It was an ugly, muggy, rainy night, and while they weren’t looking for an excuse to stay at the tavern, it was nice to know they had one if they needed it.
The tavern emptied out before the rain started. Everyone sober and paying attention saw it coming: the clouds got thicker and the air got heavier, so it was time to go. Time to pack up and get somewhere dry where you could sleep off the hangover you were going to have the next morning. But a couple people- too drunk, too distracted -remained at the tavern, and a little rain didn’t put the bartender off from serving them drinks as long as the money kept coming.
Damion got loud when he was drunk. It was a boisterous, jubilant, magnetic kind of loud; a laugh that filled the room, a rhythm in his voice that turned a bad joke into a song. Natalia loved it, and thought it got better the drunker she got. She had never been a fan of wine when it was a dinner beverage, but get everyone drinking and they don’t notice that your voice is a little high, that your hips are a little wide, that you talk like a western bureaucrat. And drinking was a lot of fun with someone like Damion.
Their platoon had left, and they were the only soldiers left in the bar; usually that would make them a nuisance, but Damion kept buying everyone drinks and tipping well, so the help looked the other way when he sloshed half of his mug on the bar table, and bellowed songs so loud that the cats sang back to him from outside. Nat kept drinking, far past the point she should have because he kept buying her drinks. He was buying them for her. She knew it and he knew it, but neither of them were going to let the rest of the bar flies know, and after all, they didn’t care anyway.
“I ever tell you, Sergeant?” Damion slurred, throwing his thick arm around Natalia’s neck, “I ever tell you, that I ran away from home?”
“You, Lieutenant?” Nat bellowed, clapping him on the back. “What’d you have to run away from, a hoard of dames on your tail?”
They roared with laughter, and when Damion pounded on the table the bartender steadied a glass vibrating toward the edge.
“Yeah, that’s it!” the rosy-cheeked lieutenant chortled, wiping his eyes with a dirty palm. “Just one, just one.”
“Just one? That doesn’t sound right, what’re you running from one for?”
His laugh broke up with a couple hiccups. “Sister.”
“Your sister? What’s she doing chasing after you?”
“No you dumb son of a bitch, I told you it ain’t that!” he chuckled. “Nah… She wanted me to marry, but not her. Some… tiny little eastern girl who didn’t get her hands dirty. One of those types to have servants feed her and shit.”
Natalia licked her lips and shook her head firmly. “Can’t be having that.”
“Can’t be havin’ that.” He nodded, grave. He was still talking loud, but his words were intimate. The other patrons turned their eyes away. “Had’ta get outa there before she had me washin’ my hands before meals…” He let out a whistle between his teeth that erupted into a laugh like the wind was knocked out of him. Despite the tightening in her chest Natalia laughed with him. As if to assure her that she had done the right thing, he pulled her closer, nearly yanking her off her stool to get her next to him. “You know, Nathan?”
Natalia’s hand found his shoulder when she steadied himself, and she took a moment to appreciate the smooth transition of shoulder muscle to pectorals under the thin fabric of his shirt. Her hand lingered a moment longer than it should have, but he was drunker than she was and he didn’t notice. His silence persisted; she heard the rain beating on the roof cease to drips. Several of the patrons stumbled out to find their way home while the rain took a break.
“You know, Nathan?” he said again, suddenly, as if on the cusp of a revelation. “I like you. You’re a different kinda guy.”
She laughed by herself about that. “You think so? I’ll take it, ain’t the best compliment but I’ll take it.”
“Nah, nah, it’s a good thing.” He pursed his lips, let the words settle, and nodded to affirm he still liked them. “Most of these soldiers… basic. Here ’cause they gotta be, or they wanna be. Not you. You’re here because… you are.”
“I sure as hell am,” she said, her voice lowering. The rain had started again. Only one other patron remained, passed out on the table in the corner. She could feel the lieutenant’s heartbeat where her side was pressed against his: slow, hard, like the chime of a grandfather clock. She couldn’t remember the last time she had heard one.
“There’s something different about you,” he repeated, looking down at her through narrowed, hazy eyes. She stared back at him confidently; a habit that, even in her drunkenness, she had not forgotten from training. “Nobody else out there’s got it. But you got it. And I like it.”
The beat of his heart competed for her attention with the rush of heat to her ears. She suddenly felt too warm. “What is ‘it’?”
“It’s….” The word spread, took up more space in his mouth than it should have. It came out slow, pressed between his tongue and the bridge of his mouth until he squeezed it flat. He leaned in closer, eyes still searching, and Natalia didn’t mean to meet him, but she did. Her eyes slid closed as his lips pressed against hers, soft wet, a little miscalculated, and for a moment all she could sense was his breath against the bridge of her nose and the taste of wine on his lips. She leaned in closer, wanting more, but he jerked away like a cat startled by an electric shock.
The force of the repel nearly knocked him off his bar stool. “Jesus!” he hissed, gripping at the table with desperate fingers. His massive black eyes fixed on her with startling precision, as if she had sucked all of the alcohol out of his system and suddenly he was perfectly sober.
She couldn’t seem to react fast enough, but she recoiled too, leaned far back on her bar stool, and all the heat between their locked lips flooded to her cheeks as she tried to remember how to breathe again. Her heartbeat roared in her ears, and a voice in her head was screaming panic, run, get out, you’rve ruined everything, it’s all over now.
“Oh Jesus, Jesus fucking Christ,” Damion muttered, rubbing his lips on the back of his hand. He looked like he wanted to run, but something kept him grounded on the spot like his butt had grown roots. He didn’t even look away from Natalia as she sat there, head swimming, mind screaming. She wanted to get away just as bad as he did, but she couldn’t seem to remember what exactly laid beyond the tavern.
The bartender picked up Natalia’s empty mug, and both of their eyes jerked toward him. The man cleared his throat as if the air was too dry. “You gonna be wanting a refill?… No need to look at me like that, I don’t judge. Everybody’s got a secret they leave at the bar.”