Can't Go Back

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

Chapter 7
Through Your Eyes

It’s cruel, but Zach knows it needs to be done.

He has to slit and slash and hack at Eric’s unwitting compliance and unconditional (ugh, he can’t believe he’s even thinking this) love if he ever wishes to apprehend the truth.

He’s been careful not to quiz the man too much on his motivations before now, hating that flicker of uncertainty that crosses Eric’s face before he buries it, but Zach has to uproot all of the unanswered questions he seems so determined to ignore.

Zach needs to come clean, but to do that, he needs to make Eric see.

It’s like they always say: he has to be cruel to be kind. He has to press until it hurts.

But Christ, if it’s not going to really, really hurt.


-o-0-o- Cory -o-0-o-


After finishing up at the office, Cory drops by Eric’s place to see how the dreaded dentist appointment went. Heavy in her pocket is the mysterious note she uncovered and it’s niggling in the back of her mind, that scattered, frustrated feeling you get when you can’t quite remember that thing you know you tried not to forget.

She can scarcely stomach it.

It’s like there is a blind spot in her vision that she can’t expose and that’s intolerable. She can only hope that someway, somehow her visit will shed some light on the matter.

When Cory arrives, (letting herself in with the spare key) the two are snuggled up on the couch watching the second Captain America film with Zach appearing agitated and unhappy, a crotchety pout that probably should seem out of place, on second thought, looking strangely at home on his babyish face.

"Take it, it didn’t go well?" she questions by way of greeting and Eric, obviously unsurprised to see her, bleakly shakes his head.

"Nope. Zach had a pretty rough day, didn’t you, puppy?" he says sympathetically, petting his soft hair, only for Zach to jerk away and scoot down lower on the couch, chewing on the tip of his thumb. He sighs. "He had to take some painkillers for a little dental work and they’ve been messing with his poor tummy ever since."

She nods. Well, that explains the grouchiness.

"So we’ve been having a Marvel Movie day," Eric declares with too much enthusiasm, clearly hoping that a more lively mood will brighten the atmosphere and maybe even become infectious. "So far Zach has remained…decidedly unimpressed."

"That so?" Cory smirks.

"Oh, yeah. It’s been…" His grin tightens. "Enlightening."

"Ric," Zach whines, butting Eric’s shoulder as he wriggles around uncomfortably and clutches at his stomach. "Feel ’ucky."

"I know you do, puppy," Eric says indulgently, before transferring the kid onto his lap and shaking loose his tight grip. "But the dentist said that the numbing agent will wear off in a few hours, so you’ve just gotta hang in there until then. Can you do that? For me? It’s just for a little while, I swear. I know it’s not very nice." He replaces the pup’s hands with his own, gently massaging the boy’s queasy tummy to relieve the tense muscles in a skilled manner that indicates this isn’t his first rodeo.

With his thumb bearing the brunt of his problems as he bites it, Zach stiffly leans back against his father-figure’s shoulder and sniffles, making Cory’s heart twist. The poor kid looks awful.

Over time, he slowly unwinds, the taut lines of his body softening under Eric’s calming touch until he’s practically boneless, thumb dangling from his jaw which has finally gone slack.

"Feeling any better, puppy?"

Turning and snuggling into the man’s chest, Zach gives a lethargic nod. "Stay with me?" he asks drowsily, fatigued after skipping his daily nap.

Eric hugs him closer and smiles, bopping his nose. "Like I’d go anywhere else."

"Dun’ want you to go," Zach snivels.

"I won’t," he reassures.

Affectionately squeezing the back of the boy’s neck and grazing the ends of his dark hair with his thumb, he then changes the subject with a softly spoken, "You were really brave today, puppy. I’m so proud of you."

"No like the Dentist."

"I don’t think anybody likes the Dentist, kiddo," the man chuckles. "Now how about you try to go to sleep for a bit, hmm?" Before Zach has the chance to complain, Eric adds, "Here, I’ll even close my eyes too, if you want. How’s about that? Nobody’s leaving you, puppy."

Knuckling his eyes and smothering a yawn, Zach grumbles, "Not tiwed…"

"Just humour me, alright?" he requests. "We’ll both have a lovely little nap together. It’ll be great. Pinky promise, I won’t snore. You won’t hear a peep from me, if that’s what you’re worried about." The self-deprecating remark bags him a slow half-smile and Eric brushes a doting kiss across the boy’s crown before murmuring, "C’mon, it’s beddy-bye for my little puppy."

Zach burrows closer but stubbornly shakes his head.

Sighing, Eric momentarily glances up from his sleepy bundle, eyes landing pleadingly on the redhead as he asks, "Cory, you wouldn’t mind fetching Jellybean and Zach’s blankie, would you? I’d do it myself, but, well…"

He gestures helplessly to the youngster currently sprawled on his lap and tiredly fondling his shirt, lids sinking to half-mast as he fights to stay awake. It’s a hopeless battle, though, even she can tell, what with Eric deliberately weaving lazy fingers through his hair while keeping up his soothing rubbing.

Cory smiles warmly at the two of them. "No problem, Eric. Still stows them under the bookshelf?"

He smirks back at her. "You bet. Because obviously there’s no better place to conceal your fluffiest belongings than that dust-harvesting hidey-hole," he confirms, voice hushed but no less amused.

In the ever-present struggle to delay bedtime, Zach has rustled up many different techniques of varying success with the intention of staying up later - all of which Eric felt compelled to share with Cory in fluctuating spells of exhaustion, frustration, and - most of all - overindulgent amusement.

The boy will ’suddenly’ remember that he needs to pee (again), pushing down on his crotch and dancing on the spot after having unleashed the largest of puppy-dog eyes and declaring that he was all but dying of thirst only minutes earlier. He will feel heartbreakingly torn between two pairs of his favourite pyjamas, debating for hours if you’d let him, and the betrayal of choosing his Cars toothbrush over his green Froggy one will cut deep; it’s only ever fair that he uses both of them - but hey, at least his teeth will be extra clean.

Zach will develop the sudden urge to ask the weirdest questions imaginable such as, "Ric, do you think fish get thirsty?" or, "Do hummingbirds hum because they don’t know the words?" or, "How come glue doesn’t stick to the bottle?" and, "What shape is the sky?"

Not forgetting Cory’s personal favourite, "Ric, why don’t they call moustaches ’mouth brows?’ I feel like we’re missing out."

He’s a little devil, conjuring up the most adorable, devoted smiles in existence to make it impossible for Eric to walk away.

But Zach’s oldest - and least effective - tactic of stalling sleepy-land consists of pretending to have ’misplaced’ his night-time essentials (in other words, Jellybean and Blankie) because he knows that Eric knows that he can’t sleep without them. It has a tendency to backfire on the devious little monster, though. Mostly because he phenomenally sucks at hiding stuff and Eric is an expert at finding them within minutes of their disappearance, usually speckled with dust and dirt and with only the threat of Zach’s tears to protect them from being thrown in the wash again.

It makes Cory wonder how Eric became so domesticated (apparently overnight) and why nobody seemed to notice when he did.

"He looks unfairly sweet like that," she voices upon her return as Eric pauses carding his fingers through the youngster’s hair to make the most of the new items his assistant passes over, swaddling both Zach and his cuddly wolf in his beloved blanket, before beginning to rock. "Nobody should get to look so unbelievably cute. He’s like a little thumb-sucking angel."

Eric shrugs.

"Yeah, I guess," he says gruffly, clearing his throat and shifting. But it’s a little too late for the impervious, manly act and the look she shoots him says as much. "Okay, you got me. He’s unbearably innocent," Eric attaches, rolling his eyes at her take-no-prisoners expression. "My heart can’t take the sweetness."

Ain’t that the truth, she thinks, watching as he lies back and shuts his eyes, lip unconsciously raising at one corner, totally content with the human contact - with initiating loving, human contact.

Cory considers him.

"Can I ask you a question?"

He is explicitly happy, explicitly affectionate, and it is more than what she could have ever hoped for him. It almost doesn’t seem possible. She wants to know how it is.

Eric’s cracks an eye open noncommittally. Entirely relaxed, he resumes caressing his pup’s hair as he permits, "Sure. Fire away."

"Do you ever get the feeling like… maybe Zach’s keeping something from you?" she speculates, worrying her lip. "Like you’re not getting the full picture?"

Immediately stiffening, Eric glances over at her sharply and scowls. "Cory, why are you asking me this?" her boss demands in perplexity. "Did Zach say something to you? Do you know something I don’t?" She notes, absently, how his arms tighten around Zach protectively - No, not just protectively, Cory corrects herself. But as if he’s scared someone’s going to take the kid away.

"Just answer the damn question, Eric," she snaps, "Don’t you ever feel like something isn’t right here? Doesn’t it nag at you that you can’t quite get a handle on what’s going on?"

"Yes," he finally bursts, jaw compressing. "All the damn time. But I just have to trust-" he cuts off, taking a deep breath and patting Zach’s back as to not disrupt his naptime, "I am trying to trust that Zach will come to me when he’s ready. I haven’t forgotten our conversation that night he ran off, Cory. I’m not an idiot. I may not have all of the details, but I do know that whatever’s happening, whatever it is that has happened…" Eric steals a look at Zach and sighs. "It doesn’t feel wrong, either."


-o-0-o- Nolan -o-0-o-


Over the past few months Nolan has walked in on many strange interactions between Eric and Zach, and they typically left him feeling confused, even excluded, to some extent, but always, always amused.

So it is with an anticipatory smirk that the junior partner hangs back instead of bypassing the pair on one Monday afternoon, right before the big meeting with all of the partners.

"Fine." He chuckles as Holden prepares to present some balderdash argument that Nolan knows for a fact Eric will never go for. The man is projecting that entrenched air of I’m-the-responsible-adult-here-and-you-are-going-to-listen-to-what-I-say that he’s perfected over the last several months; there simply is no changing his mind. But Nolan can’t wait to see Zach try. Again. "How about this - I will selflessly retreat to the Library for a little bit to see what the, uh.. Library is.. up to, leaving you, fine sir, free to conduct your meeting in peace."

"Hmm, how can I put this without quelling your dreams and crushing your soul?" Eric thoughtfully ponders, before rolling his eyes and deadpanning, "No."

The boy noisily exhales, scrunching his brows with a tense upper lip that gives the impression he’s trying extremely hard not to stamp his foot. Nolan has seen him do that before and it never works out in his favour. Eric doesn’t negotiate with ’naughty little boys who throw tantrums.’

Gosh, he wishes he had popcorn.

"Well.." Zach fumbles for a moment. "What if I went to bug Cory for a while? Would that tickle your fancy?"

"One, that’s weird. Don’t ever say that," Eric says with a purposely judgemental shudder, "And two, the deal was you stayed with me, no matter how mundane the meeting. Punishments aren’t supposed to be fun, remember?"

Oh, the punishments. Those were another matter altogether.

Nolan still remembers the day he strode past Eric’s office only to witness the man plonk his associate down on one of the cushions from his couch after getting hit in the face by a wayward highlighter. He hunkered down beside him and explained in astonishing detail exactly why the kid must bite the bullet and endure his time-out - sorry, no, quiet-time - because his behaviour has been so rotten. This partnered with the tearful apology and lingering make-up hug which followed soon after was enough to make the man fidget uncomfortably, because it did feel like he was intruding on such a private moment. And what’s more, it was… remarkably touching.

"But Erriicc-" Zach’s voice, he’s noticed, has a propensity to elevate several whole octaves higher when he doesn’t get what he wants. "-If I stay here, I’ll just get super bored and start yanking out my hair, one doomed strand at a time."

He’s also incurably dramatic.

"You were perfectly behaved for Mr. Donavon yesterday," Eric points out.

"Mr. Donavon gave me chocolate," the boy defends.

"He gave you a sugar high," Eric counters, not sounding at all thrilled about it. That was the other thing. He is impressively attuned to the needs of his ’pup’ and has become greatly concerned with ’What Is Best For Him.’ In Nolan’ opinion, it is a conscientiousness that has definitely crossed well within the threshold of annoying (God, you let Zach play one mildly violent video game one time and suddenly you’re worthy of the death glare for weeks).

"And yet," the man firmly continues. "You still found the strength within yourself to sit still for an hour. That had all the major ingredients for a nuclear meltdown, but we managed to escape unscathed." He pats him on the shoulder. "I think you’ll survive this one."

"Maybe I was just trying to lure you into a false sense of security."

"Uh-huh." Eric tips his head back and smirks. "How’d that work out for you?"

"Strictly speaking, it worked out seriously well," Holden claims, attitude both pleased and boastful. "I hit the jackpot on old men with a crazily sweet tooth. You wouldn’t believe how much candy that crafty bugger slipped me on the down-low. You never let me eat that much sugar."

Eyes gleaming with amusement, Eric shakes his head at him, tsking, and proposes, "Did it ever occur to you that I just turned a blind-eye because he is an esteemed, much-loved client and I couldn’t exactly tell him to stop supplying my so-associate with nicely wrapped balls of diabetes?"

Pursing his lips, Zach deliberates this and grimaces. "Touché…"

"You’re not blowing this off, kiddo," he affirms, "You’re going to sit quietly and take notes, and under no circumstances will you start sketching amateur caricatures of partners."

"Hey!" Zach protests, offended. "They’re works of art."

"They’re terrific," Eric assures, now rubbing his shoulder in comfort. "If a little…" He hesitates. "Unflattering?"

It is… odd, really. To see Eric act like this, all encouraging and whatnot. But Nolan has had time to adjust; the man is so damn good at this parenting stuff that you have no real option but to respect him for it.

"Okay, alright. Then, uh…" Zach looks stumped, floundering for inspiration. "What if I hum to myself instead?"

"That’s… the opposite of silent." And helpful, he doesn’t add. But it’s there.

"I could pace?" he throws out there. "Burns more calories than sitting doing nothing."

"Not if you don’t want to look like you’re dying for the toilet," the older man shoots down, unapologetically blunt.

"Then I’ll use the time to hone the lyrics of my new hit song. I’ve already come up with the perfect title. It’s called, ’Eric, Have Mercy And Shoot Me Now.’ It’s catchy. I think you’ll like it."

Snorting quietly, Eric says dryly, "I’ll be sure to add it to my play list."

"Or maybe I’ll finally get around to fulfilling my bucket list instead. How’s that?" Zach replies with more than a hint of cockiness, brows angled upwards in challenge. "Starting with number one: skip that boring meeting with Eric and do something better with your life."

Mashing his lips together to restrain from laughing, the lawyer scrubs his forehead, unable to withhold that fond what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you look as he compromises, "Look, if you’re good, I promise I won’t drag you along next time, but for now you just have to suck it up. It’s not the end of the world."

"It may as well be," Zach mutters resentfully.

"Please…no more moaning, okay?" he appeals, taking out his cell and presumably texting Cory about their puppy’s antics. They do that sometimes. "None of your ’suggestions’ have endeared me any to the idea of leaving you with somebody else."

Mouth down-turned, the kid wordlessly mimics, "Aw, shucks."

"And no stupid, 1940’s accents," Eric instructs without looking up, always one step ahead. Always. "Don’t think I don’t know what you’re planning."

Nolan sniggers as Holden crosses his arms and pouts.


-o-0-o- Eric -o-0-o-


It’s impossible to pin down the exact moment when Eric started thinking of Zach as his.

It could have been during the period he had to comfort him when he was ill, or the time that Eric uncovered an adorably squiggly drawing of himself that Zach had done and decided on a whim to post it up on the refrigerator, or perhaps it was while he was standing indecisively in the toy store, struggling to choose the perfect stuffed animal so that his pup wouldn’t get scared at night, but the truth is, the exact moment doesn’t matter.

Somewhere between the nightly tuck ins, well-intentioned scolding’s and relentless worrying, Zach evolved from his too-eager associate and - whenever he was feeling exceedingly generous - annoying friend into someone that forced him to avidly censor his thoughts just to ensure that ’his son’ doesn’t slip out unbidden.

But he can’t deny that it has a pretty nice ring to it.

Over the past few days, his earlier conversation with Cory has continually played in his head until Eric just can’t take it anymore. He knows they need to lay all of their cards on the table, get everything out into the open. He’s sick of wondering what secrets he might be keeping.

"Alright," the lawyer begins one day at his office, deciding to just be upfront about it, pacing while Zach eyes him anxiously. "So… Cory seems to think you’re hiding something from me and I’ll admit I’m kind of experiencing similar concerns myself. But mostly I’m just getting fed up feeling out of the loop all the damn time, so I‘d really appreciate it if you could just, I don’t know…” he cuts off, frustrated, before restarting, “If you are holding anything back just-"

The kid sighs. "Eric-"

" more lying. Please."

"Okay… I’ll play," Zach states in an intriguing fusion of expectancy and resignation, "Two days ago."

Eric glimpses over in confusion. "What?"

"Two days ago, you were working late," he recalls. "I asked to leave but you told me to wait until you were finished. Why?"

Something in his demeanour sparks the other’s curiosity, but Eric simply shrugs, "It was late."

"Irrelevant. I could have caught a cab."

"By yourself?" He wrinkles a dubious brow, before promptly banishing the terrifying thought. "I don’t think so."

"Why not?" Zach mulishly asks. "I had the cash. I know the way."

Quickly becoming frustrated by Zach’s inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation, Eric repeats, "But you would have been alone." What part of this is he failing to understand?

"Yeah… so?"

"So," Eric blinks at him incredulously. "Something could have happened. This city is pretty scary for-"

"For who? A twenty-five year old man who’s lived here his entire life?" He chuckles. "Come on, you’re going to have to do better than that, Eric."

Tugging at his collar and uncomfortably scratching behind his neck, inexplicably feeling like he’s being subjected to an interrogation and that his behaviour merits justification, the older man argues, "It’s dangerous. You could have gotten lost or-"

"Doubt it. I think I know the area pretty well by now. I’ve glanced at a map, I know the street names."

"Why are you being like this?" he says, puzzled. "Zach, you know-"

"Know what? That you’re being unreasonable?"

Eric bristles at the accusation. That stung.

Eyes blazing with defensiveness, he snaps, "There is nothing unreasonable about wanting to make sure you got home safe. If I hadn’t been there-"

"If you hadn’t been there, I would have been fine. Maybe burnt some pizza or something trying to reheat the previous night’s dinner-"

The blood drains from Eric’s face and he almost chokes, "Dinner?"

"Sure," he gives a careless shrug, "If I’d been hungry."

"Zach," Eric feels like he’s seconds away from heart failure, swallowing thickly. "We’ve been through this. You don’t use kitchen appliances without my permission and certainly not-"

"Unsupervised? You know, I never really got that, either. Your microwave can be a bit of an asshole, I’ll give you that, but I think I’ve got the whole cooking thing down."

"Zach," His voice is unrecognisable, rich with alarm. "Listen to me. You could have hurt yourself or-"

"You know what I think your problem is, Eric?" Zach pauses with a malicious sneer, scornful in a way that does funny things to Eric’s heart, a cutting tightness crushing his chest. "You like to be in control over everything and everyone because you’re the best, right? By comparison, we’re all incompetent little morons who can’t be trusted to get the job done."

His voice takes on a colder note as his fixed stare hardens with a remorseless, foreign glint.

"But the reality is, you’re not the only one who’s capable of thinking with a little goddamn sense. So, why," Zach presses, the force of his gaze desperate. "Two days ago when you were swamped with work, did you leave early just to accommodate me? Why did you assume that without you I’d be completely and utterly helpless?"

Setting his jaw, Eric breathes steadily through his nose, even as his eyes begin to prick, hot and moist.

A touch of heat enters his voice as he retorts, "Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare turn this into something self-centred and petty. This is not about me being an arrogant jackass." And as angry and austere as it sounds on the surface, there is an undercurrent to his tone that is dangerously brittle.

"Then what is it? Explain it to me." Zach throws his hands in the air and laughs, nothing short of mocking. "Don’t tell me the big bad lawyer actually has feelings."

"Maybe I do!" he snarls, suddenly livid as the tears - fucking tears - spill over. "And to be honest, I’m kind of getting sick of asking myself what’s so wrong about it. Maybe, for the first time, I care about something other than work - care about something more than work. And maybe, yeah, I left because I don’t trust you not to get into trouble," he admits, "But maybe I was actually looking forward to the break from needy clients who don’t know their ass from their elbow. Maybe I like coming home and spending time just joking around with someone without the expectations and insincerity of having to close a goddamn deal. Maybe I even like having you around even though I have to suffer through dim-witted shows and your stupid stuff is everywhere and I fantasise about shoving a sock in your mouth just to get you to shut up sometimes."

"Nice," Zach snorts, "Feeling the love."

But that poisonous façade is gone and his blue eyes are filling up.

"I may not be perfect, Zach," Eric utters, "But I’m.. I’m trying and-"

"And I should be honoured?" he quips, returning to his default setting of sarcasm as he rubs his runny nose and sniffs.

"And you should stop freakin’ interrupting me," the lawyer orders, solid and authoritative. "Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do. I may not be good at this, Zach, but I’m not a damn airhead either. You’re trying to push me away and I want to know why."

Even without the reek of untruths hanging in the air between them, jagged and bitter, Eric could discern as much from the almost imperceptible way his pup’s voice falters when he criticises his actions, unique traces of I’m Sorry to be found in the wretched furrowing of his brows or along his purposeful, tightened lip when he takes the time to read between the lines.

"You don’t get it," the boy huffs. "You don’t see that it is wrong. You’re not supposed to care."

Eric plunges a flummoxed hand in his hair and tugs. "Why the hell not?"

"Because it’s not real," he shouts, pained and cynical. "None of this is real and it’s not fair to you!"

What isn’t real? What isn’t fair? He’s so tired of running around in circles and not making any headway.

"Zach, none of what you’re saying makes any damn sense," he growls in frustration. "How is-"

With an abruptness Eric doesn’t know if his heart will ever forgive him for, Zach announces, "Eric… I’m quitting."

He reels back. "What?"

"Tomorrow I’m going to hand in my official resignation. Trust me, I’m doing you a favour." And with that, with no explanation or goodbye or hell, he’d even settle for an off the cuff, ’See you later,’ the kid he had begun to regard as his own flesh and blood turns to leave.

For a moment, he can nothing but stand stationary against his will in shock.

Then it hits him that this is it. It is now or never. Because Zach sure as shit didn’t look like he was planning on coming back to be reasoned with.

"Hey!" Eric yells, driving forward his bizarrely wooden legs and hurrying to catch up, snagging the boy’s arm to still him. "What the hell, Zach?"

"Let me go, Eric," he says tightly, gaze skimming his own before darting away from him - And holy hell, Zach is slipping through his fingers and he doesn’t have a goddamn clue how to fix it. He’s the fixer who can’t fucking fix it. "This is it. I’m done."

"No," he outright rejects. The tremor in his hand is getting worse. He feels like he wants to scream, or cry, or shake Zach until he agrees to stop ruining everything. "No, you don’t get to just leave. You don’t get to walk outta here acting all cagey and evasive out of nowhere. No, you give one damn good reason why I shouldn’t kick your worthless ass into next Tuesday for being such a goddamn idiot."

He is this close to begging.

"Because… Because-" Zach swallows a groan of vacillation.

Come on, come on. Just. Tell. Me.

He roughly smears a hand across his mouth. "Because what?"

Backed into a corner, Zach rips his arm out of the older man’s grip and cries, "Because you can’t have a fourteen-year-old working for you!"

Very, very careful not to react, Eric’s voice is totally flat when he pronounces, "…What?"



End Chapter 7

Can't Go Back

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


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