Eddie Kaspbrak disappeared every Thursday for at least three hours (often an hour or so more) after the end of the school day for no apparent reason whatsoever. All that Richie knew about it was that he took his bike to get there (which came as no surprise at all) and that he never bothered explaining where he was rushing off to or why he couldn’t see him and the other losers again until later that evening. Everyone else seemed to have accepted his mysterious weekly vanishing as one of Eddie’s many quirks and Richie had almost done the same – this had been going on ever since he’d met him, after all – until he decided he’d had enough of his Thursday afternoon boredom. Not being around Eddie always seemed to make his mind itch in anticipation and he blamed that for his frequent outbursts of irrational behaviour. While Eddie was with him, though his palms were often drenched in sweat and he could sometimes hear nothing but his own rapid heartbeat, he would always at least try not to do anything completely stupid, just so he could stay on Eddie’s good side. Without him, he simply lost control.
So on one particular Thursday in autumn, whilst the other losers all agreed to meet up at the barrens after dinner and then went their separate ways (Eddie having already rushed off to wherever he so desperately needed to go), Richie rushed off as well, just after Eddie and keeping him in sight, but making sure to remain at a safe distance from him to minimise the chances of him being seen. During the next forty minutes they rode through parts of the town Richie had never ventured into before, Eddie unknowingly leading the way.
He obviously knew the areas they crossed exceedingly well, weaving in and out of traffic and hurtling around countless street corners with ease. Richie did his best to keep up but almost lost him on more than occasion, not to mention the time he was sure he would have gotten caught because the only sounds that could be heard were the whir of his bicycle wheels and the crunch of dry, crisp reddened leaves as he rode over them. But Eddie didn’t even flinch or glance behind him. Maybe he’d known he was being followed all along, or maybe he was so focused on wherever he was headed that everything else was an irrelevant blur. Richie hoped it was the latter.
Eddie eventually came to a stop on a busy street paved with cracked concrete and lined with more shops, traffic and people than Richie was used to. He stood his bike next to a run-down building with peeling white and green paint, waited for the green door to open from the inside and walked in with his bag over his shoulder defensively. The sign above the door proclaimed, “Derry’s Dance Academy” in thick cursive lettering. Richie watched from around the nearest corner, eyes filled with curiosity and wonder. He waited for a minute before propping his bike up against the wall, pressing the buzzer by the door and heading inside once the door miraculously opened for him.
What hit him first was the smell. It wasn’t unpleasant and he contemplated it carefully as he breathed it in. It was like… shoes, mainly, but with a hint of some sort of lemon-scented air freshener as well. With a loose grip on the handrail beside him, he climbed up the pink-carpeted stairs and peered through the next door he came to, which seemed to lead out into a reception area that doubled up as a dance studio. He couldn’t see Eddie anywhere, so he turned the handle and wandered inside.
Relieved as he was to find that it wasn’t exactly packed with people (dance students or otherwise) he couldn’t help feeling alarmed that he seemed to have lost track of his friend. There were a few other places he could have gotten to, though – more specifically, through the door opposite him into another studio or into one of what he guessed were the changing rooms. Ignoring the stares from the handful of dancers stretching in front of wall-long mirror to his left, he crossed the room and gazed through into the other studio, hoping to find Eddie there doing something he could probably be blackmailed for. Instead he found himself disappointed, a stone-faced dance teacher glaring back at him through the glass. He grinned at her and excused himself, turning to the boys’ changing room. It was the only other place he could be.
And yet Eddie Kaspbrak was nowhere to be seen. All he found was a couple of other boys squabbling over whose tights were the cleanest and whitest. Richie couldn’t help thinking to himself that if Eddie did in fact have an identical pair of tights, his would obviously be the cleanest and so their argument would be rendered obsolete.
There was one place he still hadn’t checked (save for the girls’ changing room, a place he didn’t expect Eddie to have snuck into), which he hadn’t known existed until the moment he stepped into the changing room. There was a short, narrow hallway leading away from where he stood and he followed it to an archway, through which he found himself behind that stone-faced teacher he’d seen before. And passed her, holding onto a bar while he stretched his left leg out in front of him, toes perfectly pointed, was Eddie Kaspbrak.
His hair had been brushed neatly – far more neatly than Richie had ever seen – and his posture had somehow improved dramatically, his back impeccably straight as he turned and placed his other hand on the wooden bar beside him, preparing to begin stretching out his leg all over again. His usual scarlet shorts and cream t-shirt had been swapped for a navy-blue shirt and a pair of black shorts which he wore over a spotless pair of bright white tights, his trainers having been exchanged for delicate-looking peach-coloured ballet slippers.
A part of Richie wanted to laugh hysterically while the majority was too awestruck to properly form an opinion, leaving him to stand there vacantly in the doorway until he was caught and confronted by the dance teacher, who demanded in a surprising English accent (Richie had assumed she was either French or American) that if he wanted to join the class, his hair would need to be tied back and he’d need to get his hands on a uniform. He took one more glance at Eddie – who still hadn’t noticed him – before replying that he just wanted to watch, at which point Eddie recognised his voice and tripped over his own feet in the middle of what had until then been a very promising pirouette.
Richie’s trance was immediately broken, and his lips curled up into a smirk as he bit back his laughter while Eddie looked up at him from the floor. “Didn’t expect to see you here, Eds,” he commented with a mischievous grin, knowing full well Eddie was about to die of embarrassment.
“Shut up, Richie. You know I hate it when you call me that,” Eddie snapped, picking himself up from the tiled floor and dusting himself off, returning to the wooden bar that lined the room.
Several other dancers had joined him in the studio by then, but Richie only saw Eddie as they lined up at the bar. His grin still plastered on his face, he took a seat on the floor in the corner of the room, crossed his legs and kept his gaze glued to Eddie. In all the years he’d known him, he’d never seen him move so gracefully or so delicately – of course Eddie’s fragility was well-known amongst anyone who’d ever met him, but this was very different. He didn’t seem nervous or afraid as he so often did, but in fact almost confident in his ability – something Richie had only ever seen in him when he was spouting out medical facts or doing first aid. It was refreshing.
He sat there in awe for the next hour, managing to miraculously bite back every insensitive comment he felt like making (the dance teacher’s cold eyes did often wander over in his direction, quickly putting a stop to anything he felt an urge to blurt out). He did, however, find himself snickering a few times whenever Eddie happened to glance at him; he just couldn’t believe that this was what his best friend had hiding from him all this time.
When the class finally came to a close, Eddie walked over to him hesitantly and he eagerly jumped up from the floor, the countless jokes he’d wanted to make about his secret dance classes suddenly vanishing from his mind, dissolving into a pool of images of the elegance and poise he’d witnessed within the last hour. “You were good,” was all he managed to say and even Eddie didn’t seem to know how to accept such a compliment, muttering a barely audible “thanks” as he headed into the changing room.
“So, what the hell are you doing here?” he started as Richie followed him through the doorway, keeping his gaze fixed on anything that wasn’t his best friend.
“Isn’t that obvious? I followed you.” Eddie scowled at him in reply before bending down to pick up his bag and beginning to get changed. He kept quiet but soon realised that Richie’s eyes were boring holes into the back of his head and he glanced up at him, finding him leaning against the wall with a dazed look on his face. He snapped at him to stop staring, instantly dragging him out of whatever daydream he’d been trapped in. “What?” Richie grinned, gaze still fixated on him. “I just can’t get over the fact that you’re actually wearing tights!”
“Except that I’m not – not anymore, idiot. I took them off.” Richie blinked in response before scanning his friend’s body with his gaze, only to find that he’d changed back into his usual clothes without him noticing. He nudged his glasses further up the bridge of his nose, picked up Eddie’s bag for him and opening the door, asking if he was ready to leave. Eddie nodded, took the bag from him and made his way out with Richie trailing after him like a lost puppy.
Quickly catching up with the younger boy (he did have much longer legs than Eddie, after all) Richie held onto him protectively as they headed through the busy dance studio and out the door to where they had left their bikes. He didn’t like the way the other dancers were watching them, as if Eddie belonged to them and he had no place there – which, of course, they must have gotten the wrong way around because Eddie belonged to him and only him, although the rest of the losers’ club probably would have been inclined to argue with him about that.
Eddie’s bike was outside waiting for him exactly where he’d left it. Richie’s, however, was not. The two of them looked around and scanned the area but it was nowhere to be seen and after exclaiming a string of profanities which the younger boy scolded him for, Richie turned to his best friend for guidance. “What the hell am I gonna do? It’s too far to walk and I have no idea where the fuck I am! I blame you for this, Eds.”
“Me?” Eddie scoffed, climbing onto his bike and looking as if he was about to leave his friend stranded in a strange part of town (well, the whole town of Derry was strange, but this part specifically was completely unknown to Richie). “I told you when we first met never to follow me after school on Thursdays. This is your fault!”
Richie didn’t say anything but secretly wondered how it had taken him this long to finally find out where he got to once a week after school. When it looked like Eddie was about to leave, he stepped in front of his bike and grabbed the handlebars, pointing out the bus stop across the street. “Get the bus back with me? I’ll make it worth your while.” His hand grazed against the younger’s as he spoke, and Eddie flinched like he’d been touched by a personified infection. He tried not to show his disappointment but ultimately failed, Eddie catching the hurt look in his eyes and apologising immediately.
“Fine, I’ll take the bus with you. I’m not sure what you mean by “making it worth my while” but as long as you’re paying, that’ll be enough.” He hopped down from his bike and with a sheepish looking Richie in tow, wheeled it across the road to sit under the bus stop while Richie read through the timetable.
There was a bus coming in ten minutes, but all that meant to Richie was ten minutes of awkward conversation while beads of nervous sweat clung to his forehead, his palms became clammy and a single question burnt a fiery chasm in the back of his mind. His tongue crept out to wet his lower lip, his throat drying up more feverishly with every passing moment. He was close enough to Eddie to touch him and all he wanted to do was entangle his fingers in his dark, chocolate-coloured curls and breathe in his scent the way he imagined doing in his dreams every night without fail, but knowing he would be given the same look as a disease-ridden corpse kept his compulsions at bay and he shuffled ever so slightly away from him, his gaze remaining on the road ahead as pretended to look out for the number twelve bus. But really his thoughts were consumed by the boy beside him because that’s how it always was and, as far as Richie could tell, how it always would be.
He loved and cared for each of the other losers equally, but for Eddie Kaspbrak it was a different kind of love. The kind where he was in every waking thought his mind produced and in every dream, every nightmare and every reverie too. The kind where he imagined them doing things he’d never thought about doing with anyone else, like how he imagined Eddie’s lips would taste of hot cocoa and candyfloss, or how he often pictured himself sleeping next to Eddie in a bed they owned together, legs intertwined and fingers locking them in place. In his mind, the two of them were inseparable.
It was only because Eddie nudged him in the stomach with his elbow that his contemplation dispersed, the sudden roar of an engine alerting him to the fact that the bus had arrived. He paid for their tickets with a ten-dollar bill and followed Eddie to their seats, his hands finding their way onto the bike as well, both of them holding it down so it wouldn’t fall during their journey.
That question was still there, calling to him and begging to be spoken aloud. It had been there in the back of his mind for quite some time, but the sight of Eddie pirouetting across a room in tights and executing a virtually perfect arabesque had practically set it on fire.
“Eds,” he started hesitantly, the glare that he met with prompting him to correct himself. “Eddie, are you… You can answer honestly, okay? It won’t mean anything if you are but… are you gay?”
“No!” Eddie exclaimed a little too quickly, almost dropping the bike in shock. “I mean, not all male ballet dancers are gay, you know? Like the other guys in my class… they’re probably not. I don’t know.” He breathed deeply into his inhaler, the blush creeping up onto his cheeks making Richie smirk ever so slightly. “Why are you asking, anyway? Are you?”
Richie shook his head but it was his turn to blush. “I guess not. I was just… wondering, that’s all.” But he didn’t get to say what he wanted to, not if he also wanted to keep their friendship intact. So for once in his life he shut himself up, only silently adding “But I’d kiss you if you asked” and praying to every god and deity he’d ever heard of that Eddie hadn’t at some point become telepathic.