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Adult Friends

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“Well, if it isn’t my favourite student!”

Eddie laughs and removes his earphones as he enters the classroom. “Hey, Greta! Good to see you again.”

He walks over, hand outstretched, and she shakes it while smiling at him. “Has it been a year already? I’m going to start thinking you’re coming here just to see me.”

Laughing loudly, Eddie says, “Now, now, First Aid is my only love!” Oh, God, what’s happening. He laughs again, his face hurting, and uses his left hand rub his forehead. Yeah, take a good luck at that wedding ring, Greta, if that is your real name. He moves to the first desk in the rows set out in front of the instructor’s, mindlessly unzipping his backpack and unpacking his notebook, pens, KeepCup, plastic baggy of teabags, plastic baggy of gluten-free mini-muffins, and water bottle. “Any new material this year, huh?”

“Well, since you asked, the procedure for CPR has changed.”

That was last year, Greta, get it together. “Oh, really?” 

The conversation continues on amiably until Eddie finds an opportunity to 

(flee)

excuse himself. He should probably take a shit before class starts anyway, and he only has twenty minutes.

Out in the common area of the training centre there is a coffee station, with a few biscuits laid out on a plate. Eddie gives those a wide berth and instead fills his KeepCup with boiling water, adding his teabag afterwards to steep. He tests the two taps of the water cooler for temperature, then fills his bottle halfway from each. He straightens up, stretches his neck, then turns to face the room. He is pretty early. There is a kid — with, Jesus Christ, is that acne? — probably a graduate, sitting on the couch immersed in their phone. And a bored looking secretary at the desk to one side. On the wall, a TV screen displays the rooms and courses that are taking place in the training centre today. Room 1 — Presentation Skills. Room 2 — Advanced Excel. Room 3 — First Aid.

Eddie takes a sip of his water, then closes the lid again and shakes the bottle while thinking of his introduction. “Yeah, hi, my name’s Eddie Kaspbrak. I’m in Risk. It’s fitting, I guess. Haha. Ha.” 

Eddie hates himself.

“I’ve worked here for, uh, twelve years and I’ve been taking this course for, uh, also twelve years.

“And I guess I’m here because I would really like to know how not to die.”

Eddie chews his bottom lip, brow furrowing, and glances at his Fitbit. His heart rate is a little fast, but that’s just the nerves. What if he forgets everything he’s ever learned and makes an ass of himself? Like, he is here to learn — that is literally the reason he is here — but also, it is way easier to learn things you already know. Is it too early to go back to the room? What if Greta corners him again? What if his partner is super awkward? What if his partner is — worse — super friendly? Why isn’t anyone else arriving yet, Jesus! 

He considers taking some Loperamide, and pausing that thought, goes to take a shit. 

The bowel movement starts pretty OK, and Eddie considers just hiding there in the cubicle until closer to the start of class. But right at the end there is a sudden stoppage, the kind where you can pretty much feel whatever it is halfway in, halfway out, and after a teeth-grinding and vein-popping few moments of pushing and breathing and pushing some more, he gives up in dismay, and spends the next ten minutes dealing with the remnants. Rushing to grab his cup and his bottle, he storms back to the classroom in a sweat to find only about half the other chairs have been filled. He wipes his brow with a tissue from his pocket, pretends to be engrossed in his phone, and takes his seat at the front of the room. 

No one takes the seat beside him. 

(Because he still smells like shit, that’s why.)

The class starts and his introduction ends up more like, “And I’m here because it’s just the kind of skill everyone should have.” Eddie hates himself, and he hates the smart-alecky way it comes out, and he hates the fact that his blood pressure monitor goes nuts and his neck stays warm for ten minutes after he speaks to the room. But, thus is life. Eddie’s life, anyway.

Suddenly, the door slams open. “Oh, shit,” says the man behind it, jumping at the force of his own entrance. He leans into the room, looks around, raising his hands. “Sorry — sorry. First Aid training, right?” Shoulders hunched, he adjusts the strap of his satchel as he throws Greta an apologetic grimace, then skulks to the nearest available seat — which, of course, is right next to Eddie. 

Long legs bend like spider’s in faded black jeans as the man sits, knees almost knocking the underside of the desk. He crosses his arms, quickly glances around the room, then lays his attention on the instructor. Eddie can hear the man’s breathing, laboured, knows he is sweating — he probably rushed over here. Fucking noobs. The training centre is only ten minutes from the main office, but everyone always underestimates the extended commute. 

Eddie jumps as something taps his arm — the man’s hand. 

“Hey, man, I’m Richie,” the guy whispers, leaning towards him with his hand out to shake. He seems to change his mind then and waves slightly instead, an oddly 

(cute)

endearing gesture. He pushes thick glasses up his nose as he looks over Eddie, brown eyes wide.

Inexplicably mute, Eddie picks up the cardboard nameplate in front of him and shows it to the man — to Richie. Richie meets his eyes again and smiles vaguely, the corners of his lips quirking up. Eddie returns the simper. 

Business smile. Profesh, profesh.

“Well, we just finished introductions,” Greta is saying, “but if the latecomer wants to answer the questions on the screen…”

Richie lunges around, adjusting his glasses to read the slides. “Name, role… oh, sure thing, I got it.” He sits up straighter and turns around, waving at the room. “So, hi, I’m Richie. I’m in IT. Support — but, like, application support not hardware or anything like that. If you need an NT password reset, if you got blue screen of death, tossed your laptop out the window and broke the screen, please hesitate to call me, because I cannot help you with any of that shit. In fact, just hesitate to call me, period. I can and will hang up on you.”

Dead silence follows. Eddie’s eyes widen and a laugh threatens to burst out of his mouth. A moment later it does, a sputtering raspberry of a laugh, augmented by the silence of the room. Richie turns back to him. Their eyes meet briefly, and Richie’s, magnified by his glasses, twinkle as he slowly grins. 

He pauses a moment, then turns and peers at the screen again. “And I guess I’m here because… Well, to be perfectly honest, someone on our floor had to go and I drew the short straw.”

Greta’s eyes have glazed over. The grin sneaks back onto Richie’s face. Eddie can’t stop smiling, either, and has to turn his head away to hide it.

They spend the first hour or so going through slides, slides that haven’t changed much in the twelve years Eddie has been coming here. Greta must really think Eddie is into her: he doesn’t, like, technically need to do anything but a refresher class every two years, but he comes to the full-on three day course annually anyway. He takes notes, he pays rapt attention, and he prays he never has to use any of this shit in real life. Richie flicks a pen in his fingers, glances at Eddie sometimes, and doodles the rest. 

By the time Greta calls for morning break, Eddie has been mentally to-ing and fro-ing for the last half an hour over whether he can squeeze in another toilet break and a tea run in the fifteen minutes they’re given. He hasn’t decided yet, when Richie sighs loudly and turns to him, leaned way back in his chair. 

“Soooo, Eddie, you heard my spiel. What do you do?”

Panic. I do panic. “Me? Oh, I’m in Risk.”

“Oh, God,” cries Richie, making a face. He stops then and grins lopsidedly. “Oh man, I bet you get that reaction a lot, huh.”

“Actually, no. That’s just you, asshole.”

Richie practically explodes into spurts of laughter. Eddie glances at him, going for disapproving, but can’t seem to keep a straight face and ends up smiling himself. Richie leans over as if to grasp Eddies arm

(do not fucking touch me)

 — but doesn’t. 

“Shit, maybe it is just me,” continues Richie, pulling his hand back to run his fingers through his shaggy dark curls instead. “We got a bad rep in IT, no idea why.”

The hairs on the back of Eddie’s neck are still standing up, but he manages to retort, “That’s funny — it seems like you’re so interested in helping people.”

Richie cackles. He flourishes slightly, then puts on some kind of startlingly accurate Frasier Crane impression. “And why are you here, Edward?”

Eddie finds himself smiling too. Weirdly… comfortable. Weirdly… brave.

(Oh God. Oh God, he’s gonna say it.)

“Well, I, uh,” stumbles Eddie, laughing and rubbing his neck. “I’m, like — I’m basically just waiting for them to tell me how not to die.”

Richie pauses, then snorts. “What, you think if you keep showing up they’ll eventually give you a free pass on death?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’d be perfect, yeah,” says Eddie. 

“Like, oh, it’s Eddie’s time — but, wait, he has three hundred hours in First Aid! Someone give this man an exemption!”

Eddie is too invested to even laugh, just keeps nodding fervently. “Immunity, yeah. But, no, I’m serious, one of these tricks could save my life one day. I need that shit — I need to know.”

Richie rubs his mouth with three of his fingers, smiling mischievously. “Wait, so this isn’t about saving other people lives, it’s about saving your own life?”

“Yeah, no, fuck other people. I hate other people.”

Richie seems to find that deliciously funny, bent double and holding his stomach as he laughs for almost a whole minute. 

As he’s wiping his eyes, Eddie says, “I’m not fucking joking,” and that starts him off all over again.

“That’s fucking insane,” Richie cries. “You’re insane.”

He senses Richie’s eyes on him — curious, amused eyes — and Eddie again feels the horrid gooseflesh break out over his skin like static electricity. He turns his head, neck warming.

Richie glances around the empty room and back to Eddie with a weird awkwardness freezing his smile. “So, uh, you getting a coffee or what?”

Eddie stands up as Richie does, rummaging in his baggie. “No, but I’ll get a tea.”

Standing, Eddie raises his head to see Richie looking down on him, blinking, from his solid six foot whatever the fuck and Jesus Christ the man’s tall. Eddie straightens up quickly, and glares up at him from his perfectly average five nine. 

(Do not fucking say anything, I will fucking kill you if you fucking say anything—)

Smiling tentatively, Richie shoves his hands in his jacket pockets and heads for the door. 

Eddie’s face falls. 

Why the fuck didn’t he say anything?

Walking out to the coffee station, Eddie’s mind is an odd mix of oh God we can’t possibly keep this conversation going and oh God I kind of want to keep this conversation going. Which is kind of rare. Social situations are pretty much a necessary nightmare for Eddie, but he is also a forty year old man whose wife is his best friend (which probably wouldn’t be so bad if she weren’t also his only friend), so he sort of craves them too. And Richie seems, chill, he supposes. And funny. And they seem to have some sort of 

(chemistry)

connection. Just, a shared humour or something. That is kind of rare too.

“So my boss told me I need to start ‘taking initiative,’” drawls Richie, doing the air quotes with his fingers as he picks out a sachet of coffee and empties it into a paper cup.

“Oh, yeah?” replies Eddie, glancing at him. He can sense a punchline far off in the distance.

“He’s been looking pretty peaky these days.” Richie gestures with his arms wide around his middle, and Eddie concludes that Richie’s boss may be overweight. Richie grins, and leans in, and Eddie feels a shiver run over his skin at the proximity. “So I’m, like, I’m thinking, one of these days this dude’s gonna kick the bucket. He could have a fucking heart attack, man. So I tell him, I say, look, bro, are you sure you want me to go on this First Aid training?” He starts giggling, holding his hand up to his face. “Me? Are you sure?

“How’s that for initiative!” finishes Eddie.

Richie blinks. “Oh, shit. I was just going for straight up blackmail. But that’s good too, I like that.”

Eddie shakes his head and looks away, pretending to disapprove. After a moment, Richie frowns and turns around to face the room. “So, uh, you’ve been here before, right? Have you ever actually had to use any of this stuff?”

“No, fuck me, could you imagine? If I ever saw someone having a heart attack, I think I would literally start having one myself.”

Richie covers his face and laughs. “Then there’d be two— They’d need two—” He can’t finish, scrunching his eyes up and bending over to slap his knee. Picturing it, Eddie grins, too.

The two end up joining an awkward circle with the rest of the class, discussing the commute and the course and the prospects for lunch. Eddie is only really aware of Richie beside him, the tense energy, the couple of loud laughs he gives and jokes he makes. Feeling tired suddenly, Eddie laments missing his chance to use the toilet.

After the break they start into the Heimlich manoeuvre — or abdominal thrusts, as they’re now called. Richie glances at him at that point, peeling his top lip over his teeth in an obvious attempt to hold back a laugh. Eddie shakes his head, clears his throat, and has to press his fist to his mouth to hide his smile. 

Richie throws him a slightly wide-eyed look as they stand up to start the partnered demonstrations. Eddie is too busy dealing with his own stress to really unpack it.

“I’ll go first,” Eddie says,

(just get this over with)

and moves behind Richie. 

“Uh, OK, you’re eager. I’m into it.”

Taking a deep breath, Eddie stares at Richie’s broad back, his eyes coming just above his shoulder. He steps closer, enough to put his arms around the man’s middle, but not too close

(too fucking close)

to be uncomfortable. 

It’s uncomfortable anyway. 

“Oh ho, careful there, I’m ticklish.” 

“Shut the fuck up, man.”

Richie squirms a bit and says, “If I were really choking, wouldn’t I be like writhing around—” He starts wiggling even more.

“Stop it, stop—!”

Eddie laughs, briefly dropping his head, and it knocks against Richie’s back. Within the awkward hovering circle of his arms he can feel the larger man, feel him whole and warm and alive, feel his slightly doughy stomach buckling as he laughs, and Eddie can smell him too. Bowels stirring, Eddie quickly makes the fist above his naval, places his other hand on top, and squeezes a couple of times — in and up, in and up. Eddie lets go.

“Wow, uh, are you always that quick?” asks Richie, turning around and grinning. Eddie glares at him.

“Your turn, fucknuts.”

“Fucknuts? Nobody’s called me fucknuts since my ex-girlfriend, and she— well let’s not get into that.” He laughs a little unhingedly as he moves behind Eddie, talking to himself. “OK, OK, here we go. Don’t mind if I—”

Eddie tries not to flinch as the arms slip around his middle, the shadow and warmth looming over his back. His stomach feels awful, creeping and quivering, and his heart is racing too. But Richie keeps his arms aloft, not really touching him, as Eddie had done. 

As he finds his belly button, Richie pokes him. “Boop.”

Eddie jumps. He actually is ticklish. “What the fuck— stop fucking around!”

“I’m just doing what the instructions say, man!” 

“There’s no fucking booping involved, do you see any fucking booping written up there?”

“Really? You didn’t hear? You gotta boop so you don’t— shit your pants.”

Richie bursts out laughing at his own crappy joke, the moron. Annoyed, Eddie wrestles himself out of the man’s hold and backs a few steps away, crossing his arms. Richie tries to suppress his grin, but just ends up leering at him as Eddie shakes his head.

Eddie glances around the room, sees Greta sufficiently distracted, and raises a finger at Richie. “This is fucking — you gotta take this seriously, man. What if someone on your floor actually starts choking, and you’re the only one—”

“OK, OK, I’m sorry,” says Richie, laughing nervously and rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s just fucking awkward, OK? Just let me try again.”

He takes a step and Eddie slashes his hands in the air. “No. Fuck off. Fuck you.”

“Dude, come on! Like you said — what if I actually need to use this someday?”

Eddie fumes, then takes a deep breath and turns around, raising his arms slightly. He’s pretty sure he hears Richie snort. Richie puts his arms around him again, finds his naval (with Eddie’s help) and does the motion. They separate, and stand awkwardly a few feet apart, arms crossed. 

Pouting, Eddie glances at the other man. “That’s the worst part of the three days, just so you know. We do most of the rest on the mannequin.”

Richie smiles vaguely. “Wow, just like my sex life.”

Eddie cracks up — and can’t stop laughing for ten minutes, clutching the back of his chair. Richie is in a similar state, and at one point grabs Eddie’s arm for balance.

(Eddie doesn’t mind.)

When they sit down and go back to the slides, he can’t even look at Richie anymore. Richie has his hand pressed over his mouth, and his shoulders shake every once in a while. Just when Eddie thinks he’s calmed down again, the laughter boils up from his belly and he has to turn his head away, hide his face. They’re like school kids. They’re like fucking twelve year olds. It’s fucking ridiculous, but it’s fun, and when it gets to lunchtime the two of them sit at a table to themselves, unaware of everyone else. They talk about work a bit, about various projects they’re on, movies and TV shows and whatever else people talk about. Only Eddie usually finds that sort of chat unbearable, bullshit small talk, just-keep-talking-until-you-can-finally-flee kind of deal, but with Richie it’s on another level. They even end up returning late to the classroom.

The CPR mannequins have arrived. 

“Whoa, what happened to this guy?” asks Richie. 

“Amputated waist,” replies Eddie. Richie snorts.

There’s a hole in the bottom of the doll, where the air gets pushed out. While Greta is talking, Richie reaches out and starts fiddling with the hole. Eddie can’t — he can’t. He kicks Richie, who turns to him and starts making faces — sensual faces — and then they’re both pressing their hands over their mouths and ducking their heads again to stifle the giggles. 

Richie’s attempts at chest compressions go like this:

“Harder,” Eddie tells him.

“Harder?”

“Yeah, you need to press harder.”

“Harder? You want me to go harder?”

Eddie opens his mouth, and then he’s bent double. 

Collapsing into laughter himself, Richie manages to say, “Harder, yeah? Like this? This hard enough for ya?” then splutters some more. Eddie can’t breathe, and swats the air near Richie’s arm a couple of times. Richie continues pumping on the doll, making faces and noises and thrusting motions, until Greta comes over and then they really can’t hold it in. Their shrieks of laughter fill the room, and Greta scowls at Eddie like she’s very disappointed, and Eddie finds he cannot give one single fuck. He hasn’t laughed so hard in years.

He never wanted to be the favourite anyway.

That’s just the first day. The second is worse. The third, they’re a bit tired, so things reach new levels of absurdity. At four o’clock, when the classroom is emptying and they’re thanking Greta for her time, Richie turns to him with the same the same weird frozen smile as the first day when he asked if Eddie was going for coffee. “Hey, uh, look, man. I dunno, do you want to go grab a drink or something?”

Eddie blinks. “Yeah, I do,” he says immediately. Then he actually thinks about it. Well, he doesn’t need to think — he already knows he wants to. Hell, he really wants to. But can he? Can he? Is he even allowed? “Yeah, uh, sure, man. I’ll just text my wife and let her know.”

“Cool,” says Richie. “Cool cool cool.”

Eleven G and Ts, two pints of water, and three calls from Myra later (two of those go unanswered — he is so fucked when he gets home), Eddie is just on time for the last train. Richie is still there, because he lives right around the corner apparently. (“I mean you can always stay over if you miss it, man,” he rambles on, to which Eddie scoffs, “No fucking way, dude, my wife would literally kill me.”)

Is that why, or is it because they’re still not done talking somehow, still entertained and tickled and enchanted by each other, and it occurs to Eddie that if he had any choice in the matter he might’ve stayed out all night with this guy, talking and laughing and fucking about all the way until dawn?

So they stand on the platform, stumbling slightly and using each other for balance, laughing and talking in low voices and realising for the first time how truly drunk they are and how late it got, and as the train pulls up Eddie sighs and pats Richie’s arm. 

“A’ight, man, it was a good fucking — fucking good time, man. See you Monday, yeah?”

“Wha’s Monday?” asks Richie, and hiccoughs.

“Well, work. That thing that you ‘pparently don’t even fucking do, asshole.”

“Dude.” Richie wipes a hand across his face, suddenly giggling. “Dude, we don’t even—” He starts counting on his fingers. “We don’t work in the same department. We don’t cross over. We never even saw each other before this — fuckin’ — whatever the fuck this was.”

Eddie blinks, and grabs his arm again. “Holy shit, this company’s siloed as fuck!”

Richie laughs hysterically, clutching his stomach. “We don’t have each other’s fucking phone numbers. Don’t got no fucking Facebook, man!” 

Eddie backs up onto the train, and Richie steps into the doorway. “What about the — the fucking Skype thing, dude, and email, we can find each other easy—”

“How many Richie’s you think work at Green Turtle? How many Eddie’s?” Richie laughs again, wiping a tear away. “I’m tellin’ ya, man, we are literally never going to see each other again.”

Eddie makes a face as this reality hits him. “But I want to see you again.”

Richie smiles at him, eyes half closed, scanning Eddie’s face for a moment. His glasses have slipped down his nose and he pushes them up, brushing Eddie’s arm lightly as he drops his hand. “Y’don’t even know my surname.”

The door alarms chime and Eddie says, “What’s your—?” before Richie steps back and the doors close between them. Richie looks at him, a look of amazed amusement on his face, and then a sudden dazed dismay. Eddie raises his hands up and shouts, “Are you fucking serious?”

Richie laughs a little, bracing his mouth against it, and shrugs. As the train starts to move he walks along with it, and when it picks up Eddie walks down the carriage too, until eventually they lose sight of each other, and Eddie is left standing watching the platform disappear and graffitied grey walls replace it.

He catches his reflection briefly as the windows darken, eyes sunken and red, greasy skin, and mussed up hair. He looks

(heartbroken)

fucking terrible. He feels even worse.

If we never see each other again, he thinks, sinking down into a seat, it’s because Myra really has murdered me.

Chapter Text

Seeing yet another email pop up in the corner of his screen from the same especially moronic end user who’s been harassing him all morning, Richie hits Windows-L and stretches his arms above his head. “Lunch anyone? I’m feeling lunch.”

No response, so he glances at Bev, tapping frantically on the keyboard with her headset lopsided. She presses mute on the phone, and doesn’t even glance at him as she responds. “This incident is fucking me for the foreseeable future, honey, I’m sorry.”

“Shit. You want me to grab you something?” She waves him off, unmuting the phone, so he rises slightly from his chair to look over the partition. “What about you, Haystack? Wanna go to the market?”

Ben raises his head, a spoon halfway to his mouth. “That’s today? Man, I already got soup.”

“Soup, soup, a-tasty soup. Any new flavours today, hey? Anything interesting?”

“Vegetable.”

“Wow. Canteen’s gone all out. What’s that, three days in a row? Any new veggies, at least?”

“Lotta peas,” replies Ben, plucking the shell of one off his tongue.

“Don’t choke. Or maybe do, I know the Heimlich.”

“Is that a threat, Rich?” asks Bev, smiling, her hand hovering over the handset. 

“It is if you want it to be. You guys know I’m always down for a threesome—”

“Beep beep, Richie,” they say simultaneously.

“You know how they say dogs start looking like their owners—?” he starts loudly, when Bev throws a notebook at him.

“Actually, Richie—” she starts again, and at the same time Richie’s phone starts ringing. He glances at it, prepared to straight up ignore whoever’s on the other end, when he catches the name on the LCD display:

Edward Kaspbrak.

Richie whizzes over, almost toppling his chair, and lunges for the receiver, before realising his headset’s still on. One ring — two rings — he fumbles for the button and hears the buzzing of office background in his ear.

Good afternoon, Green Turtle IT department, Richie speaking — is what he’s supposed to say.

“Richie!” is what he says. “Uh, IT. Speaking. Hi!”

(Fucking smooth, Trashmouth)

“H-hey, Richie, it’s Eddie!” says the caller, his voice friendly but somewhat nervous. He sounds like he’s smiling, though. “From the, uh, from the First Aid course.”

“Yeah, no, I remember!” replies Richie, grinning to himself. His eyes are wide. Holy shit, his stomach’s doing somersaults. His heart’s going ninety. He doesn’t remember if he learned anything about how to treat this kind of shit in First Aid — he was too busy bending over backwards trying to make this random man piss his pants.

Richie really hadn’t expected to hear from Eddie again. Really. It was one thing, being confined in a classroom for three days and regressing to middle school together. It was one thing going out drinking and having more fun and laughing harder than Richie’s laughed in years together. It was one thing saying their farewells at the train station and doing his best not to coerce Eddie up to his apartment for

(Netflix and chill)

a night cap and not make it weird. Catch and release. It was just a one 

(night stand) 

time thing. 

But it was another thing entirely to say, hey, we two adult men are now friends, we are going to actively pursue this friendship, and in the process we must unabashedly agree that we two adult men are actually… what? 

Into each other?

That’s fucking disgusting, man. Even in a platonic way. No, especially in a platonic way. 

Richie’s

(mostly) 

straight. He swears.

It’s just that adults don’t do that. Adults have work friends, the best assholes in the world who are dead to you post six o’clock on weekdays, weekends and Bank Holiday Mondays. And college friends, who only talk about how old they’re getting and what their pension schemes look like. And high school friends, if you’re really clinging on, who post racist memes on Facebook and scream at twelve year olds in online shooters. It’s a bad time.

So Richie spends the weekend pretending he isn’t still thinking about this guy — despite still giggling at some of the bullshit they talked about, and cringing at some of the more awkward drunken shit he said — and on Monday morning after clocking in he immediately goes into Active Directory and searches for all the Ed’s, Eddie’s and Edward’s who work or have ever worked at Green Turtle, pulling back a solid seventy-eight candidates. He removes duplicates on that, and gets it down to sixty. Filters role and department like ‘Risk%’, then hightails over to LinkedIn with three final contestants. His Eddie, the one and only Eddie that matters, is the third one he tries, Edward Kaspbrak — what is that, Polish? — and a brown-haired, brown-eyed man smiles dorkily at him from the cropped photo on the screen. After staring at that for a while, feeling oddly lightheaded, he goes back to Active Directory, and thus has the man’s internal phone number, on-call cell phone, and email address all at his fingertips by ten twenty-five, plus a couple of email trails they are both CC’d on, and one greener-pastures email from one of the guy’s ex-subordinates. With photos.

We’re talking fun runs and bake sales and Christmas parties, man.

And then he does… nothing.

That was three days ago.

Richie jumps as a scrunched up paper ball hits him in the head and looks up to see Bev giving him the weirdest look. 

Who is that? she mouths, pointing at the phone. Richie wheels his chair further into the corner of his desk and turns his back to her. 

“Well, well, well, to what do I owe this pleasure, Eds?”

Eddie laughs, slightly awkward. “So, yeah, uh, sorry to bother you but, um, I’m locked out of my laptop here…”

Richie’s head drops to his chest. He pinches the bridge of his nose, his glasses lifting, and closes his eyes. Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep fucking disappointment, but that’s OK. What’s fucking new? Only, he’d sort of thought Eddie was… different. He’d hoped he was, anyway. “Yeah… yeah, sorry, I’m just measly old app support, man. I can’t — you gotta raise a ticket with IBM for that shit. It’s a pain in the ass, I know, but—”

“Oh, noooo, I thought you could—”

“Yeah, sorry, I mean—” He’s still talking, why the hell is he still talking, what the fuck’s he gonna say? “—I mean, I guess I could raise the ticket for you, if you—”

Eddie laughs suddenly, interrupting him. “Dude, dude, stop, I’m just fucking with you.”

Richie blinks. “Wait, what?”

“What, you told me you’d hang up the fucking phone if I asked you that, man. You’re such a pussy!”

Smacking a hand to his head, Richie lets out an indignant cry. 

“I can’t believe you fell for it,” Eddie went on. “What the fuck? You were being so nice.”

“I was not!” Richie shouts, suddenly panic-laughing. “No, I wasn’t!”

“You so were! Are you secretly, like, good at your job, dude?”

“No, no, I don’t usually— I don’t usually do that!” 

(Just for the cute ones)

The man giggles a little, and Richie laughs too, trying not to slam his face against the desk.

“So, uh, that never happened,” Richie continues in a drawl. “If anyone asks I told you to fuck off and never speak to me again.”

Eddie makes an awh sound, somewhat genuine.  Richie’s heart is still hammering. He glances up and Bev catches his eye again, giving him a concerned look. He quickly becomes engrossed in his screensaver.

“So, was there an actual reason you called me, or was the plan to just phone up and single-handedly destroy my reputation?”

“Oh, no, I actually—” Eddie laughs a little. “I saw a Richie on that email trail — you know, the IFRS-17 one—”

“Eye-eff-fuh-huh — oh, sorry, I don’t fuck with four-letter acronyms. It’s in my contract.”

Laughing — almost fondly, Richie 

(hopes) 

thinks — Eddie says, “Well, I saw that fucking response, man, and thought, well, that’s him. That’s the guy.”

Richie says nothing for a moment. “Why… uh, what the fuck did I say?”

Eddie snorts slightly. “Everyone here’s convinced you hit ‘Reply All’ by accident.”

“No way, I’m no fucking coward.” By now Richie has logged back in, checked his Sent items, and found the joke Eddie was referring to. He laughs aloud. “Nah, that was totally on purpose. I was really proud of that one!”

“That’s what I said! Well, it got a good laugh around here, I’ll tell ya.”

“That’s good. Great. I’m glad.”

They are both silent a moment, and Richie can hear the remnants of the other man’s laugh in his ear. It’s nice. It’s a fun laugh, sort of unbridled like he could crack at any moment, but somehow sort of bridled as well. He laughs like he’s scared of laughing, but like he loves it too. The guy’s got a lot of tension, maybe that’s why. 

It’s low key fucking adorable.

“So, how’s your day going?” asks Richie, compulsively filling the silence, somehow unwilling to end the call so early. “How’s work?”

“Oh, it’s OK,” says Eddie, his pitch shooting up. “I was in and out of meetings all morning so now I’m pretty pooped.”

“Like, literally, or—?” Richie already heard way too much about this man’s bowel movements at the bar last week, yet somehow he still 

(likes him)

doesn’t seem to mind. 

“I’m good today, actually. Thanks for asking, asshole.”

Richie splutters in laughter. “Oh, right, it’s Thursday! You had lunch yet? You going to the market?”

“Oh, man, I was just gonna eat some fucking sandwiches—”

“So lame. Fuck me, I cannot get a single person to come with me to this market today!”

Richie is laughing, and there’s a laugh on the other end that stops abruptly. Eddie says, “Wait, I’m so sorry, were you inviting me to go, or…?”

Richie blinks, pauses, flaps his mouth. He has forgotten how to speak. Or breathe. 

(Dude, why’re you being weird?)

“Cuz, I mean, yeah. Sure. Why not? I can just eat my sandwiches there, right?”

Air seems to return to Richie’s lungs from the inside, and he chokes. “Yeah! Yeah, I mean, sure. If you want to.”

“You ready now? Meet you in the lobby?”

Richie nods a couple times, then realises he’s on the phone and says, “Yah, sure thing.”

“OK, see you in a sec. Bye bye bye b—”

There’s a shuffle, and the phone hangs up. Richie blinks, and yanks his headset off. He glances around to see Bev beside him, and Ben half-standing across the partition, gaping at him.

What?” he asks, snatching up his satchel.


He runs into Eddie as he’s coming out of the door into the stairwell. Eddie yelps slightly, then wipes his brow and mimes punching Richie’s arm. He’s not great at physical affection, but fuck — neither is Richie. 

Affection? Is that the right term? Are they affectionate already? Are they allowed?

What the fuck is happening?

“Oooh, second floor,” says Eddie, beginning down the steps again. “Jealous.”

Richie is grinning, possibly manically. “Yeah, good ol’… second floor. You?”

“Fifth.”

“Oof. Stairs?”

“Uh, on the way down, yeah. I do not need to know how unfit I am, thank you very much. I am highly aware, I mean, my heart rate monitor goes nuts when I do the little fast walk thingy when someone’s holding a door open for me…”

Despite that, Eddie takes the stairs at a cute little jog, spritely hopping, and Richie is uncharacteristically quiet as he listens to the other man go off on this tangent. He just laughs, and steals a few glances at the smiling brown eyes that are thrown back his way, and when Eddie’s turned away, steals some more at the man’s shoulders in his crisp white shirt, the back of his neck, his ass in fitted grey slacks.

(Like, dayum)

When Richie first sat down beside Eddie at the course a week ago, he thought, oh, he’s a little cute. Cute in the way a forty year old man can be, which turns out to be a lot. Baby blue polo shirt and jeans, a jacket that clashes a little. Literally no lips, but dimples. Fucking dimples, man. Probably not that hot, but hot in the kind of way someone is when you’ve known them for years and years, when you’ve kind of forgotten what they look like because they’re just them, you know? 

Familiar. 

Except, Richie hadn’t known Eddie for years and years. They’d only just met.

The first time Richie made Eddie smile, he thought, oh. That’s something.

And that night, when they were clutching their stomachs and Eddie was grinning at him, red-faced and whimpering and wiping tears from his eyes, Richie thought, oh. Oh, this man is beautiful

But that was just the beer goggles, right? Richie looks at him now, in his suit, his lined face, his warm brown eyes flashing in the white fluorescent office light and he— 

He’s high key hot as fuck.

Oh. Oh. Richie is fucked

They head out the swivel door, do the awkward dance of fitting two people in the one rotation, and the door hits Richie’s heels on the way out. It’s sunny out, and Richie feels strangely energetic, strangely alive as they head to the park a few blocks over. Eddie walks fast — marches almost — despite his teeny tiny legs. He even turns at one point, gesturing frantically and complaining about Richie’s slow, loping stride. 

Richie enjoys every second of this mindless bickering. 

The smell of stolen cultures — grease and spice and barbecues burning — fills the air as they come up to the food stalls lining the avenue. Eddie’s face does this thing when he sees it, lips pursed and brow lowered, suspicious-like. Disapproving.

“What, you’re not tempted?” teases Richie, elbowing him.

“Dude, that shit’s disgusting. You just know they don’t clean the equipment. So unsanitary.”

He offers to go find a bench while Richie queues for his food. Richie gathers himself for a moment, reminding himself that this is absolutely not

(a date)

anything to be weird about, but just the thought itself and the knowledge that he does feel weird, regardless, is deeply unsettling. And yet, he’s fucking happy. Delighted in fact. He pushes it to the back of his mind.

He finds Eddie a good way down the avenue, guarding a bench with his backpack and probably his life. His sleeves are rolled up his forearms and his tie is tucked into his breast pocket. He has a water bottle balanced beside him and a lunchbox on his lap.

“Fucking—”

(cute)

“—nerd,” says Richie, snorting slightly as he throws himself down beside him.

“Excuse me, at least I don’t dress like a fucking college student,” snaps Eddie.

“You caught me on a… day,” replies Richie, and they both burst out laughing. 

Eddie is eyeing Richie’s paella, shaking his head.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Richie mock-politely, “did you wanna try some?” 

“No, I—”

Richie heaps a spoonful and scoots closer to shove it close to Eddie’s face, who backs away in genuine horror and swats at the air. 

“Fuck off! Fuck — I could literally die, OK? You have no idea what’s in that.”

“It’s OK, Eds, I know First Aid!”

Eddie raises a hand to berate him further, but starts laughing before he can muster it. Richie is — elated. Eddie looks down at his sandwich again, and back at the stalls. “Fuck. That smells fucking good, though.”

“Go get some, man. You’ve worked hard.”

Eddie presses his lips together and looks at Richie for a moment, genuinely conflicted. His eyes flick around. He puts down his lunchbox. “I’m just — I’m just gonna ask if it’s gluten-free.”

He gets up, and Richie watches him stomp off again. The guy’s too thin, Richie thinks, so maybe it’ll do him good. Eddie comes back with a falafel salad, and almost sobs when he takes the first bite. Richie’s basically finished eating already.

“You sure that’s gluten-free, man?” asks Richie, pretending to look concerned. 

Eddie’s face breaks in panic. “They told me they use chickpea flour—”

Richie can’t hold it, and breaks down laughing. Eddie shakes his head and frowns like he’s pissed as hell, throwing angry glances at Richie every once in a while. But Richie’s got him sussed already. He fucking

(loves)

likes it.

“So, how’s your work, man?” asks Eddie after awhile. “Busy?”

“Not really,” sighs Richie. “I been dealing with the same fucking issue all morning and it’s one hundred per cent dumbass user syndrome.”

“Do you like your job?” 

Richie blinks, then laughs. “I mean, do any of us really like our jobs?”

Eddie looks at him, shrugging slightly. “I do.”

Richie licks his lips. “I mean, yeah. I suppose. I don’t hate it, and it pays the bills, you know?” Noticing he’s been ripping up a napkin for fuck knows how long, Richie scrunches it up and shoves it inside his empty paella container. Eddie isn’t saying anything, and Richie suddenly finds himself sweating. “But I’m not, like, one of those super sad, pathetic people who hate their jobs and are totally miserable all the time, you know? I get fulfilment from other shit. Outside of work.”

“What shit?”

Richie’s mind has gone blank. His mouth has too.

“Relationships? Hobbies?” Eddie offers, glancing up with a little smile. 

Richie nods. “Yeah. Hobbies, yeah.”

Eddie picks at his salad, his face pretty neutral, the wrinkles in his forehead easing off and the lines in his cheeks fading. “What hobbies?”

Jesus fuck, why is this so hard? What’s with the fucking third degree? Richie starts laughing, just to make it better. “Jesus. Why’re we only talking about me—?”

“Because I’m eating, and I’m asking.” Eddie glances up at him, laughing. “C’mon, I’m interested. I wanna know.”

“It’s fucking embarrassing, man—”

“Well, now I gotta know.”

Richie groans, scrubbing his hands over his face. He drops them, sighing, and glances away. “So, I do this little, like… comedy club thing, with a couple people. Like, standup comedy.”

“What, seriously?” asks Eddie, dropping his fork. 

Richie grits his teeth against his smile. “Yeah, go on. Tell me I’m not fucking funny.”

“You are funny,” says Eddie, grinning at him. Richie blinks a couple times, and Eddie shoves him. “Dude, you had me almost pissing my pants the last time we met. The first time, I mean. So quit it with the self-deprecation, alright?”

Eddie picks up his fork again and takes another mouthful of salad, as Richie tries very hard not to break down. 

“Oh man,” continues Eddie, looking up again and gesturing. “That’s so fucking cool. I can totally see that. Is that the dream, then? Standup comedian?”

“I mean,” Richie laughs, throwing his hands up, “big, unattainable dream of dreams, yeah.”

“That’s literally what dreams are, dude.”

Eddie smiles at him, gentle and warm, and Richie stares back, his mouth hanging open in a lopsided grin. 

“How does one, like, become a comedian, though?”

“Oh, you fucking tell me.”

A buzzing interrupts their moment, and Eddie reaches into his pocket. “My wife,” he says, holding up the phone and smiling sheepishly. He answers it, loudly. “Hey, honey!”

Richie watches Eddie’s face as he talks to his wife, carefully maintaining a casual expression. He’d had a notion the last time — it was a bit weird, that she’d called, but also maybe it wasn’t. What the fuck did he know? It was probably normal enough if Eddie really hadn’t explained properly that he was staying out late and she just naturally wondered where he was. Except that he definitely had. Richie watched him type out the text. 

“I’m good, yeah, I’m—” Eddie pauses, mouth open slightly. “The salad I made last night, hon, plus that delish bread you made.”

Eddie meets Richie’s eyes then, his face stilling, and Richie wishes he’d put on a smile, roll his eyes as if to say, women, huh? Just lying to my wife, you know, no big deal, ha ha ha. But the look on Eddie’s face is the look of a man who will probably feel guilty about this lie for a few days, at least. And if his wife finds out about it, he’ll be in some deep fucking shit.

Yeah. No. This isn’t weird at all.

“I mean, it’s a little dry…” Eddie inhales sharply, shaking his head, as if regretting his words immediately. Then he brightens, and says, “No, no, I’m just at the park, I’m here with Richie!”

“Hey Eddie’s wife!” Richie shouts. Also a deeply regrettable move.

“Remember I told you—” Eddie laughs slightly, and then he looks down, frowning. He flattens the palm of his free hand against the back of his neck. After a moment, he stands up and strolls to the other side of the path as the conversation goes on. Richie watches him until it feels wrong, then he squints back along the avenue, pretending to people watch.

Eddie returns a few minutes later, looks at his salad, looks at his sandwiches, and reaches for his water bottle instead. He glances at Richie, and Richie is waiting for it.

“Man, you told your wife about me?” laughs Richie. “That’s embarrassing.”

Eddie snorts slightly, then grins. “I mean. I had to. My stomach was fucking killing me from laughing — she was worried I’d broken a rib practicing CPR.”

Richie smiles, and covers it with his hand. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Eddie seems to think for a moment, looking at Richie, and Richie cannot look back. He just watches the people walking by.

“I had a great time,” says Eddie, still staring at him. When he’s not laughing, Eddie’s face is so fucking serious all the time, and his brow is either limbo low or high as a kite and creasing up his forehead. Richie has never seen this man relaxed and isn’t entirely convinced he ever has been. 

Richie says, “Ye-yeah, man.”

“It’s like—” Eddie raises a hand and makes a face, and Richie is overwhelmed by a sudden horrendous dread. “It’s, I dunno, it’s like it’s been awhile since I met someone where I was like, oh, man, I wanna be friends with that guy. Like, really friends. I dunno about you.”

Richie sucks in a long inhale. He should say something about his emotions now. He should meet Eddie in the middle. He should be serious, for once in his life, about something he actually feels pretty strongly about. He should— “Yeah, no, I never feel like that. I have never felt like that. Ever.”

Eddie shakes his head. “Fuck you, bro. Fuck you.”

Richie wets his lips and puts on a straight face, which isn’t easy.

(Pun intended?)

And then he… says nothing.

“Well, whatever,” sighs Eddie. “I’m still glad I found you. Fucking told you it’d be easy.” 

Flashing back to his Active Directory escapades earlier in the week, Richie drops his head and laughs weakly. Eddie leans over, waving his hand in front of Richie’s face and trying to meet his eyes. 

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I embarrassing you? Is this embarrassing you, dude?”

Richie scrunches his face up and then covers it with his hands, trying not to let himself smile despite the sheer mortification that is this conversation. He ends up knocking his glasses off into his lap. “Just — just shut the fuck up, man.”

Eddie chuckles, shoving him again. “Oh my God, you’re so shy. That’s so cute.”

Richie sighs and wipes his hands down his face and says,

(“Look man, you can’t say shit like that, you can’t look at me like that, because I’m a little obsessed with you right now and I should never have asked you to go drinking with me the other night because it sort of ended up being the best night of my life and I’ve never enjoyed one person’s company so much and now I feel like I’ve set some sort of precedent and I don’t know if I can watch you get all loose and loud like that again without doing something fucking illegal like touching your knee or kissing you on the mouth and man I haven’t kissed a guy since college and I really never thought I’d be opening that door again you know what I mean?”)

“Oh, your wife told me the same thing last night.”

He puts his glasses back on to see Eddie shaking his head again, his mouth a hard line. He stands up, picks up Richie’s trash and both his own unfinished lunches, and heads to the nearest trashcan to empty them out.

“You’re heading back?” asks Richie, suddenly tentative that he has finally pushed the guy too far. It’s only a matter of time, right?

Eddie glances at his watch. “I gotta get a bit of a walk in, if I don’t walk for twenty minutes three times a day I’ll get arthritis.”

“Well, that sounds made up.”

“No, it’s true, and if you don’t stand up from your desk for five minutes every hour you’re in high risk of getting — are you coming?” asks Eddie, marching on the spot a little. He glances at his watch again. “Shit, what time did we leave at? Do you have to get back?”

“Not really,” says Richie, instantly deciding he can work the late shift tonight. “I can come with — uh, if you want.”

“Yeah,” says Eddie, smiling as he sets off. Richie hobbles off after him, trying not to acknowledge the height difference. But—

The fucking height difference, man.

He continues trying not to acknowledge it as they walk once around the park, Eddie taking breaks in his rant about bone marrow and rheumatoids and whatever the fuck he’s ranting about to scold Richie for walking too slow, and Richie trips over his feet multiple times because he keeps getting distracted by the guy’s shiny hair, and the guy’s tiny hands waving about and almost hitting him in the gut, and the guy’s gorgeous brown eyes when they look directly at him — directly through him, almost — and…

And he’s fucked.

But — so what if he’s attracted to him — he’s been attracted to men before — that’s not a new fucking phenomenon. It’s just that he’s never actually had any sort of relationship — friendship or otherwise — with a dude he’s been attracted to. 

But Eddie wants to be his friend, and this makes Richie almost unbearably

(terrified)

happy, so how bad can it be? He wants to be Eddie’s friend too. He kind of wants that more than anything.

Chapter Text

The car leans heavily to the right as Myra climbs into the passenger seat. It’s a wonderful feeling, like the weight of the world’s work-related stress lifting from Eddie, see-sawing him to a new lightness. Unfortunately it’s also the feeling of all home-related stress unseating him, projecting him into orbit in the earth’s atmosphere where he can only spin untethered and slowly suffocate — or freeze to death — or get the bends — or whatever it is they say kills you first in space. Eddie thinks it’s the oxygen thing, most likely.

So much for asthma, man.

Eddie leans over and kisses her cheek.

“Hey, honey, how was your day?”

Myra’s hand touches his shoulder and she holds him close for a moment, and Eddie thinks, well, this day is full of surprises.

“Baby, you stink!” 

(Alright OK he’ll just go fuck himself then)

“What is that? It’s, like, smokey.” 

She sniffs his shirt, and his hair, and Eddie moves back in front of the wheel. “Oh — I guess it’s from the market. There was this barbecue place — it was pretty bad, actually, smoke everywhere—”

“That’s terrible. Are you OK? Are your lungs OK?”

Eddie laughs as he turns on the engine and starts backing out of his space in the office parking lot. “I’m fine.”

Myra waves to someone as they’re leaving. “You sure it wasn’t that man again?”

Eddie glances briefly at Myra. “Richie? No, no, he wasn’t smoking.”

“He smoked the last time, though, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. Maybe he just smokes when he drinks, I dunno.”

They’re silent for a moment as they veer into the street and come to an immediate standstill in city traffic. 

“It’s just that you know my daddy died of lung cancer, Eddie.”

Eddie rests his elbow on the windowpane and rubs his brow. “Myra, I have no more love for second hand smoke than you do. He wasn’t smoking today. He smoked one cigarette the other night and he went outside to do it — also I’m pretty sure he only did it because I had already been talking to you on the phone for five fucking minutes.”

The lights switch to green and Eddie hits the gas, veering into lanes and weaving in and out of traffic. Myra shuffles in her seat to face him. “What, so you spend ALL night with this man, but I can’t speak to you for five minutes?”

“That’s not what I — And I didn’t spend all night with him, I got last train home!”

“Your course finished at five o’clock, Eddie. You got the last train — that’s seven hours. You spent seven hours with that man.”

Eddie forgot to mention they got off at four.

“He got you so drunk—”

“He did not get me drunk, I got drunk. I made my own— Christ, I wasn’t even that drunk!”

“And, what? He just calls you up today and spontaneously asks you out—”

(out??)

“—to lunch?”

“I called him!” defends Eddie. He’s not sure why this is the stance he has chosen to take.

“Eddie!” says Myra. “I’m just saying! Maybe you should be more careful. You don’t want people getting the wrong idea.”

Eddie blinks a couple times. He glances at Myra. “What idea?”

“Well, I don’t know. What if he thinks you’re… you know.”

“What if he thinks I’m what?

Myra turns to him, resting her elbow on her headrest and leaning against her arm. “Gay, Eddie. What if he thinks you’re gay.”

They’ve reached another red light, which is lucky, because Eddie suddenly cannot see the road. He squeezes the wheel, and breathes through his nose, and tries to get a grasp on something… anything. But he’s slipping. The lights go green and now he’s driving again, so at least he can concentrate on that.

Like someone else is flapping his mouth like a ventriloquist, he finds himself laughing and saying, “What? Why the hell—”

(you know, Eddie)

“—would he think that?”

Myra reaches over and smooths his hair again. “Well, you know you’re a little effeminate, hon.”

“What the FUCK?”

“Eddie!”

Snapping his window down, Eddie screams at a pedestrian trying to get themselves killed. They just give him the finger.

He pops the window back up and rounds on Myra. “Do people think I’m gay, Myra?”

“I don’t know—!”

“You don’t know?” Eddie shakes his hands up and screams a little more, then slams them back on the wheel. He wishes Myra would say something — anything, Jesus — just so that doesn’t stay hanging in the air between them. He shakes his head, trying to physically dislodge the thought from his mind. 

Finally, he sighs a little, and lets the breath tremble out. His next inhale is decidedly stronger.

“Well, so what?” he says, scanning the street before turning again. “He doesn’t seem to mind.”

“That’s what I’m talking about Eddie,” says Myra tightly. “Of course he doesn’t mind, not if he—”

It hits him all at once, and Eddie bursts out laughing. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait, Myra, are you saying that you think Richie’s gay, and that he’s interested in me? Romantically? Like, he’s got a crush on me? Is that what you’re saying?”

He can’t look at her, but he knows her lips are pursed. He laughs again, giggles really, and the pitch is way too high. He’s smiling, he can’t stop smiling, he’s so

(confused scared happy what the fuck)

amused. That’s ridiculous! That’s so unlikely! That’s so fucking hilarious!

“I really don’t know what’s so funny about it.”

“He knows I’m married! To a woman! To you!

“Do you think every married man is straight, Eddie?”

Eddie’s smile becomes a little fixed. “W-what?” he asks, glancing her. “Are you talking about gay marriage, or—?”

She grunts in annoyance and gently slaps his arm. “I just don’t understand this weird interest he has in you—”

(no no no but I’m interested in him!)

“And I don’t understand why you suddenly need a male friend all of a sudden, baby. Aren’t I still your best friend?”

Eddie’s brow tilts up and he laughs nervously. “Of course you are, sweetheart. I don’t think it’s…” Driving, he’s having a hard time really giving this conversation his full attention. Suddenly, he thinks he has to. He waits until he pulls onto the highway, cruising safely, and scratches behind his ear. “I don’t think it’s weird to have a — a friend, you know?” 

“What do you guys even talk about? Football, Eddie? Cars—?”

“Hey, I actually like cars, and now you’re just emasculating me on purpose—”

“Eddie!” cries Myra, and the tone resonates deep in Eddie’s bowels. “Why are you always making me out to be the bad guy? I’m just trying to help you!”

“I’m sorry, OK, I’m sorry. Look, he’s — he’s talked about girlfriends before, he’s talked about women, I don’t think he’s gay or anything.”

Eddie says that, and feels an avenue opening up on one side of his brain, a train of thought that wants to confirm that, wants to revisit all the looks and laughs and conversations they’ve had, just to be sure, just because it’d be pretty awkward otherwise, just because

(because?)

he really hadn’t thought about it before. Eddie stops himself, though. He doesn’t want to think about that. He doesn’t want to know.

“Is that it, then?” Myra asks, her voice shaky. He glances at her, and she has her face screwed up. “That’s why you need a male friend, so you can talk about women — talk about mecomplain about me—?”

As she dissolves into weeping, Eddie takes her hand and squeezes it gently. “No, no, no, it’s not that. Look, I — I know you’re worried, and that’s OK. I’m gonna think about what you said — seriously, I am. And I’ll be careful, OK? I know you’re looking out for me.”

He kisses her hand, and takes it with him as he puts it back on the stick shift. He glances at her once more, as she squeezes his hand and wipes her face with her other. Her eyes are totally dry. Eddie turns his gaze back to the road. 

Eddie doesn’t eat or shit well that night. He blames the falafel.


Eddie is heating up his dinner in the canteen microwave at five o’clock the next Friday, because the ones on the fifth floor are broken for the third time in as many months, and he is working late trying to make up for a week’s worth of crappy productivity. He nukes the lunchbox, because bacteria, and sighs as he leans against the counter.

Listening to the hum of the appliance and thinking anxious afternoon thoughts, a familiar laugh reaches his ear. He raises his head and looks around. At the other end of the hall, beyond a glass wall, there’s a group of people standing around chatting at the coffee dock. 

All elbows and legs, Richie stands there with his back to Eddie, broad shoulders and mussed dark curls. He’s gesturing wildly and Eddie thinks he must be telling a joke, or a story, or whatever you call it when it’s both. Eddie smiles to himself, and jumps when the microwaves lets off a loud ding.

On his way past, he walks close by the gang and keeps stealing glances that way, hoping Richie will turn around and catch his eye. But he doesn’t.

Well, maybe it’s for the best.

He really wishes he could be mad at Myra for whatever the fuck she brought up in the car the other day, but really he knows he can’t. He can’t. To do so would be to buy into the delusion. Because if he’s angry, it would mean there’s some fucking sense to it, right? But there isn’t. There isn’t. 

Eddie is fucking livid.

Eddie has never taken the effort to remember the letters LGBT, but there’s some committee in Green Turtle who organise the parade and youth groups and send out rainbow spangled emails every quarter or so. Pride, that’s what they call it. And Eddie thinks, yeah, OK, maybe if you’re a millennial. Maybe then. Has Gen Z entered the workforce yet? He doesn’t know. He thinks, yeah, OK, maybe if Myra and I ever have kids, the little guy might turn out alright. Maybe he could be proud

(But not Eddie)

He spends the next fourteen minutes sitting on a closed toilet lid with his head between his knees. He can’t really breathe. He’s in the disabled toilets, but he figures he’s allowed. He’s probably dying. Not the most sanitary place to die, but whatever. At least they won’t find him with his pants down.

Back at his desk, one missed call, Richie Tozier. He’s stressed out, he’s busy, he can’t do this, he’s reaching for the receiver.

“Hey, buddy!” laughs Richie on answering, and Eddie feels filth in his bones. He smiles back, glad Richie can’t see him. He has no idea what kind of smile it is, but it sure as hell ain’t proud. “Man, did I just see you in the hall? I thought I did — you’re not on your way out, are you?”

“Nah, I’m sticking around a bit,” replies Eddie, leaning forward on the desk and tilting his head into the voice. He feels calmer, talking to Richie. But his heart still feels like it’s swelling, his heartbeat rapid, slightly nauseous. If he thinks too hard, it won’t get any better. 

“What the fuck, dude. Just go home already, it’s Friday.”

“Well, what about you, then — why don’t you go fucking home.”

(or NO WAIT why don’t we go get drunk—)

“Ah, can’t. We’ve got a big release tonight. Might be here ’til midnight or later.”

“Oh, man! That totally sucks.”

“We get takeout, it’s not so bad.” Richie sniffs on the other end, and there’s a shuffling. “Anyway it’s been totally hectic over here all week, dude, there were major issues right up until, like, yesterday and I — I mean, I was having desk soup everyday, that's how bad it was.” 

“The canteen soup? Ugh, that shit’s so salty, man. I can feel my blood pressure skyrocket just thinking about it.”

“Yeah,” Richie laughs, laughs maybe harder than he should.

(That funny, bro? You think that’s funny?)

“But we should, uh, do the market again next week. If you want.”

That sounds great. That sounds fucking amazing. Eddie's heart is lifting again, tension loosening, stomach easing. But there’s this pause, and he’s thinking twice. Doesn’t Richie sound a bit nervous, a bit awkward? Well, maybe that's just the way he is. IT guys, you know. 

(Unless)

“Eds? You still there, man?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here. Sounds good, dude. Sounds great.”

“Alright, awesome! Sweet.”

(You happy? That make you happy or somethin’?)

“Well, anyway, what’s got you so busy you’re working late on a Friday?”

Eddie laughs grimly and rubs his brow. “Oh, man, it’s so not interesting at all.”

“Try me. I’m bored as hell over here.”

Eddie pauses, glancing around the office. There are only a few people still around, and the lights on one side of the office have already dimmed. He glances at the dark monitor that he hasn’t even logged into yet. “Well… we got all these Access databases, see, doing reporting, and we gotta build the IFRS-17 reporting into them.”

“Reports on reports,” says Richie. “We’re doing great so far.”

“Yeah, man, and I’m supposed to write the report on the reports on the reports.”

That makes Richie cackle. Eddie finds himself smiling.

“But the problem is that Microsoft Access—”

“Is going out of support.”

Eddie blinks. “Right. So we gotta—”

“Migrate them to — what, APEX is it?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so! And hopefully decommission some, and link the others so the reporting can be built underneath. But the other problem is there’s no—”

“Documentation.”

“Yeah! So no-one—”

“Is entirely sure what the databases do.”

“Fuck off, man! Yes, fuck, you’re right. How’d you know about all that?”

“We got the same crap going on over here. It’s a total shitshow, dude. How’s your VBA?”

“I mean, I can write macros, man. In Excel. But I don’t fuck with forms and shit.”

Richie pauses suddenly. “Wait a second. Hold on one minute, mister. Have you been stalking my LinkedIn page or what, dude?”

“What? I don’t—”

“Rhetorical question! I don’t have a LinkedIn page. But VBA is one of my many realms of expertise, as it happens. Now, I see how it is — calling me up, trying to trick me into offering you help, man—”

Eddie’s eyes widen. “No, no, no, I wasn’t—”

“Seriously? What the fuck, dude. You know what, I ain’t falling for this shit again! Just, fuck you alright! Fuck you!”

The phone disconnects suddenly. Eddie stares at his receiver. “He hung up on me!”

Bolting upright, Eddie glances around the office. The room’s mostly empty now. He can just see one other head over in Accounting, and it looks like they’re wearing headphones. He scoots closer to his desk and redials Richie’s number.

A woman answers. “Green Turtle IT, Beverly speaking.”

“Oh — shit, I’m so sorry, I was looking for Richie.”

“Yeah, he just stormed off,” she says, and laughs lightly. “Someone must have really pissed him off, I guess.” 

Eddie throws his hands up. What the fuck is happening?

“This is Eddie, right?”

“Uh, yeah, it is! Hi!”

There’s some whispering on the other end, and then Beverly is back with an excited, lowered voice. “Well, hurry up and tell us everything, Eddie!”

“Uhh, I’m sorry, tell you what?”

“We’re all dying to know more about Richie’s new non-IT friend. He’s being so secretive about you.”

Eddie laughs shrilly. “H-he is?”

What the fuck is going on?

“Well, yeah. We keep asking and asking and he just won’t spill.”

Eddie sits back, blinking fast. Why the hell is everyone so goddamn weird about this? They’re just fucking friends, right? They just fucking like each other! They’re allowed to like each other, and be friends — they are!

(Maybe you should be more careful)

(You don’t want people getting the wrong idea)

Eddie’s next breath comes in shallow. He trembles though it, gripping his desk. “Well, I mean, there’s nothing much to tell,” he says, trying to laugh it off. “We met on the First Aid course a couple weeks ago, and… that’s it, really. We just, uh, hit it off, I guess.”

His chair jolts suddenly and Eddie yelps. He turns around, almost yanking the phone off the desk, to see Richie holding his belly and bent over, howling with laughter. Eddie raises a hand in the air, mouthing obscenities, and shakes his head wildly.

Fucking bastard — yeah, sorry, Beverly, he’s right here! Haha, ha! Yeah, yeah— nice to meet you too. OK, bye—”

Richie leans on Eddie’s chair, still laughing, and Eddie picks up his notebook to whack him with. “Fuck you, alright? Fuck you.”

“I can’t believe you fell for it!”

“How’d you even find me, dude?”

“You said fifth floor. And this helped.” Richie points to the sign reading ‘Risk’ that hangs above Eddie’s neighbourhood.

Flopping down into the seat next to Eddie, Richie puts his laptop down and docks it. He puts a cell phone down on the desk and scoots closer to Eddie. Eddie scoots slightly away.

“Alright, let’s have a look at those databases!”

What? No way, dude, I wasn’t asking for your help—”

“I know! I’m giving it!”

“Don’t you have work to do, man?”

“My part’s not ’til later. They’ll call me if they need me.” Eddie shakes his head at Richie, mind-boggled, and Richie places a hand on his arm. Crooked smile, twinkling eyes, and Eddie’s heart is racing. “Dude, it’s five-thirty. It’s Friday. Personally I think you should go the fuck home. However bad your week’s been, you’re not gonna make it any better between now and whenever it is you’re planning on leaving. But if you insist on staying, I’m staying with you. Now let me drive.”

“What—”

“Let me DRIVE!” Richie bumper-cars Eddie’s chair and grabs the mouse, pulling the keyboard in front of him.

Eddie can still feel the warmth and strength of Richie’s grip on his arm. It sends his flesh crawling — no, electrifying. He’s so touched, it’s overwhelming. He wasn’t even sure, before, that Richie really wanted to be his friend. Maybe he was just awkward, you know, maybe he just didn’t know how to express himself — but maybe Eddie was the only one feeling so strongly about wanting this person in his life. But now he gets it: Richie cares. He does. He just has different ways of showing it.

Eddie takes his keyboard back before Richie locks his account trying to guess the password, and then they spend about half an hour drilling down into the code of numerous Access databases. Richie’s chair is pushed right alongside Eddie’s, and he talks and explains things eagerly, quickly picking up Eddie’s level of knowledge and layering new understanding on top of that. In a short amount of time they’ve figured out which databases will migrate easily, identified a few issues some others might cause, and which ones can probably be scrapped. He also gives Eddie the name of someone who can give him an estimate for the development time required for the migration — with the promise that she owes Richie a favour.

As they work together, Eddie can’t help but notice Richie’s hands on his keyboard, broad, square hands touch typing with deft fingers. He can’t help but notice the dark hair on his forearms, the scrub on his cheeks, chin, throat. Can’t help but notice the size of him, lanky and gawkish, in an oversized, oddly patterned short-sleeved shirt. His glasses are maybe fashionable. Maybe. Horn-rimmed or tortoise-shell or something. They suit him, anyway.

His eyes are black as hell.

Eddie wears chinos even on casual Fridays. Eddie puts oil in his hair and uses three different types of hand cream. Eddie is gay, apparently, according to everyone, ever.

That committee thing, that Pride thing, they say you can’t tell by looking.

Yet somehow, all Eddie’s childhood bullies knew.

Somehow, the whole fucking world knows.

What do they know? What does he look like? Eddie doesn’t like to think about that. He doesn’t want to know.

Now Eddie looks at Richie, with his shitty posture and muddy sneakers and unbrushed hair, and tries to see him. Tries to see him the way people see Eddie.

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t see a goddamn thing.

After another thirty minutes or so, Richie gets a call and wheels over to the other desk to run a few scripts, while Eddie finishes his note-taking and starts packing his things away.

Richie sighs as he drops the call, turning to him with a regretful little smile. “Alright, man, I should head back down. The fun’s just beginning.”

Yawning, his t-shirt rides up slightly as he stretches leisurely in his chair, and Eddie catches a glimpse of a happy trail. His body flashes hot for a second. Then he thinks of Myra’s smooth, soft stomach and the downy hairs on her arms. He thinks of her silky legs and the smell of her baths and how clean she is, bundled up beside him reading magazines before bed. That’s nice. That’s very nice. He thinks about that, and he’s cool in a second.

He needs a shower, ASAP.

“Well, you were fucking wrong about one thing,” says Eddie, throwing his backpack on as he gets up from his chair.

“What — what is it?” asks Richie, brow wrinkling.

Eddie smiles at him. “This has, uh, significantly improved my shitty week.”

“Oh, buddy, that’s just me,” sighs Richie, hand on his chest and smirking. “Just, you know, the sheer joy my presence brings.”

“Yeah,” says Eddie, unthinking. Richie pauses, eyebrows arched high, and his mouth spreads into a hesitant smile. He giggles a little. Eddie smiles at the floor.

(Yeah)


On Tuesday, Eddie has some free time, so he opens up a message for Richie on Skype.

Hey man

On second thought, he opens up a Word doc and begins typing again.

Hey man

Hey man :)

Hey Richie!

Eddie is making himself physically ill.

Hey man

I think I owe you a drink for helping me out the other day

:)

;)

Fuck.

You free?

Let me know if you’re free

Let me know when you’re free?

Let me know when you’re free so we can repeat the other night

Too desperate? Am I being too desperate?

Do you even want to go out? Or is it just me? Am I being too pushy here?

I know you like me man quit being so fucking coy

Or maybe I should wait for you to make the next move…

What the fuck am I thinking? We’re just fucking friends! There aren’t fucking moves! This isn’t supposed to be so hard!

I just need a fucking drink

He bites the bullet and sends:

Hey man

I think I owe you a drink for helping me out the other day

You free this week?

:)

And then he waits. The bile in his stomach feels suddenly like lava about to erupt from a volcano and he clamps his mouth shut. Ten seconds pass. Then thirty. A minute. Eddie blinks, and Richie’s status switches to Amber. Away. Eddie’s hands are sweating, his gullet threatening convulsions. What the fuck has he done?

The fucking smiley. Always a mistake, dude.

Panicked, he types:

Cuz there’s that retirement party on Friday if you’re planning on going

He sends that, then debates if it’s enough to go from crazy intense to casual. He more he writes, the worse it’s going to get, so he stops himself there and breathes. He rereads the messages and waits at his desk for ten — twenty — thirty minutes. Doesn’t want to go Away while Richie might still reply. It’s wishful fucking thinking, though. After forty he goes into the disabled toilets and puts his head between his knees. He reminds himself — Richie asked him to lunch — Richie came to his desk to help him out — Richie isn’t insane like he is, won’t overthink one fucking IM and suddenly think he’s clingy and overbearing and

(gay, Eddie)

annoying.

(what if he thinks you’re gay?)

Fuck fuck FUCKING FUCK.

Why is this happening? Why can’t he just make a friend, have a friend, hang out with a normal person like a normal person and get blackout drunk with the one person he wants to spend his evening with? He just wants Richie, wants to be friends with him — but not just any friends, you know — best friends — best fucking friends forever. He wants Richie to be the guy he can call up whenever and they’ll go out, or stay in scrolling through Netflix and playing video games; he wants Richie to be the kind of friend he can hang out with on the weekend — the kind who’ll agree to go for a drive at three a.m. to satisfy a craving, or go with him to hipster cafes he’s too nervous to go to alone; he wants Richie to be his, the kind of friend Eddie hasn’t had since he was a kid — a sworn friend, blood brother, soul mate — that’s what he wants. He wants Richie to be his other half.

Eddie has temporarily forgotten he already has one of those.

A thought occurs to him: did I ever feel this way about Myra? And then he slams the door shut on that and ascends from fast panicked thoughts to a state of overwhelmed blankness. His anxiety is so high it’s running faster than he can keep up with. So for the moment, trancelike, he goes back to his desk.

His phone rings, and Eddie grins as he answers it. “Hey, man, what’s up?”

“Yo, sorry, I just saw your message! I was in a meeting.”

“Jeez, put your status on, at least!”

“Haha, yeah, I ain’t doing that. Anyway, this gig’s on Friday, right?”

“Yeah, man, just wondered if you’d be there.”

“I could be there, yeah. Are you gonna be there?”

“Yeah, I was kind of thinking I’d be there.”

“OK, cool, so I might see you there?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’d be cool.”

“OK, cool!”

“OK. See you there, then?”

“Yeah, see you there!”

“OK, bye!”

“Bye!”

“Bye bye bye b—”

Eddie hangs up the phone, takes a deep breath, and looks around.

“So, uh, is anyone going to that retirement party on Friday?”

Chapter Text

“Soooo, anyone going to that retirement do tonight?” asks Richie, actively sweating in a little number he likes to call, sheer unbridled panic.

“What retirement do?” responds Bev.

“Ah say, ah say, if in’t that Tony Tracker!”

“Who?”

“Oh I know that guy,” comes Ben’s voice. “He forgets his password for Investment Centre on a weekly basis.”

Richie raises himself up in his chair. “You going?”

“Nah, I never met him in person. He’s also… kind of a dick.”

“But there’s gonna be a free bar, guys. A free bar. And this guy’s worked here for thirty-six years, can you imagine? We gotta celebrate his contribution!”

“What’s going on, Rich?” asks Bev, cutting him down immediately. 

“Nothing, why would there be something — I just wanna get drunk, that’s all.”

“We gotta get home to the baby, man,” says Ben. “Sorry.”

“Only one of you technically needs to go home to the baby. The other one can come with me and be my —”

(wingman)

“—uh, drinking buddy.”

Bev gives him the side eye. Richie turns back to his screen and switches back and forth between a few open tabs in his browser. Stares at his emails. Watches the clock tick over another minute. He swivels from side to side a bit. 

“On an unrelated note,” he says, turning back to Bev. “Is this… do I look… OK? Does this shirt go with these… limbs?”

He gestures vaguely, then suddenly drops, doubling over and clutching his face with his hands. 

“Jesus, Richie, are you OK?”

Ben is coming around the partition, and Bev scoots her chair closer to him, rubbing his arm up and down. 

“I’m fine,” he says, shaking them off. “I’m fine, I’m freaking out, but I’m fine.”

“Is Eddie going to the party?” asks Bev.

Richie inhales deeply, and broadens his mouth while looking at her. “Ye-he-yeah that’s it, that’s it alright, you got it in one,” he whispers, all on the outward breath. He inhales sharply, and now he’s talking fast. “It’s just that he asked me to go, right, but he’s gonna be there with all his Risk buddies, and I can’t just fucking turn up on my own not even knowing this fucking Tracker guy, and it’s just it’s gonna be so obvious I’m only there to see Eddie, you know, like I’m obsessed with him or something, and what if he—”

“Richie, slow down,” says Ben. “He asked you to go, right?”

“He asked me if I was going.”

Bev glances at Ben and back at Richie, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Well… did he ask in an offhand, aside of another conversation kind of way, or did he get in touch specifically to ask?”

Richie thinks, rubbing his forehead. “The latter, I guess. He said he owes me a drink.”

“Well, then he obviously wants to see you,” says Ben, patting Richie’s arm.

“You guys think?” Richie looks between the two of them. They nod, and Beverly scans him up and down for a moment. 

“About the shirt—”

“No, it’s — it’s not important, I was just freaking out. It’s not a big deal.” He raises his eyebrows and smiles at them. He laughs suddenly, very loud. “It’s not like I’m trying to fuck the guy!”

Bev and Ben are good dudes. They don’t fucking laugh — they don’t fucking say anything. Eddie would have roasted him for that shit. Eddie would never let him live it down. Eddie would’ve—

Fuck.

“I mean, he’s married.”

And Richie’s (mostly) straight.

“It’s just that, I love him.” Richie blinks, and the guys blink back at him. “As a friend. And I want to spend all my time with him.”

Richie starts laughing lightly. Bev is holding his hand now, and Ben’s hand is still resting on his arm.

“I just want him to like me,” he whispers. “I like him so much.”

“He already does,” says Bev, squeezing his hand. “When I talked to him on the phone… He does, Rich, I’m sure of it.”

Richie nods and meets eyes with Bev for a moment. He feels Ben’s eyes on him, too, but he doesn’t want to see Ben’s expression right now. There were plenty of times, over the years, when Ben was clearly pining after Bev like a lovesick little puppy — you know, the kind of puppy with smouldering hazel eyes, double denims, and probably an eight pack? And Richie would take every opportunity he could to sit him down and tell it like it is — tell him to forget about it, stop setting himself up to have his heart broken, save himself all the fucking agony and heartache and just go hook up with that new hottie from SQA who’s been staring over here all night, ’cause she sure as hell ain’t staring at Richie. Because Ben’s heart would get broken, that was a fact. Bev was married, and that was it. Finito. End of story. Good show and goodnight.

Now Ben is looking at Richie, and he’s not going to say anything like that, because Ben’s the one emotionally competent man Richie knows, and Ben knows this agony and heartache is so fucking wonderful and worth it, he knew that all along. And Richie was wrong, because as it turned out, that wasn’t the end of their story. But he and Eddie are different. Maybe Eddie’s wife is manipulative and awful, probably, but so what? He’s fucking straight. He’s straight, he’s married, and he is never going to want Richie the way Richie wants him. 

“I think I’mma get white girl drunk tonight,” decides Richie, spinning back to his monitors.

“Maybe that’s not such a good idea, hon.”

“Maybe it is. You don’t know.”


Richie squeezes through the crowded bar to where the hurrah-you’re-literally-too-old-to-be-of-any-more-use-to-society balloons are decorating the tables, hands trembling in a little doozy he likes to call, so nervous I might actually shit myself.

For once, he appreciates a little of what it must be like to be Eddie.

Speaking of Eddie, he’s the first person Richie sees, because he’s standing at the very edge of the crowd, and also because he just… shines. Brighter than anyone. Richie’s chest hurts. Eddie is already looking in Richie’s direction, so as soon as he comes into view Eddie sees him and grins, rushing over to greet him.

“Hey, man, you made it!”

Eddie touches Richie’s arm, just briefly — and Richie almost feels his stomach balloon up to spew from his mouth. He swallows thickly. “Yeah, sorry, I was on the late shift. What’s up, dude?”

Turning around, Eddie moves back to the tall table he was at before. Two other men are standing there looking at them. “Richie, uh, this is Stan and Mike.”

Richie takes his hand out of his jacket pocket to do the handshake thing, a frozen smile on his face. Mike looks like he played football in high school but is getting softer by the day, and Stan has shrewd eyes which narrow microscopically for a second as he scans Richie up and down. 

(Oh fuck, he knows)

“Hi,” says Richie, smiling weirdly.

“Hi,” says Stan.

“Hey, man.”

“You want a beer?” asks Eddie, tapping his arm again. On a side note — what the fresh fuck is that about?

“Huh, if you’re on the cocktails I’ll have a Manhattan,” says Richie, nodding at Eddie’s glass.

“No, no, no, this isn’t a cocktail, this is a G and T.”

“That’s a cocktail, dude. It’s in a fucking cocktail glass!”

“That’s not the fucking criteria for a cocktail, dumbass. And this is a gin glass.”

Richie has grabbed one of the menus and flips through it, shoving the cocktail page into Eddie’s face.

Eddie swats him away. “But it’s not really a — not really a cocktail, is it, it only has two fucking ingredients—”

“What’s this?” asks Richie, reaching into the glass and plucking out a slice of cucumber.

“HEY! Do NOT put your dirty fingers in my fucking glass, asshole!”

“You’re done! It’s done — go get yourself another one, man! And get me a Manhattan while you’re at it, with a little cherry and a toothpick. Make sure you get the deal on that. It’s a cocktail, the Manhattan, have you heard of it?”

Eddie shakes his head and glares at him. Richie vaguely remembers Eddie ranting about the disgusting taste of whiskey the last time they were drunk and

(mints, mints, do I have mints?)

wonders if he can use that to fuck with him later.

“Also, uh, when you said you owed me a drink, man, I thought you intended to pay for it yourself.”

“Fuck you,” says Eddie, and spins on his heel to go. He turns back suddenly. “Soon as the tab ends, it’s on me.” His eyes meet Richie’s, and he smiles quickly, then heads to the bar.

Richie inhales deep, resisting the urge to turn and watch him go, and looks around at the others instead. There’s a moment’s silence as they stare at him, blinking. Richie blinks back. 

He smiles hesitantly. “Soooo, you guys work with Eddie, huh?”

With is a strong word,” says Stan.

Richie laughs. “Works is a stronger one. Am I right?”

Stan’s eye twitches, and he turns around to look behind him. 

“Well, I work with Myra,” says Mike. “But Eddie’s a good buddy too.”

“Oh, Customer Service? You guys got it worse than me!” Richie feels a bit weird knowing literally so much about Eddie’s life and wife and whatever, and yet he continues, “Is Myra here, then? I haven’t actually, like, met her yet.”

“Nah, I think she went home early. So, how long have you known Eddie?”

“Oh,” Richie laughs, “like three fucking weeks, dude.”

Mike stares at him a moment, brow furrowing. “Sorry — for some reason I thought…” He laughs a little. “You guys were bickering like—”

“Like an old married couple,” says Stanley, eyes locking with Richie’s.

“Well, I was gonna say like childhood friends,” says Mike. “But that works too, I suppose.”

Mike smiles at Richie, a gentle bemused smile, and

(Oh GOD oh SHIT THEY ALL FUCKIN’ KNOW)

“You’re in IT, right?” Mike segues, and Richie feels like throwing himself to his knees to thank him for it. And yet he senses the next part coming a mile off. Mike chuckles. “So which one of the IT Crowd guys are you?”

Richie puts on a face, shaking his head. “You know what, this joke always bothers me, man. That show is such a misrepresentation of what we do. It’s so unrealistic — those guys do way more work than us.”

Mike laughs, holding his belly. Stan just sighs a little.

Richie cringes slightly, pausing. “Have yeh tried… turnin’ it off and on again…?” He coughs, brings his hand up, shakes his head like a wet dog. “Have yeh tried stickin’ it up yer ARSE?”

Thankfully Eddie comes back then, squeezing through the bodies, and saving them all from a horrendously unpractised Irish accent. I should work on that, Richie thinks. No, no, that’s a fucking terrible idea.

“I’m going further in, we’re literally in everyone’s way here,” says Stan, and turns around to head deeper into the party. Mike gives Richie and Eddie a wave, and follows. Eddie doesn’t move, just places Richie’s drink down on the table and holds his own in front of him. They glance at each other. And now they’re alone. 

What the fuck was that? Was that orchestrated? Was it? What the fuck is going on?

Eddie picks up his G and T and takes a big gulp of it. Richie resists downing his in three. He wonders how long Eddie’s been 

(waiting?)

here and how much he’s drunk yet.

“What’s your beef with cocktails, dude?”

“I’m a man, dipshit.”

Richie puts his hand to his mouth. “Oh, oh, I’m so sorry, Eds — I didn’t know.”

“Fuck you.” Eddie shakes his head, looking around, and takes a tight sip of his drink. Richie cackles, and suddenly he feels a lot calmer.

“You’re really sticking around until after the tab ends?” asks Richie. “I mean, is it another last train home kind of night?”

“Um, we’ll see. We’ll see how it goes.” Eddie smiles at him, though not directly at him, and then looks down.

Richie is sure he won’t last the night.

They take full advantage of the tab while it’s open, inhaling the alcohol like it’s happy gas and they’re getting open heart surgery in a hot second. That’s how it feels, anyway. Richie’s heart is banging. Last time, Eddie was pacing himself at about two-thirds of what Richie was drinking — because he’s smaller, and he doesn’t drink that often, and he has to drink a pint of water every two hours or he’ll get dehydrated, he says. Now Eddie’s keeping pace with Richie, and they’re getting silly. When trays of food start doing the rounds, their table is the closest to the kitchens, so they get to steal half of it before it gets any further. Richie can’t resist adopting a balloon or three and using them to torment Eddie, and Eddie fights back, swatting him away, yelling, getting all up in his grill a couple times like they’re gonna get rowdy.

If Richie didn’t know any better, he’d say they might be flirting.

(Richie doesn’t know any better)

It’s almost like they’re waiting for something to happen, but that something can only happen when either or both of them can claim plausible deniability. That’s the plan, anyway.

Sometimes someone passes by and stops for a chat, and Eddie cheerfully entertains them until the first moment he can return to Richie. Richie is aware of this, highly aware, and even for all his earlier anxieties, he can see what it means. Eddie is here for him. Eddie wants to talk to him. Eddie only has eyes for him.

The next time Richie goes to the bar, the tab has closed. He buys the drinks anyway.

“What the fuck, dude! I said I was buying!”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, you can just get the next one!”

“I’m getting the next two! Alright? Is that alright with you, asshole?”

Richie laughs, and runs his hand through his hair. “That’s fine with me, but are you sure you can handle it, half pint?”

If there weren’t so many people around, Richie thinks Eddie might have tackled him and started strangling him then and there.

(Richie’s into it)

“We should get the next round somewhere else, though,” he says, carefully scanning Eddie’s face.

Eddie meets his eyes, blinking. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, it’s super crowded here. And the cocktails are shit.”

“It’s not...” Eddie wets his lips, glancing around. “Yeah, they are shit, aren’t they?”

Their gazes meet again, lingering a little. Eddie’s eyes are a little bloodshot, the pupils blown wide on deep brown irises. Richie’s cheeks feel flushed. “Yeah, we should get outta here,” he repeats, glancing around to make sure no-one’s noticed how close they’re standing, how they’re looking at each other, how Richie’s knee is touching Eddie’s thigh beneath the table.

“Where to?” asks Eddie.

(To my place to my place to my place to)

“There’s a bar I like a few blocks away,” says Richie. He wants to punch himself in the face.

“Sure, OK,” says Eddie, picking up his glass. “Chug?”

“Chug,” agrees Richie, smiling excitedly. They count down together, grinning and smacking the table, and then they go. Richie thinks, you know what, it’s OK, you just need to be a tiny bit drunker before you can do this. 

(What the FUCK are you planning to do?)

In the next bar, they get a little table, so little their knees knock beneath it, and they have to sit hip to hip and shout to hear each other. Sometimes they have to shout into each other’s ear. Neither of them suggest finding a quieter place because it’s Friday night, man, it’s Friday night, there’s nowhere quieter. Probably. Richie has his arm over the back of the bench, almost around Eddie, and it takes all of his strength and sanity not to just brush his fingers against his jacket, or reach up into his hair. 

It’s that time of the night where Eddie has to piss every half an hour like clockwork, because of his tiny bladder, and every time he leaves Richie sits there and imagines following him and pushing him into a stall — pinning him against the wall and — and fucking — fucking interlacing their fingers or some shit. 

To distract himself, he scans the room. He wonders if anyone here would fuck him — guy, girl, he doesn’t care anymore. He’s never been much of a Casanova — he’s forty and has what, in the most generous of terms, could be described as a dad bod. He’s pretty weird looking, in his opinion, and he’s also awkward as fuck. He tries to catch someone’s eye, anyone’s eye, but when he finally does it’s just Eddie on his way back from the toilet, smiling shakily at him, and Richie thinks, yeah, that’s him. That’s the one.

Richie is drunk enough that he thinks maybe he’s gonna go for it. He thinks there’s something going on here — Eddie is married, sure, but he also keeps touching Richie’s arm — and Richie is thinking they might just be drunk enough to do something about it.

Eddie heads to the bar before returning, and Richie is outrageously jealous of every person who brushes against him in the crowd. Comes back with a glass of water (“no ice — have you ever seen the kind of bacteria that builds up in ice boxes?”), and Richie realises with sickening relief and a gut-wrenching disappointment that they’ve already missed their chance.

“Alright, man, train’s in twenty-three minutes,” says Eddie, stacking the used coasters and placing his phone down on the table.

“What the fuck? What happened in there?” asks Richie. “Did you puke, man? Or did your wife call?”

Eddie blinks at him over the top of his glass. He takes a sip, and says, “N-no?”

“Oh my God—? Wait, I don’t even know which is worse. Is it both? God, tell me it’s not both?”

“It’s not both,” says Eddie, chin lifted with some dignity.

“She called, didn’t she.” Eddie tips his head to one side, eyes creasing, and Richie groans loudly. “Man, you are so whipped!”

“If whipped means being, like, a considerate fucking husband, and, like, fucking taking into account my wife’s fucking feelings, then — yeah, OK, I’m fucking whipped!”

“Sorry, toxic masculinity speaking,” drawls Richie, poking him in the shoulder, and wishing he wasn’t swaying so much because he’s actually fucking serious right now. “But what about your feelings, man?”

“My—?” Eddie stops, startled. He holds his finger up decisively. “My feelings are her feelings.”

“What? That doesn’t even make any sense!”

“Yes, it does! It does! She is thinking about my feelings— that’s literally what she’s doing! She knows I’ll fucking regret it tomorrow if I don’t go home now.”

“Will you, though?” asks Richie. “Will you actually?”

“Yeah — my stomach’ll be in shreds and I’ll be exhausted. It’ll totally ruin my weekend.”

“Will it, though?”

“Yeah,” says Eddie. “Yes, it will!”

“But you’ll have fun.”

“I had fun. What’s two more hours gonna do—”

(get you in my bed, that’s what)

“—that two hours of sleep won’t?”

Richie grundles out some noises, actively forbidding the words from coming out. Christ, this is rough.

“The night might be young, but I’m fucking not.” Eddie taps his phone and refreshes the real-time information. He shakes his head, glancing at Richie as he reaches for his jacket. “We’ll just have to do it again. Soon.”

“Oh, I get it,” says Richie, following Eddie to his feet. “I see how it is. It’s this kiss at the door shit — that’s what’s going on here.”

Eddie looks up at him, and Christ they’re standing close. His brow twitches. “Wh—kiss at the what? Kiss — what?

“Yeah, man. We go out, we have fun, and I’m left with a kiss at the door.” Richie snatches up his drink and tips it back, finishing it off with a little gasp of breath at the end. Eddie’s eyes widen slightly, and Richie wipes his mouth on his sleeve. “Keep me coming back for more, that’s what you’re doing. I know your moves.”

“I don’t have moves — I literally have no moves.” Eddie ducks his head and picks up his water, drinking deeply from it. Richie watches him, obsessed with his mouth and his throat and his — his tongue and — Jesus.

“You got moves,” says Richie, narrowing his eyes. “How’d you score your wife if you don’t have moves?”

Eddie glances up, brow creased. “Uh. She scored me.”

“WOW— the boy’s a bottom — that’s good to know.”

What?

“Nothing’. Nothin’ at all. You learned from the best, that’s all.”

“I top,” says Eddie. Richie gives a delighted little laugh as Eddie points his finger into Richie’s face. “I fucking top, alright?”

Richie is grinning madly. This is the best thing that’s ever happened. Predictably, oh-so fucking delectably, he replies, “Man, I’d like to see you try.”

Eddie’s eyes widen. Because Richie is incapable of actually flirting, he starts laughing, howling, bending double and clasping his hands to his face. Eddie grabs his arm.

“Whatever. Walk and talk, man. Walk and talk.”

Eddie ushers him out of the bar and they’re both tripping over each other. Glancing at his watch, Eddie curses and speeds up.

I’ll keep coming back anyway, Richie thinks to say. You don’t need moves, man, I’ll be back. Bottom — top — upside-down — I don’t give a flying fuck.

They’re sprinting by the time they reach the bridge over the train-tracks, train in sight, doors closing. Eddie screams, “No no no NO!” and watches it pull its way out of the platform. He leans on the bridge and crouches down. “FUCK!”

Riche glances around, hands shoved into his pockets. He whistles. “So, wanna head back to the bar, or…?”

Eddie leans over so far his head is basically between his knees. Richie takes a moment in the crisp evening to catch his breath, admiring the light pollution and the city stench. He wipes sweat from his brow, and takes off his glasses to dry the bridge on the bottom of his shirt.

Eddie still hasn’t straightened up when he’s done. He’s got his hand pressed over his mouth, like he’s — choking, or hyperventilating maybe. Richie’s right there with his hand hovering over Eddie’s back before he can think.

“Um,” he says, looking at his hand. He places it down, tentatively spreading the fingers. “You OK there, buddy?”

Eddie wipes his hands down his face and sighs, shuddering whole-bodily. He gulps a few breaths, and rises up. “I’m fine,” he says. His chest rises and falls rapidly, and his breaths come as almost audible gasps. Richie hasn’t moved his hand. Eddie presses a hand to his sternum and repeats, “I’m fine.”

“Dude, you’re so unfit,” says Richie, but his tone is off. He’s actually a little freaked. “You’re not gonna puke on me, are you? ‘Cause I gotta say, I don’t think it’ll go with my shirt.”

Eddie looks over Richie, looks at his chest, and wavers slightly. For a second, Richie thinks Eddie’s going to hug him or some shit. Then Eddie just blinks rapidly and steps away, barely looking back before he starts marching towards the turnstiles.

“Dude,” calls Richie, scurrying after him, and forcing his tone into low-key casualness, “dude, why don’t you just come to my place? It’s like five minutes — you can wait for the next one there.” Eddie doesn’t respond, just takes the stairway at a jog. “I think I got spirits, man. I got a six-pack for sure. Is beer gluten-free?”

“No,” says Eddie, coming to a stop on the platform. The sign says the next train’s in an hour. But they already knew that.

Richie laughs weakly. “Alright, maybe I got a bottle of wine.”

“No, I mean—” Eddie turns around, barely glancing at Richie before his eyes steal away again. “I can’t. I’m just gonna wait for it here.”

“Why the fuck would you do that? Seriously — it’s five minutes, I’ve timed it, man. I’ll show you on Google maps—”

“No!” 

Richie recoils. He looks around, gauges the emptiness of the platform, and steps a little closer to Eddie. Nervously laughs. “W-what? Why not?”

Eddie inhales and says, “Because I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

Richie stares at him, wide-eyed. Eddie only looks down.

“I mean, we’ll keep talking, and time’ll fly, and suddenly I’ll miss the next one, and the next one, and then Myra, she’ll… I just can’t, man.”

(So you’re saying you can’t come up because you)

(You can’t come up because you’ll never wanna leave)

(You’re saying you won’t come up because you don’t know what’s going to happen)

(Cuz I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen)

Richie saves himself from saying something dumb by saying something even fucking dumber. “Myra’ll what?”

“Whatever, I dunno,” Eddie sighs. “She’ll beat me up or something.”

“Yikes, domestic abuse? Not very chuckalicious.”

Eddie laughs at first, but Richie’s not laughing. Eddie’s face drops. He blinks a couple of times before meeting Richie’s eyes with his doe-wide. “Why did you say that?”

Richie shakes his head. “Uh, no reason.” Eddie stares at him, face gaunt, and so he continues, “Um, I mean, this girl in work — woman, I mean — she was in a pretty bad relationship a couple years back. Really shitty stuff, she’d come in wearing, like, long sleeves and turtlenecks in summer and I just — it’s just one thing I can’t joke about, you know?”

Eddie rubs the back of his neck and looks at the ground. He laughs again, soullessly. “I — I was just kidding, man. Sorry it wasn’t funny.”

“No, no, don’t apologise.” Richie hears himself back and he hates it, because his voice is way too fucking gentle and compassionate and it’s like he’s only just noticed all these fucking eggshells he fucking dropped himself.

Eddie must hear it too, because now he makes a face, and his head snaps up to look up at Richie. “You weren’t — Jesus, man, stop freaking me out. You didn’t really think—? Because it’s — no, it’s not — Myra’d never, like, hurt me or anything.”

“Yeah, no, she’d just control you, and manipulate you, and probably gaslight you or whatever.” Christ — Richie really spent all night gagging on his own tongue trying to stop himself flirting — even just the haha kidding, UNLESS, kind of flirting — and now his mouth’s decided to run off? Now? He’s highly aware he needs to shut up, but he can’t, he can’t, he can’t fucking stop. “She’ll just call you up fifty times a day to make sure you’ve eaten your lunch and aren’t mixing drinks or having too much fucking fun, right?”

“What?” Eddie’s mouth is hanging open. “What? That’s — that’s so not even relevant to this — man, I actually like that she calls me.”

“Oh, you do not!”

“I do fucking too! I, uh — I think it’s sweet!”

“It’s not fucking sweet!” shouts Richie. “It’s insane!”

“Well, GUESS WHAT, man?” bellows Eddie, thumping his own chest with his fist. “I’m insane! We’re a match made in fucking heaven! See, I worry about everything, she worries about me — and it may seem, whatever, fucking controlling to you, but I need that—”

“No, Eds, you don’t—”

You don’t fucking know! I do need it, OK? I need it. I need her to call me and remind me to come home because otherwise I’ll feel shit and I’ll — I’ll just regret it, OK?”

Eddie brings up his hand to his mouth, swallowing thickly. Richie’s brow contracts, thinking he’s going to start hyperventilating again. But Eddie just drops his hand again, breathing fast and shaky.

“It’ll stress me out,” says Eddie shortly. He waves his hands up and starts walking down the platform. “She’s just helping me avoid things that’ll stress me out. It’s fucking amazing. It’s sweet. It’s the best deal ever.”

Richie follows him, hands in pockets. His face is stuck in this awful wince and he hates it. “Man, I think that’s called enabling.”

“You think I don’t fucking know that?” snaps Eddie, spinning around. “Man, enabling, you make it sound terrible. Being enabled is amazing — it’s empowering. I wanna be enabled, man. Being enabled is the fucking best.”

They look at each other a moment, and Richie searches Eddie’s face for some last shred of hope that he really isn’t so fucking naive. Eddie stares back at him, then drops his eyes, breaking into a little smile. He laughs then, and shakes his head. 

“Look, I don’t know. I know it’s not... fucking healthy. But I’m not healthy. I’m neurotic as hell. She accepts me — she loves me. Who the fuck else is gonna do that?”

Richie’s mouth is dry. He wants to fucking cry. Me. Me. Me. I fucking would — I fucking do!

Eddie shakes his head at the ground, biting his lip. “Hey, uh, sorry I shouted at you,” he says, glancing up. His expression stills as he looks at Richie, looking at him. For a moment, everything is written on Richie’s face and he isn’t fast enough to wipe it off. Eddie’s eyes widen.

“No, no, I’m sorry,” blurts Richie. “It’s none of my fucking business — it’s your marriage, like. You’ve been married for what—”

Eddie blinks slowly at him. “Five years.”

“Yeah, five years. I don’t know shit about your marriage.”

Eddie knits his brow. “No. You were just looking out for me, and… uh, I appreciate it, dude.”

Richie shakes his head wildly. 

“I’ve never…” Eddie laughs again, scratching behind his ear. He glances at Richie again, eyes bright, and God Richie feels the air swell around them like a motherfucking blimp about to burst into flames. His fingers itch to grab Eddie right now and kiss him, but they’re in public, there are people milling around the train station, and also Eddie’s married and now Richie’s more certain than ever that he’s never going to do something to destroy that. No matter how many times he touches Richie’s arm or lets Richie’s foot brush his calf, no matter how many rendezvous they have, or longing stares, Eddie’s happier, Eddie’s better off playing it safe, playing it straight, and Richie can’t even imagine the kind of stress he’d cause Eddie just by doing something so ridiculous and selfish as fucking kissing him.

Eddie drops his eyes eventually and heads towards the nearest bench, examining it for bird shit or other public transit substances before taking a seat. Richie follows, kicking the ground as he goes, and thinking, man, are you really gonna sit out here for fifty minutes just to avoid coming home with me?

It starts to rain lightly, barely a pittering, and Eddie and Richie both look to the sky at the same time, eyes meeting on the way down.

(Are you sure)

Richie thinks,

(Are you really sure?)

Man,

(Are you seriously fucking sure you won’t come up to mine?)

I cannot ask again.

Richie sits down next to Eddie, legs spread, and his knee knocks into Eddie’s. Neither of them move. Richie sighs. “Well, can I, uh, hang with you while you wait?”

“’Course,” says Eddie, smiling at him. Richie smiles back. And again, the air crackles around them like a summer storm, and all they do is sit there smiling at each other like the dog in the meme where everything’s on fire.

Eddie looks down, wrinkling his brow. “So, uh, what happened to the girl?”

“Huh?”

“The woman you work with — with the, um, abusive partner.”

“Oh,” says Richie. “She got the hell out. And it was a close fucking call, I’ll tell ya. She…” He pauses. “She actually ended up with this really great guy on our team.”

“Oh, wow,” says Eddie. “Small world.”

“Yeah.” Richie looks down and then away, feeling Eddie’s eyes still on him. He clears his throat loudly. “Also — they’re both straight-up hotties. I’m telling ya. I’m, like, always hinting I’m down for a threesome, man—”

“Hinting,” laughs Eddie.

“Oh, yeah, I can be subtle, dude. Speaking of—”

Eddie starts blinking fast and shaking his head.

“I mean, if you and Myra ever—”

“No—!”

“No, I’m serious—!”

“Dude — no, you’re not fucking serious!”

“I am serious!” laughs Richie, grinning wider and wider in every attempt to sound not remotely serious. “Actually, I’m thinking I’ll hop on this train and come home with you right now. Why the fuck else d’you think I’m sitting here waiting with you? Let’s give good ol’ Myra the sexy surprise of her life, man!”

Eddie bends over and puts his face in his hands, bursting into laughter. Or sobbing, it’s hard to tell. It’s tight — strangled — and Richie leans back, his foot balanced on his other knee, and sighs out the same tension he’s been holding inside. He needed to get that off his chest. It’s a joke now. His feelings are a joke. And, you know what, it’s better that way. He won’t ask Eddie to come up to his apartment again. He won’t ask about Myra’s crazy ass behaviour again. He won’t spend another night waiting for something to happen, because it won’t happen, it’ll never happen, and it shouldn’t fucking happen — because Eddie in his right mind clearly doesn’t want it to.

Richie can entertain that. Richie can accept that. And Richie won’t ask anything from Eddie ever again except this glorious, agonising, beautiful fucking friendship. He won’t ask anything — he’ll just make jokes. It’s what he’s best at, anyway.

Chapter Text

Richie skulks onto the stage, legs slightly bent, arms swaying. He’s backlit and looking like a fucking Frankenstein’s monster with his weird blocky head and a jacket that’s too big for him. God, Eddie wishes he’d given the guy a posture lesson before letting him go up there. He’d look so much better if he just stood up straight for once — just owned his fucking height, man. Eddie thinks he’d look really good. 

(Like, really really good)

He should have introduced Richie to his tailor too.

“Hey guys,” says Richie easily into the mic. He glances around, smiling, and raises one arm high. “Some of you know me already, I’m Trashmouth Tozier.”

There are a couple of whoops and claps, and Eddie takes a glance around. The bar is dimly lit, but pretty full, the tables around the stage all suspending their buzz of conversation now to listen to the show. Eddie’s right at the front, off to one side. As he looks back at the stage, Richie glances at him, pauses a second, and winks.

Eddie stomach tumbles over itself. He feels like turning around to the women behind him and asking, is this guy… good-looking? Is this what you would call a good-looking man? He needs the opinion of a woman, he thinks, because he just can’t figure it out himself. He’d ask Myra but, you know — he can’t fucking do that, are you kidding? 

Holy fucking shit.

Objectively speaking, he thinks Richie might be… attractive. With his big goofy smile and his compulsive laughter and his eyes that dance and watch you, waiting for yours to dance back. He’s not wearing his glasses, which is weird, and Eddie would really like to know why. But he works the stubble, it’s true. He’s tall. He makes you laugh.

(Subjectively speaking, Eddie is attracted to him.)

This much he’s come to realise. It’s clearest now, with Richie up there in the spotlight, all ease and confidence when Eddie is sure he’s nervous as hell — all nasal and drawling when Eddie knows he stumbles over himself trying to hang up the phone — all unwitting, oblivious, when Eddie knows for a fact he sees and hears and knows a lot more than he lets on. And he feels a lot more than he shows. Just being all Richie, making Eddie want to jump to his feet and shout, hey, everyone, this person, he’s mine. He and I are each other’s. So if you don’t fucking laugh at his jokes I’mma beat all your asses, I swear to God. I’m not even fucking joking.

“So, uh, I think there’s some new faces out there tonight,” says Richie, doing a sweep of the room with one hand. “There’s one in particular…” He looks at the floor, breathes in deep, then looks up again with his face set. “There’s a very special person here tonight that I’d like you all to meet. He’s sitting right there.” 

Richie crouches slightly and points at Eddie, grinning manically.

Their eyes meet for a moment, and Eddie’s face is stretched out in horror and hatred and — oh my God, what the actual fuck is he doing? Richie keeps crouching, pointing, and clearly trying desperately not to break. That on its own gets a few laughs. Eddie mouths a few obscenities at him, gesturing frantically, and now Richie laughs aloud. Delighted with himself.

“Can you see him?” he cries. “That tiny, angry man in the red sweater? That’s my best friend Eddie.”

There’s something about the delivery that has the audience already sniggering, and people are sitting up and craning their necks to get a look at him. Eddie’s shoulders are up to his ears and it’s all he can do just to stop himself screaming at Richie’s shit-eating grin. 

I hate you, I fucking hate you, man!

“So, Eddie’s here as my plus one because I figured, if I’m gonna get heckled, I’d rather it be a good one. Better the heckler you know that the heckler you don’t, right? I’m putting him on the spot now. We’re all expecting great things from you, man.”

Eddie drops his head into his hands. Someone at the table next to him leans over to punch his arm and Eddie whips his hand out. “No! Fuck off!”

Richie, onstage, is watching this and laughing, and he hasn’t even made a fucking joke yet. This is so fucking ridiculous, and Eddie hates him, and yet there are people laughing like Richie’s laughter is contagious, and Eddie is fucking happy for him — but he hates him.

“So I’m like forty,” starts Richie, still smiling, finally on set. He laughs as someone shouts something incoherent up at the stage. “Woo, yeah, thanks a lot guys. I’m thinking I better settle down, buy a house, the works. I figure it’s a better investment if we go in on it together — me and Eddie, I mean.” Eddie blinks. Richie raises his hands, laughing. “Right? It’s a good idea — I think so, anyway. Ed’s wife didn’t agree on that one, unfortunately.”

Eddie lowers himself in his seat and brings his drink up in front of his face as the room laughs. Jesus Christ. He’s thinking, OK, not finally on set, because he’s still talking about Eddie — why the FUCK is he still talking about Eddie? 

Richie hasn’t looked over here in a hot second. In fact, Eddie’s pretty sure he’s avoiding his eye. Like, OK, maybe there’s a bunch of lights in his face and like fifty other people in the room, but no, fuck, he’s definitely avoiding him. Richie is grinning so bad, half-laughing, and yet somehow it works. It’s all part of the act. It’d be pretty funny, actually, if it didn’t make Eddie want to commit hot-blooded murder.

Richie loosens the mic from the stand, and seems to think before he continues. “Eddie and I met a month ago on a First Aid course. He’s — and this is not hyperbole — the most neurotic person I’ve ever met.”

It dawns on Eddie then, and all the blood rushes from his face. This is the set. He is the set. 

“He’s like Woody Allen, in any Woody Allen movie. Or — that’s an outdated joke, I think. He’s like any other lead actor in a Woody Allen movie. And, I’m serious now, I really hope no one in here is gonna need First Aid this evening because — well, first of all — I was too busy, uh, getting to know the CPR mannequin to learn anything about First Aid.” 

He stops for a second to mime a bit of abdominal thrusting, (still not hard enough, Eddie thinks) which swiftly transitions to a totally different type of thrusting. Eddie doesn’t even laugh, he just grins, almost proudly. He doesn’t know how, but Richie has managed to perfect the exact noise the mannequin made when the air was farted out of it, and intersperses that with his own dramatised sex noises. 

The laughter of the audience prickles the back of Eddie neck. It’s funny. It is funny. Eddie just thinks it was funnier at the time, that’s all.

“Yeah, she wasn’t much of a talker,” says Richie wistfully, “but she was toight.”

Eddie splutters on his drink.

“Second of all… Eddie Eddie here’s been going on this course for twelve years — twelve years! — and I think if someone in here was having a heart attack, he’d literally start having one himself.”

“That’s so not—!” starts Eddie, and then fists his hands. Everyone’s laughing. He spins around and hisses, “That’s my joke. He stole my fucking joke,” to nobody in particular.

“That’s his joke,” says Richie, and Eddie turns back to him in shock. “But to be fair it wasn’t a joke when he said it.” He grins at the laughter in the room. “Dead fucking serious. Eddie’s great. Eddie’s my best friend.”

It’s such an oddly childish thing to say, it gets another couple laughs. Richie is smiling so fondly. He’s leaning right into it. “I mean, Bill’s my friend, but Eddie’s my best friend.”

Holding onto the back of his neck, Eddie tries not to smile while looking at the table. His stomach is full of butterflies, and it’s strange. It’s strange how Richie is talking about him, and with such fondness, such unabashed affection. To a whole room full of people. And, yeah, he’s also making fun of him, that’s the whole fucking point, dipshit. But, for Richie, that’s just another form of affection. Which is why this is… almost overwhelming. Eddie hasn’t felt this loved since 

(Myra’s wedding vows)

he doesn’t know when.

(Jesus fucking Christ.)

“But, seriously, folks, making friends as an adult is weird. It’s fucking awkward. After the age of thirty you just shouldn’t make friends anymore. You have work friends, the best assholes in the world who are dead to you post six o’clock on weekdays, weekends and federal holidays. And college friends…”

Eddie jolts at a sudden buzzing in his jacket pocket. He scrabbles for his phone and blindly finds the off button. He holds it down, feeling the familiar contraction in his chest and trachea like someone’s deflating a balloon in there. He presses his other fist to his mouth, counts his breaths, until the phone goes still in his hand. His body freezes as he looks down at his pocket and realises what he’s done. 

(No! Fuck! This isn’t my fault! I fucking told her I’d be at a show!)

But what if there was an emergency?

(Well what if she did it on purpose!)

“It’s pretty rare to meet someone at the age of forty and think, oh, man, I wanna be friends with this guy.”

There’s a pause, and Eddie finds himself staring at the table. He can hear his heartbeat, he can hear Richie, and he can breathe. These are his words, again — Eddie’s words — and words Richie couldn’t even return the last time Eddie said them.

“It was awkward at first. We went out for drinks. We paid our own way. It was cool, you know.” Richie laughs. “I mean, it’s twenty-nineteen, you guys. I walked him to his train. And then I was like…” Eddie looks up at last to see Richie bow his head, and fiddle with the microphone cable. He glances up and down quickly. “So, uh, can I get your Steam username? I dunno, maybe we could play PUBG… or, yeah, I guess Fortnite works too.” He snorts, and crouches slightly. “At this point I’m thinking — shit, maybe this dude’s too young for me! It’s been awhile since I did, uh, multiplayer, you know.” 

Eddie brings his hands up to cover his face, which is quickly reaching boiling point. This is… no. This is bad. Richie is biting his lip, smiling, trying to hold his composure as he does the bit. And it’s all bullshit, none of that ever happened, but Richie’s put-on coyness is doing things to Eddie’s heart.

“Then we go on a couple lunch dates. We’re all fucking shy about it. Like, oh, I’d like to see you again, you know, if you want? Maybe we could get a drink after work sometime? And after that, uh, I dunno maybe you could come up to my place, uh, I got a spare controller… Wait — no way. No fucking way, you got Amazon Prime? I got Netflix, man! Oh my God, oh my God, this is so perfect. We can watch anything. We’re, like, so in sync. But, like, so different you know? It’s like we were just… I dunno, made for each other or something.”

Richie laughs, still avoiding Eddie’s eye, still with a shitty little smirk on his stupid fucking face.

“If it’s not moving too fast, maybe we can order takeout, go into a food coma together? I dunno, man, only if you want to. Before we know it we’re going in on a TV together — 4K Ultra HD, baby. He’s got a toothbrush at my place. I’m inviting him to my cousin’s wedding.” He blinks, and looks down at Eddie. “Oh, right, by the way…”

Eddie tongues the inside of his cheek and shakes his head, staring Richie down. Richie averts his eyes, snickering.

“Yeah. We’re adult friends.” He lets that hang, then blinks. “Uh, wait, that sounds… I mean, we’re friends, who do adults things — no, no, no, wait. Fuck.” He laughs along with the audience, though faux-nervously. He rubs the back of his neck, glancing around. He breaks then, actually grinning. “Just two dudes…!” 

He catches Eddie’s eye briefly, making a point of it this time. His laugh sort of fades out, and his smile becomes a little fixed. He clears his throat. “I mean, I dunno, unless…?”

The crowd goes nuts, and someone is shaking Eddie by the shoulder, but he’s non-responsive. Smiling slightly at the reaction, Richie sets the mic back on the stand. “Alright, that’s all I got! Thanks guys!”

He scampers off the stage and is at the bar in a second flat, while Eddie is left shell-shocked at the table alone. He spins around to watch Richie get served his free drink, a shot of whiskey, and as he waves his hand the bartender pours him one — two — three more.

Eddie’s half up in his seat, just as the next act is being announced. Sitting back down out of politeness, he waits for Richie to come join him. But he doesn’t. By the time the next act is over, Eddie has wound up tight enough to set his heart rate monitor off. He gets up, strides over to the bar, and Richie glances up just in time to mutter, “Oh, fuck,” and throw his hand up over his face. “Ah, no speaka da English!” he cries, twisting around in his seat.

“OK, Ricardo,” snaps Eddie, “then who the fuck was that up there?”

“Me no know,” says Richie, pouting and shrugging.

Eddie rubs his temples, feeling like a cartoon character with a hot red face and steam coming out of his ears. “Fuck. You’re such a fucking idiot.”

Richie laughs, then presses both hands to the bottom of his face, groaning loudly.

“I mean, what the…?” Eddie gestures vaguely. “Fuck? Honestly? What the actual fuck?”

“Look, I know — I’m sorry,” says Richie quickly, glancing around. He snatches up his glass, taking a mouthful. It skitters as he drops it back on the bar. “It’s just, I was doing some improv with the guys a couple weeks back and it — well, it became this. It became that.” Richie’s head drops, and he sighs. Making a noise that’s probably supposed to be a laugh, he looks up at Eddie. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to my comedy, apparently.”

(“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”)

Eddie looks down, biting his lip. “Yeah, alright, flattery,” he mutters. “Let’s see where that gets you, huh.”

Chuckling, Richie looks down as well. The bartender comes over, waiting expectantly, and Eddie pats Richie’s arm.

“You coming to sit down or what?”

Richie nods, his head hanging. He gets up, staggers, and catches himself with a heavy hand on Eddie’s shoulder. They look at each other for a second, wide-eyed, and Eddie’s whole body is alight.

Richie blinks. “Uh, sorry…” He looks around, and starts walking gingerly to Eddie’s table.

“Dude, how many shots you have?” hisses Eddie, holding onto his elbow.

“Only like three… Or four, I don’t fucking remember.”

They’re sitting barely five minutes when Richie’s head starts to bob. He catches himself, startled, the first time. Eddie kicks him the next time. Bracing his hands on the table, he stretches his mouth out into a grimace and bears with it until the next break.

“So, uh, here’s the thing,” whispers Richie, his eyes screwed shut. “I may have taken a Xanax. Cuz I was real nervous.”

“Jesus Christ,” says Eddie, turning to grab Richie as he sways in his chair. He reaches up and lifts Richie’s face to check his eyes, trying not to think about how fast his heart is beating. “Dude you can’t pull shit like this — not unless you’re at home, or on an international flight, or me.”

Richie shakes his head like a wet dog, then squints his eyes like that was a terrible idea. “It’s fiiiine — it fine! I just sleep it off!”

“You gotta get home first, dipshit. I’m getting you an Uber.” Eddie takes out his phone, wrinkles his brow at the black screen for a second, then shoves it back into his pocket. “Gimme your phone.”

Richie manages to walk himself out, Eddie following very close behind in case he needs to catch him again, and they make it out onto the sidewalk with Richie only slightly swaying. When the Uber comes, Eddie follows him into the backseat without thinking.

“No, no, no,” says Richie, “you don’t have to—”

“Fuck off. Give the man your address.”

Richie does, and squints sideways at Eddie, then curls into the corner of his seat.

Eddie assesses him silently, then sighs and looks out his window as the car pulls off.

(Did you expect him to curl up to you, man?)

Richie shifts lower and brings his arm up to use as a pillow. “When I was a kid I used to get carsick… Did you ever get carsick, dude?”

“That must be the one sick I didn’t get.”

“There was this tablet my mom gave me to make it better, but it used to knock me right out. Could barely hold my head up… barely open my eyes… This feels just like that.” He leans against the window, blinking drearily up at it. “I could never decide if it was better or worse than puking.”

Eddie sniffs, and it sounds so loud in the quietly rumbling car. “The meds are better — that’s so fucking obvious.”

“I dunno, man, I always felt better after puking.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t keep talking about puking,” says Eddie, glancing at the driving and back out his window.

Richie laughs. “Well, what should I talk about? What you thought of my show?”

“People seemed to like it,” says Eddie, too quickly. He clears his throat. “You got a lot of laughs, man. Good audience, I guess.”

Richie turns his head to look at him. “But what’d you think?”

Breath in his throat, Eddie looks back at him. He swallows. The car stops, and he leans gratefully towards the driver. “Is this it?” Turns out, Richie really does live close.

They extricate themselves from the car, Eddie sticking close to Richie’s side. When he tells him to lead the way, Richie looks down on him again with a pained expression. “No… look, I-I can make it from here, man.”

Eddie prods him sharply in the chest and Richie almost loses balance. “I’m coming,” he says, striding up to the building.

“I don’t want…” Richie runs a tired hand down his face as he follows. “Don’t want to make you uncomfortable…”

It’s not a big deal, Eddie wants to say, but he’s the one who made it a big deal in the first place. “It’s fine, whatever,” he says, waving his hands. “I don’t want you sleeping in a dumpster, man, getting raped by hobos and pissed on by mangey cats? You can fuck off right now if you think I’ll be best friends with a guy who slept in a dumpster, alright?”

“Wow! Harsh, much?” asks Richie, laughing a little weakly. “I mean, I hate to tell you this now, but this one time in college…”

Laughing, shaking his head, and still laughing, Eddie waits for Richie to catch up and open the gate. He stays right by his side, ready for Richie to lean on him whenever he needs to, but they make their way up to Richie’s door without issue.

(Did you want him to lean on you, Eddie?)

Once inside, Richie tumbles into the first room and falls face down on the bed. He stays there, unmoving. Eddie sits down next to him and sighs. Richie’s breathing is already heavy — a rumbling beginning in the back of his nose. Eddie is so aware of his own

(body)

breath — how large it is, how full. The room smells like Richie. Eddie doesn’t know how he knows Richie’s smell, but he does. He sighs again.

(This isn’t how I imagined coming home with you, man.)

He checks the pulse in Richie’s wrist, for no reason at all, just enjoying the warmth of the skin under his fingers, ignoring the creeping shivers it sends over his flesh. 

(What did you imagine?)

There are coarse dark hairs on Richie’s forearm, the back of his hand, his knuckles. His skin is rough. Eddie lets go, and clamps his hands between his knees, and breathes out slowly.

He gets to his feet,

(walk it off, walk it off)

and leaves the room. First, to the bathroom, to explore a very bare medicine cabinet. Eddie takes the aspirin with him,

(for Richie, for Richie)

and heads to the kitchen, only to remember that most people don’t tend to have a second medicine cabinet in their kitchen — although that’s usually where all the best stuff is.

Back in Richie’s room, he searches his bag for more shit to stack on Richie’s nightstand, and writes him a note instructing him what to take and when to take it. The he turns and looks down at Richie. Over the covers, shoes still on. His face is all smushed into the pillow.

“Richie,” he says. “Richie, man, I don’t want you to swallow your tongue so I’m gonna put you into the recovery position. Don’t freak out, OK? I’m gonna touch you.”

(Great phrasing there, man, just fucking great.)

There’s no response, so Eddie inhales and climbs onto on the bed. He grabs Richie’s arm and tugs him onto his back. Christ, he’s heavy. He tilts Richie’s head back, straightens it, then lifts Richie’s hand to place on his cheek. He gets the knee up and rolls him over onto his side. He sighs again, and looks down at Richie’s stupid face and his stupid mouth hanging open and his stupid—

“Richie,” he calls, a little louder than last time. “Buddy, your contact lenses.”

No response, so Eddie shakes him gently. Then roughly. Then shouts into his ear. “HEY ASSHOLE.”

“Whassa?” mumbles Richie, one eye twitching.

“You gotta take out your contacts, man.”

Richie swears low and long. He groans like a little kid. “Don’t wanna. You do it.”

Eddie might slap a bitch. He jolts to his feet, muttering profanities, and leaves the room. Back to the toilet. Grumbling, he takes out his phone to quickly Google contact lens removal before realising his phone is still switched off. There’s a slight sucking sound as he gasps for breath. Pressing a hand over his mouth, he swallows it, and puts his phone away. He proceeds to wash his hands, pumping the hand soap perhaps a tad too violently. Back of the hands, between the fingers. He whistles a song his mom taught him to remember the steps. 

Thinking of mommy, wow. Better or worse than thinking of Myra?

(Better or worse than thinking of Richie?)

He marches back to the bedroom, determined. Kneels again on the bed. Richie’s brow wrinkles and his eyes flutter half-open again. Eddie leans over him, bracing one hand beside Richie’s head. Richie’s eyes widen slightly, and Eddie realises what a fucking terrible idea this was.

“Hold still,” he says anyway,

(because this whole thing’s been a terrible idea from the start. This evening, these past few months, this whole fucking friendship. All it’s been is this — this game of chicken, this dance of how long can we last, how close can we get before something happens. It’s all been leading to them, alone, in a room. Their faces three inches apart, Richie wetting his bottom lip with his tongue, Eddie’s heart in his throat)

lifting his hand to Richie face. He pauses.

“Fuck,” breathes Richie. 

“Um, should I be able to see them?” asks Eddie, tilting his head. “Can you at least try opening your fucking eyes, dickwad?”

Richie eyes blink furiously, rolling back in their lethargy. Eddie brings his other hand up to hold open the eyelid.

“Jesus fuck, your eyeballs are huge. What the fuck.”

“You should see my…” Richie trails off sleepily, then catches himself with a jolt. “Eyeballs.”

“Almost, man. You almost got there. So do I just pinch, or—?” Eddie makes an attempt and starts gagging immediately, and Richie splutters into laughter. Eddie tries to pin him down. “Hold the fuck still, man! Goddammit, Richie!”

Richie has his hands up to his face, suddenly hysterical. “Dude, I took ‘em out!”

“No, you didn’t! You did not! You’re gonna get an infection—”

“I did, I did it just a second ago!” He rolls over and coughs away the laughter, half-dead with exhaustion. It hits Eddie, and suddenly he’s clambering over Richie, his hands closing around Richie’s throat.

(Did you think that was gonna be romantic, man? Did you think that was gonna be sexy?)

(What did you expect to happen?)

Richie shrieks delightedly as Eddie pretends to strangle him, which just makes it worse, really. Eddie swears and rolls off him to lay on his back beside Richie in the bed. His breathing is hard 

(hard?)

but not difficult, not in the sucking

(sucking?) 

way, not in the dying way. It’s fast, but full. He can feel his whole lungs fill up with every short breath, lifting his ribcage, lifting his chest. His heart, beating out of that chest, has a whole lot of space in there, between those lungs. It’s all so warm, so roomy, so wonderful.

He’s calm, he realises. He’s happy. Of course there’s the pain, and the guilt, and the sheer fucking terror… but it’s getting smaller. It’s getting quieter. Richie has posters on his wall, some artistic renditions of old school horror movies and rock’n’roll bands and sci-fi classics. Eddie tries to remember the last time he was allowed have posters on the wall. He’s a grown-up, he has a mortgage, he can’t put posters up! He was a kid, he had one room in the whole house, but the wallpaper would fade!

There was a little room above the garage, though, that was plastered with ripped pages from comic books, cutouts from magazines, pamphlets from the Aladdin theatre. There was a boy who used to lay up there with him, each holding one corner of the comic book over their heads until their arms got too sore and they let it drop on their faces. He laughed a lot, laughed so hard he almost peed his pants. One time, he really almost did. Eddie never worried about paper cuts, or UTIs, or sticky underwear back then. And the boy always read faster than him. 

There were boys who played baseball out in the yard behind the trucking station, boys who ran like lightning or smashed home-runs out to infinity. They might throw him a glance if he collected foul balls for them. He couldn’t play — he wasn’t allowed. But he’d catch that glance, oh, he sure would catch it. 

There was another boy, with a grown-up bike. Eddie remembers gripping the back of the boy’s t-shirt as he rode on the carrier, legs shaking trying not to hit the wheel, whole body rigid trying to stay on. He can’t fall off! Can’t get a scuffed knee! His mom’ll kill him! They used to go so fast, wind whistling by. Eddie would gasp great lungfuls of laughter as he held onto that boy for dear life. It’d beat the devil, that bike. It’d beat the devil right out of him.

If it didn’t, his mom might have tried. But she never needed to — he did that all by himself. And you know what? Maybe he had no fucking choice. Maybe it was the only way to survive. There was a boy who struck him to the ground and twisted his arm back until it snapped. There was a boy — two boys — who were seen down in the quarry. And they were… they were… Eddie didn’t know what

(he does now)

but he knew it was bad, bad, bad. There was a gang of boys, and a young man. A young man with asthma. They beat him and they killed him. That was this year. Not much news gets out of Derry, but that one reached him. Oh, that one reached Eddie alright. Just when he was thinking, you know, maybe it’s not too late for me.

“Did you hate my show?”

Eddie jerks upright, heart pounding. “Jesus Christ — you scared me.”

“M’pologies,” Richie groans. Eddie looks over, to see Richie’s hand extended on the bed, as if reaching towards him. Eddie’s heart is beating so fast. But it’s not going to kill him.

Richie’s frowning, eyes half open, brow all creased up. “Did you hate it?”

Eddie swallows. “… N-no.”

“Oh, gawd, you hated it.”

“I didn’t hate it. It was just, uh, strange. And overwhelming. Your entire set was about me.”

Richie groans and rolls over slightly towards Eddie. “Man, you’re so good at like, talking about shit. Talking about feelings. I can’t do that, y’know. I’m so bad at it. I’m so bad, I just make jokes.” He turns his head, shaking it, eyes half-closed. “I just make jokes…”

“Yeah, I knew that already,” says Eddie, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. 

“Didja hate it?”

Eddie can feel his heart warming in his chest. He looks down at their hands, a couple of inches apart. He hadn’t realised it, not truly, not until tonight. He had been trying so terribly, so desperately not to. He was aware of Richie’s stares that linger maybe a little too long. But how do you know how long is too long? How do you know just by looking? If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s bad. If it’s bad, it’ll make you sick. But Eddie is not uncomfortable. 

(He likes it, a little bit.)

No, fuck it, he likes it a lot. He wants Richie to keep looking, and he wants him to not look away if Eddie looks back. He wants to see what will happen if they look at each other longer than they should. What will happen if they’re alone together. Because everytime he’s with Myra, he thinks, I have to tell Richie I can’t see him anymore. But anytime he’s with Richie, or not with Richie, just not with Myra, he thinks, I have to tell Myra 

(I’m cheating I’m gay I’m in love with someone else)

well, everything, really.

Realistically, he’s a fucking coward so he’s not going to do either of those things. He’s just going to wait until things get out of hand. Things go too far. Something happens. And everything is ruined. 

Something. Jesus Christ, he still can’t even say it. But he knows it. Sitting in Richie’s apartment, on Richie’s bed, it’s hard to pretend like he doesn’t know exactly what that something is. He knew this evening, looking at Richie onstage, calling him his best friend. Watching Richie laugh away his feelings with no homo jokes, profess his love with no homo jokes, knock Eddie off his feet with no fucking homo jokes.  

“I loved it,” he says, and it’s true. 

(It’s also true that he loves Richie.)

Richie blinks slowly, a cautious smile finding its way into the corners of his mouth. “Whuh… really?”

Eddie nods. This warmth in his chest — it’s spreading. It’s melting his tensed up, frozen limbs. Trembling, Eddie clamps his eyes shut and lets his hand twitch its way over to Richie’s, just knocking into it, like the most sexually charged fist bump to ever grace a pair of adult friends. And after a moment, with just the slightest, sleepy movement, Richie brushes the back of one finger over Eddie’s knuckles.

Eddie exhales shakily, and it’s stupid how scary this is, how fucking electrifying this is. But Eddie has been dreaming about these hands for weeks, months, his whole fucking life. He cracks his eyes open and looks down, sees Richie’s fingers curl open, and lets his own slip through them. And holy fucking shit it’s warm.

This isn’t so bad. This isn’t so scary. He’s not gonna get sick. It’s not gonna kill him.

Richie lays his head back, and sighs, and meets Eddie’s eye blearily through tiny slits. 

God, if you were awake, Eddie thinks.

Swallowing thickly, Eddie squeezes the hand. “OK, I gotta go.”

“Noooo,” moans Richie, pouting and tugging at him. Eddie laughs.

“I’m leaving some aspirin, and this Diuralyte is for if you puke and you’re dehydrated after. Also, here’s some vitamins — take those first thing, with the aspirin.”

“OK, mom,” says Richie, and Eddie turns back to glare at him. Richie gnashes his teeth. “Huh — not sexy? That’s not sexy, huh?”

Eddie presses his lips together, trying not to smile. “You were trying to be sexy?”

Richie smirks back at him. “What… weren’t you?”

Biting his lip, Eddie looks down and shakes his head. 

“I mean…. I’m not gonna ask you to stay over, but…” Richie sighs. “You can stay…? And in the morning, I’ll make… I saw a recipe for oat flour pancakes, y’know. I can make oat flour, I got so many oats — sowin’ oats — oats abound. I saw almond milk in the store the other day, dude. I don’t even know how you milk an almond…”

Eddie laughs. One hand in his pocket tightens around his phone. “Um… how about you ask me the next time?”

“About… almonds?” Richie drones.

“N— no, you fuckwit.” Feeling flushed, Eddie yanks his fingers away. He stands up, wiping his hands on his jeans.

“Next time…?” mumbles Richie, and then his breath is rumbling again.

“Yeah,” says Eddie, grabbing his bag and backing up to the door. “Next time. I just gotta go ask my wife first.”

(Is that a joke? Are you seriously cracking jokes right now, Eddie?)

He laughs a little by himself. Richie’s dead to the world. Eddie takes one more look around the room, a couple deep breaths, before turning through the door and closing it behind him. He presses his back against the wood and lets his head fall back, sighing heavy. 

Eddie counts for ten breaths, though they’re becoming frantic and hard to measure. Hands shaking, he takes out his phone and holds down the on switch. He places his other hand over his sternum, his throat feeling tight. As he’s waiting for it to turn on, he tries to think of a time he won a fight with Myra. Like, it’s not like he’s never stood up for himself before. He just never wins.

He won one with his mom once.

Jesus fucking Christ.

He answers the call before the vibration even starts. “Hey. We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Hey

Are you free?

I need to talk to you

Richie stares at the messages that came all at once on Skype and thinks, welp, it was fun while it lasted. They had a good run, he and Eddie. Maybe more of a sprint than a marathon, and collapsing nowhere near the finish line. But hey. These violent delights have violent ends. 

Alright, Shakespeare, since when are you such a fucking romantic?

(Since Eddie, man. Since this fucking asshole right here.)

He rubs his brow, frowning, and clacks back a reply.

Richie: yah what up dude

Eddie: Can you meet me in Sleepy’s in 15?

Blinking, Richie glances around the office. Sleepy’s bar is right around the corner, he could leave right now and be fourteen minutes early. Also, do they not work in the same fucking building? Also, is it not ten forty-five in the morning? 

Equal parts dreading and hopeful, Richie’s fingers inch towards the phone. If he could just hear Eddie’s voice he could save himself a few minutes of hell. But, maybe Eddie was thinking the same thing.

(No no no you don’t know that, man!)

Richie: sure thing bud

Eddie: OK see you there

Richie watches as Eddie’s icon turns from green to amber. He stares unseeing at his monitor for ten minutes, then shouts out a garbled excuse and grabs his bag to go. Inside is what could be the loot of a drugstore robbery, all the shit Eddie left in his apartment Saturday night. Suddenly he’s thinking about keeping it. It might be all that’s left of this friendship, after this. 

(I mean, you never know, though…)

That, and the note Eddie left. Richie spent all Sunday gazing at that chicken-scratch handwriting, heart eyes, floating on air. 

Hey butthole, it read. 

The fucking romance of it.

He’s had The Beatles stuck in his head all weekend. I wanna hold your hand. Richie feels like a fucking twelve year old, all giddy and gay because of some vaguely non-platonic physical affection. Another notch on the ol’ belt, that’s all it was. Another feather in the cap! Another minute on the ol’ refractory period! 

He’s been single way too long, dude.

Richie walks into Sleepy’s — which he always thought was a creepy place, by the way — half-full of early birds and buffet bangers during the day and mysteriously empty at night. Sure enough, the place is dead except for a couple of seniors eating full breakfasts and a couple of suits doing dodgy dealings over filter coffee. Eddie’s waiting for him at a table near the back, shooting to his feet when Richie walks in. Richie stomach lurches at the sight of him, and not in a very sexy way. 

“The fuck happened to you?” asks Richie, throwing a glance at the bar as he bustles over.

Eddie blinks a couple of times. “What? I’m — what? I’m fine.”

“You look fucking terrible,” says Richie, and it’s true. The guy looks like serious horseshit — eyes sunken and darkly shadowed, pale as a sheet, and thin. He looks like he hasn’t eaten or slept in days, like a light breeze would blow him away. The contrast from Saturday night is shocking — the low light of the shadow of the stage, warm red candle on the table. Eddie’s eyes sparkling, smiling shyly, locked with his. It made Richie fall in love with him all over again, twice over. Now Richie just wants to wrap him in a blankie and make him some fucking soup. Get some bread in that belly, Jesus Christ. Gluten-free bread, whatever. Then comb his fingers through his hair while he sleeps.

Richie lugs his satchel onto the table. “Is this ’cause you gave me all your vitamins, man? Shit, I didn’t realise it was a life or death situation for you.”

“Shut up, just — shut up.” Eddie runs his hands through his hair a couple times, eyes darting around the room. “I’m fine, I just haven’t been — feeling well. I’m fine.”

“Dude, you didn’t go to work like this, didja?”

“They sent me home.” Eddie stops, inhales and says, “So, uh—”

“Hey, is it lunchtime? Are we having lunch?”

“No, I — I’m not hungry. This should be quick—”

“Two menus, please!” shouts Richie, throwing his hand up. Eddie scowls at him, and smiles apologetically at the waiter when he comes. Richie flips his open and starts scanning. “I’ve never eaten here before, have you? Do you want a drink? Do I need a drink?”

“Rich,” says Eddie, and Richie glances up. Eddie swallows and looks down. “So, um, I just wanted to let you know, I’ll be, uh, pretty busy in work for the next… while. So I won’t be able to hang out… with you.” 

Eddie inhales then and seems to hold it, glancing up with those big fucking Bambi eyes. 

Richie lets out a little whine.

“Awh!” he cries, trying to recover it.

“Yeah,” says Eddie, and clears his throat. 

“Well, what about the weekends?”

“We’re doing some, uh, home improvements…” 

(Wow, good thing you didn’t get your hopes up, man.)

Richie’s face is stuck in a stupid smile. “Hey, uh. Is everything OK?” he asks, grasping for the strings as they start to unravel. “You look like… real garbage, man. You look like a real garbage man.”

“Mm-hmm, everything’s fine,” says Eddie, voice high and nodding fervently, which really feels like a code or something because his eyes are pleading another story.

“… You sure, dude?”

Eddie looks at him, fists clenched on the table. He swallows again, Adam’s apple bobbing. “No, I-I’m sorry, I’m lying, I don’t know why I— fuck, this is fucking hard.”

“That’s what she said,” says Richie, nodding sympathetically. Eddie shakes his head wildly and throws his hands up. Richie laughs nervously. “Sorry — I’m so sorry. But — what the fuck, man, did you really think you could dump me that easy?”

Eddie cringes and

(oh lawd the PHRASIN’)

Richie’s brains bombs out like a synaptic 500 error.

“Um, I’m sorry about the other night,” he says, in the smallest voice he’s ever heard come out of his mouth. “I swear, it wasn’t on purpose — I-I wasn’t trying to—”

“No — what?” says Eddie. “No, no, no. It’s not that.”

“Then what?” Richie laughs. “Are you mad cuz I best-friendzoned you?” 

Eddie blinks. “ARE YOU,” he starts, then hisses, “fucking kidding me? You fucking fuckwit, oh my God, you’re so fucking stupid. It’s not you. You didn’t do anything. It’s not about you.”

“It’s not about me that you can’t hang out with me anymore?”

Eddie shakes his head, eyes wide. “It’s not you.”

Richie raises his eyebrows at him. “It’s not you, it’s me? Is that it?”

“No, it’s — it’s—”

(it’s us)

“— it’s Myra,” Eddie whispers, glancing around like she might bust up out of the floor like corpse bride 2.0 — corpse abusive wife. He looks back at Richie, brows tilted up in concern.

Richie breathes. His stomach is cramping up, fucking sick to his stomach from that look on Eddie’s face. His voice is all soft again when he speaks. “What… Myra asked you not to see me anymore?”

 “No,” says Eddie. “She told me not to.”

Richie laughs. He laughs again, and then he leans back, running both hands over his face to try and wipe off this stupid fucking smile because all he wants to do is cry. “Look… you don’t have to do this.”

Eddie laughs dryly. “Uh, yeah, I really think I do.”

“No, you don’t, man.” Richie’s voice is cracking. “You really don’t. You know, I — I know I’m an asshole and I can’t be serious for half a second but, you know, you can talk to me. You can tell me what’s going on.”

Eddie shakes his head, his mouth pressed into a hard line. “It’s my — it’s my fucking marriage, Richie. It’s between me and my fucking wife.”

Richie pauses for a second, letting that settle. “Does Myra tell you you can’t talk about your marriage problems with other people?”

Eddie looks at him, chewing his lip.

“Because, you can, you know. Actually, you need to. Because otherwise, you just have one person telling you what’s right and what’s wrong, you know? What’s normal and what’s—“

(fucking bonkers)

“…not.” Richie swallows, watching Eddie’s face carefully. “You need a support network, man. Everyone does.”

Eddie just stares at the table.

“And it’s fucking — it’s not OK for her to tell you who you can and can’t see. You know that, right? It’s not on.”

“Richie…”

“I mean, do you want me to talk you out of it? ’Cause I can do that, man. I can talk all day, I could talk the hind legs off a donkey. Hey, I bet I could talk the hind legs off Myra! Why don’t I—”

“Richie, I think—”

“Man, c’mon just tell me what happened, we’ll figure it out. We’ll figure something out.”

“Richie, she has a point.”

Richie stops. Eddie’s hands are trembling on the table. His breaths are coming sharp.

“This is… crazy — I can’t — I can’t do this anymore, this needs to stop.”

“What?” says Richie, eyes widening. “What needs to stop — what are you talking about?”

“You,” Eddie breathes, “know.”

Richie raises his brow as far as it’ll go, and says, “I don’t know what you’re referring to, man.”

“Yes, you do! You fucking do!”

Eddie presses his lips together and jams his finger repeatedly into the table. “We. Are. Having. An. Emotional. Affair. You motherfucking. Asshole.”

Richie blinks. “Whaaaat? Noooo…”

Eddie clenches his fists.

“Oh, you mean that emotional affair?” Richie laughs. “The one we’re having? Why didn’t you say so?” He swallows dry, frowning. “So, OK, valid reason for Myra to hate my guts… But, here, look, counterpoint. Hear me out now—” 

Richie pauses, hands raised ready, waiting for the words to come. His brain is frying like a microchip. He can’t think. He has to think. Think of something to say. Bring it back home, bring it in, it doesn’t have to be like this. The whole point was — he was doing it — he was living with it, man, life in the best-friendzone. And, you know what? It wasn’t even that bad. Sure there was the yearning, you know, and the frustration and the crazy masochistic boners, and there was also his heart which kind of felt like it was bleeding all the time, but it was fine! It was so fucking fine! He wouldn’t let Eddie come up to his apartment, he wouldn’t flirt, he wouldn’t let them ever be alone together. He was there for it, anything, just so they could still see each other, just so he could have Eddie in his life. It was a slip up, the last time, it was just a brief loss of sanity because he was off his tits exhausted and Eddie was in his room, in his bed, but it was once, it was a one time thing, and it never had to happen again. 

It was working, man. It can still work. 

“Pick me.”

Richie’s eyes widen as he hears himself back. Eddie’s brow creases up, eyes rising up to meet Richie’s gaze.

“Just, pick me,” repeats Richie. His mouth broadens into a grimace. “Please. I’m — I’m fucking crazy about you. You can pick me, you know. I mean, do you know that? You just… You have that option, man.”

Eddie’s face crumples, and he shakes his head. “Richie…”

“C’mon, don’t make that face at me! I mean, why not?” Richie laughs a little. “I got like, nothing going for me but I still think I’d treat you better than Myra.”

Richie looks around — the waiter’s giving them a wide berth, the suits have left, and the retirees are playing cards. He wants to make a break for it. He wants to snatch that top shelf bourbon and drown himself in it. 

“Man, I got no guts.”

Disappointment sinking into his bones, Richie glances back at Eddie. 

“You know… um, Myra called me during your show.”

“What?” gasps Richie. “Rude!”

“I fucking know!” says Eddie, throwing his hands up. “So I, uh… I went home and I was, like, hey, you know, you can’t keep calling me all the time. I need some space every once in awhile. Sometimes I just can’t pick up the phone, you know? I’m allowed.”

Eddie’s hands are shaking. He runs them through his hair a couple times, flattening down his neck.

“I was gonna lead with that. You know, I was gonna lead with that, see how it went, and then I was gonna… get into the other shit.”

“Holy shit,” breathes Richie. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, yes, stupid,” snaps Eddie. “It doesn’t fucking matter, though, does it? I never fucking got that far, did I? She just — I was the bad guy, from the start. I go in there just trying to assert a fucking boundary, and suddenly it’s my fault. Immediately, it’s my fault. We end up fighting for like five hours, and then she’s telling me it’s gone too far and I can’t see you anymore, and I tell her that that’s crazy, and she really doesn’t like that, and then she’s telling me if I care about her at all I’ll do this one thing and I say that, you know, it’s not fair to argue me into a corner like that, and then she’s asking me why I care more about your feelings than hers, and I—”

He cuts off, raising his hand up to his head.

“And, I mean, on the one hand, I’m like, Myra. Honey. It’s because your feelings are fucking irrational!” He laughs a bit, bizarrely, and then immediately frowns again. “I didn’t say that. But on the other hand. It’s ’cause. You know.” He stares at Richie, making a face. He gestures rapidly between them.

“Yeah,” says Richie. “No, for sure.”

Eddie bows over and tugs at his hair. “Christ — I can’t say it. I can’t even say it.” He raises his head, leaning over the table, eyes pleading. “I can’t do it, Rich. OK? Do you get it? I tried. I really tried. But I can’t do it, I can never do it, I’m too fucking scared.”

“That’s not true,” says Richie quickly. “And — look, I’m right here. You don’t have to do this alone. I can call Bev, she’ll know exactly what to do, a-and—”

There’s some noise from the corner, and Eddie’s distracted. Richie reaches across the table to touch his hand.

“Eds, I’mma call Bev, OK? Is that OK with you? She’ll know what to say.”

“Richie,” croaks Eddie, eyes flicking back to him.

Voices in the corner of the bar are raising, and Richie’s spinning around in his seat to tell them to put a sock in it when he catches the words. Catches the concern.

“Is there a doctor — anyone?” comes a loud voice. “Is there a doctor in here?”

Cards are scattered on the floor. The waiter slips on one as he rushes over. One of the old men is standing now, leaning over the other who is slumped in his seat.

“Holy fucking shit!” cries Richie, chair knocking back. His hands fly out to grab Eddie, but he’s already gone. He’s marching over to the corner, pulling his tie loose as he goes. 

“I know First Aid,” he says, gently pushing himself to the front, and as they see him the others part like the red fucking sea. Richie watches him, with his thin frame, his gaunt face. He assures the man who shouted with a confident nod. “I know First Aid.”

The next twenty or so minutes are a blur. Efficient, methodical, Eddie checks the man’s responses, checks his pulse, his breathing. Ten seconds, Richie thinks, it’s only ten seconds but it seems to last forever. Eddie gets help to lay him down on the floor. Asks staff if there’s an AED — there isn’t. Asks for 911 to be called — they’re on it.

Calls for Richie — asks him how he’s doing.

“Me?” asks Richie, pointing dumbly at himself. “I’m — fine? Not so sure about that guy, though.”

The waiter turns and stares at him. Richie barely registers it.

Eddie looks up, meeting his eye. “You up for helping me out a bit?”

Richie blinks, and shuffles over. The people part again, and he’s starting to think Eddie actually has some sort of magic power. He kneels down beside the man, opposite Eddie.

“Count for me,” says Eddie. He rolled up his sleeves at some point, and he takes a short moment to position his hands properly over the sternum. On the course, they said the compressions should move the chest down two inches. Richie had thought, what! Two inches! That sounds like so many! Now Richie understands why Eddie always told him to push it harder. Eddie presses down, strong, steady, rhythmic. He asked Richie to count with him, but he’s got it. He’s so got it. He’s got such tiny hands, but he’s so strong, he’s so strong. He’s half dead with stress but he’s so goddamn fucking strong.

(Richie’s not crying definitely not crying definitely not fucking crying)

Thirty pumps. 

“Watch his chest,” says Eddie. Then he inhales, and leans over to give the first rescue breath. Richie has to force himself to look at the chest as it rises — he’s freaking out a bit. But it rises, it rises. He shouts something out, but Eddie’s eyes are open, watching — he already knows. Second breath. One second. Lasts forever. 

The chest rises. 

Position his hands, thirty more pumps. Arms straight, full upper body weight. Eddie’s sweating. Open the airway again — two rescue breaths. Eddie’s watching the man’s chest. Richie’s watching Eddie’s mouth. He catches himself, tries to be helpful, checks the nose for breathing while Eddie pumps.

It feels like fucking hours. The waiter tells them later it was about ten minutes. Then the EMT is just suddenly there, and Eddie removes himself from his position. Someone has to drag Richie away. They circle around and find each other, grasp each others arms, eyes trained on the scene before them. Defibrillation starts. One pulse — they check for breathing. Check for pulse. And — oh, they got it.

They fucking got it.

Richie presses a hand over his mouth and quietly sobs. He places his other hand on Eddie’s shoulder. Eddie stares blankly as they put the man on a stretcher and take him away. The other man is, like, hugging them and shit. The waiter passes Richie a tissue.

Eddie raises a hand and brushes his fingers against his temple. He blinks, then turns to Richie without looking at him. “Can you grab my bag?” he breathes. 

Richie nods, and stares after him as Eddie half-jogs to the john.

Richie wanders back to the table, snatches up both their bags, and glances around before following Eddie.

“Eds?” he whispers, elbowing through the door of the men’s room. “You OK, bud?”

“Y-yeah, yeah, I’m pretty good!” 

The door of the middle stall is half-closed. Richie glances around innocently, feeling flushed, and shuffles inside. 

(Hey this is just like college!)

Richie turns his back against the door. Eddie’s sitting on the closed toilet lid, head between his knees, and he straightens up when Richie enters. He laughs, and it’s an actual laugh, and it’s a full-on, blindingly beautiful smile. He takes his bag from Richie and starts rummaging in it. “Dude, I thought I was gonna have an asthma attack, but I’m good. I think I’m good, Richie!” 

Richie blinks. “What — asthma? I didn’t know you had asthma.”

“Well, that’s because I don’t!”

“Huh?”

“My hands are shaking,” he says, and lifts his hand up to show Richie. Richie takes it, feels it, then clasps both his hands around it. Eddie exhales, looking up, and grins. “It’s just adrenaline — I feel totally fine.”

“Are you sure?” asks Richie, his voice wet. He lifts one elbow to wipe his face again.

“Yeah.” Eddie squeezes his hand, smiling up at him. “What’s with you, you big baby?”

“I’m—” A sob wracks up and Richie’s hands fly to his face. “What the fuck, man? What the actual fuck? I was so scared! That was so fucking scary! How the fuck are you OK right now? How the fuck did you just do that?”

“Uh, I dunno, I have a high-stress job?” says Eddie. “I’ve been doing that course for twelve fucking years?”

“Dude! You just saved a dude’s life!”

“It took too long, though, he’s probably gonna have moderate to sever brain-damage, honestly—”

Richie’s brain is exploding. He throws his hands up, almost crashing against the walls of the toilet stall. “HE WASN’T BREATHING. HE HAD NO PULSE. YOU BROUGHT HIM BACK. HE’S FUCKING ALIVE.”

Eddie jumps to his feet, trying to yell over him, and giggling a little bit instead. “Jesus, Rich, stop shouting!”

“You think you got no guts, man?” shouts Richie. Eddie blinks, drawing back slightly. “Dude, you got the biggest balls I ever saw! You’re a fucking necromancer, man! You just stared death in the face and told him to suck a dick! Holy fucking shit, Eds, you’re a fucking hero! You’re my —”

Richie’s interrupted by Eddie’s body crashing into him, arms flung around his shoulders. Richie grunts and staggers a bit, but quickly finds the strength in his arms to wrap around Eddie and squeeze him tight, so tight, bending at the knees so he can press his face into his shoulder.

“—Hero,” he finishes, muffled now. “You’re my fucking hero, Eds.”

“Shut up, you fucking dork, oh my God,” laughs Eddie, face pressed into his chest. Richie can feel Eddie’s ribcage swelling and falling against his own, feel Eddie’s hands drawing across his shoulders, feel his small frame trembling as it’s held within his arms. Richie can’t help it — he noses into Eddie’s hair, and Eddie makes a few breathy noises and clings to him tighter.

(Oh?)

Eddie’s face moves against his, lifting until Richie can feel Eddie’s breath on his ear,

(oh fuck)

and their cheeks slide along each other’s

(oh)

and their lips brush — just brush, at first. Then Richie’s hands are either side of Eddie’s face and Eddie’s hands are in his hair and they’re crushing their lips together like it’s the end of the fucking world or something. And the words kiss of life come to Richie, dazedly, unsure if it’s a joke he hasn’t thought of yet or an awakening. Because, oh, he feels awake. He feels alive.

(He didn’t know he was living half-dead.)

And — they’re kissing — holy fucking shit, they’re kissing.

This really is like college!

Eddie is rapidly sinking against him and Richie is hard, he’s so hard, he’s aroused to fuck already and he’s been waiting for this despite never really believing it could happen. Eddie’s mouth is urgent and eager against his, and Richie can feel the stress bundled up in his shoulders and the little jump he gives when he leans too far against Richie’s hips—

“Uh, ah, please ignore that,” says Richie, staggering half a step back. “That’s just the, uh, adrenaline.”

Eddie drops his head again and laughs into Richie’s chest. He’s practically vibrating with whatever combination of terrified-turned on-traumatised he’s going through right now, and Richie is right there with him. He can’t actually feel his face. So he bites his lip, and squeezes Eddie’s shoulders, lifting a shaky hand to touch his hair.

Eddie pulls back a bit, blinking and looking down. He slip his hands down Richie’s chest and his eyes widen. “Holy shit, I’m dizzy. I’m dizzy as fuck.”

“Oooh, baby, I still got it,” says Richie, rubbing his hands vigorously up and down Eddie’s back. 

Eddie shoves at him, but slumps again, feet falling from under him as he tries to move. “Hey, uh — shit, I’m serious, I think I have fatigue.”

“No wonder, that was fucking intense, man.”

“Yeah, it was.” Eddie pauses. “Wait, did you mean the, uh—”

“The kiss, obviously.” Richie puckers his lips and bends his head to blow a giant raspberry into Eddie’s neck. Eddie starts wailing on him immediately, yelping and flailing. Richie giggles. “The kiss of life, if you will!”

“You’re so fucking stupid.” Smiling, Eddie smooths his hands over Richie’s shoulders, momentarily distracted, then shakes his head. His brow knits. “Hey, uh… do you think you could drive me home?”

Richie opens his mouth, and then closes it and swallows. “Yeah, yeah, of course, man. No problem. I got you.”

“OK, thanks.”

They look at each other for another moment, unsure, unwilling to let go. Richie frowns, and reaches up to touch Eddie’s cheek. Eddie’s eyes widen, and then he looks down. He steps back, snatches his bag up, and squeezes past Richie to exit the stall.

(Ruh-roh, Richie)

Richie doesn’t know how he fucked up, but he definitely fucked up. They cross the street and turn the corner to the office parking lot in silence. Richie wants to make a joke about the gigantic ass Cadillac that Eddie hands him the keys to, make a joke about being an accidental gold-digger, make a joke about the fact that that kiss didn’t feel like a goodbye kiss, so is this it? Are they doing it? Or are they saying goodbye? Only that’s not funny, it’s a fucking tragedy. Oh boy, oh boy, this really isn’t funny at all.

Eddie falls asleep in the car, and Richie breathes a sigh of relief. It’s still the middle of the day so the city traffic isn’t so bad, but it’s still an hour to the suburbs according to Maps and Richie doesn’t trust his mouth to keep shut the entire way. Because, you know, 

(THEY JUST FUCKING KISSED)

Eddie’s acting like things are normal but

(THEY KISSED THEY KISSED THEY ACTUALLY KISSED)

now he’s going back home already and,

(THEY MADE OUT IN A TOILET HOLY FUCKING SHIT)

like, what the fuck does that mean? 

What does it MEAN? What ARE they? Richie once broke up with a chick for asking WHAT ARE WE. He’s so, so, incredibly fucked right now. And he fucking knows it. But, what’s he supposed to do?

Is it too late to fight? Richie’s never been good at the whole fighting thing. When Sandy left

(and that was years ago, man, that was his only semi serious relationship, that was still blasé as fuck because fuck talking about feelings man he can’t fucking do it)

he didn’t fight for her. He didn’t chase her. He didn’t beg her to stay. It was about their jobs, and neither of them wanted to sacrifice shit for someone else, and he thought they were probably right, you know? But he had seen their future together and he never told her that. He got the fucking snip because who cares, whatever — but he never told her she was the only one he wanted to shoot his blanks inside of. He laughed on the phone with her after she had her first kid with that New York guy. But he never told her he wept like a baby when he found out.

Richie doesn’t know how to fight for someone. He doesn’t even know if that’s an OK thing to do. Because Myra’s got to be pulling out all the stops begging Eddie to stay if he tries to leave, or blackmailing him, or guilting him, or whatever it is she does that makes him look the way he looks today. But is it emotional manipulation to say, hey, I love you, pick me? 

Fuck, no, he already did that.

(Did he really fucking do that?)

But that was before they literally fucking kissed.

Pulling up into the drive like he owns the place, Richie leans over to peer at the house with its lawn and its pebble-dash and its big fucking garage. He elbows Eddie, who stirs awake.

“Hey,” says Richie, “man, I hate to bring this up but I think you got robbed.”

Eddie squints at him, sleepy and suspicious. “What?”

“Yeah, they even took your picket fence, man.”

“Fuck off... Help me inside.”

Richie makes a face, but opens the door and follows Eddie into the house, hands in pockets. Eddie doesn’t need help, what’s he talking about? Richie’s the one who needs it, ol’ buddy ol’ pal. Nothing can prepare him for walking into that house, but even so he wishes he’d thought this through. He should have stayed in the fucking car. Because there’s the fucking wedding photo above the mantle 

(wow OK)

and the fucking holiday photos

(WHOA OK wait WHAT)

and the groove in the sofa

(NO NO NO do NOT make a fucking joke, man!)

and it’s a big ass — it’s a big ass groove. It’s a—

Richie is gagging on the joke when he notices the smaller groove, with the pill bottles on the end table next to it.

(Jesus Christ, Eds.)

There’s also the TV he helped Eddie pick out, and a little thrill in Richie’s chest. He looks around, as banging and cursing comes from the second floor. He tiptoes over and starts climbing the staircase.

“Uh, does this mean you changed your mind about the threesome, dude?” he calls. “Cuz I gotta say, at this point I won’t settle for anything less than polyamory.”

“What? I can’t—”

“Your wife’s a—” He halts at the top step, peering into the landing to see an open stepladder ascending into the ceiling.

“Catch?” 

“Huh?” 

Lunging to catch the object Eddie launched down form the attic, Richie straightens up to find a large suitcase in his arms. He drops it as Eddie climbs back down with another, and marches him to the bedroom. Eddie searches under the bed, yanking out a duffle bag, and bustles off again.

Richie screws shut his eyes. Eddie’s room. Eddie’s bed. Eddie’s wife’s pyjamas on her pillow.

“Hey,” he calls out, eyes still closed. “Where you guys keep the sex toys? Just wanna know what kind of shit I’m getting into. I’m open-minded.”

There’s some crashing from the bathroom, and Eddie storms back into the bedroom brandishing a little white tube of plastic — an inhaler. Triumphant, he grins.

“So, wait, you do have asthma?” asks Richie, following with his eyes as Eddie chucks the duffle bag — now full of clinking medicine bottles and pillboxes — onto the bed.

“I do — no, I did. I mean, my mom told me I did.” He throws open the first suitcase and turns to the wardrobe, yanking shirts and slacks from hangers and shoving them inside. “But when I was, like, twelve, the pharmacist told me it was — it was bullshit. I never had asthma, my mom lied to me.”

“What? That’s so fucked up!”

“Yeah,” agrees Eddie, flinging open the chest of drawers and grabbing up an armful of socks. “Hey, could you help me with this?”

“Uh, sure.” Richie stands and starts to help, as Eddie starts filling the second suitcase up with polo shirts.

“I mean, at this point I think I get it. It’s dumb, but the placebo worked, you know? Even when I knew it was bullshit. It’s, like… it’s easier to have a fake illness that’s treatable than an illness you don’t know the cure for, right? An illness that there is no cure for?”

Richie squints and looks up. “What the fuck you talking about, man?”

“The pharmacist, Richie — he told me it was in my head. Not that it wasn’t real, but — you know, it’s so much harder to fix that shit. I tried just about everything to make it go away, but… But it’s like what you said, about the car sickness. Sometimes the medicine makes you sicker than the sickness does.”

“Are you talking about being gay, man?” 

Eddie halts, looking up. “What? That’s not a sickness, what the fuck! Shit, dude — I’m talking about my fucking anxiety!”

Richie blinks. “Oh, oh, right, I’m sorry. I thought you—”

“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Eddie yells. He puts his hand to his head and drops it, laughing. “I mean, that’s…” He glances up, meets Richie’s eye, and immediately averts them. He laughs nervously. “Anyway, long story short I think I’m gonna go to therapy!”

Richie laughs too. “That’s great, Eds. I’m proud of you.” 

Eddie looks around at his packing, hands on hips, and sighs.

“Are you going on a trip or something?” asks Richie.

Eddie rolls his eyes, zipping up the first suitcase. “Can you take this to the car?”

“Uh, OK. Sure thing.”

Zombie-like, Richie takes the bags down one by one as Eddie fills them. When he comes back in Eddie’s in the living room, hopping from one foot to the other in front of the TV.

“Hurry the fuck up, dipshit, get the other side of this with me. One — two — fucking c’mon, Richie—?”

Richie is frozen in the doorway. “Dude, what the fuck’s going on? You’re freaking me out!”

Eddie stares at Richie, tonguing the inside of his cheek. He shakes his head, gesturing to the TV. “Look at this fucking thing. Man, you know why I bought this?”

“So you can play Breath of the Wild 2,” says Richie.

“Yeah.” Eddie laughs. “Cuz I had to play all of Breath of the Wild in fucking handheld mode because Myra needs to watch her fucking reality TV and also the cooking music gave her a migraine. So I bought this fucking TV to put in the back room and — you know what happened when I brought it home?”

Richie blinks, trying not to glance at any of the photos. He chokes a little. “She — ate it?”

Eddie stares at him. He curls his mouth up, steadies himself, breathes. “She said, it’s ridiculous to put a bigger TV in the back room. And I said, so if I put it in the sitting room are you gonna let me play on it? Because that’s literally the only fucking reason I bought the fucking thing in the first place?”

Richie scratches his head. “Well… what she say?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even remember how that fight ended, but now this TV’s up in here with the motherfucking Kardashian’s HD eyebrows on it, and I’m playing games in the back room in standard definition like an asshole. Well, I’m taking it. And I’m gonna put it in my shitty new rented studio apartment where it takes up three quarters of the room and costs twice the rent, and I’m gonna watch the sun rise over Hyrule in 4k Ultra HD, baby. It’s gonna be amazing.”

Richie squints at him. “You gotta rent a whole ass apartment just to play video games? I don’t—”

“What? No — I’m leaving, man. I’m leaving Myra.”

“You’re—”

(wait)

“—leaving Myra?”

Eddie shakes his hands up at him, yelling, “What the fuck did you think we were doing? Are you going on a trip — Jesus, Rich!”

For once in his life, Richie is speechless. It doesn’t last long. “You’re leaving Myra for me?” he yelps, pointing at himself.

“No, I’m… I’m leaving Myra for me.” Eddie bites his lip and glances up at him. “But, I, uh… I’m pretty crazy about you too, you know.”

He’s blushing, and Richie’s are blown wide. He giggles a little, starting to grin. Their eyes meet — and Eddie smiles back. And holy shit, this is better than holding hands — this is better than making out — just looking at each other like this — this is it, this is real, this is actually fucking happening. And it occurs to Richie that maybe you don’t have to fight for someone after all. You only have to fight together. Whether it’s against the issues in your relationship or the world trying to tear you apart or some other evil you don’t even know about yet. You just gotta fight that shit. That’s all you gotta do.

“So… what next?” asks Richie, scurrying over to grab the other side of the TV. “You gonna ghost her? I think you should ghost her.”

“I cannot — use your legs, stupid — ghost my wife.”

“Uh, I think you can, actually. You know, with abusive people it’s, like, better to cut off their power over you. If you talk to her she’s just gonna manipulate you somehow.”

“I know,” says Eddie, elbowing the front door open. “Careful on the — but I still can’t ghost her.”

“OK, well, I’m with you, man. Whatever you choose.”

Eddie frowns deeply as they kick open the back seat and pivot the TV inside. He brushes himself down and looks back at the house. Shoving both hands into his pockets, he removes the inhaler from one, his cell from the other. He swallows, mouth hardening, and glances at Richie with those worried eyebrows. “Am I a coward if just call her?”

“Dude,” says Richie, very serious, “there is no version of this where you’re a coward. Literally none. It’s not fucking possible. You got that?”

Eddie shakes his head, sighing a little. He gestures towards the house. “I’ll just check some last things and… call her, then.”

His eyes roam over Richie, reaching his gaze eventually. Brown eyed boy, sad-eyed boy. Richie just wants to make those eyes smile.

“You’ll wait for me?”

Richie nods, and Eddie nods back before turning to march back to the front door. He turns around again almost immediately. “If I’m not done in, like, thirty minutes can you just come in here and drag me away?”

“Can I ever?” yells Richie. “If you get out in five I’ll blow you right here in the street!”

(Too soon? Maybe that’s too soon.)

Eddie’s eyes widen — like comically wide — and he laughs shortly. He jitters back and forth for a moment before turning and sprinting into the house.

“Wow. Eager. That’s nice.” Clambering into the car, Richie turns on the radio. Waves to a neighbour. “That’s so nice. Hey there. Hi.”

He’ll never live that one down. He hopes not, anyway. They’ll laugh about it, though, they’ll laugh about it one day. In fact, he kind of hopes Eddie will keep laughing at him, with him, every day, for the rest of their lives.

Chapter Text

(Want a blowjob kid?)

Eddie shuts the door behind him and

(I’ll blow you for a dime)

stands there a moment and

(I’ll blow you right here in the street)

tries to breathe, but he can breathe just fine. If you’re alone and you think you’re having a heart attack there’s a chance you can save yourself by hyperventilating. Which is ironic because Eddie often hyperventilates and it sure fucking feels like dying. But, hey, he’s not dying. He’s not dying. It’s not gonna kill him.

His heart’s beating real fucking fast, that’s all.

Eddie looks around the living room, which looks fucking humungous all of a sudden, wondering how Myra will move the old TV out of the back room all on her own. He thinks about calling Richie back in to help him move it for her. He scoffs a laugh, and walks to the sofa. He eases the gold band off his finger and fiddles with it for a moment, unwilling to let go, like it’s magnetised to him somehow. Its ghost remains above his knuckle, its imprint, its tan-line. He places it on the coffee table and breathes, leaning forward on his elbows and running both hands through his hair.

(S’up, bitch! I’m leaving! I’m leaving you, bitch! )

Eddie takes his phone out of his pocket and hits the call button. There’s nothing in his stomach to puke up, but he might go ahead and puke anyway for shits and giggles. His whole body is shaking, an essential tremor of the nerves themselves, jittering under paper skin atop rattling bones. He hasn’t been feeling too hot. Hasn’t eaten in a couple days. He snatches the inhaler from his pocket and sticks it in his mouth, scrunching his eyes shut. The phone rings out and he can’t do this — he can’t do this — what was he thinking? he can’t fucking do this—

Hi, you’ve reached Myra,” comes the simpering voice. “Please leave a message and I’ll be sure to get back to you. OK, thanks, buh-bye.”

There’s the awkward pause, shuffling, and beep. Eddie’s frozen in place. The inhaler falls from his mouth and bounces from his knee to the floor.

“Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME?” he yells, snapping the phone down and hanging up. He clenches his fists wildly above his head, and — just screams.

(DOUBLE FUCKING STANDARD, BITCH! IF I DIDN’T ANSWER MY FUCKING PHONE YOU’D HAVE MY FUCKING HEAD YOU FUCKING PSYCHO! WHAT THE FUCK! WHAT THE ACTUAL GODDAMN FUCK! I ANSWER YOUR FOUR FUCKING THOUSAND CALLS A DAY WHETHER I’M DRIVING OR IN A MEETING OR TAKING A FUCKING SHIT! YOU STUPID CUNT! CUZ I KNOW YOU WORRY HONEY OH BOOOOY DO YOU WORRY! AND I SURE WOULDN’T WANT YOU THINKING I WAS DEAD WOULD I! WELL GUESS WHAT! I’M NOT FUCKING DEAD! OH NO! I JUST FUCKING CHEATED ON YOU AND I’M LEAVING! I’M FUCKING LEAVING YOU BITCH! HAPPY FUCKING MONDAY!)

Leaning over and blindly snatching the inhaler back up while redialing, Eddie mutters to himself, “Cunt, cunt, cunt, goddamn bitch, fucking cunt, fuck you, OK, fuck off — fuck.”

When the voicemail beep goes, all the air sucks out of Eddie’s lungs in one short gasp and he sits there a moment, emptiness in his chest and in his ear.

“Hey,” he coughs, and clears his throat. He feels like he’s just swallowed a knife. He realises he’s going to cry, and starts talking fast. “So, uh, I’m keeping the car — I know you hate driving that thing anyway. We’ll figure out the house and shit with the lawyers.” He shuts his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Fuck, shit, I… Sorry, fuck.” He hangs up, swears a bit more, then clenches his teeth and redials.

Eddie hovers the inhaler near his mouth and glances up at the photos on the mantle. His blood runs cold as the gaps between the rings seem to lengthen and stall. He shakes his head — no, no, it’s just his imagination. If she answers, he’s fucked — he’ll hang up the phone and maybe write a note or something. He doesn’t know why he thought he could do this. He can’t do this. But he has to, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he have to do it? Because he owes it to her? Because he married her? Because this was all his own fucking fault in the first place?

No matter what Richie says, he feels like a coward. Because Richie doesn’t know Myra. It’s easy for him to throw around words like controlling and manipulative and abusive when he doesn’t know her. Decide she doesn’t deserve any better, because he doesn’t know her. He may not be wrong, but he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know why she is the way she is, he doesn’t know her insecurities, her past, her greatest fucking fears. But Eddie knows. Eddie knows Myra better than he knows himself. Because they are no different. They’re no fucking different at all.

Myra understood him — sympathised — empathised. Which is why he couldn’t tell her — can’t tell her — can’t talk to her at all. If she hadn’t ranted and raved the other night — if he’d gotten as far as to tell her, “honey, I’m sorry, I’m gay as a three dollar bill,” — well, what if she’d understood that too? What if she’d said, baby, I don’t care, we can stay like this? We should stay like this. Don’t you think it’d be easier, Eddie? Don’t you think it’d be safer?

Wouldn’t you rather keep pretending?

“I-I want a divorce, Myra!” he shouts as soon as soon as the voicemail tone beeps, and gasps a breath of air. He laughs wetly, involuntarily, and clutches the inhaler to his brow. “I… I guess I should have led with that.”

His face twists. He’s said it out loud already, and yet saying it to her, even just to her fucking voicemail, causes a sudden tidal wave of grief. His voice is thick and hot tears start rolling down his cheeks. He shudders violently. “L-look, I… I-I know we said in sickness or health but this — there was never anything fucking healthy about this and I —I’m so sorry, I just — I want to get better, OK? I’m sorry — I want to get better. I hope you can too. I just — Jesus Christ — fuck!

He hangs up and throws his phone aside like hot iron. And then it just wracks out of him, the sobbing, one hand clutching his face. He curls over as he weeps, great gasping breaths, fast and choking in his lungs. Because he’s scared. And they were — so was she, you know? They were just scared.

They were supposed to be scared together.

Bzz…

Eddie’s head turns so fast he almost gives himself whiplash.

Bzz…

His phone, face down on the sofa, is lit up and ringing.

Bzz…

“Fuck, oh my God, oh fuck — oh my God.” He stuffs the inhaler in his mouth and triggers it, gagging on the stale taste. He splutters, groaning, then sprints to the kitchen sink, mouth to the faucet. He gargles for like ten minutes, intermittently shouting, “Fucking gross — that’s so fucking gross!” and, “What the fuck — why did I do that! What the fuck am I doing!” and, “Fucking gazebo piece of shit!”

When he emerges, dripping and cursing under his breath, the phone has stopped ringing. It starts up again a moment later. He grabs a tea towel and mops up his face, wandering back over to the couch. The ringing — it just keeps on going. He reaches down and flips the phone over. Myra’s picture on the screen has a saccharine smile that turns his stomach and clenches his chest. That inhaler has been in the medicine cabinet for years — just a backup. Just in case. He hasn’t had an actual attack since he was a kid — not ’til recently anyway. But it’s been creeping back in. Not the asthma, you know — the fear. He thought it was Richie. He thought it was himself. But it was her, man. It was her all along.

When it stops again, he picks up the phone and holds down the off button until the screen goes dark. The Myra on the mantle glares daggers at him, and he finds he isn’t afraid to meet her gaze.

“Fuck you,” he says, jabbing his finger up at her. “You don’t want me to get better.”

The inhaler and his ring make a happy little pair on the coffee table. Eddie takes one last look around before striding out the front door.

His left hand feels lighter as he walks up the lawn. His shoulders feel a little looser. His phone is silent and slips easily into his pocket.

His stomach does a little flip when he sees Richie’s face, bobbing along to music in the car.

“Easy peasy lemon squeezy?” asks Richie, smiling at him as he climbs into the passenger seat.

Eddie shakes his head. “No. But it’s done.”

Richie grips the steering wheel, eyes following Eddie’s hand as he brings it up to rub his brow. As he drops it, they both stare at the tan-line. Eddie bites his lip. Richie hums.

Awkward, Eddie glances at the time. “Hey — what the fuck. You didn’t come get me.”

“Oh, right, I instantly forgot about that,” says Richie, turning back to the wheel. He looks straight ahead and pauses. “I figured you had it in the bag.”

Eddie rubs his neck and looks down. “Th-thanks, Rich,” he says, smiling shakily.

Richie grins back at him, slapping the wheel. “Ready to go, then? Suburbs give me the fucking creeps.”

Nodding, Eddie takes a breath and turns to take one last look out the window at the house. Yeah, no, that’s long enough. Fuck that place. Fuck it all. He turns back, eyes forward, and breathes. He counts his breath. Counts to thirty. Thirty pumps, then two breaths. Easy peasy. He should have let Richie take over after a couple of rounds — if the ambulance took any longer he might have gotten fatigue. He should have kissed Richie for longer in that toilet too but it was dank and gross and he was freaking out a bit and it’s just occurring to him now that he has multiple people’s spit in his mouth and—

Eddie opens up the glove compartment and rummages around. “Gum?” he offers as he finally brandishes it.

“Sure,” says Richie, taking one and popping it in his mouth.

Right answer, thinks Eddie, smiling out the window as he chews his own. That’s the right fucking answer right there.


“So, this is me,” says Richie, stepping through the door into a narrow hallway Eddie remembers startlingly clearly from the night of the comedy show. Eddie walks in behind him, reaching forward to brush Richie’s hand as he goes. Richie turns, looking down, saying, “I guess you already—”

Eddie grabs Richie’s face and kisses him. He was hoping the second time might be a little less frantic, but his nerves are shred and his mind is whirring and he can’t stop thinking about

(Richie’s lips on his lips holy shit it’s so UUGGHH he’s so fucking NNRGGH oh my God)

kissing a man

(like FOREARMS man how did he never think about FOREARMS before and so much HAIR on the FOREARMS oh my GOD is it hot in here)

and kissing Richie

(his HANDS though Richie’s HANDS and the fucking SHOULDERS goddamnit)

and Richie kissing him back, because he is. And Richie’s arms around him, because they are. And Richie’s tongue in his mouth, and Eddie’s knees buckling, and Richie’s stubble chafing, and Eddie’s skin crawling,

(no no no wait)

and Richie smiling as he kisses him,

(yes yes yes yes yes oh god)

and Eddie overcome with sudden and sheer fucking delight. It outshines the brief panic, and smiling back, slowing down, Eddie takes his trembling hands which were — just everywhere a second ago — and holds onto the back of Richie’s neck, just there, stroking the hair, and just kisses him again. Richie’s hands sweep down Eddie’s shoulders and wrap around his waist, dragging him up and closer to his body. And he’s a man, and he’s Richie, and he’s kissing him. And kissing Richie is like.

It’s like ohhhhh.

Oh I see it now.

Yep.

This kissing thing.

It ain’t just hype.

Kissing Richie is also like Hhhrrnnnghh.

Capital H for HO LORD IT HORNY.

(Jesus fucking Christ that’s a Richie joke. That’s gotta be Richie rubbing off on him)

No, wait, that’s Richie rubbing off on him.

(Eddie can’t stop thinking about Richie’s cock man Richie’s cock against his hip like holy shit it was a cock and it was hard and it touched him through four layers of clothing but it was HARD and it TOUCHED him and oh my God it was a PENIS)

But kissing Richie is also — no, kissing in general has always been — like siren bells in the back of Eddie’s head wailing

(MOTHER EATING HER YOUNG)

and screaming

(MOTHER SMOTHERING HER CHILD)

and screeching

(HEY, WANT A BLOWJOB, KID?)

And Eddie doesn’t even know where that last one came from.

It’s not that, though — those sirens used to clang through his skull and push his consciousness right up onto the goddamn ceiling. But right now he’s in his body and the bells are at the back of his mind, at the base of his skull. His thoughts are wild, yeah, but his hands and his mouth and his body know what they want. They know what’s right and what’s good. So how can this not be good?

He should probably

(definitely)

go through this in therapy. But it’s all starting to make sense, you know?

“Hey, Richie—?”

There’s the click of a doorknob, and Richie springs back, throwing his hands up in the air. Eddie’s heart is in his throat. He twists to the opening bedroom door, where a drowsy looking man around their age is standing, gaping at them.

“Bill!” shouts Richie. “You’re here!”

“Um, yeah, I caught an earlier flight,” says Bill, wrinkling his brow. He glances briefly at Eddie, blinking fast, and back to Richie. He shakes his head, startled.

“You gonna introduce us, Rich?” asks Eddie, his voice high.

Richie’s eyes are bugging out. “Oh, shit — right. Uh, Eddie, this is my roommate, Bill. Bill, this is Eddie. My…”

The silence is truly deafening. Richie manages a quiet gurgling sound.

“Eddie,” says Bill, eyebrows high up his forehead. “Oh, this is Eddie?”

“I may have mentioned — offhand — uh, you probably don’t remember—”

“Roommate, OK, wow,” says Eddie, hand flying to his brow. “Phew. OK. Oh my God.”

“Why, what’d you—?” starts Richie. Their eyes meet. Richie snorts, then bursts out laughing.

“Oh,” says Bill again. “Oh. Shit. This is Eddie?

“What do you mean, this is Eddie? What’ve you been telling people about me, you fucker?”

“Nothing!” shouts Richie. “I don’t tell nobody nothing — I’m a closed fucking book!”

“Oh, boy — I am so, so sorry,” says Bill, backing up into his room with a dazed grin. “I’m obviously interrupting something, uh—”

“Yeah, uh huh,” says Richie, leaping forward to help shut the door behind him. “You weren’t, uh, planning on heading out to work in a Starbucks or something, were ya, Big Bill?”

“I was having a nap, actually. I think I still have the earplugs from the flight, though—”

“That — that won’t be necessary!” puts in Eddie.

“Nice to finally meet you, Eddie!” shouts Bill, waving as the door slams.

“N-nice to meet you too!”

Richie turns, banging his head against the door, and scrunches his face up at the ceiling.

“Finally?” repeats Eddie.

Richie scrubs his hands up and down his face. “I — wow, I’m just coming out all over the place these days.”

“You’re not — are you not out?” asks Eddie. The words feel bereft of meaning in his mouth.

Richie waves his arms about. “Um, no — not at all. Fucking hell, man. Do I seem like I’m out?”

“Well I wouldn’t fucking know, would I?”

“No, I guess the fuck not.”

They stare at each other for a moment. All of a sudden Eddie’s glad for the interruption because as much as he wants to forget everything, the body doesn’t forget. He’s shaking so bad and his breath is so short and he’s hot. He’s like five seconds away from a panic attack and he — oh, he’s got a boner.

“Hey,” starts Richie, fixing his glasses as Eddie covertly adjust his pants, “you wanna eat something? You’re looking a-severely malnourished.”

Eddie blinks. He throws his hands up. “Dude, no shit, I’ve been living off protein balls and antacids for like three fucking days.”

Richie rolls his eyes slightly, turning to lope into the kitchen-living room area. “So, like, me in college, basically.”

“Basically you can go fuck yourself, dickwad.”

“Only instead of protein bars—”

Balls—”

“Instead of protein balls is was Chipotle — and instead of antacids is was pure fucking heroin.”

Eddie snorts and shakes his head as he follows. “That is so dumb. That’s not even fucking funny.”

Richie stops in the middle of the kitchen, hands on hips, looking thoughtful. Eddie looks around — fridge magnets, take-out containers, no meds in sight. It feels so wrong — and so fucking right? Like, just imagine being a bachelor, he thinks, making himself smile. Kinda gross. But kinda great. He won’t need imagination for that now anyhow. He sits down at the tiny dining table, crossing one leg over the other.

Or wait — will he?

He watches as Richie slings the fridge door open and peers inside. “Well, I don’t got no protein balls and I’m fresh outta heroin.” Richie glances up, grinning as he brandishes some egg cartons. “But I do make a mean omelette.”

Eddie scratches his neck, smiling. “I could eat an omelette.”

“Awesome,” says Richie, grinning widely, if shakily, at him. “I mean, you can eat omelettes, right?”

“I just said I’d fucking eat it, didn’t I?”

“Right, right, right.” Richie laughs and turns to the countertop, keeping the fridge door open with his foot before turning back and rummaging for more ingredients. He’s so weirdly fucking nervous that Eddie is suddenly, just, calm.

“Can I ask you something?” asks Eddie, as Richie’s chopping vegetables.

“Shoot,” says Richie, glancing around, though his face betrays his panic.

Eddie thinks for a moment. “Are you, uh… I mean, have you done this before?”

“I’m gonna hazard a guess you’re not referring to the intricate art of omelette making.” Richie turns his back and pours some oil on a pan, ripping open a pack of bacon. He clears his throat. “Define this.”

“I don’t know… Been with a man, I guess.”

Richie tilts his head back. “Uhhh — define been with.”

“Dated.”

“Oh. Then, no.” He stops for a moment, and then a longer moment follows that moment. He clears his throat again suddenly. “I mean, I’ve hooked up with guys. I went to college, for Christ’s sake.”

“Yeah, so did I, pal, but I never did anything like that.”

“Well, guess what, Eds — you’re severely fucking repressed!”

“Yeah, well — no fucking shit!”

Richie adjusts his glasses and laughs a little, turning halfway to catch Eddie’s expression. Eddie smiles back bracingly. Sighing, Richie dumps the bacon onto the pan and spread it out with a tongs.

“I mean, it’s not like I was in the theatre club,” he babbles, waving his free hand around. “I was in the comedy club. I had friends in theatre, though. I had gay friends. I made out with guys, sometimes, mostly drunk, mostly in nightclub toilets. It was a thing, but it wasn’t… a thing. I mean, one of my gay friends even straight up told me I was being an ass and should cut it out.”

“Wait, what?” asks Eddie. “Why?”

“Well, obviously I was just a straight guy fucking around, I guess!” He laughs, and when Eddie doesn’t join in, he stops and grimaces. “I mean, I guess I didn’t know anyone who was… bi-fucking-sexual or whatever. Actually, no, wait — a girl in my high school was supposedly bi, but — you know, people used to say she was just, uh, attention seeking.”

Their eyes meet, and Richie’s flicker a moment. His brow wrinkles, and he turns back to the bacon. “So I guess… maybe that stuck a little.” He laughs, rubbing his neck. “And after college there’s just… a lot less opportunity to hook up with dudes in toilet stalls, you know? It’s not really a thing anymore. So I just stopped. My, uh, my big relationship went on for a few years after college and that… by the time that ended, I just kept on dating women. I never really thought about it.”

Eddie’s throat is dry as he attempts to swallow. He gets up to make a glass of water and downs a couple mouthfuls before sitting back down. He fingers the ridges in the glass as he tries to figure out what he’s asking for. “And you were… were you, uh, attracted to the women you dated?”

“Oh, yeah. Big time.” Richie gestures suddenly with the tongs. “Don’t get me wrong, I definitely am into women. I mean, if I thought about it at the time I probably would have said it was just a phase.”

The words pass through Eddie’s head uninterrupted. He’s listening, he’s sort of comprehending, but it’s not lighting up any bulbs for him over here. As Richie gets busy cracking eggs and whisking them up, Eddie sits thoughtful and silent. He doesn’t notice Richie stop, take the bacon off the hob, and wring his hands before turning back to him.

“But I’m really…” He takes a deep breath. “Uh, fuck, this is really the first time I’ve ever caught, like, major fucking feelings for someone before, you know, dating them?” Eddie blinks, and looks up at Richie as he grimaces and touches his head. “Usually I don’t figure out my fucking feelings until they’re gone, man. I don’t know. I don’t… this is a first for me, s’what I’m saying.”

Eddie smiles a little, raising his eyebrows. “What, you don’t usually steal men away from their wives, you gold digging whore?”

“No, I do,” says Richie cheerfully, “I just don’t usually give a shit about them.”

Eddie cracks up, ducking his head to laugh. He bites his lip, feeling Richie’s eyes on him, smiling, proud, affectionate.

Richie laughs, and turns back to his cooking. His ears are red, and Eddie finds himself grinning.

“So… yeah, if you put a gun to my head I guess I’d say I’m really fucking bisexual!”

The omelettes get finished off in a few more minutes, Richie cracking jokes and telling a few more light-hearted stories about his gay escapades in college. Eddie finds himself wishing so desperately that they’d met sooner — ten, twenty, thirty years sooner. There’s a mourning weighing on his heart that isn’t just for his marriage — but for his life.

“So, uh, what about you?” asks Richie, swallowing a belch once they’re finished eating. Eddie was so focussed on filling his empty stomach he’s almost forgotten the topic.

“What about me?”

“I mean, you married a woman. So are you bi or what?”

Eddie’s eyes scrunch up, briefly, and he brings his hands up to his mouth.

(breathe, dude, holy shit)

Richie makes a yikes sort of face. “Sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”

“No, it’s a good question,” says Eddie, laughing a little. He drops his hand and fists it. “I — I don’t know? I’ve always been — uh, I mean, sex has always just been a major fucking source of anxiety for me and I… I just don’t know? You would think I’d know, but I don’t?”

“You’re attracted to women, though?” asks Richie, scraping his fork on his plate.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I thought I was. I had no fucking reason to think otherwise, did I?”

Richie squints microscopically at him, and Eddie’s foot is tapping rapidly on the floor. Because boy, this should be easy. This should be easy to answer. But it’s not. Why is it not? His brain is flipping back through index cards of his meagre sexual history and it’s — it’s grim — it’s stressful — it’s always been wrong.

“It’s just that — with you it’s—” Eddie shakes his head rapidly. “Uh, it’s very different. It feels very different. So if this is what it’s supposed to feel like… Have I ever, uh — beyond necessity, been attracted to a woman? In a real way? I don’t know. I don’t know. The more I think about it — I just don’t fucking know. It’s a good fucking question.”

Eddie laughs again, manically, then grits his teeth as a flood of emotion follows his word vomit. He’s been thinking about this for a few days, maybe longer. There’s so much. There’s just so much. And he doesn’t know anything but — you know. Maybe he does, actually, know just a little bit.

Blinking back tears, Eddie drops his head and brings his hand up. “Sorry, I’m so sorry,” he laughs wetly.

Without a word, just a short pause, Richie drags his chair over and brings his arms up around Eddie. Eddie tries to shrug him off at first, joking it off, but as the hiccoughs come and he clamps his eyes shut and gasps for the next breath — he lets himself curl up and be drawn close into the warm chest, the tender arms, and after a moment, brings his hands up to Richie’s shoulders to hold him close.

“I think I’m gonna need two therapists!” he says, laughing and sniffling loudly.

“Yah, you’re real fucked up, dude.”

“Hey, fuck you, man! What the fuck?”

They both start laughing, and hold onto each other a little longer. Richie strokes Eddie’s hair and nuzzles him gently with his nose. And the simple act of being held is — transcendental for Eddie. It’s nothing like anything he’s ever felt before, any closeness to a human being. Because, you know, before there was the internal, the lust, or whatever part of it hadn’t been stripped away by the shame — and there was the woman in front of him — and there was the place he had to go to get through it, to reconcile the two. And now it’s just — it’s yearning, so much yearning, and the person right in front of him not in conflict with that at all, but embodying it and energising it and stirring it up. It feels so good, like this, so right. Eddie cries for that as much as any of it.

And, you know, it isn’t over. There’s still the — the disgust, somewhere, same as before — and the shame. There’s still the instinct to fight or flee or play fucking dead. But this, now, here — it makes sense. And all those fears seem a lot smaller, with Richie’s arms around him. With his head on Richie’s chest.

It rumbles so nicely when he speaks.

“Look, uh… I don’t know if this is weird but you can always stay here while you’re looking for a place. I’ll — wait, shit, I forgot Bill’s home — I mean, uh, I can sleep on the couch. It’s whatever.”

“No, I… I think I’ll stay at a hotel.” Eddie lifts his head and looks up to meet Richie’s eyes. “I think we should… take things slow. It’s just that I’ve done the codependency thing before and I—”

To his surprise, Richie nods fervently, raising one hand. “Say no more. Hella intimacy issues here, so… slow is good. Slow is perfect.”

Eddie grins.

“You can keep the TV here, though, while you’re looking,” continues Richie, starting to smile. “I’ll take good care of it — might even let you come over and play on it if you plays your cards right.”

He winks and Eddie laughs a little, eyes bright. “And you’ll take good care of me, if I come over?”

Richie chokes, and grapples him again into a headlock. “Damn, boy, you flirtin’? You flirtin’ wit me, boy?”

“Trying—” Eddie giggles, struggling, and whacking Richie’s arms. “Fuck off, stop! Get off me!”

He jumps to his feet, tossing Richie’s arms off him. He shakes his head, throwing Richie a mean look. The grin wins out, and Richie sniggers.

“Well, I’ll let you use my shower, anyway, and take a nap in my bed if you want. I’m such a gent I’ll even change the fucking sheets!”

“Thanks — wait, do I look that tired? Do I fucking reek or something?”

Richie stands up and walks up to him, so Eddie has to tilt his head back. Eddie decides this is his new favourite neck exercise. He feels very wiggly inside and he is very aware that that semi never truly went away.

“I told you already, you look like a stinky trash baby,” says Richie. “But that’s OK. The way you looked before, man — phew, you were way outta my league!”

Oh,” says Eddie, growing red in the face. Christ — there’s nowhere to look. If he looks down there’s the neck, chest and shoulders — straight on, lips, stubble, jawline, wow — and up, the fucking eyes, the fucking teasing, glittering, beautiful black eyes. Which really are just the darkest brown if you look close enough. Eddie screws his eyes shut, laughing. “That’s — not… Is that even a fucking compliment? Jesus.”

Richie laughs, taking Eddie’s face in both his hands. He leans down and plants a kiss on Eddie’s mouth. Eddie sighs audibly and, feeling suddenly twelve years old, clutches onto the ends of Richie’s shirt.

“Um, I’ll take you up on that nap offer,” he whispers, feeling the wash of exhaustion and contentedness sweep him off to somewhere very floaty. He doesn’t especially want to leave Richie’s arms, but he’ll settle for his bed.