As soon as his board hit pavement, Oz knew he'd won the round. Elliot Nightray was good, but he was not a 360-Indy-immediately-followed-by-a-perfect-540 good. A lot could happen tomorrow yet, but he'd just won for the day. And this competition, the Rainsworth Cup, was one of the biggest events of the year. Oz knew he'd have to land a 720 tomorrow to take it. He knew he could do it.

Actually, he didn't. He had no idea if he could. Normally he'd never pull off a move like that, because he was pretty much just a kid and still had a lot of practicing to do. But today had been one of those days, and he'd known he should go for it. Sometimes, the pressure would build up behind his eyes and it was execute something amazing, or explode.

It was Jack. Oz knew it wasn't really Jack—if his dead older brother was hanging around as a ghost, there were better things to do than possess Oz in the middle of a routine (like haunt Gil, for instance)—but that was how Oz thought of it. It felt like Jack.

He kicked up his board and caught it, walking away from the course nonchalantly. He tossed out a few comments to reporters that probably sounded stupid, but he wasn't actually paying attention to their questions—it was always something stupid like whether or not he drew inspiration from his brother's legacy. He didn't look too hard for Alice as he sauntered away. She'd come to him.

She landed on his back, in fact, not surprising him but making him stumble for balance. Once he got his feet steady, he reached behind him to grab her legs and hoist her higher, while she hollered in his ear.

"That was amazing, Oz!"

A few cameras flashed so they could capture this joyous scene, and Oz made sure to turn so they caught his Pandora t-shirt. It was a white one today, with the logo—a heart-shaped box that was cracked jaggedly in half—printed high on one shoulder in bright red. It probably clashed with his green plaid shorts, but whatever. As long as Pandora was sponsoring him to skate, he had to wear their stuff. Not that this was much of a hardship, he liked their stuff. Whoever Xerxes Break had hired to design the clothing line had good taste.

Alice bent her head forward to whisper in his ear, spilling her own dark hair over his shoulder.

"It's a Jack day, isn't it?"

He nodded. This was one of the reasons that he needed to be around Alice. It wasn't just her headstrong personality and how it helped him, it was the way they could talk to each other about stuff like this. She was the only one who knew. Who else could he talk to about something like this? Dad? Dad would hit him. Gil? Gil would cry. Since Oz really didn't enjoy being the recipient of child abuse, and since Gil crying was only funny when it was because of Break, that ruled them out. He might be able to tell Uncle Oscar about it, but it was embarrassing to bring up and Uncle was gone on business a lot.

"Maybe you'll have another one tomorrow," she said, sliding down from his back and striding along beside him. "Not that you even need the advantage," she added in a louder tone, and Oz immediately winced. He liked to at least try to get along with Elliot, but she couldn't resist baiting the guy. He just so happened to be walking past them.

"What was that, Black?" Elliot snarled.

"Nothing. I was just saying that Oz is going to flatten you tomorrow, Nightray."

Elliot had a way of carrying himself that Oz had always been sort of impressed by. Older than his years, you could say. Straight as an arrow, almost haughty. But what did you expect from the heir of Raven Industrial? His father's company was a huge rival for Pandora, so it made sense that the two people they sponsored were so often at odds. To make things more interesting, Gilbert and his brother Vincent were cousins of Elliot's. Vincent was being given a lot of management opportunities at Raven, including Elliot's sponsorship. They pretty much didn't talk to Gilbert anymore, since he'd joined the enemy and all.

His eyes on Alice were cold as ice. "I wouldn't count on it, Black. Making statements like that is just asking for trouble."

Oz bristled in shock, anger, and alarm. How dare he say that? He knew exactly what he was doing.

Last year, Alice had shown up on the scene out of nowhere, and claimed she was going to win the competition. It had even seemed like a possibility during the one day she'd been in it. She was stunning on a skateboard, but something had gone wrong, she'd landed on her head, and she'd nearly died. She was in a coma for a few days, and things weren't right when she woke up. It had taken her weeks to get back her memories of anything, even her own family. Oz had only been introduced to her in passing, since it was his own debut in competition that same day. But he'd been shocked by how easy it was for someone so good to get hurt so bad. Because he'd felt like a fellow skater deserved the support, he'd started coming to visit her. It was a long time before she was allowed to so much as leave the hospital, and she'd only been released from physical therapy a couple of months ago. Somehow, they'd become incredibly close while Alice struggled to get her mind and body back. Now, she was his best friend . . . maybe more. They hadn't talked about that yet.

Elliot was such a bastard.

And his friend Leo seemed to know it, because he and Gil had been walking toward the three of them, and Leo suddenly started running. But it was too late.

Alice slugged Elliot in the jaw, and things quickly went to hell from there.

It had been a continual source of curiosity for Gilbert over the years as to why his boss only had one eye. At the moment, the reasons didn't matter, because that one eye was fixed on him in a truly chilling way. He was smiling. That was never good.

"Care to explain this, Gilbert?" he asked in a voice that was extremely calm and now Gilbert was sweating because that was definitely not good. He turned his computer monitor to allow Gilbert to see it, and clicked the mouse to begin the video.

Oh, shit.

He'd figured someone with a camera phone would have it on Youtube before they'd even wiped up the blood. He hadn't counted on official news camera video showing up on the Internet. He hadn't even known they'd been filming at the time.

"Sorry?" he muttered, not even daring to look at Break.

"You're sorry?" he repeated, still sounding far too calm and still smiling. "There is a video on the news of this, Gilbert. It's not even just that you were there and didn't do a damn thing to stop it. It's that there's video footage of it."

He could feel the colour draining out of his face, and he looked closer. Sure enough, there he was, off in the corner watching Alice and Elliot beat the shit out of each other with his hands clutched in his—good Lord, did his hair really look that messy? No wonder Alice called him seaweed head. He tried to remember the last time he had combed his hair with anything other than his fingers . . .


He snapped back to attention.

"This was a very important competition for Oz. You are Oz's manager. Care to explain why you not only allowed your cousin to start rolling around in the dirt with the boy's girlfriend, but you let Oz himself join in?"

He winced, and looked at the video again. Yes, there was Oz, and Leo as well, both of them wading into the fray in an attempt to pull Elliot and Alice apart.

"Oz wasn't joining in, exactly . . ."

Then Oz went down with a cry, and rolled away grimacing in pain and clutching his leg, and suddenly Gilbert knew why Break was upset with him. Break even stopped the video there, so thankfully they didn't have to see Gilbert himself run forward to inspect Oz's injury with an embarrassing level of concern that wasn't meant for public entertainment.

"It's just a bruise, it's not even sprained or anything," he said quickly. "It's not going to effect his performance, I swear."

Break's eye was cold and dangerous, and Gilbert was terrified of the man, and he had no idea why he had decided to work for him . . . Okay, he knew exactly why. He'd wanted to skate, but he lacked the skill. Jack was the one who had it, not him. When Jack had died, there hadn't been any reason for Gilbert to be a part of the skating culture anymore, but he didn't want to leave it. That's when Break found him. Break had paid his college tuition, in fact, and put him to work for Pandora as soon as he finished school. He'd been made Oz's manager the day that the kid was old enough to skate competitively.

He loved Oz. Obsessively. He was Jack's little brother, and Gilbert could never quite let go of Jack and now he had Oz to fill that hole in his heart . . . And Break knew that. And he was accusing Gilbert of allowing harm to come to the kid? Gilbert wished he had the courage to give Break a piece of his mind, but he didn't. Well, at least he'd come to terms with his own cowardice by now.

"He has a competition to win tomorrow. He is not going to lose it to Elliot Nightray because Alice accidentally kicked him. Period."

"I know. I'll . . . I'll go check on him and make sure he's icing the bruise down."

"Yes, you do that," Break smiled at him, and deliberately unwrapped a peppermint from the glass dish on his desk. Even the way he ate a peppermint was unnerving. "Well?" he asked, raising his eyebrow. "Go."

Gilbert did.

As soon as his office door closed, Break let his head fall onto his desk with a soft clunk. As soon as he saw the hilarious video of Elliot and Alice, he knew had to bring Gilbert in and give him a hard time. He knew perfectly well that Oz was fine and that he'd skate no matter how badly he was injured, anyway. He had a month to recover before they'd have another competition. He didn't even need Gilbert to explain the circumstances: Elliot had insulted Oz, Alice had taken offense, and things had quickly fallen apart. It was the usual explanation.

Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to tease Gilbert, as he'd wanted to. He was in too much pain right now. His own goddamn fault, he supposed. But he hadn't even been able to properly enjoy the video because he had those fucking floaters in his vision again.

It was cold in here. Actually, it was probably just him.

Why the hell had he bothered getting out of bed this morning?

The door opened again and he lifted himself up immediately, pretending to be busy at the computer, even though he knew it was Liam. Liam was the only person with the nerve to come into his office without knocking. Liam was pretty ballsy for a mousy little secretary. Although it was hard to call a guy mousy when he gauged his ears.

"Xerx," he said quietly, and Break saw the plastic container he was carrying. "It's that time again."

No one else knew about this. Only Liam. And even his personal secretary didn't know why he took so much medication. But Break had taken advantage of the man's supernatural organizational skills and put him in charge of Break's regimen of pills. Break himself had no inclination to keep track of it all, but since it was kind of necessary for him to stay alive, somebody had to do it. He still had (just barely still had) a reason to live, after all.

Break grimaced, took the offered glass of water and started downing the pills. He immediately put another peppermint in his mouth afterward. His mouth just always seemed to taste foul, these days. He had fought off the last bout of illness, but he still remembered the taste of his own blood in his mouth. He wasn't eager to go through that again. But it would be something, wouldn't it? You couldn't live with HIV forever. Eventually, it got worse. Eventually, you died . . .

"Xerx, are you okay?"

No, he was not okay. He had a fever and he felt awful. Had he really gotten dressed and come downstairs just because he'd wanted to give Gilbert a hard time? Liam was practically running the company, these days, it's not like he was actually needed most of the time. He could be laying out by the pool every day surrounded by swarms of beautiful women and letting Liam sweat it out in here. Well. He'd have to want that to happen, first.

Good lord, please let it not be true that he came into his office everyday just to see Liam. Please. The man already lived here. He left Break to his own devices most of the time, it was true, but that was because this was Break's house and Liam just rented from him . . . Liam wasn't above coming to find him and bothering him if there was work that needed to be done. He saw enough of Liam. He was not that desperate for companionship.

He'd dragged his sorry carcass out of bed just so he could tease Gilbert. Yes, yes he was that desperate.

"Xerx?" Liam asked again, sounding worried. It made his voice sort of high-pitched, and reminded Break that he was really rather young. Too young, for example, to know that Oz Vessalius was not the first up-and-coming skateboarder to debut his talents by landing a 360 Flip on his first ride in front of a judge. His older brother Jack had started out more modestly, and those were the only comparisons the media was interesting in drawing. Nobody remembered the name Kevin Regnard anymore. Back in those days, riding a skateboard didn't make you a celebrity, it made you a deviant. Well, he was certainly still that.

"I think I'm done for the day," he muttered, standing up, unable to help the fact that he swayed a little. Fucking fever was giving him fucking vertigo.

"Are you sick?"

A bitter laugh escaped his throat. "Oh, am I ever."

Sick enough to allow the entire world to think that he was actually named Xerxes Break, for fucks sake. It was the craziest name he could think of, back when he'd started Pandora. A name that he could get famous with, because his plan was for Pandora to be the premier maker of boards and related clothing. He left all that work to less clever people now, but he'd started out personally crafting each board. He'd made the one that the Vessalius kid rode with his own two hands, because his company was sponsoring the kid and Oz was something special. Even more so than Jack had been. Hopefully, Oz would have the good sense not to get in a car with his drunken best friend and get himself killed. Even if he was that dumb, Gilbert would never allow it . . . Stupid pathetic man probably blamed himself for Jack and Glen's death to this day.

Break would never, ever admit to being fond of Gilbert or Oz. Or Liam. Or anyone. Except maybe Sharon. But she was just a kid, and even crazy old men were allowed to be fond of kids.

"Let me help you," Liam said, rushing forward like he was going to pick him up or something. Break made a scoffing noise in his throat.

"I don't need help."


"But what's wrong?" Liam asked, his face tortured.

He'd been worrying himself to death about his boss for weeks, if not longer. Ever since he'd seen the blood on the handkerchief, the blood Break hadn't been able to explain away . . . Not telling him the truth was supposedly for Liam's sake, but Break wasn't sure that reasoning could stand up to scrutiny. The guy didn't even look like he'd been sleeping. Break had no idea why Liam cared so much. He'd been Break's secretary for years, had moved in here last year when his apartment complex decided to shut down and had subsequently been around him even more. But that was all, wasn't it?

There wasn't much chance that Liam felt any real sort of attachment to Break. Not the way Break felt about him, certainly. It made sense to feel that way about Liam. He was young and handsome and intelligent and gutsy . . . Break was old and sick. No, it certainly wasn't that. Maybe, God help him, Liam actually thought Break was a good boss.

"Damn," he muttered in frustration. Things with his health were just going to keep getting worse, not better, and Liam was going to get more and more frantic if he didn't know. "Sit down."

Liam sat. Break leaned against his desk and took another peppermint. His mouth was always dry, even when it didn't taste awful. Liam was eyeing the candy hatefully, and all his haranguing about sugar being bad for you meant Break really couldn't resist what came out of his mouth.

"I have diabetes."

Liam blinked, frowned, and then clenched his hands into fists. "No you don't. I'm not an idiot, and don't treat me like one."

He'd been hoping for at least a reaction he could laugh at. Damn Liam for taking this so seriously. "I had tuberculosis."

"Tu— that's why you coughed up blood?"

Break nodded.

"I didn't even think that existed anymore. Can't they treat that, now?"

"They did," he drawled casually, even though his feelings on the additional pills were decidedly not casual. "Do you see me coughing up blood now?"

Liam clenched his jaw, and then he stood up and stared him in his good eye. "You've been taking medication for a long time. Just tell me the truth, Xerxes."

The truth, when even the request contained a lie in the form of his name?

"I don't care what it is. Just tell me."

Break crossed his arms and looked out the window. Sharon's mother was the psychiatrist he was court-ordered to see, and even Sharon didn't know about this. How was he supposed to do this?

"I have HIV," he said at last, reluctantly. There. Let Liam think what he liked, and be damned. He was gaping at him like Break had struck him over the head, and gasping for breath. He bore an uncanny resemblance to a fish right now. "Have for years. Apparently my immune system decided to take a vacation recently. So, tuberculosis. We beat that off for now, but it can come back. Or something else can join the fun, it's just a matter of who gets there first. It'll eventually become AIDS, assuming I don't die of pnuemonia first."

"Can you stop being glib for a second?" Liam gasped. "You might have had years to deal with this, but I haven't."

"And why would you need them?" Break sneered. "Do you have a death sentence hanging over your head?"

"You're my friend, Xerx. I care about you. To think you were keeping something this big from me is—it's just—"

"You . . . care about me?" he repeated in astonishment, even uncrossing his arms.

"It can't be that hard to believe."

Actually, it was. More than hard to believe, it was impossible. People did not care about him. Sharon did, maybe, but that was because she was a child and she didn't know. Sharon's mother was paid to. Those were the only people he spoke to outside of work. So . . . yes, it was hard to believe.

"I've been here for years. I don't do all this PR work and paperwork because I love doing it."

"Yes you do," Break snorted.

"Okay, fine, but I could do it somewhere else. It's not exactly normal to live with your employer, you know."

"Oh, I was aware of that much."

"I'm here because I care about you, idiot. You don't take care of yourself, no matter how I remind you to. So when the opportunity arose to come here and keep a closer eye on you, I took it."

"Oh," Break said, feeling that this changed things somewhat. For the worse. He never would have told him the truth if he'd known this already. He was prepared to let his secretary know about this because it might effect his work. He was not prepared for this friends thing. He was too fucking old and sick and tired for friends.

"I cannot believe that is what makes you regret telling me."

Liam Lunettes was just far too sharp for his own good. Always had been. His quick mind had been the thing that had caused Break, after a fleeting five minute conversation in Shelly Rainsworth's office, to all but kidnap the boy and put him to work for Pandora. He was only seventeen at the time, but since he was a patient of Shelly's working through his issues about being abused by his uncle, it wasn't like he had anything of value he was leaving behind. "Wow. You're serious. You only told me because it would save me getting upset about you not showing up for work? Do you not understand the concept of friendship or what?"

No. No, he really didn't.

"God Almighty," Liam muttered. "Look, I . . . I'm sorry, I'm reacting badly. Obviously. If you want to, you can tell me more about it, so I know what to expect. If I know more, I can help you better."

Surprised by how quickly Liam had calmed down, Break only answered, "That's not necessary."

And Liam's temper flared right back up. "Who was talking about necessary? I want to, you idiot!"

Then he stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him, and leaving Break with a pounding headache. The sort that always seemed to begin in the hole where his eye had been until a cracked-out whore had stabbed it, and radiate outward from there. He was definitely going to go lay down for a while. He just couldn't deal with this shit right now.

The nap did wonders for his fever, but when he snuck downstairs to check Liam's internet browsing history later, his brain didn't feel any better. Liam was really an idiot. Checking a page called "Living with HIV/AIDS" he could understand. Also the Wikipedia entry for tuberculosis. In fact, Liam was ridiculously thorough, since he'd apparently browsed through a good twenty different websites, going from basic knowledge of the illness to common side effects of antiretrovirals. But "Sex and Sexuality with HIV/AIDS" . . . No. Just—no. It was simple curiosity on Liam's part. Actually, it was the invasive sort of curiosity that Break was going to have to get angry about.

But when he turned around and Liam was standing there with a frank expression, he fought the urge to run away in fear, instead.

"It seems we'll have to be careful. I don't mind."

"What? What is wrong with you? Look at me."

"I've been watching you for years."

"I'm old enough to be your father!"

"Never met him, so I can't really draw comparisons . . . I do not consider you a father figure, Xerx."

"Don't. Don't, Liam. That's not even my name, for fucks sake . . ."

Liam was standing much, much too close to him. This was all just a joke, right? Somehow, it had to be . . .

Oz was already icing down the bruise from Alice's kick, no prompting from Gilbert required. Alice herself was sitting next to him on his sofa, fidgeting while she watched television with him. She'd always been a restless girl, but since the accident she'd become even more so, because so many of the outlets she used to release energy were denied to her. She still hadn't been cleared to ride again.

This was what they usually did together, just chilling out and watching t.v. or whatever. Uncle Oscar liked Alice, but he gave them space and didn't try to sit with them most of the time. Sometimes they'd go out back so Oz could practice, with Alice shouting encouragement and advice to him. It was always relaxed, whatever it was, ever since he'd gotten to live with his uncle. Dad had been stupid enough to smack Oz across the face with people watching, and they'd shipped him off to Dad's brother the same day. Supposedly, Dad was getting therapy for that whole issue he had with blaming Oz for being alive when Jack died. Oz wasn't going to hold his breath for a happy ending, there.

Today, they were watching the news footage of their fight, and laughing their heads off.

"Ooo," Alice said appreciately, wincing and rubbing her scalp. "I thought he pulled my hair. What a girly way to fight."

"Oh!" Oz laughed. "You almost got him in the nuts!"

"I'm glad this is so amusing for you two," came a voice from the doorway behind them. "Personally, I'm in deep shit with Break because of it."

"Gil!" Oz greeted him happily, completely ignoring the morose announcement of trouble with Break. Oz had seen the way the two of them were, and knew Break was only teasing him. "Come in and sit down—dammit, Gil," he whined when the man sat down by him, "You smell like cigarettes. I thought you quit smoking."

"Again," Alice supplied helpfully, while also pelting Gil with popcorn from the bowl on the table.

"I did quit, until Break called me into his office to yell at me."

Then Gil frowned and got all pensive like he did when he was thinking about something he wasn't ready to talk about. Well, to hell with that, he was supposed to tell Oz everything.


"I think something's wrong with him."

"You mean besides how he's nutty?" Oz was pretty comfortable with the man who sponsored him being a crazy person with a fetish for hard candy. He got to skate, Pandora got a poster boy. Everyone was happy. No sense questioning the one-eyed lunatic behind the deal.

"Yeah, besides that. I mean lately. I think he's sick or something. Every time I talk to him lately, he's got a bad cough or he's hiding a headache or something."

"Maybe he'll die of pnuemonia," Alice suggested brightly.

She claimed to have no memory of meeting Break on the day of that ill-fated competition, and therefore rejected his insistence that he'd made an offer to sponsor her if she acquitted herself well. Oz suspected she just did it because she liked to give back as good as she got with the man. Her memory might still be spotty, but who would forget meeting Xerxex Break?

The doorbell rang, and Uncle Oscar strode through the living room to answer it before any of them could get up. There was a quiet exchange at the door, and they all craned their necks to see who he was talking to, but the door was in the way. Alice jumped up to investigate, completely assured that she had the right—she basically considered Oscar's house to be her own, these days, since her parents hadn't really forgiven her for forgetting about them and screaming at them for visiting her.

Uncle Oscar shut the door and revealed what he'd been hiding just as Alice saw it and squealed happily.

"Pizza's here," he said breezily.

"I love you, Uncle Oscar," Oz said his most sugary I-am-an-adorable-little-boy voice.

"What kind of pizza?" Alice asked, dancing circles around him as he carried it to the table where they'd been keeping their uninteresting popcorn.

"I thought we all needed to eat healthier," Oscar said in a voice that was almost as sweet and innocent as Oz's. "So I went for the gluten-free crust, with no sauce or cheese, and just piled with veggies."

Oz knew he was just kidding, but Alice was horrified almost to incoherency, and he could see Gil putting on his "polite" face so he could tell Oscar he ate before he came over.

"All right!" he cheered, sweeping the popcorn, magazines, and his discarded hoodie over to the edge of the table. "I love veggies!"

He dove right in, already knowing what he'd find. Sure enough, there were about four different kinds of meat on there—although there was a quarter of it dedicated to a more balanced combination that did include vegetables, which would be for Gil. Uncle Oscar was the best. He never came out and said anything, but it was stuff like this that he did to make sure Gil and Alice knew that this really was their home when they needed it. And to make sure Oz knew, too, probably.

"Oz, no, don't eat it," Alice cried out in dismay. Her suspicion of vegetables in general was kind of hilarious. Then she stopped and cocked her head. "I smell bacon."

Oz was already handing Gil his section when Alice finally got the courage to look into the box.

"Meat!" she cheered, and chucked a magazine at Oscar with pure affection. "Thank you!"

"As long as there's one slice left for me," he sighed, deftly catching the magazine before it could hit him. "You want a beer, Gilbert?"

Gil shook his head, scowling a bit. He was a total lightweight. Every time Oscar talked him into drinking, he had to sleep on the couch. Oz actually kind of preferred Gil sober, since when he was drunk he tended to cry and tell Oz he loved him, and was looking after him for Jack's sake. It wasn't like Oz didn't know already, but still . . . Awkward, much?

Alice elected to sit on the floor, as close to the pizza as humanly possible, so Oz leaned back and threw his legs over Gil's lap. Gil might be his manager (in name, anyway) now, but he'd been around since Oz was just a tiny kid. He'd been one of Jack's friends. Jack's death had been caused by stupidity—Glen had been drunk and had crashed the car—but Gil would still never hear a word against him. He had been so lost after that. Uncle Oscar had sort of taken pity on him and found reasons to keep inviting him over. When Oz's house had been filled with silence and sadness and whispers and resentment, when his father ignored him to the point of neglect, Gil had been there. He didn't mind playing with a little kid like Oz, and they'd sort of needed each other. He'd let Oz drag him into all kinds of weird things, whenever someone else could be talked into watching Ada.

Oscar and Gil wandered outside to smoke, and Alice started channel-surfing. Oz wasn't really paying attention, and then—

"Hey! Go back! No, back, back, back—there!"

"Don't you watch other people skate enough?" Alice asked dryly.

"No, look!" Oz said sternly, his eyes on the screen. It was very old footage, and this was the History Channel or something like it. The little thing that popped up in the corner of the screen declared this to be a history of skateboarding. And that person that was being shown on the footage looked damn familiar.

"Regnard was a pioneer," the narrator intoned. "He stated that his goal was to invent a new trick each time he performed. He was only sixteen when he—"

"Alice? Is that . . .?"

"N-no . . ." she denied unconvincingly.

"Hey, look at that little girl, she looks sort of like Ada."

The photograph that was being slowly panned over was declared to be Kevin Regnard's baby sister. Apparently she'd been a huge fan of his. Apparently, she'd stolen his board when he was supposed to be baby-sitting her, and she'd cracked her head open and died.

"Regnard was never the same after her death," the narrator told them. "He started getting into fights at the park where he and his fellow skaters gathered. It wasn't long before drug and alcohol abuse had severely crippled his performances, and Regnard soon dropped out of competition altogether. None of his friends remember precisely when they last saw him, but Kevin had completely disappeared by the time—"

"Holy shit," Gil said from behind them. His eyes were open wide. "Was that—"

"No," Alice said, more firmly this time.

Oz knew the program had about thirty years of history to get through before they inevitably got to Jack, but he turned off the t.v. anyway.

"Gil, do you know how old he is?"

"Older than he looks?" Gil offered hesitantly.

"Damn. Where'd Uncle Oscar go?"

Gil shrugged and pretended not to know, which meant he was on the phone with Dad.

"Let's go spy on him," Oz said suddenly.


"No. Break."

Alice jumped up eagerly. "Okay."

"No!" Gil said, actually striding across the room to block the door. "We are not spying on him!"

"I just want to see if we can find out if it's true. It's not like we'd be breaking in. Don't you have a key, Gil?"

"No," Gil denied vehemently. He wasn't the best liar.

"We'll make sure he won't know, first. We'll wait until he's asleep."

"Liam lives there, too, you know."

"We'll make sure they're both asleep before we go in."

"And how do you propose to make sure of that, Oz, without going into the house? No. Break is my boss, don't you get it? He needs you, you're all talented and good-looking and . . . He doesn't need me. I'm not getting involved in this."

"Come on, Gil, he'll never know . . . And we have to find out if this is true. We just have to."

Gil's mouth repeatedly opened and closed, but by now Oz had sidled up to him and grabbed his arm and turned on the puppy-dog eyes. Gil really was useless sometimes, he thought with complete fondness. And he had a car.

Three hours later found them at Break's unnecessarily large and ostentatious home, all of them wearing black clothes to make it easier to hide. Gil was sitting at the foot of a ladder with his hands clutched in his hair, moaning.

"I'm going to be in so much trouble . . . Why am I here?"

"Gil, shhh," Oz reprimanded as he and Alice both attempted to climb the ladder. Good thing they were both skinny. Gil was having visions of the ladder breaking under their combined weight and Break coming out to find them in the yard after the two kids had landed on Gil's head. Actually, it might be worse if Liam found them. Liam was scary when he was mad.

They both reached the top and peered in.

"Oh!" Oz gasped.

Alice made a slight gurgling noise.

They both descended the ladder slowly, with shocked faces.

"Do you think," Alice began hesitantly. "Do you think there's a way to unsee that?"

It was Oz's turn to gurgle.

"What?" Gil asked, lifting his head up and ceasing his groaning. "What did you see?"

They both shook their heads and stood there looking shell-shocked. There was nothing for Gil to do but to climb the ladder to see for himself. At first he didn't get it. This was Break's room, and there he was, asleep in his bed . . . Oh. That was not a lump of blankets. Blankets did not cuddle people while they were sleeping. And—oh, God—was Liam still awake?

Gil fell off the ladder trying to scramble back down. Thankfully, he was able to keep his mouth shut and just grunted in pain. He stared up at the two faces peering down at him.

"I think I want to kill myself," he whispered.

"Yeah," Alice muttered in agreement.

"Well, this changes my plans," Oz said, sounding oddly cheerful.

"Instead of spying on them, we're going to run away and drown ourselves in the ocean?" "Nope. We're going to TP the house."

Even Alice was so surprised that her face was blank.

". . . what?"


So, I sat down to write the next chapter of Never Let Me Go, and my brain spewed this out instead. No, I don't know what happened. Yes, I'm just as terrified by my brain as you are.

Could this story be much, much longer? Yes. I could go all the way back to the competition in which Alice and Oz first meet, and Alice gets injured. This could consist of many chapters, in fact. I could actually develop these characters instead of information-dumping on you all. Am I going to? Not hardly. I do not have the time and energy. I like this incredibly random idea of mine, but I refuse to make a full-length-story commitment to it.

In fact, this would be the perfect opportunity to take me by the shoulders, shake me violently, and say "Faren, you already have two fandoms you obsessively write about! You do not need a third! Stop this!" I would greatly appreciate it.

All that said . . . It's an AU of Pandora Hearts characters in the competitive skateboarding industry. How could I not share it with everyone? XD