Zach splashes some cold water onto his face and once again, pinches his cheeks.
Irritating the associate to no end, however, the paleness of his complexion is restored within minutes. No matter how many times he dabs scrunched up toilet paper at his forehead or twists and stretches his skin, Zach’s appearance remains - at first glance - entirely unremarkable, until closer inspection reveals the fraught, pasty exterior which perfectly showcases all of the inner turmoil he so desperately wants to keep under wraps.
One look at him and Eric will know something is up (no doubt putting those newly acquired ’gut feelings’ to use, he can’t help but bitterly think) and then he’ll bug Zach until he spills.
Well, he smirks, puffing up his chest, just call him Clark Kent ’cause he won’t be spilling anything today!
At least… not again.
Eric’s interrogation skills are exemplary and not many can circumvent him, but Zach has to try.
He won’t own up to hiding, but that flower-scented air-freshener the janitor sprayed while giving him the evil eye has done an extraordinarily poor job of masking his earlier bile and still, he’s stuck around. If only to avoid offence, Zach wishes he could blame his little vomit-spree on some defective chicken wings from the night before, but in actual fact, he just freaked - pure and simple.
After running into Eric in the corridor this morning and having him merely tut at his untucked shirt, maybe part of him had gotten his hopes up. Maybe part of him had thought that he could live a normal life and that Eric could live his, working alongside each other in perfectly normal harmony, and it would be alright.
Maybe part of Zach had been in denial and then that all changed.
Because, yes, Eric had tutted and carried on without breaking stride, but he should never have been so quick to celebrate the return of Eric The Condescending Prick. Because the truth is… he never really left.
And Zach doesn’t know how he feels about that.
He’d tried not to feel anything at all.
Imagine then, the shock, when he was on his way to deliver some files and overheard Cory lamenting, "Eric, come on, you can’t let that get to you. It was just a dream. Let it go."
And then, before he can make his presence known, his boss sweeping a hand through his hair and replying, "I know, I know. It’s crazy. It wasn’t real and yet, I can’t shake this feeling..." He’d pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes and shook his head. "I don’t know. He’s not my son, I know that-"
"But.." Cory hesitated. "You sort of feel like his dad."
Perhaps it was the finality of the words, maybe there was a grave depth to them that seemed so out-of-place when speaking of an unrealistic dream which should have been inconsequential and swiftly forgotten, - a dream he can only guess at its contents - but that one line hit him harder than anything else since leaving Dr. Slater’s unforgiving lab that afterwards felt so far from reality.
In the end, Eric might be the same old competitive, ego-centric guy with serious commitment issues, but here’s the thing - he’d obviously never settled down for a reason and this was never meant to be.
Eric is being forced into fatherhood because of some failed experiment that turned Zach into some juvenile freak.
Nausea bubbling up his throat, Zach had bolted towards the bathrooms.
He hasn’t surfaced since.
If he’s honest, he’s surprised his boss has yet to assemble a search party, (or who knows, maybe he has; Zach has been ducking into the stalls every time someone enters, so he wouldn’t be flushed out of his not-hideaway) but with every passing hour, he’s becoming increasingly more aware of his advancing naptime and with all of these insecurities rattling about inside of him, Zach’s yearning for comfort has sky-rocketed and there’s only so much he can do.
The associate’s resolve to relieve Eric of these ’responsibilities’ Dr. Slater mentioned is proving extremely difficult and Zach knows that the more worked up he becomes, the more child-like he will act, but emotions are such fickle things and he never claimed to be perfect.
It’s as though he can feel his older self struggling with the reigns as any semblance of restraint crumbles.
Funny how his fear of losing control is the very thing that causes his downfall.
Mouth watering in anticipation, Zach’ stomach sinks. Curbing the cravings is going to be much harder than he thought.
"I can fight this," he growls between clenched teeth, gripping the sink and staring hard at his reflection. "I won’t. I’m not going to give in." Tears spring forth in his eyes and his fist slowly sidles upwards, unravelling…
Everything’s falling apart.
"I won’t," he vows, "I can do this." Hand shuddering, Zach turns his head away from the temptation.
He has the bizarre urge to cackle. Like that’s going to help. His thumb is already arched and waiting. It’s only a matter of time…
Zach runs his tongue along his lips and bites down hard enough to draw blood.
No. He won’t.
But he really, really wants to.
It feels as though he’s being torn in so many directions, he can’t tell left from right.
Unable to face Eric; needing to be near Eric - the contradictions are endless. Trying to protect Eric, but failing, because how can he protect him from himself?
Especially when the door opens and before he can move a muscle, Zach hears:
"Oh, thank God," Cory cries upon seeing him. "You really know how to scare the living daylight’s out everyone, don’t you? Your da- I mean," She blows a breath, shaking her head before continuing, "Eric’s worried silly." Giving him a cursory once-over, she doesn’t seem to like what she finds. "Were you bored, sweetie? Is that it? Did someone decide to play a little game of hide-and-seek without telling anyone?"
More than a little uncomfortable, Zach shakes his head and stares down at his shoes, before feeling the need to shyly point out, "Cory, this is the men’s room."
"It is?" Cory asks, feigning a frown. "Oh. Well, in that case, we’d better get a move on before someone sees us. You wouldn’t want to get me in any trouble, would you?"
Amused by her dramatic tone despite himself, Zach gives a timid smile.
"Come on, then." She grins. "Let’s put poor Eric out of his misery."
As expected, the older man wastes no time shepherding him into the back of his personal car. Part of Zach suspects that Eric planned to take him home regardless of the reason for his disappearance even if he’d merely been grabbing a coffee in the break room (where Eric had, in fact, checked, along with a whole list of ridiculous locations. Like, seriously? That microscopic excuse for a storage closet on the third floor? For the last time, he wasn’t playing hide-and-seek!)
The disappointment he will not admit to feeling when they arrive at his block, fades promptly when Eric himself steps out and asks the driver to wait.
Heart nervously fluttering, Zach narrows his eyes and questions in suspicion, "What are you doing?"
"Making sure you pack suitably." He flicks a bored glance at the kid and rolls his eyes. "Don’t look at me like that," Eric adds, mistaking Zach’s disbelief for insult. "You’re a pretty disorganized person. I’m just covering all of my bases."
When they reach his apartment, Zach struggles to dig up his key, and Eric gives him a pointed look, as if to say, ’See?’
After having his patience tested far beyond its limits with Eric nagging about everything from the cups and plates piling up in his sink (a whole five in total) to the unmade bed and the mismatched socks cropping up everywhere, Zach inwardly cheers when his boss finally - finally - stops nitpicking about his personal cleanliness (which is clearly not up to scratch going by his upturned nose and the overall unimpressed vibes he’s been emanating) and turns to leave, grumbling under his breath.
Zach gets it, he really does. He’s not being intentionally overbearing. But it doesn’t stop him from feeling a little insecure all the same. He doesn’t want Eric to evaluate his competency as an independent young man and find it lacking; Zach wants to be glowingly self-sufficient to the point where Eric has no room to criticize and no reason to worry about anything, ever, regarding Zach.
When he puts it that way, it’s a lot to ask. Hell, it’s virtually impossible. And Zach wonders for a brief moment if he’s setting himself up for failure and if it still counts as being responsible. He can’t eliminate every risk of error, but he can damn well try.
"Hey, kiddo," Eric catches his arm just before he hops in, "You okay? Stomach bothering you?"
Zach wriggles out of his grip.
"I told you, I’m not sick," he mumbles.
"And I told you, I’m not buying it. You got something on your mind, then just come out with it instead of bottling everything up all the time. I’m here to help."
"There’s nothing to say." Zach gnashes his teeth together and glares. "And even if there were, I wouldn’t tell you anyway."
Eric’s brows rise so far, they disappear into his hairline.
"See?" he crows. "You’ve been acting tetchy all day."
"Have not," he pouts.
"I disagree. Either you were sick because of some virus of some sort or it’s stress-related. In which case, I’d like to know what’s so bad that you feel you can’t come to me about it. Whatever it is, I won’t get mad, I promise."
"It’s not anything," Zach insists, heart hammering and hardening simultaneously. "Just leave me alone. God, can’t a guy have one bad day?" Then he jumps in before Eric can say anything and slams the door behind him - hard.
The driver blinks but refrains from commenting.
After spending the entire journey glowering at a loose thread in his suit jacket and winding it around his thumb, Zach storms into Eric’s apartment and immediately plops down onto the couch where he curls up and burrows under a discarded throw.
He hears Eric enter soon after and presumably sigh when he spots him.
Well, whatever. Who cares if he’s sulking, anyway? He is perfectly entitled to his feelings!
To his dismay, not only does Eric refuse to take the hint and leave him to his moping, he actually sits down on the other end of the couch and unfolds his laptop without a care in world, matching Zach’s furious look with a defiant one of his own.
An hour of stewing in silence later and Zach is starting to regret his bratty actions as his limbs soak in the exhaustion which pervades his mind. Nuzzling the edge of the armchair with his nose, he snuffles quietly before murmuring forlornly, "Sorry, ‘Ric."
"I know, buddy. It’s okay."
"S’not," he shakes his head. "Was bad."
Eric moves closer to gently card his fingers through the boy’s hair. "It’s alright. Time to sleep."
Shaking his head once more, Zach snivels, "Don’t want to."
"Don’t want to?" Eric echoes in confusion. "Why not?"
"Just-just don’t want to," Zach simply blubbers, looking up at him with red, tear-stained cheeks.
Seeing that he’s not getting anywhere, the older man sighs and glances around the room. Spying Zach’s bag over by the door, he starts to stand before a hand reaches out and clings to his pants leg.
"M’sorry!" Zach wails. "Don’t go!"
Eric heart gives a painful lurch.
"I’ll be right back, bud," he softly appeases. "Just two seconds, ’kay? Two little seconds."
Zach only continues to scowl, which Eric realises he can’t do anything about until he physically leaves and then returns. After slowly prying the fingers off to the kid’s displeasure, he quickly retrieves the desired object before crouching down beside Zach.
"Here you go, kiddo," Eric says lowly. "This what you wanted?"
From a distance, it probably looks like nothing more than a ball of fluff, but to Zach, he instantly recognises-
"Jellybean!" he shrieks, smiling sleepily. Latching onto the fuzzy wolf, the boy rubs his cheek against the gray fur and settles the stuffed animal under his chin.
Eric frowns. "Jellybean?"
Zach nods. "Uh-huh. I called him Jellybean because jellybeans are his absolute favouritest in the whole wide world, especially the purple ones that taste like cola, and he likes to gobble them up instead’f people."
As much as part of Eric wants to beam at the overwhelming adorableness, the other half is much too horrified by the implications of that statement.
Eat people? He is never letting Zach watch another scary movie again.
As for werewolves, (cartoon or otherwise) and Little Red Riding Hood? You can forget it.
But all he says is, "That’s... nice."
"He also loves mud and spiders and Star Wars and dirt bikes, but I didn’t think those names would suit him all that much."
"No," this time Eric does grin, "No, somehow I don’t think they would."
Yawning, Zach knuckles his eyes and adds, "And he likes you too, ‘Ric. He says you’re the best."
The other man thinks that if his smile gets any brighter, his teeth might sparkle like in the commercials.
"Does he now? Well, thank-you very much, Mr. Jellybean," he replies warmly. "You seem pretty awesome yourself."
Zach giggles, eyes sparkling in delight.
"Now, come on," Eric lightly scolds, tapping him on the nose. "No more distractions. It’s time to sleep."
"But Jellybean’s not tired," the kid announces.
"He looks pretty tired to me."
"He’s not," Zach shakes his head quickly, "He’s bursting with energy! He wants to go…to go, um.. dancing!"
Eric can’t help but burst out laughing.
"Is that so?" he chuckles. "Well, I’d be happy to take Jellybean dancing after he’s had a nap." Smirking, he teases, "I assume we’re taking about ballet, no?"
Pulling a disgusted face, Zach retorts brusquely, "No."
"Hmm, tap dance?" He shakes his head. "Folk dance?" Another no. "How about Irish dance? Latin dance? Interpretative dance? Which is it?"
"Eric," Zach levels him with the driest of looks. "Jellybean only does the wolf dance."
"In that case," Eric softly responds as he smoothes a thumb over the kid’s hair, pleased to see his eyes growing heavy despite Zach’s best efforts, "I wish him the best of luck."
When Zach wakes, he feels even more disjointed, caught between his differing selves.
Although his mood seems much more stable than in the morning, the associate is still cautious, all too aware of how little he can truly trust himself.
Zach comes to the sudden realisation that the problem behind his volatility is that he’s been fighting it so hard. And so begins another oath. Backed by another untested theory.
At dinner, he eats all of his greens without much fuss despite really hating broccoli, but finds himself slipping up and accidentally calling them trees - something he hasn’t done since he was two years old and that was what he genuinely believed them to be.
Then afterwards when he doesn’t want to shower but Eric pushes him into taking one anyway, Zach cried for a good ten minutes because the water was too runny and the shampoo smelled funny.
The stress of trying to go along with everything, - chiefly the things that his younger self doesn’t want to do - in order to avoid a tantrum only increases the odds of having a tantrum, and Zach is left feeling like he can’t get anything right. No matter where he turns, he faces opposition.
It’s-he’s just… He’s just so damn tired.
Tired of blaming himself and tired of blaming Eric.
Tired of keeping secrets; tired of wanting to tell his boss but having no idea how to go about explaining the unexplainable. But most of all, Zach’s tired of wanting things in general that he knows he’ll never have.
Like true independence and a normal life.
Like… like a father in a man that never signed up to be one.
By bedtime, Zach is shattered and so, when he fails to track down his treasured blankie, he gives a big F-you to his pride and trails into the living room.
Skimming through some briefs and kneading his temples with one hand, the older man is bent over the countertop looking frustrated and worn out. Second thoughts bounding forward, Zach tries to quietly back away but the blasted floorboard creaks and Eric’s head automatically snaps up.
Curiosity sharpens his gaze as he takes in Zach’s bedraggled hair, clean-pressed pyjamas and bare feet.
"What’s up, pal?" he wonders, straightening. "How come you aren’t asleep?"
Swallowing his anxiety, Zach bites his lip and answers, "Uh, it’s nothing, really. I was wondering… have you seen my-my, uh-" He rubs the back of his head, fluffing up his own hair and shuffling awkwardly.
"Spit it out, kiddo," the other man drawls with a touch of amusement. "Whaddya need?"
"Do you know where I left my…er, my blanket?"
Eric’s eyes pounce onto his - whether due to Zach’s all-too-transparent agitation or the question itself remains unseen, but Zach suddenly wishes he were anywhere else, shifting under the scrutiny.
"In the wash," Eric replies carefully, his emerging frown mimicking the kid’s. "Why?"
"No reason," Zach claims, unable to pull off the intended indifference as he twiddles his thumbs. "It’s just… how am I supposed to-to… you know…" He coughs, cheeks flushing.
Pressing his lips together to mask his smile, Eric says, "I have other blankets, buddy."
"Yeah, but-" he cuts off, frown deepening.
"It’s not the same," Zach complains as tears well in his eyes. He sniffs. "I don’t want another blanket!"
Eric blinks. This is obviously not at all what he’d expected.
There’s a moment of silence as the other man considers this.
"Well," he suddenly says, rubbing his chin in feigned thought. "I know trucks and racecars are great and all, but do you know who’s even cooler?"
Zach glances up at him inquisitively. "Who?"
Lowering his voice dramatically, Eric breathes, "Spider Man."
"Spider Man?" Zach parrots, smiling faintly.
"Uh-huh." He nods quickly. "He’s awesome. Always saving the day and um, swinging from buildings and fighting bad guys," Eric improvises in a cheerful, persuasive tone that verges on ridiculous. He knows little to nothing about superheroes, but Zach doesn’t need to know that.
"Yeah, but-but-" Looking dangerously close to stamping his foot, Zach whines, "I don’t have a Spider Man blanket!"
"Are you sure?" Eric asks, forcing a puzzled frown. "Because I was certain that I bought one a few days ago… Silly me. I must’ve imagined it!"
Now Zach’s feeling kind of silly. What if he has had a cooler blanket all along?
"Well," the boy chews on his thumb, "I don’t know that I don’t have one."
"Have you looked?"
"Then you know what you have to do, don’t you?" Eric says gravely.
He nods. "It’s the only way."
The best thing was that Eric never informed Zach where he’d stashed the bedspread and so, laughing ecstatically the entire time, the kid raced around the condo in search for over an hour, prompted by the older man’s vague clues, and fell asleep snuggling into a unremarkable, run of the mill red and blue blanket with a triumphant smile on his face.
Wednesday dawns clear skied and unpredictable.
Wearing only a baggy tee and tartan bottoms with stripes, Zach pads into the kitchen barefoot, giving his armpit a cautious sniff as he clambers onto a stool, before sleepily pillowing his head on the crook of his arm.
"Morning, puppy," Eric greets from where he’s fixing himself a bowl of that boring, all-bran cereal. "What would you like for breakfast? Toast sound acceptable?"
"No," Zach replies, still slumped over the counter top.
"Okay…" He racks his brain for another preference of Zach‘s. "What about some strawberries and waffles?"
He doesn’t even pause, before rejecting, "No."
"Well, those are your options, kiddo." With an unapologetic shrug, his boss says, "I’d offer you some of mine, but I know how much you hate any cereal that isn’t cheerios, so what’ll it be? Toast or waffles?"
He doesn’t know what’s gotten into him, but he wants to push just to see what might happen, and he needs to refuse if only to show that he can. "No."
To Eric’s credit, he says calmly, "Zach."
Bumping his nose against his arm and stubbornly shaking his head, the youngster stretches, "Noooooo."
"Alright, here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to count to ten and you are going to choose or I’m going to choose for you and that’ll be the end of it, got it?"
"But Errriicc," Zach whines, lifting his head momentarily before flopping lifelessly down again.
"But nothing," he firmly refutes. Somewhat louder than his usual speaking voice but no less obstinate, his boss begins slowly, "One, two, three-"
"-Four, five, six-"
Lips slip into a sullen pout.
"-Seven, eight, nine-"
"Okay, okay!" the boy interjects, succumbing to the pressure. "I’ll have the toast." When Eric simply raises a brow, he quickly tacks on, "Please."
"No problemo, kiddo," he cheerfully assents, ignoring Zach’s resentful frown. Within minutes, a warm plate is placed in front of him along with another lousy juice box, blackcurrent in flavour, which he glowers at on principle. As if reading his mind, Eric doesn’t hesitate to intervene. "Nope," he effortlessly impedes, relaxed yet resolute. "We don’t have time for any ’don’t want its.’ You’re eating your toast, crust and all, and that’s it."
As if some external force has invaded his mind, Zach can’t stop himself from blurting, "No."
Eric’s nose twitches and the associate knows, right then, that the he won’t like what’s coming next.
"Is that the only word in your vocabulary today?" he queries, not sounding the least bit amused. "I was kind enough to give you a choice, Zach. In future, I might not be so liberal. So you better believe it when I say that unless you wolf down at least one slice of toast inside the next five minutes, I will spoon-fed you for the rest of the week. If you want to act like a spoiled brat, then you’ll be treated as one, simple as that."
"On the contrary, I think you’ll find that it’s more than reasonable. You know how cranky you get in the morning unless you’ve eaten and I, for one, am not in the mood to deal with any more temper tantrums."
Knuckling his eyes and not quite holding off the tears, Zach isn’t even aware that he’s been sucking on his thumb until he has to meekly consent around the blockage, "Fine."
"Good boy," Eric softly praises, giving him a quick hug and kissing the top of his head. "Now, I’m going to go shower and when I get back, that plate better be clean, mister."
The kid nods, picking up the lukewarm bread and sluggishly pushing it against his lips as if to say, See? I’m being totally agreeable. Look how well-behaved and pleasant I am.
"And when we get to the firm, you can take a little nap in my office if you’re still tired, okay?" he proposes with a knowing look. Before Zach has the chance to object to that statement, the lawyer adds, "Plus, I think Jellybean might be feeling a little sad today." Zach doesn’t know why, but that makes him sad, brows furrowing in sympathy. "Maybe you should stay with him for a while. Just in case he gets a bit lonely."
"Okay," he agrees whole-heartedly, willing to do anything that might cheer up his furry pal and secretly promising to give him an extra-special cuddle later.
And if Zach just so happens to drop off during the middle of a very, very long hug after telling about ten different jokes that he’s certain would brighten anyone’s day, ("Hey, Jellybean. What do you call an alligator in a vest?" Blue eyes gazed back at him vacantly. "An Investigator!") then what’s the harm anyway?
He’s just being a good friend.
And if, unbeknownst to him, Eric and Cory are left struggling to contain their mushy awwwws, and his boss smiles upon seeing the boy’s eyes have drifted closed before hunting down his favourite blankie to tuck him in, then what’s the odds anyhow?
It’s not like Eric anticipated this moment.