Can't Go Back

by: Romano | Complete Story | Last updated Feb 24, 2015

Chapter 8
Not Your Son


"Have you lost your flippin’ mind?!"

"Eric, it’s true. I know it sounds insane, but-"

"You’ve been gallivanting around this whole time acting like everything’s fine when really, you’ve been balancing some delicate fucking tightrope between two separate mentalities!" Eric sums up, his voice strident with harried, angry amazement. "Why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner? Did you think I wouldn’t believe you?" He pushes his hand against his head and digs his heel into his scalp, wrenching his scruffy hair back and inhaling sharply. "How could you keep this from me?" Eric demands. "Dammit, Zach!"

"I didn’t know how to tell you," Zach tries to justify, tone ringed with brutal sincerity as infinite blue orbs fasten on him pleadingly. "It seemed crazy-"

"It is crazy," Eric counters curtly. "But I could’ve helped if I’d only known what in Christ’s name I was dealing with. You should have come to me the second you found out about this."

"I-I wanted to," the boy declares, features contorted in confliction. He feels like he’s going to be sick. His palms are sweating, fingers tingling. The guilt is ravaging his insides. "I just…I couldn’t. Eric, I swear, I didn’t mean for it to go this far-"

He would do anything to wipe that look of betrayal off Eric’s face.

"Just out of curiosity," he says conversationally, acid littering the foundations of his casual tone, "Were you ever gonna fill me in on your little trip backwards in time?"

Zach hesitates. "…I would have said goodbye."

Squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head, Eric takes a difficult minute to compose himself. His lips shudder with strain as he chokes, "That’s what I thought."

The sight of tears glistening on his-his - Christ - his father figure’s cheeks as he struggles to keep himself in check nearly causes Zach to shrivel up into the foetal position right there. It’s as if someone ripped out his innards and lit his remains on fire, shame burning through his core. He can’t seem to catch his breath. "Eric…Eric, please. Look at me, dammit!"

His voice is a mere whisper. "I…I can’t-"

Because if he looks at him, he’ll see a montage of happy memories - the best memories - and he’s not ready for those cherished moments he hoards inside like precious cargo to crumble to dust before his eyes.

"I’m-I’m sorry," Zach croaks. And weren’t they here before? It seems as if he’s forever apologising and it’s just not good enough anymore. There aren’t words to describe this…this feeling of loss, heavy on his shoulders.

He fucked up. He never should have hid this from him. "I am so, so sorry. I understand if you feel like I exploited you-"

The man makes a noise of disgust. "Give me some credit!" he snaps. "I don’t feel used, Zach. Jesus. I’ve got a news flash for you, punk. I’m not some blubbering teenage girl whose first kiss reeked of alcohol and disappointment. You’re telling me that I’ve been setting myself up for-for parenthood unknowingly for months and you didn’t trust me enough to let me in on the big secret! Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been? I didn’t have a clue what was happening to you and it fucking terrified me!"

"I’m sorry, I didn’t think-"

"You’re damn right you didn’t. Aren’t you the one always preaching about how we’re a team? That I should treat you like an equal because we can accomplish anything so long we confide in each other?" He snorts. "Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think we’d go prancing off into the sunset together or anything - but seriously? Bet you feel like a pansy-ass tool now."

"No," Zach replies quietly. "I feel like the cold-blooded prick who just exposed every minuscule weakness in his friend and mentor and proceeded to gouge out every single one of them."

"Right." The reflective sheen to Eric’s eyes doesn’t go unnoticed.

After that, they lapse into agitated silence, with the lawyer burning a troubled hole into the floor as he paces while Zach holds his face in his hands and awaits his verdict with grim resignation. One thing is clear: it’s only going to get so much worse. The shocking revelations aren’t through with them yet.

"I’ll do it," Eric suddenly pronounces, voice gruff with I’ve-made-my-bed-don’t-think-that-I-won’t-lie-in-it.

Zach glances over at him in confusion. "What?"

"I’ll be your caregiver…thingy," he says uncomfortably. "Whatever it is they’re calling it. You’re a minor, Zach," he recounts, forging ahead knee-deep into damage control mode. Because of course he would jump into the logistics of it. Of course. You can’t patch up fickle feelings in one remarkable swoop, after all. He’s a man of the facts.

But this isn’t a court hearing gone sour or a skinned elbow or dodgy bylaws. This is real life. Their lives. There are no loop holes and you can’t kiss it all better. Not through outlining a step-by-step, bullet-proof strategy. Not like this.

"You’ll need a legal guardian," he continues, oblivious to Zach’s deep-set frown. "You can’t smoke or drink or gamble. You can’t drive for at least another two years. Hell, you can’t even get a tattoo even with parental consent. Not unless you want to go out of state, anyway. I’m a respectable, well-adjusted single guy with a considerably high, steady income, who can more than afford to take a runt like you under my wing. You’re basically my own personal freeloader anyway. What more is a little scrap of paper?"

"No. No, I can’t let you do that."

"You’re not letting me do anything," Eric fires back, and his eyes are cold. "I’m offering."

"And I’m saying no."

"Why? Who else is it gonna be, huh?" he asks, tilting his head in patronising curiosity. "I mean, no offence, but you don’t exactly have a free pick of the custodian litter, Zach. So who’ll it be? Me? Cory? Nolan?" He chuckles. "Come on. Be realistic."

"Could you please take this a little more seriously?" Zach bites, hands clenching by his sides.

Eric stiffens. "Whatever gave you the impression that I wasn’t?"

"Uh.. how about the fact that you haven’t at all thought this through?" he jeers, prowling forward as his lips warp into a furious snarl and his hard, blazing stare drills into his. "This isn’t the kind of thing that you volunteer for on a whim, Eric! We’re talking about a drastic, permanent lifestyle change. There is no backing out once the deal has been struck. You can’t renegotiate the terms of your agreement the minute they no longer suit your purpose. Read the damn fine print before you sign the dotted line!"

"Quit nitpicking," Eric accuses. "We’ll work it out. We always do."

"You can’t guarantee that! Don’t you see how big this is? No, obviously, you don’t, if all you can manage is a great, big whoop-de-doo!" Zach cries sarcastically, throwing his hands in the air carelessly. "God, Eric, this would change everything. You won’t just be some slick, bamf lawyer with zero roots beyond your commitment to your job. You’ll be a dad."

Eric purses his lips and half-shrugs. "And?"

"And? And?" Zach repeats incredulously. "Believe it or not, that actually means something!"

Blinking slowly, he drawls, "I never would have guessed."

Overcome with frustration, the youngster grits his teeth and breathes out evenly, before relaying, "Listen, there’s no point arguing with you. It doesn’t matter anyway."

Eric’s eyes slim with suspicion and he asks, "What’s that supposed to mean?"

"It means I’m not giving you the option. Simple as." He doesn’t need to pause to deliberate. What Eric doesn’t understand is that he’s already made up his mind. Long ago.

Tipping his chin and precisely appraising him, his boss furrows his brows and states in surprise, "You’re serious."

"Yeah. I am. You’re not taking me in," he responds resolutely. Then, bracing himself for the oncoming objections, his tongue darts out to nervously lick his lips as he reveals, "I…I…" He blows out a breath. "Look, I want to go into foster care." Eric instantly pales. "The system’s not great but it beats botching up your five-year plan. Managing partner in two, right? Gotta have your name on the wall sometime."

He is completely bowled over, fighting speechlessness as he splutters, "Zach, that’s ridiculo-"

"I’m not dicking around," Zach tells him. "Look, I’ve thought it through and this is the only reasonable conclusion I’ve come to. It’s what’s best for everyone."

"You can’t-That’s not-What…what about your stuff?" Eric asks wildly, floundering. "Your apartment?"

"Already boxed and ready." He thrusts out his chin, tensing shoulders the only sign of remorse. "As for my apartment, I moved out weeks ago. There’s already a new tenant."

"You…you did all of this behind my back?"

"You don’t sound impressed," he notes.

"All the evasiveness, the sneaking around…" Zach doesn’t think there’s anything in this world that could possibly erase the hurt that pierces his voice. His wounded expression is simply shattering. Smeared with the realisation that Zach never intended on staying. Ever.

It’s gut-wrenching to witness the exact moment someone throws their walls up and barricades themselves inside.

In the belittling tone of someone who already knows the answer and merely seeks confirmation, Eric demands, "Just how long have you been planning to throw all of this away, exactly?" And Zach isn’t naïve enough to think this will lead anywhere favourable.

"I’m not throwing anything away!" he retorts, nostrils flaring, jaw clamped so tightly that it might ache, but it’s impossible to tell with the grief spearing his lungs and wringing out his stomach. "Eric, don’t you get it? I’m giving it back. I’m trying to give you your life back. No more stressing over my silly shit. No more compromises. No more packing kiddie lunches and hugging night night. You can go back to doing whatever you please with whoever you please, without me getting in the way. I won’t be invading your home and monopolising all of your time. You can be free."

He laughs weakly. "I can waiver all responsibility and leave you high and dry, you mean."

"Maybe," Zach murmurs. "But it was always going to end this way, Eric. It was never going to last forever - any of it. Deep down, you know that. Least this way I can…I don’t know. Do things differently. Do…better. The time for playing housies is over. It’s time to get real."

"You’re full of shit, kid. And you know it." It doesn’t have to end like this.

"I’m just trying to do what’s right." It’s over.

"Right for who exactly? You?" His heated gaze slices into Zach’s disintegrating determination, exuding undiluted bleakness that belongs anywhere, absolutely anywhere, except on a brazen man like Eric’s face, and for the first time, the kid begins to question if he can truly go through with this. He starts to speak - to summon some pretty sentiment out of nowhere - but for the life of him, he can’t think of a single thing. "Because it sounds to me like you’re running from the only real thing you’ve ever known. You know what I think?" he sneers. "I think that whatever this shit is that we’ve landed ourselves in feels right. Too right. And that scares the hell out of you."

"You’re not listening! Man, you never listen!" Zach shouts. "This isn’t a get out of jail free card, Eric. None of this is a get out of jail free card!"

"You’re goddamn straight it isn’t," his boss utters forcefully. His voice grows more passionate with each word. "It’s a stupid-ass decision which you are going to regret for the rest of your life. Because I won’t throw you under the bus, Zach. But at the end of the day, it’s your call. And despite what I might think about your bull-crap best intentions, I’ll respect that it’s your choice to make."

"Good," Zach answers simply. "Then I’ll be sure to close the door on my way out." He smiles but it feels like a lie. He smiles but it’s brittle and it splinters. But that doesn’t matter. He knows what he’s doing is right. "Better late than never, right?"

"I won’t grovel, Zach. I don’t grovel."

The former associate lays a hand on the door handle and pulls. "I would never expect you to."

In that moment, his breaths are as shallow as his godforsaken smiles.

"For what it’s worth…" Eric murmurs, utterly defeated, "You’re making a huge mistake."

Zach nods briskly, tears blurring his vision and months worth of cultivating this incredibly easy (too easy) bond stuck in his throat. He swallows slowly and sniffs. "See you in ten years, Eric. It’s been a helluva ride, but I’d like to step off now."


When Cory finds him, he’s seated on the couch of his office, scotch in one hand, the other stroking Jellybean’s fur.

She doesn’t comment on his dishevelled appearance - hair unkempt, shirt crinkled under his half-buttoned vest, jacket cast aside, ever-darkening circles under bloodshot eyes. All she sees is the anguish shinning clearly in her best friend’s eyes, plain as day. The same anguish she knows, out there, somewhere, is mirrored in the absent Zach.

"Oh, Eric…" Cory whispers. She realises he must have been here all night.

Breath hitching painfully, he blunders his way through the entire story with his head resting on her shoulder, gripping the furry wolf as she rubs circles onto his back. It should be shocking, but somehow…it isn’t.

"Yikes. I can’t believe you were gearing yourself up to be Zach’s father," Cory articulates at last, after a long spell of thoughtful silence.

Eric gazes up at her through dull, half-lidded eyes and deadpans, "Yes, you can."

"Yeah, I was just trying to make you feel better," she confesses breezily. "Is it working?"

"What do you think?" he says dryly, but Cory swears she detects a hint of a smile in his voice.

"And you just let him walk out of here?" she asks disbelievingly.

The weight of his resulting stare is suffocating. "What was I supposed to do, Cory?" Eric gripes. "Ring up social services and say, ’Hi, there. If you happen upon a young, vulnerable teen, - fluffy dark hair, about yeigh high, acts a bit like a yipping, bouncy chipmunk - could you please return him to this address? Thanks very much for your help.’ And when they ask what relation I am to said vulnerable teen and - why might he have run away? Are there any problems at home? - I’ll have the pleasure of saying, ’Oh. He doesn’t actually want anything to do with me. I’m just the guy who used to write his pay checks.’"

And no, he does not sound the least bit bitter.

Shoving him away and tutting, Cory rolls her eyes and mutters, "God, you can be such a butt-head sometimes."

Insert raised brows. "Excuse me?"

"Oh, come on! Jump off the pity wagon already. Boo fricking hoo," she mocks. Cory shakes her head and sighs, before reproaching, "You are the adult in the equation, Eric. Or have you forgotten Zach and his obviously fickle state of mind? He doesn’t know what he wants! Well, no," she amends, poking her cheek with her tongue. "He does. But he’s too much of a hopeless, self-denying moron to ask you to make that sacrifice!"

"Wait a sec. I never insinuated-"

"But that’s what he’ll believe," she explains more gently. "He’s just a kid trying to make the best of a pretty suckish situation, and he’s putting you and your needs first when it should be the other way around. He thinks that this will have some sort of negative impact on your life when he couldn’t be farther from the truth. You don’t see how you are with him, Eric, but I do. And I’ll be damned if I let either of you throw away something that damn good."

"Cory, he doesn’t want me."

"Have you not been listening to a word I’ve said? Or that he’s said?" she exclaims. "Zach is about one adoring hair ruffle away from flinging his arms around your neck and holding on forever. But it’s stupid shit like that that’s driving him away. He doesn’t want to burden you with his neediness. I mean, hellooo," Cory sings, "He’s been looking after himself for years. He and self-sufficiency have a loooong history and Lord knows, that kid has a stubborn streak that may even surpass yours. You are the one who has to man up and tell him how you feel. It’s up to you to show Zach that you care about him as more than just your work buddy or earnest little sidekick. That boy is a bundle of insecurity and abandonment issues. He needs to be reassured that you want him to stick around for life."

Eric moans, "I don’t know ho-"

"Yes, you do. Use your words, Eric," she encourages patronisingly, patting him on the back. "You’ve been known to revive a little soppiness when the occasion calls for it." She pauses, tilting her head to the side and allowing, "Granted, it’s buried under years of self-denial, malfunctioning defence mechanisms and stoic, rather-cut-your-own-balls-off-and-eat-them-than-acknowledge-that-you-feel-things machoism, but that beautiful, sensitive man is in there somewhere serenading to flowers and crying at mushy chick flicks."

"Thank you, Cory," he grumbles, "For not making me feel like some fucked-up cross between a soulless douche-bag and a gigantic pussy."

Running her fingers through her hair, the woman shrugs lightly and beams, "That’s what I’m here for."

"I just…What if…?" Eric trails off and sighs, eyes incorrigibly serious. "What if I can’t fix this?"

"You will," Cory declares in a hard tone which dares anyone to disagree. "You’re Eric fucking West, aren’t you?" She jerks out her chin. "Last I heard, that son of a bitch doesn’t go down without a fight."


He won’t return his calls.

He doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing - Zach could be anywhere! The nagging worry follows him around everywhere, all the time, no matter where he goes or who he’s with.


It’s fucking intolerable.

How Zach ever thought things could go back to normal - that he was capable of reverting back to his old ways in an instant - is beyond him. Without his puppy by his side, Eric doesn’t think things will ever feel normal again.

Eric feels numb. Like this is all simply a dream, and tomorrow he will wake up to Zach’s exasperating whining as he throws a spectacular strop over breakfast - happy, more so than ever, to call his house a home.

But it’s not a dream; this is real. And it’s eating at him, it’s incurable.

Then comes the day all of his worst fears come true.

He is gathering the paperwork he was supposed to be working on - his concentration has been shot to hell - in his hands and is stacking them into a semi-organised pile to deal with later - always later - when he receives a perturbing call.

"Eric West?" an unfamiliar voice inquires.

He frowns, pausing in confusion. A new client, maybe? "Speaking."

"This is the Royal Hospital," the woman clarifies and his stomach drops to his shoes. "We’re calling about a Zach Holden. I don’t mean to alarm you, but-"

"What happened?" he questions in a panicked rush, heart hammering in his throat. "Is he okay?"

"I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss the matter over the phone. I assure you, it’s nothing serious-"

"I’m on my way." Hurriedly grabbing his things, one shoulder supporting his cell as he gratefully thanks her, Eric hurries out the door with only a breathless, ’It’s Zach. I’ll explain later,’ to an alarmed Cory. After a maddening hour stuck in traffic, he at long last arrives at the hospital, heading straight to the nurses’ station.

The collar of his shirt scratching his neck, a ripple of anxiety pursuing his every movement, Eric ignores his pounding headache and stammers out a polite, "Hi, I’m here about Zach Holden. I got a call over an hour ago to say he’d been injured?" It’s not supposed to be framed like a question, but somehow it ends up as one.

"You’re his father?" the nurse asks, glancing up.

"Yeah," he confirms without pausing. "Is he alright? They wouldn’t tell me anything."

"Relax, sir. He’s fine. Your son had an accident-"

Eric blanches, fretting, "What kind of accident?"

"He tripped and fell down a flight stairs-" The lawyer’s legs go weak at the knees and he braces himself against the desk. "Oh, no," the nurse quickly intervenes, noticing his reaction. "Come on. Take a seat. Deep breaths. That’s it." Eric struggles to pull the air into his lungs, feeling dizzy and shaky and completely out of control. He’s aware on some level that his ass has by some means spontaneously tracked down a chair, but all he can focus on are his loud, demanding gasps. He’s never felt like this before.

After a few horrifying minutes of weakness, a touch of colour is restored to his ashen cheeks, while a little feeling returns to his stiff limbs.

"You good?" the young nurse enquires kindly, brows knitted in concern. Suppressing a grimace, Eric nods, not trusting his voice. "Let me fetch you a glass of water. I’ll be right back. The doctor will be with you shortly."

True to her word, he gets his water and a thin, attractive woman in her late thirties appears little over half an hour later, calling out, "Family of Zach Holden?"

He stands abruptly.

"Hello, I’m Dr. Lambert," she greets, shaking his cold hand. "The good news is, your son is fine. Some slight bruising and a mild concussion, but no long-lasting damage, you’ll be glad to hear. He was very lucky." Yeah, lucky enough to fall down the stairs. "But we’d like to keep him overnight for observation all the same. It’s just a precautionary measure. I’m positive there’s nothing to worry about it."

"So he’ll be okay?" he double-checks.


Eric breathes easily for what feels like the first time in weeks and wonders, "Should I...? Yeah, I should, go, um, see-"

"You’d better hurry," she smiles softly at him. "He’s been asking for you. Room 119."

That’s all he needed to hear.

Scrunched in pain, Zach’s face lights up when he sees him and he extends an impatient hand and whimpers, "’Ric," with blotches of red staining his water-logged cheeks, causing Eric to shut down almost immediately. It’s not that he’s staring, but it’s the way he’s staring - like Eric is the most incredible person in the world. It has the same effect as a blow to the chest.

It…this…it’s breaking his damn heart.

All of a sudden, he has no idea what to do.

"’Ric," Zach moans around his thumb. He’s so small. Was he always this small? It sure doesn’t feel like it. "Huwts, ‘Ric."

That single sob spurs him into action.

Weak fingers clutch his expensive tie as he gathers the teen in his arms and tugs him onto his lap. "Shh, I’m here now," he appeases, stroking his trembling frame and peppering his face with kisses. Lowering his voice to a whisper, Eric murmurs, "Your Dad’s finally here." He wipes away hot tears with the pad of his thumb and tucks his head under chin, craving the closeness.

But the moment is bittersweet.

His meter is running. Zach won’t be hopped up on painkillers forever. Sooner of later, he’ll have to pay the ugly price.

Eric rocks the half-delirious boy back and forth and gently pats his back, and despite the heavy quietness of the hospital, the quietness of the cramped room, right then he wills for silence.


Another hand grips his arm and he feels something cool and pointed stroke his vein. Injecting or withdrawing - how can he be sure? Groaning, Zach musters the strength to waver his eyelids, yet all he can see is darkness. Spits of light reveal carefully crafted, interwoven lengths of white string - a cloth, then. One that is damp and uncomfortably sticky on his forehead. His lashes softly brush against the material as he tries in vain to look around him, only to be hushed by a smooth, soothing voice crooning mellow lyrics in his ear.

The boy feels pressure on his scalp then, featherlike fingers gently teasing his hair.

Reaching up and stroking what feels like late-night stubble, he slurs, "’Ric?" A burning sensation in his head hinders his thought process and everything is so confusing, infected with haziness.

"I’m here, puppy. I’m right here." Lips stick slightly to his hair and he slowly becomes aware of the two long arms stretched securely around him. Squirming in agitation, he snuggles into the warmth enveloping him and breathes in a familiar, crisp scent, instinctively calmed. "There we go. Take it easy, sleepyhead. You’re okay. I’ve got you."

Reassured, he closes his eyes once more. When Zach opens them, the cloth is gone.

Unfortunately, he can’t say the same of his former boss.

He sits in the chair beside him, cradling a bundle of their interlaced fingers against his torso as he softly hums, abruptly cutting off as Zach’s involuntary gasp of pain calls attention to his recovering responsiveness.

Neither speak as Zach slowly retracts his clammy hand, withdrawing from the offer of warmth and comfort and encouragement.

Despite the pain meds pumping through his system, there is no numb indifference, no escape from the sudden pang of loss that surfaces the second he allows himself to feel it. The second unconsciousness slips away and he’s left painfully, achingly alert, with nowhere to run and hide. Not this time.

He raises his hand to his head and feels the fresh gauze, imagines the dried, crusted blood that had saturated the previous bandage, fixed with the amateurish skill of a considerate stranger. Head wounds bleed a lot, he’s learned.

Zach doesn’t remember much. The fall itself is a blur. Hardly a surprise either, given his absentmindedness sometimes. Memories merge of tears and throbbing and furious red and queasiness and dry heaving.

He remembers crying out for Eric.

He didn’t come. Yet now he’s here.

The only sounds are of the screeches of rubber soles on the polished floor from the corridor, the hopeful beeping of monitors, the distant buzz of conversation, their matched breathing. They still don’t speak. They don’t say anything.

Settled on Eric’s lap is a bright-eyed Jellybean. Somehow that makes everything worse. Why couldn’t he have just forgotten about him?

"What are you doing here?" Zach asks finally, forcing his mouth to co-operate.

"Well, hello to you, too. Thank you, Eric, for staying with me all night," the older man responds in a poor imitation of the boy’s voice. "Oh, no problem, Zach. Anything for my little darling."

"I never asked you to come down here," he points out haughtily.

Eric snorts softly and shakes his head in disbelief. "Then you probably should have cashed me in for a spanking new medical proxy when you politely excused yourself from my life," he shoots back.

Zach morphs his lips into a relaxed, cocky smirk. "Sorry. I was going get around to that eventually. Had other things on my mind. You understand, right?" The intensity of the animosity that laces his words takes Eric by surprise and he bites back the snappy retort lathering his tongue. He’s had enough sarcasm to last a lifetime.

Brows creasing as his tries to decipher meaning in the boy’s unfathomable expression, flickers of doubt awaken in his chest and Eric scratches his neck and clears his throat, before softly admitting, "I’m glad you didn’t."

Zach groans. "Oh, frickin’ hell. Not this again…"

"Zach, I get it. You feel trapped. Like this situation is hopeless because, from where you’re standing, it seems like I don’t have a choice-"

His blue eyes flare. "You don’t have a choice-"

"But I do," he objects. "Of course, I do. I have free will, don’t I? I could walk away, Zach. Any time I want. But I won’t. I don’t want to."

"You should," Zach hurls the suggestion at him so bitterly, it may as well be a knife aiming straight for his heart. "You should dump me in the foster care system ’til I’m legal just like I told you to - why not?" He shrugs recklessly. "I’m not going anywhere. Sadly, there aren’t a whole lot of people out there searching for the ideal, psychologically damaged teenager."

"No, there’s not," he agrees, gaze steady. "Not least the man begging for a chance in front of you."

"Don’t kid yourself, Eric," Zach scoffs, but Eric can see his persistence is affecting the boy more than he’ll let anyone see. "I don’t want your half-assed pity. I’ve been an orphan since I was eighteen years old. I’m no stranger to being alone. I managed by myself before you; I’ll manage again."

"That’s the thing, Zach. You don’t have to."

"Yes, I do," he asserts. "Why are you being so goddamn stubborn about this? Let it go already. Jeez."

"I’m being stubborn? Me? That’s rich coming from the banged up fourteen year old who couldn’t sleep without cuddling into my chest."

"Don’t you dare," Zach hisses. "You don’t get to throw this…this stinkin’ condition back in my face! I don’t need any crap from you about things that I can’t help. I’ve just barely come to terms with it myself."

"It wasn’t intended as a gibe, kiddo," Eric counters, features softening. "I’m just saying, why do you continue to deny yourself things you so clearly need? You left Jellybean and your blanket behind, and, judging by the bags under your eyes, you’ve been paying for it ever since. I caught you tucking your hand under your thigh so that you can’t suck your thumb despite being in obvious distress, both physically and emotionally, and you won’t let me take you in out of this-this twisted sense of loyalty."

"Is there a point to all of this?" His voice is tolerant, even. Eric figures it’s a good sign.

"Why can’t you just admit that this noble plan of yours is dumb as hell and that it’s making us both miserable? Why do you insist on sabotaging your own happiness at every turn?" Eric persists. "Do you know the real reason you won’t allow anyone to help you in your great time of need? Because deep down, you don’t think you’re worth it. You don’t think you deserve a second shot at everything you missed out on the first time round. You’re still punishing yourself over stupid mistakes and it scares me to think that you’re never going to give yourself a break - not even now that you have this clean slate."

"That’s a nice theory you got there, Eric," Zach derides, settling hostile lips over his teeth. "Too bad it’s a load of crap." He’s getting defensive, the blue of his iris’ glittering more vividly than ever, stinging with turbulent venom.

Eric should just let this go. He should back off. But he won’t. He won’t give up. Can’t give up. Not when there’s so much at stake.

"I wish it were," he says earnestly. "Then we wouldn’t be stuck here."

The teen’s smile turns innocent as he lounges back and muses, "Are you sure this isn’t just about you not being able to handle the fact that the last few months were nothing more than a childish fairytale? That a drug made the great Eric West care? You must feel like an idiot."

"I applaud the performance, Zach. Really. Bravo. You’re good, but you’re not that good. You ain’t fooling me."

"I fooled you for over six months."

"No," Eric says slowly, "You neglected to tell me the truth for over six months. There’s a difference."

"Not really," he shrugs. "It was a lie no matter how you look at it. I took advantage of your hospitality and the effects of that blasted chemical. You didn’t know what you were doing."

"Zach, for the last time, I am not being forced into this! I-I want this, okay?" he tells him, desperate to get through to him. To make him see sense. "I want to be there - here - for you. I don’t care what Dr. Debbie Downer has to say, I’m not a cave man. This isn’t uncontrollable instinct making me do shit that I don’t want to do. The truth is… I’m-I’m kind of glad. Or…or maybe that’s not the right word. Maybe I’m relieved, I don’t know. I’ve always been somewhat…" He winces, hesitating. "-Restricted… emotionally and for a while there, it seemed like I couldn’t care, even if I wanted to. It can be a real struggle sometimes for me to let people in. So this?" He gestures fervently between them. "This has given me a chance, too. What if this isn’t just about you finding some mediocre guardian to watch over you and make sure you don’t drink under-age or stay out all night partying? What if I needed this just as much as you do? What if I need you too?"

Zach glimpses at him briefly at that last part, gaze quickly sliding away again, and the older man has his total attention - even if he can’t stand to watch the emotions splay across his face because he’s scared of what it will do to him.

"I don’t want to go back to being that guy who refuses to show even a smidgen of emotion because he’s too damn afraid to look human," Eric confides, before adding faintly, "Please don’t make me."

Zach is quiet for a long time.

Eventually, he brushes his gaze against Eric’s momentarily, then ducks his head and drops his eyes to the bedspread which he kneads nervously, carefully. "Okay," Zach whispers.

The meaning is clear.

With a painfully relieved smile, Eric pulls him into a tight hug and kisses the top of his head with an equally soft, "Okay."



End Chapter 8

Can't Go Back

by: Romano | Complete Story | Last updated Feb 24, 2015


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This was still the best AR story I've ever read.

BrookeThrowaway · Sep 1, 2021

I've had a really rough childhood, and I think the only reason I'm on this site is because stories about... getting a do-over bring me immense comfort. I know you probably won't see this, Romano! I've no clue if you still write, or even look at this site anymore, but I'm thankful regardless. I must've read this story a 100 times in the last few years. So, thank you! If you still write, please show me where.

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