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Just kids

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Oscar groaned dramatically as he packed his books and folders away, pulling his bulging rucksack onto one shoulder and leaving the classroom behind. It was his first detention- ever- and Oscar mentally cursed himself for spoiling his perfect record. Five years at high school and he ruined it in his last year; what will his brother say? Oh yeah, Logie would probably just pat him on the back- really hard- and laugh, claiming Oscar was becoming as bad as he had been at school. 

Yeah right, thought Oscar to himself; he would need to get detention every day for the rest of the year to even come close to beating Logan's phenomenal record. Of course, that had been back in Australia, when Logie had still been a carefree teen. Back before the problems started…

Nevertheless, when he'd enrolled Oscar into this particular high school, the teachers had taken one look at the oldest Cooper sibling and decided he was trouble, and that Oscar must be too, despite how little they resembled each other. It was probably why, when he first arrived at the school as a tiny, terrified teen, the teachers kept a close eye on him to make sure he didn't get into any trouble, and when his little sister joined last year they gave her the same treatment. Still, that had been all in the past, and he'd proven them wrong many times over the years. Until now, that is.

Were normal teens usually this cut up about getting a detention?

Trotting briskly through whitewashed corridors and noisy staircases, Oscar made his way down to the school hall; it wouldn't be good for him to be late, lest the teachers make him come back the next day too. An hour after school on a Thursday was bad enough; being forced to stay late on Friday too would just be pure torture. He reached the school hall and entered with as much dignity as he could muster.

The large room contained a wooden stage at one end and flimsy exam desks down the middle. There were two rows of the things, side by side, and, sitting in blue plastic chairs, were a group of little year eights and nines, his sister among them.

"Oh, Charlotte," he exclaimed, "what did you do this time?"

"Nothing," spat his sister, turning around to glare at him, "and it's Charlie to you, not Charlotte; seriously, no one calls me Charlotte anymore." The last part was added in an angry mutter.

"Turn around, Charlotte," came the shrill voice of the teacher, who was standing in front of the stage holding a register. Oscar jumped slightly, slipping into one of the seats at the back; he had not seen her there. Charlie rolled her eyes and turned to face the front.

As the teacher seemed to be waiting on a few others before starting her detention, Oscar took the opportunity to people watch from his vantage point at the back, taking in the different kids sitting in the front rows. They all appeared to be around the same age as his sister, and all boys, at least he guessed they were, judging by the uniforms.

There were two boys at the back of the group, two rows in front of him and whispering quietly to each other. From what he could see, they didn't look related; one had sandy blond hair and, when he turned to face the other boy, Oscar noticed he had bushy eyebrows above deep blue eyes; the other boy was ginger, with eyes a lighter shade of blue and what appeared to be a large scar on his face, though upon closer inspection, he realised it was fake, and quite crudely drawn. The second one appeared to be pretty upset with the first one, who just smiled cheerily, and Oscar guessed that the first boy blamed his friend for landing them in detention, but you never know…

The row in front of them contained his sister and another boy; well, they wore a boy's uniform, but had long silvery hair tied in two plaits running down their back. They didn't turn around so Oscar couldn't see their face. Right in the front sat a boy by himself. His hair was dark and when he turned around to talk to his peers, Oscar saw that he had light brown eyes, which never seemed to stray from Charlie for long, much to Oscar's irritation.

Another boy poked his head in the door, grinning apologetically.

"Err, sorry miss," he said, "I was talking to this lovely girl about some homework due tomorrow and I quite forgot the time."

"Again, Salvatorio?" the teacher shook her head, "just sit down."

"Thank you," the boy, Salvatorio, slipped in beside Oscar, much to the latter's irritation. He was a cheerful fellow, with auburn hair that flopped down messily, covering the sides of his head, except for a weird little curl sticking out at the side. Bright green eyes gleamed through his fringe as he smiled. Oscar recognised him from some of his classes and they had even talked on a few occasions; he wasn't a bad person, just a little odd, and maybe a bit too affectionate for the other boy's liking.

"Well we're waiting on one more," the teacher told them, "then we can start."

Oscar suspected who the last person was and as the door flew open and a figure stomped into the room, huffing and plopping into a seat in front of him, Oscar knew he was right. The seat was filled by Mike Jones: Oscar's foul-mouthed, bad-tempered classmate from America. They were in the same form, business studies, science and maths classes and Oscar detested the loud, vulgar young man.

"And what's your excuse this time?" demanded the teacher.

"Forgot," mumbled Mike.

"Not good enough Michael," the teacher folded her arms, "unless you want to spend all your days writing lines after school, then you better buck up your ideas, you hear me?"

"Loud and clear," mumbled Mike; "yes miss," he added, louder so she could hear him.

"Good. Now, you all know what to write." She spoke to the entire group, "and you will not be leaving until you have handed in one hundred lines. You may begin."

The sound of pens, pencils and biros scraping on paper filled the air and Oscar settled down to write his lines: I must not answer back. Over and over again, his expensive fountain pen glided across the paper, each line destroying a little more of Oscar's soul.

He heard the hall doors open quietly and looked up, absent-mindedly watching another teacher walk across the room in that weird run-trot-walk that teachers in heels do and whisper urgently to the teacher giving the detention.

"Excuse me class," she told them, "I have to go for a few minutes. No one is to talk or get up, understand?" Then she left.

The second she was gone, Mike stretched, groaning loudly. Oscar felt his eye twitch in annoyance.

"So what are you little fuckers in for then?" he asked, leaning back in his chair, eyeing them all as if he were sizing them up.

"Forgot my homework," said the boy in the front, continuing with his lines.

"Didn't do the work set by the teacher," said the boy with the long hair, barely acknowledging everyone around him.

"Damn you little kids are rebellious nowadays," joked Mike, "what didn't you do?"

"They told me to paint fruit bowls and I painted a masterpiece instead," the boy told them, shrugging nonchalantly, "…just because the teacher thought it was inappropriate… though maybe I should've not done a nude but still... It was a masterpiece and the teacher should've known it!"

"Wow," Mike raised his eyebrows, the closest Oscar had ever seen to speechless where he was concerned, "and the rest?"

"Running and yelling in the corridors," said Charlie.

Oscar sighed dramatically, "so un-ladylike, honestly Charlotte..."

"Oy!" Charlie glared at him, "I was late for a lesson and there were people just walking slowly in a massive group so I couldn't get past… so I told them to move out the way… or something to that effect."

"Damn," Mike grinned at Charlie before turning to Oscar, "so what about you, posh boy? Complain about the food? Wore a cape to PE?"

"Actually," replied Oscar, "I proved a teacher wrong in history."

"Wha?"

Oscar sighed, "they told me the princes in the tower were twins and I tried to correct them, saying Edward was four years older than Richard, but they never believed me. I even googled it on the class computer and I was right but the teacher got offended and told me to stay behind after school."

Mike laughed thunderously, slapping the little desk and stomping his feet, "oh my God, dude, you tried to prove a teacher wrong? Damn you got balls! Who knew?"

"Well," said Oscar, "they were sabotaging an entire class' education with incorrect information and I saw it as my duty to step in."

"I like you," said Mike, grinning widely.

Feeling's not mutual, thought Oscar.

"And what about you?" asked Mike, nodding at Salvatorio.

"I, too, forgot my homework," he replied, laughing.

"And you little guys?" Mike turned to the two boys in the row in front of him.

"We might've mixed some chemicals together that shouldn't have been," replied the little blond one mischievously.

"You mixed them," the other boy shot at him, glaring, "I just happened to be next to you and the teacher blamed me too."

Mike laughed loudly again, "damn you blew up the science room? I thought that only happened in movies!"

"No," replied the ginger-haired boy, "we just burnt a little hole in one of the tables. It's barely noticeable"

"Still…"

"And what are you in for, hmm?" Oscar asked Mike, who was about to reply when the teacher returned, causing everyone to hurriedly face their desks and continue working.

"Ow… ow… ow…," Oscar rubbed his hand, pouting slightly.

"I swear if you don't shut up I'm gonna kick you in the nuts," growled Charlie, hands stuffed into the pockets of her jacket, head down and sulking.

"But I'm not used to putting such strain on my hand," whined Oscar.

Charlie stared at him in disbelief, "you have your freaking GCSEs this year! How are you going to manage a two hour English exam with actual paragraphs and shit?"

"Well, I'm just not used to detentions, never having been given one before, so sorry for not wanting to become some juvenile delinquent like you and Logan."

"If Logie was such a teen thug then how come he got a good job, huh?"

"His infectious optimism, brute strength and sense of humour?" suggested Oscar, "I don't know. You hardly need A-levels to be a zookeeper and spend all day clearing up elephant shit."

"He does something that makes him happy," Charlie shrugged, "that's enough for a job."

"I doubt that," Oscar shook his head, letting the matter drop.

"Oh, and it was my first detention too, if you must know," added Charlie.

"Fine, fine," Oscar rolled his eyes.

"Will you hurry up in there!" called Lars, leaning against the door frame of the newsagents where Peter was buying them a packet of crisps each. He glared at the sign next to him, the one that said 'only two schoolchildren allowed at one time' and meant he couldn't go in and get his own snacks. He wouldn't have minded, except that Peter always bought the wrong things. Airhead.

"Yeah okay," Peter called back, picking up two packets and dumping them on the counter along with a small pile of coins. He collected his change and walked outside, tossing one of the packets to Lars.

"I hate Ready-salted," he grumbled, glaring viciously at the little red bag.

"Sorry, I forgot," Peter glanced at his brother guiltily; "hey maybe next time there won't be the maximum number of children in the newsagents and you can come in too!"

"Or maybe you could get Cheese and Onion next time!"

"Okay, okay," Peter shrugged, digging into his own packet, "jeez I'm sorry. I was trying to remember if we have homework for tomorrow."

"We do. History."

They walked in silence for the rest of the journey home- tired and busy eating- until they saw a police car outside their house. Exchanging stunned glances, the brothers broke into a sprint, desperate to see what the fuss was about. Had they been burgled? Were their parents okay? Was something interesting happening?

Standing in the front garden, in animated conversation with a stern-looking policeman, was their mother, Taika. Their other mother, Astrid, stood beside her, resting a hand on her wife's shoulder, an expression of dread gracing her usually stern face.

"It's Peter and Lars Oxenstjärna-Väinämöinen," cried Taika, "please you have to find them! They never came home from school!" She was shaking, frantic with worry and even Astrid was struggling to keep calm.

"And how do you spell the surname?'

"O-x-e-n, no, N, s-t-j… j… it's a j look just forget the name and find them please! They could be anywhere! Anything could be happening to them!"

"What's wrong?" asked Lars, pushing the front gate open.

"There you are!" Taika shrieked, running down the garden and pulling her sons into a crushing hug.

"Where have you been?" demanded Astrid.

"At school," Lars looked at his parents in confusion.

"We had detention," Peter added in a mumble.

"For an hour and a half?" Taika shook her head, "why didn't they phone us to say you were being kept behind or something? We had no idea where you were!"

"Sorry mummy," Lars glanced at his parents apologetically, "we didn't think you would worry so much."

"We'll always worry 'bout ya," replied Astrid, stroking Peter's hair and squeezing Lars' hand.

"That's all well and good," interrupted the policeman, "but I would ask you refrain from wasting our time in future."

"Wasting your time?" Taika stood up to her full height, which was only up to the policeman's shoulder but the woman still carried an intimidating air, "our children's safety is a waste of time to you? We didn't know where they were!"

"Well now you do," the policeman turned to leave, "please make absolutely sure they're missing before calling us next time."

"Yes, officer," Taika glared at the man but said nothing else. Instead, she turned around and began ushering her family inside, "boys, your Uncle Eduard's come for dinner; he's inside now."

"Yes!" cried Lars, running inside.

The other three followed the boy inside and found him in the sitting room, slouched in a desk chair next to his favourite uncle, who was sat at the computer, laughing at something his nephew had told him.

"Well, you found them, then?" asked Eduard, facing Taika and Astrid, who nodded.

"Yes it appears they were just kept behind at school," Taika sighed and Astrid stroked her hair soothingly.

"Hey, they're fine," the woman assured her, "ye can calm down now. Don't let yerself get too stressed."

"Yes, thank you dear," Taika sighed, "I know…"

"I see," Eduard pushed his glasses up his nose and turned his attention back to Lars, "so, shall we continue our lessons?"

"Yes!" replied Lars, sitting up.

"I hope you don't mind my son," Taika piped up, sitting on a sofa.

"Not at all," Eduard smiled at his older sister, "he's my best pupil! The boy's so smart, I'll be teaching him how to download films illegally in no time."

"Cool!"

"Don't you dare," growled Taika.

"Hey I'm only joking," Eduard added quickly, "you have to learn to download music first," he whispered to Lars, who burst out laughing.

"We're home," called Oscar, letting himself and Charlie into the house.

"About freaking time!" their older brother called back, wandering into the hall, "I arrived home before you and had a shower and everything! Seriously, what kept ya?"

"Detention," said Charlie simply.

"Both of you?" Logan scratched his head in confusion.

"Unfortunately," Oscar sighed dramatically, briefly closing his eyes and rubbing his temples.

"Well about time you loosened up!" cried Logan, giving his little brother a thump on the back, "hey our Ozzie's finally becoming an adult!"

"It's Oscar, dammit," hissed Oscar.

"Right, right," Logan led his siblings into their sitting/dining room and plopped down on the sofa, "dinner's in the oven. It's steak and chips, your favourites. I even got that nice coleslaw you like."

"Celebrating?" asked Charlie, sitting next to him.

"No," Logan shrugged, "I got paid today and wanted to treat ya."

"How nice, thanks."

Oscar stood in the doorway nervously, "umm, I had a… err, large meal today at lunch and still feel pretty full from it so I'll pass. Don't want to make myself sick."

Charlie frowned, "but you hate the school food."

"Yeah," added Logan, "you told me it wasn't fit for criminals, let alone high school kids."

"Well, the pizza's okay… I guess," Oscar looked away, "and besides, I have homework to do. And revision, for those mock exams. And I think I'm beginning to go right off steak. Too fatty and bloody. In fact, I was thinking of becoming vegetarian."

"Vegetarian?" Logan frowned, "not while you're living under my roof." He shook his head; "fine, but you're missing out on some quality dinner."

"I'm sure I am," replied Oscar, wandering back into the hall. The place was dim and deserted, with a pile of shoes in a heap next to the front door, along with a coat rack and Charlie's paintings covering the wall. The brown carpet was faded and stained, almost as old as the house itself and the welcome mat did little to brighten the place up.

He heard the doorbell ring and frowned; they never got visitors, since they didn't have much in the way of friends, and no family to speak of.

"I got it!" he called, opening it to find Salvatorio staring at him pleadingly with a football in his hands.

"Hey, err, my friends and I are playing a five-aside game with some other boys and we're one man down," the boy began, "so I was wondering it you want to join in. Please, we need you and you're the only person I know who lives close enough to the park."

"How do you even know where I live?" asked Oscar, blinking in disbelief.

"We live near each other," replied Salvatorio, "and I sometimes see you and your sister walking home."

"That's creepy don't do that."

"Sorry," Salvatorio grinned apologetically, "so are you in or what?"

"I don't know how to play football," scoffed Oscar, shaking his head. That was something of a lie, but he really wasn't too fond of the sport.

"I'll teach you, it's easy," Salvatorio's eyes widened and his bottom lip quivered, "please, please, please!"

Oscar groaned, "fine, I could do with the exercise."

Chapter Text

"Oh come on Oscar," Salvatorio waved a hand dismissively, "you weren't that bad!"

The two boys were walking home from the park together, tired now and limping slightly. It was early evening and the sun was setting behind the buildings around them. Salvatorio absent-mindedly threw a battered old football in the air, catching it again, whilst Oscar applied a plaster to one of the cuts and bruises on his cheeks and chin.

"The ball hit my face more times than it went in the goal," grumbled Oscar, walking along beside him, "why did you make me the goalie anyway?"

"Only position left," Salvatorio shrugged, "no one else wanted the spot."

"I wonder why…"

"Besides, the point of the goalie is to block the goal, and your face did that perfectly! So thanks for that."

Salvatorio stopped all of a sudden, looking around at the street they were walking in, "can you hear something?"

Oscar paused, listening out, "no, nothing unusual."

"I hear groaning," stated Salvatorio, "from over there I think," he pointed to an alley a few metres away, "sounds like someone's in pain."

"Well, now that you mention it…" Oscar thought he heard an upset moan coming from the direction Salvatorio gestured. A tiny, pained noise just barely reaching his ears.

The two boys crept towards the source of the noise and turned into the alley to find…

"Michael?" Oscar raised an eyebrow, shaking his head. The boy was lying on his back, half conscious and clasping an empty bottle of beer in one hand.

"Poor Mike," gasped Salvatorio, rushing over to him, "here, help me-"

"Get him on his side? Recovery position, right? That's what you're meant to do with drunk people," offered Oscar, joining Salvatorio and helping him turn Mike onto his side.

"You have family that drinks too?" asked Salvatorio.

"My brother sometimes hosts work parties," explained Oscar, "I've learnt how to deals with crowds of rowdy, drunk adults."

"Mine too," Salvatorio smiled, "'cept we only have a family business, so they're family parties too."

"I see," Oscar glanced down at Mike, "well, I knew he was a bit wild but this?" he shook his head, "doesn't Michael know any better?"

"Maybe he's upset about his detention today," reasoned Sal.

"He has a detention every other day!"

"So maybe he drinks every other day," Salvatorio looked Oscar in the eye, suddenly serious, "people have all sorts of problems others don't know about; you can't judge Mike without knowing his story."

"Okay, fine," Oscar rolled his eyes, "so what should we do with him?"

"Well, his house isn't too far from here, maybe we could take him home," suggested Salvatorio.

"You know where he lives too?"

"Yeah we did a history project together a few years back so I stayed over. His brothers are really nice," Salvatorio lifted Mike up, leaning the boy on his shoulder, "little help, please."

"Course," Oscar took Mike's other arm and the two teens carried their classmate out onto the street and down the road, trying to ignore judging glares from passers by and the smell of alcohol surrounding the unconscious boy. They travelled through lanes bordered by neat little houses and shops until they reached a tiny, somewhat run-down dwelling. It was a terraced house with no front garden and it appeared there'd been a few attempts to make the place more homely, as shown by the little plant pots full of daisies; green, painted door and window sills; and a plaque on the front door, though that said: 'never mind the dog, I'll bite you myself if you knock before eleven'.

"My older brothers sold them that," Salvatorio commented, following Oscar's gaze, "they did a crafts range as a summer project and sold the products to earn money. I believe my brother Feli was in his brothers' class at school, though that particular sign has Lovino written all over it."

"I see," Oscar tore his eyes from the plaque and knocked on the door. He heard a few thumps and a shout before the sound of footsteps getting closer and the door was thrown open. Oscar found himself face to face with a young man in his early twenties; the man had dirty blond hair, a golden tan and bright blue eyes behind glasses.

"Hey, can I help ya, kids?" he grinned widely, "I'm Alfred, by the way."

"Yeah, um," Oscar glanced at Salvatorio.

"Remember me, Alfie? I'm Salvatorio, Mike's friend. Your brother's a little ill," he explained, "he may have drunk too much and passed out."

"Oh no," Alfred's smile faded and he took his little brother, lifting the boy up. Oscar blinked in surprise; the guy was stronger than he looked.

"I'm sure if he lies down for a bit he'll be fine," reasoned Alfred, turning around and walking into the sitting room, "I'll just rest him on the sofa."

Oscar and Salvatorio exchanged glances before following, looking around the place. It was messy. Not uncared for, though, just a little cluttered as if it was home to a load of disorganised young people, which it essentially was. Mike was lying on the sofa whilst Alfred was perched on the arm, stroking his hair. That irritating pair of sunglasses the kid always wore was resting on the coffee table and his usually immaculate hair was messy and covering his face.

"You know," Alfred began, in a quieter voice this time, "Mike doesn't usually do this, I have to emphasise. He must've been upset about something."

"I'm sure," Oscar couldn't help but feel Alfred was lying, but didn't dwell on it.

"Aw he's sleeping like a baby," came a voice from behind them. Oscar and Salvatorio wheeled round to find another Alfred had appeared with a jug of water. Oscar glanced back at the man on the sofa.

"There are two of you?" he almost demanded.

"Yeah, twins," the Alfred with the jug laughed loudly, "that fella over there's Matthew."

"Oh," Oscar looked between the twins; upon further inspection, he found that they weren't that identical at all. Matthew's hair was slightly longer and curled; he seemed calmer and more mature too. His eyes and glasses were different too, lilac and gazing calmly at his little brother, stroking his black hair.

"Hey Sal," Alfred turned to the other boy, "haven't seen you in a while. How ya doin'?"

"Good!"

"Your brothers okay?"

"Both engaged now," replied Salvatorio.

"Yeah I heard Lovino and your science teacher have a thing, but Feli too?"

Salvatorio nodded, "yeah he met this German girl who was a regular at the restaurant; I think her name's Monika. They've been going out for about two years now and he popped the question a few weeks ago."

"Wait," Oscar frowned, "your brother's engaged to Mr Fernandez Carriedo?"

"Unfortunately, yes."

"As in, Mr Fernandez Carriedo, our science teacher?"

"Yeah," Salvatorio wrinkled his nose, "it's a little embarrassing; like having a parent as a teacher. He keeps acting like I'm his best friend just because we're soon becoming brothers-in-law. Still have to do the same amount of homework as everyone else though…"

"Yeah but ol' F-C means well," Alfred grinned, "he was there when Mattie and I went to school, but as a teaching assistant. Has he still got the tank of turtles?"

"Yup!"

"They were so cute! Is he allowed to do practical work again yet?"

"Nope, only theory stuff. They get another teacher for practical work. What was that all about anyway?"

"Ah, yes, I remember the incident well. It was his first practical or something and he got drunk worrying about screwing up. Not a good combination, wine and dissections, it turns out." Alfred smiled grimly.

Oscar quickly grew bored of the conversation and his attention drifted back to Matthew, who was still sitting next to the unconscious Mike. He wandered over to the pair, standing awkwardly next to Matthew.

"So, why do you think he's upset?" he asked; "I'm assuming that's why he drank so much. I'm pretty sure there is more to it than his detention today though; he's spent half his school life writing lines."

"Well that's just it," Matthew sighed, "he got his first report for the year a few weeks back. He's smart, according to them, but has no motivation or dedication to school work. He's constantly failing tests and we keep getting letters home. We try to be supportive but it seems the stress is getting to him. It might help if he had some friends his own age to get him through it all, since he's pretty alone. I'm so worried about him…"

"I see," Oscar was beginning to see the boy he disliked most in a different light; maybe Michael was just as lonely and messed up as he was.

"But don't let it get to you," Matthew added, "I'm sure Michael will be fine! Let us worry about him."

"Hmm." Oscar didn't reply.

"We should be off," stated Salvatorio, and Oscar jumped slightly. "I'm late for my shift at the restaurant, which isn't really the best thing to do when your grandpa owns it so… coming, Ozzie?"

"Sure, and don't call me Ozzie, please," Oscar followed Salvatorio out of the house.

"Hey come again sometime," Alfred called after them, "you're nice kids." They promised they would and began walking down the street.

"So," Oscar wanted to break the rather uncomfortable silence, and find out more about Michael, "I never knew he had brothers. Never cared to know. Were Michael's parents at work today then?"

"Probably," Salvatorio shrugged, "you know, the different time zones would suggest as much."

"Time zones?"

"Their parents live in the states," explained Salvatorio, "well, their mother does. Dad's in Canada now. Mike explained it to me a while back; told me not to tell anyone, but I'm sure you can keep a secret!"

"That I can... even if you can't."

Sal's eyes narrowed, "do you want to hear this or not?"

"Well, yes."

"Then shush! They had a messy divorce so Alfred moved him and his brothers to the U.K. to get away from it all a few years ago. The two wouldn't stop fighting, from what I hear, and it was messing them up real bad. Apparently they send the three of them money and letters every now and then but don't visit much."

"He was raised by his brothers too?" asked Oscar incredulously, "I never realised- I…"

"Oh yeah, you live with your brother and sister, right?" Salvatorio gave a sympathetic smile, "so how come you do? If you don't mind me asking."

"Not at all," Oscar gave a brief, graceful smile, but it quickly faded, "you won't tell anyone, right? Is there any point in asking that?"

"Don't really have anyone to tell. So go on."

"Okay, well," he cleared his throat, "the three of us used to live in Melbourne, in Australia, but when Charlotte was a baby our mother died."

"I'm so sorry to hear that," said Salvatorio earnestly, "do you know how she died?"

"She was ill but no one ever told me what she had. Doesn't matter anyway. Our dad changed after that; I think he blamed us, but never said, just showed it. Constantly." Oscar wanted to stop talking, but somehow the words wouldn't cease. "It was horrible! He just withdrew his love and stopped caring for us! It was up to Logan to make sure we were fed and got to school."

"And then?"

"And then…," Oscar sighed, "one day, dad came home in this unexpectedly good mood and said we were going on holiday. Charlotte was six at the time, so I'd have been nine, and we were all excited and thought we were finally becoming normal and happy again! So we got on a plane to London. For the first few days he took us to all the tourist attractions and bought us ice cream and we all thought he was the best. But one night he went home without us while we were asleep in the hotel. Just packed his bags and pissed off back to Melbourne! He abandoned us and we were stuck in a strange city with nowhere to go."

"What happened to you?" Salvatorio covered his mouth with a hand.

"Like always, Logie looked after us and got a job, and citizenship for us all. He'd just finished his education and built up a career working in the local zoo. He got a transfer when I was thirteen and moved us out here."

"How awful," gasped Salvatorio, "what your dad did, I mean."

"I guess," Oscar shrugged, "Charlotte doesn't remember it much though, thankfully." So we've both been let down and left behind by their parents, he thought, and it had been our older brothers who'd picked up the slackWho would've thought, to look at us, we'd be so alike? He wondered what else they had in common.

"I guess the three of us are not so different," murmured Salvatorio.

"Oh?" Oscar looked at him curiously.

"My parents died in a car crash when I was little," Salvatorio told him, "my brothers and I were raised by our Grandpa ever since. I know it's not the same as what you two went through, but he's always busy- you know- with his business and all so it's usually Lovi, Feli and me."

"I see," Oscar gave a small smile, "it still must've been hard. What a trio we are though. You're a great guy, you know that?"

"So I've been told."

"Hey I'm home," Oscar walked into the sitting room to find his brother sprawled on the sofa watching telly.

"Ah, good," Logan grinned at him, "have fun with your friends?"

"Yes, actually, didn't think I would but…" replied Oscar, shrugging, "good evening?"

"Not bad," Logan sat up to make room on the sofa for Oscar, "got a call from my boss to say I'm I the running for employee of the year."

"Brilliant," Oscar smiled, "when will you know for sure?"

"Dunno," Logan shrugged, "apparently there are one or two other contenders but I have a pretty good shot."

"Great!"

"Hey d'ya want me to warm up your dinner for you?" offered Logan, "must be pretty tired after the football."

"Nah, I'm good," Oscar waved a hand dismissively, "I'm exhausted, to be honest. I think I'll just go to bed."

"Okay," Logan stared at his brother uncertainly, but let him go.

Chapter Text

"Vatti, I'm bored," drawled Franz, standing in the doorway to his father's music room and leaning against the door frame dramatically, "entertain me."

"That's nice," replied Roderich Edelstein, not even listening.

"Vatti pay attention to me!" whined Franz, wandering into the room to where his father was sat on a piano stool, reading through sheet music and deciding which one to play. Which notes would drift through the big empty house the two of them called home.

"Yes, yes," Roderich was focused entirely on the notes in front of him. It was only when Franz climbed onto the piano he was sat at and stood so he was covering the sheet music that Roderich fully acknowledged his son's presence. The boy stood on the keys- eliciting a series of sharp twangs from the instrument- and folded his arms.

"Franz!" Roderich cried; "get down from there at once! You'll break her!"

"Listen to me!" the boy whined, "I'm bored and want to talk to you! You never talk to me or listen to me!"

"Fine," Roderich snapped, "get down and I'll make you dinner. We can talk whilst I do that."

"Promise?" Franz raised an eyebrow, glaring at his father with an expression of suspicion.

Roderich sighed, "I promise."

"Great!" Franz hopped off the piano and ran to the door; he turned around to find Roderich muttering softly and patting the piano like at was a living thing, hands running slowly over the polished wood. He heard him mention his mother's name. Julia.

"You know," began Franz, staring at his father nervously, "the piano isn't Mutti. Pretending it is will only hurt you more."

Roderich flinched. "I know, son. Now run along."

"Okay," Franz dashed into the kitchen and waited impatiently, taking a seat at the kitchen table, resting his chin on his hand and drumming his fingers on the wooden surface.

Roderich hadn't been the same since his wife, Franz's mother, had died five years ago. He avoided meeting and talking to people- more so than he used to- only leaving the house when he had to work. As a food critic, all he had to do was go to a different restaurant or café each week and write up his thoughts and experiences, emailing the article to the magazine he worked for. The rest of his time was spent in the big empty house where they lived, playing music or cooking.

Anything to distract him from the pain.

Franz had long gotten used to spending most of his home-life entertaining himself. That was why he took up painting and other forms of art to express himself. Franz had an entire room just for artwork, seeing as his own bedroom wasn't large enough to house that many paint sets, easels, brushes, sketchbooks, sculptures, stationery and canvases. Their house was big enough to give Franz two rooms. Roderich bought his son any material item the child wanted, but hardly ever spent any time with him, due to how much Franz looked like his mother. It hurt too much.

But, every now and again, Roderich and Franz spent time together, baking or playing music, and were close, like the father and son they were supposed to be, if only for a few hours. Roderich had even let Franz decorate a few of the rooms in the house, which was why one of the bathrooms had dolphins and ocean waves painted onto the walls, and Roderich's music room was decorated with painted notes, instruments and anything else music-related Franz could think of to put on the wall. Every now and then, if Franz was really lucky or it was a special occasion, they would go out on a family trip together, usually to the park or down to London to visit a gallery. Those, Franz had fondly decided, were his best memories.

"Okay, how about soup?" suggested Roderich, walking in, "that's just blending vegetables together, right?"

For all his harsh criticism of professional establishments, Roderich Edelstein himself was not the best chef in the world- besides desserts- and preferred to make simple dishes whenever he had to cook. He believed in the importance of making things from scratch, however, using the very best ingredients and their kitchen was always full of fresh, organic, expensive food. Take-aways and ready meals had no place in their house.

"Soup's fine," Franz smiled; "did you like the restaurant you visited today?"

"The steak I tried was tender and beautifully cooked," began Roderich, "but the carrots were soggy, the potatoes were undercooked and the gravy made everything just taste even worse. But the service was friendly and helpful so I gave them a three out of five."

Franz chuckled, "I see." They fell into silence as Franz watched Roderich chop vegetables and drop them into a pot of slowly boiling water, "dad?"

"Hmm?"

"May we do something together this weekend?" Franz tried to make his eyes as large as possible, "please?"

"I don't see why not, we've been ignoring each other since you started school this year."

You mean you've been ignoring me, thought Franz bitterly.

The next morning, Oscar found himself knocking sharply on the Jones' front door. A sleepy Matthew answered, grinned and let the boy in.

"So what's the occasion?" he asked, showing Oscar into the sitting room.

"Well I was thinking- about what you told me concerning Michael- and I want to help him," Oscar shrugged, "maybe companionship is what he needs after all. Besides, I'm pretty lacking in the friends department myself."

"I see," Matthew sat down on the sofa, "well, Mike probably won't be up 'til about eight, so you have a while to wait."

"What?" Oscar stared at Matthew in horror, "but we have to be at the school library by then! I plan to help him with that business studies project that's due today, since he probably didn't do it."

"Well it's up to you to wake him," Matthew raised both his hands, "trust me, I'm not doing it. Mike gets pretty mad when you wake him up before eight. Al too, but that's not for you to worry about."

"Fine," Oscar shrugged and stood up, wandering into the hall.

"First door on the right," Matthew called after him.

Oscar climbed the stairs and knocked on said door. When he got no reply, he entered quietly, leaving the door open in case he needed to make a hasty escape.

Michael Jones was a far more agreeable person, Oscar decided, when he was sleeping, like a little child, sprawled across his duvet. His hair flopped over his face, covering his closed eyes, and Oscar made a note to remember that Michael was wearing bunny pyjamas. A large, extremely fluffy dog was curled up at the end of his bed, chest rising slowly.

"Hey sleepy head," Oscar soothed, gently shaking the boy awake, "time to get up."

"Five more minutes Matt," Mike mumbled.

"Not Matt," Oscar leaned closer, so that their faces were almost touching, "it's Oscar!" Michael's eyes opened slowly and he blinked a few times, trying to focus on the intruder. When he became fully aware that he was being observed at close quarters, he let out a yell and jumped up, narrowly missing the other's forehead by an inch. The fluffy dog leapt up too, barking madly and bolting for the door.

"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING IN MY ROOM! HOW THE HELL DID YOU EVEN GET HERE?!"

Oscar burst into laughter, moving to the other side of the room. Michael leapt out of his bed and in a few, swift, motions had his hair spiked up in its usual style and grabbed his sunglasses off the bedside table, shoving them onto his face.

"GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY ROOM! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE JUST COMING IN MY HOUSE LIKE THIS!?"

Oscar leaned against the wall, smiling smugly, "I'm your new friend, it would appear."

"No fucking way," Michael shook his head, "We've spoken like once you can't just come in my house and say we're mates! How do you even know where I live?"

"Sal told me."

"The little bitch! I'd rather get my teeth kicked in than spend time with you."

"Feeling's mutual, I must confess," Oscar closed his eyes in frustration, wondering if this was really worth it to keep the constant loneliness at bay; "look, your brother's all for it and I just want to help you with homework and revision every now and then. Like a study partner. At least until our GCSEs are over. Maybe Salvatorio can join us too. Come on, it's better than being a lonely failure, right?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, and you can fuck right off with that 'lonely failure' bull," Michael folded his arms and glared at Oscar, then sighed, stuffing his hands into his pyjama pockets, "fine, I guess we could try at being friends, if it'll shut you up. But why are you in my room, at," he glanced at his alarm clock, "SEVEN FUCKING THIRTY? Are you insane? Who's up at seven thirty?"

"Lots of people," Oscar sniffed, "we need to get to the library at eight to do our business homework."

"Oh balls, I forgot that was due for today," Michael groaned, "okay, I'll come to the library with you, but only if you get out so I can get dressed without you up in my shit."

"Fine, fine." Oscar slipped out the door and closed it behind him, leaning against it. He still wasn't sure this was a good idea, but Logan had always taught him that lots of good friends were important for a healthy mind and soul. After a few years he'd switched to hinting at Oscar that any friends would be good for the mind and soul, except bad ones.

So that's what he was doing, saving his mind and soul? Michael, despite his harsh demeanour, didn't seem to be a genuinely bad person, just troubled and clearly not a people person. Like Oscar. However, Oscar couldn't deny the fact that the main reason for befriending the boy he disliked was simply to get to know him more. He found Michael Jones intriguing and wanted to know all about his life, family, interests and personality. What sort of man was he under the hair gel, swearwords and glasses? Why did he act like he'd given up on his future already? Oscar needed to know. It was to satisfy his own overwhelming curiosity, and help a fellow student, of course.

A few moments passed in silence and Oscar sighed. Of course, he should've known Michael wouldn't be that compliant.

"He's fallen asleep again," he muttered, pushing the door open.

"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? GET OUT YOU WEIRDO I'M TRYING TO GET DRESSED!"

"Sorry! I thought you'd gone back to bed!" Oscar leapt out of the room and slammed the door shut to avoid the pillows and books that were being hurled in his direction.

"LIKE HELL YOU DID!"

Oscar couldn't help but chuckle to himself; life certainly was going to be a lot louder from now on, no doubt about that.

Chapter Text

"See, wasn't that worth it?" Oscar smiled cheerily whilst Michael just scowled, rubbing his arm. After half an hour of struggling through mind-numbingly boring business homework, they were actually feeling pretty pleased with themselves, not that Michael would ever let Oscar know that. He might try and make it a habit. The pair were now walking down the school corridor, making their way to the main hall where the weekly assembly was being held for the whole school. All around them were other students of all ages, some chatting in pairs or small groups, others walking alone, almost unnoticed by their peers.

"No, you punched me, you son of a bitch!"

"Only a little punch on the arm! You were making us late," Oscar shrugged.

"I was getting breakfast, asshat!"

"Oh piss," scoffed Oscar, "breakfast is for people who do their homework."

"Bullshit," Michael rolled his eyes, "hey have you ever thought of channelling your aggression into something more productive, like boxing?"

"Have you?" Oscar raised a bushy eyebrow, "maybe now we're friends we can join a club together."

"We're not friends," spat Mike, "I'm only doing this cause, if I didn't, Al and Matt'd never shut up about it."

"Whatever you say," Oscar looked ahead and spied Sal's mop of carroty hair in front of them, just visible through the crowd.

"Salvatorio!" he called, cupping his hands around his mouth, "hey wait up!"

Their classmate turned around and grinned; "oh hey guys, pretty glad I bumped into you two, wanna get a seat together?" He smiled kindly at Michael. He and Oscar had decided to not mention the events of last night to the third boy, to spare him any distress or humiliation, but that sure as hell didn't mean Sal was gonna act indifferent to his problems. If Michael needed companionship, then Sal was going to make sure he got it.

"Whoopee," muttered Michael, stuffing his hands in his trouser pockets.

"Hmm," Oscar rubbed his chin, "it's only the second time anyone's actually requested to be in my company, the other request was also made by you. Nobody's really asked me these sort of things before."

"I wonder why," growled Michael, "you're annoying as hell and punch like a professional boxer."

"I thought hitting each other lightly was something friends do," whined Oscar, "I've seen it in all the films."

"Right," Mike shook his head.

"Hey let's get seats at the back!" Salvatorio grabbed the other two by their sleeves and led them into the hall. Sitting down on plastic chairs at the back with the other year elevens, the trio lazily watched the rest of the students take their places, sometimes commenting on them. When Charlotte wandered past, closely followed by some of the boys Oscar recognised from their detention, he considered calling a greeting to her, but decided against it. His friendliness would only be met by embarrassed hissing anyway.

Eventually, everyone was seated and the head teacher walked onto the stage and spoke into a microphone, a monotonous drone drifting through the hall, sending most of the students to sleep. He gave all the usual weekly messages and Oscar began to switch off, only paying the slightest bit of attention when the head stated that there was a special announcement.

"I will now hand over to Mr Fernandez Carriedo and Miss Héderváry," the head teacher stood aside to allow the science and geography teachers to step up to the microphone.

"Well," began Miss Héderváry, "this year we want to promote charity and community, especially within the school body."

"Nowadays these qualities are severely lacking both here and in society as a whole," continued Mr Fernandez Carriedo, "and we want to do something about that. So that's why we're holding a little competition that'll go on for the whole of this school year."

"The theme is 'make a change' and open to every student in the school and sixth form," added Miss Héderváry, "the idea is to do something for charity or the community. You can raise money for a cause, or even launch a campaign to raise awareness for a subject close to your heart. The choice is really up to you."

"The winner will be decided in June and there will be plenty of amazing prizes up for grabs!"

"Does this mean we have to spend the whole year being harassed by fuck-wits with buckets wanting money, dipshits with crappy 20p cakes and have to pay to wear our own clothes in school?" Michael hissed to Oscar, who nodded exasperatedly.

"Pretty much, yes."

Michael rolled his eyes, "I swear if I see one, just one, foldable table full of undercooked salmonella blocks covered in runny icing I'm gonna slap someone."

"It's an insult to good food!" added Salvatorio, a little too loudly, as a large chunk of the hall now turned to stare at the three boys.

"I don't care if we're nearly related, Vargas," called Mr Fernandez Carriedo, "it's no excuse for disrupting the assembly."

Sal scowled, ducking behind the chair in front of him to avoid the stares of the entire school. Michael had to stifle a laugh.

"So where do you two usually eat?" asked Oscar, "personally, I'd choose a nice sunny spot on the field, as this may be the last chance to sit there this year without being ankle-deep in mud. We could lie on the grass and soak up the sun too while we're at it."

"Sounds good," Salvatorio shrugged.

"Do I have a fucking choice?" Mike trailed after them as the other two crossed the playground to the field.

"Do you have a detention?" Oscar shot back.

"Not this lunch, actually."

"Then why not enjoy some company for a change?"

"Hey Oz!" Oscar glanced behind him to find Charlie running to catch up with the group.

"Oh, hi Charlotte," Oscar smiled widely, attempting to pat his little sister's head as she passed, but she dodged his hand.

"Your shoelaces are untied," she stated, bending down to tie them.

"Err, thanks for spotting. That could've ended badly if I'd stepped on them."

"No problem," Charlie stood up straight, "now that you're in my debt…"

"I knew it," muttered Oscar, "what do you want this time?"

"Well I was thinking about that competition they mentioned in assembly…"

"I'm not running a bake sale with you."

"I know," Charlie had her hands behind her back, rocking forwards and backwards, and staring at Oscar with wide innocent eyes, "I just want to set up a website."

"And how does that involve me?"

"Allow me to explain, dear Oz. It's basically gonna be a website for the students at this school to talk about their problems and get advice," Charlie shrugged, "just somewhere to get help and let it all out, you know? I think it'll be a good idea."

"About time we had one of those," exclaimed Salvatorio, "I think it's a brilliant idea, Miss."

"Charlie, call me Charlie."

"Okay, Charlie's a really cute name and suits you so much!"

"Yes, yes," interrupted Oscar, "but how does that involve me?"

"Ah, well I need a board of- say- seven or eight students to answer questions and give advice."

"And…?"

"I'd like a wide range of students to volunteer for it, you know, people of all ages, races, genders and backgrounds," explained Charlie, "that's where you come in."

"I see," Oscar sighed, "and why should I help you?"

"Because I tied your shoelaces for you," stated Charlie, "and because you're my brother and you have to support me."

"I don't see how I have to support you in everything. If you were arrested for murder then I'd probably cut all ties."

"Oscar!"

"Fine, it doesn't sound like it'll take up too much time anyway."

"Great!"

Sal tapped Charlie on the shoulder; "would it be okay if I volunteered too?"

"Of course," Charlie grinned, "it's only me and a few members of the art club so far, so any help would be grand."

"Aww anything to help out a little cutie like you;" Sal turned to Michael, "what about you?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Hey, it's up to you," Charlie shrugged, "might be fun, right?"

"Seeing as your effort at school is somewhat… well you know," added Oscar, "the teachers might want you to make it up some other way- besides staying after school- so entering this competition might end up being compulsory for you in order to boost your qualifications or something. Well, it'll either be this or volunteer work, and I'm not sure how you feel about reading to year sevens but… Plus, it'll look good on your CV."

"That is a very good point," grumbled Michael, "I'd rather sit on my ass at a laptop than dress as a penguin or some shit and walk around with a large bucket asking for money. Or read to those little brats."

"Great," said Charlie, "well, if you're all in then we should have our first meet up tomorrow at- say- eleven? We'll all meet at the park, by the fountain."

"Sounds good," Salvatorio pushed a lock of hair out of his face, "shall we go eat then? All these good deeds are making me hungry! Care to join us, Charlie?"

"Nah, got art club," Charlie began walking back towards the school building, "see ya round!"

"That's a shame," sighed Sal, "I was hoping she'd join us."

"Why?" asked Oscar suspiciously, crossing his arms.

"Well- err- she seems nice!" reasoned Sal, "I thought she'd be interesting to talk to."

"Right," Oscar shook his head.

"So," Sal scratched the back of his head nervously, "shall we go eat?" he repeated.

"I'm afraid I can't," began Oscar, "I just remembered I… have maths homework to finish so I'll have to spend lunch in the library."

"We have maths homework?" exclaimed Sal.

"No this is… extra homework the teacher gave me, catch up work from that time I was off sick and missed a lesson or something," Oscar began backing away, "sorry, it's really important." With that, he turned around and began running towards the school building.

"Well, I guess it's just you and me, Mi-" Sal turned around to find his other friend missing, "Mike?" the boy in question was nowhere to be found and Salvatorio sighed, making his way towards the field, "just me then."

Charlie put on her headphones and turned the volume up on her iPod, well, Logan's old iPod. After picking the song she wanted, the teen sat down and started on the piece she'd been working on, a painting of a sunset over the ocean, a clash of warm and cold colours, captured by a sweeping brush. The sun was shining in through the large windows, which were open, letting in the smell of fresh grass and trees as well as a welcoming breeze. Charlie gave a little stretch and picked up her brush. No sooner had she dipped it into the cup of water provided, then a pair of hands slammed onto the table either side of her. She jumped slightly, looking up to find Michael scowling at her.

"Okay, what the hell is your brother's problem?" he snarled.

"Huh? I don't know what you're talking about!"

"You know! Seriously, what the fuck's up with him?"

"Is there a problem here?" Two boys a year or so older than Charlie stood either side of her protectively, hands on hips and glaring. Michael recognised the pair as two of the boys from the detention yesterday; the one with long blond hair whilst the other with short, chopped, red hair.

"Could you leave Charlie alone, please?" said the red-head.

"I'm just talking with her!" exclaimed Michael.

"It's fine, Lars, Franz," Charlie told the two boys.

"If you say so…" the pair cautiously made their way back to their tables, still glaring at Michael.

"Okay," growled Charlie, "what do you want?"

"I just want you to tell me what's up with Oz," Mike shrugged, "you know, why he acts like he does and why he insists on being my friend when neither of us want that."

"To be honest, I'm not entirely sure either. You don't seem like someone he'd gravitate to."

"I noticed."

"Well, something about you sparked his interest, I guess. Maybe his delusions of grandeur have finally gotten the better of him and he feels like he needs to 'save' you from yourself."

"That's fucking stupid," snorted Mike.

"It is," agreed Charlie, "though it's probably also because, to put it frankly, he's lonely."

"What do you mean?"

"He has no friends his own age," Charlie explained; "I'm pretty much the closest he has to a best friend, unfortunately. Maybe he thought it was time he tried to make friends, hence you and Sal. You both seemed pretty lonely too, no offense."

"None taken," Mike shrugged, "it's kinda true though. I'm not really a people person."

"No kidding? I wouldn't have known," Charlie rolled her eyes; "oh, I should also explain he hasn't had a very good experience at school over the years."

"Meaning?"

"I'm telling you this so you'll not think as badly of him as you do, but don't go broadcasting what I'm saying to everyone. People used to take the piss out of him a lot cause he acts and speaks differently to what they consider normal. Well, it was bullying, and it was horrendous what they did. I don't want to go into details, but that's why he's so lonely, because no one talks to him without insulting him."

"I guessed as much."

"He's also a bit of a perfectionist. He likes to be the 'good' kid and not cause too much trouble for anyone. Especially our brother, Logan, cause he raised us and all. Oscar just wants to make it easier for him. He keeps bugging you because he cares, in his own funny way, about your future because, once again, he can't really see things from your point of view, but he'll get there eventually. Bear with him; he's only trying to help you."

"I see," Michael sighed, shoulders slumping. Trust that annoying kid to have a sob story. Still, he was curious about Oscar now, and the guy didn't seem so bad, just overwhelming. "I guess it wouldn't be a bad thing, having him around. Sounds like he's been through shit; guess I should cut him some slack. Cheers, Char, I appreciate the help."

"No problem," Charlie shrugged before her eyes darkened, "just don't hurt my brother. If you do, I'll stick this paintbrush so deep in your backside the person to pull it out will be crowned the next English king."

"Hey, Michael!" Oscar jogged along the corridor to catch up with the other boy. Around him, other students were making their way to the front gate. It was the end of the school day and time for everyone to begin the tiring walk home, except for a few people at after-school clubs or detentions.

"Oh, sup Oz-Oscar," Mike gave a strained smile.

"Want to walk home with Charlotte and I?" Oscar nervously fixed his hair, smiling hopefully.

"Nah, sorry mate, have to stay behind cause I didn't do my media studies homework," Mike shrugged, "maybe Monday."

"You actually took that as an option? Fair enough," said Oscar, "oh, and don't forget tomorrow, okay? It'd be a shame if anyone let Charlotte down. She isn't usually this persistent and motivated when it comes to anything that doesn't involve painting."

"Hey don't worry man, I'm not gonna forget," Michael assured him, "just please, for the love of God, don't turn up at my house at seven thirty in the morning, or any time. I'll make my own way there."

"Got it," Oscar winked and began walking away.

"Look, are you sure you're okay?" Peter looked at his brother in concern. Lars just nodded, holding his stomach, dried tears on his face.

"Are you sure you don't want someone to check it?" persisted Peter, "that kid hit you pretty hard. You might need to see a doctor."

"M'fine," growled Lars, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to hold back more tears. They were walking along the little lane where they lived, their house now in sight, "it's not as bad as it seems."

"Don't look that way," Peter frowned, "just tell a teacher. They take this stuff seriously."

"No they don't," Lars' voice was barely above a whisper, "if I tell them people have been hitting me and I tell them who done it, what are they actually going to do about it? Give some silly little punishment. Do they really think a detention and writing an apology note's really gonna stop them? They'll just do a load worse cause I told on them."

"Fine, no teachers," agreed Peter, "but our mummies would take it seriously. Mama Taika gets really angry when people mess with us or Mama Astrid."

"No, you can't tell anyone!" cried Lars, "they won't be able to help and it'll make things worse! It's bad enough you're worrying without them worrying too!"

"We have to! They'll know what to-"

"I told you we're not telling them!" Lars grabbed Peter's collar, lifting him up so he was standing on the tips of his toes, and shaking with anger, "and if you say anything to anyone I'll…" he stopped suddenly, letting go and stepping backwards, "sorry, Pete, I just… please don't say anything."

"If you insist," Peter dusted himself down, "but you're making a mistake."

"No, I'm not," Lars began walking ahead.

"You can always talk to me, you know," Peter jogged to catch up with his brother, "I'm here for you bro."

"I know," Lars sighed, "I… just can't take it. Every day, I get called names and hit by people and I want to hit them back but if I do then I'll be the one getting in trouble. I'm not subtle! I'd just get seen by a teacher if I hit someone."

"It'll get better bro," Peter put his hand on Lars' shoulder, "trust me."

"Thanks…"

"Logan? You home yet?" Oscar kicked his shoes off and wandered into the sitting room. Charlie went straight upstairs. He found his brother slumped on the sofa, head in his hands and oblivious to the world.

"Hey, what's wrong?" he walked over to Logan and sat next to him. What had happened now? Had he lost his job? Were they being evicted?

"Didn't get it," he mumbled, lifting his head up and looking at Oscar with a miserable expression, "didn't get the flaming employee of the year."

"That all-I mean, oh no," Oscar sighed; "the thing about employee of the year is that you can try again next year, you know. Clue's in the name. It's not like the opportunity will never arise again."

"Yeah, but they gave it to some idiot from New Zealand who's only been working there a few weeks. It's taken me years to get nominated and they give it so a newbie? It's just not fair. They only got nominated cause they pretend to talk to the animals like Dr Doolittle or some shit."

"Oh don't be so bitter," Oscar tutted, "so you didn't get it? Doesn't stop you from being one of the most dedicated, hard working people I know. You're an amazing zookeeper and a fantastic brother, Logie, and you don't need an award to prove it."

Logan smiled warmly, pulling his little brother into a crushing hug, "ah, thanks little man. Really appreciate it."

"Hey, no problem," Oscar poked Logan in the chest, "glad to see you smiling again." He thought for a moment. "Hey, how about we go out, all three of us? You know, for a nice family evening. It's Friday, and you have Saturday off, so we don't need to worry about getting up early tomorrow."

"Don't sound like a bad idea," Logan shrugged, "where should we go?"

"Pub?" suggested Oscar, "come on, it'll be fun."

"Great! But I'm not buying you any alcohol," Logan warned, "sixteen is too young to be getting shitfaced."

"Nothing was further from my mind," replied Oscar, looking at Logie innocently.

"Right," Logan snorted, "anyway, we could just find a little table in the corner or something and you and Char can have cranberry juice or whatever."

"And maybe a beer?" suggested Oscar, glancing at Logan hopefully.

"When you start shaving," Logan lightly slapped his brother's cheek, "seriously, you're covered in tiny, fuzzy hairs. You're like a baby duck!"

"Quack! Hey it'll grow," whined Oscar, "I'm just a late developer!"

"Of course," Logan ruffled his hair and stood up, "now, lets get all dressed up and knock 'em dead!"

Chapter Text

"Look, are you sure you don't want something to eat?" asked Logan for what felt like the millionth time. "I'm only going to ask once so you'll have to get them yourself if you're hungry later."

The three siblings were sitting around a table tucked away in the corner of a small, family-friendly pub a mile or so from their house. It was crowded with people winding down after a long week either by playing darts, watching football on a small telly hanging from the wall or lounging around tables and on bar stools drinking and chatting about the past week, politics, sports and all manner of things. The evening light filtered in through the windows, hitting the assortment of drinks and glass screens of the jukebox and fruit machines, causing them to glint.

The trio had dressed up for the occasion, if only to feel nice about themselves. The two boys wore buttoned down shirts (Oscar donned a lilac one whilst Logan wore green) with black trousers and Charlie was dressed in a little pink summer dress with a white cardigan, tugging at the skirt and sleeves uncomfortably.

"I don't want anything," Oscar snapped, "I meant it the first time I said it!"

"Just checking," Logan shrugged, then stood up and wandered over to the bar to order drinks and snacks.

Oscar rolled his eyes and looked around. Everyone seemed to be sitting in groups, either with mates, family or partners, and the atmosphere was friendly and warm. He noticed two friends arguing over what song they should select on the jukebox; another pair playing pool, navigating the green table like a couple of stalking sharks; and one man, or woman, sitting alone and sipping a glass of amber beer.

Strange, thought Oscar, frowning slightly. Everyone here had someone, even him, for once. The person glanced around nervously and sighed, taking another sip. Had they been stood up, or did they always come here alone? Maybe whoever they were waiting for was late, though they didn't look like they were expecting anyone. Oscar felt a pang of sympathy for them and wondered if he should invite them over.

"Here ya go," Logan set down the three drinks, beer for himself and cranberry juice for the younger two, then tossed a packet of peanuts to Charlie. He plopped himself down on the cushioned sofa they were sat at and opened his own packet of crisps. He offered the packet to Oscar- who turned him down- shrugged, and began eating them himself.

"So, anything good happen this week?" he asked his little siblings.

"Not much," Oscar shrugged.

"Gonna meet up with some friends tomorrow," replied Charlie, "we're going to the park to work on a project together."

"Ah great," Logan grinned, "nice to see you getting out of the house for a bit. So who else is coming?"

"Oscar, some of his mates, a few from art club, and from science club too," Charlie's bushy eyebrows knotted together, "about eight others altogether."

"You too Oz?" Logan's eyebrows shot up, "so what's this project thingy?"

Oscar's attention drifted off as Charlie began to explain about the website. What? He'd heard enough already! His eyes wandered back to the loner in the corner again. They wore a red jumper and played with the sleeves nervously; their hair was light brown and curly whilst their eyes were green. He couldn't tell if they were male or female, but he knew for sure that they were feeling alone.

"Hey, Logie," he began.

"Hmm?"

"You see that person there," he pointed discretely; "would it be weird of we asked them to sit with us. They seem kinda lonely."

Logan turned around to look at where his brother was pointing, and his face darkened.

"Oh no," he growled, "not that little prick."

"You know him… her… them?" Oscar frowned.

"Yeah, Hunapo over there's the bastard who got employee of the year instead of me," Logan folded his arms and slumped his shoulders, pouting like a small child.

"Don't you think that's a bit petty?" Oscar raised an eyebrow.

"I don't like them and don't want to talk to them."

Oscar sighed. "It's strange though. I mean, sure, you lost, but you're here with your family having a good time and celebrating anyway. They won and they're alone. It's as if silly things like work don't really matter much if we have nobody."

"Good," huffed Logan.

"Oh come on," chided Oscar, elbowing his brother, "I know you don't mean that and I know you hate seeing people all by themselves without a friend."

Logan didn't reply immediately; "yes but, I just don't like them. Hunapo's always trying to get on my nerves at work, and they do this shitty act where they pretend to talk to the animals, even when there's no kids around they just sit there whispering to the elephants and creepy shit like that."

"You talk to spiders like they're your little babies," Oscar pointed out, "I've seen you do it. Snakes too."

"Yeah, so?"

"So we really know you don't mean to be a dick and are just sulking," Oscar sighed, "make sure he doesn't follow me, Charlotte."

"What?" Logan yelped as the twelve year old jumped on him and wrapped their arms around him to make sure he couldn't stop Oscar, "hey get off me! Do as I say for once!"

"Not a chance," Oscar laughed and leapt up, running over to the corner of the room and slowing down just before he reached Hunapo.

"Um, hey," Oscar gave a small wave. Hunapo looked up and frowned, shoulders squaring.

"Oh, hello," they replied, trying to make polite conversation, at least, "you're not gonna try and hit on me, are you?"

"No, don't worry," Oscar chuckled, "I'm only fifteen for Christ's sake!"

"Oh, then take a seat, if you like. Or is there something you wish to tell me?"

"Actually," began Oscar, "my siblings and I would like to invite you to sit with us, if you like. It's just you seemed a bit lonely."

"Spying on me, huh? Didn't know I was that interesting," Hunapo gave a small smile, "I don't see any reason not to."

"Great," Oscar grinned, "hey, apparently you work with my brother."

"Really?"

"Yeah. You know a Logan, by any chance?"

"Don't think I do," Hunapo frowned, "either way, thank you for the offer," they picked up an over the shoulder bag, glass and their coat and followed Oscar over to his table.

"Oh," Hunapo groaned, "you meant Creepy-crawly Logie."

"Siddown and shuddup," mumbled Logan.

Hunapo took and seat and glanced from Oscar to Logan; "you two are really related?" they asked, "sure, I can see the resemblance but… your little brother's so polite and an absolute sweetie! And the little lady looks pretty too!"

"Thank you," Oscar beamed, "oh, I'm Oscar, by the way. And the little lady's Charlotte."

"Call me Charlie."

"Nice to meet you Oscar, Charlie," Hunapo chuckled.

"Oh, congratulations on getting employee of the year," added Oscar.

"How did you-" Hunapo glanced at Logan, who was sulking, and one could almost see the steam coming out of his ears, "of course. Well, thank you."

"No problem. Um, shall I get the drinks this time?" offered Oscar.

Logan drained the last of his beer and handed the empty glass to his brother, "sure, same again, traitor," he hissed. Oscar just laughed, shaking his head.

"Steinlager, please," said Hunapo, handing over their own glass.

"Got it, Charlotte?"

"Nah, I'm good."

Oscar carried the empty glasses to the bar and plopped himself on the stool, waiting for one of the two bartenders to notice him.

"Ah, how are we today, little doppelganger?" greeted Francis, sliding over and taking the glasses, placing them under to counter to wash up later.

"Not too bad buddy," Oscar grinned and rattled off the orders.

"Beer? Now, now," chided Francis, "you're a little young for that."

"It's not for me and you know it," Oscar grinned.

"So, who is your brother's friend?" asked Francis, glancing past Oscar.

"Oh, that's Hunapo," Oscar glanced behind him, "one of Logan's work mates. Apparently they're from New Zealand and doesn't get along too well with him but that's all I know."

"Boy or Girl? Not that I really mind..."

Oscar laughed; "got your eye on them, have you? To be honest, I can't really tell. Didn't want to ask."

"Well if your brother's not interested then what harm could it do me to try?" Francis shrugged.

"Well, Logan kinda dislikes them a lot, but… ah I dunno. Hunapo seemed a bit nervous when they thought I was hitting on them, so you might scare them if you… well, be you."

"I'm hurt," Francis mock gasped, "but I understand. Making someone uncomfortable would be terrible and I'm not that sort of person," there was a moment before Francis grinned slyly and leaned forward, "speaking of which, have you found a nice young man to settle down with yet?"

"What?" Oscar nearly fell off his stool, "oh come on! I'm still in high school for crissake; what the hell would I know about dating? Besides, I'm not really… well you know… open, about my preferences. So what can I do?"

"Yes it's hard for a young person who's different in any way," Francis sighed, "perhaps it is best to wait until college or university. You can get away with pretty much anything there."

"How did you do it?" pressed Oscar, "how did you tell everyone you were pansexual?"

"Well I didn't tell everyone," Francis considered for a moment, "I just mentioned it to a few close friends and family, filled in any questions and there you go. Some left, most stayed."

"That easy?" Oscar's eyebrows shot up.

"Well it was hardly a surprise," Francis chuckled, "have you even seen me? So, maybe you could start with your siblings."

"I dunno," Oscar shrugged, "sure, Charlotte probably couldn't give a flying f-… damn, but Logan?"

"You brother isn't the close-minded redneck alcoholic you believe him to be," Francis commented.

"I know, he really isn't at all, but… there's always the possibility of it going badly. You never know how people could react. There's a difference between being cool with gay people on telly or at work and actually having your little brother come out."

Francis leaned closer, "I'll let you in on a little secret, my fabulous-haired, thick eye brow-ed friend: your brother once mentioned to me that he himself was also pansexual. He would be an absolute hypocrite to react badly to what you have to say."

"I don't have to say anything to him," Oscar frowned, "it's really not anyone's business, is it?"

"Maybe," Francis shrugged, "and yes, maybe the entire world doesn't need to know. But the people you care about, and who care about you? And the ones you feel safe to tell? They need to know. If only so they can understand you more. But yes, don't tell anyone you don't trust."

"Ah why are you so smart, Bonnefoy?"

"When it comes to all things love related," replied Francis, "there is nothing I don't know. Speaking of which, you never answered my first question. Do you have your eye on someone? It doesn't have to be anything serious."

"Well I've only just got round to making friends, and I don't really have a good track record with this stuff," explained Oscar, "but if anything happens I'll tell you."

"I'll hold you to that," Francis grinned, "so, who is in your little crew?"

"Oy! Bonnefoy!" Arthur, the other bartender, stomped over, "are you actually going to do your job or do you plan to loaf about hitting on underage boys."

"I'm not even hitting on him!" Francis cried back, "he's a dear friend!"

Oscar burst out laughing; "oh don't worry Arthur. Francis is helping me with a little problem. Sorry to take your staff away from you."

"Well do hurry up; there are people waiting to be served," growled Arthur, walking away.

"And I'm his workmate, not his staff."

"Apologies."

"So anyway," Francis grinned, "tell me about your new friends."

"Well there's Salvatorio Vargas and Michael Jones," answered Oscar, "names ring any bells?"

"Yes, that little family of delinquents live down the street from me!" called Arthur, "I swear that Alfred Jones only exists to make my life a misery!"

"You know you sound like an old man?" Francis commented.

"Oh bugger off!"

"Vargas, you say?" questioned Francis, turning his attention back to Oscar.

"Yes, you know him?"

"Of course! His grandfather took me in as a teen when…" Francis trailed off and looked away.

"When your parents kicked you out for being pansexual?" Oscar sighed.

"I'm sure it won't be like that with your family!"

"Well… we'll see," Oscar collected his drinks and said goodbye to Francis. Back at the table, Logan and Hunapo seemed to be arguing, while Charlie desperately tried to ignore them.

"Look, I'm not criticizing the zoo; I'm just saying a petting area would be a good idea. It'd be nice for kids to get up and close with safe animals like sheep or goats," Hunapo was saying.

"What a load of shit," Logan rolled his eyes, "every zoo's a petting zoo so long as you're not a little bitch."

"You've got to be kidding me…" Hunapo wrinkled their nose; "so you're saying I should just go hug a lion?"

"If ya wanna do me a fuckin' favour," growled Logan.

"Hey I got the drinks!" Oscar butted in, handing them out.

"Where the fuck have you been?" demanded Logan.

"Over there talking to Francis!" Oscar shot back, "you could see me!"

"Whatever," Logan took a long gulp of beer and shuddered, "it's flat!"

"Who cares?" Oscar shrugged.

"See, this is why you're not allowed to drink yet!"

Hunapo's lips thinned and they shuddered, "sorry, little fella, but this is no way for a good beer to taste."

"Too fuckin' right!" Logan grinned at Hunapo, "tastes like piss!"

"How the hell do you even know what piss tastes like?" demanded Oscar.

"Um, Hunapo," Charlie piped up, desperate to change the subject, "I hope this doesn't sound rude, but I was wondering: are you a boy or a girl?"

"Charlie!" hissed Logan.

"Oh, that's okay," Hunapo chuckled, "I get that question a lot. I'm actually agender."

"A… gender?"

"No, agender, I see myself as neither male nor female," explained Hunapo, "I've never seen myself as either."

"Ooh, I see," Charlie nodded and went back to doodling on a napkin.

"What a load of shit," mumbled Logan.

"Oh shut up and drink your piss!"

Logan took another sip of flat beer, still glaring at Hunapo. Eventually, he sighed, put his glass down and sat up straight.

"Okay, that was a little ignorant of me," he began, "I'm… I'm sorry."

"Hey it's fine, I know you didn't mean it, cause, you know, you never misgender me at work," Hunapo grinned; "so, on a scale of one to being castrated by a crocodile, how painful was that apology for you?"

"I'd rather the crocodile," replied Logan jokingly.

"Hey the pool table's free; why don't you two have a game?" suggested Oscar.

"Bring it!" Hunapo grinned, "I'll kick your stupid arse!"

"We'll see about that!" Logan leapt up and followed Hunapo to the pool table, put 20p in the slot and chalked the two cues, handing one to Hunapo. The two glared at each other, standing either side of the table as Logan placed the red, yellow and black balls in the triangle and Hunapo placed the white ball at the other end.

"Shall I break first?" they offered.

"Go ahead," replied Logan, placing the triangle under the table.

"Are ya sure that was a good idea?" asked Charlie nervously.

"Ah, it'll keep them out of our hair for a bit," Oscar waved a hand airily, "what's the worst that would happen?"

...

One hour later

...

"Okay, I'm going to let you off with a warning this time," Francis stated, "but if your brother damages my property again he'll be barred. And that goes for all of you!" Oscar and Charlie were standing mortified outside the pub, next to an irate but rather amused Francis, whilst Logan and Hunapo were a few metres away. The duo were in an argument with a livid Arthur over Logan tearing the green fabric on the pool table with his cue out of anger after quarrelling with Hunapo over whose go it was.

"Understood," Oscar groaned, "and I am so, so sorry about this. If I'd have known then I'd never have suggested they play!"

"It's fine," Francis shrugged, "just pay for a new pool table and we'll say nothing more."

"Thank you."

"YOU'VE MADE A RIGHT PIG'S EAR OF MY POOL TABLE YOU BELLENDS! NOW SOD OFF BEFORE I GET THE POLICE!"

"OY! Don't get shirty with me just because my mate Huna and I caused a bit of trouble in that boozer of yours!" Logan shot back, staggering and leaning heavily on Hunapo.

"Oh just get your cack-handed, dipshit friend out of here," Arthur growled at Hunapo, who gave a thumbs up, swaying slightly.

"Pair of fucking tossers," Arthur mumbled, storming back inside.

"Fuck you!" Hunapo called back, high-fiving Logan, only to miss and the pair smacked each other in the face.

"Hey you're…" Logan hiccupped, "pretty fuckin' cool, you know? We should hang out again sometime."

"That's not a bad idea actually," Oscar wandered over after saying goodbye to Francis, "is Sunday good for you?"

"What do you mean it's 'not a bad idea'?" hissed Charlie, who was ignored.

"Fine," Hunapo grinned, "I don't really have friends here- I'm new to the country, see- so it'll be nice to spend time with other people."

"How 'bout cricket in the park," suggested Logan, "I'm top bloke at cricket!"

"We'll see," Hunapo flashed a wicked grin, "I was undefeated in high school!"

"Yeah? Well I'm stronger than you!" Logan argued.

"Again, we'll see," Hunapo handed the almost completely trolleyed Logan over to Oscar and wiped down their coat, "so, see you Sunday?"

"'Til then," Oscar grinned, "come on Charlotte, it's past your bed time!"

Chapter Text

The next morning, Michael paced up and down in front of a moss-covered old fountain, groaning to himself. Of course he'd be the first one here. No one else had shown up yet and he was already bored, even considering just leaving, claiming no one else had bothered to show up when they questioned him on Monday. Hell, he could even just say they were all late and too bad. But Oscar would probably see through it; Charlie definitely would.

Michael's lip curled into a snarl when he thought of that infuriating little ponce, who'd just wandered into his life without a care, changing everything. It made his stomach hurt to think about it, then again, his stomach hurt almost always nowadays, and Mike knew it would be unfair to blame Oscar entirely for it, no matter how temping it was.

On the other hand, Oscar genuinely seemed concerned for Michael, almost as much as his brothers were, and the young American hated to admit he found it rather… sweet? Endearing? It seemed that the boy was determined to become a sort of guardian angel.

Michael wrinkled his nose at the thought. He didn't need a guardian angel. What did Oscar think he was? Some tiny little child who spent his nights wishing on stars for friends? Salvatorio too. Then again, Sal seemed like a pretty friendly guy anyway, like he'd hang out with anyone he liked with or without their permission.

Michael wondered if he just became friends with two people he hardly knew without him knowing. Did that even happen? Still, made a nice change, having someone to talk to. Not that Sal and Oscar could ever know that. Michael didn't want that pair of clowns thinking he actually enjoyed their company.

He glanced up at the fountain once more. It had stopped spewing out water years ago, after rust and chewing gum clogged up all the pipes and no one'd ever bothered to fix it. Instead, the council had built a shiny new one at the other end of the park…

Hang on, Michael groaned loudly, running his fingers through his hair, other fountain? Oh for fucks sake!

He turned around and was about to dash off in the direction of said fountain when he spied a teenage boy with dark hair peering at him curiously from behind the old fountain.

"The fuck you want?" he growled.

"Uh-um, are you one of Charlie's friends?" he asked.

"Yeah, so?" Michael knew he should just ignore the kid and get going, seeing as he was late already, but the smug, condescending look on Oscar's face that was sure to come put him off for a few moments longer.

"Well, my friend Peter told me to go check the old fountain to see if anyone showed up there by mistake, and it seems they did," the boy explained, "you're here for the website thing, right?"

"Uh, sure," Michael shrugged.

"Oh good, you might want to follow me then," the boy turned around and began walking along one of the stony paths that snaked through the park.

"I guess," Michael stuffed his hands in his jacket pocket, "so what's your name kid?"

"Honda Nobuyuki," stated the boy.

"Bit of a mouthful."

"I've heard longer."

Michael and Nobuyuki lapsed into a slightly uncomfortable silence. Eventually, they reached the new, functioning fountain, where three boys were laying on the field next to it. Michael recognised them almost immediately. Well, he remembered them from the detention, and knew two were called Lars and Franz- the little foetuses who'd tried to scare him away at the art club-, but he didn't know the name of the third guy, the little blond with the eyebrows who hung out with Lars.

"Oh there you are!" the little blond chuckled, "see, Nobu, I told you there'd be at least one idiot in the wrong area."

"Of course, pretty smart thinking Peter," Nobuyuki rolled his eyes, chuckled and sat down next to Peter, pulling out a clump of grass and ripping the blades up. Michael sat a few metres away from the other four, fidgeting with his green jacket. It was an ancient thing that used to belong to his old man, but given to Michael just before he left the country. His father had noticed how the youngest Jones had seemed a little jealous of his brother's army coats, passed down from their grandfathers, so had handed him the thing- as the three brothers were in the airport waiting for their plane, actually- as something to remember him by. His mother had bought the three of them dream-catchers, for some reason.

"Sorry I'm late!" called a voice from behind them, and Michael turned his upper body around to see Sal running as fast as he could towards them.

"Hey that's fine," Peter shrugged, "gotta wait for a few others anyway."

"Oh that's good," Sal plopped himself down on the grass and grinned; "it took ages to convince my Grandpa to let me go. I usually work at his restaurant at weekends so he was pretty reluctant to lose a member of staff."

"Dude, doesn't your granddad want you to have a social life or something?" scoffed Michael.

"Honestly? No," Sal sighed, hugging his knees, "he worries about my brothers and me a lot since we're, like, the only family he has left."

"I see," Michael understood exactly where Sal was coming from. Although Matthew was pretty relaxed about what his brothers did- though sometimes despaired over their reckless behaviour-, Alfred worried constantly about Michael. He was always asking questions, nosing about and always had to know exactly where Michael was all the time. He probably checked Mike's internet history too.

Michael, whilst finding his brother's concern slightly endearing, hated the lack of privacy. He felt like he could never have secrets, that he was being smothered and had no space to breathe. It made him sick, and even thinking about it now was giving his stomach pains.

"Did I miss anything?" A young boy walked calmly towards them. Again, Michael recognised him from their detention; he was the serious one in the year below him.

"Nah, you're cool," replied Lars, not looking up from his phone. Peter, despite making an effort to greet everyone else, decided to ignore the newcomer. Michael raised an eyebrow with interest; did the little brats have a problem or something? Yes, they were all brats as far as he was concerned, except Sal. And Oscar, who was just a douche.

"It's just that Baba wanted to make snacks for everyone and apparently 'shit takes time' so I had to wait for him."

"Hey my mum made snacks too," Peter grinned. Nobu, on the other hand, pulled a face at the mention of it.

"Which mother?" he inquired.

"Mama Taika," replied Peter.

"I see." Michael could almost hear the boy groaning internally from where he was sitting.

"So it's just the lady of the moment left then?" asked Sal, changing the conversation.

"Yeah you'd think she'd want to show up to her own goddamn meeting on time," growled Michael, "or, failing that, fancy hair would drag her here."

"Hey don't talk to Miss Charlie like that!" whined Sal, "she probably has a good reason for being late!"

Michael raised an eyebrow, grinning, "'Miss Charlie'? Oh, I see. Right."

"Shut up!" Sal looked around nervously.

"Whatever," Michael lay back in the grass, resting his head on his arms and staring up at the sky.

"Tickle fight!" cried Sal, reaching for Mike's exposed stomach.

"Don't you fuckin' dare you little shit!" Mike aimed a kick at Sal, who just burst out laughing.

"Hey we're here!" called Charlie, dragging Oscar behind her and plopping herself down in the grass, "our brother had a hangover so we had to make him food or he'd spend the whole day crying in bed or something."

"Hey that sometimes happens to my mum too!" exclaimed Peter, earning a smack on the back of the head from Lars.

"Great…" Charlie replied, "now, shall we get down to business then?"

"Good idea," replied Sal, organising everyone into a circle. Michael, who couldn't be bothered standing up, rolled over and sat between Oscar and Franz. Probably not the best choice, he decided, but it was the shortest distance so required the least amount of energy.

"Okay," Charlie pulled out a notebook from her shoulder bag, "so I have a few ideas already but… maybe it's best if we all introduce ourselves first. Okay, how about we go around the circle and each say our name and… a hobby too!"

Everyone nodded in agreement, but Michael internally groaned. It was just like being at kindergarten or something. Wait, did they even have kindergarten in the UK again? No, they called it nursery or reception or something here.

"I'll start first," Charlie gave a small smile, "I'm Charlie Cooper and I like sketching." She elbowed Oscar and the boy let out a sigh.

"I'm Oscar Cooper and I like… mechanics, baking and gardening?"

Michael suppressed a snort. Since when did Oscar seem like the sort of person to enjoy mechanics? Gardening and baking, sure, but mechanics?

"Hey, it's your turn," hissed Oscar.

"Oh for fucks… hi I'm Mike Jones and my hobbies are music and gardening." Hey, Michael Jones was not too proud to admit he liked gardening!

"My name is Franz Edelstein and I like, no, I love art!" Michael moved a couple of inches further away from the boy. Fucking weirdo.

"We know," muttered the boy next to him, "I'm Lars Oxenstjärna-Väinämöinen - don't you forget that- and I like blogging and downloading movies."

"And I'm his brother, Peter Oxenstjärna- Väinämöinen and I love video games and musicals!"

"Hi beautiful people!" chirped Sal, "I'm Salvatorio Vargas and I like fine dining and pretty girls."

"My name is Honda Nobuyuki," said Nobu cheerily, "and I like zoology, cooking and eating eggs."

"I'm… Kuzey Adnan," Kuzey glanced over at Charlie, "and my hobby is… um, reading?"

"Great, now that we're all familiar with each other," began Charlie, "does anyone have any suggestions for this website. I believe Lars and Franz said they were going to design and set up the site itself."

"That's right," Lars grinned, pulling a small laptop out of his rucksack, "got a few designs already."

"We were thinking back background with blue text," added Franz, "it would look more professional that way."

"Whatever floats your boat," Charlie shrugged, "now, how are people going to contact us, and how are we going to reply?"

"I doubt the younger year groups would be happy submitting their emails and other personal information," Oscar considered, "and to allow people to ask us anonymously could open up a whole wave of trouble."

"That and it would mean broadcasting their problems publicly," added Sal, "and I don't think people would be too happy about that. Always a chance of being recognised."

"What about letting people set up their own accounts?" suggested Lars, "you know, so we can contact them but it'll be separate from their actual email accounts and things. Childline does something similar."

"Brilliant!" Charlie grinned, "nice thinkin' there."

"Hey, computers are my specialty," Lars shrugged.

"Maybe we could have a few pages with general advice on things," added Nobu, "you know, on symptoms for different conditions like depression or eating disorders and how to get help on them, or what to do if you're being bullied and so on. And some LGBT related stuff too."

"Maybe a page with links to other websites as well!" added Sal.

"All great!" Charlie scribbled everything down on her notepad, "so what about a reply system? How should we all answer questions?"

"How about everyone's given the option of who they speak to," proposed Peter, "like, you just pick a name or a picture and write to that particular person."

"Could work…" said Charlie.

"On the contrary," began Oscar, "you have to remember these are people at our school who will be sending messages. If they know who they're talking to we could be opening ourselves up to a wide range of abuse."

"Good point," Lars shuddered, "people can be right knob-heads over the internet, cause they know they can get away with it."

"Well what else should we do?" Charlie glanced around at the group.

"Maybe," Kuzey spoke up, "people can submit things in general and- I'm not sure how this works- but Lars could set it up so we all see the message and all have the option to reply and after we've all replied the messages will be sent back to them."

"What if we don't have any advice or someone else said the same thing you were going to?" demanded Peter.

"Then you don't say anything," replied Kuzey, "you could just- I don't know- approve it and move on to the next submission."

"That's a really good idea! Sorry Peter," Lars added, glancing at his brother.

"Hmph," Peter folded his arms and began to sulk.

Sal's stomach rumbled and he chuckled slightly, "should we stop for a lunch break?" he asked, "I hope you have snacks."

"We're making pretty good progress," agreed Charlie, "ah what the hell! Bring on the food!"

"Great! My mum's sandwiches are the best!" cried Peter, pulling a plastic tub out of his rucksack.

"I have a feeling my baba's food is better," Kuzey shot back.

"Hey we can have both!" exclaimed Sal, "so what's in those sandwiches?'

"Anchovies and onions!"

The circle fell into an awkward silence for a few minutes, broken only when Nobu gave a small cough.

"And what about you?" he asked Kuzey, "what did your father make?"

"Pizza topped with lamb, and sandwiches containing- fortunately- chicken and vegetables."

"What do you mean by 'fortunately'?" demanded Peter.

"Nothing," replied Kuzey innocently, setting the food out on a large, plastic dish in the centre of the circle, "help yourselves, everyone."

"Same here," Peter shoved the tub of sandwiches next to the platter, "dig in!"

Everyone either took chicken sandwiches or slices of pizza, except Peter, and Lars, ever loyal to his brother, and mother's cooking.

"Hey I think mum slipped me a box of salmiakki too," said Lars, rummaging through his own rucksack.

"Oh god no!" cried Peter, Franz, Charlie and Nobu at the same time. This wasn't the first time Lars had shared salmiakki out.

"Suit yourself," Lars placed one of the chewy, salty sweets in his mouth and grinned, "more for me then."

"Hey," Charlie nudged Oscar, "try one of Peter's sandwiches with me; I kinda feel bad for the guy."

"Um, I don't really want-"

Charlie glared at her brother, "eat. The fucking. Sandwich."

"Okay," Oscar took one from the tub and took a small bite, "hey these aren't half bad… little slimy… I'm scared to see the fat content on them though."

"It's a sandwich!" hissed Charlie, "not a freakin' cake or something." She also took one from the pile and shoved the whole thing into her mouth, still glaring at Oscar. Upon noticing Kuzey's down-hearted expression, Charlie sighed and picked up a sandwich from both piles, taking alternate bites.

"Happy now?" she growled at them.

"Perfectly," Kuzey gave a small smile.

"Sure," Peter scratched his head for a moment, "so guys, is there anything else we need to discuss?"

"Well," Charlie looked at her notes, "we need to exchange emails, discuss what issues we might come up against, sort out advertisement… there's a fair bit to go."

Michael groaned and lay back in the grass; he wasn't too sure how much more he could take of this.

"Fucking bollocks," Logan hissed as he stumbled down the stairs and his boxers and a vest, one hand buried in his hair, the other leaning heavily against the banister. His head was pounding like it had been kicked in repeatedly. His winced at the light coming through the kitchen window as he wandered over to the kettle.

It was a good thing he wasn't going to work that day, because all he planned to do was curl up on the sofa and drink coffee. Maybe later, if he was up to it, he could fry up another breakfast.

"Bless those kids," he mumbled, clutching a steaming cup and shuffling into the sitting room, fondly remembering the Full English Oscar and Charlie had left on his bedside table before going out. He plopped down on the sofa, taking a sip before glancing down at the coffee table to find a bright, garish piece of paper staring up at him.

Curious, he picked it up, and broke into a wide grin.

There in the middle, amongst glitter and a rainbow of paints, were the words:

Brother of the year award

Signed: Oscar and Charlie Cooper

Xxx

"I don't deserve you two, I really don't," he whispered, tearing up as he held the paper to his chest.

Chapter Text

"Now, I cannot stress how important this day is," said Logan for the third time that morning. He was swinging a wooden cricket bat around, stretching his arms as he walked.

"Oh don't talk shit," Oscar sighed, "it's just a little game."

It was Sunday and the three siblings were walking in the same park, past the same disused fountain, to get to the open field where Hunapo would be waiting, hopefully. Logan and Charlie wore sleeveless tops and shorts, whilst Oscar was wrapped up in a tracksuit, worse affected by the cold than the other two, a bag containing wickets slung over his shoulder. Charlie carried the ball, throwing it lazily into the air and catching it again.

"'Tis more than just a game, dear brother," corrected Logan, waggling a finger in Oscar's face, "this is a matter of honour, of pride, of… of… I won't be beaten by that stupid little sheep!"

"Hunapo's not a stupid little sheep," Oscar pointed out.

"They're a fuckin sheep," muttered Logan, "and they're going down."

"I blame you for this," Charlie hissed at Oscar, who nodded with a miserable expression on his face.

"As do I…"

They fell into silence and walked along the path, eventually coming to the open field and, sure enough, found Hunapo leaning against a tree on the other side. Charlie grinned and broke into a run.

"Hey Huna!" the teen called, "catch!" she threw the ball ahead of her, and Hunapo ran to catch it, succeeding.

"Nice," Charlie gave an impressed whistle.

"Thanks," Hunapo chuckled and lazily threw the ball back, jogging to get to the twelve year old, "how are you?"

"Not too bad," Charlie shrugged, "and you?"

"So, so," Hunapo shrugged, "so what did you use to bribe your brother into tagging along?"

"Nothing," Charlie grinned, "he just likes a competition."

"And a competition he shall get," Hunapo smirked at Logan, who'd just caught up with them.

"Yeah, let's cut the crap and get on with things," Logan waved a hand, taking the sports bag off of Oscar and hammered the wickets into the ground with his bat. "So, I was thinkin' of making this easier on you, sheep," he continued, glaring at Hunapo, who just smiled innocently, "you can have Charlie on your team."

"Excuse me," scoffed Oscar, "are you implying I'm bad at sport?"

"…Yes," replied Logan, "look, catch!" he took the ball out of Charlie's hand and threw it gently to Oscar, who side-stepped out of the way.

"Why would you do that?" Oscar scowled, "I don't like people throwing things at me and you know I don't like people throwing things at me why did you do it?"

There was a pause before Logan spoke again, then he picked up the ball and grinned; "seriously Huna, he never catches them. It's fuckin hilarious."

"Logie!" cried Oscar.

"Okay, okay," Logan sighed, "we'll field first, that way all you have to do is run after the ball then."

"Seems fair," Hunapo picked up the bat and walked over- hand in hand with Charlie- to the wickets.

"Maybe I could bowl," suggested Oscar, "that doesn't involve catching, right?"

"Well, yeah," Logan scratched the back of his head, "but bowling involves precision and aim-"

"You just want to throw stuff at Hunapo," Oscar interrupted, "don't you?"

"They're so freakin' smug I just want to wipe that stupid grin off their face!" Logan glared in Hunapo's direction. The object of his loathing seemed oblivious, teaching Charlie how to hold a cricket bat properly.

"It's cute when you do that thing where you pretend not to like someone," Oscar commented, grinning.

"Shut up!" Logan aimed a swipe at his brother, who ducked, "now go over there and get fielding! You could do with a good run."

"Are you saying I'm out of shape?" Oscar looked genuinely worried for a moment.

"What? No!" Logan groaned, "everyone needs exercise, okay? You kids just spend all your time on computers or watching telly nowadays!"

"You sound like an old man!" cried Oscar, walking away to find his own space in the field, waiting for the inevitable, fruitless chase after flying balls. He stuffed his hands into his tracksuit and sighed. Of all the ways to spend a Sunday…

There was a crack of wood hitting plastic and something small and red whizzed past, missing his right eye by inches. Oscar growled quietly to himself, turning around to fetch the ball, but was beaten by Logan, who barged past him.

"Yer too slow!" the older brother cried, "just leave me do it, okay? Might actually have a chance of winning then…" he dived at the ground, catching the cricket ball as it bounced across the field.

"Fine," Oscar decided he was no longer needed, and wandered over to a tree, sitting in the shade of its trunk. Charlie soon joined him.

"Huna won't share the bat," she whined, plopping down next to him.

"They're pretty fierce; I wonder if they've even noticed we're not playing any more," Oscar watched Logan and Hunapo furiously try to outdo each other at sports, running up and down the field, throwing the occasional insult. And by the occasional insult, Oscar meant an almost constant stream of abuse from both sides.

This carried on for a few hours, the pair not tiring even a little bit, and Charlie eventually dug into her rucksack for a little snack in the form of crisps. She didn't even bother offering one to Oscar; he'd just refuse. She then pulled out a small note pad, scribbling all over it.

"Oh, hey Charlie!" the two siblings turned to find Peter running towards them, closely followed by Lars and two women, "what are you doing here?" Peter stopped just in front of them, grinning widely.

"Huh? Well the plan was to play cricket with Logie and his new mate," explained Charlie, "but we kinda got pushed to the side."

"Oh," Peter glanced at Logan and Hunapo, who were now just hitting each other with pieces of wicket and the bat. They were laughing, so no one was too worried.

"What about you?" inquired Oscar, looking at Peter with interest. By now Lars had caught up with them.

"We're going to play football!" the boy cried, "apparently Pete and I were getting too restless cooped up inside playing video games or something," he shrugged, glaring at a tall blonde woman, who gave a small smile.

"It'll do ya good," she replied, "fresh air."

"Hey," added the other woman, a short, plump lady, "how about you call your parents over and we can have a four-against-four game."

"They're not our parents," Charlie corrected, "but sure. Hey Logie, Huna! Get your butts over here now!"

"Huh?" Hunapo, who had Logan in a headlock, glanced over at them, "hey Logie, there are a bunch of strangers talking to your kids."

"What?!" Logan threw Hunapo off of him, looking panickedly at where Charlie was waving, "oh, I think they're some mates of theirs from school. Man you really had me worried for a second Huna-" Logan glanced at Hunapo, who was sprawled on the ground, winded, "Huna?"

"I'm fine," they wheezed.

"Here," Logan held out his hand, helping Hunapo up and dusting them down, "shall we see what all the fuss is about then?"

"Sure," Hunapo gave a small smile. The pair began to wander towards the tree.

"Ah shit," muttered Logan, "I think I recognise the short lady."

"Where from?" Hunapo raised a bushy eyebrow.

"She's a policewoman," explained Logan, "or a volunteer one, anyway, I was at a pub one night and a big fight broke out and when the Bobbies got called she turned up and…" he whistled, "she's scary when she's mad!"

"Your fault for getting in drunken fights," Hunapo stuck out their tongue.

"Oy! I never!"

"Hey Logie," called Oscar, "these are our friends from school: Peter, Lars and their parents."

"Oh," Logan grinned and shook everyone's hand, "nice to meet you, Miss…?"

"Taika, call me Taika," Taika smiled warmly, "and this is my wife, Astrid."

"Pleasure. I'm Logan, and this is sheep."

"Hey," Hunapo elbowed Logan, "I'm Huna!"

"Fine, fine," Logan rolled his eyes, "so what can we help you with?"

"Well I was thinking, since our children are friends and all, we could have a little game of football," explained Taika, "it would be nice to get to know my sons' friends, and meet more parents."

"Well, I'm their brother actually," clarified Logan, "but sure, why not?"

"So, girls against boys?" suggested Peter.

"Err…" Hunapo glanced at Logan nervously, and the young man squeezed their hand reassuringly. He didn't notice a similar reaction in Charlie.

"Maybe Europe versus Oceania instead," he tried, "that way both teams have two kids and two adults."

"Fair enough," Taika pulled an old, battered football out of her sports bag and threw it in the air, only to have it stolen by Astrid.

"C'me on," she ran off across the field, closely followed by Peter, Charlie and Lars.

"You little-" Logan was about to run after them, when Hunapo tugged on his arm, "yeah?"

"Thanks," Hunapo whispered, "I really didn't want to explain…"

"Hey it's fine," Logan shrugged, "now lets play ball. Bet we're unstoppable together."

They were. Whenever they stopped arguing amongst themselves for five minutes, that is. But Peter and Lars fought each other almost as much, so the teams were pretty even. The eight played until evening, when the sun was beginning to sink behind the trees. After realising they'd never actually kept score, the two teams decided it had been a draw (except Lars, who insisted 'team Europe' had won) and went their separate ways. Hunapo and Logan walked side by side, carrying somewhat dented cricket equipment and occasionally shoving each other playfully. Charlie and Oscar trailed behind, grinning at the pair.

They left the park and walked along quiet, residential streets, chatting amongst themselves in the light of the street lamps. Eventually, they came to a t-junction and had to part from Hunapo.

"Today was… fun," Logan admitted, "you're alright, sheep."

"You're not so bad yourself… donkey," Hunapo smirked.

"Hey!" Logan just let it slide, "so, see you tomorrow then? At work, I mean."

"Yeah… see ya," Hunapo grinned and turned around, walking away.

Logan returned to his siblings, who were exchanging smug glances. He aimed a half-hearted punch at each of them, but they ducked, giggling.

"Not a word from you two!" he warned, cheeks flushing.

"Of course," Oscar smirked.

"Oh, just shaddup and get moving," growled Logan, "don't you little shits have school in the morning?"

Chapter Text

"Hurry up and get settled," Mr Fernandez-Carriedo ordered as year 11 students filed into the science classroom. Sal, Michael and Oscar slipped into seats near the front; it was the only lesson they all had together, so decided to make the most of it. Just as long as no one brought up the seating plan in front of the teacher…

"You two have done the homework, right?" Sal hissed at the other two, who nodded.

"You actually-" began Oscar.

"It was a tiny worksheet," growled Michael, "have some faith in me for fuck's sake."

"Language, Jones," Mr Fernandez-Carriedo warned, pointing a board pen in their direction. He paused for a moment, frowning, "that's not your usual place, Cooper."

Oscar gave an apologetic smile, and Mr Fernandez-Carriedo sighed.

"Fine," he said, "you can sit there for now, but if I have to tell you off even once, you're moving back, got it?"

"Understood sir."

"Okay class," Mr Fernandez-Carriedo spoke to the whole class, "today, we're learning about cells, great, huh?" there was silence throughout the room and the teacher pouted, "they're fun, I swear! Either way, you need to know all about them for your exams."

He turned around and drew a circle and square on the board, "now, as you already know, animals and plants have different cells, and you will need to know these differences." Mr Fernandez-Carriedo began adding details to the two shapes, explaining the features of the two different shapes at the top of his voice. Oscar and Michael couldn't help but tune out. Mr Fernandez-Carriedo, bless him, tried his best to make lessons fun, but thought that simply yelling passionately about what he was teaching did the trick. It had been funny for the first few weeks, but now it was old and stale. Not that the young teacher would let a little thing like his students not listening stop him.

"Sir," began Salvatorio. Mr Fernandez-Carriedo turned around and grinned.

"Yes, Vargas?"

"You said the mitochondria do that respiration thing," Sal frowned, "but how do they manage to turn oxygen into carbon dioxide?"

"Oh? It's simple really," the teacher turned around and began scribbling across the board, "pay attention to this everyone! The mitochondria has a double-membrane and the internal one is folded like this," more drawing, "to allow for a larger surface area…"

Michael and Oscar quickly threw open their notebooks to copy the diagrams down, just in case what the teacher was saying was important.

"See the large surface area allows the chemical reactions to happen fast," the teacher put the lid on his board pen and grinned, "of course, you don't have to know that for GCSE level."

"Oh for fuck's sake!" Michael threw his pen across the desk and Oscar groaned.

"Now why don't you two pay attention and you might know what you need to write down?" Mr Fernandez-Carriedo rolled his eyes, "oh, and I'm finally allowed to do practical lessons after that… unfortunate incident, so next lesson will be a dissection!"

"Ooh goody," Oscar gave a small clap, grinning manically.

"You… you like that shit?" Michael raised an eyebrow.

"Of course!"

"Never knew you had it in you…" Michael exchanged worried glances with Sal, who looked a little green.

"I don't like cutting up dead things," he muttered, "I think I'll fake a stomach bug that day."

"From one extreme to the other," Michael whispered, "so this is what it's like to be normal."

"What do any of us know about normal?" Oscar grinned.

"Ugly little shit!"

Lars shrank away from the classmate who'd hissed that at him, pushing past a group of students and ducking into his classroom. It seemed to just be constant, the jibes, shoves, threats. People had to comment on every aspect of Lars' life, judge him on it, mock it and make him feel awful for it. The other students poked fun at his parents (so what if he had two mums?), his brother (yes, they were adopted and Peter could be quite loud sometimes, who's business was it?) and how close he was with his best friend (Franz was one of the few people who was actually nice to him; it made sense for him to stick close to the boy).

He dumped his bag on his desk and fell into his chair, staring at his knees. He was sick of the constant abuse. Every morning he tried desperately to get his parents to let him stay at home, but Mama Taika could always tell when he was faking a stomach ache, or a cold. She and Mama Astrid kept asking him why he didn't go to school, but he would just mumble something about lessons and homework. Like he could tell them the truth…

"Still not leaving you alone, huh?" Franz sat next to his best friend, giving him a look of concern. Lars shrugged, and glanced at the boy. Franz Edelstein's long silvery hair was tied up in plaits under a red beret, like always, and he'd replaced his school tie with a little bow that was the same colour. The teachers had repeatedly asked him to remove it, but it had long been made clear Franz had no intention of doing that.

"It's like they Google synonyms for 'gay' every night so they have new material to use against me," Lars sighed, "I really hate the shit they talk about my family, and I just wanna beat the living crap out of them, but I'd get in trouble," he glanced at his friend, and frowned slightly, "hey Franz?"

"Yeah?"

"You're kinda… eccentric," Lars picked his words carefully, "how come you don't really get any shit thrown your way? Not that I'd ever wish-"

"I used to," Franz interrupted, "all the time when I first entered high school. But I guess I just didn't act like they got to me. I'd always have a comeback or I'd just not pay them any attention, so they stopped bothering. Bullies want to get a reaction out of you, right? So it made sense for me to act like the insults just bounced off."

"I wish that would work for me," Lars looked down at the desk, lip quivering. He never bothered to act tough around Franz; the kid always saw right through it.

"Hey I'll protect you," Franz promised, reaching over and squeezing Lars' hand reassuringly.

"Hey Edelstein!" One of their classmates strode in and sneered at the pair; "is that your boyfriend? Is having a boyfriend 'art' now?"

"Yes," replied Franz dryly, "as is what I did with your sister last night."

The classmate opened their mouth to reply, then shut it again quickly, scowling and stomping over to their desk.

"See?" Franz grinned at Lars, "bullies are stupid and cowardly; remember all those assemblies on the subject?"

"Sure," Lars gave a small smile, which disappeared when the rest of the class began filing in.

Michael turned the collar of his jacket up and stuffed his hands in his pockets. It had taken him ages to convince his teacher that he genuinely needed the toilet and now he was enjoying his few minutes of peace and quiet, walking along the edge of the school field, frosty grass crunching under his trainers.

The autumn air was crisp, not too biting, but harsh enough to let you know it was there. He glanced at a class of boys dressed in awful PE kits, in the same year as him, kicking footballs across the field in practice drills.

Shaking his head, Michael picked up the pace, preparing to walk past where most of the class seemed to be gathered. He decided that, if he kept his head down, they would ignore him. He was in no mood to talk to anyone today; he'd had a whole weekend of that. Then he heard cries and shouts coming from pretty near, and Michael glanced around in curiosity.

A large group of boys were kicking footballs at a target, cheering and shouting whenever they made contact. That all seemed pretty normal to Mike, but what really make him feel ill was that the target was crying out, covering their face with their hands for protection.

Michael Jones was not the nicest person in the world- far from it- but he was not violent for no reason. As another football collided with the kid's stomach, bringing them to their knees, Michael felt a flash of almost uncontrollable anger.

"Hey come on," he began, moving closer to the group and deciding a diplomatic approach was best to start with, "don't you think that's enough?" Michael wondered where the teacher was, and why they weren't doing anything.

"Stay out of this," growled one of the students, "the little shit was looking at me in the changing room! He deserves everything he gets!"

"I never!" cried the kid on the floor, "take a look at yourself, you fucking potato! You're as ugly as your personality! Why would I ever look at you like that?"

"What did you say?" the boy grabbed a football out of his friend's hand and kicked it into his victim's shoulder. Michael looked at him closely for the first time, and realised with horror that he recognised the mop of curly, brunet hair and pained amber eyes.

They were beating up Oscar.

"Okay that's definitely enough," Michael stepped in between Oscar and his attackers, raising both hands to show he didn't want trouble, "he said he weren't lookin' at you, dickbags. You've had your fun, now fuckin leave him alone."

"Oh come on, Mick," reasoned the student, the one accusing Oscar, "it's fun! Here, take a ball and see for yourself!" He held out a football to Michael, but the kid shook his head.

"Oscar's my mate," he growled, "now get away from him." He turned around and hooked his hand under Oscar's elbow, hoisting the boy up. Oscar gave a grateful smile, wiping dirt off his shorts and legs.

"Oh what's wrong?" teased the other boy, "did we beat up your boyfriend?"

"No, you attacked my friend," Michael gave his harshest glare, but it had no effect.

"Do you loooove him?"

Michael decided to ignore that one; no point in rising to the bait…

"Little faggot," he heard someone mutter. Michael felt a flash of anger and wheeled round, picking up a football abandoned on the ground and drop-kicking it. It connected with the leader's jaw with a smack and Michael panicked; he never meant for it to actually hit, no matter how satisfying watching it was. Still, why stop now?

"Don't ever touch my friend again, fuckbag!" he screamed, grabbing the leader by the collar of their football shirt, "or I will personally fuck you up, you hear?"

"Okay, okay," the leader's eyes widened and he spat blood on the floor; "I won't touch your boyfriend again!"

"Michael Jones!" the teacher stormed over to the group and Mike let go of his classmate. Of all the things the teacher could have seen…

"What is the meaning of this?" the teacher, Mr Smith, a large, angry man in a tracksuit that he could barely squeeze into, took one look at the student's bloodied face and glowered at Michael, who shrank back. Now he was really in trouble…

"Please, sir," Oscar stepped in front of Michael, "he was only protecting me!"

"From what?" Mr Smith raised an eyebrow.

"From them," Oscar waved at his classmates, who tried to look as innocent as possible.

"Sir!" one of them cried, "we did nothing!"

"They kept kicking the ball at me!"

"Oh man up Cooper," scoffed Mr Smith, "it's only a game of football!"

"It was deliberate!" Oscar stared at his teacher in disbelief, "you're having a go at Michael for doing it! And he was provoked!"

"Mr Jones is not in my class," argued Mr Smith, "now, I'm taking you both to the head teacher's office! Don't answer back, Cooper, you've done enough of that!"

Oscar and Michael exchanged anxious glances as the P.E. teacher led them away.

"Fighting, in the middle of lessons," the head teacher sighed, "really, I expected better from year elevens." He was an old man, late sixties, close to retirement and so out of touch with his students it was alarming. The three were sitting in his office, the two boys slouched on tiny plastic chairs, glancing around nervously.

"Sir," began Oscar, "he was only protecting me."

"From what?" the head teacher scoffed.

"From the other students," Oscar sighed, "they were attacking me and Michael stepped in. I'm extremely grateful, to be perfectly honest."

"There are other ways of resolving conflict," the head teacher reminded him, "why didn't you tell a member of staff?"

"Because they wouldn't care," Oscar raised an eyebrow, "I tried going to the teachers in my last school and it just made things worse."

"I am well aware of the problems you experienced at your old school, Mr Cooper," the head teacher glared at him, "and I can honestly say what do you expect from a rough, London school? Out here we're far more understanding, that's why there's no real cases of bullying at our school."

"Okay," Michael cut in, "what the literal fuck, sir? How exactly are you perfectly 'understanding', if you don't even listen to kids that are being bullied? Because there are cases of bullying at this school and you're ignoring them! If someone's beating the shit out of one of your students, or calling them names or telling them to kill themselves online, then you have to fuckin' step in!"

"Language!" the head teacher turned on Michael, "you're in enough trouble as it is! I mean, kicking someone in front of a teacher!"

"So it's okay to kick someone when a teacher isn't looking?"

"We have to take violence in this school very seriously, Jones-"

Oscar laughed humourlessly, "oh yes? Where the hell were you when I was a victim of violence? Because it wasn't just at my old schools. Where were you when kids called me names and stole stuff from my desk because I looked and dressed different? Where were you when people called my brother a 'brainless layabout' and my sister a 'little slut'? Or when I was pinned against the wall and punched until I begged them to stop?" Oscar was close to tears now, "where were you when I wanted to die?"

Michael blinked in surprise and glanced at the boy next to him. Oscar's eyes were closed, probably to stop himself from crying, and his hands were balled into fists.

The head teacher just sighed, "I have stressed on several occasions, Cooper, that what went on in London is none of our concern. Now, I will let you both go on this occasion, but I will be having strong words with both your parents this Thursday."

"I forgot about parents' evening," whispered Michael, rubbing his nose.

"Um… I don't have…" began Oscar.

"Oh that's right," there was a hint of amusement in the head teacher's eyes; "your brother is your carer, right? Same with you, Jones?"

Oscar hated the way he said that, and all those other little phrases he'd heard adults whisper to each other when they thought he wasn't listening came back: 'problem family', 'broken family'. Yes, Logan had cared for him and Charlie since they were little. Yes, parents weren't in the picture any more. So what? Logan had worked tirelessly to provide for them, refused to listen to any suggestion that Oscar and Charlie would be better off in care, worked long hours at the zoo and other part time jobs he found so they could eat and be clothed. There was nothing 'problem' or 'broken' about that man and he was Oscar's idol. Why were parents so vital for a family? Oscar thought his family were brilliant, if a little loud and eccentric.

"Al and Matt will be there, okay?" Michael glared at the teacher.

"Really? They've failed to turn up-"

"They were busy," Michael shrugged, "you know, working. I promise they'll show up Thursday."

"We'll see," the head teacher gave the boys one final glare, "now, you're dismissed."

Oscar and Michael got up at the same time, and left the office. The moment they were outside, Michael groaned, leaning against the wall and sliding down. He rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair; when he looked up, he saw that Oscar was staring at him anxiously.

"What?" he growled.

Oscar jumped before giving a nervous grin, "um, I just want to say thank you; I really appreciate what you did and I must apologi-"

"Don't you fuckin' dare be sorry," Michael spat; "it weren't your fault. And I've been meaning to sock the dickhead in the jaw ever since I head him talking shit about my brother."

"Still, I'm the reason you're in trouble…" Oscar sighed, picking a blade of grass out of his hair and adjusting his curls, "let me make it up to you."

"How," Michael raised an eyebrow, regarding the other with suspicion.

"Well," began Oscar, "we could go out sometime, as friends I mean, and I'll pay. Dinner? Shopping? You name it?"

Michael checked his watch, "ten minutes until school ends; no point in goin' back to class. We have time now…"

"But our bags are still in the classrooms," protested Oscar.

"We'll get them tomorrow," Michael shrugged, "your one will be in the changing rooms anyway. You can grab it before everyone gets back from football on our way out."

"I'm wearing my P.E. shorts!" hissed Oscar, suddenly feeling self conscious, "how can I go around in public like this?"

"Oh come on," Michael hauled himself up and grabbed Oscar's arm, "no one's lookin' at your legs, much, okay so don't worry; Mike's gonna show you how to fucking live!"

"Logie always warned me about being peer-pressured into bunking…" Oscar grimaced.

"We're not bunking!" scoffed Michael "just… leaving early. I say we deserve it. Now come on, sir's probably in there phoning our brothers. Do you really wanna go straight home?"

"God no," Oscar began marching down the corridor, "come on!"

Michael grinned, following suit.

Chapter Text

"Hey, budge up!"

Hunapo glanced over their shoulder to find Logan grinning down at them. He was leaning against the bench they were sitting on, trying to finish their lunch in the short space of time allowed for breaks, and was in no mood for conversation. Still, Hunapo wasn't brought up a rude person, so they- begrudgingly- shuffled over.

"Cheers!" Logan plopped down next to them, holding a small cardboard box full of take-away chicken and chips, "hey, do you bring in a packed lunch everyday?"

Hunapo glanced at the small, clear lunchbox balanced on their knees and nodded, "what of it?"

"You know employees get free food from the food stalls," Logan commented, dipping a chip in ketchup and popping it in his mouth, "why not take advantage of it?"

"Because I've actually seen them cook it?" suggested Hunapo, "and, you know, know what goes into the preparation of those 'burgers' and 'hot dogs'. Besides, preparing my own food is something I enjoy doing in the morning. It calms me."

"But…" Logan thought for a moment, "why would you waste time like that? I can barely get my kids ready before going to work. And what do you expect for free food? Of course it's gonna be shitty. Tastes alright though…"

"Well, I guess I live alone so I have more time," Hunapo shrugged.

"What's living alone like?" asked Logan, voice muffled by a mouthful of chicken.

"Sometimes nice, sometimes not," Hunapo shrugged, "like, if I'm reading a good book, or watching TV, I'm happy because I can just read or watch without interruption. I don't have to fit anyone else's schedule, or alter mine for anyone. I don't have to worry about a dress code, and can just act like a slob if I choose to without anyone judging. But then again, sometimes I'm reading and I come to an amazing part of a book, or I see something funny on the telly, and wish I had someone to share that with. Sometimes I miss the sound of laughter and my electricity bill's gone through the roof because I always have the telly on, just for a bit of noise. That's why I agreed to go to the park with you all yesterday, cause it's been ages since I did something with friends. Because I don't have any."

"Damn," Logan raised his eyebrows, "I was wondering… cause you and me aren't really close, right?"

"Yeah," Hunapo gave a small chuckle, "you're okay, I guess, if a little crude and annoying. Your siblings are total sweeties though."

"I know," Logan grinned, "I think Oz and Charlie are the one thing I got right in life."

"You raised them well," Hunapo agreed, "it really shows. How did you, if you don't mind me asking, come to be on your own…?"

"Not at all," Logan shrugged, "mum died, dad left. Been looking after the little ones since I left high school."

"That's awful," Hunapo stared at their lap awkwardly, "so… you're basically a mum, dad and brother to them…"

"Yup," Logan grinned, "did everything but breastfeed them! I'm glad they turned out alright though…"

"Your efforts have definitely paid off," Hunapo agreed.

There was an awkward silence for a few moments. Logan nervously played with his hands and ate, occasionally glancing over at Hunapo.

"So…" he began, wanting to break the silence, "what'ya reading?"

"Hmm?" Hunapo glanced at the cover of the book held in one hand, "oh, 'Tides of Time'. It's one of my favourites. Seriously, it's great, if a little sad." Logan patiently listened as Hunapo explained the whole plot of the book, how many times they read it and all of the other books by the same author.

"So that's what you mean when you never get to talk to someone," he commented when they'd finally finished speaking.

"Yeah, I guess…"

"Excuse me," someone tapped Logan on the shoulder and the young man looked up, "could you show me where the gift shop is?"

"Of course!" Logan smiled warmly and got up, throwing his empty box in the bin next to him, "it's pretty nearby; just follow me."

"See ya Logie," Hunapo called.

"Later Huna."

"I'm gonna kill the little shit!" Logan stormed into the storeroom where Hunapo was filling large buckets with feed. He was clutching a mobile phone and seemed absolutely livid. It was three o'clock now, but the pair still had a few hours of work to go.

"Which little shit?" asked Hunapo calmly, picking up a bucket, a massive blue one that required two hands to carry, "walk with me. That way you can rant while I work."

"Oz!" Logan followed Hunapo as they wandered out of the room into the sunlight, "he's in trouble for fighting and answering back to teachers!"

"Sounds serious," Hunapo grimaced, "and he seemed so mild tempered…"

"He is; that's the weird thing!" Logan groaned, "he never gets into fights! And now this… the detention on Thursday was odd enough but fighting? He's not a fighter, in the physical sense anyway," Logan thought for a moment, "I dunno, the kid's been bullied since he could walk but I thought that shit was finally over…"

"That's terrible," Hunapo pulled a face.

"Have you seen him though?" Logan raised an eyebrow, "Oscar's a walking target for bullies! I just wanna pull the kid out of school and home-school him myself, but I'm not really teacher material…"

"I bet you taught him everything the school couldn't, right?" Hunapo pointed out.

"Hopefully…" Logan cried out in frustration, "why is this parenting shit so hard? Just when I think everything's smoothing out something like this happens!"

"Being a parent's hard," Hunapo shrugged, "that's why kids get abandoned and left behind all the time, cause people don't realise how difficult it is…"

"I guess," Logan sighed, "but what do I do?"

"Don't yell at him," Hunapo suggested, "be there for him, listen to his side of the story. Be a parent! You've managed to be one so far!" Hunapo rolled their eyes. The pair reached the pen that housed the antelope, and Hunapo unlocked the pen, pouring animal feed into the troughs nearby. The antelope were not around, probably on the other side of their field, so Hunapo was perfectly safe. Logan stayed on the other side of the fence, continuing to whine.

"But he was so calm as a child!" the young man continued, "fussy and annoying, but well mannered and he never gave me any trouble. Sure I worried about him, especially when it came to the little shits at his school, but now it's just one big concern. Charlie too. She's thirteen next month! All girls that age are obsessed with one thing: dating and boys."

"That's two things," Hunapo corrected, turning up next to him with an empty bucket and shutting the pen gate.

"You know at I mean," Logan scoffed, waving a hand, "and all her little mates are boys! I bet they all fancy her. Who wouldn't? Charlie's the best little girl in the world! I wish I could home-school her too, just to keep her away from all the other boys. What if she gets peer-pressured into dressing and acting weird? I don't want her to become obsessed with dieting and looking good!"

"That won't happen," Hunapo sighed, "Charlie doesn't seem interested in all that malarkey."

"Yet," Logan waggled a finger in Hunapo's face, "just you wait, I bet all she'll want this Christmas is makeup and dresses."

"So get her makeup and dresses," Hunapo rolled their eyes, "it's her choice. Quite frankly, I've had enough of people telling other people how to dress."

"Sounds pretty personal," Logan commented.

"Course," Hunapo sighed, "people tell me I should dress like my biological sex, not gender-neutrally, all the damn time. It really pisses me off."

"Oh," Logan puffed out his cheeks awkwardly as he tried to think of what to say next, "why are people so obsessed with knowing what's down there? Surely that's between you and whoever you sleep with."

"A little crude, but yes, you're right," Hunapo shrugged, starting to walk in the direction of the storeroom, "it's none of their business."

The pair passed a group of small children- most likely on a school trip- gathered around a pen containing koalas. Most of the kids were talking animatedly to each other, though a few just stared in awe.

"Koalas are my absolute favouritest bears!" cried one girl.

"But they're not doing anything!" a little boy exclaimed.

Logan chuckled, kneeling down next to them, "actually, koalas aren't bears at all. They're marsupials, like kangaroos and opossums."

"What's a marsupial?" asked the little girl.

"Well," Logan thought for a moment, "it means they carry their babies in a little pouch, like a handbag, but on their body."

"They still don't do anything," grumbled the little boy, pouting and folding his arms.

"That's because they're mostly nocturnal," explained Logan, "which means they sleep in the day."

"I know what nocturnal means," the little boy rolled his eyes, "why is everything in this zoo nocturnal? Why don't zoos open at night time so we can see the animals running about and stuff?"

"Because it'd be night time and you couldn't see anything then?" suggested Logan, "koalas can sleep up to eighteen hours a day, you know."

"Sounds like my big brother."

Logan laughed at that.

"You seem to know a lot about the animals," the teacher commented, wandering over.

"Course I bloody do! I work here!" Logan's eyes widened and he covered his mouth, "sorry, excuse my language. Stop laughing Huna it was an accident!"

"Would you mind giving a little talk?" asked the teacher, "if you promise not to swear any more."

"Course!" Logan stood up and dusted down his shorts, "here, I'll even get one of the koalas for the kids to pet."

"I don't think that's…" began Hunapo but Logan had already wandered into the enclosure and came back with a little grey mammal perched on his arm.

"Oh not the demon koala," groaned Hunapo.

"This little fella here's Bruce, and I'm Logie," Logan told them, prattling off a stream of koala-related trivia whilst 'Bruce' glared at the children, swiping at them with his paws. Although the group of students listened to what Logan had to say, they avoided going anywhere near the koala.

"He named it?" muttered Hunapo, sitting down on a nearby wall to listen to their friend, somewhat impressed by his extensive knowledge.

"I thought you said you weren't smart? Or teacher-material, at least," demanded Hunapo, as the pair walked home. Logan and Hunapo must've looked a right sight in their matching uniforms, flaked with mud and animal hair, and the lingering smell of wild animal emanating from them. It was late evening now and they were both looking forward to getting home and relaxing. And taking long showers.

"Knowing a few animal facts is hardly much to brag about."

"Still," Hunapo shrugged, "I don't think you give yourself enough credit, Logan. In fact, I bet you'd be smart enough to be Oscar and Charlie's teacher, if you did home-school them."

"Yeah, right!" Logan wrinkled his nose, "it's a shame no one wanted to pet Bruce though," he commented, trying to change the subject, "he's such a little cutie."

"You're kidding right?" Hunapo stared at him in disbelief, "you know the only reason that demon-spawn crawled out of hell was because Beelzebub himself couldn't handle it."

"Oh fuck off!" Logan scoffed, "you're just a wimp!"

"Right…" they came to the same T-junction that meant parting ways, and stared at each other awkwardly.

"Well, see ya then," mumbled Logan.

"Yeah," Hunapo sighed, "remember what I said: be a brother for Oscar! He needs you now so be there for him, got it?"

"Loud and clear."

Chapter Text

"Right-ho class," Mr Fernandez-Carriedo flashed a grin at the students gathered around wooden tables, "genetics!"

The science club, a popular club open to all year groups, met every Monday after school. Each week was a different topic, unrelated to any curriculum and simply to feed kids' thirst for knowledge. Of course, the club was mainly filled with years sevens, eights and nines, and there was rarely a student over fourteen who attended.

"Now, today we're going to be looking at how similar and different we are to our families, and apply that to what we know about genetics," continued Mr Fernandez-Carriedo, "can we please get out the photographs I asked you to bring in last week?"

One of the tables contained Charlie, Peter, Lars, Franz, Nobuyuki and Kuzey, a mess of jumpers, bags and frizzy hair, worn out from a whole day's studying. They each took out photographs of their families, as instructed to bring in during the previous club meeting, and set them down on the table. They weren't told why they needed the photographs, and waited impatiently for their teacher to continue.

"Now," continued Mr Fernandez-Carriedo, "as you have probably learned at some point, how we look is determined by how our parents look. For example, you probably have the same eye or hair colour as one of your parents, or are a mixture of both. Same with your siblings. Now, before I explain all about DNA and chromosomes and other sciency things, I would like you to discuss in groups the similarities you see between you and your family members."

There was a collective groan to Charlie's right, and she turned to find Peter, Lars and Kuzey staring down at their photographs miserably. Although she was the youngest member, Charlie almost felt like a leader of the little group, and was fiercely protective of her boys, thus decided to see what the matter was.

"There something wrong?" she asked.

Lars held up his photograph, "no biological relations," he explained. Charlie narrowed her eyes to see the picture better; it contained Peter, Lars, their mothers and a small dog.

"None at all?"

"Nope," Lars sighed, letting the photograph fall onto the table, "Pete and I are adopted, see? Plus, one of us is a dog."

"Luckily I have a backup plan!" Peter pulled two new photographs out of his pocket, "I overheard Sir talking about this week's activity and thought I should bring in a few pictures of our parents and their siblings just to be safe."

"Oh let's see," Nobuyuki leaned in closer.

"Well, there's Mama Taika and her little brother Eduard," Peter threw a photograph of two children on the table. The group leaned in closer and saw a picture of a young Taika and Eduard, the sister's arms wrapped around her brother.

"Apart from the fact that they're blonde," began Charlie, "they're not very similar in appearance. Even the shade of blonde's different."

"Yeah, what about Mama Astrid and her brothers?" Peter placed another photo on top of the old one. This one contained three boys and a girl, also all blond.

"Yes there are some similarities here," Kuzey gave a small smile, "the two oldest and two youngest, especially, look particularly similar."

"Yeah everyone says Uncles Aleks and Emil look pretty alike; it annoys Emil to no end. It also annoys Mama Astrid when people say she looks like her older brother, Mathias, but she also looks like Aleks a bit…" Peter babbled.

"Oh, and you, Kuzey?" Charlie turned her attention to her classmate.

"Not related to everyone in the picture," he passed the photo to her, "and my family tree's pretty complicated."

"I think I can handle it," Charlie spied Kuzey in the photograph immediately; he was one of only two children there. A teenage boy, bearing a strong resemblance to him, had his arms wrapped around the child's neck, and the pair were smiling sweetly at the camera. There was another boy, also smiling an adorable smile, next to him. They were surrounded by adults, none of whom seemed even aware that their photo was being taken. There was hair being pulled, faces being pulled, two even looked like they were in a wrestling match. Kuzey's family seemed pretty chaotic…

"Okay, the teen is my half-brother, Stelios," Kuzey explained.

"I can definitely see the resemblance," Charlie commented.

"Hair's a bit uneven though," Peter pointed out, leaning closer to see, "does he cut it himself? With a rock?"

"He likes his hair like that!" snapped Kuzey, who then turned back to Charlie, "oh, and the tall guy's my Baba, Sadik. Well, he's really my uncle but he's like a Baba to me. But he's not a relative of Stelios, see? The fella with long hair is Stelios' cousin, Heracles, and he's not related to me, thankfully. Do you understand?"

"Pretty much, yeah," Charlie frowned, "who are these other people though?"

"Housemates," Kuzey shrugged, "they live with us but aren't related, see? Actually, I think Alin and Andrei," he pointed at the child, and the young man holding his hand, "are brothers, and Alin's in a civil partnership with Tsvetan," more pointing, "but doesn't get along with Eliza. Oh, and Mohammad's a distant cousin of Baba, so they'd be related too…"

"It must be nice having a large family, even if you're not related…"

"You'd think," Kuzey shrugged, "it's pretty loud and not much privacy and everyone dislikes each other so they always fight."

"Real dislike or a sort of I-like-you-deep-down-but-you-annoy-me thing?" asked Charlie.

"Bit of both," Kuzey grinned.

"What about you, Nobu?" asked Peter, sliding closer to his friend.

"You've met my family," Nobuyuki placed a photograph in the middle of the table, "there's my mother, father and my older brother, Kiku."

"Oh yeah how's Kiku now?" asked Peter, "still cool as ever?"

"Yes," replied Nobuyuki through gritted teeth, "still cool, still smart, still the perfect child."

"Oh yeah," Peter grimaced, "forgot you don't get along much."

"He's nice," Nobuyuki admitted, "but our parents keep going on about how much I have to live up to Kiku's reputation and all. You know he's in university now? Doing a graphic designs degree. Got loads of martial arts awards, grade eight in clarinet, Duke of Edinburgh gold award, basically, anything that can be given out, he's got. I can't compete with that!"

As Peter tried to console his friend, Franz glanced at Kuzey's photograph, "is that Miss Héderváry?" he asked, gasping in shock and pointing to Eliza, the only woman in the photograph.

"Oh, yeah," Kuzey shrugged.

"Miss Héderváry's my form and geography teacher," continued Franz, "she's the best!"

"Is she?" Kuzey raised an eyebrow, "I don't have her for any lessons. All I know is that she fights with Alin and Baba a lot. But yeah, she's pretty sweet, I guess. She slips me sweets sometimes."

"She's so kind!" exclaimed Franz.

"Someone got a crush?" Lars smiled smugly at his friend, though his expression was tinted with the tiniest amount of jealousy.

"Nope, I just think she'd make a cool Mutti," Franz shrugged.

"Speaking of Mutti," Charlie butted in, "can we see your photo, Franz?"

"Sure," Franz pushed a small photograph of two people into the middle of the table, "here's me and Vatti. It was the most recent one I could find."

"Oh, where's your-" began Kuzey, but Peter shushed him.

"Died," Franz's shoulders tensed and he avoided eye contact with everyone, "few years ago,"

"I'm sorry, I-"

"Didn't know," Franz smiled at Kuzey, "it's okay."

"You have your father's eyes," Charlie told him, "and you both have little moles on your faces… same noses too."

"So are you guys done?" Mr Fernandez-Carriedo turned up behind them.

"Almost," Charlie decided to act as a spokesperson, "just me left."

"Well maybe we could do your photo together as a class," suggested the teacher, holding out a hand for her photograph. Tentatively, as if she was giving up a precious gem, Charlie placed the photo in his hand.

"Oh," Mr Fernandez-Carriedo frowned, scrutinising the photograph. It was of three small children sitting on their mother's lap with another figure sitting next to them, arm on the mother's shoulder, "one of the faces is burnt out."

"Yeah, that was already like that," Charlie glanced around uneasily, "please, sir, I don't want to talk about it…"

"I understand," the teacher stood there awkwardly for a few moments, "do you want me to use someone else-"

"No, that's fine," Charlie gave a small smile.

"Oh good," Mr Fernandez-Carriedo bounded over to the teacher's desk and set the photograph on a little projector-like instrument. "What do you think of my new gadget-thingy, by the way? I put something on this surface here and it projects a picture to my computer, which I can then project onto the board."

"Fancy!" Lars gave a thumbs up, which the teacher returned.

"Now," Mr Fernandez-Carriedo turned to the enlarged picture on the board, zoomed in so the burnt-out figure was out of the shot, "here we have three siblings and their mother, provided by Miss Cooper here. May I ask what your brothers are called?" he directed that last question at Charlie.

"Oscar and Logan."

"Ah yes, I remember your middle brother quite well," the teacher turned back to the board, "now, Charlotte here shares the same hair colour with her brother Logan, and the same eye colour with her brother Oscar…" Charlie switched off as her science teacher described the features of her family members. She already knew she had her mother's eyes and father's hair colour. She knew she and Oscar had their mother's curls while Jett styled his hair relentlessly to avoid it going flat, like their father's. She also knew she and Oscar had small, button noses, like their mother, while Logan's nose was larger and looked exactly like his father's, so he wore a plaster over it to cover it up. If he could afford it, Logie would probably wear coloured contact lenses to hide his green eyes too.

In short, Logan did everything he could to avoid looking like the man he detested.

"I hope you don't mind me asking," Kuzey began slowly, "but why is your photo burnt?"

"Not at all," Charlie gave a sad smile, "our dad wasn't very nice to us, and left us in the UK when we were kids without much and this was the only photo of mum we had. Logan looks a lot like dad and probably hated seeing himself in the man, so burnt his face out of the picture. It was also probably so our only photo of mum wasn't ruined by him being in it, and so me and Oscar would forget what he looks like. It's all a bit of a drama, my family, really."

"I see," Kuzey averted his gaze; their father must've left some pretty bad memories and scars for a half-singed photo to be more pleasant than a complete one.

"Still," Charlie shrugged, "life goes on. Now, I wanna hear what sir has to say on DNA."

"I can't believe I'm doing this," wheezed Oscar for what was probably the tenth time, glancing around and nervously hopping from foot to foot. Michael just rolled his eyes; everyone else was probably leaving school now. He checked his watch. Yup, quarter to four; there would be no one left in school except those in detention and clubs. On the other hand, Oscar was probably still worried about his brother's reaction when he finally gets home. Michael knew he himself was bound to get an earful from Alfred.

"Chill," Mike stuffed his hands in his pockets, starting to get irritated, "we're almost at the mall."

"Over here we call it a shopping centre," Oscar commented.

"It's a big building where they sell all the cool shit," Michael threw his hands in the air.

"Thinking of anywhere in particular?" asked Oscar, tugging at his shorts, which were riding up. Oscar hated wearing the things at school, but out in the open it was plain humiliating.

"Dude, your legs are fine, not that I'm staring or nuffin," he added quickly, "just stop whining okay?"

"Fine," Oscar pouted, thinking of a new topic of conversation, "so, err, what do your brothers do for a living?" he inquired.

"They're in a band," Michael puffed out his cheeks, "but not, like, a silly college band or anything. They're a proper band; got instruments and everything. Done a few gigs in bars and clubs."

"Cool," Oscar thought the idea was stupid and reckless, especially when they were the ones who were supposed to be earning the income, but didn't comment on it; "so is that a sort of hobby-slash-future career thing? Do they have other jobs to tide them over until they get a record deal, or however that works?"

"Nope," Michael grinned, "they're a full time band. They sometimes even go on tours to nearby towns for the weekend and stuff. Of course, none of them are too good at song-writing, so just do covers of loads of different things, since everyone has a different taste in music. Since mom and dad pay for our rent and stuff, they can afford to not get a 'proper' job."

"And who else is in this 'band'?" Oscar couldn't help the sarcastic tone that came into his voice; Michael must've noticed it too.

"Their partners," the boy growled, "err, Al's girlfriend Natalya, this scary chick from Belarus or something like that, and Matthew's boyfriend Carlos, some tough-lookin' Cuban guy who smokes like a chimney."

"Oh, so Matthew's…?"

"The one people keep talkin' shit about," Michael grimaced, "apparently someone saw them standing outside the ice-cream parlour acting all couply-like and recognised Matt as my brother. Haven't heard the end of it since."

"Sorry to hear that," Oscar pulled a face; people liked to mention whenever they saw Logan with his various dates in the evenings and weekends and, especially if said dates were male, tease him relentlessly. The things people had called his brother… it made him sick to think about it. "So," Oscar brushed those thoughts aside, "which brother would you say you're more like?" Oscar hoped Michael would understand what he was insinuating. He wasn't asking out of romantic interest, just curiosity.

Michael raised an eyebrow; so he got the hint. "Well, both, really. Don't know. Maybe neither. Never given it much thought. I'll find out sometime…"

"Ah," Oscar gave a small smile; he glanced around for a new topic of conversation. Spying a small sports centre, an idea formed in his head. "Hey," he began, "remember how I said we should join a boxing club sometime?"

"Yeah?"

"The sports centre has boxing facilities," Oscar pointed to the shiny building in question, "and they're pretty cheap to use. What do you say? We could do with some time to blow off some steam."

"I thought you hated sports," Michael narrowed his eyes.

"I hate team sports," Oscar clarified, "solo ones are fine."

"I dunno man," Michael sighed, "my shoulders and elbows have been hurting lately. And my stomach's a bit dicky too."

"Oh come off it!" Oscar tucked a curl of hair behind his ear and flashed a charming smile, "the exercise will do you good!"

"Are you saying I'm fat?" demanded Michael.

"Not at all! Not compared to me, anyway," Oscar poked at his own stomach, "but exercise helps your heart and muscles, right?"

"True," agreed Michael, "and for the record, someone who looks like you is in no position to say they're fat!"

"I never-"

"I know that's what you were thinking," Michael waved a finger in Oscar's face, "so cut the crap. It's bad enough Al worries about his weight, so I don't want you starting too."

"Fine," Oscar blushed slightly, averting his gaze, "so you… worry about me?"

"Piss off!"

Oscar laughed, shaking his head, "come on, before it closes or something." He grabbed Michael's hand and dragged him through the clear, automatic doors towards the reception desk where a young woman sat tapping at a computer.

"Dude," hissed Michael, "let go of my hand! She might think we're a couple!" Oscar rolled his eyes, but did as instructed.

The receptionist looked up from her computer when she heard their footsteps, and smiled warmly, "how may I help you today?" she asked.

Oscar replied with another charming grin, "two teens for a session of boxing, please."

"Would you like an instructor?"

"That shan't be necessary."

"Okay, that'll be twelve pounds for the both of you. Changing rooms are to the left and you have an hour and a half."

"Thank you," Oscar nodded, paid, and began trotting down the hall, Michael skulking behind. The place smelled like chlorine, and faint splashes could be heard in the distance.

"Don't you think an instructor would be a good idea?" he asked.

"Nope," Oscar grinned, "too pricey, besides, my brother Logan entered boxing competitions as a child and won a few awards in his time. He taught me everything he knows."

Michael rolled his eyes, taking his sunglasses off to wipe them on his sleeve, "yeah? My brother Al entered burger eating competitions as a child; he also won a few awards, but we never figured out how he did so well."

Oscar's smile took on a strained appearance, "…lovely."

"So you can box, huh?" Michael looked him up and down sceptically, and Oscar couldn't help but feel self-conscious again.

"That's right," the pair wandered into the changing rooms mentioned. There were other men and boys in shorts and tracksuits milling about, but the place was not uncomfortably crowded. "No need to stop here, right?" Oscar asked and Michael nodded.

"I can dump my blazer and tie in the corner or something."

"Okay," Oscar pushed past a group of smaller children, probably taking a class, and wandered into the main arena. There were punch bags of all kinds dotted about and a small ring to one side. In one corner was a shelf full of boxing gloves and other equipment, which was where the two boys headed. They picked a pair of gloves each and put them on, playfully testing the things out on each other. Michael took off his sunglasses and tucked then into his blazer pocket before taking that off too, along with the dark green tie emblazoned with the school logo.

"So what do you know about boxing?" inquired Oscar, leading Michael over to a spare punch bag.

"It's just hittin' things," the boy shrugged, "not that hard dude."

"On the contrary," Oscar challenged, "there's much more to this sport," he gently pushed Michael in front of him, "now, first we have to work on your stance. The correct position of your feet is one in front of the other, but not directly in front or you'll lose your balance, this way it'll be hard to knock you over," he scratched his chin as best he could through the glove, "now, the best way to determine which foot goes first is to lean forward and whichever foot you use to stop yourself from falling goes first, right foot first then? Good, now back straight, keep your hands in front of your face, no, not touching your face, that's better," Oscar gave a final nod, "now, remember to not punch with your knuckles."

"I fuckin' know," growled Michael.

"Also," continued Oscar, "you have to know the different types of punches. It might be best if we start with the two basic ones."

"Which are?" Michael wondered if Oscar ever got sick of listening to the sound of his own voice.

"The jab, and," Oscar frowned, "the other… one, um, the one you use the other hand for," he paused for a moment, "anyway, the jab. To do that you use the arm that corresponds to the leg in front. Simple, right? It's a short, quick motion usually followed by the other hand," Oscar demonstrated on the punch bag, "now, you use your right hand to bring in this big swing in quick succession, got it?"

"Yeah, yeah," Michael rolled his eyes, "can I start now?"

"Be my guest."

Michael aimed a series of quick swipes at the target. Messy and uncoordinated, he soon ran out of breath.

"You have a lot of strength," commented Oscar, "but no aim. Calm down a bit."

"Sorry," Michael sighed, "I thought it would be a good idea to get angry and pissed off, like it would give me more strength or something, and I thought about something someone said about my brothers and lost it."

Oscar chuckled, "remind me never to badmouth your family, not that I'd ever-"

"I know," Michael grinned, "you try, lets see if you're as professional as you think you are."

"It would be my pleasure," replied Oscar smugly, taking on the correct posture, left foot first for him, and letting out a sequence of rapid, delicate punches. He swung his right arm around, landing a blow on the side of the punch bag.

"Okay, I'm impressed," Michael begrudgingly admitted.

"Here, how about I hold the punch bag steady for you, so it won't be swinging everywhere?" offered Oscar.

"Cheers," Michael threw a few more punches whilst Oscar held the bag steady, then suddenly hissed in pain, clutching his shoulder.

"What's wrong?" gasped Oscar.

"Nothing," replied Michael, through gritted teeth, "using muscles I haven't used before, right? Don't worry."

"Sure you sure?" Oscar looked at his friend in concern, "if you want a break-"

"I said I'm fine!" Michael aimed another punch at the target.

"If you say so…" Oscar shook his head, "so stubborn."

"Such a shame you can't see which finger I'm holding up," Michael shot back, "now shut up and hold the bag still."

Their session ended too quickly for the pair's liking, despite the fact that they were tired, out of breath and red-faced. Ambling into the changing room Oscar made straight for the sinks, washing his face and washing the mud from the attack off his arms and shoulders.

"I haven't had that much fun in ages," he gasped, wiping his face with paper towels.

"Yeah," Michael gave a small smile, "you're alright, I guess."

"Thank you," Oscar smiled, "same to you. We should do this again sometime, as a stress relief."

"That's be… okay," Michael shrugged, "it might be nice to take a few hours off from studying and homework and exams and motherfuckers every week."

"It's a date then!"

"Eh?" Michael raised an eyebrow.

"I meant that in a friendship way," Oscar shook his head, "honestly."

"Oh," Michael's face contorted in pain and he wrapped his arms around his stomach.

"What's wrong?" Oscar rested a hand on his friend's back.

"Nuffin," Michael grunted, "my stomach does that sometimes. Relax!"

"You should see a doctor about that," Oscar warned, "it could be serious."

"Nah," scoffed Michael, "if it was serious I'd be dead or something."

"What utter-"

"I'm fine!" Michael shot him a warning glare, and Oscar dropped the subject. Exiting the changing rooms, the pair wandered along the corridor and Oscar peered through glass walls at the tennis courts, swimming pool and other facilities whilst Michael lagged behind, shoulders hunched and hands still on his stomach.

Once outside, though, the American seemed to calm down.

"So what now?" he asked.

"Well, it's five-thirty," began Oscar, "and it'll take a while to get home. We should probably face the music. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling pretty calm now."

"Nah, I think I'll head into town for a bit," Michael began walking in the opposite direction, "see ya tomorrow then!"

"Yeah, see you…"

Oscar opened the front door as quietly as he could, poking his head in to peer at the dimly-lit hall. Everything was calm and silent, except for the faint buzz of the telly coming from the sitting room. Oscar wondered if he could just sneak upstairs and avoid Logan altogether, and stepped inside, slipping his shoes off and shutting the door.

Coast still clear, Oscar tiptoed over to the stairs, giving one final glance around the room before deciding he was safe from his brother's anger.

Or so he thought.

"Finally dragged your sorry arse home, huh?" Logan growled, grabbing his little brother by the back of his polo shirt so the boy couldn't escape, "fighting in school! Fighting! What the fuck's gotten into you?!"

"I didn't do anything!" Oscar cried, "calm down!'

"I was calm!" Logan shouted, "when I got the call from your head in the middle of work, I was all prepared to sit down and listen then I come home and find Charlie's using the stove by herself because you weren't home to cook her dinner!"

"I was out!" Oscar tried to wiggle free, but Logan refused to let him go, "with a friend! I was avoiding coming home because I knew you'd be like this! Sorry I'm such a disappointment problem child!"

Logan paused for a moment, blinking in shock and looking like Oscar had just slapped him. Using the momentary lapse in concentration, Oscar pulled his shirt out of his brother's grasp, throwing Logan a dirty look.

"I'm… not that bad, you know?" Logan murmured, "I'm just worried 'bout ya, kid."

"I know," Oscar sighed and dusted himself down.

"Fine," Logan shrugged, "sit down and tell me what happened." He slung his arm around his brother's shoulders and led him into the sitting room. Sprawled out on the sofa, Logan listened to Oscar's side of the story, becoming increasingly horrified as he heard more and more.

"Those little shits have been expelled, right?" he finally asked.

"Nope," Oscar shook his head.

"Detention for the rest of the year?"

"Nuh-uh."

"Well what then?" cried Logan, "their parents were told, at least?"

"Don't think so," Oscar picked up a cushion, hugging it and rocking back and forth.

"Well why the fuck not?" Logan shot up, pacing the room and running his hands through his hair.

"Dunno," Oscar replied, shrugging, "nothing we can do about it though."

"Fuck off!" exclaimed Logan, "they'll hear about this! You have parents' evening this week, right?"

Oscar nodded miserably, "please don't cause a scene."

"I will! No one treats my baby brother like shit and gets away with it!"

Chapter Text

"Hey sheep," Hunapo's eye twitched in irritation as they looked up and found Logan grinning at them.

"What?" they asked, turning their attention back to the cloth in their hand, being used to wipe mud off their legs. At least, they hoped it was mud. Never could quite tell here.

"Nuffin'," Logan wandered over to the large fridge where they kept animal food and opened the door, throwing a leg of meat into a bucket, "cheetah has worms, by the way."

Hunapo groaned, "guess that means we'll be checking all the animals, right?"

"Yup," Logan grimaced, "bloody hate collecting samples. Say, you know where the tablets are?"

"For worms?" Hunapo threw the cloth into a bucket of water and stood up, "yeah they're in the cabinet," they wandered over to said cabinet and picked out the correct bottle, tossing it over to Logan.

"Cheers. So what happened to you, little sheep?" asked Logan absent-mindedly as he stuffed tiny pills into what was apparently the cheetah's dinner.

"Slipped and fell when I was cleaning the elephant enclosure," replied Hunapo, "and for the last time, don't call me sheep!"

"Fine," Logan rolled his eyes, "so how have you been, Sceapige?"

"Sceapige?" Hunapo raised an eyebrow.

"It's old English for sheep," explained Logan smugly.

"You seriously took the time to Google that?" Hunapo shook their head, "what's wrong? Porn took too long to download?"

"Oy!" growled Logan, "shut it you little shit."

"I'll take that as a yes," Hunapo chuckled and wandered back to the crate they'd been sitting on and began cleaning their legs again.

"Need help, mouton? Defaid? Schapen?"

"French, Welsh and Dutch, right?" Hunapo shook their head, "and I'm fine, thank you."

"You sure?" Logan looked at them in concern, "might be quicker if I do it."

"Please Logie," Hunapo rolled their eyes; "I am not a child and can take care of myself."

"Never said you couldn't," Logan shrugged, "just thought you could do with a helping hand."

"No," Hunapo cleaned the cloth in the water and continued, "wouldn't mind some company though. Take a seat."

"Great," Logan set the bucket down and took a seat on a crate.

"So what happened to your face then, if you don't mind my asking?"

"What about my face, fuckbag?"

"The bandage holy shit!"

"Oh," Logan shrugged, "trying to flatten out my nose a bit."

"Why? You have a very nice nose."

"Thanks but… ah, it's nothing."

"Can't be nothing," Hunapo pressed, "come on; I won't judge."

"It's the same shape as my dad's," explained Logan, rubbing said nose roughly, "and I don't like that. I look a lot like him, though. He was a bit of a pig."

"You shouldn't be ashamed of what you look like," Hunapo reminded him, "but if it bothers you that much, then focus on what you have in common with your mother. You must have something in common with her, right?"

Logan thought for a moment before replying; "we're both insanely protective of people we care about."

Oscar clenched and unclenched his hands, staring at the computer in front of him. It was Tuesday now, and the website was up and running, as he was informed by Lars earlier at school, who gave him the log-in details and instructions.

Typing in the URL, he found himself staring at a stylish, but relatively blank webpage. There were links to Childline, the NHS website and a few others, as well as a FAQ page and pages describing different mental disorders, alcoholism and advice on bullying, transgender issues and sexual orientation. All in all, Oscar was impressed; Lars had really outdone himself on this. Oscar couldn't help but wonder if this was the kid's first real chance of showing off his talent, and made a mental note to congratulate him the next day.

Speaking of congratulations, he felt his sister and the young German boy- what was his name again?- needed credit too. Oscar had noticed several posters dotted about the corridors, classrooms and notice boards advertising the site. When did they even have time to make those? It all made him feel a bit inadequate.

Still, he had a job to do, no matter how small it seemed in comparison and he clicked on the log-in button at the top of the page. Two buttons appeared: 'student' and 'admin' and Oscar clicked on 'admin' and filled in his details which returned him to the home page, except this one had a little message box with (5) next to it.

Five messages already? Wow. Oscar clapped his hands in glee and clicked on the box. Sure, he couldn't design websites or draw posters, but he could give some damn good advice.

The first message was a simple introduction from Lars, explaining the workings of the site and asking for a confirmation of their log in and Oscar quickly replied before moving on to the next message.

I want to trace my father. Could you suggest a good marker pen?- trollmaster69

Oscar groaned. Did people think this website was a joke? He looked to see if anyone else had replied and, sure enough, there were a few.

Michael: Don't be a little penis!

Franz: Try a sharpie. Do it. I dare you.

Charlie: Don't cover your father in sharpie; that's dangerous. Also, please don't treat this like a joke.

Lars: Do you want to get banned?

Oscar shook his head, approved the message and moved onto the next one.

Dear bitches, I have trouble making friends. What are you going to do about it?- 12345

Oscar couldn't tell if it was genuine or not, but decided to treat it as if it was. To be honest, it sounded like something Michael would send in. He checked the other messages before figuring out what he could say.

Nobuyuki: Maybe other's find your language and rudeness offensive. Try speaking more politely and people will warm up to you.

Peter: Nobu's right. Maybe walking around with a nice smile will make you seem more approachable.

Salvatorio: Compliment people! They love hearing positive things about themselves.

Michael: Guys… they're quoting mock the week again. It's not a real problem. Gullible little shits.

Oscar groaned. Of course… he guessed several people had thought it would be a laugh to send in jokes. He wondered if there was any point in continuing. Still, there were two asks left; surely at least one would be a genuine problem.

My voice is breaking and there's hair on my chest. I am a nine year old girl.- johnms

Oh for the love of- Oscar cried out in frustration. Did anyone take their site seriously? Here he was wasting his evening… then again, Lars was probably even more upset than he was. Oscar clicked on the final message.

There's a boy in my class that I like but I'm too scared to talk to him. What should I do?- missedelweiss

Ah, Oscar grinned, finally an actual question. He looked at the other responses to confirm it was real and to see what advice they gave.

Peter: Be his friend! Get to know each other a bit.

Charlie: Do you have common interests? Maybe you can find something to talk about.

Michael: Blow jobs usually work. Joking! (Don't do that) Errm, I'm sure he's not that bad to talk to. Or ask his mates who he likes.

Kuzey: Can we roll back the inappropriate jokes? Missedelweiss, having a crush is hard. Maybe your feelings will go away, maybe they won't. Either way, he's probably really nice if you talk to him. Follow the others' advice (ignore Michael) and who knows? Things might work out.

Oscar wondered what he could add. He'd yet to contribute and was feeling a bit unneeded. What would he do in regards to romantic feelings? Probably cry on his bedroom floor listening to music, but that wasn't really advisable. Thinking hard, he finally began to type.

Oscar: You are probably a wonderful young woman and any fellow would be lucky to have you. Believe in yourself. You are worthy of him! If he rejects you, then that is his loss.

He gave one final nod before pressing send, then logged off.

"Oh good," said Charlie from behind him, "you're done. I wanna use the computer!"

"You've already had your turn," Oscar informed her, turning around in the swivel chair and stretching.

"Yes and I want another go," Charlie pouted, "please it's important!"

"Fine," Oscar sighed and stood up, "you can go on while I cook you dinner."

"Cheers," Charlie had occupied his empty seat almost immediately, "and I'd like pie and chips tonight."

"Course."

"Hey, your dinner's getting cold!" Oscar warned, peering over Charlie's shoulder at her computer screen. She was on her Facebook, apparently, (despite how many times he'd protested to Logan about her being on there at a young age) and using the search bar. The name she was typing seemed familiar, but before he had time to process it his sister's hands covered the screen.

"Oy! Who told you it was okay to look?" Charlie growled, glaring at him.

"Not talking to people you shouldn't be, are you?" Oscar raised an eyebrow.

"N-no."

"Then what are you doing?" 

"Nuffin."

"Shall I tell Logan you're hiding something?" Oscar threatened. He trusted Charlie with most things, enough to generally leave her to her own devices, occasionally checking up on her. She was responsible for her age, but he drew the line at her internet usage. He didn't trust many of these sites and didn't like the idea of her talking to strangers, or getting bullied.

Charlie thought for a moment, glancing around nervously.

"If," she began, "if I tell you what I'm doing, you have to promise not to tell Logie. Ever."

"Err, fine, I guess, I won't tell Logan," Oscar felt apprehensive at the thought. What could Charlie possibly be doing?

"Swear on your life!"

"Bloody hell, I swear, okay?"

Charlie removed her hands so Oscar could see the name in the search bar clearly: Jacob Cooper. Oscar's eyes widened and he stared at his sister in disbelief.

"You're… trying to find dad on Facebook?" he whispered.

Charlie nodded miserably, "I know you and Lo keep telling me all the bad stuff he did but… he's my dad! And I don't remember him at all. I thought I could get in contact with him and talk for a bit. That's all."

"Please Charlotte," Oscar sighed, "that man wouldn't care if any of us dropped down dead! He abandoned us in a foreign country!"

"Maybe he's changed," suggested Charlie, "I'm just looking, okay? Please let me do this!"

"I can't," Oscar shook his head, "I won't allow it. That man is evil!"

"You said you didn't believe in evil people," Charlie pointed out, "and even if he is, I have to find out for myself," Oscar didn't reply, "please don't tell Logie."

"How can I? It'd break his heart!" Charlie looked like she'd been slapped, and Oscar turned away, lip quivering, "fine," he said eventually, "but if you find anything, please tell me."

"Sure thing."

They heard the key turn in the front door, signalling Logan's arrival. Charlie quickly logged out and hurried off to eat her dinner.

"Hey what's up little man?" Logan grinned at his brother as he entered the room.

"Not much," Oscar shrugged, sinking into the swivel chair to stop himself falling over from shaking. He was still in denial about what Charlie had done and too ashamed to even look at his brother, "p-pie and chips on the table for you."

"Ah cheers," Logan grinned, "I'm absolutely starving," he paused for a moment, "you okay?"

"Yeah," Oscar nodded weakly, "just feeling a bit ill."

"Oh not you too," Logan groaned, "it's bad enough a flaming cheetah's got worms without you coming down with something."

"It's probably nothing," Oscar assured him.

"We'll see," Logan grunted, sitting down at the table opposite Charlie, "you eaten?"

"Just finished," Oscar lied. Charlie shot him a glare for it, but he knew she couldn't say anything.

Not without him telling on her too.

Chapter Text

"For the last time Ozzie," Logan growled, "I am bringing this up whether you like it or not," he ran a hand through his hair and groaned, glaring at Oscar, green eyes narrowing, "if we don't sort it out now then you'll just keep having problems."

"And I can solve those problems by myself," Oscar stressed, "you'll only cause a scene if you bring it up." He and Logan were walking side by side on their way to school, Charlie just in front of them. It was five thirty in the evening now, and starting to get dark.

"No," Logan insisted, "this shit needs to stop. It's your school too! You should feel safe!"

"I do feel safe," Oscar replied, "it was a one time thing and I probably provoked them. Just let it go!"

"I dunno," Logan looked at him uneasily, "are you sure?"

"Positive!"

"Then…" Logan sighed, raising his hands, "fine. I won't mention it, but you have to promise you won't stop me if something like this happens again!"

"I promise," Oscar assured him, but at Logan's sceptical expression, added, "cross my heart and hope to die."

"Good," Logan raised an eyebrow, regarding his brother with amusement, "so, am I gonna hear good news again? Nothing you want to warn me about?"

"My record is spotless," Oscar assured him, "well, better than most," he added.

"That's my boy, and you, Char?"

"So, so," Charlie waved a hand.

"So far he's had eight missing home works," the maths teacher read from the report, adjusting their glasses, "five times he was late to lesson and he's had ten cases of missing equipment."

Matthew and Alfred sighed, glancing despairingly at Michael, who just glared at the ground. After five similar stories from other subject teachers, the brothers were getting pretty sick of hearing how awful a student the youngest Jones was.

"He's smart," the teacher added, "but he needs to stay focused. He's capable of doing the work when he tries."

"I'll try harder," Michael told them, "just got a lot of things going on right now."

"Would you care to tell us what they are?"

"No," Michael turned away.

"Well, we'll make sure he gets the work done in future," Matthew assured them, as he and Alfred stood to move onto the next teacher. Once they'd left the maths classroom, Alfred turned on his brother.

"For Christ's sake Mike," he groaned, "is there any good news? Why do you keep doing this to us? We moved here to get a fresh start, but all your parents' evenings are the same! Year after year of the same crap!"

"I don't fucking like it any more than you do!" snapped Michael, "you think it's easy listening to all my failures?"

"Why don't you try harder than?" Alfred waved his arms in the air wildly.

"So much work," Michael mumbled, stuffing his hands in his pockets, "it takes up too much of my time and I don't understand it all."

"Well then maybe I'll have to watch over you when you do your homework!"

Matthew put a hand on his twin's shoulder, pulling him to one side, "hey," he hissed, "lay off him, kay? Can't you see he's already upset." He nodded at Mike, who was holding his stomach and fighting back tears through his glasses, thinking no one could see him.

"Fine," Alfred sighed, "but what are we going to do with him?"

"Support him, that's the best option."

"Okay," Alfred gave a determined nod, "hey, lil bro, you okay?"

"Fine," grunted Michael, removing his hands and leaning against the wall.

"What's wrong?" Matthew put a hand on his shoulder, which Michael shrugged off.

"Nuffin."

"So what's next then?" Alfred asked, trying to change the conversation.

"Business studies."

"Oh joy," Alfred mumbled, following his brothers.

"Well," Miss Héderváry rifled through her notes before glancing over at the pair, "Franz is a very lively child and I love having him in my class," she smiled warmly, and Franz grinned back.

"And the actual work?" Roderich pressed.

"Hmm, he gets on with the tasks I set him and hands in most of his homework," explained Miss Héderváry, "behaviour-wise, he sometimes gets distracted by the displays on the wall, the view outside the window and his friend, Lars, but on the whole, nothing too serious."

"Would moving him away from his friend help his behaviour?" asked Roderich.

"Nope, they help each other with the work and get along well. I fear separating them will just cause unnecessary hassle." Franz sighed in relief at that; Lars was the only one who was polite to him in geography lessons, apart from Miss Héderváry herself.

"If you say so," Roderich shrugged, "anything else?"

"Not that I can think of," replied Miss Héderváry, "maybe I could fill you in on the syllabus? So you know what your son will be doing in the coming months."

"I'd appreciate that," Roderich gave a nod, "Franz never tells me anything about his school life."

"I've tried to tell you but you've never been interested in my school life!" Franz butted in, glaring at his father.

"Not now," Roderich snapped, "we'll talk later."

"Fine," Franz mumbled, staring at the floor.

"Well," Miss Héderváry coughed, "right now we're studying heritage and getting the kids to explore their nationality. Franz tells me he's Austrian so his task will be to find out more about Austria's history and culture. I'm sure you'll be able to help him with that."

"Of course I'll help," Roderich gave a small smile, "it might be fun for us to learn more about the country together."

"Well after that we move onto rivers and their journey from source to delta," continued Miss Héderváry, "then the rock cycle, which takes us up to Christmas."

"I see."

"And that's about it," Miss Héderváry shrugged, "it was nice talking to you sir."

"Please, call me Roderich," Roderich extended a hand, "I'm sure we'll be seeing more of each other in the future."

"We will?" Miss Héderváry arched an eyebrow.

"I meant at future parent's evenings," Roderich looked away, cheeks turning slightly pink. Franz glanced between the two, grinning deviously.

"Of course," Mrs Héderváry shook his hand, "I know it's unprofessional, but please refer to me as Elizabeta, if you like."

"Thank you, Elizabeta," Roderich nodded and left the classroom with Franz.

"Peter and Lars' mummies made traditional Swedish and Finnish food for the class a few weeks ago," Franz commented as they walked down the corridor, "can we make food from Austria for the class sometime?"

"I'll check my recipe books," Roderich assured him before sighing, "but you're right about what you said earlier, and I'm sorry I snapped at you. There definitely needs to be more communication between us."

"Told you," Franz grinned, "how about every day we spend half an hour talking about each other's days when I get home from school?"

"Sounds like a good plan," Roderich ruffled his son's hair, "we could also do our work together too."

"Yes please!"

"So all in all," Mr Fernandez Carriedo concluded, "Charlotte is a model student and a real asset to my class," he placed another leaver arch on the desk in front of him whilst Logan gave his sister a thumbs-up, "now, Oscar…" he flicked through the reports for Oscar's class, quickly finding the boy's name. "Ah, here we go," the science teacher scanned through the report, "yes; all seems to be in order. Oscar's not had one missing homework yet and his attendance is good. A little talkative though," he raised an eyebrow at Oscar, waggling a finger in his direction, "you, Vargas and Jones don't seem to know how to shut up, but it doesn't distract you from your work too much, so I'm not fussed."

"Nice to see him having fun," Logan shrugged, slouched in a plastic chair in between his younger siblings in the science classroom.

"And learning's all about fun!" Mr Fernandez Carriedo grinned, "he's a bit squeamish when doing experiments though, but not dissections, apparently. He's scarily adept at those."

"I work at a zoo so animals are hardly gonna frighten him," explained Logan.

"I see, sounds like a good job."

"It has its moments…" and they were off, talking about Logan's job. Oscar didn't mind though, if it meant they were done discussing his education. This was the last subject and, overall, they'd heard good news, partly because Oscar had 'forgotten' to book an appointment with his PE teacher. And even then, it was only team sports he was bad at; surprisingly for anyone who knew, Oscar was a sports enthusiast, it was just hard enjoying the subject when the rest of the class hated him...

"-There was this one time I gave a cheetah the wrong tranquiliser dosage," Logan told the science teacher, "and he woke up a bit early whilst I was setting up its dinner."

"Not the cheetah story again," he mumbled.

"Damn near got me! Scratched my leg before I got up a tree! Had to get one of the other keepers to shoot it again."

"No way, for real?" Mr Fernandez Carriedo stared at him in awe.

"All true," Logan nodded.

"Hey, if you're an animal expert, then would you mind taking a look at one of the turtles," Mr Fernandez Carriedo indicated to the tank in the back of the room, "Lovi junior's been looking a little poorly lately."

"I'll check it out," Logan got up and followed the teacher to the tank.

"He named a turtle after Sal's brother?" Charlie raised a bushy eyebrow.

"I believe it was named after his fiancé," Oscar corrected.

"Same person."

Oscar sighed, "why are they talking about random crap now? Tonight's my night."

"Mine too," Charlie added.

"Course, but still, I should be the centre of attention!"

"You're always the damn centre of attention!"

"Well, I'm very impressed," Sadik ruffled his son's hair as they left the school, crossing the playground to get to the front gate, "it's nice to see you're settling in so well."

"Thanks, Baba," Kuzey smiled back, "so can we go to the theme park sometime?"

"I feel you've earned it," Sadik nodded, thinking for a moment, "you can even invite a few friends, if you like."

"Thank you," Kuzey hugged Sadik before spying Charlie with her brothers. He contemplated going over and saying 'hi', but decided against it. She was probably busy and Sadik would only say something to embarrass him anyway. He always embarrassed Kuzey somehow.

"That your girlfriend?" Sadik followed his son's gaze, pointing at Charlie. Yeah, there was no way Kuzey could let Sadik anywhere near her.

"She's my friend," Kuzey corrected, feeling his face turn red.

"Right, course," Sadik grinned, winking, "we have to wait for Heracles and Stelios to finish going round to Steli's teachers- lazy bastards are always late- so you can go talk to her if ya like."

"I guess," Kuzey sighed and began walking over, praying his father would stay put.

"Hey Kuz," Charlie nodded a greeting, "good evening?"

"Pretty good, yeah, a-and you?" Kuzey avoided her gaze.

"Could be worse."

"Who are you?" demanded Logan, glaring at Kuzey suspiciously.

Oscar watched in amusement as the boy nervously tried to introduce himself, clearly intimidated by Logan. It was terrible to admit, but he found it satisfying, especially because he never liked how close the boy was to his sister. Glancing around, he spied Michael, skulking after his brothers.

"Hey!" he called, "how was your parents' evening?"

"Shit!" Michael called back, grinning, though his smile was wiped off with a glare from Alfred.

"Who was that?" Logan rounded on his brother, "is he the kid giving you trouble?"

"What? No! He's a friend! That's why I said hello to him you knucklehead!"

Logan glanced at Michael again, "he looks like the kind of kid who'd mug you in an alley."

"So do you," Oscar commented.

"Rude," Logan rolled his eyes before introducing himself to Sadik whilst Kuzey and Charlie discussed homework or lessons or whatever kids their age talked about. Feeling somewhat left out, Oscar stared at Michael as he left the playground, wondering if the other boy would be annoyed by him running over and having a chat. Oscar knew Michael disliked him, and didn't want to irritate him further, so settled for gazing from a distance whilst his family talked. Michael's brothers looked like they wanted to have words with him anyway…

"So," Kuzey began, glancing nervously at Charlie, "Baba's taking me to a theme park for my birthday and says I can take a friend. Would you like to come with me?"

"The whole gang?" Charlie beamed.

"Could you handle a group of kids like that?" Logan questioned.

Sadik nodded; "sure! I'll get my cousin to help look after them."

"No, I'm only allowed one friend, so I picked you," Kuzey butted in, hoping Sadik wouldn't correct him on that, but the older man seemed to have caught on, thus remained silent.

"I'd love to, really," Charlie sighed, "but our birthdays are on the same day, right? I'll be doing things with my own family."

"Oh, that's fair," Kuzey tried his best to hide his disappointment.

"Maybe one of the others can go with you," suggested Oscar, the faintest hint of smugness in his voice. "Peter's pretty fond of you, right?"

"I'm sure he's busy," Kuzey threw the boy a poisonous look.

"I'll ask him for you."

"Thanks," he hissed through gritted teeth.

"Hey chin up kid I'm sure you'll have a fun day with this Peter kid too!" Sadik patted him on the back.

"Of… course."

"So did I do good?" Nobuyuki gazed hopefully up at his mother, holding tightly onto her hand as they walked down the street.

"Apparently," the woman replied, giving a kind smile, "your effort is satisfactory, as is your homework, but I wish you supplemented your schoolwork with extra-curricular activities more."

"I go to science club," Nobuyuki pointed out.

"That all?" his father, walking on the other side of him, raised an eyebrow, "when Kiku was your age he was in three after-school clubs, four lunchtime ones and volunteered at the library."

"I'll look into more clubs and ask about working at the library," Nobuyuki sighed; of course, everything was about Kiku with his parents. "Maybe I could take up a sport too," Kiku had never joined any school sports teams, though he did go to Judo and Kendo classes on weekends for a few years.

"That's my boy," Mr Honda smiled, patting his son's head.

"Sure," Nobuyuki gave a humourless chuckle; when would he ever be good enough?

Chapter Text

"Can I come with you?" Franz hauled himself up onto the kitchen work top, next to where Roderich was packing a satchel with a notebook, pens, keys and his wallet. He glanced at his son wearily.

"To work?"

"Ja! It'll be nice!"

"To the restaurant?"

"We can talk about our week," Franz fiddled nervously with his shirt, swinging his legs.

Roderich closed his bag and sighed; "you know I'll have to focus on making notes for my report."

"Understood! I'll be on my best behaviour, I swear!"

"If you say so," Roderich sighed, "at least this way you won't have to make your own lunch. Be ready in five minutes."

Franz smiled contentedly- if a little anxiously- as he trotted alongside his father, the restaurant in view and his own shoulder bag smacking against his side, filled with his own notebook and pencils. It was a cool Autumn afternoon, the pavement littered with damp leaves, crunching under Franz's boots. The pair wore matching scarves too, red and trailing over their thick coats, and Franz was wearing his trusty beret.

"You know," began Roderich, "I'm pretty well renowned as a food critic so the staff here might recognise me, meaning we will receive particularly good food and service. That happens a lot for me. One of the perks of the job."

"The people here know me too," Franz replied, glancing up at the name of the establishment, "my friend Sal's family owns the place."

"Really?" Roderich blinked, giving a small smile, "ah yes, the Vargas' run this particular restaurant, don't they?"

"Yup! That's them!"

"The middle brother, Feliciano, is getting married to your cousin Monika soon. I think I've met him a few times."

"Awesome!"

Roderich shook his head, opening the glass door and entering the restaurant, Franz following closely behind.

The place was busy, with waiters and waitresses dashing between tables, arms laden with plates of piping hot food. Groups of friends and family chatted noisily as they tucked in and the air was filled with the sound of laughter and children's voices. From the kitchen, came the smell of delicious, garlic-infused food and the sound of sizzling. Roderich waited patiently for one of the waiters to notice him.

It didn't take long, and soon enough a young man who strongly resembled Salvatorio wandered over.

"How may I help you today, sir? Oh, hello Mr Edelstein, and little Edelstein! How are you? Are you eating here? Wow I'm so excited oh please give us a good review it would make Grandpa so happy!"

"Well," Roderich faltered at the young man's enthusiasm, "it depends on whether or not I like it, of course. Though the service already looks promising, Feliciano," he added with a charming smile.

Feliciano beamed; "thank you! I do try!"

"Erm, how is Monika, by the way?"

"Oh she's great! A little stressed about the wedding… okay, very stressed about it. I tell her not to worry but she keeps making lists of things and shouting at the wedding planner. But our wedding planner is a bit of a dick, so…"

"I see," Roderich replied weakly.

"But I'm sure the day will be lovely! And the evening. Err, I mean… You're both coming, yes? Please say yes."

"Of course," Roderich chuckled, "but it's not for some time, and right now we just want to have some lunch."

"Right! Follow me," Feliciano led them over to a spare table for two, holding out their chairs and giving them a menu each before dashing off with a cheery wave.

The pair quickly ordered, Franz not paying too much attention to the menu and allowing his father to choose both their meals. He wasn't sure he had much of an appetite anyway.

He looked around nervously, wondering if anyone at the surrounding tables was listening to him. No, but he couldn't be sure. Why did he think a crowded restaurant was the best place to do this? Anyone could hear. Someone from school even! He felt ill at the thought. And things were bad enough for Lars as it was…

Roderich looked at his son in concern. The boy would usually be fidgeting by now, or drawing, or keeping up a constant stream of chatter. He'd been unusually quiet on the way there too. Still, Roderich decided not to question it; if Franz had something he wanted to say, then he'd say it when he wanted to. No sooner.

Franz, meanwhile, was at war with himself. Should he bring such a conversation up? How would Roderich even react? It wasn't a topic he'd really been faced with before and Franz was astonished to find, upon reflection, that he genuinely did not know his father's views on this subject.

This was a stupid idea!

He considered throwing in the towel and waiting for another opportunity, or even never bringing it up at all, but realised he needed advice. This wasn't something he could go to his friends for, so would have to rely on his, rather unpredictable, father.

"It's good, isn't it?" Roderich tried to make conversation. Franz picked at his lasagne, nodding quietly. He scraped off the cheesy sauce with his fork, then a layer of pasta before poking at the Bolognese and laying his carrots out in a row. He just shrugged in response.

Roderich sighed, deciding enough was enough.

"Is there something you need to talk to me about?" he asked quietly.

"Maybe," his son replied.

"Franz, please. You're not the most subtle of people."

Franz squirmed in his seat, avoiding his father's stare. He picked at his food with a new vigour, rubbing the toes of his boots together as he did so. He assumed he'd been sneaky, but now that he thought of it, realised it had been screamingly obvious that he was hiding something.

"Franz Gottlieb Edelstein, talk to me."

"I have something I need to say," Franz finally admitted in a choked whisper.

"Well, spit it out then. We don't keep secrets in this house."

Salvatorio, who had just walked past carrying a loaded tray, tried to listen in on the pair's conversation, but only caught Roderich saying 'spit it out' before hurrying on in a panic. After delivering the dishes to his customers, he scurried back to where his brothers were standing.

"I don't think they like the food!" he squeaked.

"Oh what a load of crap!" scoffed Lovino, "who's ever heard of people not liking our food?"

"Well Mr Edelstein just told Franz to spit his food out!" The trio peered over at them nervously.

"Now that you mention it," Feliciano piped up, "Little Edelstein's hardly touched any of his lasagne."

"We'll have to keep a close eye on them," Lovino concluded.

"It's sensitive though," Franz explained, nervously stabbing at the remains of his lasagne.

Roderich lowered his fork, reaching out and resting his hand on his son's.

"What's wrong?" he asked, voice trembling slightly, "someone isn't giving you trouble, are they? Has someone hurt you? You have to tell me, please."

"No, nothing like that," Franz pulled his hand away, glancing around one final time before leaning forward, "there's someone at my school that I like."

"Oh? Is that all? I was really worried for a second," Roderich smiled warmly, picking up his forkful of pizza again; "your first crush, huh? So who is it? Is she nice?"

"They're… very nice," Franz gave a small smile, "they're a fantastic friend, and when I look at them I feel tingly inside. They make me feel warm and, if I could, I'd paint them all day just to capture their face a hundred times." He leaned against his hand, sighing dreamily before blinking and realising in horror that he might've said too much. Did his father really need to know all that?

"Well," Roderich blinked, "who is this girl that makes you feel this way?"

"My best friend, Lars."

Roderich's eyes widened and he choked on the pizza he was chewing. After a few seconds or so of coughing and spluttering, Feliciano rushed over to aid him. He thumped the critic's back hard, gushing out a stream of apologies.

"Oh gosh I'm so sorry! Are you okay? Do you need water? Was there something wrong with the food?"

"No, no," Roderich waved a hand, red-faced and still gasping, "I'm fine thank you. Just heard some shocking news. That'll be all."

"Okay," Feliciano nodded and skipped off, discretely throwing gestures in his brothers' directions to tell them everything was okay.

When Roderich had stopped coughing, he spent a minute regaining his breath, and slowly his flushed cheeks and forehead returned to their normal colour. Franz watched all this with increasing panic, seriously considering jumping up and running out of the restaurant. This was a disaster! His stomach churned and he felt like he'd throw up on his plate. What would his father do now? Would he be angry? Would he call Franz disgusting and tell him to never come home again?

Roderich just stared at his son in silence.

"So you like this boy then?" he finally muttered.

"Yes, very much so," Franz managed to squeak out.

"And does he know?"

"No, I don't think so…"

"I see," Roderich sighed, "well, thank you for telling me. I'm glad we trust each other enough to talk about these things."

"You… you don't mind about me liking a boy?" Franz blinked in shock.

"Well, I've suspected for a long time that you might come out with something like this, and I'd been meaning to touch upon the subject but didn't really have the right time." He took a sip of water. "Didn't think you'd realise for yourself until University, I must admit. So, how would you describe your preferences, in general, I mean?"

"I like boys and girls," Franz shrugged, "I like Lars most though."

"I see," Roderich nodded at Franz's plate, "that's fantastic. Now eat your lunch. It was expensive. Are you planning on talking to Lars about this any time soon?"

Franz shook his head. "He's having trouble at school. I want to help him with that first. Besides, he really doesn't need any added embarrassment."

"You're not an embarrassment!" exclaimed Roderich, "don't you dare think for a second you are!"

"Yes but," Franz shrugged, "kids are horrible about these kind of things. I don't want to cause trouble for him."

"I understand. Do whatever you feel will keep you and your friend safe."

"Thank you," Franz shovelled a few forkfuls of pasta into his mouth. "Were you serious about us not having secrets?"

"Of course! If we can't talk to each other then who can we talk to?"

"So you'd tell me if there was someone you liked, right?" Confidence growing, Franz decided to push another, rather unpredictable, subject.

"I suppose so," Roderich replied, picking up his glass, "except there's no one I feel that way about."

"Are you sure?" Franz smiled innocently, "not even Miss Héderváry?"

Roderich spat out his water, once again breaking into a fit of coughs. And once more, a trio of waiters looked on in horror.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Franz smiled a smug smile.

"You most certainly won't!" cried Roderich, "I don't know how such an idea was even planted in your head! Elizabeta hasn't been talking about me in an unprofessional manner, has she?"

"Vatti, please," Franz rolled his eyes, "I saw you at parents' evening! With your 'please call me Roderich' and your 'I'm sure we'll be seeing more of each other in the future'! You like her! You like her!"

"Young man, I'm warning you!" Roderich turned an unflattering shade of maroon, wiping his forehead with a napkin.

"Just admit you like Miss Héderváry!"

"Keep your voice down," Roderich hissed, "even if I did like her, it wouldn't matter because she's your teacher. Do you know how odd it would be?"

"Not really."

"It probably isn't even allowed!"

"This isn't the nineteenth century anymore, Vatti. I like Miss Héderváry. I'd love it if you married her."

"M-married? I've met her once! Franz, you can't just decide things like that!"

"I know. That's why I'm planting the idea in your head."

Roderich stared at his beaming son in disbelief, shaking his head slightly. "Look, this is a lot of information to take in such a short space of time. Can we drop it for now?"

"Fine," Franz rolled his eyes again, "I'm gonna talk to Sal for a second."

"Don't be too long, he's working right now," Roderich called as Franz stood up. He trotted over to his friend, who was cowering behind his brothers, still eyeing Roderich nervously.

"Hey," he began before Lovino grabbed him by the shoulders.

"How bad is it?" he hissed, "your father likes the food, right? Of course he would! Everyone likes our food!"

"He loves the food," Franz confirmed.

"But he kept spitting it out!" Feliciano glanced at Roderich again, who was quietly continuing with his dinner.

"Yeah, that's cause I kept telling him shocking things," Franz giggled, "sorry about that."

Lovino looked like he was about to strangle the boy. Instead, he silently stormed off to serve customers.

"Franz, buddy," Sal pleaded, "can you please stop saying shocking things for the time being. Serving critics is stressful enough as it is!"

"Noted," Franz gave a small salute before hurrying back to his father, a small spring in his step.

Chapter Text

"I gotta hide!" Kuzey burst into the boys' toilets, nearly sending Peter flying in the process, ducking into the end cubicle and slamming the door shut behind him. Peter, who'd been occupied with picking his nose in front of the mirror for a good five minutes, frowned at the sound of locking, too in-shock to protest being shoved out of the way like that. He pulled his finger out of his nostril and looked at the shut door in confusion.

"Kuzey? That you?"

"Yeah."

"Did you eat the canteen food again?" he called, "cause Lars did that once and… it was kinda like that time Mummy emptied the radiator, he said."

"No. And ew!" came a small, sniffling voice from inside the cubical. "Some boys in the year above said they're gonna get me!"

Peter heard the shouts of said boys from outside the toilets, and he yelped, running over to the cubical. He recognised those deep, year 11 voices.

"No not that lot! Please let me in they're really mean!"

"No."

"Come on! I'm begging you! Lemme in! Lemme in!"

"Okay fine, you'd just end up giving me away if I didn't;" Kuzey opened the door a fraction and Peter rushed in, locking it just as the group burst into the toilets. The two boys climbed onto the toilet seat, exchanging terrified glances in the silence. There was the sound of slow footsteps, doors being thrown open and a sudden thump on their own door caused them to jump, Peter giving out a small cry.

"We know you're in there! Come out now!"

Neither Peter nor Kuzey said a word. Maybe if they just kept quiet, their tormentors would get bored and leave.

Oh how Peter wished he wasn't too scared to fight them. They were the same group that picked on Lars, whom they'd deemed an easier target than his brother, for the most part. Not to mention the kids in their own year group that loved to bully Lars for the same reason.

Whilst Peter could let insults glance off him and generally not care about what others had to say about him, Lars wasn't like that. His hurt showed even when he tried to hide it. He was sensitive deep down and anyone could see it. Peter, on the other hand, usually only got upset on a superficial level, rolling his eyes and replying with an insult of his own, or pretending to be offended. What did he care for their opinions? Like Taika, he was strong, and could knock their teeth out if he could get away with it.

Still, if they picked on Lars one more time then he might just fight them outside of the school grounds. What could the teachers actually do if he punched someone at the weekend?

"We can wait here all day," the voice sneered, "it's not like we care about going to class."

"To be honest, I don't see how hiding in the toilet is any better than lessons," another voice grumbled.

"Yeah it stinks here."

"Shut up!" Peter and Kuzey stifled giggles at that first voice. "They're gonna come out soon anyway! And if not, we'll just climb over!"

Neither had any intention of leaving the cubical at all- at least not through the door- and they certainly had no desire to sit around and wait for a good hiding from their bullies. Peter nudged Kuzey, pointing at the window to the left, small, but not too small, and easy to fit through. He knew they could fit through. This wasn't the first time someone had tried to corner him in the toilet.

Kuzey's eyes widened and he shook his head. Peter nodded, frowning. When he got no response from the other boy, he sighed and climbed onto the back of the toilet, opening the window and wiggling out. He hit the tarmac outside with a yelp.

"What was that?" hissed one of Kuzey's pursuers.

"Sounds like they're climbing through the window!" cried another, and Kuzey cursed. He scrambled up too, poking his head out the window to find a rather battered Peter holding out his arms. It seemed that he landed on his face, and Kuzey wondered if the kid's thick skull had cushioned the blow well, before a pang of guilt hit him for even thinking that. Peter had given them a way out; now was not the time for mean comments. He'd probably do plenty of stupid things to earn them another time.

But as Kuzey looked down past Peter at the hard playground floor, he felt very queasy. It wasn't that high, but still terrifying. And he'd be falling face-first!

"I'll catch you," Peter whispered, and although Kuzey hated to admit it, he felt safe at that, even for a fleeting moment. It was that moment that allowed him to wiggle out of the window- briefly cursing his dad for feeding him too many sweets- and tumble down.

Right into Peter's arms.

The two boys crashed to the floor, yelping and smacking foreheads. They landed in a heap, tangled in each other's limbs and protesting, but when they heard shouts coming from the building they'd just climbed out of, Peter and Kuzey quickly untangled themselves and jumped up, once more on the run from that one gang of boys.

"Why won't they leave us alone?" Kuzey cried as Peter grabbed his hand, ducking into another building and bursting into the library. The pair crossed the room in silence, weaving between stand-alone shelves packed with books and plopping down at one of the study desks.

"That was close," Peter whispered, leaning right into Kuzey's face so the librarians wouldn't notice them talking.

"Yeah…" Kuzey placed his bag on the desk, taking out a battered textbook and shakily beginning to read, although it was hard to concentrate through the adrenaline in his body, and Peter staring at him so closely.

"So why were they chasing you?" Peter asked quietly.

"Eh, kind of a long story," Kuzey shrugged, "basically, they were making jokes about my religion and nationality like I was the first Turkish person they'd met or something. And I told them to leave off and they got a bit rude."

"So you got rude back?" Peter offered.

"Nah, I slapped one of them."

"And they started chasing you?"

"Pretty much," Kuzey sighed, "and it's not the first time it's happened either. Gonna guess you have some shit with them?"

"Yeah they're not very nice…" Peter looked down, "they really hate my brother for some reason, and keep going on about our mums. But I try to ignore them. I just wish they'd leave Lars alone… And now they've started on you too…"

"I can handle them. And if not, I have a big family who will happily knock the bigot out of them."

"I'd like to see that. Still, they'll soon get bored. I guess… If not, you're welcome to hide in here with me."

"I do that anyway," Kuzey nodded at his book, "I like reading, in case you haven't noticed."

"Ah, right." Peter glanced at the title: Accounting for Beginners. "Seriously?" he raised an eyebrow, "that's boring even by your standards."

"Don't mock accounting," Kuzey jabbed a finger in Peter's face, "I'm gonna be a rich, successful businessman someday. And then when all those pricks want me to employ them, I'll just turn them away. They'll regret saying those horrible things then!" He grinned wickedly and Peter gulped.

"How… passive-aggressive. I'm impressed."

"I guess you can have a job in my company," Kuzey continued with a wink, "for catching me and stuff."

"That's sweet of you," Peter blushed, "but I plan to go into theatre."

"West End musicals?" Kuzey gave a low whistle, "well good luck. That's gonna be tricky."

"Ugh, don't remind me," Peter groaned, waving a hand, "still, if all goes to plan, you could be looking at a future Billy Elliot!"

A librarian shushed the pair as they walked past, tidying books away, and Peter flinched, leaning in closer.

"More like Billy Idiot," Kuzey replied, grinning.

"Oh your wit is so sharp it cuts right through me," Peter said dryly.

"Funny." There was an awkward pause, Kuzey glaring at his book but still not reading. He might as well ask him now, since they were alone and there was still a while before lunch ended. His Baba wanted him to bring a friend to his birthday party, and Oscar had landed him right in it by mentioning Peter. Now Baba thought they were best friends or something, from how Oscar had hyped it up. Fancy, annoying, over-protective prick…

Still, at least this way Peter was away from Charlie for a day, and couldn't sneak round to her house or something whilst Kuzey was miles away on a roller coaster with his dad like an idiot.

"Hey, I'm going to Thorpe Park on my birthday," he began, "and Baba said I could bring a friend or two… and you seem like the kind of kid who gets excited about roller-coasters…"

"I love roller coasters!" Peter squeaked, earning another glare from the librarian.

"Good," Kuzey gave a small smile, "I bet you get scared though."

"Do not!"

"I swear, if I have to tell you off one more time you'll be kicked out!" the librarian hissed, and Peter looked down.

"Who else is coming?" he whispered.

"Nobu," Kuzey replied, "and that's about it."

"Aw sweet," Peter grinned, "so what about you? You scared of rides? Bet you are."

Kuzey shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. Don't know. Never been on a big ride before."

"Well we'll see," Peter gave a wink, "bet you're a big softy really."

Chapter Text

Although Monday, and to a lesser extent the rest of the week, had been somewhat of a disaster for Oscar, it had brought him closer to Michael, and understanding the strange, noisy boy.

He was starting to see how his classmate ticked, and the more he found out, the more his original, snap judgements were proven wrong. Michael wasn't some loud, rude, teen who didn't try in school and swore all the time. Well, he was, but he was also a rather sweet young man who looked after his garden, wore cute pyjamas, was fond of his dog and- most surprisingly and importantly- protected his friends from bullies. He was coarse, but not some insensitive idiot. And Oscar rather liked him, both the rough and soft parts of his personality.

They'd been spending more time together since their boxing session, doing homework together before and after school, and sitting together in class, along with Salvatorio, whom Oscar was now also extremely fond of. Sal and Michael had leant him gum, wrote on his arm in class and laughed at his jokes, and Oscar wondered if this is what was normal for other teens. Just doing silly things with people he considered friends.

Yes, it was clear by now that Sal and Michael were his new best friends. It took him fifteen years to make friends? That wasn't his favourite realisation of the week by a long shot.

But despite having footballs kicked at him, being verbally abused, and several smaller incidents, he'd enjoyed his school life, for once. He appreciated Salvatorio and Michael so much and hoped this wouldn't be a short term thing. He silently begged them not to get bored and ditch him. He didn't want to be alone again.

Their friendship gave him confidence, which was why, on a bright Saturday afternoon, he was now sitting on the hall stairs, listening to the sound of his brother eating in front of the telly and psyching himself up to finally bring up the one subject he feared.

He was losing said confidence fast though. This was a stupid idea. But it would be nice to have everything in the open, and it would take such a huge weight off his shoulders. Charlie knew. Surely someone as laid-back and accepting as Logan wouldn't care either?

He stood up with shaking legs and slowly made his way towards the sitting room. Logan was sprawled on the sofa, bag of crisps on his stomach and occasionally throwing ones at the telly if someone he didn't like came on. He liked to make the most of his Saturdays, by doing as little as humanly possible to make up for a week of hard work.

"Um, Logan," Oscar began, standing nervously in the doorway and half-hidden behind the frame, "can I talk to you for a second?"

"Huh?" Logan switched off the telly, sitting up and looking at him, smile gone. He studied his brother's face for a long moment. "What's wrong?"

"I-"

"Have those little shits been causing trouble again? Because I can always borrow a tranq-gun from work…"

"No, it's not that! And please don't shoot anyone." Oscar rolled his eyes and walked over, sitting down next to Logan but not touching him. He wanted to be separate, in case things went badly. Though he failed to see how they could.

"Then what's wrong?" Logan rested his hand on Oscar's, but the kid shook it away. "You can tell me."

"Well, nothing's wrong, per-say," Oscar fidgeted, "there's just something I wish to tell you."

"Are you the one who put mashed potato in the toaster?"

"What?" Oscar frowned, "no that was Charlie!"

"Of course it was," Logan groaned, running a hand through his hair, "so what's up with you?"

"Um…" Oscar played with his shirt.

"Yes?"

There was a pause. "Logan, I'm gay."

Another pause, then Logan shrugged, "oh? That all? You had me worried for a second. Want a crisp?"

"What? No," Oscar raised an eyebrow, "aren't you even a little surprised?"

"Well, no. Not really," Logan shrugged, "I kinda already knew."

"Because you saw the way I looked and acted and just assumed?"

"Fucking hell no!"

"Let me guess," Oscar poked Logan's face, "because of some deep, brotherly connection?"

"Nah," Logan grinned, "you forgot to delete your internet history once."

"What?!" Oscar genuinely thought he would die of embarrassment, "but I was so careful!"

"Private browsing, you might want to try it sometime, that's all I'm saying."

"Shut up!" Oscar covered his hands with his face, "I can't believe I'm having this conversation with my brother!"

"Alright, fine, jeez calm down kid," Logan rolled his eyes, lapsing into silence for a few moments before speaking up again. "So… do you wanna talk about it?"

"No! I was just curious, okay?"

"Not that!" Logan laughed at Oscar's blushing, sulky expression, "I meant the other thing."

Oscar leaned back in the sofa, "oh, no, not really. Don't have anything else to tell you… Unless you have some questions, of course."

"One or two. Have you told anyone else?"

"Just Charlie. And she's cool with it."

"Good ol' Char!" Logan grinned, "probably best not to mention it at school though, for your own safety."

Oscar scoffed. "Of course! I'm not stupid!"

Logan nodded and there was another pause, then have gave a small smile.

"So, is there someone you like?"

"And there we go," Oscar rolled his eyes, "I was waiting for this question. No, there isn't! Okay?"

"Alright no need to bite my head off," mumbled Logan. "Although if you do start going out with someone, I'll have to check that they're up to my standards."

"Standards?" Oscar scoffed, "I don't think you're one to care about standards at all."

"Oy!"

"Well it's true; I've seen some of the people you bring home."

"Well aren't you a rude little brother," Logan gave a pout, "regardless, you're a catch and I just want you to end up with someone decent."

"I haven't even considered going out with people," Oscar explained, "it's not something I'm ready for just yet."

"Right, of course. Can it stay that way for a good few years?" Logan asked with a wink.

"No."

"Oh. Still, when the time comes, I'll be ready to worry about ya."

"Thanks," Oscar replied flatly.

"Happy to help," Logan pulled his brother into a hug, "you haven't been worrying about how I'd take this, have you?"

"A little, yeah."

"Oh you silly sausage! I don't give a damn if you're gay, straight or anything else. Just as long as you do your homework and don't do drugs or vegetarianism, then we're cool."

"Does coffee count as a drug?"

"No, don't worry."

"So, we talk to each other about things then?" began Oscar slyly.

"Well of course!" Logan exclaimed, "you, me and Charlie have to stick together! We're all we have left and if we can't talk to each other, who can we talk to?"

"So you'd tell me if you liked someone?"

"Yeah," Logan wrinkled his nose, "didn't think you'd be interested though."

"Oh I am. You're my big brother!"

"And you're my nosy little brother," Logan glared at him, "what are you up to now?"

"What do you think of Hunapo?"

"They're not as bad as I thou-hey!" He gave Oscar a shove, "oh no! You kill that train of thought this instant, young man!"

"Oh when will you stop with the denial?" Oscar burst into a fit of giggles as Logan blushed a deep shade of red.

"I'm not in denial! There's nothing to deny!"

"…Except your burning love for Hunapo Davies."

"You're not too old to be given up for adoption, you know?"

"Well that's just rude. You'll never win Huna's heart with an attitude like that."

"Don't you have some walls to spray paint? Or sweets to shoplift?"

Oscar sighed, "no, but I see this conversation is going nowhere until you admit to yourself that you like them. I think I'll go out for a bit though. Maybe pop round to a friend's house or something."

"Yeah, go ahead, but be back before dark!"

"It's 2 o'clock," Oscar replied flatly, "I can't think of anyone who's company I enjoy that much to be with for that amount of time."

"Okay, well go on then," Logan turned his attention back to the telly as he switched it on, "and have fun."

Oscar wondered how he looked to those walking past him on the street, whom only saw a tall, teenage boy discretely slipping into the pub.

He wondered briefly if they thought he was trying to buy illegal alcohol, then took a longer moment to wonder what they thought of his appearance, with his wavy hair and soft, amber eyes, wrapped up in a heavy coat to keep out the autumn chill. He couldn't help it; Oscar always worried about what people thought of him. Outside of his family and handful of friends, people mostly treated him with indifference or contempt, and he still didn't know how exactly he'd wronged the latter group.

He shivered slightly as he entered the warm room, rubbing his hands together and walking over to the far end of the pub. Sure enough, Francis was standing at the bar, resting after spending a few hours serving those who had come in for a quick lunchtime drink, and Arthur was nowhere to be seen. There were a handful of people sitting around on various chairs, including one group watching rugby on the large wall telly. Perfectly peaceful.

"I'm not serving you," Francis said before Oscar had even opened his mouth.

"I wasn't going to ask for a drink," Oscar replied, leaning against the bar, "although, maybe a water would be allowed, yes?"

Francis smirked, "fine." He turned around and took a bottle of water out of one of the fridges behind the bar, pouring it into a glass of ice and passing it over to him.

"Thanks. What I actually came in to do was tell you some news." Oscar took a sip of water, giving a triumphant smile from behind his glass.

"Oh? What kind of news?" Francis looked at him with interest.

"Good news, of course!"

"The best kind! Go ahead. I always love a bit of good news."

Oscar glanced around quickly before leaning in closer. "You know that thing we talked about last time I was here. About the thing I had yet to tell my brother."

"…Yes?"

"Well, I told him," Oscar was grinning now.

"Take it well, did he?" Francis broke into a smile and Oscar nodded.

"Didn't care at all! Said he already knew!"

"I told you he wouldn't mind," Francis commented, "he has a good heart."

"Yeah, don't go on about it," Oscar laughed before taking another sip. Francis wandered off to serve someone else, leaving him in peace. He just sat quietly thinking and sipping water, wondering what to do next. All he'd come in to do was talk to Francis, and now that was done, he was free to leave after his drink. But where to go?

Sal was probably working- the kid always was at weekends- and he suspected Michael wouldn't appreciate another unscheduled visit. He wasn't that close to Kuzey, and didn't particularly fancy spending time with the younger kids. Oscar considered spending a few hours in the park, but knew it was the favourite hangout of some of his least favourite school peers. There were older kids who would sometimes turn up there too, in the late afternoons and evenings, far more dangerous than his classmates and with a habit of carrying knives.

There was nothing he wanted to buy in the shopping centre, and didn't want to go to the leisure centre without Michael. Maybe he could text him and they could arrange to meet up…

He was interrupted from his train of thought by the voice of a stranger next to him.

"I know you're gonna say it's none of my fucking business and all, but, what did you tell your brother?"

"You're right, it's not your business," Oscar turned to the stranger and gasped.

Next to him, halfway through a beer and looking over curiously, was Michael Jones.

Chapter Text

"What the hell are you doing here?" Oscar hissed, staring at Michael in horror. The boy simply shrugged.

"Matt and Al are out of town for the weekend, so I thought I'd come in here for a drink."

Oscar leaned in closer, glancing over at Francis to make sure he wasn't listening. "But you're fifteen!"

"Shh! I got a fake I.D."

"Seriously?" Oscar raised an eyebrow, "Francis fell for a fake I.D.?

"Seems so…"

"But what if a policeman came in? They'd know it was fake and the pub could lose its licence!"

Michael shrugged. "Shut up, okay? I'm stressed."

"But Peter and Lars' mum is a policewoman! What would they say if you got arrested or something?"

"I wouldn't get arrested for drinking," Michael reminded him, "I'd just get thrown out." He took another long slug of beer.

"And the pub would still lose its license."

"Look, I just want to have a drink, okay? If you wanna make sure no one gets in trouble, then please don't say anything."

"Fine," Oscar rolled his eyes.

"Want me to get you a beer too?"

"No thanks, they know me here."

"Shame," Michael returned to his pint. "Maybe that would've made you loosen up. Probably too scared to drink."

"Might I remind you that I'm from Australia," Oscar told him dryly, "I've been drunk several times before, actually. Logan always has alcohol in the fridge."

"That's something I'd love to see."

"Well you won't, sorry, I find beer fattening." Oscar took another sip of water.

"What about wine? Or vodka?" Michael wrinkled his nose.

"That's fine, I guess…"

"Please don't say anything though. Al's still giving me grief for parent's evening and I'm just really stressed."

"Why not go back to the gym instead?" Oscar asked.

"Didn't want to go on my own."

"Well why didn't you message me or something? I'd have gone with you?"

"Didn't want to look desperate," Michael looked away, blushing slightly, "wouldn't want you thinking I wanted to be around you now."

"Do you want to be around me then?" Oscar gave a small smile.

"Well I don't have a fucking choice now, do I?"

Oscar laughed, patting him on the back, "you like my company, admit it!"

"No!" Michael buried his face in his hands as Oscar shook his shoulder.

"Hey, who's your friend?"

The two boys looked up to find Francis staring at them with interest. Michael gave Oscar a pleading sideways glance and the latter sighed.

"Just my friend Michael."

"Oh," Francis paused, "the Michael in your class?"

"Er, no a different Michael. He's just finished sixth form. Got back from uni for the weekend."

"You don't have any uni friends." Francis glared at him before turning to Michael. "You're not 18, are you?"

"I am! I have a driver's license, right? It tells you my date of birth!" He held it up for good measure, earning a long glare from the barman.

Francis sighed, "get out, the pair of you. Michael, you're barred indefinitely and Oscar, you're barred for the rest of today."

"How come he only gets barred for a day?" Michael protested.

"Because he only orders water," Francis replied, "I'm kicking him out for the lying." He shot a hurt look at the teen.

"Yes, Francis," Oscar's face burned as he finished off his water and stood up to leave. Damn that Michael! Making him look untrustworthy in front of his friends for selfish reasons. He didn't look back at Francis, and kept his head down as he walked outside, Michael following.

"Look, I'm sorry, okay?" he tried once they were outside, but Oscar ignored him, opting for leaning against the brick wall of the pub and glaring at the ground instead.

"Fine, it was stupid," Michael rolled his eyes.

"You made me look like a liar," Oscar mumbled.

"I know, I'm sorry."

Oscar didn't reply.

"Want to do something together?" Michael piped up.

"Like what?"

"Well, no one's home so we could hang at my place for a bit."

"What makes you think I want to spend time with you right now?"

"Because we both know you're too fancy and gentlemanly to hold a grudge," Michael rolled his eyes and poked him in the jaw, "so turn that fucking frown upside down."

Oscar burst out laughing, shaking his head. "Fine. Silly boy."

"Great, I know for a fact there's an unopened bottle of vodka somewhere so we can always make a start on that." He took Oscar's hand and began to lead him down the street, but the other was having none of it.

"Seriously? More drinking? Do you ever do anything else?"

"You don't have to join in if you don't want to, and I thought we could watch some TV too."

"If you think I'm leaving you to drink a whole bottle of vodka by yourself then you have another thing coming." Oscar marched ahead.

"Are you challenging me to a drinking contest?"

"Well I am now," Oscar winked, taking his hand, "and if you think you'll win, then you're sorely mistaken."

"Bring it on!"

Oscar knew he would get in trouble.

Logan had strict rules about alcohol: only in moderate amounts and with a responsible adult present. Chugging glass after glass of vodka with one of his classmates whilst playing video games alone was definitely breaking both of those rules at the same time. That fucking Michael…

Even now his head was spinning and everything seemed to be slowing down, and he'd only had about three glasses, mixed with generous helpings of lemonade. But of course, he had to make sure there was less for Michael to drink. Oscar couldn't help worrying about him.

When the pair had first plopped themselves down on the sofa, Michael pushed a pile of games onto Oscar's lap, asked him to pick one, and began to root around for this mysterious bottle of vodka.

He found it in a cupboard just as Oscar decided on a shooting game and now the thing was half empty and, despite being somewhat tipsy, Oscar found out he was pretty good, to the point where it was starting to scare Michael.

"Did you just kill me again?!" he exclaimed, jumping in his seat and nearly throwing the controller at the telly. The bowl of crisps between them rocked slightly, and Oscar shook his head before taking a handful for himself.

"Yes! It was funny when your head exploded," he cackled, nudging his friend.

"Get the fuck away from me, you sadist," Michael hissed.

"You're just a sore loser!"

"Am not," Michael took another sip of vodka and ate a crisp, and the lapse in concentration gave Oscar time to kill him. Again. Michael was getting pretty damn tired of the words 'game over'.

"Well you are," Oscar reasoned, taking the bottle off of him and pouring more into a glass. He decided to forgo the lemonade; too much sugar in it for his liking. Yet he was getting through those crisps pretty quickly; he'd woken up too late for breakfast and lunch, again. He knew he should stop- they'd ruin his figure and he'd have to punish himself somehow- but couldn't. His stomach was like a void.

"Must run in the family then," Michael commented, "Al and Matt are just the same. Though Matt's scarier if anyone beats him at hockey, believe it or not."

"Brothers, huh?" Oscar laughed, "Logan is a complete child when it comes to competitions! You should see him with Huna."

"Who-na?"

"His co-worker-slash-rival who he might have a little crush on."

"A little crush?"

"Okay, he's freaking crazy about them but won't say anything because he's too much of a twat."

"Shame," Michael looked back at the screen just in time to see his character get blown up. Yup, he was never playing video games with Oscar again. "Give me that!" he grabbed the bottle and took a long slug.

"Well drinking does slow you down." Oscar glanced in the other's direction slyly, but before Michael could reply, Oscar jumped up and ran out of the room. If Michael had been sober, he'd have followed to check his friend was okay. As it was, he just sat there awkwardly, unsure of what to do.

When Oscar returned, he wiped his mouth before smiling sheepishly and mumbling something about too much alcohol, which calmed Michael down enough to realise he was also more than a little tipsy. He wondered if he'd be able to walk without falling even.

Oscar sat down and watched as Michael swayed slightly, leaning against his shoulder and dropping his controller.

"I think you've had enough," he commented.

"I… fucking know," Michael looked up, grey-brown eyes barely in focus as he stared at Oscar's lips. The ones he'd been thinking about far too much lately. He gulped, licking his own lips before leaning forward and planting them on Oscar's nose.

Oscar squeaked and Michael pulled away, blushing sheepishly.

"I… I was aiming for the… mouth."

"I guessed as much," Oscar couldn't help but laugh, "here, let me help you." He closed the gap between them, giving Michael a short, sweet kiss, so short that he barely had time to register Michael kissing back before the other passed out. Oscar jumped back as Michael fell onto the floor, the idea of catching him not even passing through his drunken thoughts.

"Are you alright?" he mumbled, and when Michael didn't reply, he began to panic, "oh my God he's dead!"

A sleepy groan proved that statement wrong.

Tentatively, Oscar, knelt down next to him and found Michael breathing softly, on his stomach passed out, and he kicked into an automatic response. He somehow lifted Michael back onto the sofa, turning him into the recovery position and pulling a blanket off the back of the sofa to cover him. He then wandered into the kitchen to pour a glass of water and search for headache tablets. He'd done this sort of thing before with Logan and it was all routine by now.

He walked back into the sitting room, setting the items down on the coffee table and stroking Michael's hair before leaving. Michael would be fine. He just needed to sleep it off and he'd be back to his normal self by tomorrow, though maybe a little grumpier than usual.

Oscar quietly walked out the front door, his mind a buzz of alcohol and panic. Now he had time to think, he began to consider what had happened. What exactly had just happened? Did they just… kiss? But Michael didn't even like him! Just how much had they had to drink?

That kiss had finally brought to the surface a tiny, sly collection of thoughts he'd tried to bury over the past week: that he was starting to like Michael, to develop the beginnings of those feelings that left him in emotional agony, listening to bad love songs in his room whilst he curled into a ball under his duvet.

When Oscar fell for someone, he fell hard, and it always ended in disaster. The few times he'd actually developed crushes, they'd find out somehow and mock him horribly for it. No matter how hard he tried to keep it a secret, it would just slip out somehow. Stupid emotions. And stupid scared teens who scorned what they didn't understand, or what was a little different.

Still, Michael wasn't like those other boys, who hated him and thought he was disgusting. Michael was his friend and wouldn't care about who or what Oscar was, right?

Right?

And Michael had just tried to kiss him.

You don't just kiss people you don't like! There had to be something there. Then again, he had been very drunk, and probably not entirely in control of his own actions. And he did pass out right afterwards so, unless Oscar's breath was particularly unpleasant, he had been pissed out of his skull.

Panic rose in Oscar's chest as he remembered actively kissing back. What if Michael hadn't meant it and would tell everyone at school on Monday that Oscar had kissed him! What if he freaked out and decided he never wanted to speak to him again? What if Oscar then got bullied to the point where he'd be forced to change schools?

Again.

Oscar took a deep breath and told himself to stop being irrational. Michael was many things but he wasn't a bad friend, nor was he a bully or a gossip. They just needed to talk it over sometime when they finally sobered up.

Oscar gulped. Ah yes, sobering up. Was there any way of him getting past Logan without the latter realising how drunk he was? He tripped over his feet, only just stopping himself from falling flat on his face. Yeah, if he had to have a conversation with Logan then he'd surely get found out.

He glanced at his watch; no time left to sit around waiting for the alcohol to leave him. He'd just have to try sneaking in. And at his age too?

Michael was certainly having some sort of affect on him, though he couldn't tell if it was a good or bad one overall…

Unfortunately, Logan was waiting for him.

Oscar opened the door slowly, and hadn't even taken his shoes off when his brother had bounded in from the sitting room with a big grin on his face.

"Hey you're back then?" he began, "and right on time too! Knew I could count on you."

"Yeah…" Oscar's heart sank. He had to go say that, didn't he?

"Getting a takeaway for dinner," Logan continued, "you know, since it's Saturday and all."

"That's nice."

Logan paused, eyeing him closely and Oscar squirmed.

"You're hiding something. Did something happen to you?"

"What no? I…" Oscar had to think of something to stop Logan's thought process leading him to the one thing he was trying to hide. "Logie, I just had my first kiss."

"What?" Well that did the trick. "You were only gone a few hours! Where the hell did you go, a gay bar?"

Oscar stared at his brother with a stony expression. "Yes. The moment I came out I just had to go to a gay bar. I used my Legoland driver's licence as ID."

"Alright, silly question," Logan rolled his eyes, "but seriously, your first kiss? Who's the guy?" He took Oscar's hand, dragged him into the sitting room and sat him down on the sofa. Oh God, this was a terrible idea! Oscar needed to get away fast, but he couldn't stop himself talking either. "How did it happen?"

"My friend Michael. You saw him at parent's evening."

"The dodgy one?" Logan stared at him. Oscar could almost see the shovel he was planning to bury Michael with in a thought bubble above his head.

"Don't look at me in that tone of voice," Oscar glared back, "and yes, I kissed that boy you think is dodgy for some reason. He's actually very nice and highly misunderstood."

"Fine. So did he kiss you or you kiss him?"

"Well he tried to kiss me but was too drunk to so I kissed him."

Logan blinked. "What?"

Oscar's smile fell. "Oh, right, that was meant to be a secret."

"Oscar, have you been drinking?"

"No," Oscar shuffled away.

"I can smell it on your breath."

"Then why did you ask?!"

"I wanted to see if you'd tell the truth," Logan sighed; "look, I thought I could trust you."

"We were just playing some video games at his house," Oscar reasoned, "I wasn't out in some alley on my own or something. I was somewhat responsible, I can assure you."

"Still, you know my rules about drinking," Logan sat back and groaned.

"It won't happen again!"

"Damn right it won't! But seriously, you say you're responsible but you have no idea how these things go. What if you hadn't stopped at one little kiss and done stuff you're too young to do and got an STD or something? Or got your heart broken because you were too pissed to know what you were doing?"

"There was no chance of that," Oscar played with his hands nervously, "Michael passed out shortly after."

Logan stared at him for a long moment.

"You know," Oscar stood up, "this conversation is making me uncomfortable. I think I'll just go upstairs now."

"This isn't over," Logan called after him, "and you're not gonna be allowed out for a fucking long time."

"Okay, I'm sorry!" Oscar laughed, "I'll sit in my room and think about my life choices."

"That would be helpful!" Logan paused, "oh, and Oscar?"

"Yeah?"

"Please… please be careful. Not just about getting your heart broken because you think he's the one or something. But with you being what you are. It can be dangerous." He rested his head in his hands, "I don't want to be burying you before you're an adult because of some bigot."

Oscar rolled his eyes, "I know it's dangerous but now you're just being ridiculous now. Michael isn't like that."

"You don't know him well enough to say that," Logan refused to look at him, "just... please tread carefully."

"I will. I promise."

Chapter Text

Unsurprisingly, Oscar was dreading Monday.

He didn't want to face Michael and what happened on Saturday, but eventually it was time to drag himself back to school and Oscar certainly wasn't going to have his inevitable confrontation within possible earshot of his less pleasant classmates who might use what they found out to torment him further. Besides, Michael could make a scene and he'd rather not have the entire school know that he kissed a boy and liked it. A lot.

So that was why he was knocking on the Jones' front door at eight in the morning, nervously clutching his school bag like a lifeline. He wondered if there were enough folders in it to make it a considerable weapon, should it come to that. But it wouldn't. Michael wasn't like that and his brothers would step in on the off chance that things got nasty.

Matthew answered the front door with a warm smile, gesturing for him to step inside.

"Nice to see you again," he said, "what brings you here?"

"Oh you know," Oscar shrugged, "just wanted to walk to school with my buddy Michael."

"Well, I just woke him up with a coffee, so you're safe to go up."

Safe. Oscar hoped he was.

He thanked Matthew and walked upstairs, running into Michael's other brother on the landing.

Although Alfred was a late sleeper and didn't like being woken up, like Michael, he was a morning person once he got up, unlike Mr In-a-bad-mood-if-woken-up-before-noon-and-sometimes-after-too. He greeted Oscar with a cheery smile and 'hello', taking a long slug of coffee before disappearing into the bathroom to shave.

Oscar continued on, knocking cautiously on Michael's door. He heard a grunt from inside and opened it slightly, peeking in.

Michael was half-dressed, wearing his pyjama bottoms and slippers with his school shirt, tie draped over his shoulders. He sipped coffee and stared into space with eyes bordered by dark rings, hair flat and dishevelled.

"Hey, how are you?" he tried, taking a single step inside and deciding that was enough for now.

Michael glanced over at him. "Okay-ish."

"Still hung-over?"

"A little," he smiled sheepishly, "Al's a bit cheesed I drank his booze, since it was a gift from Natalya, but hey, he's also a little glad I saved him the trouble of drinking it."

"Not a vodka fan then?"

"Nope," Michael turned a little green; "can we stop talking about alcohol?"

"Of course," Oscar paused, nervously playing with his hands, "so, err, do you remember anything from Saturday?"

"Yeah, course! I didn't get blackout drunk!" Michael's smile fell, "oh God, I kissed you! I'm so fucking sorry about that! I didn't mean to freak you out!"

"Tried to, my friend, you tried to kiss me," Oscar looked away, "you missed so I helped out a little. Sorry too."

"I see," Michael blushed slightly, "fucking hell what a pair we are."

"So you're not mad or anything?"

"Why the hell would I be mad? Neither of us were exactly aware of what we were doing." He seemed unwilling to say more, though there was clearly something on the tip of his tongue. "Wasn't the worst feeling in the world," he admitted instead.

"Yeah. It was sorta nice."

No one spoke for a long moment.

"So we'll say nothing more on the topic then?" Oscar offered.

"Yeah… probably for the best."

"Hey Nobu!"

Nobuyuki jumped slightly, spying Peter running towards him in the corridors. Did he always have to shout so loud?

"Oh, hi," he mumbled back, pulling his hoodie over his head in an attempt to hide his messy hair and miserable expression. They weren't supposed to wear jackets over their uniform, but Nobu was beyond caring; he had a mission and didn't have time for silly things like appearance or teachers or small talk.

"Are you coming to science club today?" Peter asked as soon as he'd bounded over to his friend.

"No, sorry," replied Nobu, "gotta go somewhere."

"Oh?" Peter's disappointment showed; that kid always had to wear his emotions on his sleeves, "how come?"

Nobu thought for a moment, considering whether or not to tell him. Eventually, he decided to go for it. It wasn't like it was supposed to be a secret or anything.

"Gym."

Peter blinked. "You go gym now?"

"Yeah, just decided over the weekend. Sorta like an early New Year's resolution."

"Well good for you man," Peter shrugged, "I don't even make resolutions the day you're s'posed to so…"

Nobu smiled. "Have fun at science club. Tell me what you learn."

"Will do!"

Lars watched as his brother and Kuzey both tried to impress Charlie. Again. It was getting rather tiring by now and Lars just wanted to go home to his laptop and TV and spend the evening doing nothing. He liked going home and doing nothing. He'd probably snuggle up in his thickest pyjamas and steal some food from the cupboards too. Perfect cure for a Monday.

The four of them were ambling along outside the school, wrapped up in jumpers and blazers due to the chilly weather that had set in the previous day. The wind blew brown leaves from the trees and into their faces and the ground was damp and soggy. And even though it was quarter to five in the afternoon, the sun had set and the street lamps were turned on, making the journey home a rather sinister experience. Yes, it was well and truly Autumn now.

Lars was lagging behind the other three, graced with the perfect view of Peter and Kuzey making fools of themselves as they tried to best each other. Presently, they were locked in an arm wrestle whilst Charlie walked on ahead, playing a game on their phone.

Lars heard light footsteps and glanced behind him to find Franz running to catch up with the group. He was holding his beret with both hands to stop it from blowing away and his satchel smacked against his side. Lars always loved the way Franz tried to style up his uniform, from his multicoloured scarf and long coat to his green ribbon, still taking the place of his tie and a source of constant irritation for his teachers.

"Oh hey Franz!" Peter called whilst Kuzey scowled next to him, rubbing his sore wrist. Why he thought he could actually beat Peter in physical strength was a mystery. The kid was like steel. Worse still, the whole incident went completely unnoticed by Charlie.

"Where did you go off to?" Lars asked as Franz caught up with him, resting a hand on his shoulder whilst he caught his breath. Franz had inherited his father's stamina, as well as his eccentricity and sweet tooth.

"Had to pick up my sketch book from art class. Left it to dry this afternoon," he replied.

"Fair enough. Paint anything good?"

"Horses. So yes."

Lars nodded, slowing his pace to match Franz's and watching the others go on ahead. Franz was fretting about next to him, buzzing with a nervous energy that only came when he had something big to say. Last time Lars had seen him like that, he'd been steeling himself to owning up to eating the all birthday sweets he'd brought to share with the class by himself on the bus.

Still, he didn't worry. If Franz had something to say then he'd say it eventually. Secrets never had a permanent residence in his brain.

"Listen," Franz began once he was sure the others were out of earshot, "I wasn't going to say anything because it's a bit sensitive and you have enough on your plate…"

"Yeah?"

"But…" Franz screwed up his face before finally blurting it out.

"Would you like to be my boyfriend?"

Well that certainly got Lars' attention. He stopped in his tracks and stared at the other for a long moment, truly unsure of what to say. He wanted to say yes, of course, but couldn't bring himself to. There was a part of his brain saying it was a cruel prank, but Franz wouldn't do that to him; they were best friends for life. He also didn't want Franz to be a target for bullies, and guessed the other had similar fears about him, hence the hesitation.

"I'm sorry for asking and I know this is the last thing you need but…" Franz trailed off.

It was just too sudden for Lars, that's all. He needed time to consider it properly.

"Can I have time to think?" he asked.

"Of course!"

"Thanks," he gave a small smile, "I promise to not leave you hanging too long. Just a day or two."

"I know, I trust you," Franz glanced ahead and grimaced, "we should probably catch up with the others. I can barely see them now."

"Right…"

Chapter Text

"Vati! Vati!"

Roderich looked up from his piano to see Franz had burst into the music room, waving an exercise book wildly in one hand as he ran over. Through the window outside, rain drizzled down miserably, but father and son were warm in dressing gowns and slippers.

"Franz! Must you be so loud!" he hissed as his son skidded to a halt in front of him.

"But it's an emergency!"

"What's wrong?" Roderich stared at Franz, feeling his dread rising, "are you hurt? Did something happen at school? …Did you break something?"

"No!" Franz rolled his eyes, "I left my geography book at school!"

"Oh? That all?" Roderich turned back to the piano, which prompted Franz to climb on the thing once more.

"No that's not all!"

"Franz Gottlieb Edelstein, get off the piano this instant!"

"I also took Miss Héderváry's notebook by mistake!" Franz cried, clinging to the piano when his father tried to drag him off.

"Well that's silly of you! Just return it to her tomorrow and get off the piano!"

"No! What if she needs it tonight?" Franz finally allowed himself to be pulled away, letting go and causing Roderich to lose his balance. The pair tumbled to the floor, and Franz took the opportunity to wave the book in Roderich's face.

"Vati, you have to return it to her!"

"Why me? It's raining and I'm not getting out of these pyjamas! Just give it back tomorrow. It can't be that important."

"Oh, please? What if it has important teacher things in it?"

"Well does it?"

"I don't know! I didn't look; it's her private notebook. Might have exam answers in it!"

"Well then I commend you for not sneaking a peek."

"But I might be tempted to if this book was in the house the whole night," Franz smiled slyly as his father rolled his eyes and hauled himself to his feet.

"Attempts at blackmailing your own father are hardly polite, Franz."

"But she needs her book! You could be, like, a hero or something to her if you return it!"

Roderich's eyes narrowed. "Is this another attempt on your somewhat warped quest to set me up with your geography teacher?"

"…Maybe."

"Fine," Roderich snatched the exercise book, glaring at his son, "get dressed and get your coat on then."

"But I can't go!" Franz looked at his feet, trying his best to appear innocent.

"And why not?" asked his father suspiciously.

"I'm too ashamed! I don't want to face Miss Héderváry and apologise tonight. I will tomorrow, but not today."

"Franz, you have to face your mistakes like an adult," Roderich told him.

It was then that Franz resorted for the ultimate tactic when it came to getting his way: crocodile tears. So he started sobbing, discretely slipping a hand into his pocket to pinch himself until fat tears welled up in his eyes.

"Fine! Okay, just stop making that noise before I scream and tear my hair out!" Roderich yelled. Franz immediately quietened, a small, smug smile on his face. Roderich hated the sound, and usually gave in to his son's requests just to get him to stop wailing.

"Thank you, Vati."

Roderich shook his head as he walked into the hall; "you'd better tell me where she lives then. Though if you know it, I'll be very surprised indeed." He walked downstairs and pulled on shoes and a coat. Hopefully the rain had eased somewhat since he last checked.

"Easy! She lives with Kuzey and his dad!"

"Oh, so you do know it…"

"Yes! I'll write down the address."

Roderich looked at him. "And you're sure you'll be safe by yourself for a few hours?"

"…Vati I'm fourteen."

"Yet you act like an over-excitable five year old at times," he sighed, "I just worry about you."

"Well I'll be fine!"

Roderich didn't reply immediately; "I guess so… besides, I shall only be gone for an hour or so."

Two hours later, he finally turned up at the address Franz had written down for him, pyjamas soaked, double checking to make sure it actually was the right address; he'd accidentally knocked on a few wrong doors already. But no, this time he was right. Not for the first time, Roderich cursed his son's ability to twist him round his little finger. And be so darn perceptive of his emotions.

No one was supposed to know he was fond of Elizabeta. It was his secret! Roderich couldn't help but wonder just how much Franz knew, or anyone else, for that matter. Was he really that obvious?

He'd only spoken to her once, but that certainly hadn't been the start of his rather sappy, embarrassing… crush. Was a single dad allowed to use such a childish term? His emotions made him feel like a teen though, a messy mixture of confused and terrified and exhilarated. Elizabeta made him feel things he hadn't felt in a long time: powerful, thrilling emotions that made his head spin.

The thing was: he barely knew her. All he had to go on was that one meeting and snatched glances by the school gates whenever he was called in to a meeting with one of the teachers. One time she'd even smiled at him. Shame he was too shocked to smile back…

He walked down the messy garden path and knocked sharply on the door. He heard shouting from inside, and eventually a young man opened the door, staring at Roderich with only the mildest of interest.

And Roderich felt his heart sink.

Elizabeta was married? Of course she was! A beautiful woman like her would've found someone years ago.

Then a remembered what Franz had said about her living with a lot of other people, and he sighed in relief. This man was probably just a housemate. Still, Roderich had to admit the fellow was very handsome, and so much bigger than he was. He glanced at his muscular arms and barrel chest that strained his t-shirt and mentally groaned, hugging himself with his own rather scrawny arms.

"Can I help you?" the man asked, voice calm and slow.

"Erm, yes, I'm here to see Miss Heder-um, Elizabeta please."

"Of course," the man turned slightly, "hey Liza, there's a man here for you!"

"A man?" a male voice called back, letting out a booming laugh, "ooh, has Eliza got a date? Why didn't you tell us?"

"Shut up, Sadik!"

Elizabeta stormed into the hall and Roderich shrank back, suddenly even more self-conscious, if that were possible.

"Thank you Hera," she said, calmer, and pushing past 'Hera' in the doorway, who promptly disappeared.

"Oh, hello Roderich," Elizabeta greeted with a warm smile, "what brings you here?"

"Well," Roderich glanced down to find a small child, little older than a toddler, looking up at him with large eyes as he sucked his thumb and clung to Elizabeta's skirt.

"Oh, you have a son?" And once more, his heart started to crumble. She was married. With a kid! Then again, he had a son too and he wasn't married.

"Oh no, he's my housemate's little brother, Andrei. And the only one in that family I can stand," she added, picking the child up as he gave a small wave. Roderich waved back awkwardly. "I'm looking after him while his brother's at work."

"How nice."

"You still haven't answered my question, Mr Edelstein."

"Roderich, please. And it appears my son took your notebook instead of his by accident." He pulled said notebook out of his satchel.

"I somehow doubt it was an accident," Elizabeta commented, taking the book, "since I recall seeing him deliberately take it from my desk when he thought I wasn't looking."

"He did? Oh God I'm so sorry!"

"No worries. I was more confused than angry, but I think I understand his motives now. Thank you for returning my book."

"Regardless. Franz is a maverick but I never thought he'd resort to stealing…"

"I'll give him a detention tomorrow. He's a sweet boy though. Odd, but sweet, if you don't mind me saying."

"No," Roderich sighed, "that about sums Franz up."

The pair fell into an awkward silence, Roderich nervously playing with the straps of his satchel and Elizabeta playing with a lock of hair.

"Would you like to get a coffee sometime?" she blurted out.

"Pardon?"

"Um, I mean…" Elizabeta looked away, "gosh that was such a weird thing to ask one of my students' fathers…"

"Yes," Roderich gave a small smile, "I'd love to get some coffee."

"Really?" Elizabeta beamed, "this Saturday?"

"Sure!" Roderich wondered if he was dreaming, and also wondered if slapping himself to check would make him look weird in front of Elizabeta. She was actually asking him out? He didn't have to do it himself? He'd been trying to ask, but was just too terrified.

"Great," she threw him a wink, "can you pick me up around eleven?"

"Course," Roderich nodded before walking down the garden path. He had to leave before he did anything embarrassing, like blush or squeal or try and woo her with poetry. Or sing.

He tried that once. Once.

"Looking forward to it!"

Chapter Text

Kuzey stared up at the bright poster pinned to the notice board in the science corridor, identical to many dotted around the school and displaying information about auditions for the school play in the summer term.

He wanted to give it a go. Kuzey wasn't much of a theatre child, but this could just be the confidence boost he needed. Maybe it would encourage him to talk more, and to express his emotions every now and again. And acting sounded fun. Kuzey wasn't a fun boy by nature, according to nearly everyone, so this could be the perfect opportunity to reinvent himself. Or at least prove the cunts wrong.

But the hardest part of the whole thing was gathering the courage to sign up in the first place. What if he auditioned and made a fool of himself? What if he was too wooden or got stage fright and was laughed at? What if he messed up his lines and started crying?

And even if he got a part, chances were that people would still make fun of him. The other students would pick on him more so than they already did, and probably make life unbearable. He wouldn't be able to focus on his lines or being in character, and the teachers would just give his part to someone else once they realised he couldn't handle it.

So, all in all, not much point in trying.

But Kuzey loathed the idea of giving up just like that. He should audition! Fate could pleasantly surprise him yet. And if he worked hard and ignored what others thought of him, then he could do it.

But he didn't want to do it alone.

He could always ask his Baba for help, though he had a sneaking suspicion that the loud, old man would steal the show during rehearsals, and generally be more of a hindrance than a help. His brother had his A Level mock exams coming up, and was panicking whilst procrastinating on revision, so he was out of the question too. Couldn't practice lines with someone who was on the verge of a breakdown. And he didn't want to ask any of his friends in case they took the piss, no matter how much he told himself they wouldn't. Maybe one of his other housemates? He wasn't entirely fond of most of them, and was worried about them making fun of him too. Heracles definitely would. Andrei would probably eat his script. Maybe Alin would be a good option though?

"Hey what'cha looking at?" Peter interrupted Kuzey's train of thought, by skidding into him in his haste to reach his friend. He followed Kuzey's gaze and took in the poster; "ooh, Bugsy Malone? I love that film! Thinking of auditioning?"

"No," Kuzey looked away, "I'm not lame like that." He wanted to audition so badly, but not with Peter. Anyone but Peter.

"Well you were staring at that poster pretty intently," Peter gave him a nudge, "go on. You can be Bugsy and I'll be Blousey."

"What? No way you weirdo!" Kuzey rolled his eyes and began to walk away, Peter trotting behind him, "even if I was thinking of parading around on stage like a fool, and even if I was thinking of going for something as ambitious as the main lead, I certainly wouldn't have you of all people playing the love interest."

"I don't think the actors get to decide who plays who," Peter gave a grim smile, "but why must you hurt my feelings so?"

"Because you're rather annoying."

"If the lead is too much of a challenge," Peter continued, unwavering, "I could be the Tallulah to your Sam."

"No thanks." Kuzey ducked into his maths classroom, but Peter followed. "Don't you have your own lesson to be in?" he asked.

"Yeah but the classroom's nearby. I can make it with a run."

"Then get running," Kuzey sat at his desk, bristling from the stares of his classmates as they wondered what an annoying little Year 9 was doing in their lesson. Luckily for Peter, there was no teacher present to kick him out.

"But I want to know if you'll audition with me!"

Kuzey shrank away from the titters and giggles Peter's statement had generated, throwing the other a poisonous glare.

"No! I won't!" he cried, "now fuck off!"

Peter's smile fell. He hung his head as he turned around and began to walk towards the door. Kuzey realised he'd gone too far.

"Sorry," he mumbled, just within Peter's earshot. The other boy turned his head and flashed him a grin before leaving the room. That one small sorry was enough for Peter, that he didn't even mind getting a detention for being late to his own class.

Lars glanced over at Franz, who was sat at the table painting furiously, all his equipment spread out over the whole work surface. That was how Franz Edelstein operated: a whole table to express himself, with all his pencils, brushes, paints, charcoal and every other piece of art equipment he owned within easy reach in case he suddenly needed to add some more here, or change something there. Lars loved watching him work, so full of determination and concentration, entering his own world and blatantly ignoring everything else. A dragon could tear the place apart, and Franz wouldn't notice until he'd finished his drawing.

The pair were sat in an empty art classroom after school, the teacher letting them in whilst they finished marking in another room. It was their special time, to be alone in a professional setting and just express themselves. There were no shortages of materials, equipment- and bins- here, and there was a peaceful quiet they often couldn't get at home, especially for Lars with his noisy family.

Charlie usually joined them too, but today they'd babbled something about needing to go to the library before darting off.

And that made it the perfect opportunity for Lars to discuss Franz's rather interesting… request? Proposal? No, proposal definitely wasn't the right word! Offer, maybe?

Either way, Franz wanted to date Lars, and Lars for the most part wanted to be dated by Franz. He had for a long time, but had been terrified of saying anything, Franz turning him down and things becoming awkward between them. Or worse still, dragging Franz into his problems.

Still, if Franz had been the one to ask him, then surely it meant he'd considered the situation and knew what he was getting into. And didn't mind.

So maybe Lars wouldn't mind either.

"Um, Franz," he began. Franz kept drawing.

Lars suspected the boy wouldn't hear him if he shouted, and if he did, he'd just be irritated at having his drawing time interrupted. So Lars wrote his answer down in a note for Franz to read when he'd finished- using a scrap of paper at the back of his drawing pad- and left it on Franz's desk.

He sat back down at his own table and continued his drawing: a picture of himself in a robot costume firing lasers at his bullies- whom he had drawn as ugly slime monsters- and giant homework monsters, quite happy and only tearing his eyes away when Franz pulled him into a crushing hug.

Chapter Text

This was getting out of hand.

Oscar could barely concentrate on his boxing session, being that close to Michael, who had somehow deemed his shirt to be an unnecessary hindrance and was throwing punch after punch in just his shorts and trainers. Oscar stole glances whenever he could, taking in the other's physique. Michael had faint muscle, just visible in his arms, legs and chest, slightly chubby around the stomach and cheeks with the beginnings of a farmer's tan, and Oscar loved watching the way he moved, quick and light, his boxing skills improving with each session. His hairstyle was drooping slightly, Oscar noticed, and slick with sweat.

Once again, the duo were in the sport's centre, practising boxing and de-stressing after school. It was later in the week now, and the room wasn't as crowded as usual, and the boys were enjoying relative peace.

Peace, and, Oscar realised, near-privacy.

Oscar wanted to kiss Michael again, so badly. A proper kiss, with no alcohol and with no one fainting halfway through. Stupid Mike. Stupid Mike and his stupid drinking and recklessness. He wished Michael had never kissed him in the first place. Right now, their kiss had felt almost teasing, and Oscar wanted more. But he wasn't going to do anything. Not only were they in public, but it could very well upset Michael, and that was that last thing he wanted.

So Oscar settled from admiring him from not-so-afar.

"The fuck you lookin' at?" he raised an eyebrow, and Oscar averted his gaze.

"You, idiot," he spluttered out, "I'm making sure you don't mess up your swings."

"Why are you dribbling?"

Oscar wanted to run out of the room to the nearest airport and get on a plane to the most obscure country he could get a flight to; change his name; and never come back to England again out of shame. Instead, he decided to handle things with his usual grace.

"Oh, was I?" he laughed, "I was just thinking about dinner."

"So you weren't even concentrating on me?" Michael rolled his eyes, "and there was me going to all this effort to show off."

"You sound so offended," Oscar commented, stepping forward and cuffing the punch bag. There was that urge again. That bubbling, horrifying feeling from the pit of his stomach. What the hell was wrong with him?

"Are you okay?" Michael asked, "you've been acting like a tit since we got here."

Oscar realised he'd stopped moving, arm poised next to his face, ready for a jab.

"Yeah, just a little light-headed, that's all." Well, he wasn't exactly lying about that.

"Need to sit down for a sec?" Michael asked, genuinely concerned.

"Oh no, I'll be fine," Oscar smiled and threw another punch.

"Really? No point overdoing it."

"Well what's the point in exercising if you don't even try?"

"Fun, for fuck's sake!"

"That's such a sissy response."

"You're a bitch when you're hungry," Michael whined. Oscar just laughed.

"Same to you," he joked.

He stared at Michael for a long moment, and once more had to restrain himself from leaning forward, wrapping his arms around Michael and…

"Argh!" He threw punch after punch at the blue, plastic bag. Why did he have to have these ridiculous feelings? And why for Michael of all people?

"Look, don't you think we've had enough for today?"

"But our session doesn't end for a half hour," Oscar replied; "it would be a waste of money. Besides, our stamina is supposed to increase with each session, right? Not the other way around."

"Well you don't look too good, in all honesty," Michael looked him up and down, and Oscar felt self conscious, like he always did when the other stared at him. Michael's gaze seemed to burn his skin, and Oscar tugged at his shorts, wishing he'd worn tracksuit bottoms instead. He hated his legs; well, he hated most of his body but his legs were the worst, as far as he was concerned. Too thick, too long, too hairy, and his knees stuck out awkwardly.

"Maybe you're coming down with something," Michael tried again, "that would explain the hoodie."

"I feel the cold easily," Oscar mumbled, wrapping the jacket tighter around him, "and it's soft. You're mad if you're not feeling cold!"

"Oscar," Michael began slowly, "the heating's on. Are you sure you're not ill?"

"Of course!"

"Well I'm fucking exhausted," he said, picking up his t-shirt off the floor, "so I'm gonna call it a day, if that's alright with you."

"Maybe you're ill," Oscar replied dryly, though his relief was evident. Not only because he didn't want to admit he was tired, but also because Michael had finally put his shirt back on.

Oscar was hit by a wave of dizziness, and he clutched the punch bag for support, earning another worried look from Michael.

"I'm fine," he mumbled as he took his boxing gloves off, "maybe you're right. Maybe I'm coming down with a cold." He took his and Michael's boxing gloves back to the shelf and the two boys walked out, Oscar wiping his hands on his hoodie.

"I really need to buy my own pair of gloves," he began, "no wonder I feel sick if I'm borrowing ones other people have touched."

"Yeah," Michael wrinkled his nose, "I think I'll get myself a pair too sometime."

They walked into the changing room and over to their shared locker to collect their schoolbags. As Michael fumbled for the key in his pocket, Oscar began to feel woozy again. His head span and his vision blurred as everything tipped on its side. He tried to find something- anything- to grip on to, but it was too late and he fell to the floor with a painful thud.

"Oscar!" Michael cried, dropping his bag and kneeling beside his friend. Oscar gave a groan, lying still on the floor with dull eyes whilst his friend stroked his hair and poked at his face.

"Oscar, are you okay? Speak to me, man! Are you dead?"

"Do I look dead to you?" Oscar hissed.

"A little, yeah," Michael laughed, "do you need a hand?"

"Probably."

Michael frowned. "What even happened?"

"I don't know, I just felt dizzy and… here I am."

"Knew you were pushing yourself too hard," Michael shook his head as he helped his friend up, sitting Oscar down on a nearby bench. He still looked ill, and ready to faint again at any moment.

"Am… not…" he let out a groan, leaning heavily against Michael when he sat down next to him.

Michael thought for a moment. "You did have breakfast today, right?"

"There was no time," he shrugged.

"Lunch?"

"I hate canteen food."

"Well that's why you fainted! Just eat something when you get home and you'll feel better!"

"But what's the point in exercising if I just go and eat a bunch of food after? All my effort will be wasted!"

Michael sighed, resting his head against Oscar's shoulder. "You idiot," he mumbled; "the two go hand in hand. You need energy to do sport and tone up. You can't just starve yourself and call it a diet."

Oscar didn't reply, and Michael groaned, standing up.

"Can you walk?" he asked gruffly.

"I think so."

"Then I'll take you home, and make you a salad or something. But with some chicken or pasta to boost your strength."

Oscar chuckled. "I don't like other people cooking for me, but you can help out, if you like."

"Oh no, you need some fuckin' rest," Michael pulled him to his feet, and Oscar swayed slightly; "let me take care of you, okay?"

"I'm not a baby."

"Yeah but everyone needs some fucking comfort every now and again." Michael picked up both their bags and put them on his shoulders, gently pushing Oscar away when he tried to take his.

"Fuck's sake," he rolled his eyes, "you can barely stand on your own two feet as it is without carrying around some hugeass bag of books too!"

"Don't treat me like I'm delicate!" Oscar cried, following Michael out of the changing rooms.

"I'm not! I'm just helping you out. You have a nasty cold, right?" he stared at the other evenly, and Oscar backed down.

"Fine," he muttered.

"Good, now leave your shorts alone and hurry up."

Oscar let go of his shorts, which he had been pulling at again, and scowled. Stupid Michael. With his blunt but genuine concern.

The cold air was welcome after the stuffy gym, though Oscar was sorely regretting not wearing warmer clothes. He took a deep breath, and his teeth started chattering.

Michael sighed, and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

"You're not gonna carry me too, are you?" Oscar asked dryly.

"Not unless you ask. And play dead or something in case someone sees us."

"How rude," Oscar sniffed.

"I was joking!"

"So you won't carry me?"

Michael groaned. "C'mere."

"Wait, I was joking too!" Oscar squeaked as Michael lifted him up carefully, staggering as he did so.

"Shame, cause I'm not gonna let you fall again."

Well shame to you too, because I've already fallen, for your stupid wonderful self; Oscar cursed that sly thought, and worried about what effect being this close to Michael would have on him. He could feel Michael's warmth radiating through him, protecting him from the cold. He hated to admit it, but Michael made him feel safe and scared at the same time.

"Alright, I'll admit this is rather comfortable," he smiled into his shirt.

"At least you're happy," Michael wheezed, but barely concealing a grin.

"See this is why you need to push yourself to tone up," Oscar poked at Michael's cheek.

"Yes, but who's the one who needs to be carried home? Me or you?"

"I don't actually need to be carried," Oscar muttered.

"It's a precaution," Michael shrugged, "now stop bitching about it."

"Rude."

"Yes I'm very rude, if you haven't noticed."

"But you're nice too," Oscar closed his eyes, nuzzling the other's shirt and not noticing Michael's blush.

Michael, to the pair's surprise, managed to carry Oscar all the way to his house, only stopping a couple of times to catch his breath. It had been awkward, Oscar had to admit, since he was the taller of the two and his limbs had stuck out uncomfortably and Michael wasn't as tough as he claimed to be. Plus there was always the risk of someone from school seeing them, and the two boys weren't too sure how to talk their way out of that one.

Michael set Oscar down on his doorstep, and Oscar brushed himself off with as much grace and dignity as he could muster.

"That honestly wasn't necessary," he began, "but I'm grateful nonetheless."

"You don't sound all that grateful," Michael stuck his tongue out.

"I never do. It's just my voice." Oscar took out his key and unlocked the door. "Um, want to come inside for a bit. We could do homework or something."

"Sure, why not?"

"Besides," Oscar added, giving a small smile, "you still have my bag."

Michael shook his head, smiling. He took off Oscar's schoolbag and chucked it at him, Oscar barely catching it.

"Can you not throw things, please," he mumbled.

Michael blinked. "Oh, right, sorry."

"Well," Oscar shrugged, "make yourself at home." He walked inside, Michael following closely.

"Hey I don't think I've seen your house before," he commented, looking around.

"Now that you mention it…" Oscar suddenly felt embarrassed by the pile of shoes in the hall and the dirt on the welcome mat and clothes draped over the banisters.

"Looks homely," Michael remarked, "now, time to fucking eat. Wanna help out or sit down?"

"I think I'll do the snacks by myse-"

"Wrong answer, fuckface," Michael replied, pushing him towards the stairs, "you're going to bed, and I'm making the food."

"Wait, you can't! You don't even know how all the appliances work!"

"It's a fucking kitchen; I think I can handle it. Now go get some rest."

"Honestly, being ordered about in my own home…" But Oscar made his way upstairs while Michael disappeared into the kitchen.

"Okay, this is pretty good," Oscar looked at the salad in front of him, balanced on his knees. He was snuggled under his duvet with Michael sat on the edge of the bed and looking at him expectantly.

"Well go on," he said, "fucking try it."

"You know, I'm not comfortable having other people watching me eat. I get self-conscious."

"Huh? Oh come on! You're in your own house. Just eat it how you like. Chances are I live with far more messy eaters."

"It's just… it's a personal thing." Oscar looked away.

"Don't make me use the airplane on you!"

"I'm not a toddler!" Oscar grabbed his fork and stuffed a leaf of lettuce in his mouth, chewing slowly. "Happy?"

"In a sense of the word."

"Hmph."

Oscar cut each slice of salad into tiny pieces, chewing painstakingly. He'd play with his food for ages before eating it, and it was driving Michael up the wall. Why must he eat like an old lady!?

Oscar, meanwhile, was tense for a whole different reason. That urge was back, stronger too, though he didn't think it were possible. But Michael was here, in his room, sat on his bed and so close. They were alone. He could give it a try and blame it on another dizzy spell if Michael rejected him. No one else had to know.

But Oscar was too scared. Neither was he one for spontaneous kisses. He'd just have to build up the courage to ask Michael and make sure he was okay with being kissed.

He'd ask some other day though.

"So," he began, "got any homework for tomorrow?"

"Don't think so, apart from that maths worksheet. But I can do that no problem."

Michael glanced out the window. "That your vegetable patch?"

"Yup!"

"Looks nice," he observed.

"It's empty. The veggies got harvested last month."

There was silence for a few more moments. Oscar would've noticed, if he wasn't so busy trying to calm his raging emotions. It was a wonder he wasn't scarlet with embarrassment by now, and he for one was glad most of his body was hidden under a duvet. Michael ran a hand through his hair and rubbed the back of his neck, looking around, and Oscar nearly melted.

Just as he was considering whether asking Michael for a kiss would just be easier, he heard the front door open downstairs and Logan called out a greeting.

"Up here!" Oscar replied, and Michael glanced at the door nervously.

"Um, is that your brother?"

"Indeed it is."

"Is… would he be pissed off at the idea of me sitting on your bed… and stuff."

"I fail to see how he could," Oscar smiled warmly, ruffling the other's hair just as Logan entered.

"Hey, how are you? Where's Charlie?"

"At a friend's."

Logan frowned, leaning against the door. "Wanna tell me which friend?"

"Franz, probably."

"You're supposed to be watching her after school," Logan rolled his eyes.

"I was! She went to art club and told me she was visiting Franz. Or Lars. One of them."

"I think it was Franz," Michael added.

"Who are you?" Logan asked, noticing him for the first time.

"Um, Mike. Oscar's friend from school."

Logan's eyebrows shot up, but he said nothing, much to Oscar's relief. He could see that imaginary shovel floating in a thought bubble over Logan's head though.

"Nice to meet you," he answered instead. "Oscar, why are you in bed? You okay?"

"He fainted in the men's changing rooms."

The corners of Logan's mouth twitched upwards, and Oscar could tell he was dying to make a joke.

"No, not like that!" he growled, "and I didn't faint. I just had a dizzy spell."

"What's so funny about that?" Michael said, "I thought he was in serious trouble."

"Just some brotherly banter. Logan thinks I passed out because I was in a men's changing rooms and I'm ga-"

"Oscar!" Logan hissed, glancing at Michael.

"Oh like he cares!"

"What?" Michael glanced between the two brothers; "oh, I see. But yeah I didn't know what to do when he fell over."

"Did you call an ambulance?"

"Nah, he was up again in seconds," Michael shrugged.

"But what made him faint in the first place?" Logan frowned.

"I didn't faint! It was a dizzy spell!" Oscar nearly knocked over his salad, "and I have no idea what caused it." Michael glared at him, but said nothing.

"Look, I should probably be going," he began instead, "see ya tomorrow."

"Yeah, see you…" For the first time in a good few hours, Oscar finally felt able to relax.

"Oh, and Mr Cooper," Michael turned to Logan, "I honestly don't give a crap about Oscar being gay. Hell, I'm bi myself! And I'm not gonna tell anyone either." And with a final nod, he left.

Chapter Text

It was safe to say that Roderich was very nervous as he stood outside Elizabeta's door, hand poised over the bell. Was this really happening? Was he actually about to go on a date with Elizabeta Héderváry? He pinched his side to make sure he wasn't dreaming, and winced at the pain. Yes, it was real.

He was terrified of messing this up, and feared he'd come across as too boring or even too odd for her. He really wanted this to work, and to not scare her away on their first date. His first date- he realised- since his wife died. His cousins had tried to set him up with people over the years, but he'd always found an excuse not to go; he'd needed time to grieve, pull himself together and look after his son. But now? He was ready to look for love again, at his own pace and on his own terms, not his cousins'.

Elizabeta seemed divine. He loved her calming, sing-song voice, her mess of chestnut hair and her beautiful smile. He loved the crinkles that appeared around her eyes as she grinned playfully, and that cute little flower she always wore.

He finally built up the courage to knock, and straightened his tie as he waited for a response. He wiped a speck of dirt off his blazer and wondered if he was overdressed, or too stuffy-looking.

The door opened and Roderich came face-to-face with a grinning, muscular man, or should that be chest-to-face? Was Miss Héderváry living in a house of body builders? He looked up and a pair of kind, mischievous olive eyes stared back down at him.

"So you're Eli's date then?" he asked, raising an eyebrow, and his smile widened when Roderich nodded. "Well nice to meet you! I'm Sadik: the boss of this place, but don't tell anyone I said that." He pulled Roderich into a crushing hug, giving him a kiss on both cheeks.

"Well I…" he spluttered.

"Wow, I didn't know Eli was going out with an accountant," he held Roderich at arm's length and looked him up and down.

"I'm not an accountant," Roderich hissed, "I'm a food critic."

"Really?" Sadik raised an eyebrow.

"Yes. My name is Roderich Edelstein. I-"

"Wait, you're Roderich Edelstein? The Roderich Edelstein?" Roderich nodded, half expecting the other to become hostile, but instead, Sadik clasped his hand and shook it vigorously. "What a pleasure it is to meet you at last! I love your columns!"

"You do?" Roderich allowed himself a small smile.

"Totally! I love food and all to do with it, and I think it's the best thing when you get really bitchy about a restaurant!" He leaned closer. "Say, if Eli doesn't hurry up with getting ready, I might just go on this date with you myself."

"That won't be necessary," Elizabeta growled, appearing behind them and pulling Sadik away, greeting Roderich with a friendly smile. She'd pulled a coat over a dark green dress, hair somewhat tamed and flowing down her back, tied up in a ponytail.

"You look beautiful," he muttered.

"Thanks!" Sadik replied, earning an elbow in the stomach, "fine, I'm going!" He closed the door, leaving them alone in the front garden.

"So," began Elizabeta, "shall we get going then?"

"Of course!"

"Hope you don't mind the cinema."

Roderich minded cinemas very much indeed. Too many people, making noise and blocking his view, not to mention he didn't care for the overpriced, processed food that left a bad taste in his mouth. There was usually a child screaming, as well as someone talking throughout the film or using their phone. The screen itself was too big and hurt his eyes, and was far too loud.

And did he mention it being overpriced?

Not only that, but Elizabeta picked an action film with plenty of blood and death and cities getting destroyed. To be honest, Elizabeta looked a bit bored by it too. Roderich, on the other hand, was torn between falling asleep at the lack of plot and throwing up every time a character was torn apart by whatever alien-monster creatures were trying to invade planet earth this time. He began looking for a distraction, and found one in Elizabeta; he wondered if she expected him to cuddle her, or if it was too soon.

Deciding to risk it, he tore his eyes away from the explosion on screen and lifted his hand tentatively, before draping it over her shoulders. She threw him a smile, and he gave a small one back. Elizabeta rested her head on his shoulders, taking another handful of their shared popcorn. Their expensive, overpriced popcorn that Roderich had no intention of eating but had bought anyway because he knew Elizabeta would like it, even though he'd cried a little internally as he handed over the money.

Still, Elizabeta being close to him made the film that bit more bearable, and he didn't feel as ill as he had been before. Roderich just focused on the smell of her hair; so she used geranium-scented shampoo, huh?

Soon enough, that train-wreck of a film finished and they left the cinema, Roderich blinking as they stumbled back into the bright sunlight.

"Want to go for a walk?" asked Elizabeta, "to stretch our legs and all."

"Sounds good," Roderich smiled, hoping it wouldn't be a long walk. He hated long walks, and guessed Elizabeta would oppose to carrying him most of the way, at least on the first date.

They took off, ambling along and talking about their jobs. Elizabeta inquired after Franz, and Roderich told her about the boy's latest art projects and general behaviour, and she replied with some comments on his school behaviour. Conversation drifted to their interests, and Roderich learnt that she loved horse-riding and archery, as well as reading about history. He told her about his music, with some hesitation. His music was a private thing, after all, and something he'd only really discussed with Franz, but still, Elizabeta seemed genuinely interested.

They stopped outside the gates to a park, and Elizabeta took his hand, leading him along the gravel path through trees and sloping fields. The sun was starting to dip, still bright enough to half-blind them as it threw the park into a colourful mess of oranges, reds and golds, contrasted by long shadows.

"It's beautiful," Elizabeta commented.

"Yes, indeed," he replied, not looking at the view. He glanced at Elizabeta, watching how the dying sun's rays lit up her hair, the edges turning into golden fire. Her face seemed to glow as she turned and grinned at him, and Roderich was suddenly conscious of just how sweaty his hand was getting. He let go of Elizabeta and stuffed said hand into his pocket to wipe it.

And his fingers curled around something sharp.

He pulled a rose out of his pocket, holding it up and staring at it curiously before it sank in.

Franz!

The boy had planted it there! He blushed, holding the thing under Elizabeta's nose, and accidentally poking her in the face. Oh no, he'd done it now! Silly, interfering Franz!

"What the-" she wrinkled her nose before taking in the flower and smiling warmly, taking it from him. "A flower for me? How sweet of you!"

Roderich blushed harder, rubbing the back of his head. Wonderful, interfering Franz!

"It's so lovely," Elizabeta placed it in her coat pocket so it poked out, and smiled at him, "what a gentleman you are."

"Indeed." Roderich couldn't help but wonder what it said for his social life that his fourteen year old son was his damn wingman.

"Hey look!" Elizabeta sped up her pace, pointing at an empty playground and Roderich struggled to keep up with her. She leapt over the gate and ran towards the swings.

"Seriously?" he called after her, opening the gate and hoping there was no one else around. There didn't seem to be anyone nearby.

"Yes! Come on; it's fun!" She started to swing, kicking her legs high in the air, dress billowing. Roderich blushed and stared at his feet.

"Isn't that a little… you know…"

"What?"

"Childish?" He looked up to find Elizabeta had stopped swinging, and was staring at him, face unreadable.

"What's wrong with that?" she asked.

He didn't reply immediately. "Nothing."

"Exactly, now come on!" She gestured at him to sit next to her, and he did, perching awkwardly on the plastic seat and rocking tentatively.

Elizabeta smiled at him, silently encouraging him and Roderich sighed, finally shedding his worry and embarrassment. He began swinging, allowing himself a smile as he did so, and Elizabeta started up again, swinging higher than he dared to as her hair whipped around her face.

"Wanna go on the slides next?" she asked excitedly, and he nodded, watching as she jumped at the highest point of her swing, and still managed to land on her feet. Roderich, meanwhile, settled for scraping his shoes against the tarmac until he was stationary, then he followed her to the slide, where Elizabeta was already climbing the ladder. She slid down the spiralling slide, shrieking in delight as he climbed after her. Roderich felt slightly dizzy at the top, and it took a few attempts to actually let go of the railings and slide down, and when he did, he hoped he wouldn't be sick as he hit the plastic sides, slithering down the circular slide. Not his idea of fun, but thrilling enough.

When he got to the bottom, he found Elizabeta had darted over to the climbing frame, scaling it with ease despite her knee-length dress and kitten heels. Just as he joined her, she flipped upside down, hanging from the top bar by her legs. Her face was level with his, and she laughed as her hair tumbled everywhere, like a hazel waterfall, and Roderich found himself laughing too.

And once he started laughing, he couldn't stop. It had been a while since he had a good giggle, and the sound only succeeded in making Elizabeta laugh harder.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Roderich caught someone looking at him, more than one person, even, and immediately quietened, flushing bright red.

A group of teens shuffled past the playground, staring at the pair and shaking their heads, muttering to themselves in a way that made Roderich's face burn. Elizabeta spared them only a glance before deciding to ignore them; they weren't doing any harm, as far as she was concerned, and she wasn't particularly interested in what they thought of her anyway.

They ambled away, still talking to themselves, but Roderich remained frozen, heart racing and adrenalin surging through his veins. He wasn't one for acting like a child, and now he felt humiliated. It was rare that he found himself loosening up, and it was never something he did in public, because people could see him in public, and might tell other people.

Still, it just went to show how drastic an effect Elizabeta had on him.

"Oh, don't pay them any attention," she chided, "they don't care."

"I know, but…" he rubbed his sleeve nervously.

"But you were having fun before," she smiled at him, still upside down, "and I loved hearing you laugh!"

"You did?" Roderich blinked.

"Of course!" Elizabeta thought for a moment. Then her smile took on a mischievous edge and she leaned forward, capturing his lips in a quick, awkward kiss, forehead bumping against his chin. She swung back gently, staring in amusement as Roderich's mouth hung open and his eyes glazed over.

"Better?" she asked.

"Uhh…" Roderich's glasses seemed to steam up, and she took them off, leaning in for another kiss, and this time he tilted his body forward to meet her. Their second kiss was slower, and less awkward and bumpy. Roderich responded this time, too.

When they broke apart, there was a moment of silence before Elizabeta grinned.

"Want to go on the roundabout?"

He smiled breathlessly. "Love to!"

Chapter Text

If Roderich thought his date had gone well, then his son thought his was going fantastically.

Sunday dawned bright and chilly, with Franz meeting Lars by the bus stop- exchanging quick cheek kisses- and the pair walking into town, talking about the shops they wanted to visit whilst they were there. Similar ones, as always.

They had been shopping together many times over the years, with each other and with friends, but it had never been this awkward between them before. The atmosphere surrounding the pair was thick and heavy, and once more Franz found himself nervous and subdued. This was what he wanted, right? Why was it so uncomfortable? Had something gone wrong? This wasn't how he'd imagined it would go.

“Shall we go to the stationery shop first?” Lars asked, “I need some markers and a mouse for my laptop.”

Franz nodded. “I wouldn’t mind getting a few things too.” And by a few things, Franz meant half the shop. Sure, Roderich was stingy, but Franz was a compulsive buyer when it came to all things stationery and art.

“Maybe I should’ve brought a wheelbarrow along,” Lars joked, and Franz laughed along, feeling slightly calmer. He was being silly. There was no reason for him to fret. He and Lars were a good match, and Lars was one of the few people who didn’t think he was just some weird bastard. Lars knew Franz was a weird bastard, but also knew he was talented, funny, clever, and a good friend. And Franz appreciated that.

Their conversation seemed to flow more smoothly after that, and the pair were far more relaxed as they strolled along leaf-covered lanes and wandered through the busy shopping centre, filled with people buying early Christmas gifts before the shops closed. A stall in the centre sold cups of sweetcorn, and the two boys bought a cup each, covering theirs with generous helpings of curry sauce and talking about their past week as they ate.

It had been an interesting few days, what with Nobu’s odd behaviour and avoiding his friends; Kuzey and Peter spending an awful lot of time together despite insisting they didn’t like each other; and Oscar and Michael’s growing friendship. Those two were a funny pair, polar opposites but surprisingly close. They’d never gotten along, and until last month barely spoke to each other, but had struck up a bond. The thing was, no one was quite sure why they were so close, only that they spent a lot of time together and never told anyone what they did, only muttering some babble about boxing. It was safe to say Lars and Franz were quick to suggest their own theories, theories that could never reach the duo-in-question's ears.

The biggest piece of news was, of course, Franz’s father’s date with their geography teacher. Lars was keen to know how it went, since the idea was just so odd to him, and Franz filled him in as best he could, in between the other’s laughs and jokes. It seemed Lars had been saving them up all week.

“But wow your dad and the geography teacher?” he smirked, “guess you could say that’s kinda Kilimanjaromantic.”

“Oh don’t start all that nonsense!” Franz rolled his eyes

“Hmm, how about, your dad’s heart melted like the ice caps?”

“Puns aren’t art!”

“Come on! It took ages for Peter to teach me all these! Though to be honest, I cringed when I heard them too.”

“Well you were wasting your time!”

“Just hear me out,” Lars ruffled Franz’s hair, “but, like, the three of you can Gobi a family together!”

“It’s not too late to break up,” Franz warned jokingly.

“Harsh. And to think he’s been in 'Da Nile' about his feelings for so long.”

“I’m actually walking away now,” Franz tossed his empty cup into a nearby bin and stormed into the stationery shop, trying his best not to laugh. He grabbed a basket as Lars followed him in, and began to pick out pencils, charcoal and paint pots, trying his best to ignore the other. Lars just smiled, and took a pack of cheap colouring pencils from a shelf, placing them in the basket.

Franz scowled and threw them out.

“At least buy a set that will work!” he snapped, and Lars laughed.

“At least you’re talking to me now,” he replied, picking up a more expensive set and placing it in the basket, and was met with no opposition.

“And I’ll continue to do so, so long as you don’t pun again,” Franz smiled and moved along the aisle.

“Fine, I’m not Peter anyway,” he grinned, “the little shit would make a pun out of every product. Man, I feel sorry for Kuzey, being on the receiving end of that kind of attention.”

“Kuzey?” Franz frowned, “I thought he liked Charlie.”

“Well you would be wrong there,” Lars grimaced, “but Pete does kinda tell me everything, so I know it straight from the horse's mouth. He used to like her though, until he decided he preferred grumpy, asshole older boys. Don't go broadcasting it around though.”

“Wouldn't dream of it. But woah, didn’t even think they liked each other.”

“Well I don’t think Kuzey likes Peter, not that he’ll let that stop Pete from constantly talking to the boy day in day out. It isn’t even flirting, he just thinks Kuzey is really cool.”

“That’s gotta be rough for him,” Franz shrugged.

“Kuzey or Peter?”

Franz laughed.

“Still, I’m not here to talk about my thirsty brother,” Lars rolled his eyes, taking Franz’s hand, “this is our day.” They filled their basket- Franz insisted on paying- and left the shop.

“Where to next?” asked Lars.

“Sweet shop?”

Lars frowned. “But we just ate!”

“Yes, but sweets!” Franz grinned, eyes slightly manic.

“Fine,” Lars rolled his eyes, “but if you get sick, don’t come crying to me.”

“You’re starting to sound like my Vati,” Franz commented, taking Lars’ hand and walking in the direction of the sweet shop.

“Don’t go and say that!”

 

 

The sweet shop was old and dim, a calm, cosy atmosphere and a sweet smell wafting through the whole place. Brightly coloured sweets adorned the shelves, stored in jars sealed with circular cuts of cloth and ribbons or cardboard boxes whose designs mimicked Edwardian era packaging. The sign outside was written in rainbow-coloured writing on a brown background, window displays showing off the vast choice of sweeties. They had everything from rows of chocolate bars to pear drops to liquorice and was one of Franz’s favourite places.

He stepped inside, listening to the tingle of the little bell as he wandered over to the nearest shelf. He wondered which packet he’d buy today; his father only let him buy one at a time and the habit stuck. Besides, he didn’t have that much money left after his art equipment shopping spree.

Lars, meanwhile, was rather bogged down by plastic bags that he insisted on carrying for his boyfriend.

Franz became oblivious to his boyfriend as he stared at the hundreds of jars in front of him, drooling slightly. He’d not had the cherry bonbons in a while… but some Belgian chocolate would be lovely right now… or a box of liquorice allsorts…

“Sweet! They have salmiakki!” Lars grinned, grabbing a box from a particularly high shelf. Franz pulled a face.

“Seriously? Of all the goodies here, you have to pick that?”

“What? It’s tasty! Alright, so it has an aftertaste? You just need to get used to it.”

“And people say I’m weird,” Franz pulled a jar of fudge from the shelf and the pair made their way over to the counter. As they placed the items on the counter and handed money over to the assistant, Franz’s phone went off.

“Oh, it’s from Charlie,” Franz opened the message and scanned it briefly, frowning as he did so.

“What’s up?”

“Wants to talk to us apparently, when we’re free.”

“Later, right?” asked Lars as he put the sweets in a paper bag, wrinkling his nose slightly.

“Yeah. I’ll just text ‘em now.”

Lars nodded and they walked out of the shop, Franz linking his elbow with Lars’ so he could walk and text freely, noting that it was usually him leading Lars around whilst the other played on his phone, updating his blog and the like. Once back outside, they opened their sweets and tucked in, snuggled together on a bench in the corner of the shopping centre. They were ignored as Franz rested his head on Lars’ shoulder, snuggling further into his thick coat, and Lars leaned against Franz, chewing his salmiakki and playing a game on his phone. Franz, meanwhile, exchanged a handful of texts with Charlie, pleading with them to reveal their secret, but their friend was firm: Franz and Lars would have to go round to Charlie’s house to find out.

When they’d eaten about half of their sweets each, they stood up again, stretching as Franz asked Lars what he wanted to do next. Lars grinned slyly. Before replying, he kissed Franz, quick and innocent.

“Well, since we just went to a bunch of places you wanted to…”

“Yes?” Franz raised an eyebrow.

“I hope you don’t mind trailing me for half an hour whilst I look at the latest laptops.”

 

 

After just ten minutes of watching Lars pine for and smell shiny laptops he could never hope to afford, Franz had dragged him back outside and the pair had visited a clothes shop instead, where Lars watched as Franz somehow produced enough money to pay for a multicoloured scarf and leather ankle boots. They ambled past a few other shops, wondering what Charlie could want before deciding they were done at the shopping centre and there was no point hanging around.

Lars insisted on carrying most of the bags home, leaving Franz to hold onto their paper bag of sweets, despite his insistence that he could carry more. Lars only wanted to show off his strength, and be a gentleman.

They soon arrived at the Cooper household, a terraced little building with dull green paintwork and a neat garden, maintained religiously by Oscar. The two boys opened the gate and walked along the garden path, barely glancing at the bare flower beds before ringing the doorbell and taking a step back.

It was Logan who answered.

“Oh hey kids, how are you?” he smiled warmly at the pair as he let them in.

“We’re great, thanks!”

“Been shopping?” Logan peered at the bags.

“Little bit, yeah,” replied Lars, starting to buckle under the weight of so much shopping.

“Charlie’s upstairs if you need her. Oscar’s out.”

“It’s Charlie we’re here to see,” Franz smiled, dragging Lars up the stairs to Charlie’s room.

Charlie slept in the box room on a high bed to give space for a little desk. The room was painted bright orange to give a warm feeling, and there was a fluffy rug on the floor, and animal posters on the walls. A cricket set, cuddly toys, an enormous set of colouring pencils, a denim jacket and flip flops made up the clutter on the floor, whilst Charlie’s shelves were filled with painting guides, fossils, a lava lamp, some photo frames and various souvenirs from trips to the seaside.

Charlie was sprawled out on the bed, and grinned as they peeked over the railings at their friends.

“Hey you came!”

“Of course!” Lars sat down on a swivel chair whilst Franz lay down on the rug. Charlie climbed down the ladder to join them.

“So what’s this all about?” asked Franz, “it must be pretty urgent to disturb our date.”

Charlie grimaced. “Sorry, but I did say come round afterwards, not during. You weren't under any pressure. And you two are my best friends, so I thought it best to tell you first.”

“Peter’s your best friend too,” Lars commented.

“Well he’s busy,” Charlie shrugged, “left his homework to Sunday. Again.”

“Oh shit we have homework,” Lars banged his head against the desk.

“...Unbelieveable.” Charlie sighed, “I won’t keep you long then.”

“What’s all this about anyway?” asked Franz.

“I’m just about to tell you,” Charlie snapped.

“Go ahead then.”

“Look,” Charlie sat down on the floor and fidgeted nervously, “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and… I don’t feel like a girl.”

“Are you asking us to give you a makeover? Would that make you feel like one?” asked Franz.

“No! Look, I don’t feel like a girl on the inside, and I don’t like people calling me Charlotte and referring to me as a girl and stuff. It just doesn’t feel right…”

“So what do you feel like?” Lars rested his head against the back of the chair.

“A boy. I’ve been looking this stuff up and, well, I’m a boy.”

“Ah, so you’re transgender?” Franz smiled.

“Yes!” Charlie beamed.

Lars rubbed his chin. “So should we just call you Charlie from now on? And refer to you as he?”

“Yes, exclusively,” Charlie sighed, “though, not at school and around the others. Not yet anyway.”

“So you haven’t told anyone yet?” Franz rubbed Charlie’s arm.

“No. I’m scared. Not everyone will understand, and I’m scared of what they’d say. Not Peter or Kuzey so much… but Logie and Oscar? What if they tell me I’m being silly or it’s a phase? What if they got angry?” He looked down, lip quivering. "What if they kicked me out?"

“They won’t. They’re pretty good about stuff like this,” Franz tried to reassure him.

“But this? It’s not exactly a well known subject.”

“Regardless, your brothers love you and I’m sure they’d be willing to learn and let you explain things from your perspective.”

“And if not,” added Lars, “you can stay with us and I’ll send my mummies round to knock some sense into them.”

“That’s sweet of you Lars,” Charlie smiled, “but I won’t be telling them just yet. It won’t be for some time.”

“Sounds best. So are you gonna cut your hair short and start dressing like a boy?” Lars asked.

“Eventually, that’s the plan.”

“I can give you some old shirts and stuff that Peter and me grew out of, if you like.”

“I’d love that, thanks.” Charlie smiled briefly before it fell and a frown marred his face once more. “Thanks for listening- you two- and understanding.” He rested his head on his knees; “I've just felt so scared and alone ever since I realised. And all these changes going through my body… and the stuff that’s to come… it feels wrong! It’s like my body’s changing into something alien and I can’t stop it. I wish I looked like Peter or Kuzey, but I’m stuck like this and it’s frustrating.”

Lars and Franz listened to their friend in silence; neither truly knew what to say to comfort him. When Charlie finished speaking, the other two just shuffled closer and pulled him into a long hug. The three sat there in silence, Lars and Franz wrapping their arms around Charlie protectively, as if trying to keep him safe from the rest of the world. They'd try to protect him too, from anyone who tried to make him feel wrong or odd or lying. Well, they'd try to, but there was only so much they could do to help Charlie, and that scared them.

Eventually, they pulled away and sat staring at each other awkwardly.

“Well,” Charlie coughed, “now that’s all said and done: do your fucking homework Lars.”

Chapter Text

October soon rolled into November, bringing blustering winds and pouring rain. The days grew colder, the nights grew longer, and- with Halloween out of the way- people began to turn their attentions to winter celebrations, and the upcoming school holidays.

Charlie was once more sat at his computer, alone after school and wrapped up in pyjamas and a dressing gown. Logan was still at work, and Oscar was at the park, so he had a good while to try again in his search for their father. Charlie’s hands trembled and adrenaline rushed through his veins as he typed his father’s name in the search bar.

He knew he was betraying his brothers, and knew it would break Logan into pieces if he ever found out, but he also knew he needed to find out for himself what his dad was like. There must’ve been a reason for abandoning them, surely? What if he regretted it? What if he wanted to apologise? Charlie hoped that were true, and even dared to hope that he and Logan could reconcile. He knew that would give his older brother some peace at last.

That would surely be worth hurting them like this, right?

Charlie didn’t even buy his own lies, let alone expect anyone else to.

He pressed enter and waited for the page to load, drumming his fingers against the desk. He glanced behind him- just to make sure his brothers weren’t standing there without him knowing- and when he turned back to the computer he found himself staring at a long list of names. So there were a lot of ‘Jacob Cooper’s on facebook… Great. Just great.

He had a vague idea of what his dad looked like, so it was rather easy to eliminate some of the names there just by their profile pictures. And more were eliminated when he clicked on their profiles to find they didn’t live in Australia. Charlie knew this whole thing pretty much hedged on the hope that his father actually had a facebook account, and wasn’t too sure what to do if he didn’t. He could always try twitter, and if he became desperate, a simple google search, but after that? There’d be nothing left to do but give up, really.

He clicked on another profile, and his jaw dropped.

He’d found him.

Jacob Cooper stared back at him, the spitting image of Logan, though he was shorter, older, and with flatter hair. He was stood outside, leaning on a railing by the seaside, smiling, wrinkled face grinning at the camera.

But what shocked Charlie the most, was the fact that he had an arm wrapped around a middle-aged woman and was holding a small child. A lump formed in his throat and he struggled to breathe. The child stared back at him, all dimples and pigtails.

Their father remarried? He had a family? A new family, that is.

Charlie’s hands shook so much he could barely click on the photo album to look for more pictures, but somehow managed. It was like a car crash; he couldn’t look away or close the browser. More pictures of his new family appeared, and Charlie began to tear up as he scrolled through them. He felt replaced. He, Oscar and Logan had truly been cast aside, and Charlie hoped his father would at least be there for this new child.

They had a half-sister? Charlie’s eyes widened at the realisation. He was no longer the youngest. He tried to hate the child that had replaced them in their father’s heart, but as he stared at the smiling, chubby girl, blowing out birthday cake candles and wearing princess dresses, he just couldn’t. It wasn’t the kid’s fault, after all. And as the girl’s older brother, he hoped she was happy, and wouldn’t have the childhood he had. Not that he’d trade his older brothers for anything in the world.

But did his father ever think of them, the three children he'd abandoned? Had they been well and truly forgotten? Charlie was devastated, and let out a wail as he rested his head in his hands. His whole body trembled and his heart raced. He remembered everything his brothers had told him about their dad, about how he was distant and unloving after their mother died, always disappointed by them no matter how well-behaved they were. And leaving them in the middle of the night…

Charlie decided it was probably best not to contact him. He didn’t really want to anymore.

He wouldn’t mention what he’d found out to Logan and Oscar either, guessing the news would upset them like it had upset him. They didn’t need to know. And if Oscar asked, he’d just say he found nothing and had given up.

And that would be the end of it.

Charlie swallowed hard as he lifted his head up, wiping away tears as his face hardened. He didn’t need his dad. None of them did. He’d log out, close the browser, and never try to contact him again.

And that would be the end of it...

 

 

It was safe to say that Oscar was having a considerably better time of it.

He sat on the swings, lazily kicking back and forward, but not really moving as he talked and joked with Michael, who held on to the lead of his pet dog with one hand, the little fluffy thing Oscar had first encountered sleeping on the end of her owner’s bed. She was called Daisy, apparently, and Michael always brought her when they went to the park. The sun was starting to set now, despite it being late afternoon, and Oscar made sure to keep track of time. Spending time with Michael had gotten him in trouble with Logan twice now, and he didn’t want to give his brother another reason to dislike the boy, though it seemed his apathy had subsided somewhat after actually meeting him.

Oscar was surprised he still wanted to spend time with Michael, considering. Maybe a year ago he’d have avoided him, and even been openly hostile, but now he truly valued the other’s company. He really wasn’t a bad person, once someone made the effort to be his friend. Besides, it wasn’t Michael’s fault that Oscar hated disappointing his brother, or being seen as anything less than perfect.

Michael was glaring at the ground, desperately trying not to smile despite how the corners of his lips twitched upwards. He exhaled sharply as Oscar burst into another round of laughing.

“Well, at least you gave the rest of us a good giggle,” he tried, and Michael rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, it was hilarious getting shouted at.”

“Well you’ve done enough shouting in your life,” Oscar replied, “and if you didn’t want your phone going off in class, you should’ve turned it off or put it on silent. Especially if you know you have a maths test.”

Michael mimicked his words in a childish voice, throwing an obscene gesture in his direction.

“Nice choice of ringtone though,” Oscar commented, “it was perfect, really. Comedy gold.”

Michael threw a grin in his direction. “Cause the only thing worse than your phone going off in the middle of a test is having your phone go off in the middle of a test and not being able to do anything as ‘another brick in the wall’ by Pink Floyd blasts out.”

“It was something spectacular, really, just… silence then ‘we don’t need no education!’ coming from nowhere.” Oscar laughed at the memory whilst Michael cringed.

“Damn that teacher could shout though. She fucking confiscated my phone too!”

“Were you expecting anything different really?” Oscar raised an eyebrow, “just be lucky you didn’t get a detention. And you got your phone back.”

“True,” Michael took off his sunglasses and wiped them on his trousers. He tucked them in his shirt pocket, deciding it was too dark to wear them. He passed Daisy’s lead over to Oscar, who patted the dog on the head whilst Michael began spinning slowly in his seat, the chains of the swing twisting together with a series of creaks. Oscar watched him in silence.

“So did you hear? Lars and Franz are going out.”

“Oh?” Michael shrugged, “which ones are they again?”

“The two arty ones.”

“I thought they were already going out.” Michael lifted his knees up, and began to spin in the opposite direction, faster this time.

“Apparently not,” Oscar shrugged, observing the other closely as he spoke, “they go well together though.”

“Yeah. All weird and shouty. But how do you know the brats are going out?”

“Charlotte told me. Said they didn’t mind their friends knowing.”

“So the little shits consider me a friend now?” Michael pulled a face as he came to a halt.

“It seems so,” Oscar smiled, “admit it, you’re glad of the company.”

“I would be if they weren’t so fucking weird!”

“You’re a bit odd yourself.”

“The fuck did you just say?” Michael narrowed his eyes, but Oscar could tell he wasn’t serious, and just continued to rub Daisy’s back.

“Well you are,” he pouted, “we all are, in our own ways.”

“You’re definitely a fucking oddball.”

Oscar laughed. “Oh I know.”

The two fell into a calm silence, barely able to see past the gate surrounding the playground. Beyond that were muddy fields and bare trees, whistling softly in the wind. Oscar snuggled deeper into his coat.

Michael glanced over and found they other staring. He quickly looked away, but when he chanced another glance, Oscar was still looking.

“What?” he growled, and the other blushed, staring at his shoes.

“Nothing,” Oscar mumbled.

Michael snorted, looking out into the gloom.

“We have a funny old relationship, don’t we?” Oscar began tentatively.

“Relationship?” Michael frowned, “in what way?”

“Well,” Oscar paused, “we constantly claim to not be fond of each other, but we hang out all the time and enjoy each other's company. And then there was that…” Oscar looked away, too embarrassed to finish his sentence. What was he supposed to say? That he’d enjoyed their kiss and wanted to do it again? Well, that’s what he wanted to say, but…

“So?”

“Oh nothing,” he shrugged.

Michael glared at him for a long moment before replying. “Well, I don’t think either of us can honestly fucking say we don’t like each other and stuff. We’re buddies now, right?”

“Yeah, buddies,” Oscar grinned at him and the two fell into an awkward silence, unable and unwilling to look away. Oscar felt drawn to Michael, and found himself leaning closer. He swore Michael began to do the same thing, but a shout made them break apart with a jump. Oscar scowled, flushing furiously; he’d been so close…

“Alright dickheads?” it was one of their classmates, a kid Oscar had only seen in P.E. lessons, picking on him with the other boys. Oscar generally considered him a spineless, wet, crowd-follower of a boy, and hardly paid attention to him. Another boy followed behind him; neither seemed to have noticed how close the duo were before, and Oscar hoped his blush and tremble didn’t show in the evening gloom. Michael looked just as embarrassed and terrified about nearly getting caught. These were the same shits who’d kicked footballs at Oscar, after all.

Neither of the new arrivals brought that particular incident up though, and Michael and Oscar certainly weren’t going to.

“Alright?” Oscar replied back.

“Wasn’t talking to you,” the classmate replied, and Oscar glared at him.

“What are you doing here?” asked Michael, earning a shrug in reply.

“We’re allowed to go to the park if we want to,” he said, and his friend nodded.

“Just thought we’d stop and say hi to a mate.”

“I’m not your mate,” Michael said evenly, “and you’ve said hi, so fuck off.”

Oscar wondered just what Michael was hoping to achieve by being confrontational. He hoped Daisy had a nasty bite on her, because they just might need it, not that the odd, trusting mutt had shown any signs of aggression so far.

“Oy, no need to get rude, yeah,” their classmate folded his arms, scowling at Michael. “What’s your problem? Did we disturb something?”

Oscar flinched, unable to reply, and Michael’s scowl deepened, though he managed to answer without giving his unease away.

“Yeah, our conversation, dickhead.”

“Oh? A private conversation, is it?” Oscar wondered when these two pricks had gotten so confident. Shame really. He’d been brought up to believe bullies got less cocky on their own, without their little ringleaders.

“Something like that, yeah.” Michael held his gaze, squaring his jaw.

“Pair of benders,” their classmate mumbled; “to be honest, Mick, I don’t know why you waste your time with freaks like him.”

“Because Oscar’s alright, actually,” Michael shrugged.

“Oh come on! It’s bad enough you stick with Sal and those lower years, but this bellend too?” their classmate wrinkled his nose, “come on. You’re better than that!”

“I think I’ll stick with Sal and the brats, and Oscar too. Thanks.”

Oscar glanced at Michael as Daisy let out a growl. He was sat on the swing looking nonchalant, though he could tell the other boy was furious. Their classmates just leaned against the poles of the swing set.

“You can do that but you’ll be making a big mistake,” the classmate shrugged before turning his attention to Oscar, “cause we’re out to get you. We don’t want your kind here.”

Oscar raised an eyebrow. “Australians? That’s a little harsh.”

“No, poofs.”

“Which I’m not;” Oscar tried to sound convincing as he said that. If he actually confirmed it then that would be it. They’d tear him apart! And he seriously didn’t want to change schools now that he had a reason or two for staying at this one.

“Oh don’t talk shit,” the second classmate spoke up, “we all know it’s true. Why would you be hanging off Micky’s arm all the time?”

“I don’t hang off his arm,” Oscar sniffed, “it’s this thing called friendship, but you wouldn’t know since it’s usually reserved for people who aren’t total wankers.”

“Well you’re a wanker. Making Mike go all weird. He used to be fun. If you hadn’t started acting all gay around him, he might have joined in that time we kicked the shit out of ya.”

“I wouldn’t have, actually,” Michael cut in, “because I’ve never liked any of you and never wanted to be in your group. And never have been, actually.” He grinned, “in fact, it was you guys who were all over me, begging me to join you all. Bit pathetic, if you ask me.”

“So this is where you stand, huh?” their classmate folded his arms, “down with this filth? I’ll let everyone know.”

“What?” Michael scoffed, “that me and Oscar are friends? Wow big surprise.” He stood up and grabbed Daisy’s leash, starting to walk away. “We’ll be on our way then, since you just talk a bunch of balls.”

“Yeah fuck off!”

Oscar followed Michael closely, nervously glancing over his shoulder to make sure the other two weren’t following them as they left the playground. He considered holding onto Michael’s jacket, but decided against it; it would only lead to more ridicule.

They walked in silence until the playground was long out of sight and they were at the edge of the park. Daisy sniffed at their legs and darted about along the tarmac footpaths, barking her weird bark.

“Thanks,” Oscar eventually mumbled, “again.”

“Fucking hell it was nothing,” Michael snapped, “I didn’t do anything anyway.”

“You were a friend and I appreciate that.” Oscar smiled, taking Michael’s hand and leading him into a secluded, wooded area just off the pathway. This was risky and he knew it- their classmates might have followed them- but he needed somewhere to talk to Michael in private.

“What?” he snapped in a gruff voice, glancing around nervously, “did you see something?”

“No, I just wanted to give you this somewhere no one could see us.” Then he pulled Michael into a crushing hug.

“Hey what the fuck’s this for?” Michael barked out a laugh whilst Daisy sniffed at every little plant and rock on the leafy ground.

“Just a thanks,” Oscar could feel Michael’s chest move as he laughed, and even though his face was buried in the other’s neck, he knew Michael was smiling. He felt his friend’s warm breath on his own neck, a sharp contrast from the chilly winter air, and as he hugged Michael tighter, the other teen stumbled and leant against a tree trunk for support.

“Sorry,” Oscar mumbled, pulling away slightly but not quite bringing himself to untangle his arms. They could stay around Michael’s waist for the time being.

“It’s… fine,” Michael trailed off as Oscar’s half-lidded gaze silenced him. His blush was invisible in the gloom, and Oscar swore his eyes had darkened. Michael stood there for what felt like hours, frozen with his mouth forming the tiniest of ‘o’ shapes and trapped by the other’s eyes, which he realised were almost golden.

Then he leaned forward and kissed Oscar.

It was the kiss Oscar had longed for. Slow and tender, starting out cautious as they both got over their initial awkwardness, then Michael brought his arms up, resting one hand on the small of Oscar’s back and running the other through his brunet curls. Oscar melted into his touch, closing his eyes as his other senses took over. He could smell Michael’s aftershave, and feel the other’s warmth radiate off of him, as well as his nervous tremble. God he was just too precious…

Then they jumped apart as Daisy began weeing on Oscar’s leg.

Chapter Text

One could easily guess the subject of a large chunk of Oscar’s waking thoughts during the next week. He replayed his kiss with Michael near constantly with a blush and a smile, making sure to remember every little detail- every little touch, sight, sound- and had been told off several times by teachers for daydreaming, but he was too unbelievably happy to care.

Even now, the next Saturday in the early hours of the morning, he was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling with pursed lips, then blushed as he realised he’d been lost in thought for a good five minutes now. He was bloody hopeless…

There was still time before Charlie would wake up and bounce around the hall demanding their birthday presents, so Oscar decided to ponder his awkward situation, as he’d done whenever he had a spare minute in the past few days.

He’d been avoiding Michael all week. He just couldn’t face the other, in case Michael hadn’t meant it, and the kiss had been a spontaneous decision and they should just forget it ever happened. He’d barely seen the boy since he’d left him in the bushes and ran out of the park, partially to avoid an awkward conversation and partially to get his trousers in the wash as quickly as possible. That flaming dog! What was the appeal of large, stupid pets anyway?

Michael had tried to talk to him a few times during the week, but Oscar always brushed him off and ran away. He didn’t want to find out what the other had to say… much. It might be positive, but year after year of having his heart trampled by people he thought he could trust had left him a bit of a wreck when it came to his feelings, and he just couldn’t face yet another crush ending in disaster.

But Michael had one key difference from those other boys he’d liked in the past, in that he genuinely seemed concerned for Oscar. At first glance, Oscar had assumed he was the same as his previous crushes in personality: rough and brash, wanting others to think he was badass, but it was clear now there was more to Michael than that. And he treated Oscar differently too, like an actual human being instead of a joke or target.

Oscar cringed at how his younger self handled crushes, convincing himself that they were picking on him just to be teasing, that they secretly liked him but were too scared to say and this was the only way to get him to notice them. He’d had visions of him confessing to find out the other boy liked him too and everything would be alright. Of course, it never worked out that way. His confessions were usually met with name calling, being outed and, more than once, being punched until he felt nothing but fear and anger at the boy he'd so previously cared for.

That was why he couldn’t face Michael. He was struggling to know if the boy was truly different or if he was just deluding himself again. He didn’t want to lose Michael’s friendship over something like this, and he didn’t want Michael to turn on him like those others had.

But Michael had been the one to kiss him, and twice now. There was no alcohol to blame last Saturday on, and Michael must’ve known what he was doing! He’d even mentioned he wasn’t straight, so was there a genuine chance he actually liked Oscar in that way. At the very least, he was comfortable around Oscar, which was almost unheard of when it came to his classmates and his sexuality.

Oscar wanted to know what exactly Michael thought of him, and what he made of their kiss, given that he started it. And he wanted to know why Michael had kissed him, and if he’d object to being asked out. Oscar tried to picture him and Michael going on dates, but the idea seemed too absurd, too much of a dream come true to be worth considering. Besides, he didn’t want to get carried away now. He’d be planning their wedding if he didn’t stop himself.

Sal had noticed there was something wrong too, but it seemed Michael had been just as tight-lipped about the subject as he had and their friend was in the dark on the whole thing. But the awkwardness between them, Oscar’s refusal to speak directly to Michael, and the way they avoided certain subjects was a bit of a giveaway that something had happened, and it was irritating Sal to no end. Salvatorio wasn’t that much of a gossip any more, but he liked knowing things about people, not to pass on but simply to satisfy his own curiosity. That being said, his ability to keep secrets was still rather lacking.

Plus, he could see his friends were upset about something and he wanted to help them so badly. It was killing him that Oscar and Michael were like this, and the unhappy atmosphere was distressing him. Oscar wanted to explain everything, but knew it would be unfair on Michael to say anything without talking to him first. And what if Sal told someone? Even if he just told his brothers, they could tell other people and word would get out about what he and Michael had done, and things would become extremely unpleasant for them. Besides, he didn’t know Sal’s views on the subject, and didn’t want to risk losing another friend.

He really needed to discuss this with Michael, but was just too terrified to. It was clear Michael wanted to talk about it too, and Oscar pondered inviting him round tomorrow to discuss things in private. That would be the smartest thing to do, really. But when he rolled over and picked up his mobile, he found himself staring at the home screen, unable to unlock it and not knowing what to say. Should he start off with a simple ‘hi’? Should he ask Michael how he was? Was it too early in the morning to even text him?

He never got a chance to find the answers, as at that moment, Charlie burst in excitedly.

“It’s my birthday!” he cried.

“I know,” Oscar chuckled, placing his phone back on his bedside table. Michael would have to wait.

“I’m thirteen!” Charlie ran over to his brother and tried to drag him out of bed, grabbing his hand and pulling.

“Alright,” Oscar groaned, sitting up, “calm down kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” Charlie puffed out his chest, “I’m thirteen now! That means I’m a teenager!”

“Oh yes?” Oscar raised an eyebrow, smirking in amusement, “you’re still a little kid to me, and always will be, even when we’re old and wrinkly.”

“Well that’s just not fair.”

“Life’s not fair, young one,” Oscar sighed, standing up and ambling over to his mirror to fix his hair, like he did every morning the moment he was out of bed.

“Could you please try being more cheerful on my damn birthday?” Charlie rolled his eyes, “and you’re not spending all morning in the bathroom today!”

“I never spend all morning in the bathroom,” Oscar sniffed, “just ten minutes to make sure I look perfect.”

Charlie glared at him. “Well you’re not doing that today!” he chided.

“Well you’re not getting any presents from me.”

“Oscar, last year you got me a signed photograph of yourself and two pounds; I really don’t have high expectations of your presents this year.”

“You got yourself some pencils with the money, didn’t you?” Oscar mumbled, attacking his hair with a brush.

“Still, I don’t want to spend ages waiting for you again,” Charlie grabbed Oscar’s hand and pulled him in the direction of the door, “now let’s wake up Logie so I can open my presents!”

 

 

Charlie internally groaned as he unwrapped yet another skirt. His third. They were to go with the set of cute tops, Logan told him. Still, Charlie could live with that, since the rest of his presents were decent enough: plenty of stationary and books, and some new canvases. Now all he had to do was avoid trying on the clothes if he could, and he’d be set for the day.

But no, Logan would insist on it, and he’d probably be made to wear them all day. It was bad enough his brother had organised a family party. How childish! Charlie didn’t mind spending time with his brothers on his birthday; he just thought a party was a bit excessive.

“What do you think?” Logan smiled at him hopefully, and Charlie forced his mouth into a smile.

“It’s lovely,” he replied with a strained expression.

“Great!” Logan beamed, “I knew you’d love them!”

Charlie gave a shaky grin before turning his attention to the presents from his friends, which Oscar had produced with a flourish when- and only when- he’d finished brushing his hair. It turned out he’d asked everyone to give him Charlie’s presents to keep safe until his birthday, which was nice of him, Charlie supposed. Still didn’t excuse buying him shampoo and a hairbrush though. Who even gave that to someone on their birthday? It was almost as rude as buying someone spot cream!

“Come on, let’s see what everyone got you,” Logan didn’t look too keen on the amount of gifts Charlie’s friends had bought, Oscar noticed, and he guessed his brother would observe each present closely to decide which ones could mean the giver was subtly trying to profess their love or something. Protective idiot.

But then again, Oscar reasoned, he and Charlie were all the Logan had left. Didn’t excuse him though.

It seemed the boys weren’t very creative in gift giving; they knew Charlie was into art, so bought him a set of paints. Each. Charlie laughed as he stared down at seven sets of paints, ranging from a tiny portable box of watercolours to acrylics to an enormous set of oil paints from Franz. Oscar noted how Sal had signed his card off with a row of kisses, but assumed he did that for everyone. Logan noticed too, though he did nothing aside from glare at the card and hope it burst into flames.

And thus Charlie forgot all about his clothes, placing his new sketch pad on the table and starting to scribble away, perfectly happy whilst his brothers started preparing party food, and he only looked up to say hello to Hunapo, who popped in to deliver their present, which thankfully was a toy kiwi Charlie remembered seeing in the zoo gift shop. Huna threw a smug grin in Logan's direction as Charlie cuddled his new toy, and Logan in return threw them a scowl sour enough to wither flowers.

“I’m sure the kid loves your presents too,” Hunapo reasoned as they and Logan stood in the kitchen. Logan just grunted, placing the birthday cake in the oven whilst Oscar prepared the icing next to him.

“Course she does!” he exclaimed.

Hunapo smiled. “Well, I shan’t get in the way then. Hope you all have a lovely day.” They turned to leave, but before he could stop himself, Logan reached out a hand and gently pulled at their jumper.

“Hey,” he began, painfully aware that Oscar was watching his every move, and probably with a smirk too, “you’re welcome to stay a while, you know, if you don’t have anything else to do.”

Hunapo looked truly flattered for a moment, before they sniffed, “I might just have a better offer,” they joked.

“Like what? Playing cricket professionally?” Logan grinned, leaning against the worktop.

“Maybe,” Hunapo shook their head, “ah, fine. I guess I can stay for an hour or two, if the kids don’t mind.”

“Of course they won’t!” Logan exclaimed, “they adore you!”

“It’s true,” Oscar added, “we do!”

“Well if you don’t mind then,” Hunapo looked down, “I didn’t really have any plans for today, apart from relaxing.”

“You can relax here,” Logan tried to ignore Oscar’s muffled giggles.

“I’ll try to,” Hunapo gave a wiry smile, “it’s a little hard to concentrate around you though.”

Logan blinked. “Huh?”

Hunapo paused. “I mean you’re so loud!”

“He is,” Oscar agreed.

“Still, I’ll just ask Charlie what she thinks of me coming to her birthday party;” Hunapo disappeared into the sitting room and Logan turned on his laughing brother.

“Shut up!” he growled, “don’t you say a fucking word, or it’ll be you being baked into the cake!”

“You have to admit that was actually tragic,” Oscar scoffed, “you really need help if you want to win their heart.”

“I don’t want to win anything,” Logan grumbled, “and I don’t need advice from my kid brother.”

“I’m fifteen,” Oscar grumbled, “and at least I’ve kissed my crush.”

“Because you both got drunk,” Logan glared at him, and Oscar shrank back, “and I don’t have a crush on Hunapo!”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

 

 

“But wow fifteen, huh? That’s decent,” Nobuyuki was saying, looking out the car window at Sadik, who was busy filling the car with petrol at a little service station just off the motorway. They still had an hour to go before they reached Thorpe Park and the three teens were pretty excited, even if Kuzey was a little disappointed by the company. He’d much rather have Charlie accompany him on roller-coasters than these two, though he had no qualms against Nobuyuki. Yet.

“Yeah, I guess,” Kuzey replied from the passenger seat.

“Do you feel any different?”

“Not really,” Kuzey shrugged, “to be honest, I’m just trying not to choke on all the Lynx Peter’s wearing. It's merking my nose!”

“Mine too,” Nobu sighed.

“Oy piss off!” Peter cried, sat next to Nobu.

“So did you get alright presents?” asked Nobu, trying to avoid a fight. He’d soon realised he would have to be the voice of reason for the day, and try to keep the peace between the other two or things would get ugly.

“Yeah, mostly money. Perks of having a big family.”

“Thanks for inviting me, by the way. Didn’t think I’d be first choice, really.”

Kuzey shrugged, “nah, you’re alright! I quite like you actually, and needed someone normal to balance out having to spend the day with this bellend.” He watched as his Baba grinned at them before disappearing into the petrol station.

“Firstly, rude, and secondly, you didn’t have to ask me to come!” Peter folded his arms before sighing, “glad you did though.”

“I’m not sure normal is the best word to describe me though,” Nobu added, “I mean, Peter is my best friend after all.”

“Yeah and we have sick friendship bracelets to prove it!” Peter and Nobu held up their arms and Kuzey caught sight of a pair of tacky string plaits hanging from their wrists.

“Of course,” he groaned.

“But seriously,” Peter grinned, “Nobu’s pretty odd once you get to know him. Proper weirdo like.”

“It’s true,” Nobuyuki beamed.

“Great. Just fucking fantastic.” Kuzey banged his head against the car window, hoping this was all an irritating bad dream. Why was he stuck with a pair of annoying kids on his birthday? And why couldn’t any of his friends be normal? It wasn’t fair! He was supposed to do what he wanted on his birthday!

Charlie was normal, he supposed, or as normal as the people in their group could get. If a little grumpy and shouty. And cute! Very cute indeed.

Kuzey groaned and hit his head against the window again.

“Hey don’t do that!” Peter warned, “you'll get merked!”

Kuzey hit his head again for good measure.

“So are we gonna do all the rides?” asked Nobu quickly.

“Well that’s kinda why we’re going,” Kuzey growled.

“I’m gonna go on all the proper bad boy ones! A legend like me doesn't waste time with the little shitty rides!” Peter cried.

“Bet you’ll shit yourself,” said Kuzey, grinning at him.

“Nuh-uh!”

“Well I won’t get scared; I’m too sensible for that.”

“I think I’ll just go on the regular ones,” Nobu added, “not the really extreme ones. I also wanna win a few prizes.”

“Pah! Those things are just a setup; no one ever wins!” Peter exclaimed.

“Well I’ll win something, even if I am a bit on the scrawny side.” Nobu stared down at his arms and sighed.

“Not that that has anything to do with aim,” Kuzey told him. “Of course, I’ll be deciding what we visit first, since it’s my birthday.” Peter and Nobu rolled their eyes, but said nothing.

Kuzey spied has Baba walking across the car park with a bag of drinks and snacks, and perked up. At least now they could get moving again.

“Shame we missed ‘fright night’ season,” Peter commented.

“You’d have just screamed like a baby at all the scary events,” Nobu shot back, “I know. I’ve watched horror films with you.”

“What a big surprise,” Kuzey muttered just as Sadik opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat, passing the bag to Kuzey.

“Share that out between you,” he said as he started the engine, and Kuzey did so, handing chocolate and crisps to Peter and Nobuyuki.

“So,” Sadik said once they were on the road again, “are you all excited?”

He got three ‘yeah’s in reply.

Chapter Text

Nobu opted out of the first ride.

He’d ignored the chicken noises Peter made with some level of dignity, throwing Kuzey a smug, knowing smile as Peter dragged him towards the ride he’d called ‘Stealth’.

Kuzey could see the tracks towering over him quite clearly, and he nearly wet himself.

“It’s a bit high,” he commented weakly. There was only only one hill: a horribly steep one that was almost vertical. As he stared, a ride car crammed with screaming people shot out of the starting bay, and was up and over the hill in seconds. The noise alone made his knees feel like jelly.

“Yeah, isn’t it awesome?”

Kuzey glanced back at his Baba, who just grinned and waved. He wanted to call to him, let him know that he was terrified, but no words came out. Besides, he refused to let Peter know he was scared. He’d never hear the end of it!

Peter dragged him towards the ride and they queued up, Kuzey suddenly feeling cramped in the tight line and smothered by Peter’s pungent body spray. The queue moved painfully slow, but not slow enough for his liking, and every so often the screams of those on the roller coaster would rip past him. Maybe if he feigned a stomach ache, he could back out with his dignity in tact. Then he looked back at the crowd of people queueing behind them and decided against it; they would laugh at him anyway. They'd see through his lie even if Peter was too dense to.

Peter sensed his unease, and took Kuzey’s hand, squeezing it lightly.

“Don’t worry,” he soothed, “I’ll be right there beside you.”

Kuzey snatched his hand away; “that’s not comforting in the slightest. And don’t touch me.”

Peter shrugged and didn’t try to take his hand again. The two remained silent as the queue slowly pushed forward, and all too soon for Kuzey’s liking they were at the front. They deposited their coats and bags in the cloakroom and climbed into their seats. Kuzey was dismayed to find himself at the front of not only the queue but now the bleeding roller coaster too! Peter had insisted they’d queued that extra bit longer to go in the first row, and Kuzey had agreed at the time purely to put off actually riding the thing, but now he was strapped tightly into his seat, staring at the long, high stretch of track before him, he realised just how terribly thought out his plan was. He couldn’t take his eyes of that huge hill, and the longer he stared at it, the more convinced he was that…

“Hang on,” he glanced over at Peter, “does that thing turn on it’s side?”

“Oh yes,” Peter grinned, “right at the top there.”

Kuzey leaned forward to exclaim that Peter was absolutely barmy, and that was the moment the roller coaster shot forward and his entire head smashed into the back of the seat. The duo were hurtled upwards, thrown on their side and plummeted down near-vertically, and all the while Kuzey didn’t stop screaming. He could vaguely hear Peter cheering next to him, but it didn’t register. All he knew was the feeling of certainty that he was going to die and his shrill voice ringing in his ears. The ground hurtled towards him, and he was certain he'd go crashing though the floor, but the ride levelled at the last minute.

Then it was all over.

The roller coaster circled round and came to a halt, but Kuzey didn’t think he could stand up again. His neck throbbed and his legs were like a pair of noodles; he’d probably climb out of the seat and fall flat on his face. And Peter laughing at him was the last thing he needed.

But Peter was laughing at him anyway.

“Your face! It's like your dad found your internet history!”

Kuzey turned his sore head towards his friend as the comments slowly filtered in. Peter had his hand outstretched, and Kuzey had no choice but to accept as he pulled his safety belt off and stood up, leaning heavily on Peter.

“Woah, you alright there?”

“Uh,” Kuzey rubbed his neck with his free hand, “I… think so.”

Peter led him to the cloakroom to collect their possessions, looking at Kuzey with concern.

“Do you want me to phone an ambulance?”

“No!” Kuzey snapped, standing up straight and putting on his jacket. “I’ve just never been on a ride before.”

“Seriously?” Peter asked as they descended the steps and scanned the crowd outside for Nobuyuki.

“Yes. I said so!”

Peter winced. “Sorry, I forgot. I’d have picked an easier ride for your first time if I'd known.”

“Ah fuck,” Kuzey rubbed his neck again, “that really hurt.”

“I probably should’ve warned you about that. You have to brace yourself.”

“Well I’m not going on that thing again,” replied Kuzey, “so it doesn’t matter.” He saw Sadik waving at them, whilst next to him, Nobu grinned in a slightly sinister manner as he ate a hot churro bought from a nearby stand. The smug little shit, Kuzey thought. Why did he invite Nobu again?

“Did you get one for me?” Peter asked, staring at the churro whilst Nobu shook his head.

“How was the ride?” Sadik asked, and Kuzey swayed slightly.

“Ugh,” he mumbled, “I don’t think I’ll be going on another.”

“Oh, not your thing, huh?”

“But you’ve not even gone on Saw yet!” exclaimed Peter, “that one folds in as it goes down! Or what about Nemesis? Or Colossus? Or Swarm?”

Kuzey glared at him, “I’ll go on them if Nobu will.”

“Fine,” Nobu shrugged, “how about a challenge? The person to opt out of the most rides has to buy the other two a sandwich.” He grinned at Kuzey, “I’d like an egg salad one, thanks.”

“Oh you’re on,” Peter grinned whilst Kuzey smiled, starting to walk away.

“We’ll see, you pair of batties” he called back.

 

 

“Oh come on,” Logan whined, “at least try a piece. I worked ages on that cake and it turned out alright!”

Oscar glared at his brother, pushing his plate away like a child. “I’m full,” he mumbled. He was well aware of Hunapo and Charlie’s curious eyes on him from across the table, and Logan's glare.

“How the hell can you be full?” Logan frowned, “you only had a few slices of pizza and some crisps!”

“I just have a lotta stuff going on right now,” Oscar shrugged, trying to ignore his trembling, “I don’t have much of an appetite.”

“If he doesn’t want to eat then leave him alone,” Hunapo piped up, taking a slice of cake for themselves, “he doesn’t have to eat everything now.”

“Yeah, I might get peckish later;” Oscar threw Hunapo a grateful smile and the birthday tea continued in relative peace. Charlie babbled on about all the things he was going to draw whilst Hunapo listened politely, but Oscar was still tense. He could feel Logan next to him, glancing over every now and again, whether in concern or aggravation, he couldn’t tell. He just focused on his plate in front of him, picking at the sliver of birthday cake lying in the middle.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he pulled it out, making sure to shield the screen from Logan as he glanced at the name.

Michael.

It was an incoming call.

He glanced around the table, and Logan tilted his head slightly.

“Who is it?” he asked casually.

“Oh no one,” Oscar shrugged, “school friend.”

“Want to pop outside and answer it? No one will mind.”

Oscar shook his head, pressing the ignore button on his phone. “It’s not important.”

It was pretty important indeed, but now really wasn’t the time. He needed to prepare what he would say, and make sure he was emotionally ready for such a conversation. Not to mention he was still scared.

He wondered how long he could keep avoiding Michael for, and just how much worse he was making things.

 

 

It turned out that the trio were pretty determined to hang onto their dignity, and the few pounds it would cost them to pay for the sandwiches if they lost despite the fact that they’d nearly completely drained Sadik’s wallet as well as their own ones on sweets, donuts and shooting games. Nevertheless, the competition was strong between them, and no one had opted out of a roller coaster since Stealth, which was why Nobu insisted on one more ride before they went home, as he was still losing by one point.

“Oh come on! Just let me do this one,” he pleaded, inching his way over to Tidal Wave, a ride Kuzey was certain he would hate.

“Nuh, uh,” Kuzey growled, “if you get on that then we’re all going, so you won’t win!”

“Ah, just let him,” Peter reasoned with a shrug, “I need to talk to you about something anyway. And I doubt you’d like getting wet.”

Kuzey nodded as he watched the cart on Tidal Wave descend the hill with a splash that explained the ride’s name. The viewing bridge at the bottom of the hill was hit with a colossal wave, soaking everyone standing there.

“I’m like a cat in that sense,” he added. There was no way he’d allow himself to get covered in cold water in the middle of November.

“Great, and this means you can buy your own sandwiches, cause I don’t know what’s more overpriced, the cafes here or the motorway stations,” Sadik added.

“It’s always money with you, Baba,” Kuzey sighed.

“That’s because I don’t have much,” Sadik shot back, “now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going on the Tidal Wave.”

Nobu pulled a face as he followed Sadik whilst Kuzey rolled his eyes, waving to his friend as he walked towards the queue. Sadik hadn't gone on many rides, but when he did it was always with childish excitement.

“Shall we wait on the bridge then?” asked Peter, and Kuzey turned his glare on him.

“And get soaked?” He raised an eyebrow.

Peter shrugged. “We’ll get out of the way in time! I just want to watch out for them.”

Kuzey agreed and they walked slowly towards the bridge, a wooden viewing platform that was almost deserted now, what with the drizzle in the air and the fact that it was nearly closing time. Peter thought it was perfectly empty.

“So,” he began, slowly and cautiously, “how come you invited me?”

“Well to tell you the truth,” Kuzey leaned closer, “I asked Charlie first, but she does her own thing on birthdays, cause it’s the same day and all.”

Peter nodded with a knowing smile.

“So her brother must've clocked that I like her and went and mentioned to my Baba that we were friends and how much I loved hanging out with you.”

“Aw,” Peter commented, leaning on the railing.

“Yeah, bullshit like that,” Kuzey added, and Peter pouted. “And Baba was there and said I should ask you so,” he shrugged, “here we are.”

“Indeed,” Peter looked at him for a long moment before glancing at the ride and gently pulling at Kuzey’s jacket sleeve. “We might need to get out of the way.”

Kuzey nodded and they walked back a few metres as the cart came plummeting down and sending a spray of water everywhere, managing to rain on the duo even from where they were standing.

“So was spending the day with me as bad as you thought it would be?” Peter asked as they walked back to the railing.

“No,” Kuzey admitted with a grimace, “you’re alright really.”

“That’s very sweet of you,” Peter blushed and leaned against the bridge, staring at his shoes whilst Kuzey looked on in confusion.

“Well it was hardly poetry, what I just said,” he rolled his eyes.

“I wouldn’t mind some poetry thrown my way though.”

“I’m not gonna do that,” said Kuzey flatly.

“Not even a bit of Willy Shake?”

Kuzey didn’t speak for a long moment. “What the hell did you just say?”

“Willy Shake! You know? Shakespeare!”

“You just referred to William Shakespeare as ‘Willy Shake’?” Kuzey looked incredulous.

“Yeah?”

“You’re so freaking weird.”

“I know you are but what am I?” Peter replied with a laugh.

“No, childish, I meant childish.”

“In a fun way?” offered Peter.

“No.”

Peter looked at his shoes. “Do you- ya know- find me annoying?”

“Not as much as I used to,” Kuzey admitted.

“That’s something,” Peter smiled and leaned closer.

“Can I help you?” Kuzey asked.

“I don’t know,” Peter let the silence hang between them before taking a step forward; they were nose-to-nose now. “I guess you can.”

Then he kissed Kuzey.

It wasn’t much of a kiss; their lips barely grazed each other before Kuzey pulled away with a cry, glancing round to check if anyone saw but the place was deserted. When he turned back to Peter, he found the boy frozen, staring at him in horror with parted lips. Pure fear seemed to radiate from him. Terror was bubbling through Kuzey's own body, at what just happened, at what would happen next, and especially at the jolt of electricity that ran through him the moment Peter's lips touched his own.

Then, before Kuzey could respond, a huge wave washed over them.

 

 

Oscar’s phone buzzed several times as he watched his family eat before spending the rest of the afternoon sitting in front of the telly with Logan whilst Charlie drew at the coffee table, seemingly content to spend his birthday doing so. Hunapo left shortly after tea, much to Logan's disappointment, and he hadn’t said much in the past few hours, just laying on the sofa staring vacantly at the telly.

His phone buzzed again and Oscar knew he couldn’t ignore it any longer. He got up, not paying attention to the others as he wandered into the hall and pulled his phone out.

Eight texts, all from Michael.

Oscar gulped and began to read, sitting on the stairs and trying to calm his shaking legs as he did so.

 

12:09

U ok?

13:17

Look, I just wanna talk. Wanna come over? Plz reply

13:46

Im sorry if I offended u. U dont have to come over. Just say something please man

13:58

We need to talk about this

14:13

Ur not being fair. Its bad enough u’ve been avoiding me all week.

14:45

This is killing me here please say something Oscar.

15:06

Im sorry, okay? That what u wanna hear? Please man dont do this.

15:24

I get it, sorry.

 

Oscar’s eyes burned as the beginnings of tears formed, blurring the messages in front of him. He knew he should reply. He wanted to reply! But his hands wouldn’t move, no matter how much he willed them to. What could he even say?

Michael deserved a proper response, but Oscar didn’t think he could give one via text. He knew it was cowardly, but he decided to wait until Monday to talk to him, again.

And with that, Oscar turned off his phone, stuffed it back in his pocket and walked upstairs.

 

 

The duo stumbled off the bridge, crying out as their soaked clothes weighed them down and goose bumps erupted on their arms, teeth chattering.

“Fucking hell,” Kuzey exclaimed as he and Peter stood shivering in the square, “what did you go and do that for?”

“I don’t…” Peter was visibly uncomfortable, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“Well what did you mean to do?” Kuzey shook his head in an attempt to ring out the water. His clothes clung to his body, freezing him further.

“I don’t know,” Peter almost shouted, “it was a spur of the moment thing! I’m sorry!”

“Don’t kiss me again you weirdo!” Kuzey screamed back.

“I’m…” Peter looked down, speaking in a mumble, “please don’t tell anyone.”

“Oh I have no intention of telling a soul you batty boy! No one can ever know.”

“Good,” Peter glanced at at a nearby full body dryer, “well, I guess I'm gonna... go get warm.” He walked miserably to the dryer and Kuzey followed.

“You can go first, if you like,” he mumbled.

“Thanks,” Kuzey put a pound in the machine and stepped in, letting the blast of hot air wash over him. The warmth was comforting, and he smiled contently, though his mood was spoilt when he glanced back at Peter.

“Stop staring at me,” he snapped, and Peter turned around with a blush.

“Sorry…” He was shivering harder now, occasionally sniffing and Kuzey guessed he was crying too.

Kuzey sighed, grabbing Peter’s collar and pulling him into the dryer.

“No point in you freezing to death,” he muttered, trying to avoid looking at his friend’s teary face. “Look, why did you do it?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” he replied before sobbing loudly, “please don’t hate me.”

Kuzey didn’t reply immediately; “well I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Hey did you see us on that ride?” exclaimed Nobu, dashing over to them excitedly and climbing in the dryer too. He looked like he'd dived in a swimming pool fully-clothed.

“Might’ve missed it, sorry,” replied Kuzey, “we got soaked!” He glanced over at his Baba, who was standing outside the dryer shivering as water dripped from his head and nose.

“Didn’t realise it would be so cold,” he growled, hugging himself and scowling.

“Why are you crying?” asked Nobu, looking at Peter in concern.

“Got hit with the wave, didn’t I?” Peter replied quickly, “now I’m bloody freezing!”

“Wuss,” Nobu replied, though he didn’t believe a word of what Peter said. Usually he’d question his friend’s bollocks, but knew this wasn’t the time nor the place.

Kuzey, meanwhile, just remained silent.

“I think after this we might as well buy our sandwiches and hit the road,” Sadik began, “I don’t think anyone would object to me turning the heating on full when we drive home.”

Chapter Text

Michael was waiting for him by the school gates on Monday morning.

Oscar squirmed under his poisonous glare, full of hurt and barely concealed anger. The boy was a few metres away, leaning against the brick wall surrounding the school, hands stuffed in his pockets. Oscar had thought coming in early would give him a chance to avoid Michael for those few extra hours before break, but it seemed his friend had anticipated him. Was he really that easy to see through?

He wanted to turn around and run home, then hide under his blanket and listen to loud music for the rest of his life. But this was it. It was time to face what had probably started out as a minor problem, but was now a major disaster. Still, at least no one else was around.

He walked towards Michael slowly, cautiously, dragging it out as much as he possibly could. He raised his hand in a small, nervous wave, and Michael opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a word, someone else had come between them.

“Okay, we need to talk,” Kuzey growled at Oscar, “big time!”

Oscar frowned. Now what? What could he possibly have done to offend Kuzey too? Or did the kid just need some advice? Well he’d clearly come to the wrong place because Oscar’s life was something of a mess, as usual.

“We do?” he glanced at Michael nervously, who glared at the back of Kuzey’s head, looking like he was contemplating interrupting.

Kuzey turned around. “Oh, hello Mike. I just need to talk to Oscar for a second, in private.”

Michael’s scowl deepened; “can’t it wait?”

“It really can’t,” Kuzey replied with a sigh.

“But-”

“I’ll talk to you at lunch,” Oscar promised with a smile. Michael didn’t look convinced.

“A-and we’ll walk home together and you can talk to me then too,” he tried again.

Then Kuzey led him away before Michael could reply.

"Do I even want to know what's going on between you?"

"No, and it's none of your concern anyway."

They wandered through the gates into the playground, out of earshot of anyone before Kuzey turned on him.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he hissed, “hurting Peter like that!”

“I- what do you mean?” Oscar frowned. Peter? When had he done something to hurt the kid? He barely talked to him! Maybe that was it. But it wasn't like he was purposefully avoiding the kid! And what did Kuzey care anyway?

“You knew he liked me, didn’t you?” Kuzey was furious now, “that’s why you told Baba about him at parent’s evening, right? Were you trying to set us up or something?”

Oscar didn’t speak for a long moment. “What the ever-loving hell are you talking about?”

“You made sure we’d be alone together outside of school, right?”

“Kuzey, please, I haven’t a clue what you’re saying,” Oscar raised his hands, “can you at least start from the beginning?”

“Peter kissed me,” Kuzey confessed after glancing around, “I think he might like me. Well, it’s pretty clear he likes me. You knew, right? That’s why you suggested he went to Thorpe Park with me.”

“He what?” Oscar blinked, “Really? No I didn’t know he liked you! I thought you hated each other! That’s why I nominated him. Besides, Thorpe Park is hardly a place that screams 'blossoming teenage romance', in my opinion.” He rolled his eyes. “I didn’t like how he and you were hanging around my sister, so decided to get rid of you for the day. That’s the truth.”

Kuzey didn’t reply immediately. “So you were in the dark on the whole thing?”

“Precisely.”

Kuzey’s face fell, “I shouldn’t have mentioned it then. He told me not to tell but I thought you knew!”

“Why would Peter have told me anyway?”

Kuzey shook his head. “No idea. Thought it was some scheme between you both or something. Sorry about that then.”

Oscar nodded.

“And what do you mean about your sister?” Kuzey’s eyes narrowed.

“I know you like her, okay?”

“And that makes you angry?”

“She’s too young for you,” Oscar replied simply.

“No she’s not,” Kuzey protested, “I’m only two years older!”

“It still weirds me out,” Oscar sighed, “maybe in a few years, but right now she’s just a kid. I doubt she even cares about romance at this moment in time.”

“Is it for you to decide though?” Kuzey raised an eyebrow.

“Ultimately? No. I’m just giving my opinion and disapproval. I can’t stop Charlotte from dating you if she chooses, but I certainly don’t have to like it.”

“I understand.”

Oscar glanced back towards the gate and nodded, leading Kuzey towards the student entrance of the school. The place was deserted and a thin veil of fog hung in the air. “Well, I’m glad we had this chat. Hope things between you and Peter sort themselves out and all. Anything else you wish to talk about?”

Kuzey thought for a moment. “Well, do you think I can still be friends with Peter? He’s a brat but he's not so bad and I don’t want to hurt him anymore.”

Now it was Oscar’s turn to think. “I don’t know, really. It’s up to you, and him. Maybe give him some space but don’t ignore him if he talks to you? Try and be friendly? He’s a sensitive little kid.” He shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll work something out!”

Kuzey looked down. “I said some horrible things though. After it happened. He didn’t talk to me at all on the way home. I’m scared I hurt him badly.” He sighed, “I shouted at him and said… I called him names.”

“What did you call him?” Oscar was almost too afraid to ask.

“I said he was a weirdo,” Kuzey replied miserably.

“That all? I was expecting something more offensive.”

“I know what you were expecting, but no I didn’t use any of the awful words you were thinking of. I’m not that bad. It still upset him though! I could see it hurt him!”

“Then apologise.”

“I know, I know,” Kuzey shook his head, “I just don’t know how to.”

“Saying you’re sorry’s a good start.”

“Really? I never thought of that!” Kuzey rolled his eyes, “but yeah, I’m going to be nicer to Peter now. I don’t like him back in that way and all, but he’s alright.

 

 

Hunapo chewed the inside of their mouth, eyebrows furrowed as they shovelled elephant dung into a wheelbarrow, shoulders tense and mind relaxed. Not the nicest smell, but the peace was welcome and it gave them time to think. Repetitive tasks were always good for thinking!

Well, their life had certainly changed for the better since they’d first arrived here. Of course it had! When they’d first moved into their flat, they didn’t have any friends, they didn’t know their way around and were thousands of miles away from the only people that cared about them: their family back in New Zealand. They’d needed to move though; Hunapo believed it was the best way to transition: to be away from anyone who used to know them, to make friends who didn’t know their biological sex, something they were keen to keep a secret. Their hormone therapy gave them that extra look and sound of androgyny, and so far no one had been able to guess, or even cared to.

It had been a lonely first few weeks, and they’d struggled to fit in at their new job. They were friendly enough, but it was awkward trying to explain their gender to their new colleagues: some understood, some just accepted it without delving too much and others were, well, more hostile. Some even laughed. Still, they hadn’t faced too many problems just yet.

Hunapo wasn’t usually one to seek out others’ company, because- they guessed- they’d never needed to seek it out before. Back home, they had friends and family to talk to that made the effort to visit, but here? Nothing. Just their own thoughts. Got a bit dull after a while.

And that was where Logan and his family came in. He wasn’t someone Hunapo would normally choose to hang out with- they were far too alike for that, and their differences also pit them against each other- but somehow they could get over their almost-obsessive competitiveness to get along- just about. Hunapo was determined to cling to their growing friendship, and Logan in return seemed almost affectionate towards them at times.

He was a curious young man, Hunapo admitted. Yes, he could be very annoying and reckless and a bit up himself, but his heart was in the right place and he certainly had a lot of love to spread around. He adored his siblings, that was for certain!

Hunapo was fond of all the Cooper siblings, they realised now. That broken, odd little family had wormed their way into Hunapo’s heart and there was nothing they could do about it. Not that Huna minded, of course. Logan, Oscar and Charlie were incredibly important to them and they would do just about anything for that trio of siblings. Except, possibly, let them win at sport.

Hunapo paused in their thought and their task, realising they were being watched.

“Hi Logie,” they sighed, smiling slightly. Hunapo glanced over at their friend, realising quickly that his cheerful demeanour had vapourised. He leaned against the wiring of the enclosure, reluctant to speak and glaring at the floor agitatedly. It wasn't a reassuring sight.

“Something wrong?” Hunapo asked.

“I dunno,” Logan mumbled, “I guess, maybe. Would it be alright if I asked for some advice?”

“Sure.” They were the tiniest bit irritated at having their peace disturbed, but weren’t about to turn him away. And his presence wasn’t so bad, so long as what he had to say wasn’t too serious. Hunapo was in a pretty cheerful mood and had no time for gloomy topics today.

But their friend was in need so they’d just have to listen.

Logan nodded and opened the gate, slipping in and shutting the thing again. “It’s kinda delicate though.”

Hunapo snorted. Since when did crude, blunt Logan give a damn about whether a matter was delicate or not? Must be serious, they realised as their face fell and they distracted themself with their shovelling. “I’m not gonna judge you, bro.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about you judging, it’s Charlie.”

Hunapo looked up. “Charlie? What did she do?”

“Well, I’m not sure. Look, yesterday I was cleaning the toilet-”

Hunapo wrinkled their nose. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Shuddup, will ya? I need answers and have no one else to talk to!”

“Go on,” Hunapo sighed.

“So I was cleaning the toilet and I found some stuff in the bowl that looked like sick. Like, traces of sick.”

“Hangover?”

“Not on my part, and neither Oscar or Charlie have ever gotten that drunk. I keep a close eye on them in that sense.”

“So who do you think chundered? What's it got to do with Charlie? And is it really that important?”

“Well, yeah. Seems serious if someone’s been throwing up in secret and all.”

“Maybe it was you,” Hunapo shrugged, “did you down a Jager bomb at the weekend or something and just… forget what you did after?”

“I don’t do Jagers you cheeky shit,” Logan folded his arms, “I have kids to look after, remember? Why would I go drinking when it’s my little princess' birthday?”

“Right, of course. So got any theories?”

“A couple but they’re kinda… absurd.”

“Let’s hear.”

“You don’t think Charlie could be pregnant?”

Hunapo burst out laughing. “Little teeny Charlie? Actually pregnant? You’ve gotta be kidding! Is this about her mates all being boys again?”

“No, I’m just trying to come up with an explanation, and there are girls who end up being mothers at thirteen, poor kids. But if it’s true, d’you think one of them could be the father?”

“You mean the fifa-obsessed little boys who reek of Lynx? Nah. They probably don’t even know how it’s done. The two I met that day at the park seemed a bit dippy anyway.” They leaned heavily on their shovel, shaking their head and smiling. “If Charlie’s preggo I’ll eat that wheelbarrow and it's contents too!”

“What else could it be?” Logan looked nearly terrified, “an eating disorder maybe? I’ve read about teen girls getting them all the time!”

“At her age? It’s possible,” Hunapo grimaced, “if that’s the case then poor sod.”

“It doesn’t seem like her though.” Logan was sitting down now, trembling slightly. “She’s never cared about her appearance before. Maybe someone’s started bullying her about it, like they did with Oscar.”

“Maybe it’s Oscar? Seems more likely, in all honesty.”

There was a pause before Logan spoke again, seemingly lost in thought.

“But,” his brows furrowed together as he looked up, “boys can’t get eating disorders, right?”

Logan yelped as Hunapo lunged forward, shovel ramming into the wire mesh above his head.

“You idiot!” They spat, “anyone can get one, for a whole load of different reasons too! It’s not exclusive to one gender, or age or anything else for that matter!”

“Jesus I’m sorry!” Logan yelped, “I didn’t know! I don’t know anything about this shit mate, calm down!”

Hunapo quickly removed their shovel as a family approached in the distance, ambling along the path and hopefully still out of earshot.

“Sorry, but,” they shook their head, turning around and sliding down next to Logan. “My brother had one. Damn near killed him before anyone found out. If Oscar or Charlie, if they have this, well, some form of this thing, you need to know what you’re dealing with, sort myth from fact and the like.”

“Yeah, cheers,” Logan looked over, “sounds serious though. Sorry about your brother.”

Hunapo shrugged.

“He’s better now, right?”

A long moment passed before Hunapo forced themselves to reply. “He’s… getting there.”

“And how long has he been ‘getting there’?”

Hunapo looked down, unable to meet their friend’s gaze. “A few years. But to be fair, he was ill for a few years before we found it. It’ll take time.” They looked up. “That’s why you have to talk to your kids ASAP. One of them- if we’re right- clearly needs help, and fast.”

“But what if I’m too late?”

Hunapo shook their head, nudging Logan's shoulder slightly. “We don’t even know the truth yet; don’t go putting all these gloomy images in your head.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Logan sighed, “I just worry about my kids so much! Charlie and Oscar… I’d do anything for them! Heck, I’d sell my soul to keep them safe!”

“I think all that booze and smoking might have made the warranty on that soul of yours somewhat void.”

“Fuck off!” Logan laughed and Hunapo joined in, standing up and continuing their task. Well, they weren't getting paid to sit around giving advice, though if they didn’t love zookeeping so much that would be a pretty fulfilling alternative.

“But what should I do?” Hunapo didn’t need to see Logan's face to know his smile had fallen.

“Talk to them, I guess. Individually to avoid a scene and all,” Hunapo shook their head, “I’m not an expert, but I think you can find some advice online about approaching the subject and all.”

Logan nodded, chuckling bitterly. “I’ll do it when I get home. Fuck I’m not looking forward to it though. Getting a bit bored of me whining about my kids?”

“Not at all! I care about what’s happening to them, but God I’m not the person to come to for advice!”

“You seem pretty good at it, and I don’t have anyone else to talk to!”

“I see,” Hunapo smiled, heart heavy, “I’m really the closest thing you have to a friend?”

“One that I can trust, at least.”

 

 

Oscar knew he wasn’t doing himself or Michael any favours whatsoever, but his confidence was completely gone! Vanished! That look of anguish on Michael’s face, it burned into his mind to the point that he wanted to scratch at his eyes and scream aloud that he was a despicable person.

But of course, that wasn’t something that would go down well in Physics class, so he remained silent.

God the science lessons were agony, a whole week and two hours of pure agony. He’d deliberately come into those and the other the lessons he shared with Michael late, and sat away from him, except in business studies where that teacher was somewhat picky about their seating plan, and they had to share a table. But he refused to talk about anything other than work with Michael, not that their kiss was something that could be brought up in class. He’d hid in the library until the last possible moment in form time, rushing to his form room just before the register was called and talking animatedly to Sal so Mike couldn’t butt in.

It was safe to say Oscar knew his behaviour was unacceptable, yet he couldn’t stop himself. Fear had taken over. A fear of the unknown, of losing control in his life. He wasn’t too sure if he was more afraid of being crushingly miserable or actually happy for once.

Well, he’d been miserable all week and lost his chance of happiness, so it was pretty clear which he was leaning towards. And which he'd gotten.

And it seemed Oscar still hadn’t learnt his lesson, because he was now dashing across the playground towards the bike sheds, right next to the back school entrance. He’d walk home with Michael- he swore to himself- but lunch would be spent behind the bike sheds yet again. It wasn’t a new thing, really. Ever since he’d been enrolled here, he’d often hidden there during break times, mostly to shelter from bullies. Sal and Michael had changed all that, and he was grateful, but it seemed he’d have to visit his old safe place. Yes, it would involve sitting in the cold for an hour with no one to talk to, but he didn't mind. Much.

Students technically weren’t allowed back here- to make sure they couldn’t smoke in secret- so he wouldn’t be disturbed too often, so long as he got out of sight without any teachers noticing.

He was too slow to react.

As he reached the bike sheds, a flash of green appeared in the corner of his eye and a hand grabbed his collar.

Michael pulled him behind the shed, blocking his escape and letting go, and Oscar stumbled into the translucent, plastic windows before hitting the floor, jaw smacking against the tarmac and loose stones. He licked his lips and tasted blood.

“Wait, oh fucking hell I didn’t mean to do that! Are you okay?”

Oscar didn’t reply. He pulled himself onto his hands and knees, shaking and refusing to look at the other. Adrenaline pumped through his stomach and he wondered if he'd throw up. How did Michael know? How the hell could he even guess Oscar would hide here? And to throw him like that...

He wondered if he’d been wrong the whole time, that Michael was just like every other hateful bastard person he’d liked before.

“Shit, are you injured? I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

“Well what did you mean to do?” he turned around, wiping his face.

“Oh fuck I’m so sorry!” Michael pulled a tissue out of his pocket, flattening it out on his blazer and handing it to Oscar. “I just wanted pull you back here. Make sure you couldn’t run off until we’ve talked and stuff. I didn’t plan to make you faceplant the fucking floor.”

Oscar glared at him for a moment before taking the tissue. “You have a funny way of talking, huh?”

“Yeah,” Michael sat down, wedging himself in between the bottom of the bike shed and the brick wall marking the edge of the school grounds. He was calm, pensive, but not willing to let Oscar pass, it seemed.

“How did you know I’d be here?”

Michael snorted, but didn’t appear to be mocking him. “I know you’ve been hiding down here all week. Saw you and all that but didn’t wanna talk if you didn’t want to. I was kinda waiting to see what you’d do but, well, if you’re gonna avoid me the whole time then we’ll get nowhere.”

“I used to come here all the time when I was alone. You know, to avoid everyone who'd hurt me.” Oscar mumbled.

“I know,” Michael traced circles on the ground in front of him, “I’d see you then too. I thought it was a good place to hide myself but you’d be there and I didn’t want to disturb you so I’d find somewhere else.”

“Oh.”

“We’re getting off topic again,” Michael growled, looking away. “Are we gonna talk about what happened or pretend it never actually happened?”

“It depends,” Oscar sighed, “how did it make you feel?”

“Well, how did it make you feel?” replied Michael, on the defensive.

The pair fell silent, Mike glaring at the floor whilst Oscar’s eyes darted from the wall to the bikes standing still on the other side of the bumpy window to a spider on the ground scuttling between them. The dampness of the ground was starting to seep through his dull grey trousers, chilling his legs and numbing his body.

“I’m sorry!” Michael eventually burst out, “I didn’t mean to upset you or whatever! I don’t know what came over me and I… don’t want you to hate me.” He finally looked up, and Oscar couldn’t pull his eyes away from his miserable face.

“I don’t.” The pair exchanged small, timid smiles before Oscar’s face fell. “Look, I think we need to start being honest with each other. There are things you need to say, right?”

“Right.”

“Well me too. We should just say them then, listen to each other and not… judge.”

“You’re gonna start talking then? No more running?” Michael raised an eyebrow.

“No more running.”

“And, whatever anyone here says, it’ll just be between the two of us, right?” There was a fear in Michael’s eyes that Oscar had never seen before, and he nodded.

“What happens behind the bike shed, stays behind the bike shed.”

Michael raised his eyebrows.

“Oh you know what I mean. Look, I’ll go first, okay?”

“Okay.”

Oscar glanced through the window, but there was no one nearby. Perfect. “I’m glad you kissed me,” he admitted, and Michael fell silent. He waited for a long moment to see if the other would say anything before continuing. “I know my behaviour seems a bit on the contrary, but I liked kissing you and have wanted to do for a while now, ever since, well, even before that other time at your house.”

Michael was gobsmacked. “Erm, well, I’m glad you don’t mind, considering I’ve made it a fucking habit. So what were you avoiding me for?”

“Like I said, I think about kissing you a lot. I really like you in a way that’s too embarrassing to talk about and after you kissed me I totally flipped! My head just became this mess and I kept overthinking things and, oh God I made so much more drama than there needed to be.”

“No shit,” Michael laughed, “funny, I really like you too. But, you know, being the awkward ballsack I am I can’t ever tell you and just sorta, sat around angry and confused because you were out of my league.”

“I’m out of everyone’s league, darling,” Oscar winked, “but I guess you’re marginally less worse than the rest of the school.”

Michael barked out a laugh; “thanks, your majesty. I’m honoured you can lower yourself to the level of the rest of us scum.”

“You’re welcome,” Oscar grinned, “but seriously, you like me, I like you, we kissed a few times and acted like a pair of fannies over doing so. What now?”

“I dunno,” Michael shrugged, “doing anything this Saturday?”

“Not that I can think of. Oh, we have another meeting about that website!”

“At the park, right? Well, have any plans for after that?”

“None.”

There was a pause before Michael spoke again. “Think Charlie can make her own way home?”

“I guess so,” Oscar smiled.

“Then wanna hang out for a bit,” Michael’s face flushed, reaching over and taking Oscar’s hand, “as a couple.”

“A couple of losers, more likely,” Oscar laughed, feeling his face burn with it’s own blush, “but yes, that sounds lovely.”

“So,” Michael mumbled, “would that make you my… my, erm…”

“Boyfriend?”

“Yeah, it seems so.”

“I like that,” Oscar smiled, squeezing the other’s hand, “never had a boyfriend before.”

“Me neither. I had a girlfriend when I was ten, back home, but that was just holding hands and stuff. This is somewhat… different.”

“It appears so,” Oscar looked around once more, “I do have one small request though, and please don’t take this the wrong way…”

“I’m not losing the hair and glasses,” Michael growled.

“It’s not that, I just think it would be a good idea for us to keep our… arrangement, a secret. Let’s face it, neither of us could take the bullying if anyone found out.”

“Of course! Fuck’s sake even I couldn’t protect you from pretty much the entire school.”

“I don’t need…” Oscar scowled, “I can look after myself.”

“Yes but I wouldn’t mind giving a hand, dickhead.”

“Nice,” Oscar laughed, snuggling into his thick coat. Clouds were forming overhead, slowly blocking out the last of the weak, winter sun. “But even if I needed a bodyguard, you couldn’t do the job yourself, and it’s our GCSE year! We’ll be in sixth form next September and really can’t be dealing with arseholes. Not sure either of us could take it.”

For a moment, Oscar thought Michael would argue back, but he just sighed and nodded, “yeah there’s too much stress this year for, well, whatever they’d do. Although those pricks seem to have it in for you anyway.”

“So let’s not add fuel to the fire,” Oscar replied, resting his chin in his hand, “but I think we could tell our friends, right?”

“Probably,” Michael shrugged, “we definitely owe Sal an explanation.”

“You think he’d be okay with us?”

“Well he’s okay with his gay brother, so I don’t think we’d be too much of a shock.”

There was a pause before Oscar spoke again. “Damn I forgot about Lovino.”

“You know,” Michael commented, “for someone who says he overthinks too much, you don’t half forget important details.”

“Like how you kissed me twice yet I still thought you hated me for some reason,” Oscar replied, somewhat miserably.

“I don’t hate you, but I was hurt.” Michael glared at him, “I thought I’d hurt you and in a way I did, so sorry for that. But you shouldn’t have run away! We could’ve talked it over, and we did and it wasn’t so bad, right?”

Oscar nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Still,” Michael sighed, “we might as well go tell Sal we’ve made up before he has a breakdown or something.”

Chapter Text

Well, Hunapo would be lying if they said this was unexpected- they’d anticipated something along these lines for a very long time- but that sure as hell meant they’d put up with it. Or that they were expecting something so… creepy.

“Oh come on, cut the crap,” a co-worker of theirs growled, pressing against their back as they searched for the correct medicine from the cupboard. “Just tell us what you are!”

“A kiwi,” they replied, ducking away from him after finally locating the worms pills; the sweaty bastard needed to learn the meaning of personal space. Ugh, Huna could almost feel him brushing against their arse.

And a split second later, he was.

They shrieked and wheeled around, fist raised and clutching the bottle like a weapon. “I swear,” they growled, “touch me again and I’ll smash this on the counter and bury it in your neck!”

“Woah,” the coworker raised his hands, “no need to get like that.”

“Indeed,” Hunapo replied cautiously, lowering their arm; tempting as it was, if they did that they’d be the one getting fired, and probably arrested too. Their parents hadn’t even visited yet, and their first trip to see their beloved child who'd made a life for themselves on the other side of the world was certainly not going to involve a prison visiting room!

“Look, if you promise to stop touching me like I’m some sort of toy, we can sit down and talk about this again. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.” Hunapo was honestly surprised at how patient they’d become in the past few years; it had been a slow process, but they’d soon realised everyone had questions, and lots of them. Fair enough, they guessed. Most of the questions were simply out of ignorance, and people wanted to know how to avoid offense, more than anything else. Very few people had heard of their situation, though it seemed the younger people often understood either immediately or very quickly, though there were a handful who were particularly nasty about it, but what did they care for the opinions of people not old enough to drink? And the older people? Well, that was more of a mixed bag. It took longer to explain to them, sure, but most eventually at least half-understood.

They thought they’d answered everyone’s questions when they started working here though. Still, it wouldn’t harm to explain it again, if this guy wanted to know more. And if he kept his Goddamn hands to himself for five seconds.

“I only have one question though, are you a boy or a girl?”

Hunapo’s eye twitched. Patience… patience… “I’m neither. I’ve explained. I’m not sure I can explain it any other way than the five times I’ve already explained to you today alone. If I bring in a leaflet tomorrow would you understand that better?” They weren’t sure why they were bothering though, this guy either ignored them or was rude as hell to them, and even Logan had taken a dislike to him because of that. And he got along with everyone!

“What’s there to understand? You’re either a boy or a girl, not some made up bullshit!”

“Agender’s been around for a while now actually,” Hunapo groaned, “it says so in that leaflet I mentioned. You really should read it.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to go along with this shit or buy into it!”

“Never said you had to, really,” Hunapo replied flatly, “just respect me and my identity.” And maybe go fuck yourself with something that would cause serious haemorrhaging.

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Makes no difference to me; I already thought you were a prick. Just keep the hell away from me.” They began to walk out; they weren’t getting paid to stand around, and certainly weren’t getting paid enough to deal with this bollocks. Besides, looking after sick animals was far more important than listening to someone who was intellectually beneath their 5 year old nephew, the one who thought dinosaurs were still alive and just hiding.

As they were reaching for the storeroom door, his hand shot forward and grabbed their wrist, nails digging painfully into their skin.

“Get off, you prick!” they cried, squirming and struggling as they were wheeled round and thrown against the door.

 

 

“So you two are… really?” Sal waggled a finger between Mike and Oscar, who nodded, “I see. Well that’s great!”

Relief washed over Oscar once more that day, and he leaned back on the playground bench, Sal sandwiched between him and Michael and talking excitedly. So Mike was right: Sal didn’t care. He was just glad his friends were happy again!

On the other side of the playground, he could see Charlie standing in a circle and talking to the others, loud and joking, playfully cuffing Peter’s ear whilst Nobu laughed. Kuzey was nowhere to be seen.

“So what was all the fighting about then?” asked Sal, glaring half-heartedly at the pair.

“Oh a load of messed up shit,” replied Michael, “you know, teen emotions and stuff.” It would take way too long to explain it all to Sal; they really didn't have enough of their lunch break left and besides, Oscar didn't really want other people knowing the inner workings of his mind if it wasn't necessary.

“Of course,” Sal rolled his eyes, “still, it’s nice to see there’s so much love in the air, between you two and Lars and Franz.”

“Love?” Mike raised an eyebrow, “hey let’s not be too hasty there!”

“Indeed,” Oscar laughed, “we only just started going out! Don't go throwing the L word around!”

“Oh you know what I mean!” Sal shrugged, “it’s nice, that you two have each other, that’s what I’m trying to say.”

“Thanks,” Oscar hummed, breathing slowly. All was good in the world again. Things seemed to be finally looking up for him: he was no longer fretting over whether or not Michael liked him, he had supportive friends and for once there didn’t seem to be anything ruining his family’s lives. There was still that business with Charlie and their dad, but he hadn’t heard anything from Charlie in that front for a while. Maybe the kid had forgotten?

“I hope you’re not planning on making me the third wheel though,” Sal added, raising an eyebrow, “because that’s not fair! And not something I’d be at all used to, in all honesty.”

“We won’t!” cried Michael.

Oscar rolled his eyes. “Bloody hell we’ll be coming to you for advice, more likely.”

Sal glanced between the two. “Depends on the advice.”

“Not that kind, holy shit!” Michael gave him a playful thump, “Christ on a fucking bike don’t go talking about that, it’s weird! And what would you know about that anyway? You only like girls.”

“Alright, calm down,” Sal raised his hands, “just making sure because, I like you two and all, but I’m not getting that personal with you.”

“We don’t want you to either,” Oscar almost screeched, “we just want date ideas and emotional advice.”

“Which I am happy to give,” Sal winked, “although I’d have thought you two would just go to garden centres for dates all the time.”

Michael nodded in agreement, and Oscar burst out laughing. “Maybe in Spring!” he exclaimed.

“Good idea though, you’re welcome to come along too,” Mike added, “you like flowers, right?”

“Of course,” Sal sighed, “they’re lovely. I look forward to it.”

 

 

“Get off!” Hunapo growled, aiming a punch at their co-worker’s face, fist colliding with his nose. Other hand free, they shoved him away and made a bolt for the door, dropping the jar as they ran and ignoring the sound of smashing glass and the angry snort their co-worker gave before pursuing. Once again, they didn’t get far.

He grabbed a lock of their hair and yanked them back, and Hunapo let out a pained gasp as their neck twisted and stung.

“You’re making this harder than it needs to be; just tell me what you are!”

“Really fucking angry!” Hunapo aimed a kick behind them, and it appeared to connect with their co-worker’s shin, as he grunted and let go.

No point trying to run, not yet anyway. It didn’t work. Hunapo wheeled around and aimed another kick, higher this time and landing on his stomach. Sure, they weren’t as well-built as Logan, and a bit on the small side, but they had muscle and could hold their own in a fight, and their hiking boots added to the force of the blow. Someone as large as this guy could be a challenge though. But what other choice did they have, really?

“Oh you’ll pay for that.” The co-worker wiped spit from the corner of his mouth, glaring at Hunapo with a vicious loathing.

“Will I?” Huna tried their best to sound nonchalant, though they couldn’t help that shake in their voice. They felt sick to the core now. They wanted out.

Another lunge, and Hunapo punched them in the jaw, but it did little good. He grabbed their polo shirt and slammed them onto a table, wrapping a hand around their throat and punching them in the stomach. Hunapo spat and screamed, kicking and lashing out as surgical tools dug into their back. Fear rose inside them as they scratched at his arm, desperately trying to pull it away and they almost lost their mind in panic. Why wouldn’t someone help them? They didn’t want this. They couldn't breathe. They felt powerless.

But they weren’t subdued just yet.

“Leave me alone!” they choked, kicking him in the jaw when he tried to unbutton their shorts with his other hand. He pulled at their clothes again, but another kick sent him reeling. Hunapo sat up, panting heavily and twisting their body around to reach for one of the tools, wrapping their trembling fingers around a scalpel and almost succeeding in slicing their hand open. If they could keep a hold of it they might have a chance. They ignored the pained shouts their co-worker made; they didn’t kick him that hard! And he deserved it, for what he was about to do.

They wheeled back around, prepared to defend themselves, but he wasn’t there.

Someone had come to their rescue.

Glancing around, Huna soon found who they were looking for.

Logan had dragged and pushed their co-worker across the room, throwing punch after punch wherever he could, forcing them back and even wringing their neck. Had he stumbled upon them at just the right time, or had he heard Huna’s shouts? Either way, they were grateful to see him!

“Lo…” Hunapo broke into a grin, which quickly faded once they saw their friend’s face. That expression, the pure rage, he didn’t even look like Logan anymore. They’d never seen their friend in such a state. He snarled and spat as he continued his assault, throwing their co-worker on the ground to kick him repeatedly.

“Don’t touch them!” he screamed, “don’t you fucking lay a finger on Huna again, you pig! You fucking hear me? You animal!” Each sentence was punctuated by another kick.

“Logan stop,” Huna was on their feet now, scalpel abandoned and soft voice drowned out by their friend’s shouting. “You’ve done enough. You’ll get in trouble if someone sees you!”

The apologies of their co-worker were also lost beneath Logan as he bellowed that he was disgusting. That he should be locked up. Huna was inclined to agree, but this was going too far.

Using a surprising amount of strength, Logan picked him up and threw him out the door, which burst open as he collapsed onto the pathway, Logan soon following.

“Logan please,” Huna wrapped their hands around Logan’s raised fist, and he managed to lift them onto the tips of their toes before he realised they were there. “Don’t do this,” they continued, “don’t sink to his level, for fuck’s sake. You’re better than that!”

Logan was motionless now, fist still poised to strike. His anger was leaving fast now, chest pounding as horror took over, at himself, at what he’d just witnessed. Someone had tried to… it made him sick.

But, at this moment in time, was he really any better?

Blood was running down the co-worker’s nose, face dotted in bruises with a cut lip and swollen cheek. There was no longer anger in his features, only fear as he tried to crawl away. Good.

Yet Logan still couldn’t believe he’d done all that himself.

He’d made his message pretty clear though; there was no need to go any further and it was safe to say the bastard wouldn’t be bothering Hunapo any more.

“You’re not worth my time,” Logan growled as he finally lowered his arm.

“Sorry Huna,” he sighed, turning to his friend, “I just saw him, and what he was trying to do, and flipped.”

“It’s fine,” Huna smiled, “thanks for showing up when you did, really. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But fuck you scared me there.”

Logan nodded. “Sorry. The last thing you needed was a fright.”

“It’s fine, just didn’t know if you would stop before you got in trouble.”

“Thanks for stepping in, I wouldn’t of if you hadn’t,” Logan confessed, taking their hand, “but that’s not important. Where did he hurt you?”

“A few bruises to the face and back,” Huna replied, “nothing deadly. I’ll get over it, eventually.”

“If you say so,” Logan tried to give Hunapo a warm smile, but couldn’t. He just looked past them, at where a handful of visitors were standing, a few meters away, frozen in horror at what they’d just witnessed.

Shit, he’d forgotten about them: the group of lost French tourists he was helping to locate the toilet block for, the ones he’d abandoned when he heard cries coming from the storage facility they’d passed. Was there any way of swearing them to secrecy? He wasn’t stupid; he knew violence in the workplace was reasonable grounds for instant dismissal.

“What the hell happened?” as if things couldn’t get any worse, the manager appeared, darting around a corner after one of the tourists, who had clearly had the sense to fetch another member of staff.

How was he supposed to explain this? Logan had all but knocked his teeth out!

It took a few seconds for the manager to take a stab at assessing the situation, but before Logan could explain himself, their co-worker spoke up.

“Cooper attacked me sir! Look what that big brute did to my face!”

“Is this true?” asked the manager, looking at Logan like he was feral. There was shock and disappointment there too; Logan was one of the zoo’s best keepers! His heart sank.

“Wait, I can explain it!” Logan cried, “I was provoked.”

“He was! That prick attacked me first!” Huna added, stepping forward and showing off the bruises starting to appear on their arms and face.

The manager rubbed their temples. “Look, my office, the three of you. I swear if someone isn’t fired by the end of the day it’ll be a miracle.”

 

 

“Cooper! Why aren’t you paying attention?”

Oscar jumped, lifting his head from his desk and blinking at the teacher in confusion. Oh dear, had he zoned out again? Why no, he hadn’t been completely lost in thought, and he certainly hadn’t been thinking about Michael’s dumb fucking face again.

Still, at least there was only an hour or so left of school. Then he could zone out as much as he wanted!

The entire English class was staring at him, some smirking, a few sympathetic, others paying about just as much attention to what the teacher was saying as he had been. He quite liked his English class, in all honesty. It was full of the quiet types, not enough trouble makers for them all to be uncontrollable, and no one gave him trouble or ignored him here.

“I was,” he mumbled.

“Were you now?” the teacher raised an eyebrow, Oscar squirming under her glare. Had she always been this scary?

“Indeed,” he continued, avoiding the gazes of everyone in the room.

“Well then, maybe you can tell me one of the major themes present in ‘Of Mice and Men’.”

Oscar’s eyes widened as he stared at the desk. Oh shit, what were they again? The class had read that stupid book three times now! Oh this really didn’t bode well for his mock exams next month.

“Love?” he tried. Most books were about love in some way, right? What was that stupid book about again? Cowboys and rabbits or something. He could almost feel his brain giving him a wanker sign as he failed to come up with a better answer.

A few people snickered, and the teacher shook her head. “Care to elaborate?”

Oscar was really panicking now. Think… think… “The… love, and friendship between the two main characters? And how they’re best friends which was strange at the time? Because everyone tended to travel alone and look after just themselves?” He grinned as he said that; now he remembered!

“So friendship then. That’s correct,” she began walking back to the board, “try not to fall asleep again, Cooper. And please write some proper notes.”

Oscar looked down, eyes wide as he realised the open page in his exercise book was covered in little hearts, and drool from where he’d been half-asleep. Why? Why this? What the hell was wrong with him? He flushed an embarrassing shade a scarlet as he turned the page, jotting down the teacher’s notes on the board and practically stabbing the paper with his pen, almost succeeding in tearing a hole in the thing. Why didn’t he just write ‘Oscar Cooper x Michael Jones’ while he was at it, if he was going to be this much of an idiot?

He was sure these overloading feelings would wear off eventually, or he’d at least get used to them. It was just he’d never had a boyfriend before! It was so new and exciting and he didn’t know what would happen. He couldn’t picture their future exactly though- it was too early for that- but he saw snippets: them on dates and hanging out together at home. And more kissing too!

There was a tearing sound and his hand slipped. He looked down to find he’d not only torn through his page, but had also bent the nib of his pen out of shape. Logan had bought him that fountain pen for his thirteenth birthday! The rest of his table burst out laughing, and he buried his face in shame.

God he was a walking disgrace.

 

 

The silence between them was unbearable. Logan and Hunapo were balanced awkwardly on the plastic chairs outside the manager’s office, unable to hear the conversation between the manager and co-worker. Logan was a mess now, barely keeping a straight face as he thought of what could happen. Was he going to be fired? No, he wouldn't right? He was provoked! But he'd not been the one who was attacked, so they might not consider that enough of a provoke.

But surely they wouldn’t dismiss someone this close to Christmas, not with two kids to feed. But it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise, and in all honesty, he would be lucky if he wasn’t arrested. What if they charged him with GBH? Would he go to prison? Who would look after Oscar and Charlie then? Would they be taken into care? Split up? Fostered by separate people? Would anyone even take Oscar, the fifteen year old with a world of issues? It would probably be the last straw for his mind, Logan going to prison and leaving him.

But he couldn’t think about that now, not until he knew for sure, and not whilst someone else needed him.

He swallowed sick, and glanced over at Huna. They’d already given their account of the event, and were sitting still, staring at the opposite wall. Hunapo’s shoulders were slumped, arms resting limply in their knees and they looked like they were trying not to throw up themselves. The bruises shone clearly against their tanned skin, and he fought another surge of anger. They didn't deserve that...

He reached a hand over, pausing a few inches from their upper arm before retracting it. He didn’t want to scare them again.

He even feared Hunapo would break at his touch.

They looked so fragile now, like they could easily shatter. Though from the look on their face, it seemed like they already had, inside.

“Huna,” he began, voice low and cracked. Hunapo jumped slightly, looking over at him expectantly, but Logan couldn’t find the right words. Should he comfort them? Ask them how they were feeling? Distract them?

“Never mind,” he muttered instead. He’d already made the whole thing worse for them, so why didn’t he just butt out?

“Logie?”

Logan looked up to see Hunapo holding out their arms and he smiled, pulling them into a hug. He wrapped his large arms around them, determined to keep them safe and protected.

“We’ll be fine,” they whispered, “something will work out in the end.”

Before Logan could reply, the door was thrown open and the co-worker stormed out, huffing and muttering to himself. Logan and Huna jumped apart, Logan resting a hand on Hunapo’s knee when they started shivering.

“I got fired because of you,” he growled, pointing a finger at Hunapo, who glared at him and slapped it away.

“So what?” they replied, “it was your own damn fault.”

“Cooper,” the manager appeared in the doorway, “I’ll be speaking with you now.” He glared at the co-worker; “I thought I told you to clear your stuff and get out?”

“I’m going!” and with that, he stormed off.

“Cooper,” the manager tried again, and Logan stood up. Huna got up too, clinging to his arm.

“I thought I told you to go to the first aid station,” the manager told them.

“If you don’t mind,” they began, “I really don’t want to be left alone right now. And I feel safe with Logan.”

Logan glanced down. Huna didn’t seem all that frightened any more, they seemed more defiant than anything else. Were they hoping to defend him somehow? He didn’t see what good they could do against the manager, but he was grateful for their company nonetheless.

“Davies, this is supposed to be a private conversation between me and-”

“I don’t mind ‘em,” Logan interrupted.

“Fine, though I’m really not sure.... anyway, please take a seat.” He lead them both into his office, and the pair sat down in front of his desk.

Logan had only been here once before, when he was given an induction and first met the manager. They’d gotten along well, and taken an instant like to each other as they discussed the runnings of the park, wages, works hours and anything else that needed discussing. Logan respected the guy, even though they rarely spoke. He wasn’t much of a trouble maker, and hadn’t needed to be called back to the office since.

Until now, that is.

He fidgeted and fiddled with his hands as he watched the manager walk over to his seat.

“Look, Mr Cooper,” he began with a sigh, “you’re a valuable member of this organisation and a model employee but I cannot let this slide. Of course, I’ll want to hear your side of the story, but you punched a colleague in front of park visitors; I’m afraid I have no choice but to dismiss you.”

 

Chapter Text

“You can’t do that!” Hunapo was on their feet at once as Logan nodded and bit back tears, barely registering that the others were even speaking. He became lost in a spiral of misery that consumed his mind and dragged him down, but still he refused to cry. Not yet. There would be time for that later. He just had to sit through this meeting then he could go home and… and…

Tell his kids they’ll be going hungry soon? That he can’t look after them any more? That in a few months they could all be living in a hostel or shelter or even under a bus stop? No, there was no need to go that far; he’d find something else!

No he wouldn’t. He’d been fired for gross misconduct, for violence in the workplace nonetheless. Who the hell was going to hire him? He could always appeal in the hopes that’d he’d be re-hired here, but what was the point, really?

“Oh? And why is that?” the manager raised an eyebrow, leaning back in his chair and glaring at them.

“Well, he helped me!” Hunapo tried, “Logan’s a good man and I’d say he was in the right here! I’m scared to think of what would have happened if he hadn’t rescued me.”

“As am I,” the manager sighed, “and I can assure you the police will be involved in that… unfortunate matter, but that doesn’t change what Mr Cooper did. He assaulted a co worker with far more force than was necessary. You could have just restrained him or pushed him away, not…” He shook his head. “Cooper, I can’t even begin to describe how surprised and utterly disappointed I am in you.”

Logan nodded miserably. “I lost my temper,” he mumbled.

“I can see that.” The manager turned to his laptop and- with a heavy heart- began typing the summary dismissal. “You will be receiving your wages up until today- I’ll send them to your account when I can- so you’ll have that until you find another job.”

Logan fought back a bitter laugh, smiling at the ground though he thought he would fall apart. “Now you know it’s not that easy. Who’s gonna hire me after what I did? Even I wouldn’t.”

“But… you were only trying to protect me,” Hunapo frowned, “surely people would understand.”

“Davies-”

“It doesn’t say that on a CV or a reference,” Logan told them, “just that I was fired and why. I know you’re young but don’t try to act like you’re naive. What hope do I have? Even if I explain myself in an interview it’ll just look like I’m making excuses.”

“I will write you a fair reference,” the manager told him. “You’re a brilliant worker, Cooper, it’s just unfortunate that things have come to this.”

“Thanks,” Logan shrugged. The promise meant nothing to him, but there was nothing he could do to change his situation.

“I’m begging you to reconsider,” Hunapo turned to the manager, who was becoming increasingly frustrated with them.

“I cannot. We have rules here, Davies, and need to stick to them. I’m warning you-”

“It’s fine, Huna, just drop it.” The last thing Logan wanted was them getting in trouble too, though that would be the appropriate end of a frankly awful day. Still, he didn’t get fired and screw over his future just to get them in trouble too. “I’ll get some bar work somewhere. Arthur will take me on.”

Hunapo frowned, looking down at him and trying to gauge his reaction for any signs of lying. Finding many, they sighed and sat down.

“What about his kids?” they asked the manager, “the two little ones? You really gonna do that to them?”

“It’s fine,” Logan snapped, stabbed with guilt as he watched them flinch. “I’ll find something, I promise,” he added, softer, “people like me; I’m sure I can win someone over.”

“Are you sure?”

Logan wished he was a better liar, because he wasn’t even convincing himself at this point and knew Hunapo had every right to be glaring at him.

“Yeah, course. It’s not the end of the world.”

The manager spoke up at this point, still typing at the computer; “Cooper, the police will be informed of this, of course, and I will be listing you as a witness to sexual assault, so they will most likely be contacting you in the next few days. I’ll leave it to you to explain your part, but I for one won’t be pressing any charges against you. I feel it would be immoral.”

“That’s fine. And thank you.”

“And I want your account of the event before you leave,” the manager added, “in private.”

“But-”

“Huna, go to the first aid station,” Logan muttered, “you need to be seen to. I’ll find you there after and we can go home together."

“You mean it?” Hunapo made no attempt to move.

“Yeah, I want to talk to you.”

“I think it would be a good idea for you to go home too,” the manager said, “get rested and calm down, take a few days off even. The police will want to talk to you too and I think that’s enough pressure after what you’ve been through.”

“Thank you,” Hunapo nodded and stood up, “see you in a bit, Logie.”

“Yeah…”

When they were gone, Logan looked up as the printer in the corner rumbled into action, spitting out what could well have been his death certificate, for all he cared. That’s what it felt like to him.

“I truly am sorry to have to do this,” the manager tried, straightening his tie and sighing, “but people only saw what you did and word will get out and… not only would it make our company look really bad to keep you in our employment, but I imagine people would give you a hard time too. You simply would not be able to peacefully and safely work here.”

Logan nodded. “I understand, really. It’s just come as a shock.”

“I know. Now, I want you to tell me everything that happened, as much detail as you can. Take your time…”

 

 

Hunapo barely made it to the bin in time, throwing up as Logan stood a few feet away, shivering in the middle of the park as drizzle covered his arms and soaked into his shirt. The summary dismissal almost seemed to be burning a hole in his pocket, and it took all his willpower not to tear the thing to pieces. The contents of a tiny locker in the changing rooms had been stuffed into his rucksack, weighing heavy on his back and the jeans he wore felt wrong. It was too early for him to be wearing home clothes.

Hunapo was still in their uniform: shorts and a polo shirt, and they shook as they gripped the edges of the bin. They were crying now, the events of the day pressing down on them until it was too much to bear and they just wanted to go home. But at the same time, they didn’t. There was a paranoia clouding their mind, that had never been present before. What if he was waiting for them in their flat? But he didn’t know where they lived! What if he was following them? Stalking them as he waited for an opportunity, for the first moment that Logan turned away, and wouldn’t be there to save them.

Hunapo gripped their wrist in an attempt to stop the shaking, but only succeeded in pressing their bruises and bringing back fresh memories: of being grabbed and thrown. Of what he’d tried to do. The fact that they couldn’t prevent what had happened. How they could just as easily suffered without anyone knowing.

Their legs shook and their stomach lurched as another wave of sick came, and they felt Logan’s hand on their back, rubbing them softly.

“Thanks,” they muttered, finally turning to him and burying their face in his chest whilst he wrapped his arms around them. The rain still pummelled and chilled the pair, but they didn’t care. Neither knew what to say, but then again, neither really felt like saying anything. What was there even left to tell each other after something like this?

Eventually, Logan pulled away, gentle as he placed his hands on Hunapo’s upper arms, rubbing their skin softly with his thumbs.

“Look, let’s get you home,” he began, but they shook their head.

“I can’t,” Hunapo’s face crumpled, “I can’t be alone right now.” They were still shaking. If there was anything left inside them they’d have been sick again just thinking about it.

“I don’t want to go home either,” Logan glared at his shoes, ignoring how the freezing rain burned his arms and neck. He couldn’t face his kids just yet, though they were probably still at school. He knew it would be best to get home before them, and figure out how to break the news to them, but his legs wouldn’t move. He didn’t want to see their faces. Didn’t want to tell them he’d ruined everything because of his temper.

He thought he’d finally brought it under control years ago, and buried that hot-headed idiot his younger self had been. But no, he was just the same idiot who thought with his fists instead of his head. Well of course! What was even in his head that he could think with? Everyone thought he was stupid, and time and time again he’d just prove them right.

“What do we do?” Hunapo asked eventually. Logan didn’t reply.

The scary thing was he’d willingly do it again. He’d do worse, even. He knew what he was capable of, and if he really wanted to he could break bones and rupture organs. If that cunt ever tried hurting Hunapo again he wouldn’t know what hit him. That was the trouble with Logan: Huna, Oscar and Charlie… if anyone ever messed with them he wouldn’t even care about the jail time, so long as he could get even with the bastard. Yeah, he’d be in prison but they’d be in a hospital, or even six feet under. And they’d fucking deserve it for harming his loved ones.

“Logie?”

Logan looked up. No, it was thinking like that that always got him into trouble. The fact of the matter was, as bad as things could get, he somehow managed to make them worse.

“I can’t go back,” he choked, covering his mouth with the back of a hand. It had started. The tears he’d tried to bury and hide were escaping now, and he loathed to think of how pitiful and downright pathetic he looked. But it was all too much. How could everything go wrong like this so fast?

“We’ll have to eventually,” they sighed.

“I can’t tell them…” Huna tried to pull him close, but Logan gently pushed them away and began to walk past. However, he quickly crashed to his knees and let out a wail.

“I failed them!” he cried, pummelling the ground, sobbing as his face screwed up.

“Logie!” Huna was on their knees beside him in an instant, too scared to touch him and unable to stop his breakdown.

“I messed up! I’m sorry,” Logan buried his face in his hands, “look, I can’t go back. I just make things worse!”

“You don’t-”

“Take my kids. You’d be a better parent to them.” Logan barely seemed to recognise them in his cloud of misery, on his hands and knees as tears joined the rain soaking the grass. “I don’t want to fail them anymore. They don’t deserve that!”

“You didn’t-”

“I’m no good to them. Please, just be the parent I couldn’t be.” His dad was right; he was a fucking waste of space. He needed to disappear.

“I’m not taking them, and you’re not a failure!” Hunapo’s words were barely reaching him. “You’re brave!”

“I’m reckless. I handle things wrong.” Logan sat up and hugged his stomach.

“You think so? Well I was just about to stab him with a scalpel!” Hunapo tried to laugh, but all they could manage was a bitter cough.

There was silence between the two before Logan let out a whimper, unable to sit up straight and once more on hands and knees. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, “I’m a monster.” The look of horror on Hunapo’s face was still fresh in his mind, clinging to his fist and staring up at him like he was wild. Pleading with him to end this. He could’ve easily injured them if he’d not had the sense to stop.

He was struggling to breathe now, the grief crushing his chest as his eyes and throat stung. He hadn’t meant to scare Huna. The last thing he’d wanted was to cause them any more pain.

“You’re not,” Hunapo tried, tearing up once more, “you saved me.”

“And caused more hurt,” Logan glared at the ground, refusing to look at them and focusing his attention on an ant scuttling through the greying grass instead. Either side of it were his hands, covered in dried blood, though only some of it was from his split knuckles.

“But…” Hunapo’s face crumpled as they let out a loud wail. “You’re not a failure for fuck’s sake!”

It wasn’t their words that made Logan look up, but the pain in their voice, an awful, chilling sound that once more evoked that urge to protect. What was he doing thinking of himself? There would be plenty of time for that later.

“You stopped him from… he was going to…”

They pulled at their hair and screamed.

“Huna!” He pulled himself to his knees, inches from Hunapo and once more they were in his arms, wailing into his shirt as the rain thickened and attacked from all sides. Logan tried to shield them as best he could, Hunapo feeling so small to him. They trembled and shuddered as they let it all out, and still they screamed.

The two knelt there, tangled together as they shared and let out their grief. The horror of it all. Neither cared that the other could see them cry; neither made a joke or wisecrack for the first time since they’d known each other. There was no urges to be better than the other, just a need to protect and be protected.

And still Hunapo screamed.

“Huna, it’s gonna be fine,” Logan eventually mumbled into their shoulder. “He can’t hurt you any more.”

“He might,” Hunapo sniffed, arms limply by their side.

“Not while I’m around,” Logan promised, shaking as he said that, determined to make good on his word. No one would hurt them while there was breath in his body.

“It’s my fault,” they sobbed, “all my fault. I couldn’t protect myself and you got in trouble for it.”

“No!” that anger was back, but thankfully a controllable amount that propelled Logan to grip Hunapo’s arms- careful to be gentle- and shake them lightly.

“Don’t ever say that again!” he growled, “you were not to blame! You didn’t cause this and nothing about this situation is your fault.” Another shake, and Hunapo was looking up with wide eyes, unable to speak.

“It’s not your fault,” Logan repeated fiercely, “and if anyone tells you different they’re a lying cunt!”

“Logie-”

“My actions got me in trouble; nothing about this is your fault.”

Hunapo’s bottom lip trembled. “But why did it happen? If there was nothing I could do to stop it, then why was I…” They shook their head.

“The world is full of evil bastards and you just had the bad luck to run into one,” Logan growled, “it was bad luck and unfortunate circumstances. You didn’t cause it.”

“But I’m scared!” Hunapo buried their face in Logan’s chest, “if I couldn’t stop it then who’s to say that it won’t happen again?”

Logan didn’t have an answer to that, much to the other’s horror.

“I can’t stop shaking,” Hunapo admitted, and Logan held them tighter. They were barely aware of the rain as they were sheltered, and though a few specs made it to their back and neck, they were too busy crying and trembling to notice.

“I’m not surprised,” Logan replied. “Look, that bastard has been fired. He can’t get you any more. And I know you’ve had a huge scare and it’ll take time to feel normal again, but you’ll heal.”

“Will I? Do you promise?” Hunapo knew it was childish, but they just wanted to know it would be okay. Logan’s words couldn’t heal them, or make things right again, but he could give them the hope they needed.

He didn’t reply immediately, taking time to form an appropriate answer, and Hunapo could feel him frowning against their hair.

“I can promise you,” he began, “that if you give yourself time to heal, and make the decision to pick yourself up again and fight this, then I’ll be there for ya, whatever you need. It won’t happen overnight, but I think together we can work through it. I’ll be here for you, I can promise that much.”

“You think I can heal then?” Hunapo smiled at that.

“In time? Yeah. It’s all down to you,” he pulled away and held them at arm’s length, throwing them a small grin, “but right now I say we go home- together- crack open a couple beers and get any more tears we have out of our system before the kids get home.”

“But what are you going to tell them?” Hunapo asked as Logan pulled him up.

“Well, that I can easily get another job,” Logan shrugged, “and I will. Starting tomorrow I’ll look for something. You don’t have to worry about me; I’m a big boy and can take care of myself!”

“Are you sure?”

Logan sighed. “Look, it’s cold, and you’re in no state to be rolling round on the grass crying. If you’re gonna let all your emotions out, it’s better to do it somewhere nice and warm, right?” He laced his fingers in their’s, ruffling their hair. “C’mon, before we catch our death too.”

Chapter Text

As Logan and Hunapo screamed in the park, Oscar wrapped his coat tighter around him, sat on the wooden bench outside the English block and watching students file out through the double doors, making their way to the nearest exits. They shrieked and shouted, phones out before they were even in sight of the gates, and if exhaustion had a smell, they were reeking of it. The drizzle hadn’t subsided over the course of the afternoon, and at some point had evolved into fully fledged rain, but Oscar didn’t want to put his hood up just yet, no matter how it chilled his cheeks and made him shiver. He wasn’t sure just how Mike could miss him; he was tall even whilst seated, and he’d recognise the coat, but there was still that sliver of paranoia there, and he hated having such a blindspot in his vision. People had snuck up on him before when he wore a coat hood, walking home alone from school as a boy, just starting out at high school and already a target. He’d not seen them coming until he’d already been thrown to the ground.

Why did he always have to think the worst things when he was happy? Why did his mind wander to the oddest places and most horrible memories? His mind was a terrible wanderer though; people always said he had his head in the clouds, and he’d been in conversations before and not heard a word the other person was saying because his thoughts were elsewhere. But in his defence, they were usually talking about something completely tedious and his own mind would provide far more stimulating conversation.

“Hey, daydream believer, earth to Cooper,” began Michael, patting him on the shoulder and accidentally making him jump. “I said hi like five times and you ignored me, dickcheese. Well, aren’t you in a galaxy far, far away.”

Oscar smiled. “Old habit. I tend to drift.”

“Oh really?” Mike plopped down next to him, stuffing his english folder into his bag and picking up loose papers that had fluttered out.

“Fuck’s sake!”

“Want me to hold something?”

“Nah, I can do it myself!” Mike scooped up the damp papers, forcing them into his bag and not caring that some had fallen apart. “Nothing real important anyway.”

“Of course,” Oscar shrugged, “hey, listen, Logan’s not so fond of me or Charlie walking home in the dark on our own, so do you mind if we wait here until she gets out of science club?”

Mike shrugged, “nah I’m good. We can talk, and stuff.”

“Just talk,” Oscar told him, “can’t risk anyone else seeing… stuff.”

“I know, I know!” Mike laughed, “unless you fancy going for a walk; I promise we’d be back in an hour.”

“That would be nice,” Oscar shivered, “I’m freezing just sitting here!”

“Even in your big coat?”

Mike stroked the collar of his own jacket, shrugging. It was light, and he never wore his blazer, so he knew he had every right to be complaining, but what was wrong with Oscar? Sure, Mike was a bit pudgier around the middle, and Oscar, well, there seemed to be nothing there at times, but was he really that affected by the weather?

“Yes,” Oscar stood up with a groan, shaking in his damp, rain soaked trousers as the cold and wind seeped through his layers of clothes. Why couldn’t he shake off the chill nowadays? Surely he’d be used to it after all these years in the UK? He thought he was, but this year it was awful and he seemed to be the only one affected. The younger ones were kept warm by their near constant reserves of energy, which they used to run around and into each other like they were still toddlers, but even Mike and Sal- both from countries not particularly warmer or colder than Australia- didn’t seem to feel the cold as bad as him, though it was clear they certainly didn’t enjoy it.

“Can’t shake the cold then?” Mike asked, and Oscar nodded. The boy gave a sly grin, almost hidden in the evening light, glancing around before speaking. “Well… um, I’m sure I can, you know, do something about that.” He blushed as his words didn’t come out quite the way he wanted, and Oscar had to laugh.

“Oh you will now?”

“Maybe,” Mike buried his face in his hands and let out a whine, “ah I don’t fucking know!”

“Well, I suppose we can go for a walk until you figure it out.” Oscar began to saunter away, deciding it was best to not take Mike’s hand, no matter how much he wanted to. To avoid unwanted detection, they really needed to keep physical contact to a minimum. Mike followed in silence, hands stuffed in his pockets and making sure to show no signs of suspicious affection. Then again, with Mike, any sign of affection was automatically suspicious. Poor boy.

“Hugs,” he eventually mumbled as they walked through the school gates, “I mean hugs. You know, to keep you warm.”

“Well that’s sweet of you,” Oscar replied, “but I’m afraid that’s somewhat… likely to catch the wrong people’s attentions.”

“Right,” Michael sighed, “well what should we do?”

Oscar came to a halt. What could they do? There wasn’t much point going to either of their houses (too far away), or the sports centre (not enough time), and he wasn’t allowed in the park after dark anymore, and it certainly would be dark by the time they got there. For once, Logan hadn’t been paying attention to his brother’s mess of a love life- or Michael- when Oscar told him what he’d been up to that time he went there with Michael, more concerned with the confrontation involving Oscar and Mike’s schoolmates. Oscar certainly wouldn’t have called it a confrontation, but the story still worried the oldest Cooper sibling, and winter curfews had been put in place, at least until the days got longer again.

Logan probably wouldn’t be too happy about the boys hanging around the streets after school hours either- Oscar usually completed homework in the library whilst waiting for Charlie- but Oscar was fairly certain he was old enough to be out with a friend- or boyfriend- with no parental supervision. Logan never used to be so overbearing about his siblings’ safety, but past events had quickly changed his attitude.

“I don’t know,” he told Michael, “where do you want to go?”

Mike shrugged. “Shops? Maybe get a bite to eat.”

“Nothing too heavy for me,” Oscar replied as they walked, “dodgy stomach.”

“I was only gonna get some chips. Sound good to you?”

“You do you, but I’ll pass.”

Michael frowned; “what d’ya think caused the stomach thing?”

“I don’t know, and it’s not really that important.” Oscar glanced from the ground to Mike’s shoes to a nearby tree. “I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

“Need to go to the chemist?”

“I’m fine, I said!”

“Right, fine, fuck’s sake.” Mike looked like he wanted to say more, but seemed to have dropped the subject. “So Saturday, huh?”

“Looking forward to it. Erm, what exactly did you have planned.”

Mike blushed. “Some, err, boxing, I guess. Maybe a walk round the park first, since we’ll already be fucking stuck there.”

“Sounds lovely.” Oscar threw him a warm smile.

“And maybe,” Mike added, playing with his collar, “after that, you can come back to mine for some gardening.”

“As long as it’s only gardening,” Oscar told him sternly.

“What sorta creep d’ya take me for?” Mike threw his arms wide; “actually, don’t answer that.”

“I’m almost too scared too,” Oscar grinned, “anyway, now we’re somewhere a bit quieter...” He glanced around to check that, indeed, they’d followed a route empty of other high school children, and were now on a narrow residential street. The place was devoid of life, save for a large, mangy cat resting on a nearby wheelie bin.

“Yes?” Mike drew out his question, raising an eyebrow.

“I have to ask, but, you really liked me all that time?”

Mike frowned. “Yeah?”

“Well, why?”

“Does it really need to be said, or do you just like being showered in compliments?”

Oscar wiggled his eyebrows, “indulge me.”

“Well, I guess, that’s just how things turned out, huh? Can’t really help who you like,” Mike shrugged, “I think you’re nice looking, and you have a nice personality, and...”

“‘Nice’ doesn’t really say a lot,” Oscar pouted, “believe it or not, but I’m struggling to comprehend this entire situation. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”

“Tell me about it,” Michael sighed, “I’m actually dating the nicest- wait, fuck not nice, something else... sweetest guy in school? The cutest boxer in town? Yeah, I'm not buying it.”

The boy’s cheeks turned a flattering shade of pink. What the hell was Mike on? Oscar wondered- for a quick, horrific moment- if this was all a prank.

Oscar’s blush evolved into a deep red as that thought was pushed from his mind- logic, for once, winning. “Oh I have to respectfully disagree; you’re the cutest boxer in town.” He wondered how he could say all that so calmly, seeing as Mike was struggling to get his words out.

The boy in question buried his face in his hands. “God dammit, you are!”

“I am, yeah.”

The pair laughed, and Mike shoved him gently.

“I like it when you’re confident,” he admitted.

“Oh?”

“Well, yeah,” he shrugged, “I used to think it was the most annoying, obnoxious shit I’d ever seen, but, well, I prefer it to you hating yourself. I don’t like it when you put yourself down.”

“When have I ever-”

“Your looks, your weight, your damn legs. I get you’re insecure about things, I am too. Who isn’t, really? But…”

“Well if everyone is insecure, what difference does it make if I am?” Oscar tried to make a point of loving himself when so few people did, and for the most part he managed that quite well, but there was that part of him that strived to be better. To be perfect. But everyone wanted that, right? It was normal. Everyone sacrificed things from time to time, to make themselves better, didn’t they?

“Well, I care, and it doesn’t make it right.” Michael paused as he tried to get his thoughts together. “Like, I’m upset when Al and Matt are insecure. And this pains me to admit, but I don’t like it when our friends get insecure either. It’s just upsetting and you don’t know how to help, right?”

“And you don’t get what they could possibly mean,” Oscar added with a sigh, “because to you they’re so wonderful and their flaws make them who they are. And it kills you to see them putting themselves down.”

Mike paused before nodding, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “I don’t put myself down,” he mumbled.

“Oh but you do, love,” the other replied, “not only in what you say, but that… front you insist on putting on. Like you’re scared of letting people see who you really are. Ashamed even.”

Mike didn’t reply.

“Why do you do that?” Oscar pressed, “you’re not tough, and you’re so much more than that. ”

“Ehh, it’s not all that important,” Mike shrugged, “just forget it.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

Mike scoffed. “Well, deal with it.”

“What if I don’t want to?” Oscar repeated, almost playfully.

“Yeah, it’s not gonna happen,” Mike took his hand and began leading him away again, “come on, I’m hungry and we don’t have that much time.”

“Okay, fine…”

Chapter Text

“You look like you’re about to float away,” Charlie commented as he observed his brother, and he really did. Oscar almost seemed to have a spring in his step as he walked, and if he didn’t float away he’d most likely break into a rather embarrassing song and dance number. What was up with him all of a sudden? Had Old Spice released a new spray or did someone simply compliment his hair?

Charlie wasn’t complaining though, because as annoying as Oscar was, he just wanted his brother to be happy.

“Oh, I do now?” Oscar wasn’t bothering to hide his grin. “Funny that.”

The grin was infectious, and Charlie joined him in smiling. “Okay, what is it?”

They were nearly home now, thankfully as the rain ensured the sky was even darker than normal, and they just wanted to get home in the warm. Oscar was still shivering in his coat, and Charlie’s jacket was damp and doing little to keep him toasty.

“I’m not sure I can tell you,” Oscar began before stopping. Wait, he and Mike had agreed to tell their friends at some point, and it would probably be best to tell them together, but maybe Mike was expecting him to at least tell Charlie beforehand, given that they were siblings? And as much as he was keen to keep his secret boyfriend a secret from most of the world, he needed to tell someone. Charlie wouldn’t go and blabber to the entire school anyway.

The kid in question raised an eyebrow. “You can’t? Did you do inappropriate things in the park again?”

“What?” Oscar pulled his mouth into an ‘O’ as he struggled to stop himself tripping on nothing. “Where did you hear that?”

“I overheard you and Logan talking about it, you cheeky boy,” Charlie waggled a finger in his face, “it’s quite easy to eavesdrop when you’re small.”

“How frightening to hear,” he replied flatly, “I’m not sure I want to tell you now.”

“Oh come on!” Charlie pouted, “is it something I can find out from Sal?”

“Probably, he knows but there’s the possibility he won’t tell even you,” Oscar let out a sigh, “and I was planning on telling you anyway, so long as you promise to not blab anyone else, even in our little circle of friends. Just yet anyway.”

Charlie scoffed, looking around. “I promise. What sort of dick do you take me for?”

“Well, if you promise…”

“You’re not gonna come out again, are you? Because you’ve already told me. I get it; you like guys.”

“I know! Why would I do it again?” Oscar shook his head. “Odd child.”

“Well you really like talking about yourself,” Charlie shrugged, “so what is it?”

Oscar leaned in closer. “I have a boyfriend.”

Charlie gasped. “Woah, really? That’s neat! Hmm, let me guess, Mike also likes doing inappropriate things in the park with you?”

“Charlie!” Oscar buried his face in his hands.

“So that’s a yes then?”

“Charlotte Manya Cooper don’t say such things!”

Charlie wrinkled his nose, mood dampened. “But is it Mike?”

“Yes,” Oscar whined.

“So it has something to do with inappro-”

“We liked each other before that,” came the squeaky reply.

“Kay, well congratulations, I guess,” Charlie smiled, “I’m happy for you bro.”

“Thanks,” Oscar smiled into his coat, “it’s just so exciting!”

“I’m sure you’re going to tell me all about how exciting it is.” Charlie smiled up at him. He didn’t mind his brother’s rambles so much; if it got too annoying he could always tune out. Just so long as Oscar didn’t get too personal, Charlie could listen to him gush about the first guy he felt things for to actually treat him with some respect, and Oscar wasn’t one for getting grossly explicit about things anyway.

“Oh no, I don’t want to bore you, though I fail to see how you would be bored by my life.”

“It’s certainly full of drama,” agreed Charlie, not having the heart to say he was already bored.

“Still, things are going up, do you not agree my little Charlie?” He ruffled the kid’s hair; “finally, life is going in the right direction.”

“Yeah, of course,” Charlie glanced away, scraping his shoe against the pavement. “So… you love him?”

“Oy!” cried Oscar, “it’s too early for that kind of language! I don’t, because we just started dating today.”

“I know, I know,” Charlie laughed, “you’re so easy to wind up!”

“Don’t you know it,” he muttered as they finally turned into their street. At long last! He thought his legs would give out under him if he had to walk anymore and the only thing keeping him going was that bubble of joy in his chest.

“So, if you got married, whose surname would you use?” Charlie piped up cheekily.

“Be quiet, you.”

“Or would you double-barrel it? Cooper-Jones or Jones-Cooper?”

“Cooper-Jones sounds better,” Oscar spat, still hiding his blush in his coat collar. His comment only succeeded in making Charlie grin like a hyena.

“Oh so you’re thinking about it?” he shrieked, holding back a laugh, “have you planned your wedding, Oscar? Picked out your outfit already, Oscar? Thought about yours and Mike’s first dance, Oscar?”

“Shut up you little… rascal,” Oscar stormed through the garden and pulled out his keys, “and you better not say anything to Logan! It’s up to me to tell him.”

“Right, right, I know.”

Oscar paused for a moment, staring vacantly at the door and resting his forehead on the old, rusty knocker.

“Bro?” Charlie nudged him.

“‘When you say nothing at all’,” Oscar looked down at him, still flushing furiously, “if we were to… would that be a good song for our first dance?”

“Not all that fitting,” Charlie considered, “I mean, if there’s one thing you’re both terrible at, it’s saying nothing at all. Then again, you both tend to talk rubbish anyway so maybe it has a point.”

“Right, right, I forgot how rude you are,” he thought for a second, “'always on my mind'?”

Charlie groaned. “Yeah, sure, just let me in I’m freezing out here!”

“Fine,” Oscar finally unlocked the front door and the pair stumbled into a dark hallway, barely noticing how derelict the place felt until their soaking coats and shoes were in a pile on the floor.

“Hey, Logie?” Charlie called, tiptoeing towards the sitting room.

“In here.” To their surprise, it was Hunapo that answered. Oscar and Charlie exchanged confused glances before opening the door to find the two hunched on the sofa, Logan holding his head in his hands and he didn’t even acknowledge as his siblings entered the room.

“Logie what’s wrong? Huna?” Charlie glanced between them, rushing over to his brother, “Logie are you hurt?”

Logan couldn’t answer, struggling to breathe and unable to stop the trembling. That voice, that tiny, pitiful voice so full of concern for him. He didn’t want to face either of them; Logan wasn’t ready, but he couldn’t run or hide. Huna should’ve just left him to die in the park; he’d rather that than… oh fuck he couldn’t do it!

“Do you want me to explain?” asked Hunapo gently.

“Nah, I can do it, don’t want you, well, reliving anything,” Logan finally lifted his head up, though he still couldn’t bring himself to look at his siblings. “To be honest, if you want to leave the room, make some tea, have a bath...”

“No I can stay,” Huna rested a hand on his.

“Are you sure?”

“Certain.”

“What’s going on?” Oscar spoke up, and finally Logan looked at them. Oscar was leaning against the wall, unsure of what to do whilst Charlie was still next to him, looking up with those large amber eyes.

“Logie, are you okay?”

“I’m… I’m afraid not.” He glared down at the floor, at the worn carpet with its faint food and ink stains. “Kids, you see... oh fuck I don’t know where to start.” He didn’t want to tell them.

“I was attacked,” Hunapo piped up, “I don’t want to go into the details, but if Logan hadn’t stepped in, well, I don’t like to think of what might have happened.”

“Huna!” Charlie leapt up to climb between them, “oh gosh I’m sorry to hear that.” He snuggled up next to them and took their hand. Hunapo flinched at the contact, but didn’t protest and soon settled back down. It was only little Charlie anyway. Charlie wouldn’t hurt them!

“I’m fine now,” they insisted, and that seemed to calm the kid down.

“So what happened then?” Oscar had almost been too afraid to ask.

“I, umm, my temper, you know what it’s like if someone I care for is hurting.”

“You didn’t kill anyone, did you?” Another question Oscar fought to get out.

“Nearly.”

“Oh there’s no need to go that far,” Hunapo rolled their eyes, “you just messed him up a bit. Bastard had it coming.”

“Right, and some people saw and the higher-ups got involved…”

“And you lost your job;” Oscar was a clever boy, though right now he wished he wasn’t, just so he could remain ignorant for those few extra seconds.

Logan nodded and sniffed loudly, burying his face in his hands as the convulsions started up again. He’d not wanted to start crying in front of the children! Years and years of hardships, and he’d never let them see him weep, no matter how low they were.

And the sound certainly caught the younger Coopers by surprise. Charlie froze as he took in the horrible noise, something he’d never thought was possible. Logan’s sobs were quiet, barely whispers, as he still tried to silence himself. The pressure just manifested itself in the way his shoulders wracked and fingers pulled at his skin, bones and veins sticking out as his knuckles cracked once more. Charlie was silent as he watched the tiniest trickle of blood snake down to his wrist.

“I failed you,” he choked.

“Don’t be silly,” Oscar finally moved closer, sitting on the only patch of sofa left. “You did what was right, and you can get another job, right? It might not be as fun as the zoo, but you could always look for something better later on.”

“I was fired,” Logan hissed, “I can kiss any chance of future employment goodfuckingbye.” And that was just the start of their problems. He needed money to pay rent, to buy the kids food and school supplies, and to keep the electricity from being shut off. If he couldn’t get a job, their home would be repossessed and they’d go hungry. He didn’t know what he’d do then. Leave them with Huna? You couldn’t really leave teenagers on people’s doorsteps like you could with babies, but the image of having to tuck them into a cardboard box in an alley was even worse.

“We’ll think of something,” Oscar assured him, “you can’t give up.”

“Bro I’m scared.”

Bro? Logan didn’t often call him that, not since he’d been forced into the role of parent. Oscar didn’t like it; it made Logan seem so vulnerable, no longer the invincible, solid man whose optimism never failed. He was barely older than a boy, and he certainly wasn’t unbeatable.

What were they going to do?

As Logan’s misery spiralled back down, and Oscar tried and failed to bring it back up, Charlie silently stood up and slipped out of the room, no one commenting on his disappearance.

“I’m not surprised,” Oscar sighed, “but I guess there’s nothing you can do for tonight. Get some rest, get warm. We can start looking for something in the morning.”

“And what if I can’t find anything? Then what?” Logan’s glare almost seemed to be accusing him of something.

He looked a mess. The red puffy eyes went well with the dark bags under them, and his scruffy, towel-dried hair. When Oscar rested a hand on his bare arm, it was cold and damp to the touch.

“Here,” Charlie mumbled, returning with two cuddly toys in his arms.

“Allirea?” asked Oscar absentmindedly, wondering just what the child was doing going into his room and stealing his stuff.

“Yeah, Lollopy and Allirea will make you feel better.” He handed one, a battered pink bunny, to Logan before resting a considerably neater bilby on Hunapo’s lap. It was childish as all hell, he knew, but when he was little he’d loved that stupid rabbit and when he would cry and feel scared over everything from thunderstorms to neighbours shouting to missing his dad, Logan would just tell him Lollopy would always be there and put on a silly voice as ‘Lollopy’ danced in front of him and cracked jokes to cheer him up.

Logan simply stared at the toy, giving a short, almost silent chuckle.

“Thanks kid,” Hunapo gently picked up the bilby, something Logan had bought for a tiny Oscar, back in Melbourne, when the latter had thrown something of a strop over dropping his ice cream. He still slept with the thing next to his head, though he’d never admit it. Hunapo stroked it and stared at the dark eyes. Oscar had even made them a little bowtie, and they thought the thing was adorable!

“You’re too much,” Logan pulled Charlie into a crushing hug as the boy sat down, and at long last, his smile was back. “See, didn’t I always tell ya Lollopy could make anything better?”

“And if you need money,” Charlie sneakily tried, “I can always go and sell all my girlie dresses and summer clothes.”

“That’s sweet of you to offer, but we’ll be fine. You won’t have to sell anything.” Clothes and small things like that wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway. He wasn’t even sure selling the electronics would cover next month’s rent.

“Oh, if you say so.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Logan smiled at the others, “all of us. We’re a team and we’ll get through this!” He didn’t believe it, not entirely. But then again, he seldom honestly expected his optimism would guarantee results, it just did, in the end. So whilst he could never know if things would be ‘fine’ anytime soon- if at all- he had to hope, and he had to give Hunapo, Oscar and Charlie hope.

“I guess I should take off then,” Hunapo spoke up, “it’s getting late and everything seems to have calmed down a bit.”

“I won’t hear it!” Logan exclaimed, “I’m not having you walking alone in the dark, and something tells me you’d rather not be doing that too, hmm? Plus, it’s pissing down like a pub urinal out there!”

“Well, yes, but,” Hunapo sighed, “to be honest, I don’t want to be alone just yet.” They also weren’t too keen on leaving Logan to his own devices. They weren’t sure just what that superficial front was trying to hide, but if Logan was trying to cover up destructive thoughts, they wanted to be here to spot them.

Plus, they felt safe with him, and the two kids were wonderfully distracting.

“So it’s settled then,” Logan nodded, “I’ll make hot chocolate and everyone can get relaxed. Huna, you can have my bed- I promise it’s clean- and you can borrow some of Oscar’s pyjamas.” He got up with a groan, still holding Lollopy, and moved towards the door.

“Would that be okay?” they asked Oscar, who nodded.

“Of course!”

“I don’t mind the sofa though,” they added, returning their gaze to the doorway Logan had disappeared into.

“Oy fuck off! You’re a guest; you get the bed! Hey Charlie, can ya give me a hand out here?”

“Sure thing,” and with that, Charlie bounded out too.

“Hey,” Hunapo glanced over at Oscar, taking in how dull and thin his hair looked, and the skin too, so dry and greying. They’ll admit they hadn’t known the boy for that long, but Oscar seemed like someone who took pride in his appearance, who would make an effort to keep himself looking healthy, because he certainly didn’t look healthy to them. His hands too- not yet the huge dishes Logan had, but still rather large for his body- looked rough and uncared for, like he’d been fighting or scraping his knuckles against something.

They recalled their conversation with Logan from earlier- a whole lifetime ago- about Oscar and Charlie and theories and secrets and illnesses. They weren’t a professional, but if they had to guess which kid was suffering through such a thing: it was Oscar.

“How can I be of assistance?” asked Oscar, a little too cheerily.

Hunapo paused. Was it really their place to say anything? Oscar was Logan’s little brother, not theirs, and they could be intruding on something they didn’t understand. That being said, what if someone else, outside their own family, had noticed the same symptoms in their brother. What if he’d have been able to get help earlier? It could’ve made the world of difference.

If they were the only one to suspect something was horribly wrong with Oscar, Hunapo would’ve gone for it, but Logan knew as much as they did. Maybe he had a plan to confront the boy about it, and know what to say to someone he’d known all his life. Hunapo met the kid last month, and there was so much they had yet to learn about him and his mannerisms. What if they said the wrong thing? Or handled it too bluntly for Oscar’s comfort and ended up making him less likely to open up? The last thing they all needed today was more tears and emotions running high.

They’d just have to leave it up to Logan, if he hadn’t already forgotten.

 

Chapter Text

“Hey come on man, I know something’s bothering ya!”

Did Mike honestly think he’d say something whilst they were in the queue outside the science classroom, surrounded by classmates? Yeah, that was going to happen.

“It’s nothing,” he mumbled, “just drop it.”

Even if they were alone, Oscar wasn’t sure he wanted to burden the other with how he’d barely been able to sleep worrying about his family and their future. Then, to add to the stress, he’d slept through his alarm and barely had time to get dressed before bolting out the door. The disruption of his normal routine had upset him pretty deeply; he needed those few hours in the morning to look presentable! And it was his first morning with a boyfriend too!

Still, no matter how wrecked he’d looked, it was nothing compared to Huna’s sunken eyes as they potted about the kitchen, or Logan, sprawled out on the sofa, knocked out and surrounded by beer cans, face pinched into a rather distressed frown. There had been a part of him that had considered playing truant. After all, he was already late and those two could probably do with someone looking out for them, to make them breakfast and drinks, but he was a coward in that sense. The idea of breaking school rules was one far too out of his reach to become a reality.

So he’d dashed out the door with Charlie, under the pretence of giving them some privacy and space, and made his way to school feeling like death.

That was what he’d felt like lately though: pure death. His energy was gone, and he was always tired. He hoped he’d pick himself up again before his mock exams or he’d really be in trouble.

“Hey come on, I’m here for ya,” Mike shrugged, trying ever so desperately to keep the concern out of his voice, for the others students’ ears. Oscar could pick up on it though.

“Now’s not the place or time,” he admitted, “just leave it.”

Mike raised an eyebrow, but seemed to understand. He took off his sunglasses to wipe on his jacket as Sal joined them.

“Oh God I’m not late!” he hissed, skidding between them and nearly sending the class flying.

“No, just on time,” replied Oscar wearily, thankful for the distraction.

“I was finishing the homework in break and-”

“What homework?” The colour drained from Michael’s face before the others’ eyes and he looked like he’d collapse.

“It was calculating speed, from them diagrams of cars on ramps,” Sal furrowed his eyebrows, “God I hate numbers.”

“I forgot about it,” Mike whined, clutching his stomach.

“Dude do it now!” cried another student, “sir isn’t here yet!”

“Right, fucking hell,” Mike knelt on the floor and pulled out his physics exercise book, scribbling down the answers other students were shouting to him. Unfortunately, he could only get the first three finished before they spied the teacher strolling down the corridor.

Michael groaned, throwing his pen on the floor and clutching his head.

“Hey don’t worry we’ll tell you the answers before you hand it in,” Oscar hissed, trying to be heard over Mike’s whines yet keep out of the teacher’s earshot.

“I can work them out myself,” Michael mumbled, “I just wish I’d remembered!”

“You really need a planner or diary or something,” Sal commented, picking up Michael’s physics book, “you know, so you don’t end up like this all the time.”

“He’s right you know,” Oscar added.

Mike groaned as he stood up. “I’ll put it on my Christmas list,” he grumbled before everyone began stumbling into the physics classroom.

 

 

“Man I really need to relax after that,” Sal groaned, stretching as he walked in front of the other two, and Oscar nodded in agreement. Charlie had invited a bunch of friends round to their house, and he didn’t fancy going home to a horde of shrieking teenagers.

“Well, want to go do something?” he offered. He’d like to spend some time with them, so long as he made sure to let Logan know he was safe with friends and not being murdered in an alleyway or something almost as horrendous.

“What’s open this time of night?” Michael scoffed.

“Um, everything? It’s half three,” Oscar laughed.

“Oh. Well shit someone should tell the fucking sun. I don’t fancy boxing now,” Mike began, “as much as I think Oscar needs a distraction from whatever’s making him look like a zombie.”

"You what mate?"

“I can’t believe you just called your boyfriend that,” Sal exclaimed in mock-horror, “how could you! But boxing doesn’t sound fun to me either.”

“Does it ever? You don’t seem like a boxing fan,” Mike shrugged, “also shut up Oscar looks stressed!”

“Dick,” Oscar joked, though he didn’t think there was anything funny about how he looked.

“You do! Would shopping cheer ya the fuck up?”

“I’m broke and saving up for Christmas,” Oscar sighed, “and if I went to the park my brother might actually have a coronary.”

“I’m guessing no one wants to go to the cinema?” asked Sal, and the others shook their heads.

“What about swimming?” Mike wondered, “I haven’t been to the pool yet.”

“Oh God why,” Oscar muttered.

“Swimming? Really?” Sal raised an eyebrow.

“Sport’s a good de-stressor! And it’ll be fun.”

Sal scoffed. “Oh you just want to see Oscar in swimming trunks!”

“What? You do now?” Oscar tried to hide a laugh.

“Fuck off! I just want to go swimming!”

“Christ okay we’ll go swimming,” Oscar rolled his eyes, “no need to throw a strop.”

“I’m not!”

“You’re just agreeing with your boyfriend,” Sal joked.

“Not true,” protested Oscar, “I just want to exercise, and swimming uses so many muscles! It’s really good. Even if it means getting my chest out.”

“Right, right,” Sal shrugged.

“So that settles things,” Mike clapped his hands together, “we’ll go home, get our swim things, and meet outside the sport’s centre in half an hour?”

“Sure,” Oscar began to trot briskly away, “looking forward to it.” His tone of voice said otherwise, but no one commented on it.

“See y’all,” Mike wheeled round to stride in the other direction.

Sal could only glance between the two as they walked on, and no one heard his nervous confession.

“Guys, erm, I can’t swim.”

 

 

“You know I don’t like you going off on your own,” Logan sighed as Oscar stuffed a fluffy towel into his sports bag.

“Oh come on, I’m a big boy and I’ll be meeting up with friends!” Oscar pleaded, “and I need some fun to take my mind off my mocks!”

“If you have exams coming up, wouldn’t it be better to study?”

Logan seemed to have perked up, at least for the sake of Charlie’s friends, though he still looked tired and miserable upon closer inspection. And to be honest, the last thing he really needed was Lars bringing over a games console and teaching Charlie a whole new range of insults and things you could threaten to do to people on the other side of the world who killed you in COD and racing games.

In all honesty, Logan could probably do with a swimming session himself, and Oscar would’ve suggested it, had he not been certain his brother would do everything possible to embarrass him in front of his friends, despite currently feeling like pond scum.

“I do! I just want a break,” he shrugged, “and spend time with my new friends that make school life bearable.”

Logan groaned. “Fuck’s sake. Fine, get outta here and have fun. It'd be hard to concentrate with that little redhead shit screaming at some guy in Norway to go finger himself with a hamster over a 360 noscope. What even is a 360 noscope anyway?”

Oscar frowned. "I'm more concerned as to how one fingers themselves with a hamster, and who would find the experience more traumatising. So I can go then?"

"I said yes, didn't I?"

“Oh thanks, you’re the best!” Oscar gave his brother a hug before slinging his sport's bag over his shoulder and skipping over to his bedroom door. He turned the handle, but before he left, he glanced back at his brother with an apologetic expression.

“Um, Logie,” he began sheepishly, “do you think I could borrow a tenner? You know, for admissions.”

Logan gave a long sigh, folding his arms though he didn’t look truly angry.

“I promise I’ll ask if they have any vacancies,” Oscar added hopefully.

“You think that’s gonna work with me?” he growled before letting out another sigh, “fine, but seriously, don’t make this a habit. And remember to ask.” He continued to glare at his brother as he reached for his wallet.

“Thanks, you’re really, really the best.”

“Oh shuddup,” Logan laughed, “and get outta here ya crazy kid, before I change my mind!”

 

 

“I’m using a private cubicle and that’s final.” Oscar tried his best not to slam the door to his little changing room cubicle, but didn’t quite succeed and flinched at the sound.

“No, no, it’s fine,” came Mike’s voice from the other side, “I was just saying we’re not gonna take the piss outta each other if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Oscar reassured the others, “I just don’t like changing in front of others, you know?”

“Right, course.” There was a pause before Mike spoke again. “So, are you, like, one of those guys that was born a girl, cause that’s fine we don’t care.”

Oscar blinked. Well he wasn’t expecting that. “No, I’m not, I’m just, well…”

“Insecure?” offered Sal.

“Private,” Oscar replied flatly. “Go get changed okay? I didn’t spend a tenner to hide in here all evening!”

“Right.”

Oscar listened as the footsteps moved ever so slightly away, back to the bench in the middle of the room where they’d left their bags. Oscar himself peeled off his jeans and stuffed them into his bag, his shoes and socks soon joining them, his jacket too.

Oscar sighed as he ran a hand over his stomach, and his baggy T-shirt. Could he get in trouble for wearing it in the pool? He hoped not, because, in all honesty, he’d have kept his trousers on too if he thought he’d get away with it. The shirt was a pretty big issue though. What if Mike hated body hair and thought he looked gross? It wasn't his fault he resembled Logan in terms of chest and stomach hair!

He shrugged and pulled his goggles out of his bag before opening the door again. Body issues aside, he was already calmer here, the changing room empty of other people and there were no shouts coming from the pool itself. The smell of chlorine, dark changing room and the shimmers on the walls from the pool he spied through the door also added to the effect of serenity.

“Oh come on,” Mike exclaimed, a little louder than intended. “We don’t care what you look like under there?”

“Why are you so desperate to see me shirtless?” Oscar shot back, only half serious.

“Why are you wearing a T-shirt into the pool?” Mike retorted, taking off his sunglasses and stuffing them in the pocket of his bag.

“Why do you care?” Oscar looked him up and down. Not a bad view, in all honesty.

“Why do you get to stare?”

Oscar blushed, trying to find some way to reply. “Well, why is Sal wearing designer swimming trunks? Christ it's only a little swim swim.”

“Hey leave me out of this!” cried Sal, “and they’re my brother’s.”

“Ew,” Mike commented.

“I don’t go swimming ever,” the other explained, “don’t have my own trunks.”

“Right, right,” Mike packed his clothes into his sport’s bag and threw it in the locker they’d rented, the others’ bags soon piled on top and the key around his wrist.

“On second thought,” began Oscar, “maybe my shirt will slow me down in the water. And I didn’t bring a spare.”

“Gimme it then,” Mike rolled his eyes and unlocked the locker again.

"Still thirsty then?" joked Sal, to the others' embarrassment.

Once down to his swimming trunks, Oscar followed the others into the pool, wrapping his arms around his chest.

“You look fine,” Mike growled, glancing back at him, “come on let’s just forget about school for a few hours.”

“Yeah and no one can see you under the water,” Sal added, looking around, “and there’s hardly anyone else here.”

“Fuck yeah!” Mike jumped into the shallow end, splashing about and flinging water at them.

Oscar shrieked before making his way around to the deep end, pulling on his goggles and diving in. The water was cool, not freezing for once. He struck out, a little rusty but not the worst. He opened his eyes as he swam, taking in the almost endless expanse of blue, flickering lights and the movement of the waves as they distorted his view. He resurfaced long enough to take another breath before diving down again.

He felt safe here. The lapping water drowned out every other sound and he was weightless in the pool. Perfect peace.

All too soon, he’d reached the other end, where Sal was standing around awkwardly, the water up to his waist.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked.

Sal nodded. “It’s just a bit cold.”

“Ah, well the best thing to do it just dive in,” Oscar told him.

“I’ll have to take your word on that.”

“So where’s Mike gone?”

“He’s behind you!”

Oscar wheeled round and fell in the water, spluttering and up to his chin as chlorine stung his nose. “You prick!” he wheezed, blinking through the fog in his goggles to find Mike grinning up at him, face half-submerged in water. His dark, copper brown hair was a shining waterfall over his forehead. Any other protests at being scared died on Oscar’s lips at the sight of his shining eyes without aggression. He wanted to see more of that, Michael’s soft side.

“Hey check out the olympian over here!” exclaimed Mike, “actually trying to swim like a pro.”

“I want to make the most of my time and money,” Oscar swam small, slow laps around the others. “Hey, who do you think would win a race between us?”

“Well Sal can’t swim, he just told me,” began Mike, “and I haven’t been in a while. So Oscar, because you're Australian.”

“Oh wow,” Oscar stumbled back dramatically, pretending to be offended, “you think it’s okay to say that?”

“You just fucking swam like something was trying to eat you!”

“Oh so now because I’m Australian, every time I go in the water, something ends up trying to eat me, oh wow. Wow. I see how it is.”

“No, no that’s not what I meant,” Mike replied defensively, “don’t put words in my mouth you dick!”

Oscar had no idea why he said what he did, but before he could stop himself the words were already out. "Would you rather I put my dick in your mouth you words?"

Now it was Michael's turn to look offended. "The fuck bro?"

"Should I leave?" Sal piped up, "cause I really wanna."

“Oh come now, I’m only messing with you.”

“Well stop messing,” Mike barked jokingly before snapping his head in Sal’s direction, “and you, learn to swim!”

“I will, when I get used to the water,” Sal was still shivering to himself.

“You’ll never get used to it standing around,” Mike commented, “come on!” He grabbed Sal’s wrist and pulled the boy down with him, splashing Oscar in the process.

As Oscar shrieked out a laugh, he watched Sal resurface with a splutter.

“You bastards!” he cried, “utter bastards!” He wiped his sopping hair from his eyes, gasping and glaring at his friends.

“Well you’re in now,” Mike said, “so let’s fucking do this!”

“You’re gonna teach me to swim?” asked Sal skeptically. “I guess it’s not so bad underwater.” He sank down to his neck, looking considerably happier.

Mike laughed. “Fuck no man! I’m a terrible teacher. Oscar’s gonna teach ya.”

“I am?” Oscar blinked. “Well, okay then…”

 

 

“We tried,” Oscar reassured him, and Sal threw a poisonous glare in his direction.

“I think I might stick to garden centres and shopping with you two, bloody sports freaks.”

They were on their way home now, snuggled in their coats and still freezing. It was gone six and, as fun as the evening had been, they were looking forward to going home and relaxing.

“Okay then,” Oscar gave a wince.

“Are you better though?” asked Sal as he glanced between the two, “you seem happier.”

Holy shit had Mike needed that session. He actually felt serine, for once, and less stressed than he’d been in months, maybe even years. The fact that his hair fell flat and it was too dark to wear his sunglasses made him feel exposed though, too baby-faced and not a tough guy like he wanted to look. Though, he had to admit, neither Oscar nor Sal considered him that anymore, if they ever did.

“Yeah I’m great,” Mike stretched, “all calm and shit. Hunky-dory! O-boy?”

“As good as I can get,” Oscar admitted with a shrug. “It was a nice distraction for a few hours.”

“Yo what even happened?”

“I guess no one’s around,” Oscar began, rubbing his face with a hand, “Logan was fired yesterday.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” Sal replied.

Mike winced. “Do you think he can get another one?”

“No idea. I’m scared he can’t. I asked in the reception if they had vacancies and everything and… nothing.”

“Hey, come on, I’m sure he can!” Mike gave him a one-armed hug, “oy we all believe in him!”

“Yeah, look, I’ll ask Grandpa if he needs more staff, okay?” Sal offered, which perked Oscar up, at least.

“Well that’s kind of you, thanks.” He smiled to them. “Yes, Logan’s bounced back from worse; we all have! This is just a little hiccup. That’s all.”

Chapter Text

“You know Logan, I think you might need help,” Oscar commented as he stared down at his brother. All week, Logan had been asking in every shop, business and restaurant for vacancies to no avail; he’d even posted his CV to every job website he could find- once Hunapo had read through it to correct spelling mistakes, informal language, and take out the emojis. Nothing. They were all starting to panic now. Logan especially. Neurotic was never a word Oscar could associate with his brother until now. Although right at this moment it seemed he’d just given up on everything, and that was somehow far worse.

“Look, I’ll try again today, I promise,” Logan told them, though he made no attempt to move from the sofa. “I’ll ask at the pub! They like me there.”

“Right, of course,” Oscar was absentmindedly stroking Charlie’s hair as he spoke, the siblings wrapped up warmly and ready to leave for another long day at the park. Oscar tried not to let his excitement show, though anticipation surged through every ounce of his being. It would be nice if the meeting was being held somewhere a bit warmer though. “Because you can’t just sit around all day in front of the telly drinking cider and eating burger cheese in your boxers.” He honestly looked a mess, from his unshaven jaw to the cheese slowly melting into his chest hair.

“I know, fuck’s sake,” Logan gave a groan as he rubbed his face. Oscar glanced at the telly, but the sight of two former friends trying to punch each other’s lights out on the Jeremy Kyle Show just made the whole situation more depressing. But hey, at least he’d stopped watching children’s telly programmes.

There was a pause before Oscar spoke again. “Look, Charlie and I are about to take off. Do you want anything before we go? Breakfast? A drink? Clothes?” Some hope? Some deoderant, at the very least?

“Nah, nah I’m good,” Logan hauled himself into a sitting position. “I need to get up and dressed anyway. Have a good time.”

“We will,” Charlie beamed.

 

 

Charlie had good reason to be positive, since he’d spent a good part of Friday evening coming up with a schedule for today’s meeting, and he was determined to stick with it. The last few had been rather disorganised, not much ended up being done and the website still looked like it had been coded by an octopus falling down a helter skelter. No offense to Lars.

He’d talked to Lars during the week, who’d been pretty keen to neaten up the site and make it look more professional, and less like an edgy rock band forum. He’d tweaked things here and there, but wanted suggestions from the group before making any major changes.

After a rocky few weeks, they now had a steady stream of clients, talking daily to one or the whole group. Some just wanted friends to talk to, whilst others had far greater problems, some the group could give advice for, others needing redirecting to professionals who were qualified to help. Because the last thing any troubled young person needed was schoolmates who couldn't even handle puberty giving out medical advice.

Still, the number of questions was growing greater every day, genuine queries drowning out the troll asks by a staggering amount.

“I wonder if Lars knows how to add a forum,” Charlie began as he and Oscar walked through the park, the weather for once staying remotely dry. “A well regulated one, of course. But it’s an idea.”

“Well, if anyone knows it will be him.” Oscar honestly couldn’t give less of a stuff about the website at that moment in time. No disrespect to Charlie, and all the work they’d put in, but he was too excited to sit still and listen to the brats for hours and hours knowing what would happen after. It wasn’t like he was that passionate about the project to begin with, but knowing it was the only thing left before… oh wow… He wasn’t even sure he could sit still for such a time, though he didn’t want to look too eager in front of Mike. That might scare him off somewhat, the thought of having to spend any amount of time with a guy who couldn’t stop squealing.

But hey, it was his first date ever! He wasn’t even completely sure what to expect, and that made him all the more giddy. Yes, he had certainly read and watched a lot on the subject, but it just wasn’t the same. And the characters in fiction were nothing like Michael Jones, not one bit. He was a unique, odd, but brilliant young man that filled his heart with joy.

Still, he could wait, for Michael.

Yeah that didn’t make him sound like a creep at all. Not one bit.

Oscar was already in far too deep, and he knew he should definitely try to hold everything back. Or most things, at least, to stop Mike thinking he was weird. He was weird though. Brilliant, amazing, God’s gift to the earth, but still so damn weird, as Charlie and Logan had been sure to mention a couple dozen times.

And Michael would find that out too soon enough, if he hadn’t worked it out already.

Oh who was Oscar kidding? Mike knew. He Goddamn knew and he’d still agreed to go out with him! What was the world coming to?

Maybe he was putting too much thought into things, Oscar noted as Charlie had to grab the back of his coat to stop him taking a tumble into the fountain.

“Um, O-bro,” Charlie started, not sure he wanted to ask, “you do know you just walked past everyone, right?”

“Oh? I did?” Oscar gave out a shrill laugh, grinning like he was being forced to at gunpoint, “oh, yeah, silly me.”

Half the group was already present, sat on the grass and looking at him like he was having a breakdown. Unfortunately for his pride, Mike was there too, trying his damned hardest not to laugh. As much as Oscar cherished his vulgar, explosive chortle, now wasn’t the time, his self esteem was too fragmented.

So this was what it was like to wish to be invisible, Oscar wondered to himself.

He sat down as far away from everyone else as possible, without looking too rude, and decided to sulk to himself. He didn’t care anyway. Embarrassment? What was that? He just didn’t want to hear all about the damned website again. He didn’t want the ground to swallow him up. Not one bit. Maybe he could move to somewhere in South America and become a monk, far away from anyone who used to know him, if he actually believed in any form of God, that is.

Oscar briefly wondered if this was what it was like living in Mike’s head. If it was, it was one exhausting way to go about life. Or did being bitter come naturally to Mike? Somehow, Oscar seriously doubted that.

Despite constantly telling himself and others different, Oscar really did worry about how he came across to others, and looking like a fool was simply unacceptable. It didn’t matter that no one else seemed to care anymore, and were intently listening to Charlie go over the day’s schedule, he didn’t notice, too wrapped up in paranoia. He was an idiot.

Maybe he should be paying attention to what Charlie was saying as the others slowly made their way over. The kid already had a notebook out, flicking through the pages as everyone greeted each other and settled down. But as discussions moved on to advice for this, that and the other, he found he simply couldn’t stay focused.

As he found himself tearing up grass and ripping it into tiny pieces without even thinking about it, a change in conversation topic caught his attention, and he glanced up to find a rather uncomfortable Mike speaking up.

“Yeah, parents are difficult and all, but I have no advice other than get your brother to move you halfway across the world to get away from the drama.”

“I didn’t even know your parents were like that,” Sal commented, “homophobic, I mean.”

Mike shrugged. “Kinda, y’know? Like, my dad is cool, but old-fashioned. He knows about Matt and, yeah he doesn’t understand much or like it, but he’s not gonna tell other people how to live their lives, even his kids. None of his business.”

Sal shrugged. “Fair enough.”

“And your mother?” Oscar noticed he’d surprised everyone by speaking up, not least himself.

“Oh boy,” Mike pulled his face into a grimace. “Best not to go there.”

“Dare I go there?” Well, Oscar certainly didn’t like the sound of that.

Mike waved a hand, “oh it’s not important.”

“Hey now I’m curious,” Sal hugged his knees, “besides, I thought Alfred moved you away from their divorce.”

“Eh, that too. It wasn’t fun all round. But yeah mom’s everything-phobic and just, holy shit, the things she’d come out with! It was like she was stuck in the nineteenth century.”

Oscar grimaced. “Sounds unpleasant.”

“Putting it lightly bro!” The group fell quiet as Mike picked at dirt on his trainers, Oscar in his own little world of terror. “It’s weird though. They both grew up in the same town, equally unreligious. Ah, who fucking cares? I’m away from her now.”

“You’ll have to see her again sometime, right?” Oscar knew he was prying, but, frankly, as long as people weren’t prying into his life, he didn’t mind such a thing.

“Doubt it,” Mike shuddered, “haven't seen her in the last two years, phew! Two motherfucking years!” He punched the air. "My folks take turns coming over though, so I can't avoid her forever."

“Not the best choice of words,” Nobu commented.

“What were you even talking about to get to this?” asked Oscar.

“So you weren’t listening then?” Charlie placed a hand on their hip.

“Afraid not.”

“Typical. Look, we’re talking about dealing with unsupportive parents. Do you have any advice?”

It took a long moment of crushing silence before Oscar could bring himself to reply. “No. Why would I have any advice to give on parents? Christ, who are you going to ask next? Oliver Twist?”

“Righ, jeez, sorry bro.” Charlie rolled their eyes, “and I suppose you have nothing to contribute on this matter either, Lars?”

“Nope,” Lars shrugged, a big grin on his face.

“Well,” groaned Charlie, “I suppose this concludes item one on our agenda. I’ll send Lars the notes and he can add our suggestions to the site. Um, about that. Item two is the layout of the site...”

And Oscar was back to his own thoughts, slightly darker ones this time. As the fear of Mike’s mother, and what her opinion of him would be, kept him in his own bubble of apprehension. He wouldn’t have to meet her at all, right? Well, maybe at their wedding. If she turned up, that is, to ruin the whole day. He doubted it. But maybe they should wait until she grew old and died just to make sure?

Or he could just stop planning his and Mike’s wedding like he was some sort of obsessive stalker.

Still, if he couldn’t concentrate before hearing this news, he certainly wasn’t going to start trying now.

 

 

Charlie watched in embarrassment as Mike tried to arouse his brother from whatever daydream he was currently having. Something tragic and sappy, knowing Oscar.

He picked at a scab on his knee as he waited for everyone to leave, Peter and Kuzey in front of him like students ready to learn martial arts from a wise master, besides their looks of concern. What did they think he wanted to tell them? That he was ill? That his family was moving away? They were being made homeless? Well, not yet, they weren’t in that much trouble for the time being.

He watched Mike drag Oscar away, both with a blush, comfortable around each other in a way he was sure they weren’t used to. He’d never seen his brother so relaxed, hand on Mike’s arm as he giggled at whatever the other was saying. There was a warmth in both of their faces that seemed almost alien to them; they didn’t know all that much about Mike, but even Charlie knew he was troubled. He pushed everyone away. What did Oscar have that made him open up? Probably that charm and humour, his honesty and how deep down he was a genuinely sweet person. Oscar was the one who looked out for Charlie whilst Logan was at work, listened to him, cared about him in his own strange way. Maybe it worked for Mike too, against all odds.

Either way, it wasn’t really Charlie’s business, unless Oscar somehow got hurt in all this, then he’d unleash all the rage in his tiny self with the force of a thousand monster trucks on steroids. No one messed with his brothers and got away with it!

But, somehow, he believed he would have nothing to worry about, where Mike was concerned. Oscar had a surprisingly thick skin, and Michael Jones was not a bad person to begin with.

“So what’s this all about?” asked Peter the moment he felt everyone was out of earshot, glancing about as he spoke. Charlie played with his hands.

“Hey, well,” he sighed, “you two are my closest friends, right? Well, Lars and Franz too but I already told them-”

“How come you told them before us then?” Peter raised an eyebrow.

It took a moment for Charlie to comprehend what his friend had said. “I don’t know! Because it’s my choice?”

“But why them?”

“Just shut up Peter. Already told them what?” Kuzey groaned.

“It’s hard though, for me to get the words out,” Charlie spoke slowly, carefully. Adrenaline pulsed through his legs as he wondered if it’d be best to just get up and run, never to speak of this incident again. No, he had to get through this. He needed his friends’ support!

“Take your time,” said Kuzey.

“Well, remember how, in the summer, I told you about this thing I read in the newspaper about the lady who was born as a man, and how I thought that was interesting?”

The duo exchanged confused glances.

“Yeah, that was kinda odd,” Peter commented, “why would we care?”

“Well I cared, more than I let on.” Charlie’s voice was wavering now, and he wondered if he’d be sick. “You see, I’m like that lady!”

“You wanna be a model too?” Peter raised an eyebrow, “I thought you wanted to do art or something.”

“No, no!” Charlie refrained from pulling his hair, “I’m like her, if you get what I mean. But opposite!”

That just made them more confused.

“Okay, forget that. How about, you know when little kids get asked what they want to be when they grow up?”

“Yeah?” His friends answered together.

“Well, ask me what I want to be when I grow up!”

Kuzey frowned. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A boy!” Charlie threw his arms in the air, “except not just when I grow up, but now and when I was born too!”

“Is this some sort of game?” asked Peter, “because we might be a bit old for this.”

“It’s not a game!” Charlie balled his hands into fists, slamming them down on his knees as he considered dropping the whole thing entirely. “I wish I’d been born a boy!”

“Sometimes I wish I’d been born Spanish,” Peter mumbled.

Kuzey and Charlie could only stare.

“What? I’d have a sexy accent and nice tan!”

“Anyway,” Kuzey, not for the first time, elected to ignore Peter, “what do you mean, Char?”

“If I could choose to become a boy right here right now, I’d do it in a heartbeat.” The longing in Charlie’s voice caught his friends by surprise, and Peter reached out a hand, resting it on his knee.

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?” Kuzey murmured.

“Yeah, that’s why I think I might be trans. No, I know I’m trans.”

“-parent?” asked Peter, “Transformers? Transported? Is this about you being Australian?”

Charlie put every ounce of energy he had into not slapping a certain someone. “Transgender! Pete, how are you this freaking stupid?”

Peter grinned. “It’s an art.”

“Look, are you sure you’re transgender?” asked Kuzey, “cause if so, that’s pretty huge.”

“I’ve been sure for a while now,” explained Charlie, “and I’ve been reading what I can ever since, whatever I could find on the internet. Guys, I’m scared.”

“Not surprised,” Peter’s eyebrows shot up, “man at least when people are like ‘I’m gay’, everyone knows what they mean even if they hate it. I’m still not 100% sure what trans is!”

“Likewise,” Kuzey admitted.

“I’m a boy in a girl’s body! How is that hard to understand?”

“Well, if you put it like that…” Kuzey rubbed his chin, “what should we do now then?”

Charlie’s mouth wobbled. “A hug would be a good start.”

So a supportive embrace was what he got, Peter almost suffocating the both of them in his crushing bear-hug.

“And no more Charlotte,” Charlie added, “not that anyone calls me that anymore. Maybe when we’re alone you could call me boy things!”

“Sure, buddy mate amigo dude mandem bro from another mo, I’d give ya a kiss too but no homo,” Peter joked, “like that?”

“No homo? I don’t think your gay brother would be too happy about that,” Kuzey noted.

“That what I mean! No homo because he stole it all!”

“Peter?”

“Yeah mate?”

“Shut the fuck up.”

Chapter Text

The relief of not having to wait a moment longer rushed through Oscar, sending his head into even more of a giddy mess. Here he was with Mike, as a couple, on their first date. This was it and he had to make sure he didn’t screw it up. Michael wasn’t the most patient of people, but something told Oscar he was over thinking just how perfect he had to be for the fellow. He relished in being perfect though, better than everyone else and a cut above the rest. Things weren’t about to change just because someone had given him a kiss and a bit of attention, Oscar knew, but it was nice to be showered in the affection he so craved from someone who wasn’t family. And even then, Logan and Charlie didn’t really express their love in ways he appreciated much.

Still, the day was starting to brighten up now, which he was glad of. Rain could be romantic under the right circumstances, when you’re curled up inside by the fire, or out in the midst during a beautiful reunion between two lovers, but here when everything was tinged with grey and the serene pattering was drowned out by screeches of angry children squabbling in the playground, it was merely an inconvenience. Not to mention he was still cold.

There was still something on his mind though, nagging and eating away at his happiness so he couldn’t completely enjoy this moment. Here he was, with the guy he’d moped over for months, finally on a date, feeling on top of the world, and there was something still worrying him. Everything wasn’t perfect, as usual.

But this was something they would need to address at some point, it was just a matter of the right time.

Mike’s cheeks tinged with red as he snaked his fingers in Oscar’s, saying nothing and not needing to. Oscar could see the small smile, the shining eyes behind those silly sunglasses, the nerves twitching in his hand. They were both feeling the same: caution, self-consciousness, but the anticipation was there too. Oscar wondered if the other could hear his heart flutter.

Without warning, Mike yanked his arm and pulled Oscar into a nearby island of trees and bushes, right on the edge of the park near the gate. He stumbled- somewhat deliberately- into a tree, back resting against the trunk, the familiarity apparent to Oscar immediately.

“What are you doing?” hissed Oscar, unable to hide his smile.

“You don’t think anyone saw us, do you?” Mike glanced around before bringing his hands to Oscar’s shoulders, “cause I’ve wanted to do this all day.”

“Oh?”

Mike leaned forward, tenderly bringing their lips together, at last free from prying eyes and closed minds. It was their first kiss as an official couple, and he could tell they were both giving it their all. Mike was sloppy, he knew, inexperienced too, having practised on a grand total of one person and the back of his hand, but the other didn’t seem to care. Neither were the best, but they were perfect for each other. He opened his eyes a fraction, savouring that dumbstruck expression on Oscar's face, so giddily happy and genuine for once.

“Hey,” Oscar pulled away, “I, um.”

“What dude? Something wrong?” He hadn’t been too forward, had he? Was he rushing things?

“It’s nothing, really, I’ve just been thinking…”

“Yes?” Wait, was Oscar about to be too forward?

“It’s what you said about your mother,” Oscar’s features pinched into a frown, “what if she found out about us?”

Oh, well that was unexpected. And an incredibly strange topic to bring up now. “What? Nah, bro, how could she? She’s in America!”

He kissed Oscar again, partly to shut him up, partly so the other couldn’t see he was lying, and mostly because it was a far more pleasant thing to do than talk about her.

Mike loved how Oscar smelt, of deodorant and pollen and berry shampoo. He liked how unexpectedly rough the other’s skin felt, the large hands on his waist. His own hands moved downwards to Oscar’s slim behind, delighting in the gasp it elicited but before they could continue, the boy had moved away again.

“Too soon?” Mike asked with a grimace.

“No, it’s just, what if she visited?” So he wasn’t convinced then. “What if she saw us or someone told her about us?”

Mike bristled with irritation, “stop talking about my mom when we’re making out!”

“Sorry,” mumbled Oscar. “I’m just worried.”

“It’s fine,” the other replied, softer, “look, let’s just go to the sport’s centre now before it closes and stuff. And please for the love of fuck just don’t bring up my mother again.”

“I’ll try not to,” Oscar joked, “c’mon then you little ball of grump.” And he took Mike’s hand, smiling softly as they walked back out into the feeble sunlight.

 

...

 

Logan’s first shower in days had been welcome indeed, not only to get rid of the stink of a grown man having a breakdown, but it was refreshing, a chance to clear his head and think, and he thought his mumbled assurance of starting his job hunt at the pub wasn’t that bad an idea.

So that was where he would start his search today!

Bartending or even glass-collecting would be decent work, and the idea of a another job surrounded by people was a wonderful alternative to what, frankly, had been his dream job. Arthur and Francis were pretty fun to be around, and he doubted any trouble would last long on his watch. Not to mention, he’d have plenty of time off because of shiftwork, and starting in the evenings meant he could spend the day preparing a nice dinner for the kids. And if Hunapo frequented the place, he could look out for them, and maybe even begin to woo them with his unyielding charm and good looks.

Logan scowled, hand on the door handle as he shook those thoughts from his head. Oscar must’ve planted them with his silly joking. Child needed to focus on his own stupid crush.

He entered the pub, empty in the early afternoon save for a few old men and some builders popping in for a lunchtime pint. Francis was the only one working right now, and even he was listlessly admiring his own reflection in a glass due to lack of work.

“Hey, Frankie,” he greeted, and the other shook his head in mild annoyance.

“I’m surprised to see you here at this time,” he commented, “surely this is a time for you to sleep, is it not?”

“Hey, come on now,” he raised his hands, “I’m a responsible adult.”

Francis grinned. “Are you now?”

“Too right, and speaking of which, do you have any vacancies for a responsible adult such as myself? I’ve done some glass collecting in my time and if you have bar work I can do that.”

“You have bar work experience?”

“I’m Australian.” Logan leaned against the bar, charming grin falling flat on his audience.

“Any real experience?”

“Glass collecting as a kid! I just said,” he exclaimed, “come on mate.”

Francis didn’t reply immediately. “Honestly Logan, I would in a heartbeat, but we don’t have any vacancies.”

“Seriously?”

“The jobs were all taken by students,” he shrugged, patting Logan’s arm, “you know, to buy all the instant noodles and cheap booze.”

“Well good for them and all,” Logan rolled his eyes, “but come on Frankie, I have two kids!”

“We don’t have anything,” Francis insisted, “but look, you will be the first to know if something comes up.”

“Okay, thank you,” Logan gave a curt nod and made to leave when Francis called him back.

“By the way my friend,” he drawled, “tell that brother of yours he’s no longer barred, as long as he keeps his nose clean, which I assume he will.”

“Oscar was barred?” Logan’s brows creased together. "When?" And why didn’t he say anything? He felt his stomach squirm and tighten before taking a tumble down to his knees. Just what had gotten into that boy lately?

Francis paused. “Did he not tell you?”

“No,” Logan let out a short sigh, resisting the urge to punch the counter, “what the hell was he barred for?”

“Nothing horrible,” Francis assured him, “I caught him covering up for a friend, young Jones, who had ordered alcohol under a fake ID.”

“Fuck’s sake.” Logan ran a hand through his hair.

“Oh come now, it’s not like we never did it when we were younger, my friend.”

“I know, but it made our parents worried back then too, and I just like to think Oscar’s a sensible kid!”

“We all make mistakes.”

“I know, but why didn’t he tell me?”

“Did you tell your parents when you did something silly?”

“I told my mum actually,” Logan retorted.

Francis frowned. “Well, make sure he can tell you everything.”

“He can and he knows,” exclaimed Logan, “we have a no-secrets deal for things like this. I don’t know. I’ll talk to him when he gets home then.”

 

 

The idea of telling his brother he’d been barred had completely slipped his mind, if he was honest with himself.

Oscar squirmed on the dining chair his brother had cornered him at, unable to look him in the eye. He tried to think of where he was a few hours earlier, in Mike’s garden as the boy explained what he planned to grow in spring, where he would plant them, and all the garden ornaments they would love to buy if they one day became millionaires. It was nice, after an intense session at the sport’s centre gym, to just sit on a swing seat and relax, talking about embarrassing things their families have done and hopes for the future. Everything about their day had been wonderful, simply magical from start to finish, except for him being an idiot a few times. Really, what was wrong with him when it came to Michael? Oscar had standards in regards to how he presented himself, strict ones.

But no, he wasn’t embarrassing himself in front of Mike anymore, just his brother.

“Oh come on, you’d have done the same thing,” he tried, “and I said, I genuinely forgot to tell you.”

“You’re funny, kid,” Logan pointed a finger between his eyes before sighing, “it’s not even that you did it, cause the last thing you need is getting labelled as a snitch at school too, but why didn’t you tell me?”

“I legitimately forgot,” Oscar exclaimed, “this was the day I went back to Mike’s and had my first kiss. That kinda took priority spot in my mind.”

“Right, right,” Logan seemed calmer now, “so, Mike is that kid you like?”

“Yes,” Oscar replied evenly. He watched as his brother sat down next to him, not invading his space, just relaxing after a long day of finding out a little too much about his baby brother and getting rejected from every job he inquired after, once again.

“You still like him?” Logan asked apprehensively.

“Yes.”

“Do you think he might be a bad influence?”

“What?” Maybe he should just forget to mention he was dating Mike too, just for the time being. He could try to win Logan over during the next few weeks with stories of all the nice things Mike did, and then try to tell him about their fledgling relationship. “He’s not! Just a little silly and misguided.”

Logan frowned. “Sounds like he has a problem with his drink.”

“So do you.”

“No, I like a drink, but don’t go breaking the law or drinking spirits I can’t handle. Yeah I think guys your age can drink, but vodka? You’re too young for that shit.”

“And I agree,” Oscar insisted, “I wasn’t thinking that one day and didn’t want him drinking the entire bottle on his own, so joined in.”

“If that’s the sorta thing you need to worry about, is it really fun to spend time with him?”

“I hung out with Mike today,” explained Oscar, “and yes, we had a great time, no booze involved.” The exact nature of their time together would have to remain secret for now.

“Well good for you, just watch for for that Mike kid, okay? Cause if he needs help, hiding it isn’t going to do shit.”

Chapter Text

Mike leaned back in his chair, the words in his revision guide swimming in front of him as he struggled to make head or tail of what he was reading. Maybe he’d been at it too long, because sitting inside was making him irritable and nothing was going in. He wondered if he could allow himself a five-minute break, but his mock exams were only a week away and he was already stressing over everything.

Still, it could be worse. Last year he’d barely scraped through his exams, preferring to procrastinate and wallow in anxiety than do anything. It was just another reason to be unhappy. He’d not had any real friends, just a handful of acquaintances he could never be himself around, who only saw him as the cool, suave new student from the US who was perfectly bad and didn’t care for the rules. Truth was he was just unfocused, and trying to settle into a new country.

Now he had Oscar and Sal, both of whom were determined to at least scrape through with passes, and it was safe to say those two were keeping an eye on him. He had no idea why though. Friendship? Seemed so. But even Sal, who could be an airhead as times, was balancing work and study fine and making sure the others were doing the same thing.

The only times the three of them met up outside of school was for revision sessions, and all three had told Charlie they’d have to skip a few meetings, at least until the mock exams were over. It was fun when they studied together, and to his surprise they all knuckled down and focused those times, and he learnt a lot! He preferred pictures and videos to learn, rather than reading, and apparently his friends quizzing and teaching each other was effective too. Not that they didn't have a laugh during those times too.

Mike threw the book down on his desk with a groan. Yeah, he really needed a break before his head melted.

Taking out his phone, Mike supposed he could afford five minutes of puppy videos, so long as he didn’t keep watching for the rest of the evening. One or two wouldn’t harm anyone.

“Aren’t you supposed to be studying, little dude?” Alfred barged in, not really paying attention to his brother’s startled scream. “Always on your phone huh?”

“Oh come on!” Mike considered throwing his phone against the wall, “dick and cheese man I just picked it up!”

“Right,” the smile Alfred threw him just infuriated Mike further.

“Fuck off it’s true!”

“Whatever you say,” Alfred raised his hands as he made his way over to the bed, not actually starting whatever conversation Mike suspected he was working up to, instead glancing around at everything on the shelf above Mike’s headboard. Yeah, it was messy, he knew, from his old Thomas the Tank Engine toys to a novelty cactus to gardening books to the remains of a homemade rocket that met an ill-fated end at the park. Who even had time to tidy and take care of anything with GCSEs on the brain? He’d not picked up a piece of underwear in weeks, and everyone gave his room a wide berth now.

Good thing Oscar was too busy to pop round all the time, or he’d have to be ashamed of his mess.

“Whaddya want?” he growled as Alfred picked up his teddy bear and poked its one remaining eye.

“Well, look, bro, me and Mattie been talkin’, and…”

“You’re disappointed in me for something?” Mike rolled his eyes, “whatever happened it wasn’t my fault.”

“What? Nah.” Alfred fell silent, setting the teddy down, “but, I get why you would say that.”

“You do?” Mike raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve been harsh on you, I know.”

Well, he never thought he’d hear his brother admit to that. Not when they were kids and Al wasn’t harsh on anything- in fact, he was the more reckless sibling- and not now when he thought he was being a good parent. It was what their parents did, he supposed, control everything they did. Probably why a lot of the brothers’ childhood was spent sneaking about, lying, covering their tracks every time they did something even a little out of line in regards to their many rules.

And there he was thinking things would be better now he didn’t have to live with them, but Alfred just replaced their parents in that sense.

No wonder he was getting stomach aches. It wouldn’t surprise him if the stress dissolved his own insides and turned his rockin hair grey and thin.

“Yeah, just a bit,” he grumbled, harsher than he meant to be. “Look, I know you and Mattie are the oldest in the house now, and you want to look after me and all, but you’re making Matt look like the fun brother! That’s how bad things are. You’re a stick in the mud compared to Mattie, let that sink in!”

“I know,” Alfred sighed, “Matt and I were talking a while back, and he told me to calm my tits on the whole thing. You’re not a bad kid.”

“Good to know,” Mike grunted.

“I’ve been doing this for a reason though, I swear!” Alfred’s bottom lip wobbled, “I’m not just being a dick.”

“You’ve been a dick though,” commented Mike.

Alfred blanched. “I figured. But the thing is, if mom heard you were failing here, she might try and take you away from us.”

“How would she find out?” asked Mike. He could see why Alfred was paranoid though.

“I don’t know. I’m an idiot and she tends to weasel information out of me. I’d never forgive myself if you had to live with her again.”

“I guess, you always were the weak link with mom,” Mike swivelled round in his chair, finally turning to face his brother. “I don’t wanna live with her either.”

Alfred nodded. “It was bad enough last yeah because you were clearly going through shit and being with her wouldn’t do you any favours, but now? You’d have to leave your friends behind and that young man you told me about.”

Mike blushed. He was right though, moving back to the US would tear him away from everyone, and if he and Oscar tried to date long distance, she would soon find out and…

“She’s such a bigot you’d be unhappy there,” Alfred added.

Mike’s eyebrows shot up and he exhaled sharply. “Fucking hell,” he sighed, “I know I’ve said this before, but don’t ever let her take me back. Please.”

“I won’t, I promise.”

A silence settled between the two, and Mike wondered if the conversation was done. But no, there was something else Alfred needed to get off his chest, apparently.

“Have you told your mates she’s coming over for Christmas?” he asked.

Mike blanched. His conversation with Oscar during their first date came to mind once more, and how he’d simply been unable to stare him in the eye tell him the truth. Not when he looked like that. Terrified. Gutted.

“I still have time to tell them,” he reasoned. But fuck he wasn’t looking forward to that particular conversation.

“Two weeks,” Alfred warned, “look, I promise to back off on everything and give you some space, but here I have to nag, because if she gets even a little suspicious, you’re gonna be with her on that plane back to America and me and Mattie won’t be able to save you.”

Chapter Text

The chill in the air was borderline cruel, Logan noted as he wrapped his jacket tighter around himself. His teeth chattered and ice clung to his hair, nose and eyelashes, and the young man struggled to stay upright as he slipped and slid across the pavement. Snow had fallen a few days ago and now all that was left were the black dregs stomped into a perilous ice blanket that would probably do some serious damage if he were to slip over.

At least Charlie had gotten some fun out of the snow, running about the garden having a whale of a time. If Oscar had been inclined to join in, he didn’t have the opportunity to due to all that revision he needed to get through. His first exam had been today, drama and theatre studies, something nice and easy to get him started. Now the boy had finally been convinced to go to bed, because a history exam in the morning and a maths one in the afternoon was not something a person should face on a couple hours sleep.

With both kids tucked in for the night, sure that- should something go wrong- Oscar would be responsible enough to get himself and Charlie to safety, Logan turned his attentions to what was simply the only way he could see making money, mind numb as he walked.

There were no jobs in this little town. Even with Christmas coming up, he’d not been able to land an interview, no matter how low-paying or temporary the job was, and now he had no choice but to resort to something he’d thought he’d never have to do again.

Logan knew the drill, had the equipment, but didn’t know where to look in town. In London, it had been easier, not only to find the right place, but he’d been younger. Prettier, even.

The pub would be the best place to start, he supposed, not only to hopefully get a few words of encouragement out of Arthur and Francis, but those two would know all about this. They knew everything that went on in this town, from cocaine dealers to which high school louts now carried knives to, well…

Logan shivered as he entered the pub, finally free of that wind and freeze that sunk down into his bones. Would there even be anyone stupid enough to go outside tonight? Apart from Logan himself, that is.

The place was a little too crowded for his liking, packed full of football fans cheering at the screen, but maybe that would be helpful in the long run, that many people being out on the street.

Arthur and Francis were swamped right now, taking orders from too many people for Logan to get a word in, so he waited. Impatiently. Logan wasn’t the most forbearing of people at the best of times, but now time was money and he didn’t want to miss his window of opportunity. Then again, he wasn’t exactly opposed to putting this off for another hour or so.

Eventually, he caught Arthur’s eye and the man made his way over.

“The usual?” he asked gruffly, but Logan shook his head.

“Hey listen,” he began, mouth horribly dry, “can I talk to you and Frankie if y’can catch a break at some point?”

Arthur blew his fringe out of his eyes, pulling a face. “I don’t know, friend. Premier league game and all, we’re a bit busy.”

“Please, this is important!”

“Oh,” Arthur’s face softened, “well, I know you wouldn’t ask unless you had to, so go out to the garden and we’ll join you in a bit.”

With some reluctance, Logan left the warmth of the pub and snuck into the wonderfully empty but absolutely freezing beer garden. There were a handful of tables bordered by wooden fences, ashtrays littering the place and an outdoor heater perched in the corner, perfectly heightening the smell of cigarette smoke. Logan crouched down next to it and rubbed his hands together as he waited for the others, revelling in its warmth as he tried not to think about the coming night.

He might chicken out if he did.

Logan hoped he looked like he’d made an effort. He’d even ironed his best jeans and under his jacket he’d not bothered to button up his sleeveless shirt, hair neat, shoes clean, everything perfect but nowhere to go.

After possibly hours cramped in the cold, he was finally joined by Arthur and Francis.

“We can’t stay long,” Arthur told him curtly, “we left the new kids in charge, some college-age idiots with half a braincell between them. Honestly, we’d have been better off with you.”

“Good to know,” Logan grunted as he pulled his stiff legs into a standing position.

He joined the other two at one of the tables, still rubbing his hands together as both of them lit up a cigarette each.

“So what’s the problem, my young friend?” asked Francis, taking a long drag on his cigarette and unsure if he should reach out a comforting hand.

“Well, I want some advice,” Logan began, “and I’m guessing you both know a bit about some of the dodgy stuff that goes on in and around this place.”

“You’re not considering doing a line in the toilets are you?” Arthur growled, “because we kick people out for that carryon. Unless they’re tougher than us.”

“What? No way!” Logan wrinkled his nose, “like I can afford drugs right now.”

“Still no luck finding a job?” Francis still managed to look graceful as he said that, furrowing his thin brows together and stroking his stubble.

“Nah, that’s why I’m here.”

“We still don’t have any vacancies,” Arthur informed him, “but if we ever fire those idiots you’ll be the first to know.”

“Right, sure, well until then I need a way to make money and in London I had a way that I’m thinking of getting back into, until I find something else at least.”

“If you want to become a drugs dealer, do it somewhere else,” snapped Arthur.

“I don’t want to be a drug dealer!” Logan rolled his eyes, “well, I don’t want to do this either but… yeah.”

“Do what?” Somehow, Logan suspected Francis was faking ignorance.

“Whaddya mean? Come on, don’t make me say it out loud.” Logan shifted uncomfortably. He wasn’t quite ready to admit it to himself, but exactly how much longer could he keep stalling?

He groaned at their blank faces. “Look, I’ll be blunt. Which part of town is popular with curb-crawlers?”

Well that caught their attention. Arthur’s brows furrowed together as he tried to process why his friend could possibly ask such a thing, but Francis knew. He knew exactly what Logan needed to do and probably how to do it.

”Why would you need to know that?” Arthur asked, still not wanting to believe what he was hearing. “I assume you do not have the money for that sor-”

“Ew, of course I’d never!” Logan thought he’d be sick at the thought, “but it’s a fast way to make money I don’t have! A lot too. Seriously, it’s how I got a place for us after our dad fucked off.”

”How awful to hear,” Francis lamented, voice sombre, ”and at such a young age too...”

”Well, life goes on, and stuff, and I need to move on with mine and find a new job. This is the only option at the moment.”

”Like fuck it is!” exclaimed Arthur, “things aren’t so bad you have to sell yourself.”

”It it,” Logan growled, ”I’m behind on rent, badly, and if this’ll stop Oscar and Charlie from being homeless or getting taken away, so be it.”

”Please reconsider,” Arthur begged, ”if you're thinking of your children, think about what would happen to them if you got killed, and you could get killed pretty easily doing something like that.”

”Shut up,” Logan muttered, ”don’t you think I know that?”

”Is there not some other way of making money like this?” Arthur’s brows knotted together, ”you know, online.”

Logan shrugged. ”Camming? I wouldn’t know how to get started. And there’s a chance the kids would find out and I wouldn’t be able to do it during the holidays or if they were off sick so it would be hard.”

”An escort agency?”

”I don’t know if this town has one. And would I be able to get out eventually? And how much of my earnings would they take? I don’t know.”

"Then go to the job centre."

"They might take the little ones away if I can't find something. And I don't think we can live on what they'd give me. I don't want to risk it."

Arthur didn’t seem satisfied with that answer in the slightest, simply choosing to scowl at him from across the table. Francis, whom had been in deep thought until that point, finally decided to rejoin the conversation. Logan's chest surged with adrenaline and anticipation.

”I know a lot of girls in the same position as you,” he began, soberly, snubbing his cigarette out in the ashtray, ”they come in here from time to time and we talk. I can give you the road they… work at, if you need, but I implore you, please reconsider. I will not stop you, just beg you to find another path. Yes, I know people in this business, but a lot of them have been beaten or killed, and no one else cared. Not even the police.”

”I have to risk it,” Logan gave a curt nod.

”Then may I enquire if you came prepared? I cannot let you go out there ‘unprotected’, as it were. That would only add to your danger.”

”Yes, damn,” Logan rolled his eyes, ”stop stallin’ and give me the damn address so I can get on with it.”

 

...

 

It had been just as bad as before.

Logan was back outside the pub, hating the fresh batch of snow that covered his trembling body, and in the back of his mind he wondered if it would be enough to bury him here, or make him feel the slightest bit clean again.

He didn't even want to stand here. It reminded him of that run-down half-alley, half-road he'd wandered on for a good hour before a car pulled up. And the car park he'd been left at as he watched the car slowly drive away.

He was out of practice, it seemed, unused to the procedure, the sensation. How utterly helpless he was and no matter how much he tried to think about anything else, it still invaded his mind as he struggled to not let his discomfort show to his client. Still, maybe he just needed time. After all, he soon learned to switch off from the world every time, think about what he would make for dinner instead, his shopping list, what he would spend his money on, all little thoughts he distracted himself with, like in any other job when he was bored or unhappy.

It had been nice to get out of the cold, he had to admit. The client had left his car heater on, blowing beautifully warm air onto his back that almost made up for everything.

But now he was back in the cold with a churning stomach and crawling skin.

Logan didn’t know why he always felt like this whenever he was picked up by a client. When there was no money involved- just booze and lust and near-anonymity- and said relationship was barely longer than a session with a client, it never felt this… unclean. Terrifying. Logan was a big lad, but he always felt powerless in those situations, trapped with people he found absolutely repulsive. That was probably why.

“What are you doing out here?“ Francis’ voice nearly made him jump out of his skin, and Logan slipped on the icy pavement, clutching the doorway to stop him falling on his face. Well wouldn't that just be the perfect way to end a night?

“Fuck me with a poker!” he exclaimed, “why would you sneak up on a guy like that?”

“No need to be so jumpy,” Francis muttered, “and I was not sneaking up on you; we’re closing up for the night.”

“So the place is empty then?” Logan asked hopefully, “could I sit down for a bit? I think I’m gonna chunder.”

“Well please, I would rather provide a bucket than have you empty your stomach on my porch, like nearly everyone who was here earlier.”

“Eww,” Logan wiped his feet on the mat before entering the now desolate pub with Francis. Had be been more imaginative, more innocent and more inclined to care, he might have pondered the strange, magical edge of an empty pub, especially as Francis turned on the lights over the bar, casting the rest of the room into shadow, and the soft velvet red of the walls and sofas. Logan ran a hand over the pool table as he walked past, still unsteady on his legs.

As he sank himself onto a bar stool, Francis passed him a shot of clear liquid, the burn on his throat as he swallowed telling him it was vodka.

“It’s on the house,” the other told him.

“No, no,” Logan waved a hand, “I just got paid.”

“How do you feel?” asked Francis, voice low.

“Sick. Rough. I want to go to sleep and not wake up again.”

Francis leaned forward, resting a hand on Logan’s and rubbing it with a pointy thumb.

“Your little ones will want and need you to wake up tomorrow.

“They don't need a deadbeat like me.”

“Come on Logan, you’re a brilliant young man and it pains me to see you so broken. This is a tough time, and you will get out of this one day. Do what you need to do now, and hopefully it will get you to where you want eventually.”

“I’m sure I’ll give a fuck about what you said when I’m sober,” Logan mumbled, gesturing for a refill. “Thanks though.”

“So did you use protection?” Francis asked as he handed Logan a full shot glass.

“Yeah. Not stupid. I mean, how the fuck could I get a job from hospital?”

 

 

He’d not bothered to turn on the lights, and now the silence and darkness enveloped him, not unlike his mother’s arms had done when he was tiny. He still needed to shower, and get rid of the smell that lingered in the air, reminding him of what he’d done. His muscles ached. His hair fell greasy across his ears and forehead. The bags under his eyes burned with exhaustion but he didn’t want to sleep just yet. His mouth tasted disgusting with the remains of the sick that was now on the pub floor, and another load under a hedge. Logan hadn’t even bothered to take off his jacket, still feeling a chill and too numb to function properly yet.

Luckily, the little ones were still asleep, and he could be alone with his thoughts. Blurred, buzzing thoughts. Thoughts that were quickly taking on the voice of his father.

Yeah, definitely for the best his old man had pissed off on them, because the bastard would probably have a word or two to say about his son, his wonderful oldest disappointment. Every insecurity, every sickening feeling swirling through his stomach, came back, vibrating through his brain as that man’s words, spat at him, taunting him.

What had his life become? What had he become? How could everything go wrong in such a short space of time?

What would Hunapo think of him now? What if Oscar and Charlie ever found out? He’d kept it a secret from them last time, so he’d just do it again. None of them could ever know of this though, and he didn’t want to ponder what they would think of him. If they would pity him.

He stared down at the wad of cash on the coffee table, enough for the rent, a week’s shopping, maybe their bills if he was frugal with the shopping.

He’d have to do it again soon though.

Logan’s hands trembled as he scooped up the money and stuffed it into his jacket pocket, like he was afraid someone would appear from the darkness and snatch it away.

He groaned to himself, electing to go to bed before his thoughts drove him mad.

Chapter Text

 

Well, someone had to keep this website going.

Charlie couldn’t be too mad at the oldest four in the group and their exam timetables, or Lars and his hours and hours worth of coding being poured into their site, but the rest? What exactly were they doing? Franz made a few posters two months ago, and hadn’t really contributed since. Peter was more of a hindrance than a help and Nobu? He’d barely made it to half the meetings in December already, always with an excuse and Charlie was getting tired of the boy’s nonsense. Yes, he was a close friend of Peter’s, but he was seriously considering kicking Nobu out of this project. He didn’t care about the site or the contest, so why should he stay?

But that didn’t matter right now; Charlie was on a mission.

He rang the buzzer to the front door of a simple, but rather pleasant-looking block of flats, no different from the houses stretching out either side of it. The lawn had been mown recently, but the garden itself looked impersonal, and the door uncleaned. No flowers grew in the sliver of flower bed underneath the window, and he wondered whose job it was to look after the garden, if said role belonged to anyone.

Charlie knew where Hunapo lived only because Logan had told him, a snippet of information given particularly reluctantly, and Logan hadn’t quite believed him when he said he only wanted to interview them for the website. Like Charlie was about to interfere in his brothers’ love lives! He was just there to make fleeting quips and passing comments to get their brains whirring, not actually play matchmaker.

Though if his little comments pointed certain people in the right direction, well, who was he to foresee that?

Hunapo still looked quite shaken as they answered the door, and Charlie had to wonder if they were getting enough sleep. They looked like they hadn’t completely relaxed in weeks, not that he could blame them at all. He wished he could do something about the bags under their eyes and the weight they’d clearly lost, but what on earth could he say? He wasn’t that articulate to begin with, nevermind about a topic that required a great deal of tact and an ability to know just the right thing to say. Even Logan would have at least half a clue compared to him.

“Oh, morning, Charlie,” they mumbled, “what brings you here so early?”

“Ten isn’t early,” replied Charlie, “and I was wondering if I could interview you quickly, for our website. You don’t have to say yes just because it’s me and only if you want to-”

“Woah, slow down there, I’m not even awake properly,” they gave a yawn as if to prove their point, “what interview?”

Charlie took a deep breath. “We, erm, I, would like to interview you, as an older LGBT person, on being LGBT and any advice you have for younger people. I already interviewed Logan and would like to talk to you too, about, you know, being trans.”

Hunapo considered it for a long moment. “I see. I wouldn’t really consider myself older, though, but oh well.”

“It’s all anonymous, by the way.”

“I suppose it can’t hurt then.” Hunapo smiled and ushered him in. “Let’s get comfy though and you can explain everything properly when we’ve woken up and had a coffee. So Logan… Logan’s..?” They looked away, finding renewed interest in their downstairs landing, and the pile of post next to the front door. No one else was about, and the only sound besides their echoing footsteps was the buzz of a TV in one of the flats.

“Pan, yeah. But that’s only ‘cause they didn’t have a word for ‘absolutely no standards whatsoever’.”

Hunapo blanched. “Oh. Nice.”

“Not that he only goes for... yeah...” well, this wasn’t what Charlie had been planning, “he does like someone with a bit of self-respect too. And I feel someone like that would be good for him.”

“Self-respect, huh?” Hunapo rubbed at their arm, slightly unsettled as they walked upstairs whilst Charlie followed.

“Yeah,” continued Charlie, “I think someone more calm and responsible would suit him. Someone who has similar interests but isn’t too similar to him.” He was laying it on thick, but Hunapo was either too oblivious or too in-denial to realise.

“I hope he finds someone like that,” they simply replied.

Oh they were getting nowhere like this, so Charlie dropped the subject as he entered their flat, wiping his feet on the welcome matt before taking a look around.

Hunapo had a studio place, with the bedroom, kitchen and living area in the one room, and a little bathroom off to the side. He plopped himself down on the sofabed, taking in the piles of miscellaneous sports equipment packed into corners, thick jumpers tossed across the floor, family photos in frames and a somewhat creepy sheep ornament grinning down at them from on top of the telly.

“I like the skirt, by the way,” Charlie began as Huna pottered about the kitchen, turning on the kettle and taking out two mugs, also covered in goofy-looking sheep.

“Oh, thank you,” they replied with a smile. What Charlie had not been expecting was to find Hunapo in an oversized polo neck and ankle-length plaid skirt, a pair of fluffy slippers just poking out.

“I didn’t think it was something you’d wear,” he noted, “I mean, I never really associated you with them.”

“I like to wear them around the house,” Hunapo explained, giving a twirl, “they keep me warm and are really comfy.”

“Oh, okay.” Charlie accepted his drink with a smile, settling right into the sofabed and taking out his notebook. “So yeah I just wanna ask a few questions, if you don’t mind.”

Hunapo sat down next to him, warming their hands on their tea. “Go ahead. Oh, before we start. Has Logan got a new job yet?”

“Oh yes!” Charlie grinned as he recalled the previous night’s conversation with his oldest brother. “He got a job at the pub a few days ago. Thank fuck.”

“Yeah don’t think you can swear just because you’re with Logan’s cool friend, little lady,” they smiled at that, “but wow that’s a relief to hear. So he’s feeling better then?”

“Yeah,” muttered Charlie, “and are you?”

“Sure, sure.”

He didn’t reply, purely so Huna wouldn’t have to lie anymore. “You should come round sometime,” he began again, eventually, “I’m sure you’d like some company.”

“Oh I don’t want to be a bother,” Huna sighed with a chuckle, “I’m fine, really.”

“You’re not a bother Hunie;” it was a nickname Logan used on occasion, always a slip of the tongue and resulting in a rather uncharacteristic bout of embarrassment, and something Hunapo had never heard before.

“Oh?” they asked, “that’s sweet of you to say.”

“So, will you come round some more?”

“So what is it you wanted to ask me?” Huna tried instead.

Charlie had no respect for adults who avoided his questions, but he let this slide on the grounds that he had things to do, places to be, and an interview to complete.

“Oh, right, well I have a few questions if that’s okay.”

“Go right ahead.”

“Now, we know you’re agender, but would you mind telling us what your sexual orientation is? You don’t have to if you don’t want to though.”

“No it’s fine,” Hunapo rubbed their chin, “I’m actually androsexual, I realised a while back.”

“...And that means?”

“I really like dic-”

“That’s not an appropriate answer for a school website!” What he really wanted to say was ‘please don’t talk about my brother like that’ since that was clearly who Hunapo meant, but Charlie decided that would just make the situation the ultimate level of awkward. And again, he wasn’t here to interfere.

Hunapo shrugged. “You asked. But I guess you’re right.”

“Okay, erm,” Charlie glanced down at his notes, “so… when did you realise you were trans?”

“Late teens, if I recall,” they replied in deep thought, “it was a good few months of confusion before I really figured myself out though.”

“So did you have an idea before hearing about nonbinary genders or was it a case of hearing the word ‘agender’ and everything falling into place?”

“Oh the latter!” exclaimed Hunapo. “It was such a relief to finally have a word to explain everything!”

“So where did you find out about it?”

“The internet,” Hunapo smiled at that.

“Like tumblr?”

Hunapo frowned. “What the fuck is a tumblr? I found out via forums. Made some good friends on those too.”

“So those were the first people you told?” asked Charlie.

“Yup.”

“So… would you recommend these forums to kids looking to find information for themselves?”

“Erm, kids?” That got Hunapo thinking, and it took a few moments for a answer to come together. “I guess. I mean, when you’re on the internet- especially in high school- you have to be careful not to give out too much personal information and watch out for predators and all. But I think it’s worth it.”

Charlie nodded, taking a minute to write everything down before continuing. “So… So how, you know, did you tell your family?”

“I told my sisters first;” Hunapo smiled at that. “They’re young and… I was going to say trendy but that’s just not true. I thought they’d be easier to tell than my parents anyway.”

Charlie paused. “And how did they take it?”

“My sisters were cool, like I thought they’d be. And my parents? Yeah they took a bit of convincing.” Huna shrugged. “It wasn’t that they had a problem with me, neither just really knew what I was on about. I did get a bit snappy and frustrated at times, but with enough explaining I’ve gotten them to mostly understand.”

“So what sort of advice would you give to someone who wanted to come out?”

Hunapo pulled a face for the briefest of moments. “Oh? I really don’t know. It depends on the person and their family, I guess.”

It was then that Charlie set his little notebook to one side, folding his now sweaty hands together. “Well, um, what about… why not take me for example? What would you advise me?”

“You… coming out, you mean?” Charlie could see Hunapo’s mind ticking, painfully slowly piecing together between the lines. “Oh...”

Charlie nodded.

“Oh, you’re..?”

Another nod, and he burst into tears. God this was so embarrassing, but he couldn’t stop. The relief of his friends knowing and accepting was one thing, but the safety of an adult, someone responsible and a seemingly omnipotent, indestructible individual that would protect him from the rest of the world. The responsibility wasn’t his alone to bear anymore.

“Hey, shh, don’t worry,” Hunapo pulled him into a hug, “come here my brave baby, let it all out. Oh that must’ve been so much to keep to yourself.”

“I’m such a lousy boy,” he sobbed, “crying like a weenie.”

“Hey you’re allowed to cry,” Hunapo soothed with a smile, “my wonderful little man.”

 

 

“So what would you want to do next?” asked Hunapo, “I mean, when everything’s settled on the coming out front.”

Charlie shrugged as he continued clicking, dull eyes focused on their computer screen. “New clothes would be nice. I know we haven’t exactly been overflowing with money lately, but if I sell my girly clothes at a boot sale or something I should have a bit of spending money.”

“Do you plan to get rid of all your girl things?” Hunapo was sprawled on a desk chair next to him, pointing him in the right direction as he searched and browsed.

Charlie had cried on and off for an hour or so, just snuggled up on Hunapo’s lap as he explained everything he’d been keeping to himself over the last few years, things he’d not told anyone before that had been weighing him down for so long. He was exhausted now, but oh so relieved, like he could just lie down for the most peaceful sleep on a bed of clouds.

“Most,” he corrected, “the stuff that doesn’t mean anything to me. The rest I’ll keep in the attic maybe, or keep out because it’s special. I don’t have to get rid of everything girly, right?”

“Of course not,” Hunapo smiled at that. They’d decided putting off telling Charlie’s brothers for now, despite Huna insisting that they would be completely understanding and would just want their youngest brother to be happy, but Charlie wasn’t ready. It was such a huge step- he explained- and something he wasn’t quite ready for on a personal level. He wanted things to move at his own pace. Hunapo understood.

They’d be right there beside Charlie when he was ready to come out though.

“These binders look expensive,” he whined, sinking in his seat and glaring sullenly at the computer screen.

“Yeah the good shit tends to be, from what I hear,” Hunapo explained, “and the shit shit before you think about cutting corners.”

“I don’t think Logan can afford that,” he mumbled, “even with his new job.”

“Well I don’t think you need to be in any rush to start wearing binders at your age,” Hunapo assured him, “you should be fine for a while, and until then why not save up pocket money doing odd jobs around the house like the strong young man you are?”

“No need to patronise me, Hunie,” said Charlie jokingly.

 

Chapter Text

 

Charlie was by far in a lighter mood by the time he wandered home, belly full and head light and empty for once. He might have even skipped a little.

Since no one was home when he got in, he went straight to the computer to tell Peter the good news; the boy currently in Sweden with Lars and their parents visiting extended family. It was a yearly tradition he’d grown to predict, the boys being taken out of school a few weeks before the Christmas holidays began, much to the annoyance of their middle and high schools, but hey, it wasn’t like they had anything important to be doing in the last two weeks of term. Though from next year on that would all come to an end due to exams, and Peter and Lars would have to have a two week holiday like a normal pleb. Or one, like that time Logan took his little brothers camping somewhere in the country and it had been absolutely freezing because he'd accidentally booked it in October.

“Good to know things went well then,” came Peter’s muffled, glitchy voice, “good ol’ Huna.”

“How could things not go well?” Charlie refrained from asking Peter if he had any idea who Huna actually was, given that he'd probably never met them. “I think I’m getting better at this coming out business.” He’d actually cried this time, but no big deal.

“Great to hear, but make sure you’re still going at your own pace, okay?” Peter grinned as his friend rolled his eyes.

“I know, damn.” Thank you, mama Peter. “Nice and slow, got it. So how are you anyway? Freezing your arse off in the land of reindeer and meatballs?”

“Funny enough, yes,” Peter’s pixilated face winced, “thanks to mamma Taika and uncle Mathias.”

Charlie winced with him. “What the hell did they do?”

“Broke the bloody boiler. Know how hard it is to be in northern Sweden without a boiler? Know how hard it is to get someone out to fix it when you live in buttfuck nowhere? We’ve been huddled round the fire pretty much all week. I think uncle Emil might be dead, or sulking. It's hard to tell.”

“Elaborate. Please.”

With a sigh, Peter rocked back and forth in his chair before finally beginning his little anecdote. “Well, you know those skateboards we got for Christmas last year? The ones we left at the cabin? Well me and Lars were mucking about on them because finally we could use them after a year pining.”

“Right.”

His eyebrows slowly pushed upwards the further into the story he got. “Well mama and uncle Matt got involved and wanted to have a go, because they’re big kids. Long story short, they had a race, it got out of control, and rest in pieces boiler. Nothing can stand against mum's big butt.”

“Blimey,” Charlie despaired. “Adults, huh? Always gotta ruin the fun.”

“Tell me about it,” Peter rolled his eyes dramatically, shaking his head for good measure, “it’s their fault the damn toilet’s frozen over.”

“Grim.” Charlie threw him a sympathetic smile.

“Still, beats what happened last year?”

“Last year?” They’d gone to Finland for once that time round, right? He remembered seeing pictures of the picturesque little log cabin in Lapland, though the enamour was gone once he’d heard the temperatures, even with Peter’s description of the northern lights. The two brothers looked so cute though, all bundled up homemade scarves and hats mama Astrid had knitted them, personal to each of their likes.

Charlie did not consider himself a jealous boy. He would never resent a friend for having what he didn’t, but sometimes he couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to have a mother. A real one, that is, not a mothering brother, and he wondered why he’d never asked Peter or Lars what it was like. They had mothers to spare, after all. But would they know how to explain it to someone with none?

He had no memories of his mum, and thankfully few of his dad.

“Mama Taika got drunk.” The best stories about Taika usually started with that. Man was Charlie in for a treat. “I mean proper drunk. Like, she downed a bottle of vodka because uncle Aleks bet her she couldn’t. I’m not sure it could really count as succeeding.”

“Get a little drunk then?” Charlie wasn’t sure Logan would be conscious after a bottle of vodka, but he’d never been one for strong spirits, besides the odd whiskey.

“A little?” scoffed Peter, “she jumped up on the table and started dancing whilst she sang the entirety of ievan polkka, straight up did a death metal scream and headbutted a hole in the wall. It was the outer wall of a log cabin we still don’t know how she did it.”

“Oh that story,” Charlie grimaced, “your mum sounds fun. Why don’t you invite me to hang out more?”

“You mean when we’re in the country?”

“No, I want you to smuggle me in your suitcase- course I mean when you’re in the damn country;” he rolled his eyes.

“Well I guess they’re just embarrassing,” admitted Peter, “like, seriously; parents are supposed to be, but I guess since you don’t have any you don’t have to worry about that.”

“Nice. Well… you’re adopted.”

Peter smirked. “Running out of insults?”

“You just say so much stupid shit on a day to day basis it’s hard to keep up. I bet even Kuzey’s struggling to find new ones for you.” Still, Peter never minded the quips and jabs- just banter, he claimed. Charlie scratched his chin. “Speaking of which, have you talked to him lately? He’s been pretty quiet online since school broke up and, ah,” he shrugged, “we were supposed to hang out but he kept bailing too.”

“I dunno,” Peter replied quickly, “why don’t you ask someone he likes?”

Charlie pretended he didn’t see his friend squirm, and even put it down to the dodgy connection. “I thought you were close. When did you last speak to him?”

“His birthday party,” admitted Peter.

“Oh,” Charlie bit back a curse as he heard one of his brothers fumbling with his keys outside, “did you two have a fight or something?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Peter seemed to deflate right before Charlie’s very eyes. Oh great, first Oscar and Mike not speaking, now Peter and Kuzey seemed intent on awkwardly avoiding each other. What? Did they also kiss or something?

“Well whatever it is,” he groaned, “sort it out before next term. Please.”

Chapter Text

Another date with Michael? My, did Oscar feel spoilt rotten at this point.

He supposed it was obvious they would go on more than one; that was what couples tended to do when things had gone well, after all, but maybe it was the fact that things had gone well enough to warrant a second date at all that surprised him. They got along as a couple though. Dating was a plane of reality he was incredibly unfamiliar with though.

Did it really count as a date if they were just shopping for Christmas presents though? There was nothing romantic about that. It was a necessity they both had been procrastinating on because of exams that were thankfully behind them for the time being. Sure, they were anticipating and torturing themselves over their results, but there was nothing anyone could do right now. The deed was done. Time to live it up and have fun while they still could.

The shopping centre looked beautifully romantic though.

Right in the centre was a royal blue Christmas tree adorned in silver baubles and tinsel, lights flashing and illuminating the streamers and ceiling decorations criss-crossing up through the floors. In one corner, Santa’s grotto was set up, complete with fake winter wonderland. Mike had insisted on queueing up with a dozen or so small children to tell some old man pretending to be Santa that he wanted good grades for Christmas.

So much for taking their minds off everything.

Oscar had been saving up pocket money for months now. Whatever simple jobs Logan needed doing, he’d wrestle Charlie for to make sure he had enough for not only his siblings, but Mike, Sal and Hunapo too. And maybe some small things for the younger ones. He was really out of his depth here though. What the hell did he buy for people who weren’t Logan or Charlie?

Well, he couldn’t exactly get anything for Mike here, and talking to Santa somehow yielded no results in what he could get in the future. What kind of awful boyfriend struggled on Christmas presents?

He’d think of something eventually though.

“All this being generous sure takes it out of ya,” exclaimed Mike with a laugh. “Wanna go eat?”

“I’m not crazy about fast food,” Oscar explained.

“I don’t really want to sit in a restaurant,” Mike sighed, “it takes ages and I just wanna grab a bite.”

“I’m not hungry anyway, so you do you.” He wouldn’t mind a quick five-minute rest anyway; all this shopping was making him ready to drop.

“Are you sure man?” Mike raised an eyebrow at that.

“Perfectly.”

Mike seemed convinced. He didn’t say another word as they took the escalator to the food court, neither willing to hold each other’s hands in public like this, not in such a crowd that most like contained a few kids from school. Nasty, gossipy kids.

The food court absolutely stank to Oscar, disgusting and greasy but stupidly tantalizing too. Must be all the additives. There was no way he was giving in though- fast food was disgusting and would ruin his figure. And make him sluggish. And probably addicted too. Not worth the risk.

“Hey listen,” began Mike after a few minutes of increasingly awkward silence, “why don’t you grab us a table while I order some fries?”

“Sure thing.” Oscar liked picking the table, wherever he was and whoever he was with. He was fussy like that. With his family, he tended to not hold a lot of interest in what they were saying so some points of aesthetic interest were key when it came to sitting down for an extended amount of time.

Mike, on the other hand… Well he wanted to engage in conversation, and keep up a steady flow, but old habits died hard, so he settled down at a little table in the corner, next to a glass balcony overlooking the main square of the shopping centre. Maybe Mike would want to eat in silence.

Well, until he came back with his order, Oscar would have nothing to do but people watch, peering down at shoppers milling about, arms laden with plastic bags as some even had to chase down their small children. There were other teens about too, though thankfully none he recognised. He still wasn’t going to hold Mike’s hand here though, at the very least because he was embarrassed about public affection, generally speaking. Watching Logan fawn around Hunapo was sickening enough at times.

Oscar was a romantic at heart though, really.

“Nice view,” Mike commented, setting down his tray and fumbling with his chair, the metal legs screeching against tiled flooring making his teeth itch and well and truly pulling him back to the present.

“I suppose,” he murmured like he’d not gone and picked these seats with that thought in mind.

“By the way, if you want a fry feel free to take a few,” Mike smiled at him, an awkward grin Oscar had grown to love.

“Oh no, I’m fine.” They were tempting though, stupidly so. He didn’t even like fried foods, but he’d skipped breakfast like an idiot and right now he’d happily eat grass and snow. He wasn’t as strong-willed as he wanted to be, and at times it really showed, like when Logan caught him stuffing his face with dry crackers in the middle of the night, knowing full well he’d be exhausted all through school the next day but he’d said he was too ill to finish dinner. Again. He wished he was strong.

It was a terrible weakness, and resulted in an infuriatingly smug smile from his boyfriend, but Oscar soon caved in and took a dainty pinch of chips. “Maybe you’ll pay attention now,” he commented.

“Was I drifting off?” asked Oscar innocently.

“Kinda. Something on your mind, buddy?”

“Oh, nothing. What about you?” Did that come out defensive? He hoped not.

Mike did look rather uncomfortable at the question though. “Well, now that you mention it...” After a few handfuls of fries, he seemed to abandon his little box in favour of avoiding eye contact like it was fatal.

“Go on,” Oscar rested his chin in his hands, trying his best to look inviting as he stole away another chip.

“You know my mom?”

“Not personally, no.”

“This isn’t time for joking around,” Mike huffed, playing with his hands and bristling with the nervous energy of being in an unwanted spotlight. “Look, I’m gonna need you to give my place a wide berth over winter break.”

“And this has something to do with you mother, right?” Oscar grimaced. What was that dreadful human being up to now? No, he shouldn’t judge her; he’d never met her. But he trusted Mike’s judgements of other people’s character, and he’d known his own mother all his life, naturally.

“Yeah she’s kinda staying over for a few weeks. I can’t really have you being all… boyfriend-y with her around cause she’ll get all suspicious and stuff.”

“Understandable.”

“Carlos and Natalya have been issued with the same warning, by the way. I don’t suppose there’s any point hanging up mistletoe this year.” Mike blew a stray hair out of his eyes.

“Got it,” Oscar tried to give a determined smile, “what if I came over with Sal though? As a friend?” Helping himself to another chip, he waited anxiously for Mike’s response.

“I guess,” the boy mumbled, “I wouldn’t recommend it though. She’s nice to me but I don’t think, you know... You and Sal wouldn’t exactly be all that welcome.”

Oscar sighed. “I see. These will be a tense few weeks then, it seems.” He barely noticed he’d picked up the pace in his eating. If he didn’t convince Mike’s mother there was nothing going on, that there was no need for her to be concerned about her son being influenced by Oscar's ways and she most certainly didn’t need to take him back home. It would be easy, right? All he had to do was withhold suspicious affection. No problem. Except they’d been dating for a total of less than a month now and all he wanted was to smother Mike in kisses. To hold him. Caress his face. It was torture just sitting there pretending their relationship was platonic out in public, but to be denied it in the privacy of Mike’s own home too?

“You’re welcome round at ours any time,” he tried, “if you need a break from it all.”

“Thanks, buddy.” A genuine smile seemed to creep across his face. “I’ll probably be needing some of that.” He reached for his fries, only to find- to his annoyance- a few crispy scraps nestled smugly right at the bottom, half-hidden amongst the cardboard folds. “The fuck dude?”

“Sorry,” Oscar muttered as he played with his hands. He was weak. Stupid. Why couldn’t he have controlled himself for just once in his life? Now Mike probably hated him, or at least thought he was some sort of fat freak who just ate and ate and ate like it was a disease. This was a disaster. He wanted to cry. Oh fuck- he might just do it. Please no, not in public.

“Hey it’s fine,” Mike waved a hand, “nice to see you eating something, even if it is garbage.”

“Why? Got a fetish for watching people eat?” Oscar bristled.

“No- I just- you’ve been getting thin lately. I’m allowed to be worried, right?”

All that succeeded in doing was getting Oscar’s scowl to deepen. Liar. What was he trying to gain here?

“I just need to slip into the bathroom,” he announced awkwardly, “I’ll- I’ll be back in a minute.”

He didn’t wait for Mike’s reply, bolting out of his seat and stumbling in the general direction of the nearest toilets. Mike watched him go in stunned silence, as did several people from surrounding tables, soon turning their attention on him. It was a feeling more than a little unwelcome to him, being judged by strangers in such a way.

It may have only been for a total of five minutes that Oscar disappeared, but to young Michael it felt like a crushing eternity of snide glances from strangers, probably thinking he was some sort of jerk, an insensitive friend maybe. Someone who made others cry and need to rush away.

But he came back. Rubbing his lip with a thumb, Oscar refused to make eye contact as he mumbled out an apology. “I was suddenly taken ill.”

“Don’t need the details,” he replied curtly, “hope you’re okay though.”

“Oh of course, should we just get on with the shopping though?”

It turned out Mike wasn’t too good at choosing presents for people who weren’t his siblings either, and after another hour of wandering almost aimlessly, they only had a handful of pathetic stocking fillers to show for it. Well, better than nothing, and they had something for everyone now. At least you had to pretend to like all your Christmas presents, so they wouldn't hear any whining from the boys.

Both Oscar and Mike still had each other to buy for, but that would have to wait for another day, when they weren’t in each other’s company. Oscar did succeed in cheesing his boyfriend off pointing out ‘suggestions’ for him, mostly clothes and men’s jewellery. Stuff he couldn’t trust Logan or Charlie to choose for him.

It turned out, however, that they were not the only panicked shoppers trying to find something- anything- to give to loved ones.

“This is a pleasant surprise,” Hunapo chirped after- almost literally- running into the boys outside a discount book shop. “Oh, you must be one of Oscar little friends.” They threw Mike a pleasant smile.

“Actually, this is my boyfriend, Michael; Mike, I told you about Logan’s… friend,” Oscar gestured at said boyfriend proudly, beaming as he did so, “um, we haven’t got round to telling Logan yet, so if you could pretend like this never happened…”

“Oh, gotcha,” Hunapo winked.

“We’re going to tell him soon, erm, he’s just had a lot on his plate lately.”

“Right, right, of course, so what are you two doing out here?”

“Sightseeing,” replied Oscar, “shopping, just like you.”

“Yeah, I left buying my family’s presents til the last minute,” they grimaced at that, “not even sure they’ll get em on time.”

“Isn’t it a little expensive to be sending parcels to New Zealand?” asked Mike.

“Very. But I didn’t want to just send a cheque- seemed a bit impersonal.” Hunapo rubbed their chin, exhaling sharply.

“Putting it in a card helps,” Oscar commented.

“Shut it, boy.”

“Wait, so you’re not seeing your family for Christmas?” Mike pulled a face.

“Yeah.”

“Sounds rough.” As did actually seeing family, in Mike's case.

“A quiet year doesn’t sound that bad to me,” they reasoned, convincing no one.

“Just come round ours,” said Oscar, waving a hand, “no one would mind.”

“Oh I wouldn’t want to intru-”

“You would not be intruding.” Oscar punctuated his interruption with a chiding glare.

“But-”

“There will be enough food and Logan would be over the moon to see you.”

“Os-”

“If it bothers you then just contribute a dish,” he insisted, keeping firm, “like a dessert or something.”

Thankfully, they seemed to relent- or was at least considering the offer properly. It made sense, and Oscar hoped Hunapo would accept- he was being kind enough to show an interest in his brother’s love life for once, and needed something to show for it in the form of the best partner Logan could hope for. Besides, he really did want to see Huna happy, especially during Christmas and after everything that had happened.

“You better get your brother’s permission first,” they warned, “I don’t wanna be turning up uninvited like that one relative that just invites themselves over. It would be nice to give someone their presents on the day though.”

“You got presents for us?” asked Oscar, blinking in surprise. Well, that was kind of them.

“You got a present for them,” Mike pointed out.

“Oh really?” Hunapo beamed at that. “Whatcha get me?”

Oscar scowled as he slipped his shopping bags behind his back. “You’re going to have to wait til you come over, on Christmas day, sorry.”

“Hmph. Well, could you at least give me some ideas about what your bro- Logan and Charlie would like?” Hunapo seemed to grimace at that; “I mean, I guess I should know what they’d like but, well I want to get things right, you know?”

“How cute,” Mike noted, smiling a knowing smile.

“Just buy anything art related and you’ll be in Charlie’s good books,” scratching his chin, Oscar began to explain his siblings’ tastes, “seriously, a pad and some paints, or something cutesy with a bunny on it.”

“Right, simple enough.”

“Logan likes documentaries,” Oscar added, “he’s big on learning but there are two year olds out there that can read better than him. Avoid books at all costs. Oh, and history stuff- he doesn’t care. Animal shit’s his jam.”

“I can find something in a charity shop, I suppose.” Hunapo broke into a grin, “thank you though, kid.”

“And I assume you wanted to leave mine a surprise,” Oscar leaned in closer, “but I like hair products, or car-related merch.”

Hunapo laughed. “Noted. Well, I suppose I should get onto that, see you round then.”

“Wow, I never took you to be the generous type,” Mike noted once they were out of sight, making their tired way to the nearest bus stop in relative privacy they silently welcomed as hands entwined and faces flushed.

“Huh?”

“Inviting Hunapo to yours.”

“I invited you too, albeit not on Christmas day. You would be welcome, though.”

“That’s so sweet of you,” glancing round to make sure they were alone, Mike placed a peck on Oscar’s cheek, the other responding with a peck on the lips.

He didn’t mean to wrinkled his nose, but Oscar’s sharp eyes caught it regardless. “Problem?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” he grimaced, “your mouth just tasted a little sour. I don’t know. Probably my imagination.”

Chapter Text

 

Something like this was going to happen eventually, he knew, but Logan hadn’t expected it to be so soon.

He’d even stopped applying for jobs temporarily, routine setting into something that could be considered comfortable, something that wasn’t so bad for the time being and he could just coast through the last dregs of the year getting by before looking to move on. Things were fine, for the moment. Like in London, it just became a part of his life, something he didn’t particularly enjoy but got on with, like a shit job or any day he’d had to go to school, something he lumped and tried not to think about at home.

Of course, every time an incident like this occurred he’d be brought back to reality with a crash. Back when he was younger, he thought himself a battler, more than willing to suffer if his kids could go to school with packed lunches and come home to some dinner and a bed that wasn’t in a shitty BnB. Now he was a deadbeat who wouldn’t be around much longer and one way or another Oscar and Charlie were going into care. Maybe it would be less traumatising for them if he just gave them up now, rather than when he’d been found in a ditch.

He’d already mopped up his cut lip using his phone camera as a mirror, and now it’s grim reflection was reminding him of just what the stakes were in this game. The glaring screen did little to relieve his searing headache, and bloodshot eyes struggled to get used to even the dim screen light. One of his eyes was almost squeezed shut by an ugly purple bruise and the scratches across his jaw stung sharply.

He didn’t know if his client had been out to kill him, in fact he remembered little of the incident at all, but he’d somehow fought back and won- few people were stronger than him, after all. It had been close though; even with his strength, Logan had been on the verge of blacking out into immobile helplessness, a well-timed kick to the crotch saving him at the very last second. Logan didn't bother waiting to catch his breath before he was out of that car and belting towards the nearest main road. From now on he was keeping a knife on him whenever he went out.

One of these days Oscar and Charlie would wake up to no one. Logan tried to go out as infrequently as possible, but even the few hundred a night he was earning only stretched so far. He needed more. Christmas was around the corner and he’d not gotten a single present for the kids yet. Hell, one more incident like this and they wouldn’t be getting fucking anything for Christmas besides a foster home.

Maybe he should tell Hunapo; not about the danger he was in, just what he was doing so at least when he did go missing someone would know why. He couldn’t though. How would they react? He doubted Hunapo would look down on him for what he did, but however they would react would be no better. If they knew the dangers they would make him quit, sign on the dole with no job prospects and a fraction of the money. Maybe they’d pity him. Maybe they’d fear he would die.

It was stupid to think about at a time like this, but Hunapo would never love him if they knew- surely. He was dirty, something used and broken without a hope. They might try, to see past it all, but any feelings they had would fizzle away at the thought of trying to hold him after spending a night getting fucked for money. What he did would make them uncomfortable, like it had with the few previous partners who'd stayed longer than a night. It was off-putting, he'd come to realise, and sure it wasn't his biggest priority, but right now all he wanted to do was wallow in despair and feel sorry for himself.

The headache was worse now, and Logan shut off his phone in the hopes of finding some relief. Besides, he knew what he looked like and didn’t want to think about it any more. His eye throbbed and he could feel cold saliva hanging from his chin- swallowing seemed too difficult now, as was breathing. Maybe he should’ve checked in at the hospital on the way home, had he not been so utterly terrified and desperate to reach his kids. He wasn’t really hurt though, right?

How was he supposed to explain this away though? Charlie would ask, and Oscar wouldn’t believe whatever excuse he gave. And it killed him to lie to Hunapo even more than he’d had to. But more importantly, how was he supposed to go out tomorrow night looking like this?

 

...

 

Oscar’s mind swirled and skin crawled as a furious debate raged on in his head- almost detached entirely from his quiet, padded footsteps down the stairs. Although he was moving on automatic, he still felt heavy, exhausted. He was weak. He was pathetic for not even being able to go one night without eating- it would be so easy to wait for morning and have his coffee but no. He couldn’t sleep. The gnawing in his stomach drove him wild and kept him awake until the early hours of the morning- lucky for him there was no school for a few weeks and he could just sleep in and not have people ask questions about what he'd been doing staying up so late.

Christmas was around the corner so the fridge was- horrendously- constantly full. Most of it he wasn’t allowed to eat just yet anyway, but there was usually something to snack on. His siblings were constantly grazing, now that there was no real reason to go outside and expose their frozen Australian selves to the freezing wind and rain that had tormented the town for the past few days. He didn’t even bother hanging out with his friends, save for the handful of times Mike and Sal had come out to see him. Now that he thought of it, last time he left the house was his date with Mike. No wonder he was extra crabby as of late. And finding it harder to stop eating.

He couldn’t even text Mike, or call him, in case his mother was snooping about invading her sons’ privacy. She tended to do that. Mike had been very clear with the rules concerning how much Oscar could interact with him, and he’d not wanted to start a conversation for fear of being too affectionate.

No wonder he couldn’t keep from binging. He used to do it in middle school, to fill the void created by a lack of friends, he supposed. It just became another thing for people to tease him about: there went Tubby McFatarse covered in spots with no friends. Puberty just made the spots worse, and one time he'd even opened his lunchbox to find worms mixed in with his sandwiches. A horrible prank, made all the more humiliating by the fact that that he'd discovered the worms only after taking a bite. It was the first time he'd thrown up in school and it quickly ceased being the only time.

The memory almost made him turn right around and march back up the stairs. In fact, the only reason he didn’t was because he heard a faint groan coming from the sitting room. Oh, Logan was back from work then? Seemed a little early, if he recalled, but what did he know?

“Logie?” he made sure to keep his voice soft as he peered through the doorway, but he still succeeded in startling his brother.

When Logan turned to face him, eyes wide and clutching the arm of the sofa like it could protect him, Oscar reeled at the sight.

A guy as big as Logan tended to get into a lot of fights- few he’d actually start. People just liked to pick fights with him because he looked strong and beating him meant you were stronger. Of course, few could actually win a fight against him and so, whilst Oscar was used to seeing his brother occasionally coming home with scraped knuckles and a bruised jaw, this looked like he’d been beaten severely, caught off guard. Someone had fought dirty- and Oscar knew he had no chance of going up against the coward who did it, but he could at least comfort his brother in the aftermath. “Oh fuck Logan. What happened?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Logan waved a hand, “fight at the pub got outta hand. People were buying me drinks and I started something I couldn’t finish.” His voice was little more than a rasp, like he wasn't getting enough air. Oscar tried to not look at his neck.

A lie. Even from where he stood, Oscar couldn’t smell a whiff of alcohol on him. “Logie-”

“I know, I know, I’m a reckless cunt,” Logan tried to smile as he hung his head, “I’ll try not to go and get myself fired again.”

“It’s okay,” Oscar truly didn’t know what to say here. He doubted interrogating Logan and wringing the truth from him would actually work, and besides, if his brother didn’t want to talk about it then he wouldn’t force him to. He hoped Logan would trust him with the truth in his own time though.

“Look,” he sighed, sinking down and rubbing Logan’s arms, pausing for a moment as he ran his palm over the thick, dark hairs, “if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. Just let me get you cleaned up and in bed- it’s late.”

Logan gave a shaky nod, small and distant. “Yeah, sure thing, kiddo.”

 

Chapter Text

Oscar couldn’t take it anymore.

He was going to go mad if he didn’t see Mike again and – really - was there any danger of anything being suspected just from their friendship? The fact that he was yearning to see Mike like his oxygen had been cut off, that was slightly suspicious, yes. Well, as long as he didn’t bring that up he really ought to be fine.

He'd decided to take Sal with him though, just to be on the safe side. Nothing at all weird about a group of friends hanging out, right? Plus, he really didn’t want to face Ms Williams alone, and if the two of them could grab Mike and get out, then he could finally kiss his boyfriend too. Though that might make Sal feel a little odd.

Either way, this was also to save Mike, even just for a day. From what he and Sal could gather, from the handful of texts Mike had sent over the past week, he was pretty much trapped. Understandably, if a parent has hardly seen their child in two years, they would want to spend as much time as possible with said child and get to know them before they were forced to go home again. Unfortunately for Mike, it meant he couldn’t slip away as often as he’d like. Or at all, save for late at night, under the covers with his phone. Not to mention he wasn’t particularly fond of his mother, and spending all this time cooped up with her was testing his already short patience. This was in part a rescue mission: get Mike out and cooled down before he exploded and said something he’d regret. Maybe a few of these ‘release valve’ trips, and Mike could manage the rest of her stay with no problems.

At least, that was what Oscar was telling himself as he stood on the doorstep to the Jones’ household. He had to be brave for Mike, but Oscar struggled to pull himself out of his fearful trance, to just reach up and ring the doorbell. He didn’t want to face her or risk revealing anything about his relationship with Mike. He didn’t want to finally be so close to Mike but unable to embrace, to shower him with affection.

“Go on then,” urged Sal from behind him, and Oscar flinched, hand twitching forward to press against the bell. Oh bugger. As he heard muffled movement from inside, he briefly considered finding somewhere to hide and letting Sal deal with Ms Williams by himself, but didn’t. For one, an entire street of terraced houses with no gardens provided absolutely nothing in the way of hiding places, and for another he just couldn’t do that to Sal. The boy was a gentle, sensitive soul and needed to be protected, not least from Mike’s narrow-minded mother.

She probably wasn’t all that bad though. Hopefully. Maybe it was just that Mike had had to live with her most of his life that he felt the full force of every little thing she’d said to him over the years. It had built up, even.

Alfred’s face when he opened the door to them wasn’t promising though.

“Shit, something wrong?” the guy asked, “I mean, like, you wouldn’t be here unless it was an emergency, right?” Oscar hadn’t known the guy had an indoor voice, and yet here he was, whispering like they were at a funeral.

“No sir,” Oscar whispered back, “we just wanted to hang out with Mike - maybe get a bite to eat or something.”

Alfred didn’t look all that keen, but he relented all the same. “Okay, but be quick about it. Maybe stay here even.” He left them in the hall, wandering upstairs, presumably to inform Mike of the presence of his dumbass friends.

Oscar and Sal exchanged nervous glances, both wondering – not for the first time – if this was a good idea.

“Is someone there?” called a voice from the kitchen that could only belong to Ms Williams.

“It’s Mike’s friends,” Sal called back, to Oscar’s utter and complete horror. “We were thinking of hanging out at the park if that’s okay.”

“What? Come in here why don’t you? I can’t hear you out there.”

“Can I stay here?” Oscar hissed, but Sal just dragged him into the kitchen. Right, of course. They were in this shituation together.

“Hi boys, so where are you headed with my son?”

It genuinely pissed Oscar off that Ms Williams had the same hair colour as Mike, short and cropped with a pair of large earrings, like garish insects. Her cardigan was the same shade of teal Oscar had just decided he hated. She had a somewhat ratty face, one that thankfully hadn’t been passed to any of her sons, one that made its owner look like she loved nothing more than to poke her pointy nose into the business of anyone and everyone. And use what she found out to her own sick advantage. She had probably spoken to a lot of managers in her time.

“We were going to play football,” Sal chirped, “or soccer, as you would say!” A perfectly non-gay pastime, good going Sal! They might just survive this after all.

“Your accent seems foreign,” she just commented, “where are you from?”

“Oh, Italy.”

Oscar braced himself, but Ms Williams just laughed. “So, you in the mafia then?”

And he was bracing himself again.

Sal genuinely seemed stumped. “Um, I mean… yeah, sure. Sleep with one eye open or a horse’s head.”

Ms Williams just chuckled, turning to her son’s secret boyfriend as Mike and Alfred entered the room. “And what about you, quiet boy?”

“Australia,” Oscar squeaked.

“Oh, that explains that nice tan!”

Oscar knew. He knew if he made eye contact with anyone in the room he would not be able to keep a straight face. She actually thought- no this was probably a good thing she just thought he had a tan.

Oscar was going to piss himself laughing though.

Unfortunately, his and Mike’s faces gave them away immediately, as did Alfred’s complete look of horror.

“Oh,” she seemed to reel, turning to her youngest son, “Mikey, why can’t you make friends your own colour?”

Silence.

Oscar couldn’t think, unable to come up with anything that could be said in reply. He wondered if he was about to cry, and that was about it. Mike, on the other hand, looked ready to explode, fists clenched like he’d willingly punch his mother. Alfred looked terrified, and Oscar wondered if he, being the adult, would help in any way.

But it was Sal who came to the rescue.

“It’s a tan,” he said simply, “look, Mike, wanna go to the park?” When he caught Oscar’s eye, a flash of fear shone through.

Mike tore his glare away from Ms Williams. “Yeah, sure.” He grabbed Oscar’s sleeve, starting to pull him from the room.

“This isn’t over, young man.”

“Well maybe I won’t come back!”

Ms Williams scoffed. “A little old to be threatening to run away, Michael.”

“Well yeah if you managed to follow us into a different country;” he beckoned Sal to follow him, who followed all too enthusiastically.

“We’re going to have a talk when you get back,” were the last words they heard from Ms Williams.

And they were out the door, Mike not stopping for a coat or gloves, a decision he seemed to regret almost immediately. With a growl, he stuffed his red fingers under his armpits, his baggy t shirt billowing in the breeze. Again, Sal came to the rescue.

“Here,” he muttered, draping his jacket over Mike’s shoulders. Mike grunted a thanks.

Oscar, meanwhile, was shaking. He stared at the ground as his friends’ words glanced off of him, and his shoes trembled and shook before him, cracks in the pavement wobbling. The buzz of chatter seemed to stop and he was lead somewhere. He didn’t know. He didn’t care, as long as it was away from that dreadful woman.

“I’m sorry,” he heard Sal say at some point.

“Fucking hell!” Mike exploded. He ran his hands through his hair, gaping at his friends in horror. “I told you both to stay away! Christ Oscar, you’re gay and mixed-race; that’s like her two least favourite things in the world!”

“We just wanted to get you outta there,” Oscar mumbled into his coat.

“Get me out?” Mike raised an eyebrow, “what is this? Prison break?”

“Well, yeah.”

To their surprise, he burst out laughing. “Aw thanks guys! You’re a pair of fucking idiots but damn you’re a kind pair of idiots.”

“We didn’t mean to get you into trouble though,” said Sal shyly.

“Honestly, she’s been having a go at me for everything,” Mike just shrugged, “my hair makes me look vain and borderline Satanic, that’s her latest problem. And she’s mad she can’t force me to give her my laptop password because it’s not her house so she can’t exactly make me. Al and Matt always back me up. Like she'd find anything interesting anyway: BBC bitesize and a couple games.”

“Does this woman have any redeeming qualities?” exclaimed Oscar.

Mike had to think for a moment. “She makes a mean lemon tart.”

Oscar sniffed. “Fitting.”

“So I guess if you ever need another break from your lovely mother,” Sal gave a grim smile, “maybe I should just come over. Oscar can wait at the end of the road or something in case she finds out he doesn't have a tan.”

"I have a tan as well, so technically-"

“Or you could do as I say and not put yourselves through being around her,” said Mike like it was obvious.

“We’d do it for you,” said Oscar, and even he had to laugh at how romantic novel he sounded.

“Right,” scoffed Mike.

“We are here to help though,” said Sal, “we’ll get you through this, friendo.”

Mike smiled, a little bashful smile half-hidden by the collar of Sal’s jacket. “Thanks, guys.”

Chapter Text

Though his brother’s secret and Ms Williams’ comments had somewhat dampened his mood in the days leading up to Christmas, he still rose bright and cheery on the day itself. His bed seemed extra soft and although he was at the age where he no longer leapt out of bed and ran into Logan’s room at the arse crack of dawn, it was certainly the one day of the year he didn’t feel any mental resistance in getting up.

He sat up, stretching gracefully and gazing out the window. There was a light coating of frost on the grass, but no snow. The sun was crisp and bright though. Perfect.

His moment of peace was shattered by Charlie’s scream as he practically kicked down the door.

“Oscar it’s Christmas!” he bellowed, running over and diving onto the bed. His forehead smacked into Oscar’s cheek, and the brothers crashed into the headboard.

“Charlie!” he cried. “That really hurt!”

“Sorry bro, but Christmas!”

Oscar had to smile at Charlie’s expression, full of a joy that even being thirteen couldn’t diminish. Christmas was still an enchanting time for the kid, and something about that fact made everything Oscar knew feel… right. The world was a terrible place, but despite that, Christmas still came and coated one day of the year in pure, dazzling magic.

Hopefully, like with every other year, the magic would continue on until New Year’s Day: a week of pyjamas and presents, watching telly in a cocoon of blankets. No responsibilities, no reason to go outside or do anything really. Oscar was an active boy but even he had to appreciate it all.

“Where’s my present?” asked Charlie.

“Under the tree. You saw me put it there last night!”

“Just testing ya,” Charlie grinned, “better be a good one. I’ve been a heckin’ angel this year!”

Oscar laughed. “Of course. Now go wake Logie.”

He lazily followed Charlie’s hurried footsteps to find Logan barely awake in his bed, rubbing his eyes as he sat up to hug Charlie. “That you making all that noise?” he mumbled.

“No, it’s Santa.”

“Oh good,” Logan ran a hand through his hair, “I totally forgot to get you stuff so at least someone remembered.”

He seemed to be trying to look enthusiastic for them, but Oscar could see he was tired. The bruises were still splattered across his neck, faded and yellow, but still shining through. He still didn’t know the origin of them, and had quickly stopped bothering to ask.

Still, he wasn’t going to think about it today. On Christmas day, everything was fine.

“Come on! Get up!” Charlie was tugging at Logan’s arm but he wasn’t budging.

“God, Char, let me wake up first,” he gave a yawn for emphasis.

“But presents!”

“We’re having tea and breakfast first,” he told him sternly, “that’s not changing this year.”

Charlie pouted. “I don’t like tea.”

“I’ll squeeze you some orange juice if you promise not to feel your presents. Or shake them. Or try to see through the wrapping paper.”

Charlie gave a whine. “Fine!”

Oscar was certain the kid would still be this excited when they were in their fifties. Older, even. It was Charlie’s favourite time of year, Logan’s too, despite how it was his job to organise it.

The siblings spent another three minutes or so snuggled up in Logan’s bed before finally giving into Charlie’s frantic wishes and heading downstairs. Sure enough, under the Christmas tree were the presents Oscar and Charlie had put out last night, along with two new bags from Logan. Sorry, Santa. The Cooper kids hadn’t believed in Santa for years, but Logan liked to keep up the pretence, keep this half-belief that an old man had broken into their house and left presents.

It was their magic day, after all.

The younger two sat on the sofa, staring longingly at their presents under orders from Logan not to touch any of them until he’d made breakfast. Oscar had to pull Charlie back down into the sofa twice before Logan came back with a tray of sausages and drinks. Right away, Charlie tried to wolf down a grabbed sausage, and promptly burnt his entire mouth. He sat sulking in the corner for a good five minutes before braving breakfast again.

He was in a considerably brighter mood when Logan, at long last, gave them permission to start on their presents. The younger brothers took it in turns to open their presents whilst Logan watched, calm and content now he was up and having fun. Oscar was glad to see him back to his old self as he laughed and hugged them after each present.

Oscar eventually found himself looking at a small pile of novels and poetry collections, some seeds and bulbs for his garden, gardening tools from Charlie and a surprisingly stylish collection of new clothes. Thankfully for Charlie, Logan seemed to have decided he’d had enough new clothes for his birthday, and the only t shirt he found himself staring at was a fairly gender-neutral one emblazoned with ‘here comes trouble’. He decided to interpret it as a warning to other people, rather than a warning to him.

They decided to leave the presents from their friends for the moment, to give them something to look forward to whilst Logan opened his own gifts. As well as their brother’s reactions, of course.

Logan seemed mildly pleased with his new hat Oscar found in a party shop, something he can wear for a laugh down the pub. Honestly, most of the presents Oscar had bought his brother were terrible and probably a little offensive, but Logan loved them anyway. For months now, Oscar had been scouring charity shops for tacky Australian souvenirs to give Logan, and had quite the haul to show for it, including a kangaroo scrotum purse, which, thankfully, Logan said he would cherish. He also now owned his weight in useless crap painted with the Australian flag.

Logan loved it all.

Charlie got him one present: a painstakingly detailed, beautiful family portrait. Honestly, it could’ve been in a museum, with a blood red background and heavy oils. The subjects were all in modern attire, casual, even, but Oscar didn’t find the clash too glaring.

What amused him most, though, was that Hunapo was included in this family portrait.

“They’re part of the family now,” Charlie reasoned, and Logan let it slide.

He seemed like he’d let homicide side at that point though, holding the canvas to his chest and tearing up for the first time since he was fired.

“It’s beautiful, Char,” he whispered, eventually having his fill of hugging the thing and going back to staring at it. “Hey, what happened to your curls?”

“They’re still there,” Charlie explained flatly, “I just have a ponytail and you can’t see it in the picture.”

“Ah, okay,” and he said nothing more on the matter.

None of the presents from Oscar’s friends were really anything to sneeze at, truth be told. Kuzey did give him a couple of toy cars, which Oscar did find touching. Not only did Kuzey not actually celebrate Christmas (and Oscar, for one, had no idea when Eid was) but he’d only mentioned an interest in cars once, months ago. Peter, on the other hand, had bought him a mug shaped like a toilet, whilst Lars and Franz had given him a pet rock. Hiding the dildo Sal had bought him from Logan and Charlie proved to be trickier than his panicked mind had accounted for, and Nobuyuki had just wrapped up a chewed pen.

Mike’s present was incredibly thoughtful, and made him burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” asked Charlie, “you needed boxing gloves, right?”

Oscar smiled. “Yes, but it’s what I bought him too.”

Charlie rolled his eyes. “You two are just made for each other, aren’t you?”

Lucky for Charlie, his friends were a bit more creative with their gifts, as he had enough art supplies to last until his next birthday. Oscar was not at all pleased at the toy tarantula from Kuzey Charlie now owned, especially when it was thrown in his direction. He didn’t like other people being reminded that he was a shrieker.

Peter’s present was also more thoughtful: a painted shell. It was actually quite beautiful, Oscar had to admit, and he was never one for nautical aesthetics. Thankfully, Sal’s present was more tasteful too.

“Oh wow, I’ve wanted to get into scrapbooking for ages,” Charlie whispered as he stroked a blank pad about half the size of him, opening the thing to run his hands over the canvass pages.

“That’s a thoughtful present,” Logan noted with some suspicion, “that’s from the same guy that got you the dildo, right Oscar?”

“It was a pencil case, I told you!”

Logan scoffed. “Listen, I know a dildo when I see one.”

“God dammit,” Oscar groaned. “Look, I think it was meant as a joke.” Possibly about not being able to see Mike. Thanks, Sal.

But at least things were out in the open about just what Oscar had been given, and the dildo was then set on the mantlepiece to display the little Christmas hat Sal had made for it. The Coopers all agreed finding a worse decoration would be impossible, bar a dead body.

The final present was from Lars and Franz, again, given together like the boys were already an old married couple. Oscar had to comment on how cute it was. Charlie just smiled at his own portrait, each half of his face painted in two completely different styles.

“Short hair suits you,” Logan commented, “would you like to try it sometime?”

“Yes, actually,” said Charlie, almost breathless with excitement.

Before Logan could reply to that, the doorbell rang and he jumped to answer it, knowing only one person was expected that day.

“At least someone’s fully-dressed,” he commented.

Hunapo was wearing an ugly Christmas jumper, one of a sheep going ‘baa humbug’, and jeans, their hair brushed and neat. At the sight of Logan’s chunky onesie pyjamas, they raised an eyebrow.

“Hi to you too, Cooper.”

“Here, let me take those,” he took bags of presents and food out of their hands, guiding them inside with the excitement of a small boy.

“I… really am overdressed,” Hunapo noted upon spying Oscar and Charlie, also in their pyjamas and poking at their new presents. Oscar was boxing a bauble on the Christmas tree with his new gloves and Charlie was already working on his scrapbook, having collected samples of wrapping paper and clippings from the tree.

“Hey we don’t do ‘formal’ in this house,” Logan told them.

“We do have plenty of pyjamas if you fancy a change of clothes,” added Oscar.

Hunapo nodded as they followed Logan into the kitchen; “yeah, that sounds pretty good actually. Oh, I brought a leg of lamb and some mint sauce; hope that’s okay.”

Logan snorted. “If I knew we were bringing exes I’d have hired a stadium.”

“Is that a shot at you or me?”

“Yeah, both.” Logan winked. “Now get yourself out of those clothes.”

Ten minutes later, the Coopers and Hunapo were snuggled up on the sofa, all in pyjamas with presents on their laps. There was an air of excitement, but with a gloomy edge as all knew these were the last presents of the year. Still, the turkey was in the oven at this point and dinner well on the way. The Pogues were playing in the background, and all four wiggled and gently kicked their feet, showing off terrible, tacky Christmas socks that were lovely and warm. Everything was cosy, really. Peaceful, magical, beau-

“Is that a penis wearing a hat on the mantlepiece?” asked Hunapo.

“My friends are awful,” was all Oscar cared to comment on the matter.

“Did you see this painting Charlie did?” asked Logan when they eventually stopped laughing. He handed over the portrait, torn between pride and anxiety. “Apparently you’re a part of the family now.”

Hunapo smiled at that. “I’m flattered, thanks Chaz. Aww you made me so cute!”

“Oh nice you got me aftershave!” cried Oscar, ripping open a dark purple box to sniff the bottle inside.

“Oscar!” Logan looked at him in horror, “don’t go opening your presents when we aren’t ready.”

“I was just looking for something to do that wasn’t looking at Richard.”

“Please don’t call the dildo Richard,” whined Hunapo, “that’s my grandfather’s name.”

Logan gave a groan. “This conversation is taking a weird turn. Maybe we should just get into opening presents.”

And so, with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ as his personal soundtrack, Logan ripped open beautiful gold wrapping paper to find a brick in his lap. A glossy black brick with ‘planet earth’ written across the front.

“No way!” he cried, “aw Hunie you should’ve have! I’ve wanted to watch this for ages; how did you know?”

Hunapo just shrugged. “You’re smart but I’m still not convinced you can read.”

“Thanks,” Logan laughed, “but seriously, thank you so much.” He smiled at his little family. “These really are the sweetest presents I’ve ever gotten. You… you did good, guys; I love you all so much.”

Afternoon rolled into evening and the sun disappeared from the sky, and everyone was fed. And fed again. Even Logan, the largest by far, was completely stuffed by the evening, unable to do anything but lay on the sofa, working his way through a box of liquor chocolates. Hunapo was curled up next to him, squeezed between pure Australian muscle and soft sofa, buried in blankets. They’d been smart enough to stop eating for the moment, but were nursing a glass of Bailey’s on the rocks. Their head was on Logan's chest, listening to the rise and fall of his chest.

Charlie was sprawled in front of the coffee table, watching comedy shows’ Christmas specials and Oscar was on the floor, on a bed of cushions and messaging what seemed like multiple people. He had a glass of wine next to him and a platter of cheese and crackers on his lap.

“You’re staying the night, right?” murmured Logan, turning his head so his nose was buried in Hunapo’s hair. He was keenly aware of his siblings watching him, eyes burning into his temple. But who wanted to be travelling this late? Better to stay here and have fun, and wake up for Boxing Day, surrounded by loved ones and in no hurry. They could play card games and watch a couple of films.

“If you want me to,” they replied.

“Of course! You’re always welcome here.”

Chapter Text

“Something the matter, dear? You've been quiet ever since you came home. Erm, quieter than normal.”

Taika liked to think she knew her wife well. It should’ve been obvious, something that came with being married this long, but Astrid was more closed-off than most people, harder to read and guarding her feelings carefully, like there was still a part of her afraid to let anyone know what she might be feeling at any given time. Like it could be used against her. Not to mention she had the social skills of a brick.

Hell, Taika used to think she was intimidating. What a fool she’d been!

But now she knew when Astrid was trying to hide the fact that she was on the verge of tears.

Her wife just continued cutting vegetables like nothing was wrong, glaring at the tomatoes like she was trying to blow them up with her mind. Her hands trembled, and Taika wanted to reach out and hold them. They were rough, whittler's hands and she loved them.

“Astrid?”

She shook her head, a little too sharply. She chopped faster.

Taika sighed. How could someone who tried so hard to be that closed off be this painfully obvious? Now she was blatantly avoiding eye-contact. She stared out the window at Peter and Lars tackling each other. One might have been garroting the other with a jumper sleeve. Taika groaned. Lars was supposed to be over at Franz’s in an hour too, so what was he doing getting covered in mud?

“We can talk about this later,” she groaned, storming out into the garden to pull her idiot sons apart.

 


 

How completely and utterly fake.

Franz had to physically hold back an amused chuckle as he watched Lars: sat opposite him in polite conversation with Mr Edelstein, knife and fork clink-clinking gently against the fine china. The two were sharing secrets to a good pasta sauce like they had both aged up to 40-year-olds all of a sudden, Lars just smiling that little fake smile though he was dying inside.

A far cry from the angry nerd who screamed into his headset where people could shove beloved family pets. The guy who got into dabbing competitions with his brother. Who unironically played dating sims. Who learnt what he knew about marine life from hentai.

That wasn’t to say Lars didn’t have a softer side. Or a less-disgusting one.

Franz knew that better than most people. Hell, the only people he showed more care for than Franz were his mothers, and sometimes Peter. But his hidden softness mostly constituted roughly, silently and awkwardly shoving his coat around Franz’s shoulders if the guy so much as shivered. Lars was that guy who always saved a few sweets from each packet, because he knew Franz had an almost relentless sweet tooth. He sent him stupid memes at 3 in the morning, and wholesome ones at 3 in the morning when Franz was sad. He carried shopping bags because he was so much stronger than dainty little Franz, fetched things from high shelves, was a blanket, pillow and chair wrapped all in one.

Not to mention, he listened to Franz’s long-winded rants about everything from teachers to cubism to school lunches to that stupid school rule banning him from bringing a whittling knife in.

He appreciated this too, Lars pretending to get along with his dad. He knew Mr Edelstein was exceedingly unbearable to everyone except Elizabeta and his snobby friends (but even then, he got the idea that none of them really liked each other, they just liked bitching about other people together), so for Lars to actually sit and talk to him was something special. He’d get a kiss goodnight for that. At least.

Elizabeta really was a miracle where Roderich was concerned.

Roderich, to his own credit, was ignoring Lars’ ahegao shirt and sonic the hedgehog tie. Apparently, he got mud on his smart jumper, and Franz was baffled that Lars had willingly gone outside for once. He hadn’t done that since he was little and Peter would take him to the park to play pirates, with Lars always playing the part of the man who was walking the plank. And his mums wondered why he spent all day inside on the computer.

He wanted to paint this moment: all his favourite people together, eating and getting along. It was all a big coincidence too: he’d not known that his – hopefully – future stepmother was being invited over for dinner until a few hours ago. So why not make a double date out of it? Not awkward at all when one of the people was two other people's teacher and the fourth person was his dad.

He loved it though.

He could see them all in a few years, when he and Lars were engaged and at uni in Finland together, coming home for Christmas to see their families, having dinner with Lars’ mums, and the new Mr and Mrs Edelstein. And Peter, he supposed. And whoever had bit the bullet and dated him.

He talked to Miss Hedervary about how his Christmas went, and caught Lars’ eye as Roderich explained to him how to get the perfect skin on roast potatoes and parsnips. Franz shot him a sympathetic look and went back to his conversation.

He was so lucky.


“Alright, what is it then?”

Astrid flinched.

She was on the sofa, and Taika was nestled in an armchair in the corner, illuminated by a pair of lamps as they waited for Lars to come home. A pair of empty coffee cups sat between them, along with a plate of crumbs.

“Nothin’.”

“Astrid, dear, please.” Taika moved to sit next to her, placing a hand on hers, rubbing a thumb over an old scar on her knuckle. “Did something happen at work?”

Astrid shrugged. So a ‘yes’ then.

Taika craned her neck to place a soft kiss on her wife’s cheek. “Babe, talk to me.”

“S’nothing. Stupid.” She covered her mouth with a hand as her eyes shone and gave a sniff. Taika could see she was at war with herself, to admit there was something wrong took a lot of mental convincing for Astrid. “Got yelled at,” she finally admitted, “queue for t’ticket machine was too long and some bloke missed his train. My fault, ‘pparently. Course it is.”

“Oh, oh babe, it’s not your fault!” Taika pulled Astrid into a hug as the tears came. Her beautiful, strong, powerful wife should not have to cry over some scumbag who couldn’t wait for a train. “What were you supposed to do? Magic everyone else away?” Why were people like this? It was almost weekly that someone gave Astrid shit, and an incident reducing her to tears was almost monthly. She needed a new job. One where she was respected.

“Love t’do that, honest. Specially when all t’schoolkids show up.”

Taika nodded; sometimes she it was her job to watch over the kids coming out of the high school. Honestly, she’d rather swim in a lake downwind of Chernobyl. Astrid just sobbed on her chest.

“Fucking no right to have a go at you,” Taika spat, “want me to go round there tomorrow in case the cunt shows up again?”

“Police brutality is not the solution,” said Astrid, for what felt like the millionth time.

“I never said I’d be in uniform.” Taika rubbed her back. Astrid was still crying, softly, so she kissed her forehead.

“Why do all yer ideas involve hitting people?”

Taika shrugged. “Sometimes they involve cooking.”

“That’s worse.”

She snorted. “Yeah, alright. Still, just let it all out, then tomorrow you can tell the manager, and have a look at the security footage. You know that shit’s not tolerated.”

Astrid nodded. “Yeah. I’ll do that. Hope he doesn’t come back. Be easier.”

“Yeah, moaning prick. Honestly, it was a miracle the train showed up on time so what was he complaining about?”

Astrid laughed at that, her small, controlled laugh that Taika loved. She smiled warmly at her, until Astrid stopped laughing and smiled back.

“I love you, you big meatball,” said Taika.

“I love you too, dear.”

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Franz didn’t want to push him, not here, not to do things he might regret. He wanted Lars to know they could stop at any time. If he wasn’t ready, then that was okay.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Lars smiled up at him, “I want this. I want you.” He bit his lip. “But, erm, if you don’t want- if you’re not ready, that’s fine too!”

Franz smiled warmly. “I’m ready.”

Roderich wasn’t home – he was at a New Year’s party with Elizabeta and the two of them had the house to themselves. Franz had left his bedroom curtains open so they could watch the fireworks, closing the drapes around his four-poster bed on three sides to give them privacy. Like they were in their own little world. He’d even gone to the trouble to tidying. Slightly. There weren’t any cups of paint water on the floor at least.

He'd gone out of his way to set the mood perfectly. The sheets were clean, blankets and cushions neat, and the only light in the room came from the string lights wrapped around the headboard. He made sure Lars was as comfortable as possible, and he seemed to be: buried in a nest of cushions, sprawled out across the bed. 

“I love you,” he whispered, “I love you so much, Lars.”

Lars looked up at him with shining eyes.

“You know I love you, right? More than new stationery. More than all the cake in the world. More than that fresh-baking smell.”

“I know. Thank you.” Lars leaned up to kiss him. “I love you too. More than Minecraft.”

Franz raised an eyebrow. “Thanks?”

“I really mean it. And Overwatch, and Dream Daddy too. None of them are as beautiful as you. You’re way more dreamier than all the daddies and Hanzo put together.”

“We don’t have to talk, you know?”

“You know you love it.” Lars winked and Franz silenced him with a kiss.

“I love you, Peach, more than that feeling you get when you’re motivated to finish a project you’ve been sitting on and finally get it done.”

Lars began to tear up. “Fuck, that’s beautiful.” He pulled Franz down to hug him. “I love you. Please take my vir-“

“Don’t call it that!” he pulled a face, “it’s weird.”

“Please deflower-”


“No!”


“Am I wrong though?”

“Well no, but-”

 

Lars smiled up at him. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Please make love to me.”

“Do you promise to never use the words ‘make love’ again?”

“Yes.”

Franz smiled warmly, “then I guess we got ourselves a deal.”

 


 

 

“Feels weird, having a teacher live with you,” Kuzey moaned to Andrei, who nodded and began to explain his theory that teachers were actually life-sucking aliens who lived in the school and sent out scouts to mix with humans and kill them. Kuzey pretended to listen and wondered just who exactly had let him watch doctor who again, or was this one of Alin’s original conspiracy theories?

When he’d heard Miss Hedervary (yes she was supposed to be Elizabeta, but even when she was a housemate, it still felt weird to call her by her first name) was inviting her boyfriend, he’d been hoping the guy would bring Franz along. Kuzey didn’t know why, but he’d grown rather close to the weirdo. Not to mention, someone his own age at the party would’ve been nice.

A sly voice told him they were closer because they’d both won the affections of a certain pair of brothers, but he buried that thought before he could even acknowledge it.

He glanced over at his teacher and his - um - friend’s father. They were just talking, at least, not wriggling about like a pair of eels. He didn’t know which of them it would be more traumatising to watch.

A strong contender for ‘worst thing he would see at this party’ was baba dancing to 90s Turkish pop shirtless with those stupid pink-sequin, flared trousers, his tits wobbling about like a pair of hairy jellies. From across the room, Kuzey and Stelios shared looks of disgust. At least someone was enjoying themselves though?

Heracles was already passed out. Tsvetan was using him as a chair whilst he sneakily added chalga to baba’s party playlist; Alin was dropping it low like his butt wasn’t pathetically flat, even in ripped skinny jeans. He'd even gone out of his way to embroider 'juicy' across the back, presumably to violate the Trade Descriptions Act.

Hassan was on Andrei’s other side, feeding the kid as many homemade sweets as he could get away with.

“You need to eat too,” he said, handing Kuzey his own plate loaded with food.

“I’ve already had too much,” he tried to insist but it fell on deaf ears. Stupid relatives. He sighed and bit into a kebab.

“Just looking out for one of the few other sane people here,” said Hassan, like he hadn’t changed his full name to ‘Muhammad Salah Hassan’, after his favourite footballer. It would probably be his first born's name too.

Stelios was dancing now, seemingly competing with baba to see who was better at twerking. They were both so bad Kuzey had to wonder if he could cringe himself into another dimension. Over on the other side of the room, Miss Hedervary and Franz’s dad (he threw up in his mouth) disappeared into the hall. He decided not to read into that, for the sake of his baklava-laden stomach.

He almost cried in relief when he received a message from Franz himself. Finally! If he could get away with staying on his phone, maybe he could actually survive the night without craving death.

He was quickly proved wrong.

What the fuck, Edelstein?” he hissed, caught between holding the phone out of Andrei’s reach and turning the thing off before anyone could see the screen-covering, in-depth, no-detail-spared description of just what had gone on before the attached picture of him and Lars Fucking Birghir Oxenstjärna-Väinämöinen naked in bed.

This was true suffering, and Kuzey hoped the dying year would take him with it.

 


 

 

Upon first being introduced to Alin Radacanu, Roderich had made a promise to himself to not touch the man or anything he could’ve touched himself. He looked like meth had had a baby with every STD and been left to be raised in the bins outside Gerard Way’s house. When he’d made the comment to Elizabeta, she was more surprised that he knew who that was than anything else.

Franz had had a fair few phases in his life. Roderich had picked up more than he’d liked to about all of them.

He was glad though, because Elizabeta had laughed at his joke. And also because it meant his son had trusted him enough to talk about his interests, of course.

Still, it opened up an interesting - harrowing - conversation about just what it was Elizabeta detested about Alin, and there was a lot to get through, from his clothes to his hair to his habit of loudly talking about demons and his kinks in public.

So when she suggested they sneak upstairs and have sex in his bed (revenge, apparently, for him and Tsvetan doing the same thing in hers last month) he’d been reluctant. He didn’t want his bare, concave backside touching Alin’s bed, but he’d be damned if he made Elizabeta unhappy. It also meant he got to have sex which was always nice. Being with Elizabeta Hedervary was even nicer.

That was how he found himself in Alin’s bed with minimal complaining and an hour of the year left to go. He was completely out of breath, even having to resort to borrowing the inhaler in Alin’s bedside drawer and making a note to wash his mouth out with bleach tomorrow. And maybe booking an appointment at the doctor’s just to be on the safe side.

He was happy, though. Elizabeta was curled up next to him, her hair clinging to her face in long tendrils, the rest splayed out across the pillow with a few strands even tickling Roderich’s nose. Her skin glowed in the low light, eyes sparkling as they just stared at each other in silence, no words needed. Her hair was frizzy, makeup smudged and her cheeks puffy and red, but Roderich thought she was the most beautiful person on the planet. Flashes from distant fireworks danced across her face and Roderich had no chance of resisting the urge to kiss her.

Elizabeta tasted of salt and that bottle of wine they’d gone through, and when she pulled away, she kissed his nose and climbed out of the bed to fetch her tights and dress, strewn over Alin’s skeleton chaise. Where the ever-loving fuck had the guy found that?

Roderich rolled onto his side to stare, knowing the adoring smile on his face probably looked stupid, but it didn’t matter. He was happy, so unbelievably happy and in love and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this way.

Elizabeta was silhouetted against the window as she scrunched up her tights and put them back on, light from the fireworks becoming trapped in her hair.

She caught him staring.

“Get dressed,” she hissed, though she was smiling and her voice playful, “before anyone misses us.” It was probably a bit late for that. They'd been gone an hour so far.

Roderich said nothing, though, continuing to smile that warm smile, a rare one for him. For once, it wasn’t condescending or snide, but pure, genuine. Because of Elizabeta.

Marry me.”

He didn’t even hear himself say it. He would’ve assumed it was just a thought, had Elizabeta not been looking at him like he’d just sprouted another head.

“I’m sorry?” she squeaked.

To deny or front it out? Roderich was, by nature, a coward in all matters except one.

“Marry me,” he repeated, louder, voice even and firm though every inch of him was trembling. He stood up, shaking, and got down on one knee. He’d imagined this moment many times, and in none of his fantasies had be been naked and in a gothic, cigarette-infused Balkan bedroom. He didn’t have a ring, so bowed his head, submitting himself to her. She could keep his heart and soul, every scrap of his being belonged to her now.

Now if his Richard could stop swinging like a pink grandfather clock, that would be fantastic.

“Rod, seriously, we’ve been going out for, what? Two months? We’ve not even said ‘I love you’ to each other yet-”

“I love you!” He didn’t mean to sound desperate, but it was true. He did.

“Yes, and I love you too, but-”

“You love me?” Roderich grinned.

“Yes you fucking dork, I love you! But don’t you think it’s a little too soon? We aren’t even living together yet!”

“Why would you live with someone before marrying them?” Roderich was genuinely baffled by the thought. Elizabeta raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, the 1890s just called. They want their values back.”

“The 1990s just called. They want their joke format back.”

Elizabeta snorted. “Get off the floor and put your cock away.” Roderich stood up and began to look for his underpants as Elizabeta paced the room. He much preferred life when he wasn’t naked anyway.

“Look, is this a joke? Are you actually proposing or is this something you say to every woman you sleep with?”

“I mean, statistically, yes,” said Roderich, finally putting his boxers back on, “I have proposed to every woman I’ve slept with. All two. And - well - this is as serious as you want it to be.” He was starting to feel like an idiot. Okay, that was a lie, he was beyond feeling like an idiot now and slightly wanted to disappear. “We can pretend it never happened, if you want, or, well,” he was probably blushing up to the tips of his ears by now, “Elizabeta Hedervary, will you- do you want-”

Elizabeta silenced him with a kiss, and Roderich was grateful for it.

“How about a deal? If I get to move in with you beforehand, then yes, I will marry you.”

“Wait, are you being serious?”

Elizabeta smiled at him, “as serious as you are.”

“The perfect amount of serious!” He grinned. “So, we’re… we’re…”

“Engaged, yeah,” even saying that, neither of them could quite believe it. Maybe it was a little fast, but they were too happy to care.

“Look, I wasn’t exactly planning to say it this way,” explained Roderich. Elizabeta laughed.

“Really? I would never have known!” She smiled warmly. “How would you have done it?”

He bit his lip. “Nothing too fancy.” She snorted at that; not wrong, Elizabeta. “Maybe take you down to London, have a nice meal, and, maybe - I suppose - is it a tad stuffy in here? Either we could hire a row boat at Hyde park and I could propose there, in a particularly scenic spot. Or, I suppose, in the evening, on the London Eye, right at the top overlooking the city.” He was blushing furiously, hoping the dim light didn’t betray just how purple he was. “I mean, I could still do it properly, sometime. Take you on a weekend trip.” He bit his lip. “Unless that sounds boring then we don’t-”

Elizabeta kissed him again. “That sounds wonderful, my dear fiance.”

 


 

 

Franz and Lars were curled up on the sofa, half-asleep under piles of knitted blankets, empty packets of chocolate strewn everywhere as they watched fireworks displays from around the world and said nothing. They held each other close, wrapped up in the softest pyjamas Franz owned and occasionally kissing each other on the forehead.

It was 3am by the time Roderich came home, with Miss Hedervary in tow.

“Hey boys,” she whispered when she saw them, swaying ever-so-slightly. She was supporting a completely paralytic Roderich, who was grinning like an idiot with his bow-tie draped around his neck and his shirt untucked. Franz had never seen his dad this drunk before.

“Hey Miss,” Franz whispered back, reeling ever-so-slightly at the sight. "Is vati okay?”

She shrugged. “He’ll be fine, though he won’t be too cheerful tomorrow. I was going to let him sleep at mine but he really wanted to see you. And tell you-”

“We’re engaged!” Roderich cried before collapsing, face-down, onto the chaise lounge.

All three of them just stared at his groaning, dishevelled form.

“Happy New Year!” said Elizabeta with a clap.

Chapter Text

That magical week between Christmas and New Year’s had come to a close, and with that out of the way, Oscar could go back to his usual state of worrying about his mess of a life.

In an attempt to get his mind off the imminent final push towards his GCSEs, he decided to overthink other things instead, like his brother’s mysterious and as of yet unexplained injury, as well as the fact that he’d been out nearly every night for the past few weeks. At work. Supposedly. Something about it didn’t add up, and not just because he was being paid cash-in-hand every night, but something else…

He didn’t know enough to figure it out, though.

There was also Michael. Not even bothering to worry about the discovery of their relationship at school, he just focused on the immediate threat of Mike’s mother.

He wanted to see Mike badly. He couldn’t take it anymore! He needed to hold him and just be told that everything would work out and be okay, that they could get through this nightmare and still be themselves and safe on the other side. And maybe kiss him too.

So that’s why he found himself outside the Jones’ on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, for once deciding to hold himself to his drunk self’s promises, hungover and at war with himself. He and Mike were best friends. Surely it wouldn’t be too weird to visit him, wish him a happy new year and talk about how Christmas had been. Ms Williams couldn’t control what friends Mike had.

Except she could, and didn’t approve of him and his ‘nice Australian suntan’. When he’d told Logan about that, he’d been convinced his brother was going to suffocate from laughing so hard.

And what if, when he saw Mike, he became so overcome with passion he scooped Mike into his passionate arms and kissed him passionately with absolute passion? Okay, he had to admit, that was probably not going to happen. He did entertain the brief image of holding Mike in his arms whilst giving Ms Williams the uppercut of the century, if he was going to be ridiculous.

The thought gave him just enough courage to ring the doorbell, but not enough to stop him from immediately regretting it. Too late now though.

To his surprise, it was Mike himself who answered.

“I’m just here to do some homework,” he tried, but Mike let him in without a word. Oscar briefly acknowledged the sounds of shouting coming from the living room before he was herded upstairs. Well, he’d arrived at a great time. Or maybe that was how American families celebrated the holiday season.

“Everything alright?” he asked, once they’d reached the apparent safety of Mike’s room.

Mike shrugged. “Could be worse. Mom found out about Natalya last night - Alfie got drunk and mentioned her and she’s been shitty about it ever since. Not angry, but, like,” he shrugged, “making jokes about her being a Russian spy, or a gangster. Yeah. Kept calling her Russian. You know you’re ignorant when Alf is the one correcting your geography. And he only found out Belarus was a place after he started dating Nat.”

“Sounds fun,” said Oscar.

“Yeah, but we could’ve survived that. Alfie was just ignoring her. Nothing she’d said really got to him. Then she made a joke about ‘Nat’s lot’ being the only prostitutes left in the world who accept potatoes as payment.”

Oscar winced.

“Yeah,” Mike smiled grimly, “see, anyone else said that, and he’d have taken it. Hell, if he’d have told Nat she’d probably think it was hilarious. Banter or something.”

“The word ‘banter’ sounds weird in your accent.”

Mike raised an eyebrow. “Kick me when I’m down then. Look, Alfie was close to tears by then-”

“Because she was right?”

“Yea- no! So Matt did the honourable thing and told him about his gay Cuban boyfriend. You know, to take the heat off Al.”

“So for the third act should I come downstairs and wank you off?”

“No, that would actually kill her.”

“Tragic. That doesn’t sound like the smartest decision Matt could’ve made though.” If all the shouting downstairs was anything to go by.

Mike shrugged. “Even with time to plan, Al and Matt aren’t America’s brightest.”

“I wasn’t aware America had brights.”

“Shut up. You’re literally Australian.”

Oscar shrugged in agreement and waited for him to continue.

“Well, he just thought she’d be shitty to him instead. Turns out Matt’s choice in partner was straight - heh - up unacceptable and she lost her entire shit.”

Oscar raised an eyebrow; “well, I didn’t see that coming.”

“Shut up.” Mike glanced at the floor, and the distant sounds of shouting, and slipped off his bed to root under it.

“Is she going to take you away now?” asked Oscar, biting his lip nervously.

“What? Nah,” he lied, “course not. She’ll probably just leave. Or stay and be a bitch until one of us kicks her out. Aha!” He produced a bottle of vodka with a teary grin and threw himself onto the bed. “Want some?”

“I’ll pass; hungover to fuck;” Oscar sat down at his head, running his hands through his hair.

“I always drink when I’m stressed,” Mike explained.

“That bottle’s half-empty!”

“It’s chronic. Also have you seen what I’ve been living with for the past few weeks? Last thing I heard,” Mike continued before Oscar could get a word in, “Matt was sarcastically telling mom it was, of course, Carlos’ beautiful black penis that made him gay.”

“I like Matt,” Oscar commented.

“I don’t think she picked up on the sarcasm,” Mike took a swig; “that’s lovely, by the way.” Oscar smiled warmly at him, continuing to play with his hair.

“So what now?”

Mike shrugged. “Fuck knows. I’m staying here though.”

“But what if-”

“I don’t wanna think about it,” he moaned, “the stress would actually kill me.”

“I could, um... I could help with the stress,” said Oscar shakily, sliding his fingertips down to Mike’s neck. He wasn’t sure he was ready for… whatever, but he wanted to help Mike out.

Mike shrugged and went to take another swig, when the door burst open.

The bottle was under the pillow and Oscar across the room before either could actually confirm it was, indeed, Ms Williams who entered, Al and Matt close behind and looking livid.

“Right, young man, pack your bags!” Michael barely had time to register his mother was talking, looking like a cat being lifted up by a small child. “We’re going back to Nevada.”

Michael’s entire soul appeared to just leave his body at that.

“You’re not taking him,” said Alfred firmly, seemingly torn between blocking the door and going over to shield his brother.

“Well he’s not staying here!” said Ms Williams, “I’m not letting Mikey stay in the same house as that faggy letch!” Matthew looked like he’d been slapped, slipping a hand into Alfred’s. Alfred moved in front of his brother.

“That ‘faggy letch’ is your son!” he growled, “a son who’s been gay all his life, and was your son then!”

“Well he’s not now, and he’s never going near Mike again! I see you’ve bought his lies and degeneracy, but there’s still hope for Mike.” Mike himself looked utterly terrified. Oscar wanted nothing more than to go over and hold him, but he was too scared to move.

Ms Williams didn’t seem to be done. “Alfie, you know I love you. You know you’re always welcome home, but until you stop defending that-”

“Matt,” said Alfred sternly. “His name is Matt. My brother. Your son.”

“My brother too,” said Mike quietly. Ms Williams glanced over at him.

“Sweetie, I know you love him, but you really can’t be around him. Not only is he riddled with diseases, most likely, but you really can’t trust that lot around young boys-”

“I’m sorry, what the fuck?”

It was only when four pairs of eyes were now on him that Oscar realised it was him that had spoken. He couldn’t believe it! He hadn’t meant to start with an apology!

“What are you doing here?” asked Ms Williams.

“I’ve been here the whole time,” Oscar sniffed, “I didn’t just magic myself into this room to tell you how wrong you are. You’re very wrong, though.”

“You’ve been in here with Michael?” she asked. “Alone? Together?” How was it that he was having more fun in Ms Williams of all people’s mind than in real life? Oh right, because Ms Williams was looking at him like he had five cocks in his mouth and he was starting to fear for his life.

“I don’t know-”

But Michael decided to cut in. “This is Oscar, my gay, half-Aboriginal boyfriend who I love a lot and plan on making sweet gay love to one day.”

Oscar had no idea how to react to the face of pure hate currently staring at him, so just finger-gunned in Ms Williams’ direction.

No one spoke for a full minute, all three Jones boys frozen in fear, and their mother in shock, when Ms Williams exploded.

“What have you done to my little boy?” she wailed.

Oscar raised an eyebrow. “Dated him? Um, still dating him. Got a problem with that? Or did you mean go into more detail about what we’ve been doing?”

He hadn’t been expecting the slap. Upon reflection, he probably should've.

“You keep the fuck away from him! You fucking piece of shit que-!”

Oscar doubled over, clutching his face and crying, more from the shock of it than anything. He didn’t see what happened next, but when he looked back up, Mike was in front of him and Alfred blocking Ms Williams from everyone else in the room.

“Get out! You get your ass to the airport and get on the next plane outta here! None of us wanna ever see you again, got it?”

“Alfie-”

“Don’t you ‘Alfe’ me!” Oscar couldn’t see Alfred’s face, but he’d never heard the guy so angry, voice dripping with hate and fear. He stood firm, though. Matthew ran over to the boys, holding them both close and Oscar wasn’t surprised to find his arms were shaking.

“You-you’re not welcome here,” Alfred's voice was also shaking.

“I’m not leaving without Mike,” Ms Williams huffed, folding her arms. “I can’t exactly tell that brother of his what to do, but there’s still hope for Mike, and he’s still a child, so I can take him if I want.”

“Please no,” Mike whispered, not seeming to realise he’d spoken.

“My friend told me about a camp. She sent her son there when he thought he was gay. We’ll soon straighten Mike out.”

Mike winced. He looked at Oscar, blinked back his tears, and pushed past his brothers.

“Fuck off!” he cried, “I’m not going! I’m staying with my real family and you can’t make me go anywhere! And you can’t make me go to any conversion torture either!”

Ms Williams shook her head, like she was watching a small child throw a temper tantrum. “Sweetie, what did Matthew do to you? Was it him? It was, wasn’t it? That why he wanted to get you alone out here?”

Matthew squeezed Oscar a little too tight.

Mike looked at her with the most baffled expression. “What? What the fuck? Matt’s not- what the fuck! No one ‘did’ anything to me; I’ve always been bi, you dopey bitch.”

“Don’t you swear at-”

“Fuck you!”

She slapped Mike so hard Oscar thought his head had come off. He didn’t have time to react before Alfred had pounced, practically shoving her out the door.

“Get out!” he cried, “get the hell outta here and never come back!”

Ms Williams looked stunned that she was being treated in such a fashion, frozen in shock and unable to fight back for the briefest of seconds. Then she snapped, and yanked her arm away.

“Get off me!” she shrieked, “you just hit me!”

“No one’s buying that,” said Matt.

Alfred, undeterred, finally got her into the hall with a push.

“This isn’t over,” she hissed, “you can’t keep me from my son. You can’t stop me from taking him back. I’ll go to the courts, I’ll get every lawyer on your asses and you’ll be in prison before you know what’s hit you.” She blinked. “Though, you might like that, Matthew.”

“We can,” said Mike quietly.

Ms Williams blinked. “I’m sorry?”

Mike glared at her. “We can stop you from taking me with you. You’re gonna get outta here, and you ain’t even coming back into our lives until you pull your head outta your ass. Got that?”

Ms Williams stood in the doorway and folded her arms. Oscar didn’t like her expression one bit. “Oh really? You think I’m gonna listen to you? You think I’m gonna let you stay with the que-”

“Yes,” Mike winced, “cause if you don’t, I’ll tell dad about that time I caught you with that other guy when he was on that business trip.”

She just shook her head, like she’d honestly expected better. “You little- he already knows about that! Why do you think we got divorced?”

Michael stayed determined. “Does your sister know it was her husband you slept with?”

Ms Williams’ smile fell. No, her sister didn’t know, apparently.

“And the neighbours? Do they know? The husband, who looks a lot like me? Be a shame if those rumours were confirmed.”

Her thin lips were now pinched into barbed wire.

Mike’s smug grin widened. “I’m sure everyone would love to know about that. Be a shame if I was in the country and able to tell them all.” Then his smile fell and his face hardened. “Now get the fuck outta this house.”

Ms Williams didn’t say anything, but everyone knew she’d been defeated. She let Alfred drag her downstairs, Matt hovering on the landing, ready to jump in at the first sign of trouble.

At some point, Ms Williams must’ve found her voice again, because the shouts continued downstairs, but Mike didn’t appear to hear. He sat on the edge of his bed, gripping at the sheets with his blotchy, shaking fingers. He looked like he was about to be sick. Oscar crept over, and - gently - put a hand on his back.

“You doing okay, mate?”

Mike shrugged. “I dunno. Like, I can’t stop shaking… but she’s gone.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “She’s gone, right?”

“I dunno. She might come back, but I doubt it.” Oscar sat down next to him. “Even if she did, Al and Matt would never let her near you.”

“It’s true!” Alfred stumbled back into the room, hugging Matthew closely, almost crushing his brother. “Guys, I’m so sorry you had to put up with that all this time! I should’ve kicked her out on day one-”

“Alf, it’s fine,” said Matthew, “none of us stood up to her, but she’s gone now. She’s gone…” His face broke into a grin. “She’s gone! We’re free!” The twins pulled Mike and Oscar into their hug. “I can see Carlos again!”

“You can see him today if you want,” said Al, “invite him over! I’m gonna invite Nat.”

Oscar knew Alfred and Carlos didn’t get along one bit, Mike had told him, but still. Alfred knew what it was like to not see your partner for so long, and there were only so many arguments a person could have in a day, right?

“Why don’t you boys invite Sal too?” Matt suggested, “you haven’t seen much of him too, have you Mike?”

“Getting him to make sure me and Oscar don’t do anything dodgy?” Mike seemed more amused than annoyed at that. “I’d love to see him, though.”

 


 

 

“I missed you,” Natalya was saying, smiling into her shot glass. “I’m… I can say that, right? I’m not too embarrassed.” She was snuggled up on Alfred’s lap, the couple wrapped in a blanket, illuminated by the soft glow of a lamp. “It was lonely. I even had to take the batteries out of my toothbrush to put in my vib-”

“I think you’ve had enough, darling,” Alfred prized the glass out of her hand.

“How cruel,” she whined, but let him. She just leaned against his chest, like a cat, and Oscar could almost see her purring. On the other sofa, Matthew was curled up next to Carlos, stroking his chest. Mike, Oscar and Sal were sprawled out on the floor by the Christmas tree, where the brothers had finally been free to display their presents for Natalya and Carlos now they didn’t have to keep their relationships a secret. Al and Matt had looked so giddy getting them out of their hiding places before everyone arrived.

“Wanna go upstairs?” asked Mike.

They’d been talking and drinking for hours now. Carlos was wrapped up in the scarf and gloves Matt had bought him, after the man had been complaining about the cold all winter. He’d also stuffed his new water bottle up his jumper.

Natalya, on the other hand, now had a pile of horror books to spend the infant year working her way through, as well as a rather large bottle of vodka.

Oscar nodded; anything to get away from Natalya and her… insights.

Mike lead them upstairs, getting out a pair of blow up mattresses and blankets for the others and the boys got to work making a nest they could all curl up on, using everything they could get their hands on in Mike's room. Sal went downstairs to loot snacks and make hot chocolate, and during that time, Mike and Oscar finally started catching up on all the kissing they’d missed out on over the holidays. When Sal came back, they’d prized themselves apart a little too slowly.

“Having fun?” he asked, amused.

Mike flushed bright red and buried his face in his pillow.

“Sorry,” said Oscar as Sal joined them and promptly buried himself in Mike's duvet, “we need to find you someone, so you’re not the third wheel all the time. Or have you already hit on every girl at school?”

Sal shrugged. “I guess. It’s okay though, really.”

“Still, what do you think, Michael? Who would be a good match for Sal?”

“Look, it’s fine. Drop it!”

Oscar glanced at him, and then the penny dropped. “Oh. Oh, there’s someone you like, is there not?”

Sal was avoiding eye contact. “No!”

“You do!” cried Mike, “oh my God!”

“I don’t!”

“You’re gonna have to tell us now,” said Oscar. “Come on! We won’t tell anyone.”

Sal looked really uncomfortable. “No I don’t!”

“Yes you do!”

“It’s a secret!”

“Tell us!” Mike - affectionately - put Sal in a headlock. “Tell us! Tell us! Tell us you hopeless romantic coward!”

“Argh- fine! It’s Charlie.” He mumbled that name as quietly as he could, but Mike and - more pressingly - Oscar still heard.

“Charlie?” He raised a bushy eyebrow. “My sister?”

Sal nodded, red-faced and not looking at either of them.

Oscar continued to stare at him. “My thirteen-year-old sister?”

“I wasn’t actually gonna say anything to her!”

“Right.”

“I promise!” Sal looked close to tears, “I think she’s really cool and sweet and I love her art, but I’d never actually say anything, y’know? There’s no way she’d like me back and she’s way too young! Like damn, I’m gonna let her live her life.”

Oscar glared at him, but seemed to relent. “You promise? No dating my sister?”

“I swear on my life!” Sal was looking up now, eyes shining. “I respect her.”

“Good, because you’re right. She’s too young. Let her be a kid for a few more years; there’ll be plenty of time for stupid dating drama later.”

“If you even still like her when she’s older,” said Mike, sipping his hot chocolate, “you could’ve forgotten by next week.”

“True,” Sal hummed. “Now, if you don’t mind, I gotta make peeps.” He pulled himself up and left the room.

Oscar looked uncomfortably down at his mug, before Mike prized it out of his hands and smothered him in kisses again.

Chapter Text

Peter guessed he should be getting home and warm and to his games and family. His mums knew where he was, but it was dark and he had to be in bed soon, to wake up nice and early for school tomorrow. Back to school, and all that fuckery. Exams, Lars’ bullies, his own problems. His own mistakes.

But he didn’t leave. It was freezing, and he’d stupidly forgotten his scarf and gloves. His fingers were ready to snap off, almost stuck to the chain of the swing as he moved back and forth, ever so slowly, not even properly swinging. It had starting snowing, earlier. Not long enough to settle, but enough to leave his face frozen. Now everything was soaking, puddles dotted about the tarmac. The playground was deserted, not a single sign of life for miles.

Kuzey was still avoiding him.

He hadn’t replied to any of Peter’s messages, and he’d soon stopped texting before it moved into stalker territory and he messed up even more. Kuzey deserved a peaceful holidays, not having to worry about some clingy moron.

He had to make things right, but he didn’t know how.

His mums had told him it was best to leave Kuzey alone for the time being, so he did. He hoped things would work out in the end, but he didn’t know what would happen next. Maybe things would change when they went back to school, not that he’d made any progress before the holidays had started. Maybe the time apart had allowed them to cool off?

Or maybe he hated Peter even more now.

Behind him, he heard the gate swing open. Wary, Peter glanced back to find Kuzey shuffling into the playground. He didn’t seem fazed by Peter’s presence, so he could only assume Lars told him where he was. But why? Was he here to fight? To talk?

Kuzey sat on the swing next to him, staring at his shoes in silence. Great, drag this out, why don't we? He expected Kuzey to begin any moment, but he didn't. The two just sat there, not saying a word. Peter kept glancing over at him, then looking down at his shoes, then back to Kuzey.

“So, uhh-”

“What the fuck have you done to me?”

Peter blinked. “Huh?”

“I think you gave me a disease at Thorpe Park.”

“Did you medically get diagnosed with cooties?”

“What are we, eight?”

“Sorry, I meant ligma?”

“What’s cooties?”

Peter burst out laughing. It was one of those moments, in the middle of a sucky situation, where things didn't matter. Those bubble moments of happiness. Little islands where you could forget, lie back on the beach, even for a moment.

“What disease did you get? I don’t think I’ve never had anything. Well, I got tonsillitis as a kid but that was years ago.”

“Palpitations, that’s what it’s called when your heart goes all funny. Sweating. Nervous. Google said it was panic attacks. Or a heart attack, which made my actually have a panic attack. Then baba found me and I spent two hours in A&E while the nurses explained to him I wasn’t having a heart attack.”

“That sounds like a ‘you’ problem.”

“Yes, but this keeps happening. And only when I look at you. Or think about you. It must be something you did.”

Peter thought for a moment before the monkeys in his brain snapped their fingers and everything clicked. He gave a long sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe my first kiss was with the dumbest guy on earth.”

“When did you kiss Alin?”

“Who?”

“Nevermind.

“Look,” Peter got up, pacing in front of Kuzey, shoes slapping against the puddles around them. “I think I can diagnose you. I have a theory.”

Kuzey nodded slowly. “Alright, lay it on me. What have I got, guy one year younger than me?”

Peter leaned forward, slowly, keeping an eye on Kuzey’s expression. He puckered his lips, and Kuzey backed away.

“No, no, it’s okay! No homo.”

Then he kissed him.

It was short and quick and he didn’t linger, though he swore Kuzey kissed back. When he pulled away, Kuzey looked up at him, the wires in his brain knotting together at last, though he may not have liked what he was realising.

“Full bi!” Peter winked.

Kuzey looked at him for a moment, before wrinkling his nose and jumping up. He - maybe accidentally, maybe on-purpose - shoved Peter aside, and ran off into the night. Peter watched him go, then rolled his eyes, going back to his swinging.

“Frustrating little shit.”

 


 

“Hey, strudelcrumbs,” Roderich lingered in the door of Franz’s room, smiling slightly as his son tapped at his laptop. It wasn't happy tapping, rather the kind that usually preceded tears. “Shouldn’t you be in bed? You have school tomorrow.”  Franz looked up from his powerpoint miserably. Roderich sighed.

“Did you leave your homework to the last minute again?”

Franz nodded. “It’s my geography presentation. For Miss Hedervary. I forgot to do it.”

“Haven’t you had over two months to do it?” He remembered Elisabeta telling him, because he remembered everything she told him.

“Yes, but- I… I didn’t want to do it?” He shrugged and turned back to his presentation. Roderich glanced over his shoulder.

“I am from Austria. Austria is shaped like a chicken drumstick. Chicken drumsticks are art.” He glanced at his son and a raised eyebrow. “Do you need my help? I have some history books and an encyclopedia.”

“I have wikipedia.”

“Have you used it?”

“Well… no. I couldn’t be bothered to read past the first sentence.” Franz conceded defeat and glanced up at him miserably. “Help me.”

Roderich looked at the boy and nodded. It had been nice, spending time with Franz over Christmas, and he’d be busy over the next few months planning a wedding with his anal cousin as his best man. It was either that or one of Elisabeta’s housemates. Maybe he should try and be more likeable and make friends.

He rushed down to the library, coming back ten minutes later with the two books he’d had the strength to carry for that long. Their house was only a semi-detached, but it was impossible to navigate. More so when Franz rearranged the books in the library and placed his life drawing guides in between Roderich’s 50s musical annuals and cookbooks he never used.

In that time, all Franz had done was add the most obnoxious transitions to his powerpoint and given it a bright purple background. Graphic design was not a branch of art the guy was even remotely competent at, but Roderich knew nothing about computers, so said nothing. Even though looking at the screen hurt his eyes.

Roderich settled down next to his son and opened the first book. “We’ll start with the basics, okay? Capital city-”

“Conchita.”

“No! Vienna. Let's see... Currency. Population, climate. Other major cities. We can do a slide on each of these. Maybe something on famous people from there.”

“Conchita.”

Roderich sighed. “Yes, Conchita.” He smiled at Franz. “I’m sure you’ll have a lot to say on that topic.”

Franz nodded enthusiastically, and Roderich settled in for a long, but fun, night.