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Gumball counted backwards in his head.

Five… four… three… two… one.

He waited, but his siblings remained asleep. He huffed. He must have been off by a few…

Darwin's eyes fluttered, and he let out a long groan. Ah, finally.

"Huh? Wha… happened…?" Darwin murmured. His arm shifted, probably to try to rub the sleep out of his eyes. When it didn't move his eyes snapped open, suddenly wide awake. "AHHH!" He struggled wildly, but only succeeded in swinging around comically, twirling like a ball on a tether. He was completely cocooned in rope.

"Glad to see you're awake," Gumball said only semi-sarcastically, once Darwin had rotated around to face him again. Gumball knew better than to struggle with his own bonds; they weren't actually that uncomfortable once he'd gotten used to them. The rope wasn't scratchy or itchy at all, he noted with approval.

"Gumball?! What's going on?! I can't see anything!" Darwin said while staring straight at Gumball. Gumball couldn't help but roll his eyes. It wasn't that dark; the high windows still let in some moonlight from outside.

"Don't worry, man, it's gonna be fine. Let's just wait for –"

"AHHHH!" Another high-pitched scream split the darkness, and Gumball winced. "What is – why can't I – we were just walking home and then everything just…" A deep breath, then, "WHAT IS GOING ON?!"

"Good morning, Anais!" Gumball chirped. He shifted to rotate towards her, and to his annoyance found she wasn't even looking at him. Instead she was carefully shifting the rope towards her teeth, gnawing on it like a rabbit possessed. "That's not gonna work, Sis. You're just gonna hurt your teeth."

She spat something out. "Oh, okay, let's just lie down and let the serial killer murder us! That sounds like a great plan, Gumball!"

"Serial killer? SERIAL KILLER?! I DIDN'T KNOW THERE WAS A SERIAL KILLER!" Darwin screamed.

"No, no, there's no serial killer!" Gumball huffed. He heard Darwin start to hyperventilate. "Anais, stop scaring him."

"Oh I'm so sorry! I'm sure the person who kidnapped us and dangled us over a bottomless pit just wants to have a nice chat!" Anais spat.

"THAT'S A BOTTOMLESS PIT?! AAHHHHH!!"

Gumball wished he could palm his face.

"Okay, Anais, since you asked, I do have a plan!" he yelled over Darwin's screams. "We wait for Mom to rescue us!"

Anais boggled for a moment. She opened her mouth, but proved too slow. "Oh!" Darwin chirped, suddenly all sunshine. "Just like when we were dangling from the parking garage and we thought we were totally gonna die!"

"Yeah, just like that!" Gumball grinned. "Trust me, we're gonna be fine. Mom's awesome, she can do anything."

"Including being clairvoyant?" Anais snapped.

"I don't know what that –"

Anais groaned loudly. "How is she gonna find us, Gumball? You factor that into your brilliant plan?"

On cue, the speakers blared to life. About time.

"Oh, you needn't worry about that, Wattersons!" boomed a deep, British-accented voice. "I told your parents exactly where to find you. After all, I'd hate for them to miss your gruesome demise!"

"What – who are you?!" Anais yelled into the dark, flailing again. "Show yourself!"

"So soon? What kind of villain would I be if I ruined the suspense in the opening act? Typical children. You expect everything to just be handed to you. No appreciation for the process!" Gumball rolled his eyes. "But I think it is time for you to see just a little bit into your future… and despair!" The lights flashed on, so suddenly Gumball had to squeeze his eyes shut. He cracked them open in time to see the floor start moving below them, two plates slowly sliding open to reveal a glowing, bubbling green tank beneath.

Darwin screamed.

"When your saviors arrive, you will be slowly lowered into a pit of acid! Do you think they can save you before the flesh is seared from your bones?"

"U-uh, probably," Anais said, looking everywhere but down. She was clearly trying to sound confident, but her voice wavered ever-so-slightly, making her hard to hear over Darwin's whimpering. "Acid is terrible at dissolving organic material. If you want to dispose of a body, you need a base. Don't you know that?"

The speakers were quiet for just a breath too long. "Of course!" they said, a bit too frantically to be believable. "Which is why this acid pit also contains… sharks! They will eat you alive!" Gumball's eye twitched. Seriously? Who would fall for that?

Darwin screamed again. Well, that answered his question. "Don't fall for it, Darwin!" Anais yelled over him. "Can't you see there aren't any sharks? He's bluffing!"

"Oh, of course I would not release them immediately! They are so… so incredibly monstrous even I cannot control them, yes! Absolute cold-blooded killers, they are, who exist only to destroy! Were I to release them the distance would not protect you, no, they would leap out to eat you right now, before we have even truly begun! Where would be the fun in that?"

"I suppose they also breathe acid?" Anais deadpanned.

"Yes! Yes, yes, they are – uh – genetically engineered! To be even deadlier than normal sharks! Monsters! Terrifying abominations of science!"

Gumball had to choke down a laugh. This was so ridiculous. Darwin was still falling for it hook, line, and sinker, eyes bulging in terror. Did he really not recognize the voice…?

"Guys, it's okay," Anais said quickly. "It'll hurt, but close your eyes as tight as you can and we'll survive until the police can –"

Right on cue, the doors to the room flew open, with such force one of the hinges snapped in two.

"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY CHILDREN?!"

Nicole crashed forward towards the glass shield that separated them, eyes blazing with fury. They briefly flashed with horror, flicking between her children and the pit, then burned even brighter.

Her dramatic entrance was, unfortunately, undercut by Richard barging in after her, with far less dignity. He brought his hands to his face and screamed so shrilly Gumball felt an urge to clamp his hands over his ears. "Oh no, oh NOOO! I'm so SORRY! Oh, how could I let this happen? I'm such a TERRIBLE FATHER!" he shrieked, openly weeping. Gumball sighed. He didn't have high hopes, but even still, that was pretty pathetic.

"Mrs. Mom! Mr. Dad! P-p-please help us p-please I don't wanna –" Darwin was actually tearing up. Wow. Well, points for style.

"Welcome, Wattersons!" the speakers blared, cutting him off. Nicole whipped her head around and flared her nostrils like a panther, searching for her prey. "I'm so glad you could make it. I wouldn't want you to miss this!"

"Show yourself, coward!" Nicole barked.

"I'm afraid I can't do that, my dear. But I think I will give you something. Just a little friendly offer."

Machinery whirred into life. Darwin and Anais yelped as their rope juddered into motion, making them swing. They looked up – yes, finally – and saw what they were suspended from: industrial pulleys. Slowly, they started to unspool, lowering them down.

Darwin screamed again. Even Anais looked pretty rattled.

"As you can see, Watterson, your kids are being lowered into an acid pit." Gumball could see her clenching her fists, her whole body so tense she looked ready to snap at any moment. "But I don't want them all to die. Oh no, my dear.

"I want you to choose. Choose who will die, and I'll let the others go free."

"MRS. MOM PLEASE DON'T PICK ME PLEASE I'M SORRY I SAID THE PASTA LAST NIGHT WAS BAD I DIDN'T MEAN IT PLEASE NO I DON'T WANNA DIE!!" Darwin screamed, his voice reverberating across the warehouse and drilling into Gumball's ears so badly he had to flinch. Geez, what a drama queen.

"Darwin, stop it! We're fine!" Gumball snapped. Darwin didn't even seem to notice he was there. He just screwed his eyes shut, hyperventilating. "Mom!" Gumball tried instead. "You can do this! These are machines, right, so that means –"

"Myself."

Gumball's heart skipped a beat.

The warehouse went quiet, silent except for the motion of the gears.

"Myself!" Nicole shouted again, stepping forward. "This is about me, isn't it? Then take me! Just let my children go!"

No answer.

Gumball felt something twisting in his gut. Which was silly, of course, obviously she wasn't actually going to… she was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine.

"No… No, Nicole, don't…" Richard squeaked.

The acid pit loomed closer. Anais' eyes flicked down, and she suddenly looked very queasy.

"Answer me–!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Mrs. – Nicole! The choice is between your children alone!"

Gumball let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding.

"TAKE ME!" Richard bawled, tears gushing down his face. "This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gone after those sausages and left the kids all alone! I'M SORRY, NICOLE! THIS IS ALL MY FAULT!"

There was an awkward silence as Richard sobbed.

"You, uh… you did hear me say you had to pick from your children, right –"

Darwin cut him off. "I'M SORRY I SAID I WANTED A BIGGER TANK I DON'T REALLY NEED IT I'M SORRY I DON'T NEED ANYTHING I'M SORRY FOR EVERYTHING PLEASE I'LL DO ANYTHING YOU WANT JUST PLEASE PLEASE DON'T–"

"I'm not picking anyone!" Nicole shouted. She slammed her fist straight into the screen, but the plexiglass only threw her back, reverberating from the force. "I just – I just have to–"

Gumball's heart was pounding so hard he could feel it, hammering against his chest like it wanted to break free. Amazing, it was like he was actually scared. But he wasn't, it was just an automatic reaction, yeah. He was fine.

Nicole was looking around frantically, but not really doing anything. Paralyzed by indecision? Gumball's eyes flicked down to judge how much time they had. Still some distance, but… at the rate this was going, not enough. Time for emergency measures.

"Mom, the wall on the left–"

"Get out of here, Mom!" Anais shouted over him. "It's acid, not base! Just get the police, we'll still be alive when they get here!"

Nicole shook her head. "No – no, I can't do that!" For the first time, Gumball noticed that she was shaking. Her head wheeled desperately around the room again, to the kids, to the pit, and back again. She screwed her eyes shut and suddenly howled with rage, charging to the left and slamming her fist into a thick support beam. She hit it again and again, the metal ringing as it buckled, but that wasn't helping anything.

Gumball rolled his eyes. "Your other left!" He had made sure to get it right from her perspective, too!

"NONONONONO –" Geez, Darwin was loud. He was starting to wonder if she could even hear him…

Nicole slammed the beam again and looked back, pausing only for a second to wipe her face of – tears? No, she was stronger than that. Gumball was sure of it. She must just be working up a sweat. She pressed herself straight up against the screen, eyes flicking desperately over the scene. They were almost level with her now; Gumball could hear the liquid gurgling.

"Mom, just get the police!" Anais' voice was breaking now, a high pitch as fragile as glass.

Nicole took a step back and swung a sharp kick at the screen, accomplishing nothing. She staggered back and took a flying leap, slamming her whole body into the shield with a loud bang. She landed on her feet and immediately punched the screen again, and again, and again, but the plexiglass shuddered less each time. Gumball could see she was definitely crying now. His heartbeat felt heavier.

Her tear-streaked eyes flicked rapidly between Gumball and his siblings in turn, hand still scrabbling uselessly at the glass.

"Mom, THE WALL ON YOUR LEFT–"

"I DON'T WANNA DIE I DON'T WANNA DIE I DON'T WANNA DIE–"

– Anais curled up and clenched her teeth –

– Richard cried even harder –

– Nicole squeezed her eyes shut, clutching her head, breathing heavily –

"Mom–!"

"GUMBALL!!"

Darwin stopped screaming.

Richard stopped crying.

Everything went quiet.

Gumball stared straight ahead at his mother. She looked back in horror, clamped her hands over her mouth, and, slowly, sunk to her knees.

"U-um," the speakers said after a moment. "Um. Are you, uh, are you, sure… um, w-wait, no, I mean… u-um, I don't think I… heard you… uh…"

Dr. Wrecker's voice trailed off into silence.

"...Uh, guys?" Anais said suddenly. "The pulley's still moving! Do something!"

"Uh – uh – um." There was the muffled sound of someone moving. "Sorry, just – hold on, let me just –"

The glass shield retracted into the wall and the ropes unspooled, all at once. Gumball heard screams as they fell the few remaining feet into the pool, closing his eyes to brace against the shock.

Somehow, the noise of Nicole's gasp cut through it all. Gumball looked up, and saw she had already jumped into the pool, terror clear on her face. She landed with a splash and didn't even slow down, cutting through the water like she was a speedboat before quickly slicing through his ropes with her claws.

Distantly, Gumball noticed there was a deafening absence of sound. Darwin and Anais stopped screaming. As Gumball stood up, Nicole finally seemed to notice it too, looking over her clothes that were supposedly soaked in acid.

"This… isn't acid," Anais said. An awkward silence followed, broken by Nicole wading over to untie her. "Is… is this just water?" she said, finally.

Not even deep enough to drown in. It barely came up to Anais' chest. That had been important.

"U-uh…" Rob mumbled over the speakers before continuing more loudly, "Thank you for participating in this, uh, psychological experiment! As, uh, you can see, you were never in any real danger, so, um, all's well that ends well?"

Nicole stopped. Gumball couldn't see her face, but she let Darwin's ropes fall through her slack fingers. Darwin stared at nothing, clutching at his mother for dear life.

"'Psychological experiment?'"

Gumball felt a chill far colder than the water around his legs.

He tried to think back to all the times she had gotten angry – usually at something he did, he reflected – but not a single memory matched that voice. It was quiet, and somehow that made it much, much worse.

She got no response from the speakers. Slowly, she got up and waded to the edge of the pool, cradling Darwin like a baby. Gumball saw Richard was there. He must have wandered over at some point. She passed Darwin to him. He didn't resist.

Nicole climbed out without even a backwards glance. Anais paddled over, seemingly unconcerned, and hoisted herself over the edge. She turned back to look at him.

"Uh, Gumball? You… you okay?"

He nodded, and climbed out. Wasn't hard. Not a big deal. He didn't know what Darwin was so upset about.

Nicole was still turned away from them, staring at the discolored panel in the side of the room. "The wall to my left…"

Gumball jumped as her arm shot out, shattering the weak plywood to splinters. She stepped forward, staring at the signage over the button beneath.

PULLEY: EMERGENCY STOP

No one spoke for several moments. Finally, Nicole turned her head to look across the empty floor. Gumball still couldn't see her face.

"He must have been operating this from a control room, right?"

There was a breath before Anais answered. "Oh. Uh, yeah, he must've been. Uh…" She coughed a little, and looked up. "There," she said after a second, pointing. "The windows are dark – looks like, uh, one-way glass or something, but, he would've been up there."

Nicole started walking immediately. "How do we get there?"

Anais started sounding more confident. "If this is like most warehouses there should be a door to the stairwell, in the back."

Nicole took off like a rocket. Something finally spurred Gumball's body into movement, and he took off after her.

"W-wait," he called out weakly. "Wh-what are you going to do?"

Nicole didn't answer. She spun around the corner, and Gumball made it just in time to see her throw open the door.

Rob stood there, gawking, hand on the back exit. He hesitated.

Nicole didn't.

Gumball didn't even see her move. By the time he had thought to yell, Rob was already flying, thrown through the doors so hard they banged on their hinges. He landed hard on the pavement outside, gasping and clutching his stomach.

"Mom! What are you doing?" Anais' voice. Gumball hadn't even realized the others had caught up.

Nicole walked forward with a chilling inevitability, and hefted the gasping boy by his shirt collar.

"I think I'd like to show this man what we thought of his 'psychological experiment'."

"Wait… Gumball, isn't that…" Darwin's voice, weak. If he hadn't been standing right next to him, he wouldn't have heard. Gumball glanced at him quickly. Richard was still cradling him, stroking him gently but absently. It was clear Richard didn't know what was happening either.

"Okay, okay, hold on," Rob said breathlessly. "It was just a prank, I didn't–"

Nicole's palm shot out like a bullet, striking him across the head so hard his glitched skin had to rearrange itself. Gumball yelped, and he saw Anais wince.

"You hurt my family." Gumball watched in horror as she raised her free hand to grasp Rob's wrist in a crushing grip. "And now, I am going to make sure you never hurt anyone again."

"Mom…?" Anais said.

Rob looked straight at him, all hurt and terror and betrayal and Gumball wanted to speak up, to stop this, to say anything but he couldn't move his mouth he couldn't move anything – "What are you doing?! GUMBALL–!"

Nicole flicked her wrist, and there was a sickening crack from Rob's arm. He screamed.

"Say his name again and I will kill you."

"Don't do it!" Gumball screamed out in one breath. He hardly even recognized his own voice, it was so shrill and scared and pathetic and he wanted to go home.

"Yeah, Mom, don't kill him!" Anais yelled out. "You'll go to jail!"

Without turning, Nicole released Rob's wrist. So she was letting him go, then, that was good, it was going to be okay –

Then the light glinted off her hand in the darkness, and Gumball realized she had extended her claws.

"They'll say it was a wild animal."

"NO! PLEASE!" Rob spasmed, flailing his gangly limbs wildly, but none of them connected. He looked at Gumball again with confusion and fear and a hate that made him want to curl up and die. "THIS WASN'T PART OF THE DEAL!"

Nicole's hand snapped out again, raking her claws so deep Gumball saw pixels spill out like blood, glitching out of existence before they hit the ground. Rob screamed.

Nicole was shaking with rage now, her voice tripping over itself with fury. "Don't. Don't you. Don't you dare try to, to say one of my family was part of this."

She hit him again.

Gumball looked around, desperately. Was Anais really just going to let this happen? She was just staring forwards, expression unreadable. Darwin – Darwin knew Rob was harmless, surely he wouldn't let her do this? But – no, he was just curled in a ball, eyes shut and dead to the world. Dad – Dad was an adult, wasn't he? He'd know this was wrong, he'd stop it, right? But he was just whimpering, looking on helplessly.

Gumball heard the wet ripping sound of Nicole's claws again, and flinched like she was hitting him. Because she was. Because this was all his fault. He'd screwed up again and now Rob was being hurt because of him and it was too much, he was gasping for air but no matter how hard he tried there wasn't enough, everything was just so heavy and he was suffocating he was drowning

"He's telling the truth!" Gumball screamed.

He heard Nicole stop. The only sound was Rob's moaning and sniffling.

Gumball slowly cracked his eyes open, but he still couldn't raise them. He stared at the dark pavement, shaking. "This… this whole thing, it was my idea. I talked him into it. It's not his fault, so please, please don't…"

There was a long silence. Even Rob had gone quiet.

"…What?" Anais said, finally. It was an accusation, not a question, with such venom in it Gumball's heart felt like it was going to shatter. He felt his knees fall out from under him, and tried not to cry.

Nicole's voice cut through. "Sweetie, you don't have to lie to protect this man." She was using her normal voice again, like they were all at home and having a normal conversation where she hadn't just beaten a boy scarcely older than him half to death.

"Oh, no. No. I believe him," Anais snapped. "This is absolutely the sort of thing he would do."

"…No," Darwin said. Hesitantly, Gumball raised his head slightly to look at him. "He wouldn't… not… not without telling me." Darwin looked at him, eyes red from crying. "…Right?"

Gumball could only look down in shame.

"Tell me, Gumball… tell me… tell me you didn't!"

Gumball heard Rob fall to the ground. Gumball looked up to see him scrabbling away, so desperately he kept tripping over his own feet. He slipped and tried to catch himself on his broken wrist, only for it to twist at a sickening angle, making him howl in pain. He clutched it to his chest as he spun around to face them, looking equally ready to cry or scream.

"Yeah," he spat. "Yeah, Gumball planned the whole thing! Found this abandoned warehouse, wrote me my lines, and paid me to set up all the machinery! And do you want to know why?"

Gumball felt a wave of nausea. "Rob, don't–"

"Because he thought you didn't love him enough!" Rob barked a cruel laugh. "He said nothing short of a life-or-death situation would bring you together! He thought this would be a family bonding experience!"

"Th-that's not…"

Rob let go of his wrist to stab an accusing finger in the Wattersons' general direction. "Wow, you sure messed that up, huh? Hah! All this time, I didn't even need to lift a finger! You destroyed yourselves all on your own! You're all freaks! Freaks!"

With that he turned away, and ran into the night.

No one spoke.

Gumball looked at his feet again. He didn't want to look at anything. He wished the black pavement would swallow him and everything up and make everything just a bad dream.

But it didn't. He was painfully aware of the cold of the night air, the wet tears on his face, the heavy, ragged breaths he couldn't control.

He hadn't wanted this.

He heard a sharp intake of breath from Anais, but Nicole cut her off before she could utter a word.

"Let's all go home. The car's on the other side."

Her footsteps pattered across the pavement.

"What – wait, wait." Anais had found her voice again. "I want to talk about this! You can't just let him off the hook!" Gumball flinched. Nicole's footsteps didn't even stutter. "He went too far this time! No – he's been going too far for a long time! If we had put our feet down before this never would have–"

Anais stopped with a sharp gasp. That, finally, made Gumball's head snap up. Nicole was towering over her, a firm hand on her shoulder. Anais was frozen, looking for all the world like Death himself was standing there.

"I said we're going home."

Nicole turned, and continued walking. Anais hung her head and mumbled, "Yes, Mom," but not before shooting Gumball a burning glare. Gumball flinched away.

"Uh… c-come on, Gumball. Let's go." Gumball felt Richard's hand on his arm, and let it pull him away. He risked a glance up – Darwin was walking again, on the other side, and pointedly not looking at him. Gumball looked back down again.

They got into the car. Gumball clicked the seatbelt on autopilot. The car rumbled into motion. They drove in silence.

Anais broke it, after several minutes. "I can't believe… No, no, I can believe. That's the worst part," she said, staring straight ahead. "But I had hoped you couldn't possibly be this stupid!"

"Not now, Anais," Nicole said without turning around.

"When, then?!" Anais roared. "You're coddling him, Mom, he thinks he can get away with anything because you never–"

Richard whipped around. "Listen to your mother." For an instant Gumball thought he was looking at someone else. He had never seen his father look so stern. His face was hard, a firm scowl marring his normally-soft face.

Gumball's veins felt like ice. Anais hung her head, cowed.

Gumball flicked his eyes over to Darwin, but he was turned away, hunched in on himself and staring out the window.

No one spoke for the rest of the ride.

They pulled into the driveway. The car rumbled to a stop. Gumball heard Nicole take a breath before she opened the door.

Everyone moved out. Gumball followed them robotically.

And then – it was the stupidest thing.

His legs wouldn't move past the doorstep. That was, that was stupid, right? This was home. This was safe, this was normal, why shouldn't he be here, why shouldn't he?

"Are you gonna stay out there all night, Gumball?" Richard said it with a smile, but it cracked at the edges.

That was still enough to break the spell. Gumball mumbled something unintelligible, and stumbled forward, more falling than walking.

The house was dark inside. Nicole didn't even bother to turn on a light before she headed for the stairs. She leaned a hand against the wall and her head drooped, ever so slightly.

Then she punched the wall with a boom that made Gumball's tail puff. He was gonna get it now, he was really gonna get it, she was going to tell him off in front of everyone and he would deserve it

"It's late," she said quietly, still facing away from them. "There's leftovers in the fridge if you're hungry."

"Now can we talk about it?" Anais said.

"In the morning, Anais. I… I need to lie down."

They watched her climb up the stairs and into her room. She closed the door behind her with a soft click.

Richard clapped his hands together, the sudden noise making everyone jump. "Okay, kids!" he said cheerfully. "Do you want to eat something, or should I get you ready for bed?"

Anais rolled her eyes. "I'd like to stay up but apparently nothing's happening until the morning, so fine, off to blessed oblivion with me."

Richard gave her a strange look. "Your mother has a lot to…" He paused, a breath of awkward silence with nothing to fill it. "I mean, she's very tired, Anais. We'll all feel better in the morning."

"Sure." Anais didn't sound like she believed it. She pushed Gumball roughly out of the way and made her best attempt at stomping up the stairs, though with her tiny feet it just sounded like normal steps.

Gumball waited, but no one else seemed to want to move. Gumball certainly didn't. In the corner of his vision, he saw Richard wringing his hands.

"S-So, uh," he mumbled awkwardly. "How about you, kids?"

No one answered. Gumball felt frozen for a second, then finally forced his head to turn. Darwin pointedly turned away from him.

"I-I, um…" Gumball cleared his throat. "I think we should probably just… go… too…"

No one moved, still. Gumball awkwardly reached out a hand, tapping Darwin on the shoulder. "A-Are… are you coming too, buddy?"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Gumball's breath hitched, then raced forward – "I-I-I just, it was, I thought, you just, I…"

…before leaving him again.

Darwin turned just enough to face Gumball. His eyes flicked away almost immediately, but he still held Gumball's gaze enough for him to see the hurt and anger. Gumball wanted to throw up his heart.

"You never cut me out. Never. No matter how dangerous, or crazy, or, or, no matter how much I complain, you always tell me, always! So why…" Darwin sniffed, and, though they were still hard with anger, his eyes shimmered with wetness. "Why did you do it? Did you not… trust me?"

Gumball squeezed his eyes shut. He tried to think of how to explain – that he didn't think it would go this way, that he thought Darwin needed it too, that maybe, yes, he admitted with a stab of guilt, he had been worried Darwin would actually tell on him – but every excuse just sounded more stupid and pathetic than the last.

He took a breath to say… something, but the words just stuck in his throat. He tried again, noticing his breath was ragged, and finally managed, "That's… not it."

Richard coughed, and Gumball was suddenly aware of his looming presence. He hadn't even noticed him come closer. "U-um, why don't we just say goodnight, kids–"

"Then WHY?!" Darwin exploded. Gumball and Richard stumbled back like they had been physically shoved, and Darwin pressed forward into the space. "Why did you do this at – at ALL?!" He was gesturing madly now, staring through Gumball as much as at him. "Do you have ANY IDEA how – how MESSED UP that was–"

Gumball squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block everything out. "Stop it, just stop it, okay! This isn't any different than when we made Dad rescue us–"

"YES it IS! Because you didn't tell me!" Darwin was screaming probably loud enough to wake the whole house now – and sure enough, from the second floor, Gumball heard a groaned, "Oh, good grief," from Anais. Gumball flinched and curled in on himself.

"Kids, please–"

"I didn't need to!" Gumball snapped, a desperate, reedy edge to his voice. "You saw it, it was all fake, you were fine–"

"I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE!"

Gumball's eyes flew open. Darwin was standing over him, shuddering, tears flowing in rivers down his face.

Gumball breathed helplessly. "Wh–"

Darwin slammed his hand into the banister, and Gumball's jaw shut like a trap. "Why? Why? Why don't I ask you why, why you don't think you have it good enough, oh–" He tried to put on a sarcastic impression of Gumball's voice, but he was hyperventilating so much it just came out as an incoherent warble. "I'm Gumball and I have a wonderful family that loves me and gives me everything I want but that's not good enough for me because I'm such an – an ungrateful jerk I'm gonna throw them in a deathtrap and make them think their mom's gonna pick them to die because, because that makes sense somehow!"

Gumball clutched his head. He was suffocating again.

Richard tried to push Darwin up the stairs, cringing awkwardly. "Darwin, um, I think that's enough, can you please–" Darwin shoved him off.

Gumball's stupid tongue must have taken the interruption as permission to keep going, because he heard himself cry: "Well, you're not the one who got picked, now are you, so I don't see what you're complaining about!"

"How about THIS?" Darwin was screaming at the top of his lungs now. He punched out an accusing finger, so close Gumball thought he might actually strike him. "You're still here!"

Gumball just stared. "Wh… what are you… saying…?"

Darwin clenched his fists and stomped the ground, hard, squeezing his eyes shut.

"I'M SAYING I WISH YOU HAD DIED!"

"DARWIN, THAT'S ENOUGH!" Richard lunged with a speed Gumball had never seen from him before, grasping Darwin roughly by the forearm. Darwin struggled, but this time, Richard's grip was like iron. "If you can't get along with your brother, you can stay down here!"

Gumball stared at the floor.

"Oh? OH?!" Darwin yelled, unrelenting, gesturing angrily at Gumball. "Why do I need to leave when this is all his fault?!"

Richard's face was stony. "Because you can't say that to your brother, Darwin!"

"'S fine," Gumball mumbled. The noise of struggling stopped. "I – I can sleep down here. 'S fine." He paused, not looking up. "Darwin needs his, his tank anyway, you'd have to bring it down, um… I'll move. 'S fine."

There was moment of silence. "…GOOD!" Darwin yelled eventually, but there was an awkward sheepishness in his voice. He struggled out of Richard's grip, stomped his way up the stairs, and slammed the door to his – their – room without looking back.

The two of them just stood there for a second. Hesitantly, Richard tried to place a hand on Gumball's shoulder, but Gumball moved away from the touch, walking the short distance to the couch and unceremoniously flopping down.

He screwed his eyes shut and tried to fall asleep, but nothing happened. After a minute, he became uncomfortably aware of how uncomfortable he was. It was a warm summer night, but somehow the absence of blankets was still felt wrong. He curled his tail over himself to try to provide cover, but it wasn't enough.

Gumball felt something touch him and he tensed immediately, eyes flying open. He saw Richard standing over him, hands pulled back awkwardly from a flinch. When Gumball didn't move, he reached forward and pulled the blanket over Gumball with care, making sure he was completely covered.

Richard stayed there for a moment longer, hovering awkwardly. "It'll be okay," he mumbled. "Darwin didn't mean it." Gumball looked away. "Everyone will feel better in the morning. You'll see."

Gumball waited in silence a few seconds longer. Wordlessly, Richard got up and left.

He wasn't sure when he fell asleep, but when Gumball opened his eyes again light was filtering through the windows.

He did have to admit that, as stupid as it was, the light did make him feel better.

He heard a faint sizzling noise from the kitchen. His nose twitched, picking up the faint whiff of pancakes. Maybe… breakfast was already done, then? Maybe… it would be okay if he got up…

He heard footsteps patter across the carpet, and immediately froze, shutting his eyes tight. The footsteps stopped and his heart hammered in his chest – they were gonna see him they were gonna yell at him and throw him out and –

The footsteps resumed, traveling away from him. It took him a second to realize he was still holding his breath, then he let it out as quietly as he could.

"U-um…" Darwin's voice! Gumball's ears pricked despite himself – dang it, dang it, stupid body, he better not have seen that – "Mom?"

"Breakfast will be ready soon, sweetie. I thought some pancakes would cheer everyone up, does that sound nice?" Her voice was a cheery singsong, as if nothing was wrong at all.

"Uh, yeah." Gumball realized he was having to strain to hear Darwin. His voice was very, very quiet. "I just wanted to say… um…"

There was a breath of silence. Gumball wondered if he hadn't caught the rest, but then Darwin said, "…Thank you for not picking me."

For a while there was only sizzling, then Nicole spoke. "I didn't want to pick anyone, Darwin." Her voice was flat now, unreadable.

"I know I know," Darwin said quickly, "but, but, it's just um…" A breath of silence again, punctuated with an awkward laugh. "It's, it's stupid I know, but it's just… well, that whole… thing, it was a lot like, um, the things you see in movies and TV sometimes, right, and, um… when I was there… when I was there, all I could think was…"

Darwin's babble trailed off. He took a breath, and when he spoke again it was low:

"'The adopted kid always dies.'"

Gumball barely stopped himself from jumping up when something clattered loudly in the kitchen. It was followed by a soft "oof" from Darwin, then an almost immediate, "Sweetie you know we don't think of you like that I'm so sorry you don't have to ever feel like –"

"I know, I know!" Darwin said, laughing awkwardly. "It's, like I said, it was stupid –"

"No no no it's not, you're not stupid sweetie, you can talk to me about anything I promise I'm so sorry –"

"Okay okay!" This time, Darwin's laugh sounded more genuine. "I love you too, Mrs. Mom. You can, uh, let go of me now."

Gumball heard shuffling and a mumbled exchange he couldn't quite catch. "It just, um… that… meant a lot to me. I just wanted to tell you that," Darwin said after a moment.

He didn't get a response. Gumball heard the sound a pancake being flipped, then sizzling again.

"I think I need to speak with your father about what shows you're watching," Nicole finally said. Despite the veiled rebuke, her tone was playful. Back to normal again.

Darwin barked a loud, guilty laugh. "Ha ha ha maybe."

"Now, I believe you have something you need to say to your brother, isn't that right?"

"…Yes, Mrs. Mom."

More pattering. This time they came closer, stopping just in front of him. Gumball kept his eyes closed, pretending to still be asleep.

The quiet stretched out. Gumball could hear Darwin breathing and occasionally pacing back and forth, but it was clear he wasn't willing to actually wake him.

Fine by him. Gumball rolled over. It was comfortable here. Maybe if he fell asleep by the time he woke up again Darwin would have forgotten and they could keep going like nothing happened and they'd never have to talk about it. Maybe he'd just sleep forever.

"Uh… Gumball? Are you awake?"

Gumball curled in on himself.

A pause, then, "It's… okay if you don't want to talk to me. I-I was really mean to you and I'm sorry. I-I don't actually, uh, want you to, uh, to d-die…" His voice began to crack. "I'm sorry, I feel so awful like, like something's eating me from inside and I know you hate me but–"

"Stop it," Gumball said.

Reluctantly, he sat up, letting the blanket fall off his shoulders. He balled the cloth in his fists. "Don't… talk like that. 'S not your fault."

"But I shouldn't have said that I–"

"I don't care," Gumball mumbled. "'S fine." Despite himself, he felt water pooling at the corners of his eyes. "You were right anyway. I should've told you. I didn't think about how you would feel, I…" He paused, and clenched his fists tighter. "I didn't think."

Gumball heard sniffling, and that was the only warning he got before Darwin wrapped him in a crushing hug, bawling loudly into his shoulder. Gumball stiffened from the shock, then slowly allowed himself to relax.

"IT'S OKAY, I FORGIVE YOU!" Darwin wailed. Gumball finally turned to face him, and saw his lip was trembling as his face was streaked with tears and snot. Ew. "Y, you're not just my brother, you're my best friend!" he said. "And that's more important than anything in the world!"

"Uh… yeah," Gumball said. He allowed himself a smile, and awkwardly wrapped an arm around Darwin. "I love you too, buddy."

Darwin sniffled for a moment longer, then finally released him. He wiped his eyes and smiled at Gumball again.

Gumball couldn't meet his eyes. "And… I won't leave you out again, okay? I promise."

"N-No, it's okay, Gumball, I didn't mean it. I know you need to have your own space sometimes."

Gumball balled his fists in the blanket again. "That's…"

Someone blew their nose behind him, loudly. Baffled, Gumball stood up and whipped around.

"Oh, come on, Dad!" he yelled. "Were you there the whole time?!"

Richard let his tissue drop to the floor, his face still streaming fluids in an ugly mess. He sniffled and wiped his eyes, but it only really succeeded in moving the tears around. "I-I-I'm just suh, so proud of my boys!" he wailed. "I'm so ha, happy everything's okay again!"

A sharp clap silenced his sobbing immediately. It continued after a pause, slowly and sarcastically. Gumball turned to the source…

"Yes, what a lovely performance." Anais' voice dripped venom. "So beautiful and not at all scripted I'm sure, and now we can all go back to normal. Because that's what really matters here. I'm so glad to see that once again, Gumball's forgiven for everything and learns nothing, because it all worked out this time and that makes it all okay."

Gumball looked at his feet.

"Anais, don't–" Richard started.

"Breakfast is ready, everyone!" Nicole called, a little louder than necessary.

"Oh, breakfast! The most important meal of the day!" Richard said, suddenly sunshine again. "What did you make us, dear?"

"Pancakes!"

"With sausages?!"

"Just pancakes, dear."

"Aww…"

Gumball felt a tug on his arm, and looked up to see Darwin smiling at him like this was any other day. "C'mon, Gumball, I'm hungry!"

Gumball prepared to protest, but his stomach growled and he suddenly became aware all at once of how hungry he was, too. He nodded absently and followed Darwin to the table.

He could feel Anais' gaze like a dagger in his back. He stared straight ahead and sat down in his normal spot right next to Mom but if he looked the other way he'd have to look at Darwin and Anais so he just looked down at his plate and pretended it was the whole world.

It was really nice, he admitted. The pancakes were topped with warm butter and maple syrup, just like he always loved. He could hear everyone else chowing down already. His stomach growled again and he absently picked up a knife and fork, going through the motions. He took a few bites, slowly.

Eventually, he heard, "Is everything alright, sweetie? You've barely touched your food!"

He froze.

He didn't want to look at her.

He couldn't look at her.

"I can make you something else if you want–"

"No it's fine!" he said quickly, still only staring at his plate. "I must've just spaced out ha ha it's really good," he continued, shoveling pancake into his mouth.

It was good. And he was hungry. He scarfed the rest down.

"So that's it, then?" Gumball nearly choked, but forced the last bite down. Anais continued, "You're just going to pat his head and give him everything he wants?"

An awkward pause, then, "You're being too hard on him, Anais," Nicole said. Her voice was level, but had an odd quality Gumball couldn't place. "We've all had a bad experience and–"

"And you think you can fix that by just pretending it never happened?!"

Right next to him, so quiet Gumball might have imagined it, Nicole muttered, "It's worked every other time."

"What was that?"

Nicole sighed. "Anais, the world isn't going to stop just because we're upset. I still have to go to work and you still have to go to school. We have to keep moving and I think you'll find that some normality will help distance you from–"

"NO!" Gumball heard Anais bang her fists against her chair. He gripped the table so hard his hands hurt. "You just want me to shut up and forget about it like we do EVERY! SINGLE! TIME!"

"Please he said he's sorry and he didn't mean it so–" Darwin tried.

"Oh, and that makes it all okay! Because he's sorry! He's always so sorry!" Gumball felt wetness pricking his eyes again, and shut them tight. "So sorry he forgets all the hurt he's caused so he can jump straight into a new plan to endanger more people!"

"Anais–"

"How did he know he could trust that guy, huh? I've certainly never met him! He could have actually been planning to kill us! Not like it'd be hard to trick this idiot!"

"A-Actually, Anais, I do know that guy, he's–"

Anais ignored him. "Or the machinery could have broken, or we could have drowned in that pool, ANYTHING could have happened! To say nothing of litigation risk – I can't imagine any of that was legal!"

She paused, and this time no one interrupted her. "He has to learn there are consequences for his actions, Mom! Or do you actually want him to get himself killed in one of these stupid stunts? You practically admitted it–"

"FINE!" Gumball stood up with such force his chair fell back behind him, but he didn't care. "I GET it! I'm a horrible stupid idiot and you all hate me! If you want me gone that badly I'll just LEAVE!"

He didn't see who he pushed out of the way, barely saw the front door as he slammed it open, couldn't see where he was going through the blur of tears, and he didn't care. He just wanted to run until his legs couldn't carry him anymore.

 

 

 

Nicole stared at the open door for one full second before her legs started into motion. She leapt over the table, not caring where she landed, and was out the door by the time her thoughts had caught up with her movements.

Is everything alright, she had asked him. Is everything alright, she asked the boy who saw his own mother condemn him to execution. Is everything alright, she had said, like she didn't even care. How else was she expecting that to go?

Stupid.

We always knew you'd slip up one day, Nicole.

Shut up.

He had run straight out into the street. Her heart skipped a beat as she scanned from side to side, fighting the sick hope that she'd see him sprawled on someone's windshield because at least then she'd know, but the street was empty.

She ran.

This is what comes of neglecting your training, Nicole. This is all because you couldn't break the glass. Because you're not good enough.

Shut up.

She was faster than him, but he could have gone anywhere. She picked a direction at random and prayed it was right. She'd cover the whole town if she had to.

We always said that boy would ruin you, and we were right. You know we're always right. He made you weak, Nicole.

Shut up.

Where would he have gone? A friend's house? Penny's, Tobias'? Should she ask if they'd seen him, or would that just make her lose time? What would he do in this situation? She didn't know.

It's a poor parent who can't understand their own child. We understood you, Nicole. We knew you better than you know yourself.

Shut up.

What if he had fallen into the river, into a ravine, into some kidnapper's trap, what if what if what if –

Your daughter was right. You spared the rod, and now you won't have a child at all.

Shut up.

She had to keep moving.

But you got to stick it to your folks, and that's what really matters, isn't it, Nicole?

Shut up.

She had to find him.

Why? Isn't this what you wanted?

"SHUT UP!!"

She threw out her fist, not caring where it hit, and heard the sharp split of wood. She blinked back her tears, and looked up to see she was in the town park. Her strike had split a crack down the whole trunk of a nearby tree, though fortunately not all the way through.

"Sorry, tree," she said sheepishly. The tree did not respond. She rubbed her knuckles and winced at the feel of splinters.

She became aware she was hyperventilating, and the burn of exhaustion hit her all at once. She sat down, a little shakily, and waited for her breathing to stabilize.

Look at her. Panicking, rushing off without thinking anything through, again. Acting like she was invincible, like she could do everything on her own. She never learned. Stupid.

She sighed heavily, barely stopping it from becoming a sob, and held her head in her hands. Okay, so… she should do what she should have done as soon as she realized she'd lost him, and tell the police to put out a search. He was probably fine. He had a knack for getting into trouble, but he always managed to get out of it okay, didn't he? She just needed to calm down, and trust the authorities to handle this.

She remembered again the way her claws had raked across that man's face, the sharp snap of his wrist. She felt her breathing stutter and forced herself to stay calm, stay calm. Yes, he had probably reported that. Yes, the police would probably arrest her the moment she walked into the station. Maybe that would be right. It didn't matter. She had to do what was right for Gumball.

She rose to her feet, looked up, and –

Luck. Dumb, stupid luck. That's what it had to be. Or just maybe the universe really was looking out for her boy. Because there he was, clear as day, sitting right across the field.

She shot out like a bullet. His ears pricked at her approach, but he didn't turn or move. He just kept staring forwards, into the woods at the park's edge.

"Gumball," she said, panting. "Thank goodness you're alright. I looked all over for you."

His ears flicked back and his tail curled. He made no movement otherwise.

Nicole paused. "I'll talk with Anais. She understands what she said was wrong. She's – she's just rattled from what happened, she just needs some time to calm down. She still cares about you, Gumball." No reaction. "Please. Please just come home. It'll be alright."

That, finally, got a derisive snort and a muttered, "No it won't."

"Yes, it will," Nicole said, and immediately cursed herself for the edge in her voice. Why did it always have to be this way– "We… we always come back from these things, don't we?" she continued, forcing her voice gentler. Cautiously, she stepped closer and kneeled down to get closer. He flinched slightly, but didn't run away. "I'll make sure. I promise."

Gumball's tail twitched strangely, like it was trying to lash out and stay protectively curled at the same time. His fists clutched at the grass, and he mumbled something Nicole couldn't hear.

"What?"

"I said MAYBE I DON'T WANT YOU TO!" Now, finally, he turned to her, shooting to his feet. He still wouldn't meet her eyes, but she could see his own eyes were red from crying. "May, maybe she's RIGHT, maybe I am a terrible stupid ungrateful idiot and you'd all be better off if I–" It was just the slightest movement, but Nicole saw, before his eyes flicked down again and he swallowed his words, him look to the side, towards the woods surrounding the park.

The woods they told everyone to never enter.

The woods full of monsters.

Before she even finished the thought her hand shot out to clamp around his forearm. He instantly spasmed like it was a branding iron. "LET GO OF ME!" he shrieked, smacking at her hand – and Nicole gasped as white-hot pain raked across it, making her let go before she could stop herself. He had actually drawn his claws on her. She felt anger rise in her throat – how dare he raise a hand to me – before it dissipated, leaving her to wonder, not for the first time, what was wrong with her.

Gumball turned and took a step. "Don't," was all she could say.

He did stop – thank God – and she took the chance to stand up. She hesitated a second before reaching out a hand – not to grab him this time, just… just to lay a hand on his shoulder, make him calm down – but didn't reach him before,

"Do you really wish I was dead?"

She deserved this. She knew it was coming, knew she should have said something earlier, knew this was happening because she was too much of a coward to say it first, and she still felt a vice clamp around her heart. Whatever she had been planning to say died on her lips, replaced with a wave of nausea.

And now she was just standing there, like an idiot, not even touching him, and that silence would speak volumes wouldn't it – "No," she blurted out, then, because she felt something more was necessary, stammered all her half-prepared excuses at once, "I-I just panicked, I wasn't thinking, you were just the last voice I heard so I was thinking of you, I-I could have said anyone's name. I didn't mean it, sweetie, you know that –"

"You don't have to lie to me to make me feel better, Mom."

"I'm not lying!" she snapped immediately, cursing herself again for her tone.

He turned his head slightly, and now that he was finally looking her in the eye she was the one avoiding his gaze, because she was weak, so weak she couldn't face her own son when he needed her the most, how pathetic was that? "Oh, so –" He was clearly trying to be angry, but he just sounded like he was barely holding back tears. "– you weren't thinking, you were just going off your feelings. Thanks, Mom, that's so much better."

"That is not what I –"

"But it's fine." He said it like a curse. Nicole forced herself to look at him again, and saw that he had gone back to staring at the ground. "I get it. I know why." He took a deep breath. "I'm – I'm rude, and obnoxious, I don't do my chores, and I – I just make things worse for everyone. It'd be better for you if I was gone."

"That's not true. That will never be true."

"You know it is!" he cried, stamping the ground petulantly – no, she shouldn't think of it that way, he was hurting and didn't know how to express it, that was all. He was just…

Nicole took a ragged breath. "Gumball, you're twelve. Everything you said, that's just – that's what kids do. No one could–" An image of them flashed across her mind and she could hear their pedantic tongues clucking in disapproval as she corrected herself, "– should hold that against you."

Gumball glared daggers at the dirt. "Anais sure seems to. Darwin did. And, and I know you do too, you just won't admit it."

So it was going to be like that, then. Well, she deserved it.

She sat down, slowly, and looked around. The park's inhabitants seemed to be giving them a wide berth; she saw only a few joggers in the distance. Then she craned her neck up, into the clear blue sky, and took a deep breath.

"Have I ever told you what my childhood was like?" Her voice sounded strange to her, like she was listening to herself from far away. She didn't wait for a response before she continued, "I was the perfect child. I did everything exactly as I was told. I never acted out, I never slipped up, I never did one thing out of place." She closed her eyes. "I also didn't have hobbies. I didn't play games. I didn't have friends. I had nothing except what my parents wanted from me. It was so–" She bit down the anger she felt bubbling in her throat. This wasn't about her. She had to keep calm, for Gumball. She took a deep breath and forced her voice to stay even. "It… was no way to live." She paused. "But, I think… the worst part wasn't how miserable I was. It was that I never thought I was miserable. I never thought there could be anything else. How could I? When you keep a child in a cage, the cage becomes their entire world."

She blinked, and found she felt strangely calm. She looked down at Gumball again, and saw he was staring in rapt attention, eyes as wide as dinner plates.

"I didn't… know that," he mumbled.

She reached out to pat his shoulder, and this time he accepted the touch. "I don't want your life to be like that, Gumball. I want you to live your own life. That means, sometimes, you're going to stumble, and mess up. And… yes, if we're being honest, sometimes it is a little hard for me. But," she said as he hunched in on himself, "that's not your fault. That's part of growing up. You're living the way you want to live, and I wouldn't give that up for the world."

Gumball stared at the grass again, but he looked very distant. "'S not true," he mumbled, but there was no force behind it. "You want to… not have to deal with me anymore. You said."

The words still cut like a knife, and she winced. Lucky that he wasn't looking. She recovered, squeezed his shoulder, and tilted his head up to look at her. "Gumball," she said seriously. "I would die before I let anything happen to you. I said that first, and I meant it."

After a second of silence, she saw Gumball's eyes start to shimmer. His lip quivered, slowly at first, and Nicole smiled with resignation as the dam finally broke and he collapsed into her, wailing out all the pain he had kept in himself all this time. He kept crying as she knelt down and wrapped her arms around him.

"It's okay, sweetie," she murmured, stroking his back gently. "It'll be okay–"

"WHY DID YOU SAY THAT?!" he screamed into her shirt, so loudly she felt it. "I never asked you to say that I never wanted you to, to, to–" He broke off into incoherent sobs again.

"Shhh," Nicole tried again. "It's alright. I'm here. I'm here."

It was ugly, wretched sobbing, but she was used to Gumball's outbursts and knew he just had to get it out of his system. She was aware this wasn't a good place, she could feel the cruel and awkward stares of the parkgoers burning into her back even as she refused to acknowledge them because looking away from her son for even a second would be a betrayal, but she didn't care. She held him patiently until his sobs finally quieted.

They stayed like that for a while longer.

"I didn't… I didn't actually think you would say that." Gumball sniffed, and moved back from her a little, still unable to face her. "I mean," he added quickly, "I don't know why, obviously you'd say that, th-the parents always say that in the movies, I just, I thought you'd just be super strong and smash stuff and find the button and everything would be fine, I…"

"It's okay," she said again.

"N-no, it's…" Gumball shook his head, and his eyes shimmered again. "When you said that, I just… I thought what it would be like if you actually… if you actually…" His voice tapered to a squeak and he buried his face in her shirt again. "It felt so awful I felt like I already was dead I'm so sorry Mom I'm so sorry…!"

"It's okay," she said again.

She worried he was going to start sobbing again, but he recovered, pulling back from her and sniffling a few times. Then he shook his head. "It's not, I…" He took a shuddering breath and then blurted out, "Mom, about what Rob said…"

Was that the man's name? "It's fine, sweetie."

He shook his head with surprising vehemence. "N-no, it's important… I think…" He chewed his lip, apparently mulling over his words. Nicole waited patiently. "I wasn't… I wasn't trying to be selfish," he said eventually. His face immediately quivered. "No that's not true I was I was so selfish but I just – I mean, I wasn't trying to make it all about me, it's. It's just…" He looked down, shuffled his feet. "I feel like… we… we're…" He trailed off, then started again. "Sometimes I feel like, every time we talk we fight. Every time I come home I'm worried something will happen and you or Darwin or Anais will get mad and…" He took a breath, and started talking more quickly. "I thought I didn't mind, I thought it was just exciting because no one ever really stayed mad, but I, I don't know, at some point I just thought… I don't… want it to be like that all the time. I don't want it to be like that forever." He took a gulp of air, and kept breathing until he returned to normal. He continued, "So… so I wanted to change it, to do something that brought us together, I thought you'd feel good about it and we'd all be happy and I know it's stupid, it sounds so stupid now that I'm saying it but I just, I just, that's all I wanted."

Nicole opened her mouth for another It's fine, but her brain caught up just in time to clamp her jaw shut. "…Then I'm the one who let you down," she said instead.

She felt keenly the burn still in her legs and lungs, the stiffness in her knees, the exhaustion dragging her down like weights as much as she tried to power through her lack of sleep. She let her eyes close, and when she sighed she felt so weak. "You want me to be some kind of… superhero. Someone who's always there for you, always does the right thing. Everyone wishes their parents were like that. I wish I could be like that for you. But I…" She felt her breath hitch, and swallowed. "…I'm not. The truth is, I'm… just a person. Just a… a stupid person, who makes mistakes and lets people down like everyone else. You shouldn't have had to find out like that. I'm sorry, Gumball."

He balled his fists and shook his head violently. "No! Why are you apologizing? It's my fault! I messed up! I did all this! I don't… I don't understand…!"

He sniffled, looking ready to cry again. Nicole just cupped his cheek in her hand, and gently raised his head. "Because you're my son, and I love you."

His look of genuine surprise was like a knife to Nicole's heart, but then his lips finally moved upwards into a fragile smile. Was that all he was looking for all this time?

Gumball sniffed, and wiped his eyes. "…You're really not mad?" he squeaked, the barest edge of hope filtering into his voice.

"Yes," Nicole said immediately. "I mean… you shouldn't do something like that again–"

"I won't."

"–but, I let you down even more. So," she said, attempting a smile, "let's call it even, okay?"

Gumball just nodded, the shallowest dip of the head, looking as serious as she'd ever seen him. "…Okay," he mumbled.

They sat there in silence for another few seconds, then Gumball shot a glance at her arms. "…You can let go of me now, Mom."

"Oh!" She was still holding him. "Sorry, sweetie."

It still took a second for her arms to obey her order. Her release was slow, like she was afraid she would lose him forever if she did it wrong, like he was a fragile glass sculpture to be handled with utmost care, which was stupid, because people weren't things.

Gumball brushed his clothes and looked around awkwardly. Nicole stared at him a moment, then said, "I'm sorry you feel like we're… not the best family we could be, Gumball."

"It's okay."

Nicole had to stifle a laugh. Now she knew how it felt. "Sweetie, if you're upset, that's never okay," she said instead, keeping a straight face. "I know there are problems. I know I can… lose control…"

She heard the snap of the man's wrist again, saw the way his face warped when she hit it, and had to stop to take a breath. Gumball was probably thinking the same thing – and yes, she saw something shift in his eyes. She should just keep talking, not think about it –

…No. That cowardice was what got them here in the first place.

"I'm… sorry I hurt your friend," she said, weakly.

Gumball flinched. Crap, had that been the wrong move? All he said was, "It's okay. You didn't know."

"I still shouldn't have done that, even if he really was a bad man," she said. "I…" She sighed, and pinched her nose. "I have to do better. I have to be better. I've been getting better, but I know I still have a long way to go." She looked at him again. "I don't want to ever make you feel like you're not safe, Gumball."

Gumball looked stiff, like he didn't know how to respond. "I… I need to be better too. I know that," he mumbled. "I won't do stupid stuff anymore, and I'll be more responsible, and, and, I'll do my chores. I promise!"

He'd break that promise, she knew. In a month he'd have forgotten all about this, and gone back to his normal self.

And that was fine.

Nicole stood up. "Let's go home," she said, and took his hand.