"Gil?" Liz breathed as he released her, eyes brimming with tears. "I'm so sorry you had to come here, but you really didn't—" She made a muffled noise of protest when he leaned in to kiss her.
He was giving her all of him, pressing his chest to hers, threading his fingers through her hair. Every fiber of her being was singing his praises, thrumming with his there-ness, so why, she thought numbly, couldn't she kiss him back? Why was she so paralyzed?
The image of Roderich kept popping up in her mind, mocking her. And suddenly, she felt like she was suffocating, because Gil, his very touch sending little sparks shivering up and down her spine, was everything Roderich never was.
So why did she feel so empty? Like it could never be enough?
Liz pushed him away, casting her eyes down. "Please go," she choked out, unable to look at him.
She definitely didn't want him to finish that thought. "Just go."
It took every ounce of her courage to go to school next day, to hold her head high and greet her peers, look Gil and Vash and Lili in the eye and pretend like nothing was wrong. Even as she swept her papers into her bag and marched from class to class, she could feel the scrutiny of her classmates weighing down on her, boring into her until she felt as if her defenses had been stripped away.
"Um, hey," Gil said, approaching her desk once the final bell had rang. "Ready to go to club?"
She gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Of course. Our last meeting, right? Somehow, I'm a lot more sad than I expected to be."
"Totally," he agreed. "We had some pretty good times. Also, Natalya is actually a pretty cool kid."
They fell into content silence.
Gil took a deep breath, reaching a hand into his pocket and pulling out a piece of paper. "I...Roderich told me to give this to you. It's fine if you don't want to me to read it, but—"
"No," she said sharply, reaching for his hand. He jumped at the sudden contact. "Please stay. It's just...can we go somewhere more private?"
Gil let her guide him her to a secluded corner of the hallway, tucked right between the water fountain and the girls' bathroom. "Liz, are you okay?" he prodded, brow furrowing in concern. "'Cause if you don't want to—"
"What did I tell you?" Liz snapped. "Let's do this." Her hands trembling, she smoothed out the crinkles in the note, holding it out for the both of them to read.
I'm so sorry for what happened last night. I figured I've lied to you enough, so here's the truth:
You've probably heard the rumors, but near the end of sophomore year, Vash and I confessed our feelings for one another at the party. Truth be told, it was one of the best moments of my life. For that one moment, I felt free, like I didn't have to hide anymore, like what everyone else thought didn't matter.
I was sure nothing could keep us apart anymore, but I was so wrong: some drunk freshman girl had overheard the entire thing, and pretty soon, she was spreading rumors about me and Vash. I started to panic— I was just starting to come to terms with being gay, and I was terrified of what people would think of me. But I knew people were skeptical— after all, who really trusts the testimonial of a drunk underclassman? To make it go away, all I had to do was disprove the rumors and ask a girl out. We were close friends and you seemed to like me, so it seemed like an obvious choice.
I swear I never meant for it to drag on this long. Each month, I'd tell myself that I was finally gonna be honest with you and break it off, but I always ended up chickening out. After a year, though, I was finally done: tired of the charade, of living a lie, denying who I really was. As relieved I am now to be telling the truth, I feel incredibly guilty for wasting your time and hurting you and all of the other people I love. Words cannot express how truly sorry I am— I just hope that you can forgive me.
Liz looked absolutely stunned as she lowered the paper.
"Want me to beat the shit out of him?" Gil offered. When her cheek did not so much twitch in response, he sighed. "God, he seriously expects you to just forgive him? After everything he put you through?"
She shook her head, casting her eyes to the ground. "You're right. There's no way things could go back to normal between us. But I don't want to be angry at him anymore."
"Doesn't mean we can't prank still him!"' he exclaimed. "I've come up with a few good ideas over the years."
Liz cracked a reluctant smile. "Thanks for your support, Gil, but he's not worth the effort. I'm just happy that he can be himself now, and just be with Vash. Yeah, I'm a little hurt that he went along with it for so long, but…I'll get over it."
Gil smiled fondly at her. "You're a really good person, you know that, right?"
"And you're really good at compliments,"Liz quipped, and laced his arm through hers. "Come you, idiot— let's go have some fun."
"It is with a heavy heart that I welcome you to the final meeting of this year's Oyster Club," Ms. Braginski said, looking as if she wanted nothing more than to burst into tears and run out the door. "I don't think I'm just speaking for myself when I say how much I've grown over the past year after spending time with all of you wonderful people. We've had our ups and downs, sure, but it's always been one big, happy blur."
Natalya rolled her eyes at the overload of cheese, exchanging a look with Feliks.
"And so, I'd like to end the year by making bracelets for one another. I have colored string and different beads so you can spell out each other's names. Try to make as many as possible, for all those who gave touched your life during the course of this entire year. We'll have a bracelet ceremony at the end of our meeting to give them away and tell everyone what they mean to you," Ms. Braginski said breathlessly, motioning for Liz to pass out the supplies. "Have fun, everyone!"
"And I thought it wasn't possible for her to get anymore hippie," Gil whispered when she arrived at his desk, his stomach fluttering at the sight of her smile— the most genuine one he had seen all day.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Trying to ignore the feeling, he fumbled for a length of magenta hemp and spelled L-I-Z out with the neon beads. Tying the ends together, he quickly proceeded to the next bracelet, dreading how much effort it would take to spell out "Natalya."
A half an hour later, Ms. Braginski coughed delicately into her fist. "And that's time, ladies and gentlemen!"
"Can I go first?" Feliks piped up, waving his hand in the air.
"Um, if you insist," Ms. Braginski laughed, beckoning him forward. "Let's hear it."
Ambling to the front of the room, he first held up an intricate bracelet woven with alternating strings of black and purple. "For Natalya Braginski. Even though we fought all the time, you were such a good friend to me. We teased one another in good fun, gave each other fashion tips, and all in all, had a fabulous time whenever we were together. Words can't express the vast platonic affection I feel towards you."
Natalya raised an eyebrow at him. "Gee, thanks."
"Ah, ah, I'm not finished!" he chided. Ignoring the baffled looks everyone was sending his way, he strode over to her and bent down on one knee, holding the bracelet like it was a diamond ring. "Natalya Braginski, will you...go to prom with me?"
She cupped her hands over her mouth. "Oh...my...shit."
"Language, Natalya," Ms. Braginski chastised, barely suppressing her smile.
"Yes!" she shrieked, practically tackling him to the ground. "Yes, yes!"
"Wow, very platonic," Gil quipped, exchanging an eye roll with Liz.
One by one they all went, the ceremony interrupted only by a collective gasp of shock as Heracles and Sadiq grudgingly exchanged stringy bracelets (as innocent as she was trying to look, Ms. Braginski had definitely put them up to it), until it was Liz's turn.
She took a deep breath, and shuffled to the front of the room, a fistful of bracelets in hand. "Um, okay, so the first one goes to Alfred. You were such a fun and friendly presence in the club, and you always brightened my day." She tossed a red, white, and blue bracelet in his direction, beaming when he pumped his fist in the air and immediately put it on. "The second to Arthur for...being his usual charming self. Your cooking was truly spectacular." She handed him a mint green bracelet strung with a bunny charm.
Somehow, within a forty-five minute period, she had managed to make every single member of the club a bracelet, including Ms. Braginski, who tearfully accepted hers with a blubbering thank you and a big bear hug.
"And, last but not least," she paused to take a deep breath, "Gil. Oh God, where to begin? As many of you know, Gil and I didn't exactly get off to the best start. We were still bitter from an old middle school grudge, and definitely weren't interested in playing nice. But as time went by, we really started to grow on one another. Through all the hard times, we've been each other's confidantes, shoulders to cry on and hands to hold. When I was down because of some petty problem in my life, he picked me up off the ground and told me to keep my chin up. Sure, we were nagging and yelling at each other more often than not, but in the process, he's just become so dear to me. Our differences only made our friendship stronger, made us change us in ways we never could've expected. God knows that I thank him for it every day."
Liz threw the bracelet to him, and smirked. "Oh, and Gil? Try not to let that get to your head."
As he closed his palm over the crimson beads, he was fighting back tears. "No promises."
When the last Oyster Club meeting had finally commenced, Ms. Braginski tearfully hugging them all goodbye, the members of the club slowly filed out, Liz and Gil at the very back. They ambled out of the classroom, in no rush to leave.
"Wow, I can't believe I've graduated from delinquency now," he quipped. "Don't I at least get a diploma?"
She rolled her eyes. "Well, I'm the one who had to babysit you guys for an entire fucking year."
"Funny you say that," he said coyly, "considering how much you seemed to enjoying yourself back there. What was it you said, about not being able to live without me?"
"Oh, stop putting words in my mouth!" Liz batted him on the forearm, before stopping in front of a row of lockers. "About that...um, can we talk about the kiss last night?"
Gil froze, and tried to brush it off with a laugh. "Oh, um, I was hoping you wouldn't mention that. Look, I know it was out of line—"
"No, no, it's not that," she said hurriedly. "It's just that, you made me realize something.
"What?" He arched an eyebrow at her. "Don't leave me hanging here."
Uh-oh, he thought. Here it comes. The "I only like you as a friend" part.
"I was getting to that!" she exclaimed, clearly frantic. "What I'm trying to say is that the kiss, it made me that I...really like you." Once the words had gotten out, she pressed her fingers to her lips in disbelief, like even she couldn't believe what she was saying.
His jaw went slack. "You what? Like, as in...non-platonic liking?"
Liz nodded hastily, flushing herself. "I like you," she repeated, in a daze. "I spent so much time chasing after Roderich that I couldn't take a step back and see what was so obvious. You were always there for me when I needed you. You always made me smile or laugh. You were all the things I was looking for; I was just too stupid to see it.
"So," she faltered, smiling bashfully. "Could we maybe try again?"
"Does that mean I can kiss you?" he blurted out, before he had the good sense not to. Because, in all honesty, wasn't this what they'd been building up to for more than ten years?
Gil had fallen in love with her determination, her strength, her stubbornness. It was the tiniest things, too, how she twirled her hair between her fingertips, the way she bit her lip, her warm fragrance of vanilla and cinnamon, the little dimple on her cheek when she smiled. He could recall every line and crease on her face, the fuzzy feeling in his heart whenever she laughed, her arms thrown around him, how when they were together, he felt so completely whole.
So this is what love is like, hm?
"I give you that huge, uber-romantic speech, and that's the best you can manage?" she groaned, shaking her head mournfully. "God, guys are the worst. A love confession is generally an invitation to—"
His lips were on hers before she could even finish, one hand on her hip and the other threading through her hair. She sighed and wound her arms around his neck, deepening the kiss until it was less bruising and desperate, more slow and deep and passionate.
After all, they had all the time in the world.
Well, until someone in front of them cleared their throat.
Gil and Liz sprung apart immediately, flushing tomato red.
"I totally fucking knew it," Arthur said with a vicious grin, looking expectantly at Alfred. "I believe you owe me a shiny twenty dollar bill?" Alfred made a strangled noise, reluctantly forking it over. "Oh, and lovebirds? Please do your canoodling somewhere a bit more private. God knows no one wants to see you two pawing at each other like two mangy mutts during breeding season."
With that, he turned on his heels and sauntered away, his cousin scurrying after him.
Gil and Liz glanced at one another, still breathless.
"Say we find somewhere a little more private," Liz said.
They lay side-by-side on a tiny beach towel, listening to the cicadas chirp and watching as the sun set, dewy grass tickling their faces.
Liz turned to her side and pressed her face into his button-down shirt, stained with a dribble of ketchup from their impromptu picnic. Entangling her feet with his, she breathed in his smell, musky and sweaty and just so him.
"I'm not sure how much I like this intimacy thing," he said quietly, stirring her out of her thoughts. "I mean, I don't want things between us to change, just because we're-" He fumbled for the word.
"Dating?" she offered.
"Is this your not-so-subtle way of asking me out?"
He grinned, obviously relieved. "Can it be? I mean, that makes things way easier on my part. But, if this–" he gestured to their legs, the sky, the shared towel, "—wasn't clear enough, well...are you free next Sunday?"
She swatted him playfully on the shoulder. "Yes, dumbass. Oh, and about the intimacy thing...I'm not the most touchy-feely person, you know? Especially with guys—excluding Feli, of course, but...yeah, it's hard. You're the first person I've kissed in a while, and I'm still coping with the Roderich thing, so I guess I'm just testing my boundaries? Feast whilst the senses still hunger and all of that."
He nodded solemnly, brushing the hair from her forehead.
"It's just that...you're so much more than I could have hoped for. I mean, we're so physically close right now I can barely see your face, but that's okay, 'cause...I think that makes us even closer. Like, figuratively. All this time, I saw Roderich for the person he pretended to be, but with you...well, everything's just so clear."
"Not that I'm not devilishly handsome," he quipped.
"Of course. But that's just one of your admirable qualities."
"I'm liking where this conversation's going." He grinned cheekily. "Tell me more about my admirable qualities."
She laughed lightly. "Well, for one...you're great at keeping promises."
He looked incredulously at her. "Whoa, you actually remembered that? We made that promise, like, forever ago."
"Well, duh. I was a hopeless romantic back then."
They lapsed into quiet contentment.
"So...am I still holding to my promise?" he blurted out.
Liz didn't have to ask what he meant. "Yeah. Totally." She intertwined her fingers in his, pressing their foreheads together. "A fairytale ending, just like you said."
Gil, being the self-aggrandizing idiot he was, just had to correct her. "Our happy ending."
A/N: AH FIFTEEN MONTHS LATER AND I'M FINALLY DONE!
Anyways, thank you to all of my loyal readers who stuck by this story from the very beginning! It couldn't have been easy, considering what an erratic updater I am, but I'm so grateful to you all for coming along this wonderful journey with me. I hope you enjoyed it!