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Part I

 

When Eddy is five, alone in the corner of the playground under the large tree with wide leaves that cast shade big enough to cover his whole body a boy sits next to him.

“Why you don’t play with the others?” He points to the groups of children running around the swing and sandpit. 

A blond girl’s ponytail is tugged and she yells, throws the culprit in the sand. The boy runs to the teacher in tears, babbling something Eddy doesn’t really understand - only catches girls and violent .

“I don’t speak English well.”

“I don’t think you have to speak for that,” the boy snorts as the game follows unclear rules but mainly consists of children running after each other.

“I’m shy too. I don’t know how to talk to others.”

“You talk to me.”

Only then does Eddy take a look at him. He looks Asian, like Eddy, which doesn’t surprise him because he talks the same way some people in Taiwan did - something about the ‘ r’ and the softness of his intonation. There isn’t anything special about him, same height as Eddy, droopy eyelids, and chubby cheeks. He seems nice and not intimidating like the Australian kids who are all taller and bigger than him already, who all talk loudly with wild hand gestures.

There are the two of them under the shadow of the tree, speaking in soft tones in a language nobody here uses, and then the kids laughing and yelling under the sun. 

“It’s different, I think.” He kicks at a pebble and glances above the Asian boy’s shoulder to see the teacher looking at him with her eyebrow raised. “She always looks sad when I’m on my own. Maybe I could try… To make her happy.” He wrings his hands together, panic already climbing in his throat at the idea of joining the group of exuberant children.

“Yeah, go. What’s the worst that can happen?” The boy next to him shrugs.

“A lot of things.”

His deadpan stare doesn’t seem to weigh much when the boy just laughs and jumps up, extending a hand toward him.

“Come on, let’s go play with them, I’ll protect you if it goes wrong.

“I don’t even know your name.” Eddy eyes the hand suspiciously but he’s already uncrossing his arms from his chest - they feel a bit sore from how long they stayed tense in that position.

“Brett,” Brett says and wiggles his fingers - they’re a bit chubby too, like his cheeks.

“Okay. I’m Eddy.” And he gets up, already feeling his stomach roil; it seems all eyes are on him as he treks at a snail’s pace away from the shade, hoping that the bell will ring before he manages to reach the busiest part of the playground.

“Come on, Eddy, let’s go!” Brett tugs him forward a bit, and then Eddy has no choice.

It’s every bit as terrible as he imagined but the teacher beams at him as he passes her on the way back to the classroom, there’s the faint warmth of Brett by his side and the bubbling feeling of a new friend in the pit of his stomach. 

For the whole ride back in his mother’s car, he can’t keep his lips from stretching up.

 

*

 

When Eddy is eight, he forgets a promise for the first time - he’s always forgetting things, homework, pens, his music but he never before failed to meet Brett.

Everything is a bit better with Brett by his side. He’s from Taiwan too, like Eddy guessed, a year older than him, and he also plays the violin. They progress at the same speed and when Eddy starts to get better at English, Brett takes an Australian accent - the one he heard from the others at school, those that were born here. So Brett is his friend who looks more like him but talks like the kids around them, an older brother that doesn’t bully him half as much as his sister and a steady hand behind his back. He asks about monsters roaming outside of Eddy’s bedroom and shoots as many questions as Eddy wants to answer.

It’s easier to talk to people when he knows Brett will be proud of him, easier to get over the disappointment and failed competitions when he gets help from him afterward. Easier to laugh when he can hear the stupid comments his friend whispers in his ears, easier to understand others when Brett explains it to him.

Belle gives him a lot of weird looks when she catches him playing violin with Brett, hears her muttering something about crazy to his parents, but then his father raises his voice - it never happens, and Eddy still eyes him warily after that time, even if it wasn’t directed at him - and then nobody in his family shares awkward glances anymore when he speaks of the duet he’s working on with Brett.

Eddy’s aware there is something different about this friendship. First, after that initial meeting in the park, he can only see him when he’s alone and in his bedroom - Brett had been the one to explain, only in that room. Then, he knows nothing of Brett’s family or other friends. Finally Brett always magically appears from nowhere - at a corner of Eddy’s vision like he was always there.

So Eddy has been cherishing every one of their encounters and the promise of seeing each other for the next time.

But today, he forgot.

“I’m sorry,” he says, heart beating out of his chest when he opens the door to his bedroom and Brett swirls toward him. “I had a lesson and then I stayed with the teacher because he wanted to sign me up for a competition and I didn’t see the time and I had forgotten, but I really didn’t mean to, I-”

“Oh, you’re alright,” Brett just breathes out and spreads his arms.

Eddy runs into them like this is the first and the last time.

“Sorry,” he sobs. “I didn’t mean to.”

“You’re a crybaby,” Brett gives him a squeeze. 

“Do you still like me?” And Brett shouldn’t hear him because Eddy’s voice is thin and squeaky.

“Of course.”

There is no beat between the question and its answer and breathing is a bit easier.

“Even if I forgot?”

“It was for violin, it’s okay. If you get better we can play together more.”

“Yes, but-”

“Eddy! Stop arguing! Do you want me to say I don’t like you?” His friend pushes him away and puffs his cheeks.

He looks so funny like that - an overgrown hamster - that laughter bursts from Eddy’s mouth and mingles with hiccups.

“No, no, I’m- I’m happy. It just doesn’t- it almost doesn’t feel real, that you- that I got a friend- a friend like you.”

I don’t deserve it. But he doesn’t say anything more, because maybe if he keeps speaking Brett will realize and leave.

“Don’t be stupid, you’re my best friend, Eddy. I’ll always be happy when I see you.”

“Okay,” he sounds shy but meets Brett’s eyes without detours.

It doesn’t really matter if nobody else can see him, or if he doesn’t know his family; Brett is his best friend.

 

*

 

When Eddy is eleven, he learns what an imaginary friend is.

“Apparently you don’t exist,” he slumps next to Brett with a frown.

“Excuse me, what?” He raises his head from the manga he was reading on Eddy’s bed - he has glasses now, they make his eyes look smaller and Eddy doesn’t really like them.

“Mom told me.”

“That I don’t exist?”

“Only in my mind.”

“You’ve got one an impressive mind to be able to create another human, what are you, a god?” Brett snorts and shakes his head as if Eddy was just being silly. 

“Do you know what an imaginary friend is?” He doesn’t give up, sits right in front of Brett so he can’t be ignored.

“Do you?” Brett shot back with his annoying habit of never answering questions, pushing away the ass hiding the page of his manga and frowning when Eddy gets purposefully heavier.

“Yes,” he raises his nose. “I read about it on the computer at school. It’s when children are lonely and they imagine a friend so they don’t have to be lonely anymore.”

“And you imagined me.

“Apparently.”

“You’re weird, Eddy.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s my point,” he feels the drop of something icy in his chest at the reminder - a shiver spreading from the core to his calves, hair standing as he looks at the boy laying on his stomach, with fingers callused by violin playing and eyes boring into his soul.

The perfect friend. The one he would never be able to make in real life because he’s weird Eddy.

“I didn’t mean it like that. Look, even if we come from different places, I’m still real.” Brett is giving up on the manga, using his elbows to crawl a bit closer until his head is right above Eddy’s lap and he lets it fall there - his hair is getting a bit long, like Eddy’s, splayed on the brown of his shorts. “You can feel me, right?”

Having him in his space is so natural by now, he doesn’t hesitate to poke Brett’s nose. The tip is round and soft, yielding under the push of his fingertip. 

“Yeah?”

“Then I can’t exist only in your mind.”

“But…” Eddy can feel there is something wrong, that if he just thought about it a bit more he could refute Brett’s argument.

His hand is swatted away as his nail starts to tickle Brett’s nose and a finger presses against the frown between his eyebrow.

“Don’t think about it, Eddy. It’s alright, I exist. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll find a way to be here for real.” Brett is smiling up at him. “You want to practice?” 

So Eddy answers yes because Brett is older and knows more than Eddy, so if he says it’s alright, then it must be.

They take their violins and Brett starts playing his part of the Spohr duet backward and Eddy dissolves in a laughing fit at how hideous this sounds, Brett is smiling like an idiot and Eddy loves his best friend.

 

*

 

When Eddy is twelve, there’s something that grows in his chest, starts taking so much space he can feel it against his lungs.

It’s a deep happiness whenever Brett is around that never stops growing until he’s almost choked by it and dread that wraps up whenever people remind him they can’t see his best friend.

Brett is always around - don’t think about it, it’s fine - and Eddy never manages to not think about things. There are empty reassurances and the craziest stories coming from Brett’s mouth every time he sees doubt settle back on Eddy’ face but he’s willing to blind himself if it’s for that smile and that laugh - the music that accompanies his own. 

They watch the same animes, read the same mangas and Brett cackles when Eddy tries to kage bunshin himself so that they can play while his clone does his homework - Brett often laughs at Eddy’s jokes in general, even the lame puns that make Belle roll her eyes.

He starts helping Brett with schoolwork too, maths and science especially, and the way his best friend diligently accomplishes all of his homework even when they are hanging out is reminding him of his mothers’ voice telling him to work hard - he’s sure Brett is be the perfect child she would have loved to have.

All seriousness dies as soon as he’s not working or practicing. When he invades Eddy’s bedroom, he jumps around and moves everything while babbling incessantly - it’s mean but sometimes Eddy doesn’t listen to everything when Brett’s over-excited like that, he just enjoys the ups and downs of the chatter filling his space without paying attention to the words.

Sometimes he finds himself thinking Brett is prettier than the girls in his class, with his long eyelashes and round cheeks. He wants to hold his hand - they are not as chubby now, longer and prettier and he tries to find any excuse to do so until Brett shoves his own hand in Eddy’s with a huff.

“If you wanna take it just say so.”

So they hold hands every day now, laying side by side on his bed listening to Debussy or Tchaikovsky.

 

*

 

When Eddy is fourteen, he knows there is something wrong with him.

He is too old to believe Brett is anything other than a figment of his imagination but he can’t let go.

Children are supposed to leave imaginary friends behind before reaching thirteen, he read online, yet here he is, sitting on his bed, stealing glances of Brett who has braces now, like that girl Eddy had a crush on in Orchestra.

It all makes so much sense it’s painful.

He knows, but the thought that he could wake up one day and Brett won’t be here anymore travels from his brain to his heart and slashes it. 

“I’m pathetic,” he says to his ceiling.

“What for?” Brett is swirling on Eddy’s desk chair.

“You should know already.”

“Tell me anyway,” Brett shrugs like he isn’t born from Eddy’s mind.

Maybe it’s his brain being therapeutic, forcing him to talk about his feelings out loud.

“You’re my first friend, the best one. Without you, I- I don’t- I’m not sure I’d be where I am today. With friends, and- and, a social life, and- I- I’d be lost but you’re not-” he has to breathe, words stumble more easily than he thought they would, maybe because talking to Brett is talking to himself. “I want to show you off. I want to tell everyone that I’ve got a best friend and his name is Brett and he’s- he’s so good at the violin, and he can’t spell and he’s- he sucks at maths and you’re- you’re… I can’t. Because you’re not real.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m real,” Brett snorts but with something uneasy in his tone and Eddy refuses to look at him - won’t let himself be sweet-talked this time.

He knows, he isn’t stupid. He isn’t a little kid anymore.

But he’s afraid that by voicing it too much, he’ll lose this. So he bites his lips and frowns, throat working hard.

“Don’t tell me it’s that imaginary friend shit again, I thought we were past that.” Brett sounds a bit hurt, a bit worried. “I told you, I explained already, you didn’t believe me?”

Near his desk there is shuffling, the desk chair creaking and Brett moving in his space - he’s starting to get smaller now, a sign, maybe, that Eddy shouldn’t rely on him like he does.

“Bro.”

Eddy’s eyes stay stubbornly fixed on Brett’s shoes. They’re blue and grey Nike, like the ones he saw in the shop and wanted to get but his mother told him no. 

“Dude, look at me,” Brett tries again, and his knuckles invade Eddy’s vision - they’re pretty, he’s been staring at them more and more lately. “Please. Eddy.”

And his hand is pressed against his cheek, all warm and calloused, like it should be, like Brett is here.

“No.”

“Why?”

“Maybe if I stare too hard, I’ll end up looking through you.” 

“Don’t be stupid,” Brett’s whispering now, none of his usual confidence in his voice. Eddy’s nose is almost buried in his best friend’s pulse, he can feel it ricochet unevenly, his own nervousness climbing in tandem. “I exist.”

Then there’s the flutter of lips against his - it’s warm and tickles a little, like eyelashes against his cheeks. Eddy’s never been kissed before, not like that, and a strange noise blooms and dies in his throat. It keeps going, firmer presses against his mouth, Brett’s fingers cradling his cheeks, moving the pad against his skin as if to map Eddy’s face the way they do shifts on the violin. He closed his eyes at some point and all he can feel, taste, and smell is Brett, Brett, Brett. 

There’s some desperation in the final kiss - it lingers forever, hands pulling around the hair at the back of his neck and Brett’s air goes through Eddy’s mouth when they pant against each other.

“Do you believe me now?” The murmur is so soft he hears it with his lips more than his ears.

His heart is stuck somewhere in a place he can’t reach, like a cumbersome rock growing and growing, blocking pathways, crushing all the organs around to make more space - his lungs are struggling to take air in, and his throat doesn’t work anymore, stomach flattened at the bottom.

“Don’t do this to me.” There’s a tear rolling over his cheekbone and the salt rests against the curve of his mouth as it dries there. “This is too cruel.”

When he opens his eyes again, Brett looks heartbroken and it makes sense, doesn’t it? He experiences what Eddy experiences.

“What? Why?” Brett’s voice cracks on the last word.

“Because you’re not real, how can I love you like that when you’re not real?”

He’s crying now, vision so blurry Brett starts to fade and melt with the background. Fear tightens around his chest, his ribcage turned into the claws of a monster that’s trying to choke him, arms reaching on their own in a twitch of survival instinct, they grip at the shirt in front of him, just to be sure Brett won’t disappear on him - he still needs him.

“I don’t want to need you so much,” he mumbles against the chest he buried his face in, the shirt is becoming wet under his tears but Brett doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even move. “This is so unfair. You’ll disappear one day and I don’t want that but I don’t want to be- to be pathetic like that. To rely on something my own mind created to- but I like- this is so unfair...”

Words are sputtering out, they stop making sense and Brett never answers when he’s usually so chatty - only threads his fingers in Eddy’s hair until sentences die in a mess of half-asleep complaints and confessions.

Hours later when Belle wakes him up, he finds his fingers entangled on a pillowcase and salt stuck to the skin of his cheeks.

 

*

 

When Eddy is fifteen, he starts high school, and even if Brett isn’t here anymore, he can draw his imaginary friend’s every feature on the margins of his notebooks, and knows he’s got every detail right - that face is imprinted into his memory.

He’s braver at fifteen than at five, but the empty spot Brett left behind him makes the wind echo inside of his ribcage. This is stupid, he’s the one who invented him, he should be able to imagine him back into existence but he only has memories that he refuses to let go blurry. 

The kiss has plagued his dreams, turns into something else in the privacy of his mind, from time to time, and he liplocks a girl at a party - it tastes like spiked juice and he knocks his teeth against her. For a few days, he isn’t able to remember what Brett’s lips felt against his, only her breath and the smell of her perfume, so he stops kissing to not spoil the memory.

It’s not lost on him, how weird it sounds that his first kiss was with a fragment of his imagination but he’s past the point of caring - just doesn’t talk about it.

High School is not what TV shows make it to be but it’s not horrible either. He makes some good friends, is always at the top of his class, practices violin more than ever and overall stays largely unnoticed by the masses.

It’s unsettling to realize he hadn’t needed Brett so much.

He almost wants to feel that stark loneliness again, because maybe then he could trick his brain into imagining Brett back into life.

The tree is still there, in his old elementary school, but the leaves don’t cover his entire body anymore and the teacher is a different one who makes him leave when she notices how long he stared at the children playing under the sun.

Nobody sat next to him.

Over the next few years, a phase of strange apathy seizes him, and he’s unable to shed a tear, as if he already exhausted all of them the night he stopped imagining Brett.

 

*

 

When Eddy is eighteen, he frowns at the Griffith conservatory of music website and swallows around the words his mother stuck there - be a doctor, have a stable future, not good enough, make money -

A note unfurls, so sharp and clear it rings inside the whole room.

It comes from his doorway and Eddy swivels around so fast his stomach protests and he has to blink around dizziness.

But then there is no one there, only an echo that rings inside of his mind.

“Brett?” he asks a bit shyly, not really knowing what to expect.

Emptiness hangs heavy in the room.

It’s too late, he recognized the piece, how could he not, it’s the last one he had been trying to play with Brett - the beginning of Navarra - it has been too hard and they had struggled so much, dissolves into pits of laughter or frustrates groans every time they messed up.

He’s smiling as memories burst in his head, reaching for his violin already.

In the end, the choice is easy.

 

*

 

When Eddy is twenty-two he’s confined to a wheelchair.

He stares at the window of his old childhood bedroom with empty eyes - it’s all in your head - the doctor said. And well, yes, his head never really worked properly did it? Imagining things into existence has always been his forte. 

His violin is accumulating dust in its case because even looking at it is painful. His mother stares at him with pity every time she calls him for dinner and those looks are the main reasons Eddy wants to get better.

“Do you want me to push you around? I’ve always wanted to do wheelchair races.”

He can’t mistake that voice for anyone else’s, and a churn of expectation and waiting disappointment crosses his body from the back of his throat to the pit of his stomach. 

A silhouette is awkwardly standing inside his door frame.

“Brett!” He smiles in delight before remembering seeing him at twenty-two means he’s probably lost it for good. 

Crazy without hopes of remission.

“It’s been a while,” Brett says, like he left for a week on vacation instead of vanishing for eight years. “I hope you missed me.”

Yes, he wants to confess, except there is no reason for Brett to be here again, he’s not five and lonely under a tree. They don’t call it imaginary friends anymore, they call it suffering from delusion and he doesn’t need that on top of everything else.

“You don’t exist.” Eddy’s lips tighten, he forces the joy back down, refuses to be tricked by his brain, refuses to go through this again. “You don’t exist, you don’t exist,” he repeats in a mantra, eyes fixed on the floor. “I’m twenty-two, this can’t happen-”

Despite not looking, every one of his senses is attuned to Brett, hearing him breathing, feeling him living, his skin prickles and everything aches a bit. 

“Dude, look at me.” The voice is deeper than in his memories - it makes sense, Eddy grew up - Brett with him. “Please.”

But he ignores it, doesn’t even want to look up because this can’t happen.

There’s a hand gripping at his arm, and has to bite his lips to try and drown the surge taking over his body - it doesn’t work.

“Eddy,” Brett pleads again. “I don’t want to leave like this.”

This makes Eddy’s head snap up so fast his neck hurts.

“No, don’t- don’t leave.”

And he meets Brett’s eyes.

He is older now, no braces and his glasses are different, his hair is short and Eddy wants to run his hand through it, but his arms stay unresponsive.

There’s something shy about Brett that wasn’t there before, like he isn’t sure he’s gonna be welcome in Eddy’s space anymore, and Eddy is pretty sure the last thing he told him was that he doesn’t want to need him.

“I don’t even know what to say.” Brett’s hand is still warm around his arm and he wants to cry at how familiar it feels.

“Why are you here? How did I bring you back?” Eddy whispers and he’s starting to believe he’s willing to be delusional because Brett’s face stretches into that little smirk and it looks ten times better now than eight years ago.

“Not everything is about you, hey.”

“But-”

“Do you want anything to eat with that?” Eddy’s mom passes her head through the door without knocking, a cup of tea in hand.

“I’m okay, thanks Mom.” He has trouble reconciling how normal interacting with his mother feels with the craziness of the situation, hoping she never heard him converse with himself like a lunatic - it would be the final stroke.

“I’m not talking to you, I’m asking our guest.”

Then everything stops.

“Our guest?” Eddy’s voice is so tiny it’s a wonder his mother even hears it.

From the corner of his eyes, he can’t miss the tilt of Brett’s amused smile.

“Yes, Eddy, right in front of you,” his mother looks a bit irritated, gives Brett a polite smile and there’s a buzzing in Eddy’s ears, the corner of his vision a bit dizzy and he realizes he’s not breathing even as his mother keeps speaking. “Here is your tea, I made some for Eddy too-”

The conversation keeps going, but Eddy can’t hear anything else because Brett is here . He’s real and his mom can see him and-

“You’re still a crybaby.” His ears finally pick up again and it’s only when Brett’s hands swipe at the corner of his eyes that he notices he’s crying and his mother left the room.

“What’s going on?” his voice cracks, skidding toward higher pitches and it never did that since it finished breaking at sixteen.

Brett is laughing at him already, and his smooth skin makes Eddy self-conscious about the spots on his face.

“I’ll tell you,” Brett’s fingers leave his face and then Eddy remembers the last time they were on his skin - remembers his best friend kissing him and he wants.

 

 

 

Part II

 

When Brett is six, something strange happens to the park he’s playing in. Everything shifts, color blurs, his head hurts and he can’t see any of his friends.

It keeps going, there’s whistling in his ears, sounds are superposing until it sharpens in a burst of laughter and sun on his skin when it was cloudy before. 

Confusion bursts inside of his head but his heart bravely pushes him forward - there is a kid sitting under a tree and he looks sad and lonely; his arms are wrapped around his legs, pressed against his chest like a shield between him and the world.

He wants to cry a little bit because he can’t see his father or his mother anymore but the other boy looks like him when everyone else in here doesn’t, so he sits next to him.

Later, when the colors fade again and the clouds come back, he babbles excitedly about Eddy to his mother.

She tells him then.

In some places, the barrier between realities is paper-thin, so much that it’s almost translucent and children should be aware not to cross it lest they become trapped. He sees his mother take out her phone and a few minutes later, a whole array of policemen close the zone where Brett met Eddy. He’s not allowed to go back there.

The very next day, in a corner of his living room where nobody goes, next to the piano of their new house, he can feel pressure, there is a spot right between the piano and his father’s old guitar that feels soft and if he gets close enough - his nose is almost touching the wall - there is a bedroom there. It’s smaller than his own, a bit blurry around the edges, and then he steps forward and the room wraps around him. 

He yelps when he recognizes the boy lying on the floor with colored pencils and paper spread around him.

Eddy starts to smile before Brett even really understands what’s happening.

This time, he says nothing to his mother about his new friend living in the walls of their house.

When he starts speaking better English, the teacher at his school warns them about the same thing, and most kids listen when all the horrifying things hidden in the other worlds are listed.

Brett thinks adults are stupid because he saw what was on the other side, and Eddy is definitely not scary.

They’re given a strict protocol. If reality starts to blur, they are to get away immediately and tell an adult. If they are somehow dragged into the other world, they can’t touch or talk to anyone, they have to stay very still until adults come to help them.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to Brett when he’s six, but as he grows up, teachers explain it better, the risks of interacting with anything that isn’t from your world.

You can’t tell about it, he remembers.

 

*

 

When Brett is nine, he’s scared he’ll never see Eddy again.

They have played with each other every day since the first time at the park - Eddy is a year younger and plays the violin too, there are mangas and comics in his world that don’t exist in Brett’s so he likes to stick around and read. They laugh a lot because Eddy likes to tell jokes and Brett likes to be silly.

This evening, the bedroom is still empty and Brett’s mother is going to call him for dinner time soon so he’ll have to step away from the barrier because his Mom can’t know he keeps getting so close but worry is twisting his guts and there’s something lodged in his throat.

Maybe this other world is horrifying and dangerous, maybe Eddy evolves amongst monsters and danger all day and Brett would know nothing about it because he can only see Eddy’s bedroom.

There is this picture the teacher showed them that sticks to his mind, the beast half-horse half-lion with teeth bigger than his whole arm, and the longer Eddy doesn’t show up at the time they planned to, the more plausible it seems he was eaten. Maybe it’s his fault, maybe it’s because he talked about his reality even if adults always warned him he could never do that. Maybe they were right and it ripped Eddy’s world apart.

It’s the first time he almost considers pushing through the barrier - he doesn’t think he’ll actually be able to help against a horse-lion chimera but staying here doing nothing is driving him crazy.

What if Eddy disappears? What if they can never play violin together again? What if it’s his fault because he babbled about things he wasn’t supposed to.

The flimsy-looking barrier shimmers near the bedroom door, and Brett knows if he opens it, he’ll tear through and step into Eddy’s world.

His hand is twitching and he forces himself not to look because he’s so, so close to doing what everyone has warned him against.

Then the door bursts open and Eddy is red in the face, babbling about violins lessons and competitions and- 

He’s alive and Brett is so, so happy to see him.

 

*

 

When Brett is twelve, he starts suspecting maybe Eddy doesn’t know what’s happening to them.

He always assumed Eddy must have been given the same kind of speech - thin barriers between realities, don’t talk about it and whatnot - but then his best friend starts talking about imaginary friends of all things. It’s so ridiculous Brett didn’t even take it seriously at first; he must be messing with him, payback for that time Brett made him think he had worn his pants backward for the whole day.

Lucky for him, the barrier is so close to translucent that worlds bleed into each other in Eddy’s room, enough that they can touch - enough that he can convince his best friend he’s very much real.

Music has always seemed like the path to follow for him, the natural continuation of his life, even if at twelve, he’s not completely sure what’s happening after high school. 

But that night, he sits in front of his parents and asks what it takes to work with the people traveling between realities.

“You have to be good at maths,” his father smiles at him. “And maybe if you excel in school you can be accepted into the science research program.”

So Brett asks for maths tutoring and pours himself in books and forums about other realities - the risk is spelled out in them, don’t mess up the course of history by divulging anything about your world. The consequences leave his mouth dry and he wakes up in sweating nightmares of Eddy crying as his reality is ripped apart.

 

*

 

When Brett is thirteen, he notices a pattern.

Every time Eddy starts talking about something he likes, Brett gets one.

First, it’s that haircut Eddy mentions liking, and the week after, Brett manages to convince his mother to take him to the hairdresser.

Then it’s the checkered shoes Eddy spotted on his way back from violin lessons, their pictures shoved under Brett’s nose.

When Eddy discovers his first bubble tea and raves about it, Brett sneaks after school to the closest bubble tea shop and gets himself one.

After that Brett wonders why he has so many Debussy music sheets only to remember Eddy forcing him to listen to the same Debussy CD three times in a row - he can hum Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune in his sleep. 

It’s a bit funny so he laughs when he notices and doesn’t give it much thought.

 

*

 

When Brett is fourteen, he realizes he’s in love with his best friend.

Eddy plays a lot of Korngold, he reads shojo manga and hides them where he thinks Brett can’t see. He likes to daydream and can get strangely silent for hours before bursting out with whatever has been cooking in that head of his. 

He’s too sensitive and gets hurt easily when Brett doesn’t watch his words - they got better with time, by now he almost never accidentally offends Eddy anymore, and when he does, his best friend is able to shrug it off.

He’s smart and explains maths to Brett even if he’s one year below him, he knows it too, the little shit, always rubs in his face how good at school he is.

Sometimes, Eddy stares at him strangely with a downturn of his lips, as if just looking at him hurts and Brett never gets the courage to confess.

Brett hates lying to him but would hate even more to see their realities torn up - whenever he considers telling Eddy the truth, illustrations of that book he studied come back to haunt him and he wakes up to Eddy’s screaming face imprinted in his mind.

He never says anything, they can only see each other in Eddy’s bedroom and he craves so much more it’s eating him up inside.

 

*

 

When Brett is fifteen, he kisses his best friend, then loses him.

He has been making vague plans about the way he would confess - none of them in the near future. First he needed to be the best of his class, then get into the science program for Interreality Research and Traveling, all to barge in Eddy’s world and swoop him of his feet in some grand gesture; probably play something like the Sibelius violin concerto that Eddy loves so much.

None of them happens because he discovers Eddy still believes he doesn’t exist.

He had tried everything to convince him he was real without saying anything about his own world. He got more tactile and played for Eddy pieces he knows his best friend never listened to before - to show him he couldn’t possibly be born of his imagination. He talked his way around Eddy’s questions without properly answering them, easy reassurances at the tip of his tongue and charming smiles. Eddy always nodded and dropped the subject after that, and it’s only now Brett realizes he should have insisted more.

Because while he was in love with his best friend, making plans so that they could spend the rest of their lives together, Eddy was seeing him as the materialisation of his weaknesses. 

He has never been hurt like this before; Eddy’s tears as he kisses him break so much inside of him his throat refuses to work and all he can do is stand here and listen as his best friend explains how he doesn’t want to need him.

He can only move - slowly, limbs stiff from staying in the same position for so long - once Eddy cried himself to sleep.

To keep something with him, he kisses him one last time - his lips are still a bit salty and he knows he needs to get himself together. He needs to find some proof, something irrefutable to show Eddy he’s real without tearing their world apart; so he can taste a kiss without tears.

Condensation gathers on his glasses, and it’s only when he notices everything is a blur that he realizes his own cheeks are wet. The bedroom flutters behind him as he steps away from the barrier, and the only thing he can see is his own living room. And his parents.

His father’s eyes are red and his mother is on the phone. He swallows around the stone in his throat when both of them see him coming from the wall.

“Don’t lie to us,” his mother’s lips are pressed tight. “How long have you been doing this?”

Brett is many things, but not a liar, especially not when his parents look like this but he still feels unable to talk, the broken pieces of him jostling against each other in his chest.

“Years,” he tries to rasp out but the word is unrecognizable and his father lays a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“It doesn’t matter.” He shakes his head. “You can’t keep doing this. You know this is too dangerous, you could wind up trapped there forever.”

Brett feels five again as policemen invade his house and the perimeter between the piano and the guitar is secured.

He stays under constant surveillance, and a month after, they move.

The one good thing out of all of this, Brett thinks, is that Eddy will understand he doesn’t need him to function, because he’s brilliant and more and more people are bound to see it too. 

 

*

 

When Brett is eighteen, he gets accepted by the science program for Interreality Research and Traveling - he worked so hard that it almost doesn’t feel real.

“I fucking did it,” he whispers in the emptiness of his room.

On the other hand, he doesn’t even have to pass the audition to be taken into the Griphyt conservatory of music.

Giving up was never really an option, and when he practiced scales, sometimes, he zoned out and daydreamed of traveling to Eddy’s world and taking him out on a date. They’d both be adults, Brett would surely be handsome by then and Eddy would probably cry seeing him, then they would drink bubble tea or maybe have a glass of wine like in the movies. He would take him to a concert and they’d hold hands like they used to when they were little kids.

But now his fingers grip at his hair, two dreams tearing him apart because he can either spend the rest of his life playing violin or chasing after a man who doesn’t believe he exists.

 

*

 

When Brett is nineteen, he spends his holidays playing the violin - there isn’t much time to practice at the IRT.

It’s not really on his way, but whenever he goes out to meet friends, he passes in front of the previous Yang household. Even if it’s still uninhabited, he knows they’ve strengthened the barrier - there is no way he can see Eddy again even if he plasters himself against the wall where he used to spend all his evenings. Still, there’s a new form of energy that wraps around him whenever he glances at his old living room through the windows. 

Tonight he feels a strange pull in the air. He just came back from playing a Shostakovich quartet with friends, case slung over his shoulder, and the music still ringing in his head fits the weather. It’s hot and stuffy in Brisbane, with clouds rolling up ahead and Brett should hurry before the storm explodes but he feels it, tugging at his chest, like prickles on his skin and head dizzy. He remembers a sunny day in a playground when it was cloudy in the park, birds singing and his ears ringing.

So he leans against the outside wall, as close as he can to that spot in the living room, and doesn’t even fully realize what he’s doing when his violin is already in his hands. 

What comes from the strings is that duet they were working on at fourteen, the last one they attempted. It’s the birds and the sun of that day they met - strangely vivid in Brett’s memory. Maybe, maybe, maybe Eddy has been so accustomed to the sound of his violin he can still hear it even when Brett isn’t that close to the barrier.

He hopes the music can carry everything he feels. He keeps hoping when he hears the faintest sound that he doesn’t imagine it, wants to believe so hard they’re playing a duet each on their own reality that he smiles around the missed notes.

 

*

 

When Brett is twenty-two, he doesn’t understand why you need to be so good at maths to make it to the IRT. In the end, all it takes is to swallow your fears when you get close to holes in a barrier and jump in.

He does so over and over despite the risks, because he loves it - new worlds and discoveries, dealing with crises and seeing so much more than his small world encompasses - and because there is still that small hope that refuses to die even after all this time.

All his instincts were right, he discovered in his later years at the IRT, pushing through a barrier leaves holes behind you that can gulp down entire bites of reality. It was still so tempting, that flimsy barrier all that stood between him and Eddy’s world when he was a kid, but even at the worst of his fears and desires, he never pushed - he saved them both by doing that.

Now most of his days consist in jumping through holes to explore other worlds before closing them. No math needed and it still boggles him how much he fucking studied just to end up having to be brave.

 

*

 

When Brett is twenty-three, he sees his best friend for the first time in eight years.

He’s in a wheelchair.

 

 

 

Part III

 

None of this was really planned. He just wanted to check, thought it wouldn’t hurt, when they discovered the hole near the sea and he realized he recognized the pull, the taste of the air - everything in here feels familiar and he knows his body has adapted to the place already. 

He doesn’t need to be told. It’s Eddy Chen’s reality.

So he leaves his team behind, heart beating out of his chest. It’s only once he’s in a plane for Brisbane - not his Brisbane, the other Brisbane, the one where Eddy grew up and went to violin lessons, the one where he had his first bubble tea - that it hits.

He can’t stay here. His team will close the hole and he can’t stay - the fact alone that he sneaked away during a mission will probably get him suspended.

It’s okay, you’ll just- you’ll just check on him. Just see him. Make sure he knows you exist. Then you’ll find something, maybe he can help you, he’s smart, you can figure something out together.

It’s crazy how eerily similar to his own reality this one is, there is basically no difference, a building here and there, different people and that’s about it, even the layout leading to the Chen home is the same as his old house.

Then a woman opens the door he knocked on. His memories of Eddy’s face are blurry, but he remembers enough to say she’s probably related to him.

“Hello, nice to meet you, I- my name is Brett Yang,” he gives his most charming smile. “I used to live here when I was a kid, is this still Eddy Chen’s house?”

“I don’t think I remember you,” her lips are tight and she doesn’t seem ready to let him in. “Were you at school with my son?”

“Yes,” he’s careful to leave his face blank of nervousness as the lie leaves his lips. “We played violin a lot together, we were really good friends.” This part comes much more naturally, voice warming up at the genuineness of his words. “Still are, I hope.”

There’s hesitation on her features, she keeps glancing behind her and Brett sees the opportunity.

“Please? I’m just passing through Brisbane, I won’t be here for long, it'd be such a shame to miss each other like that.” 

“Fine, but don’t upset him. He’s- he’s not well,” she seems hesitant when gesturing to a door he recognizes instantly. “I’ll make some tea. Go talk to him, maybe you can- I don’t know…” she shakes her head.

It’s foreboding enough Brett can steel himself, that his hands don’t tremble when he opens the door - it feels significant, touching that knob, pushing it, and nothing breaks because he’s here. Part of Eddy’s life.

So he jokes and the way Eddy’s face lights up when he finally looks at him makes him want to kiss him on the spot. Except he’s crying again and Brett swore the next time he touched his best friend’s lips, they would be devoid of salt.

Eddy’s eyes are bright and they look nice - the whole of him looks nice, way better at twenty-two than at fourteen. He knows he doesn’t have much time, his team is probably looking for him everywhere, he should leave, the timer on his watch is making him wince.

“I’ll tell you,” he whispers instead.

 

*

 

Now that he has Brett’s fingers touching his cheeks, everything seems surprisingly easy to believe. 

He’s from another reality? Well, yeah that makes sense, as long as his hand stays on Eddy everything makes sense.

He works for an interreality traveling program? Why not, Brett’s hardworking and determined, he can do anything he wants.

Brett just talks and talks, memories of him at thirteen roaming in that very same bedroom talking without end and Eddy would stop listening and just stare.

“Weren’t you supposed to not tell me?” he interrupts at one point because Brett seems very relaxed speaking about realities collapsing and agonizing death.

“Yeah, but I’m trained now, I know how to deal with it, I’ve- I’ve been in more worlds than you can imagine, Eddy, you should have seen it.” He delivers this in true Brett fashion, a bit matter-of-factly, a bit enthusiastic and Eddy can feel his pulse ricochet at the idea of his best friend being used to deal with crises and interreality travels.

There’s an arrow of admiration shooting up his spine and it morphs into something hot and sudden.

“It doesn’t sound real,” he blurts out and doubt crawls back as soon as the words escape.

It doesn’t sound real.

Everything about Brett barging in his bedroom to tell him about other worlds and reality traveling with hands on his cheeks feels like a fever dream while his own mind is paralyzing him in a wheelchair.

“No, no, no. You have to believe me, Eddy. I swear this is all true. It’s not in your mind, your mom saw me, remember?” There is panic crawling up on Brett’s features, something urgent and frenetic when he grabs Eddy’s hands until it almost hurts.  “And isn’t this- I mean, isn’t it too crazy for you to imagine?”

“You have no idea what’s too crazy for me…”

“Yes! Exactly, I don’t! I don’t because I’m real and you didn’t imagine me, so I don’t know your mind.”

Half hidden in a corner of the couch, he can see his mother throwing surreptitious glances through the open door at the sudden agitation in Brett’s voice.

“Let’s- Let’s not do that here. I can’t stay in this room anymore.”

“Are you su-”

“Didn’t you just say you’ve always wanted to do wheelchair races? Come on, push me around. Plus I’ve never- It’s always been-”

Only in this bedroom.

“Oh. Okay. Yeah, sure,” Brett breezes out with a smile that grows and grows, like he knows exactly what Eddy is thinking and is set on proving him wrong. “Let’s go out. Don’t fall behind.”

“Ahah,” his tone is dry but then Brett is behind him and they’re out of the bedroom, leaving Eddy’s sarcasm stuck in his throat.

“Where are you going?” His mom rises from her spot on the couch with a frown he barely registers.

“Out,” his head is dizzy from how disturbing it is to reconcile Brett with the outside world.

He doesn’t hear her answer, just a buzz of noises, the sun on his skin and people chatting around them, looking at him, looking at Brett, looking at them, together.

They’re sitting at a café and there is a treble clef in latte art that he stares stupidly at. Two cups on the table because there are two of them. Two little chocolates in their golden wrapper and the spoons are facing each other.

“You’re real,” he strangles over the words and there is no jolt of pain in his arm when he raises it to grab at the cup.

“Glad it took coffee for you to realize it.”

“Fuck you, this is-”

“I know.”

He glances up from the treble clef to catch Brett staring at him; his smile is stretching and crinkles are fighting at the corner of his eyes, his face has never been so soft and open. He looks like a man who can’t believe how happy he is.

 

*

 

The numbers on Brett’s wristband are sending him reminders that he has to leave - messages from his team and the clock ticking but he refuses to look at them because he’s finally having that date he fantasized about for years.

They didn’t manage to go to a concert, Brisbane isn’t the most exciting city even in this reality and Eddy is in a wheelchair, it’s all a bit fucked up but being around each other like this is exhilarating and he laughs every time Eddy opens his mouth even if it's not objectively funny. 

He can’t stop stealing glances at Eddy’s face - all the changes he didn’t witness happening. They haven’t seen each other in too long, started adulthood on their own and some of their old jokes fall a bit flat now that they’re in their twenties. It’s hesitant sometimes - Is this gonna upset him? Is this okay? Is this still the same Eddy I fell in love with? - words bubbling out unchecked in a frenzied desire to reconnect. But then Eddy will look at him a certain way - the shine of his eyes, the teeth showing when he smiles - will tell him about a shared memory and he finds himself lightened and laughing.

Energy is bursting at his seams, stretching his body thin; he can’t believe he ditched his mission to have a date with his childhood friend and the thought only makes him want to giggle. 

It’s getting a bit late and Brett doesn't know where they are - there are a couple of bars in the street; people shooting pool inside one of them, jazz music coming from the other. They finished dinner a while ago and are just sitting here, staring at the people passing in front of the Japanese restaurant, trying to imagine which instrument they would play. The game is forgotten halfway through as they just end up bantering like they used to when they were teenagers because Eddy keeps whining when Brett disagrees with him.

But the night falls and the air between them thickens when Eddy starts the story of how he ended up in a wheelchair. It’s hard to avoid guilt when he knows it’s partly his fault if his childhood friend doesn’t trust his mental state.

“I’m sorry- for leaving like that, for not telling you.” He can’t meet Eddy’s eyes, fidgets with the edge of his sleeve while he stares at the way his white shoes contrast with the dark floor, the dust accumulated from walking all day. “I don’t think it helped.”

“It didn’t.” Eddy’s brutal honesty rips a wince from him. “All that time, I thought I was- I thought I was making you up. That I was so much of a loser I made up my own best friend. It’s not- I don’t blame you though. You couldn’t- I mean, I get it.” 

From the corner of his vision, Brett can feel Eddy turning toward him, he’s sending him a smile, maybe, but the wheel mark on the fabric of his shoes Eddy left by rolling on his feet because Brett abandoned him on purpose at a table with strangers is far less likely to make him reveal emotions he would rather keep inside. 

“Also, it wasn’t all a bad thing. I was so dependent on you before, I only found out after you left. That I don’t need you.” Brett can feel something in him break, insides stretched around the pain to let it settle but Eddy doesn’t stop there, doesn’t even wait for dramatics, as if nothing in him is hard enough to bear hurting others. “I want you.”

“You do, huh.” He swallows and for the first time regrets not being in Eddy’s bedroom because there are far too many eyes around them - the waiter giving them an amused smile and the two girls sitting not far whispering to each other.

He feels self-conscious about the blush exploding on his face, descending on his neck and thank God he wasn’t looking at Eddy’s face when he delivered that line.

He never really knew- couldn’t be sure-

Eddy had cried when he kissed him eight years ago, never thought he was real. He’s twenty-two, now, had ten times the opportunity to meet the love of his life in music uni and they haven’t seen each other in so long - so many factors that left Brett shaky about the amount of love he was allowed to show. 

He’s been called the brave one so many times in his line of work, but he finds himself a coward about feelings.

“You have no idea,” his best friend swallows audibly and the leg on his wheelchair gives a twitch.

“I think I do,” Brett whispers, gathering just enough courage to raise his head and smile up at Eddy; it’s a bit shy, a bit flirty. “For me you were always real.”

“The kiss…”

“Oh, it was real.”

There’s a table between them Brett’s hands are shaking with how strongly he wants to reach out.

“The Navarra, four years ago, was it you?” Eddy licks his lips, staring at him with something new that makes both of them breathe a bit faster.

“Yeah.” His voice is raspy. “I’d hoped you heard. I’m glad.”

“Me too.” Eddy smiles with his teeth resting on his lower lip and his nose scrunched and it makes Brett want to say yes to anything he could ask.

“We should try and play it together sometime.” 

His chest feels too tight for what’s inside, pushing until it almost hurts. His watch is beeping like crazy now - the sound is muted but the light on the right keeps flashing.

“You’ll have to leave,” Eddy whispers.

“I- Yes. Yeah, I do.”

Eddy’s neck is on full display as he throws his head back and breathes through his nose, eyes fixed on the ceiling, looking like he’s trying to compose himself.

They’re the last clients at the Japanese place and the waiter is starting to wipe at the counter. Decency forces them to let the place close for the night and Brett is lazily pushing the wheelchair around, restaurant shutters falling down while bars and pubs explode with renewed vigor.

They stay silent on the way back to Eddy’s home and he’s starting to realize how selfish he was, to come here and wake up everything between them only to leave again.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have- I wanted so badly to see you, I’m always happy when I do but I didn’t think- didn’t think this through.” His left hand is tight around the chair’s handle. Eddy’s silence is driving him mad and for a second he wishes he were indeed born from his mind so he could tell what’s happening in there. “I love you,” he blurts and then the brakes are pressed and the chair stops instantly.

They’re almost at their destination, the residential area empty at this hour, dark streets unfurling around them.

“Not like this,” Eddy’s voice is tight. “This sucks. This is the worst confession.”

“Huh, I-”

“I can’t even see your face, come here and say it again, look at me in the eyes.”

“Fuck, I forgot you could be such a bossy brat,” Brett’s voice is thin and he smiles despite the ache spreading.

He feels too sensitive tonight, the barrier he built in his reality reduced to dust here. In Eddy’s world. He’s got nothing to protect him from his emotions; they swell under the surface to prickle at his skin, tickle his eyes and spill from his mouth.

There’s nothing to do but to obey the whims of his childhood friend. Steps around until he faces him. Until he sees Eddy’s lip wobble and his eyes glisten, the streetlamp a few meters away highlighting the sharpness of his cheekbone and the dent his teeth left on his lower lip. No tears fall though, bravely contained by the man he might be ready to abandon anything for. 

“I love you, Eddy,” he repeats because there’s nothing else to say. “I love you.”

“I don’t want you to leave.”

“I know.”

“Kiss me.”

“Alright.”

He leans down, braces his right hand on the armrest, left one catching the light curling around Eddy’s cheekbone. His pulse can probably be felt thrumming through his fingertips, nervousness exploding and this is ridiculous because he made out with so many other people but feels exactly as overwhelmed as his fifteen years old self kissing his best friend for the first time.

Since they first met, eighteen years ago, they’ve only kissed twice. One after ten years of seeing each other every day, the other after eight of searching. They taste strangely similar.

There’s no tears but Eddy sobs a little in his mouth so Brett presses harder to swallow every one of them. They slip down his throat, echo in his lungs and weigh heavy on his stomach. He doesn’t notice when his second hand leaves the chair to grip at the hair at the back of Eddy’s neck.

“I love you too, just- you know. In case you didn’t know,” Eddy’s breath is ghosting condensation on his glasses and everything that isn’t him becomes blurry.

“Yeah.”

He takes Eddy’s lower lip between his teeth and tug a bit, keep planting light kisses at the corners because he can’t seem to stop now that he’s started - he’ll never manage to catch up on eight years of half-formed fantasies in the last few hours he has here but it doesn’t hurt to try.

“I’ll come.”

“Huh?”

“With you. I’ll come with you,” Eddy asserts and it takes Brett out of his kiss-induced daze very effectively. 

“You can’t-”

“I’ll make it into that IRT of yours. Not to flex or anything but I was first at the entrance test for med school. I’ve always been top of my class in anything. I can do it.”

The smug turn of his lip tells everything he needs to know.

“You are flexing,” Brett throws back with a prickle of admiration for his fucking smart Eddy. He slips his hand from Eddy’s hair to cradle both of his cheeks - they fit diffently than what his fingertips remember from fifteen. “And don’t, this is ridiculous. You’ve got your whole life here.”

“What life? I gave everything to my violin and look at me. I had to take a year off uni, I haven’t touched my violin in months, I’ll never catch up quickly enough. I don’t want to be stuck- to stay a fucking casual as second violin my whole life when there are whole realities I could be discovering with you,” frustration is climbing in his voice as he stares down at his hand - the calluses that used to be imprinted into the skin are almost entirely gone from his fingertips. “You can’t- you can’t just barge in here, tell me you love me and go. It’s so unfair, I never got- I thought you weren’t real, I never had the time to enjoy loving you.”

“Eddy, think about it-”

“Yeah, I am. I am thinking about this and if you leave I won’t get over it.”

“I’ll find a way back, I promise,” he doesn’t even know what he’s doing, hands mapping Eddy’s face, just in case he ends up never seeing it again. “Another place where the barrier is thin and we can play life before. Or- Or I’ll stay. I can stay here. They won’t find me if I throw away the watch, I-”

“No, I want- I want to see; everything you told me. I want to live those adventures with you. I’ll get better, I’ll get out of this chair soon, and we’ll play again, do Navarra, maybe. We can come back here, together, if the research makes progress and-”

“What about your mother? This isn’t-”

“And yours? It doesn’t make sense for you to-”

Both of them are speaking too fast, voice climbing on top of the other like an out of rhythm section until a neighbors yells at them to shut the fuck up because midnight is hanging around the corner and they’re in the middle of the street.

He presses another kiss against Eddy’s mouth, but this one is a bit angrier and a tiny bit desperate because he doesn’t think he can say no to him any longer.

“Don’t shut me up with a kiss,” Eddy hisses against his lips but still melts into it.

“Don’t spout ridiculous ideas then,” he nips back at the lower lip that’s taunting him.

“Please. Please you can’t leave me stranded here while you go off on adventures, this isn’t fair. Give us a chance.”

He says us and the ache inside of Brett becomes larger and larger because he loves the sound of it so much he’s ready to give in.

“Eddy,” he closes his eyes and rests his forehead against his.

“Brett,” his best friend throws back with so much cheek he can’t completely fight a smile.

“I love you.”

He has only one answer, and it leaves his lips to melt into Eddy’s.