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Winter, an Everlasting Witness of Change

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"At last! Freedom!"

That thought was accompanied by a wide grin as Oz picked up his pace, too happy to care about the 'no running in the hallway' rule (not that he ever really cared about it in the first place, much to Mrs. Kate's utter displeasure). He had been skipping many lessons lately, so the infuriated governess thought enough was enough and reported the young heir's behaviour to his Uncle. Now, Oz knew that his Uncle wouldn't actually punish him or anything, but he also knew better than to disobey any of his orders when he actually did become strict enough to issue them. And his order had been for Oz to make up for every single one of the missed lessons that Mrs. Kate could recall...

…which was, unfortunately, a lot.

So, he now had an extra hour of lessons every day. And goodness, Oz simply couldn't put into words how boring it was. Yet somehow he managed to persevere, because every cloud had a silver lining and in this case, it was Gilbert. The young servant boy took it upon himself to finish off as many of his evening duties as he could during that one hour simply so that he was free for Oz, who would be even more restless for mischief than usual and would thus spend the rest of the day doing whatever he wished as per his Uncle's permission – with Gilbert by his side, of course.

And that was why Oz was currently dashing down the hall, eager to get started with his free time with Gil as soon as possible. On the way to his bedroom, however, was his Uncle's study, so Oz instinctively reduced his pace from a jog to a brisk walk when he neared it, wary of getting caught. But as Oz actually crossed it, he heard the unmistakable sound of Gilbert's voice and came to a complete halt just outside the door.

"I-I'm not sure yet, to be honest..."

"Why is Gil with Uncle Oscar?" was the first thought that came to mind, followed by, "And what're they talking about, I wonder?" As it was highly unusual for his valet to see his Uncle, Oz quietly leaned closer to the door that was slightly ajar to listen better, being mindful to stay out of the way of the gap.

"Worry not. I can take you to town later and you can have a look around. As for now, I'll see what I can do for you. It's best if you start with something simple, and something that you're used to."

"...What?"

"Like what?"

"Hmm... Now that I think about it, you've never really done any specialised work. Oh, perhaps you could be Ada's valet too?"

"WHAT?!"

"U-um... Th-that's a bit..."

Gilbert's timid voice was instantly drowned out by Uncle Oscar's amused chuckle. "I was just joking. Tell you what; I'll discuss this matter with Mrs. Kate. She'll be the best person to find something for you to do."

"Wha... What's going on here...?"

"Alright."

"Oh, Oz should be done with his classes by now. He's probably looking for you."

At the mention of his name, Oz subconsciously held his breath and took a step back from the door, but didn't leave just yet.

"...Will this really work, Oscar-sama?"

"Hm?"

"I mean... Will I... Will Oz...?"

"Will I what?"

"I don't see why he won't. And don't worry, it's a good thing you came to me in time."

"Oscar-sama, I... I don't want to tell Oz about this... Not yet at least. I hope you understand..."

"Gil, you..."

"Don't worry, Gilbert. I'll keep it from him. But I'm sure I don't need to warn you; he's a sharp boy. It won't be surprising if he notices."

"Uncle, you too...?"

"...There's nothing I can do about that except deal with it when it happens..."

"Gil..."

And at that point Oz could take no more.

One step at a time, he slowly inched away from the door with a look of pure disbelief as the implications of all that he had heard slowly sank in.

"No... It can't be..."

Clenching his trembling hands into tight fists, Oz turned away from the door and slowly continued making his way back to his room.

"It can't be..."

The thought spiralled around in his mind over and over again causing Oz's anxiety to grow and along with it, his pace. It wasn't long until he was practically sprinting down the hallway, desperate for the privacy of his room where there was no danger of anyone seeing his unusually distressed state.

"It can't be!"

With his heart hammering in his chest from both shock and exhaustion, Oz made a beeline for his bed and collapsed onto his back. He simply laid there with his arm over his eyes, taking time to regain his breath as his mind replayed the conversation between his Uncle and Gil again and again, not fully believing what he had just heard.

From what he could tell, it sounded almost as though... As though they were discussing finding a new job for Gilbert.

And that was simply unbelievable. Unthinkable.

It had greatly horrified Oz, he recalled, when his Uncle had suggested Gil to become Ada's valet. Did she even need one?! And anyway, Mrs. Kate generally tended to all his sister's needs. But then an even scarier though followed soon after. His Uncle had mentioned something about going to town... If they were indeed talking about getting a new job for Gil, did that mean that it didn't have to be limited to within this mansion? Any job was fine...?

That was impossible... right?

Because Gil was useless! He couldn't possibly get another job, and in town of all the places.

That's right, he was utterly useless... The only thing he was good at was serving Oz... Being by his side... Being his friend...

"Gil..."

...Just being here was enough. Just being by Oz's side was enough. It was a job only he could do. It was a place that no one but Gil could take...

But... Did Gil not want that? It certainly seemed that way after that conversation. But Oz had honestly never seen it coming. Gil always acted so content by his side. So happy. Whenever his servant would openly profess his gratitude and contentment towards Oz during the rare moments when he would abandon all reservations, the latter always believed – truly believed – that Gil really meant all that he said after seeing those genuine smiles that would always follow such declarations.

Yet earlier he had asked his Uncle not to tell Oz about all that they had talked about. Why? Why on earth would he-?

...Oh...

Could it be that this whole time – right now even – Gilbert was simply...

Being polite?

After all, Gil had technically been forced into working for Oz. It was true that the little raven-haired boy didn't really have a choice that time, nor did Oz have much of a say in the matter either; he had been too young to make decisions like that. But surely no one in the world was glad with serving another individual, right?

So perhaps Gilbert had simply kept quiet about it all this time. It was an undeniable fact that the boy was awfully shy and a bit self-conscious, so he would never speak his mind out unless asked (or rather, forced) to. Therefore, admitting something like dissatisfaction with being a servant, even if asked, was completely out of the question.

When Oz thought about it like that, it made sense if his servant wanted to move on. No one could stay quiet forever, after all, so perhaps Gil had privately approached Uncle Oscar about it to avoid hurting his master's feelings. Gilbert had done more than enough services over the past four years or so to thank the Vessaliuses for saving him, and that was a long time. It made sense if Gilbert was sick of him by now...

"...Why am I getting so worked up over it anyway...?"

Oz had always steeled himself against things like attachment. After his father had openly rejected him, it became a skill that he heavily depended on for survival in this ever-changing world where people came and went. Even Gilbert was no exception... Oz would admit that yes, he had grown very fond, and perhaps too attached to his loyal servant, but he had always kept his last line of defence standing.

And that was indifference to the boy's loyalty.

Gilbert never, ever hesitated to speak his heart out once he gained the courage to do so. But not once had Oz properly told Gilbert just how glad he was to have met him, how grateful he was for having such a loyal servant and caring friend enter his life, how much his presence had brightened his otherwise blank life, or even...

' It's true that we can't know what tomorrow may bring. But, Young Master, whatever may happen, I will always be by your side. I know of the darkness that you carry. And you know of the weakness I carry. We're not connected by a part of Light, but by a part of Darkness. That's why, no matter how much time may pass, even if our circumstances were to change, I shall remain as your loyal servant forever.'

' I... don't believe in "forever".'

' Right, I know that. But... It's alright to have at least one of those, don't you think?'

...Or even the fact that he had actually put some faith in that forever.

...Was it all a lie...?

' Well, one's peaceful everyday life can be easily broken, right? That's why, whatever may happen, whoever may betray me, I'll accept it. That's all there is to it.'

Oz couldn't help but smile sardonically when he recalled those words he said that day. That scenario was practically happening right now, and his faith should have shattered by now.

Yet... Why? Why wasn't it happening? Why could he not bring himself to accept all this when he should have been able to?

...The answer was that he knew exactly why. But he simply didn't want to acknowledge it... And he had never expected something like this from Gil to begin with. He could never picture a day when his servant simply wasn't there. At some point, it became unimaginable. Unthinkable.

All of a sudden there was a hesitant knock on the door that dragged Oz out of his thoughts, followed by a timid, "It's me, Young Master. May I come in?"

Great. Just the person who he wanted and didn't want to see the most right now. Well, it's not like Oz could actually say no. Firstly, he could never really bring himself to say no simply because it was Gil. And secondly, it would be far too suspicious – considering the earlier development – if he did.

There would be time to ponder later. For now, just act natural.

He propped himself up with both arms stretched out behind him, palms flat against the mattress while shifting his legs to hang over the edge of the bed. "Come in~!" called Oz with a cheery lilt present in his voice.

Just put on your mask.

Gilbert entered the room looking clearly apprehensive, and somehow Oz was able to understand why even before he said what he did next.

"I went to the study by Mrs. Kate said you already left..."

"Ah, that's right! I came straight here thinking you'd be here as well, but when you weren't I knew you'd find me anyway, so I thought I'd laze around a bit~"

That instantaneous lie had been so perfect in its delivery that Gilbert visibly relaxed while sighing, before looking up suddenly and asking, "Are you tired, Young Master? Shall I prepare some tea for you?"

Oz shook his head and beamed. "No, not tired. And you can prepare tea later, it's finally free time!"

Gilbert smiled warmly upon seeing his treasured master so cheery. Admittedly, he himself was in a fairly good mood after the positive outcome from a conversation he had with Uncle Oscar earlier... Not that Oz would know, though.

"Indeed it is. Shall we play a game then, Young Master?"

He knew very well that games generally never went well for him since it always somehow ended with him becoming subject to Oz's sadistic tricks and teasing. But after that conversation, this strange rush of warmth and excitement at the thought of what he would eventually do had to be expended somehow, so Gilbert decided to channel that energy into spending time with the one person who he was doing it all for.

Earlier Oz's thoughts couldn't have been more desolate. When he heard his servant knock, he wondered if he would really be able to keep his mask in place during the whole time they'd be together. Yet just now, when Gilbert had smiled like that, it was as though the conversation was already long forgotten and Oz's own smile began to feel more real as he began to conjure ideas of how they should spend their free time. But when Oz was about to excitedly ask his servant what they should play, a though suddenly occurred to him, shattering his momentary bliss.

"Why would Gil decide to leave?"

Was it because Oz was simply too much to handle? Was Gil sick of getting dragged around into Oz's games?

Oz's smile dropped by a fraction and he averted his gaze. "...Actually, let's not."

Gilbert blinked. "Eh?"

And then he gaped. "...EEEH?!"

Oz? Not up for a game?

Absolutely unheard of.

"M-Master, what's wrong?" asked Gilbert, his voice dripping with worry. "Are you sure you're not tired? Or are you unwell, perhaps?"

Before the blonde could even respond, Gilbert was already by Oz's bed in three swift strides. He leaned over, balancing himself with his right knee on the mattress beside Oz's thigh and his left hand next to his hip, before pressing his right hand across his master's forehead. It was only then when Oz registered the other's proximity and his eyes widened in alarm. Yet Gilbert did not move, far too focused on checking Oz's temperature to notice.

"...Just a bit warm..." mumbled Gilbert, before removing his hand. "But not enough to be a fever. Still, you do look a bit pale, Young Master," he commented, gazing down at Oz with concern in his eyes.

Oz then focused on what exactly he had just said and panicked for a moment, realising that it was indeed quite strange of him to deny a game when he was always the one insisting for them.

"A-ah, yeah... Actually, I am a bit tired now that I think about it. But I'm fine, really! Just... just tired. Looks like those extra lessons are finally taking their toll on me!" explained Oz with a forced laugh. He knew that he was pretty much contradicting himself now but he had no choice but to hope that Gilbert would overlook it as Oz not thinking straight from exhaustion. "You know what, I think I'm going to take a nap," he quickly added. Then he made to sit up fully, but upon realising that Gilbert was still hovering above him, he couldn't stop the faint blush that dusted his cheeks.

Oz cleared his throat shyly. "U-um..."

For a moment Gilbert stared at Oz, who was looking up at him expectantly. And then it hit him.

He recoiled back with a cry of surprise and began spluttering apologies, bowing his head to hide his burning red face from sight. It didn't really help much though; Oz could still see it and that, in turn, simply made his own facial complexion darken even more when he realised that Gil had probably been thinking the same implications as him.

"I-it's alright, really," said Oz as he stood up, and after taking a moment to recompose himself, he gently ushered Gilbert towards the door with a smile. "Anyway, don't just go sit in some corner of the library and stare at clouds to pass time. You're free to do anything you want while I sleep, okay?"

"O-okay..." answered the slightly perplexed servant as he allowed Oz to guide him to the door, before opening it himself. Then he turned back to Oz who was beaming at him as usual. Gilbert regarded him for a moment, before releasing a soft sigh.

"Rest well, Young Master," said Gilbert at last, returning Oz's smile with his own, smaller one.

And with that he quietly closed the door behind him, immediately after which Oz's smile faltered. But it did not drop just yet.

He stayed at the door and listened because it seemed as though Gilbert was still there. But after a minute or so Oz finally heard the sound of receding footsteps, which was when he allowed his smile to drop with a sigh, and made to lie down on his bed again.

Oz had stressed on the 'anything' earlier so that his servant shouldn't feel restricted in any way. But there was one important thing he wished he could've added.

"But... Please don't leave me while I'm not looking."

~ ...Three Days Later... ~

Gilbert, Oz and Uncle Oscar were currently in a cosy little cafe in town, enjoying a light lunch. Earlier that morning, Oscar had surprised the boys by announcing that he would be taking them out to town as a treat. His given reason was simply because even he got bored of being in the mansion all the time, and he was free today anyway. Yet all three of them knew there was far more to it than that.

Oscar was actually fulfilling his promise to Gilbert from three days ago, and the latter was well aware of it. But when he wondered why they were bringing Oz along, Oscar explained that yes, there was the disadvantage that Gilbert couldn't openly consult him for any ideas nor could he be too obvious with his search, but it would look awfully strange if they had left Oz behind and since being sneaky would only make matters more complicated if they were caught, it was best to take Oz with them. Besides, he really did wish for his nephew to have a breather as he was always cooped up at home. Gilbert had instantly felt great shame for even thinking that they could leave his master behind after hearing that, and said no more.

Oz, on his part, had obviously figured out the real reason for this trip to town after overhearing his Uncle's promise to Gil, and he was aware that they brought him with them so as to not make him feel left out. But little did he know of Oscar's true intent and Gil's real motives...

The young Vessalius heir never got many chances to leave the mansion, so whenever he did he always made sure to enjoy himself to the fullest. But this time, no matter how much he tried to, he couldn't shake off the constant feeling of dread. That conversation had been haunting him day and night, though he expertly hid any signs of it. He did his level best to ignore it, yet the thoughts crept into his mind regardless making him feel as though the more he pondered over it, the closer he was coming to acknowledging a startling realisation that he so desperately wanted to avoid out of fear that it would tear down his final line of defence.

"Is something wrong, Young Master?"

Oz snapped out of his thoughts and looked up at Gil. "Hm?"

"That's right; you've been awfully quiet this whole time. Did you not feel like going today?" queried his Uncle.

Oz mentally cursed himself for forgetting to act natural, so, with an automatic smile he said, "No, I'm really glad to be here, Uncle; thank you for taking us out today. I was simply thinking about where we should go next."

So far they had simply roamed various different types of shops for a bit, yet they had not bought anything. Oz scanned all the surrounding shops from his seat by the cafe's window until one in particular caught his attention.

"Let's go to the bookstore!" suggested Oz, turning to his Uncle and Gil. "I want to see if they have any new titles."

"That's a great idea, Young Master!"

"Alright, it's settled then. Finish your food while I go pay the bill, boys."

Gilbert and Oz did as they were told, after which the trio left the cafe and headed for the bookshop that Oz had spotted a few shops down across the street.

Ding!

"Welcome!"

Oz closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose before exhaling with a smile of satisfaction. There was a certain charm about bookstores that never failed to draw him in. The dim lighting, combined with the rows and rows of bookshelves, some of which were lined with antique leather-covered books that gave the shop a soft feel due to their warm brown hues, the mysterious scent of aged books, and the feeling of opening the cover, turning the crisp pages and simply discovering a new world... He loved it.

The young Vessalius heir automatically grabbed his servant's hand and dragged him through each and every aisle, showing him all sorts of different titles excitedly. Oz asked Gil for his opinion on each one after they scanned its summary, teased him with the more romantic ones and even snuck a peak at the more adult section of the store (much to Gil's utter embarrassment) when Oscar was busy elsewhere.

At some point the boys split up when Oz suggested they take the time to choose some books at their own pace. This went on for some time, but eventually Oz was satisfied with his finds and was about to move onto another section of the store when he spotted Gilbert and his Uncle talking in hushed tones, making him stop in his tracks. The sight stung a bit not only because of what happened three days ago, but because of the thought that followed.

"Does Gil want to work here...?"

He couldn't actually be thinking to do so, could he? That... that was insane! Yet, at the same time, it did seem highly possible... This was a big bookstore, but the only one managing it was the elderly store owner. Having a young, helping hand around the store wasn't really a bad thing. Plus, it would be kind of fun to watch – Oz thought with a smile – seeing little Gilbert in an apron to keep his clothes dust-free, timidly greeting the customers or scurrying around the store to fetch a book, and maybe he'd trip over a box or lose his footing on a ladder, but Oz would be there, ready to catch-

Oz's smile dropped.

No... He wouldn't be there.

He really hoped that his Uncle would let him leave the mansion more often if it ever came down to it.

That is, if Gilbert even wanted to see him.

Oz continued with his search and eventually the three of them regrouped at the store's entrance, after which they left once their purchases were paid for. Next they came across a fancy clothes shop which Oz did not hesitate to enter and dress his servant up in over-sized coats and silly hats, seeming to have forgotten about his earlier worries. This time they didn't buy anything and after leaving the shop they stopped by a nearby park for a break, which didn't last long for the boys because Oz insisted that Gilbert play tag with him while Uncle Oscar was engrossed in his new book.

Almost an hour later said Uncle finally looked up to see his nephew and his servant sitting back-to-back on the grass with flushed faces and bright grins of humour, breathing heavily as they tried to regain their breath. That was when, with a fond smile, he suggested they have some tea before heading back.

On their way home, conversation was scarce but the silence was content. The day had truly been a good one despite Oz's previous gloomy mood, but once they neared the mansion he was reminded of it again. At that point he vaguely noticed how he always seemed to forget his worries whenever he was around Gil, which only served to taint his otherwise fairly good mood. Apart from that little scene in the bookshop, Uncle Oscar and Gil hadn't acted in any strange way for the rest of the day. Though... now that Oz thought about it, there had been one instance where Gil suddenly stopped in front of a small store selling antique trinkets and ornaments when they were about to leave the town square. He gazed at all the display pieces for a long time, but when asked about it, his simply shook his head and insisted they continued.

Strange...

When they returned home, Gilbert and Uncle Oscar continued to act normal. They had dinner, and then Gilbert served Oz tea in his bedroom before helping his master get ready for bed. All seemed unusually well, Oz thought as he was about to doze off, but then he heard the very faint creak of a door which, in the silence of the night, sent a jolt through his mind, awakening him in an instant.

He sat up and quietly approached his door to listen carefully for any footsteps, which there were. So, Oz waited for them to recede before slipping out of his own room and following, knowing with a sinking feeling, just who it was and where they were going.

As predicted, he ended up outside his Uncle's study.

"Hm? Is that you Gilbert? What's wrong?"

"U-um, I'm very sorry for bothering you at this hour but I just wanted to thank you for today since I didn't really get the chance to."

"No problem, no problem! So, did you find anything?"

Oz stiffened.

"Well... T-to be honest I'm still a bit confused, but at least now I have some idea."

"I see... Oh, I just remembered. I think this will help you with your problem too."

"What?"

"Mrs. Kate has found some things you can do."

"Mrs. Kate... How could you?!"

"Really?"

"Yes. And one of them was helping restock the mansion's pantry. Usually, at the end of the week, two servants are sent to town to do this. There's generally a rotation so that it's not always the same two, but we can make you an exception if you'd like. It's a simple task, plus you can have a more thorough look around in town while you're at it. It's killing two birds with one stone, don't you think?"

"It's exactly as you say, Oscar-sama. So please allow me to do this task!"

"Not a problem. I'll inform Mrs. Kate. She'll also fill you in on the other tasks as well. Individually they're not a lot since you have to serve Oz as well, but considering you have to do that as well, it should all work out."

"I understand. Thank you very much, Oscar-sama!"

"And Gilbert?"

"Yes?"

"...Are you sure you want to go through all this? You really don't have to, you know. I don't want you to be overburdened."

"I know it will be difficult, but... Regardless, I still wish to. It's like I said last time."

"Your determination is admirable as always, Gilbert... Alright, if that is what you wish, I won't try to stop you again."

At that point Oz realised that the conversation had come to an end, so swiftly but silently, he went back to his room. As he lay there alone with his thoughts like last time, he contemplated over what he heard. From what he could tell, Gilbert still wasn't sure about outside work, which was good. Oz still wasn't happy about how his servant was going to be busier from now on, but at the very least Gil would still be in the mansion, and that was better than not being there at all.

But it was probably temporary. His Uncle had given Gil a route to town, which probably meant that his ultimate goal was to leave this place.

The question was... Would Oz let him?

Would he able to let Gilbert go, if the time came?

...He didn't know.

~ ...One Month Later... ~

Gilbert was currently out on his regular supply-stocking trip to town, waiting for his partner who was currently at the butchers'. This part of the trip always took the longest, not that he minded because it gave him the opportunity to roam around a bit and ponder. Over the past month he had received quite a lot of tasks and although balancing them and his valet duties became tiring at times, Gilbert wouldn't complain. After all, he was doing all this for his precious master and best friend.

Oz's birthday was only two weeks away and this year, Gilbert had resolved to buy him a present. During the four years that he had been with Oz, the only thing that Gilbert ever had to offer on that special day was his presence and services. Oz always claimed that just spending time with the people he cared about was more than enough which was the most beautiful statement he had ever heard, but it was also a painful one... because there was always one person whom he could never spend time with.

Gilbert had come to notice something over the years. At first it was merely an observation but it gained significance when Uncle Oscar had verified it one day. That observation was that Oz seemed to become more subdued once December arrived. The reason, which Gilbert eventually learned, was because his father would never come home for the holidays – and for Oz's birthday. Due to that Oz would simply lose the spirit of celebration altogether. He would shy away from attention, thinking that he was a bother. He would always say it was alright with a smile when no news of his father's arrival came, when the truth was that he was actually hurting on the inside. And he would always silently blame it all on himself, thinking that he wasn't worth receiving affection.

But he was wrong. So very wrong. And Gilbert was always doing his level best to make Oz realise that fact through whatever means he could.

Then some time ago, before their trip one month ago even, Oscar had taken Gilbert and Oz to town; something he would often do to let his nephew enjoy a change of environment whenever he was free from his duties as a Duke. It was then when Gilbert was inspired with the idea to buy Oz a present. But there was only one problem...

Because of his circumstances, Gilbert did not get paid for being a servant. He didn't mind the slightest, because it's not as though he should have. He had no parents, and his home was right here with the Vessaliuses. That alone was a great blessing, but he even had the great honour of being Oz's personal valet and best friend. Nothing could and would ever outweigh that.

Yet... After seeing the item that caught his eye that day, the idea just wouldn't leave him alone. And that was when he decided to consult Uncle Oscar one night.

"...And that's why I've come to you, Oscar-sama."

Uncle Oscar set down his cup of tea and leaned back on his chair. "Hmm, I understand. Not a problem! Just tell me what you would like to buy and I'll have it arranged."

"N-no! That's... That's not what I meant..."

"Oh?"

"I... I couldn't possibly ask for such a favour! B-but..." Gilbert averted his gaze, unsure of what to say next. Indeed, it was wrong for him to accept such a thing. But at the same time... At some point he had realised what other alternative he had, but he couldn't bring himself to suggest it, afraid of Uncle Oscar's reaction.

Oscar regarded the young servant for a while until realisation hit him, making him smile in amusement. "...Aah, I see~ So, our little Gilbert has finally grown up and wants to be paid, eh? Oh, I never thought I'd see the day."

Gilbert's head snapped back up towards the elder man in panic. "Th-that's not-!"

"Relax! I was simply teasing. But if it's an alternative you're looking for, that's the one."

"U-um, please don't get me wrong, I don't mean for this to be permanent at all. Only until Oz's birthday..."

"Don't worry, Gilbert. I understand."

The young servant released a relieved sigh. "Thank you, Oscar-sama."

"But you know; I really am quite surprised. Your dedication towards Oz is truly admirable, and I'm proud of how you're choosing to tackle this problem... But there really is no need to push yourself. It's not as big of an issue for me as you might be thinking it is."

"I am grateful for your concern, but... This is the first time I've ever done anything like this. I just... I don't really know how to explain it but I feel like I need to do it on my own. I want to earn the right to be able to give my master something I'd like him to treasure from me from my own hands, not have that right handed to me... Just like how I earn the right to be by his side, by serving him."

"But don't you think you've already earned that right a long time ago after all these years you've been in service to him?"

"...Serving Oz is part of the debt I owe to the Vessalius family for taking me in, Oscar-sama. That is why I will not rely on my past services, because these two cases are different. What I wish to do is a personal desire, not duty. Therefore, I have no right to mix them up."

Oscar picked up his teacup once more and inspected it with a distant look in his eyes. "...You truly have grown since then, haven't you? To understand the value of honest effort at this age is not something common. Oz is truly lucky to have a friend like you..."

"N-not at all..." started Gilbert, feeling his face warm up slightly. "If anything, I feel as though I'm the lucky one to have been taken in by such a wonderful family and allowed to serve such a kind master."

The Vessalius Duke, who had been watching the young boy from the corner of his eye, smiled warmly at him before taking a long sip of his tea.

"So, what have you decided to get him?" he asked, after putting his cup down.

"I-I'm not sure yet, to be honest..." replied Gilbert, quickly looking away.

"Worry not. I can take you to town later and you can have a look around. As for now, I'll see what I can do for you. It's best if you start with something simple, and something that you're used to."

"Like what?"

"Hmm... Now that I think about it, you've never really done any specialised work. Oh, perhaps you could be Ada's servant too?"

"U-um... Th-that's a bit..." trailed Gilbert who was unsure of what to say in response to such a proposal. After all, his Master was already quite notoriously sadistic. Could his heart handle if little Miss Ada turned out to be that way too? He already had his doubts from the way she behaved when he and Oz were forced to attend her pretend tea-parties...

Oscar's chuckled in amusement. "I was just joking. Tell you what; I'll discuss this matter with Mrs. Kate. She'll be the best person to find something for you to do."

"Alright."

"Oh, Oz should be done with his classes by now," remembered Oscar all of a sudden when he caught a glimpse of the time. "He's probably looking for you."

"...Will this really work, Oscar-sama?"

"Hm?"

"I mean... Will I... Will Oz...?"

Again, Gilbert was unable to voice out his thoughts. Would he really be able to do this? And more importantly, would Oz be happy...?

The unspoken questions did not go missed by Oscar, who answered with, "I don't see why he won't. And don't worry, it's a good thing you came to me in time."

"Oscar-sama, I... I don't want to tell Oz about this... Not yet at least. I hope you understand..."

"Don't worry, Gilbert. I'll keep it from him. But I'm sure I don't need to warn you; he's a sharp boy. It won't be surprising if he notices."

Indeed, Oz would eventually notice how much busier Gilbert would become... But it couldn't be helped. Gilbert would manage somehow; his number one priority was serving Oz, after all.

"...There's nothing I can do about that except deal with it when it happens..."

And so, Gilbert had been assigned more responsibilities since then. All was going well, and it had been one month since then. But Gilbert had come and gone through town several times yet he still hadn't found the perfect gift.

Well... Actually, that statement was a bit untrue. To say that he hadn't found the perfect gift was a lie, because in truth he already had chosen something a long time ago. In fact, he was staring at it right now.

He was currently standing outside a small store that sold antique trinkets and ornaments. From what he could tell, the only person managing it was an elderly man. That day well over a month ago when Oscar had taken Oz and Gilbert out to town, the latter had spotted something displayed in the shop window that instantly caught his eye.

It was a beautiful, circular bronze locket. On its front was a big flower with five petals of the top left-hand side, and a smaller flower with four petals overlapping it on the bottom right hand side. A small azure crystal was embedded in the centre of the bigger flower while in the smaller one's centre was an emerald crystal, which instantly reminded him of his master due to the striking resemblance it held with Oz's eyes. Finally, behind the two large flowers were intricate embossments of vines and small flowers that seemed to resemble tulips from their three petals.

The moment he had seen it, Gilbert knew right away that he wanted to give it to Oz. The warm feeling that blossomed in his chest when he pictured Oz, proudly wearing the little locket that would probably contain a picture of him was so strong that he had almost entered the store right there and then to inquire on its price. But then pessimism hit him like a brick.

Why would Oz like a locket, especially one from his servant? A locket was more of a feminine item to wear, and if Gilbert of all people gave him one, it might give the wrong impression. The last thing he wanted to do was offend his master. And when on earth did he get conceited enough to think that Oz would want to carry around a picture of him? People normally carried pictures of their loved ones, so he would most likely carry a picture of a person like Ada. Or one day it might even be the woman he would come to love...

That thought made his insides twist almost painfully, and his chest felt cold and hollow.

Immediately focusing his mind on something else, Gilbert found himself gazing at the same locket now. Every time he went to town he would pass by this shop, and every time he would stop and stare. So far, the locket had remained perched on its little maroon velvet cushion this whole time, and Gilbert honestly didn't know whether to feel relieved that it was still there or sorry at the fact that no one deemed it worthy to be purchased. For the umpteenth time he felt tempted to enter the shop and qualm his contradictory feelings once and for all, but just as quickly as the urge came, he managed to suppress it.

He really didn't know what else to get for Oz. The boy didn't really have any specific interest in anything. Yes, he liked books, but he had plenty of those. He enjoyed music but the only instrument he could play was the violin, which he already had. He was also a little too old for toys, and that just left articles of clothing, which Oz had plenty of. Gifts from other noble families were usually things of absolutely no use to a young boy, and if Oz needed anything else, he could get it on a whim...

"All I need is you by my side, Gil~!"

That's what his master would always say... And maybe there was some truth in his words. Oz didn't care about the materialistic. He didn't need or want anything else.

And yet...

There was indeed one thing his master wanted. Something he needed. Something intangible and something no one and everyone had provided to him all this time.

Love.

But Oz had never realised it. He was always loved, and always will be. By Ada, by Oscar...

By Gilbert.

And that's why Gilbert was so intent on that locket. It wasn't to fulfil a tangible desire, but to serve as the symbol of a promise.

No matter how much he tried to hide it, no matter how well he could hide it, Gilbert knew how fragile Oz was when it came to things like love and affection. He yearned for it at every degree, but at the same time he feared it.

All because of that contemptible man... That man had shattered Oz, his confidence, and his hope.

But Gilbert wanted to change that. It would take time, but he wanted to see the day when his master would be able to accept loving and being loved again. That locket would mark that day; the day when Oz could fill it with the picture of the one whom he wanted to keep the closest to his heart.

"Gilbert! I'm done. Let's head back."

The voice of the servant he was accompanying dragged him out of his thoughts, so with one final glance at the locket, Gilbert approached him and together they silently left for the Vessalius Mansion.

"Come to think of it... Hasn't Young Master Oz been acting a bit strange lately? It's almost as though... as though he's distancing himself."

Gilbert had noticed a few things that seemed rather off about Oz for some time now, but it was only now that he was actually thinking about it. Oz always had this strange look in his eyes whenever Gilbert was around that the latter could never fully identify. It... It seemed like... tiredness, maybe? And he seemed less energetic too. Before, Oz would always drag his servant around from one game to another without a care in the world for the freezing weather, but lately, that wasn't the case. Now, they played very little and spent most of their time indoors. Sometimes they would talk, other times they would read, but usually Oz would just stare nonchalantly out the window while Gilbert simply remained by his side, just as silent as his master. Those days usually ended with Oz even dismissing his servant, allowing the boy to do whatever he pleased, stating that he wanted some rest as his extra lessons were quite tiresome.

Now, Gilbert was a tiny bit relieved for this extra time as it let him tend to his other responsibilities. Oz was aware that his servant was busier than usual and had even questioned him about it once. But Gilbert had been ready for it and answered that as the holiday season was coming up, many servants had requested a leave to spend that time with family and friends. However, there was also much to do in the mansion, especially with the Christmas Ball that the Vessalius family would be hosting coming up, so Gilbert had been asked to assist as well. Naturally as a servant, he couldn't decline. Oz, convinced by the logic in this explanation, never questioned him again after that.

So, yes, Oz was probably dismissing his servant because he was aware of all that and didn't want to exhaust him. But... Gilbert was still worried. Did Oz truly believe that his friend had no time for him? Did he really not have faith that his servant would be able to carry out his number one duty to its fullest? Because he could. Gilbert's first priority was still his master no matter what after all, and that was a well established fact...

Something was wrong with Oz and Gilbert didn't know what. The only possible explanation he could think of was that Oz had slipped into the depression phase that always plagued him at this time of the year. But every year, Oscar, Ada, Gilbert, and even Mrs. Kate were able to bring a smile to his Young Master's face despite that.

So, this year... This year would be no different, no matter how depressed Oz felt.

Chapter Text

~ ...24th December... ~

Christmas Eve. An occasion during which time was spent with friends and family while engaging in fun yet relaxing tasks that all could participate in.

Now, if only the same could have been said about the Vessalius Household.

The day had been, to sum it all up in one word, hectic. Frantic last-minute preparations were being made for the Christmas Ball that was being held tomorrow. Mrs. Kate had been in her element, giving out a barrage of stern orders to the servants with an equally stern look on her face that deterred any oncoming complaints or arguments on the tongue of the one who wished to express them. They really had been shorter on hands than expected so there was not a minute to lose. No one had been spared, not even young Gilbert.

Said boy was currently making a beeline for his bed, after which he collapsed onto it face-first with a weary groan. They had just managed to make it in time; the preparations were all ready. All that was left to do was have a nice, long, well-deserved good night's rest that would revitalise them for the coming party, not that Gilbert was looking forward to it. He usually wasn't supposed to be involved during social events like these but again, it came down to the fact that these were exceptional circumstances. Besides, it was his duty to-

Gilbert's eyes widened when he remembered something and sat up abruptly.

Earlier that day Uncle Oscar had asked Gilbert to come see him once his duties were finished for the day, but he had completely forgotten until now.

The young servant glanced at the time. It was late, but he knew that Uncle Oscar was usually still awake at this hour. So, with a sigh, he got out of bed and left his room, making for the Duke's study.

He was completely oblivious to the lurking figure that silently trailed after him a little while later.

That figure was, of course, Oz.

The boy had just begun to think how unusually normal everything had become lately – normal apart from how busy his servant was which eventually became routine. Apart from those first few suspicious conversations he heard when it all began last month, Gilbert and Uncle Oscar hadn't had any other questionable interactions since then (well, unless Oz had missed any, which he hoped he hadn't). But then earlier that day Oz had witnessed his Uncle calling Gilbert out just to tell him to see him in private later, and that's when he realised that all was not as normal as he thought it was.

That's why he had been waiting. He waited the whole day but Gilbert was not freed from his duties until just now, yet oddly enough the boy went straight for his room and stayed there for a time. Eventually Oz heard him get up again though, and realising where he was probably going this late, the young Vessalius heir slipped out of his room a little after.

"...Yes, I have chosen something but..." Oz heard Gilbert say once he approached the study. "My heart is still unsure... I-I truly apologise for my indecisiveness, Oscar-sama! Please forgive me..."

Uncle Oscar sighed audibly. "There's no need to apologise, but you really should make a decision now. Tomorrow will be a busy day, but it's also your last chance. If you don't do it by tomorrow, Oz won't let you leave for town after that since he'd insist on spending as much time as possible with you. And if you resist then there's a high chance that he'd find out before he's supposed to. It'd be a waste if we kept it from him all this time, only for him to find out at the last minute, wouldn't it?"

"I-I understand, Oscar-sama. I'll definitely finalise it by tomorrow."

"Alright. You may go to bed now. I'm sorry you had to come out here this late. Today was very tiring, wasn't it?"

Oz took that statement as his cue to leave, which he quietly did so. Once he was within the safety of his own room though, he allowed himself to release a heavy sigh as he got under the covers.

That new conversation had been a bit confusing, and that slightly frustrated him. Last chance? Why was there a time limit? And what was that about Gil's heart being 'unsure'? Did he still not decide on a job? Or... perhaps he was having second thoughts...?

He shook his head, dispelling such an unlikely thought. Gil had said that he'd definitely finalise it by tomorrow. There was no way he would've said that if he was having second thoughts.

And... why did his Uncle sound so sure that he wouldn't let Gil leave for town anyway...?

Oz turned to his side and hugged his knees to his chest; it was an all-too-familiar posture that he had been assuming a lot more lately.

...That's because his Uncle was right.

According to what he had heard, it sounded as though Gil and Uncle Oscar intended to tell Oz everything soon. But Oz wasn't going to tolerate this any longer. He didn't want to feel like a fool when they would gently break the news to him, expecting him to be a fussy brat over not being told sooner.

No. He would confront Gilbert directly tomorrow. And he was going to tell him what he really thought about all this.

About him.

~ ...25th December... ~

"Aaah, that was boring," muttered Oz while stretching his arms high above his head. It had only been two hours into the party yet it felt like the entire day had gone by. Today was the day of the Christmas Ball – an event hosted by the Vessaliuses for all their close friends and associates, and although he had not yet come-of-age, Oz's attendance was still required as he was the heir. He had been introduced to many people whom he didn't know nor really cared about, but now, however, he was allowed to leave and rest as the actual ball was about to begin, as long as he returned on time before the party finished to greet the guests on their way out.

As Oz exited the ballroom and stepped into the garden, he could tell from the colour of the sky that it was now evening. Without tearing his gaze away, he sighed deeply while removing his gloves and shoved them into his pocket. It was cold out here, but being in that packed hall for so long actually made it feel a bit pleasant. Then he looked ahead and noticed a figure sitting on one of the benches nearby. He walked further down the path approaching the figure, until he was close enough to realise that it was Gilbert. The boy was leaning back with his head tilted towards the sky, seemingly asleep judging from his closed eyelids.

The Young Vessalius heir grinned impishly and quietly made his way behind his unsuspecting servant, eyes gleaming with mirth. For a while he simply stood there contemplating on the best way to wake Gil up, but the longer he stared at the younger boy's peaceful sleeping face, the more those mischievous thoughts faded away and in its place came a strange, tight feeling in his chest that made his smile drop completely.

"Gil..."

They had been so busy today that Oz didn't get the chance to confront Gilbert about his little secret. But now...

All of a sudden Gilbert's eyes began to open, making Oz start. Gilbert himself received quite a shock when the first thing he saw instead of the dark blue sky was two familiar pools of emerald... that seemed to be duller with the hues of… sadness...? But the emotion was quickly gone, masked by surprise instead.

"Gil! I thought you were asleep."

Gil shook his head. "I was simply resting my eyes a bit." Then he paused in hesitation a bit before asking, "M-may I ask why you're here, Young Master?"

Said Young Master smirked slightly at his servant and said, "I could ask you the same thing, Gil. Running away from Mrs. Kate's wrath, are we?"

"N-no!" exclaimed Gilbert. "Th-that's not it. Mrs. Kate knows I'm here. I've been given a break from my duties."

Oz sighed, before coming around the side of the bench to take a seat next to Gil. "Eeh, how boring."

"S-sorry," apologised the young servant, though for what, neither of them was really sure.

Oz chuckled quietly. "You didn't have to apologise, you know." Then he added, "Anyway, it's the same for me too. Uncle said I didn't have to participate in any dancing but I have to be back when it's over."

"I see."

It was then when Gilbert noticed something off about his Young Master's appearance, causing him to frown.

"...Master, were you fiddling with your cravat again?"

Oz stiffened, before forcing a nervous smile. "A-ah, that's, um... Y-you can tell...?" Why was Gil so good at noticing these things?!

With a sigh Gilbert said, "Please avoid doing so, Young Master. Mrs. Kate would be angry if she found out you had been walking around like that in public." Then, before Oz could retort, his servant stood up and got down onto one knee right before his master, shocking the older boy completely to the point of silence.

"Th-that pose... It's just like when he..."

Gilbert then undid Oz's cravat to re-do it with a furrowed brow, oblivious to the blonde's wide-eyed gaze. Oz, on his part, snapped out of his daze at some point when he noticed the younger boy's heavy look of concentration, as well as his long bangs that had fallen over his eyes. Realising that perhaps it was hindering his vision, Oz couldn't help but reach out and gently brush them back behind his ear.

The raven-haired boy froze when the action registered to him and looked up at Oz with reddening cheeks. Mind a complete blur, Oz simply stared back into those gleaming golden orbs that always seemed to bring him into such a state. He had yet to retract his hand, opting to let his fingers slide around Gilbert's ear to lightly rest against his warm cheeks, making the younger boy shudder at the touch of Oz's cold fingertips.

"...I have to do it now..."

"M-Master...?"

He was confused. Confused and panicked. Oz was staring at him with a look he had never seen before, and combined with the actions his master was doing, Gilbert had no idea how to react or what to make of the situation.

Oz slowly removed his hand after a while and looked away, his own complexion a bit pink. "S-sorry about that... Continue."

Gilbert blinked back to reality, noticing that his vision was clearer now and instantly realising why, he quietly mumbled his thanks to Oz before doing his best to control his trembling hands while finishing the task before him. He eventually managed to dispel his nervousness once his thoughts began to wander. In truth, Gilbert had plans for this break that he had been given. He wanted to go to finalise Oz's birthday present, so he had actually hoped that he wouldn't run into his master. Now that he had though, he'd have no choice but to improvise.

Once the cravat had been retied, Gilbert got up and dusted his pants, saying, "I think I've rested enough. I should probably find Mrs. Kate." With a small smile he added, "Well then, please excuse me, Young Master."

When Gilbert began to turn away from him, Oz's eyes widened in alarm. If he let Gil go now, there was no telling when they'd get a chance to talk in private again and he wasn't willing to delay it any longer. So without thinking, he reached out and grabbed his servant's wrist, causing the younger boy to look back with surprise etched in his features.

"W-wait!" blurted Oz.

Gilbert opened his mouth to ask, but for some reason, the panicked expression his master wore rendered him speechless. Thankfully Oz knew what was going through his mind, and after taking a deep breath, he smiled faintly and said. "Let's walk for a bit... Please?"

The raven-haired boy wouldn't have been able to decline even if he wanted to. Again, there was something about that look in Oz's eye, combined with his quiet voice and the fact that he had said please. It wasn't an order, yet it felt like Gilbert couldn't disobey no matter what.

Seeing Gil nod at his request, Oz let go of his wrist. After that the two boys began their stroll down the long, winding path that ran through the vast back gardens of the Vessalius Mansion. They walked in an unusually uncomfortable silence for the longest of time that both were tempted to break, but weren't sure how. Gilbert was very worried as to why Oz was acting so strangely, while Oz was contemplating on what to say and how to say it. At some point, however, his mind simply cleared from all thoughts and before he knew it, unplanned words were spilling past his lips, unstoppable.

"You know, Gil," he began, causing Gil to jump a bit. "Life used to be awfully boring before you came along. It was... always the same routine. Each day felt just like the last one. But then I met you, and suddenly everyday was distinct. Every day was fun. I'd never had a personal valet before or anyone like that, or even a friend... But you've been that for me and more. I've always enjoyed my time with you, exploring this new relationship of ours. Yet, now..."

When Oz first began to speak, needless to say Gilbert had been very confused. But the more he spoke, the more his confusion faded, only to be replaced by embarrassment. It did not fade completely though, so when Oz trailed off, a flustered Gilbert said, "M-Master, were exactly are you going with all this...?"

Oz suddenly halted in his tracks and Gilbert belatedly followed upon noticing his master, whose head was hung, causing his hair to veil his expression.

"...Gil... What's the real reason behind all your visits to town?"

Gilbert stiffened.

Oz didn't even need to look up to know that his servant was fumbling for an answer. Still, he waited patiently. In his mind, the moment when Oz had realised just how important Gil was to him kept replaying itself in his mind almost torturously. It had been that day when Gil stood up for him in the face of his father... and had promised Oz forever shortly after that.

And it was that moment. That very moment after those words left Gil's mouth. He had denied it openly, but in his heart Oz was shocked to find himself willing to put faith in that promise. Even now... Even now Oz was absolutely bewildered at the fact that he still believed in it, and that he would continue to do so even though they might be apart.

From that, it was clear that Oz simply couldn't let go of Gil, no matter what. But...

He had said it that day; that he'd accept whatever may happen, hadn't he?

At last Gilbert stammered, "M-M-Master, I d-don't have a-any idea what you mean, honest-"

That did it.

Oz raised his head and looked straight at Gil, who was stunned silent when he saw the pain and anger clear in Oz's eyes.

"I know all about it, Gil! I know what you and Uncle have been planning this whole time. I overheard your conversation that day when you thought I was unwell because I denied a game. I know exactly why you've been going to town. I know that Uncle's been helping you find a new job. I know... But..." By now Oz's voice had quietened, but his next words still did not go missed by Gilbert. "...I don't want to let you go, Gil. You're mine... My best friend... And the one I...!"

At that point Oz trailed off completely, knowing that he wouldn't be able to finish that last statement. So, he simply stood there with his hands clenched into tight fists, head hung low again.

Gilbert's eyes had gone absolutely wide. He simply could not believe that this whole time, Oz had been aware. But what astonished him more than anything was what exactly Oz was aware of. What on earth did he mean by 'Uncle Oscar was helping him find a new job'?!

Once more Oz looked up at Gilbert with a sad smile that nearly shattered the other boy's heart and said, "...I'm also aware that it's this possessiveness of mine that's probably driving you away in the first place."

"Yet I can't help it..."

Oz had done his best. He had held up his defences this long. But now it was too much. He couldn't do it anymore.

At last, he acknowledged the one thing he had been trying to ignore all this time.

"Gil... I love you too much to let you go. But..."

Oz turned his back to his servant, ready to head back for the mansion. "If leaving makes you happy, Gil... Then let it be known that you have your Master's permission to leave whenever you like."

Not for the first time in many minutes, Gilbert was so shocked that he was practically rendered speechless.

Oh God...

Oz... He...

Oz had completely misunderstood!

"What on earth have I done?!"

"GILBERT!"

Before Gilbert could clarify the terribly huge misunderstanding between him and Oz, a familiar, shrill female voice was heard in the distance. It belonged to none other than Mrs. Kate, of course, and within a matter of seconds she was within their line of sight, marching towards Gilbert with an annoyed frown.

"There you are! I've been looking all over for you. I need you to deliver an important message to the florist regarding her payment on the batch of flowers we ordered yesterday before she closes for the night."

Gilbert had been about to pacify Mrs. Kate so that she could leave him and his master alone for some time, but without warning Oz promptly turned on his heel and ran past Gilbert, who reached out to his retreating figure while calling for him.

"Ah, Master! Wait!"

The young servant made to follow, but Mrs. Kate's looming figure blocked his way.

"Hurry! Look how late it is already. I spent half an hour just looking for you. There isn't another minute to waste!"

And because she was being so persistent, Gilbert had no choice but to obey.

" Oz, please… Please wait for me…!"

~ ...Hours Later... ~

...It was all his fault.

He had hurt his master. And it was his fault because of his stupid idea.

Oz had been so worried... So lonely... So hurt.

The whole time Gilbert always thought Oz was distancing himself, but in reality, it had actually been him. Gil had distanced himself first, by making himself busier. And he had nearly- no, he had definitely broken his beloved master as a result.

How could he ever face Oz again?

It was that last thought that brought him to his current state. Gilbert had completed Mrs. Kate's task a long time ago, but he had not returned to the mansion. For once he didn't care if Mrs. Kate would be angry, because right now nothing was more important than Oz. After all that suffering Gilbert put him through, an explanation and apology simply didn't seem as though it would suffice in comparison. Therefore, he couldn't face his master. He didn't have the right to face him...

At present, Gilbert was outside the trinkets store he always found himself stopping by at, staring at the beautiful little object that began this entire ordeal. Without thinking, he reached out and pressed his palm flat against the display window.

"All because of this locket..."

"Have you finally made up your mind, son?"

Gilbert started with a yelp of surprise, pulling his hand back. He turned to look up at the owner of the voice; a familiar old man that had kind, light greyish blue eyes, grey, wispy hair and a long, grey beard that had several white streaks in it. He was thin and hunched over, supporting his weight on a sleek walking cane. His voice was slightly hoarse from age, and when he spoke, he spoke slowly.

"P-p-pardon me?" he stammered.

The old man smiled and simply said, "The locket."

Gilbert stared at him, dumbfounded. "H-how did you know I was...?"

The man chuckled. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't help but notice. After all, this isn't the first time you've visited my little store."

The young boy blushed, realising that he'd been watched this whole time. "...I'm very sorry..."

He then felt a big hand patting his head and looked up at the old man in mild surprise. "I don't mind at all," he said.

There was a brief period of silence, before the man mumbled, "My wife... She was just like you..."

Gilbert blinked, confused.

"...When I was your age," started the old man, "I used to help my father when he ran this store... She used to be the blacksmith's daughter and I fell for her the moment I laid my eyes on her. She'd often stand outside our shop window and marvel at all the display pieces. But her favourite was the locket," he told Gilbert, nodding towards it. "I can't even describe how happy I felt when I learned this, because I was the one who designed it."

"You did?" asked Gilbert, amazed.

"Yes. My father was good at making things like these and sometimes he would let me design them."

He then sighed and remained quiet for some time, before continuing his little tale. "Whenever I saw her eyes light up when she gazed at that locket, I was overcome with the urge to give it to her so that her eyes would always have that happiness in them. But I was worried because I didn't want to scare her off by giving her the wrong impression. We were practically strangers, you see. Then one day I finally gathered my wits and did it when I saw one of the customers eyeing it."

Suddenly the man began laughing quietly again. "I must've looked like a complete fool... I practically pleaded her to accept it, stressing that I simply wanted her to have it after seeing her outside our shop all the time. And she did. She didn't think I was silly or strange at all. We became friends after that and years later she returned my feelings. We got married shortly after."

At this point Gilbert finally gathered the courage to ask, "I-is this the same locket...?"

The man's smile dropped a little, taking on a slightly pained edge. "You could call it a replica. Before she passed away, she asked me to re-create it as her final wish so that someone else could treasure it the way she did. The original will always be with her..."

"Oh... I'm very sorry to hear that, sir. Forgive me for making you recall that painful memory."

Again, Gilbert received a comforting pat on the head. "It's alright, son. It's a part of life."

The two males lapsed into silence once more, but when the man noticed Gilbert's permanent frown, he couldn't help but wonder. "Something wrong?"

Gilbert hesitated a bit. Well, this man had practically told him his life story on a whim, so... Why not?

"...Actually... I'm going through something similar, sir. It's my friend's birthday tomorrow and I wanted to gift him that locket as a symbol of our friendship, but... But I'm afraid. I'm afraid that he won't like it, or that it'd give him the wrong impression. In fact, we had a fight earlier. I had been working to earn the money for his gift but in the process, I ended up distancing myself from him. It turned out to be a terrible misunderstanding..."

"If it's a misunderstanding, then you simply have to clear it up, don't you? Just tell him the truth. I'm sure he'll understand."

"I know that, and I want to, but... I just can't bring myself to face him. Not yet at least..."

The old man regarded Gilbert for a while. The latter simply stared ahead with unfocused eyes and a deep frown. At last the man asked, "What's he like? This friend of yours?"

The young servant's attention snapped back to the old man, surprise clear in his golden eyes at such an unexpected question. But after staring at the man who simply waited for him to speak with an encouraging smile, Gilbert found his own lips curling up a little and he confidently said, "He's a very kind, caring and considerate person who always brings a smile to the faces of the people around him just with his very presence. You never feel bored around him because he's always brimming with energy and ways to spend time. He's someone that I'd trust with my very life and I'd do anything for him... But..."

The ghost of a smile he had earlier faded. "He's also very lonely. He doesn't let anyone come too close, nor does he allow himself to get too attached to anyone. He's always trying to mask his pain and carry his burdens on his own. I can never bear to see him like that..."

Gilbert clenched his hands into fists and stared up at the old man with determination flaring in his eyes. "That's why I wanted to give him that locket so that whenever he looks in it, he would remember the one person who he wants to keep close to his heart, and who would always be there for him. I'm sure there'll come a day when he'll find such a person..."

"…Even if that person isn't me... But even so, I will still remain by his side... Always."

The old man had watched Gilbert with admiration when he declared his pure intentions and when the boy trailed off, he turned his head from the young servant to stare at the locket instead. "Your friend sounds like a really nice person," he mused, and after a pause he added, "Well then! If that's the case then there's no problem if you give him the locket as a present."

Gilbert looked up at the old man questioningly. Upon noticing this from the corner of his eye, he said, "Just now you said that your friend doesn't let anyone come too close. But judging from all that you've told me, it seems that the two of you are very close. How else would you be able to tell that he tries to hide things? And how else would know about the things he does hide? His pains? His burdens?"

With a warm smile the old man then turned back to a stunned Gilbert. "You're able to see those things because your friend truly trusts you. He trusts that you're someone who he can reveal his vulnerabilities to, and that you're someone who would understand and respond to them. So, if your friend can trust you to that degree, then shouldn't you be able to trust that he'd understand your true intentions as well?"

~ ...Another Place and Time... ~

It had been hours since Gilbert left for town and needless to say, Oz was worried sick.

After he ran away from Gilbert when they were in the garden, Oz had gone back to the ballroom where he met up with his Uncle, who noticed his rare, visibly disturbed state. He did not inquire about it until after the guests had left though. That was when Oz hesitantly admitted overhearing their conversations once or twice, as well as knowing what his uncle and servant had been up to.

Oscar had been absolutely shocked to learn about the unexpected turn of events and asked Oz for more details on what exactly he heard, curious to know just how on earth Gilbert's innocent plan to buy his master a gift blew so unbelievably out of proportion. When his nephew finished his explanation, Oscar sighed deeply before revealing to Oz what his servant's true intention was, and what they really had been doing all along.

And of course, Oz had been so horribly mortified that he didn't even have it in him to meet his Uncle's eye or comment on the truth. But he did eventually request his Uncle for permission to look for Gilbert, which the man instantly granted. Normally he wouldn't have been too worried since the younger boy would be very familiar with his surroundings by now, but tonight he was particularly concerned about Gilbert since no doubt his state of mind would be just as disturbed as Oz's, if not more. He also would've sent another servant instead of his nephew, but he felt that it was best for Oz to go alone. The two boys had much to clear up between them after all, so it was best to give them some time alone.

Oz was now running down every street in town desperately searching for Gilbert, who was nowhere to be found. There were barely any people outside – and why would there be? It was Christmas. Nearly all the shops were closed as well but a few still seemed to be open judging from the lights seeping through the shop windows, so Oz even made sure to peer in through the frost-covered glass in hope to see a hazy bundle of raven-hair that might belong to his servant. Unfortunately, he saw no such thing.

"Gil... Where are you...?"

Oz cursed himself. As tempted as he was to blame his mortification on his uncle and servant for hiding things from him, he simply couldn't deny that that a large part of it was actually his fault. He shouldn't have eavesdropped on their conversation that day, or any other conversations for that matter. He shouldn't have behaved so harshly with Gil like he did earlier or ran off without giving the boy a chance to explain himself. He shouldn't even have confronted him in the first place, and if he really wanted to then he should've done it that day when he first learned of it rather than waiting and allowing his pent-up feelings to erupt out of him like that.

But most of all... He should've trusted Gil.

He should've had more faith in their forever.

Because Gilbert was always doing so. He was always looking out for his master, tending to his every need and putting up with all his wants. He was always caring towards Oz, always thinking about him before himself, always proving through acts of selflessness that all he really wanted was to be by his friend's side... Always.

By now Oz had stopped running out of exhaustion, and also partly because it was futile. He had made it to the other end of town but there was still no sign of his servant. For a while he felt the urge to check beyond the town but he quickly turned down that idea because it was a dark, winter night and therefore it was dangerous. There was no telling how mad his Uncle would be if he found out that Oz had even considered that idea. Besides, there was no way Gilbert would have gone that far. No, Oz probably must've missed him. He had been running, hadn't he? And there was even a chance that his servant had already gone home. So now he began to backtrack, doing his best to suppress the anxiety threatening to overwhelm him.

On his way back, he made sure to pause at all the open stores once more just in case, but the action was in vain... until he neared one certain store that was close to the path leading out of town.

It was a small store that Oz vaguely recognised from all the pretty trinkets and ornaments it had on display. And there, on its doorstep was the one person whom he had desperately been looking for all this time, bathed in the soft golden light from the lamp hanging overhead, illuminating his equally gentle expression as he stared down into what looked like a gift bag.

Gilbert.

The young servant, on his part, was completely oblivious to his master that was standing only a few feet away. His eyes were on the neatly wrapped present at the bottom of the bag in his hands that the kind old man had offered to wrap for him.

The present was, of course, the locket.

Their conversation had cleared his mind of all doubts and served to open his eyes to the truth that he'd been blind to this whole time.

Honesty and trust. That's all that was missing this whole time. And that's all it would take to patch things up between him and Oz.

So, Gilbert finally made up his mind. He had come this far, hadn't he? It would a complete waste if he backed out now.

And that brought him to his current situation. A warm smile of satisfaction graced his features as he simply admired his purchase for a moment, imagining what the little locket would look like hanging from his beloved master's neck.

"Gil!"

Gilbert frowned. Well, that was an awfully realistic memory of Oz calling his name. It almost sounded like...

Suddenly Gilbert's ears picked up the sound of pounding footsteps as someone rapidly approached him. He looked up to the source of the sound and gasped when he saw Oz.

So that hadn't been his imagination... Oz was actually here?!

"Young Master!" gasped Gilbert. "What on earth are you doing here?"

Oz decelerated in speed until he came to a complete stop before the young boy and doubled over, supporting himself with his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. After some time, he peeked up Gilbert and said in between pants, "I... I was... searching all over... f… for you!"

The raven-haired boy gaped at the blonde. Searching? It looked more as if his master had run a marathon! His entire body was practically heaving with each breath that materialised like a swift flow of thick, white smoke when he exhaled, and his entire face was flushed. But then Oz's words actually registered to him and he couldn't help but ask, "Wait, what? Why...?"

By now Oz's breathing had regulated, so he straightened and gave Gilbert a look of incredulousness mixed with a hint of annoyance. "Because I was worried! You were gone for hours, Gil."

The young servant's complexion turned just as rosy pink as Oz's had become, but for a completely different reason than him. Once his initial embarrassment faded however, he lowered his gaze and said nothing.

Oz was... worried about him...? He even came all the way out here to look for him... But wasn't he angry...?

Sensing Gilbert's discomfort, Oz's mild frown melted with a sigh, after which he said, "...Let's go home. Uncle was really worried too."

Gilbert simply nodded, and instantly stiffened when he felt Oz wordlessly take one his hands in his own, lightly tugging him along the path that would lead them back to the mansion. Gilbert stumbled a bit at first but soon he fell into step behind Oz, who took the lead with one arm outstretched back for his servant. The latter felt almost like a child, obediently following behind his master's firm back, too nervous to say anything. But he knew this silence couldn't last forever.

"U-um..."

"...Uncle told me everything," stated Oz simply, startling Gilbert a bit. "He told me that I had misunderstood everything, and what you two had really been planning." Then, from where he was, the raven-haired boy noticed the other lower his head. "...I'm really sorry for my outburst earlier, Gil. And... I'm sorry for ruining your surprise too. I had no idea you were working so hard just for me..." After a long pause he added, "I... I really don't deserve such a wonderful friend," with a forced laugh.

"That's not true!" replied Gilbert reflexively, making Oz's fingers tighten their grip around his hand by a fraction. "Please don't ever say things like that, Master. You do deserve such a person, but I... I'm not that wonderful friend. I'm a horrible one, and a horrible servant too. You are my Master. But I never asked you for permission for doing other things apart from serving you, and I kept secrets from you on top of that. In the end, all of my actions hurt you..."

Gilbert stopped in his tracks, forcing Oz to stop as well. Slowly, the older boy turned around with an eyebrow raised in question. But then the other eyebrow shot up as well when his servant pulled his hand away and bowed deeply.

"Please forgive me, Master Oz!"

Silence.

After some time, Gilbert glanced up and was met with the sight of Oz, regarding him with an unreadable expression. So, he dared to ask, in a small voice, "A-are you angry at me, Master...?"

And that was all it took to budge a reaction out of Oz. Of course he was never actually angry at Gilbert; he was just upset at the whole situation. But then, after seeing his servant tilt his head up to gaze worriedly at his master with shimmering eyes, it was hard to stay upset at all. Gil was clearly sorry for what he had done and was practically pleading him for forgiveness, so how could Oz of all people possibly resist...?

Oz's lips curled upwards into a playful smirk for the briefest of moments – the only indicator of his amusement at the situation – before he quickly suppressed it with a deep frown of disapproval instead. Then, folding his arms across his chest, he declared, "Oh, I'm angry alright, Gil. In fact, I'm furious."

Gilbert was practically at the verge of tears now, eyes begging for an explanation.

Goodness, Oz could be astoundingly sadistic at times, couldn't he? But he wasn't going to let Gil off the hook just yet. A little payback for all the anxiety his servant caused him was required first.

Oz then took a step forward, causing Gil to take one back. He continued taking step after step as he spoke and Gilbert mirrored his movements, backing up to maintain distance between him and his master. "I've been under so much unnecessary stress over the past month thinking that you were planning on leaving. I was always bored out of my mind whenever you weren't around. On top of that you and Uncle saw me in such a mortifying state...!"

"And to top it all off, I nearly revealed my true feelings earlier…"

By now Gilbert had backed up against a tree but Oz continued to move forward still, until he was right in front of the other boy who began quivering a bit. Upon seeing this, Oz decided that now it was okay to stop with the payback, so he unfolded his arms and sighed, dropping the irked act altogether in the process.

"Geez... I've been saying it all this time, haven't I?" asked the blonde, smiling faintly.

The young servant's quivering ceased for his fear became replaced with utter confusion when he was met with Oz's sudden change of attitude and odd statement.

And then, Gilbert suddenly found himself in Oz's arms when the latter abruptly pulled him into a tight embrace, making his eyes widen.

"...That I only need you by my side," whispered Oz quietly, completing his earlier statement.

For a while neither of them said anything and neither of them moved. Oz simply wanted to relish their moment of closeness as long as he could. Gilbert, on the other hand, was simply too astonished to say anything. But at last, he tentatively reached up to return Oz's embrace, surprising the blonde in the process, who did not expect the other to do so. Then he felt his servant fist the material of his coat as he began trembling lightly once more.

"...Gil...?"

When he didn't respond, Oz attempted to pull back but was stopped when Gilbert simply hugged him tighter.

That was when he felt it.

Something wet, dampening the material over his shoulder.

...Tears?!

"G-Gil, what's wrong?" asked Oz, concerned. When he tried to pull back this time Gilbert did not stop him, opting to release his hold on Oz as well to quickly wipe away his tears. Yet they still kept coming, much to his dismay, so he gave up and simply kept his hands by his side.

"S-s-such k-kind words," mumbled the younger boy while looking away, sniffling. "I...!"

Oz's expression softened and he reached out to hold Gilbert's face gently, guiding it back towards him before wiping away the tears for him with his thumbs. "Gil... It's alright. So don't cry, okay? I'm not mad at you. I never was. And besides," he added with a warm smile, "getting presents is fun, but I'm especially looking forward to yours. Whatever it is, I'm sure I'll love it. You went through so much trouble to get it after all, and it's the first gift you've ever given to me!"

"Well, that's a bit untrue... Because you've already given me so much, Gil. More than I could ever hope for."

Gilbert blinked, processing Oz's words. And when he finally did, he returned Oz's smile with his own timid one, oblivious to the heat gathering in his cheeks.

"Thank you, Master Oz. I truly hope it will be to your liking."

Seeing that his servant had calmed down, Oz lightly ruffled his hair before turning on his heel and, hands clasped behind his back, he strolled back to the path while Gilbert followed suit.

"But you know," he said out of the blue, before turning back to the raven-haired boy with a pout. "You really did scare me! I was seriously worried that you'd leave..."

Oz had been about to add that perhaps his servant should be punished with his trademark impish smirk, but he was cut off when Gilbert chuckled lightly upon seeing such a rare expression made by his master, before doing something completely unexpected to the both of them. Before he knew it, he had gotten down on his left knee before Oz, placed his right hand over his heart and bowed his head; an utterly serious expression present on his face.

"Master... Earlier you told me that the one thing you need is for me to be by your side. Nothing would bring me more joy if you are truly happy, Oz. So, if that is what you wish..." He lifted his head to stare determinedly into Oz's stunned, emerald eyes. "...Then as your loyal servant, I vow to stay by your side forever." His intense gaze softened, and with a smile he added, "Because as your friend, all I want is to be with you... forever."

Oz's face was burning in embarrassment from the raw sincerity in Gilbert's voice. He knew that the other could be surprisingly courageous, but it was during times like these when his servant professed such bold utterances that he couldn't quite believe that it was the same, timid boy that often stuttered over his words. He opened and closed his mouth several times in attempt to say something, yet nothing comprehensible seemed to be coming to mind, causing him to blush even darker.

And why wouldn't he? Their roles had practically been reversed for goodness sake!

As if to prove that point further, Gilbert chuckled quietly before getting up and, walking past Oz he said, "Shall we head home, Young Master?" with a confident smile.

Oz cleared his throat awkwardly before nodding and taking his place beside Gilbert. He was about to make some sort of teasing retort to even the scales, but the sensation of something cold landing on his nose caught his attention instead. The younger boy seemed to have noticed as well, for they both turned to look at each other simultaneously before turning their gazes to the dark sky above. Hundreds of tiny, white snowflakes were gently cascading down to the earth at their own pace, looking like little radiant spheres of soft light in contrast to the velvety black sky.

"It's snowing," breathed Oz, not tearing his eyes away from the mysteriously beautiful scene.

"Yeah," muttered Gilbert, also transfixed by the calming sight.

They continued to watch the snow fall for a long time, lost in the vastness of the view as though there was nothing else in the world but them and the sky and the snow. But after some time, Oz snapped out of his reverie and turned to his servant, saying, "Now we really need to hurry home."

Gilbert nodded. "It's getting quite cold now."

With that, the two boys set off once more. They walked apart in content silence, but unknowingly, they were steadily closing the gap in between them with each footstep as though drawn to each other by an irresistible force until at some point, they ended up bumping into each other. Both turned to the other and blurted an apology in unison, causing Oz to chuckle lightly.

Then, before Gilbert had the chance to say anything, Oz slowly took the other's hand into his own once more. But unlike before his grip was gentle, and this time he shyly laced their fingers together before setting off again with a soft smile gracing his features, gaze settled on the path before them. Gilbert's own lips curled into a warm smile upon seeing this and he moved closer to Oz, making the distance between them almost non-existent. Not even the icy cold wind could get in between them now, nor could it douse the warmth they shared from the newfound closeness of their bodies and hearts.

And as each boy gave the other's hand a light but comforting squeeze, they both had one thought in mind.

This hand...

The hand of the one person I can't and won't ever let go of...

Forever.

Chapter Text

"Should I get you a blanket, Oz?"

Oz, who had been snuggled comfortably against Gilbert's side, tilted his head up to acknowledge the man.

"I want to say yes but that means you'll have to get up," he answered with a pout. "And I don't want you to get up."

"Yes, well, I can't get you a blanket if I don't," said his servant with a laugh, before ruffling Oz's hair. "It'll only take a minute," he added, before rising from the sofa.

"Or I could just go with you~" mused Oz, before getting up as well and wrapping his arms around the elder's waist in a secure hug.

"Aah~ He' so warm."

"Hey!" exclaimed Gilbert, stumbling a bit. "It'll be impossible to walk like this, you know."

"Not impossible. Just very difficult," corrected Oz. "There's a difference!"

The raven-haired man stared down at Oz's beaming face before sighing. So, his master wasn't going to give up, huh? No choice then...

Oz's smile became a triumphant one when Gilbert began to move forward again, though progress out of the living room was excruciatingly slow since he had to take tiny, awkward steps towards his bedroom. The two of them were, of course, in Gilbert's apartment. This morning Break had left for Pandora while Sharon whisked Alice away to her bedroom for some 'girl time'. With nothing better to do, Gilbert had decided to drop by his apartment. He had to do this once in a while to tidy up the place and naturally, Oz chose to follow.

It was now evening. After Gilbert finished cleaning at noon, the two of them had lunch before settling down on the sofa in front of the fireplace, where they conversed until the sky grew dark. That was when the frosty winter air became colder and, noticing Oz's involuntary shivers, Gilbert had offered to bring the boy a blanket.

That led them to where they were now, on the threshold of Gilbert's room with Oz clinging onto his servant's waist without a care in the world for the elder's discomfort. After all, he could tell from the light red shade dusting Gilbert's cheeks that he didn't mind as much as he pretended to.

"He's always had interesting reactions to physical contact."

"Okay, now you'll have to let go. I've kept my thicker blanket somewhere in my closet so I'm going to have to find it first."

"Shouldn't you be using it?" asked Oz as he released his hold on his servant and took a seat on his bed instead.

"I can tolerate the cold fairly well so I didn't feel the need to take it out yet," answered Gilbert, opening his closet and scanning the top shelves. "Let's see..." he muttered.

While Gilbert searched for his blanket, Oz trailed his eyes from his figure to the dark closet in front of him, where he spotted several neatly stacked boxes at the back.

"Maybe it's in those boxes?" suggested Oz.

"No, it definitely up here somewhere," answered Gilbert, standing on his tiptoes now.

"So what's in those boxes then?" the blonde wondered aloud.

"Aha, here it is!" muttered the older man, pulling the blanket down and catching it with both arms, before turning to Oz and taking a moment to consider his question. "Hm? Oh, just some old stuff like clothes and-" Gilbert suddenly paused, recalling something.

"Gil? What's wrong?"

Setting the blanket down beside Oz he said, "Nothing. I just remembered that some of these boxes actually belong to you, Oz."

Oz tilted his head, confused. "Me?"

"That's right. They're filled with some of your belongings," clarified the raven-haired man as he ventured into the closet once more to search for those particular boxes. Again, he paused, this time to choose his next words carefully. "...After you disappeared, they were going to be thrown out... But Uncle Oscar asked if I wanted to keep them instead. Naturally I said yes," he explained as he pulled out the boxes and placed them by the foot of the bed.

The Young Vessalius heir watched with widening eyes as the number of boxes increased, until the floor around his feet was practically covered with them. "Some? Gil, this is a lot!" And just how big was that closet anyway?!

Gilbert set the last box down and Oz briefly noted how there were only three left in the closet. "Well, most of them are books to be honest," admitted the servant. "Not just the ones from the bookshelf in your room, but your favourite ones from the library as well. Together, they took up quite a lot of space."

Oz gaped at the raven-haired man. "...Wh-why on earth would you keep all that?"

"Because I knew you'd be back someday," he replied simply, smiling warmly at the younger boy who now gazed up at him with shimmering eyes, speechless.

Gil... kept all these things just for him...?

And to think that they had been sitting in the closet in his room for nearly ten years, almost like a haunting presence of the boy that was no longer there. Oz couldn't bear the image of his servant, sitting all alone on his bed for long hours gazing blankly at his closet that contained painful reminders of the source of his grief; his friend who was generally believed to be... gone forever. Yet he had endured that pain for all these years, just so that Oz wouldn't return to a world where there was not a trace of his existence – a world that tried to erase the reminders of his existence.

Gilbert was able to sense what was going through Oz's mind, so with a comforting pat on the head he offered, "Would you like to have a look or should I put them back?"

Oz blinked out of his daze, before answering, "N-no, I think I'll have a look. You worked so hard at taking them out after all," he added with a smile.

"I-it was nothing," admitted the older male quietly, before saying in a louder voice, "Anyway, I'll go make us some tea, so take your time."

"Alright~" called Oz to his servant's retreating figure, and then got off the bed to inspect the boxes. Nearly all of them were tied with a rope and most of them were labelled 'Books', while others were untied. One box in particular caught his attention, labelled 'Miscellaneous (FRAGILE)'.

He pulled that box away from the rest, before approaching his servant's study table and opening the drawers one by one until he found what he was looking for. Taking a pair of scissors, he closed the drawer and went back to the box, kneeled before it, and cut the rope before opening the flap. At first it appeared empty apart from the giant heap of shredded paper, but when Oz tentatively dug his hand inside he felt something hard beneath his fingers.

Closing his hand around the object in his reach, he took it out and carefully took off its paper wrapping. Inside was a small glass vase that Oz recognised as the one he used to keep at the edge of his study table, to hold the flowers Ada would often pick for him from their garden. The memory made him smile fondly, and he continued exploring the box until at one point he discovered a small, round object that looked like a jewellery box from its shape. He took it out of its wrapping, and what he saw made him gasp.

Indeed, it was something akin to an ornate, velvet jewellery box. The material was forest green in colour, and lining it were thin bands of gold. Etched into the velvet were elaborate patterns woven with golden silk, and on top of the box was a tiny gold ornament in the shape of the Vessalius Crest. The box was locked, but there seemed something off about the keyhole. It was very small and odd in shape, indicating that it couldn't be opened with any ordinary key.

Oz recognised this box instantly... It was the box in which he would keep the locket that Gilbert had gifted him for his 14th birthday. And the reason for his shock was because he had often wondered what happened to it when his thoughts were free from Pandora-related business. This was actually very rarely, and so he had never gotten around to asking Gil about. But now here it was, and with it came all the memories surrounding the precious little object.

He recalled approaching his Uncle once, asking if he had something he could use to store something valuable in; something to keep it safe. A while later Uncle Oscar came to him, declaring he had just the thing and gave him that box, explaining that he had a few boxes like that specially designed for the purpose of keeping small but very important objects safe, such as keys to important places. The beauty of that box was that the key was the Vessalius Crest itself. When you twisted it in a series of specific directions, it would come off to reveal a key underneath. If not done accurately, the Crest would not come off and if you tried to force it, it would break, thus destroying the key as well.

He had been surprised to discover the existence such a box and briefly wondered if it was really okay to use such an important object just for a locket, but he didn't want to waste the effort his Uncle had put into finding that box. Besides it was no ordinary locket.

It was his most valuable possession.

Oz had truly treasured that locket and always wore it. But there were times when he had to take it off, and when he did he stored it in that box. When he changed into his formal clothes before his coming-of-age ceremony, he had taken it off out of instinct. But looking back now, he was very glad he did. If it didn't get lost in the fray when the Baskervilles had attacked, then it surely would've been lost in the Abyss.

Snapping out of his thoughts, Oz began twisting the Vessalius Crest in the way he had been taught by his Uncle, doing his best to control the light trembling of his hands. The movements were still familiar but one wrong movement and he'd have to do it all over again.

"Not even Gil knows about this box's secret..."

Suddenly the Crest was free and he released a breath he didn't even know he was holding. Then, he carefully inserted the key into the lock and twisted it. As it had been ten years, it took a small amount of force but soon he felt the lock click open, and feeling strangely nervous, he pulled back the lid.

There, nestled comfortably on top of a plush, golden silk cushion was the locket.

Placing the box on the bed, Oz gently lifted it out from the box and simply admired it for a while, amazed that the object in his hand was actually over ten years old, when to him it just seemed like one. Then he opened the lid and immediately smiled at what he saw.

In one of the two frames was a simple picture of young Gilbert, looking at the camera with a shy smile. The photograph had been taken two months after Oz had received the locket, on his best friend's 14th birthday. Oz never had a proper picture of his servant so on that day he had forced Gilbert into getting his picture taken, and later Oz secretly had a copy of that photo made and cropped for his locket.

For a moment he was overcome with a strange sense of sadness. Gil was still here, still with him, and still the same as ever.

And yet...

He would never meet with the Gil in the photograph ever again. It made him feel hollow, as though they had been abruptly separated without a chance to say goodbye. And in a way, that was the case. Oz had been torn away from the Gil in his locket and introduced to the new Gil of today just as abruptly. Why? Why did Oz know nothing of the Gil in between those ten years...?

But his sadness soon faded the longer he stared at the photograph, because it reminded him of the day of his 14th birthday when he had received the locket from Gil...

Oz accepted the small present from Gilbert's hands with a smile, before holding it up to examine it inquisitively. It was wrapped in shiny green wrapping paper and tied with a soft, golden ribbon tied in a neat bow. The blonde undid the ribbon and carefully peeled off the wrapping, setting them down on the table. That left a small, red velvet box in his hands. With a glance towards Gilbert who was biting his lip out of nervousness, Oz slowly opened the lid... and gasped at what he saw.

He lifted the locket to better admire its beauty before placing it on his hand, noting how it wasn't too large or too small, but rather, it fit comfortably in his palm. In a vague way it reminded him of Gil – small, as though trying to be discreet, yet stunning enough to bring undivided attention to its presence. The design was lovely as well, and he liked its soft tone of bronze that was not too showy, making it appropriate for a boy like him. But what struck to him the most were the two little crystals – one azure and the other, emerald – embedded in the centre of two overlapping flowers. He didn't know why, but the very first thing they reminded him was of himself and Gil. Green, the colour of his eyes and also the signature colour of the Vessalius Dukedom. And blue, Gil's favourite colour as well as the one that suited him the most.

It was the perfect gift.

"It's beautiful..." breathed Oz, before turning to his servant with a sincere smile. "Thank you so much, Gil. I love it, really."

Gilbert's tension instantly melted; his shoulders visibly drooped with a brief sigh, but then he too mirrored his Master's expression and said, "You're welcome, Master Oz. I cannot explain how glad I am to hear those words." Then his eyes took on a slightly serious sheen as they stared right into Oz's when he added, "Someday, I hope you will find someone who you can cherish with all your heart to fill the inside of that locket, because my only wish is for you to have someone like that... Oz."

The young Vessalius heir was dragged out of his thoughts when he heard the sound of Gilbert's approaching footsteps. He shut the locket just as his servant appeared by the doorway with a tray of tea and biscuits, but continued to stare at his closed hand. That gave Gilbert the impression that Oz was transfixed on something, so he wordlessly entered the room, mindful not to disturb the other as he carefully set the tray down on the dresser.

This silence caused Oz to slip back into his thoughts once more and he remembered how he had stared at his servant with a look of pure astonishment after Gil had said those words to him. There was something about the look in his eye that made him realise that each and every word uttered by Gil had been carefully thought of, and together the sentence as a whole held some deep significance that he wanted his master to understand. And somehow, Oz did. He realised there was a hidden request behind those words; a plea to his heart to drop its defences at least around one person – the person Oz could trust to see him without his mask, someone who he wasn't afraid of being loved by, and someone he wasn't afraid to love.

He also realised, with some pain, the utter selflessness of those words.

Eventually he had recomposed himself, before smiling in a way that lightened the serious atmosphere as he thought to himself, "Silly Gil... I've already found that person."

And it was true. The one person who he trusted with all his heart, the one person that he cared for more than himself, the one person who he could never let go of, forever... That person had always been with him. That was why, on Gil's birthday two months after that, Oz had finally chosen the right picture for his locket.

But the task had been done without Gil knowing. The reason was because he had never asked Oz about the locket after that, or at least about what was inside it, and since Gil never asked, Oz never told. Both were aware of the special significance that locket held, so Gil had probably remained silent because he felt as though he would be prying by asking. Oz was thankful for that thoughtfulness, since in truth he had been hesitant. Within him had still been a small part that remained in fear. It feared rejection, so although he had come to accept that yes, he truly loved his servant, he was too afraid to tell Gil in case those feelings were not mutual.

"That's not the case anymore, though," thought Oz with a fond smile as he turned to gaze at Gilbert, who was pouring them tea.

"Even now, I want to stay as your servant."

Opening his hand once more, he held up the locket and returned it to its rightful place around his neck which was when idea occurred to him, making him smile wider.

"There's still an empty frame... But it won't be empty for long."

"Gil~?" called Oz while standing up, approaching his servant.

"Yes, Oz?" answered his servant while setting the tea pot down before turning to his master.

Before Gilbert could do anything else, Oz reached up to slowly slide his arms around the taller man's neck and pulled him down for a gentle yet firm kiss.

"...No matter how much time may pass, even if our circumstances were to change, I shall remain as your loyal servant forever."

When they parted after what seemed like ages, a soft blush dusted Gilbert's cheeks as his lidded gaze met Oz's. The slight confusion within them among the affection and happiness did not go missed by the latter, whose lips curled into a warm smile.

"We need to get your photo taken."