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a plastic man of steel

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It wasn’t part of the plan to have friends.

(Well, okay. That kind of makes him sound like Sheldon. He is not Sheldon. He wouldn’t wish “being Sheldon” even on his worst enemy (who happens to be Sheldon). So, yeah, maybe he should try and rephrase and, perhaps, expand on what he means.)

It wasn’t part of his (slightly convoluted but pretty much guaranteed to succeed) life plan to have these people as friends. (He sounds kind of like Leonard now but at least this time he made it sound like he wants friends. He’s just not entirely sure he really wants these friends in particular. But, like his mother used to say, her long finger waving around in his face: “You don’t pick your friends, Barry. Your friends pick you.” Which… isn’t actually true. It’s kind of stupid, actually, if he really thinks about it. It’s family you don’t get to pick and even then, that’s debatable.)

It’s not like he had written a list with the specific qualities of the kinds of people he needed to be friends with (he totally did and sometimes he wonders about his sanity). It’s not like he goes to parties – even ones hosted by people he absolutely loathes – just hoping that maybe somebody he who he could actually get along with might be there and hello, instant best friend (he does and even he’s aware of how pathetic it is and even though he’s the most normal guy he knows at his job, he’s still not that normal. He’s a big enough guy to be able to admit that).

This whole, lengthy preamble is pretty much so he can say this: his friends are idiots and he doesn’t like them a whole lot most of the time. But they’re his friends.

So don’t judge him for anything that happens beyond this point.

– –

“I’m telling you,” Stuart says, bending forward, resting against his folded arms, trying to keep his voice as low as possible so the kid searching through comics in a heavy, white, cardboard box couldn’t hear him, “He’s been here for an hour and he just… keeps doing that.” He makes this noise that sounds similar to a dog who’s paw just got stepped on and Kripke looks up from flipping through a Daredevil comic that he’s pretty sure he’s read already (it was just kind of there and he hates standing around, not really looking at anything so he had to pick it up).

“It is kind of weird.” The kid is small with an oddly shaped head and dry hair and Kripke wrinkles his nose. “He’ll buy something. And if he doesn’t you can have Zack pick him up and throw him out like a rag–doll. You know, once he’s done playing with his action figures.” Zack frowns from where he’s crouched, although it’s hard to tell if it was because he actually heard what Kripke had said or if he didn’t particularly like the story that he was coming up with to go along with the movements of the Superman and Wonder Woman action figures he was making walk around on the glass counter that housed the cash register and stacks of old, useless trades and flyers for places that thought they’d get some good advertising in a store that the owner lived in. “You should say something.”

“I don’t know,” Stuart whines and Kripke rolls his eyes, lowering his comic book.

“Hey, you,” he shouts, waiting for the kid to turn, “Yes, you, with the over–bite and the I–just–got–struck–by–lightning hair. You gonna buy something or what.” The kid mumbles and he’s shoving his hand in the box, dragging out four books and rushing to the counter without looking at the titles like Kripke was too intimidating to handle (which just amused all of them to no end).

“That it?” Stuart asks because he has to and the kid just mumbles again and pulls out a plain, black wallet, crumpling dollar bills in his fragile fist and Zack moves over to give him room but keeps playing with the action figures, walking Superman over to the kid’s arm, tapping his elbow with the tiny plastic hand. When it’s obvious that the kid wasn’t going to give him the time of day (and the flush that pulled across his cheeks meant it was out of fear more than the possibility that he was an utter jerkwad) Zack replaces Superman with Wonder Woman and repeats the action, except using her bright red boot to kick him instead.

The kid runs as soon as he gets his change, the bell on the door ringing angrily and Kripke laughs, Stuart just shaking his head as he rearranges the money in the till. Zack stands up from the floor and rests his arm on Kripke’s shoulder, leaning slightly into him and Kripke grimaces, silencing the part of himself that wanted to remind Zack that they weren’t “best friends forever” no matter how many times he insisted on referring to them as that or touching him like they were. (Often he pondered when and why Zack decided that he was going to choose him over Stuart (god, he’s making sound like they’re dating) when it became apparent later on in this ‘friendship’ that Zack had actually met Stuart before but he figures it probably had to do with them singing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” when they first met).

“Now he’s gonna tell his friends and I’m gonna lose a ton of potential customers.” Stuart’s complaining like he seriously means business but he chuckles when Kripke snorts:

What friends. That kid doesn’t have any friends. If he had friends he’d be out there building a rocket out of toilet paper tubes with them instead of lurking inside this place.”

“A rocket out of toilet paper tubes,” Stuart reiterates, shoulders lifting as he laughs and Kripke wants to tell him that it wasn’t that funny but he’s kind of grateful for the audience so he lets it slide.

“Dude. Is that possible? You can make a rocket outta those things?” Zack finally pushes off Kripke, spinning, eyes wide, looking back and forth between his two friends.

“Not one that’ll actually fly,” Stuart says.

“Bummer. I’ve always wanted to make a rocket.”

“You’ve never made one?” Stuart sounds more surprised than he should’ve been and he walks around the counter out onto the floor, heading towards the mess the kid had left behind, only doing a weak job at trying to straighten it up. Kripke goes back to reading, hoping that, eventually, a more interesting conversation might rear it’s shiny head before he reaches the final page. “I mean, never in school or anything?”

“Pfft.” Which was the best answer they were going to get and could be interpreted as ‘no, I never did’ or ‘I don’t remember’ or maybe ‘who the hell cares’. Zack picks up Superman again and starts moving his legs back and forth like he’s doing a very robotic version of the can–can and it’s distracting enough that Kripke has trouble focusing on the words, the flash of blue and red just at the corner of his eye where ignoring it isn’t really a possibility. “It’d be funnier if he was wearing a dress,” Zack says and neither Stuart nor Kripke could really argue with him on that point. “That was that crappy movie with Ben Affleck right?” And it takes Kripke a minute to realize that Zack is referring to the comic Kripke is still clutching onto (because hey, Affleck has been in a lot of crappy movies and Zack has this habit of completely changing the subject without the slightest hint that it’s going to happen) and Kripke glances down at it in that way that everybody does when someone makes a note of something they’re holding like they had forgotten it was even in their hands and need to make sure that it’s actually real.

“Yes, that one. We like to pretend it never happened.”

Zack’s brows furrow as he mulls it over for a minute. “Who’s ‘we’?”

“Everyone,” Kripke and Stuart say at the same time.

“Yeah,” Zack sighs, “I thought it was supposed to be a comedy,” there was a pause, as if he was flashing back, “Apparently it wasn’t.” Kripke grins as he turns the page. There was hope for Zack yet.

– –

Zack brings the Superman action figure with him when they gather at the kind–of–shitty Mexican place (that they went to all the time because Stuart didn’t have a car and it was right around the corner from his shop which, yeah, he also lived in so it really was all about his convenience) a few minutes later once Stuart had had enough of nobody walking in through his jingling doors but they didn’t notice until after they had their drinks and Zack pulled the Man of Steel out of his pocket to make him stand at the center of the table, leaning dramatically against a bottle of hot sauce and Stuart and Kripke stare at it for a moment, Stuart snorting, a shoulder raising in a shrug as he stares back at his menu but Kripke’s gaze lingers because seriously.

Seriously.” He had to say something. If this friendship had a contract, saying something every time Zack did a weird or stupid thing would be one of the first clauses.

“What?” Zack says it like, sure, this was entirely normal. Their waiter is going to laugh at them when he comes back; the guy already has enough fuel for his ‘make fun of the nerds’ fire (not that he’s a nerd because he isn’t and Zack… Zack definitely isn’t. so there’s only Stuart). “He’s a plastic man of steel. He’s awesome.”

“That’s debatable,” Stuart grumbles and Kripke only glances at him because he forgot about how much Stuart doesn’t like Superman and, okay, you can not be a fan but hate him? Nobody actually hates Superman. Except for Stuart.

“I’m having more of an issue with the fact that you’ve decided he belongs on the table.” God, he sounded like a mother. Not his mother but A Mother, like every single (good, normal) mother to ever exist and Kripke kind of can’t believe the words left his mouth.

“Where else was I supposed to put him?” And Kripke could argue with him until he was blue in the face but he just can’t be bothered today.

– –

Zack follows him home (it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last and Kripke wishes he didn’t forget that), talking the whole time, mostly about a CSI: marathon he had watched the other night, which was weird in of itself because Kripke couldn’t remember a time when Zack actually stayed in (and he only knows this because Zack calls him practically every morning or sometimes shows up at his work – much to the chagrin of the people (aka the person if Kripke could even call him that (Sheldon) who thought Zack was their friend – to regal him of the exciting things he had done the night before and then ask him why he doesn’t come along that often even though, yes, it’s something that Kripke would very much enjoy).

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be,” Kripke says, just like every single time that isn’t Sunday that Zack decides his time would be better spent bothering Kripke and, just like every single time, Zack just doesn’t answer and invites himself inside and takes over the whole couch. Keys are dumped on a table and a coat tossed onto a desk and Kripke flops down in his chair, pulling his computer onto his lap and waking it up from it’s slumber to go about the business of checking his email and Facebook and all of the other blogging sites he can’t believe he signed up for, knowing that sooner or later Zack will get bored and leave or turn on the tv or fall asleep, all of those options not involving Kripke having to entertain him in some way.

“Nope,” and Zack sounds so damn satisfied and there’s the Superman action figure again except now he’s trying to balance on the cushion (and ultimately failing because his flat, plastic feet were not made for lumpy, squishy couches). Zack keeps trying though, propping him up and then slowly pulling his hands away, hardly breathing as if that’s the problem and then deflating when he just falls over and Kripke has to give the guy credit for his patience.

Kripke goes back to ignoring him but is disappointed by the lack of updates and emails and he sighs, clicking through people saying what they got for lunch and how much work sucks and how bored they are and he puts his chin in his hand and glimpses over the top of his laptop, trying not to be too obvious, watching Zack again because now he’s muttering to himself and moving Superman’s arms in the only directions they will go (up and down) and it’s frustratingly childish and Kripke thinks about asking if he would like a juice box but then he realizes he needs to refresh his Facebook page and he forgets what he was going to say.

He’s laughing silently at this one guy who is intent on making a fool out of himself (it’s Leonard, actually, and he still wonders how he managed to get talked into being friends with him online but it’s not like they really talk to one another) and he’s gearing up to respond when he hears footsteps and nearly has a heart attack when there’s suddenly breathing behind him and little feet pressing against his shoulder. He turns, eyes focusing on slim legs dressed in blue and red and then stares up at Zack who glances at him first, grinning, and then narrows his eyes as he tries to read what’s on the screen (Kripke really needs to think harder about buying a privacy filter).

“Is that Leonard?” Zack asks and he sounds somewhere between distracted and interested (which, admittedly, is an odd combination but Kripke won’t question it because lord knows he’s been there before). He doesn’t wait for an acknowledgment. “That’s an awful photo.”

“He looks like a turtle,” Kripke says because he’s wanted to tell someone that for months while they were actually looking at the picture because nobody understood him otherwise and suddenly Superman is leaving his shoulder and Zack is squatting and leaning over him and it’s really awkward and close and Kripke moves off to the side and hopes it isn’t noticeable. Zack laughs.

“He totally does. Dude. You should tell him. No wait –” (Kripke tries moving over more because Zack is practically shouting in his ear but there’s nowhere else to go unless he considers getting up), “you should find a picture of a turtle and put Leonard’s name under it or something and stick it on his wall. Just that. Nothing else,” he’s laughing harder, “oh man. That would be awesome.” It would be kind of awesome, Kripke thinks, but he’s not going to tell him that. (He’ll probably do it later.) “Hey, wait,” Zack says once he’s caught his breath but Kripke can hear that he’ll probably start giggling again any minute and he’s wondering what Zack is seeing in his head and if it’s the same thing he’s picturing (a turtle with Leonard’s head), “you’re on Facebook.”

“Of course I am,” Kripke replies, forgetting the whole reason he made sure not to tell Zack about the fact that he had one (Stuart made the mistake of accepting his friend request and told Kripke that all Zack does is post stupid cat macros and videos of cats doing stupid things and the first thing Kripke could think was that he didn’t think Zack was that much of a cat person and the second thing was ‘there is no way in hell I am telling this guy I have a profile’). They were already following each other on twitter. That should have been enough (of course it wasn’t).

“I’m gonna find you.” (It shouldn’t sound so threatening but it does.)

“Great.” Kripke sighs long and hard through his nose and scrolls for a bit, completely aware that Zack is still lingering behind him and he hears shifting, the thunk of knees hitting the wooden floor and something is tapping his shoulder. Disregarding it only works for so long and eventually he looks, seeing Superman trying to get his attention. “Yes?” He’s not talking to the action figure, even though that’s totally what it looks like. But he’s not. Not even a little bit.

(Maybe a little bit.)

“Are you going to add me?” And before he can stop himself, Kripke says:

“Superman doesn’t have a Facebook.” There’s a hesitation but then Zack is laughing a little bit even though he sounds a little offended.

“How do you know?”

“So, so many reasons.” Kripke’s going back to his computer but Superman is tapping him again. “What.”

“Who do you think I,” (he really said ‘I’ and not ‘he’ and Kripke is feeling his blood pressure starting to rise), “would be friends with if I had one?” Were they really going to have this conversation? ‘Who would Superman be friends with on Facebook’? This was a thing that was actually happening. Zack’s expecting a reply and Kripke knows he could just blow him off but his online friends aren’t being very interesting and the only other thing he has to do is write an email response to his boss which he really isn’t ready for so he pushes the laptop onto the coffee table and twists around enough that Superman is now poised on the back of the chair.

“The Justice League. “

“So…” Zack encourages because, sure, he’s been hanging around in a comic book shop more often these days but it’s not like he’s picked much up.

“Definitely Batman. And Wonder Woman.” (He’s not really going to list every single member of the Justice League, just the ones that Zack probably knows which pretty much leaves… those two that he’s already said.)

“Not Daredevil.”

“Well, considering everyone from the Justice League were created by DC and Daredevil belongs to Marvel…” Zack pops up a bit and looks perplexed and Superman kind of droops in Zack’s fingers as his brow furrows, “No,” Kripke says simply, “No. Not Daredevil.”

“Is he your favorite superhero?” Kripke isn’t sure why, but this is starting to feel a little disturbing and oddly personal.

“Yes. Let me guess, yours is Superman.”

“Yeah. But don’t tell Stuart. He freaks me out when that vein on his head starts…” he’s searching for the right word, one that Kripke is all too happy to provide:

“Throbbing?”

“I thought that kind of stuff only happened in cartoons.” Something beeps and chirps and Superman disappears (the action figure) and there’s the distinct sound of Zack checking his phone and he rises a few seconds later like a diver coming up for air and he bounces on his heels. “I have to go in five minutes,” he says abruptly but offers no explanation as to why or who or where.

“Okay.” Nobody moves. “Well…?”

“Are we making Leonard into a turtle or what. A turtle with his face,” Zack clarifies, smirking.

Kripke hates it when they think the same thing.

– –

Stuart and Kripke talk later that night right before Kripke goes to bed (Zack hadn’t invited them out so he either didn’t go out himself or he was starting to give up on asking them) and he tells Stuart about how Zack thought Daredevil was in the Justice League and that he should go check Leonard’s wall because there’s a picture that he needs to see before Leonard deletes it.

Kripke doesn’t mention anything about Superman being Zack’s favorite superhero. He tells himself it’s because he has things to do and if he says that he’d be sitting there for hours “listening” to Stuart repeat the list of why Superman sucks. That’s what he tells himself.

It’s not entirely the truth.

– –

He wakes up and it’s officially Saturday even though his brain still tells him that’s Friday night and at first he’s not entirely sure what made him open his eyes at two in the morning but then he hears the banging on his front (and only) door and he groans, wondering if he could just bury his head under the blankets and hope that it’s some person with the wrong address. He tries it for a minute but the banging just gets stronger and whoever it is is starting to talk loudly although it just sounds garbled so Kripke pushes the covers off and rubs a hand over his face before pulling on a sweatshirt he keeps at the end of his bed and shuffles barefoot out into his living room.

Flicking on a single lamp, he yawns and takes in a deep breath, shielding his eyes from the horrendously bright hallway lights, blinking tiredly up at Zack who’s shoulders are hunched and his clothes are wrinkled and he looks (and smells) completely plastered.

“What’re you doing here?” Because Zack really couldn’t find a way back to his own place? He had to come here and sometimes Kripke thinks about moving and not telling anybody but the post office (and his mother) about his new location.

“Didn’t have enough money,” Zack slurs, “for my apartment.” Which Kripke interprets to mean that he took (or was thrown into) a taxi from either a bar or someone’s house or god–knows–where and didn’t have enough cash on him to get from there to his own place but somehow had just enough to get to Kripke’s and didn’t this guy have any other friends who weren’t drunk but also weren’t sleeping already? Kripke considers saying ‘well that’s a shame, here’s some more money’ and then slamming the door in his face but Zack looks so pathetic and inebriated and instead he invites Zack inside and points at the couch like Zack was going to go anywhere else. “You look like Daredevil,” Zack says, removing his shoes and his coat after he topples over and Kripke grunts because he absolutely does not (he’s too short, for starters).

“You’re drunk,” Kripke says and leaves it at that because he’s not going to waste his time trying to convince a drunk man that he definitely doesn’t look like Daredevil.

Zack pretty much passes out right away and there’s a clunk, the smacking of something hard and small against floor and Kripke jumps, spins around to see Superman laying face–down, his cape pulled over his head, an arm out–stretched like he’s trying to get up.

Kripke sighs and rolls his eyes a few times, walking over quietly and picking him up, bending his knees until he could sit him down on the edge of the coffee table.

– –
He sleeps like he expected to (fitfully and frustrated) and by six he gives up entirely, scratching his head absent–mindedly as he makes his way out to the kitchen, astounded to see that not only was Zack awake already but he was reading. And sure, it wasn’t anything like War and Peace but he was reading instead of drooling on Kripke’s sofa or eating everything in his fridge or using up all the hot water in his shower (all things that have happened far too many times before) and that had to count for something.

It didn’t even seem like Zack had vomited on his floor this time.

Zack looks up like he thought he would be gone before Kripke woke up or that he had forgotten that he wasn’t in his own apartment but then he’s lowering the comic book onto his lap and grinning and sitting forward, just a bit. The action figure has disappeared from his post and Kripke vaguely wonders where it has gotten off to, if it made it’s way back into a pocket or if Zack thought it would be hilarious to hide it somewhere in a cabinet or a box of cereal.

“You’ll never guess what happened last night,” Zack is saying and Kripke groans like he really doesn’t want to hear this.

– –

Whoever thought that working on the weekend was a good idea (he blames Loverboy) can just shove his soldering iron up their white, probably wrinkled ass. It’s twelve in the afternoon on Saturday and he’s sitting in his office–slash–lab, trying to put together a robot that his co–worker screwed up the day before (the same co–worker who was leaving for vacation today and wouldn’t be back for a week, the one who left this god awful mess for him to clean up, in all likelihood on purpose – they never really got along which was sadly unsurprising).

He had made the mistake of leaving Zack at his apartment (alone) because Zack wanted to finish reading (after eating about half of Kripke’s loaf of bread and about four eggs) and Kripke refused to let him take the book home because who the heck knows what kind of disgusting things the guy may spill on it (either that or he’d lose it or rip it and Kripke is not a nerd he just doesn’t like his stuff to get ruined and that extends to his comic books).

“You will leave when you’re finished,” and it wasn’t a question but a command and Zack had saluted him and then put his feet up on the table.

Kripke’s phone rings at exactly twelve–forty, just as he’s finishing his lunch, sitting by himself in the cafeteria (and the only reason for that is because he’s the only one of his work friends who’s actually there) and it turns out to be two photos from Zack and he debates just throwing them out and pretending he saw what it was because he’s kind of terrified that it’s going to be something inappropriate (it hasn’t (thankfully) happened before but he’s expecting it for whatever reason).

He opens them once he gets back to his office to see that the first one is a picture of the Superman action figure looking like he’s driving Zack’s car and the second is Superman standing on the hood of the car, arms up in surprise, the car up on the curb, the front left headlight broken.

The message underneath the second photo reads: “who knew superman would be such a shitty driver.”

– –

“Did you really try to make him drive,” Stuart asks later after he helps a tall, red–headed woman decide which Green Lantern comic she should start with if she wants to learn about his origin before the movie comes out (he asked for her number and she was pleasantly charmed but declined). Zack scoffs like he couldn’t believe Stuart even had to ask and he moves around to the other side of a display, wrench in hand, shaking it a bit and then pointing at what must have been a loose bolt and Stuart nods.

“How exactly,” Kripke inquires (because somebody has to and it might as well be him), “did you manage to get your car onto the curb.”

“Avoiding a squirrel,” Zack says, letting out a grunt as he turns the wrench to the right.

“And your first thought was to make it look like Superman crashed the car,” Kripke says, not even looking up from what he was only skimming through.

“Nah,” Zack shakes his hand out and goes to tighten another bolt, “I did that after I called the tow–truck, while I was waiting.”

(Kripke feels like maybe he needs to backtrack a bit and explain how he actually wound up here, at the nearly empty comic book store at 3pm after receiving those pictures from Zack (it’s not very interesting, actually): he had gone back to work, lost track of time and then got a text from Stuart telling him that he had made the snafu of telling Zack that if he was ‘in the area’ he should stop by and help him fix one of his displays (although he never clarified if this was before or after the mini–accident that Zack had gotten into) and now he wasn’t leaving and he hadn’t even done any work yet. Kripke had asked him a number of questions ranging from “do you think me being there is going to solve anything” to “did he send you those photos too?” (the answer to both was ‘yes’). )

“You do know you technically stole that action figure, right,” Stuart says unanticipatedly, eyebrows raising slightly as he scribbles some numbers down in a book he keeps in a drawer under the register and Zack’s head snaps up like he’s a jack in the box and he looks nervous.

“How much is it?”

“Twenty–five bucks.”

“I’ll pay you later,” Zack says flippantly with the tone of a guy who doesn’t plan on ever handing over the cash and Stuart laughs in that way people do when they know exactly that but they just brought it up to make sure that the person they said it to knows what they did. “I think I fixed it.” He stands up triumphantly and gives it a bit of a kick; there’s a shudder, a creak, and the whole thing falls apart, boxes and books toppling to the floor in a mass of pages, cardboard and metal.

And then there is silence.

There are a couple of customers in the back that witness the whole thing, their hands poised over the shelves they had been examining, heads turned over their shoulders, snickers playing at the corners of their mouths and they seemed to be holding their breath in anticipation for whatever happens next and Kripke doesn’t realize he’s doing the exact same thing until his chest started to ache. He lets it out slowly, daring to let his gaze flicker over to Stuart who is clutching his pen like he might break it and his skin is adjusting into a brilliant shade of fuchsia. Zack looks genuinely upset, like maybe he’s beginning to wonder why he even bothered to wake up that morning or leave Kripke’s apartment (if he was, in fact, capable of ever being legitimately sad. Kripke has yet to witness this emotion from his so–called best friend).

Kripke’s first thought is to run (run, run, run) far away and lock all of his doors and let the tsunami just roll over him and wait it out in the dark and he considers it (really considers it) but if he does leave it wouldn’t really help anybody (himself included) so he sighs and puts down his book and uncrosses his ankles and says:

“Alright. I’ll help you.” The relief passing across Zack’s face is palpable and as Kripke walks in front of Stuart, he tells him to “get a grip”. Because, yeah, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass but it’s fixable and the only thing that broke was the display and it’s getting done for free so the last thing he should be doing is threatening to explode like Mount Tambora. (Kripke wonders when he turned into the kind of person that fixed problems like this because usually he’d be the one laughing at Zack and watching him do it alone while he sat in a corner and read or played on his phone).

Zack gets down on the floor and starts stacking books, separating them from the other boxes and the metal pieces and Kripke follows him, straightening the stacks, putting the titles in the right order, examining the other various items and wondering if they were supposed to be in any particular setup, doing the best he can to avoid any kind of conversation with Zack but it’s difficult considering how close they were sitting to one another.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Zack says softly and Kripke is only vaguely aware that Zack had even spoken but he pieces together the sounds to get a sentence and he’s pausing, thumb flicking back and forth between a thickly–paged graphic novel. He’s not sure if Zack is talking about the car or the display or the accidental stealing of Stuart’s merchandise and he’s not sure he’s really prepared for a discussion where he has to ask. But, once again: unavoidable.

“Well, sure,” he starts, “of course not.” He sounds like he’s one–hundred percent patronizing him which, really, he didn’t mean to (not this time, anyway) but he’s never been very good at being… nice. There’s always been a difference between tolerating someone and being nice to them. Zack twists a bent metal piece around in his impossibly large hands and makes a face, his nose scrunching up and dear god, Kripke isn’t entirely sure he’s ready to see this guy cry. He has to do something to stop this before it gets too far. “He won’t stay angry forever.” That’s probably it because, out of the three not so great things that happened to Zack today, two of them involved Stuart so, yeah, maybe that’s the problem.

“Superman wouldn’t do stupid things like this.”

“You’re joking,” Kripke tries and there’s a look that flutters across Zack’s face, “You’re not joking.” He sighs heavily. “Believe me, Superman screws up sometimes.”

“Really?”

“Ask Stuart…” a pause, “ …you know, once his blood pressure has gotten back to normal. He could give you a list.” That appears to appease Zack enough because he smiles a bit and picks up the wrench and a screwdriver that he produces from his back pocket.

“Let’s get this put back together.”

Thirty minutes later, everything is practically back to normal (the customers from before are long gone, replaced by others and so on and so on), the display sturdier than before and Stuart is looking slightly more calm, although there’s a twitch in his eyebrows that says otherwise. They’re placing action figures from all spectrums of genres onto the lower shelves when Zack prods Kripke on the shoulder and holds up a box when Kripke whirls around.

“What kind of doctor is he? Is this like some sci–fi hospital show?”

Kripke looks from the stiff and rather poorly made version of the Doctor (the Eleventh one, to be precise) to Zack and thinks about banging his head against the nearest wall.

– –

“Doctor Who.”

“That’s the name of the show.”

“He’s just called the Doctor.”

“Yes!” Stuart shouts, throwing his hands up in the air. This is the third time they’ve had this conversation within a single hour and Zack has finally shown signs that he has sorted at least the basics out. They were still at the comic book shop even though Stuart had closed it two hours early because he was fed up with waiting for customers (and maybe this was why business was failing but Kripke didn’t say anything), too caught up in trying to teach Zack that they couldn’t bother actually going anywhere just yet. Kripke had told Zack that they would “talk about it later” when he had initially asked about the figure, saying that it was too complicated for just a five minute little spiel on his part (but he mostly said it because the last thing he wanted to do was take on the daunting task of explaining Doctor Who to someone who’s never seen it before all by himself and the only way Stuart would be able to assist would be if he wasn’t working at the same time). Kripke feels like maybe they should have called Leonard and made him do this.

“And there’s been Eleven of him,” Zack continues, eyes darting to the ceiling as he let the words scramble around in his head, trying to put them in some kind of order, “but it’s all the same guy. Except not exactly. He rides around in a blue box that’s bigger on the inside. He has pretty side–kicks and a screwdriver,” he holds up the one he had used earlier, “that doesn’t look like this. He has adventures and saves people.” Zack hesitates, eyes narrowing. “He’s kind of like a superhero,” He looks like a puppy who just figured out how to pee on the newspaper and not the carpet. If he had a tail, it would be wagging, “Which one’s the best one?”

“Ten,” Stuart says at the exact same time Kripke says: “Eleven”.

This is going to be a problem.

– –

“We’ll make him watch both. And he can decide for himself,” Stuart says, pausing in cutting into his burrito as they sit at their usual table (the place is crowded but the owner likes them, especially since they’re his most loyal patrons and he finds a way to give them a space ahead of some very grumpy people who had been standing there for a good few minutes before the trio walked in).

“Ten has more episodes. That’s not fair,” Kripke responds, crunching down on a tortilla chip, eating a tomato from the unbearably hot salsa from his thumb. “Besides, you know how it goes.”

“It’s not always true. Ten wasn’t my first and he’s my favorite. Eleven wasn’t your first…”

“Alright, alright. Point taken. But it happens.”

“You guys do know I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about right,” Zack says through a mouthful of fajita.

“The grown–ups are trying to have a conversation,” Kripke replies, waving his hand at Zack without looking at him, “How about we start him at Nine.”

“Nine is good,” Stuart agrees, “It’s a short series. Nine is never anybody’s favorite anyway.”

“That’s a blatant lie,” Kripke says, pointing his fork in Stuart’s face.

“Oh really.”

“I know people.”

“Name one person who claims Nine is their favorite Doctor.”

“Doug,” Kripke says proudly, taking a large bite of his food victoriously, sitting back and folding his arms over his chest.

“I don’t know who that is,” Stuart exclaims, “for all I know you could have made him up!”

“Would I do that?”

“…Yes.”

“How dare you.”

“How dare I…?”

“Why can’t I just start with the first one,” Zack asks and Stuart and Kripke pause in their argument, turning simultaneously towards Zack who hesitates in chewing, a look of concern flashing over his face and he scoots his chair back a little ways against the red tile floor.

“Do you know how long that would take,” Stuart says, “Anyway, it’s impossible to find it all on DVD and, on top of episodes there are radio shows and specials and… you’ll get bored really quickly.”

“I would?”

“Trust me,” Stuart says, spooning more sour cream onto his plate, shaking his head. Zack looks to Kripke as if searching for his approval before accepting what Stuart had just told him and Kripke isn’t sure he likes what that implies but he nods a couple times and shrugs. “It all gets explained… eventually.”

“Am I going to have to take notes?”

“Probably,” Kripke says just as Stuart laughs: “It’s not that complicated, even for you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean,” Zack frowns and he’s referring to them both, probably, but more likely to Kripke and there’s this bit of silence (from the table, although there’s an awkward lull around them that just makes it all that much worse for everybody).

“I’m just saying,” Stuart tries, “You’re… uh… help me out here,” Stuart kicks Kripke’s shin just enough to make him noticeably jump and tries to speak so Zack wouldn’t hear him. Kripke turns and thinks about defending Stuart but decides against it because, for once, he’s not the one about to be accused (rightfully so) for being a ‘jerk’ because hey, at least his one–word insult could easily be explained as ‘yes, you’ll probably need to take notes because it’s a lot of information that’s sometimes difficult to keep track of’ (even though he pretty much meant exactly what Stuart suggested).

“Stuart’s saying you’re stupid,” Kripke says and Stuart laments, hiding his face in his hands before emerging, giving Kripke a ‘thanks a lot jackass’ and then feigning some kind of sympathy upon looking towards Zack who has dropped the rest of his fajita, hands covered in sauce, salsa and meat drippings, an expression of something exactly akin to a child who had just been told that, no, he can’t get that kitten he saw in the store window earlier that afternoon despite being told that it was a possibility.

“That’s not what I was saying,” Stuart affirms but Kripke puts his hand flat and horizontal, waving it back and forth a bit and Zack catches the movement, pointing at Kripke. “Not helping,” Stuart yells, shoving a finger in Kripke’s face, the color on Stuart’s cheeks rising profusely in what was most likely a mix of anger and embarrassment.

“I think you should apologize,” Kripke says with a smirk and Stuart whines because he knows he’s stuck. Either way Stuart chooses to respond, he loses and Kripke is on pins and needles to see what happens next.

(Although, really, he isn’t surprised; every Doctor Who argument always ends in someone calling the other stupid. It’s just an inevitable fact of life. Kripke’s just proud that he isn’t the one who has to say he’s sorry. Not this time. But he can’t promise “never again”.)

– –

Kripke forgot about the whole ‘Zack crashed his car and got it towed’ business until he turned, panicked at the sound of someone following, hands raised to possibly defend himself, only to see Zack standing there, hands in the pockets of his jeans looking equal parts bewildered and amused. Even though Kripke knew what was happening, he still felt as if he was obligated to ask:

“What are you doing?”

“I need a ride, dude. I don’t have a car.”

“Take the bus.”

“Buses confuse me,” Zack admitted, frowning down at the concrete.

“Yeah, well… fine.” Kripke caves easily and he blames it on how tired he is and he rolls his eyes when Zack fist–pumps like he actually thought there was potential that Kripke would say ‘no’.

– –

“Dude, hold up. I think I left something at your place. We need to stop there first.”

Kripke slams his head against the steering wheel and leaves it there until a car behind him honks three times, leaning on the horn until Kripke caught on to the fact that the light had, indeed, turned green.

He thought about denying him, saying he’d just grab the “something” later and give it to him tomorrow, that it couldn’t be that important that he needed it right the fuck now but he was more than halfway to his apartment building before he gathered his thoughts enough to have a solid excuse to not go there.

(He needed to get back to the gym so he could climb the wall and pretend every rock he was stepping on was Zack’s head).

– –

The thing is, he realizes, as he halts in the middle of the hallway, metaphorical brakes pulled, Zack’s footsteps slowing down on the stairs, the shadow of him looming over Kripke’s shoulder as he tried to see what was happening, he was pretty darn sure he had told Zack to make sure the door was closed securely and locked (yeah, so Zack had a spare key but it was only for today so he didn’t want to hear anything else about that) when he left (and okay, it was Zack he was talking about here but he didn’t think the guy was that stupid to forget to close a door when he left someone’s home).

So why, exactly, was it wide open?

Kripke feels his heart simultaneously speed up and sink into his stomach and he takes a few steps forward, going to inspect the damage, a list of everything he hoped hadn’t been stolen running through his head next to a list of stuff he probably wouldn’t miss or could be easily replaced when a hand curls into the his jacket and yanks him back and nearly off his feet.

“Hey,” and Zack’s voice is lowered, almost a whisper and Kripke looks over his shoulder, up at him, but Zack is staring at the door or, rather, the expanse of black that led into the unknown, “what if the guy’s still in there.” It wasn’t a question. It was a suggestion.

Kripke had been so preoccupied with what might or might not have been stolen that he forgot that somebody stole it.

And that, yes, that somebody might still be lurking in there.

The conversation with the police was frustrating and tedious but finally they said they’d send somebody over to “take a look”. With nothing to do but wait and hope some guy dressed in black and strung out on drugs wouldn’t come charging out any time soon, Kripke collapses on the top step (living on the second floor meant never having to use the elevator but he guessed it also meant that getting broken into was also statistically higher, however ridiculous that sounded) and put his face in his hands.

He could hear Zack kind of lumbering around behind him as if he was keeping watch just in case and Kripke sighs heavily into his palms and rubs a hand over his face. Of course. Of course this had to happen to him. Not his neighbor across the hallway, the guy who was never home and, Kripke knew for a fact, owned a ridiculously extravagant sound system. Or the woman on the first floor who wouldn’t stop shouting about the gold necklace that her boyfriend bought her.

It had to be him. He started wondering if maybe this was somebody who held a grudge, because goodness knows there were certainly a lot of them. Maybe they didn’t steal anything; just broke down the door and ran off down the street maniacally laughing. He knew people who would pull a stunt like that (himself included).

Zack stops suddenly and Kripke tenses because he could feel that Zack was going to say something (most likely an off–handed comfort that would only make the situation that much more uncomfortable) and just as Kripke is about to tell him to shut up before he even opens his mouth there’s a heavy wail of sirens, a slamming door and a sonorous female voice calling out, to which he responds weakly, standing to let her through and the three of them eventually stand outside his door, Kripke with his hands dug deep into his pockets, Zack hovering behind him. The woman smiles, just a bit, and Kripke wants to snap.

She went in first, wordlessly, her hands curling at her side on instinct, although her stance and unhurried walk said that she wasn’t expecting a fight and, after checking, making her presence known, she took a few steps and allowed Kripke to survey the damage.

“What I’m going to do,” she says, rolling her shoulders, “is go talk to the neighbors, see if they saw anything, go get some paperwork and let you figure out what’s missing. I’ll come back in a few minutes so you can file a report.” She waited for an acknowledgment and Kripke had heard her but he doesn’t say anything, already sorting mentally through his shelves. He hears hushed talking behind him and absently wonders what Zack could possibly have to talk about with her (god forbid, he was probably flirting) but he goes quickly back to working through everything he owned and trying to remember if he left his watch in his bedroom or if it had been taken, all without moving from the spot he was currently standing.

“Dude,” Zack says, bending down to pick up a chair and right it, square on the floor, turning it this way and that as if trying to put it back exactly the way it was before, “this is rough.”

“He must have taken something,” Kripke says, letting the rest of the sentence linger as he practically did a three–sixty, eyes narrowing, teeth chewing on his bottom lip and that was the thing; the guy must have taken something but nothing was missing. Every expensive DVD collection, his television, his laptop, his toaster, they were all still there.

He almost feels guilty about it and he thinks about checking the fridge because maybe the guy had taken a couple beers or a block of cheese.

Cheese could get pretty costly, after all.

By the time the policewoman comes strolling back into his wrecked apartment, Kripke has given himself a bit of a headache trying to guess at what might not be where he had left it.

“Well, here,” she hands him a pile of clean, white paper, patting it and then his arm for a few seconds, looking apologetic, “You can fill that in tomorrow and bring it by the station.” Turning to leave, she spins back around, hands resting on her belt because she doesn’t really know where else to put them, “I suggest staying with a friend,” Kripke misses as she eyes Zack, “until you can get your door fixed or, you know… right. You take care, now.”

“Come on,” Zack says after she’s disappeared, slapping Kripke on the back a few times, almost knocking him off the arm of the couch he had perched himself on, “pack up.”

“What’re you talking about,” Kripke furrows his eyebrows, looking up, finally, from the pages he’s clutching onto.

“You heard the lady. You have to stay with a friend. I’m your friend.”

“She suggested it. I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, okay,” Zack snorts and doesn’t react to Kripke glaring at him, “Once, a friend got broken into and he couldn’t sleep in his own bed for almost a week. It messed with his head.”

“Well, obviously your friend is a coward. As I said: I’ll be fine. It’s just a broken lock. The thing still shuts. The latch works.” Zack opens his mouth to protest but Kripke cuts him off, “Go home.”

“Dude… don’t be a hero.”

“Do you even listen to yourself when you talk? Go. Home.”

“Fine,” Zack shrugs and is more than halfway out into the hall when he turns and points at Kripke, “but my phone is on.”

“Get out of my apartment,” Kripke replies loudly, waiting for the door to slam before letting out a long exhale and rubbing a hand over his face.

It was going to be a long night.

– –

He starts to fill out the paperwork but he only gets as far as his name and address before he realizes he’s too distracted and tired to keep writing and, besides, his bad hand (there was an accident a couple years back in the lab that involved a one–hundred pound run–away robot that wound up rolling over and parking itself on his hand. Ever since then he hasn’t been able to move it the same way – not that it stopped him from doing the important things like playing games or rock climbing and, oh yeah, also working) was acting up (in the way that it did when he had spent too much time clenching it into a fist) which was a good enough excuse for him to go to bed without attempting to fix the place so that it only looked like he was sloppy and not that somebody had purposefully trashed it.

It takes him an hour to turn off the lamp on his bedside table and another hour to close his eyes, the soft music from the radio he never turned on at night (until now, apparently) pulling around his alert ears. He’s just on the edge of passing out when the floor creaks directly outside of his room (‘it’s just the place settling’ his mother used to say when he was little and went running into her room at every squeak and bang) and his eyes flash open, his heart racing and he groans, flicking the light back on and, after twenty minutes of a conversation with himself, digs out the cellphone he had put under his pillow.

“Don’t say anything,” Kripke commands as soon as he hears the tell–tale click of Zack picking up the phone after the second ring, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“But–“

“I said don’t say anything,” Kripke says before hanging up.

– –

When Kripke opens his front door (after some strained pulling and a deafening crack as some of the wood splintered more than it already had), bag in hand, something heavy lands with a quiet thud on the short, blue–grey carpet and he leaps back, staring down to see Superman laying face–up, an arm with curled plastic fingers stretched high, his cheap fabric cape pooling underneath him like blood.

He thinks about leaving it there, stepping on it and hoping it breaks, kicking it down the stairs and out into the street, throwing it away in the nearest garbage can.

Instead, he picks it up by the head and shoves it into his coat pocket.

He really, really hates Zack.

A lot.

– –

He surprises himself by remembering what floor and, more specifically, what number Zack lives at, having only been there once to pound a fist on his door for taking so long to get ready because seriously, you don’t tell a guy to come pick you up and then leave him waiting outside in a car who’s air conditioning was on the fritz.

The elevator is bright and the lurching as it starts and stops makes his head woozy and he sighs as he approaches Zack’s door with the crooked gold numbers, pushing a hand through his dark hair, fist hovering over the blue–painted entry, feeling too many shades of foolish for acting the way he is.

He never had been a guy who was particularly good at asking for help.

Zack swings the door open on the second knock, staring down at him in a t–shirt and sweatpants, a grin the size of a demonic clown spreading across his face. There’s an uproar from the television, a series of sound effects that, if this were any kind of important moment, would probably be the thing to ruin everything. He stretches out his arm and almost bows a little, stepping off to the side so Kripke can shuffle inside and stand awkwardly in the area between his living space and the kitchen.

It’s small – a lot smaller than his own place – and dark, lamps casting warm oranges, the furniture all browns and reds, sports memorabilia, movie posters and magazine pullouts littering the surrounding walls. His television, which was still blaring what Kripke could now see were, indeed, cartoons (really) was comically large, a DVD player and Xbox tucked snugly underneath. It was, Kripke had to admit, exactly like he had pictured it (not that he had spent any amount of time wondering what Zack’s apartment looked like, mind you. It had been more of a passing thought because the guy brought it up enough that Kripke needed some kind of mental picture to go along with the rest of his probably over–dramatized exploits).

“Do you want–” Zack starts as soon as he shuts and locks the door, speaking as if that wasn’t really what he wanted to say but, either way, Kripke cuts him off.

“I want to sleep, that’s what I want.”

“But…”

“Sleep.”

“It’s only 2am.”

“Oh, only. I have had a traumatic experience–“

“I thought you said that was cowardly,” Zack says, crossing his arms, trying his best to raise one eyebrow.

“Shut up. I have had a traumatic evening and I have to go to work again tomorrow… today,” Kripke corrects himself, “and all I want to do is sleep.”

“Sure.”

It only takes a few minutes for Zack to rearrange the couch, moving around cushions, fluffing and tossing pillows and blankets, making a whole thing out of it like he really wasn’t ready to be banished to his room but he had offered and Kripke doesn’t want to think about where else Zack would propose he sleep (he might have had to punch him if he had suggested that Kripke take the bed instead).

“So,” Zack says, leaving it at that.

“Bye,” Kripke replies with a bit of a half salute, preoccupied with rummaging through his bag, any form of the two words “good” and “night” tasting sour on his tongue. He hears Zack turning and padding away down a short hall when he remembers something and calls him back. “Here,” he says, spinning slightly from where he sits to fling a flash of blue and red towards Zack, who easily catches it one–handed, staring firstly down at the action figure that he now clutches and then back up at Kripke, who probably would have noticed if he hadn’t turned his back on him.

– –

“Wait, seriously,” Stuart exclaims later that morning just around ten, his voice raising a couple octaves, as Kripke stands alone at the counter and regales him with what happened after they parted ways last night, “you got broken into? Seriously.”

“No. I made it all up,” Kripke pauses and Stuart gives him a look, “Of course it happened.”

“What’d they take?”

“I have no fucking clue.” (He plans on going back at some point that evening, just to look again because it’s making his brain itch.)

“Hm,” Stuart says, continuing to arrange the single issue comics in chronological order like he had originally been doing before Kripke had come storming in a few minutes before, “You really slept on Zack’s couch.”

“Why’d you say it like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like… like that. Like you think you’ve suddenly slipped into an alternate universe.”

“Well.”

“Well, I couldn’t stay with you. I’m not going to camp out on the floor under a life–size cut–out of a Wookie.”

“I sleep in the back room,” Stuart protests and then shakes his head, “I just didn’t think you liked him enough to spend time on his couch is all.”

“It’s complicated.”

“That’s what people in relationships but don’t want to admit it say.”

“Ew,” Kripke says, grimacing, and then, after a bit of a pause: “Are we really…?”

“You certainly act like it.”

“Stuart.”

“Yes?”

“Stop talking.”

– –

Kripke wonders, as he sits at a red light on his way to the university (on a Sunday) to finish up what he hadn’t even bothered to touch yesterday, if calling Zack and telling him that they couldn’t hang out anymore because Stuart (and, if Stuart thinks so, then everyone else must too because Stuart doesn’t really know how to keep his big mouth shut) thinks they’re being kind of gay sometimes is an appropriate thing to do.

Probably not.

– –

Work passes by oddly quietly until lunch when he manages to trick Sheldon into saying that he’s completely deficient and doesn’t know his gluteus maximus from his olecranon process and he hesitates while everyone else is howling with laughter because he realizes he’s already got his phone in his hand, ready to text Zack (and then, he assumes, eventually Stuart) and tell him what just happened.

He slips it back into his pocket and joins in with the merriment but he’s kind of forcing it at this point.

– –

Kripke hopes that Zack isn’t at the apartment when he finally gets there around five because he’s seriously in the mindset of just packing it up and going home because he hasn’t done anything that needs to be done to get everything back to normal and he can’t think clearly in somebody else’s house and also what Stuart said was still bugging him but, when he arrives, the door is unlocked and Zack is lounging on the couch, a beer already in hand, another one left unopened on the coffee table.

Zack smiles and waves and Kripke groans because a quick and quiet getaway is definitely not going to happen now.

“What’re you doing here,” Kripke says and Zack looks at him, completely mystified.

“Dude, I live here.”

“Don’t you have… other friends?”

“Sure. But it’s Sunday. Nobody does anything on a Sunday,” Zack shrugs like this is common knowledge but he’s dressed like he’s been out for awhile and Kripke thinks about asking him where he went (because the guy doesn’t have a car, probably wouldn’t for another few days and, like he said, buses confuse him) but then he realizes he doesn’t actually care. “Sharks, man,” Zack says, pointing at the screen and chuckling, taking a long drink from his bottle, exhaling and resting it on his leg when he finishes, “I left one out for you,” and Zack’s signaling for Kripke to come over and he does, reluctantly, because maybe one or two drinks wouldn’t be so bad and it might be easier to escape if Zack was a little buzzed.

Dropping down next to him, Kripke leans over to twist the cap off his bottle, wet with condensation, and nearly spills it when Zack claps him hard on the back.

The show is stale and nothing Kripke didn’t already know and it’s narrated by a guy who sounds like this wasn’t the job he signed up for but Kripke finds himself utterly lost in the shark’s dead eyes and the deep blue of the ocean and the man’s monotone that he doesn’t notice that he’s already sucking down his fourth beer which would kind of make it stupid for him to drive home, even if it was only a few minutes away.

If Kripke thought Zack was smart enough to be that kind of person, he’d swear that he had done this on purpose.

– –

They were, most definitely, drunk.

Kripke couldn’t remember how it happened, only knowing that, somehow, alcohol kept winding up in his hands and he kept drinking it because he hates his life and he hates Zack and ice cold beer seemed like a good enough solution to his problems. He had called Stuart earlier, somewhere between his fourth and fifth beer, and told him that, considering the circumstances, their usual Sunday Karaoke Get–Together was on hold until he could get back home to retrive his machine which, yeah, at the moment didn’t look like was going to happen any time soon. He had expected Stuart to be disappointed and whiny but he was content, explaining that he had met a girl that afternoon while ringing up some small blonde kid and they were going out that night anyway.

Kripke wonders, exactly, what he could possibly be doing wrong that Stuart (and Zack) could get so many dates and he was left, well, here.

Which, really, just made him want to drink more and then absently speculate that perhaps the burglar had stolen his karaoke machine but that would be ridiculous wouldn’t it because what moron would leave all the expensive electronics and go for that.

They had left the television on because Kripke had insisted that drinking in silence was just plain weird (but he said this, of course, after realizing that he was, indeed, drinking to the point that he couldn’t just call it ‘having a couple of beers’) and kind of sad, almost as bad as doing it alone and the channel had switched from sharks to lions who were, at the moment, busy stalking prey across a flat, brown and tan surface littered with dry grass and bent and gnarled trees.

Just as the lioness sinks her teeth into the neck of whatever large and skinny–legged beast they were attacking, Zack announces that he’s hungry and Kripke hopes that the two have nothing to do with one another.

“Pizza,” Zack says loudly, ambling over towards his kitchen, fishing around in a drawer and sliding out a menu.

The call goes just as anticipated: poorly but amusingly and by the time Zack puts the phone back where he found it, neither of them are entirely sure that the pizza is actually going to wind up at the apartment or at some poor guy’s place a couple blocks down the street.

“You planned this,” Kripke says a couple minutes later during a commercial, swishing the bottle in his hand back and forth, frowning because, yeah, it’s definitely empty and that just won’t do but he’s not entirely sure Zack even has anything left unless that’s all he has in his fridge: beer and maybe a jar of mayonnaise. He’s just at the point of being drunk where his Inside Thought Filter is leaking and his mouth is moving faster than his brain and Zack looks at him, confused and sloppy.

“Planned what?”

“Getting me drunk so I wouldn’t leave.”

“You were gonna leave,” Zack says, ambling over towards the couch, sitting down heavily, holding his chin up in his hand, his elbow resting on his thigh.

“Whoops.”

“Is it the couch?”

“It’s not the couch.”

“Is it me,” Zack inquires carefully and they stare at one another until Kripke gets uncomfortable enough to look away because kind of, yes, it is him but probably not in the way he thinks it is and Kripke could really use a miracle right now, preferably in the form of a guy holding a pizza but nothing happens so he faces Zack again and sighs.

“Not… really.”

“But kind of.”

Kripke starts to respond even though he’s not entirely sure what he planned on saying but then there’s a knock at the door and it’s like they hadn’t even spoken.

Kripke tries to enjoy the food but it doesn’t taste right. He blames the alcohol.

– –

He wakes up incredibly hungover and not really able to remember anything that happened after they ate an entire pepperoni pizza but at least he’s the first one up and he finally has an excuse to shove all his belongs back into his bag and slip out the front door like he had never actually been there.

Things have been getting a bit too weird for him in too short a time.

Besides, he has work – again, but it is Monday after all – and he’s pretty sure he left some important papers sitting on his desk somewhere.

– –

He doesn’t actually have to go in until eleven though so, as soon as he gets home, he goes online and clicks around, trying to find a locksmith in the area that’s open early enough that they don’t mind some guy calling at eight in the morning to schedule an appointment to fix a door that some burglar kicked open one evening. He’s put immediately on hold and busies himself by examining the forms he was given by the policewoman that he has yet to fill out and wonders if it’s even worth it.

So lost in thought he is that he practically leaps out of his skin when his cellphone beeps and sings, vibrating in his pocket and he fumbles as he pulls it out, deflating a bit to see Zack’s name flashing on the screen. Reluctantly, he opens it, only to see a single word in all caps, succinct, in bold: “DUDE”. Kripke sighs and doesn’t hesitate to delete it, turning his attention back to his other phone, the soft jazz drifting through the receiver. Within seconds, he’s getting another text from Zack, this time with a longer message (but only by two words, if you could even, really, call them words): “where r u?”.

If the guy had been a girl, Kripke would have dropped him (her) like a hot potato for being so clingy. He still might.

He deletes it again, wondering when Zack would give up and just get the memo without Kripke having to write it out for him.

There’s a lengthy pause and Kripke is beginning to wonder if maybe nobody is actually at the locksmith and they’re just toying with him until he hangs up when his phone chirps and Zack has sent him a photo and why does he keep secretly indulging the guy by even looking at this stuff but he opens it anyway because, dammit, he’s curious and he rubs a hand over his face and then, specifically, his eyes because maybe his vision is fucked–up because he cannot be seeing what he’s actually seeing right now.

There are two identical mugs standing side–by–side on what Kripke can figure is Zack’s kitchen table. One of them, that he can tell, is full of coffee, the other empty and, standing next to it, looking as sad as any action figure with an immovable expression on his tiny, painted face could possibly look, was Superman. Underneath, the caption reads: “Superman can’t believe Daredevil left without coffee”.

Kripke feels like throwing the phone against the nearest wall, (although, to Zack’s credit, Kripke is surprised that Zack even remembers insinuating (rather overtly and bluntly) very early that Saturday morning of the apparent striking resemblance between Kripke and Daredevil but Kripke is definitely not excited that Zack has decided that this is an okay thing to do). After allowing his violent rage to subside, he settles on seething anger and speculates about what kind of text he could send in response. He’s leaning more towards: “what the hell is wrong with you” because “you fucking idiot Stuart thinks we’re being kind of gay and if he thinks that so does everyone else he knows so stop sending me shit like this even though nobody else can see it it *feels* like they can seriously what the hell is wrong with you” is, you know, kind of long and he really doesn’t even want to waste the time typing it out.

He gets distracted when a voice appears on the other end of the phone he had momentarily forgotten existed and, by the time he’s done coordinating a time and date and also giving them a piece of his mind for making him wait so long, he’s let anything having to do with Zack just slip to the back of his mind.

He beeps and vibrates again but Kripke doesn’t even touch his phone.

The guilt (since when did he ever feel guilt about anything) eats at him but fades when he pulls into the parking lot and by the time he’s sitting in his office, pen in hand, he’s completely forgotten about it.

Laughed about it even.

None of this, though, stops him from being just a tiny bit upset that Zack didn’t try to get in touch with him for the remainder of the day.

– –

“Have you talked to Zack today,” Kripke asks Stuart later that evening when he decides to make a quick visit after work and he leans against the counter, arms crossed over his chest, watching the customers and Stuart lifts his head up just a bit and smirks but Kripke doesn’t see it.

“Did you guys get in a fight,” and he says it teasingly but there’s still a bit of curiosity like maybe Zack hadn’t spoken to Stuart or maybe he had but Stuart just wants Kripke’s side of the story.

“Nevermind,” Kripke says, picking up his bag and heading out the door without saying goodbye, bumping into Raj – who gives a bit of a wave and a smile that Kripke only half–heartedly returns – on his way out.

– –

Seeing his door still a wreck of splinters and cracked white paint is still unnerving. He knows he can probably fix it himself but he knows he’d get hell from the landlord if he messes with it too much and the last thing he needs is to give the guy more reasons to hate him because, at this point, Kripke is pretty sure that the list is at least twenty points long already. Taking that first step inside is kind of like walking unarmed right into a dark room he’s been attacked in once before in one of his games and he flicks on the light so quickly that he pretty nearly falls forward, tripping over his own feet.

Everything is so quiet and still kind of a mess and when he looks around there’s this fleeting, panicked thought that he’ll never figure out what was stolen but then, so suddenly his heart practically stops, his phone is vibrating and beeping in his pocket and he stumbles with it, surprised to see Zack’s name flashing across the screen.

I got my car back,” the text reads, “but their,” (wrong ‘there/they’re/their’ and Kripke winces at it), “not letting me drive it,” all followed by three frowny faces and Kripke isn’t sure if Zack is asking anything of him or just kind of venting and he wonders if Zack remembers Kripke ignoring him that morning or if he really is that quick to forgive and forget. Or maybe he just forgot, which, in the end, seems entirely more plausible.

And…?” Kripke texts back, adding on to the end, “What do you want me to say?” He thinks it’s strange that Zack got his license taken away for doing something so insanely nice like trying not to hit a squirrel but, then again, he doesn’t know Zack’s entire life before they met (thank god for that) so who the hell knows how many strikes the man–child already has. He gets an answer almost instantly.

If u come back itd,” (without the apostrophe and it actually takes Kripke a second to figure out what the word was supposed to be), “be easier for u to drive me places.

Kripke stares at his phone, utterly baffled, not sure which part he is more frustrated with: the fact that Zack is trying to make Kripke come back or the end bit where Zack assumes that Kripke would even entertain the idea of being Zack’s chauffer. As far as Kripke is concerned, he bears no responsibility for his friend’s stupid or gullible actions that wind up with inconvenient consequences.

You’ll have to try harder than that,” Kripke finds himself typing as he tosses his bag onto a chair, making his way to the kitchen to rummage around in his fridge, pausing, fingers resting on the handle as he hits “send”. He immediately regrets it because that makes it seem like there definitely is something that Zack could say or do to make him come back (and there isn’t) and Zack seems like the type to not give up until he’s figured it out. Kripke absently ponders why Zack is at home again (or so he assumes) and not out with his other friends but maybe that has to do with him not having a car and nobody wanting to drive him around.

I bought doctor who,” the next text reads and Kripke nearly drops his carton of cold Chinese food, a noodle dangling out of his mouth as he blinks at the screen.

– –

“Which season,” Kripke asks as soon as Zack opens his door and Kripke barges in without being invited but he figures Zack would’ve said ‘yes’ anyway so he doesn’t think about it too hard.

“Uh,” Zack doesn’t sound too surprised but it still takes him a moment to sort himself out before walking over to his coffee table and picking up a DVD case from a small stack, bringing it over and placing it in Kripke’s hands, “that’s Nine, right?”

“Yeah,” and Kripke isn’t sure why he’s so mesmerized because it’s not like he doesn’t own all of it himself but he supposes that it’s more about how he can’t believe that Kripke spent god–knows–how–much on something that he’s probably not even sure he’d like and he kind of has to touch them just to make sure Zack hadn’t made it up. “Did you watch any of it yet?”

“Nah. I just got home. I bought them during my lunch break. The manager at the place across from work gives me a discount but man you should have seen the look she gave me when I piled all the stuff on the counter. Is that how people look at you whenever you buy this kind of stuff?”

“Sometimes,” Kripke answers absently, and then, realizing what Zack had just asked, he looks up, frowning, “No.” Zack is smiling for some reason so Kripke just keeps grimacing to balance everything out. He shoves the DVD back into Zack’s chest and goes for the door and he can hear the befuddled noise from Zack behind him.

“Dude, where’re you going?”

“Home. I just needed to make sure you weren’t lying to me. I have work to do,” (it wasn’t really false – he did have work, just not the kind of work that he could bring home and the kind of work that had to wait until tomorrow but Zack didn’t need to know that).

“But…”

“Work. I don’t think you need me here just watch a tv show.”

“What if I get confused.”

“Pretty sure,” Kripke assures, already mostly out into the hallway, “you’ll be fine.”

– –

“Hey,” Zack yells excitedly into the phone at four in the morning and Kripke wonders why he actually picked up, “this Captain Jack guy just kissed the Doctor!”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Kripke says tiredly, “But how is this making you confused, exactly?”

“Dude,” Zack says with this tone that makes Kripke laugh, just a little, because he was thinking that Zack might not catch on to what he meant but he absolutely did. There isn’t much else after that except for about a million questions that Kripke pretends not to know any of the answers to which kind of kills him inside but he doesn’t have much of a choice, especially if he plans on getting any more sleep that early morning.

– –

As it turns out, Tuesday is a pretty crappy day.

After waking up a good hour or so after his alarm goes off, he finds a message on his phone from the locksmith having to cancel because an “emergency came up and we’re not sure how long it’ll take” and Kripke yells and curses at the solemn, monotonous voice on the other end even though it can’t hear him and then he angrily writes himself a reminder to either reschedule or to remember to fish his tools out of the back of his closet to fix the goddamn thing himself, landlord be damned.

He’s late for work because he gets a babbling call from Zack just as Kripke’s stepping out of his apartment – the door closed tight with a wedge that he kicks in from the outside and he knows it’s not really enough to keep it locked but the chances of being broken into again are slim to absolutely none so he’s not too worried – saying that he’s tired and he can’t find the Superman action figure and he can’t even fathom (although he didn’t use that word exactly) the bus, could he get a ride to his job so he doesn’t get fired. And as much joy as Kripke gets out of seeing people suffer he can’t think of a good reason other than ‘wakes me up at stupid hours of the night’ to cause the poor guy to lose his job so he says yes, sure, he’ll be right over, but just this once.

Kripke finds Superman squeezed in between Zack’s couch cushions and Zack tells Kripke he can keep him for the day and Kripke almost says “how about no” but then he just kind of stuffs the plastic guy in his front pocket, his arms and head and shoulders sticking out and Kripke tries to cover him with his shirt but it doesn’t really work out.

Zack won’t stop talking about Doctor Who the entire ride – in between giving directions – and Kripke is only half listening but still manages to be secretly impressed and kind of proud but he’d never in a thousand years tell that to Zack’s face. He drops him off at some inconspicuous kind of building across from a DVD store which was probably where he bought all the Who and Kripke doesn’t think to ask Zack what it is he actually does, just says “get out of my car” and then “bye”.

Nobody seems to notice that Kripke isn’t on time, which is fine with him and he only gets in a few hours worth or work before this horrible stench starts filling every hallway and classroom and suddenly the alarms are going off and people are evacuating and, after standing around on the sidewalk for a good twenty minutes they’re informed that they should just go home because it’ll take awhile before they can clean up the mess the chemistry department just made.

And now Kripke is tired and his hand hurts from rushing to put everything back in it’s place before being escorted out of the building and he’s asking himself why he even bothered to get out of bed if this is what was going to happen and he smells vaguely of rotten eggs and god–knows–what–else and Superman is still sitting uncomfortably in his pocket and all he can think of to do is go see Stuart.

– –

“Why aren’t you at work,” is the first thing Stuart asks when Kripke comes barging in through the door, almost running face first into some kid who was probably skipping school and Kripke first glares at the teenager and then at Stuart like he should know why.

“Half day,” Kripke finally says, taking up his post by the counter and Stuart doesn’t press the issue because, in the end, he doesn’t even really give a shit which is exactly how Kripke likes it.

“Heard you gave Zack a ride to work this morning,” Stuart says, adjusting a stack of books next to the register and Kripke grimaces.

“So? He called, crying about the bus. The thought of him lost in the city was only funny for the first couple of minutes.”

“I know. You’re not really helping your case, though.”

“My case,” Kripke repeats.

“You know; The: ‘we’re totally not gay for each other’ case,” Stuart says, flinching and letting out an over–dramatic “ow!” when Kripke punches him on the arm. “Was that necessary?”

“Very much so, yes.”

“So…” Stuart starts after a few minutes of silence between the pair as he busies himself with straightening things that don’t need to be straightened and Kripke kicks his heels against the counter and watches the customers. Stuart drags out the word like what he plans to ask is going to be that kind of awkward situation two friends who rarely share any kind of moment have when one of them tries to be even minutely personal. “How… how’s it going?”

“What?” Kripke turns because he isn’t sure he actually heard Stuart correctly or even at all and Stuart has this look of relief on his face like maybe he could just spit out a ‘nevermind’ or a ‘nothing’ and go back to what he was doing before but then his head or his mouth completely betrays him and what he winds up saying instead is:

“How’re you holding up. You know. After Saturday night.”

And now Kripke is kind of torn between four different ways he can approach what Stuart just said: he can scoff at him, he can roll his eyes and tell him that it’s no big deal, he can be honest (but really… no) or he could do what he seems to have settled on, which is lean back a bit and realize that he was broken into on Saturday and it’s only Tuesday and how the hell has so much happened between then and now.

“It’s Tuesday,” he says rather stupidly and he can hear Stuart snort a bit and he looks over his shoulder to see Stuart staring up at him in that way he does where he bends his neck forward slightly and hunches his shoulders and makes his eyes a bit wider. “I’m fine,” Kripke says as a follow up and then nearly jumps out of his shoes when he phone rings deep in his pocket.

“Dude,” Zack says as soon as Kripke answers, “I’m hungry.”

“Congratulations,” Kripke replies. Stuart asks who it is and Kripke just waves him off. “What do you want me to do about it?” Stuart does a silent “ah” and nods because he doesn’t really need Kripke to tell him who’s on the other side of the line anymore.

“Come get me,” Zack says quickly, hanging up before Kripke can respond and he pulls the phone away from his ear and pushes the red button with his thumb and then kind of stares at the device for a few seconds.

“He hung up on me.”

“He’s learning from the best,” Stuart remarks.

“Ha ha.”

“What did he want?”

“Apparently, Superman requires nourishment and is too lazy to fly himself somewhere to eat,” Kripke says, voice rising, into the bottom part of his phone even though there was nobody on the other end to hear him.

“So don’t go,” Stuart says simply and Kripke turns around slowly, eyes narrowing because, yeah, he actually heard that but the way Stuart said it made it sound like Kripke is just being one of the most idiotic people in the world for not thinking of that in the first place.

“Don’t go,” Kripke repeats.

“You didn’t actually say yes.”

“On the surface,” Kripke says, “It sounds good.”

“But…?”

“But it’s a shit idea, actually.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“Not a problem.”

– –

“I’ve got fifteen minutes left, go, go, go,” Zack yells, diving into the passenger seat like he’s being chased by zombies, speaking like a soldier who knows that the hoard is coming and coming fast. Kripke just keeps his grip tight on the steering wheel and side–eyes Zack because he’s not sure what to make of this and he thinks about arguing because he is not his chauffer but instead he just pulls the car out of park and goes. “Stop the car,” Zack shouts suddenly and Kripke presses on the brakes so hard they both go forward a bit and Zack is throwing off his seatbelt and practically rolling out the door and into a small convenience store a few feet ahead.

Kripke rubs at a sore spot on his neck and drums his fingers and pulls Superman out of his pocket and puts him in the cup holder and Zack finally returns holding two sandwiches and Kripke can’t believe he’s actually going to eat them both until Zack throws one of them in Kripke’s lap. Kripke stares at it for a moment and then back at Zack who’s now sitting sloppily in his seat, stuffing the food into his face.

“Eat, eat, eat,” Zack commands, mouth full and Kripke wrinkles his nose.

“Maybe later. I’m not hungry.” The truth is, he is starving but it feels too weird to sit in a running car, eating lunch in such an enclosed space with, well, him and he figures the sooner he gets the guy back to his job, the less time they’ll have to actually exchange words because, really, all they have to talk about is the weather or Doctor Who or why Kripke refuses to sleep at Zack’s place on his couch until he can get his lock fixed.

“Oh, hey,” Zack says, swallowing and pointing towards the cup holder, “You’ve still got him.”

“Yeah,” Kripke says, and then: “Where would I put him?” and then: “Take him back.” He doesn’t know how to feel about the surprise that had been in Zack’s voice when he saw that Superman was safe and sound and not in pieces somewhere at the bottom of a garbage disposal and sure, Kripke was a bastard but he wasn’t that terrible and thinking about doing it and actually doing it were two different sides to a coin.

Zack finishes a couple minutes later and he pats the dashboard and Kripke just looks at him because Zack is either acting like this car is a dog or is trying to tell Kripke it’s time to leave without using words and Kripke isn’t sure he likes either of those possibilities.

“You get your lock fixed?” Zack is asking like suddenly he isn’t in a rush anymore and Kripke sighs.

“No,” he replies and then puts his forehead in his hand because, really, how easy would it have been to lie and god, he was going soft, wasn’t he? “I’m not staying with you,” Kripke says, gritting his teeth, waiting for the complaining, for the guy to list all the reasons why he should reconsider but, instead, Zack just says:

“Okay.”

It’s the saddest two syllable word Kripke has ever heard.

– –

For the first time in his entire life, Kripke asks someone else for help.

“What,” he starts, sitting down in one of the chairs in his apartment, first folding his hands on his knees and then leaning forward, pressing his arms into his thighs, “What,” he tries again, “am I supposed to do here.”

Superman stares back at him and says nothing.

“Yeah,” Kripke sighs, “that’s what I thought.”

– –

“What do I do,” Kripke asks Stuart a little while later, slamming his palms down on the counter and Stuart jumps but Kripke isn’t sure if it’s because of the noise or because those four words just came tumbling from Kripke’s mouth.

“About what,” Stuart responds carefully as if he thinks he’s being led right into a trap.

“You know.”

“I don’t.”

“…Zack,” Kripke finally says, lowering his voice like maybe Zack could walk in any minute or as if somebody lingering in the store might overhear and think about doing something with it.

“What’s the problem exactly?” And Stuart winces at the face that Kripke makes and he almost looks apologetic. Kripke pulls Superman out of his pocket and bangs him down on the counter, his plastic knees bending, red cape fluttering with the movement. “Somebody still has to pay for that,” Stuart says, and then asks: “Why do you have him?”

“Because Zack told me to hold onto it and I did. I didn’t throw it at him. I just put it in my pocket.”

“Okay.”

“You’re not seeing the problem here.”

“Not… really?” Stuart realizes that isn’t the answer Kripke is looking for when he growls. “You guys are friends. It’s what happens when you’re friends with someone. You’re nice to them.”

“Nice?”

“You do know what that word means don’t you,” Stuart asks slowly and then flinches when Kripke raises his hand, thinking that Kripke was going to punch him in the arm again but, instead, Kripke just points and says nothing, jabbing his finger in the air towards Stuart.

“You know he’s watching Doctor Who now, right,” Kripke abruptly changes the subject, kind of, because he doesn’t want to talk about this whole ‘being nice’ business anymore.

“Yes.”

“Wait. Since when?”

“Believe it or not, I talk to Zack when you’re not around. He’s not just your friend. I think it’s good. Soon we’ll get him addicted to comics and then it’s just a few months away from going to Comic Con in costume. He’s becoming one of us,” Stuart says cheerfully but ominously, “He’s already dressed up like Superman once. He’ll do it again.”

“He has?” Kripke tries really, really hard to find a way to ask that without sounding at all enthusiastic for all the wrong reasons and Stuart either politely ignores it or he’s just that oblivious sometimes (Kripke’s leaning more towards the latter because, knowing Stuart (and he hates that he knows Stuart) he would have said something about it otherwise). Kripke interrupts Stuart as he’s opening his mouth to explain. “Nevermind. I don’t want to know.”

“It’s a good story,” Stuart says like he really wants to tell it now that Kripke has brought it up but Kripke shakes his head.

“I came here to talk about my problem.”

“But Zack is part of the story. That has a connection to your problem.”

“I don’t want to hear the damn story!”

“Fine.”

“Stop pouting.”

“I’m not.”

“Why am I talking to you,” Kripke moans into his hand.

“Because you have no one else to talk to.” They stand in silence for a few minutes until Stuart suddenly says: “I feel like this is my fault.”

“That I have no one else to talk to?”

“No. For the ‘you having a problem with Zack’ thing.”

“Okay,” Kripke encourages, “I’m interested. How is this your fault?”

“I was joking about the two of you being kind of gay for each other. I feel like you took me seriously.”

“I’m not stupid,” Kripke says, “I know you were joking.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t start getting weird around him until after I said it.”

“…That’s a valid point.”

“If you’re going to ask me to fix things, you should know that the only way I know how to make things better are movie marathons.”

“It’s okay. There’s really only one way to fix this, anyway.”

– –

“We can’t be friends anymore,” Kripke tells Zack when he picks him up from work later that afternoon. Zack pauses in the middle of fiddling with the radio and ends up on static but it’s like he can’t hear it and just stares at his own hand. Kripke knows it’s cruel to do this where Zack can’t escape but his mother did it to him so many times before when he was growing up that it’s turned into the only way that Kripke knows to tell people startling or terrible news: by putting them somewhere where they can’t run away.

“What?” Zack tacks a question mark to the only word he can come up with after his moment of consideration.

“You heard me,” Kripke says, zooming through a yellow light just as it turns red because he’ll be damned if he has to stop moving during this car ride.

“But… why?”

“Have you ever been broken up with before?”

“We’re breaking up?”

“Answer the question.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“They’ve never really told you why, have they? Why should I.” Kripke kind of can’t he’s saying this and he can’t make himself look at Zack but he knows Zack is looking at him. He has no choice though; if he’s too gracious about it, Zack might not understand and Kripke has to get his point across. Kripke needs lackeys, people he can ask for favors, people who only know him at work, people like Stuart. He doesn’t need people like Zack. He tried it on for size and he doesn’t like it. So he’s letting him go.

“I’m being fired,” Zack asks when Kripke tells him he’s ‘being let go’, “You’re firing me from being you friend?”

“That pretty much sums it up,” Kripke says as he pulls up to the curb outside of Zack’s building but Zack doesn’t get out, even when Kripke uses the very loud method of unlocking the doors.

“But I…”

“Bye, Zack.” Kripke locks and then unlocks the doors again, thinking Zack didn’t get the message the first time. Zack finally takes off his seatbelt and puts his hand on the handle but Kripke still won’t look at him and eventually, Zack exits the car and Kripke waits until the door is slammed shut and then shifts the car into drive and goes off down the street towards home.

– –

He’s sitting on his couch, staring pointedly at his broken lock, halfway through his third glass of the vodka he keeps in his freezer when his phone rings. He thinks about not answering it but when he sees it’s not Zack he figures he might as well pick it up even though he already knows it’s going to be Stuart yelling at him.

“What the hell is wrong with you,” Stuart shouts, his voice rising a few octaves and Kripke holds the phone away from his ear until Stuart is done.

“Um,” Kripke says stupidly, his head already a little fuzzy, not able to think of anything better on such short notice.

“You’re idea of ‘fixing things’ is to ditch Zack?” Stuart sounds like he’s waiting for an answer but Kripke says nothing. “I can’t believe you. Did you think I was going to be okay with this?”

“To be honest,” Kripke finishes his drink, “I wasn’t really thinking about your feelings when I made this decision.”

“No kidding.”

“Where are you right now?”

“At Zack’s apartment. He called me, you know, asking if we were playing a prank on him and then he told me what you said. When I told him I had no idea what was happening he hung up on me. So I went to check on him.”

“How’d you get there so fast?”

“That’s all you can ask me,” Stuart marvels, “All of that and all you can ask is how I got from point A to point B so fast.”

“It is pretty remarkable.”

“Goodbye, Kripke.”

Kripke listens to the dial tone for over an hour before hanging up.

– –

He goes to work Wednesday morning just like he did yesterday and the day before and the week before that and he keeps expecting people to give him looks or whisper about him until he finally realizes that nobody there knows what has happened the night before and probably never will and, from then on, he kind of relaxes into his work like everything is normal.

Three times he brings out his phone with the thought of texting Zack – twice because something funny happens that he is responsible for and once because he just has a thought he needs to share with someone who isn’t in the room – but then he remembers that, oh, right, they aren’t friends anymore and ex–friends don’t really talk. He thinks about telling Stuart instead but then he figures that Stuart probably won’t want anything to do with him either.

He stares at their numbers during his lunch break while he sits with some of his co–workers, pretending to press keys like he’s playing Tetris so the others don’t know what he’s actually doing. He should probably delete them from his contact list but he hesitates when he goes to follow through with the task.

Maybe later.

– –

When he gets home that night, there’s a message on his voicemail from the locksmith telling him that they were coming, for sure, tomorrow morning and that they were going to give him a discount for canceling on him the first time and Kripke doesn’t have anybody to tell the news to. He sends it out as a Twitter update instead of a text and gets someone from work asking him, jokingly, who he was changing the locks on, not knowing about him being broken into. Kripke thinks about informing him about the real reason but he decides it isn’t worth it.

He checks his email while he eats whatever he could find in his fridge for dinner and discovers that Zack has removed him as a friend on Facebook (they had only been friends on there for a few days) and Kripke finds himself kind of disappointed to see the message waiting for him in his inbox but he’s surprised to see that Stuart hasn’t done the same.

This isn’t the first time that Kripke’s dropped a friendship like a piece of hot steel but it’s the first time he’s felt anything besides relief after the deed was done. His first and only best friend was a guy named Rick; their friendship lasted from kindergarten to the last day of their senior year of high school when Kripke finally decided that Rick knew too much about him and also Rick was talking about Kripke being the best man at his wedding some day and Kripke wasn’t sure he was ready for that level of friendship so he told Rick exactly what he had told Zack: “We can’t be friends anymore”.

Kripke found out that it wasn’t too bad to say it, so he kept saying it, to a lot of people, sometimes replacing the “be friends” with “date”, sometimes replacing the entire sentence with “go away”.

This was the only time that he actually feels a weird little feeling that’s making him think that maybe he screwed up but then he reminds himself that he’s been here before and he’ll be here again.

He can do this.

– –

He realizes, a little while later, that he still has the stupid Superman action figure, that he forgot to give it back when he ditched Zack and, in a fit of frustration, he puts the plastic man in the only place he can think of where he knows he won’t have to look at it all the time: his freezer. It doesn’t occur to him that he could just throw it away.

– –

Five days pass quietly by.

Stuart still hasn’t taken Kripke off his friends list on Facebook and Kripke is getting fed up with waiting so, one afternoon, once he’s done with work, he finds himself standing outside the comic book store, hands balled into fists at his sides and he waits for someone to leave so he can catch the door and slip inside without having to uncurl his hands. He stalks up to the counter and waits for Stuart to notice him and make the first move.

“What do you want,” Stuart asks sourly, peering up from reading the newest issue of Green Lantern.

“Why are we still friends on Facebook,” Kripke inquires bluntly. Stuart lowers his book.

“Oh. I guess I forgot.”

“You forgot?”

“It happens. You should probably go,” Stuart says and Kripke furrows his eyebrows at him, “Zack’s here.”

“He is?” Kripke spins around, looking in the direction that Stuart nods his chin, seeing Zack on a chair in a corner, a large graphic novel balanced on his knees, reading intently and Kripke starts to go because he’s too tired for this right now but then he steps on the floor wrong and it creaks and then Zack is lifting his head and staring point blank at Kripke and instead of running away, Kripke stops.

It’s like a stand–off from a cliché Western and any minute, Kripke thinks he’s going to hear bells chiming. Stuart starts whistling the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but stops when Kripke turns to glare at him.

“Hi,” Zack says, finally, closing the book without marking the page and standing up but not going further than that.

“I threw Superman away,” Kripke replies, nodding at Zack’s horrified expression, and then heads for the door.

He definitely lost that duel.

– –

Another three days go by and Stuart still hasn’t taken Kripke off his friends list and Kripke feels like he’s going to tear his hair out. Sure, he hasn’t removed Stuart either but, even if he did, it wasn’t like Stuart would automatically go “oh okay” and follow suit.

“Are you doing this on purpose,” Kripke asks angrily as he storms into the shop, the other customers all dropping what they’re doing to watch what was unfolding in front of them. Stuart says nothing, not right away.

“Doing what on purpose?”

“You know what. You know,” Kripke says accusingly.

“Hey,” Kripke hears over his shoulder and he turns to see Zack standing a few feet behind him trying to force a smile, appearing like he hasn’t been sleeping well recently.

“I hate you both,” Kripke declares loudly and dramatically before leaving.

– –

“No, really,” Kripke demands two days later, quietly seething, “You’re doing this for a reason. There’s no way that you can forget to remove someone for this long. It’s not going to work.”

“What’s not going to work?”

“Don’t play innocent with me. You trying to get us to be friends again. Not going to work.”

“Hi.” Zack appears out of nowhere and Kripke makes a face like he’s just been fed an over–rip lemon dipped in whisky and points at the two of them before making his way for the door.

“I have better places to be.”

– –

“I thought you had better places to be,” Stuart asks, laughing, when Kripke walks in the next day.

“Shut up,” Kripke says, “I’m not here to see you. I finally figured out what that guy stole from me. One of the things. I’m here to replace it and you’re the only local guy who has one.”

He picks an expensive Daredevil statue from the shelves and carefully carries it over to the counter. He can’t believe that it took him so long to figure it out; it wasn’t until the night before when he got around to giving his place a good dusting (since he had nothing better to do) that he noticed the large gap between Batman and The Flash. After having a very brief panic attack, he pondered why a burglar would take that and only that unless he had previous knowledge that, unlike the game consoles and the television, that was one of the more expensive things in his apartment just by looking at it.

Burglars were, apparently, getting smarter and smarter by the day.

Either that, or someone really had it out for him. (It was after that moment that he saw his Playstation 3 was also nowhere to be found but he was slightly less concerned because, yes, it was expensive but he hadn’t touched the thing in months and it was obvious by how long it took him to notice it was gone that he wouldn’t really miss it).

“Wow, really?” And Kripke wasn’t sure what Stuart was responding to: the fact that this was what was stolen, that Kripke was actually going to spend the money to replace it or that Kripke had to replace it right that second and if Kripke didn’t know any better, he’d think this was his first time breaking up with friends.

“It seemed like a good idea a few minutes ago,” Kripke admits and then has a good look around.

“Zack’s not here,” Stuart says.

“I can see that.” He almost finds himself asking where Zack was exactly if he wasn’t lurking around the store, but he stops himself before he can even get his tongue moving in that direction of conversation. “I didn’t come here to find him,” he says instead, nudging the statue a bit on the counter, closer to Stuart, reminding him that he’s just a customer now and nothing else and he would very much like to purchase this item and then go home. But Stuart, apparently having gotten over his initial anger at Kripke, doesn’t seem to be in that much of a hurry.

“Zack drunk dialed me last night.”

“Fascinating,” Kripke replies, trying his hardest to sound as uninterested as possible.

“He kept going on and on and babbling about Daredevil.”

“And?” Kripke pushes the statue even closer so it’s feet are now touching Stuart’s hands. He thinks he knows where this is going and he doesn’t want to hear it.

“He was talking about you.”

“Well. That was a fun story,” Kripke says, pulling out his wallet, “Can I pay for this now?”

“You should go talk to him.”

“Why?” As far as Kripke knows, giving up a friendship means not crawling back to their doorstep a week and a half or however many days have passed since That Day hoping to pick back up where you left off. He takes out a credit card and offers it but Stuart doesn’t make a single gesture like he’s planning on taking it.

“Because he drunk dialed me and talked about you for an hour, that’s why!” Stuart’s voice lifts, just a little bit, but he lowers it again when another customer stumbles in. “Look. I can’t believe I’m going to say this and you’re probably going to punch me for it but you two are totally gay for each other and no, I’m not joking, not this time and if you don’t go running to his door soon I will be forced to take dire actions and trust me you will not like it.”

Kripke punches Stuart right in the nose, picks up his statue and leaves without paying for it.

– –

“Open the door blockhead,” Kripke yells, banging his fist on the thick wood, getting an odd look from one of the neighbors. He doesn’t remember what time it is or if Zack is even home but he keeps banging and, eventually, the door swings wide open and there Zack is, looking nothing but utterly shocked. “Don’t say anything.” But Kripke doesn’t know what to say after that so they just stand there in complete silence, Zack kind of leaning on the doorway, the sounds of some sports channel blaring in the background, Kripke’s arms tiring from the weight of the statue he brought with him for seemingly no reason other than he can’t quite seem to let it go. “I blame you,” Kripke says at last and Zack just stares because he’s taking the ‘don’t speak’ command to heart, “No. Actually. I blame the guy who broke into my apartment. This is what he stole, by the way.”

Zack breaks his silence. “You got it back?” He sounds impressed, like he’s imagining Kripke staying up late and hunting the streets, chasing the criminal down an alley and doing all kinds of ridiculously heroic and vengeful things.

“No, you idiot. I bought a new one. From Stuart.” He doesn’t mention that Stuart’s mostly the reason why he’s here or that he didn’t actually pay for it or that he left the poor guy moaning on the floor with his hands probably over his bleeding nose and he vaguely wonders what the other customer thinks happened and if he called the police and if they were out looking for him because Stuart’s whining was too intelligible to figure out and, as far as that kid knows, Kripke just assaulted and robbed some store clerk. “I didn’t pay for this,” he admits, “I can’t stay. The police might be looking for me.” He almost laughs as the words leave his mouth.

“You could hide here,” Zack suggests and Kripke shakes his head and feels like he’s read parts of this exact conversation in a few hundred comics since he was a teenager.

“I’d rather go home.” Kripke hates how easy it is to slip back into things, although he’s not unaware of the tension still hanging around them like secondhand smoke clinging to a humid day.

“What if you get arrested?” Stuart wouldn’t let that happen but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

“Then I guess you’ll have to bail me out.” Kripke leaves it at that because he’s not sure he can deal with talking to Zack like this because he already kind of hates himself for tripping over his own feet and falling backwards instead of taking wide leaps forward and very far away from these two but especially Zack.

He makes it all the way to the lobby when he hears Zack call out to him and instead of ignoring it, he turns around and, like he shifted into warp–speed, Zack is suddenly there and he wraps his arms around Kripke who can’t return it even if he wanted to (which he doesn’t) because he’s holding this ten pound statue. Zack practically lifts Kripke off the floor and Kripke’s about to tell him that he’s very lucky that this isn’t happening in public because, if it was, Kripke would find a way to slug him exactly the same way he slugged Stuart because that’s the kind of guy he is now, a guy that punches people who ask for it but Zack doesn’t give Kripke time to say any of that because he’s pushing his mouth against Kripke’s mouth and holy shit, Kripke realizes, Zack is kissing him.

When Zack pulls away and lets go, Kripke can think of a million things he wants to say, ranging from asking him, dumbly, what just happened to shouting that he hates him and he made a big mistake listening to Stuart, to throwing the statue in his face but, somehow, all he manages to say is:

“I lied. I didn’t throw Superman away. He’s in my freezer.”

Zack opens his mouth to say something in return when he’s interrupted by sirens. The glass doors burst open and, more than a little confused as to how they found him (unless Stuart told them but why) Kripke sighs, putting the statue on the floor and sticking his hands in the air.