Cooperlooked down at the sad formation of empty shot glasses lined up like soldiers on the scarred wooden table in front of him. Whoa. He didn’t remember throwing down that many, but maybe he’d lost track—it had been a long night. He blinked and the number of glasses divided by half. There, that was better. One more shot ought to do it. Maybe two, just to be sure. He smacked his lips to test for numbness, his own personal buzz barometer.
The crew, what was left of it, had commandeered their usual corner at Ketchum’s bar. Used to be they had to push a couple of tables together, but without Boom-Boom, Mutt, and Wallbanger, the four of them fit easily at one for their last night of liberty before the hammer of platoon assignments came thundering down. None of them had played pool or chased tail. Instead they’d holed up and started drinking. Even Mickey Chavez, who usually abstained from all corrupting influences, had spent the night tossing back B-52s like they were mother’s milk. He’d already excused himself to hurl once, but Cooper didn’t have the heart to rib him about the dangers of mixing liquors. Personally, Cooper had stuck to whiskey, the straightest route to utter and absolute oblivion.
Eli reached across him and added his own glass to the formation. “Anybody want nachos?” Bless his hen-pecking heart, Eli had been trying to wean them off liquor and onto something with a lick of fat and protein for the past hour, but so far, nobody was biting. Literally.
“Fuck nachos,” Ace O’Reilly muttered into his umpteenth beer. “Today is not yo’ day.”
“Sing it, Ace,” Cooper said, raising one of his empty glasses and clinking it sloppily against O’Reilly’s mug.
Eli brushed against his side, leaning in close as he said under his breath, “Don’t encourage him.”
Too late. O’Reilly raised his mug again and started caterwauling. “Fuck them nachos, fuck ’em hard—”
Chavez reached across the table and clapped a hand over Ace’s mouth, force of habit for anybody who’d ever listened to him try to carry a tune.
Eli smothered a grin with his hand, but Cooper could still see it in his eyes. Oh, sure, O’Reilly shooting off at the mouth might be funny today, ha ha, but what about tomorrow, when he got handed over to a platoonful of tight-jawed SEALs who might not feel like putting up with his shit?
“Who’s gonna shut him up from now on? Huh? Tell me that,” Cooper said. Okay, maybe he snapped a little, because Eli’s smile disappeared like it had never been there. Cooper shook his head. “Sorry.”
“Maybe he’ll end up with you or me,” Eli said.
Eli didn’t look like he believed it, either. He hadn’t said “you and me,” see, and therein lay the goddamn rub.
Their little graduation party sucked. Far be it from Cooper to question the Navy in its infinite motherfucking wisdom, but the longer they’d waited to hear where the hell they were going next, the antsier they’d gotten, until Eli had finally herded them off the base and poured the first round down them. They’d held off deliberately, planning to celebrate once all seven of them had their assignments, but the higher-ups had stalled so long on divvying up the four left on the floor at Coronado that the three headed elsewhere were already gone.
Cooper had made his peace with Boom-Boom heading home to the east coast; he had family in Virginia, so he’d put in a request for Team Two at Little Creek. And Wallbanger had always had his heart set on being an 18D medic—the kind that could shoot with one hand and tap a vein for an IV with the other—and he could only get that training at Ft. Bragg. Cooper had even come to terms with losing Mutt to Naval Intelligence, though he’d hoped against hope that might mean a posting nearby. But before he knew it, Mutt had boarded a plane bound for Maryland.
Then there were four. And come tomorrow, fuck it all, they’d be scattered across eight platoons, deployed God knew where for God knew how long doing God knew what. It was enough to drive a man to drink. Speaking of which….
“I’ll get us another round,” Cooper said. He heard a couple of grunts that sounded in the affirmative, so he pushed back his chair.
Cooper knew that tone, sober or not. Eli used it when he had to get Cooper to do something he didn’t want to do, like jump out of an airplane, or crawl out of a warm bed at the asscrack of dawn to go swim a few miles. Eli could fix almost anything, but Cooper couldn’t see any way to fix this. He patted Eli on the shoulder while he waited to get his land legs set underneath him, and then he ambled up to the bar.
“Set ’em up,” he told the bartender, who raised his eyebrows but dutifully started pouring.
“Last call,” the bartender said as he layered a B-52.
“Say what? It’s not even midnight,” Cooper said.
The bartender pointed over Cooper’s shoulder toward the corner. “Last call for you guys.”
Cooper leaned one elbow on the bar and looked back at their table. Ace, who really only sat still if an M14 sniper rifle was involved, had Mickey in a headlock. Getting his licks in, probably, for having had his artistic expression about nachos stifled. They played like yapping dogs sometimes. Eli sat back in his chair with his legs spread and his arms crossed, ignoring Ace and Mickey with ease born of long practice. There’d be no broken bottles or splintered furniture on Eli’s watch, but the bartender didn’t know that.
“Yeah, all right,” Cooper said. “Fair enough.”
“Cooper?” A woman’s voice behind him pulled Cooper’s attention back. He turned to find a familiar face staring back at him: a sweet smile, round cheeks, long blonde hair pulled back. An image flashed across his retinas: that hair gliding across his lap in silky sheets while he thrust up into her hot little mouth, sunlight bright on the back of his hand as he brushed her hair away from her face so he could watch her. Then: sunlight through her bedroom blinds moving across her body, her head thrown back, baring the tilt of chin and the slope of her throat as he looked up from between her legs. She’d tasted like salt water and she squeaked when she came. Oh Christ, what was her name?
“Kim,” she supplied, so either she was a mind reader or his mouth had run away with him. Since she hadn’t slapped him, probably just a good guess. “We met a few months ago.”
A few months that felt like a few years… well, hell, that had been a whole slip-slide across the sexual spectrum ago.
“Right, sure, I remember,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound as dumb as he felt. “You’re at U.C. San Diego. Social work.”
She nodded, looking pleased. She probably wouldn’t be as pleased if he told her that the night he left her bed, he’d gone back to the barracks and jerked off Eli Jones for the first time. He caught his hand headed south on just the memory of it and jammed it in his pocket instead. And she certainly wouldn’t appreciate hearing about how he planned on doing the exact same thing in the john behind the jukebox over there, either, soon as he made up a decent excuse. The restroom at Ketchum’s wasn’t as nice as a Motel 6, but they weren’t fussy. They’d learned to settle for what they could get. Of course, he didn’t plan on telling her any of that, so he just stood there, staring at her.
“Congratulations,” she said after a minute. “I hear your whole boat crew graduated. That’s pretty rare, isn’t it?”
Cooper nodded. “That was Eli’s doing, mainly,” he said, lifting his chin in Eli’s direction. “He’s the rudder on that particular boat.”
Kim looked over his shoulder toward Eli and her eyes widened a little. Cooper thought of that as The Eli Effect: one look at him and women tended to get a little gooey around the edges. Cooper couldn’t blame them—he wasn’t exactly immune himself.
“That’s Eli?” Kim asked. “Who are the other two guys?”
“They’re from our crew,” Cooper said. “Mickey and Ace, both petty officers.”
He looked over at the corner again. Eli had them in his sights now, his eyes narrowing first on Cooper, then on Kim, then back. Cooper raised one eyebrow and leaned closer to Kim, gratified when Eli pushed his chair back and sidled over, stepping closer to Cooper than he probably should. He slung a friendly arm around Cooper’s shoulders and said, “I see you got side-tracked.”
“Kim, meet the one and only Eli Jones. Eli, this is Kim.”
Eli nodded to her. “Good to meet you.”
“You too,” Kim said. She probably couldn’t help how she flushed up pink. That kind of thing happened all the time around Eli. “Cooper tells me you’re the one who got the crew through to graduation.”
Eli shook his head. “Cooper talks too much.”
“Hey, now, I resemble that remark,” Cooper said.
Kim laughed. “Are they keeping you together on the Teams?”
Cooper shrugged under the weight of Eli’s arm. “Three are already gone. The four of us left are all going to Team Seven, so we’ll stay based here for the duration, but we won’t know any more than that until tomorrow.” He blew out a breath and then admitted, “They’ll likely split us up.”
“I’m sorry,” Kim said. She looked at Eli, then Cooper. “I’m sure you’ve been through a lot together.”
“Yeah.” She’d make a good social worker, he decided. She actually seemed to give a shit about him, and that was on the strength of, what, a couple of hours they’d spent attached at the sticky parts before he crashed into a fatigue-induced coma? He’d remembered her as sweet. Good to know he hadn’t been wrong.
“You obviously work well together,” Kim said. “I would think they’d want to use that.”
“It comes down to how many open positions they’ve got, what specialties they need, that kind of thing,” Cooper said. “There’re more spots for enlisted men than officers, so Mickey and Ace might luck out, but me and Eli will probably end up in different—”
Without any warning, his throat got a big fat lump in it, like a whole plateful of nachos had gotten stuck somewhere around his Adam’s apple. Fuck. He swallowed once, but that just made everything tighter, and damn it, now his eyes had gone itchy. He looked down at the floor and counted to ten. He took a breath and tried again, but nope, still stuck. Goddamnit. He couldn’t even say it; how was he supposed to do it?
He and Eli had been trained to put one foot in front of the other, with specific, tangible goals. Swim this far, hit this target, lift that barge, tote that bale, all of it in service to the mission, whatever that might be. They did what needed doing and then they moved on to the next thing, leaning together like two sides of an arch, strong and solid. So it had snuck up on him a little bit, but now here he was, face to face with turning his back and walking away, serving one mission while Eli served another. He might go to Alaska while Cooper headed to Central America. Or Cooper might end up crawling blind in the caves of Afghanistan while Eli wore spitshine as a bodyguard for some dignitary in Europe. Platoons trained for up to eighteen months and deployed for six, so depending on the tour, he and Eli could go a year or more without spending a day on the same continent.
That wasn’t the worst of it. Spending months away from the people you loved, that was Navy life. Everybody did it, and anybody who expected different probably still put out carrots for Santa’s reindeer and thought the Easter Bunny pooped jellybeans. But nobody knew Eli like Cooper did. He’d come to know when Eli hit the breaking point, when he’d taken on that last bit too much, and then Cooper would do something about it. That something might range anywhere from donut runs to blow jobs, depending, but who’d be watching Eli’s back while Cooper sailed off in the opposite direction?
Sad to say, even that didn’t hold a candle to the humdinger of all worries, the wrecking ball, the grand poohbah: what if they were only as good as they were because they had each other? He didn’t worry so much about Eli—he’d pulled more than Cooper across the finish line. No, Cooper reserved the harshest nugget for himself and didn’t burden anybody else with it: what if he was only as good as Eli made him?
The thought hollowed him out.
Eli’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “We’re both lieutenants junior grade,” he told Kim, picking up Cooper’s slack. “So the odds of us ending up in the same platoon aren’t good.”
“O’Reilly’s got a better chance of winning American Idol,” Cooper said. His voice wasn’t as steady as he’d like, but at least he didn’t disgrace himself.
“It could happen,” Eli said.
“Yeah, but somebody’d have to rig the votes.”
Eli shot Cooper a strange look, but before Cooper could ask what that was all about, the bartender slid a trayful of drinks across the bar and said, “That’ll be twenty-eight dollars.”
Cooper pulled out his wallet and handed over thirty-five dollars, the tip big enough to buy a smile from the bartender. The smile made him passably good looking, and Cooper wondered how he made out with the ladies; maybe he scored if they ran low on willing seamen.
“Can I offer you a drink?” Cooper asked Kim, holding the tray up. “Take your pick. I recommend the B-52. Chavez doesn’t need any more anyway.”
Kim smiled and shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m getting ready to call it a night.” She pointed to a table chock-a-block with honeys on the other side of the bar. “I’m sure any of my friends would be happy to take you up on that, though.”
Cooper didn’t even have to look. He considered himself off the market, and Eli had hardly been on it to begin with, picky as he was when it came to sinking his battleship. Stacked and willing had never been hard to come by, but Cooper’d stumbled over something a hell of a lot better and he’d lost his taste for the easy lay. After Eli, that would be like pouring good whiskey down the drain in favor of a can of lite beer. Cooper glanced over at Eli and caught a lazy grin for his troubles; he’d bet good money Eli was thinking something along the same lines.
“No thanks,” Cooper said absently, “After this round, we’ll probably do the same.”
Eli took the tray from him and turned back toward their corner. “The natives are getting restless,” he said. That was Cooper’s cue to ditch the dame and get back to Testosterone Central where he belonged.
“It was good to see you,” he said, turning back to Kim. It sounded lame and kind of insincere, but “thanks for the fuck, but I bone Eli now” didn’t seem polite.
“Hey, before you go, are you staying on the base?” Kim asked.
“What, tonight?” Please, God, don’t let her be trying for a repeat. He’d have to let her down gently, and then there’d probably be tears or unsolicited sexting or boiled rabbits, when all he really wanted to do was get back to his corner of misery and enjoy it while he could.
“No, I mean from now on,” she said.
Whew, dodged that bullet. Cooper made a valiant effort to focus in on what she was saying.
“Don’t officers have the option to move off base once they’re on the Teams?” she asked. “I’m trying to rent my house and I wondered if you might be interested.”
Kim rummaged in the shapeless bag she had hanging off her shoulder. They had a weird name for those… hobbit bags? “I didn’t have any luck going through the military housing website, so I was going to put this up in a couple of places near the base,” she said. “You’ve seen it so you know it’s small, but compared to most on-base housing, it’s pretty nice.”
She handed him a sheet of paper with a photo showing a house Cooper remembered vaguely as the little concrete bungalow with bougainvillea climbing the walls where she had taken him in the throes of his Hell Week stupor all those months ago. A phone number marched across the bottom of the page in tear-off strips. Beneath the picture he read, “Imperial Beach. One-bedroom cottage w/sunroom and detached garage. Private. Close to beach, NAB, North Island NAS, San Diego NCTS. 800 s.f. $3600/month, fully furnished, utilities included. Two-year lease w/ possible extension.”
It took Cooper a minute to wrap his brain around the change of topic. He blamed the liquor, but the truth was he hadn’t expended a single brain cell on thoughts of where he’d be laying his head at night once he got assigned to a platoon. He had pretty low standards, frankly; the Navy had drilled out any need for quiet, stability, or comfort. Hell, at this point, pillows were for pussies. After graduation, he, Eli, and the boys had moved into combined bachelor housing, where officers and enlisted men bunked in together like they did during training. Combined housing offered a little more room, but its real appeal was the location. Any kind of on-base housing in San Diego was considered something of a coup.
But the idea of renting a house—private, still close to the base, private—smacked up against the memory of sun coming in open windows, the smell of sex and the low thrum of satisfaction. His dick got hard so fast he turned to the bar and put his elbows on it, pretending he needed better light to read by. He wondered how many other Navy jerks might tear off a strip with her number if he turned it down.
He didn’t want her. He wanted the house.
“I know it’s small for the money,” she said. “But if there were two of you….”
He looked over at her and saw it written clear as day in her eyes:he’d been caught.
Correction: they’d been caught, their secret uncovered by a slip of a pony-tailed girl who he’d banged once and thought about maybe twice since.