It isn't a military bar -- it isn't much of an anyone sort of bar. A few slack-jawed, pink-skinned tourists; some greying Palm Springs wannabes under the impression that an interest in live jazz somehow elevates them above the mediocrity of the suburban grind. Like a particularly egregious MRE, the place is about ten years past its use-by date. It's worn-out, too far back from the beach, smells of stale cigarette smoke and cheap cigars. Brad leans back against the bar on his elbows. His naked beer is sweating so heavily it's left his palm wet; he wipes it on his jeans, vaguely disgusted. It's the goddamn first world and still the only civilisation to even approach a partial solution of the problem of sweating beverages is Australia. Which is barely even a civilisation.
He watches the band disinterestedly. They seem to be Mexican. The female vocalist is so fleshy she's verging on obese: enormous breasts under a red muu-muu, bra elastic cutting individual orange-sized bulges along her sides and front. Her voice rasps slightly on the high notes. The music is loud enough to shut all the patrons inside their own heads in a kind of stupor. Opiate of the masses, or maybe just the under-the-counter Xanax of the masses. Brad's not complaining.
There's movement at his side. He keeps his eyes on the band. Nate leans forwards on the bar next to him, turning his head to give the venue a fake-casual once-over. Brad's already done the reconnaissance: his is the only high and tight for blocks. Nate's glance shifts sideways to Brad, green eyes stark against his always-pale skin. The familiarity of the look is like a shock, like a touch. Brad feels himself jerk. It's not even sexual, but something deeper. Visceral, maybe. He thinks resentfully that it probably makes him a classic example of the Pavlovian response that Fruity Rudy's always going on about. Muscle memory shaped by the constant application of leadership, by the countless times Nate spoke to him in the desert with just his eyes.
Nate looks younger in this setting. A lanky unsmiling grad student in a worn t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts, sneakers. His hair is darker, longer. He doesn't look like he's ever been a Marine. Brad can't think of him as anything but one. Nate looks away from Brad and says something to the bartender that Brad can't hear. The bartender slides him a beer identical to Brad's, the sweating bottle leaving a trail of wet streaks across the grimy laminate bar surface.
They drink silently while the woman sings about a boy from Ipanema. Nate finishes his beer and puts down the empty bottle, then looks directly at Brad. He doesn't tilt or nod his head, just gives a straight stare of unspoken instruction that Brad feels like a hand around his guts, physical and compelling. He lets Nate go; waits a minute, two minutes, then follows him to the men's room.
Nate looks up from the sink into the mirror when Brad comes in. His eyes are almost hard. The fluorescent lights cast harsh shadows on the planes of his face, returning him to Iraq: sharply highlighted cheekbones, prominent nose, hollowed cheeks. He shifts and the effect vanishes. College boy again. Brad leans back against the bathroom door and puts his hands in the pockets of his jeans. The music in here is quieter: they could speak, but they don't. Nate looks at Brad for another moment, then turns away from the sink and walks deliberately into one of the stalls.
The stall is cleanish, cramped, perfectly acceptable. Brad's standards aren't particularly high. Both of them are tall, broad-shouldered, and they have to do a shipboard-style shuffle dance so that Brad has enough room to flip the door closed behind them and lock it. Nate ends up with his back against one of the side walls. Their proximity hasn't softened his face: he's still wearing a hard, half-angry expression. The look is so familiar that Brad gets a strange sense that Nate's face is naked; it's only after a long moment that he realises he's used to seeing the expression half-obscured by the overhanging lip of Nate's kevlar. It's a look of mutiny, stubbornness, forcibly contained grief.
Brad leans his left hand on the wall above Nate's right shoulder. They're not touching, but he can still feel the radiant heat of Nate's body: a flush of warmth that makes his heart race, exposes and lights him up like enemy illume. He drops his forehead against his hand, mouth just grazing the side of Nate's neck. Nate is perfectly still as Brad undoes his belt, one-handed and awkward, and lets the unbuckled ends fall free. Brad lets his eyes fall half-closed; listens to the quiet regular sound of Nate's breathing as he presses the heel of his palm against the crotch of Nate's shorts. Nate exhales carefully. The deliberate control in the sound hits Brad in the guts with the same visceral clench as earlier: compelling, thrilling, nauseating. Being together like this is more than the simple mechanical fact of Brad's hand pressed against the hard outline of Nate's cock. It's something bigger: like they're holding themselves together against some vast centrifugal force, and if either of them loses concentration for even a second -- if one of them forgets and lets go -- they'll fly apart for good.
Brad unzips Nate's shorts and reaches past the elastic of his civilian skivvies. Nate's pubic hair brushes against the inside crook of his wrist. He takes Nate in hand and jacks him a few times, hearing that carefully controlled breathing hitch and stutter. When he pushes back, Nate's look slams into him like the recoil of a .50 cal: an intensity that Brad feels in the pit of the stomach, triggering a helpless hopeless feeling of something that isn't quite want or desire but something stronger and harder and more complicated. It knocks his legs out from under him, and he grabs at Nate's shorts and skivvies as he goes down. There's cool tile pressing against his knees through his jeans as he bares Nate's pale muscled thighs, his cock and dark pubic hair.
"Sir," Brad says, looking up. The word sounds both right and wrong. Nothing's as simple as it used to be. Nate's face tightens and he shakes his head, and then his eyes fall shut and his head bangs soundlessly back against the wall as Brad takes him into his mouth.
Grad school has been kind to Nate: there's a solidity to him now instead of the desperate tautness he'd had in Iraq. It's been a year. Another six years for Nate's body to rebuild itself until there's no part of him that led Brad into war. Nate's naked thighs tremble slightly where they press against Brad's chest and shoulder. Brad feels Nate's hand coming around the back of his head, fingers curving against his skull through the newly-shaved hair, pressing Brad closer, deeper, until Nate gasps. This time there's nothing controlled about Nate's reaction. It's a raw sound, desperate and vulnerable, and it stabs through Brad in a hot streak of almost unexpected need. He feels the pressure of his own dick against the inside of his jeans as Nate gasps again and his hips move sharply against the constraining pressure of Brad's hands. Brad swallows, gentling his mouth until Nate's finished, then stands up and slouches against the far wall.
Nate's still leaning against the wall, his eyes closed, cheeks flushed. He pulls up his shorts without looking. When he finally opens his eyes Brad barely gets a moment to register his intent before he's crowding aggressively into Brad's space. Nate's lean male body is uncompromising, hard muscles and hard angles under the soft worn t-shirt. He presses against Brad from knee to thigh, from hip to shoulder, and the flimsy wall bounces against Brad's shoulderblades as Nate leans in the last few inches and kisses him.
There's nothing familiar about Nate in this context: every time they kiss is new, all the previous times blunted by time and distance and separation. Nate kisses Brad like this is their first time, like it's the end of them. He grabs the back of Brad's head again, long fingers curving in a commanding echo that makes Brad's knees ache, his dick twitch. Nate's tongue slides against his in a slick electrifying touch so intimate that Brad can't shake the thought that it's this that's taboo. Nate's lips and body pressing into his own, the million unspoken words between them -- these are what they need to keep hidden, not Brad on his knees or Nate's half-stifled gasp when he comes.
Brad's so caught up in the kiss that he jerks in surprise when Nate's hand closes over his cock. Nate makes a sound against Brad's mouth, intent and demanding, and his hand tightens and draws upwards. Brad thinks he feels the roughened skin of old rifle calluses on Nate's hand as it twists on the upstroke, a long pull that finishes with just the right edge of meanness to make Brad grunt and arch. He thrusts and feels Nate push back, not an inch of give. Nate has him flattened against the wall, one thigh between Brad's legs to keep them apart, and he slides out the kiss to bite Brad's chin and shoulder even as his hand keeps moving. It's the same rhythm known to every man in the military, to officers and grunts and four-fucking-star generals: a hard-edged satisfying stroke with enough friction to ignite a block of C-4. The dirty field-stripped version of every guy's favourite pastime. Brad feels a hot spiral burn of pleasure as he lets his hips drive into Nate's hand. Nate kisses him again, long and involved and unacademic, and then the shift of his fingers between the upstroke and downstroke is just hard enough, just wrong but perfectly right enough to kick Brad over the edge with all the subtlety of a blow to the back of the head, a concussive burst of pleasure that drives the breath of out him in a full-body shudder.
Marines make do, and afterwards Brad manages to clean himself up with toilet paper from the denuded roll wedged behind the cistern. When he looks up, Nate's expression is so raw that Brad feels it like a kick to an exposed nerve.
Nate doesn't flinch, just lets Brad look and see. He says, low, "I left because I couldn't stand to see any of you die." He's silent for a long moment, then says tightly, "It's worse to watch you go."
In the Marines, the Captain is God. But Brad's an atheist, and Nate is just a grad student. A civilian who's renounced the structure that gave him absolute power over Brad's life and death.
Brad looks at Nate's face for a long time. "Tell me not to go," he suggests.
Nate laughs sharply. "I left my bars on my other uniform."
"Would it change anything?"
"No," Brad says. "Maybe." Part of him wants to feel the conflict, to be forced to choose. He already knows what he'd choose. He knows Nate will never ask.
"It's not even--" Nate says. He doesn't try to finish, to compress his fears into words. Nate was a Marine once, too: he understands leaving. "Just that this is the only goodbye we get, in a fucking public toilet--" His voice rises and he shakes his head sharply, cutting himself off.
Brad hurts for Nate, a sick leaden ache that reminds him of jet-lag and too many missed nights of sleep. Nate, who always felt the injustices and absurdities of the Marine Corps too much, cared too much, felt too much in all the ways he shouldn't have: about Brad, about all of them. The shift to civilian life hasn't changed a fucking thing. Nate still feels too much, the Corps still hurts him, and Brad can see every agonised emotion in the open book of his face.
The Corps still owns Nate, just like it owns Brad. It's part of their relationship: the thing that holds them together and the thing that drives them apart.
They stand there for a minute, listening to the piped jazz that's replaced the band. The buses are leaving from Pendleton in three hours. Brad leans into Nate, pressing their foreheads together, and after a moment he hears Nate sigh.
This is them: apart, alive, dead, together, until the end.