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Eddie slams his car door shut, thumb pressing down on the lock button of his keys. The vehicle responds with a mournful chirp that pretty much sums up Eddie’s night as he trudges across the parking lot, rubbing at his eyes when he passes under the chemical yellow glow of a street-lamp.

His apartment isn’t far from the hospital where he works, but after another long night of interning during the graveyard shift, he’s not remotely prepared to take his chances on the freeway without some caffeine in his system, and the coffee at work makes the bathroom floors at Six Flags seem appetising.

The IHOP downtown is open twenty-four hours and even though he tends to steer clear from diners that are awake at the same time as the neighbourhood crackheads, he knows this one got an A from the health board and he’s getting desperate for a cup of coffee and a hash brown.

He’d murder someone for a hash brown right now.

Zipping his hoody up over his scrubs, he shoulders the door open and blinks stupidly at the harsh lightbulb buzzing over his head. Pushing past the same dread that any sane person would experience stepping into a liminal space like this, he hovers anxiously by the podium until he hears a clatter of metal and jumps.

A young redhead is dropping the cutlery she’d been organising when he’d walked in back into the tray and bounds over to him. She’s way too chipper to be serving a grumpy asshole like him at 3am, but the smile never leaves her face when she greets him with a polite, “Table for one?”

He nods and she plucks a menu from the pile, gesturing for him to follow her. As she weaves in and out of booths like she’s tackling Pan’s fucking labyrinth – seriously, there’s like, two other people here and she’s treating the task of finding him a spare table like it’s the Triwzard Tournament – she keeps up a merry string of conversation, asking how his night was.

“Fine,” he replies shortly. Then, for the sake of social graces, adds, “I was at work.”

“At the hospital?” the redhead asks. He notices her hair has been pulled into a tiny ponytail that only just sticks out from underneath her baseball cap. When she spots him frowning, she laughs and inclines her head towards him.

“Your scrubs,” she points out, with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh. Shit, yeah,” Eddie mumbles, sitting himself down on the bench and tugging at the toggle on his hoody.

“You want some coffee?” she asks, the wry smile on her face telling him that she already knows the answer to that and he feels a sudden rush of fondness for this nameless server.

“Please,” he replies, making sure the gratefulness he feels leaks into his tone.

“I’ll go get you a pot. Have a look at the menu and I’ll be back soon. If you need anything else, my name’s Bev.” She taps her nametag and leaves him alone with the menu, even though he already knows he’s going to order an omelette to cover up the fact that he’s a heathen currently salivating over the thought of a side of hash browns. He’s convinced himself that if he doesn’t get one soon, he’ll die. When he sat his pre-med exams, Lack Of Hash Browns had never been brought up as a life-threatening condition, but he’s pretty confident that if he goes without one for much longer, it’ll be fatal.

Not that he’s being dramatic or anything.

He pretends to peruse the menu because that’s what you do when you’re waiting for your server to come take your order. He only closes it when he hears Bev approach him from behind.

“Rich, here’s your breakfast melt,” she says to someone sitting two tables away. Eddie hasn’t lifted his head to look at them, too focused on his own gnawing hunger.

“And your coffee!” Bev announces, setting the pot down in front of him.

“Thank you,” Eddie says, the mug scraping across the table when he drags it towards him.

“Anyway, what can I get you?” She clicks her pen and holds it, poised over her notepad.

“The vegetable omelette,” he recites, pointing at the picture of it on the laminated menu. Just in case Bev, who’s evidently worked here for a while if the picture of her smiling face tacked on the wall underneath the words ‘Employee of the Month’ is anything to go by, had no clue what he meant when he asked for a mixture of egg, cheese and vegetables.

“Sure thing,” she nods. “And your side?”

“Hash browns, please.” The words come out of him in a rush, like he’s fighting against the urge to curl up in the booth and go to sleep right there. But no, he’s going to stay awake. Wide awake. He’s going to down his coffee and sit rigidly in the uncomfortable little booth and wait for his shredded, pan-fried potatoes to materialise in front of him and then he’s going to go home and sleep until noon, content in the knowledge that there was at least some sort of happy ending to this shitty, shitty night.

“Oh, I’m sorry – we actually just ran out of hash browns. I can give you some pancakes instead though!” Bev says brightly, like she hasn’t just brought Eddie’s world to a screeching halt.

“I’m sorry, what?” Eddie wheezes. This cannot be happening.

Judging by the look on her face, concern mixed with a wary sort of caution, it’s evidently become clear to Bev that this was the wrong thing to say. Her teeth disappear momentarily into her bottom lip before she squares her shoulders a little.

“I really am sorry,” she winces, sounding sincere without being condescendingly placating about it. “Our delivery won’t arrive until eight. We only have pancakes. We literally always have pancakes.”

“You’re IHOP,” he says bluntly.

“We’re IHOP,” she agrees with a nod, allowing him that.

“I… really needed a hash brown.”

Dread curls up in Eddie’s stomach, because he’s gutted, he really is. He’s absolutely, overwhelming, crushingly devastated that his night is ending like this – in an IHOP whose speakers are having a love affair with Tom Jones, wearing sneakers that probably still have bodily fluids on them no matter how hard he’d scrubbed them earlier.

In all honesty, he thinks he has every right to scream and shout and wholly demand that he get his hash browns. How did they just run out? What other greedy fucker in this establishment is out at this time of the morning, ordering hash browns when Eddie’s just finished a hellish shift and looking for one good thing in his life to see him through his drive home? His fingers shake a little and he’s not ashamed to admit that there are tears pricking at his eyes.

Bev looks like she doesn’t whether to hug him or call the police.

“I’m… really sorry,” she tries again.

And suddenly Eddie feels like an asshole.

It’s not Bev’s fault that Eddie got screamed at by a girl who said the stitches he was giving her head wound would drag down her Instagram following. It’s not Bev’s fault that he had to comfort a nauseated kid while his parents essentially filed for divorce on the other side of the curtain. And it’s definitely not Bev’s fault that a patient yelled and blamed Eddie for his ostomy bag bursting.

Hell, it isn’t even Bev’s fault for that there were no hash browns left.

Eddie doesn’t want to be that guy who takes his bad mood out on a service worker. He’s been a service worker before. He got through med school by waiting tables at an upper class restaurant wherea ‘team meeting’ was code for a gathering to decide who’s ass got sacked when they got lower than a four-star review on Yelp. He’s seen the ugly side of customers in all sorts of eateries and he really doesn’t want to be the jackass that yells at an innocent woman just because he’s sleep-deprived and craving potatoes that they don’t have.

“It’s fine,” he says quickly. She blinks in surprise.

“I’ll just have some pancakes.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, then wrinkles her nose. “Sorry, I don’t know why I even asked that. I mean, there’s not really another option.”

He stares at her for a second, shocked by her bluntness before he eventually huffs out a tired laugh. She rewards him with a bright grin of her own.

“Pancakes it is! I’ll bring them out to you shortly.”

As she leaves, Eddie slumps back against the seat of the booth and lets out a long sigh. He picks up his coffee mug and takes a tentative sip. It’s not the best he’s ever had, but it’s still miles better than the hospital coffee so he gulps it down quickly and scalds his throat in the process.

Just as he’s about to pour himself another mug, a loud ‘pssst’ breaks through his reverie.

Slowly turning his head to look over his shoulder, he comes face to face with a smiling, glasses-wearing man staring intently at him. His first instinct is to turn away and ignore the guy because the ‘stranger danger’ mantra has still managed to follow him well into his twenties.

But then the guy hunches forward and gives him a wave. All Eddie can do his raise his eyebrows.

“Can I help you?”

The guy’s brown hair is ruffled and his glasses are smudged with greasy thumbprints which immediately makes Eddie want to shudder. But there’s something about him that encourages Eddie to, well, keep looking. Maybe it’s the cut of his jaw that sharpens even more when he tilts his head to the side to grin at Eddie. Maybe it’s his teeth that protrude just slightly over his bottom lip. Maybe it’s his shoulders, covered by a heather-gray zip-up that does nothing to hide how absurdly broad they are.

Maybe it’s just that it’s three o’clock in the morning and Eddie hasn’t gotten any in months.

It’s not like no one else at the hospital is gay. Adrian and Don have adopted the annoying tendency to make everyone painfully aware that they like to go at it like rabbits in the on-call room. Honestly, Eddie’s pretty confident that arguments could be made for a study on their libidos to be conducted.

But Eddie’s never found himself attracted to any of the other guys he works with. Plus, he knows better than to shit where he eats, which is a horrible, if painfully appropriate turn of phrase.

So he keeps on staring at the guy until he feels heat prickling up his neck and jerks his head impatiently.

“Can I help you?” he asks. He doesn’t mean to sound so snappish but he also doesn’t have the energy to take it back now.

Luckily, the guy seems unperturbed. He even seems to perk up a little, a rumble sounding from the back of his throat. It could be a laugh but Eddie doesn’t have the patience to entertain a notion like that right now, not when he’s liable to throw something at anyone who wants to poke fun at him – even if the sharpest weapon he has on hand is a butter knife stuffed into a cup with a bunch of napkins and teaspoons.

“I heard you wanted a hash brown.”

“What about it?” Eddie says.

The guy points down at his plate. And there it fucking is. A golden, crispy, mouth-watering hash brown.

Eddie’s fingers twitch for the butter knife.

“Are you trying to make a fucking point or something?” Eddie asks, his eyes narrowing into furious little slits.

The other guy blinks owlishly as him for a minute before snorting out a laugh and shaking his head wildly. “Jeeze, dude, no! I was gonna ask if you wanted mine!”

Well, that draws Eddie up short. He blinks.

“Are you joking?” He’s not sure his sanity levels could cope with this being a practical joke.

The guy seems genuinely taken aback by the assumption, but recovers by letting out a soft laugh. “No dude, seriously. You obviously really fucking want one so have mine.”

Maybe it’s pride or genuine lunacy that suddenly makes Eddie sit ramrod straight and declare, “No. It’s fine.”

It’s not fine, he wants that hash brown. But he’s also used to being on his guard and doubting the kindness of strangers, a trait carefully drilled into him under the parentage of Sonia Kaspbrak. He’s only recently learned to smile back at strangers in the street, even if it’s more of a closed mouth grimace he gives them. It’s a start, but he figures he should draw the line at accepting food from some guy he doesn’t know. What’s he even doing awake and at a diner at this time anyway? At least Eddie has a good excuse.

“Are you sure?” the guy asks, and there’s a knowing glint in his eye that makes Eddie feel flushed.

“Yeah,” he replies stiffly.

“Alriiiiiight. If you’re not gonna have it then I guess I’ll just… smother it in mayonnaise.”

Eddie snaps his head around so fast he swears he gets whiplash. “What?”

“Mayonnaise! For my hash brown.” The man picks up the bottle and wiggles it in Eddie’s direction.

Now, Eddie was brought up in a Catholic household where being overhead muttering the words ‘Jesus Christ’ in an unholy way meant he had to stand in front of his mom’s crucifix statue and apologise, yet this seems vastly more blasphemous than anything he’s ever said against the Creator.

“Now let me just… shake this.” The man makes an obscenely exaggerated show of shaking the mayo bottle before Eddie all but rockets out of his chair and throws his hands up.

“Alright, fucking stop! I’ll take it. Just don’t put any of that cheap fucking mayo anywhere near that hash brown.”

His hysteria is rewarded by the guy tipping his head back and letting out a loud belly laugh. Eddie doesn’t know what’s so fucking funny, but it gives him a good glimpse of the other guy’s Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his throat and he clenches his fists involuntarily, trim fingernails digging into his palms.

“Wow, no hash browns and cheap mayo,” he chuckles. “You really don’t think much of this place, do ya, Ace?”

Eddie pointedly ignores the nickname, even when it curls pleasantly around his gut. Instead he just glances over his shoulder to the kitchen to where Bev is singing along loudly and blessedly out-of-tune to “What’s New, Pussycat?”

“Don’t tell the waitress I said that,” he mumbles. “She’s actually really nice.”

“Bev’s a doll,” his new companion states with a solemn nod. Great, he must be a fucking regular, Eddie thinks. He points to the hash brown.

“Are you sure about that?”

The plate is pushed towards him with a vigorous nod. “You’re built like a fucking whippet, man. Maybe this’ll finally help you hit a growth spurt.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Eddie retorts but there’s no bite in his tone and the other guy evidently doesn’t view his words as a threat if the amused grin on his face is anything to go by. Eddie pointedly looks away to draw at the air with his nostrils before glancing back.

“Thank you,” he says, trying his best to sound sincere. “I just really fucking needed this tonight.”

“Hey, you were obviously off saving lives and shit, dude. Me? I’ve just been here.”

By the time Eddie gets back to his table, he’s practically trembling in anticipation. He shovels a forkful of hash brown into his mouth and practically melts. It’s the right mixture of crispy and soft he would fucking die for this particular plate of potatoes.

“All good?” comes a voice from his left. He rolls his eyes and casts a scowl towards the next table.

“Yeah.” Swallowing, he stabs at the food with his fork again. Then he remembers his manners and looks back over at the other table. “Seriously. Thank you. You actually saved my life tonight.”

“Well, hey. Go me!” the other guy says, sounding genuinely pleased. He raises one hand then smacks the other off it, giving himself a high-five, and that’s when Eddie has to look away again.

It belatedly occurs to him that this could be some sort of weird voyeuristic fetish for this guy though, watching Eddie eat and then getting off on it. The potato turns to mush in his mouth but when he looks back over, all the other diner is doing is tapping away at something on his phone. His hands dwarf the device and something burns deep in Eddie’s stomach.

And then he looks up.

Eddie swiftly looks away, their gazes barely grazing each other. He washes down his bite of hash brown with a gulp of coffee and then slyly peeks back over his shoulder. The guy is looking at his phone again, but the corners of his mouth have turned up.

Not entirely sure how to deal with that, Eddie returns to his food, flinching in surprise when Bev walks back up to him.

“Here’s your omelette!” She slides it onto the table and freezes when she sees the hash brown. His mouth too full to explain, Eddie simply uses his fork to point in the direction of the glasses-wearing guy.

Bev turns just as he looks up and as soon as he catches the amused twist of her lips, he quickly looks away again. Eddie isn’t too sure what to make of that, but it seems to put Bev in high spirits who lets out a loud laugh and shrugs to herself. “Okay then!” she sings.

As she’s walking away, drumming her fingertips against the cover of her notepad, she stops by the other table. “Your break ended like fifteen minutes ago. Are you gonna come help me now?”

Eddie’s fork clatters against his plate as Bev glides back to the kitchen. He twists in his seat and stares at Glasses Guy who doesn’t bother to have the decency to look sheepish. At least before, when he was eating the guy’s food and basking in the generosity of a total stranger, Eddie sort of had the higher ground since it hadn’t been him making Bev laugh smugly like that.

Now though, the guy is maintaining steady eye contact with Eddie and wearing a shit-eating grin as he unzips his hoody to reveal an IHOP polo shirt underneath.

His nametag reads ‘Richie’ and Eddie sort of wants to eat the table.

“Well, I gotta get back to work now, Ace,” Richie announces, sliding out of his booth. “But if you ever come back, I’ll make sure we get the expensive mayo in for you. And some extra hash browns too.”

With that, he taps the brim of his hat in a two-fingered salute, sends Eddie a wink and turns around to disappear into the kitchen.

Eddie is left sitting at the booth, trying and failing to process what just happened. He stares down at the uneaten omelette in front of him then promptly grabs his wallet, drops a twenty on the table and scarpers.

***

“How was work?” Stanley asks when Eddie opens the door and walks into their shared apartment. He speaks quietly, so Patty must still be sleeping, which makes sense since Eddie often goes to bed when Stan starts his job at the asscrack of dawn.

“Work was work,” Eddie says tiredly. His mind is still at an IHOP booth downtown.

“You want any breakfast?” Stan says. He opens the fridge door and pulls out a red packet. “I got you hash browns from the store, by the way.”

Eddie stops in the middle of the hallway and stares at Stan, holding up the food bag with information printed on it announcing that the contents inside can be cooked from frozen.

“N-no, I’m good, thanks,” Eddie manages. “I’m just going to head to bed.”

He waves quickly to Stan and slips into his bedroom, soundly shutting the door behind him and pressing his back against the wood.

The fact that he could have had hash browns at home all along should be making him way more annoyed than he is. In fact, that more he thinks about broad shoulders and a wide grin and tortoise shell glasses, he realises that he isn’t annoyed at all.

But he’s way too fucking tired to unpack that tonight.

Chapter Text

The next time Eddie finds himself outside IHOP after a night shift, he sits in his car for ten minutes, psyching himself up to go in. He could be halfway home in those ten minutes, he knows this, but as much as he can’t bring himself to get out of his car and go into the diner, he also can’t conjure up enough willpower to restart his car and pull out of the parking lot.

Eventually, he glares at himself in his mirror and shoves his car door open. Why the hell is he so nervous about going in anyway? Just because of one server that probably won’t even be working tonight?

Just as he’s made peace with the idea of Richie not being there, he walks into the diner and is greeted with a happy shout of, “Doctor Ace!”

If the place had been any more crowded, Eddie might be tempted to turn on his heel and walk out. As it is, it’s the same level of ghost town as three nights ago. Richie and Bev both stand at the podium, grinning at him. Although Bev’s is a little more controlled in comparison to Richie’s manic, toothy number.

“You’re back!” Bev smiles. She immediately sets down the crayons she’d been holding and picks up a menu for him. It isn’t until Eddie gets closer that he realises she and Richie had been colouring in the pictures on the kids’ menu.

“Busy night?” Eddie asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Run off our feet!” Richie says, reaching over to grab the menu from Bev. She lets out a little yelp as he swiftly rushes by her to stand in front of Eddie.

“This way, good sir,” he says with a mock bow.

Richie leads him to the same booth as last time and Eddie doesn’t comment on it, just slowly lowering himself onto the bench and trying his best not to look at Richie. He knows his ears must be bright red.

“Do you actually need this menu or nah?” Richie asks, prompting Eddie to finally look up.

His overgrown, curly hair sticks out from all directions underneath his baseball cap and his eyes are a little magnified by the lenses of his glasses, which only means that the intense gaze he’s giving Eddie is multiplied tenfold. Eddie swiftly looks away again and stares at the menu.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Well, there’s plenty of hash browns in the kitchen this time. And we literally never run out of coffee, so.”

Something warm settles in Eddie’s chest and he feels the corner of his mouth slyly twisting upwards. Richie barks out a laugh.

“You can smile, it won’t hurt you.”

Trying and failing to look stern, Eddie lifts his head. “Then I’ll have… you know. That.”

“Comin’ right up, Ace.” Just like last time, Richie gives Eddie a two-fingered salute as he retreats, minus the wink this time which is an addition Eddie had forcefully been trying to tell himself he hadn’t been focusing on.

“My name is Eddie!” he calls after Richie.

“Got’cha, Eddie Spaghetti!”

Maybe ‘Ace’ was better.

***

When the plate of warm, steamy hash browns clatters down in front of him, Eddie wants to ignore the poor customer service and dig right in, but he’s distracted by Richie sliding into the opposite bench of the booth.

“Uh,” is all he can manage.

“So, Doctor Eds,” says Richie.

“Just Eddie.”

“Doctor Just Eddie,” Richie blazed on and Eddie doesn’t bother to correct him this time, just pointedly unrolls his cutlery from the napkin. Richie folds his hands on top of the table and fixes Eddie with a solemn look. “I have some bad news for you.”

Eddie’s fork stills above his food and he quirks an eyebrow. “What?”

Looking sheepish, Richie inhales deeply before announcing, “We still only have the cheap mayo.”

Eddie snorts out a laugh and attempts to flip Richie off but the other man holds up a hand and dramatically attempts to talk over him. “I tried my best, I swear! I literally said to my boss, I said, ‘this man saves lives, it should be Blue Plate or nothing!’ and he didn’t listen to me! Can you believe that, Doc? I’m putting my job on the line to get you good mayo and the guy didn’t even listen, I mean, I don’t know about you but I think we should band together and stage an uprising.”

By this time, Eddie is laughing so hard into the sleeve of his hoody, he can’t eat his hash brown properly.

“Are you always this annoying?” Eddie asks, but there’s a wide grin on his face when he eventually gets his breath back.

“Hmm.” Richie taps his chin thoughtfully before kicking his volume up a notch. “HEY BEV! Am I always this annoying?”

A shout of “Yes!” sounds from the kitchen.

“There you have it.” Richie drums a pattern on the table before he eventually sighs. “Anyway, I’ll quit yapping and let you enjoy your meal in peace.”

Part of Eddie wants to tell him that it’s okay, that he can sit and make Eddie laugh for longer if he wants to, but there’s a more dignified part of him that keeps himself helplessly silent, and all he can do when Richie grins at him again is give him a weak smile in return.

He really needs to get laid.

The hash browns are just as fluffy and delicious as he remembers and he’s in a much better mood this time around when he fishes his wallet out and leaves money and a tip on the table.

“Not running out this time?” Richie asks as Eddie walks over to the door. Eddie blushes and shakes his head.

“Sorry about that.”

Richie gives him a good-natured shrug. “Hey, you came back.” He pauses, his mouth still half-open as if he’s hesitating about whether or not to say anything else. His eyes flick up to meet Eddie’s and something seems to solidify deep in the pit of Eddie’s stomach when he catches a flicker of something hopeful in them. “You gonna keep coming back?”

Eddie swallows roughly, then decides to chance his luck. “Am I allowed?”

Richie lifts his chin with a smug smile. “I’ll even reserve that booth for ya.”

Shoving his hand deep into his pockets, Eddie just huffs out a laugh and shakes his head. “That won’t be necessary. But I’ll be back.”

“Looking forward to it, Doc.”

***

Sitting back in his car, Eddie scrunches up his receipt and tosses it into the passenger seat. His car is a mess of takeout cups, plastic bags and candy wrappers. Eddie may fight tooth and nail to ensure there’s order in every other corner of his life, but he’s grown lax with the upkeep of his car’s interior. Maybe because, where he used to be a motor nerd, he now only sees it as a vehicle to shuttle him to and from work. And sometimes he needs to down an emergency supply of Milk Duds and toss the cardboard into his footwell in order to get through a shift, so his IHOP receipt joins the rest of his junk as he finally droves home.

***

When Eddie gets home, he’s whistling. Stan is in the middle of making himself a sandwich and his grip on the knife he’s using to spread an evenly distributed blob of peanut butter onto his bread tightens. Like Eddie’s been possessed and he might need to use it for stabbing purposes.

“What’s gotten into you?” he asks, warily.

“Nothing,” Eddie shrugs, still smiling to himself.

“You’re weird when you’re in a good mood!” Stan calls after him, the last word barely managing to slip through Eddie’s bedroom door before it closes.

***

Eddie doesn’t make it back to the IHOP until four nights later.

This time, he doesn’t stick around in the parking lot. He unclips his seatbelt and hurriedly pushes his way inside the brightly lit diner.

“Hi, Eddie!” Bev greets him. Her hair is in two tiny pigtails this time. He greets her and selfishly lets his eyes dart around the place.

“Richie isn’t working tonight,” she says, and when he drags his gaze back to her, she flashes him a knowing smile.

“Oh, that wasn’t what I was-” Eddie begins, but Bev is already walking away from him, a spring in her step.

“We’ve got your usual booth ready!”

This time, when the hash browns are placed in front of Eddie, he can’t find it in himself to eat them with the same vigour. He still cleans his plate, but he feels a little downtrodden when he leaves anyway, although he makes sure not to go without giving Bev a wave.

Sitting back in his car and gripping onto the steering wheel, he attempts to push past how deflated he feels, telling himself it’s probably because of the way tonight’s shift went. It had nothing to do with losing out on seeing Richie again.

Turning on the radio station that he knows plays a whole bunch of depressing, sad, lovesick songs, he drives home and tries his hardest not to feel so Meg Ryan about it all.

***

“I can’t believe you showed up on the night I wasn’t here.”

As soon as the familiar voice reaches Eddie, he jumps half a foot in the air and his coffee sloshes out of the mug.

“Shit,” he mutters, grabbing a napkin to mop it up. Richie just chuckles and sits across from him, a plate of hash browns appearing in front of Eddie while Richie grips onto his own plate of pancakes.

Noticing Eddie staring, Richie’s smile fades away. “I’m on my break and figured you could maybe use the company but seriously, tell me to fuck off if I’m annoying you.”

“No,” Eddie says way too quickly, and Richie’s smile reappears. “You can stay.”

“Perfect!” As Eddie digs into his hash browns, Richie reaches over the table, his long arm stretching straight into Eddie’s space and he all but chokes on the mouthful of potato. When Richie’s arm retreats, he’s proudly holding a bottle of Blue Plate mayo.

Eddie goggles at him. “Wait, you actually convinced them to change it?” It’s not that Eddie doesn’t believe Richie could sway a crowd because he’d already proven himself to have enough charisma to make a gargoyle like Eddie crack a smile, but he honestly had no clue blue collar service workers had that kind of pull on corporate level suits.

“Eh,” Richie shrugs, his eyes glinting.

Eddie immediately looks around the other tables in the place. Each of them remain stocked with the same standard mayo IHOP always serve. He looks back at Richie, who knows this is the booth Eddie always sits at.

“Did you buy that?” he asks.

Richie cracks up laughing again. “Hey, I got paid and it seemed like a funny joke. And you’re trying not to smile, so it worked.”

“I’m not smiling,” Eddie blatantly lies. “And I’m still not putting fucking mayo on a hash brown.”

“That’s fair,” Richie says. “But it can still go on my pancakes.”

Eddie calmly sets down his knife and fork and pushes his face into his hands. “You cannot be serious.”

He hears the donkey-like braying of Richie’s laughter again and it’s so ugly and endearing that Eddie gives himself a few more seconds to cover his face before he looks up.

“I’m not serious,” Richie says. “I’d never do that to my pancakes.”

He sets the bottle back on the table – only to switch it out for the hot sauce.

“Oh, what in the fuck are you doing now?” Eddie yelps, loud enough for Bev to glance over at them, only to shake her head fondly and return to her colouring-in.

“I’m trying to freak you out, is it working?” The open end of the bottle hovers threateningly over Richie’s pancakes.

Yes,” Eddie hisses, because he cannot fucking watch this. He simply can’t.

“Huh,” is all Richie says before pouring a dollop all over his plate.

Eddie stares at him, his face scrunched up. “You’re a fucking animal. You’re not actually going to eat that are you?”

Richie immediately locks eyes with him and maybe it’s a good thing he immediately stuffs his face full of hot-sauced covered pancakes because there’s a definite jolt that goes running right down between Eddie’s legs when Richie stares at him like that. He’s saved by Richie immediately coughing and attempting to hide it in the back of his hand.

“You’ve no one to blame but yourself,” Eddie tells him flatly, before catching Richie’s baleful, watery-eyed look as he splutters and eventually reaching over to slap him on the back.

***

The IHOP sign flickers above him when he makes it back to his car, crumpling up his receipt and throwing it in the passenger seat. He watches through the window as Richie cleans up the plates from the booth before stepping around Bev. He grabs her into a dancer’s hold and waltzes her around the diner.

Laughing to himself, Eddie puts his car in drive and backs out.

He’s still smiling when he gets home.

***

“What about mustard?”

“No.”

“Ketchup? Ketchup’s a normal one!”

“Nope.”

“Some nice chilli flakes?”

No, and stop waving that thing around like a cocktail shaker!” Eddie reaches across the table to take the shaker off him. His fingers graze against Richie’s hand, soft hair tickling his fingertips and whatever he was about to say next is forgotten.

“You know, if you wanted to hold my hand you could have just asked,” Richie says, wiggling his eyebrows.

Eddie draws his own hand back, knowing fine well he’s blushing. Before he can think of anything to say though, the door to the diner opens, the hinges squeaking noisily through the whole building, making both of them look up from where they’d previously been hunched towards each other on both sides of the booth.

Richie leans forward to get a closer look, and any interest Eddie had in the newcomer immediately vanishes when he immediately becomes distracted by the too-closeness of Richie. He turns, catching the sight of every little hair of Richie’s stubble, the nicks he’d given himself shaving. Eddie is hit with the absolutely mortifying realisation that he wants to run his tongue over them and he pushes himself further back along the bench just in case he ends up in cuffs later on for being a fucking creep.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Richie mutters. Eddie turns and is shocked to see the dark look crossing the other man’s face. It easily eclipses the open, friendly expression that Eddie’s grown so accustomed to and Eddie turns, craning his neck over the back of his seat to catch sight of whoever it is that’s made Richie look like he wants to make a hit on someone.

The guy seems… normal. Eddie knows that doesn’t mean anything though. His hair is pushed back from his face and he supposes he’s relatively attractive in that generic sort of way. Eddie has recently come to terms with the daunting realisation that he’s been looking at other men less and less, and when he does, he’s comparing them to someone else. Their shoulders aren’t broad enough, their laugh is too deep and constrained and they don’t need any sort of visual correction, those twenty-twenty bastards.

So it isn’t the guy’s looks that pique Eddie’s interest, it’s the way his mere presence has Richie jumping out of his seat and gravitating closer to Bev.

Bev, to her credit, is standing her ground. She doesn’t look at Richie when he approaches her, her eyes trained on the man stalking his way over to the podium.

“What the fuck are you-” Richie begins, but Bev calmly holds up a hand to quieten him.

“It’s okay, Rich. He’ll be leaving soon. He knows better than to stick around here. Right, Tom?” The last bit is directed sharply towards the newcomer.

“I’m not here for a fight, Beverly,” Tom says.

“Makes a change,” interjects Richie and that seemingly does nothing to improve the tension.

“Can you call off your fucking guard dog?” Tom gestures furiously at Richie and, without realising what he’s doing, Eddie has stood up. He quietly moves closer to the gathering and when Richie moves to take a step forward, his hand flies out, catching Richie’s arm. His fingers press gently into soft skin and Richie whirls around at once.

The look on his face is murderous, but when he sees Eddie, it softens slightly Eddie’s not narcissistic enough to think that means anything, especially in a situation like this, but he slides his hand down to Richie’s wrist, giving him a gentle tug.

“Richie, c’mon,” he urges him. He looks at Bev, not wanting to leave her alone but knowing Richie acting like this is going to aggravate things.

“Everything okay, Bev?” he asks. She immediately gives him a confident nod.

“And who the fuck is this?” Tom snaps.

“You don’t get to fucking talk to him,” Richie says, twisting away from Eddie and making towards Tom again.

“Richie, stop it,” Bev warns him. She steps in front of him and gestures for him to move back. He does so reluctantly and only because, Eddie hazards a guess, Bev looks like she’s about to murder him if he starts anything.

She turns back to Tom and lifts her chin. “What do you want?”

“My fuckin’ LP’s. I bought ‘em myself, and if you’re fuckin’ hoarding them, it’s not gonna look good for you in court, darlin’.”

Eddie feels sick. He can feel Richie shaking under his hand. But Bev doesn’t so much a tremble as she shrugs at Tom.

“Honestly, I might’ve thrown them out, I don’t really remember,” she says, and before Tom can open his mouth, she hits out again, her voice cutting through the air with a sharp edge. “But if my lawyer finds out that you came to my work and threatened me, then it’s you who has to worry about how they’ll look in court.”

She takes one step forward. “Darling.”

Nobody really know how to respond to that, least of all Tom who stands silently. He’s gaping at Bev like he’s never seen her before and attempts to recover, despite the embarrassed red flush creeping up his neck.

“Just – just bring them to the next meeting. If you can.” He coughs awkwardly and then turns on his heel. He slams the door behind him, as if that will help him prove a point.

“Holy shit. Marsh, you badass,” Richie says at once. He turns to Bev and Eddie has to let go of him. He steps back and watches as Richie scoops Bev into a hug.

“Shut up, Rich,” Bev laughs, half-heartedly shoving him away. She shoots Eddie an apologetic glance. “I’m so sorry you had to see that, Eddie. That was my asshole ex-husband. He’s not supposed to come into my work, especially while we’re still going through divorce proceedings.”

“Asshole doesn’t even cover it,” Richie mutters. His thumb is gently running over the back of Bev’s hand.

“Don’t apologise, Bev,” Eddie reassures her. “He seems like a real piece of work.”

“I’m just surprised he came in when Richie was on shift,” Bev says, gathering up her crayons and tidying them away into the tin cup holding them.

“Yeah, fucker hates me.” Richie is grinning like this is the simply the best information ever to be heard. “He’s convinced himself I’m sleeping with Bev.”

Eddie slowly raises his eyebrows, an ugly feeling curdling in his gut. Richie takes one look at him and snorts. “Oh, come on, man! I’m queer as a fucking three dollar bill.”

As sure of himself as he is, Eddie’s never really been able to joke around about his sexuality or make great declarations like that, so it takes him a while to close his mouth and then quickly say, “Oh. I mean – yeah, same.”

Richie’s glasses rise on his face just as his eyebrows do. He inclines his head towards Eddie. “Three dollar bill?”

It’s not really how Eddie likes to describe himself, and he makes that clear with an exaggerated eye roll, but eventually he deigns to nod. “Three dollar bill.”

“Oh, cool,” Richie replies and Eddie doesn’t want to let himself hope that he’s treating this like good news.

***

Back in his car, he goes through the same routine of closing his door and scrunching his receipt up. However this time, before he can drive away, he has to take a few seconds to grip his steering wheel and lean his head against the leather of it, inhaling deeply.

Fuck, he’s in so much trouble.

***

So maybe he likes Richie. Is that such a bad thing? Eddie can’t remember the last time he let himself just like someone without worrying about any possible repercussions. It took him forever to come out, constantly dreading his mother’s reaction. He still feels like a selfish asshole when he catches himself thinking of her premature death as a blessing of sorts because it means he got to live his life the way he wanted to, but he has to admit things have been easier for him now that he gets to live on his own and tell Myra, the receptionist at work, that no, he unfortunately wouldn’t like to go on a date with her because he solely likes men.

The consequences of keeping all of that bottled up for years still tend to come bouncing back to scream in face, and perhaps the reason he hasn’t had sex in over a year is because he’s ghosted too many Grindr hook-ups to count after freaking out and deleting the app for the twentieth time. He’s not sure he’s ready to put himself out there again.

Still, Richie is different. There’s a part of Eddie, egotistical as it may be, that believes Richie sort of likes him back. And although Eddie would happily let himself climb into Richie’s lap and kiss him senseless, it’s not just about sex for him. He might genuinely like this guy.

He’s just shit scared of it blowing up in his face, which is why his doubts go through some form of sick vindication when he walks into IHOP one night and sees Richie cosied up in a booth with some hunk straight out of fucking Hollywood.

Eddie had used the phrase ‘generically good-looking’ before to describe Tom, but this guy is different. He’s really fucking hot, with kind eyes and a wide smile as he laughs at something Richie has said. Richie has his arm slung around the guy’s shoulders and Eddie can feel jealousy eating away at something buried deep in his chest.

And then Bev appears in front of him.

“Hey, Eddie!”

At the sound of Eddie’s name, Richie’s head snaps up.

“Doc Spaghetti!” he cries.

The other man looks up and also gives Eddie a smile, edging out of the booth to let Richie come bounding over to Eddie.

Yeah, that’s right, buddy. You fucking move out the way, Eddie thinks vindictively.

Richie and Bev have both learned not to bother with a menu when Eddie comes in. Instead, Richie just falls into step beside Eddie as he walks to his usual booth.

“How’s your night been?” Richie asks, and Eddie’s stomach flips when he looks at him. As much as Richie likes to treat most things like a joke, Eddie’s now able to tell when he’s being sincere, and Richie is never anything but genuine when he asks about Eddie’s shift.

“Same old,” Eddie says, sitting down in his usual seat. Because he lacks any sense of self-preservation, he asks, “Who was that guy?”

He jerks his head back to the front of the diner where the guy from before is now chatting happily with Bev.

“That’s Ben. He’s one of the kitchen staff,” Richie says. He cuts his eyes to the side so he can look at Eddie. There’s a smile tugging the corner of his lips up. “He’s head over heels for Bev.”

And suddenly, all animosity vanishes.

Eddie loves Ben. He adores Ben. He wants to be best friends with Ben. Ben is the coolest dude on the planet and Eddie hasn’t even met him yet. God bless Ben!

“Oh!” he barely manages to choke out. “Does – does Bev know?”

Richie wrinkles his nose and sits down across from Eddie. “It’s a complicated sort of thing. She knows and she likes him back but neither of them are going to do anything about it until her divorce goes through. Tom’s already tried to drag her name through the mud by saying she’s sleeping with me. If she and Ben got involved now, his lawyer would start throwing around all the infidelity accusations he can think of.”

Richie smiles sadly at the pair of them. “They both deserve better than that.”

Just as Eddie is leaving that night, Ben jogs up to him, a flat cardboard box in his hand. “Hey! Eddie, right?”

“Y-yeah. And you’re Ben, right?” Eddie smiles at him, like he hadn’t spent the first five minutes of his night wondering how to make Ben disappear.

“That’s me. Look, Richie and Bev told me you really like the hash browns here. Don’t be embarrassed,” he cuts in when he sees Eddie grimace. “It’s actually a compliment to me since I make ‘em. But I figured I’d give you one for the road, on the house.”

“Wow. Ben, thanks, that’s… thank you,” Eddie says, gratefully accepting the box and regretting every bad thought he’s ever had about this literal angel in front of him.

“Don’t sweat it. It’s only a hash brown,” Ben says.

“Richie and Bev were right though,” Eddie says, seriously. “I love hash browns.”

Richie, Ben and Bev all see Eddie off as he eventually gets into his car. His latest receipt joins the steadily growing pile in his passenger seat, emphasising just how many times he’s been to this damn diner. When he catches sight of Ben and Bev waving goodbye to him, and Richie blowing him exaggerated kisses, he can’t find it in himself to care about the mess in his car.

***

The next night, Eddie nearly skips out on the diner altogether. He doesn’t want to eat anything if he’s being honest, but he also doesn’t want to go straight home and be alone.

Silently, he trudges into the IHOP, shoulders hunched, his face pale and drawn.

“There he is!” he hears Richie say, footsteps getting closer. But all Eddie can do is stare down at his shoes.

“Earth to Spaghetti? Doc?” Richie calls, before his voice immediately goes softer, concern laced through it. “Eddie?”

Eventually, Eddie looks up, but he really can’t fucking deal with the anxious look on Richie’s face, the worried pucker of his eyebrows. He doesn’t deserve that.

“I just need to fucking sit down,” Eddie manages. He doesn’t even make it to his usual booth, just picks one closer and immediately sits, his face disappearing into his hands.

“Eddie, what’s wrong?” Richie asks gently.

“I lost a patient.”

It was a standard case of internal bleeding caused by a car accident. Eddie sort of hates that a man bleeding from the inside out could be classed as ‘standard’ in his line of work, but that’s simply how it is for him. Eddie had figured he’d be able to fix it, had been so confident that he’d brazenly told the patient’s wife that everything would be fine.

“I promised her that I’d save her husband,” he whispers.

“Eddie, c’mon. I’m sure you tried your best.” Richie’s crouched down beside him now, his hand on Eddie’s knee. All Eddie can do is glare at him because he’s the only person who’s here and Eddie can’t yell at himself and his ears are still ringing with the woman’s gut-wrenching screams when she’d found out that her husband was gone even after Eddie had promised her he’d save him.

He knows better than to promise people shit like that but he’d gone and done it anyway.

“My best wasn’t fucking good enough,” he bit out, echoing the wife’s grief-driven words. His tone is sharp and Richie simply takes it.

He just stays silent and lets Eddie talk.

“I couldn’t fucking save him – I fucking tried and – and, I – it was too late for him and I had to tell her that…” He lets out a wheeze, air trying to fight its way into his lungs through a pinhole in his chest that threatens to close up even more with every suffering inhale.

“Eddie, fuck, what do I do – do you have-” Richie panics, hands flailing uselessly.

Eddie’s hand dives into his pocket for his inhaler, but his fingers are shaking too much to get a good grip on it. It falls uselessly into his lap and when he picks it up again, warm fingers envelop his own.

“Bring it to your mouth,” Richie coaxes him and Eddie wants to snap that he knows how to use his fucking inhaler but the evidence sort of proves otherwise and he knows that Richie is just desperately trying to help and not freak out at the same time.

He gets the inhaler between his lips, Richie holding it steady for him and he gulps greedily at the air that pushes out of the nozzle.

Slowly leaning back, he closes his eyes and clutches onto it. He doesn’t want to look at Richie right now. He doesn’t want to see the pity on his face.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be,” Richie replies. There’s a beat of silence and then. “Do you wanna sit outside for a bit?”

***

They end up perched on the hood of Richie’s car. He drives an old Cadillac, because of course he does. Eddie’s feet rest on the bumper so he can support his elbows on his knees. All around them, the night is alive with buzzing noises: cicadas, the flickering of the streetlights, a raccoon skittering around the alleyways at the back of the building.

Eddie refuses to be the first one to speak. Maybe he’s spoiling for a fight because he knows that the first thing Richie will say is going to drive him to anger, and he sort of wants to give himself over to an argument instead of bawling his eyes out like he knows he should.

Eventually, Richie settles on, “I couldn’t do your fucking job, man.”

It isn’t what Eddie expected and he turns to look at Richie.

He’s leaning back against the hood of the car, palms flat out behind him to support his stretched arms. He’s staring directly at Eddie, which makes Eddie wonder how long he’s been looking this way.

“What do you mean?” Eddie asks.

“You have to watch people die and just be okay with it. And you’re clearly not fucking okay with it but I mean, you’re gonna go back into work tomorrow, right?”

Eddie nods dumbly.

“You’re a braver person than I am. I couldn’t do what you do.”

“I’m not brave,” Eddie argues weakly, but the fight has drained from his voice.

“Yeah you are,” Richie tells him. “I seriously just… don’t know how you can keep a cool head with all the shit you see. Was this your first guy to die?”

He says it sort of awkwardly and bluntly and he has no idea how much Eddie appreciates that. He doesn’t want Richie to start walking on eggshells around him.

“Yeah,” he nods.

“So you’ve saved plenty of other lives then,” Richie says.

Eddie swallows and looks away. “I get that you’re trying to make a point, but…”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Doc.” Richie eventually slides closer to him until their thighs are pressed flush together. He nudges Eddie with his elbow. “You’re a fucking hero. Don’t let tonight make you think any different.”

Eddie’s whole left side is tingling from head to toe and he turns his head to smile wanly at Richie. “Thanks, Rich.”

“Ain’t no thing, chicken wing,” Richie says immediately and Eddie lets himself laugh.

***

Richie walks Eddie back to his car, humming under his breath. It’s tuneless and probably not a real song but Eddie likes the sound of it.

“Same time tomorrow?” Richie jokes.

“I’ll be here. And I’ll actually order something this time,” Eddie promises. He gives Richie a small wave and turns to unlock his car when suddenly there’s a hand on his, tugging him back towards Richie.

Before he can fully process what’s happening, Richie is hugging him, tucking Eddie snugly against him and hooking his chin over the top of Eddie’s head, because he’s lanky and tall enough to do that.

Still a little shocked, Eddie returns the hug, pressing his face into Richie’s polo shirt. It smells of breakfast food and a musky-sweet sort of cologne and something else that Eddie comfortingly brands as ‘Richie’. He doesn’t know how else to describe it.

“I figure we’re at the hugging stage now,” Richie murmurs. “And I didn’t want to let you go home tonight without giving you one. I figured you could use it.”

“Were you just talking me down all night so I wouldn’t kick your shins when you eventually tried to hug me?” Eddie asks. There’s a small smile on his face and he can feel Richie’s thumb rubbing circles into his hoody.

“Yep,” Richie answers plainly.

Eddie snorts and eventually they pull away from each other.

“Thank you,” he says. Richie gives him his usual salute and makes his way back over to the sidewalk, walking along the edge of it with his arms akimbo like the clumsiest tightrope walker in the world.

Eddie gives him a wave as he leaves the lot.

Halfway home, he pulls over and breaks down in tears. But when he finishes, he simply sniffs loudly, wipes at his eyes with his sleeves and decides he feels all the better for it.

***

The next night, Richie is waiting for him at the podium.

“Good night?” he asks as casually as possible.

“I performed CPR on a guy and he’s going to make it,” Eddie says. The adrenaline is still thrumming through his veins.

“Course you did, Doc,” Richie grins at him.

He makes a show of clicking his pen and scribbling in his notepad.

“The usual?”

Eddie beams. “Usual.”

Chapter Text

Eddie is shamefully aware of how hard and fast he’s fallen for a guy who hasn’t changed out his toothbrush in over a year.

There’s no point in denying that his crush on Richie has spiralled into something irreversible and persistently present. The worst part is, he’s pretty sure that Richie knows.

“Bev says you didn’t show last night,” he says, taking up his usual residence opposite Eddie in their booth (because the table doesn’t just belong to Eddie anymore). There’s an omelette on his plate and Richie has deliberately covered the whole thing in whipped cream. Eddie knows he just wants a reaction and he refuses to give him anything more than a brief stink-eye before he shrugs at the question.

“I wasn’t working last night,” Richie continues. His tongue darts out to lick a bit of whipped cream off his pinky finger and Eddie’s whole stomach bottoms out.

His brain flashes with images of licking whipped cream off Richie’s chest, his own rules about personal hygiene be damned. Immediately, he crosses his legs.

“Oh, you weren’t?” he eventually says, straining to keep his tone as conversational as possible.

“Mhm,” Richie says, airily. “You didn’t know?”

“No.”

“So that’s not why you didn’t show?”

Eddie is forcefully looking away from him. “Nope.”

“Huh,” is all Richie says. When Eddie eventually summons the courage to look at him again, Richie is shooting him a sly grin. Eddie nearly shoves the whipped-cream-covered omelette in his face and quickly returns to his hash browns.

***

He’s so fucking sexually frustrated that Stan actually offers to go stay at Patty’s one night so he can invite someone over. Naturally, he does so in his usual, formal way, meaning it lacks any sort of tact.

“Why would I want to invite someone over?” asks Eddie, his mug nearly overflowing with coffee, he’s so distracted by the offer.

“You haven’t gotten laid in a while,” Stan replies, simply.

“Nope. No. We are not having this conversation.” Eddie sets down the coffee pot and begins wildly shaking his head.

Stan only shrugs, leaning against the counter and staring at Eddie blankly. “You’re clearly fucking hung up on that IHOP guy. Why don’t you just bite the bullet and bring him round?”

“Nope!” Eddie shouts, making a swift escape into his bedroom and slamming the door behind him.

In the end, Stan does end up going to stay at Patty’s and Eddie redownloads Grindr. He’s turned himself off the idea of inviting some stranger over to his apartment, but he’s not opposed to teasing himself over his sweatpants and engaging in some pretty standardised sexting. Halfway through though, he realises the only thing getting him hard is the thought of gripping onto broad shoulders and imagining what it would feel like for Richie’s teeth to bite his lip.

He immediately blue balls the guy he’s texting and comes over his own hand while thinking about Richie’s dark eyes staring at him through his glasses.

It doesn’t take long for the embarrassment to sink in and he barely speaks to Richie the next night at the diner, grabbing his receipt with a barely mumbled ‘thanks’ and marching back out to his car.

***

He can’t avoid Richie for long though, especially when he walks into IHOP the next night to see Bev crying and Ben pressing a scarlet tissue against Richie’s bloody nose.

“What the hell?” Eddie asks, marching over.

Bev wipes at her eyes, spidery mascara lines streaking her face. “It’s – Tom, he just – he came in and…”

“Where is he?” Eddie whirls around, looking for him. Not that he’d win anyway, but Eddie isn’t looking for a fight. He only wants to make sure that the man is nowhere in sight, or that if he is then someone is going to call the fucking police.

“You should see the other guy, Spaghetti,” Richie says, his voice sounding muffled and nasally behind the tissue. He still manages to send Eddie a wink. “And if you do, let me know so I can head the other way.”

His glasses have been removed and his hair is pushed back from his forehead. His face is a bloody mess but as Eddie takes a closer look, he decides with no little amount of relief that there’s no lasting damage.

“Do I still look handsome?” Richie asks as Eddie softly nudges Ben out the way so he can take over. He grabs a clean tissue for Richie and presses it gently against the tender skin of his nose, glad to see the blood flow has stopped.

He catches Richie’s eye and smiles slightly. “You’ll do.”

Richie grins right back before wincing and scrunching up his face in pain.

“Do you guys have an ice pack?” The question is directed to Ben and Bev. “It’ll help bring the inflammation down.”

“Will I live, Doc?” He’s staring up at Eddie so intently that he all but goes cross-eyed. It doesn’t endear him to Eddie any less. “Or will you have to kiss it better?”

Eddie’s heart skips a beat and he’s like ninety-eight percent sure that Richie is flirting with him right now, but every doubt he’s had about himself over the past twenty five years of his life suddenly flares up and he’s hit with a lightning strike of fear. He backs a way only a little bit.

“You’ll live,” he promises Richie.

“And here I thought we’d get to go all out and do the ‘where doesn’t it hurt?’ scene from Indiana Jones.” Eddie doesn’t know whether or not to take the pout on Richie’s face seriously and he chooses to ignore it for his own wellbeing.

“How the fuck did this happen?” he asks instead. He takes the seat next to Richie and wipes firmly at the now-dried blood crusting around Richie’s nostrils. Richie keeps up a mewling string of whining protests and Eddie promptly shushes him when he realises he’s only doing it out of a need to be dramatic.

“Bev’s shitty ex came in again,” Richie says, sobering a little, all traces of laughter gone.

“And you just offered to be his personal punching bag?”

Richie cuts his eyes to the side. “Can you give me a little more credit than that?”

“Sorry.”

“I wasn’t trying to pick a fight,” Richie explains. “But he started on Bev again and I just saw red. Nobody should talk to Bev that way, especially that piece of shit. So I stepped in and I guess I made some sort of comment about how his attitude towards women must have some direct correlation with the size of his dick and he swung for me. I didn’t see it coming, but as soon as it happened, Ben hauled his ass out the door.”

“He could get in serious trouble for this, right?” Eddie asks. He’s trying hard to push past the nausea that comes with the thought of anyone touching Richie in a way that’s anything less than gentle. His fingers gently skirt the bridge of Richie’s nose, gently checking for any swollen bumps.

“Yeah, so if it means Bev can keep everything that belongs to her then getting hit’ll have been fucking worth it,” Richie says without an ounce of falsity.

Eddie stares at him.

“You can’t be serious. I want Bev to be happy too but you can’t just fucking put yourself in harm’s way to fucking help her. She wouldn’t want you to. You’re a fucking idiot if you think you… you…”

His verbal tirade slowly drifts away from him when Richie reaches up to circle his fingers around Eddie’s wrist. He stares at Richie’s hand, the square angle of his thumb jutting out sharply, his long fingers pressing against Eddie’s pulse point. He can probably feel it jackrabbiting against his skin, exposing Eddie for the fainthearted, lovesick idiot that he is.

Slowly, Eddie lifts his gaze up to Richie’s, his chest filling with a searing heat when Richie stares back. He feels like he’s going to explode.

His fingertips are still skimming the long line of Richie’s nose and he uses his forefinger to tap gently against the skin, not nearly enough to hurt.

“Does it hurt here?” he asks. To his own ears, his voice sounds choked and garbled and not at all sexy, but Richie’s pupils dilate immediately so he must be doing something right. Eventually, he shakes his head.

Eddie leans forward, slowly and deliberately so Richie has every opportunity to pull away. But he doesn’t. He just keeps looking at Eddie.

Carefully, Eddie lets himself press a featherlight kiss to the tip of Richie’s nose, his whole body alight with a frenzied energy and the overwhelming sensation of I can’t believe I just did that.

He doesn’t exhale until he’s sitting back in his seat.

“Where else doesn’t it hurt?” he asks.

Richie, with his hand still wrapped around Eddie’s wrist, guides Eddie’s fingers to his forehead. He doesn’t have his hat (which is a real shame because Eddie really fucking likes it when Richie wears that dumb baseball cap), so it’s not going to be screen accurate, but IHOP waiter Richie Tozier is hotter than any archaeologist Eddie has ever met. Eat shit, Harrison Ford.

Leaning in again, Eddie kisses Richie’s forehead, letting his mouth linger there and, fuck, he can feel Richie’s eyelashes fluttering against his chin.

He doesn’t let himself look away when he sits back and allows Richie to guide Eddie’s fingers to his lips. Because he can’t help himself, Eddie pushes down lightly on Richie’s bottom lip, warm air ghosting over his skin when Richie’s mouth drops open slightly.

They’re both perfectly aware of what’s happening now and Eddie is pretty confident that he’s never had such a clear green-means-go sign before, so he slowly pulls his hand away and leans in towards Richie.

“Eddie, I have your hash browns!”

Richie falls out the chair and lands on the ground and gravity nearly has its way with Eddie too, had it not been for his grip on his own chair.

His head whips around so he can glare at Ben who’s proudly holding a plate of piping hot hash browns. Eddie is momentarily transported back to the very first time he laid eyes on Ben and decided he wanted to figuratively kick his ass. That same sentiment is multiplied tenfold now.

“Richie, you okay?” Ben asks, finally clocking onto the fact that Richie is sprawled on the ground, propping himself up on his elbow.

To his credit, Richie doesn’t look nearly as flustered as Eddie feels and shoots Ben a thumbs up. “All good, Haystack!”

“Okay,” Ben replies, taking the answer for what it is and setting Eddie’s plate down on the table.

Eddie’s appetite is gone; or, at least, he’s not exactly hungry for hash browns. But when Richie picks himself up off the floor and laughs to himself, Eddie realises the moment has gone.

“Got carried away there,” Richie says, still not looking at Eddie.

“Carried away?” Eddie’s voice is flat. He stares at Richie.

Eventually, Richie goes still and glances sideways at Eddie, his shoulders lifting in a shrug. “I mean…”

“No, it’s fine.” Eddie doesn’t hesitate to cut him off. “I know what you mean.”

A frown crosses Richie’s face. “Eddie…”

“Can I just eat now?” Eddie snaps. He feels embarrassed and exposed and, in his eyes, that justifies jumping straight to anger. He knows Richie isn’t malicious enough to purposefully humiliate him but the way he’s playing off whatever that had just been is enough to make Eddie want to crawl into a hole and die. Or maybe he’s just regressing.

He thinks of all the ways he’s flirted with Richie over the past few weeks, telling himself that Richie clearly knew what he was doing. There was no doubt about it that Richie had been aware of Eddie’s every intention tonight, and the sheer mortification Eddie feels about letting himself be so fucking transparent is near-enough debilitating.

Had Richie just been humouring him? The thought makes him want to throw up.

“Hey, I’ve got your bill, but you don’t need to-”

Eddie grabs the receipt and balls it up on his fist. He tries to remain calm and composed, but his grip on an even temper has always been tenuous at best.

“Whoa, you treat ‘em all like that?” Richie asks, eyes wide.

“It’s just a fucking receipt,” Eddie snaps, not at all eager to entertain any stupid jokes Richie has tonight. His heart is racing.

Something flickers behind Richie’s eyes and he presses his mouth into a tight line. “Okay then. Thanks for the medical help tonight, Doc.”

“The medical help,” Eddie scoffs, shaking his head. He can see Richie opening his mouth like he wants to say something else but he’s pretty sure he’ll scream if he has to hear it, so he grabs his hoody and awkwardly clambers out of the booth because the universe will apparently be damned if it gives him a smooth and dignified exit.

“Try not to walk into a fist,” Eddie warns Richie, storming away and leaving his hash browns uneaten behind him.

***

He deliberately goes to the diner on the nights that Richie won’t be there. He sits rigidly in his usual booth and eats the same hash browns as always, pointedly ignoring the worried looks that Ben and Bev give him.

He doesn’t ask them about Richie and it’s pretty clear from their radio silence regarding their friend that Richie hasn’t been asking about him.

It feels stupidly like a break-up and Eddie decides he’ll need to find another diner soon.

***

“Eddie, you’re not working tonight, are you?”

Eddie’s head appears from the mountain of blankets he’s pitifully buried himself under and looks at Stan. “No, why?”

Stan moves past him to the fridge so he can grab a bottled water. He’s been deliberately ignoring Eddie’s dramatic sighs from the sofa for three days now. He knows Eddie wants attention but refuses to ask for it, and Stan is too fucking stubborn to give into him, so they’ve both been orbiting around each other in their shared living space with knowing, frustrated glances.

“Can I borrow your car to get to work? Mine is in the shop.”

Oh, so now Stanley wants a favour?

“Yeah, sure,” he replies, because they both knew that’s what he was going to say anyway.

“Thanks.” Stan walks past the sofa and absently pats Eddie’s hair before going into his room to call Patty.

The soft click of the door shutting behind him somehow brings with it the realisation that Eddie absolutely need to clean his damn car.

***

Huffing out a sigh, Eddie stuffs his takeout cups into a trash bag. When he turns to the mountain of receipts in his passenger seat, he sighs tiredly as one flutters to the ground.

“Come on,” he whines, kneeling down on the ground to grab it. When he picks it up, he catches a Sharpie’d scribble of something. Peeling the paper apart so he can read it, he realises it’s a note.

No, Doc. That’s not an Epi-pen in my pants. I’m just happy to see you.

Eddie blinks.

The receipt is dated from the fourth or fifth time he went to the diner.

Immediately, he grabs another one and unfolds it, smoothing out the creases and finding another message written there.

Do you have a stethoscope? Because my heart is racing! he reads.

With shaking fingers, Eddie grabs a handful of other receipts and reads them all.

Can I take your temperature? Because you’re looking hot today!

Another reads, ICU in my dreams.

Are you a cardiologist? Because I want to give you my heart! comes from the day Richie found out that Eddie was as big a Star Wars nerd as he was.

There’s You wanna go study anatomy? from the first day Eddie noticed that Richie constantly thumbs at his front teeth every time he laughs like he’s trying to stop them being on display. He’d hated seeing them disappear.

He laughs out loud at, Are you my appendix? Because I think I need to take you out. and You just need to look at my pants to see what’s up, Doc.

Pressing his hand against his mouth, he opens up another receipt to see the same chicken-scratch scrawl. He quickly realises not all of them are cheesy pick-up lines.

You’re always a hero in my book, Doctor Spaghetti, is scribbled on the receipt he took with him the day after his panic attack, when Richie had let him sit on the hood of his car and talk freely about his job.

At this stage, Eddie is fully sitting on the ground, his ass growing steadily colder as he leans against the open door of his car but he barely notices.

He eventually finds his most recent receipt, the one from the last time he’d seen Richie at the diner, when he’d stormed out and refused to look back. Part of him almost doesn’t want to unfold the receipt but he can see the black ink of Richie’s Sharpie peeking through the white paper and slowly smooths it out.

I never hurt when I’m around you.

Eddie feels like the wind had been knocked out of him but he quickly recovers and immediately scrambles to his feet. He shoves the receipts back into his passenger seat and swiftly makes his way to the other side of the car, dropping down behind the wheel and turning his key in the ignition.

He’s pretty sure that if he actually stops and thinks about what he’s doing then he’s going to chicken out and go right back home. So instead, he thinks about Richie and his curly hair and stupid glasses and worn out IHOP shirt that’s never seen the underside of an iron in its life. He thinks about how Richie makes him laugh and plots out elaborate practical jokes simply to entertain Eddie. He thinks about the man who sat with him in a dimly-lit parking lot after a panic attack and the man who put himself in harm’s way to protect his best friend and the dumbass who’ll pour inappropriate condiments over his food just to see Eddie’s horrified reaction.

He can’t stop thinking about the idiotic, selfless, dorky son-of-a-bitch that gave Eddie his last hash brown and immediately made him fall in love with him.

Swinging into the parking lot, he stops across two spaces but who the fuck is here to yell at him?

Eddie slams his car door behind him and marches into IHOP.

Richie is standing behind the podium, looking tired and bored and Eddie’s heart throws itself against his ribcage with enough ferocity to nearly shove him off-balance. But he remains steady on his feet and continues to make a beeline towards Richie, who’s only just noticed him.

“Eddie.” He looks surprised to say the least, but that’s nothing compared to how he reacts when Eddie stops in front of the podium, fists a hand in his stupid IHOP shirt and drags Richie down into a kiss.

It’s a clumsy, frantic press of lips and Eddie’s pretty sure his bottom lip gets more of Richie’s chin than his actual mouth, but it’s still the best thing Eddie’s ever experienced in his whole life.

He only lets himself linger for a little bit because Richie hasn’t given him any sort of sign that he was totally onboard with what Eddie just done so he slowly pulls back and cautiously looks up at Richie. He releases his grip on Richie’s shirt, the bunched up material loosening from his fingers, but his hand remains where it is over Richie’s chest. He can feel his heart beating wildly beneath his palm.

Richie is staring at him, eyes blown wide with shock. But he doesn’t look angry.

“Does it hurt here?” Eddie asks softly.

There’s a beat of silence and then Richie is surging forward to kiss Eddie again, and this time Eddie can let himself just melt into it. He can feel Richie’s hands coming up to cup his face and his own hand slides up Richie’s arm to grip his shoulder because it’s about damn time he got to do that.

Richie opens his mouth and Eddie immediately lets his tongue run along the underside of Richie’s front teeth, a full-body shiver coursing through him as he presses himself flush against the other man.

Their mouths move against each other and Eddie can fucking hear Richie’s ragged breaths as he kisses Eddie back.

“Eds, Eddie,” Richie mumbles against his lips. Eddie wants to keep kissing him but understands that Richie obviously wants to say something. He finds an easy middle ground by trailing his mouth along Richie’s jaw instead. It’s so fucking sharp.

“Yeah?” he asks.

“Please tell me this isn’t some – okay, fuck – some weird Indiana Jones meta shit? Like are you just a superfan or do you actually like me, cause - jeeze,” Richie’s breath catches when Eddie’s tongue darts out to lick a stripe up the juncture where his jaw meets his neck.

“Are you trying to make my brain melt?” Richie asks.

“No,” Eddie says eventually, tipping his head back to look at Richie. “And this isn’t a weird Indiana Jones thing. I’ve liked you for weeks.”

“What?” Richie stares at him.

Sheepishly, Eddie reaches into his pocket and pulls out the last crumpled receipt he’d gotten from Richie and presses it into his hand.

“I hadn’t been reading them. I didn’t know that…” he trails off with a disbelieving shake of his head.

“Holy shit. That was some of my best material! And you just ignored it?”

“I didn’t realise that – you’re kidding,” Eddie says, huffing out a relieved sigh when he catches sight of the grin on Richie’s face.

“You like me?” Richie asks again.

“I like you.”

Richie tilts his head to the side. “More than hash browns?”

Eddie reaches up to pull him back in for another kiss, rolling his eyes at the little noise of protest Richie makes.

“That’s not an answer,” he whines, but he’s slipping his tongue back into Eddie’s mouth. Eddie teasingly pokes his side, humming amusedly when Richie flinches.

He jerks his head back. “Hey, you didn’t tell me if you liked me back!”

Richie throws him a look, the effect dimmed slightly by the hazy way he’s staring at Eddie’s lips. “Did I or did I not basically imply on one of those receipts that I wanted you to use my dick like a surgical tool?”

Eddie rolls his eyes as he moves closer, slipping his hands into the back pockets of Richie’s jeans. “That could have been a joke.”

“It wasn’t,” Richie says quickly. “I really fucking like you, Eddie.”

That’s all it takes for Eddie to lean in again and they’re making out like the world will end if they break apart. It doesn’t occur to either of them that it’s ten minutes past midnight and they’re three seconds away from heavy petting each other in an IHOP, but at least Beverly Marsh decides to show up and remind them to get a hold of themselves.

“I’m pretty sure that’s a health and safety hazard,” she says, appearing from thin air and making them spring apart.

“Jesus, Bev!” Richie curses. His lips are red and swollen and Eddie might need to grab a fucking menu to cover his crotch if the realisation that he did that lingers in his brain for any longer than the next five seconds.

She stands and watches them smugly. Her hand is propped against her hip and there’s a pink crayon tucked behind her ear.

“Am I interrupting something?”

Eddie shakes his head just as Richie bluntly replies, “Yes.”

Bev laughs. “I’m just glad you guys got your shit together. Seriously, Eddie, the more you came in here, the more I was convinced that Richie’s dick was going to develop a Pavlovian response to the sight of a hash brown.”

“You’re an evil woman, Marsh,” Richie replies. His hand is still resting against Eddie’s neck and Eddie wants to lean into it but he also knows that he’s so close to jumping this man in a public eatery and he doesn’t want to scar Bev for life.

“I’m leaving early,” Richie announces.

“What makes you think you can just do that?” Bev asks but her tone is playful and Eddie knows she isn’t going to stop them.

“I have a note from my doctor.” Richie squeezes Eddie’s shoulder so he stands to attention. “That’s you by the way.”

“Oh yeah.” Eddie squares his shoulders. “He needs to leave. Preferably right now.”

Bev cackles again and shakes her head at them both. “Get out of here, you horndogs.”

***

Eddie’s fingers don’t stop shaking when he hastily types out a text to Stan politely asking him to get the fuck out of their apartment because he’s bringing someone home.

He gets a reply when he’s back behind the wheel of his car: Finally.

***

Eddie’s bedroom door nearly rockets off his hinges when it slams open and lets both him and Richie spill inside, dropping their jeans in their wake. They’re too busy making out and licking into each other’s mouths to concentrate on where their clothes land so when Richie trips over his own pants, he ends up falling backwards onto Eddie’s bed.

“Stay there,” Eddie cautions him, pulling his own shirt off and then climbing into Richie’s lap. He can already feel Richie’s hardness pressing against the curve of his ass and he rocks his hips forward to let Richie know.

“Fuck, this is really happening. I mean, this is really happening, right?” Richie asks. Eddie presses forward to draw him into another kiss, the base of his spine delighting in the way Richie’s teeth nip against his bottom lip.

“It’s really happening,” he assures him.

Then Richie is reaching up to take off his IHOP hat and Eddie catches his wrist to abort the motion, blushing when Richie looks curiously at him.

“I kinda want you to fucking keep it on.”

Richie raises an eyebrow. “What, IHOP baseball caps turn you on?”

“I’m learning a lot about myself tonight,” Eddie notes, surging forward to Richie again. Now that he’s in Richie’s lap though, the height difference between them has evened out and nearly pokes his fucking eye out on the brim of the cap.

“Ouch, fuck, okay. Get rid of that fucking thing,” he demands. He tears it off Richie’s head and throws it across the room. It lands neatly on top of his lampshade.

“Bullseye!” Richie cries, fist pumping the air before he’s muffled by Eddie’s mouth as he presses him back against the mattress.

“Are you gonna talk this much while I get you off?” Eddie asks, mouthing at the skin beneath Richie’s jaw.

“If you want me to shut up, I’ll shut up,” Richie promises. His hands slide down Eddie’s back, not stopping until they firmly take hold of his ass to pull him down so they can grind against each other.

“Fuck,” Eddie breathes. “Fuck no, I don’t want you to shut up.”

Richie’s stubble scratches against his lips and all Eddie can think about is how it would feel between his legs. Immediately, he moans aloud at the thought.

“What do you want?” Richie asks, pushing his hips up so Eddie can feel him, all of him, through his boxers.

Eddie’s traces his fingers along Richie’s jaw, brittle little hairs poking against his skin. “I…”

The words stick in his throat and he clamps his lips together. It barely takes a second for Richie to catch onto his sudden nervousness, because he reaches up to kiss the tip of Eddie’s nose and Eddie is floored by the feeling that gives him, the sweetness juxtaposing everything else happening right now but not bringing him down from his high any less.

A smile flickers across his lips and Richie mirrors it with a hopeful one of his own. “Tell me,” he says softly.

Eddie taps his stubble lightly. “I kinda wanna feel this against my thighs.”

Something darkens in Richie’s eyes and suddenly he’s rolling them both over so Eddie’s underneath him now.

“My brain just fucking broke hearing you say that, I hope you fucking know that. I don’t even have a good enough joke to make right now. Fuck, I just wanna suck you off,” he babbles. His fingers dip under the waistband of Eddie’s briefs and he pauses. “Is this okay? Can I take them off?”

“I’m going to fucking explode if you don’t get them off of me right now. I’m not coming without you touching me,” Eddie warns him.

He lifts his hips to help Richie get his briefs off, and when they’re gone he realises he’s butt fucking naked in front of Richie who’s still in his work shirt and boxers.

“Shirt off,” he says suddenly, clicking his fingers to get rid of the dazed look on Richie’s face.

“Do you mind? I was enjoying the view,” Richie mutters, but he reaches behind him to pull his shirt upwards anyway. Once it’s off, Eddie immediately moves forward, finally living his three-week old daydreaming of running his tongue up Richie’s chest, minus the whipped cream but they can talk about that later.

“Fuck, Eddie,” Richie moans, threading his fingers in Eddie’s hair. “I’m supposed to be helping you.”

“I just wanna touch you,” Eddie says.

“You can do that while I’m blowing you,” Richie says. “Pull my hair.”

“You like that?” Eddie asks, allowing himself to be guided back against the pillows again because of course Richie is going to be a fucking gentleman about this and make sure Eddie is comfortable.

Richie nods eagerly and starts pressing a trail of kisses down Eddie’s chest, his rough hair catching Eddie’s skin in all the best ways. Eddie slides his hands into thick brown curls, hair slipping between his fingers as he gently clenches his fist, trying not to be too rough. Richie’s answering moan travels all the way up his torso and he presses his head back against the pillows, his breath catching in his throat.

“So you do like that,” Eddie says, mainly so he can pretend he still has some control over the situation even though his insides are currently going buck fucking wild as Richie settles between his legs and begins kissing the inside of his thighs.

Tugging gently on Richie’s hair to get him to moan again, Eddie can feel Richie’s unshaven cheeks rub against his skin and it makes him ache.

“Richie,” he moans as a hickey is sucked into his thigh. “Richie.”

“Yeah?” Richie pants against his skin.

“Need your mouth. Please.”

In a matter of seconds, Richie’s taken all of him in his mouth and Eddie is seeing fucking stars. His first instinct is to grip onto whatever he can hold, which means he all but fucking scalps Richie and feels the groan shooting right up his dick.

“Sorry. Shit. Sorry,” he apologises, but then Richie’s tongue moves against the length of him as he takes him deeper and Eddie realises there was no apology necessary.

He’s already embarrassingly close. He’s been wound up since he read that first receipt from Richie though so, honestly, he’s proud of himself for lasting this long.

“That feels so fucking good. Fuck, Rich.” He’s petting his hair and tugging gently at its roots and Richie is moaning against him. “Can you – fuck, can you look at me?”

Richie’s eyes flick up, dark lashes framing them as he moves his head up and down, his cheeks hollowed out and his hair a fucked up mess from Eddie’s fingers and it pushes Eddie over the edge. He hisses loudly as he comes, Richie’s name falling from his lips as he flops bonelessly back against the cushions. His limbs tremble from the feeling of Richie licking him clean and all Eddie’s good for at that moment is pushing his hips up slightly to chase the feeling that’s all but knocked him clean out.

“Holy shit,” he manages, sliding one of his hands out from Richie’s hair to clap it against his eyes. He feels Richie shift and a thumb gently presses against the newly-sucked bruised on his thigh, causing a whimper to tear from throat.

“Was that good?” Richie asks and Eddie immediately drops his hand to stare at him.

“Good?” he asks and it takes him a moment to realise it’s not a rhetorical question. Richie is still sitting by his hips, boxers tented in a way that convinces Eddie’s dick to twitch again. His eyes are round and wary and Eddie is shocked to discover that, holy shit, Richie is asking because he doesn’t know if that was good or not.

“Fuck you, Richie. Was that good? Are you kidding me, you just – come here,” Eddie reaches out to pull Richie forward. He collapses on top of Eddie and it’s a welcome weight.

Without hesitating, Eddie kisses him deeply. He can still taste his own come on Richie’s tongue, but it’s not nearly as gross as he thought it might be.

“That was so fucking good, I’m not gonna be able to think about your mouth again without getting hard,” Eddie confesses and the moan that sounds from Richie is like music to his ears.

“How do you want me?” he asks Richie.

A gentle kiss lends itself to his cheek and Richie has the absolute fucking audacity to say, “Anyway I get to keep you.”

Eddie nearly has a fucking coronary.

His hand slides under Richie’s jaw so he can get him to look at him. He stares up at him, wondering how the hell he managed to get a man like this to like him back. “You’ve got me,” he promises.

Richie gives him a small nod, his face melting into a warm smile and Eddie sort of wants to bawl his eyes out. He’s so gone for this man.

“In that case,” Richie says. “I want you to jerk me off while saying some really dirty shit to me.”

Eddie grins. He’s really fucking gone for him.

He reaches between them, his hand slipping under Richie’s boxers to stroke him gently and after pressing his mouth to Richie’s ear and telling him everything he wants to do to him today and tomorrow and the next day, Richie comes undone, spilling over Eddie’s hand with a quiet moan.

“I’ve been waiting fucking weeks for that,” Richie says, collapsing next to Eddie and immediately pulling him in by his waist.

“If you had just fucking told me you’d been writing me dirty love notes on my fucking receipts, this could have been happening for weeks,” Eddie argues, but his words are softened by the way he’s kissing Richie’s shoulder, nuzzling against the soft skin.

“I thought you’d be the kind of guy to check he didn’t get overcharged, how the fuck was I meant to know you were tossing that shit in your trash can of a car?” Richie snickers.

Eddie wants to defend himself and his car but his eyes feel heavy and Richie is kissing the crown of his head and it’s the happiest he’s felt in years.

“You’re gonna be here tomorrow, right?” Eddie asks. His heart jumps when Richie’s fingers slide through the gaps between his.

“You gonna make me breakfast?” comes the teasing reply.

“I’ve even got mayo.”

“Blue Plate?”

“Only the best.”

A kiss to his forehead and then, “Well then, you’ve got it, Doc.”