The really stupid thing was, Ozzie did it to impress Tatiana. He wanted to prove that he was nothing like his older brother, Amen. Making his mother proud of him for standing up for another was an unexpected positive, but Ozzie wasn't sure how he felt about Dwayne's sudden case of hero worship.
It took Ozzie a week to realise that Dwayne had appointed him Dwayne's protector, always nearby when other students decided to pick on Dwayne. It was another week before Ozzie understood that he didn't mind. It wasn't fair that Dwayne was bullied by both students and the occasional teacher. Which meant it wasn't really a surprise that Dwayne latched onto Ozzie.
"I wrote that essay between two and three in the morning," Dwayne explained. "It was the only time the computer was available, and I needed to be able to do the research online."
"Yeah, right," Ozzie said, because it wasn't like he cared about why Dwayne had done poorly. Then the words Dwayne had actually said had a chance to sink in. "If that's the case, you can probably use our computer. Long as it's at a reasonable time of day."
"You mean that?" Dwayne was looking up at Ozzie again, so Ozzie broke eye contact.
"Wouldn't offer if I didn't."
Dwayne was careful to let Ozzie know ahead of time if he'll be coming over, so Taghred and his mother could be prepared. Taghred always grumbled and stomped off in a huff, until even Dwayne had to comment on it. "I'm sorry for making things difficult for you," he said.
"It's not you. Taghred's just upset that I'm spending less time with her and Tatiana."
"Tatiana's your girlfriend, right?"
Ozzie didn't know what made him answer No instead of I hope someday but he did. He even added a little laugh. "No, she's just Taghred's friend. I've known her since we were four."
Dwayne grinned back, and Ozzie was sure that Dwayne understood how those things went. "I hope," he started, but didn't seem to have any idea how to finish that.
"Taghred will get over herself. Hey, I could ask Mum if you wanted to stay for dinner."
"Sure. I'll leave you alone if you want to get started on your paper."
It wasn't that Ozzie failed to notice that Dwayne never reciprocated an invitation, it just didn't bother him. Ozzie wasn't Dwayne's friend; he was just an opportunity to let Dwayne out of his house.
Ozzie tried to make himself believe that, and he was successful enough that he was surprised when Dwayne opened up. They were sitting on the floor of Ozzie's bedroom. Dwayne was doodling pictures instead of his math homework, but Ozzie didn't feel like calling him on it. Not when the sooner Dwayne finished the sooner he'd go home.
"Thanks for letting me come over all the time," Dwayne said.
Ozzie shrugged. "It's not a problem."
"If it was, you'd let me know, right?"
"Good. It's just, things are rough at home right now."
Ozzie did his best to imitate the noises his mum made when she was trying to be encouraging.
"My mum's got to spend a lot of time taking care of my younger brother, and I try to help when I can. But sometimes I can just clear out, and that's what works. She likes thinking that I have at least one friend."
"You do," Ozzie said, rather than asking about why Dwayne's younger brother needed someone to take care of him. "You've got me."
Dwayne gave him a grateful smile.
At first Ozzie thought Dwayne hid his grades because he was ashamed of them, but when Ozzie asked Dwayne, "Do you have any clue how she wanted the third question on the Romeo and Juliet test answered?" Dwayne just pulled out his test and passed it over to Ozzie.
Ozzie raised an eyebrow at the score on the first page before flipping to the essay question he'd been confused about. He scanned Dwayne's answer and snorted. "Yeah, I don't think that answer would have worked for me," Ozzie said.
Dwayne grinned. "I didn't think it would work for me. I guess I got lucky."
Ozzie had no idea how to respond to that because, yes, Dwayne hadn't so much answered the question as attacked it, but Mrs. Peterson liked that sort of thing. "Sometimes you just have to go with your instinct." Ozzie didn't know how to respond, but it seemed the sort of thing to say.
"My mum wants to invite you to dinner," Dwayne said one day. Tatiana and Taghred were at football practice, and Ozzie's mum had decided to go out shopping. "You don't have to accept. Just, I did promise I'd pass the invite on. Also." Dwayne mumbled something that Ozzie had no chance to pick up.
"What was that?" Ozzie asked.
"My mum's got the silly notion in her head that, well, you're my boyfriend."
Ozzie turned to look at Dwayne, who flinched like he thought Ozzie might hit him. "You're gay?" Ozzie asked.
Dwayne dropped his gaze to the floor. "Yes."
He looked too much beyond upset for Ozzie to do anything other than agree to come to dinner.
Dinner was awkward, but survivable. Ozzie brought a lentil dish his mother had prepared, and Dwayne's mum had bought a honey cake that was delicious. Dwayne's younger brother was nowhere in sight.
Ozzie wasn't quite sure how he had found himself playing the role of Dwayne's boyfriend, but every time he didn't contradict something Dwayne's mother said Dwayne flashed him a grateful smile.
"If you go upstairs, make sure you leave your bedroom door open," she told Dwayne. "And I'll be checking on you periodically."
Ozzie laughed. "What does she think we'll get up to?"
Dwayne blushed. "I should think that's obvious."
"Yeah, whatever. Now, you wanted me to hear your music collection?"
Ozzie didn't even hear Dwayne's mum if she did come to check on them. Not that he was listening for her or anything, or thinking about the way Dwayne's blush had tinged his cheeks when he thought about what they might get up to.
"You and Dwayne aren't together, are you?" Taghred asked.
Ozzie shook his head. "What?" he asked.
"It's just that you seem kind of close, and, like you aren't even spending any time with anyone else anymore."
"We're just friends. I kind of feel bad for him, you know?" Ozzie said, but he wasn't sure she did.
Ozzie was surprised enough by Layla's offer that they could talk if he wanted that he actually took her up on it. He wasn't really expecting to talk about Dwayne, but everything seemed to revolve around the other boy lately.
"Are you attracted to him?" she asked. Ozzie just blinked at her. "Because if you aren't, if you don't think you could be, you should make that clear. Nothing else is fair to him."
That wasn't the response Ozzie had been expecting, and he wasn't at all sure what to do with it. He stared at this sister he had lost touch with at some point in the last year, and who had changed beyond all recognition. "What if I don't know?" Ozzie whispered.
Layla just shrugged. "Depends why you don't know. But it'll be better to be honest with yourself and him from the beginning." She laughed. "Trust me on that one." Ozzie kind of wanted to ask if this had anything to do with the way she'd broken off the engagement with Sharif, but he didn't know how. He and Layla weren't very close, never had been.
"Do you think he likes me?" Ozzie asked, and he didn't know why he expected Layla to be able to answer that.
"He looks at you like he does," she said.
In the end, it's not that hard to approach Dwayne and ask him how he knew he was gay.
"I just did," Dwayne said with a shrug. "It was always an option, see. Even if that's not what the kids who were calling me names realised they were doing, they were making me aware of the possibility. Plus, my mum's really great. You're wondering." Dwayne's voice was flat, and he looked so disappointed in Ozzie that Ozzie shook his head.
"No. I'm not," he lied. He should have known better than to expect Layla to give helpful advice; she didn't know anything about this sort of situation.
Ozzie should have known better than to start subtle. They are both teenagers. But he couldn't resist the opportunity to respond to taunts referring to him as Dwayne's boyfriend with a nod and smile that the other students interpret exactly as he had expected.
Dwayne's steps next to Ozzie stuttered in confusion, but he didn't say anything, letting conversation resume to normal.
Ozzie's second try went much better. "I'm not going to make the mistake of assuming that just because you're gay, you're attracted to me."
Dwayne nodded seriously.
"But if you were, well. It might be reciprocated."
Ozzie was still in a bit of a shock over the fact that that's all Dwayne apparently has to say when he felt his hand being squeezed. He'd been expecting a kiss if Dwayne's answer was yes, but he could work with this. Ozzie grinned and squeezed Dwayne's hand back.