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Bingo Night at the Egbert-Striders

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The first time I saw Dave Strider, he almost died in my arms.

Who is Dave Strider, you ask? Dave Strider is a loud-mouthed, shameless, hilarious, unbelievable mess of a man with the blood-eyes of a demon in the face of an angel. And, until last night, my best friend.

Four months ago Strider blew into my life like a whirlwind lit by a blaze of red and blue lights and heralded by the screaming of the ambulance siren.

“What do we got?” I asked the paramedic as I ran next to the stretcher. I could see it was a young guy, eyes closed, lips pale and blue.

“Overdose,” the EMT said. “Clonazepam and alcohol looks like. Guy’s sister found him.”

Even unconscious, Dave was magnetic. His Billy Idol-pale hair was greasy and sticking up in spikes around his head. Blue veins lined his inner arms and his vulnerable-looking throat. Bruises, some fresh and angry, some faded green and yellow with time, marred his alabaster skin. As I cataloged the injuries, he seized. I caught him as he slipped off the stretcher, holding him until the seizure passed. He was so still, I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. After what seemed like an eternity, he gasped then sagged down, unconscious again.

When we undressed him, I could see he was much too thin, ribs clearly visible. And yet somehow, he was beautiful to me. While the doctor got him settled in the bed, I watched the shallow rise and fall of his chest, fingers resting lightly on the pulse in the bend of his elbow.

The coma lasted six days.

Day seven, and I’m in the middle of a pressure-ulcer check. I have Dave turned on his side, checking the skin for any sign of irritation. I talked to him as I worked. I’ve had more than enough patients tell me about the horror of listening to doctors talk about how they’re probably going to die soon to not assume he could hear me.

“Skin looks good here, guy.” I ran my fingers down the ladder of his spine. All seemed fine. “A little sunshine wouldn’t hurt, though.” I tilted him onto one side, a hand on his hip to steady him. “And you might want to eat something every now and then.” I did a visual and physical inspection of the skin above the buttocks. “Looks a little red here, buddy. I’ll try to fix that.” I touched him, feeling for heat or a change in the skin’s texture. As I started to lower him gently, he grunted quietly. The muscles under my hands shuddered, the first movement I’d seen since the seizure. Gently, I lowered him back down.

“David?” I move to the head of the bed.

His eyelids fluttered, and I reached for his hand. “David Strider?”

His mouth moved but he spoke too softly to be heard. I leaned closer, his breath a whisper against my ear. “What? What is it?”

“Usually,” he wheezed out around the tube in his nose. He coughed. “A guy has to buy me a drink or two before he gets to touch hot Strider ass.” He rolled his head, straining to open his eyes. I couldn’t be sure, it could have been an after-effect of the coma, but I could have sworn his pupils were bright red. Candy apple red, blood red. He managed to summon an acceptable leer before passing out again.

Unbelievable. Of course, the more I got to know Dave Strider, the more believable it seemed. The man is incorrigible.

***

“Still not gonna buy me a drink before fondling to the goods?” he asks two days later as I lift up the blanket to check his catheter. “Not that I blame you for wanting a piece of this.” I can’t help but notice that the hair on his groin is growing back. It’s a white as the hair on his head. Dropping the blanket, I pat his thigh.

“I’ll try to slip some vodka into your NG tube. How’s that sound?”

“Like we’re getting into some Mother Russia healthcare system in here. Snorting vodka right up the old schnozz like Napoleon's troops trying to hide from the grahzny bratchny cossacks scorched-earthing their own homes,” he says, reaching up to touch the tube threaded into his wrinkled nose. It’s a struggle, his muscles quiver with the effort, but he reaches it. Sweat beads on his brow by the time he drops his arm back to the bed.

“I have no idea what you’re saying, but whatever. No alcohol.”

I lift his feet to check his heels. It all looks good. Dave has no shortage of nurses willing to check on him, re-position him, and chat with him, day and night. He told me I was his favorite. I liked to think it’s true.

“How long do I have to have this thing in anyway?” His voice is still weak, his diaphragm not quite working the way it should yet, but that only slows him down. Nothing can stop him completely.

“Think you can get up and walk to that bathroom?” I point and he turns his head. That bathroom might as well be a mile away, I know. He can’t even lift his legs up yet. He knows it, too.

“No problem. I got it locked down like Lindsay Lohan.”

“Does that mean we’re all gonna get an upskirt shot of you at last?”

Dave snorts. “If there is anyone left in this damn hospital that hasn’t be all up into my skirt and my pretty panties yet, I’ll eat your shorts.”

“Why mine?”

Dave gestures to his naked legs.

I shrug. “Point taken.”

I don’t know Dave Strider all that well, but I can tell that most of his good mood right now is bluster. The strain of his ordeal is finally starting to show. If I had to bet on it, I’d say he was scared. And who would be?

He sighs. “Shouldn’t I be better by now? I bet you’d be better in a day. Put into a coma by some Lifetime TV lady heroine kind of beautiful tragic disease of the week. Languishing all pale and fey on your bed like some Secret Garden wicker wheelchair riding fifteen-year-old girl. And one day when your loved ones are all gathered around, clutching their hankies and talking about all those puppies you saved and which one of them is going have to deal with your clown collection-”

“My father gives me those! It’s not like I want them. And besides, they’re harlequins, not clowns.”

“Whatever, dude. Harlequins. Anyway, they’re handing out Harlequins like they’re Dramamine on the Titanic, and suddenly up jumps Egbert. Hair perfect, makeup perfect, yawning and stretching like Dorothy when she wakes up in Kansas, blinking those cerulean orbs you got tucked behind those drag queen eyelashes saying ‘Oh my goodness? What happened and why is everybody in such a grand old tizzy?’”

I roll my eyes but I can’t stop the smile I feel on my face. He smiles back, eyes crinkling. I don’t know why, but the way he is looking at me, makes me blush. I turn away. He doesn’t. I can feel his eyes on me.

The silence that fills the room feels different than usual. I’m reluctant to leave, not sure how to get Dave to say what is on his mind, but equally sure he has something he has to ask. I busy myself straightening out the little tray table next to his bed. It’s got a small mp3 player on it I brought in for him. I filled it with audiobooks I thought he would like, since he wasn’t up for holding or reading a book yet and hospital television is nothing but a basic cable wasteland. He really likes epic fantasy more than anything realistic. And definitely stuff where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

“So...” I say.

He doesn’t look up, just picks at the loose thread on his thin blanket. I make a mental note to bring in a blanket for him. I have this deep burgundy one on the back of my couch that would be warm and cozy and look good on him. Why am I picturing him on my couch now?

“So,” he echoes. “Where am I and why is everybody in such a grand old tizzy?”

At first, I’m puzzled. Where else would someone who had been in a coma be? “You’re in the hospital. You were in a coma, remember?”

Now he looks at me. Eyebrow quirked, lips pursed. “Really? No shit.”

He looks back down, reaches for the sunglasses that are never far from his hand, and slides them on. He licks his lips and I hand him the water bottle from the tray. “No, why was I in a coma?” His hand wraps around mine on the bottle and I freeze

“You, you don’t remember?”

He shakes his head.

“You, well, you overdosed. I..” God this is hard. Knowing him like I do now, which, granted isn’t that long, but still, it hurts to imagine him in such despair. “I think you tried to kill yourself.”

He yanks the bottle away from me and takes a long sip, shaking his head as he does. “Impossible. Striders don’t give up. It must have been an accident. Next question.”

I tilt my head. Sometimes it’s hard to follow his train of thought. Oh, who am I kidding, most of the time it is.

“Why is nobody all in a grand tizzy? Has anybody -” he stops, looks away, voice cracking. “Has, uh, anybody been in to visit me while I was doing my Snow White impression? Or was it all flittering birds and Bambi and Thumper laying flowers at my feet and draping me in silk and lace after the dwarves call 911.”

“Oh. A girl, Rose. Your sister?”

“Step-sister,” he corrects. “Flighty broad, but cool.”

Before I can say anything else, the door slams open. “Screw you, Strider,” the flighty broad says. She kisses me on the cheek as she passes. “Hello there, John.”

“Hey,” Dave objects. “Don’t kiss my nurse.”

“Too bad.” She tosses a white paper bag at me. “You can kiss him next.”

“He said I have to be able to pee on my own first.”

Rose plops down on the bed at Dave’s feet. “Ooh, a man with standards. I like that.”

Not quite sure what the look Rose is giving me means, I look through the bag to buy some time. Ooh, gushers. I pull out the bag. “Woah. Roboberry Ultra Blast! They don’t make these anymore. Where did you get them?”

She waves me away. “LaLondes have connections. You want gushers? You get gushers.”

“But how did you even know?”

She tilts her head to Dave. “A little birdie told me. Now leave. I need to talk to young David here. A serious talk, capisce?”

“Yes ma’am.” I shove the gushers into my pocket. If my coworkers see them, I’ll have to share, and no one gets my gushers. “Dave, buzz if you need anything.” He doesn’t answer. Rose has turned to him. Her face is solemn and she holds Dave’s hand while reaching out to pull off those damn shade. I leave as quietly as possible.

****

“So Rose is pretty awesome,” I say, digging through the mound of blankets on Dave’s bed looking for the remote he says he dropped. I was right, the burgundy throw does look great on him.

He shrugs. He’s been quieter than usual since Rose left to go back to whatever island she lives on with her girlfriend Jade. The snippets of information I got concerning what they were up to there made me want to not ask any more questions. I think I heard the words ‘genetics’ and ‘laboratory’ somewhere. Some mysteries are better left locked.

Before she left, Rose had cornered me in the hallway. “We need to talk,” she said. One of the hospital’s toughest administrators spotted Rose and stopped walking so fast she almost fell. She looked wildly around before bolting through a door I’m pretty sure was a closet. But then she didn’t come out, so maybe I was wrong.

“What’s up?”

She drew me to a chair against a wall and proceeded to tell me what she assured me was the bare bones of Dave’s story.

Rose’s Mom had married Dave’s dad for a bit. Then he died and mom split. Dave lives with his big brother, who they both just call Bro. I didn’t ask why and she kept going. “I think Bro’s taking serious advantage of him,” Rose says, tears hovering in the corner of her eyes. “I can’t get that idiot to actually say anything. But reading between the lines,” she shakes her head. “Every time I’m there, the fridge is empty. Always seems to be the day right before shopping day. But, well, you’ve seen.”

Yeah, I have seen. Dave is about twenty pounds underweight.

“And their Dad, well, I never saw him hit the kid, but he never missed a chance to tell him what a piece of shit he was. Bro was the golden boy. I’m sure he has kept up the loving Strider legacy.”

“Damn. But why doesn’t Dave just leave? He’s a grown-up, right?”

Rose sighs and pushes her hair behind her ears. “He will kill me when he finds out I’m telling you this. Wait until I’m in the air at least.” She turns more into me, leaning forward so no one will overhear. “Dave can’t leave. He’s severely agoraphobic. He has panic attacks when he leaves the house. He can’t even go to the store. And that asshole Bro knows it. He loves to go away for the weekend and ‘forget’ to leave food in the house, or forget to leave cash so Dave can order stuff in.”

I don’t know what to say. I’m caught unprepared by the information and for the flood of feelings coming over me. I am so angry at this mysterious Bro, so hurt for Dave. I feel a wave of protectiveness I’ve never experienced before. I want to bundle Dave up and take him home, keep him safe. I want to ride over to Bro’s and challenge him to a duel. Smack him across the face with a white glove, pistols at dawn, the whole deal.

“I know that look,” Rose says. “You’re under the Strider spell.”

I shake my head. “No. I mean, I just, you know, feel bad for him. That’s awful.”

Rose looks skeptical. “Uh huh. Where’d that blanket come from? And the mp3 player? And the comfy sweatpants? I know Bro didn’t bring those. Though I did get him to sign off on all the financial stuff.”

“He needed those things. Hospitals suck. He just looked so...”

“Alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, I know.” She wipes the tears that fell. “I tried to move back, to bring him to live with me and Jade. But Bro wouldn’t let him.”

“Why not? Doesn’t sound like he wants him around.”

Rose stands up, pacing the hall. She stops, stands in front of me, hand across her mouth like she’s trying not to say something. She sighs, drops her hand. “I swear to God, Egbert, if you tell Dave any of this, I will sic Jade on you. And she’s an expert marksman. You think I’m scary, you should see my girlfriend.”

I hold up my hands. “I promise. Not a word!”

“Money. Bro was getting Dave’s death benefits from their dad’s death. But now he’s too old and the money’s stopped. I think,” and she looks away, shaking her head. “I hate to say it, I hate to even think it. But I think Bro did this to Dave. I think taking care of him wasn’t worth it anymore.”

I can feel my eyes widen, my jaw drop, but I can’t control it. “You think he, he tried to...murder Dave?”

She nods.

“Well, fuck.”

To my surprise, Rose smiles. “But there’s one thing Bro doesn’t know. And if you’re game, I think I know a way to save Dave.”

And that is how Dave Strider came to live with me.

****

 

“Egbert! Eeeeggggbert! Help me, you nerd.”

The cry comes from the living room. I finish up the grilled cheese and tomato soup, ignoring Dave for a minute. I know what he wants. My plan is working.

“I swear to God, Egbert if I have to -”

He stops complaining as I put the plates on the coffee table. It’s movie night. We always eat in the living room on movie night. Okay, fine, we always eat on the coffee table. But it’s different on movie night. On movie night, It’s deliberate.

Dave struggles to push himself upright and I resist the urge to help him. He’s almost back up to where he was before the coma, but that wasn’t great to start with. I’m forcing food down his throat like he is a Thanksgiving turkey.

“I couldn’t find the remote,” he grumbles, reaching for a sandwich. “And it’s Nicolas Cage!”

With a grin, I sink back next to him on the loveseat. Neither one of us is what you would call big guys, but it’s a small loveseat and our thighs press together. His legs are cold through the sweatpants and I pull the burgundy blanket over his shoulders. Dave wasn’t made for Seattle weather. He should be somewhere hot and dry, with the sun burning deep into his bones. I picture him lying on a chaise lounge next to a pool soaking up the sun. Red Speedo barely covering him and his collarbones like a shelf on his chest, his hip bones pressing tight against his skin and ooh boy I need to find a girlfriend and fast.

“Yes it is, my pale friend. And not just any Nicolas Cage. It’s ConAir. The creme de la creme of Nicolas Cage. The cagiest of the Cages with a cupful of Cusak, a medley of Malkovich, and a soundtrack the muses would envy.”

Dave looks at me, grilled cheese stopped halfway to his mouth, which hangs open. “You’re insane,” he says.

I smile at him as wide as I can. It’s going to be a good night.

Of course, Dave is asleep by the time Cameron Poe is reunited with his loving wife and daughter. The top of his head ends up tucked under my chin, his arm around my waist, long legs hanging off the side of the loveseat. His usual t.v. watching position. “Hey,” I say, clicking off the television. “Wake up.” I shake him gently.

“Don’ wanna,” he mumbles, burrowing deeper against me. “Comfy.”
“Well that makes one of us.” My leg went numb twenty minutes ago and I have to pee so bad I can taste it.

“No,” he pouts.

“Daaveee,” I say, pushing at him, shifting him. All that manages to do is make his hand slip under my shirt where’s it’s pushing up. My legs slips between his and I feel his breath hitch against me. His fingers are cool, the skin soft where his fingertips slide up my side. When my hand tightens in his hair, the main thing I notice is how soft it is. Dave’s just soft all over. Well, almost all over. The only thing I can hear is the blood pounding in my ears. If it wasn’t for the way his fucking fingers keep rubbing slowly up and down my side, I would think Dave is still sleeping. Why is his hair so soft?

“John,” he says into my chest.

“I have to pee,” I say, jumping up and dumping him onto the floor. Cold tomato soup goes flying as I almost but not quite hurdle the table.

*************
“Hey, Egbert. What’s up?”

“Nothing. Nothing really.”

“You don’t call at almost midnight for nothing.” Beat “Is this a booty call?”

“Vriska...”

“That’s not a no. Well, I’m flattered, really. You miss me that much?”

“I miss somethings.”

“Yeah, my ass apparently. So is this a booty call?” Pause. “You don’t get it if you don’t ask for it. Or have you finally stopped lying to - “

“Yes, it’s a...booty call.”

Laughter. “Nice.”

“Well?”

“I’ll be there in half an hour. Your boyfriend is okay with this?”

“Dave’s not my boyfriend. He’s a friend. A guy, in need. I’m helping him out.”

“Don’t get your panties in a wad. As a matter of fact, take those panties off. Take everything off and make sure the door is unlocked. I’ll come over and chase all those nasty gay feeling away with the power of my pussy.”

“Vriska, ugh. I’m not gay.”

“Whatever gets you through the night. See you in thirty. Try to be awake.”

*******

The next day is the start of four 12-hour shifts in a row at the hospital but I manage to find time for a phone call.

“Rose, is Dave,” I pull the phone close to my face, “gay?”

“Yeah,” Rose answers. “Didn’t you know? Is your gaydar broken? Must be why you’re still single. You’re not hideous, and you’re gainfully employed. Do you go after straight guys?”

I give in to the urge to bang the phone against my forehead. “I’m not gay.”

I hear static for a few second, the background of waves maybe. Rose confers with someone I assume is Jade. I just get snippets of their conversation. “ - gay as a Republican congressman in a public restroom,” Rose is saying.

I hang up.

 

*******************

“Why did I agree to this?” I ask Rose as she mixes up a vat of margaritas in a blender I didn’t even know I owned.

“Because you love us,” she says, pouring the fluorescent green liquid into five cups.

“But it’s movie night.” Even I can hear the whine in my voice. “Movie night is sacred.”

“Jade and I decided to drop in, surprise you boys.”

“Who in their right mind just drops in from -”

A boom of male laughter from the other room cuts me off. Dave’s sweet laugh and then the deeper booming laugh of Karkat Vantas. A sorta friend from high school who’d followed me into nursing school and somehow decided we were buds. As if three years of cleaning vomit and shit could erase four years of catcalls and pretty boy jokes from the whole football team. Karkat was the one who was gay and yet I was the one getting sexually harassed. Figures.

When the red plastic cups are filled, an inch of so of icy alcohol is left in the bottom of the blender. Rose holds it out to me, raising her eyebrow in a question.

“I”m good.”

“More for me.” She tilted the glass mixer back and green sludge slides down the side and plops into her open mouth. “Oww, oww.” She hops around the kitchen, waving her hands. “Ice cream headache!”

Jade comes in, takes one look at her girlfriend and asks, “Ice cream headache?”

I nod.

“Got it.” She grabs Rose and shoves her against the wall for a deep kiss.

“Does that help?” I ask.

Jade pulls away and shrugs. “Doesn’t hurt.” She goes back in.

A low whistle and a clap comes from the doorway. Karkat Vantas slouches against the door frame, his wide shoulders almost filling the opening. At least he’s shorter than I am. “Nice. I didn’t know it was going to be that kind of a party.” He grabs two of the cups.

“Take your jacket off and stay awhile,” I suggest. Who still wears their letterman jacket four years after high school. Let it go already.

Karkat tilts his head towards the other room. “Hey, Johnny boy, what’s your friend’s name again?”

“Dave.” I smile, imagining Dave picking out the cashews from the nut mix I’d put out, sneaking into the After Eights. Hey, my dad taught me how to throw a party with style.

Karkat takes a sip, coughs a little at the alcohol content. “Woah. Yeah, well, he’s kinda hot. You guys like...?”

“Like what?” I take my own cup. Rose and Jade have stopped making out and walk over to get their drinks.

“Like dating or anything.”

“Why does everyone think I’m gay?” I ask.

Karkat holds up his hands. “So that’s a no? Sweet.” He disappears back into the living room with the two drinks.

Somehow, frozen margarita starts to ooze over the top of my cup and down my hand. Without saying anything, Jade takes the now cracked plastic cup out of my hands and gives me a shot glass filled with amber liquid. I down it without thinking. Straight tequila. I sputter but drink it down.

Three hours and numerous shots later:

“No, no, it’s like, like, good.” I fumble the remote onto the floor.

Jade laughs from where she’s curled up on the floor in a nest of blankets.

“It’s, it is!” I press play and the aptly named National Treasure starts to play. And it is. A treasure. And national. Somehow.

Karkat groans. “I’m gonna need more alcohol for this. Nic Cage sucks.”

I struggle upright to defend my man’s honor, but Dave’s feet in my lap push me back down. He smiles at me. Which is sweet, but also ruined by the fact that his head in is Karkat’s lap. Stupid couch big enough for three.

“Nah,” he says, reaching up at Karkat. He smacks him drunkenly in the nose. “Ssh, Car-kitty. This one, this one’s not so, so bad. National treasure two.” He tries to hold up two fingers.

“You’ve seen it already?”

“Movie night, man” His fingers trace the freckles scattered across Karkat’s nose. “It’s like, our thing.” He digs his long toes into my thigh and snuggles further into the couch. “I like your freckles. That’s like your thing.”

“Yeah?” Karkat asks. He grabs the bottle of tequila and takes a long swig. Holds it out to Dave who waves it away.

I don’t like the way Karkat is grinning at Dave. I really don’t like the way his fingers are combing through Dave’s hair. And I flat out hate the way Dave’s eyelids flutter closed when Karkat does it. Don’t touch my friend, I think. Just as I about to say it out loud, Rose stops me. Her hand is soft on my arm.

“Let’s play a game while we watch,” she suggests.

“Yeah!” Jade agrees from the floor. She crawls up onto the loveseat, dragging her blanket nest with her. “Settlers of Cataan.”

“Strip poker,” Karkat suggests with a super annoying waggle of his eyebrows. He probably thinks it’s smooth. Jerk. Dave’s feet are cold in my lap and I start rubbing them. He makes a happy sound. Spin the bottle is his contribution to games. My brain freezes, stuck on the image of a spinning bottle, caught on Dave’s lips. I stop massaging his feet, my hands wrapped around his delicate ankles, thumb rubbing against the bone. He’s watching me, behind the shades he wears day and night, I can tell. He doesn’t look away until Karkat leans over him to grab something off the table.

“Truth or dare,” Rose says in a voice that brooks no dissent.

“I’ll drink to that.” Karkat raises a brand new bottle of tequila and pours shots for everyone. I know I’m going to regret this in the morning but Dave won’t stop looking at me even as his arm reaches up around Karkat’s neck and it’s pissing me off. Or something. I don’t know. I just would rather have another drink.

A few rounds of truth or dare later and we have learned among other things:

Karkat slept with most of the football team. JV and varsity.
Jade would totally merge her DNA with a dog's if she could.
That I was a virgin until college.

We’ve seen Dave sing I’ve Been to Paradise on the front lawn, dressed in a sheet toga.
Rose do a shot of something that Karkat mixed.
Rose almost vomit.
Rose and Jade make out for seven minutes.

(I think that’s a different game, Dave.
Who cares? They don’t seem to care.)

“Truth or dare,” Rose asks me.

“Dare,” I say. I’m done spilling secrets in front of everyone. On the television, Nic and his Scooby gang are headed up Mt. Rushmore.

“I dare you to kiss Dave,” she says. Rose laughs.

She stops when I lean up and drag Dave away from where he’s leaning against Karkat’s chest. Unbalanced, he falls hard against me and my legs spread on their own to make a space for him.

Kissing Dave is a revelation One part of my brain desperately hopes I will remember it in the morning, the other part is praying that we both are blackout drunk soon. There’s no way this ends good. But, god, it’s good now. His lips are warm and soft and they open against mine. My hands fist in his shirt pulling him closer and he moans. His hands are in my hair. I kiss him until I can’t breathe and my heart is pounding in my chest.

He pulls away, gasping for air. His glasses are gone, somewhere on the floor or crushed between our bodies. His eyes are dark and wild, his hands clamped down on my shoulders and I’m not sure if he’s pushing me away or keeping me there.

Rose and Jade are gone, the lights in the house are off.

Dave is pressed against me chest to thighs. I can feel something pressing against me. His dick, my brain supplies unhelpfully.

“Fuck, yeah,” a male voice says from somewhere down my feet. “Always knew you had it in you, Egbert.”

Karkat? Why is he here?

Dave lean in, intent clear in his eyes and the press of his hips against me. I close my eyes, open my mouth, and the room lurches around me. “Oh, God.”

Dave is heavy against me as I flail and push at him. “Off, off. Oh, god.” Karkat catches on first and yanks Dave off of me just in time for me to roll off the couch onto my hands and knees.

“John?” Dave sounds confused.

I’m coughing and groaning and trying to stand up and then thank all the angels in heaven there’s a bowl shoved in front of me. Tequila, chocolate, pepperoni and the lining of my stomach pours out of my mouth like a demon leaving my body. The room spins like a top and that’s all she wrote.

********

Later. It’s dark. My bladder fights with my head and stomach to see which can cause me more pain. I'm stumbling in the dark, banging into the dresser (bedroom, I'm in the bedroom), smacking into the door frame.

Darkness in the hallway. Light from the street lamp pushes into the living room.

Bathroom tile cold under my feet and I drop down on the toilet so hard it rocks.

After I pee I hear soft moans and creaks from the living room. A deep voice gives a heartfelt “fuck, yeah.” Then “yeah, just like that.” I close my eyes.

***********

“C’mon. Time to get up.”

Something yanks at me and I fight back. It drops me on the floor.

“Sweet troll jegus, I’m too drunk for this.” A body slides down the wall next to me. Tight fit. Dave, I realize and I let myself fall into his lap. My arm wedges itself between his back and the wall, my fingers sliding up under his shirt.

************
I wake up in bed. Dave is next to me. Dead to the world and naked as the day he was born. His skin is white and smooth as porcelain. I want to touch it, kiss it. Pain hits me from every direction and I want to die. Not gay, I think. With a Herculean effort, I roll my head to the side. Some angel creature has left a handful of white pills and a glass of water on my nightstand. Almost crying with pain, I push myself up on one elbow and swallow both. My throat is raw. Blackness creeps up from behind my eyes and drags me back into hell.

*************

Sunset is creeping through the windows by the time I drag myself into the kitchen. My stomach lurches at the smell of food. Rose and Jade sit at the table, fully dressed, looking like actual humans. I hate them.

“Good morning, princess,” Rose says. She lifts up a bottle of tequila. “Hair of the dog?”

“I will kill you,” I promise, falling into an empty chair. “And then I will drive down to Mexico or hell or wherever it is tequila lives and burn all the cactus, cacti, that the demons use to make tequila.” I dropped my head into my crossed arms on the table.

“So that’s a no,” Jade says. She rubs circles on my back and it feels so good. I think I whimper and push my head into her hands like a dog begging for pets. “Toast?” she asks. “And tea.”

“Uh huh,” I whine.

She kisses the top of my head, the leaves to get the bread. I turn my head to watch her. Rose laughs and I glare at her. “She can stay,” I say. “You are evil and have to go. Take your brother with you. I’m sure he’s responsible for some of this.”

Rose chokes on her drink. “Yeah?” she sputters. “You think? What do you remember?”

“Besides tequila? And Karkat?” It hurts, but I roll my eyes anyway. I hope that douche didn’t kill anybody on his way home. “I remember Dave...singing? And Jade wanting to be a dog?”

“Woof,” she barks, putting the toast and tea in front of me.

“You’re a goddess,” I tell her. The toast tastes like I imagine ambrosia does. I chew contemplatively as pieces of the night come back to me in horrible, Technicolor flashes. I put my head back on the table. “Where’s Dave?” I can barely hear myself. I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

“He’s, uh, out,” Rose answers. “With your friend.”

I lift my head up. “Out? As in, out of the house? Out the door? Outdoors?”

She nods.

Oh. I guess Karkat’s magical dick is all it takes to cure agoraphobia. He should bottle it and sell it on television. I remember the feel of Dave laying on top of me. Remember the feel of his mouth and a flash of the sounds coming from the living room last night. The chair falls over as I stand up. “I don’t feel so good,” I say.

Jade and Rose exchange a look I don’t even try to interpret. “Thanks for the tea, Jade.” I hug her, stretching a little to kiss her cheek. “I’m going back to bed.” To bed. In the room I share with Dave whenever Rose and Jade stay over. The bed he was naked in this morning. Fuck.

****

Several hours later I’m approaching human and I hear the front door open. Then Dave’s saying goodnight to the girls and walking down the hallway. But it’s okay. I’m ready for it. I have a plan. Plucked right from every sitcom on the t.v. I sit up, grabbing my phone so it looks like I was doing something besides staring at the ceiling.

The door opens.

“Hey,” Dave says, hesitating in the doorway. “How’re you feeling?” He’s an outline in the light from the hallway, his white hair like a halo around his head. His glasses are off.

“Much better. Jade made me toast. The last thing I remember eating is tequila.” I try a laugh. It’s sounds kind of real, I guess. 85% anyway.

Dave rubs the back of his neck and looks down. “Yeah. Crazy night, eh?”

“Oh, yeah.” I reach over and flick the bedside light on. Dave’s wearing tight black jeans and a tight red t-shirt. He’s filled out over the last few months and everything he owns is tight on him. I wish I had a glass of water. His face looks worried, though. Eyebrows drawn together, a crease between them. “So,” I say. “You went out?”

He nods.

“That’s, that’s great. Really. Good start. How, uh, how was it?”

He steps fully into the room, closing the door behind him. “It was good. I mean, kind of scary,” he huffs a laugh. “But good.”

“And you went with Karkat?” I don’t even roll my eyes a little. I mean, Dave can do better but whatever.

Dave comes over and sits on the bed. It dips under his weight and I roll a tiny bit towards him. “Yeah, we just drove around.” He picks at a thread on the blanket. “Is that okay?”

I scoff. I’m cool with it. It’s great Dave’s going on. Getting better. Probably going to move out. That was the goal, right? Get Dave well? “Yeah. It’s cool. I mean, why wouldn’t I?”

Dave turns, dragging one leg up onto the bed. He’s almost touching me but not. His eyes burn into me and I’m caught like a mouse in front of a cobra. “Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “I thought maybe you’d be jealous.”

“Why, why would I be jealous?”

Dave shakes his head. “Don’t give me that. I know you remember kissing me. You kissed me. And you liked it.” His eyes flick down to my blanket-covered crotch and I just barely resist covering the family jewels with both hands.

I can’t believe we’re having this discussion. How can I make him understand? I’m going to have to go with the truth. It’s my last chance. “Dave, I love you like the brother I never had. You’re my best friend. But I’m not gay.”

“But you kissed me.” His eyebrows draw down low over his mesmerizing red eyes.

“You were gay chickening me! In front of the girls!” What was I supposed to have done? Let Rose and Jade think I was afraid to kiss a guy? Because I totally was not. Am not. If I was gay, I mean.

“Gay chicken? Is that what you think was going on?”

“Of course. Why else would you have been fake snuggling me on movie night? Movie night, Dave. It’s sacred. And it was National Treasure two.” I shook my head. How could Dave ever have thought I would back down while Nic Cage - man’s man, unironically cool Nic Cage - was on screen.

“I couldn’t let you win. Nic Cage was watching.” I smile to let him know I’m just kidding, that everything is cool between us. He doesn't smile back. I try again, grabbing him by the shoulders to show him how sincere I am. “Dave, I only kissed you ironically. It’s not gay if it’s ironic.

Dave stares at me, hands on his hips, red eyes narrowed. I can see his tongue pressing against his cheek. He runs it over his teeth behind his closed full lips, as if remembering something. I remember how soft his lips were when I bro-kissed him. Like friends do. Friends who kiss sometimes. Once.

Dave clucks his tongue sadly and shakes his head. “And the blow job? Was that ironic?”

I can feel the blood rushing to my cheeks and other, hopefully, less visible, places. Oh god. So that had happened. That memory was actually really vague. I was clinging to the thought that it had just been a very dirty dream. And that if it had happened, Dave had been so drunk he had forgotten. I guess not.

My brain goes offline. All I can hear is the beeping of a flatlining heart. Dave stares at me, those devil eyes burning into my brain. Seconds pass. He frowns, shaking his head. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” He stands up.

“Wait,” I say, grabbing his arm.

He looks at my hand, then at my face. He looks so sad, so resigned. “What?” he asks on an exhale.

“I’m not gay.”

“Yeah, so you said. Multiple times.”

“I can’t be gay.” I drop his arm.

He crosses his arm over his chest. “Why not? Do you get cut out of the multi-million dollar Egbert baking empire if you don’t marry sweet Mary Sue and raise 2.4 kids and a golden retriever? Are you secretly a woman thus making your semi-resistible attraction to my tight ass and a nice, hard johnson a heterosexual response? Is the membership too expensive? Do you have the wrong shoes? Why can’t you be gay, John?”

“Because then all those assholes who bullied me and made fun of me would be right,” I mumble. It sounds asinine even as I say it. But not being gay was the only shield I had had against the onslaught of taunts and humiliation that came my way.

Dave doesn’t say anything. When I risk a look up at him, his mouth is hanging open and he’s rubbing his hands up and down his arms. He closes his mouth, looks away. Looks back, mouth in a hard line. He sighs. “Do you know one of Bro’s favorite things to do?”

I shake my head soundlessly. Dave never talks about Bro. Ever. Once Rose and Jade got his money straightened out and warned Bro to stay out of Dave’s life - I think Jade’s shotguns were involved in the warning - it was like Bro ceased to exist. As Dave’s hands moved up and down his arms, I remembered the bruises that had covered them.

“He played Bean the Fag. He would throw his fucking smuppets at me while calling me every insult he could think of and some he made up on the spot. Fucking faggot was the nicest thing.”

“So how...so why didn’t you tell him you weren’t gay? For self-protection.” I pull my knees up under the blanket, hugging them, trying to get the mental picture out of my head.

Dave leans in close to me, hands on my kneecaps, face an inch from mine. “You know why? Because fuck that guy, that’s why.” He pulls away in a flash. “And fuck you, too, for being a coward, Egbert.” He grabs a bag from the closet. “I can’t do this anymore. “I’m a mess, yeah, but I won’t hate myself for who I am.” He storms out of the room.

I shut the light out and lay in bed, blanket over my head, listening as he packs, argues with Rose and Jade, and curses me. When the front door slams, and I hear Rose’s car pull away, tears start to fall.

The door to my room opens, a rectangle of light falling across the carpet. “John,” Jade calls. I don’t answer.

“You can hide all you want. But you’re going to lose something amazing. I’ve learned a lot about you these last months. But I never knew you were such a self-hating, homophobic coward.” She leaves the door open when she goes.

Now you know. Now we both know.

***********
My eyes are crusted shut. I remember crying myself to sleep over Dave leaving me. I’m a fucking moron. As usual, I knock my glasses to the floor reaching for my phone. As it rings, I promise unseen forces to give up all my bad habits, my firstborn, my heart for him to answer.

“Yeah?”

“Come home.” I can hear him breathing.

“John.”

“Please. I’m an asshole. A fucking moron. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was such a coward. Come home.”

The phone crackles with his deep sigh. There’s a strange echo. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to go. So much for grand exits. But, John, it’s not that easy.”

I struggle into a sitting position, clenching the phone. “I know.”

He sighs again and I can picture the look on his face. It’s would the same one he’d had in the hospital when he thought no one was looking. When he would rub at the places where the IVs pierced his skin. When he was so weak, I had to hold the cup of ice water up to his face.

“Please come home,” I say again. There’s a soft thud against my door, then the sound of something or someone sliding down in. I can’t help it. I smile.

“I don’t think I can just be your friend,” Dave says, and I hear it through the door and a heartbeat later through the phone.

“Can you be my best friend and, and more maybe?” I close my eyes as if I can hide from the rejection I know I deserve.

“What kind of more, John?” His voice drops an octave I swear. Suddenly, I remember last night’s blowjob in technicolor surround sound. Lust stabs me low in my body and I can’t hold back a groan.

Dave laughs.

“I am so gay,” I say.

“Yeah you are.” His head bumps against the door.

“Get in the room already, Strider.”

He doesn’t hang up, but the door opens slowly. “Are you sure? Sure you’re ready for this.” He’s looking right at me.

I shake my head. “Not even a little. But when you left, it felt like I was dying. That’s got to mean something, right?”

He’s right up on the bed now. “I hope so.”

He looks at me. I look at him. It’s my move. I know it. I’m the one who messed up. Who lied.

“Hey,” I say. “Truth or dare?”

“Dude, I told you to steer clear of that game.”

“It was Rose’s idea.”

He licks his lips and leans in closer. “For that matter,” he says, “You should probably wash your hands of flighty broads and their snarky horse-shit altogether.”

A muted ‘hey!’ and a loud shushing comes from the hallway.

“Truth or dare?” I repeat.

“Both.”

“Okay, truth first.” Deep breath. “I think I love you.”

He climbs up onto the bed, crawling over me and forcing me back down. When he stops, he’s kneeling over me. I’m trapped in a cage of his legs and arms. I can feel the heat from his body. I grab his arms and close my eyes against the intensity of his gaze.

“Open your eyes,” he growls into my ear. My body arches up into his and I open my eyes.

“I dare you to kiss me,” he says.

That I can do. As I pull him down, I hear faint cheers coming from the hallway.

Dave pulls away. “That’s right,” he yells towards the door. “This is how we do this. This shit’s more real than kraft mayo. It is like fucking Christmas up in here.”

“Dave,” I say sharply.

He turns back to me. “Yeah?”

“Shut up and kiss me.”

He does.

[A/N - and then they have scorching hot sex that would melt your monitors, doing things that would send you to confession every day for a month. There’s cursing and God's name being used in profane ways. People passing out. Multiple male orgasms and broken headboards. But I’m not going to write that, you filthy animals, because I’m not that kind of girl.]