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When We Weren't Us

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The book actually gives Richie a cramp, it’s so heavy. Either his migration over the past decade to reading e-books has weakened his wrists, or his lack of a love life just ain’t giving them compensatory work out that you'd expect. The one good thing about an overzealous page count, though- seriously, how tiny is Bill’s dick? - is that the book slams satisfyingly shut like a teenager’s bedroom door when he tosses it aside half way through to call Stan.

“Are you reading this shit?!”

On the other end, Richie hears the clatter of a silverware drawer and a chorus of gasps.

“Hello, friend Richie,” says Stan, in a pleasant, QVC approved voice. “How are you this fine day? Yes, Patty is looking forward to having everyone over for Thanksgiving so they can meet my small children who are with me on speakerphone while we wash dishes.” He clears his throat pointedly.

It is possible for Richie to feel shame, but not when he has the 411 on the swearing abilities of child Stanley Uris. He turned out just fine. “Oh, suck a fart outta my ass, grandpa.”

“He said ass!” pipes a young voice.

“Mind repeating that louder, Richie?” Stan asks over the giggle of his daughters. There's a more forbidding edge to his voice than Richie has ever heard before. “Is there anything else you’d like to share while you’re at it?”

“I said ass, like a donkey,” Richie clarifies with a sigh.

Stan hums. “I think that’d still be offensive if repeated in the first grade.”

One of the girls, Richie thinks the eldest, Becca, gags. “Yuck!”

“Becca, you should run the water hotter than that.”

Whyyyy?” the girl sing songs, putting at least six notes into one vowel.

Richie has to admire the breath control. “Because hot water gets rid of the germs, dude. You know germs- like when you get a cold,” he answers helpfully.

“Oh, right.”

“This is a hoot, Stan. I should call at this hour every night.”

“Please do,” Stan says, and Richie knows he means it. It has been really fucking good to reconnect over the past year.

“Speaking of hot water. Hey. How far into Pennywise are you?” Richie finally asks, the reason for his call.

Stan groans, as quick as ever on the uptake when it comes to Richie’s train of thought. “Yeah, I got to that part. I think it’s probably the right call for the genre. You know. Raising the stakes and all that.”

“So you’re not-?” Richie isn’t exactly sure what he expected Stan’s reaction to his fictional death would be, now that he’s trying to put words to it. Anger isn’t a very Stan first resort. Not that reading it made Richie mad, exactly. Thinking about it makes him nauseous, if anything. It might be ‘Steve’ with his wrists bleeding out in Bill’s book, but he’s wearing Stan’s face in the theater of Richie’s mind. As he dwells on it he becomes hyper aware of the sound of sloshing water and sharp metal edges sliding past each other on Stan’s end. “Stan?”

“You have to admit, the message in the fortune cookies was a great scene.” 

“But we ate Thai that night!”

 

-

 

Against his better judgement, Richie skips making dinner and pulls an all nighter to get to the end of the book. He hunches at the foot of his bed with the book in his lap, twisting the sick feeling in his gut into a tighter and tighter knot as he forges on. Somehow reading it is worse than having lived through this in real life, which is dumb, because he made it through to the other side relatively unscathed, didn’t he? Why should he be on the verge of taking the book out of bed to the kitchen so he can read it over the sink, just in case he hurls? Maybe he shouldn’t have tanked up on coffee, he realizes, as his hands shake to turn the pages.

There are vast swaths of truth in the first half of the book, like ‘Bruce’s’ little brother and the rock war, but after the tragic fate of ‘Steve’, Bill’s artistic license flows more freely. The Losers have been put through the blender. By and large, their adult selves are written to professional extremes, with their career success counterbalanced by correspondingly huger personal problems. Take ‘Kimberly’, for instance. The Beverly that Richie knows isn’t a famous clothing designer- she owns a small chain of dry cleaners. And she had stayed in Derry through high school, dated Ben, lost touch in college like they all did, and had been divorced from Tom for years by the time she returned. Unlike Kimberly, she definitely didn’t rock up to the Loser reunion night covered in bruises! Holy shit! No matter how many child carcasses Mike had waiting in the morgue, kicking her ex’s ass would have been the first order of business. Attention all demon clowns: take a fucking number! And yeah, she and Ben had rekindled their thing, it just wasn’t overnight like in the book. No one was dry humping in the sewer, covered in dirt and gore. But, Richie supposes, Bill tweaking that for the story gets a free pass. That’s just pushing around dates to put the squeeze on the tension, right? That’s not lying, that’s not like what he wrote about-

Richie pushes that down.

He tries to bear in mind what Stan said. When ‘Robbie’ kills a man with an axe while Richie had only handcuffed him to radiator? It’s just playing into the genre. If ‘Matt’ is a nutcase with a police scanner instead of an actual badge like Mike? It's just because Bill had to scrub the serial numbers off or else potentially get Mike slammed for conducting an improper investigation. It’s fiction. That’s fine. He pushes on, and tries to be flattered that his alter ego is a recognizable, working comedian instead of a guy who never made it off the East Coast, thoughtlessly followed his dad into dentistry, and does pathetic stand-up at the Hong Kong in Harvard Square twice a month. If middle-school-teacher-by-day Bill could fashion himself a Hollywood sell-out when he’s never even been to LA, why shouldn’t his character get the star treatment, too?

(If you can call taking the things he loves best and breaking them fucking star treatment.)

Richie closes the back cover and glances at the time on his phone in a state of delirium. 4 AM. Bev’s an early riser. She usually answers his emails on her way to the gym. He could call. She might even have some sympathy for him, seeing as there was an element of ‘Kimberly’ that maybe was an invention, maybe not. He’s not sure. Richie didn’t have (his not that bad ) eyes on the situation the whole time, seeing as he was a little distracted with Bowers... He tosses his phone onto the nightstand as he flops backward onto the bed and makes Siri do the dialing.

Bev picks up. She sounds a little yawny, but not like she’s pissed that he woke her. “Hey babe, you all right? It’s a little early for you.”

“YeahI’vejustbeenawaketwentyfourhours,” Richie exhales into the phone. Okay. Slow down, man, he thinks. He sounds like You Know Who. Not the Harry Potter one. “Hey- do you think Voldemort drinks coffee, or is unicorn blood already like wizard coke?”

“I’m not a dork like you boys, Richie,” Bev smirks through the phone. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

“Then what do people like you think about all day?” Richie wonders. “What pair of plain, unpatterned socks you’ll wear tomorrow?”

“Uh, invoices I need to send, mostly. Work stuff.”

In the background, he can hear Bev’s kettle whistle like an alarm. Ah, fuck. Richie will need to be at work in three and a half hours. He should get to the point of this phone call and then attempt to conk out for most of that. “Listen, uhm. I’m reading Bill’s book? Are you... How far are you?”

Bev chuckles. “It’s like a phonebook! In which case, I’m probably up to the P’s? They.. We? No. They,” she decides. “They’ve started getting the totems.”

“So did you get to Bruce and Kimberly playing fucking tonsil hockey, or-”

“Geez, what?” Bev’s kettle clanks back on to the stove top. “Not yet!”

“So, I take it that never really happened.”

“Uh, no,” Beverly confirms. “Not really the headspace I was in while we were running around our hometown trying to stop child murders.”

“Right!” Richie gesticulates wildly, unseen. “So don’t you think it’s fucked up for Bill to imply that like, you guys had lifelong boners for each other?”

But Bev surprises him, rather than join in on his indignation. “I don’t know,” she says carelessly. “Maybe I had a crush on him at some point- he was a cute kid. We all worshiped our Big Bill, you know that."

“Yeah, fucking adorable little cult leader,” Richie agrees, hastily. “I even bought the same sneakers ’cause he did once, it’s just lucky I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

Bev scoffs at that. “Look, I haven’t read it yet. It's not like I’m thrilled that Bill wrote a book where thinly veiled versions of us make out when we didn’t, but who is it hurting?”

“Half of the Kimberly chapters are a big fucking stink about how socially devastating that shit can be!”

“For kids, maybe,” Bev shrugs it off.

“Well, what about Ben? I mean, it does kinda make you look like sloppy seconds,” Richie points out.

“Eh, Ben knows what’s up.”

Richie sighs. She's not far enough along in the book to grasp what he’s really getting at. “Okay. You’re right. It’s not- it’s not really hurting anyone in your case. I guess.”

“As much as I’m enjoying our book club, Richie, I kind of need to-”

“Yeah, no. I get it. I need to crash for a bit before work, anyway,” he admits. He nestles into his pillow, determined to relax. “Assuming I ever wake up again after this, I’ll catch you later, Mrs. Weasley.”

“I’m very happy to say I don’t get that reference,” Bev says airily. “Bye bye Richie. Mwah.”

 

-

 

He manages to sleep, but not well. Not restfully. He is two people, both Richie and Robbie. Richie watches as Robbie is dropped from the grip of the Deadlights, back jarring painfully against the rock floor of the cistern. He watches as Eric rushes to him, calls his name. Richie! No. Robbie, Robbie I did it! His hands and the hands that are not quite his own all raise to reach out to pull Eric close, pull him to safety, pull him into himself, into the little door that has popped open in his heart, like the retreating bird in a cuckoo clock. His hands raise, but they don’t get there. Then the pain in his back is nothing at all by comparison.

Robbie stumbles to where Eric is thrown with his face spattered by blood Richie has never tasted. 

He’s hurt, we have to get him out of here.

And how are we going to do that?

There’s still a battle to be won, but Richie lingers twice, Richie and Robbie. He’s aware of the stream of thoughts in Robbie’s head like they’re closed captioning. He tries to help, but he can’t force out the words any better than he keep in the blood. I have to tell you. I love you. I never- You have to- you have to stay so I can tell you. I’ve loved you all this time and I will, after.

After.

After, they leave. Everyone but Richie. He stays as they leave Eric who is Eddie there in the dark to share the grave of his killer and to never be told.

 

-

 

Richie sleepwalks through his morning commute, still half watching the world as Robbie, who works nights and hasn’t left home before noon in at least a decade. He forces himself to stand on the T to keep from falling asleep in one of the seats, lulled by the movement of the subway. The pole keeping him upright is a baseball bat swung, a fence post thrown, the handle of an axe. Then it’s just a pole and he’s gone a stop too far and has to double back. He staggers up the stairs to the ground level, but his footsteps don’t sound like footsteps, they’re narration.

Even as he pulled himself up out the well, fist over fist on the rope, he knew that he was leaving part of himself below.

“Oh fuck off, Bill!” Richie swears at some random man, just trying to squeeze past him on the stairs.

Bill doesn’t know. He can’t know how Richie ever felt, because Richie barely knows. When he gets to the office he pushes around appointments so he can knock out on his office couch in the middle of the day, but when the break comes he can’t sleep. He stares at the drop tile ceiling instead and thinks how he’ll call Bill and have it out with him when he stops seeing bookprint behind his eyelids every time they close.

 

-

 

Richie falls asleep again when he gets home from work and wakes when his phone rings, not long after dinnertime.

“Bill?”

Had he already called and drifted off on him? Richie’s too burnt out to think.

“Bill? Are you two-timing me? After everything we’ve been through,” tsks Eddie.

It’s the first time Richie has heard his voice since watching- no that was just a dream- since reading his death. Since he had first started reading the book a few days ago, actually.

“Fuck. Eds.” Richie clears the sleep from his throat and collapses back into the bed. “How’s your neverending bizzaro episode of Golden Girls going?”

“We’re on a commercial break,” says Eddie. “I dropped Mom off to bingo night and thought I might read or something, since I can never settle in for long when she’s here, but-”

“Not Pennywise,” Richie says automatically. Eddie can’t- he can’t see what’s been said, or rather, left unsaid there. “It’s not- It’s really fucking long. I already finished so I could just give you the cliffnotes if you wanted to skip it. A few adjectives to throw at Bill if he asks. If you haven’t-” Richie swallows. “Did you already start reading it?”

“I don’t need to copy your fucking homework, you show off,” Eddie chuckles. He hears as Eddie shifts in his seat and springs and foam groan as distinctly through the phone as if he came and lounged next to Richie. “I cracked it open a few times. I’m maybe a hundred pages in, but apparently I don’t have the time to dick around that you do.”

Thank god for that. Richie relaxes. If Eddie keeps at this pace he’ll have a solid two months before he gets to anything damning. He can get to the bottom of whatever the hell Bill is playing at by then. Or- in the meanwhile, Richie might be able to concoct a way to swipe Eddie’s copy before he can finish.

“I tried to get into it tonight,” he continues. “But I dunno. When I read about us? It just made me want the real thing.”

“And you called me first. The realest deal. Often imitated, never replicated.”

Eddie snorts. “Yeah, you dick.”

Richie tries not to notice the prideful thrill he gets from being more ‘us’ to Eddie than Bill or Stan, who would have shown up by a hundred pages in. Their quartet was firmly established before the others came on the scene, and while the distinction of just who Richie’s best friend was wandered all around the group over the years, the two of them had always been particularly enmeshed. Even when they couldn’t get along, they couldn’t stand to be apart.

Us!

Nope, too late. He's noticed.

“You missed me,” Richie says, a little too softly for his own liking. “And seriously- fuck Robbie!” he recovers. “Even if I had both hands and my dick tied behind my back, that fictional fucknut couldn’t put the art into a Yo Mama joke that I can.”

Eddie happily goads him, as always. “Really?”

“Yeah, Eds. I’d tell you more but I gotta run and meet your mom at bingo. I’m giving her nothing but O’s all night, baby!”

Eddie snorts. “See, the book-“

Oh. Oh Richie! Ohhh!” Richie whacks his arms passionately against the bed for some light foley work.

“I didn’t miss this. Fucking real deal Trashmouth, all right...”

“Uhp bup bup!” Richie cuts Eddie off. “You can’t call me that anymore. I’ll sue your ass for libel!”

Eddie grumbles. “I still can’t believe you’re a fucking dentist. The thought of you with your fingers in-”

“Don’t worry, my little Eddie. I use gloves on everyone except your mom."

After a few rounds of the usual routine, Fuck you, Fuck your mom, You fucking fuck, That’s Doctor Fucking Fuck to you, lobbed back and forth, Richie settles down. The tension in his jaw melts away, and instead he notices that hungry back of the throat feeling, from missing dinner the second night in a row. He can already hear Eddie chastising him about acidity and disturbed sleep as a side effect, but if he’s going to work up the will to get out of bed and feed himself he’ll need a little inspiration.

“Eddie, I’m hungry. Tell me what you made for dinner. Get me going so I can get it up in the kitchen. Tell me every spice your allergic ass cut out of the recipe so I can imagine how bland it was and then do the opposite.”

“I hate to disappoint you, but-“

Richie gasps. “You used seasalt, didn’t you?! This is a safe space. You can tell me.”

“Dinner was really good. There’s a Trader Joe’s in Rego Park, so I-“

“And they let you in there? An innocent little flavor virgin like you?”

“Shut the fuck up!” Eddie snaps with a laugh. “You want me to talk you off on the fucking delicious salmon I made or not?”

“Mmm. Yes,” Richie pipes down.

Eddie waits a moment for proof of cooperation. “Well, I’d been thinking about giving it a try for a while- wondering if maybe I might like it after all. You know me- I always avoided seafood in general because of the shellfish. But things have changed, lately, you know?”

Richie did know. Over the past year since Derry, Eddie had been getting a grip on what of his medical history was real, and what was invented by his mother to keep him fenced in. He’s started doing things like sending her to bingo and not taking her along for groceries where she can veto his selections. It’s his house, and she lived with him, Eddie would point out. Not the other way around. In recent months, though, he has started batting around the idea of getting another place somewhere warmer, where she might be more comfortable with her respiratory problems.

“Something tells me you’ve got a medicine cabinet packed to the gills with epinephrine and a Life Alert,” says Richie. “Can’t hurt to try.”

Eddie doesn’t disagree. “So, I baked it. Maybe ten minutes. It’s good for your skin and lean protein and preventing insulin resistance and-“ he pauses dramatically, “-when it’s glazed with a little lemon and... sweet chili sauce.”

“Shiiit,” Richie breathes. “You’d use that?

“I was feeling experimental, you gotta fucking problem with that?”

“No, no!” Richie snickers. “Did you garnish it? Tell me.”

Eddie tuts. “I served it on wild rice, with asparagus and-“

“And?”

Scallions,” he hisses.

“Unff. Slut.” Richie pushes himself to the edge of the bed so he can get up and make something. He groans as he stretches his limbs and wishes he had salmon in the freezer. “You have any leftovers? Let me have some.”

“Yeah, come and get it,” Eddie teases.

“Right, I’ll be there just as soon as I’m done with your mother.”

Richie keeps Eddie on the phone while he rummages through the refrigerator, giving a Herzogian tour of the possibilities. There’s some zucchini fritters from Greek take-out that he never finished that Eddie agrees might be good with egg, so he fires up the stove and devolves into the Swedish Chef. 

Firsd we bud de booshy. Gud de floov. Crook de yook. Aw yuck-“ Richie breaks as he gets a little carried away with the show and gets more egg on his counter than intended- but it’s okay because on the other end, Eddie loses it laughing. He even drops his phone. It makes Richie grin wide enough that he could fit the spatula in his mouth. “Den we flurd de flibflibflib.”

“You better not be throwing the shell over your shoulder, you jackass, or else I am never visiting you again.”

While Richie eats, Eddie makes a suggestion. “So, Rich. There are two houses in North Carolina that I wanna look at on my way to Stan’s. I’d welcome a second opinion and a spare driver, if you’d want to meet me in New York and go down together-”

“I-” Richie has to stop himself from agreeing right away. “I have to look at my schedule real quick but-” He hasn’t had a chance to hang out with just Eddie in a while. Because of his living situation, they met on Bev and Ben’s turf if they were in New York, or tried to get Mike in the mix if Eddie visited New England.

“And I could pay to switch your flights, of course. Consider it like, a driver’s fee, or-”

“Fuck off, I don’t care about that,” says Richie, already pulling up his calendar app. “Send me your itinerary you lunatic, I know you have one.”

After they hang up, Richie thinks about it a little harder. It would have been less fuss to pick up Bill in Baltimore, wouldn’t it?

Us!


-


A few days later, Richie unpacks the shit he never took out of his suitcase after his last conference so he can repack it for the trip to Stan’s. Fossilized socks sail across the room and brochures and sample packets meet their unsavory end in the garbage. He’s in the midst of a tearful reunion with his CLAW & ORDER: Boston Lobster Unit sweatshirt when Bill finally calls, of his own accord.

“So, I heard from Bev that you were ready to fight for her honor?”

Richie twirls one of his nine million customized travel toothbrushes around his finger. “Yeah, buddy. I was thinking pistols at dawn, if that works for you.”

Bill chuckles. “I talked to her, it’s all right. But uhm- I think I should have talked to you. Before the book came out.”

Richie clears his throat warningly. “Bill-”

“Word choice, yeah. Listen.” Bill exhales, creaks around his floor as he paces a bit. “I wanted to clear the air before we go to Stan’s, Richie.”

In front of him, Richie’s suitcase looks more like a bug out bag. He could just scoop in the pile of laundry on the top of his dresser and make a run for it. There have to be non-English speaking countries where he could escape Bill’s book, right? He’s always wondered how far high school Spanish and a bottomless love for rice dishes could get him.

“I thought- I thought I was observant, Richie. Like back in the day, I knew you had an awful lot of men’s fitness magazines under your bed for someone who’s idea of a good workout was bowling-”

“It is the way I do it,” Richie grits. “Grandma style, between the legs. It’s just as good as squats.”

Bill, usually an easy target, doesn’t laugh. “You’re always so out there, personality-wise. I’m sorry, but it didn’t even occur to me that you weren’t out out by now, man.”

“I’m not- I mean, I am...” Gay, he thinks. And still too tightlipped to say it now, to someone who apparently has known for decades. “But I’m not-”

But Bill keeps apologizing. “And I didn’t think about how it would affect your friendship with- well with Bev and Ben they’re already on the same page, you know? And to be honest, I never knew if you liked anyone in particular. I just- while I was writing, I was thinking about it in hindsight. Maybe Stan...” Bill says dismissively, before really zeroing in. “-or Eddie?”

Richie drops the toothbrush back into his suitcase. “But you couldn’t work it so Stan died in my arms at the midpoint, right? So you fucking eeny meeny miney moed Eddie, and then killed him, too? Fucking either way! The only fate you could imagine for your good ol’ buddy Richie, who I will remind you, followed you into a fucking sewer to look for corpses- was to wallow, brokenhearted, forever?”

“I’m rr-really sorry,” Bill repeats. It’s the first time Richie has heard him stutter since Derry. “It was a fifty/fifty chance. I was drawing off of what I thought was interesting, and you guys were always super codependent as kids. And-”

“And that was fucking thirty years ago, dude!” Richie shouts. He realizes he’s been shouting, and it shocks him. He’ll get high strung and ramp up on energy and raise his voice, but yelling in anger? Not an item that shows up in his emotional inventory often. But he is angry, now. It’s not fucking fair that the cursed camoflague of some fucking monster brainwashed him and all his friends. They should have gone out into the world, armed with all the hard earned self knowledge and pattern recognition every other teenaged asshole has when they leave home. He shouldn’t have had to spend his life afraid of losing everything just for being himself when his friends had proved that he was possible to love, just as he is.

“Richie,” Bill sighs. “I fucked up not talking to you about it. Then and now. You shouldn’t think-” Bill struggles to come at it from the right angle. “I can imagine you being happy with someone in your actual life, man! This is just a book! A fucking- supposed to be scary book. Being gay isn’t what Robbie’s supposed to be afraid of- he should be more afraid of wasting his big, goofy, loving heart by not using it.”

“Yeah that’s not really your call, man.”

“Right. It’s yours,” Bill says seriously. The sort of way that always used to persuade a younger Richie. "You have to be the one to do something about it, if you're lonely."

That is scary. It’s more frightening than the thought of going back into that sewer in another thirty years. He slumps down next to his suitcase and sifts his fingers through the bottom. The small debris of silica gel packets, coins, and wayward mentos like pebbles on a shore. Like he’s sitting at the edge of the quarry with one of the people who knows him best, getting the Come to Jesus talk he always needed.

“Shit, Bill. Maybe you’re not a total hack.”

Bill huffs a laugh. “Uh, I’ll take it.”

“Consider yourself forgiven.”

“Thank you.”

There’s a long pause and Richie takes the opportunity to pull over his sweatshirt and snuggle into it, since they can’t hug it out like they used to, over the phone.

“But we were kids,” Richie says, shaking his head. “I’m not- still in love with him. Not my whole life. I’m a real person not a fucking elf from The Lord of the Rings.”

“Do real people compare themselves to elves?” Bill asks, voice pitching high.

“Yeah, Bill, I’m not fucking laughing at this just yet.”

“Okay!” Richie can practically see Bill’s hands flying up in surrender, even through the phone. “But maybe think about it,” Bill adds, just under the wire of Richie’s warning.

“Well, even if I was interested. Unless you snooped around Eddie’s secret stash of buttplugs, too, I already know you don’t think there’s much hope there. Or are you forgetting you married ‘Eric’ off to a woman who is painstakingly, artlessly- seriously, Bill, I might take back the not-a-hack thing- written to be identical to his overbearing mother?” Richie pauses. “Okay. That sounds jealous as fuck, even to me.”

“Horror readers love that Oedipal shit, c’mon. You’ve seen Psycho.” Bill makes an Ehhh? All right buddy? We still cool? noise. “I thought it’d just be mean to make him die a virgin!”

“Oh my god.”

“Well you said it, Rich, not me- guy that attached to his mother? Living with her at our age?”

“She lives with him,” Richie corrects.

Bill shudders. “Either way, you think that’s not a cock block?”

“We don’t know that.” Richie rubs his face with a groan.

“We know Mrs. K..."

Richie’s been in fucking Narnia his whole life and he still managed to find a few people to fuck a 1970’s low-budget creature effect like him. Surely Eddie, with his long, pretty nose and deep, dark eyes and hair that actually holds a part instead of just flopping around tragically could find someone to do the same. Oh no. He can’t think about this. Fuck. Holy shit. He would absolutely be that someone. He is definitely still into Eddie. Yep. Is it too late to hope that it’s just a physical attraction??

“I’m fucked, Bill! Totally fucked!” Richie practically gouges his eyes out, rubbing his face. “I’m driving with him from New York to Atlanta to go house shopping.”

Bill chokes. “That was quick.”

“We’re staying overnight in the Carolinas, Bill. I’m literally packing for our trip right now.”

“Okay, well. Godspeed and pack your cutest pajamas, I guess.”

-

 

It was a flimsy hope, but as the cab from LaGuardia pulls up to Eddie’s place in Queens, Richie realizes this whole Eddie thing is not strictly physical. Steam rises up from the tailpipe into the frigid November air and wraps around Eddie, already standing in the driveway with the car, packed and engine running.

So I don’t have to go inside and see Mrs. K, Richie realizes. I’m in love. I’m in fucking love.

It’s a wonder the steam doesn’t shape up into little hearts.

Richie pays his fare, grabs his bag and presents himself with ta-da! hands.

Eddie shakes his head at Richie but pulls him into a hug just the same. “How are you not wearing gloves?”

“I’m getting out of one vehicle directly into another.” Richie pulls back and squeezes Eddie’s face between his palms to prove how warm they are. “I think the frostbite will take more than thirty seconds to set in.”

“Then you’d better get in the car,” says Eddie, still squished.

Richie bongos his cheeks. “If you’re the one driving us out of the city- anything you say, my dear.”

“Good.” Eddie smirks. He puts Richie’s suitcase in with the rest and shuts the trunk. “I’ve got an audiobook I want to listen to.”

“As is your right!” Richie says gratefully, already circling around to the passenger side. He will happily take Philly or DC, but he cannot have the conversation he wants to have at the start of this trip if he’s operating heavy machinery. His parents raised him right. Don’t drunk drive, don’t tell-Eddie-you’re-gay drive.

He does wait about an hour, but this is mostly because he unexpectedly gets sucked into Eddie’s audiobook, a biography of Meriwether Lewis of LewisAndClark fame. What could Richie say? There was something deeply relatable about a dude who’d blow $300 in early nineteenth century money on soup.

Somewhere near Piscataway, New Jersey (unfortunate name), the reader drones on. “... Lewis opened his invitation thus: ‘From the long and uninterrupted friendship and confidence which has subsisted between us I feel no hesitation in making to you the following communication.’ ...”

“That’s exactly how I start all of my texts,” Richie nods. He hovers his hand over the radio. “Look Eddie. I’m loving this- can’t wait for these scamps to be stuck on the river for the next two hours of this book, truly- but do you mind if I pause for a sec?”

Eddie shoots him a look. “I thought it’d take you like, fifteen minutes tops to ask for music.”

Richie hits the button. “Did you even want to listen to this, or were you trying to prank me? Because it backfired. I’m invested now.”

“I thought it was... appropriate for a road trip?” Eddie bites his lip to prevent a guilty laugh.

There’s a car that’s kept neck-in-neck with them for the past few minutes, so Richie gestures to it through the window, elevating its status to that of a rhetorical bystander. “Fucking Kerouac over here,” he tells the car. “All he needs is a wheel in his hand and four on the road.”

“You’re so literary,” Eddie finally grins. “You’d never think it by the clothes and the porn star sideburns.”

Richie scratches his jaw. “I didn’t realize you were a connoisseur of-”

“Vintage gay pornography?”

“I-” Richie grasps around for a come back. He was holding out for a more elegant segway than this. “I was just going to say ‘vintage’.”

“I’m gay,” Eddie says suddenly. Simply, even.

“Okay, this doesn’t have to be weird...” 

Breathe in, out. Maybe put your head between your knees until it stops spinning. But Richie doesn’t move, he doesn’t dare. Whatever gremlin controls the Spotify in his mind tries to play We Are The Champions but misclicks Yakitty Sax.

Eddie keeps his eyes dead ahead. His mouth draws so tight it all but disappears. “I’ll leave you on the side of fucking 95 I swear to fucking god, Richie.”

“No! Fuck!” Richie blurts out. “I was- I was just going to say the same thing, is- is the thing. I’m gay.” He tries to swallow but has to settle for just clearing his throat. “You just fucking scooped me.”

He had planned on taking a lot longer to get around to saying it. At least an hour closer to a recuperative hot meal, perhaps?

Eddie doesn’t ask if he’s joking, he just turns the audiobook back on doesn’t speak again until New Brunswick.

“We could stop in Delaware.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever step foot in Delaware,” Richie realizes aloud.

“Me neither. Maybe we shouldn’t, on principal.”

“Dela-where? Never heard of it.”

Then they get caught up in figuring out which states they have in common, when they’ve been to them and why, why the fuck did the ADA keep getting athletes from the sports most likely to knock your teeth out as confrence speakers. They’re back to normal by Philadelphia, flipping off trucks and trash talking the food. Well- ‘back to normal’ as much as it can be normal for Richie to float along on the thought that maybe, just maybe, this person he’s known since he was eight years old might not object to being the love of his life.

They stop for lunch and to switch drivers outside of DC, where Eddie gets a series of emails from his realtor Amanda, updating him on other offers for one of the houses. With the pressure on to get his own offer in tonight, there’s no time to shoot the shit about Richie’s feelings before it’s his turn to drive and potentially drown them in the Potomac in a moment of panic.

 

-

 

“I can’t fucking believe the price of property down here,” Richie boggles every time they pass a For Sale sign while winding their way into the suburbs of Raleigh. He’s clearly lived in the Boston area too long. He makes good money and all, but if he’d been making it while living south of the Mason-Dixon he’d own two, hell, three houses by now. Of course it’s as unappealing red as Maine, but the Carolinas have some nice digs, just as James Taylor promised. Pretty stretches of woodland and lots of lush lawns, double and triple car garages, and fancy looking brickwork. He’s a little disappointed there aren’t as many front porches as he expected, though. That seems to be the way of new constructions, which is a shame. When he was a kid whizzing through the neighborhood on his bike, he always felt that the kooky but familiar old folks that sat out of their porch at night to drink and listen to the radio were as much a local landmark as a bridge or a particularly hilarious street name. He had vaguely looked forward to being one of those old kooks, living next door to all the other Losers, like a 24/7 block party.

They pull up to the first place after sundown, beating Amanda’s ETA by about half an hour thanks to Richie’s lead foot. It’s one of those low, sprawling ranches. No stairs for his mother to fall down, as Eddie said humanely, and easier exterior maintenance.

“She said we could walk around outside?” Eddie offers. “It’s dark, but I have flashlights.”

“Of course you do. Dibs not the dorky headlamp.” Richie opens the car door and steps out into the driveway to stretch the cramp out of his legs.

Eddie scoffs. “I didn’t bring the headlamp, it busted in Derry when someone tripped and pushed me into a wall.”

“Coulda been worse!” Richie says, flexing until his knees are joints again. Eddie definitely hasn’t gotten a load of what happened to Eric yet, if he’s still bitching about his stupid light.

They meet up at the trunk to get their flashlights, then start inspecting the perimeter, Hardy Boys style. The pavement is nice and even out front and on the back patio, the windows are all well locked, and there are no troubling signs in the foundation or along the roof, as best they can see. They peer up at it from the driveway.

“I can put you on my shoulders if you really want a good look, Eds.” Richie shines his flashlight up from under his chin.

“Maybe later if there’s a crawl space with no ladder,” Eddie hums. “Then I can drop any raccoon nests I find on your head.”

Richie covers his heart with both hands, accidentally bouncing the light of the flashlight on Eddie’s squinting face. “Aww, raccoon eggs. Imagine.”

Eddie retaliates by aiming back at Richie’s eyes. “They’re fucking mammals!”

“I know that! Which one of us has a Biology degree?!” Richie gives up trying to dodge the beam and opts to try and wrestle the flashlight out of Eddie’s hands instead.

“Somehow you!” Eddie fights. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Amanda finally drives up while they’re attempting to squeeze each other into surrender.

“Howdy,” she calls. Okay they’re not that far south, are they?

Richie tips his imaginary hat all the same, and Eddie elbows him in the ribs. “Thanks for meeting us, Amanda. I’m Eddie, this is Richie.”

“My pleasure.” She shakes both their hands and then jingles her keys. “I’ll bet you're anxious to take a look! How was your drive? Did you get a chance to have dinner yet?”

“I think we’re glad to be out of the car, thanks,” Eddie laughs genially. “We grabbed something substantial in Virginia, but I figure me and Rich will talk about the houses over dinner, after. I didn’t wanna keep you waiting on us-”

Richie just stands back, watching the novelty of Eddie interacting with a normal human being. He could be so polite and charming with non Losers when he wasn’t threatening to dump rodent shit on them. That was fun too, of course. Taken altogether, Eddie really is the complete package.

They follow Amanda through the house, and Richie chips in on asking some of the usual questions. Is there hardwood under this? How old is the HVAC? Does this realtor think I’m Eddie’s boyfriend?

“This is the master. The ensuite has a second door to the hall. There’s an ensuite in the next room, too. Identical. That room is probably more office or nursery sized, though, given the square footage,” Amanda explains.

Richie opens all the bathroom sink cabinets and eyeballs the pipes, as his father had always instructed in this sort of situation. “2.5 baths is a lot of cleaning,” he says thoughtfully.

“I was just thinking that,” Eddie agrees. He flushes the toilet and gives Richie a thumbs up.

They visit the second bedroom and ensuite next. “The previous owners put in this huge closet, so this wall could come out again and open it back up, make it nice big second room again- assuming you need- ?” Amanda looks back and forth between Eddie and Richie. “Oh, I never know anymore, these days,” she says as graciously as possible.

The cabinet doors slip out of Richie’s hands and clatter closed noisily. “We’re, uh.”

Eddie pats his shoulder. “It’s not for us,” he half clarifies. “I’m looking to set up my mother.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Amanda says warmly, eyes crinkling. “How sweet of you.”

Emboldened by the lack of an outright denial, Richie brushes his hands off on his knees and wraps an arm around Eddie’s shoulders. “Yeah, that’s Eddie all over. Sweet little Mama’s Boy.”

Maybe it's reluctance to make a scene in front of a stranger, maybe it’s exhaustion, or maybe it’s a genuine enjoyment of the contact, Richie can’t say- but Eddie sags into his side with a sigh. “I think this is a good option, Amanda. Let’s get a look at the utilities.”

 

-

 

The second house is another ranch and more of the same, but this time with a backyard that slopes downhill and a raised deck. It’s a little older, so Eddie insists that they look around below for pests and rot. They get on their hands and knees in an empty flower bed, flashlights out.

Eddie double checks every corner, then makes Richie quadruple check. “I don’t see any bees nests, do you?”

“Nope. Don’t drop your mood ring, though,” Richie warns. He gets back to his feet and gives Eddie a hand up, too.

“Don’t even joke about My Girl, that movie fucked me up.”

“You were fucked up looong before the untimely death of Thomas J., Eds.”

Inside again, Richie hangs back to let Eddie wash his hands first in the kitchen. As he idly watches, it makes him think of how nice it would be to share a kitchen with him every night. He could watch him rinse vegetables, and smell and taste what he’s cooking instead of just getting a report over the phone. He could be the hero who empties out the leftover tupperwares that get lost in the back of the fridge, and pull down the crockpot from the highest shelf even as Eddie protests that he’s not that short. As Eddie shakes off his wet hands at the sink for lack of something to dry them with, Richie longs to wind his arms around him from behind and sway to the tick of a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato.

When Eddie turns around, Richie pulls out the front of his sweatshirt to offer as a towel. “So, what do you think?” he asks.

Eddie smirks as he wipes his hands, front and back, on Richie’s chest. “I think there’s probably a real towel in the bathroom.”

“Yep.” Richie starts washing his hands. “That’s the one I was planning on using. I wouldn’t dare mess up your cardigan.”

Amanda clears her throat. “Well, I’ve got some numbers and pictures for you here in my papers, so you can take a look tonight. Call me with any questions, and if you can let me know about any offers by eight, that’d be best. I don’t like to bother a seller too late in the evening, of course. If you want to sleep on it, that’s fine too, but there is someone else looking at this place, as I said.”

“Thanks,” says Eddie, taking the folder she offers. “I guess it’s time to think it over on a full stomach, right?”

“Always a good idea,” the realtor agrees. “Do you need a recommendation?”

Richie snorts. “At this point, if the closest thing to the hotel is a kennel, I’ll eat dog food tonight.”

“Oh, you’re funny," Amanda laughs.

Eddie rolls his eyes. “Please don’t encourage him. I have to go home with him."

“Lucky you,” says Amanda, eyeing Richie up and down. He’s sure he goes a little red. “Well it was great meeting you both, good luck!”

They say their goodnights then get back in the car and head over to the Hampton Inn, agreeing that they’d rather check in first so they can park and then walk over to a nearby brewery. Mercifully, upon their arrival Richie discovers that Eddie booked a room with two beds. He dumps his bag on one of them and waits for Eddie, ready to start gnawing on a floor lamp if it takes him any longer to unpack his laptop so it can charge.

At the brewery he orders a double order of garlic knots and pickle chips before the waiter can even ask what drinks they’d like, and woah nelly, will he need to go to town with the mouthwash tonight, he did not think about that stink combination in his hunger. Luckily, Eddie makes the decision to consume mass quantities of garlic mutual, then spreads out all his paperwork on the table top and uncaps a red pen. He crosses out lines of information that cancel each other out, fact checks a few things on his phone and makes notes, and then circles a few stand outs. He spins the main two papers around and slides them across to Richie.

“I know there’s no love lost between you and my mother, but if you have an opinion on where you think she’d be better off, I’ll hear it.”

“Well, Alcatraz is just a national park, these days... Riker’s is too close, you’re trying to get her out of New York- maybe San Quentin?” Richie muses, stroking his chin. Eddie glares at him. “Do they allow conjugal visits?”

“I’d let you know after I'm locked up for murdering you, Richie, but that might be difficult.”

Richie giggles and scans over the two papers, noting the things Eddie has marked. The first place is priced to sell, but will require some work before it’s up to snuff, while the second place is more of a turn-key. The neighborhoods are mostly comparable, though there seems to be a wider variety of shopping towards the first. He had liked the living space better in the first, but the kitchen way better in the second. Then again, he was more likely to hang out in bed than on the couch, so-

“I like the second better, with the deck and all that- but I think that’s the opposite of what’s right for Mrs. K. I know there’s an extra half bath to clean in the first, but the shape of the counter in the second was kinda awkward. Accident waiting to happen.”

Eddie looks at him wondrously. “‘Accident waiting to happen’? That’s the last thing I expected you to say.”

“To be fair, dude, I already said the first thing you expected me to say,” Richie grins.

“That’s how I know the bodysnatchers haven’t got you after all.” Eddie takes the papers back for another look. “I think I’m decided, man.”

“Yeah?” Richie raises his glass of beer.

Eddie clinks their glasses together. “Fuck yeah. Let me call Amanda and get my fuckin’ bachelor pad back, already!”

They both swig their drinks and Richie licks his lips, thinking of what it’d be like to get that invite in the future. Then he remembers they’ve already literally got a room. Tonight.

Ahhh!

“I’ll protect your beer, Eduardo- you go do what you gotta do!”

Eddie picks up his phone and starts to get out of his seat to go somewhere a little quieter. “If it’s gone when I get back-”

“You’ll kick my ass?” Richie chinhands at Eddie.

“Nope,” grins Eddie. “I’m in a good mood tonight. I’ll just order another round.”

 

-


After just enough merrymaking to compensate for nearly 10 hours spent in the car (plus Richie’s red eye), they make their way back to the hotel. As much as he would like to faceplant in bed until they get the call back, Richie knows he has to put in a good show when Eddie makes a beeline to unpack his toiletry bag. Especially considering the pickle chips and his feverish little hope that maybe...

“First one to spit blood’s a rotten egg, Eds!”

They floss and brush their teeth side by side, tipsily nudging each other for access to the sink and generally treating the event as an endurance test. Eventually they get to the point where one or both of them is going to bore a hole through their skull, and Eddie literally throws in the towel, at Richie’s face.

“Fuck you, buddy.”

Richie slings it over his shoulder and bares his teeth proudly. “Do you want me to score your technique on a rubrik or on a scale of ten?”

“This is my worst nightmare,” Eddie says, back already turned. He retreats into the room again to unpack the rest of his things.

A few moments later Richie follows him and curls up on his side to watch. Even with a buzz going, Eddie meticulously takes off his shoes and socks and puts them in place, then sets the clothes he’d like to wear tomorrow in a drawer. Richie bets that when he gets home he has to put everything away immediately and start a load of laundry before he can relax, too. Its cute.

One of the last things Eddie lays out is his copy of Bill’s book, on the nightstand right by Richie’s head. By the bookmark he can see that Eddie’s made some significant progress, but he’s still gotta be a ways off from the Loser union at the not-Thai place. Stan was right, though- it was one of the best bits. The joy was as evident on the page as it was inside of him, finally having these people he loved back in his life. He wonders if Eddie will read the same affection into it that he did, or if he’ll be put off by all the ways Bill changed things.

Eddie plugs in his phone on the nightstand too, then sits close by at the edge of his bed, across from Richie. He does have an important call to wait for, after all.

“Can I ask you something, Eddie?”

“Yeah man, anything.” Eddie’s eyebrows meet in a listening, but slightly worried wrinkle.

Richie crosses his arms tight against himself, feeling young and small. “When we met up again in Derry- were you like? Disappointed who I turned out to be?” he asks, “Like, should I have been someone better, or. Someone who knew the right thing to say?”

There isn’t a version of him yet that has the right words, but he’s trying.

Eddie crosses his ankles up on the edge of Richie’s bed and tilts his head at him. "What right would a guy who should’ve stopped living with his mom while OJ was still just a football player have to be disappointed in you?”

You should’ve been the comedian,” Richie smiles softly. As far as Richie is concerned, Eddie is the funniest person in the world. 

“Pfft. In what reality?”

“Bill’s book.”

Eddie squints at it on the nightstand. “Did he write you as a comedian? Mike told me about having to take all the cop stuff out, but I didn’t realize Bill was switching everyone’s shit up.”

“Yeah, Robbie is super famous. Don’t worry, though, Eds. I think you’re still mostly you, professionally.”

“Is that only because you don’t understand my job?” Eddie kicks Richie’s knee.

“...Yes.”

Eddie kicks him again and Richie catches his foot this time. He yanks on it, and Eddie slips perilously close to falling into the valley between the beds.

“I get no fucking respect!”

“You can’t improve on perfection, Eddie!’ Richie giggles and wriggles backward to make room, which Eddie takes. He sits up against the headboard next to Richie and drops a hand into his hair.

“I’m glad someone thinks so,” says Eddie, scratching the back of his neck for a moment and then falling away. “I thought, after we went back to Derry- that I had really fucked it all up. My whole life.”

Richie punches his thigh. “No.”

Eddie’s head thunks back against solid wood. “Richie, c’mon,” he groans. “I let my mom run my life and forgot to have one.”

“At least you didn’t marry her.” At least you didn’t have a life with someone who wasn’t me, Richie thinks. It turns his stomach to think about. If he had found Eddie again after all this time and they survived everything, and still Richie couldn’t have him? “That’s what Bill wrote. Uhm. Spoilers.”

“He what?” Eddie stiffens in confusion.

Richie groans. “He married you off to this woman and used all the same fucking words he used to describe your mom and she doesn’t think you’re funny or brave or anything but a fucking baby she can boss around,” Richie draws a deep breath after his rant. “Spoilers.”

“I really don’t care about fucking spoilers, I am only finishing this book to make Bill happy, but maybe I shouldn’t because holy fuck, Bill!” Eddie laughs hysterically. “I thought we were better friends than that!”

“-and you die!” Richie winces.

“Okay, well. Bill is dead to me. This will be an awkward Thanksgiving.”

When Richie peeks his eye open again, Eddie is snickering to himself.

Eddie catches his eye. “What? Its just a fucking book. I don’t care.”

I care,” Richie pouts. “I don’t want to be like-!” He huffs and pushes himself up to kneel next to Eddie. “I hope it’s not too late, Eddie.”

In his lap, one of Eddie’s hands finds one of his. He looks Richie in the eye very carefully. “Richie, trust me- I’ve given it a lot of thought, and if thirty years isn’t the definition of ‘too late’, then nothing is.”

“Eds-”

Eddie pulls on Richie’s hand, tipping him forward. “Now’re you gonna kiss me, or not?”

Richie huffs. “I swear you like, fucking live to undercut me.”

He leans in the rest of the way on his own and kisses Eddie like he should, just now. Forget about all the times he might have in the past, in a book, or another fucking life. He’d rather be a boring, late blooming Richie with an alive Eddie who wants to be kissed than any other. It turns out that horror isn’t the right genre for them, they’re in a romance. Eddie fists his hands into Richie’s sweatshirt and pulls him in so hard, Richie thinks he hears a seam pop. Yep. Definitely a bodice-ripper.


-


Eddie gets a call back about the house around midnight, while he’s tucked under three quarters of Richie’s sleepy weight. He growls like any attempt to steal his person blanket will result in the use of lethal force.

“You’re staying right where you are. You’re not getting that.”

Richie laughs into his shoulder. “Neither are you, unless you plan on phasing through me.” He rolls onto his back and slaps around for the phone, hitting the answer button just before it rolls over to voicemail.

“Hey, Amanda. Lemme get you Eddie,” he says, smug in his ability to confirm this evening’s suspicions. If someone other than the cell phone owner you called picks up at midnight? Either they’ve been hospitalized or you have reached the Bone Zone hotline.

Eddie takes the phone with a sigh and plasters his face with a polite, social expression that is betrayed by his messy hair, styled with dried sweat. “Yeah, that’s no problem, I was- I’m up... Yeah... That’s great!... Okay. We’ll be in Atlanta for two days then I can come back on the 25th... That works, too. Thank you... Yeah, I will. Goodnight.”

“Congrats, dude!” says Richie, taking the phone away from Eddie again and slithering back up his body. “She fix you up with an inspector and shit?”

“We’ll email about it,” Eddie says, craning his neck to receive a celebratory kiss. “Now I just have to get my mother to North Carolina. But I am definitely incentivized.”

Richie chuckles. “What, you don’t want to ruin each other while she watches Wheel of Fortune in the next room? You know how I feel about buying vowels, Eds. Especially the letter-”

Eddie kisses him again rather than hear the same joke twice. Richie is going to have to beat a lot of dead horses if this is Eddie’s new method of shutting him up, huh? Eddie wraps his arms around Richie’s middle and runs his fingers up and down Richie’s spine, making him shiver and vibrate like maybe he will break down into molecules and phase into Eddie, after all.

“Your place in New York has a front porch right?” Richie thinks he saw one out of the corner of his eye, but to be honest, mostly he was looking at Eddie.

“Yeah, dude.”

“Good, good. I wanna come visit.”

Eddie scowls. “You fucking better. Are you asking my porch out on a date?”

“Yeah. And your kitchen sink,” Richie kisses that scowl away. “-and your bed. Definitely your bed. Definitely wanna fuck again, and I don’t think the porch is the right place for that.”

Beneath him, Eddie draws a sharp breath.

“What?" Richie grins. "You wanna go again right now?”

Eddie laughs. “Nice try. We need to get up in less than six hours to make it to Stan’s on time.”

“That’s fair.” Richie slips off from on top of Eddie and cuddles up to his side instead. “But if we make it to Stan’s early we can totally fool around in the car before we go in, right?”

“We’ll see,” Eddie yawns.

 

-

 

It looks like there are already a few extra cars on the street when they get to Stan’s, but that’s pretty typical for the holidays. It would be hard to guess who else has already arrived with rentals, anyway. They head up the walkway and Eddie rings the doorbell while Richie brandishes the bottle of wine he brought from Boston and a pie that Eddie completely failed to mention while Richie was starving his way across South Carolina. Some commotion inside results in a small girl in a fluffy green party dress opening the door while Stan stands back a few paces inside.

“Hi! We’re having Thanksgiving,” she declares.

“We heard,” says Richie. “If we help wash dishes after, can we have some?”

She considers this.

“Becca, do you know who that is?” Stan asks. “Richie?”

“Oh!” remembers Becca. “The ass man.”

Eddie snickers into his coat sleeve. “I’m Eddie,” he waves. “I have a feeling you’re the funniest person here, so I hope I get to sit near you, Becca.”

This pleases their young host, so she allows them in.

Richie hands off the wine to Stan so he can give him the sort of one-armed manly hug Stan trades in. “Mmm. Better than a phone call!”

“I think I might like you better with a volume button,” Stan hums.

“I say we make him Skype in from the car,” Eddie gestures with a thumb. “Thanks for having us, Stan. Beautiful place you’ve got.”

“Thank you, be sure to tell Patty that. Did you end up buying down here?”

Eddie nods with a self satisfied grin. “I guess you’ll see more of me while I get my mom set up.”

“You’ll have to take over courting Mrs. K for me, Stan,” says Richie, pulling Eddie in with one arm. “I can only keep up with one Kaspbrak at a time.”

Stan’s eyes bounce between them like a spectator at a tennis match. “Double congratulations, then. That makes getting everyone on air mattresses a little easier,” he decides.

“Glad to help!"

If there's any justice in this world, and Richie is starting to suspect there is- their air mattress will wind up next to Bill's tonight so he can fully appreciate what he’s done.