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marker, guide, comfort, warning

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when fabian had unthinkingly agreed to come along to fig, kristen, and the ball’s little after-school adventure, he really hadn't imagined he’d end up here.

then again, if he had known, he wouldn’t have, so.

fabian waits outside a dressing room (which, if he’s being honest, is closer to a dorm shower stall than an actual dressing room) perched on a rusted metal folding chair about five pounds short of collapsing. kristen is next to him, although what she is doing can not in any fair judgment be called sitting. straddling would perhaps be a better word choice, which is a baffling feat for someone as decidedly undexterous as kristen is. fabian himself simply has one leg crossed over the other. regardless of the environment he currently inhabits, he was raised with manners, thank you very much.

“how long does it take to try on one outfit and come out? this is fantasy goodwill, it’s not like they’re being tailored,” fabian complains.

in a confusing tangle of limbs, kristen rests her chin on her palm, and shouts out to the ball in the changing room,

“do you need help?!”

the curtain parts just enough for the ball to stick a hand out and give kristen the middle finger.

fabian bites his lip to stop from smirking as kristen’s face shifts into outrage. she turns her head to commiserate with fabian, but the look he gives back to her is unsympathetic. she turns away, crossing her arms.

fig comes up behind fabian’s chair, alerting him to her return from the aisles, and leans her forearms on the flimsy metal. fabian can feel the heat from them emanating off of her, soon accompanied by a sharp pain near the point of his ear as she flicks it with her claws. fabian looks up, and fig looks down at him. fabian gives her a look of general animosity. she grins.

before they can descend into what would have been a three hour long series of inflicting minor annoyances at each other, the curtain opens, the screeching sound of the metal rings momentarily breaking the silence, and the ball steps out.

between the fluorescent lights, the way the building hasn’t ceased running the heating system despite it being mid spring, and the fact that he hasn’t actually changed clothes and is still wearing his suit he came to school in, the movie moment that the girls were hoping for is somewhat lessened.

the ball just looks like the ball, the starch of his shirt worn off and thus wrinkled in weird places, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. the light illuminates the fine hairs on his arm, the pattern still slightly weird from his tattoo removal. he looks exactly how he is, a consultant spy for heaven in a fantasy goodwill in suburbia. angelic in some sort of clumsy coming of age way.

fig brings a hand to the side of her mouth to amplify the sound of her saying, “boo! you’re supposed to try on the clothes.”

the ball gestures to his belt, the color of which slightly different from the black of his pants,

“this is the belt.”

fabian uncrosses his arms, gesticulating with one hand,

“you’re supposed to try on the clothes all at once.

the ball crosses his arms in turn, using the fact that fabian is sitting while he stands as a rare opportunity to look scornfully down at him. fabian’s stomach flips, and he looks away from the ball’s pointed gaze. the idea of the ball being taller than him is simply wrong.

fig huffs and throws a swatch of blue patterned fabric that’s probably an article of clothing at the ball. the ball fumbles, but eventually catches it and presses it to his chest. fig sits cross-legged on the linoleum, and says,

“it’s your birthday party. if you want to look like you’re turning forty, no one’s gonna stop you. but try that on first, live a little.”

kristen buts in,

“show some skin, riz!”

the ball rolls his eyes, walks back into the dressing room, and forcefully shuts the curtain.

there are a couple of minutes of awkward silence, only broken by the noise of plastic hangers clanking in the dressing room and the swishing sound of the automatic doors opening and closing, for a second allowing everyone to hear the cars on the main road speed past the store, before closing again to weirdly embarrassing quietness. and then the ball walks out.

maybe fabian should have bitten his tongue about the movie moment.

fabian half expects the bedroom pop (who controls the music at this fantasy goodwill? did they just steal the fantasy h&m’s playlist?) to ramp up as the ball awkwardly steps forward so they can all get a good look at him. it’s nothing special, not by fabian's own personal standards. but the ball hasn’t worn jeans since…

the ball has never worn jeans, fabian is pretty sure. the belt, which clashed with the black slacks, matches perfectly with the dark wash of the denim. fabian trails his eye upwards. tucked into the jeans, flowing slightly out at the sides, is the random shirt fig had thrown at him.

it’s a short-sleeved button-up, with the buttons ending more than a few inches lower than the ball’s normal oxford shirts. fabian can see a fair bit of his collarbone, the vibrant green of his skin a distinct contrast from the color of the shirt. it’s a rich blue, not quite navy or royal. there’s a small pattern, intricate pale blue squares with some sort of design in them sometimes interspersed with a dot of berry pink. spades, or flowers, perhaps, fabian can’t quite see from this distance. maybe he should get closer.

kristen wolf whistles, somewhat breaking the inexplicable tension. the ball rolls his eyes, and says,

“you’re a lesbian.”

kristen leans back in her chair, defying all laws of physics, and retorts,

“yes, and you look hot. i contain multitudes.”

fig chimes in then,

“well, i am not a lesbian, and i can say that yes, riz, you look hot. not as hot as ayda, of course, she’s on like, the highest plane of attractiveness, i think it’s the celestial-”

everyone groans. fig “closed book” faeth-insatiable, once she had gotten over her initial resistance about mentioning the fact that she had a girlfriend at all, scarcely took time to sleep and eat in between talking about ayda, and hanging out with ayda, and writing songs about ayda, and generally interjecting ayda into every conversation she could. after three weeks of this, the bad kids had come up with a foolproof system of changing the subject with whatever drastic topic they could think of before she could really get going.

so really, fabian shouldn’t be surprised when the ball turns to him and asks,

“fabian, you’re a man. a fashionable- um. fashion man. what’s your opinion?”

fabian blinks.

before, he might have said ‘good’ or ‘nice’ or even noncommittally shrugged, if he was feeling particularly petty about the ball calling him a “fashion man”. mostly, he would have said something positive but unspecific, because fabian is not in the habit of thinking about other men’s clothing choices.

but now, fabian realizes that he can’t find anything generic enough to be appropriate.

fabian rules out telling him that the color palette he’s chosen completely reverses the washed-out white light of the overheads. he banishes the concept of saying the cut drapes off the hills and dales of his neck and upper chest in a way that’s perfectly suited to his figure. but he can’t quite let go of one thought, now that it’s been introduced to his brain, which overpowers any other one he could possibly have,

he looks hot.

fabian opens his mouth and very quickly closes it in fear of saying something he doesn’t mean. but the ball still looks down at him expectantly, and fabian can’t get away with saying nothing, so instead, he forms his left hand into a thumbs up.

by fucking sol. a thumbs up? that’s all you can manage? what in the nine hells is happening to you.

the ball picks at the middle part of the shirt, looking down at it, prompting,

“do you think i’ll be cold? we’re not that far into may, and this thing doesn’t have any sleeves. it feels weird, i’m not-”

kristen interjects, the corners of her lips turned up,

“that kind of girl?”

the ball stares kristen down with displeasure. his tail flicks agitatedly, the tip of it brushing up against the linoleum, making a faint swishing sound. fabian looks down at his tank top, which is obviously, sleeveless. he looks up,

“i’m that kind of girl enough for the both of us, the ball. but you should still get the shirt, if you want it.”

the ball’s amused smile flashes across his face like the flickering fluorescents above them, and it sparks an electric feeling in fabian's chest.

fig’s raucous and unreserved laugh echoes out into the store, and fabian snaps his head to the sound, breaking eye contact. the tension in the room seems to break with it, and fabian exhales a breath he hadn’t known he was holding in elusive relief.

fig fruitlessly tries to calm her laughter, descending into giggles. fabian can see the ball shake his head at her out of the corner of his remaining eye, but he’s still smiling. he sighs, fiddling with the tag for a moment before looking up. the ball’s eyes dart towards him in the second before he says,

“i guess i’ll get the shirt.”

the ball turns, heading back towards the so-called dressing room. fabian decides not to question why the feeling in his chest fades as riz’s small frame disappears behind the curtain, and instead leans his head back, the cool metal of the back of his chair a shock on his skin. they really need to turn off the heating system in this place.

the ball comes out with a stack of previous ‘no’’s, three items in the ‘yes’ pile, and wearing his normal clothes.

fabian waits for the ball to make his purchases outside with fig while she smokes a cigarette. he eyes the pack. fig raises a slit eyebrow at him and smirks, as if waiting for him to say something. fabian almost doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction, but opens his mouth anyway,

“can i-”

fig doesn’t even let him finish,

“get your own, fah-bee-ahn.”

fabian huffs.

the doors open, then. the last of the watery light illuminating the ball from the back, as if he was some holy guardian of run-down strip malls. his left hand is carrying a crinkled white shopping bag. he talks past fabian at fig, and fabian can’t quite register it in time, caught staring at… it’s dumb. and probably just a thoughtless mistake, something no one would ever catch if they didn’t know the ball so well.

but there’s one less button buttoned on his oxford.

_____

the next afternoon, like he does every thursday, coach gortholax asks fabian to run down to the a.v room to grab the copy of last week’s game. but unlike what fabian does every thursday, he doesn’t text the ball to sneak out of his class and do it for him.

he rationalizes that he thinks he heard the ball maybe has a test in this class, sometime soon. in the next couple of weeks. fourth period- trigonometry? some sort of math class. he should ask the ball to bring his books to their hangout this afternoon. fabian is a very good friend, for doing this for him.

the a.v room is always ridiculously warm, because apparently, they don’t have enough room to put in fans, and a permanent spell effect is above the school’s capabilities. fabian does not, in fact, know exactly what a.v stands for, because the ball has never explained it to him, and he’s never cared enough to look it up.

shellford is sitting at his table, typing something into a side menu with a bunch of code. their school’s website is behind it, and a rolling banner pops up just below the menu at the top advertising the last of the prom tickets. shellford turns the monitor off and jumps when he sees fabian’s reflection in the blank screen.

“what the fuck, dude!”

fabian backs up a step,

“sorry, i thought you knew i was coming.”

shellford pushes his headphones off of his ears and rests them around his neck. he spins his spinny chair around and crosses his arms,

“no, i knew riz was coming. it’s kind of our thing.”

fabian’s stomach twists. he and the ball haven’t gone more than five days without seeing each other the entire time they’ve known each other, how the hell does fabian not know about a thing he has with shellford turtleperson, of all people? shouldn’t fabian know about all of the ball’s friends, as the ball’s certified best friend?

shellford looks up at fabian, his face impeccably molded into a smarmy yet somehow still disaffected expression, as if even the quirk of his lips are saying i know i’m better than you, but i don’t even care.

fabian takes a deep breath, bites back something more hostile, and instead opts also for condescension,

“your thing?

shellford raises an eyebrow,

“uhhh, yeah. he’s like, an unofficial a.v club member. we meet up at games. not that you’re not super captivating,” shellford rolls his eyes at this, “like, oh, great they kicked the ball, oh, boo, the other team has the ball. it gets boring, dude. riz is like, chill. it’s sick to hang out with someone who’s also forced to be there, you know.”

fabian furrows his brows and crosses his arms in turn. the ball likes the bloodrush games, doesn’t he?

“the ball isn’t forced to go anywhere. he comes to the games because he’s supporting-”

shellford interrupts,

“yeah yeah, i’m sure whoever he’s dating is stoked to have him there. that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck ass to be on the cold bleachers for two hours eating shitty overpriced popcorn. i mean it’s probably a lot better if you get to watch someone you’re into do muscley shit, but i digress, or whatever.”

shellford says all this while gesturing with a flash drive, a cheap neon green one, a piece of tan masking tape with last week’s game date written on it wrapped around it. fabian focuses on it while shellford turns the monitor back on and inserts the drive. fabian moves forward, half sitting on the desk next to the monitor, watching the progress bar as the video files copy to the drive. and that’s about when he fully processes what shellford just said, upon which he quickly says,

“the school. school spirit.”

shellford looks up at him,

“jeez, i know you guys are basically mindless zombies to the establishment but i thought you were capable of free thought. sure buddy, go owlbears.”

fabian grits his teeth, fighting some deep urge to shove shellfords face into the desk,

“the ball isn’t dating anyone.”

shellford fully turns his chair to fabian, and looks at him incredulously,

“then why the fuck is he going?”

at this point fabian decides it’s necessary to physically sit on his hands so that he won’t accidentally enact serious violence in this glorified storage closet in his highschool. after a second of regulated breathing, he answers,

“i just. told. you.”

shellford raises an eyebrow and hums noncommittally, as if not aware of the barely restrained murder in fabian’s remaining eye. he turns back to the screen, the rolling banner now flashing in alternating colors of red, white, and charcoal grey, saying,

“huh. weird.

fabian’s voice is muffled by his teeth refusing to part, but he simply has to ask,

what. what’s weird.”

shellford shrugs, leaning back in his chair and rolling his eyes for the umpteenth time,

“he might not be up to your standards of attractiveness, captain, but the guy looks like he just walked off a cw set. you know the whole, ‘in case you haven’t noticed, i’m weird, i’m a weirdo, i don’t ‘fit in’ and i don’t want to fit in. have you ever seen me without this stupid hat on? that’s weird’ hot nerd vibe. some people are into that. i, personally, can see the appeal.”

fabian’s preventative measures are not enough for the amount of rage he has at this moment.

at the very least, he manages to not lay hands on shellford himself, though the image of shoving his obtuse head into his stupid monitor is very satisfying. and instead opts to take a quick glance at the progress bar at full, and rip the flash drive out of the usb. shellford makes a gesture somewhere between a surrender motion and a questioning one, as he protests,

“hey man, you’re supposed to eject them-”

fabian doesn’t let shellford get another word in, just hops off the desk, pushing off so hard it rattles and shellford has to grab the monitor to make sure it doesn’t fall. which gives him the benefit of not being in such close earshot of fabian when he shouts,

“you’re fucking insane!”

and with a conviction that he will never, ever come back, he stomps out of the a.v room.

_____

“did you take a level in barbarian?”

gorgug asks after fabian slams his gym locker door with so much force that all the students still, and turn their heads towards the loud noise before quickly going back to their own loud conversations.

the grueling practice had decidedly not calmed fabian down, despite fabian putting his all into it. which was probably a mistake, now that he thinks about it. he can already feel some soreness start to set in. but still, it had been soothing, in a way. every time he had started to think about his meeting with shellford he just shifted his focus to the grounding rhythm of his feet hitting the track, or the burn of his muscles, or the slight pressure in his lungs, the telltale sign that he was about to take it too far.

fabian fumbles with fitting the lock through the rusted metal hole as he answers, trying not to let the burning annoyance that currently embodies him into his voice,

“no, gorgug, i have not spontaneously gained a level into level eleven with the meager tenth grade education this place gives me.”

gorgug raises his eyebrows, leaning against his closed locker,

“wow. you really are angry.”

fabian refuses to look at gorgug, his shoulders tight as he tries to jam the lock through the hole, yet again. he fails, and makes a fist. he’s about to punch the locker, trying the shake some of the rust off, when he realizes that’s probably a bad look and untucks his fingers so he hits the metal with an open palm. the cool metal against his hand slightly cathartic.

“how do you mean?”

gorgug shrugs,

“you start talking like that when you get angry. and when you get defensive. what’s up? do you want another orange? i think the cafeteria might still have some from breakfast.”

fabian can’t help but look into gorgug’s earnest eyes at that. his friend has to look slightly down at him, but the way his body is angled makes him seem less tall than he actually is. his grey hoodie strings are uneven. fabian feels a bit silly, under gorgug’s gaze, and he feels some of the tension in his body ease.

fabian sighs, and fiddles with the lock in his hands, abandoning his quest to close his locker for now.

“thank you, gorgug, but i’ll manage without an orange. it’s... nothing, really. it’s a dumb thing to be mad about.”

gorgug pauses for a second, his lips pressing together as he thinks.

“well, maybe, but that doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t valid. i get mad about stupid stuff all the time,” gorgug sits down on the bench to put his regular converse back on, “what happened?”

fabian turns so that he can face gorgug, and leans his back against the lockers, crossing his arms. protruding bits of metal poke him everywhere, but the late morning sun coming in through the thick obfuscating glass paints the whole room in a soft ephemeral gold, and fabian knows he looks good, so it’s worth it.

gorgug lifts his foot to rest on his other knee while he does up his laces but keeps his head lifted to look at fabian, prompting him to speak. after a second, fabian uncrosses his arms, and says, in a less aloof tone than he had intended,

“i had to pick something up from the a.v club, and shellford said something really out of left field.”

gorgug nods, and rests his chin on his propped up knee as he says,

“i mean, he kind of does that. he has like, a lot of self esteem issues, ragh tells me. not that it's okay to inflict that on others, but not very surprising. he usually means well-”

fabian can't help but blurt out,

“he said the ball was hot.”

gorgug's head tilts. he prompts, slow,

“...and?”

some of the annoyance that had eased away comes back, and fabian starts wildly gesturing with his hands as he answers,

“and nothing, why would he say that?! about the ball, of all people?! he doesn't even know the ball!”

the locker room had started to empty out, but there are a few stragglers that linger and look sideways at the scene fabian's making. fabian shoots one of the freshman boys who is still here a glare, and he quickly grabs his backpack and leaves, shoes still untied. gorgug gives a sympathetic smile to him on his way out, before turning back to fabian and asking,

“so? riz is hot, people were kinda bound notice eventually-”

whatever gorgug says next doesn't fabian doesn't quite process, the first part of his statement still ringing in his ears.

is every single person in this goddamn highschool except for me attracted to the ball?

gorgug is still saying something, and fabian stops it in its tracks by loudly exclaiming,

“the ball isn't hot!”

and he's lying, he knew that before he opened his mouth. he's known it since last night when kristen had first introduced the concept. but he says it as some sort of last vestige of whoever he was before that, blissfully unaware of how riz looks in that shade of blue, of the confusing muffled feeling in fabian's own chest as he had seen him wear it, like his heart had been cut open and stuffed with newspaper, and now he can't find the true flesh of it. of the way everyone else had apparently already known all of it, like it was obvious, yeah of course the ball is attractive, didn't you know?

(no, not really. or maybe-

maybe just not consciously.)

gorgug gives him a look, and says,

“fabian, that's mean. riz is hot, and so are you. and so is ragh. different people can be hot in different ways if that makes sense? ragh is very muscle-y, but in a strong way, like he can bench a lot, and you’re a lot slimmer, because you do dance, and you used to do fencing, which are a lot more about being all bendy. riz is hot in a different way, he's all sharp angles, and he's also very bendy, but sort in less of a graceful way, more… i don't know, methodical? like putting stuff together so they all work in sequence. like when he clicks the safety off his gun or something, that’s pretty attractive-”

fabian may have actually had more cognitive function when captain whicklaw scrambled his brains. gorgug continues to talk about the confidence ragh has on the field and how that’s also hot, but fabian, yet again, stops processing as a matter of his immediate well-being. possibly as another barrier between fabian’s psyche and the deluge of damage it’s taking right now, autopilot takes over and he clicks the lock shut, successfully closing his locker. if gorgug has noticed fabian turning away from him to do this, he doesn’t say so.

eventually, gorgug stops talking with a final,

“you know?”

fabian presses his forehead into the cool metal, the slats digging in.

yes? no? i wish i wasn’t having this conversation more than i’ve ever wished for anything, and my father died before most of my major upcoming life events? maybe?

he pushes off the locker, pinching the bridge of his nose. he feels a stress headache coming on.

“i love you. this has been the worst conversation of my life, possibly, and i am going to take immediate steps to make sure nothing like it ever happens again.”

he steps forward, placing his hands on gorgug’s shoulders, and stares into his eyes.

“step one…” he pauses for emphasis, “please stop talking about how hot the ball is.

gorgug tilts his head, and opens his mouth before closing it. he seems to be noticing something about fabian for the first time. his voice goes softer, like he suddenly realizes the weight of the moment, and he replies,

“fabian... are you jealous?”

fabian makes some pained noise in the back of his throat, takes a deep breath in, and steps away from gorgug. he spreads his arms out as he protests, loud enough that it echoes off the walls,

why would i want to date shellford turtleperson?!”

he grabs his backpack off the floor and heads towards the exit. when he’s halfway through the door, something occurs to him, and he blushes, turning back around to face gorgug still sitting on the bench, his figure rapidly disappearing as the door slowly swings closed

“i don’t even like men!”

and the door shuts.

_____

for the past few weeks, the temperature in elmville has routinely skyrocketed in the daytime and plummeted again once the sun had crested below the horizon. which is why when the weather that evening is mild enough for the ball and him to be able to study at the outside tables at krom’s, it’s a very pleasant surprise. the night is the first of its kind, the light breeze just cool enough to make you want a light jacket, and the leftover humidity from the rainy april just oppressive enough to make you abandon it immediately.

which fabian had done about five minutes into the study session.

to say that the ball and him study is perhaps not one hundred percent accurate. it’s more along the lines of both of them take turns studying, one of them diligently focusing on their work and the other rambling about something completely unrelated and trying to distract them. weirdly enough, it works better than both of them trying to work at the same time, where they inevitably (and worryingly quickly) get lose sight of the objective, get into an aimless conversation that spans multiple hours, and end up somehow more behind than they were than they started.

fabian sits atop the wire picnic table face instead of on the seats he’s supposed to, gesturing with one hand and using the other to pick at the flaking paint that most definitely would give a customer lead poisoning if it made it into the food regularly ingested on this table. it’s his turn to ramble, and he does it contentedly, feeling unburdened for the first time today.

“and she lives in this house with her mother, but the house is at an angle and they have to nail everything to the floor. and eventually, when she’s maybe eleven? i don’t remember, anyway- her mother falls off the cliff that their house is on, and she’s orphaned, functionally, because her father is a sailor and they have no way of finding him. and the only person who will take her in is this old lighthouse keeper, and he’s a little bit wonky in the head. he keeps telling her that in order to keep the light in the lighthouse on, she has to listen to every single story, even the ones he doesn’t know. honestly, old people on the seaside are exactly like that, i think the author must have had some experience.”

the ball hums noncommittally, swiveling his head between his textbook, and his two notebooks, one containing his notes (which are atrocious, by the way, fabian doesn’t know how he can even understand them) and the other a previously blank worksheet, steadily filling up with marks from the ball’s pen. he holds it with three of his fingers, dexterously spinning it in circles till it gets close to the edge and then flipping the direction from clockwise to counter, over and over again. fabian always gets fixated on it.

in another pleasant (or unpleasant. fabian can’t decide) surprise, the ball has also dressed appropriately for the weather. he’s forgone the black slacks, made from wool, for a more sensible slim pant made from cotton. he’s abandoned his vest entirely, and while the tie has been cut out of the wardrobe for a couple of weeks now, he’s gone a step further, and the area that had been covered up by the necessary fastened buttons, even after he’d abandoned the tie, is now a vast expanse of open skin. fabian can even see the rounded metal curve of the tip of the heart necklace that he wears the match to, the rest disappearing where finally, the shirt closes.

fabian clears his throat and continues,

“and he keeps telling her this story, about this man who lived in their town one hundred or so years ago, who was a preacher. but then they learn the lighthouse is about to be automated, and they won’t house the lighthouse keeper anymore. so one day, she wakes up, and the lighthouse keeper is gone, and get this,” fabian pauses for dramatic effect, and the ball shifts his gaze from the paper he’s scribbling on to look up at him, “he took her dog with him! and that dog was basically the last bit of the old life she had, and he just took him! isn’t that fucked up? also, he never finishes the story about the preacher. it’s extremely unfulfilling.”

the ball furrows his brows in discontent,

“is that where it ends?”

fabian shakes his head, looking up at the sky,

“no, that’s just where i’ve read up to. there’s a time skip, it’s very confusing.”

when fabian looks back at him, the ball has resumed his scribbling, although not at the pace he had been previously. now, his pen takes long breaks in between each mark it makes, waiting and tapping against the paper, embodied with restless energy. the ball mumbles something it takes a second for fabian to catch,

“let me know how it ends.”

and fabian is about to agree when the ball lifts the end of his pen to his mouth. it’s a habit he has, one that’s rectified by those rubber pencil chews that they sell online with pencils, but is unsolvable with pens.

and it should be gross, fabian should wrinkle his nose and bat the pen away, but… there's something about him that’s just beyond fabian's reach. riz, bent over his textbook, the ink stains on his hand where he’s prematurely brushed his palm over the part of the paper where it hasn't dried yet (when he notices he’ll swear under his breath and shake his hand in the air the way you do when your hand is wet, as if it'll help), his brows knitted in focus, his eyes narrowed even in the dim light. the alternating flashes of color from the ‘open’ sign, lighting up the left silhouette of him, a few stray curls, his eyelashes, the bridge of his nose dotted with freckles, outlined in neon blue, and then red, and repeating like some sort of comic strip, static untouchable images.

fabian feels his breath catch in his throat, and whichever feeling that embodies him in this moment is just as beyond reach as the scene in front of him itself.

(there's part of him, that, even knowing this, wants to reach for it anyway.)

riz blinks, and then looks up,

“fabian?”

fabian is jolted out of… whatever that was, at the sound of the ball’s voice. he takes a second to avert his gaze, calming his blush, it really is warm tonight, before looking back and answering,

“yes, the ball?”

the ball raises an eyebrow,

“when you finish, you’re gonna tell me the ending? of the book?”

fabian quirks a smile, and, in a fond tone that betrays more than he can explain, says,

“you should be studying, not listening to me.”

the ball leans back fully from his notebook. he holds the pen in between his last finger and his thumb as he cracks his knuckles, and then transfers it back to its original place between his ring and middle finger. fabian fights to keep his gaze locked on his face instead of his hands.

the ball’s tone is exasperated, but he fights a grin as he tells fabian,

“then stop distracting me. go get some food, or something, if you're out of stories.”

fabian places a hand to his chest in mock outrage,

“you wound me, the ball. i never run out of stories,”

the ball rolls his eyes, moving to go back to his studying. fabian suddenly feels very incapable of just sitting here while the ball… exists in front of him? so he rapidly jumps down to the concrete below, and continues,

“but i am hungry, so i will get food. completely of my own volition and not because of any prompting from you, of course,” the ball hums, and fabian goes on, asking, “what do you want?”

the ball sighs,

“you don't have to-”

fabian doesn't let the ball finish, knowing he’ll just try and convince fabian not to buy him food,

“i will, regardless of whether you tell me what you want or not. so if you don't want a caesar salad…”

fabian knows he always gets chicken fingers, of course, but he can’t divulge all the information he knows about the ball to him. then all the fun of threatening him with a food he knows the ball hates would be gone.

the ball turns to look at him, a knowing look in his eye,

“chicken fingers.”

fabian smiles a self congratulatory grin, and it sticks on his face even when the ball looks away. something in him protests that, wants the ball to keep looking at him. he decides to amp it up, going around the table to enter the ball’s space, leaning down so that they’re face to face when he tells him,

“your wish is my command, the ball.”

the ball doesn’t quite roll his eyes this time, just looks up and shakes his head, like he’s asking the ethereal plane why his attempts to befriend such a pernicious being as fabian aramais seacaster were rewarded, or perhaps punished, with success. but then he looks down, his eyes darting for a split second below fabian’s eye line before quickly meeting fabian’s gaze again. the ball laughs a small awkward laugh, but there’s a lime blush quickly spreading across his face.

well, he is still wearing a dress shirt in eighty percent humidity.

and what fabian means to do next is lean back with a springy step , twist around, and head into the diner, perhaps shooting riz a wink as he opens the door. it’s an easy enough sequence of events, for a seventeen year old with full motor control. but something must get crossed in the wires between brain and muscle, because what he goes do is stand slightly up, put a hand on the junction of the ball’s shoulder, and crane his head down as if he’s going to plant a kiss on riz’s forehead.

he stops himself nearly immediately, his chin still inches above the ball’s head when he manages to curb the impulse. but he’s still left with a stray hand placed questionably close to the ball’s neck, and the ball looking up at him with barely disguised shock. fabian opens his mouth, and for a terrifying second, he has no idea how he’s going to explain this.

so he does what he does best, and distracts, instead.

“you have ink on your hands.”

the ball blinks. fabian turns away from him, making his way into the diner a bit too quickly to be called walking but not suspicious enough for the ball to accuse him of running. and while fabian doesn’t look back to wink at him or watch him shake his hand like it’s covered in demon blood, the bell that rings as he opens the door doesn’t cover up the sound of the ball swearing under his breath.

fabian sighs a relieved sigh, and his smile is genuine as he looks down at the waitress on the other side of the counter.

“hello, mrs. cubby.”

mrs. cubby quickly looks up at him, and beams,

“fabian! you know i’ve asked you to call me daisy, young man.”

fabian gives her a charming smile,

“i will not do that, mrs. cubby.”

mrs. cubby opens her mouth, but before she can protest, the kitchen calls an order out. mrs. cubby holds up one finger in a ‘wait a sec’ gesture. she grabs the plate and exits through the little half-door on the side of the counter furthest from fabian, holding the food above her head to avoid the other patrons inside the diner as she weaves through the inside crowd to deliver it to a booth in the back. when she returns, she takes the pencil out from under her ear and holds her pencil poised above her notepad. she speaks without looking up at him, but her voice is fond as she asks,

“let me guess, you’re here with riz? chicken fingers?”

fabian knows that the butterflies in his stomach that twist at her words are not by any means a normal reaction, but he can’t quite deal with the implications of that right now, so he smiles bashfully, and adds,

“yes, and a navy pier melt with swiss for me.”

mrs. cubby rolls her eyes a tiny bit at fabian’s choice of cheese, and he can nearly hear the ball in the back of his mind saying, that defeats the entire point of the sandwich, fabian. fabian shuts him out and hands mrs. cubby his debit card.

mrs. cubby runs it through the machine and asks,

“so how is cathilda? we haven’t seen her in ages, you know, you gotta tell her to give us a call so we can catch up. i’m still waiting on those knife throwing lessons, you know.”

they chat about cathilda, and how martha, lee, and pep are doing for the ten minutes or so it takes for their food to be prepared, mrs. cubby occasionally darting out from behind the counter to deliver food to nearby booths and refilling sodas for the people at the lunch counter, all while not breaking their conversation, instead opting to shout back at fabian from wherever she’s moved.

when the kitchen calls out their order number, mrs. cubby hands him the baskets and tells him,

“tell your boy out there i said hello, and also tell him that his mother is welcome any time now. you know, bud was pre-law in undergrad, i’m sure he has some old books lying around that she might be interested in.”

fabian takes the baskets, careful to not touch the oily part of the napkins on the bottom, and tells her,

“i certainly will mrs. cubby, take care.”

fabian slides a couple of silver pieces across the counter towards her. he exits out the door, using his shoulder to prop it open, careful not to drop their food.

when he turns around to make his way to the table he’d left the ball at, he finds his own spot conspicuously occupied.

well, not exactly. someone sitting in the place fabian had previously been, at about twelve to the ball’s seven if the rounded picnic table were a clock face, would have been an abundantly more agreeable situation. instead, this new person is at about five, and that’s being generous.

as fabian takes a few steps closer, near enough to be able to hear their conversation but still well enough out of range for the ball not to notice his presence, he realizes that this person looks vaguely familiar. a human guy fabian has shared classes with in the past, a dexterity based fighter. he’s on one of aguefort’s sports teams (not bloodrush of course, fabian had made sure to learn every person on his team after he became captain, partially because it was useful to know, and partially because of lingering spite over daybreak’s accusation on his first day) and not the gashbat team either. looking at him, he doesn’t seem tall enough for hangbounce, so maybe the kickblunt team.

he’s blonde, and his hair is fluffy, like he blow dries it without heat protectant. he has faint freckles across his sloped nose, and he’s smiling, currently, a disarming smile that makes fabian’s own disappear.

i do not like this guy.

most importantly, he’s leaning into the ball’s space, one elbow placed on the table and his hand propped up to rest the side of his head on, a position usually taken by people listening intently, which he is decidedly not. instead, he’s talking, not even looking at the ball. fabian should be able to hear his words, but his attention is instead caught by the ball. his body language is distinctively apprehensive, every limb tensed with nervous energy shown through his tail, the end of it rapidly flicking from side to side. his face is angled away from fabian, but fabian can guess that his expression is not one of interest.

the guy’s monologue finally ends with a question, phrased like an afterthought and a proposition at the same time,

“so, do you like to hang out here a lot?”

fabian resists the urge to groan out loud. can this asshole seriously not think of anything better than a worse version of ‘do you come here often?’.

as if anticipating that the chance to protest whatever’s going on here could be gone soon, the ball quickly responds in a clipped but still slightly frantic tone,

“yes, i’m actually here with my f-”

before the ball can finish, fabian strides up to the table, setting their food down. as he moves to sit down, riz glances up at him surprised, and finishes with a relieved,

“fabian! i am here, uh, with fabian. who’s right here.”

fabian takes a seat on the opposite side of riz, positioning his body so that he faces slightly to the left and riz’s shoulder tucks into his space. fabian gives the stranger a cold smile and outstretches his right hand for a handshake, leaning across the table. he can’t see the ball’s expression as he does this, but he can hear his sharp intake of breath.

fabian introduces himself,

“fabian aramais seacaster, son of the late bill seacaster. and you are?”

the stranger seems at a loss for words for a second, which fabian enjoys till the look on the stranger’s face shifts to one of annoyance as he reluctantly shakes fabian’s hand. as he pulls back, and places his hand in his jacket pocket, he responds,

“todd. just todd.”

fabian pulls back as well, the ball now relievedly within his field of vision. the ball is glancing at fabian out of the corner of his eye with acknowledgment, but still with a hint of curiosity. fabian meets his eyes for a moment and nods nearly imperceptibly before turning his attention back to ‘todd’.

“so todd, how exactly do you know riz?”

todd has started to glance between fabian and the ball, his posture straightening up as he finally seems to get an inkling that the ball very much is not enjoying his presence, and he has a bloodrush player he’s making an enemy of as he’s in the process of ignoring that.

nevertheless, he persists, defensively looking fabian in the face as he answers,

“we have english together. fourth period.”

the ball finally buts in at that, crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes at todd before saying, in an uncompromising tone,

“fifth period english. we have fifth period english together.”

fabian blinks in surprise at this, for some elusive reason.

(not at the ball defending himself, of course. the ball, if he only wanted to, could down this guy in ten seconds flat, and make sure he never came back in fifteen. of course, he won't, which is where fabian, who still holds onto the practice of ‘make enemies first, ask questions later’ that his father had so lovingly instilled in him, comes in.)

no, what catches fabian off guard is that he knew that. fabian takes a frantic second to think, and finds that he knows the ball’s entire class schedule. plus some of his extracurricular schedules, and what nights his mom has night school.

he is a person who likes routine, right? it's not that weird that you’d pick up on it.

fabian quickly pushes this realization away. he takes a quick glance at todd, still smiling that pompous smile at riz, and decides enough is enough,

“well, we won't keep you, todd. we’ve got to get back to trigonometry, and you should probably get back to the little sheet of paper they give you at the beginning of the semester that tells you your class schedule. it seems like you're struggling a bit.”

todd glares at fabian, but it’s not till the ball ducks his head to hide an amused smile that his cheeks go red in embarrassment. fabian keeps a veneer of cordiality on his face that fools literally no one. todd stalls for a few more seconds, not breaking eye contact with fabian, before finally accepting that he won’t win this one, and getting up from the table.

he turns to the ball, his voice dripping with fake sympathy as he says,

“i’ll see you in class, riz?”

the ball looks up at him, and says dryly,

“well i’m not going to switch classes, so probably.”

fabian waves goodbye to todd as he joins what must be his friend smoking a cigarette, leaning on the side of his car. todd gets in the car, and has an inaudible argument which ends with the friend annoyedly throwing the cigarette to the ground, stomping on it, and getting in the driver’s seat.

fabian turns back to riz, who looks at him with an unreadable expression on his face. suddenly, fabian feels the shyness he should have felt a few moments previous. he can feel his heartbeat throughout his whole body, time almost slowing down the way it does when looking in the eyes of an enemy he’s fighting. fear, like a dizzying poison running through his veins. but riz isn’t an enemy, riz is-

the ball finally opens his mouth, to say a confused,

“thank you.”

fabian shrugs, and breaks away from the ball’s gaze. he scoots further away from the ball, trying to do it casually enough to make it look like it’s a natural impulse, and not that every extra inch away from him feels inexplicably wrong. he looks up to give riz a small smile, in which he tries to convey, don’t mention it, and it feels too much like a lie and too much like a confession at the same time.

fabian doesn’t trust himself to say anything back.

_____

it’s even warmer the next day, which is what fabian blames what seems like a constant blush on. not that anyone can see it, but he knows it’s there. and it’s because it’s eighty degrees out, obviously. it has nothing to do with the ball-

stop thinking about the ball!

fabian intently focuses on the dirt path in front of him. it seems to wind on forever, and every step only feels like a millimeter. fabian had woken up this morning and immediately knew today was going to be a bad day, without even checking the horoscope app on his crystal. and he had been right. it’s only fourth period, and while nothing explicitly bad has happened yet, fabian can feel it.

(during spring break, on one of the long nights he spent staring at his clueboard, fabian had brought him a cup of tea, expecting him to take it wordlessly. instead, he stared into the bottom of it, and mumbled something fabian had strained to hear,

you know, in my mind, i’ve already solved it.

fabian had blinked the sleep away from his eyes immediately, and the ball shook his head,

no, not like that. i don’t know the answers, not yet. but did you know-

riz had told him about some article he had read, about how memory isn’t relegated to the past. the part of your brain that’s memory and the part of your brain that’s prediction is the same. that, if you think about it cosmically, if your brain remembers the future the same way as it remembers the past, then solving it is a memory. that everything that’s not right now is a memory.

he had taken a sip then, and looked up at fabian, with such tiredness in his eyes that fabian wondered if riz even knew exactly what he was talking about as he said,

i just wish i knew what was on the other side of this.

as fabian woke up this morning, that had echoed, before he had a chance to really place it. his eyes had opened, his chest harboring a funny feeling, and it had been there, suddenly, riz's tired voice.

what's on the other side of this?)

the gym class mile is usually a pleasant experience for fabian, especially in the spring. the path winds along the pond at the back of the school, prairie grass creeping in at the edges of it. it’s peaceful, the sound of insects buzzing, the repetitive crunch of well worn dirt under his sneakers, and the water lapping at the edges of the pond. most importantly, the low chatter of gorgug and ragh beside him.

but today is different. gorgug is doing a terrible job pretending not to be outwardly concerned about fabian, stealing glances at him whenever he thinks fabian isn’t looking. this would probably work, but he’s chosen to walk on fabian’s right, so he’s not even remotely within range of fabian’s blindspot. ragh, who’s noticed gorgug and fabian’s tense silence, has spent the past five minutes trying to overcompensate.

unfortunately, it's as if ragh has somehow heard fabian's desperate internal plea to avoid the subject of the ball, and decided to make it his mission to do the exact opposite.

“have you guys noticed that riz has looked, like, i don’t know... different lately?”

fabian shrugs, shoving down his actual reaction too fast to know what it would have been.

ragh waits a second for any verbal reaction from either of them, during which gorgug doesn't say anything either, before shrugging himself and saying,

“i don't know, maybe i’m just noticing him more. but didn't he used to wear a tie? and like, a full suit. little vest and everything. normally, kids who wear suits to school are bad news, but it kinda looked good on him.”

gorgug, next to fabian, makes a noise. it's a low warning sound from the back of his throat, but ragh, in his inattention, seems to interpret it as, ‘go on.’

however incorrect the motive that he thinks is behind it is, fabian is nonetheless appreciative of gorgug recognizing this is a sore subject for fabian. there's also a small part of fabian that's offended by gorgug's idea that one conversation about the ball is going to break fabian mentally, or something.

ragh heeds what he thinks is gorgug's request, and goes on,

“i mean, he looks really handsome now though. like, you’d think the suits would be more classically handsome? but somehow when he's only wearing half of them it gives him this like, roguish vibe. like, you really can't forget that he's a fucking spy like that, you know? i mean, i know it's riz, but. wow.”

fabian eyes the pond and considers throwing himself into it.

gorgug finally protests verbally, his voice strained and with a hint of something unreadable as he stares ragh down, crossing his arms,

“what’s up with you? why are you talking about riz so much? he doesn't even like men.”

ragh bypasses the hostility, stopping in his tracks and signaling for the rest of them to stop as well. he looks gorgug in the eyes, and raises his eyebrows,

“uh, yeah he does. riz is gay, dude.”

fabian had already stopped walking, but now he freezes.

he… he knows that, doesn't he? the ball has never told him, not outright, but fabian knows. in the same place from which he’s memorized the ball’s krom’s order , the same place where the ball’s schedule is etched. in that same corner of his heart where riz has always lived, hidden and muffled. fabian has always known, hasn’t he?

(yes. or maybe-

maybe just not consciously)

gorgug barely blinks at this information. he stares at ragh with his brows furrowed in discontent, his arms crossed tight enough that the skin at his knuckles where he grips his forearms is a pale sage green. fabian turns his head to look at ragh, who stares back at gorgug with tender confusion. his mouth is parted the slightest amount, some sort of question unsaid. it stays unsaid, when gorgug says, low enough that fabian gets an instinct he doesn’t act upon to back away,

“but why do you care.

ragh’s response is low in a different way, hesitantly defensive,

“uhhh, cuz there aren’t many men who like men in this town, and riz is attractive. what’s your problem with me maybe asking a hot guy out-”

ragh is better at reading gorgug, even though he’s arguably closer with fabian. when gorgug reacts to ragh’s words, ragh’s face shifts, some silent exchange going on between him and fabian’s friend out of sight behind him. to fabian, gorgug’s anger is quiet and obfuscating. but ragh at least seems to probe at the source of it. ragh can’t read fabian as well, but it doesn’t matter. fabian’s own anger is like a bloody line from his mouth and down his throat, to the pit of his chest where he’s swallowed it for too long. it seeps into his voice as fabian, in quick succession, breaks out of his frozen state, takes a step towards ragh, tilts his head up to stare up at him, and says, darkly,

the ball. is not. hot.”

ragh’s face twists into an infuriating expression of quiet understanding. he gets this expression a lot, when fabian's around. fabian can never quite reach the clarity ragh can, and ragh will never tell him. ragh shifts, and the dirt under his feet crunches under his weight. he ducks his head, and one of his hands comes up to adjust his bandana wrapped around his forehead.

when ragh looks up again, there’s something unsaid on the tip of his tongue, and for a moment, and fabian’s anger halts, waiting.

gorgug says, small and tired,

“fabian, we’ve been over this-”

and the anger is back, and fabian takes large steps back so that both of his friends are in his line of sight and he can stare them down with the full force of it. he’s uncaring of whatever damage his words might do, to him or his friends, as they tumble out of his mouth,

“no! you don’t get it.”

gorgug’s face twists into matching anger, and his mouth opens to shout back, but fabian doesn’t let him,

“of course the ball is hot, but that’s not the fucking point! he was always hot! but he doesn’t deserve to just be reduced to how good looking he is, he doesn’t even like stuff like that! he's determined, and good, and smart, and clever, and he's my best friend. he’s one of the best people i know, and he doesn’t deserve,”

fabian spreads his arms out, as if gesturing to the whole school, or the whole town, or the whole world even, he doesn’t know, the attractiveness of the ball seems to know no bounds, and fabian can’t even begin to map them,

“someone who just wants to get their kisses in, or whatever. he doesn’t deserve someone who only wants to date him because he's the best option of a limited pool! he deserves someone who actually fucking wants him.”

fabian's chest is heaving by the end of his speech, and ragh and gorgug stare in the wake of it. after a second, ragh takes a hesitant step towards fabian. he looks awkwardly apologetic as he tells fabian

“i’m sorry dude. i shouldn’t have talked about your best friend like that. i’ll-” his eyes lock on fabian’s face with a solemn conviction, “i’ll cut that shit out, alright? bro code.”

a breeze crosses off the pond, sending small ripples across its surface. it hits fabian, a shock of cool in the overwhelming heat of the moment. he inhales, counts to five, and exhales. his insides twist in guilt, as he looks up at his friend who he just blew up at for-

for no fucking reason, by the gods. ragh’s not just some guy, he’s your friend. he’s the ball’s friend, too. he has more than enough right to find him hot.

fabian takes a step towards his friends, his face burning, unnoticeable, with a blush. he opens and closes his mouth a few times before saying, slowly,

“no, ragh, i’m sorry. gorgug,”

he turns to look at gorgug, who looks back at him with his arms crossed.

“i’m sorry too. this isn’t…”

fabian sighs deeply. he feels bone tired, suddenly, and he quietly continues, “it’s not about you guys, everyone else has been like, super weird him and it’s… i don’t know.” he turns to face ragh, “you- if it was anyone, it should be you, you know? i don’t care if you- i don’t um. i…”

fabian’s ability to avoid situations like this has seldom failed him. others would call it charisma, the uncanny ability to avoid topics, to sweet talk yourself into a new headspace. but fabian’s best skill is his dexterity. and that is the way he moves through life, it always has been.

in freshman year, it was a rough unpracticed thing. he’d bruise the bottoms of his feet when he didn’t land correctly after a flip, he’d rip up his palms swinging on the ropes around seacaster, and now he feels the phantom aches of all of it, a reminder of when he was so afraid to be graceful that he had veered hard in the other direction, and now he’s left with the skid marks.

it’s different now. dance is a sport where harshness and severity are banned, and the studio is some sanctum where they aren’t allowed to enter. but they can’t keep fabian out, and with fabian comes the gruff voice in the back of his head, who spends every class scoffing, saying that dance is not a sport that seacasters do. and fabian is so used to it, that covering his ears is just another part of the routine.

fabian knows these things, to an extent. he knows the complexes and issues hidden in the back of his mind, the ones he hides from in turn. but it’s suddenly clear to fabian, in this moment, what it means that he’s spent his whole life dodging, and ducking, and flipping over every obstacle, what it means for that to be so ingrained in him that it’s a reflex.

he doesn’t know, at this point, what he’s trying to avoid. he hadn’t even known he was avoiding it. and fabian can feel it, in his body. it’s the same reaction he’d had almost two years ago on the front steps of the school, gorgug across from him, his fist flying at fabian’s face. and it had been too late to dodge, too late to duck, too late to flip over him. all he could do was flinch, with the acceptance that the next couple of seconds would hurt like he’d never known it before, when they finally hit. fabian goes through the same stages, the realization, the flinch, the acceptance,

this is going to hurt, like that, when it hits.

it’s as fabian’s bitter, i don’t care, gets stuck with the stomach acid in his throat, that he realizes;

he’s lying.

gorgug takes a small step towards him, his hand outstretched, and fabian flinches as it lands on his shoulder. ragh turns his head to gorgug, and they look at each other, a silent understanding beyond fabian’s reach. fabian stares up at gorgug, opens his mouth, and waits for an explanation to crawl out. but there are no words, he can’t explain it.

all that comes to mind is fabian at fifteen at his desk, his hand cramping as he holds his fountain pen, painstakingly inscribing three hundred business cards, thinking all the while, this is so much work for someone you barely care about, and when riz questions, fabian dodges. fabian at sixteen with his eyes closed in front of the kettle at hollyhill, the screech of the steam startling him into thinking, this is so not worth it for someone who’s going to leave it half full on a desk for a week, but when riz takes a sip and looks up at him with his tired eyes, it is, it always will be, with riz- and fabian ducks. fabian at seventeen, the wire picnic table digging into his skin and leaving a pale pattern from the bloodloss, gazing down at riz and vowing to continue on with a book he had planned to leave dusty on his shelf till college, so that he can have another moment like this, he’d do anything for another moment like this. and he flips over it.

fabian right now, on this well worn path, the sun beating down on him so warm that he’s dizzy with it, and he’s trying so hard to dodge, to duck, to flip over it. but he can’t.

and it hits him.

somehow, fabian manages not to clutch the unknown part of his body where, i want riz, lives, and fully retreat into shock with the overwhelming ache of it. but only because ragh comes forward, and lays a firm hand on his shoulder, holding him back from some dark precipice. his other hand grips the back of his neck, and he looks at fabian.

he’s addressing the person who was just shouting at him, and yet is voice is soft as he says,

“hey, i get it, man. i get it.”

fabian shakes his head, swallowing a lump in his throat,

“i can’t… i-” he tries to hold back the brunt of the whirlwind of emotion he’s feeling, but it stows away in the broken way he repeats, “i can’t.

ragh’s skin is sun warmed where he touches fabian. the skin to skin contact is grounding, but damning. ragh gives fabian a mournful smile, and his next words feel like a guilty verdict,

“you do, though. or you are. i don’t really know what exactly you’re freaking out about but i’m pretty sure it’s both of them.”

fabian laughs at that, a broken and humorless noise. he screws his eye shut, continuing to shake his head,

“i-”

fabian takes a staggering breath, opening his eye and staring into those of his friend across from him. he places a hand on ragh’s chest, both pushing him away and taking a step back himself. he opens his mouth,

“i can’t, i can’t do this, i need-” fabian puts more distance in between him and his friends, “i need to go.”

fabian turns around, and if gorgug and ragh put up a fight, he doesn’t have the wherewithal to notice. he can't dodge, he can't duck, and he can't flip over it, so fabian does what's becoming a new habit.

fabian runs away.

_____

fabian is not dumb. he knows that his letterman's jacket and the way he didn't figure out he was into his best friend for (after some serious introspection done over the past thirty hours) he had estimated about ten months, seems to be in opposition to this fact. but fabian does actually have the mental ability to know that going to said best friend’s birthday party, again, thirty hours after he's discovered he's in love with him, is possibly the worst fucking idea he’s had in his life.

but as much as fabian longs to lament quietly in his bedroom over the sorry state of his life the whole weekend,

being in love with riz seems to have the unfortunate side effect of caring about the ball’s potential feelings about fabian abandoning him on his birthday.

he resigns himself to showing up on time instead of a couple of hours early to help with decorations, and he goes to the stupid party.

the planning of this party had been a contentious thing. the ball, originally, had been diametrically opposed to any celebration of his birthday. which makes sense, if you know the ball even distantly. riz is not someone particularly fond of being the center of attention. fig had protested this extremely loudly, and adaine, in a heart wrenching betrayal against riz, had agreed with her. eventually, riz relented, allowing a small gathering full of only people he knew, no presents, and an agreement that the metaphorical spotlight would be on him as infrequently as possible.

strongtower simply doesn’t have the space to accommodate the bad kids and all their various friends, so jawbone had graciously offered up mordred manor instead. the adults had vacated before fabian had gotten there, at seven sharp, just as the sun was beginning to dip behind the horizon. the first floor of the manor, with the exception of jawbone’s office and lydia’s room, has been decorated messily, but with clear care. there are streamers between the archways, which tickle fabian’s face every time he walks through them. music plays at a perfect volume, soft enough to have a conversation over but still distinctly present. snacks are set out on the kitchen island, ranging from classic chips to dinner party appetizers. it’s a bit much for a guest list of only the seven maidens, the bad kids, the teenage hirelings, and everyone’s significant others. but riz had turned fifteen in jail, so fabian is of the opinion that his sixteenth birthday deserves a little splendor.

fabian manages to go about ten minutes after arriving before catching sight of riz. he doesn’t notice fabian, he's locked in a conversation with penny, which is for the best, probably, as fabian can’t help but look at him unabashedly. the outfit looks better on him than ever, the shirt evened out of wrinkles, the fabric rippling from the tension of where it's tucked into his jeans. but fabian's eye shoots up as he realizes that riz's curls are on full display, pieces artfully falling into his face that he pushes away and tucks behind his ears unthinkingly, only for them to escape again, forcing riz to repeat the motion. his hat normally prevents this, but the ball's signature newsboy cap is conspicuously absent. for the first time, the light that hits riz doesn't cut a shadow across his face where the brim blocks it, and his eyes are unconcealed.

and then they catch fabian's.

fabian knows he should look away, but he can't. riz doesn't cross the room to talk to him, thank the gods, but the corners of his lips quirk up and he gives fabian a soft look. fabian hasn’t had any alcohol tonight, just a few sips of the lukewarm canned lemonade he still holds in his hand, but he feels drunk, suddenly, the heat of the packed room causing a blush to bloom across his nose. the sound of his blood that rushes through his veins is audible now, betraying his rapid heartbeat.

riz glances back to penny, and then back to fabian, splitting his attention between the two. as soon as riz’s eyes aren’t on him, fabian is able to think again,

you can barely function when he looks at you for half a second, what in the nine hells are you going to do when you have to talk to him?

with riz’s gaze still fixed on penny, fabian seizes the moment and moves out of his line of sight. weaving through a couple of his friends, he manages to sneak out through the exit before riz can look back at him, or even notice that he’s gone. he goes through a couple of rooms till he finds an empty one, where he rests his back against the wall and takes a deep breath.

the next couple of hours abide by a very similar routine. even with a crowd of less than thirty, it's surprisingly easy for fabian to maneuver himself in such a way that he's always barely beyond riz's reach. someone who didn't know him would think he was a very cordial party guest, offering to grab stuff from the detached garage, or to go and track down someone's drunk friend, or switch the song on the playlist. but of course, the downside to a small party is that most of these people do know him, so he gets a lot of raised eyebrows and not a lot of thank you’s. but still, they accept, and fabian goes on his little quests to all corners of the enormous house, and takes frequent trips across the grounds to the garage, making sure that he's never still enough for riz to pin him down.

fabian reaches the front door after what feels like his hundredth trip to the garage. this time, he was just supposed to check the breaker, except he has no idea how to do that, so he had to look up what a breaker is and why you're supposed to check it on his crystal, which he was fine with because it killed an extra five minutes.

fabian stalls at the front door. only tracker knows about fabian checking the breaker, and they're drunk enough that fabian doesn't suppose they’ll remember it.

fabian glances at the windows that look out onto the porch, spotting ones with the curtains drawn. yellow toned light seeping out the cracks, shadows occasionally cutting through. he can't identify the figures behind them, and most importantly, they can't identify him.

apparently, he's just as good at avoiding riz in real life as he is in his head.

the old and probably rotten wood creaks as he goes to move in front of them, and fabian stills after each step, waiting to see if the door will be flung open and he’ll be forced to go back to the party.

when he makes it to the railing of the fence, he lets out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. he leans on the railing, resting his weight on it. it holds, though the porch groans in protest. the unsanded wood is rough against fabian's skin, and the cool air has a bite to it, but it's the most peaceful fabian has felt all night.

fabian stares off into the night. he tries to clear his mind, but as it does without fabian's constant redirection, it immediately wanders to riz. fabian looks down, closing his eyes in a wince. fabian wonders if eventually, that'll stop surprising him.

apparently, riz has a habit of surprising him.

“you know it's not a great move to leave your best friend alone on their birthday.”

maybe he isn't as good at avoiding riz as he had previously thought.

fabian a couple of days ago would have been able to seamlessly adopt a charismatic smile and turn around to face riz, and while it might not have fooled his best friend, it would have at least been a comfortable enough affect to slip into.

 

as it is, fabian has to take a second, before leaning back from the railing, and another one to school his face into something resembling a pleasant expression, if not quite a grin.

“you're very popular, i couldn't get a word in.”

riz stares up at him, his lips slightly downturned, his eyes guarded. it’s not an unfamiliar expression, but it’s one fabian doesn’t quite recognize it at first. it’s been a while, since riz has stood in front of him while trying to hide the evidence of the hurt fabian’s just caused. fabian abruptly remembers that it wasn’t too long ago that fabian spent most parties trying to subtly convey to people who didn’t matter a fraction as much as riz did, even then, that he couldn’t care less about the nerdy goblin permanently glued to his side. fabian goes to open his mouth, to reassure riz that those days are long behind him, but riz responds before fabian’s body can put the thought into motion.

he ducks his head, not meeting fabian’s gaze as he says,

“you know i always make time for you.”

riz looks up, staring out in the same direction fabian had been before he was interrupted. there’s nothing visible beyond the first couple yards of the gravel pathway beside the slightly darker silhouette of the giant cottonwood trees that separate the property from the road, and then the prairie beyond it, and the fact that riz doesn’t want to see fabian’s reaction to his words makes fabian stomach roil in shame.

fabian is overcome with the need to speak, but the words he wants to say wouldn’t be enough. or maybe too much. he feels weighed down, his feet planted solidly on the sturdy wood of the porch. it feels like it’s swaying, sometimes, though, like a ship on choppy waters. there’s a nauseous confession, heavy on the tip of his tongue. so fabian doesn’t respond, instead just tries to keep his bearings about him, fully sober and hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.

riz turns his head away from the horizon back to fabian, and crosses his arms, rubbing them to stave off the chill in the air. the thin material of his shirt is perfect for summer, but early may in elmville is temperamental, certain moments falling just short of june before they’re suddenly gone. riz had tried to plan for it, fabian recalls, protested with his same crossed arms and air of dissatisfaction.

so when fabian unthinkingly shrugs off his letterman’s jacket, bundles it up in his hands, and outstretches it to riz, it’s only because riz wouldn’t be out here if not for fabian, and it seems unlikely that riz will agree to leave fabian out here alone. riz is used to wearing no less than three layers at a time, and he should have the jacket. fabian has always run warm, and he doesn’t need it.

riz stills, his eyes fixed on the bundle of cloth held out to him. he glances up at fabian. the wind tousles his loose curls, and he takes a second to push some out of his face, tucking the few that are long enough behind his pointed ears, the tips of which are flushed a dark emerald green. it’s probably the alcohol, fabian thinks, or even likelier, the temperature.

riz’s expression is doubtful, his brows slightly raised in prompting. fabian raises his own eyebrows in turn. after a few seconds, riz hesitantly takes a step forward and takes the bundle from fabian’s outstretched hand. he puts it on slowly, without breaking eye contact with fabian, like he’s afraid fabian will snatch it back at any second.

riz looks, frankly, ridiculous in the jacket. it’s oversized on him, obviously, the sleeves hanging past his wrists so that only the tips of his claws are visible beyond the hem. riz has to take a few seconds to roll them up so they don’t become a hindrance. the ill fit of it aside, the colors clash to a degree that would make anyone not colorblind wince, the red and white completely overshadowing the rest of his outfit, which is a monochrome blue.

but still, there’s something about how intricately mismatched everything is that reminds fabian of riz’s normal apparel, his pants and suit jacket and vest all different fabrics, different shades of charcoal or brown or black. the ties that always end up loosened beyond wearability a few days into a case, the bronze and silver bracelets and rings he’ll fiddle with, the two or three different newsboy caps, all of them with some sort of pattern that doesn’t show up in any other piece of the outfit.

for the first time tonight, an honest smile tugs at the corners of fabian’s lips. it’s unavoidable, how his expression shifts, betraying everything fabian can’t yet stick a thumbtack tied with a bunch of red string in.

so riz, of course, tries to instead. his voice is both defensive and accusing as he asks,

“what?”

fabian lets his gaze linger on riz’s. the truth comes out easily, slipping off fabian’s tongue,

“it suits you.”

riz takes a moment to study fabian, his eyes narrowing. for most people, fabian would imagine being scrutinized under the watchful eyes of a level ten investigative rogue would be an uncomfortable experience if you had nothing to hide, and an excruciating one if you did, but this is familiar to fabian. even when fabian had pretended not to notice, riz had spent an abnormal time staring at him. and fabian had never protested, wouldn't have thought to.

because he had loved it.

every moment where fabian has been the subject of riz's full attention has been cherished. fabian can't imagine a version of himself who wouldn't take every opportunity to seek it out.

so even now, with all that’s at stake, the only thing fabian feels under riz’s steady gaze is comfort.

fabian apparently has nothing to worry about, because it's immediately apparent that even riz is not infallible, his expression changing into that of indignance, as he reaches a wrong conclusion, and starts shrugging off the jacket.

fabian acts on impulse, taking a large step forward and laying a hand on riz’s shoulder, halting riz's attempt to pull his arms out of the sleeves. fabian tries to keep his tone light, but his expression is earnest in a way even riz can't deny as he says,

“i wouldn't say that if i didn't mean it, riz.”

he reaches his hands up to where riz grips the jacket. riz’s knuckles brush against his own, and they loosen their grip at the contact, allowing fabian to grab hold of the wool fabric himself, tugging the collar back up to rest over riz's shoulders.

riz stares down at fabian’s hands trapped between them, his face cut through by shadow. fabian is almost thankful for it. for the first time, all fabian wants is for riz to not look at him, as he continues,

“you look-”

riz looks back to fabian, his eyes darting to fabian's lips as he speaks,

“-good.”

fabian's hands can't help but linger, for a moment, still gripping the collar. there’s a small point of contact, where skin meets skin, just the tips of fabian’s fingers, and fabian’s senses hone in on it like looking through a spyglass, all other things out of sight and obscured in comparison.

there’s a part of this that’s almost funny, and fabian has to stop himself from laughing a breathless laugh about it. if someone would have told him a year ago that he would be feeling what he is right now, fabian would have laughed in their face. the fabian aramais seacaster who had weathered aelwyn abernant, had kept his resolve while carding his fingers through her long silky hair, the scent of roses overwhelming him, so utterly undone by an antisocial rogue? by the ball?

but here riz is, in front of him. his head is tilted, at just the slightest angle, a passive question riz hasn’t asked yet. fabian can see the curiosity in his eyes, refracting the little light that hits them, shining like twin full moons, beacons in the dark. riz ‘the ball’ gukgak, fabian’s perfect undoing.

fabian takes a deep breath, but his chest still feels a little tight as he releases his grip on the collar of the jacket with a final deciding tug, to make it seem like he was just adjusting it. his hands fall away, and, not trusting himself to not reach out for riz again, fabian reluctantly steps back.

riz takes a beat to react to fabian’s movement, his hands that had hovered slightly below fabian's own hesitating before he slowly lowers them. they shake, slightly, awkwardly falling at his sides, and then finding refuge in the pockets of the letterman. upon realizing that he’s let himself stare for an abnormally long time at riz’s hands, fabian hastily looks up.

riz isn’t looking at him, his gaze fixed on the shadowed lawn as he says,

“i’ve been getting a lot of that, for some reason.”

understanding why he feels what he feels, fabian finds, is slightly pointless in practice. because even though he knows that the wave of emotion that comes to knock fabian off his proverbial feet at riz’s words is jealousy, it’s not as if he can do anything about it.

so all fabian can do in reaction is give riz a teasing smile, try and bite the jealousy back, and play the part he’s supposed to play,

“oh?”

riz is leaned over the railing now, hands hidden by the hem of the jacket sleeves. fabian can see riz roll his eyes out of the corner of his own good one. fabian walks the perilous few steps to join him at the railing, releasing the tension in his shoulders as he rests his forearms against the unsanded wood, trying to hide how much effort fabian is putting into keeping this conversation the casual tone that it should be.

riz’s mouth twists into a funny shape,

“i’m not a fan.”

fabian tilts his head slightly to the side to get a better view of riz, who has a look fabian can’t parse on his face, staring down at nothing, the strands of hair that he had tucked behind his ears now falling into his face. fabian’s act slips into involuntary truth, as he prompts,

“no?”

riz glances at fabian for a sliver of a moment before quickly looking away. he takes a breath, and opens his mouth, but doesn’t speak right away, trying to find the words. when he does, he takes his time with each one,

“i’m… not really… into strangers.”

fabian stares at the boy across from him, trying to look deeper. there seems to be something beyond what he’s just said, some confession fabian can’t construe. his cheeks glow a pigmented lime, and fabian can hear his claws drumming against the railing. the air around riz is tense and charged as an unforecasted summer storm.

fabian makes a fruitless attempt to ease the tension by bumping his shoulder into riz’s, which has the opposite effect. riz’s shoulders stiffen, his claws stall their drumming across the railing, and when fabian catches a flash of his eyes, they’re dilated way more than they should be in the dim light.

but fabian’s clumsy mouth doesn’t register all this quickly enough to stop the accompanying words, and they spill out before he can even shape them into something more appropriate than what they are, or at least were trying to be, a light and reassuring,

“i’m not a stranger.”

riz darts his head to the side to look up at fabian. one of the corners of fabian’s mouth is quirked ever so slightly, and both of his eyebrows are raised in sincerity. fabian clings to this expression like a lifeboat, hoping it will somehow save him. riz’s gaze flicks down to fabian’s crooked smile, trying to discern if it’s an honest one.

fabian cannot tell what riz discovers in them, when he turns away. he can no longer see riz’s expression very well, just his profile, just his downcast eyes and the way his throat moves as he swallows, before saying, slowly, in an inexplicably grave tone,

“no, of course not. you’re fabian, you’re… you’re my best friend.”

fabian can’t keep his facade up, at that, so he turns away. riz used to say that with such joy, looking up at him with a light in his eyes that fabian had wanted to harbor forever. fabian used to love hearing it in turn, would look down at the ball with barely concealed delight. fabian thumbs at the chain at the back of his neck.

they don’t look at each other, now.

fabian lets the silence wash over them, unable to respond. when he finally does open his mouth, he tries to keep his voice light as he says,

“yeah. yeah, i’m…” fabian turns to riz, pausing for just a second to force his expression into that of a smile as he continues, “i’m your best friend.”

fabian had not gotten much of a chance to say that with joy, but he’s said it enough that the difference now should be . riz continues to look down at nothing, but smiles, for some odd reason, a flash of fang like the sun dipping out from the clouds. there's an edge to it, a cliffside they're walking along, and it's in riz's next words as well,

“well, yes, but you're not into me.”

fabian looks down at him, for what must be the thousandth time this week. riz looks up at him, for what fabian desperately clings to the hope is not the last time ever. riz's eyes flick to fabian's lips again, waiting for him to agree.

fabian turns away again. fabian takes a deep breath and then exhales. fabian slips off the cliffside. fabian doesn't dodge, doesn't duck, doesn't try and flip over riz's words.

fabian keeps his position, stationary, staring out into the abyss.

fabian doesn't say anything.

he can feel riz's reaction from the way the old wood creaks as he stiffens, resting less of his weight on it. even while looking decidedly away, riz always keeps to the side of fabian’s good eye, so fabian can't help but see riz's curls shift as he tilts his head. fabian can imagine his brows furrowing, his nose slightly scrunched in concentration. fabian wants to turn to see it, to let a fond smile grow across his face as riz uncovers everything below the depths of him.

riz says his name with some semblance of a laugh in his voice,

“fabian?”

fabian swallows. salt tears threaten to streak down his cheeks so he moves to wipe them away, but riz's hand quickly catches his wrist. fabian looks towards him instinctively.

the laugh in riz's voice is gone, replaced with something else, a plea, maybe, or a desperate call out to sea.

“fabian.”

fabian looks down at the way riz's mouth shapes his name, committing it to memory. the way the corners twist up, the way it lingers on his mouth, his accent emphasizing the end.

riz blinks. his brows unfurrow, and the tension in his shoulders finally abates as he takes the hand that hasn't got fabian's wrist and brings it to fabian's face, wiping a tear from his cheek. and then he takes it away, to grip fabian's other hand, the one still resting on the fence.

fabian runs a thumb across the bridge of riz's knuckles. riz squeezes his hand back, not breaking eye contact. or, not breaking eye contact except for a brief second, where his gaze again flicks down to fabian's lips.

and all fabian can think about as riz takes the smallest step forward, so that they're nearly chest to chest, so that fabian can see the flecks of green in his yellow eyes, is that he hasn't said anything, very purposefully so, so why does riz keep looking there?

riz lets go of fabian's wrist, and instead rests his hand on fabian's shoulder, and for a third time, opens his mouth,

“you are my best friend, but- and? and you're maybe the only one that i want to look at me when i look good…”

riz pauses, looking down. fabian reaches out with his free hand to tuck a lock of escaped hair behind his ear, and he's close enough to hear riz's breath catch in his throat at the gesture. whatever he had planned to say seems lost now.

fabian steps in, taking a breath before saying,

“you're my best friend… and i look at you. when you look good. and there really aren't other times, because you always look good, but i looked at you before i noticed,” fabian looks into riz's eyes, “is that okay?”

riz nods, a smile breaking across his face.

“that's perfectly alright, fabian,” riz pauses again, but finds what he wants to say quick enough to stop fabian from interrupting, “but it'd also be okay if you wanted to do more than that.”

fabian feels a blush spread across his nose, but his own smile mirrors riz's, as he responds,

“have you ever been kissed, the ball?”

in the end, fabian never gets the chance.

riz kisses him first.