It was his first day on his new job out in the field. Zack had been an intern with the Psychonauts medical division, helping out in the infirmary when the virus had struck. After the chaos had quieted, and as many infected psychics as possible had been put under quarantine at Whispering Rock Summer Camp, various doctors and assistants had been pulled from all over the agency to study and look after the patients.
Zack was just a regular guy. He had no psychic powers of any kind, and all his past traumas had been dealt with properly through years of therapy. In short, he was a perfect candidate to go help out with the epidemic.
He was here to replace Tiffany, another intern who'd gotten here a while ago, and she was showing him around the areas he'd be working in and introducing him to the resident patients. The tour was going great, and by now they only had one sector left to go.
"... and this is section W-3. These guys can be a bit of a handful, but they're all super friendly if you know how to give them their space." Tiffany had said similar things about almost everyone he'd met today.
They worked their way down the hall. He met the ghost pirate, and the skeleton - surprisingly enough, being a skeleton was not the effect of the virus - but one of the residents, Nelson she said, was pretty difficult to get a hold of on short notice. They had turned to leave when Zack noticed a room they hadn't entered yet.
"Hey, what about this one?"
"Oh right! I almost forgot." Tiffany smacked her forehead before heading over to crack open the door. Quietly, she said, "This is Eddie."
The sliver of light coming in through the doorway fell across a mop of dark, tangled hair thrown over a set of spiked shoulders.
"He mostly just sleeps. If you don't absolutely need to, don't disturb him. If he needs something he usually just gets it himself anyway, so he's a pretty easy one." Softly, she closed the door and they turned to leave.
It was about a week later, and things were going fine. Tiffany had been right; as long as he gave his patients their space and treated them just like any other human beings - not that he would have ever done otherwise - everyone was fine and he could do his rounds in peace. Mostly his job just involved checking in on everyone and making sure they were okay. Sometimes some of the residents could get lost in their symptoms and, occasionally, he could help them find the way back.
Tonight he'd just about finished for the evening, ending his rounds in section W-3. Guybrush had already fallen asleep, floating gently over his hammock. Manny had rooted into a corner after he'd lost himself in one of his books, and Zack's assistance freeing himself had been appreciated. He was turning to go when he caught movement down the hallway. There was a small gnome-like creature creeping around the corner. Zack didn't recognize him; he must be a patient from a different area.
The little man was hunched in on himself, and he was constantly looking around and over his shoulders, like he thought he was being watched. Or maybe trying to make sure he wasn't. As Zack observed the little guy's skittish progress down the hall, he felt a nagging suspicion that he might be up to no good. After all, what trustworthy person slinks around in the shadows at night while looking so shifty? As the pure-red intruder hurried his way past all the other doors in the sector, Zack traced his likely destination to… Eddie's room. Eddie. Who was not to be disturbed. Without giving himself time to think, he made a snap decision.
Zack caught up with the little man halfway across Eddie's room, and scooped him up in one fluid motion. Almost instantly, the gnome seized in his arms and then started thrashing with a level of intensity Zack had only known certain breeds of small children and cats to possess. He didn't make it to the door before his quarry squealed out into the silence, "EDDIE!!"
"Shhhhh! Come on little guy, what're you trying to-" he froze when he heard the shift behind him. Looking slowly back over his shoulder, he saw Eddie crack open his eyes before roving his sleepy gaze over the darkened room. The glow let Zack see exactly when his eyes landed on the intern - and the red bundle in his arms. All at once the drowsiness vanished from Eddie's face and then he was rising from his bed to stand and face the intruder.
"What do you think you're doing??"
Zack didn't have a good answer for him. The man was at least six and a half feet tall - more if you counted the magnificent horns curling around his temples. He was built like a tank and all the fangs and spikes and inky darkness dripping down his face was like something straight out of a nightmare. Zack's legs started shaking as Eddie flared his wings and started striding toward him on cloven hooves. The fiery golden eyes boring into his soul froze him in place.
At last, whatever survival instincts Zack possessed - you know, the ones that let him walk in here? - decided the threat level was just too high, and jump-started his brain with a simple command.
He tore off back out the door and down the hall, still holding onto the little gnome who hadn't ever stopped struggling in his arms. A bone-chilling ROAR shook him to his core, and, looking over his shoulder, he could see Eddie barreling out of his room and thundering after him in pursuit. The little red man bit him, hard, and at last he lost his grip.
It was all too much.
Zack stumbled over his feet in panic, and tripped into the corner, effectively boxing himself in. The beast chasing him had caught up and was on him in the span of a heartbeat. The creature- Eddie seized him by the front of his shirt and lifted him into the air to slam him against the wall. Claws digging into his chest, Eddie got in close and growled in his face.
"If you ever come anywhere near any of my friends ever again, I'm going to tear your throat out and leave you for the cougars to find. Do you understand??"
Zack was too lost in his fear to do much more than stare in terror, so Eddie slammed him back into the wall again and shouted, "UNDERSTAND??"
Gibbering, Zack's frantic pleading seemed to be enough for Eddie because he dropped the intern and snorted a small burst of flames before turning around to collect his accosted friend off the floor.
The component had been cowering behind one of Eddie's legs, having crawled there from where Zack had dropped him. He was shaking like a leaf when Eddie scooped him up with a large clawed hand, and as he lifted him to his chest Fear buried his face into Eddie's t-shirt. As the demon stalked back to his den Zack could hear the little guy whispering frantically, thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou...
The other residents of hall W-3 were peering out of their rooms, watching the scene with some amount of confusion. When Eddie's door slammed behind him, Zack finally found his feet. His legs tapped into all the unspent adrenaline still coursing through his veins. He ran and didn't look back.
The next morning he traded section W-3 out of his route for one of the other interns' areas. Eventually it was explained to him that the intruder was actually a part of the elusive last resident, Nelson. In the week he'd been working in that area somehow he'd never run into him or had the opportunity to introduce himself, and Zack's decision to stop him from bothering Eddie had caused a panic attack the likes of which hadn't been seen in quite a while.
Zack felt… bad. He hadn't meant to hurt anyone, he thought he'd been doing his job. Or… no, that was wrong. He hadn't been thinking, had he? If he had, he would have stopped Fear in the hallway and calmly introduced himself, asked if there was anything he could do. Not snuck up on him like a stalker or tried to kidnap him. He needed to apologize.
A few days later, when all parties had had time to cool down, Zack walked apprehensively back into section W-3. He hoped the residents weren't too mad at him; he liked them, and rebuilding their trust would be much harder if he'd accidentally sparked a grudge. Manny was in the hallway when he approached. He didn't seem too pissed at him, but then again Manny had always been the most level-headed, and he'd had time to get to know Zack in the few days before this whole mess happened. He probably understood that this had just been a misunderstanding gone horribly wrong.
"You know he's not going to be happy to see you."
Yeah, he knew. It was pretty obvious, from the way he'd been threatened within an inch of his life.
"Still. I have to try."
Manny regarded him for a moment, before knocking on Eddie's door and stepping inside. After a few minutes, he returned, and held the door open for Zack.
The shutters were open, and the whole room was flooded in sunlight. Eddie was sitting cross-legged on his giant beanbag nest, and Zack could see Fear by his side, watching the doorway fearfully. He could also see two more little red Nelsons tucked into Eddie's large wings, peering at the newcomer curiously.
Eddie had also been watching the doorway, and when Zack had entered he'd started scowling almost immediately.
"You." Eddie's tone made it clear Zack was the last person on earth he'd wanted to come through that door. Zack wondered who he would've preferred… Guybrush? Some other Psychonaut friend? Regardless, he'd barely stepped into the room when pain flared up his leg.
Surprised, he shifted his weight to his other foot and resisted the urge to kick out. He hadn't noticed the fourth aspect of Nelson crouching by the entrance, and now the little guy's sharp teeth were buried in his ankle. Sucking in a breath, Zack was frozen in indecision. He couldn't just let Feral attack him like this, but at the same time laying hands on one of the four was what had landed him here in the first place.
Eddie let him get gnawed on for a few moments before sending Puzzle to set him free. When all four gnomes were safe and sound in Eddie's immediate area, they looked back at him expectantly.
"I… I…" Zack was at a loss for words. Looking at Fear hiding in Eddie's arms however, he could see the terror and pain he'd inadvertently caused. Gathering himself, he took a seat on the floor. After a moment of deliberation, he chose to look the aspect in the eyes when he made his apology, very aware that it could be the wrong decision yet again. He didn't doubt Eddie's capability to carry through on his threat.
"I'm sorry. What I did was thoughtless and wrong and I didn't mean to scare you like that. I made an assumption, and acted on it without ever giving you a chance to explain yourself. I don't expect you to forgive me…," Zack was really debating with himself on this part, "but... maybe we could start over? I never did get to introduce myself. Hi, I'm Zack, one of the interns in charge of monitoring these halls. Or, well, not this hall anymore, but… some of the halls, at least." He tried to finish his statement off with a smile, to maybe reassure Fear he was harmless.
Whatever he did, it seemed to be enough to assure him he was in no imminent danger. He wasn't leaving Eddie's side any time soon, but he also wasn't looking at Zack like he expected him to attack without warning. In fact, he looked almost… curious.
In the light of day, the young man sitting on the floor of Eddie's lair wasn't really very threatening at all. He just looked small, and kind of sad. All at once, the four Nelsons dove into a huddle right there in Eddie's lap, all of them seemingly whispering over each other, occasionally waving their arms or making other gestures for emphasis.
Finally, the mini pow-wow broke up, and Puzzle jumped down from the beanbag and strode up in front of Zack. Calmly, aware he was in total control of the situation, he spoke.
"Hello Zack. My name is Nelson. It's nice to meet you properly." He extended a small hand for Zack to shake.
Taking the little patient's hand gingerly in his own, Zack started to smile. They shook carefully before Puzzle continued.
"I'm sorry we couldn't have met under better circumstances. We look forward to getting to know you better."
The look in Feral's eyes made Zack wonder exactly how they'd be getting to know him, but otherwise this couldn't have gone better. Honestly, it went better than he'd expected it to.
"Thank you." Getting up to leave, having accomplished his mission, Zack knew he still had a long way to go. As he walked out the door, he could hear Eddie call after him, "I've still got my eye on you!"
He'd expected as much. But, he thought as he walked back toward his dorm in the interns' quarters, at least he wasn't going to kill him on sight anymore. And besides, how hard could making friends with the Nelsons possibly be?