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tangled up in your old bedsheets

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It takes maybe a lot longer than it should for Fabian to understand exactly what’s happening with the whole “wrapping Riz up in his sheet all the time” thing. In his defense, there’s a lot of shit going down when it first happens. Riz has just been revivified only to be kicked off a fucking cliff by Kalina and the world is in peril and Fabian is stretching, stretching, stretching, to reach Riz before he’s lost to him forever. So when the fire elemental snags the goblin out of the air and kisses his cheek and Fabian curls his best friend into himself, swaddling him like a newborn, the half-elf doesn’t think much of it other than thank the gods you’re alright.

 

But then it happens again. And again. And again. And no matter what, even when Fabian doles out gifts and aggressively supports all his friends, Riz is the only one who ever seems to end up wrapped in Fabian’s sheet.

 

Fabian realizes this the summer after sophomore year and then aggressively stops thinking about what it could mean.

 

~

 

When the Night Yorb is defeated, Riz dies again. Thankfully Kristen is standing right next to him when he goes down so their rogue isn’t out for long but Fabian feels it deep in his bones. He sees the light go out of Riz’s eyes, watches, like he had just last spring, as his best friend falls, limp, to the ground. He sees him die and is unable to do anything about it. Again.

 

That evening, they have a bonfire. The final showdown had happened on the beach, where the Night Yorb had been ready to extend its power from the shores of Solace to Leviathan to Fallinel and beyond until the Bad Kids stopped it. 

 

Now, Kristen and Fig are teaching Ayda how to shotgun a beer with mixed results. Adaine and Aelwyn are curled together, Aelwyn already trancing after using every ounce of her abjuration magic to keep her sister from being completely obliterated in the last ten minutes of the battle. Gorgug had almost immediately been mobbed with invasive, uncomfortable relationship advice from the Seven Maidens, who had come to help in the last fight after Riz had cracked the code which revealed the location of the Night Yorb’s power source with Zelda’s help. The half-orc seems fine, if a little overwhelmed by their chattering--Zelda is at least acting as something of a buffer.

 

Fabian and Riz had been side by side to strike the finishing blow to the Night Yorb when it went down. He’d turned and looked at Riz and had seen the bruises and the blood and the lines of pain in his face and had pulled out his sheet without hesitation. Riz hadn’t even pretended to protest.

 

Now, as they sit in the shadows, the fire’s light flickering over the bags under Riz’s eyes and the hollows of his cheeks, Fabian doesn’t pretend to resist the urge he has to pull the fabric tighter around Riz, tucking it between his arms and chest so it can’t pull free when the goblin shifts. He’s pressed up against Fabian’s side, half on top of him as Fabian drapes his arms around him and pulls one knee up against his back. His other leg extends out towards the fire and they’d both kicked off their shoes like everyone else had a long time ago. He digs his toes into the cold sand and lets it remind him he’s alive. They have survived.

 

“You know, I’m not actually that cold,” Riz mutters. His ears are drooping with exhaustion. Fabian hums and leans his chin on the crown of his head. Riz’s hair smells like seasalt. “You could take your blanket back now.”

 

“Battle sheet,” Fabian corrects absentmindedly. “You uncomfortable?”

 

“No.” His voice is so soft. He wriggles one hand out of the sheet--Fabian feels an unhappy rumble begin in his chest--and curls his clawed fingers around Fabian's hand, splayed in the sand beside Riz’s sheet-encased hip for balance. Fabian tightened his grip immediately. The rumble dies in his throat. “No, I’m not.”

 

“Good.” Fabian tugs the sheet just a little more, secures it, and rests.

 

~

 

It happens when they’re not in mortal danger or coming down from a battle high, too. The first time Fabian notices it--and when he notices Riz noticing it--is movie night. All the Bad Kids as well as Ragh, Tracker, Ayda and Aelwyn are gathered at Mordred Manor, sprawled over couches and armchairs and across the floor. Fabian is cuddled up to Aelwyn on the couch, Adaine on her other side, when he is chosen to be the first sacrifice in the name of snack refills. Naturally, he tells everyone goodnaturedly that he hates them, and goes.

 

Fabian isn’t even really thinking about it when he does it. 

 

He comes back and sets the popcorn in Tracker’s lap and hands the sodas out and then he realizes that his spot next to Aelwyn has been filled by Fig, who is sitting with Ayda in her lap and very much not paying attention to the crystal screen. Both Abernant sisters do not look like they appreciate this development, but neither are very likely to say anything in the name of keeping the peace.

 

So Fabian shrugs and begrudgingly lopes over to the cushy armchair with the winged back where Riz is curled up with his knees to his chest. The Ball looks up, startled, but doesn’t make a sound when Fabian picks him right up, plops down in the armchair and then sets The Ball down beside him. Without even really looking away from the movie, the half-elf digs out his sheet and unfolds it, letting the sparks settle before he spreads it over both of them. Riz is wedged between his left thigh and the armrest, small enough that he doesn’t have to fully sit in Fabian’s lap to share the space. He does have to lean into Fabian’s side to see the screen around him though; Fabian feels more than sees The Ball glance at him out of the corner of his eye. His tail slaps once, twice against Fabian’s side, and Fabian drops his arm onto The Ball’s back in response, quelling the detective’s squirming. The Ball leans harder into his side and mutters to himself.

 

“What?” Fabian asks, defensive and not really understanding why.

 

“You know you could’ve just asked to sit down,” Riz says. What he means is, what the fuck, Fabian?

 

“Can we just watch the movie in peace, please?” Fabian replies. What he means is, please don’t call attention to this.

 

Riz shuts up. They watch the movie in peace. 

 

Fabian catches Aelwyn looking at him that night, a strange gleam in her eye; it’s the one she gets when she’s mastered an overly complicated piece of magic that’s been elusive for a long time. Fabian shifts, but doesn’t let go of Riz, who is tucked even more tightly into his side as the night wears on, his head on Fabian’s chest and the sheet tangled up between them. 

 

He shakes it off; there’s nothing here for Aelwyn to understand. 

 

Nothing.

 

~

 

After that, it’s just an easy way of keeping track of Riz. The rogue has such high sleight of hand and stealth; he’s really a menace to society. Fabian is doing the authorities a favor, honestly. It also helps him get used to how to whip the sheet in a non-lethal capacity, teaches him how hard to snap the fabric around someone’s ankle to send them careening back to their spot on the couch, or how to flick it around their waist to pull them back to his side without leaving bruises. He even gets good enough to snag Riz’s tail and yank him back from the curb when he went to step into the road without looking up from his clues, which is probably the coolest thing Fabian does that week.

 

Riz complains and pouts and never tells him directly to stop, which he would if it were a real issue. But since he is a gentleman first Fabian asks, just to make sure.

 

“I don’t--really mind, actually,” Riz says haltingly. The tips of his ears are slowly turning turquoise. Fabian is extremely interested in this development. For science, of course. “It’s nice, knowing--uh, knowing you’re there to, like, catch me. If I fall. Or something. And the elemental keeps the sheet really warm, so. It’s nice. I don’t mind.”

 

Fabian grins, and something strange and pleasant settles in his chest.

 

~

 

The first time he really has to confront the idea that maybe it’s not just Fabian being paranoid about the amount of time he spends wrapping Riz in a sheet is when Aelwyn breaks up with him. It’s been coming for a long time, so obvious it’s like staring down an oncoming train. Aelwyn is trying to be kinder now, has been working on being gentler with people, and so of course she comes to their meeting at the ice cream shop with a delicately worded bullet point list on why they can’t be together anymore.

 

“And really, we did both acknowledge exactly how unhealthy for each other we are when we got into this,” she finishes, looking up at him over the rims of her new catlike glasses. She and Adaine match now. “I mean, I very explicitly stated how bad an idea this was and you agreed.”

 

“Yeah,” Fabian says, because he did. It still doesn’t mean it hurts any less. 

 

“Honestly Fabian, sometimes I--I wonder why you even said yes in the first place. It’s not like you don’t have another, probably better, option hanging around all the time.”

 

He has no fucking idea what that’s supposed to mean. “I have no fucking idea what that’s supposed to mean.”

 

Aelwyn looks at him, shrewd and calculating, and then sighs. “Men. You’re all so useless.”

 

“Hey,” Fabian says, halfhearted. She just broke up with him; it’d be nice of her to display a little consideration.

 

Her mouth presses into a thin line, and even though he knows she’s not happy about this either, Fabian gets the distinct feeling she’s laughing at him. Just a little. “How come you never wrap me in your sheet?”

 

“Wh-what?”

 

“You always wrap Riz in your battle sheet. Constantly. I’ve counted three times this week, Fabian, and it’s only Thursday. How come you never wrap me in your precious battle sheet? I was your girlfriend up until this moment, wasn’t I?”

 

“I have no idea what The Ball has to do with you breaking up with me,” Fabian tells her honestly.

 

“Everything, my dear.” Aelwyn says as she stands and tosses a five dollar bill on their table in Basrar’s. “Absolutely everything. Think about it.”

 

~

 

The Ball has nothing to do with this.

 

“You have nothing to do with this.” Fabian tells him when Riz rushes into his room in Seacaster Manor, armed with dvds and ice cream and a grim expression Fabian recognizes from the moment before he ate Kalvaxus’s face off.

 

“Well if you didn’t want me here why did you call me?” Riz asks, looking affronted. He takes a step towards the door but wavers, looking back and forth between the hallway beyond and Fabian’s teary, red face. “Look, I wanna help, but if you need some time alone--”

 

“No! That’s not what I meant.” Fabian flaps one arm at him frantically. “I just-- it’s just stupid, never mind, just get over here, The Ball.”

 

Riz dumps the items in his arms and bounds over, sympathy leaking over his expression. He stops by the foot of the bed which is too far away and Fabian would roll his eyes and whip the sheet out for him if he weren’t already wrapped up in it and trying not to look like he’s been crying for the past hour and a half. He has not. He has only been crying for an hour and twenty minutes, thank you very much.

 

“I’m really sorry, Fabian,” Riz says, soft and kind and what Fabian needs to hear and what he wants none of at the same time. “I know you really like Aelwyn.”

 

Something in The Ball’s expression shifts, a little, drops down and gets even more serious and Fabian feels that instinctive, commonplace need to know more about him. Fabian fails an insight roll though, and shakes his head. He reaches out again. “Just, just come here , The Ball, gods--”

 

“I’m standing right next to you--” is all The Ball can get out before he lets out a high little yelp and gets lifted into the air. He’s so light Fabian can manhandle him onto the mattress and into the sheet with one arm. Fabian wonders if he’s getting enough to eat, if he’s spiraling in his office too much, if he hasn’t been sleeping lately. After the Night Yorb incident, he and The Ball had slept in the same bed on and off, on the promise to wake each other up when they had nightmares. It was a terrible few weeks.

 

The only thing Fabian misses, he admits to himself as he sets The Ball down on the mattress next to him and drapes half of the sheet across his shoulders, is the warmth he woke up to every morning. Riz is a familiar, reassuring weight against Fabian’s side; he didn’t realize after the nightmares went away and The Ball started sleeping over on the weekends rather than every night how much he would miss this. 

 

Riz is, as always, game once he realizes what the plan is. He curls up under the sheet with a familiarity that makes the pressure in Fabian’s cracked chest ease just a little. He wraps his arms around Fabian’s middle and his tail flicks up to curl loosely around Fabian’s wrist where his arm is hooked around The Ball’s shoulders. The sheet is soft as cream and silvery in the low light as it folds around them both; it is on autopilot that Fabian takes the edges of the sheet and tucks them around his friend, until they are nothing more than a weirdly shaped lump of fabric.

 

“I’m supposed to comfort you right now, not the other way around,” The Ball points out, humor coloring his tone even as he keeps his voice low. Fabian leans harder against him and Riz grunts.

 

“You are,” Fabian says. “You are.”

 

He’s not okay, but he will be. 

 

~

 

Fabian gets over Aelwyn relatively quickly, which should probably be a sign of how serious he actually was about her. But there’s still something strange in not looking forward to meeting her now, after a year of striving to get information on her, a year of striving to get her out of prison, a year of striving to come off as anything besides an awkward teenage boy when she kisses him. It leaves Fabian at a bit of a loose end.

 

So, naturally, he makes it The Ball’s problem. Or not-problem. It’s more like a solution. He is the solution to The Ball’s depressing self-care mystery. The Ball, it is unsurprising to note, is terrible at taking care of himself. Fabian, on the other hand, has literally trained all his life to protect and fight for others; he’s gotten very good at turning this innate urge into making sure The Ball eats enough and sleeps enough and takes a goddamn break every once in a while. 

 

Case in point. 

 

“Come on , The Ball,” Fabian whines. “This place is honestly so depressing, you reek , and I know for a fact you haven’t slept in three days. It is time to go home.”

 

“My mom asked me to help her, Fabian,” Riz says. He doesn’t turn to look at Fabian when he speaks, nimble fingers spidering across a map of Elmville he has set up on the wall. There are strings of different colors connecting seemingly random locations together, but Fabian does not doubt they make sense to The Ball. It must be a serious case, anyway; The Ball only loses his hat and tie when it’s serious business. “I can’t give up now.”

 

“It’s not giving up. Why do you always have to assume that stopping for a little while makes everything worse?”

 

“Sure feels like it.”

 

Okay. Time to pull out the big guns. Fabian takes a deep breath and prays Riz won’t hate him for this tomorrow. “Your mom is worried about you. Again.”

 

Riz’s head jerks around sharply enough that Fabian winces. There’s a sharp crack and Fabian watches as the ink from the broken pen in Riz’s clawed hand drips to the hardwood. Ah, well. That’s the least horrible thing that’s stained this floor. When the detective turns to him Fabian takes a hasty step back. The slits of his eyes dilate wildly, shrinking and growing in size rapidly.

 

“Did you,” Riz asks deliberately slowly, “just try to use my mom against me?”

 

“It’s true,” Fabian protests weakly. “She sent me here when I asked where you were. She thought you were with me anyway and she got really mad when she figured out you were still working. You gotta learn to take breaks, man.”

 

Just like that, Riz deflates. His shoulders relax from where they’ve been hunched around his ears since Fabian walked in and his hackles lower. He scrubs a hand through his hair, leaving trails of blue ink through the strands; Fig would probably call it a look . “I hate when I make her worry.”

 

“You make everyone worry,” Fabian says without thinking, before backpedaling like a champ at Riz’s scandalized look. “Wait! No! I didn’t--it’s just that you make her-- and me-- but you don’t mean to so it’s fine. Is it hot in here? I feel like it’s hot  in here. We should go. Let’s go .”

 

“You worry about me?”

 

It’s the quiet way The Ball says it, quiet in the way he hasn’t heard often since the Nightmare King’s Forest, that makes Fabian square his shoulders and set his jaw in determination. He rolls initiative on a surprise round and succeeds. Nat twenty.

 

“Right.” Fabian declares, and reaches into his jacket. “We’re doing this.”

 

“What?” Riz’s eyes widen a second later, though, because his insight is crazy high and even his passive rolls are ridiculous. “Aw, no, Fabian, you don’t need to get the sheet out. I don’t need the sheet!”

 

“It’s too late. It’s already over.”

 

“Oh come on man, I didn’t mean it like that!”

 

“It's inescapable,” Fabian flourishes as the sheet unwinds and dances before him, obscuring The Ball’s view of him. “You’ve brought this on yourself.”

 

Between one blink and the next, Fabian has thrown the sheet about his best friend, movements fluid and expert from so much practice. He’s sure to leave Riz’s inky hand free, but he takes care to bundle his legs into the sheet. Fabian wraps one end of the sheet around the unoccupied arm before pulling it across his body gently and tucks the other end over his chest in the opposite direction before securing the free edge between Riz’s back and his own chest. 

 

Riz is still so light in his arms as Fabian hoists him right off the ground and into a princess carry. Riz squawks and waves his one free hand in Fabian’s face, which makes Fabian grimace and lean back. Ink splatter across the desk. 

 

“Spring break,” Fabian says. He meets Riz’s dark eyes, something in his gut sparking and fluttering and warming him all the way to his toes. “I believe in you.”

 

“Spring break, I believe in you,” Riz repeats, laughing and accepting the bardic inspiration before rolling his eyes. “It’s nearly winter, you dolt.” It makes something soft in Fabian curl up tight in his chest to hear his best friend laugh, to feel it reverberate in his own arms, in his own bones, and Fabian grins right back.

 

“The sentiment still stands. Just because you mess up every now and then doesn’t mean that you’re a bad son, The Ball. You’re just so passionate and conscientious and you want to make sure you do your work right the first time so no one gets hurt on your watch. That’s a noble thing to do. Your mom and me worrying about your well-being doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person; it’s just a sign of how much we love you.”

 

Fabian takes the stairs down to the parking lot as he speaks, focusing more on his feet than Riz’s face, because if he does focus on Riz and his wide eyes and the way his pupils are really fucking dilated right now and how his dumb hair is slicked back with ink and the way his ears are twitching and how he smells like coffee beans and old newspapers, the something in his gut will come up to his chest and constrict around his heart and then he’ll do something really stupid like lean in and--

 

Nope! Not dealing! Fabian gets his kisses in-- got his kisses in--enough already. No need to deal with all-- this.  

 

But then Fabian finishes his speech and The Ball makes a strange squeaking noise, and his hand comes to ball up under his own chin, and his eyes are still very wide and his face is so soft and he’s biting his lip, fuck .

 

Fabian’s hands are sweaty and he nearly fumbles his handful as he comes down hard off the last step, rolling a natural two on his athletics. He curses.

 

Sire! Are you alright? I will destroy the very stones which mock your footing until they are nothing but dust!

 

I’m fine, Hangman. Just tripped.

 

Shall we be escorting The Ball home, then?

 

“You can let me down now,” Riz says at that exact moment, just as Fabian goes to confirm with his bike. Whatever his expression meant before, the jolt seems to have knocked some sense into him before Fabian could roll insight, and the goblin shifts in his arms. Fabian tightens his grip reflexively, and Riz settles. “You don’t have to take me home.”

 

“Don’t have to?” Fabian repeats dumbly. Of course he has to! The Ball is his--his--The Ball is capable and brilliant, yes, but he is small and a rogue and Fabian is a martial class. He should be here, to make sure that The Ball is safe. 

 

What do you mean we’re not taking The Ball home? The Hangman howls in the back of his mind. Fabian one hundred percent agrees with the bewildered sentiment.

 

“I have a bus pass now, I was going to take it home tonight anyway. You’re on the other side of town from me, so you'd just be going out of your way.”

 

Master! The Hangman exclaims, engines revving. The Ball must not stoop so low as to take the bus!

 

This is another development that Fabian didn’t really realize was happening until after the fact; The Hangman, for whatever reason, has gotten weirdly possessive of Riz. They’ve given more rides to the detective than the rest of the Bad Kids combined. The Hangvan has been the subject of more than a few arguments.

 

We are much more capable of protecting The Ball than this bus, Sire. With your battle sheet and my infernal soul, we will be an impenetrable defense!

 

Fabian isn’t sure what they’re defending Riz against, but he’s not going to disagree with The Hangman. They can protect Riz much better if he comes with them.

 

“The Hangman is right here, The Ball,” Fabian scoffs. “Don’t be silly. Just get on the bike.”

 

The Ball opens his mouth like he’s thinking of protesting but he’s also forgetting two very important facts: Fabian has eight points of Strength on him and has him wrapped in his battle sheet, effectively grappled. He hasn't got a chance unless he wants to take the fall damage from wrenching himself away from Fabian, which he would never do. Riz trusts Fabian.

 

A soft, golden glow starts up in Fabian’s chest at the thought. The Ball should trust Fabian. Fabian--Fabian wants to keep The Ball safe and warm and cared for, and like this, wrapped snugly in Fabian’s regard, The Ball is all of those things. It means a lot--so, so much--that The Ball trusts Fabian to provide this for him. 

 

Okay, Fabian is getting off track again. 

 

“You’re getting on the bike,” Fabian declares imperiously, and plops The Ball down on the seat before sliding on in front of him. He waits, The Hangman revving below them, until he feels The Ball curl up against his back. His arms worm their way around Fabian’s waist and his sharp chin digs into his shoulder; something in the half-elf loosens and expands and the warm glow gets brighter.

 

They’re silent on the drive home; he can feel Riz curl up tighter against the wind and the sheet flutters around the two of them. Sparks flicker across the fabric, retaining warmth against the night’s coming chill. Fabian purposefully drives slowly, lets the time tick by as Riz presses warm up against his back, safe and sound and wrapped in Fabian’s protection, with Fabian’s bardic inspiration flowing through him. He also purposefully does not consider why this is so very important to him. 

 

It is only when they stop outside Riz’s apartment and he disembarks--The Hangman lets out a low rev of his engine, almost like a purr-- that they break the soft silence that’s descended. 

 

“Back at my office,” Riz starts, faltering, as he hands the sheet back. “You said--you love me?”

 

Panic bursts like fireworks in Fabian’s chest. “Wh-uh?” He says. “Uh. Uh. You have ink in your hair.”

 

Then Fabian makes a tactical decision and runs the fuck away. It is not his best moment. (However, since Chungle-Down Bim isn’t there, it’s also not his worst.) 

 

~

 

He is not avoiding The Ball. He is regrouping, coming up with a strategic return and possibly a retaliation for whatever weird, confusing, warm feelings Riz keeps setting fire to in his chest. This is strategy. This is war. 

 

This, frankly, sucks. So much. 

 

The Ball has called four times in the past week before giving up abruptly on Wednesday. It is Sunday afternoon. They usually spend Saturday night watching movies or going to Basrar’s together and then take Sunday to spar (for Fabian) and go over the latest town mystery (for Riz). They have done neither of these things; they also have not texted, spoken or passed each other on the street. Riz is supposed to come over for homework and hot chocolate on weekdays in the winter. He’s supposed to give The Ball rides home every day, to make sure he doesn’t have to walk home in the rain or snow. They’re supposed to be together--

 

And Fabian has no one to blame for their separation but himself. It twists his gut, seeing The Ball light up his phone so much before the calls stop and he’s left with nothing but unending silence. He can’t seem to stop trying to catch a glimpse of him in the halls at Aguefort, looking for a briefcase or a flat cap, anything, anything . But In the end, he’s the one avoiding The Ball. He’s the one not answering his phone.

 

He’s the one with weird feelings in his chest.

 

This cannot, Fabian realizes, possibly go on. He’s having trouble sleeping, and when he does he’s gone back to having nightmares about Riz falling during the Night Yorb debacle. He needs to sort this out, fast.

 

But Riz is a rogue and so his stealth rolls win out every damn time against Fabian’s perception, and  throughout the next week there’s no time between classes to catch him and he’s nowhere to be found at lunch.

 

Adaine doesn’t seem too happy with Fabian either, and hasn’t since this weekend. Riz must have said something to her about him, but she relents easily enough when she sees his frantic expression. 

 

“He’s been skipping class to work on that case with his mom for a couple days,” she says. “He--doesn’t really want to see you that much, Fabian.”

 

It feels like his heart breaks at that, but Fabian smiles winningly anyway. “Who wouldn’t want to see me? I’m Fabian Aramais Seacaster.”

 

“Son of Bill Seacaster, yeah I know,” Adaine finishes, and at least she’s got that fond exasperation back. “Look, I don’t know what happened between you two, Fabian, but you’ve got to fix it. I can’t take Riz moping around much longer. He’s been insufferable.”

 

“Leave it to me,” Fabian says with more confidence than he’s feeling, and peels out of the parking lot with a roar from The Hangman.

 

He thinks maybe things are going to be okay, somehow; he’ll make a suitably dramatic entrance, and he’ll say all the right things to get Riz to forget that Fabian had some kind of crisis for a week and change and didn’t bother to let his best friend in on it and they’ll go back to Seacaster Manor and watch dumb B-movies and everything will be fine and Fabian won’t have to confront this weird thing growing perilously close to his heart.

 

And then he steps into Riz’s office and faces reality.

 

“What do you want?” Fabian winces at the flat tone of Riz’s voice, the way his eyes won’t meet Fabian’s, the way he’s crossed his arms over his chest and hunched in on himself.

 

“I--well--uh, that is--” Fabian pauses, breathes. “I just thought I’d check up on you, since last time I was here you were about to fall asleep on your feet. I heard you were working too late again.”

 

Riz’s mouth is a flat, thin line. “That’s what you want to talk about? My work habits?”

 

“Well--I--work-life balance is a very real, serious thing, The Ball. Not everyone can be as healthy and committed to self-care as I am. I thought I would help you out, like always.” This is the part where the movie hero would puff out his chest and the girl would fawn all over him and they’d live happily ever after. Fabian doesn’t really feel up to puffing out his chest when Riz’s eyes go hard and flinty like that.

 

“It didn’t really seem like you cared about my self-care when you were refusing to acknowledge you loved me.”

 

Oh. Oh .

 

And that’s just it, isn’t it? The last piece of the puzzle slots into place, and Fabian is absurdly glad Aelwyn isn’t here to cast Detect Thoughts and laugh at his misery as he realizes what she knew practically from the start. Because he’d said it before--toxic masculinity is over. He’s in touch with his emotions now, and he loves his friends and he’d had a hard time showing it or saying it in the beginning but these days his affirmations roll off his tongue like so much honey so why has he had such a hard time with The Ball?

 

Of course. Of course he loves Riz. It’s--it’s not even that much of a revelation somehow; it’s like he always knew somewhere deep in his soul that they’d end up like this, with Riz being brilliant and brave and kind and Fabian loving him and loving him and loving him. Admitting it to himself, for how hard it has been to see it clearly in the first place, is easy. It’s like saying the sky is blue or Arthur Aguefort is insane. It’s just a fact. Fabian Aramais Seacaster loves Riz Gukgak.

 

He’s in love with this strange little goblin man and he’s been so dumb about it. 

 

“Okay, okay,” Fabian says, more to himself than The Ball. What happens now? What is he supposed to do? Should he just come out and say it? Or, no, Riz might think he’s joking, or trying to smooth things over. He'd hate it if Riz thought Fabian didn’t mean it the very first time Fabian says those words. Besides, they’re having an argument--a real one, which he doesn’t think they’ve ever had--and this is so not the time. No, he'll tell him after this is over, when they’ve made up and Fabian has taken care of Riz because he does really look like hell, all bags under his eyes and stiff limbs. He needs to apologize, probably, and then get The Ball somewhere safe and warm and comfortable and then he needs to do something grand and dramatic and then he can tell Riz Gukgak he’s in love with him.

 

“Look, I’m sorry, alright?” It comes out sharper than he intends, but he’s dealing with wave after wave of astonishment and fear and love and he could use a bit of a break, to be honest. “Can we just forget it?” He has to get this over with to get to the next step of his foolproof, ten second plan to woo The Ball in which nothing can possibly go wrong.

 

“Forget it?” Riz repeats, incredulous. This is not at all going the way Fabian needs it to go. “You want me to forget the time you took back saying you loved me--when you haven’t even called me your best friend, yet--and drove off and then didn’t talk to me for a week? That’s something you think can just be forgotten? You left Fabian!”

 

“The Ball--Riz--”

 

“I’m not just going to let this go, Fabian. No. But if you think that I’m just something to be so easily swept to the side and then picked up again when you feel like it, then--then--great! Great. I see clearly now where I stand with you.”

 

“Okay,” Fabian declares, because enough really is enough, “it’s sheet time.”

 

No, Fabian!”

 

Riz has never raised his voice outside of crazy group antics before. Not to Fabian, at least. The sheet flutters out of his fingers as Fabian stares, open-mouthed. His chest is cracking again, like it did after Aelwyn broke up with him, but this is worse now; this crack is not just a hairline or a fissure, but a damn canyon. It feels like someone reached inside his ribcage and scooped his heart out.

 

Riz’s mouth twists and he hugs himself tighter, looking as miserable as Fabian feels. “I don’t want your goddamn sheet, okay? I don’t--I don’t need you to act like I’m some kind of burden or--or--”

 

“A burden--The Ball --”

 

Or calling me The Ball all the time!” Riz’s voice rises again. His fists are clenched now. “I’m--I’m sick of you wrapping me up like a little kid. I’m not a baby, okay? I can take care of myself. I'm fine on my own.”

 

“Riz,” Fabian tries again, weakly. This can’t happen. Not now. Not to them.

 

“I think it’s best if you leave now,” Riz says grimly, and turns his back. He doesn’t look around when Fabian closes the door softly behind him.

 

~

 

“I’m sorry.” 

 

Fabian blinks. 

 

He and The Ball only had their fight two hours ago; he’d got on The Hangman and ignored the bike's probing questions, and gone home and cried and then he’d gotten up and done what he’d thought Riz would do in his place. He made a clue board. 

 

First on the board is the picture of himself and Riz taken the night the Night Yorb was defeated; Fig had snapped a shot without them knowing, of the two of them talking in the firelight, Fabian craning his neck to look down at a swaddled, comfortable looking Riz who was looking up at him, mouth open seemingly in mid-sentence. His hair is in his face and Fabian always looks at it and remembers how seconds afterward he’d reached up and pushed the curls out of Riz’s eyes gently. That was the end of the summer--it’s the middle of winter now. He’s been in love with his best friend at least since then, maybe before.

 

Next on the board is his half of the best friend necklace; he’d actually stolen it out of Riz’s briefcase on their way to fight the Nightmare King. It was after Fallinel, when he was getting back to himself, reinventing how he saw the world. He’d wanted to know--to have something, just a small thing, that reminded Fabian who really loved him. And Riz had been there.

 

So. Maybe he was a little in love with Riz back then, too.

 

The third clue was actually absent from the board, but Fabian writes it on a post-it note and sticks that there in its place; my old letter jacket . He’d gotten a new one when he’d been on the team in the beginning of sophomore year; he’d filled out too much, built up enough muscle from practice that he hadn’t been able to keep using the one his father gave him freshman year. He’d given it to The Ball because he was complaining of the cold one day and then just. Never bothered to take it back. 

 

Riz wears it to his games sometimes. It makes Fabian--feel. Certain things. It’s fine. 

 

The final clue is, of course, the sheet. He almost doesn’t bother pinning that one up either, since it’s pretty fucking obvious. Aelwyn could see it all just from the way he wrapped Riz up in his sheet, after all; he really doesn't need the rest of his clues to figure this out. But there’s something soothing in this, in looking at the world the way he knows Riz looks at it. 

 

He’s just working himself up to maybe crying again when Cathilda knocks on his door and lets Riz quietly into the room.

 

“What?” Fabian says, because what?

 

Riz is biting his lip, which is entirely too distracting, when he speaks again. “I was--unfair. And a dick. And I've been--going through some stuff and I put all that on you, and I’m sorry, man. You didn’t deserve that.”

 

“No, I--I mean, I’m sorry too. I mean--you don’t need to be sorry, because I should be sorry. I just left you hanging and then spaced on you and I didn’t even tell you why, I just wanted to go back to normal. So I’m the one who’s sorry and you can’t take that from me. I’ll fight you if you try, just so you know. Stop being sorry.”

 

And just like that, the corners of Riz’s mouth turn up which is a relief because Fabian loves him and just figured out that he’s maybe been in love with him for over a year, but he also knows that even before he knew he was in love he’d have done just about anything to make sure Riz never looked as sad as he does right now. He’d kill to put a smile on Riz’s face.

 

“I don’t think you can just have a monopoly on apologizing, Fabian,” Riz says and the way his name sounds out of The Ball’s mouth, gods, how did Fabian not realize this sooner? “I’ve just been--I’ve been dealing with a lot and you’re my best friend, man, and I just...It sucks not talking to you.”

 

“Yeah,” Fabian agrees. “It really fucking does.” 

 

And then, opening his arms tentatively, “Can I?”

 

Riz’s face twists horribly then, and Fabian’s heart has just enough time to sink to his stomach before Riz throws himself into Fabian’s arms. Fabian holds him and holds him and doesn’t ever want to let go now, he’s got Riz and he’s pressing his face into Riz’s hair and lifting him up and holding him close to his chest and Riz is wrapping his arms around Fabian’s shoulders, claws scratching at the back of Fabian’s neck, he’s whispering into that twitching ear, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you, I’ve got you, it’s okay, I’ve got you,” and he loves and loves and loves and he doesn’t know if it’s supposed to hurt so sweetly but it does.

 

“I’m sorry, gods, I’m sorry,” Riz babbles into his shoulder and Fabian wants to tell him to stop but he’d have to interrupt to do that and he can’t, not when he knows Riz has such a hard time with the idea that his friends don’t listen to him. He folds at the knees instead, takes Riz with him to the ground and cradles him like something precious because that’s what The Ball is and has always been, precious and so important and, if he has his way, Fabian’s . “I’m sorry I acted like you didn’t care, I know you do, I just don’t want to ever make you feel like you have to do everything for me, like I’m weak or less than or like I don't get that you have other things, other people to take care of--”

 

And then Fabian does interrupt because like hell is he letting this slide. “Stop it, stop, I know you’re strong and you’re brave and you’re so smart, Riz, gods, you’re brilliant. I just-- I wanna take care of you, I know I don’t have to but I want to, I love to, I love you, I'm in love with you and I want to take care of you, please.”

 

It’s only when Riz rears his head back that Fabian realizes what just came tumbling out of his mouth. 

 

“Oh, shit. Uh--I wasn’t supposed to say that yet.”

 

“Yet?” Riz squeaks and fuck it, Fabian decides. Fuck it all. In for a penny, in for a dime. 

 

“Yeah, yet,” Fabian rushes. His fingers clench and release the fabric over Riz’s spine rhythmically and he can feel the goblin shivering against his chest and without thinking Fabian pulls down his sheet and wraps them both in it. Riz’s skin stands out dark and forest green against the silvery material and he hopes he likes it, hopes it is soft and warm against the thin, fragile surface of Riz’s cheek because Riz is so good and Fabian loves him and he deserves nice things. “I--I was gonna make a plan and strategize and not tell you until I’ve done at least three heroic deeds in your name, dude. I had so many ideas.”

 

“Ideas?” Riz’s voice is faint.

 

Fabian nods solemnly. “There were also schematics for a dramatic duel on the clifftops, but we’ve already done that a couple times, so I scrapped it.” 

 

“Too much of a Nightmare King-Night Yorb repeat.”

 

“Yeah,” Fabian nods. “Exactly. So uh. Just. If you could pretend I haven’t said that yet, I can get on the heroic deeds and we can revisit this. Conversation. Uh, later.”

 

“Right,” Riz says, nodding slowly too. “Or we could, like, do it right now. Since I'm in love with you too and everything.”

 

Fabian’s brain stops working.

 

“Oh.”

 

“'Oh?' That’s it?”

 

“I, uh, didn’t plan for this.”

 

“You didn’t plan for me maybe liking you back? Dude, everybody knows already.”

 

Fabian draws further away at that, blinking wildly. (His hands stay on Riz’s hip and back because he’s got him now, he’s got him, Riz is in his home and his arms and his heart and wrapped in Fabian’s protection and he’s never leaving if Fabian has anything to say about it.) “Everyone?”

 

Riz scuffs the back of his neck and his ears are turning turquoise again. “Uh, yeah, man. Adaine told me if I complain about how much I like your eyes to her one more time she’s gonna get Fig to hex me. I um, I thought maybe you were doing the whole sheet thing to, like, let me down easy. Make me see you didn’t think of me as more than like, a kid or someone who needs your help or something.”

 

“Oh my gods. That is so dumb,” Fabian blurts, because what the fuck, The Ball, seriously. “That is so dumb The Ball. You’re so dumb.”

 

“Gee, thanks. I really feel like you love me right now, just so you know. Just overwhelming amounts of love pouring out right now.”

 

“Oh shut up.” Fabian says, laughing. “I wrap you in my sheet because I love you, The Ball. Like, more than I think I’ve ever liked anyone. It’s how Aelwyn knew we were over.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“She broke up with me and told me I never wrapped her in my sheet because I was always doing that to you.” Fabian explains, not even bothering to be embarrassed. “Because I've been in love with you for like, forever, man. She just realized it first because I always wanted to use the sheet on you and not my own girlfriend.”

 

“Oh,” Riz replies, sounding breathless. All things considered, Fabian’s going to take that as a good sign. He leans in now, presses his forehead to the crook of Riz’s neck, and breathes. Riz smells like newspaper and ink and old coffee and Fabian loves him so much. He tilts his head, nosing at the detective’s collar, and slides his lips over warm skin. He lets his teeth catch there, just a hint. “ Oh .”

 

And then, before Fabian can even move, Riz’s hand is in his hair, tangled up in the strands, and he says, very fast, “By the way I’m demisexual, it’s on the asexuality spectrum and I was also being weird because I didn’t know how to deal with how attracted I am to you!”

 

“Okay,” Fabian says easily, drawing back. “Do you want to have a conversation about it? Because I don’t think I’m your guy for that, but we could go to the LGBT group meeting with Kristen next week and see if they have any resources. Jawbone could probably help too.”

 

Riz’s pupils are dilating slowly and his mouth hangs open before he snaps out of it. He looks less miserable now but still unsure and it’s not a good look on him. Fabian desperately wants to erase it. “That’s it? You’re not--you don’t think I’m weird?”

 

“Of course you’re weird, The Ball, but not for that. Besides, I think starting a relationship--we are starting a relationship, right--” Riz nods frantically, the beginnings of a grin forming, and Fabian pauses to lean in and press his mouth to the corner of Riz’s, “with the only problem being you don’t know what to do with all the insanely hot attraction you have for me is, like, the opposite of a hardship, dude.”

 

He stops then, considers, and then something terrible occurs to Fabian. He pulls even farther back and splays his fingers across Riz’s chest, feels his heart rabbiting there under his fingertips, and says quickly, “Not that I need you to have any kind of--any of that kind of attraction to me, Riz. I’d be okay, you know, with just this. Although you may have to tell me how hot I am from time to time. For, you know, moral support.”

 

Tension seems to drain out of Riz, has been since Fabian first started speaking, and this time it’s his turn to lean in and brush his lips across Fabian’s mouth. Fabian lets out a breath, takes in the scent of old newsprint and coffee and realizes he could die happy here. “You are, in fact, very hot, Fabian. And--thank you. For understanding. I might--I’m not super interested in sex, but. It’s a maybe. If you’d like it to be, for the future.”

 

“Of course I would, you’re incredibly attractive. But it’s not that big a deal,” Fabian says, and he picks them both up off the floor.

 

 The sheet comes with them, sparks playing along the skin of his forearms but never burning him as he sets Riz down on the mattress because Riz is good and perfect and loves Fabian and deserves better than to sit on the floor. He doesn’t hesitate like he usually would now, and curls up around Riz, pulls the sheet over them both, encases them and pulls Riz close, closer, closest. “I love you. I’m probably not going to stop saying it now, just so you know. I’m going to be very annoying about it.”

 

Riz reaches up and brushes his claws lightly over Fabian’s brow and his smile is so soft something in Fabian melts. “It’s a good thing I love you then, or I’d never be able to put up with it.”