When Eddie Kaspbrak is six, his mother tells him that he’s delicate. She says it like it’s something a little bit unfortunate, a little bit tragic, a little bit unavoidable, and he doesn’t actually know what it means, except that it’s the reason he starts school eight months after everyone else his age. He thinks it has something to do with his inhaler, the chill taste of it, the way he uses it when he feels uncomfortable or nervous, which is always. Or maybe it has something to do with his dad, who he doesn't remember, who he isn't sure ever existed at all except he must have, because Eddie exists. Mostly. He's pretty sure. He’s real enough to be delicate.
He's not really allowed outside on the weekends, except when his mother is in the garden, trying to spy on Mrs Brooks’ prize winning roses, even though she doesn't ever garden herself, just keeps the lawns trimmed close. He follows her then, keeps hold of her sleeve while she makes small talk over the yapping barks made by Mrs Brooks’ dog, the scariest animal Eddie has ever encountered.
“Would you like some roses?” Mrs Brooks is asking, too small to see over the fence properly, just a straw hat and a pair of fluffy eyebrows, like a caterpillar. Eddie has to shade his eyes with his hand just to see her. “They’ve come up beautifully.”
“Oh, I don’t care much for roses,” sniffs his mother. “I have some lovely yellow tulips, far prettier, much more delicate.”
The word sticks to Eddie’s tongue and he mouths it to the ground. Delicate. His tongue hits the back of his teeth, the roof of his mouth. Both he and the tulips are delicate. He fidgets, kicks at the grass and tugs on his mother’s sleeve, and she gives him a look like when he asks her if he can go and play and she’s definitely already decided he needs to spend the afternoon in his bedroom. He chews on his lip. He lets go of her sleeve and heads back to the house because it’s always better to do something before she asks it of him.
In the dining room, the flowers sit at the center of the table. Yellow tulips, Eddie supposes, just like his mother said, except they’re made of plastic instead of whatever a real flower is made of. It’s because of his allergies, Eddie knows that real ones might make him sneeze and set off his asthma, so she has a cupboard full of plastic ones that she sprays with scented water so they might smell a little bit like a garden does. Eddie sits at the table, rests his chin on his hands, stares at the flowers in their crystal vase. It has no water in it. There are some green leaves missing, little hollow nubs of plastic where they’ve fallen out, showing the black wire inside. He stares at them and he wonders what they have in common, to both be called delicate, and then he remembers that his mother had called a tiny plate with golden edges delicate too once, and he thinks that must be it. He’s a plastic boy, or he’s made of whatever a pretty plate is made of, not the real breathing stuff that makes up the kids at school. A fake kid, full of black wire or yellow plastic or porcelain. He remembers skinning his knee, the blood that came out in bright spots under the graze, and he thinks he must be a pretty good fake, and then he finds he can’t really breathe. His eyes burn and his head is messy static and there’s so much pressure on his chest he can only breathe in sharp gasps. He fumbles with the inhaler in his pocket, blasts the medicine down his throat, inhales so deeply he almost topples off the chair, takes another puff, settles and stills and calms. The flowers haven’t moved. They’re bright and perfect against the sun and it makes him angrier than he’s ever been before, angry like his bones might break with it. He leans forward, over the table, drags the vase back toward him, and then he throws it onto the floor. It shatters beautifully, catching the light like sun on water, but it doesn’t make him feel much better. It just makes him feel kind of sick.
When his mother comes back inside, she sees the glass and shrieks, charges forward and grabs Eddie by his arm, hauls him off the chair and out of the room.
“You might have been cut to pieces,” she says, when they’re both safe in the hallway. “Did you break it?”
“No,” he lies. “I just found it.”
“You’re flushed, are you getting sick?” She touches the back of her hand to his forehead. “I think it’s bedtime for you.”
In bed, Eddie inspects himself carefully. Everything seems normal, his arms and legs and stomach. He has a belly button, just like the weird kid in his class who is always throwing his t-shirt away and sprinting out to the sandpit when they’re supposed to be learning numbers. He has fingernails and eyelashes and teeth. You can tell the flowers are fake just by looking at them. He curls up on his side, drags his blanket over his head. It’s still sunny outside, not dark enough to sleep, but with the blanket it’s a little better. He closes his eyes.
“Delicate,” he whispers, into his cupped palms, careful to say it properly, just like his mum had. It still comes out messy, an unpracticed word to his tongue, and he still feels messy, and strange, and kind of angry, though he doesn’t totally understand it.
When the tulips are back on the table in the morning, in a different vase, he steals them. He steals them and he buries them outside while his mum is having an afternoon nap and then he cleans the dirt out from under his fingernails more carefully than he ever has before, until the tips of his fingers are pink and throbbing. It’s the first time he’s ever done anything like that, something he knows will get him in trouble if it’s found out, and his heart beats dull and heavy in his chest, and he has to use his inhaler twice before he’s finished. There’s no real reason for it, nothing he could ever explain, but looking at them makes him feel sick and thinking about them makes him feel sick and he kind of wants to break all his mum’s fancy plates too but he knows she’ll haul him off to a doctor if he does that. A head doctor. She might do it anyway, once she discovers what he’s done to the flowers. And there are other flowers, in the cupboard with rolls of ribbon and Christmas decorations, but the yellow tulips are gone, and it makes him feel a little bit better. Better than smashing the glass had.
At school, he makes friends, and that makes him feel better still. Stan Uris, gentle and serious, who carries around a picture book painted with bright birds, and a set of plastic binoculars, and Bill Denbrough, who is always talking about his little brother in a voice that falls over itself and who somehow gives the impression that he might rule the world one day, and Richie Tozier, the weird kid, with a crooked smile and bug-eyed glasses and an impossible knack for reciting entire episodes of cartoons, but only if you really, really don’t want him to. Eddie's mother hates Richie, only tolerates him because of how clean Stan is, like one balances out the other. Eddie loves them all.
When Eddie’s nine, he watches Blade Runner at Richie Tozier’s house. It’s Eddie and Bill and Stan and Richie, just like it always is, and they’re kind of way too young to be watching it, but Richie’s parents are out and it’s the video with the coolest cover and there’s something kind of thrilling about watching something that they know they shouldn’t. They have popcorn and M&Ms and Richie turns off the lights and trips up on the ottoman coming back to the couch and when Eddie laughs he jumps on him, tickles him until he shrieks and kicks him away.
They start the movie and Eddie’s completely lost in five minutes but then Rachael appears, with light in her eyes and curved black eyebrows and an expression like she’s always halfway dreaming, and Eddie thinks, oh, replicants look like real humans too, and he presses his fingers to the hollow of his throat and he holds his inhaler to his lips and pulls the trigger, feels the cold against his skin. You’re delicate, whispers his mother, in his head. Next to him, Richie squirms.
“She’s pretty, huh,” he mumbles, tucking himself up against Eddie’s side.
“I don’t know,” says Eddie, pulling away, only dimly aware of what pretty means and what it’s supposed to mean to him. “She’s a robot,” he says.
“She’s a replicant,” murmurs Stan. “It’s different.”
“B-be quiet, I can’t hear,” says Bill, and because he’s Bill they all obey.
As the movie stretches longer, Eddie feels more and more uncomfortable. He watches Roy with the moon in his eyes, swaying like a cobra in a basket, watches him kiss a man and then crush his face between his hands, and he feels kind of like he’s been swallowed whole and spit back up. Kind of like he’s trapped between someone’s palms as well. He shrinks into the couch, pulls his knees to his chest, watches the rest of it over the bridge of his knuckles. Richie gets dramatically attached to Pris and then dramatically upset when she’s killed. Eddie feels empty, watching Roy in the rain, a white bird and the straight-cut dirty metal of the future.
When the movie ends, all four boys are silent while the credits roll.
“What the fuck,” says Richie, finally, so loud and sudden that Stan squeaks and then punches him in the shoulder.
“Gimme two hours of my life back, Trashmouth,” he says, bitterly.
“I thought it was k-k-kinda cool,” says Bill.
Eddie doesn’t say anything. He gets up, goes to the kitchen, pours himself a glass of water. Roy kissed that man and then killed him. He hadn’t understood the movie at all, but he’d also never seen two men kissing before, touched in violence, and now he can’t think of anything else. He drinks half the water, pours the rest of it out, places the glass carefully in the sink. Maybe that’s something to do with him too, like being a fake boy, a yellow tulip. All he knows about being gay is that it’ll make you sick. His mother told him, a curl at her lip and her eyes narrowed. All he knows about being gay is that... He fills the glass again and then tips it out, over his free hand, catching some of the water in his palm, and then he pours that down the drain too.
“Hey Eds, are-”
“Shut up, Richie,” snaps Eddie, far sharper than he means to. He turns around, wiping his wet hand on the front of his trousers. Richie’s eyes are huge behind his glasses. Huger even than normal. “You look like an owl,” says Eddie.
“Bullshit.” Richie turns back to the doorway, cups his hand around his mouth. “Hey, bird boy!” he calls. “Do I look like an owl?”
“That’s an insult to owls,” comes Stan’s faint reply, and Eddie laughs and Richie grins at him and everything feels alright again.
Afterwards, they watch something else, something more age appropriate maybe, adventures and kids and pirates, and Eddie stops thinking about everything that had been worrying him. It doesn’t matter. He’s young and he’s beginning to realise that the things his mother wants for him aren’t necessarily the things he wants and that it’s okay for them to disagree, even though it’s hard. He's young but he's growing up quickly and there's something about the way Richie looks sometimes that makes him feel like he'll never catch his breath. It’s just his asthma. Richie always gets dirtier than the rest of them, somehow, even though they all the the same stuff, so it’s just Eddie’s lungs protesting the way Richie is as a person. It’s just his asthma and there are more important things to think about. Like how they’ll keep from getting their asses kicked by Henry Bowers and his cronies at school. Like how he’ll get permission from his mum to sleep over at Bill’s house next weekend, because she’s never let him do it two weekends in a row. Like what he needs to make himself feel real, if it’s pills or vitamins or his inhaler. If it’s just water in his cupped palm, just Richie grinning at him in his kitchen, just a girl in a movie who's as unreal as he is.
When Eddie’s twelve, he learns he likes to fix things. It’s mostly electronics, like taking apart Richie’s NES controller when it stops working, soldering a piece back in place, putting it together again, but it’s other stuff too. He helps Bill turn his monster of a bike into something actually rideable, though he’s still pretty sure it’s should never be used by anyone who wants to keep all their limbs.
“It’s going to kill you,” he says, when it’s perfect shining Silver. “It’ll go fast, but then you’ll hit a bump and break all your teeth and have to drink your meals through a straw.”
“Wanna go double?” asks Bill, shading his eyes against the sun, looking out to the road.
“Yeah,” says Eddie, grinning. “You’ll break my fall.”
He’s old enough then to know that he isn’t made of plastic or wire or whatever the fuck a replicant is made of, but it’s still something he thinks about. Maybe if he gets good enough at fixing shit he’ll be able to make himself feel a little more comfortable in his own skin. A little less like he’s wearing shoes that are a size too small. A little less like he’s never going to be clean, no matter how hot the water is when he showers.
And then Georgie dies and everything falls apart again. Eddie learns that there are much scarier things in Derry than Mrs Brooks vicious dog. There are things that are unimaginably awful, awful beyond what anyone should ever have to face. Awful like there won’t ever be anything good in the world again. A hole down into the dark and a smile with too many teeth and Richie's hand on Eddie’s face, forcing him to look at him. Their heartbeats together. A rope and an anchor.
But they get out of the sewers, somehow. Eddie leads them out, and some small part of him is saying it’s because he isn’t real, it’s because he’s a robot, a replicant, that he has a compass under his ribs somewhere, but Richie is holding one of his hands tight enough to bruise and Mike is holding the other and he takes every single right turn and leads his friends into the sun.
A few days later, he runs into Beverly outside the Aladdin, with a milkshake and her hair wild and an ankle bracelet that sparkles in the sun. Seeing her, he thinks that maybe all of it was worth it, every fucked up minute worth it because now he has more friends. Beverly who can shoot a hole through a can with a slingshot, who knows everything about anyone just by looking at them. Mike with his shoelaces tied tight, cautious hands and careful steps, steady in the same way the earth is steady, a part of their group like he always had been. Ben, photos on his walls and whole cities in his head and still room for love and love and love. Worth it. Maybe. Definitely.
So he sits with Bev on a bench and they pass the shake between them and she draws on his cast, tightly wound spirals and little hearts over the grey plaster, slicked smooth by the sewers. He thinks that he loves her. He thinks that there’s nothing in the world that could ever make him fall in love with her. It’s as alien to him as using his left hand to write or jumping off the cliff at the Barrons and bouncing off the surface of the lake. And it isn’t just because he’s young, though he is, it’s more than that.
“Do we go back to normal now?” he asks her, because she knows everything. Between them, her and Bill might rule the universe.
“I guess we gotta,” she hums, not looking up, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I don’t really remember anything.”
“Me neither,” says Eddie, “except at night.”
“It’s hard to sleep,” says Beverly, still drawing.
“School’s gonna be so weird.”
“We’ll be together.”
“He’ll be there.” She touches one of the hearts she’s drawn, looks up at Eddie and smiles.
Eddie is fifteen the first time he runs from Richie’s house to his own. Fifteen and late for curfew because Richie’s decided that the mixtape he’s made him needs a cover and he’s also decided he has to write out little comments for each song on the card that sits inside the case. His cover is an awful caricature of Eddie, all eyebrows and a straight line for a mouth and weird hair and an inhaler hovering next to him with a halo of gold like it's some holy artifact. It makes Eddie want to push him over but it also kind of makes him want to touch his hair. Or not. Definitely not that. In any case, none of it is actually necessary, just the tape should be enough.
“It’s so you know why I picked the songs," Richie explains, eyes intent on his task. He’s using a red felt tip, the pen he uses for all of his mixtapes and he always has red marks on his hands because of it, scribbles at the heel of his palm and over the curl of his little finger. He’s made maybe a hundred mixtapes, but never one for Eddie. Because he’s an asshole like that.
“I don’t care why you picked them,” says Eddie. “My mum’s gonna call the cops if I’m not home soon.”
“Patience is a virtue, Eddie baby,” he hums, signing his name at the bottom, dotting the i’s with little hearts. Eddie definitely wants to push him over.
When he’s done, he holds it up with both hands, like he’s showing off his first born child. Eddie rolls his eyes, snatches the tape off him, shoves it into his back pocket. Richie blinks behind his glasses and for a second he looks so terrified Eddie wants to touch him, pull him close, but then his face clears and he’s smiling again.
“Don’t.... If you don’t like it, don’t tell me,” he says. “You have terrible taste so... I don’t wanna hear about it.”
“Sure, Richie,” says Eddie, faintly, still a little thrown off. “Thanks.”
He runs back to his house, so fast under streetlamps and over wet concrete that his chest burns and he thinks that maybe his asthma wasn’t bullshit after all and maybe this will kill him. He keeps his palm over the back pocket of his jeans, so the tape doesn’t fall out, and he thinks that maybe he should’ve kept the fanny pack, because they’re fucking convenient, Richie, so stop laughing. It feels strange too, running at night, like he’s stepped outside of the real world and is climbing into the sky. He shuts his eyes on the straight parts of streets until the anticipation of sudden death makes it even harder to breathe.
He gets home thirty minutes after curfew and hurtles up the stairs to his bedroom, ignoring his mother shrieking behind him, shutting the door and throwing himself onto his bed. She doesn’t really come into his room anymore, at least not when he’s there. He puts the tape in and his headphones on, hits play, and Richie’s voice crackles and sparks.
“Welcome to Rockin’ Richie’s Radio Roundhouse Eds, I hope you’re ready for pure seduction from Derry's finest DJ, Richie Tozier.”
Eddie laughs, lies back, shuts his eyes, and it’s not actually rockin’ at all, most of it is quieter than he’s expecting, guitars and soft vocals and a couple of things that might be good to dance to, if he were the sort of person who danced. Older music than he’s expecting too, not really top ten anything, unless it’s from five years ago. He takes the card out of the case as he listens, drags his fingers along what Richie’s written there, in cramped writing with no punctuation. eds dont listen to this one its for your mum or this one is kinda how i feel everyday or this ones about you eds or dont tell me youre not totally in love with evan dando after this ill show you a picture he has hair like cindy crawford. There are more love songs than he’s expecting and he doesn’t know what to think about that either. It’s Blondie crooning I will give you my finest hour, the one I spent watching you shower, and it’s Gordon Gano whining about not getting kissed and it’s fucking Friday, I’m in love. Everything is love songs, Eddie thinks. It’s hard to pick music that isn’t about love. It’s impossible, actually. Eddie taps at the front window of his walkman, rewinds it when it gets to the end, plays it again. Falls asleep to a growled voice, a song that makes him ache, closer than you know, love each other so, androgynous.
In the morning, he goes to the Barrens, and he takes the tape and some spare batteries and he means to listen to it alone, sitting over the water, but Stan is already there. He’s sitting on a tree root, fiddling with a pair of binoculars hung around his neck, and it’s like something from the past, some snapshot of the summer they met Beverly and Mike and Ben, and it’s so strange it stops Eddie short. He’s not sure he wants to walk down into that summer again. Even though there are parts of it he would never give up for anything. But Stan looks up, and he smiles, and the world settles back into its time again. They’re not so much older anyway. Eddie trots down the slope to meet him.
“Just the person I wanted to see,” says Stan, when Eddie reaches him, and Eddie laughs.
“Doubt it,” he says. “Why?”
“What do you think about Mike?” he asks, voice soft, something hidden under it that Eddie can barely pick out, something more than the question.
“He’s great.” Eddie shrugs. “Obviously.” He kicks his heels out in front of him, drags them back through the dust.
“No, I mean.” Stan comes to a stop, mouth twisting slightly. Eddie hasn’t seen Stan with his binoculars in forever, and he’s holding onto them like a lifeline. “For... me.”
“For you?” Eddie blinks, blinks again, and then he understands the strange push in Stan’s voice and what it means and he remembers Richie smiling at him and he remembers the leper and he remembers Blade Runner and the yellow tulips. His cheeks burn and his hands move to his waist, where he used to keep his inhaler, even though he doesn’t often bring it with him anywhere anymore, just keeps it at home to use around his mother, and Stan is watching him like he’s afraid they’re going to have to fight and that’s... that’s maybe the worst thing Eddie’s ever seen.
“Oh,” he chokes out, before Stan can leave. “Stan that’s... no that’s good, that’s... I think Mike is great. For you.”
“Right,” says Stan, warily.
“Really,” says Eddie, trying to sound genuine over the beating of his heart. He means it truly, it’s just... something in his head is shouting so loud it's hard to speak. “I didn’t... I was just surprised.”
They sit together in silence for awhile. Eddie remembers building the dam, Stan emerging over the hill with Richie, and he’s always been kind of straight up and down, cuffed khakis and striped polo shirts, but his smile could light up the whole sky at night. And now he’s quiet, fiddling with an old thing from his childhood, beat-up binoculars with scratched lenses and a fraying cord, and Eddie doesn’t know why he’s told him this, maybe it’s just because he’s there, but it doesn’t really matter. He shuffles a little closer to Stan on the tree trunk, nudges at him with his shoulder. He plays with his walkman in his lap, thinks of the love songs on the tape Richie gave him, imagine me and you. He wants to ask him how he knew. He wants to ask him so badly he can hardly take it. He wants to ask him how he knew it wasn't fake, that what he’s feeling is what he's supposed to be feeling.
“You seduce him yet?” he asks, instead, and Stan laughs.
“Nope,” he says, easily. “Just seeing what happens.”
“Cool.” Eddie chews on his lip. His hands are shaking a little so he sits on them. This isn't about him. "You should take him to the Aladdin, a balcony seat to yourself.”
“Maybe.” Stan is smiling still, his eyes picking up the clear water of the lake. He bumps back at Eddie with his shoulder. “Thanks,” he says, quietly.
“Hey... how... how’d you know it was Mike?” Eddie asks then, almost the right question, but not quite.
“I don’t know, Mike’s... he’s comfortable,” says Stan, quietly. “He makes me feel... calm.”
Richie doesn’t make me feel calm, thinks Eddie, and then he thinks, what the fuck? Obviously not. Because Richie’s just his friend. His best friend. His favourite person. He’s just thinking about him because of the tape.
“Comfortable,” says Eddie, trying to push away his thoughts. “I don’t think that’ll ever happen to me, I’m gonna die alone.”
“Quit being dramatic,” Stan laughs. “Richie’s rubbing off on you.”
“Gross, never say anything like that again.”
They spend the afternoon there, in the shade, over the water, and Ben joins them later on and they go back to town. They go to a movie, buy popcorn and ice cream and watch something ridiculous that makes Stan laugh so hard he chokes on his drink and Ben’s cheeks get all flushed and glowy. Eddie doesn’t think about Richie or about his walkman in his backpack or about robots or the way Stan’s confession has made him feel like an open wound.
When Richie meets them afterwards, Eddie keeps his hands in his pockets, scuffs his shoes along the sidewalk. Richie tugs on his sleeve, pulls him in a circle, and he lets it happen and he laughs but it comes out kind of like a squawk and he’s so stiff about it Richie stops quickly, falls into bothering Ben instead. Eddie doesn’t say anything to Richie about the tape and Richie doesn’t ask.
When Eddie is seventeen, he decides something has to change. He dates girls and he feels like the worst person on the planet every time they kiss because he doesn’t feel it. Because he is the worst person on the planet. Because he’s a fake human being, made of plastic and black wire and porcelain, and because he can’t get brave. He's delicate. And Bev knows, because she knows everything, and Bill knows, because he’s going to rule the world one day, and he can barely look them in the eye sometimes. He goes on a date with a girl and he buys her a milkshake and he shakes her hand at her front door and runs the fuck away. He sits in his car, a pretty thing he’s fixed up to withstand a nuclear blast, and he parks it outside his house, keeps it idle, keeps his hands on the wheel, stares at the dashboard until his eyes blur, and then he decides something has to change.
He drives to Richie’s house, because of course he does. He drives to Richie’s house, and he knocks on the door and Richie’s mum lets him in, tired eyes and a twist of her wrist and a half-hearted call to her son all the way upstairs. He won’t be able to hear her. He’ll have his headphones on and even if he doesn’t he’ll be singing along to his music. Eddie goes upstairs, doesn’t knock, just barges in, because he always does, and Richie’s on his bed, and he has his headphones on, and he’s singing along to his music so badly Eddie wants to cry. Wants to hug him. Wants to disappear immediately.
“Hey,” he shouts instead, and Richie startles up and off his bed, pulling his headphones off, blinking rapidly behind his glasses. He’s wearing fucking... boxer shorts and the most enormous long sleeved t-shirt Eddie has ever seen, the sleeves hanging over his hands, making him look kind of like an amputee but also kind of adorable.
“Eds, what the fuck?” he says, blearily, tilting his glasses up a little so he can rub at his eyes.
Eddie takes a breath. He steps into Richie’s space, and his hands flutter at his collar and then fall over the lines of his arms without touching him, a fingerprint of space between them. Richie shuts his eyes and his eyelashes are trembling against his skin. Eddie waits for a moment, waits for him to say something, to ask him what the fuck he’s doing again, to push him away, but he doesn’t. Eddie lets all of his breath out at once, tries to imagine he’s flushing out his terror too.
“Don’t say anything,” he says, barely a whisper, and he kisses him.
Richie makes this soft sound against his mouth, something like surprise, something a little like a whimper, but he doesn’t pull away. He deepens the kiss, tilts his face a little so he can open Eddie’s mouth with his tongue, and Eddie hesitates before tangling his hands in Richie’s hair. Richie’s hands fall to Eddie’s waist. Eddie bites at Richie’s lower lip. And it’s clumsy, because it’s a first kiss and because Richie’s glasses are everywhere and Eddie doesn’t really know what to do with his hands except pull at Richie’s hair, at his clothes, but he kind of seems to like that, and... and...
“Holy shit,” says Eddie, stumbling back. “Holy shit, shut up.”
“I didn’t say-”
“Shut up, shut up.” Eddie flaps a hand at him, turns away, turns back, touches his mouth with two fingers. He thinks maybe his hands have fallen off. He thinks maybe all his wires have been cut. “Don’t say anything,” he says again, and he bolts.
He takes Richie’s stairs two at a time and almost kills himself falling into his kitchen table but then he’s outside and he runs, like he had when Richie gave him the tape, and it’s dark again and it’s like being in another world again, except it’s for a different reason this time. Eddie thinks he might actually have a heart attack this time. Might actually just collapse on his lawn and die because he’s finally fucking done something he’s wanted to do for so long. Something so fucking stupid it’ll stop his heart just on its own. Because Richie is... Richie doesn’t. He runs a little faster, until all he can hear is the rubber of his shoes against the pavement. Absurdly, he remembers his P.E. teacher in sixth grade, telling him he should try track, he’s a good runner, and his mother coming to school to scream at him. Eddie’s too delicate, she’d said, too delicate for physical education. He laughs as he runs, and the extra air it takes makes his vision spot for a moment, like stars, and then clear again. He's forgotten his car. It takes him fifteen minutes to get home.
In his room, he opens his closet. He has shoeboxes of stuff he’s kept over the years, ticket stubs from concerts and toys won at the arcade and the lock from his first bike and letters from Beverly. For awhile he’d kept his cast, but he’d thrown it away because it made him think of dead skin and of his bones breaking and of the house on Neibolt street and a sick-making sort of terror. He’s looking for the tape though, Richie’s love songs. And it’s probably a terrible idea to listen to it, to listen to imagined love and whatever the fuck he was feeling as a fifteen year old, only two years ago but also kind of forever ago, but he doesn’t care. He’s already fucked everything up completely, he may as well keep going. Richie kissed him back.
“So what,” mutters Eddie to himself, pulling the tape out of a box and rocking back on his heels. It looks exactly the same, the red pen has faded a little, and the drawing seems clumsy, sweet, and Eddie can kind of see himself in the lines. He got his eyebrows right at least. The downwards pull at the corners of his mouth. He ought to kick Richie’s ass for this shit. He kicks his closet door shut instead.
On his bed, he rewinds the tape back to the start, presses play. Everything seems different now. Everything seems to mean far more than it should. There’s nothing simple in a love song. And it’s silly, it’s a cute song that’s playing, a song that’s so Richie it makes Eddie’s heart hurt, would you trust me, not to break you, I’m just trying really hard to make you, notice me being around, and it’s too much. Eddie can’t breathe. He rips his headphones off, scrambles to throw the walkman off his bed. It doesn’t break, but it makes a cracking sound, and Eddie can relate to that, can relate to splintered plastic and tangled electronics. He can’t breathe. He’s never been able to breathe. And he knows now that it’s a panic attack, the claws in his chest and the pins and needles in his head and the dark and hollow curl under his ribs, and he knows that he’s never had asthma, but part of him wants to scream to his mum to bring his inhaler, the one he knows she keeps in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, just in case he changes his mind about the bullshit she fed him for half his life. He curls his knees into his chest, bites at the denim that covers his knees, worries at it with his teeth until it frays a little, like a pinhole, forcing himself to focus on some tiny point in space. A grey blue weave of fabric and spit and his skin underneath it. It works, sort of. His breathing slows a little and his eyes burn less and his hands start to feel like his maybe, not just someone else's flesh stitched onto his arms. Richie kissed him back. Richie made him a mixtape of love songs when he was fifteen. He fumbles with the phone on his bedside table, dials a number he’s known off by heart since he was thirteen.
“Hello?” Beverly answers, voice bright and sweet.
“Bev,” breathes Eddie. “Bev, what songs did Richie put on the tapes he made you?”
“Um, hi Eddie,” she says. “I don’t know, riot girl stuff probably, lots of Sonic Youth.”
“I don’t know, some maybe, not really.” She laughs. “Why?”
“He only made me one tape and... Bev... Bev.”
“Eddie, Eddie,” she mocks, sounding bemused. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I think maybe he tried to tell me he liked me with the tape he made two years ago and I accidentally blew him off.”
“Oh.” She’s silent for a moment. “Yeah, yeah that definitely happened.”
“Holy shit, you knew?”
“Everyone fucking knew, Eddie, but no one was gonna force you to come to terms with that.” She sounds soft and gentle. Eddie wants to peel his face off. “You were obviously going through some kind of shit. It wasn’t our place.”
“I kissed him.”
“Oh my god.”
“And then I ran away.”
“Oh my god.”
“What do I do? Do I jump out my window?”
“If you wanna break your ankle, sure.” She hums thoughtfully. “You should go to bed, Eddie.”
“Go to bed and get some sleep and in the morning decide what you want to do. Unless you want me to bring you over a joint and you can like... freak out at me some more.”
“No.” Eddie sighs, flops back on his bed. “I’m just gonna agonise for awhile and then probably get a peptic ulcer and start coughing up blood.”
“At least you’re prepared.”
“Good luck, kid.”
Eddie hangs up the phone. He’s never leaving his room again. His mother will be thrilled, maybe she’ll get him a bubble or a lifetime supply of baby wipes or a sparkly new inhaler. His car is done for, he'll leave it to the city to swallow. The worst part of it is that, to some degree he had to have known. Because it’s obvious now. Richie with his crooked smile and his nicknames, way too invested in all the dumb shit he made Eddie do. It’s cute. It’s disgusting. Eddie’s going to lie bed until the season change. Until his heart stops beating so fast and his palms stop sweating, a thousand years from now.
When there’s a knock on his door, he freezes. It’s his mum, he thinks, wildly, checking if he’s eaten, if he’s feeling okay, he’d rushed through the house like a tornado. Or it’s Bev, coming over anyway, because she’s decided he shouldn’t be alone, except Bev would climb the tree outside his window because his mother would never let her in. Or it’s Stan, come to talk about how perfect Mike is, even though every single person on the planet already knows that.
“Eds?” It’s Richie. Of course it’s fucking Richie. Eddie shuts his eyes. “Eddie, can I come in?”
“Only if I can leave,” calls out Eddie, in a voice like scratched glass.
“No.” Eddie sighs, gets up off his bed. “You can come in.”
Richie opens the door and he looks harried and his hair is all wild and tangled and he’s put on a stupidly loud short-sleeved shirt over his stupidly long-sleeved white t-shirt. His jeans have rips at the knees and Eddie knows it’s because he fell over, not because he’s trying to be Kurt Cobain or whatever. He has a backpack on and he doesn’t say anything to Eddie, just shuts the door behind him and shrugs his backpack around to his front. He opens it and, very carefully, brings out a flower.
“I didn’t think your mum would let me in if I was carrying this,” he says, sounding kind of shrill at the edges, kind of panicked.
The flower is a tulip. It isn’t yellow, it’s a kind of orangey pink and he’s obviously pulled it out of someone’s garden because it still has roots attached, and dirt, but it’s definitely a tulip. Eddie stares at it.
“What the fuck is that?” he asks, voice numb, lips numb, hands numb.
“I... it’s for you,” says Richie, sounding sort of like he’s not actually sure how it got into his hand at all.
“Why?” Eddie takes a step back, bumps into his bed, almost falls. Richie flinches. Eddie takes two hurried steps toward him, stopping just short of where he is. He puts his hands behind his back.
"Because that's... what people do."
"Are you sure about that?"
"No clue." Richie laughs a little shakily. "I... why'd you run away?"
"Because I was scared."
"Because I didn't really know I... that I'm gay."
"Oh," says Richie, his voice tiny and soft. "Oh, fuck, baby." He puts the flower down carefully on Eddie's desk and then he steps forward, and his hands are held wide, like he wants to pull Eddie into them, but he doesn't. He stops, close enough to touch but not touching, expression intensely kind. Eddie's heart is practically vibrating and he thinks that at any moment he might start to float. His fingers are curled into his palms, nails cutting sharp against his skin. Baby, he thinks. You're delicate, he thinks. There's an orangey pink tulip on his desk and the gentle curve of its petals makes Eddie feel like maybe he can survive anything.
He stumbles into Richie's arms and it feels just like he knew it would. Like falling into still clear water, like opening your eyes in the dark and seeing something, a pinprick of light in the black, and he thinks, oh, maybe this is what it feels like to be real. And he thinks oh, maybe this is what it feels like to be awake, not dreaming. He buries his face in Richie's neck, his hair, the soft laundry-smell of his stupid clothes, and Richie is murmuring something quietly but Eddie doesn't really care what he's saying. He gets enough just from the sound.
"I left my car at your house," he says, a little while later, when he's better composed. They're sitting on his bed. They're holding hands.
"I saw that," hums Richie. "She's mine now. Law of the jungle."
"I'll kill you before I let you drive my car."
"She loves me better than you already, I asked her."
"Cars are shes," he grins. "Ask Bill about it."
"If she's hurt, I'll cut your tongue out."
"Kinky Eds, I don't know that we're quite there yet."
Eddie groans, lies back on his bed, covering his face with his hands, and Richie is laughing, this cute hiccoughing laugh that Eddie has always loved the most, and then he lies back down beside him, kicks his legs out, grabs Eddie's hand again so he can kiss his knuckles and then his palm and then the base of his wrist. Eddie remembers Stan at the Barrens, just before he and Mike became official. He's comfortable. He makes me feel calm. Eddie still doesn't really feel calm. He still feels a little bit like his skin is going to break just from feeling so much. But he's always been comfortable around Richie. Always. Even when he's uncomfortable with himself. He sighs, rolls over on his side, tucks himself up against Richie, solid and warm, and shuts his eyes.