Can't Go Back

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

Chapter 2
Try Your Best

Moaning into a downy pillow, Zach rolls over and wriggles under the duvet he’d kicked off amid fitful splashes of hot and cold, now crumpled to his right, the movement causing drool to pool over onto the thumb that is - hang on.

…Rooted in his mouth?

That couldn’t be.

Mind still clogged with sleep, Zach pokes the soggy digit with his tongue and ascertains that - yup, his thumb his definitely wedged in there, and has been for some time judging by the deepened creases.

All of a sudden, he is wide awake.

And Zach doesn’t like the feeling.

His eyes dart open, swinging around the pitch-black room, and when the stifling darkness doesn’t fade, Zach’s breaths stutter to a halt.

Curling his hands into taut fists, the desire to plant his thumb in his mouth is unbearable as he lies there, twitching in the silence and trying not to imagine sinister, murky creatures prowling the shadows of the bedroom.

An unfamiliar feeling claws up his dry, itchy throat…

Images wait to taunt him as he closes his eyes…

His heart races while his stomach experiments with straining somersaults.

It takes Zach a while to figure out that he’s really just scared of the dark.

He feels so stupid.

Not that that stops him from teetering on the edge of hyperventilation.

"Zach?" a faintly concerned voice probes as light spills from the doorway, "What are you doing up?"

Zach jumps about a mile in the air, yanking his hand away from where it had been deviously crawling towards his mouth and hiding his slippery thumb behind his back.

Unfortunately, the abrupt action results in another horrid dizzy spell and he lurches forward.

"Oh no, you don’t." Hands quickly flatten against his torso and lower spine, gently easing the disorientated young man onto the strange, bobbing planes of what he eventually comes to recognize as a man’s chest. The mattress sinks downwards and soothing fingers arc through his limp hair.

"Careful, kiddo," the voice that is mysteriously reminiscent of Eric’s rebukes, soft and inflected. "You have to take it easy. I don’t want you getting any nasty bumps on your head, understand?" As he speaks, one hand lightly runs up and down his back. "I can’t imagine that’d be much fun."

"’Ric?" Zach frowns, and for some reason, his words trip up and fall together, groggy and inarticulate.

"Shh…" he responds, beginning to sway slightly. "It’s alright. Close your eyes." He reaches around Zach to capture something from the bedside table. Eric then expertly massages along Zach’s jaw-line, persuading his agitatedly gritted teeth to loosen long enough for him to push a cool thermometer beyond his lips.

"Atta boy." Turning his head in a pitiful attempt to dislodge the foreign item, a hoarse whimper slips as Zach sleepily burrows into Eric.

"Looks like your fever’s gone up a bit," Eric mutters to himself and for the life of him, Zach can’t begin to understand what’s going on. What...? How... What’s he doing here? Where is here?

Is this even real?

"I’m sorry, buddy," Eric whispers, inspecting the readings as he strokes his hair. "I’ll bet you’re not feeling all that great at the moment, huh?"

Well, now that he mentions it, his head is pounding a little excruciatingly.

"Here we go, champ. Drink up."

Next thing Zach knows, the chilled rim of a glass is being slowly tipped back against his mouth, water trickling down his throat so that he has no choice but to swallow. His chest expels a prickly cough much to his displeasure and Zach weakly cries out as his head revolts at the increase of pressure. There’s rustling and then a couple of sugar-coated pills are being gulped down, too.

A thumb skims his cheek, erasing hot tears he hadn’t even realized had fallen.

He wants... he wants...

He doesn’t know what he wants.

Zach’s tired and itchy and he hurts all over - hurts so much - And there’s this terrible, low keening sound, and Zach has a horrible hunch that it is originating from his own quivering throat.

Don’t leave me.

He grips a fistful of silky fabric and holds on for dear life.

"Shh," He’s being rocked again, "It’s okay, kiddo. Everything’s fine. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere. I promise, I’m not planning on leaving." To Zach’s astonishment, his boss almost sounds.. frazzled. "Just please, please stop crying. I don’t think I can stand it much longer."


So this is a dream, then?

Makes sense, all things considered.

Ha, like there’s any way that he would cry. In front of his boss, no less.

Zach hiccups.

"I know, I know - it’s horrible." The voice is sickly sweet and the words are mumbled against his clammy temple, but Zach clings to it nonetheless.

"Please, Zach, you have to calm down. That’s got to be murder on your headache. Come on, work with me here. You’re going to make yourself sick."

Peeling back his sticky lids and peeking up hazily, Zach is staggered by the sight of an anxious person accompanying the anxious voice.

"’Ric..." he snuffles, awkwardly flinging a hand at his boss’ face, aided by no real strength, which Eric easily catches with his own.

"Right here, bud."

Tiredly shaking his head, he says, "N-no sick."

Eric doesn’t answer.

"No be sick," Zach mumbles once more, hand to his mouth. "M’kay."

This time the older man’s brows bunch together in a troubled frown. Yet, before he can go about retesting the boy’s temperature, Zach’s chest undertakes a forceful heave and that’s all the warning Eric receives.

The halted sounds themselves are nauseating, never mind the stench, and even after the young associate rids himself of every single bite he’d taken the previous week, his stomach sportingly perseveres - almost to deter him from ever eating again - until all Zach feels is the burn of acid in the back of throat.

He’s crying again - though whether or not he ever actually broke off in the first place is anyone’s guess - but it’s more delirious, husky whinging than anything else.

Eric quickly nips to the bathroom and wets a washcloth, and on his return, he dabs the kid’s forehead and wipes around his mouth.

With Zach sprawled between the bed and the floor, head lolling as he breathes hard and writhes weakly in agony, Eric sets about stripping him of his sullied clothes. Chucking these in the wash, he gathers a clean pair of pyjama bottoms and an old, ratty t-shirt he never wears, then quickly slips it over Zach’s head, guiding his arms through the correct holes with little help from the half-conscious boy and pulling on the bottoms.

Eric doubts Zach is aware of much at this point, as he finishes cleaning the floor and changing the bed sheets - even when the young man begins rambling disjointedly, calling out for Eric and begging him not to leave in such frenzied desperation that it takes all of Eric’s willpower to complete the task without running to his side and hugging the ill boy close.

"It’s okay, Zach," he murmurs, heart faltering, "I’m right over here. I’m not going anywhere."

Afterwards, the lawyer bundles his associate in a thick, cosy blanket Cory had brought around earlier, along with a few other items Zach may require, before settling the boy against him and tucking his head under his chin.

Overcome with exhaustion, Zach eventually drifts off to sleep, but it’s so light and restless that Eric stays with him for a further hour, singing softly under his breath while he gently brushes the kid’s dishevelled locks, and wondering: of the two of them, just who precisely is he soothing?


The following morning, Zach is somewhat more lucid.

He staggers towards Eric’s couch in a daze, ignoring the protests of his ankle, and plops down.

Not only does he feel rotten, but Zach’s sudden realisation that he has stayed the night at his boss’s home and has no clue how that came to pass, has left him feeling considerably ill at ease. He’s been here before, of course, but on neither occasion had Eric given any indication that he was welcome. In all actuality, the older man had essentially banished him to the living area with an abundance of files and strict orders not to move unless there was a dire emergency.

Shivering slightly, Zach wraps his arms around himself and debates making his way back to his apartment. Wearing clothes that are definitely not his own, he is obviously short of cash, so catching a cab is a clear no-go. Figuring it’s early - the sunlight soaking the balcony radiant and fresh - Zach supposes that he could walk the distance, but it’s a long way and he’s barefoot.

After ten straight minutes of mulling over the pros and cons, his genius solution is, "To hell with it, I can so walk that far." Never mind the fact that the ability to walk that far is not really part of the dilemma. And that if it were, then he would undoubtedly lose.

Following a dubious moment where he’d stood and his legs nearly gave way, Zach slowly toddles towards the door and tries to yank it open. It doesn’t unbolt. A few more unrewarding pulls and Zach is forced to re-evaluate the means of his breakout.

Alright, so the front door is vetoed, but how about…

Zach eyes the balcony, deliberating.

Maybe there’s a fire escape?

He stumbles towards it impulsively and is pleasantly surprised when the door unlocks. One more step…

"What the hell are you doing?" a panicked Eric blurts from the hallway, hurrying to his side and shutting the door firmly.

"I… the-the balc’ny…" Zach explains unintelligibly.

"Zach, you are not to go out there unsupervised, you hear me?" the older man gruffly prohibits, breathing roughly. "Not ever."

Unsatisfied with this ruling, he pouts. "Why?"

"Because it’s not safe," Eric tells him, dragging the confused boy to the couch and pushing him down. Immediately, he heads towards the guest room, fishing around in a drawer and plucking the bedding from the unruly bed, proceeding to smother Zach in them. "You’re freezing," he accuses, arranging the blanket so that it protects Zach’s ears, before producing a pair of Avengers-themed socks and stretching them over the kid’s icy feet. "What are you doing out of bed, anyhow?" he soon chides, his dark eyes disapproving.

"I-it’s six thirty," Zach informs him, yawning hugely.

"I am well aware of what time it is, thanks to you," Eric grumbles. "Though I don’t see what that has to do with anything."

He shrugs. "Need to go."

"’Need to go?’" Eric repeats with scrunched brows. "What in God’s name gave you that idea?"

"U’ually go to th-the firm Satu’days," Zach coughs.

Eric’s expression clears.

Nodding in realisation, he gives a regretful smile. "I know you do," he hums. "But not today, okay? You need to rest and you can’t do that while studying bylaws."

"Can too," he argues, sliding into a more comfortable position as his eyes flutter shut.

An amused smirk filling his voice, his boss indulges, "Sure, you can, kiddo."

Moments later, he’s out.

The next time he wakes, Zach is actually lucid.

His fever must have broken at some point, because his mind finally feels clear for the first time in days.

A quick glance at his hand tells him that his bandages have already been redressed and after a longer look around the condo, Zach spies a glass of water and two painkillers on the coffee table. His ankle is screaming awful bad, so he knocks these back gratefully, and with his crutches nowhere in sight, resigns himself to staying put on the sofa.

It’s not ideal, though, as boredom soon begins to set in. With little else to do, Zach picks up the nearby remote control and spends the next half hour channel surfing. He’s too tired to commit to anything in particular, regardless of how impressed by the broad array of films and TV shows on offer he may be, and has to shake himself on numerous occasions to prevent dropping off to sleep.

Zach wishes he had something a tad more productive to keep him busy, but has to content himself with uninterestedly watching the TV with a bleary, unwavering gaze and snuggling into the soft material of his blanki-

Zach bolts upright and hastily scrambles away from the precariously soothing throw.

Blankie? he shudders, sickened. Where the hell did that come from?

"Zach? Kiddo, what’s wrong?"

Swivelling around, he learns that Eric is seated at the breakfast bar working from his laptop, apparently keeping an eye on him, and likely has been for a while. He hadn’t even realised that he’d come in.

"Nothing," he grunts, sinking into the couch. "It’s nothing."

Eric isn’t buying the lie, but luckily doesn’t pursue it.

Instead, rising to his feet and turning to the refrigerator, he changes the subject altogether. "I made soup earlier. Do you think maybe you could manage a few spoonful’s?" When the younger man simply pulls a face in response, he adds sternly, "You haven’t eaten anything," and Zach knows then he hasn’t got much choice in the matter.

"Sounds great," he says wryly.

The rest of the day passes similarly, with Eric fussing over every little thing - from obsessively taking Zach’s temperature to fretting over every paltry cough and stifled yawn with endless inquiries over the state of his physical well-being. When Zach dares approach the subject of going back to his apartment, Eric is utterly uncompromising in his refusal, shooting the idea down at once. Zach would have argued harder had he not being feeling so unwell and had there not been a genuine possibility that Eric would have a panic-induced heart attack if he did.

Though the worst part of the day, hands down, comes when Zach has to go to the bathroom.

"Hey, Eric?" he calls, "Do you happen to know what I did with my crutches?"

His boss frowns, thinking. "You know, I’m not actually sure, buddy. I must have forgotten to lift them before we left the firm."

"Yeah... about that.." Zach says curiously, "How did I get here?"

Eric’s scowl deepens. "You don’t remember?"

Shrugging, he returns, "Should I?"

He can recall flashes here and there, but the events are too muddled and just plain weird to follow. It’s too difficult to know what was real and what wasn’t.

"You were pretty out of it," Eric concedes, smirking. "I’ll give you a run down of the basics. After the cut on your hand got infected, you collapsed in the hallway. Layla found you, got some associate to go get me, who then told Cory," he lists in a bored tone while scrolling through emails on his cell. "Cory rang me, but I was otherwise engaged, and by the time I got there, you were in such bad shape that I took you straight to the hospital. There, you were given some low dose pain meds and antibiotics. After that, we came back here." Glancing up, Eric shrugs, "That’s pretty much it."

There are so many things wrong with that scenario that Zach doesn’t know where to begin. What he says, though, is, "But back to the crutches predicament. If I didn’t have them, then how did I get around?"

Eric presents him with his most dry, patronizing look. "Because I carried you," he replies slowly as if between his ears, Zach only has empty space. "For the most part, anyway. They lent us a wheelchair in the hospital, which was a good thing too, because you were salivating all over my shoulde-"

"Hold up," Zach interjects, appalled, "You did what?"

He rolls his eyes.

"Zach, you weigh about as much as a small teenager." Then his expression abruptly turns serious. Too serious. "How much food do you eat, exactly? Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Whatever it is, I’m doubling it. In fact, I’ve been contemplating making plans to see a nutritionist. Your needs are clearly not being met and even I can tell, you are significantly underwei-"

"Listen," Zach says tersely, bringing Eric’s freak-out (which was freaking Zach out) to a temporary standstill. "I don’t need some damn lecture on my diet or lack thereof. What I need is to go to the bathroom. So.. yeah." He starts to stand, but the other man quickly forces him back down.

"Did you not just hear what I said?" Eric angrily objects. "I’ll text Cory. She can collect the damn crutches. But for now, there is no way I am letting you walk on that ankle. You caused enough damage earlier on your little escapade."

"It’s not that far-"

"It’s far enough," he declares decisively. "Here, let me help you."

"I don’t need or want your help-"

"You’d rather soil yourself right here, then?" Eric questions, eyebrows hoisted up in challenge. "Because that’s what’s going to happen."

"You’re bluffing," Zach states shrewdly, eyes narrowed as he juts out his chin. "This couch is worth, what? A couple hundred thousand?" He smirks, running a hand shamelessly along the armchair. "You’d really let me destroy this beautiful, genuine, Italian leather?" As Eric’s bottom lip thins, he chuckles. "Didn’t think so."

Eyes skewing in amusement, Eric clucks his tongue and shakes his head. "Do you honestly think you can out-stubborn me, rookie? In a battle of wills, I always come out on top."

"How about we cut a deal?"

"Are you kidding me?"

A pause, then:

"I really need to pee."

Eric outright laughs at that. "Then what do you propose we do? Because, evidently, I have the advantage here. You’re a slave to the whims of your body. All I have to do is wait you out."

"But then you’d lose."

"Not if I time it right," he refutes with a playful grin. "The longer you put it off, the more desperate you’ll become, until the shame of having your boss assist you is nothing compared to your need to go."

"Or," Zach pipes up, looking pensive. "I could just go now?"

"Either way, you’re still peeing in front of me. At least in the bathroom, I can look the other way." Crossing his arms, Eric gives every impression of sticking around for a while. "Besides, who do you think will have to help clean you up, anyway?" Zach grimaces. "Face it, kiddo, your plan is riddled with flaws."

"Dammit," he mutters.

"Look," Eric’s face suddenly softens. "It’s not so bad. I’m not judging you, Zach. It’s okay to ask for help."

"I wouldn’t say, I asked exactly-"

The other man fires him a look that soon has him quieting.

"Come on." He wraps an arm around the boy’s shoulders and gently lifts him up. "Let’s just get this over with."

"And then we never speak of it again?" Zach sheepishly asks, tugging hopefully on his lip.

Eric smiles.

Bracing himself for a wealth of awkwardness, he wholeheartedly agrees, "And then we never speak of it again."


"Eric, it’s Monday. I walk to work every Monday. In fact, I walk to the firm every day regardless of the weather or how little sleep I’ve gotten. A little drizzle like that? It isn’t going to make a damn difference." He wants to scream in frustration, but settles for nipping his fingers. "I’m used to it."

"Zach, you are not walking and that’s it," Eric once again lays down the law. "Keep in mind, I don’t even want you in today at all. I can easily withdraw the opportunity if you continue with this inanity."

The threat, while fostering potential, achieves little. Zach knows that the now-transparent lawyer could never hold out for long. Eric will want to have him just a stone’s throw away, where he can keep tabs on him.

If not, there’d be phone calls between meetings and a quick check-up during lunch. And then there’s all of the incessant agonising over whether or not Zach has eaten all of his five-a-day and pacing because Zach might not have brushed his teeth or may have slipped while in the shower and just generally disrupting everything and everyone around him with his ludicrous worrying.

Okay, so he may be exaggerating a little. But that’s the idea.

"I have a perfectly good driver who you are going to make use of. I will not have you catching your death out there."

On second thought, maybe not.

"Please, spare me the melodrama," Zach groans, rolling his eyes in exasperation. "You’ve been smothering me all weekend. I don’t want to hear it!"

"Don’t act like I’m some sort of crazy person, harping on about something without reason," Eric responds irritably. "You’ve been ill due to the wound that you didn’t clean getting infected. Excuse me for being slightly sceptical."

"Are you seriously blaming me?" Zach splutters.

"No, I’m merely implying that maybe if you’d actually changed the bandages, oh, I don’t know, once or twice, then you could have avoided an unpleasant situation."

"That’s not fair," the younger man exclaims, eyes flashing. "I forgot, okay? Jeez, I made one tiny mistake. But guess what? I paid for it." Taking a deep breath, he swipes at his cheeks and sniffles. "I apologise if my feverish rampaging was some huge inconvenience for you."

Deflating instantaneously, Eric winces. "Zach, you weren’t inconveniencing anyone, I swear. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything."

"Yeah, yeah," he grumbles, ducking his head to hide his smile.

Worked like a charm.

"We’d better get going," Zach suggests, calculatingly hoarse. "Wouldn’t want to be late."

"Right," Eric nods, brows squeezing. "Of course."

The drive to the firm is silent and congealed and by the time they pull up outside the firm, it obviously becomes too much for his boss, who cautiously proposes, "Maybe later we could watch a film or something?" He clears his throat and casually buttons his jacket as they step out, but the young associate can virtually smell his guilt. "We’ll make a night of it. Anything you want. I’ll even abstain from arguing about your crappy taste in films."

Well, whaddya know? This could be pretty sweet...

"Anything I want?" Zach grins.

Eric rolls his eyes, beginning to walk briskly as Zach trails behind.

"Are you just going to repeat everything I say?" he observes with distaste souring his tone. "Because if so, then the deal’s off, and not even Cory will be able to bully me out of commenting on that embarrassing haircut. Just saying, I’ve seen better hair clogging up the shower drain."

"Thanks," he mutters, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the image.

"No need to thank me, Zach," Eric smirks. "It was my pleasure."

"Don’t I know it."

After a few more moments of companionable silence, his boss offhandedly asks, "So... movies?"

"I’m thinking The Dark Knight. Can’t go wrong with Batman."

Eric curbs the urge to groan.

Pretty sweet, indeed.


A few days later and the novelty has most certainly worn off.

The one night that Zach managed to wheedle his way back to his and he somehow ends up at Eric’s place, falling asleep before eight again. And that’s after having snoozed for an hour that day in Eric’s office - a daily occurrence ever since he nodded off at his desk that Monday.

There are little things, too. He can’t seem to concentrate for very long and has been caught daydreaming more than once, doodling on the margins of various paperwork. He never seems to have to shave anymore and just yesterday, Zach had to double-check the label on his shirt because it swamped him.

He’s living a nightmare.

Every day, Zach stands in front of the mirror and tries to pinpoint what could be wrong. Logically, his appearance hasn’t changed all that drastically, bar the peculiar absence of his usual six o’clock shadow, so he shouldn’t really pay it much heed. Yet, intuition tells him otherwise.

He’s wary, but Zach can’t fathom why.

Then, on Wednesday, Zach is side-blinded by yet another incident, which honestly, he would like to comment on as little as possible.

As has become routine, the young associate is tugging his blanket over his body and curling up on Eric’s couch for a quick power-nap at noon, when the man himself wanders in and instead of making a beeline for his desk, Eric hesitantly approaches him.

"Hey, kiddo," he greets with misleading lightness, ruffling his hair and taking a seat. "I need to talk to you about something."

"Hmm?" the sleepy kid yawns, fisting his eyes. "What is it?"

"You know how sometimes you find it tough getting to sleep even with the nightlight on?" he asks, inattentively rubbing the kid’s back.

Zach tenses.


"Well... I think I may have a solution."

Tugging on his ear, he says doubtfully, "You do?"

"Uh-huh." Eric nods. "Thing is, though," And he should have known there’d be a catch, "I need you to keep an open mind about it, alright? Can you promise me that?"

Not liking the sound of this one bit, Zach hedges, "I dunno..."

"It’s nothing bad. You just mightn’t like the idea of it, but once you give it a go..." he trails off. Deciding to just power on, Eric reaches around the couch and digs up a small bag. Letting it flop in his lap, stooping downwards to one side, the loose material dips to reveal untamed tuffs of grey fur.

"What..." Zach delicately screws up his face. "Is that?"

"I believe it’s a wolf," Eric ever-so-helpfully points out. "Fierce and protective and all that jazz, right?"

"No, I meant, what is it doing here? Did a client leave it behind or something?" It’s astonishing what denial can do to people’s brain functions. It’s like the last five minutes of conversation have been sucked from his memory.

"No," Eric says slowly. "I bought it for you."

"Ew, why?"

"To give you some company. It’s like a friend and a playmate and possibly even a sense of security all rolled into one."

"That’s stupid, Eric," Zach huffs, mouth poking out. "It’ll never work. It’s ugly and gross and oh-" He pauses, and Eric doesn’t know how a pause can be so sarcastic, but this one certainly is. "Not alive."

In his head, however, he immediately christens the lousy stuffed animal Jellybean.

"Help me out here," the older man requests, frowning, "Tell me, how exactly is this furry little thing gross?"

"The eyes are too big and that shade of blue is weird."

"Now a colour can be weird?"

"This one is," Zach insists. "Weirdest blue I’ve ever seen."

"I think you’re just tired," Eric laughs. "Let me know how you feel in an hour’s time."

But he doesn’t, because there’s no way in hell he’ll ever broach the subject again.

In fact, later when it’s time for bed and he pulls back his duvet to unearth a ridiculously fluffy wolf with an odd kind of charm about him, Zach doesn’t say a thing.


By Friday, Zach is ready to take drastic action.

He’s fed up being treated like an incompetent little kid and to some extent, acting like an incompetent little kid, and overall, his brain is simply fried.

He does his best to grin and bear it, but when push comes to shove, some capricious part of him snaps.

"Good job on those briefs, Zach," Eric casually compliments that evening, taking a dreg of coffee. "They were really well done."

"No, they weren’t," Zach refutes without thinking. "There are twelve separate mistakes that I neglected to rectify and a clause I had no intentions of citing - one which, funnily enough, could save our client no less than ten million."

Eric gives a violent jerk of surprise.

When Zach doesn’t renounce his daring claim, his boss shakes his head in amazement. Assigning Zach his full attention, he subsequently sets aside his cup.

"Let me get this straight," he says slowly, disbelief written in his features as he puzzles it out, "You deliberately half-assed those briefs?"

Recoiling slightly at the subdued tone, Zach licks his lips and nods uneasily.

"What on earth would possess you to do something like that?" Eric questions in bewilderment.

Eyes glued to the ground, he shrugs rigidly and absentmindedly chews on his thumbnail.

"I wanted to see if you would yell at me," Zach mumbles, shuffling. Glancing up and gingerly clearing his throat, he states quietly, "Which... you didn’t."

Sensing that he is vulnerable to scrutiny, Eric turns away and rubs his chin, giving a scathing scoff. "This is ridiculous-"

"Why?" The softly spoken question, melted with uncertainty, almost renders Eric speechless. "Why didn’t you? Yell at me, I mean. You should. I deserve it."

"It wasn’t of any consequence," Eric explains with strenuous nonchalance, "I caught the oversights reasonably easily-"

"No, the real reason," the younger man bites out, a muscle in his jaw juddering.

"Because..." He hesitates, blowing out a weary breath. "Because you seem to be having difficulties focusing lately," Eric downplays with mild indifference, but Zach doesn’t miss the way his shoulders tense and his brows tighten. "And I didn’t want you to feel bad about overlooking a few errors."

"A few glaring errors."

"Maybe so. Does it really matter?"

"Of course it matters!" Zach cries incredulously. "What... Why…" He falters, looking dreadfully young and timid and perhaps a little defeated. Eric doesn’t think the boy even notices when he proceeds to gnaw on his clenched hand, thrusting his knuckles against his right canines. "Why the hell are doing this to me?"

Eric is clearly baffled as hell, unsure at what point this started going downhill and at a clear loss as to how to repair it.

Fisting his hair, he demands, "Doing what?"

"Pretending like you care all of a sudden!" Zach bursts out and, man, it is such a relief to say the words aloud at last. "You tended to me when my stupid cut got infected, you let me stay at your apar-" he cuts off, mouth wrenching into an ugly sneer, "Correction, forced me to stay at your swanky, upmarket apartment. Not to mention, all of the badgering about meals, banning me from walking out of some absurd, misplaced ’concern,’ and constantly invading my personal space with all of these bizarrely kind touches that are yeah, comforting and reassuring and all that crap, I guess, but utterly uncharacteristic!" Zach rhymes off, gaining momentum.

Meanwhile, his boss can do little more than listen on in shock.

"Must I seriously jog your memory, Eric?" he asks, eyebrows raising contemptuously. "You don’t care."

Suddenly, his voice wobbles and just like that, all of his bravo seems to up and disappear. He collapses onto the couch, falling forward with his elbows hitting against his knees and holding his face in his hands.

"So you’re goddamn right it matters," Zach whispers, voice breaking. "Why are you suddenly acting like you give a damn or something? I just-I just don’t understand." It simply isn’t logical.

During Zach’s rant, Eric had been becoming paler and paler and by the end, he is positively horror-stricken.

He swallows with extreme difficulty. "Zach…"

"And it isn’t just you, either!" Zach continues to vent, missing the agonised glint in the older man’s eyes. "It’s Cory and it’s Layla. Hell, even Nolan is in on the act!" He leaps up and begins wirely pacing, gesturing wildly in all directions. "Just tell me. What am I missing? What could possibly be in this for you? Any of you? I’m-I’m like the worst candidate to pull a prank of this magnitude on, because you know me, Eric. I’m this pitiful, attention-craving idiot with serious abandonment issues and a hell of a lot of affection amassed that I want to give out freely but can’t because in the end, I don’t really have anyone to give it to."

He’s gulping down air. "Point is, I get attached and it’s horrible and I just… I just... I don’t understand," he finishes in this tiny, heart-wrenching voice.

"Zach...I do care-"


"Like hell it is!" Eric growls, torn between wanting to either to embrace or throttle him. "Christ, Zach, do you seriously think I’d do something like that? That this is some sort of farce? A game concocted for my own amusement?"

And dammit if his expression isn’t so painfully open, so achingly raw, that Zach’s chest twists.

"Because you know me, Zach," Eric says, turning his own words against him, "I don’t want to care. But you... you just sneaked past all of my defences and damn well forced me to anyway, because you’re just that damn lovable! I don’t want to care, Zach. But I do," He stops, breathing shallowly, "I really, really do."

"You’re just saying that." Because he wants it to be true, - so, so much - but he’s been duped before.

"Do you think it was easy for me that first night when you were in so much damn pain that you cried so brutally you vomited all over yourself?" Eric contests, a merciless potency to his tone. "Remember that?" he chuckles, flippant and harsh. "No? Well, I do. And it killed me. You kept gagging and whimpering and muttering my name over and over and it hurt, Zach. Because I couldn’t do a goddamn thing."

Zach’s eyes burn and he wants to cry - he truly does - but he doesn’t. He doesn’t but it’s a damn near thing.

Damn near.

"I don’t know what’s wrong with me," he eventually chokes.

Eric’s face contorts. "Zach, nothing’s wrong with y-"

"Don’t patronise me!" he snaps. "Quit fucking patronizing me! You know damn well that something hasn’t been right since that mishap at that lab two weeks ago! Just look at me, for Pete’s sake. Take a good long look. I bloody well dare you to."

The reminder of his recent physical changes are enough to push him over the edge.

He can scarcely breathe.

"Zach, buddy," Eric says evenly, though his own composure is less than concrete. "You need to calm down-"

"Don’t tell me to calm down!" He’s getting hysterical and he knows it, but his emotions are all over the place and he can’t reign them in. "I’ve shrunk at least three inches! My suits barely fit me anymore! You instigated a blasted naptime because I tire so freaking easily!"

"Zach-" Eric takes a step forward with his palms raised in an hollow gesture of placation, sending him skittering back.

"I-I can’t do this," he suddenly declares. "I’m sorry, but I can’t pretend like this situation’s not royally fucked-up for one more flamin’ second."

"We can talk about this. There’s no need to do anything rash-"

But he’s already gone.

Retreating quickly from his boss who is rapidly becoming something other - heavily invested in something neither of them understands even distantly - and a wide-eyed Cory who’s blinking rapidly, Zach races out of Eric’s office.

Feeling like he’s going to puke any second, he sprints to the elevator, which is miraculously unoccupied, and fidgets the entire way down. The second the doors open, he springs free, dashing into the night.

Voices calling after him all the way - down streets, through shortcuts, around corners, under streetlights, resounding in his head - Zach runs and runs and runs.


While Zach was growing up, one of his Mom’s biggest fears was that he was missing out.

She was never comfortable with her status as a single parent and she never shied away from telling him how much she regretted having a child under the circumstances that she did. Having been disowned by her own family and dismissed by her so-called friends who’d branded her a cheap bimbo for having a child out of wedlock, after his dad passed away when he was seven, she was left to raise him all on her own.

Every year without fail until he entered high school and Father’s Day crept up and he’d be forced to paste glue onto coloured cards with a lopsided, tissue-papered heart slapped on top, Zach would arrive home mildly upset, - his Dad naturally on the forefront of his mind - as he scrunched the glittery drivel up and lobbed it at the trash. And his Mom would ask if he were okay and he’d shrug it off, because, really - it was just a meaningless slice of paper folded into a generic greeting card, beaming and bright and tender with naivety, containing none of the sentiments Zach wishes he’d had the chance to unburden.

Had his Dad been alive, he would have been lucky to have him even glance at it. It wouldn’t have meant anything back then and it certainly didn’t have to mean anything this time ’round, simply because he wasn’t there to throw the damn thing away himself.

And even though his Mom would nod and paste on a pleasant smile, Zach could tell that she would never allow herself to entertain the belief that he was truly okay while every fibre of her being insisted that it mattered even when it didn’t matter to him.

He might not have fully comprehended the magnitude of his loss, but she most definitely did.

The long hours she spent working to sustain the two of them meant that he was alone a lot, too. Let’s just say, Zach had to adapt pretty quickly, especially once she became ill. Personally, he really doesn’t feel as if his short-lived childhood hindered his happiness all that greatly. Yes, she may have been getting frail and weary as the cancer ravaged her body, but it didn’t necessarily put a damper on their time together. He cherished every last moment with her. Never for one moment has Zach ever resented her for this - quite the opposite - but nevertheless, she continued to beat herself up over it.

It wasn’t enough. She wasn’t enough.

And on her deathbed in that too-empty room, it broke her heart that Zach had no-one else besides herself to count on.

And all-too-soon she’d soon be gone.

His Mom was convinced that he deserved more than what he was receiving, and no matter how hard Zach tried to assure her otherwise, those doubts weighed heavily on her mind right up until the very end.

She would have loved Eric. The idea of Eric.

If his Mom were here, she would do everything she could to convince him that this is a wonderful thing. And though she’d never been particularly religious, he can almost hear her now, parroting, "It’s about time God intervened."

Then, when his cellphone blasts - kind of like it is now - she’d guilt him into answering with passages from a philosophy book she favoured in the later months and obviously, of course, Zach would have no choice but to oblige.

But she isn’t here.

And eventually the ringing will stop.

He aimlessly wanders the cold, gritty city, hours cascading this way, as he wades deeper into unfamiliar territory and catalogues his dour surroundings.

He is shoving his hands into his pockets when he feels the first splotch of rain on his forehead.

It’s light at the onset, so Zach ignores it. He huddles into his suit jacket, which offers very little warmth, even going so far as to turn it up at the collar - though he’s sure, he must look ridiculous.

Only moments later, the sky crackles and, suddenly, it’s teeming down.

Diving for cover, he sprints to the nearest building - a seedy-looking watering hole with a wilting overhead sign reading Sandino’s in an insipid, grim glow - and pushes his way blindly inside.

He immediately yanks off his tie and with some difficulty, undoes his top two buttons with numb, maladroit fingers. Next, Zach strips off his now saturated jacket and rolls up his sleeves. Feeling marginally better and shivering only slightly, he inhales deeply and scours his fortuitous refuge.

The lightning’s dim, dingy, - not his regular hangout, though similar. He has pretty low standards lately - and the place is practically deserted.

But that’s okay.

Zach could use the quiet.



End Chapter 2

Can't Go Back

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


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