how to use while Ray laughs and then leans over to drag his greasy fingers across the screen.
“HANG ON, RUTH,” Ray yells, right in Brad’s ear. “HE CAN’T FIGURE OUT THE PHONE, IT’S ADORABLE.”
“Jesus, since when are you and my mom on a first name basis?” Brad hisses, jerking the phone away from Ray’s grasp.
“Since four years before you smacked your face into a cliff, homes. Remember how I lived here when you went to England?”
Which, yes, Brad does remember that, actually. He had gotten regular updates the whole time he was away, disjointed emails from Ray that were just as scattered as his monologues. It had been easier to be gone knowing someone was home, even if Ray wasn’t exactly waiting for him, he was just there, always. Still is, apparently.
Brad doesn’t know what to do with that. Everything’s so different now, only it doesn’t feel that different – he still feels the same way, and that’s fucking worse, really. He needs to get his head in order stat.
Ray reaches for the phone again, to do god knows what this time. Brad boxes him out, flips him off and lifts the phone to his ear just in time to hear his mom say, “Honey, be nice to Ray, he’s had a very stressful week,” like Brad was on vacation instead of unconscious for three straight days.
“I am, Mom,” he says, because he doesn’t have it in him to argue with her right now. Ray’s standing too close for comfort, looking like he’s Encino Man trying to count higher than twenty-one. It’s unnerving. Brad glares but that does shit all so eventually he tucks the phone against his shoulder and hisses, “Person.”
That startles Ray enough that he jolts, covering it with a punch to Brad’s side. It’s too gentle, though, the same way all Ray’s touches have been these past few days, like he’s pulling them at the last second.
Brad takes the phone out back and tries to ignore the way he can feel Ray watching through the kitchen window as he listens to his mother worry about him over the phone.
He’s used to ignoring a lot of shit when it comes to Ray. It’s not that difficult.
They eat frozen lasagna for dinner that night. Ray tells Brad it’s his job to set the table. “It’s a memory exercise.”
“I put the plates on this shelf when I moved in. A decade ago.”
“And you remember doing it.” Ray gives him a sarcastic thumbs up. “Good job!”
It’s strained though, Ray barely talking as he stuffs his face, and it doesn’t hit Brad until halfway through the meal that it’s Sunday night. He’s been home for three days now. The gaps in his brain are just as big as when he got here.
“It’s fine,” he says, once he realizes. Ray doesn’t stop shoveling food into his mouth, but he does raise his eyebrows. “Tomorrow. You don’t have to worry about leaving me home alone when you go back to work.”
“What?” A blob of ricotta falls out of Ray’s mouth. He swipes it off the table and shoves it back in.
“I’ll be fine. You can stop being so weird about it.” He gestures to the table between them, trying to encompass how stilted this entire meal has been.
“About going back to work? Oh. Yeah.” He nods, more food falling out as he talks. God, he’s disgusting. Brad doesn’t know how anything’s supposed to jog his memory if nothing in the past three years has changed at all. “No, yeah, sorry. I know you’ll be fine. Just, like, stay away from any rocks. Even pebbles, alright? No unsupervised outdoorsing.”
And because it’s so much better to hear Ray rambling, even if it is revolting to see masticated cheese and meat and noodles smeared all over his face, Brad says, “Of course. I’ll save the spelunking until you’re home.”
“What are you doing here?” he asks Ray, surprised to see him on the couch at two in the morning.
Ray sits up, making room for Brad. “Jerking off to the porno your grandma sent me.”
“My grandma’s dead, you insensitive sentient donkey punch.” He’s joking but he feels immediately guilty it up when Ray inhales sharply. Sometimes his insults are a bridge too far. He looks over and Ray’s frozen, his eyes wide and strangely bright.
And then Brad realizes that she died three years ago. Of course Ray knew that; Brad thinks he remembers Ray at shiva, whispering tasteless jokes to Poke in his parents’ dining room. “Uh,” he says elegantly. He feels a strange starburst of emotions, pride and relief and something unidentifiable, too layered to tease out.
“Look at that!” Ray sits forward, leaning into Brad’s space. “And they said you scrambled your brains. We should celebrate. Shots!”
“No,” Brad says, knocking his knuckles against Ray’s outstretched fist. He tries to remember anything else – the burial, the other nights of shiva, anything at all, but’s as blank as it ever was. He can’t even remember the joke Ray made that had Tony spilling soda on the carpet. He concentrates on what he does remember instead, lets that buoy him a bit. “It’s the middle of the night. We’re not doing shots to celebrate my dead grandma.”
“We’d be celebrating you, motherfucker.”
“Fiiiine,” Ray sighs, slumping back against the cushions. “But Nana Colbert is severely disappointed in you, homes.”
“I’m just saying, she would’ve condoned doing shots in the middle of the night. Doing shots in the middle of the day – that’s another story. That’d be weird, or at least like, frowned-upon in society. You’re supposed to do shots at night.”
Brad closes his eyes and listens as Ray lists all the times it would be less appropriate to do shots than right now. He’s asleep well before Ray hits the end.
He wakes up when Ray tries to tiptoe past him.
“Sorry,” Ray whispers. It’s weird as shit seeing him in a shirt and tie at oh seven hundred. Brad grunts, trying not to wince as he pushes himself off the couch, his ribs aching and his stitches pulling.
“I’m fine,” he says, off Ray’s concerned look.
“Yeah, okay.” Ray does a shitty job of hiding his laugh. He does an even shittier job when Brad glares at him. “Here.” He passes a mug of coffee to Brad; it’s just cool enough to drink.
Brad takes a tentative sip, braced for the three sugars Ray will dump into his own, but it’s just black. He sighs, leaning against the counter.
“You’re welcome,” Ray says. Brad shoots him the finger.
After another moment of silence, Ray points to a piece of paper stuck to the fridge with a magnet shaped like Missouri. “This is my cell.” He points to another, larger paper, beneath a California magnet. “These are instructions on how to use your phone. The code is your birthday. Um, anything else and you can just fucking google it yourself.”
He’s gone in a flurry, complaining loudly about being late and how traffic’s gonna be a bitch and oh shit, he forgot about that meeting this morning. The silence he leaves behind is a relief.
It’s not snooping if it’s his own life, Brad tells himself as he roots through every single drawer in his dresser.
There’s nothing, though. Nothing of note, at least. He tries going through his phone for clues, but after five minutes of scrolling through his emails and contacts, the screen starts to give him a headache. It probably wouldn’t help much anyway. It’s too new. His old one had gotten smashed up in the accident, everything on it disappeared into the mist just like his memories, nothing backed up to the cloud. Ray had seemed apologetic about that fact, but Brad was just glad to hear 2010 Brad wasn’t a fucking idiot who trusted that sort of shit.
He shuts himself in the garage with all his spare computer parts. Those, at least, still make sense.
There’s something missing, Brad thinks, lying in bed that night. Something specific, something aside from the giant black hole of time he knows is gone. There’s something physically wrong with his bed.
“Did I get a new mattress?” he asks Ray, sitting heavily on the couch.
“What?” Ray bites his lip, apparently really thinking about it. “I don’t – no?” He palms the top of his own head, tilting his neck to the side in a long stretch. Brad suspects that he’s all sorts of fucked up from constantly falling asleep on the couch, but that’s a different problem for a different day. “Pretty sure that’s the same one, homes.”
Brad shrugs, slips lower on the couch so he can lean his head comfortably against the cushions. “No reason.” He can feel Ray watching him. He doesn’t look over. There’s no need to.
In the quietest moments, the ones when Ray’s at work and Brad’s elbow-deep in computer parts or tinkering with the ’87 Camaro that’s surprisingly still sitting in the garage, as half-rebuilt as he remembers it being – in those silent, distracted moments, Brad lets himself think about the absolute shittiness of his situation. It’s like that fucking car, permanently stalled out, apparently stuck in the exact same place he was three years ago.
It’s weird, really, how little has changed. When he had woken up and seen Ray, it had been a relief. It was always a relief to see him, as fucked up as that was. Ray is a better symbol of home than anything else Brad can think of, which is probably an even bigger problem than the amnesia.
He’s been wrestling with it since – since fucking Afghanistan, on some level, and the longer it goes on, the more indefinable it becomes. The harder to ignore, the harder to compartmentalize. Ray’s here, always, still, and that’s… Brad doesn’t know what to do with it.
All he knows is he’s glad Ray’s here. It means at least someone’s got his six when everything else is fucked up beyond belief. Beyond repair, possibly.
That’s probably the kind of thing he should say to Ray, only he doesn’t know how to say it without getting into everything else that’s rattling around in his brain. Things they should probably never talk about. It’s 2010 and Ray is still his roommate. Bringing it up now would destroy everything they do have, and for what?
Besides, Brad should be over this. He would be, he thinks, if his brain weren’t stuck in the past, hopeless and confused and unnecessarily retarded.
Get a grip, he tells himself, reaching for a wrench. Ray’s still here. Things are fine. Brad can just… shove it down and power through. He clearly found a way to do it once before. Surely he can do it again, even if he can’t remember how.
All considered, it doesn’t take long for Brad to go stir-crazy. After a few days of being home alone he says fuck it and takes his bike out. His ribs are broken but he can still drive – he’s done much harder things through far worse pain.
It feels good – feels fucking great, being out there again, pushing 100 on a solitary stretch of road, everything that’s not directly in front of him falling away.
Ray’s standing in the middle of the living room when Brad gets home. “What the FUCK, dude? Where’d you go?”
“I had to clear my head.” Brad shrugs his jacket off carefully. He feels stiff from the ride, his ribs actually hurting now, but it was worth it. “What?” he asks, because Ray’s staring at him like he’s grown another head.
Ray doesn’t say anything that’s actual words; it’s more like a clipped shout before he throws his arms up and stomps into his room, slamming the door behind him.
“Ray.” Brad can feel his good mood disappearing. “RAY.”
He comes out again, dressed in PT gear. He doesn’t make eye contact with Brad as he brushes past him, just says, “I’m going for a run,” and then he’s gone, taking off down the street like he’s being chased.
Brad presses his thumb into his eye to ward off the impending headache. He thinks about how empty his head had felt when he was on the bike; he tries to put himself in that space again. And then he goes to start the shower.
It’s only once he’s dry and dressed that he thinks to check his phone, still in his jacket pocket, the battery nearly dead. He’s got a ton of texts from Ray, and three missed calls, including one from his mom. There’s voicemails from her and Ray both telling him to call. Ray sounds angry. His mom just sounds worried. There’s something about the combination of them – Ray’s increasing distress, his mom’s fake-casual tone – that feels like a knifepoint in his side, sharp and cruel, reminding him that his guard’s not up at all.
It’s stupid. He shouldn’t feel bad about leaving, he never thought twice about it in the past. Has never needed to inform anyone of his whereabouts, at least not at home. And he’s never felt bad about it before, either, but here he is, standing in his own bedroom, guilt pooling sour and heavy in his stomach, making him feel restless.
It stays there until he hears the slam of the door announcing Ray’s return.
He’s not going to apologize – he’s allowed to leave, he tells himself. He’s not a fucking prisoner here. But still.
“I should’ve left a note,” he says, and Ray, bent over, drinking water directly from the tap, his chest still heaving from his run, nods once like yeah, no shit, and that’s all either of them says about it.
Brad nods towards the table he’d set, unable to sit still while Ray was gone. “Dinner’s almost done, if you want to shower first.”
“Sure.” Ray starts towards the bathroom and then stops, sniffing. “Wait. Did you make meatloaf?” He turns the oven light on, fingers curled around the handle like he wants to open it to check. “I love meatloaf.”
Brad shrugs. It isn’t that big a deal. They’d had all the shit for meatloaf. Ray probably would’ve been just as pleased if he’d made burgers or chili or some shit.
Ray looks at Brad in a way that makes him claustrophobic; Ray’s always been too good at that, at reading between all Brad’s lines. It’s unfair that he’s still doing it while Brad’s struggling to keep up.
He stares back, focusing on a point just above Ray’s shoulder, and doesn’t squirm. Thank fuck the instinct was beaten out of him years ago. If he focuses, he can almost hear the tick of the oven timer.
“Thanks, homes,” Ray says, quietly, all the fight gone out of him, and then he walks away and leaves Brad alone, his skin itching for the nothingness that came from hours on the bike.
He goes out again the next day, chasing that feeling. It’s still early when he gets back, the house quiet and empty. Brad crumples up the note he’d left on the fridge, throwing it in the trash.
Anything?? Ray texts him, while Brad’s in the middle of sorting his laundry, and Brad feels bad that he’s still a blank slate. He hasn’t remembered shit outside of one fluke joke about his grandma.
No he sends back. He hates it, and he gets the feeling that Ray hates it too. He hasn’t said anything outright, but it’s in the way he stares at Brad sometimes, the way he’s quieter than Brad remembers. He’d always thought he wanted Ray to shut up, but now that it’s happened it’s uncomfortable and jarring. Brad wants to tell him to cut the crap, to just be Ray, but part of him thinks maybe this is just how Ray is now. Older, calmer. Still skinny as fuck, but settled in his own skin.
:( comes through first, and then, pizza 4 dinner?
There’s a number on the side of the fridge, according to Ray, and when Brad punches it into his phone, the name of the pizza place comes up, already stored in his contacts.
“Haven’t heard from you in a while, bud, thought you might’ve found a new place,” the woman on the other end asks Brad after he gives her his name and number. At Brad’s silence she laughs. “I’m just teasing. You want the usual?”
“Uh,” Brad hesitates, thrown, and then says, “Yeah, of course, thanks.”
“Anytime, hon. Twenty minutes, alright?”
“Thanks,” he says, and then texts Ray that it’ll be ready in 20. When it gets there, it’s half sausage, half sausage-and-peppers, and Brad doesn’t know why he’s surprised.
“Carla thought we were cheating on her with Papa John’s,” Ray says, spinning the box so the peppers side is closer to him. “I told her we would never, it was just that you took a header off a mountain.”
Brad freezes, pizza slice halfway to his mouth.
“I’m kidding, Christ.” Ray flicks his fingers at Brad, spraying droplets of grease in his direction, probably ruining his shirt. “Don’t give out my personal information without permission, Ray,” he says in what’s probably supposed to be an imitation of Brad. “You’re the one with brain damage, not me. Relax, jeez.”
“Ray?” Brad waits for him to look up. He’s got strings of cheese dangling off his fingers, grease dripping down the side of his hand and Brad hates that it makes him feel fucking fond of Ray instead of disgusted by him. It’s too familiar when so little feels normal. “Shut up and eat your pizza.”
“Do you want to know anything?” Ray asks, late one night, BMX on mute on the TV.
Brad thinks about it for a long time before answering. There’s so much that’s missing he doesn’t know where to start.
“Was anyone else hurt?” he settles on. “When I was, I mean.”
The glow of the TV makes Ray’s face look strange for a second, his mouth twisting, and in that instant Brad’s stomach drops to the floor. He should’ve asked sooner, should’ve pressed harder in the hospital when that nurse he’d asked had frowned, clucking her tongue, and told Brad he needed to rest.
Ray sputters and then says, “Jesus Christ, of course that’s what you want to know. What time is it in DC? Fick probably just jizzed himself wide awake and he has no idea why. Was anyone else hurt – that’s your first question? For fuck’s sake.”
Brad’s just starting to get annoyed when Ray stops himself. “No,” he says, looking at Brad with a kind of naked honesty that makes his chest hurt. Or maybe that’s his ribs, who the fuck knows anymore. “No, just you, dumbass.”
Ray’s leg jerks like he’s thinking about kicking Brad but he never actually makes contact. Brad can’t think of any more urgent questions he wants answered and he can’t stand the way Ray’s looking at him, this faint smile like Brad’s some sort of adorable zoo animal or some shit, so he just ignores him. He stares at the television instead and stops his brain from wondering why Ray never seems to sleep in his own bed, or what Ray does all day, or if Ray honestly believes that Brad’ll eventually get his memory back.
“I would’ve said, you know,” Ray says, quite a bit of time later, quietly enough that Brad almost doesn’t hear him. He blinks, feeling like he’s caught in that space between sleep and awake, his limbs so heavy he can’t contemplate moving. “If someone else’d been hurt. I would’ve told you.”
“I know,” Brad says, turning his head so he can look at Ray. His cheek presses against the cushion and Brad notices, idly, that it smells like Ray’s cologne, like Brad’s own shampoo. He closes his eyes for a second. Ray would’ve told him, he does know that. He just had to be sure. “I just wanted…”
When Brad opens his eyes again, Ray’s watching him, curled up in the corner of the couch and staring. He smiles at Brad.
“Stop being creepy,” Brad says.
“Me? I was here first. You’re the one who came out here to crowd up on me, that makes you the creepy one, my friend. Maybe you should go sleep in – you should go to bed. Get some actual rest.”
That sounds horrible to Brad. He hadn’t even laid down tonight, hadn’t had it in him to pretend like he’d be able to fall asleep. “No.”
Ray laughs. Brad thinks if he concentrates, he can feel the sound rumbling through the couch. “No? Alright, but this can’t be good for your ribs.”
“I’m fine,” Brad says, cracking one eye open to glare at Ray. Ray doesn’t argue, so it seems to work well enough. Even though Ray just stares back at him like Brad falling asleep on the couch is as entertaining as BMX racing. Brad closes his eye, letting himself melt a little further into the couch. If Ray’s going to be weird, whatever, it’s far too late for Brad to really care right now.
“Hey,” he says, god knows how much later. He can still hear the faint sounds of the TV and Ray hasn’t started snoring yet so he’s probably still awake. Without opening his eyes, Brad asks, “What do you do?”
“Like for work?”
“Yeah.” He should’ve asked this sooner too, probably. Doesn’t know why he hadn’t. Then again, Ray’s never offered up much information about anything, so. Two way street.
“Oh, right.” Brad had known that. It was a dumb question – that’s what Ray’d been in school for, back when he first moved in. The longer Brad’s home, the more he knows it’s not 2007. It doesn’t feel like he was dropped into the future, it just feels foreign. Like being in the AO without orders. “Electrical engineering, I knew that.”
“Exactly.” Ray pats Brad’s arm gently, so gently it almost feels like nothing. Like a breeze. “Good job, sergeant.”
“Listen, Colbert,” Poke starts the second Brad answers the phone, “Person said not to bother you but I don’t care, you are still coming tonight. I know you’re not in a full body cast and honestly, that is the only way you’d get out of this shit at this point. It’s been on the calendar for months, you humpty-fucking-dumptying yourself isn’t gonna do shit.”
“I’m sorry, who is this?” Brad asks. “Who’s Colbert?”
“Ha fucking ha. See you at eight, motherfucker.”
He hangs up before Brad can say anything else.
“We may have a problem,” Brad says when Ray walks in the door that evening.
Ray stops in his tracks. “Why? Did you remember something?”
“What? No. Why would that be a problem?”
“I don’t know!” Ray throws up his hands. “Depends on what you remember, I guess!”
Brad frowns, confused. “Why would it –“
“Stop distracting me. What’d you do?” Off Brad’s look, Ray says, “You said we had a problem.”
“I said maybe we had a problem.”
“The problem is going to be me, smacking you upside the big dumb head if you don’t hurry the fuck up.”
“Try it,” Brad says, grinning as Ray takes a step forward, his fists clenching like he’s actually going to clock Brad. This Brad remembers, fighting with Ray over dumbshit nonsense, baiting him until he snaps, laughing whenever Ray manages to surprise him, knock him off his feet. Once Brad nearly got a black eye from the corner of the table when Ray took him out, sweeping his legs and then sitting on Brad’s back, laughing even as Brad got blood on the carpet. He looks at the floor, checking for the stain.
Ray pulls up when he realizes Brad’s not paying attention. Or maybe he pulls up because Brad’s got lingering head trauma. Either way he stops, right up in Brad’s space, so close that Brad could knock him over without really trying.
“What’s the problem?” Ray asks.
“How’d we get the blood out?” Brad asks, tilting his head towards the carpet.
Ray’s close enough that Brad can hear a soft puff of air when he exhales. “You remember that?”
“I remember the black eye.” Brad grins, expecting Ray to smile back. Ray winces instead, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. “That’s all, though. I mostly remember falling. And bleeding.”
Ray stares at the floor for a moment, at the spot Brad remembers the stain being. He’s pretty sure there was a stain. Maybe he’s misremembering.
After a moment Ray says, “You didn’t get a black eye, you ginormous pussy. Didn’t even need stitches.” His hand moves and for a second Brad thinks Ray’s reaching for him, that he’s going to touch the spot where Brad’s skin split. He doesn’t, though, just rubs his own forehead like he’s getting a headache. Brad blinks and takes a step back, putting space between them.
“I talked to Poke today,” he says, overwhelmed with the need to say something, anything, that will distract him from the way his pulse has suddenly kicked up. “We’re still on for dinner tonight. He said it’s non-negotiable.”
Ray bitches the entire drive to Poke’s, hunched over the wheel and cursing like he’s navigating them through another war. It’s soothing in a way Brad hadn’t anticipated.
“We were SO CLOSE to not having to go, what the fuck, Brad?” He punctuates it with a punch to Brad’s bicep.
“Ow,” Brad says dully.
“You never answer when I call, you avoid your own mother like the plague, and yet you talk to Poke first ring. You didn’t even make him work for it.”
“You don’t know that.”
Ray shoots him a look. “First ring, I know you, you seven foot tall dumbshit box of rocks. You answered on the first fucking ring, see, don’t look out the window, that’s just fucking proof, I knew it. I KNEW IT. The fuck? You’ve sent me to voicemail the last three times I’ve called. I’m wounded, Bradley. Genuinely wounded.”
“Oh my god,” Brad says, tipping his head back against the seat, but Ray doesn’t stop and Brad doesn’t really care if he shuts up.
“Poor baby,” Poke says, frowning, before poking Brad’s forehead with two fingers hard enough that Brad’s head tips back.
“Don’t break him more, Poke, Jesus,” Ray says while Gina smacks Poke, saying something in Spanish that sounds threatening. “Brad, this is Poke and Gina. Poke, Gina, this is new-and-definitely-not-improved Brad.”
“Shut up, Ray,” Brad says, hating the pitying look Gina gives him as he accepts her hug.
“Now with fifty percent fewer memories!”
Poke smacks Ray so Brad doesn’t have to.
“See,” Ray says, rubbing the back of his head, “this is why I didn’t want to come tonight.”
“I told Colbert to come, not you,” Poke says, and Brad ignores the way the two of them start bickering in favor of following Gina into the kitchen for something to drink.
“It must be weird,” she says, handing him two beers and then herding him into the living room. “I mean, not to state the obvious, but.”
“It’s not ideal,” he says, feeling a bit like he’s conceding.
“What’s not ideal?” Ray asks, his eyes narrowing as he takes one of the beers.
“UNCLE BRAD,” someone yells, and Brad instinctively braces for impact, catching the small body that flings itself at him.
“Hey, what did we say?” Gina asks at the same time Poke says, “What are you doing out of bed?”
Ray makes an outraged sound. “I’m here, too!”
The kid hanging off Brad’s neck leans backwards and says, “Hi, Uncle Ray.” It gives Brad a second to realize she’s missing three of her four front teeth.
“Hey, Soph.” Ray says, looking pointedly at Brad. “Careful with Brad there.”
“I know,” she says, long-suffering, her tiny hands kneading the back of Brad’s neck. “Mama said you hurt your head and your knees.”
“Amnesia, dummy,” comes a voice from the doorway, and Brad nearly does a double-take when he realizes it’s Poke’s older daughter, so tall and grown-up now. Last he remembers, she was skinning her knees on her dumb little scooter, and here she is, probably a teenager. Jesus. His head hurts for a split second, everything tilting like he’s got vertigo.
“Bella,” Poke warns.
“Sorry.” She sounds anything but. “Hey, Uncle Brad. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Thanks, Bella,” he says, the words tacky in his mouth.
Suddenly Ray’s in his space, loud and invasive. “Where’s my hug, I thought I was your favorite.” His hand smooths down Brad’s back, one grounding motion, while his other arm wraps around Sophia’s waist, gently hauling her out of Brad’s arms. It’s smooth and distracting and Brad leans into Ray’s touch for a moment because at least his particular brand of chaos is recognizable when everything else feels like it’s completely out of whack.
“Nooooooo,” Sophia shrieks, laughing and letting herself get pulled away. “Uncle Brad!”
“Uncle Brad? Uncle Brad what?” Ray asks, pulling away from Brad to tickle her, making her thrash.
“He’s – he’s my –” she’s practically upside down, wriggling to get away, but Ray seems like he’s got a good grip on her, the smile on his face just as huge as hers.
“He’s your what? Don’t say he’s your favorite, I’ll drop you!”
“Say I’m your favorite, then.”
Ray drops her then, right onto the sofa, and she lies there gasping and laughing, her limbs all splayed out.
“Yeah, now she’ll definitely go back to sleep,” Poke says. “Thanks a lot, Person.”
“Anytime,” Ray says, reaching down to tickle Sophia’s stomach gently.
“Come on, say good night,” Gina says, gently prodding her up. The girls dutifully say good night to everyone and Brad feels bad that he’s glad when they’re gone. He sits next to Ray on the couch, closing his eyes and taking a moment.
Ray nudges him with his elbow. “Ok?”
Brad nods, blinking away the strain. It’s been only him and Ray for so long that he’s gotten used to it. It’s been easy to pretend that nothing’s different in their little bubble, but now he’s confronting the time jump head on. Ray raises his eyebrow like he doesn’t believe him, only relaxing when Brad nods again.
“It gets me sometimes, too, man,” Poke says. “And I see ‘em every day. Can’t believe they’re so grown.”
“It’s fucked up,” Ray says. “Wasn’t Soph the size of a football like, yesterday? Who decided kids should grow that fast? Fish don’t grow that fast, you know?”
Brad half-listens to Ray fully aware that it’s an act for his benefit. That he’s trying to give him space to chill the fuck out. He’s a little thrown that he doesn’t want him to stop. It’s a testament to how fucked the whole situation is.
Eventually he realizes he’s leaning into Ray, leeching his body heat, and he snaps to, shifting over on the couch so there’s space between them. He takes a long pull from his beer and sits forward in his seat, trying to figure out how the fuck Ray got them from kids to LeBron James in such a short stretch of time.
Poke must notice him struggling to keep up because he smirks around the neck of his own beer.
Brad gives him the finger and stops trying to pay attention, settles for letting the noise wash over him for a little bit.
“You know I’m not going to ask if you’re alright, right?” Gina asks him later on, the two of them in the kitchen, Brad unsure how helping her clear away the snacks turned into him helping her empty the dishwasher. “Stop looking at me like I’m about to ambush you.”
“Sorry,” Brad says, stacking plates in the cupboard. His ribs hurt now, probably because of Sophia’s knees digging into them, but whatever. It’s a manageable pain.
“Don’t be. Just relax.” She swats him with her dishtowel. “We’re glad you’re okay, obviously. It was –“
“Gina,” he says, because her voice is getting suspiciously thick and he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s going to do if she starts crying.
“No, I know, sorry – just – get out of here, I’ve got this. Go find Tony and Ray.”
“Go.” She swats at him again, harder this time, and he knows she means it.
He wanders down the hall feeling on high alert, like he’s sweeping for hostiles. He can smell cigar smoke coming from Poke’s home office, can hear the soft rumble of their voices, low like they’re trying not to be found out.
“You’re telling me he remembers none of it,” he hears Poke say.
“Nada,” Ray says.
“Damn, that’s…” Poke whistles softly.
“Tell me about it.” Brad can’t remember ever hearing Ray sound like that, even after Afghanistan, even after Rudy beat the shit out of him in Iraq, even the day he told Brad he wasn’t re-upping. He’s never sounded so fucking defeated.
“You gonna tell –“
“Nope,” Ray says quickly. “And I don’t wanna hear anything about it, so shut the fuck up.”
“He thinks it’s 2007.” It sounds like Brad thinks it’s 1807, the way Ray says it, like it’s so long ago it’s inconceivable.
“He looks like shit, man. Can’t you like –“
“What? Force-feed him pain pills? Tie him to the bed and make him sleep?”
“Fuck off.” Ray laughs and Brad has one fleeting second where the sound actually makes him feel better about everything he’s overhearing. It’s fucked up, hearing them talk about him like he’s this fragile thing they don’t know how to deal with. He’s known them for-fucking-ever, has been through hell and back with them both, and here they are, a couple of mother hens clucking about him behind his back.
“Brad?” Gina says, coming down the hallway, frowning when she sees him lurking. He can feel his neck flushing. She pauses when she gets closer, her eyes narrowing. “Oh, I know you’re not smoking in there, Antonio.”
She edges past him into the study and he takes a deep breath, thankful that she’s apparently going to go off on Poke instead of ratting Brad out for eavesdropping like a socially awkward teenage girl.
“Baby,” Poke says, his hands out, reaching for her. She smacks his hands away, saying something in Spanish that Brad knows he’s heard before. He doesn’t know what the fuck it means, though.
Ray spots Brad in the doorway and grins at him, teeth clenched around his cigar. “How could you possibly forget this?”
Brad blinks, feeling like he’s got déjà vu, only there’s no way, because it’s not like Ray ever stood in Poke’s office and made amnesia jokes to Brad before. It makes his head hurt, a sharp ache in his temple.
Gina’s getting even louder now, Poke shushing her, claiming she’s going to wake the kids. Brad can’t figure out where to look, his eyes flicking from Gina to Poke to Ray to that damn cigar in his mouth, the puff of smoke around his head, the way his lips make a perfect red ring when he exhales in Brad’s direction. Everything is too loud suddenly, too much. He wishes there were a way to make his escape without anyone noticing.
“C’mon.” Ray pats Brad on the arm, guiding him away with a gentle pressure on the small of his back.
It’s much quieter outside. Brad takes a deep breath, focusing on the twinge in his side, letting the pain ground him. After a minute he hears the screen door swing open and shut, hears Poke’s familiar footsteps as he comes to stand next to Brad, flanking him.
They all just stand out there in silence, like Brad’s not having an internal meltdown. Like he’s not completely FUBAR.
They get home late. Brad feels like he’s one giant frayed nerve as he lies in bed, remembering Ray and Poke’s conversation about him, comparing it to the deafening silence in the backyard. They hadn’t said anything out there, and he’s half glad for it, half livid that they have no problem talking about him but they won’t say it to his goddamn face. He stays awake for ages, replaying it, exhausted but unable to fall asleep.
He hears when Ray gives up the ghost and leaves his room, hears the TV flicking on, but he makes himself stay in bed. He needs to remember how to fall asleep.
He needs to remember a lot of things.
“You’re still out here?” Ray asks Sunday afternoon, his voice careful and measured. Brad’s spent the entire weekend holed up in the garage, trying to forget about Ray and Poke and trying to remember any fucking thing he possibly can.
“No,” Brad says, “I’m a figment of your imagination.”
“Alright, smartass.” Brad doesn’t need to look up to know Ray’s rolling his eyes. “Come on, let’s go, have you even eaten today?”
“Yes,” Brad says, pulling his arm out of Ray’s grasp. He’s got like, five screws left and then the hard drive should be reseated.
“Something other than Cheerios? It’s like you’re actively trying to turn into a serial killer. Ha, get it? That wasn’t even intentional!” He doesn’t even flinch when Brad glares at him. “Seriously, dude, let’s go. We’ll get pizza or Chinese or some shit. What do you want? You want wings? We can get wings. You love wings.”
“I do not love wings, Ray,” Brad says, fixing the last screw and letting Ray tug him out of the chair.
“Maybe you do and you just don’t remember, hmm?”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Oh, because you’re an amnesia expert?”
Brad raises an eyebrow. “Are you?”
“Of the two of us, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who’s read the Wikipedia articles about it, so.”
“That doesn’t count.”
“Why the fuck not?” Ray’s voice gets shrill enough to make Brad wince. “You think people are out there putting misinformation in the entry about amnesia? That seems like it’d be the biggest waste of time. Who’s going to lie about amnesia?”
“I don’t know,” Brad says, acutely aware of the way Ray’s still leading him outside, his fingertips pressing into the curve of Brad’s elbow, just a light enough pressure to be noticeable. To be wholly distracting. “Probably the same kind of people who edit any Wikipedia article.”
“No fucking way. Do you want to drive?” Ray waits for Brad to shake his head before shoving him towards the truck, and then he’s right back in it, arguing against the imaginary saboteurs of the retrograde amnesia Wikipedia page the whole way to the restaurant.
“Hey, dipstick.” Ray knocks his fist against the side of the door, just like he has every other morning this week, one dull thump that’s soft enough that it wouldn’t wake Brad if he were asleep.
Brad’s never asleep.
He’s been managing a couple hours and then tossing and turning and eventually lying completely still as the sun starts to rise, making weird, vaguely familiar shadows on the walls. He pretends he’s fine though, feigning sleep through Ray’s new morning routine even though he’s pretty sure Ray knows he’s wide awake.
“I’m leaving,” Ray says quietly. “There’s fruit in the fridge. I’ll be home by six.”
Brad takes careful, measured breaths and listens carefully for the sounds of Ray leaving: his footsteps on the carpet, the jangle of his keys as he grabs them, the hum of his car starting and then the noise fading as he takes off down the street. He’s not avoiding Ray. It’s just that ever since dinner at Poke’s, Ray’s started narrating shit more, explaining what he’s doing or where he’s going or how long it takes to run a load of towels through the dryer. All of a sudden he’s coddling Brad and it’s fucked up.
So okay, maybe he is avoiding Ray, but if the alternative is a five minute story about static cling and dryer sheets and what aisle in the grocery store Ray grabbed them from, well. Fuck that.
And Brad sure as shit doesn’t want to call him out on it. He hasn’t remembered shit since the accident, so on some level he gets why Ray’s doing it, and it’s… Brad already feels like a shell of himself, moving through his life like he’s in a computer simulation. He doesn’t want to turn it into a whole thing. He doesn’t want the fight that comes with it.
The problem is: he’s got too many hours home alone. The Corps is reluctant to let him back – his last doctor had sighed when Brad had admitted he hadn’t remembered shit, that he still gets headaches and, according to his last exam, blurred vision if he tries to focus on one thing for too long. “Give it a couple more weeks, son,” the doc had said, touching Brad’s shoulder with such compassion that Brad couldn’t stop analyzing it, worried that the doctor knew something he didn’t, that they’d given up all hope his brain would fix itself and it was just a matter of time before he was booted.
“Don’t even think about it,” Ray says, pointing at Brad with a spatula one evening, interrupting Brad’s rant about being a prisoner in his own home.
“Don’t give me that look, Christ, I know you’re over there, plotting a way to sneak your surfboard out or some shit. Let me tell you, if you survive falling off a mountain only to drown because you were fucking bored, I will…”
Brad laughs, watching the way Ray moves around the kitchen easily as he rants. He’s relaxed, comfortable, and Brad’s equal parts jealous and… Nothing else. Just jealous, he tells himself. He hasn’t felt that comfortable since he came home from the hospital.
“You’ll what?” he asks.
Ray turns around, catching Brad’s eye before his face shifts and he’s gone steely, his jaw set. “I will sing Party in the USA at your funeral. And you don’t even get how much you’d hate it because of your rat-fucked memories. But trust me, homes: you’d hate it.”
“I wouldn’t drown.”
“You also said your last excursion was gonna be fun, so sorry if I’m not inclined to believe you anymore.”
“Are you not having fun, Ray?” Brad asks, smiling so all his teeth show. He knows how much Ray hates when he does that. “Because I’m having fun.”
Ray drops a full dinner plate in front of Brad. “Shut up and eat, you fucking lunatic.”
Brad does, pushing the thickness in Ray’s voice into the deep corner of the brain that’s designated for everything else he’s ignoring these days.
It’s getting kind of crowded, which is probably why everything starts shoving its way forward when Brad’s stuck in the silence of the house. It’s fucked that while he’s missing a huge chunk of his memory his brain is running the same useless shit on a constant loop day in and day out.
He keeps going back to Ray and Poke’s conversation, this constant reminder that Ray’s apparently got some big fucking secret that everyone but Brad knows. He hits a breaking point the next afternoon.
“This is retarded,” Brad says to no one, his hand on the doorknob to Ray’s room, “it’s my house.”
He lets himself in and stops immediately, feeling unsettled even though he doesn’t know what the fuck he was expecting.
Whatever it was, it sure as shit wasn’t this. He remembers how Ray’s room looked in 2007, like a tornado fucked a Wal-Mart and there were no survivors. This… Brad doesn’t know what it is, but it’s sure as shit not Ray’s room. It’s blandly decorated, white walls and minimal furniture, and what seems to be a red, white, and blue nautical theme that couldn’t be anything other than a fucking joke. Brad touches the edge of the hastily-made bed, horrified. There’s no way Ray would be caught dead choosing these sheets.
There are clothes hung neatly in the closet – jeans and Ray’s work clothes, and a shelf of sweaters and a couple hoodies shoved in on top of them. Maybe he’s grown neater with age, Brad thinks, before opening one of the dresser drawers to find some t-shirts and socks, everything jumbled together. The rest of the drawers are the same, equal parts messy and suspiciously under-filled. Brad was there when Ray moved in; he lugged every single one of those boxes of shitty band tees in by himself, bitching every step of the way. This looks like a fraction of his wardrobe.
The nightstand is completely empty. Brad closes the drawer and then stupidly reopens it, touching the inside like he’s checking for a false bottom. There’s nothing on the desk, nothing on top of the dresser. The only evidence that Ray actually lives here are his clothes and the phone charger that’s poking out from behind the bed.
Brad sits on the edge of the bed feeling like someone’s kicked him in the chest. He tries to remember specific shit from the past few weeks – things Ray’s said, hints he might’ve dropped – but he can’t come up with anything.
All he has is the evidence, everything laid out right in front of his eyes, and the creeping realization that Ray isn’t his roommate anymore.
It makes sense, he thinks, watching Ray flick through the spice rack until he finds what he’s looking for. If Ray were demented and thought it was the past, Brad would probably move back in with him and pretend like everything was totally normal, too.
He wonders how long he’d let it go on for. Too long, probably. For selfish reasons.
But Ray’s not like Brad. He’s got to be sick of this by now. Probably wants to get back to his regular life.
“You want broccoli or string beans with this?” Ray asks.
“Whatever.” Brad watches Ray reach into the fridge, no different from any other night. He fits in here, only he doesn’t at all, because it’s pretend. “Broccoli.”
Ray tosses a head of broccoli onto the counter without saying anything. It looks so easy. So routine.
Brad doesn’t know what’s true anymore. Doesn’t know what’s real.
He presses his palm to his side, pressing until his ribs twinge, sharp and centering. Ray starts talking about some bullshit meeting he had today, complaining like it’s nothing, like it’s normal.
Brad looks at the clock on the oven and tries to figure out how much time they have left in this whole charade.
It’s like realizing there’s a countdown clock running in the background makes time rush forward, faster than Brad can keep track. The days seem to fly by, his head still useless and empty.
He knows he’s not helping the situation, that he’s picking fights and forcing issues, but the alternative is pretending it’s all fine and he’s fucking sick of that.
“No, Ray, I don’t want to go out for a drink,” he says for the third time in ten minutes. “I don’t know what’s so hard to understand.”
“Fine, you overgrown baby.” Ray throws the mail onto the counter. It’s all catalogs. They’re all addressed to ‘Resident.’ Brad hasn’t seen a single piece of mail that’s not addressed to himself since he started checking it. “Don’t go. Just sit at home in the dark with your computer parts and build yourself a robot friend instead of making a human one.”
“I have human ones,” Brad says.
“I –” Ray starts to say and then stops abruptly, his teeth clacking with the force with which he shuts his jaw. “I’ll be back later. Don’t wait up.”
Everything spirals from there. Brad feels on edge, like his next step could be a landmine. Ray doesn’t say anything, which is worse somehow. Brad could handle if he would fight back, but he won’t. He just comes home, makes dinner, takes the bait Brad throws him until he gets sick of it and goes to bed, shutting the door carefully so it doesn’t make a sound.
Brad wishes he’d slam it. He’d know how to deal with that.
“I don’t care,” Brad says.
“Yeah, I heard you the first sixteen times, I’m just calling bullshit. Pizza or Chinese, fucking pick one.”
Brad grits his teeth. “I. Don’t. Care.”
Ray turns around, his spine one straight line. Brad’s got his full attention now, and he’d be glad if he had any idea what he wants to do with it. He’s not even sure how they got here, in the middle of a war that shouldn’t be happening.
It’s all too familiar.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” Brad asks, crossing his arms, drawing up to his own full height. Ray does a decent job of ignoring him. He doesn’t even roll his eyes.
“Are you pissed because I went out the other night? Because I gotta tell you, Brad, that’s some grade A horse shit, you know?”
Brad shrugs and for some reason that, more than anything else tonight, sets Ray off.
“Are you kidding me with this? Seriously?” Ray imitates him, shrugging exaggeratedly. “What the fuck, dude?”
“What?” Brad can’t help it; the words start tripping out of his mouth before his brain even has any idea what he’s saying. “You want to leave, leave. Nothing’s keeping you here, Ray. I can figure out the rest on my own.”
Ray’s jaw drops and the silence that follows is deafening. For a moment Brad has no idea what to do, and then Ray inhales and says, ice cold, “Don’t start with me. I have been here every day, why are you – Jesus Christ, you are so annoying, I have to do everything--“
“I don’t want you to do everything,” Brad says, interrupting whatever dumbshit tangent Ray was surely about to start. “I want you to live your life.”
“Are you? Because it doesn’t seem like it.”
“Oh that’s rich, that’s real rich, Colbert. You have no fucking clue what you’re talking about.”
“Do you?” Brad yells. “Do you have any idea what you’re talking about, Ray? Because I don’t think you do.”
“I know you’re a pussy, how’s that? You want to stay inside all day, fixing your stupid computers and your shitty car that you haven’t made any progress on in a decade? You want to avoid everything forever?”
“Yes. Is that so wrong? I also want to surf, or run, or go to fucking work, but I can’t, so instead I’m stuck here all day, waiting around on your ass –”
“I never asked you –”
“And I’m the one getting shit for it. Meanwhile, you’ve been trying to fix one corner – one measly corner – of the patio for two years and you haven’t gotten shit done. So who’s the lazy son of a bitch here?”
“Oh fuck you,” Ray shouts, and then, quieter, “you can remember that shit but nothing else?”
It takes Brad a moment to realize what he’s talking about. He’d been so mad he hadn’t realized. He scrubs a palm over his head, feeling how long his hair’s gotten, and tries to think of the right thing to say. The words don’t come.
“Jesus,” Ray says after a minute, all the air blowing out of his lungs in one go. “For fuck’s sake, Brad, do you even want to get better?”
Brad rocks back on his heels, stunned.
Ray’s yelling again, and Brad hadn’t expected it, had thought they’d get a breather, but it’s round two already, and Brad’s completely defenseless.
“Because sometimes it feels like you prefer this,” Ray says, flinging his arms out, gesturing wildly at Brad, at the house, at everything around them, “whatever the fuck this is.”
“So?” Brad doesn’t get what’s so bad about it, other than the obvious. “Maybe I like my life.”
“No, you like your old life. You don’t care about your real life, which is some horseshit.”
“Well if it bothers you so much, stop pretending and go the fuck home!” Brad yells, so loud he surprises even himself.
Ray takes a step back, his eyes wide and unblinking. There’s an unending, painful pause where Brad tries to regulate his breathing, his pulse, before Ray says, “What?”
“Get out of my house.”
Ray tips his head the tiniest bit, like he’s not sure he heard right.
“Yeah.” He springs into action, reaching for his jacket, his keys, everything he’d brought in with him. “Cool, sure, awesome. Have a great fucking night, Brad,” he says, and then he’s gone and Brad’s left in the silent house with his ears ringing and no fucking clue what to do with himself.
He takes the bike out. It’s easier to forget everything – the look on Ray’s face, the slump of his shoulders, his fingers clenched around his car keys – when he’s concentrating on blurred glow of tail lights in the distance and nothing else.
It’s late by the time he gets back, but the house is still dark. There’s a menu for Sun Lee’s Garden still on the table, pen marks next to things Brad’s probably ordered over the years.
There are enough hints for him to cobble together his past, to fill in the blanks he’s been missing. Delivery menus shoved into drawers for places he used to order from. His computer auto-suggesting websites he orders computer parts from. An E-Bay account with a purchase history of more car parts than Brad knows what to do with.
Maybe Ray’s right; he hasn’t been trying that hard to remember everything he’s been missing. It’s been… not nice, but Brad hasn’t hated this post-accident routine they’ve fallen into. Sure, he could stand to sleep better, and he’d give up a lot if it meant he could get back to work. If he could have more to do than just dick around the house all day.
It’s just if it comes down to it, he’s not sure the list of things he’d sacrifice includes Ray.
Not that he really has a choice anymore.
Not that he really ever had a choice.
He eats string cheese on the couch while ESPN shows highlights from the day. He doesn’t even know why there’s string cheese in the fridge. It must be Ray’s. The realization makes it turn to glue in his mouth, sticky and gummy and wholly unappetizing. He tosses the rest of it onto the table and turns the volume up.
He’s not that hungry anyway. Wasn’t that what the whole fight was about in the first place?
When Brad wakes up -- early, with a crick in his neck from falling asleep on the goddamn couch – the TV’s off and he’s covered with a blanket, which means Ray came back.
Relief floods through Brad, warming him to his fingertips, and then turning cold the second he realizes that it’s not necessarily good.
He’d decided, in the middle of the night, with women’s volleyball on TV and a tumbler full of whiskey in his hand, that if Ray came back, he would do something about it. Or at the very least, explain some shit to him. Ray’s been living here for a month, patiently waiting for Brad to get his shit together, and if he can’t do that, well. At least he owes him the truth.
In the light of day it seems like a terrible idea, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He steels himself for the worst. The only way out is through.
“Listen,” he says, sitting at the kitchen table across from Ray. It’s Sunday and Ray’s the most pliable before he’s had coffee; it might be an ambush, but Brad knows if doesn’t get it done now he’ll never do it. “About… about everything, I’m just going to say this and you’re going listen and then it’ll be over and you can go back to your real apartment and your real life and all that shit.”
“No, listen.” Brad is distantly aware that he’s being too clinical about this – sitting up straight, staring at the space just over Ray’s shoulder – but it’s the only way he knows how to approach it. Focus on neutral territory, stick to the facts. “It feels like 2007 to me.”
Ray’s jaw drops. “Holy shit, whaaaaaat?”
Brad kicks him under the table and then gets up to rinse his still-full coffee mug. He really doesn’t want to look at Ray when he says this. It’s easier to be standing at the sink with the water running when he says, “I’m… I had some unresolved… feelings for you? In 2007.” He tries not to grimace at how fucking stupid everything he’s saying sounds. The back of his neck feels like it’s on fire. He sticks his hands under the tap, shocking himself with the cold. “And now, I guess, because it’s still 2007 for me, which is really fucking me up.” He laughs even though it’s not funny at all. He feels like there’s not enough oxygen in the room, like he’s losing his mind. “I’m handling it, but… I thought you deserved to know.”
The water is so cold it hurts. Behind him, Ray’s completely silent.
It’s brutal, standing there. Brad thinks of all the things he’s survived that have been worse: Shasta with a broken ankle; one MRE a day; drown-proofing; the moment he realized it was 2010 and three years of his life were just gone.
He makes himself turn around.
Ray’s just sitting there, staring at him, his mouth hanging open like a fucking yokel from Nevada, Missouri, where none of the trailers have fucking wheels, they’re just sitting on cinder blocks, waiting for the next tornado to whip through.
“Okay,” Brad says, turning off the faucet. His whole body goes hot for a split second and then it’s startlingly cold, like even his blood’s fucking abandoned him after this dramatic scene. He nods once. “Yeah,” he says and then he walks out of the room. Walks out of the whole damn house, gets on his bike without a second thought. It’s that or staying there and probably barfing right in the sink, which would be even worse, even though right now that’s the only way Brad thinks it could’ve actually gone worse.
He rides until he stops thinking about Ray’s face. There’d still been eggs in his mouth, unchewed and just sitting there like they were as appalled as Ray was.
Three hours go by before Brad checks his phone and even then it’s mostly to see what time it is. The fact that Ray’s texted him is a genuine surprise.
Brad’s hands don’t shake when he swipes it open, but only because it refuses to let them.
This is my real life the first text says.
Right underneath it, time stamped from much later, is one that reads, come home, dickhead.
Brad stares at them for far too long, until his vision’s blurred and he thinks his hands might actually start shaking.
He gets back on the bike, points it north because what the fuck else is he supposed to do. He goes farther, faster, his head bent into the wind and Ray’s messages imprinted into his brain. He doesn’t stop until he hears the whoop whoop of a police siren. The cop politely ignores the way he’s shivering.
It’s late when Brad gets back. The house is blissfully quiet. Brad sneaks past Ray, who’s sound asleep on the couch, snoring. There’s a wet spot on the cushion that’s clearly drool. Brad hates that it makes something deep in his gut flip over, like it’s anything but fucking gross.
Ray snorts, all his limbs twitching as he jerks himself awake. He used to be so still, back when he was still a marine. Back when it mattered.
“Hey, homes,” he says, a smile spreading over his face when he sees Brad. It’s the exact opposite of what Brad was expecting.
“I got a speeding ticket,” Brad says stupidly, pointing to his jacket pocket where the paper’s all crumpled up.
“Of course you did.” Ray sounds weird, his voice quiet and careful, his smile still stretched wide, pulling at his cheeks. “Do you wanna sit?” He curls his legs in, making space on the couch, and Brad can feel his heart speed up as he panics. “I was just –”
“No, I’m going to bed.” Brad keeps his eyes on the floor as he hurries past.
“Brad,” Ray says quietly. Brad pretends not to hear him.
He sleeps like shit.
It feels like payback for… everything, really. This bed is garbage – he’s getting a new one first thing, he decides. He doesn’t know why the fuck it’s taken so long.
A new bed won’t give him gay-ass dreams about Ray. Somewhere in between the dream about Ray making dinner, the light streaming through the kitchen and glinting off the silverware, and the one where they’re on a bike ride together, Ray’s arms tight around Brad’s middle, Brad vows to test every fucking mattress in the whole showroom if that’s what it takes, because he can’t deal with this anymore. A new bed will fix at least one of his problems, and once he gets some sleep he’ll stop tossing and turning, unable to shake the image of dream-Ray opening the door for him after a deployment, looking like the best thing Brad had ever seen.
It’s the most fucked up thing he’s ever jerked off to.
“Come on, what’s your other option, starve yourself?”
“I said I’m fine.” Brad squints as he repositions the screw, trying to reseat the motherboard. He’s been working on the same goddamn screw for the past ten minutes, fumbling it out of place every time Ray speaks.
“Yeah, but like, how fine? People gotta eat, Brad. Brad. Braaaaaaaaaaaaad.”
“Jesus Christ.” Brad drops the screwdriver on the table, turning to look at Ray for the first time since he let himself into the garage.
Ray shuts up immediately at his outburst, but his lips are pressed together like he’s trying to hide a smile. It makes Brad not want to give in, but he knows that would mean Ray continuing to hang on the door frame and whine for the next… forever, probably.
“Brad.” Ray leans forward, his arms stretched over his head, his shirt pulling up to show too much of his tattoos, and Brad blinks once, twice.
“Yeah, whatever.” He pushes away from the table. The only way out is through. “Let’s go.”
He’s turned on a dime so fast that Ray’s the one scrambling now, caught on his back foot and shuffling into the house like he’s worried Brad’s going to change his mind.
Which, to be fair, Brad might. There’s no way Ray wants to go out to dinner just for fun. Brad’s pretty sure he’s being lured out into the open for a reason –like Ray wants witnesses around for whatever’s coming. Or an escape route.
Whatever. Brad climbs into the passenger seat of Ray’s shitty pick-up and tries not to think about how he’s probably getting dumped in public in the near future.
It’s fine. He’s been through worse before. He and Ray can probably be friends again; it’ll just take time or whatever.
“What do you want?” Ray asks, checking his mirrors. “Pizza? Mexican? BBQ? Don’t try to say Chinese again. I refuse to eat more lo mein. That much MSG is going to give you a heart attack someday.”
“I don’t care,” Brad says. “You pick. Not pizza.” He doesn’t want to hold a grudge against pizza for the rest of his life because of whatever’s coming down the pike.
“I don’t care. Not pizza.” Ray’s impersonation is severely lacking.
“Gringo’s it is,” Ray says, changing lanes with the kind of abandon that’s better suited to war zones than regular California traffic. Brad braces himself with one hand on the roof of the car and watches through the side mirror as the driver behind Ray flips him off dramatically. “I’ve been craving tacos all week and don’t try to tell me you don’t like them now or some shit. Your brain’s defective, not your fucking mouth, and you know how I know that? Because you keep eating my leftovers even though I hide them in the back of the fridge behind the soda. Which means you move the soda just to get to my spare burrito bowl.”
“You’re bitching about a spare?” Brad had sometimes felt bad about eating those, but now all bets are off. “What the fuck, Person? You were buying a second burrito on purpose?”
“YOU WERE EATING IT!” Ray’s laughing as he yells, so the effect’s diminished. “Every fucking time, Colbert! You snake.”
“You’re telling me that you bought and ate one burrito –”
Brad rolls his eyes. “Bowl, and then you bought a second one just because you knew I would eat it?”
“Fuck no. I ate one and a half. You ate the other half.”
“So you ate one and a half burritos –”
“For fuck’s sake, bowls, whatever, I don’t care, you ate almost two and now you’re here complaining that I finished whatever was left of the second one?”
“Was it yours to eat?”
Brad stares at him for a second. “You’re so retarded I can’t believe they let you into kindergarten, let alone the goddamn US Marines.”
Ray grins. His dimple’s so deep Brad wants to dig his knuckle into it. It’s almost the same as wanting to smack him, he figures.
“Yeah, yeah. The point is: you love tacos, so suck it.”
“How is that the point?” Brad shifts in his seat, facing forward again. He’s not sure when he turned to face Ray, but his back’s tightening up and his ribs are starting to twinge from being twisted.
“It is, homes. I know you’ve got a real problem with your noggin but you need to focus up, because if we get to dinner and you start making a grab for my tacos –“
“Not your burrito bowl?”
“Fuck no, I’m not getting a burrito bowl. Shit, it’s Sunday night. You’re nuts if you think I’m not getting fish tacos.”
“There’s a joke in there somewhere,” Brad says.
“A,” Ray holds up a finger, “screw you. B, just for that you’re not getting a single one. I’ll hide all my leftovers in a cooler in the yard before I let your scheming ass steal them.”
“Doesn’t seem like such a great hiding place, if you’re just telling people where it is.”
“That was theoretical, jackass. But now you’re definitely not getting any. You’re just going to have to sit there and watch me murder like, six in a row and then I’m gonna order six more to take home and not share.”
“Yeah, okay.” Brad snorts. “Like I’d even want any after last time. Enjoy your food poisoning. I can’t believe you’re going to get them again.”
“You know I believe in second chances, Brad!”
Sometimes when Brad’s in the field, everything slows down to a point where he can separate every movement, every breath, every heartbeat.
This is the opposite of that.
Ray seems to realize at the exact same time, because he turns sharply to gape at Brad, his eyes wide and bright. His mouth’s moving like he’s saying something, but Brad can’t hear anything over the force of his own memories. He’s bowled over by them, everything coming so quick he can’t concentrate on one versus the other, but he remembers Ray cursing on the floor of their bathroom and then crawling back into bed, pale and shaky and saying never again while Brad had laughed and kissed his shoulder because he knew there was no way in hell Ray would ever give up Gringo’s tacos. He’d laughed and gotten dressed and left for work while Ray moaned that he was at death’s door and that was –
He looks over and Ray’s still staring at him, open-mouthed and wide-eyed and they’re in some random parking lot, Brad realizes. The car’s idling and they’re not on the street anymore. He can’t catch his breath.
“You could’ve told me,” he says, soft and strained as he reaches for Ray, hauling him over the console and trying to voice his displeasure by kissing all the breath out of him. He fucking deserves to suffocate for this past month.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Ray doesn’t try to pull away to ask, he just talks right into Brad’s mouth, and that’s – Brad wants to freeze time for just a moment, just so he can catch up.
“Can you,” he says instead, pulling back just enough to catch his breath, to look at Ray. He’s seen him every day for weeks – for years – but in this moment it’s like nothing before it. “Just once in your godforsaken life, shut up?”
“Fuck you, you brain-dead zombie version of Brad.” Ray smiles, going a tiny bit cross-eyed as he closes the gap between them again.
Brad bites his lip in retaliation and digs his fingers into the pressure point on Ray’s neck that always makes him go pliant. He remembers it. He remembers everything. He never thought that it would happen all at once like this. It’s dizzying.
“Fine,” Ray says, kissing Brad one last time before sitting back in his seat. He gets his hands at ten and two on the wheel and drives them back into traffic. It’s the opposite direction they’d been going in.
“What about tacos?” Brad asks.
“You think I’m gonna sit across the table from you now?” Ray asks, voice high and thin. It’s a fine line between joking and desperate. He chucks his phone at Brad. “CALL FOR TAKEOUT.”
He doesn’t order the fish tacos – “You’ll thank me,” he says, laughing at Ray’s glare – but it’s not like he’s that hungry anymore.
Ray doesn’t seem to be either, judging by the way he shoves Brad up against the door the second they’re inside.
“What do you remember?”
Brad blinks down at him. “Everything.”
Ray curls his hands around Brad’s ears and looks at him, assessing. Brad’s heart sounds like thunder in his ears, his pulse beating loud and quick through all his weakest points: his ribs, his temples, the base of his skull. And all the while Ray keeps staring at him, his eyes skipping all over like he’s checking for signs of another injury, for more damage.
“You could’ve fucking told me,” Brad says after a minute.
Ray sinks down until he’s flat-footed, a hundred emotions passing over his face in a brief moment.
Brad ducks his head so he can rub his cheek against Ray’s to feel the drag of his stubble. It’s comforting in a way he both expected and didn’t at all. It’s like his brain’s at war with itself, trying to reconcile the life he knows – the one he’s always known – with what he knows he forgot.
Ray takes a deep breath, gearing up to say something, but Brad cuts him off with, “Later. We’ll talk about it later.”
He curls his fingers in Ray’s waistband, tugging his jeans as low as they’ll go without unbuttoning them.
“You mean you don’t want to talk about your feelings?” Ray asks, stuttering as Brad shoves him back to make space between them, as Brad sinks to his knees. “I’m shocked. Really, genuinely shocked.”
“Mm-hmm,” Brad hums, feeling surprisingly agreeable after everything. His head hurts and he knows it’s only a matter of time before his knees hurt, but he’s missed this. The feel of Ray’s dick heavy on his tongue, Ray’s hipbones under his palms, Ray’s hands digging into the top of his head, petting his cheek, his fingers catching on the side of Brad’s mouth and dragging it open until his jaw aches in a way Brad can’t believe he ever forgot.
Ray stares at him a lot. Too much.
“Quit staring at me, you fucking creep,” Brad says, putting his palm on Ray’s face and making him look away. He ends up with guacamole and hot sauce all over his hand. Jesus Christ. He wipes it off on his shorts, refusing to acknowledge the way his dick twitches. He’s not into this. This is post-traumatic amnesia sex deprivation or something.
Ray notices – why does nothing ever escape his goddamn lizard brain? – and waggles his eyebrows, licking his lips like he’s a demented porn star.
“Oh my god.” Brad rolls his eyes. “Did the drugs finally cook your brain? What is wrong with you?”
“Get over it,” Ray says, spraying bits of chips all over the sheets. Brad can’t believe he wanted this. That he missed this somehow, this weird thing he forgot entirely.
“I never should’ve agreed to this.”
“Which this? The tacos in bed or the,” Ray gestures between them, “this this.”
Brad stares at him. “The tacos, fuck, did you get amnesia in the last five minutes?”
“I don’t know, I did hit the wall pretty hard.” Ray touches the back of his head, wincing a bit. Brad tries not to smirk. Ray’s head had smacked into the wall hard, and the string of curses and nonsense he’d let out after had been a welcome reminder of all the things they’d had that Brad had managed to forget.
Ray kicks Brad’s side. “The tacos, dumbass. Obviously. And you don’t get to complain, you had fucking amnesia, I should get to eat tacos in bed for the rest of our lives.”
It’s a joke, Brad knows, but he also knows that Ray’s serious. That it’s been an awful stretch, worse than Brad had ever realized. He doesn’t know how he would’ve handled it, if he could’ve sat back and let it play out the way Ray did.
“I thought you’d moved out,” he says.
Ray rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I got that from the giant hissy fit you threw.”
“Your drawers were half empty. There was nothing in the dresser.”
“I knew you were fucking snooping, you psychopath!” Ray laughs, which is not way Brad was expecting. “You are a fucking terrible detective. Half my shit’s still in the closet and you never noticed.”
“You never got any mail,” he points out.
“What mail? You think I’m getting a J.Crew catalog sent here? All my bills are in the kitchen drawer. Did you honestly never look there?” Ray shakes his head in disbelief.
Brad doesn’t say anything at all. He really hadn’t looked that hard. He hadn’t wanted to find out too much.
After a minute, Ray says, “I didn’t want to freak you out – don’t look at me like that, you know you would have lost your shit. The doctors said not to do anything that might upset you. You were in a fucking coma, Brad. So sorry for sleeping in the guest room to make sure I didn’t make your traumatic brain injury worse.”
Brad takes a bite of his taco. It’s cold, the beef tinged a disturbing shade of orange. He’d forgotten they ordered them when the doorbell rang, had been too spent to move, his pants tangled around his knees, his ass sticking to the couch. Ray had slapped his stomach hard and laughed when Brad flinched; he’d answered the door in his boxers and Brad had boggled at the fact that he’d forgotten so much.
He doesn’t know what the fuck to say to Ray now. It was so much of their lives just gone, disappeared into the mist. And Ray had still stuck around through it all. Brad feels like he’s been kicked in the chest, so overtaken by everything that it physically hurts.
“I couldn’t sleep without you,” he says before he thinks about it.
Ray snorts. “Yeah, well, spoiler alert: we’re getting a new guest bed because that thing in there? A bed of nightmares built on top of broken bricks. I’ve had better night’s sleep in a victor.” He twists dramatically, his back cracking loudly. “And don’t think I’m letting it slide just because I started complaining, I heard it and I processed it and honestly, Brad, that is the gayest thing you’ve ever said. You couldn’t sleep without me.” He tips sideways, his nose nudging Brad’s shoulder. “You big old sap.”
“Fuck off,” Brad says, shrugging Ray off him. “You could’ve told me.”
“And said what? ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve been fucking for ages.’ Or ‘oh, by the way, I know you’d rather run ten clicks in a full MOPP in a hundred and ten desert heat than talk about how you feel about me, but fuck your head trauma, we should do it anyway because I know how you feel about me even though you don’t know I know?’ That’s some Ross and Rachel nonsense, homes.”
“That wasn’t –” Brad starts to say, but Ray’s on a roll now.
“I mean, you really wanted to make me relive that conversation? You nearly rode to Mexico after the first one. I thought you were gonna confess your big gay feelings for me and then start a new life as Bradlito Colberzales.”
Brad presses his lips together, trying not to smile. It’s a fair assessment of how shit went down the first time. It’s why he’s not that surprised Ray never said anything, why he gets it on some level. On a lot of levels. He can’t be mad. He probably would’ve done the same thing.
“Somewhere,” he says, “Poke just started complaining about racist white motherfuckers and he has no idea why.”
“He never has any idea why,” Ray says, taking a bite of his taco. Somehow he manages to spill on Brad’s chest. It’s baffling and – Brad will never admit it out loud – endearing.
Ray swipes it off and goes to lick his finger, but Brad catches his hand before he can and licks it off him, watching the way Ray’s eyes go dark. He has no idea how he didn’t remember any of this. He’s unbearably glad he finally did.
“For the record,” he says, Ray’s hand still in his, held close to his chest, “not telling me was a chickenshit thing to do, you fucktard.”
Just because he would’ve have done the same thing doesn’t make that less true. It was a stupid secret to keep. They’re both stupid fucks sometimes.
Ray kind of shrugs, looking apologetic. “In my defense, the doctor told me like, all sorts of shit about head traumas and how amnesia could be like, a protective mechanism – which sounded like a load of shit, right? But what the fuck do I know? And then by the time you started to seem less zombie Brad I didn’t know how the fuck to tell you that wouldn’t end with you taking a swing at me.”
Brad’s quiet. He can’t pretend to know what Ray was going through.
“Bet I can make it up to you now, though,” Ray says. He’s got cilantro in his teeth and tastes like hot sauce and guacamole when he leans in to kiss Brad again.
In the morning, Brad wakes up to Ray staring at him again, creepy as a motherfucker.
“What the fuck are you doing in my bed, Person?”
Ray blinks and the color drains out of his face; Brad bursts out laughing. He deserves it when Ray punches him in the side, hard.
“Motherfucker,” Brad wheezes, rolling onto his back, the pain in his cracked ribs blinding and sharp. “I think you re-broke it.”
“Good,” Ray says. “Now we’re even. You ever forget me again, I’ll…”
He trails off as he rolls out of bed. “You’ll what?” Brad asks, watching him wander buck-ass naked towards the bathroom.
“I’ll break both your legs, Bradley,” he shouts back. “Make you live the rest of your life in a goddamn chair.”
Brad snorts. “You just want to be taller than me.”
The sound of Ray laughing echoes through the house. Brad pulls Ray’s pillow over his face, letting the cool cotton hide the way he’s flushing like a goddamn ninth grade girl. Ray’s still talking; Brad can hear him, even though the sounds of it are muffled.
It’s ridiculous and even admitting it to himself is borderline painful, but Brad reasons that it’s been a long few weeks and that’s why he doesn’t want Ray to leave, even if it is just to go to work. It feels a little like the immediate days after deployment, only Brad doesn’t want to sleep for thirty-six hours straight. He wants to fuck off and do fuck all, and he wants Ray to be there the whole time.
He’s still got some time left on his medical leave. Maybe he can convince Ray to call out, too. They can disappear for a bit, head down to Mexico or wherever, just the two of them, gay as that may be.
The longer he listens Ray’s rambling, the better the idea sounds.
“Hey,” he says, tossing the pillow aside and sitting up, “want to do something stupid?”
Ray appears in the doorway, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth.
“Always,” Ray says, grinning. “Lay it on me.”
Brad ignores the way his stomach flips over at the full wattage of Ray’s smile. He’ll look even better with a Modelo and a tan. Ocean salt stuck to his skin. Brad’s brain slips offline for a second, and when he comes to, Ray’s smacking his cheek, looking genuinely worried. His hand is damp, which is gross.
“What the fuck?” he asks, spraying toothpaste everywhere. “Get your shit together, Colbert.”
Brad wipes toothpaste off his own chin. “I hate you,” he says, meaning the exact opposite.
Ray rolls his eyes, his smile small and indulgent. He gets it. “What’s your big idea?”
“You learning to use a toothbrush like a civilized human.” Brad pushes him away, making space so he can get up and use the bathroom before Ray turns it into a warzone.
“Oh look at that, you’re back for one day and it’s right back to the same old shit. Nag nag nag. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t miss this at all.”
Brad catches Ray’s eye in the bathroom mirror. He tries not to laugh, because that would only encourage him, but it’s been too long and he can’t help it.
“Liar,” he manages, before Ray pins him against the sink and kisses him again and again and again.