"Mom," says Riz, once — because he's young, but he's not stupid, and he's never been able to shut up once his curiosity gets its teeth into something — "are goblins beautiful?"
And Sklonda hesitates. He'll never forget how she hesitates.
"You're beautiful to me," she says.
Which is sweet and all. But it doesn't really answer the question.
There's a time, somewhere between the ages of four and twelve, when looking in the mirror is simple for Riz. Not necessarily pleasant, but simple. It's not weighted with anything, not burdened by the litany of things he'll one day learn to notice. It's not exhausting yet.
He can't actually remember that time, come to think of it. But he's sure it must have existed. There was a time before he looked in the mirror and saw nothing but green, green, green.
Here are the facts: Riz is a goblin. Goblins are good at a lot of things. Riz, in particular, is good at a lot of things. He's smart and clever and good with his hands, great at solving puzzles, and a quick draw with his gun. He's eloquent and well-read and two grades ahead in math. Physically, too, he could have a worse hand: he has clear skin and good hair and nice teeth (he didn't even need braces), and he dresses well, on top of all that. He was the only eighth grader in school who could tie a half-Windsor. He likes Oxfords and waistcoats, dress shirts, starched collars. They're flattering clothes, and he knows it. He walks with a confidence he doesn't always feel and he carries himself with good posture, to emphasize every inch of his height. People often mistake him for being taller than he is. He puts inserts in the heels of his shoes and doesn't correct them.
More facts: Riz is a goblin. Goblins are short, scrawny, and green. They have clawed fingers and sharp incisors and heavy, jutting brows, the kind that throw the whole face out of proportion. Their features are similar to elven ones, but not so similar that anyone who'd laid eyes on an elf would mistake them. The hard, angular collection of angles and hollows that give an elven face its ethereal elegance grow gnarled and unseemly when compressed onto a smaller face, like someone took an elf and crumpled it. As children, the difference is mostly hidden by puppy fat and keratin. After age thirteen, however, elven children grow tall and gorgeous. Goblin children barely start growing at all.
In the old Hollywood movies, goblins are villains. They wear loincloths and have matted hair and often can barely speak intelligible Common, communicating instead in grunts and cackles and screams. Their flesh is pitted and pockmarked with scars from battle, and yellowy fungus sprouts from their teeth and claws. ("Seriously," laughs Sklonda, reaching for the remote, "Do they think they've cornered the market on soap?")
Often they walk on all fours. Sometimes they eat babies. Without exception, by the end of the movie they are masterfully slain by a hero who is tall, muscular, and handsome. (Typically an elf, but sometimes a human, if the director is progressive.)
More recent movies get better about it. Sometime in the 1990s, Hollywood seemed to realize that particular characterization was, in fact, Super Fucked Up, and goblin actors started getting better gigs. They were allowed to speak, and have friends, and do battle with the forces of evil. At the very least, they were allowed to wear pants.
That didn't mean anybody wanted to cast goblins as love interests. There appeared to be something intrinsically absurd about pointing a camera at a goblin face and expecting the audience to believe someone would want to kiss it. A step beyond the pale, directors might surely argue, for even the most credulous audience's suspension of disbelief. A tasteless joke. A great comedy! But not a romance.
And certainly they were never cast as protagonists. Or, if they were, they starred in low-budget indie movies about banking, being poor, or both banking and being poor.
Sklonda and Riz don't really go to the movies, much.
He's not usually bothered by it. Riz has never been much concerned with his looks, in general. Never had the time. Never had the luxury. His dad's dead, his babysitter's missing, and he's envious of anybody who has the time to sit around fussing with their hair in a mirror. Anyway, the only people whose opinion he cares about don't give two figs (ha) about it. They're good people, his friends. They're kind to him. Even if they thought he was ugly, they'd never say it.
It's a beautiful morning in late spring when Riz finds himself staring in the mirror, rotating his chin this way and that, trying to find an angle that makes him look decent. Not even pretty, just decent. Not goblin-like. Maybe even — in a darkened room, with sunglasses, and the right hairstyle — elvish.
He catalogs his face, in the tradition of a thousand previous mornings. He traces the looming jaw and narrow, horselike cheekbones. He runs a finger over the shelf of his brow, which shadows his face and makes him appear locked in a perpetual scowl. He tugs gently at the wide ear-fins, which even the most careful combing of his sideburns does nothing to conceal. He prods the pad of his thumb against one serrated incisor, and winces when blood beads at the tip.
It's a woeful mouth, he thinks, gazing at himself. Thin lips, sharp teeth, a rough black rope of a tongue. Even if somebody could bring themself to kiss Riz, how would they go about doing it? Try and get up in between his fangs? They'd slice themselves to pieces in the attempt.
Not that he's thinking about kissing anybody, obviously. It's the sort of thing that's so unlikely as to not require logistical consideration. But in principle.
He goes to school. He doesn't worry about it. The Stealth professor's out sick, the sub puts on a video instead. They covered the material three months ago. Normally, he'd spend the wasted class going over case notes and thinking up leads, but now the case is closed, he's left strangely unoccupied. Bored, he finds a seat in the back and scrolls idly through his crystal under the desk until he finds Fabian's number.
ice cream later?
What is this? Are you seriously messaging me during class, The Ball?
I couldn't possibly answer a missive sent with such an obvious intent to disrupt my education.
you have release this period you ass
and i've got a sub
I'm going to put aside the question of how you knew that and allow your frankly impressive reputation for being a stalker-y little nerd to rescue you from my wrath.
ooh your ~wrath~?
what are you gonna do, dunk me
First of all, I apologized for that incident and I think it is totally unfair that you continue to bring it up, since you surely have healed by now from any wounds incurred as a result!!
Second, I resent the implication that I have anything wrong, ever, and it is honestly incredibly immature of you to suggest otherwise!!
hahaha you're so right i'm sorry dude
that was totally fucked up of me
I should say!!
However. If you still require balm for your wounds, I will consent to buy you one (1) pity ice cream this afternoon, as a gesture of goodwill and generosity.
Understand that this is a one-time thing only(!) and you should NOT take it as an invitation to ask me for anything, at any time, ever again.
Riz shuts off his crystal and slouches in his chair, pillowing his chin on his neck. There's an ache kicking up at the bottom of his stomach, a low burn, like when he drinks too much coffee on an empty stomach. Acid in a hollow cavity. Like most hunger, he ignores it.
The group goes for ice cream together, predictably enough. Fabian pays for Riz, and because it'll be his last chance for a while, Riz orders the biggest item he can imagine: a whopping fudge sundae with five different flavors of ice cream stacked in a rainbow acropolis of sugar, syrupy towers of chocolate sauce, snowdrifts of whipped cream and beaded chains of sprinkles in pastel pink and blue and yellow, a Mardi Gras in a glass bowl. There are probably like, five bananas crammed somewhere into this thing. It comes with three spoons. It's awesome.
"That thing weighs as much as you," says Fabian, his horror mixed with the obvious impressment any self-respecting teenage boy should feel at the sight of that much dessert. "It weighs as much as two of you. It could feed your family for a week. Not mine, of course, because Mother and I require a delicate balance of macronutrients to sustain our incredible physiques, but yours? A week. Easily."
"More than," says Riz happily.
He polishes off half of it and then lets Gorgug and Fig squabble over the rest. They each try to eat faster than the other so the other can't get more than half, which results in them madly cramming ice cream into their faces until Fig casts Mage Hand to smack the spoon away from Gorgug's mouth. Riz watches, nearly sick with fondness (and also with ice cream. Apparently, shoveling food down as quickly as you can leads to indigestion, which Fabian insists is true for all species, "No, it's not culturally insensitive to say, it's not like I'm talking about goblins in particular — you know what, fine, give yourself heartburn, see if I care.")
He's sandwiched in the booth between Fabian and Kristen, and since the booth's not exactly built for six, everyone's legs tangle together under the table. Fabian's leg rests against his. Their ankles brush whenever he shifts his feet. Their hips touch on the vinyl seat. When Riz leans back, his arm drags luxuriously against Fabian's elbow, and he needs to stop thinking about this right now or he'll get distracted. More distracted. Anyway.
"Six," says Kristen.
"On average. On a good day? Seven."
"Jawbone is a hard eight and you're crazy," says Fig.
"I call 'em like I see 'em. He's cute, if you're into the whole pseudo-furry aesthetic, but it's not for me."
"I am pretty sure that's stigmatizing," says Gorgug.
"He's cut, though," Adaine muses.
"I'm sorry. You're not wrong. He just doesn't do it for me."
Fig points at her. "You're a lesbian," she says, J'accuse.
"She's got you there," Adaine agrees.
"That's true. She has got me there."
"You don't get a vote! You don't have skin in the game!"
"Do you?" says Fabian, discerningly. "Isn't he, like, technically your third dad?"
"Not by law, and shut up! This isn't about that! This is about principle! Gorgug, final rating."
"Eight," Gorgug says, peacably.
"Adaine, final rating."
"Seven," she says, and at Fig's querulous look, she adds simply, "Tail."
"I — fair. My turn: nine. Obviously. Riz?"
"What?" he says, startling. The attention of the table lands on his shoulders, and unprepared, he buckles awkwardly under its weight.
"Rating," prompts Fig patiently. "How hot is Jawbone?"
"I don't know," he says. His heart starts to race. "Why are you asking me?"
There's a terrible pause. Not just terrible in the normal, awkward sort of way, either. It isn't an uncomfortable beat in an otherwise pleasant conversation. The pause that happens then is grotesque. It is gruesome. It has venomous teeth and a breath weapon. It is resistant to slashing damage, this pause, and Riz should know, because otherwise the looks Adaine is shooting Fig would cut it right open.
Fig's face drops like a dead bird.
"Um," she says.
"Yeah," says Fabian, in a strange, hard voice. "Why are you asking The Ball? If Kristen is disqualified."
"I was just going around," she says, a lie that's so painful in its transparency he'd almost rather she not have bothered. "I wasn't thinking, I guess."
But Riz knows what she means. He usually does. He's smart that way, though it's not always a pleasant thing to be. She asked him because it was obvious, to her as it must surely be to most, that the boy who rolled up to high school in Oxfords and a half-Windsor knot — the kid with social problems and daddy issues and a near-pathological skittishness concerning romance — is not of the same persuasion as Kristen Applebees.
God bless her, though, does she try to save it. "I mean, you obviously take care of yourself," she says, gesturing at him with wild intensity. "Like, you can obviously dress and do hair and stuff, you know, so I figured that you would have an opinion on it even if he's not your... thing. Because I know it isn't." She adds, "Sex, I mean."
This blindsides Riz so thoroughly that he's still blinking it out of his eyes when Adaine follows up with, "Yes. We know you're not interested."
"Oh?" he croaks, burning hot. "In — in men, or...?"
"In anyone," hurries Fig. "Which is fine, by the way. You don't have attracted to like, non-goblins, either. I read this book that said some people have difficulty, um, feeling anything, if the other person isn't — like, it's a compatibility thing?"
"Was this book a copy of Playgnome?" mumbles Adaine.
"Shut up. It's a thing!"
At the words non-goblins, Riz flinches. "What does — what does being a goblin have to do with it?"
"Nothing! Nothing, I'm just spitballing."
"Goblins aren't, like," he swallows, "asexual. As a species. Clearly."
"No, yeah, totally! They're not a monolith."
"And I'm... I mean, whatever I am... being a goblin isn't, like, relevant. To it. I don't think." His stomach is tight, and his head is spinning badly. He feels dizzy.
"Sorry, I'm not following," says Kristen, lifting a finger and frowning. Riz fervently thanks whatever god she's on this week for Kristen, because yeah, that makes two of them. "Are we talking about goblins, or Riz?" She turns to him, looking as helpless as he feels, and says softly: "Riz?"
"The Ball doesn't have to explain diddly shit," Fabian says suddenly. Riz gapes at him. "I imagine he's told us exactly as much as he wants us to know about it, for one thing, and anyway it's ill-bred to discuss matters of the heart at the dinner table. Or the ice cream table, as it were. Also, Jawbone is a six, not that I was asked."
"Right," says Adaine crisply. "It doesn't matter, and we won't talk about it anymore, but for the record: it is okay. If you don't like anybody. You don't have to be ashamed of it."
"But," says Riz, and then stops cold. Because what can he say? Yes, I do "that sort of thing"? Yes, I am interested? Specifically, in men? Oh, by the way, I guess I'm coming out to you guys now, all at once, in the middle of the god damn ice cream store?
"It was my mistake," Fig murmurs, and when he manages to meet her gaze, she does look truly sorry. He mouths It's okay. She shakes her head.
Fabian steers the conversation to greener pastures, and he resists the urge to hide under the table.
The afternoon never really recovers from this meteoric impact of awkwardness, so they pay up and leave, trading faint excuses and avoiding too much eye contact. The Thistlesprings come get Gorgug in their van. Gilear picks up Fig and Kristen, and they offer Adaine a ride, which she takes. Riz calls Sklonda to come pick him up.
As the only Bad Kid with his own vehicle, the Hangman, Fabian ostensibly could leave any time he wants. Instead, he hangs around the parking lot with Riz, waiting for Sklonda to arrive.
"You can go," Riz assures him. "I won't mind."
Fabian leans against the Hangman and folds his arms, shrugs. "It's rush hour," he says. "I've no interest in sitting through mundane five o'clock traffic like some kind of paean." His eyes go unfocused, the way they do whenever the Hangman's saying something to him. Then he snorts and mutters, "I'm certainly not doing that."
"What'd he say?"
"No, it's not — you've entirely misread — nothing important." He clears his throat and runs his fingers through his hair, displacing a small cascade of white strands. Riz follows them with his eyes and manages to forget his question entirely, possibly for the first time in his entire life. The strands shine different colors in the sunlight, white-gold, then butter yellow, then clearest platinum. They're just so pretty.
"Sure," he says absently, unclear on what he's agreeing to. He attempts to lean against the Hangman, too, only for the engine to roar with a truly hellish thunder. He springs back while Fabian laughs and laughs.
"He's saying hello, you craven," he says, and Riz isn't sure which one he's talking to, Riz or the bike. Probably the bike. With Riz's luck, it's the bike. "You can lean on him, if you're careful. Only if you're careful, though. And, God forbid, if you attempt to sit on him, he will be fully justified in attempting to murder you as retribution. Which he probably will. He probably will try to do that. So don't."
Riz looks at the Hangman. The engine revs twice at him.
"Your bike is so fucking weird," says Riz.
"Yeah, and your mom drives a Ford Focus, so maybe cool it with the smack talk, smart guy—"
"I don't think your tax bracket gets to have a problem with the Ford Focus, actually—"
They fuck around and talk about random bullshit for a while, the kind of talk that's just for the sake of hearing each other speak. He doesn't know how long, though he knows the shadows have moved enough for Fabian to re-park the Hangman so they're out of the sun. It's warm, and his belly's full, and Fabian is laughing at one of his jokes. He didn't know it was possible to feel this way. He doesn't know exactly what the feeling is, only that it feels the way it looks when someone pours a glass of champagne and the golden foam spills over the top.
Sklonda's car appears in the distance, her headlights cutting through the pre-dusk gloom. As she pulls into the far side of the parking lot, Fabian takes a deep breath.
"So, hey," he says. "About earlier. They mean well, but it was utterly humiliating for everyone involved, and you've no need to say more of it if you don't want. But you should know — and I think it goes without saying, in any case —"
He nudges Riz's elbow with his, and then smiles. The effect is obliterating. The effect could level a city and scour the ground clean of ash. The sight of it dooms him. The sight of it roots him to the spot.
"We're cool, right?" says Fabian.
"Yeah," says Riz. "No, um. No worries. We're cool, dude."
Boldly, he holds out his fist. Fabian glances down, gives a small sigh, and then bumps it. Riz imagines he can feel electricity crackle where their knuckles touch, and it at this moment precisely he knows he is fucked.
"You smell terrible," says Kristen bluntly, because she has all the tact of a rampaging owlbear.
Riz slams his locker shut and tries to imagine that if he wishes hard enough, some hidden bloodline of demonic sorcery will activate and teleport him away from this conversation. "Sorry," he said. "I showered."
"No, it's not boy-stink," she says, frowning, and then — because again, see: rampaging owlbear — she moves closer and actually takes a hard sniff of his hair. He beefs his Dex roll and doesn't duck in time, so she gets a few good whiffs in before he can disengage. "It's not garbage, either. It's like, the difference between Ragh-smell and Gilear-smell, you know? It's neither of those."
She sniffs again, and this time he manages to push her away. "Cut it out, Kristen, Jesus."
"It's just Kristen, actually."
"Oh, my God."
"No, just Kristen," she says, grinning, "and also, Riz Gukgak, are you wearing cologne?"
He shoves his books into his bag and absconds, but her legs are longer and she keeps pace with him easily down the hall. "No. Your nose is broken."
"You are. I recognize that smell! My pastor used to wear it."
"Great. Great great great. That's exactly what I wanted to hear, thank you."
"Oh my gosh! Are you trying to impress somebody?" She claps her hand over her mouth to hide her giggles. "Who is it? Who's the lucky person?"
"What's so funny?" he snaps.
"Nothing. Nothing is funny. I'm not saying anything is funny."
"What, is it so hilarious that I — that I'd want to—"
"No," she says. "No, that's not funny. I'm sorry." She hesitates, and they eye each other, he in suspicion, she in apprehension. "I mean, you're wearing my pastor's cologne, Riz. Is it allowed to be a little funny?"
"Yeah," he admits.
"Okay, good. I'm glad. Um, I like your outfit! Is that a new tie?"
"You're overdoing it."
"Yeah, I figured. If I can suggest something," she says tentatively, "maybe go with something a little lighter? When you're starting out? Because no offense, man, but right now you're like a walking ball of stank."
"It's so much. Straight-up. If you're trying to impress somebody, it's sort of helpful not to smell like you took a bath in lighter fluid."
"Got it," he says, cheeks burning. "Good notes."
He slips away before she can say anything else and ducks into the boys' bathroom. He waits for the half-orc at the sink to finish washing up, and as soon as he's alone, he wrenches paper towels out of the holder and scrubs at his neck and wrists until they're flushed. Then he looks in the mirror and glares.
He hadn't been trying to get anyone's attention, he'd just... his dad had worn cologne, when he was on missions. His mom said the smell drove her crazy. And he knew Fabian wore an expensive EDP, one with notes of clove and cinnamon and something sweet, the kind that smelled like every cent of the money he'd spent on it. He didn't suppose that it would make Riz any more attractive, but he hadn't honestly thought anyone would notice.
Which was folly. Pure folly, he could admit that. He massages his jaw in the mirror and glowers at it. He's barely tall enough to see his own reflection in the fucking mirror, for the gods' sake, and he's still wearing a stupid fucking tie, like he walked off the set of a middle-school production of Newsies, and who is he kidding? Who does he think he's fooling? He's never been sexy a day in his life, and a stupid little bottle of retail cologne won't change that. It won't make Fabian—
He flinches, physically, at the thought.
In the movies, the heroes don't need to wear cologne. You can tell what a hero looks like by the way the camera lingers on him when he moves into the shot, the long pan up his legs, the sculpted architecture of his muscles, and when he draws his sword it's unmistakeable. He always loved that part. Something in Riz likes the idea of being looked at just to be looked at. Like someone could enjoy the sight of him enough to keep looking after the first glance.
Always the fool, Riz Gukgak. Always the dreamer, and always the fool. Nobody fantasizes about kissing goblins in the moonlight, or taking them out on ice cream dates after class. Especially not beautiful half-elves on the bloodrush team. It's the beginning of a bad joke. A goblin and a half-elf walk into a tower...
And the goblin ends up slain on the floor while the half-elf walks out with the princess.
He throws water on the mirror, twisting his reflection into an oblong grimace. Then he breaks down and weeps.
Summer hits Solace like a hot brick to the face, and it leaves the Bad Kids scrambling for things to do that don't involve standing in direct sunlight. Riz feels like he's suddenly discovered a fraction of Drow ancestry, it's so miserable to stand outside; granted, the fact that his idea of street wear involves a three-piece suit probably puts him in a worse position than most, but from the general whining that ensues any time they have to walk anywhere, he's not the only one. They stay in the ice cream parlor until they're kicked out and haunt the movie theater like revenants, and Gorgug still gets a sunburn across his nose so bad he has to buy medical ointment. Fabian buys him a fancy parasol to keep out the sun, possibly as a joke, but one that backfires because Gorgug takes a great liking to it and carries it around religiously.
Kristen and Tracker are still dancing around each other, but it's a very transparent dance for all that, and most Friday nights Kristen squirrels her off somewhere to have a "not date" with her "friend." Gorgug and Zelda are going steady; Fig has her band, and Adaine is taking summer classes in Arcana. So Riz ends up hanging out with Fabian a lot. It doesn't mean anything. They're just the only people without something else going on. He'd call it pathetic, except it's Fabian, who's the opposite of pathetic in every conceivable way. It's Riz who can't get a handle on himself.
Fabian is the same as ever — still beautiful, and generous, and utterly oblivious — and Riz doesn't say a word. There's an equilibrium in the group, now, an understanding. He doesn't try to wear cologne again, and he doesn't look in mirrors, and it's almost good. Almost.
One bright morning in late June, they're hanging out in Fabian's garage. Riz lounges on a chair, pretending to read a book while he watches Fabian work on the Hangman. It's hot, which means Fabian's shirt is off, and the gleaming folds of muscle across his back stretch and twist every time he reaches for something.
"Pass me the socket wrench," he says absently, extending his hand in Riz's direction.
"Hm," says Riz, watching Fabian's bicep ripple as he reaches for it. "Which one is that one, again?"
"It's a socket wrench. It looks like a socket wrench."
"Right, still don't know what that is."
"It's like a normal wrench, but at the top, instead of — oh, for Pete's sake, The Ball, you're useless."
"Sorry," Riz says, and almost means it, too. Meanwhile, Fabian stomps over to hunt through the toolbox at Riz's feet himself. From this angle, he's so close he can count the beads of sweat on Fabian's temple, and he can see the dark sutures of sweat dampening the silver hairs at his scalp. He turns a page in his book without looking at it.
Fabian pulls out the socket wrench and points it judiciously at Riz. "You could stand to help, you know," he accuses, pouting. Riz is pretty sure he isn't actually upset — Fabian has mercurial moods, but he likes a bit of a quarrel, and half the time when he picks a fight he doesn't mean a word — but he closes his book anyway, because quite frankly Fabian could ask for one of his ribs and Riz would only ask which he wanted.
"Okay. What should I do?"
"Come over here. Stop sitting there with your book and your shirt and be useful, for once, honestly."
"Stand here," Fabian says, pointing to the floor right next to him. "Hold the light, I can't see squat in this wretched undercarriage." The Hangman whines, and he snaps, "Oh, don't be fussy, it is wretched, and if you didn't want me to say so you shouldn't have let all that gasoline get into your carburetors."
It growls again, subdued, and Fabian swats it on the seat like a horseback rider smacking his mount on the rump. Riz picks his way careful among the messy sprawl of bolts and bike tools, kneeling down next to Fabian, and picks up the flashlight. Fabian stills him with a lifted hand.
"Is that what you're wearing?" he says, running his eyes up and down Riz's shirt.
"...Obviously?" Riz glances down at himself, preemptively, checking that he hadn't accidentally grabbed one of his mother's shirts by accident. It had only happened the once, but they were too close in size to be careless.
"With the waistcoat?"
"Yes? Yes, duh? Why, what's wrong with it?"
"You're going to get oil all over it."
"Oh. Well, that's fine."
Fabian makes a scandalized noise. "That's a dress shirt."
"Yeah? I'll pop it in the washing machine."
The noise following that is not so much scandalized as outraged. "You can't put a dress shirt in the washing machine."
"Uh, yeah, you can. You set the spin cycle to 'cold'—"
"Tell me you don't put your waistcoat in, too."
"What else would I do?"
"You hand-wash them! In cold water with vinegar and lemon, so you don't damage the dye, and then you hang-dry them in a temperature-controlled room—"
"The washing machine literally has a cycle for 'delicates,' I don't see why I shouldn't use it. Like, they wouldn't put it there if they didn't want—"
Fabian gives a small wail of despair and throws up his grease-stained hands. "People like you don't deserve nice clothes." Before Riz can take offense, he snaps, "Take off your shirt, you heathen, I'm not handing you license to commit any more crimes against taste today."
A wire in Riz's brain snaps and short-circuits the whole operating system. While he's frantically trying to reboot, his mouth stutters out: "I. What?"
"Your shirt. Take it off and put it on the chair, so it doesn't get dirty." Fabian glances down at his chest, expression inscrutable, and his cheeks pinken faintly. "If you're comfortable, I mean."
"Oh," says Riz. "Oh, yeah. Right."
"I've got shirts you can borrow, if you like," he says suddenly. "If you'd rather be covered. I know you wear a swim shirt at the pool."
That Fabian remembers this, alone, would be a bit too much. That he not only remembered, but gave it enough consideration to think about what it might mean in a different context, has Riz completely undone. He's lost. He wants to run out the door and yell at something. It isn't fair.
Fabian must mistake his silence for something else, because he averts his eyes. Clapping his hands together, he blurts, "Cathilda can fetch one. I'll call her. Cathilda!"
He shoots up and over to the door, hollering for his maid. Riz is grateful for the respite. It gives him time to cup his hands over his mouth and take deep breaths, trying to cool himself off. It's fine. It doesn't mean anything. Why would it mean anything? It's a practical decision. Really, Riz might have suggested it himself, if he'd thought of it.
Fabian comes back with a handful of black fabric, which unfurls at a shake into a muscle shirt easily three times Riz's size. "Here we are," he says, brandishing it like a standard. Is his face pink? Of course it is; it's hot outside and he's been working all morning. "You can put that on." He holds it out, sees Riz's dumbstruck expression, and hesitates. "If you prefer. Or don't. I don't care."
"Thanks," Riz blurts, and snatches the shirt. It's soft as sin and smells like Fabian's detergent, a neutral, fresh smell that reminds him of beaches. Cathilda has good taste. "I'll just... go change in the bathroom, then."
He tears off before Fabian can notice anything awry. In the bathroom, he locks the door and turns his back to the mirror, stubbornly refusing to get caught in the familiar tangle of emotion that confronts him at the sight of his naked chest. He strips off the waistcoat and fumbles the buttons on his shirt, his fingers trembling with a guilty anticipation. The shirt comes free and he tosses it on the floor (Fabian would be horrified; he pictures his expression, and giggles.) Then he wriggles into Fabian's shirt, and steeling himself, turns to the mirror.
It doesn't fit. The neckline swoops down, leaving the better part of his chest exposed, and the sleeves hang loose around his shoulders like a toga. It emphasizes everything about him that's small: the bony wing-shaped line of his shoulders, the thin V of his torso, the hollows under his collarbone. It's more of his body than he's ever shown willingly to anybody, and something unpleasant flips in his gut at the idea.
So what, he thinks. It's not like that, anyway, so who cares? You're two best friends working on a bike. Easy.
He goes back into the garage. Fabian's working religiously on the undercarriage, so it's not until Riz is all but standing right over him that he happens to glance up, and his eyes do a visible elevator run up and down Riz, scoping him out. They stop at his collarbone and hover there. His expression is like a deer stonewalling a pair of headlights. Riz's fingernails bite the flesh of his palm and he forces himself not to run.
"That's better," say Fabian, thickly, like he's talking around a mouthful of caramel. "Now get down here and hold the light, would you, it's demeaning to have to do this by myself."
Riz kneels and helps him. It takes a while to get the position right: Fabian keeps making these discontented little noises that he expects Riz to understand, and which Riz eventually deciphers as "move it up a little" or "to the left" or "whatever you're doing, stop it." At one point, Fabian actually reaches out and moves Riz's wrist into position where he wants it, and Riz makes a surprised, undignified sort of yelp that wins him an exasperated look out of the corner of Fabian's eye. Humiliated, Riz falls silent and watches Fabian work.
They're very close together. It's fine. They have to be, anyway; there's no way for Riz to help him, otherwise. It's only practical. But it means that when Fabian's finished, and he tightens the final bolt on the Hangman, there's a long moment where neither of them are doing anything, and they're just sitting together, very close together, on the floor of Fabian's garage.
"Well, that's that finished," says Fabian at length, by way of punctuation. He passes Riz the socket wrench. "Put this back in the box, would you?"
Riz casts about for the toolbox and finds it on the other side of Fabian. He rolls his eyes and gets up on his haunches, leaning over Fabian's legs to reach it. It's not a very stable position, but Riz has a dex score of a fucking million, and it's not a hardship. He's not clumsy.
Regardless, he jumps when Fabian's hand comes up to steady him, wrapping around the lower quadrant of his ribcage. The socket wrench clatters to the floor.
"Sorry," he says at the same time as Fabian. Fabian hastily retracts his hand, and Riz skitters back as if burned. They regard each other, wide-eyed, for a moment.
Fabian's expression is hard to read, but there is obvious embarrassment in the way he ducks his head. "I hope you're planning to pick that up," he says tightly. "Goodness, you're like a small animal or something."
"Sorry," Riz repeats. His head is a wash of white noise. He drops the socket wrench in the toolbox and stands up, putting a safe amount of distance between himself and Fabian. His chest heaves.
Fabian looks at him strangely. "The Ball," he says slowly, "is everything all right?"
"Yes," he says. "No. I've got to go. Sorry."
He grabs his book and flees.
Fabian has a type. That's the thing. To be fair, it's not the only thing. But it's a major thing.
Fabian's type is, well, Aelwyn Abernant: tall, svelte, beautiful, deadly. He crushes hard on action movie stars and seniors on the girls' fencing team, and he has a poster of that lady from the Tomb Raider franchise hanging in his closet. There are copies of Playelf in a box under his bed. Riz has seen them. (Fabian was in the bathroom and Riz was looking for his shoes, it wasn't snooping, shut up.)
He doesn't even know if Fabian is into guys. That's a hurdle in and of itself. But if he was, Riz is pretty sure his type wouldn't be different. Fabian belongs next to someone tall and fair-haired and beautiful. Someone worthy. At the very least, someone people wouldn't laugh at when they were seen together. The pain of that — of being the reason someone laughed at Fabian, however superficial — is literally unimaginable.
He lets his hair grow out over the summer. It hangs in his face, and sometimes he fancies that from a distance, when it's covering his face, people might mistake him for a small half-orc, or possibly a gnome. He fantasizes about what he might look like if he were either one. Obviously, human would be best (elf is a pipe dream, he can admit, and even in his self-indulgent daydreams he's not quite that self-indulgent); but he thinks half-orc and gnome are more workable. Half-orc is admittedly farfetched, on account of his size, though the features are similar enough. But he's already gnome-sized, and it wouldn't take much changing to pull off: a Minor Illusion, tweak the skin color, push back the brow, soften the chin. He performs the corrections in his mind's eye while he brushes his teeth.
It's a Saturday, and he's in the library with Adaine, on the pretense of researching potential cold cases, but mostly because it's a dark, air-conditioned building that's open twelve hours a day. They have a table near the back that they've adopted as their own, in the ideal proximity to the AC unit and the nonfiction section. He likes the spot because it's well out of sight, and nobody can find it unless they know to look.
She's sucking on a lolly and leafing through the pages of an encyclopedia of omens. He's had the same cold case file open, untouched, for an hour. By and by, he screws his eyes closed and thinks, Here goes nothing.
"Mm?" She pulls out the sucker.
"Do you have Polymorph?"
He can feel her head turn ninety full degrees upward to look at him. He feigns disinterest, shuffling pages around.
Her reply comes stilted. "No," she says. "I don't."
"Oh. Never mind, then."
"I'm a divination specialist. We don't... usually take that spell."
"I know. Forget I said anything."
She turns back to her work, and pretends to be studying, but her pencil doesn't move, and she doesn't turn the page for the better part of a minute. He waits for her to spit it out.
"Fig probably won't have it, either," she says casually. "Just so you know."
She goes to put the lollypop back in her mouth, stops. She leans across the desk.
"Riz," she starts.
"Don't. Please don't."
"Is this about Fabian?"
"Right," she says, at length. "Well. For what it's worth, True Polymorph is a ninth level spell, and there's no guarantee of permanence. Just so you know."
"I know that," he says peevishly. "I looked it up."
This is a tactical mistake to admit, and he knows it by the terribly crestfallen silence that follows. A harpy librarian pads past their stack on clawed feet, her talons clicking against the hardwood. She squawks cheerfully at both of them, and they return her greeting with thin-lipped smiles.
As soon as she's out of sight, Adaine coughs and scrubs her sleeve over her eyes. Riz groans.
"I'm not saying anything."
"Adaine, you can't tell anybody. I'm serious."
"But can't I—"
She works her jaw like she's trying to chew through something. He angles a finger at her in warning.
"He's not into Aelwyn anymore," she blurts.
Riz blinks. "What," he says carefully.
"He's not interested in Aelwyn. He told me."
"When? Did he tell you that? Exactly?" He pauses. "For curiosity's sake."
"A month ago," she says. She's starting to smile knowingly, which he hates, but he's too attuned to what she's saying to waste any energy being embarrassed. "I went over to try to talk him out of it, and he laughed at me. He said he'd been over her for ages."
"Okay, but," he says, "but, he could just be saying that? Like, to avoid being embarrassed?"
"Fabian can't lie to save his life," she says, "and I know he's telling the truth, because he told me he was into someone else."
His stomach drops.
"Someone else," Riz repeats. He feels sick.
"Yes," she says. "Someone else." She's trying to say something to him, but all he can think is: You knew it was going to happen. You knew he was going to meet someone else, eventually, you just didn't think it would be this soon. This was why you liked him being in love with Aelwyn, because you knew it would never happen with her, and aren't you a terrible friend for that one? For enjoying his unhappiness? How very goblin of you.
"Well, good for them," he says.
"Riz," says Adaine, after a moment. She puts a great deal of emphasis on it, like she's trying to tell him something through the one syllable.
"I can't — he wouldn't want me to — Riz, come on."
"What?" he says.
He's not stupid, though. He knows what he means, he just doesn't believe her. Because Adaine is his friend, and he loves her very much, and he knows she feels the same way, and he does not put it past her to lie if she thought it would make him feel better. And he doesn't trust her to know the difference between a kind lie and a cruel one, if it came to it.
"Let it go," he says, "please."
And she does. She makes a soft noise of discontent, but she does.
And when he goes home that night, he doesn't so much as glance in the mirror. Which is what counts as a victory, these days.
You've been avoiding me," says Fabian.
Riz says, "What? Huh?"
Then, "Fabian? Where did you come from?"
Then, "No, obviously not, why would you think that, are you crazy. Anyway, I have to go."
He doesn't make it far. Fabian catches him before he can slink out of sight. His hand closes around Riz's elbow, and Riz closes his eyes, already resigned, thinking: this is how it ends, this is the End of Riz Gukgak, all of fifteen years and change, and it happens in the parking lot of the twenty-seventh precinct because Sklonda had to drop something off. He'd been sitting on the hood of the Ford Focus, playing a game on his crystal, when all of a sudden Fabian Seacaster came charging out of the blue oblivion and roared his name. Riz had jumped so high he could've fist-bumped a corn god.
"How did you even find me," he says, tired.
Fabian sniffs. "Your mother works here, and you're a licensed private eye. I knew you'd show up eventually."
"Eventually," Riz repeats, frowning. "How long have you been—"
"That's not important. You aren't answering my messages."
"Were you lurking in the precinct parking lot? How have you not been arrested?"
"I'm Fabian Aramaris Seacaster, thank you—"
"You say that like you haven't already been arrested, and I should know, because I was there—"
"—and the receptionist let me hang out in the lobby for buying the pizza for the office staff, and I wouldn't have had to do this if you'd answered any one of the first ten messages I sent you and given me your address, and anyway this is all so unimportant I'm losing brain cells just talking about it. We will move on to more important matters, like why you haven't been answering me!"
"I've been busy!"
"Busy? Busy! You're always busy! Your life is spent in a state of constant toil at the service of your absurd career ambitions! This is a well-established fact about you!"
"I was busier, then!"
"Look at me. Look at me, The Ball. Look at me. Do I look like I give a single fetid rat's ass?"
"Ew," says Riz.
Fabian ignores him. "You can't just drop out of someone's life without warning, he'll think you've been kidnapped or mauled or horrifically disfigured!"
"It's been like, a week—"
"Twelve days," he snaps, folding his arms, "and don't even think about giving me shit for counting, Riz, the only way I knew you were alive is because Adaine said you were still texting her back."
That shuts him up pretty well. Riz folds his arms and draws his legs up on the hood of the car, making himself smaller, as if somehow he can shrink beyond the range of Fabian's anger. "Sorry."
"Well?" Fabian gesticulates. "That's all?"
"I was working through something," says Riz. "Am. Working through something."
Fabian's expression darkens. "You're angry with me."
"Someone's threatening you?"
Riz kicks his feet against the hood, all childish frustration. "I don't know! Why did you come stalk my mom's office?"
"Because—" Fabian splutters, and then draws himself upright, every inch the disdainful rich boy Riz once took him for. Riz expects the next words off his lips to be a stinging retort of some kind, but instead, what comes is: "I have your shirt."
"Huh?" says Riz.
"Your shirt and your waistcoat. I have them. You left them at my house." He sniffs and polishes his fingernails on his shirt, glancing down at them as if they're his only concern in the world. "I went to the trouble of having them laundered for you. Properly. At a dry cleaner's. And then I had Cathilda iron them, so they don't look like you had to wrestle them off a homeless man any more."
"Wow, thanks," says Riz, and wishes he sounded less genuine.
"Yes, well. Next time, if you want me to have your clothes washed correctly, you know all you have to do is ask."
"Really," Fabian says irritably. "These kinds of tricks are frankly beneath you, The Ball. As is theft. You still have my shirt, I haven't forgotten."
"Yeah. Oh. Right. Listen, I'm sorry about that, I'll get it back to you—"
"I don't care," Fabian interrupts, banishing the apology with an imperious wave of his hand.
"I have many shirts."
"Yeah, I... figured."
"But it's still polite to ask."
"Right," says Riz, utterly lost. He no longer knows where this conversation is going, and doubts that he ever did.
The sun beats ruthlessly on the pavement, and sweat trickles down the back of Riz's neck. Heat shimmers in the air, here and there and everywhere, little puddles on the blacktop. It's brutal weather. Thankless weather, with not so much as a whisper of breeze for comfort. Riz shifts on the hood and almost burns himself on the grate, and Fabian makes a quiet noise, like: Be careful, and Riz rolls his eyes, and Fabian huffs, and they realize they're having a conversation at the same time.
They laugh, quietly. The sun is high and Fabian is smiling, and Riz forgets why he's supposed to be freaking out.
Fabian says, "Do you remember the first day of school?"
"Yeah," says Riz.
"Do you remember how we met?"
"You slam dunked me into a trash can," says Riz.
"That's right!" Fabian beams. He's so easy to please, Riz thinks helplessly, and he makes a fuss about nice clothes and food and expensive cars, but at the end of the day Fabian Seacaster is just one more very brave boy who never had enough love to go around, and all it takes to make him happy is showing up. It's so easy. He thinks he could make Fabian happy, if Fabian wanted. If Fabian let him. He'd be good at it. He'd try so hard.
"It was September," Fabian continues. "The first of September. I'd never been to public school before. I didn't know anybody. You were one of the first people I saw, you and Ragh. You were wearing your little suit-and-tie thing, and I thought — I thought you looked smart. Just the smallest little guy, walking around a high school in a waistcoat and tie, and I thought that was just... the cutest thing. I couldn't get over it. You were so pretty, it was maddening."
Riz opens his mouth. He scrabbles his claws against his wrist, finds a bit of skin, and pinches hard. The skin gives but doesn't break, and he doesn't wake up.
"I thought about that for days. I didn't realize what it meant, at first, and obviously I wasn't thrilled. Don't be offended, it was nothing to do with you in particular, but it was alarming. You spend all these years dreaming about your future bride, and you've built her up as this elven sorceress of tremendous power and amazing hair, and then the first thing you do when you actually get the chance to meet people is fall ass over teakettle for this tiny rogue? And then your father dies, and you're like, well, I never came out to him, and what would he have said about this, and am I betraying his legacy, or is that bullshit, it's probably bullshit, but you still take four months to work out how you're feeling about it? You know? Anyway, Ragh and I had some conversations. It was tense."
"Fabian," Riz says hoarsely.
"Don't interrupt me, The Ball, I'm building to something here. And you know when you've finally come to terms with it, with your masculinity and everything, but now you're in an adventuring party with the rogue in question, so it would be sort of awkward and also you don't know if he's into guys, or into anybody in general? So you go and talk to Ragh about it, who by now is like, shockingly emotionally intelligent, and he gives you some good advice about how to put out feelers, but anyway you don't say who it is you're thinking about, and then as you're winding down he mentions that he thinks the little detective one from your adventuring party is sort of pretty, and then you almost punt him through a wall? And then you go and pick him up and apologize, and you buy him boba tea to make up for it, though he's a bro, so he really doesn't care that much, and he says you should maybe take a look at yourself and figure out what it is you want? So you go, all right, but then when you try to make a move, like the smooth and brilliant total player you are, your rogue gets up and runs away and then doesn't talk to you for two weeks?"
"You know when that happens? Wouldn't recommend it, it's terrible," says Fabian briskly. "Anyway, I think you should go out with me."
Riz forces himself to lift his chin and look at him, and his heart rabbits into a full-blown case of cardiac arrest. Fabian's smile is so soft, and his eyes are so tender, and he's standing so close that Riz can smell cinnamon and cloves every time he takes a breath. Nobody's ever looked at him the way Fabian is looking at him, nobody. Like he's worth paying attention to. It's a look for the love interest, the protagonist, the center of every frame.
"I don't understand," he manages.
Fabian frowns. "I'm not being clear," he allows. "I thought that was sort of a straightforward question? Though I do suppose it wasn't really a question. It was indeed a request, if that's what's giving you trouble. You're allowed to say no. You shouldn't, because I'm fucking amazing, but you can." He pauses, and when Riz continues to goggle at him, he rolls his eyes. "All right. This isn't working. Screw this talking-it-out business, I'm going with my original plan."
With those (coming from Fabian, frankly terrifying) words, he places both hands on Riz's shoulders. Riz makes a humiliating, high-pitched noise in the back of his throat.
"You need to hold still," he warns. "Otherwise I'm not going to be able to do this, you understand. I haven't done this before, and if you mess with my flow, it's going to suck. So just hold still, all right? Don't move. Unless, of course, you don't like what I'm doing, in which case I suppose you should punch me, or something — no, that won't work, your arms are like twigs, I probably wouldn't even feel it — it'd be like a tap on the shoulder — perhaps we should work out some sort of code, in advance, where you hum a certain tune, or—"
Riz croaks, "Fabian?"
Fabian kisses him.
It's perfect, it's electric, it's lightning, it's — frankly, sort of clumsy and has something too much of tongue, but literally fuck that noise because Fabian is kissing him and Riz feels his heart bloom like a flower. He's redlining a car on an empty highway, he's on fire, it's like there's a wire from his lips to the base of his spine and it's made of flaming gasoline. Riz has killed a dragon before, plus several members of his school faculty, and that was still nothing compared to this.
There are one, two, three suspended seconds where he does what Fabian asks, and holds still, allowing the other boy to sort of experimentally mash their mouths together until he trusts that Fabian won't startle. Which is nice, and sweet, and feels lovely.
Then he gets two fistfuls of Fabian's shirt and hauls with all of his (nine) strength, and Fabian stumbles forward until he's braced over Riz on the hood, his elbows bracketing Riz's hips. Now Riz has leverage, which is nicer, and friction, which is lovelier, and he's never had much practice with kissing but he's given a lot of thought to the theory and so he tilts his head and slots their mouths together again, and again, and again. And it's good. It's so good.
"Be careful," he says, breathless. Fabian gives him a bleary look, indicating that sweet fuck-all is happening between his ears, and Riz adds helpfully, "You know. Teeth?"
"I didn't bite you," Fabian says thickly. He goes to kiss Riz again, and Riz catches him with a hand on his chest.
"What about them?" Fabian draws back again, visibly put out. Riz sympathizes, but it's important, so he soldiers on.
"No shit," Fabian says incredulously. "Is that all? I'm incredibly hot and good at sports, what's good, can we keep rolling—"
"I'm telling you to be careful so you don't cut yourself." Somehow, he is more flustered by this conversation than he was when they were kissing. "Like, in case you didn't know, goblin teeth? Serrated. Front and back. And the saliva, there's, um, a mild numbing agent, like, a teensy amount of local anesthesia, so you might not notice if I nicked you, and you, you, you are not paying attention."
"Yeah," says Fabian, though it's sort of muffled where he's nosing into Riz's neck. His tongue drags a hot stripe up Riz's jugular and Riz startles, hips jerking. "Good catch."
"I'm saying this for your benefit."
"Not sure why," Fabian mumbles, dragging his head back up to kiss him again. Riz lets him, with some aggravation, and before long he draws back. "I know what goblin teeth look like. Spend enough time looking at your mouth, I ought to."
"Ah," says Riz, intelligently.
"They're not quite sharp enough to cut me, you know," he remarks, between kisses. This is a poor strategic move on his part, because it turns Riz's brain to soup and makes it impossible to focus. "Not while we're doing this, anyway. My mother's an elf. We're quite durable."
"Somehow — I doubt — many elves have had the chance to test that — on goblins. At least this way."
"Don't be judgy," Fabian says, with as much indignation as it's possible to muster while mouthing at the underside of Riz's jaw. "Elves are immortal and naturally infertile, which means I would be shocked if we were the first to do this."
The way he says shocked, all drawling and liquid honey, sends a bolt of heat straight down Riz's spine. He makes a frankly embarrassing noise that Fabian nevertheless chases with a series of hard kisses down the column of his throat.
"That's... a bet I'm willing to take."
"You think too little of my elven forbears," says Fabian. "Also, I'm human on the other side, and they're fuck-loony each to each. The stories I've heard, ha! You'd be appalled. It's open season on any biped with a mouth, for those guys."
"That makes me feel so much better, thanks."
"I'm not being mean, I'm saying you're vanilla."
"M'not," says Riz, though Fabian cuts him off by kissing him again. He lets himself be distracted by it, and by the creep of Fabian's hand up his back, and the wandering adventures of its twin near the hem of his shirt. Fabian's hands are so big that just one spans the width of Riz's ribcage, and it feels shockingly good, to be so easily cradled. Shockingly good to be enveloped. His face burns.
"Also," he adds, in a rare moment of clarity, "you — sorry, I want this on record, I want — you know I'm sort of in love with you, right?"
Fabian pauses. In the span of that silence, Riz tallies all the potential ways he could effect his own death on short notice, and comes up with a fine, comforting number.
"Of course," he says. He sounds like he's been clubbed in the head. "I mean, naturally. It's me, after all." He sniffs. "Laundry choices aside, I can't say your taste is entirely terrible."
"Are you joking?"
"No, I'm serious," he says, "I'm a great catch." He leans down and kisses Riz again, gently, on the mouth. Riz arcs into it.
For once, Fabian pulls away first. "My taste is better," he says. "But yours is pretty good."
Riz looks at him, really looks, aware that he's shocked and looks it. Fabian's eyes are gray, the gray of stormclouds and windsails and steel, but also the gray of the mist that settles over the bloodrush field at dawn, and his pale irises are so clear they act as a mirror. He can see his reflection in them: the small green knot of his face, his kiss-swollen lips, his tousled hair. Rumpled and distracted and visibly turned on, his reflection might as well be a different person. Someone almost — and not quite, but very, very nearly — handsome.
He kisses Fabian with his eyes open. He doesn't look away.
This is where the evening splits in half, Henry, love or death. Grab an end, pull hard,
and make a wish.
—Richard Siken, Wishbone