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I Adore You (but not the way you want me to)

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The story begins and ends with Figueroth Faeth, and she’s pretty active in the middle, too.

There’s nothing wrong with this fact, although Sklonda Gukgak was a little confused about the overwhelming presence of her son’s female friend in a story that she was pretty sure was supposed to be a coming out, since Figueroth Faeth is one of Riz Gukgak’s dearest friends. It’s because they’re so close, like two peas in a six-person pod, that he feels confident declaring the obvious reason as to why she is so integral to the story.

Fig is a sneaky, meddling little bitch.

It sounds bad. He knows it sounds bad. And Riz would have a slap on the back of the head waiting if he ever said that around his friends, but it would be just light enough to tousle his hair and make it clear that the slapper didn’t completely disagree.

Anyway. Fig is the beginning and end and most of the middle because she doesn’t know how to stay well out of it; and unlike the rest of their friends, who are all talk, Fig’s bite is a lot worse than her bark. She’s got the moves, she’s got the connections, and she’s drawn to a flustered blush like a bloodhound.

Maybe Riz is giving her too much credit. Maybe it just seems like she’s so involved because she’s always there, throughout the story, in her singular functioning mode: A Lot To Say.

The true beginning of the story, Riz figures, is ushered in by a letter from Arthur Aguefort, sent to every student’s family at the end of Riz’s junior year. Each student would be required a certain amount of distribution credits to graduate, it announces, and they would earn these credits through courses outside of their class. Enclosed with the letter is a small packet of course selections for the following year, and Riz is grimly opening it up to see what kind of useless classes he’s going to have to slog through when his crystal alights with a text from Fig.

“Have you gotten the letter?” Is all it says, sent to the Bad Kids group chat.

“I have,” Adaine responds almost immediately. “Do you know what courses you’re going to take?”

It’s a flurry of conversation, people firing back and forth the pros and cons of different classes. Gorgug wants to take set design, Kristen is debating the benefits of taking a druid course in sustainable land stewardship, and all Fig wants to do is learn how to shoot a bow and arrow (just like her mom, nobody has the balls to point out).

In order to graduate, Riz has to find an arts course and an arcane sciences course. Flipping through the booklet, all of the art courses look positively brutal and all of the arcane science courses seem mind-numbingly boring. There’s one that stands out to him, in that he doesn’t think he would immediately fail out: applied arcane physics. Riz has seen the base-level general arcane physics stuff Adaine had to study in freshman year, and it seemed pretty easy. Riz likes that kind of math, where each problem is like its own little puzzle. So he texts the Bad Kids group chat, “I think I might take the applied arcane physics class. Anyone else?”

Immediately, in a separate chat, Riz gets a text from Fabian that simply says, “the ball I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Riz opens the message and tries to ignore the fact that it sends his pulse into overdrive, as if reading Fabian’s text is in any way comparable to the heat of battle. It’s sort of an objectively terrifying text to receive, so bizarrely earnest, and Riz fights the urge to ask whether he’s in danger. “Oh?” Is all he responds with.

He’s immediately answered with a call. “I might consider becoming a paladin or something,” Fabian says as soon as Riz picks up, never one for unnecessary formalities, “because I’m thanking god so much right now I look like Kristen in freshman year.”

“Fabian, I’m totally down with whatever religious crisis you’ve got going on, but I really have no idea what you’re talking about, man.”

Fabian heaves a dramatic sigh that makes the speakers on Riz’s crystal crackle in his ear. “Mama is making me take that applied arcane physics class because she says it’ll provide a solid foundation of skills to build upon, that’s a direct quote, and I thought I was going to be alone in that class and have to work with some random loser all year. And you’re by far the best person to study with.”

“That can’t be true.”

“It absolutely is,” Fabian retorts, because he always has to be right. “Once last year I tried to have a study session with Kristen and- I don’t know if you know this, but every time Kristen tries to concentrates she sings her creepy little hymns from when she was Helioic under her breath and they’re all about blood, like, very obviously about blood, and it was very unsettling. So you will be a wonderful change of pace.”

“Sure,” Riz concedes, shuffling the mail on the kitchen counter for no reason but out of want of something to do with his hands. Phone calls with Fabian tend to take a while, and Riz has never been excellent at just staying still and listening without a fire under him. “You’re lucky you’re already taking that dance class, because I have no clue what to do for my arts credit.”

“I’ve heard that if you take choir you can hide your crystal behind your music stand and no one will notice,” Fabian says simply. “And you wouldn’t have to learn an instrument.”

“I don’t think my neighbors would appreciate me trying to learn an instrument,” Riz muses.

“I can’t wait for summer,” Fabian abruptly comments, never willing to stay on one topic for too long, a perfect forward-resolve. “We’re going to do combat training every Saturday, right? I’m not letting you back out of this.”

“Of course, Fabian,” Riz says. “I wouldn’t want to.”

“Excellent. Speaking of which, you will not believe what happened last weekend…”

~

The letter from Aguefort is the prologue at most. The real start of the story, Riz has decided, is the moment that Fig winks at him from the stage of the Black Pit.

It’s the first night of July, muggy and overbearingly hot, and Fig and the Cig Figs have got a show. The band is going to tour throughout Solace for pretty much the extent of August, but Fig likes downtown Elmville best. She says it makes her ‘creative juices flow.’ Adaine uses Mage Hand to smack her over the head every time she says so.

So the non-musical Bad Kids dress in what they imagine to be their coolest outfits, which usually ends up being their normal clothes with the addition of a pair of ripped jeans that definitely weren’t ripped fashionably in a factory but from kneeling on rocks or a sword mishap or other minuscule disasters that befall young adventurers daily. But none of them are willing to turn to Fig, who fought her mom to let her wear a bralette under her leather jacket onstage, or Gorgug, who still wears a hoodie on tour, for fashion advice, so they dress in their most awkwardly clashing statement pieces and walk downtown, sweaty and uncomfortable and buzzing with excitement.

Riz may be a seasoned adventurer with a kill count higher than his GPA, but being friends with the two headliners of Fig and the Cig Figs is by far the strangest thing to happen to him. He’s reminded of it every time he attends one of their concerts, when the first few feet in front of the stage are packed with screaming fans all clamoring over Riz’s dearest friends. He made the mistake, once, of wearing a t-shirt that Fig had made as some prototype merch, back before they had a manager and a tour bus and a brand, and when a fan had asked where he got the shirt and Riz told the truth, their face showed a combination of seeing him as though he had just hung the moon and had just bore false witness of the gravest degree at the same time. He’s learned that people don’t usually believe that the goblin in the button-up shirt by the bar where it’s quieter is in the same adventuring party as Figueroth Faeth, famed rockstar. It’s not realistic; he realizes that.

He’s by the bar now, farther away from the speakers, sharing a soda with Adaine. He had only wanted a water, but Adaine insisted that drinking plain water at a rock concert was sad. So instead they stand in the back of the room, passing a root beer back and forth, which is objectively also kind of sad.

Riz isn’t built for concerts, but he enjoys watching Fig perform. Gorgug is great, he really goes hard on those drums, but as a bard, Fig inevitably steals the show. She tosses her head to the beat, kicks and jumps, throws gleeful grins out to the audience. She’s having a great time and anyone can tell, which is what makes her so intoxicating as a performer. It’s incredible to see her on the battlefield, a whirling force of nature and pure power, but seeing her use that demonic bass with ease, as though it’s an extension of her own limbs, illuminated by the stage lights, is positively thrilling.

She’s got a bit that she does at almost every show where she takes a bass solo, long and winding, and jumps from the stage as she plays, walking through the audience that parts as she passes through like a hand cutting through water, ending up nearly at the back of the room and then, in a flash of infernal fire, Dimension Doors herself back up onstage just in time for the chorus. It makes the crowd go wild every time; mainly, Riz is impressed by the way she’s able to stride through the audience with the absolute confidence that they’ll step out of her way.

It’s fun, being at these concerts, the small ones in the Black Pit. He’s been to a few of their big blowout performances, the kind in venues three times the size of Seacaster Manor with more screaming fans than he can count. It’s just overwhelming. And Riz has been backstage at those shows, he knows that Fig and Gorgug feel the same way. It’s better when the audience and the performers are connected through the shared intimacy of the small space, where the music is too loud and the dancers are too close but that’s the fun of it. Sometimes, when he’s in a grouchier mood, it reminds him of the Row and the Ruction back on the pirate island of Leviathan, crawling between the legs of hundreds of thrashing bodies, fighting for their lives in the mass of chaos. But mostly it reminds Riz of how much he loves his fellow people, and he’s seen the worst of mankind and he’s seen folks come together in adventuring parties but there’s a certain kind of unique togetherness at a concert like this, where nobody knows each other’s names but for as long as the set lasts, they’re all friends.

“You look contemplative,” Adaine shouts beside him, her voice raw from struggling to be heard over the music all night.

Riz just shrugs and finishes off the root beer. “I like watching the people dance,” he shouts in return.

“I’m going to go find Kristen,” Adaine says, yelling directly into Riz’s ear, “I haven’t seen her in a while and that’s usually a bad sign.”

“Smart,” Riz yells back. He watches as Adaine pushes her way into the crowd, hands over her ears as she ventures closer towards the stage and the enormous speakers flanking it.

And then, almost as soon as Adaine is gone into the audience, Fabian appears where she was just standing. “Dance with me, the Ball,” he shouts immediately, reaching out to Riz as if attempting to pull him into the crowd.

“Absolutely not!” Riz yells. Fabian just grins and dances towards Riz, almost saying with his body, ‘look at how much fun I’m having! You can have this much fun too!’

And for as much as Riz likes watching the people in the club dance, he likes watching Fabian dance so much more. He’s seen Fabian doing his weird elven stuff, the kind of dance that’s confusing in its lawlessness, and he’s seen him at parties and concerts, somehow finding without fail the best way to move to each song for peak enjoyment. It still baffles Riz, even after a year and a half of watching Fabian dance. There are no rules to dance, at least not the kind he’s seen, but Fabian always knows the right thing to do.

The song finishes and Fabian stills, chest heaving, sweat tracks in the glitter that Tracker had smeared on their faces before they came to the club. With an easily recognizable drum lead-in, Fig and the Cig Figs launch into a recent single, a holdover from Fig’s short-lived fascination with what she called “indie girlpop.” It had resulted in a lot of homemade mixtapes and one song, but one that was released to a lot of acclaim. It’s fast and bright and not nearly as hardcore as their other songs, but Fig loves the groove of the bass line and loves grinning at Ayda who stands, without fail, as close as possible to the stage. Riz knows Fabian loves the song because of this, because it’s looser and freer and he can just… move with wanton abandon. Riz watches him. Fabian moves like a snake, or a water genasi, or maybe something wholly and uniquely Fabian. He takes advantage of his long arms and fighter’s flexibility, and it really is objectively fascinating how he’s able to dance like that, all twisting torso and seamless transitions between moves.

The lights in the Black Pit shine down on Fabian and illuminate him in an otherworldly kind of glow, a multicolored radiance that casts long shadows under his cheekbones and nose and paints his white hair in shades of blue and red.

Maybe Riz is a little bit punch-drunk from the music and the intoxicating thrill of a concert like this, because he says, out loud, “how do you move like that?”

Fabian doesn’t stop dancing, grins wide. “Many are confounded by my talent,” he responds.

Riz laughs. “That’s not what I mean, you egomaniac.”

Fabian cocks an eyebrow, and Riz realizes that throughout however long Fabian has been dancing, his gaze has never left Riz’s face. “Oh?”

“Physically,” Riz says, gesturing vaguely to Fabian’s body, and his voice is really getting quite hoarse from all this yelling, “I can’t figure out how you’re able to move like that.” His face is warm, but he’s not quite sure what the cause is out of all the possible stimuli in the sweaty bar. “How you’re able to do all that with your hips and shit.”

“I’m positive you can too.” Fabian sways his hips a few times to the beat of the song, experimentally, thinking. “I just don’t think you’ve ever properly utilized the skill.”

Riz laughs again, because this is an extraordinary stupid conversation, and because if he doesn’t laugh he’s pretty sure his head is going to explode. “I find that hard to believe.”

It’s then that Fabian grabs Riz’s wrist and pulls him forward, away from the safe isolation of the bar, and says, “let me teach you.”

And within a second Riz has gone from standing resolutely under the shade of the bar, watching everyone else dance, to attempting to move his hips with Fabian, except it’s not really working very well and he can’t stop laughing. “Well, there’s your problem!” Fabian shouts over the din, laughing himself. “It’s all in the legs, the Ball. You’re too stiff. It’s like fighting stance, yeah, bend your knees. And then bring one knee up and bring down the other, yeah- yeah! You’re getting there!”

“This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,” Riz says, but he’s giddy and warm and feels a little high- maybe he got secondhand smoke from someone by accident. Fabian throws his head back and laughs, still moving his hips to the music, and Riz still can’t quite get the hang of how to approximate Fabian’s smooth movements.

Adaine re-emerges from the crowd, arms linked with Kristen, and looks as though she’s just seen Arthur Aguefort strip naked on the dance floor. “What the fuck is this?” She yells to them as Kristen collapses into giggles.

“The Ball is pathetically bad at dancing,” Fabian explains, and the bravado is a little lost in the humor that still tinges his voice, “and I’m helping him. Adaine, can you isolate your hips?”

She narrows her eyes and looks at the two of them for a long second. “Yes,” she says eventually. “I’m pretty sure I can.”

“You two must have some kind of weird, elven spinal mutation,” Riz protests. “I’ve just got a normal goblin spine that must not be built for this kind of crap.”

“On the contrary!” Fabian shouts. “You’ve nearly got it, and I’m not going to let you go until you’ve figured it out.”

Kristen pulls Adaine back into the fray, and Riz swears he has never heard the girls cackle as loudly as he has in this moment. “Think of a figure eight,” Fabian offers, and Riz makes the mistake of looking away, thinking that breaking eye contact with Fabian will help him focus. Up onstage, surveying the crowd with an eagle eye, is Fig, who catches Riz’s gaze and, seeing the bizarre situation he’s found himself in, throws him a wink.

Riz feels the familiar rush of confidence flood his body and forces himself to take a deep breath. “Here,” Fabian says as the tempo slows into the bridge, “listen for Fig’s bass. Move to that rhythm.”

And maybe it’s Fabian’s expert help or Fig’s bardic inspiration or the fact that what does Riz have to lose, really, but as he moves his hips in time with Fabian, he really does feel like he is getting it. Fabian’s triumphant grin could be seen from space, and Riz still can’t stop laughing. It hurts his cheeks, but it’s a welcome kind of hurt. It means he’s happy.

The song ends with a flourish and Riz understands why Fabian is always so sweaty after dance class; he feels as though he’s run laps around the Bloodrush field for an hour. And who knows, maybe the pounding of his pulse isn’t just because of the dancing, but Riz has no way of contextualizing that, so he just lets Fabian hoist him up on his shoulders as the next song begins and hollers the lyrics up to the stage, filling in all the little quirks of claps and improvisations that the other Bad Kids had come up with a long time ago during the ‘test concerts’ Fig and Gorgug would put on in the Thistlespring garage.

Fabian is steady and gleeful, and it should be patronizing to be sat on his shoulders like a child but it isn’t at all, it’s just two friends in a symbiotic relationship: tall and short, fighter and rogue, Fabian and Riz.

~

“Girl’s night” is a pretty loose term with the Bad Kids. There are plenty of nights where they do split evenly down the middle, girls at one house and boys at another, usually watching the same exact movies, but there are other times when the divide seems much more arbitrary. There have been times when it’s been Fabian, Kristen, and Fig out on the town, there have been book clubs with Riz, Adaine, and Aelwyn, there have been Owlbears “team bonding” nights and ill-advised parties with Gilear and jam sessions at the Thistlespring tree. But usually Riz gets counted as a girl for the night whenever they have sleepovers on nights that summer Bloodrush training runs late and nobody wants to leave Riz out of things. He appreciates the gesture, but he does sometimes wish they’d rename it.

Girl’s night is a pretty formulaic event: they meet up at Mordred Manor, talk while Kristen makes cupcakes, then eat them during a movie that none of them really care about watching. Sometimes it’s a romance and Adaine points out logical inconsistencies in the plot and sometimes it’s a mystery and Riz solves it within the first half hour- those are his favorite nights. Talking over the TV, getting shushed by the others, chocolate frosting at the corners of their mouths.

Kristen is making cupcakes in the kitchen and the rest of them are making it difficult for her in one way or another. Riz sits on the counter next to the stand mixer, sneaking a finger into the batter whenever she turns her back. Adaine Mage Hands the ingredients around the room. Fig is just… lying on the floor. She says it’s good for preventing arthritis, which seems like flimsy science at best. Kristen sees Adaine move the eggs from beside the sink to the far counter and cries, “do you assholes want cupcakes or not?”

Adaine struggles to suppress a giggle and moves the eggs back. As a last hurrah, she turns the page of the cookbook as Kristen looks away.

“You all are boring,” Fig says from the floor. “I need juicy gossip to sustain me.”

“I beg to differ!” Adaine protests. “I’m very interesting.”

Kristen cracks an egg into the mixer and projects over the whir of the machine, “if any of us would have gossip it would be you, Fig.”

From Riz’s vantage point on the counter, he can see Fig’s eyes go sharp, the same way they do in the heat of battle. “Have you got any news for us, Riz?”

“No,” Riz says quickly, trying very hard not to sound suspicious. He doesn’t know exactly what kind of dirt Fig has on him, but that glint in her eye can’t mean anything good. “No news.”

“So nothing interesting happened at the Black Pit last week? Nothing at all?”

“Nothing at all,” Riz says, and it’s an obvious bluff even though he doesn’t even know what he’s lying about.

“Really,” Adaine hums, leaning against the refrigerator, and Riz starts to wonder if this is why the other guys joined the Bloodrush team. He’d much rather have a concussion from getting hit in the head with the ball than suffer through whatever kind of weird, telepathic ganging-up he’s being subjected to. “So you and Fabian weren’t totally grinding on each other during the concert?”

She says it like a kid who just learned to swear, but she also looks incredibly proud of calling Riz out that he can’t bring himself to think it as funny as it is. Fig begins to cackle from the floor. “You totally were!” She practically howls. “I gave you bardic inspiration!”

“I know,” Riz says, a little spitefully. “I was there. And we- no, Adaine, it wasn’t- he was teaching me to dance.”

Kristen wiggles her eyebrows and fights back what’s almost certainly an award-winning laugh. “Teaching you something, that’s for sure.”

Riz rolls his eyes, but he knows everyone can see the burning flush that’s made its way up his neck to his cheeks. “That’s not as good of a euphemism as you think it is, Kristen.”

Kristen just takes Riz’s head in her hands and cradles it to her chest. Batter smears across his cheekbones. “Welcome to teenagehood,” she murmurs reverently.

Adaine mimes throwing up. She and Riz make eye contact across the kitchen; for all of the teasing, there’s an unspoken agreement between them: our friends are crazy.

They are crazy, Riz thinks as they watch some stupid cookie-cutter movie about coming of age, but they’re wonderful. They’re wild and oversexed and only Adaine really understands, but he enjoys hearing about their escapades, like watching a Bloodrush game if he didn’t know any of the rules. A harmless sort of entertainment.

But there’s something to it.

On the TV, the main character pulls their love interest in by the lapels of their coat and they share a passionate kiss; Riz and Adaine seek each other’s gaze out like they always do during these kinds of scenes. But he feels guilty somehow. Because Adaine’s said hundreds of times that it just doesn’t interest her, romance, and for a long time Riz agreed, but he can’t help but wonder.

What would it be like to have someone like a Tracker, or an Ayda, or a Zelda. Someone to hold hands with, to share a blanket with during movies like this, and any friends can share a blanket, but it would be different.

The main characters stumble off to bed and the scene fades to black, filling the room with darkness. Riz tries to picture himself in that situation, the stumbling and the fading to black and everything in between. It’s weird, and not only because he’s thinking about sex right next to his friends, but it feels like he’s writing a novel, like there are fictional characters in his head that just take the shape of Riz and his mystery partner. It doesn’t seem natural, and it sure as hell doesn’t seem fun.

I don’t want sex, Riz tells himself, and it feels like the truth. I don’t want sex, but I think I want love.

Oh god, I want love.

~

Walking into Aguefort on the first day of senior year is an incomparable experience. Riz knows that he’s a senior, he’s at the top of the hierarchy, but he can’t help but feel a little nervous, as if someone might come up and dunk him in a trash can at any given moment. Mostly, though, it’s just an unwelcome reminder of the fact that he’s growing up.

Riz has spent so long trying to act older than he is, but now that he’s 17 years old he just desperately wants to stop the flow of time.

There’s a pimply kid holding another at swordpoint by the water fountains outside the cafeteria and Riz pulls out his crystal to text the other Bad Kids. It reminds him of Fabian and Gorgug on their first day; who knows, maybe they’ll end up making friends in detention too.

“Better keep on your toes at lunch ;)” Kristen texts back.

First period is choir, which is in a wing of the school Riz has never even set foot in before. It’s a small, compact hallway half-hidden behind the weight rooms, and he can hear noise from all the way down the hall as bards of various kinds tune their instruments and warm up and create a never ending crush of noise. The choir room is larger than Riz expected when he walks in, with rows of chairs arranged in a semicircle around an old-looking piano that’s positively buzzing with arcane energy. Standing beside the piano on a high podium is a middle-aged dwarven man with graying hair that curls around his ears in little cloudy wisps. In the assembly of chairs is Fig, her horns never failing to help her stand out from a crowd, and when she catches Riz’s eye she waves gleefully. With a quick, barely-there flick of her wrist Riz receives her voice in his ear with the familiar and welcome intrusion of a Message, saying, “aw, hell yeah! This class is going to be fucking sick.”

Riz doesn’t have time to Message back because the man at the podium, easily a foot or two higher up, looks down at him and says, “ah, welcome to class, young man! Your name and voice part, please.”

“Uh- Riz Gukgak. I’m not sure what my voice part is.”

The man nods knowingly and scribbles something down in a large book before him. “Tenor,” he decides. “Go take a seat over on the right side of the room, first row of chairs. I’m Mr. Crand, by the way. It’s very nice to meet you.”

Riz obediently takes a seat in the first row, feeling awfully out of place. He feels a small amount of comfort, though, in the fact that all around the room are people looking equally as lost as him, clear barbarians with greataxes holstered on their backs and clerics with maces tucked under their chairs next to their backpacks, all looking around with a thinly-veiled expression of horror at the room of bards. From behind him, on the left side of the room with the other women, comes another Message from Fig. “I didn’t know you were going to take choir,” she says.

“It was Fabian’s idea,” Riz shoots back. In the first row, it should be incredibly conspicuous to Message, but luckily Riz has trained in sleight of hand for three years of high school and nobody seems the wiser. “He said I could probably do work behind my music stand.”

“That doesn’t sound like Fabian,” comes Fig’s voice in his ear, and it’s got an amused kind of lilt to it. “Are you sure he didn’t say you could hide your crystal behind your music stand?”

“Same difference,” Riz says.

There’s a short period of time when no more Messages come, and when Riz turns around to see what’s going on behind him she’s laughing with a girl next to her. Someone walks around and distributes black leather folders to everyone, which, upon closer inspection, are already full of sheet music. Riz flips through the songs and absorbs none of it- he has no idea how to read music, and it hits him for the first time how colossally stupid this idea might have been. The boy next to him, a halfling with a lap piano that pokes out of the top of his unzipped backpack, looks as bardic as they come, so Riz prays to every god he can think of that he can just listen to him and struggle through.

The bell rings and class begins as the teacher- Mr. Crand- takes a seat at the piano. There are brief introductions and then it’s off to the races as Mr. Crand leads them through warmups. It’s really not like anything he’s ever done before, and definitely not anything like rogue classes. Riz muddles through the warmups, through exercises that everyone around him already seems to know, and really questions his choice of classes. Maybe he shouldn’t take Fabian’s advice so often.

His earlier wish is granted, as Riz finds that the boy next to him is a phenomenal singer. But wishes never are as they seem, because maybe the boy next to him has the voice of an angel, and Riz… does not. Not by a long shot. He knew this, technically, he had done karaoke and stuff before, but he’s never been faced with this horrifying truth before, and never in a room full of people whose talent far outshines his own.

There’s a brief pause as Mr. Crand moves from one exercise to another, and Riz receives a Message from Fig saying, “how’s it going, sport?”

“Is ‘sport’ more or less demeaning than ‘the ball?’” He responds. The boy next to him definitely sees his hand point up to the alto section where Fig sits and shoots him a look, but as long as he escapes being noticed by the teacher, Riz really doesn’t care about what random bards think of him. “I can’t decide.”

“How are you liking choir, kiddo?” She amends, and Riz resists every urge to turn around and glare at her head on.

“It’s weird,” is all he says.

It is weird. But it’s also kind of cool, once he gets past the humiliation of his awful, squeaky voice. It’s a wholly unique experience. “We’re doing an album release party next weekend,” Fig says, because apparently she doesn’t need to pay attention at all to the warmups that Riz is finding pretty difficult, actually. “Are we going to need to make you and Fabian stand in opposite corners?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Riz Messages back and tries to keep his face completely blank as he sings. Who knows what kind of angle Fig has on him all the way across the room, and he’s absolutely not giving anything away. Not that he has anything to give away.

“I don’t know, last time you two seemed to get pretty cozy.” And Riz can just hear the smirk in her voice.

There’s a pause in the conversation as everyone scrambles to pull out their first piece of music, some old Helioic song with a lot of words Riz has never seen before. He sends back a quick Message while Mr. Crand plays the intro on the piano, which has some kind of spell on it to make it at just the right volume for everyone in the room, no matter how far or close they are. It’s pretty neat. Riz makes a mental note to tell Adaine about it at lunch. “We weren’t cozy,” he says. “We were dancing. That’s how people dance. Would you rather we do the gavotte?”

“I don’t know, I think that would be pretty cool,” Fig responds.

There’s another pause as the choir comes in, everyone trying to scramble through reading the piece for the first time. He listens intently to the boy next to him, who picks up the piece far quicker than Riz ever could. Then it’s just the sopranos singing, and Riz Messages, “put Fabian and I on opposite sides of the room if you want, I’ll just make sure Ayda doesn’t hang out in the wings so you can’t get your kisses in between songs.”

Fig doesn’t say anything back, and Riz feels an undue amount of pride in that small victory. It’s not every day someone bests Figueroth Faeth in a pissing match.

The topic doesn’t come up until lunch, when Fabian saunters into the cafeteria late, his battle preparedness class running over, and takes a seat on one of the hard plastic stools next to Riz. Fig points at him as she lifts a ham and cheese sandwich to her mouth (with lots of mustard and arugula, the same lunch she’s had for years) and a Message appears in his mind. “You sure you don’t want to ask Fabian to scootch over and sit in your lap?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Riz Messages back, and Fig smiles around her sandwich.

Kristen immediately launches into a story about her emergency healing class, where the teacher decided to have a ‘realistic learning experience’ by stabbing a letter opener through their neck and leaving the students to scramble. It had been Kristen who had taken action and cast Preserve Life before anyone else, and Adaine grants her a pat on the back for her achievement.

“Did you see they shut down all the bathrooms on the left side of the building?” Gorgug says, fruitlessly attempting to cut a large steak his parents had packed for him (in a lunchbox with daisies on it) with one of the flimsy plastic cafeteria knives. Riz eventually caves and offers him his Solesian-army knife. “Apparently someone tried to flush club posters.”

“Really?” Fig asks, and she looks crestfallen. “I heard someone had taken a greataxe to the toilets.”

“That definitely would make for a better story,” Gorgug agrees a little mournfully.

Adaine hums and takes a sip of a smoothie- every once in a while she casts Ray of Frost on it to keep it cool. Riz thinks it’s very ingenuitive and would most certainly piss off her dead father, which makes it all the better. “I wonder why only the bathrooms on the left side,” she muses.

Fabian scoffs, his chin propped on his hand as he draws in a puddle of ketchup with a french fry. “Half the bathrooms is small potatoes. If someone managed to shut down all the bathrooms in a day, that would be impressive. Not as impressive as killing three faculty members, which, I’ll remind you all, we did on our first day. It takes a little more than some broken toilets to phase me.”

“Oh my god,” Fig blurts, pointing out the window of the cafeteria with a look of genuine terror on her face. “Fabian, Fabian, look. Fabian, Chungledown Bim is out by the Bloodrush field.”

Fabian visibly jumps in his seat and does look, which really doesn’t help his case, before burying his head in his arms, slumped over the table in a portrait of despair. “Don’t even joke about that,” he mumbles into the sleeves of his jacket.

And Fig, who sometimes uses her shitheadedness for the power of good, just laughs.

The lunch bell rings far too early, and Fabian and Riz walk side by side down the halls to their next class. Fabian, almost comically, keeps glancing over his shoulder, as if expecting someone to be standing where they had just been. Riz valiantly represses a smile.

Applied arcane physics takes place in a grim-looking classroom on the first floor with one window overlooking the parking lot, which Riz feels doesn’t bode well for the class as a whole. There’s a brief moment of tension as they enter the room and each make a break for their respective seats. Riz sits in the same place in every class: second row, left side, close enough to the front of the room to pay attention to the teacher, but directly next to the door and hidden enough by the first row to be able to sneak out unnoticed if the need arises. Fabian, however, confidently strides toward the back of the classroom.

They meet each other’s gaze from across the room and hold for a second, as if daring the other to make the first move. And then Fabian’s eye darts nervously around the room and he slinks up to the front, dumping his books on a desk next to Riz. He feels an undue sense of pride at being the steadfast one for once.

Class is boring, mainly just reviewing the syllabus and discussing the general topics they’ll cover over the course of the year, but it’s interesting in that Riz has never really been in an academic setting with Fabian, has never seen how he meshes into the fabric of a classroom. He’s passed the gyms and seen Fabian in the middle of practice skirmishes, sword hefted and bouncing on the balls of his feet, but never like this, playing with his pencil and taking down test dates and homework policies in his spiral-ring notebook. It’s funny, Riz realizes, how they’re practically the opposite in every way when it comes to this kind of thing. Riz sits hunched over his desk, feet hooked around the legs of his chair, head nearly parallel to the desk when he goes to write. He keeps a sharp and constant watch on the teacher, tracking her as she walks from desk to chalkboard. Fabian, on the other hand, seems intent on taking up as much space as possible; he sits slouched back in his chair, his legs spilling out into the little aisle between desks, all expansive limbs and loud questions. He looks almost bored, but there’s a keenness to the eye he trains on the teacher that only someone deeply familiar with him could possibly notice. It’s a front, Riz knows, the cool, confident demeanor. He’s going to be broad and assertive whenever they’re in class, but he’ll inevitably call Riz the night before tests and ask, meekly, how to do the problems. He knows how any of his friends would be in a class and he can anticipate all of Fabian’s moves a semester in advance. With the self-assuredness of a best friend, he resigns himself to taking two sets of notes for the rest of the year.

They break to do a first-day worksheet, introductory trig problems and other stuff they learned in middle school and never thought they’d ever use. Fabian scoots over, his chair screeching on the linoleum floor, and shoves his and Riz’s desks together so that they can work in a pair, and every time Fabian reaches over to point out a problem on Riz’s paper he forces himself to focus on the math, not the way that Fabian’s head by his shoulder makes the air seem suddenly thick. It’s something to analyze later, in the lonely hours of the night as Riz lies awake in bed and waits for sleep to take him. Right now, though, Fabian needs help on question 5, and whether a cleric thirty feet in the air can cast Bane on an enemy forty feet away.

Riz has always found solace in the simple answers that school provides. It’s always been easy for him, connecting the dots and analyzing data and handing in homework on time. It’s been easy and it’s been his life, he’s never known anything other than school, and though with the start of senior year comes the start of a nosedive into the uncertainty that the future holds, Riz thinks that this, sitting next to Fabian in class, sharing notes and borrowing pencils, will be nice. It’ll be fun in a way that school usually isn’t, and Riz can imagine them whispering to each other during lessons, making new inside jokes, and for the first time he leaves class in genuine anticipation of the following school day.

~

Here’s the thing. Distribution requirements, on paper, sound like a great idea. It makes sense to want adventurers to be well-rounded, so that if your cleric gets downed someone else can jump in with some emergency first aid and save the day. Riz respects Jawbone for bringing the idea of distribution requirements to Aguefort, and he thinks it’ll be a boon for the school in the long run.

But in actuality, Riz is a rogue and this, standing in the front row of the risers on the stage of the auditorium, facing what seems like every parent in Elmville and half of the student body, is not what he is built for. That’s the catch to choir that Fabian hadn’t realized when he had come up with the not-so-genius idea of taking the class, and that was the spring concert. It’s a big, once-a-year event, and it had been advertised so aggressively by the bards on student council that nearly the entire Aguefort senior class is there, including the rest of the Bad Kids in the very first row of seats, talking loud enough to drown out a jet engine as they wait for the performance to start. Fig stands just a few people down the line from Riz, up in front for her solo during that dwarven song that had taken Riz a month to learn. She looks almost giddy in her school-supplied black dress, her earrings and shining red nails gleaming in the stage lights. Riz, however, just sweats. He’s wearing a tux provided by the arts department that’s technically sized for a halfling, and it’s a little too large around the middle and his dress shoes are a little too tight around the heel. His mom had gotten all misty-eyed when he put the suit on. She said she looked like his father. Riz thought he just looked like a third-wheeling prom attendee.

Mr. Crand takes to the podium at the front of the stage and taps the music stand with his baton, calling the choir to attention. The pianist, a willowy elven sophomore named Tredythrin, plays the opening notes of their first song, and Riz zeroes in on Mr. Crand with a laser focus.

That’s the kicker; Riz really should be good at choir. He’s probably the only person in the whole group that actually pays full attention to the director as they sing, and he was the first person to learn all the words to the song in celestial. He watches the baton with a kind of intensity most people reserve for the battlefield but that Riz uses for everything he does. He’s always on beat, he always knows the words, he always remembers who takes what breath where and when the crescendos come. And yet he just squeaks along with everyone else, singing a solid pianissimo when everyone else is supposed to sing forte. Fig insists that his voice would be good for the kind of music she shows him with whiny men and acoustic guitars and Riz tries not to be offended as they all complain about their hometown and the girls that won’t date them and whale away on the piano keys. And maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong, but his voice is absolutely not suited for choral music, no matter how analytically he looks at the notes, so he stands onstage wishing he could melt into the floor and feeling like he’s so sweaty he very well might.

In the front row, the Bad Kids holler and applaud between songs in true Bad Kid fashion, and it takes all of Riz’s mental energy to not look at them when he’s supposed to be looking at Mr. Crand cueing in the tenors on measure 29.

He hazards a glance during Fig’s solo- he only feels a little guilty- expecting them all to be fixated on her and her powerful alto, and for the most part they are. Adaine sits with her head cupped in her hands, Boggy perched on her shoulder. Kristen leans against Tracker’s shoulder and Zelda leans against Gorgug’s. Fabian is looking at Riz.

He looks away fast, towards Fig, who stepped forward for her solo, the slight gloss on her horns shining under the spotlights, and Riz’s mind supplies him the image of Fabian that night at the Black Pit, the colored lights dancing in his hair. He looks back at the audience. Fabian is still watching him.

It’s unsettling, the unshakable gaze of Fabian’s one shining eye on him, and Riz almost misses his next entrance just trying to figure out what the hell it could mean.

He can’t stop looking away after that. Even when he should be paying attention, he can’t help but break and glance back into the audience.

Every time Riz looks at Fabian, Fabian is looking at Riz.

It’s not all weird, though. Sometimes he turns to murmur something in Gorgug’s ear. During the Helioic song, Kristin mouths along. It doesn’t look like she even really clocks that she’s doing it. Zelda falls asleep halfway through and Riz gets it; it’s definitely not her scene. He wishes he could just curl up and take a nap right on the dusty risers, let everyone else take over for a while.

At the zenith of the applause before the final number, Fig sends a Message to the group that says, “afterparty at Mordred?”

Fabian Messages back, “hell fucking yes,” and just like that, the plans are sealed.

The last song ends to moderate applause from the assembled parents and raucous whooping from the Bad Kids, who then take to chanting, “King of Hell! King of Hell!” when Fig takes a bow for her solo.

It takes all of three minutes for them all to pile into the van, Fig and Riz tearing off dress clothes, tossing heels and cummerbunds into the wayback to be forgotten about for months. Fig ends up in the sweatpants she had worn secretly beneath her dress and Tracker’s purple flannel, unbuttoned, leaving her bra out in the open for all the world to see as she hangs out the window, screaming along to the radio as they careen down suburban streets towards Mordred Manor. Riz doesn’t have as much freedom as her, fashion or confidence-wise, so he just pries off his too-small shoes and takes Fabian’s letterman jacket to wear over the thin white undershirt that leaves him shivering in the cool night air of early April.

Mordred Manor is surprisingly empty, which is a startling feat in and of itself. Riz vaguely remembers Fig saying that Sandralynn and Jawbone were going out on a dinner date after the concert and Ragh, Aelwyn, and Tracker were going afterpartying on their own. So the Bad Kids roll into the house and immediately barrel right ahead on going absolutely batshit insane. Fig hooks up her crystal to one of her enchanted tour amps and music fills the manor, making the ground feel like it’s humming beneath Riz’s socked feet. Kristen empties the liquor cabinet and goes about making extremely dubious concoctions that she quickly starts forcing on people. They make it a game: rating each of her cocktails- if they can be called that- on a standard grading scale. Last time Riz checked, Kristen’s sitting at a solid C- average.

They dance in the living room, wild and bordering on property damage. Unlike the kind of stuff they do at the Black Pit, this is the kind of dancing Riz doesn’t mind because it really is just essentially jumping in place and flailing your arms in time with the music. Even Fabian, who takes such pride in his dance, does a truly terrible air guitar that makes everyone laugh and jumps from the couch, almost certainly intending to do a cool sort of landing but instead crashing into Riz, who goes toppling onto the floor. Kristen laughs so hard at this that she falls down too, and then they’re all on the ground, smashing their faces into the shag carpet and cackling like harpies, drunk and silly.

They play an extraordinarily ill-advised game of living room chicken in which Fig and Riz face off on top of Gorgug and Fabian respectively. Fabian is sturdy beneath him, his hands latched around Riz’s calves, and they win. Fig just barely misses cracking her head open on the coffee table but shrugs it off, and Riz tries not to think about the way that the tips of Fabian’s ears turned the color of red wine when Riz dug his fingernails into his shoulders.

They dance and they drink and they keep up the entire block with their antics. It gets hot, with all that jumping around, and sometime around 12:30 Gorgug gets the bright idea to open all the windows; it isn’t until noon the next day that Riz realizes they probably made a lot of enemies in the neighborhood with that move.

Maybe an hour after that Riz finds himself outside on the back porch, attempting to take a breather. The moon is nearly full, just a small sliver of darkness keeping it from being a perfect sphere. There’s too much light pollution in Elmville to really see many stars, but Riz doesn’t know anything else, so he points out the stars he does recognize to himself and tries to remember which constellations they go to. In the house the music rages on and he can hear glass breaking. He doesn’t envy the house’s inhabitants in the morning, especially those that will have to deal with Sandralynn’s rage firsthand. Riz at least will have a solid couple of miles between them when the adults get back to the house and he’ll be all cozy in bed back at Strongtower Luxury Apartments, safe from the wrath of Fig’s mom.

And speak of the devil- or tiefling- because the door to the backyard swings open on creaky hinges and the familiar voice of his friend says, “where’s Fabian?”

Riz doesn’t turn to look. He can smell a clove cigarette burning behind him and assumes Fig was banished out here with him to smoke. “I don’t know. I think I saw him go to the bathroom a couple of minutes ago, but I could be wrong.”

“Hm.” Fig comes up next to Riz and leans against the porch railing. Riz is sitting on it, legs dangling down over the garden, and it’s only because alcohol explicitly numbs critical thinking skills that he’s not terrified of falling backwards onto the deck and splitting his brains out all over the handpainted wood. “I thought you two would be out here locked in a passionate embrace or something.”

Riz scoffs and turns to look at her. She definitely looks worse for the wear, but so do all of them, he’s sure. Her eyeliner has smeared across her cheeks, smudges of black and red on her temples, and her lipstick is all but gone. Her braid is wild and untamed, chunks of hair sticking out at random as if they have a mind of their own. The choir concert seems like another lifetime ago, even if it was just a few hours before. It seems like a completely different world, them passing Messages back and forth during class. Fig teasing him about… “okay, what is it with you and the Fabian stuff? We’re not together, you know that, right?”

She shrugs and takes a drag of her cigarette. “Yeah, I know. I guess it’s funny because it’ll never actually happen. You aren’t, you know… into people in that way. So it feels harmless.”

Riz looks back up at the moon. So close to full, it’s really a shame. He thinks about girl’s night, about watching rom-coms on the couch, wondering if anyone would ever kiss him like that. Wondering if he’d want anyone to. He thinks about Adaine, who is so similar to him in so many ways, but will skip the chapter if there’s any sort of romantic scenes in a book because it simply doesn’t interest her. Riz reads the romance scenes, he reads them and feels a restriction in his throat and tries to breathe normally when characters confess their love for one another. He thinks about his dad, his badass angel dad in heaven, telling him in sophomore year that it’s perfectly fine and normal to never want romance or feel attraction and how Riz had felt so comforted but also just a little, intensely secretly, let down. Cassiopeia twinkles down at them and Riz thinks of Kristen and her god, thinks of ‘idk and that’s okay.’

Fig blows smoke out into the air and it lingers in the moonlight like breath on a cold day. “What if I am?” Riz ventures, and it sits there between them for a while as they both turn over in their heads the implication of what Riz has said.

“With… Fabian?” Fig eventually asks.

“No. I don’t know,” he amends, because just the ‘no’ had felt a little too much like lying for comfort.

Fig grinds out her cigarette against the porch railing, dirtying the white paint. She picks up the stub and holds it in the palm of her hand, brushing the ashes off into the garden. They fall like gray snow. “Thank you for telling me,” she says.

“Don’t tell anyone else,” Riz says. “I don’t know how to say it.”

Fig just smiles as they make eye contact for the first time since Fig had entered into the bizarre, timeless space of the backyard and ruffles his hair. “I love you, Riz. Know that.”

He nods and she leaves, the porch door squeaking behind her.

At some point after 1 and before the nighttime partying radio station switches to smooth jazz, after Riz has made his way from the porch back to the land of the living, Fabian opens a bottle of champagne with his sword, slicing the neck of the bottle clean off in one powerful swipe. And they’ve been through four years of friendship but Riz doesn’t think he’ll ever really grow out of the compulsory need to show off to Fabian, so he takes a bottle of his own and sinks his teeth into the cork, hard, pulling it straight out. The force of the action shakes the bottle enough that it explodes into a jet stream of champagne, shooting up into the air and settling in Riz’s hair like sticky, sticky rain. He spits the cork onto the ground and takes one strong chug before handing it off to Fabian, who rolls his eyes but takes it nonetheless. “I still think I won, the Ball,” he says. He still has to kind of yell it over the pounding music, even in the kitchen.

“The Ball is a stupid nickname,” Riz responds, because his brain doesn’t feel like it’s working quite right. A train-wreck of thought, his mom calls it. That’s what Riz feels like. “It’s twice as many syllables as my name. Nicknames should be shorter, not longer. It’s like if I called you… Fabian Gabian. That’s not a good nickname.”

“Fabian Gabian,” Fabian echoes, and he looks down at him like Riz is a scenic view off the highway. A little awed but fleeting, not willing to take his eyes off the road for too long. Riz files it away in the back of his mind.

Fabian Gabian,” Riz repeats, elongating the vowels. The more he says it, the more he likes it. And judging by Fabian’s wide grin, he likes it too.

But Kristen starts trying to get Adaine to play light as a feather, stiff as a board, and whatever conversation they were trying to have gets quickly derailed.

What ends up happening, by the time the hour hand on the grandfather clock by the fireplace reaches 2, is that they all find themselves in various positions of loose disarray around the living room playing truth or dare.

Riz had taken off Fabian’s letterman jacket at some point during the dance party but as the endorphins wear off so does the heat from the alcohol and the exertion. Riz puts the jacket back on. Fabian doesn’t seem to mind.

Riz is lying with his head in Adaine’s lap on the couch; Fig sits on the other end by his feet, her legs slung over the armrest. Gorgug sits cross-legged on the floor leaned up against the easy chair that Kristen inhabits and Fabian lies next to Gorgug on the carpet, sprawled out on his stomach with his head in his hands.

“Truth or dare,” Fig asks Kristen. She yawns halfway through the sentence, so it sounds more like ‘truth or-yahr.’

“Truth,” Kristen says. She’s got that manic glint in her eyes that means trouble.

Fig thinks for a second, head lolling back against the couch cushions. “What’s the worst thing you did when you were a kid?”

“I used to steal nails from the hardware store,” Kristen answers bluntly. “Then I would always feel guilty and put them in the donation box for the homeless shelter at church and tell myself that I was stealing and giving to the poor like Robin Hood.”

Adaine laughs a little too hard at that, all giddy and free, and it takes a couple long seconds to calm her down. “Riz,” Kristen says, “truth or dare?”

“Truth,” he says, because he’s learned to never accept dare from this group of friends.

“Tell me…” she starts, drawing out the syllables as she thinks, “your deepest desire.”

“What?”

“Something juicy and dirty,” she giggles. Her face is red from the alcohol, and she glows like a car headlight in the dim living room.

Adaine mimes puking. “Eugh, gross! I don’t want to hear about Riz’s dirty desires.”

“Riz doesn’t have dirty desires, he’s like a monk,” chimes in Fabian, because he always gets a little mean when he’s drunk. A little mean and a little soft, a walking contradiction.

Adaine runs her hands through Riz’s hair, the second time someone has fucked with his hair tonight, but this time it’s all matted and sticky from the champagne. And it all comes rushing back: the little shrimp, Fabian and Aelwyn’s ill-begotten fling the summer of sophomore year, ‘what if I am?’

Riz has always been a weepy drunk, and he feels that in full now as pinpricks of heat rise to the backs of his eyeballs and threaten to spill over. “I just want to be normal,” he says, before he even realizes he meant to only say it in his head. He valiantly holds back tears and instead looks up at the ceiling, the speckles in the plaster from Jawbone’s attempt at remodeling. “I just want for one day to feel normal feelings and be a normal person for once.”

“No!” Adaine protests, her thumb brushing across Riz’s forehead. “If you were normal, we wouldn’t like you. You’re amazing and unique, that’s the best thing about you!”

“Being unique is nice in concept,” Riz says, shutting his eyes as Adaine pets him like a dog, “but it doesn’t offer a lot of comfort.”

“I feel like you need a good hard slap to rattle something back into place in that noggin of yours,” Kristen says.

“Maybe,” Riz says. Probably, he thinks.

“No, no,” Fig argues. “You just need some good dick.”

“Maybe,” Riz repeats. Probably not, he thinks.

He can feel the buoyancy of the energy in the room sink below the surface for a moment, Riz dragging down everyone else’s mood with him, and he instantly feels guilty. This always happens, he always does some stupid shit like this, and Fig or Kristen or Gorgug always has to do something crazy to get the ball rolling again. Kristen opens her mouth to say something, but Riz cuts her off with a curt, “Fabian, truth or dare.”

“Dare,” he says easily. Riz didn’t expect anything else.

“Tell him to tell us a secret,” Adaine stage-whispers down at him. It’s almost certainly loud enough for everyone else to hear, but Fabian just picks at the carpet and pays no attention. “Something he’s never told anyone before.”

“That’s a terrible idea,” Riz says.

Adaine cocks one eyebrow. She’s not drunk, it fucks with her meds and could maybe give her a blood clot, but she always gets loopy without sleep, just slightly scattered enough to keep up with the rest of the Bad Kids’ drunken chaos. “Oh, okay. Why don’t you tell me your better idea, then?”

Riz sticks his tongue out at her. “Fabian, I dare you to, uh- tell us something you’ve never told anyone before.”

Fabian tips his head down onto the carpet and peers up at Riz. “That’s a truth.”

“It’s a dare to tell the truth,” Riz corrects. “Now spill.”

Fabian is silent for a few moments, chewing on his lips and gazing inscrutably at Riz on the couch as he ponders this. He rolls over onto his back and sighs casually, as if he doesn’t care about this game one bit. “I like it when you wear my jacket,” he says.

“C’mon, man,” Riz says. “Be serious.”

“Said no one ever during a game of truth or dare,” Fig interjects.

Fabian sighs, heavy and put-upon, as if following through on Riz’s dare is such a trial for him. “I am,” he mumbles. “Unless you want a different answer.”

It suddenly feels a little weird, lying there in Adaine’s lap wearing Fabian’s jacket. Part of him wants to take it off, to push away the open vulnerability Fabian is offering. It’s weird, and he’s not used to it, and it doesn’t even seem like Fabian, really.

Or maybe it has been Fabian, maybe it’s been Fabian this whole time and Riz just hasn’t taken what he’s said at face value.

Shit.

“Adaine, truth or dare?” Fabian says.

He doesn’t hear what Adaine says, but he knows it’s truth. They’ve been playing this game for four years. And for four years, how many times has Fabian said something like ‘I like it when you wear my jacket’ and Riz just shoved it off? How many thinly veiled attempts at tenderness has Riz interpreted as jokes, or as just what any friend would do for another? Has Riz been giving Fabian too little credit this whole time? Adaine’s thumb grazes the tip of his ear and Riz startles. It’s party time, not puzzle-solving time, he tells himself. He can put on his big boy investigator pants later and figure out what him and Fabian mean to each other. Now, though, Riz’s only responsibilities are to get cracking drunk and make poor choices, not spiral into conspiracies in the lap of his friend.

The game ends when Gorgug says, “it’s getting pretty late,” punctuated by an earth-splitting, open-mouthed yawn from Kristen.

Fig groans, but she looks tired too. They all do. “Alright, who’s going where?” Gorgug says. Usually, as the one with the van, he’s the designated driver. Tonight, though, he’ll probably end up sleeping on Fig’s bedroom floor or something.

“I’ll take the Ball home,” Fabian offers. Fig shoots Riz a Look, capital L. “The Hangman can practically drive itself, it’s the really the only mostly-legal option.”

Fig wiggles her eyebrows at Riz. He pretends not to notice. “Oh, um, Gorgug,” she interjects sheepishly, “Ayda was planning to come over from the Compass Points tonight, so, uh…”

“You can crash with me,” Adaine says with an extraordinary eye roll. “Since apparently I’m the only one who won’t sexile our poor friend.”

Fig splutters, but does not protest. Her silence speaks volumes.

It’s slow and awkward, getting ready to leave, gathering everyone’s things from where they’ve been scatter throughout the house and pulling blankets from the linen closet to lay on people’s floors.

It’s cold when they leave, the kind of dewy chill of nighttime, and Riz is grateful for Fabian’s jacket. The Hangman grumbles as Riz nears, a flurry of sparks and a gently revved engine. Even after years, the Hangman still harbors a fond sort of resentment towards Riz; it reminds him, vaguely, of him and Fabian at the beginning of freshman year. They mount the Hangman without speaking; it’s a familiar ritual by now, one they can do without thinking. Riz wraps his arms around Fabian’s middle like he always does and can’t help but feel guilty for Fabian’s slight shiver in the night air. Riz, dwarfed in a letterman jacket three sizes too big, is plenty warm. So he just holds Fabian tight and hopes his body heat transfers.

“Let’s get you home, the Ball,” Fabian mumbles, and it doesn’t even really sound like it’s aimed toward him, and with a roar of the engine the Hangman tears off down the deadly silent streets. The bike seems to take a good deal of pleasure, from what Riz can tell, in filling the quiet suburbs with noise. Lights in quaint houses flicker on in their wake, confused neighbors pulling their curtains back to see who’s making such a racket. Fabian drives straight down the middle of the road, and Riz would be worried if he had ever seen a car in this neighborhood at this time of night, but it’s always still as anything. He knows Elmville like the back of his hand, and so does Fabian. They trust these streets like they do a brother.

They careen through town and Fabian instructs the Hangman to cut back and forth as they ride, going down the street on almost a zigzag. Each time Fabian turns the handlebars with that easy familiarity they go swinging to the other side and the force of it drags the bike down low to the ground, so close that Riz feels if he reached down he could touch the pavement. This is how I get myself killed, he thinks. After everything: Kalvaxus, the Nightmare King, hell, even the SATs, Riz is going to get taken out by one joyride on a demon motorcycle that isn’t even his.

But he doesn’t say anything, because that would ruin it. Instead he just puts all his energy into holding steady onto Fabian and tries to enjoy the thrill of the wind in his hair.

They pull into the Strongtower parking lot, crammed full of junker cars, and Riz quickly hops off the Hangman with legs that just barely hold him up. He feels as though he might throw up, and he’s not sure whether it’s because of the alcohol or the irresponsible driving. “Here we are,” Fabian announces to no one.

“Here we are,” Riz repeats. He looks up. The light in the window he knows is his is off, so his mom has probably long gone to bed. Fabian sits on the Hangman, picking at his nails. He’s still shivering ever so slightly. Are you safe to get home by yourself? he almost asks, but stops himself before he can say it. Instead, he says, “you can stay over with me, if you want.”

Fabian looks up at the apartment building, the crumbling midcentury brutalist architecture. For a moment Riz thinks he’ll pull out his old excuses of thread counts and king-size beds and pancakes waiting for him in the morning, but he looks cold and a little nervous and his face is still flushed from drinking when he asks, “won’t we wake up your mom?” And Riz knows he really means, ‘give me one excuse and I’ll stay.’

“I’m a rogue, man,” Riz answers glibly, and he knows that Fabian knows that he really means, ‘she won’t mind.’

Fabian dismounts the Hangman and tells it to go back to Seacaster Manor and Riz feels drunk all over again, light and giddy. They stand side by side in the elevator with the flickering light and he takes Fabian by the wrist when they reach his floor, leading him down the hall. Riz is still only wearing his socks and Fabian might be holding his breath, he’s a ghost trailing behind, and the only proof that Riz has that he’s still there is their one gleaming point of contact.

Riz pushes open his door with expert stealth; he’s been a master of entering his apartment without letting the door click or the hinges creak for as long as he could walk. He can hear his mom snoring, which is a good sign. Logically, he knows that she would be thrilled about him having a friend over, but years of anti-substance assemblies and years of firsthand experience have taught Riz well the way that drinking impairs brain function, and his smashed mind is convinced that they need to do this the good old-fashioned way and sneak in on their own merit.

They make it to Riz’s room with no difficulty and instantly Fabian collapses onto the bed, kicking off his shoes and ignoring the way they fall to the floor with two loud ‘thunks.’ Riz wishes more than anything he could follow suit, but he first slips into the bathroom to change into pajamas, or what passes for them: dingy flannel pants and a much too large Owlbears t-shirt he doesn’t quite remember the origin of. He’s convinced that Fabian is already asleep when he comes back into the bedroom, starfished out on the small mattress with his face smushed into the pillow. He lifts his head, though, when Riz nears. “Hello,” he mumbles.

“Hi,” Riz responds. The room spins a little around him.

“Join me,” Fabian says, and he rolls over onto his side so that he doesn’t take up quite so much of the bed, but the sheer amount of him on a child-sized mattress means that there’s just automatically not a lot of room left. Riz lies down anyway, and it would be awkward if they both weren’t still so drunk.

They lie parallel, facing each other, trying to make out each other’s faces in the night. Darkvision paints everything in shades of grey, making the world look like a staticky old TV. Riz can see Fabian clearly, though: the shape of his nose, the cut of his jaw, the mutilated flesh where his eye should be. Acne scars and regular scars and everything that makes a teenage adventurer.

The Strongtower Luxury Apartments are ventilated so poorly that any weather above 40 degrees is fair game for open windows, so they lie together, not speaking, listening to the cars pass on the street below. It’s starkly different being home and being at Mordred, where it’s always kind of quiet, save for the singing of cicadas in the summer and the distant drone of the highway. Riz always has trouble sleeping without the constant background noise of cars and trucks rumbling across manhole covers and the constant hum of a window fan.

“It’s kind of loud,” Fabian murmurs.

“You get used to it,” Riz tells him.

They’re hardly more than half a foot apart, nose to nose. Riz can smell the alcohol on Fabian’s breath. He wonders, sometimes, if his friends get drunk too often. Underage drinking is hardly the first law they’ve broken, but he wonders if there might be some underlying issues that would be better addressed. But then they get together and lose their inhibitions and it’s fun, and it’s easy, and they let Riz cry over stupid shit because they know it doesn’t mean anything. It’s nice, the way his thoughts slow their frantic race through his mind. Everything is a little calmer, especially now, lying here with Fabian.

It’s a little cold above the covers, but Riz doesn’t want to get up to free up the blanket beneath them. Fabian shivers and opens his arms. “C’mere,” he says. If this was a normal night and Riz was behaving normally, sober and overthinking, he wouldn’t. But if it was a normal night, Fabian wouldn’t be here at all. So instead he closes the gap between them and tucks himself beneath Fabian’s arm. It’s hardly the first time he’s slept like this with a friend, chest to chest, skin to skin, but it seems meaningful this time, like something between them is slowly bending. Riz’s mind conjures the image of standing on the edge of the diving board at the public pool as a kid, the way it dipped down towards the water under the weight of him until he jumped, leaving it wobbling behind him in his absence, like when you shake a pencil and it appears suddenly pliable. He doesn’t try and analyze the strange metaphor his brain created; instead, he wraps his arms around Fabian’s middle and, in his drunken fog, just enjoys the proximity without examining it.

It’s incredibly nice. Riz’s head sits somewhere around Fabian’s shoulder and his chin rests in Riz’s hair. It’s warm where they touch, and the lingering cold on their backs make them only hold each other tighter. “You’re the perfect size for cuddling,” Fabian mumbles. His voice sounds strange in the quiet of the bedroom, too loud and clear.

“Is that what this is?” Riz asks, half-teasing. “I thought that was a couple’s thing.”

Fabian scoffs. “Plenty of people cuddle platonically, I’m sure. If I cuddled the Hangman, would that mean I wanted to romance it?”

“You cuddle the Hangman?” Riz snickers.

He can’t see it, but he can almost feel Fabian’s eye-roll. “It was an example, the Ball, you know that.”

“Sure…”

And they’re joking around, it’s fine and normal, at the end of the day they’re just teenage boys, but Fabian’s right. They fit together perfectly, like puzzle pieces.

They lie like that for a long while. The window fan whirs and a motorcycle passes beneath the apartment, engine revving as it goes. Riz has half a mind to think Fabian’s asleep, his breathing steady and even. A breeze carries in the smell of new mulch, and it suddenly hits Riz that it’s spring, it’s senior year, and this might never happen again. Friend groups don’t tend to last through college, and while they all hope that preventing the end of the world multiple times would create an unshakable bond, not even Adaine’s oracle powers could know what’s in store for the Bad Kids. Riz takes a picture in his mind of this moment, the smell of the spring air, the warmth that emanates from the surface of Fabian’s skin, the feeling of the two of them together, teenage and drunk and stupid, alone in his childhood bedroom. Fabian’s breath stutters for a moment, and Riz wonders if he’s thinking the same thing.

“Hey, Riz,” He murmurs, and Riz is so completely distanced from the waking world that he doesn’t even clock the absence of his nickname. It seems normal in this strange twilight.

“Yeah?” He says. It feels wrong to speak above a whisper.

“I get it,” Fabian says slowly. “Earlier tonight, when you were talking about wanting to be normal. I mean, I agree with what everyone was saying about how, you know, your uniqueness makes you special, but I get just wanting to be normal.”

Riz doesn’t reply. He doesn’t know what kind of response would be enough, or what would be too much.

“It’s like, when I was with Aelwyn,” Fabian continues, and Riz unconsciously perks up. It’s not all the time Fabian talks about his fling with Aelwyn, and he can probably count on one hand the amount of time he’s talked about their breakup. “It would’ve been so easy to be with her and be normal. The Bloodrush captain, the hot upperclassman, all that. And I think she wanted that normalcy too, I think that’s the only reason we stayed together for as long as we did. Even after I broke up with her I kept kicking myself like, why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you just try and grow to love her?” He seems to run out of steam at the end, cutting himself off with a sigh.

“I thought she broke up with you,” Riz says.

“Well, that’s what I told everyone. Like I said,” he laughs a little, “it was all about looking normal. If I had said I broke up with her, it would invite questions.”

Fabian lifts a hand to the back of Riz’s head and absentmindedly runs his fingers through Riz’s hair. It certainly doesn’t help Riz’s mind stay on topic with the Fabian-Aelwyn conversation. “What happened?” Riz can’t help but wonder, even though that’s clearly the one question Fabian hadn’t wanted people to ask.

Fabian is silent for a second, mindlessly playing with Riz’s hair, his touch feather-light. “It’s complicated,” he starts. “But I guess one story of it is that I was talking with Gorgug once and he asked me if I had ever thought about what my wedding with Aelwyn might be like and I said no, I don’t think about that kind of shit, and he said he thought about that kind of stuff all the time with Zelda and that if I couldn’t picture that, maybe I subconsciously couldn’t imagine a future with her. And then that night I had a dream that we were getting married but then you stood up and shot me and also Chungledown Bim was there, and when I woke up I realized that I didn’t really love her in the way I thought I did.”

“Holy shit,” is all Riz can think of to say. “You’re insane.”

“Yes, well, so are you,” Fabian retorts fondly and lays his hand on the back of Riz’s head, his fingers nestled in the thicket of hair.

They lapse back into silence, and the thing that had been bending between them seems to have snapped from the pressure like the breaking of a dam. It’s different now, being tucked up against Fabian and knowing a truth that most likely nobody else knows. He wonders if this is Fabian making up for truth or dare earlier, if he’s just continuing the game. If Riz scooching forward across the mattress to accept his embrace was really him accepting a dare, just one of a different sort. Four years ago this would have never happened. Riz sends a quiet thanks to the universe for sending them on the treacherous path that led them to this moment, this tender and vulnerable night.

“We won’t remember this in the morning, right?” Fabian asks. There’s a different question that he wants to ask, Riz knows, but he understands the underlying meaning.

“No,” Riz promises, and it’s an unspoken agreement that no matter what they do remember, this conversation is not to be brought up again, simply filed away in the deepest recesses of memory. Vulnerability is hard but it’s a little easier after a party, when you can still use the excuse of an inhibited mind to cover your back. “We’re too drunk.”

And slowly, as the sun rises over Elmville, curled up against each other like scared children taking solace in each other’s presence, Riz and Fabian succumb to sleep.

~

Riz used to be fine with being alone. And he still is, for the most part. He can, theoretically, go a while without seeing a soul and never even really notice, his head completely in the sand as he works himself to the bone. It’s not healthy, he knows, but it’s efficient. The problem, though, is that after four years of being in an adventuring party, you start to get kind of… codependent.

He hasn’t spent a Friday night alone since sophomore year, and he can’t remember the last time he went a weekend without some sort of interaction with his friends. It’s Friday again, the day before the final Bloodrush game of the spring season, and Fabian and Gorgug are off at practice, Fig is hanging with Ayda, and Adaine has been begrudgingly roped into some oracle duties that sound painfully boring. Tracker’s out of town with Ragh, which is the only reason why Kristen’s here with Riz, huddled on the living room couch in an eerily quiet Mordred Manor. Jawbone’s there, Riz had seen him when he came in, but he disappeared into the backyard to work on an old, rusty classic car he’s been ‘fixing up’ for over a year. Riz doesn’t know much about cars, but he’s pretty sure all Jawbone is doing is tightening and loosening random bolts and hoping something happens.

It’s not a girl’s night, so Kristen didn’t make cupcakes. Instead, they eat chips directly out of the bag and scrounge around the cupboards for something, anything, sugary. Kristen’s got a wicked sweet tooth and Riz will eat anything, so halfway through a documentary about ghost towns in the Red Waste they end up eating straight semisweet chocolate chips out of their hands like horses eating from a trough and it feels right in its ridiculousness.

Riz and Kristen don’t get a lot of one-on-one time together, but he cherishes it whenever they do. Kristen is loose in a way Riz isn’t, easy and messy in regards to everything. Cassandra fits her, and she seems to revel in that space of not knowing and the acceptance of that loss of control. It’s a delicate balance that she’s perfected and that Riz is eternally jealous of. Too many times he’s seen her shrug off a bad grade that would’ve sent him spiraling for a week. It’s the kind of ‘if I don’t know it by midnight, I don’t know it’ mentality that he’s always longed for, but the lack of it makes him stay up until 5 am studying for tests the next morning. Now, though, Kristen is just herself, her socked feet propped up on the coffee table and one arm elbow-deep in the almost-empty chip bag.

The documentary ends at 7:30, so they find leftover pizza in the fridge and eat it cold while they turn on a new movie, a semi-fictional tale about fishermen who also sing sea shanties or something, Riz doesn’t completely follow. But early on in the film, as the grizzled old seadogs sing about rolling the old chariot along, Kristen remarks, “I feel like Fabian should be here.”

And she’s right, Fabian would enjoy this much more than Riz does, but something about her saying that seems to knock something loose in Riz’s chest, right between his ribs. Kristen sits slouched on the couch, her hair frizzing in the spring humidity, wearing mismatched socks. She’s messy and she always has a crazy plan and Riz has always been slightly in awe of the way her mind works, and maybe it’s because of that or maybe it’s because one of her socks has little skeletons on it and the other has little lemons, but Riz takes a page from her book and blurts, “I think I might be in love with him.”

Kristen whips her head around so fast you’d think Riz had shot a gun off in the middle of the living room. A pit opens up in Riz’s gut and he thinks that maybe the thing that came loose just then was the clamp around his heart, the little lockbox he had built around the deepest, inner parts of him. Secrets are safe, they’re simple. Loose lips sink ships. And he’s just laid himself bare before Kristen, who he knows would never judge him, but it’s terrifying nonetheless, like standing armorless in the middle of crossfire.

“Oh my god,” is all she says at first. There’s a long moment as both of them try to think of what to say. “You’re in love with Fabian?”

The movie is still playing. Riz is glad neither of them paused it; it’s kind of nice to have the background noise to take a little bit of the edge off of such a drastic confession. “I think so. I don’t really know what it’s supposed to feel like.”

Kristen shifts to face him fully, tucking her legs under her. “It’s not supposed to feel like anything. Everyone has their own definition. I just- I’m sorry, I, uh, I thought you were asexual.”

“Me too,” Riz says, slightly sardonically. “Or, I might still be. Or… fuck, I don’t know. I don’t know, Kristen!”

“How’d you get a hand on my prayer book?” She jokes. But then she softens, leaning her head on the back of the couch, and looks at Riz with such compassion that for a moment he thinks she might’ve cast Cure Wounds on him without him noticing before realizing that that’s stupid, that’s just what it’s like to be comforted. “But seriously, dude, I get it. I know I’m like, confident about all that stuff with Tracker and shit, but you remember how I was freshman year. None of this is ever easy.”

Riz sighs. “It was easy before. I didn’t want to kiss or anything, I had a nice neat label, Adaine and I had something to bond over. I thought I had done all my figuring out back in middle school when everyone else was going girl-crazy and I wasn’t, you know? And now there’s more figuring out, and I don’t even know if it’ll be worth it.”

“Wait, wait, what do you mean not worth it? Of course it’s worth it, Riz, you don’t want to go through life not knowing who you really are.”

“That’s not what I mean,” he grouses, and buries his face in one of the throw pillows. Kristen waits patiently for him to continue and Riz wishes that she would just go ahead and explain everything, give him the secret gay manual that he knows doesn’t exist but that he really, really, wishes does.

“Do you want to have sex with Fabian?” Kristen asks, and it’s so out of left field that for a moment he lifts his head from the pillow to look up at her. She looks earnest in the question.

So Riz thinks and tries to picture all the stuff he’s seen in movies and in the bare-bones, state-sanctioned health courses mandated at school and tries to imagine himself in those situations in any light that would seem appealing. His nose crinkles a little unintentionally. “Definitely not.”

Kristen hums and dives back into the chip bag. “Do you want to kiss him?” She asks around a mouthful of sour cream and onion.

And that’s a slightly easier answer. It seems gross in actuality, but Riz wants those moments in movies when the heroes kiss and the orchestra gets big and loud as the screen fades off into the sunset. Maybe he doesn’t want to kiss, maybe he just wants the dramatic swell of music. “Theoretically,” he says. “In practice, though, I’m not sure. I’ve only ever been kissed by you before.”

Kristen snickers. “I forgot about that.” She looks up at the popcorn ceiling as if asking for divine intervention. “I mean, dating isn’t all kissing and sex. Would you want to, like, go out and share a milkshake with him?”

Riz frowns. “Isn’t that just friendship?”

“No, it’s different, agh, it’s hard to explain.” A line appears between her eyebrows. “I think love is like when you break a bone, you know? Plenty of people think they’ve broken something when they’ve just sprained their ankle, but if you’ve actually broken a bone, you know.”

And that’s probably the least helpful thing Kristen could possibly say. “Okay, so maybe I don’t actually love Fabian. Maybe we’re just good friends and I don’t know how that feels and I’ve got, I don’t know, leftover puberty hormones that have nowhere to go and latched onto him or something. But what if I try to date him or someone else and then after we’ve already dated I realize that I don’t really like them in that way? I don’t even know if I could ever really love someone, if I could love them back like they would hypothetically love me. Like, am I gay even if I don’t know if I really could love anyone the right way, and am I really ace if I think I love Fabian? Aroace people don’t think this kind of shit, right? I know for a fact Adaine doesn’t.”

Kristen hums. “Okay, there’s a lot to unpack there,” she says in a light attempt at humor, and Riz is honestly a little impressed that she could understand all of his monologue that he had mumbled into a pillow. He’s also eternally grateful that she’s being Kristen, that she’s trying to be funny and not too guidance-counselory, which is exactly what he wants. “Dude, there’s not a ‘right way’ to love someone. I don’t know where you got that idea- well I do, I watch the same fucking TV as you do, but not every relationship is like the ones they have in the crappy romance movies Fig makes us watch.”

“Don’t pin that all on Fig,” Riz butts in, “you make us watch plenty too.”

“That’s fair,” Kristen concedes. “I don’t- everyone’s brains are built differently, so everyone’s idea of love is completely different. And who cares if you don’t know if you love Fabian or not- or any theoretical person- if they love you back, it won’t matter.”

Riz sighs into his pillow. It’s soft and bright red: it reads ‘ALL ARE WELCOME HERE’ in curly white letters. “I know that conceptually, but believing it is another beast.”

“I know,” Kristen says, and she pats his head like he’s a sad child. In a way, he is. “I know. Do you want to keep watching the movie? Because we’ll have to rewind, like, ten minutes.”

“Let’s get some more food,” he suggests instead. Watching the fishing boats cut about the water seems about as unpalatable as it gets right now.

They make microwave popcorn and they argue about what to put on it, and things seem to go back to normal. Except not really, because things will never really be ‘normal’ again. Kristen will never see him quite the same, and their dynamic will have forever shifted. Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse, but definitely different. “You know,” Kristen says as she watches the bag of popcorn inflate in the microwave, “it’s hard to move on from things that you’ve lived with for a while. I still have playlists that are just of Helioic songs from when I was a kid. Nostalgia, you know. My childhood was shitty but it wasn’t all bad, not like Adaine’s or anything. My parents still loved me most of the time, they were just shitty, shitty people. Besides, some of those songs are straight bangers. So I get it. It’s hard to let go of something that you’ve gotten used to for a long time.”

“I think I still might be ace, though. I’ll get back to you on that.” Riz spins the salt shaker around just to have something to do with his hands, but it falls over and spills a little on the counter. He sweeps it into his palm and dumps it in the sink. “Just… Fabian.”

“Fabian,” Kristen repeats, and it’s with a laugh of disbelief. “Really?”

“What’s wrong with Fabian?” Riz protests. The microwave goes off with a loud beep and Kristen grabs the packet of popcorn immediately, burning her fingertips.

“Fabian,” she just repeats again, blowing on her hands. “You couldn’t have chosen Gorgug?”

Riz laughs. “Do you have some grudge against Fabian that I don’t know about?”

“No, no, he’s fine.” She waves him off, eyes watering, and sticks her hands under a stream of cold water from the sink. She could use a heal on herself, but Kristen tends to do things the old-fashioned way. “Just… boy. Fabian.”

“I’m going to tell him about this,” Riz threatens. “He’ll fucking... duel you to defend his honor or some shit.”

“I’d win,” Kristen shoots back, “and I’d tell him that he was your gay awakening.”

Riz has been studying battle for four years at Aguefort Adventuring Academy, in which he has learned one invaluable skill: know when you’ve been beat.

They compromise on the popcorn and make one bowl with M&Ms and one bowl with Old Bay. Both of them agree it’s better with the two options. They find a new movie about the death of hitchhiking and Kristen leans her head on Riz’s shoulder as they watch. She has to lie almost horizontally to reach, but the message doesn’t go unnoticed by Riz. He appreciates it. Kristen wears mismatched socks and has too few boundaries when talking about her sexcapades with her girlfriend, but she’s kind and she’s deadly powerful and Riz is eternally grateful that she’s his friend.

He tells her such when the movie’s over. “I love you too, man,” she says. “I’d invite you to stay for a sleepover, but Tracker’s going to be home in a little bit and if I’m being honest, I’d advise you to get out of dodge before she gets here. Just a word to the wise.”

Riz just sends her off with a hug and takes the bus home, and for the first time since it happened he lets himself think about the night of the spring concert, tearing through the city on the Hangman and the shared silence of the apartment with Fabian as they both slowly surrendered to sleep.

~

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Fabian is saying, which is really his way of admitting that someone had come up with a smart idea and he’s doing his honest best to compliment them on it.

“It’s not anything out of the ordinary,” Riz counters, because he’s never been able to take a compliment a day in his life. “But if we record it, we won’t have to write down the data between each round, we can just watch the video back afterwards.”

“And the fight will be more natural if we don’t break between every round,” Fabian muses. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re just a pretty face, the Ball.”

Riz has heard that at schools like Mumple, science labs include things like rolling marbles down ramps and mixing chemicals. At Aguefort, a physics lab means meeting Fabian in the expansive gardens behind Seacaster manor and dueling for a grade.

It’s late spring, only a week or so until graduation (Riz decides that if he doesn’t know when it’ll come, it never will), and as the flowers in Elmville yards fill the air with almost sickening sweetness, the Bad Kids struggle through their finals. This one is pretty easy, as finals go: choose a partner, spar for a little bit, calculate the vectors of your motion, and figure out more mathematically efficient ways to fight using that data. Standing in Fabian’s backyard in the hot sun, sweating through a too-big t-shirt, loosely holding the Sword of Shadows and watching Fabian stretch, it reminds Riz of the summer, when they would do this every Saturday at 10 am on the dot, rain or shine. Those were his favorite days; it was nice to get practicing in and Fabian was certainly a formidable dueling partner, but it was also nice to walk home and see in the bathroom mirror new freckles that had popped up on his nose, to be brought cold lemonade by Cathilda, to walk four blocks to Basrar’s with Fabian afterwards.

There were a few times when they would spend the rest of the day together, going out to get pizza and eating in the park, taking the Hangman down to the harbor, not even minding the long drive, talking about future prospects and class schedules and crushes (Fabian) and books they wanted to read (Riz). Those days stick in Riz’s mind as a respite from his otherwise mediocre summer spent holed up in his office or stocking shelves at the shoe store 12 hours a week. It’s always good to get out in the sun, get the blood pumping, get back on the horse for the school year so that you’re not out of shape by the time the first day rolls around.

Now, though, it’s not quite like it was in the dead heat of August, but it’s humid and bright and Riz knows he’ll definitely want to use the blinding sun to his advantage during the fight.

Fabian stands a few feet from him stretching his calves. Riz does his best not to stare. It’s strange; since putting a finger on that pesky word- love- it’s taken everything for Riz not to spill his guts every time Fabian walks by. It’s the nagging feeling of an exciting secret, one that you want more than anything to share but know you can’t. If Riz was any less of a closed book he probably would’ve confessed already. But he doesn’t, he keeps everything locked up like he always has, and he tries as well as he can to not act any differently around Fabian than he did before lest he figure it out on his own.

Fabian probably wouldn’t figure it out, but still. Better to be safe than sorry.

“You ready, the Ball?” Fabian asks, picking up his sword and giving it an experimental twirl, getting the heft of it into his body. Riz goes over to the crystal they’ve set up to record and presses play, and within a second they’re off.

Fabian strikes first like he always does, cutting hard across where Riz had been standing just a split second earlier. This is how it goes: Fabian attacks and tries to tire Riz out, Riz dodges and tries to get Fabian off-balance. They’ve become more evenly matched after a year of sparring. In June, when they had first started, Fabian had won fight after fight, until Riz became intimately familiar with the sight of looking up from the ground at Fabian’s outstretched hand, sweaty and a little grimy from the leather of his sword hilt.

Riz still gets knocked down plenty; after all, Fabian’s probably been swordfighting since he could walk and Riz only really started what, in late middle school? Whenever it was that he decided he was going to Aguefort or bust and bullied his mom into letting him train. Fabian makes a swipe for Riz’s shoulder that he dodges easily. He cuts downwards at Fabian’s left ankle, causing him to jump back to avoid getting a peg leg, and Riz relishes the little rush of victory in knowing that he’s gotten Fabian off his rhythm.

The problem with having sparred with each other for months on end is that the fight feels like it lasts forever before either of them begin to get the upper hand. They know each other, they can infer and avoid the next attack. They don’t make the kind of stupid mistakes they used to, like going to far on defense or staying rooted to one spot. Riz can feel the sleeves of his shirt sticking to his arms, damp with sweat, but doesn’t let himself act on the urge to mess with his clothes or wipe his forehead because Fabian doesn’t do that and he knows for a fact he’d take those moments of vulnerability for their full value and within a moment Riz would be down. So instead he pushes through it.

His fatal blunder comes after what feels like an hour of fighting: Fabian crosscuts, Riz rolls to the side, and before he can come back to standing Fabian’s boot comes down hard in the grass next to his elbow and Riz looks up to see the sharp point of a blade beneath his chin. “Damn.” Riz inhales deeply and wonderfully- he had felt out of breath that entire time- and falls back onto the ground, knowing he’s been bested.

Fabian steps back and sheaths his sword with an easy spin and runs his hand through his hair, wild from the duel. There, haloed by the sunlight, casual and relaxed, it takes all the strength in Riz not to tell Fabian that he loves him right then and there. It’s kind of fascinating, really, the offhand things that Fabian does every day to make Riz fall a little more in love with him each time. Nonchalant and cool, that’s Fabian, and Riz wonders if he’s aware of the way he absentmindedly makes people love him. Probably. He was asked to prom by six different seniors last year.

“Good game,” Fabian says and reaches his hand out. The grass tickles Riz’s ears and he looks up to a sight more commonplace than his own face in the mirror. The sky is a backdrop of perfect, undisturbed blue behind Fabian’s head and small beads of sweat gone unnoticed by his temples gleam in the sun.

All at once it hits Riz how much he’s scared to leave this, to graduate and go to college and let Fabian explore the world and let all his friends go their separate ways. He doesn’t know how it could possibly be better than this.

“C’mon, the Ball,” Fabian continues when Riz doesn’t take his hand the first time. “You can do the actual work at Basrar’s, sound good?”

“I think you mean we can do the work at Basrar’s,” Riz corrects and clasps Fabian’s hand in his own, a little damp but just as steady as he remembers.

“That’s what I said,” Fabian grins, even though both of them know full well that’s not the truth.

~

“I can’t believe this is it,” Fig laments, starfished on the ground, half in the grass and half on top of Ayda’s outstretched legs. “Our last high school party.” She says it like it’s a mythical thing, like ‘the last fae wild’ or something.

She’s not wrong, though. This is it. They’ve done graduation, they’ve done college commitments, they’ve done prom. Now, the evening after they got their diplomas, they’re all gathered in the backyard of Mordred Manor, lazily tending a bonfire and mourning their high school years. “Not much of a party,” Kristen says.

It feels like they used up all their partying earlier in the week, causing chaos at prom and partaking in what was essentially a drag race between the Hangman and the van the night before graduation. They’re not even drinking tonight, just sitting and enjoying each other’s company. And it’s far from the last time they’ll see each other; they’ll have summer and they’ll have college and everything beyond, and even when they split up they can call each other from practically anywhere on the planet. But realistically, summer will probably be a bust: Adaine is doing that public policy internship and Fig and the Cig Figs are doing one final tour and Fabian is working on his ship and Riz is getting a job at the local newspaper in addition to his PI work. So they won’t be able to really spend a lot of time together, and then they’ll all go their separate ways after the summer. So sitting in the grass as the evening creeps on, it really does feel like the end of something big.

“It feels like just yesterday I was fifteen,” Fig bemoans.

“Okay, enough of that,” Adaine says, effectively cutting off Fig’s pain train. “We get enough of the ‘you grow up so fast’ from Jawbone.”

They all not-so-subtly glance at the window of the kitchen, where all of the assembled parents and guardians are doing the same thing the kids are, just with wine coolers and baby pictures. And there is no universe in which Riz wants Sandralynn Faeth to see his fifth grade yearbook, which he didn’t even know existed until tonight. “Agreed,” Fabian chimes in. “It’s our last high school party, and it can’t be spent sitting around and feeling sorry for ourselves.”

“I have an idea!” Kristen punctuates the sentence by throwing a pinecone into the fire. It crackles and sparks, sending a burning ember directly into Ayda’s hair, who doesn’t even notice. “I say we play every party game as a last hurrah. Truth or dare, spin the bottle, all of it.”

“We are not playing spin the bottle,” Adaine says with the confidence of someone who’s already been kissed once by Kristen and has no interest in repeating the experience.

“We’ll come back to it,” Kristen yields.

“Seven minutes in heaven in the shed,” Fig suggests, half joking, still lying flat in the grass.

“Yes!” Kristen cries, and she’s a little too into the idea for comfort.

“Oh, come on,” Riz complains. “This is just so the couples can make out and you can torture the rest of us single people.”

Across the bonfire, through the screen of flickering flame, Fig gasps in a way that seems just a tiny bit mocking. Ayda is braiding her hair unsuccessfully, but she doesn’t really seem to mind. “You’re so smart, Riz,” she gushes, “I think because you figured it out, you and Fabian should have to go first.”

What?” Fabian cries. He’s next to Riz, throwing pinkie-sized sticks on the fire at a near constant rate. Riz had tried not to read too far into it when Fabian had plopped down in the grass next to him at the beginning of the party with a gleeful, ‘ahoy-hoy, the Ball.’ “Why me?”

“You’re unattached,” Fig answers easily. “Unless you’re still hung up on Aelwyn…” she teases, drawing out the name and making the tips of Fabian’s ears flush, even though Riz knows it’s more from being put on the spot than any lingering crush.

“Besides,” Kristen adds, “we all know if we put Riz and Adaine in the shed they’d just solve the Zodiac cypher or something.”

“Oh, and you think Riz and I will do something juicy?” Fabian protests.

“You never know,” Kristen says with a far-too-pleased shrug. Riz wishes death upon her.

“Fine,” Fabian cedes diplomatically, standing and dusting himself off. “I’ll do seven minutes in heaven with our little angel.”

“I can’t be the only one, right?” Fig asks. “That was a pickup line. No, it was! It was fully a pickup line!”

“I’ll hit you,” Riz threatens.

“I’d grind you into dust, loverboy,” Fig shoots back with a grin.

The shed is a small, ramshackle thing half-hidden by vines and bushes. It’s far in the corner of the backyard, right on the border where the grass becomes wild forest. There’s a road only about fifty feet through the small wooded area that leads to some other quaint suburban street, but the twisting branches form almost a wall that makes Mordred Manor feel wonderfully secluded. The shed was there when they moved in and hasn’t been touched since, whitewash peeling from the shiplap and a window with a large crack down the middle that’s been pieced back together with duct tape and a half-assed Mending spell. Kristen shepherds them both in and Riz can hear the lock on the door audibly click.

It’s immediately claustrophobic in the small shed. It’s tiny, especially with both of them in there, even though Riz doesn’t take up a lot of space. Fabian’s back is pressed up against the handle of an old lawnmower and Riz can’t stop looking at the hoe hung on two rusty nails that looks ready to drop on their heads and decapitate them at any moment. “Alright,” Fabian says with an awkward clap of his hands, but Riz is pretty sure he’s just trying to fill the silence. June in a five-by-five shed is hot and Riz instantly starts sweating.

“This is dumb,” he says, and turns to the door to see if there’s some way to unlock it from inside.

“Very dumb,” Fabian agrees absentmindedly, fanning himself with his hands. “At least it’s not spin the bottle.”

“Yeah. Don’t fan with your hands like that, it just uses more energy and makes you hotter in the long run.” There’s not even a doorknob on the inside of the door, just a blank slab of wood on hinges, and it’s one of those locks with the bar that slides over on the outside, so there’s really no way to get out that way. Riz pushes past Fabian to investigate the other side of the shed, perching on top of the lawnmower like a bird on a fencepost. Fabian looks at him like he’s just invented the wheel, and something about it makes Riz suddenly self-conscious. He’s about to say something when Fabian cuts in.

“Do you think they really thought we’d do something?” He asks, leaning casually against the wall. It looks a little too staged.

“I don’t know,” Riz says. In the corner of the shed is a hinge, which means there’s got to be something it leads to, like another door. He keeps looking. “They’re weird.” He doesn’t mention the fact that both Fig and Kristen, the ringleaders of this whole thing, are the only two people who know about his crush on Fabian. He wishes he was in here with Adaine. She’d be nice to talk to right now.

“They must’ve had some reason, right?” Fabian continues. Riz doesn’t really hear him. In the upper corner there’s another hinge, and then on the other side there’s a small crack in the wall, and Riz can see a small latch on the other side that maybe, if he could get his hands on a nail or a pin or something, he could get open.

“Help me look for a nail,” Riz interrupts. “We’re breaking out of here.”

“Oh,” Fabian says, and doesn’t move for a second, just watches Riz kneel down and inspect the edges of the shed for any loose nails.

It’s Fabian who finds the nail, sitting next to an empty terracotta flowerpot on a shelf far out of Riz’s reach. Riz takes it and goes about jimmying the lock; it only takes about ten seconds before he hears a telltale click and the door on the back wall begins to move. He holds it in place. “Here’s the plan,” he says. Fabian listens intently. “I think this door is probably to get the lawnmower out or something, but it opens up into the woods, and it’s so overgrown back here that if we sneak out, they probably won’t see us. We get out, stay quiet, and make a break for it. Got it?”

Fabian nods. “Alright, but… why? We could just wait for them to come let us out. It’s probably been a minute or two already.”

“Do you want to stay in this sweatbox any longer?”

“No, okay, I get it. Where do we go when we’re out?”

Riz thinks for a second. “We’ll figure it out on the way.”

And with a silent countdown from three, Riz pushes open the back door and they stumble out into the fresh air. There’s a bike leaned up against the shed, red with streamers tied to the spokes, and Fabian points frantically, grabbing it and hopping on without a word. He pats the handlebars and Riz is no stranger to silent communication, they’ve done it god knows how many times on the battlefield, so he jumps right up and they’re off. It’s bumpy terrain and Riz has to really hold on to avoid flying off. The farther away they get from the shed the louder they get, with hissed whispers like ‘faster!’ and ‘move your head, I can’t see anything,’ and ‘should we have left a note?’

They make it to the street, a quiet little pastel neighborhood, and Fabian flies down the road on the little bike at speeds previously only matched by the Hangman. It’s thrilling, balanced precariously on the handlebars between Fabian’s hands, his breath heavy and hot on Riz’s neck, the excitement of having snuck out under the guise of night. Remember this, Riz thinks. Remember this feeling. It feels only right, that this end of an era should finish with such a cinematic moment. Fabian will go off sailing and Riz will go to college and they’ll never have this again, they’ll never just be two teenagers on a child’s bike bolting down the street again. A car passes them slowly, as if trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing, and they holler at it as if it’s the opposing team at a Bloodrush game. When they’re not adventuring, when they’re just living their lives at home, Riz doesn’t do this kind of thing a lot, be wild and spontaneous, but he’s forever grateful whenever he is, whenever he’s forced into an Experience. He thinks about Fabian, about how it’s often Fabian who’s dragging him out of hermitage, and how maybe Fabian cares more than Riz thinks he does. That maybe this is just his way of showing love. Gift giving, that’s Fabian’s thing, and what is this, this freedom of a summer night, if not a gift?

Riz tips his head up to the sky and laughs, tries to expel the glee that bubbles in his chest out towards the sky. Fabian laughs behind him and goes faster, pedals whirring as they careen around a corner, nearly sending Riz tumbling to the ground.

They end up at the elementary school when Fabian pulls over onto the sidewalk and heaves in a breath. When he gets off the bike, his legs shake. “Are we going to the playground?” Riz asks, looking out over the squat building, lit red from the inside by the exit signs in the hallways.

“I suppose so,” Fabian says. “I didn’t really mean to come here.”

“Come on,” Riz says, and together they walk behind the elementary school and take a seat on the swings.

It’s dark and a little spooky on the lonely playground, the nearly full moon making the tall play structures cast wispy shadows across the wood chip ground. Riz keeps his head on a swivel, always looking around to make sure no one will sneak up on them. And either they’re completely surrounded by ghosts or Riz is extremely paranoid because he keeps seeing figures in the distance that disappear in the blink of an eye, small person-shaped blobs that dissolve back into shadows if he looks at them for too long. It’s a little eerie, and Riz is glad Fabian’s there with him.

It’s dead silent on the playground save for the chains on the swingset, which squeal like a dying cat the higher they swing. Fabian quickly gains height, pumping his legs with a vigor that brings him nearly parallel to the top of the swingset and makes the chains go slack for one second as he seems to hang in midair before flying back downwards to the ground and completing the parabola again. Riz gets pretty high but he’s not trying to be in competition with Fabian, he’s not set on going all the way around like Fabian seems to be. Instead he just swings and looks around, looks at Fabian’s trajectory and the corners of the school where imaginary phantoms linger. The distant flashes of car headlights pass behind the trees, illuminating the Gashbat field in white light for a moment at a time before fading away down the road. Fabian slows his ascent until he’s more in line with Riz’s speed, the two of them lazily swinging side by side.

After a little while Riz jumps off, his feet spraying the wood chips out from where he lands, and looks at the rickety swingset. “Do you think I can still climb this?” He asks, but it’s mainly rhetorical. Fabian watches as Riz plants his feet on the almost vertical metal pole and slowly, one hand over the other, clambers up until he reaches the top, the junction where the upright poles and the top crossbeam meet, and sits.

Fabian cranes his neck to look up at him. “Ever the acrobat, the Ball.”

“I used to do that all the time at recess,” Riz remembers. He glances out at the school, tries to recall where his classrooms were, takes in the old playground haunts he used to go to every day. When was the last time he’s been here? It’s been years at the very least. Fabian swings beneath him and the chains still creak, the swingset wobbling a little with the velocity of it. It feels startlingly poignant, sitting on the elementary school swings the day after graduation. “Do you remember field day? Those were always crazy.”

“I came to Solace in seventh grade,” Fabian reminds him.

Weird. Riz had forgotten that there was a time before Fabian was in his life, before he was even in the country.

“Well, field day was great. It was in the summer, right before school ended, so we’d always play water games and get soaked. And they’d always give us popsicles at the end of the day.” Riz can’t help the small sigh that escapes him. “They should have something like that in high school.”

“They do, it’s called a battle.” Fabian laughs a little at his own joke. “I was never really in school as a kid, but when we’d stop in a town for longer than usual sometimes papa would just drop me in the nearest school and let the teachers deal with me, and I remember there was one time that we went on a trip to the zoo. I think there was a worksheet I was supposed to do, but we left the next day anyway, so it didn’t really matter.”

Riz snorts. “Your dad would just drop you off at some random school? Those poor teachers.”

“I know,” Fabian agrees. “I hope he paid them handsomely.”

They get off the swings (or rather, Riz slides down the pole like a fireman) and explore the rest of the playground, chatting a little but mostly just sitting in each other’s company, trying to relive their childhoods. Fabian climbs the kid-sized rock wall in two seconds, as he’s practically the size of it. They race up slides the wrong way, their shoes squeaking on the plastic, barreling upwards on all fours like rabid animals. Fabian always wins, purely because he covers more ground. They sit on top of the monkey bars, legs dangling, and talk about what life will be like after graduation.

“It’s crazy,” Riz says at one point. “All of this stuff, graduation and college and all of it, it’s all stuff I feel like I’ve been looking forward to my entire life, and it’s always been way off in the future, but it’s now. In three months I’ll be living in Bastion City and you’ll be off sailing the seven seas or whatever the hell you’ll be doing. Three months.”

“It sort of felt like high school would never end,” Fabian agrees.

And they’re teenage adventurers so they can never stay in one place for too long, so when they’ve exhausted the fun of the playground they find themselves on the field just off of the Gashbat diamond, lying among the spread of yellow dandelions, a dull butter color in the dark.

Riz’s crystal buzzes in his pocket and he takes it out to see one missed call from Fig and a text from half an hour ago from Adaine in a group chat with her and Riz and Fabian lovingly titled ‘Dead Dads Club’ that reads, “where the hell are you?”

Riz doesn’t call Fig back, but he does text Adaine saying, “none of your business. We’re alive, though.”

It’s a cloudless night, and in the open space of the field the sky stretches out in infinity before them. It’s never been particularly starry in Elmville what with light pollution and all, but Riz thinks that tonight he sees more stars than he ever has. Fabian lies beside him, pointing up at the sky and identifying constellations. He has weird names for them, probably ones that Bill Seacaster had made up and taught him as a kid, and he knows which ones to follow to get anywhere on the globe.

For a long time they just lie there, flat on their backs, shoulder to shoulder, looking up at the sky in a comfortable silence. Riz knows Fabian is probably itching to fill the quiet with more babble, but he appreciates that he’s holding back. Or maybe Fabian also enjoys the easy peace between them.

“I’m going to miss you,” Riz says into the night. The stars hear him and echo his sentiment.

“I’ll miss you too,” Fabian says, and it’s the first time he’s said anything of the sort.

“You won’t be so busy kissing pirate ladies that you won’t even think of us?” Riz teases.

“Eh, pirate ladies are all ugly. Not my type.”

“What is your type? Pretty blonde elves with names that start with A?” Riz laughs as Fabian hits his arm just hard enough to sting. “Just people you can’t get?”

Fabian smiles a little. It gets slightly lost on his face, obscured by shadow and the modulation of Riz’s darkvision. “Nail on the head, the Ball.”

It’s an interesting response, and one that Riz quickly files away for later. For one terrifying moment, heart-stopping like he’d just gone over a hill on a rollercoaster, Riz thinks that maybe Fabian’s talking about him. But it goes away as quickly as it comes when Riz’s rational side takes over.

Riz keeps Fabian in his sightline. Fabian’s got one hand below his head and one resting on his stomach, gazing into the sky above them. He looks beautiful silhouetted in the moonlight, and for a moment Riz is reminded of sophomore year with the elves, watching Fabian dance with his sheet through the night. He had been like this then, loose and illuminated and wholly himself. And that’s when he’s the most beautiful.

Riz never cared about the Fabian that all the other people at school did, the Fabian that jogs out onto the field at Bloodrush games with the presence of a king and takes off his helmet at halftime to make sure the folks in the bleachers can see him glowing with confidence, the Fabian that kicks his feet up on the seat next to him in the cafeteria and demands attention, the Fabian that offers a dashing smile to anyone and everyone he passes in the hallways. Riz finds himself loving his own Fabian the most, the one that is only known to the Bad Kids, Fabian in the morning after sleepovers, Fabian in the van singing to the radio, Fabian after battles sitting there and letting others clean his wounds. It’s oblivious, the kind of beauty that Fabian exudes in these moments, and Riz loves him all the more for it.

“The Ball,” Fabian ventures. It’s a little nervous, and the unease of it sets Riz on edge.

“Fabian Gabian,” Riz replies, hoping to take some of the tension off.

Fabian laughs. “I’m glad we’re best friends, the Ball.”

There’s something small in what he says that doesn’t go unnoticed by Riz. ‘We’re friends,’ Fabian had said. Not ‘I’m glad you’re my best friend,’ but a direct confirmation that Fabian is Riz’s best friend and Riz is Fabian’s right back. It’s the night after graduation and they’re best friends, officially, and Riz doesn’t let himself say anything for fear of confessing it all.

“The Ball?” Fabian says after a while of silence. Riz thinks about what to say. There’s not enough words in any language to fully encapsulate what he wants to say, the best way to tell Fabian how deeply Riz cares for him.

“I’m glad we’re best friends too,” he says eventually. “You mean more to me than you could possibly know.”

Fabian hums a little in acknowledgment. Riz makes himself sit in the pause, doesn’t give in to the urge to keep talking and cover his back, to try and smooth over the enormity of what he divulged.

Fabian takes a sharp inhale, and in a small voice earnestly attempting nonchalance, asks, “when did you start loving me?”

And in a moment Riz can feel all the normal functions of his body freeze: his veins stop pumping blood, his lungs stop processing air, his mouth stops producing saliva. He’s suspended in stasis as his mind reels, trying to keep up with the question and all its implications.

Well. If Fabian asked, that probably means he already knows. So there’s really no point in denying it at this point. And what if Riz spills his guts? What happens then? Fabian would say sorry, but he doesn’t see Riz in that way. He’s the Ball, perpetual friend, never anything more, and they’re not friends with him because of his feelings. They’re friends with him because of his brain, his dexterity, his quickness in a fray. And this, this mess of feelings can’t be attractive to Fabian, so he’d say he doesn’t like Riz in that way and they would stay friends, or so they’ll say, but Riz knows that it’s got to be weird to study with and hang out with and have sleepovers with someone who’s in love with you, so they would stop doing all that and they would live in an awkward zone of avoidance for the rest of their lives. Or. Or what if he reciprocates? What if Fabian likes Riz back, and they decide to be in a proper relationship, the kind with sex and stuff. Maybe Riz could… deal with it, but that wouldn’t be fair to Fabian, and it wouldn’t work out anyway, so they would break up because Riz couldn’t love him back in the way Fabian wants and they would be back to square one, shamefully co-inhabiting the space of their adventuring party until they leave for college and never see each other again. No matter which way you slice it, this only ends in one way: with whatever Riz and Fabian have built between them irreparably ruined.

But at the end of the day Riz is an investigator, not just a teenage boy, and he excels at piecing together information to get the right answer, and what is this if not a mystery to solve? Fabian asked, so Fabian knows. It’s a simple enough connection. But. Fabian asked. If he had been interested in only turning Riz down, he would’ve done so, not gone for this bizarre game of 20-questions. Fabian is a little dumb and a little rude sometimes, but he’s not cruel. Which means that most likely, Fabian cares, at least just a little, about what Riz has to say.

“The Ball?” Fabian asks, gentler this time, and Riz is reminded that time has been passing, although it feels awfully like he’s a bug being frozen in amber. “Did you hear what I said?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Riz responds, keeping his cards close to his chest. He’s reminded of Kalina, of talking with her and furiously trying to keep hold of any secrets they still had left.

Fabian sighs a little, a soft thing. “I think you do.”

“No, I don’t,” pushes Riz, and he’s shocked in his own confidence. “That’s a vague question, and you know it. When I started loving you? That’s not how these things work. I know you had Aelwyn and you like to say that that was love at first sight, but that’s not how it works for the majority of the population, it’s not like I woke up one morning and decided I loved you, it-”

Fabian’s breath hitches, and that’s how Riz knows that he’s fucked up.

Riz has perjured himself. His cards are on the table and he has confessed through a sneaky turn of phrase, the kind of thing Riz sees in his mother’s law books when he flips through them absentmindedly on sleepless nights, and Fabian is looking at him like he’s something he’s never seen before.

“You love me?” He says, and it’s barely a whisper.

This is not at all like love confessions they watch in movies at girl’s night. Riz’s tongue feels like sandpaper and he feels like he’s been stranded in battle without a weapon. But Fabian asked and Fabian cares, and the conspiracy board invents itself in his mind, filling the blanks with evidence he’d never really seen before. Fabian driving him home from school on the Hangman, Fabian sparring with him over the summer and holding out a hand to help him up, Fabian teaching him to dance in a way that might have been just a little flirtatious, Fabian lifting his arm in bed for Riz to tuck himself under, Fabian admitting his secrets and agreeing to go into seven minutes with heaven with him and wondering why they had to break out of the shed and sending them flying down the road on a rickety old bicycle and Fabian, now, lying in the grass and asking if Riz loves him. The conspiracy board makes itself, all Riz has to do is step back and look at the clues. And the clues are there. “What about you?”

“I- uh- well, I- what?”

Riz secretly likes it when Fabian splutters like that, when the mask falls and he’s just a normal kid like the rest of them. And against his better judgement, he’s overcome with a feeling of tenderness for his friend. Love. Riz sits up, props himself on one arm, looking down at Fabian. “You asked me a question, and I’m asking it back. What about you?”

“I…” Fabian’s gaze roams Riz’s face like he’s exploring brand new territory, except they’ve seen each other millions of times. He has no idea what Fabian is seeing in this moment. All he sees is Fabian.

“Do you-” he laughs a little, not borne out of genuine humor but out of disbelief in his own honesty; Riz knows the laugh. “Do you remember freshman year, after we defeated Kalvaxus, and I, uh, I went to cut off Dayne’s hand and you offered to bite out his eyes for me? I- I promise this will make sense soon, hold on. You offered to take his eyes and give them to me as a gift, or something, or a spoil of war, and it almost reminded me of my father? And I know that’s so weird to say right now, it’s so weird, I know, but papa always showed his affection in… strange ways like that. And I don’t know. It was the only kind of love I had known before then. And you- you offering to,” he laughs again and runs a hand through his hair, “I don’t think that’s when I started loving you, but. But looking back at it, I think that’s when I realized that you loved me.”

And Fabian has laid his cards out as well, he’s hoisted himself by his own petard, and suddenly the world seems to have shifted a little bit to the left.

There’s an uncomfortable kind of swelling in Riz’s chest, like an overfilled balloon. It presses against his ribcage in a desperate attempt to escape. Riz doesn’t try to smother the feeling. He lets himself feel, lets himself surrender into the lack of control, allows a pool of warmth to gather in his stomach. It seems wild and reckless to just feel, radically and freely, and he realizes that maybe this is how he should’ve been living his life up before now. “I think it’s funny that neither of us really answered the question,” Riz comments.

Fabian loosely shakes his head once, in a stunned sort of incredulity, and his smile is sloppy and careless as he says in one exhale, “can I kiss you?”

“Of course,” Riz says, and it’s as simple as breathing. And when Fabian lurches into a sitting position and presses their lips together he finds himself wondering, ‘this is what I spent so long stressing over? This is easy.’ And it is. It’s as easy as breathing. Loving Fabian is as easy as breathing.

Kissing isn’t what it’s like in the movies, but Riz has half a mind to think that’s the case for almost everything. At its core, it seems kind of stupid. Lips and spit. But that’s not where the fun comes in, he doesn’t think, the thrill is in Fabian’s left hand on his cheek and his right hand on his waist and Riz’s left hand around Fabian’s bicep and his right hand clutching the grass beneath them like he’ll float away if he dares let go. The thrill is in letting that balloon in his chest swell, allowing it to expand up from his lungs and into his throat until it feels near ready to explode. The thrill is Fabian, laughing softly against his lips, Fabian, holding Riz like a priceless artifact, Fabian, finally admitting to Riz that he loves him.

Maybe the fun isn’t in kissing. Maybe the fun is in Fabian.

Fabian breaks first, which is good because Riz isn’t totally sure when the appropriate time to stop kissing is.

He’s got the biggest fucking grin you’ve ever seen, the kind that crinkles his good eye and makes the diagonal shape of his scar warp. Riz takes him in, lets himself unashamedly regard Fabian in the way he had always wanted to, during classes and parties and driving in the Hangvan, but had never really let himself do. “I can’t believe you love me because I remind you of your dad,” he says, and he would regret ruining the moment for a bad joke like that if not for the way it makes Fabian blush and sputter and laugh.

“I- that’s not- it was a bad example, okay?”

“A swing and a miss.”

Fabian laughs again. Riz can feel the hot air on his face. “You’re awful.”

“You love me.”

Fabian drops back down onto the grass, looking up at Riz with something entirely indescribable in his gaze. “I do.” A soft wind blows past, ruffling Riz’s hair, and Fabian grins and looks like he’s seen the face of god. “Can we do that again?”

He’s still nervous and awkward and that nerdy side of Fabian that Riz loves so much is on full display, and Riz can’t help but lean down and kiss him.

Apparently Fabian likes his hair, because almost immediately his hand comes to rest where Riz’s neck meets his head and his fingers tangle in Riz’s hair and he’s never been so glad that he lost his hat way back in sophomore year. It was a bad look for him, he knows that now.

When he pulls away, Fabian’s face is still bright but oddly wistful. Fabian laughs a little, runs his hand over his face, and shakes his head in disbelief. “I- Riz… we can’t do this.”

And the earth that had shifted beneath Riz’s feet snaps back into place with a sickening jolt, like a car that stops too suddenly. It’s instantaneous, the way that Riz deflates, and he realizes just how precarious that joy he was feeling really was. Fabian looks immediately guilty and turns his head away, looking out towards the roof of the elementary school. Riz feels a little dizzy, he might need to lie down for a moment, but he keeps his head and says, coolly, “elaborate.”

Fabian sighs, a heavy thing, and gnaws at his thumbnail. “I love you, man, but I don’t think… I don’t think we can do this.” To his credit, he does look about as equally heartbroken as Riz feels. He takes a deep breath and continues. “Look, I’m not stupid. I’ve seen the way you look at me, I know- I’ve heard- I know how you think of me. And I- I mean, I’m flattered, but I’m just me, I’m not this- this mythical thing, and I don’t think I can ever truly be the person you want me to be.”

Riz can see, in about ten second’s time, two years of counseling with Jawbone leak out of Fabian, all the mantras about self-care and being kind to yourself spilling out onto the grass like an abandoned and half-full can of beer on the ground at a party. And Riz would be sympathetic if he wasn’t so offended. A small part of him thinks that oh god, Fabian has probably known about Riz’s crush for a while, maybe even before Riz did, but the much larger part of his mind just wants to give Fabian a clean right hook. Riz sits back on his heels with a huff, and Fabian looks up at him as if expecting the worst. “First of all,” Riz begins slowly, “fuck you. You don’t get to pretend to know what’s in my mind. And second, don’t kid yourself, asshole. Maybe I thought you were a little too cool in fucking freshman year, but it’s been a long time since then. I saw you on Leviathan, I saw your weird pirate porn that one time, I had to explain to you why trickle-down economics is stupid, which it is, by the way. You’re not some, I dunno, magical perfect sex god, and I can’t fathom why you would think I see you that way.”

Fabian breathes slowly, so deep and even that Riz would think him asleep if not for his open eye trained on the moon, a fat waxing gibbous in the sky. “You love me in spite of it,” he murmurs.

“Yeah,” Riz says. “I thought that was obvious, idiot.”

“I’m sorry,” Fabian says, and buries his face in his hands. “I had this whole plan for how I was going to win you over and confess and absolutely none of it went to plan. And now I’ve fucked it up, I’m sorry.”

“Hey, no, it’s cool.” Riz shifts a little, sits cross-legged next to Fabian. He likes looking down at Fabian. It’s not a common circumstance. But it’s an angle he doesn’t often get to see, like going to a museum after hours and being able to stand in front of the velvet ropes to take in the paintings. “I didn’t even have a plan.”

“What, were you just going to go off to college unconfessed?” Fabian asks incredulously.

“Probably,” Riz answers with a shrug. “Or maybe not. I don’t know. It hardly matters now.”

“That’s right,” Fabian says, and his grin is like the sun coming up. Riz falls back onto the grass, and when Fabian reaches over to take his hand he doesn’t even question it. They lie together in the field, flowers around their heads and feet, the stars extending up above them, upwards into infinity. It’s deeply personal, what they’ve built between them, but Riz thinks that maybe they’ve had an audience the whole time in the towering trees and the sloping hills behind the school, silent sentinels to be their witness, their softly budding romance to become only another ring around the trunk. It’s a small comfort, knowing that after they’re dead and gone that the stars will always know what passed between them under their careful watch.

They lie there, side by side, in silence, until dawn starts to streak across the sky. Fabian drops Riz off at the door of the Strongtower Luxury Apartments and bids him goodnight with a gentle kiss, and when Riz climbs into bed he can almost feel the tickle of the grass on his cheeks.

~

There’s a week and a half of downtime after graduation, before everyone splits up to go to their own corners of the world and only ever see each other through screens. Ice cream is a near daily occurrence, the impeccably chilly air conditioning inside of Basrar’s an unimaginable luxury in the June heat. It’s a Thursday, and everyone’s still getting into the swing of not having the structure of school to fill out the weekdays. So they meet at Basrar’s at 9:30 in the evening, which feels just wild enough to inaugurate summer vacation.

The Hangman and Riz’s mom’s car pull into the parking lot at the same time and there’s an odd moment where they stare at each other from over the white line as Sklonda offers an amicable hello to Fabian before backing out onto the street to go to her night shift. The rest of the Bad Kids are already seated in a booth by the window, but instead of heading in Fabian grabs Riz by the elbow and drags him over to the flower boxes with little carnations wilting in the dry heat. “We should talk,” Fabian says.

“Now?” Riz asks, and he knows they should, but he doesn’t think he has the mental bandwidth to have this conversation in the parking lot of Basrar’s.

“It’s been four days,” Fabian pleads. “You’re not allowed to string me along the entire summer.”

“I’m not-” Riz sighs and takes his arm back from Fabian’s vice grip. It’s been a conversation he’s been putting off, sure, he can admit that to himself. He wants to have this talk when he’s figured things out, when he’s practiced a few lines, when he has a better understanding of what, exactly, him and Fabian can and should be. “Can it wait until after ice cream?”

Fabian’s always worn his emotions broadly on his face and Riz doesn’t like the way that Fabian’s mouth is all screwed up in annoyance, and he likes even less the fact that he put that expression there. “Riz, if you don’t want to be with me, just tell me. I can take it.”

“It’s not that!” Riz blurts, because it’s the truth. “I just- can we please have this conversation somewhere else? I need time to think.”

Fabian frowns. “You’ve had four days.”

“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want you to feel like I’m leading you on or something, I’ve just got some shit to sort and I can’t do this right now. Can we just get ice cream and talk after? Everyone’s waiting for us.”

And as if on cue, Fig pokes her head out the door and shoots the two of them a glare. “I hate to introduce your clandestine meeting, but we’re all ready to order.”

“Understood,” Fabian says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’ll give you a ride home after, the Ball.”

“What were you talking about?” Fig asks conspiratorially as the three enter the shop.

“Nothing,” Riz says calmly. Fig doesn’t seem to clock the lie. “I wanted to know about shipbuilding.”

“The structure of the hull is integral to the success of the build,” Fabian adds, a master of the yes-and like the rest of them, squeezing into the booth next to Riz and pushing him up against Kristen.

They rarely go to Basrar’s this late. It’s technically a 24 hour establishment, but hardly anyone comes in after 8:00. There’s a teenage couple up at the counter sharing a milkshake and some very drunk college students home for break making a mess in the booth next to them. It’s bright inside, neon signs and buzzing overhead lights, and it remains steadfast against the calmly encroaching nighttime. Riz loves the way night falls in the summer; the laziness of the sunset, as though it wants to give everyone as much daylight as possible.

Kristen’s engaged in an argument that’s 90 percent laughing with Adaine about tandem bikes and how, theoretically, they could all meet up for winter break coming home from college on said bike, adding one person as they go. Gorgug, who pulled an all-nighter band practice with Fig, is sound asleep, his head at nearly a 90 degree angle against the headboard of the red leather booth; Fig has just slammed her fourth iced coffee of the day and is doing her daily journaling, a practice she and Ayda share. It’s cute. Riz has tried journaling before, but he always forgets to do it and within a few days that journal is entirely gone from his mind. And to Riz’s left is Fabian, absently eating an ice cream sundae with an elbow propped on Riz’s shoulder and a leg pressed against Riz’s leg, thigh to ankle. It’s not necessarily an unusual position for them to be in, or a conspicuous amount of physical contact, but the weight that it carries makes it seem somehow so much more poignant. He feels bad about keeping whatever he’s got going on with Fabian from the rest of them, but it really is thrilling, having a secret.

“But the first person would have to drive a seven-person tandem bike all by themself,” Adaine argues. “Can you imagine having to do that? Besides, they’d never let someone alone on a tandem bike over the border.”

“Gilear once got detained by border patrol,” Fig cuts in. “It was only for, like, two hours, but we’ve never let him live it down.”

As Fig launches into her story, Adaine looks away from her milkshake and at Fabian, who has admittedly been staring into space for a while. She kicks Riz under the table, gesturing with her head to Fabian, and with a quirk of her lips her eyes glow white, a cast Riz immediately recognizes as Detect Thoughts. Fabian seems to be none the wiser about the spell that’s been cast on him. Riz barely has time to clock that this might not be the best idea when she snickers, “stop thinking about Riz, you weirdo.” Fabian’s head whips up faster than the speed of light, his ears burning a deep burgundy, and in that moment Riz knows for sure that this won’t end well when Adaine gasps, horrified, “oh my god.” And then, a gleeful squeal, “oh my god!

Gorgug, who was jolted awake by Adaine’s ear-shattering proclamation, mumbles, “wha’ss happening?”

“Fabian and Riz are dating!” She all but shrieks, and her voice is easily three octaves higher than usual.

Fabian lurches forward across the table towards her so suddenly that he bangs his knee against the bottom of the table and elbows Riz in the face, and even he doesn’t look like he quite knows what he’s attempting to do as he launches himself at Adaine, yelling that “this is a gross invasion of privacy!

They get kicked out of Basrar’s.

The Bad Kids hangout gets relocated to the parking lot, where everyone briefly laments the loss of their ice cream before immediately turning back to the news of the hour. It’s Kristen who breaks the silence, which comes to no one’s surprise. “For the record,” she says, holding her hands up in an innocent sort of unaccountability, “I called it.”

“Like hell you did!” Fig argues. “Give me video evidence.”

“I know for a fact that I have a paper in my room somewhere betting that Fabian and Riz would hook up before graduation,” she protests.

Riz is reminded of the elementary school playground, hanging upside-down on the monkey bars by your knees and feeling all the blood rushing to your head. That’s what he feels like. “We didn’t hook up!”

“I can confirm, they have not hooked up,” Adaine adds, and Riz loves her but sometimes he could smack that smug grin off her face.

Instead he shoots Fabian his dirtiest look and hisses, “what the fuck were you thinking about, man?”

“When did you guys get together?” Gorgug asks, and although Riz would’ve preferred it if he had dropped the topic altogether, he appreciates the attempt to get the conversation back on track.

“A few days ago,” Fabian answers easily, and though he’s clearly trying his absolute best to look calm, he also looks like he would at a moment’s notice pull out his sword and start swinging, so it doesn’t really work.

Fig gasps. “The party!”

“I told you,” Kristen says. “I told you they snuck away to hook up!”

We didn’t hook up!”

“Sure, okay, you didn’t hook up,” Fig capitulates. “What did you do, talk about the future and kiss once?”

“Thrice,” Fabian corrects.

“You are not helping,” Riz whispers. “And no one says ‘thrice’ anymore.”

Fabian crosses his arms in defiance. “I do, so someone says it.”

“That’s not how these things work.”

“That’s absolutely how these things work,” Fabian says. Everyone’s looking at the two of them with a strange expression, a mix of confusion and amusement. “Anyway. Let’s go get ice cream somewhere else, how about that?”

“No, no, no,” Fig cuts in, shoving an accusing finger in Fabian’s face. “We’re not leaving until we get the whole story. You kissed three times and you didn’t tell us?”

“Was this, like, a ‘we’re about to leave each other possibly forever and this is the last chance we’ll get to do something like this so what the hell’ kind of thing, or are you guys dating now?” Kristen asks, leaning against the door of the van.

“Good question,” Fabian says. “The Ball, would you like to take that one?”

“Oh my god.” Riz throws up his hands in exasperation. “We’re done here.”

Adaine grabs him around the wrist before he can leave for good, a quick vice grip that seems like it should be unsuited for a wispy girl like her. Riz knows her well enough to not be surprised. “I think I left my wallet inside, come help me look.”

It’s a weak excuse, but Riz doesn’t really care if everyone sees through it. He already knows what they’ll talk about.

When the bell over the door jingles as they walk in, Basrar looks up from the counter and says, “you kids can’t come back in tonight. My shop will not be defiled by your loudness!”

“I left my wallet,” Adaine says, turning that classic Abernant demurity all the way up. “We just came back to find it and then we’ll leave, we promise.”

“Alright,” Basrar says, eyeing them with no small amount of suspicion.

There’s nothing left in the booth and Riz notices that very quickly. Adaine ducks under the table, pretending to search around on the ground, and Riz follows suit. “You kissed Fabian,” she says simply.

“Yes.”

“Three times.”

“Yes.”

She sighs. “I get that you didn’t tell anyone, but why didn’t you tell me? I thought we were a team with this kind of thing.”

This had been what Riz had feared, why he had held off telling Adaine, even back when he had first started recognizing his crush. Not her judgement, necessarily, but her disappointment. “It didn’t feel right. I felt like if I told you about Fabian stuff, it wouldn’t be the same.”

“It’s not the same now,” Adaine says. Riz feels a sharp pain somewhere near his kidney. “So why couldn’t you have told me earlier?”

“I didn’t know how,” Riz answers honestly. “I didn’t know how to explain myself, how I feel about- Fabian, and romance stuff in general, and I still kind of don’t. So I didn’t tell you.”

Adaine sighs again. It’s more thoughtful this time, less hurt. “Do you think you’re still asexual?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I think I’m probably kind of ace and gay at the same time, if that makes sense. If that’s possible.” Riz watches as Adaine bites at her lip to think and wonders, really, why he didn’t talk to her earlier. She’s analytical in a way Fig and Kristen aren’t, and if anyone can help him figure out himself, it’s probably Adaine.

“If I’ve learned anything from Kristen, it’s that anything is possible,” she jokes. “I think it doesn’t really matter ‘what you are,’” she makes air quotes that are only slightly cheesy, “as long as you’re happy. If you’re happy with Fabian. Speaking of which, are you with Fabian? You weren’t super clear in the parking lot.”

Riz groans and buries his face in his hands. “Not really- yet. We’re going to talk after this. I don’t know what to tell him. I want to be with him, but we’re all about to go away soon and I don’t know if he’ll be okay with my, you know, ace-ness, so I don’t know. I want to be with him on my terms.”

Adaine shifts a little, bumping her head on the bottom of the table. “Fuck,” she hisses. Riz pats her knee in consolation. “You want to know what I saw when I Detect Thoughts-ed Fabian? He was imagining this fictional future, I guess, and he was coming home on his ship and you were waiting for him on the docks. Then you kissed on the docks, which, gross, but it was kind of sweet. Like a movie.”

Riz can feel his face get hot and hopes Adaine doesn’t notice. She most certainly does. “Oh.”

“I think he likes you a lot more than you realize,” she says. “And if I can tell that he likes you, that really means something.”

“Oh,” Riz repeats. “I wish I had talked to you sooner.”

“Me too,” Adaine says. “But it’s fine. Just know that I’m mourning the loss of your membership in the We-Hate-Romance Club.”

“I’ll turn in my card posthaste,” Riz laughs.

Basrar pokes his head around the corner of the booth seat, startling Adaine and making her bump her head on the table again. “Did you find your wallet?”

“Yep,” she says through a pained grimace, smoothly pulling a wallet out of the pocket of her jacket, one with a little ladybug on the front that Riz has never seen before. She’s become a whiz with her jacket and every time she saves their asses with a Useful Thing, Riz is privately impressed. “We’ll be going now. I promise we’ll keep the volume down in the future, sorry for being so disruptive tonight.”

“It’s alright,” Basrar says as he shepherds them out the door. “I’ll always forgive my best customers.”

It seems like the rest of the Bad Kids have been berating Fabian in Riz and Adaine’s absence. Fabian’s sitting on the asphalt, legs splayed out in front of him, talking with his hands. “-Hangman during the Nightmare King fight,” he’s saying, and he looks a little pained to be divulging so much but also a little thrilled at being the center of attention. Him and Fig are alike in that way, that bone-deep thirst for the spotlight. Riz doesn’t understand, but he appreciates them all the more for it.

“Timothée Chalamet hair,” Gorgug says, and everyone nods knowingly. Adaine and Riz share a mutual look of confusion.

“It’s getting late, I should get home,” Riz says pointedly. It’s an obvious cop-out, as literally anyone who’s ever met him knows that 10:00 is in no way late in his books. But Fabian shoots him an understanding glance and twirls the keys to the Hangman around his finger as he gets up from the ground.

“We’re talking about this more tomorrow,” Kristen says. “I’m going to come to your house at 9 am sharp and you’d better be prepared to spill the beans.”

“Okay,” Riz says, because it’s easier to agree than argue. “I’ll see you. Fabian?”

Fabian lifts his hand, keys jangling, in a departing wave. “Someone’s got to get the Ball home.” He rustles Riz’s hair a little, which would annoy the hell out of him if it was anyone else.

They leave the parking out to the sound of wolf-whistles.

It’s a little awkward, riding in silence towards the apartments. Riz tries to think of what in the world he’ll say to Fabian when they arrive, how he’ll subtly broach the topic of possibly never wanting to be physically intimate with anyone, ever. He tries to conceptualize the different outcomes, the different ways Fabian could possibly react. Fabian, who isn’t a virgin and who watches porn and is by all accounts, in health class terms, a normal teenage boy.

They arrive at the Strongtower Luxury Apartments and Riz instinctually walks right up to the door before pausing, looking back at Fabian standing nervously by the Hangman. “You can come up, you know.”

“Won’t your mom-”

“Valsha’s on maternity leave so she’s picking up her shifts. She won’t be home until 2 in the morning.” Fabian nods slowly, and it doesn’t hit Riz until a moment later that maybe Fabian didn’t have completely innocent intentions with that question and that maybe he was misinterpreting Riz’s offer to come in a little bit by thinking they were going to hook up. “Not that it matters to you,” he amends, but it comes out a little stiffly.

Fabian’s mouth twists a little, but he schools his expression quickly enough that anyone without Riz’s knack for investigation would never know.

They stand side by side in the rickety elevator, just like they had the night of the chorus concert. Fabian eyes the floor buttons like he might push every one at a moment’s notice. On floor 9 he opens his mouth to speak and Riz cuts him off with a curt, “don’t be loud. If you talk too late the neighbors get mad.”

Fabian just presses his lips together until they form a thin, pale line and follows Riz into the apartment.

It’s dark and weird like it always is at night when Sklonda isn’t around, when no one’s been there to make it seem lived in. Every time Riz steps into the apartment on a lonely night he half expects to see sheets thrown over the furniture and dust on the windowsills like it’s a years-old murder scene. But then Riz flicks on the light and opens the windows to get the air flowing and everything feels a little more alive. Fabian stands in the middle of the small living area, watching Riz go about opening the apartment up, silent and awaiting.

Riz throws open the final window in the kitchen and says, “do you want some water?” It sounds misplaced in the silence between them.

Fabian sighs and rubs his face. “Are you going to finally tell me what’s going on with you? Because you’ve been acting weird all night, and-”

“I don’t want to have sex,” Riz blurts. Immediately his blood feels hot, thick with regret, like it’s moving too fast through his arteries.

Fabian’s face drains of color. “I wasn’t- did you think I was trying to come onto you or something? Because I didn’t mean- I wasn’t- I’m sorry, that’s not what I was trying to imply, I promise.”

“No, no, I know that.” Riz did not actually know that for sure, but it’s nice to get the confirmation. He gets some water for himself, then goes and fills another glass. Fabian takes the water with a vague sort of confusion. “I don’t think I’ll want to have sex possibly ever.”

“Oh,” Fabian says, and drains half his water glass. “Okay.”

“I want to be with you, I think. And I don’t know how it’ll work because we’ve sort of missed the boat, but I’d like to try being with you. I just want you to… manage your expectations.”

“I mean, we’re going to be on separate continents in a few months,” Fabian says in a meek attempt at lightheartedness, “so it’s not like we’d be boning down every weekend anyway.”

“Ew.”

“You know what I meant.”

Riz looks down at his glass, the way the light reflects a million times across the surface, and resolutely doesn’t make eye contact with Fabian. “But you’re okay with that?”

“Riz.” Fabian reaches out and touches Riz’s hand with his own, fingertips just brushing against the protruding veins on the back of his hand. “Of course I’m okay with that. I love you for so many reasons and I promise, theoretical future sex doesn’t even make the top 50.”

Riz laughs a little at that and sinks down onto the couch. “Oh my god.” When he lifts the glass of water to his mouth, his fingers are shaking a bit. You have no idea how long I’ve been stressing over that, he tells Fabian in his mind.

Fabian hums a little in acknowledgment, most likely feeling something very similar, looking vacantly around the small living room. Riz knows it’s a mess, books and boxes and papers scattered around. But he also knows Fabian’s seen him a lot lower than this and vice versa, so he really doesn’t care. “Wait,” Fabian says, as if the word in itself is a discovery, “what do you mean we’ve missed the boat?”

Riz shrugs. “It’s like you said, we’ll be on separate continents by September.”

“Oh.” Fabian takes a seat next to Riz, clearly thinking hard. He always messes with his hair when he thinks; Riz secretly loves watching him tuck invisible pieces of hair behind his ear over and over again. “I’ll write you letters, the Ball, and I’ll come home for holidays.”

Riz remembers what Adaine had told him about Fabian at the diner, what he had been thinking of, the gentle domestic scene out by the harbor. “I’ll wait for you on the docks,” he says. “I’d like that.”

Fabian grins, wide and proud. “You would?”

“You know I would.”

“Manage your expectations,” Fabian retorts, parroting Riz’s own line back at him. “I didn’t even know trickle-down economics was a flawed financial system.”

“Before I came along,” Riz finishes for him.

“Before you came along.” Fabian looks at Riz like he’s hung the moon and Riz gets it, why Kristen talks about Tracker so much and why Fig writes so many songs about Ayda. If Riz could play an instrument he’d pick it up and start composing the music of the spheres right now, but all he’s got is a shoddy choral education and neighbors that knock on your walls if you’re too loud at night. “Can I kiss you?”

“Absolutely,” Riz says, but Fabian doesn’t even get the chance to move before Riz takes initiative for once, and if you had told Riz two months ago that he would be kissing Fabian Aramais Seacaster on his couch like this, he would’ve shot you for being some kind of malicious double agent.

It’s still just as weird as it was four nights ago. Riz doesn’t know when or if he’ll get used to the feeling of someone else’s lips on his own, someone else’s breath mingling with his own, the wetness of it all. He thinks, distantly, that this is, what, his fifth kiss? He’s hardly proficient in whatever skill kissing pertains to. His first kiss had been with Kristen, quick and bizarre, something that Riz had found himself overanalyzing a lot those nights lying awake and wondering what to make of himself. Did he not like it because it was Kristen and she’s his friend? Did he not like it because she’s a girl? Did he not like it because it was a little mushy and a little gross?

It’s a little mushy and a little gross now, but it’s nothing like it had been when Kristen had planted a kiss on him in freshman year, confused and out of the blue. He can overlook the way there’s spit on his chin, somehow, already, and the way his sock is all bunched up in his shoe, because the active parts of his brain are focused on the fact that it’s Fabian, that this is the culmination of what must have been years of pining, gone unnoticed in the dimly lit corners of his mind, that they’re so incredibly close and this is the togetherness, the meeting of hearts, that Riz has always wanted from movies.

Fabian’s phone is on the small table next to the armrest of the couch, lying face-down next to the lamp. Riz hadn’t noticed this until the phone buzzes, once, twice, then a third time. Fabian tips his head back and groans in exasperation. “Do I even want to know who it is?”

And Riz, who people always say is very smart, can sometimes be very dumb; he’s very dumb right now, punch-drunk from kissing, and he clambers up on top of Fabian, knees digging into the couch on either side of Fabian’s hips, head dipping dangerously low next to Fabian’s neck as he reaches to the limits of his arm mobility for the phone. He gets it and sits up, and as soon as he’s upright and the blood returns to his head he realizes what he’s done, straddling Fabian on the couch with a phone full of unread text messages in his hand.

“What does it say?” Fabian asks, a little hushed, looking owlishly up at Riz.

The texts are all from Fig in a group chat Riz doesn’t recognize: it’s named, ‘GET THE BALL SOME SLEEP BRIGADE.’

“Every time you stop running, Chungledown Bim gets closer,” Riz reads. He doesn’t even make it to the other texts before Fabian physically recoils, seemingly attempting to worm his way off of the couch. This is more Riz’s speed, play-fighting and teasing and poking fun, and they both laugh through the effort of it all as Fabian struggles against Riz’s wiry arms pinning him down. Fabian surrenders with a wheezing chuckle, head back against the armrest, eyes closed, looking like a picture from a portrait gallery.

But as soon as the laughter runs dry they’re back to where they started, with Riz perched on top of Fabian, one hand on each shoulder.

“Hello,” Fabian says, grinning shyly upwards.

Riz notices momentarily the way the power dynamic has shifted, the way that Riz is, for once, the one someone is craning their neck to see. It’s a small thrill, but a thrill nonetheless. “Hi.” He moves a hand to the center of Fabian’s chest; his heart beats wildly against his ribcage. “Are you still scared of Chungledown Bim?”

“No,” Fabian scoffs. And Riz can be dumb sometimes but he’s an investigator at heart, and it’s not hard to put together the puzzle pieces and come to the conclusion that if it’s not the scare from Fig, the only thing that could cause Fabian’s heart rate to rocket like that is their proximity. Fabian seems to see Riz come to this realization and quickly backpedals. “Yes.”

“You know, up until that party, what, last year, I always thought Chungledown Bim was a metaphor.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Fabian says with a good-natured eye-roll. “A metaphor for what?”

Riz shrugs. “I’m not sure. Toxic masculinity? Trickle-down economics?”

Fabian just grabs Riz by the collar of his shirt, pulls him down, and kisses him. “I promise I do not have a finance fetish,” he mumbles against Riz’s lips, and kissing is a lot more fun when you’re laughing, Riz finds.

And maybe kissing itself isn’t exciting or thrilling or joyous the way people say it is, but Fabian is. Fabian is all of those things, and Riz is the one that he chose to share that with. That’s the magic of it.

And it’s because he’s thinking about magic- the kissing kind, not the chronomancy kind- and Fabian and love and Fabian that he doesn’t hear footsteps in the hall, and it’s because he’s thinking of romance movies and Fabian that he doesn’t hear the clicking of keys in the lock, and it’s because he’s thinking of Fabian’s hands in his hair and Fabian’s chest beneath his palm and Fabian and love and Fabian that he doesn’t hear the door open and someone come in until it is much, much too late.

Here’s the thing; Riz’s first thought isn’t my mom’s home or it must be later than I thought or oh my god I was making out with Fabian and my mom can definitely tell, it’s Valsha’s on maternity leave and my mom picks up her shifts on Thursdays, and the fact that she’s home early means that something is very wrong. But then his making-out-with-Fabian brain turns off and his investigator brain clicks on and he remembers that oh, right, Valsha had her baby months ago and returned from maternity leave last Tuesday.

If this was the heat of battle, someone, most likely Fabian, would have already leapt into action, sword drawn and poised to attack; Riz would have already slipped away, gun cocked, ready to shoot silently from the shadows. But this isn’t battle, there’s no order of initiative or the life-or-death rush of adrenaline, just a stare-down between Riz and his mom, who’s standing in the doorway in her work clothes holding a bag of groceries, and the familiar heart-pounding sensation of being found out. Fabian, whose head is facing away from the door, has gone equally still beneath Riz, but his ear twitches as he whispers through the side of his mouth, “I’m guessing that’s your mother who just came in.”

Riz has yet to break eye contact with his mom, but he hisses back through his teeth, “yes. Shut up.”

It’s a shame that one of Fabian’s most attractive qualities is his penchant for bluster and bravado because when he says out loud, “hello, Ms. Gukgak. I was under the impression from your son that you wouldn’t be home until later, otherwise I would’ve brought a hostess gift,” he bluffs well enough to sound entirely casual, as if Sklonda had merely caught him lounging at a seaside resort, but Riz has a hand pressed flat against his chest and he can feel the way Fabian’s heart beats like a jackhammer under his skin.

Neither Riz nor his mom laugh at Fabian’s poor attempt of a stupid, rich-kid joke. “Valsha came back from maternity leave a while ago,” they instead say at the same time.

There’s a moment of silence. Fabian’s crystal vibrates again, most likely another quip from the group chat. “Hey, mom,” Riz finally says.

“Hi, Riz. And hello, Fabian. It’s nice to see you.” She hefts the grocery bag a little higher in her arms. It’s nearly half the size of her. “I bought some spaghetti for a late dinner tonight, if you’d like to stay and eat with us.”

Fabian breaks his staring contest with the opposite wall just over Riz’s shoulder and huffs a nervous laugh. It shouldn’t be as endearing as it is. “Whatever the Ball says, goes, I think.”

In some distant part of his mind, he thinks it might be nice to have Fabian stay for dinner, or a late-night snack as it may be. To have a unified front against the force of nature that is Sklonda Gukgak. But the larger, more rational part of his mind conjures an image of the small table in the kitchen, tensely silent, no way of initiating conversation without addressing the Fabian-and-Riz-sized elephant in the room, so he says, “I think you should probably get going. We’re meeting Kristen tomorrow morning to talk about the thing, remember?”

“What- oh, yes. The thing. In, um, yes, the us thing. For tomorrow.” It’s a miracle, Riz thinks, how quickly Fabian can seesaw from hitting every ball out of the park to near-Gilear levels of awkwardness within a single second. If not a miracle, at the very least a fascinating scientific phenomenon. Fabian is looking at Riz with a very strange expression, which Riz resents a little considering how much of a swing and a miss Fabian took with his deception just then. “I’d be happy to go get my beauty sleep if you’d let me, uh… extricate myself.”

Riz’s mind suddenly rockets back into his body: his legs straddling Fabian’s hips, his hand on Fabian’s chest, his mother standing at the door with a bag of groceries she hasn’t put down yet. He scrambles backwards to the far side of the couch, a little concerned that he might genuinely burst a vein with the amount of stress he’s under right now. Fabian grins nervously and stands, dusting invisible dirt off himself, and begins the slow process of leaving. Crystal, shoes, keys to the Hangman, maneuvering past Sklonda in the doorway until halfway in the hall. Riz feels as though every blood vessel in his body has found its way to his face. The tips of Fabian’s ears are a deep burgundy. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Riz,” he says with a hand on the doorknob. He looks over at Riz’s mom, who still looks slightly lost. “It was nice seeing you, Ms. Gukgak. I’m sure your spaghetti will be wonderful.”

And the door shuts with a rattle of the hinges.

“Hi, sweetie,” his mom says. It seems different than the way she had greeted him when Fabian was there. Softer.

“Hi, mom,” Riz parrots back. It’s the right thing to do.

She looks at him for a second, searching for something intangible, and moves toward the kitchen, putting away the groceries slowly and thoughtfully. Riz can feel another five years being taken off his life with every soup can she places on the shelf.

Riz sits at the kitchen table while his mom stands over a pot of boiling pasta, neither speaking. Riz resolutely will not say the first word. His leg shakes the table as it bounces. He had been coming up with a plan, how to tell her. It was going to be well thought out and simple and under his jurisdiction. This is- wild and random and completely out of his control, in this odd liminal space they’ve built in the tiny kitchen. Riz is just sitting at the table while his mom cooks spaghetti but it is abundantly clear that he in no way has the upper hand. His cards are all down in front of him, he has no ace up his sleeve. In all honesty, he probably never had. There were no grand secrets or tricks, just a boatload of confusion and messy figuring-outs. Sklonda dumps the pasta into a strainer and stands over the sink, watching it drain. “I like Fabian,” she says abruptly, “if you’re worried about that. I… approve, I guess. I know you don’t need my approval and you’ve never really taken any of my advice before, but-”

“I know, mom,” Riz says. “Thank you.”

There’s another short stretch of silence as his mom divides the spaghetti into two bowls and places it down in front of the both of them. Neither of them make a move to eat. “Listen,” Sklonda says at last, “I love you. I will support you no matter who you are or what you do. You don’t just turn your back on the son you ate a dragon with, you hear?” Riz laughs a little against his will, and his mom seems to take that as a victory. “But you must understand how to me, it feels like maybe I skipped a couple chapters. And if you would like to let me in on this part of your life, I’d be more than willing to listen.”

“It’s a long story.”

“I made a lot of pasta.” Sklonda raises her eyebrow and a smile pulls at the corners of her mouth, and Riz is overcome with love for his mother, for his friends, for everything around him in this moment. This is a story he wants to tell, he decides.

“Well.” He laughs a little, trying to piece together the timeline in his mind, and somewhere on the street below Strongtower Luxury Apartments he hears the growl of a motorcycle he knows logically isn’t the Hangman, but it bolsters his spirits anyway. Someone out there loves him, and he loves them back, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the exactly right way to love, because it fits them and Riz finally feels a sense of belonging deeper than he has in a long, long time. His mom looks at him with a face open in anticipation and Riz puts everything together like a conspiracy board in his head, draws the string between the girl’s nights and the Black Pit and the chorus concert and the elementary school playground and every event that brought them to this moment, and begins.

“Really, the story starts and ends with Fig.”