Chapter 1: Kristen & Fig
Kristen's not that happy about Tracker leaving. Fig is determined to pull her out of her funk.
She’s not jealous. She swears it, she’s not.
But Kristen sure isn’t chuffed that, at nearly the exact same moment Tracker decided to go off on some vision quest to save the image of her beloved werewolf goddess or whatever, Fig received a magical key to a magical door to a magical portal in her bedroom that allows her to see Ayda any time she wants.
Like, that’s not fair, right?
Like, she gets it, she gets why this is happening, she gets that Tracker is just as dedicated to Galicaea as she is with Cassandra and sometimes choices have to be made as promise to that dedication. She gets it. It’s the sort of worship and pure, unadulterated faith that made her enter a door to the universe and create her own god, the sort of faith that made her drop her staff and run unflinchingly towards the Nightmare King, and she guesses it’s also the sort of faith that makes girlfriends leave the country for several months to kick it with immortal elves. Fine. Alright. She’s not fine or alright, but it’s fine.
It still doesn’t stop the sting when she sees Ayda and Fig cuddling up on the couch, or hears the telltale giggle beneath the upside-down piano. Doesn’t stop her from cringing away when she sees Ayda look at Fig like she’s her whole world, and Fig being softer and shyer and in general more content than Kristen’s ever seen her before.
And it’s totally not fair for her to be like that, because she’s happy for Fig! She really is! The family that’s gay together stays together, she always says, and there’s no way in hell she’d ever fault Fig for finally finding someone she really cares about, rather than going off and kissing grown-ass adult men in a disguise. But man, does it hurt seeing her—housemate? Pseudo-sister by virtue of living in the same house and being the girlfriend of the niece of the man her mother is currently dating? Wait, that would make them pseudo-cousins, then, wouldn’t it? Whatever—getting to experience all that joy and nervousness and excitement and exploration she once got to have, back in freshman year, while sophomore-year Kristen just … cries in her room a lot, which is a new low. Even calling it a new low is a new low, considering she’s straight up been raised in a cult and got killed by a unicorn that one time.
She tries not to let her own misery poison the giddiness of new gay love blossoming. She avoids Fig’s room as much as possible, takes refuge in the old chapel whenever Ayda comes over, and in general tries to keep out of their way as much as possible.
Evidently, she hasn’t done enough. Sometime in June, whilst in the middle of their summer vacation, Fig bursts through her bedroom door and goes, “Alright, Kristen, we’re doing something.”
“Something” means forcing Kristen to take a shower, which is actually a pretty good idea because her bedroom was starting to smell funky, and “something” means dragging her down and pouring her a bowl of cereal and plopping her down on the couch. The cereal is sugary, the couch leather is sticky, and the open windows are letting in gusts of semi-cool air that don’t really do much because the house doesn’t have A/C installed.
“What’s with all this?” Kristen asks in-between spoonfuls of cereal. She’s not sure who’s been eating all the corn flakes, but there’s mostly marshmallows in her bowl. Not that she’s complaining.
“Well, what else am I supposed to do? Leave you in your bed to marinate?” Fig rolls her eyes.
If Kristen looks hard enough, she can almost make out that hidden Archdevil symbol emblazoned onto Fig’s forehead, beneath her purple-streaked bangs. It’s not normally visible to the mortal eye, but something in her clerical powers lets her see the arcana of it, the faint red lines of anarchy and rebellion.
It’s interesting, really, now that Kristen is thinking about it. She’s always been allied with the Heavens, with Sol and Helio, and even now that she’s with Cassandra, a twilight domain goddess is still pretty damn close to celestial. But Fig? Fig’s got pit fiend in her literal DNA. She’s as connected to the Nine Hells as anyone can get.
The two of them are polar opposites.
“You know my parents never wanted me to be friends with tieflings?” she says before she can stop herself. Well. Not that she’s ever been much good at stopping herself. Being impulsive is kinda her thing. Kinda both their things. “The whole infernal business, y’know.”
Fig curls up on the other side of the couch with her own bowl of cereal. Their legs tangle together in the middle, making a game over who can get their leg on the very top of the pile. “Yeah, I can see that. Last I remember, your parents were kind of dicks.”
“Oh, super dickish. They all suck. Parents, aunts, uncles, everybody. Real ‘fire and brimstone’, made for some very pleasant holiday gatherings.” Kristen gets another spoonful in. “My brothers were pretty good, but that’s on account of I took care of them a lot. Tried teaching them what Helio was really supposed to be all about, made sure to tell them that they didn’t need to wrap themselves in a bubble the way mom and dad did. But who knows how they’ll turn out in that house, without me there.”
“You wanna get them out?” Fig nudges Kristen’s calf with the one foot she has wiggled free. “We got plenty of rooms in this house.”
She snorts. “On your mom’s and Jawbone’s salary? That’s too many kids.”
“Nah, I think we could make it.” Fig jabs a thumb at her chest with a cocky grin, her cereal sloshing dangerously close to the rim of the bowl with her jerky movements. “I’m a rock star, remember? Let me finish the next tour and we’ll be set for life. Or the next five years, at least.”
“The Archdevil tour, huh?” Aaaand that’s her cue to lose her almost-good mood.
Fucken’ hell. A whole tour dedicated to Fig’s love and admiration for her new girlfriend—her succubus, she calls her, which is so stupidly infernal-adorable that Kristen can hardly stand it—maybe she should give a celestial-adjacent nickname like that for Tracker—her moonlight, maybe? Her wolf-pup? No, that’s too close to the nicknames they save for roleplay—god fucking dammit, she misses Tracker so much.
“Yep. Lola’s got a date set. Gorgug and I will leave late July, tour throughout August, get back in time for school.” Fig wiggles her feet again, jostling Kristen’s legs. It’s far too hot for them to be all tangled together like this, and everything’s kind of sweaty and gross and not in the fun, sexy, bedroom-type way. “Hey, y’all wanna come to the Bastion City show? It’ll be the closest one to Elmville, I can hook everybody up with the prime-time tickets. I’m talking backstage passes, VIP, the works. Don’t know what sort of benefits you can get as a VIP but I’m sure Lola will think up something.”
Kristen stares down her bowl. She doesn’t feel like eating anymore. The rest of the cereal’s gotten soggy anyway. She reaches over and, with some difficulty, manages to slide it onto the coffee table without it tipping onto the carpet. “Ah, maybe ask the others. I think I’ll sit this one out. Not too big on doing a second road trip.”
“Kristen, absolutely not.” Fig looks her dead in the eye, which shouldn’t look as intimidating as it is when she has milk dripping down her chin. “You can’t spend the whole summer and half of junior year cooped up in the manor, moping, just because Tracker’s gone.”
“I’m not moping,” Kristen mopes.
“Saint Kristen Applebees, you have ceased to be the Saint of the Goddess of Mystery and have now become the Saint of Moping. You spent the first two months after Tracker left rolling down the stairs and to the kitchen for breakfast every morning, in a blanket burrito, and told us to pour oatmeal into your open mouth.” Fig arches an eyebrow. “You’re moping. And frankly, it’s not at all your style.”
“What is my style?” Kristen shoots back.
“Strong. Stubborn. Determined.” Fig’s next kick to her legs is decidedly not as gentle as before. It also hurts way more, because their legs are now firmly lodged together in a little twisted pretzel. “Someone who straight up talked to her gods, like, five times, and told them to their face that they sucked and she wanted to find a better one. That badass chick is more your style.”
“Yeah, well—” Kristen fumbles, because that’s true, she did those things, but, well … they didn’t seem all that cool or badass or strong in the moment.
She wasn’t trying to make a statement or whatever. She just looked these all-powerful beings in the eye and realized, with all due respect, she didn’t want their T-shirts anymore.
“Yeah, well, fuck that.” Fig points a finger right at her. Her nails are getting a little long and pointy; Kristen knows she has to file them down every couple of weeks, part of her whole tiefling regiment. Once, she accidently scratched Riz when they were horsing around and she was babbling apologies all day long. Kristen doesn’t think she ever heard her parents sound sorry for anything. Oh, they said sorry a lot, a lot of “sorry to bother you”s and “please”s and “thank you”s and “Helio bless you”s up and down the street, but they never were sorry for anything they did. They were like Daybreak, so hyped up on their own corn juice; it’s not that they’re right for worshipping Helio, but that they worship Helio because they’re right.
“Fuck that,” Fig repeats. “Look, I get it. I—I don’t know what I’d do, if I couldn’t see Ayda for a while. It’ll suck and it’ll be miserable and I’ll probably cry just as much as you have.” She gives Kristen a meaningful look. “But I also know that if it was me, you wouldn’t leave me alone. You’d force me to go out and have fun with the guys at Basrar’s. You’d say dumb shit to make me laugh. So I’m doing for you what I know you’d do for me, because that’s what friends fuckin’ do.”
Would she? Do all that?
Fig seems so certain she would, that she’d burst in on Fig’s misery and blast it away with clerical light and her usual loud demeanor, a rocket punch of impulsive decisions and bad timing, the kind of friend that charges forwards without thinking to heal and protect and fight and make things right again in a sudden burst of luck. The kind of friend who cares, as the universe cares, about everyone and everything.
She seems so sure of it, and Kristen doesn’t. She doesn’t know what she’d do, sometimes. She’s spent so much of her life not knowing anything about herself, too scared to know.
“Now, in case you forgot,” Fig says, “you and Tracker have a video call tomorrow. So before that, I’m gonna fix you up. We’re gonna get your room cleaned, and cut your hair, and eat some ice cream, and then we’re gonna show Tracker what she’s missing and make sure she gets her goddess all fixed and her ass back in Elmville pronto.”
Kristen chokes out a laugh at that, hoping Fig won’t be able to hear the way her words are wet, damp in her throat and behind her eyes. Tight from the confusion she's always trying to avoid, the search for an answer to all of her questions. “Yeah. Fuck yeah, let’s show her what she’s missing.”
Sandra Lynn calls for them somewhere in the kitchen, and when they try to stand up they both squawk and fall off the couch in a shower of milk and soggy cereal bits, legs still tangled together.
They stare at each other in disbelief. Fig shakes milk out of her hair.
Kristen laughs so hard she cries.
Chapter 2: Fabian & Riz
Fabian doesn't quite know the difference between friends and crewmates. Hanging out with Riz seems to make the distinction clearer.
He is The Ball, and he is Fabian’s best friend.
It’s weird how it happened, because as far as Fabian’s concerned, he can’t remember how at all. It seems like they started from throwing The Ball inside his backpack and smashing him into a car, skipped a couple steps, then went straight into being each other’s best friends. And it’s even weirder because Fabian doesn’t understand friendship, not in the way the others do, because papa couldn’t teach him what he himself didn’t know and mama wasn’t exactly in a state to offer much of anything during his formative years.
Friends are crewmates, that’s how he sees it. The crew of his ship. Everyone moving as one unit, reaching a common goal, a destination. But the thing about crewmates is that, while they’re all indispensable and cherished, they all still work under the captain.
And Fabian may be the captain of the bloodrush team, but he sure isn’t the captain of the Bad Kids.
When it comes to the Bad Kids, there is no ship, and there is no captain. There’s only the six of them, each taking charge of doing what they do best, of protecting each other and kicking serious ass. There’s no one issuing commands at the helm and steering the ship, no one at the top of the chain. Papa never understood that, and to be completely honest, Fabian doesn’t either. Again, the specifics had been lost on him when he was younger. Maybe he had a weird childhood. Whatever. Who cares. But regardless of the sort of friendship he has with these guys, it’s not the same thing as a crew, because a crew would follow his orders and absolutely none of the Bad Kids would do that by any means.
But if they were a crew—if Fabian was the captain of a ship, the leader, a pirate king like his father before him—Riz would be his first mate.
That is an undeniable, indisputable truth.
And the thing he knows about first mates is that it’s not just a “top subordinate of the boss” type thing. It’s a full-on Thing, something intrinsically strong built on respect and loyalty and, above all, trust. The sort of trust like putting a knife in the other’s hand and turning your back and knowing that they’ll never stab you with it, and that sort of trust is hard to come by among pirates.
It comes easy with Riz.
“Your father stole gold for a living, Fabian,” Riz says, sounding slightly exasperated. “How can you be this bad at math?”
“I can count gold and divide it evenly, Riz, statistics aren’t exactly involved in that equation,” Fabian snaps back, although there isn’t any heat in the words. He doesn’t get angry, not at his friends. He didn’t get angry when they accidentally put him at odds with his father. He didn’t get angry when they teased him about the sexy rat or Chungle—god, he can’t even say his name—the fucking demon gnome from hell. Fabian saves his anger for his enemies, the enemies who target his pride and his friends and the one and the same, but he never seems to have any left in his arsenal for the rest of them, even when he’s the butt of their jokes. And he's never been the butt of a joke before he met these guys.
“If you don’t pass the remedial exam, you’ll be taking summer school,” Riz threatens. “And for the love of god, you will be insufferable if you have to take summer school. Even Gorgug passed this class.”
“Oh, don’t drag Gorgug into this, man. That’s a low blow.”
“Gorgug passed the final exam and you’re taking the remedial to scrape by. That’s not a low blow, it’s a factual piece of evidence I’m adding to the growing case file that is titled Fabian Aramais Seacaster is Going to Fail Math If He Doesn’t Pass This Exam.”
Riz talks back at him a lot more, now. Gone are the days where he seemed so desperate to be liked by Fabian, to take whatever slightly mean nickname or little jab or irritated sigh and brush it off, because he was just eager to be included.
Now, Riz looks him dead in the eye and calls him a fucking moron, and honestly? Fabian likes him all the more for it.
Fabian stares down at the table strewn with notes, textbooks, and old test papers. The Seacaster manor’s dining table is enormous, enough to seat two dozen people, so they’re really only taking up a corner but it’s still a lot of shit. Cathilda brought them coffee and platters full of muffins and honey cakes, which Riz has largely consumed on his own with that seemingly bottomless goblin stomach. Fabian’s coffee is still full, because he can’t even be bothered to drink it when none of this makes any sense, god, shit, fuck.
“I’m gonna fail,” he whines, jabbing his thumb into a spot just along the bone of his eye socket, massaging it to try and alleviate the growing headache beginning to strain his one working eye. “The Ball, I’m gonna fail fuckin’ math like a chump and I’m gonna have to take summer school to make up for it.”
“Aw, hey, no,” Riz instantly says, switching tactics the moment he senses Fabian’s genuine distress. “No, Fabian, you’re gonna be fine. You’re not a chump. We just have to practice, that’s all, and the remedial’s supposed to be easier than the actual exam anyways. Look, Adaine made these notes for you, she highlighted all the parts she predicts will be on the exam. And knowing the Oracle, I think we can take her predictions as certainties.”
He slides a stack of beautifully handwritten notes towards Fabian, all aesthetically pleasing to the eye with highlighted titles and boxed-in subsections, complete with a symbol guide in the corner explaining which colours is for which type of information.
Ah, good ol’ Adaine. Truly, none of them deserve her.
Fabian squints. “Did she use a ruler for the boxes?”
“I swear to god, she makes those lines freehand.”
“Unbelievable.” He snorts and flips through the notes. “Okay, I think this might be doable.”
“Of course it’s doable. Look, I have—” Riz checks his watch, “—an hour or so more before I need to get back to work, but I can help review some of the harder stuff with you today and we can do some practice tests tomorrow.”
Oh. Well, that's news to him. “You have work today?”
“Just some little stuff for dad, nothing major or plane-hopping. And then a few cases of my own. It’s fine, I’ll be able to make it tomorrow.” He laughs a little. “You know me. Three hours of sleep and six cups of coffee, and I’m good to go.”
If the Bad Kids did have a captain, Fabian knows deep down it wouldn’t be him. He’s too self-absorbed and pretentious and sheltered, too focused on achieving his own goals at the expense of the rest. But he thinks it could be Riz.
Riz, the Briefcase Kid who never had a real friend all his life but that didn’t stop him from being kind and selfless anyways. Riz, the voice of reason. Riz, who keeps focused and clear-headed and manages to get the rest of their eclectic, bizarre group of friends back on track, back to the endgame. Riz, who plans ahead, who furiously pulls guns on guys who threaten his friends, who permanently scarred his hands to try and save a girl and never once seemed to regret it.
Riz is more of a captain than Fabian could ever be.
“You don’t have to if you’re too busy,” Fabian mumbles.
“No, it’s fine, I can make time,” Riz says, like it’s no big deal. Like he doesn’t have a million things on the backburner, a million plans and conspiracies and mysteries to solve.
Fabian’s eye strays towards Riz’s briefcase, half-open on the table. It’s still the fancy, bottomless briefcase Fabian got for him, the one that cost an extravagant amount of money, with the elegant initials T.B. engraved on the front. The Ball. Something small and easy to pick up and throw, a name originally meant as cruelty. An integral part of the sport, something the game cannot go on without.
“Thanks, Riz,” he says.
Riz startles a little at that, still not used to Fabian calling him by his actual name. Fabian regrets that a little, the insistence on saying The Ball for more than a year, a little because it was funny and a little because the name came from the popular older kids and he wanted to prove he was one of them and a little because, at the end of the day, he knew all along that the Briefcase Kid was the type of friend someone like Fabian was lucky to have and not the other way around, and that damnable pirate pride of his refused to admit it all this time.
“Yeah,” Riz eventually says. He has an odd look on his face, one that Fabian with all his insight can’t quite crack. “I mean, y’know. What are friends for?”
Fabian with his dad in hell. Riz with his dad in heaven. A mother who was always there but never present. A mother who wanted to be present but was never there. A bike. A babysitter. A hand gripping white-knuckled tight over the peak of the abyss, a body that’s already died one too many times for him to see it go again.
“What are friends for?” Fabian repeats with a grin, and Riz grins back, a little wobbly and unsure even after all this time, all the battles they fought together. Like even he, clever goblin investigator that he is, can’t believe someone like Fabian is his best friend.
The Bad Kids might not be a crew, but if Riz was their captain, Fabian would be his first mate. And he’d do so willingly.
Chapter 3: Adaine & Gorgug
It's a high schooler party, and (of course) Adaine and Gorgug are the only ones still coherent.
“How drunk is she right now?” Adaine asks, staring down at Kristen’s slumped body with a sigh.
“If I had to give it a level?” Gorgug replies, from where he is half-pinned to the floor by Kristen using him as a giant, gangly pillow. “I’d say she is, uh, concerningly drunk.”
“Enough to need to purge the alcohol out?” Adaine crouches down and smooths strands of hair from Kristen’s sweaty face. She’s pale and clammy, but she mumbles something incoherent when Adaine tilts her head up so she’s at least semi-conscious. That’s something. God, does Adaine sometimes wish she wasn’t the responsible one in the group. “I think I ought to cast Ray of Sickness on her.”
Gorgug makes an immediate distressed noise. “I’d, ah, rather you didn’t do it while I’m still—”
“No, not right now, dummy. I mean in a bathroom somewhere.” Adaine presses her finger to Kristen’s neck; her pulse is jumpy and erratic. Her drinking habits have been absolutely awful (and downright concerning) ever since Tracker left, and Kristen's already pretty much a mess on any regular day. God, does she wish she wasn’t the responsible one in the group. “Honestly, she’s probably gonna throw up anyway. Might as well get it out of her system now. Help me get her up?”
It’s a little silly for her to even ask for help, considering Kristen’s quite a bit heavier than her willow-thin high elf frame and Gorgug is a towering half-orc barbarian, so he carefully scoops Kristen up into his arms with very little of Adaine’s input at all. Despite the lankiness of his limbs, he carries her like she barely weighs a thing, even as Kristen whines and garbles something unintelligible and begins to flail her arms around. She smacks him in the face a few times, which he stoically takes with only a minor wince, more from the action of being smacked than any real pain.
“Do you know where the bathroom even is?” he asks, chewing anxiously at his lip. It has to be a careful procedure, with those tusks getting in the way.
“Nope.” They’re in some stupidly big house in Clearbrook, an ostentatious monstrosity of upper-middle-class wealth that reminds Adaine far too much of the burned-out husk of a mansion just a few blocks north. Unlike the old Abernant mansion, this place has been almost completely ransacked by the wild night of partying, but its structural resemblance to her old home is so off-putting that the moment she stepped in, Adaine couldn’t bring herself to join in on the fun with the rest of her friends. Even Riz is out there having fun somewhere, or maybe he’s trying to make sure Fig or Fabian or somebody isn’t getting themselves killed, who knows. Either way, he’s definitely enjoying himself.
And thank goodness she didn’t go, either. Because who else is going to look after them when they get like this? Honestly.
She feels something cool brush against the back of her neck and her arms. She turns to face a dark corner of the room, wreathed in shadows the dull lamplight cannot touch.
“We’re taking care of her,” she says to the shadows, “don’t worry.”
Cassandra, the Goddess of Mystery, breathes out a sigh of relief that makes Adaine think of wind chimes at night and the distant rustle of trees in evening-dark forests and crystal flashlights marking paths that lead to nowhere. Then the feeling is gone, and so is the Goddess, putting their trust in the two of them to look after their beloved saint.
Kristen hiccups wetly, which doesn't bode well, and Adaine ushers Gorgug down the halls a little bit faster. Pfft. Some saint.
They make their way through the house’s expansive first floor in search of a bathroom. Gorgug has to walk slowly, so as not to jostle Kristen too much. One deliberate step after another, making sure she doesn't hit her head against the wall or so much as bump her foot. He’s so careful with her, in fact, that for some reason it almost makes Adaine want to cry. She turns away quickly, sniffing hard and then pretending to shiver so it just seems like her nose is running from the evening chill. It's so stupid of her to feel like this, out of nowhere. She can't even blame it on alcohol, because she really only got to sip one cooler before Fig stole it.
But it's Gorgug, and he’s pretty much always been like that. Taking the groups’ burdens, their painful struggles and their deprecating jokes with equal measure, and shouldering it like it’s nothing.
Adaine’s always liked Gorgug. So many in the group gave her such a terrible first impression, a storm cloud of wild beasts and erratic, harebrained weirdos that she had no choice in getting involved with. But that shy, meek, awkward half-orc who managed to tower over even her, who only wanted to give someone a flower, who rages only when someone deliberately provokes him and even then looks embarrassed about it immediately afterwards … she looked at that mess of a kid that first day in detention and saw herself. Not quite herself, but someone who only wanted to be accepted, and if not accepted, then to be seen and heard, and very rarely getting either the way they wanted.
And even now, now that she’s grown to love and appreciate every single one of the Bad Kids in their own weird ways—Riz’s cleverness and love for research, Fabian’s courage and pride, Fig’s rebellious nature, Kristen’s impulsivity and faith—it’s Gorgug, who quietly and carefully watches over everyone, who is considerate to everybody, who is devoted to his girlfriend, who goes up to face the biggest and baddest of the bad guys and take the hits to protect the rest of them, that Adaine’s always felt safest and most comfortable with. Always.
They manage to find a powder room nearby, and Gorgug carefully positions Kristen over the toilet bowl as Adaine casts Ray of Sickness. The effect is immediate, gross, and upsetting to everybody involved.
“What would we do without you?” Gorgug asks, laughing in that little self-conscious way of his like he can’t bear to bring too much attention to himself, be too loud. He holds Kristen upright and gathers her hair away while Adaine rubs circles into Kristen’s back. “Our designated stomach pumper.”
“Better than wasting money at St. Owen’s,” Adaine says. Then she smiles back at Gorgug. “And what would we do without you? Our designated handyman.”
Gorgug seems very pleased with that nickname. He’s gotten really invested in this whole artificer thing, the idea of fixing and building things up rather than always breaking them. It’s just so … him, to care so much about something so abstract. “I mean, I didn’t do anything. You’re the one casting the spell to save Kristen’s bloodstream.”
“And how would I have gotten her into this bathroom without you?” She uses her free hand to pat Gorgug on the shoulder. “Face it, we need you. We’re always gonna need you.”
She doesn’t mean for it to sound so sad, but it comes out that way regardless. Because do they need Adaine, really? What use is she? Barely an oracle, barely a fighter. Brains? Riz has that. Wit? Fig’s got that in spades. She doesn’t even have the heart or soul to keep the group together, not like Gorgug. She’s the one who runs away from the fear while Gorgug’s there to tell them to keep going. And maybe some of that is just her old insecurities, her lifetime of anxiety and suffocation inside that godawful house with her godawful parents and (back then) godawful sister, and living like that for fourteen years sure does fuck with one’s head. She knows some of that is just her, all her, searching for problems that aren’t there.
It doesn’t stop the feeling from being real, though.
Gorgug blinks at her, with those odd black eyes and pupil-less white irises. “Do you,” he says, “really think we can do this without you?”
Before Adaine has a chance to respond, or really think up a response, Gorgug adds, “Because seriously, how many times would we have died without you around to save our asses with that portent of yours? Not even that. How would I survive without someone else to sit with when I want to be quiet?”
“I think probably your girlfriend, Gorgug.”
A flush comes across Gorgug’s cheeks. “Well, I mean, yeah. Of course Zelda. But sometimes you wanna just sit and be quiet with someone who isn’t your girlfriend, you know? Like, someone you can just chill with and feel comfortable with that isn’t … like …”
“Romance partner material?” Adaine supplies helpfully. The two of them stare at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.
“Blarrrgh,” Kristen says. Then, with more clarity, “Are you guys being funny without me? Like, are you seriously doing jokes right now while I’m not present?”
“Ray of Sickness must’ve worn off,” Adaine says, still giggling a little. She reaches over to flush the toilet.
“You are present, Kristen,” Gorgug says, tapping her awkwardly on the back like a parent trying to get their baby to burp.
“Not mentally. Or spiritually. What was so funny? Tell me. Tell me.”
They exchange amused glances again over the top of Kristen’s head. “We need to get water in her,” Gorgug suggests.
“Excellent idea.” Adaine squeezes out of the way as Gorgug effortlessly lifts Kristen up into his arms again. A much more sober and cognizant Kristen seems just fine with the arrangement, leaning against Gorgug’s shoulder and closing her eyes as she adjusts to her hazy vision and what must be terrible cottonmouth. It takes a couple more tries, but eventually they find the kitchen, and she fills a glass with cold tap water as Gorgug gently sets Kristen down onto the floor. Together the two of them manage to get a good five-and-a-half glasses in her.
“Whose party even is this?” Adaine asks as she carefully monitors Kristen’s water intake. She did promise a goddess to take care of her, after all.
“Uhh, I think it’s Slate’s? The left blocker on the Owlbears?” Upon meeting Adaine’s blank gaze, Gorgug says, “Um, he’s, y’know, he’s the tiefling guy with the blue skin and the—”
“Missing middle finger?” Adaine and Kristen both say simultaneously.
“Must make it hard to flip people off,” Kristen mumbles.
“Well, he just flashes his stump at them. It’s actually more effective, I think.”
And then they’re all howling with laughter. Adaine leans against Kristen as she smothers back laughter, shoulders shaking at the absurdity of it all. When Gorgug smiles, the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes crinkle upwards, warm and inviting, and it makes her smile harder.
It reminds her of when the Owlbears won the season just a scant few weeks ago. The way she listened to the stadium roar in triumph, the way she had to squeeze and elbow her way through the other Aguefort students rampaging over to cheer on the team, pat them on the back, the fans and admirers and envious alike—and then just when she thought she was going to fall, get swallowed up by the crowd and spat back out, there was Gorgug, his long arm stretching out to grab her hand and haul her all the way through the crowd and into the team huddle. Beaming. Bright. Brilliant. Clinging to her like he needs her for support, the rock star drummer, the bloodrush champion, the battleaxe-wielding barbarian, the heavy-hitter, the frontliner, the one standing in front of the rest of them in battle, still the awkward and timid kid with the flower deep down who just wanted a friend.
She’s never known what that’s like before. To be in the center of anything. And yet she stood there with Gorgug’s hand in hers, Fig’s arm around her shoulders, Riz clambering up Fabian’s back and Kristen smiling for the first time since Tracker left and she’s there, with them, she’s there in the middle of the crowd and everyone’s eyes are on them, and she didn’t feel scared or sick at all.
Chapter 4: Riz & Fig
Fig is a disaster and a half just waiting to happen. Riz likes looking hurricanes in the eye and seeing what the problem is. And that's how things have always been between them.
“I’m being serious here, no.” Riz sighs and adjusts his cap. It’s pretty silly how he’s still wearing it, even though the heat in Elmville’s been settling into every nook and cranny, sizzling up from the sidewalk like the pits of the Nine Hells themselves are starting to boil. Sweat continuously drips down his forehead from beneath the brim, his curls going slightly frizzy with the humidity.
Fig, on the other hand, looks cool as can be despite the summer blast. She’s not even sweating—hell, she’s still wearing Johnny Spells’ goddamn leather jacket.
Damn tiefling blood. Riz wishes, more than anything, that he had the power to just not feel hot. Summers are the worst. He still wears his suits because, well, branding purposes, despite how unbearable they can get, but worst of all his papers always get crinkly and damp from the sweat generated in his palms, and then the pen ink leaves smears and his strings get all soggy and stuck to him and everything. Maybe he can convince Fig to hold things up for him while he connects dots and finds clues.
“No, no, Riz, this is a good idea, see?” Fig babbles, grinning that toothy tiefling grin at him that always spells trouble. “Just think of it. Krom’s Diner, covered in mashed potatoes and gravy and whipped cream—”
“Fig, that is such a bad idea for so many reasons.” Riz’s exasperation is at an all-time high, which is a uniquely Fig effect; normally he only gets this exasperated when he has to deal with the group as a whole. “Namely, the most important reason is I won’t have a place to get waffles anymore if we get banned from Krom’s.”
“Krom’s isn’t the only place that has waffles. Also, isn’t it on the other side of town from your apartment?”
“Not the point. I like Krom’s waffles.”
“Ugh, fine.” Fig blows a raspberry at him. “You’re such a buzzkill. Can I try it at the downtown diner?”
Riz pauses. “Okay, fine. The downtown diner’s free game.”
“Yes!” She pumps her fist and laughs, loud and careless, like she doesn't even care if people on the street startle and turn to look at the noisy teenager. But that's how she's always been. Stubbornly going her own way without any consideration for strangers around her or the havoc she might wreak in their path.
Riz realized a while ago that all his past assumptions about being friendly, being the Briefcase Kid, were all in his own head. That the people he thought were friendly with him in middle school weren't actually his friends at all. That him wearing a suit to class and handing out handmade business cards actually made him a loser in their eyes, that they didn't think it was professional or interesting or cool like he did. It's strange, being in a situation with true, honest-to-god, ride or die friends by his side for the first time ever, and looking back and realizing all the things he thought about friendship and people in relation to himself was actually wrong. That he, the newly licensed private investigator, the solver of mysteries, was always the worst when it came to putting together clues about his own life.
And it only makes it even more obvious that Fig isn't necessarily clueless about how other people see her, she just doesn't care.
"Okay," she says as they continue walking. He notices that she's positioned herself on the outer side of the street, under direct sunlight, leaving Riz to experience the occasional relief beneath the faint shade of a storefront awning or tree. Did she do it consciously? He'll never be able to get her to admit it. "So here's the plan. We will need Fabian for this, so if he's passed the remedial exam we can get moving on the double, but for starters he has to break into the Aguefort cafeteria and grab their tubs of gravy, and you'll need to case the diner first, so that's your job—"
"Hold up," Riz says, "since when did I agree to be a part of this plan?"
Fig blinks down at him. "Well, of course you're doing this," she says like it's obvious. "What, you're just gonna leave me and Fabian to trash a diner for fun? C'mon, man. I know you better than that."
It's completely true that he physically can't bring himself to leave them alone, so obviously Riz tries to deny it. "You're certifiably insane. Why can't you just, I dunno, go skip rocks along the river like a normal teenager?"
She throws her head back and lets out another carelessly loud laugh that makes fellow pedestrians look at her oddly. "Since when does that count as 'normal', Gukgak? Okay, so back to the plan ..."
Yeah, that's true. He wouldn't know what "normal" means for the life of him. He sometimes wonders what it's like, being "normal", because he's never once been underneath that category, he knows that. He knows that his mom always had to hide the concern on her face whenever he came home right away after classes ended, how he never got invited to hang out with other kids, to ride bikes to the convenience store for popsicles or sour candies, how no one in his school ever seemed to ask him to attend birthdays or pool parties. How for the longest time the only number he had in his crystal was his childhood babysitter's. He knows he's never quite understood the relationships between others the way other people do; it's just not intuitive for him the way it is when he's picking up clues or putting together crime scenes. It's true that he applied for Aguefort mostly to search for Penny, but it was also because a part of him knew even then that he will never understand what it meant to be "normal", so going to the most abnormal school in the country was the best option he could hope for.
So yeah. He doesn't know what's "normal".
But Fig does.
Fig knows what it's like to be "normal", because he knows that if anyone were to go into Fig's bedroom and look through her barely-used bookshelf, there would be an old yearbook from middle school. He knows that if anyone were to flip through that yearbook, they would find on page 37 a photo of a sixth grade wood elf. He knows that the girl in that photo has tanned skin like her mother, that she doesn't have horns, that her teeth aren't sharpened into dull pit fiend fangs and that her fingernails aren't long and pointed. Her brown hair is not dyed, and she's done them up in twin braided pigtails, and she's beaming at the camera like has no doubt in the world that life is going to be sweet and rosy forever. He knows that if anyone were to flip to page 56 they would see the exact same wood elf girl in a cheerleader uniform, balancing on top of the other girls in her squad with pom-poms in her hands.
And he knows that if anyone were to find the next yearbook on the shelf, they would find a very different girl altogether. The seventh grader doesn't look like a wood elf anymore. Her skin has reddened, her eyes have changed colour. Tiefling horns are starting to grow in, still raw and sensitive from when they dug through the surface of her skull. She looks exhausted and bloodshot and miserable, and even though she's faking the smile at the camera pretty well, anybody who knows Figueroth Faeth the way Riz knows Figueroth Faeth would be able to instantly tell she's about six seconds away from crying. She's hunched in her seat like she would give anything to disappear from the camera lens. She's in the same photograph as the other cheerleaders, but she's no longer on top of a pyramid with a bunch of other confident, smiling, like-minded teammates. The girl in the photo is standing off to the side with that same fake smile, awkwardly posing with her pom-poms held up to cover as much of her horns as possible. The other cheerleaders are turned slightly away from her.
And he knows that in the next yearbook, there is an eighth grade girl on page 62, and she is a tiefling. Her horns are fully developed and have grown in their protective bone plating. She has purple streaks in her bangs. Her school blazer looks like it's been ripped up and hacked at with a pair of scissors, obscenities scribbled on them in permanent marker. She's flipping off the camera (they blur the finger, but the gesture is pretty obvious) and she's grinning confidently, as if she wants to pick a fight with anyone who looks at her twice. Once again, anybody who knows Figueroth Faeth the way Riz knows Figueroth Faeth would be able to tell it's the sort of cocky, smart-mouthed smirk she only makes when she desperately doesn't want people to know that she's hurting inside. It's the smile she gave them for the first few months at Aguefort. Anyone looking at that yearbook would not find her with the other pretty, polished cheerleaders, but they can spot her in the background of a different club's photo, lounging on the bleachers with a cigarette between her lips looking like she's trying not to cough.
Did it hurt her, to stop being normal? To turn to Aguefort and be one of the Bad Kids? No one throws themselves into Bad Kids antics as eagerly and delightedly as Fig does—hell, no one starts Bad Kids antics as much as Fig does—but Riz wonders if she misses being the wood elf cheerleader, the girl with the bright sunny smile and the bows in her hair. Whoever that girl was, she's been buried and dead and gone for years, before Riz ever met her. He can't even imagine that kind of Fig now. To him, Fig's always been the tiefling with the parental issues and leather jacket, saying anything to piss adults off, smoking Cloves and weaving disguises on her face just for a laugh.
"I like you just the way you are, you know," he says, only realizing half a second too late that he said that out loud.
Fig halts in the middle of her tirade, staring at him like he's grown two heads. Her eyes are wide. It's not often that someone can interrupt her motor-mouth when the engine gets going. Then the red of her cheeks deepens in colour, and she quickly looks away and laughs again.
"Cool," she flippantly says, because she's embarrassed and flattered so of course that's her response, "so do I."
Riz turns away to allow her some privacy to recollect herself; he knows that ever since the Forest of the Nightmare King she's been more vulnerable and self-conscious about her emotions than ever. So he angles his face away and patiently waits for her to shake off the insecurity and start rambling on about her diner-havoc plan again, and looks ahead at the sizzling heat of Elmville's streets. The sweat patches on people's clothes. The dogs panting beneath benches and in shadow-filled alleyways. The kids trying to sneakily steal someone's sprinkler hose. The lucky people that can use magic occasionally blasting themselves with a cooling charm as they make their way through the city without melting.
He sees it all. He sees everything. He's never been very good at seeing himself.
Which is the real Fig, the cheerleader or the Bad Kid?
He doesn't need to look at the expression on Fig's face right now to know the answer to that mystery.