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Richie hasn't been passed around and showered with affection like this probably since he was a baby. Mike lifts him off the ground with a spin and cracks his back in a way that fixes something Richie hadn’t realized was out of place. Bill clings to his arm and kisses an exposed patch of skin in a really strange but sweet gesture that Richie has no idea how to respond to. Ben tucks a strand of hair behind Richie’s ear and Bev stands on her tiptoes to mess his hair up. Stan lets Richie hold onto his human, adult, non-spider head until he can't breathe anymore and Richie has to let go.

All Richie can think is, oh. This is going to be a huge problem. If he doesn't get a little taste of this every day for the rest of his life from now on, he'll wither away into nothing.

They've all just had what Richie would say was a really wild and intense class reunion that ultimately culminated in bullying a clown to death. It's taking longer for them to say goodbye back at the Inn afterwards than it did for them to escape the collapsing Neibolt house. They’re lingering, pinballs without a plunger, and Richie can tell nobody wants to be the one to leave first. They all hosed themselves off and got a few hours of rest, and now all they’ve got left between them is a disgusting pile of filthy wet clothes ready to be burned, a few scratches and sore bones, and several bottles of Motrin 800 from their communal stop at urgent care. The worst of it is the puncture in Eddie's cheek, now with clean stitches, and Richie considers that lucky.

Eddie makes his way across the room for his farewell. Richie imagines Eddie's arms looping around him slowly, the drag of his hands on Richie's body, his face pressed close to Richie's chest, mumbling something Richie can only feel. He imagines Eddie holding his face and telling him everything is fine and they’ll never have to do this again.

Eddie stands not two feet in front of him. He holds his arm up nearly perpendicular with the rest of his body, pulled as far away from Richie as possible.

"Well, bye, Richie," Eddie says, with a little wave of his hand.

~*~

By the time Richie gets home and dumps his bag on the floor and his body into his bed, text messages start rolling in and piling up faster than he's used to. It's all a string of "home safe!" and dittos. How quickly they’ve all stepped back into their lives or started on a path to a new one. Richie doesn’t have a clue what he should be doing next. All he knows is he wants to be friends with his friends and have a finger in every last one of their pies.

Now that Richie is aware he's got friends he's been missing, it hurts to take himself away from them. Everyone he wants to be near again is already scattered like seeds, already planted, while Richie feels ripped up like a weed, cut off and anchored to nothing. The sense is oddly familiar, like he’s gone through it before and is only now remembering what it was like. It’s not a feeling he wants to be stuck in for the rest of his life if he can help it.

Mike is lucky Richie answered his phone when he called him to come home, because Richie has a lot of voicemails he's never going to listen to. If Richie had let Mike go to voicemail, he'd be none the wiser in Reno and miles less lonely by now. He goes through and deletes some messages - mostly robocalls trying to help him find the right health insurance for his situation, which would've been more useful a few days ago, or messages from Steve telling Richie he's on thin ice or in hot water or some other temperature based trouble. There’s also a voicemail from Eddie.

It must’ve just been another message from an unsaved number before they exchanged digits, and Richie is relieved he didn’t get rid of it before that. Anyone who wants to actually get in touch with Richie would know to never leave him a voicemail. But Eddie wouldn’t know that, and Richie can let it slide.

“Hey, Richie. It’s Eddie Kaspbrak. Um, you’re actually asleep in your room right now, but I couldn’t sleep. Napping isn’t something I can usually do, it’s like, I just want to sleep for a full eight hours or not at all. Whenever I nap I always wake up sick to my stomach and sweaty and pissed off, you know? Like I didn’t get enough sleep. But they’re supposed to be good for you, so hopefully you’re asleep. You didn’t answer so you either ignored my call on purpose, which, okay, dick move, or you’re asleep. We all have a lot to process. I just wanted to say, what you did - I’m not going to say it, because it could possibly be incriminating, and we aren’t married so I’d have to testify against you. Even just saying that, Jesus, delete this after you listen to it. That’s a real thing, by the way, it’s not just a bogus TV thing they made up for Law & Order. You probably know that. Um, and I don’t want to have to testify against you, so I just want to say, it’s fucked up. The whole thing is fucked up, man. But it’s okay, you know, you did it because it was the right thing to do in the moment, and that’s all we can do. That’s all we’ve been doing. So, I just wanted to say that. Um, talk to you later, bye.”

Richie should delete it, honestly, he really and truly should not keep this message on his phone. Instead, he plays it over and over, on repeat, like a beloved song, and he memorizes the words and the different emphases Eddie puts on them, the lilts and cadences of his speech. To be on the receiving end of anything that comes out of Eddie's mouth again, even if it is about something fucked up, makes him positively light-headed. It’s a good thing he’s already lying down.

He hasn't had a crush on Eddie in a long time, if that's what he wants to call it. It already feels worse than that now, clearer and deeper after so many years. Each painful thump of his heart is the beat of a drum announcing its return.

~*~

"Richie, hey, it's Eddie. Eddie Kaspbrak? From Derry. I don’t know if you got my other message. If you did you better have fucking deleted it. Um, I'm just calling to check in, make sure you're okay. You have to drink an entire glass of water with Motrin 800s, like, whatever you think is a lot of water, just double that amount. It'll destroy your stomach lining if you don't, it’ll perforate your intestines with ulcers. Are you a tap water person? You should switch to tap. I could install a filter for you. My schedule is pretty much open, except for work, but I can take off whenever I need to. I'm okay, my cheek is almost healed. I still can’t believe I got fucking stabbed. Who gets stabbed? But I'm walking over to Bev's new apartment now, if it sounds loud, sorry. Oh, there's a baby with glasses. You know those little soft glasses? It reminds me of you. Okay, I'm here, um, call me back if you want."

Richie needs to invest in a whiteboard for when he listens to these messages, if they’re going to become a regular thing. Eddie asks and answers so many questions, and says so many things that cause Richie to have a long list of questions of his own, that Richie has to re-listen to make a bulleted list. When did Eddie start taking Richie’s stomach lining into consideration? Does Eddie like babies? Is Eddie good around the house?

Eddie picks up on the first ring when Richie calls him back and Richie talks over him before he can say anything. "First of all, I know you're Eddie from Derry. We remember this time. You don't have to say that. Second of all, I don't drink water, period.”

~*~

“What the fuck, Eddie?” Richie says when he opens the door and Eddie’s actually on the other side of it, clutching a box containing a single faucet filter in his hand. Richie peers around behind him, but it looks like that’s all Eddie brought. “Where’s your luggage?”

“I didn’t bring any,” Eddie says. A little hangdog frown tugs at the thin straight line of his mouth, and his eyes shift from side to side, giving the impression of an escaped fugitive. Recent events would show it’s not exactly unlike Eddie to get on a plane when he’s needed. Dropping everything to install a faucet filter for your formerly estranged best friend is just a little more small potatoes than dropping everything to battle a clown who eats people.

“That’s not like you,” Richie says. At least, even though he’s no expert, not anymore, he doesn’t think it’s like Eddie to travel lightly.

“Well, I’ve changed a lot since the last time you saw me,” Eddie says. He shakes the box and Richie sees a gift receipt taped to it. As if Richie knows where a Home Depot is to even take it back to. As if Richie would ever take it back and not cherish it with his entire heart. “Are you gonna let me in or what?”

“Maybe we can go out and grab some things for you, then,” Richie steps aside and lets Eddie brush past him, trailing close behind. If he can’t see Eddie, maybe he’s not actually there.

Eddie heads straight for the kitchen and gets to work unscrewing Richie’s faucet and all the little rings and attachments. Richie hops up onto the counter and crosses one leg over the other, strongly trying to give the impression of a lonely but sexy housewife seducing the plumber.

“Get your leg out of the way,” Eddie says, slapping Richie’s foot until he uncrosses his legs. “Um, we don’t have time to go out. I don’t really need anything.”

“When’s your flight back?” Richie says.

“In uh,” Eddie checks his watch. “Five hours.”

“What the fuck, Eddie?” Richie says again in as many minutes, totally shaken. “You came all the way here just for this? On a Thursday?”

“What do you mean, just for this?” Eddie says. “Fucking ingrate.”

“No, I just mean,” Richie says. “It’s not worth it.”

“Sure it is,” Eddie says.

The entire production takes about fifteen minutes, and that’s mainly because Eddie insists on soaking and scrubbing everything meticulously before putting it all back together. He doesn't even exert enough energy that Richie has to pour him a cold drink and mop his brow.

“See, and this one is high tech,” Eddie says, turning the water off and on again and grinning proudly at Richie. “This little light here will flash green if the filter is all good, and it’ll turn red once it needs to be changed.”

“Hey, save some for the fish,” Richie says. He cups his hand under the tap and drinks the water from it. “Eddie, I think there’s updog in this filtered water.”

“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” Eddie says. “Do you like it or not?”

“I love it,” Richie says. “I’ll play with it every day.”

Eddie stands with his hands down by his sides in the middle of Richie’s kitchen, looking around like he’s waiting for orders. Richie likes him and his high tech water filter so much he could squeeze the life out of him. It’s so simple. Green means go, red means stop. Richie didn’t even have to ask and Eddie flew out here on a weekday to do some light plumbing, for no good reason except Richie himself.

“Hey, are you hungry?” Richie says. “There’s a taco place around the corner that has carry-out margaritas. Might make your flight home more fun.”

“Oh yeah, she’d fucking love that,” Eddie says, rolling his eyes.

“Who?” Richie says. “The Statue of Liberty?”

“No, my wife,” Eddie says. “She’d be so beyond pissed if I showed up wasted after disappearing in the middle of the day. Especially after last time.”

“She doesn’t know you’re here?” Richie says. Now things are starting to make a little more sense. Getting away from the wife for a few hours is something Richie can understand, based on what he’s gathered about straight marriage from TV sitcoms. The measures Eddie has taken are a little extreme, but as long as it puts him in the same place as Richie, it doesn’t really matter.

“Umm,” Eddie says, high-pitched with the lilt of a little kid thinking about whether or not they should tell a lie. “We’re sort of getting divorced. Starting tomorrow.”

“Eddie,” Richie says with wildly untamping emotion. “What the fuck?”

~*~

Richie gives Eddie some of his clothes just in case he slops on himself and doesn’t want to go to the airport in slop clothes. The t-shirt and pants are too big and make Eddie look like he was tumbled on high heat in the dryer and shrunk. For a little while, Eddie refills his own cup with a polite amount of margarita, but eventually he just starts straight chugging it out of the pitcher.

“Are you a gamer, Eddie?” Richie says, firing up his PS4. He could do something more fun or more romantic, twirl Eddie around town and show him an ocean sunset or whatever, but he doesn’t want to share him. Nobody knows Eddie is here except Richie, and Richie gets a secret thrill about that.

“Not really,” Eddie says. “Are you a fucking gamer, Richie?”

"Haven't I always been?" Richie says.

"I don't know," Eddie says, and he sounds so sad. "I missed a lot. Sorry, I'm hogging the marg."

"No, that's okay," Richie says. "I'm drinking this crisp refreshing gourmet water courtesy of my good friend Eddie."

"What's the point of this game?" Eddie says, waving the controller around. Richie helps him settle fingers on the right buttons and triggers, trying not to be self conscious about how sweaty his hands are.

"You're a tiny little prince and you have to go around collecting garbage into a huge ball so your dad will be proud of you," Richie says.

"Oh my god," Eddie says.

Richie doesn't feel like he moves around a whole lot, but it isn't in his imagination either that Eddie edges closer and closer to Richie's side of the couch. By the time Eddie's katamari is Very Large, he's leaning most of his weight against Richie's shoulder.

Eddie’s marriage and divorce should be inconsequential to Richie’s life. If the hot mailman who jogs across the street towards Richie and hand delivers the mail to him were married, it wouldn’t make a difference, and if that mailman were divorced, it’d matter even less. The hot mailman and Eddie both do things for him and to him that he doesn’t deserve and Richie has to be okay with that. This doesn't mean anything. Just because Eddie will no longer be taken doesn't mean that Richie can have him.

“You know, I met Myra on a dating site,” Eddie says, not really playing the game much anymore but still moving around in it. Richie stays quiet and listens, focusing everything but his eyes on Eddie. It’s sort of like being treated to an in person voicemail. “I wanted to get married because of some statistic I read about married people getting better promotions. Probably not the best foundation for a marriage, right? But she was the first person who seemed interested enough. They ask you all these questions to match you up, you know, compatibility. Stuff like, are you afraid to die? Do you own a gun? That sort of thing. I’d rather just learn that about someone by getting to know them, but whatever. And the first thing she says to me when we meet up is, nice to meet you, Eddie, I’m so glad you don’t pee in the shower. She was dead serious, too, because when I laughed about it she got mad. That should’ve been a sign.”

“Well,” Richie says. He could’ve been married to Eddie some years gone now if he’d known anything about any of this. “Did it get you a promotion or what?”

Eddie turns a bleary eye in his direction and pins Richie down with it. “Do you pee in the shower, Richie?"

"I guess you’ll have to stick around and find out,” Richie says.

“Wish I could,” Eddie sighs. He hands over the game controller and it’s coated in the sweetest hand sweat Richie will ever know. “You wanna drive me to the airport?”

~*~

Dropping Eddie off at the airport after such a short time is wrenching, and it's stupid that it hurts so bad. They’ll see each other again, especially if Eddie is such a lunatic that he’ll get on a plane on a whim with nothing but the clothes on his back and a practical trinket.

Eddie unbuckles his seatbelt and stares hard at Richie. He lifts a hand and it floats unsure towards the direction of Richie’s face. Richie closes his eyes on instinct, his life flashing behind his eyelids, both his past and all possible futures if Eddie would only caress his cheek.

“You’ve got the gnarliest fucking eye booger, man,” Eddie says.

Using the blunt edge of his thumbnail, Eddie scrapes the delicate corner of Richie’s eye. Richie just sits there patiently and completely trusting. He feels like one of those disgusting wrinkly dogs, the kind that need their folds cleaned out with a cotton swab, but Eddie doesn’t seem to mind it. Wiping the crud out of the crannies and dents in Eddie’s face and body would be life’s greatest reward, and Richie would do it thanklessly without hesitation until he couldn’t anymore. They could do it for each other. Richie and Eddie, scraping the gunk out of each other, forever.

"Look at the size of this guy," Eddie says, showing off his findings. Eddie wipes the eye booger on Richie’s bare arm and laughs before getting out of the car.

Richie rolls the window down and calls after him. “Hey, Eddie!”

“Yeah?” Eddie says. He turns around and Richie is in so much fucking trouble. The drumming in his heart is thunderclap loud and its intensity is rattling.

“Tell your wife I said congrats on losing 110 pounds,” Richie says.

“Fuck off,” Eddie shouts. “I weigh more than that!”

Richie drives all the way home before he notices he missed a call and has a piping hot voicemail waiting for him.

"Do you remember when we were kids and you told me eye boogers are nose boogers that drift upwards out of your nose when you sleep and get stuck on your eyelashes? I was screaming at you that it's not true, and you just kept repeating it as fact. Do you know what? I think about that every day. Like, I have to do a mental reset and remind myself snot doesn't float upwards like the fucking Nile River. Isn't that funny? How someone I forgot about for so long could affect my everyday life like that. And I only remembered it's because of you, just now. Okay, well. I'll let you know when I land. Thanks for everything, Richie.”

And Richie wants to know, thanks for what? He didn’t even do anything.

~*~

Richie gives Stan and Patty a choice between Kimmel or Ellen. He's been on Kimmel before, a few times over the last decade, and he confirms to Patty that Jimmy doesn't give out free stuff, which puts the nail in his coffin.

Ellen has never invited him onto her show, neither as a guest nor a charity case. He has heard a lot of rumors that she’s just as evil or worse than a certain dancing clown, though, so it’s not the biggest upset. There is a pair of Ellen branded underwear in his drawer that he absolutely did not obtain himself. Trying to remember where exactly they came from leaves him grasping, but he must’ve entertained a gentleman and they just left them behind at his place. Did Richie fuck someone famous enough to be on Ellen? Or worse, did he fuck someone who would buy Ellen underwear from her official merch store? Either way, they’re nice enough underwear that he kept them.

"Richie, this is so exciting," Patty says as they stand in line to get into the studio. He digs her open-hearted fun-loving vibe and wants her to like him, so he lets her do a lot of talking while he nods and smiles. Seeing how she and Stan hold hands with such simple affection makes Richie’s fists ache where he has them curled in his jacket pockets. He wonders if they’d be chill with him busting through in between the two of them and forming a Red Rover chain of unbreakable friendship.

Their summer vacation plans got ruined, what with the clown and all, and he invited them out to sunny California as a sort of consolation. Burbank is a city Richie hasn’t been to since he was a seat filler at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards some years back. He wasn’t even given the opportunity to get slimed, and he swore to himself he’d never set foot in this town again. Now that he can recall his childhood and has been slimed in a myriad of different ways since then, he’s feeling a bit more forgiving.

"Well, it's no Buenos Aires, but," Richie says.

“It isn’t,” Stan agrees, shaking Richie by the shoulder. “But it’s still nice, Richie.”

Once they get inside and ushered to their row of seats, Richie starts to get nervous, like he’s the host and Patty and Stan will hate him if something goes wrong. What if Ellen recognizes him in the crowd and points him out and makes him stand so everyone can boo him? Why are they booing him? Homophobia? He’s just as gay as Ellen, if not more so.

“Richie, you wanna sit on the end?” Stan says. “Long legged freak.”

“Is your dump truck ass gonna fit in these little chairs, Stanley?” Richie says.

“My what?” Stan says. He turns and looks down at his ass. “Patty, do I have a big ass?”

“Yeah, you do,” Patty says proudly, giving Stan’s ass a proud little car salesman smack before taking her own seat.

Before the cameras start rolling, Stan leans over and puts his arm on top of Richie's and twines their fingers together. Under the harsh studio lights waiting for an evil lesbian to dance around in pristine white shoes, Richie feels something unbreakable solidify between them again.

“Is it just me, or is something kind of off about her?” Patty leans across Stan to whisper to Richie. They’re breaking for commercial and from here they watch as Ellen crushes a completely full paper coffee cup in her hands, the coffee spilling over her skin and onto the floor like she can’t even feel it, while some kid with a clipboard bursts into tears.

“Should we do something?” Richie leans in to whisper back.

“Like what?” Stan says. He elbows both of them back into their seats. “Call her a clown?”

“Next time let’s go to Kimmel,” Patty says. Richie’s heart soars - next time! “Or The Price is Right!”

“I’m not ready for that yet,” Stan says. He stands up and Richie stands too on instinct, and some moms in the row behind them glare at them. “Come on, grab your free underwear and let’s go to In-N-Out.”

~*~

“Do you pull over to cry when you’re driving? It’s Eddie by the way. Bill said he just cries while driving instead of pulling over. He’s like, oh, it’s just so cinematic, like he’s in a fucking music video or something. I told him it’s so fucking selfish and dangerous, and it’s not illegal, but it’s just as bad as texting and driving. They don’t have PSAs about that! I’m not saying you need to hold it in forever, but you need to pull the fuck to the side of the road if you’re gonna cry. Call me when you get this.”

~*~

Richie agonizes so long in the greeting card aisle over what birthday card to send Eddie that a poorly disguised loss prevention guy appears hovering behind him. It's just that he's having a lot of trouble figuring out how to say he regrets not keeping Eddie in his apartment in a prolonged yet loving hostage situation, or that every time Richie drinks water from the tap now he gets lonely, so he's either lonely and slamming water or less lonely and slightly dehydrated from avoiding tap water at all times. Hallmark just doesn't make a card for what he's going through. He ends up asking the loss prevention guy for advice and leaving with a card where he can record his own audio message.

Eddie always picks up when Richie calls back and Richie never gets to leave him a voicemail. Not that he would, anyway, but now is his chance. He agonizes over this as well, but now he doesn't have a loss prevention guy waiting around to help him.

Richie clears his throat dramatically on the recording and sings a quick, breathy rendition of Happy Birthday. Then he recites an original poem in a spectacular imitation of Mrs. Doubtfire.

"There once was a man named Eddie, whose dick was as hard as spaghetti. He put it in water, even though he nought oughter, and his noodle turned soft as a teddy."

"I'm gonna fucking kill you," Eddie says when he calls a few days after Richie drops the card in the mail, but Richie can hear the smile in his voice.

"Why do you hate the performing arts, Eds?" Richie says. "Or is it homemade gifts you despise? I knew you were materialistic, but this."

"Shut up," Eddie says. "You big dumb animal. I opened it in front of the girls at work! You’re dead fucking meat.”

“Dead and fucking meat?” Richie says. “I still got it.”

~*~

“Hey, Rich, it’s Eddie and Mike. It’s just Eddie right now. Mike is passed out in the bathroom. He said he wanted to, and I quote, fill the tub up halfway and ride it with his surfboard. But he’s by himself in there! Have you ever been to Atlantic City? Mike keeps making me kiss him on the mouth for luck. He’s had a lot to drink. Well, so me too. They just keep giving you drinks in there. At first I was like, hey, whoa, what’s this? But now I’m like, hey. It’s all good, man. I’ll kiss anyone. Almost anyone. Richie, d’you think - me? Nevermind. We broke even at the casino but I think I was kinda a lucky charm, because when I kissed Mike he’d win and when I didn’t kiss Mike he’d lose. I got a big thing of cotton candy on the boardwalk but I dropped it in the water after one bite and a seagull looked at me. Sorry, it’s late. You’re sleeping. I’ll talk to you later.”

Richie gets in his car half-dressed and fucking floors it. It’s a good 45 minutes before his soul crash-lands back into his body and he realizes he has no idea where he’s even headed except towards Eddie. Eddie says he’ll kiss anyone, and Richie is anyone. If he’d known it was that easy - he still wouldn’t have done anything about it, but he could’ve been given the option. Atlantic City has to be a 2 day drive, at least, and that’s if he doesn’t stop to sleep or eat or pull over to cry on the side of the road, so he turns around and just goes home.

~*~

Bev gets obsessed with following a vintage flea market a stone’s throw away from Richie’s place. One night, she calls Richie and begs him to go the next morning bright and early for her because someone made a post saying they’d be selling something she wants so badly she’d be willing to get on an airplane immediately to get it herself, but she can’t find a flight that would get her there in time.

“Are you wearing sunscreen?” Bev says from the phone in Richie’s hands the morning of the urgent sale. “We don’t want you to get leathery.”

Her phone is set up to point at her while she dicks around on her computer. The camera shows off her side profile, her dewy cheekbones and perfect little ski slope nose. Richie has no idea what he looks like from the side and he thinks if he ever found out he’d throw up.

“Yes, I am,” Richie says. There’s a giant red pimple right on the edge of his hairline, such as it is, and he touches it self consciously. Bev has perfect clear skin and probably never gets pimples anymore as an adult.

“Stop poking your zit with your dirty hands,” Bev says, not even looking at her phone.

"My hands are clean!" Richie says. “Leave me alone about it or I’ll let someone else score your load.”

“No, please!” Bev says, frantically reaching for her phone to hold it up close and arrange her face in a way that seems remorseful. “I’m sorry. Just, suck on your finger and twirl your hair. Like this.” She demonstrates what she’d like Richie to do to himself.

“Beverly, you sick perverted fuck,” Richie says, but he does as he’s told. The strand of hair flops and arranges itself over his pimple, effectively concealing it from prying eyes.

“I look like Squiggy,” Richie says after checking out his little image in the corner of the screen again.

“Who’s Squiggy?” Bev says. “Your pores are clogged.”

“With sunscreen!” Richie says. “First I’m leathery, now I’m clogged. Any other choice words before you flush what’s left of my meager self confidence down the toilet?”

“I just care about you,” Bev says. Richie makes sure she’s watching when he rolls his eyes and sticks a finger down his throat.

Richie wonders if he can slither into CVS to get some Stridex pads. The commercials for Stridex always made it look like if you had a pimple you could join the Mickey Mouse Club. He's too old for that now and he's not even sure the Mickey Mouse Club exists anymore, but as a kid it had its appeal. He wonders if, instead of battling a sewer clown, he and his friends should have all run away to Orlando back then. Ben could have had Justin Timberlake's career by now.

"Do you like Justin Timberlake?" Richie says.

“No,” Bev says. “Are we doing this or what?”

Richie puts Bev in his pocket so she has a clear view of the place. It’s a big outdoor market, and even at the early hour it’s already pretty crowded. Bev has the layout of the joint memorized and instructs him exactly where to go like she’s a hacker in the mainframe.

“There it is!” Bev shouts from his pocket. “Go! Go! Before someone else gets there!”

“Relax,” Richie says, but sweat prickles on the back of his knees as he watches some youths sidle up to the table to shop. “Now what the hell am I even buying?”

“Richie,” Bev says, her voice filled with awe as she takes in the sight before her through Richie’s phone camera. “We just hit the fucking motherlode.”

The entire back of the tent is lined with shelves of Furby after Furby. They’re all dead, from the looks of it, but some of them still have their eyes propped wide open in a cruel imitation of life. Richie gets a shiver down his spine, repressing the urge to run forth and slide their eyelids closed like fallen soldiers on a battlefield. One of them stares right at him, its gaze dark and penetrating, its beak parted in agony. It reminds him a little bit of Eddie, and that’s when he knows for sure he’s got it bad and it’s incurable.

“How many do you want?” Richie says.

“All of them,” Bev says.

Richie pays the man sitting behind the table for the Furbys. Bev swears she’ll pay him back immediately, but Richie doesn’t mind getting them for her. He carries two garbage bags full of Furby corpses back to his place, listening while Bev explains all the plans she has for them.

“I can skin them and make a jacket,” Bev says. “Or, oh, I wanna make a lamp. And honestly, just like, put their faces on other stuff. Furby tubes. Give Furby some legs. Let Furby unleash horrors upon the world. You know?”

“No, but I support you,” Richie says. He takes her out of his pocket and sets her down. His pimple is popping out again and he wouldn’t be surprised if it had a few friends about to join him. Well, everyone deserves to have friends.

“Hey, Richie,” Bev says.

“Hey, what?” Richie says.

"You know I love you just the way you are, right?" Bev says very seriously, propped up against the coffee maker on Richie’s kitchen counter and pointing her perfect little ski slope nose at him.

He gets so choked up so fast he thinks he’s going to have to ask a neighbor to dislodge something from his throat. "No," Richie says.

"Well, I do," Bev says, like that’s the end of that. “How many of those Furbys do you think you can fit into a carry on?”

~*~

Richie opens his eyes from a dream halfway between sleep and waking. The dream fades fast from his mind, but there's an image of it still, like a freeze frame from the end of a movie. Eddie from shoulder to hip, his arms folded across his chest, body tilted in attention towards Richie. In this dream, there was no voice, and no head, and it's entirely possible it could've been anyone, but Richie knows it was Eddie anyway. There's no denying it. In the good dreams, Eddie is there. In the better dreams, Eddie touches him, cups Richie's face in both hands and doesn’t let him go.

His every waking thought has rapidly become about talking with Eddie, or listening to one of his many lengthy voicemails, or obsessively looking at the candid blurry flash pictures of Eddie on Mike's Instagram from their trip the other week, and clearly his unconscious brain has picked up on that. No extra detritus of the previous day to process as he sleeps, no subconscious minutiae to uncover, not even any undealt with trauma to rehash.

Eddie in the morning, Eddie in the evening, Eddie at suppertime. He puts a stop to that line of thinking - next he'll be dreaming about Eddie on a bagel. He should get up and have a bagel for breakfast. There aren't any good bagel places around here. He should move to New York for that. The thought makes him restless enough that he flings the covers off and rolls out of bed.

The coconut oil in Richie's bathroom is half melted when he gets out of the shower. Richie was so mortified that Bev accused him of becoming leathery that on her recommendation, he went out and bought a jar of it immediately, and he slathers it on his face dutifully every night now. He just has to worry about being clogged. He knows Eddie has started using it too, and wonders if Bev is in the pocket of big coconut. Eddie puts the oil on his scar to reduce the appearance, but it's so faint now he hardly needs anything. Richie scrawls a message in the steam on the mirror - E. Then he wipes it gone with his palm.

Richie is so grateful the scar on Eddie's cheek is the most damage any of them took. It could've been so much worse, and he knows for a fact because he saw it, the infinite number of outcomes - Eddie bleeding on top of him, Mike's head bitten off, Stan dead before he could help it. Richie walked away with nothing more than a few scrapes on his palms and a weird knee that only acts up sometimes. That, and a juicy, gushing, dream-penetrating love for Eddie Kaspbrak. There's nothing he can do about that, either. He likes Eddie's scar, too. Eddie says he only remembers it's there when he touches it, and Richie can hardly bear the way he wants to feel it under the whorls of his own fingertips.

~*~

“Richie, it’s Eddie. Yeah, I know you know. It just comes out like that. I think I make too many professional phone calls. Did you see Bill is separated? I mean, I’m sure you saw the text messages. Mike is flying out right away. He said he’s going to plant vegetables in Bill’s yard, and like, flowers that attract bees? I don’t get how one thing can help the other, but I told him Bill would appreciate it. Now if it were me, I wouldn’t want bees to be attracted to my yard. That’s like the last thing I’d want to deal with. I leave the house, divorced, and now I have to run through a swarm of bees? I don’t know. Beverly said when she went through it she wished she had the power to control bees, and that makes more sense to me. The vegetables might be nice, though. I tried growing tomatoes on the balcony once but they turned out really weird, like, they were dry? Have you ever bitten into a dry tomato? It’s real fucked up. Do you think Mike and Bill - do you think - I think they are. That’s great. Call me back when you get a chance, okay?”

~*~

Richie ends up at Bill’s place leaning his weight on a shovel as if he’s actually going to use it. If Richie had known gardening was mostly standing around and using his imagination, he would’ve stayed at home. At least there he can enter his mind palace and whack off instead of trying to help figure out where bees would be happiest sucking off some lavender in Bill’s sprawling backyard.

Mike is sweating attractively beneath a floppy sun hat with a blue ribbon around it that ties underneath his chin, hands on his hips as he pictures the landscape. He has little drawings in a sketchbook and Richie watches as he doodles a new one before his eyes, the details of Bill’s yard and what it could become.

“Will you draw me next?” Richie says. He takes off his cap and wipes sweat back from his dripping forehead - the hat is mesh and supposed to be breathable but his scalp is suffocating under it.

“Yeah,” Mike says. He sketches out a big cube and adds glasses and buck teeth and one wispy curl poking out of the top of the head. “This is you.”

“Can I buy that off you?” Richie says.

Mike tears out the page with no charge and hands it over to Richie, who puts it safely in his pocket. “These are perennials, so they should probably go over here,” Mike says.

“Between the dick and asshole?” Richie says, dutifully placing the plants where Mike points.

“The asshole and balls, actually,” Mike says, framing the corner of the yard with his fingers. “Yeah, that’s perfect.”

By the time they have it all mapped out, the sun is setting. Bill goes inside to fix them something to drink, and Mike and Richie sprawl in the grass next to each other. It’s itchy and hard and Richie’s actually so comfortable he could fall asleep.

“Hey,” Richie says. He stares at the sky and tries to act normal. “Um, Mike. What’s it like kissing Eddie?”

Mike squints at him, the sun in his eyes making his expression hard to read. “Oh, Richie. You still just practice Frenching on your hand?”

“Fuck off,” Richie says. “I told you that in confidence. It’s been at least two years since I had to do that.”

Being outside like this makes him feel they’re the earliest humans having the world’s first slumber party, talking about cave-boys. Mike laughs and rolls over onto his side, pillowing his head on his hands. When Richie turns over to do the same, all his bones pop so loud at first he mistakes the sound for fireworks in the distance.

“Was that your back or mine?” Mike stretches out and groans.

“Ours,” Richie says.

“You really wanna know?” Mike says. “About Eddie, I mean?”

“Call it medical curiosity,” Richie says. “Circus freak show curiosity.”

Mike’s mouth twists up in disbelief. “His little lips gave me a papercut. But he’s enthusiastic, I’ll give him that.”

Richie closes his eyes and shivers so hard his teeth click. Mike laughs at him and Richie doesn’t even care that he’s been caught fishing. What he wouldn’t do for Eddie to enthusiastically shred his mouth. He has a lot more to work with in his mind’s eye when he practices kissing his hand later.

“What about me?” Mike says slyly, propping himself up on one arm. “You don’t wanna know what it’s like to kiss me?”

“Well, I - “ Richie gets out before Mike grabs his face and starts peppering it with kisses, big loud snuffling smackers that make Richie’s heart swell even as he pretends to fight it off.

“What’s going on out here?” Bill says, coming towards them with a tray of glasses clinking with ice. If he gives Richie a dirty look, that’s not Richie’s problem.

“Richie said if I let him practice kissing on me he’d buy us a trampoline,” Mike says. He clings to Richie's side so casually, like it's small potatoes to kiss Richie and hold him. To Richie, it's the biggest potato on earth.

"I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Bill says, but by the way he looks at Mike looking at him, there’ll be a trampoline in this yard by the end of the week.

~*~

“Hey, Richie. It’s Eddie. Do you put up a Christmas tree? I have a little one on a table, just a little silver tinsel tree. Do you think pine kind of smells like cat piss? I wonder if that’s a genetic thing, like, some people say cilantro tastes like soap, pine smells like cat piss. I know you know I said ‘smells like’ so don’t call me back asking me how I know what cat piss tastes like. Now that I’ve actually tried cilantro, I like it. Hey, I’ll talk to you later.”

~*~

Richie receives a voicemail at precisely 12:01am on his birthday. That means Eddie has been sitting awake well past his bedtime waiting for the clock to strike midnight, or he set an alarm to wake up in the middle of the night. Either option makes Richie’s fingers ache and his teeth hurt.

On the recording, Eddie takes a deep breath and starts warbling up and down the scales on the word, “Happy,” completely off key, the notes rocketing out of nowhere but his nose. Richie pauses the message to stare at the ceiling for several minutes. He should go to sleep. If he sleeps, maybe he could handle it in the morning. But if he doesn’t listen now, he’ll never get to sleep.

“Happy - birthday, to you. Happy birthday, to you. You look like a sasquatch, and you smell like one too. Happy birthday, Rich! I wanted to be the first, so hopefully nobody beat me to it.”

Richie doesn’t sleep. He thinks he’s levitating above the bed all night, Eddie’s nasally singing on repeat possessing him and lifting him up fizzy and light.

“Thank you for that stirring rendition,” Richie says much later when he calms down enough to actually call Eddie back. He’s had to talk himself out of any number of things, such as flying across the country with a new showerhead and nothing else, or asking Eddie if it’s too soon for him to get married again. “I didn’t know you couldn’t sing.”

“I fucked up my circadian rhythm for you, and this is the thanks I get?” Eddie says. “Was I at least the first?”

“Hmm,” Richie makes a noise like an adding calculator with his mouth. “You beat Ben by 18 seconds.”

“Ha!” Eddie rejoices. “What’re you doing later? You wanna watch a movie?”

Richie races to his front door and flings it open. He’s disappointed when there’s no surprise Eddie on the other side. He knows he sounds disappointed when he says, “Over the phone?”

“Yeah,” Eddie says. Of course he’s not here. He’s at work, like a normal person, and with no pressing crisis driving him into Richie’s space. “Sorry I couldn’t make it. Who has a birthday on a fucking Tuesday?”

“Oh, so you’ll do it for my Brita filter, but not for my birthday?” Richie says. It comes out as only half the joke he intends it to be.

“It’s a PUR. Have you changed the filter, by the way?” Eddie says. “It’s probably time.”

“It hasn’t turned red yet,” Richie lies.

“So why don’t you come out here?” Eddie says. “You don’t have a real job.”

“Oh,” Richie says. “Really? You know, I thought about it.”

“You should’ve, man,” Eddie says and he sounds so much like he means it. “Any time. I know you’re busy, but yeah.”

Richie’s pulse pounds so hard in his neck it makes him wonder if he should be taking a medication for it. It’s like there’s a boil trying to poke out of his blood, huge and alive with a mouth that whispers sweet impossibilities to him. Maybe he should get on a plane and crumple at Eddie’s feet. Then again, maybe not yet.

“Well, I am cancelling all of my important and sexy plans to watch a movie with you over the phone while eating a pizza that will give me so much heartburn that I die,” he says.

“Pop a Prilosec and pick a movie, dumbfuck,” Eddie says.

“Eddie’s choice,” Richie says. “And hey. I’m not jobless. I’ve been on some auditions. They might make me the voice of a cold sore ointment mascot. Or technically it’s the villain. I’m the cold sore.”

Richie is nervous about the prospect of becoming an iconic commercial character, whether it’s just his voice or not. What if people hate the sound of his voice? What if they ask why the cold sore cartoon villain sounds gay as hell? He also doesn’t want it to become his only thing for the rest of his life. The woman who plays Flo in those car insurance commercials is just Flo now, and she’ll never be anyone else.

“Wow, that’s pretty cool,” Eddie says. “You’ll be on TV during The Price is Right.”

Later that night Richie waits impatiently by the phone for Eddie to FaceTime him. He shampooed and combed his hair, shaved his face, brushed his teeth twice, and even slapped on some cologne. It’s not a fucking 4D smell-o-vision phone call, but it adds a certain something to it. He wants to smell nice for Eddie, even if Eddie can’t smell him.

The phone rings and he jogs one lap around the couch to get some insane energy out, then sits back down and answers it.

“You have cable, right?” Eddie’s face fills the phone screen. He’s wearing a worn-out t-shirt stretched around the collar and his hair is wet. “Oh, you look nice. You shaved? Should I shave? Jesus, I look like a drowned rat. I just showered.”

“You look nice,” Richie says. “Thank you for showering. What’re we watching?”

“TNT is playing Silence of the Lambs tonight,” Eddie says. “It's not ideal, they always have Buffalo Bill saying like, would you flip me, I'd flip me. But we can watch it at the same time, and we can talk during the commercials.”

“You know about streaming, right?” Richie says. “Fucking old man.”

“I am old,” Eddie says. “I’ve lived for this long, haven’t I?”

“Why this movie?” Richie says. “It doesn’t exactly scream Richie’s Birthday.”

"And?" Eddie says. "What's your favorite movie? Still Harry and the Hendersons?"

"No, hits too close to home now. Bev didn't warn me I'd grow up to be Harry." Richie imagines himself on the edge of the woods in Derry with his friends screaming at him to get out of here, you big dumb animal, can't you see we don't want you anymore? But he’s starting to learn they probably wouldn’t do that to him. Probably.

"You don't actually look or smell like a sasquatch," Eddie says. "You look more like John Lithgow."

"I don't like that," Richie says. "How many Most Fuckable lists is John Lithgow at the top of?”

"There are plenty of people who’d fuck him," Eddie says.

On Eddie’s end, the only light source is his TV, which casts him in fluttering shadow. Richie finds the right channel and tries to relax. If Eddie were here, he could put his arm around him. Or Eddie could lay down and put his feet in Richie’s lap, and Richie could have a deeply personal crisis about the slope of Eddie’s toes, or he could put his fingers through them and hold them while Eddie shrieked at him that he’s disgusting.

“How many times have you seen this movie?” Richie says. “You were quoting it, weren’t you? At the Jade?” He tries and fails to do an accurate Buffalo Bill impersonation. “Oh, wait, was she a great, big fat person?”

“I’ve seen it a lot,” Eddie says. “Mikey has too. He says he sees a lot of himself in Clarice, and you know what? So do I. Some kid growing up in a small town? A fucking sheep farm? Wanting to run away from it all? I guess Buffalo Bill is kind of like, the clown. Or Myra? No, the clown.”

“That makes sense,” Richie says, and the more he thinks about it, it does.

“Shut up,” Eddie says. “Commercial’s over. Hey, if you do that commercial, next time we could be talking during your commercial!”

Richie tries to pay attention to the movie, he truly does. Eddie has his phone held up close to his face, only one eye and half his nose visible, and the sound of his breathing is more interesting than anything Richie could think of. The dark ink spill of Eddie’s eyelashes across the top of his cheeks is distracting to the point of interfering with Richie’s view of anything else.

"What?" Eddie says halfway through. Ah, he's been caught. But Richie knew the risk of that all along. "Something on my face?"

"You're mouthing along with the dialogue, Clarice’s Angel," Richie says. "It's cute.”

"Cute," Eddie repeats, rolling his eyes. "Nobody's called me cute in forever. Probably since the last time you called me cute.”

“And you should hear it every day,” Richie says, edging into dangerously true territory.

“Hey,” Eddie speaks as if trying to get Richie’s attention, but Richie’s attention has not left him for one second.

“Hm?” Richie says.

Eddie squeezes his eyes shut. “What color are my eyes?”

“They’re brown,” Richie says. Eddie wouldn’t have to hide his eyes so Richie couldn’t cheat for that answer. He’s been fucking staring at one of them all night, and even over the phone he could tell Eddie how many individual eyelashes he has and how many different shades can be found in his irises.

“Just brown?” Eddie says. “That’s not very exciting.”

Au contraire,” Richie says.

“What’s with all the French?” Eddie says. “Are you French?”

“Your eyes are Eddie-brown,” Richie says. “A very special brown found only in Eddie’s eyes.”

“Oh,” Eddie says. He cracks one brown eye open and lets Richie get a good look. “Your eyes are blue.”

“That’s what it says on my driver’s license,” Richie says.

“No, they’re like,” Eddie persists, like it’s something really important he just has to get out there. “They’re like, blue. I can see them from clear across the room. If I licked them my tongue would turn the same blue.”

“Wow,” Richie says. “A singer and a poet.” He had no idea Eddie thought of his eyes this much. He tries not to get a little turned on by the idea of Eddie licking his eyes. He has enough on his mind without taking that into consideration. But tongue in eye is better than nothing in nothing.

“Fuck off,” Eddie laughs. “Hey. I know it’s your birthday and all, but I really needed this. Thanks, Richie.”

On the screen, Hannibal Lecter says, “People will say we’re in love.”

~*~

“Hey, Rich. I miss you. Call me back when you get this? It’s not urgent. Just want to hear your voice.”

~*~

Richie impulse buys two tickets to a show in Las Vegas. It’s a risk, to have the tickets in hand already before knowing if he’ll wind up flying solo or not, but he has to have faith that his friends want to spend time with him in equal measure.

“Are you kidding me, Richie?” Ben says when Richie asks him out. “Do you know what day that is?”

“March 25th?” Richie double checks the calendar. “Um, it’s a Saturday. Does that not work?”

“It’s the anniversary of - it’s - “ Ben gets choked up on the other line and Richie hears him take some calming breaths. “When Zayn left One Direction.”

“Oh,” Richie says. “Is that good?”

“It ended up being the right decision for everyone,” Ben says very seriously. He seems almost relieved, like he’s glad he can finally talk to somebody about an atrocity he witnessed that he’s been keeping bottled up inside for a long time. “But it hurt. I had to take the rest of the day off of work.”

“I just mean, do you still want to go?” Richie says. “Zayn wasn’t ever in the Backstreet Boys, was he?”

Richie is on the phone so long after that he has to mute his end to pee in the middle of Ben’s oral history of the Backstreet Boys. Ben flies out a couple weeks later with a button that says Birthday Bitch that he pins to Richie’s jacket.

“It’s not my birthday anymore,” Richie says, voice strained as he gets crushed by Ben’s embrace.

“It’s your birthday month,” Ben explains.

Ben insists they drive to Vegas from Richie’s place just so they can spend more time together. Richie is so moved by the idea that Ben actively wants to be in a car with him that he can’t refuse. Ben pop quizzes him the whole drive, randomly waving a picture of a man in front of his face and pumping his fist when Richie guesses correctly. By the time they hit the strip, Richie can correctly identify each Boy by sight without mixing them up, even when Ben tries to trick him by showing him different hairstyles and colors. Richie can imagine the furious tirade Eddie would go on if he caught them doing this while Richie is behind the wheel. After listening to the playlist of the greatest BSB hits on a loop, Richie can even almost pick out who’s singing which part in every song.

“Who’s this?” Ben grills him patiently, pointing at the sound coming out of the dashboard.

“Uh, Kevin?” Richie says.

“Close - it’s Howie,” Ben says. “He can hit the whistle note, like Mariah Carey.”

“Big deal, so can I,” Richie says. He sings a run in the highest pitch he can manage and waves his finger in the air like a diva, but he just sounds like Mickey Mouse dying.

“I didn’t know you couldn’t sing,” Ben says.

“And Howie’s the bad boy?” Richie says.

“That’s AJ,” Ben says. “But they’re all in their 40s now, you know? It doesn’t really matter anymore.”

Ben insists on buying them matching t-shirts to commemorate the occasion. He takes his shirt off right in the lobby without a shred of shame to put on the new one and throws his old one in the trash, and he won’t give up Richie until he does the same. Ben shields Richie with his body in a corner until he gets his own on and then they find their seats.

Richie apparently scored really great seats, because Ben cannot stop punching him in the arm excitedly and telling him so. They are pretty close to the stage, or as Ben calls it, “the splash zone”.

“Oh my god, oh my god,” Ben says, pulverizing Richie’s arm to smithereens when the house lights dim and the show begins.

As Richie watches these middle-aged Backstreet Men sing and dance their hearts out for a crowd of mostly screaming MILFs and Ben, he can’t help but feel a certain kinship towards them. He can see so much of himself and his friends reflected back, the way they rejoined forces to do the impossible and are doing just fine now. Their lives were stuck, and their lives almost ended, but they’re all still here and the possibilities are limitless.

Maybe what they’ve had to go through and what the Backstreet Boys have had to go through aren’t all that similar and Richie is drawing parallels out of sheer emotion. But they aren’t so different, either. Bev was sort of the bad boy, and of course Eddie was the cute one, and the rest of them were heartthrobs and nice ones, but they're in their 40s now too and it's all an even slate.

Midway through the show, Richie’s eardrum gets blown out by the earth-shattering scream Ben unleashes when AJ asks if it’s anyone’s birthday today.

“Ooh, ooh,” Ben operates Richie’s body like a life sized puppet, waving his arms in the air for him. “It’s his! It’s his! He’s the birthday bitch!”

Richie barely tries to fight him off. He isn’t ready to return to the stage yet, and certainly not like this, but he’d do it for Ben. Thankfully AJ doesn’t so much as glance their way and instead brings up a leathery woman in a sequin tube top to be serenaded.

“Aw, man,” Ben says. “That could’ve been you.”

“Maybe next time,” Richie says.

~*~

“Hey Richie, it’s Eddie. You and Ben look like you had a lot of fun. I’ve never been to Vegas. You weren’t even thinking of me, were you? Get an extra ticket next time! Call me back when you get a chance.”

The thing is, Eddie couldn’t be more dead wrong. The thing is, Richie is always, always thinking about Eddie. It’s troubling Eddie doesn’t realize it. How good has Richie gotten at hiding it from him? The thing is, he doesn’t want to do that. Maybe Eddie is just dumb as fuck and twice as cute. Maybe Richie has to figure out how to be better at letting Eddie know he’s always on his mind.

~*~

Eddie leaves a record-shattering 60 minute voicemail. Richie lays flat on his back like a dracula in bed with his phone on speaker on his chest and hits play. He had no idea messages could go this long, but apparently it’s a setting he can change on the phone. He’s glad he didn’t have them set shorter, or a lot of Eddie would’ve been cut off from him by this point.

It’s clear Eddie didn’t mean to leave this voicemail. Usually he comes in hot with some sort of topic planned, but this time any snatches of his voice are distant and muffled. Richie closes his eyes and pulls the blanket over his face to envision himself as pocket-sized, tucked safely in Eddie’s shirt.

It’s mostly just street noise and traffic, or loud static from the receiver rubbing at the fabric of Eddie’s clothes. There’s a thrilling scene where Eddie goes somewhere to order coffee and says such a sincere and polite thank you to whoever serves it to him that Richie has to stifle a spark of agonizing desire. That could be him on the receiving end of Eddie’s gratitude. If he lived there, he’d be home by now.

At another point he hears Eddie say, “Jesus, look at the size of the balls on this guy,” and Richie is left shaken and wondering for a few horrible moments until Eddie speaks again. “Cute dog. Wrinkly little guy, huh? Can I pet him?”

The message cuts off suddenly after a lot more indistinct sound. Disgusting jealousy rakes hot over him. He wants Eddie to comment on the size of his balls, and to ask to pet him, and to mercilessly swab his wrinkles. He resists the urge to play the entire message again immediately. He always thinks about how many blanks he has to fill in for himself regarding Eddie’s days. Eddie opens his eyes in the morning, and then what? Richie wants to be there for every second so bad it burns furiously like an unthrown tantrum.

~*~

“Hey, it’s Eddie. Ugh, it’s so fucking hot and humid here right now. I had to run out to the store earlier and the air was thick and chunky, like a damn chicken noodle soup. When I got back my shirt was soaked with sweat, like, wet-t-shirt-contest soaked. It’s really late now and it’s still so fucking hot. I can’t sleep. I just feel, I don’t know. Restless. I’m in bed with the covers off. My thighs keep sticking together. Let me show you, I mean, can you hear it? Probably not through the phone. It probably sounds like something else. Sorry if that’s, if it’s too much. I just wanted to call you. Your voice is - well, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. If you wake up and see this, call me back, maybe? If you feel like it. Um, I might not answer, I might be asleep, or busy. Good night, Richie.”

Richie gets off to the sticky sound of Eddie’s thigh skin over the phone so hard and so fast he’s sure he sets some kind of record. For the rest of the day he thinks he’s at risk of developing a spontaneous orgasm disorder, the arousal under his skin brutal and unrelenting.

“Sorry, I was in a weird mood last night,” Eddie says during their call in the morning light.

“No, that’s okay,” Richie says. His pulse pounds everywhere there’s blood inside him, under his tongue, behind his eyes, lower and deeper. “Actually, I found it most intriguing.”

“Yeah?” Eddie says. “Well, I’ll make sure to call you the next time I’m in a weird mood.”

“Next time I’ll be sure to pick up,” Richie says.

~*~

Richie goes to the movies by himself. Sometimes he doesn’t mind being alone because then he doesn’t have to explain anything to anyone or sit there worrying what they think of him. He’ll have a bucket of popcorn with some plain M&Ms mixed in for breakfast and join a row full of grandmas for a matinee and have a good old time. Sometimes he brings a notebook and pencil with him and hopes people will assume he’s a journalist making notes for a review and not a fucking loser with no friends.

“What’s the matter, sonny, don’t you have any friends?” The oldest, leatheriest man Richie’s ever seen rips his ticket.

“I have friends,” Richie says.

The theatre is nearly empty, and he misses having someone next to him, even if it’s over the phone. He wonders if he sits in the back row if he can get away with calling Eddie and just putting him in his pocket. They frown upon that, but if he could explain it’s in the name of love, maybe they’d understand.

~*~

"Hey Richie, it's Eddie from New York City, by way of Derry. Bev and I got up early and went to the farmer's market and bought like, I don't know. What would you say it was, Bev? Fifty? Bev said sixty-nine then cackled like a perverted witch. Real mature, Beverly. I'm gonna say we bought fifty zucchinis off this farmer, like we completely wiped this guy out of zucchinis. They were overflowing out of Bev’s little fold-out wagon. You should get one of these wagons, Rich, they’re super handy. Bev is cackling again because I said ‘super handy’ and I bet you are, too. This guy tried to pawn off his tomatoes on us too, but we just wanted zucchinis, so he got mad at us. He was like, what's a nice couple like you planning on doing with all these zucchinis? All suspicious. And I said oh, we're not a couple, she's my sister, at the exact same time as Bev said 'this one's got a hungry hole'. Once again, she is cackling. Hear her? Anyway, the point is, Mike brought about fifty zucchinis with him from Bill and his vegetable garden, so now we have a hundred zucchinis. I hope you like zucchini bread and zoodles because that’s what we’re having for breakfast, lunch, and dinner all weekend at Maison de Beverly. Anyway, call me when you get this."

~*~

“Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do,” Richie shouts and lets himself into Bev’s apartment. He dumps his overnight bag and a suitcase full of Furbys by the door and freezes when he notices Eddie alone at the kitchen counter grating a zucchini down to the nub.

“Ricky,” Eddie says. He hisses suddenly and snatches his hand away from the grater. “Ah, fuck!”

Richie barrels into his space to tend to him and winces in sympathy as he examines Eddie’s hand. The knuckles are scraped pink, but there’s no blood.

“I guess there’s gonna be a little extra Eddie in this batch, fuck,” Eddie says.

“Frogs and snails and puppy dog tails,” Richie recites sweetly. “I’ll eat it with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” He looks around Bev’s kitchen and finds a bottle of vodka. “Hold your hand over the sink.”

Eddie hisses again as Richie rinses the scrape with the alcohol.

“I missed you,” Eddie says, standing close and wearing a pair of above-the-knee shorts. He could knock Richie over with a single breath of air. “You smell nice.”

“You talk to me every day,” Richie says.

“I know, but,” Eddie says.

“I know,” Richie says. “Say, we got the place to ourselves here? Where are Beverly and Michael?”

The answer to that comes too swiftly as Bev kicks in the door carrying a giant, clear plastic bag full of popcorn. She grips the twisted top of it in her fist like the neck of wild game she’s shot out of the sky and slams it triumphantly on the kitchen table next to a stacked pile of zucchini breads.

“Oh my god, is that movie theatre popcorn?” Richie says, shoving Eddie out of the way to get to it.

Mike follows behind her with a jug of butter and a beverage carrier full of slushies.

“Oh my god,” Eddie says, shoving Richie out of the way to get to Mike. “Tell me you got blue.”

“Don’t you trust me?” Mike says as he passes out blue slushies.

“Bev, hope you don’t mind, we broke into the liquor,” Richie says in the middle of dumping a generous pour of vodka into his slush. Eddie offers his cup and he adds a good amount to his, too. They tap their cups against one another and sip.

“Fuck,” Eddie says. He holds a fist to his chest and pushes down, like he’s trying to punch through his skeleton. “I got fucking - lung freeze.”

Richie lays his palm flat on Eddie’s chest. He rubs a slow, soothing circle into his skin, the material of his shirt bunching beneath the movements.

“Oh,” Eddie says. He puts his hand over Richie’s, stilling the motion but holding him there. His heart is beating so fast, but not nearly as fast as Richie’s. “Much better. Thanks.”

“If these zucchinis aren’t out of my sight in the next hour I’m gonna start throwing them off the balcony,” Bev says, waving a threatening zucchini in Eddie’s idle direction. “Now where are my Furbys?”

~*~

Richie sprawls out and takes up the entire couch waiting for Mike and Eddie to finish spiralizing and shredding the last of the zucchinis. He could help, but he doesn’t want to, and instead focuses on flipping through movies they could possibly watch. Bev isn’t helping either, so he doesn’t feel too guilty. She’s busy dumping a suitcase full of Furby corpses on the floor and sorting them in arbitrary categories Richie can’t even begin to understand.

“This one’s cute, right?” Bev says, showing him a horrible little grey guy with a white tummy and dead eyes. “For a shirt?”

“It’s just as cute as the last one,” Richie says. He raises his voice to make sure he’s heard. “Hey, it kind of looks like Eddie.”

“Fuck off,” Eddie says. “We were too old for Furbys when they were on the market. You probably liked them anyway, you sick fuck. They give me the fucking creeps.”

“I’ve had this Furby-shaped hole in my life and you’re filling it, Eds,” Richie calls back.

“I bet he is,” Bev mutters so only Richie can hear it. “Your skin is looking awfully supple, Richie. The coconut oil must be working.”

“What’re you planning on doing, Cruella? Skinning me for a jacket next?” Richie says.

She cackles and shakes a green Furby with brown eyes at Richie. It makes a terrible, half-life mechanical sound that sends a chill through Richie’s asshole.

Eventually the zucchinis are all decimated and the Furbys are lined up how Bev wants them. Richie tucks his legs in and makes room for other people on the couch. When Mike sits next to him instead of Eddie, he tries not to be crestfallen. Being seated next to Mike is a blessing, and Eddie’s only two cushions away. Richie waits for Mike to get comfortable before plopping his legs in his lap so his toes are touching Eddie, anyway.

“Get your foot out of my armpit,” Eddie says, shoving Richie away. “What the hell are we watching?”

“I’m so glad you asked,” Richie says. For a moment, his stomach twists nervously. But the truth is, he knows he has nothing to be worried about, not anymore. “Who here likes to objectify men?”

Mike, Bev, and Richie raise their hands. Eddie tentatively lifts a few fingers and Richie hits play.

Magic Mike XXL?” Eddie says. “What is this, like about a giant magician?”

“No, well, I haven’t actually seen it before,” Richie says. “There could be.”

“There isn’t,” Mike says. “It’s about male strippers, Eddie. It’s a sequel, too, but the first one sucks and isn’t required viewing.”

“Oh,” Eddie says. “Okay.”

~*~

“Okay, wait,” Richie says. They’re not five minutes in and he forces them to pause so he can get something straight. “You’re telling me this movie has a character named Richie whose defining characteristic is that he has a huge cock? His name is Big Dick Richie. Magic Mike and Big Dick Richie? Who else of us is in this movie?”

“Stan’s butt could be in it,” Bev says. “Have you seen the can he’s got on him?”

“This was filmed in Georgia,” Mike points out.

“Oh my god,” Richie says. He tries to get Stan on the horn immediately, but there’s no answer. He and Patty are vacationing in New Zealand and Richie has no idea what time it is. He’ll try again later.

~*~

“This Big Dick Richie guy has a point,” Richie says. Present company all groan in unison as he pauses the movie again. “The Backstreet Boys are the only legit boy band to come out of Orlando.”

“What are you, some kind of expert now?” Bev says.

Richie dials Ben’s number and puts him on speaker after explaining why his expert input is urgently needed.

“I’m going to regret saying this,” Ben sighs. “But Big Dick Richie is right.”

“A-ha!” Richie gloats victoriously.

“The Backstreet Boys are the only legit boy band to come out of Orlando,” Ben continues. “There was a time and place for *NSYNC, but they ran their course. BSB is eternal.”

“Are you not just saying that because you inhaled Nick Carter’s powerful pheromones recently?” Mike says.

“No,” Ben says. “Well, not just because. Also, Justin Timberlake sucks. We good? I have a client waiting on the other line.”

“Thank you, Ben. Big Dick Richie loves you, Ben,” Richie says.

~*~

“Wait,” Bev says. “These guys are supposed to be straight?”

“They’re all straight,” Mike says. “The whole time, man.”

“What?” Richie says. “Even the gay guy?”

Eddie cuts his eyes to Richie’s side of the couch and away just as quickly. The foot Richie’s planted in Eddie’s armpit is warm and sweaty and Eddie absently pulls it in further to tuck it securely to his body. Richie’s foot is gonna smell like an armpit and Eddie’s armpit is gonna smell like a foot. He wonders if Eddie is as fucking wasted off blue vodka slush as he is. He wonders maddeningly how stuck together the skin of his thighs are right now.

“Especially the gay guy,” Eddie says.

~*~

“Okay, does this house full of horny divorced MILFs seem familiar to anyone?” Richie says.

Stan heaves a big sigh into the phone. After calling his number a million times with no luck Richie switched over to giving Patty a try and she answered very cheerfully. “What the hell are you talking about, Richie?” Stan says.

“Sorry, Stan, we’re watching a movie,” Richie says. “It’s about a bunch of guys. I’m drooling a lot. Am I gonna throw up?”

“If you’re gonna spew, spew into this,” Mike says, holding the empty popcorn bowl under Richie’s chin.

“Where is that from?” Eddie says, snapping his fingers. “It’s so familiar.”

“Nobody here is a MILF,” Bev says.

“Not with that attitude,” Richie says. “This MILF told Andie MacDowell she’s never fucked with the lights on. You fuck with the lights on, Patty?”

“Of course,” Patty says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, like she’s currently wearing a shirt that says I Fuck With The Lights On. “Oh, I love Andie MacDowell!”

“Richie, you couldn’t handle the way me and my wife fuck,” Stan says. “If you even so much as had a glancing thought of the full spectrum of the things we do, it’d turn you brain dead. In fact, I’d like to get back to doing just that. Can we hang up now?”

“Wait!” Richie says. “We have a question. Uh, what was the question, guys?”

“Was Stan a naked butt extra in this movie?” Mike says.

“Not that I know of,” Stan says.

“Is there a strip club mansion in Georgia where divorcees can have a sexy little cutie make up a song about them?” Bev says.

“That was Donald Glover,” Richie says.

“Oh, I love him, too!” Patty says. “Are you guys watching Magic Mike?”

“If there were such a place, do you think we’d be somewhere else?” Stan says. “Good night, dumbasses.”

~*~

They pause for a brief intermission. Mike goes out on the balcony to call Bill and lovingly interrupt his writing, and Bev announces she has to piss for 5-7 minutes without stopping. Richie should switch to water, but Bev doesn’t have a filter on her faucet. Richie misses his faucet filter.

“I miss my faucet filter,” Richie says miserably, tucked into the corner of the couch that’s so far away from Eddie at this point he might as well be at home. “You installed it for me.”

“I did,” Eddie says. “Isn’t that crazy?”

“Come over here,” Richie says, patting Mike’s vacated spot.

“Okay,” Eddie says. He stands on his knees, wobbly and bright-eyed, and crawls over the spanse of the couch over to Richie. He comes closer than Richie asked, his bare knees pressed to Richie’s leg. “Now what?”

“Is your tongue blue?” Richie says. “Say ‘ah’.” Eddie opens his mouth wide, and Richie almost gets lost peering into it, the little chips missing in the front teeth, the fillings in his molars, the dark unknown of the back of his throat. The open scoop end of his slushie straw fits just right in the center of Eddie’s perfect blue tongue and he uses it as a depressor to hold Eddie’s tongue in place.

“Ah,” Eddie says a beat late.

“It’s blue, all right,” Richie says.

“Like I licked your eyes or something,” Eddie says. He puts his thumb in the corner of Richie’s eye, rests his warm sweaty palm on Richie’s cheek. “Blue eyes.”

Mike is still on the balcony, and Bev is still pissing, and everyone else is all over the place. They’re alone. Richie surges forward before Eddie can drag his tongue all the way back into his mouth and kisses him. The slick point of Eddie’s tongue drags enthusiastically across Richie’s lower lip before he tenses up and snaps shut like a clam.

“Richie, what’re you doing?” Eddie says against Richie’s mouth.

“Nothing,” Richie says. He stands up and can’t go jump off the balcony and he can’t flush himself down the toilet and he can’t face Eddie anymore. “I’m gonna go throw up outside.”

“Richie, wait,” Eddie says, but Richie is already slipping his feet into his untied sneakers and praying he trips and breaks his neck on the way down the stairs.

~*~

“Richie, it’s Eddie. Please come back. We didn’t finish the movie. Mike and Bev are worried, um, you left all your shit here. You were gone, by the time I got my shoes on and went to look for you. I don’t know which direction you went. You put shoes on, right? It happened so fast. God, you better not be walking around barefoot in the city. Look, if you don’t want to come back to Bev’s, it’s okay. I’m going home soon. You could meet me at my place. You still have the address? If not then call me, or text me, and I’ll send it to you, or come get you, wherever you are. Just let me know, okay?”

~*~

Richie crouches on the sidewalk to tie his shoes. He cuffs his pants up as high as they’ll go, while he’s at it. It is fucking hot and humid, even after the sun has set, and the dampness in the air makes his calves cramp every other block. Heat generates from the cement and Richie sweats through his shirt wandering around. The city is a grid and it’s hard to get lost. He knows Eddie’s place is within walking distance of Bev’s, but Richie is used to driving everywhere, so walking distance means something different to him.

Eventually he has to go somewhere. The address to Eddie’s place is in his text messages. They barely have any text exchanges between them. Eddie always calls him, and Richie calls him back. He wonders if he does that with anyone besides Richie, or if Richie is special.

Before he even has a chance to knock, the door flings open and Eddie is on the other side. His hair is stuck up in chaotic waves like he’s been yanking his hands through it, not combed down and neat like it usually is. He looks like a handsome Troll doll.

“I have your bag,” Eddie says. “This is a nice bag, Rich. Bev made me take it with me because she said she had a feeling.”

“Well, she was right,” Richie says. “Can I come in?”

“No,” Eddie says. He leaves only a crack open in the door, one Eddie-brown eye visible, like Richie is going to try to muscle his way in. “No. Answer me something first.”

Richie’s mind runs through every possible question Eddie could have for him, like, what’s wrong with you? You think I like you like that? You think I’m attracted to you? Is that how you kiss? He should’ve made himself throw up for real before coming here. Agitation sets into the hinges of his jaw. He’s humiliated himself for one lousy kiss and ruined everything and walked all the way over here for nothing and sweat through his shirt, and now Eddie wants to pry him open until all of Richie's slime and grit oozes out at his feet.

“I can see your nipples through your shirt,” Eddie says. “I told you it’s humid.”

“I’m sorry, was that a question?” Richie says.

“What makes you think you can just kiss me and leave?” Eddie says.

“They’re called boobs, Eds,” Richie says, barely holding himself together.

Eddie sighs and opens the door all the way. “Get in here.”

~*~

Eddie makes him drink a glass of water from his filtered tap. There are two stools pushed up next to the kitchen counter, and Richie rests on one with his cramping calves stretched out.

“Well?” Eddie says expectantly. He sits on the other stool, and he’s not even tall enough for his toes to reach the floor. Richie focuses on those toes, the perfect slope of them bare and dangling just above the hardwood.

“Eddie, I’m sorry I kissed you, okay?” Richie says.

“I don’t want you to be sorry,” Eddie says.

Richie snaps his eyes up and meet Eddie’s gaze, careful and steady. He could melt into a puddle on the floor. “You don’t?” He says.

“No,” Eddie says. “It’s not the kissing I’m mad about. You shouldn’t have fucking left. I just didn’t know, I mean, what were we supposed to do? On Bev’s couch?”

“I was ready to go to town on you,” Richie admits.

“Go to town on me,” Eddie echoes. “What, like a fucking six foot hoagie?”

The muscles in Eddie’s thighs flex as he stands up, the skin on the back of them peeling off the vinyl of the seat. He crowds into Richie’s space, between his spread legs, and Richie can’t help but let him in.

“Are your thighs sweaty?” Richie says. “Sticking together, maybe?”

“Fuck, I knew that was too much when I said it,” Eddie says. He smiles nervously, all the folds in his face blooming around it. Richie touches his fingertip to them, feels the raised skin of the faint scar on Eddie’s cheek.

“Like I said, I was intrigued by it,” Richie says.

“Kiss me again,” Eddie says. “And don’t run away to throw up this time. You didn’t really throw up, did you? If you did, you should brush your teeth first.”

Richie kisses him. Eddie nearly knocks him to the ground kissing him back, as enthusiastic as Mike said he would be, and way better than the back of Richie’s hand. Eddie peels him out of his sweaty shirt and they grope and fumble their way to Eddie’s bedroom.

“Hey, are these Ellen underwear?” Eddie says. He snaps the elastic and the sting makes Richie’s skin jump.

“Yeah, someone left them at my place,” Richie says.

“You should leave them here,” Eddie says. He kisses Richie again and doesn’t stop, blue tongues sliding against each other.

~*~

Eddie flings all of his bedding to the floor and leaves them both completely uncovered to cool off. It doesn’t help when he jams a sweaty thigh between Richie’s and their skin sticks together, but Richie can’t bring himself to care. His spent cock is cradled vulnerably by Eddie’s bare knee, and Eddie is naked and holding him so close if they peel apart fast enough Richie might lose a layer of skin.

“Why’s it so fucking hot in your apartment?” Richie sighs. “Don’t you have A/C?”

“It doesn’t travel,” Eddie breathes hot and humid into the damp curls at the nape of Richie’s neck. “It’s mostly in the living room.”

“Next time let’s fuck in the living room,” Richie says. “We can fuck in here during winter.”

Eddie tenses up before Richie even realizes what exactly he’s just implied. He tries to move, but Eddie clamps down on him suddenly, keeping him in place with both his arms and legs.

“You want that?” Eddie says. “I mean, you’re keeping me around?”

All the flight or fight response leaves Richie’s body at the sound of Eddie’s uncertain voice. He wriggles out of Eddie’s limb cage and flips over to face him. Richie’s heart jackhammers against his entire skeleton and rattles him. “Eddie, there’s something you should know.”

“Yeah?” Eddie says, eyes locked on Richie and unrelentingly open. “Tell me.”

“I’m fucking full tilt, whole hog, rip-roaring in love with you,” Richie says.

“I love you, too,” Eddie says, easy as pie. He puts his thigh back where it belongs, sticky and soothing between Richie’s.

“You know, Eddie,” Richie shuts his eyes and starts drifting off into dreamland, where he will surely dream about Eddie. “Love is a series of tubes.”

“Like the internet?” He hears Eddie say before falling into sleep.

~*~

Richie wakes up in the middle of the night because he’s being boa constricted to death by the strong arms of his beloved.

“You should live here,” Eddie says.

“Here?” Richie says. “You mean, here, here?”

“Yes,” Eddie says.

“Okay,” Richie says, and Eddie loosens his grip on Richie’s body a little bit.

~*~

There shouldn’t be much for Richie to pack and bring with him. Eddie has a nicer couch and a bigger TV than him, and he has dishes of his own and books and shelves, but Eddie rents a U-Haul anyway and makes Richie pack everything he can. Eddie also has his own faucet filter, but Richie can’t bear to leave his behind.

“We might need all this stuff someday,” Eddie says. “You know, what if we get a house?”

“On my salary?” Richie says, but his heart breaks and reforms around the notion. Someday, he and Eddie might get a house. Eddie and him, someday. “I’m out of work.”

“Shut up,” Eddie says, dropping the last box in the back of the van. “You can work anywhere.”

Eddie hoists himself into the driver’s seat. Richie can’t wait to kiss him, so he doesn’t, leaning across the bucket seats and meeting his lips halfway.

“You just wanna drive this big fucking truck,” Richie says. “I hope you like listening to the Backstreet Boys for 48 hours.”

“I’ll tie you up and leave you in the back,” Eddie says.

“Promise?” Richie says.

They swing by Bill’s house for lunch before getting on the road. The yard is resplendent with neat rows of raised vegetable gardens and blooming flowers busy with bees. Mike shows Eddie around while Richie shoves them out of the way and runs full speed through the grass to the brand new in-ground trampoline.

“Be careful on that thing!” Eddie shouts. “There’s no fucking safety net!”

“It’s more fun if you spray it with the hose first!” Mike shouts over him.

Richie convinces Bill to jump on the trampoline with him and Bill double bounces him so high that Richie has to take a break from the adrenaline rush. He flops on his back and Bill lays down next to him.

“I’m excited for you, Richie,” Bill says. “Starting this next chapter.”

“Okay, we got a professional writer over here,” Richie says.

“I mean it,” Bill says. “You seem happy. You know, like you know what you’re doing.”

All Richie really knows he’s got friends all over the place, Bev is making him a weird Furby shirt, and he’s in love with a man who’s currently being chased by a bumblebee.

“I’m trying,” Richie says, hauling himself up and helping Bill to his feet. “Double bounce me again.”

On a weird leap, Richie flies backwards and his skull cracks precisely on Bill’s nose. The trampoline gets slick with blood and Richie slips and lands on his wrist. Mike runs over to help them safely onto stable ground and hose off the trampoline while Eddie calls an ambulance.

“We have to stop doing this,” Mike says from his chair in the ER waiting room as they wait for Bill. He’s taken out a little pocket sketchbook. When Richie peeks at it, Mike shows him. It’s a perfect drawing of Bill’s face, nose gushing blood, while Richie laughs with his mouth open next to him.

“Can I have that?” Richie says. “Or just scan it and send it to me.” He has a cool new wrist brace and a fresh bottle of Motrin 800 rattling in his pocket.

“You big dumb animal,” Eddie says, holding Richie’s brace-free hand for dear life. If he holds on any harder, Richie will have to have double braces. “I told you to be careful.”

Bill stumbles out shortly after, his nose reset and bandaged with dark bruises already forming under his eyes.

“I just love going to the hospital with almost everyone I love,” he says.

~*~

Richie only makes Eddie listen to the Backstreet Boys for half the trip. The other half, he listens to Eddie talk, and Eddie listens to him in kind. Sometimes he’ll rest his hand on Eddie’s bare knee until it starts creeping up too far for Eddie to focus and Eddie has to slap him away. Other times he’ll just stare at Eddie watching the road until he gets caught, and then he stares some more. Richie practices his cold sore cream commercial villain voice, and Eddie gives him notes on how to sound more evil and gay.

“Hey, I completely forgot,” Richie says. “Did you ever finish the movie? Magic Mike, I mean.”

“Actually, we did,” Eddie says. “It was really fucking good. I was worried sick about you that night, but it was just like, so compelling I had to stay until the end. You gotta see it all, Rich. We’ll watch it when we get home. You know, I saw a lot of us in that movie. Not just me and you, but all of us. It all started with a fucking phone call? There’s a car crash? And these washed up guys at the end of their rope banded together for one last ride to do something crazy that nobody else would ever believe unless they were there.”

“The stripper convention?” Richie says. Eddie called where they’re headed now ‘home’ and he’s completely wild about it. He’ll do anything Eddie wants if he takes him home.

“Yeah,” Eddie says. “That’s us, you know? Is that crazy?”

“Not as crazy as you’d think,” Richie says.

~*~

“Hey Richie, it’s Eddie. Bev just dropped off your Furby shirt. She left an extra Furby for us and I made her show me that there’s no batteries in it. I swear to fucking god, Richie, if this thing makes a sound, either it’s going out the window or I am. Hey, I just wanted to wish you good luck again. I know you’re nervous. You’re gonna be the best voice of a gay cartoon villain in a commercial the world has ever seen. When you get home I’ll make us some margs and you can hold my feet. You fucking foot freak. I wanna kiss your eyelids, you know that? I love you. Call me back when you get this.”