Falling Through the Cracks
by Aimme,
with touches by My Note Book

Author's Notes: I am alive. I mean, when I opened the file for this story, I nearly died by asphyxiation from choking on all the dust, but the keyword is "nearly." Obviously I survived, much to the annoyance of my characters and to the mostly pleased relief of my readers...I think. Life's been fine, but busy; family business? Not so much. And really, that's what's kept me from writing; certain affairs sucked all the drive for writing right out of me. Has anyone invented a cure for writer's block? Wait...don't tell me...writing?

Don't ask me where this is going. I don't think I know anymore.

BlackKeys96, you, out of everyone, I'd like to apologise to the most; you've been a most faithful and truly rewarding reader and I've had no way to contact you in all this time, like I have the others, to let you know anything about what's up. If you're still around and you read this, don't think I forgot about you. Please accept my humblest regrets, and my sincerest request that you get an account here so I can keep in contact with you (particularly when this story is over). As for your review of chapter 18, let me start off with saying thank you. I am glad that London's complexity appealed to you; the Zack and London friendship is an interesting one on the show, but it kind of became its own thing when I started exploring it, much more complex and intricate, yet startlingly simple when everything is considered, than we are truly able to get the feel for in the episodes. I think you are correct about London's anger, that she felt betrayed; in a way, she had been. I'm sure for Zack's part, he feels it's all about protection; protecting himself from being hurt again, but also, since he's been hurt so much, he figures there must be something wrong with him and he has to protect London from that. The slap was an interesting part to write, but I am happy to hear you liked the way it was handled. As for hurting vs. helping Zack, you're probably right. It's not something that will be thoroughly explored here, but I have a series planned out within this little "universe" I've created, and we'll probably see it explored more in those stories. As for Cody's part, I think, yes, he was feeling what Zack was feeling, or at least sensing it (twins already have their own sort of "twin sense" and Cody seems to have tapped into it), however briefly. Here's to hoping that I'll see you around...

Ellahello2, cry if you wish! I don't mind the caps lock, especially for such gracious praise. Thank you! It means a lot that you took the time to write a review. Thank you, also, for the favourites and the alerts.


Chapter Nineteen - The Biggest Joke of All


"If weakness is a wound that no one wants to speak of
Then "cool" is just how far we have to fall"
-(I'm Not Alright) Sanctus Real

He got what he deserves. His cheek stings, the pain lingering like the sharp imprint of the moment left on his brain. If there's a red mark, that would explain it; the memory will stick to him longer, though.

London'll never speak to me again, his little, self-degrading voice murmurs around in his head with a tone like a broken track record; weary and he's tired of hearing it. But that is that, isn't it? No refuting or changing. His self-debasement aside, London does tend to hold certain grudges…private armies sent to ex-boyfriends' homes ring a bell (yeah, he'd heard through the grapevine)? Case in point.

The reality is that as long as he can't change, the cycle continues; as long as he doesn't get things right, nothing will be. This weighty matter ate him away; it was like salt ground into the wound of his own entrapment.

He's caught somewhere between wanting to cry miserably and laugh hysterically, because the irony and bitter gall of it all keeps him so unbalanced. Except, he didn't feel like laughing, and crying was his weakness and the prison inside his prison, and he's also had enough of it for one day. Crying was all well and good in its proper context (that is, in private), but blubbering like a baby didn't fit his agenda.

He shoves a snide, sneering little voice into a corner of his mind and knocks it out.

"Zack, what happened?" Too bad it's not so easy to knock that voice out neatly. Cody's confusion is so ironic, he almost laughs, and it would've had bitter undertones because the overborne note in his twin's voice embitters him all the more.

What is he, Mr. Fix-it-All? He can't contend with Cody's issues for him, so he'd appreciate not being looked at to make anything better.

"We heard yelling."

Oh, that.

Well, this isn't how these days go…dragged out and spiralled out of control? Sure, he was that way on these days, but where in the world had all this drama come from? Time for their semblance of normalcy, a quicksilver smile and empty-headed talk, a few jokes; back in place.

Mask. Like a switch. Flip. Life is back to normal.

Zack flashes a grin, like the freakin' Cheshire cat (personally, he'd always found that cat creepy); like he's got to tell them the most hilarious thing since Woody gave up pork for Lent and the all-you-can-eat buffet had bratwurst for lunch that same day, whereupon Woody indulged his salivating mouth and announced that for Lent he was going to "give up giving up something for Lent."

"She asked me if her outfit went with the infirmary. I told her that for all I knew, it looked like last year's trash." Then across that grin appears an orgulous quirk, smug self-belittlement in his eyes creating an oxymoron in the mix that was his expression.

The two shoot incredulity his way, as if questioning his audacity and especially his sanity.

He forces himself not to scowl, a nasty snarl stifled. Why do you even want to know? Why d'you think you care? The small, bitter words are as good as glued inside his mouth. The fight of his locked-up-tight, real self has cooled and retreated to that cozy little cage he has for himself, and he's back to that outwardly "normal." And he's okay with that.

He has to be.

"Zack…" Bailey begins in her conflicted-girl tone. He'd name the emotions warring in her voice as astonishment and some sort of couched sorrow. What's with her?

He surreptitiously casts a studying glance over her; she's slightly behind his brother, and it makes him think of being used as a human-shield. She has an anxious grip on Cody's hand. She looks…frazzled.

Seriously, what is with everyone today? And they thought he was…off.

Patented Zack grin is turned on her, that look of his that says he's totally unaffected and that (other than being in the infirmary) everything's a big joke and he's satisfied with his role in it.

Before anything more can be said, though, a rough, by-now-familiar-to-Zack voice cuts through the unequal atmosphere from the other room.

"Mr. Cody Martin, here. Now." Nurse Hatchet calls—summons—commands.

At that, Cody glances at the door, then sighs. His gaze darts between brother and girlfriend one last time, then he reluctantly pulls his hand out of Bailey's and smiles apologetically, mostly in her direction. Then, grumbling something incoherent, he marches determinedly out the door.

It is just him and Bailey now. He can see she's been worrying about something, so… "Sunflowers are supposed to be carefree…or is that daisies?" he muses suddenly. He can't remember which flower his grandmother had given that attribute…

Little furrows above her nose, small lines around her mouth—funny, they look like they spell confusion…Ah, that's because they do. She shakes her head in incomprehension, but he's not surprised; no one's in his head but him.

"Zack…" Bailey's eyebrows rise a little, eyes shut, as she tries to piece something together. Finally, she settles on, "Are you alright?"

Worry. There's a lot more worry than there should be in that tone; by this point, everyone's used to seemingly mindless comments from the bleachers—er, him. She can't be worried about his sanity, then…or at least, not more so than usual. Right?

Whatever it is, it doesn't matter. He sharply rebuffs her worry, closing it off from his heart; if he's going to get by, he has to protect the inside from the outside and vice versa. She doesn't know, of course; she doesn't because she's like everyone else—none of them could know.

"Right as a fiddle," he answers, shrugging.

She tilts her head slightly, bemused. "It's fit as a fiddle."

"And right as rain."

"What?" It seems she doesn't really know what to make of him. Good. Keeping people off balance is essential to getting by them.

Faultlessly clueless. Yet at fault for all the reasons they are clueless. There are reasons people don't know—and he lets them keep those reasons, because he doesn't feel any liberty for that to be different.

"Expressions, Bran. We're discussing phraseologies. Keep up." He grins cheekily at the use of the old nickname, referencing back to Bailey's brief stint as a boy in the early days aboard.


He hops down off the bed. "Yeah, something from something I remember my mom watching."

"What, was it The Music Man?" She guesses, looking excited.

He stares at her, then shakes his head, muttering, "Girls."

"Hey!" She protests. Then, in typical Bailey fashion, proceeds to her excited, informative tone, and says, "The Music Man is a classic. Rogers and Hammerstein were maestros of musicals. Their work is still popular today. Did you know that they reworked the music theatre scene? They're widely hailed for their use of what's widely called the formula musical, but really it's just—"

"Yeah, yeah, they made an imprint. People had fun. Where do you get your info? Wikipedia?"

She scoffs. "For your 'info,' my momma's a fan; I was practically raised on Oklahoma! and others, like the widely popular The Sound of—"

"Yeah, yeah." He waves it off again. "That explains a lot."

"I beg your pardon!" She looks affronted.

He shrugs and grins that infuriating, devil-may-care grin of his.

"Oh, Zack," she sighs suddenly, looking relieved and upset in a rather strange way. Then, without warning, she flings herself at him and her arms are around him, squeezing tightly, and he's caught off guard. "I thought it'd be great to be rid of your insulting and your rudeness, but then I thought that I really would and suddenly I realised I'd do anything just to hear you insult me and Cody again."

Tears wobble in her voice and he's thinking, Oh God, no, and wondering why girls keep crying on him today and why everyone's being so stupid and when he became the group's go-to for emotional outbursts…but really, he's just trying not to panic at the touch…

"Gotta breathe, Bailey," he gasps out -in some ways not as fake as in others- at her, hoping it'll get her to let go.

"Oh yes, of course!" She pulls back abruptly, looking embarrassed. "Sorry, Zack. It's just…well, I was afraid that—you know—that you were—were…were dying." Her eyes drop as she says this last, her voice quiet and hitching on the final word in a way he's not sure what to make of.

All he can hope is that she doesn't pull that girly, hormonal thing and burst into tears. God…he doesn't do emotional. He can't stand it when he gets emotional. (This is also a reason why he doesn't ever get his own turn of "crying on someone," and it is the reason that makes it partly his fault.)

Zack tries to preempt and avoid that dreaded outcome, so he hastens to begin inquiries. Because, seriously, this whole thing had gone beyond confusing a long time ago. "Bailey, wha—why would you think that?" Why does everyone keep spouting this notion that he's dying? It's like everyone's been turned into real-life, walking broken records… "First London, now you. Where are you getting your info?" He resists the empty-headed urge to mention Wikipedia again, opting to be a little more straight, serious with her.

"Woody told me that you were dying," she says, biting her lip. She looks haggard and he can only imagine the kind of crazy day everyone seems to be having…and wonders if his trumps theirs.

Time to get a solid point across and bring some levity back to things, because he doesn't do harried, and she's definitely that. "And you believed Woody why?" He effects his most fitting "seriously?" face he can muster.

"Well…" She laughs sheepishly, and it's the laughing bit, regardless of discomfiture or not, that he'd hoped to get; he offers a small laugh in return as he shakes his head. She continues wryly, "I thought when it was something this serious, he would be right."

He sighs, "Bailey, Bailey, Bailey…" in exaggerated disappointment, making her laugh a little more brightly. He grins.

"Sorry," she apologises, then drops her gaze to the floor, scuffing a foot across the generic-print carpet. Then, a curious, questioning look crosses her face, though she does not lift her head; and asks, "Why are you here though?"

That—ah, that is the question keeping him up all night, tossing and turning and begrudging the darkness its liberty of conjuring up his insomnia and his doubts and his questions, his failures and dreams and losses. He watches the time tick by, little glowing lights in the dark room that parade an announcement of the late hour to mock his restless, dogged mind.

He hates those nights. He dreads those nights.

And sometimes, those nights haunt his days and hound at him until he retreats into the defence of sleep to escape their effects.

"Ah, I tripped." He waves it off flippantly, but winces self-deprecatingly. He knows she's not asking him that (haunting, alienating, disheartening, unanswerable—) question. "I've a loose nail in my closet and it's unlucky Tuesday…" He shrugs, then gives her a sharp look. "Don't go telling anyone."

"Of course, Zack," she assures with an amused colour to her tone. Then her brow furrows. "But…unlucky Tuesday?" Her confusion is genuine.

"I'm afraid you don't know everything, Bran." Again, he uses the nickname. To soften the rebuttal. "Unlucky Tuesdays are a family curse. Ask Cody about it sometime. As for all this,"—he gestures around the infirmary—"this is all an overreaction.

"But, then again," he concedes with a reconsidering tone, "this is Cody we're talking about." It's effortless. Like a second skin. He's back in his role of Cody's aloof, derisive older brother. "Mountains out of molehills and Galapagos Gurdies in clear waters."

"Hey now," Bailey warns, loyal girlfriend to the end…even though she's trying not to laugh and isn't being overly convincing in curbing a highly telling giggle at the reference. "I'm sure he felt justified in his actions."

He hides a surge of true derision and refuses to scoff. Instead, he's quizzical. "Justified? Isn't that what Ms. T's always telling us to do with our papers? What's that got to do with Cody?"

And see, he's easily back to being the empty-headed, life's-a-big-joke troublemaker.

And the worst part? That was the biggest joke of it all.

"I tried to be perfect
But nothing was worth it
I don't believe it makes me real"
-(Pieces) Sum41


"The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we're afraid." -Richard Bach

Cody, meanwhile, was feeling out of sorts and couldn't for the life of him find his sense of balance and "his place," a sharp contrast to Zack's resigned mentality, but he didn't know this. He's a little preoccupied as per usual to know what went on in his brother's head, but in this case, perhaps that's beside the point.

He finds Nurse Hatchet poring over a file and the form he'd brought back in with him. He's not sure if the expression she's wearing is entirely her normal one or if her scowl is much more pronounced. As he nears, he can hear her muttering something—he can't catch the words, but they sound utterly unfriendly and he decides he does not want to know.

"You, uh, needed something?" He doesn't think he wants to know what this is about. He'd rather not.

"No." For a brief moment, he's confused, but such vanishes as she corrects, "I have to tell you something."

Shuffling around the desk for a moment, she doesn't continue right away. His anxiety steps up another notch. God, couldn't he be anywhere else but here? Heck, facing up to Bailey's father was better than this day had been.

"Right, well. It's about your brother."

He nods uncertainly. He can only imagine.

"While I was running some tests, I—"

His phone rings, interrupting her explanation as he holds up a finger and pulls it from his pocket. Sharp exasperation flashes across the nurse's face and he hastens to explain as he glances at the display. "Sorry, it's my mom. She wouldn't be calling unless it was important. I've got to take this." And perhaps, partially because he'll take any excuse to get away from her.

"Whatever," she snaps, churlish and prickly to the very end.

He would not know for some time, if ever, that that one instance of interruption would be a glaring, momentary lapse in judgment.

"Furious activity is no substitute for understanding." - H. H. Williams


Author's Note: So there ya have it. I'm getting the distinct impression that this story will be over soon (breathe sighs of relief; no more angstiness-galore to deal with). I don't think it was quite what people expected it to be, but I'm not entirely conventional, either. As for what few expectations I had, I'd say I got what I wanted out of it. Now I'll stop blabbing about that and mention the chapter...let's see. Seems Cody's avoiding the issue—but I guess we knew that already. So will Nurse Hatchet make the effort again to tell him? What do you think? Zack seems to have everything back under control. Do you think this is a good or bad thing, for him?

"Phraseologies"—seriously a fun word to say. And if anyone's seen The Music Man, you probably know what I mean. (Phraseology - (1) use of language: the way words and phrases are chosen or used)