By the time Eddie realizes that he’s feeling the painkillers, he’s eating cantaloupe on the couch. He turns an irregularly-cut piece of fruit over and over on the end of his fork, contemplating the gradient from pale orange to deep green. He needs some more bright color in his life. He has Richie, and Richie is bright and vivid, but he feels like there could be more.
And eventually it occurs to him that he hasn’t looked up from the fruit in a while, which means he’s definitely stoned.
He glances up a little guiltily to see if Richie has noticed him being weird, but Richie’s not looking at him. He’s perched in the leather armchair on top of the towel they left there to soak up the water Eddie threw. His knees are folded up to his chest, his bare feet poking over the edge of the seat. His head is tilted at a slight angle, leaning toward his shoulder as he looks down at his phone and squints at it through his glasses. He has one headphone in one ear, and the other dangles loosely and rests on his chest on his black t-shirt.
Eddie’s not used to seeing Richie still, accustomed as he is to his multitasking and fidgeting. In his pajamas and folded up like that, he looks comfortable. Cozy. Domestic.
What if, an indulgent little voice in Eddie’s head suggests, you had a chair like that? Think of all the things you could keep on that chair. One entire Richie, for example. And Eddie could just walk into his living room, and Richie would be there.
He thinks he likes living with Richie. He might like it more if he were more mobile and self-sufficient, and able to take turns preparing meals and driving and sharing the burden of work. He’d also like to test Richie out through holiday stressors and lost luggage at an airport and when a squirrel accidentally gets into the house and they have to catch it in a salad spinner and escort it back out. He knows how Richie handles a life-or-death situation, but he wants to see how Richie responds to more mundane problems. He believes that’s how you know a person: day-to-day.
In a perfect world, Eddie thinks he’d like to try living with Richie when he’s back to normal. He has no reason to think Richie will go for such a thing—he doubts Richie wants to come out publicly, and if he wants to keep his private life private, he might not want to have a male roommate at forty years old. But in a perfect world, he’d like to share space with Richie.
Richie glances up at him. His eyebrows are inquisitive, and he smiles at Eddie like he’s amused by him, like he’d like to laugh at him but he’s waiting to make the joke. All he says is, “How’s that cantaloupe treating you?”
Eddie considers admitting that he’s sitting here fantasizing about Richie being his live-in boyfriend—not even doing anything, just sitting in chairs in a house that they own instead of a glass lozenge loaned to them out of Ben’s good heart. What would Richie’s face do if Eddie voiced the suggestion?
“I’m high,” Eddie says. “And I need to take a shower.”
Richie’s grin widens predictably on I’m high, but he tugs his headphone out of his ear when Eddie goes on. “Huh?” he asks, like he didn’t hear.
“I need to shower,” he says. “Make me get up.”
He says it because he knows Richie can’t make him do anything. Or—if he can, he won’t. That’s why it’s safe to ask. Richie can tease him, needle him, goad him into doing things, but Eddie always gets to choose.
“Why?” Richie asks, eyebrow going up.
“Because I don’t want to,” Eddie admits. It suddenly feels like a long walk from the couch to the bathroom. And he was enjoying creepily staring at Richie and fruit. “And I have to take a shower.”
“You want me to make you get up, whaddaya want me to do, start playing the national anthem?” Richie removes an imaginary baseball cap and presses it to his chest, lowering his chin and his gaze solemnly.
“Yeah, it’s patriotism,” Eddie says. “I need you to invoke my love of my country so I can take a shower.”
“Oh, wait, wait, wait,” Richie says. He turns his fist to the side and silently clears his throat. Then, in a comically deep voice, he intones, “All rise.”
It’s so not what Eddie was expecting that he actually drops his fork when he laughs. “What was that?”
“It’s a bailiff,” Richie says. “I can do the Irish cop for you if you think that’d work better, hang on.”
“No!” Eddie cackles, having bypassed amusement and gone straight into hysteria, leaning back on the armrest. He braces his ribs so that he doesn’t hurt himself laughing. Is this what Richie feels when he goes cataplexic with mirth?
From across the room Richie surveys him in his recline on the couch. “So that was counterproductive,” he says. Eddie is less upright than he started. “Why do you need to shower?”
“Huh?” He has to stop to catch his breath. He already fainted once today; he’s not trying to tax his hypoxic brain further.
“Why do you need to shower? Normally you nap and then shower.”
“Because I sweated when I passed out,” he says.
At his age, sweating is kind of a constant. He’s been aware of and revolted by it for some time, but it’s never been so inconvenient. Forget his lifetime of avoiding germs, now he’s supposed to avoid sweat. And the stakes aren’t “that’s disgusting,” but “that’s dangerous.”
Richie unfolds and puts his feet on the floor, then pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose with an index finger. It’s such a nerdy gesture—so familiar—that Eddie’s heart twists.
“I thought last time you passed out in the shower,” he says. He keeps his voice carefully neutral and non-judgmental, which is suspicious in itself.
Eddie bristles anyway. “Did not pass out,” he insists. He won’t mention the crawling around on the floor like something out of a Gothic novel. Somehow he thinks it might weaken his point.
“Okay,” Richie says slowly. His gaze flicks off to the side, towards the window. He pauses and Eddie can see him weighing his words—and it’s so interesting to watch him do that now, something Richie seemed incapable of when they were kids. Apparently condescension wins out: “You sure you’re not gonna pass out in the shower again?”
Eddie’s affectionate daydream about cohabiting strains a little under his very real irritation. “No, Richie, I’m not sure,” he snaps. “But I’m also not sure that all this sweat on my chest incisions from my sixteen hours of reparative thoracic surgery after I got stabbed by an alien clown demon won’t result in an antibiotic-resistant infection that will lead to sepsis and death. Or MRSA. What if I get MRSA? And considering that, the last time I passed out, I survived, I think that if it happens again I’ll be fucking fine.” He glares.
Richie glares back at him, his eyelids half-shut and the fringes of his lashes lowered snobbishly. He drawls, “I mean, the last time you got an infection, you survived too. And the last time you were stabbed by an alien clown demon, you survived that.”
“I’m not gonna swear off taking showers,” Eddie says. “If you’re gonna fight with me over taking showers, I’m calling Ben right now and telling him to come home, and you can fly out to Location Redacted and keep Bev company and tell her when she can and can’t bathe and see how well that goes over, I swear.” Bev would wreck his shit.
It’s an empty threat. If Richie tries to fight with him over taking showers, Eddie will fight with him every time, because he’s right to do so and Richie knows it. But he has to say it anyway.
Richie holds his glare for a moment, and then tilts his head and smiles. It’s almost a nice smile, but not quite; Richie remains as sharp-toothed as ever.
“You know how I know you’re high?”
“Fucking how?” he asks dully, the same tone he uses to reply who’s there when Richie sets up a knock-knock joke.
“You’re at like half speed, so I can actually understand what the fuck you’re saying.” Richie frowns but not at Eddie, as though in concentration, and then says in the strongest New York dialect Eddie has ever heard, “Have you heard of MRSA?”
“Is that me?” Eddie asks flatly. “Is that supposed to be me?”
“Who does it sound like?” Richie asks.
“Like Fran Drescher.”
Richie laughs. He picks up his phone and leans forward to set it on the table, and then his expression becomes businesslike, task-oriented. “You need bandage help?”
Patiently Eddie says, “You know I do, you put it there.”
“I can help you spot-clean them now, and then I can make you some bacon before you take a shower,” Richie suggests. “You know, get some protein in you, toughen you up before you go stand on your feet?”
Eddie lets his head fall forward and then pushes his hands into his hair in frustration. “Rich.”
The don’t call me that is reflexive, but Eddie likes being called Eds, he just doesn’t want to be sweet-talked right now. It’s definitely a bribe—Richie’s offering him a compromise but he’s offering bacon to make it more appealing. But if Eddie says the words sweet talk out loud, who knows what kind of tangents Richie will go off on? And how long will it take him to get back on topic?
Eddie sighs and lifts his head, deciding to try a different angle. “Okay,” he says, holding up both hands parallel. “Look at it this way.”
Richie puts on his magnanimity, leaning back in the chair and kicking both legs up over the armrest. “I’m listening,” he says. Eddie feels like he’s negotiating with some kind of irreverent child emperor, who has infinite power and no concept of the real world.
“You know how we’ve survived multiple murder attempts?” he asks, trying to be reasonable.
“No, remind me,” Richie replies.
Eddie gives him a dirty look and continues to his next point. “You know how we fought and killed an alien clown demon from hell that fed off of fear and live children?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
The lines are very clear for Eddie. Many events of his life were not just stratospherically unlikely, they were fucking impossible. In comparison, mundane things like infection and low blood pressure and vasovagal responses are so much more likely. And wouldn’t it just be the perfect insult added to injury—the perfect cherry on top of the most traumatic events of Eddie’s life—to survive attempted murder not once, not twice, but three times, only to die of something completely preventable that the old Eddie—the adult, cautious Eddie that he used to know how to be—would never have succumbed to?
He feels like he doesn’t know how to exist in the world anymore. He can’t find a happy medium. He never wanted to put the child he used to be behind him, but that kid has no patience for the man he grew up into. He thinks he’s tiresome, and paranoid, and boring.
And Eddie wants to make the right choices—the safe choices. After all those years where he did nothing but frantically defend a life he never did anything with, he feels like real happiness could be within arm’s reach. So his instinct is to lock it down, secure it, and protect it. But the man capable of that insurance—the man he was out of habit—might not be capable of long-term happiness. Eddie doesn’t know how to be the kid who could eat his cake and the man who could have it too.
The last time he felt truly confident in his choices was that if you believe it does moment down in Its lair. And that wasn’t really a choice, it was a necessity—it was believe he could kill monsters, or die. So he yelled beep beep, motherfucker! and threw the spear and defended those he loves. And he was so sure that it worked!
And then It killed him.
Stan would understand, Eddie thinks. Stan understood what he meant the moment he said the sunk-cost fallacy. But Richie doesn’t work from numbers and algorithms and statistically probability. He could, he’s smart enough to understand, but it’s not his style. Not his language.
So Eddie changes his tactics once more and says seriously: “Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown—”
Immediately Richie’s expression sharpens, turns eager. He points like a hunting dog. He lifts his legs up off the arm of the chair and swings them around to the floor again.
The full force of Richie’s complete attention has always been intoxicating. He so rarely directs it at just one thing, usually split over two or three minor tasks or distractions. Eddie remembers being younger and snapping, Richie, are you listening to me?! and Richie turning his face toward him with a challenge behind his eyes; and Eddie immediately thought whoops, that was a mistake. Too much for someone as little and gray and insignificant as Eddie sometimes felt to handle.
But Richie doesn’t think so. He keeps looking at Eddie anyway.
“And things seem hard or tough,” he goes on matter-of-factly, “and people are stupid, obnoxious, or daft—”
“Dahft, Eddie baby,” Richie corrects, leaning into the British accent and smiling through it.
The pet name makes Eddie blush—so close to being the exact wrong thing to say, but just enough to leave him off-kilter. He reaches for his preferred comfort: arguing with Richie. “I’m not doing a Voice.”
“I’ll do literally anything you want right now if you do a Voice for me,” Richie says, ravenous curiosity on his face. “And I am not putting limits on that, I am using ‘literal’ in its dictionary definition.”
Eddie considers the implications of that for a moment and feels the prickling blush on his face intensify. Oh jeez. Eddie was wrong: he did not, in fact, know how Richie was going to react to this. He vastly underestimated Richie’s response, and somehow in this intensity his delight is just as intimidating as his anger.
He issues his demands in an itemized task list. “I want you to help me clean my incisions, make me bacon, and wait outside while I take a shower without breaking down the bathroom door,” he says. It helps to be specific with Richie. The less material he has, the less there is to grab and run with.
“Mmm, that’s three things,” Richie says, now blatantly enjoying himself. There’s something wolfish about the eager tilt of his chin, the width of his eyes. “If you want me to do three things, you’re gonna have to sing the whole song.”
“I don’t know the whole song, and I have a hole in my chest, I’m not singing.”
“You sang for Mike!”
“Yeah, and Stan offered us ten thousand dollars,” Eddie says. That’s not the order of the cause and effect, but Richie will find the joke funnier that way.
“You want ten thousand dollars? Ten thousand dollars, you better do anything I want, and I’m not putting limitations on that either.” His eyebrows lift and fall once—a single pump is technically not a lascivious wiggle, but he’s on thin fucking ice.
“You can’t afford me.”
Richie sits up straight like he’s caught a scent. “So there’s a price.”
“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Richie,” he says, trying to secure his attention again before Eddie’s totally out of his depth. He takes a shallow breath and breaks eye contact, looking down at his knees so he can say more than sing, “So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth.”
Richie comes out of his chair.
Reflexively Eddie leans back: Richie is large and he can move fast when he wants to. “Three things,” he says quickly. “I want three things—”
Richie puts one knee on the coffee table and leans across it entirely.
“Oh fuck,” Eddie says with feeling, and surrenders himself to be kissed.
It’s good. Richie is good at kissing, which is both rude of him and somehow unsurprising. Eddie hasn’t kissed many people in his life, and Richie’s definitely his favorite, so he might be a little biased. But Richie brings a lot of enthusiasm to everything he does, and this is no exception.
He’s actually kneeling across the table right now, in a way that Eddie knows can’t be easy, but he brings one hand up to cup Eddie’s cheek and kisses him so frantically that Eddie has to immediately give up on worrying about Richie’s knees and where the cantaloupe ended up. He’s under a charm offensive. Richie pushes into it, jaw nudging up against Eddie’s chin like he can go through him, occupy the same space he does, defy the laws of physics. Eddie reaches up and holds his shoulders, half to steady him and half because he has to hang on. Parts of his mouth are more sensitive than others, he finds. Richie devotes equal attention to the point of his upper lip and the corner of his mouth, pulling little sensitive shocks out of him. He moves his lips and Eddie knows he’s trying to coax his mouth open. He resists just a little, thinking about coffee and beer and cantaloupe—and then he decides that he doesn’t care about that after all. He grabs one side of Richie’s head and pushes back into it, letting him in.
Richie draws in a breath. His fingers fold against his palm, against Eddie’s cheek. He kisses Eddie once, fiercely, and then relaxes a little. Trying to calm him down.
Eddie doesn’t want to be calmed down now that he’s riled up. “Oh, fuck you, you started it,” he says as he breaks away. He keeps his eyes closed.
“You started it, I’m stopping it before I end up in your lap,” Richie says, voice too tart for someone who was just kissing Eddie more passionately than anyone else has in his life. He flings that mental image at Eddie carelessly.
Eddie hadn’t really considered it—he figures that Richie is larger than him, and weighs more, and if anyone ends up sitting in anyone else’s lap it’ll probably be him in Richie’s. But now that he imagines it—how heavy he’d feel, how Eddie would have to lean back to make room for him on the couch, the dip of Richie’s head as he leaned down—
Eddie opens his eyes. Richie’s still holding his face. His lips are strawberry bright from crushing up against Eddie’s. Eddie has to raise his gaze from his mouth, thinking, my eyes are up here.
Richie’s eyes widen and his mouth twists in a grimace. “Oh, fuck, I forgot you’re high.” He releases Eddie’s cheek and draws back, hands coming down on the table and levering himself back off of it.
The sudden change in tone is jarring. Eddie tries to get his bearings. His mouth still tingles.
“If you apologize to me,” he says, trying to convey to him exactly how serious he is about this, “we’re never doing that again.”
Richie stands up with a muted “ow, ow, ow.” When he’s on his feet again, he demands, “What’s with the ultimatums today?”
He tilts his head, cracks his neck, rolls his shoulders. Eddie watches him thinking, Richie’s big, Richie was never any good in gym class. He worries a little bit about his back and his aches and pains, and then he tries to quell that particular Sonia-esque instinct.
Then Richie tilts his head and looks sidelong at Eddie, still on the couch. The corner of his mouth twitches up, teasing. “You don’t mean it, anyway.”
Incensed, Eddie raises his eyebrows. “Excuse me?” he demands, his voice climbing to show exactly how much he meant it.
“Gladly,” Richie says easily.
Eddie pushes forward. “Hey, jackass, if I’m sober enough to bitch-slap you back to Connecticut right now, I can decide if I want to be kissing you. Come over here and let me demonstrate.” He holds up the flat of his hand like a paddle.
Richie, of course, looks just delighted. “I won’t apologize to you,” he says, his smile getting wider and turning even more crooked. There’s a focus to his eyes, a knowingness. “I just don’t think you could keep your hands off me.” His tone is innocent, almost sweet.
Eddie waits for three long seconds while he considers what exactly Richie just said, the fucking tease. And he knows that Eddie can’t do anything about it. It’s so fucking unfair—Richie can be mean when he wants to. Even when he loves you, he can be mean.
Well, so can I, Eddie thinks.
“Three things,” he reiterates. “Bandages. Bacon.” For the hell of the alliteration, he says, “Not breaking down the bathroom door.” He stares pointedly at Richie.
“You didn’t sing the whole song,” Richie points out.
“It’s full of science jargon, if I remembered the whole thing I’d be an astronomer,” Eddie says. “And you’re gonna do what I want anyway.”
Richie laughs. It’s a real laugh, genuine pleasure. He thinks Eddie’s funny. “Oh, am I?”
Eddie stands up from the couch, abandoning his cantaloupe. He tries to mimic Richie’s confident, faux-innocent tone as best as he can in a single syllable. “Yeah.”
And then he walks down the hall without bothering to see if Richie follows. It’s less the power walk he’d prefer and more of an old woman’s wounded shuffle, but he tries to be bossy about it. That’s always come easily to him.
And Richie does follow. Instead of making the house tremble with his loud steps—like Richie never got used to his size after his growth spurt either—he’s oddly quiet. Like he’s drifting along in Eddie’s wake.
Eddie enters the bathroom and gives the counter a once-over, making sure that all of the supplies are there: gloves, wipes, Dial soap, gauze pads, fresh bandages, Ziploc bags. In his peripheral vision he sees Richie appear in the doorway, peering in almost hesitantly.
Does he think that Eddie’s going to banish him from the room? Eddie told him what he wanted, and Richie is here, presumably to provide that. But—Eddie lifts his gaze to check his expression—the look on his face is as hesitant as his posture as he hovers in front of the door.
Eddie turns and goes up on his tiptoes, then sits down on the counter. He scoots back a little bit and then looks expectantly at Richie, making it clear that he’s waiting.
Richie blinks back at him, apparently not understanding this ready position. “Yes, Drill Sergeant Kaspbrak?”
Eddie tilts his head in the direction of the sink. “Wash your hands,” he says. “Please.”
“Oh, please,” Richie echoes. There’s something mocking about it. Like he doesn’t think Eddie’s sincere. Like Eddie doesn’t have good manners—better manners, in fact, than Richie himself most of the time.
It helps when Richie provides a challenge for Eddie to rise to. “You talk a lot, but do you listen?” he asks coolly.
And Richie blushes.
At first Eddie’s not sure if it’s actually happening, but then Richie swallows and the slight bob of his Adam’s apple calls attention to his throat, and the flush creeping up from the collar of his crewneck T-shirt. The corners of his mouth deepen and turn down.
“What, are you trying to reverse psychology me into bossing me around?” he asks. He seems to try to smile, but it looks more like he’s just showing his teeth.
The blush is interesting. Whatever it means, Eddie has him off-balance. It reminds him of Richie at the restaurant, when Eddie said you’re going to beg me to give you rabies, which was a stupid throwaway joke but it got Richie flustered enough he put his head down and said don’t look at me.
Eddie doesn’t actually want to make Richie beg in this bathroom. He doesn’t think he’s capable of that. But what he wants is to feel… in control of whatever this is between them. He might not be able to control the way he responds to Richie, he might not be able to do anything about it, but there’s a chance he can turn it back on him. Make him feel as awash in want as he does.
“Rich,” he says, knowing that Richie knows him, knowing that Richie will listen. “Come here.”
Richie hesitates. Eddie never thought of himself as scary, but Richie looks unsure; and Eddie doubts himself, immediately backtracking. He’s pushed too hard, he’s smothering Richie, he’s just like his mother but Richie’s not like Eddie, he has the strength to walk away when people are unreasonable with him.
But then Richie moves forward—one bare foot and then the other—as slowly as though he’s in a dream. It looks less like a conscious decision and more like a magnetic draw. If he were less steady it would be a lurch, might remind Eddie of the shambling horrors of Derry. But instead it’s Richie. Big, blunt, loud Richie, who has never said anything he wouldn’t scream, and nothing about himself that he wouldn’t laugh at. There’s nothing insidious about him.
He steps closer to Eddie and Eddie lifts his chin, tilts his head back a little bit so that he can meet Richie’s eyes. Richie’s lips are slightly parted. Slowly he sets both hands on the counter on either side of Eddie’s hips. He’s close enough that his warmth colors the air around them.
The size of him is fascinating. If it were anyone else Eddie might feel trapped; but Richie feels like something to lean on, large and supportive. There’s no confinement between his body and the countertop, just comfort. If Eddie were to lean forward into Richie’s chest, he could close his eyes and press his cheek into Richie’s shoulder. Not because he’s tired—he’s not, he feels almost electrified—but just to feel him.
And if Richie were to lean forward all the way, he could flatten Eddie against the mirror.
With this image in mind, Eddie leans up and touches his lips to Richie’s. It’s barely a kiss, not the way Eddie has needed it before. Richie hardly moves in response, just lets Eddie rub his lips sideways across his, soft and a little chapped. The friction is delicious, seems to sear its way straight down into Eddie’s chest. His heart thumps.
Richie says nothing. He doesn’t push to kiss him properly, he doesn’t crack a joke to break the tension, he just stands very close and breathes steadily. When Eddie breaks the kiss and pulls back, he blinks down at him. His eyes look large and soft, without their usual wicked sharpness.
He looks like Richie still comfortable on the chair, barefoot in his pajamas, head clearly in the clouds. Eddie likes Richie without his armor on.
He takes his hands by the wrists, pulls them gently up from the counter, and brings them to the zipper on his sweatshirt. Richie’s lips flatten into a white line and then relax, color filling back in. Eddie waits for him to take hold of the pull tab, but he doesn’t.
Instead he quietly asks, “Why?”
After Eddie wiped out on Silver, Richie turned the stitches check into a tease. They’d just kissed for the first time, and he was smug and confident and knowing. He was careful when he lifted Eddie’s arm and ran his hand up his ribs, turning humiliation into a flirtation like it was nothing at all. Take your shirt off for what, Eddie? Because you want me to look at you? Because you want me to touch you?
“Because you want to,” Eddie says.
For a moment they remain still, just looking at each other. Richie’s chest rises and falls with his breaths, quiet and deep. If he were a little less steady, he might be panting. He’s warm, and doesn’t smell of anything in particular—just warm and alive. Eddie waits for his fingers to tighten on the pull tab of the zipper.
Richie swallows; the little click in his throat is perfectly audible in the quiet bathroom. Eddie sort of anticipates what he’s going to sound like—low and gravelly and wanting—so it’s a surprise when he asks in a smaller pained voice, “Is that all?”
Like Eddie’s let him down somehow.
Eddie looks at him, bewildered. He wants Richie to kiss him again, take from him whatever reassurance he needs, because Eddie will give it without hesitation. He just doesn’t understand what Richie’s looking for. The lights above the mirror behind him throw shine into Richie’s eyes; Eddie can see a phantom of his own confused reflection in Richie’s glasses.
“What?” he asks. He tries to make his voice gentle, but he already knows that he stepped wrong somewhere in that last exchange, which makes him unsteady.
Another faint little sound as Richie swallows again. “Just—I mean, I’m not gonna…” He sighs; Eddie feels the billow of it over his jaw and throat. Tenser, Richie says, “Look, you need me to do a lot of things, I don’t want you to think that I’m…” What looks like anger slips through and Richie turns his head away. He needs to shave; the shadow of stubble is creeping over his sharp jaw. Eddie wants to scrape his own cheek against it.
Eddie liked him teasing, joking about Eddie being unable to keep his hands to himself. He doesn’t know what to do with a Richie who is looking at all of Eddie’s wordless cues and going Are you sure? And he doesn’t like being second-guessed.
“Richie,” he says. It comes out more certain, which is a relief; he feels it when his words catch Richie and make him turn back to look at him.
He has a sense of Richie’s fragility here—he thinks about broken glasses, though he’s not sure why. He squeezes tighter with his right hand on Richie’s and feels a little buzzing pulse from his radial nerve in response, but Richie’s pupils dilate in response, black against marginally lighter brown, visible only because of the lights behind him.
Eddie swallows and makes himself say it. “Take my shirt off. Please.”
This time Richie doesn’t quibble over Eddie’s please. His focus flicks from one of Eddie’s eyes to the other, and then drops for a moment to Eddie’s mouth. For a moment Eddie thinks he’s going to kiss him and that electric current rises up across his skin in anticipation—yes, it would smooth the way, make Eddie so much more certain, please, Richie.
But then Richie lowers his eyes and pulls the front of Eddie’s sweatshirt away from his body, so that the placket isn’t lying directly on Eddie’s chest. He pulls down, and Eddie, still holding the backs of his hands, feels the shift of the tension across his torso and hears the quiet little click of the metal teeth pulling apart. Richie’s throat bobs; his lips tighten and then relax.
Watching him do it is an ache like pain, but Eddie neither flinches into nor away from it. He listens. He almost counts the teeth as he hears the zipper creak open. He watches Richie’s face, looking for… he doesn’t know what. The moment when Richie raises his eyes to his? It doesn’t come. Richie keeps his eyes on his task, and he breathes steadily through his nose, and his skin is hot and dry on Eddie’s palms. Eddie worries that his hands might start sweating. His heart thrills in his chest, tripping along anxiously.
The counter is steady under him, but the thing that this reminds Eddie of is that moment after he leapt from the top of the cliff in the quarry. He did it because he wanted Richie to think he was brave, and by the time his body’s fear caught up to him—a moment of holy shit, what the fuck? exemplified by Richie’s own incredulous shout—it didn’t matter. There was nothing to worry about, nothing he could do about it in the moment of freefall.
That’s how it is. Provoking Richie feels like freefall, a bit. Maximum velocity. Eddie could pull the ripcord—could reach up and kiss him on the mouth and make this determinedly one thing and not the other.
The fact that he can do this at all, though—sit with this sweet nervousness—makes him feel like the kind of person he wants Richie to think he is. It feels a lot like bravery. So Eddie waits and watches, and if something tugs at the corners of his mouth—a smile he could let forward if he wanted to—it’s only because he feels good. But he can keep that to himself.
The zipper sticks when Richie brings it to the end of the track. Richie’s head lifts for a moment but he catches himself quickly, a flash of eye contact there and gone again in less than a second. Eddie looks down at their joined hands.
The problem is that Richie is being so gentle with the zipper that it doesn’t want to come apart. A joke sits on Eddie’s tongue: come on, Trashmouth, put your back into it.
But the goad stays where it is. Instead Eddie adjusts his grip on Richie’s hands, taking firmer hold; some of his fingers wrap around to Richie’s palms, feeling the thicker padding there. Richie basically works in theater; how can he have hands like this? Eddie imagines him kneading a stress ball, sitting at a desk somewhere—just Richie transplanted directly into Eddie’s office, looking bored half-obscured behind a computer monitor—and the way that the tendon in his forearm would flex.
He does not allow himself to look for it. Instead he jerks down, pulling Richie’s hand with him. Richie draws in a short sharp breath through his nose. The zipper comes apart as it is designed to.
Satisfied, Eddie looks back up at Richie to find that Richie is looking back at him, looking a little stunned. He waits for Richie to say something—something about micromanaging, something about puppets, something about Eddie being bossy. But he doesn’t. He looks a little flushed, actually—he’s so pale, and the color is visible high up on his cheeks. Eddie wants to rub his thumb there, feel the apple of Richie’s habitual smile and draw a line straight down where he’ll develop smile lines to the bristle of scruff on his jaw. He’s never wanted to touch someone so pointlessly before, not for any purpose, just to feel it.
“You good?” Eddie asks.
Richie blinks once, almost nonchalantly. “Fine,” he says. It’s very quiet and throaty. It’s also exactly what Eddie wanted to hear earlier.
Eddie has to smile at that. “Okay,” he says. He lets go of Richie’s hands, sliding his own back expectantly over the juts of Richie’s wrist bones. The hair on his arms ruffles back against the grain.
Richie blinks again, his eyes widening slightly, one corner of his mouth pulling back crookedly. That one irregular incisor sits like a troublemaker between its fellows. Eddie’s heart thumps a little harder. Richie’s teeth are cute. Eddie’s so far gone. Then Richie scrapes his teeth over his lower lip and drops his gaze to Eddie’s chest once more, shaking his head just slightly.
Eddie wants to demand What? but he’s not mad. He knows that look on Richie—the Richie who knows Eddie’s having fun and is going along with it. He feels like he’s flushing all over his body; he holds on to the hard edge of the counter.
Richie pushes his hands into the shoulders of Eddie’s sweatshirt and carefully lifts it away from his arms. There’s an audible shushing sound as the fuzzy lining brushes against the cloth of the shirt.
“Hey, nice shirt,” Richie says, a smile in his voice.
“Thanks,” Eddie says.
“What is this—upcycling? You buy oversize clothes cheap from thrift shops and cut them down and make them look fashionable?”
Eddie sort of wants to kick him, but not really; he hooks one ankle around Richie’s calf, letting his heel drum against the muscle there. He wants to tilt his head forward and rest it on Richie’s chest, but he has to give the man room to work.
“I don’t buy at thrift shops,” he says. Richie guides his hands back and down, pulling the sweatshirt away from Eddie’s body. The lizard shirt has short sleeves, so when he gets clear he skims his hands down the bare parts of Eddie’s arms, all the way down to the backs of his hands on the countertop. Eddie shivers. Richie, the bastard, keeps his poker face. “If you can afford a shirt that fits, just get it tailored.”
“I couldn’t afford a shirt that fit in college.”
“No, because you—” Rocketed up and then across, he almost says, but fortunately he isn’t able to put into words the magnitude of the growth spurt Richie must have gone through to end up the way he is now. That’s part of why Eddie likes wearing his shirts, to be honest—the shoulders don’t sit right on his smaller frame, and there’s plenty of give around Eddie’s injury where Richie’s barrel chest would normally fill it, and it reminds him of how big and square Richie is. But he remembers the shirt that Richie put on last night, how tight it was, the lines of tension spreading from the buttons outwards. He stares at Richie’s t-shirt, at the cuff of his sleeve around his bicep, because he’s afraid that Richie will catch the want in his face.
“You don’t buy normal shirts!” Eddie says, as though this is the problem, as though there could be anything objectionable about the plain black t-shirt that Richie’s wearing right now except for the fact that it’s a little indecent.
“Of course not,” Richie says. Eddie can hear the way that his grin changes the shapes of his words. He scowls at Richie’s bicep.
Then Richie reaches for his buttons. Eddie’s not buttoned all the way to his throat, he has two open, but he has to lift his chin a little bit just when Richie’s hands brush against his collarbone. Richie is a parody of concentration, the point of his tongue resting on his lower lip as he focuses on his task, deftly slipping first one button from its hole and then moving down to the other. Eddie stares at the faint contrast—Richie’s still-swollen lower lip, slightly darker than the pink muscle poking out of his mouth. Something like hunger squeezes in his stomach.
“You okay?” Richie asks without looking up at him.
“Yeah,” Eddie says, too quickly.
Richie smiles and there’s a flash of white tooth for just a second before he returns to serious business. The dedication he’s applying to the task would be more appropriate for defusing a bomb than for taking Eddie’s clothes off. Eddie is not fooled. The further Richie unbuttons him, the more the shirt gapes, the greater the stripe of his chest is revealed by the open V. In his peripheral vision Eddie can see the whiteness of his bandage, but Richie’s eyes don’t linger on it. He pays undue attention to each button as he undoes it, and moves on, and then he takes hold of the very bottom of Eddie’s shirt. The edge of his finger brushes across the silky material of the running shorts, and Eddie feels the fabric shift across the top of his thigh. Just his thigh.
Eddie thinks clearly DO NOT GET HARD and wonders if he may have bitten off more than he can chew, just as Richie looks up at him. The smirk is tucked into the corner of Richie’s mouth, lying in wait, but otherwise Richie’s eyes are innocent. It’s infuriating—the same old game that Richie used to play, riling Eddie up, making him bristle and flare his nostrils and shriek with outrage at Richie while Richie laughed at him.
He doesn’t take the bait. “Did you forget how buttons work?” he asks.
Richie’s mouth opens as he laughs silently, and pushes Eddie’s shirt off of his shoulders. He pulls the same trick again, running his hands down over Eddie’s biceps. His hands are warm and the bathroom is cold—Eddie is cold all the time, and somehow constantly sweating—and gooseflesh rises in his wake. Richie doesn’t even bother pulling the shirt all the way off, just lets it rest where it falls in the crooks of Eddie’s elbows and at the small of his back. He doesn’t undress Eddie, he leaves him in the state of being undressed, open shirt wreathed around him.
There’s nothing functional about it. Eddie sits on the counter, more rumpled than he’s ever allowed himself to be seen, feeling indulgent and luxurious somehow. He’s cold enough that his exposed nipples pucker, but as long as his dick stays out of sight Eddie figures he can live with that.
The interesting thing is that it’s also clearly a move to put Eddie on display, and there’s no audience here but Richie. So Eddie can only assume that Richie wants to look at him like this. Despite the bandages, despite their earlier argument, despite the utter unsexiness of the medical necessity—Richie still licks his lower lip as he turns away toward the sink.
Something almost indignant rises in Eddie when Richie looks away from him without commenting—or touching. But if he complains about it first—if he breaks and grabs for Richie and kisses him like he wants to… Well, that’s no different than anything else they’ve been doing. He liked Richie suddenly having to kiss him, just because Eddie quoted some old Monty Python. But it would be nice to get Richie responding like that to something that’s just Eddie, and not anyone else’s parroted words. Eddie can write his own material.
Richie turns the tap and starts washing his hands. Eddie watches and judges him through the whole process, and at one point Richie turns his head and catches his suspicious eye and starts singing “Happy Birthday” aloud, grinding his nails into his palms, doing butterfly motions with his knuckles. Richie has nice hands, and that’s kind of rude of him too. Nice hands, good kisser—Eddie hooks one ankle behind the other to keep himself from idly kicking at Richie or something, just for something to think about that isn’t the amazing unlikeliness of Richie Tozier.
Richie scrubs all the way up to his elbows, and then he has to lean forward so that he can rinse his forearms in the sink too. From Eddie’s angle he can see the straight neat line of spine all the way down his back, forming a faint valley between muscle and fat.
Richie straightens and reaches for the box of blue nitrile gloves. As he shakes one out, he asks, “We gonna need more of these?”
Eddie’s a little disappointed by the reminder of such mundane concerns. His current stocks won’t hold all the way through the week until they have to return to Bangor, but he doesn’t want to think about that or about grocery shopping right now. It was better when he was just here in the room with Richie, without his consciousness split thinking toward the next thing he has to do.
“Yeah,” he says, and figures that’s the end of it.
Richie is theatrical as always as he pulls on the glove, snapping the cuff at his wrist and waggling his fingers a little sinisterly. Eddie wrinkles his nose—Mad Scientists and Evil Doctors have always unsettled him. Richie’s face relaxes immediately, settling back into casual instead of character.
“We starting front or back?” Richie asks.
Eddie considers. He doesn’t, strictly speaking, need Richie’s help with the front incision. He can manage that himself, even if his hands are a little clumsier than he’d like them to be. This is normally when he does his check-ins of his incisions—feeling for unnatural heat that might signify infection, or anything unusual. And he doesn’t like the idea of Richie looking at him not to flirt, but to check how his bruises are healing.
He wets his lips before he speaks, trying to deal with his nervousness. “You can start with the front one,” he says. “If you don’t mind.”
It’s not exactly the drill sergeant that Richie accused him of being, but Eddie doesn’t think he can manage anything more assertive than that. If Richie declined politely—pulled a face or raised an eyebrow at him—Eddie would withdraw the request immediately.
Maybe that’s why Eddie seems incapable of finding Richie disgusting, no matter how he snorts or shoves his bony feet in Eddie’s lap. Maybe his standards have just shifted to accommodate recovery from severe injury, which comes with a lot of discomfort that would have sent the Eddie from before Mike called into hysterics. Healing is somehow more disgusting than injury, and the process drags out so much longer.
“Okay,” Richie says easily, apparently unbothered. He takes a step closer and stands just between Eddie’s knees. Eddie’s leg touches his thigh, his bare skin on the fuzzy material of the pajama pants. “Lean back a little?”
Eddie slides his hands back from the edge of the counter, lifting his chest. It feels absurdly like he’s pointing his nipples at Richie and waiting for him to comment, which is a mental image so funny that his mouth wobbles as he tries to keep from laughing at it.
Richie catches it. “What?”
“Would you rather have—?” Eddie starts, and then breaks before he can get all the way through it. He loses his good posture and has to hold his ribs, and Richie starts laughing too. Eddie pitches forward and has to lean on Richie to stay upright, his forehead planted on Richie’s shoulder for stability. “Okay, okay,” Eddie gasps when it starts to hurt, sitting up again.
“Okay,” Richie says. “Jeez.” And he takes hold of Eddie’s shoulders with his rubbery gloved hands and tilts him backward, adjusting him into a position with better light. Eddie loses his breath a little, but he’s able to blame it on the laughing fit. Richie doesn’t look up into his face, just keeps looking at his chest, and then he scratches gently at one of the upper corners of the bandage with his thumbnail from inside the glove. He glances up into Eddie’s face again. “This okay?”
“Fine,” Eddie says, nonplussed. It’s not the first time that Richie’s helped him with the bandages.
Richie picks a little harder, peeling a little triangle loose from Eddie’s skin. The seal on the waterproof bandages is very good—a necessity because of the material—which means that it never wants to give up its grip on Eddie himself. This is fine up to a point, but it means that Richie literally cannot rib the bandage off, because the adhesive lies over the lines of the stitches.
Richie braces one hand in the center of the bandage, marking how far he wants to remove it in the first step. “Ready?” he asks.
This is the easy part. Eddie draws in a breath as far as he can, holds it, and nods.
Richie pulls. It sounds worse than it feels, tearing too quickly for Eddie’s nerve endings to do any more than reel in surprise no matter how many times they do this. That corner freed, Richie looks back up into Eddie’s face again, and Eddie lets out that breath and feels the uncertain stinging where his skin is exposed. He looks down to check, but his bruising is still so severe he can’t see if the bandage left a mark.
“This is gonna hurt,” Richie warns him.
Eddie is not impressed. He’s in pain basically all the time. For a moment he considers reaching out and gripping Richie’s shoulder for something to hold onto—ridiculous, it’s not like he’s biting a wooden spoon while a Civil War doctor saws his leg off—but he chickens out. Instead he unhooks his other ankle and then tentatively loops it around the back of Richie’s calf.
Richie’s eyebrows lift slightly, but he says nothing. Carefully, tenderly, he chivvies the edge of the bandage away, while Eddie holds his breath. There’s some unavoidable pressing on bruises, and some deeper pain when he puts pressure on the incision and Eddie hisses between his teeth. “Sorry, sorry,” Richie says quickly. He pulls the bandage clear of the stitches and then says, “Quick one, ready?” and yanks the rest of it free.
Eddie sucks in a deep breath, more out of relief than anything else. Richie drops the bandage in a Ziploc bag—which is not exactly proper containment of biohazards, but it’s better than nothing, and at least they won’t touch it that way. Carefully, instinctively, Eddie raises both hands to his chest and rests them on his ribs.
“Hurts?” Richie asks.
“It’s so fucking itchy,” Eddie complains. The adhesive sticks to his skin and he has to remove it carefully with hot water and Dial soap, which isn’t exactly effective; and he used to have at least some chest hair, but he’s pretty sure they shaved him for the surgery and it’s growing back in irregular in the places where scar tissue doesn’t overtake it.
“Can I get you a tub of ice cream for your chest?” Richie asks dryly.
Eddie briefly imagines being in one of those tubs of ice that you see football players resting in in sports movies. He weighs how cold he is all the time against how annoying it is to constantly want to scratch his injuries. Eventually the impracticality of sending Richie out to buy a bathtub’s worth of ice wins out.
“Maybe later,” he says.
“Can I get that in writing?”
Eddie sticks his tongue out at him. It’s not a mature or intelligent response, but it does make Richie laugh.
Cleaning the incisions is still unpleasant, even when he’s not the one doing it. For one thing, he’d much rather bury his face in Richie’s shirt and inhale his warm smell instead of the stink of antiseptic wipes and old blood. For another, the antiseptic wipes are cold, and while they don’t sting properly, he’s aware that he should feel pain. The space where the pain should be feels reminiscent of his childhood fear of hurting himself, back before he broke his arm and realized it was just a letdown. At one point Richie actually rests the palm of his other hand on Eddie’s side under his ribs and that makes Eddie twitch harder than anything else has so far.
Richie looks up. “You good?” he asks, concern clear in the tight corners of his eyes.
Eddie’s thinking about how nice it would be if Richie spread out his big hand a little more and maybe sank his fingers in. “Fine,” he says.
Richie throws the antiseptic wipes in the Ziploc with the bandage. “Okay.” He taps at Eddie’s hip—casual, proprietary—and takes a step back. “Hop down.”
Eddie slides down from the counter, turns around, and catches sight of his reflection. “Oh,” he says before he can stop himself.
He forgot about the hickeys. Which means that it’s the first real look he’s gotten at himself, half naked and wearing Richie’s shirt like a shawl draped around his elbows, two ripe bruises resting plum-red on his throat, right where he asked Richie to put them. Richie himself stands behind him, so much broader that Eddie’s body does nothing to eclipse him. Eddie’s vision narrows—border of black around the love bites. For a moment he thinks he’s fainting again and he doesn’t understand why or how, but he can hear his pulse in his ears and his rushing breath like the ocean.
“Ground control to Major Eds,” Richie says.
Eddie lifts his eyes to Richie’s reflection and sees the concern twisting his brow. One of his hands comes up and Eddie thinks God, he’s going to touch me, and he doesn’t know what to do with the roar of emotion that dredges up, longing twined up in inexplicable fear. But Richie hesitates, hand closing into a fist and drawing back towards himself.
“You okay?” he asks. “You got all squirrely.”
Eddie takes a breath. His lungs don’t want to empty all the way; his body wants him breathing shallowly, and he has to overrule it and take deep breaths and feel his chest ache in response.
“Fine,” Eddie says. “I’m fine.” He almost adds, Stood up too fast, but he doesn’t want Richie thinking he’s fragile. The turtle shirt now feels like a barrier, and he grimaces as he twists his shoulders to climb out of it one sleeve at a time and set it on the counter next to the hoodie. He rests the heels of his hands on the countertop.
“Sorry, guess it was your normal level of squirreliness,” Richie quips.
“I’m not squirrely,” Eddie insists.
“Sure you are. Little guy, big dark eyes, likes nuts.”
Eddie processes this, comprehends the innuendo, and stares determinedly at the speckles in the countertop so that he doesn’t have to think about how he’s so in love with this idiot who compares him to a rodent and makes nutsack jokes.
“Rabid,” Richie adds helpfully.
“You’re the one with squirrel teeth,” Eddie shoots back.
Richie gives a short whistle and Eddie feels him scratching lightly at the posterior bandage. “That’s how you got it. You were bit by a squirrel, and you turned into one.” The clicking sound seems to indicate that he’s gnashing his teeth.
Eddie looks up, but not to see Richie’s physical comedy. Instead he looks at the hickeys. One is darker than the other, broken blood vessels dusting the purple with red speckles.
“I like your teeth,” he says stupidly, and then shuts his eyes because he can’t believe he just said that out loud.
Richie, as ever, can’t pass up a punchline. His hand slides across Eddie’s back, his gloved palm warm even with the barriers between them. He applies light pressure there, fingertips resting on the knobs of Eddie’s spine.
“I remember,” he says, voice low and husky again.
Something in Eddie’s chest flips, and Eddie barely has time to think about it before Richie yanks. It startles him so badly that he jerks in place and Richie has to steady him.
“Gotcha, gotcha,” Richie says. “Sorry, I should have warned you.”
“You’re a complete bastard,” Eddie says. It’s quitter’s talk, meaning that Richie has won the game by getting him to break first, but to be fair, he’s dealing with a lot of conflicting stimuli right now.
Richie’s hand slides a little lower on his back and his expression in the mirror is a little smug. “Don’t forget it,” he says. “Hang on, this part’s gonna hurt.”
Ideally, Eddie would like to put on one of his new shirts. Maybe even the one with the roses on it that Richie picked out for him, as a way of compromising with the parts of himself that really likes walking around wearing evidence that he’s Richie Tozier’s favorite person and that want reminding that he’s an adult man capable of wearing clothing that fits. But they need to be washed first, and he’s pretty sure that shirts go from the manufacturer to the store with some kind of finish on them to keep them in good condition when people try them on, so he needs to wash them before he can wear them. Especially over broken skin.
And even if he were to put on a clean shirt, he’s also currently airing his incisions. He doesn’t want to ruin a new shirt with any fluids that might leak out of his wounds. He even considers taking a nap on the couch without a shirt on at all—Richie wanders around shirtless often enough—but the idea of the leather sticking to his bare skin is repulsive, and the idea of Richie looking at his incisions still makes him uncomfortable. If, for medical reasons, he can’t force Richie to pretend that the injuries don’t exist at all, he’d rather cover them when he doesn’t have to deal with them directly.
So Eddie puts on one of Richie’s shirts, sets the Macy’s bag with his new clothes in his empty laundry basket, and nudges it out to the living room with his foot. It is a more athletic process than he expected, requiring him to brace himself on the wall going down the hallway and take several breaks. When he emerges, feeling triumphant, and pushes the basket out towards the couch, he finds Richie standing in the office holding a package of sliced meat. Woodie the wooden giraffe has apparently given up the ghost and is lying prostrate at Goldie’s feet, though Richie seems not to have noticed this at all.
“I have bad news,” Richie says.
Eddie’s stomach immediately tightens with the thought that oh god, something we ate went bad, we’re going to get botulism.
“We’re out of bacon,” Richie says. “What we do have is—” He lifts the package higher. “—‘thin ham slices,’ which I think is a way of trying to sell Canadian bacon to American jingoists.”
Of course Richie’s forty years old and works as a comedian, and he still remembers their eighth grade social studies vocabulary words. And he uses them correctly. Eddie knows that he’s tired and that this isn’t actually frustration that he’s feeling, it’s his exhaustion taking something new and exceptional about Richie and wanting to make a joke out of it. He sits down on the couch and blinks hard, wondering if he’s even going to be able to stay awake long enough to have second breakfast.
“How is that different from lunchmeat?” he asks.
Richie lowers the ham slice packaging so that he can squint down at it through his glasses. “You know… That’s the first thing I would want to clarify if I were selling thin ham slices. ‘How is this different from chipped ham?’ Well, first I would start by selling it as Canadian bacon, because it’s clearly not American bacon. Then I would say it’s thicker than chipped ham, so it’s a medium-thin ham slice. But then we’d get all the complaints asking about whether these ham slices can contact your dead grandmother via a Ouija board and—” He interrupts himself and then frowns. “Is that anything?”
There’s something sort of plaintive about the way he’s asking. Eddie realizes slowly, as he connects the dots between medium and medium, that Richie is testing jokes. That he wants approval, but this is more specific than he’s ever asked Eddie for it before—is that anything?
Not all of Richie’s jokes are funny, but he’s always acted like he’s a cut up. Like he’s a comedic genius, he has dates in Reno, he doesn’t need Eddie’s approval.
But here he is, asking for it.
Eddie brings up both hands and massages the back of his neck. It’s a relief somehow to know that Richie needs something from Eddie as much as Eddie needs something from him.
“I like the Houston marine biologist better,” he admits.
Richie considers staring at the thin ham slices. “You think they eat Canadian bacon in Houston?”
“Do you think marine biologists eat fish?” Eddie returns.
Richie’s mouth twitches. “You’re right. They gotta have an alternative to dolphin, the other, other white meat.” Eddie cringes and Richie cackles. “No, man, you’re in medical school, I’m sure they let you eat a little piece of human at least once—”
“No they don’t!” Eddie thinks, utterly horrified at the idea that every doctor in the United States might be a secret cannibal. “That is not a thing!”
“It is too, it was on American Idol once.”
“What?” Eddie asks. “Why are you getting your medical advice from American Idol?”
“So do you think marine biologists in, like, marine biology school are like, here.” Richie lowers his chin and waggles his eyebrows and says, “For five thousand dollars I’ll let you taste the manatee.”
“You don’t have to kill and eat the manatee to taste the manatee,” Eddie says. “People do dumb shit in Florida constantly, I’m sure manatee licking is like their equivalent of… cow tipping.”
Richie lowers the ham slices and stares into the middle distance, which happens to be the window directly across from him. Quietly, as though experiencing a revelation, he asks, “What do you think happens when you try to tip a manatee?”
“Richie,” Eddie says. “Come back.”
Richie’s eyes focus and he turns a grin on Eddie. He waves the bacon. “You want some thin ham slices?”
“As long as they promise not to commune with the dead,” Eddie says. “Of any species.”
“Mmm, they might not want to concede that, but I’ll insist. Tell ’em that’s a non-negotiable and if they hold any séances in the frying pan, we’re out the fucking door.” Richie smiles hard enough that his right eye scrunches entirely shut and then ducks back into the kitchen.
Eddie lies down on the couch right where he is, bringing his knees up and then using his feet to push his torso toward the other end so he can stretch out. It makes him feel like a kid, incapable of using furniture correctly, but he doesn’t mind it. He doesn’t have his blanket, but he tucks his hands into the pocket of the hoodie and rests his head on a pillow.
Richie’s just… fun. Eddie can be anxious and needy and unfairly turned on, and being with Richie is still fun. Eddie can be bored and tired and resigned and Richie is still…
Is that anything?
It’s a lot, Eddie decides as he closes his eyes.
The dreamscape is all bare red-brown dirt, ripped raw of any grass and vegetation and then hard-baked over years of Maine precipitation. It makes Eddie think of the baseball diamond worn into the dirt behind the Tracker house after years and years of children’s feet. Sometimes people know the way to go and they gotta make the path themselves.
Eddie picks over the earth. None of it rises with his steps, which is good; he’s wearing Keds, not loafers, but they’re white. They’re kids’ shoes, and if his mother sees the dirt on them, not only will she know where he’s been (where he’s not supposed to go), she’ll lose her mind over the dangers of dirt. Maybe buy him new shoes.
Eddie doesn’t want her to buy him new shoes; shoe shopping with his mother is a nightmare. And Richie bought him these shoes.
He walks up to the first of the railroad tracks, carving long lines across the ground. He remembers how to check to see if a train’s coming—he puts his hand on the metal and feels for vibrations. There’s nothing. He steps over the track and walks across it.
The feeling you should not be here rises with each step. Not just because he’s not allowed down by the trainyard, though his mother had her opinions about the kind of people there too. They were dirty—they were frequently homeless—and they were diseased, and Eddie thought a lot about that when he was a kid. But he ended up here exactly the same as any of them. Eddie Kaspbrak is officially one of the people down by the trainyard.
No, part of it is the sense of wrongness from being in Derry at all. He knows that he left Derry behind, barely with his life, and that there were plenty of people who didn’t. Derry almost managed to kill Stan from over thirteen-hundred miles away. Eddie’s aware of his narrow escape and what constitutes an acceptable risk, and this is not an acceptable risk. He doesn’t know why he’s here.
The train sails slowly into his field of vision. Nothing close enough to him to be dangerous, but he sees men standing in the open cars, and they see him. Eddie used to think, when he was a kid, that he might like to get a job being one of those men. He might like to wear clothes he didn’t have to worry about ruining, something heavy that could take regular wear and tear, and he might like to lift crates to make his back and arms strong, and he might like to trust that his body could do the work he put in front of it, and he might like to whistle I’ve been workin’ on the raaaaaailroad, aaaaall the livelong day on his way home. He thinks he said something to that effect for one of the what do you want to be when you grow up projects when he was in high school.
That’s it? Richie asked him. He was bug-eyed behind his glasses and his front incisors had a nice big gap between them. Eddie sometimes found himself looking at that gap while Richie talked, and then he understood on some instinctive level that looking at other boys’ mouths while they talked was something you just didn’t do, the way that he didn’t make fun of Bill’s stutter or Stan’s precisely-lined pencils with their rubber grips on his desk. There were rules that Richie broke that Eddie would never dare to.
Just wanna ride the rails, Eddie? Nothing big? Nothing glamorous? You don’t wanna drive racecars? Richie was disappointed in him, and Eddie hated when Richie was disappointed in him. It was almost as bad as Bill being disappointed in him, except Bill’s disappointment filled Eddie with shame and Richie’s disappointment made Eddie spitting mad, because Richie liked it when Eddie got mad and shouted at him, didn’t care when Eddie was rude.
Well, what are you gonna be? Eddie asked. Recently the Amazing Ricardo had put on one of his unavoidable performances and the awkwardness of watching Richie melt down when his tricks didn’t go the way he wanted them to meant they were all gradually becoming aware that stage magic was probably not in Richie’s future.
Richie drew himself up to his full height, which was only beginning to threaten to be more than Eddie’s himself. I, he said, am going to be a famous ventriloquist. And I’m gonna travel the world, and people are gonna pay the big bucks to hear me talk, I’m gonna be the biggest in the business.
Eddie knew what ventriloquists were, but he didn’t think he’d ever heard of one. None that he’d consider famous—if he didn’t know them, how could they be famous. You don’t pay money to see the ventriloquist, he said, because Richie had needled down his idea and now he had to return the favor. You pay money to see the puppets. It wouldn’t be about you.
Richie looked at him contemplatively, and then, almost patiently, reached up and grabbed Eddie by the collar of his polo shirt and swung him into the grass. It startled him more than it hurt, because Richie hung on all the way down and stretched out the neck of his shirt horribly, and Eddie burst into furious tears not because Richie had pushed him down but because Richie thought about it so much before he did it. If it had been impulsive anger, he thinks he could have borne it, but it was that Richie made the choice.
For the rest of the week they had to stay inside for recess, not allowed out to play, and by the end Eddie still remembered that he had been mad at Richie but it mattered less and they were friends again, and thereafter sometimes trains and trainyards made their way into their playground games sometimes, the four of them hoisting imaginary bindles and scooping coal into an engine. Bill never asked where the idea came from, and Richie was happy to play the whistle, and Stan liked picking up sticks and marking out train tracks for them all to walk along, and Eddie never minded that Bill was always, unspoken, the conductor.
“Hey!” says one of the men on the train. He has a crate in his arms—it’s about the size of his whole chest, and he hoists it easily.
Eddie looks up at him, startled, and the man launches the crate at him. Eddie panics—is he meant to catch it?—but it falls just a few feet short in front of him and tumbles forward like a dice rolling on its edges. Between the planks he can see the dark brown almost black (like Richie’s eyes) shapes inside, the hard shells, the long whiskers and the beady eyes.
“There ya go, kid!” the man calls. “Take ’em home to yer mum! Compliments of the Southern-Fucking-Seacoast-Bound-for-Welfare Line!”
She’s been lurking in the back of his mind for as long as he’s been here, but the man invoking Sonia suddenly makes Eddie furious. It’s not like Eddie did anything in particular for these lobsters, it’s not like Sonia had to do anything for them at all—so where the fuck does this guy get off being judgmental about welfare recipients eating lobsters? Sometimes one luxury is the only good thing you have going for you in your life.
And it’s not like anyone outside of lobstermen—a very dangerous job, Eddie’s pretty sure, prone to injuries—do anything to earn lobsters in particular. And lobsters used to be food for poor people, because the rich didn’t want to eat them, which makes sense to Eddie because they look gross, they’re fucking gross, with their hard black shells and scuttling claws like bugs from the ocean, but god forbid the poor ever have anything the rich didn’t, whether it was crustaceans or that white bread with margarine and sprinkles, fuck, Eddie hates them as much as he wants the nice things he has.
“Hey, fuck you!” Eddie shouts after him. “Hey, fuck you, I can get my own damn lobsters! I’m forty fucking years old and I can get my own damn lobsters if I want ’em, which I don’t, because I hate lobsters!”
And he’s so angry that he wakes up with his heart racing, sitting up on the couch out of a dead sleep like Dracula, wrenching his abdominal muscles in a way he never would have if he’d been conscious to make the decision.
“Whoa,” Richie says.
He’s back in the leather armchair again, though he’s kicked the towel to the floor. He peers at Eddie like they’re at the scene in the horror movie where the zombie starts rattling back to life. Eddie wonders if Richie has seen him do that before—was he there when he crashed and the hospital resuscitated him? Probably not. He wonders if he had the physical strength to fight the staff trying to save his life.
Surely, he thinks, this is a good sign. There’s no sparkling from his optic nerve in front of his eyes, no clouds of impending fog. He has the strength to sit up. Latent fury still bubbles in his chest, turning pain into something that he can control. He directs his glare at Richie.
“I hate lobsters,” he says. “I hate them. That lobster quote from fucking Friends? It’s not even romantic. Ross is allergic to lobster, and their relationship is exhausting, and lobster isn’t even good, it’s stringy and it’s sweet and it’s weird, and who the fuck has time to clarify butter, and we should just leave all the fucking lobsters alone at the bottom of the sea where they belong.”
In the wake of this declaration, he feels his shoulders heaving with his exhalations. Admitting that he overreacted to a dream—well, a memory, but one muddled by his sleeping mind—would give back some of the ground he’s already taken, and he doesn’t want to do that. He took a hard stance and now he’s going to stick to it.
Richie gives him the baffled look appropriate for this interaction, but slowly his face starts to change. The smile that comes over it is nothing short of beatific. It makes Eddie think of decadent portraits of saints with gold foil. His chest tightens with affection, just a squeeze and then a release.
No wonder Eddie never fell in love until he remembered who he used to be. He would have thought it was an illness.
“Yeah?” Richie prompts him. It’s a gentle nudge, to see if there’s anything more lurking in Eddie’s bag of vitriol, to see if Eddie will go And another thing! and continue raging.
But the target of his anger is nearly thirty years gone, and while Richie thinks Eddie’s anger is funny, Eddie is trying to be nicer to him. It’s one thing to love him and another to act like it, properly.
“Fucking yeah,” he says, and puts his hand on the back of the couch so he can guide himself back down to recline. He’s winded. If he rolls his shoulders back and tucks his scapulae closer to his spine he can lie on his back without lying directly on his incision, at the cost of squeezing his stitches a little. It’s not exactly comfortable, but he’s afraid that sleeping so much in the same position will result in bedsores on his left side.
He focuses on the lift of his chest as he catches his breath, tilting his head back so he can stare up at the ceiling. It’s not a popcorn ceiling; it has a pattern of elegant little whorls, like whoever finished it took some flat tool and went Karate Kid up there. Did Ben design his ceiling? He designed everything else, why would he have stopped at the design of the ceiling?
“How do you feel about ham?” Richie asks.
Eddie tries to decide if he’s hungry, but he knows that it’s a good idea to feed himself now, even if his brain hasn’t caught up with his stomach yet. It’s easier with bacon—strong cooking smells get Eddie hungry by the time the food’s ready, and Richie’s unexpectedly particular about the way that food looks on Ben’s fancy little plates.
“Ham is also sweet and weird,” he replies. “But I will eat your thin ham slices, as long as there’s no psychic bullshit.”
“It has been twenty-seven days since our last psychic bullshit,” Richie reports. He gets up with a grunt of effort, like there’s just so much of him that hauling it around takes some doing.
Eddie’s grasp on time is a little loose since the coma. “Has it been?” he asks, perplexed, remembering Stan white-faced and exhausted in the Jade of the Orient parking lot.
“What? No, I just picked a number,” Richie replies. “I’m the wrong guy to ask about the psychic bullshit.”
“Good,” Eddie says. “Then you’re the guy I want making my ham.”
Apparently Richie fried the ham slices and then realized that Eddie was not awake enough to get ready for a meal; he walks back to the kitchen and Eddie follows him, stepping around the laundry basket and perching on a barstool to watch him fry eggs and make toast while Richie hums “Any Way You Want It” under his breath. Eddie, who has never been good at half-assing things, almost wants to tell Richie to give in and sing the song or play it on his phone, because now it’s going to be stuck in his head all day, but he’s also kind of enjoying the background music that goes on in Richie’s head.
What Eddie really wants is to watch Richie unobserved—and he realizes that this is a little creepy. But Richie performs so constantly that it’s hard to catch him—and watching him dead-eyed last night guzzling Skittles and staring confusedly at a kettle was fascinating. Eddie knows that Richie’s aware of his watchful eye, which is probably why he’s only humming instead of full-on singing the way he did when Eddie fell asleep in the car. But he likes those moments of catching Richie talking to himself, or moving his hands and making faces like he’s talking.
Looking back on how much of their two weeks together Eddie has spent napping, in the shower, or hiding from Richie while he does his coughing exercises, Eddie feels comparatively uninteresting. But Richie’s still sticking around. Richie can make entertainment out of nothing, seems constantly in a whirl of activity. So is it a good thing that Richie can amuse himself while Eddie is recovering?
He’s a little afraid that Richie will get bored with him, actually. He’s led a fairly boring life so far. It’s good that Richie’s here as he tries to step out of it, but there’s not much that he can do right now.
Richie takes the lid off of the frying pan and holds it out to Eddie. “Will that work?”
He’s showing him the egg so that Eddie can decide if it’s cooked enough. Eddie watched him pour a little water into the pan and cover it, but now he sees that it steamed the egg yolk, so the surface of the egg is no longer wet and unpleasant. Instead it looks pale and fluffy. He looks back up at him, almost alarmed by how impressed and relieved he feels.
“That’ll work,” he says.
Richie sets the fried egg on top of two fried ham slices and a piece of toast and passes it to Eddie. The stack steams. Richie cracks another egg into the frying pan, mutters, “Shit,” and starts prodding at it with the spatula. Eddie is glad that he got the egg without the shell in it.
He considers the open-faced sandwich on his plate, wondering how best to eat it and if Richie will make fun of him if he asks for fork and knife. Then he gives in, picks up the piece of toast, and takes a bite. Yolk bursts over his chin. His teeth sink through the ham slices, which are indeed only medium-thin, and he has to pull a little to get a clean bite so he can put down the rest of the sandwich.
“C’n I’ve p-per tow?” he mumbles through his mouthful of food.
Richie turns to look at him and grins hugely, but obligingly leans back across the kitchen and pulls two paper towels from the roll beside the sink. He comes over and holds them out to Eddie. Eddie reaches for them and Richie moves his hand back a little, withholding. “Smile for me,” he says.
Eddie flips him off.
Richie gives him the paper towels and returns to the stove. Eddie eats, mopping at his face when necessary. The toast is buttery, and the ham slices are smoky and almost caramelized from being cooked. The egg white feels cooked enough, and the yolk is gooey and soft. Somehow it feels almost as indulgent as the biscuits and gravy from the diner in Connecticut.
“Maggie does something like this,” Richie says. He’s standing with his head tilted at an angle and squinting at the contents of the frying pan, like he can side-eye the egg into being ready in a timely manner. “I’m just copying her ideas. Hers is, like, fancy, though. English muffins and pepper jelly.”
Eddie deliberately chews on the side of his mouth without the broken tooth, which he really has to take care of. He swallows, pleased by the difference in texture between the crumbs of toast and the velvety yolk.
“What’s pepper jelly?” he asks.
Richie shrugs. “You can make jelly out of basically any fruit. Apparently hot peppers are one of those fruit.”
Eddie tilts his head, trying to understand. “Is it, like, spicy?”
“Yeah. You know those cinnamon jelly beans?”
Eddie was never allowed to have them when he was a kid, but Richie was, sauntering around with his Jelly Belly mini packets of forty-nine flavors. On more than one occasion Richie held a red jelly bean out to him, insisting it was red apple, only to hoot in delight when it was cinnamon and Eddie spat it out and raged at him.
“Yes,” Eddie says darkly, glaring at him.
Richie’s grin says that he remembers that too. “Basically like that.”
Eddie tries to imagine the appeal of putting cinnamon jelly beans on his toast. Moments ago he hadn’t thought it could be improved upon—he even watched Richie put salt and pepper on the egg, and hold the butter over the burner until it softened enough that he could spread it on the toast.
“Can we buy pepper jelly?” he asks. He figures that it can’t hurt to try it.
Richie slides his egg onto his own toast, turns off the burner, and moves the pan to the rear of the stove to cool. “Sure we can,” he says. “We’re adults. Who’s gonna stop us? What other food adventures do you wanna go on?”
“Ben fed me anchovies,” Eddie reminds him. “Does that count?”
“In Caesar dressing, no. You don’t get, like, the skin and the eyes and the bones.” Richie picks up his toast and appears to unhinge his lower jaw and stuff half of the piece of toast into his mouth, still standing in Ben’s kitchen. It should be incredibly disturbing. Somehow it is not.
Eddie shudders, both at his own lack of revulsion for Richie’s table manners and at the idea of eating a whole fish. “I don’t want to eat a whole anchovy.”
“I might be thinking of sardines,” Richie offers almost conciliatorily. He has to have burned his mouth, right? Does he just not have any nerve endings in his mouth after years of drinking scalding coffee?
He swallows without chewing nearly enough and then inspects the web between his index finger and thumb, shrugs, and sucks it into his mouth to clean it. Eddie watches the way his fingers fit against his jaw and how the skin of his hand comes away shiny and wet.
Oblivious to Eddie’s thousand-yard stare, Richie adds, “Anchovies are littler, they’re not as bad,” before cramming the rest of the toast in his mouth.
One of the things that Sonia and then Myra were very concerned about was that the things Eddie did reflected on them. It made sense to Eddie, to a degree: the actions of a child reflected on the parents, because they were responsible for raising them; and then the actions of a spouse reflected on the person who married them, because being with them was a choice.
In a way, Eddie’s judging himself for being this attracted to Richie as he messily scarfs down egg, ham, and toast.
“You won’t eat the oil on top of cream cheese,” Eddie reminds him. He’s still staring at Richie’s mouth, watching him lick crumbs off of his lower lip.
“’Cause it’s fucking gross,” Richie says. He swallows again. “I went on Late Late and I ate some weird shit there, but oily cream cheese is—” He gives a much larger, more theatrical shudder than Eddie’s. Performing.
Eddie is having difficulty thinking of anything that isn’t Richie’s mouth right now, so his imagination is a little limited when it comes to the weird things he might have eaten on TV. He suspects that this is a mercy. “Please don’t ever tell me what you ate on Late Late.”
“If I ever want you to kiss me again?” Richie asks, like Eddie didn’t just watch him swallow a sandwich like a boa constrictor eating a small animal. But Richie saying it out loud like that makes Eddie flush hot anyway. He grins, teasing. “Sure. There’s a video of me on Hot Ones, though, if you ever really wanna watch me suffer.”
Eddie has never heard of Hot Ones but suddenly the idea of Richie being on it fills him with irrational possessive anger. It must be connected to food somehow, but the idea of Richie being on a show called Hot Ones—people looking at him and going, Oh, yeah, that’s Richie Tozier, he was on Hot Ones—makes him jealous. Eddie knows that Richie is hot, but the idea of someone else knowing that and putting him on a show for it is… He scowls.
This, Richie notices. “What?”
“Nothing,” Eddie lies. “Show me the video.”
Ben’s ridiculous smart TV is so convoluted that every time they want to open up another streaming service, Richie has to look up how to do it on his phone and then follow the steps on one of three separate remote controls. Eddie sits on the couch with his phone in his hand, offering to call Ben to ask for help every time Richie curses.
The last message that Ben sent him was I’m sorry! Do you not like anchovies? And because Eddie really enjoyed the sandwich while he was eating it, he’s somewhat reluctant to pick up the thread of the conversation and admit that he liked it until he knew what it was. So Eddie hopes that Richie can figure this out on his own.
“Ah-ha!” Richie says when he finally gets YouTube up on the screen. Ben’s suggested videos include a bunch of yoga and other workout routines, some people building LEGOs, and a clip of a Property Brother being run over by a Barbie Jeep. Eddie watches Richie use the control pad to type in tozier hot ones and tries not to feel too warm and fuzzy about his squinty expression of concentration.
In the thumbnail for the video, Richie looks very like he does now, with somewhat more orderly hair. He’s wearing a gray short-sleeved button down with a pattern of little red fish, and his mouth is full as he makes eye contact with the person sitting across from him. The title reads “Richie Tozier Talks Trash While Eating Spicy Wings.”
Oh. It looks like Eddie badly misunderstood the premise of this show.
To cover up his internal faux pas, he scoots to the middle of the couch and pats the corner cushion, indicating to Richie where he should sit down.
“Okay, I know I suggested this, but I hate watching myself on screen, and I blocked out most of this day because it hurt a lot,” Richie says. He puts the remote down with its brethren on the table and throws himself down on the couch, so big that he jostles Eddie a little bit. Eddie immediately brings his feet up and leans sideways into Richie.
“You just eat spicy wings?” he asks.
“I eat the spiciest wings out there,” Richie says. “You’ll see.”
When the ad ends, there’s a short clip of Richie with a red filter over the video and a dramatic drum noise that makes Eddie think of Dick Wolf. He takes a big gulp of milk, which sloshes down his chin, and then takes a deep breath and lets out a loud high-pitched whoop like a mariachi singer.
Then it cuts to a yellow logo and some dramatic music. Eddie shifts even closer to Richie and leans his head on his bicep, trying to get Richie to recline on the couch too.
“Okay, cozy-cat,” Richie says, sounding long-suffering as he brings his feet up and boxes Eddie in.
Eddie puts his weight on Richie’s side and makes himself comfortable, using Richie’s body as a sort of bolster to keep him tilted at an angle that doesn’t hurt any of his incisions. He rests his left fist on Richie’s sternum and lets his forearm fold down across his chest towards his navel. It’s extremely comfortable. Richie actually has no right to be this warm and comfortable, actually. He doesn’t look up to check Richie’s expression as the show’s host, who looks like Justin Timberlake with a shaved head, introduces himself, the show, and Richie.
“You won an Emmy?” Eddie asks, surprised.
“The writer’s room won an Emmy,” Richie says. “It’s not a big deal. If I’d won an Emmy, I would be carrying it around with me all the time. I’d have, like, pistol-whipped the clown with it.”
“Didn’t you fly into Bangor?” Eddie asks. “Can you fly with an Emmy?”
“It would have been my one personal item,” Richie says.
The host asks Richie if he feels prepared to eat chicken wings, and Richie—who has a weird smile on his face that Eddie recognizes as genuine nervousness—makes a joke about his lifetime eating junk food.
“They do a lot of research for this show, actually,” Richie says slowly, frowning at his own image onscreen. “Wonder how the fuck they did that when everything involving me from birth to age eighteen got clown-whammied.”
“Your parents remembered a little,” Eddie points out.
There’s a truly disgusting close-up of some teeth—not Richie’s—nibbling on a chicken wing with a flame effect in the foreground and the same dramatic music playing. Then the flames are overlaid with Richie waggling his eyebrows directly into the camera.
“I don’t think they reached out to my parents,” Richie says. “I haven’t really—that whole part of my life, I tried to…” He falls silent.
Richie said that he hadn’t been home in twenty years, and that was his first trip to his parents’ house. They really had very opposite experiences as adults—for one, Eddie only left home eight years ago, and he went directly from living in environmental and financial comfort in his mother’s house to living in environmental and financial comfort with his wife. And Richie—Richie went to Hollywood and at some point developed a cocaine habit and went to rehab. Eddie can barely imagine the kind of lifestyle that Richie has, and how he got there.
“Hang on, I’ve seen this before. If I start choking on a chicken bone, will someone do the Heimlich on me?” the Richie onscreen asks.
“Uh, I’m not gonna say for legal reasons that you should do anything—” the host starts.
On screen, Richie shoves the entire chicken wing in his mouth, holding onto the end of it with his fingertips. His jaw and lips work for a minute, and then he pulls out two clean bones.
Eddie stares. “What.”
In his peripheral vision Richie’s chin appears as he ducks his head, trying to look at his expression. “What?”
“Is that how you eat chicken wings?” Eddie asks. He feels like, instead of showing him a video, Richie slapped him in the face.
“Well, like, the wings that are baby spicy, yeah,” Richie says. “It tasted like Frank’s, if I did that with the tenth wing I’d like burn a hole in my whole face.”
Eddie, who actually had a hole in his face, scowls at the screen as Richie sets his chicken bones down.
“It’s not bad,” says the Richie on the video.
“When did you do this?” Eddie asks.
“Last year,” Richie says. “It came out in like February. It was supposed to be press for the tour I’m supposed to be on now, actually.”
Eddie scrunches one eye shut and wonders if they should be watching this video. But Richie suggested it and pulled it up, and it might be worse now to turn the video off and sit in awkward silence. He rubs his fist in a circle across Richie’s chest, knuckles traversing over the hardness of his breastbone to the softer give of his pectoral muscles.
“What are you doing?” Richie asks.
The answer is petting you or something, but Eddie doesn’t want to say that out loud. “I don’t know,” he says.
“Cozy cat,” Richie croons, and pushes his nose into Eddie’s hair.
Eddie gives up his kneading and reaches out to pat Richie’s right bicep. Richie has nice arms. Eddie noticed that as soon as Richie took off his jacket in the Jade of the Orient back in Derry. It’s probably why it only took two beers for Eddie to challenge Richie to an arm-wrestling contest, something he thought was an appropriate bonding activity with a long-lost childhood friend but that he would never do with anyone else in his life. Three beers in, Eddie started quoting South Park, a show he only occasionally saw on hotel TVs when he was travelling for work but seemed like it might be Richie’s sort of humor. Four beers in, Eddie couldn’t think about anything except the tendon in Richie’s forearm. And on the fifth beer, the fortune cookies happened.
The expression Richie onscreen is wearing right now is sort of familiar in that way—he’s very afraid of these spicy wings, but not because they’re possessed by a demon. The video is sort of vaguely interesting in that Eddie likes Richie and enjoys watching him talk, and even enjoys watching him complain about how the chicken wings are cold and joke about how he’s hungover. The host is asking him about his favorite comedians, and Richie interrupts himself in the middle of a story about playing slots with Nick Kroll to apologize for accidentally spitting on the host. Richie is charismatic as usual, even as he picks up his glass and asks the host, “Did they milk you for this?” and the host nods and agrees that it was fresh-squeezed this morning.
The editing is good, too. The music gets more intense as the wings get spicier, and either they’re increasing the red filter on the screen or Richie is flushing because of the hot sauce. Sometimes Richie talks about comedic theory, which is interesting just because Richie is clearly invested in it. Sometimes he talks about women, girlfriends, and Eddie wants to ask if they were real, like the girlfriend Richie was invested enough in to get a vasectomy for. But he keeps his mouth shut.
He distracts himself by poring over Richie’s heavy arm, tracing the blue veins down the back of his hand. His radius forms a straight line and on either side muscle brackets it, softly curving and widening towards his elbow. His elbows aren’t sharp and bony like they used to be, either, back when he and Eddie were getting picked last in gym class. He runs his hands up towards his tricep and watches Richie shiver a little when Eddie puts his cold fingertips on his warm skin.
Richie’s basically in theater, how the fuck do his arms look like this?
Onscreen, Richie begins sweating and dabbing at his forehead, taking his glasses off.
“Don’t touch your eyes!” Eddie says immediately, like Richie from the past can hear him.
At the same time the host on the video says, “Careful around the eyes!” and Eddie feels more approving of him and a little sorry that Richie accidentally spat on him.
Richie laughs, the jerks of his chest bouncing Eddie slightly. “I don’t,” he says. “It gets worse, though.”
Eddie takes hold of Richie’s wrist and makes him extend his arm. Richie lets him, unresisting. Eddie plays with the different ways that his elbow can bend, rotates his radius back and forth, sees how he can make that defined line along his bicep appear and then soften. then he pulls his hand close, spreads his fingers, touches each of his knuckles. Follows the sharp angle from the base of his thumb to the heel of his palm.
The heavy cast of his bones reminds Eddie of fallen trees, the kind they used to walk over like bridges in the woods leading into the Barrens. When the summers were particularly wet—unlike in Eddie’s dream—the moss grew thick on them. Stan consulted his Boy Scout Handbook and told them that moss grew on the north side of trees; Richie asked, You need your eyes checked? There’s moss all over that thing, it’s got a full bush; and Eddie tilted his head and pointed, saying, That’s north, right? and made Stan check it with his compass.
Eddie puts Richie’s arm back, but continues petting at the hair there. “You’re like a tree,” he says.
“I’m like a tree?”
Eddie becomes aware that it might be sort of rude to have Richie’s interview on and not be properly watching it, but he’s also on painkillers and he’s pretty sure he can blame his bad behavior on that. Richie doesn’t seem to mind either the inattention or the manhandling.
Eddie knows that he’s being very weird right now. It’s not like examining all of Richie’s component parts will help Eddie understand the whole any better, but it’s still interesting. Absorbing.
“Like a tree. You know,” Eddie says. Richie was there and he should know.
“I was afraid that you were going to say I’m like a chicken wing.”
There’s a certain appeal to the wings on the show. Even Eddie, who has never eaten fried chicken—both because of the inherent unhealthiness of fried things and the messiness—finds something clean and appealing about the white strips of meat that Richie and the host pull away with their teeth. Richie has stopped deepthroating chicken wings, mother of God. There’s also something satisfying about watching them set the bones down. Eddie imagines that it might feel like checking something off of a list, that satisfaction of knowing the task is complete.
He looks down at the soft solid muscle of Richie’s forearm. For a moment, he considers biting him, just gently. Just testing that resistance with his teeth. A nibble.
“Maybe a little,” he replies. He traces a line from the back of Richie’s hand all the way down the back of his forearm, toward the jut of his elbow. “That’s your radial nerve.”
“Yeah?” Richie asks. Eddie doubts that he cares about anatomy—aside from all of the anatomically-correct jokes he’s made over the years—but he still raises his eyebrows to prompt him to go on.
“Mmm-hmm.” He puts pressure on Richie’s hand, gently bending it back at the wrist. Then he pulls his fingers apart, makes him flex his first two fingers, and taps at the upper knuckle of his thumb. “Make a fist,” he says.
Richie obliges. “You gonna ask me to pull your finger, too?”
Eddie rubs the pad of his thumb across Richie’s first two knuckles. Richie got into enough fistfights when they were in high school—back when he finally got tall enough to hold his own for a little bit instead of being wiped out instantly. But Eddie can’t remember him winning a single one.
Stan is the one who taught Eddie to make a fist. Eddie was still folding his thumb into his palm when they met in the fourth grade, and Stan looked at him and sighed—not like he was disappointed in Eddie, but like he saw something he had to fix and now he couldn’t get out of it. He took Eddie’s hand and explained to him in a hard voice much older than he usually sounded where to put his thumb and how to hit with his first two knuckles, and how to keep his wrist straight so he didn’t hurt himself trying to help himself. Eddie, who never had a father to show him such things and whose mother would have a fit of the vapors at the suggestion of Eddie fighting, accepted his guidance without question, and then almost never used it.
He’s like Stan, in that way. He forgot how to fight until it really mattered.
Eddie takes hold of Richie’s index and middle fingers and makes a fist around them, squeezing gently. “This is where my arm is fucked up,” he says. He knows that his grip is much weaker than even his left hand, which, since he’s right-handed, doesn’t give him much confidence in the ground he’s regained since leaving the hospital.
Richie lets out a gentle breath through his nose too quiet to be a sigh. “Do you know why?”
“Not the break,” he says immediately, wanting to absolve Richie of any possible responsibility. “It was never like this. I didn’t even know anything was wrong. I didn’t know I’d ever broken a bone.”
Hypochondria, nebulous feeling that it is, very rarely manifested in places in Eddie that could be checked and cleared immediately. His breathing bothered him—something terrifying and dangerous and self-fulfilling, because when he was stressed about his breathing he breathed faster and he felt his throat closing and only the act of dragging on the inhaler could make him feel better. It went after his guts and his sex drive and the other soft parts of him. Eddie sometimes worried about his knees or his back, because he’s forty and he sometimes likes to run, but he never thought to worry about his right forearm. He never had a single complaint.
Sometimes the issue of broken bones came up in conversation. Icebreakers in forced workplace bonding activities. Eddie was always a little proud when he remembered. He didn’t know that he’d ever been the kind of person to live recklessly enough to break one.
He releases his grip on Richie’s fingers and looks idly at the screen, tucking his head down into Richie’s chest. He’s given up on pretending that he’s not cuddling. Richie is plush, almost, especially compared to the couch.
Onscreen, Richie has drained his glass of milk and is gesturing at the host’s glass, going, “Do you mind if I—?” and not waiting for an answer.
“Probably the whole… heart stopped thing,” Eddie says.
He’s aware that nerve damage can be a side-effect of interrupted circulation. It would make sense that it started in his extremities, in the places where his blood was furthest away from his exhausted heart. Middle finger, index finger, thumb. Radius in his forearm, already taxed from the amateur setting years ago. The way that certain illnesses manifest given predisposition and stress, but not one or the other.
“Oh, that,” Richie quips. He’s clearly trying for breezy, but it comes out a little hollow.
Earlier it was so easy to take comfort from Richie’s body, even though they were just shouting at each other. Eddie pushes his face harder into Richie’s chest, feeling his pectoral squish slightly under Eddie’s cheek.
“Okay,” Richie says. Eddie isn’t completely sure where his face is in relation to Richie’s nipple, but based on the immediate tension in Richie’s voice, he’d guess right on top of it. “Okay. Okay. Is this what a memory foam mattress feels like? Like, being a mattress?”
“Maybe,” Eddie says, and turns his whole face into Richie’s chest and rubs there like a cat, just because he can. Richie’s thighs go tense and he laughs.
“I feel like Sculpy,” he complains.
“You look like Gumby.”
Richie barks a laugh, sounding delighted.
Eddie doesn’t actually want to hurt Richie’s feelings, and he’s trying to be better about sincerity. He turns his head to the side again and pats Richie’s other pec. “I didn’t mean that,” he says, a little abashed considering he just effectively motorboated another forty-year-old man. “You don’t look like Gumby. You look nice.”
“I look nice?” Richie repeats, as though this is a foreign concept to him.
Somehow this is more embarrassing than rubbing his face all over Richie’s chest. “You’re… nice looking,” Eddie hedges, tucking his chin so that Richie can only see the top of his head.
Richie leans forward trying to make eye contact. Eddie makes a growling noise and tucks even further away.
“You look nice!” Eddie snaps. “You don’t look like Gumby! You look—you’re good-looking, fuck off!”
Richie begins giggling, the jerking of his chest bouncing Eddie as Eddie tries to hide deeper in Richie’s t-shirt and body fat. “That’s my preferred way of receiving compliments—say something nice and then curse me out.”
On the screen, the other Richie makes a pained noise. Eddie looks up—it’s weird to have him in stereo on both sides of the room—and sees that Richie is excusing himself to the bathroom. The host gives him directions in relation to the green room, and the on-screen Richie rushes off camera. A gray screen asks the viewers to stand by.
“You said the show was called Hot Ones and I did not know at all what it was going to be about,” Eddie admits. “Do they show the—” He’s about to ask if the standby lasts for the duration of Richie’s bathroom break in real time, and then the video cuts back in to Richie reappearing onscreen.
“So,” the onscreen Richie says.
“You thought I was hot enough to be on a show called Hot Ones?” Richie guesses accurately, utter glee in his voice.
“No!” Eddie lies.
“You okay, man?” the host asks. “You look a little…” He gestures at his own face.
“Baby, you wanna watch porn, all you have to do is ask,” real-life Richie murmurs.
That… Voice should not work so easily on Eddie. Eddie should resist that. And baby makes his eyes scrunch shut and his shoulders creep up toward his ears, unsure whether he likes it or not but certain that Richie has his undivided attention. He also doesn’t want to yell Don’t call me baby! or I don’t want to watch porn! because he’s not sure that either of those things are how he really feels about those issues.
“No!” he repeats, facedown in Richie’s chest again.
Richie keeps laughing at him.
“You should probably have a sign up in your bathroom,” says the on-screen Richie, who appears to be in some distress. “Like on the mirror. Or on the door. Or, like, one of those light-up traffic signs on the side of the road that say BATHE IN MILK BEFORE YOU TOUCH YOUR DICK TO PEE, you know.”
“Oh. Yeah, that happens,” says the host.
Eddie looks back up, quizzical. It takes him a few moments to connect the dots—that the host warned Richie to be careful around his eyes, but didn’t warn him to be careful around his dick.
“Richie,” Eddie says in some distress.
“Anyway, my dick grew three sizes that day and it has not backed down since. I can show you,” Richie reports matter-of-factly, reaching threateningly for the waistband of his pajama pants.
Eddie grabs for his wrists. “Don’t you dare!”
Richie lets him hold him, still laughing helplessly. “I’m not gonna say it was worth it, but this is making up for it.”
Compared to the drama of Richie undressing him earlier, standing half-naked in the bathroom before his shower is somehow disappointing. He’s always felt better after taking a shower—something about being clean, something about the mammalian dive reflex, something about hot water drumming down on him and steam clearing his sinuses—but interrupting whatever he’s doing to go take a shower just reminds him of all of the things that he has to do in a day.
Now he has basically nothing to do in a day. And he’s been putting off taking a real shower all morning.
Eddie turns on the shower. He leaves the water cooler than he would otherwise, turning the dial only halfway instead of directly into the red. He doesn’t want to either overheat and pass out or scald his wounds. It’s just good practice—he always starts out with cooler water to wash his face and hair, and then warms the temperature up to what feels good. Except now he doesn’t get to warm up the water.
But it’s better than nothing, he reminds himself. And the goal of this shower is not to relax, it’s to clean up and save his life.
Somewhere over a gap of some thirty years, Eddie Kaspbrak rolls his eyes at himself.
He slides the curtain shut and turns to contemplate the closed door. He walks over to it and listens. He can’t hear Richie over the sound of the thrumming water.
He turns the lock on the knob, and then tries it. It refuses to turn. Then he unlocks it again.
He opens the door and peers through the crack. He left Richie in the living room, but he wants to be cautious, and it turns out that Richie can be quiet when he wants to be now. He makes sure that the coast is clear—the long hallway leading toward darkened bedrooms on one end and the massive windows on the other—and then calls out, “Hey, Richie!”
“Yeah?” Richie calls back. He’s definitely just behind the wall, but for once in his life he seems to be choosing just one between being seen and being heard.
“I’m leaving the door unlocked.”
“Huh?” Richie asks.
Eddie waits for Richie to process what he said, and when there’s no verbal confirmation, he repeats, “I’m leaving the door unlocked. But if you come in and I’m not dying, I will kill you.”
There’s a pause, and then Richie’s laughter cracks off of all of the modern reflective surfaces in the living room. “Understood,” he says, not taking the death threat seriously at all.
Eddie closes the door and eyeballs the doorknob again. As portals go, it seems flimsy. But it’s not like locked doors have offered much protection lately. What did a locked door do to save him from Henry Bowers? And It tried to separate them with a locked door in the kitchen of 29 Neibolt Street, so it could throw a teenaged werewolf at them and try to cut Ben open in the other room.
Locks provide a sensation of safety. But if someone really wanted to get through one, they could. Eddie knows that if he collapsed, that if Richie shouted for him and Eddie didn’t respond, Richie could slam through this door. He touches the doorframe, contemplating what part of the door would break first. It should be the hinges, but he doesn’t know if Richie has enough sense to consider it, or if he’d try to use his mass to his advantage.
This is not the right mood to approach his shower with. He reminds himself that Richie is practically guarding the door, and that Richie has a pretty good track record with defending others. There’s no one in the room but Eddie. Nothing hides behind or in the mirror—he opens the medicine cabinet and makes sure—and there’s nothing scary at all in the linen closet. No monsters watch him from the drain.
Maybe he should put on some music to take his mind off of his raging paranoia? He’s pretty sure that “Rock Me, Amadeus” would be completely the wrong song to commit murder to—just incredibly undramatic, the murderer would feel like an idiot.
On the other hand, if Richie heard him taking a shower with “Rock Me, Amadeus” in the background, Eddie would then have to put up with Richie’s commentary, possibly for the rest of linear time. Dying in the shower might be less irritating in the long run.
He looks back at his reflection—skinny, pale, freckles vanishing on his forearms, eyes like black holes in his thin face. Big ugly black and purple bruises marking where he died and got back up again afterwards. Two bright splotches on his throat like a pair of binary stars. Stitches running across his body like train tracks.
He sighs, peels off his shorts and boxers, folds them, and sets them on a pile on the closed toilet seat. He steps into the shower without any problem, and the risk analyst part of his brain reminds him that he’d probably be more secure with a safety rail, and the thirteen-year-old little shit who lives in his brain immediately shouts the businessman down. Eddie would recommend it for anyone but him, which is the infuriating part. Ben suggested that he move to the master bedroom so that he could use the master bath, which has a bench in the shower.
And it would be the smart thing to do. But Eddie doesn’t want to be smart. He wants to not have to worry about that stuff.
The water is warm, technically, but the kind of warmth that makes him colder around the edges, makes him want to draw closer to the center of the spray and protect himself from the open air and exposure and the extraction fan. He stands there for several seconds, waiting for the heat to soak into him, trying to untense his shoulders.
He uses a gentle eczema facewash. He doesn’t have eczema, but he chalks that up to the success of the eczema facewash. The incisions get the orange Dial soap, a little more direct interference than the alcohol wipes they used for the spot-cleaning earlier. Putting his fingers on the threads, even to clean them, makes him shiver with the wrongness. They can’t possibly be a part of him, so why are they there?
He has to turn his face away from the spray and gulp for air. He was never sick as a child. He broke his arm. It was an injury. A whole lifetime spent in bubblewrap, and not only was he never even sick, but physical pain was almost a letdown after all of the hype. Was it because of his mother’s precautions that he managed to avoid illness? Or were they all gazebos to begin with?
He remembers the shoe store they went to when he was a kid. The light-up scanner to see if his shoes fit correctly, and how his mother almost knocked him off his feet trying to get him away from it. Now he can’t remember if she was afraid of him falling over and hurting himself—she would have had him in a bubble if she could—or if it was the radio imaging that bothered her, the idea that Eddie might develop cancer of the feet or something.
She spent all the time warning him about illness and dirt germs, but it was injury that got him in the end. His immune system is apparently robust, but his body remains woefully puncturable.
He wishes that there was a sort of inoculation for physical trauma. That the broken arm when he was a kid could in some way prepare his body to heal itself from this bigger, more terrifying injury. He wishes that he’d spent more time roughhousing, more time running—all things that wouldn’t have made a difference when it came to being stabbed in the back, but he wishes he had those things. He’d like to be able to do them in the future.
It might actually be convenient for Richie to join him in the shower, he muses as he probes carefully in the vicinity of his back with his Dial-tipped fingers. It’s hard to reach his posterior incision, and because that one has already had an infection, it’s the one that makes him the most nervous.
But the idea of Richie seeing him like this—completely naked, dick out, incisions glaring, drowned rat—is out of the question. Teasing each other during a spot clean is one thing, but this would be so much worse. So much more vulnerable. He wants Richie to look at his body a certain way and he’s afraid that he never will, that it will never be any more significant than Myra barging into their room with an armful of clean laundry and Eddie, fresh out of the shower, skittering to grab his towel as though she even seemed to notice. He wants Richie to notice.
He wants Richie to take up half the space in the shower and block the hot water and loom over him and murmur almost directly into Eddie’s ear and make him blush all the way down his chest. And he wants to feel that shivery want the whole time, dare himself to step back into Richie’s body and make him catch him.
He lowers his head as much as he can so he can shampoo his hair. It’s a stretch, with his limited ability to lift his arms. He braces his elbows on the wall and scrubs at the crown of his head, at the nape of his neck, at the sides over his ears. He sinks his fingers in deep, he prods at the muscles in the back of his neck in the hopes of loosening them, he scrapes his nails over his scalp.
That incessant curiosity in the back of his mind keeps it up, reminding him that washing his hair would be better if Richie did it. That Richie already gave him one scalp massage, but Eddie could stand up straight for it, Eddie could tilt his head back and let Richie clean him up, Richie cold probably hold him up between two hands. Eddie has some body hair, but Richie is gorgeous, thickly protected, insulated from the world—and what would it feel like to put his hands on his chest like this, in the shower? Feel the hot water as it sluices down off of him.
To clear his brain, Eddie turns and faces directly into the shower head. He closes his eyes and opens his mouth and more or less tries to gargle his wayward thoughts out of his system.
He doesn’t want to be maintained; he wants to be touched. He wants to touch.
He looks down at his own flaccid penis, hanging limply between his thighs like a stupid little acorn. Anything? he feels like asking it. It gives no response. Almost angrily, he plays back the memory of Richie shampooing his hair in the hospital bed, his knuckles rubbing circles into his scalp. Like a noogie but with more care.
Richie has nice hands. He seems to know what to do with them.
The pit of his stomach flutters pleasantly. Considering Eddie now feels like he’s trying to bully himself into a reaction—using something less ambiguous and more pleasant than a nightmare—at least that’s something. He’s not hard, but he thinks he might be interested. And he’s safe, too—as long as he keeps it to himself and doesn’t say any of it to Richie, nobody can hold any of it against him. No one can judge him except himself.
He doesn’t know if Richie would mind. But maybe he would. Eddie doesn’t know. Maybe all of his little fantasies about sharing shower space—not even sex, but washing his hair for crying out loud—would be too… touchy feely for Richie, after his complaints about Eddie shoving him around into position. Surely Richie is accustomed to more interesting showermates. More athletic ones. More attractive ones, just based on the general population of Los Angeles.
He rinses his hair again, but he’s pretty sure he’s gotten all of the suds out of it. He soaps the back of his neck as best as he can, elbows folded tight to his chest to keep tension off of his stitches. He cleans his ears, his shoulders, under his arms. He uses the Dial on the incision from the chest tube, which is easier to reach but more difficult to rinse than the larger verticle ones.
If he were back in New York in his shower, he would use a loofah to exfoliate his back; he’s perpetually dry there. He has a special body wash just for his back and shoulders, moisturizing to make up for the hot water he blasts on it every day. The skin on a man’s back is thicker than anywhere else on his body—with a padding of muscle and subcutaneous fat. Eddie once read that was why men evolved to sleep with their backs towards the door, to defend their organs and any bed partners. It’s safer to take an injury there, safer to wrap protectively around someone.
Instead of the horrifying memory of his childhood monster under the bed stabbing him in the back, his brain supplies him with the sense memory of Richie sliding into bed behind him. Wrapping around him. Warm. Heavy.
He’s almost belligerent when he scrubs at his groin and thighs. It’s been a while since he’s considered his personal grooming for any reasons other than functionality. He hyperventilated about it the day before his wedding, wondering if Myra would be revolted by his pubic hair and then worrying in turn about what kind of bacteria he would expose himself to if he tried to remove it or nicked himself in the process, and eventually he opted for the safer choice of leaving it where it was, and Myra never said anything anyway. But that was as close as Eddie ever came to worrying about what another person might find attractive. If he wants to start an actual physical relationship—and he does—is he going to have to worry about shaping his pubic hair?
He has a mental image of that topiary scene from Edward Scissorhands and makes a note to convey that idea to Richie. Though he has to make sure that when he tells the joke, it has absolutely nothing to do with his own pubes at all. The idea has to have appeared fully-formed in his head, like something out of Greek mythology.
Well, Eddie owns a hair trimmer now.
Though he uses that for his face, too, so he’ll have to get a second hair trimmer. And maybe label it, or get a color-coded strip of tape or something. If Richie sees a hair trimmer labeled GROIN it’ll be just as bad as making the Edward Scissorhands joke to his face about his own privates.
Privates. How old is he?
He rinses his dick clean and tries to decide if the sensation is actually physical arousal or just warm water and recently-returned erectile function. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he mutters aloud to it. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even noon. He’s already passed out once. He’s not ready to risk jerking off for the first time in months and blacking out entirely.
He scowls as he washes his ass.
For weeks now, he’s been an invalid recovering from thoracic surgery. He’s on opioid painkillers. He finally finished his prescribed course of medication for his antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infection, but he’s still on laxatives. His entire lower body aches from overexertion, and he feels faintly bloated. All in all, he feels less sexy than he’s ever felt in his entire life—which must be a quantity into the negatives, because he can’t remember a time he ever felt particularly sexy.
But Richie said he loves him. Three times, he said it. Four, if Eddie counts the time that he said it twice while making toast. If Richie is to be believed, he’s… into him.
Something squirmy and panicky inside of him—like something found underneath an overturned rock—tells him that he’s sick and fragile and wounded and tired and constipated and inexperienced and historically bad at sex, so he should absolutely keep all of his thoughts to himself and try to hide his more repulsive parts. He burns now, remembering asking Richie if he could leave a hickey on his neck—how embarrassing it was to spit the words out.
But the rest of him remembers how it felt to ask for something and immediately receive it. The immediate gratification as Richie soothed his mortification with his mouth. How Richie grabbed him and hauled him in like he couldn’t help it, he just had to.
That memory burns in a different way. Richie losing control—if that’s what he did. The pit of Eddie’s stomach tightens. His dick stirs hopefully, exactly like he told it not to.
Fuck, Eddie was mediocre at sex with a woman, one he was married to and who had no sexual experience other than him. Richie has sex. Richie has sex with men. Richie knows what the fuck he’s doing, which is incredibly distracting to think of combined with the memory of his thick gorgeous arms and his leather, aftershave, and hotel shampoo smell and the way that the black button-down strained across his chest—
Eddie continues glaring down at his useless penis. He will turn the cold water on it if he has to. He’s practiced enough at self-abnegation that the idea doesn’t scare him.
But god, he’s absolutely going to fuck up any actual—well—fucking. He has no idea what he’s about. He can’t move his torso. He fully expects to make a fool out of himself, and the likelihood of that is… high. That’s not just his paranoia talking, those are objective odds.
He soaps his hands and experimentally prods at his anus with a finger. This is not a new practice; hygiene is very important; the fecal-oral route is one of the most common methods of illness transmission. On any given day, Eddie does his best to make sure that he has a clean butthole.
But most of the time, having an asshole just seems like a liability. It’s a necessity, sure, to evacuate waste, but it’s at constant risk of hemorrhoids or contamination or constipation or diarrhea or fistulas or—
Actually, it seems like a nice compact metaphor for his whole body: he has to have it, he barely knows how to run damage-control for all of its dangers, and frequently it seems like more trouble than it’s worth.
And some people use theirs for sex.
Honestly, Eddie doesn’t see much appeal in his own body. Or his own ass.
He considers what he thinks about Richie’s ass. Much like Richie’s body refuses to be gross, even the abstract concept of Richie’s asshole is… fine. There’s a conspicuous lack of instinctive revulsion in the space where Eddie should be sputtering and shaking his head. Richie’s ass itself, however, will require further research. Richie is… big, and handsome, and thick-set, and honestly Eddie should probably grope his ass to figure out how he feels about it. His general feelings towards Richie tend to be extremely positive, but he isn’t sure about any feelings localized to the ass.
This is the politely inquisitive mindset with which Eddie cautiously inserts a fingertip inside himself.
It feels like nothing in particular. Slightly uncomfortable, considering that he’s not used to constant awareness of his own anus. The inner muscles are surprisingly strong. He can’t say that he ever really thought much about his own rectum, but it turns out that anal retentive is apparently a literal description. So is tightass.
It’s soft. It doesn’t feel like pushing his finger into one of those woven finger traps from when he was a kid, that tightened the harder he tried to pull—not that he was expecting that exactly, but he’s having a hard time coming up with other things that he regularly sticks his fingers into. Glove isn’t accurate either—Eddie had a pair of nice leather gloves once upon a time, but they were thin material, and the solidity of his own body means that they don’t really compare. If he thinks of his body as having walls—and really that seems like too strong a word for a very soft, yielding surface—there’s a gentle rise as it gets tighter the further up. More like pushing his fingertip into a soft, faintly wet crease. It doesn’t hurt, that’s the main thing; Eddie was afraid that it was going to hurt. Instead the tightness feels… sort of sharp in its intensity. A non-painful sting that reminds him faintly, absurdly, of lemon juice.
It doesn’t feel even a little bit sexy.
He removes his hands and soaps them three more times before he continues washing himself from thighs to toes. He still doesn’t understand the appeal. He’s aware of the existence of the prostate gland and its purposes, but it’s much deeper inside him than he dares to venture. Behind his arms far enough to wipe his ass is difficult enough; he’s not ready to go spelunking.
And—he thinks as he washes his skinny legs and inspects his calves for bug bites—this is all theoretical anyway. He has time before he really has to think about any of this—or, at least, before he’ll even be able to have sex safely, medically speaking. And he can work up to things that involve the ass, he doesn’t have to jump straight into the deep end right away. Richie might be accustomed to more advanced partners, out in Los Angeles, but he’s already shown that he can be patient. Eddie has some time for research.
Maybe a little more red-faced than usual, Eddie speedwalks in his towel to the guest room. Because Richie slept here last night, he’s a little afraid that he’ll close the door and turn around to find Richie lounging on the bed, looking up at him. But he’s alone.
He dresses—again—in clean clothes and some of his more laidback dress pants. Not the navy ones—those he lost to the Derry sewers, which annoys him—but some of the more wide-legged ones that drape elegantly over the tops of his work shoes. It’s about as close as he can come to leisurewear.
He puzzles about where his laundry basket went before he remembers that he dragged it out to the living room, and then he gathers up his dirty clothes and his used towel and stares at the unmade bed. Is Richie going to want to sleep here tonight? Should Eddie put on new sheets? Should he suggest that they move to the king-size bed in Ben’s master suite? What will make Richie the most comfortable? And, because Eddie is a little attached to that spider plant, will Richie make fun of him if he carries it to Ben’s room before getting ready for bed in there?
Fully dressed, he opens the door to his guest room and peers across the hall into the one Richie has been using. Richie hasn’t made that bed either. The sheets still lie in a tangle, one pillow pummeled into submission on one side of the mattress. Eddie’s not surprised. He looks back between his bed and Richie’s, trying to decide if there’s any substantial difference between the sets of sheets, and wondering if Ben’s bed will meet Richie’s requirements for sheets, and then if Richie even has requirements, because despite Richie seeming like he has the money for luxuries he doesn’t seem to avail himself of them. Sure, he got that souped-up rental car at the Bangor airport, but he bought a Subaru to take Eddie on a road trip.
Richie deserves some nice things, Eddie thinks. Richie deserves to sleep in a king-size bed, for one. Eddie will ask him if he wants to sleep in the master bedroom tonight, just like Ben suggested.
He carries his heap of laundry out to the living room. Richie is not there. Neither is the laundry basket. Eddie looks around, perplexed, wondering if he moved the basket again and forgot about it. He paces all the way down to the dining room section of Ben’s architectural experiment and finds neither Richie nor basket, but the dishes are already in the dishwasher and the frying pan soaks in the sink. The towel they used to soak up the water on the recliner is also gone.
Eddie drops his laundry over the stairway banister so that he doesn’t have to puzzle out walking down the steps with his arms full. Then he picks his way down, one step at a time, holding on to the banister. The effect is very much like a debutante descending a flight of stairs before a ball. He scowls absently the whole way down, reprimanding himself for watching too many movies.
Richie is indeed on the second level. This floor is partially underground and therefore not the fishbowl of the upper story of Ben’s house. He looks to the right and sees all the way back to Ben’s bar. In front of it is the entertainment area—a slightly less nice couch, a second TV, and a big open space in which Richie, headphones in, is doing something that could be called dramatic walking.
Eddie pauses three steps from the bottom of the stairs to watch him.
He’s definitely dancing. Richie’s eyes are mostly shut, except for when he has to look out for furniture, but he doesn’t seem to notice Eddie yet as he turns on his heel, bobs his head, and generally grooves to whatever he’s listening to in his headphones.
A glance toward the laundry room shows his basket waiting in front of the washing machine, ready when he is. Eddie looks at the clothes strewn at the foot of the stairs and decides they can wait. He sinks down on the stair and leans forward a little to watch Richie, waiting to see if he notices him.
When he turns back around, he does, but his only acknowledgement is the corner of his mouth quirking up. He does a real Charlie Brown sort of dance, hands close to his hips and parallel to the ground, shimmying a bit in place. It’s inviting. Eddie has no idea whether he’s on beat or not. Richie grins a little wider and beckons him over, and Eddie has to meet the challenge. So he hauls himself to his feet and walks over to him.
Richie takes one earbud out of his ear and offers it to Eddie. Eddie carefully does not inspect it for any buildup of wax and dirt, but tries to put it in his ear without thinking about it. Richie continues dancing in place, taking small steps in recognition of how he’s bound them together at the ears. New World Order sings that I feel fine, I feel good.
“You missed ‘The Love Cats,’” Richie says.
Eddie was never that into The Cure, knowing only some of their biggest hits. Richie, though, went mad for them in the eighties, back when they were still fringe. He puts his hands up so that Richie can take hold of them and walk him backward and forward in place.
“You wanna learn how to salsa?” Richie asks.
“I can’t keep up,” Eddie syas.
“We’ll go halftime. It’s eight steps, and then I’ll show you Diego Luna in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and you’ll get it.”
Eddie squints at him. “Who’s Diego Luna?”
“I’d tell you not to be jealous, but you should definitely be jealous,” Richie says. “Here. Step back, two, three, four. Forward, six, seven, eight. That’s it. There you go. What are you doing?”
“Laundry,” Eddie replies, amused.
“I’ll help if you wait until the end of the song.”
“Yeah, okay,” he agrees. “It can wait.”
And he lets Richie walk him, very slowly, back and forth in Ben’s basement behind the couch, and pretends they’re dancing.