Eric West is a big bad corporate lawyer and Zach is his right hand man. Their easy, working relationship suddenly delves into something totally unexpected after a peculiar mishap in a lab changes everything for the mentor and mentee.
He should feel honoured, he thinks, to have been granted this magnificent opportunity to represent such a major corporation. But all Zach can muster is the barest ember of interest that, if he’s strictly honest with himself, is essentially just his obligation as Eric’s associate dressed up to look pretty.
Zach has to do this. He hasn’t really got a choice, and whatever anticipation he might have scrounged together about doing this has been blanketed by a thick, entangling fatigue of the heaviest scale that is almost suffocating in its persistency.
Zach knows that this is important. Knows he cannot afford to mess this up.
He’s positive that his foot does not, in fact, weigh a ton and his legs shouldn’t really cave in like that at the knees with each step.
He knows all of this, somewhere, in the far corners of his mind or holed up someplace in his gut that has a tendency to take precedence in his decision-making, where the exhaustion doesn’t run quite so deep - but it’s muted. Much like everything else.
His entire demeanour is, for lack of a better word, disgracefully unsightly. From the drooping bags under his bloodshot eyes, general ungainliness and wrinkled suit, to his slack shoulders, unfocused gaze and ashen skin. Truthfully, Zach would much rather resemble a lawyer than a zombie at this meeting, for professionalism’s sake, but that’s simply not going to happen and he has to accept that.
As does Eric, for that matter, who has not ceased glowering at him since the moment they entered the foyer of this fine establishment with the glaring lights that he worries might possibly cause his eyes to bleed any second. The damning brightness of the… labs, isn’t it? Zach thinks they’re in a lab, or something of the sort. Anyway, it is much too much for his sleep-deprived, highly sensitive, but also slightly baffled brain to come to grips with, and it hurts, dammit, like nothing he’s ever encountered before.
He’s been awake for going on two and a half days now, surviving primarily on energy drinks and a jumbo-pack of M&M’s, so who can blame Zach for not exactly having a clue what’s going on?
Eric’s certain to hold a grudge, that’s a given, but the client? He’s too preoccupied panicking over the likelihood of being sued that he has hardly even glanced in the associate’s direction, which is fantastic, aside from the part about getting sued, obviously. Which he understands is very distressing. Kind of.
Nevertheless, Zach is simply thankful that he doesn’t really have to do very much, because he is seriously doubting his ability to form coherent words at present, and if their voices are somewhat muffled, then what would his own sound like? Probably akin to a whale or some other lethargic, droning creature, if that’s possible, because chances are, his sentences would all get chopped up by yawns anyway.
His movements are clumsy and stilted as they make their way towards the back of the sterile room where Dr. Slater is busy presenting the weird, liquid gel stuff that caused all of this trouble in the first place, and Eric is nodding all reassuring-like, and this is stupid because they don’t even know what any of this crap does or if it even works, and Zach feels deeply uncomfortable all of a sudden amidst all of these decidedly breakable, unknown substances.
Realising his disquieting proximity to the experiments on display, Zach scrambles away from the beakers brimming with potentially deadly solutions in a bewildering burst of comprehension, but in turn, stumbles and slips.
He attempts to right himself, but fails miserably, and in his efforts to grasp onto the workbench with one flailing limb, knocks over two separate containers, which promptly smash on the floor beside him, sending a gust of smoke into the air as the contents intertwine with delicate grace - ocean blues and buttercup yellows creating a stunning green that is the exact shade of springtime. Instinctively, he covers his mouth and nose with the back of his hand, but it’s too late.
Zach’s already inhaled at least some of the unidentified concoction.
And he’s suddenly coughing - deep, ragged coughs, that spew from his chest with an intensity that makes the colour drain from a nearby Eric’s features.
His boss is at his side at once, thumping his back in alarm while the scattered glass crunches under their feet, before rubbing in soothing circles when the aforementioned yields little benefit.
The cloud of chemicals clears quickly, which is fortunate for Eric who has only the cuff of his shirt thrust under his nose for protection, but the damage has already been done.
The client, Dr. Slater, stands back with a frozen expression of horror that really doesn’t inspire much confidence. Oh, man, he’s going to sprout wings or another toe or something equally ridiculous, isn’t he? God, Zach really doesn’t want to be some pathetic freak. He’s enough of a freak already and Lord knows, he has pitifulness in spades.
"It’s okay, kid. You’re going to be fine, it was nothing, I swear. Everything’s okay," Eric murmurs, willing it to be true as Zach’s body is stricken by another shudder, tears welling up in his eyes as he continues to gag and splutter with excruciating forcefulness.
Pained and powerless, Eric’s detached façade shatters, as he tightens his grip around the kid’s shoulders and comfortingly massages his arm. "Shouldn’t we call for an ambulance or something?" he directs frantically at the supposed expert, but no sooner has he said this than Zach catches his breath, inhaling deeply as the stuttering cough slowly subsides. A little colour returns to his crumpled face, to Eric’s immense relief, and Zach gives a weak smile.
"I’m fine," he croaks. "It’s all good. Just give me a sec and I’ll be right as rain, yeah?"
"You don’t know that," Dr. Slater points out, tone shaky and unsure. "We have no idea what was in those containers."
Zach thinks then that he may have some inkling as to why this dude keeps getting sued.
Eric fixes the jumpy client with a menacing glare that soon has him backtracking. "I mean, I’ll have to look into it, certainly. And Mr. Holden should probably get checked out, even so. If there are any, er, peculiar side-effects, please do let me know. I’ll do whatever I can to fix this." He winces, wringing his hands and casting a nervous glance at the door. "That’s assuming there is, you know, um, anything to fix."
Both lawyers get the distinct impression that he isn’t telling them everything, but let it drop for the time being as Zach’s attempts to get on his feet give rise to an unsettling, piercing gasp.
Eric immediately springs into action, deftly arranging Zach’s arm so that it curls around his neck, shouldering the majority of his weight as the young man leans on him heavily.
Crushing his nose into the crook of Eric’s collarbone, Zach sniffs miserably in a way he’s not altogether sure is a blatant shot at garnering sympathy as he limps towards the front of the building where the other man’s personal driver is no doubt waiting.
His examination is brief but thorough, and Zach is reassured that everything is as it should be, with the exception of a slight bruising of his ankle, which should clear up in about a week or so, so long as he doesn’t overexert himself and keeps an ice-bag readily available.
Oh, and rumour has it, his metabolism is operating at a pace that’s a bit faster than usual, oddly enough, which is apparently nothing to be concerned about. He may need to eat an additional snack or two, but beyond that, it should have little to no effect on his everyday life.
There’s also a variety of cuts and bruises littering his legs and a particularly nasty gash on Zach’s palm where a shard of glass was kind enough to embed itself. It’s bad enough to warrant a bandage, but not so severe as to leave any scarring. He’s just pissed because it’ll hurt like a bitch every time he uses his crutches.
And because Zach is an idiot, he lets it go.
Eric gives him the rest of the day off, which he is eternally grateful for, and Zach merely returns to his rundown apartment, snatches a bag of frozen peas from his freezer and falls face-first onto his mattress after remembering to ensure that his foot is vaguely elevated, plonked upon a threadbare, lumpy cushion.
He sleeps until his alarm beeps the next morning, waking to find himself tangled up in damp sheets with mushy peas squished into his pyjama bottoms after the meagre bag bust during the night, with a blackened ankle that’s even more troublesomely tender than beforehand.
Zach hazardously pulls on his suit and sloppily loops his tie around his neck, flinching as his pants leg snags on his toe and causes his ankle to twist upwards at an angle he’s sure will come back to haunt him later.
There’s not enough time for breakfast, so Zach chugs his coffee in one go and stuffs some energy bars into his messenger bag that he then slings over his shoulder, thankful for the three cans of cola he still has stashed somewhere at his cubicle.
Hopping on one foot towards his door where he had heedlessly dumped his crutches the day before, Zach casts a single, mournful look towards his bed, before resigning himself to catching a stinkin’ taxi and stepping out into the brisk, September morning with minimal sunshine.
What it really boils down to, in the end, is that Zach leads a rather fast-paced lifestyle and following the initial panic, it seems silly to dwell on a little accident at a lab that may or may not beget grave consequences. The younger man basically resumes working and carries on as normal, because that’s what is to be expected and Zach’s response is entirely reasonable.
What else is there to do but keep going?
The changes are subtle at first. So subtle, indeed, that they are virtually undetectable, if he’s frank. But sometimes he likes to ignore that fact, because then it’s simply easier to call himself stupid and be done with it.
Though even he’ll acknowledge that that’s delusional.
Because he’s not ’done with it.’ And he never will be.
-o-0-o- Layla -o-0-o-
Zach hobbles into the bullpen twenty minutes late, carefully manoeuvring around the sharp corners and curious onlookers to his desk, where a mountainous stack of unstable briefs lurk.
Heaving a despondent sigh, he uncaps his highlighter with his teeth and props his leg up onto a spare chair that he’d painstakingly dragged over, dropping onto his seat and firing up his computer.
An hour into his scuffle with some stupid files that refuse to diminish in volume, as he taps the rhythm to some classic Fleetwood Mac on his kneecap, Zach snaps back to reality with a jolt when his earbuds are lightly tugged from behind.
"Jesus," he cries in surprise, hand pressed against his chest. "Layla, don’t do that," he pants, breaths wild and erratic. "Are you trying to scare the crap out of me?"
Easily disregarding his indignation, the indifferent lawyer traces her finger absently along the divider.
"Hey, Doofus," Layla grins. "What’s with the crutches?"
"Hurt my ankle," Zach half-shrugs.
"I can see that." She rolls her eyes disdainfully. When he doesn’t automatically launch into an explanation, she clarifies, "I want to know how. How did you hurt your ankle?"
"Oh, you know," he glances nonchalantly down at his nails, "Through totally manly deeds such as hunting for boar and occasionally slaying a few hostile enemies. In between trekking through deadly woods with only a single carved knife for protection and fending off ravenous wolves, of course."
"You mustn’t have been all that proficient, then, if you’re wounded," she points out with a chuckle. "What’d you do? Trip on a twig? Run into a vengeful Red Riding Hood?"
"Um," Feigning insult, Zach coughs, "No. It was a battle," he grandly announces, "To the death-"
Lips twitching, she purses her lips and nods. "Between you and a squirrel?"
"-Between myself," he glares, "And a fearsome huntsman with a flair for archery-"
"Archery, yeah, I can see that," Layla allows, bowing her head in consideration. "Because obviously we’re living in the dark ages…"
"-And while he put up a worthy fight, ultimately, I emerged victorious, walking away-"
"With only this measly injury," he declares, blue eyes sparkling, as Layla laughs unreservedly at his inanity.
Stifling a smile, Zach interlaces his hands behind his head and lounges against in his chair idly, drawling, "It was epic."
"I’m sure it was," the amused woman says indulgently, grinning widely. "Now how about we rewind the last couple minutes and you tell me what really happened, ’kay?"
"But where’s the fun in that?" Zach shoots back, tilting his head and looking up at her with a wicked smile teasing his lips.
"Oh, come on," Layla moans, appearing genuinely put out, "Are you seriously not going to tell me?"
"Nope," he makes a popping sound with his mouth, shaking his head smugly, "Chicks dig the whole enigmatic thing, right?" He shrugs. "I like the air of mystery."
"Please, do yourself a favour and never let me hear you utter the word ’dig,’ ever again, alright? It’s not 2007," Layla tells him, flicking him in the face in apparent revenge, before striding away with sashaying hips.
The next day - presumably following her standard gossip-gorge with Cory - Layla casually drops by his desk to ask how his ankle is faring and when Zach tells her its pesky, non-stop throbbing is turning out to be rather irritating, the ordinarily unconcerned lawyer’s face twists in sympathy and she pats him on the head, before rummaging around in her handbag, clearly searching for something in particular, and extracting a brightly-coloured lollipop.
Layla then offers a kind-hearted smile and his eyebrows fly up in shock as she streaks her fingers through his hair and hands him the sugary treat with a lilted, "Here you go, pet. Feel better soon."
-o-0-o- Nolan -o-0-o-
Zach is suspicious.
It’s his third day back at work since his little accident and not one of his colleagues have said anything to him. There have been no ’subtle’ gibes about his clumsiness, nobody has tried to kick his crutches out from underneath him as he’s walking by to knock off his balance. Nor has anyone seized them when Zach’s attention is diverted only to burst into hysterics as he absentmindedly reaches for them and falls over.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
He’s not sure why they’re all keeping their distance, but it’s certainly not out of pity.
If he’s honest, it’s unnerving.
What’s worse is that Zach can’t forever be on guard waiting for them to strike at any moment. He did his best to be vigilant in the beginning but his commitment soon slipped. He wishes they would just hurry up and get it over and done with already.
Even stranger, his co-workers have rarely even met his gaze these past few days and Zach desperately wants to get to the bottom of it, but none of them will speak to him.
He’s at a serious loss as to what to do.
Then, utterly out of the blue, Suck-up Nolan decides to pay him a visit.
"Zach, my office. Now," he barks as he strides past, not even slowing, while the taken aback associate grapples for his crutches. Sweeping his gaze over the bullpen, Zach notes that he finally has the other’s attention, but now that he does, he’s not feeling all that thrilled about it.
That really should have been his first clue.
When he eventually catches up to Nolan, the other man is kind enough to hold the door open for him and as they both take their seats and Zach wipes sweat from his forehead, the older man watches him closely in a way that only heightens his nervousness.
Sucking on his inner cheek, Zach bites down on hard enough to draw blood.
"Relax," Nolan chuckles, fluttering a careless hand, and since when does he try to put people’s minds at ease? Shit, he’s firing him, isn’t he?
As if sensing his thoughts, he calmly assures, "No-one is getting fired."
The tension between Zach’s shoulder blades reluctantly subsides until all that remains is a tiny prick at the back of his neck, alerting him that everything is not as it should be.
"Then why did you want to speak with me?" Zach wonders, wincing as his voice cracks. He clears his throat and tries to appear assertive.
It doesn’t work.
"You know, you can come to me about anything," Nolan remarks, fingers steepled thoughtfully under his chin. "I know, I give you a hard time, Zach, but your sense of security at this firm is very important to me. I want you to feel comfortable working alongside your fellow associates in the bullpen and will do whatever needs be to ensure that you do."
What the hell?
"Where is this coming from?" Zach frowns. "I like working here, Mr. Peterson. You don’t need to do whatever… this is."
"Zach," the partner persists, raising his brows in a ’come on’ gesture. "It has come to my attention that certain individuals are taking their hazing rituals a little too seriously. I want you to know that it’s been dealt with and disciplinary action has been taken."
Zach shoots up in his chair. "Disciplinary action?" he splutters, jaw hanging. "For what? For who? What on earth are you talking about?"
"Matt and Aaron have been suspended for two weeks, pending further investigation," he explains and Zach’s heart drops. "Three days ago, I overheard them discussing a handful of their…" He pauses, lip curling in distaste, "More imaginative past pranks as well as preparing another. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say, it involved your recent injury."
The younger man blanches.
Nolan nods slowly, seeming to agree with all the words that pass silently between them. "Naturally, I was furious. I spoke with some other associates-" Christ, this just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? "-While most denied participation, some were smart enough to own up then and there. Their punishment isn’t quite so severe-"
"Not everyone knew about this!" Zach interrupts, panicked. "There were only a few chief culprits and some others that occasionally joined in!"
"As I am well aware," Nolan soothes in a voice much more gentle than he thought the man capable of. "Don’t worry, Zach. It has all been taken care of. However," His tone suddenly changes, harder and entirely unyielding, "If anything like this occurs again, you will come and inform me directly, Zach. I won’t have you suffering in silence. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," he mumbles, gazing dropping to the floor, before snapping up to the other man’s in horror. "Wait, does Eric know about this?" he gasps.
"I haven’t spoken with him yet."
Overwhelmingly relieved, Zach droops as if all of his energy has been zapped out of him. "Oh, thank God," he breathes.
Confused, Nolan repeats, "Thank... God?"
"You can’t tell him, Mr. Peterson," Zach blurts, shaking his head wildly. "It’s too embarrassing. I’ll never live it down!"
The partner appears conflicted, biting his lip testily. "Zach, I don’t know if that’s such a good-"
"Please, Nolan?" he begs, whipping out the full force of his puppy-dog eyes. "Please don’t say anything?"
There’s no way anyone could resist that look.
Heaving a sigh and immediately regretting the decision, Nolan grudgingly agrees, "If you wish."
Ten minutes later when Zach returns to the bullpen, he’s startled to find that instead of experiencing an inordinate amount of guilt, he feels totally at ease for the first time in weeks.
-o-0-o- Cory -o-0-o-
"Hey, Cory," Zach greets sweetly, an animated beam lighting up his face, "Eric in?"
She types continuously on the computer, not sparing a single glance. "Nope."
He falters, smile falling. "Do you know when he’ll be back?"
"Can I… wait... in his office?" Zach hedges, bracing himself for a rejection. "I swear, I won’t touch anything this time."
She pauses, darting fingers halting.
Gazing at him in such open fondness that he actually feels his cheeks warming, Cory bestows a gracious smile. "Sure."
"Here are those briefs Eric wanted," he rasps in a breathy rush of preoccupation, dumping them on the edge of Cory’s desk and twisting around to leave without delay. He has another stack of files to be completed and the deadline is fast approaching.
"Zach, wait up!" Cory urges, hurrying around to his side and laying a hand on his back to stop him. "How are you feeling?" she asks gently.
He jerks a little in surprise.
"I’m fine," he replies slowly, brows knitting. "My ankle isn’t as painful today."
"That’s great, sweetie," she says non-sarcastically. "Just be careful on those crutches, okay? No more barrelling down the hallway in a hurry, you hear me?"
Zach’s eyes constrict in mystification, as he tentatively agrees, "Okay…"
"Good boy." Cory taps him on the head. And then she returns to her desk and he carefully makes his way back to his and it’s only when he’s seated again that it registers.
Did Cory seriously just call him sweetie?
He’s not even surprised when Cory materializes in the bullpen that afternoon and passes him a plain white, square container with a note slapped on top.
He scans it quickly, rolling his eyes after he does so.
Cory told me I ought to feed you again. If you try to thank me, don’t think I won’t punch you - Eric
Popping the lid about an inch, Zach leans down and peers into the contents warily.
Above him, Cory laughs at his antics, then elucidates, "It’s a bacon and cheese panini, moron. Completely poison-free, I made sure of it."
Okay…This is getting weird.
"Is this… is this a trick?" he can’t help but ask.
Rolling her eyes, she shakes her head and clucks, "No, of course not. What do you take me for?"
Honestly? I have no idea.
Unsure if the woman is genuinely hurt or not, Zach schools his features into something resembling more of a smile than a grimace and offers neutrally, "It smells wonderful."
"Good, because you seriously need some more meat on those bones," And there’s a strange, reprimanding quality to her tone that Zach doesn’t understand in the least. "Now eat up," she suddenly commands, levelling him with a threatening glare, "Before it gets cold."
Then Cory pinches his cheeks and grins, before flicking her hair over her shoulder and strolling away without a backwards glance.
Zach has never been more bewildered in his life.
-o-0-o- Eric -o-0-o-
The first time Eric calls him ’kiddo’ as opposed to the usual ’kid,’ Zach thinks nothing of it - a simple slip of the tongue, that’s all. But the nickname seems to be cropping up more and more often lately.
Still, Zach tells himself it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it’s purely a natural progression? After all, there’s not much difference. Just a bonus, ’do,’ which on it’s own doesn’t stand for anything, either.
Or perhaps it’s a sly dig at his childish, goofy ways? Though, if that were the case, Zach would imagine that the word would be soiled with derision and it isn’t. If anything, it sounds bafflingly like an endearment.
Whichever it is, Zach continues to overlook the small adjustment in their relationship. Surely he’s just being paranoid? It can’t be denial if Zach’s only ignoring the signs because he’s the one applying some sort of significance to them.
Then come the questions.
The first time, Eric’s enquiry is spoken so causally that Zach replies without thinking.
"Have you eaten yet?" he’d asked absently while flicking through a case file, eyebrows drawn together in total absorption and not even glimpsing up in expectation of an answer.
"No, I’ll probably grab a coffee or something later," he had shrugged while studying several papers of his own. "I’ve got tons to do."
"I’m heading out for lunch in a little while," Eric mentioned, standing and buttoning his jacket, "You can tag along. But first, go pawn your work off on some other loser."
And that was it. Non-negotiable.
That evening, after an enjoyable lunch where they’d bickered for the entire period, Eric spots him rubbing his eyes and dismisses him then and there, muttering something about tired associates being useless associates, and it isn’t until much later as he collapses onto his bed that Zach realises that his excuse doesn’t even remotely fly.
He’s constantly sleep-deprived and it has never troubled his boss before. In fact, if Zach ever complains about being tired, Eric is well known for his straightforward mottos such as, ’Suck it up,’ or even, ’Stop being such a Goddamn wuss.’
And of course, he would never hire a wuss.
The questions are endless.
"How much sleep are you getting?"
"Do you need another break?"
"Is your head hurting again?"
Zach thinks he means well, and it’s sort of nice, even if this continuous interrogation can become a tad embarrassing now that it no longer ceases in other’s company.
It’s definitely out of character, but Zach attributes his unexpected niceness to a potential mid-life crisis or something (though secretly he wonders why he can’t just buy a sports-car like every other dude in his thirties) and forces himself to stop fixating on it, because God help him if he were to get attached to this considerate-ish version of Eric West.
Zach hates how pleasure bubbles up in his chest when his mentor praises his work or how he has no chance of burying his sheepish smile when this Eric-impostor actually ruffles his hair in the middle of a courtroom full of witnesses.
This miraculous transformation is never going to last and he doesn’t want to enjoy it while it does.
And sure enough - on that Friday - everything soon changes.
Just not in the way he’d begun to expect.
Zach rouses in the morning feeling somewhat… off. He can’t quite explain what it is, but his mind is processing information at a much slower rate than is customary and his limbs are curiously heavy, despite the fact that he’s gotten more sleep this week than he usually would in two.
His hand is hurting awful bad, but he doesn’t dare inspect it out of fear that there might be something amiss. Zach is already running late - late even for him - and doesn’t have time to brood over a silly little graze on his palm.
When he eventually arrives, wobbling a little and cursing his stupid ankle, Zach discovers that his desk is a lot less cluttered than normal. It takes several moments for the dissimilarity to dawn on him.
Both Eric and Nolan have assigned him very little paperwork.
He frowns. Had this been the case yesterday, Zach would have marched to their separate offices - well, shuffled - and demanded to know why he is being treated differently. It isn’t as if there’s nothing to do. Everyone else is up to their eyeballs. But as it is, Zach simply sags on his chair and makes a start on his own reduced share, feeling grudgingly grateful as he bears in mind that he is a bit below par.
He works steadily through lunch, breaking momentarily for a quick coffee run, and doesn’t see Eric - or anyone, really - until after two when he leaves the bullpen on stiff, shaky legs to head down to research for a specific case file.
He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, but he’s suddenly feeling very weak and his breathing’s off and nothing looks right - his vision is all weird and fuzzy.
Tremors raid Zach’s hands as they grip the handles of his clutches and his head feels fuller than usual as he suppresses a yawn and wearily swipes at his eyes.
Completely out of nowhere, something - or rather someone - blocks his path and he awkwardly attempts to evade them, but ends up tripping over his own feet, which does nothing to help his churning stomach.
Hands suddenly grip his upper biceps and Zach finds himself blinking at a hazy shape he thinks might be a person.
"Zach? Zach!" A female’s voice rings out beside him and he thinks that, maybe, he ought to pay attention to it. "Are you okay?" Zach nods dazedly. A sharp tut is his response. "No, you’re not. Don’t lie to me. Do you need me to-"
His legs buckle underneath him and the only thing that keeps him from collapsing is the fact that he is now clinging onto Layla for dear life, face smushed against her left shoulder.
"Holy crap," she sounds abnormally uneasy, "Look, it’s okay, Zach, hold on. We’ll get you some help-"
Another wave of dizziness crashes over him and he burbles, "Think I’m gonna just sit down." Which he does, plopping down right there in the middle of the main hallway with a thump, to Layla’s immediate displeasure.
"Oh, God," she mutters, squatting down beside the flopping, wayward associate and holding him upright. "What should I do? What should I- Oh, hey! Richard!" The sudden shout causes him to flinch. "Down here!"
A distant gasp is heard. "Is that- Oh, my God!" Footsteps quickly approach. "What happened? Is he alright?"
"I don’t know. He just fell down!" Layla exclaims. "I need you to go get Eric, Richard. Could you do that? Please?"
"No problem," he replies with obvious nervousness. "I-I just-"
"It’ll be fine, Richard," she tries to reassure him, but it sounds as though she’s rolling her eyes. "He’s not going to bite."
"No, he won’t. This is Zach we’re talking about-"
"Yes, which is exactly why I’m worried! You know what he’s like-"
"Guys!" Nothing happens. "Guys!" Zach frowns as they fall silent. "Look, I d-don’t need ’Ric, okay? M’fine."
"Oh, sweetie," she sighs, a direct contrast to her previous tone. Layla’s voice is as soft as silk as she palms his cheek. "You don’t need to put on a brave face. It’s okay. Look, Richard is going to go fetch Eric and everything’s going to be just fine, right, Richard?"
"Right," he chimes obediently, before rushing off before Zach can stop him.
"Layla, listen to me," he grumbles, a knot forming in his stomach, because why would she assume he’d want Eric? Or that Eric would even care? All of this is seriously beginning to freak him out. "I don’t need m’boss to come kiss it all better."
He brushes down his suit and attempts to stand, but she swiftly pushes him back down. "Careful!" she screeches in panic. Then she takes a deep breath and visibly composes herself. "You have to sit still, okay, Zach? Just sit real still for a few minutes ’till we see what’s wrong. Can you do that for me?"
"Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with you?" Zach counters, deeply disturbed by her behaviour even in his general disorientation. "Seriously," he slurs, "It’s no big deal."
"Shh," she quietens him, not listening in the least, "Eric’s on his way. He’ll be here any second. Don’t worry."
Yeah, Zach thinks, Maybe he’ll knock some sense into you. I can’t wait to see what shade of purple his face turns when he realises that you’re stopping me from going back to work.
His mind to mouth filter mustn’t be functioning properly, because Layla suddenly gapes at him incredulity, so obviously he wasn’t quite as silent as he thought.
"You’re not thinking straight," she says decisively, and then, in an irritating voice he finds extremely patronizing, "Eric would never react that way, you silly goose."
"If you say so," he mutters, because it’s really not worth arguing over when everything in the room is revolving.
"Layla? What are you doin-" Another nasally voice enters the equation and as he has now come to expect, blurts, "Is that Zach?"
"Yes, Nolan," Layla coolly replies, "And no, I don’t know what’s going on."
"Does Eric know?" he immediately frets, while Zach inwardly rolls his eyes.
"I sent Richard to go get him," she informs him, then frowns. "He should really be back by now."
Nolan chuckles. "Yes, well, Eric probably-"
"Went ballistic," she finishes, nodding. "I figured."
"Strange priorities, don’t you think?" the partner comments as he, too, sinks to the ground in his expensive suit and assists Layla in sustaining the young man.
"It’s the only time I ever see him lose his cool," she shrugs. "And it only lasts for, like, two minutes."
"Eh, on average."
"What the hell are you guys talking about?" Zach asks, because, really? "Eric wouldn’t give two shits if I got hit by a car every single morning for a week as long as I got his work completed at a tolerable standard."
Trying to be inconspicuous but failing miserably, the two exchange worried looks over his head.
"Actually, that’s not fair," he babbles. "Sometimes he tells that I’m competent and one time, he even let me go home early for my birthday." His lips hitch upwards a fraction. "That was nice of him."
Before either bewildered party can reply, another freakin’ person is added to the mix.
Damn him for choosing the main fucking corridor.
"Zach, sweetie, are you okay?" Cory coos as she hurries to his side and bends down to his eye-level. She fusses over him, sweeping fingers over his hair, and clearly tallying the most prominent concerns - namely his flushed face, glassy eyes and slumped-over frame. "I am so sorry, honey, but Eric’s not here right now. He had court this morning and only finished up about twenty minutes ago. I called him and he’s on his way, but I’m afraid, it’s going to take at minimum another ten minutes before he gets here."
"For the last time," he groans drowsily, "I don’t care." He airily waves a hand. "He doesn’t care. Whatever."
At Cory’s stricken expression, Nolan jumps in with a delightfully untrue, "It’s the fever talking. He doesn’t know what he’s saying."
Except that Zach does know what he’s saying and as painful as it is, that’s the truth. They need to stop acting as if Eric is some knight in shinning armour or God forbid, his father, because he’s confused enough as it is and Zach really doesn’t wish to get his hopes up for nothing.
Eric is simply going to waltz in here and yell at him for sitting on the ground and being ill and then he’ll either order him to get out or go back to work, depending on how generous he’s feeling.
It doesn’t matter what these naive, little souls believe - Zach knows better.
The next five minutes pass agonizingly slowly and as time wears on, his condition only worsens - to the point where he’s not totally aware of anything.
It’s not long before he becomes fed up with all of the supportive touches from his co-workers and Zach shoves away from them, unmoved by their hurt or shock or confusion or whatever, finding the nearest wall and crashing against it.
He draws his legs to his chest and pushes his forehead against his knees, hugging them fiercely with one arm while his bandaged hand forms a fist. He then tucks this hand under his nose and chews on his curled thumb while he waits for the person he’s forgotten he hadn’t wanted.
Zach really wants Eric and he’s sure the sentiment must pass his lips at least once. ("Want ’Ric," the ailing kid whimpers. "I know, sweetheart," they collectively grimace, "Hang on, he’s coming.")
Then, finally - finally - an overwrought voice calls out, "Cory, I got your message. Where is-"
He halts, eyes wide as he takes in the scene.
"Eric, wait-" Cory catches him by the arm. She pauses, biting her lip. "He’s a little…" she trials off, glancing back at the other two with a look he can’t decipher. "Zach’s not quite himself," she finally settles on. "Just-just don’t take everything he says personally, alright?"
Eric shoots her a suspicious look, tapered with confusion, before turning back to Zach huddled in the corner with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
He warily draws nearer - like approaching a wounded animal. The last thing he wants to do is startle the poor kid.
"Hey, buddy," Eric murmurs, smiling faintly even as his brows furrow. He crouches down in front of Zach’s hunched, defensive form and automatically ghosts a hand soothingly through his hair. "Cory here says you aren’t feeling too good."
"M’fine," he insists, but it doesn’t sound all that convincing when mumbled, "They’re bein’ st’pid."
"You don’t look fine," the other man notes as he begins to rub his back, "What’s the matter?"
Zach just nuzzles his kneecap and refuses to answer, while Eric’s heart constricts at the action.
Placing a hand on the kid’s damp forehead, Eric is unsurprised by the intense heat he finds there.
"Zach?" Eric calls gently, squeezing his shoulder slightly and trying to generate a response from the feverish and increasingly distressed associate. "Do you think it would be alright if I took a quick peek at your hand?" he requests, pitching his voice so that it is unthreateningly smooth and collected. "Just for a bit? I promise, I’ll be really gentle."
"Why?" Zach asks blearily, slowly raising his head and shifting so that his hand is protectively cradled to his chest.
"I just wanna see it for a second."
"S’not sore," Zach argues, curling in on himself further. Eric winces. "Don’t need to look at it."
"Please, Zach?" he persists, attempting to cloak his desperation but not quite succeeding. "It’s okay if your hand’s hurting a little. You can show me. I won’t get mad, I swear."
Zach sniffles, gazing at him doubtfully as he rubs his nose with the back of his hand, before very, very slowly offering it to Eric. Unconsciously, he begins gnawing on his other knuckles.
"Good boy," Eric praises quietly, ruffling his hair. He carefully unravels the bandage and peels the sticky material back, letting it spill over his fingers.
"Aw, kiddo," his boss sighs, gut clenching. "You’ve really done a number on yourself this time." The skin surrounding the crusted gash is angry and red and swollen, with dribbles of pus oozing from the centre. It’s hasn’t been cleaned in God knows how long and looks painful as fuck. "How long’s it been like this, huh?"
When Zach doesn’t say anything, only continues to nip at his skin, - tugging it anxiously between his teeth in a way that causes Eric to swallow hard at his acute vulnerability - he prods more firmly, "Zach, how long have you been feeling bad?"
There’s silence for a moment as Zach chews over this. Literally.
"Dunno," he finally admits, staring at the floor resolutely and shrugging. "Couple days?"
"Why am I not surprised?" Eric mutters, before supplying to someone in the background, "We need to get him to a hospital. Fast."
Wrapping an arm around the young man’s shoulders, he returns his attention to Zach. "Okay, kiddo," he coaxes, "We’re gonna have to move you now, you listening? You can’t stay here."
Zach frowns. "How come?"
"’Cause we’ve gotta go get your hand cleaned up, silly," Eric explains, ironing out the worry in his expression and forcing his voice upwards in pitch, injecting a light-heartedness he doesn’t feel as he adds, "Come on. Up we get."
"Don’t wanna," Zach snivels, water pooling in his eyes as he fails to understand why he has to leave the busy hallway.
Eric hesitates, glancing over his shoulder at Cory, who makes a vaguely reassuring gesture he translates as, ’You’re doing great! Just keep doing what you’re doing.’
"It’s alright, champ. I’ll help you, don’t worry."
Scowl deepening, he whines, "No!"
"Zach," Eric warns, mouth tightening, "Don’t be difficult. You wanna feel better, don’t you?"
"No," he huffs with a stubborn pout. "M’kay."
"Well, you might be okay, but your hand’s certainly not," Eric relates and seeing that the message isn’t getting through, decides to change tactics with a calmly tacked on, "And you know what will happen if you don’t get that checked out, don’t you?"
Zach peers up at him over the tops of his knees.
Taking in Eric’s significant look, his curiosity gets the better of him, and his eyes quickly narrow.
"W-what?" he inquires timidly.
Eric leans down closer, glancing off to the side conspiringly, before his gaze snaps back to him.
"If you don’t get that cut examined…" He pauses dramatically, voice slow and cautioning, as he announces, "Your hand is going to turn green."
"Eric," Cory quickly intervenes from behind, slapping him on the back of the head in admonishment. "Don’t you dare! You’re scaring the poor darling."
Eyes wide and jaw slack, Zach gazes at him wonderingly and asks, "Like… like Hulk?"
Okay, so not what he’d expected. But he can work with this.
"Yup," Eric nods confidently, "Exactly like the Hulk."
Zach seems to genuinely contemplate this, head titled as his thumb sneaks further into his mouth.
"Only gross?" he ventures, far too interested for his own good.
"Well, yeah. The only difference is, you won’t have any super strength or anger issues and the rest of your skin will be normal."
When he puts it that way, it suddenly doesn’t sound so cool anymore.
"Don’t want a green hand," Zach says in an unsteady voice close to tears. "’Ric, don’t want a green hand!"
"Then the solution is simple," the older man remarks, shrugging. "All you have to do is come with me."
It appears his plan worked a little too well, because Zach is still uncertain.
He peeps up at his boss from under his lashes, sucking absentmindedly on his thumb and drool spilling over as he momentarily removes the digit to ask, "Really?"
"Really, really," Eric grins. He rises to gracefully to his feet and holds out a hand for Zach to take.
"Come on, pal. Better hurry."
As the full implication of his words hit, Zach stands up so fast, Eric has to quickly reach out to stop him from toppling over.
"’Ric, when I wake up tomorrow, do you think my hand will be green?" His pinched face is a cross between aghast and oddly fascinated.
"No," Eric chuckles, flicking on the bedside lamp and adjusting the brightness to the lowest setting. "No, kiddo, I’m pretty sure you’re outta the woods at this stage in the game."
After waiting around for two hours to see Eric’s doctor who was insanely busy, Zach was prescribed a short course of antibiotics to take for the next seven days and Eric was then shown how to redress the wound. He’d already decided that there wasn’t a chance in hell that he was letting Zach out of his sight for the foreseeable future, so when the time came to leave, the worried lawyer directed the taxi driver straight to his apartment, texting Cory to pick up some things for Zach as the kid in question slobbered all over his shoulder where he’d fallen asleep at the beginning of the journey.
Thankfully, Zach’s temperature had been steadily decreasing ever since Eric coaxed some ibuprofen into him beforehand, but it was still high enough for him to be somewhat apprehensive. By that stage, he no longer minded coming across as ’caring,’ because the truth is that he does care and it is a little overwhelming. However he wanted to spin, justify or defend it, Eric was taking Zach home and that’s all there was to it.
Together, they’d watched a few episodes of Doctor Who and Sherlock, as the boy curled up on the sofa, head resting on Eric’s lap as he brushed a hand through his hair.
It was all rather peaceful - though Eric suspects that tomorrow when the kid’s not quite so out of it, there will be a definite fight for independence.
A fight he’s not sure why he wants so badly to win.
Shaking himself out of his thoughts, the senior partner steps back and straightens, heading for the door and adding, "Now no more talk of green hands, okay? Cory will kill me."
"What about my feet?" Zach ponders. "Will they turn green?"
Eric smothers a smile as he turns back.
"No, your feet will be fine," he spells out patiently. "They don’t have any scratches on them."
"What about my legs? They have scratches," he points out, unwilling to let the subject drop.
Oh, for the love of God.
Eric scrubs a hand over his face and reluctantly agrees, "I suppose they do. But not the same kind of scratches."
Zach’s mouth forms an ’O’. "So I might never get that same kind of scratch again?" he clarifies, frowning thoughtfully and clutching the bed sheets closer. "The one that turns people green?"
"That’s right. They’re special scratches."
He had thought that this was full-proof logic, but apparently he was wrong, because Zach only becomes more agitated, nibbling this time on an index finger. "But how are you meant to know?" And that’s a fair question, Eric reasons, but one he most certainly does not have an answer to, since he’s too damn tired to make one up.
"You just do," he half-heartedly appeases, becoming more irritable by the second against his better judgement. His voice is curt when he says, "Just go to sleep, kiddo."
"You know, though, don’t you, ’Ric? Y-you’ll tell me, won’t you?" And goddamn it if that trying-really-hard-to-be-brave-but-obviously-terrified expression doesn’t make him feel exceptionally guilty, piercing a hole in his unjust annoyance and deflating his rigid posture instantaneously.
"Of course, I will," the older man softly assures. He settles down on the edge of the bed and begins stroking the kid’s hair in comfort. "No-one’s turning green on my watch."
Fears temporarily placated, Zach focuses his attention on greater questions, like: "Why green, though? Green is such an icky colour, Eric. Why not yellow or blue - blue is my favourite," he says like Eric doesn’t already know as much. "O-or what about orange or p-?" He suddenly gasps. "Eric, is this why bruises are sometimes purple?"
He scarcely restrains himself from rolling his eyes.
"No, Zach, that’s different," he responds mostly evenly, "It’s natural for bruises to change colour."
And, all of a sudden, Zach’s frightened again.
Big blue eyes boring into his, Zach says anxiously, "B-but you can check them, too, can’t you? To be sure?"
"I can indeed," he smiles. "Now, close your eyes and try to get some sleep, buddy." He drapes the blanket over him and pushes silky hair out of his face. "I’ll be right across the hall if you need me."
"M’kay," Zach yawns, clumsily knuckling his eyes. "Night, ’Ric."
"Goodnight, Zach," Eric murmurs, gazing at the sleepy kid with tender eyes as warmth blossoms in his chest. "Sweet dreams."