Home > Off Base (Out of Uniform #1)(9)

Off Base (Out of Uniform #1)(9)
Author: Annabeth Albert

    “I can handle it, sir,” Zack said firmly. No way, no how was he rooming with anyone again. And the fact that he’d never done renovation? Not going to be an issue.



           Chapter Four


    “You sure you’ve got this?” The senior chief helped Zack set the box inside the bathroom. Really, Zack could have carried the toilet by himself. Surely installing it wasn’t a two-man job.

    “Absolutely. Go check on the family.” Zack walked the older man back through the house, mentally noting all the things left to do. Ratty hall carpet. Baseboards in dire need of paint. Dingy walls in the living room. Ancient miniblinds in the front windows. He and the senior chief had spent the day making a list of what needed to be done, and they’d done the first of what looked to be several massive Home Depot trips.

    And judging by the number of texts and phone calls he got, the senior chief had stayed away from home too long. Zack could totally handle a toilet install on his own. Him, his search engine and a pizza. What better way to spend a Saturday off, right?

    Dancing. Warm bodies. The burn of Fireball. Unbidden, images from that night back in June crept into his head. Next week, he was scheduled to go to Santa Monica for a fast trip for Ryan’s birthday. And maybe...

    Nope. Zack shook his head, trying to clear the haze and lingering threads of club songs. Installing a new can should be exactly the distraction he needed.

    One pizza and lot of YouTube tutorials later, Zack was ready to tackle removing the old, cracked toilet.

    “Mother f—” Zack sputtered as water hit him square in the face. Water valve off. Idiot. He could defuse a bomb under pressure. No way was he being defeated by a crapper. The tutorials had warned him that getting the water out could get gross, and they weren’t kidding. Then he ripped the sucker out, sweating more than he thought he would. The bolts were corroded and disgusting. Damn thing was slippery and unwieldy as fuck but finally he tossed it in the big Dumpster the senior chief had arranged for.

    Now to install the new water-saving model they’d picked out. The place where the toilet had been was gross, and Zack did not like gross, especially not the odors coming up from the pipe.

    “Stupid fucker!” he shouted two hours later as he still didn’t have it right. Somehow water had sprayed again, and even worse, it was leaking around the base of the toilet, which meant he’d probably fucked up the wax seal. A trip to the home store yielded another wax seal kit, this one on his dime, because no way was he confessing how hard this was to the senior chief. More scraping. More cleaning.

    He slammed the toilet down a second time, being extra firm, and...

    Cracked the fucking bowl. Which he didn’t realize until he’d connected everything again and discovered water leaking again.

    Now it was another trip, this one right before the home store closed for the evening. Another toilet, this one making his credit card wince. Then after getting that installed—finally—he had to pull the carpet from the hallway so he could disguise the second toilet in the Dumpster. It was pushing midnight by the time he finished, and he’d rubbed his hands raw with the carpet pulling because he’d forgotten gloves.

    And apparently he had a dust allergy to boot, judging from his watering eyes and itchy face.

    Fuck. He climbed into the shower. Maybe living off base wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

    * * *

    “Zack’s here,” Pike’s longtime friend Josiah said as he let him into his boyfriend Ryan’s birthday party, which was really simply an excuse to eat snack food and game together.

    “Why should that matter to me?” Pike asked carefully.

    “Uh, because you always care when Zack’s around.” Josiah laughed. This wasn’t strictly true—ever since their night of drinking together, Pike had been nothing but relieved when Zack hadn’t turned up for activities with their crowd. Whatever harmless crush he’d had had died that night, replaced by something far more complicated and tangled, but he wasn’t explaining all that to Josiah, so he just shrugged.

    “And when I told him you were coming, he looked like he ate bad shrimp. Something going on with you guys?” Josiah’s eyes narrowed. Great. All Pike needed was a suspicious best friend.

    “Nope.” Pike set his chips and soda on the breakfast bar in Ryan and Josiah’s small kitchen. “I’m too busy freaking out about my own shit to worry about his.”

    “Still no luck?” Josiah grabbed one of the Sriracha chips, then coughed and grabbed a cup of water. “Jeez. Warn a guy, why don’t you?”

    “Sorry. And yeah, I never thought the hard part of finally getting a job would be finding a place to live.”

    “Well, talk to Zack while he’s here. He knows San Diego better than you. And he’s moving off base.”

    “Zack knows what?” The guy himself wandered over.

    “San Diego,” Josiah said.

    Pike nodded, but he didn’t need an audience—or worse, assistance—for his housing quest. And it wasn’t like the Zack idea hadn’t already occurred to him a time or twelve, but they’d left things rather...awkward, and something in him had held back.

    “Kind of,” Zack said, shrugging. He was carefully avoiding Pike’s eyes. Yup. Awkward. “I’ve been mainly on base or close to base since I’ve been there. You looking to vacation or something?”

    “Ha. I wish I had the cash for a vacation. No, I’ve accepting a visiting professor gig at a college in San Diego. I’m having a terrible time finding a place for me and the cats in my tiny price range.”

    Zack’s eyes went wide, with him no doubt realizing that this put Pike on his turf, put the memories of that night too close to the surface for a guy who liked to button it all down. This was why Pike hadn’t contacted him. That “how could you do this to me?” look.

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