“Strike out?” Pike asked when Zack made his way back to the table.
“She had to get back to her friends.” Zack tried to sound regretful but doubted he was all that convincing.
“Fry?” Pike passed him a basket of sweet potato fries with some sort of mayo-based dipping sauce that was far spicier than it looked.
“Whoa.” Zack fanned his mouth, then noticed his beer had already been refilled. He took a swig. “Thanks, man.”
“Not into spicy?” Pike managed to make the question sound rather suggestive.
Zack could survive hours of surf torture, but he couldn’t control his blush. “Nah.”
“That’s okay.” Pike swiped a ketchup out of the condiment display on the back edge of their table, passed it to him. “Simple’s good too.”
Zack honestly wasn’t sure whether they were talking about fries anymore, but he nodded. “So...crap week?” he asked partly to avoid a long awkward silence and partly because he figured even Pike couldn’t flirt while bitching.
“Oh man, you have no idea. Defended my dissertation back in the winter. I thought I had a job all lined up with War Elf—”
“That huge role-playing game?”
“Yeah. I did my dissertation on a statistical analysis model of their users’ usage habits over time.”
“Impressive.” Zack blinked. He had a degree himself, but his BA in history didn’t include the wherewithal to decipher all the lingo needed for a math PhD.
“Yeah, anyway, I was told they might have a place for me, but they don’t, so now I’m stuck tossing my hat in the teaching ring. And it sucks.”
“You don’t want to teach?”
“Do I look like professor material?” Pike gestured at himself. Zack let himself do the one thing he tried to avoid and really looked at Pike—faded T-shirt advertising the game Ryan’s boyfriend worked for, ripped jeans. Surprisingly full pink lips. Twinkling green eyes—wait. Clothes. He was supposed to be noticing clothes.
“Not exactly,” Zack mumbled into his napkin.
“I had to wear a suit three times this week,” Pike moaned.
“Dude, until you have to wear the same soggy BDUs for five days running, you don’t get to complain.”
“Okay, okay, you win. I’m just saying that this whole adulting thing bites.”
Zack had seen enough suckage in his life to decide that “adulting” was practically a vacation, but he nodded because a “suck it up, buttercup” wasn’t going to go over well with Pike’s pity party.
“You know what we should do?” Pike brightened, getting a gleam in his eye that frightened Zack more than a live grenade. “Shots. We need to do shots.”
Across the room, the woman from earlier was talking to her friends and as if on cue, the whole table tittered and three blond heads swiveled in his direction before returning to the giggle fest. Fuck.
He knew he’d regret this, probably within the hour, but at that moment he couldn’t stop his head from nodding. “Bring it on.”
“Another round?” Pike headed to the bar without waiting for Zack to say no. They’d done a round of shots, but Pike really needed at least two before he got buzzed. Pike had been intending to get his swerve on even before Zack walked into Mellow all alone and put out over the no-shows. Oh he’d tried to cover it—for like five seconds—but Zack had not been happy to see him. Which was fine, because Pike knew that, like Fireball shots, he was an acquired taste. And twice as much fun. Or at least he liked to think so.
Not that Zack agreed—Pike could tell that he was on the man’s “barely tolerate” list, and even when he was talking about SEAL stuff, he didn’t get particularly happy. Not that he’d gotten any happier when that chick had dragged him out dancing. Pike had figured he might lose Zack for the night to those girls, but then Zack had gone into tourist mode over the gay couples on the dance floor and had his sorry ass booted back.
Oh yeah, Pike had noticed all that. It was why he enjoyed riling Zack up so much—he was the gayest straight person Pike had ever met. And Pike had a mother who loved theater, Glee, and Drag Race. No, with Zack, it wasn’t what he liked or how he spoke or stood. It was his eyes.
Zack’s pale spring-sky eyes went all hungry and needy whenever he was near two men being affectionate—exactly how he’d gotten about the couple next to them and the guys on the dance floor. Even from where he’d been sitting, Pike could see that need rolling off Zack when his attention should have been on the girl he’d been with. He got that way around their mutual friends a lot, and even had the hungry look when Pike and his roommate Landon rolled around on the floor mock-wrestling during a LAN party. And it wasn’t even a flirty thing—Landon was the brother Pike had never had, and tangling like happy puppies was just part of their shtick. Pike had offered Zack a turn, but Mr. Big Tough SEAL had turned crimson and fled the room.
And therein lay the reason Pike was waiting on the bartender to get them their shots—if he got Zack loosened up enough, maybe the guy would actually talk. And despite what everyone thought about Pike being a loose cannon and immature, he totally could listen.
Finally, shots in hand, he made his way back to their table where Zack was texting on his phone. He scowled when Pike set the drinks down. “I was trying two of my buddies, see if they wanted to come out and join us, but they’ve got plans.”
“Too bad.” Pike refused to feel slighted that Zack couldn’t stand being alone with him, and instead passed over the shot. “Guy buddies or girl buddies?”