Please don't get me wrong, see, I forgive you in a song
Recall the likely lads
But if it's left to you, I know exactly what you'd do with all the dreams we had
'Cause blood runs thicker, always thick as thieves you know
If it's important to you, it's important to me
I tried to make you see, but you don't want to know.
~The Libertines, "What Became Of The Likely Lads"
For a long time, it had felt like he would always be there. They had known each other for as long as either of them could remember, since they were little boys in Kindergarten, bonding over Linus's A New Hope lunch box and Eric's collection of Batman comic books, forming an alliance by the time they were singing It's A Small World After All at graduation that would carry them through (picking up the rest of their little band of misfits along the way, but in the end it was always them) until the end of forever. Or so it felt, then, until one day, he wasn't there anymore.
And Linus tried to forget. He tried to pretend that it wasn't a big deal. He had Hutch, he had Zoe and Windows and all the other friends that came and went and he tried to pretend that they could take the place of Eric, and usually they could, but it was always there in the back of his head that Eric wasn't there and that he should be.
It was easy enough at first. Eric was busy with his job and his life and trying to show off to the world that he was a real adult unlike the losers he'd made friends with as a child, and it was easy enough for Linus to convince himself that one day he would come back, one day he would be true to himself and realize that it was okay to be exactly how he was, but more and more time went by and he never came back, never even called.
And then Linus got sick, and it got harder and harder to ignore the absence of Eric in his life when he needed him the most. Hutch and Windows and Zoe were there, always there, and there was some part of Linus that felt like a terrible person for yearning the absence of his best friend when his best friend hadn't acted the part in years, when he had other people who loved him, who had supported him through everything, through diagnosis and treatment and the inevitability of death, but there was a much bigger part who felt like that scared, friendless little Kindergartener with the A New Hope lunch box, who needed his best friend to come back and protect him from all of this.
Not that it was...like that, or anything. Not that there were any feelings involved that weren't the normal feelings of love and brotherhood between two men who had grown from boys together, the intense love and fury, and yes, maybe there had been clumsy touching curled up in one or the other's twin beds, and maybe it had felt better than anything else, but it wasn't like that, it was just that Eric was different and, maybe for his inaccessibility, maybe simply because he was, more necessary than any of Linus's other friends.
So it was a surprise to even Linus that when Eric finally came back, when it was too late, when there was nothing for Linus to do but wait, to accept his fate, that his reaction was not of relief that at least Eric was here now, but animosity. It wasn't enough, and Eric was acting like it was no big deal and then he was acting weird, the way he'd had to yell at Hutch and Windows and Zoe to quit acting, but he had expected better from Eric.
He had come with them, though, for some inexplicable reason had decided that this adventure that even Linus was not convinced on was a good idea, an idea that he was willing to risk everything he'd spent eight years pretending he didn't know them for, and the further away from Ohio they got, the more willing Linus was to forgive him. For one thing, he was going to die anyway, and if there was one thing that Linus had taught himself to do during this whole absurd, painful journey was to forgive people, even when he didn't want to, because he only had a few months left, but the people he left behind had years or even decades, and he didn't have it in him to leave them thinking he'd been mad at them. But for another thing, he was taking this agreement from Eric as a final gesture of love, and he could find no fault in that.
"I'm glad you came," he told Eric later, an unspoken 'I love you'. "It wouldn't have been the same without you."
"I'm sorry I wasn't around sooner. I..."
"Dude, listen. I'm happy, okay? So you should be too. No regrets." He reached for Eric's hand, gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Eric nodded. "No regrets," he agreed.
Linus leaned back, took a deep breath, closed his eyes. "When I go, I want you to have my lunch box."
Eric laughed, choking back tears. "Okay."
"And Eric?" Linus opened his eyes again, fixing them on Eric. "Don't give up. Okay?"
This time, it was Eric's turn to reach for Linus's hand. "Never."
"Good man." Linus closed his eyes again. Now, he knew, he could die happy.
For a long time, it felt like he would always be there. They had known each other for as long as either of them could remember, since they were little boys in Kindergarten, bonding over Eric's Batman comics and Linus's coveted A New Hope lunch box, forming an alliance by the time they were standing on stage telling their parents that they had learned how to defeat the Galactic Empire in Kindergarten at graduation that would carry them through (picking up the rest of their band of misfits on the way, but in the end it was always the two of them first and foremost) until they were old men sitting side by side in rocking chairs, talking about how comic books just weren't how they used to be. Or so it felt, until one day, he wasn't there anymore.
Eric hadn't meant to forget about him, and really, he hadn't. He had never made the intentional choice to leave his old life behind, but family pressures and the promise of success and parental approval-something he had wanted for so long, something that had felt mostly out of reach-had gotten the better of him. And Linus was okay, he thought. Linus had Hutch and Windows and Zoe, people who were in the same place in life as he was, and as far as Eric was concerned, when they grew up a little bit he would have no problem talking to them again.
And then there was that party, and that was the first time that Eric started doubting his choice, and then Hutch had told him that Linus was dying and all of this felt like some sort of horrible divine retribution for assuming that Linus would be around forever. He loved Linus, loved him in some brilliant and passionate and confusing way, felt more brotherhood toward Linus than he did toward his own brother, and he wanted to make it right.
It surprised him that Linus was mad at him, that Linus didn't want to talk about it, but he kept going, kept pushing through, partially because he was trying to make things right before Linus died but mostly because he knew that Linus needed him, and after everything, the least he could do was be there.
The longer the journey went on, the more trouble they got in, the further Eric got away from everything that he was running from, the more Linus relaxed, seemed like the Linus Eric had always known and loved and Eric felt like he was making the right choices, felt like this was worth whatever kind of hell he would have to pay when he got home, felt like maybe it didn't matter that he'd have hell to pay, because maybe that wasn't what he wanted anyway. Maybe his friends weren't as successful as he was, maybe they didn't have the financial stability or the sense of maturity, but they were happy, even Linus, and to Eric, that made them seem like they were a hell of a lot better off, and the longer he spent with them the better he felt about it, until by the time they got thrown in jail, his father's threat had come too late.
"I'm really glad you asked me to come," Eric told Linus later, an unspoken 'I love you'. "It was as awesome as I thought it would be."
"I'm really glad you came," Linus replied. "It wouldn't have been the same without you."
Eric ducked his head. "I'm sorry I wasn't around sooner. I got scared-"
"Dude." Linus sat up, and Eric ignored his impulse to tell him to lay back down. "Listen. I'm happy, okay? So you should be, too. No regrets." He reached for Eric's hand, gave it a squeeze, and Eric reflected that that seemed backwards, but chose to ignore that feeling, nodding. "Okay. No regrets."
Linus, content, leaned back and closed his eyes. "When I go, I want you to have that lunchbox."
It was such an odd little thing, so perfectly Linus, that all at once Eric was laughing and trying not to cry, his eyes sparkling with both. "Okay."
"Eric." Linus opened his eyes again, looked over at him, holding his gaze steady. "Don't give up, okay?"
This time, Eric felt like it was okay to reach for Linus's hand. "Never," he promised.
"Good man," said Linus, and then closed his eyes, taking his last peaceful breath, and Eric felt like they were finally okay.