None of us had a clue what the club was actually called. It was one of those little shithole bars near Torii Station, the Army base on Okinawa, and the name on the faded sign was in Japanese. The place had been here for decades, and somewhere along the line, somebody had dubbed it The Shack. The name fit. It was rundown—some World War II era building whose original purpose was long forgotten, converted into a bar that made a half-assed attempt at looking like a Tiki bar. We were all pretty sure the long-faded string of Corona lights and the brown grass trim was more to hold the place together than add any kind of ambiance.
But for whatever reason, this was where my squadron liked to hang out, and though I had other plans later tonight, I decided to join them for once. After all, the crowd at Palace Habu—the best gay bar on the island—didn’t get interesting until 2300 or so. This early in the evening, it’d be boring as fuck.
So, I had a taxi let me off outside the ramshackle bar, and walked inside.
“Hey! Roid-Rage!” Lieutenant Commander Vincent, aka Juggernaut, slapped my shoulder as soon as I stepped through the door. “Thought you said you weren’t coming, man.”
I shrugged. “Wasn’t anything good on TV. Decided to come hang with you assholes for a while.”
Juggernaut chuckled. “Glad to have you too, jackass. C’mon. First round’s on me.”
“I like the sound of that.” I let myself be herded toward the bar where the rest of the squadron was already polishing off a round. Probably their third or fourth by now. They’d all planned to meet here at 1930, and that was an hour ago.
At the bar, Juggernaut shoved a beer into my hands. At least it wasn’t the Orion shit they served at all the other off-base bars. Bad beer beat no beer, but thank God that for as shitty as this joint was, it that wasn’t an issue. Especially since I needed a little alcohol in my system before I moved on to Palace Habu.
I joined the guys at their table. As I did, my RIO, Derek “Bear Ass” Morales, turned around and damn near unloaded half his beer down the front of my shirt. “Holy shit. You actually showed up.” He grinned. “Or you just pre-gaming again?”
I smirked and lifted my glass. “Getting some cheap beer before I start chasing cheap ass.”
“Goddammit, man. I do not need to know where you’re putting your dick.” He wrinkled his nose and downed the rest of his beer.
I just laughed, and then took another drink. Truth was, I didn’t like drinking at the club where I intended to spend some time this evening. The beer was over-priced as fuck, and most of what they had on tap was shit. This place may have been a rundown shack, but at least they had decent beer for the equivalent of a few bucks.
“Well, holy hell,” Morales said. “The whole fucking squadron’s here for once.” He nodded past me. “Even Tex showed up.”
“Tex is here?” I turned around, and my heart skipped. Maybe I was just in the mood to get laid tonight, but one look at Lieutenant Commander Austin was enough to send a portion of my blood supply below my belt.
Most guys didn’t make me trip over my own feet like that. I could keep my head together and my tongue untied even while I was flirting my way into a hot man’s bed. But Tex? Goddammit, he was hot. Even in civvies. Some of these guys on the squadron were only fuckable because they rocked the hell out of their flight suits, but anybody looked good in a flight suit. Tex looked good in anything.
It didn’t help that I knew he was gay. The whole damned squadron had known even before we’d all met his last boyfriend.
Everything about Tex fucked with me. He had an accent I couldn’t quite put my finger on—East coast of some flavor, but not quite New York or Boston. He’d picked up the call sign Tex because his last name was Austin, though a pilot on another squadron had decided it was because Texas is only good for steers and queers. I’d have paid good money to have been there the day the pilot said that to Tex’s face. Legend had it, Tex had smirked right back at him and said, “Maybe you could steer me to some queers, then, because I’m in a bit of a dry spell and it sounds like you’re the expert in these parts.”
He was mouthy. He was snide. And he was just… everything I wanted in a guy. Black hair kept in a high and tight—regulation haircuts weren’t quite so strict for us as they were for guys fresh out of boot camp, but as hot and humid as it was here, there was something to be said for keeping the sides shaved. And speaking of the heat, I suspected that was why he had such an amazing tan. It went all the way up to his T-shirt sleeves, and I’d have bet a paycheck and a blowjob that it continued up to those powerful shoulders and covered his lean torso. For that matter, half the guys on this island jogged without shirts on—what I wouldn’t have given for an apartment overlooking his route. Though for the moment, watching him lean over a pool table was—
“Hey, hey, gentlemen!” Juggernaut shouted over the music, startling me out of staring at Tex. He threw an arm around Barbosa’s shoulders so hard he damn near leveled the kid, who’d just recently joined our squadron. “Somebody hasn’t got his carrier quals!”
“What?” I laughed. “Seriously?”
“Guess we know what needs to happen now.” Morales gestured at the other guys. “Line up those tables, boys.”
Without missing a beat, we all grabbed some of the long tables and lined them up across the middle of the room, shoving chairs and smaller tables out of the way. Behind the bar, the owner, an older Japanese gentleman, rolled his eyes and shook his head, but didn’t try to stop us. He probably knew damn well we’d clean the place up afterward, not to mention tip him like crazy. Tipping wasn’t a thing in Japan, but when a bunch of pilots made a mess of your bar, well…
While Juggernaut and Tex ordered a few bottles of the cheapest beer and wine they could get their hands on, Barbosa eyed the tables. “So, uh, how does this work?”
I raised my eyebrows. “No shit? You’ve never even seen a carrier qual?”
“Not like this, no.” He glanced at me. “My carrier quals have always involved, you know, landing an actual aircraft on an actual aircraft carrier. What is”—he gestured at the tables—“this?”
“Jesus.” I patted his shoulder. “You’ve got a lot to learn, amigo.” I sipped my beer. “You’re gonna slide down those tables on your stomach, and they’re gonna hold up a rope at the end that you’ve gotta catch with your feet. Kinda like your tailhook when you land on a flight deck.”
Barbosa stared at me incredulously. “You’re serious.”
“What? You’ve really never done it? Or heard of it?”
He shook his head.
I rolled my eyes and clicked my tongue. “The Academy is seriously failing its cadets these days.”
“Mmhmm. Seems like sliding across the tables would, uh, hurt.”
“Nope.” I nodded toward Tex and Juggernaut, who’d just procured several bottles of cheap shit. “Not when it’s good and lubed up.”
“Lubed—” His jaw dropped as our squadron mates poured the beer and wine all over the tables.
“Somebody find a rope or something?” Juggernaut asked.
“Right here.” Windshield walked in, holding up a cargo tie he’d probably grabbed from his pickup truck. There wasn’t much point in having a big ol’ truck to haul shit on an island this tiny, but once in a while, I was glad someone in the squadron drove one. At least then they always had straps or bungee cords handy.
Juggernaut turned to me. “You want to go first?”
I hesitated. “I, uh…”
“Oh, come on,” Morales chimed in. “After you crashed and burned last time, you need to redeem yourself.”
Barbosa turned to me. “Crashed and burned, eh?”
“I, um…” I cleared my throat. “I attempted a landing”—I nodded toward the dripping tables—“while under the influence of a few too many tequila shots.”
“Exactly.” Juggernaut shoved me forward. “So you’re gonna be the first to land this time.”
Oh hell. Why not? Afterward, I’d either have to run home and grab a shower before going on to Palace Habu, or explain to any potential paramour exactly why I smelled like an entire bar full of booze, but at least the guys might finally get off my back after last time’s disastrous “landing.”
The guys lined up on either side of the “flight deck,” and a few of them dumped some more beer onto the already slick surface. Others held onto their drinks, either because they weren’t planning to waste their alcohol, or because they were going to wait until I slid past them and then dump it on me. Assholes.
From the left side of the tables, Tex caught my eye over the rim of his glass. He grinned, those gorgeous eyes narrowing just right, and damn it, I hoped the guys all poured cold beer on me while I went by. At least that might keep a hard-on at bay.
Settle down, McKinney. Jesus H. Christ.
I stood back from the first table so I could get a good running start. After a few steps, I jumped, landed on my stomach, and slid across the tables as the guys cheered, hollered, and yes, poured ice cold beer on my back. At the far end of the second table, Morales and Juggernaut held the rope so it went under the table and stuck up on either side for my feet to catch. I tilted my ankles, pointed my toes out, and caught the rope just as my chest reached the very edge of the last table, coming to a sudden but safe stop on the slick surface.
The guys roared. Someone dumped something cold on my back and my ass, and I very quickly got up off the table and out of the line of fire. I was soaked from head to toe, but… landing accomplished, hard-on averted.
“All right.” I wrung out the front of my shirt. “Who’s up next?”
“New guy.” Juggernaut grabbed Barbosa and steered him toward the starting end.
I laughed. A new guy’s first carrier qual was always amusing.
One of the other guys took the end of the rope that Juggernaut had been holding, so I stood back to continue drying myself off for this round. Thank God we weren’t in uniform—I’d heard that back in the day, squadrons sometimes did this in their dress uniforms. No way in hell was I trying to get a case of wine out of a set of whites.
Someone appeared next to me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
“Nice landing, Roid-Rage.” Tex elbowed me. “A few more like that, and maybe you can put your bird down a bit more gracefully.”
“Hey. Hey.” I laughed in spite of how hard it was to even stay on my feet around him tonight. “Fuck you.”
He chuckled and winked, then turned to the guys, who were helping Barbosa to his feet after his landing apparently hadn’t gone so well. And I’d missed it, damn it, because I’d been too focused on Tex.
“All right.” Tex set his beer on the bar. “Let me show you boys how this is done.”
My humor was gone in an instant. “Whoa, Tex.” I put a hand on his arm. “You sure you should be—”
“I got this, man.” He shrugged my hand away, and grinned. “You just don’t want to see a RIO kicking your ass on a landing, do you?”
“Uh, no. It’s not that.”
The amusement slowly started evaporating from his expression. “Back off. I’m fine.”
“And I’m serious.” I locked eyes with him. “You really think that’s a good idea with your back and—”
“Hey.” He stepped up right in my face, eyes narrow and lips tight. “Somebody issue you an MD while I wasn’t looking?”
I put up my hands and took a half step back. “I, uh, no.”
“Then back off.” He stabbed a finger into my chest, knocking me back another step. “I know what I can handle.”
I gritted my teeth, but didn’t try to stop him. He was a grown ass adult—if he wanted to be in so much pain he couldn’t move, then more power to him. Dipshit.
I stood alongside the “flight deck” with the other guys, and held my breath as Tex stood back to make his approach. I was more worried about him doing this right than I’d been when I’d done a real carrier qualification. Putting my jet down on the ocean-tossed flight deck and making sure my tailhook grabbed that cable in time to keep me from either having to take off again or sliding off the other end was nerve-racking enough. Watching a semi-drunk idiot do something his sober self would never even consider? Knowing damn well he’d be in agony if he did this wrong? Or even if he did it right? Jesus.
Everyone stood aside. Tex got a running start, and my heart stopped the second his chest made contact with the first table. He was sliding fast, way too fast, and—
And when he stuck his foot out to hook in the rope, he fishtailed a little, but caught the rope the way he was supposed to, and he stopped before the end of the last table.
I exhaled. Thank fuck.
As he started getting up, he misjudged the edge of the table—and probably his blood-alcohol level—and stumbled, but Barbosa grabbed him and kept him from face-planting.
Barbosa and Juggernaut helped him to his feet.
“Nice one, Tex.” Juggernaut smacked his back. “For a RIO, I mean.”
“Hey, fuck you. Says something when the RIOs are outdoing the pilots on this shit.”
“Yeah.” Juggernaut flashed a grin. “Says you boys are better at falling on your faces than we are.”
They both laughed and exchanged more “fuck you’s” before Juggernaut decided it was his turn to show us all how it was done.
Tex stretched a little, and twisted, but then rolled his shoulders and exhaled.
I stepped away from the table. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good.” He tilted his neck one way, then the other, and gave his shoulders one more roll as if to loosen them up. Then he threw back the rest of his beer like it was a tequila shot, and looked me in the eye. “So you really hanging with us tonight?” The arch of his eyebrow and the quirk of his lips made my pulse jump. “Or pre-gaming again?”
I swallowed. “I… hadn’t really decided, to be honest.” Oh, that was bullshit and he had to have known it. If I came to this club at all, it was for a couple of drinks and some laughs with the guys, and everybody knew where I went after. Well, they didn’t know the specifics—the name of the club, the location, whose bedroom—just that once I’d had a few beers, I’d be heading for the door in the name of getting laid.
“You’d rather hang out with us?” He smirked. “When you could be out chasing tail?”
“Well, I…” I cleared my throat. “I’d probably need to change out of this first, anyway.”
He glanced down at his own beer-drenched clothes. “Hmm. Good point.”
“So I might stick around. Since everyone is, well…”
“Fuck that. I feel like getting laid tonight.” He nodded toward the door. “Get a cab. I want you to show me that club you go to.”
I blinked. “Uh…”
“And, hell. By the time we get there, this”—he gestured at his clothing—“will be dry.”
“Except we’ll both still smell like—”
“As if anyone will notice in a bar.” He winked, and then smacked my shoulder. “I’ll get the tab. Meet you outside?”
Oh shit. Oh God. Oh fuck.
“What’s the matter? Don’t want to play wingman for a wingman?” His eyes narrowed, and his grin fucked with my blood pressure. “Don’t worry. I’ll leave some ass untapped for you.”
I snorted. “Wingman? Yeah. We’ll see about that.”
“Yeah, we will.” Tex’s grin broadened. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Fighter pilot Bennett “Roid-Rage” McKinney has had a crush on one of his squadron mates, Aaron “Tex” Austin, for ages. The snarly RIO is sexy, sarcastic, gay… everything Bennett wants in a man.
When Tex has a rare night off from the chronic pain caused by an ejection a few years ago, he reaches for the nearest warm body… which just so happens to be Bennett’s.
After a hot night, though, Bennett wakes up alone. Tex starts sending him mixed messages—one minute he wants him, the next he’s cold-shouldering him. Bennett isn’t interested in playing games, not even with the man he’s been lusting after. One night stands are fine, but he’s not getting involved with someone who might disappear at the drop of a hat.
But as the men try to resist each other, he realizes he’s not the only one who’s afraid of getting involved with a flight risk…
This 20,000 word novella was previously published as part of the Unconditional Surrender Military Collection.