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Perseverance

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Three mornings a month Giles wakes very early. He doesn't need to set the alarm; his body wakes him, jangling with anticipation.

Without quite timing it, he arrives at the library just after dawn. Oz is locked in the cage, human again, deep in sleep. Giles remembers his sleep from before, from that other lifetime. Oz curls on himself and sleeps intently, more focused than when he's awake, as though sleeping is a very hard task he's put his mind to. His face in sleep is the same as in pleasure--blank, pure, transported. Rapt, listening to the music of the spheres.

On these mornings, Giles looks at Oz for exactly five minutes. He times it, not trusting himself. If he stays too long, Oz might wake up. And then he'd smile slightly, calmly, with such kindness in his eyes. He's always kind, and it corrodes the last thin layers of Giles' pride.

In kindness, Oz touches him casually sometimes on the arm or the shoulder, the way he touches everybody. So Giles won't feel singled out for exclusion. He wants to slice the feel of Oz's touch off with a knife, peeling away skin and nerves until even the sense memory is gone.

If Giles could despair, things would be easier. Despair would be manna from heaven, white sustenance for this white martyrdom, this exile.

Despair is just out of his reach. It always has been. He's always been persistent, even as a boy. When he was five he lost his favorite toy, a big Steiff teddy bear. (He learned, years later, that his father took it away to toughen him up.) For days he looked, unable to give up, unable to forget as children are supposed to. Every day, methodically, he searched in the toybox, in the back garden, in every cupboard and under every bed in the house. When his mother finally said that Bruin was in teddy heaven, he lay in the garden for hours staring hopefully at the sky.

It must have driven his father mad.

It's driving Giles mad now, this hope that won't fall down and decently breathe its last. He deserves madness. It would be retribution for his joy at the breakup, at the sight of Willow alone, guilty, sorrowful. While he offered her sympathy, Giles quivered inside, struggled for breath, sure that Oz would be all his now. But Oz avoided him, didn't visit or call or meet his eyes in the library.

Then came the day when Willow was smiling again, and Oz "needed to talk." Unimaginable, such a phrase in Oz's mouth, until it happened. Oz ended everything so kindly it makes Giles sick to remember.

Don't want to be a hypocrite, Oz said. Not fair to Willow.

Oz kissed Giles goodbye, eviscerating him with kindness.

Giles ought to despair. Surely he has reason, after that? But the impossible happened once before, when a strange, pale, silent boy first shrugged and half-smiled and kissed him. And so Giles waits and starves and grimly hopes.

There are odd side effects. His perceptions have never been sharper. Grief and jealousy give him 20/10 vision. Oz has a freckle on the point of his chin, and Willow sometimes aims kisses at it. Oz's smile skews a little to the right. When he laughs his head tilts down like he's embarrassed. Under the chipped polish his nails are the exact pink-white shade of good strawberry ice cream. On full-moon days his stride lengthens, he swaggers a little, and he sprawls in chairs, claiming maximum space with his small body.

Oz has seventeen t-shirts that he wears in rotation, twelve pairs of trousers. His bracelets are less like tribal artifacts than like children's toys made of kite strings, buttons, beads, fragments of driftglass. Before, Giles only noticed them as impediments that snagged his fingers on their journey up Oz's arms. Now he'd gladly be a string around Oz's wrist, an ancient Clash t-shirt, the worn sole of his shoe.

If Oz were to disappear from the earth, Giles could recreate him from memory.

It's impossible to stop looking, even when Willow sits in Oz's lap and he whispers in her ear. Years from now, Giles knows, he'll still be unable to look away. He'll attend their wedding, eat at their table, play with their children, waiting all the time for Oz to change his mind.

Giles understands, now, why Ethan can never let him alone, why he comes back and back endlessly. He's hooked like a fish, baited and pierced and reeled in by hope. Giles pities Ethan suddenly.

As Oz, he fears, pities him.