This Unexpected Surprise

Written for a friend's birthday. With thanks to CC for the quick beta.

Disclaimer : All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

Summary : Zach is trying to balance home life with the demands of his studies at CalArts, but when it looks like he's facing a demanding time alone, he receives an unexpected surprise.

This Unexpected Surprise

It had been a difficult few weeks, Zach trying to hold everything together and keep them feeling like a family despite his own feelings of drowning. In all it had sucked, but there had been no choice. This was the real world they were living in and the real world had no intention of letting up and allowing them to deal with one thing at a time, no matter how much better that might have made things.

In his slightly less fraught moments, he supposed that at least they were fortunate enough to know what was going to happen far enough in advance to plan for it. It wasn't like it had all been dropped on them out of the blue, which was probably something they should all be thankful for.

So Zach had had the dates of his exhibition for months, so much depended on it – his grades, his scholarship for what he planned to do next, maybe even some money given that the exhibition was going to be open to people outside CalArts, assuming someone came along who liked his stuff. It would be nice to feel like he contributed more to their family.

He was past the stage of feeling like he just took from Shaun; they'd taken time and figured it out between them and he'd accepted, at least mostly, the position they were in. He had to accept that Shaun was more financially secure than he was; that really wasn't anything new. What was or rather had been new was allowing himself to rely on Shaun for himself and Cody. He'd had to accept it before it tore the three of them apart. He couldn't do this, couldn't have this chance if he didn't accept Shaun's support. It had taken some adjusting for both of them. Shaun had had to learn not to make assumptions, not to just buy things on a whim because he saw them and thought they'd be cool for Cody or for Zach. Zach knew, had always known, that Shaun did it out of kindness and love never out of any sense of wanting to buy their love or make them feel like they owed him. It would never have occurred to him that it made Zach feel inferior for all the things he couldn't do and couldn't just get, made him feel like a 'kept man'.

They were past that, balanced on an even keel in which Zach was secure enough to know what he brought to the relationship, what he gave Shaun. They'd met other couples, friends of Shaun's and new friends that Zach had made at CalArts, couples gay and straight, where as they'd got to know them it had become clear that one person was the major breadwinner but it didn't make the other any less of an equal partner. Zach had accepted that for the time being at least that was his role.

So he'd been working hard for months to get enough of his pieces ready, everything as perfect as he could make it. He still looked at some and saw the flaws, the weak points in his work, but he'd had to accept that he'd done the best he could, poured his heart and soul into his work and now he just had to hope for the best.

The last two weeks had been particularly difficult, trying to balance the care of Cody with school as Shaun had been away on a book promotion tour. Zach missed him, found himself lonely without him in a way he hadn't felt in years.

He'd got so used to relying on himself, making sure that he was there for Cody, that his life revolved around what Jeanne and Cody needed, but he'd never felt the support and comfort and friendship in return. Cody loved him, relied on him, had always preferred to spend time with him than with Jeanne, but it was a long time since Zach had bothered feeling any guilt over that. Jeanne had made her own bed and her claims to be putting Cody's needs first and that was why she was in Portland now, just showed how little thought she gave anyone but herself. She didn't even bother to send money for him regularly, not that Zach wanted the money, but it was the thought, the actual act of caring that that would at least imply. The couple of times she had sent money, Zach had just put it into a bank account, starting a college fund for Cody while he could. Shaun had been fine with that and didn't that just show who really knew what family was.

He wanted to call Shaun, hear his voice, hear him say yet again that everything was going to be great, Zach was going to get the grades he needed, that he loved him whatever happened. It sill surprised him how much he needed to hear those words, just how much it meant to hear them.

He reached for his phone, tempted to call, but thought better of it. Shaun had enough on his plate without dealing with another of Zach's "I can't do this" moments. He smiled wryly, they'd had plenty of those over the last few months. The relief had been to discover as Shaun had finished his book that he too suffered from them and that Zach could be there for him, providing the support he needed.

"Come on, Codes," he called, picking up Cody's backpack from the table where he'd packed the things Cody would need for a sleepover at his friend's house. It had been another relief as they'd settled into their new life as a family, to find themselves able to make friends with other parents at Cody's new school, to find their family accepted and that they could garner help, support and advice there as well. Tonight, thankfully, one of those new-found friends had agreed to let Cody stay over, so Zach could focus on the exhibition.

It was more than Zach had been able to count on when it had been just himself and Jeanne. Their Dad had been the only one willing, and Zach had never really been comfortable with that option, although Jeanne had never had much of a problem with it if it meant she could still do what she wanted.

Cody stood in the door smirking. "What's that look for?" Zach asked wryly, knowing exactly what his nephew was thinking.

"You look like a penguin," Cody retorted.

Zach laughed, feeling his mood lift. He could do this, the evening would go fine and even if Shaun and Cody couldn't be with him in person, they were both behind him all the way.

"You gonna take me to the gallery tomorrow so I get to see your pictures up properly?" Cody asked.

"Absolutely kiddo," Zach promised. "I'd let you come tonight, but you wouldn't want to hang around all night, it'll be boring!"

"I know," Cody grinned, "Shaun brought me to the small one, remember? I hope it goes well." At that he skidded across the room and flung his arms round his uncle, giving Zach a hug. Zach hugged back, relishing the moment, knowing that as Cody grew the hugs were becoming rarer, although he knew the love was still there.

Zach grabbed the backpack and the two of them left for Cody's friends house.

The exhibition was in full swing. Zach felt like his face ached from the way he was holding the permanent smile. He didn't want to be the sullen arty type a couple of his classmates appeared to be going for, but the fake smile was beginning to get tiring.

He'd shaken enough hands and made enough small talk to last him for months, but the evening wasn't even half over yet. A couple of the college assessors had made some positive remarks about some of his pieces, while another had come over and looked analytically at each piece in turn, made some notes in a book that he had kept shielded from anyone who tried to look over his shoulder. He'd asked a few questions about media, technique and inspiration for some of the work, but his expression hadn't changed and he'd given no clues as to whether he thought the work was anywhere good enough. Zach tried not to let the reaction worry him; he'd dealt with the man before, had similar conversations with the same bland expression only to come out with some of his highest grades. He just wished the evening could be over, wished he could go home and call Shaun. He'd never thought about this side of being an 'artist', in the same way he'd never thought about all the promotion Shaun had to do as an author. It wasn't the part he liked, Shaun seemed to understand that, said he loved that about him, although Zach couldn't see why.

He did have some good news to share too. Four of his pieces already had bids listed, so he stood to bring home some unexpected money. It might even be enough for him to pay for the three of them to go on a small vacation at the end of Cody's semester. He liked that idea, it brought the smile back to his face and as the assessor extended a polite thanks before moving away, Zach felt his mood lighten a little. He glanced at his watch, wondering how much longer he had to endure the torture before the exhibition closed for the evening.

"So I was wondering," a familiar but unexpected voice said behind him, "what it takes to meet an artist round here?"

He spun round, smile broadening to a huge grin. "Shaun! What are you doing here?"

"I couldn't miss this. Your first real exhibition, open to the public beyond school, work on sale . . . you think I wouldn't want to be here."

Zach pulled him in for a fleeting hug, wishing he could make it last, make it more than just a greeting. "No, I knew you wanted to be here. I just . . . the book, the promotions and – and everything!"

"Okay, well, I admit I've got to fly back out tomorrow afternoon, but Codes and I couldn't miss tonight, not when we knew how important this was. You only get a first exhibition once you know!"

"Cody? But he's at –"

Cody stepped turned round from where he'd been looking at one of Zach's paintings where it was displayed. "Nope, I'm here," he said, with a grin every bit as huge as Zach's own. He stepped closer, wrapping his arms around Zach for the second time that evening. "Was it a good surprise? Me and Shaun being here? We wanted it to be good for you."

"It's perfect, absolutely perfect."

"You going to show us round then?" Shaun said and so the three of them spent the next hour wandering around the gallery, looking not just at Zach's work, but that of his classmates as well.

After an hour, Cody's attention was wearing down and he'd begun to yawn. Shaun pulled him closer into his side and ruffled his hair. "I tell you what Zach, I'm gonna run Cody back to Ben's so he still gets his sleepover. Mary's expecting us. Then I'll come back again and we can see about our own sleepover," he finished with a wink.

"Sounds like a great idea."

With their goodnights said, Zach watched as the most important people in his life left, still feeling awed that the two of them would have planned and carried out such a fantastic surprise without letting it slip at all.

And with a warm feeling inside, he knew the best of the day was still to come. The rest of the evening would fly by and he could face all the strangers with renewed confidence knowing that the most important people in his life loved him and were proud of all that he'd done, regardless of his grades or how many paintings he sold.