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Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

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For the first time in history, Richie just wants summer to end. Having no homework, watching TV until he can’t stay awake any longer, sleeping in until noon-- all great. Fantastic, even. What’s not so great is his husband being in a different country for two months. That’s right, two months. Eight weeks. 56 days. 1460 hours. Not that he did the math or anything. That would be super lame and something Ben would do, probably. It’s just hard for him to think of much else.

Eddie had come to him at the end of sophomore year, so frustrated Richie thought he seriously might pull his own hair out, yelling about a summer trip his mom was making him go on. Richie hadn’t been happy about it either, but he’d tried comforting Eddie, telling him that a little time apart wouldn’t kill them. Then Eddie had told him that the trip was to visit his great aunt. In Poland. For two months. Eddie was the one doing the comforting after that.

Look, they aren’t codependent, necessarily, but they haven’t spent more than a week apart since being married. Actually, if he thinks about it, Richie doesn’t know if they’ve spent more than a week apart since meeting each other. Another Guinness Book of Records title, snatched from them by Eddie’s egg donor. Usually they only have to deal with the bi-annual visiting of the aunts-- once during the summer and once at Christmas. Both of his aunts live in Maine, though, so the trips never last long. They aren’t fun, sure, but they’re doable. Richie’s family takes trips sometimes, but he convinces his parents to bring Eddie by dramatically throwing himself over the furniture and crying “my husband!” in a southern belle voice. Or what’s supposed to be a southern belle voice (he’s working on it). It doesn’t take much convincing, anyway, since Eddie is a part of the family and his parents like having him around. In fact, Richie’s pretty sure Eddie has a permanent and unspoken invitation to Tozier family events, but the drama adds a nice flair.

This trip, on the other hand. Pure. Hell. Saying goodbye had been one of the worst moments of Richie’s life. The losers had gone to Eddie’s place the morning he left, giving him hugs while Sonia glared from the car. Richie had snuck through Eddie’s window the night before, where they’d had their own, private goodbye that was a little sappy and a lot heartbroken. In the morning, all they could do was hug under Eddie’s mom watchful eye. He drew it out for as long as he could, until Sonia cleared her throat loudly, the pissy bitch. He’d given him a sneaky kiss against his head and they’d shared a watery smile before Eddie got into his mom’s car and drove away.

That was three weeks ago, and Richie misses him more than he thought possible. His mom has started giving him concerned looks because he’s just moping around in Eddie’s pajamas. Eddie has a whole drawer full of clothes at his place, and he calls them his ‘Richie clothes’; fitting considering half of them are literally Richie’s clothes that the little goblin claimed as his own. He knows he’s being kind of pathetic, but Eddie has such a large presence that his absence feels like a giant blackhole, stealing all his happiness. For the last three days he’s been playing the mixtape Eddie made him on repeat, hoping it would fill the silence.

It doesn’t help that in the past couple of years he’s gotten used to cuddling Eddie to sleep most nights; if Eddie isn’t spending the night as his house, Richie is climbing through Eddie’s window. He’d feel a little bad about lying and sneaking around behind his parents’ backs, except that he and Eddie are married and it doesn’t feel right sleeping apart anymore. If he had it his way, they’d be living together already, in a place they picked out themselves and filled with all their shit.

They promised they’d send letters, but sending letters across continents isn’t what anyone would call speedy. Richie’s been expecting one for the past week, and he can’t just send his own because Eddie didn’t know his great aunt’s address. When he’d tried asking his mom for it, she’d told him not to worry about it. Because again, pissy bitch. So he’s doing what every normal husband would do: sitting on his front steps waiting for the mail truck to come. Today is going to be the day, he can feel it. It has to be, or Richie’s going to start doing some really sad shit, like buying a bottle of the fancy cologne Eddie uses and spraying it on a pillow. Ha, that would be crazy, he definitely would never do that. But that letter really needs to show up today because Richie doesn’t want to test out how definite his definitely is.

He wonders if Eddie is thinking about him as much as he’s thinking about Eddie. Which is pretty much constantly. He probably is, considering how much he hates his family and was dreading going. But the longer he goes without a letter, the more he starts to worry that Eddie went off to Europe, met some cute guy who speaks another language and has forgotten all about Richie. Not that Eddie would ever cheat on him, but who knows, maybe Krakow is the fucking Paris of Eastern Europe.

After what feels like hours, the mail truck pulls up. Richie bolts to the gate, scaring the mailman when he sticks his hand out expectantly. “I live here, I promise, but I’m waiting for a letter from my husband and I’m kind of losing it. I’m sure you know how that is, handsome fella like you must have a lady at home. Marriage really changes a man, right?”

The mail guy just stares at him and slowly holds out the letters. Richie snatches them from him, and shuffles through them like he’s possessed. He doesn’t even wait when he sees his name, just rips into the envelope with the mail guy standing two feet away.

Hey Asshole,
It’s me, your husband. I don’t know if you remember me, since for all I know this letter has gotten to you a month and a half late. Anyways, I’m the guy who loves you and puts up with your shit all the time. I miss you like hell and I thought writing this would help, but it’s making me miss you more. It’s not the same, insulting you in writing. I don’t get to see that goofy smile or hear your ugly laugh.

How are things going? I hope you and the losers are having fun. Although not too much fun, you know I hate missing out on the good stuff. I know summer is your prime training time but do not spend all your time inside of the arcade. I won’t be there to make sure you don’t blow all your money at once or forget to go home for dinner, so make one of the other losers go with you. Bill, maybe, but definitely not Bev because you two together are trouble. But seriously, make sure you go outside every once and awhile, get some vitamin D (and no, I’ve told you a million times, the D does not stand for dick). I left a bottle of sunscreen on your shelf, so make sure you use it when you’re in the sun! If you don’t, I’ll know because I’ll be able to hear you bitching about your sunburn from thousands of miles away, you albino.

I’ve been here for about a week and I just want to go home. I can’t believe I basically have two whole months ahead of me. My polish is so bad, my cousins keep making fun of me, and get this, dude-- I’m pretty sure my family is trying to set me up in an arranged marriage or some shit. The second I got off the plane, this random girl was there and they keep pushing us together and saying all these great things about her. She literally hasn’t said a word the whole time, I’m a little worried this is like a hostage situation or something. And today my great aunt was like “Oh wouldn’t it be so great if she could be a part of the family, if only there was a way to make that happen” and then looked me dead in the eyes. Apparently she’s past being subtle now. You have no idea how hard it is to not scream “I’M GAY” and rip my shirt off to reveal a rainbow flag or some shit. Like the Hulk, but gay.

Okay, if I keep writing it’s going to get even worse than gay Hulk so I’m going to end the letter here. I love you, Richie. I kind of wish you were here, but mostly I wish I was home with you and everyone else. Talk to you soon.

Love,

Eddie Tozier (figured I’d try it out, see how it sounds)

PS- I was worried you’d meet a cute boy at the arcade and decide to leave me for him, so I included a photo to remind you that it would be physically impossible to find someone cuter than me, thank you very much. Yes, that is me with a plate of spaghetti.

PPS-I also sprayed this letter with some of my cologne since I’m sure you’re going through withdrawals. I don’t know, I read something about it in a Cosmo that Bev gave me, so if you think it’s weird blame her.

PPPS- If you make ONE joke about how you jerked off to this letter, I’m going to stay in Poland forever.

PPPPS- Tell mom and dad I love and miss them too.

Richie lets out a choked laugh and hurries to pull the photo out of the envelope. He flips it over, and there he is in all his angelic glory. And he really is smiling over a giant plate of spaghetti, his hair looking every bit as soft as Richie remembers and his skin slightly sun kissed. He can’t help but smile back at his little Eddie Spaghetti, even as tears well up in his eyes.

Jesus Christ, Richie, get it together. Even Ben would be disgusted.

A soft breeze blows by and suddenly the cologne Eddie sprayed on the letter hits him and that’s the end of old Trashmouth, goodbye sanity and any self respect he had left. The tears spill over, and he knows he looks like the biggest idiot, standing in the walkway and sniffling over a fucking letter. This is rock bottom, and it only took him three weeks to get here.

He stays there, rereading the letter a few times, eyes lingering on Eddie’s signature.

Eddie Tozier. That’s got a nice ring to it, if you ask him.

Alright, he’s going to go write Eddie a letter-- probably the only one he’ll get before he’s coming home-- and then he’s going to go spend some time with his friends like his husband suggested. Just five weeks left. It’ll be a piece of cake.
_____________________________________________________________________

It’s been two weeks since Eddie’s letter, and the scent has already worn off of the paper, which Richie didn’t know was possible. If he had known, he probably wouldn’t have read it fifty million times. It’s been better, though, since he started spending his time with the losers again-- Bev especially. She’d called him last night, voice full of excitement, asking him to come over today because she has a plan she wants to pitch him. She wouldn’t tell him what it was though, so he’s full of curiosity when he knocks on her door.

She opens it with a smile already on her face. “You came! Come in, my dad’s supposed to be gone until tonight, so we can hash out the plan here.”

“I know we brought it up when we were like ten, but me and the other guys are still down to kill your dad, just give us the word,” Richie says as he follows her into her room.

“Yes, yes, I know. It’s easier if I just make it to graduation and then I can get the fuck out of here with you guys and never come back.” She plops down on her bed and pats the space beside her. “Today is not about me, though. It’s about you.”

“Me, huh? And what am I doing today?”

“Getting a makeover!”

“Why in the hell would I do that? You know if you want to do that girly shit, Mike is the one to call. He’s always bringing up that time you did his makeup last year, pretty sure he’s just too chicken shit to ask you to do it again.”

“Don’t act like you’re some man’s man who cares about that stuff,” she responds, rolling her eyes, “Eddie wouldn’t let you get away with that, and I won’t either. And of course Mike wants me to do his makeup again, he looked amazing. But that’s not what I had in mind for you.”

Richie’s heart skips a beat at the mention of Eddie. “Okay so what did you have in mind then?”

“I thought we could take your allowance down to that thrift store I told you guys about last week, get you some new duds. No offense, but your sense of style sucks. I know we call ourselves losers, but you don’t have to dress like one.” She gestures at his current outfit.

He looks down at himself, and can’t really argue with her. He just wears whatever clothes his mom buys him and adds some button up shirts with loud prints over the top because that’s what he’s done since middle school. It never really occurred to him to change it up.

“Yeesh Bev, say it like it is why don’t you.”

“Sorry, Richie, it’s just that you’re a cool guy, as much as we joke otherwise, and I think you should look like one. Plus it would be a nice surprise for Eddie, right?”

“Fuck, does Eddie think I dress like shit too?” Richie asks, adjusting his clothes self consciously.

“Nah, Eddie doesn’t care how you dress, he’s too stupidly in love with you to even notice. But once I’m done with you, he’ll notice alright,” she says, wiggling her eyebrows.

It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been together, hearing that Eddie loves him-- is in love with him-- always makes him feel warm. “So we’re just getting me some new clothes? That’s the whole plan?”

“Well, I had another idea…”

He narrows his eyes. “Out with it, woman.”

She reaches over and pulls out a little box from her bedside table. When she opens it, there’s a needle, some earrings, and a fat pamphlet. Richie’s confusion must show because she starts explaining.

“I was in that music store, the one where those punk kids hang out? And I noticed some zines they had on the counter, and one was for doing piercings at home. They were definitely warning against it, but they also tell you how to do it safely, and I figured what the hell and grabbed one, just in case. So, I started thinking about your new look, right? And I remembered this zine and suddenly I’m struck with inspiration: we should pierce your ears!” She’s so excited by the end, he’s surprised she’s not doing jazz hands.

Richie’s eyebrows shoot up; he always thought piercings were for cool kids who want to rebel, and if he’s being honest, he’s pretty nerdy. He spends most of his time at the arcade, the comic book store, or the video rental place. And at school he takes a bunch of advanced classes and tries, even if he does talk back to the teachers. He’s about to turn her down when she says, “C’mon, Rich. It’ll be fun and if it doesn’t look good we can always take it out. Just think about it.”

“Alright, I’ll think about. You know, if Eddie were here he’d kill you for even suggesting this,” he says, and they both grin at each other. Eddie calls it their Siamese smiles, like the cats from ‘Lady and the Tramp’, and says it’s the first sign that they’re up to no good.

“First things first, though, we gotta get you out of these clothes.”

_____________________________________________________________________

Beverly is a wizard. It’s the only way to explain how she manages to find shit on these overcrowded thrift store racks. They’ve been here five minutes and she already has a pile of clothes thrown over her arm for Richie to try on. He attempted to help at first, but honestly he was just getting in the way of her process or whatever. She clearly has a vision, so he’ll let her be.

He’s wandering through the store aimlessly when he sees a denim jacket on a mannequin. Richie isn’t sure what about it draws him in, but he stands in front of the display and gently rubs at the sleeve of the jacket. There’s a few patches sewn on, like someone had started to make it their own, but never quite got there. It makes him want to pick up where they left off.

“You like it?”

Richie jumps at the sound of Bev’s voice. “Jesus, give a guy some warning! I thought you were elbow deep in that rack over there.”

“I was, but you actually showed interest in something here and I had to see it up close.” She gestures to the jacket. “So, you like it or not?”

“Yeah,” he shrugs, “I guess I do. I could add more patches, make it as loud as me.”

She looks pleased. “It would be perfect, Rich. And it’ll go with some of the stuff I picked for you. Grab it and then let’s go commandeer the dressing room, have a little fashion montage moment.”

“Oh, I can’t wait to show off my model walk, I’ve been practicing,” he says, following her into the small dressing room at the back of the store. “It’s better with heels though, they make my ass look fabulous.”

“What ass?”

“This one!” He shakes his admittedly small ass at her, backing her into the corner.

“God, Richie, stop!” she cries through her laughter. “Please! You know how possessive Eddie is, he’ll kill me if he knows I’ve gotten to see the ass dance!”

“Fine, fine,” Richie relents, ”I won’t let that happen to you. Now let’s get this fashion show going already! What have you got for me, Miss Marsh?”

“Why, Mr. Tozier, I’ve hand selected a few items I think you’ll appreciate. Item number one--” She holds up a pair of pants with an absolutely ridiculous cheetah print on them; they’re ugly and he loves them.

“How did you manage to find the only thing in this place more obnoxious than me?”

He grabs them from her and starts changing. The beauty of being friends since they were five is that modesty doesn’t exist anymore.

Bev shuffles through the pile of clothes and pulls out a t-shirt, throwing it over his head. “Wear it with that, cool guy.”

He does as she says, not even bothering to look at the shirt before slipping it on. She futzes with it a bit, tucking the shirt into the pants, before leaning down and grabbing a pair of boots Richie hadn’t noticed her carry in. “God, how did you even manage to carry all of this? And you know I’m not made of money right?”

“Just put them on,” she says, crossing her arms. “And you’re not going to buy this whole pile, I just wanted some options in case Plan A wasn’t right. Besides, I brought you to the thrift store for a reason: all this stuff is pretty cheap.”

He finishes lacing the boots, and stands up. “What the hell is Plan A?”

She smiles widely at him, and turns him to face the mirror. “This, my friend, is Plan A.”

Well shit.

He looks awesome. Beverly had apparently found a t-shirt with Queen’s symbol printed on the front, and while the clothes are a little tighter than he would usually choose for himself, both the shirt and the pants fit perfectly (seriously--wizard). He looks like he could be a member of the bands he listens to.

“Wait, wait.” She grabs the denim jacket and helps him put it on. “There! It completes the look.”

She’s right, as usual. They look at his reflection together. “You really think this is more me? I’m kind of a nerd, Bev.”

“Yeah, but a cool one. You know more music than anyone else, even if you act all sly about it. Plus you give a shit about the injustices of the world, and say ‘fuck you’ to authority. That’s punk as hell.”

Punk as hell? He likes the sound of that. “You know…” he says, tucking his hair behind his ear, “an earring sure would go well with this outfit…”

She lets out a loud whoop. “Yes! That’s what I’m saying! Oh, everyone is going to love this new Richie.”

He laughs. “Okay, I know this isn’t the only outfit you picked, show me another one.”

She starts pulling more clothes from the pile, talking about a pair of suspenders he needs to try on, as he looks himself over in the mirror.

Well, Eddie sure is going to be surprised when he comes home.

_____________________________________________________________________

Eddie’s miserable. Why the fuck does mail take so long and why can’t international calls be free? It’s bullshit. He knew that two months away from home in a country he doesn’t know outside of stories from his aunts was going to suck, but he didn’t know how much. That saying ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’? Whoever wrote that had clearly never had to leave their husband for the first time in 10 years; his heart isn’t fonder, it’s fucking broken. Richie would be relentless in his teasing if he knew that’s how Eddie was feeling. Or maybe he wouldn’t, but Eddie has no way of knowing because communicating across continents is fucking expensive and slow.

He’s trying to pay attention to the soap opera his mother is forcing him to watch with her, but it’s so bad and his Polish hasn’t improved enough for him to catch everything. Jesus, if they’re just going to do the same thing they do at home, they might as well have saved some money and not left. Well one thing is different-- the girl who’s currently pressed against his side. His mother insisted they all share the couch, and oh, surprise surprise, he and Agnieszka ended up next to each other. She’s as silent as always, which is still creepy, even after knowing her for five weeks.

Eddie hears his great aunt come through the front door, and she calls him into the kitchen. He jumps at the opportunity to escape from the women he’s sandwiched between.

“You have mail,” she tells him, tossing an envelope on the table.

Fuck. Yes.

This has to be the letter from Richie that he’s been waiting for. He snatches it up quickly, thanking his aunt and running to the only place he has privacy-- the bathroom. Never in a million years did Eddie think he would willingly spend so much time in the most germ infested room in a house, but these are trying times. The room he’s sharing with his two cousins is always occupied, and his mother and aunts spend all their time wandering around downstairs. The bathroom is a blissfully empty, quiet sanctuary that he’s come to appreciate. His family must think there’s something wrong with him, with how often he’s in here.

He locks the door and sits down on the toilet lid. Finally, four weeks after he sent his, he’s holding a letter from his husband. Eddie gently traces Richie’s chicken scratch. It’s the same barely legible handwriting Richie has had since childhood, and seeing it makes his heart ache.

 

Dearest Edward, light of my life, reason I live and breathe, one half of my soul,

Eddie has to stop and hold the letter against his face because he loves this ridiculous, ridiculous boy so much.

Your letter could not have come at a worse time-- I was just getting some afternoon delight from your mom. But since you’re my husband, I told her it would have to wait. Got to write you back first. That’s pretty romantic, huh?

I guess it’s not as romantic as whatever you and that girl have going, though. Should I be jealous? The silent ones were always your type. Me, on the other hand, I only have eyes for my spaghetti man, and that picture you sent is definitely going in my wallet for all of time. You made a mistake with that one, partner. But you know what would be the opposite of a mistake? You gay Hulking out! I can’t believe you finally found your perfect description. You have to go as gay Hulk for Halloween now, babe. No wait, better idea-- we start a band and call ourselves Gay Hulk. Actually now that I see it, it’s not catchy enough. Gay Hulk and His Sexually Ambigouous Hulkings? We’ll get all the losers in on it.

For real though, I can’t believe your family is trying to set you up. I get that they don’t know you’re gay and married or whatever, but they seriously think a girl you meet one summer when you’re sixteen is going to woo you so much that you’ll marry her? The audacity! I knew you for a whole year before proposing and I still had to convince you! It’s like they don’t know my Eds like I do. Ha ha, you can’t yell at my for calling you Eds! Eds Eds Eds Eds Eds!

I won’t lie to you, Shortstack, I miss you something awful. I may have even been pining, but I definitely wasn’t wearing your clothes or listening to that mixtape you made me. That would just be embarrassing. And you’ll be happy to know that I’ve barely even been in the arcade this summer. It’s not the same without my little cheerleader. I’m saving all my gaming until you get back, so you can give me a big kiss when I get the highscore and put ASS as my initials. I know you get real proud of me when I do that. Mom misses you too, and Dad obviously, but she said she’s outnumbered with you gone, so don’t go getting any ideas about staying in Poland or anything. You know how she is, she’d hunt you down, force you back home with your family.

Okay, well. I don’t have much else to say. Life is boring without you in it Eddie, so don’t worry about missing out on anything while you’re gone. We’re the ones missing out.

Love you,

Richie Whatever the Fuck Last Name You Want Baby

Eddie takes a deep breath after reading it. It’s all so perfectly Richie-- annoying, sweet, funny-- and exactly what he needed. He hadn’t even realized how tense he’s been, until it feels like Richie’s words seep into his muscles and relax him. Even through a letter, Richie’s taking care of him. He stays in the bathroom rereading the letter until Marcin bangs on the door and lets him know he has to shit.

He sighs and rubs at his temples. Who knew hell is a tiny house in Poland?
_____________________________________________________________________

The whole family-- plus Agnieszka-- is squished into the tiny living room, watching TV after dinner (Jesus, is it genetic or what?) when the news comes on. Eddie’s hardly paying attention when suddenly he hears the word ‘AIDs’ and freezes in his spot on the floor. The newscaster reports on a village outside of Warsaw where there were plans to open two homes for children infected with AIDs; one of the homes was set on fire, and the villagers are rioting, burning informational pamphlets with facts about the virus and throwing rotten garbage in front of the houses. Eddie can feel his breath catch, his hand automatically twitching towards an inhaler he hasn’t used in five years. He desperately wishes he was anywhere else but this room.

“Good for them, standing up for what’s right,” his great aunt says, calmly knitting in the corner of the room. “What a dirty, dirty disease. It’s the sinners who are affected, and no one should be forced to welcome them.”

His mother hums in agreement, oblivious to the fact that her son is as still as a statue. “Drug addicts and disgusting perverts. My friend knew someone in New York who got AIDs just from touching a dirty subway pole. He only had a hangnail, but it was enough. It’s just not safe to have them around.”

“And now these governments all want us to pay for treatments! As if this isn’t God’s plan,” his aunt interjects.

“If you ask me, we should put them away and let the disease run its course. It’s not my fault they’re getting punished.”

His great aunt huffs. “You know, a politician spoke the truth in an interview-- said that homosexuals are deviants and perverts and they’re the reason this disease is happening, and then he was fired! For being honest with the people of this country! Now that’s a real tragedy.”

Eddie can’t take this anymore; he’s going to have a meltdown if he stays.

“Eddie, my goodness, are you alright?” his mother asks, when he shoots up off the floor abruptly.

“Yes, yeah, I just… I need air. You know how my lungs get, mommy,” Eddie bullshits as he heads towards the backdoor. “I’ll be right back.”

She waves her hand, eyes already back on the TV.

He gets outside and sits on the back steps, holding his head in his hands. That was... he doesn’t even have words. To have these people who are supposed to love him say those things, regardless of whether they know he’s gay...The fact that anyone would think those things-- the homes were for children, for Christ’s sake, how could you think God would want them to suffer?

“Are you okay?”

Eddie lets out a small scream and clutches his chest. He was so far in his own head that he didn’t hear Agnieszka come outside.

She holds up her hands. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. When you didn’t come back in, I thought I would check on you.”

Great, now he can’t even take five minutes alone before someone comes looking? And Aga of all people?

“So...are you? Okay, I mean,” Aga asks, shuffling her feet.

“What, did my great aunt send you out here? Are you supposed to report back on why I’m being weird? Or were the instructions to comfort me in my time of need so I’ll finally show some interest?” he spits out.

“What? Of course not! I came out here because I was worried! They were saying those--those awful things in there and then you ran out, and I thought...I don’t know what I thought, if I’m honest. I know you don’t like me, why would you want to talk about it with me? But you know what? I don’t love this situation either. You think I’m here because I want to be? I also have a family who is pushing me at someone I don’t want, so don’t act like you’re the only one who’s miserable.”

It’s the most he’s heard her say all summer. By the time she’s finished, Eddie’s anger has been replaced with shame. He hadn’t considered it from her perspective: she’s getting dangled in front of some random kid from the US, whose Polish sucks and who clearly has no interest in any of it. And then he went and accused her of spying on him for his family, when she just wanted to help, despite his attitude the last five weeks.

She turns to head back up the step when he reaches out and grabs her arm. “Wait. Sorry, I’m sorry, you’re right-- I was only thinking about myself. There was no reason to think you had some hidden motive in asking how I am. That wasn’t fair.”

“No. It wasn’t.” She won’t look at him, her back still turned. He doesn’t blame her.

“It was nice of you. To come check on me like that. I know I haven’t exactly been friendly,” he says, releasing her arm.

“No. You haven’t.”

“So, thank you.”

She sighs, finally turning around. “Well, it’s like I said-- the things they were saying were… awful and--and wrong. I could hardly stand it.”

He stays quiet; he’s afraid if he doesn’t, he’ll blurt out something that he can’t take back.

“Don’t you think so?” She’s studying his face intently, like she’s searching for something. It feels like a test, only he doesn’t know what the right answer is. Is it a trick or was she really as affected as he was?

He breaks their eye contact. “Yeah. Yeah, I think the things they said were terrible too,” he says quietly.

It’s silent for a moment before Aga speaks, just as quietly as him. “Eddie I-- I want to tell you a secret. If you promise you won’t tell? Or think badly of me?” She wrings her hands together anxiously and shoots a glance at the door.

His eyebrows furrow in confusion, but he nods.

“I haven’t ever said it to anyone before. But I-- you seem like you might understand, or at least I trust you to not tell anyone, even if you hate me. You’ll be gone in a few weeks anyway, and I just...I need to say it to someone.”

“If you murdered someone, I--”

“I’m a lesbian! I like girls how I should like boys!” She claps her hands over her mouth, her eyes going wide.

Eddie can feel his jaw drop; of all the things he expected from her, that was the last. He thought maybe she made plans to run away or had some huge debt she was in trouble for. He’s speechless, but she’s staring at him, clearly expecting a response.

“I...Wow. Okay...Thank you for telling me, Aga, I know how hard that must have been. Or, I mean, I can imagine, I don’t know because that would mean I--” he cuts himself off. She looks less panicked now, her face softening with understanding.

Oh, what the fuck, might as well be honest. She’s not going to tell your mother and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“Actually, I do know how hard that was. I know exactly how hard that was because I’m gay.” He tries to say it with a strong, steady voice, but he’s hyper aware of his mother’s presence through the closed door, and it comes out shaky.

She smiles widely at him, and a smile grows on his own face. They stand there, not saying anything, until they both realize how ridiculous and also kind of perfect this is, and they break down into giggles.

“Shhhh, your witch of an aunt will hear us and think we’re falling in love!”

He’s laughing so hard, he might actually pee his pants.

“You know,” Eddie says when he gets himself together, “I’ve never met a lesbian before. Or, I’ve never met one that I know of, at least. There aren’t really other gay people in Derry. Well, aside from me and my husband.”

Aga lets out a strangled sound. “Husband?! I thought you were my age!”

“I am, we just got married young.” He pulls the chain holding his wedding ring out of his shirt. “This is the ring Richie got me. Our ten year anniversary is coming up, actually.”

“Ten years, so that means you were...six?” she says, astonished.

“Yep. Richie didn’t want to wait, since we knew it would happen someday anyway. We just sped the timeline up a little. Or a lot, I guess. I don’t know, it all feels normal to me since I don’t really remember a time without him taking care of me.”

“And now you have to be apart for a whole summer?”

“And now we have to be apart for a whole summer. It’s been hell; I miss him so much it feels like I’m going crazy.”

“Your husband--Richie?-- you have a picture of him?”

Eddie reaches into his pocket for his wallet, and pulls out a photo of the two of them. It’s a shot Stan took of them their freshman year, with the same camera they’d used at their wedding that Stan’s dad had given to him a few years back. In the photo, Richie is picking Eddie up from behind and giving him a kiss on the cheek, while Eddie’s face is a mix of irritated and amused, his mouth open in what probably started as yelling but turned into laughter; a perfect representation of how Richie makes him feel.

“Oh, wow. I’ve never seen you show that much emotion. Around your family you’re like a sad, obedient little puppy. ‘Yes, mommy, whatever you say mommy’,” she teases.

He elbows her. “You’re one to talk! I didn’t even know you had a personality. For the first two weeks I was worried I was involved in some horrible kidnapping plot.”

“Not quite so dramatic, but close. I think my parents might suspect something, so when your great aunt mentioned you, they all came together and plotted.”

“Little did they know...Or, shit, I guess maybe they do know? Do you think they realize I’m gay? That’s probably what this whole thing was about, wasn’t it? Fuckity fuck fuck,” Eddie rambles.

“I mean...I sort of guessed? But maybe it’s a gay to gay thing. Does anyone besides your friends know?”

“Everyone but my mom and the rest of my family knows. Not really by choice-- I wouldn’t have wanted to hide how I feel about Richie, but I never even had the option. People kind of clocked us early on, so we just owned it.”

“Isn’t that scary? Having all those people know?”

“I guess, sometimes. Some people have a lot to say, but I broke a kid’s nose in middle school and people haven’t messed with us as much since.”

“You?” she says, surprise coloring her voice. “You broke someone’s nose? How have I not heard this until now?”

“My mom doesn’t know. My mother-in-law went down and put the fear of god into the principal and they left it off my record.”

Aga shakes her head. “You’re so different than I thought you were. Fiery.”

That’s what Richie says, he thinks to himself, and has to stop himself from falling down that hole.

“That’s me…” He takes a deep breath. “I suppose we should go back inside before they really do send a spy out here.”

“My bet is on Marcin,” she says, standing up. He leads them up the steps, but before he can open the door, Aga grabs his arm. “Wait, wait. I just...Are we--can we be friends now? I think we could actually have some fun together before you leave. If you wanted.”

She sounds so unsure and Eddie feels like a complete ass about how he’d been acting; they just shared their truths with each other, and she still doesn’t know if they’re friends because twenty minutes ago he’d wanted nothing to do with her.

He reaches down and laces their fingers together. “Yeah, we can be friends. I would really like that, Aga.”

She squeezes his hand.

They head back into the living room and sit next to each other on the floor. He can see his great aunt zero in on their clasped hands with barely restrained glee, and he has to cover his laugh with a cough.

The TV is no longer on the news, he’s sitting next to his new friend, and he’s got Richie’s letter in his pocket. He can survive until he’s home, he knows it.

_____________________________________________________________________

The flight back home could not have taken longer. It felt at least twice as long as the flight there, and had been filled with his mother chattering excitedly about him and Aga. He’d felt a little bad about misleading his family, but after half an hour of non-stop commentary from his mother, he mostly just felt bad for himself. She’d been over the moon that they’d gotten along so well, pointing out how often they went off together the last few weeks of the trip.

She wasn’t wrong; after their conversation, him and Aga spent most of their time together exploring the city. To be honest, it was more of a food tour, with them hitting up all the street food spots. She was born and raised in Krakow and knew all the best places, so they’d go eat and spend the whole time making each other laugh. Once they really knew each other, they were like two peas in a pod. She reminded him of Mikey, a bit. She had a shy sweetness to her, but she never missed an opportunity to crack a joke or tease him. The two months had been the most miserable of his life, but if there’s anything he’ll miss from Poland, it’s her. Well, that and zapiekanka. He couldn’t get enough of those giant, delicious sandwiches.

Which is probably why he has to adjust his shirt over his stomach as he gets out of his mother’s car and finally, finally sets foot in Derry again. He hurries to the back of the car to grab his stuff while his mom unlocks the door. If he swings it right, he can be on his way to the losers without having to listen to his mom complain about how he needs rest. He waits until she’s disappeared inside the house before racing upstairs to his room, dropping all his shit, and racing back outside.

“I’m going to say hi to my friends, Mommy! I’ll be back!” he yells as he heads to his bike. He can hear a muffled response from her, but he ignores it and starts pedaling.

It’s been exactly eight weeks since he’s seen Richie and now he’s only a short bike ride away from him. Before he’d left, all of them had made plans to meet at the clubhouse today at three o’clock and he’s praying they all remembered. He’s exhausted from his flight and if he gets there to an empty clubhouse and no friends in sight, specifically if there’s no Richie in sight, he might cry; after two months, he needs to see him, and hold him, and hear his shitty jokes and stupid laugh. He just needs him.

Eddie makes it there without crashing his bike (a small miracle considering he’s both exhausted and jittery) and can hear his friends through the trap door. He already feels like he’s breathing easier and he hasn’t even seen them yet.

He throws open the door and six pairs of eyes look up at him.

“EDDIIIIEEEE,” Richie practically wails, shooting up the steps to tackle Eddie.

They hit the ground and normally Eddie would be livid, but he’s got his husband in his arms, can hear his rapid heartbeat matching his own, and he’s helpless to do anything but hold him.

“Baby, baby, baby, oh I missed you so much,” Richie mumbles against his skin. His breath tickles Eddie’s neck, and sends shivers down his spine.

Eddie nuzzles his face against whatever part of Richie he can reach. “I missed you too, Rich. So much, I thought I was going crazy.”

“I am crazy. Crazy about you,” Richie says, leaning over Eddie and pressing kisses all over his face. “Jesus, how do you smell so good after travelling across the world?”

It makes Eddie giggle, to hear Richie be so sweet after so long. Not just any giggle, either. It’s his extremely embarrassing enamored giggle that Richie always teases him for. “You’re so full of it--”

He’s cut off by Mike yelling “Dogpile!”

“No, no, no!”

He gets crushed under the added weight of Mike and Bev, followed by Bill and Ben. He can barely make out Stan hesitating by their dogpile, before he softly leans against them all with a sigh.

He gets a chorus of ‘Eddie’ shouted in his ear, and while he’s over the moon to be embraced by all his friends, he also needs to breathe and it’s getting next to impossible to do so with six bodies on top of him.

“Okay, if you don’t get off right now I’m going to literally die.”

The losers all hop up, one by one, until it’s just Richie and Eddie left on the ground. Richie stands first, and offers Eddie his hand with a flourish. “Sweet prince, please allow me the honor of helping you up.”

A whole five minutes in Richie’s presence before he rolled his eyes; that has to be a record.

When he’s vertical again, he brushes himself off and finally takes a good look at Richie and What. The. Fuck.

He’s in a t-shirt with The Cure on the front, tucked into a pair of yellow plaid pants, and has a denim jacket dotted with random patches thrown over the top. He’s also sporting a pair of chunky black boots. The outfit, combined with his longer hair that he must have been growing out all summer and--

“Are those new glasses?” Eddie asks, astounded.

“You like ‘em?” He uses the arms to bounce them on his face. “My dad saw my new clothes and offered to get me some new glasses too.”

Eddie likes them, alright. They’re more classic than he would expect from Richie; they’re half frames, with a black horn rim along the brow, similar to what Richie’s dad wears. The lenses still magnify his eyes, but something about the frames make it look less goofy and more...beautiful.

“You look…” Eddie runs through a million descriptors, all of them more embarrassing than the last. “Wow,” he finally settles on.

Richie, as usual, can tell what he really means, and looks pleased. “I even grew a couple of chest hairs, so I’m, like, manly now or whatever.” He pulls Eddie against his body, which is when Eddie notices another change.

“God, did you manage to get even more lanky than before? You’re boney as fuck.”

“Yeah I grew a few inches, pipsqueak.”

“And despite eating constantly, he hasn’t gained a pound,” Bill says, amused.

Eddie becomes very aware of the bit of weight he put on while he was in Poland.

“Speaking of, I’m hungry, and you know what I’m craving?” Richie says.

“Don’t say it.”

“Some spaghetti,” he finishes with a shit eating grin.

Eddie sighs

“Come on, Eddie, gimme some sugar.”

“I thought I was pasta, I don’t think sugar goes with that.”

“Actually there’s usually sugar in the sauce.”

“Oh what, you cook now? I’m gone eight weeks and you’re a chef?”

“Fuck yeah, just call me Chef Boyardee.”

“I forgot what they’re like. How did I forget what they’re like?” Mike says to no one in particular.

“What, sexy and charming? That’s us, right Eddie?” Richie says, moving his arm around Eddie’s waist. Eddie’s never minded any of Richie’s touches, but his hips are a little softer now, slightly rounded over the waistband of his shorts, and for the first time, Eddie feels self conscious under his hands. It doesn’t help that Richie now looks like he belongs on MTV. He tries to subtly shift out of Richie’s grasp, but after ten years together, he's an expert on Eddie’s body language.

“Hey, you okay, dude?” he asks, removing his hand.

For a brief second, he considers lying but Richie already looks concerned, and he doesn’t want him to think it’s anything he’s done.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just…you look all hot and stuff, and I kinda ate a lot in Poland, so I’m a little chubby,” he says, tugging his shirt down a bit.

“Eddie, come on, you know I would never care about something like that. I think you look perfect, always. And now there’s more of you to love! It’s like when they give you an extra chicken nugget at McDonalds, total win!” Richie says, softly rubbing Eddie’s side.

He wants to be irritated at that horrible metaphor, but it’s such a Richie way of comforting him that he can’t help but laugh.

“Besides, no one ever complained about a little more cushion for the pushin, amiright Ben?”

Ben opens his mouth to reply, but Bev beats him to it. “Richie, shut the fuck up. Eddie, you look wonderful,” she says, kissing his cheek.

Richie dips his head down and gently strokes Eddie’s cheek. “You really do look good, babe. You’re all soft,” he says quietly, “and you got a nice tan, got your freckles standing out. You know how much I love those.”

Eddie closes his eyes and tilts his head up for a kiss, which Richie happily gives him. Those extra inches in height make it a little harder, but Eddie stands on his tip toes and Richie wraps his arms around him, pulling him closer. He sighs into the kiss, moving his hand to cup Richie’s face.

He hisses against Eddie’s mouth. “Ouch, you gotta be careful, baby-- I got a healing wound on that ear.”

Eddie pulls back and jerks Richie’s head to the side, pushing back his long hair to find a little hoop going through his ear. A piercing. Richie got a piercing while Eddie was gone. He let someone stick a needle through his ear, and was just walking around with an open wound. While Eddie was in Poland.

Richie lets out a nervous laugh, his head still turned in Eddie’s hands. “You like it, pumpkin?”

Eddie jerks Richie’s head back and gives him the dirtiest look. “What the fuck did you do? I leave and suddenly you have no common sense? Those piercing guns are disgusting! So full of bacteria--”

“Well it’s a good thing I just did it with a sewing needle then,” Richie says with a smug look on his face.

“YOU DID WHAT?!” Eddie’s voice has reached a new decibel, which seems fair to him considering his husband is an idiot who wants to be killed by a piece of jewelry.

“Technically I didn’t do anything, it was all Bev. Her idea too!” he explains cheerfully.

“Hey!”

Eddie’s whips his head around to glare at Bev. “What the fuck, Beverly? I told you to watch out for him, not give him an infection!”

“I did watch out for him. In fact, I’d say I returned him in better condition than I got him in-- you’re welcome for that, by the way. You can relax, Eddie, I made sure it was all hygienic and I’ve been forcing him to clean it the right way. You have to admit, Richie really pulls it off-- he looks cool.”

He looks back at the piercing, trying to see past the open wound part of it. Combined with the rest of it, he supposes it’s not the worst. He does look cool, in an edgy kind of way. Eddie never thought ‘edgy’ when looking at Richie, but it works on him with his pale skin and wild hair made curlier with length.

“I guess I can maybe, probably, sort of get used to it,” he huffs.

“Wow, what a glowing endorsement, Eddie,” Mike jokes.

Eddie ignores him in favor of examining the piercing some more. “How bad did it hurt?”

“Not too bad, just stung a little.”

“That’s not what Bev said,” Ben throws out.

Stan looks delighted. “Yeah, she said you...oh what were her exact words?”

“Cried like a big baby,” Bill offers, smiling.

Eddie listens to them give Richie shit, and it’s like his soul is recharging. The time spent apart doesn’t matter when he’s reunited with all his favorite people, laughter floating around him like he never even left.

“So,” Eddie says to Richie, “Your right ear, huh? That’s pretty gay, dude.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty gay, dude. But don’t tell my husband, he doesn’t know.”

Eddie laughs and cuddles in closer to Richie, closing his eyes and letting the sounds of his friends’ happiness wash over him.

He’s not leaving Richie for that long ever again. They’re partners, the two of them, and if they have to face anything they’ll do it together, even if it means putting up a fight; he knows they’re worth it.