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Observation

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Shifty was sitting at his workbench, but unlike other times, there was no gadget or technology to work with at it. Just a notebook - identical to the dozens Richie kept in his room, observations on aliens - more detailed, now, that he had regular access to all the species that had found their way to Earth.

Identical in all respects except for one.

This notebook's contents were exclusively about Shifty. He steeled himself to open the book again, page through notes that were both more detailed and less focused than he was used to from Richie's writings.

"Not ticklish," was scratched out, bold letters next to it reading, "Ticklish at base of spine/tail - DO NOT TOUCH". Richie had inadvertently (Shifty hoped) discovered that fact during one of their photo sessions, documenting the regrowth of Shifty's tail. The memory almost brought a smile to Shifty's face - Richie had been mortified, blushing as he apologized fervently from across the room when Shifty had nearly bolted off the exam table at the touch.

"Has a sense of humor", another page read. "Not slapstick - not observational. Absurd? Smiled at a pun - denied it BUT I KNOW THE TRUTH". Shifty actually smiled at that.

Another was a list of foods, apparently random unless you had been studying Shifty's tastes. Next to the word "Chocolate" was a doodle of Shifty's natural face, frowning. The discovery Shifty didn't like chocolate had seemingly depressed Richie, and Shifty still wasn't certain if he'd disappointed Richie by failing to enjoy that particular human treat. The page after that was another apparently random list of foods, again, unless you'd been trying to determine what foods Shifty liked. Six fruits were circled, lines drawn from them to a margin where Richie had written "FRUIT", and, next to it, "even Durian?" There was a doodle of Shifty's face - natural, again - smiling next to the word "peanut butter", and a line drawn between that and "bananas", a wholly intriguing proposition Shifty vowed to explore later.

There was something crossed out with heavy lines next to the word "suckers" - the only letters Shifty could make out were "OR-" and "-IXA-", and the tail end of a question mark. As he had no idea what the note could have been, he left it alone.

Especially as there were other, more puzzling notes filling the notebook. A list of numbers which had been mystifying until Shifty recognized one as his normal body temperature, at which point, the others included a startlingly accurate indicator of at what temperature Shifty started feeling cold. There was a number underlined several times, which Shifty recognized as the temperature the fever he'd had two months ago had pushed him to, and a rambling series of notes that Shifty recognized as documenting Richie's frenzied attempts at treatment when Shifty had finally admitted he was sick (not that the NESB didn't have perfectly adequate medical care, but Richie had been adamant Shifty shouldn't have to recuperate in their medical lab or, as Shifty had suggested, handle it himself).

Dozens of drawings - of the patterns on Shifty's skin, of his hands, of his tail. Detail of his face - or attempts, as Richie had scribbled over each one. Shifty stared at one such attempt for a moment before flipping to find the doodles next to the lists of Shifty's favorite and least favorite foods. Looking at those drawings, he couldn't pinpoint what had frustrated Richie about the others - the disappointed frown on drawn Shifty's face felt true to life, and while Shifty didn't see his own smile much, the delighted cartoon Shifty looked - much the way he felt when one of his friends drew a smile out of him.

The notes were clearly the work of months of observation - most, if not all, of the period of their...acquaintanceship (friendship. They were friends. The first people who'd seen his natural form and agreed to raid a corporate lab to rescue an infant alien were his friends). And Richie must have been keeping it with him most of the time, as Shifty had discovered the notebook on the couch when Richie had last visited.

So...months of observations. At first glance, somewhat scientific, unless you'd seen Richie's other work, and realized how little of the notebook's contents lacked the - objective veneer he maintained for other work. The notes he included with the photographs of Shifty he submitted to the NESB were professional, and rarely included any of the banter Shifty had to keep up to distract himself from the vague discomfort of being under such close examination.

This notebook was more of the same.

...Technically.

For all it didn't involve the complete suite of photographs sitting in an NESB lab somewhere, the notes were more intimate. They all touched on things that no one should know without having been close to Shifty. It wasn't that he suspected Riche were keeping the notes to - sell them to tabloids or something ("Aliens Love Peanut Butter" wouldn't sell papers, he guessed).

But not knowing what Richie was trying to accomplish with this left Shifty a little uneasy. They were supposed to hang out the next day, ostensibly to study for their calculus final, although both of them were far beyond needing the additional help, which meant it would be a perfect opportunity to get some answers.

Ms. Cunningham answered the door when Shifty arrived at their home, eyes brightening at the sight of him. "Blueberry!" she said, kissing him on both cheeks as she stepped around him to step outside, ignoring the flush on Shifty's cheeks (in human guise, it at least remained confined to his face). "I assume you're here to see Richie - he's in his lab, while I'm off to mine." She pulled Shifty in for a hug before letting go and stepping back to grin at him. "So you boys have fun, and make sure Richie eats."

"Oh - absolutely," Shifty replied, watching Ms. Cunningham drive away. He stepped inside; the Cunninghams had opened their home indiscriminately to Shifty, and he'd only recently become comfortable with it. He knew they had good reason not to worry about him wandering around their home, even if he was expected. He didn't have much reason to wander, of course, except, taking Ms Cunningham's comment into consideration, to bring Richie a sandwich (and experiment with the notion of peanut butter and bananas for himself).

When Shifty descended the stairs into Richie's home lab (an examination table, a desk, and a couch that had migrated down there at some point in the last several months), Richie barely looked up from a notebook he was writing in, at least until Shifty set a plate down next to him.

He looked up and smiled at Shifty, an open, bright expression that made Shifty glad he hadn't let his human form drop, because his tail had developed a traitorous tendency to wag when Richie smiled at him.

"Your mother said you should eat," Shifty said as an explanation.

"Oh, yeah, thanks." Richie picked up his sandwich, took a bite, and set it down again. He twisted around to look up at Shifty, a frown almost taking over his mouth before his expression smoothed out. "Did you want to get started on studying?"

"Come on," Shifty replied, leaning against the desk so he could look down at Richie's notebook (neat, organized, nothing like the one in Shifty's bag). "You and me have studied enough. I'm just here to keep you from starving to death."

Richie looked back at his sandwich, and picked it up for another bite, apparently focused on it while he ate, although Shifty was certain Richie kept glancing sidelong at him.

"You're, uh. Just trying to keep me fed?" Richie asked. There was a tone to his voice, almost - lilting, and Shifty suspected he was being teased.

"Well, I also wanted to ask you about something you left at my place," Shifty replied. "It probably fell out of your backpack or something-"

"I'm sorry!" Richie blurted, holding up his sandwich between them like a shield.

Shifty, who hadn't expected such a violent reaction, stood, shocked, until he saw jam leaking from the bottom of Richie's sandwich. He caught the drop before it could hit the floor and licked it off his finger.

When he actually looked back at Richie, Richie was staring at him.

"What?" Shifty demanded.

"You...aren't mad?"

"I don't know," Shifty replied. "I'm not sure what you're apologizing for."

"O - oh." Richie's cheeks flushed as he looked away from Shifty. "I thought you found the. Uh. Pictures."

"The drawings?" Shifty asked, and somehow, Richie's cheeks went redder, his entire posture tensing into something that made it look like he was about to bolt.

"Richie?" Shifty asked, leaning forward, realizing only as he reached out to Richie that he'd dropped back to his natural form, pale, clawed fingers coming to rest on Richie's shoulder.

"I kept some of the photos," Richie said. "The ones you didn't really want the NESB to keep because they were a little…" He trailed off, and Shifty, remembering the discussion and in his natural form, felt his whole body blush, because.

Richie had tried to be professional when taking the pictures, requesting standard, clinical poses, but even so, some of them had ended up looking a little-

Well, like the pinups Boomer had implied Richie kept in his room.

"It just seemed a shame, because they're good pictures, and you look really - you look good in them. I haven't shown them to anybody or anything, but…" He trailed off, staring at his feet, and if Shifty were inclined to hugging anyone besides Buttons, he might have tried to hug Richie to calm him down.

Except while Richie had panicked over the photographs, the mention of drawings seemed to have freaked him out worse.

"Can you maybe tell me what you found?" Richie asked, voice a little reedy. "So I know what I'm freaking out about?"

"It was a notebook," Shifty replied, pulling the book out of his bag and handing it over. "At first I thought it was one of your alien data books, but it was - about me, and sort of...personal?"

"I'm sorry," Richie repeated, snatching the book out of Shifty's hands to clutch it against his chest. "I wasn't like - secretly trying to find a way to hurt you or anything. Obviously, I've been paying attention if there was anything you were allergic to because I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I got you killed because you had a peanut allergy or something."

"You also appear to think it's a tragedy I don't like chocolate," Shifty pointed out, and Richie, who'd seemed to be calming down, flushed, ducking his head to hide it behind his notebook.

"Sorry," he muttered.

"Don't be," Shifty said, settling against the desk so he could lean closer to Richie, squeeze his shoulder in a way he hoped was reassuring. "I mean, it's a little weird - and it's sort of driving me crazy trying to figure out what it's for-"

"I just wanted to figure you out," Richie said. When Shifty didn't respond immediately, he continued, knuckles still white from the strain of holding onto his notebook. "Like - I thought maybe I didn't understand you because you were an alien, so I started paying attention. Like if you were allergic to anything, or if you're ticklish or sensitive-"

"If I can get sick," Shifty interrupted, bringing Richie up short, quiet as he considered that.

"Yeah. And I didn't really have friends before, so I was also trying to figure out friend stuff, like what you liked, what you didn't-"

"I do like puns," Shifty said. At Richie's slightly shaky stare, he shrugged. "It's fun, playing around with words like that."

"I…" Richie's gaze drifted down to his notebook, one hand twitching; it was almost certain he was fighting the urge to document this new revelation immediately.

"You can write it down," Shifty said gently. "Now that I know it's just you being - observant, I don't mind."

"Oh." Richie set the notebook down and flipped open to the page on which he'd mused on Shifty's sense of humor, making a few notations on it. "Thanks."

"Don't worry about it," Shifty allowed. He eyed his own sandwich, forgotten in Richie's panic, wondering if it was safe to start in on it again. Probably not; this conversation didn't feel over yet. "I liked the drawings of me in the notebook. They're - good." He paused a moment, trying to sort out his thoughts. "I liked the little cartoons."

Richie scowled. "They're dumb. I only drew them because I can't get your face right when I'm drawing it seriously."

"I don't think it's dumb. That smiling face looks like - how I feel when I'm smiling."

"...Oh." Richie closed the notebook, but didn't move after that. "I'm glad. That you aren't upset. I don't want to upset you."

"Hm," Shifty replied. "I don't think you would. Do anything that would upset me." And now that he was...observing, considering facts with an assessing eye, Shifty had a - hypothesis.

Richie had been watching Shifty very closely. He had in his possession photographs they had both decided were a little - much for the scientists at the NESB to see. And there were...drawings, somewhere, that Richie didn't want Shifty to see.

Without his conscious input, Shifty's tail began to swing behind him, a slow horizontal drag that Richie had probably been watching Shifty closely enough to interpret. Shifty leaned over Richie, finding he liked the idea of - testing his hypothesis.

"You've been watching me pretty closely, haven't you?" he asked. And Richie had taken his eyes off of Shifty, because when he looked up, his face paled and he licked his lips, a nervous swipe of his tongue.

"Yeah, but not in a creepy way-"

"It's a little creepy," Shifty pointed out. "I'm pretty sure there's a drawing of the marks just above my tail in there. And I don't have much chance to look at it, but it's a pretty good likeness."

Richie closed his eyes. "Sorry, I-"

"Where did I give you the impression I minded?" Shifty retorted, and Richie's eyes snapped open, jaw dropped, and he just...stared.

"Wha," he croaked out after a few quiet moments.

"It's a little creepy for - professional interest," Shifty continued, as he let his tail continue to sway behind him. "But if it's a more - personal interest." He paused, hoping he hadn't read this embarrassingly wrong, or he'd never be able to face either of the Cunninghams for the rest of his life. And then he leaned down just a little more, so the next words were spoken just next to Richie's ear. "That might be a project worth - exploring."

In Shifty's defense, everything he knew about flirting he'd learned from television, and the "bad boy" type he'd sought to emulate always acted this smooth.

In Richie's (as Shifty learned later), no one had ever hit on him before.

So Richie's startled flailing resulted in a bruised and slightly bloody nose on Shifty's part, and a possibly fatal case of embarrassment and remorse on Richie's, as he sat as far away from Shifty as the couch allowed while Shifty iced his nose.

With Richie licking his (metaphorical) wounds at giving Shifty literal ones, Shifty suspected he would have to speak up if he ever wanted to resolve this.

"I'd sort of like to know," Shifty said, at last. When Richie looked up, his eyes were almost looking wet, just on the edge of tears.

"What?"

"If you're just - looking, or if you. Want," Shifty concluded, finding the words awkward to force out. "Me," he clarified, and he probably shouldn't have, because his face was starting to flush again, which meant it was a matter of time until it encompassed his entire body. "Because if you do, I'd. Apparently, I like smart, sweet guys who care about. Snakes." He wasn't certain how he'd managed to make this sound more awkward than it already was, but. Here they were. Shifty with all of his cards on the table, and Richie.

Staring.

He was used to Richie staring - Richie was the budding xenobiologist, and whether Shifty was in human guise or his natural form or somewhere in between, Richie wanted to see anything he did that was out of the ordinary. But he wasn't used to watching Richie staring, and Shifty suspected if he ever had, they might have had this conversation a while ago.

Because Richie's gaze dragged over Shifty, along the frills on his head and arms, the patterns along his skin, including the heart-shaped one on his forehead, the pointed, inhuman head, and his tail, from the tip to the base, where Richie knew Shifty was - sensitive.

Richie pressed his palm against the end of Shifty's tail, a feather-light touch. And then he trailed his palm along the frills, a lighter touch, if possible, and Shifty shivered. Richie's gaze shot up to meet Shifty's, eyes wavering, wide, afraid.

(Shifty dismissed the thought that Richie was worried what Shifty would do, but that left as the only possible conclusion that Richie was worried for Shifty.)

"Gentler treatment than I'm used to," Shifty said, winking at Richie. "Seeing as I live with a kid with grabby hands." When Richie didn't move, Shifty flicked his tail to brush the end against the back of Richie's hand. "You can keep going."

Richie's gaze shifted from his own hand back to the lazy waving of the tip of Shifty's tail. And the next touch was - firmer, more present, if still tentative. Shifty grinned and twisted around toward the back of the couch so he could provide Richie access to his tail without discomfort, even if he had to crane his neck slightly to watch Richie draw his hand along the frills of Shifty's tail.

It was - intimate, if at the same time a step back from some of the - implications of what they'd been talking about. Still, the slightly dazed expression on Richie's face faded over the course of several minutes, and gave way to something more - analytical.

"So," Richie mused. "There's some. Stuff. We haven't talked about. About your species and. You. And." His voice rose throughout his stuttering statement, until Shifty decided any amusement he took from Richie's slowly-growing discomfort would be cruel and a diversion from Shifty's - well, not ultimate goal, but his most immediate one.

So Shifty tugged his tail from Richie's grip and crawled the short distance that separated their bodies, leaning up just enough to kiss Richie. Just a press of lips, more a statement of intent than anything.

Richie didn't jerk backward - but only just. His cheeks were red, and he was looking at anything but Shifty. "What-"

"You were working your way up to a question," Shifty replied. "I was giving you an answer. As for romance, that's a yes. As for kissing, that's a yes. As for - other concerns, I figure we can...explore that question in further detail if the rest seems to be working out." Shifty smiled, aware the slow, deliberate expression was likely one Richie hadn't seen before, a notion confirmed at the distant, glazed expression on Richie's face (either that or the promise that any forays into more complicated activities would come with the expectation of scientific inquiry and rigor, even if Richie and Shifty were the only people who ever benefited from it).

Shifty leaned back in toward Richie, pausing this time when he was almost close enough to touch. "Soo," he drawled, grinning. "What's the verdict?"

Richie crossed the few remaining inches to press his lips against Shifty's, and then press forward to - experiment, Shifty realized, to observe and detail his findings. Shifty grinned against Richie's mouth at the thought, surging forward to contribute to Richie's obvious desire to explore.

They passed an hour or so that way, before Shifty dropped his head onto Richie's lap, looking up as Richie traced along the marks on Shifty's face, face fixed in concentration, until that concentration faltered and Richie gave Shifty's mouth a strange look.

Shifty smirked. "What's that look for?"

"Your smile is - you're really pretty," Richie stammered.

And Shifty might have - suspected Richie thought that, but hearing it sent a thrill along his spine, and his smile widened. "I guessed," he replied, "seeing how you kept all those photos."

Richie ducked his head away, covering his face with his hands. "Oh god, please don't bring that up. It's embarrassing."

"Is it?" Shifty asked, stretching out (and not failing to notice how Richie's gaze darted toward Shifty's stomach as he did so). "Then maybe we could talk about the drawings that came up earlier."

It would take some time, Shifty suspected, before he got a straight answer about those (even if Richie's embarrassment was incredibly telling about the nature of said drawings). But Shifty was certain enough about his intentions, and Richie's own, not to worry overmuch about it. Richie had better things to occupy his time with, now, anyway.