Home > Off Base (Out of Uniform #1)(7)

Off Base (Out of Uniform #1)(7)
Author: Annabeth Albert

    “Gizmo usually stays hidden,” Pike snapped, too harsh again, but damn it, the cat rarely slept with him and Pike fed the damn thing, gave him his meds, and kept his long hair as snarl free as the foul-tempered beast would let him. His other cat, Nectarine, was also the type to stay hidden when strangers were in the house—she was probably under Pike’s bed right now.

    “Umm. Sorry?” Zack gave him a questioning look. “Animals usually dig me. Don’t know why.”

    “It’s okay.” Pike hefted Gizmo into his arms. “Ready to sleep more before the next round of puke-o-rama? I’ll drop him on Landon’s bed for you.”

    “Yeah...” Zack said slowly, giving him a look he couldn’t decipher. “Guess I could sleep. Thanks for everything, man.”

    Pike brushed by him to drop off the cat, and there was a moment, an instant really, when their chests brushed and the memory of dancing together was so strong that Pike swore he could hear the thumping of club music.

    Why do you have to be straight? Pike wanted to yell, especially since it was so damn clear that Zack really wasn’t. What Pike wanted to do was kiss him, tumble him back on Landon’s bed, take care of him until the vulnerability was gone from his eyes again. But he didn’t, instead breaking eye contact and plopping the cat onto the bed.

    “Get some rest,” he said gruffly before heading back to his own bed, which felt far bigger and emptier than usual. It took him a long time to drift off into a fitful sleep, but when he woke up, Landon’s bed was neatly made, the cats fed and Zack nowhere in sight.

    Thanks for everything, said a note pinned to the fridge with Pike’s Han in Carbonite magnet.

    Fuck. Not that Pike had wanted to make the guy breakfast... Okay, yes, yes, he had, for reasons he didn’t really want to examine. Something in him wanted to take care of Zack, and that was the sort of impulse that could only lead to hurt. It was just as well that he wouldn’t have to see Zack for a while.

    * * *

    Unwilling to do the walk of shame to his friends’ house, Zack headed down to San Diego, back to base. His head throbbed too much to turn on his music, which sucked because he usually used the hours between San Diego and LA to indulge in the sort of music he couldn’t confess to liking to his buddies. Without Little Big Town to keep him company, the long stretch of I-5 seemed to drag on forever.

    Coward. The label seemed to dog him louder with each passing mile. He hadn’t even been able to face Pike that morning. The censure from his two cats staring him down as he woke up the second time was bad enough. He’d gotten way too drunk, but not quite drunk enough to forget the dancing. What did I do?

    Thank God, he probably wouldn’t have to face Pike again for quite a while. If ever. Yeah, never again seeing that quiet concern in Pike’s eyes that was dangerously close to pity sounded pretty damn good right then.

    He had to stop in Irvine for gas, and he finally got brave enough to check his phone messages. There were a couple from Ryan, including one that morning.

 

    I told you not to do shots. He drank you under the table, am I right? Come on over after you sober up. Bring the bad influence with you.

 

    Zack typed a fast reply, trying to outrun the guilt that made his gut clench. Heading back to Coronado. Got stuff I need to take care of there. Sorry.

    “Bad influence.” Was that all Pike was? A bad influence. Like maybe Zack hadn’t really wanted to do that stuff. He’d just been caught up in Pike and the moment. Yeah, that was it. Mood lifting, he continued through the rest of his messages while drinking a bitter gas station coffee.

    Harper wanted to go out drinking tonight if he was back on base. Oh hell no. Zack’s stomach roiled. It would be a while before he could touch booze. And it was entirely possible he wouldn’t be able to taste Fireball again without thinking of Pike and the way his neck muscles moved when he swallowed and...

    No. Bad influence, remember? Don’t go getting all sentimental. He moved on to the next message, one from his mom.

 

    Saw the Snodgrasses last night. Leslie says hi. Thinking about you, as always, and praying for you daily. So proud of you. Call when you can.

 

    Fuck. Talk about a guilt sandwich. In less than 120 characters, his mother had managed to pack quite the wallop. First, there was Leslie from church, a pretty enough sweet thing who always followed him around when he was home and who Zack couldn’t work up feelings for, despite how happy it would make their collective sets of parents. Then there was the not-so-subtle reminder of the religion that underpinned his parents’ lives, and the heavy mantle of being the good son, the one who got all their pride and prayers and support. Undoubtedly Danny had fucked up again, and that was why she was hoping he’d call. Oh and the pinch of the reminder that he’d been avoiding calling home the past few months.

    He typed a fast I’ll call you soon message and hit the road, stomach churning around the cheap coffee because he knew it was Saturday morning back home, knew he could have caught her at home before she ran her errands easily, but he simply couldn’t cope.

    The farther he got from their tiny Little Rock suburb, the less he felt connected to that life. Not that he loved his parents any less, more like he simply couldn’t work up a lather over Danny’s latest screwup or the horror of the church getting a new minister. And all his parents’ dire predictions of the “West Coast lifestyle” seemed a bit silly the more he got to know people. His social circle had surfers, vegans, drinkers, and yeah, gay people, and no lightning bolts had hit him yet.

    And none found him on the rest of the drive back, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was letting his family down, wasn’t worth all their pride and prayers and hope. The sick sweat of wasted regrets made his T-shirt stick to him, and he’d needed a shower hours ago. He could have showered at Pike’s place, but somehow that felt too...intimate.

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