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if this feeling goes both ways

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The van is quiet, the night even more so, and it's because of that that Riz can’t sleep. Insomnia’s a bitch, but Riz has actually been sleeping better on the road than at home. His own house is almost always empty with the exception of himself and his own sounds, what with mom gone all day and most nights. But there’s something about the constant noise here, the thrum of the van or of someone else’s snoring. They’re something else to instantly focus on when Riz is herding all his thoughts like sheep, something for the goblin part of his brain (the part that’s always alert, always looking, always searching) to latch on to. 

Riz can usually crash to the rumble of the Hangman’s engine, a sound he’s heard both in and out of battle, something constant and familiar. But now The Hangman is dead, and Baxter’s purr doesn’t sound right, and Zaphriel’s gem doesn't hum unless the car is on, and the only other thing Riz can hear without having to explicitly on it focus is the ocean, deep and black and roiling some couple dozen feet beneath them. It’s a sound Riz is quickly learning how to hate. 

Gods, nothing sounds or smells or feels right after everything that happened these last few hours, and the only thing Riz can latch onto other than those sounds, is Fabian (who’s slumped against the double doors of the van, bundled up in blankets and sweating through a fever, breathing sharp and shallow). 

Riz shakes his head and shudders, because that’s. A bad idea for who knows how many reasons. So Riz keeps thinking. 

Riz thinks about their current case, about the Nightmare King. Kalina. He thinks about his meeting with her out on the docks, about being paralyzed and terrified, not for himself, but for Fabian--  

And now Riz is thinking about Fabian, and how he got hurt, and how it’s his fault. ‘ You didn’t possess Fabian,’ a little piece of him whispers. ‘You didn’t try to drown him,’ it says, and it’s right, but Riz hadn’t stopped it either. It had been his job to watch over Fabian, to make sure he was okay, and Riz had been too busy sleeping to make sure he was safe. Riz thinks about all the ways he could’ve kept tonight from happening, of all the things he could’ve done differently, of all ways he could fix this--

Which makes him ask, “Can I touch your scar?”

The words are out before Riz even knows he’s saying them. Riz is sitting across from Fabian, curled up against the uncomfortable back of the driver’s seat, and he immediately starts sweating. He wasn’t supposed to say that.

He’s not even supposed to be thinking like that.

Fabian looks like he’s sleeping, almost lifeless in the grayscale of his darkvision, but Fabian also has two levels of exhaustion, and could just as easily be faking. Riz tries to hone in with his ears, but he can’t hear Fabian snoring over the sound of his own blood pounding through his skull. The only other thing he could do would be to get up and check, which would just wake up Fabian if he wasn’t already conscious. 

So instead Riz waits in silence, ears twitching, holding his breath, and hoping --

When Fabian shifts, blankets falling to the wayside and shivering as he does so. Fabian’s dull, pale eye meets his own, and Riz feels his heart clench. 

There’s a very brief moment where they both only stare, and Riz thinks maybe he’s still won, maybe things are fine. And then Fabian opens his mouth, and Riz listens as his voice cracks like glass. 

“Please.”

...Fuck.

Fuck.

How the hell did he let this happen? How does he stop it? How the fuck does he say no?

Riz tackles the easiest question first, because his brain turns to problem solving in a crisis, and Gods , is this a problem. Riz goes through the back catalogue of his brain and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s been sitting on this one for hours. 

Subconsciously. Like some kind of creep. Lovely. 

It’s been tumbling around at the back of his mind since they found Fabian after the cultist massacre, since they found him wandering the streets of Leviathan without his eyepatch and his letterman, drenched and slowly dying. Fuck, Fabian looks so much smaller without them, just shuddering in his tanktop, and Riz can’t remember a time when Fabian came even close to looking this… this naked. This wrong

Riz hates it.

And he knows he’s not supposed to think about things like that, about this like this, and especially not when they have to do with Fabian-- but then again, Fabian’s not supposed to look miserable or depressed or like he’s almost died, and Riz knows that better than anyone else because he’s Fabian’s best fucking friend and he l--

Riz lets loose a ragged sigh, and breathes. Hold four, out four, hold four, in four. His hands shake as he counts, but that’s okay. Jawbone said so, and Jawbone wouldn’t lie, so it has to be true, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

But-- But Riz is Fabian’s best friend, and he knows better than anyone that Fabian is supposed to be boasting and shouting and smirking and laughing, and Riz only asked that dumb, stupid question because Fabian looks like he might never do those things again. Riz only asked because he’s antsy and scared, and because as dumb as it is, Riz thinks he can help and he doesn’t wanna fail Fabian a second time tonight, and because Fabian is his Best. Friend. 

(Something very small and very old aches in his chest at that, and Riz shoves it down like always.)

Gods, Riz feels so stupid for getting himself in this mess to begin with. It’s not even gonna mean anything. Nothing but grief and pain and guilt will come of this (at his own expense, mind you, but still) because Riz already knows the answer. 

You only waste time when you ask questions you have answers to, and Riz knew Fabian would say yes. Because how could he not? Riz knows that somewhere between getting his dad’s cultists killed, the murder of the Hangman, and nearly drowning at the hands of Kalina, that Fabian lost every shred of self--worth he had. Riz knew Fabian would say yes, because right now, Fabian is at the lowest he’s probably ever been or felt, and Riz knows Fabian thinks a night of hell he didn’t deserve shouldn’t end without some self inflicted shame to boot.

There’s no other reason Fabian would be this vulnerable unless he thought doing so could somehow hurt him even more.

And Riz gave him a knife on a pretty silver platter.

God damnit.

“The Ball…?”

Riz is jolted from his thoughts by the sound of Fabian’s voice, timid and quiet. Riz holds very, very still, because maybe if he doesn’t move or breath or blink, or if he just ignores Fabian completely, he’ll think Riz fell asleep again, or that all of this was all some weird dream, or--

“Riz.”

Something in his voice is different. Is it sadder? Softer? 

(Or maybe it's just in his head. Maybe it has nothing to do with Fabian’s actual voice, and everything to do with the way it makes him feel when simply Fabian says his name.)

Either way, Riz shudders, and he looks. Through the creak in the covers where he’s hiding, Riz sees Fabian’s hand outstretched, reaching out for him and shaking.

...Riz never had the best wisdom, anyway.

He feels kind of dumb padding over to Fabian in his socks and his garters, like a dog coming when called, but in a matter of seconds, he’s standing right next to Fabian, and Riz doesn’t know what to do. Fabian isn’t saying anything, just sort of staring at him, and it's making the hair on the back of his head stand on end in a way he can’t completely say is good or bad, which is bad. Is he supposed to just-- go for it? Is that what Fabian wants him to do? He feels like he’s too far away to touch Fabian’s face from here but at the same time, Riz is pretty sure he’ll die if he gets much closer and he shouldn’t even be doing this in the first place--

Lost in his head, he’s completely caught off guard when a broad palm settles on his hip, and Riz is quick, but he’s not fast enough to keep from gasping as Fabian easily pulls him closer. 

‘Fuck, his hand is huge,’ Riz fervently thinks, and then feels immediately bad for thinking it. Gods , Fabian literally almost died on two separate occasions tonight and Riz is still being weird about him. His feelings we’re already complicated and terrible three weeks ago without all these new weird thoughts showing up, but then Fabian’s other hand is coming up to settle on his waist, and Riz is too busy thinking about how big Fabian’s hands are on his waist to protest being manhandled (which is just another thing he shouldn’t be thinking about, really).

Riz is only airborne for a few seconds, tail swishing between his legs as Fabian moves him around, but Riz is on another plane of existence for the entire time it's happening, so it really takes forever. When Riz finds himself back on his feet, he’s more or less straddling Fabian, which is. Fine. He’s fine. He’s got one leg on either side of Fabian’s narrow hips, and he’s breathing so hard because it’s totally normal for him to be doing so and because this is how he normally breathes.

Riz has never had the misfortune of dying like Kristen or Gorgug, but if he were ever given such a blessing, he’s pretty sure it’d feel like this. 

Despite the panic bubbling up in his chest (or maybe it’s because of it?), Riz immediately notices he’s taller than Fabian. It’s only by six inches or so, and it's only because Riz is standing and because Fabian is slouching in a way that would make a chiropractor wince, but still. He’s taller than Fabian. 

Secondly, Riz clocks that this is probably as close to Fabian as he’s ever been. Like, they’ve hugged before, and there was that time in freshman year when Fabian picked him up and chucked him like a bloodrush ball before he killed Coach Daybreak--

But none of those limited experiences feel remotely close to this. Riz isn’t really touching Fabian a whole lot, but the places where they are touching (the line on Fabian’s thigh where Riz is resting his tail, the dual spots where Riz’s calves just brush against his thighs, etc.--) are burning, hot and bright and boiling.

It still comes nowhere close to the shame that floods his face right now.

The van is quiet as Riz tries to not so subtly keep his cool, and Fabian doesn't grab him or try to make Riz touch his face, which is a relief. Not because he doesn’t want to (because he does. A kind of concerning amount, frankly, and that desire alone is ample reason for why he shouldn’t), but because Fabian’s trauma is fresh and his reasoning ruinous and because it’d be wrong if he did. Like taking a lit match to kindling. 

But maybe if--

If he just… doesn’t do what Fabian wants? Or rather, in the way he wants it? Fabian feels bad and he wants Riz to touch his scar so he’ll feel even worse, but what if he’s-- nice about it? Gentle, he means. But then wouldn’t Fabian just--?

Riz shakes his head, goes over the facts. He can’t focus on hypotheticals right now. 

What he needs is a plan, a course of action.

Another pang of guilt hits knowing this’ll only work because Fabian’s weak right now, that Riz is still taking advantage of him, even if his judgement is sound. Riz can’t normally overpower Fabian in-- well, anything, really. He’s too confident and charming and convincing, even when he’s wrong or the idea is bad, but that’s beside the point.

Because this could work, right? Being careful, putting Fabian’s ego back together like a puzzle. Help him feel better? Honestly, the biggest flaw in this plan is the fact that Riz is liable to emotionally compromise it, but there's nothing he can change about that. Not right now, at least. Riz will just… Riz will just have to manage. He’ll suck it up and do this for Fabian, because Fabian needs him more right now than Riz needs to be emotionally sound, and besides-- 

Even if it hurts, it won’t be a lie. It won’t be touch for touch’s sake. It’ll be for a reason.

Riz takes a deep breath, and reaches out.

Fabian’s eye widens as Riz takes his face in his small hands, and Riz does his best to ignore the way Fabian immediately shudders, trying not to take it personally. Riz can feel his heart thumping hard inside his chest, and he works very hard to keep his face neutral, even if he really kind of feels like crying.

He has to stay focused. Riz has a job to do.

Up close, Riz can remember the first time he saw this scar, clear as day. He’s only seen it once before this, a few weeks after their fight with Kalvaxis, and Riz is 99.9% sure Fabian only showed it to them because the Bad Kids had all done a terrible job of not being blatantly curious about it. 

Still fresh, it’d been bruised and tender, yellow, red, and purple, with dry blood clinging to the corners of sutures and a black thread keeping it sewn shut. It’d been gross and raw, ugly and visceral. Riz remembers the way Fabian seemed to shrink when they’d asked about it. It’d hurt him just to show it to them.

Now, it’s just a deep, distorted gash where Fabian’s eye used to be. It starts at the corner of the socket, and runs diagonally across the hollow where the eye used to sit, with a little notch at the bridge of Fabian’s nose. The skin is sunken in and dry, and the scar itself is gnarled and twisted, healed along the slash Dayne carved in when he tore the eye out. 

Overall, it’s. It’s still hard to look at, but it's not as if it’s vile or horrifying or anything like that. It’s just a scar. It’s just Fabian.

Even still, Fabian’s trembling.

Riz strokes his thumb across Fabian’s cheek, and he thinks. Riz thinks about how long Fabian would’ve had to stand in front of his huge full length mirror back home at Seacastar Manor and look at this scar until he finally taught himself to think otherwise. Riz thinks about how much time Fabian had to have spent pointing out every little detail he hates about this scar, about himself, that even letting someone touch it would make him shake like this, like it was some kind of punishment.

Riz thinks about how he knows Fabian’s favorite ice cream flavor, and that Fabian broke his leg when he was eight, and that Fabian wears his half of that cheap Best Friends! necklace Riz got them as a (not really) joke, and then miss something so huge, something so actually important

Riz bites his lip to keep from at least immediately saying something stupid and regrettable, like I’m sorry I didn’t notice your self worth issues and identity crisis until it was too late, and instead presses his thumb to the gouge near the top of Fabian’s cheek, where the sword first split the skin.

Fabian’s next sigh is abruptly cut off, and Riz waits. Looks to Fabian's downcast eye, his open, blank expression, and waits for any sign that he should stop. 

For once, Fabian is silent. And for once, Riz doesn’t tell himself to stop. 

Riz has never been more aware of his claws than he is right now, of how long and sharp and dark they are, of the way they look against Fabian’s brown skin. He carefully angles them away from Fabian’s face (and that act in and of itself feels far too tender) and drags his thumb along the jagged edge of the scar, feels the way each bump and ridge rises and falls beneath the pad of his finger. 

Riz finds destroyed tear ducts and empty follicles where lashes used to be, he finds old scabs and dead skin that’s yet to peel. The flesh beneath his thumb is thin, then tough, then delicate again, and Riz is extra careful touching here, barely even touching at all. If Riz didn’t know first hand what it felt like when time stopped, he’d say it was happening right now.

Fabian heaves a ragged breath, and Riz forces himself not to look, for his own sake as much as Fabian’s. There’s a smooth spot of skin next to the scar, a patch in the orbit where the blade skipped at the end of it’s strike, and Riz drags his thumb along the column of Fabian’s nose, following the curve up to the divot at the bridge and-- 

And Riz chokes. 

He feels something well up in his throat, swelling in his heart, more intense and more urgent and more misplaced than it’s ever been before, and he chokes.

At the furthest corner of his mind, far away from all the analytical facts and organized truths and concrete theories, Riz can acknowledge what he’s feeling and that it exists. Internally, Riz already knows what it is; he just can’t say it, not even in his head, because if he’s learned anything on this trip at all, it’s that names have power, and the last thing he needs is for this feeling to be even more powerful than it already is. It’s not even the fact that it exists that’s the problem (though that’s not totally true), it’s just--

He can’t tell what it is. Riz has never had friends before the Bad Kids, and he doesn't know if it’s-- if it’s platonic or, or something else, and the fact that he doesn’t know scares him. Riz is totally lost without a compass and no landmark to speak of, and he hates how much that terrifies him. He does his best to ignore what he’s feeling and get on with his life like it’s not even there. And it sucks, because Riz can’t even fix this. Feelings aren’t a problem he can just solve, and he can’t get rid of them either, no matter how hard he tries (and Gods , he tries. Constantly and desperately, he does), so Riz just. Files it away where no one else can see it, where it can go cold and gather dust and get slowly eaten rats. 

Riz knows he can feel whatever he wants, can think whatever he wants, and it’s fine. He’s fine. Everything is safe and vague and conceptual, as long as it never leaves his head, and maybe that works for Jawbone, but----

Riz makes a second pass over the scar, and he gets to watch the way it makes Fabian’s good eye flutter, gets to watch Fabian tilt his head and press his cheek further into his palm, and something soft and pleased like pride swells in Riz’s chest. Riz does it again, caresses along the seam where the skin’s knit itself back together, where what’s left of Fabian’s lower eyelid has healed up into the scar, just because he can, just to revel in the way it makes Fabian shudder underneath him.

Satisfaction curls sweet and primal in his stomach as he holds Fabian, the sensation base and ancient and right -- 

Until Fabian gasps, and the fragile bubble bursts.

Riz immediately starts to backpedal, trying not to trip on Fabian’s legs or his tail as he does so and only half succeeding as he rambles, “Fuck, I’m sorry, I’m sorry--”

“No, wait--,” Fabian says, and Riz feels his whole body jerk as he suddenly stops, Fabian’s hand caught tight around his wrist. 

Riz nearly slips, his clothed feet scrambling against worn sheets, and Fabian tugs him forward ‘till he caught his balance, and--

Fabian is sitting up again, posture perfect, back straight as he leans against the van, and Fabian is right in front of him, so close Riz can actually smell Fabian beneath all the salt and blood and tears, and Riz is losing it.

Riz can only focus on the way Fabian’s scent is flooding his senses, about how much he wants to touch him again, about how Fabian is so close to him, too close, can only think about his too--big ears and weird teeth and big yellow eyes, about how grossed out ( ‘disguised, revolted, unwanted, you’re a pest-- ) Fabian must be by all of it and--

“You-- you’re fine, don’t go, I--” Fabian pants, face open and frantic, eye wide as his gaze flints across Riz’s face, like Fabian’s making sure he’s here. Making sure he’s real. 

Something clicks in the back of his mind, and Riz twists his hands in Fabian’s grip, wraps his fingers around Fabian’s wrists, their hands mirroring the other’s. He can feel the way Fabian’s hands are trembling in his, and Riz lets his claws press to fragile skin, just enough to leave crescents, and Riz watches the panic and hysteria slowly bleed into nothing, until Fabian’s numb and still beneath his fingers.

The air smells like salt again, and it’s not until the taste hits his tongue that Riz knows he’s crying.

“I--I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to jump, I just--,” Fabian hiccups, his hold on Riz’s wrists still tight. Riz holds back just as tightly. “I didn’t want to bother Ragh and Cathilda anymore, so I sent them to bed, I thought I’d be fine, I just--”

Riz slips his hands from Fabian’s just long enough that he can wrap them up around his back instead. He pulls Fabian’s face to his neck (the way his mom always does for him when they hug), and it's not until Fabian’s arms wrap around him that Riz allows himself to sink into it too.

“It's okay, you’re okay,” Riz mumbles, the idle prattle just as much for him as for Fabian. He feels his heart swell again, and Riz turns his head so his lips just barely brush Fabian’s ear. “It's okay, I’m here, I love you--”

The words ring true, and Riz knows they’re right in the way Fabian shakes through a silent sob and hugs him closer. Riz cries for Fabian and cries for reasons all his own to know, then wraps his bleeding heart in gauze for later. He’s got a job to do.

When Fabian stops sniffling, Riz pulls back and takes Fabian’s hands in his. Riz is mostly done crying himself, but seeing Fabian, with his runny nose and blotchy, flushed face, all bluish--grey through the filter of his darkvision, Riz isn't sure anymore. 

Riz wipes at his own eyes with the back of his hand, just in case. “Let’s-- let’s go to bed, alright? We can deal with it tomorrow.” He does the same for Fabian, catching a stray tear with the edge of his claw. “I’ll stay here, and, and we’ll go to bed together, and you’ll feel better in the morning, okay?”

Fabian nods, leans into the touch, and Riz lets him, even if he feels about ready to collapse with how tired he is. The blue light of Zaphriel’s gem makes everything blurry and calm, soft, and quiet, and it doesn't take a long for Riz to find a spot next to Fabian. Fabian’s arm comes around his back to pull him closer, and Riz shifts, curls up close against his side.

It’s silent as Riz waits for the other shoe to drop, for Fabian to complain, for Fabian to wake up, to be asked to move, but nothing happens. Riz waits for a few minutes, even when he’s sure Fabian’s sleeping, and even then, he hesitates, hand hovering over Fabian’s rib cage.

Riz rests a closed fist against Fabian’s ribs in compromise, feels the rise and fall of his chest against the back of his hand, thrumming through his knuckles. Riz turns his head, pressing his ear to Fabian’s side, so all he can hear is the thud of Fabian’s heart in his chest, the rush of air as he breathes, and Riz falls asleep in seconds.