It didn’t hit him until he was securely upstairs. He closed the door to Howard’s old room – his room for the time being... his own room with his own bed where he could put his own things, Howard and Bernadette reminded him several times before sending him up to get cleaned up before going ‘into the mouth of the beast’ – and then sank down to the floor, his head buried against his knees. All at once the last twenty-four hours came crashing down on him.
It was gone. Everything was gone.
For the first time in a long time, Stuart let himself cry for something other than the lingering feeling of hopelessness that hung on his thin shoulders. Above the loss, the very real chance that the debt would all be on him, the fear that he could have easily died in that fire, was one overshadowing sensation: relief. It was gone. One chapter of his life was finished. Still alive, but moving on to something else.
There wasn’t time to linger in the moment, as tempting as it was to just let himself feel it out, Stuart pushed himself forward. He took a hot shower, put on the scrubs Bernadette had forced into his hands, and went to meet Mrs. Wolowitz.
“Where’s Howard?” the woman cried loudly, drawing out an immediate wince as Stuart scrambled to guide her back down into bed.
“My name’s Stuart, I’m gonna be taking care of you for a little bit,” Stuart said calmly, twisting to tuck a pillow under her back; “and if you help me out here, I’d like to bring you your dinner.”
“Dinner?” She paused for a moment, visibly calming at the offer. “There’s pastrami in the fridge...”
“Good, good...” he nodded; satisfied that she appeared to be accepting the offer. He moved on to the medication directions Howard had taped to her nightstand in front of an array of pill bottles and ointments. “Wow, you take almost as much medicine as I do.”
“I don’t like it.” She sighed; “They make me take it and I don’t like it.”
Shrugging one shoulder, Stuart went about setting up a cup with her evening pills. “Well, I can understand that. But, you’re a... fully... grown woman. Nobody can make you do anything. I mean, I can put them in this little cup, and I can bring a nice cold glass of milk and maybe some cookies to help wash them down – but you’re a big girl.”
“Oh.” She looked down, grappling for the remote control hidden in the nest of blankets and pillows.
“Now, I believe I’ve got a date with some pastrami and mustard.”
By the time he had put together a couple sandwiches – at Bernadette’s insistence that he should eat too and you’re living here for now, act like it – and managed to slip past the couple without fuss, he wasn’t really surprised to see Mrs. Wolowitz had already taken her medication and had the TV firmly set to Game Show Network. He smiled, a real smile which was both awkward and at the same time a little bit okay, and said; “The pastrami party has arrived, Mrs. Wolowitz – I come bearing warm sandwiches, but first I believe I promised milk and snickerdoodles.”
He waited for the shouting Howard had insisted would come, but she only grinned and took the tray with a polite; “Thank you, Stuart.”
“You’re, uh... you’re welcome. No problem. I hope you like it, Mrs. Wolowitz.”
“Not another word until you call me by my given name.”
“Oh, I couldn’t...” He blushed, shaking his head.
“You’ll call me Debbie and you’ll like it.” She glared, taking a bite that elicited a nearly euphoric groan. “Any man that makes a sandwich this good is like family.”
Stuart’s head dropped a little and he settled into a recliner set up close to the bed, idly fidgeting with his probably too-large sandwich. “Yes ma’m...”
“Sure thing, uh... Debbie.”
“Much better. Now, eat your dinner and afterward you can put the ointment on my feet.”
He didn’t hesitate, it sure sounded better than the alternative. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
Howard really didn’t know what he was talking about. Sure, she was a little heavy on the guilt and liked to try and get out of things she knew she should do but didn’t want to... but honestly, his Ma was a lot easier to deal with than most of the Comic Center regulars. Plus, he hadn’t had to diffuse a single argument involving Star Trek, movie prequels, reboots, or whether or not Superman could beat anyone else in over a week. And the pay was good... a roof over his head, regular good meals, and a little bit of cash in his pocket (a little less when he somewhat reluctantly reminded Debbie she didn’t have to tip him for doing his job).
“You’re such a good nurse!” Debbie grinned, happily accepting a green smoothie.
“I’m, uh. I’m not actually a nurse, I mean... I own a comic book store.” The memory of last week flitted over his mind and he sighed; “Used to own. It kind of... burned down. But this is a lot better.”
Debbie seemed to be thinking it over for a minute, then took a long drink and said; “I can’t believe there’s spinach in this!”
“Believe me, Nutella fixes everything.” Stuart shrugged from what had become his spot in the recliner, sipping one of his own homemade Nutella-spinach-banana smoothies. “Raj got me on this whole Pinterest thing, I’ve got a lot of new recipes I want try.”
“Raj? That Indian boy Howard hangs out with?”
Stuart nodded again, “I mean, I kind of hang out with all the guys but we got really close while Howard was on the space station. I even lived with him for a little bit but I had to move, things just got... weird.”
“Oh,” she answered simply, letting a quiet fall between them as the Smith family from Canton, Ohio won the Feud. Then, drawing Stuart out of his slight television-induced daze, she said; “Did you drive him into the arms of another man?”
“What?!” Stuart’s face burned pink, and he ran a nervous hand through his curls; “No! No... it... it wasn’t a gay thing. We’re just friends.” Friends who shared a bed and certain things may have happened that involved a good deal of rubbing and not being able to look each other in the eyes for a couple days, followed by several months of hypermasculinity in an effort to appear somehow less attracted to each other.
“What’s weird about that? He and Howard used to have sleepovers all the time in their Superman pajamas and stay up late doing the most horrible things...” She laughed; “I’m supposed to think they were jumping on the bed, but I’m no dummy.”
And if the implication wasn’t enough to leave Stuart bright red behind the ears, her certainty more than was. He stared blankly toward the television, attempting to compose himself before asking in a somewhat shaky tone; “You really think they... I mean... you know...”
“A mother knows these things, Stewie...” She shook her head; “Rajesh is a good boy, I trusted him to keep Howard out of too much trouble.”
“Yeah, he’s a good guy... we’ve been, uh... trying to meet women together but now he’s got this girlfriend and it’s pretty good for him so whatever, right?”
“Your Rajesh with some man-stealing harpy!?”
“No! No... no... it’s... we were never a thing. It wasn’t like that.” Stuart shrugged, “I mean, I always thought he was a bit... curious... but he likes women – and I like women, just... sometimes it’s different and there’s a guy that’s just...” he trailed off a bit in his own thoughts, going over far too many things in his racing mind before breathing quietly; “perfect.”
Debbie was silent for a long moment and then heard a loud sniff, drawing his attention to her. “That is... so... romantic... I can’t... you need to call him... I’ll call him and tell him what you just said...”
“No!” Stuart forced himself up out of his chair, nearly upending the bottom half of his drink as though she could get to the phone in the other room any faster than he could. “No, it’s fine. Like I said, he has a girlfriend and he’s happy now. And I’ve... I’ve got you and that’s pretty awesome.”
“Oh Stuart, you deserve better.” She shook her head, letting out a loud sigh; “Come here, you need this and I’m not getting up.”
It was awkward, almost painfully so, but Stuart leaned in anyway and let her arms squeeze him far too tightly for a long moment – more than a little comforted by the big hug. “And you... deserve peanut butter cookies!”
He thought about it, of course, just calling and asking why things didn’t work out and hey, it’s cool if you’re a little gay, I am too. And of course those thoughts got immediately squashed by thoughts of rejection and humiliation and losing the person that was pretty much his best friend for the last couple years. It wasn’t fair. It was awkward and weird and yet when Raj texted to see what he was doing it took him less than five minutes to tap out a reply and invite him over to watch a movie.
And it was less than twenty minutes before Raj showed up with a bucket of fried chicken and the Avengers DVD.
Just like that, all things fell right back into place. “I can barely eat...” Stuart laughed, nibbling at a leg dipped in gravy; “I swear, she’s feeding me like she thinks I’ll run away.”
“I thought you were feeding her?” Raj lifted an eyebrow, eyes glued to the opening scene. “Maria Hill is such an unsung badass... I mean, sure the Avengers are great and all – but where’s her movie?”
“Well, it’s sort of... I make the food and I bring the food and if she thinks I’m still hungry I get more and then make popcorn for TV time.” He shrugged; “It’s kind of nice, actually. I mean... nobody’s really looked after me like that.” He almost added ‘except you’, but Raj would have been too busy cheering on the chase to notice it.
“It’s good, you need someone to make sure you’re taking care of you.”
“Yeah...” Stuart sighed, setting aside his barely touched plate and picking up his sketchbook. He’d screened the movie for months in the store and could pretty much quote it from heart.
“You’re drawing again? I thought you weren’t doing that anymore? That’s great!”
He shrugged; “Guess I’ve sort of been a little inspired. Now that I don’t have to worry about the store or money and I’ve kind of got a purpose...” Life’s a little okay, not amazing or anything but at least five steps up from where he was.
“Inspiration is good!” Raj grinned, sliding a little closer to peek over his shoulder.
Stuart hugged the paper to his chest and rolled his eyes; “No fair looking! It’s not finished yet.”
“Oh come on! You know I love your art.”
“I know... it’s just not time.” Stuart fussed right back, managing a small smile. Deflecting the attention, he asked; “How are things with Emily?”
The deflection worked, a smile curved Raj’s lips and then a slight frown... and then a subdued look of confusion. “It’s great... I mean, the sex is amazing...”
“But she kind of scares me, and not in the way that girls normally scare the pants off me. More like in the ‘could possibly be a serial killer’ kind of way.”
“Ahhh...” There really wasn’t a reasonable response to that; “So what’s the plan? I mean, if she does turn out to be some kind of maniac.”
“I haven’t really thought that far... I mean, we’d probably have to break up. I don’t know if I could date the female Dexter. How weird would that be?”
“But then you could have like a bunch of kids and wonder which ones got the ‘crazy’ gene... be a whole family, half-psychopaths...”
“Sounds kind of like Thor.”
Shaking his head, Stuart laughed; “Yeah, but Thor had Chris Hemsworth... I mean, who can compete with that?”
“I dunno, I’ve been working out... I could be ripped...” Raj lifted up his shirt and sweater vest, clearing his belt to show his creamy caramel belly and a small smattering of dark hair that drew an audible noise of appreciation from Stuart’s throat.
“I... uh... I think Agent Coulson’s pretty hot, so I’m not really the best judge...” Stuart shrugged, lifting up his pad to block out the tempting sight as much as hide his blush.
“Dude... Coulson is the man! Have you seen the TV show?”
Stuart dared to lower the book and peek out, thankfully a little calmer than a moment before and seeing only the untucked shirt lying across Raj’s zipper. “No, no... I was waiting for DVD.”
“We have to watch it together; it’ll blow your mind.”
“I’d like that...” his smile returned, albeit a little reluctantly in light of his minor panic.
“Now, Captain America... he’s just dreamy...”
Stuart could practically hear Penny having a field day with that statement, but ran with it. “He’s definitely got the body...”
“And those chiseled features; the man looks like he was carved by angels...” Raj sighed as though luxuriating in the mental image; “Not to mention he’s got a good heart. He still believes in what’s right and what’s good.”
“Okay,” he mock conceded; “I’ll give you dreamy on that one.”
“Everybody does.” Raj grinned ear to ear, leaning in close. “You should totally draw him.”
“It doesn’t really work like that... I mean, art school was basically hell because it was always ‘draw this apple’ and what if I don’t want to draw an apple? What if I want to draw a naked fairy in a waterfall?”
“You should totally draw that naked fairy.”
Stuart laughed; “I should show you my old notebooks. Lots of naked... uh, everything.”
“Sure,” he shrugged, “women, men, genderless aliens... pretty much anything that caught my attention at the moment.”
“Nice...” Raj replied, staring at the movie for a drawn out moment as the statement slowly dawned on him. “Do... a lot of not-women things catch your eye?”
Stuart had taken to drawing in the prolonged silence, making short feathered strokes with the half-flattened nub of his current favorite pencil that immediately stopped with the awkward question. It was his moment of truth – he could fess up or try like hell to play it like he had no idea what Raj was talking about. “Uh... I’m not really... comfortable...”
“Dude... you can tell me!” Raj protested; “I’m your friend, right?”
“Yeah…” he bit back a little bitterly, holding his sketchbook across his chest with both arms folded tight as though it might guard him somehow. “I… I can’t. I can’t do this, Raj… we’re not going to talk about this.”
For a moment it looked as though Raj was going to persist and press the issue even further, instead he shifted back down into the sofa and picked up a half eaten biscuit - staring at it intently. “It’s okay if you’re not totally hetero or whatever… I mean, I’m very open minded and I want to listen.”
“Yeah… open minded.” Stuart laughed, running his long fingers through a ragged curl with a sigh; “I mean, for someone who never told me that he used to sleep with his best friend yeah… you’re hella open minded.”
“Did you just use the word ‘hella’ non-ironically?” A large crumb lingered on his lips, finding its way down the front of his vest where it was carefully plucked up and set on a paper plate. “Because that’s not cool… like… at all. Even nerds don’t say hella anymore.”
“Of course.” Stuart nodded, swallowing a deep breath - forcing himself to think about what he was saying and not indulge the anxious frustrated knot in his gut. “Because that is what you’re getting out of what I just said.”
He seemed to make a grand gesture of leaning forward and putting down his nibbled biscuit, but Raj wiped his hands and did finally manage to make a fleeting moment of eye contact before turning away and saying; “I never did anything with Howard, believe me… if I did it would have been a whole lot easier explaining why I freaked you out so much you had to move just to get away from me.”
“I didn’t move to get away from you!” It was a knee-jerk response, but Stuart rolled with it - why not, everything else was already dangling in the breeze may as well get all of it out. “I moved because I did something really stupid and then you couldn’t even look me in the eye because I’m a freak!”
They both paused at the thought, a thick silence settling in the six and a half inches between them before a loud voice called out; “Tell him that he’s perfect!” Debbie called from the back room, eliciting both a groan of frustration and a anxious squeal of self-doubt.
“Don’t listen to her… she’s crazy, it took like… three Ambien to get her to sleep and…” Stuart rambled, trying anything lighting in his mind to make the knot ease even a tiny bit; “Hey, look! Naked Ruffalo!”
“It’s not naked Ruffalo for another twenty minutes, stop trying to distract me!” Raj shot back; “This has nothing to do with the Avengers!”
“Okay, I told you that I don’t feel comfortable and right now I have to say that’s a major understatement because I’m pretty sure if you don’t stop talking my body is going to physically climb out of my skin and run away.” Stuart’s hands shook, his face was flushed pink and mottled. He felt like he was going to throw up. Of all the stupid ways for the afternoon to come crashing down around his ears it ranked right up there with forgetting to put in an order on Monday night and dealing with a horde of angry nerds that need new comics.
He’d rather have the nerds.
“Relax.” Raj closed his eyes, turning sidelong to face him; “Take a deep breath…”
“I’m fine…” Stuart whined, his breathing betraying him with a jagged wheeze. “This is just… stupid… and I’m pretty sure this is not a good thing…”
Raj’s hand came out to gently rest on Stuart’s knee and he jumped like it was on fire but he let it stay put no less. “Okay, I want you to look at me, Stuart… I know this is awkward and horrible and believe me, I’m familiar with awkward and horrible situations.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Howard and I have a very complicated friendship…”
“I’m not listening…” Stuart whimpered, closing his eyes. “I don’t want to hear this.”
“Nothing ever happened because… well… it’s sort of…” Raj trailed off and shook his head, scooting a little closer on the the couch to curl his fingers over Stuart’s boney knee. “There are some people that are amazing and you think you want to be with them in like… every way. Like even sexually.”
“I know where this is going, Raj and it’s fine… you don’t have to let me down easy. I’m… I’m an idiot… I know, you’re straight and I’m weird and let’s just watch some explosions, okay?”
He pushed forward, despite the protest; “But it doesn’t work out because maybe you just want something you can’t have but in the end you end up really good friends and that’s cool because it’s almost like dating someone without all the worrying about stuff.”
“Yes, friends. Good. I’m a good friend-guy.”
“That’s Howard and I.” Raj paused a long moment, smiling softly when Stuart managed his eyes open - looking more past him than at him. “We both freaked out before, and now you’re freaking out and I’m thinking it’s because you like me and you think I don’t like you.”
“Oh, you got that? Well, I’ll call Benedict Cumberbatch and tell him to move on over… Sherlock’s got nothing on you…” He was angry, frustrated with himself more than anything. The whole thing was stupid and humiliating and he really… really… wanted it to be over.
“I watch a lot of Lifetime…” Raj mused, adding a moment after; “the thing is, all of those movies have this weird twist where it turns out that maybe the guy you thought didn’t like you really does but he’s too shy to say anything about it and sort of pushed you to move out of his excellent apartment because he didn’t want you to feel like things were getting weird and you could still be friends even though he’s not quite as straight as you thought he was.”
“You lost me, Raj… just… just let me down easy and walk away, okay?” He whispered, knocking Raj’s hand away as he tucked his bare feet up under him and laid his face into his knees.
For a moment, Raj just sat there, stunned and a little hurt that Stuart was just shutting him out like that when he had said something vitally important. Then the familiar, far too loud, voice came again; “For crying out loud, Stewie! Tell him what you’re really thinking and get to the credit sequence so I can finish my nap!”
A small laugh shuddered down Stuart’s spine, his shoulders tugging forward as he peeked up with eyes a little too-familiar to both of them - he’s not doing well. Not with this situation, at least. “You’re…” he sighed, shaking his head as he pressed his face into his scrubs once more, muttering loudly; “too perfect for me.”
Raj’s smile spread slowly, warming across his lips and then suddenly dipping back down to a hesitant drawn-up curve. “I’m not… really. I think maybe we should have probably talked about this before I was dating a potential serial killer.”
“So… you’re saying…” Stuart’s brows came together, his head lifting back up fully; “that I am being an idiot and you really are kind of into me?”
“In fairness, we’re both idiots.”
Stuart shrugged, conceding that yeah… they were both being kind of idiots. “I guess now at least it’s out there and you know… and I know…”
“And I know that you know…”
“Sorry.” Raj glanced down and licked his lips, sliding close enough for the legs to touch before reaching out to part Stuart’s knees with an easy touch; “I liked you before Emily… and Lucy…” He sighed; “And Lucy again…”
“Why didn’t you… you know… maybe say something instead of acting like I was being weird?”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
Raj nodded; “Yeah. We’re idiots.”
“Horny, hopeless, anxiety riddled… idiots.” Stuart half-laughed, closing his eyes; “This is a disaster.”
“Not a total disaster, at least it’s out there now… and we have chicken… and naked Ruffalo soon so there’s that…” Raj gestured back toward the screen; “And you’ve got me.”
“And you’ve got a girlfriend. Who might be even more unstable than I am.”
“And I’ve got a girlfriend.” Raj sighed, nodding to himself as Stuart seemed to relax a little. “Maybe it won’t work out and instead of killing me and putting me in the freezer she’ll just call me a loser and post my pictures of me in hobbit cosplay on Facebook?”
“Yeah… not the sort of comfort I’m looking for here. I… I didn’t tell you so I could be some kind of consolation prize.” Though honestly, he’d totally take being the consolation prize… everyone loves Rice-a-Roni, right?
“I just wish you would have said something…”
“Hey, you totally had that option…”
“And so did you!” Raj shot back with a pout; “This is on both of us. We are equally bad at reading each other’s signals.”
“Or anyone’s signals.” Stuart shrugged, slowly relaxing his legs back down and tilting his head back to check the clock. “When’s your date?”
“I never said anything about having a date,” Raj answered a little too quickly, looking back toward the television where Hulk was actively smashing.
“You’re wearing your date night cologne. I can smell it a mile away.” Stuart’s lips twitched toward something almost like a smile; “I kinda figured you were killing time watching a movie with me until you have to meet her for dinner - you’re eating now so she won’t think you’re a pig when you eat in front of her. Which if she liked you she totally wouldn’t because it’s not true but you worry about anything that could possibly make you look any worse than you already think you do.”
Raj’s cheeks warmed and he looked at the quarter-eaten box of chicken and shrugged. Stuart wasn’t wrong. “You noticed my cologne?”
The twitch spread to the other side of his mouth, Stuart’s heavy eyes warming as he looked his friend over. “Why wouldn’t I? It’s totally different from your daytime scent and works better with your shower products.”
Raj grinned; “Someone’s been peeking at my Pinterest!”
“It’s your fault! It’s addicting… I made potpourri the other day for the little clown basket in the downstairs bathroom.”
They both laughed and Raj shook his head; “Okay, that was a little bit gay.”
“Yeah… just a little bit. But it doesn’t really matter, I mean… it’s cool. Right?”
Raj nodded, subtly checking his watch and then glancing back at the television before turning his dark eyes back to Stuart. “You know what else is a little gay?”
“Knowing exactly how many minutes there are until naked Ruffalo?” Stuart teased, “Or celebrating naked Ruffalo for that ma…”
He cut off Stuart’s words with a swift, clearly unexpected kiss - awkwardly catching his upper lip, but laying claim to the moment with a swipe of his tongue to part them just briefly.
At first, Stuart almost pulled away and let the panic respond for him again; but when he felt the warmth of Raj’s hands cupping his cheeks he couldn’t help but let himself give in to the moment.
“Are you kissing?!” The shout startled them both out of their moment, a laugh escaping both of them in the hair of a moment it took to catch their breath. “You had better be kissing that boy!”
Stuart giggled awkwardly, cheeks pink as he turned his head to call back; “Yes, Debbie!”
“Atta boy, Stewie! You show that devil women who deserves a good thing!”
“Okay, that was a little mean…” Raj whispered, grinning ear to ear.
“We’re working on it, Debbie!”
She was quiet a second before shouting back; “I can put my headphones on if you need to go upstairs and be alone together!”
“Oh my god…” Stuart whispered, the blush running down his neck and dipping under his collar. “You should probably go before she wants details…”
“I’ll text you.” Stuart smiled despite the curled knot still lingering in his belly at what any of it really meant. “Have fun.”
It took a long moment for Raj to move, sliding slowly to the edge of the couch and rising up with a deliberate palm pushing down against his rumpled shirttail. “I’m sorry,” Raj said quietly, looking down at the mess as he quickly cleared it away; “I’m cursed with horrible timing.”
“Hey, at least you know if things don’t work out with she-Dexter I’m great for a rebound.”
“Maybe I’ll break up with her?”
Stuart shook his head, tracing a small circle on his pants with one long index finger. “Don’t. Okay? Maybe you two are meant to be, you know? I don’t want to be a problem.”
“You’re not a problem… your timing on revealing this little bit of pertinent information maybe… but you’re…” he took in a deep breath, sighing heavily; “you’re perfect.”
“The promise of naked Ruffalo has clearly altered your perception of just who you’re talking to…”
“Shut up, okay? I mean it. You’re… you’re amazing, and you think I’m amazing. And that’s pretty…”
“Amazing, yeah.” Stuart sighed, clasping both hands across his knees. “I’ll talk to you later, okay? Have fun with Emily…”
“You too…” A thin smile barely turned Raj’s lips and for a moment he looked as though he might reach out toward his friend, but instead he tucked both hands into his jacket pockets.
“Oh yeah, Wheel’s on in like a half hour and then I get to give Howard’s mom a sponge bath.”
Neither one of them needed that mental image.
“I’ll text you when I get home…”
“Don’t be weird about it, I mean I know if my boyfriend was dashing off texts to someone else while I was on a date I’d be pretty freaked out.”
“I’ll text you every ten minutes.” Raj’s grin stretched, even as he headed toward the door. “I’ll be thinking about this.”
Stuart waited until the door had closed and he heard the small motor on Raj’s car outside the front window before he lowered his face back down to the relative comfort of his knees - letting himself stew in what was actually kind of the best-case scenario.
“Stuart! Did he leave? What happened? I dozed off for a second!”
“He’s, uh…” Stuart shifted into motion, pushing up on his feet as his brain shifted off himself and onto more important things. “He’s got a date. With his girlfriend.”
“Oh…” Debbie answered, the obvious sting of the thought in her voice. “You need cake.”
“Yeah. I need cake.”
“There’s emergency flour in the pantry, third shelf next to the emergency frosting.”
“You’re a good woman, Debbie.” Stuart replied, leaning in the bedroom doorway with a half smile; “We’re good.”
“We’ll be better with cake.”
“Yeah.” Stuart nodded, more to himself than her words; “We’ll be better.”