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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’m 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 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.