Hodgins waited in the driver's seat, checking his cell phone for the tenth time as he waited for Zack to appear. Work had ended over fifteen minutes ago and he was still stalled in the parking garage waiting for the kid to get here so they could drive home.
Finally he heard the side door open. He looked back to see Zack throw his messenger bag in the back seat. He closed the door, opened the passenger one, and crawled into his seat.
"What took you so long?" Hodgins asked.
Zack closed the door a little roughly—was he trying to slam it?—and slumped against the window.
"Buckle?" Hodgins said.
Zack moodily pulled his seatbelt over to fasten it.
"Great." Hodgins was annoyed, but he did feel a little guilty. He pulled out of his spot and made his way out of the parking garage and into the dim city roads.
After a few moments of silent driving Hodgins ventured to speak. "So what was the holdup?"
Zack didn't respond, just remained leaning against the window with his eyes closed.
"Zack, I know you're not asleep. I can tell by your breathing."
Zack opened one eye to glare at him.
"Oh, burn," Hodgins said sarcastically. "Dude, you really need to work on your stink eye."
"I was held back in the lab," Zack grumbled.
Brennan had returned from her trip to the dessert an hour or so earlier; conspicuously without Angela. Hodgins had texted her to no avail. Meanwhile, he'd seen Brennan take Zack aside to discuss the issue with his apparent slacking when it came to relaying the information about the bones.
"Did Brennan yell at you?" Hodgins asked.
"Dr. Brennan never yells," Zack said.
"Well, did she lecture you?"
"We weren't in class."
Hodgins rolled his eyes. "Was she mad about the bones?"
"She brought them up, yes."
"Well?" Hodgins asked.
"I'd really rather not talk about it."
Hodgins risked another glance in Zack's direction. He was staring out the window now. Thanks to the darkness outside, Hodgins caught the reflection of his face in the window. He was clearly upset.
"Okay." Hodgins wasn't sure how he felt himself. Zack wasn't one for showing emotion but at the moment he seemed distinctly sullen, like a teenager who'd just been grounded.
Antagonizing Zack was always fun. Getting him in trouble just seemed mean.
They'd been working together for nearly two years. That was kind of a long time to be someone's research assistant. Hodgins knew ultimately that Dr. Goodman was right. But he felt strange imagining the lab without Zack around, and some green little intern taking his place. He wondered if they'd go through the same ritual of one-upping and verbal duels. The new assistant might not be as fun to torment. They definitely wouldn't be as smart. Or as weird.
Would Zack even still live at Hodgins' place if he left the Jeffersonian? Where was he going to go? What place would he find that would accommodate his peculiarities and obliviousness like they did?
So many things about Zack begged the question of how he had survived high school. His lack of physical prowess being one of them, but more significantly, his utter misunderstanding of the way the world around him worked. Just when Hodgins thought he couldn't meet anyone as exasperatingly literal and oblivious as Brennan, along came Zack.
But the kid grew on him. As much as he loved antagonizing him, Hodgins had to admit there was some kind of brotherly fondness between the two of them. Not that he'd ever admit it out loud.
It was obvious Brennan appreciated Zack more than any of the assistants she'd had in the past. For those ones, she'd helped them along as a professor is expected to, approved their dissertations, and occasionally attended their graduation ceremonies. But with Zack, she'd clearly and deliberately integrated him into the team. She gave him more responsibility than she'd given any of the others. Obviously, most of it was due to his incomparable talents and intelligence. None of the other assistance had done what Zack could do.
But along with that—whether Brennan would ever admit it or not—was the relationship. In addition to being more impressed with Zack, she was definitely more fond of him as well. She doled out more praise, gave him non-work-related advice, and went lengths to make sure he was included and understood, especially where Booth was concerned.
Zack thrived here more than he would anywhere else, but it was because they were helping him to. But when Zack finally left the Jeffersonian—and he would have to, eventually—would he have the skill set needed to navigate the world on his own, without the support they'd all been giving him?
The obvious thing was that the sooner Zack got out of here, the more likely he was to be able to adapt. If he stayed too long, he'd imprint on them like a baby bird, and upon separation, flounder until he eventually failed somehow and got kicked out of whatever initiative he tried to be a part of next.
Dr. Goodman had a point. They needed to do what was best for Zack. But then, he wondered if Goodman knew exactly what was best for Zack. Maybe giving Zack the support he needed now was what would truly make him grow as a scientist and as a human.
Besides, Hodgins liked having him around. He wasn't sure he was ready for Zack to grow up just yet.