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Going from Myra's house to Bev's (well - apartment) wasn't all that difficult if one took into consideration how high-maintenance both women truly were, which felt like an unkind thought to Bev, but it was true regardless. She'd spent three months lazing around in North Carolina with Ben before coming back to New York and jumping head first into divorce proceedings with her vindictive ex-husband who owned a controlling share in her company, which was enough stress and sudden, dramatic life change to make anyone a little high strung. Anyway, Eddie was high-maintenance, too. Their specific, emotionally-overwhelmed needs fit together in a way that Eddie never fit with Myra, which was sort of telling.

They had a nice apartment in Brooklyn, which made Eddie feel like kind of an ass considering that Myra had to move back to her sister's in Jersey, the same sad little room above the garage she'd been living in when he met her. But whatever - he paid half the rent just like Bev did, and Myra had her own money, it wasn't like she had to live with Miriam and Miriam's awful libertarian husband and their cadre of spoiled, blonde children. That was a choice Myra was making. A choice that was probably very much informed by her pathological need to control her loved ones, which was a sign of insecurity and low self-esteem. That did not come from his therapist (they hadn't even gotten far enough in their sessions yet, to start discussing the divorce) but from Bev, but it sounded like it made sense so Eddie was rolling with it.

They drank a little too much together, maybe, and Bev was having some trouble with Ben that she didn't like to talk about, but Eddie could hear her crying sometimes on the phone, and it didn't sound great. Ben was discreet about it, effusively supportive whenever he stopped by (less frequent now that the divorce had hit the tabloids, but still ready and willing to jump on a plane the second Bev asked) and he sometimes texted Eddie in the middle of the night when Bev was having trouble, apologetic but still not too courteous to ask: Can you just go check on her? I talked to her for awhile but she was still crying when we hung up. And so Eddie would climb out of bed and shuffle his way over to Bev's room, where she'd be sitting up waiting for him, her face stricken and pale white, and they'd sit up and be sleepless together.

It was a good boyfriend thing to do, Eddie thought. Ben was a good boyfriend - not that any of them had really thought he wouldn't be. They'd work it out, whatever it was they were struggling with - he could feel it.

"Do you think this is what it would've been like if we'd known each other in college?" Bev asked one night, sitting at one of the barstools at the counter as Eddie made a keto-friendly lasagna recipe he found on Pinterest. "I definitely feel like I'm twenty-one again. Mood swings, depressive episodes, the whole she-bang. Hey, we even drink box wine! Very collegial."

"I went to community college," Eddie confessed, and Bev grimaced like she already knew what he was about to say, "and I lived at home with my mother."

"Yikes," Bev said heavily, stealing a stray bit of mozzarella cheese off the cutting board and popping it in her mouth. "I went to Kent State."

"What, like, Ohio?" Eddie asked. "Why?"

"I got a scholarship," Bev said, grinning out of the side of her mouth. "Good fashion merchandising program." Her face soured, in the next second. "Met Tom there."

Eddie gave her another pile of cheese. Bev smiled and gathered it together in one palm, clapping it over her mouth and gobbling the whole thing in one go, throwing her head back with the motion.

"Where'd you meet Myra?"

"A friend from work set us up. Blind date," Eddie said, grimacing at the memory. Lunch date. Panera Bread. Myra ordered one of the turkey sandwiches and asked them to take off most of the toppings, and Eddie got a cup of chicken noodle soup and a bread roll. Not that either of them actually ate much of it. "Isn't that how Stan met Patty?"

"Yes," Bev said, her demeanor tilting gently into sadness. She and Patty had been talking frequently - so far she was the only Loser brave enough. Eddie was terrified of her - afraid somehow that it would cut something loose in him to speak to her, something that'd been held tense and fragile since they'd first found out, that night at the restaurant. And he knew for a fact that Richie was too terrified, too. I'm gonna lose it, Eds, he'd said once, a few months prior. I'm going to sob violently into the phone the second I hear her voice and she'll never want to speak to me again. She probably already thinks we're all freaks. Do you really think talking to me is gonna help? "They went to college together though, so she said she already knew who he was. She'd seen him around campus and stuff."

"I bet it was like a movie. Harry and Sally at the art museum, Stan with one of his little sweater vests and his curly hair, and the leaves and everything - just fucking picture perfect."

"I know, God," Bev said. "I can't believe he never lived here. In the city, I mean. He would've fit in perfectly. He was made for like, movie New York. Nora Ephron's New York."

Eddie, a seasoned (real life, not Nora Ephron's) New Yorker himself, agreed. He felt sometimes as if he was just about to run into Stanley somewhere, on the sidewalk, at a deli, in line at the bank. Like every sidewalk he walked on, every corner he turned, was a missed opportunity, like he'd just barely missed him.

"Bill, though," Bev said, watching Eddie with fascination as he layered sauce and fake noodles and cheese. "He's made for Los Angeles. He could never live anywhere else - they'd kick him out."

"So's Richie," Eddie said.

"No, not Rich! He's a chameleon. What, you can't picture him living here? I can."

Eddie finished scraping the filling out of the bowl with difficulty, fumbling it a little as he wrestled it into the sink, his hands covered in sauce. There was a weird wiggling feeling, deep in his chest cavity, whenever someone asked him a question about Richie, and he didn't know what it meant. Did he sound okay to you? produced the same result as did you see him on Kimmel? and doesn't he look so much better than he did at Christmas? so Eddie was caught in frustrated perplexment. "Maybe - I mean, yeah. When he was younger, maybe." Mid-twenties Richie. Long hair, big grin, dorkier glasses. Eddie's chest wiggled again.

"You know he's in town right?" Bev asked.

"I did not," Eddie said. "But he never tells me. He likes to invite me out the day of and act like he just jumped on a plane to the other side of the country on a whim. Moron."

Bev grinned. "You love it."

"I do not."

"You do," Bev said casually, stealing more cheese. "We're going for rich people brunch tomorrow. We would have invited you but you have that big work meeting so I figured you wouldn't mind. Plus I think he wants to take you out for dinner." She grinned again. "Got plans?"

"When do I have plans, Bev?" Eddie spread out his hands to indicate the variety of his plans for most evenings, which came down to: Bev, boxed wine, and Pinterest recipes. "When do you see me having plans? Oh right, occasionally I go out and hit the town between two and three AM when you're asleep, but I didn't think that counted."

"You're a vibrant young man, Edward," Bev said, in one of Richie's Voices. The wheezy old man he used to imitate, who always sat around in front of the gas station, smoking cigarettes and chatting with everyone's moms. "You've got your whole life ahead of you."

"You sound like Jimmy Stewart on uppers," Eddie said.

"The prime of your life! Cream of the crop! Wh - ow," Bev said, ducking the second oven mitt, headed straight for her head. "Personal foul, Kaspbrak. Christ."

"I don't have plans," Eddie said sourly, not really angry at all. This was another difference between Bev and Myra: the emotional maintenance he performed for Bev didn't hurt at all. He never felt like he was carving pieces out of himself in order to keep her happy. Maybe that should've been a warning sign, much earlier, but c'est la vie. Eddie was fine telling himself that he hadn't known any better. "Tell him I'm not eating sushi with him again after last time. Make sure he knows it's a dealbreaker."

"Eddie," Bev said, with deep sympathy, "if I tell him that, he's absolutely gonna take you to a sushi place."

Eddie sighed. "Okay, tell him I hate Italian. I've been craving something with pesto. Tell him the last place on Earth I'd rather be tomorrow night at seven - maybe seven-thirty if traffic's bad - is at that nice Italian place on Washington Boulevard."

"He'll see right through me, I'm a terrible liar," Bev said.

"You should also tell him that I'm paying and that I won't take no for an answer," Eddie said.

"Now that, he'll believe," Bev said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richie was a fair weather friend, post-Derry, which felt sort of mean to say but again: also true. He was wonderful whenever one of them pinned him down - warm and genuinely supportive, always ready to sit up late with someone on the phone or talk someone through a problem - but it was like he vanished into a pocket dimension whenever one of them wasn't actively talking to him. Eddie kept track of him through Google alerts, which was sort of sad. He was famous enough to be newsworthy, especially nowadays that he was controversial, the subject of thinkpieces and Twitter trending topics. Is he really gay? Did he say that knowing he'd be caught on camera? This fuzzy video of a standup set in North Carolina - is it really him? Is he fucking Dave Chapelle? Is he fucking Neil Patrick Harris? Oh look, here he is in a movie twelve years ago with the kid from Malcolm in the Middle, is he fucking the kid from Malcolm in the Middle? Or, wait, is he fucking - blah, blah, so on so forth and et cetera. Eddie was more interested in his mental well-being, since Richie was pretty tight-lipped about that both to the public and to his friends.

Like, I'm fine. Whatever, he would say, and then laugh or make a joke, which was deeply unsatisfying to Eddie. His texts were worse: im all good spaghettios how are u? followed by a string of unrelated, random emojis that seemed more nonsensical the longer Eddie stared at them: German flag. Person wearing fencing gear. A head of lettuce. A blue square with a white circle.

Eddie had tried specific questions, hoping that demanding details would corner Richie into talking about his emotions out loud, but Richie just made up answers and then usually invoked a memory so embarrassing it made him mad and then he'd lose his train of thought. My therapist's name? Ludwig, I think. Ludwig von Lederhosen. Hey Eds do you remember the time you ate too many Zotz and puked all over Bill's back porch and the puke was bright blue? and then Eddie would be forced to reply: it wasn't blue you fucking idiot it was a normal puke color, and Richie would say, no I'm pretty sure it was neon blue Eds, and you had those big cowboy boots on that you wore everywhere that summer, you looked like the Blue Meanie, and Eddie would yell back, fuck you I looked amazing in those cowboy boots, they were a gift from Mike's grandpa you asshole! and basically Eddie never got anywhere with him.

It made him sad and it made him angry, but mostly it just hurt his feelings, which was something his therapist got him to admit during one harrowing evening session that had involved a lot of yelling. (Therapy in general actually involved much more yelling than Eddie had anticipated. On the first day, the counselor - very funny guy in his sixties, always wore big fuzzy sweaters even in summer - told Eddie he wanted to hear what he had to say in whatever way it made him most comfortable to say it, and if that meant Eddie needed to shout his feelings then by God, that's what he got paid to do. Eddie was enjoying it, overall.)

"Eddie," his therapist had said, "you know as well as I do that you can't force somebody to open up. But you can make sure he knows that you're there for him when he's ready. Do you think he knows that?" and Eddie hadn't actually been able to say yes. He thought Richie did. Maybe. He was pretty sure, but not completely, because Richie just made Eddie feel all wiggly and agitated and embarrassed all the time, so it was hard to get an accurate read on him, or to be close to him in the way that Bill was close to him, that Ben was close to him, that even Bev managed, on their cheerful brunch dates whenever Richie swung through New York. Eddie often felt like he and Richie were two magnets, repelling each other fiercely until one of them twisted the right way and suddenly they were slamming together brutally, yelling (and laughing, or yell-laughing, or what was the difference anyway?) at the top of their lungs. Eddie wanted to be around him all the time, just like when they were kids, but the feeling felt violent. Like when you see a cute baby or a puppy and you feel so savagely endeared that you want to take the adorable little thing in your hands and just fucking crush it. Maybe that's what the wiggly feeling was.

Anyway, they went for sushi. Of course it was fucking sushi. Richie was also late, which didn't surprise Eddie either.

"Oh no way, I totally thought this was an Italian restaurant," he said, before he'd even reached the table, walking through the crowded dining room as ostentatiously as possible. He reminded Eddie of a production of Grease he attended in college, where the actors performed a lot of the scenes in the aisles among the seats in some sort of avant-garde attempt at immersive, interactive performance, and Eddie'd had to sit there and grimace while the kid playing Kinickie draped himself over Eddie's chair while delivering a monologue about pussy eating. Watching Richie walk wide-eyed through the dining room, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the decorations, saying, "whoa Yelp definitely led me astray here! I thought I was taking my main man out for pasta! Who knew that a place named The Hapa Grill and Bar wasn't Italian?!", Eddie was unpleasantly reminded of the closing carnival scene, when most of the background actors had attempted to perform their choreography without elbowing any of the audience members in the face. A fair number of them had been unsuccessful. "Oh, Eds! You're here! Can you believe it, this isn't - "

"Put your hands down. Get over here," Eddie hissed, and Richie grinned so brightly Eddie felt his chest wiggle again. "You're a disgrace. How you haven't been murdered yet, I have no idea."

"Eddie," Richie crooned, sliding sideways into the booth. His hair was short again, cropped close to his forehead in a style Eddie thought was flattering (but Richie himself hated, he knew) so he must've been filming again. The TV show he was working on was hush-hush - not even Bill knew what it was - but Richie always seemed a bit happier when he was working on it, which was good, Eddie thought. A hopeful sign, or something. "I missed you. Your dulcet tones, your forgiving nature. Did you lose weight? You look incredible."

"Shut up," Eddie said, covering his face with both hands. Most of the dining room was staring at them, and one kid had his phone out, filming. He could see the waitstaff arguing over who had to take their table by the hostess station in the corner. "I should make you fucking leave right now. They're going to spit in our food."

"But we just got here," Richie said, flipping open the menu and turning the pages so fast he couldn't possibly have read any of it. "I'm getting fettuccine alfredo. What do you want? Some chicky saltimbocca? Penny del mar?"

"Don't talk to me. I need ten minutes of silence before I can deal with your presence right now."

Richie's eyes went wide, and he started miming speech silently, flapping his mouth and making faces that were, somehow, even louder than his actual voice. Eddie sighed.

"I'm ordering for you," he said, snatching the menu right out of Richie's hands. He broke the bit and laughed, which made Eddie feel sort of proud of himself despite everything, which was the other annoying thing about Richie. Eddie could never manage to stay angry longer than thirty seconds, which was absolute bullshit because Richie always deserved at least a minute of true outrage, minimum. "Are you allergic to anything? Wait, I don't care."

"I'm allergic to fish," Richie said. He made a frowny face. "Is that a problem? With this particular type of cuisine?"

"Stop fucking lying or I'll make you eat octopus."

"God, you wouldn't," Richie said, shuddering. "Okay, I'm not allergic to anything, you caught me. Other than emotional intimacy, but I hear that's fairly common among men of my age."

"No shit," Eddie grumbled, focusing intently on the menu. He didn't know why; he already knew he was going to order them both some boring California rolls and call it a day. "I'm shocked and surprised, Rich. Couldn't tell from everything about your personality."

"I play it cool," Richie said. "You know. Close to the vest." He smacked his own chest, and then winced, rubbing the spot he'd just hit sheepishly. "You know Eds, you haven't even said hello to me yet. Maybe that's why - because I don't trust you with my feelings."

"Go fuck yourself," Eddie said.

"Hello to you too," Richie replied, beaming again. "Nice to see you. Missed you, baby."

Eddie snapped the menu closed, a little short of breath and panicky suddenly. "More like you missed pissing me off."

"Same thing," Richie said. Eddie blinked at him, torn between anger and something very close to anger that didn't really feel like anger at all. "Did you order sake?"

"I ordered beer," Eddie said, a little stupidly.

"Thank God," Richie said, with effusive relief that sounded too genuine to be a joke. Before Eddie could muster up a reaction to that too, he blinked, and yanked the menu out of Eddie's hands. "Do you even know how to order sushi? Give me that."

"Excuse me, I eat sushi more than you. I can order it fine."

"Bullshit you eat sushi. Fuck off with that. I'm ordering," Richie said decisively, flipping the menu to the back, where Eddie knew they had the healthier options listed. His chest did the weird thing again, and he clamped his hands down on his thighs, rubbing his clammy palms against his jeans. "Don't worry, I won't order anything fried."

"I can't eat - "

"I know what the fuck you can't eat," Richie said, and Eddie snapped his mouth shut. "Just sit back and think of England, Spagheddie. You'll like it, I promise."

Eddie didn't say anything, not currently in possession of much trust in his own voice. He looked at the leather jacket Richie was wearing, and wondered how much it cost. Did he get his hair cut on his own, or did they do it for him on set, specifically for whatever character he was playing? Was it a comedy, or a drama? Was he a main cast member, or just recurring? Did he still have nightmares? If Eddie asked, would he tell the truth?

Uhh, that's a negative, Cap'n K, and you know exactly why, Eddie heard, in Richie's trucker Voice. (The most annoying thing about Richie, in Eddie's opinion, is that he was actually pretty funny.)

Richie ordered sake and two kinds of beer and four different sushi rolls, one of which had some sort of uh, crackers on top ("What's in it?" "Not telling." "Richie you have to tell me." "No I don't." "Richie I could literally die would you just tell me what the orange stuff is." "Die of what? Brain worms? Do you think you get brain worms from sushi, Eds? That's racist, you know.") which actually turned out to be pretty good, once Eddie scraped off the spicy sauce. Then he stacked the plates together at the edge of the table neatly and tipped forty percent, because deep down he really was just a nice fuckin' guy. Eddie forgot that, sometimes.

"I think we should get ice cream," he said as they left, in the manic, too-quick too-witty way he'd been speaking all evening. Eddie felt a little bamboozled, a little a-fluttered, just being in his presence. He wanted to make Richie relax, but he knew he was the reason he wasn't. There didn't seem to be a good solution. "This is New York, right? If you stroll long enough you come across either a charming dessert shop or a condemned brownstone with latchkey criminals in it, right?"

"It's your vacation," Eddie said, taking a guess, and to his triumph, Richie took the bait.

"I'm not on vacation," he said, scoffing.

"I didn't know you had a show. Did you invite us? I would've come - "

"No, I don't have a show. I'm - it's for the thing," Richie stammered, looking cagey all of a sudden. "The show. You know."

"Uh huh," Eddie said flatly, pulling him across the crosswalk with determination. He didn't trust Richie in open streets. You had to hold his hand like he was a small dog or a toddler, lest he get distracted by a bright light and just wander off into traffic. "It's a cop show, isn't it? Ben's right. You're playing like, the comic relief detective on some fucked up serial killer hunting drama."

"I told you guys, it's not scripted. Didn't I tell you that?"

"Yeah, but we didn't believe you." There was a separate text thread, sans Richie, where the Losers were currently taking bets on what exactly the TV show was, and why Richie was so serious and invested in it. The group was split between "hip, smart sitcom that gave him a writing credit" and "edgy dark comedy/drama with an up-and-coming Millennial showrunner." Whatever the fuck that meant, Bill.

"No, okay, you really wanna know? It's a reality show," Richie said, and Eddie laughed. "I'm serious."

"Are you a Real Housewife?" Eddie asked, his first instinct being (as always) to be a dick. Richie laughed anyway.

"No. It's for the Food Network." Eddie slowed to a stop, in the middle of the sidewalk, and blinked up at him. "It's like. It's a sort of documentary thing. They send me to these little, like, locally famous restaurants that are in financial trouble - you know, like Gordon Ramsay - but instead of helping them with actual expertise, I sort of just shoot the shit with them, get to know them. They make me work a dinner shift, and I kind of...I don't know. I'm like a glorified emcee, basically." Richie looked nervous, rubbing his hands against his jeans, his cheekbones outlined in neon by the blinking sign on the bodega door behind his shoulder. Eddie blinked at him some more. "The idea is to get them on TV, and you know, make people like them. Drum up business. I spend a lot of time with the families who run it, and it's always like, local staples, places that have been around forever that have just fallen into a downswing. And we give them money at the end - help them remodel, or buy them new equipment. Whatever. We've done three episodes so far."

"Are you fucking with me?" Eddie blurted.

"No! Why would that be a joke, like how is that funny?"

"Jesus, it isn't, that's why I asked," Eddie said. He squinted at Richie, at his forlorn-looking face, his tense arms, held rigidly at the sides of his body. He looked like a nervous robot. "That sounds a little schmaltzy."

"It is." Richie laughed sheepishly, rubbing his hair. He looked like he felt self-conscious about it. "I mean, I like it though. It's nice. To, uh, help people."

"Is it more like...cheesy? Or is it like. An Anthony Bourdain thing?" Eddie asked, trying to wrap his head around the idea. Richie, in documentaries? Richie, interviewing regular people, getting them to loosen up for the camera, washing dishes and cracking jokes with some twelve-year-old son of a veteran restauranteur, goofing off and drawing out their personalities gently, the way he behaved when one of the Losers was upset - okay, fine, yes, Eddie could see it.

"Well, the latter, I fuckin' hope," Richie said, with another nervous laugh. "I haven't seen any of the final cuts yet. Steve says it's good though. We try not to, you know, make the people look stupid. We want the audience to take them seriously and everything."

"Jesus," Eddie said again. His face felt hot. He didn't know why but he wanted Richie to step away from the bodega and stop looking down at Eddie like that, like his eyes were about to fall out of his head. "How'd it happen?"

"I met this guy," Richie said, in a meaningful sort of tone, and Eddie physically flinched. "He's a chef. He introduced me to some people. Whatever." He laughed again. "We don't even know if it's gonna get picked up yet. They want five episodes, and if they don't sign on for a full season they're just gonna air it as like, a limited series or something. We'll see."

"You met a guy?" Eddie repeated, and Richie stared at him for a minute, his face unreadable. "Like a chef guy?"

"Yeah," Richie said, and then paused weirdly. "His name is John."

Eddie tore his eyes away, nodding frantically. John. Sure. John. Okay. John.

"Anyway, that's the big secret." Richie was back to manic nervousness again, practically jittering in place. Eddie could feel the energy radiating off of him, without even having to look him in the eye. "I wasn't really keeping it a secret on purpose, there's no NDA or anything, I was just - I dunno - "

"I get it," Eddie said. "Jesus. Jesus! Anthony Bourdain!"

Richie laughed. "I wish."

"No, I can see it," Eddie said thoughtfully. "Did you tell Bev?"

Richie shook his head. "No, you're the first. I'll tell her now, though."

"And you're doing an episode here in the city?"

"A little noodle shop in Chinatown," Richie said. "We start filming in a couple days. Been in business seventy years. Seventy years! Can you even fuckin wrap your mind around that?"

"No," Eddie said honestly. He couldn't even conceptualize next week, most of the time. The future was a grey curtain, the basement of a haunted house, a foggy street at midnight. He didn't want to fuckin' know yet. "Can I come?"

Richie laughed again, this time with a high-pitched, incredulous tint to it. "You wanna play hooky and come watch me fuck around in a noodle shop? You're kidding, right?"

"I was just asking," Eddie grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. His heart was beating kind of fast, which was concerning. Maybe he was having a stroke. Maybe that would explain everything. Who the fuck was John? Eddie should text Bill. Was his pulse regular? He couldn't tell. "Can I watch the episodes you already finished?"

"I mean, sure?" Richie seemed incapable of reacting in any other way than the strained, weird laughter. "They sent me one of the earlier edits, but it's not done so I didn't want to watch it until they settled on a final cut. But you can watch if you want, I guess."

"I do," Eddie said, a little angrily, offended by the implication - or anyway, he thought that was an implication - that he wouldn't want to, that Richie was under the impression that Eddie didn't give a shit about what he did with his time and his talent and his life. What the fuck. "Email it to me. You have my email right?"

"Yeah, Eds, I have your email," Richie said, still a little shellshocked.

"Okay! Then email it to me! Jesus!"

"Fine!" Richie said, his eyebrows raising. "You're being weird. Are you mad at me?"

"No!" Eddie shouted. "Why would I be mad at you!"

"A question, Sir Edward, that I have been asking myself for decades," Richie said, scowling. He snorted a little, shaking his head, and then straightened his shoulders, like he'd made a decision, and grabbed the lapel of Eddie's jacket. "I still want ice cream."

"Well, I want gelato," Eddie said stridently, his volume still a little too loud to be interpreted as friendly. Not that Richie ever seemed to take it personally, although he sure looked a little bothered now, tugging Eddie down the sidewalk in a reversal of what Eddie had done at the crosswalk only a few minutes and a weird conversation before. "There's a nice place I know but you can't yell inside, Richie, they know me there."

"Isn't gelato like, made from pig's hooves?" Richie asked. "Surprised you're into that, Eds."

"No," Eddie said, "that's gelatin, not gelato, you absolute fuckhead. It's just weird ice cream! Didn't you just tell me that you host a cooking show, shouldn't you know that?"

"They don't actually let me do any of the cooking," Richie said.

"Oh God, I'm so surprised," Eddie said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike was currently in North Carolina, or maybe South Carolina, Eddie had a hard time keeping track, but the point was that he was currently having the time of his life, something that every Loser had become extremely emotionally involved in themselves, to the point where the text thread that included all of them (actually not that active by comparison; Eddie had like six different ones with different combinations, all of which were constantly popping off, as the kids said) was pretty much exclusively the What Did Mike Do Today? show.

Look at this fucking LIZARD, Mike would send, along with some fuzzy picture of a gecko or some shit, and they would all react like they were being shown newborn baby pictures or something. AMAZING! TAKE ANOTHER PICTURE, MIKEY! ASK THEM WHAT THEIR PREFERRED PRONOUNS ARE AND IF THEY WANT TO MARRY ME! Et cetera. The other day Mike went to a space museum (Oh shit, I love learning about planets! My favorite one is Jupiter, Ben had texted, with absolutely no irony whatsoever, and even Richie couldn't bear to make fun of him) and sent them pictures of every single informational plaque he saw, which did include some very boring ones. Eddie read every single one of them religiously, as did everyone else, considering how many of them provided detailed commentary.

This was often the only way Eddie ever heard from Richie, as the quickest way to get him to shut up it seemed was to text him directly. Eddie had worked hard on not resenting him for this. It was understandable, and Eddie didn't hold it against him, but still sometimes it hurt his feelings. A lot of things hurt his feelings, about Richie. But Eddie had been working hard on respecting boundaries, and so he didn't push.

"This is good, this is really good," Mike said, watching along with them on Skype as Richie patiently learned how to make gumbo from somebody's tetchy great-grandmother in New Orleans, Louisiana. "This is what he should've been doing all along."

"Right?" Bev echoed. She'd been recording the screen periodically on her phone and texting clips to Bill and Ben, who were reacting effusively in the no-Richie text thread. "I'm not surprised though. He's best when he's working off of other people. That's why I was surprised he hadn't done more acting - he's made for it."

"Well, repression," Eddie said, watching the on-screen Richie laughing as he attempted to devein a truly enormous shrimp. "If this gets popular enough he could probably act if he wanted. It's a good move for him. Rebranding, or whatever."

"Mm," Mike said. He laughed at something, a split second before their version of Richie made a joke. His video was a few seconds ahead of Bev and Eddie's. "I would watch this. I would watch so many episodes of this! It's refreshing, you know, to see an amateur hosting a show like this when you're so used to listening to a chef host explaining things to you. Instead he just gets explained to. He's the stand-in for the audience."

"But wittier, and more handsome," Bev said, and Eddie looked at Richie's outfit, the unbuttoned shirt collar, the rolled up sleeves, the shorter haircut that emphasized the sharpness of his jawline. He swallowed. "I bet all these grandmas just love him. Do you guys remember Ms. Valentine?"

Mike and Eddie groaned almost in unison. The secretary at the middle school, Ms. Valentine, was younger than most of their teachers and she'd absolutely adored Richie and let him get away with everything. A few times Richie even claimed she'd covered for him, but Eddie always thought he was making that up, since he would then proceed to expand at length about how she was in love with him and desperately wanted his hot rod, if you know what I mean! or whatever. In retrospect Eddie thinks Ms. Valentine was probably just projecting; her own son was in the grade above them, but had moved to Bangor the year before to live with his dad after the divorce.

"I didn't even go to school with you guys and that shit annoyed me," Mike said. "When she caught Ben and me breaking into the school library - "

Bev laughed loudly, interrupting him, and Eddie made a face at the screen. "You broke into the middle school library?"

"I mean," Mike said, unapologetic, "we had library cards for the public one. I wanted to see what the school one had."

Bev snorted a little, still shaking with laughter. Onscreen, Richie was now waltzing with the great-grandmother in front of the stove, beaming as she shook with laughter in his arms, and Eddie wondered if his temperature was within the normal range. His stomach was turning suddenly. Was that normal? Were there mustard seeds on their pizza? (He really was allergic to mustard seeds. He'd had himself checked.)

I'm so proud of him, Bill texted. Ben immediately reacted to it with a heart. Don't tell him I said that, though.

Somebody's definitely gonna tell him and he's gonna cry, Mike texted, and then laughed again, a second before Richie ate it spectacularly in the dining room of the restaurant, slipping on the wet floor he was trying to mop and then owning it like he was one of the Three Stooges, flapping his arms around and kicking over the bucket of soap. Eddie could see Mike still holding his phone as he laughed, leaning it against the side of his face in the little Skype window in the corner of Bev's laptop. "That was a cheap laugh. They'll probably cut that."

"Oh man, I hope not," Bev said emphatically, as Richie pulled the poor busboy down into the mess with him. He was cute, mid-twenties, blond hair, gym body. The camera focused in tightly on Richie's grinning face, and Eddie thought about pausing the video to Google hypoallergenic shock symptoms, and then decided, nah, not worth it.

They watched all three episodes there, him and Bev, splayed out on the couch and sharing two entire bags of low-sodium lightly salted Lays. (Not keto friendly. Bev was very proud of him.) Mike bowed out after the first two, and Bev stopped recording and texting eventually, and they fell into a gentle silence for the last one, a more somber-toned episode about a struggling food truck in San Francisco run by a single father whose wife had been deported.

They'd named it after her: Juana's. Her picture was on the side of the truck. Richie sat with the guy at a picnic table and asked questions about his kids, about his recipes, about how his wife was doing in Ecatepec, and then told him a story about Dr. Tozier's first experience with ghost pepper salsa (Eddie remembered that, it was urban legend in Derry by breakfast the next day) and he laughed so hard he took off his baseball cap and hit it against the side of his leg as he wheezed.

"He's good," Bev said softly, leaning into Eddie's shoulder. She looked wistful, maybe because of the subject matter, or maybe just because it was almost nine PM and she'd had some wine and Ben was in Vancouver for work. "He was nervous. He really wants us to like it. That's why he didn't tell us until now."

"Yeah," Eddie agreed. They both laughed in unison at the title card - all the episodes had roughly cut transitions, little five-second clips of placeholder text that said things like [CREDITS] and [TALKING HEAD], but this one simply said: [FUNNY CLIP OF DAD?] "He's dating someone."

"What! No."

"Someone named John. He's a chef who introduced him to these Food Network people, I guess. He told me."

Bev bit her lip, not saying anything at first. She reached down and took Eddie's hand gently though, squeezing his palm with her fingers. "And?"

"And what? And - " Eddie shrugged. "He didn't say anything else."

Bev hummed, squeezing his palm again. The screen transitioned to a sequence at the family home, where the three daughters were apparently attempting to show Richie how to make concha bread. The tallest girl didn't even come up to Richie's shoulder, and he kept crouching down halfway in their cramped kitchen, and hitting his head on things. The youngest girl - couldn't be older than seven or eight - climbed up on a chair to help, and Richie got down on his knees to watch, and he was still taller than she was. Eddie felt his wiggle turn into a deep, hot ache.

"He asked me to forget it," Eddie eventually said, feeling the words bubble up inside of him, like emotional carbonation. "He asked me to pretend like he never told me. So that's what I'm trying to do. Do I seem weird around him?"

"No," Bev said. "You seem like." She bit her lip, eyeing him uncertainly. "You seem like you're not thinking about it. Almost like you really did forget."

Maybe Eddie had. Sometimes, he had trouble keeping track of where he was day to day. It was a little better, now that he'd left Myra, and living with Bev helped. But it was still a slog, sometimes.

"I don't want to hurt him," Eddie said, watching on-screen Richie, and thinking about in-person Richie, who hadn't looked Eddie in the eye once, all night. He joked and joked and laughed all night, but he kept his arms rigid at his sides, and his ankles crossed beneath the table, as if nervous they might actually brush up against Eddie's. He never texted Eddie one-on-one. But he was the one he told, about the show. That had to mean something, right? "All I've ever done is hurt him."

"That's not fucking true, fuck you for even thinking that," Bev said fiercely. "It's not your fault you don't feel the same way, Eds, and you know he doesn't think about it that way. You know he doesn't blame you for it, or resent you, or - "

"I get it," Eddie said, cutting her off, not wanting to hear the speech again. He tugged his hand out of her grip to check his own pulse - was it too fast? It felt fast.

"Maybe you both just need a little more time."

"It's been almost a year."

"Well," Bev said with a shrug, "that shit hurts. It takes time."

They fell silent, watching the show. Richie was talking to the eldest daughter now, leaning up against the side of the food truck beneath the picture of her mother. They looked a lot alike, or maybe that was the bias of the artist; her father had painted it.

I know she's proud of you, I don't even hafta talk to her to know, Richie was saying. The girl was crying a little, unashamedly, wiping her face every few seconds and nodding. Her knee was hitched up against the wheel well of the truck, and Richie was leaning next to her, making himself shorter like he often did around women, especially young women. Eddie knew it was because he felt like he was intimidating them, sometimes. Stepping up for your family like you have, keeping everyone together, that's not something you see every day. You know what I mean? You've got the real thing, kiddo. The real blood and guts. I'd bet on you in a heartbeat.

"It's a little schmaltzy," Bev said quietly. The air in the room was somber, quiet. Eddie felt like he was in church or something. "But in a good way."

"People are gonna fall in love with him," Eddie said, and he knew it was true. How could they not? How could they watch him crouching at a kitchen counter in California, kneading bread with an eight-year-old, and not want to love him? Eddie couldn't imagine they wouldn't.

Bev looked at him out of the corner of her eye, something weird in her expression that made Eddie shift uncomfortably. "You think?"

"Well, yeah," Eddie said, looking away. The title card on the screen now said [REMODEL MONTAGE - WAITING ON V/O].

Bev grabbed Eddie's hand again, squeezing it tight before he could pull away again. Almost like a threat: let me care about you, or else. Eddie felt simultaneously warmed and offended, as he often did, around the Losers.

"Let's rewatch the one in New Orleans," Bev said decisively, as the video ended, the laptop reverting back to the VLC home screen. "I have some thoughts. His voiceovers are gonna be what make or break it. The difference between a cheesefest and, like, you know. Journalism."

"Travels with Trashmouth," Eddie said, snorting a little when Bev looked at him sharply, a weird smile on her face. "No good? What about 'Tasty Trashmouth'? Still too much?"

"How long have you been sitting on that one?" Bev asked, a little archly. "You gonna pull it out of your pocket when he gets too sincere, or something?"

"What?" Eddie asked, startled. "No. The fuck you mean by that?"

Bev tilted her head and shrugged. She was smiling again, but it looked weird still, like she had a secret that he wasn't telling him, and it wasn't pleasant.

"Nothing," she said, tugging the laptop over by its screen. "Let's just watch."

Eddie scowled, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was pretty sure he had a sinus infection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eddie had, altogether, spent three weeks in Derry County Hospital recovering from two broken ribs and a nasty, infected gash in his abdomen that they'd told the doctors came from a rusty fencepost. Henry Bowers had been a convenient explanation for most of the inexplicable mess, to be truthful - Eddie found out later that Ben and Mike and Bill had dumped the body in the mouth of the sewer, planting the knife and the ax in the dirty water nearby, and told the cops he'd dragged Bev down there and they'd all followed. ("You know what that's called in cinema, Eds?" Richie had said. "Parallels.") This worked for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: the profound laziness of the Sheriff's Department (and of all cops in general, really), the deep and long-standing terror most of the town still held for Henry Bowers, a well-documented pattern of harassment of Mike by the local police ("thank God they went to the county sheriff," Bev said later. "Mike said Bill almost had them convinced that driving farther out would look suspicious."), and the demonstrable fact that all of them had been recently and violently traumatized. Eddie still wasn't sure if the cops had really believed their story completely, but they did take one look at Eddie in his hospital bed, and Bev hooked up to saline in the room next door, and Richie's nasty concussion, and seemed to at the very least think that they'd been through enough. Poor bastards, they probably thought. Hey, wasn't that the guy from Anchorman? Oh yeah! That was some funny shit!

For two of those weeks, Richie stuck around. He got a room at a nicer hotel closer to the hospital and visited every day, fielding emails and phone calls from the lounge chair next to Eddie's bed and watching daytime television while Eddie napped. Mike stopped in periodically as he worked on packing up his entire life, and Bill and Ben and Bev called about once a day (each), but it was Richie that Eddie remembered from that time. Sitting there with his feet propped up against the foot of Eddie's bed. His hair getting long enough to brush the collar of his terrible shirts. Burger King for dinner and Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast. Cracking bedpan ("Get it, Eds? Bedpan? Deadpan? Eds. Hey Eds. Eds, do you get it - ") jokes and flirting with the nurses so they'd give Eddie a little extra morphine.

"So hey man," he said, one morning about a week out from Discharge Day (Richie was forbidden at that point from making "discharge" jokes of any kind, so they'd taken to calling it "DD Day," for obvious reasons), "you gonna call your fuckin' wife? Like at any point? Just wondering."

And Eddie immediately had a panic attack, which sort of answered that question. Richie had a look on his face the entire time like he regretted asking as much as Eddie resented him for asking, and all in all it was an awkward time for them both. They spent three days sort of ignoring each other and then two more talking around the elephant in the room like they were a married couple trying to move on from an affair or something, and then the Saturday night before Eddie was scheduled to be released on his own recognizance, Richie snuck in a bottle of Jim Beam and drank himself into a stupor on the floor by the window. He didn't share with Eddie, no matter how many times he asked. Eddie was still a little mad about that.

He said it then, half-asleep in the lounge chair that was mostly his by that point: You wanna hear something funny? I'm in love with you! and then he passed out and Eddie had to get out of bed, dragging his IV behind him like an old man, and turn him on his side so he wouldn't choke to death on vomit in the middle of the night. Then the next morning he locked himself in the bathroom for about an hour (he couldn't have been puking the entire time, right? Eddie tried not to worry about the lining of his esophagus) and then came out with wet hair, red eyes, and a very weird look on his face. He said, "sorry about that, man," to Eddie, as the nurse was taking his morning vitals, and then escaped out the door before Eddie could say anything. He was gone for three hours and came back around lunchtime with a box of maple donuts that Eddie already knew he was going to eat the shit out of, despite the dietary restrictions from his trauma doctor.

"Okay look," he said, with a determined cadence that indicated he'd been practicing. Eddie pictured him in his car in the parking lot, rehearsing what he wanted to say, and felt so bowled over by a combination of anger/affection/misery/embarrassment that for a split second, and for the first time in his life, he wished he was a lot sicker than he was so that he'd have an excuse to not listen. "I'm not going to disrespect you by pretending I didn't mean it, so don't disrespect me by pretending you didn't hear it. I meant it. Okay? I took a phenergan earlier so we have about a twenty-minute non-puking window, please don't make me repeat it."

"I," Eddie said, and then swallowed. He wished he'd taken a phenergan, too. "You. We."

"Uh huh," Richie said, grimacing deeply. "I get it."

Eddie didn't think he did, because Eddie didn't feel like he himself was "getting it," whatever the fuck that meant. He'd been trying, and failing, all night-slash-morning to "get it." He still didn't get it.

"Rich," he said, at length, and Richie looked at him, his eyes wide and vulnerable behind his glasses. Eddie took a deep breath and screwed up his courage and said, "I'm a terrible person. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Richie burst out laughing. "Seriously? Fuck off."

"I'm not kidding. Stop laughing. Stop laughing!" Eddie smacked his leg. "You could do so much better than me. I'm not joking around, motherfucker, quit grinning at me, you look like the Joker."

"Ouch," Richie said, without much offense. But he looked concerned then, sitting up a little in his chair, shaking his shaggy hair out of his face. "That's not true. Eds, come on. Don't use this as an excuse to dunk on yourself, that's not fucking on."

"I'm not, I'm just," Eddie said, and then reached a plateau in his mind and had to stop talking. He didn't know how to finish the sentence because there weren't any more words to say, nothing he could come up with to articulate the jumbled feeling of why me?/fuck you/why would he?/stop looking at me. It wasn't that Eddie wasn't aware that he hated himself in a very specific, neurotic way, but - he couldn't just say it. And not in this context, not after falling asleep to Richie's breathing, swallowing back a mouthful of stolen whiskey with shaking hands, staring in incredulous disbelief and outrage as he tried to parse out the logistics of what Richie had said. In love with ME? In love with me. In LOVE with me? No. It couldn't really be what Richie felt. He had to be confused.

"You're not even gonna react to the gay thing?" Richie asked, interrupting Eddie's volcanic-like thought process. Eddie blinked at him. "I'm gay, by the way."

"Oh. I knew that," Eddie said, and Richie jerked like Eddie had hit him. "Sorry, I knew you didn't want us to know. Or I guess I figured - you didn't want us to talk about it. Stan and I used to…" Eddie trailed off, thinking about afternoons in Chemistry, watching Richie watch their student teacher, who was fresh out of college - young and handsome, sweater vests, big smile, laughed at Richie's jokes. Or that guy who used to live across the street from Ben - what was his name? - who used to cut his grass and weed his flower garden without a shirt on. Richie used to hang around Ben's place in the summertime, and they could all tell he was watching from behind his sunglasses. The questions he avoided, the too-long pauses, the way he would twitch whenever somebody called him a faggot in the halls. Yeah, Eddie knew. They all sort of knew. "You told him."

"Yeah," Richie said, laughing. It sounded painful. "Yeah, of course I told Stanley. He was the only one I could say it to, back then. You know what I mean?"

Eddie did. Sort of. He felt sick, and hot, and sort of scared. Like something was happening that he didn't understand, and didn't have any control over.

"Look," Richie said, and the fear intensified, solidifying into a solid ball of lead in Eddie's stomach. He clutched the sheets, and Richie's eyes went to his hands, something passing over his face that made Eddie feel even sicker than before. "Look, I know you're married - "

"Stop," Eddie said, the word pulled from him, strangled, and Richie looked weird again, his shoulders tense.

"Okay," he said slowly, "let's...unpack that later, Eds. But listen," he reached out and touched Eddie's arm, right above his elbow, so softly that Eddie barely even felt it. Eddie held his breath. "I didn't mean to tell you but that's okay. I sort of feel better. But it doesn't have to - you don't have to worry about me, alright? It's not gonna change anything. You can just forget I said it at all, if it makes it easier." He yanked his hand back suddenly, his cheeks tinging red. "In fact - let's do that. Let's just pretend it never happened. We're gonna stay friends after this, right?" Eddie winced, at the note of desperation in his voice. "We can do that. I'll be fine, I'll get over it, we'll all go to therapy, and we'll be friends forever, just like how we said when we were kids. Do you remember? We were gonna buy a warehouse and turn it into apartments and you would live on the top floor, and I would live in the basement, and the floor in the middle would be a basketball court. Or...something."

"A paintball arena," Eddie said, his voice hoarse. He couldn't stop staring at Richie's throat, at his Adam's apple bobbing up and down every time he swallowed. "I don't think warehouses have basements."

"I'll build us one," Richie said, laughing with tears in his eyes. He touched Eddie's arm again, and Eddie realized he was shaking too. "Eddie, can you please. Fuck. Please just look at me. Tell me we're still friends."

"Jesus. Of course we're friends," Eddie said, and Richie let out a tense breath, pitching forward to lean his elbows against the side of Eddie's bed. "Fuck you. We've always been friends."

"You didn't even know who I was three months ago," Richie said hoarsely. He took off his glasses and touched his forehead, rubbing the space between his eyes with two fingers. Eddie felt a violent impulse to bring him closer, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to hug him or hit him. It felt like maybe he wanted both.

"I was still your friend," he said thinly. He thought about walking past a billboard of Richie's face on the side of a bus stop on Madison Avenue, and thinking, fuck I hate that guy but I can't wait to watch his special. Of coming across an old McDonald's toy, a Transformer truck, that reminded him of something he didn't remember and feeling so bereft and miserably lonely that he buried it at the bottom of his dresser, forgetting it immediately again until the next time he found it. This had happened on a regular basis every three months or so for about twenty years. "I've always been your friend. Richie, I always will be. Come on. We almost died down there. And we did it together. We're always gonna be friends."

Richie didn't say anything, but his shoulders twitched. Eddie wanted to touch him, but he didn't want to make it worse. He didn't know what to do, so he didn't do anything.

"Okay," Richie finally said, pulling back, wiping his face, putting his glasses back on. He looked like a different person, one that Eddie almost didn't recognize, his expression drawn and miserable and old. But when they made eye contact, he grinned, and like a curtain pulling back, he was Richie again. "You said it. No take backs."

"No," Eddie agreed, thinking, why would I ever want to? "No take backs."

And Richie smiled thinly, and then he left the next day, missing Myra (who'd finally figured out where he was, by virtue of some sap at the health insurance call center) by all of an hour. And they talked, periodically, on the phone or over Skype, but they didn't really text each other very much, and when they saw each other in person it was like it'd been at the sushi restaurant - weird, tense energy, manic back-and-forth and nervous silences that Richie rushed to fill. Eddie wondered if it was him, if he wasn't handling it well. If maybe Richie was angry with him, or heartbroken, although Eddie still couldn't really conceive of that as a concept - someone being heartbroken, over him? Impossible. The Losers all sort of assumed one thing and Eddie let them do it, and all the while he thought, this is a bit, right? It's a bit. He doesn't really feel that. Not for me. That's ridiculous. If pressed (usually by Bev), Eddie would say something like: "he probably just needs some space from me," or "he'll get over it soon I'm sure, I'm really not that great." But really, Eddie just didn't fucking know. He didn't fucking know anything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To know that Richie was so close by in New York, for an unforeseen amount of time, was a new, special sort of hell: Eddie started sleeping badly. Bev was meeting up with him on a regular basis, he knew, because she would come home sort of drunk and act all shamefaced, like she was hanging out with Eddie's ex, or something. Eddie pretended not to notice.

Eddie was snappish and weird at work - not that that was out of character for him. He was in charge of the interns, ostensibly, which at first just meant he kept the notebook where they all logged their hours in his office, but eventually due to some reverse stockholm syndrome he'd found himself with a tattooed cadre of CUNY students who followed him around like little hipster ducklings. He couldn't remember any of their names but they seemed to get something out of listening to him talk, so Eddie sucked it up and tried to give them advice on office politics. In return, they all humored him when he yelled about some really stupid shit, like the person who kept leaving their yogurt uncovered in the breakroom fridge, or the TV in the lobby that was always turned to Fox News because the security guards had lost the remote, so he considered it a symbiotic relationship. Sort of rewarding, in its own way.

One of them in particular had been hired on before she'd even graduated, getting a little cubicle of her own on the eighth floor. Her name was Harriet, but she was trying to get everyone to call her Harry since she'd come out of the closet and moved in with her girlfriend last spring, whose name was something French that Eddie could never remember. Eddie had been her supervisor when she was an intern, had put in a good word for her after she graduated and even sat in on her interview, and now three years later she was a Regional Loss Control Consultant for the Eastern seaboard and had her own office.

She drove a 1970s Plymouth, one of those gigantic muscle cop cars from like, Starsky and Hutch or something, and she wore designer men's blazers and Eddie had a feeling she was going to run the fucking place one day. She was also, probably, the only real friend Eddie had made in the past twenty-eight years.

"Yeah, I guess it was meeting Lisette that helped me get over it," she said, and oh shit right that was it, Lisette. Like an American Girl doll, Eddie thought. "That was definitely my worst breakup though. We were both closeted at the time, which made it worse. It was when I was interning here - do you remember? I shaved half my head and started wearing my nose ring again."

"Yes, that was terrifying," Eddie said. They were eating wilted salad from the cafeteria, because Eddie was still on keto and Harry was gluten-free, which limited their lunch options considerably. Once they wasted their entire lunch hour trying to find a vegan bakery she swore someone recommended to her, and when they finally found it they discovered it had pivoted to coffee and stopped offering dine-in seating. "HR kept sending me these passive-aggressive emails about the suicide prevention poster you put up in my office."

Harry snorted. "I was nineteen, cut me some slack."

"Right, and how old are you now? Nineteen and a half?"

"Funny," Harry said dryly. Eddie liked her a lot, mostly because she had a real sense of humor (a rarity, in the insurance industry) and a little bit because she didn't egg him on like Richie and Bev did. She reminded him of Mike - his serene, unflappable personality. The calm, warm way he treated everyone around him, Loser or stranger alike. "But, you know what they say. Right? Do you know what they say, Eddie, or are you too old?"

"Fuck you," Eddie said mildly, and speared a tomato with his fork.

"Get back on the horse!" Harry said, waving her fork in the air triumphantly. "And good for you, for doing that. That's what worked for me - when I met Lisette, it was like…" she sighed. "Like a brand new day. You know? I thought it was gonna be just a fling, a rebound girl, you know. But." She shrugged, looking a little goofy with happiness. It almost hurt to see how genuine her face was, and Eddie looked away. "You never know." She grinned at Eddie. "Your girl is cute too. I love redheads."

"What - Bev?" Eddie asked, incredulous. "No - no way. She's dating someone else, one of our other friends that we grew up with."

Harry munched on her salad, waggling her eyebrows.

"Seriously - no. She's like my sister. It's not like that at all."

Harry shrugged. "Whatever you say," she said, with a grin. She had a weird little gem attached to one of her incisors that always sparkled when she opened her mouth. Eddie thought HR would've had a fit about that too, if they could figure out how to work tooth jewelry into an email without sounding ridiculous. "If not her, then you should find someone else. Go out, have some fun. You're not dead yet, and like I said - you never know."

Eddie thought about it. Some faceless woman, at a bar or a restaurant, leaning over the table, smiling? Smiling at Eddie? It was like a movie. It didn't feel real. He put down his fork to unbutton his shirt cuffs, feeling a little too warm. "Nah. I'm not ready yet."

"Whatever you say," she said again. A beat passed, wherein Harry watched Eddie unbuttoning his collar, as if waiting for him to get comfortable before she spoke again. "Why'd you wanna know?"

"Know what?" Eddie asked dumbly.

"About my ex. You never seemed to want details before."

Eddie felt flushed again. Was he a bad friend? A bad work friend? He and Harry didn't spend time together outside of the office really, but they talked about their personal lives with a casualness that implied some intimacy. But Eddie was bad at intimacy, maybe he'd fucked it up somehow. "I don't mind details. I'm just bad at talking about them."

Harry laughed. "It's alright if you're curious," she said with a little shrug. "A lot of straight people are. And you've never been an asshole about it, I'll give you that."

Eddie really did think it was way too hot in that cafeteria. Ridiculous. It was the middle of April, why was the heat on? "I'm," he said, and stopped short, reaching a plateau again. "I'm not."

"Not what?"

"Not," Eddie said again, and pushed back from the table. "Fuck."

Harry's eyes sharpened, and she put down her fork too. "Oh," she said softly, and Eddie rubbed his palms against his face, trying to breathe evenly. "Oh. Eddie."

Eddie didn't say anything, too focused on the spinning in his head. He kept hearing Richie's voice from dinner the other night, stretched out into a ridiculously, sinister higher pitch, like the scene in Roger Rabbit when the bad guy turned back into a cartoon. Chicky saltimbocca! Penny, penny, penny del mar!

"I don't," Eddie managed, and then stopped again. I don't know? I don't care? He wrenched his hands away from his face and laughed helplessly, and Harry laughed too, both palms over her mouth. Her eyes looked a little teary.

"Okay," she said, after a long moment. She took a deep breath, her curls bouncing as she moved. "Okay." She pushed their salads away and reached over the table, tugging Eddie closer by the knot of his tie. "I'm not gonna make you hug me but listen up, buddy. Listen close." She smoothed her hand down and adjusted the lapel of his suit in an almost motherly fashion, her hands quick and efficient and impersonally affectionate, in the way that only twentysomethings seemed to be able to pull off. "Thanks for telling me. Good job, dude. Alright - that's it." She sat back, her face glowing. "We can be done now. Do you need a drink or something?"

"No," Eddie said, and laughed again. He felt light-headed. "I didn't even know."

Harry scrunched up her mouth, a cute little expression that always made her look a lot younger than she was (and she looked pretty young already). Eddie had stayed over at her place once, the night he'd left Myra. Lisette had been out of town. This was before Bev came back to New York, and Eddie could've gotten a hotel, or driven upstate to stay with Ben, but instead he'd called Harry, and she'd said, of course, man, I'll text you my address. Come over whenever. She'd offered her couch quite a few times, in the twilight days of Eddie's marriage, and he never really thought he'd take her up on it until the moment came and he needed to be anywhere, literally anywhere else in the world.

Myra had always been a little jealous of Harry, and that's why Eddie had done it. Or so he'd thought, at the time. Now, he wasn't so sure.

"It's okay," she said after a minute. "Not everyone does." Then she shrugged, and picked up her fork again. Eddie blew out a long breath, and put the lid back on his salad. He wasn't very fucking hungry anymore.

That night, over zucchini noodles and pesto with Bev, Eddie said it again (or said it for real, maybe. The first time): "Bev, did you ever think I might be - "

Bev cut him off, choking suddenly on a gulp of wine. She coughed violently twice, and then slapped her palm against her chest, her face red. Eddie watched her in concern, but she straightened up after a second, laughing. "Wow, Jesus, sorry. Went down the wrong pipe, that was embarrassing. What were you saying, hon?"

Eddie was laughing too, despite himself. "Nothing."

"No, come on. You were using your serious voice." Bev grinned at him. She was always in such a good mood lately, which was lovely to see, and Eddie had a feeling that it had a lot to do with Richie. Ben could love her better than anyone else, of course, but Richie could make her laugh, which seemed to be exactly what she needed, lately. "Tell me. Sorry I'm awkward."

"You," Eddie said, "are the least awkward person in the entire universe, Beverly." Bev made an aw, shucks face and took another brave gulp of wine. This one went down a lot smoother. "I was just gonna ask you if you ever...actually saw me, with." He stopped and swallowed back saliva, pushing himself past the plateau. "With Richie. If you could ever see it."

Bev stared at him, her wine glass hovering in the air, halfway between her mouth and the table. "What?"

Eddie flushed. "Never mind."

"No, don't do that. Don't," Bev said, and then put the glass down with a 'thunk.' "Eddie, you don't like men that way. Right?"

Eddie put his head down on the table and covered it with both arms. He heard Bev gasp out loud, which was sort of embarrassing.

"Oh God. Oh Jesus, okay," Bev said, "Eddie honey, I need you to sit up and look at me. Oh Christ on a cracker."

"Please stop talking about Jesus," Eddie mumbled.

"Sorry," Bev said. "But seriously Eds, you gotta sit up though."

Eddie did, and instantly regretted it. Bev looked like she was about to burst into tears. "Stop it," he said.

"No," Bev replied, tearfully. "Talk to me."

"I don't actually think I can. Talk about. That," Eddie said, and desperately poured himself another glass of wine. Bev nodded quickly, eyes wide, her hands clasped in front of her face, on the edge of her chair. She looked like Mike and Ben when they invaded Bev and Eddie's apartment last year for Thanksgiving, yelling at the football game while the rest of them made fun of them in the kitchen. "I just wanted to know if you could see it. That's all."

"Eddie," Bev said, at some length, "he's not...he's not in a great place, about you, right now."

"Yeah, I picked up on that," Eddie snapped, and Bev winced. "I'm not saying I would ever - "

"No, no, I know you wouldn't, it's just - "

"Please don't make me talk about it, I'm so - "

They both stopped, almost in unison, laughing. Bev refreshed her own glass, shaking the bottle to dislodge the last few drops.

"Eddie," she said seriously, dragging her chair a little closer to lean over the half-empty bowl of noodles. "He's trying really hard not to make you uncomfortable. And it's fucking him up. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Eddie nodded miserably. "I never meant to - "

"I know you didn't. But he's also trying really hard to get over you. Because he wants to keep you in his life." Bev reached out and gripped Eddie's arm. "And so I think, if you're asking me if I could see the two of you together? Of course I could. We all could. We've been seeing it since we were fucking twelve."

Eddie lay his head back down against his forearms on the table, his face hot and prickly. He needed a Vicodin, maybe. Or a phenergan.

"But you better be fucking sure," Bev said. "You know what I mean? Whatever you do, Eds, be fucking sure about it." There was a pause, and then she touched the back of his neck gently. "But it's okay, sweetheart. It's okay if you didn't figure it out at first."

Eddie thought about Christmas, the itchy, warm feeling of having Richie in his apartment, his big tall body in the kitchen where he and Bev cooked dinner. It was the first time Eddie had seen him in person since Derry and he could hardly speak all night, his throat blocked up and plugged full of everything he'd wanted to say, but couldn't quite articulate, even to himself. Of course he'd wanted Richie to stay. He'd felt such a sharp spike of disappointment, hearing that he'd gotten a hotel room instead of assuming that he would stay over, and in the months since then - the periodic visits, impromptu, awkward dinners, out of the blue phone calls that always ended with, by the way Eds, did I mention I'm in Manhattan right now? Hah! Eddie never lost that forlorn, sad little feeling. The feeling of please don't leave, but I know you're going to.

His reticence had come off as discomfort to everyone else, he knew. He knew what everyone thought, what Richie thought, and he let them think it because he wasn't sure what his alternative was. This wasn't TV, it wasn't the movies. People didn't just…do this. Did they?

"I don't know what to do," Eddie mumbled. "What would you do, Bev?"

"I don't know either," Bev said, and then she hugged him, curling her lithe body around Eddie's back, her red curls toppling out of their bun and spilling over Eddie's shoulder. "I love you, Spagheds."

"Listen, I'm going to kill you," Eddie mumbled, feeling warm and protected by her body, by how he could feel her laughing through his back. "Don't fucking call me that."

"You love it," Bev said,and Eddie frankly didn't feel secure enough in his own opinions at the moment to correct her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The restaurant Richie was rehabbing (filming? Saving? Profiling? Bothering?) was apparently not very large, spatially, so the opportunity to come visit "set" was somewhat limited, since it was apparently a tricky and complicated problem to fit both Richie, the staff, the customers, and the cameras inside the building, let alone unrelated, non-industry guests. He did send Eddie lots of photographs though, particularly of the head chef, who was a thirty-two year old former national chess champion who liked to wear tie-dye aprons.

"Eds, meet Meihui," Richie said, holding the phone high enough that all Eddie could see was the side of his face, and part of the ceiling. "Meihui, this is Eddie." Meihui jumped up into the frame, waving wildly. Her ponytail flew up higher than she did, and her laughter sounded garbled over the bad connection. "Don't get offended if he doesn't seem friendly, Meihui. Eddie is not great with emotional intimacy."

"Fuck you," Eddie said, and then winced. "Sorry Meihui."

"It's okay!" she called, jumping again to get herself in the video. Richie was losing it, laughing at every jump, his face turning red in the left hand side of the frame. "Nice!" Jump. "To!" Jump. "Meet!" Jump. "You!" Jump. "Eddie!" Jump.

"Lovely to meet you," Eddie said, "Richie, you look like the crab from the Little Mermaid when you laugh like that."

Richie was out of breath, the camera jittering back and forth as he wheezed with laughter. "Oh God, I'm gonna give myself a hernia. Meihui, stop it. You're funnier than me, I get it."

"Everyone's funnier than you," Eddie said automatically, and heard them both laugh. His face felt like it might be red, too.

Meihui did a mini-tutorial for Eddie on how to fold a soup dumpling, which looked both very simple and very complicated at the same time, and he frankly couldn't wait to watch Richie attempt to do it. "Bloodshed," Meihui said somberly, "chaos. We almost didn't survive."

"True," Richie agreed, from behind the camera. He'd switched it to traditional view for the tutorial, and Eddie was at once relieved and disappointed not to be looking at his cheerful, flour-spotted face anymore. "Eddie's on keto, Meihui. Eddie, give her your spiel about heavy cream lattes."

"I don't - it's not all heavy cream," Eddie sputtered.

"Keto?" Meihui wrinkled her nose, holding up her flour-covered hands. "Bullshit. Come down for dinner sometime. No fad diet gets out of my restaurant in one piece."

Eddie laughed. "I'm not really, uh, strict about it," he said, but Richie switched the camera around to show his own face and suddenly, Eddie couldn't breathe.

"You should," Richie urged, "Eddie, I swear to God, the food here is incredible. I've eaten every meal here since Sunday morning and I never want to eat anywhere else. They don't even let me order anymore, they just put shit in front of me and then I go straight to heaven."

"Those dumplings do look amazing," Eddie said weakly.

"Lots of carbs!" Meihui called, and suddenly Richie's smiling face was gone, and Eddie was blushing at Meihui brandishing a soup dumpling at the camera instead. "Plenty of gluten here!"

"I have been thinking about trying carb-cycling now that you mention it," Eddie said slyly, and sat back to listen to them both exclaim loudly in laughing outrage. It was funny, and very endearing really, how easily Richie made friends, everywhere he went. That was what he got paid for, when it really came down to it. Making someone laugh was really about making them feel welcomed, inviting them in on a secret or an inside joke. Here, see, we're on the same side, right? Look at this motherfucker. Look at this stupid, silly shit. Isn't life ridiculous? Some of his older material - the shit he didn't write - was much stupider, and mean-spirited in its philosophy, but Eddie didn't hold that against him. All of them had been living dishonest, mean-spirited lives.

Richie's new material, when he did perform, was experimental, uncomfortable, and oddly confrontational, nothing at all like the rather conventional (and frankly kind of boring) stuff he was doing before. Eddie had gone to see a show he did in Boston at a mid sized theatre that had collected all the audience members' phones before allowing them in (many refused to give them up, which meant the final crowd was closer in size to a high school English class than the respectable rock concert crowd that had lined up originally) and most of the show involved Richie attempting to break into people's cell phones and reacting to everyone's reactions, all while roasting the contents of his own camera roll, which had been projected onto a screen behind his head. Sort of hostile, not really stand up in the traditional sense, but very funny, especially since nobody could storm out without sacrificing their phone altogether, and the weird sense of being trapped only made everything Richie said or did feel both riskier and more hilarious. Eddie was honestly surprised Richie didn't get sued for that one. (Even more surprised that Richie never picked up Eddie's phone, which should've been instantly recognizable - and unlocked, for that matter. Eddie had handed it over without even a thought, realizing only later what he'd been setting himself up for, by way of being disappointed that it hadn't happened.)

Another show had involved a live interaction on Grindr in some way, which Eddie didn't really want to know about but Bev had told everyone that it was hilarious, and a few weeks after Christmas he'd performed at a big venue in Chicago ("big ticket kinda place," Richie called it) which had been advertised as a "Second City Dropout" event, and involved some improv bits with audience members that had been making some serious numbers on YouTube. Lots of yelling. Richie was in character as a mean, bitter, and flamboyantly gay theatre director the entire time.

He didn't talk about himself at all, but maybe that was because he was currently being talked about plenty. Maybe once the hype died down Richie would go back to dating stories and politics and "look at me, so relatable" typical stand-up whatever. Maybe. (Honestly Eddie preferred the new stuff, even if some of it seemed more like a way for Richie to work out some anger than actual, deliberately-composed comedy, but...that was artistic, right? Wasn't most "art" just somebody's messy shit, displayed and dissected in a way that entertained? Eddie thought so.)

"This is gonna be the funny episode," Richie confided to Eddie, after he'd left Meihui to her soup dumplings. Eddie felt a little dizzy, trying to FaceTime with Richie as he navigated the New York sidewalks. Not that Eddie didn't feel a little dizzy all the time, lately. "I can feel it. Meihui is funny, her father-in-law is even funnier. I'll send you some dailies if you want."

"She's their in-law?"

"Yeah, it's her wife's family restaurant," Richie said. He kept his eyes averted from the phone's camera, his earbuds swaying back and forth as he walked, causing his voice to warble a little, in and out, like a badly-tuned radio. "She died a few years ago. Her wife, I mean."

"Oh," Eddie said. Richie never did the thing that Bev did sometimes, watching Eddie closely whenever a gay person was referred to or talked about within Eddie's vicinity. It was the one thing about Bev that actually sort of annoyed Eddie - what did she think, that he was secretly homophobic? That it would make him uncomfortable? Was she watching his reaction? Eddie felt like he was being tested, every time. But Richie didn't seem to care one way or the other about Eddie's feelings on gay people who existed in the world, which was irritating in a different way. "That's - God, that's really sad. What happened?"

"She, uh," Richie said, faltering for the first time. He was walking to the subway station; Eddie recognized a few of the street signs. "She took her own, you know. She committed - " Richie stopped, and shrugged, his face very complicated.

Eddie swallowed thickly. "Oh," he said again.

"We're not talking about that on-air. We had to promise them," Richie said. "Not that I would ever want to, Jesus. But it made everyone feel better to have it in the contract."

Eddie sometimes felt like his grief for Stan was a sleeping monster in the back of his head, unnoticed except for the rare moments when it woke up and clamped its briny yellow teeth around Eddie's throat. This was one of those times. "It's his wedding anniversary next month, you know. Sometime in July. Bev was talking about flying down there to see her."

Richie nodded, still not looking down at his phone. It looked like he wanted to be talking about literally anything else, to literally anyone else, but he didn't change the subject or hang up, which Eddie supposed meant something. "It should be her. Not one of us. We'd make her feel so much worse."

"Yeah. God."

Richie shook his head, looking morose. "He would've given me so much shit for this," he said, and then went quiet. Eddie watched him start walking again, crossing a street, the city behind him a blur of color around the dark outline of his head. Lights, movement, sound. Eddie felt like he lived in a sensory deprivation tank compared to the world Richie lived in, which was loud and full of people and color and interesting things that Eddie had no hope of competing with.

"What, the show?" Eddie asked. Richie shrugged. "No, he wouldn't have. He would've been proud of you, Rich." Eddie watched, with his heart in his throat, as Richie reacted to that sentiment. Maybe he should've picked a better time to say it, but it was true, and Richie needed to know it. "He would've liked it. The episode in San Francisco? Bev cried at the picnic table scene. Stan would've cried too."

"Yeah, he would've," Richie agreed, his voice wobbling a little. He frowned in determination, his eyebrows pinching together. "He pretended to be all stoic and mean sometimes but he was such a softie. He cried at Disney movies. You remember The Fox & the Hound? My God. I've never seen a ten-year-old sob so hard. I thought he was dying."

"Fuck that movie," Eddie said, hearing his own voice wobble too, thinking about ten-year-old Stan. His curly hair, his pinched little mouth. Sharing the Halloween candy bars his mom sneaked into his lunch box with Eddie on the school bus. "Why were all the Disney movies in the 80s made to terrorize us? Fuckin - remember Watership Down?"

"I don't think that was Disney," Richie said.

"Well, whatever. They showed us that shit in history class."

Richie laughed. "I remember that! Then Ben had to take home the class rabbit that one time and you wouldn't even look at it. You covered the cage up with a blanket so you wouldn't have to confront your own mortality, or whatever the fuck kind of apocalyptic feelings bunny rabbits evoked in you - "

"Trauma! They invoked trauma, Richie!"

"God, you were such a cute little gremlin," Richie said, his tone so full of naked affection that Eddie felt a little blindsided, smacked in the face with the reminder of Richie's feelings in a way that they both usually tried very hard to prevent from happening. Richie moreso than Eddie, really, and he seemed to realize it in the next moment, his face blanching and then curling in on itself, like a kid remembering that he forgot the homework, or an adult realizing that their wedding ring fell off three blocks earlier and they didn't notice. As he usually did, to cover it up, he started rambling loudly. "I mean 'gremlin' affectionately, of course. You were like one of those kid dancers on American Bandstand. You know they always had that one little guy that would like, twitch and seize on the little platform whenever the camera panned over him, and his girl would be like, smiling nervously and shuffling back towards Dick Clark with fear in her eyes - "

"I do not remember that, no, because you were literally the only weird little kid in the early 90s who had ever seen that old-ass show," Eddie interrupted, remembering Mrs. Tozier's neat little row of videotapes, archived rerun of all her favorite episodes of Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days and The Judy Garland Show, in preferential order - first her favorites, and then on the shelf below, Richie's. "You were obsessed with the 60s."

"I was obsessed with a lot of things," Richie said, a little darkly. But then he blinked and the moment was gone. "You comin' to dinner tomorrow, Eds?"

"It's at my apartment, so yes," Eddie said dryly. "Are you?"

"Yeah," Richie said, and clicked his tongue, a weird tic that he'd picked up in the months since Derry. Or maybe even before that - not like Eddie would know. There could be so many things about him that were old news, but new to Eddie, and thus it felt like they were fresh discoveries he was making every day. "It'll be good to see Big Bill. I heard they put a pause on the divorce. Tryna work things out, I guess. He's gonna tell you and Bev at dinner - pretend to be surprised, why don't you?"

"He sort of implied it in the group chat, didn't he? Good for them though," Eddie said. Bill had a long layover, and Bev was making flank steak. Ben was borrowing a truck from a friend so he could bring his grill, and Bev and Eddie had been arguing for days on whether or not they could get away with firing it up on the fire escape. ("That's what fire escapes are for, Eds," Bev kept saying. "It's in the name.") "You bringing John?"

Richie looked gobsmacked. "John?" he repeated dumbly.

"Yeah. I thought you might bring him." Whatever emotion Eddie was feeling at the moment was pretty unpleasant, and he hoped it wasn't showing on his face.

"No, I'm - " Richie narrowed his eyes, looking fully at the camera for the first time since he'd left Meihui. "What the fuck? No. He lives in LA." He laughed, weirdly high-pitched, and sort of false-sounding.

"Well, Bill's bringing Audra, so I just figured," Eddie said defensively. Richie was still staring at him oddly, a weird look on his face.

"Are you bringing someone?" he asked, confrontational.

Eddie stiffened, then made himself relax, and then got mad again remembering a tweet Richie made that went viral a few weeks ago that linked to a gossip article suggesting a possible affair between him and some gay country singer (that Eddie had never heard of) and said, well didn't think I'd have to state the obvious but I am in a committed relationship with my best friend from childhood whose name is Bill Denbrough (@WilliamDenbrough yes that's him) and I would never be tempted to stray. @AudraDee is our beard. No questions thanks. Audra had retweeted it with a gif of a young Will Smith nodding and shrugging, and Eddie'd had to turn his phone off for the rest of the day for the sake of his blood pressure. "Who would I bring, Richie? Who the fuck would I be bringing?"

"Whoa, I don't know," Richie said, raising his eyebrows. "Are we fighting again? Are you yelling your feelings at me because you don't know how to process them? Because that hasn't been fun for me. Just saying."

"I don't yell my feelings," Eddie said petulantly, even though he did, and he knew he did. "Sorry. I'm a little touchy about - "

"Oh hey, me too, let's stop talking about it then," Richie said quickly. His face was still doing some very weird things, and Eddie too, felt weird about it. "Listen, I'll call you tomorrow. I gotta - I'm almost at the subway - "

"Yeah, okay," Eddie said, his pulse beating an uneven rhythm beneath his skin. He was overly aware of his forehead and his shirt felt suddenly three sizes too small. "Look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap. I'm excited to see the footage, Rich, I really am."

"Yeah. It's alright," Richie said, his eyes averted again. Eddie felt a wild urge, a feeling that he remembered from childhood, the feral impulse that arose every now and again that led him to do things like jump off the roof of Mr. Denbrough's garden shed, or throw an entire Viennetta ice cream cake at the wall at his aunt's annual "Boxing Day-slash-yell at Eddie about how ungrateful he is" party. "I'll call you."

"Okay," Eddie said. I'll call you, he actually said. How cliche. Eddie felt preemptively disappointed, as if it were already a done deal that Richie was definitely not gonna do that. "Don't bring any wine to dinner. We already have enough."

"Wine? Please, Eds, I'm bringing sake," Richie said, and then laughed, and hung up without saying goodbye. Eddie sighed and tossed his phone onto his desk, leaning down until his face was pressed against his tearaway desktop calendar. He stared at the little appointment written in on the 17th for all-staff meeting fiscal year wrap up until his eyes crossed, and when he lifted his head back up again he had ink on his forehead, which he didn't notice until one of the tattooed interns pointed it out to him as he shuffled down the hall towards the breakroom, a full two hours later.

"You want a wet wipe?" the intern asked, his smile friendly and open and oddly hopeful, in the way that college-aged kids often seemed to be, to Eddie. "I keep them in my desk, ever since you gave me the heads up about that underwriter who doesn't wash his hands."

Eddie felt oddly touched, almost to the point of tears. "Yes," he said, because yeah, he really did want a wet wipe. What was this kid's name again? Eddie was gonna recommend that they start paying him. "Yes, I would. What was your name again?"

"Fox," the kid said.

"What - like - like Fox? That's your first name, Fox?"

Fox nodded, his expression wry, and handed Eddie a little disposable package of Wet Ones.

Never mind. Eddie needed to go back to his office. "Thanks," he said. "Sorry about that. Like uh, generally speaking, just - sorry, about that."

"I'm thinking of changing it," Fox said resignedly, and sat back down at his cubicle. Eddie patted his shoulder as he walked by, and wiped the handle of his office door down three times before he touched it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audra and Richie knew each other already, which was a weird adjustment for Bill in particular. They'd done a movie together about eleven years before, one of her lesser-known roles and one of Richie's better known ones, a hip-at-the-time, progressive-for-2005 comedy starring Michael Showalter and a young, barely-famous Audra and Richie, who'd been at the height of his acting career at the time ("career" being used loosely there, by his own insistence). Richie played the villain of the story, a scenery-chewing asshole boss character whose big scene was an angry monologue that culminated in him throwing a used condom at Elizabeth Banks. Audra played the shy secretary who got the hot, jilted ex-boyfriend at the end.

"So like, the consolation happy ending," Audra had explained. "Have you seen it? Ask Richie what happened to his character at the end." She and Bill looked good together, and they teased each other constantly in such a friendly way that it put everyone at ease, particularly the Losers, whose love language was definitely "acts of annoyance." The divorce had been initiated twice, both times by Audra, and stopped both times now by Bill, who was working on getting over my motherfucking shit, as he put it. Eddie liked her, in a real, genuine way that he rarely liked people. He hoped they worked it out.

Bev had spent all week Googling recipes and making Eddie promise not to backseat cook, and the result was an extremely overworked flank steak that everyone went out of their way to visibly enjoy. But she made a salsa to put on it that was genuinely really good, and she and Ben were in such an effusive, touchy-feely good mood that it didn't seem to matter. Bill and Audra too, were hanging all over each other, laughing and smiling and telling funny stories about their trip to Vancouver, which left Richie and Eddie, fifth and sixth wheel respectively, avoiding looking at each other and drinking their own weight in white wine.

At least Richie and Audra got along. Like a house on fire, to be specific. Physically, she was an eerie carbon copy of Bev (gross, Big Bill!) but personality-wise, she was a lot like Richie. The first time she told a "your mom" joke was memorable for several reasons, but mostly because hearing a Richie-flavoured joke come out of an incredibly beautiful, famous actress's mouth was probably hands-down one of the most sexually confusing experiences of Eddie's life.

"Do My Cousin Vinny," Bev demanded, and Audra and Richie looked at each other in tandem and grinned. "But not the courtroom scene, when she shows up the lawyer about car stuff. That's too famous."

"Bold of you to assume that anyone who's ever booked an acting job in Hollywood hasn't memorized that entire film, front to back," Richie said. He looked at Audra again. "You be Vinny. The cat suit scene?"

"Yes!" Audra cried emphatically, and then she and Richie proceeded to act out the entirety of the "biological clock" scene, with Audra playing the role of Vinny, and Richie as Mona Lisa Vito. Richie's New York accent had gotten miles better over the years, admittedly. And his caricature of women had gotten much less offensive.

Audra, to her credit, did a passable Joe Pesci, and Eddie particularly enjoyed her delivery of the line slaughtered pigs, and giant, loud WHISTLES, at which point Bill interrupted the scene because he fell off his chair laughing. Richie stomped his foot - still in character - and hushed him as Audra finished: "your life! Our marriage! And lemme see: what else could we PILE ON? Is there anymore SHIT we could pile onto the top of the outcome of this CASE!" She crossed her arms and made a face at the ceiling, at which point Bev lost her composure and started cackling into her wine glass. "Is it POSSIBLE!"

"Oscar," Eddie said, grinning widely as Audra stood up on the couch to bow. She was so short, and Richie so comically and ridiculously tall, that they were almost at an even height as they clasped hands and bowed. "All the Oscars. Bill, you're embarrassing your wife. Get off the floor."

"Aud, you gotta do the 'bring me the knife!' monologue from Moonstruck for them," Bill said, still wheezing with laughter. "Guys, it's so funny. The first time she did it for me I almost had a seizure."

"'My brother Johnny took my life,'" Richie said, in such a pitch-perfect Nicolas Cage it made them all startle, Ben chortling with surprised laughter at the accent. "I love that one."

"You need props though!" Audra said, hopping down to sit cross-legged on the floor next to Bill. She patted his forehead with one hand, and stole his half-full glass of wine with the other. "It's not as funny if you don't have a loaf of bread or something to slam around."

"True, true. You know how I got that Showalter part? I did Madeline Kahn's monologue from Paper Moon," Richie said, collapsing onto the floor in front of Eddie's chair. Eddie went stiff, and then made himself relax, and then went stiff again when Richie's shoulder brushed his knee. He looked over at Bev in panic, who seemed to be laughing at him now, moreso than at Richie or Audra. "'You already got bone structure. When I was your age, I didn't have no bone structure. Took me years to get bone structure.'"

"Madeline KAAAAHN," Audra cried, forming her hands into claws and shaking them in the air. Bill was snorting with laughter again, clutching Audra's knee like it was the only thing keeping him on this plane of existence. "God she was my hero. Queen Nympho?"

"Flames on the side of my face!"

"Oh hey, I've seen that one!" Ben said triumphantly. He and Bev were still huddled together at the table, shoulder to shoulder. Bev rubbed his hair affectionately.

"I did Joan Cusack in In & Out when I auditioned for Silver Linings Playbook," Audra said. "'I highlighted my hair because you said I needed shimmer!'"

It was like watching two people compete to be the funniest, loudest person in the room. Eddie held his breath every time Richie's shoulder touched his leg, and made faces at Bev, who was still laughing silently at him in the meanest, subtlest way possible.

"God, please don't remind me of that movie. That movie should pay for my fucking therapy bills," Richie said.

"Too close to home?" Bill asked, reaching out to clumsily pat Richie's knee. Richie kicked him. "Ow, motherfucker!"

"Kevin Kline once told me it was one of the movies he was most proud of," Audra said. She grinned. "Yeah, I know Kevin Kline. Straight up humblebrag right there."

"I'll high five you for that one, Kline is cool," Richie said, and they slapped their palms together. Audra spilled a little wine on Bill's face in the process, who sputtered in outrage.

"I feel like we should all be a little drunker," Eddie said, resolving to ignore Bev, who was now whispering about him to Ben ostentatiously. Ben kept eyeing Eddie with a mixture of pity and laughing incredulously every few seconds, raising his eyebrows at Bev and saying really? over and over, loud enough that Eddie could actually hear it. "To catch up with the SAG-AFTRA crowd over here."

"I really did bring sake, Eds," Richie said, and fully leaned back against Eddie's leg, tilting his head backwards to look at him. Eddie felt like he was dying. "And if you have beer - Eds, I know you have some fancy beer somewhere - we can do sake bombs."

Audra gasped. "I love sake bombs," she stage-whispered to Bill, who immediately started laughing uncontrollably again.

"I don't drink fancy beer," Eddie said.

"You do. You drink like, craft brews. You buy those big-ass moonshine bottles from breweries and fill them up with like, organic home brew raspberry lagers with kitschy names."

Eddie shot Bev a glare, who was cackling loudly at the table. "That's - okay, I did that once, and I don't even know how you know about it - "

"Mike sent me that video of you communing with the brewer guy in Rochester," Richie said.

"I wasn't communing, is that like, a slang term?" Eddie said, and Richie sputtered with laughter, pulling away from Eddie's leg - thankfully - and tipping over sideways to lean on his elbow. "I was just talking, and - shut up. You think you're very funny when you're making fun of me but you just sound thirteen again."

"Eddie, most of my comedic career is based on the fuzzy memories I had of making fun of you," Richie said. "You have to give me this. I have nothing else."

Eddie felt oddly flushed, weirdly intense about that sentiment. "I'm not - I'm not," he sputtered, looking over in panic at Bev again. She shook her head and mouthed something at him that Eddie didn't catch, but he could imagine. "You have - things. Other things."

"God, it's so cute that you all grew up together," Audra said. Eddie blinked, unsure of how much she'd been told, and looked at Bill, who shot them both a look and shrugged as if to say, just go with it. "Bill doesn't have any pictures, though. Do any of you have pictures? I have a massive, massive need to see my husband at age fourteen."

"If any of you have pictures of that I'm disowning you," Bill announced, at the same time that Richie sat up and cried, "I have so many pictures!" Audra clapped her hands, and Bill groaned.

"Here. Come here," Richie said, digging his phone out of his pocket. "My mom kept everything, literally she was like two more file cabinets away from hoarder status, she scanned a bunch of these and sent them to me - here - " Audra squealed, tilting her head back in a manic laugh. "Don't worry Bill, I'm showing her the prom photos from senior year, not junior year. That was after his skin cleared up," he told Audra, with a fakely sympathetic grimace.

"Oh my God," Audra kept saying, in increasing volume, "oh my God. Oh my God Billy, your hair."

"Ah yes, his punk rock phase," Richie said fondly.

"She calls you Billy?" Eddie asked Bill, biting back a laugh. Bill covered his face with one hand and waved his other in the air, defeated.

"Bill had a punk rock phase?!" Bev demanded, her face lighting up with glee. "And none of you motherfuckers told me?"

"Well, he threatened to disown us," Ben said.

"Is that your cousin Beth?!" Audra said.

"She was Richie's date, not mine!" Bill yelled in outrage. "She did couple photos with both of us! As a joke!"

Richie was laughing too hard to respond, having given the phone up entirely to Audra. Bev stomped over with the entire wine bottle in one hand, crouching down beside Audra to look. "Oh God, I forgot Beth took me to Prom. She paid for the tickets and everything. Eds, you remember the limo guy?"

"Yes," Eddie said, cringing. He hadn't gone to Prom himself, of course. His mother would've died first, and Eddie had been working on getting her to loosen up enough about Richie's graduation party, so he'd given up Prom as an opening pawn sacrifice. But he'd been at Richie's house for the pre-Prom rituals, including the hired limo driver, who was a member of Eddie's mother's church and had cornered him by the front door and babbled at him for almost forty-five minutes. Mrs. Tozier had to lure the guy away with a cup of coffee so Eddie could escape into the backyard, where Richie, Beth, and Bill were happily pregaming behind the garden shed, laughing at Eddie's misery. "You assholes didn't even try to help me. And you didn't share any of that vodka you stole out of your dad's bar, either."

"Well, you had to go home! You could've come with us. Beth offered to get you a ticket, too." Richie grinned at Audra. "We were going to be her harem."

Eddie cringed. "Yeah, two pity dates for the price of one."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Beth and I had a lovely time."

"You ditched her to smoke weed with Joe Haverford in the counselor's office," Bill reminded him. He was leaning next to Audra, grinning at the photos with her and Bev as they scrolled through Richie's phone. "I took this girl named Veronica. Veronica...something. God, what was her last name?"

"Something with an A," Richie said. "I remember because she was always first to be called in roll call. I had history with her. Long blonde hair."

"Ooh," Audra teased, "is this her?" She turned the phone to show a photo of Richie posing with a blonde woman by the punch bowl, both of them giving cheesy thumbs up to the camera.

Bill squinted at the photo. "No. That's Ms. Valentine," he said, and they all sputtered with laughter. "Fuckin Ms. Valentine - "

"She had such a thing for me," Richie said, and Eddie kicked him without thinking, rolling his eyes. The pleased look Richie turned on him, at once both surprised and elated, made Eddie feel like he was dying again. Just a little.

"You've heard about Ms. Valentine, right?" Ben asked, joining them in the living room with yet another bottle of wine. He refilled Bev's glass first, holding her wrist steady so he wouldn't spill, and then started making rounds, swatting Richie's hand away as he tried to tip the bottle faster. "I'd already moved away by senior year, but I heard the story about the ride home from Mike - "

"Yeah, yeah, very exciting," Eddie said flatly. "She gave him a ride home once. Super sexy."

"Richie, did you have pull a Pacey Witter?" Audra asked, grinning. "Were you Hot for Teacher?"

"You just showed your teen TV roots there, Ms. Phillips," Richie teased with a grin, conspicuously not answering her question.

Bev gasped suddenly. "Is that Eddie?"

All of them pressed in around the phone instantly, and Eddie saw Richie freeze mid-drink, his shoulders going tense, before he shook his head and set the glass back down on the floor. He didn't look over his shoulder at Eddie.

"Eddie, oh my God," Audra said, one hand over her mouth, "you were adorable."

"I don't think I want to know what you're all looking at," Eddie said nervously.

"Is this the day you got your first car?" Bill asked Richie, who nodded, looking grim. "Oh yeah, man, I remember now. Eddie taught you how to drive."

"Eddie taught him?" Audra asked, laughing.

"I haven't heard this story," Bev said, shooting a wicked look at Eddie. Eddie glared at her wine glass, which she was rapidly losing control of, and she hastily put it down on the floor next to Richie's.

"So Richie got kicked out of driver's ed," Bill started, "the gym teacher taught it. Richie kept showing up late and then he kept interrupting the video they showed us of all the dead bodies from horrible car accidents - "

"Extremely cool of them to show us the R-rated version of that," Richie said. He shot a dark look at the ceiling, leaning back on his stiff arms. "Can't imagine why that would've annoyed me - "

"And so his plan was to forge the certificate you get at the end of the class so he could still go down to the DMV and get his license," Bill continued. Ben sat down on the couch, grinning, and Bev shot another look at Eddie. "But he still needed to actually learn how to drive, and his dad couldn't do it for some reason - "

"Too drunk most of the time," Richie said, in an undertone to Eddie. Eddie frowned at him, concerned, and Richie shook his head minutely, not meeting his eye.

"So Eddie taught him. He learned when he was what, fifteen? Mike's dad taught him." Bill grinned at Eddie proudly.

"I spent a lot of time at Mike's," Eddie said to Audra. At the time, he hadn't realized it, but Mr. Hanlon was probably trying to help Eddie learn a useful skill or two. He taught Eddie how to type on a computer, and how to apply for a job, too. Escape skills, Eddie thought darkly. "His parents were really nice to me."

"Practically adopted him," Richie agreed, reaching out and slapping Eddie's leg. Eddie startled so badly he almost knocked over his wine.

"That's really sweet, Eds," Bev said, her eyes wicked again. "Did it work?"

"Nope," Richie said cheerfully. "Walked right into the DMV with my fake certificate and then walked right out again, because wouldn't you know it, the fucking teacher was sitting right there - "

"All the asshole grown ups were friends with each other," Bill said darkly.

"God, I remember that guy," Ben said, "with the hair plugs? I took my driving test from him right before we moved away. He failed me three times." Bev and Bill were laughing fondly at him, Bev pouting exaggeratedly and reaching out to pet his leg. "Terrified me. Remember how he used to yell? With the - " Ben waved his arms in imitation, and Bev sputtered, covering her mouth with one hand.

"God, look at this picture," Audra interrupted, turning the phone around. All of them instantly crowded back in, except for Richie, who turned away, grabbing his wine glass again. "Eddie, Rich, you guys are just. God. So cute."

Eddie closed his eyes and then opened them again, somehow already knowing what he would see, and - yep, sure enough, it was the same picture that had been shoved under the visor of Richie's car, for what must've been the entirety of their senior year, Eddie and Richie at age eleven or so, wearing matching baseball caps and eating ice cream on the curb outside the Rialto. Mrs. Tozier had taken it, Eddie still remembered that day - a full day of freedom, a proper playdate with just Richie and his mom, Dr. Tozier (off-putting, intimidating, loud in a bad way) being out of town on some mysterious, adult business. Richie showed him his room and his new bike and Mrs. Tozier let them help her make cupcakes, and then they all walked down to the town square for ice cream and Eddie remembered thinking about how cool it would be if they could do that every day, if Eddie could just stay there with Richie and his mom and never have to go home ever again.

The photo had been discovered on a dusty afternoon in tenth grade, dug up out of one of Mrs. Tozier's old junk drawers, and Richie had made such a big fucking deal about it, waving it in Eddie's face and making kissy faces and flapping his mouth about how adorable and little Eddie used to be, that Eddie got mad and told him to shut the fuck up about it which is when it became a thing. Richie, having discovered some kind of raw nerve, was physically fucking incapable of not pressing on it, so he kept it in the front seat of his car and showed it off to everyone and teased Eddie about it until the mere sight of the photo was enough to send teenaged, hormonal, angry-at-the-world Eddie into an incoherent rage. Looking at it now, Eddie felt the ghost of that old, irrational anger, along with a healthy dose of embarrassed revelation, looking over at Richie and seeing how stiff his shoulders were, and thinking, oh. Oh, that's why.

"It's just so romantic," Audra said with a rather genuine smile, and Eddie felt something in his head sort of, well, snap.

"Yeah, well, he was in love with me," he said, and then felt his brain sort of detach from his body, like his consciousness just floated up out of his skull and fled the room. The effect was instant: everybody stopped laughing, almost in unison, Bev's face went patchy and white and shocked, Bill clutched at Audra's leg, and Richie just blanched, jerking his head around, his face so violently angry and ugly that Eddie felt out of breath just seeing it.

"What the fuck," Richie said, and fumbled his wineglass back onto the floor. It tipped over, sending a pool of wine gliding across the hardwood. Nobody moved.

"Richie," Eddie said, taking a deep breath. His hands were shaking. "Can I talk to you out in the hallway?"

"About what, Eddie," Richie said, in a tone so murderous that Eddie physically flinched. They stared at each other for a tense moment, and for a second Eddie was sure he was about to get punched. He probably deserved it, he thought miserably, clutching the sides of the chair he was sitting in so hard his fingers started to hurt.

"Uh, guys," Bev said cautiously, and then cut off abruptly at the sound of somebody slapping her arm, the little flesh-meets-flesh sound comically loud in the dead-silent room.

Eddie didn't look. "Richie, stand up and walk outside with me."

"What, are you gonna beat me up?" Richie said flatly, and he and Eddie froze together into another silent, angry, terribly long moment. "Fine. Outside."

"Guys," Bev said again. Eddie got a glimpse of them watching in some kind of mute horror - Bill with his eyes wide, Audra looking mortified, Ben and Bev mouthing furiously at each other over her head - and shook his head sharply, and she shut up.

Richie went first, holding the door open for Eddie, and then slammed it shut so loud Eddie jumped, turning around in the hallway outside the apartment with his hands raised, like he was in a horror movie. Richie scoffed at him meanly, his face cold and defensive and unlike any expression Eddie had ever seen on him before.

"I'm not gonna fucking hit you," he said, and crossed his arms over his chest. Eddie felt like he couldn't breathe. "What the fuck was that?"

"I'm sorry," Eddie said, leading with the most important.

"You should be. Why the fuck would you say that? What - " Richie shut his eyes briefly, shaking his head back and forth. The pain made the creases around his mouth, his beautiful laugh lines, look ugly. "Eddie, what the fuck?"

"I shouldn't have said that," Eddie said, and then started to feel the full impact of the moment set in, the full scope of what he'd said and how cruel it had been. "God. Rich. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"Eddie," Richie said, and the heaviness and hurt in his voice made Eddie want to take a running jump off the balcony. "I don't know what the fuck is going on with you."

"I know."

"Have I bothered you with this? Have I made you uncomfortable? Did I push, or weird you out, or hit on you, or - "

"No," Eddie said, stricken. "No. No, Richie, No - "

"Then why the fuck would you say that," Richie said furiously, ripping his hands away from the tense self-embrace to rake them through his hair, little frustrated movements like he wanted to pull at it, but it was too short to oblige him. "Why the fuck would you - just - "

"It was mean, I shouldn't have," Eddie said, and faltered, "Richie, God. Richie." He took a step closer and Richie flinched, freezing in place and staring at Eddie warily, and Eddie -

Eddie wanted to die. Eddie wanted to lay down and just fucking die.

"Please don't do that," Richie said after a moment. "Don't come near me, don't touch me. You don't get to touch me right now."

Eddie tried to breathe through the pain, but it felt too big for him, too much for any human body to handle. It felt otherworldly, this sort of hurt, both the pain itself and the realization that Eddie had brought it upon himself, both through the cruelty he'd nurtured in himself for so long (too long), which could only be excused so much as a form of self-defense. Eddie wasn't a bad person and he knew that (he was reminded on a weekly basis, just for good measure, by his therapist) but he could be mean sometimes, which was something he was starting to realize he hated about himself. Had he been mean? Mean to Richie? Cruel in his inability to look at himself, careless by way of the bone-deep aversion he had to allow himself to really feel things? Was he that fucking attached to hating himself that he refused to even acknowledge the fact that he was loved?

A form of cruelty in and of itself, Eddie realized. Not to reject - because he'd never really rejected, had he? - but to ignore. To turn his face away because he was too scared to be looked at.

"Richie," he said, and his voice broke. Richie lowered his arms slowly and clutched the wall behind him, like he needed something to hold him up. "Richie, I don't know why you bother with me. I don't." Richie looked up, his face angry and twisted, like Eddie had something mean. "I don't mean that like - I'm not trying to get you to talk about it, or comfort me, or whatever. It's just sometimes, I think - there's no way you meant it. Not because I didn't believe you! But because, I'm just - Rich, I'm not a very lovable person."

"Shut the fuck up," Richie snapped. "Seriously? You're doing this now? After you pulled that shit in there and I'm supposed to stand here and make you feel better?"

"No," Eddie said, reaching out again for Richie's arm. Richie ducked out of reach again, his whole body tense. "No, that's not what I'm trying to say, I'm just - I'm just trying to explain. I'm trying to tell you why I just lost my fucking mind in there for a second."

Richie was breathing heavily, leaning against the wall. Eddie wanted to touch him. He was going to think about that sentence for a very long time: you don't get to touch me right now. But Eddie wanted to. He wanted to lean in and press himself against the concave line of Richie's body, to smash his face in the warm spot between Richie's neck and shoulder and just give in, for once. Just reach out and take something he wanted, for the first time in his life. Eddie clutched his own elbows instead. His head was throbbing.

"I'm so fucked up," he said miserably. "I'm not trying to dig for compliments. I'm not. I just - I haven't told you everything that went on between me and Myra. You know most of the shit about my mom, but you don't know anything about Myra. Richie, I didn't even feel like a human when I was with her."

Richie's face collapsed in on itself, his shoulders hitching. He stared at Eddie through the shadows of the hallway. He looked like a painting. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, brought to life in human form.

"I forgot my own social. I didn't have friends. I didn't pick out my own clothes. Richie," Eddie said, burning with humiliation and anger and a dozen other things that he felt all the time, but rarely acknowledged. He'd gotten so used to walking through life in a haze, his body present but his mind disengaged, locked away in a corner of his head that nobody could touch, not even himself. "Richie, God, I'm trying to get better. I'm going to therapy and everything and I'm trying to work on this, to figure it out, but sometimes I just - I think there's no way I could ever deserve any of this. Any of you. Any of them," Eddie said, tilting his head at the door, "but also just you. I could never be good enough to deserve you."

"Eds," Richie said, a whole sentence in a single word. Eddie realized dimly that he was crying when he reached up to rub his forehead again and touched his own damp cheek. "Jesus. What are you saying?" Eddie stared at him, lost for words again. "Eds, look at me. What do you want me to do? What do you want from me?"

"I want," Eddie said, with a shaky breath. He thought about Harry and Lisette and their annoying fucking hamster, who had kept Eddie up until three in the morning on the night he'd left Myra. He thought about Richie at Christmas, who kept stopping in the middle of jokes and going quiet, watching Eddie from the corner of the room with wounded, pale expressions and half-hearted laughs. He thought about Richie's episode of Crank Yankers, which Eddie had watched six times in a row one night in 2004, entranced and extremely emotional and practically obsessed with the sound of his voice, and having absolutely no fucking clue why. He thought about his honeymoon, which had originally been a surprise trip to Paris but had been cancelled last minute when Myra found out early and blew up at him for trying to fly overseas without getting vaccinated for every infectious disease known to medical scientists. He thought about sitting on the curb outside the Rialto, bumping elbows with Richie and licking pistachio ice cream off his own wrist. He thought about: you wanna hear something funny? "I want you to break up with John."

Richie blanched again. "Okay," he said, taking a shaky breath. "Okay. Eds, you know I'm gonna do that, if that's what you want."

Eddie nodded. His hands were shaking. Was his pulse irregular?

"I just need you to hear something. I need you to understand that if you tell me to do that, and then you change your mind," Richie said, his voice cracking. He closed his eyes briefly, gathering his composure. "Eddie, I'm not gonna recover from that. I'm gonna lose it, if you do that to me. Please don't do that to me."

"I do know what I want," Eddie said quietly. "I just didn't know how to, how to look at it. I didn't know how to let myself look at it."

Richie covered his face with both hands. "Jesus," he said quietly. "Jesus fucking Christ."

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Don't fucking - don't apologize," Richie said, in frustration. He laughed, but it wasn't a nice sound. "Don't apologize. Eddie. My God. I love you. I just want you to be fucking happy, because you deserve to be so fucking happy."

Eddie pressed his fingers down on his pulse point, trying to calm himself. It wasn't really working.

"I never wanted to be another thing that made you sad, and I definitely never wanted you to feel guilty. I was trying to - I just want to be with you," Richie said, clearly struggling with words. Eddie wanted to die again, but in a slightly different way, maybe. "Whatever that meant, not necessarily - you know. I just want to be your friend, to be around you, to be part of your life. You've been so weird around me, I knew I was making you feel weird, and God Eds, it was killing me. I didn't know how to fix it."

"It wasn't you," Eddie said numbly, because it wasn't. Richie scoffed. "It wasn't."

"It was. It was me," Richie said, taking a staggering step forward. He touched Eddie's arm, and Eddie felt lit up from the inside, like he'd suddenly stepped into a warm room from the cold outside. "I know I've been weird too."

"You never talk to me," Eddie said, still struck numb by what was happening. Was he awake? Was he even awake, in the world, right now?

"I know. I know," Richie said heavily. "I wanted to, though. I just - I couldn't. Sometimes I just fucking couldn't."

Eddie let out a shaky breath and carefully, finally, laid his head against Richie's chest, leaning delicately against the sharp edge of his collarbone. Richie started to shake against him, his hand going tight on Eddie's arm, and both of them were so tense it felt like they were rattling against each other, two glass jars in a pot of boiling water.

But it was worth it, Eddie thought, feeling the warmth of Richie's body, the desperate clutch of his hand on Eddie's forearm. Sometimes you had to just push through it, because it was worth it. What you got out of looking, in the end, out of opening the door, was always better than the lies you told yourself about how perfectly fine you were, sitting there by yourself in the dark.

"I think I should go," Richie said after a minute.

"Yeah," Eddie said.

"Because I'm a little drunk and I need to fucking go," Richie continued, still holding Eddie's arm so tightly it hurt. Eddie could feel his throat moving, next to his forehead, and felt hot and cold all over. Up and down, back and forth, all of that. He closed his eyes, pressing his nose into Richie's shirt, and felt him jerk in surprise. "Yeah, I need to fucking go."

Eddie pulled back reluctantly, chilled by the desperate note to his voice. "Yeah, we probably need a time out."

"We need something," Richie said darkly. He looked absolutely wrecked, his eyes wild behind his glasses, his hand opening and closing over and over, like it was missing Eddie's arm. Eddie swallowed. "I'll call you."

"Please," Eddie said, stopping to swallow again, "do that. Yes."

"And I'll - John. I'll talk to John," Richie said haltingly, staring at him.

Eddie held his gaze, and let him look. "Yes," he said firmly. Richie's face twisted again, but not in a bad way. Eddie watched him react as if in slow motion - the minute changes in his face, the twitch of his hands, like he wanted to reach out and touch again but stopped himself, the muscles in his shoulders shifting back and forth beneath his shirt. Eddie pressed the raw nerve, on purpose, and listed all the things he felt in his head, just for clarity's sake: relief. Triumph. Jealousy. Want. Embarrassment. Pain. Maybe some more. A few more. Eddie would work on it in therapy tomorrow.

"Okay. I'm going." Richie stopped and paused again, as if he wanted to say something, but nothing came.

Eddie smiled at him hesitantly, and he smiled back. "G'night, Rich."

"Night," Richie said quietly, his voice small and vulnerable. A little scared. Eddie wanted to fuck him so badly his teeth hurt.

Woo, Eddie thought. That's another one for therapy. He stood there in the hallway watching as Richie walked away, waiting until he'd disappeared down the stairwell to even attempt to go back inside the apartment.

Inside was predictably harrowing. All four of them were crowded around the table again, eating from the chocolate cream pie Richie had brought as offering ("fresh from the grocery store! Lots of loving labor went into both picking this out and paying for it!"), straight from the pan with spoons. All of them stopped talking abruptly at Eddie's entrance, looking up at him in the same appalled horror, like he'd walked in the room covered in blood.

"Jesus," Eddie muttered. "Okay. Sorry about that, guys."

Bev carefully set down her spoon. "Is Richie alright?" she asked warily, and Eddie flinched. "Not that - I didn't mean it like that, honey. I just meant - "

"No, I deserved that," Eddie said miserably. He looked at Bill. "He left. You guys should probably - "

"Yeah," Bill said, not unsympathetically, touching Audra's shoulder. She nodded and stood up, her coat and purse already gathered. "We'll check on him. Hey Eds." He touched Eddie's shoulder and didn't say anything else. Eddie leaned into it for a second, and then brushed him off, taking his vacated seat in-between Bev and Ben.

"It was nice meeting you, Ben, and good to see you guys again, Bev and Eddie," Audra said weakly, smiling hesitantly at Eddie. They swept out of the apartment on a wave of more half-hearted goodbyes and see you soons, and Eddie sat there with his head in his hands and his heart in his throat.

Ben cleared his throat after they were gone, wrapping one of his big hands around Eddie's shoulder. Eddie slumped. "Hey, Eds."

"Yeah," Eddie said. He let his hands fall to the table. Both Ben and Bev were staring at him in concern, looking miles more sober than they'd been twenty minutes ago. "So, I told him I wanted him to dump his boyfriend. He said he would and he's gonna call me tomorrow. So that's what happened."

Bev and Ben looked at each other in silent distress. Ben's hand tightened on Eddie's shoulder.

"Yeah. Can you just - " Eddie gestured at the pie. "Is that real dairy?"

"The genuine cow," Bev said, and then got a considering look on her face. She picked up her spoon and carefully scooped up a huge, wobbling mound of chocolate pudding and whipped cream, and then reached out with her free hand and took Eddie's chin. "Hold still."

Eddie obeyed, and Bev very firmly, and very confidently, smeared the pie all over his face, from forehead to chin. Then she flicked Eddie's nose with the spoon for good measure, and tossed it back into the pan, where it landed in the middle of the ruined pie with a loud 'splat.'

"Okay," Eddie said, opening his eyes. She'd avoided the eyelashes, because she was a very kind person, and an excellent friend. "Thanks, Bev. I deserved that, too."

"You did," Bev said. She ran a finger down Eddie's chin, scooping up some chocolate, and licked it. "Do you want the rest of it? I could just - " she mimed slamming Eddie's head into the pie, a hopeful look on her face.

"No, I'm good."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, no. I'm fine." Eddie accepted the dish towel Ben handed him, ignoring for the moment the shit-eating grin on his face. He probably deserved that, too. "Is there more wine?"

"No, but there's sake," Ben said. A little vindictively, Eddie thought.

He sighed. "I'll take it," he said. He wiped off his chin, and cringed at the state of his hair. Bev was eyeing the pie again speculatively, which made Eddie feel less than comfortable about his chances of staying clean if he didn't leave a little bit of metaphorical egg on his face. "Please get me very drunk."

"We can do that," Ben said.

"Then push me off the balcony."

"We can't do that," Bev said. She slid her arms around Eddie's shoulder, leaning her sharp chin against his upper arm. "But we can cuddle. If you want."

"I'd rather have the broken legs, thanks," Eddie said.

"Tough," Ben said, and clunked a glass of alcohol down in front of him. "Drink up, dumbass. It's only eight pm."

Eddie sighed. The whole thing could've gone worse, he figured.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richie's cooking show, which had been titled (after weeks of very painful negotiation) Humble Pie (with Richie Tozier!) - Richie hated it - aired its first episode to fairly respectable ratings, and its second to actually really good ones. Its third had, by Richie's estimation, way more than that Naked and Afraid fuck got last fall, and by the fourth's airing he'd been renewed for a run of ten more episodes minimum, with strong sounds of encouragement for more than that.

"They're talking about sending me overseas for a couple of them," Richie told Eddie, over some cautious gelato in Bushwick. They'd been having a lot of cautious meals lately - wary coffee dates, uncertain pancake breakfasts, even a few tentative lunch hour salads. Eddie felt sort of - well. He felt some things about it. "Maybe just like, Canada at first. Comfortable territory, like Toronto or something. We're not talking like, the big leagues - Paris or Mexico City, you know. I'm actually kind of a shit option, if we're talking about who's gonna take up Bourdain's 'legacy,' or whatever."

"You're actually not, but okay," Eddie said. "Can I come?"

Richie sputtered. "What the fuck," he said, "no. You weirdo."

"Please?"

"When's the last time you took a vacation? Don't answer that," Richie said, stealing a scoop off of Eddie's cone. Eddie didn't even feel grossed out by his cootie-infected spoon invading his food. "I don't know how you think the entertainment industry works, but I can't actually take my boyfriend with me wherever I go."

This was another new thing that Eddie felt some things about: the word boyfriend. Richie always said it with hunched shoulders, like he was expecting Eddie to scold him, which only made Eddie more thrilled to let him get away with it, and to see the look on his face when he realized Eddie wasn't going to argue. He was looking forward to the day when he could get the fuck over himself and say something equally daring, like you wanna come in for a nightcap? He was working up to it. "Why not?"

"Because I'm a professional, Edvard."

"Not my name," Eddie said casually, catching Richie's wrist mid-motion and stealing the bite for himself. Richie grinned at him with bright eyes, letting him do it. "I've never been to Toronto."

"Lots of buildings. People. Cars. You know." Richie's face was tinged red at the corners, his hair growing out and just now starting to brush the edge of his collars. He looked good, Eddie thought. Sort of settled in to himself. Eddie hadn't noticed that he hadn't been settled before, until he saw the difference now. "Just like any other city. You'd probably be bored."

"What, you're gonna make me sit in the hotel room all day while you go to work? Fuck you. I'm gonna sightsee."

"Okay, but you're not actually coming," Richie said.

"I wanna see the, what the fuck's it called. The tower from the Drake album," Eddie said.

"Eddie, oh my God. You know who Drake is?" Richie propped his chin in his hand, smiling. "I'm so proud of you."

"I'm gonna get one of those quarters that you press a picture into," Eddie vowed. "Like every machine in the city, I'm gonna press a fucking quarter, and I'm gonna put them all together in an album, and you're not allowed to say shit about it."

"Eddie, I will take you to Toronto if you want to go to Toronto," Richie promised. "However. Consider something. Think for a second - "

"No," Eddie said, and licked his cone.

" - other possibilities. Options, one might say. Bermuda? Have you ever been to Bermuda? Of course you haven't. Buenos Aires? I can afford all these places, you know. Hawaii? We don't even have to go halfsies on the hotel."

"I've been to Hawaii," Eddie said mildly.

"Fuck you. You have not."

"I have. I went to Maui on Spring Break when I was nineteen and I got sunburned so bad my mother screamed when she saw me."

Richie laid his head down against the table, performing a sort of weird, panic-breath laughter that made Eddie bite back a grin. He couldn't grin too much around Richie. It gave him a complex.

"And no, I do not have pictures."

"Someone has pictures and I'm gonna fucking track them down," Richie said, clutching the edges of the table. There were some kids sitting a few seats away, staring and whispering. Eddie made eye contact with one of them over Richie's head and raised an eyebrow, and both of them blushed, turning quickly back to their own ice cream.

"When did you go to Bermuda?" Eddie demanded. "Were you taking fucking beach vacations in-between filming episodes of Crank Yankers? Get out of my face."

"I went to Bemuda for work, thank you very much," Richie said archly. "For that movie I did with Jon Stewart in 2001."

"The one you won the Razzie for?"

"That's the one," Richie said, stealing another bite of Eddie's gelato. "You always get such boring flavors, Eds."

Eddie was unwilling to divulge that this was because Richie always got interesting ones, and the combination of both was pretty fuckin' nice. Worked out well for Eddie, on several levels. "Yours tastes like edible glitter."

"And yet you keep eating it," Richie said, with enough fondness and gratitude that Eddie lowered his spoon, blinking in surprise. As he always did, when he said something like that, Richie cringed, as if he hadn't realized how earnest it would sound before he said it. And Eddie kicked him. "Ow! The fuck."

"Can you just - " Eddie huffed, thrusting his cone into Richie's face. Richie blinked, and took it gingerly, eyeing Eddie warily. "Eat the rest of mine. I want yours."

"Oh - kay," Richie said, and they switched. Eddie took Richie's cup and ate an overly large bite resentfully, narrowing his eyes at him until Richie did the same, taking a bite right out of the top of the gelato in the heinously annoying way he used to always eat ice cream cones. Like his teeth didn't have any sense, just like the rest of him. "Is this a metaphor? Are you trying to...express a feeling here, Eds?"

"No," Eddie said, with his mouth full. He took another angry bite.

"Uh huh," Richie said fondly. He kicked out one of his feet beneath the table, tangling it with Eddie's. Eddie relaxed into a little, and let his knee fall against the inside of Richie's leg. He was so tall, and his limbs so freakishly long, that no matter what kind of table they were sitting at, Eddie always had the opportunity to feel cornered, caged in by Richie's body. He sort of liked that. "You still going to your friend's thing tomorrow night? That hip lesbian you have lunch with?"

"Harry," Eddie said. "Her name is Harry."

"Very hip name," Richie said. "Can't believe she hangs out with you."

"Me neither," Eddie said honestly, and Richie nudged him with his knee.

"Didn't mean it like that," Richie said. He paused, sort of uncertainly, leaning his head back against his free hand as he ate. "I was sort of thinking, maybe...if you still wanted me to come, I mean. I could."

"Really?"

"Yeah." The casual way he said it was contradicted by pretty much everything about his body language. Even his hair seemed suddenly tense. "I wanna meet your cool work wife. Your cool, gay, platonic work wife. Seems like an important step for us."

Eddie put down his spoon, a little overwhelmed. He'd been working, very earnestly and painstakingly, on recognizing emotions when they occurred inside of him. This was thankless work, most of the time, rewarded and noticed only by Richie, who always seemed to be able to tell when Eddie was either experiencing a feeling or denying it. Or both at the same time, as often happened. "Okay, that's cool. I might have a panic attack about it later but I definitely want you there."

"I only said no at first because it seemed like it was freaking you out," Richie said honestly. He reached out to touch Eddie's wrist, which was as intimate as they'd gotten so far - other than the feet/leg thing, anyway. This had the unfortunate effect of making Eddie suddenly be super into wrists. Like both as a concept and also Richie's wrists specifically, and Richie touching Eddie's wrists, and the tantalizing possibility of being kissed on his wrists, which sometimes made Eddie feel like passing out. There were weirder kinks, he figured. "But you've been talking about it a lot this week, I thought maybe you were hinting."

"I wasn't, I was just talking about it," Eddie said blankly, and Richie huffed out a laugh. "I'm such a dumbass, Rich. Please don't ever assume that I am hinting, because I am probably just like, not thinking about it."

"You're like one of those TV commercial husbands," Richie said, with unfettered delight. He laughed suddenly, squeezing Eddie's wrist before pulling his hand away, which made Eddie freeze in place, suddenly and embarrassingly hard beneath the table. "Like the guy who's watching football and nodding along while his wife advertises Pizza Pockets at the kitchen island."

"Are you the wife, in this scenario?"

"No, I figured that was Bev," Richie said, and Eddie snorted a laugh. "So you want me to come?"

"I want you to come," Eddie agreed.

"You're not gonna wimp out last minute and introduce me as your 'good friend?'"

"You are my good friend, but you're also my," Eddie faltered, and Richie laughed again. "Shut up. My - my person. You're my person."

"I like that," Richie said, his eyes warm. Eddie leaned in and felt - a lot of things, a good amount of things, some of which he could even name. "I'm your person."

"You are," Eddie said, breathless.

Richie grinned hard, down at the table, like he couldn't believe it either. His voice was thick when he spoke again, the cone melting a little, neglected in his hand. "You could just say 'partner.'"

"What are we, lawyers?" Eddie said, grinning when Richie laughed out loud. "You like 'boyfriend.' I can probably say 'boyfriend.' Maybe I'll sound it out. Or use sign language."

"I could just hold your hand conspicuously and everyone will get the point," Richie suggested.

"No, I want to say it," Eddie said. It was the least he could do. To not be a coward about it, at least. To mean it when he said it, and to say out loud, what he wanted.

Richie's face had gone soft. "Alright," he said, and cleared his throat. "Let's practice. Go back to the counter and get me a bubble tea and tell the girl it's for your hot man meat sidepiece."

"Man meat?" Eddie said.

"Like, I figured you could work up to the romantic shit."

"Am I still married to Bev? Like am I cheating on Bev with you, is that where you're taking me here?"

"Cheat on Bev? Who would cheat on Bev?" Richie asked, smiling and nudging Eddie's knees beneath the table. Eddie smiled too, because he agreed, and because Richie's sweater sort of matched the color of his eyes, and because he was happy and he wanted to smile. Things were simple, in the end, as it turned out. Eddie's heart was beating very fast, but he wasn't worried about it. "Unless it was you, and you were offering. Then I would cheat on Bev. I would cheat on her so hard, Eds. All night long."

"Please don't cheapen our relationship," Eddie said, and Richie laughed. "I want this to be an adult thing. A grown up thing we do together. Like taxes, or a 401k contribution. You know - an investment in the future."

"I can't believe you just compared our relationship to taxes," Richie said. His face lit up, in the next second. "I can't believe you just used the word 'relationship.'"

"Well, baby steps," Eddie said, smiling down at his ice cream. It was real dairy, too. So much better than the dairy-free shit Eddie had been eating. Sort of worth the stomach ache, really - the genuine cow. "I was also giving you shit about your taxes, if you hadn't noticed. Because you don't do them yourself."

"It's because I have so much fucking money," Richie said cheerfully. "Too much to keep track on my own. Very sad. Need lots of help. And offshore bank accounts. Say, have you ever been to Zurich? No reason."

"What'd you make on that made-for-TV Christmas movie three years ago?" Eddie asked. "Is the Hallmark Channel where you made your millions? Huh?"

"Actually most of it was from my porn career," Richie said. "Side gig. You know the hustle. I made some big bucks, if you know what I mean."

Eddie grimaced at him. "Don't say it."

"That's what I call my dick," Richie said proudly, loud enough that the kids a few tables back heard him, and burst into laughter. "It's a metaphor."

Eddie was trying desperately not to laugh at him, but he was largely unsuccessful. He always was, which probably should've been his first clue, but then again - Eddie was a dumbass. As already stated. "I can't take you anywhere."

"Because it's really big," Richie said, grinning. "Wait until you see it, Eds. We're all looking forward to your reaction." He paused. "Me and my dick, I mean. It'll be a group effort."

Eddie thought it was actually pretty encouraging that Richie didn't wince, or look nervous, after delivering that charming piece of innuendo. "Very sexy," Eddie said. "Don't know how you didn't get snatched up in those thirty years we were apart."

"Well, I was waiting for you," Richie said simply, with the tenor of a joke, and the earnestness of a wedding vow. Eddie felt his breath freeze in his chest, and he laid down his spoon again, overwhelmed. "Both me and my dick were. To clarify."

"Richie," Eddie said thickly.

Richie smiled, widely, earnestly, and happily, and Eddie thought it was probably the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. "Eat your fucking ice cream, Eds," he said, nudging Eddie's knee again. Eddie picked the spoon back up, with some difficulty, and took another bite. "Good glitter?"

"Yeah, it's alright," Eddie said, embarrassed to be tearing up over an oblique love declaration delivered via a dick joke, but - well. It was what it was. Richie laughed again. "Shut up."

"Alright," Richie said agreeably, and dug back in to his melting cone. He shook his head at Eddie. "Fuckin' weirdo."

Eddie figured he deserved that.