It was rare that Oz found himself alone.
These days, he always had someone with him — Gil seemed to think that if Oz disappeared from his sight for even a moment, he'd be attacked by the Bakservilles, or worse, sent back into the Abyss (a notion at which Oz was content to laugh).
Alice would get angry with him if he left her alone, saying that a servant should stay with his master, and Oz would teasingly suggest that maybe she just liked his company (and he'd get a kick to the face for the thought).
And even if Gil and Alice had other business, there was always Break. His sudden appearances barely had any effect on Oz anymore, although Oz had been quite startled the time he had been sitting on a barrel, only to find that Break was inside of it. Sometimes Lady Sharon would accompany him as well, and Oz was elated during those times he could spend with her, even if he left with several bruises that could only have been made by a fan.
But even with Gil, Alice, Break, and Sharon, there were still moments where Oz would be all by himself, standing in a town that was ten years too old for him to recognize. Oz didn't really mind his companions leaving him behind for a moment, though; he seemed to have a gift for making friends in unlikely places. He had met Phillipe during a similar time, and later, Elliot and Leo as well. He had even gotten to know a girl who was a servant of the Nightray house, or more specifically, a servant to Gil's younger brother — that girl's name was Echo.
"Ah, and I saw Miss Echo again during that festival, didn't I?" he said, talking more to himself than anyone nearby. There had been a festival not too long ago, in this very town, and Oz had spent most of it with Echo. Gil had said he had something to attend to, and Alice's attention had been directed towards what the food vendors were offering almost as soon as they arrived, which left Oz with a chance to explore. And explore he did, although he hadn't expected to find a girl sitting by herself on the rooftop.
"Yes. Echo finds festivals to be very interesting, so she attends them when she can."
"Is that so? But you know, Miss Echo, festivals aren't any fun if you're just watching! You should — eh."
Cutting himself off mid-sentence, Oz glanced over at the girl sitting next to him, who had appeared so suddenly and without making any noise that he almost didn't realize she hadn't been there from the start. That girl was, of course, Echo, and at the moment she was staring at him intently, head tilted and strands of hair brushing across her eyes. It was as if she didn't realize why he looked surprised, but then, Oz reminded himself, Echo's thought process was unlike any other girl, which made her a bit strange to spend time with (but very entertaining all the same).
Oz laughed and waved his hands, as if dismissing his thoughts. "It's nothing, it's nothing! But there isn't a festival today, is there? So I'm sure Miss Echo has another reason for coming here."
"Master Vincent allowed Echo to have today to herself," she stated bluntly, shifting her weight to face him as she talked. "And Echo made up her mind to come here."
"Here?" It seemed strange to Oz that of all places, Echo would want to come back to this town. Was there something special here of which he wasn't aware?
She seemed to understand his question, so she replied, "Yes, here. Echo only travels if Master Vincent tells her to, so I don't know many places, but... this is where my first festival was. That makes it 'special,' doesn't it?" She looked down after she had finished speaking, but Oz could still see a faint bit of red adorning her cheeks, and he couldn't help but chuckle.
"Miss Echo, I didn't know you could say something so cute!"
"Echo is not cute." She sounded angry, but he continued to laugh, because he could tell from his time with Alice that his teasing had embarrassed her. It was Oz's belief that girls were at their cutest when they were embarrassed, and he was surprised to find that he really did think Echo was cute, and he genuinely liked her and being in her company.
He didn't stop laughing for some time, which Echo expressed her disdain for by letting out a 'hmph,' but he did jump up and treat both of them to a snack. There were still food vendors left over from the festival, and Oz had bullied Gil into letting him have some money earlier, so he returned with two bars of chocolate, one of which he handed to Echo. She accepted it with a nod of thanks, and they began eating, although Oz found himself forgetting his snack in favor of watching Echo eat.
He was surprised to notice that she ate in small bites, something that seemed so strange after watching how Alice ravished her food. Lady Sharon was careful with her food, too, and Oz had often admired how delicately she ate her meals, but watching Echo was different. Whereas seeing Lady Sharon eat reminded him of the noble duties he would have assumed had his ceremony gone uninterrupted, observing Echo was something that Oz thought was similar to catching a rare glimpse of a different world. And Echo might as well have been from a different world, for all that Oz knew about her, but that thought only made him want to learn more about her.
Oz was snapped out of his thoughts by the realization that Echo had stopped eating and apparently noticed his stare as well, since she was now staring back. Embarrassed, he quickly turned away and finished his chocolate. With his mouth still a bit full, he asked, "So, Vincent gave you another day off so soon? What's the special occasion?"
He was teasing her again, but she answered matter-of-factly, "Today is Echo's birthday."
"... It is?" Oz was staring at her again, but this time it was because he was taken aback. Everyone had a birthday, so of course it would make sense that Echo had one, too, but she seemed so unenthusiastic about it that it might as well have been just another day. "Wait, you should have told me sooner! This is really lucky that we found each other on your birthday, don't you think? Let's celebrate it together!"
"Celebrate?" Her eyes widened at that suggestion, almost as if Oz had just suggested something so strange she never would have given it a second thought. "Why?"
"'Why'? Today is your birthday, like you just said! It's the day Miss Echo was born, so it's important! And I'd like to do something fun with you, since I'm glad Miss Echo was born. I wouldn't have met you otherwise!"
Echo's face was significantly redder by the time he finished, but she readjusted herself and shook her head. "No, this is not the day Echo was born. Rather, today is when Master Vincent first found Echo. That is what made Echo being born worthwhile, and that is why today is important."
She got up from where they had been sitting, and Oz did the same. He didn't like the thought that serving Vincent was the only thing that confirmed that Echo should have been born, but he knew better than anyone that he didn't have the right to talk about the worth of being born, so he didn't say anything to her. Instead, Oz reached out his hand and grabbed hold of Echo's wrist — and he started running, gently pulling her along behind him, and exclaiming, "Come on!"
Even without a festival, the town was still a lively place. Oz found all sorts of things for him and Echo to do, although every now and then she would slow down to jot things down in her journal and he'd have to encourage her to hurry, hurry. She didn't smile, but she didn't seem as tense as before, and Oz had a feeling she was enjoying herself. He certainly was having a good time, and when the hours had flown by and the sun was setting, he and Echo had found a small, public garden, so they sat down and caught their breath.
Admittedly, Oz needed the rest more than Echo, but even though he was exhausted, he laughed. "That was pretty fun, don't you think, Miss Echo?"
"It wasn't a festival," she answered seriously, then paused. "But... it was still interesting. Echo doesn't quite understand it, but I suppose I should be thanking you."
"Yeah, it wasn't a festival. But you don't need festivals to have fun! You can have a good time just being with your friends, and if I showed you that, then I'm okay with not getting any thanks." In a rare moment of sheepishness, Oz rubbed his nose. "Ah, but I was hoping to get you a present... I'm sorry, Miss Echo! I know I gave you a hairpiece last time, so I should get you something even prettier than that for your birthday, but I couldn't find anything."
"Hairpiece...? You don't need to get me another one. I kept it."
"You did? Wow, I'm surprised! I thought you didn't like it!"
Echo stiffened a bit and turned her face away, hiding the blush that was spreading across her cheeks. "I... it's not that I didn't like it. I don't think I deserve it, but the least I can do is take care of it. So, I've been carrying it with me at all times in order to protect it."
That caught Oz off guard, but she withdrew the hairpiece from her pockets and showed it to him. "You really did take good care of it, huh? I'm honored that my gift meant so much to you, Miss Echo."
"Right, right," he answered in a sing-song voice, chuckling a bit. She didn't reply, and instead tucked the hairpiece away again. "Oh, right! Echo, how old are you now?"
"How old...?" She gave him a blank look, and Oz wondered if perhaps she didn't know about age. It seemed odd, but there were other things about Echo that were odder, so he tried to explain.
"Ah, well, you see, when I say 'how old,' I mean —"
"... Echo is seven. That is how long she has served Master Vincent."
"Um, Miss Echo, that's not really..."
"I know. But my real age and when I was born... Echo doesn't know these things. Echo only knows things that she has learned since meeting Master Vincent." She said all of that in her usual monotone, but Oz couldn't help but feel that there was a sad note to that. He couldn't imagine what it would be like if he didn't know his birthday — he used to have parties with Ada and Uncle Oscar (and even though he would protest, Oz would sneak Gil in, too, warning him that there would be cats to confront if Gil didn't obey). If he didn't have those memories, he would be much lonelier.
Echo stood up while he was lost in thought and brushed the dirt off of her clothes. "It doesn't matter, either way," she said, and he looked up at her. Rather than sad, Vincent's servant had a look on her face that was the closest to smiling Oz had ever seen from her. "Today is Echo's birthday, and Echo was glad to spend it... 'with a friend.' Isn't that what you said?"
Oz was speechless for a minute, but he quickly grinned and nodded his head enthusiastically. "Yeah, that's right! You know, Miss Echo, you really are cute!"
"It's Echo," she protested, but as she turned her face away from him again, she didn't seem upset, and Oz stood up and ruffled her hair.
"Let's go," he said, and she nodded.
They parted ways when she jumped onto a nearby roof and, saying a quick goodbye, dashed off. Oz wandered back to the town's entrance, where he was confronted by a very angry Gil and Alice, who gave him a lecture and a kick before dragging him back to the Rainsworth mansion. When asked what he had been up to, Oz said he was celebrating a friend's birthday — but when Vincent asked, Echo couldn't give him the same response. He told her, without raising his voice, she had taken more time than he allowed and he hit her with such force that she was knocked back before crumpling to the ground, clutching her cheek.
Vincent gave her a look of disdain before he exited his quarters, other servants of the Nightray household bowing to him as he left (and not giving her a second thought). Echo could feel her cheek bruising, but she stopped herself from crying. Instead, as she tried to stand up, she saw that her hairpiece had fallen from her pockets and onto the ground. Echo quickly picked it up and, after she made sure it hadn't been damaged, held it close to her. Even if Vincent hit her and her cheek stung, she told herself that she didn't need to cry. She had a friend, who she could spend time with and celebrate birthdays with, and that realization was almost as important to her as the hairpiece she held.
Echo was so enchanted with the thought that the sound of footsteps behind her startled her, and she turned around quickly. It wasn't the footsteps of someone walking across the floor to her — it was the footsteps of a presence from the back of her mind making itself known, and those footsteps were familiar enough to cause her to start shaking.
Bare feet came closer, and a red cloak dragged along the ground. Cold hands reached around her trembling frame to snatch the hairpiece, then turned it over, as if examining it. "Well now," Zwei said, giggling, "what do we have here?"