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fons et origo (or, the story of how wyatt and eddie met from beginning to end to beginning)

Chapter Text

"I expect you to be home by four."

"AM or PM?"

"Eddie."

"I know, mom, I know," he wrestles with his seatbelt for a moment as he laughs, "I was just joking.  The concert ends at two and the station's not far from here.  I'll be back before you know it."

His mother's face crinkles, the way it does when she's worried for him but doesn't want to say so, and Eddie can't help but notice the way her furrowing brow tugs at the turquoise fabric of her hijab.  "Just.... be safe. Please."

He smiles softly at her, pulling the edges of his beanie down over his reddening ears and kicking the door open as he says, in the gentle voice he reserves for her, "Main vada kerta hoonami."  When the nervousness vanishes from her eyes Eddie allows himself to relax, and as he stumbles backwards out of the car he speaks again- "Besides, I'm almost a junior!  I can take care of myself."

"But you can't learn to drive?"  she jokes back, and Eddie knows she'll be okay.  They say one last goodbye, Eddie leaning over the console to kiss her cheek lightly, and then he's slamming the door and standing alone in the dirty summer air of Atlanta, Georgia.  He watches his mother's PT Cruiser pull out of the curb and putter away, disappearing into the crowd of traffic gathered outside of Tabernacle.

Not only is this his first concert going alone- its also his first time having tickets in the pit. His heart is already beating one hundred miles per hour, adrenaline singing in his veins as he strides on shaky legs to the entrance of the concert stadium.

The wait in line is about twenty minutes, all of which Eddie spends staring wide-eyed at the people around him. Almost everyone is clad in raggedy band shirts, dirty jeans, fried-and-died hair spiked in wild mohawks.  He shuffles along with the line, moving forward every time the security guard yells out "Next!".

Eventually it's his turn to show his ticket, which he does with almost pride- he hands the little piece of stiff paper to the guard, who looks uninterested in everything happening around them- and cheers inwardly when they rip the ticket and hand it back to him, with a bored "Take a left and go down the stairs to the stadium's floor.'

The inside of the stadium is no less crowded than the outside.  The constant thrum of conversation echoing throughout the halls of the Tabernacle vibrates in his head and he tugs his hat down onto his ears to muffle the white noise.  He passes many concession booths, selling a variety of goods- crisp, black t-shirts with lyrics splayed on the front; wristbands, sweatshirts, and wallets; CDs, alphabetized and piled into cardboard boxes; artificially flavored cherry red slushies and funnel cakes.  It's overwhelming to him and he almost wishes a friend of his was there with him.

There's no time to regret not buying another ticket or inviting a pal along, though.  Through the static of the PA system, he strains to hear the band being introduced.  Almost instantaneously, the tides of the crowd changes, as everyone there hurries to see the show begin.  Eddie follows, taking the stairs down to the pit the way he'd been instructed.  Here, another security guard, this time one wearing a smile, takes his ticket and inspects it carefully.  Eddie swears, up and down, he's never smiled so big as when the man waves him through.

The atmosphere in the pit is unlike anywhere he's ever been before.  It's wild and free and loud and pulsating, spreading through the throng of people like a fire, and it's almost claustrophobic. 

Hours pass but it only feels like seconds, everything smells like sweat and fast food and marijuana and Eddie realizes he's never felt more at home.  The music is loud, like, ear-shatteringly loud, and he can feel the drumming in his chest, a second heartbeat.  With every bass chord the ocean of bodies surges in near-unison, chaotic yet fluid all the same.  All he can see is the starless city sky, all he can hear is the wall of noise surrounding him, all he can feel is-

-his fist connecting with something solid, like bone.

It startles him, to say the least, and he stops immediately to find exactly what- or who- it was he hit.

He feels a wave of guilt wash over him when he spots the man clasping at this face, slightly hunched over in pain.  Eddie moves over to the stranger with the intention of apologizing, but he only gets a few words in before the man glares up at him and interrupts.

"Dude, what the hell?"  he growls, rubbing at a spot just above his lips and beside his nose.

"I am so sorry, man," Eddie speaks, a little alarmed by how angry the stranger sounds (to be fair, a voice in his head says, you did just punch him in the face), "I didn't mean to!"

"Yeah, well," the man spits out, voice harsh more from the pain than actual anger, "you still kinda hit me in the fucking jaw!"

"I know, I know," shit, this is not going as planned, "I'm sorry," when the man looks no less frustrated, Eddie nervously fake-checks his watch.  It's almost one in the morning.  He's been here for three hours, and suddenly he feels more than hears his stomach growl, and the hunger hits him.  That's when he gets an idea.

"Hey," he says, and the man gives him an exasperated look, "how about we head to that diner across from the stadium?  I'll pay- think of it as my apology."

The man looks wary for a moment, before finally shrugging.  "How can I say no to free food," he grumbles rhetorically, and together the two of them sift through the crowd towards the exit.

On their way out, Eddie learns a few things about the other man- his name is Wyatt, he's a sophmore whose on summer vacation like Eddie, and he's high.  That last one he finds out once they're outside of the stadium, standing in the deafening silence on the curb.  He turns to say something to Wyatt and notices the redness of his eyes and the smell that clings to his clothes.

Wyatt seems to notice Eddie's noticing, but pointedly looks away from him as though to say 'don't ask about it'.  So he doesn't.

The diner is literally across the street, and once they're inside Eddie releases a breath he didn't know he was holding.  The gentle atmosphere gets even Wyatt to relax, and the two are led to a booth in the back of the mostly-empty restaurant.

Wyatt orders a lot.  Like, a lot.  Part of Eddie thinks he's just doing it out of spite, but the weed might also be part of it.  They end up getting a plate of waffle fries, a coke and a malt, a short stack of pancakes and some bacon.  He doesn't even eat all of it, the asshole.

The tension slowly melts away, however, as the two talk and eat- awkward and unsure at first, but pretty soon neither of them can shut up.  They talk about Mortal Kombat and JJBA and their favorite bad movies (Wyatt's is The Room), they talk about their respective schools and even end up exchanging phone numbers.

"Y'know," Wyatt says, popping a waffle fry into his mouth, "aside from you punching me in the face, you're pretty cool."

Is that a compliment?  "Yeah, I get that a lot,"  Eddie jokes back (and he's trying his hardest to seem casual and not like he actually really wants to impress this jerk).  When Wyatt smiles a bit, Eddie can't help but smile in return.

"So... Does this mean I don't have to pay for all of this?"

"Oh hell no."

Chapter Text

Summer is drawing to a close when Olivia finally breaks.

"Just ask him out!" she cries in frustration, earning shocked silence in response, "For fuck's sake, Ed, you are being ridiculous, just call him."

Eddie doesn't even bother asking his thirteen-year-old sister where she knows that language from (it's him) and instead focuses on the main issue here.

"No, that'd be weird," he retorts, half-assed and bitter, "we only saw each other once and that was in early July."

"Yeah, but you won't stop talking about him, so the normal boat has kinda sailed here," she says pointedly, and Eddie hates her, hates how much sense she makes, "Besides, he's been texting you back, so it's not like it'll be out of the blue or anything.  Just invite him out some place."

The person in question is, of course, Wyatt, the mysterious blond-haired stranger from the concert nearly two months ago.  Eddie had been back and forth texting and emailing with the guy ever since he'd punched him in the face that fateful July night, and, before long, he was head over heels.  Too embarrassed to approach his parents about the topic, Eddie had taken to gushing in private to his younger sister, Olivia.

Which got very old very fast.

"Where would I even take him?"  Eddie ponders aloud, oblivious to his sister's growing fury, "I don't wanna bring him here."

"Please don't," Olivia says with a grimace, "Find some place casual.  Like the movies.  Or the arcade."

And that's... not a bad idea.  So Eddie thanks Olivia, to which she just rolls her eyes, and rushes to his room to text Wyatt.  They agree upon something- upon Wyatt coming over to pick Eddie up, because he still can't drive himself, and then heading out to the local arcade-slash-diner.  Neither calls it a date, but either way, Eddie's stomach flutters nervously when Wyatt accepts the invitation.

The following four days are torturous, and Olivia only finds herself victim to her elder brother's whining more than ever.  But soon enough, Friday rolls around, and Wyatt's red Toyota SUV is pulling into their driveway at noon.

"Okay, mom, I'm going!"  he calls out, desperate to escape his house before his mother can meet Wyatt and inevitably embarrass him.  He shoves some fifty bucks into his hoodie pocket, puts his sneakers on halfheartedly, and yanks open the door, "See you later!"

Wyatt is half way up the drive when Eddie slams the door shut, stomping his feet on the doorstep to get his shoes all the way on.  "Am I not invited in?"  Wyatt laughs, only half joking.  Eddie just shrugs, taking a few over exaggeratedly big steps down the porch to meet him on the driveway.

"Trust me, I'm doing you a favor," he says as he nudges Wyatt away from the door, "My parents are embarrassing."

Wyatt chuckles at that but doesn't answer him, instead clambers back into the driver's seat as Eddie circles around to the passenger side.  The inside of the car seems pretty fitting to Wyatt's personality- months old comic books litter the floor and an empty cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee sits in the console's cup holder.  It's cleaner on the driver side than the passenger side, but that doesn't bother Eddie much at all. Wyatt shoves some empty CD cases into the glove box to make room for Eddie in the car seat, offering a mumbled apology.

"S'fine," says Eddie, "Cleaner than my car."

"I don't doubt that."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Wyatt smirks and shrugs vaguely, "Means you seem like a slob, man."

Eddie scowls in a way that is very obviously disingenuous, "You're a dick, Wyatt."

"I know."

The car ride to the arcade takes about fifteen minutes, full of nonstop harmless bickering and shitty car radio sing-alongs (at least on Eddie's part).  The arcade itself is rather small, located in the corner of a family recreational center alongside a bowling alley and pizzeria.  The atmosphere is loud and hectic and anxious, and Eddie flinches at the wall of noise that greets him when they open the double doors.  The floor is pitch black with nearly painfully neon colored nonsense-shapes, the infamous type of bowling alley carpeting.  Somewhere, beneath the high pitched squeals and yells of children, the sound of pop music can be heard playing from the speakers.  Wyatt laughs when he sees the grimace on Eddie's face.

"Regretting this decision?"  he asks mischievously as they weave between running children, Eddie jumping whenever a particularly loud one shoves into his leg.

"No, I just," he measures how to best word it, "I'm not good with noise."

"You?" sneers Wyatt in disbelief, The guy I met a rock concert in the mosh pit?"

"That's different!"  It's a good point, though, Eddie has to admit, but he insists, "Music isn't noise, it's... it's different, okay?"

Wyatt rolls his eyes, but they've reached the change-to-token machine before Eddie can rebut.  One quarter for one token- a fair deal, Eddie's book.  Wyatt purses his lips though.

"What's wrong?"  Eddie asks incredulously, "You can't possibly think that's expensive, right?"

"One dollar only gets us four tokens, so for five dollars we only get twenty tokens," Eddie does the mental math, and yeah, that checks out.  It still sounds like a good deal, though, "And ten dollars only gets us forty."

When Eddie's brow furrows in confusion, Wyatt sighs and simply says, "At my old arcade, one dollar got you ten tokens.  This is a rip-off."

In comparison, Eddie has to agree.  This does seem kind of needlessly expensive, and four is a shitty number anyhow.  He can only shrug, though, and when Wyatt opens his mouth to make another complaint Eddie shoves two dollars in the machine without question.  A moment passes as the machine churns and rattles, and then there is the tell tale sound of cheap metal clinking against plastic.  He kneels down to the slot and pulls out the eight, shiny, faux-gold tokens, each imprinted with the arcade's logo.  When he stands back up, Wyatt is glowering at him and his seeming waste of money.  Eddie just shoots back a sheepish grin.

In the end, Wyatt has no choice but to input his own money, and by the time they're done with the exchange, they have a total of one hundred tokens between them, and Eddie promises he has enough cash for them to come back for more should they run out.

The arcade itself is split into two sections- the kids' half and the teens' half.  The child side is filled with things like Big Fish and Whack-A-Mole and a very short air hockey table. The teen side is made of racing games, a big retro beat-em-up, a first person shooter Cabela game, and Mortal Kombat 3.

"What do you wanna play f-" Eddie starts to ask, but then he spots the Spider Stompin' machine in the kid's half.  "Fuck! Dude, look!"

"Whoa, man, calm down, what's-," when he sees what Eddie's pointing at he smirks and heaves a quiet, yet still exasperated, sigh, "I remember that game.  That game is bullshit."

"What?  No man, that game is awesome," he grabs Wyatt's wrist and tugs him towards the game, "I'll show you, it's easy."

The game, as it turns out, is not easy- at least, not as easy as he remembers it being.  It starts out simple enough, the lights appearing for a solid five seconds and then another good three seconds apart.  But as he advances into the game, the lights appear quicker, a feature he seemed to have completely forgotten about, and, caught off guard, he ends up losing not too long after the game's beginning.  Wyatt openly laughs when the screen flashes 'GAME OVER' in pixelated text at the both of them.

"Screw you," Eddie sneers and steps off the platform, "You try it!"

Honestly, Wyatt doesn't do too much better than Eddie, but he makes it a good minute longer.  Eddie can't help but cackle when Wyatt curses loudly and kicks the machine in frustration.  "Piss off!"  the blond says in a half-heartedly angry voice, "I did better than you."

"To be fair, you went after me," Wyatt doesn't even reply, just flips him off and turns back to grab his reward of tickets.

"Here," offers Eddie, stepping up onto the platform with his friend, "we'll do what I used to do as a kid with all my friends."  He inserts the required tokens and steps back so he stands on the left most side of the stage.  He grabs Wyatt's arm when he tries to take a step off the machine, and guides him so he stands on the right.

The game starts, campy music blaring loudly, and the distorted voice actors of the spiders taunt them.  A spider on Eddie's side lights up and he immediately stomps it out- when a spider lights up on Wyatt's, he steps on it and shoots Eddie a bemused look.

"Isn't this cheating?"  he asks, without making a single move to step away from the game.

"Eh, s'like you said.  This game is bullshit."

In the end, they have a good one hundred and fifty tickets shared between the two of them, but still enough tokens to play more games.

"What now?"  Wyatt asks, and Eddie rubs the back of his neck as he surveys the arcade curiously.  He spots the MK3 game across the hall that connects the children's section from the teenagers', and nods vaguely in its direction.  "Really?" questions Wyatt.

"Why not?"

"Well," his friend shrugs, "I dunno, Mortal Kombat won't get us any tickets."

"Just one game," Eddie begs, nudging Wyatt's arm jokingly.  Eventually, Wyatt smacks Eddie away, just a little too roughly to be entire kidding, and concedes.

As the title screen appears on the machine, Eddie turns to Wyatt and says, "One rule- no picking Nightwolf."

"Nightwolf?"

"The weird racist one."

When Wyatt makes a sound of epiphany and nods in understanding, Eddie can't help a laugh.

Once the character select screen loads up, Eddie picks Jax almost immediately.  Wyatt considers the screen for a moment before settling on Stryker, and Eddie almost brings up the irony in their respective character choices before realizing that was probably deliberate.

When Eddie beats Wyatt, two out of three, he lets out an obnoxiously loud yell of victory.  Wyatt whacks him with the back of his hand and glowers at him from over his glasses.

"God, you are bad at Mortal Kombat," Eddie jeers, and Wyatt smacks him again, a little harder this time but still not enough truly to hurt.  After that, they circle around the arcade, playing a variety of games to round up tickets.  They play a single round of basketball before realizing both of them are awful at it; Wyatt kicks ass at a Cabela hunting game, up until the point where Eddie grabs ahold of the second gun and starts dicking around; they work together at Whack-a-Mole, which ends with Wyatt's glasses getting knocked off by Eddie's mallet due to an escalated argument.  They start counting up their tickets after Wyatt finishes a racing game, which he does fairly well at.

"Wow, we have, like, a thousand of these things," laughs Eddie, a complete overestimation.

"We have about seven-fifty," Wyatt corrects him, but Eddie only shrugs carelessly.  Wyatt looks like he's about to say something, frowning crookedly down at Eddie, before he, too, shrugs and says, "Whatever, I'm hungry.  Wanna get food?"

"You're paying this time," Eddie says, and the laugh he receives from Wyatt is the loudest one he's heard from the blond yet.  He hates the way it makes his heart flutter, hates how sappy and cheesy he feels when he's with Wyatt.  He swallows the nervousness he feels and laughs along with him.

It turns out the food court is completely full of patrons, so Wyatt agrees to get them some pizza while Eddie turns in their tickets for a prize.  The wait in the line isn't too long, to Eddie's relief, and his eyes scan over the prizes in interest.  It's when he spots the needlessly gigantic teddy bear, which costs three hundred and seventy-five tickets, does he get the idea.

"Hey," he says to the cashier, a mousy girl with bright red glasses, "Can I have that huge-ass bear up there?"

When she looks in the direction he's pointing, she balks and turns to face him again. "Are you sure you want... that bear?"

"What's wrong with it?" Eddie asks with false obliviousness.

"Um..." she murmurs, and it's clear that she's unsure of whether or not he's joking, "It's a little big."

"That's the point," he laughs, and before she can get another word in edge wise he splays his three hundred and seventy-five tickets on the formica counter.  She blinks down at the tickets before beaming sheepishly at him.

"If you say so, sir."

The bear is not only absurdly large but also absurdly heavy., and Eddie sags under the weight of the thing as he turns to waddle out of line.  He can hear the cashier giggling from behind him as he stumbles away.

He sits down near the DDR machine, where they agreed to eat pizza together, and waits no more than two minutes when Wyatt appears, glaring disapprovingly down at Eddie with a pizza box in one hand and two sodas tucked between his other arm.
 
"Hey Wyatt!"  Eddie jeers, scooting over so Wyatt can slide down to the floor beside him, "How was the wait in line?"

"Why," is all Wyatt deadpans in reply, and Eddie grins so hard it makes his face hurt.  He leans back so his elbows dig into the plush of the teddy bear and shrugs with one shoulder.

"It seemed right," he says vaguely, "Romantic and cliche and shit."

Wyatt chortles a bit under his breath before saying, "You know, you remind me a lot of a friend of mine."  When Eddie cocks a brow for him to continue, he does, "His name is TJ- or, no, it's not, but that's what we call him- and he's a jackass who nearly gets arrested, like, once a week."

"What?  For real?"  Eddie exclaims laughingly, "How old is this kid?"

"Our age," says Wyatt in a matter-of-fact tone with a shrug, "And I guess it's not once a week... but he comes up with lots of schemes and plans and shit and they always end poorly for everyone involved."

Eddie ponders this a bit as he chews his pizza, "Should I be insulted by this comparison?"

"Nah," Wyatt shakes his head and chortles, "He's a nice dude.  You'd get along good- I mean, I don't know if I'd trust you guys alone together- but you'd like him."

"Thanks?"  smirks Eddie from around his mouthful of pizza.  Wyatt makes a grossed out face at him, which only prompts Eddie to chew his food louder.

"God, you're a dick," Wyatt sighs, rubbing his eyes so his glasses are pushed up off his nose.

"Thanks," Eddie repeats with an even wider grin, and he leans back so he can feel the vibrations of the DDR machine as it blasts some Smile.dk song.

Their banter continues the entire time they eat until they're finished, at which point Wyatt says, "It's getting kinda late, man- we've been here for, like, eight hours now."

Eddie checks his phone, and, sure enough, it's 8:15 PM, and he'd promised his mom he'd be back before nine.  "Shit," he frowns, "I wanted to play DDR at least once before we left."

Wyatt glances back at the game and shrugs, "It's not in use right now, we could hop on for a quick game if you wan-,"  Eddie leaps to his feet before Wyatt can finish, claiming a spot on the machine immediately.  Wyatt joins him, less enthusiastic, and takes his position on the player two mat.

They end up choosing to dance to 'Always On My Mind' by Pet Shop Boys, because Eddie insists it's the song he's the best at.  As such, Wyatt ends up losing terribly.  When Eddie gloats about his victory, the blond's face turns a dark red.

"I pick the next song!" he says, clearly flustered, and before Eddie can agree he stomps his feet on the mat a few times to select 'Take On Me'.

This match is far less uneven, Wyatt winning by only a small twenty points. So then they're forced to play a tie-breaker round, and they both agree on a DKC Crew song.

For the first few moments of the song, both play fairly.  But as soon as Eddie realizes he's getting behind, an idea comes to him.  Glancing at Wyatt for a second to consider his choices, Eddie takes a short leap off of his own mat to stomp haphazardly on Wyatt's to throw his steps off.

"Hey- What the fuck!"  Wyatt yelps, shoving Eddie off of him.  When Eddie makes a move to step back onto Wyatt's mat, the latter beats him to the punch and jumps on Eddie's mat.

Eventually, both are so preoccupied with making the other mess up they aren't even trying anymore.  In the end Wyatt beats Eddie on technicality, much to the latter's annoyance.

"That's what you get for cheating," Wyatt says oh-so-smugly.

"You were cheating too!" proclaims Eddie, hitting Wyatt's arm in hopes of wiping the know-it-all smirk off his friend's face,  "Whatever.  I'm gonna go take a piss.  Be right back."

"Alright," Wyatt says as he gathers up their won tickets, still wearing the ghost of a sneer, "I'll wait right here."

When Eddie returns from the restroom, Wyatt has zipped up his hoodie and is clutching his stomach a little awkwardly.  The former cocks an eyebrow and asks, "Uh... you feeling okay, Wyatt?"

"Yeah," the blond replies, a little too quick, "Let's go."

And of course, Eddie's not at all reassured, but he's not about to push the other for information.  He doesn't want to seem rude.

The ride back to Eddie's house is the same as the ride to the arcade- full of arguing and cheesy radio sing-a-longs, though now Eddie can't help but notice the way Wyatt is leaning back so far in his seat, knees tucked up awkwardly as though he's trying really hard to stay balanced.

They pull up to his home at about 8:51 PM, and Eddie can't help feeling disappointed when he realizes that the day has come to an end.

Wyatt must recognize the upset on Eddie's face, because he immediately pipes up, "We should hang out some time during the school year."

Eddie nods, a bit too enthusiastically, and beams, "Hell yeah, man!  I'll make sure to call you."

Wyatt's smile widens, and then falters slightly as he leans back in his seat and away from Eddie.  "I need to show you something," he mutters an excited voice, and before Eddie can ask he reaches up into his hoodie and pulls out a little plush toy, patterned red and pink and white, obviously Valentine's Day themed.

"What?"  Eddie laughs, snatching the toy out of Wyatt's hands, "When did you-,"

"When you were in the bathroom," interjects Wyatt, "Sorry it's not as needlessly giant like the bear you got me, though."

"Nah, man, don't-," Eddie laughs, admiring the small, soft plush dog.  It appears to be a shih tzu, with a heart-shaped nose and a velvety magenta ribbon around its neck, "It's fucking adorable.  But why?"

Wyatt smirks, his trademark crooked way, and says, "It seemed right.  Romantic and cliche and shit."

Eddie laughs and gives the toy dog a gentle squeeze.  "Wow.  You're..." he shakes his head when no word really comes to mind, "I'm glad I punched you in the face that day."

"Why?" says Wyatt with a smirk, "because I'm a cool friend and you know it?"

"'Cause you're a douche bag and you totally deserved it," Eddie snaps back without missing a beat, and Wyatt rolls his eyes good-naturedly.  A beat of silence passes between them, before Eddie works up the courage to say, "Seriously, thanks.  It's cute.  Today was awesome."

"No problem," Wyatt says, in a surprisingly tender voice, before clearing his throat and pointedly looking away, "Now get out of my car."

Eddie barks out a laugh at the sudden change of character but does as he's told.  They exchange a final goodbye as Eddie slams the car door shut, and as he makes his way up the drive he glance back at Wyatt and wave goodbye.

When Olivia greets Eddie at the door, smiling knowingly, Eddie can't contain his sheepish smile.  He makes a note in his head that he owes his sister big time.

Chapter Text

"I just don't think this is a good idea."

If Eddie had a dime for every time Wyatt had said that during the time they've been friends, he'd... well, Eddie has never been good with numbers or math or the like, but he figures he'd have a lot by now.

"Oh, come ooooon, Wyatt!" TJ whines from his spot on Wyatt's couch, sprawled out like he lives there (which he doesn't, Wyatt loves to remind him, as he brushes his feet off the cushions with a tisk), "It'll be fun."

"That's what you said about mattress surfing," Wyatt pinches the bridge of his noise as he speaks, a habit Eddie happens to know is reserved for him and TJ, "and we all know how that ended."

"Quit being such a mom," jeers Eddie, taking another large gulp from his crinkled Cola can, "It's just a party.  What's the worst that could happen?"

So Wyatt reluctantly agrees to drive the three of them over to where the party is taking place- a large mansion belonging to some rich senior whose parents are away, and when they get there the house is so full people are spilling from the doorways and windows, loud and far, far too drunk for a bunch of high schoolers.

"Oh, great," Wyatt says- well, yells more like it- in the most sarcastic tone he can manage when trying to pitch his voice over the loud music that greets them when they stand at the entrance, "You guys sure were right about this one."

"I know, right, dude?" TJ laughs, and it's unclear to Eddie whether he's joking or not, but there's no time to ask before his friend is sucked into the crowd, disappearing somewhere beyond the wall of moving bodies.

Eddie slowly inches his way into the throng, not bothering to try to shout excuse me to any of the people he jostles- they don't seem to care either way- but stops when he realizes Wyatt's not following him.  He turns to see the blond standing on the front step, arms crossed and lips drawn into a nervous scowl.

"You coming?"  Eddie asks, trying to make his voice sound comforting even as he strains to be heard.  He extends one hand, fingers splayed for Wyatt's taking.  Eddie doesn't miss the hesitation in Wyatt's smile as he takes his hand, but they're already being pulled into the party before Eddie can say anything to him.

The home's no less hectic inside, either.  In no less than fifteen seconds Eddie finds himself separated from Wyatt, shoved and bumped towards the stair case, which is lined with couples hanging off each others necks and joined at the lips.

"Yo, Compian!"  a voice calls from the top of the stairs- and it's Asher, a boy from the grade below Eddie, "We're playin' beer pong up here, come join!"

And shit, Eddie can't say no to beer pong, can he?- and all thoughts of Wyatt vanish from his mind.  "Alright, just one game."

But one game becomes two games, becomes three and five and six and soon Eddie's so drunk he can't tell up from left and down from right and that's not the expression-

Suddenly, as Eddie tries desperately to collect himself, there's yelling from downstairs, an anxious hum that spreads through the party like a wild fire. Eddie catches snippets of sentences- it's only eleven, too early, too loud, did somebody call them?- and then all hell breaks loose.

People are shoving against him, as though everyone in the party is attempting to squeeze themselves into the furthest corner of the house.  At some point someone had switched the music off, and all at once the murmur of conversation dies with a faint knocking sound, coming seemingly from the front door.

"Georgia police!  Open up!"

The party comes alive all over again, this time thrumming with fear as everyone tries to flee the scene, through windows and fire exits- hell, some students throw themselves under beds in an attempt to hide.  Eddie, on the other hand, can barely move, and is left clinging to the wall just to stay standing.

He can hear somebody yelling his name, and he's relieved but not at all surprised when Wyatt appears by his side, face a perfect mixture of worry and anger.  He grabs Eddie's elbows and lets him lean on his shoulder, and Eddie mumbles something that's meant to be a 'thank you'.

"Let's go, man," Wyatt says, helping Eddie hobble towards the bathroom, "There's a window through here we can use."

The world swims around Eddie as they stumble and shove their way to the bathroom at the end of the hall.  The whole time he nuzzles his face against Wyatt's jaw, fingers buried in the back of his Pink Floyd shirt.

"God, you're smashed," laughs Wyatt, sounding slightly out of breath and only a little drunk himself.

"Y'love me," Eddie murmurs back, and he's too drunk to hear how tense the silence becomes after that.

Eventually they do make it to the bathroom, which is shockingly void of any other panicking students, when Eddie finally thinks to ask what happened to TJ (or at least he thinks he says that, everything's still spinning around him, even his own voice).

"I saw him escape already, don't worry," Wyatt explains, as he places Eddie roughly on the toilet and gets to work on opening the window, "He got out the back door when the cops first burst in."

"They're in the house already?"  Eddie yells, feeling far more awake and alarmed at the prospect of getting arrested, and before he can stop himself he says, "Shit, man, I'm sorry."

Wyatt just smiles back at him and says "For what?" and that's how Eddie knows he's forgiven.

"Now help me with this window."

Together, they manage to pry the window open, wide enough for both of them to crawl out.  Right below the bathroom window sits a small section of roof, acting as an awning for the mansion's garden patio.  They clamber down onto the brown shingles, Wyatt holding Eddie's hand tightly to steady his drunken steps.  "Do you want me to jump down first?"

Eddie nods, situating himself so he's sitting on the roof's edge.  Wyatt surveys the ground, judges the height as best as he can, and takes a literal leap of faith.  He lands and falls forward onto the lawn, letting out a low grunt of pain as he hits the grass.  A few moments pass as Wyatt gathers himself, and then he's standing again and waving up at Eddie, whisper-yelling at him to jump.

"I dunno," Eddie whimpers, the alcohol making his head feel heavy and unclear, like it's full of water, "It looks pretty high."

"Eddie, I promise it's not."

"Pinky promise?"

There comes a long-suffering sigh from below.

"...Pinky promise."

Despite no actual, physical pinky promise being made, Eddie seems to take Wyatt's words as a comfort and scoots a little closer to the ledge.  He wraps his fingers around the gutters, counts to five, and pushes off.  As he falls, the lawn rushes up to meet him, but so does Wyatt, nudging his back gently to rouse him from his spot laying in the grass.

"C'mon, we're almost there.  We just gotta climb the fence."

Fuck, Eddie forgot about the fence.

He stands on wobbly legs, leaning only slightly on Wyatt as they make their way through the garden.  The fence is only a little taller than Wyatt, and made of dark iron bars, interlaced with intricate designs.  "I'll go first," Eddie volunteers, and when Wyatt lets go of his arm he goes tumbling into the fence.

"Okay," Wyatt says, taking a step back to examine the fence fully, "You start climbin' and I'll give you a boost."

"A'ight, but," hauling himself up onto the first rung of the fence is easy enough, but Eddie nearly falls when he turns to look at Wyatt, "don't touch my ass."

"Wh-?" Taken aback and indignant, Wyatt splutters, cheeks turning a splotchy red (and not due to the alcohol, for once), "I wasn't going to- I wouldn't- Just-," he realizes this is an uphill battle a few words too late, and instead concedes with a frustrated, "Just climb the damn fence."

Eddie does as he's told for the first time in his life, turning back to the fence and lifting a foot to hoist himself up.  Of course, the beer has him a little off balance, and Wyatt- pointedly aiming away from Eddie's hips- grabs his legs to steady him.  There's a struggle between the two of them as Eddie awkwardly hauls his body upwards and over the fence, Wyatt pushing on the soles of his shoes until the former comes tumbling down on the other side.

From his prone position on the outside of the fence, Eddie can hear Wyatt's barely contained chuckles.  By the time he's righted himself on the ground, the blond is on the same side as him and standing with one arm lowered in offering.  Eddie takes his friend's arm gratefully, and with an exaggerated groan of exertion, Wyatt heaves him to his feet.

"You ready to get out of here?"  Wyatt laughs, smiling genuinely for the first time in a long time, and God, Eddie missed those dimples.

"Yeah," he whispers in reply, "Let's go."

Somehow, through the help of some kind of divine power, perhaps, they manage to sneak their way back around to the place outside of the cul-de-sac where their car was parked without being seen or heard.  Eddie clambers into the passenger seat, ears buzzing, and rolls down the window the second they start driving.  When a Def Leppard comes on the radio, he spins the volume dial with a flick of the wrist so his seat vibrates with the force of the bass.  Wyatt visibly winces.

"Eddie, please, can you turn that shit down, I'm trying to drive-,"

Eddie only responds by giving the dial a final crank and kicking his feet up onto the dashboard.

"Eddie, dude, you're being a real douche-,"

"IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?"

"You are giving me a headache-,"

"ANYBODY THERE?"

"I swear to God, Ed-,"

"DOES ANYBODY WONDER?"

"Come the fuck on-,"

"ANYBODY C- shit-,"

Eddie's elbow, which had previously been propped up on the open window, slips and all of a sudden he finds his head hanging outside the car door, the strong wind blasting him right in the face.  He pulls back into the car with a gasp, eyes wide in melodramatic shock.  Wyatt lets out a bark of laughter.

"S'karma, dude."

Eddie frowns deeply, toeing off his shoes and curling his legs up under his body so he can turn to face Wyatt fully, "Don't laugh!  I almost fell out of the car!"

"You did not almost fall out of the car, you're just drunk-,"

"I could have died!"  Eddie yelps, ignoring Wyatt's (completely rational, the sober part of his mind says) rebuttal, and he feels tears well in his eyes despite himself, despite the total inanity of the situation.

Wyatt doesn't even grace him with a response, just an amused sideways glance, before he deadpans "Put on your seat belt," and that's the end of that.

When they pull into Wyatt's drive way, Eddie all but throws himself out of the car and onto the asphalt.  He beats Wyatt to the door, barefoot and red in the face, barely able to stand on his own.

Somehow they fumble their way into the house, and somehow Eddie finds it within himself to be grateful that Wyatt's mom is away on business.  "I guess you'll be sleeping over," Wyatt says with a shrug, throwing his car keys on the dresser in the mudroom, "C'mon, lets get you upstairs and in bed, you're gonna have a killer hangover in the morning."  He presses one hand into the small of Eddie's back and slowly guides him up the stairs to his own bedroom.  Eddie leans back into the touch almost subconsciously, relishing in the contact, and once the door of the bedroom is closed he whirls gracelessly around to face Wyatt.

"Eddie, you're being ridiculous," Wyatt laughs, more in exasperation than actual amusement, taking Eddie's upper arm in one hand and pushing him back a little, "Go to sleep."

"I don't wanna."

"You're such a child when you're drunk."

Then comes a lull in conversation as Eddie stares up into Wyatt's face, examines the way the dim artificial lights cling to his pale eyelashes, the curve of his lips as he smirks, and it makes his heart race in a way running from the police never could.

"Okay, now I'm kind of worried," Wyatt jokes, "Did you hit your head when you fell out of my car?"

"Huh?"  mumbles Eddie oh-so-intelligently.

"You've been staring at me for, like, a solid minute, dude."

"Oh, ha," Eddie snickers, leaning forward a bit on the balls of his feet, "I just never realized how hot you are 'til now," And Wyatt looks earnestly taken aback at this, which only elicits another breathy chuckle from Eddie, "You're super attractitive though."

"That's not a word."

"Don't change the subject."

"Well..." Wyatt's smirk disappears from his face as he tries to look anywhere but at Eddie's eyes, "I don't know."

"I didn't ask you a question," Eddie says, but there's no hostility in his voice as he leans in a little bit more.

If he wasn't so drunk he would've seen the blush on Wyatt's cheeks as he leans to meet Eddie half-way.  When Eddie conks his head against Wyatt's, the latter murmurs, "You need to sleep."

"What I need," Eddie slurs in what he hopes, thinks, prays, is a seductive tone, as he slings his arms around Wyatt's neck, "is you."

And now it's Wyatt's turn to bring their foreheads together, as he's left doubled over in wheezy laughter, but Eddie feels the hand press into his hip all the same, "That was the cheesiest thing I have ever heard you say, drunk or sober."

"Just shut'p and kiss me."

And Wyatt does.  It's chaste at first, his lips just barely brushing Eddie's.  And then Eddie leans up to press his lips into Wyatt's, again and again and again, pulling himself onto his tip toes using Wyatt's shoulders as leverage, pressing the other's back against the bedroom door.  The kisses get more heated as they keep going, however, and soon Wyatt's biting Eddie's lower lip and grinding their hips together, and Eddie's fingers have just only found the hem of Wyatt's shirt when he has to pull away for air-

and ends up vomiting all over his own bare feet.

There's stunned silence as all of Eddie's libido shrivels up and dies with the burning, bitter taste of puke in his mouth.  He can hear Wyatt laughing, a sad and empathetic sound.  It's quiet as Eddie pulls himself upright again, wiping the stray drivel from his chin with a pout.  Wyatt meets his eyes, a sympathetic smile on his face.  "You okay, buddy?"

"No," he says it so softly he thinks, hopes, prays that Wyatt won't hear it, but he does.

"That's what I thought," Wyatt mutters back, half to himself, "Let's get you cleaned up.  Your pants are soaked in vomit, man."

Eddie frowns down at himself, and grimaces at the dampness he can feel through his jeans.  He takes some steps back from Wyatt, unbuttons his fly, and as he goes to kick his pants off he feels a sudden wave of nausea as his whole head explodes in pain, as though he'd just struck it on something hard.

It's when he hears Wyatt say "Oh, come on," from somewhere above him that Eddie realizes he's laying on the floor.

Wyatt kneels down beside Eddie's feet, gently tugging his jeans from their spot around his knees so that they pool around his ankles.  Eddie somehow manages the dignity to be embarrassed by this point, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrestling the rest of the way out of his soiled clothes by himself.

Getting cleaned up from there is easy enough. Eddie brushes his teeth with some encouragement from Wyatt, to get rid of the sick taste that sticks to the roof of his mouth even after he gargles mouth wash.  Once Eddie stops reeking of bile, and he's out of his dirty clothes, Wyatt pulls the covers back on his single bed and wriggles over so he's pressed up against the wall.  Eddie just stares at the empty space blankly, until finally Wyatt sighs and sits up to beckon him in.

It feels surreal as Eddie clambers slowly onto the too-small mattress, pressed against Wyatt's thick chest.  He's warm, Eddie thinks, detachedly, really warm.

Wyatt tucks one arm loosely over Eddie's waist, yawning loudly.  Eddie plucks the blond's glasses from his face and reach back none-too-gracefully to place them on the bedside table.  When he nearly falls off, Wyatt tightens his grip on his waist and pulls him forwards a bit, so when he tucks his arms up against his chest his elbows bump against Wyatt's stomach.

"G'night," Wyatt mumbles, voice soft against Eddie's signature beanie as he nuzzles into the fabric.

"Night," Eddie whispers back, eyes already slipping closed- and he can't help thinking, just as he falls asleep, that Wyatt has never been more wrong about one of his ideas before.

Chapter Text

It's the summer after their senior year when TJ suggests the road trip.

Wyatt was going to the University of Atlanta, and he was taking Eddie- who had opted out of college, at least for the time being- with him.  TJ, however, was leaving the state altogether.  So he proposed the road trip as a goodbye, one last hoorah.

Wyatt, of course, says this is a bad idea.

"When have I ever been wrong?"  TJ asks him as he pulls a pre-prepared map out of his messenger bag.

"Uh, let me think," Wyatt pretends to ponder, rubbing forefinger and thumb against his chin.  Eddie takes the map from his friend in curiosity, looks over the different marks and lines that TJ drew, "in the two years that I've known you, Teej, you've probably been right a total of what?  Two, three times?  I've literally almost been arrested because of you, dude!"

"Yeah, sorry man, but," Eddie laughs as he hands the map back over, "I'm with Wyatt on this one."

With a melodramatic flourish, TJ presses the refolded map to his chest, "You wound me!"  he cries, and the way his eyebrows furrow belie his actual frustration with his friends' reluctance.  When neither budge, his pleading continues.
 
"C'mon, guys!  When are we ever gonna get an opportunity like this again?"  At this, Wyatt rolls his eyes, "When are we gonna see each other again?"

This actually makes Eddie consider the idea, but before he can speak, Wyatt interjects with a long-suffering sigh.

"What car would we even take?"

The way TJ falters answers the question, and that's the end of that.

A few hours later finds Eddie at the dinner table, picking at his korma distractedly.  His parents and sister chatter around him, though the table seems quieter than usual to him.  His mind is elsewhere, picturing TJ's disappointed face as Wyatt and Eddie had left him alone at his house, clinging to his map.  The more Eddie considered it, the more the road trip sounded like a fun idea.  But Wyatt had been right- there was no way they could just disappear for so long, there was no car they could take, therefore they had no chance.  Still, regret weighs on his stomach, destroying his usually infinite appetite.

"Eddie, are you feeling alright?"  his mother asks, placing her fork delicately down on the side of her plate.  Eddie's eyes flickered over the smile lines by her mouth, past her crinkled brow and to the dark crown of braided hair wrapped around her head. While home with the family, she tended not to wear her hijab.  "I thought lamb korma was your favorite."

"Yeah, I'm..." he shakes his head to clear his thoughts, "I'm fine, just thinking about something TJ said."

"You mean Taylor?" his mother coos, "Oh, how has he been?"

Olivia rolls her eyes at their mother's doting personality, and Eddie can barely contain a chuckle as he replies, "Fine, mom. All my friends are fine," he shoves a piece of lamb into his mouth and chews, one hand covering his mouth as he rambles on, "He just suggested we go on a roadtrip, and Wyatt and I declined."

"But a road trip sounds fun!" Immediately, Olivia pipes into the conversation.  She crosses her thin arms over her chest, eyes flashing smartly, and Eddie wonders briefly why he's so intimidated by someone whose a full foot shorter than him.  "Why'd you say no?"

"Well," says Eddie, shrugging his shoulders, "We don't have a car."

It's a weak excuse, Eddie realizes, as the words leave his lips and fill the awkward silence of the dining room.  His father, sitting directly across the table from him, lets out a half-heartedly stifled laugh.

"You could take your mother's," he offers, and his mother nods assent, "since she'll be off work all summer, we're only going to need one car."

"Really?"  hope begins to stir in Eddie's chest as he shoots upright in his chair, "Are you guys serious?"

"Of course," his mother smiles warmly at him, "So long as you keep in touch the whole time you're gone."

"Oh, my gosh, you guys are the best," Eddie gushes, and he shovels a few more forkfuls of korma into his mouth before standing up excitedly, "You're the greatest parents ever.  I'm gonna call Teej right now."

As he rushes out of the room he can hear his father laugh at this change in disposition, but he doesn't care.  One or two phone calls later, Eddie finds himself searching Google Maps for the quickest route out of Dunwoody.

Two days later, and the three of them stand outside of Eddie's house, each hefting bags full of clothing behind them.  Eddie is going over TJ's map with his parents, so that way they know where he's going and where he's been.  Wyatt and Olivia are playing Chopsticks on the porch, legs folded beneath them, and TJ is loading the last of the stockpile of snacks into the car's back.

"So the plan is," Eddie explains over the sound of TJ cursing violently as he drops a cooler on his foot, "to go straight through South Carolina to Charlotte, and then from there we'll go to Rocky Mount and maybe visit Smith Mountain Lake.  Then we can head up to Pennsylvania and-"

"We're gonna see the Hershey's Chocolate World!"  TJ declares from halfway inside the car.

"Right," deadpans Wyatt from his place on the porch (where he is presently losing poorly to Olivia), "because that's the only thing worth while in the entire state of Pennsylvania."

Eddie's father opts to ignore their bickering.

"Is that your end goal? Pennsylvania?"

"Maybe? Probably not," Eddie runs one finger over the creased map, following the Sharpie lines TJ had made, "On our way back, we're just gonna go west, through Ohio and Indiana, and then up to Chicago.  That's probably our last worthwhile stop."

"We will be going through Indianapolis," says Wyatt, coming to stand next to Eddie.  He subconsciously finds himself shifting slightly to stand pressed to Wyatt's side, "But just for a night on our way back.  We're going straight south to get home."

"C'mon, guys!"  TJ calls, and he slams the trunk shut, "Car's all loaded, let's go."

And so the goodbyes begin.  His mother tears up a little, which in turn makes Eddie want to cry even though, he reassures her, it will only be for the month.  There's hugs, the suffocating, tight kind that his family is famous for, even Wyatt gets sucked into it.  Olivia hugs Eddie, too, shouts a  goodbye to all three of them as they pile into the car.  Eddie gets in behind the wheel, Wyatt riding shotgun and TJ stuck in the back.  Wyatt pointedly avoids waving back to Olivia, and Eddie snorts in laughter.

"She kicked your ass, didn't she?"

"Shut up and drive."

And Eddie does.

They take turns, switching seats in the car as they go.  Each drives for at least an hour, and then they pull over at a rest stop, stretch their legs, take a piss, and continue onwards.  They don't bother buying any food from the pit stops or gas stations they visit- TJ had made sure to shove their trunk full of as much food as it could fit; three jumbo-size Cheeto bags, some six packs of Capri Sun, several bottles of Gatorade, a box of peaches, some Lunchables and a gallon of Poland Springs water- and that was only what Eddie could see from his spot spread out across the back seats, feet hanging out the open window.

"You shouldn't sit like that," warns Wyatt, sparing a moment to glance at the rearview mirror at Eddie, "the cops will pull us over if they see you."

And frankly, he has a point, but Eddie is tired from his two hour-long shift of unbroken driving, so sitting up seems like an impossible task.  Instead, he pulls his feet into the car and rolls off the seat into the foot space, laying down beneath the seats.  The floor smells like spilled soda and dirty shoes and is covered in what appear to be Poptart crumbs.

"Gross," TJ laughs from the passenger seat, but otherwise there are no protests to the new seating arrangement.  They continue on like this, Eddie staring up at the car's ceiling from his place on the matted carpeting.

They hit some bad traffic, so getting to Charlotte takes longer than the predicted four hours.  They arrive at the Red Roof Inn, a fairly cheap hotel, at about eight at night, some two hours later than anticipated.  Getting a bedroom with two twin beds costs them less than one hundred dollars, which Wyatt is at least thankful for.  The ride up to the room in the elevator is quiet due to nothing more than weariness.  It isn't even that late, Eddie muses, but he supposes that's the magic of being in a car for six or so hours.

The room itself isn't too shabby.  The bed spreads are a maroon color, thin pillows hemmed with lace and emblazoned with the hotel's initials- RRI- in a fancy, looping font.  Eddie kicks his sandals off, and the carpet is rough and coarse and hard beneath his bare feet.  TJ immediately stumbles into the bathroom, door slamming shut behind him.  Wyatt plops down onto one of the beds and immediately begins toeing off his shoes with a sigh of relief.

"How are we gonna decide who sleeps in the bathtub?"  Eddie asks.

"I dunno," replies Wyatt as he pulls the socks off his feet, "Rock, paper, scissors?"

That seems fair enough to Eddie, so as soon as TJ is out of the restroom they sit in a messy triangle on the hotel room floor.  The rules are simple- TJ and Wyatt will first battle it out (according to best two out of three).  Whoever wins will then have a round with Eddie.  If Eddie wins, then whoever lost the first round takes the bathtub.  If Eddie loses, he takes the bathtub.

When Wyatt ends up winning against TJ in no more than four tries, he turns to Eddie, hand already outstretched.

"You're going down," Eddie threatens with a smirk.

Two rounds later, and he's laying on the hard porcelain of the bathtub, towels strewn over him like a blanket.

"Fuckin' Wyatt," he grumbles to himself, "Always picking scissors.  Only assholes play scissors."

Chapter Text

He awakens with a sore back, freezing cold feet, and somebody gently nudging at his shoulder.  "S'time to wake up, sleeping beauty," the recognizable voice of Wyatt murmurs, "TJ needs to shower."

Eddie rolls over, yawning loudly and involuntarily, to swat away Wyatt's hand, "How early is it?" he grumbles through a fog of sleepiness.  He feels far too tired for it to be a reasonable hour for awakening.

"Like, four in the morning," Wyatt admits, and Eddie lets out a string of exhausted swear words, "But c'mon, we went to bed at nine.  We've gotta make up for those three hours we lost in traffic yesterday."

Slowly, oh so slowly, Eddie lifts himself into a sitting position, scratching at his patchy beard as he swallows another yawn.  Wyatt offers him a hand to help him out of the tub, which he takes rather gratefully, and as soon as they're out the restroom door, TJ has shut and locked it.

Their morning routine from there on is a lazy one.  The noise of the shower running can be heard through the thin walls of the hotel room, and Eddie ends up dozing off curled up on the foot of one of the twin beds after putting on his capri pants.  Wyatt takes mercy on him, lets him nap there for about an hour, before rousing him again.

"You're still in your pajama shirt," he mutters when Eddie whines and asks why he keeps waking him, "We're gonna explore the city, dude.  You need to wear something reasonable."  Eddie reluctantly does as he is told, griping the entire time he pulls his Bob Marley shirt on.  "I can't believe you wear a Rent shirt to bed,"  Wyatt teases, and Eddie chucks the discarded clothing at his friend's face.

"Shut'p," Eddie grouses as he puts some sneakers on, "Musicals are cool."

It's an argument they've had many times in their two years of being friends.  There's never really been a winner, though Eddie supposes he prefers it that way.

"Of course they are," Wyatt concedes, albeit sarcastically, but that's good enough for them.

By the time all of them are dressed and awake enough to leave the room for breakfast, it's almost eight in the morning.  Eddie insists that this is an ungodly hour to be conscious, that he could asleep right now, but he knows it is a lost cause as they pile into the elevator.

They get breakfast at the hotel's all-you-can-eat continental buffet, located just beside the hotel's smallish lobby, and as Eddie crams a crepe into his mouth, Wyatt explains to him the day's plan.

"First we're just gonna walk around, see the shops on our street and all," he says with a spoon of cereal still hanging out of his mouth, "and then we'll head to the NASCAR Hall of Fame."

"What?"  Eddie splutters, a little bit of blackberry filling dribbling down his chin, "Why would we go there?  Who gives a shit about NASCAR?"

TJ shrugs, "It's something to do, man.  I dunno."

"No," Eddie insists, "I am not spending my first day in Charlotte at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  Not happening."

"We don't have to stay long," Wyatt gives him an incredulous look, even as he passes him a napkin.  Wyatt opens his mouth to say something- probably some kind of scold- when inspiration seems to dawn on his face.

"They have a race car driving simulator."

When he says this, both Eddie and TJ perk up.

"For real?"  TJ says, without a hint of irony in his voice.

"Yep."

Eddie takes a moment to think it over, sipping his vanilla coffee pensively.

"...Okay.  Fine.  For the race car simulator."

Wyatt grins from around his coffee cup, "I knew you'd say that."

They end up walking around the city for a long while, partially because TJ stops for a good ten minutes every time they see a dog and partially because Eddie spends forever in the Gamestop.  Wyatt follows them regardless, rolling his eyes and providing a voice of almost-reason.  Eddie knows his friend likes to consider himself the 'intellectual' of the group, the trustworthy and reasonable one who keeps them from committing major mistakes.  Eddie also knows his friend was just as likely to screw up as himself and TJ, despite what Wyatt may insist or hope.

"Is anyone else getting really hungry?"  TJ asks as they wait for a red light to cross the street.

"Yeah," sighs Wyatt, checking his watch, "It's been a little more than five hours since we ate. Should we stop for some lunch?"

They all agree that, yeah, some lunch would be nice, and with that they head to a nearby diner.  It's small and friendly and appears to be themed around the 60's, which is a little unusual but not unappealing.  They settle into a booth towards the back, and that's when Eddie spots it.

The jukebox.

"Yo," he says to get Wyatt and TJ to look up from their menus, "do you think the jukebox works?"

"Probably?"  TJ's laugh wavers with uncertainty, "I don't see why they'd keep a broken jukebox in here."

Another few minutes pass and not once does Eddie take his eyes off the jukebox.  Wyatt ends up having to order a BLT for him, he's so insistent on staring at the device.  Eventually, he decides to take a chance.  "I'm gonna go check it out," he states, standing up quickly and marching over to the machine.  He feels more than hears Wyatt heave a sigh.

The jukebox is lit up all over the front, with a little manilla book behind glass spread out on it's mantle.  Using a crank, Eddie turns the pages of the book, stares at the names of old soft-rock classics his father likes to listen to.  Each song is paired up with a combination of a number and a letter-  Strawberry Fields Forever, B5; Wild Thing, E2; 96 Tears, A8; Barbara Ann, B2.

Eventually Wyatt comes over to his side, "Dude, your food is here.  Quit being cre-."

"Give me six dollars,"  Eddie says, interrupting whatever insult Wyatt had prepared.

"What?  No."

"C'mon," Eddie pushes, turning to stare at Wyatt, mouth a flat line of determination, "I wanna play some music."

A beat of silence as Wyatt considers it.  "Okay," he concedes, a little hesitant, "That can't do any harm.  What songs?"

"Sweet Caroline."

"...And?"

"That's it."

Wyatt gapes at him, torn between frustration and concern.  "You don't need six dollars for one song, Ed."

"I know," counters Eddie, and he holds a hand out in wait, "I want to play it twelve times."

There's another beat of silence, this time one of utter bemusement.  It lasts longer than the prior one, as they stare each other down.  Eddie is unyielding- he is going to play Sweet Caroline twelve times uninterrupted.  His mind is set.  "E-Eddie," Wyatt stammers out a laugh of distrust, "Why in the world would you want to do that?"

"I have a theory," says Eddie in a tone that implies that he is in no way joking, though the smirk on his face says otherwise, "about how long someone can go listening to one song without getting fed up."

"That is a terrible theory," Wyatt deadpans.  Eddie nods in acknowledgement, because, yes, that's the idea.  Wyatt glances around the diner, at all the strangers eating lunch, and heaves a final sigh as he fishes his wallet out of his pocket.  "You better pay me back," he threatens, but they both know Eddie won't (and if he does it won't be his money, and Wyatt isn't sure which is worse).

Eddie cannot contain his grin as Wyatt hands him six singles, together they feed the bills into the machine. Each dollar gets them two plays; and for each dollar Eddie presses F1.  As soon as the first play begins, the two hurries back to their booth where TJ awaits, dipping french fries into a milkshake.

"I didn't know you were a Neil Diamond fan, Ed," he says as they sidle into the seats across from him.  Eddie only shrugs vaguely back.

The first play ends as they're picking at their respective meals, chatting idly, and when the second play begins TJ pauses. "Is this song longer than I remembered?" he ponders aloud, giving Eddie a questioning look.  The laugh he gets in response is in no way reassuring.

It's halfway through the third play does TJ finally catch on, and he heaves a sigh that should make Wyatt jealous; instead, the blond just chuckles empathetically, glancing at Wyatt from over his glasses.  "Why," it's not a question as TJ sags into the soft plastic of his seat, "Why would you do this, Ed?"  Eddie merely chuckles a little louder, clapping his hands together idly as other patrons of the diner begin to catch on to what's occurring.  TJ turns, instead, to glare over the formica table at Wyatt, "How could you allow this?"

"Hey, it wasn't my idea."

"You were complicit in it!"  TJ half-yells, half-laughs, before heaving another melodramatic sigh, "How long is this gonna last?"

"Twelve plays," chimes Eddie, and the groan he gets from TJ makes it worth the trouble.

After awhile, even Eddie loses track of how many plays they've gotten through, because, as it turns out, Sweet Caroline is the kind of song with lots of dips in it to the point where nobody's sure when it's starting or ending.  Stop paying attention for a few seconds and suddenly you're helplessly confused because every chorus sounds the same.

Despite Wyatt's initial disapproval, Eddie can see the small grin on his face as costumers throughout the restaurant begin to vocally complain.  It's when one patron approaches the worker at the front desk does Wyatt suggest they leave, wearing a reluctant smirk.  Neither TJ nor Eddie protest, and they leave the check (with a penitential tip of 15%) at the table.   Before they leave, Eddie pauses to scribble a small 'sorry for the trouble' in their receipt's margins, and then they're gone.

Unsurprisingly, Sweet Caroline is stuck in Eddie's head for the next three hours as they wander Charlotte a little more.  It's nearing five in the evening when Wyatt finally brings up the dreaded NASCAR Hall of Fame idea.

"You really want to go see those cars, don't you?"  Eddie sneers as they start the long trudge to the pseudo-museum.

"Kinda, yeah," his friend concedes, which frankly does nothing for the rapid decline of his mood.

The Hall of Fame turns out not to be so bad.  All the facts about cars are actually pretty cool, and seeing Wyatt coo and gush and prattle on about the "anatomy of a worthwhile car" is at least enjoyable.  It reminds Eddie that Wyatt's going to college for engineering, and any qualms about being there disappear.  They were there because it would be their last time seeing one another for a long, long time.  Who cared if they were spending their last months with one another in some obscure-ass monument to NASCAR, of all things?  At least they were together.

And at least there was a race car driving simulator on the third floor.

The line is made up of an equal mix of little kids, dragged there by their parents, no doubt, and adult men with cameo vests and sunglasses tan lines and calloused hands.  Eddie doesn't know what to feel when he realizes that he fits more into the former group than the latter.

And as it turns out, the racing simulator is actually several artificial cars-cum-computer, which works kind of like a video game; so Wyatt, TJ, and Eddie each pile into their own individual vehicles.

None of them end up in first place- in fact, TJ ends up coming dead last, which is surprising to absolutely no one- but Wyatt prides himself on placing third.  Eddie honestly doesn't pay attention to his placing, too busy trying to ram his friends off the road in what Wyatt reassures him is a 'totally illegal maneuver' in actual racing.

"Like I said this morning," reiterates Eddie as they leave the museum at nine that night, "Who gives a shit about NASCAR?"

Chapter Text

It is one in the morning and Eddie is starving to death.  He's in the passenger seat, Wyatt sleeping and stretched out in the back.  TJ is driving, rambling about something or other just to keep himself awake.

"And that's when Wyatt broke the banister," he chatters mindlessly, "it turns out a double bed mattress is too wide for most staircases.  So then we tried-,"

"Dude, I know," Eddie mumbles back, and somehow his quiet voice still surprises TJ enough to make him jump, "I was there."

TJ laughs, a tired, watery sound, "Yeah, I know, I'm just really fucking hungry."

"Same," says Eddie, and as if their prayers were being answered, through the dark fog of the horizon shone the neon lights of an iHOP.

"Are you serious?"  TJ cheers, turning so sharply it's a wonder Wyatt doesn't wake up.

"What kind of iHOP is open at this time?"  Eddie laughs in utter disbelief, not really expecting a serious answer.

"The best kind," TJ replies rhetorically, and its not that funny but Eddie laughs hysterically anyway.

They pull into the iHOP parking lot, the only car present, and debate whether to wake Wyatt or not.  Eventually they decide not to, because they aren't going to be long.

The florescent lights of the iHOP's interior hurts Eddie's exhausted eyes; he squints across the counter at the bewildered cashier, who manages a timid and confused "May I help you?"

"Yeah, um," TJ surveys the empty diner with disinterest and a surreal amount of nonchalance, like this is an every day occurrence for him, "Do you do take out?  Can we have a short stack to go?"

The look the cashier gives him seems oddly judgmental to Eddie, and he bites his tongue to keep himself from making some retort about how at least they weren't working the counter at a twenty-four-hour roadside iHOP.

It turns out they do, in fact, provide to-go food, and after ten minutes of dawdling in the diner's mudroom, the befuddled cashier hands them a warm box that smells strongly of syrup and batter.  They pay her, give her a generous tip, and make their way back to the car.  When they enter, Wyatt is awake and one third tired, one third worried, and one third pissed off.

"Why didn't either of you wake me?"  he demands, "Do you know how scary it is to wake up alone in an iHOP parking lot?"

"Sorry, bro," TJ shrugs, not really sorry at all, popping the box open with one hand and slamming the door shut with his other, "Didn't think we'd take so long in there."

"We got pancakes," offers Eddie as a consolation, "and there should be some weed and molly in here somewhere."

Wyatt pretends to be mad for a little longer, shoveling bits of fresh pancake into his mouth using a plastic fork the cashier had provided them with.  Eddie fishes around the glove box, finds the aforementioned drugs- a little less than a quarter pound of pot and some MDMA tablets.  TJ snatches the bong out of his backpack and passes it to Eddie, whose already taking out his lighter.

Technically, it's Eddie's turn to drive, so TJ stumbles awkwardly out of the passenger seat, slips over the console and into the back with Wyatt, who then pulls himself up into the front with Eddie.

They're all a little high when they start the car back up again, which is a bad, bad idea, but none of them are quite sober enough to point this out to Eddie as he turns back onto the road.

From there things get fuzzy, and when Eddie wakes up the next day there are two things he realizes immediately;

1) He and Wyatt have swapped seats.
2) There is half a pancake shoved in the CD player.

"Rise and shine," Wyatt snickers, voice tired and dull, "How are you feeling?"

"Fine, mostly- um," in reality his head is hurting and his mouth feels like it's full of sand but it barely matters to him, all things considered, "May I ask why there's a pancake in my CD player?"

"You don't remember?" Wyatt laughs outright this time, "Oh man, I really must've been the most sober of us.  That's TJ's fault, by the way."

"What- Why the fuck would you do that?"

"Not me!" he retorts defensively, "TJ.  And there wasn't really a reason for it, the two of you just wouldn't shut up until I let you do..." he gestures vaguely at the syrupy mess on the dashboard, "that."

"I did that?" gapes Eddie, "To my own car?"

"Not you, technically," Wyatt clicks the left turn signal on as they change lanes on the highway, "TJ.  I told you that already- you were just encouraging him."

This does nothing to ease Eddie's rising horror.  Without another word to Wyatt, Eddie reaches over and starts to prod the mess of batter currently lodged in his car's CD hard drive.  He manages to scrape most of the actual pancake away, but he's left with a mess of molasses clogging the CD tray so he can't shut it properly.

"This is so gross," Eddie moans to Wyatt's noticeable amusement, "Fuck, I hate drugs."

Wyatt straight up laughs at this, which only further ticks Eddie off, but before he can express his frustration there is a low groan from the back- Wyatt's laughter had woken TJ up from his seeming coma.

"Good morning!"  Wyatt says in a saccharine tone- Eddie checks to clock to see that it is two in the afternoon, "How you feeling?"

"My nose is full of maple syrup," TJ mumbles, but there's no genuine pain his voice, "M'fine, though."

"Hey, do you, by any chance, recall putting a pancake in my CD player?"

"Hm?" TJ rubs his eyes with his fists and pokes his head over the console, voice thick with sleep, "Ha- oh yeah.  Yeah, I remember that."

"Wh- are you serious?" exclaims Eddie, earning another laugh from Wyatt, "Am I really the only one who forgets what happened last night?"

"Seems like it," TJ teases.

"To be fair," says Wyatt, very little actual sympathy in his voice, "you were the only one of us who drank."

"What?  Okay, no, tell me what happened."

"Alright," TJ laughs, slightly uneasily, obviously taken aback by Eddie's ferocity, "Alright, well, as you know, we smoked some weed-,"

"Yeah, I at least remember that."

"Right, well, we smoked a bit, and then we started driving- because that's a good idea- and you were behind the wheel and started insisting I give you some vodka," TJ stops to consider all the information he's just given Eddie, before adding as a side note, "You were also insisting I mix the vodka with SunnyD."

"Classy," Eddie remarks, shell-shocked.

"It was at that point that you handed the wheel over to me," Wyatt chimes in, "Because, and I quote, you 'need both hands to drink'.  So I let you drink and drove in your place.

"You drank nearly the whole SunnyD's worth of vodka, so then you were high and drunk.  A great combo."

"What about the panc-,"

"I'm getting there," snaps Wyatt, but TJ takes over the story.

"We had some pancakes left over, and they were getting all cold and soggy so we didn't wanna eat 'em.  Instead me and you made a bet- I thought the pancake could fit in the CD slot, but you said no, it's too thick."

"Who won?" Eddie asks.

"That's what you care about here?"  Wyatt proclaims in both amusement and disbelief.  When Eddie doesn't correct himself, he lets out a bemused sigh, "Teej won.  You gave him six bucks and the rest of your SunnyD."

TJ snickers at the mortified look on Eddie's face as he pats his coat pockets- sure enough, they're empty.

"Nothing much happened after that," Wyatt concedes before can argument can break out, "You pissed in the SunnyD bottle and passed out not long after TJ fell asleep, and I kept driving."

A moment of hush as Eddie takes this in, "...Where's the pee-filled SunnyD bottle, then?" he asks eventually, glancing around the car in vain, "This is my mom's car, dude."

"Threw it out the window," Wyatt says, "When I pulled over to sleep."

Silence reigns over the car as he processes this, feeling numb and confused.  Things come back to him in bits and pieces- he vaguely remembers giving TJ some money, recalls the scent of artificial orange mixed with cheap alcohol.  He can't remember for the life of him pissing in anything, but that's probably for the best.  His headache is worse than it was when he first woke up, and he lays back in his chair defeatedly.  There's a tap on his shoulder- he glances back to see TJ offering him the six dollars back.

"What's this for?" asks Eddie, though he's not complaining.

"The pancake broke your CD player, man," TJ says, "You won the bet."

Chapter Text

Wyatt gets the phone call during the final stretch of driving back to Dunwoody.

Eddie's behind the wheel, TJ sitting beside him and the car blasting Seeed.  Everyone is sleepy but content in their silence, undeniably homesick from the wild month long trip of visiting Midwestern tourist traps.

The sound of Cruel Angel's Thesis cuts through the car, and TJ laughs as he turns the radio down for Wyatt.

"That's still your ringtone?"  Wyatt doesn't dignify him with more than an irritated shush, before flipping his phone open to answer it.  'Nerd,' TJ mouths noiselessly over at Eddie, who can barely contain his snickers.

"Hello?"  Wyatt says, shooting a silent glare at Eddie through the rear view mirror, which only serves to make him laugh a little louder, "Oh, uh, hey mom."

TJ continues to chuckle to himself, but Eddie's smirk falters.  Wyatt and his mother had always had a rocky relationship- not negative, per se, but she was always rather distant.  Because his father wasn't around- hadn't been around for years- his mother worked all the time to keep them supported.  Despite what he would say, Eddie knew Wyatt held resentment for his mom, a kind of unspoken bitterness.

"Yeah, we're having fun!"  Wyatt says humorlessly, "We're good.  Why're you calling?"

A moment of quiet.   Eddie watches the half-assed smile on Wyatt's face fade, and immediately Eddie feels anxious on his friend's behalf.

"Oh, that's... no, that's fine.  Don't worry about it," his voice sounds deflated, full of false cheer, "Yeah, that's... I'll see you at Thanksgiving.  It's no big deal, mom."

At this point, even TJ has quieted down to listen to Wyatt carefully.  The blond's face is crestfallen, wearing more of a grimace than a smile, "No, honestly, I'm happy for you!... Okay.  Love you too.  Bye."  As soon as he clicks the phone shut his shoulders sag, lips pulled back in a leer of frustration and thinly veiled shame.

"What's..." TJ clears his throat and tries to make his words seem casual, "What's up, man?"

"Mom got a promotion," he grumbles, and Eddie can tell he's trying to keep his voice balanced, "Which is great for her and all, but she's gonna be in New York until October."

It takes Eddie a moment, as he does the mental math, but TJ beats him to it.

"She's not going to be around to see you off to college," he says, and it's clearly not a question.

"Yep," Wyatt sighs again.  When Eddie glances at Wyatt, sympathy obvious on his face, the latter forces himself to grin, "No, but it's fine.  No big deal.  I'll see her in November."

If possible, Eddie only feels more sorry, but Wyatt leans forwards and turns the music back up to end the conversation.

They drop off TJ first, with a few mellow, exhausted goodbyes.  TJ promises to call them while he's at college, promises to keep in touch, and Eddie hates to admit how much it breaks his heart to pull out of his friend's drive for what he knows will be the last time for a long time.

It's nearly three in the morning and Eddie is hyper aware of the fact that when he drops Wyatt off at his house, it'll be empty and he'll be alone.  Wyatt is dozing off in the passenger seat, face pressed into the crook of his elbow, leaning against the window.  The pale yellow light from the street lamps above them reflects off his glasses, throwing deep shadows over every crevice of his face; Eddie's fists tighten around the wheel as he approaches the fork in the road that would lead him to his own home.

In a last minute decision, he flicks on his turn signal and veers right, startling Wyatt awake.  "Whoa, whoa- wait, where are we-?"  the blond asks, jolting up in his seat when he realizes they're not on the path home.  "Ed, dude-,"

"Calm down, Wyatt," says Eddie tersely with a roll of the eyes, acting purely on instinct, "I... I want to show you something."

Wyatt peers over his glasses at Eddie confusedly, but relaxes into his seat after a moment of hesitation.  The drive to Eddie's house is silent, air full of tense wonderment as Wyatt's eyes flicker nervously over every street sign leading up to Eddie's house.
 
His home is pitch black and silent when they arrive, and Eddie doesn't say anything as he tumbles out of his car and starts his stride up to his front door, Wyatt following him.

"Eddie, slow down!" Wyatt calls out, exasperated, and Eddie reluctantly halts at his front door to glance over his shoulder at his friend.  When Wyatt catches up, his brow is furrowed and his face is flushed in equal parts indignation and anxiety, "Why are we here?"

"I want to show you something," Eddie repeats, letting the traces of a smirk creep into his voice as he twists the door knob.

"Show me what?"

Eddie doesn't answer at first, instead stepping silently into the mudroom of his home, and he can practically hear Wyatt roll his eyes as he trails behind him, "Let me show you," Eddie murmurs eventually, "It wouldn't be as impressive if I just told you."

This, at least, gets Wyatt to shut up.  It still doesn't keep him from looking annoyed as they tiptoe up the stairs to Eddie's room.  Once there, Eddie shoots a grin in Wyatt's direction, before turning to face his singular, large window.  Any frustration on Wyatt's face melts away, replaced by pure curiosity, and Eddie flips the locks on his window in one fluid, practiced motion.  He crouches slightly, pushing the balls of his palms against the wooden frame of the window to shove it open unceremoniously.  The sudden burst of night air is a relief compared to the stuffiness of his room and of the car.

He continues to jam the window open, as wide as it can go, and then gestures Wyatt over slightly.  The blond joins him reluctantly, peering out the window in trepidation.  Once Eddie is sure that Wyatt can see him, he pulls one of his legs up and out of the window; Wyatt reacts immediately.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," he exclaims, grabbing Eddie's elbow, "What are you-?"

"Relax, man!"  Eddie laughs, a little taken aback by how nervous Wyatt became.  Then again, he can't imagine this looks too normal, "Just watch, alright?"

Before Wyatt can stop him again, Eddie leans forwards, throwing the rest of his weight out the window.  He doesn't move his second leg, the one still in the building, until he feels the familiar thump of his foot hitting the awning above his garage door.  From there, he pivets his body so that he can lower his second leg down onto the admittedly-narrow roofing.  He presses his back to the side of the house, and the awning is just far enough away from the window sill that he can lean back on the pane with his elbows, craning his neck backwards to stare at Wyatt's shocked face.

"Told you it's fine," he jeers, and any concern on Wyatt's face falls away to be replaced by utter annoyance.

"No, you didn't," the blond deadpans, "You just told me you wanted to show me something and threw yourself out the fucking window."

Eddie pretends to consider this for a moment, before merely shrugging and throwing Wyatt another upside down grin, "Same thing."

Wyatt doesn't seem nearly as amused as Eddie, however, so the latter just laughs again and scoots over on the awning to make room for him to crawl out as well; Wyatt does so with obvious reluctance, knuckles white from clinging to the window frame as he lowers himself to the small piece of roof.

From there, Eddie gestures at Wyatt, motioning him to follow his steps, and begins to sidle across the small ledge towards the nearest, lowest piece of roof: a slanted outlook that he knew was his mom's office.  Wyatt follows, a bit slower, a bit more tentative, and the only sound to be heard is their steady breathing and the shuffle of their sneakers on wood.

Once he's standing beside the roof, he turns so that his left leg dangles uselessly by his side, and quickly, but still cautiously, splays his body out on the surface of the roof.  He lifts his left leg up- and he's sure he looks awkward as hell, dangling from the roof like a toddler trying to climb up a chair- and manages to balance his knee in the gutter.  With a grunt of effort- an embarrassing amount of effort, really- he heaves the rest of his body up and onto the roof.  He scrambles, clambering for a foot hold on the smooth shingles, and eventually finds enough purchase to straighten his body and align himself so that he is perpendicular to the garage.  He rolls himself over onto his back and pushes the balls of his feet against the roof to right himself into a sitting position, hands resting on his drawn-up knees.  He turns to grin at Wyatt and gestures the blond forward.

Wyatt is looking at him with near tangible incredibility, and slides himself forwards so that he, too, stands by the gutter at the edge of the roof.  "Is this all you wanted to show me?"

Eddie stifles his disappointment and scoots a little bit further away from Wyatt to make room, "Just get up here," he finally says, and Wyatt complies.

It takes him a little longer than Eddie to get situated comfortably on the roof, seeing as how he's never done it before, and once he's sitting beside Eddie in a similar position, the latter pointedly turns his gaze skywards.  Wyatt follows suit, and lets out a tiny gasp.

Wyatt had always lived closer to the city than him, Eddie knew this for a fact.  Wyatt's audible wonder still brings a smile to his face, however.

Above them are stars.  Not nearly as many as Eddie would've liked to see, but more than there ever were near Wyatt's house.  A few are clustered together, like a bouquet of flowers, and other are scattered, completely solitary and alone in the sky.  Eddie glances sideways at Wyatt, who is completely enraptured in the sight above them.  He cannot help but smile wider.

Lightning bugs flutter and flicker above them as well, stars in their own rights, appearing for brief seconds to vanish again.  They form a kind of rhythm, call-and-response lights, and in the dark summer air Eddie can't possibly follow them when their lights aren't on.  He sneaks another glance in Wyatt's direction a few minutes later, and sees the awed look has vanished form his face, replaced by something pensive and somewhat melancholy.  Eddie's smile falters.

"What'cha thinking about?"  he manages a casual tone, not moving his head an inch but still training his eyes on Wyatt.  The blond swallows a sigh but doesn't turn to look either.

Instead he answers Eddie with a question of his own.  "Why didn't you show me this earlier?"

"I'm not following."

Wyatt doesn't stifle this sigh, and lowers his gaze to face Eddie.  Eddie returns the stare, wincing at the unmasked nostalgia on Wyatt's face.  "We're leaving for Atlanta soon.  There won't be any stars like this in the city."

Eddie frowns as he considers this, and then chokes out a laugh- it's half-assed and empty, but Wyatt smiles all the same.  He appreciates Eddie's effort.

"Well," chuckles Eddie, sprawling out backwards on the roof, arms laid out on either side, "I guess we'll just have to come back here every summer and do this each night, right?"

Wyatt laughs, as softly as Eddie has ever heard him laugh, and lies down with him, "Is that a promise?"

"Pinky promise," Eddie says without thinking.  Wyatt crosses his arm over his stomach at first, and then reaches out his right hand so that his fingers ghost across Eddie's palm.

And, in that moment, Eddie truly believes everything will be alright.

Chapter Text

The first year of college goes well enough.  Wyatt enjoyed and successfully completed his first year of majoring in engineering, which wasn't all that surprising to anyone who knew the kid, honestly.  Eddie decided to remain out of school, instead making cash as a waiter at the local Applebee's and taking photography commissions.

To be fair, the latter was Wyatt's idea- after one of his engineering buddies asked Eddie to help him photograph his project in use, Wyatt suggested he make his hobby into a semi-career.  A few shoddy MS Paint drawings and a stack of poster board later, and the two had spread word of "Eddie Compian's Low Price Photography", complete with tear away business cards.  He mostly did kid's birthday parties, though he did get hired to photograph a middle school graduation once- arguably his fanciest job.

Probably the largest bit of news from the college year, however, was the (partial) solidification of his and Wyatt's relationship. After many nights of making out and even more mornings spent flitting around the topic, the two had finally sat each other down and talked the situation out, awkward pauses and all.  In the end, things were still pretty undecided- Eddie admitted to having had feelings for Wyatt for awhile, Wyatt claimed utter confusion, and the two settled on a semi-official "boyfriend" status.  They also settled on not telling anyone.

As the year drew to a close, Wyatt seemed to be getting more and more quiet, more reserved, and less of an outstanding douchebag, which was worrying to Eddie.

It was about three weeks 'til semester's end when Eddie finally sat Wyatt down and asked him, point blank, what was bothering him.

"S'nothing," Wyatt had muttered, gaze cast down and lips drawn back in an unattractive sneer, the kind he only got when dealing with familial issues.

"No," persisted Eddie, in a tone so stern it forced Wyatt to glance up and meet his eyes, "It's not.  So what the fuck."

Another moment passed as Wyatt held eye contact, before breaking it with a nervous, sharp turn of the head and a terse, "I don't know if I can go home for summer."

Eddie made a small noise of acknowledgement to try to garner more information from his partner, but when nothing else came, he accepted it with a sigh.

One thing led to another, and three and a half weeks (and few tearful kisses and begrudging 'thank you's) later finds both of them at the Compian's doorstep.

"Wyatt!" Eddie's mother greets warmly as she envelops the blond in a hug; a funny sight, considering how Wyatt practically towers over her, "It's so nice to see you again."

Wyatt wheezes out a laugh, a fact that makes Eddie smirk. His mother's always been known for her iron grip, "It's nice to see you, too, Mrs. Compian."

"Oh, please!" she crows, eyes crinkled by her smile, bright and wide as ever, "Call me Sara."

"What- no, mom," interjects Eddie.  When did this exchange get so friendly? "That's weird, why would Wyatt wanna do that?"

He doesn't get an answer, just a laugh made brittle by his mother's happy tears as she wraps him up in one of her famous bear hugs.  "Oooh, Eddie," she cooes, and Eddie feels his face heat up at the unbridled affection, "I've missed you so much!"

Either way, he allows himself a chuckle and a muffled hiccup as he buries his face in his mother's shoulder- which is quite a feat, seeing as how he's seven inches taller than her- and murmurs an 'I missed you, too' back.  Wyatt watches the scene with a fond smirk on his face, and Eddie is struck by how familiar and intimate this feels.  How much he missed this feeling of home.

It's later, much later, at the dinner table that a problem arises.  Eddie, in his mind, had planned on keeping his and Wyatt's newly developed romantic relationship a secret from his parents for what he hoped were obvious reasons to his partner.

When Wyatt reaches out one hand to absent-mindedly to take his, it becomes horrifyingly clear to Eddie that this is not the case.

He pulls his hand back, quickly, as though Wyatt's fingers burned his skin, and shoves his arm under the table in what he hopes is an inconspicuous way; thankfully, only Olivia seems to notice (a bewildered scowl is sent his way), parents too absorbed in their own banter.  Wyatt looks equal parts offended and concerned, brow furrowed.  Eddie cocks his head towards his mother and father slightly, and glares sharply at Wyatt, begging the blond to comprehend.  A moment passes as the shock on his face melts into a sad look of understanding, and Eddie feels guilt begin to bubble in his stomach.  He wants to explain, but then his mother is calling his attention back to the table to chat, and he can't spare Wyatt anything but an apologetic smile.

The meal passes by awkwardly from there on out, but without any major hitches, though Wyatt won't stop looking at Eddie in a way that makes his blood run shockingly cold.  It's the kind of look that says 'we need to talk', which is the worst kind of look.

So, Eddie does what comes natural to him- he avoids the inevitable conversation by surrounding himself with his family as much as he can.  After he clears the table, he plops down on the couch with Olivia and insists on playing Chopsticks with her, watching shitty reruns of Say Yes To The Dress.  After she grows bored of his shenanigans and banishes him from the living room, he goes to help his mother unload the dishwasher.  The whole while, he's painfully aware of Wyatt's presence, timid and restless and sitting at the island in the center of the kitchen, eyes following him as he piles dishes into the cabinet.

Eventually, he can't avoid it any longer, and he knows it.  He excuses himself to the restroom, sees Wyatt perk up and glance at him anxiously.  When he exits the bathroom, he is unsurprised to find the blond waiting for him, face grim.

"We need-,"

"To talk, yeah, yeah," sighs Eddie, cutting Wyatt off.  He rubs at the back of his neck, a nervous habit, and glancing up through his lashes at Wyatt, "I know."

An awkward silence follows this, as Wyatt shuffles on his feet, and Eddie gets the feeling he's trying to say something difficult.  Wyatt's never been good with earnest emotion, with sappy declarations of things deeper than 'let's make out'.  Eddie knows this, has known the man for years now, so he waits patiently for Wyatt to form the words in his mouth.

"Y'know, I'm..." he starts, chewing his lower lip worriedly, "I understand if you... don't wanna tell your parents, I mean- I figured that they'd, uh, be supportive, of," he coughs and frowns and scratches at the back of his head, "well, us; you dating, y'know, a guy, but- I'm sorry, you don't have to-,"

Eddie tunes the rest of Wyatt's fumbled apology out, completely shocked.  That was not at all where he thought this conversation was going to go, and his surprise must be palpable, because Wyatt stops his rambling to glance warily at his partner.  "You okay?" he asks, and the hushed concern in his voice makes Eddie snap.

"You- you think," he stammers out, words blank from disbelief, "that my parents are homophobic?  And that's why I don't want to tell them?"  When Wyatt nods, Eddie can't help the nervous laughter that erupts from his lips, "N-no, dude, oh my God- I came out to my parents when I was, like, fourteen- they're fine with it."

Wyatt goes from worried to shocked to angered in three seconds flat, a personal record, Eddie's sure, and glares with such ferocity that Eddie thinks he might burst into flame.  If looks could kill, he'd be six feet under.

"Well," splutters Wyatt to save face, "why don't you want your parents to know about us, then?"

Eddie snorts and rolls his eyes as all the tension in him dissipates, "Dude, they're hella embarrassing to everyone I date.  I wanted to avoid that as long as humanly possible."

And to be fair to Eddie, this is true.  Like clockwork, every time his parents found out about his new significant other, whether they be a boy, girl, or other, they'd take to a routine of absolute humiliation.  His mother would become more doting than ever, humming and hawing over every little thing his partner did, while his father would share every single baby story he had of Eddie.  Ever since Eddie had figured this ritual out, he prolonged announcing new relationships as much as possible.

Wyatt is glaring down at Eddie, though at least he no longer looks worried or truly pissed; he does look miffed and a bit bemused, however, and his voice is still a touch soft as he asks, "Why was it you were dodging talking to me, then?"

Eddie ducks his head again, tugging at the hem of his beanie self-consciously, "Well, I thought you thought I was embarrassed of you. And I hate heart-to-hearts, man- they're so cheesy."

It's Wyatt's turn to snort, though his derisiveness is fond, "Says the guy whose senior quote was some fuckin' Journey lyrics!"

"Screw you, man, Only The Young is a great song!" he laughs, utterly defiant despite knowing that Wyatt's right.

It's worth looking like an ass when Wyatt's eyes glimmer with his amusement, and he shakes his head at his boyfriend's antics.  "You're a little shit, you know that, right?"

Eddie just grins, mischevious and bright, up at him, "I'm your little shit."

"That sounds fucking gross, dude."

"Whatever."

Wyatt chuckles again, and Eddie's hands find his shirt collar to pull him down for a kiss.  He can feel Wyatt smiling against his lips, and the look on his face when they pull apart is an open one, full of warmth and gentle teasing.  Eddie thinks to himself, as he kisses him again, that he's never seen Wyatt so at peace before.

He decides, then, wrapped up in Wyatt's arms, making snide remarks at one another between kisses, that he wants to be the one to make Wyatt smile like that from now on. Cheesiness be damned.

Chapter Text

"Please don't ask, but I need you to come to the police station."

"What? Is everything okay?"

"Everything is fine, man, you just... need to come pick me up."

Eddie stands there, clutching the phone in his hand and reeling with disbelief.  Not because he's having this conversation- no, he always kind of figured this would happen- but because of the side of the conversation he's currently on.  Ask anybody who had known Wyatt and Eddie for an extended amount of time, and they'd agree that the latter was far more likely to be arrested for some reason or another- yet here they were.

"Uh," Eddie murmurs, and through the utter shock he feels, a part of him finds the situation absolutely hilarious, he should be laughing his ass off right now, "Wyatt?  What did you do, exactly, that-,"

"Jesus Christ, man, I just asked you not to ask, I'm-," Wyatt's voice goes distant, there are shuffling noises, static as skin rubs against the mouth piece of the phone.  Wyatt's voice comes back, quieter and tense, like he's trying to keep himself from yelling, "Please, just hurry, man.  I'll explain when you get h-, What, no, leave me-," more shuffling noises, a voice that is not Wyatt's, "I gotta go."  And just like that, Eddie is left with nothing but the dial tone ringing in his ears.

What the actual fuck, he thinks, and again a distant voice in his head tells him he should be laughing.

It's almost ten at night, which makes the situation that much more fucking surreal, when Eddie pulls into the local police station parking lot.  The lobby is empty- as it should be, a stern voice that sounds a lot like Wyatt's says in his head- and the officer stood at the front desk bored.

"Hey," he murmurs, edging up to the desk hesitantly, "My friend called for me to come pick him up?  His name is Wyatt Wootton."

The officer looks Eddie up and down, disinterest apparent in his eyes, before stepping out from his place at the counter.  Eddie can't help but think that this is a little irresponsible, leaving the desk unattended like this, but the cop is already leading him through a door to the back halls of the station.

Most every cell in the corridor they enter is empty, except for one towards the middle, inside of which stands-,

"Wyatt!" Eddie calls out, and it's then that reality seems to hit so his voice cracks with laughter.  He rushes over to the barred door of the cell, a barely contained grin stretched on his face, "Hey, dude, how's my favorite convict doing?"

"Shut up!"  Wyatt insists as he stands from his place sat on the cell's bed, face bright red with equal parts embarrassment and booze, "You're such a dick, Eddie."

"I'm not the one in jail," he sneers back, before turning to face the officer that escorted him, "We'll leave now- is there, like, anything we have to do to be allowed to go?"

The police man nods, a terse motion, "Yes, your friend here just has to fill out some legal forms.  Let me go get them."  And with that, he's turns around and walks back down the hall to the lobby.

"So..." Eddie decides to take advantage of their being alone, to find out exactly what happened, "why is it have to pick you up?  You can drive yourself."

"Alcohol," Wyatt says, short and bitter and frustrated, and Eddie makes a noise of understanding, "I mean, by now the buzz is completely gone and I just have a killer headache but, whatever, they're not gonna believe that so long as I have alcohol in my bloodstream."

Eddie makes another sympathetic sound in the back of his throat, and tries to keep his voice casual as he says, "What about what landed you here?  What did you do?"  Wyatt's face turns a deeper shade of red, lips pulled back into an angry grimace.  Eddie can't stop himself from grinning, "C'mon, man, you have to tell me!"

"Fine, fine," Wyatt groans, his voice reedy with shame, "I was arrested for, um..." and then he murmurs something, so quiet and self-conscious, that Eddie can't understand a word he says past the letter 'P'.

"What did you say?"

"I said," Wyatt says in an exaggeratedly loud voice, "'I was arrested for public urination'- you happy now?"

And, oh wow, that is the very last thing Eddie expected.  It takes him a second to process the words Wyatt had said, silence falling over them for a brief moment before-,

"Stop laughing!"  yells Wyatt, though Eddie can barely hear him over his own voice, "Dude, I swear to God, when I get out of this cell, I-,"

"You'll what?"  Eddie manages to croak through his peals of laughter, but he never manages to say the rest of his retort because then he's bent over in mirth again, hands clutching his knees, and God, it's actually getting hard to breathe.  He manages to quell his laughing a little bit- enough, at least, to straighten himself and wheeze out an apology.  "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he repeats, breathlessly, "but- but dude, that's unbelievable!  I mean, it's you!  Wyatt 'peeing in the shower should be against the law' Wootton!"

"First off, I never said that,"  Wyatt sputters, grasping at the last shreds of his dignity, "I just think it's fucking gross and I asked you not do it in our shower- the one that we both use," this only makes Eddie laugh more, so Wyatt tries another approach, "Second off, I happen to know that you have done way grosser, weirder things while drunk, so you don't get to talk."

"Okay," Eddie chokes out before clearing his throat and trying again, clearer this time, "Okay, okay.  That's at least fair."

"At least," Wyatt sneers back, "Can you just get me out of here?"

"I'm working on it!"  Eddie rebuts, and, as if on cue, the officer strides back into the cell block, clip pad full of paper in one hand, ring of keys in the other.  He swiftly unlocks Wyatt's cell, and the blond sheepishly thanks the man (who completely disregards him), and together the three shuffle out of the hall and into the lobby, silent save for Eddie's barely contained giggles.

In the lobby, they sit in an awkward kind of quiet, Wyatt hastily filling out the forms as Eddie twiddles his thumbs in boredom.  In no more than ten minutes, Wyatt has turned in the properly filed papers, Eddie has confirmed his identity, and, with a judgmental scowl on his face, the officer dismisses them.

They pile into Eddie's car, and it's uncomfortable for a moment as Eddie gets the vehicle started and Wyatt buckles himself in, more out of habit than actual concern for his safety.  Pulling out of the police station parking lot, Eddie finally breaks the silence.

"So, uh," he drawls, wincing ever-so-slightly when Wyatt pointedly glares at him, "What... happened... exactly?"

Wyatt groans, somewhat melodramatically, and sags in his seat, "I already told you what I got arrested for, does it matter how it happen-,"

"No, no!"  Eddie cuts in as he flicks his turn signal on at a yellow light, "No, I mean- it's not like you to just run around, peeing on things, y'know?  So, like, did someth-,"

"Shut up," grumbles Wyatt with a roll of his eyes, and Eddie complies, "It... It was nothing," he shakes his head to clear himself of the thought.  Eddie opens his mouth to speak, and Wyatt stops him sharply, "Nothing.  I don't wanna talk about it."

More silence passes between them, but damn it, Eddie just has to know.  It's getting a bit disconcerting, honestly, and he says as such.

"You're worrying me a bit, man," he tries to keep his voice nonchalant, even when he sees the way Wyatt tenses with his words, "Like... you're not at all the kind of person who I'd expect to go out, get piss-drunk and start- hey,"  he interrupts his own thought with a bark of laughter, "Hey, I made a pun!  At least, I think that's a pun?  I don't-,"

"It was my mom, okay?"  Wyatt snaps out, and Eddie is left floundering, mouth flapping open, shut, open, shut, before he manages a graceless, tiny 'oh'.

"Yeah, 'oh'," Wyatt sneers, softer now, and the silence that follows is ugly and harsh.  Eddie is practically holding his breath. Wyatt relaxes a little bit, the fight leaving his posture as he slumps backwards and leans against the door.  Without sparing a look in his direction, Wyatt says to Eddie, "I'm... sorry, man, I'm just..."

He trails off, and not much more is said for a bit as they drive.  Eventually, Eddie feels the need to break the quiet, voice humorless and morose as he asks, "Is she... y'know..."

"What?"  bites Wyatt, more exhausted than actually annoyed.

"...Dead?"

A look of shock flashes across Wyatt's weary features, and then the blond is laughing, a mangled, tired noise, "Wh- no!  No, she's-," the laughing increases in volume and starts to sound genuine, and it's infectious, because soon enough Eddie is cackling right alongside his hysterical friend.

"She's not dead," Wyatt manages eventually, crooked smirk still in place, "God, way to be a pessimist."

Eddie doesn't even bother defending himself or his line of thinking, just snickering to himself as he drives.  They reach a stop sign, and a beat of silence engulfs them, this time gentle and content though still not entirely comfortable, and he turns to grin cheekily at Wyatt.

"So," he says, eyebrows quirked up, "What is it you pissed on?"

Three days later, he finds himself on the phone yet again, as he explains to TJ why, exactly, he has a fist-shaped bruise on his right shoulder.

Chapter Text

The day that Eddie met TJ is a day that Wyatt wishes he could forget.

Wyatt's house is the larger than Eddie's- a three story building on the edge of Sandy Springs with a narrow courtyard in the back and a concrete stoop.  It doesn't stand out too much, but to Eddie, it's impressive.

It's autumn break of Eddie's junior year, quite awhile after their arcade 'date'. While Wyatt had since come to visit Eddie at his house (introducing his friend to his parents was a travesty), Eddie hadn't yet gotten to see Wyatt's abode.  He never asks, figures there might be a reason for that, and the two continue on.

Until the day he answers the phone to receive the invitation he never thought he'd hear.

"Yeah," he says after a stunned moment, because Wyatt had outright told him before that he didn't like to invite others over, "I'd love to hang out at your place tomorrow!"

"Sweet, cool, uh-," bumbles Wyatt, and there's a shuffling static sound as he adjusts the phone, "Just- well, TJ is gonna be there, is that a'ight wi-,"

"TJ?  The TJ?"

A beat, before he receives a flustered and hurried 'yeah'- Eddie can just picture Wyatt nodding into the phone before realizing he can't see him.

"That's fine with me!"  Eddie says, "I'm pumped to finally meet 'im."

Another pause, followed by a sigh.

"I already regret this."

Wyatt picks Eddie up the next day, and the drive to his house is casual, full of conversations that are more like arguments as usual.  When they arrive, Eddie cannot help but marvel at Wyatt's neighborhood, at the clusters of homes and rows of streetlights and holy shit you actually have a sidewalk.

Wyatt rolls his eyes fondly at Eddie's antics, and says to him, "You think this is impressive," as he unlocks his front door, "you should see the inner city."

Eddie's grin only gets wider, but as he steps inside his comeback dies in his throat.  The inside of the house shocks him with how... stark it is, how barren.  Wyatt wasn't a dull person- he had a dry sense of humor, yes- but he wasn't boring.  This was not the kind of home Eddie envisioned him living in.  The walls are a dusty, pale blue, and the foyer floor is white gridded tile.  The doorways are square and framed in white, rectangular woodwork.  Through one such doorway, Eddie can see a single, straight staircase made of ash and padded in navy carpeting. There are only a few pictures, default and framed in sleek frames, spotted around the place, and none hanging on the walls.  A single flower pot sits on a table in the mudroom, filled with uniformly cut pink roses and blue carnations.

It's pretty, no doubt, but it makes Eddie uncomfortable, like he's being watched and judged.

"Nice house," he says instead, more a custom than a compliment.

Wyatt grumbles an indifferent thank you as he kicks off his shoes and gestures at Eddie to do the same, lest he track mud through the house.  Eddie does as he's told to do, leaving his sneakers in the corner by the door as Wyatt does despite how unnatural it feels.

Wyatt's room is on the third floor, something he boasted often about, so they have to trek up the stairs past the second floor before they reach their destination.  From what he glimpses of the second floor, it's just as magazine-esque as the first, and he can't help the frown that starts to make its way across his face.

The third floor (specifically Wyatt's room), however, is a welcome change.  His bedroom door is ash wood as well, he can tell from the unpainted frame, but it's stained a warm, pale green, with a YIELD sign nailed to it that Eddie swears looks too weathered and utterly real to have been legally purchased. On the left beam of the door frame are several dashes of graphite, clearly a measuring chart of the years.  The inside of the room is similar to the outside- a plushy blue rug on walnut flooring with grey walls plastered with posters of bands and games and movies and piles of haphazard books that look well-loved.  Sitting in the center of the room is a boy Eddie can only assume is the infamous TJ, and he looks a lot different than Eddie had envisioned him to.

"Hey!" the boy calls out, and at least his voice meets Eddie's expectations, "You must be Eddie!  Wyatt's told me all about you, man, nice t' meet you."

Before he can utter a word in response, a splayed hand has been shoved into his personal space, but Eddie only laughs and gives TJ his requested high-five, "'Snice to meet you, too- TJ, I'm presuming."

"I'd be shocked if you didn't know my name," TJ says in a harmlessly cocky way, and Eddie beams back.

"Alright, alright, break it up, you two," interrupts Wyatt with a smirk, "Enough jerking off each other's egos."

TJ laughs and falls back into his original position leaning against Wyatt's bed, and quickly snatches up a game controller from the side table.  Wyatt nabs his own and tosses another to Eddie, and after a slightly clumsy catch and resulting mock-scorn, the three are immersed in some fictional world.

Nearly two hours pass before TJ lets out a groan and slumps back into the bed, arms sprawled on either side of himself.  Wyatt mimics his noise and lays back too, directly on top of the other's arm, who lets out a yelp and tugs meekly on his limb.

"What's wrong, Teej?" Wyatt mocks.

"I'm boooored," comes the reply, and Eddie snickers at the friends' banter, "Let's do something."

"Like what?" Wyatt deadpans.

Eddie leans further back into the mattress, digging his head so far into the soft bed's material it obscured his vision.  That's when an idea came to him, so hard and sudden he sat up with a jolt.

"I have an idea!" he cheered, pivoting his body to beam up at the bewildered Wyatt and TJ, "How about we go mattress surfing?"

Chapter Text

Wyatt is outvoted, two to one, and in less than ten minutes they've hefted his twin bed mattress out of the bed frame, through the narrow door, and laid out at the top of the staircase.  He keeps insisting it's a bad idea, so much so that TJ forbids him from trying the mattress out first.

"That's not a punishment," Wyatt murmurs, eyebrows cocked in confusion.

"Shh," hushes TJ with a narrow frown, eyes playful, "I'm going first, no arguments."

"I'm not arguin-,"

"Shh!" Wyatt rolls his eyes but shuts his mouth, crossing his arms and leaning back against the wall as TJ shuffles the mattress right up to the edge of the stairs, legs tucked against him and hands gripping the edge of the bed tightly.  "Okay; on my mark, give me a shove down the stairs."

With another roll of his eyes and a smirk, Wyatt steps up behind TJ and makes some noncommittal sound of agreement.  TJ begins to count down from five, but as he starts to say 'two', Wyatt kicks the back of the mattress and sends it sliding clumsily down the steps at a shocking speed; the blond's mouth falls open as TJ lets up a yelp of terror that turns into something of a battle cry.

The staircase is long but not very, and in just a few moments TJ cries out in pain as the mattress falls to a stop at the bottom, bucking against the wall and sending its occupant tumbling forward and into the wall of the platform.

A beat, a groan, and Wyatt snickers, calling out, "You okay, Teej?"

There's another pause, followed by drunken sounding shuffling noises as TJ rights himself, grinning up at the duo at the top of the stairs.  "Yeah!  That was awesome!"

Despite his best efforts not to, Eddie cackles out loud at the way Wyatt's face drops.  Clearly, he'd been hoping TJ would've given up after the blunder.  Clearly, he'd been wrong.

"I wanna try," chimes Eddie, as TJ lugs the mattress back up the steps for round two.  TJ turns his face upwards to pout for a moment, before brightening.

"Okay," he says, "we can ride together."

"Oh, my God," Wyatt groans, eliciting a laugh from TJ, "you two are gonna be the death of me."

They're already lining the mattress up at the peak of stairs, and Eddie shuffles into place behind TJ, pressing into the other teen's back.  TJ leans back a little, tucking himself between Eddie's knees.  "Alright, ready!" he sing-songs, and Eddie hears a huff behind them and then, with a rough shove, they're moving.

The extra weight on the mattress greatly affects their ride, however; it shudders a bit as first TJ slips down the top step, and then Eddie, bouncing over every stair.  They've slowed considerably, but the ride is also rougher, and it becomes incredibly apparent that a single twin bed isn't large enough for two.  About half way down the stairs, Eddie finds himself leaning further and further back, until, with a final jolt, the world somersaults, and there's pain in the crown of his head and every notch of his spine.  The world buzzes and blurs- he catches a glimpse of the ceiling, the banister and the bars supporting it, a shock of ochre- and then all he can see is darkness pinstriped by pale wood.  His face is buried in the plush of the steps' carpeting, and he can hear laughter below him and shouting above him.

"Eddie!" he hears Wyatt's voice call from somewhere above him, closer and louder than the hysterical cackling of TJ.  A hand is pressed to the small of his back, shaking him lightly, "Ed, you alright?"

He blames it on TJ's contagious laughter, but before he can help it, Eddie finds himself muffling giggles into the soft carpet beneath him.  He lifts his face, turns over onto his back with a breathy groan, and his chuckles only tenfold when he sees Wyatt's concerned face drop, mouth pulled into a scowl.

"You're fine," the blond deadpans, and he doesn't even offer Eddie a hand up as he stomps down to the bottom of the stairs where TJ is sprawled out safely.  "That's it, we're done," he announces.

TJ lets out a low, childish whine as he takes Wyatt's proffered hand and hauls his sorry ass off the ground.  "But Wyatt, you haven't given it a go yet! That's hardly fair."

"But I don't want to," he responds without a trace of amusement.  Eddie wonders if this is his breaking point, if he'll finally act on the hollow threats of murder.

It seems unlikely; this train of thought is enough to make him bark out a laugh, to which Wyatt responds with only a glare.

"Let's get a bigger mattress," declares TJ.  He walks up the stairs to where Eddie remains, laid out, and lowers a hand, "So two of us can go down at once."

At this, Eddie grabs TJ's hand with sudden force, pulling himself upright in a flash and blurting, "I call dibs!"  Both of his friends groan; TJ in mock jealousy and Wyatt in utter exasperation.

They leave Wyatt's mattress in the hall on the top floor, instead heading to the second floor guestroom, with it's far larger queen bed.  They align the mattress with the steps, and Wyatt raises a worried brow when the sides of the mattress curl upwards against the wall.

"I don't think it's a wide enough staircase," his words fall on deaf ears, however, as both Eddie and TJ are already shoving the mattress into place at the edge of the top step.

"Don't worry about it," TJ insists, despite not having heard what it was Wyatt was even worried about, "It's fun!"

Wyatt has at least given up on arguing with his enthusiastic friends, and plops down on the bed.  Eddie takes the front this time, and tries to ignore the shivers that travel down his spine and through his legs when Wyatt wraps his arms around his torso, tries to pretend he can't feel Wyatt's warm breath on his neck or the other's legs pressed against his own.  It's so comfortable that it's uncomfortable, and he bites his tongue and focuses all his energy on not leaning into the touch.

"Ready?"  yells TJ, voice warm with the smile Eddie can't see but knows is there.

All Wyatt says is, "No," and Eddie laughs, and then they're falling.

It's faster than the twin bed at first, until the utter size of the new mattress catches up to them and the corners are snagging on the walls and in the gaps of the banister's bars.  They're about halfway down when there's a sound like a bone breaking, a yelp from far above them, and Eddie jerks against Wyatt's arms with sudden force.  It knocks the wind out of him, and he bounces back, pressed into the other's chest.

A silence falls over the trio as Eddie wheezes.  They mattress has stopped entirely, wedged in the center of the staircase.

"Did my staircase just break," it's not a question; Eddie tenses against Wyatt's chest and waits, listen as the blond shudders out a breath and TJ meekly calls out from the top of the steps.

"Uh, well- the banister, it-,"

His timid explanation is cut off, however, by laughter.  Eddie can feel the boy rumble with the sound, hands tightening and then falling free, so that he flops back onto the mattress and just-

laughs.

It's so sudden, so out of character and unexpected and yet utterly wonderful that Eddie can only just bring himself to laugh along, too, but then TJ joins in and suddenly none of them can stop.  And they stay like that, TJ sitting on the top stair and Wyatt sprawled on the mattress and Eddie curled up between his legs, for a good long while, long enough that Eddie forgets he wasn't supposed to be leaning into Wyatt's warmth.

Eventually, they have to move, and Wyatt pulls himself to his feet before helping Eddie stand, too.  All three of them work together to drag the mattress up to the second floor hall again, and then examine the damage.  It's... well, it's significant, but nothing necessarily tragic. Nothing that can't be fixed with a visit from a handyman, or perhaps some glue and a little good luck.  Three of the bars that uphold the banister have snapped, destroyed by the force of the too-large mattress ramming into them.  Wyatt shoots TJ a look that says 'I told you so', and Eddie just laughs when the latter blusters to defend himself.

"I- I gotta fix this," Wyatt says, looking more exasperated than anything else, ghost of a smile still on his lips, "You two get out of here, okay?"

"What!  Wyatt," exclaims TJ, all sarcasm and cat-like grins, "We're your guests! You can't kick us out, that's-,"

"Get out!" is the half-shouted, half-laughed response they get, and TJ is giggling the whole time he drags Eddie out the front door.

They sit on the stoop together in moderate quiet, the first moment they've spent alone since meeting.  Eddie taps his fingers on the concrete step, and TJ leans back and fishes a small carton of cigarettes from his coat pocket.  He offers one to Eddie with nimble, practiced hands.

"No thanks," he declines, and TJ shrugs with one shoulder and puts the butt between his lips.  Another pause as he lights it, and Eddie gets the sense TJ is going to speak again so he doesn't dare interrupt the silence.

He turns out to be right, as the strawberry blond releases a puff of foul smelling smoke and turns to beam crookedly at Eddie.

"Y'know, I hafta thank you, man," he sighs fondly.  He looks older when he smokes; less like a mischievous child and more like the rebellious teen he is.  When Eddie quirks an eyebrow to urge him on, he speaks again, not meeting Eddie's eye, "I've known Wyatt a long time- a looong time- and he never would've reacted so calmly to what happened today before," the smile TJ gives him then is a sad one; it doesn't reach his dark eyes as he gives a weary shake of his head, "You're a good influence on him."

"Really?" laughs Eddie, disbelief dripping from the single word, "I dunno, breaking a part of his house doesn't seem like a good influence."

"I'm serious!"  TJ insists.  It's the first time Eddie has heard him sound completely genuine, and it stuns him silent, "Seriously. I'm serious.  Ever since he met you he's been way less uptight about stuff.  It's a good change.  You put 'im at ease."

They fall into silence again, Eddie practically glowing with the unexpected praise.  He wonders if TJ knew about Wyatt giving him the Valentine-themed stuff toy in the summer, if he noticed how his hand always lingered in Wyatt's when the blond pulled him up.  It should make him nervous, but instead it just makes him smile.

He wonders if TJ knew that Wyatt put him at ease, too.

Chapter Text

The end of the world begins with Eddie bent over Wyatt's toliet.

It's 5 am and he's still a little drunk, Wyatt's asleep on the futon, and all the lights are off to spare his aching head.  The party had gone on for a lot longer than expected and TJ was too smashed to be their designated driver by the end of the night, so one nerve-wracking drunken car ride back to the apartment found them safe and mostly sound, both collasping on the floor the second they were home.

Whatever buzz Eddie had had was gone by now, though, stomach rudely awakening him nearly half an hour ago.  His clothes reek of chocolate margaritas and bile and pot laced with- with- Eddie isn't sure but the hangover makes it feel like he's underwater and his muscles are made of melting wax and it's miserable, he's miserable.

The acid is burning his throat again as he's left heaving, clutching the toliet's bowl with pale knuckles, when he hears Wyatt waking up in the next room over.  He hadn't been nearly as drunk as Eddie, he rarely ever was, and Eddie envied that about his friend and roommate (and maybe boyfriend, because at this point neither of them really seemed to know).

He hears Wyatt shuffle about, the tell tale clinking of glass as he undoubtedly fishes around their kitchen for a drink, hears Wyatt call out a vaguely concerned, "You alright, dude?"

"Just peachy," he croaks back, hurting with every word.  He puts no effort into the sarcasm, no humor creeping into his voice as he's forced to huddle back over his place at the toliet.

A few moments pass in silence (save for the wrteching sounds Eddie keeps making against his will), and then Wyatt's right beside him, holding a glass of water and some emetrol.  Eddie takes them gratefully, not managing any words, before moving slightly to lean against the shower door. They sit in companionable silence, sipping water and yawning.

This is not an unfamiliar scene.

When Wyatt mentions as such, a sad smile on his face, it hits Eddie like a punch in the gut, almost enough to make him sick all over again.  He doesn't let Wyatt see, though.

Instead, he says, "Go big or go home, man," with all the confidence he doesn't feel, and he doesn't miss Wyatt's eye roll but he wishes he did, "S'no big deal. This is what college is all about!"

"I've been out of college for five years, and you never even went."

Eddie flips him off, ableist lazily, and at least Wyatt laughs at that.  A few more beats of silence.

"We should stop, y'know."

When Eddie doesn't reply, Wyatt continues, "I mean, in a few more years we're gonna be thirty.  And once we're thirty we can't just keep getting shit-faced every weekend. You know that."

Eddie does know that. He knows that very, very well, but what comes out of his mouth is "Screw you, dude.'

"Wow, you're rude when you're hungover," Wyatt says, only half-joking, before standing up and heading back to their kitchen-cum-dining-room.  Eddie reluctantly follows after spitting in the sink, and as he leaves he tries his best to avoid the rush of dizziness that almost knocks him off his feet.

"I'm being serious though," Wyatt says, and Eddie's already sick of the argument that hasn't even started yet, "We should stop."  Eddie gives a noncomittal shrug, too drained to really debate with Wyatt.

"Maybe tomorrow, dude. Who knows."

As if by fate or coincidence or just bad luck, it's at that moment that both hear a distinct growling, moaning noise from the apartment below theirs.  It sends a jolt of panic up Eddie's spine, the kind of fear one feels when they realize they locked themselves out of their home, and neither one of them want to break the silence that follows.

"It's... probably just the floorboards," it's half-assed and Wyatt knows this even as the words fall from his lips, and Eddie doesn't dignify him with a response, instead crouching down to the floor to listen closer.

Silence. A groan. Something shuffling- slowly.

"Really, dude it's none of our business anyways."

There are quiet voices, too, but Eddie can't make out what they're saying and if they sound like they're in danger or not. He shushes Wyatt's nervous rambling, pressing one hand to the floor when-

"Get it off of me!"

Eddie jumps- literally jumps- in shock and knocks against Wyatt's knees, and every inch of him is shaking as a loud cacophony of screams and thunking sounds erupts from just below them.

"Wyatt, what the fuck-,"

"I dunno, man, but we should get out of here.  Now."

So they do.  They don't stop to check what happened to their downstairs neighbors, don't even think to check; they run down the stairs and clamber out of the building, past panicking residents who no doubt heard the commotion, and they keep running until they reach the parking space where Eddie's shitty SUV is sloppily parked.

The drive out of the city is like a drive through Hell, and it takes all of Eddie's willpower not to throw up again as they pass crowd (after crowd after crowd after crowd) of crying, screaming people, covered in blood and guts and God knows what else, as they drive past things that look almost human but aren't quite, not really, Eddie's never seen a human move like these things do.

Everything's dyed blue and red and black from the police sirens that fill the air like a banshee's scream.  The wailing doesn't stop until they're long gone from the city, so far from Atlanta its only a distant light.  It takes less than an hour- Eddie watches the clock the whole time- but it feels like years before they can't see anything but the highway anymore.

There are other cars around them.  The lucky few who managed to get out of Atlanta fast, in what would later be infamously known as "the beginning".  The sun comes up not too long later, and Eddie thinks to himself that he'd never seen a more beautiful sunrise in his life, and he hates how he wonders if he'll ever see one again.

Chapter Text

A week or so goes by, slowly and painfully and in a haze; every time Eddie goes to sleep he almost expects to wake up to a normal life, lying in his bed in his and Wyatt's apartment. Every time he awakens to find himself sitting in the backseat of his van, cold gunmetal pressing into his hands, he feels a pang of disappointment.

At first, he didn't like using a gun against these... things. They look just a bit too human. At first, his hands shake every time he has to pull the trigger. It's after a few close calls he realizes he'll have to adapt- that, despite how much he may wish otherwise, this is their new reality. Through it all, he's glad he, at least, has Wyatt with him. The two spend most of their time driving, looting every gas station and motel and supermarket they reach. A lot of them are already fairly empty. Few and far between they meet fellow survivors, most of whom are tentatively hospitable, offering small portions of food in exchange for Eddie and Wyatt leaving them alone.

Money becomes useless pretty quickly, but Wyatt keeps some stockpiled anyways.  Eddie only asked him why once, and when Wyatt replied, "Just in case," Eddie dropped it.  He figured that they all needed something pointless from the past to hold onto.  If for Wyatt it was money, then so be it.

They're miles away from Atlanta, but they don't get a chance to head to Dunwoody.  Eddie wants to- wants to see if his family is still there- but Wyatt insists heading into cities or towns is a bad idea.  Deep inside, Eddie knows he's right.

Presently, they're searching through a gas station, one that seems unchecked.  All of the food is still there, a first ever in their string of lootings.  They both brought guns in with them, just in case, and Eddie keeps the pistol clenched in his fist.

"I'll search for drinks," Wyatt says, after they've given the store a rundown, "You check over in the freezer isle for any nonperishables."

Eddie doesn't reply, just nods and takes off to the opposite end of the store for food.  Fortunately, there's plenty- more than they've seen these past few days, at least.  Eddie can't help but feel a rush of joy as his eyes scan over the rows and rows of goods- canned beef, dried apples and peaches, Granola trail mix, several cereal boxes, 20oz water bottles, and peanut butter jars.  All things he never would've voluntarily eaten before, but now seems like a blessing.

He shuffles the pack off of his back, letting it drop onto the floor with a limp thump noise, unzips it with a shaking hand, and starts to pile the food into it.  As he shoves the last dented can of beans into the bag, he hears Wyatt yell out, and his blood runs cold.  Worst case scenario images flash into his mind- he's bit, he's bit, the only thing he has left is going, gone- but Wyatt's desperate voice breaks him out of his horrified stupor.

"Eddie, get over here!"

The crack in his voice is hard to place- it's not terror or pain, but something sad, something a little bit like hope- and Eddie doesn't need to be told twice.  He hugs the bag to his chest with one arm, using the other to clutch his gun with pallid knuckles.  He sprints as fast as he can with malnourished, weakened muscles, and bursts through the aisle to stand by Wyatt's side, mouth moving a mile a minute, "are you okay, are you hurt, are you bit, are there any walkers, are there other survivors, what happened-,"

Wyatt elbows his stomach, hard, and Eddie shuts up to turn in the direction Wyatt is facing.  What he sees leaves him speechless.

It's a pay phone.  It is sleek and dinged up from past abuse and made of metal and black plastic and it's a pay phone.  The number pad has been worn away by years of dirty fingers, the wire is twisted like a broken slinky, and Eddie is left absolutely awestruck but the utter beauty of this remarkably domestic thing, untouched by the apocalypse around them.  That such a thing could exist, even now, makes his heart skip a beat.

Again, Wyatt's quiet, shaken voice breaks his stupor.

"I think it still works."

Eddie's head snaps to glare at his friend, "What?"

"I think," he echoes, slow and deliberate- he turns to meet Eddie's eyes and his gaze is hopeful, "it still works.  At least, it doesn't look broken."

Eddie takes a few steps forwards, and asks, voice empty, "Did you check for a dial tone?"

"No, no- not yet, at le-,"

"Why not?"  he demands, taking another drastic step forwards, so close now he could reach out and grab the phone from it's hook.  Wyatt makes an indignant noise behind him.

"I called out for you first, figured you'd wanna know."

Eddie doesn't reply.  It's rational, he knows, he knew Wyatt hadn't checked even before he'd asked the question, but- but-

But every nerve in his body is screaming at him not to get his hopes up.  There's no way the phone can be working.  Still, he scoffs to himself, there's no harm in checking, right?

His hands shake as he takes the phone in his hands and, with an anxious glance backwards at Wyatt, he places the speaker to his ear.

There's an interrupted, rhythmic humming, a distinct sound that nearly makes Eddie collapse at its familiarity.  A dial tone.  A dial tone.

Eddie looks frantically back at Wyatt, and the look on his face is indicator enough to the blond, who rushes forward and is already clumsily pulling money out of his pockets; Eddie thanks whatever deity may exist in this fucked up husk of a world that this was Wyatt's comfort, by some kind of impossible luck.

"Here," Wyatt says, holding out fifty cents, enough to make a call.  When Eddie reaches to grab it, Wyatt clenches his fist around the coins and warns, "Don't get your hopes up.  They might not be there."

He doesn't even need to specify who 'they' is.

Eddie shakes his heads, shakes his whole body though that's not intentional, and Wyatt hesitantly hands him the quarters.  Eddie pushes both coins in, one after the other, hears the satisfying clink of the change as they slide into the machine.  He dials his home number, nearly cries from the pure relief that comes from doing something so simple and familiar and utterly normal, for the first time all week.

It rings once.

It rings twice.

It rings-

"Hello?"

Eddie chokes back a laugh and a scream and a sob and says as calmly as he can, "Dad?  Dad, is that you?"

A beat of silence passes, and the voice sighs, and all the hope in Eddie wilts as his heart buries itself in his stomach.  "Uh, sorry, buddy; no, this..." another sigh, "This isn't your dad."

"I-is... is my dad okay? Mom?"

Yet another moment, yet another sigh.

"This is your house, isn't it?"  Eddie breaths a 'yes' without even considering the question, "Well, I... I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but when we got here there were... a couple of walkers locked in the bedroom- two, to be exact- and if you really lived here, I'm willing to bet..."

The stranger trails off from there, and Eddie can barely breathe.  He holds the stale air in his lungs instead, fist clenched white around the phone, and utters a small 'thank you' because there isn't anything else to say.

"I'm sorry," the stranger murmurs again, and then the dial tone plays again.

A hand rests on his shoulder, warm and flat, but Eddie shrugs it off, lets out a week chuckle.  Another pair of cold quarters are pressed into his available palm.

Eddie inserts these coins, too, less eager but still determined.  He types in Olivia's number this time, her cell, and waits.  The phone rings once, twice, thrice.

At the fourth ring, Eddie grits his teeth.

At the fifth ring, he clenches his hands into tight fists.

At the sixth ring, he resists the urge to punch a hole in the pay phone.

"Hey, this is Olivia C., and I'm not here right now!  Leave a message; I'll get back to you when I can."

He slams the phone down onto the receiver, and Wyatt winces at the sound.

"Give me more quarters," insists Eddie, and there is a pause before the money is pressed into his waiting hand again.

He continues this process, the six rings, the answering machine, each time slamming the phone back into place harder, louder, and after four tries, Wyatt refuses to give him anymore change.

"Why not?" he demands, fists still balled at his sides.

"It's not worth it, it's not," says Wyatt, and the calmness of his voice only makes Eddie angrier, "It'll only serve to upset you more; she's obviously not there, don't bother; let's just move on-,"

"No!  I need to make sure she's okay, she's my little sister, she has to be okay-,"

"Eddie," the blond cuts in, holding his hands out in a surrendering gesture as though approaching a cornered animal.  Eddie's blood runs cold with fury, "Eddie, we're barely okay, and just because you can't reach her doesn't mean she's not safe, doesn't mean she's d-"

He's interrupted as Eddie swings a fist towards his face, his vision blurring black and white and red, red, red- Wyatt ducks away, narrowly avoids the blow and then the gas station falls silent.  Eddie's breathing is labored, heavy, as he stands and stares shell-shocked at Wyatt, who looks vaguely surprised but mostly just sad.  Eddie, on the other hand, is stunned, stupefied, frozen in his place.

Because the punch didn't land but he tried.  He tried to hurt Wyatt and it didn't even faze him.

The two stand staring at one another in the quiet.  The fight drains from Eddie all at once, fists unfurling and shoulders dropping.  He doesn't dare shed a tear, even as Wyatt assures him he had every right to; at this point, he had every right to be broken.  They spend another few minutes looking the store over, not speaking, before driving off again.  That night, he doesn't dream at all.

Another two weeks pass, and it's only when they drive back around past the gas station and find the pay phone destroyed that Eddie allows himself to cry.

Chapter Text

Something is in the woods.
 
Eddie’s on second watch, sat meekly outside his and Wyatt’s shared makeshift tent.  It’s crafted out of an old bed sheet from a motel, impaled with a stick kept buried in the dirt and pinned to a nearby tree, with the gaping fabric draped over a hollowed out log they could tuck themselves into. It’s a pathetic set up, it really is, but there was no road deep in the cover of the woods and staying out in the open streets, even when locked asleep in the car, made Eddie anxious.  So they agreed to set up camp for the night in the shallow parts of the forest, beside the road.
 
But something is in the woods, and it’s too nimble, too sneaky, too alive to be a walker.
 
At first, he chalks it up to his imagination, to the sleep deprivation and all the trauma that came with the world ending.  He’d imagined worse, more vivid things while on drugs, frankly.
 
The second time there comes a shuffling from the bushes, however, he’s less sure.
 
Wyatt had gone to sleep after the first watch what must’ve been a few hours ago, so Eddie is reluctant to wake him.  The sounds continue, seem to be getting closer, too, and eventually he can’t take it anymore.  By the time he’s worked up the nerve to wake his companion, he’s halfway to hysteria, anxious and babbling breathlessly.
 
Wyatt’s eyes are bleary when Eddie shakes him awake, murmuring Wyatt, dude, get up, something’s out there, get up, please, please, voice desperate.  “Whoa, whoa; c-calm,” a yawn interrupts his sentence as he sits up, grabbing Eddie’s quivering hands in his own, if only to get him to stop shaking him, “Calm down.”
 
“Wyatt,” he repeats, and the blond fixes a tired glare on him, “there is something out there.”
 
The annoyance fades a little, but Wyatt just pulls himself out of the tent and draws his pistol from his jeans.  Eddie still finds he can’t stand guns, even forty or so days into the apocalypse, forty or so days full of shooting dead things until they were dead all over again.  He hasn’t got a choice in it, and it’s comforting, at least, to know that he’s armed now.
 
He aims the barrel of his own pistol towards the tree line, and they go silent. A few moments pass, and Eddie almost thinks he really had been imagining it, when the rustling picks up again, close and quick and followed by voices and stifled breathing.
 
This seems to wake Wyatt right up, the exhaustion on his face replaced with apprehension.  "Who's there?" he calls out, voice hoarse with equal parts sleepiness and anxiety. The rustling cuts out suddenly, and Eddie holds his breath.  Wyatt shouts out the question again, and then a dark, gangly shape emerges from the darkness.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," comes a voice, rough and cautious and somehow condescending; it makes Eddie clench his hand tighter around his gun, "Re-lax, boys!"  The shadow steps forward some more, allowing bits of his body to come into view.  He was wearing a dirty hooded jacket and a pair of basic jeans; for the most part, his appearance was simple, insignificant.  He had a baseball cap pulled over his face, bill tucked over his eyes so Eddie could only see the glint of his smile.  Most noticeable, however, was the rifle slung around his torso.

"Who are you?" demands Wyatt, obviously not in the mood to deal with this guy's casual tone.  The stranger seems to sober a bit.

"Just put the gun down," he says as he raises his arms in surrender; Eddie watches the gun on his back swing with the movement, "Don't do anything hasty."

Eddie considers, for a moment, pulling the trigger; one squeeze and they could move on, put this man behind them.  His breathing falters as his hands tremble, gun shaking, and then he drops it, gun clattering to the forest floor.  Wyatt shoots him a desperate, nervous look, and Eddie can't meet his eyes.  Eventually, after a few tense seconds, Wyatt lowers his gun to his hip as well, though he doesn't let it fall like Eddie had.

"Now, what're you two doing out here," the man drawls, shoving his hands in his jacket, before Wyatt can ask who he is again, "with nothing but two pistols and a sheet?  That doesn't seem very smart."

"We-," Eddie stops, cocking a head at Wyatt to ask permission to answer this man; Wyatt nods curtly, "We didn't want to sleep out in the open of the road."

A grin of epiphany spreads across the man's face, and it makes Eddie shudder, "Ah, so it is your car I saw out on the street.  Y'know, I have a car, too."

Neither Wyatt nor Eddie relax at this statement, however, and the man's face drops for a moment, before he's back to smiling hungrily at them.

"Me and some of my pals have a camp nearby," he states, "Holed up in a gas station.  Safe- or, safer than this," he gestures at their tent, "It's just a short drive from here. How about you come with me? You can just follow me along in your car."

The way he says it makes it seem less like an invite and more like a command, and both of them know it.  Wyatt stares, hard, at Eddie, as he worries his lip piercings and spins and twirls the rings on his fingers.  With an apologetic frown, the blond turns back to the man and says, "We'll come.  Just- just tell us your name."

The man grins so wide, Eddie can see all his badger-sharp teeth, lips pulled back in a snarl, "Good to hear it!" With one long step, he comes to stand in full view of the duo; the smile plastered on his face doesn't meet his eyes, "And the name's Nate.  Nice to meet ya."

All at once, Eddie regrets not firing the gun.

Chapter Text

(He thinks back to the first time he had used a gun against something alive.

Twenty-three days into the apocalypse and rationing had been harder than anticipated, especially when partnered with their lack of cooking supplies and can openers. They had taken to hunting for extra food, burying themselves in shrubs for what felt like hours to wait for something that might not come. It’s early evening and Eddie’s stomach feels like it is dissolving itself, he’s so starving. The pain makes him angry, impulsive, desperate.  Wyatt seems calmer than him, but that’s not unusual, and with the waves of hunger comes jealousy and unwarranted contempt.

Two days have passed since they circled back around, found the wrecked pay phone, and Wyatt’s been treating him like he’s made of glass since.  He knows that’s the best comfort his companion can give, but it gets under his skin regardless.

By some stroke of luck, after the millenniums spent waiting, a deer ambles by. It’s small, possibly young, and malnourished, but it’s the biggest live animal Eddie has seen in weeks and before he can even consider the consequences, he pulls the trigger.  The bullet pierces the fawn’s haunches, but doesn’t kill it, and Wyatt is left cursing up a storm as the creature scampers away, into the woods.

“What now?” he cries out rhetorically.

“We follow it,” is all Eddie says, before he, too, tears off into the forest.)

Nate’s people are no less intimidating; a ragtag group of friends, all with dark expressions and big guns.  They’ve secured a gas station, that was true, and by using some of the gasoline they have a big enough fire to cook feasts.

Eddie doesn’t like it one bit.  He knows that coming with him was a mistake, but it’s too late. Now dangerous men with rifles surround him and all he and Wyatt have between them is one gun.

(The deer is easy to follow; slowed down by its weakness and careless due to its injury, it leaves a notable path through the brush and makes a ruckus. It leaves specks of blood in its wake.

When Eddie notices that, he nearly loses his appetite.)

“C’mon, guys,” comes the telltale voice of Nate, about an hour after their arrival, “Dinner’s ready!”

With noticeable reluctance, Eddie and Wyatt head into the gas station, stomachs growling, and find the group of survivors all hunched around a Formica table with a broken plate full of different foods; a mangled bird corpse, some underfed rabbit, a pile of green peas, stale bread seasoned with the old diner’s table salt. And to be fair to them, it tastes pretty good; better than anything he’d eaten in ages.  It leaves him feeling heavy and dazed and oddly paranoid, but Nate laughs when he tries to bring it up.

(They track the deer to a gas station that is falling apart, automatic door jammed open and windows all shattered.  The deer is half-collapsed in the old, wilting patch of flowers and weeds that was once a well-kept garden.

Before either of them can pull their guns, however, there comes a sound from within the gas station. A middle-aged man hobbles out, one hand gripping his shoulder like a lifeline; the other, a gun.

“What is he doing?” Eddie murmurs, but Wyatt shushes him and raises his pistol up.

“Be prepared to pull the trigger.”)

Eddie isn’t really sure how it’s possible.  There are no seeming answers to the how, or the where, or the why (which is far more horrifying to consider).  It can’t be possible.

He thinks the food might’ve been laced with something.

(The man licks his lips, hungry and animalistic, and raises the pistol up to aim at the deer. Eddie’s eyes widen in disbelief as the stranger pulls the trigger with a ringing bang, and then the deer falls dead.

Quickly, or as quickly as he can clutching his arm so hard, he hobbles over to the fawn, obviously with the intent of carrying it inside with him.  He shoves the gun back into his waistband to free up one hand; Wyatt chooses then to make his move.

“Hey!” he calls out, and the stranger freezes immediately, “Hey, that’s our deer!”

The beginning of a sneer appears on the man’s face for a second, before his eyes skim over the both of them, guns drawn and loaded.  He’s outnumbered and unarmed; a look of anxiety and realization dawn on him.

“Hey, h-hey, man; I didn’t know,” he insists, and, in his panic, he raises both hands into the air in surrender.  Eddie gasps when he sees the man’s shoulder, the one he had been so insistent on covering. The man seems to notice this fact, and immediately rushes to cover his arm again.)

“That’s impossible,” Wyatt exclaims, and he doesn’t sound exasperated or shocked or bewildered or annoyed, not like he used to. He just sounds scared.

(“You’re bit,” he says, so caught off guard and horrified he cannot even manage putting emotion into his voice. The man’s face drains of color, and then he’s fumbling for his gun again.

“Dude, stop-,” insists Wyatt, lowering his gun and making a move to aid the man, “If you’re bit, that’s- calm down, man-,”

The man moves, sudden and jerky, pistol freed from his jean waistband; Eddie squeezes his eyes shut out of instinct; Wyatt jumps back, movements clumsy;

The world explodes with sound.)

Wyatt goes to bed not even half an hour later, and Eddie wishes to join him but he can’t bring himself to rest, to sit still for too long.

“Can’t sleep?”

He jumps, nearly falling off the chair he occupies, at the sudden voice. He turns around to stare up at none other than Nate, cold smirk still in place.

“Um,” stammers Eddie, feeling unexpectedly guilty, like a child caught stealing, “yeah. Can’t sleep.”

Nate’s mouth twitches a bit, and somehow, the ice melts; his smile still unnerves Eddie, but it’s less overwhelming.  The anxiety fades a bit as Nate kneels to be at eye level with Eddie, who’s still seated.

“Look, I know you and your friend are scared,” he says, voice unexpectedly level, “In a world like this one, who wouldn’t be? Shit’s hard as Hell. But me and my group ain’t gonna hurt you, if you don’t hurt us.”

Eddie perceives a threat there, some kind of unspoken warning, but he’s too tired to get anxious, his mind is too foggy to be anxious. He falls asleep without a problem after that.

(There’s blood.)

He wakes up to the sound of Wyatt vomiting, crouched on the floor with his back pressed to the foot of the bed, hand slapped over his mouth in an attempt to silence himself.  A glance outside the gas station tells Eddie it’s still nighttime.

“Wyatt?” he murmurs, and he finds he’s not tired at all; to the contrary, every inch of his body is wide, wide awake, far too awake, and buzzing, “Wyatt, what’s happening? You okay?”

Wyatt chokes out his name, and the gagging continues for a little bit longer before he finally manages to croak, “You were right about the food.”

(There’s way, way too much blood.)

Eddie helps Wyatt clean up in the bathroom- which is more like a large bucket of water, several wash cloths, and a drying wire strung on the ceiling- and then they plan on leaving.  Drive far, far away from this place.

As they try to sneak away, however, Nate catches them, and swoops in like a bird of prey, eyes glinting.

“What, leaving so soon?” he sneers loudly, and some of his friends wander into the room to access the situation, “And without a proper goodbye?”

“Well,” says Eddie, because Wyatt’s face is still tinted green and he doesn’t trust him to speak, “we… didn’t wanna be a burden, y’know? Apocalypse is hard enough without extra mouths to feed, heh.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” insists Nate, tone dangerous, and Eddie knows they can’t argue any further without causing some actual problems.  Instead, he lets Nate lead the two of them to the sitting room; threadbare armchairs piled in a semi-circle around a bedside table with one leg missing (they’ve replaced it with a molting, old tree branch).

It makes Eddie nervous, legs bouncing, eyes dancing around the room. Eventually Wyatt starts to look healthier, look calmer, but Eddie just grows nauseous; from the anxiety or the drugs, he can’t tell.  He knows, however, from the familiar tightness in his chest and ice in his veins, that if he doesn’t get away from- from- from this, he’ll be left a wheezing, shaking mess, and knowing Nate and his friends, they’d probably eat him alive.

Wow, nice going, chucklefuck, a voice of reason chimes in his head as the quivering, no-good, sick feeling only intensifies, great thought to have while you’re on the verge of a breakdown!

He asks to use the restroom- or at least, he thinks he asks to use the restroom, everything is buzzing in his heads and words sound less like words and more like white noise- and, when Nate gives him an affirmative nod, he bolts.

(“Oh, my God,” chokes out Wyatt, one pale hand curled into a claw around his mouth; his face tints green, “Eddie, oh my God.”)

There are two restrooms in the gas station, though one has been transformed into a water storage room for the camp.  So Eddie rushes to the one bathroom he knows exists; the toilet doesn’t even really work, plumping has long since been obsolete, but they had preserved it anyway.

He doesn’t knock, doesn’t think to knock.

(The man is sprawled, dead, on the concrete, a starburst of blood pooling around him like spilled paint.  Eddie wishes it were spilled paint.)

It all happens so fast; someone is cursing at him, and something is right there, in his face, breath foul and spoiled; the tightness in his chest gets so bad he thinks his ribs might crack, so he fumbles at his waistband for the pistol.

(His hands shake but he doesn’t drop his gun.)

The shot rings out, through the whole gas station, utterly deafening.

(“He-,” Eddie stammers, speaking to Wyatt though his eyes don’t leave the sight laid out in front of him, “He was gonna shoot you, so I-,”

He should feel nauseous. He should be knelt over and throwing up and crying, disgusted at himself. This should be a big deal to him.

“You killed him,” Wyatt deadpans.

“Yeah,” he echoes, “I killed him.”)

It takes only seconds for the others to come rushing towards the sound; Wyatt grabs hold of his shoulders and shakes him, tries to pry his eyes away from the inside of the restroom, concerned words tumbling out his mouth a mile a minute.

Distantly, very distantly, he can feel the wetness on his shirt, smell the copper. The ringing in his ears starts to fade. The world blends and melts and comes back into focus, quickly and suddenly.

(“He was bit,” says Wyatt, brow furrowed, “That’s… basically the same. Don’t feel bad. You saved me.”

When Eddie scowls, queasy and nervous, Wyatt takes his hand – the one not holding the gun – in his own with a gentle squeeze.  He tells him not to feel guilty.)

There’s blood.

(He should feel guilty.  He should hate himself, stood towering and soaked in viscera, fist clenched around a still-warm pistol, corpse stretched before him.  He should feel guilty.)

There’s way, way too much blood.

(Instead, he’s just hungry.)

Chapter Text

When the car drives off- cooling body wrapped in his arms, headlights carving shapes through the fog- Eddie cannot bring himself to be angry. In any other situation, virtually being left for dead would’ve infuriated him, but the abandonment leaves nothing but a bitter taste in his mouth, as he shuffles backwards through the mud with bated breath.

He hears Nate yelling, hears the car pull off, the taunting laugh of his pursuer coming closer, closer. He keeps trudging, carrying the weight of this corpse with him, even as he hears the threats, even as his arms shake with the effort, but eventually he has to admit it’s futile. Nate is too close, and he’s too weak, and the cop’s too fucking dead.  Eddie drops him, clouds of unsettled dust billowing out from under the dead weight as he flops to the ground, limp and bloody.  His arm is twisted backwards like the crank of a jack-in-the-box.

He leaves the cop there.  He leaves a man to die because he was left to die and he thinks that if he was angry it would’ve been ironic.

Escaping Nate on foot is somehow easier than in the car.  Eddie himself is smaller than his van, more nimble. He’s able to duck and hide and weave patterns in his steps as he sprints through the forest.  He tries not to trip, or look back, or make too much noise- he just runs. Far, far away.

That’s how all fairy tales start. Once upon a time and far, far away.  He remembers, somewhere, in the back of his mind, being a child and having his mother read stories to him.  More clearly, he recalls reading stories to an infant Olivia.

His mind is racing as his legs slow down, and with heaving, tired breaths he makes a three-sixty, glancing all around for any hint of danger. There’s nothing, though- he finally seems to have fond a safe place.  The clearing he’s ended up in is small, a messy circle shape, and made out of towering trees with knotted roots.  He plops down at the base of one, props his back against the trunk, and focuses on remembering.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away from these woods, Eddie had a father who smelled like nicotine gum and a mother who made him lamb korma on his birthday and a younger sister who could always beat his ass at Mario Kart.  He had a house in the suburbs, with a peeling grey porch and a roof he could stargaze on and a garage full of everything but a car.

Once upon a time, the last thing Eddie ever thought he’d do was kill somebody, but now he’d done it three times and all he can think of is how much he wishes had some weed to calm his nerves. Maybe it should be worrying, but it’s true. Forty-one days of nonstop horror is all it took to squeeze the humanity right out of some people- Eddie had witnessed this first hand.  He shivers, gripping his knees tightly to his chest, and feels his blood run cold. From the anxiety or the chilly night air, he’s not sure.  The adrenaline begins to fade after a long while, as the world begins to lighten and the mist clears out a bit.  It must be morning. He wonders what time it is, what meaningless string of numbers he could attribute to the color of the sky right then.

Olivia used to mock him for his love of the weather.  His phone camera roll was made entirely of pictures of himself (usually hanging out with Wyatt, TJ, or both) or pictures of the sky. Without fail, he made sure to note, with every passing storm, that the thunder was angels bowling, and the rain were angels’ tears.

“Either that, or angel piss,” Wyatt had sneered, the first time he’d ever been with Eddie during a storm and heard him recite the phrase. Eddie thinks he might’ve said something similar to his mother, when she’d first taught the expression to him as a child.  He had laughed when Wyatt said it, the ugly, snorting kind; they later went out in the rain, and washed Eddie’s car using the natural water while blasting music from a boom box that they kept under a tarp to keep from getting wet.

It feels like millennia ago.  In reality, it’s been just about a decade.  Then again, forty days feels like years now, and the life before all this is distant.  He clings to what he does recall.  His mother’s voice, his father’s hands, Olivia’s eyes.  He presses his face into his furled arms, putting so much pressure on his eyelids that his vision explodes in imaginary lights; he tries his hardest to remember something of substance.

When he first got on a plane without his parents- to fly to Japan with Wyatt and TJ to visit the latter’s family- his mother had taken them to the airport. He remembers how she hugged him, watched him the whole twenty minutes he stood in that security line. He remembers the way the gamboge fabric of her headscarf pooled in the indents of her collarbone, glimmering golden against the deep violet of her anarkali.

Every Ramadan, since neither he nor Olivia observed the fast, not like their mother did, the whole family would help her out in small ways. Their father would wake up before sunrise to eat breakfast with her, and occasionally, on sleepless nights, Eddie or Olivia would join them, too.  In later years, the two siblings would try to abstain from swearing (even when infuriated with one another), so they wouldn’t distress her.  The first Ramadan he spent with her while being friends with Wyatt, he remembers how the blond quickly adapted to these new, unspoken rules; “Let’s go out for lunch,” he said, when Eddie had complained about his own hunger, “It’d be rude to cook a whole bunch of smelly food when your mother can’t eat, y’know- that’s like rubbing it in her face.”

His stomach growls.  It’s been hours now, since he’d last eaten, and all his food is gone. He knows he has to keep moving, has to stand and walk and breathe and live, even though he finds he doesn’t really want to.

Instead, he just sits and remembers.

Chapter Text

Life goes on, as it always does.  He considers hanging about in this forest, in case Wyatt comes back for him, but the fear of Nate finding him instead drives him out.  He leaves with heavy feet and an empty stomach.

It’s funny how this feels like the end of the world all over again.

He walks for so long he thinks his feet might fall off.  He doesn’t find anything to eat as he wonders, aimlessly, in the shallowest bits of the woods so he can watch the road but avoid other humans.  He keeps walking, even as he feels the starvation settle in his stomach, even as his mouth grows dry with dehydration, even as he finds himself blacking out more and more.  He figures, if he dies, it won’t matter.  It’s scary, of course- he doesn’t really want to die, he doesn’t want to become a walker, but…

The trees begin to clear as he finds his way into a small town.  Every instinct tells him to turn back, that towns are more dangerous than countrysides and suburbs.  He keeps walking, though.  Walks past abandoned house after abandoned house after abandoned house. He thinks how, long ago, these houses were homes.  Families lived here.

He keeps walking.

He can feel his mind fading as he stumbles down the street, and he thinks, for a panicked second, that maybe this is it.  The anxiety fades, replaced by exhaustion, and the only thought left is finding a place to rest.  He’s practically sleepwalking as he pushes his way past a dirtied picket fence and into the yard of one of the houses.

He doesn’t even have the energy to make it entirely up the drive to the building, so instead he collapses in the bushes outside, at the edge of the lot.  As the world fades to black, he thinks he hears the warm sounds of something alive, but that’s not possible.  His vision blurs, and then darkens, and in moments, his consciousness is gone.

 “Cheers.”

The beer cans make a hollow clink sound as they tap them together, lounging on Eddie’s roof that spring during Wyatt’s sophomore year.  Eddie drains his drink in record time, ignoring the cheap metallic after taste and unpleasant warmth.  Wyatt chokes on his own mouthful, sputtering, and Eddie laughs into the rim of his can.

“You okay there?” he snickers, as Wyatt continues to groan and cough into his hands, “Jesus, dude.”

Wyatt spits and clears his tired throat, scowling in open disgust. “Remind me never to trust week old 7/11 alcohol again, man.”  And Eddie laughs again, and nods, and goes back to laying against the slanted rooftop to watch the stars flicker above them.

About three or so weeks later, they’re up on the roof again, sucking down more cheap beer despite their promise not to, but Eddie doesn’t even feel guilty.  They sit and inhale the smell of pine trees and gasoline and old, painted wood.

“This shit is vile, man,” Wyatt insists, even as he takes another swig, and Eddie laughs.

“Then don’t drink it, asshole,” he cackles.  Wyatt crushes the can in his fist and tosses it lazily at Eddie’s prone form; some of the left over alcohol splashes against his chest and shoulders when it hits, and he bolts up with a frustrated yelp.  When Wyatt then becomes hysterical, bent over and wheezing and literally slapping his knee, the dork, Eddie yells indignantly, “The fuck’s wrong with you? I’m gonna smell like beer all night now!”

“Not if you take off your shirt,” Wyatt suggests, voice casual, like he’s just chatting about the weather.  Eddie can’t help it, he splutters, chokes out a snort of amusement.  He’s more than a little tipsy at this point, and the sober part of him thinks he should be embarrassed.  He mostly just giggles, reason lost.  Wyatt joins in on his mirth, rallying a solitary chant of ‘strip tease, strip tease, strip tease’, his voice cracked with laughter, and he cheers all-too-loudly when Eddie pulls off his sweatshirt with minimal difficulty.

“Shhh,” he slurs, with the article of clothing still tangled in his arms in front of him, “You’re gonna wake my whole family, dude.”

“You’re shirtless and on a roof,” says Wyatt, and Eddie expects him to elaborate but he doesn’t.  He just pops another beer can open and chugs some down.  Eddie wrestles completely out of his sweater by then, throwing the garment onto the shingled roof in silent defiance, and shivers against the cool night air.  Wyatt watches him with careful, drunken eyes, before scooting over on the roof so his hip is pressed to Eddie’s.  “C’mere,” his mumbles are barely audible, and Eddie deflates into his arms and sprawls out in his lap, relishing in the body heat immensely.  Wyatt fists a hand in Eddie’s beanie, tugging the fabric absent-mindedly.

That’s when a question, perhaps a bizarre one, pops into Eddie’s head, and, with the help of the alcohol, he blurts out, “Are we dating?”

Wyatt freezes, looking like a deer in the headlights; the fingers tangled in Eddie’s hat tense and dig into his scalp lightly.  There’s a terrible beat of silence as Wyatt holds his breath; Eddie feels no anxiety, however, just a cool, buzzing curiosity as Wyatt lets out a miserable groan and falls backwards, hands flying to his head.

“What’s wrong?” asks Eddie, perking up from his position, where he’s presently curled between Wyatt’s stomach and thighs.  He maneuvers himself awkwardly, pushed up on his elbows, in an attempt to see Wyatt’s reddened face.

“What’s wrong?” Wyatt echoes in utter disbelief, voice creaking precariously; he’s going to cry, Eddie realizes, with a drunken amount of detachedness, “What’s wrong is that you’re half-naked and we’re both drunk and cuddling on top of your Goddamn house, and you’re asking me if we’re dating.  That’s so ass backwards and stupid and disgusting, we-,”

“Dude,” Eddie interrupts, and his voice is just soft enough that Wyatt has to shut up.  It’s quiet for a second as Eddie huffs out a few weary chuckles, and says again, “Dude. Chill.”

Wyatt flounders, babbling wordlessly into the balls of his hands, as Eddie falls back down into his prior prone position. With some languid effort, he shuffles and adjusts himself so that he’s laying flat on top of Wyatt, cheek buried in the other’s collarbone.

Minutes pass like this.  Eddie feels Wyatt’s stomach rise and fall with every breath and, though the sound is muffled by Wyatt’s thick cotton tee, hears his heart beat, solid and slow and constant.  He’s heavy-eyed, quavering against the cold breeze that blows over the roof near continuously.  His vision blurs with sleepiness, colors bleeding into each other, watercolor sky and pastel horizon melting into a hazy mess of nighttime air.  Eventually, Wyatt’s hands find their way to Eddie’s bare skin; one lays flat against the space between his shoulder blades, and the other presses into the small of his back, rubbing tiny, warm circles there.

“What’s the least you would suck a dick for?” says Wyatt, and Eddie doesn’t even try to stifle his laughter, turning his head to squish his nose against Wyatt’s sternum; the blond continues, “Like, obviously, we’d all suck a dick for a million bucks- but what is the minimum someone could offer you for a blowjob, and you’d still say yes.”

And Eddie thinks, long and hard, and he answers, and whatever he had said doesn’t even matter in the end, because whatever it is makes Wyatt laugh himself to sleep.

When he wakes up, the first thing he realizes is that he is, in fact, alive.

The second is that he is alone.

He tries not to think about which is more disappointing.

Instead, he focuses on his surroundings, which appear to have changed since the last time he was conscious.  He is no longer sprawled in the bushes of some suburban garden; he now finds himself laid out on an old, threadbare sofa, head supported by a thin cushion wrapped in silk curtains.  When he shifts from his side and onto his back, he no longer stares up into the pale blue sky; above him he sees only a plain, white ceiling.

He’s inside one of the many houses he had passed by; the realization jolts him upright, only for the resulting nausea to knock him back down.  He lies flat, head reeling, and is suddenly hit with the terrible realization that he is going to puke.  He can’t stand or run or even attempt to find a better place to hurl, only roll over onto his side to avoid choking and start heaving.  There’s nothing in his stomach, of course, and all that comes out is watery bile and tar-like blood and stomach acid.  The taste burns in his throat, rough and sweet and enough to make him want to vomit again, but he’s too tired for even that.  He just wheezes and hacks and chokes, until his vision blurs with tears and his chest threatens to collapse.

Through the haze of his coughing, he hears rumbling from above him, followed by quick, rhythmic footsteps- somebody’s upstairs, somebody alive. In a flush of memories, a cascading wave of moments, he thinks of Nate and the guns and the blood spilled out on the bathroom floor; he slaps a sweaty hand over his mouth and tries to be silent.  His breath is hot on his own skin, and he strains to listen to the way the foot falls slow, stop, and then restart. Fuck, he thinks.  He can’t think of anything else, just that one word, so he repeats it, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, over and over as he forces himself to stand. He wobbles, a rush of vertigo almost knocking him back onto the couch, but the sounds descending the staircase urge him onwards.  Waveringly, he takes a few steps forwards, glancing around the barren, messy room for something to use as a weapon.  He spots a hammer, lying by a boarded up window and snatches it up in a second.  The footsteps are right outside the room he’s in, right at the doorway, and he whips around (staving off the following dizziness) with his impromptu weapon raised high above his head.

There’s lots of cluttered noises after that, a jumbled cacophony of sound that rattles in his head and makes no sense.  He assumes they’re speaking words- their mouths are forming all the right shapes- but he can’t make any sense of them.

The room spins and tilts, back and forth, and his feet fall out from under him, the hammer clattering to the ground along with the rest of his body.  A shot of pain goes through his head, travels down his spine- he hears Wyatt say "Oh, come on," from somewhere above him- he’s tugging his jeans off from their spot around his knees- he tucks one arm around Eddie’s waist- the sudden blow of the hard wood floor makes his stomach lurch, and then he’s heaving again, barely managing to scrabble up onto his trembling arms and point his face downwards.  Even less comes out this time, just more precious, precious water and burning acid.

When there’s nothing left, he’s just stuck coughing wetly at the ground.  He feels hands grab his upper arms, but doesn’t have the strength to resist; he hoarsely blabbers meaningless threats and curses at the faceless figures that drag him across the floor and back to the couch he awoke on.

“-ey, hey, calm down,” he hears through the muddled sounds of his own voice, and have these people been speaking the whole time, have I been speaking the whole time, so he bites his tongue until he tastes salt and listens.

“Good, good,” soothes the same voice, closer to his ear and warm.  A pair of hands disappear from his arms, “Okay; Terra, can you go get him something to eat?”

“This is so gross, he puked all over our floors-,”

“Quit complaining and get us some food!”

The second voice – Terra, if he’s understanding correctly – disappears, leaving heavy footsteps in its place, and then he’s lowered gently onto the cushions of the sofa.  He’s shivering and bristling, wanting to fight but not finding the strength to do so.  He tries his hardest, instead, to glare up through his watering eyes at the stranger hovering over him with concern written clear as day on their face.

“What do you want,” he manages to croak through the bile and acid burning his throat.  The stranger presses a cool hand against his forward, gently stroking his beanie as their hand brushes back along his head and rests on his neck.  He fights the urge to lean into the soothingly cold touch, and instead lets himself be lowered into a laying position, staring warily up as the form blurs a bit.

“We’re not gonna hurt you,” is the answer he gets instead.  Through his exhaustion he can make out the outline of a person, with trimmed dark hair and skin the color of ash.  They adjust him so that he’s on his side, a trick he knows all too well from nights spent drinking himself into a stupor- Wyatt's asleep on the futon, and all the lights are off- a glass of water and some emetrol- Eddie flips him off- at least Wyatt laughs at that- and he doesn’t even fight when he feels his coat pockets being checked for weapons.

“I got some crackers and fruit,” says the voice that belongs to Terra; another figure comes into his watery vision, one with a burly stature and ruddish skin.  He blinks dazedly, trying in vain to focus his eyes and see more clearly.

For a few minutes, he lets his mind wander, allowing everything in the room to water down and blur into nothing but vague shapes.  The voices of the people above him turn to white noise as they argue softly (about him, no doubt). He only bothers to come to when he feels someone lifting him gently, up into a sitting position against the sofa’s armrest.  He’s finally gathered the strength to speak, and, ignoring the way his voice creaks and cracks with strain, he asks, “Who are you people?”

They don’t respond immediately, not until they’ve got him situated as comfortably as possible.

“I’m Terra,” says the second voice; when she nods her head, the coils of her braided red hair bounce against her shoulders.  She gestures vaguely in the other person’s direction; they smile gently down at him and unwrap a small bag of saltines.  “This is ‘Binty.”

Ma–binty,” they correct fondly.  Eddie notes the lilt of their long-faded Jamaican accent.  They grab a small handful of the crackers and gives them to him; he grunts out a tired ‘thank you’, before shoving one of the saltine straight into his mouth. He’d forgotten how hungry he is in all the chaos.

“Whoa, whoa there,” laughs Mabinty loftily, and he forces himself to slow his chewing down, “you’ll make yourself sick again.”

The three sit in silence after that, as Eddie slowly munches his way through about ten crackers and half an overly ripe pear.  He finds he can’t complain about the staleness or the sickly sweet taste of rotten fruit.  When he’s done with his modest feast, he shifts on the couch to face both of his saviors head-on.

“So, uh,” Terra finally says to break the quiet, hands tangled up in her lap anxiously, “What’s your name?”

Eddie runs his tongue along his teeth to clean his mouth of any leftover bits of food; “I’m Eddie,” he mumbles finally, “and, uh, sorry about your floor.”

Terra laughs, a hearty, warm sound, that reminds Eddie of better times, “Sorry I yelled about it,” she says kindly; he notes how gruff her voice is, as though apologies are not a common thing for her, “it is gross though.”

Mabinty shoots a bedraggled look in their companion’s direction, and something tells Eddie this is their normal; without meaning to, he thinks of Wyatt, thinks of those summer nights spent on the roof, and feels his shoulders sag.  Mabinty must notice, because they blink knowingly, smile turning melancholy, and ask, in a gentle tone, “How did you end up around here?  We found you out in the bushes by the drive.”

“It’s a long story,” he begins, staring down at his calloused hands.  He cannot recall a time when they were soft anymore.  “My friend and I, uh, we got involved with a bad guy.  Just for a night, though, but he…” he winces involuntarily as he remembers, again, the events of that day, the gunshot replaying like a scratched record over and over and over and-,

“I killed one of his pals on accident,” he admits, finally, “D-didn’t mean to, they had us at their mercy, and drugged on something, and it just… it happened.

“Obviously, he wasn’t too happy with us.  So we had to run.  Hopped in our car and fled, for as long as we could, and then- and then things got more fucked up, and we got separated.  Wyatt left me in the woods after we got attacked, and… I haven’t seen him since.  It must’ve been, God- a week ago now?” with a sigh, Eddie glances up to see Terra’s sympathetic frown and Mabinty’s quiet, sad eyes.  “I guess I’m alone now.”

There’s more silence as Mabinty nods solemnly, seemingly lost in thought.  Terra hovers a moment, before exiting the room again, mumbling something about drinks.  Eddie continues to nibble on his pear- when Terra reappears, she’s clutching a cloudy glass of water.  He takes it and drinks it greedily; the breathless thank you that leaves his lips is drowned out as he swallows it down almost too quickly.

Eventually, Mabinty speaks again, normally smooth voice made rough by some emotion that Eddie can’t quite place.

“I figure,” they murmur, slowly and deliberately, “that, in a world like this, nobody’s really alone,” when Terra and Eddie both look to them in confusion, they elaborate, “It can feel like it, yes- and I suppose in the literal sense one may find themselves alone- but… before this all happened, there was such a divide. Relating to others was hard because there was so much difference in how we lived.

“Now, however, everyone is the same,” Eddie keeps his eyes locked firmly on his hands, picking dirt from his nails; he pretends he doesn’t see Terra clasp Mabinty’s hand tightly, too intimate to be mere friends, “There is nobody who can call themselves better or worse than anyone else.  We all know the same pain.”

The words take a bit to register as he blinks tears out of his eyes, vision swimming hotly for a moment. He wonders if he should be embarrassed about nearly crying in front of these total strangers, but instead he’s just… hopeful.  For the first time– worn away by years of dirty fingers – Eddie thanks whatever deity may exist in this fucked up husk of a world – yet another moment, yet another sigh – the punch didn’t land but he – in a long time, he feels the beginnings of hope bud inside his chest, the weight of the week lifting off his shoulders.  Despite his exhaustion, he cannot help the weak smile on his face; Mabinty smiles back down at him, before standing suddenly.  Terra stands up with them, hands still intertwined.

“Now get some rest, “ they say, “we can get you cleaned up in the morning. You don’t have to stay, but we can gather some food for you if you leave.”

“Thank you,” he croaks, because there isn’t anything else to say.  When he’s left on his own again, in the quiet of the living room and curled up on the couch, he realizes just how nice a nap sounds.

He stretches out on the sofa, using his hands to cushion his face, and immediately he feels himself begin drift off.  His vision blurs and tints with darkness, and in the last moments before he loses consciousness, he realizes that he wouldn’t mind waking up again for once.

Chapter Text

He ends up staying with Mabinty and Terra longer than he probably should have; he’d never realized how dependent he was on Wyatt’s company until he’s faced with a reality without him. With nobody to make familiar inside jokes with and nobody to huddle up next to at night, he spends more and more time in silence, legs furled beneath him on the moth-eaten couch, his new companions checking inventory over and over again if only for something to do.

At first, they flitter around one another, unsure and ashamed.  It’s obvious that, for the longest time, its only been these two surviving. He feels like an intruder, and neither Terra nor Mabinty feels any need to reassure him otherwise; it’s obvious and it’s fine that way.  Privacy had long since ceased to exist.

After awhile, however, Eddie finds he has to open up. He starts to tell stories. Small ones, at first; impersonal and light-hearted.  He tells the story of how he and Wyatt met, and then how he and TJ met, and then how he and TJ and Wyatt single-handedly ruined-slash-improved Olivia’s sweet sixteen.  They laugh all the while, even at the unfunny parts, and it’s nice to hear laughter, he thinks.

It’s enough to keep him from leaving.

The air gets colder, sharper. It’s bitter on his tongue as he and Mabinty make the weekly march to the local firehouse, the last remaining location in town to have any power.  They charge flashlights there, as well as a half-busted mini-fridge filled with cold soup, spoiled pizza, and flat soda.  His mouth would water every time he opened the door to stare inside; this was the new standard of a feast, he’d think, but he couldn’t be bothered to consider the implications.

“You never told me how you and Terra met,” he asks as they trudge down the road, hands shoved into thier own sleeves to keep the warmth trapped there.

“Well,” they say, voice warm with amusement, “you never asked.”

He quirks an eyebrow in their direction, and Mabinty shakes their head, chuckling.

“It is not a very exciting one. Not like how you and Wyatt met at all.”

Eddie laughs again, but the mirth tapers off. He averts his gaze, furrowing his brow down at the sidewalk beneath his feet.  A moment of silence passes, Mabinty worrying their hands in front of them briefly before saying, a little flaccidly, “You really miss him.”

“Yeah,” mutters Eddie; takes a deep breath, and scoffs, sarcastic this time, “Yeah, what gave you that idea?”  He snaps his head around to stare at Mabinty, voice sharp and irritated though his eyes are sad.  Mabinty simply matches his glare, and, without missing a beat, bites back, “You are not the only one who is missing people, you know.”

That stops him in his tracks. He physically halts, shame washing over him immediately.  He thinks of Olivia, and he hates himself for how long it’s been since he’s thought of her, since he’s really, truly remembered her.

“I’m sorry,” he says, lacking any other words. His body sags, arms uncrossing, shoulders slumping- he gives up on looking angry, “I’m sorry. I’m being an ass.”

“Yes, you are,” Mabinty says, matter-of-factly. Eddie is still blown away by their innate ability to say such accusatory statements without sounding angry or blameful. They sigh, face softening, and continue in an understanding voice, “You are, but it’s understandable. Apology accepted.”

They jerk their head a little, in a silent gesture towards the open road ahead, “Now come.  It’s too cold to stand here chatting.”

As they keep walking, footsteps heavy with fatigue, Eddie thinks about his sister again.  He’s grasping at thin air by now, pulling desperately at memories that feel gossamer soft, blurry in the back of his mind.  He strains to hear her mocking laughter, ringing in his ears as she beats him at Mario Kart for the fifth time in a row.  He struggles to remember her sixteenth birthday – the dress she had worn was a pretty coral pink that made her complexion seem warmer, and with it she’d worn high heels, and later that night she broke the heels off because they made it hard to dance.  But how did she wear her hair? He asks himself, and though a part of him finds it silly, he feels horrified all the same when he can’t picture her exactly as she had been that night, giggling in an uncharacteristically giddy way, outlined by a halo of neon lights.

“We met in college,” Mabinty says suddenly, and Eddie is jolted out of his masochistic stupor harshly.  He stares, befuddled, up at them.  A soft, sad smile spreads across their face, eyes knowing.

“Terra and I,” they elaborate, “We met in college.”

Eddie blinks again, mind reeling to comprehend, and finally lets out a short chuckle. They walk on, shuffling as slow as the walkers around them, and the story doesn’t quite cheer him up, but the effort is nice.

The effort’s enough.

Trying to keep track of how much time passes, how much time has passed, is impossible.  None of them even try, or give any illusion of trying.  And still, Eddie stays with them, begins to see them as family, begins to learn about their lives before.  Mabinty was a scientist – very into astrophysics – and Terra wanted to be a therapist, for kids like herself.  They’d been dating for nearly five years when the world ended, and maybe they had planned to get married, maybe they were going to adopt. It makes Eddie’s heart ache, and when ‘Binty talks about how they would’ve proposed, he can’t help but remember the way his mother would smile across the dinner table at his father, how sharp and bright the wedding ring looked compared to her weathered hands.

He excuses himself from that conversation fairly quickly. Much like the time, there is no point keeping track of how many times one of them has had to run to the bathroom without warning, set off by some detail in a story that has too much meaning.

The cold sweeps through, and spring begins without little consequence.  It’s been almost a year now, Eddie thinks with a certain detachedness that can only come with time.  It was about spring when he thought the world had ended, but here he was, almost three-hundred-and-sixty-five days later, still standing on his own two feet.

He tells Terra and Mabinty as such, voice shaky with a kind of enthusiasm he hadn’t felt in ages.  ‘Binty smiles at him, content to humor his ramblings. Terra, however, frowns pensively, running her hands through her long tresses of amber hair (it looks better untied, Eddie thinks distantly); her words are hesitant, curious, as she says, “So it’s springtime now?”

By way of speaking, Eddie just nods. The crease in Terra’s forehead deepens, expression turned melancholy and nostalgic.  She smiles up at him, but there’s no humor in it, Eddie remembers that Wyatt would smile like that all the time when Eddie showed up drunk at the apartment; it’s the smile of someone who wishes they could forget something. The way Wyatt wished he could forget the taste of alcohol or Eddie’s lips.

“My mother always called spring the time of rebirth,” she remarks eventually; Eddie worries his lip piercing in his mouth absentmindedly, “The time for living things to flourish.  It feels...” Terra pauses, reaching one hand out to find Mabinty’s - it’s clearly muscle memory, “It feels ironic.”

Eddie swallows the knot in his throat. He laughs mirthlessly. He swallows again, to keep down the bile.

He excuses himself to the bathroom.

He focuses on remembering his mother’s voice when she sung Urdu lullabies to him after nightmares or during electrical storms. He sings them to himself at night, with a clumsy accent and poor pronunciation, the kind his nani would tut and scold him for.  He pretends the rotting apples are sweet mangos, that the overly rare deer meat is lamb korma. Most of all, he pretends that these memories are enough.

The spring comes and goes, and the house they had appropriated begins to look like a home.  All the windows are boarded up, of course, and the outside walls are smeared in zombie guts so as to keep any curious walkers away (a trick Terra taught them after a particularly close-call).  But on the inside, the tiny house begins to flourish. ‘Binty cuts out bits and pieces of old tin cans, ties them up with fishing wire into makeshift wind chimes; the sounds are distorted, a bit cacophonous, but Eddie likes it. “It’s fitting,” he had said, when Terra had been griping about the frankly bizarre noise, “Normal wind chimes would be boring in this world.”

As it gets hotter, southern sun melting the air until every breath feels thick and watery, they have to start removing layers. It makes Eddie anxious, having so much bare skin showing, painfully aware that all a walker has to do is pierce his flesh with their teeth and then his world would really be over. It’s a choice between heat stroke and zombie bites, and he isn’t sure which would be a better way to go.

Through all the sluggishness and sweat and muggy air, Eddie doesn’t take his beanie off, even when it sticks uncomfortably to his sunburned ears.  Terra asks him about it, one day, as they sit on the floor by the hole in the wall, where the wind chimes are hanging.

“Why do you never take that thing off?” she says, lips quirked downwards in interest.  She gestures vaguely, with a curt nod, at the hat that sits dutifully on top of his head.

The question catches Eddie off guard, and he has to think for a little bit, unsure of an answer.

“My,” he clears his throat, “My dad got it for me when I entered high school.”

The silence that follows is as suffocating as the summer air – Eddie feels like he’s drowning in it – and nothing else is said.

That night, he stands in the bathroom, looking into the cracked mirror at his scarred and weary face.  He takes his hat off, furrows his brow at how sweaty and greasy his hair is; my hat hair is terrible, he thinks with an internal chuckle, thank God I didn’t do this in front of anyone.

The fabric in his hands is rough with bloodstains in some places, threadbare and soft in others.  He can’t even tell what color it started out as, it’s so dirty. He can recall, somehow, the way it smelled – like Old Spice shampoo and lemony detergent and his bedroom.

But when he brings the hat up to his nose, standing alone in a dimly lit restroom in some town miles away from his home, it only smells of dried blood and dirt.

As the rain begins to fall again and the sun begins to set earlier in the day, Eddie finds himself thinking of Wyatt less and less. He’s still there in his mind, of course, but the pain is less raw. He runs out of stories to tell Mabinty and Terra, and their lives lapse into relative quiet.  They focus on gathering, storing up for the coming months. They hunt the animals, fat and lazy with the plentiful summer, and they reap the bountiful trees and berry bushes that sprout in the surrounding woods.  The house is already completely secured, though the falling rain presents the issue of water damage.

With a fire axe from the old firehouse, which has since run out of power, Terra begins to bring down the less helpful trees, with empty boughs and chipped bark.  She collects the logs, to use for firewood and reconstruction of their sagging, weatherworn home.

One day, when he’s left to guard the home while ‘Binty and Terra collect fresh apples, he tries to remember his father’s smile, and finds that he cannot.

The panic is immediate, followed closely by nausea, a rising sickness in his chest and throat.  His own father’s face is an indistinct smudge of color and cigarette smoke in the back of his head, and when he tries to hear his voice again, his hearty laugh and his bad puns, Eddie just finds more haziness, more nothing where there should be something.

When they return from their harvest, Mabinty and Terra find him curled up on the restroom floor.  His beanie, crumpled and unclean, lies in the basin of the sink.

The leaves lose their brilliant array of late summer colors, turning, instead, a brittle brown.  They litter the ground, a blanket of decay coating everything in the town.

Eddie doesn’t let himself forget things anymore, forces himself to think of Wyatt and Olivia and his parents and TJ. He recites their memories aloud to himself - their birthdays; favorite foods; the television shows they watched the most; the board game they would always pick on family night. Anything he can cling to, anything to fight off the cloudiness that threatens to swallow his whole mind. He forces himself to be uncomfortable in this home, this house, to be a stranger to this town that he never learned the name of.   He stops sleeping at night, tossing and turning on the tiny couch-turned-cot. He strips the stickers and magnets from the minifridge, which had been converted into a cabinet. He never takes his shoes off at the door, lets the mud and gore track on the floor.  He takes the wind chimes down.

“We’re worried about you,” says Mabinty, eyes sunken with exhaustion and sorrow, “Is everything okay?” They press their hand to his shoulder, palm warm against his aching muscles; he never realized how cold he was until then.  For fear his teeth will chatter, he doesn’t say anything back.

His silence is answer enough.

Chapter Text

“So you’re leaving.”

Not for the first time, Eddie envies Mabinty’s ability to make words that should be critical, should be harsh and angry and full of vindication, sound so… neutral.

The cold front has just left, the winter after everything went wrong drawing to a close.  The days start lasting longer, and in the sunlight Eddie finds he can’t pretend to hold it together.  Spring is in the air, he can feel it, and it feels wrong.

He doesn’t tell them all of this, just nods and avoids meeting Terra’s eyes.

“Is there…” she says, voice uncertain, hurt, “Is there a reason?”

He shrugs and shakes his head, tells her that no, this is just something he feels he needs to do.  In short, he lies.

Time has been getting blurry, as have his thoughts and emotions. He can’t quite find the words to explain it; in fact, he can’t find many words at all.  He wonders if this is a trauma thing, if the apocalypse is finally catching up to his brain.  He wonders if, by being alone again, and desperate for a home, he’ll remember everything he’s forgotten.  His father’s laugh, his sister’s eyes, his mother’s favorite pair of earrings.

Everything else.

“We won’t stop you,” says Mabinty.

“I know,” says Eddie, and it comes out like a threat (he wants it to be a threat), “How could you?”

The night he leaves is a cold one, the very last breaths of winter biting at his nose.  He has an old plastic bag full of apples, wrapped fish meat and recycled water bottles filled with boiled river water dutifully held in one hand. In the other, he carries a hunting knife.  His pistol, filled with the last of his ammo, presses cold against his hipbone in his jean waistband. His beanie, dirty as ever, keeps his ears warm from the wind.

He says goodbye to ‘Binty and Terra before they head to bed.  The last face he sees is his own, staring into the restroom mirror with tired eyes.

He doesn’t expect to see another living person for months, and he wishes that didn’t scare him so much.

Killing walkers is routine by now. He learns to lure them forward and then duck, quickly, behind them, because they’re slow and dumb and it’s easier than stabbing them from the front.  He never takes on packs of walkers, knows better than that by now. He climbs trees for sleeping; the walker’s hands are weak, clumsy, and they can’t grasp even the low-hanging boughs long enough to pull themselves up to his level.

His feet ache, but he presses onwards. He had left through the opposite end of town, so he wouldn’t be backtracking, because the last thing he wanted was to run into Nate again. So he travels north, as far from everything he’d known before as possible.  He’s not sure which is worse – forgetting or remembering.

Presently, he crouches on the forest floor, with a measly fire, cooking some rabbit that he’d caught.  The smoke from the flames wafts up in plumes, speckled with glowing embers like fireflies.  The sky is clear – it’s always clear in the woods – and Eddie smiles up at the stars like he’s back to being eighteen and camping out on his roof with Wyatt.

“If we ever see each other again,” he declares, voice creaky with disuse, and he doesn’t even care, in that moment, if the noise attracts walkers, “If you’re still alive, somehow, and we reunite, I promise, the first thing we’re gonna do is climb some tall-ass building like we used to.  Get way up high and watch the stars.  There’s no light pollution in the apocalypse, bitch!” And he laughs, loud and manic and broken and it’s just like old times.

Remembering, he decides, is infinitely worse.

He awakes the next day, curled up in his tree branch, mouth sticky with morning breath.  His joints moan as he stretches, cracks his back, rubs the soreness from his muscles with his calloused hands. In his chest, he feels a burning sensation, and he misses the numbness of forgetting, wishes he had just gone to bed without eating last night instead of making some promise to a boy who is long dead.

That day drags on longer than most, as he stumbles through the forest with a plastic bag of river water and cloth that smells like fish.  He finds a tiny, beaten path, one that was probably used for hiking, and follows it. The compact dirt and rotting leaves cushion his footfalls, so he can successfully creep quietly along. The sky is turning purple with nighttime by the time the path comes to an end, opening up to asphalt.

He’s reached a gas station, he realizes, which means he must be near a highway.  He eyes the convenience store hungrily, though he knows the inside will be completely barren, ripped apart by humans and walkers alike. He decides that it’s still worth checking out, however, and makes his way over to one of the broken windows.

Gingerly, so as not to cut his hands, Eddie picks the remaining bits of glass out from the window frame, before slowly slinking into the store.  The setting sun casts indigo and beige shadows across the abandoned shelves, blurry and incomprehensible.   But Eddie can adjust. He can make due. He wanders from aisle to aisle, surveying the pathetic stock with tired eyes.  As predicted, the only things left are the useless things. Rotten meat, expired foods, spoiled dairy.  The stench alone is enough to crinkle his nose, like something dead and boiling and monstrous, inhuman; he turns the corner, presses onwards, and the next thing he registers is a mass of green and grey and red and teeth-

The walker, which had been silently propped up like a marionette with cut strings against the wall, lunges for his neck, as walkers always do, and Eddie’s barely fast enough to block its gaping maw with his hand, shoves against its skull with his fist.  It reels back, limbs akimbo, and its head cracks open on the wall. As it slides to the ground, he gives the skull a swift kick, for good measure.  A burning sensation in his left hand stops him from delivering a second kick, however, and when he stares down at his knuckles, he feels the world come to a halt.

Teeth marks.  Trailing down his pinky and his ring finger.  Deep enough to draw blood and to leave tinges of purple bruises around the edges.  The burning does not go away; instead it spreads, mostly to his eyes (and then he’s crying, he’s almost sobbing, a gross and unsympathetic sound, he’s almost grateful that he’s dying, really-)

He tries to suppress the panic, quells the heaving wails, because he knows if he is fast enough he can save himself. He shakily sits down, mostly because his knees are buckling, and draws the hunting knife out of his old plastic bag.   He grabs the bottled water, too, and the cloths, though they still reek of seafood.

He spreads his left hand out on one of the bits of fabric, raises the knife in his right, and tries not to squeeze his eyes shut because, frankly, it’d be embarrassing to miss. Before he can change his mind, he counts to three and swings the blade down.

More than anything, it hurts, but he’d seen that coming.  It hurts more than anything he has ever experienced before, and he lets out a scream involuntarily; it rips through him like zombie teeth rip through flesh, and the analogy is enough to keep him from chickening out. After all, a single hack is not enough to detach the digits, and with horror he realizes he can see his own bones. Too late to turn back now, a stinging, sarcastic voice remarks in the back of his head, and he bites his lip to swallow his whimpers of pain as he swings the knife again.

The next scream is quieter, less raw, and this time he’d at least managed a word.

FUCK,” shrieks Eddie, because there is nothing else to really say, nothing really suitable for the situation at hand.  He warbles out a few more swears, a few mangled exclamations, sentences that barely make sense, before finally remembering to check his fingers again.

He’s somewhat pleased, mostly disgusted, to find that they have finally come off, though the wound is not clean cut nor attractive in the slightest.  He shoves the piece of cloth (with his removed appendages laid out on it) away from himself and focuses on his breathing.  He grabs a bottle of water, already uncapped, and pours some out onto the stubs where his two fingers had once been.  It hurts a little, but is nothing compared to the knife itself, and the adrenaline helps. The adrenaline helps a lot.

He rubs the wound with another of his cloths, pours more water on it, tries to clean it best he can, before wrapping a piece of fabric around his whole hand in a makeshift bandage.  It’s an admittedly shabby job, but Eddie knows it’s the best he’s going to get, so he sucks it up and prays, because he has a long night ahead of him.

He curls up in the gas station convenience store, cradling his hands to his chest, and waits.  He knows that a fever is meant to set in, if he’s going to turn, so he figures there’s nothing to do but wait. The hours pass by slowly, like molasses, like coagulated blood, like some other disgusting thing. Eddie finds that he can’t think of any similes or metaphors or any kind of poetry.  All he can think of is how painful turning might be. If it’s like going to sleep, or if it’s like rotting from the inside out.  At this point, he doesn’t believe it really matters.  He just wishes he got a dignified death; something a little more heroic than slowly rotting away in a gas station somewhere north of Georgia.

Even if it feels like forever, however, the hours do pass, and the fever never sets in.  The wound gets a little inflamed, yes, and the beginnings of pus seep at the edges, the starts of an infection, but his head is still clear and his skin is only pale with shock and sleep deprivation.

“So this isn’t the end,” he murmurs to the sunrise the next morning, blinking his weary eyes to refocus them. He diverts his gaze from the sky when the light burns too brightly, and instead stares down at the plastic bag in his hands. In faded candy red text, he can make out the words, the rows of THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.  “That’s good,” he mutters, and despite it all, Eddie smiles to himself.  Despite it all, he laughs, and it’s just like old times, and he remembers all at once.

“I’ve got a promise to keep.”

Chapter Text

"C'mon, we don't have time to dawdle, we're supposed to be checking the traps."

"ShhhRupert, be quiet, I think he's sleeping."

"I don't know who the hell you're talking about, Jai."

When Eddie awakens to the sound of people whispering below the tree branch he's sleeping on, he takes care to hold his breath and keep his eyes screwed shut.  If they think he's asleep, or better yet, dead, they won't bother him.  He'll be safe.

"The dude. The dude in the trees.  Here, I'll-," a clicking sound, followed by the second voice saying something about batteries, "Up there, see!"

"Oh," the second voice, Rupert, as it seems, says, a little pathetically.

"Yeah, oh," the first voice- Jai, was it?- reprimands, though not in a harsh way, "Do you think he's okay?"

The black of Eddie's eyelids turns a burning red and through instinct he scrunches his face up and ducks his head down.  "Don't shine a light in his face!" Rupert scolds, and the red is gone.  Well, Eddie might as well drop the act now.  Slowly, to spare his aching eyes, he blinks awake and glances down at the forest floor.

There stand two figures, as he suspected, both holding sacks of quilted fabric and flashlights in their hands.  One appears to be a boy and the other a girl- Rupert and Jai, respectively, he infers.  The latter is petite and dark-skinned, blonde dreadlocks put up into a bun that's pinned with a wilting pink hair bow.  The former has soft features and sallow skin, a grey knit hat tucked over a mop of thin brown hair.  They look... trustworthy enough, but Eddie can't quell the anxiety he feels.

"Hello," Jai murmurs, in the kind of voice one would use when approaching an injured animal.  Eddie doesn't have the courage to even feel insulted, "How long have you been up there?"

Good question.  Eddie looks around the woods, at the darkening sky and pale blue shadows surrounding him, and deduces that it must be the evening, the sun must just be setting now.  He had fallen asleep sometime in the afternoon.  With no watch or clock, however, he couldn't be sure, so he just shrugs down at the strangers.

"Can- Can you speak?"  Jai asks gently, and Eddie realizes he hasn't made a noise yet.

"Um," he clears his throat, "Yeah.  Yeah."

"Are you alone?" asks Rupert, and Eddie recognizes the caginess and thinly veiled fear in the question, empathizes because he had felt that way before, they all had.  It was how one survived.  He merely nods in response, however.  Rupert seems to consider this fact, eyebrows furrowed, before asking in a slightly softer voice, "Are you injured?"

There's a silent question there- are you bit?- and Eddie clears his throat again.

"No, I'm okay," he croaks, though the scarred stubs on his left hand ache faintly.  He shifts into a sitting position on the branch, "I just got tired.  I slept longer than I meant to, though."

Jai smiles up at him, all patience and understanding, the way his mother used to and it feels like a stab in the back, and then turns to speak in hushed tones to Rupert.  He catches snippets of an argument, no doubt about him, and before long both turn back to face him.

"We're apart of a settlement, just east of here," Jai explains, and the tone she's using now sounds like this is a rehearsed statement, "We've got plenty of food and shelter and even a running stream to bathe and wash our things."

"There's a lot of us," Rupert chimes in, voice steady, "Guns, weapons- if you try anything funny, you won't get away with it.  But..." he trails off and glances expectantly at Jai. This definitely seems like they've recited it before.

"We'd like to extend to you an invitation to join us," she finishes, smiling wide and warm up at Eddie, "I mean, first me and Rupert have to go check the traps for any food, but you are welcome to come back to camp with us."

Eddie's stomach immediately rebels against him, starvation hitting him in a sudden wave that nearly knocks him off the tree.  The rational part of his mind tells him to think this decision through.  A moment of silent passes, before Eddie tentatively calls out, "If I decide I don't... wanna be there anymore, would I be allowed to go?"

Jai nods, "Of course!  It is your choice.  However, I'm afraid you won't be allowed to take anything with you, and an escort will have to take you out of camp just to make sure you don't come back with foul intentions."  Even Rupert seems at peace with this answer, so Eddie nods again and begins the slow descent from the tree to the ground.

Eddie trails just slightly behind Jai and Rupert as they start the journey to the aforementioned traps, but his step falters when he sees their hands interlocked.  To his disgust, his mind immediately rushes to think of Wyatt, and the knot in his chest tightens.  Don't start thinking of him, he yells internally, don't start doing that again now.

He's too busy distracting himself, pointedly looking away, to realize they had never asked him his name.

Only two of the seven traps have anything in them, but one's a medium sized doe (which Jai quietly informs Eddie is impressive), so the trip is not wasted.  The trek back to their camp feels longer though.  Rupert gradually loosens up, attempts small talk with Eddie, but he's not feeling up to making conversation and, thankfully, the couple seems to respect that.

The camp itself is rather nice.  Just as Jai promised, there appears to be plenty of food and resources.  Tents are pitched in two arching rows, semi-circles stacked on top of one another.  At the center of the inner most semi-circle is a fire pit, surrounded by stones and large metal tubs of water.

As they walk to the camp's center to store the meat, several other residents wave at Jai and Rupert, smiling greetings.  It feels almost like a home.

"It's getting late," says Rupert, smiling politely over his shoulder at Eddie, "so you shouldn't bother sticking around to help us cook this stuff."

"I don't wanna be useless, though," Eddie manages to stammer out.

"Don't worry about it, dude," Rupert replies, "You just got here, you can go get something to eat from Wyatt's tent and-,"

His heart skips a beat.  No, his heart must stop altogether.

He freezes in place, breath catching in his throat.  He can hear Jai saying something to him, but it's distant and watery and- and-,

"What... What did you say?"  he chokes out, "Did I hear you right?"

Pull yourself together, a voice inside his head reprimands, there are tons of people named Wyatt.  Don't get your hopes up.

"Are you okay?"  Rupert asks, with genuine concern present in his voice.

"You said Wyatt, right?"  God, he hates the way his voice is shaking but he can't stop himself, "Wyatt, Wyatt."

"Y-yeah," Jai says, confusion evident on her face, "Why?"

Ignoring her question, he rambles on, "Wyatt- about six foot, blond mullet, glasses, kinda heavy, sucks at Mortal Kombat, loves NASCAR and smokes weed-," he really, really can't stop himself, he knows half of those things wouldn't mean shit to these people, but it feels so nice to say Wyatt's name aloud again, to someone other than himself.

"Yeah, that... that sounds like the Wyatt we know," Rupert's voice cuts through the haze of Eddie's blathering, "Do you want me to take you to him?"

He's finally managed to shut his mouth, and, afraid that if he opens it again he won't be able to shut up, he nods rapidly in the brunet's direction.  Jai and Rupert exchange worried glances, but some kind of silent agreement must be reached, because next thing he knows he's being lead towards one of the tents in the back of the camp.

Everything feels feverish and distant as Jai steps forwards to part the mouth of the tent, peeling back layers of grey-blue fabric to poke her head inside.  Rupert is shooting sympathetic looks in his direction, but Eddie can't bring himself to care.  He hears Jai call out into the space of the tent;

"Wyatt, um, there's someone who wants to see you."

"What?"  And God, that's him, that's Wyatt's voice, "Why?"

"I'm not sure, but I think you should hurry."

There are shuffling sounds from inside the tent, and Eddie wonders briefly if he could be dreaming, still stuck somewhere in a tree, alone, but then the fabric of the tent's entrance is pulled apart and-,

There's no mistaking him- his hair is a little longer, trademark beard dirty and patchy, there's a crack in his glasses and a fading cut on his left eyebrow- but there's no mistaking him.  And Eddie knows that he must be unmistakable too, if the look of utter shock on Wyatt's face is anything to go by.  His vision swims as tears sting in his eyes, and he doesn't care that Wyatt's first words to him are 'holy fuck', doesn't care if that's the least romantic thing ever said, doesn't care that Wyatt's practically snapping his ribs now.

Wyatt is saying more things to him, things that sound a lot like, "Calm down, it's okay, calm down," and then he realizes he's crying out right, shoulders shaking and face scrunched up in Wyatt's shoulder, and God, it's really gross- he's really gross.  He is gross and pathetic but once he starts he can't stop, so instead he wraps his arms around Wyatt and bawls some more, choking out a half-assed apology, amongst other things that are really just meaningless, sad gibberish.

"You're such a baby," Wyatt teases him, but Eddie can tell that he's close to breaking, too, "Cut it out or I'm gonna start crying."

Eddie doesn't doubt that, but there's still no real anger or threat in the words.  He apologizes anyway, to which Wyatt pulls back as much as Eddie's death grip will allow, hands resting heavily on Eddie's upper arms.

"And stop apologizing," Wyatt croaks, a barely contained smirk on his lips despite the tears in his eyes, "I'm the one who left you to die in the middle of the woods.  You should hate me."

Eddie doesn't say anything back for a moment, just hiccups and sniffles, before he manages a weak, "I thought you were dead, Wyatt."

When Eddie says his name, Wyatt's façade crumbles and he pulls Eddie back into a hug.  Eddie doesn't hesitate to hug back this time, instead just rests his head against Wyatt's neck and stays there, allowing himself to calm down while Wyatt has his turn to cry a bit.

It gets uncomfortable quickly, standing for a solid five minutes in each other's arms, but neither wants to be the one to pull away first.  Eventually, Wyatt separates them a little bit, holding Eddie by his shoulders and smiling brittlely.  His eyes flicker to the top of Eddie's head.

"I can't believe you," he chuckles, "After all this time, you're still wearing your beanie?"

"You know it," sniffs Eddie, tugging subconsciously on the hat's hem.  Wyatt leans forward, hands loosening their grip slightly around his biceps, and he leans forwards to meet him halfway, first knocking foreheads and then kissing him.  It's weak, barely there at all, but it's more than enough to make all the months of running and hiding worth it.  He kisses Wyatt again, this time a bit more forcefully, as if to reassure himself that this is real and actually happening and not something he's just imagining.

When Wyatt pulls back, lips drawn back in a sneer, and says in playful disgust, "Ugh, I think I swallowed some of your snot," he knows it's real.

"Jerk," Eddie mumbles and throws a punch at Wyatt's arm, though his heart's not in it.  He scrubs at his nose, a little self-conscious, but every time he glances at Wyatt, he can't stop a smile from bubbling up on his face.  "God, I can't believe I missed you Wyatt," he breathlessly chuckles, "but fuck, I really did."

Wyatt smiles, his trademark crooked smile, and hits his arm gently back.  "Yeah," he laughs, quietly at first, but once he starts he doesn't seem capable of stopping.  "Yeah. I missed you, too."

They end up eating dinner together, huddled beside one another around the broiling pot set up over the campfire.  The sun sets, casting warm, bright light all around them. Eddie's too busy drinking in Wyatt's company to hold much conversation, clutching stale bread in his left hand and Wyatt's hand in his right. The other seems content with this, though, and they eat their meal in relative quiet, almost oblivious to the people around them.

When the sun vanishes, the sky opens up, and the view above brings a smile to Eddie's face.  With all the cities in America empty and ravaged and dead, there isn't any light pollution to be had.  And the stars have always been there, but this is the first time that Eddie's really seeing them. When Wyatt catches him craning his neck up at the sky, eyes wide and searching, he smiles and asks Eddie if he wants to go find some place private, some place alone.

They end up wandering out of the encampment, up a hill to the beginning of a stream that rolls downwards and disappears into the distance.  It's the closet thing to a tall building for miles, and together they stretch out onto the soft, springy grass and stargaze, just like they used to.  Wyatt traces constellations with his finger, and Eddie laughs whenever he pronounces the names wrong, stumbling over long-forgotten syllables.  They start to make some up, first naming them silly things like THC or Dick Ass, but then Eddie outlines a shape like the bough of an apple tree and names it 'Binty and Wyatt gives him this look, like he's something fragile.  When he opens his mouth, Eddie thinks he might apologize, but instead what comes out is, "We have a lot of catching up to do."

So they sprawl out, hand in hand, and Eddie listens as Wyatt tells him of the past couple dozen months from his perspective.  Wyatt tells him of a man named Carver and of a place called Lowe's and of some little girl with her hair in pigtails that raised Hell.  He tells him of the survivor's guilt, cries for a woman named Tavia and a child named Becca.  "Carver was a bad dude," he says, voice heavy with a grief Eddie cannot know, "And we all... we all knew it, on some level but.  We were all too chickenshit to stand up to him."

Eddie doesn't waste any time offering comfort to Wyatt, he knows better than that; instead, he just gives Wyatt's hand a tired squeeze.  Despite it all, he smiles when Wyatt squeezes gently back.

"From there, I just... wandered," mumbles Wyatt, and his eyes are distant, "Eventually I found people.  A lot of us, here, at this camp, come from places like Lowe's.  Groups that went wrong.  Hell, one girl here comes from all the way in Savannah."

When Wyatt finishes his tale, Eddie launch into his.  Mabinty and Terra, the firehouse, the wind chimes, the apple trees.

"They sound like good people," says Wyatt. Eddie can't see his face, can't read his voice, so he just answers with the truth.

"They were.  And then I left."

When he gets to the part of the story where he loses his fingers, he sits up and waggles his left hand above Wyatt's face, as if to prove a point.  The blond laughs, a hearty sound, and its the loudest laugh that Eddie's heard in, holy shit, quite literal years.

"Now you look like a badass," Wyatt jokes, and Eddie smirks wickedly down at him.

"You say that like I'm not a badass," he bites back, and Wyatt laughs and laughs and laughs, keeps laughing even when Eddie leans down to kiss him.  It's a rattling, awkward kiss, all teeth and open-mouth.  Wyatt's too lazy to lean up into it, so Eddie overcompensates, pushes his mouth against Wyatt's far too roughly.  He can feel Wyatt smiling into his lips, and he's sure he tastes like rotting teeth and venison broth and morning breath (because Wyatt sure as hell does). And Eddie'd be damned if it wasn't the best kiss of his life.