.:4:.


Zack sighed heavily as he pushed through the doors of the Tipton hotel later that afternoon. Home sweet home. He didn't think he'd ever be so glad to see the inside of the hotel he'd called home for so long. Didn't think he'd be so happy to see Mr. Moseby glaring at him from behind his desk, eyeing him carefully as he went.

But that's what happened when he had an incredibly bad day at school. It was bad enough that he had to go, when he wanted nothing more than to not sit in classes for hours on end, wondering when any of the information that was being drilled into his head was going to be used. It was a lot of things.

First, it was not knowing there was going to be a English test that day.

He'd gotten to class, dropped heavily into his seat, glanced at the board. And nearly had a heart attack. His eyebrows rose in surprise. Then lowered in slight panic. A test. Already? Didn't they just have a test?

He asked the question out loud, making Bailey, who sat directly to his left, laugh quietly. Incredulously. She shook her head, turning to Zack, resting her cheek in her hand. "How could you not know we were going to have a test? Miss. Tutweiller's been saying it all week."

"Really?" Zack's nose wrinkled. He rested his chin in his hand. "So that's what that droning sound was."

"What—?"

"Don't even try to understand him, Bailey," Cody interrupted, lifting a hand. He moved into his seat in front of Zack shaking his head. "I've been trying for years and I still haven't been able to figure that out. It just gives me a bigger headache each time." At that, Zack reached out and flicked his twin on the back of the head, landing a solid hit with his fingernail.

Making a low 'thunk' sound as he did so.

"Whoa!" Zack cried, laughing lightly. "And people say I have nothing in my head!"

"We've never said you had nothing in your head." Cody scowled, rubbing the spot that would more than likely turn into a bruise. "Just that everything in it is useless."

He bombed that test, hew as sure of it. No need to even question it. He didn't answer half the questions, the other half he just made them up. But as long as the test was administered, he tapped his pencil against his cheek, studying the words until they swirled and blurred together. Made him question whether or not he truly did have dyslexia, like Bob, who didn't seem to have any issues with his classes and extra time needed to study since he got his routine down. Too bad the extra time couldn't be absorbed and given to other students who needed it.

Zack simply did the best he could—which he knew wasn't amazing—and simply turned in his test when time ws up. Miss. Tutweiller, of course, saw right through it an called him to a stop when he was leaving the classroom that day. Zack sighed heavily, watching Cody look at him curiously—and in mild concern—before leaving to go to his next class.

"If my paper has any similarities to a Wikipedia article, it's a coincidence," Zack said quickly, turning back to Miss. Tutweiller.

Miss. Tutweiller folded her arms, pursing her lips. She breathed in deeply through her nose and said, "That's the least of our problems, Zack."

He knew he was dead then. Miss. Tutweiller had been watching him throughout the test, knew he hadn't answered any of the essay questions to the bets of his abilities. Blah, blah, blah, things that he didn't already know. Then she'd tilted her head to the side and did that thing that he absolutely hated and asked if he needed help with anything. Reminded him that she was always there if she needed it. That all the teachers were, that he had the guidance counselor, Mr. Blanket to talk to if needed, if there was anything Principal Forgess could do…

Zack simply lifted his hand, reassured her everything was fine, and left.

As if he needed any other reminders that he had missed a lot of school, a lot of his homework when he was in the hospital for a heart attack. He got that message loud and clear, didn't need other people to continuously point it out to him.

That wasn't quite the worst part of it all, it was all the looks. All the knowing looks. All the whispering looks. The glares. So much so that he had to remember whether he'd put a stink bomb somewhere he'd forgotten. He wasn't quite sure that was possible, he kept track of all that.

But the other things got worse after the whispers; it was the outright glaring he received from some girls, the cold shoulder, being completely ignored by them.

He heard some of the whispers below their breaths.

"Pig."

"Jerk."

"Gross."

"Ass."

Nothing that he hadn't heard from Cody before, but from everyone of the opposite sex who had suddenly turned her back on him. It seemed like everyone he talked to had a problem with him. Or, at least, he'd thought so. His friends were still treating him fine; Max, Bailey, Crystal, Riley, and Rhuben hadn't acted any differently to him. Hell, he'd even made plans for a date with Riley later that night. And if she had something to say about the way he was acting—or smelled—she would've been the first to let him know.

So, he brushed it off.

But then everything else happened; he lost his money for lunch and had to beg Cody for more, which hurt his ego and pride more than anything else, then people continued to stare at him which he knew was because they wanted to know if he'd eat any of it, was unprepared for the rest of his classes where he was told the same things by Miss. Tutweiller, had to have a meeting set up with his parents, Miss. Tutweiller did find out that his paper had been lifted, mostly, from Wikipedia and was going to punish him in ways he could never imagine—if she go the 'understanding' route which would made him want to stab himself with a pen—and got word that he couldn't join the sports teams again until he got the bill of health from his doctor and therapist.

Who knew how long that would take?

Bad news after bad news was enough to make even the tiniest of happy measures to keep him going.

So much so that when he arrived at the Tipton Daycare to start his shift, he was nothing more than ecstatic. Mostly because those kids gave him time to figure out some of the more intriguing pranks, he could play on Moseby, but mostly because he was able to work with Maddie.

Who immediately made him grin the second he saw her. He couldn't help but laugh a little when he saw the frazzled expression on her face when he came in, which instantly turned to relief as she said, "Oh, Zack! I'm so glad to see you!"

"You have no idea how many times I've dreamt of you saying that to me," Zack said with a bright grin.

Maddie gave him a look. "I don't have to guess; you've alluded to it enough." He shrugged in response. "Now, do you want to help me or are you just going to stand there?" She returned to the screaming toddlers that clung to her legs, trying to wrestle them apart.

Zack's head jerked back in surprise at her tone. She could be downright brusque when the time came, but her tone was more than that. Sure, he'd gotten on her nerves every now and again, but usually that tone was reserved for the airhead heiress, London Tipton. "Is everything okay?" He went over and easily wrapped his arms around the bigger of the toddlers and pulled them away from her leg, only to grunt in surprise at the strong, koala-like grasp he was then put under.

"Oh, everything's great!" Maddie shook her head, walking the toddlers toward what was supposed to be the napping room, but had a bunch of screaming toddlers running around with another frazzled looking Tipton employee—Millicent, who was sitting in the middle of the floor, crying along with them. "I just have a bunch of screaming brats that want to do anything but nap, two kids peed on me and I had the unpleasant fortune of having to deal with all of the socialite moms whose kids actually have a silver spoon in their mouths for a pacifier."

Zack's face screwed up. "Huh?"

He looked over when Maddie waved with her hand, eyebrows rising when he saw the silver spoons that, indeed, were hanging out of a few kids' mouths as they scribbled messily all over their coloring pages. "Wow." He tilted his head. "Do you think that's what they used on London?"

"She probably had a big fat diamond in her mouth," Maddie grumbled.

"Maddie, are you okay?" Zack hefted the toddler off his hip and placed him on the ground next to Millicent, who nodded her thanks before bursting into another round of tears. "I mean, you look beautiful when you're mad but…now you're positively gorgeous."

"Thanks." Maddie grumbled. She led him to the snack area and picked up a clipboard that sat atop the counter. She flipped it over and handed it to Zack so that he could sign in which he did with a quick scribbling flourish. They'd type it into the computer later. She then let out a long breath and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Zack," she apologized. "I'm…just in a bad mood."

"I can see that." Zack eyed her carefully. "This is almost worse than the first time mom had you babysit us."

"Oh yeah." Maddie rolled her eyes. "When you nearly dutch ovened me when we were crawling through all the air vents trying to keep you from crashing the wedding of—"

"—That was Cody, not me," Zack quickly reminded her.

"Oh, right." Maddie nodded sarcastically. "You were the one who revealed to the world that you have a punishment kink."

"Only if you're my mistress"

"You know you have a girlfriend, right?"

"And she can kick my ass harder than you, so it's not a problem."

Maddie smiled. She hung her head once more and said. "Sorry, I just…I haven't been having a good day."

"Join the club," Zack muttered.

Maddie tucked her hair behind her ears. "I'm working hard in school but can't seem to keep up, I had to take out thousands of dollars in loans that I have to pay back, I'm working this job and another job, and my dating life hasn't been so great." She rolled her eyes, leaning against the counter so that she could survey the kids that ran around. The crying—minus Millicent's—had subsided but was replaced with excited screeching and screaming as they played. "I went out with this guy last night and he was an absolute jerk. Not only did he make me pay for dinner and the movie, but he ordered some of the most expensive stuff on the menu. He didn't ask me anything about myself and talked so much I couldn't get a word in." She shifted her gaze toward Zack then away seconds later. "And, let's just say, he didn't really understand the word 'no'."

Zack's eyebrows furrowed at her words. "You mean…?"

He couldn't find the words to say what immediately came to mind. What he feared. The thing that he didn't think much about, until he had no choice but to think about it. How many times did it come across on the news? How many times were they warned before their big field trips and dances of what could happen with miscommunication? How they were warned to be very clear on what intentions were and how to say 'no'. It was a huge part of the health classes they'd sat through in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

'No' meant 'no', simple as that.

There was not questioning it.

Why some people thought that it was negotiable, Zack never knew. Asking someone out a few times…that was different. Asking someone on a date a few times was just to get an idea of how much they liked you. But to push even further than that, when they already agreed to spend the night with you…it didn't mean they were going to spend the night with you.

"No, no!" Maddie quickly shook her head. "Not that. He tried but…" her eyebrows twitched upwards. "Well, let's just say he's not going to be riding any horses anytime soon."

Zack laughed, relieved. "If he tries anything again, just let me know." He brought up his hands, cracking his knuckles. "He'll never know what hit em'."

"Thanks, Zack." Maddie reached out and ruffled his hair, pushing his bangs into his face. "But I can take care of myself." She looked at her watch. "Do you think you could handle things with out me? My shift ends in a few minutes and…" She pointed across the room. Zack followed her point and grimaced. "I think you're about to have your hands full." One of the older kids in the room had tied three of the younger ones together and was prodding them with a hockey stick. Where any of these kids got these ideas, Zack would never know. He was at least more creative when he was torturing Cody, and with much less to work with.

"I can handle it," Zack said smoothly. "After today, I can handle anything."

Maddie reached out, looping her arm around Zack's shoulders. "Seems like we've both had some bad days."

"Yeah." Zack forced himself to not let his mind wander, to not go into the 'what ifs' that tended to happen when Maddie showed him any sign of affection or attention. "You got your night class tonight, right?"

"Yep." Maddie took the clipboard to the laptop that sat in the corner of the room and pulled up the program for them to sign in. "It's going to be awkward; the guy is in my class."

"Well, if he's smart, he'll stay away from you."

"He's not that smart…just that cute."

Zack smiled.


A/N: Whew, it took me a while to get back to this and again, I apologize. That's what happens when my boredom starts to set in, it can be a real motivation killer, y'know? But here's the next part.

Cheers,

-Riles