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Unfortunate Circumstances

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Oz lived in a relatively small, upper class neighborhood. Large, three-story houses that looked nearly identical lined the sidewalks. A hospital lay near the center of the residential area, a park and the local elementary, middle, and high schools lay in the opposite direction. Oz’s home was roughly right between those two areas, about four blocks away from each, give or take half a block. The convenient position of his home was doubly convenient when one knew that he had to walk to his high school, regularly, and to the hospital, occasionally.

Oz’s father, Zai, was usually out of town, traveling, due to the wide area his business dealings had spread to – every once in a while, he would even leave the country. His home was more of a storage area for his furniture, personal items, and sons – Oz and Jack. On average, he came home only once every couple of months for two or three days.

Two or three days was hardly anything. Two or three days after months of being gone was practically nothing.

Zai, essentially, was a stranger in his own home. A stranger to Oz. A stranger to Jack. A complete stranger to his daughter, Ada, who he saw even less frequently due to her having been moved into a new house with her caretaker, Mrs. Kate.

Despite his status as a stranger, Zai found it in him to love Ada. Oz could understand this. Ada was a sweet, young child – only seven-years-old. She had a smile like sugar and sparkling eyes and adored her family with the blind, innocent passion befitting of someone her age. Ada had also been born just a year before Zai’s wife, Racheal, had died.

Racheal had been a wonderful mother, or at least she’d been everything Oz believed a mother was supposed to be. She’d been firm, but loving; a source of comfort; a safe haven; a place to run to for Oz and Jack when…

Despite his status as a stranger, Zai found it in him to be proud of Jack. This wasn’t love. This was a matter of social image. Oz could not understand this. Jack, Oz’s twin brother, was at the top of his class, was friends with everyone, and would occasionally be brought along with Zai when he went to galas because Jack was so capable of charming every- and anyone. Zai did not love Jack, he found him useful.

Jack was a good brother. He worried about Oz and tried to help Oz and supported Oz any way he could. It was all Oz could really hope for, in his situation. In fact, it was more than he deserved.

Despite his status as a stranger, Zai found it in him to hate Oz. He hated him and hated him and thought him a demon and wished him dead. Oz could understand this. Oz hated himself, too. Oz, the reason for his mother’s demise as she’d run to shield him from a car after he’d attempted to cross the street, thought himself a demon, too. Oz wished himself dead, too.

Oz wished himself dead.

This morning, Oz’s body ached. The alarm on his bedside table was ringing incessantly, alerting him that it was time to get up for school and if he hit snooze one more time he was going to be late. He turned the alarm off and slid out of his bed. He got dressed and tiptoed to the bathroom to fix his hair and wash his face and brush his teeth.

The key here was to be quiet.

Zai had come home yesterday.

Oz’s body ached.

Zai was still home today.

Jack was already in the bathroom, mostly finished getting ready. He paused when Oz came in and looked him up and down intently, worry in his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Jack asked, just as he’d done the night before after getting home from his after-school activities and learning that Zai was back.

“I’m fine,” Oz replied, also the same as the night before. He wondered if he was holding himself strangely due to the throbbing pain of his bruises or if Jack was just worried.

Though he seemed unconvinced, Jack nodded. “I’m supposed to leave early this morning, but I don’t have to if you want me to wait for you.”

Oz entertained the thought, briefly, but shook his head. Even if Jack stuck around, he wouldn’t feel any safer – Jack had gotten caught in the cross-fire innumerable times over the years since their mother had died and it only served to make Oz feel even guiltier.

“I’ll be alright, you can leave,” Oz said. He walked up to the sink and set about getting ready.

Jack frowned, moved to leave the bathroom, stopped in the doorway and turned back. “Call me, if anything happens.”

“I will.” The words came out funny around the toothbrush in Oz’s mouth.

Seeming a bit relieved, but not looking like he felt any better, Jack slipped out of the bathroom and a minute later Oz heard the front door open and close.

........................

Roughly 20 minutes had elapsed.

Oz was no longer headed to school, as had been his original plan for the day, he was instead wandering aimlessly, though he supposed deciding on a destination would be a good idea.

His ears rang from Zai’s yelling. His face throbbed. His cheek burned. The latter two were the result of an antique vase, which had spent many years decorating the table in the dining room, meeting its end smashed against his head.

Zai, having at some point entered the dining room while Oz was getting ready in the bathroom, had called Oz over as he’d been going to grab his bookbag so he could leave and asked him a few questions. Oz supposed he must have answered one of them wrong because, in a sudden fit of rage, Zai had lifted the vase from its where it’d sat in the center of the table – never moved, never so much as touched –, revealing a ring of water-damaged wood and swung, hard and fast, at Oz’s face. The impact had caught his cheek and jaw, just barely missing his eye.

In the wake of his father’s yelling, Oz had fled the house. He had a hand clamped over his cheek; it was bleeding. He could feel the blood slipping between his fingers, but he didn’t think the wound was too bad since he could still open and close his mouth just fine – though the pain of doing so was nauseating.

Feeling a bit dizzy, Oz slowed his running to a brisk walk and assessed his surroundings. Though the houses didn't easily lend themselves to identifying one’s position in this neighborhood, Oz was fairly certain he was heading in the general direction of the schools. He came to a stop.

Just as his feet stilled, Oz was bumped into from behind. He stumbled forwards a little and, without thinking, turned around, confused.

The boy’s apology started up before Oz had even fully faced him, a loud, “I am so sorry! I wasn’t watching where I was going, are you alright?”

Oz was looking at a boy he recognized. This boy, Gilbert, shared his math class. He was an inch or two shorter than Oz with shoulder-length black hair that he tied back and a pair of hazel eyes. Oz often found himself staring at Gilbert rather than paying attention to the lesson. Oz thought his eyes were beautiful.

He also thought, as he watched those eyes widen in alarm and remembered the blood her could feel dripping down his chin, that turning around had been a mistake.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m totally alright,” Oz said, forcing his tone to be cheerful and waving his free hand around for emphasis.

If anything, rather than assuaging Gilbert’s concerns, Oz’s words seemed to drastically increase his worry, sending him into a flurry of panic. “You’re bleeding. Oh, wow! That is a lot of blood. Should I- should I-” Gilbert looked down at his phone, looked back at Oz.

Oz thought he might be trying to ask if he should call the hospital. Or maybe Oz’s parent? “No, no, don’t call anybody. It’s nothing. I’m okay,” Oz insisted. He placed his free hand over Gilbert’s phone, their fingertips touching. Gilbert’s hand was trembling. “Head wounds just bleed a lot, you’ve heard that before, right?”

Gilbert still looked positively terrified, but he slowly lowered the hand holding his phone. Oz’s fell uselessly back to his side. “What happened?” The words came out a whisper.

Oz… did not have a convenient lie stashed away for a wound like this. He opened his mouth then closed it, his cheek burning from the action, then cleared his throat. After another second with nothing coming to mind and Gilbert waiting with so anxiously, Oz chose the route of changing the subject, asking, “Aren’t you going to be late for school?”

Gilbert blinked at him. He checked the time on his phone; Oz peered at it and, yeah, if Gilbert stuck around her much longer he was going to be late, that was probably why he was in such a hurry to begin with.

“Aren’t you-,” Gilbert began, then cut off as he raised his eyes and caught sight the blood again, “No, never mind, of course you aren’t going.” He bit down on his bottom lip, glanced back at his phone. He seemed extremely conflicted about leaving Oz alone.

“Hey,” Oz said, immediately gaining Gilbert’s full attention. “I’m heading home,” he lied, attempting to make his voice soothing. “I only live a block away, so I’ll be fine. And I’ll clean this cut up and it won’t look nearly as bad as it does right now. It’s nothing to worry about, I swear.” At least, Oz certainly hoped that was the case.

Gilbert, for his part, finally relaxed some. “You’re really okay?”

“I’m really okay.”

Gilbert stared at him. Oz couldn’t quite meet his gaze. “Alright, okay. In that case, I do really need to go…” Gilbert took a step around Oz, hesitated, looked back at him. “Are you coming to school tomorrow?”

It was Oz’s turn to be completely confused. “Probably, why?”

“Do you think you could tell me what happened? If you don’t want to you don’t have to, it’s just… going to bother me otherwise.”

Tomorrow. “Sure.” Oz could come up with a lie by tomorrow.

Looking better, but still immensely worried, Gilbert gave a short wave and sprinted off towards their high school. Oz watched him leave, waited until he was a small figure over a full block away, and began moving again. He figured he could go to the park; wash his wound with the tap water and sit on the swings for a while.

.........................

"Gil? Gil!" Gilbert felt something whack the back of his head and spun around in his chair to glare at Sharon and the paper fan she held in her hand.

"What was that for?" he asked, rubbing the spot she'd hit.

"It was to get your attention since, for whatever reason, you've decided to stop responding to your name," Sharon said slowly, letting every ounce of her poise and elegance seep into her words as she daintily set the fan onto her desk. If you didn't know her you'd never guess how violent she could be when the situation warranted it.

"Sorry, I was-”

"In your own world? Gil, you shouldn't be zoning out in class. You're lucky the teacher didn't call on you today." Sharon crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair somehow maintaining her prefect posture. Xerxes materialized behind her, placing his hands, which must have been hiding somewhere in his long sleeves, on her shoulders.

"I’m so disappointed in you, Gilbert. First you arrive late and then you don't even bother to pay attention? That's quite unlike you," Xerxes said. Sharon glanced up at him, studied him, adjusted his bangs. "Would you care to explain yourself?"

Gilbert sunk into his chair, avoiding eye-contact while he muttered, "I got held up this morning. It was nothing special.”

"Is that so.” Xerxes sounded completely unconvinced.

"Has Oscar finished teaching the lesson then?" Gilbert asked, not wanting to dwell on the topic of what he’d been up to this morning. What he’d seen didn’t feel like something he should be sharing; at least, not before getting some sort of explanation for it.

Sharon nodded, replying, "Yeah and there’s still ten minutes left of class. I was going to ask you if you understood one of the problems, but I can see now that you’ve been somewhere else all hour.”

Gilbert grimaced. “Sorry. I can still take a look if you want.” He went to stand so he could move to the side of Sharon’s desk in order to help her better, but he didn’t get past standing up because as he stood, he bumped into someone walking past his desk.

There was the loud smack of a textbook hitting the tiled floor and the flutter of scattering papers as the person’s folder went flying, and then Gilbert, feeling terrible, was apologizing.

What's wrong with me today? Gilbert thought, agonized. First Oz and now-

He paused when he saw the irritated boy before him who’d taken a few steps away and was retrieving his textbook. It was…Oz?

"You're helping me pick this up," he said, as he stood back up, gesturing towards his scattered belongings – the folder, now nearly empty, and all of the papers that should have been inside of it. One of his earrings glittered, drawing Gilbert's attention.

No. Not Oz. From what Gilbert remembered from all of the times he’d looked at Oz, including this morning, Oz didn't wear earrings.

“Yes, absolutely, I’ll help you clean it up,” Gilbert said, raising his voice over Xerxes’s laughter.

"Woah Jack, what happened?" a brunette, that Gilbert recognized as Alice, asked. She was petite with long hair and an expressive face, even from across the room it could be possible to tell exactly how she was feeling.

"He happened," Jack said, gesturing towards Gilbert. He passed the textbook to Alice – who set it on the desk nearest to her, despite it being occupied by someone else – and knelt to begin picking up his papers.

"I'm sorry. I should have been watching where I was going," Gilbert mumbled, kneeling down, too.

"It's fine. Just be a little more careful from now on." Jack reached for his folder, shoving the papers he’d already gathered inside. “Hey, Alice, have you seen my brother around today?" He scooped up another pile of papers and straightened them.

Gilbert’s grasping hands paused for a moment, his heart stuttering. After his initial flash of panic at the topic of Oz, he went back to gathering the papers trying not to be discrete about listening intently. Should he tell Jack what he had seen? He was his twin after all…

“No, I haven’t,” Alice replied. “He wasn’t at his locker this morning. Why, is something going on?”

Jack sighed, the breath coming out in a rush – it felt more like concern than exhaustion. “I don’t know. I told him to call me if anything happened, but…,” he trailed off and glanced at Gilbert as if he suddenly remembered that he was still there. "Uh, thanks." Jack took the pile of papers from Gilbert's hands. "You can go now. I've got the rest."

"Oh, okay, if you’re sure," Gilbert said, standing up, reluctantly. He walked the couple of steps over to Sharon’s desk while Jack swept up the rest of his papers, stood, and walked with Alice towards Oscar. The two of them whispered together.

Sharon and Xerxes chatted beside him, but Gilbert couldn’t focus on what they were saying. Jack’s concern had brought back his worry with renewed force.

Why would Jack have been expecting a call? That didn’t make sense, unless…

Gilbert frowned deeply, feeling horrified, and leaned heavily against Sharon’s desk. Could Oz being hurt be a common occurrence?

Chapter Text

Oz sighed as he unlocked the door, letting himself into his home as quietly as possible – Zai’s car was gone, but it never hurt to be extra safe. Oz had thoroughly cleaned his wound with hot water and soap in the men’s bathroom at the park, pressing paper towels to it until the bleeding finally stopped. It was a jagged gash, bright red and a bit raised, but nothing that wouldn’t heal just fine with some ointment and a bandage.

He closed the door behind him and tiptoed to his room, taking off his shoes when he was inside. His bookbag lay near his bed where he’d left it. Oz walked past his bed to his desk, opening the top drawer. From inside, he grabbed a tube of ointment and a box of bandages. He squeezed the ointment onto his finger and gently massaged it onto his cut, then placed the largest sized bandage over top of it.

He stood still for a few minutes, just listening to the house. He heard a few creeks and general ‘house settling’ noises, but nothing that indicated another person was there with him. Oz relaxed. He didn’t really like being in such a large house by himself, but it was much better than being there with his father. And if Zai wasn’t in the house, it was very likely that he’d left on another business trip.

Since Oz and Jack were still just 17-years-old – not quite legal adults yet – and in high school, they couldn’t actually live on their own. As a result, their uncle had decided very soon after their mother had died, that he would watch over the two in place of Zai, saying that it was because his job was much less demanding than their father’s.

Back then, when Oz’s mother had died, Oz had heard their arguments – Oscar’s and Zai’s. Oscar had been so angry; yelling things about Zai abandoning his family and Zai insisting that his only family, now, was his daughter because how could he have ever considered two children whose births had nearly caused Rachel’s death to be his family and how could the one of them that had finally brought about her demise be anything other than a demon.

The arguments had raged and raged and Oz had cowered in his bed, crying endless tears because it was his fault. His father had said so. It was his fault.

He’d killed his mother.

And it should have been him. She shouldn’t have died. It should have been him.

Oscar worked as a math teacher at the high school, teaching the class that Oz shared with Gilbert. He had his own apartment, though it rarely saw any use. Sometimes, he snuck Ada over for visits.

Ada’s absence in the house was another thing Oz had learned about in detail due to conversations he’d overheard. Within a week of Rachel’s death Ada was being moved. Jack was supposed to have gone with her, though he’d stubbornly refused. Zai had tried to force him then to convince him, Oz’s ears picking up the whole conversation due to rooms that carried noise a bit too well.

He’d told Jack that Oz was the problem. That his killing Rachel proved that Oz was the dangerous one, the evil one, that Jack had been innocent the whole time – a natural misunderstanding due to his having been born a twin to Oz, who surely must have been the soul being responsible for Rachel’s critical condition upon their births because, honestly, how could Rachel, of all people, have had the misfortune of bearing not one, but two demons; it was simply impossible, so you must understand Jack.

Zai had talked on and on; of Oz being the demon and the necessity of removing Ada and Jack from his presence so he could not contaminate them. The whole thing had been very confusing to Oz’s young ears, but the overall message had gotten across loud and clear: Oz’s existence was a mistake, a source of misfortune, the reason for his mother’s death.

In the end, even with the threat of physical punishment for his disobedience, Jack had stuck around. As if to prove a point, he’d slept in the same bed as Oz that night. Oz had been both relieved and completely terrified; of what his father would do to Jack, of what his father would do to him.

Of what his existence would do to Jack’s if it turned out that his father was right.

‘Contaminate.’

At only eight-years-old Oz hadn’t known what that word meant, but it sounded frightening and the way Zai had spat it had left no room for doubt about how bad it was.

Much older and now aware of what ‘contaminate’ meant, Oz was no less afraid that Zai could be right. If anything, the fear may have gotten stronger with the passage of time because Jack was undeniably better than Oz.

He was braver than Oz and more strong-willed than Oz and loved by everyone. And Oz…

Oz was nothing.

Oz was nothing but a monster who had killed his mother; his presence was an infection. Oz was nothing but a boy, terrified that one day he would kill his brother, too.

..........................

When Jack got home from school Zai’s car was gone and the house was silent. His nerves shot from the worrying he’d been doing all day, Jack searched first floor then went to Oz’s bedroom – on the second floor, on the opposite end of the hall from Jack’s own. He knocked on the door, out of courtesy rather than necessity since only the bathroom and Zai’s study had doors that locked, and waited. When no answer came he let himself in.

Oz was laying on his bed, asleep, curled up on his left side. The window on the far wall, with its sheer curtain, lit the room in dim light.

At the sight of Oz asleep, Jack’s anxiety skyrocketed. If Oz had skipped school and was sleeping in the middle of the day, at best it didn’t bode well for his mental state and at worst it that deterioration as a result of an incident with Zai. Jack walked quickly over to him. Oz’s body was hidden by his blanket, but the right half of his face was plainly visible. When Jack spotted the bandage on his cheek, he paused.

Jack debated waking Oz up to ask what had happened, but decided it might be better to let him sleep.

An hour later when Oz awoke and wandered downstairs, he was greeted with an early dinner, made by Jack. Oscar was still at the school, but should have been coming home soon.

Jack looked restless.

Oz sat at the dinner table, thanked Jack cooking for him, and ate, waiting for the inevitable questions that would come.

“Are you okay?” Jack asked. It felt like he was always asking this.

“I’m fine,” Oz replied. It felt like he was always saying this

Jack stared at him, stared at his cheek, stared at the table. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really.” Honestly, what Oz really wanted was to go back to sleep – his head felt groggy and his limbs felt heavy.

“Alright.” Jack stood from his chair, right next to Oz’s and reached out, pulling Oz into a tight hug. It was a bit awkward since Oz was still sitting. Oz let himself be held, though he made no attempt to hug Jack back.

“What’s this for?”

Oz could feel Jack shrugging. “Just to remind you how important you are, I guess.”

Sometimes Oz could believe Jack when he said things like that. Today was not one of those times. Oz forced a laugh and shook his way out of Jack’s grip. He stood, gathering up his dishes to take them to the sink, a smile plastered on his face – light and airy, unbothered, untouchable.

Jack watched him walk away, wishing there was more he could do.

When Oscar got home and asked Oz about his bandage, Oz tried out his lie about cutting himself while shaving. For the first time in the many years since his lies had become commonplace after his father’s visits, Oscar didn’t look convinced – likely because he was well aware that Oz didn’t need to shave.

Oz felt the strangest sensation. Something like... unraveling.

Chapter Text

Jack was jealous of Oz

Jack had no reason to be jealous of Oz. Oz’s misfortune far outweighed any aspect of his life that Jack could be jealous of. Jack was aware of this.

Jack sometimes hated Oz. Oz had done nothing to deserve even the briefest moment of his hatred, even the faintest inkling of his hatred. Jack always hated himself for hating Oz.

The cycle was vicious.

Jack believed that Oz deserved better. Oz deserved so much better. Oz deserved a better father than Zai. Oz deserved a better brother than Jack, a brother who wasn’t tainted with jealousy. Oz deserved a better life.

Oz deserved to be happy.

Oz deserved to be happy because he had been there for Jack whenever Jack needed him. He’d done this back when they were young children and Zai had hated them both and he would still rise to the challenge in the present.

Oz, Jack knew, was so much better than he’d been conditioned by Zai to think and Jack wished there was a way he could make Oz see that.

Jack was jealous of Oz.

His reason was terrible and unreasonable and made it clear to Jack just how vile of a person he was capable of being.

Jack was jealous of Oz because Oz had Alice.

Oz had Alice and Jack could not have Alice’s older cousin, Lacie.

Lacie had been a stunning presence in his life; her laugh like chiming bells and her carefree, strong spirit everything Jack aspired to be.

Lacie had left last year, moved away. She wasn’t coming back. She hadn’t told anyone where she was going. One day she was there and the next she was just… gone.

Jack had been heartbroken, devastated, destroyed and Oz had been there with him through it all – supportive and understanding and trying his best to bring a smile back to Jack’s face.

And all he’d gotten for his efforts was Jack’s jealousy.

Jack was jealous of Oz

He was jealous of how Oz could look at Alice, talk to Alice, touch Alice. Seeing them together made his chest burn and that sickened him. Oz had such little happiness, how could Jack possibly want to take any of it away?

Jack was jealous of Oz and he hated himself for it

Chapter Text

As soon as Gilbert entered Oscar’s classroom, he scanned the room for Oz. He’d practically been up all night, tossing and turning as he fretted and wondered and stressed over Oz’s wound and Jack’s suspicious behavior. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Oz so Gilbert walked over to his seat, disappointed and still lacking the answers he needed.

As soon as Gilbert sat down and began setting out his items for class, Xerxes, as was his specialty, manifested behind him with Sharon at his side.

“What’s got you all upset?” Xerxes asked, draping himself over Gilbert.

Gilbert shoved him away. “Nothing, I’m not upset.”

“That’s exactly what someone who was upset would say.” Xerxes moved around to the front of Gilbert’s desk and leaned on it, hands on the wood and his face brought closer to Gilbert’s than Gilbert really wanted it to be. “Have you seen the bags under your eyes this morning? They’re horrendous.”

“He’s right,” Sharon said, settling herself in her seat behind Gilbert. “Your eyes look awful. I have concealer for that if you want.” She reached into the purse she’d draped over her chair and pulled out a small makeup bag.

Gilbert touched the delicate skin beneath his eyes, growing self-conscious. He turned to face her. “Is it really that bad?” He’d gone through the entire morning, three full classes, looking like this.

Sharon nodded and beckoned him closer. “Come here, I’ll fix it.”

Gilbert turned more fully in his chair and leaned over, crossing his arms on Sharon’s desk, letting her do what she thought was best.

“So,” Sharon said, as she set to work, “why do you look like didn’t sleep at all last night?”

Gilbert contemplated that question. He was a bad liar in the best of circumstances and with his head held in place by Sharon’s grip on his chin, it would be difficult to avoid looking at her.

Gilbert decided that vague honesty was the way to go in this situation, and replied, “I was worried about something and had difficulty getting to sleep. I don’t really want to talk about it though.”

Sharon stopped blending the concealer into Gilbert’s skin, peering at him for a moment, eyebrows furrowed with a hint of concern. She then hummed softly and resumed covering the dark circles under his eyes. “Well, if you decide you want to, I’ll listen. And I’ll even be sure not to tell Xerxes.”

Gilbert smiled at her.

Xerxes, having at some point sat down at his desk to the right of Sharon, whined, “That’s not fair.”

Sharon and Gilbert both ignored him.

Sharon was putting her makeup away, class due to start any second, when Oz slipped in the door. Gilbert lurched in his chair, startling Sharon and Xerxes – they looked from him to Oz, who Gilbert was staring at rather intensely. Oz met his eyes, mouthed ‘Sorry,’ and made his way to his own desk, two rows over from Gilbert’s with Jack on one side or him and Alice on the other.

The room had begun to quiet in anticipation of Oscar starting the lesson. Gilbert could just barely hear Oz telling Jack and Alice that he’d taken so long to get here because his history teacher had held him after to explain a project he was supposed to have heard about yesterday.

All hour Gilbert was pestered with notes from Sharon and Xerxes asking why he was suddenly so interested in Oz. Gilbert ignored them until he opened one with the question ‘Do you have a crush on him?’ written by Xerxes and a long trail of exclamation points added on by Sharon. He swiftly ripped out a piece of notebook paper, write a large ‘NO’ on it, and slapped it onto Sharon’s desk.

When the lesson ended there was only five minutes left of class.

For Oz, one of those minutes were spent telling Alice his lie about cutting himself while shaving.

Alice reached out, saying, “Can I see?”

Oz intercepted her hand before her fingertips could so much as brush his bandage. He held her hand in his, linking their fingers, and dropped their joined hands to Alice’s desk.

“I would really appreciate it if you didn’t,” Oz said, smiling at her.

Alice frowned, her gaze flickering to Jack. Jack gave a slight nod. Alice’s hand tightened around Oz’s, supportive. Unlike Jack, Alice didn’t know but she did have her suspicions and she’d made her stance on the matter very clear a long time ago, stating many times that Oz could stay with her if he wanted or needed. Out of stubbornness and an internalized belief that if Zai saw fit to hurt him he must deserve it, Oz had yet to take Alice up on that offer.

For Gilbert, three minutes were quickly eaten up by Sharon and Xerxes interrogating him on what they had decided was his much too defensive response to their guess about him having a crush. Though Sharon had been willing to respect Gilbert’s privacy when she’d thought something serious was wrong, apparently all bets were off when it came to his love life – or lack thereof.

Gilbert was still arguing with them when he saw Oz stand up. Alice came with him; their hands were joined. He said something to her and she sat back down, letting go of him.

As Oz began making his way over to Gilbert, Gilbert quickly changed tactics from attempting to convince Sharon and Xerxes that they were wrong to attempting to convince them to shut up. The latter went much better than the former since they were also able to see Oz approaching.

Gilbert stood, shooting his friends a look meant to convey for them to stay where they were, and met Oz at the front of the row of desks that Gilbert sat near the back of.

“Hey, Gilbert,” Oz said. “Sorry I couldn’t catch you before class started.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m just glad you’re going to tell me what happened,” Gilbert said.

Oz nodded. They had a minute left of class.

“I’m afraid this is going to be pretty anticlimactic after you waited a whole day, but I had just cut myself shaving that morning.”

Gilbert’s first reaction was relief. “Oh, you-” His second reaction was confusion. He thought about the blood and he thought about Oz being outside and he thought, again, about the blood.

Oz could see his lie falling apart in the way Gilbert’s face scrunched up. In all honesty, he hadn’t expected it to go over well. The explanation didn’t add up with what Gilbert had seen; Oz knew that much, he wasn’t stupid – he just… had been absolutely stumped on ways he could have accidently made his face bleed. The shaving excuse was, sadly, the best idea he’d gotten. It was pitiful, really.

The bell rang before Gilbert could even begin to start figuring out how to go about questioning this explanation. In a moment of panic, his only thought being that he didn’t want Oz to leave before he got something that actually made sense out of him, Gilbert asked, “Do you go to lunch next?”

Oz blinked at him; Gilbert had been a bit more forceful than he’d intended, but embarrassment over that and at the sight of Sharon throwing him a thumbs-up from the corner of his eye didn’t make him stand down, he was too worried.

Oz grasped at the hair at the nape of his neck, tugging it and twirling it around his fingers as if he was nervous.

“No, I’ve got a class.” He glanced towards the door, Jack and Alice stood near it, Jack holding Oz’s math stuff. They still had to stop at their lockers to get what they needed for their next classes. “How about this,” Oz said, wanting to speed the conversation along, “we’ll go on a date after school and you can ask me whatever you want. Is that alright?” Oz didn’t wait for an answer before he started backing away. “I’ll wait for you at the main entrance.” Then he turned and hurried over to Jack and Alice and the three of them were leaving the classroom together.

Gilbert, who should have been in just as much of a hurry if he didn’t want to wait in a long line for lunch, slowly headed back to his desk. He ignored Sharon who was positively glowing as she congratulated him on asking out his crush and Xerxes who broke in, asking if it was true that Oz was dating Alice. They both became wrapped up in that topic, leaving Gilbert to his thoughts.

Oz had tried to lie to him.

Oz had tried to lie to him and Jack had expected a call ‘if something happened’ and Oz had been bleeding.

Gilbert felt a little sick, his stomach churning.

This whole thing… there was something really wrong going on.

Chapter Text

Oz had made plans to meet up with Gilbert because he was afraid that Gilbert would say something to somebody if he didn’t resolve the situation. The thought of Gilbert going to an adult with his story about Oz wandering around yesterday morning with a decently bleeding wound on his face had Oz anxious the whole rest of the day. Both Jack and Alice picked up on it, but he brushed their concerns aside.

When school finally ended, Oz packed up his bookbag – taking what he would need for his homework – and told Jack that he would be home later.

“Is this about whatever went on between you and that guy in math class today?” Jack asked. His eyes rolled skywards for a moment as he thought. “Gilbert, right?”

Oz nodded. “Yeah, that’s his name. It wasn’t a problem or anything. We were making plans to meet up.”

At that, Jack bodily turned to face Oz. “What?” He looked stunned. “Really? Like a friend kind of thing?”

Oz decided that being insulted at how astonished Jack was at the thought of him getting a new friend would not help his situation, especially when Jack’s astonishment wasn’t exactly unwarranted. “Yes, like a friend kind of thing.”

“When did this happen?” Jack had moved on from astonishment to interest. And, if Oz wasn’t mistaken, he looked very happy.

Jack, though startled at this sudden development, was pleased. Oz making a new friend felt like a step in the right direction. They’d known Alice since before their mother had died. Afterwards, while Jack had remained friendly with everyone, Oz had become withdrawn and closed in on himself. He would respond if spoken to, but never seemed to begin conversations and he’d never gone out with anyone other than Jack or Alice. If he was starting to open up to people again… Jack felt hopeful.

Oz put on his bookbag on and closed his locker. “Oh, uh, it’s a really recent development,” Oz replied. “I’ve been curious about him since the school year started though.” The second part was completely true and was added on in the spur of the moment as an attempt at making the lie that he’d suddenly gotten himself a friend a bit more believable.

Oz laughed softly to himself, remembering the reason for his curiosity. It had been the first day of school, a month ago, and Gilbert had been introducing himself in Oscar’s class – Oscar being the kind of teacher that liked to do icebreakers. Gilbert had stated that he was, “terrified of cats,” as his interesting fact about himself. Oz had wanted to ask about it ever since and that had translated into discreetly staring at him during their class together which, in turn, had rather quickly turned into admiring him from afar.

Jack smiled at Oz. “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything to me about it.”

Oz shrugged. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

Jack turned to his locker and went back to gathering up the things he needed. “Alright, well, I’ll tell Oscar that you’re busy. When you think you know around what time you’ll be home you should call and let him know.”

“I will,” Oz said as he took a couple steps back, waving. “See you later.” Jack waved back and Oz turned on his heel, heading in the direction of the main entrance.

As he walked, Oz couldn’t shake Jack’s smiling face from his memory.

Guilt over having lied to him set in quick.

When Gilbert got outside, Oz was already waiting for him. Gilbert ran up to him and they exchanged ‘hello’s.

“So,” Oz began, “I’m free all evening to get this situation sorted out with you.”

Gilbert frowned. “Do you actually think it will take all evening?”

“I don’t know. How interested are you in going to an adult? Because I’m mostly here to talk you down from that.”

Gilbert could not deny that he had been seriously considering taking that course of action. “I… can see how this might take some time.”

They stood on the sidewalk in front of the parking lot, cars slowly driving past and many students walking by, chatting with one another. A few strings of gossip reached their ears, but neither of them allowed their attention to be diverted.

“Is there some place you want to go while we have this conversation?” Oz asked. “I’m not all that picky and it’s not like we can’t have fun while we do this, right?” He was smiling, but something about it felt vacant. It unsettled Gilbert.

“Well,” Gilbert began, his suggestion and his sensation of being unnerved making him hesitant, “in case this does end up taking a while, do you think we could talk at my house? My mother works late and my brother should be home by now since the middle school lets out a little earlier. He’s only 12 so he shouldn’t actually be left home alone for very long, you know?” Gilbert was fidgeting with his hands, squeezing and pulling and lacing his fingers together – it wasn’t every day he invited someone to his house; inviting a person he wasn’t familiar with felt uncomfortable and nerve-wracking.

When Oz nodded, Gilbert felt immense relief.

“I’m okay with that,” Oz said. “As long as this isn’t secretly a kidnapping or something.”

Gilbert didn’t catch on to Oz’s comment about kidnapping being a joke until his flurry of assurances and apologies was met with laughter. Loud, bright laughter that had Gilbert pulling up short. A wide smile had spread across Oz’s face, a real smile, and in the afternoon sunshine he was positively glowing.

Gilbert found himself thinking, somewhere in the back of his mind, that Oz, like this, was beautiful.

As soon as the thought finished forming, he flushed – his body becoming hot despite the chilly October air. The word ‘crush’ flashed across his mind and he felt himself grow even warmer.

Gilbert looked away from Oz, blaming the direction his thoughts had gone on Sharon and Xerxes and their earlier, completely unfounded, insistence that he must have one. After all, now was definitely not the time for such thoughts and Gilbert had only really begun thinking about Oz at all yesterday.

Gilbert couldn’t have a crush. Gilbert didn’t have a crush. A crush couldn’t just develop over the course of a few seconds of being laughed at.

Could it?

....................

While they made the walk to Gilbert’s home, their conversation stayed deceptively casual.

Oz asked some questions about Gilbert’s family and Gilbert asked some back. Oz learned that Gilbert didn’t have a father. Gilbert learned that Oz’s father was, essentially, absentee.

Oz asked about Gilbert’s fear of cats and Gilbert, shuddering, opted out of telling the story behind that despite Oz’s pleas.

Gilbert asked if Oz had any fears and Oz, after a few moments of hesitation, had replied with a resounding, “No.” The only fears he could think of weren’t things he really wanted to share. Gilbert stared at him incredulously, but Oz refused to back down insisting, “There’s nothing to really be afraid of.”

Beneath the Oz’s cheery tone, Gilbert thought he could hear a hint of tightness, a hint of something not quite right. He wanted to bring it up, but, with no idea of what was actually wrong, he wasn’t sure how to go about it.

They passed the spot where Gilbert had run into Oz yesterday and turned left at the corner. Oz pointed over his shoulder with his thumb and said, “I live about a block away from there.”

Gilbert looked at Oz, then glanced over his shoulder. “That’s convenient,” he said. “You live really close to me. I’m relieved, I was kind of afraid my house would be really far out of the way for you.”

Oz thought about how he lived mere blocks from the schools and the park and the hospital and, now, Gilbert’s house. “Yeah,” he said, “my house is in a pretty convenient location for a lot of things.”

When Gilbert stopped, it was in front of a house that could be differentiated from the others by its dark blue exterior window shutters. Gilbert unlocked the door and stepped aside to let Oz in. He shut the door behind them and asked Oz to remove his shoes.

The house opened into an entryway that morphed into a short hallway. Immediately to the right was a doorway that looked in on a living room. Up a little further ahead and to the left was a staircase. Past that was another doorway.

The house was not silent. At a glance Oz couldn’t see anyone in the living room, but he could hear noise coming from the television.

“We can go sit in the dining room,” Gilbert said. He began walking in the direction of the second doorway, Oz following behind. As he passed the staircase he yelled, “Vincent, I’m home.”

Oz jumped at the suddenness of Gilbert having raised his voice. He hoped Gilbert didn’t notice, but with the way his eyes had flicked over to Oz, Oz didn’t think he would be that lucky. In the dining room Gilbert dropped his bookbag down near the table. Oz followed suit and pulled out a chair to sit in.

As Gilbert moved into the attached kitchen he asked, “Do you want something to eat or drink? I could make you a sandwich and I know we’ve got juice.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

While Gilbert was busying himself with making each of them a sandwich and Oz was examining his surroundings, a younger child came into the room. He paused in the doorway and he and Oz stared at each other.

“Who are you?” the boy, Oz assumed he must be Vincent, asked.

“I’m Oz,” Oz replied. “A, uh, friend of your brother’s.”

That seemed to be all that Vincent cared to hear because as soon as Oz finished talking he made his way over to Gilbert. “Does this mean you’ve stopped being friends with that weirdo?”

Gilbert sighed. “No, I have not stopped being friends with Xerxes.” He sounded tired.

Vincent’s already frowning face grew even sulkier. “Oh.” He walked back into the dining room and sat down next to Oz.

“I haven’t heard about you,” Vincent said. “Gil didn’t meet you through the weirdo, did he?” Vincent appeared to be trying to put as much seriousness into this question as he could manage, but his young age and babyface ruined it a bit.

Oz smiled at Vincent, thinking his valiant attempt at keeping ‘weirdos’ away from his brother was cute. “No, we met because we’re in the same class.”

Vincent made a face, muttering, “He met that guy in class, too,” before leaving his chair. He then proceeded to climb on top of it, standing up and looking down at Oz. With his hands on his hips he declared, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, for now, but I’m not afraid to beat you up if I have to.”

Gilbert ran over halfway through Vincent’s announcement, telling him he was not supposed to be standing on the furniture and apologizing to Oz and begging Vincent to just come down.

Oz had never witnessed anything like this in his life and, as he was very familiar with Alice and her boisterous personality, that was saying something. He held back his laughter, met Vincent’s eyes, and gravely replied, “I won’t let you down.”

Vincent, evidently satisfied with that, nodded and climbed down off of the chair. “You’re welcome,” he said to Gilbert, once his feet were back to being firmly planted on the ground.

Gilbert glanced helplessly between the two of them before choosing to address Vincent first. “Right. Thank you, Vince. But I’ve told you before you don’t need to threaten my…,” he paused and looked at Oz, then returned his gaze to Vincent, “my guests.”

“But if I didn’t do it, who would?”

“That’s, well, that’s the point.”

Oz leaned towards them, his hands falling onto the vacated chair, and said, “Don’t worry about it Gilbert. He’s just protecting you.”

Vincent nodded vigorously. “Yes, that’s right. I’m protecting you.”

“Don’t you feel protected?” Oz was grinning, widely.

“I…,” Gilbert began. Both Vincent and Oz were staring at him, their eyes sparking for entirely different reasons. “Yes,” he said, resigned. “Yes, I do Vincent. Thank you.” Vincent beamed at him and he reached out to ruffle his hair. “Now, is it alright if Oz and I talk alone for a while?”

“Alone?” Vincent asked. “Is it something serious?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty serious.”

Vincent stared at Oz so intensely that Oz actually started to feel uncomfortable. He leaned back and shifted in his chair. “Did he do something wrong?”

“No!” Gilbert rushed to assure him. “No, it’s nothing like that.”

“It’s just older kid stuff,” Oz said. He began absently picking at the bandage on his cheek, nerves about the conversation to come finally setting in. When he realized what he was doing he forced himself to stop.

“Yeah, it’s nothing you should worry about.”

Vincent looked at Gilbert, stared at him as intensely as he had been staring at Oz. He took a few steps further away from Oz, beckoned Gilbert to bend over, whispered, his hands cupped around his mouth, “But you look really worried.”

Gilbert grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s fine Vince,” he whispered back. “Really. We just need a little time alone and it’ll be fine. Trust me, okay?”

Vincent, though he still appeared hesitant, agreed to leave the room. He stopped at the foot of the stairs and said, “You can call me down if you need me,” before going up.

A silence descended, broken by Oz’s, “Well, that was adorable.”

Gilbert shook his head, going into the kitchen area to finish up making their sandwiches. He came back out, balancing their plates and cups, a few seconds later and sat himself down across from Oz.

“So,” Gilbert said, pulling the crust off of his sandwich while Oz took a long drink of his juice, “you tried to lie about that cut. Didn’t you?”

Chapter Text

When Oz explained, he tried his best to remain vague while still giving a reasonable answer. The story came out fragmented – separated by long pauses while he ate and drank; more as a means of allowing him to compose himself than because he was actually hungry or thirsty. As he talked he couldn’t meet Gilbert’s eyes and he thought his voice sounded like it was coming from far away. All he could feel was his aching bruises and the stinging in his cheek.

Oz laughed – lighthearted, though even he could pick up on the hallow edge to it – while admitting that Gilbert was right, he had lied about the shaving thing. He added that usually his lies weren’t quite so bad.

Oz mentioned that the cut had been caused when something had hit him. He did not mention how he’d gotten hit.

Oz mentioned that the object had been sharp. He did not mention that it hadn’t started out that way; that the sharp edges had formed from the force of it being smashed against his face.

He mentioned that he’d been dazed when he’d left his house. He did not mention the fear and desperation to get away that had driven him to running out his front door. He did not mention that he spent most of the day at the park, staring off into space while sitting on a swing – idly pushing at the ground, causing a rhythmic back and forth motion that made time feel endless. He did not mention that he hadn’t wanted to go home. He did not mention that if it weren’t for his stomach’s persistent aching, angry that he’d skipped breakfast and was on the fast track to skipping lunch as well, he may not have gone home until the sun set and the cold night air swept over his body.

Oz did not mention many things.

While Oz spoke, Gilbert stayed quiet. He listened, nodding his head whenever he felt it was appropriate. He was concerned about how much of Oz’s explanation was vague, but feared that asking questions would leaving him without answers entirely.

Gilbert wanted to understand what had taken place even while his suspiciousness beginning to solidify struck him with a deep sense of fear. He knew very little, but Jack’s concern the day Oz had gotten hurt and Oz’s evasiveness spoke volumes.

Gilbert found that he could not finish his food, could barely swallow tiny sips of his juice; his stomach was twisted up in knots. Abandoning any attempts at eating, Gilbert settled his hands around his cup and held it tightly, needing something to ground himself. Condensation made his skin damp and the coolness from the juice seeped into his palms as it stole his warmth.

Oz finished what he had to say with a shaky breath and, “So the whole thing is really nothing you should be concerned about.”

Gilbert wanted to argue that it was, in fact, something he should be and still was very concerned about. He wanted to, but was afraid of turning this into even more of a confrontation than it already was. If Oz started avoiding him Gilbert would lose any opportunity he had to help him.

He wished he knew how to help him.

Gilbert, his hands maintaining their death grip on his cup, felt completely out of his depth. Unsure of what to do or how to voice his worries, Gilbert simply said, “Okay,” and tried to smile despite how his eyes kept gravitating to Oz’s bandage.

Oz glanced in the direction of Gilbert’s kitchen. The time displayed on his oven showed that it was after 6:00 p.m. “It’s starting to get a little late,” Oz said. “I should probably go home. Unless there’s anything else you wanted to ask?”

Oz looked back at Gilbert. He still appeared to be on edge, his shoulders looking tense, but the airy grin on his face stood out in stark contrast to that.

“No?” Gilbert replied.

Oz quirked an eyebrow, likely in response to what should have been a statement having come out like a question.

Gilbert cleared his throat, embarrassment and panic lacing through him. He wanted to say something, but couldn’t voice his suspicions. But he really wanted to say something. Leaving their discussion to end as it was felt wrong. Incomplete. Unresolved.

Gilbert took a sip of his juice, forcing it down, to buy himself time. His thoughts circled rapidly as he debated what he could say, settling on, “Not a question. I just want you to know, if you ever need anything you can ask me. Or if you want to talk about something I’m willing to listen. If…,” feelings of awkwardness and discomfort and idiocy assaulted Gilbert as he realized he was saying this to somebody he’d never really even talked to before the other day, “if you want to.”

Gilbert risked a glance at Oz, lifting his gaze from where he’d resolutely settled it staring in to the depths of his cup. Oz looked, frankly, astonished and that, in turn, astonished Gilbert. Oz’s eyes were slightly widened and his mouth had dropped open a bit, he looked as though he was struggling to figure out how to respond.

“You don’t have to! I was just, you know, offering.” Gilbert said this in a rush, his hands flying off of his cup to gesticulate wildly as he spoke.

Gilbert’s sudden, animated response seemed to break Oz out of his stupor and he giggled lightly – a gentle smile on his face and a sweet fondness coming over his eyes. That look hit Gilbert like a gust of wind, stealing his breath and leaving him with the certainty that Oz should be able to look like that all the time.

“Thank you,” Oz said. “I appreciate it.” As the humor of the moment slipped away, Oz pressed his lips together, a thoughtful expression falling over him, and he slowly said, “I appreciate it, but why?” His gaze on Gilbert was searching. “We don’t know each other outside of this whole mess,” one of his hands was thrown out and made a circle, meant to encompass every interaction they’d had since running into each other Tuesday morning, “so why would you offer?”

Gilbert dragged his bottom lip between his teeth and considered his answer. “Well,” he began, “I, uh, guess I just want to?” He abandoned his cup to start fiddling with his fingers. “That is kind of weird isn’t it. We’re basically strangers and I’m asking you to confide in me. Um.” Gilbert’s fiddling quickly turned into hand wringing. He could barely look at Oz as he said, “We could try being friends?”

At that suggestion Oz’s expression turned unreadable. He placed a finger to his lips and tilted his face upwards, considering.

Gilbert’s nerves had him pressing on, rambling. “If that would make it less weird for you. We don’t have to. This isn’t completely out of nowhere either? I mean, it was nice talking to you on the walk to my house and I’ve noticed you in class and around school and thought about talking to you before now, but I’m not really the, uh, the best at that.” Gilbert could feel a blush crawling up his face with that confession.

It was true. Since the beginning of this school year last month Gilbert had sort of wanted to talk to Oz. It had been a new experience for him; he didn’t make new friends, he was satisfied with the ones he had and wasn’t a particularly social person. Since having established his friendship with Sharon and Xerxes in elementary school, Gilbert hadn’t felt the need or the desire to make his friend group any larger. But then he and Oz had ended up in Oscar’s math class together this year and something about him just… drew Gilbert in, made him have to fight back the urge to stare, made him want to talk to him.

It wasn’t a crush.

Gilbert didn’t think it was a crush.

If it was a crush surely Sharon and Xerxes would have noticed before his interest had become driven by worry.

It wasn’t a crush, but with Sharon’s and Xerxes’s voiced whispering the word to him in his head, Gilbert was becoming confused.

Oz perked up following Gilbert’s confession, his finger dropping from his mouth. He looked conflicted, but that didn’t stop a, “Sure,” from coming out of his mouth. “Sure, why not. Let’s be friends.”

Gilbert felt giddy relief and happiness wash over him. He was going to be friends with Oz. He had time to figure out how he could help him. “Great! I’ll-I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Yeah.” Oz stood from his chair. “I’ll talk to you in class.” He gathered up his bookbag, pulling it on, then looked at his plate and cup.

“I’ll take care of the dishes, don’t worry about it.”

Gilbert walked Oz to the door. They said their goodbyes and Gilbert waved to him after he’d reached the bottom of the steps.

A sudden thought hit Gilbert and he called out, “By the way, you can call me Gil. Like my friends do.”

Oz turned around, said, “Alright, Gil,” and with a wave he was making his way down the sidewalk towards his house.

Oz had never gotten the chance to inform Oscar of when he would be home since, in the end, he hadn’t been certain himself, but as he left Gilbert’s house and began his walk he made sure to text him, letting Oscar know that he was coming and should be arriving shortly.

Oz was feeling frazzled.

He was thankful for the cool air – it came in harsh through his nose, clearing up his head and making him feel more grounded. His limbs felt shaky, a side effect of his confession, and his heart was pounding, a result of Gilbert’s kindness and offer of friendship.

Oz… Well, Oz knew why he’d accepted becoming Gilbert’s friend. He’d been curious about him and liked to look at him and had liked talking to him, minus the whole serious discussion at his house, and wanted to know him better. None of this made Oz any less terrified. He didn’t make new friends. He had plenty of acquaintances, chatted easily enough with anyone who started up a conversation with him, but all he really needed was Jack and Alice.

Jack and Alice had always been with him. He trusted them. He trusted that they wouldn’t reject him.

Jack and Alice were more than he deserved, even. Much more than he deserved. They treated him so well though he’d done nothing to deserve it.

They treated him so well even though he was terrified that one day they might die because of him.

They treated him so well even though if he was truly a good person he would have made them leave him years ago, back when the danger of his existence had been made apparent.

Oz was happy Gilbert wanted to become his friend, but he was also terrified. So very, very terrified.

A conflicted mix of feelings settled over Oz, wreaking havoc in his stomach.

He wished he’d turned Gilbert down. He was glad he had accepted. He hated himself for feeling glad. The cycle continued his whole way home, vicious and painful and malevolent.

At his house, Oz riffled through his pockets to pull out his keys. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder why Oscar hadn’t responded to his text until he got the door open. The yelling hit him like a bucket of ice water; shocking and chilling, a shudder running down his spine.

Oscar was a cheerful man. He was loud and boisterous and had only ever raised his voice to Oz when he’d done something dangerous. Hearing him shouting out of anger was new. It was new and it was bad. Oz felt like his chest was tightening. He stared down the entryway, hesitant to go inside while Oscar’s rage was reaching him so clearly. He couldn’t even tell which room it was coming from.

Jack appeared within in view of the entrance coming from the direction of the living room, on the right. His arms were crossed and Oz was given the impression that he had been pacing. Jack did a double take when he saw Oz standing in the doorway. His eyes were wide, startled, and stress was evident in the lines of his face. He glanced backwards – whether he was looking towards the kitchen, which lay just past the living room, or the staircase, in clear view of the entryway, was impossible to tell – then hurried over to Oz.

Jack grabbed Oz gently by the arm and tugged him inside, saying, “It’s cold out there, don’t just stand on the porch.” Jack closed the door behind him, Oz too busy staring into the house.

“What’s going on?” Oz asked.

“Oscar’s…” Jack began, immediately trailing off. Distress had fallen over him, looking completely out of place on his face. He took a deep breath, and dragged a hand through his hair. “Well, I suppose first I should say that he promised everything would be alright.”

Oz felt his blood run cold, his fingertips felt numb and a wave of dizziness shot through him as anxiety took hold of him. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“He didn’t believe you about,” Jack reached out, slowly, his fingers just barely brushing Oz’s injured cheek, “you know.” Jack withdrew his hand and though Oz desperately didn’t want to hear anymore, he couldn’t bring himself to tell Jack to stop talking. “I think he’s been concerned for a while, but your lie about cutting yourself while shaving convinced him that something was wrong. When he got home today he asked me a bunch of questions and said he wouldn’t let anything bad happen so I…”

“You told him?”

Jack nodded.

Oz was trembling. Fear laced through his body. “But if he can’t- If he’s wrong- Jack, if he can’t actually do anything-” They would both be hurt. Seriously hurt. And on top of that, they may even be cut off from Oscar forever.

Oz was panicking, his breathing turning ragged.

Jack grasped Oz’s face between his hands, staring him directly in the eyes as he said, “It will be fine. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. It’s going to be fine.” He tried to sound confident, but inside he had the exact same fears as Oz. Zai was extremely wealthy. He had power and prestige and seemed, to both Jack and Oz, like an inescapable force. “Oscar promised,” Jack continued. “He promised.”

Oscar’s yelling continued in the background, outrage that Oz could now tell was in his defense. Outrage that would not be quelled until Oz and Jack were away from Zai.

Away from Zai.

Far away from Zai.

Oscar’s demand of Zai never so much as being in the same city as them echoed in Oz’s ears.

It all sounded completely impossible.

Chapter Text

Oz and Jack had slept together, sharing Jack’s bed. They’d felt more secure in each other’s company; their anxieties, though not appeased, having calmed a bit at not being alone. Sleep, however, had still not come easily. Mindless chatter from Jack had floated around the room as he’d whispered ceaselessly, a distraction from his thoughts, and Oz had been content to listen, responding occasionally, needing a distraction of his own.

As a result, when Oz woke up to Jack’s alarm he felt exhausted.

After Oscar’s call had ended yesterday he’d spoken to Oz and Jack gently, assuring them that he had everything under control. He’d then asked them to help him make dinner, filling the evening with his smiles and hesitant pats to Oz’s head and apologies – vague apologies, half-spoken apologies, hushed apologies, choked-up apologies; all of them about how long it’d taken him to realize.

Oz had hated the apologies.

They’d landed on him heavily, sticking in his ears and causing his mouth to burn with the need to correct Oscar – to inform him that having killed his mother was more than enough reason for Zai to cause him harm at the slightest of provocations.

The apologies had stacked themselves onto Oz’s guilt like bricks, weighing him down and filling him with a sense of fatigue that had had him going to bed early.

Somehow, throughout the evening, Oz had managed to maintain a small smile. He’d kept it light – unbothered, aiming for cheerful – though with every passing second, he’d been able to feel the hollowness in his chest growing.

The dread that had settled into his stomach during his talk with Jack upon returning home had tapered off soon afterwards, replaced by a feeling of disconnection and the beginnings of emptiness in his chest. Reality had turned to static in his head – fuzzy and indistinct and filled with holes – and everything following the change was a swirling mix of Oscar and Jack and movement and the press of words on his ears and the apologies that had expanded in his head.

Presently, Oz lay awake in Jack’s bed.

Jack’s alarm was still going off – a loud, obnoxious tone from his phone – while Jack groaned and patted at his bedside table for it, his hand hitting the wood with dull thuds a few times before he finally managed to grab onto it.

Oz could feel the beginnings of a headache setting in behind his eyes. He pushed the heels of his hands into them and, with the alarm turned off, desperately wished he could go back to sleep. After a few moments of lying there in silence, soft groaning the only sound to fill the air, both Oz and Jack reluctantly rolled out of bed and began getting ready for the day.

In spite of their exhaustion and the tense anxiety buzzing beneath their flimsy calm surfaces, they were pushed on by the familiarity of routine. Ever better, by choosing to focus all of their attention on their routines, it was almost easy to avoid their fear that everything could go wrong – not quite a perfect distraction, but good enough that their heartrates were under control and Oz wasn’t tensed to jump out of his skin at so much as the slightest creek of a floorboard.

Oz left Jack’s room, intending to head to his own in order to get dressed, when, as he was walking past the stairs, something completely out of the ordinary took a hammer to his fragile sense of calm, sending cracks splitting up its surface. Oz may not normally wake up as early as Jack, valuing his sleep more than early morning socialization, but he was positive that even at this hour Oscar should have already been out of the house. That being the case, there should have been no reason for there to be sounds and smells drifting up the stairs from the kitchen.

Oz paused at the top of the stairs, gnawing on his bottom lip. He felt jittery, heart pounding, fear cold in his stomach as he listened carefully, hoping to make out a voice. He waited a few seconds and when nothing distinct reached him, he hesitantly began creeping down the steps, careful to avoid the noisy parts of them. A little more than halfway down, Oz started to make out soft singing – cheerful and bright – and he felt himself relax. His teeth released his bottom lip, a relieved sigh slipping out of his mouth.

It was Oscar.

It couldn’t be anyone other than Oscar. He knew that voice just as well as he knew his uncle’s habit of singing while he cooked. Oz’s fear was swiftly replaced by confusion because, as a teacher, Oscar should definitely be at the school by now.

Oz made his way down the rest of the stairs, stopping in the kitchen’s doorway. Sure enough, Oscar was standing in front of the stove, his back turned to Oz as he flipped a pancake onto an already overly large stack of them, their platter set on the counter to Oscar’s right.

Oz tentatively took a step into the room concern beginning to mix with his confusion as he asked, “What’s going on Oscar?”

Oscar turned and, seeing Oz, flashed a grin in his direction. “Morning Oz!” he replied. “I just thought I’d make you boys some breakfast. Been too long since the last time I did that on a school day.”

Oz was relieved to see that Oscar’s usual liveliness had returned – a vast improvement from the stiff sorrow of the night before – but he still hadn’t been told why Oscar was home in the first place. It was setting him on edge all over again.

As Oscar turned the stove off, Oz said, “Yeah, it has been a while, but shouldn’t you be heading to work?”

“Nah.” Oscar waved a hand. “Taking the day off.” He laughed a bit, continuing, “The boss wasn’t happy with how last minute I called, but I worked my charm and got it off anyway. I’m just afraid my class won’t have a very good instructor today.” He turned back to face Oz, the smile on his face sheepish.

Oz felt apprehension like a shot of ice to his veins. There was no reason for Oscar to take the day off. He looked healthy and if he’d scheduled something today he would have alerted the school further in advance. Oscar didn’t do last minute days off. Oz tried to keep up a smile of his own, but the suspicion that this had to be his fault was making it difficult. He was just about to ask why Oscar needed the day off so suddenly when Jack came walking into the kitchen, stopping behind Oz and back leaning against the doorframe.

Jack took in the scene, a trace of confusion on his face, and asked, “Oscar? Why are you here?”

“Good morning Jack. Like I was just telling Oz here,” emphasized by Oscar walking up to Oz to ruffle his hair, “I’m not going into work today. I’ve got some… stuff I need to handle.” He moved past Oz and patted Jack on the shoulder. “There are pancakes on the counter if you want them.” As he slipped around Jack and through the kitchen’s doorway, he said, “I should be out of here in a few minutes. I’ll take care of that mess in the kitchen when I get home, don’t worry about it. I’ve got an appointment to get to right now. Make sure to call me if you need anything.”

“Alright Oscar,” Jack replied.

When Oz made no response, Jack looked over at him. Oz’s eyes were glued to the ground, his shoulders hunched in a bit. He looked small and tired and though Jack wasn’t sure what exactly had caused this, he could guess, easily enough, that it was somehow related to yesterday. As Jack went over to the cupboard to grab himself a plate, he gave a brief, reassuring squeeze to Oz’s shoulder.

Oz didn’t react, instead choosing to leave the kitchen and head back upstairs.

Oz took his time getting ready. The desire to go back to sleep had become even heavier in his limbs and made his mind foggy. As he changed he poked at his bruises. Most of them were pretty faded, but a couple were a deep, ugly blue-black and when his fingers pressed into them they throbbed. Oz also pulled the bandage off of his cheek and examined the cut in his bedroom mirror. It had lost the angry red in the surrounding skin that had persisted for the first two days and had completely healed over with thin scabbing. Deciding that it was still too noticeable to leave out in the open, Oz grabbed a bandage and ointment and took them with him into the bathroom for after he washed up.

Thoughts of burdening Oscar were persisted.

They made Oz’s throat tight and set his stomach twisting. Fearing that forcing himself to eat would result in him throwing up, Oz chose to put the food that was left on the counter in the fridge and grabbed an apple just in case his appetite came back before lunch.

When Oz stepped out of the kitchen he was surprised to see that Jack had taken up residence in the entryway, looking ready to go but very clearly not making any moves to leave. The house had been so quiet Oz had assumed that Jack had already left. Oz’s gaze flickered back towards the clock on the stove, his surprise growing when he saw that it was definingly past the time his brother was usually out of the house. In fact, despite waking up early, it was actually nearing the time that Oz would be leaving for school.

“Jack?” Oz said, catching his attention – Jack’s eyes focusing, the distant look on his face gone with a single shake of his head. “Where you waiting for something?”

Jack frowned, checked the watch on his wrist. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t notice how late it was getting.” He pulled his bookbag up, from where it lay at his feet, onto his shoulder. “Do you want me to wait for you? We could walk together?”

Oz considered turning him down.

He considered it, but Jack looked pale and tired.

He considered it, but he himself felt exhausted and anxious.

He considered it, but in the end, he really didn’t want to.

“Sure. Give me a minute, I need to grab my stuff.”

~ ~ ~

By the time third hour rolled around Gilbert, and quite possibly the entire rest of the senior class, knew that Oscar wasn’t at school. His unexplained absence was completely out of the ordinary and, as a favorite teacher of most, had sparked a buzz of gossip centered around concern for his well-being.

Gilbert had already been on edge – all worry and uncertainty that hadn’t been made any clearer after a night’s rest – from his talk with Oz. The gossip about Oscar – brash and fevered, ranging from speculation of a sudden illness to the possibility of a car accident – slipped into Gilbert’s ears and twisted into knots in his stomach, winding him up even tighter and making him feel that if he didn’t get a break from his non-stop worry soon, he would begin to lose hair from the stress.

When he entered Oscar’s classroom the first thing Gilbert noticed was that the rumors about Oscar’s absence were correct. Seated at his desk was the person Gilbert assumed must be their substitute for the day.

The second thing Gilbert noticed was Oz – in his usual seat with Jack and Alice on either side of him. For the briefest moment Gilbert felt the fluttering thrum of nervousness, unsure whether to approach him or not, but it was almost immediately replaced by a surge in his worry.

As Gilbert walked past Oz’s desks, he took in the shadows under Oz’s eyes and the weary tint to his smile. Oz appeared to have hardly gotten any sleep last night. Gilbert found himself pausing for a moment and their eyes locked.

As soon as it happened, Gilbert whipped his head in the opposite direction – more of an automatic response to having been caught staring than because he actually wanted to. He continued walking – head down, face burning, worry clawing at his insides – and didn’t look up again until he was seated at his own desk. Sharon and Xerxes both gave him very pointed looks and Gilbert pretended he didn’t notice, organizing his supplies for class.

Sharon, not being one to be ignored, promptly poked him right between his shoulder blades with the sharp tip of her pencil. Gilbert yelped softly as she asked, “What was that about?”

Before Gilbert could supply some sort of answer, Xerxes interjected with, “He’s still staring at you.”

“What?” Gilbert said, startled. His eyes shot over towards Oz’s direction and, sure enough, he was being watched.

A second passed and then Gilbert lifted a hand and waved; a small, uncertain, jerky motion. Though Oz looked no less exhausted, his expression seemed to relax for a few moments as he waved back. And then, for some reason, when Oz stopped waving, his expression shifted once again. It became pensive and withdrawn and this time it was Oz who broke off the staring, his eyes dropping to his desk.

In contrast to Oz’s action, their eyes having followed the direction Oz’s waving, Gilbert suddenly found himself the center of attention for Jack and Alice.

Jack smiled and waved at Gilbert, who waved absently back, still mostly focused on Oz as he deflated, shoulders slumping. Alice, on the other hand, looked between Oz and Gilbert a few times before she settled a calculating look on Gilbert, the intensity of it making him flinch away upon accidently meeting her gaze.

“Well?” Sharon was asking. Like Alice, she was looking between Gilbert and Oz. Gilbert risked a glance back in Oz’s direction and was relieved to find that Alice had taken her eyes off of him in favor of whispering to Oz. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Gilbert murmured. “Nothing’s happening.” He turned to face the front of the room, wanting to put an end to the conversation with Sharon and all of the staring going on that was, frankly, making him uncomfortable by this point.

Gilbert was saved from Sharon’s stubborn insistence when the teacher stood up and began to introduce herself. Throughout the lesson, Gilbert found himself being drawn into the notes Sharon and Xerxes were passing back and forth; starting with refuting Xerxes declaration that love was the explanation for all the staring and ending with informing them of how terrible they were when the conversation evolved into a discussion on whether or not Gilbert was capable of stealing Oz from Alice.

The lessons ended with ten minutes of class remaining. As Gilbert closed his notebook and textbook and set about putting his pen and pencil away he wondered if he should go talk to Oz. The distraction of math now set aside, Gilbert’s worry was beginning to creep back up and, besides, he’d been the one to tell Oz that they should be friends, something they couldn’t very well do if they never interacted.

However, regardless of those two very compelling facts, Gilbert was finding leaving his seat and approaching Oz difficult. There was a reason he only had two friends and his shyness certainly wasn’t cutting him any breaks today no matter how important saying so much as, “Hello,” to Oz was.

Gilbert was desperately wondering where the bravery that had allowed him to confront Oz had gone to and how to get it back, when he saw Alice stand. She walked over to Oz’s desk and grabbed up one of his hands, tugging him, trying to pull him out of his seat. Gilbert watched as Oz resisted, only to relent a few moments later, after Alice leaned in and whispered something to him. He stood, spoke to Jack, and let himself be led by Alice towards the front of the class.

For the third time that day Gilbert and Oz’s eyes met.

“Do you think they’re coming over here?” Xerxes asked, placing his hands on Gilbert’s desk and leaning down. Gilbert glanced up at him, not liking the sly smile he was met with.

“No, I don’t think-,” Gilbert began, his words dying in his throat at the sight of Alice taking a right when she reached the front of the row of desks, pulling Oz in what suspiciously did appear to be Gilbert’s direction. “Why would they be?” Gilbert asked instead, nervousness fluttering through his stomach. Oz coming over he could understand. Alice not only coming with him, but being the driving force behind the visit was nerve-wracking. What could she possibly want with him?

Gilbert heard a scraping sound behind him and then Sharon was at his other side, expression twisted up with concern. “Alice was staring at you pretty intensely earlier,” she whispered.

“So she’s coming to warn him away from stealing Oz then,” Xerxes said, shaking his head pityingly at Gilbert.

“You don’t think she’d hurt him, do you?”

Xerxes tilted his head, lifting a hand to his mouth as he considered. “I suppose it’s a possibility.”

“Oh, for the last time!” Gilbert angrily whispered, trying to push down the panic that they were right. His gaze flew between Sharon, Xerxes, and Alice as she progressed ever closer. “What happened yesterday wasn’t a date!”

Sharon’s concern morphed into a pout, her arms crossing over her chest. “Must you steal this from me?” she asked. “I have so much knowledge about romance and it’s all going to waste! Who am I supposed to advise and cheer on if you’re not interested in anyone? Xerxes would never tell me even if he was; you’re my only option here.”

“I’m… sorry?” Gilbert whispered, only giving her a small part of his attention, the rest of it zeroed in on Alice and Oz as they began walking down the aisle towards Gilbert’s desk. “Could you please stop talking now, though, before they hear?”

Sharon huffed loudly with displeasure, but she didn’t speak again until Alice was in front of her. Alice’s hand was still firmly clasping Oz’s and she tugged him forward, causing him to stumble out from behind her; he stood directly in front of Gilbert’s desk.

As she addressed Alice, Sharon’s sulking demeanor did a complete 180. She beamed at Alice giving her a bright smile and a vibrant, “Hello.”

A second passed and then another, everyone watching Alice as her expression morphed into one of surprise.

When Oz felt Alice’s hand release his, quickly followed by her ducking behind him, both of her hands taking up residence on his shoulders, he felt a flash of fond amusement. For all of her grandiosity, Alice could be a bit shy and being faced with the full force of Sharon’s beauty certainly couldn’t have helped matters.

The whole point of this impromptu introduction, put on hold for the moment, was rooted in Alice’s concern for Oz. The second she’d laid eyes on him in their shared, first class of the day she’d known something was wrong. Ever since then she’d been testing the waters with casual questions. Though Oz had tried not to reveal too much with his answers, he was fairly certain she’d picked out Oscar’s absence today as a sore subject, having abandoned that line of questioning almost as soon as she’d brought it up.

Presumably in an inspired attempt to cheer Oz up, Alice, having heard about Gilbert from Jack, had said that she wanted to meet him when the math lesson ended. Oz’s evasion had only made her more determined and now here Oz was, standing in front of Gilbert despite his firm belief that it would be in Gilbert’s best interests to never so much as see him again.

In light of Alice’s pure intentions, Oz decided an introduction to Gilbert couldn’t hurt. An introduction didn’t mean he couldn’t fade out of Gilbert’s life. An introduction didn’t have to be followed up.

Oz gave a faint laugh – it sounded a bit off, hallow and strained, but it was the best he could manage at the moment. “Sorry about that,” he said to Sharon. “Alice is kind of shy and it seems your beauty has positively blown her away.”

Upon reaching the end of that sentence, Oz was met with Alice’s hands firmly squeezing his cheeks as she loudly proclaimed, “He’s lying!” She then carefully jerked Oz’s head back towards Gilbert and, while still hiding behind him, said, “You!” with a ferocity Oz was certain was only meant to mask her embarrassment. “I’m here to meet you. The three of us are hanging out after school today. I’ll be waiting by the entrance.” She released Oz’s face and grasped the hand she’d abandoned earlier. Her eyes met Sharon’s as she came out from her hiding spot and she said a brash, “Hello,” before dragging Oz away.

Oz was experiencing a few very different emotions as they went back to their desks.

The dismissal bell rang; a clear cacophony of sound that resounded with the sharp pangs of Oz’s anxiety. The plan had been an introduction. A meeting after school was a large step beyond an introduction. Fear and guilt wound themselves around him like barbed wire; viscous and painful – a reminder that just as he didn’t deserve to form any kind of friendship with Gilbert, he certainly didn’t deserve Alice and the sooner they went off to college and he could cut off contact with her the better.

The second set of emotions rose up in defiance of the first: the amusement and fondness from before growing stronger. They coiled around his negative emotions: lessened the ache, made it tolerable.

Deciding that the need to leave Alice was something to put off for another day, a day closer to the end of the school year when graduation and the separation that Alice would have no idea was meant to be permanent was impending, Oz leaned closer to her. He whispered, “Was it just me, or do you have a crush?”

Alice’s heated denials only made him more certain that he was right.

Sharon, Xerxes, and Gilbert stared after Oz and Alice as they walked away.

“Well,” Sharon began, “that was… quite interesting.”

Xerxes hummed in agreement. “But at least you weren’t completely ignored.”

When the dismissal bell rang, Gilbert gathered his things in a confused daze. Getting to know Oz better was what he wanted, but… he hadn’t expected it to happen anything like that. To make matters worse, he had to admit he was intimidated of spending his evening with Alice. She appeared to have a very strong personality and her interest in him made Gilbert horribly nervous.

He would go; of course he would go. If anything, his need to help Oz was only strengthening as the days went by – a protective urge that, while Oz had been standing in front of him, had had Gilbert holding back the impulsive desire to reach out and place his fingertips to the shadows under Oz’s eyes, ask him what could have possibly kept him from his sleep, assure him that Gilbert would hear him out if that would offer him any solace.

So, he would go.

He had to go.

He just wasn’t sure how he felt about walking into an outing with Alice and Oz on his own.

A hand was placed on Gilbert’s shoulder. He jumped, looking over to see Sharon at his side. She was peering at him, the look in her eyes one of such intensity that it rivaled Alice’s stare from the beginning of class.

“Maybe I should go with you,” Sharon said. “Do you think they’d mind?”

Relief washed over Gilbert as he rose from his chair. “Please,” he said. He, Sharon, and Xerxes began their walk out of the classroom. “I would really appreciate it.”

Sharon shrugged. “I don’t mind. To be perfectly honest, I’m interested in using this chance to get to know Alice. She seemed a bit odd, but she’s cute, isn’t she? I think there’s potential for a lovely friendship there.” A dreamy smile took hold of her features and she linked arms with Gilbert and Xerxes. “How exciting! This would be the first time I’ve ever had a girl as a friend; I swear they take one look at Xerxes and get scared away.”

“I’m insulted,” Xerxes grumbled. “If they’re afraid of anything, it’s your frightening intensity.”

Sharon glowered up at him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a delight.”

“Of course you are.” Xerxes patted her on the head and, unable to stop himself, Gilbert began to laugh.

Sharon’s gaze flew between the two of them, indignation flaring to life in her eyes. “That’s does it! I’m through with both of you.” She attempted to retract her arms from theirs, but both Xerxes and Gilbert held on tight – Gilbert telling her a few laughter-infused apologies while Xerxes assured her that if they couldn’t take her intensity they simply weren’t worth her time.

By the time they released Sharon so they could go to their lockers, she had been adequately appeased and Gilbert was feeling lighter than he had since before that Tuesday run-in with Oz.

Chapter Text

By the end of the school day all Oz really wanted was to go home and take a nap. Or maybe just forego the nap and go to sleep for the night. Slipping away, however, was impossible when Alice swooped in and latched onto his arm, her eyes positively sparking, as he was closing his locker.

“See you tomorrow Jack,” Alice said, giving Jack a little wave, her gaze barely sliding over to him for a second before it was once again trained on Oz. Her excitement was practically pouring off of her in waves.

A look of confusion crossed Jack’s face, quickly replaced by understanding. “Ah, right,” he said. “Oz is introducing you to Gilbert.” He smiled at both of them. “Have fun.” To Alice, “Make sure to tell me all about it.”

Alice nodded her head gravely, as if she’d just been imparted with an important mission. Oz felt a light flush of embarrassment at the thought that they might actually view it that way – Gilbert being, in their eyes, a mysterious new friend to be investigated, interesting solely for his ability to have captured Oz’s attention.

“It’ll be an interrogation,” Alice promised. “I’ll show no mercy.”

Oz and Jack both laughed at that, Oz somehow getting out, “Please, Jack, take it back. She’s serious.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that Oz. She’s already determined.” Jack patted Oz on the shoulder. “Give Gilbert my condolences.”

~ ~ ~

Gilbert had been waiting for them with Sharon and Xerxes. When Oz and Alice had arrived Xerxes had, rather strangely, said, “Oh! I see it now. I see it.” He’d then nudged Sharon, continuing with, “Looking at Alice you get the kind of urge to pinch her cheeks.” Sharon had then proceeded to try her best to clamp her hands over Xerxes’s mouth, assuring Alice and Oz that what he’d said meant nothing and could be completely ignored. Regardless of Sharon’s attempts at damage control, dislike for Xerxes had become firmly rooted in Alice and when asked if he and Sharon could take part in their outing, she’d been resolutely adamant about the impossibility of allowing Xerxes to come along.

In the end, Xerxes had given up, saying that he probably had better things to be doing anyway and Sharon hadn’t been opposed to tagging along without him.

Though the meet-up hadn’t gone quite as planned and Alice had gain a new ‘enemy’ out of it, Alice didn’t seem to mind how things had ended up turning out, gravitating to Sharon’s side with a slight, satisfied smile on her face. With Xerxes safely out of earshot Alice, in charge of picking their destination as the person who’d invited Gilbert out, announced that she was in the mood to go to the arcade – a small building only a block away from the schools, its windows flashing with the glow of neon lights and its sides flanked by an ice cream parlor and a candy store.

Unlike Oz and Gilbert, Alice and Sharon both had their own cars. When deciding how they would go about getting to the arcade, Gilbert was spared the possibility of Alice’s promised interrogation as Alice tossed her keys to Oz.

“I’ll go with Sharon,” Alice said, by way of explanation. “Make sure nothing bad happens to my car.”

Oz rolled his eyes. “The only one to ever harm your car has been you.”

Alice had gotten her license the same year she’d turned 16, excited to try something new and in love with the theoretical freedom to go wherever she wanted – a freedom challenged by her curfew and the lack of fun places to go in their city, though that hadn’t stopped her from dragging Oz and Jack on late night trips to grocery stores, the rides home always a frightening experience as she raced the clock to beat her curfew.

When summer had rolled around this year and Oz and Jack still hadn’t begun drivers training, Alice had taken it upon herself to teach them. Neither of them had exactly been opposed to learning, Jack admittedly more interested than Oz, but neither Zai nor Oscar had ever brought the possibility up and Oz and Jack had never felt the desire to push the matter. Learning to drive from Alice had been a harrowing experience, but Oz at least felt confident in his ability to drive to the short distance from the school to the arcade without any mishaps.

Alice payed Oz’s teasing insult hardly any mind, merely sticking her tongue out at him in retaliation.

“My car’s over that way,” she made a vague gesture in the direction Oz was facing away from, “and all the way in the back row. Want me to show you?”

“No, that’s okay,” Oz said. “Your car’s pretty easy to spot. I’m sure we’ll find it.” His gaze shot over to Gilbert who was watching Alice and Sharon. Sharon herself looked a bit baffled, Alice’s decision on how to split up having clearly taken both of them off guard.

Oz gently poked Gilbert on the shoulder, drawing those beautiful eyes towards himself. “Let’s go?” Oz prompted, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb.

“Um,” Gilbert began, eyes trailing back towards Sharon. Sharon’s confusion had given way to enthusiasm. She linked arms with Alice, a wide smile on her face, quite obviously happy to have Alice to herself for a short while. “Yeah, sure.” Gilbert returned his attention to Oz, who was eyeing him curiously.

A moment went by before Oz gave a short nod and a, “Right, this way then,” and stepped into the parking lot, Gilbert following close behind him.

The silence between them was broken by Oz after they’d slipped past the first row of cars. Peering at Gilbert from the corners of his eyes and his tone unreadable, he asked, “Did you want to go with Sharon?”

Gilbert, unprepared for the question let a, “Huh?” slip past his lips before he’d even finished processing it.

Oz clasped his hands behind his back, his posture pulling taunt and his head lazily tilting upwards. They stopped before the next row of cars, Oz’s eyes analyzing the sky while Gilbert’s eyes fought to understand Oz. “Alice sort of decided how we should split up all on her own. You looked a little like you wanted to go with Sharon.” Oz dropped his gaze, flickering it over Gilbert before settling it on the ground.

Gilbert was thrust into the distinct impression that he was currently experiencing a crucial and potentially life-altering moment. He felt as though what he said right now would matter immensely and, though the answer was simple, Gilbert – as anyone currently experiencing such monumental pressure – choked.

“Oh! Is that- is- is- is that how it-? No! No! N-…no…” Gilbert’s sputtering was accompanied by a flurry of hand movements that tapered off with his words. What he’d wanted to come out of his mouth was some sort of reassurance and the explanation that any hesitance on his part had been only for the sake of Sharon who he hadn’t wanted to leave alone with Alice if she’d seemed even remotely uncomfortable. His failure to be coherent, let alone get any of that across, had Gilbert’s mouth contorting into a grimace. He considered slamming his head on the window of the car he stood near.

Oz lifted his head, placing a hand to his mouth, his shoulder shaking with laughter. “I’m flattered by your need to reassure me,” he said, the words winding themselves around giggles.

Gilbert could feel a blush creeping up from his neck and burning hot in his ears. Embarrassment pulsed through him, eased only by the relief that the reassurance he’d intended had ended up getting through somehow.

Oz, shaking off the last of his laughter, said a light-hearted, “Come on,” and slipped between two cars, continuing on towards the back of the parking lot.

As they walked, Oz tried and failed not to feel happy about Gilbert’s interest in him. Reminders to himself that he shouldn’t let their friendship go anywhere couldn’t quite pierce the glow brought on by Gilbert’s desperation to let Oz know that he wanted to be with him; Oz’s fear wrestling with his happiness and becoming easily overwhelmed by it.

Though he wanted to, Oz couldn’t deny that being wanted by Gilbert felt nice.

Sure, Oz had Jack and Alice and Oscar, all of whom made their love for him and his presence in their lives known. But there was something different about that same sentiment coming from Gilbert. Gilbert who didn’t have history with him, who had no reason to want him around, who could easily forget Oz if he wanted to because they’d just met earlier this week.

Gilbert and Oz were nothing to each other. But for some reason Gilbert wanted them to be and this could not be explained away as nothing more than feelings of obligation due to a familial tie or childhood friendship – obligations Oz would never admit aloud to believing that Jack and Alice and Oscar were burdened by. And Oz…

Oz liked it.

Oz liked this anomaly.

Oz liked being forced to accept the unacceptable concept that maybe, just maybe, someone could want him around for no other reason than ‘because they wanted to know him’.

“I’m glad that you don’t mind,” Oz said, pushing his own conflicted happiness aside and focusing on the reason he’d asked in the first place. “See, Alice – and you didn’t hear this from me, by the way – Alice has a crush on Sharon.” They were going past the third row of cars when this revelation came out and Oz heard a loud thud and hiss of pain from behind him. He turned to look at Gilbert who was staring at Oz with wide eyes, clutching the elbow he must had slammed into one of the cars they were squeezing between.

“What!?” Gilbert exclaimed. “She likes-? But I thought you two-”

With that, the confusion Oz was feeling was cleared up in an instant. “Oh. The rumors. Those aren’t true.” Oz began walking again, stopping near the trunk of a car to survey the final row laid out before of them. “Alice is a lesbian, actually. Could you maybe pass that on to Sharon for her?”

“That she’s a lesbian?” Gilbert asked. He brain was having a bit of trouble functioning after this sudden discovery, thoughts all tangled up in the realization that if Alice and Oz weren’t dating then Oz was single. Gilbert’s adamant denial of having a crush on Oz was challenged by the flurry of butterflies in his stomach and the hope he felt jolt through him, urging him to peer up at Oz – a tentative flickering of his eyes.

Oz was looking back at him. “Yeah. That she’s a lesbian.”

Gilbert was well aware that his blush from earlier was back with a vengeance. When Oz returned his attention to the cars, Gilbert’s relief was palpable.

“Honestly,” Oz continued, “Alice is really open about liking girls. I didn’t realize the rumor about us would still be going around. I’ll have to tell her, she’ll think it’s hilarious… Ah! There’s her car.” Oz took off towards the right, hitting the unlock button on Alice’s keys. The lights on a black car flashed. Rabbit ears stuck up from the front windows and a plethora of rabbit stuffies were spread out across the ledge of the back windshield. Upon closer inspection, trash littering the backseat and floor was also visible.

Oz got into the driver’s seat while Gilbert walked around to the passenger’s, both of them throwing their bookbags into the back – Gilbert hoping the trash wouldn’t swallow them whole. As Oz adjusted his seat and the mirrors Gilbert was left with nothing to do but watch him, absorbing, once again, just how exhausted Oz looked.

“Oz?” Gilbert began, hesitant.

“Hm?”

“Are you feeling okay?”

Oz’s hand paused on the rearview mirror. “Why?”

“You look really tired. Did you not sleep well last night?” Gilbert folded his hands in his lap, tugging at his fingers nervously.

Oz’s hand slipped from the mirror and he dragged his fingers through his hair, huffing out a soft sigh. “Do I look that bad?” He turned to Gilbert.

“You look seconds from passing out, honestly.”

“Aw, Gil, isn’t that supposed to be where you tell me I don’t look bad and then stumble over some flattery?” Oz leaned forward resting the side of his face on the steering wheel, his lips set in a pout. His hair was messy from when he’d ran his fingers through it and Gilbert fought back the urge to reach out and straighten it.

Ignoring what he was fairly sure was teasing, Gilbert pressed on. “Is there a reason you weren’t able to sleep?”

Oz pressed his lips together, considering. The concern currently present on Gilbert’s face set Oz’s heart fluttering and Gilbert’s insistence from last night that he could talk to him if he needed to was pulled to the forefront of his mind. Coming to a decision, Oz shoved himself upright then leaned over the center console putting himself inside Gilbert’s space. Gilbert blinked at him, startled, but didn’t pull back.

“I have news for you,” Oz murmured. “You said you wanted to be my friend so I would have a reason to confide in you, but my problem is being taken care of.”

“Taken care of?”

Oz nodded.

“So…” Gilbert wasn’t sure what to think. Oz’s tone was serious, but what if he was lying? And even if he wasn’t lying, would resolving the main problem really fix everything? Gilbert eyed Oz carefully, trying to see past the faint smile on his lips and into his head. Or maybe his heart.

“So, you don’t have to worry about me anymore.”

And that – that – struck Gilbert as wrong. Warning bells rang in his head, his worry spiking rather than dissipating. Oz’s demeanor as he’d said it had shifted, the light of his fragile smile dimming even further and his eyes taking on a glassy appearance as his body language began to slump the slightest bit. He looked resigned and Gilbert couldn’t stand it.

Gilbert reached out, grasping Oz’s hands, paying no attention to the surprise unfolding on Oz’s face. “Still-,” Gilbert said, putting as much force into the word as he could, “still, if you ever need to talk, I’ll listen. Even if your problem is being taken care of, if there’s ever anything else… I want to help.” Gilbert stared into Oz’s eyes for a moment before having to break away, his nerves overtaking him. His hands on Oz’s squeezed slightly and he cleared his throat. “I mean, we’re friends now. It’s kind of friends’ jobs to- to worry about each other. And, your situation wasn’t the only reason I wanted to be your friend. I told you I was interested in that for a while… Uh, I… I guess what I’m really trying to get at here is… Let me… Let me care about you. Please.”

Oz was burning. His body was hot. His face was hot. His hands, where Gilbert held them, were hot. His heart was racing, ‘let me care about you,’ swirling around his head and making a fluttering mess of his insides. This… Oz didn’t know what to do about this. His emotions were in a state of complete and utter havoc some yelling at him to tell Gilbert that that was definitely okay, others yelling at him to cut Gilbert out of his life now because this was dangerous – because Oz was dangerous and Gilbert just kept proving more and more that he deserved better, others yelling at Oz to kiss him.

Oz had never had a crush before.

Oz had realized from the time his mother had died because of him that he would never be able to be with anyone. That one day even Jack and Alice and Oscar would be left behind for their own good. That his only option was to be alone.

So, Oz – withdrawn and, frankly, terrified of knowing other people – had never paid much attention to others and had, in effect, never developed anything remotely like romantic feelings.

Despite having no experience in that regard, Oz thought that this moment – right now in Alice’s car with Gilbert grasping his hands and his heart feeling as though it was attempting to beat itself right out of his chest and the words ‘let me care about you’ hanging heavy in the air – he may have been sent tumbling into his first crush. And, honestly, with how captivated he’d been by Gilbert since the beginning of this year, he thought that this probably shouldn’t have been as quite shocking as it was.

Regaining control over himself was difficult, but somehow Oz managed to say, “Okay.”

Gilbert’s head whipped up to look at Oz and Oz looked away just as fast, not wanting what felt like a vibrantly red blush on his face to be seen by Gilbert. “It’s okay!?”

“Yeah. It’s okay. It’s fine. I’m… I should drive now. We should get going.”

“Oh.” Gilbert quickly removed his hands from Oz’s. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to hold us up.”

“No, you…” Oz stuck the key in the ignition, starting the car. Softly, barely intelligible over the purr of the engine he murmured, “Thank you.”

Gilbert watched Oz take a deep, steadying breath. He was bit curious about the blush that had appeared on Oz’s face, but following that confession of sorts Gilbert’s own face felt extremely hot so he didn’t consider himself to be in any position to ask or judge.

The ride to the arcade was only a couple minutes long, the silence filled by the radio, its volume turned down to a soft background noise. Gilbert took advantage of this to call Vincent and let him know he’d be home later than usual. Vincent hadn’t exactly been happy about it, but the promise that Xerxes was nowhere near Gilbert’s general vicinity had appeased him somewhat.

After parking in the parking lot across the street from the arcade, Oz pulled the key out of the ignition and they both got out of the car. Before crossing the street, Oz linked arms with Gilbert, looking both ways a few more times than Gilbert thought may have really been necessary before tugging Gilbert towards the arcade building.

Gilbert tried not to think about how Sharon and Xerxes were probably right about his having a crush on Oz. He failed. Miserably. With Oz latched onto his arm that train of thought was difficult to ignore. He was glad Xerxes wasn’t with them, the guy had a sixth sense for things that would embarrass Gilbert and would probably have been able to spot Gilbert’s dawning acceptance of his crush a mile away.

Upon entering the arcade building Gilbert and Oz were engulfed in the sounds of ringing bells, music, and loud children. Alice was easily the loudest voice among them, letting out what Gilbert could only describe as a war cry. Gilbert looked at Oz, baffled, but Oz just laughed and wandered off in the direction the scream had come from.

They found Alice manically assaulting a Whack-A-Mole, Sharon watching her intently from a safe distance away.

Though the purpose of the outing was for Alice to meet Gilbert, most of her attention was divided between Oz and Sharon. At some point Oz informed Gilbert that had Sharon not tagged along, he would have faced the full force of Alice’s inquisitive wrath, eliciting a shudder from Gilbert. As it was, Gilbert felt that Alice had asked him plenty, from his favorite food – demanding he cook her something sometime when she learned he was decent at it – to persistent pestering about the origin of his fear of cats – a fact he was immensely regretting having revealed at the beginning of the year as she did her best to get an answer out of him.

They spent an hour at the arcade. Alice dragged Gilbert into a game of Dance Dance Revolution, Sharon handily got a great score on the punching bag machine – to the delight of a cheering Alice, and though Oz didn’t participate – claiming he was too tired – his eyes were lit up with contentment.

Chapter Text

Oz and Jack were going to be moving in with Oscar the weekend before Halloween.

Oscar had come back from his business on Thursday looking tired and a bit sick, but triumphant. Jack had already set about preparing dinner with Oz helping him when he got home, dropped off by Alice who had spent the brief car ride expressing her approval of Gilbert despite how little of her attention had actually been focused on him.

When Oscar arrived, all there was left to do was set the table and as the three of them went about it Oscar had announced the move with an air of cheery casualness, as if he were proposing nothing more than a sleepover. Then, leaving Oz and Jack with hardly any time to process this news, let alone ask questions, Oscar had revealed that he now had custody over them. He didn’t go into much detail, instead simply saying that he and Zai had talked it over and decided that giving Oscar custody would be for the best.

Oz hadn’t been quite sure how to react and, based on his silence, Jack hadn’t seemed to know how to either – both of them simply going about the motions of serving themselves dinner as they tried to wrap their heads around this sudden upset in the usual routine of their lives.

With no direction and his emotions in conflict, Oz had made the split-second decision to portray enthusiasm. He turned it on like flipping a switch, lighting up with questions about the move, from when it’d be happening to if he and Jack could paint the walls of their new room. Jack had soon joined in with questions of his own and soon Oz and Jack had turned to teasing Oscar about the likely disastrous state of his apartment because ‘wasn’t it suspicious how many days he needed just to move them a couple blocks away?’.

While Oscar argued that his apartment wasn’t a disaster he made no attempts to attest to it being tidy and the mood for the rest of the evening was bright and sprinkled with laughter.

Neither Oz nor Jack brought up Oscar having taken custody over them, however, when Oz went to bed that night his thoughts regarding the matter were practically boiling over.

He and Jack had decided to sleep together again. They’d turned in earlier than usual, the exhaustion they’d both been experiencing all day hitting them hard as the sun finished up its descent from the sky. Moonlight filtered in through the windows in Jack’s room, its presence as subtle and pervasive as the steadily growing tension that, like white noise, was underlying the silence that stretched out and filled the room.

It was Jack who brought an end to the stalemate that had been going on since dinner with a whispered, “He probably signed us over to avoid a scandal.”

Oz didn’t respond, though the thought, We aren’t worth a scandal, pressed up against the confines of his head with a fevered desperation to break free. Keeping his mouth shut against the words was practically a feat of physical strength and at a loss of what else to say, Oz remained silent.

Jack eventually fell asleep and with his soft, even breathing as a backdrop, Oz remined himself that being adopted by Oscar, being removed entirely from Zai’s life, was for the best.

He reminded himself that this was an escape and he ought to be seizing it with both hands and a sense of gratified relief. But, while the relief was present, it wasn’t alone. Confusion over whether he actually deserved this escape and a feeling of having been abandoned settled over him like a blanket of shadow. It seeped into his bones, turning into a full-body ache.

It hurt.

As irrational as it was, Zai having given up custody of him hurt – striking like a final blow, twisting itself into the ultimate form of rejection.

As irrational as it was, a part of Oz had been waiting, patient and desperate and lonely, for the day that Zai forgave him. For the day that Zai acknowledged all of his efforts to be good. For the day that Zai assured him that maybe he wasn't actually destined to ruin everyone important to him.

For a day that now, undeniably, would never come.

Because, he would probably never see Zai again.

Oz stared up at the dark ceiling of Jack's bedroom and steeped in the feeling of abandonment that that fact evoked. Meanwhile, the still healing bruises littering his body and the cut on his face throbbed out as if in approval, as if to remind him that he should be grateful for this development.

"I'll never see him again," Oz whispered the words, tasting them on his tongue. They came out faint and made his eyes sting, demanding the press of the heals of his hands and making his next intake of breath shudder.

The throbbing continued, both in his heart and on his body and Oz wasn't sure which type hurt worse.

~ ~ ~

Oscar and Oz were in Oscar’s apartment kitchen on Sunday, putting groceries into the bare refrigerator and cupboards. Jack was in his and Oz’s new, shared room, finishing up organizing his half of it. At her own insistence, since her usual weekend plans with Oz were being interrupted by the move, Alice was also present, though her help – consisting of dropping a variety of meat and junk food into their grocery cart and dragging a few boxes into the apartment – had devolved into lounging across a couch in the living room, flipping through channels on the television.

Oscar and Oz were very much alone in the kitchen with nothing but the rustle of plastic bags, faint voices from the television drifting over to them, and Oscar’s fingers drumming on the edge of the refrigerator door.

“Oz,” Oscar began, his voice low in spite of their state of privacy. The drumming ceased and he closed the refrigerator, turning to face Oz. Oz looked up from where he knelt in front of a cupboard and felt a flash of worry roll through him at Oscar’s unreadable expression.

“Yeah Uncle Oscar?” Oz asked, mentally willing his nerves to settle because this was Oscar and there was no reason to be nervous.

“I’ve been thinking. How would you feel about talking to someone?”

For a few moments Oz wasn’t sure what he was talking about. They stared at each other, unmoving, until – just as Oscar began to look like he was going to elaborate – clarity dawned on Oz and he leapt into action with a wave of his hand, brushing aside Oscar’s concerns. “Oh, no, no, I’m fine.”

Oscar frowned – he really was doing a lot of that lately. “You’re fine?” he asked.

Oz nodded and Oscar leaned back against the refrigerator, pressing a hand over his mouth.

Oscar, despite Oz’s insistence that he really didn’t need to talk to someone, continued to push the matter, listing off what must have been well-researched benefits of therapy and finishing it off with, “I’m just worried about you Oz.” This was accompanied by Oscar walking over to ruffle his hair and Oz found his will crumbling.

“I’ll… give it a try,” Oz mumbled, averting his eyes from Oscar’s now beaming face. He went back to busying himself with filling the cupboard while Oscar promised to set up his appointment.

By the time evening came around, they’d finished stocking Oscar’s kitchen, eaten dinner, and Alice was all but pushing Oz out the door, shouting a “Bye!” to Oscar and Jack over her shoulder.

Alice had heard about the move on Friday when Oz met up with her in their first class. After her initial proclamations that she would help, she’d been struck by inspiration. Grasping excitedly at Oz’s shoulders she’d announced that they should have a moving party. She had then, eyes glittering, gasped loudly and said, “If we have it on Monday it can be moving party and a Halloween party,” as if this hybrid party was the best idea she’d ever had. By the end of class she’d had an entire list of foods that should be served, passing it off to Oz while bouncing on the balls of her feet.

“Um, Alice?” Oz had said, surveying it. “This is a lot for four people.”

Alice had tilted her head, eyebrows furrowing. “No, there should be six.” She’d began listing names, ticking off her fingers as she went, “You, me, Jack, Oscar, Sharon, and Gilbert.” When she finished she peered at Oz, wiggling her raised fingers.

“Sharon and Gilbert?” Oz had supposed he should have expected this after their trip to the arcade the day before, but he was completely taken off guard.

“Duh. They’re our friends now, right? We can’t just not invite them.” She’d then flounced out of the classroom, anticipation evident in her walk and the dreamy smile on her face.

Oz hadn’t had the heart to turn her down, even if he knew that he should – insistence that he needed to immediately begin distancing himself from Gilbert practically screaming at him from the back of his mind, the words ‘let me care about you’ and his own voice replying with ‘okay’ reverberating through him like a warning.

He’d been twitchy by the time he’d walked into Oscar’s class and spotting Gilbert had just made him twitchier. This… thing – this crush; Oz wasn’t sure how to handle it. He wanted to be close to Gilbert – talk to him, touch him maybe, just exist with him – and that desire was running itself ragged fighting against his instinctual need to not let anyone else near him, to not risk letting anyone else become important to him. Letting anyone else get hurt because of him.

In the end, Oz had to simply allow the matter to be placed into Oscar’s hands – both hoping he would and wouldn’t let the party to take place and glad that this specific decision, at least, wasn’t actually his to make.

Oscar, like Oz, also hadn’t been able to say no to Alice and Sharon and Gilbert never stood a chance.

And Oz – though still conflicted– allowed himself to suppose that maybe this, spending another outing with Gilbert, was fine. Because if Oscar was going to let the party take place and Alice wanted so badly for it to happen, there was really nothing he could do about it. And if there was nothing he could do about it, then being around Gilbert – for now, just for now – had to be fine.

It had to be.

Oz… wanted it to be.

And that was how Oz found himself in a store with Alice, watching with amusement as she ran up and down the Halloween aisles, grabbing candy and decorations to put up around Oscar’s living room. She finally slowed down to rip open a bag of gummi worms and Oz walked over to her, looking into the shopping cart. Aside from candy there were streamers, plastic pumpkins, statues of witches and ghosts, foam gravestones, a skeleton, and a piñata.

As Alice fought with the bag of gummi worms she said, “So what’s with the move anyway? I was so focused on the party I forgot to ask.”

Oz took a deep breath, letting it out as a sigh and leaned on the shopping cart, staring pointedly at its contents. He pressed his lips together, thinking of how best to explain, before settling on, “It just kind of worked out that way.” He shrugged. “It’s something Oscar and Zai decided.”

“Huh.” Alice, having won in her struggle against the gummi worm bag, popped one of the candies into her mouth. She then offered the bag to Oz, pulling it back to herself after he’d grabbed a handful. “I don’t really get it, but…,” another gummi worm met its end as she stared at Oz, considering, her eyebrows furrowed, “even if it wasn’t your decision, moving to Oscar’s might be better, right?”

“You think?” Oz asked, a spark of curiosity working its way through him.

Alice nodded, her face scrunching up in thought. “Yeah, Oscar’s apartment… feels better, I guess?” She reached around Oz, pushing the shopping cart’s baby seat down and dropping the bag of gummi worms onto it, then turned back to the shelves to continue her examination. “It’s like…” Alice curled one of her thin braids around her finger as she tried to figure out how to explain what she meant, “your old house never looked very lived in. Even your bedroom felt that way; it was weird. It made me a little uncomfortable whenever I came over.” She gave a faint shudder then snatched up a box of skull-shaped lights, tossing them into the cart with everything else. “But that’s not the only reason.” Once again facing him, Alice looked directly into Oz’s eyes as she said, “You look more comfortable at Oscar’s, too.”

Oz blinked, the question “I do?” escaping his mouth while he was still processing everything she’d said. He’d never realized that the atmosphere infecting his home – his old home – was so obvious and he certainly hadn’t realized that he’d ever been noticeably uncomfortable there around her. It made him wonder what else he might be unintentionally giving away.

Her expression rather serious, Alice replied with an emphatic, “Definitely.” She then broke into a smile and linked arms with Oz, jostling him out of his leaning position. “Anyway! I think I got everything we need, let’s go buy this stuff and get out of here. I’ve still got my curfew to beat.”

~ ~ ~

When asked, Gilbert’s mother hadn’t had an issue with him going to Oz’s on Halloween. If anything, she was happy to see him going out and doing things after school, assuring him that Vincent was old enough now to be left alone for a few hours – after all, it wasn’t like he’d burned the house down on Thursday.

Vincent was clearly less than pleased with the argument their mother posed, but he didn’t protest too much, relenting with a frown and a sulking expression while mumbling, “I suppose you look like you’re having more fun lately.”

The party was taking place a few hours after school. Oz had provided Gilbert, Sharon, and – after much cajoling of Alice – Xerxes with his new address and apartment number. Gilbert had been curious about the reason for the sudden move, but he wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing he should be bringing up in front of other people, so he’d let it go.

The apartment complex was right across the street from the school. It was a large building with balconies coming off of either side of it, some sporting a variety of plants – flowers, potted trees, and vines that dripped over the balconies’ edges. The call box near the front door had eight buttons. Gilbert pressed the one labeled ‘Vessalius’ and was buzzed inside.

After walking up four flights of stairs and triple checking the number on the door with the number on the slip of paper Oz had given him, Gilbert was let into the house by Oscar – who had his sleeves rolled up and was wearing an apron.

Gilbert was, apparently, the last to arrive. The door opened into a living room choked with streamers, fairy lights, and a few other types of decorations. A coffee table in the middle of the room held bowls piled high with candy. A television to Gilbert’s right was in the middle of playing a murder scene in a horror movie – assaulting him with the sight of blood and the sound of screams the second he walked into the room. Alice and Sharon were seated very close together on the couch directly across from the television, both of them watching the movie through the spaces between their fingers. Jack was seated on the cushion next to them and Xerxes and Reim – a friend of Xerxes’s that Gilbert was vaguely associated with – were taking up the only other couch in the room, Reim looking rather pale as the gruesome murder continued. Oz was leaning on the back of the couch they were using, his head resting on his arms.

Oscar smiled at Gilbert, clapping him on the back with a, “Come on in! I was just finishing up the food,” and Gilbert stumbled a few steps further into living room.

Oz’s eyes drifted from the television and landed on him in a double take.

“Oh! Hi Gil,” Oz called, waving at him.

Oscar took that opportunity to slip away and Gilbert waved back at Oz, the thrum of nervousness that surged through him at Oz's attention dulled by annoyance as Xerxes looked between the two of them and raised his eyebrows pointedly.

Xerxes's faces then split into a wide smile and he beckoned Gilbert over, saying, "Gil! You've finally arrived." He patted the cushion next to him. "Come, come. Come sit."

Gilbert hesitated, suspicious, but unless he planned on sitting on the floor there weren’t actually any other options. With a soft sigh, he removed his shoes and made his way over, noting as he passed Sharon and Alice that between them – almost hidden by their legs with how closely pressed together their bodies were – they were holding hands.

When he'd told Sharon, alone in her car after the outing to the arcade, what Oz had told him about his and Alice’s dating being nothing more than a rumor and that Alice was actually a lesbian, Sharon had taken it about as well as he'd expected. She'd promptly dissolved into flushed embarrassment at the implication that she was at all interested in possibly dating Alice, complete with the insistence that though she found Alice cute it didn't have to mean anything. Then, in what had to be a desperate attempt to escape that particular line of conversation, she'd turned the tables on Gilbert, bringing up Oz's status as single. As a whole, the ride to Gilbert's house had been very uncomfortable for both of them.

Seeing Sharon with Alice now, Gilbert wondered if she'd had a change of heart or a sudden bout of bravery or if, maybe, Alice, determined and confident as she seemed to be, had been the instigator of the hand holding. Regardless of how it'd happened, Gilbert couldn't deny the feelings of jealousy that sprouted up at the sight, the desire the hold Oz's hand whispering thorough his mind.

Gilbert sat down next to Xerxes, closer to him than he really wanted to be. He could practically feel Oz's eyes trained on the back of his head, a few of Oz's fingertips dangling just within his field of vision.

Gilbert wanted to look up at Oz, but Xerxes had begun to speak to him. "Gil, Reim. Reim, Gil.” Xerxes gestured from Gilbert to Reim as he gave the introductions, a sleeve nearly slapping Gilbert in the nose. “You two may have met before."

Reim, looking glad to seize any opportunity to look away from the television, reached across Xerxes to hold a hand out to Gilbert. "It's nice to meet you again."

Gilbert took the offered hand and shook it, feeling a bit awkward. "Ah, yeah, you too."

Their last meeting had been similar, Reim oddly businesslike and formal. It was a wonder someone like that was friends with someone like Xerxes.

Such a wonder, in fact, that Gilbert had actually asked Sharon about it. Shockingly, even she – practically a Xerxes expert – had admitted to not understanding why their friendship worked.

"Dinner's done if you kids want to come help yourselves." The words preceded Oscar as he came back into the living room, apron-less this time and drawing all eyes in the room towards him. His announcement was meet with a wave of movement from everyone present and the instant Oz had pushed himself off of the back of the couch, Xerxes leaned towards Gilbert, whispering, "I heard there's been a development with Oz. Good for you!"

Gilbert whipping his head in Oz's direction, making sure he hadn't heard. Oz appeared rather oblivious, a few steps away from the couch, stretching his arms up towards the ceiling and arching his back. Reassured, Gilbert's fear gave way to anger and he shot a glare at Xerxes, whispering, "Would you shut up about that already?"

"Xerxes? Are your coming?" This came from Reim. He was stopped near the coffee table, watching the two of them.

"Oh, yes, I am," Xerxes replied, standing and patting Gilbert on the head. He walked over to Reim, throwing an arm around his shoulders and began pulling him in the direction everyone else had gone.

Reim stared over his shoulder at Gilbert for a second more, asking, “What was that about?” He then looked directly at Xerxes, an unamused expression on his face. “You weren’t doing something bad to him, were you?”

Xerxes’s, “Of course not,” was all that was left of them as they walked out of the room.

~ ~ ~

Oz hadn’t exactly intended to end up in the living room alone with Gilbert. That being said, he certainly hadn’t made any attempts to leave before him and after sticking around for this long there really wasn’t much of a point in heading to the kitchen without him. Following that logic, Oz walked around the side of the couch and threw himself down onto the cushion next to Gilbert.

Gilbert jumped, letting out a loud gasp, one of his hands flying to his heart. “Oz!” he exclaimed.

Staring into his wide, startled eyes Oz couldn’t help but laugh, arms wrapped around his stomach and shoulder shaking from it.

“You- Don’t laugh!” Gilbert said, though a couple giggles were beginning to slip out of him as well. “You nearly gave me a heart attack; you can’t just drop down out of nowhere.”

Oz swiped at his eyes, his laughter beginning to die down. He looked over at Gilbert, a content smile stretched across his face. “Are you always that jumpy?”

If Oz’s laughter was infectious, Gilbert was certain that his smile – this honest smile, like the couple of others he’d seen before – was even more so. It sent a pleasant buzz through Gilbert’s body and he almost wanted to reach out and trace the curve of it with his fingertips.

Oz watched as Gilbert’s eyes went unfocused for a few moments before he roughly shook his head, the faint tint of a blush sweeping across his cheeks. “I- No. I’m-I’m not always quite that jumpy.” He gave a short, nervous laugh and reached up to tug at the curls at the nape of his neck. “Xerxes just knows how to get to me.”

“Oh.” Oz pulled his legs up onto the couch, crossing them, and leaned back. “He definitely seems… interesting.”

Gilbert blew out a long, exasperated breath. “That’s one way to describe him, I suppose.”

Oz peered at Gilbert. Agitation was clear in the twist of his mouth, its presence sending a spark of anxiety through Oz, but a quick assurance that is was directed at Xerxes and not him helped to alleviate most of it. Gilbert’s hand had also creeped a bit further up through the back of his hair causing parts of it to stick out wildly. It was undeniably cute and Oz wanted to reach out and smooth back into place.

Gilbert glanced up and for a moment their eyes locked. His then went fluttering about the room, before stopping abruptly – a thought seeming to occur to him – and dragging themselves right back to Oz. “By the way, this move was pretty sudden, wasn’t it?”

Oz could feel his smile slipping. “Yeah. Kind of.”

Gilbert’s hand dropped from his hair and he began playing with his fingers in his lap, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Since we’re alone right now, is it alright if I ask you something? About the move?”

Oz considered saying no, but ‘let me care about you’ began echoing in his head again and instead he found himself saying a resigned, “Sure, go ahead.”

“Is moving in with Oscar what you meant when you said your problem was being taken care of?”

Oz drew in a deep breath, letting his head fall back on the couch and staring up at the ceiling. He didn’t really want to go into a lot of detail here and wasn’t quite sure how to reply. Hesitantly, he said, “This was… part of it. Not all of it, but part of it.” He rolled his head over, his cheek pressing into the couch, to gauge Gilbert’s reaction.

Gilbert’s eyebrows were furrowed, but he was nodding, seeming to accept Oz’s explanation. “Ah, I thought so.”

Oz hummed, considering those words. ‘I thought so.’ First, it’d been the unrelenting suspicion about Oz’s home life and now Gilbert was figuring out the aftermath of it as if it was easy. It was like, if he tried hard enough and wanted to, Gilbert could pick Oz apart and determine every last detail of his life.

“You sure are good at noticing stuff like that, huh,” Oz murmured, pushing at Gilbert’s shoulder – an attempt at lightening the mood. Unbidden, the conversation he’d had with Alice last night came to mind, dragging a faint, “Unless…” from his lips.

Unless…

Unless it was obvious. So obvious that an essential stranger could pick up on it all.

And if it was that obvious… did anyone else know? Did everyone know? Was that all it took, just one look at him, one quick word with him, and his relationship with Zai would be flashing across his forehead like a neon sign?

Oz’s fingertips felt cold.

“Oz? Oz, are you okay?” A hand brushed his arm and Oz jolted. His head shot up, his nose nearly brushing Gilbert’s. And Gilbert was- he was close. Very close. The fingers on Oz’s arms squeezed slightly and in his periphery he thought he could see Gilbert’s other hand hovering near face. Oz was effectively captured by Gilbert’s eyes and the feeling of Gilbert’s breath tickling his skin. His heart was pounding, but at the same time something about this – Gilbert’s closeness, the warm concern in his eyes, the hand on his arm – was calming. It swept away his spiraling thoughts – a distraction, for the moment at least – and allowed him to breathe.

Until, of course, Gilbert wrenched himself away from Oz with a litany of apologize falling from his lips.

Oz laughed softly, shaking his head. “Don’t worry about it Gil.” There was a moment of silence, Gilbert watching Oz like a deer in headlights, before Oz stood up, saying, “Well, we should probably get to the kitchen before they eat everything.” Oz reached a hand out towards Gilbert. Gilbert eyed it warily before tentatively grasping it with one of his own and Oz heaved him up onto his feet.

Gilbert didn’t let go of Oz’s hand as they walked towards the kitchen.

Oz was glad to have a reason to keep holding on.

After they had all eaten everyone returned to the living room. Xerxes was relegated to the floor, sitting between Reim’s legs and Oz took his spot beside Gilbert on the couch. The main lights were shut off, the only things brightening the room being the dim skull-shaped fairy lights and the horror movies Alice had picked out. In the dark, Oz let himself to lean closer towards Gilbert than what was strictly necessary. He let their hands touch and their fingers interlock and, for the few hours he had left of this little party, he tried not to think about things he shouldn’t let himself have.