Damn you for being a sucker for animals in need. Growing up, he’d vacillated between wanting to be in the navy and wanting to be a vet. He was always rescuing small animals and driving his mom nuts. And even now, all it had taken was the vision of Pike’s poor cats at the shelter to have him wavering on his no-roommates stance.
So here he was on Josiah and Ryan’s back patio, kicking the bark dust while he waited for the senior chief to answer his phone.
“Nelson? Everything okay?” the senior chief barked as he came on the line.
“Fine, Senior Chief, sir.” Zack gulped. “It’s just...remember you said about finding someone else to split the house with?”
“Oh that. Yes. You find someone else looking to get off base?”
“Not exactly.” Zack scratched the back of his neck with his free hand. “I’ve got a buddy in LA who’s an ace at renovation stuff.” I hope to God he’s not lying about that. “And he recently accepted a teaching job in San Diego.”
“Ah. I see.” There was a long pause. “Can you get me his contact information? I’ll just run the same quick check we do on other renters.”
“I can do that, sir. Thank you.”
“So this is a friend or a...friend?” There was no mistaking the senior chief’s emphasis. And while his tone was nothing other than conversational, Zack still recoiled, throat burning like he’d downed the whole bag of those fire chips.
“Friend. Just a friend. Sir. Acquaintance really. Friend of my best friend, that sort of deal.” Fuck he was rambling, and he couldn’t seem to rein himself in.
“That’s fine.” The older man’s voice was a soothing rumble. “Just checking.”
Just checking. Fuck, this was a terrible idea. He already had Cobb riding him hard, and while he’d never once heard the senior chief join in the gay jokes, he couldn’t risk anyone getting the wrong idea. He opened his mouth, ready to take the request back, but through the sliding glass door to the patio, he saw Pike smiling widely as he gestured while talking to Josiah. He looked so relieved compared to how tense he’d been in the kitchen. And then Zack pictured those damn cats. Fuck. What a FUBAR mess.
He was a man of his word. It was how he’d gotten through BUD/S and SQT. If he said he was going to do something, he did it. No questions asked. And he’d told Pike he could make this work. But hell if he knew exactly how.
All of Pike’s belongings fit into the smallest moving truck the rental place had. Bed. Desk. Gaming systems. Computers. He’d had pretty much the same number of possessions since his senior year in college. Because Landon was busy with his research and had had barely enough time to help them load, Josiah had volunteered to follow Pike down to San Diego in Pike’s beater car and then drive the truck back.
“One might think you’re eager to get me out of La-La land,” Pike grumbled, trying to hide his discomfort with gratitude. He never knew how to thank people properly for doing nice things for him.
“Yup. That’s it.” Josiah let him have his fiction. “You’re Zack’s problem now.”
“Zack is a problem.” Pike wasn’t kidding about that. Zack had sent Pike a rental application that Senior Chief Weber wanted filled out, and he’d had a whole list of dire warnings of what would happen if Pike wasn’t 100 percent honest and respectful.
Pish. Like Pike couldn’t figure that out on his own. And Zack had insisted on them doing the moving on one of his off days. Pike was under no illusions that it wasn’t pure helpfulness driving that requirement—he didn’t trust Pike not to fuck up the house. And apparently Senior Chief Weber would be stopping by too, to “lay eyeballs” on him.
Fuck. No one trusted him to be a functioning adult. Even Josiah, who could be the King of Spacey, kept bugging him to make sure he had everything and insisted on double-checking the way the truck was loaded.
They put the cat cases in the rental truck’s front seat, right next to Pike. And three hours later, he was wishing he’d insisted the foul-tempered beasts ride with Josiah. Or on top of the truck. Heck, he wouldn’t be surprised if the surrounding traffic could hear them. Gizmo howled. Nectarine wailed, her plaintive meows making Pike grind his teeth. And that was with the special “relaxer” spray he’d spritzed their carriers with. By the time the GPS led them to a sleepy street close to the base, Pike was every bit as frantic as his cats.
Josiah had beaten him there by a few minutes, and he and Zack were waiting on the small cement slab porch. The house was a nondescript ranch of indeterminate age with weathered cream siding and a few straggly brown plants on the small lawn. A large Dumpster took up part of the driveway, necessitating careful parking on Pike’s part. With an audience. Fuck. He narrowly avoided clipping the Dumpster.
“Do you have a room we could shut the cats in?” Pike asked, too frazzled to greet them properly.
“Yeah. I got the laundry room ready, actually.” Zack opened the front door of the house while Pike brought the cat carriers in. “Figured the last thing we’d need is them escaping.”
“I’ll start with the boxes,” Josiah said.
Zack led Pike through an empty living room and empty dining room to a shabby kitchen with a mudroom off it. To Pike’s surprise, Zack even had a litter box waiting.
“Didn’t want any accidents.” Zack colored adorably when Pike stared at the little area Zack had made—he’d even put down a folded blanket and some water.
“Thanks.” Pike opened the carriers and left the cats to come out at their leisure. Gizmo bolted out while Nectarine cowered in her case. Gizmo, the traitor, wove his way between Zack’s legs, like Zack was their great savior.