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I Say I Don't Know (When I Know Well Enough)

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‘Where’s Richie?’ Eddie asked, swinging his legs over the cafeteria bench to sit beside the other Losers.

Ben waited until he was done with his mouthful, then said, ‘He’s probably down the music block again.’

‘Whoever decided to give Richie Tozier a guitar was an evil man,’ Stan chuckled, picking at his food. ‘He’s loud enough as it is.’

Bev nudged him, her fingers twitching for another cigarette. ‘I think it’s nice how obsessed he is with it. You know how he’s always had trouble focusing on one thing at a time.’

Stan did know, and so did everybody else. Richie’s energy was almost permanently on overdrive, which kept his mouth running faster than his feet and his attention diverting by even the smallest distraction.

Everyone had expected the guitar to go the same way as every other novelty birthday present he’d received over the years, but to their surprise, Richie had kept up with his daily practice and lessons, often taking additional time out of his lunch period, evenings and weekends to play.

He took the instrument with him nearly everywhere he went, would often regale the Losers with new strumming patterns and chord progressions which he had memorised, and would learn to play their favourite songs to sing along. Richie would never sing for them himself though, as he insisted that he couldn’t play and sing at the same time. No one had really questioned whether this was true.

‘I’m sure he could take one lunch break,’ Eddie grumbled. ‘He hasn’t eaten with us all week.’

‘It’s n-not like we don’t s-see him anymore,’ Bill reminded.

Eddie knew that this was true, but ever since he was eight years old, he’d shared his lunch breaks with Richie. As much as he hated to admit it, Eddie was a stickler for routine. It was comforting, and Richie had always been part of that routine.

The guitar had thrown everything off course. Richie was consumed by it in a way which always made Eddie resent it. He saw it as an addiction, like the cigarettes stuffed in Richie’s shirt pockets, or the inhaler that he still hid in his locker, despite knowing it was a placebo.

‘I’m gonna go find him,’ Eddie said, picking up the uneaten half of his sandwich for the walk. ‘One of you can have my pudding.’

‘Dibs,’ Mike said, hauling the plate onto his tray.

 

---

 

Eddie finished his sandwich, stopping briefly to rinse his hands in the music block toilets. As he turned off the tap, the muffled sounds of Richie’s guitar percolated through the walls. He started to follow the sound, traipsing down the hall until he reached the furthest room. He was about to burst in, hand poised on the doorknob, when Richie opened his mouth and started to sing.

It’s not often at just thirteen years

You’re forced to face your darkest fears

I never knew someone so brave as you.

Eddie took his hand off the doorknob. It wasn’t a song that he’d heard before. It certainly wasn’t a voice that he’d heard before, lilting and husky.

And when you’re choking raggedly

I find it’s me that cannot breathe

And all that’s red inside me drains to blue.

Something tugged in his heart as his throat dried and constricted, and Eddie wished that he had his inhaler. He raised his hand to knock on the door, to stop himself from eavesdropping on Richie singing, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so.

And through my coke-bottle glasses

I’ve seen and missed a thousand chances

And still I find

That it’s you that’s fucking blind

Eddie furrowed his brow as he realised that this wasn’t a song that Richie had found. After all, Richie had often reiterated that Buddy Holly was his hero for being a celebrity musician who wore the same coke-bottle glasses that he did. Eddie knew that this was not a Buddy Holly song.

You catch me stealing glances

You’re always expecting answers

You look at me and ask what’s up

And I say I don’t know, when I know

Well enough.

This was a song that Richie had written for himself, a song he had composed chords and melody and lyrics to. Eddie wondered how he could possibly have done something that impressive without mentioning it sixty times. All he did these days was talk about the guitar and the progress he was making. He’d never even implied that he had tried writing his own music.

I carved your name once next to mine

So we’re preserved there for all time

If only we had shared the kiss it promises.

It was a good voice. Eddie understood not wanting to share a voice, though, since he too was an admirable singer but would never admit such a thing to the other Losers. Whenever he sang along to Richie’s guitar, it was in non-committed hums and half-spoken phrases.

I’ve memorised the valleys of your face

Could sing the notes in how you say my name

I’ve come to accept that it’s just what it is.

Only after these lines did Eddie start to ponder Richie’s inspiration. He used to make up stories all the time, rambling and nonsensical, with too many characters and plotlines which didn’t go anywhere. He was never short of an imagination. He obviously told jokes, which were usually short and quipping, and followed similar formats time and again. That made structuring a song simple, he supposed.

And through my coke-bottle glasses

I’ve seen and missed a thousand chances

And still I find

That it’s you that’s fucking blind.

It was catchy. Now that the chorus had rolled around again, Eddie found himself leaning against the wall beside the closed door, smiling to himself and nodding gently in rhythm, even tapping his fingers idly on the fabric of his shorts.

You catch me stealing glances

You’re always expecting answers

You look at me and ask what’s up

And I say I don’t know, when I know

Well enough.

Eddie couldn’t help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, Richie had written the song with a specific person in mind, someone that he had developed feelings for, by the sounds of it. It was only a thin possibility, as far as Eddie was concerned, since Richie told him everything and would certainly have mentioned if he was crushing on someone. At least, Eddie thought so, hoped so. Eddie would tell Richie that kind of thing.

We just keep on getting older

And as the Derry air gets colder

I’ll wrap my arm around your shoulder

The only way I get to hold ya.

There was something pained in Richie’s voice now which Eddie hadn’t noticed before. The same kind of twang that he’d heard a few times before, usually when Richie was scared. He hadn’t seen Richie all that scared since they were young, since they’d faced It that gloomy summer.

It’s only you that I’m afraid for

There’s no one that I wouldn’t trade for

If you wondered what I stayed for

It’s the same thing each night I’ve prayed for.

There was suddenly no doubt in Eddie’s mind that Richie meant each word that fired from his lips. His stomach twisted as he felt jealous, guilty and betrayed that Richie had withheld this secret from him. Even more, he hated the idea that somebody else out there might know who this song was about, when Eddie didn’t.

And I’m not foolish enough

To believe that there could be an us

But I swear I never thought I’d love

Anybody like I love you.

Love. Richie was in love. Unrequited love, he seemed to believe, but love nonetheless. Eddie had never even thought of Richie as being the type to fall in love. Love was such a serious thing, and serious was the last thing that Richie ever wanted to be. That explained a little more why he hadn’t said anything. A crush was one thing, love was something else. Still, Eddie expected to be privy to that information, since love didn’t happen overnight.

And I know I’m so lucky to call

You my best friend at all

So I am sorry that I fall

A little more each day for you.

Eddie’s heart stopped. Best friend. Richie said best friend. Eddie didn’t know who the song was about, but he knew that Richie only had six best friends. Six Losers, only one of whom was a girl.

And through my coke-bottle glasses

I’ve seen and missed a thousand chances

And still I find

That it’s you that’s fucking blind

Still, Beverly and Bill had been together for years. A crush on Beverly would be extremely inappropriate and, Eddie realised sadly, would make complete sense. Richie and Bev were close friends, had a lot in common, spent a lot of time alone together when they were smoking. Eddie felt nauseous.

I can’t live through stolen glances

But if I asked I know the answer

You’re the only way to shut me up

Bev. Eddie sighed. First Bill and Ben, and now Richie. Next thing he knew Stan and Mike would be fawning over her too. He felt guilty even thinking this way. Beverly was one of his closest friends, and she hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t her fault that boys fell in love with her, that Richie had fallen in love with her.

Because I will never tell you

I’m in love.

Eddie was sad and he didn’t know why. Something blue and muddled boiled in his stomach and flooded through his system, sullying him. Silence fell as the last chord rang out into the nothing, clouding over Eddie with its heavy echo. The unfamiliar feeling inside him morphed to frustrated anger, surging red.

To escape it, Eddie went back to the bathroom to wash his hands again. Cleaning something always made him feel better, more relaxed. As he rinsed, the door opened, and Richie yelped, ‘Fuck, Eddie!’ when he saw him standing there.

His eyes wide and frenzied, he took a step back to steady himself, weighted by the guitar slung over his back. ‘Shit,’ he muttered as he stumbled, gaze darting around the dimly lit tiles and porcelain, clawing a hand through his mop of curled, dark hair. ‘What are you doing here?'

Eddie wasn’t sure anymore. ‘Just haven’t seen you much this week,’ Eddie murmured, shrugging. ‘Thought I’d come and find you.’ He was desperate to ask about the song but didn’t.

‘You been missing me, Eds?’ he teased, and a flash of the usual Richie settled back into him, like a pigeon flattening its ruffled feathers.

Rolling his eyes, Eddie said, ‘Fuck off,’ which was the only way he knew how to say yes without stroking Richie’s ego or making things awkward.

Richie scratched the back of his neck until the skin raised pink. ‘Well,’ he coughed, ‘you could come over tonight if you want? Give you a whole evening.’ He winked, ‘Since I’ve been depriving you.’

 Eddie mused, ‘Seems fair.’

Licking his lower lip, Richie looked Eddie up and down. ‘Are you alright?’

‘Yeah, why?’ Eddie squeaked.

Richie leaned over and twisted off the faucet. ‘Think they’re clean, buddy.’

Flicking the excess water off his hands, vaguely embarrassed, Eddie said, ‘Right.’ He yanked a couple of paper towels from the dispenser quickly and dried himself off.

Richie knew Eddie well enough to know that he only washed his hands so compulsively when he was thinking, or rather overthinking, something. So he checked, ‘You sure you’re okay?’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said, squeezing past him to get out of the bathroom.

‘Eds?’ Richie queried, a line of worry slicing between his eyebrows as he followed Eddie into the hallway.

Hovering at the entrance of the music block, Eddie felt Richie’s eyes burning into the back of his head. So he assured, ‘I’ll meet you after last period, okay?’

Richie nodded, ‘Okay.’

Eddie opened the door to the outside world. The cold air swept over his shoulders. He knew he shouldn’t say anything, knew he should wait or perhaps not mention it at all, but he looked back over his shoulder and said, ‘I didn’t know you could sing.’

In the periphery of his vision, he saw Richie’s jaw drop open, but Eddie closed the door on it, and slipped away.

 

---

 

Eddie lingered by the rack, eyeing Richie’s unclaimed bike. He’d been waiting a good twenty minutes after school and Richie was still yet to appear. He knew that he must have pushed his luck earlier with his comment, because he hadn’t spotted Richie around school all afternoon; not at his locker, not in the hallway or the bathroom.

So Eddie knew that Richie may well be avoiding him, wanting to renege on his offer to spend the evening with him. As long as Richie’s bike was still there, Eddie expected him to appear. He wouldn’t walk all that way. He wouldn’t leave his bike prey to the thieves and vandals that still liked to mess with them.

After another ten minutes, Richie finally appeared. ‘Fucking hell,’ he muttered as he saw that Eddie was still there and waiting.

‘Hey,’ Eddie greeted feebly.

‘Hi.’ He didn’t move. His eyes flashed to his bike and back again. He’d have to go past Eddie to get to it.

‘What took you?’ Eddie asked, raising one of his eyebrows, and when Richie didn’t say anything, he lowered it and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘What for?’

Eddie thought. ‘Eavesdropping. I shouldn’t have.’

Richie narrowed his eyes, ‘Okay.’

‘I didn’t mean to,’ Eddie said quickly. ‘I just hadn’t heard you really sing before and I didn’t want to interrupt you and well, you can sing.’

Blushing, Richie scooted past him and unlocked his bike with fumbling hands. ‘Thanks,’ he said quietly.

Anxiously, Eddie asked, ‘Am I still coming over tonight?’

Richie’s face contorted, ‘You still want to?’

‘Well, yeah,’ Eddie scoffed. ‘Course I do. Why do you think I stuck around so long?’

‘I don’t know,’ Richie said carefully, cycling slowly towards the road.

Eddie hoped that he would be able to dispel some of Richie’s awkwardness when they got back to his house. It was something that Richie hadn’t repealed his invitation, but Eddie still felt that he hadn’t received Richie’s forgiveness for listening in.

Or perhaps he was concerned that Eddie had heard the content of the song and had figured out the truth behind it, which Eddie wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth, if he could elicit it. He needed both: to be in Richie’s good books and to be his confidante. He hoped that he could have both.

As the Tozier house loomed into view, Richie and Eddie slowed, freewheeling up the driveway. Their wheels clacked in near synchronisation. Eddie was hyperaware of the silence which hung between them, since it was so unusual.

They wandered inside, offering greetings to the Tozier parents slumped on their sofa, then made their way upstairs to Richie’s bedroom. It had changed along with the guitar. There were new posters on the walls, there was a guitar stand permanently erected in the corner of the room, and a music stand stacked with books.

There were plectrums on almost every surface. Sheet music was scattered, disorganised on the floor. Eddie itched to order them. He wondered whether any of Richie’s own music was amidst the pile.

Richie took the guitar case off his back and meticulously replaced it into the stand, adjusting the strap and absentmindedly picking the strings to see if it was still in tune. Then he delved into the pocket on the front of the case and pulled out a book, well-thumbed, with torn pages and graffitied cover. He clenched it, thinking about the song which Eddie had heard.

‘How much did you hear earlier?’ Richie asked suddenly.

‘Just one song,’ Eddie said, his heartbeat quickening.

Richie eyed him suspiciously. ‘The whole song?’

Eddie sat on Richie’s bed, folding his legs underneath himself. ‘Yeah.’ When Richie was still quiet, Eddie felt that he had to fill the space. ‘It was good. Catchy.’ He started to hum the chorus.

‘Stop,’ Richie said, almost begging.

‘Sorry.’ Eddie’s throat tightened again, and his fingers reached his waistline, as though there would still be a fanny-pack strapped there, only there wasn’t. He was nervous, more nervous than he had been in a long time, confused and almost frightened at the version of Richie which was currently presenting itself.

Richie frowned, something not making sense to him. ‘You heard the lyrics?’

Eddie considered lying, but he was too curious. His voice cracked like he was still pre-pubescent. ‘Yeah. They’re good. I liked the bridge.’

‘You found that too?’ Richie spluttered.

‘What?’ Eddie asked. ‘I mean the bridge of the song.’

Richie balked, ‘Oh.’ He slotted the book onto his shelf, then started patting at the back pockets of his jeans.

‘Rich?’

He swallowed. ‘Yeah?’

‘You can talk to me, you know,’ Eddie said, picking at the duvet as though it were a plain of grass. Richie just stared at him with that same perplexed look on his face, so he went on, ‘If you need someone to talk to about it, that is. You might already have talked to someone else,’ he said, shrugging, to try and dispel his premature envy.

Richie strained, ‘I haven’t. I haven’t talked to anyone about it.’

Eddie tried not to show his relief. ‘Why not?’

‘Well, I mean it’s,’ Richie blinked, ‘not exactly fucking easy.’

He nodded, ‘Yeah, I guess not.’

‘You guess not?’ Richie repeated incredulously.

Deciding to take a shot, Eddie shifted, ‘Well, yeah. She’s one of your best friends and she’s dating another one of your best friends.’

Richie’s eyes widened then slowly rolled. His eyelids hooded as he stooped to place the flat of his palms on the window sill. A disbelieving smile spread across his face and he huffed, ‘You think it’s about Bev.’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said quickly, then his heart hardened as he toyed with the possibility that he had been wrong. ‘Are you saying that it isn’t?’

Eddie’s mind raced as he realised that if he was wrong about Bev, but Richie had still declared the subject of his song to be a best friend, then that meant there were five possible candidates for Richie’s affection, and they were all boys.

‘Oh, fuck,’ Eddie said, wiping the sweat from his palms on his thighs.

‘There it is,’ Richie sighed. ‘Penny’s dropped, has it?’

Reeling, Eddie climbed off the bed and paced, wringing his hands together. He had more questions rattling around his head than he could clutch hold of, like salmon jumping upstream and slipping through his fingers, like balloons rising up into the sky just out of his reach.

‘So,’ Eddie gulped, coming to a halt beside Richie at the window, not looking at him. ‘It’s not about Bev,’ was all he managed to say.

‘No,’ Richie affirmed, dropping his chin to his chest.

Eddie ran the lines of the chorus through in his head again. ‘Is it about Stan?’ he asked weakly.

‘Oh fucking sweet Jesus,’ Richie gasped, exasperated, standing up straight and turning to face him. ‘You are such a fucking idiot.’

‘I’m doing my fucking best here,’ Eddie snapped, but the tears were starting to sting in his eyes, as the doubts prickled in the back of his mind, creeping forwards like cockroaches in the dark of a sewer grate.

Frustrated, Richie reached for the book on his shelf, letting it fall open to the break in its spine, and slapped it down on the sill in front of Eddie. ‘Do better.’

Eddie read and re-read the lyrics on the page, peering through the scratches of crossed-out words and lines, at the notes made in the margins, at the chord names inked in red to stand out above the chosen stanzas.

He turned around with the book in his hand, searching for its author’s eyes to confirm the truth that screamed out from the pages. ‘Richie,’ he said quietly.

Richie met his gaze, and Eddie could see that there were tears in his eyes too. ‘What?’

‘I am a fucking idiot,’ Eddie whispered.

Rubbing his temple, Richie sighed, ‘No, you’re not. I’m the fucking idiot.’

Almost inaudibly, Eddie said, ‘You’re in love with me.’

‘It’s fucked up, I know,’ Richie said, then closed his eyes. ‘So please spare me the platitudes or the slurs or whatever it is you feel you need to say, because I really don’t think I can hear it. You can just go and I guess we’ll figure out which one of us gets custody of which Losers later.’

Eddie didn’t have anything to say. He was in shock. But he didn’t want to go, and his heart ached horribly as he considered what Richie was feeling, how confused and alone and desperate. So he did the only thing he could think of to do, which was to drop the book, approach his friend slowly, quietly, and hold him.

Reopening his eyes with surprise, Richie almost pushed Eddie away, so unprepared for the physical contact, the warmth. As Eddie’s squeeze tightened, drawing him closer, Richie let his arms drape over Eddie’s shoulders. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his breath skating past Eddie’s ear.

‘Don’t be,’ Eddie said, shuddering.

‘But I am,’ he insisted. ‘It’s fucking awful.’

Eddie’s knees buckled. ‘It’s not awful.’ He spread his hands up Richie’s back, feeling the heat of his skin through the cotton of his shirt.

‘It is,’ Richie sniffed, not knowing how to respond to Eddie’s kindness, his softness, when he had expected to never be touched by him again. ‘It’s so fucked. I’m so fucked.’

Pulling his head back far enough that he could see Richie’s in front of his again, Eddie clamped his hands on Richie’s face to stop it from dipping with shame. He hated to feel the moistness on Richie’s cheeks as the tears continued to spill, hated to see the devastated defeat in his cobalt eyes.

‘It’s okay, Rich,’ Eddie tried.

‘Do you hate me?’ he asked quietly.

Eddie’s heart froze into glass and shattered. He pulled Richie’s face nearer to his, so that their eyes were aligned, so Richie could see his sincerity. ‘Fuck no. No! Richie, I could never hate you. That’s fucking ridiculous. I – I –’ he stopped, as the tip of his nose grazed against Richie’s.

Richie inhaled sharply as he couldn’t help but notice that Eddie’s lips were closer than they had ever been to his before and couldn’t obstruct the invasive thought which flashed across his mind, that he only had to lean forwards another inch or so to close the gap between them and steal one of his wildest dreams into a reality.

Eddie felt Richie’s hands ball into fists and relax again, sliding to rest on each of Eddie’s shoulders. He saw the tautness appear and disappear in his jaw. He knew what Richie was thinking, unequivocally, but he didn’t move away.

He wasn’t sure why he didn’t, whether he was testing his own bravery or Richie’s, or if some feral curiosity wanted to take advantage of the situation, but he stayed there and gently swiped his thumbs through the tear tracks on Richie’s cheeks, allowing his eyes to flicker between Richie’s, his lips to part.

When Richie kissed him, Eddie’s eyes fluttered closed for just a moment, before he pushed him away, releasing their hold on each other, putting the distance back between them. Richie felt hollowed.

Eddie stared at him, one limb still protectively extended, quite literally keeping Richie at arm’s length. 'I have to go now,' he said quickly, and tried to get around him.

‘Fuck,’ Richie sighed, stumbling backwards, putting himself between Eddie and the door. ‘Fuck, I’m sorry, Eds, I’m sorry. Don’t go.’

‘Don’t call me Eds,’ Eddie pleaded, trying to reach for the door handle to the right of Richie’s hip.

Richie clamped his own hand on it. ‘Wait, wait. I’m sorry. Thought that you,’ he sighed, fighting to meet Eddie’s gaze. ‘I crossed a line. There was a line. I crossed it. Should have guessed that you would just be nice to me because you’re you and you’re always fucking nice to me.’

‘No, I’m not,’ Eddie retorted. ‘I’m a jerk to you.’ He meant it. Staying in that embrace might have been the worst position he could put Richie in, and he felt guilty as he listened to Richie’s rambling apologies, because he didn’t think it was his fault.

‘Can we forget that I did that?’ Richie asked.

‘No,’ Eddie whispered honestly.

‘Please?’ he begged, so desperate not to lose Eddie now. ‘I misread.’

Eddie swallowed, realising painfully that Richie didn’t misread at all. He’d waited for the kiss, daring him, wanting him to. That didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t supposed to think about Richie like that, to wonder what it would be like to kiss him, to let their lips touch.

‘Eddie?’ Richie stammered. ‘Have I fucked it?’

‘I don’t know.’

Richie removed the glasses from his face, carelessly throwing them to the floor so that he could rub his eyes with the calloused balls of his fingertips. ‘Fuck. I really am sorry.’ He dropped his hands. ‘I never would have done anything about it. I was never going to say anything.’

Eddie stared at him, at his gangly limbs and unruly hair, the patterned shirts and shoes with no socks. He stared at his clouded eyes and the freckles peppered across his cheeks, at his thick eyebrows and angular nose, his square jaw and his red, red lips. He looked at the glasses on the floor.

And through my coke-bottle glasses

I’ve seen and missed a thousand chances.

Panicking, Richie started to stream, ‘You weren’t supposed to hear it but then you did and I just was fucking frustrated because you still couldn’t tell how I fucking feel and I always think I’m being so fucking obvious and then you were here and you weren’t cursing me out about it or yelling at me or even just being freaked out or disgusted which was what I expected and I know I shouldn’t have expected those things because we are friends and you wouldn’t do that to me and then you were right there and fuck, I just got a little lost in it all and –’

‘Beep-beep, Richie,’ Eddie snapped suddenly, his hands trembling.

Richie felt like he’d swallowed his tongue. It had been years since somebody had beeped him to be quiet. It made him feel like he was thirteen years old again, careering along the kissing bridge with his friends, playing at the quarry or in their old hideout, smashing the buttons on a game of Street Fighter. With Eddie. Always with Eddie.

‘Let me,’ Eddie breathed, stepping closer to him, one arm reaching outwards.

Richie’s hand tightened on the door handle, believing that to be Eddie’s target, but he flinched when he felt Eddie’s hand push against his hip.

‘Eddie?’

‘Just shut the fuck up, okay?’ Eddie said quietly, bringing his other hand to mirror the first.

Richie’s heart strummed as, through his blurred vision, he watched Eddie’s feet slot between his own, watched the air between them narrow, watched Eddie’s face tilt slightly upwards towards his. Uncertain, since he felt he had jeopardised everything that he had ever shared with Eddie by kissing him before, he didn’t dare press their lips together. Yet, like a magnetic pull, he found his chin tilting downwards, leaning ever so slightly closer.

If Eddie had ever felt fear before, then the memories paled against how he felt as he closed his eyes and pressed his lips to Richie’s of his own volition. It consumed and exhumed him until he no longer knew where he was or whether his feet met the ground, and he could sense the corpuscles under his skin quivering like gooseflesh in the cold.

His eyelids squeezed underneath a furrowed brow, almost as though he were in pain, but he pushed his body up against Richie’s with such fervour that Richie was pinned against the door. When he started to pull away, only to snatch a breath, his half-closed eyes saw Richie chase after the kiss, drawing his hands to Eddie’s neck to pull him back. His heart spasmed.

Richie whimpered as his lips parted enough to allow Eddie’s tongue to slip into his mouth. He felt like his mind was quiet for the first time in his life, as he let sweet, dangerous joy trickle through him. He’d never felt so completely snug inside his skin as he did then, with his hands cupping the curve of Eddie’s collar, his knee hitching between Eddie’s thighs.

They slowed; they stopped. Their lips broke apart and hovered a hair’s breadth away, so that when Eddie opened his eyes, Richie’s face was so close that it split into a hazy Venn diagram, blending him together in the wrong places.

Richie wished that he was still wearing his glasses when Eddie stepped back and his face unfocused. He bit his lip, hard.

‘You’re trying not to talk, aren’t you?’ Eddie said quietly, and Richie nodded. Not knowing what else to do, Eddie bent down to the floor and picked up Richie’s glasses to hand back to him. Their fingers brushed together, static, as Eddie placed them in Richie’s unsteady grip.

His vision restored, Richie felt like the dream settled solidly into reality, and he stopped feeling the free delirium, replaced with a hard knot of unknowns. Eddie’s face was unreadable to him: flushed cheeks, lips smacked together, eyes slightly too wide, eyebrows steepled.

Eventually, Eddie broke the silence again. ‘I think I should go.’

‘What?’ Richie spluttered.

‘I should go,’ Eddie said again, more resolutely, stepping to reach for the freed handle, but Richie still stood in front of the door. Without looking at him, Eddie asked, ‘You gonna let me out now?’

Richie hesitated, then stepped aside. His heart dangled precariously in his throat as he watched Eddie leave and close the door behind him. He didn’t realise that he had been holding his breath until he exhaled heavily.

He scratched the crook of his arm as he wandered to the book splayed on the floor, still open at the song which he had written and unwittingly played for Eddie. He picked it up and put it back on the shelf, wondering which lyrics would have to be altered following that evening’s events. His brain boggled; confused, fascinated, and for the first time, hopeful.

Eddie watched him putting the book away from the driveway below, then mounted his bike and cycled home.

Chapter Text

Sat in the shower, Eddie still didn’t feel clean. The water beat down on his hunched spine as he hugged his knees. After a while, Sonia Kaspbrak rapped her fat knuckles on the bathroom door, hollering at Eddie to check that he hadn’t slipped and cracked his head open on the porcelain. Eddie almost felt like he had; like his brain was oozing out of his skull in red and blue.

The whole weekend, he’d made his excuses to the other Losers, claiming that he was snowed under with school work, and had let his mother pamper him with her unnecessary affections. He couldn’t see him. He couldn’t see any of them, not if Richie might be there too. And Richie had a funny habit of just turning up uninvited.

As Eddie towel dried his hair, he heard the doorbell ring downstairs.

‘Hey, Mrs K. Eddie home?’

Eddie’s heart froze. ‘No, no, no,’ he muttered, hoping that just maybe his mother would be in one of her moods where she didn’t want Eddie to have company.

‘He’s upstairs,’ Sonia said truthfully. ‘But it is a Sunday night, Richie. You have school tomorrow.’

Richie promised, ‘That’s why I’m here. I need Eddie’s help with a math problem. Something’s just not adding up.’

‘Oh, you fucking dick,’ Eddie mumbled to himself, draping the towel around his neck.

‘Well, alright, but don’t be too late, okay?’ Sonia insisted.

‘We won’t,’ Richie agreed and bounded noisily up the stairs.

‘Shit!’ Eddie cursed, rummaging quickly for his pyjama bottoms under his pillow and stumbling to stick his feet through them. As Richie burst through the door, he doubled over, only just having pulled the waistband up in time. ‘Fucking Christ! You should knock!’

Richie flushed, trying to keep his eyes trained on Eddie’s furious face, with its ruffled, damp hair and pink cheeks and crinkled nose, and not the bare skin of his arms and chest and shoulders. ‘Whoops,’ he said, closing the door behind him. ‘That could have been really awkward.’

‘You think?’ Eddie said sarcastically, going to his drawer to find a spare t-shirt to wear.

Slightly disappointed to watch Eddie put more clothes on, Richie swanned over to the bed and sat himself down as though it were his own. ‘Can we talk?’

Eddie folded his arms. ‘Math problem?’

‘Come on, I thought that was pretty good,’ Richie laughed, trying to lighten the mood.

Sighing, Eddie admitted, ‘Rich, I’m not ready to talk about it just yet, okay?’

His nose twitched. ‘I think we need to, though. Unfortunately, you’re the only one I can talk to about this. Unless you’ve told anyone, that is.’

‘I haven’t,’ Eddie said. He hadn’t seen anyone, let alone told anyone. ‘So, you haven’t told anyone?’

‘No,’ Richie said, laying down on his side, propped up on his elbow. ‘Wouldn’t without your permission.’

‘You don’t have it.’

Richie frowned. ‘Duly noted. Then I guess we’re stuck with each other.’

Eddie’s toes curled, pawing at the carpet. ‘Fuck.’

Cocking an eyebrow, Richie asked, ‘Are you going to sit down?’

Squeezing himself into the gap at the head of the bed, Eddie tried to look as nonchalant as Richie did, but he failed. He was confused at Richie’s laxness, since the last time they had seen each other, Richie had been so fragile, so quiet and so scared, and now he seemed back to his usual upbeat, boisterous persona. It was quite a shift.

‘How are you being so,’ Eddie grimaced, ‘normal?’

Richie sighed. ‘I guess I’ve had a lot of practice. Being normal around you, I mean.’

Considering this made Eddie reel. So many past interactions cycled through his head: jokes that they had made, secrets that they had swapped, games that they had played. He wondered for how long Richie had suppressed the butterflies swarming in his stomach, the hitch in his breath, the mistiness in his eyes.

‘Right,’ Eddie said, trilling his lips. ‘Still, I thought you’d be, I don’t know,’ he trailed off, unsure what he really had expected from Richie in their time apart. The same panicked nausea which had plagued him, he supposed. The same downward spiral of questions looping like a horde of bats in the recesses of his conscious and subconscious minds. The same fear.

Absentmindedly, Richie cracked his knuckles as he spoke. ‘I’ll be honest with you, Eds.’

‘Don’t call me Eds,’ Eddie said automatically, his face screwing up. ‘And stop cracking your knuckles, you know it makes my teeth hurt.’ He shuddered. ‘Like nails on a fucking chalkboard.’

Richie held his palms up in surrender. He saw Eddie’s eyes slice across the scar on his hand. ‘Sorry.’

‘You’ll thank me when you don’t get arthritis.’

Unable to stop himself from smiling, Richie tried again, ‘I’ll be honest with you, Eddie,’ and when he caught Eddie’s gaze, he continued, ‘all my cards are on the fucking table.’

Eddie felt like he could see them, but he didn’t know whether the odds were in Richie’s favour, if those cards were really worth something, or if he was a fool leaping all in. They weren’t exactly cards that he expected to turn up.

When it came to his own hand, he was playing blind, cards still face down on the felt, and he didn’t know which ones his chips were. Then he found himself wondering if they were betting against each other or playing on the same team.

‘How does that make it easier to be normal?’ Eddie quizzed.

‘I’ve already gambled everything I’ve got,’ Richie said, laughing to try and cover the ache in his chest. ‘I went for it. Might as well accept that if I’ve lost, I’ve lost, and drink champagne until the round ends.’ He smiled sadly. ‘This might be as good as it gets. The few moments before you tell me to fuck off out of your life forever.’

The sentiment made Eddie quiver, and he cursed himself for it, hoping that Richie didn’t notice or that if he did, he attributed it to a shiver from his hair still drying. He eyed Richie. ‘I wouldn’t ever say that to you. I’d never want you to fuck off forever.’

‘No?’

‘Fuck off, maybe,’ Eddie admitted, ‘because you’re an asshole and very annoying. But not forever.’

As long as that remained true, then Richie felt he had everything to hope for and nothing to lose. ‘So, we’re okay then?’

Eddie hesitated, ‘We’re still friends, if that’s what you mean.’

Richie shuffled awkwardly. ‘So it doesn’t matter that I’m, you know,’ he struggled, searching for the right word. None of them felt right at this point. He settled on, ‘different?’

In all honesty, thinking too much about it made Eddie very uncomfortable. He’d always been taught that there was a right way to be in a relationship and a wrong way, and whatever Richie was feeling firmly fell into the latter category.

On the other hand, he knew that Richie was just about his favourite person in the world and he hadn’t actually changed over the last few days, so it didn’t make sense to Eddie to suddenly not want him as a friend anymore, not like him anymore.

‘No,’ Eddie said, trying to sound flippant.

He also knew what it was like to hate yourself for the way you were; he thought it every time he looked at the inhaler in his locker, every time he washed his hands. He couldn’t bear to think that Richie might feel that way, judging himself.

‘You’re still you,’ Eddie said. ‘Couldn’t call myself a Loser if I had a problem with you being different in some way. That’s kind of our thing.’

Richie’s lips twisted. ‘Thanks.’

‘So you think you are,’ Eddie tried to search for the same word which had eluded Richie, ‘different? In general, I mean. It’s not just,’ he squeaked, ‘me that makes you think so?’

Slowly, Richie nodded. ‘I mean, it started with you, and then that got me thinking about it. If you weren’t in the picture, maybe I wouldn’t have figured it out.’

Eddie tried to absorb this. ‘Okay.’

‘What about you?’ Richie asked, noticing how Eddie visibly tensed at the question. ‘Have you ever thought that you’re –?’

‘No,’ Eddie cut him off.

Richie didn’t seem all that disappointed. ‘Alright. Good to know.’

The reason he didn’t seem disappointed was that he wasn’t. After all, if anyone else but Eddie had asked him the same question, he would have lied. It had taken a lot of time to get to where he was now, knowing the truth about himself and accepting it, but he still definitely wasn’t comfortable talking about it.

He didn’t expect Eddie to say yes, he just wanted to get a sense of where he was, if anywhere. But the truth was, boys didn’t kiss other boys the way that Eddie had kissed him. Not in Derry. Which meant Eddie was more likely somewhere than nowhere.

‘In that case, what happened the other night?’ Richie asked carefully.

Eddie had asked himself the same question a thousand times. ‘I don’t know. It was an overwhelming day.’

‘I can see that,’ Richie acknowledged. ‘So, stripping out the unknowns for a second, sticking to the facts, what happened?’

‘You didn’t come to lunch,’ Eddie blinked. ‘I went to find you. I heard your song. I thought it was about Bev. We went to your house. I found out that it’s about me. I found out,’ he choked, then rattled off, ‘you love me. You apologised. I hugged you. You kissed me. You apologised again. I kissed you. I left.’

Richie felt like he was on fire, hearing Eddie admit that the second kiss was one he initiated. ‘I kissed you, then you kissed me,’ he summarised, choosing to omit the other crucial detail, which was his soul-crushing love for the boy beside him.

‘We kissed,’ Eddie amended.

‘Well, yes,’ Richie said leadingly, ‘but I categorically would not have kissed you that second time if you hadn’t been the one who –’

‘Alright, alright,’ Eddie said, a little too loudly.

Gently, Richie said, ‘This is confusing for me too, you know.’

It had been one thing to pine for Eddie for all these years, but the obsession had always been hampered with a great caveat that hung like a flashing neon sign: unrequited. One-sided. Hopeless. Never going to happen.

He’d never let himself think for more than a few seconds that Eddie maybe meant more when he showered Richie with attention or looked after him when he was hurt, that maybe Eddie stole glances and touches in the same way he did, that they danced around each other, like a masquerade ball.

‘I liked it how it was before,’ Eddie muttered. ‘It was easy. It made sense.’

‘Maybe for you.’ Richie winced, ‘Are you saying you would take it back if you could?’

Everything logical, rational and sensible in Eddie said yes. There was another side to him, though, the side which let him jump from the quarry cliff edge, the side that walked into the Neibolt house, the side that Richie had always, always brought out in him.

‘I don’t know.’

Smacking his lips together, Richie mused, ‘Okay. That’s not as good as a no and not as bad as a yes.’

Not as good as a no. Not as bad as a yes. As good as a no. As bad as a yes. To Richie, there was a right answer and a wrong answer, like in a math problem. To Eddie, it seemed so much more complicated, like a ten thousand word history dissertation.

There were a lot of bad things which instantly sprang to mind attached to a no, but clearly to Richie there were a lot of good things too. Eddie hadn’t really thought about those beyond the obsessive loop in his head which replayed their kisses in visceral detail, beyond the part of him which craved another.

‘Would you do it again?’ Eddie asked.

Richie raised his eyebrow suggestively. ‘Is that a question or a request?’

‘A question,’ Eddie clarified quickly, indignantly.

Licking his lower lip, letting himself imagine it, Richie said, ‘Yes, I would, but I doubt that’s much of a surprise.’

Still, Eddie needed to hear it. Not because he didn’t know that it would be Richie’s answer, but because he wanted to know how it would make him feel. The answer: somehow both hot and cold, like on the rare occasion when he really had a high fever, when the sweat trickled down his spine and froze across his forehead, when he shivered even though he was shrouded in blankets.

‘Would you do it again?’ Richie asked, a tremor of fear creeping into his voice. He dispelled it by adding, ‘That’s a question,’ with a wry smirk.

Eddie hated that his answer remained the same as for the previous. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Okay,’ Richie sighed, sitting up. ‘Elaborate.’

‘Elaborate?’

Richie shuffled. ‘Why don’t you know? What don’t you know? What’s the thought process?’

Eddie looked at him. He thought about how easy it would be to lean over and press their lips together again, knowing that Richie would accept his kiss. He wondered what he would do if Richie dared to come to him, if he saw his face hovering in front of him, whether he would be able to stop him or if he would succumb.

‘I feel like we shouldn’t do it again,’ Eddie said quietly. 

Heart sinking, Richie just said, ‘Oh.’

Finding Richie’s sad eyes broke something in Eddie. ‘We shouldn’t,’ he said again, ‘but –’

There was a pause where Richie tried to wait for Eddie to continue of his own accord. Eventually, it became too much for him to bear. ‘But?’

‘I want to,’ Eddie admitted, throat constricting around the last word so that it barely escaped his mouth.

It took every ounce of self-control within his core to keep Richie rooted to the spot, to keep him silent.

Eddie let himself submit to the fantasy, as he had done so many times that weekend. ‘I can’t stop thinking about it.’

‘Really?’ Richie stammered, fighting to resist the pull that Eddie had on him and losing.

‘I can’t stop thinking.’ Eddie almost considered ending his sentence there, since it was true. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking, not for a moment, and he’d still never got as close to an answer as in the few minutes that Richie had been sat again in front of him. He finished, ‘About you.’

‘Careful, Eds,’ Richie warned, leaning closer, ‘or I will do it again.’

Unconsciously, Eddie licked his lips as he mirrored Richie, synchronised. ‘Would you?’ he asked. Then, to alleviate his own tension, he added, ‘That’s a request.’

There was a flash of a grin that spread across Richie’s face, before he pressed his mouth to Eddie’s gleefully. His hand drew up to Eddie’s jaw, tracing its arc with his thumb. Tensing as Eddie raised a hand as though to push him away, he pulled back, unsure if he could take that rejection twice.

‘What?’ Eddie asked nervously, as he pressed the flat of his palm softly to Richie’s chest.

‘Nothing,’ Richie dismissed, then kissed him again, harder, hoisting his leg up and over Eddie’s thighs to straddle him, arms pinned either side of his head. He tore off his glasses and flung them onto the other pillow.

Eddie let his hands slip from Richie’s chest upwards until they nestled into the knotted curls on the back of his head. He felt both like he was trapped by Richie and guarded by him, weighed down and suspended, as their lips came together again and again.

‘Fuck,’ Richie gushed, opening his blue eyes to find Eddie’s brown ones staring up at him.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie agreed, surprising even himself.

A thousand intimate touches threaded through Richie’s mind, but he didn’t quite feel that he could make them yet. Three words cycled around his brain, forming behind his teeth in the hollows of his mouth; he forced them back down.

‘Eddie, tell me that you want to keep doing this,’ Richie entreated, his voice low and guttural. ‘I’m not crazy, am I? This is good.’

It did something to Eddie when he spoke like that. He’d heard a thousand imitations and accents spill out of Richie’s mouth, but this was new. It seemed like a voice that had been reserved only for him.

‘You’re not crazy,’ Eddie assured. ‘It feels,’ he inhaled sharply, backtracking. ‘I want to.’   

‘Thank fuck.’

Richie kissed him again. As he started to pull away, he felt Eddie’s neck craning away from the pillow, trying to sustain the kiss for as long as possible. He sat up and raked a hand through his hair, looking down and seeing Eddie underneath him, disbelieving and euphoric.

‘Alright, I should probably go before your mom gets jealous.’

Eddie regarded him with contempt and pushed him off his body. ‘Gross, Richie. A new level of gross.’

Richie snickered, ‘Oh, this opens up so many more avenues. There are layers now.’

‘God, I hate you,’ Eddie said breathily, and he’d never said it quite like that before.

‘I’ll see you at school,’ Richie said, climbing off the bed. ‘Oh, and we’re going to the movies next week. All the Losers, I mean. Thursday, I think.’

Eddie followed him to the door. ‘Sure,’ he said, trying to reconcile the Richie he had kissed with the Richie who was his friend. They seemed like different people in his head. Still, he couldn’t avoid the Losers forever, else they would know something was wrong, and the last thing he wanted was for anyone to start asking questions. ‘Sounds good.’

‘Night, Spaghetti,’ Richie said.

Eddie rolled his eyes, ‘Night, Trashmouth.’

Richie dithered for a moment, then quickly pressed his lips to Eddie’s cheek, and left.

The colour flushed up into Eddie’s face as Richie vanished. Instinctively he drew a hand up to his face, dancing his fingers over the space where Richie had kissed him, as though it were imprinted there in scarlet lipstick, or it had left a bruise.

He turned around and stared at his bed, thinking about the fact that he’d been lying there, with Richie on top of him, Richie’s mouth on his, his hands in Richie’s hair. He kept hearing the soft tut of their kisses, kept feeling Richie’s shallow breaths against his skin, kept tasting him even now as he licked his lips.

‘What the fuck?’ Eddie mouthed to himself, locking his hands behind his head. ‘The fuck am I doing?’

Chapter Text

‘Morning,’ Richie greeted, his shoulder crashing noisily into the closed locker beside Eddie’s. The guitar was strapped to his back. Of course it was.

‘Morning,’ Eddie returned, trying not to look at him too long. ‘Got a lesson?’

‘Yeah, but I’m gonna have lunch with you today.’ He blushed, then rambled, ‘You all. All of you.’

For once, Eddie wouldn’t have hated it if Richie had been absent. That meant that lunchtime would be the first time that they were all hanging out together. He’d hoped it would be the movie theatre later that week, where he wouldn’t be obliged to talk much and could sit as far away from Richie as possible.

‘You don’t have to,’ Eddie said as Richie went to his own locker and slipped the guitar inside, then gathered his books.

‘I want to, Eds,’ Richie promised, smiling at him. It was a soft smile.

‘Don’t call me Eds,’ he said, searching for the normalcy he needed.

Bill blundered over, his arm around Bev. ‘Honestly, you sh-should just give in at this p-point.’

‘Morning, Billiam,’ Richie grinned.

‘Bill’s right,’ Bev agreed, chuckling. ‘Nicknames stick.’

Saluting, Richie said, ‘Ringwald.’ Then, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, he threw his arm over Eddie’s shoulder.

A week ago, Eddie would have thought nothing of it, even enjoyed the weight of Richie’s arm around his neck, almost protective. Now he was noticing the way that Richie’s fingertips grazed his collarbone, the way Richie’s bony hip bumped into his side, the scent of his laundry detergent.

He looked over at Bev and Bill, in the same position. The lines of Richie’s song came back to him:

I’ll wrap my arm around your shoulder

The only way I get to hold ya.

Still, he didn’t know if he could shrug Richie off without it being obvious to his friends that something had happened between them. So he just started to walk, trying to join in with the conversation as though it were any other day. 

‘Right,’ Richie said as he relinquished Eddie, needing to head further up the corridor to a different classroom. ‘See you all at lunch.’ He blew each of them a kiss in turn, reserving Eddie for last, to whom he also threw a wink.

Mortified, Eddie wandered into the class and quickly sat down. Having kissed Bev lightly in the hallway before she went into the room opposite, Bill came and sat beside him.

‘Are you alright, m-mate?’ he asked.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said, ‘I’m fine.’

Secrets ached to spill out. Richie writes his own music. Richie can sing. Richie wrote a song about me. Richie likes boys. Richie likes me. Richie loves me. Richie kissed me. Richie kissed me again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

‘You sure? We m-missed you this w-weekend.’

The secrets kept coming. I wanted him to kiss me. I let him kiss me. I kissed him back. I want to kiss him again. I will kiss him again. I like kissing him.

‘I said I’m fine,’ Eddie said curtly. To curb the questions against him, he asked, ‘What movie are we seeing this week?’ He didn’t listen to the answer.

A final secret popped into his head. Not even a secret he knew he had, not a thought he had uncovered before. Probably the biggest secret of them all.

I like that he likes me.

 

---

 

‘Long time no see,’ Ben said, raising his eyebrows at Eddie when he sat down at lunch. ‘Manage to get all your work done?’

‘Just about,’ Eddie mumbled, his eyes flicking up and down as Richie slid onto the bench opposite him.

‘What were you stuck on?’ Stan asked. ‘I could have helped.’

Richie cocked his head, chewing. ‘It was a math problem, wasn’t it, Eds?’

‘No,’ Eddie said, glaring at him.

‘Was it that Biology stuff from Miss Keenan?’ Stan asked. ‘That was a bitch.’

Eddie nodded, happy to jump on any alternate answer. ‘Yeah, I’d just put it off all week.’

‘Hey, Spaghetti man,’ Richie said, poking his arm, grinning from ear to ear. ‘What makes me like Biology homework?’

‘That you’re annoying and I wish you’d go away?’ Eddie said through gritted teeth.

‘Nope,’ Richie smirked. ‘You can do me on a desk all night and then your mom will check me out.’

Bill shot milk out of his nose as he and Bev roared into laughter. The milk only made her laugh more. Stan stared him down disapprovingly as Ben hiccoughed on his food, and Mike chuckled, ‘My God, Eddie, your face is a picture right now.’

Eddie’s jaw had dropped open in pure disbelief that Richie would even dare to make such a joke in his presence. He picked a rogue crumb from between his teeth with his tongue and blinked at him steadily. ‘Well, I’ve lost my appetite,’ he feigned sarcasm.

‘I could do with a cigarette,’ Bev announced.

‘Me too,’ Richie concurred. ‘Gonna pop to the bathroom first, though.’

‘Me too,’ Eddie said, standing up with his tray and flashing his eyes at him.

Richie gulped and followed Eddie to dispense their trash and then out into the hall. They walked in silence to the bathroom.

Eddie checked that they were alone, then turned to him angrily, jabbing a finger in his chest. ‘You need to stop.’

‘Stop what?’ Richie asked, batting his eyelashes.

‘You know what,’ Eddie said, screwing his nose up. ‘All your nicknames and your teasing and your jokes and your touching.’

Richie leaned against the lip of the sink. ‘You mean, stop doing all the stuff that we always do, every day of our lives?’

‘We don’t,’ Eddie started, then stopped, realising he had no argument down that strain. ‘It’s different now.’

Richie cocked an eyebrow coyly, ‘Is it?’

‘Isn’t it?’ Eddie spat back, but he was asking himself as much as he was Richie. Quieter, but no less angry, he stammered, ‘It should be different.’

‘Should it?’

‘Yes!’ Eddie gasped. ‘Fucking Christ, you’re driving me up the wall.’

Richie pouted, ‘Didn’t I always?’

‘Stop looking so fucking smug,’ Eddie hissed, stepping closer to him, furious with the expression on Richie’s face, hating that he was so clearly enjoying riling him up like he always did, hating especially how palpable he felt the tension stretched between them.

‘Smug is my default,’ Richie joked, smiling as he leaned forwards slightly.

Suddenly nervous, Eddie’s voice dropped, ‘Well, knock it off. It’s infuriating.’

Richie locked his eyes, ‘What’s infuriating is that I can’t kiss you right now.’

Eddie huffed, exasperated. It was not the time or place for Richie to get flirtatious and yet the audacity of it made his heart flutter. ‘How did you use to manage?’

‘I teased you,’ Richie said carefully. ‘I made jokes.’ He grazed his hand up Eddie’s wrist, ‘Touched you.’

Shivering, Eddie breathed, ‘But you do that all the time.’

‘Yeah, I know.’ He sighed, gripping Eddie’s forearm.

‘Then I guess we’re fucked,’ Eddie said, shaking as he slipped his arm from Richie’s hold. He walked out.

 

---

 

‘Where’s Eddie?’ Richie asked, slurping soda to hide his anxiety.

He had barely seen Eddie since Monday lunchtime, as Eddie had made a conscious effort to avoid him. He’d taken the opportunity to return to the music block at lunchtime to play so that he didn’t have to deal with Eddie ignoring him directly.

‘I’m here,’ Eddie said, appearing beside him, his eyelids low.

‘Richie got you a popcorn,’ Ben said, smiling.

Eddie mumbled, ‘Course he did. Thanks.’ He looked at the container in Richie’s hands. ‘A sharing bucket?’

He shrugged, ‘It’s cheaper than two smalls.’

Math problem. ‘Fine,’ Eddie sighed. ‘You know the rule. Wash up. I don’t know where you’ve been.’

‘Ask your mom,’ Richie grinned.

‘Fuck you.’

Bev chuckled, ‘You guys never change.’

‘We’ll save you b-both a seat,’ Bill promised.

Bev’s words rotated in Eddie’s brain. They’d always been like this, in her mind. They’d always been like this in everyone’s mind. Only now he recognised how overtly Richie was flirting with him, how often he made excuses to be near him, how much attention he devoted to him. It seemed so obvious; he wondered how he had ever missed it. He wondered if the other Losers could see it too.

Eddie washed his hands stoically beside Richie, glaring at the popcorn.

‘It’s supposed to be a peace offering,’ Richie said gently.

‘Let’s just watch the fucking movie.’ Eddie said, drying his hands and trying to leave.

Richie grabbed for his wrist. ‘Look, Eds, the last thing I want to do is actually piss you off or make you uncomfortable.’

‘Well, you did. I am,’ Eddie wrenched from his grasp.

‘I’ll stop,’ Richie said quickly, his heart throbbing at the idea that he, of all people, had hurt Eddie. ‘With the jokes.’

Eddie stared at him. ‘What?’

‘I’ll stop. I’ll leave you alone. I’ll give you space.’ He laughed, ‘Fuck, I’ll ignore you, if you want.’

Eddie could see that he meant it, and that was bizarre to see. Usually, Richie worked tirelessly to get the biggest reaction out of Eddie that he could. He relished making Eddie irate, forcing himself into his personal space and slowly grinding his patience down.

‘I don’t want to screw up, Eds,’ Richie said honestly.

Knowing that he needed to act normal in front of his friends for the duration of a movie and that they didn’t have the time now, Eddie suggested, softening, ‘Let’s talk about it later, okay?’

‘Okay,’ Richie nodded. ‘Sure.’ A conversation was better than Eddie storming away or snubbing him, a big step in the right direction. Progress.

They went into the dark cinema screening, locating the Losers on the back row, where they had managed to secure seven seats all together. There were two on the end for Richie and Eddie, in the back corner. They squeezed past everyone’s legs and sat down, setting the bucket of popcorn on the arm rest between them.

As the movie went on, Bill and Bev started to hold hands and periodically kiss beside them. Richie stared at them with violent, burning envy, stuffing his face with popcorn. He hated how easy it had been for them, how they could be together so freely, without having to answer so many hard questions about themselves along the way.

Eddie noticed that Richie was subdued. Overindulgence was one of the signs, as was his restless knee. He thought about the look that he had seen in Richie’s eyes when he’d told Eddie that he didn’t want to screw up: fear. Eddie remembered that they were both afraid. They were just afraid of different things.

It’s only you that I’m afraid for

There’s no one that I wouldn’t trade for

Surreptitiously, Eddie brought his hand down onto the seat beside him, beneath the armrest. He extended his fingers enough to graze the side of Richie’s leg. He flinched instinctively but didn’t glance away from the screen.

After a second, Richie slid his own hand down, so that his smallest finger brushed against Eddie’s. Richie flicked his eyes to the side and saw that Eddie was looking at him. He didn’t move, his eyes scanning Eddie’s profile.

Slowly, Eddie twisted his wrist and burrowed his hand under Richie’s. Each nerve ending in their fingertips sizzled with energy as they laced their fingers together. As Richie gently grazed his thumb back and forth over Eddie’s, they exhaled raggedly, inaudibly.

The remainder of the popcorn went untouched.

 

---

 

Eddie woke to a tapping at his window. He blinked in disbelief as he saw Richie waving, propping himself up by the branch of the tree outside. Rapidly clambering out of bed, he raised the window.

‘Richie, are you insane?’ he hissed.

‘Let me in,’ Richie grinned.

‘What? No!’ Eddie furrowed his brow. ‘It’s like two in the morning.’

Richie recited, ‘You said you wanted to talk later.’

Eddie yawned, ‘I meant like a hypothetical later. Tomorrow, for instance.’

‘Technically,’ Richie said, cocking his head, ‘it is tomorrow.’

Sighing, Eddie stepped back, ‘Get in for fuck’s sake. Before you fall to your death.’

He did. ‘That’d be something to explain, eh?’

‘Please be quiet,’ Eddie begged, wincing at every step Richie made. ‘If my mom catches you we’ll both be dead.’

‘Like Romeo and Juliet,’ Richie mooned, swanning over to him.

Through gritted teeth, Eddie growled, ‘You’re not funny.’

Richie smiled as he stepped directly in front of Eddie, ‘Hi.’

‘Hi, asshat,’ Eddie said, catching Richie’s infectious smile. Giddy from the thrill of having someone in his bedroom without his mother’s permission, let alone someone that his mother hated and would hate more if she only knew, Eddie craned his chin up to kiss him, sliding his hands around Richie’s waist.

Richie brought his hand to Eddie’s neck, surprised at the greeting. They’d never kissed on arrival before. He hoped that it was a sign that Eddie was forgiving him, but he knew they still had to talk about it.

‘I’m sorry,’ Richie said. ‘For the jokes and stuff. There’s probably a line and I just don’t know where it is anymore.’

Eddie thought, ‘I’m not sure either. But jokes that directly refer to,’ he paused, ‘whatever it is that’s happening are definitely out.’

Pouting, Richie agreed, ‘Yeah, okay. I guess, fuck, I’m just a bit excited, Eds. I thought, in a twisted way, that you might find it kinda fun.’

‘Maybe it would be if we were both in the same place,’ Eddie said carefully, ‘but we’re not. You have such a huge head start on me and I’m not even sure I’m in the same race.’

‘It’s not a race.’

Eddie sighed, ‘My point is that I need time.’

‘Okay,’ Richie nodded, and Eddie visibly relaxed. ‘Do you want me to dial it back or stop completely?’

‘I don’t want you to stop being you, and I don’t want our friendship to change, so I don’t want you to stop completely, but it does need to seriously dial back.’

Richie tried to ignore the possibly dangerous sentiment sandwiched in what Eddie had just said: I don’t want our friendship to change. He distracted himself. ‘So I get to kiss you in private and occasionally insult you in public?’

Eddie rolled his eyes. ‘This is like icing on the fucking cupcake for you, isn’t it?’

‘Are you saying you’re a cupcake?’ Richie batted his eyelashes.

Grimacing, Eddie walked away from him, ‘No, Richie. It’s a fucking metaphor.’

‘My new nickname for you?’ he laughed darkly, chasing after him. ‘Cupcake?’

His eyes wide, Eddie swore, ‘I will kill you if you dare.’

Richie caught him, hauling his body closer. ‘I didn’t mean in public.’

‘I don’t care,’ Eddie shook his head, miming vomiting. ‘You are never calling me fucking cupcake.’ He laughed, settling into Richie’s embrace. ‘Spaghetti is bad enough as it is.’

‘Spaghetti fits you better anyway,’ Richie’s cheeks coloured, knowing that Eddie was going to hate the joke he was going to make, but was too pleased about to keep to himself.

‘Why?’ Eddie asked, dotting kisses along the line of Richie’s jaw.

‘Because you’re straight,’ he spluttered, ‘until I –’

Pulling back, Eddie glared at him, his cheeks burning. ‘I should have pushed you out of the window.’

Laughing nervously, Richie said, ‘I feel like that was the line. I found it.’

‘You’re on thin fucking ice, Tozier,’ Eddie said. ‘That was way over the line.’ He let Richie stew in the panic for another second, then smiled, knowing Richie hadn’t meant harm by it.

If anything, the joke actually alleviated some of Eddie’s concern. Maybe he really could still be straight and have Richie be the exception to the rule. Besides, it was only kissing. Kissing didn’t have to mean anything.

Snickering, Richie chucked Eddie’s chin, ‘I will warn you that if I can’t make as many jokes at your expense in public then it’s going to get way, way worse when we’re alone.’

‘Then I’ll have to find a way to make you shut up before you say something stupid.’

You’re the only way to shut me up.

Because I will never tell you.

‘That’s probably a good idea,’ Richie said, grazing his nose against Eddie’s.

Eddie kissed him. He wasn’t sure if it was the tiredness laying heavy in his bones, the thick night air or the growing familiarity of Richie’s lips on his, but he sunk into the kiss deeper than he ever had before, letting himself enjoy it, draping his arms around Richie’s neck.

Richie felt electric. His hands moved down from Eddie’s waist to his hips, slipping just underneath the hem of Eddie’s shirt to rest on the bare skin, grazing his thumb above the elastic of Eddie’s pyjama bottoms. When Eddie showed no resistance, he let his hand slide up under Eddie’s shirt, along the contours of his abdomen.

The touch stirred something primal in Eddie. He snatched his lips from Richie’s and even as Richie whined, trying to find them again, Eddie didn’t allow him the satisfaction. Instead, he brought his hand around underneath Richie’s jaw and pushed it upwards, exposing his throat.

As Eddie’s lips trailed down his neck, Richie had to bite his lip to keep from whimpering, inhaling in short, sharp bursts as his nails dug into Eddie’s sides. Eventually he had to grab Eddie’s face with both his hands to get him to stop, as his blood was pooling southwards at an alarming speed. He kissed him softly, trying to slow them down.

It worked, and Eddie wasn’t sure if he was grateful or left wanting as they halted.

‘I imagine you need me to go home at some point,’ Richie said.

Eddie glanced over at the window. ‘I don’t want you to try and climb down in the dark.’

‘I climbed up in the dark,’ Richie countered. ‘Besides, what’s the alternative? It’s not like I can go out the front door.’

Flashing his eyes to his bedroom door, as though Sonia Kaspbrak could be standing on the other side of it, Eddie said, ‘You can stay here. We’ll figure a way to sneak you out in the morning.’

Terrified, Richie asked, ‘Really?’

Eddie wasn’t even sure what he was saying at this point; he was so exhausted. He went to the dresser and threw Richie a pair of his pyjamas. ‘Here.’

‘These won’t fit,’ Richie complained.

Blushing, Eddie insisted, ‘Well, you’re wearing something so it’s either what you’ve got on or my pyjamas. Your call.’

‘Can’t argue with that.’ Richie said, and chose the pyjamas.

They stood on different sides of the bed, turned towards their respective walls as they changed. Both tried not to think about the brief moments where chests and legs would be exposed. Eddie gave into a curious urge to glance over his shoulder and watched as Richie tugged the collar of his shirt from behind his neck to remove his shirt.

He’d seen Richie’s bare back before, of course, when they’d been down to swim in the quarry, for instance, so he didn’t know why it felt so different to see it now, to watch the shoulder blades shift underneath his skin, the flex and relax of his muscles, the appearance and disappearance of the nodules of his spine.

Once he had the sleep shirt on, Richie turned around and caught Eddie looking at him, who immediately flushed scarlet and pretended he hadn’t been. Richie wasn’t going to let it slide. ‘What you looking at, Eds?’

‘Nothing,’ Eddie squeaked, scurrying under his duvet. ‘Sorry.’

‘You can look,’ Richie said, climbing in beside him, taking off his glasses. ‘I don’t mind.’

Eddie choked, ‘But I shouldn’t.’

Richie groaned, crashing down onto the pillow. ‘Why not?’

Seeing Richie remove his shirt had flooded Eddie with guilt. It had become temporarily impersonal, unemotional, physical. He’d been bombarded with his own internal monologue, berating him for looking at his friend that way. It wasn’t like when they kissed, when Eddie had his eyes closed and was stimulated by Richie’s touch, when he stopped thinking and just listened, felt.

‘I shouldn’t want this.’

‘This?’ Richie rocked his head to the side to look at Eddie’s face in profile.

‘Us,’ Eddie said, without thinking.

Richie’s heart swelled. ‘There’s an ‘us’?’

‘No. I mean, not yet.’

‘Yet?’

‘Well, I don’t know what this is yet, what we are yet, if anything,’ Eddie said quickly, trying to shut the ideas down in Richie’s mind, but it was too late and he was saying the wrong things.

Biting his lip as though between his teeth he held his last thread of hope, Richie asked, ‘Is there a chance that it’s nothing?’

‘Richie,’ Eddie begged, closing his eyes.

He pressed, ‘Is there?’

Somehow Eddie found the strength to look at him. There was that fear in his eyes again, eyes that he felt tearing through his skin, desperate to reach something buried deep inside him. Eddie looked at the lips he had kissed and would kiss again, feeling the coil in his stomach thread itself into a knot.

‘I need to know,’ Richie said quietly.

Richie’s face. Richie’s face that he knew better than his own, that had greeted him almost every day since they were little. Richie’s face that until he heard the song, had just been a face that he liked, a friendly face, a familiar face. He’d never let himself think about Richie in any other way.

I’ve memorised the valleys of your face

Could sing the notes in how you say my name.

‘Eddie?’

Now that the wall had come down, now that he knew how Richie felt, now that he knew what it was like to have Richie kiss him, that face looked entirely different. It glowed, and Eddie could lose himself in those doting eyes, craved the touch of his lips, felt hot and scared and aching.

Eddie exhaled heavily, rolling onto his side to face him. He slid a hand around Richie’s neck and felt the rapid rate of his pulse. ‘No,’ he said, his own fear writhing inside him. ‘It’s not nothing.’

‘It’s not?’

‘I don’t see how it could be,’ Eddie sighed.

Richie pushed, ‘Why not?’

‘Because it would be so much easier to not do this, Rich,’ Eddie strained. ‘It would be smarter. Safer.’ He hated the word he was about to say, ‘Cleaner.’

‘Cleaner?’

His voice thick, Eddie said, ‘This is so fucking messy, Richie. It’s already so fucking messy and fuck, it could get way messier. Like you said before, we’re gambling. And we have a lot to fucking lose. Our friends. Our parents.’ He struggled, as so many other things tumbled through his mind that he couldn’t even bear to say, ‘Each other.’

‘Hey,’ Richie said, reaching for Eddie and pulling him close. ‘Listen to me, okay? No matter what, I swear you won’t lose me. Even if this was nothing, you wouldn’t lose me. Even if you break my fucking heart. Even if you woke up in the morning and told me you want to forget the whole thing.’

Eddie’s lower lip trembled. ‘Okay.’

Hopelessly, Richie breathed, ‘I loved you before this started and I’ll still love you tomorrow, and as long as you want me around, I will be.’

Eddie expected himself to be scared, had dreaded the idea of Richie actually referencing that he loved him to his face, thinking it too real, too serious, too intense, a step far beyond what he was able to process. But when the moment actually came, Eddie felt peaceful.

‘Technically,’ Eddie sniffed, ‘it is tomorrow.’

‘And I’m here,’ Richie promised, his last word falling into Eddie’s mouth as Eddie kissed him once more.

Chapter Text

When Eddie woke to the rattle of his alarm, he felt the noise echoing inside his body. Richie was still in his bed, lying beside him, and he needed to get out quickly. Richie groaned as the alarm disturbed him, and as his eyes stickily opened, Eddie noticed a moment of confusion before he remembered where he was.

‘Morning,’ Eddie squeaked.

‘Shit,’ Richie muttered.

‘Eddie!’ Sonia Kaspbrak called from the other end of the hall. ‘Are you up, sweetheart?’

Eddie called back tremulously, scrambling out of bed, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m up.’

‘What do I do?’ Richie whispered.

Sonia boomed again, ‘Do you want to shower first?’

‘Uh, yeah,’ Eddie responded, then hissed at Richie, ‘Get dressed. When she’s in the bathroom we can sneak you out the front door.’

Richie nodded and climbed out of the bed, reaching for his clothes. By the time he turned around, Eddie had vanished into the hallway, and he instantly started to panic. The only comfort was knowing that his own parents would have left the house so early for work that they wouldn’t notice Richie hadn’t spent the night there.

‘Do you have any laundry?’ Sonia called, and Richie’s stomach dropped.

‘No!’ Eddie cried desperately from the bathroom.

‘I’ll just go and check,’ Sonia insisted, and Richie heard her elephant feet thudding menacingly along the corridor.

Out of options, Richie darted for the window, hauled it open, and gripped onto the branches of the tree. He prayed his sweating palms would not weaken his grip as he let his feet slip from the window sill. Through the pane, he watched Sonia open the bedroom door. If she turned, she would see him dangling there.

As fast as he could manage, he inched along the branch to the tree trunk, and hastily descended, hoping that he hadn’t been spotted. His feet squished into the grass and his body quivered with adrenaline. He dusted his hands on his jeans and considered bolting but then, with a smirk, he leaned himself up against the brickwork and waited.

When Eddie came out of the bathroom, after what might have been the briefest shower of his life, he darted back into his bedroom and was stunned to find Richie gone, after peering into his wardrobe and under his bed. Hastily, he dressed, wondering where else in his house Richie might be.

The doorbell rang. Eddie pelted downstairs calling, ‘I’ll answer it, mom.’ He swung open the door.

‘Morning, Eds,’ Richie grinned. ‘Ready to go?’

Relief swathed through Eddie as Sonia reappeared at the top of the stairs. ‘Good morning, Richie,’ she said through pursed lips. She’d hoped that her son would have grown out of Richie by now, but as the years had gone by they’d only grown closer, much to her chagrin.

‘Not ready just yet,’ Eddie said carefully, opening the door for him. ‘Do you want toast?’

After they ate and Eddie’s hair began to air-dry, they slipped out of the house. Eddie grabbed his bike and walked it the distance to Richie’s house so that Richie could grab his own vehicle.

‘Why the fuck wouldn’t you just let her shower first and get me out of there?’ Richie chided as they mounted.

Eddie pulled a face, ‘Would you want to use a shower straight after my mom?’

‘I often shower with your mom. It’s one of her favourite spots.’

‘You’re the worst,’ Eddie said. ‘Smooth going, though. Getting out.’

Richie beamed, ‘I’m actually really proud of myself.’

Eddie frowned, ‘Although you are wearing the same clothes as yesterday.’

Scoffing, Richie complained, ‘It’s not like I brought an overnight bag. I haven’t brushed my fucking teeth either.’

‘Gross,’ Eddie mumbled. ‘Still, you could have borrowed a shirt, Rich.’

‘Nah, you’re too little,’ Richie teased. ‘It’d be like a crop-top on me.’

‘Fuck off.’

Richie smiled at him softly, ‘No one will notice.’

As they rode, Eddie scolded himself for taking such a risk, for offering Richie a bed for the night. If his mother had caught them, then he dreaded to think what might have happened. He didn’t know really why he had done it, outside of his concern for Richie descending via the window, which he knew Richie probably could have managed without breaking his legs.

If he wanted to see Richie again, alone and in secret, then there had to be some kind of structure, some kind of plan, some escape route. Richie’s spontaneity could be dangerous for them both if he continued to turn up unannounced.

They pulled up outside the school grounds and went to chain their bikes. As they leaned down to the wheels to lock them, Eddie whispered, ‘When can I next see you?’

Shocked, Richie snapped his head up and knocked it against his handlebars. ‘Fuck,’ he seethed, then suggested, ‘Tonight too soon?’

Eddie shook his head disapprovingly, standing up. ‘You’re so fucking keen.’

‘Would you rather I played hard to get?’ Richie grinned.

‘Not tonight,’ Eddie said, fighting his own smile. ‘I’ve got plans later with Bill. What about the weekend?’

Richie trilled his lips, ‘I’m working double shifts.’

‘Well, I can’t do evenings next week. I’ve got this stupid chemistry project,’ Eddie groaned. ‘Stan and I are going to do it together.’

‘Kinky,’ Richie joked, and Eddie hit him.

‘Have to be next weekend then,’ Eddie said, glancing over his shoulder to check that nobody was listening in on their conversation.

Richie grumbled, ‘That’s so long to wait.’

Eddie wondered how long Richie had been waiting up to this point. ‘You’ll live,’ he said, rolling his eyes as he turned to walk away.

‘Don’t be so sure,’ Richie challenged, and followed him into the building.

Remembering the conversation they had shared, Richie itched to throw his arms around Eddie’s shoulder, but fought the urge. If Eddie wanted him to dial it back, then Richie would, especially if doing so resulted in Eddie’s deep kisses and offers to spend the night.

He tingled when he relived the moment Eddie asked when he could see him again, already thinking about a next time, wanting a next time, knowing there would be a next time. His gut gurgled when he considered how many days and nights had to pass before then.

It was so much harder to think of waiting mere days now than it had been before. He figured that it was because he knew that the next kiss was coming, rather than an endless stretch of never. It was tangible now; something real and satisfying.

At their lockers, Stan came over, raising his eyebrows. ‘No guitar today, Richie? Never thought I’d see the day.’

Richie had dropped it home before the movies yesterday and forgotten to pick it up this morning. ‘Broke a string,’ he lied, slamming the locker shut.

Eddie stared at him, concerned at the ease of this convincing falsehood, but Richie didn’t catch his eye.

‘You got a replacement?’ Stan asked, pouting.

Richie nodded, ‘Oh, yeah. I’ve got G-strings lying all over my bedroom.’

Bev laughed as she sidled up beside him, ‘Yeah. It’s just a pity that they’re all yours.’

‘Not mine,’ Richie laughed, then snapped his fingers at Stan, ‘but tell your mom I do plan on returning them at some point.’

Stan blinked at him, ‘Don’t you mean Eddie’s mom?’

Richie shook his head, recovering, ‘No, my darling Sonia doesn’t bother with underwear.’

Eddie frowned, ‘Fuck you.’

Without so much as looking at him, Richie threw his arm around Bev’s shoulder. ‘Where’s Big Bill?’ he asked.

Bev shrugged, ‘Haven’t seen him yet. Maybe he’s running late.’

‘Then I shall escort you to class, m’lady,’ he offered in a horrendous British accent.

‘Are you out of cigs or something?’ she asked, laughing at the gesture. ‘Do you need to bum one later?’

‘Could I?’ he scrunched up his nose, and they started to wander off down the corridor.

As Eddie and Stan walked behind them, Eddie stared at the back of Richie’s head, decidedly shaken. Since they’d stepped through the thresholds of the school, Richie hadn’t looked at him, hadn’t touched him, hadn’t even directly talked to him. The jibe against his mom had even felt impersonal, a force of habit or a necessary addition following Stan’s query. It was jarring.

‘Chem project next week,’ Stan stated plainly at Eddie as the group hovered outside the classrooms. ‘Still want to do it together?’

Eddie waited for Richie to make a joke, presumably the same joke which he’d made to Eddie in private earlier, but he didn’t. ‘Yeah, sure.’ He tested, ‘Do you want to do it in the library?’ There was no reaction.  

‘Or should we do it at my house?’ Stan said.

Still nothing. ‘Sure, let’s do it at yours,’ Eddie said, and Stan left.

Richie shot Eddie a look as a tardy Bill jogged up the corridor to greet Bev, prising her from Richie’s grasp. As the couple took a moment to themselves to kiss, Richie sidled past Eddie close enough to whisper, ‘Fucking hell, Eds. You’re killing me.’ Then he was gone.

The grin spread across Eddie’s face before he could stop it. He breathed, then went to class.

 

---

 

At lunchtime, Eddie slid into the seat opposite Richie. He flashed his eyes up at Eddie quickly, once, then went back to eating. Even the briefest eye-contact sent a crackle through Eddie’s spine. The other Losers gradually crowded onto the benches.

‘Richie, are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday?’ Bev asked, and Eddie instinctively tensed.

‘Yeah,’ he said, through a mouthful of his burger.

‘Why?’ Stan asked, scowling.

‘Still clean,’ Richie shrugged. ‘How dirty do you think I am?’

Stan cocked an eyebrow, ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’

‘Point taken,’ Richie chuckled, then elaborated, ‘Less clothes means less laundry for me to do.’

‘You d-do your o-own laundry?’ Bill asked incredulously.

Self-righteously, Richie batted his eyelashes, ‘Some of us help around the house.’

Stan furrowed his brow, ‘But that would imply you’re a good person.’

‘Has to even out his karma somehow, I guess,’ Eddie said, and by way of concurrence, Richie winked at Stan, who scowled.

Mike chuckled, ‘You must do a lot of laundry.’

Ben suggested, ‘Maybe you should start doing the neighbours’ too.’

‘Or,’ Richie countered, ‘I could just do their laundry.’

As the Losers dispersed, Eddie and Richie went back to their lockers to pick up their books for the afternoon’s lessons. Eddie glanced at him, then away. Richie mimicked him seconds later, then grumbled, ‘Now I have to start doing my own fucking laundry.’

Eddie snorted a laugh. ‘You beginning to wonder if it’s worth it?’

Licking his lower lip, Richie scanned his eyes over Eddie, who went pink as he felt Richie’s gaze on him. ‘Not a fucking chance. The things I’d do for you, Eds,’ he trailed off as he closed his locker and walked away.

Swallowing, Eddie watched him go. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he mumbled to himself, then closed his locker.

 

---

 

At the end of the day, Eddie found Richie again by their bicycles. ‘Hey,’ he greeted.

‘Hey,’ Richie smiled at him, and Eddie smiled back.

Bill leaned over the wall, ‘We s-still on f-for later, Eddie?’

Flinching, Eddie turned and nodded, ‘I’ll be over after dinner.’ Bill shot him a thumbs up, then trotted away, and Eddie climbed onto his bike, cycling down to the road.

Richie followed, pushing against the incline so that he could draw up alongside Eddie. Safely out of the earshot of any other students, Richie said, ‘So, I dialled it back.’

Flushing, Eddie concurred, ‘You did. I’m impressed.’

‘It’s not fucking easy,’ Richie laughed.

‘You made it look easy,’ Eddie said honestly.

Richie smirked, ‘It’s part of my charm. Everything I do seems effortless.’

‘Fuck off,’ Eddie laughed as they drew up outside Richie’s house. They arced up the driveway and into Richie’s garage. Eddie leaned to rest his foot on the ground to halt and released the handle to rake a hand through his hair. ‘Guess I’ll see you at school next week.’

Dismounting, Richie leaned his bike against the wall. He looked at Eddie, then looked at the bright world beyond the open garage door, back again. With a sigh, he said, ‘Man, I wish I could kiss you.’

Eddie let his bike clatter to the ground and went to the threshold of the garage, where a cord hung down. He yanked it and the slats noisily slotted down, cradling them in the darkness.

‘Surprised you could reach,’ Richie teased.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ Eddie hissed, pushing against his chest and slamming him into the wall. He kissed him desperately, almost violently, tugging at Richie’s lower lip with his teeth until it throbbed red and swollen.

Richie was beside himself. Afraid to put his hands on Eddie for fear of what it might do to them both, they hovered uncertainly centimetres above his shoulders, as though Eddie were shielded by an invisible suit of armour.

Yet, Eddie ached to be touched by him and worried why Richie wasn’t doing so. He pulled away, laughing nervously. ‘Are you okay?’

Richie panted hotly, reaching for his lip, ‘The fuck was that?’

‘Sorry,’ Eddie shook his head slightly. ‘You’ve been driving me crazy all day.’

‘I practically ignored you!’ Richie rebuked.

‘I know,’ Eddie’s knees buckled. ‘That’s what’s been driving me crazy.’

Pointedly, Richie let his hands settle onto Eddie’s shoulders, delightedly relishing in hearing those words. ‘That’s only one day,’ Richie reminded. ‘You’ve got to make it through another week now.’ He said it as though it wouldn’t be just as difficult for him to do the same.

Eddie moaned unhappily and gently pressed their lips together again. ‘Probably be easier this weekend as I’m not actually seeing you.’

‘You could come see me at work,’ Richie pouted, running his hands down Eddie’s back.

Screwing up his face, Eddie said, ‘No way. That place makes so many health code violations.’  

Smiling, Richie kissed him lightly. ‘Then I’ll be seeing and ignoring you again on Monday.’

‘Guess so,’ Eddie said, releasing him and gathering his bike.

Reluctantly, Richie opened the garage door for him. ‘Later,’ he said.

‘No,’ Eddie warned. ‘No climbing through my window at the fucking witching hour.’

Richie grinned, ‘You see right through me, Eds.’

‘Bye, Rich.’ Eddie called over his shoulder as he started to ride away.

‘Say hi to your mom for me,’ Richie hollered after him.

 

---

 

Ignoring each other was proving so much more complicated than expected. Richie found himself constantly prodded towards Eddie, impelled to make jokes for the sake of keeping up appearances. Eddie found himself to be so much quieter in the group when he wasn’t engaging with Richie, didn’t realise how much Richie’s motormouth drove the group’s banter and conversation.

Occasionally they were able to snatch glances across the cafeteria or a hallway, share a few whispered words at the lockers or the bike rack, graze skin against each other as they passed pencils or accidentally-on-purpose bumped into one another. Every time they did, it felt like a bolt of electricity, like a lightning storm loomed around them, threatening to spill their secrets.

Richie returned to spending more time with his guitar on his free periods and lunch hours, finding it easier to not spend time with Eddie at all than to have to restrict himself. As Eddie went to Stan’s each night, Richie played on, often staying behind in the music block after hours and cycling home in the dusk, then continuing to play there.

Eddie was grateful for the chemistry project, for Stan’s unwavering company, to offer him some distraction after the weekend. As Richie had worked his busy shifts, Eddie had mulled tirelessly, questions layering like heavy bricks in his mind, building a wall of unknowns around his ego.

The lack of Richie’s attention had made him crave it in a way he never knew he could, and it fired something inside him that he’d never experienced before; the part which had pushed Richie up against a wall, hard. It was something urgent, dominant, confident, even strangely controlling, and he didn’t know what that meant.

On some level that he kept pushing down, he was disturbed by it, but not nearly as much as he was intrigued. It sat hungrily in his core, whining so loudly that Eddie could hardly hear anything else, could hardly hear his own doubts and trepidations or the echoes of his mother’s disgusted tone, the pastor’s damnations, the bullies’ unimaginative slurs.

The weekend drew ever nearer, but still as he cycled to school early and alone on the Friday morning, Eddie felt he couldn’t wait any longer. Richie’s bike was already chained up, which meant he might be squeezing in some guitar practice before classes started. Eddie made his way hopefully to the music block.

As he wandered up the corridor, he felt eerie déjà vu of discovering Richie singing for the first time, singing his own music, singing the song that he wrote about Eddie. The song that Eddie didn’t know was about him even as he listened to it.

Sure enough, Richie was in the same room as he had been before, plucking his fingers admirably over the six strings. Not wanting to eavesdrop again, Eddie knocked quickly and watched Richie’s face shoot up, his hands freeze. Then he broke into a smile, a pleasantly surprised smile, and beckoned Eddie in.

‘Hey, stranger,’ Richie said, draping his arms idly over the instrument.

Eddie closed the door behind him and leaned against it, still gripping the handle behind his back. ‘Hey.’

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, swinging the guitar off his lap and leaning it against the standing piano.

Dropping his eyes to the floor and back, Eddie shuffled, ‘You know what I’m doing here.’

Richie stood and walked slowly over to him. ‘You been missing me, Eds?’

Eddie knew what he was supposed to say, what he would usually say in response to a question like this from Richie, the answer that Richie would come to expect at this point. Nevertheless, he couldn’t bring himself to say it, not as Richie’s lips came so close to his own, as Richie’s hands found his waist, as Richie’s eyes searched him.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie breathed honestly, stroking his hands gently up Richie’s arms, a touch he hadn’t been allowed. ‘You been missing me?’

‘God yes,’ Richie growled, and closed the gap between them. Their lips came together with devastating patience considering their hiatus, each overwhelmed with every nuance of the sensation; the little huffs of breath, the contours of the other’s lips, the meeting of their tongues.

Eddie rocked his head back against the door, ‘Fucking hell. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow. Properly, I mean.’

‘This not proper enough for you?’ Richie asked, pressing his lips to Eddie’s vulnerable throat, which he hadn’t done before and so made his heart stutter. He heard Eddie inhale, but couldn’t see Eddie helplessly close his eyes, bite his lip to stop from keening.

‘Not enough time,’ Eddie managed, tugging lightly at Richie’s hair to discourage him.

Richie looked at the clock on the wall, steadily ticking past the seconds. ‘Got ten minutes or so.’

‘Exactly,’ Eddie pressed, sliding out of Richie’s grip and into the space of the room. ‘Not long enough.’

Richie frowned, ‘Your mom has never said that.’ He winked, ‘Not in any context.’

Sitting on the piano stool, Eddie sighed, ‘Annoyingly, that’s actually true.’

Smiling at him with affectionate wonder, Richie asked, ‘Did you really just come here for a kiss?’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie blushed, idly letting his fingers dance an arpeggio on the piano keys. ‘I know you’re practising but I couldn’t –’ he rambled, then stopped, embarrassed.

Picking up his guitar again, Richie sat down. ‘I’m only practising because I couldn’t,’ he said cryptically.

Eddie looked at the guitar and thought. ‘Would you play it again?’

Richie hardened, ‘Play what again?’

‘The song you wrote about me.’

‘No,’ Richie scoffed. ‘No way.’ His cheeks coloured bright red, feet turning inwards.

Eddie didn’t want to push it. ‘Then play something else. Anything.’

Richie hesitated, but he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to play for an audience, which he’d come to really enjoy. Let alone that it was Eddie, who was the one he always wanted to like his music the most, whose approval he desired most, whose validation he sought, since he admired Eddie’s taste in music more than anyone’s.

‘Okay,’ he said, positioning his hands. ‘But I’m not going to fucking sing.’

Eddie wished he would. He wanted to hear his voice again. ‘Pussy,’ he grumbled, then smiled so that Richie knew he didn’t have to.

Richie started to play. The chords swam in the air, filling the small room with harmony, and as he began to pick through the riffs, Eddie grinned.

‘This is my favourite song,’ Eddie said quietly.

‘Yeah, I know, asshole,’ Richie replied.

As the verse started, Eddie couldn’t help himself from humming the first few bars. Then he half-spoke his way through the lines:

Hoping for the best but expecting the worst

Are you going to drop the bomb or not?

Richie raised his head enough to smile at him, and as that smile hit his eyes, Eddie’s lungs filled with air. His voice low, he let the notes hit the lyrics.

Let us die young or let us live forever

We don’t have the power but we never say never

He stopped, so Richie encouraged him with his own lilting notes, finishing the broken phrase.

Life is a short trip.

The music’s for the sad man.

Eddie smiled and let himself start to sing again, his cheeks burning.

Can you imagine when this race is won?

Turn our golden faces into the sun

Praising our leaders, we’re getting in tune

The music’s played by the,

He laughed, and Richie finished, crossing his eyes:

The madman.

Eddie grinned, throwing his head back slightly melodramatically, in the hopes that Richie wouldn’t judge his voice too harshly, or see just how nervous he was, how preciously he was enjoying this music, this time.

Forever young, I wanna be forever young

Do you really want to live forever?

Forever, and ever

Richie joined him, his voice soft so that Eddie’s was louder. Their voices blended together; Eddie’s clean and full, Richie’s aspirate and licking.

Forever young, I wanna be forever young

Do you really want to live forever?

Forever young

Eddie relaxed, happiness bubbling inside him, liberating. He crooned solo, lost in the tune as Richie watched him admiringly, his heart pounding in perfect rhythm.

Some are like water, some are like the heat

Some are a melody and some are the beat

Sooner or later they all will be gone

Why don’t they stay young?

Richie took over, easily done as he locked Eddie’s eyes and rendered him almost speechless. He sang louder than he had before, more confidently.

It’s so hard to get old without a cause

I don’t want to perish like a fading horse

Youth’s like diamonds in the sun

And diamonds are forever

Breaking the eye contact to watch Richie’s mesmerising fingers dance over the fretboard, the tendons tightening and relaxing, Eddie found his voice to join him again.

So many adventures given up today

So many songs we forgot to play

So many dreams swinging out of the blue

Oh let it come true

As they sang through the last few turns of the chorus, no longer afraid of their own voices, smiling broadly, Richie dared to harmonise beneath Eddie’s voice. Eddie stared at him with awe and joy; their own version of his favourite song ringing in his ears, a version he never knew he wanted and prayed that he would hear again.

Do you really want to live forever?

Richie let Eddie sing the last line by himself, unsure if he could sing another note through the weight of the love inside him. Through his life, he’d lost track of all the moments where he’d looked at Eddie and known, without a glimmer of doubt, that he was hopelessly, irretrievably in love with him. It didn’t make those moments any easier, any less emotional, when they rolled around. And this, by God, this was one of them.

Forever young.

They were silent for a second, letting themselves just be.

Eddie was the one to break the silence. ‘I thought you said you weren’t going to sing.’

Richie gasped, ‘I am not the liar here. You always told me that you couldn’t sing at all.’

Ignoring the implied compliment, Eddie asked, ‘When did you learn to play that?’

‘It was the first song I tried to learn,’ Richie admitted, placing the guitar back in its case.

Eddie’s heart squeezed as he climbed off the piano stool. ‘Then why haven’t I heard you play it yet?’

‘I don’t know,’ Richie lied, swinging the case over his shoulder.

He didn’t feel that he could tell Eddie the truth, that playing Eddie’s favourite song in front of the other Losers would be almost as hard for him as playing one of his original tracks, that he wouldn’t have been able to keep himself from staring at Eddie, wanting him to sing along, wanting to know he’d made him happy. He didn’t think he could say that when he’d thought about playing Eddie his favourite song, he’d always hoped that it would be like this.

Eddie walked over to him and softly kissed him. ‘Maybe your guitar isn’t so bad after all,’ he said absentmindedly.

‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ Richie asked, offended, a lump in his throat.

‘Oh, I’ve just hated that thing,’ Eddie laughed, but Richie wasn’t laughing. ‘Oh, wait, don’t look at me like that. I didn’t mean –’

‘Whatever,’ Richie muttered, and went to the door.

‘Rich,’ Eddie tried, but Richie had already started to march off down the corridor. Furious, Eddie rolled his eyes back into his skull and groaned, cursing himself, ‘Good going, fuckwit.’

Chapter Text

Eddie knocked at the Tozier door. For a moment, he convinced himself he heard no signs of life on the inside and considered leaving, embarrassed and annoyed with himself for so brazenly hurting Richie’s feelings. He wanted to explain, needed to explain, though it wouldn’t be easy. On the other side of the door, he heard padded footsteps, and then Richie answered.

‘What do you want?’

‘Hi,’ Eddie said. ‘Can I come in?’

Richie folded his arms. ‘Why?’

‘Please.’

His eyelids low, Richie opened the door wide enough for Eddie’s access. Eddie didn’t hesitate to climb the stairs and push into Richie’s bedroom. There was the guitar again, on its stand. As Richie closed the door behind them, he said sarcastically, ‘Sorry, I would have hidden it away if I’d known you were still coming over. Wouldn’t want you to have to look at it.’

‘Rich, stop,’ Eddie pleaded, turning to face him. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t hate your guitar.’

‘That is literally the opposite of what you said yesterday.’

Eddie screwed up his face. ‘I didn’t mean it like that. It came out wrong.’

‘You still said it,’ Richie snapped. He sighed, ‘It’s the first thing I’ve been able to really focus on. The first thing I’ve been able to still fucking enjoy learning after the novelty’s worn off. I thought I was getting pretty good at it, too.’

‘You are good at it, Rich,’ Eddie assured. ‘You’re really good at it.’

Richie extended his arms dramatically, ‘So you just hate the guitar as an instrument? You’re bored of hearing me play? What?’

Eddie stumbled, ‘No, no, I love the guitar. I love hearing you play. And yesterday, fuck, I really loved that.’

‘I did too,’ Richie droned, exasperated. ‘So what the fuck did you mean?’

Squirming, Eddie cast his gaze downwards. ‘It’s stupid.’

‘My guitar is stupid?’ Richie spat.

‘Fuck, no!’ Eddie raised his head and locked his eyes desperately, not wanting to create another misunderstanding. He corrected, ‘My reason is stupid. I’ve been stupid.’

Richie grumbled, ‘You can be a fucking idiot sometimes.’

‘Yeah, I can,’ Eddie agreed. ‘I shouldn’t have said anything; it just slipped out and it’s not even an issue anymore which is why it slipped out. And it’s not even your issue, it was never your issue, it’s mine.’

Narrowing his eyes, Richie said, ‘Go on.’

Eddie struggled, pinkness blotching across his cheeks and up his neck, hideously embarrassed. ‘You know the other week, when I came by and accidentally heard your song?’

‘Yes,’ Richie hissed, going pink himself at the reminder.

‘The reason I was there was because I was pissed at you for not coming to lunch again, because I fucking missed you, and I blamed the guitar. It was taking up so much of your time and that was time you used to spend with me.’

Richie twitched his nose. The part of him that was in love with Eddie twanged, but the part of him that loved the guitar insisted, ‘I’m not going to apologise.’

‘And you shouldn’t. I don’t want you to. It’s my fault.’

‘What is?’

Eddie puffed out his cheeks. ‘I was getting lazy. With our friendship, I mean. I was waiting for you to come to me and getting annoyed that you weren’t, because I’d come to expect it. I was taking you for granted.’

Richie cocked his head curiously. He’d never thought that about Eddie, that Eddie took him for granted. Perhaps that was because he’d never asked anything of Eddie. Richie had always been happy to love him and want him unconditionally, never expecting it in return, because it seemed so unreasonable to expect such a thing.

Besides, Richie was naturally a generous person when it came to his time, came to his friends; he wanted to give himself to them, for them to know that he loved them. He initiated because he wanted to initiate; usually there wasn’t a chance for the other person to offer.

Eddie went on, ‘So, I kept thinking of your guitar like an addiction, and I let it push me away rather than trying to find a way to share it with you, or even just trying to spend more time with you some other way. It was easier to resent it than to admit I was the problem, and that’s really fucking shitty of me.’

‘That is fucking shitty of you,’ Richie concurred.

‘I’m really sorry,’ Eddie said, ‘For all of it.’

‘It’s okay,’ Richie said, shuffling, unsure how to receive an apology he’d been so unprepared for, an apology for a slight he’d not known had been made against him.

‘I think you don’t realise how,’ Eddie breathed, ‘intense your attention actually is, which, to be clear, is a good thing. Fuck, it’s an amazing thing. And I’m not surprised you don’t realise, because I didn’t notice until it wasn’t on me anymore.’

Richie stepped closer to him. ‘But I don’t understand. As of last week, you specifically asked me to give you less attention.’

‘Yeah, because all of a sudden I had it back and I didn’t know how to cope with it. I was aware of it, and I’ve never been aware of it before. And I was already overthinking,’ he waved his finger back and forth between them, ‘this, and I felt like I didn’t have any fucking control over it.’

‘You can’t have control over everything,’ Richie said, thinking about just how many times he’d wished he could rein the way he felt about Eddie, how many times he’d tried to squash it in his mind, how much dissection he had done, hoping that eventually the pieces would be small enough that they could dissolve into the nothing.

‘But you know what I’m like.’ Eddie raked a hand through his hair. ‘And if Friday last week proved anything, I was still completely out of control, if not worse, and this week,’ he groaned, ‘this week has been fucking unbearable. I’ve hated it. I’m all over the place.’

Richie licked his lower lip. ‘Why?’

‘Because I’m even more aware of it,’ Eddie whined breathily. ‘When we’re in the same space, I can’t concentrate on anything else. I’m just sat there thinking: Look at me. Talk to me. Make a fucking joke. Anything.

Smiling, Richie slaked his tongue over his teeth, ‘I want to do all those things. I always want to do those things.’ He chuckled, ‘And believe me, I’ve been where you are. Before,’ he waved his finger back and forth between them, ‘this, that was every day, just counting how many times you looked at me.’

‘I don’t know how you managed it,’ Eddie huffed.

Richie smacked his lips together, stepping right in front of Eddie. ‘I got a guitar.’ He smiled all too knowingly, and they both felt the atmosphere in the room shift.

‘I’m not buying a guitar,’ Eddie said, clenching his jaw, hands twitching to slide around Richie’s waist.

Biting his lip, Richie stepped forwards so that Eddie was forced to take steps back. ‘If you want me to do those things, Eds, all you have to do is tell me. I’ll do whatever you want.’

It was that guttural voice which Eddie had heard after he and Richie had kissed on his bed. His knees weakened as he jolted up against Richie’s wall. ‘Is that what you want?’

Richie slid his hand around Eddie’s neck, and almost brought their lips together, but didn’t. ‘You know what I want,’ he said, then slipped his mouth around to Eddie’s ear. ‘I want to know what you want.’

Eddie tripped over his words, shivering, ‘I want –’

‘You want all my attention on you again?’ Richie asked, kissing down the tendon in Eddie’s neck. ‘Have I been making you jealous?’

The rush which coursed through Eddie was wild and charged, so much so that it almost scared him. He tried to wrap his arms around Richie, but Richie grabbed his wrists and held them down as he trekked kisses across Eddie’s throat, suckling whenever Eddie dared to whimper.

‘What do you want, Eds?’ he susurrated into Eddie’s other ear, then brought his face around to hover in front of Eddie’s. He leaned, as though to kiss him, and snatched his lips away from Eddie’s at the last moment with a snarl. ‘You miss my teasing?’

Eddie lost it, murmuring, ‘Fuck, Richie.’

Hearing Eddie say his name like that was all the encouragement Richie needed to finally press their lips together. He let Eddie’s hands go and they hastily found the skin of his back, running underneath his shirt, clawing. Richie let his own hands push against Eddie’s hips, fingers hooking through his belt loops.

As they each rasped an erratic breath, Eddie opened his eyes widely and asked, ‘Where’s this come from?’

For a moment, Richie’s eyes softened and he asked gently, genuinely, ‘Is it okay?’

That was a loaded question. Eddie was petrified, but only of how badly he felt he needed Richie’s lips on his own, how viscerally he responded to Richie’s touch, how affecting his words were. The last thing he wanted to do was stop, but everything that he did want to do was mortifying to him.

He’d thought that kissing didn’t matter, didn’t mean anything, but Eddie had never felt anything like this before, and kissing was starting to not quite feel like enough. Not to mention the ache below his belt which he certainly knew was not supposed to be there, not when he was with his best friend, not even when he was kissing his best friend, because his best friend was Richie.

‘Eds? Is it?’

Eddie didn’t answer, just kissed him again, hard. With trembling fingers, he brought his hands around to Richie’s lapels and tugged them backwards over his shoulders. Alarmed, Richie stopped kissing him long enough to watch as Eddie edged the sleeves off his arms and let his shirt drop to the floor. Unsatisfied, Eddie pulled at the cotton of Richie’s undershirt until Richie recovered enough of his motor skills to help Eddie remove it. Swiftly, Eddie took off his own.

‘Oh, fuck,’ Richie purred as Eddie latched onto his newly exposed collarbone, pushing them away from the wall, stumbling precariously closer to the bed. As Richie’s calves crashed against the mattress, he sat, only to have Eddie climb on top of him. ‘Whoa,’ he blurted, placing his palm softly to the side of Eddie’s face.

Eddie didn’t want to pause and catch up with himself. Reluctantly, he drew his head up to look at Richie’s face. ‘What?’

Richie’s eyebrows steepled. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said quickly, ‘You?’

‘I don’t know,’ Richie said honestly.

Snapped out of whatever trance-like state he had been in, Eddie said, ‘Oh.’ Hastily, he unhooked his leg and twisted to sit beside Richie on the edge of the bed. ‘Sorry. Too much?’

‘No,’ Richie spluttered. ‘I’ve thought about doing that about a million times.’  

Eddie drew his knees up underneath his chin, growing self-conscious of his bare chest. ‘Then what’s wrong?’

‘Well, you were acting like you’ve thought about doing that a million times too, and I know you haven’t, so I guess,’ he chuckled, ‘I’m a bit confused. I was expecting you to need to go a little slower.’

‘You were the one getting me all worked up,’ Eddie scoffed, humiliated. ‘Wasn’t that the reaction you wanted?’

Richie blushed, ‘I didn’t expect to have that much of an effect on you. I was, I don’t know, testing the water and then you just jumped in.’

Shrugging his shoulders up to his ears, Eddie hummed with displeasure. He thought about the quarry, how much harder it was to walk to the water’s edge and dip his toes than it was to leap from the clifftop. ‘Testing the water means I have time to think. If I think, I’ll overthink, and if I overthink, I’ll panic.’

‘Right,’ Richie sighed, picking at his fingernails.

‘What?’ Eddie probed, sensing that Richie was holding something back.

With a steadied look into Eddie’s eyes, Richie said, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I want this and I want you so fucking much, but I’d really rather that you let yourself think. Maybe even overthink. And if you panic, just stop and talk to me.’

Eddie’s eyes ran over Richie’s chest, thinking about how he had been the one to tear the clothes from their bodies. He throbbed, blood driving southwards once more, and he winced. ‘Those would not be fun conversations, Rich,’ he said ominously.

‘Maybe not,’ Richie admitted, ‘but I need you to know what you want.’

Furrowing his brow, Eddie blurted, ‘I do know what I want.’

‘Wait, what?’ Richie stared at him.

Widening his own eyes as he realised what he had just said, Eddie brought his fingers to his temples and sat in a brutal moment of self-awareness, settling into it with an anxious sigh. After a moment, he let himself catch Richie’s gaze to explain himself. ‘When we’re doing,’ he hesitated, ‘that stuff,’ he scowled, hating his choice of words, ‘I’m not trying to figure out what I want.’

‘You’re not?’ Richie asked, retracting his feet from the floor and scooting backwards on the bedclothes.

Eddie shook his head slowly. ‘I know what I want, but if I let myself think about the fact that I want it, then I panic, because what I want fucking scares me.’

Richie gulped. ‘So, what do you want?’

Unable to find anything articulate to say, Eddie gestured towards where he had been straddled across Richie, and towards the wall where Richie had pinned him. ‘That. I wanted all of that.’ He swallowed, ‘And then some.’  

‘Fuck,’ was all Richie had in response.

‘I find it really difficult to think about,’ Eddie said, grimacing. ‘But in the moment, I don’t need to think, I just know. And I have the choice to stop and think and panic or,’ he bit his lip, ‘jump.’  

‘You want,’ Richie started, then swiped across his brow. ‘Oh, Christ.’

Eddie covered his eyes with his arms. ‘Yeah. Fuck. And now I’m thinking about it and I’m freaking out again.’

Richie scrambled closer to Eddie. ‘Hey, look at me.’ When he didn’t, Richie tentatively placed a hand on his shoulder, ‘Eds, look at me. It’s okay.’

Bringing his arms down emphatically, Eddie babbled, ‘It’s not okay. What am I doing? What are we doing? Fucking hell.’

‘Eddie,’ Richie tried again, softly, moving in front of Eddie. ‘It’s okay. Breathe.’

‘I can’t,’ Eddie gasped.

‘Yes, you can,’ Richie said, bringing his other hand to Eddie’s other shoulder.

Through his sharpening breaths, Eddie gathered himself enough to say, ‘I’m sorry, Richie.’

‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ Richie scolded. ‘You don’t need to be sorry.’

‘Not sorry about that,’ Eddie said, referring to his attack, wringing his hands. ‘I’m sorry I kissed you. The first time. I shouldn’t have.’

Richie tried to retrospectively unhear this and failed. ‘Don’t say that. You don’t mean that. You want this.’

‘I do,’ Eddie whispered, ‘but –’

‘Fuck. Stop,’ Richie said. ‘No buts. Please.’

Eddie felt nauseous. ‘I can’t be like this, Richie.’

Trying to stop himself from tearing up, Richie begged, ‘Please just try and focus on your breathing. You’re still panicking and you’re letting it speak for you.’

‘Richie,’ Eddie choked.

And when you’re choking raggedly

I find it’s me that cannot breathe.

‘Look at me. Breathe with me. Try and breathe with me.’ Richie said, and slowed himself down, breathing audibly in through his nose and out through his mouth, watching the tremor in Eddie’s chest with pangs of guilt and sadness. He hadn’t seen Eddie have a panic attack in a long time, and he hated that Eddie might see him as its source.

Gradually, Eddie calmed himself back to breathing regularly. Once he did, the tears slipped down over his cheeks and he reached for Richie, grappling at his arms until their foreheads were resting together. Richie let himself cry too, bringing his palms to Eddie’s cheeks.

‘Thank you,’ Eddie sobbed.

‘Jesus.’

Eddie blinked, ‘Fucking hell. I’m sorry.’

Richie’s jaw clenched, ‘Please don’t say it again.’

‘I’m not going to,’ Eddie said quietly.

Richie’s face contorted, ‘Did you mean it? Do you wish you could take that kiss back?’

Painfully, Eddie admitted, ‘Sometimes. When I get scared.’

‘What about the rest of the time?’ Richie asked, hope plaintive in his voice.

Eddie’s voice was so low it was near inaudible, almost percussive. ‘The rest of the time, I’m thinking about how much I just want to kiss you again.’

Richie needed to hear that. His heart crackled loudly in his chest. ‘Which one takes up more time?’

‘Fucking hell,’ Eddie sighed. ‘The second one, by far.’

‘Good,’ Richie said, relieved.

‘I don’t know if it’s good, Rich,’ Eddie said darkly. ‘You know I said I thought of your guitar like an addiction?’

Richie made a face, ‘Oh God. You don’t think of this like that. Please tell me that’s not how you see this.’ 

Eddie shrugged helplessly. ‘I want this. I shouldn’t want this. I’m trying to keep it a secret, trying to pretend that I don’t want it, trying to pretend it’s not a problem, trying to pretend that one more time won’t hurt, that I won’t let it slip any further, that I can make it through the day without it.’

Richie let Eddie go and groaned as he pressed his hands over his ears. ‘Oh, God. Stop.’

Eddie didn’t. ‘And then I fucking seek it out. I can’t stop thinking about it. Every time, I just fall into it so easily and I know I’m fucked. Every time I want a little more.’

‘Eddie, I hate this,’ Richie pleaded. ‘This is really fucked up.’

With a heaving sigh, Eddie finished, ‘And I know I’ll come back again.’

Richie felt like he’d been punched. He felt violated, sick to his stomach. The tears came again. ‘Is that really how you see me?’ he blubbered.

The chambers in Eddie’s heart collapsed in on themselves. ‘Oh, fuck. No! No, God, no. That’s not how I see you. Jesus, I’d never reduce you to that. That’s not, fuck, that’s not what I meant at all.’

‘That’s how it fucking sounds.’ Richie’s gut gurgled. ‘So, what? Do you resent me? Like you resented my guitar?’

‘No,’ Eddie insisted, shifting so that he could put his hands on Richie’s still bare arms. ‘No. I don’t resent you. That’s fucking twisted. It’s not about you. It’s not really anything to do with you. You’re my best friend. You’re my favourite person in the fucking world.’

Richie wished that he’d heard Eddie say that under different circumstances. ‘Then throw me a bone, here. Fucking explain.’

Eddie squeezed the flesh of Richie’s shoulders. He packed emphasis onto his word that thudded out of his mouth. ‘I really don’t want to be gay, Richie.’

That was the first time one of them had used that word in front of the other in reference to what was happening between them, and it hung there in the bedroom like a great, red balloon.

‘Kissing you,’ Eddie said carefully, ‘I keep trying to convince myself that it isn’t much different to kissing a girl. You’re just taller and you smell different and your hands are bigger and your,’ he trailed off. ‘But it’s nothing like it, and not even because of all those reasons.’

‘Then why?’ Richie asked quietly.

Resigned, Eddie said sadly, ‘Because I like kissing you.’

Richie’s brow furrowed. ‘Are you saying that you don’t like –’ he started, but he didn’t need to finish, because he could see it in Eddie’s face. ‘Whoa,’ he said unhelpfully, as he tried to onboard this information.

‘And I thought that,’ Eddie almost laughed, but it was bleak and bitterly at the irony, ‘the novelty might wear off. But every time I kiss you,’ he braced, ‘it feels so fucking good.’

Trembling, Richie let his hands graze along Eddie’s arms. ‘Yeah, it does,’ he agreed. ‘But to me, it also feels so fucking right.’ His lower lip trembled, ‘And I’m worried that you think it’s wrong.

Trying to hold himself back and failing, Eddie leaned closer to Richie. ‘It doesn’t feel wrong. But, it’s like there are these voices in my head that tell me it is, and I don’t know if they’re mine.’

Richie leaned too, letting their noses brush. ‘I used to think like that. I used to think it was wrong, that I was wrong.’ He pressed his hand to Eddie’s chest. ‘But the way you make me feel, the way that I feel when I’m with you,’ his voice cracked mercilessly, ‘it’s so fucking pure, Eds. I don’t see how it can be wrong.’

They cried as their lips connected, each letting their arms slide around the other, holding, hauling them closer until Richie’s back was flush against the duvet and Eddie lay sprawled across him. Richie kissed across Eddie’s cheeks and on the tip of his nose, along the length of his jaw and in the centre of his forehead, which made Eddie smile even through the dregs of his tears.

Eddie dragged his hands down Richie’s bare chest and soon his lips dared to follow, traipsing down Richie’s throat and then his sternum, along the line of his collarbone and over his shoulders, then dotting across his chest and over his racing heart.

When Eddie brought his face back up to hover above Richie’s, the tracks had stained down his face, his cheeks were pink and flushed, his eyes were red and sheening. Richie was much the same, completely wrecked and overwhelmed by such a rollercoaster of a day. He swiped at the tear tracks under Eddie’s eyes, just as Eddie had done for him before they kissed for the very first time.

‘You were right,’ Eddie said, pressing his lips to Richie’s.

‘Probably,’ Richie joked. ‘What about?’

‘I need to let myself think. I need to talk. It’s hard but,’ he nodded, ‘this is better. I feel better.’ He laughed, ‘Which sounds stupid to say because I probably look like total shit.’

‘You do,’ Richie affirmed. He stroked his hands soothingly down Eddie’s bare back. ‘I feel better too.’

‘I’m sorry for all the fucking shit I said though,’ Eddie said, nuzzling into his neck. ‘For making you feel like shit.’

Richie squeezed him, ‘I know you didn’t mean to. I know it’s fucking hard to go through.’

Eddie squeezed him back. ‘I don’t know how you’ve been doing it alone. I wish,’ he sniffed, ‘I wish you felt you could have talked to me at the beginning. I get why you didn’t, but I still wish I’d been there for you.’

‘You were there for me,’ Richie said. ‘You didn’t know why I needed you, but when I did, you were always there anyway.’ He craned to kiss Eddie’s forehead. ‘And you’re here now.’

After kissing him once more, Eddie said, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I am.’

Chapter Text

On Monday morning, Richie turned up at Eddie’s to cycle to school. ‘Hey, you,’ he greeted as Eddie came out of the front door.

‘Hey,’ Eddie smiled, hopping over the steps to get to his bike. They started to ride.

‘So,’ Richie said, extending the vowel, ‘we never actually agreed how we’re playing it from here on out. Around everyone else, I mean. We got a little distracted.’

‘You mean with all the shirtless panic attacks and crying?’ Eddie summarised, laughing.

Richie laughed too, ‘Yeah. I’m so lucky.’

‘I think,’ Eddie sighed, ‘a little bit of normal would go a long fucking way right now.’

‘Is that you verbally signing the permission slip?’ Richie asked, cocking an eyebrow. ‘You reinstating me?’

Eddie shook his head, ‘Apparently. Must have lost my fucking mind. I’m actually asking you to rip the shit out of me.’

‘And your mom,’ Richie added.

Pondering a second, Eddie asked, ‘Can I put a condition in your contract?’

‘Depends what it is.’

‘Well,’ Eddie said, ‘I know that you’re going to really fucking annoy me, because that’s one of your absolute favourite things to do, and I know you’re going to make jokes about,’ he searched for the words, ‘what we do together.’

‘With almost one hundred percent certainty, yes,’ Richie confirmed.

‘In that case, at some point, you’re inevitably going to say something which makes me want to either kiss you or kill you. So, I’m going to need a codeword, or something.’

‘A codeword?’ Richie grinned. ‘You’ve already got one. Beep-beep.’

‘Yeah, that’s the code for “shut the fuck up before I rescind all your kissing privileges”. I’m going to need another code for “we need to go somewhere alone as soon as possible so that I can exploit all aforementioned privileges”.’

Richie’s grin only got wider. ‘Well, well, well. I’m sure we can think of something.’

‘Needs to be something I can say in most contexts,’ Eddie mused. ‘“Fuck off” springs to mind.’

Snickering, Richie suggested, ‘As in, “we’re gonna fuck off together”?’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie laughed.

They arced into the school grounds and went to chain their bikes. When they were bent low to the locks, Richie asked quietly, ‘So, what does “Fuck you” mean?’ Richie winked at him.

Eddie went scarlet, ‘Oh, I feel like I’m going to regret this already.’

‘Can I use the codewords?’ Richie asked suddenly.

‘There’s no fucking way I’d let you beep-beep me,’ Eddie scoffed, rolling his eyes and walking away.

With a smirk, Richie trotted to catch him up, draping his arm over Eddie’s shoulder. ‘What about the other one?’

Happily, Eddie sank into the hold, ‘I don’t know. Feel like you might abuse it.’

‘Excuse me,’ Richie feigned offence, putting his hand to his heart. ‘I have a much better track record of controlling myself than you fucking do.’

Eddie’s jaw dropped, ‘Oh, fuck you, Richie.’

‘What did that mean again?’ Richie asked, hooking his elbow tighter around Eddie’s neck and ruffling his hair.

Quickly, Eddie escaped and shoved him, grinning, then went to his locker.

Stan wandered over, ‘Christ, you two are in a good mood.’

‘It’s going to be an easier week,’ Eddie said, glancing at Richie, who smirked.

‘You mean now that our fucking chemistry project’s done?’ Stan asked. ‘Because I feel that.’

Richie asked, ‘Is it, Eds? Is your chemistry over?’

‘Yes,’ Eddie said carefully, worrying where Richie might go.

Pouting, Richie said, ‘But I thought you two were having such a good time doing it together.’

‘Real mature, Richie,’ Stan said, rolling his eyes.

‘Maybe you should’ve been doing it with me, Eds. I’m great at chemistry.’ As Eddie eyed him, pinkness in his cheeks, Richie added, ‘Just ask your mom.'

Eddie groaned, ‘Don’t make me beep-beep you.’

While Richie smirked at the insinuation, Stan’s eyes widened delightedly, ‘Is that back? Can we beep-beep you again? Please, God, say we can.’

‘No, no. That,’ Richie pretended to search for the right word, ‘privilege is reserved for Eddie and Eddie only.’

Stan laughed, ‘Who do you have to fuck around here to get that privilege?’

‘Me, obviously,’ Richie snorted, and Eddie choked. ‘Up for it, Staniel?’

‘Beep-beep, Richie,’ Stan grumbled.

‘Nice try,’ Richie rebuked. ‘So, I noticed that wasn’t a no.’

Stan lowered his eyelids, ‘No.’

‘Well, I have other privileges on offer, if you’re interested,’ Richie grinned, flashing his eyes at Eddie, who was now standing behind Stan so that he could pull faces without Stan’s knowing.

‘Hard pass,’ Stan dismissed, and walked away.

Eddie hissed, ‘You’re not supposed to try and get me to beep-beep you.’

Chuckling darkly, Richie countered, ‘Oh, I’m not trying to get you to beep-beep me, Eddie.’

‘You are unbelievable,’ Eddie shook his head, a quiver of excitement rippling through him.

‘Why, thank you,’ Richie said smugly.

 

---

 

Richie quickly realised that being told to fuck off was something he would truly have to earn. He and Eddie were back to ribbing on each other at every opportunity, bickering, teasing and insulting, occasionally touching.

He’d garnered a few beep-beeps for some choice jokes which were close to the mark, but the other Losers hardly seemed phased by the content, focusing only on the welcome resurfacing of the nostalgic codeword and their irritation that Richie would only heed it from Eddie.

‘Why do you only shut up when Eddie says it?’ Bev complained. ‘I feel like my Loser rights are being violated.’

‘I owe it to him,’ Richie said indignantly. ‘He has to have something to shout through the walls when I’m fucking his mom.’

‘You are such an asshole,’ Eddie muttered.

Richie tried his best to work Eddie into a frenzy, but nothing appeared to work so well as when he had ignored Eddie completely. He debated treading the same ground once more, but decided against it, partly because opting to not make the jokes which fired in his head was incredibly difficult, but mostly because he saw it as a challenge from Eddie, a game, and he wanted to win.

Eddie viewed things much the same way. Once he saw how hard Richie was trying to get under his skin, the more determined he grew to resist his tricks. It became fun for Eddie to see Richie get frustrated and yearning, but at the same time, he was always on the verge of frightened that the next joke Richie made might be one which blew the whole gaffe. He watched as Richie danced around, toeing closer and closer to the line, desperate not to step over to the other side.

One lunchtime, Richie slid into the cafeteria table opposite Eddie, staring him down like the matador before the bull. There was a mischievous glint in his eye and Eddie swallowed down a bite of his sandwich with giddy dread.

‘I’ve started writing my own music,’ Richie announced to the table, and Eddie immediately froze.

Mike raised his head, ‘Really? That’s awesome.’

‘Just m-music or m-m-music and lyrics?’ Bill asked, ever the wordsmith.

Richie nodded, ‘Music and lyrics.’

Bill was intrigued, ‘What do you write about?’

With a smile, Richie looked at Eddie, ‘I write about us.’ He watched as the tips of Eddie’s ears reddened.

‘Can we hear some?’ Ben asked.

Richie seethed, ‘I’m not sure you’re ready for it. Think it would have a pretty profound effect on you all. Could change everything.’

Eddie tried to keep eating normally, but subconsciously picked up his pace, not chewing properly.  

Mike recalled, ‘I thought you couldn’t sing and play at the same time.’

‘I can,’ Richie blinked steadily. ‘One of my many, many secrets.’

There wasn’t enough water in Eddie’s glass to keep his mouth from drying out.

Stan scoffed, ‘You don’t have any secrets. You’re constantly talking; you’d never be able to keep a secret.’

‘Smoke and mirrors,’ Richie said, taking a bite off the end of his fork. ‘You’d be surprised what I’m capable of hiding.’ Idly, he toyed with the utensil in his hand, but Eddie noticed that it was waving in his general direction. ‘Even hiding in plain sight.’

‘Why, what else are you hiding?’ Bev challenged.

Under the guise of an itch, Richie pulled back his collar just far enough that only Eddie could catch a glimpse of a purplish bruise, a bruise which Eddie had inadvertently left there only a few days earlier. ‘Who knows?’

Stan squinted, ‘Translation: nothing.’

‘Oh, it’s not nothing.’ Richie quoted, then he reached over to steal one of Eddie’s crisps. ‘I don’t see how it could be.’

Eddie slapped his hand away and conceded, ‘Fuck off.’

Richie sighed with sweet joy, ‘Maybe I fucking will.’ He slid out of the bench, kicking Eddie in the process and glancing at the floor. ‘I’ll see you guys later. Going to squeeze in a quick session at the music block.’ Then he was gone.

For a moment, Eddie wondered what his own exit strategy should be, but then he spotted Richie’s jacket discarded on the floor. Swiftly, he grabbed it and said, ‘Moron left his fucking jacket.’

Bev held out her hand, ‘Want me to hang onto it?’

‘Nah, I’ll just go give it to him,’ Eddie dismissed, and left. As he turned the corner of the corridor, Richie came into view, leaning up against a bookshelf. ‘Christ alive,’ Eddie laughed as he threw the jacket at him, which Richie dropped. ‘Butterfingers.’

They started to walk together down to the music block; Richie was grinning from ear to ear. When they stepped into the room, Richie gripped Eddie’s waist. ‘Honestly, Eds, it’s about fucking time. I was running out of ideas.’

Eddie snorted, ‘Well, I couldn’t make it too easy for you. You’re arrogant enough as it stands without thinking I’m wrapped around your little finger.’

‘Aren’t you?’ Richie teased, kissing into the hollow below Eddie’s ear.

‘No,’ Eddie smirked, easing himself closer so that Richie backed up against the wall. ‘You’re wrapped around mine.’

Richie tugged lightly at Eddie’s earlobe. ‘Don’t flatter yourself, Spaghetti.’

‘I don’t need to.’ Eddie said, sliding his hand over Richie’s collar, over the place where he knew the shirt concealed a hickey. ‘I have you to do that for me.’

Pouting, Richie tipped Eddie’s chin with his index finger, ‘Have I been too nice to you?’

‘No, you could still be nicer,’ Eddie purred, pushing his body up against Richie’s.

‘How’s that?’ Richie asked, letting his hands slip further around Eddie’s waist so that they wrapped all the way around him, fingers spreading over the small of his back.

Eddie drew his hand to cup Richie’s cheek and dragged his thumb over Richie’s lower lip. ‘You could shut the fuck up and ki–’ he started but was cut off as Richie’s mouth met his own.

‘Better?’ Richie asked, then pressed another kiss to his lips.

‘Yes,’ Eddie grinned.

Softly, Richie kissed his cheek, then rested their foreheads together. ‘You do seem better. Than last weekend, I mean.’

Eddie hummed, ‘I am better. Past few days, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and overthinking, and a little panicking from time to time.’ He sighed, ‘But I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to work this all out, one way or the other. I need the answers.’

Closing his eyes, Richie said, ‘Good. For you, I mean, not for me. I mean, it is good for me, but,’ he bit his lip to stop from talking.

Laughing quietly, Eddie clawed a hand through Richie’s hair, which made him reopen his eyes. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve fucking realised, it’s a hell of a lot easier to figure things out when I’m with you, when I stop focusing too much on everyone and everything else and focus on you and me.’

Richie kissed him. ‘I like the sound of that.’ Then he kissed him again, harder.

‘I’m really glad it’s you, Richie,’ Eddie said gently. ‘I don’t think I’ve said that before, but I am.’

Heart thrumming, Richie stored this sentence in his brain like a record into his vinyl collection, something he would play over and over again. ‘Why?’

‘I couldn’t do this if it was anyone else. You make me feel,’ he stopped.

‘Good?’ Richie attempted hopefully.

Exhaling heavily, Eddie corrected, ‘Safe.’

That was even better. ‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said. ‘You’ve always made me feel that way, since we were kids. You always made me feel like I was gonna be okay, like we were gonna be okay. I know you have my back, and you’d do pretty much anything to stop me from getting hurt.’ His throat seized, and his head dropped.

‘Eds?’ Richie asked quickly, concerned, then pressed his lips to Eddie’s forehead, round his temple. ‘What is it?’

Raising his head, Eddie groaned, ‘I know I’m done with all those fucking placebo medications my mom put me on, but I still think about them all the fucking time. I’m always washing my fucking hands and checking the allergy restrictions on food packets and,’ he smacked his lips, ‘I still have inhalers hidden around all over the place.’

‘There’s one in my bag,’ Richie admitted, screwing up his nose. ‘You gave it to me years ago. I know you don’t need it, but I still can’t throw the fucking thing away.’

Fondly, Eddie kissed him. ‘My point is, it’s all still fucking there. I still think I’m sick so much of the fucking time, or think I’m going to get sick, try and stop myself from getting sick.’

Richie frowned sadly. ‘That stuff doesn’t just go away, I guess.’

‘But it does,’ Eddie said softly. ‘Occasionally. When I’m with you. It’s like,’ he furrowed his brow quizzically, ‘I, sort of, forget. It’s not all the time, but I get these moments where I catch myself not caring where I used to, or only caring out of habit and not out of necessity.’

‘Really?’ Richie asked, genuinely surprised.

‘Even before I found out that my mom had been lying to me,’ Eddie stressed. ‘Do you remember, when we were little, we used to share a fucking ice cream cone?’

Richie nodded, breaking into a smile, ‘Yeah, I remember.’

Eddie stared up at him, almost with awe, ‘My brain just seems to make exceptions for you. Like the name Richie is some kind of,’ he trailed off.

‘Codeword,’ Richie finished, laughing.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie agreed with a small chuckle, then his face steadied. Cryptically, his words thick with implication, he said, ‘So, when it comes to those questions I have to answer, it really does help that it’s you. It almost needs to be you.’

Richie hauled him closer and kissed him. ‘Glad to hear it,’ he said jovially, but he couldn’t have meant it more.

‘It’s more than that though,’ Eddie shuffled, licking his lips, his voice breathy. ‘I want it to be you.’ He kissed him, running his hands down Richie’s chest, ‘I really want it to be you, Richie.’

They kissed again. Richie felt hot and precarious, as these words trickled down through his body. He tried to escape Eddie’s notice by letting his backside squish uncomfortably into the wall, only to find himself panicked as Eddie stepped closer. This moment was so wonderfully passionate and perfect, but he didn’t know how Eddie would react if he realised what was happening below his belt.

He tried to force it away, tried to redirect the neurones in his brain, but the only thing he could concentrate on was how soft Eddie’s lips were against his own, how readily Eddie found the bare skin underneath his shirt, how badly he wanted to remove their clothes and give himself to Eddie completely.

He decided that his best option was to try and rotate their positions, so that he was more in control. He tightened his grip around Eddie’s waist and, with clumsy footwork, span them around, even raising Eddie’s feet slightly from the floor. From there he arched his hips away, kept his feet further back, and feeling now that he could stand it, began to suckle at Eddie’s neck.

‘If you give me a fucking hickey, I better be able to hide it,’ Eddie warned, dragging his thumb across Richie’s collarbone. ‘Like the one I gave you.’

Richie almost felt lightheaded from the blood rushing south. ‘Do you want one?’ he asked between sharp, nipping bites.

‘Well, I don’t want you to stop whatever it is you’re doing,’ Eddie gasped, pulling at the hem of Richie’s shirt to bring him closer, even as Richie tried to stay away.

‘Uh, Eds, I,’ Richie started awkwardly, as his fly drew dangerously close to Eddie’s. He stopped talking when Eddie rocked his hips against him, and he felt, without a shadow of a doubt, Eddie rivalling his own predicament. ‘Oh, fuck, never mind,’ he drawled, hungrily smashing their lips together.

Eddie stifled a whimper only to release it as a stuttered moan, and the adrenaline flooded his body with such intensity that he could swear he felt pins and needles in his fingers and toes. As he pulled on Richie’s lower lip with his teeth, his knee hitched between Richie’s thighs.

‘Fucking hell, Eds, you’re gonna kill me.’ 

‘What are you doing at the weekend?’ Eddie huffed, smiling.

Richie growled, ‘This, I hope.’

Eddie checked, ‘No shifts at the restaurant?’

‘I’ll call in sick. Hell, I’ll fucking quit.’

‘Rich,’ Eddie scolded.

Richie sighed, ‘Fine. I’ll see if I can move some things around. I want to see you.’

‘Yeah, no shit,’ Eddie laughed.

With a dreamy hum, Richie kissed him softly. ‘I think I like it when you’re focusing on me.’

Eddie brushed their noses together. ‘Think it’s only fair. After I’ve asked for all your attention to be on me too.’

‘Doubt I could ever take it off you now,’ Richie commented. ‘Even if I tried.’

He grinned, ‘Don’t.’

Chapter Text

Richie and Eddie were down in Richie’s basement playing video games. Eddie was cross-legged in an over-sized beanbag chair, whilst Richie sat with his head hanging upside down over the lip of the sofa, gangly legs stretched up its back.

‘I’m getting kinda hungry,’ Eddie said, stomach growling.

‘Don’t blame your losses on your stomach, Kaspbrak,’ Richie teased.

Eddie rolled his eyes, ‘I beat you in the last game.’

‘You’re living in the past.’

Pressing pause, Eddie put his controller down and stretched his legs. ‘I’m gonna get a snack. You want anything?’

‘You’re a snack. Can I have you?’ Richie joked, batting his eyelashes. 

‘That is foul,’ Eddie laughed, standing up. ‘Never call me that again.’

‘I’m sorry but I just can’t promise that.’ Richie readjusted to sit up straight. The world turned on its head. ‘On a serious note, I would love some Cheetos.’

Eddie scowled, ‘Do you know how many fucking additives are in those things?’

‘Yeah, because you’ve told me sixty million times. They’re delicious fucking additives.’

‘Fine, I’ll get them,’ Eddie said, and without thinking, stooped slightly to kiss Richie’s cheek before he stepped over his feet.

The gesture made Richie’s heart flutter. It was the little intimate moments which Richie found himself analysing most, the moments which suggested that Eddie might think of them as an ‘us’ after all, that Eddie might reciprocate his feelings.

It was one thing that Eddie wanted to kiss him, enjoyed kissing him, and clearly, Richie was attractive to Eddie at least in some way, because of what had happened in the music room the other day, but it never left Richie’s mind that those things weren’t enough to believe that Eddie actually liked him as more than a friend, and he was terrified to ask.

Eddie left the room, feeling a small thrill from having kissed Richie inside the Tozier house outside the confines of Richie’s bedroom. He didn’t know why it made such a difference, but it did. He was smiling absentmindedly as he reached for the Cheetos in the cupboard. Then he went to the fridge and started to make himself a sandwich.

He was in a great mood. The day had felt more like a normal day, and those had been few and far between of late. Part of him had worried that he and Richie wouldn’t be able to hang out together, alone, without the burden of heavy personal questions and intolerable sexual tension constantly muddying the atmosphere, but it seemed that they still could.

They’d chatted about Eddie’s plans for college and Richie’s awful job, Bill’s new rust-bucket of a car and the fact that Stan was now on the baseball team, and that Mike was almost singlehandedly running the farm while Ben had picked up a carpentry apprenticeship, and that Bev was wearing clothes which she’d made herself which were actually not half bad.

They’d played video games, they’d exchanged old comic books, they’d listened to a couple of new records. It was easy, it was fun, and yet there were flirtatious jokes and salacious comments peppered in here and there which Eddie thought should have bothered him, should have jarred him, but they didn’t.

Maggie Tozier came into the kitchen as Eddie was making a sandwich. ‘Oh, Eddie, let me make that for you,’ she insisted, ruffling his hair. ‘I’ll bring it down.’

‘It’s okay, Maggie, I’m nearly done,’ Eddie said politely, smiling up at her. He loved Maggie; he thought she was one of the kindest people in the world. There had been many times through the years when he’d been in Richie’s house and wished that he could have a mother like her.

He knew that she and Richie didn’t always get along, and never quite understood what it was that stood between them, other than the fact she was sensitive to his cursing and didn’t like his taste in music. His heart grew cold as he stood there and remembered a vague conversation he’d shared with Richie years ago, when he’d explained his mother’s reasoning.

‘She considers it blasphemous,’ Richie had laughed. ‘Thinks that rock stars all worship the devil.’

Eddie looked at the cross dangling around her neck and swallowed. Then he picked up the sandwich and the Cheetos. ‘Let me know if you need help with dinner,’ he offered. Maggie liked to cook with Eddie; she was often on diets and she relished picking the knowledge stored in Eddie’s brain.

‘That’s alright, Eddie, but thank you,’ Maggie said. ‘Oh, would you mind asking Richie what’s happened to the laundry basket? I left it on the washer but it’s not there anymore. Think he might have moved it.’

‘Sure,’ Eddie said, and went back downstairs. He threw the bag of crisps at Richie, who failed to catch them, and Eddie laughed, ‘Butterfingers.’ Then he sat down on the sofa beside Richie, leaning on the arm rest, putting his feet up on the cushions. ‘Your mom asked about the laundry basket.’

Richie popped open the bag, and the cheesy aroma diffused into the air around them. ‘Oh, right,’ he muttered, then called loudly enough that Maggie could hear, ‘Laundry’s on the line, mom! I put the basket back upstairs!’

Stopping eating for a moment, Eddie stared at him.

‘What?’ Richie asked, seeing Eddie’s expression.

‘You actually started doing the laundry?’ Eddie chuckled in disbelief.

Richie shrugged, ‘Yeah. Told you I would, didn’t I?’

‘Yeah, you did, but I didn’t think you’d actually do it.’

Smiling, Richie repeated himself, ‘The things I’d do for you, eh? Don’t test me, Spaghetti.’

‘Maybe I should,’ Eddie said. ‘Could be getting you to do my laundry too.’

Richie shrugged, ‘Not the worst idea. Would stop your mom nearly catching me in your bedroom.’

‘Stop you from having to climb out the window too,’ Eddie noted, finishing his sandwich.

‘Another thing I did for you,’ Richie smirked, putting the crisps down and licking the orange dust from each of his fingers.

Eddie reminded, ‘You wouldn’t have had to climb out if you hadn’t climbed in.’

‘I would happily do it again,’ he winked, pulling at Eddie’s ankles so that his legs extended. ‘And don’t pretend you didn’t like having me there. You asked me to stay, after all.’

‘So you didn’t break your fucking neck,’ Eddie insisted.

‘Desperate to get me into bed,’ Richie teased, climbing on top of him.

Scoffing, Eddie repeated, ‘Desperate? I’ve never been desperate. You’re the one who wrote a fucking song.’

‘Never been desperate?’ Richie hummed, locking Eddie’s gaze. ‘I think I have some evidence to the contrary.’ In a mocking, whining voice that was passably similar to Eddie’s, he leaned in and quoted, ‘Look at me. Talk to me. Make a fucking joke. Anything.’

Eddie’s jaw dropped. ‘How the fuck do you remember literally everything I say?’

He grinned, letting his eyes drop to Eddie’s lips, ‘Hang on every word that comes out of your mouth, Eds.’

‘You must have a fucking Dictaphone in your pocket or something,’ Eddie said, bringing his hands to Richie’s hips.

‘Or am I just happy to see you?’ Richie laughed, and kissed him.

‘You’re always happy to see me,’ Eddie said.

Richie conceded, ‘Yeah. Sorry. Can’t help it.’

Eddie stared up at him, thinking about how it was possible that he could have ever missed the look in Richie’s eyes: that hopeless, melancholic, genuine affection. Maybe he had ignored it, maybe he had been blind, or maybe he’d just never known what that look was, since it had always been there.

Feeling like the earth ground to a halt, Eddie considered and reconsidered the thought he’d just had. Always? Surely that look couldn’t have always been there. At some point it had to have shifted from one thing to the other. After all, Richie and Eddie had known each other for nearly a decade.

‘What’s that face for?’ Richie asked, recoiling slightly.

Eddie’s eyebrows knitted and he blurted, ‘How long have you liked me?’

Richie croaked out a string of nonsense filler. He knew this question had been coming, was inevitable, but that didn’t mean he was prepared for it; he’d just been stewing in quiet dread. Not wanting to answer, he did the same thing he always did when coherent sentences failed him. He swore. Gratuitously.

‘It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’ Eddie asked suspiciously, once Richie stopped cursing.

With a sigh, Richie admitted, ‘Maybe.’

Eddie swallowed, ‘How long?’

‘Six inches?’ Richie tried, but Eddie clearly wasn’t going to let it phase him. He climbed off Eddie and slumped into the corner of the couch. ‘Oh, come on, Eds, don’t do this to me.’

‘I don’t mind, Rich,’ Eddie assured, if not confidently, as he propped himself up. ‘I just want to know.’

Richie picked at his fingernails. ‘No, you don’t.’

‘A year?’ Eddie guessed.

‘Oh, can we really not do this?’ Richie pleaded. ‘I like you. It’s been a while. Let’s just leave it at that.’

Eddie flattened his lips. ‘More than a year, then. Two?’

Richie clambered back over to press his hand over Eddie’s mouth. ‘Stop guessing.’

‘More than two?’ Eddie mumbled, muffled through Richie’s fingers. As an increasingly frantic Richie let go, Eddie asked, ‘Well, I fucking hope it’s not before we started high school, because that’s when I started buying my own fucking clothes.’

Snorting in an attempt to let Eddie believe that was the extent of it, Richie said, ‘Yeah, like I’d have a thing for your red short shorts and fanny pack.’

Eddie bolted upright and slapped his arm, ‘Oh my God. You had a thing for my red short shorts and fanny pack?’

‘I just said I didn’t!’ Richie denied.

‘Yeah, and you’re fucking lying,’ Eddie snapped. ‘Fucking hell, Richie.’

Richie took off his glasses to rub his eyes with the rough balls of his fingertips. ‘I did not want to have this conversation.’

Eddie wasn’t listening to him. He was thinking, his mind reeling, reliving years of history together, totting further and further back. ‘That summer. That summer, Rich.’

‘What about that summer?’ Richie squeaked.

Craning his chin away from Richie in preparation for the answer he feared, Eddie asked, ‘Before or after?’

Trilling his lips, Richie revealed, ‘Before.’

Eddie locked his hands behind his head and tried to process this. ‘Jesus Christ.’ They were silent for a moment, then he asked quickly, ‘Did you know that’s what it was, though? Or have you put it together retrospectively?’

Richie was so glad that he couldn’t see Eddie’s face properly, blurred and warped as he hoped this conversation would become as the years went by, fogged in distant memory. ‘I knew. By that summer, I knew.’

‘That’s almost six years, Richie.’

‘Yeah, I know. I can count,’ Richie replied defensively.

Six years. It was such a long time that it hardly seemed to have meaning to Eddie. A third of his life. Two thirds of the time he’d known Richie. How old he was when he went to his father’s funeral. How old he was when he met Bill. How old Georgie was when he died. Almost same amount of time he’d known Bev, Ben and Mike. The same amount of time he’d been without his medication. Longer than it had been since he’d seen that clown in the sewers. Longer than that clown had been in his nightmares.

‘Okay,’ Eddie said eventually.

‘Okay?’ Richie repeated incredulously. ‘It’s fucking weird as shit, Eddie, and you’re allowed to say so.’

Eddie blinked rapidly, ‘All this time and you never told me? You were never going to tell me. I found out by accident.’

‘Of course I never told you; I was fucking terrified,’ Richie rambled. ‘I’m twelve years old and falling in love for the first time, which is scary enough, and I’m learning painfully quickly that I’m not supposed to fall in love with another boy, let alone my best friend, and I’m being fucking chased, insulted and threatened by Henry Bowers on the daily, watching my Catholic parents pore over a fucking Bible right in the middle of the fucking AIDS crisis and then, lo and behold, I’ve got a murderous demon sewer clown on my ass about it as well. That’s enough to shut you up and fuck you up for a lifetime.’

Cold, Eddie stumbled, ‘IT used it against you?’

‘IT used you against me too,’ Richie said, trying not to remember too vividly the apparitions of Eddie which he’d encountered in the Neibolt house.

Eddie leapt to throw his arms around him, almost shaking as he thought about how scarring that must have been, and how hard it must have been to not be able to share with the other Losers, to have to pretend that he was okay, that there was nothing he feared more than clowns themselves.

‘I’m so sorry, Richie,’ Eddie snivelled. ‘I can’t even fucking imagine.’

Richie was grateful for Eddie’s arms tight around his body and let himself hold Eddie in return. ‘Yeah, it wasn’t exactly fun.’

Only squeezing tighter, raising his leg over Richie’s thighs to be astride him, Eddie stumbled, ‘But you’re fucking here. You’re here with me. How? How’ve you done that?’ 

‘Honestly, Eddie, I haven’t had a choice.’ He shrugged, ‘I used to think it was something I could fix. I read about these places where you can go and they try and ‘fix’ you, but the more I read, the more it seemed like they were talking shit. I tried going back to church with my mom but it still didn’t make any fucking sense to me. I tried pretending that it just didn’t fucking matter how I felt, I just had to push it down and lie through my teeth. I’ve tried everything. Doesn’t fucking work like that.’

Eddie pulled back to look at him, searching his eyes. There was something ancient and tired in them, like a sluggish leviathan lurking at the depths of the ocean.

‘I’ve tried so fucking hard. There have been days when I’ve wanted to get a knife and fucking cut it out of me.’

Though Eddie had always known that Richie contained a streak of melancholy, an optimistic nihilist, he didn’t often hear him talk violently, not even towards himself. It hurt him to hear it, to think that Richie had felt so despairing.

Richie’s lower lip trembled, ‘But I can’t. It’s part of me; it’s who I am and what I am. I can’t change it any more than I can change what flavour ice cream I like or the colour of my eyes or the fact that I find it funny to joke about your mom.’

While his heart ached, Eddie’s lips wormed into a feeble smile.

Finding one of Eddie’s hands with his own, Richie laced their fingers together, ‘And I’ve only really been able to get to this point, accepting it, because of you. Sometimes, loving you has felt like the only thing my heart’s fucking good for.’

‘It’s not,’ Eddie promised.

Richie stared at Eddie’s chest with his blurred vision, the plain expanse of his t-shirt like a void that he could fall through. Quietly, he said, ‘When I’ve been right at the bottom of the barrel, fucking hating myself, the way out was believing that I couldn’t be such an insufferable piece of shit if you thought it was worth wasting your fucking time with me.’

Eddie cupped Richie’s jaw and tilted his chin up to lock his eyes, drawing his own face closer so that he seared into clarity. ‘You are an insufferable piece of shit sometimes,’ Eddie smiled, ‘but I haven’t wasted any of my time with you, you idiot.’

‘A compliment sandwiched between two insults,’ Richie hummed. ‘Sounds about right.’

‘I’ve got to keep you on your toes,’ Eddie said, and kissed the corner of his mouth.

Richie bit his lip, his hands roaming Eddie’s back, unsure where to settle, where Eddie felt most real in his arms. ‘You know how you said that I make you feel safe?’

The hairs on the back of Eddie’s neck prickled, ‘Yeah?’

‘You’re the only safe space I’ve ever fucking had.’

Eddie kissed him, beautifully, as though he could coax the trauma from deep inside Richie’s gut, like a snake-charmer, and take it away. He wished he could take it away, but if he couldn’t, then he would settle for Richie talking to him about it, now that he could finally be truly honest with him.

Richie felt that he could stay there forever, despite Eddie’s weight cramping against his thighs, the dehydration drying his mouth, the whet appetite brewing in his stomach. He’d not spoken about what he’d been through with anyone before, and Eddie had made it so easy, so freeing, that part of him wondered how things might have been if he’d said something at the time, or at least, earlier. It didn’t really matter; Eddie was here now, and he was listening, and that was all Richie had ever needed: to be heard.

‘Any chance you’re still hungry?’ Richie asked.

Eddie backhanded Richie’s arm, ‘See? Those Cheetos are just fucking air and shitty chemicals.’

‘I’m thinking pizza.’

‘And a movie?’ Eddie suggested, hopping off him.

Richie smiled, getting up to head upstairs. ‘Sure. Think it’s your turn to pick, so don’t pick something fucking lame like you did last time.’

Screwing up his nose, Eddie said, ‘How is Rocky lame?’

‘You can’t understand a word the guy fucking says and then he fucking loses at the end,’ Richie cried, exasperated.

‘How many times? You’re missing the fucking point!’

They closed the basement door.

Chapter Text

‘Jesus Christ, Richie!’ Eddie shrieked from inside the hammock. ‘Fuck off!’

Richie gripped him by the wrists and lifted him out. ‘Let’s.’ Then he started to pull Eddie towards the hatchway.

Bev exhaled a plume of smoke. ‘Where the fuck are you two going?’

Again,’ Stan added, nonchalantly turning a page in his book.

Richie was prepared, ‘If you must know, Eddie’s been helping me out with my song-writing.’

‘Are you p-playing?’ Bill asked, raising his eyebrows at Eddie.

‘You don’t play guitar, do you, Eddie?’ Mike checked curiously.

‘No,’ Eddie said, blushing, trying to leave.

Richie bragged, ‘He’s a singer though.’

Bill disclosed, ‘And he p-plays p-p-piano.’

‘You play piano?’ Ben asked, his eyes lighting up.

Bev stubbed out her cigarette, ‘Why don’t I know this?’

Eddie felt Richie’s eyes burning into the side of his head. ‘No, I,’ he started, ‘well, I haven’t played in a while. I was never any good.’

‘Liar,’ Stan said. ‘You were.’

Richie said, ‘Yes, Eddie is absolutely helping me via his piano prowess. He’s a prodigy. Speaking of which, I am going to listen to him play right fucking now.’ He jabbed a finger into Eddie’s ribcage, and he hastily climbed out of the clubhouse.

When they were a while away, Eddie turned to Richie and kissed him, then said, ‘Just to be fucking clear, there is no way I’m playing the piano for you.’

‘Do you really play?’ Richie asked, fascinated. ‘Is this something I’ve forgotten or something I never knew?’

He wasn’t sure which he’d prefer it to be. It helped that some of the other Losers were in the same boat as he was, but it hurt that Bill and Stan knew when Richie didn’t. He thought he knew everything there was to know about Eddie.

Eddie shrugged, ‘Could be either. I don’t talk about it.’

‘Why not?’

‘Frankly,’ Eddie lowered his gaze, ‘it’s always made me kinda sad.’

Not sure if he should ask, the question stuttered out of Richie’s mouth in three syllables. ‘Why?’

‘Piano’s my dad’s,’ Eddie said quietly, starting to walk. ‘I don’t have many memories of him, but most of those I do have are at the piano. Him playing and me trying to sing, and my mom even fucking smiling, if you can believe.’

Richie furrowed his brow, ‘Is there a piano in your house?’

Eddie nodded. ‘It’s a bit buried at the moment. Like I said, I don’t play much anymore. And I never liked playing for an audience.’

‘But when did you play it at all?’

Scratching the back of his neck, Eddie explained, ‘After my dad died, I asked to learn to play. My mom was torn at first. She liked the idea of me learning an instrument; a bit of discipline and practice, keeping me inside and out of danger, you know, but she was worried it would make her too sad to hear it.’

‘But you did learn.’

‘Yeah. We already had the piano. Family friend offered to give me lessons for free, and gave me some books to use, and I practised a lot. This is back in the days when my mom would barely let me leave the house at all, you remember? You kept asking her if I could come around for playdates and you thought I didn’t like you because I never came.’

Richie chuckled, ‘Yeah, and then I realised when I asked you myself that you’d never even known I’d called.’

‘So, I learned. I quickly realised that it did make my mom sad, and it also kept her very, very quiet. She’d often have to leave the room. Then there were my aunts. You know, the ones who always used to pinch my cheeks?’

‘You mean like this?’ Richie reached over and squeezed Eddie’s dimpled cheek, ‘Cute, cute, cute!’

Eddie slapped him off, ‘Yeah, those aunts. Well, I hated going up there, but they did have a decent piano. I’d play it for hours just wishing the time to go by. It was just,’ he shrugged, ‘a bit of an escape. From everything.’

‘Then why did you stop?’ 

Chewing the inside of his cheek, Eddie said, ‘I guess I stopped finding the time. Once I was a teenager, us Losers were hanging out almost every day after school and over the holidays, then schoolwork gets on top of you. Plus, since I broke my wrist, I get this weird ache shooting through my hand when I play too long.’ He subconsciously rubbed along the tendons over his knuckles.

‘I can’t believe I didn’t know this,’ Richie shook his head.

‘I can’t think why I would have told you,’ Eddie scrunched his nose. ‘It’s not exactly your kind of music that I’d play. It’s all classical stuff.’

Richie twisted his lips, ‘Still. Just thought I’d know that sort of thing. Especially now that I play too.’

Eddie rummaged in his pocket for his housekeys. ‘Maybe it’s because I knew you’d ask me to play and I don’t want to.’

‘Please?’ Richie begged, hopping up and down as they crossed the threshold and closed the door. ‘Pretty please?’ 

‘I’ve already told you to fuck off,’ Eddie whispered, kissing along his jaw and up to the corner of his mouth. ‘Can’t we just go upstairs? My mom’s actually out of the fucking house for once.’

Richie kissed him, then opened his eyes, scanning through the archway of the living room to see if he could spot the mystery instrument.

‘Seriously?’ Eddie scoffed. ‘You’d rather hear me play the piano than go upstairs with me? Christ, I must be losing my fucking touch.’

He grinned, ‘Never. I’m just curious. I played for you, didn’t I?’

‘But you like playing for people,’ Eddie reminded.

Richie put his hands together, pleading, as though in prayer.

If you wondered what I stayed for

It’s the same thing each night I’ve prayed for.

‘If I play you one song, will you let it go?’

Richie promised, ‘You can do whatever you want with me.’

‘Kill you, probably,’ Eddie grumbled, and swanned into the living room, edging past a stack of newspapers his mother had yet to throw away, trying not to disturb the knickknacks cluttered on the mantlepiece.

It wasn’t often that Richie actually went into Eddie’s living room, he realised, since Sonia Kaspbrak so often occupied the great armchair in its centre, and they hardly had a positive relationship, despite his frequent jokes. He only really saw Eddie go in there to kiss his mother goodbye, and that had drastically dwindled over the years.

It was a long and narrow room, and the piece of furniture tucked in the corner at the far end, Richie understood for the first time to be an upright piano. It was draped in a faded, purplish-grey cloth, presumably to protect it, and the cloth had been laden with books and papers, so that the gold feet and wooden frame were scarcely visible. There was a piano stool tucked underneath, which Eddie opened to reveal a secret store of sheet music and books.

‘You can have a look if you want,’ Eddie offered. ‘I’ll try and get all this shit off.’

‘That’s what your mom says right before we –’

‘Do you want to hear me play or not?’ Eddie sighed, and Richie nodded, miming zipping his lip.

As Eddie undressed the piano, Richie perused the music. Eddie was right that it was mostly classical pieces, and he wasn’t familiar with many of the composers. He’d learned chords and tablature while playing the guitar, but the staves and notes were unfamiliar to him. He wondered if Eddie would be able to teach him to read it.

Eddie opened the protective lid which concealed the eighty-eight black and white keys. He ran a finger along the octaves; there was no dust. ‘Anything you’d like to hear in particular?’

‘No,’ Richie said, not explaining that he barely recognised a single piece. ‘Anything you’d like to play in particular?’

Humming, Eddie reached for a stack of the sheets and started to rifle through. ‘The Carreño’s a good piece. Satie’s Gymnopédie: that’s pretty famous. You’d recognise that if you heard it. Cristofori’s Dream: that’s a bit more modern. Only came out a few years ago. Maybe Claire de Lune, or anything by Debussy; I like him.’

‘You said a whole bunch of shit I don’t know there,’ Richie admitted, captivated.  

‘I like this one,’ Eddie said, sliding a sheet out from the middle of the pack and resting it on the stand. ‘It’s a Schubert. It’s hard, but I used to play it a lot so I should be able to remember it. Think the name is kind of fitting.’

‘What’s it called?’ Riche asked, dragging a chair over so that he could sit down.

Eddie chuckled, ‘Impromptu.’

‘That is fitting,’ Richie agreed.

‘I’m only doing a bit of it: number three. That’s my favourite part,’ he gushed, then cleared his throat, embarrassed. He closed the piano stool and shunted it underneath himself and sat. Delicately, he poised his hands over the keys, but didn’t quite touch them.

When he didn’t move, Richie leaned on the edge of the piano, chin in his fists. ‘You okay?’

Almost imperceptibly, Eddie nodded, and let his fingertips graze the ivories, sliding into the gaps between the ebonies.

‘You don’t have to, Eds,’ Richie said abruptly, seeing the solemn expression on Eddie’s face. He felt like he just watched him disappear into himself, and Eddie didn’t do that very often.

Eddie didn’t say anything, just let his eyes flick once to the music sheet above him, then started to play. The piece swept over him quickly, his fingers dancing with muscle memory, barely needing to glance back up at the quavers and crotchets marked on the page.

A sad nostalgia crept through him, and a loneliness. Loneliness: that’s what it was. The piano had always made him feel that way; isolated even when he was surrounded by other people.

Surrounded by the ghosts of his parents in hazy memories, for it felt that his mother had died with his father in some ways. Surrounded by his extended family, all but ignoring the music as they bustled about cooking and small-talked into the night. Surrounded by the houses of the neighbouring families, kids running riot in the streets, kids he was so rarely allowed to join until Richie, Stan and Bill dragged him into the real world.

That was why he’d stopped playing, really. Once he knew how it felt to have real friends, to have the other Losers, to have a home in them where he couldn’t find one with his mother, he never wanted to recreate that same lonely feeling; that protective, isolating shell.

Except, as he played now, the loneliness felt oddly misplaced, because for the first time, he felt that someone was really listening, that somebody really wanted to listen, and that the music didn’t make them want to leave, didn’t remind them of something sad, wasn’t just background noise in their life.

Richie’s eyes flashed as they followed Eddie’s hands, studied his concentrated expression, noticed that Eddie hardly even used the sheet music, so well-engrained. He was completely transfixed, immoveable and yet so moved, like something inside him detached from his physical body entirely.

Shivers streaked down his spine, he found his breath irregular, rising and falling with each phrase, his eyelids instinctively closing at each glorious apex. Classical music had never done all that much for him before, but then he’d never heard it played by Eddie.

When the song ended, Eddie felt lighter, almost airy. It took him a second to settle himself, to gather the courage to look at Richie. As soon as he did, Richie leaned over and kissed him, climbing out of his chair to only get closer to Eddie, stooping down as Eddie still sat on the stool, pressing their lips together over and over.

‘You’re an asshole,’ Richie said softly.

‘Probably,’ Eddie said. ‘Why?’

Richie raised his finger, ‘You couldn’t let me have one thing that I can do better than you.’

Closing the piano lid and standing up, Eddie scoffed. ‘It’s not the same. I can’t play one chord on the guitar. I wouldn’t even know where to start.’

‘You’re really good, Eds,’ Richie said honestly. ‘I know it was just an ingenious ruse of mine earlier when I said you were helping me write, but it might not actually be a terrible idea.’

‘Oh God, don’t say it,’ Eddie squeezed his eyes shut as he pushed past him.

Richie gasped, ‘We should totally start a band.’

‘We are not starting a fucking band,’ Eddie laughed, skipping over his mother’s newspapers again to get back to the door. He jerked his head towards the stairs. ‘Now, come on. You promised.’

Smiling, Richie followed him to the bedroom. After suitably showering each other with kisses, they found themselves laying on Eddie’s bed, with Eddie’s fingers twisting through the curls of Richie’s hair.

‘I know I said I’d let it go,’ Richie said leadingly, ‘but I just wanted to say that if you didn’t hate playing for me then I’d really love to hear you play again.’

Eddie rolled his eyes. ‘I didn’t hate playing for you. Wasn’t it kind of awkward for you though, to have to sit there in silence?’

‘Not at all,’ Richie shook his head, dotting his lips up Eddie’s bare arm. ‘I was just sat there trying to comprehend how I’m now even more attracted to you than I was before. I just don’t understand how that’s possible and I don’t think it’s very fair of you to keep outdoing yourself.’

‘You’re such a sap,’ Eddie snickered.

Richie kissed him, ‘It’s true though. I’ve known you nearly ten years and there’s still so much I don’t know. I still can’t figure you out. Every time I think I have you sussed, you surprise me.’

‘I mean the same goes for you,’ Eddie confessed.

‘Yeah?’

Eddie nodded, ‘Yeah. These past couple of months have been nothing if not a fucking surprise.’

‘You’re telling me,’ Richie scoffed.

Smirking, Eddie went on, ‘And when I heard that song, you had a thousand outs that I know you could have taken, and you know you could have taken. You could have joked your way out of it. It could have been so easy for you to lie to me. But you didn’t. That was a fucking surprise.’

The corner of Richie’s mouth twitched downwards. ‘Yeah. Well, I don’t like to lie to you. Think I just couldn’t do it again.’

‘And I’m so fucking glad you didn’t,’ Eddie breathed, clambering on top of him, running his hands down Richie’s stomach. ‘We wouldn’t be here otherwise. We wouldn’t have this.’

Richie so badly wanted to ask where here was, what this was, in Eddie’s mind, but the words stifled in his throat as he stared at Eddie above him, where he’d dreamed that one day he would be. He didn’t want to ruin that, ruin the moment, make Eddie climb off or leave. He knew he might have to ask at some point, but maybe Eddie would come to him in his own time, if Richie left him to it.

Eddie leaned down again to kiss him, squeezing the flesh around Richie’s waist until Richie arched his back away from the bed, hauling himself to sit up straight. Richie’s lips descended over Eddie’s chin and down his windpipe, dragging against the skin. He kissed the hollows below Eddie’s collarbone, nails pawing at Eddie’s shoulders so that Eddie rocked his head back and grinded against him.

This was all Eddie had wanted all day. Bringing his hands down to Richie’s hips, Eddie let his thumbs drag just below the waistband of Richie’s jeans. ‘Rich?’

‘Yeah?’ he grunted, leaving the third in a line of reddish bruises at the base of Eddie’s neck.

Eddie let his palm push against the buckle of Richie’s belt. Then his fingers found the loop in the leather, and he started to pull. As Richie’s eyes snapped up to meet his, he asked, ‘Is this okay?’

A thrill and chill shooting through him, Richie nodded, and brought his own hands around to Eddie’s front, his thumb finding the button of Eddie’s trousers. ‘Is this?’

In response, Eddie kissed him hard, his trembling fingers fumbling to unloop Richie’s belt and cast it away as Richie popped the button on his own lower half. They each found the other’s fly and tugged the zippers down. Then Richie’s hands hovered, hesitating, as he broke the kiss and glimpsed downwards at the unfolding scene.

Eddie noticed his reticence and brought his hands to Richie’s cheeks, forcing his gaze. He whispered, ‘I want this, Rich. I want you to.’ He kissed him, then inhaled sharply as he felt Richie’s hand slide into his trousers. His own hand trailed back down Richie’s body, and when Richie showed no resistance, slipped lower than it ever had before.

‘Fuck,’ Richie cracked, locking his other hand around the back of Eddie’s neck as Eddie touched him uncertainly.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie panted, sliding his hand back up only to burrow it beneath the waistband of Richie’s boxers.

Copying, reaching into Eddie’s briefs, Richie had to keep pressing his lips to Eddie’s skin, fearing that if he didn’t, he would say something that he would later regret. Still, as he had to rasp for air, stunted swears escaped his lips, mingled with Eddie’s name.

‘Fuck, shit, Eddie, I’m gonna –’

‘Me too,’ Eddie tremored, his eyes closing as the waves rippled through him.

Richie’s eyes snapped open as the same flood crashed down inside him, and he watched every twitch and tension spark and release in Eddie’s face as the pleasure tore from his core and toppled from his mouth in a guttural groan. It was like music to Richie’s ears, and he cupped Eddie’s face with the hope that he would open his eyes. He did, and Richie felt completely awash with love.

Eddie felt incredible, and terrified, because the reason he felt so incredible was the boy sat opposite him, the boy he was sat on. Flustered, flushed, he querulously kissed Richie’s red lips, if only to have an excuse to shut his eyes again for a moment and block out the world.

When he broke away, he stuttered, ‘There are tissues on the side.’ He paused, then realised that Richie couldn’t reach for them himself, since he was weighing him down, so he unhooked himself and crawled over the bedclothes. His fingers were still shaking, and he wasn’t sure if it was the residual pleasure or his burgeoning fear, as he tugged the Kleenexes from the box, then lobbed the box at Richie, who dropped it.

‘Butterfingers,’ Eddie mumbled, cleaning himself off, trying not to look at the mess, unsure which was his doing and which was Richie’s. He sat back against his headboard and leaned again for the antibacterial hand sanitiser in his bedside drawer, and once his hands were clean, he exhaled.

Richie moved to sit beside him, having cleared up as best he could, hastily threading his belt through the loops of his jeans. He knew that he should say something, but for what felt like the first time in his life, his motormouth had completely broken down.

They sat there, side by side, silent, eyes wide and both in shock, unsmiling, trying to process the incontrovertible barrier which had just been broken between them as their breathing slowed, as the blood diverted back to their brains.

Still not having the words, Richie simply dropped his hand and inched it towards Eddie’s, just grazing their little fingers together. Eddie’s eyelids fluttered, and he interwove his fingers with Richie’s. It was sufficient affection to steady Richie’s nerves, but Eddie felt himself shutting down, like an overworked computer inundated with data.

‘Eds?’ Richie started, finally finding his voice.

His voice was breathy, barely audible. ‘Yeah?’

Richie didn’t know what his question was. Eventually he asked, ‘Was that okay?’

Eddie’s throat constricted, ‘Yeah. That was,’ he swallowed, ‘good. You?’

Squeezing his hand, Richie agreed, ‘Yeah. Really good.’

‘I think I need a shower,’ Eddie said.

Richie wasn’t sure if this was a joke, so he didn’t laugh. Finally, he turned his head to look at him. ‘Eddie?’

He struggled, ‘Yeah?’

Hearing the stiffness in his voice made Richie’s heart splinter. ‘It’s okay,’ he said gently. ‘You’re okay.’

Eddie shook his head, ‘Fuck. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m being so fucking weird.’ He wiped his brow with the back of his hand and returned Richie’s gaze, promising, ‘I’m okay, really.’

‘Okay, well, good,’ Richie tried, shuffling closer to him.

Mimicking the movement, Eddie squeezed next to Richie, their clasped hands resting on Eddie’s thigh. After another strained silence, Eddie apologised, ‘I’m such a mess.’

‘Who isn’t?’ Richie joked.

‘I’ll be less of a fucking dipshit next time,’ Eddie laughed.

Richie snapped his head around. ‘Next time?’

‘Well, yeah,’ Eddie said, as though it was obvious.

Spluttering, Richie said, ‘Well, I mean, okay. Fuck,’ he stared at him. ‘Sorry, I just feel like we turned over two pages at once.’

Eddie made a face, ‘Yeah. My brain’s a bit all over the place.’ It was skipping, like a record scratch, discordant fragments of thoughts scrambling together, jumping ahead before he had all the details, so it didn’t make a lot of sense. ‘Sorry.’

‘That’s okay,’ Richie said, boggled. ‘Are you okay?’

Trying to settle him, Eddie pressed his lips to Richie’s cheek. ‘I’m good,’ he said, smiling. ‘Really, Rich. That felt fucking good.’  

‘Yeah?’ Richie asked, smiling gently. ‘I thought so too.’

‘Yeah?’ Eddie asked back, strangely proud of himself. ‘Cool.’

‘Way better than your mom,’ Richie encouraged.

Eddie wrenched his hand from Richie’s grasp. ‘Gross! For fuck’s sake, Richie,’ he scolded, but it soon devolved into laughter.

Nobody made Eddie laugh quite like Richie could, like the laughter screamed out of his gut. Richie watched as Eddie’s eyes creased at the corners, as the dimples appeared in his cheeks. He smiled at him, completely besotted, thinking: I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

They joked and bickered idly as they put their clothes back on. Richie checked the time and decided to head off home. He kissed Eddie goodbye, and left.

Eddie went to take a shower, throwing all his clothes in the laundry basket on the way. As he sat under the steady stream of water, he started to think, and thinking soon descended into overthinking, which spiralled into panicking.

He was happy, he was really happy, giddy even, about the day’s events. He adored spending time with Richie, couldn’t wait to see him again, wanted a next time. But though everything was a secret, though he knew that it was contained, though he knew that the only person he needed to trust beyond himself was Richie, who he trusted with his life, his brain scratched back on the record which had skipped earlier. His brain scratched right back and played from the beginning, and to Eddie, there was only one lyric, looping again and again.

He said it once, aloud, to himself. Then he turned off the shower, dried off, and went to bed.

Chapter Text

Richie was giving himself an embolism trying to psychoanalyse Eddie. He knew it was his own fault, because he couldn’t bring himself to ask the right questions, the direct questions, and kept trying to circumvent the problem by dropping hints and potential opportunities for Eddie to latch onto, which he never did.

For all intents and purposes, they acted like a couple, outside of the obvious caveat that they had to keep their liaison a secret from everyone else. Richie had thought and thought about what it was that made two people boyfriend and, well, boyfriend.

They spent time alone together, they made each other laugh, they talked constantly; but that was also true of them when they were friends. They kissed each other, aroused each other, and were intimate with each other; but that could also be true of two strangers on a first meeting.

It was the little things that made the difference. Like sharing parts of themselves that they’d never shared before, holding hands and long embraces and cheek kisses, doing things for each other, making sacrifices, working, trying, fighting and resolving, and the words, the almost words, the almost phrases that almost meant.

Yet, Eddie never called Richie his boyfriend. He never said that he loved Richie. He never even said that he liked Richie. He said that he wanted Richie, but Richie wasn’t sure if that was the same. He never called Richie anything other than a friend, or a best friend. He said there was a this. There was a here. But there wasn’t a label.

He felt like Eddie used to, poring over the list of chemicals in a new processed food, trying to make sense of all the little ingredients and figure out: is this going to kill me?

Richie stared at himself in the mirror, trying to work up the courage to even ask the questions out loud to himself, but he never could establish what the right wording was. Would it be better to ask Eddie to be his boyfriend, or ask if Eddie already was his boyfriend, or ask if that was something Eddie had even thought about wanting to be called or call him in return?

It could be a step too far. After all, lots of people dated for days or weeks or months before calling themselves a boyfriend, before calling it a relationship. Richie forgot what it was called in the interim period. Seeing each other. Going out. Dating. Together.

Maybe even that was too much. So then, it would be best to gauge the strength of Eddie’s affections towards him first. There were so many degrees of affection, and Richie felt he knew them all like the back of his hand, because any that he’d experienced were in direct comparison to the unconditional, encompassing love he felt for Eddie.

A crush, a passing fancy, a curiosity, a pining, a yearning, an attraction, a liking, a fling, a dalliance, an awakening, a desire, a passion, an obsession, a romance, a love, a true love, a soulmate. Richie groaned. The lines between friendship and sex and love were so blurry, like the world without his glasses.

If Eddie didn’t like him romantically, even if he liked him platonically and sexually, then it was a moot point, because Richie was in love with him. Unless Eddie reciprocated his feelings on an emotional level, then it wasn’t enough, and Richie was going to get hurt at some point. They needed to be on the same page or get on the same page.

He rubbed his eyes. There was such a narrow window of hope, such a wide set of parameters which built the pillars of the best case scenario, that Richie felt his disappointment was all but inevitable. It would be too perfect, too lucky, for Eddie to fall in love with Richie just as Richie had fallen in love with him.

So then, he reached the same fork in the road that he did every day. Either ask Eddie and risk losing everything that they had discovered between them, risk losing their friendship too, risk losing Eddie completely, or stay quiet and enjoy the time with Eddie that he could have, as all the while his hopes, expectations, beliefs and desires strengthened, so that should it come crashing down, he risked breaking his own heart in more tragic, dangerous and brutal ways than he could ever have imagined.

‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ he muttered to himself.

He wasn’t expecting a guest that day, but Eddie turned up at his door.

‘Can we talk?’

Richie didn’t like the look on his face, didn’t like that Eddie wasn’t looking at him with the same gleeful excitement that he had been of late, didn’t like that Eddie hadn’t touched him at all, not even a subtle graze at the elbow, didn’t like that Eddie marched straight upstairs without waiting for Richie’s response, without even so much as a real greeting.

When the bedroom door closed, it was worse. Eddie didn’t go to him, Eddie didn’t kiss him, Eddie didn’t lock his gaze and catch his breath, Eddie didn’t slide his hands around Richie’s neck or his waist, Eddie didn’t flush hot and longing. Instead, he just went to the edge of the bed, not even sprawling across the duvet, and sat with his feet firmly planted on the floor.

‘Hey,’ Richie said weakly.

Eddie’s jaw clenched. ‘Hi,’ he said, turning his head towards him, the ghost of a smile on his lips.

‘What,’ Richie started, coughing, moving to sit beside Eddie, ‘what do you want to talk about?’

‘This,’ Eddie said, carefully, as they both looked ahead, one at the wall, one out the window.

Richie felt like he’d turned to marble. ‘This?’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie rubbed his sweating palms on his knees. ‘What this is. What it means.’

Richie’s heart was on a high-wire, stepping back and forth, trying to balance, trying to ignore the drop below. ‘Okay,’ he said quietly, mentally readying himself.

Eddie hesitated, staring at the same nondescript spot of the wall as though it was the centre of the universe. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.’

Darting a glance at him, Richie noticed he wasn’t smiling. If he wasn’t smiling, then he wasn’t happy, he wasn’t excited, he wasn’t about to delightedly announce that Richie was the love of his life and ask him to run off into the sunset.

‘It’s been really fucking hard,’ Eddie said, leaning forwards to rest his elbows on his knees.

Like a helpless member of the circus audience, Richie watched his heart lose its footing and topple from the tightrope, desperately trying to grab hold of the oscillating wire, vibrating like the string of a guitar, unsteadied, ringing out loud and stomach-churning. It plummeted inside him, falling down, down, down.

Eddie sighed heavily and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he said flatly, ‘I think I’m gay.’

Richie’s heart landed in a net, cradled. ‘What?’ he asked, snapping his head around.

Breath shallowing, Eddie said, ‘Pretty sure. Pretty sure I’m,’ he inhaled raggedly. ‘I can’t say it again.’

Pawing through the rubble of the metaphorical wall which had crumbled between them, Richie lightly rested his hands on Eddie, again and again in different places, his shoulders, his thighs, his hands, his neck. He was begging his brain to catch up with his body so that he knew how to process this information and comfort Eddie simultaneously.

‘Fuck,’ Eddie huffed, then burst into tears, his head falling into his hands. It was right, he knew it was right. As soon as he said it out loud to himself in the shower, he’d suspected that it was true, but now having said it out loud to another person, to Richie, he knew without a shadow of a doubt. He was gay. He liked boys, and he didn’t like girls.

Wishing he had the right words prepared, Richie shuffled, climbing onto the bed so that he could sit behind Eddie, his longer legs still flopping over the edge of the duvet. He wrapped his arms around Eddie’s middle, rested his chin in the crook of Eddie’s neck, and pressed his chest flush to Eddie’s back; it jolted as he cried.

‘It’s okay, Eds,’ Richie said softly, as Eddie’s breathing slowed. ‘You’re safe. I’m here.’ He kissed his skin lightly. ‘It’s me. It’s only me.’

Eddie let his trembling arms wrap around himself, draped over Richie’s. ‘I just don’t need this, Richie. I don’t need this too.’

‘What do you mean?’

He rocked his head back so that it rested on Richie’s shoulder. ‘I can’t catch a break. I’m already a kid with a dead dad, a psychotic mom, a panic disorder and hypochondria. I’m a clean-freak, I’m a control-freak, I’ve always been a fucking loser, and now, I’m a fucking,’ he stopped, and replaced whatever word he was going to use with a loud groan, a bass scream. ‘It’s just so fucking unfair.’

Richie didn’t have anything more profound or comforting to say than, ‘Yeah.’

Eddie pulled himself away from Richie’s embrace and stood, walking to the centre of the room as though it were the centre of the universe, as though somehow it would ground him, like everything else could revolve around him and he could stay still. Richie stood and went to him, as though drawn by the same gravity, needing to be near him. He reached for Eddie’s hand and pulled him around to face him.

As soon as their eyes met, Eddie broke again, only this time he fell into Richie, hands balling into fists as he clutched Richie’s shirt and buried his face into Richie’s chest. Richie held him, one hand rubbing his back, one hand rooting into the hair at the nape of his neck.

‘It’s all too fucking real now,’ Eddie said, craning his head up. ‘These past few months have been,’ he struggled, ‘I don’t know, like a hallucination, or something. Like something only I could see, or you could see. I’ve been kind of lost in it, but not in a bad way; I didn’t want to be found, I wasn’t looking for the way out.’ He stumbled, ‘But, now I know there isn’t one, even if I went looking for it, and that’s different.’

‘Why?’ Richie asked, fear bubbling in his stomach like a thick, viscous potion.

Eddie blinked, ‘It’s like going into a maze. I wanted to find the centre, wanted to get there, know what was there waiting for me. And now I’ve found it and I want to get out again, but I’m looking around, and the hedges have all grown over so I can’t leave.’ He sniffled, ‘And I’m scared. And I’m alone.’

Richie gripped each of Eddie’s cheeks. ‘You’re not alone. You’re never alone, Eddie. I’m right fucking here.’

‘Fine,’ Eddie conceded. ‘Then, at best, we’re alone.’

‘Together,’ Richie tried, leaning his forehead against Eddie’s. ‘It’s that worth something?’

‘Alone. Alone together,’ Eddie weighed each option in his hands. ‘I don’t know which is better, Rich.’

That hurt. More than Richie could express in words. His face contorted and he begged that Eddie wouldn’t say anything else, but his prayers went unheeded.

‘I can’t tell my mom. I can’t tell my friends.’ He sniffed, his voice garbled, ‘I’m never gonna be able to be with someone the way everyone else gets to fucking be with someone. Can’t fucking walk down the street holding hands, or go on a date to a public place, or fucking kiss in front of fucking anyone.’

Richie had been here. Richie had thought these things before. He knew how hard they were to think; how difficult they were to bury.

Eddie sighed, defeated. ‘I’m never gonna get fucking married. I’m never gonna have kids. I don’t even know if I want those things, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t have a choice. It’s just no. Blocked off. Can’t. Ever.’ 

‘But you have me,’ Richie said quietly. ‘We have each other.’

Eddie brought his hands to Richie’s wrists, stroking gently, ‘But I don’t want that for you either. Jesus Christ, how could I want that for you? Always fucking hiding, always making sacrifices, never getting what you fucking want.’

‘You’re what I want,’ Richie stressed. ‘Fuck the rest. I don’t fucking need it.’

‘How can you fucking say that?’ Eddie spluttered. ‘How?’

Richie wept, ‘Because I love you, Eddie.’ He kissed him, desperate and beautiful. ‘Alright? I love you.’

Eddie knew that Richie loved him. It wasn’t new information. Richie had written a song about him, after all. He’d known from the beginning, from that first kiss.

But I swear I never thought I’d love

Anybody like I love you

Only, Eddie wasn’t supposed to hear the song, and hadn’t heard those words and known they were about him.

Then, Eddie had said, ‘You’re in love with me,’ to Richie, and Richie had affirmed it by saying, ‘It’s fucked up, I know.’ That was hardly a beautiful response. Eddie had said it again, later: ‘I found out you love me.’ Richie hadn’t even acknowledged it. He had referenced falling in love with Eddie a couple of times, in a panicked stream which included references to IT. Not exactly romantic.

The big one had come when they were lying side by side in Eddie’s bed, when Richie said, ‘I loved you before this started, and I’ll still love you tomorrow.’ That was a moment, a real moment, and Eddie had let it swathe him like sunlight on his skin.

Yet, it hadn’t been something present. Loved: past. I’ll love: future. It almost distanced it, made it hypothetical, separate, indirect. He’d never said ‘I love you’ in so few words to him, directly to his face. Until now.

Eddie kissed him, hard, pushing his body up against Richie’s, so hard that Richie had to step backwards a few times, but Eddie went with him, instinctively, like a dance they’d rehearsed a dozen times.

‘Say it again,’ Eddie requested breathily.

Richie looked confused for a moment, then stammered, ‘I love you.’ 

Eddie kissed him again, passionate and petrified.

He felt like the ground had fallen away and he was falling with it, like the flip in your stomach as you hear the branch you’re holding crack above you, like the jolt of surprise when you think there’s an extra step at the top of the stairs, or when the music builds in a horror movie only for a friendly character to suddenly enter the scene.

‘Say it again,’ Eddie repeated, pressing his lips over every peak and valley in Richie’s face, over every other freckle, over the bow and string off his mouth.

‘I love you,’ Richie whimpered, his grip tightening around Eddie, nails digging into his clothes so hard they were sure to leave crescent marks on the skin below, like little red moons. 

Eddie kissed him harder still, guiding them both onto the bedclothes, relieved and reticent.

It was how he felt when he leapt from the cliff at the top of the quarry, how he felt when the clown’s face disintegrated and IT dropped back into its lair, how he felt when he finally stood up to his mother, how he felt when he threw the last of his counterfeit pills away, how he felt when he had first sang for Richie, how he felt when he had played the piano to Richie’s enraptured ear.

‘Again,’ Eddie begged, slowly unbuttoning Richie’s shirt, letting his hands spread over the downy curls of his chest hair. He removed his own shirt and began to kiss down Richie’s neck. ‘God, please, say it again.’

Richie burned. ‘I love you, Eds.’

As they kissed, Eddie was flooded with the memories of when he realised that Richie’s song was about him, when he had pushed Richie up against his bedroom door, when he had dared to lace his hands with Richie’s at the movie theatre, when he had allowed Richie into his bedroom in the dead of night, when he had shut them in Richie’s garage, when he’d first removed Richie’s shirt, when he found out just how long Richie had loved him, when he had kissed Richie in his basement, in the school, in the woods, in his living room, and the time when his hands had slipped below Richie’s belt.

Eddie’s hands moved down Richie’s body. He unbuckled his belt, undid the buttons, then did the same to himself. His heart ached as he tugged at the unforgiving denim of Richie’s jeans.

‘Shall I take them off?’ Richie asked hotly, and when Eddie nodded, he arched his back to pull them down. Eddie took the opportunity to remove his own trousers, peeling off his socks which prompted Richie to remove his, and then his glasses.

Laying himself down, Eddie pushed his hips against Richie’s and whined softly. He brought his hand to Richie’s cheek and stared down into his elegiac eyes. ‘God, Richie. What did I do?’ he asked helplessly. ‘What did I ever fucking do?’

Richie pulled him down into another flawless kiss. The weight of Eddie’s body on his replaced the weight of carrying those words around inside himself for so long. Once they’d been said, he felt his heart expand so that it filled his body, pushing into the tips of his fingers and toes, surging with heat and oxygen and adrenaline.

Eddie began planting kisses wherever there was skin to kiss; on each of Richie’s fingertips, his palms, the insides of his wrists, on each one of his ribs, in the hollow below his breastbone, down the centre of his abdomen, around his bellybutton, and in the crevices of his hips.

Richie raked his hands through Eddie’s hair, pushing it back so that he could see his face, watch every time Eddie’s lips made contact with his body, watch the shadows of Eddie’s eyelashes dancing over his cheeks. ‘God, I want to say it again.’

Between kisses, Eddie’s eyes flashed at him, and a smile broke on his face. ‘Then say it again.’

Lamenting the thousands of times when he had been with Eddie and thought it before, Richie whispered, ‘You want to hear it?’

Eddie kissed up the centre of his body until he found Richie’s lips. ‘Fuck, Richie, it’s a good thing to hear.’

Richie reached up for Eddie’s face like it was made of crystal and might shatter at any moment. ‘I love you, Eddie.’

Every time Richie said it, Eddie felt a bolt score through his system, like lightning, scarring him fractured and fractally. He kissed him delicately, perfectly, wishing he could make Richie feel as wonderful as he did right now, wishing he could say it back.

Richie gushed, ‘It feels so good to say it.’

Shifting down, Eddie reached below the elastic of Richie’s underwear. ‘As good as this?’

His spine arching, Richie growled, ‘Tough call.’

With a smirk, Eddie pulled down Richie’s boxers, shuffling backwards as he did so. Richie helpfully raised his ankles, his knees, to assist, almost shaking as he realised that soon he would be wearing no clothes at all.

Eddie stared at his body like he was mapping it, memorising him. ‘You’re so fucking beautiful, Richie,’ he said.

Eyebrows steepled, Richie’s eyes shined with a fresh veil of tears, only these were gorgeous tears, stunned and aweing, overcome. Nobody had ever called him beautiful before. He’d never been objectively beautiful, he knew that. But when Eddie said it, he almost believed him, believed that he meant it, and for the first time, Richie really felt like he was. He felt beautiful, in every sense of the word.

Scared, but so little in comparison to how remarkable and whole he felt, Eddie leaned to kiss the insides of Richie’s thighs, pushing his knees slightly further apart as he did so.

‘Is this okay?’ Eddie checked, glancing his eyes up at Richie.

Richie nodded, and watched in stunned reverie as Eddie’s lips dragged up his legs, until there was no further for them to go. When Eddie’s mouth met him again, Richie’s toes curled, his hands balled into fists, his neck contracted, throwing his dark curls back onto the pillow, flattening around his head in disarray, like a black halo.

The noises which sputtered out of him were completely out of his control. He was so torn; trying repeatedly to prop himself up on his elbows so that he could watch Eddie, see that it was him, preserve this in his memories forever, and yet the pleasure which gripped him was so intense that his joints buckled, failing, and he ceaselessly fell back down again, keening.

‘Fuck, Eddie,’ he said throatily.

‘I love it when you say my name like that,’ Eddie hummed.

After a while, Richie tugged at Eddie’s hair hard enough in warning that Eddie stopped and manoeuvred back up Richie’s body, licking his lips. As his face hovered over Richie’s, he leaned, then hesitated, ‘Can I kiss you? I mean, after –’

Richie kissed him heatedly, chaotically, tasting himself on Eddie’s tongue and relishing it. ‘Can I do that to you?’

Eddie nodded, and hastily Richie grabbed around his waist and rolled them over, his hands all too eager to remove Eddie’s underwear. Once discarded, Richie gripped tightly around each of Eddie’s calves, taking in the scene. ‘Fucking hell.’

‘If you told me four months ago that we’d ever be here,’ Eddie laughed, pressing his hands to his forehead.

‘I always fucking hoped we would be,’ Richie said, leaning himself down. ‘Fucking someday.’

Shivering, Eddie said, ‘God, I’m really fucking nervous,’ The end of the phrase was caught in his throat as he gasped, Richie closing around him. ‘Oh fuck,’ he puffed, his hands reaching down to knot in Richie’s hair, eyes squeezing closed so tightly that phosphenes danced in his retinas, and he had to consciously stop himself from bucking recklessly.

It wasn’t long before Eddie started to lose himself, and the moans grew sharper, stunted, and his knees weakened, trembling. ‘Richie, Richie, Richie,’ he panted arrhythmically, trying to caution him, but Richie had never heard anything quite so arousing in his life and, determined, brought Eddie to the peak of ecstasy and guided him down again.

Euphoric, Eddie gawked hopelessly at Richie as he crawled back up his body, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. ‘Can I –?’ Richie started to ask, but his lips were quickly met with Eddie’s, and then Eddie’s hand was wrapped around him.

It was almost impossible to hold himself up as Eddie touched him, but soon the relief came, and as it did, Richie found himself lost in Eddie’s unbroken gaze, watching him, studying him, enjoying him. He collapsed to the side, giggling as the dregs of the rush sizzled through him, then reached for the tissues in his bedside drawer, knowing Eddie would need them.

After a slapdash clean-up, they rolled to face one another, and a cold Richie kicked at the duvet and then pulled it over them. They grinned, hands still reaching for each other at waists and shoulders, hauling closer, legs intertwining. They kissed, soft and slow.

‘Alone together,’ Eddie sighed. ‘That’s better. Way better.’

‘Thank fuck. Yes. Yes, it is.’ Richie concurred emphatically, then kissed him.

As Eddie nestled into him, Richie wondered whether being alone together and being together were the same thing. Maybe.

Maybe.

Chapter Text

‘Rich?’ Eddie started, lying in bed with Richie curled on top of him.

‘Yeah?’ he yawned, spreading his arms across Eddie’s chest, cat-like.

‘Do you ever think that there might be more of us in Derry?’

‘What do you mean, “more of us”?’ Richie queried.

Eddie shrugged his shoulders up to his ears. ‘You know, more people who are like us. Gay people.’

There was something which Richie had been meaning to address for a while, and though it wasn’t Eddie’s question, he knew that he should take the opportunity presented. With a deep huff, Richie said, ‘I’m not gay.’

‘Very funny,’ Eddie sniggered, then when he felt Richie tense beside him, his brow furrowed. ‘Wait, what?’

Richie squirmed, not looking at him. ‘I like girls, Eddie.’

Still unsure whether this was a weird joke, Eddie said with a tentative laugh, ‘You know I’m a boy, right?’

‘Yeah, Eds,’ Richie said steadily, ‘I know.’

Eddie’s eyebrows twitched, ‘You said you thought you were different?’

Richie smacked his lips together, ‘And I am, because as you so shrewdly observed, you are a boy.’

‘But you said it wasn’t just me that made you think so,’ Eddie reminded.

‘It’s not,’ Richie confirmed.

Eddie’s eyes flicked. ‘I’m confused.’

‘Yeah, me too, dickhead.’

‘You like boys,’ Eddie stated.

‘Yes,’ Richie nodded once.

‘And girls?’

‘Yeah,’ he nodded again.

Eddie shuffled to sit up, forcing Richie to move. He wanted to look at him, to know this was a serious conversation and not Richie messing with him. ‘Really?’

‘I think so,’ Richie gulped, unsmiling.

Hardly able to conceive of it, Eddie spluttered, ‘Is that a thing? Can you do that?’

Richie frowned, ‘Don’t see why not.’

Eddie blinked hard and rubbed his eyes. ‘Wow. Sorry. I never thought that,’ he babbled. ‘I just assumed that, you know, you were,’ he gestured frenetically. ‘Well, if you’ve liked me since you were,’ he shook his head. ‘How do you know?’

Awkward, uncomfortable, Richie rubbed his neck. ‘How would anyone know? It just, sort of, is what it is. It makes sense to me. It feels right.’

‘Huh,’ Eddie said.

‘It doesn’t matter, does it?’ Richie asked, worried.

Eddie said slowly, ‘No. It doesn’t. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the idea.’

‘In my experience, wrapping your head around the idea can take about half a decade.’ He sighed, ‘Maybe even longer.’

Strangely jealous, Eddie asked, ‘Have you ever felt about a girl the way you feel about me?’

Making a face, Richie said, ‘Depends what you mean.’

‘Does it?’ Eddie asked.

‘Well, yeah,’ Richie said emphatically, as though it should be obvious.

Eddie didn’t understand. ‘Why?’

Richie’s eyes ran over his body, ‘Because I like you in so many different ways.’

Eddie shuffled, ‘Okay, then. Tell me.’ Hastily, he added, ‘About the girls, I mean.’

‘You sure?’ Richie cocked an eyebrow.

Nodding, Eddie insisted, ‘Yeah, I’m interested.’

Richie breathed deeply, thinking how best it would be to elucidate Eddie on what he barely had a grasp of himself sometimes. Carefully, he climbed on top of Eddie and dragged his nose up Eddie’s neck. ‘Alright,’ he said, then kissed his jaw. ‘Well, there have been girls that I think are cute-cute-cute,’ he said, dotting kisses repeatedly over Eddie’s dimples until he laughed, ‘like you.’

‘You don’t actually think I’m cute, do you?’ Eddie asked, wrinkling his nose.

‘Yeah,’ Richie promised, pinching the apple of his cheek, ‘God, I’ve been saying that for fucking years.’

Eddie batted his hand away, ‘But I always thought you were just trying to piss me off.’

Pouting, Richie whined, ‘Does it piss you off?’

‘Not now, it doesn’t,’ Eddie said, shuffling. ‘It’s kind of nice.’

‘Don’t you think I’m cute too?’ Richie asked, fluttering his eyelashes rapidly as though he were joking, but his heart pounded loud and furious in his chest, wondering if this might be the day that he could finally find out how Eddie felt about him.

Eddie pushed him. ‘Fuck off, Tozier,’ he said, but when he saw the dark veil briefly sweep across Richie’s eyes, he backtracked, smiling, ‘Fine, I admit it.’

‘Yeah?’ Richie checked, hesitantly half-smiling.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said, and kissed him. Embarrassed, he reverted, ‘Go on, what else?’

Richie hummed, running his hands slowly down Eddie’s body. ‘There have been girls that I’ve had, I don’t know,’ he waggled his head uncertainly, searching for the word, ‘chemistry with. Like you.’

‘You mean now that my chemistry with Stan is over?’ Eddie snorted, remembering Richie’s jokes.

He laughed, ‘Stan’s a good-looking guy, I wouldn’t blame you for having chemistry with him.’

Eddie draped his arms over Richie’s shoulders. ‘Nah, think I’m set.’

Biting his lip, horrendously excited and equally as terrified, Richie dissected this, and rapidly started to feel more confident. He latched onto Eddie’s throat until he whimpered. ‘There are girls I’ve thought are hot,’ he growled. He raised his head to survey Eddie’s face. ‘Or pretty,’ he said quietly. ‘Or fucking both. Like you.’

‘Are they different?’ Eddie asked softly. 

Richie shrugged, ‘I think so.’

Rubbing his thumb over Richie’s cheek, Eddie considered, ‘Yeah, I guess they are.’

Dying to know what Eddie meant by this, Richie almost yelped, but he knew that there were more pressing questions burning in the back of his mind.

Deeply curious to hear what Richie said next, Eddie asked, ‘What else?’

‘Girls I just fucking like,’ Richie blurted, not really talking about girls at all. ‘That I get on with. That I find fucking fascinating and just need to know. Like you. That make me fucking laugh. Like you. That seem fucking interested in me, make me feel interesting and not just a boring, crude asshole. That make me feel fucking good about myself. Like you.’

‘You are a crude asshole,’ Eddie said, revelling in everything that Richie had just said, ‘but you’re not fucking boring. Jesus, in what world could you be boring?’ He kissed him, ‘And you should feel good about yourself, you’re,’ he paused, the compliments cloying in his throat, making him feel so small and vulnerable. He forced one out, weakly, ‘You’re great.’ Needing to distract from his anxiety, he smiled, ‘And you make people laugh. Sometimes.’

Richie hummed, ‘I can probably count on one hand the times you’ve told me I’m funny, and I’d need the fucking population of the United States to count how many times you’ve told me that I’m not funny.’

‘Yeah, well,’ Eddie smirked, ‘I can’t let it go to your head.’

‘You think I’m funny, Eds?’ Richie pressed, mooning.

Eddie knew that Richie was really asking, that he wanted an honest answer. ‘Yeah, I think you’re funny.’ He sighed, ‘You’re probably the funniest person I know. Even when you’re making the same fucking “your mom” joke that you came up with when we were twelve. You just make me laugh.’

Richie smiled so broadly and so warmly, his insides melting into hot caramel. All he ever wanted to do was make Eddie laugh, make Eddie happy. ‘Good,’ was all he managed to say.

Smiling back, Eddie jabbed his chest, ‘But if you tell the other Losers I said that, I will fucking murder you in your sleep.’

‘I don’t know,’ Richie mused. ‘Might still be worth it.’

Eddie rolled his eyes, ‘Don’t test me, Trashmouth.’

‘You couldn’t really kill me, could you, Eds?’ Richie clutched his chest melodramatically. ‘You couldn’t do that. Not after I’ve been so nice to you.’ He let his lips hover precariously over Eddie’s, not quite touching.

Locking his eyes, Eddie murmured, ‘Oh, the things I could do to you, Richie.’ He went to kiss him, then snatched his lips away at the last moment. ‘You have no fucking idea.’

Richie’s gut coiled. Part of him was ready to succumb to Eddie, to drop the conversation and lean into the kissing, the touching and whatever else came after. However, he’d never been so close before. He’d never felt like Eddie was peeling back the layers of his skin and letting Richie see what was underneath, never thought that Eddie might finally reveal the hand which he’d held so close to his chest.

‘Shall I go on?’ he squeaked, diverting.

‘You don’t have to,’ Eddie said, which was the politest way he could think of to say no. He started to bite at Richie’s neck.

‘I want to,’ Richie insisted, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to focus.

Surprised, Eddie leaned back and squished his head into the pillow. ‘Okay then,’ he said reluctantly.

‘If, when you ask if I’ve felt about a girl the way I feel about you, you’re actually asking if I’ve ever loved a girl, then the answer is no.’ Richie vowed, ‘I love you, and I’ve only ever loved you.’

‘That wasn’t what I was asking,’ he promised. ‘I knew that already.’

‘But over the years,’ Richie coughed, blushing, ‘rarely, mind you, I’d like someone and think about,’ he bit his lip, hoping that by now Eddie understood what he was getting at, ‘what it would mean if they liked me back.’

Guilty dread oozed through Eddie’s spine.

Richie went on, ‘I’d think about, maybe, what it would be like to go out somewhere, on a proper date, or if I’d be any fucking good at being a boyfriend. What it’d be like,’ he swallowed, ‘if someone really wanted to be with me.’

Eddie’s brain seared into overdrive and all he could think was: don’t say it.

Richie choked, ‘Like –’

‘My mom,’ Eddie cut him off. ‘Saw that one coming.’

Faking a smile, his lungs collapsing, Richie said, ‘You see right through me, Eds.’

Hastily, Eddie kissed him, pushing Richie up to sit as he did so. Then he tapped his cheek, ‘Hey, do you have your guitar with you?’

Richie nodded, climbing off him. ‘Yeah, why?’

‘I have a surprise for you, is all,’ Eddie smiled. ‘Come on.’ He rolled out of the bed and dressed himself, carelessly clawing a hand through his hair.

Reticently, Richie followed suit. ‘A surprise?’ he queried, trying to act nonchalant, trying to act upbeat. It made him ramble. ‘You have a surprise for me which involves my guitar? You haven’t learned to play guitar or something, have you? Because so help me God, Eddie, if you’re better at it than me, I’ll lose my fucking mind.’

Eddie laughed, trying to stay bright, though he could sense something wasn’t right. ‘No, don’t worry. You’re safe.’  

‘Am I?’ Richie asked, as he and Eddie left the room, and something in his core tightened, like a corkscrew had been driven into his chest and was slowly twisting, driving a spiralised hole through his body, ready to pluck out his heart.

Light-footed, Eddie trotted down the stairs and into his living room, skirting around the scattered floor to reach the piano. Meanwhile, Richie fetched his guitar from the hallway. When he came into the room, Eddie was already sat down with the keys on display, toying with the pedals, getting annoyed when they squeaked.

‘So, what’s the surprise?’ Richie asked.

Grinning, Eddie said, ‘Okay, so it took me fucking ages to figure it out, but you know that song you said you were learning, the Tears for Fears one?’

‘Yeah?’ Richie said, his spirits lifting slightly.

Eddie tapped the music resting on the stand. It was handwritten, painstakingly, in pencil, stave after stave. ‘I’ve learned it too. So we can play it together.’

‘Really?’ Richie asked, smiling, genuinely smiling. He leaned over to admire Eddie’s handiwork. ‘Fuck. I didn’t know you could do this.’

‘I mean, we should see if it works first,’ Eddie chuckled. ‘I might have done it all in the wrong key for you and find it a bitch to transpose.’

Richie shrugged, ‘Music mumbo-jumbo, Eds. Shall we just give it a go?’

Scratching his neck, Eddie said, ‘I will try to sing, but it’s really fucking hard to sing and play at the same time. You make it look so easy.’

‘Told you, Eds. Everything I do seems effortless.’

Eddie waved him off. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know. Part of your charm,’ he quoted.

‘So you agree?’ Richie pushed, needing a win. ‘You think I’m charming?’

‘Prince fucking Charming.’ Eddie rolled his eyes sarcastically, returning his focus to the piano. ‘Known for his modesty, of course.’

‘Does that make you the damsel in distress?’ Richie teased.

Eddie scoffed, ‘Fuck you. Are we gonna play or what?’

‘Okay,’ Richie said, finding his first chord. ‘You start singing, and I’ll pick it up if you lose it.’

‘Thanks for the vote of confidence,’ Eddie muttered, but he was smiling. He counted them in, and they both began to play. It became clear after only a few seconds that they were in the right key, and the song blossomed around them.

Eddie’s brow furrowed as he tried to concentrate on his hands and his voice simultaneously.

I wanted to be with you alone
And talk about the weather
But traditions I can trace against the child in your face
Won't escape my attention

‘I’m fucking up the melody,’ Eddie complained.

‘I got it,’ Richie said, and started to sing.

As Eddie played on, mute, the lyrics flooded from Richie’s mouth, but not unconsciously, and for the first time, he felt like he was really listening to them, understanding what they meant, and he hated it.
You keep your distance with a system of touch
And gentle persuasion
I'm lost in admiration, could I need you this much?
Oh, you're wasting my time
You're just, just, just wasting time

More confident with the chorus, Eddie managed to jump back onto the tune, which was just as well, because Richie’s voice was huskier than usual.

Something happens and I'm head over heels
I never find out till I'm head over heels

Something happens and I'm head over heels
Ah, don't take my heart, don't break my heart
Don't, don't, don't throw it away

As Richie dropped off, something catching in his throat, Eddie was able to sing on.

I made a fire and I’m watching it burn
Thought of your future

‘I’m shit at the verses,’ Eddie whined, cursing himself.

With a ragged breath, Richie picked it up.
With one foot in the past, now, just how long will it last?
No, no, no, have you no ambition?

‘Alright, I’ve got it,’ Eddie tried again, and it was just as well, because Richie was finding it difficult to continue.
My mother and my brothers used to breathe in clean air
And dreaming I'm a doctor
It's hard to be a man when there's a gun in your hand
Oh, I feel so

Richie echoed him, then surged back into the chorus, frustrated and sad. He wanted to be enjoying this moment, wished that he wasn’t overthinking it, overanalysing every lyric they sang, his brain stuck and looping over a thousand conversations, over every almost word that Eddie had ever said, and over every word he hadn’t.

Eddie’s part grew more complex, so Richie was left to solo through the coda, staring hopelessly at the boy in front of him, the boy that he loved with every cell in his body, every note in an octave and every strum of his heart.

And this my four-leaf clover
I'm on the line, one open mind
This is my four-leaf clover

In my mind's eye
One little boy, wandering by
Funny how

Time flies.

The song came to a close. It seemed like it had lasted an aeon to Richie, and mere seconds to Eddie.

‘Could’ve been worse,’ Eddie shrugged. ‘Sorry for my shitty singing.’

‘It’s okay,’ Richie said. His brain was still at breakneck speed, like a car’s wheels rapidly rotating but only grinding deeper into the mud.

‘When it works, we sound really good together,’ Eddie said quietly, feeling Richie’s sombre energy encroaching on him, like the rolling black clouds of a thunderstorm.

Richie clenched his jaw, ‘Yeah. We are good together.’

Eddie closed the piano lid and stood. ‘Maybe we should experiment with some other tracks,’ he said absentmindedly.

As he packed away his guitar and went back upstairs to Eddie’s room, the degrees of affection which Richie had identified the other day came screaming back, of crushes and flings and obsessions and romances. He’d forgotten one. He’d forgotten a crucial, vital, damning one. An experiment. After all, Eddie did say they had chemistry together.

All of a sudden, a question came. He finally found the words. As Eddie flumped down on the bed, Richie blurted, ‘Eddie, has this all been an experiment?’

Eddie furrowed his brow, ‘Has what all been an experiment?’

‘This,’ Richie repeated. ‘Me. Are you experimenting with me?’

Struck dumb, Eddie’s mouth flapped open and closed like a fish out of water. He made a few aspirate choking sounds, almost as though he was trying to speak but had lost his voice, or had it stolen. He finally managed, ‘What? Where did that come from?’

Richie pressed, ‘Answer the question.’ 

‘Do you seriously think the answer might be yes?’ Eddie spluttered, flabbergasted.

‘Are you saying it isn’t?’ Richie asked, flicking his eyes to the side, trying to unravel this.

Eddie reeled, ‘Of course you’re not a fucking experiment. Christ, Richie.’

‘I’m not?’ Richie checked.

‘I can’t believe you just asked me that,’ Eddie said, offended.

Richie clambered onto the bed beside him. ‘I’m sorry, I just,’ he sighed, and the floodgates finally opened, ‘don’t know what this is. To you, I mean. I don’t know where you are, where we are.’

‘Well, it’s not an experiment,’ Eddie said definitively, trying to sound calm, but his heart was thudding. He prayed that there wouldn’t be too much follow-up.

‘Was it ever?’ Richie asked carefully. ‘I mean, surely at the beginning, it kind of was.’

Eddie wrinkled his nose, ‘Experiment isn’t the right word. It was a gamble. That’s what we said at the time.’

‘What’s the difference?’ he asked, then quickly added, ‘I’m not saying there isn’t a difference. I just don’t know what the difference is.’

Letting his thoughts spill out as he came to them, Eddie said, ‘Well, experiments are clinical. Isolated. Makes it sound cold. It’s all facts, facts, facts. When you gamble, you’ve got something to lose. You have to go with your gut.’

Richie smiled hesitantly, ‘Is that what happened with me, then? You went with your gut?’

Eddie looked at him and raised his eyebrows, ‘Yeah, I guess I did.’

‘So,’ Richie shuffled, edging closer to Eddie, ‘if it was a gamble then, what is it now?’ 

With a great heaving sigh, Eddie face dropped. It was happening. He’d tried long and hard to postpone this moment, to give himself a little more time, but the jig was up. Richie needed answers. ‘I don’t know.’

Richie’s brow furrowed. ‘You don’t know?’

‘I don’t know,’ Eddie said again. ‘I don’t know what it is.’

‘Do you know what you want it to be?’ Richie tried.

Eddie shook his head, ‘I have no idea.’

Richie trilled his lips, ‘Oh.’ It felt like a great bass drum smacked in his core, sending low, devastating shock waves through his body.

‘Sorry,’ Eddie said meekly.

‘No idea at all?’ he urged hopefully.

Eddie’s lip curled, ‘Honestly, Richie, it still feels like a gamble.’

Licking his lips, Richie decided to go with a different approach, the one which scared him most. ‘How do you feel about me?’ 

Throat closing, Eddie strained, ‘I don’t know, Richie.’

Richie’s head thudded against the headboard and he groaned. ‘Eddie, you’re going to have to do better than that. I’m sorry. “I don’t know” isn’t good enough.’

Cheeks flushing hot, Eddie said, ‘It’s so fucking hard, Richie. You’re my best friend. You’ve been my best friend for a long time. But now, you’re also someone that I kiss and touch and you-know-what-else and not only that, but you’re the only person I’ve ever really wanted to do all those things with, and I feel like it’d be so much easier to know what that all meant if we weren’t such fucking good friends.’

Puffing out his cheeks, Richie mumbled, ‘Right.’

Frustrated, Eddie gushed, ‘I try and reconcile it all into one picture that makes sense to me. And when that doesn’t work, I try to separate it all out so I can make sense of all the little pieces and I can’t seem to do that either. I don’t know where one part starts and the other stops. It’s all so fucking –’

‘Blurry,’ Richie finished.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie sighed. ‘I don’t know what to do to make it easier. I think I just need more time.’

Richie grumbled, ‘It’s already been four months. Don’t you think you’d know by now?’ Closing his eyes with resign, he asked, ‘Is it possible you’re just searching for it because you know that’s what I want to hear, but really, I’m just a friend that you happen to be able to screw around with?’

Eddie looked at him, studying his forlorn face, and thought very carefully. Raggedly, he said, ‘Richie, look at me.’

Hesitantly, Richie opened his eyes.

Exhaling deeply, Eddie locked his gaze. ‘I don’t think you realise how much shit I’m dealing with here all at once.’

‘What do you mean?’ Richie asked.

‘Four months is not a long time, Richie,’ Eddie said steadily. ‘It’s not a long time for me to come to the terms with the fact that I’m gay in a small, homophobic fucking town where people like me are routinely beaten up and even killed, where I’ve been taught my entire life that people like me are sick, perverse and wrong, and where I’m never going to be able to be who I am without fear.’

Richie understood that. It had taken him the best part of half a decade to start to ratify his attraction to boys and his attraction to girls, to accept that his parents might believe him sinful, to learn how to swallow the words he longed to declare to his friends, to learn to hide and avoid attracting unwanted attention, to discover any decent information about whether being queer was an illness that could be cured, to even start to overcome his fears, to try and forget the clown.

Eddie sighed, his gaze slipping to Richie’s mouth. ‘It’s not a long time for me to come to terms with the fact that I want to kiss you, that I want to touch you, that I want to take your clothes off and if I’m really being honest, maybe even fuck you, when I’ve spent my whole life being afraid of doing all those things with literally anybody, let alone a boy, thanks to my fucking mother and her psychotic bullshit.’

Richie wished he had a little more control over the blood in his body when Eddie’s confession that he’d thought about having sex with him scored through him like a white-hot iron poker. He tried to refocus onto the latter half of the sentence, where Eddie admitted that all sexual contact scared him.

He remembered the summer when they’d fought IT, and Eddie had been harassed by the leper, a leper which had tried to fellate him. Part of Eddie had known back then, somewhere buried in his most subconscious, darkest fears. And yet, Eddie felt safe enough with Richie that he could break through that time and time again, and Eddie had been asking for it, initiating it, enjoying it.

Eddie wasn’t done. ‘It’s not a long time to come to terms with the fact that my best friend, who is a boy, is in love with me and has been in love with me for most of the time we’ve known each other, which throws a very confusing new perspective onto our entire friendship, the way we are with each other, and every interaction we’ve ever fucking shared.’

Richie considered this. He thought of Eddie shouting at him in the school bathroom, telling him to stop with his nicknames and his jokes and his teasing and his touching, because all of a sudden, Eddie recognised that Richie had been flirting with him all along.

Then he thought of so much more. He thought of every time he’d squeezed into the hammock with Eddie, every time their hands had brushed, every time they’d looked at each other a little too long, every time they’d tackled and tickled each other, every time he had thrown Eddie a compliment, every time Eddie had looked after him when he was sick, every time Eddie had tried to impress him, every time he and Eddie had done something because of each other, for each other.

Eddie started to breath shallow, ‘Not to mention how much strain we might be putting on that friendship, how much jeopardy it might be in now. You’re one of the most important people, if not the most important person, in my life and I’m just fucking terrified at the thought of not calling you a friend anymore if we fuck this up.’

Richie shuddered. He didn’t even let himself think about it; the thought was as absurd as it was heart-breaking.

Eddie shook his head, ‘And somehow, I’m trying to come to terms with all that and try and figure out if I’m in love with you, falling in love with you, going to fall in love with you, if I like you like that but I won’t love you, if I like you like that at all, if I’m starting to like you, if I will like you, if I want to date you, if we’re accidentally already dating, if there’s an us, if we’re together or, if we’re not, then if I want to be, when I’ve never been in love, liked or dated anyone else before and have absolutely no frame of reference to compare it to.’

Richie reeled at Eddie’s rapid-fire list. There was so much in there which he wanted to ask about that he hardly knew where he would start, even if he could ask, which he couldn’t. Not right now.

‘Four months for all that?’ Eddie spluttered. ‘I’m shocked that I’ve got this fucking far.’

Richie pursed his lips, ‘We really should be talking about all this more, shouldn’t we?’

With a half-laugh, Eddie said, ‘Maybe.’

Not knowing what else to do, Richie leaned over and drew Eddie into a hug. They stayed there, silently for a moment, before Eddie asked, ‘Will you answer me something honestly?’

‘Yeah,’ Richie said.

Eddie pulled back to look at him. ‘How long can you do this, Richie?’

‘Do what?’ Richie asked, furrowing his brow.

Emotional, Eddie whispered, ‘Wait for me.’

Richie’s gut gurgled as scanned Eddie’s pained expression. ‘I’ve been waiting for you for so long, that sometimes I think I could wait forever.’

‘But?’ Eddie sensed.

It poured out of him quickly, dangerously, ‘But every day now feels like a month used to, and every day I fall in love with you a little bit more and so I know it’ll hurt a little bit more if I lose you, because now I actually know how fucking amazing it might be to really have you. It’s like I can see it, you know? It’s like we’re almost there, but I don’t know if what’s left in front of us is just grass we need to tread or a river that we just need to find a boat for or a giant fucking chasm that we’ll never cross.’ He grimaced, groaning helplessly, wishing he’d shut up a few phrases ago. ‘Sorry, that’s not very reassuring. I don’t want to put you under that kind of pressure.’

‘I’ve been under a lot of pressure from the beginning, Rich,’ Eddie huffed. ‘It’s not your fault that I found out the way I did but trying to figure all this out with someone who is already in love with you is a fucking ton of pressure, especially when that person is you, because I really do want you to be happy.’ He smiled melancholically, ‘I want you to have everything you fucking want. And I want the person you love to love you back.’

Richie kissed him, hard.

‘But I don’t want to make you wait forever,’ Eddie said when their lips snapped apart. ‘I don’t want to keep you in this fucking purgatory, meeting me fucking halfway. You could get really, really fucking hurt, and I don’t want to break your heart.’

‘I –’ Richie started, but before he could say anything else, Eddie clamped a hand over his mouth to stop him from talking.

Eddie said, ‘Think about it, Richie. You don’t need to have all the answers right now. In fact, don’t answer right now because I know what you’ll say and I don’t want you to make me a promise you can’t keep.’

After Eddie dropped his hand, Richie didn’t say anything, just looked at him and nodded so that Eddie knew he understood.

Looking at the time, Eddie said, ‘You should probably get home.’

Richie felt like he already was. He always did, with Eddie. And he never wanted to leave.

Chapter Text

Since their conversation, Eddie had been increasingly subdued, and Richie hated to see it. He knew it was the right thing to have asked Eddie about the status of their relationship, but he hadn’t heard what he wanted to hear, and the levity of their liaison had been replaced with a heavy burden.

Eddie hadn’t told him to fuck off all week, and they’d not spent any evenings alone together either. Richie had tried to make jokes, but even his worst offences hardly garnered more than a half-hearted beep-beep. He’d tried to make time for them, but Eddie always cut it short.

He presumed that Eddie was inevitably preparing for the moment when Richie told him that he couldn’t do this, that he couldn’t wait any longer, that having the almost was worse than not having at all. So, Richie had thought and thought about how to bring Eddie back up again, to assure him, to try and alleviate some of the pressure which had been brought down upon him.

He managed to convince Eddie to come to the music room one Friday lunchtime, under the guise that he had a song which he wanted to play for him.

‘Alright, sit down, Eds,’ Richie said, tugging the stool out from underneath the piano.

Eddie did. ‘What’s going on with you? You’re all sweaty.’

Running a hand over his sheening brow, Richie said, ‘I’m a little nervous.’

‘You’ve played for me a dozen times,’ Eddie chuckled.

‘Not something I’ve written,’ Richie blushed.

Eddie bit his lip, ‘You’ve written something?’

‘Well, I took a bit of a shortcut,’ Richie admitted. ‘But yeah, I’ve written something. For you.’

Hot, burning, Eddie swallowed, ‘Really?’

Richie nodded. ‘Can I play it for you?’

Reluctantly, Eddie said, ‘Yeah. Okay.’

He made a few mistakes in the early chords as his fingers trembled, as though they were freezing cold. He gripped the plectrum between his thumb and forefinger tightly, pressed his callused hands to the fretboard hard enough to leave indentations through his fingerprints.

Whispering, his breath catching, Eddie recognised the chord progression. ‘This is the song you wrote about me.’

‘Almost,’ Richie corrected, and then he started to sing.

It’s not often at just eighteen years

You’re forced to face your wildest fears

I never knew someone so brave as you.

He caught Eddie’s eyes; they were swimming, shimmering like the surface of the quarry in the summertime, like rainbow trout circled through them, scales glinting and refracting the light.

Then when I felt you kiss me back

You gave me your asthma attacks

And all that’s red inside me craved for blue

Eddie couldn’t help a small laugh, and the dancing sound lifted Richie’s spirits enough for him to smile through the start of the chorus.

And through my coke-bottle glasses

I’ve seen you take a thousand chances

And still I find that we’ve been so fucking blind

We live through stolen glances

Yet I keep searching for the answers

You ask yourself if maybe there’s an us

Richie’s throat spasmed, and he begged himself to keep hold of the moment, the song, and Eddie’s attention, even as his heart began to throb in his chest and his stomach began to churn with relentless anxiety.

And you think I can’t wait

But I’ll wait long enough.

Eddie’s eyelids flickered and Richie spotted a lone tear start to trickle over his cheek, before he hastily and surreptitiously wiped it away. Richie wasn’t sure if it was a good sign or a bad one, or if somehow it was neither, as he pushed on into the second verse.

Upon a bridge our names are carved

Preserved just like our matching scars

I put it there before the kiss it promises.

Quizzical, Eddie furrowed his brow at this, and Richie realised that he’d still never shown Eddie the R+E which he had scored into the kissing bridge all those years ago. He hoped that soon he could, and that Eddie might have enough courage and strength in his body that, should they be alone, they might be able to share at least one kiss there.

Somehow each one feels like the first

Suspended between stars and earth

I’ll float until you can describe what this is.

Eddie leaned forwards to rest his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together, thumbs rubbing ritualistically over each other. His head briefly dropped to exhale heavily, and then he cautiously raised his head to lock Richie’s gaze again.

And through my coke-bottle glasses

I’ve seen you take a thousand chances

And now I find that we’ve been so fucking blind

We live through stolen glances

Yet I keep searching for the answers

You ask yourself if maybe this is love

Even as he said the word, Richie felt that tug in his heart which had grown so familiar, the rope which tied him to Eddie so intrinsically for so long that he doubted if it would even be possible for it to sever.

You don’t need to be in love

Because I love you enough.

Richie’s dexterous fingers twanged with the strings, improvising and riffing in ways that he wasn’t able even four months ago, when he had played the song the first time.

And as the Derry air gets colder

You just keep on getting bolder

I’ll wrap my arm around your shoulder

I’ll still take every chance to hold ya.

He smiled at Eddie with such complete love that Eddie instinctively smiled back; infectious, reflex.

I reach for you like an arcade claw

You’re the one I learned first aid for

The one these songs are always played for

The one I gave up my charade for

Eddie’s heart buckled as memories cascaded through him, of them playing Street Fighter in the arcade, of bloody knees and slashed palms, and the newer memories of playing music together, making music together, and Richie bending over backwards at every turn to try and make Eddie happy, to give Eddie what he needed. He felt torn between two Richies, two versions of the boy in front of him that he knew had to overlap somewhere.

And I was once foolish enough

To believe there couldn’t be an us

I just never thought you’d let me love

You in the way that I do.

Richie had to fight the choke in his own throat, needing to make it to the end of the song, needing to get the last words out.

And I’ve been so lucky this far

I forget we had different starts

I can’t learn to play your heart

Like guitar and I don’t want to.

They had been lucky. They’d both been lucky, and they both thought so, but Richie and Eddie thought they were lucky in extraordinarily different ways.

And through my coke-bottle glasses

I’ve seen you take a thousand chances

And now I find that we’ve been so fucking blind

You steal back each of my glances

So I’m done needing the answers

I’ve got a new way to wind you up

Carefully, Richie slowed the song down, quietening his guitar playing so that Eddie could hear every nuance in his voice, every vowel and consonant in every syllable.

As long as I’ve got you

That’s enough.

He played out the last few bars of instrumental, ending on a perfect cadence. The last of the notes dissipated into the ether, and silence fell like a spotlight over them both. Richie stood and rested his guitar against the wall, then turned to Eddie. ‘Well, what do you think?’

Eddie nodded slowly, ‘It’s a good song, Rich. It is.’

Richie rubbed his lips together. ‘That’s not what I mean, Eddie.’

With a sigh, Eddie said quietly, ‘It’s not enough.’

‘What?’ Richie asked feebly, unsure if he wanted to hear an answer.

‘It’s not enough for you. This. I wish it was, and I know you want to believe that it is, and you’re trying to tell me that it is, and convince yourself that it is, but it’s not, Richie.’ He inhaled raggedly. ‘I can see it, more and more, when we’re together. I see how much this is killing you, almost having me. I see you dropping hints that I just won’t pick up on. How often you’re thinking and wondering and driving yourself crazy with the not knowing. I can see how fucking scared you are.’

Richie went to him, squatting down, reaching for each of his hands to hold, looking up at him. ‘It’s enough, Eds. It’s enough.’

Eddie shook his head and started to sniff as he fought back the tears. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and I think that maybe we should –’

‘No,’ Richie squeezed his hands, his face crumpling. ‘No, Eddie, don’t do this. Don’t say it. Please. Please, don’t.’

Straining, almost gargling on the pain in his chest, Eddie spluttered, ‘I can’t keep doing this to you. It’s not fair of me. Since we talked last week, all I can keep thinking is how I need to get you out of this. I need to get you away from me. I’m a complete mess, Rich. I barely even know who I am, let alone what I want.’

‘I know who you are,’ Richie tried. ‘I know you,’ he leaned up and pressed their lips together. 

Staring at him with tragic affection, Eddie struggled, ‘I’m not ready for all this. That’s what I’ve realised. I’m not ready for any of it. It’s too much and I can’t pretend that I’m handling it all that well. And I want to give you an out.’

‘I don’t want it,’ Richie insisted, brushing their noses together. ‘I want you. I want this. Us.’

Eddie blubbered, ‘Why?’

‘I love you,’ Richie said. ‘I don’t have a new way to say it.’

‘But why? Why do you love me?’ Eddie shrugged, standing up. ‘Why do you want this? You could have everything with someone else and you’re stood here settling for me, lowering all your fucking expectations and denying yourself someone who can be with you and love you in all the fucking ways you deserve, in all the fucking ways I can’t.’

Richie narrowed his eyes as he stood. ‘Hold up a second. What the fuck are you talking about?’

Eddie croaked, ‘You like girls, Richie.’

‘You said that didn’t matter.’

‘I didn’t think it did,’ Eddie said, ‘but then I started thinking about what it meant. And I realised that if you found a way to fall out of love with me, if you could let me go, then you might meet someone who can give you fucking normal.’

‘Why the fuck would I want normal?’

Eddie smiled sadly at him. ‘You could have a proper girlfriend who loves you and who you introduce to your friends, who meets your parents, who you can take out and show off and kiss and hug. You wouldn’t need to hide. You wouldn’t need to pretend and lie. You wouldn’t need to be fucking afraid.’

‘I’ve got used to it,’ Richie tried to joke. ‘Eddie, you’re worth it. You’re so worth it to me.’

‘You have to make so many sacrifices, Rich. You’ve already sacrificed so fucking much for me and I don’t want to make you keep martyring yourself.’

Richie blurted, ‘You’re martyring yourself! You’re literally doing that right now.’

‘If I was, then it’s about fucking time that I did something for you for a change,’ Eddie sighed. ‘That I gave you a chance to be fucking free after six years pining after me. I want that for you. I can give you that shot, and I feel like I should. I feel like I owe that to you after all you’ve fucking done for me. You could be happy if I stopped fucking you around and let you find it.’

‘I’m happy now,’ Richie said. ‘I’ve already found it. You make me so fucking happy, Eds. These past four months: it’s the happiest I’ve ever fucking been.’

Eddie frowned, ‘Richie, that’s fucking worrying. We cry constantly. I say the wrong things and I hurt you. I say the truth and it hurts you. I say nothing and that still hurts you. How can I hurt you that much and you actually call yourself happy?’

‘It’s not about what you say, Eds,’ Richie rebuffed. ‘It’s the way you fucking look at me. Like you finally fucking see me. All of me. I see it. I see it right fucking now and every time I do, I’m just so happy.’

‘I do see you,’ Eddie promised, ‘but –’

Richie cut him off. ‘Eddie, I’m not just going to stop loving you.’

‘You might have to,’ Eddie choked.

Struck, shocked, violated, Richie wrapped his arms around himself and squeezed, as though he was trying to hold himself together, stop his heart from tearing out of his chest to sit, convulsing, in Eddie’s hands. ‘Oh God. Eddie, please don’t do this to me. I don’t want anyone else. Fuck, I would rather be fucking miserable with you than happy with someone else.’

Stammering, Eddie said, ‘That’s not good, Rich. That’s not good. You shouldn’t accept that. You shouldn’t accept anything fucking less than what I know you give.’

Richie kissed him, hard and hating. The tears began to topple over each of their cheeks, streams down each of their faces, Eddie’s blotted by Richie’s hands.

‘I love you so much,’ Richie said softly.

Eddie nodded, sobbing, ‘Maybe too much.’

Involuntarily, Richie clucked as he tried to breathe through his sudden onslaught of tears. ‘Do you really want this to end?’

‘No,’ Eddie shook his head, ‘but –’

‘Then let’s stay together,’ Richie gushed.

Eddie smacked his lips, ‘This is exactly the fucking problem, Richie. We don’t even know if we are together, and I’m definitely not ready to be together. We’re in completely different places. I’ve been trying so fucking hard to catch you up, but six years is too long a fucking time.’

Richie gulped, ‘I know it is, but –’

Eddie went on, ‘You’ve had years of working through the way you feel about me. And for you, it started because you realised that you love me, and eventually you kissed me. For me, it started with that kiss, and I’m still trying to figure out if I could love you. It’s all fucking backwards and I have so much fucking work to do, and I’m fucking tired, and I hate watching myself fuck with your feelings like I don’t care about them.’

‘I can’t lose you,’ Richie wept, locking his hand around Eddie’s neck, pulling him closer.

Eddie broke, falling into the kiss, his hands finding Richie’s waist, squeezing at the cotton of his shirt. ‘I don’t want to lose you either.’

Richie spluttered, ‘Then don’t.’

‘We can’t do this anymore, Richie,’ Eddie said brutally. ‘It’s going to kill us. Both of us. We need opposite things. I need time, and until I have it, I’m just fucking stealing yours.’

‘Take it,’ Richie offered. ‘Take all my fucking time. I don’t care.’

Eddie’s heart wrenched. ‘Stop doing this to yourself. Stop acting like I’m doing you a favour by being with you. Stop resigning yourself to me fucking hurting you. That’s not how this is supposed to work.’

‘At least,’ Richie sniffed, panicked, desperate, clutching at his last, fragmented hope. ‘At least tell me we’re still going to be friends.’

‘I’ve never just been a friend to you, Richie. Do you really want to be my friend? Do you even know how to just be my friend?’

‘I do.’ He kissed him again. ‘I do.’

‘Richie, you’re in love with me.’

Richie rested their foreheads together, ‘I know, but I said –’

‘Richie,’ Eddie said painfully, and let him go.

Desperate and dejected and terrified, Richie reminded, ‘I promised. I fucking promised. I said you wouldn’t lose me, even if you changed your mind, even if it was nothing, even if you broke my heart. I said as long as you want me around, I’d be there.’

Eddie burst into tears and threw his arms around him. ‘For fuck’s sake, Richie. I wouldn’t blame you if you broke that promise. It’d be so fucking hard for you. For both of us.’

‘We’re friends first, Eddie,’ Richie sniffled. ‘We’ve always been friends first.’

Eddie tried to speak, but when the words didn’t come, he closed his mouth entirely, flattening his lips, his eyes flickering. His tinsel eyelashes were slicked silver. There was something so innocent, so preciously naïve in Richie’s words, that Eddie felt like they were thirteen years old all over again.

‘Eddie?’ His heart pounded. They had to still be friends, couldn’t not be friends. He had to still be in Eddie’s life, in whatever capacity, in whatever way he could be, just to see his face and hear his laugh and know him.

There was a sick thudding moment where they both considered what it would really mean if they weren’t friends anymore. If they didn’t cycle to school together, didn’t sit with each other at lunch, didn’t chat at the lockers and go to the movies and play videogames. If they broke up the Losers club, forcing their other friends to choose sides and wonder whatever the hell went wrong between them.

They wondered how it might split. After Eddie, Bev was Richie’s closest friend, but she was dating Bill, who was Eddie’s. They were both equally close to Stan. Ben would go wherever Bev did. Mike would go wherever Bill did. It would be the end of an era, would change everything for everyone. It couldn’t be like that. It would be too difficult, too complicated. There would be too many questions.

‘Okay,’ Eddie managed eventually.

‘Okay?’ Richie checked, coaxing Eddie’s face back around.

Eddie scanned his face, wondering what he could ever do to deserve someone like Richie Tozier. He nodded. ‘Yeah, okay. We can try.’

Richie was overcome by another raft of tears. ‘Okay. Okay, fuck. Good.’

‘I really thought,’ Eddie whispered.

‘What?’

‘That you’d be mad at me,’ he blubbered.

Richie gripped his forearms. ‘I’m mad about a lot of fucking things,’ he said honestly. ‘I’m mad at this fucking town. I think I’ll always be mad at that clown. I’m mad at your mom and mine. I’m even mad at Bill and Bev sometimes, because they don’t know how fucking easy they have it. But I can’t be mad at you for not being ready. Mad at the situation, maybe, but I’m not mad at you.’

Eddie sniffed, ‘Then what are you?’

‘I’m just sad, Eddie.’ The corners of his mouth trembled, pulling downwards. ‘I’m just really fucking sad.’

Eddie nodded, ‘Me too.’

They cried together, letting it flood out of them shamelessly, ceaselessly, as they both settled into the sadness, the disappointment, the frustration and the disenchantment. It was several minutes before either of them had enough air in their lungs to speak again.

Morose, Richie asked, ‘So what happens now?’

Puffing out his cheeks as he snivelled, trying to regulate his breathing, Eddie eventually calmed himself enough to say, ‘When we leave this room –’

Squeezing his eyes shut, Richie’s chest seized. ‘That’s it.’

Crestfallen, Eddie placed his hand on Richie’s chest, right over his heart. ‘I’m really sorry, Richie,’ he said. ‘I wish –’

‘I know,’ Richie said. He wedged his tongue between his back teeth and bit down until it hurt, if only to have some physical pain that was easier to process. ‘I wish things were different too. And I wish you weren’t such a stubborn asshole so I could change your mind.’

Eddie laughed even through his tears. ‘Yeah, I am a stubborn asshole.’ He glanced up at the clock on the wall. ‘Five minutes until classes start.’

‘Is that all?’ Richie whispered.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie frowned. ‘Not long enough, is it?’

Richie tried to smile, ‘Ask your mom.’

Eddie hesitated, looking at the door, thinking that it would probably be better, be easier, if they left now. Gently, he asked, ‘Do you want to stay here for the five minutes?’

Richie kissed him. Richie kissed him with every ounce of love that he had stored in his body, and all the love that generated and regenerated every second that he spent with Eddie Kaspbrak. Every time their lips parted even for a second so that Richie could snatch a breath, the sounds of his breaking heart eked out of him.

He wrapped his arms around him so tightly, trying to remember everything, trying to remember where his arms slotted into the small of Eddie’s back, trying to remember which side their faces instinctively tilted when they kissed, trying to remember the way that Eddie tasted, the little gasping sounds which escaped his mouth, how Eddie grabbed at him and pulled him so close that they might just lose their balance completely, toppling over.

Eddie kissed him back, with fury and tragedy and chaos and passion. He kissed him with all the wanting and longing which Richie stirred in him, with all the heart and care that he felt for his friend.

He wished that he’d figured himself out earlier, wished that he knew himself a little better, wished that he knew Richie a little better, so that maybe, just maybe, this wouldn’t be a last kiss, just a beautiful one.

He even thought about whether he wished that he and Richie weren’t such good friends, that Richie wasn’t his favourite person on the green earth before this started, that Richie wasn’t always, always special to him, always an exception to him, always the one who brought out the best in him, because maybe then he would be able to feel it easier now if something had changed between them, if he was falling in love.

Yet, he couldn’t wish away all the years of friendship. He couldn’t wish that Richie had always meant less to him, that he hadn’t realised just how incredible a person he really was, how full of boundless energy, terrible jokes and reckless love. He couldn’t wish away a second of it.

The bell rang, and they jolted apart from one another, the moment cruelly severed.

‘Shit,’ Richie muttered, rubbing his eyes.

‘You ready?’ Eddie sighed.

‘No.’

Eddie smiled at him kindly, tenderly. ‘Come on, Trashmouth.’ He jerked his head towards the door, then slowly let his grip fall from Richie’s arms and started to walk.

‘Wait,’ Richie said, grabbing for his wrist and pulling him back around.

‘Yeah?’ Eddie said, and for a brief moment, he found himself thinking about the time he broke his wrist in the Neibolt house, the cast he had worn, and the two words written there, overlapping in black and red ink.

Richie studied him, knowing that soon he would have to try not to look at Eddie so obviously in this way, without walls or guards, and he hoped that Eddie could see it, all of it, in his eyes, just as he could see the look in Eddie’s that he prayed wouldn’t disappear. He whispered, ‘Would you take it all back if you could?’

‘Fuck no,’ Eddie said emphatically, surprising even himself. He steadied himself and said carefully, ‘I wish I could have got here without hurting you but fuck, Richie,’ he sighed, ‘I’m so fucking grateful. I couldn’t take it all back. Not for anything.’  

When Richie inhaled then, deep and full, he felt like the air was cleaner.

Eddie almost smiled at him, then started for the door. Richie followed, blindly. As they stepped over the threshold into the corridor, Eddie pointed behind Richie, back into the room.

‘Shit,’ Richie darted back in. ‘Almost forgot my guitar.’

Chapter Text

When Eddie woke up on Monday morning, he still felt exhausted, despite staying in bed almost all weekend. His alarm trilled loudly, almost like it was cackling at him, and he slammed his hand down on it with such vigour that it fell over.

He glimpsed at the window, the closed window, and remembered when he had woken in the night to see Richie clinging to its frame, a smile on his face both anxious and smug. He imagined Richie scrambling back out of it in the morning, his spindly legs folding up against his chest and his long fingers outstretched, reaching for the branch. Eddie wondered what might have happened if his mother had caught him, or if Richie had fallen, if he’d reached for the branch and missed.

He rolled over onto his side and stared at the gap in the bed that Richie had occupied that night, the side of the bed that Richie naturally gravitated to when they spent time together, never a conscious discussion or awkward bumble, just two people moving in synchronisation, like there was a mirror between them, like they were mirrors of each other.

Eddie groaned and hauled himself up out of the bed.

When Richie’s alarm rang out, he was in a foul mood. Another near sleepless night sitting up on his own playing Street Fighter in the basement, the neon glow from the arced screen of the television set illuminating every angle in his face, illuminating the unused second controller coiled on the floor beside him.

He only wrapped himself further into his duvet, remembering when he and Eddie had curled together underneath it, unable to get close enough to each other. He thought of Eddie sat on the end of it, head in his hands, Richie draped around him like a cloak or a shield, as though he could protect him from the world, give him a few moments to himself as he cried. He thought of his own calves crashing against the mattress as Eddie kissed him so hard that he stumbled backwards, Eddie on top of him, pinning him down.

When his second alarm rang, he knew that he actually had to get up, and heaved himself from the warm with great reluctance, cursing quietly. He kicked at the clothes scattered haphazardly over his bedroom floor. There was no point tidying if Eddie wasn’t coming over; there was no point doing the laundry.

‘Beep-beep, asshole,’ he hissed at his alarm, and thwacked it.

Both boys had a moment where they considered if they would cycle to school together. After all, they were trying to be friends, and that was what they’d always done as friends. Both boys decided internally that it was too soon, that spending time alone together was something they deeply feared, like the silence and the memories would hang between them like ivy trellis, obscuring the way back to each other.

When Eddie chained his bike outside the school, Richie arrived. He considered loitering a moment in the shadows, searching for literally anybody else that he even passably knew well enough to engage in conversation, then cursed under his breath and went to the rack.

‘Morning,’ he greeted, wishing the high-pitched overcompensation in his voice wasn’t quite so obvious.

Eddie flinched, his eyes wide as though Richie might have hit him, then recovered, ‘Hey.’ After a beat of silence, he asked, ‘Weekend alright?’ His gut boiled as he thought about just how dreadful his had been.

‘Working, mostly,’ Richie said. He’d picked up two extra shifts, to get himself out of the house and into a distinctly Eddie-free space, but after the Sunday night closedown, he’d accidentally-on-purpose smashed two plates in the sink. It had been taken out of his tips. ‘You?’

Scowling, Eddie said, ‘Too much fucking homework, as usual.’

‘What did you have?’ Richie asked, starting to walk towards the doors, yawning.

‘Chemistry,’ Eddie squeaked.

Richie didn’t even hesitate. ‘I asked what you had not what I had with y–’

‘Beep-beep,’ Eddie burbled quickly, his head snapping to Richie.

‘Your mom,’ Richie finished, with a sigh.

Eddie smacked his lips together as he went to his locker, carefully implementing the combination like he was opening a safe of diamonds. Beside him, Richie wrenched mercilessly at his own door, got the code wrong, struck his fist furiously against the thin metal, and tried again.

Richie’s fingers trembled as he fought the urge to burst into tears, jaw clenching and unclenching as he scanned the books inside the cubby hole, wishing he remembered how to read, but it all seemed blurry. Eventually, he grabbed what he needed and slammed the door shut, leaving with a half-swallowed, ‘See you at lunch.’

Eddie watched him go.

At lunchtime, Eddie was still surprised that Richie was there, and not in the music block, despite telling Eddie earlier that he would see him. No other space available, Richie slid into the spot beside Eddie with great reluctance, his hackles bristling.

He was close enough that Eddie could feel the heat emanating from the bare skin of his arms, so close to his own that they would brush against each other if Eddie only stopped concentrating for a moment. He was glad not to have to look at him, but he ached to do so, wanting to survey his face in profile as he spoke, watch his eyelashes fluttering as he blinked, and study the tension of the tendons in his neck as he chewed and swallowed.

Richie wanted to kill someone when Eddie’s knee accidentally knocked against his beneath the table, squeezing too tightly at the bread of his sandwich so that the tiny air bubbles were suffocated by his fingers. Eddie’s clean, starchy scent hit his nostrils even over the smell of the canteen, something more familiar, homing, calming and craved than food.

‘I need a cigarette,’ Richie announced, patting his shirt pocket. He’d hardly smoked of late, only indulging on the days when he knew that he wouldn’t be kissing Eddie, since he suspected Eddie wouldn’t enjoy the taste on his tongue. Needn’t worry now. ‘Bev?’

‘Sure,’ she agreed.

Eddie thought about the vague sweetness of the nicotine, the faint hint which sometimes clung to Richie’s clothes and hair and fingers, that he’d grown not to mind, even if he continued to scold Richie on the dangers of smoking, hating to think about the black tar settling in his lungs, the oxygen supply diminishing in his blood.

His chest seized, and he daydreamed for his inhaler.

They didn’t see each other for the rest of the day. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Eddie didn’t come to school at all. On his return, Richie asked if he was feeling better, and he said he wasn’t. They didn’t bump into each other alone much, but it seemed to Eddie more by coincidence than design, as not once did Richie go to the music block like he expected he would, to try and get away. He was always with the other Losers, always a part of the scene.

It was awkward. That was the best word for it. They couldn’t talk to each other and relax, they couldn’t look at each other for more than a few seconds, were too aware of the other in their vicinity, in their periphery. Too aware of what was, what used to be.

Richie was wound up like a tight screw, teeth grinding and hands in fists, snapping at people and eating too quickly, slamming books down onto desks and biting his fingernails down to the skin, then biting the whitlows when there was no more nail to chew.

Eddie was on edge, like a frightened woodland creature, doe-eyed and flinching, looking over his shoulders, moving too slowly and too precisely, delicately, almost like he didn’t want to make a sound, feet not really touching the ground as he walked, floating.

After school on the Friday, Eddie and Richie both were amazed they had made it through the week at all, and were looking forward to some time apart, but then Ben suggested that the Losers go down to the clubhouse, since they hadn’t all hung out together in a while. It was too difficult to say no, to explain.

Richie and Eddie both thought of the hammock, the hammock they still found a way to share after all these years, even as their legs grew longer and their backs broader. Their hearts palpitated as they descended into the hatchway, wondering how they could possibly get away with putting space between them and not raise eyebrows amongst the other Losers, especially after they had been so close recently.

Eddie was first down, and climbed into his spot, stretching his legs out as he always did before Richie and he danced around the social rules to pretend that they didn’t want to occupy the space together.

His eyes flashed up at Richie ambling over, and they locked gazes, both making the same awkward expression. Even then, Eddie felt his heart stilt, and he watched the ancient leviathan in Richie’s eyes momentarily reach the surface of the water.

Without sitting, Richie gave himself an escape. ‘Anyone got a song request?’ he asked, unpacking his guitar.

Bill grinned at him, ‘Oh, would you play the Stones? Miss You has been stuck in my head all day.’

Kicking his feet up onto a crate, Stan suggested, ‘Can we hear Eddie sing something with you?’

‘What?’ Eddie blurted, terrified.

‘Oh, yeah!’ Mike agreed, enthused. ‘Show us what you and Richie have been working on all this time.’

‘I don’t sing in public,’ Eddie mumbled weakly.

Bev rolled her eyes, ‘If you can sing for Richie, you can sing for us, can’t you? Come on, we want to hear.’

Richie almost laughed. He and Eddie had sung a few times together, but they’d spent an awful lot more of their time alone pressed up against a wall, hands roaming each other’s backs, lips slotted together. If they sang, it could be an absolute train wreck.

‘I’ll sing it with you,’ Richie promised with a shrug, and Eddie shot him a hard look. ‘You know Miss You, right?’

Eddie knew it. He knew it well, but he certainly didn’t want to sing it. He didn’t want to sing at all, certainly not in front of the other Losers, certainly not in front of Richie, and certainly not that song. The lyrics flooded to him with stark clarity.

I've been holdin' out so long
I've been sleepin' all alone
Lord, I miss you
I've been hanging on the phone
I've been sleeping all alone
I want to kiss you sometime

‘Please, Eddie?’ Bev begged.

Hey, let's go mess and fool around
You know, like we used to

He tried to shake his head, but as the chorus of pleading erupted around him, he submitted. ‘Fine, fine. I’ll fucking sing. Stop you lot fucking whining about it.’

The lyrics. Oh, God, the lyrics.

I guess I'm lying to myself
It's just you and no one else
Lord, I won't miss you

‘But not that song,’ Eddie insisted.

‘What about this?’ Richie suggested, and he played the opening riff to It’s Raining Men.

Eddie coloured, ‘No, asshole.’

‘But you love that song,’ Richie retorted, batting his eyelashes innocently, and Eddie glared at him with disbelief and ire and something else.

Stan said, ‘Just pick something. Anything.’

Ben flushed, stealing a glance at Bev, ‘What about The Promise? That’s my favourite.’

‘Oh, this one?’ Richie said, and started to strum.

‘I fucking love this song,’ Bev sighed dreamily. ‘Please tell me you know it, Eddie?’

Eddie nodded, ‘Yeah, I know it.’ His mouth dried, and he cracked on the opening notes as he and Richie sang.

If you need a friend, don't look to a stranger
You know in the end, I'll always be there

The sea of eyes around the room made Eddie’s skin crawl. ‘Don’t fucking stare at me like that or I’ll stop singing.’

‘Just look at me,’ Richie said, a little too gently, and took to harmonising with Eddie.

But when you're in doubt, and when you're in danger
Take a look all around, and I'll be there

Eddie looked at him. He thought about what Richie had promised him, that he’d always be there as a friend. Of all the things he needed a friend for right now, Richie was the only person who knew what he was going through, but he felt he still couldn’t talk to him.

They were supposed to be friends again, but Eddie didn’t know if that meant going back, pretending that nothing happened, or trying to go forwards, wherever that led, whatever that would look like. They didn’t feel like friends at the moment. Eddie tried to think what they did feel like. Not strangers or acquaintances; they both knew too much.

He’d never been able to define what he and Richie were in the first place. Whatever it had been, they were ex-that. If they weren’t friends to ex-friends, then what were they? Boyfriends to ex-boyfriends? No. Lovers to ex-lovers? Maybe. Richie-and-Eddie to Richie and Eddie. Accurate, but unhelpful.

As Richie took the tune of the chorus, Eddie sang the counterpoint backing.

I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say

(I promise you)

I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be

(I promise you)

He’d been so fooled by the innocence of the first verse, that Eddie had forgotten the chorus. Silently, he cursed the room, cursed Ben for the suggestion, cursed Bev for the encouragement, cursed Richie for starting to strum, cursed himself for agreeing to sing.

But if you'll wait around awhile, I'll make you fall for me

(I promise you)

I promise, I promise you I will

Before Eddie could protest, Richie sat himself in the parabola of the hammock.

Eddie hadn’t even realised that he’d moved his legs out of the way, drawing them up to his chest to allow Richie the room. It was completely subconscious, like muscle memory, like how his fingers danced over the piano keys as he played. This, now, was a different kind of impromptu.

When your day is through, and so is your temper
You know what to do, I'm gonna always be there

Eddie thought about Richie’s energy, how it had been all week, high-strung and sharp. He looked so much more relaxed now, as they sat and sang beside each other, Eddie careful not to allow his sock feet to slip to push up against Richie’s thigh.

Sometimes if I shout, it's not what's intended
These words just come out, with no cross to bear

Words. Always the wrong words. The wrong questions and the wrong answers. The wrong ideas, the wrong moments, the wrong labels. But never the wrong feeling, never a wrong kiss, never a wrong chord. Just the wrong time.

They sang the chorus again, zoned in on one another to block out the rest of the room, where Bev and Ben were mouthing along the words at each other and Bill was periodically eyeing them both, where Mike stared up at Richie and Eddie with such a warm smile on his face, idly tapping his fingers on his knees and nodding his head along, and where Stan stared too, so solemnly, almost critically, like he was studying them, birdwatching.

Richie and Eddie’s voices overlapped, cutting each other off, improvising their own phrases around each other.

I gotta tell you, need to tell you,

Got to tell you, I've got to tell you

As they moved into the last set of choruses, Bev and Ben began to croon along the backing vocals, unable to help themselves, leaving Eddie to harmonise with Richie on the melody.

Bill dragged Bev to her feet and began to dance around with her, which only made her laugh at his helpless rhythm. When she pulled Ben up to join them, Bill found Mike’s hand in his and hauled him to his feet. Only Stan stayed sat, his attention torn between his friends dancing and his friends singing.

Richie and Eddie were completely lost in each other. Once the dancing began, Eddie felt the attention fall away, felt his worries fall away, as the music enveloped him, liberating and easy. He’d so badly loved the moments he’d shared with Richie where they’d played music; Richie on his guitar, Eddie on the piano, both instruments together, one singing, the other singing, both singing.

It was such dark relief, such masochistic joy, clinging onto that newfound bond between them, the only peaceful acknowledgement they’d really made that the last four months had ever happened.

And if I had to walk the world, I'd make you fall for me
I promise you, I promise you I will

As the song drew nearer its close, Richie begged that it could loop around again from the beginning, so that he could keep hearing how perfectly Eddie’s voice lay on his own, so that he could keep singing these precious, gorgeous lyrics to Eddie as though they were ones he had written himself, so that he could keep looking at his face, at the shape of his mouth around each vowel sound, the flick of his tongue on the plosives and sibilants, and plunge into the hypnotic depth of his eyes.

I will

I will

When the song ended, Eddie’s gaze snapped instantly from Richie’s and towards the rest of the group, suddenly remembering that they were there. The Losers whooped and applauded. His reverie disintegrated, and his heart quickened.

‘Play another, would you?’ Mike pleaded.

Richie nodded, smiling, ‘Sure. Eddie, any preference?’

‘I need to go,’ Eddie said abruptly. ‘Sorry, I’ve just remembered. I have this,’ he trailed off, awkwardly fumbling his way out of the hammock. He wished he was a more convincing liar. ‘Mom wanted me back early.’

Various platitudes extended from the Losers, Eddie grabbed for his bag and said his goodbyes to the room.

Then Richie blurted, ‘Wait, I’ll go with you.’

‘That’s okay,’ Eddie tried to discourage.

‘One second,’ Richie ignored his protest, hurriedly zipping the guitar into its case in the hope that Eddie wouldn’t bolt as soon as he was above ground. Eddie disappeared above the hatchway. Richie nervously eyed the stream of light, gathering his things.

‘Is h-he okay?’ Bill whispered.

Richie scoffed, ‘Yeah, he’s fine. He’ll just be embarrassed about singing.’

‘He’s a good singer!’ Ben complimented eagerly.

‘Yeah,’ Richie agreed. ‘I know he is.’ He went to the ladder. ‘I’ll see you guys later.’

Eddie wasn’t waiting back, but he wasn’t running either, just walking quickly, so Richie was able to catch up. He wasn’t going home; that much was obvious. He was heading in the direction of the quarry. Eddie went there sometimes when he needed to think, when he felt like he didn’t want to be at home.

As Richie drew alongside him, Eddie didn’t say a word, didn’t look at him, pretending that he wasn’t there. They walked through the trees until it opened out into grassland, until the cliff’s edge unfurled before them.

Kicking at a stone on the ground, Richie said, ‘What happened?’

Swallowing, Eddie asked, ‘What do you mean?’

‘That was fun,’ Richie said, sounding shocked.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie admitted quietly.

Richie squirmed, ‘It felt a bit more like us again.’ When Eddie said nothing, Richie tried, ‘Eddie, this week has fucking sucked. I’ve actually dreaded seeing you, because I hate how fucking awkward it is between us.’

He sighed, ‘Yeah, I know. I’m the same. Expected you’d be back in the music block, if I’m honest. Like when you were avoiding me.’ He added, ‘When I told you to.’

‘I haven’t played since,’ Richie didn’t need to finish. ‘I mean, until tonight. I’ve just not wanted to. Definitely haven’t wanted to go back to the music room.’

Slowing to a halt, Eddie looked up at the navy sky. The sun set so early this time of year. ‘Right.’

Of course Richie didn’t want to go back to the music room. That had been one of their safe spaces, a place they had co-opted, stacked with secrets and songs and kisses, and then Eddie had ruined it, muddied it, by ending things with him there.

‘But when we were singing just now,’ Richie said, more optimism in his voice as he stopped beside Eddie, ‘I almost wanted to fucking scream or laugh or cry because I just didn’t feel like I needed to leave at the earliest fucking opportunity. I didn’t feel fucking frustrated or angry or miserable and I wasn’t sitting there just hating every second and hating myself and God, it was just so good to see you. For the first time in a week, it was actually fucking good to see you.’

There was a lump in Eddie’s throat as he twisted his head enough to look at him. ‘It’s good to see you too, Rich.’

Richie sighed, ‘So then, why leave?’

‘Because you’re right,’ Eddie clenched his jaw. ‘It did feel more like us again, but I don’t know which version of us it felt like.’

‘Have you ever considered,’ Richie said tentatively, stepping around to stand in front of him, ‘that there isn’t actually more than one?’

Eddie’s brow furrowed. He couldn’t think straight, so confronted with Richie’s face inches before his own, so familiar and yet it was like he hadn’t seen it in years. ‘What do you mean?’

Richie shook his head and dropped his gaze to the floor. ‘Nothing. Doesn’t matter.’

‘I want us to be friends, Richie,’ Eddie said urgently. ‘When you said you wanted to stay friends, I asked you if you even knew how to be my friend, and you said yes, which I’m not sure is true, but that’s beside the point.’

‘Then what is the point?’ Richie asked.

Eddie stared at him. ‘I don’t know how to be yours.’ He rubbed his temple, ‘I thought this would help curb the questions for a while, but instead I’ve just got a whole bunch of fucking new ones.’

‘Like what?’

‘Can we actually be friends?’ Eddie asked, shrugging. ‘Can we be in the same space? Can we hang out together? Be alone? Can we still joke the way we used to? Can I look at you? Can I touch you? Even if I can, should I? Can I even fucking talk to you? Will we ever talk like we used to or is it only ever going to be this fucking intolerable small talk?’

Richie huffed, overwhelmed by this barrage of interrogation, trying to think if any of his answers would be more informed than: I don’t know.

Eddie’s thoughts ran away with him as the lump in his throat grew. ‘Can we talk about what happened? Should we talk about it? Can we joke about it? Would that help? Or do we just pretend it didn’t happen? Do we pretend that we don’t know certain things about each other? What parts of it are safe, if any? Where’s the fucking line? Who the fuck are we to each other now?’

There was a short silence before Richie said, ‘Are you actually asking me? I feel like you’re waiting for a response.’

Snorting, Eddie spluttered, ‘If you have any answers, then please, feel fucking free, because I’m completely lost here.’

With a long hum, Richie pondered, moving to sit down at the cliff’s edge, dangling his legs over the drop, palms in the dirt. Cautiously, Eddie went to sit beside him, folding his legs like a pretzel, wrapping his arms around his waist in the cold.

‘Okay,’ Richie said eventually. ‘I’m going to tell you what I think, and you don’t have to agree with me.’

Eddie blinked. ‘Okay.’

‘I think that pretending nothing happened is a shitty idea,’ Richie said. ‘Mostly because I think it’s probably impossible.’

‘Probably,’ Eddie conceded.

‘But even if it wasn’t, I still think it’d be a shitty idea. We need to know the things we know about each other, because no one else does, and maybe no one else can. Being who I am with you, letting that side of me exist and be; I’ve needed that. I think I’d find it really hard to pack it all away again. I don’t want to.’

Strangely, Eddie thought of toothpaste. He thought of squeezing out the tube in a thick spiral, and then imagining trying to spoon it back inside. Some things just don’t go back.

Richie went on, ‘You’re the only person who really knows me, and I want you to know me, and not only do you know me but you actually fucking understand and fuck, that means even more. I think we should talk about it. In general, not just in relation to us.’

‘Yeah?’ Eddie queried.

‘I’ve been holding all this in for so long. You might not even realise yet just how antagonising the world can fucking be to people like us on the day-to-day, and if I know you, which I think I do, you’re going to want to rant about it at some point,’ he chuckled half-heartedly.

Eddie grumbled, ‘Maybe.’

‘We’re actually really fucking lucky to know someone else who deals with similar shit,’ Richie said. ‘Feeling like I was the only one in this entire town was making me feel like one day I’d just explode. I just wanted to tell someone, just so it was out of me, wanted someone to just turn to every now and then to raise an eyebrow or scoff, just some fucking acknowledgement, someone else seeing the same thing I was and agreeing with me that it wasn’t okay.’ He huffed, ‘Fucking solidarity.’

‘Yeah, I guess we are lucky,’ Eddie agreed, half-smiling at him.

Richie half-smiled back. ‘And hey, we’re alone and talking about it right now, aren’t we? So, we can do that. Inevitably, we’ll probably joke about it, even if we can’t yet. And if we can talk and joke about this, then maybe soon we’ll talk and joke about everything else. Might take a bit of time, but we’re not going anywhere.’

Eddie nodded, ‘I’d like that.’

‘Me too.’

They looked at each other for a moment, finally settling back into each other’s company, knowing a little more where they stood, what they were trying to do, who they could be. Then they hauled themselves to their feet and started to walk back into the town.

‘Rich?’

‘Yeah?’

Eddie bit his lip. ‘Thanks.’

Richie’s eyes flicked uncertainly, ‘What for?’

He hesitated, ‘I don’t know. Being you, I guess. Think a lot of people would’ve given up on me.’

Richie shrugged, ‘I promised, didn't I?’

Eddie thought about the song and wondered which promise Richie was actually talking about. ‘It was fun singing earlier. I wouldn’t hate it if we did that again. And,’ he started, his heart pounding, ‘it’d be a shame to lose that, you know?’

He grinned, bright and kind and happy. ‘Sounds good to me, Eds.’

Rolling his eyes, Eddie said, ‘Don’t call me Eds.’

Elated in his relief, Richie slung his arm over Eddie’s shoulder, ‘You love it really.’ With Richie’s touch, it felt like a bill of censorship had been lifted, the books unburned and back on the shelves.

‘Fuck off,’ Eddie said pointedly, smirking.

‘Oh, you absolute fucking dick,’ Richie laughed.  

Eddie laughed too. He’d forgotten the feeling.

Chapter Text

The Losers were crowded into one room at Stan’s house on a dark winter night. The television was on, but nobody was really watching. Blankets and cushions littered the sofas, chairs and the floor. There was food everywhere, discarded cards from a crumpled deck, comics and magazines.

Bev and Bill were curled up on one cushion of the sofa together, hands intertwined. Stan shamelessly occupied the other two cushions, stretching his legs out. Mike was in the armchair, his eyelids drooping as he got sleepier, and Ben was sat on the futon, cross-legged.

Richie and Eddie were sprawled together on the floor. They’d bickered over how to fairly divide up the available cushions and blankets, periodically attempting to snatch them out from underneath each other. Eddie complained at Richie for getting crumbs everywhere, and Richie teased him for the way he sat up straight whenever he ate to avoid indigestion.

Stretching out like a cat, Richie arched his back and groaned. ‘Right, sorry to deprive you all of my presence, but I think I’m gonna head.’

‘You sure?’ Bev quizzed.

Richie nodded, ‘Yeah, work tomorrow. Need to get some sleep.’

‘I’ll walk with you,’ Eddie said casually, yawning.

The hairs on Richie’s neck stood on end. ‘Sure, okay.’

They said their goodbyes and wandered out into the street together. It was the first time they had been alone together since their chat at the quarry. Not that things hadn’t been better; they’d been significantly better. They were able to be in the same room without wincing, able to look at each other without colouring, able to tease and joke with each other about little things. It wasn’t much, but compared to what had been, it was a dramatic improvement.

‘Hey,’ Eddie said after a while, smiling.

‘Hi,’ Richie returned, hands stuffed in his pockets. ‘Does your mom want you home early or something?’

‘No,’ Eddie said flippantly.

Richie eyed him. ‘Got a lot of homework to do tomorrow?’

‘No, I just,’ Eddie licked his lower lip and then regretted it, the cold wind biting against the fragile skin, ‘wanted to check in. We haven’t really had the chance.’

Raising his eyebrows, surprised and oddly touched, Richie said, ‘Oh. Yeah, I guess we haven’t really been hanging out the two of us yet.’

‘No, but it’s been,’ he fumbled for a more articulate word, but couldn’t find one, ‘good. Hanging out as a group, I mean.’ 

Nodding steadily, Richie hummed his agreement. ‘I’m glad you think so.’

‘Don’t you think so too?’ Eddie asked, too quickly.

Richie shrugged, ‘No, I do. I just,’ he coughed, not answering.

‘What?’

‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s been fucking great to hang out with the Losers, but it’s not, I mean, we’re not always,’ he struggled, trailing off.

Eddie urged, ‘Go on. What is it?’

‘How we are when we’re with them,’ Richie said carefully, ‘it’s not the same as how we are when it’s just us.’

With a sigh, Eddie said, ‘Yeah. I know.’

‘Do you think –’ Richie started, then failed.

Eddie jostled against him, ‘What?’

Richie’s heart clenched with his jaw as they drew up outside his house. ‘Do you think we’ll get there?’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said indignantly. ‘Yeah, I do.’

‘Do you think it could be as good as it was? Even before,’ he stopped himself.

Eddie smiled softly, ‘Yeah. I know it’s been a bit weird lately, but you’re still my best friend, Richie.’

‘Am I?’ Richie asked, trying not to betray quite how much the sentiment meant to him.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie grinned. ‘Just don’t tell Bill I said so.’

Richie chuckled, ‘As long as you don’t tell Bev.’

‘Deal,’ Eddie laughed, then looked down the dark street. ‘Right, I better get home.’

Briefly, Richie glanced at his front door, up to the window of his bedroom, and then back to Eddie. ‘I mean, unless want to come in? I know my mom would love to see you. She’s been asking about you.’  

‘My mom has not asked about you,’ Eddie said, dodging the invitation.

‘Why would she ask you when she sees me every night?’ he asked, winking. He shifted his weight back and forth between his feet, hovering. ‘Do you want to say hi? You don’t have to.’

Eddie wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. Richie’s house loomed terrifying and inviting, a house he hadn’t seen the interior of in a good few weeks but remembered like it was his own.

He missed it. He missed the sound of Maggie’s idle humming, missed the cloying smell of Went’s cigar smoke, missed the cupboards stocked with processed and sugary foods he wasn’t allowed at home.

He croaked for a few beats, then said, ‘Sure. Okay.’

Eddie missed the worn, comfortable sofas and too many picture frames of Richie ageing gradually through the years, missed the kitchen where he cooked with Maggie, the living room where he chatted with Went, the hallway littered with Tozier shoes and coats.

Slowly, they walked up the front path. Each step felt like a mile in Eddie’s shoes. Richie went to open the front door, keys jangling in his hand, too many chains, too many unnecessary keyrings. This was the point of no return. They were going inside.

Eddie missed the basement where he and Richie played videogames, the beanbag chair and their VCR movie collection, missed Richie’s bedroom where they listened to the vinyl, missed Richie’s chaotically poster-clad walls, his disorganised shelves, the mess he tried to hide in the cupboards and in the corners and under his mattress.  

They pushed inside the house, the bottom of the door scraping an arc against the wood. Eddie’s throat constricted, like a python was twisting around it, like his mouth would soon dry and his eyeballs would pop out of his skull. He looked at the staircase, a staircase that a few weeks ago he would have galloped up eagerly to Richie’s bedroom.

Eddie missed Richie’s bed, the way it smelled like him, like it was part of his wardrobe. He missed laying on the duvet, listening to music or Richie’s ceaseless chatter, staring up at the blank ceiling or into the pages of a comic book or at Richie, at his lanky legs or his shifting shoulders or his unruly hair.

‘Eddie?’ Maggie Tozier hollered from the living room. ‘Golly gosh, I feel like I haven’t seen you in weeks! We’ve missed you. How are you?’

‘Good, Maggie,’ Eddie said, his voice hoarse. ‘Thanks. Just been busy with school is all. Easing up now, I think.’

Richie’s mind danced up each of the stairs but thought better of it. ‘We’ll be in the basement, mom,’ he decided, and smiled at Eddie, kindly, amicably, locking his eyes.

Eddie missed Richie’s eyes, trained on him like there was no one else in the world. He missed Richie’s hands, brushing lightly against his skin or digging into his back. He missed Richie’s voice, when it was low and guttural and whispered, when he didn’t want anyone but Eddie to hear, the voice reserved for him and him alone.

Guilt, dread and anxiety wriggled through Eddie’s system as he followed Richie down into the basement. Somehow, everything felt so right and so wrong, a halfway house, a duplicate, like a computer simulation of reality, familiar and uncanny. He felt like he was being watched, judged, like the walls were talking.

Eddie missed hearing Richie talk seriously, missed his flirtatious teasing, missed hearing Richie say that he loved him. He missed watching it topple from his mouth as though that was all they had been sculpted to say. He missed Richie’s mouth. He missed Richie’s mouth and his teeth and his tongue and his lips and his words and his moans and his bites and his kisses.

All Eddie thought as he sidled into his spot on the sofa was: I need to get out of here. I can’t be alone with him. Not in his house. Not in this room. Not in the dead of night.

Richie slumped onto the other end of the sofa with an exaggerated sigh. ‘You’re so lucky you don’t have a job.’

Eddie rolled his eyes, ‘I want a job. My mom just thinks I can’t study and work at the same time.’

‘Maybe not the subjects you do. Mine are a piss take,’ Richie dismissed.

‘To you,’ Eddie reminded. The fact that Richie didn’t like school and was reprimanded for bad behaviour bore no correlation to his grades, which were always exceptional. It was something Eddie admired, envied and hated about him in equal measure.

‘Effortless,’ Richie sang quietly, a mischievous glint in his eye. ‘Like everything else I do.’

Eddie coloured, ‘Don’t, Rich.’

‘Don’t what?’ Richie asked, feigning innocence.

‘You know exactly what,’ Eddie scolded. He was flirting, and Eddie loved it all too much when Richie flirted with him.

Richie grinned at him. He didn’t know how to not flirt with Eddie, it had been part of their friendship for six years. ‘You been playing much?’ he asked. ‘We said we’d play together again, but we haven’t.’

Eddie shrugged, ‘Yeah, I’ve played a little. Maybe next week we could pop down the music block.’

‘Yeah?’ Richie asked, surprised at the suggestion.

‘Yeah, well,’ Eddie scratched his neck awkwardly, ‘we should probably be prepared in case the Losers ask us to play again. They probably think we have albums worth of content in our repertoire but we only have about six songs that we’ve actually practised together.’

Richie snorted, ‘I know. Luckily we’d learned their favourites and they’re fucking predictable. Of course Ben asked to play The Promise.’

‘Not subtle,’ Eddie grumbled. ‘Bill was pretty pissed about that.’

‘Really?’ Richie made a face. ‘Yikes.’

Eddie probed, ‘Does Bev know? That Ben likes her, I mean.’

Richie coughed awkwardly, ‘She can’t see it.’

‘How can she not see it?’ Eddie scoffed. ‘It’s so obvious.’

‘Yeah, well,’ Richie picked at his fingernails. ‘Doesn’t matter how obvious it is, sometimes. You see what you want to see.’

Stomach bubbling, Eddie sighed, ‘Oh. Right.’ He furrowed his brow, brain diverting. ‘Wait, how do you know she can’t see it? Unless,’ he realised, ‘she knows because someone told her. Did you tell her?’

Richie puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. ‘Yeah. I told her.’

Annoyed by proxy for Bill, Eddie leaned over to lightly slap Richie’s arm. ‘Why the fuck would you do that?’ he asked. ‘She’s with Bill.’

Richie hit him back pettily. ‘Yeah, I know she’s with Bill. It’s nothing against Bill. It’s just the way that Ben looks at her, you know? He’s so fucking smitten and he’s never going to put his foot in it because he’s too good a guy. Bev didn’t even know that he was an option and he was never going to tell her that he was either.’

Eddie eyed him quizzically. ‘You think she should be with Ben.’

‘I don’t know if she should,’ Richie said. ‘I do think they’d be a great couple, but my opinion doesn’t really matter. I,’ he groaned angrily, ‘I just get it. I get what Ben’s going through, okay?’  

‘That’s,’ Eddie struggled, his heart stuttering. ‘That’s neither here nor there.’

‘I thought she deserved to know,’ Richie said resignedly. ‘Everyone else fucking does.’

Eddie’s heart froze as he considered the implications of this with regards to their own history.

Richie watched the thoughts glide conspicuously across Eddie’s face. ‘No, Eds,’ he said, leaning closer to snap Eddie out of his trance.

‘What?’

‘I don’t think they know,’ Richie said plainly, blinking slow. ‘About us, or how I feel about you.’

Present tense, Eddie clocked. ‘I don’t know,’ he said quietly, narrowing his eyes.

‘Did Bill ever say anything to you?’ Richie asked, lowering his voice.

Eddie said he hadn’t. ‘Did Bev say anything to you?’

‘No,’ Richie shook his head. ‘No one has.’

‘Me neither,’ Eddie assured, but he didn’t sound confident.

‘What?’ Richie asked.

Eddie twisted his lips. ‘Sometimes I thought that maybe Stan was figuring it out. He was always rolling his eyes at us and making little comments here and there.’

Richie snorted, ‘Yeah, but he’s been doing that since we were twelve.’

‘Has he?’ Eddie spluttered, and suddenly he realised that Richie was right, as countless occasions rioted through his brain.

Smiling in disbelief, Richie shook his head. ‘You never noticed,’ he said, half a statement and half a question.

‘Fucking hell,’ Eddie muttered. ‘I’m starting to think I’m not that observant.’

‘You’re very observant, Eddie,’ Richie countered. ‘You just didn’t know what you were seeing, because you never wanted it to mean what it meant.’

Eddie frowned, ‘I don’t think that’s completely true.’

‘No?’ Richie queried, sighing. 

Eddie didn’t answer him, diverting the conversation back. ‘I can’t believe you told Bev.’

Richie pondered, ‘Wouldn’t you have wanted someone to tell you? In retrospect, I mean. If the Losers knew I liked you, wouldn’t you want to know too?’

‘I don’t know,’ Eddie stumbled. ‘It’s a little different with us. I’m not dating another one of the Losers. I didn’t even know I liked boys until,’ he stopped.

Richie hummed. ‘I wonder what would have happened.’ He cocked his head. ‘Maybe in some other universe it did. Maybe there’s a universe where I got my shit together and told you years ago.’

‘Maybe,’ Eddie swallowed.

‘Do you think,’ he started, furrowing his brow, ‘if I had, then we’d be together now? If we’d had all that time to figure shit out with each other. If you hadn’t had to try and catch up so much, if we’d been able to take it slow and know we didn’t need all the answers right away.’

Eddie blinked away a veil of tears. ‘I don’t know, Rich.’

‘That’s not a no,’ Richie pointed out, shifting closer.

‘It’s not a yes either,’ Eddie clarified. ‘It’s too hard to compensate for all the fucking variables that are out there. Maybe there are millions of different versions of us. Maybe there are universes where being gay is okay, or where we never had to fight IT, or where Bev is dating Ben. Maybe there are versions of us that are madly in love or are together and have been since we were kids, or maybe there are versions of us that have never kissed at all and never will.’

Richie whispered, ‘Maybe there are versions of us that are fucking happy.’

The bitter devastation in his voice cut through Eddie like a blade. ‘Maybe,’ he said quietly. ‘I wish you were happy, Richie.’

‘Are you happy?’ he asked gently.

Eddie sighed, ‘No. I don’t know if I’ve ever really been happy.’

‘No?’ Richie asked sadly.

Eddie didn’t say anything, just shrugged.

Haphazardly, Richie clawed at Eddie’s arms and drew him into a hug. Eddie let his hands spread over Richie’s back like wings, the hollow of his cheek pressed to Richie’s shoulder. They stayed there a moment, then Eddie pulled his head back enough that he could look at Richie’s face.

He missed having it this close to his own, missed counting the freckles dappled over his cheeks, missed brushing their noses together and kissing his forehead, looking so deeply into his eyes that he felt he might be lost in them forever.

Richie stared at him hopelessly, and he delicately placed a hand on Eddie’s cheek. ‘I’ll tell you one thing. I’d bet my life that there’s not one version of me that isn’t in love with you.’

‘Richie,’ Eddie’s breath hitched and he leaned away, but not far enough that Richie’s lips couldn’t meet his own, even only for a few seconds. He pushed lightly against Richie’s chest. ‘Rich, we’ve been doing really well.’

With a groan, Richie said, ‘I know we have.’

Eddie wished so badly that Richie hadn’t kissed him. ‘We need to know that we can be alone together without doing that.’

Richie held up his finger in front of Eddie’s face. ‘One kiss. It was one kiss. We can make mistakes.’

‘Mistakes?’ Eddie repeated carefully. ‘Plural?’

Richie smirked, holding Eddie tighter, ‘Fuck, you really never miss a trick, do you?’

It was that low, guttural voice, and it went straight through Eddie and down into his jeans. ‘See right through you,’ Eddie said quietly.

Richie kissed him. He slipped his hands around Eddie’s neck, thumbs tracing the curve of his jaw, squeezing his eyes shut so tight that the worry lines carved along his forehead.

Eddie whined as Richie’s lips pressed up against his own, then whined again as Richie’s tongue slipped into his mouth. His hands slid from Richie’s shoulders up into his hair, fingers burying in the dark curls. His heart fluttered, his stomach fluttered, and for just long enough, he forgot the arguments he’d fought with himself, forgot his logic and common sense, forgot his self-destructive fears, and sank into Richie.

‘God, I’ve fucking missed you,’ Richie sighed into his mouth, wrapping his arms around Eddie’s waist and hauling his body flush against his own.

‘I’ve missed you too,’ Eddie whispered back, frustrated and aching.

Richie grabbed at Eddie’s thighs and yanked at them until Eddie yelped and fell onto his back. He crawled over him, pausing to place a biting kiss on the strip of bare skin above Eddie’s jeans, before letting their lips find each other’s again.

Hands pushing up underneath Richie’s shirt, Eddie could feel himself tripping down the rabbit hole, losing his footing. He craned his face away from Richie’s messy kisses, which only forced Richie’s attention to his neck, suckling and biting rapidly, thoughtlessly, so that Eddie had to hold his breath to keep from keening.

‘This is a bad idea,’ Eddie said breathily as Richie’s hands squeezed mercilessly at his waist.

‘Terrible,’ Richie agreed with a growl, searching for Eddie’s lips once more. ‘Shall we go upstairs?’

Eddie slammed back into the room. ‘What? No!’

‘Fine, we’ll stay here but you have to be quieter than you are usually,’ he warned, cocking his eyebrow suggestively.

Quivering, Eddie couldn’t help but remember the sounds that Richie made him elicit, pants and gasps, moans and groans, whines and whimpers and Richie’s name, his name over and over again. ‘Richie,’ Eddie complained. ‘We’ll have to go back to square one again.’

Richie shrugged, hands dragging over the denim of Eddie’s trousers. ‘Think that ship’s already sailed.’

Eddie grunted, ‘We can still stop.’

‘Then tell me to stop,’ Richie said, kissing the hollow behind Eddie’s ear.

As Richie’s mouth traipsed along his jawline, Eddie said, ‘I should go.’

Richie hovered above him, noses brushing, lips apart and so close to touching. ‘Then go.’

Eddie tried to kiss him, but Richie leaned away, smirking, watching Eddie helplessly chase after him. When he saw Eddie’s irritated expression, he relished in it for a moment, licking his lower lip, then gifted the kiss that Eddie so clearly sought.

‘You are so infuriating,’ Eddie huffed.

‘Are you mad at me, Eds?’ Richie snarled, undoing Eddie’s fly.

‘I’m mostly mad at myself,’ Eddie corrected, sticking his fingers through Richie’s belt-loops to haul him closer. ‘But I’m mad at you too.’ Hastily, he started to unbutton Richie’s jeans.

With a maliciously masochistic grin, Richie pulled his shirt off over his head and then tugged at Eddie’s. He purred at the sight, letting his fingers spread delightedly over Eddie’s chest, and his lips soon followed.

‘For fuck’s sake, Rich, why are you doing this?’ Eddie’s back arched involuntarily and Richie’s hands swept underneath him, clawing with his blunt nails. He lifted his hips to help Richie shimmy off his clothes.

Without looking at him, Richie said, ‘Because I didn’t know that last time was going to be the last time.’

Briefly, Eddie’s ire cooled, and he looked at Richie with affectionate abandon.

‘And,’ Richie added, pulling off his own jeans and flashing his eyes dangerously at Eddie, ‘because we know we’re not supposed to do this anymore and I want to see what that makes you do to me.’

‘Christ,’ Eddie cracked, eyes widening, blood flooding southwards. ‘You can’t fucking talk like that.’

Richie hummed, hooking his fingers into the elastic of Eddie’s underwear, ‘Oh, but I can. You lost the right to beep-beep me.’

Eddie was fully intending on snipping back, but Richie shut up of his own accord when his mouth went to work on something else. Eddie lost all conscious thought. As the noises sputtered from his lips, he clamped a hand over his mouth, but it hardly helped.

‘I said you need to be fucking quiet,’ Richie hissed.

Spurred, Eddie gripped Richie’s shoulders and pushed him upwards, scrambling onto his knees as he did so, shifting the balance of power. Richie’s eyes widened in surprise as his back smacked against the couch cushions and Eddie pinned his wrists above his head.

‘Oh shit,’ Richie muttered, then immediately started to whimper as Eddie laid his weight down, the friction between them electric and just short of fully satisfying.

‘Fucking hell,’ Eddie mumbled himself as he tugged at Richie’s boxers. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have come over.’

Richie locked his now freed hands around Eddie’s neck and pulled him closer, ‘Then why did you?’ he asked, then kissed him hard and bruising, toying with Eddie’s lower lip between his teeth.

‘I hate it when you’re smug,’ Eddie grumbled, dragging his thumbs over Richie’s throat.

‘No, you don’t,’ Richie teased, part of him wishing that Eddie would press down and choke him.

His head span as he considered this idea, an idea which had never entered his brain before, not when it came to Eddie. He always fantasised about Eddie romantically, sensually, passionately, even beautifully.

A strange thrill burrowed through him and he wondered where it came from. Frustration from their mismatched timing, desperation from their unquestionable tension, anger however misplaced, love however reckless, simple curiosity and complex pain.

‘Do you still think about me like this, Eddie?’ Richie pushed, reaching down to touch him. In the span of one hand, he gripped them both, and locked Eddie’s gaze fiercely.

Eddie groaned but managed, ‘Like you don’t think about me this way.’

‘Is that a yes?’ Richie grinned.

‘Fuck you,’ Eddie said gutturally, shifting down Richie’s body.

Richie joked, ‘You still could.’

Eddie stared at him wildly, ‘Don’t test me.’

‘Dare you,’ he said, slaking his tongue over his teeth.

Eddie bit his lip helplessly, pushing Richie’s legs apart and lowering his head between them. ‘You better watch that fucking Trashmouth of yours.’

‘Or what?’ Richie tried to ask with vigour, but the words caught uncomfortably in his throat as Eddie closed around him.

Smacking his lips, Eddie throbbed, completely zoned in on the moment, on Richie, ‘Or I’ll actually take you up on it and then we’ll both be in fucking trouble.’

‘Christ, I've missed this,’ Richie gushed suddenly, watching Eddie’s head bobbing up and down.

A rush sizzled through Eddie. ‘Don’t ruin it,’ he warned, smirking.

Richie’s hands pawed through Eddie’s hair as he grew closer to the brink of euphoria, legs trembling either side of Eddie’s head so violently that Eddie held them down, squeezing the insides of his thighs. ‘Fuck, Eddie, I’m gonna, I’m gonna,’ he rasped. ‘Shit, if you don’t stop, then I’ll –’

He huffed as he bucked, watching Eddie intently, enraptured and overwhelmingly shocked.

Eddie almost choked as he swallowed, trying not to cough. He raised his head and made a face at Richie. ‘That’s fucking nasty,’ he laughed.

Richie stared at him, ‘That is the single hottest thing you’ve ever done and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition. Pun definitely intended.’

‘Yeah?’ Eddie asked, smiling.

Lunging for Eddie’s hands, Richie pulled Eddie back on top of him. ‘Come here, asshole,’ he chuckled, then kissed him hard.

The sadness and awkwardness between them hazed, a familiar playful, joyful bond solidifying. This moment seemed so incongruent to their timeline, like the torn out pages of a diary, a deleted scene from a movie that you watch after the final credits have rolled.

Eddie wasn’t sure how long they had been kissing, but it seemed like time had stopped completely. Richie felt it racing past, sure that at any moment, Eddie would disappear on him again. 

‘Richie!’ Maggie’s voice called from upstairs, and the boys froze, terrified and silent. ‘Does Eddie want to stay the night?’

Richie looked at Eddie lustfully, hitching a knee between his thighs. ‘Yes!’ he called back.

Eddie’s mouth dropped open, ‘Richie, what the fuck?’

‘Your move, Kaspbrak.’

Chapter Text

Eddie was sat on his side of the sofa again, head in his hands, only in his briefs. His hair was in disarray from where Richie had carelessly ruffled it, his lips plump and reddened, his neck bruised, littered with Richie’s marks.

‘Stay with me,’ Richie requested, jabbing his toes into Eddie’s ribcage.

Eddie sighed, reaching for his clothes. ‘Rich, I shouldn’t.’

Head knocking back against the armrest, Richie pulled up his boxers, ‘Eddie, despite appearances, I’m not an idiot.’

‘I know you’re not.’

‘I know that nothing has changed and we’re still in different places,’ Richie said in an odd, lazy voice, as though he was quoting a conversation they never had. ‘I know you don’t love me. I know where I stand. I know we’re not together. Will you please come to bed?’

‘Richie, we’re supposed to just be friends,’ Eddie said, shimmying on his jeans.

He snorted, ‘We literally just –’

Slipping on his shirt, Eddie cut him off, ‘Yeah, I know, but we said even before it happened that it was a bad idea. A mistake.’

‘Then why did we make it?’ Richie shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant, but each word that dripped from Eddie’s lips was another twist in the gut. ‘Actually, scratch that. We both know why I made it. Why did you make it?’

Eddie blinked, ‘I don’t know.’

Richie reached for his own clothes and started to dress. ‘I’m going to make an executive decision right now that you are not allowed to give that answer to me anymore. You said you knew it was a bad idea to come over, so you expected this might happen, but you came in anyway. We acknowledged a bad idea, a mistake, whatever, but we did it anyway. You could have stopped it. You could have left. You didn’t.’

‘I should have stopped it. I should have left.’

‘Should, should, should,’ Richie mocked. ‘Who gives a shit about “should”? It’s done. We did it.’

‘What happens now?’ Eddie asked quietly.  

Lightly, Richie backhanded his upper arm. ‘Stop changing the fucking subject. Why did you do this, Eds?’

‘You did it too,’ Eddie deflected.

Richie laughed, ‘Yeah, I did. I invited you in and I kissed you and I took your fucking clothes off, because I miss you and am hopelessly in love with you, and we both know that. What we don’t know is why you did all those things to me after you so elegantly broke my heart.’

Wincing, Eddie said, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I don’t want a fucking apology. I want an answer,’ Richie said percussively. ‘So, for the last fucking time, why did you do this?’

Eddie was quiet, ‘Because I wanted to.’

‘Why?’ Richie pressed, scooting closer, forcing his gaze.

Self-loathingly, Eddie huffed, ‘Because I’m fucking selfish and don’t have any self-control around you. Because I’m still the same fucking mess I’ve always been.’

Richie huffed, ‘That’s not the fucking truth.’ There was a thick coat of menace slathered onto his words.

Eddie’s eyes narrowed as he slipped his shirt over his head, ‘You’re really angry.’

‘Of course I’m angry, Eddie,’ Richie assured, his eye contact harsh and sharp.

‘Why?’ Eddie asked, expecting, and on some levels, strangely hoping, that Richie would keep yelling at him. He felt like he probably deserved it.

‘Because you’re trying to fucking leave,’ Richie spat. ‘Again. Like I mean fucking nothing to you.’

Eddie let Richie’s anger wash through him. He let it hurt.

‘We almost had everything, Eddie. We were almost there,’ Richie cracked, ‘and somehow I fucking lost you and I’m still trying to figure out how I let that happen when we are so clearly meant to be together.’

‘There was nothing you could have done.’ Eddie clapped his hands to his forehead, ‘It’s not about you, Richie.’

‘But it is, Eddie. It is about me,’ Richie cried, exasperated. ‘When are you going to fucking acknowledge that?’

Eddie stood up and walked away from him. ‘I’m going home.’

‘Listen to me,’ Richie begged, grabbing for his wrist. ‘I’m your best friend. You’ve known me most of your life. You care about me. You don’t want to hurt me. You know I love you. I refuse to believe you are actually that fucking selfish and desperate and messy and cruel that you would come over here and screw around with me unless it had something to do with me.’ He stepped into Eddie’s personal space. ‘So why did you do it?’

Wrenching his arm from Richie’s grip, Eddie pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, ‘I don’t know.’

Richie pulled the hand down away from his face, needing to make eye contact. ‘Actually fucking think,’ he demanded.

‘Calm the fuck down,’ Eddie snapped.

‘That’s rich.’

Shocked, hurt, Eddie whispered, ‘Cheap shot, Tozier.’

Richie closed his eyes. ‘You’re right. Fuck. I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated, Eds. I don’t want to believe that I’ve been fucked over. Not by you.’

‘What if I have fucked you over?’

There was a beat of silence. ‘Have you?’

Eddie looked at him, straight in his cobalt eyes, and thought of a dozen memories. Inviting Richie to stay in his bedroom after he climbed in through the window, turning to Richie and swearing that it wasn’t nothing, asking when he could see him again.

He thought of seeking Richie out in the music room, telling Richie that he wanted to answer all his questions with him, figuring out a way for them to be together at any given opportunity.

He thought of intimate touches; laced fingers, dancing fingers, caressing fingers, cheek kisses, forehead kisses, hand kisses, draped arms, latticed legs, dragging toes.

Telling Richie he thought he was cute, pretty, hot, beautiful. Telling Richie he thought they had chemistry, that he was funny, that he was great. Telling Richie there was a this, a here, an us. Letting Richie say, “I love you”. Asking him to say it again. And again. And again.

‘I don’t know,’ Eddie said eventually.

Richie cracked his knuckles. He had to exert the pressure somewhere, and he didn’t want to lash out. ‘Then think until you do.’

Shivering at the sound of the air bubbles popping between Richie’s bones, Eddie said, ‘You know I don’t like that.’

Richie misunderstood him. ‘I know you don’t like to. You think, you overthink, you panic. I know it’s hard but remember that it’s fucking better when you do. That’s what you said to me. You felt better.’

Eddie thought back to the early days of their liaison, when Eddie had pulled off Richie’s shirt for the first time and pushed him to the bed. Maybe there was another universe where Richie didn’t stop them, didn’t look into his eyes and check that he was okay, didn’t ask him to be sure of what he wanted, didn’t make him think.

‘Why are you here, Eddie?’ Richie asked, grabbing his shoulders. ‘Why are you with me?’

‘Because I am still fucking addicted to this, Richie,’ Eddie said suddenly. ‘I love the way I feel when I’m with you.’

‘And what way is that?’ Richie encouraged.

Eddie didn’t need to think. ‘You know this. Safe, Richie. I’m so scared all the fucking time but you still make me feel safe.’

Richie’s grip loosened. His eyes softened.

He added, melting a little, ‘And good. So good that you make me feel like this is okay, that this is right, and well, you know,’ he shuffled nervously, ‘it feels good when we’re,’ he gestured over to the sofa awkwardly.

‘Yeah, it does,’ Richie concurred, stepping into his personal space, narrowing the gap between them. ‘What else?’

Eddie stammered, ‘I still don’t know how to cope with all this but you make me feel like I can. I’m here because you –’ he bit his lip.

‘Go on,’ Richie urged. His rage began to trickle backwards, like a river running upstream, the sand dial turned upside down.

‘Because you love me,’ Eddie sobbed. ‘Because you’re the only person who’s ever really loved me and you make me feel loved when I don’t love myself, and right now I don’t.’

Compassionately, Richie kissed him, trying to stop him from crying. It only made Eddie cry harder, tears slipping down the sides of his nose and over his upper lip. Richie could taste the salt as Eddie kissed him back with fiery self-hatred, hands sliding around Richie’s neck.

When Eddie broke the kiss, he confessed, ‘The past few months is as close to happy as I’ve ever fucking been, Rich.’

His heart quickening, unsure if he really could be hearing these things, words he had only dreamed of hearing, Richie promised, ‘Same, Eds. Same. You make me so fucking happy.’

Eddie groaned, resting his forehead against Richie’s, ‘I can’t stop thinking about you. I miss you so fucking much that I feel like it might kill me. Every day I wish I could go back to the first kiss and do it all over again.’

His knees buckling, elated, emotional and awed, Richie offered, ‘We can do it all over again. Let’s do it all over again.’

With a sad sigh, Eddie said, ‘We can’t.’

‘Then let’s fucking pick up where we left off,’ Richie suggested with a beaming smile.

Eddie’s eyes scanned Richie’s face. ‘I can’t have you, Richie.’

Profoundly confused, Richie retorted, ‘Eddie, you can have me. You can have all of me. I would take you back in a fucking heartbeat. I want you back so fucking badly.’

Eddie closed his eyes. ‘No, you don’t.’

‘Yes, I do,’ Richie laughed, and kissed him again, but this time, Eddie didn’t kiss back, only pulled away.

‘I got you out,’ Eddie said measuredly. ‘We’re supposed to be friends. You’re not supposed to love me.’

‘Supposed to?’ Richie queried. ‘No one’s supposed to be friends. We just are. No one’s supposed to love anyone else. I just do. I love you so much.’

It still had the same effect on Eddie as it did the first time, that bolt of lightning scoring through him, the ground falling away. He couldn’t help but look at him. ‘It’ll go away,’ he said definitively.

‘It won’t,’ Richie gushed. ‘I still love you as much as I always did and I will keep loving you. I will love you if you like me and I will love you if you hate me, if we’re together or apart, if we’re friends or enemies or strangers or fucking soulmates. I love you, all of you, and I will always love you.’

Eddie couldn’t even conceive of being so sure of such a thing, but Richie certainly sounded like he meant it. ‘Then we can’t be friends, can we?’

‘We can, but if you want me to be a friend that doesn’t love you,’ Richie smacked his lips together, ‘then you want me to be someone I’m not. You’re asking for a version of me that has never existed and never will exist, because you’re looking at a boy that has no idea who the fuck he even is if he doesn’t love you. Loving you is baked into my fucking soul and I will do it whether you like it or not. I’m not going to get over you.’

Eddie tipped his chin back, imploringly staring at the ceiling lamp. ‘You’re not even trying.’

‘No, I’m not!’ Richie acknowledged, wrenching Eddie’s head back down, furiously adoring eyes darting between Eddie’s. ‘I don’t want to get over you. Why do I have to get over you?’

‘Because if you don’t, it’s going to make it so much harder for me to get over you,’ Eddie exclaimed.

Richie balked, leaning slightly backwards, scanning Eddie’s face. ‘What? You’re trying to get over me?’

Eddie froze.

‘But,’ Richie’s eyes flickered, ‘that implies there’s something you need to get over.’

Immediately, Eddie squirmed from his embrace, raking a hand through his hair. ‘I shouldn’t have come over here. I should go home.’

As Eddie tried to leave, Richie chased around him to block the door, clamping his hand down on the handle, just as he had done after he kissed Eddie for the very first time. ‘Wait just a fucking minute.’

‘Let me out, Rich,’ Eddie stammered.

‘Look at me,’ Richie commanded quietly, and Eddie did, his brown eyes dark and gloomy, lips flattened. As their gazes connected, Richie inhaled sharply, ‘Oh, you fucking piece of shit.’

‘What?’ Eddie dared.

‘You like me,’ Richie declared conclusively. ‘You do like me.’

Eddie shook his head. ‘No,’ he said weakly.

‘You’re a fucking terrible liar,’ Richie blinked. ‘Admit it.’

‘No,’ Eddie said petulantly, frowning.  

Richie tried to go to him, but Eddie backed away further with every step he took. ‘When did you figure that out?’

Eddie hadn’t. Yet as the sentence plummeted between them, Eddie latched onto it helplessly, tied to it, connected to it. 

‘I want to go home,’ he strained as his thighs knocked against the arm of the sofa, no further back to go.

‘Why?’ Richie asked, his voice high and squeaking, extending his arms out to the sides melodramatically. ‘This is fucking brilliant. You like me and I like you.’

‘No, you love me,’ Eddie corrected.

Richie shrugged, finally able to step back in front of him. ‘So?’

‘So it wouldn’t matter if I liked you,’ Eddie spat. ‘It wouldn’t change anything.’

Lowering his eyebrows, Richie scoffed, ‘Of course it fucking would.’

Eddie clamped his hands on Richie’s upper arms. ‘No, it wouldn’t.’

Richie brought his hands to Eddie’s forearms, gently caressing his thumbs back and forth. ‘But you do though, don’t you? You do like me.’

‘Don’t do this,’ Eddie begged. He couldn’t say it, wouldn’t dare put that out into the world. 

Richie furrowed his brow. ‘You don’t want to like me. You like me, but you don’t want to. Why don’t you want to?’

Eddie closed his eyes and shook his head. ‘Richie, I can’t do this. We need to stop. You need to stop loving me and I have to stop wanting you.’

‘Liking me,’ Richie corrected.

‘Richie,’ Eddie cautioned.

Struggling, Richie said, ‘You can’t tell me how to feel about you, Eddie. You can’t decide how to feel about me either. Maybe you don’t want me to love you as much as I do, and maybe you don’t want to want me at all, but here we are.’

‘I wouldn’t be if you’d let me fucking go home,’ Eddie snapped. ‘I just want to go to sleep.’

‘Why?’ Richie protested.

‘Because I’m exhausted. This is so exhausting,’ Eddie complained. ‘I’ve been exhausted for months. I’m exhausted of being this way, I’m exhausted of feeling this way, and I can’t fucking do it forever. I don’t want to be like this.’ 

Flatly, Richie said, ‘You’re exhausted because you’re still fighting against it. I know you are because I did. You don’t want to hear it right now, but you won’t win, and you’re fighting the wrong fucking battle.’

‘But you’re exhausted too, Rich. I know you are. There’s always going to be something in our fucking way. We’re always going to have to fight against something or someone.’

Richie slid his hands into Eddie’s, locking their fingers together, ‘But now we both have someone to fight with us, to fight for us, for all the right fucking things, all the things actually worth fucking fighting for. We can do that together. I want to do that with you.’

Eddie shook his head, ‘It’s always going to be hard, Richie. It’s always going to be so fucking hard.’

‘So, you fucking hold onto the things that make it all easier,’ Richie breathed, squeezing his hands. ‘You pick a path that could actually make you fucking happy. I’m not even saying that’s one with me in it, but it’s definitely one where you let yourself be who you actually fucking are.’

Pick a path. Eddie didn’t know how to pick a path. He didn’t know where each one led. ‘I’m too lost, Rich,’ he dipped his head. ‘I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where to fucking go.’

Eddie thought about the maze he had entered with Richie; the thick, tall, frightening rows of hedges stacked up around them, leading them to the centre. Part of him had always known what he would find there, an unsurprising surprise, the plot twist we all should have seen coming.

He should have been more scared, should have run away, run out while he still thought he remembered the way. Yet he didn’t leave, because Richie was there with him, holding his hand and guiding him, running ahead eagerly, promising that everything would be alright, that he’d been to the centre himself.

Then the hedgerows had grown over, and he and Richie had been sat there in their isolation, in their bubble, and after a while, Eddie had watched a brand new maze appear through the fog, which he’d never noticed was there, and wasn’t sure when he started.

Cupping Eddie’s cheeks, Richie lifted his face back up, dragging their noses together. ‘Come back to me, Eds.’ He kissed him lightly, gorgeously. ‘Come find me.’

It was a maze Richie had started without him but hadn’t quite completed, one he’d started from a different entrance, years before. One that brought out the best in some people and the worst in others, where a lot of people got hurt.

It was a maze that was infinitely scarier and trickier to navigate, one that shifted and moved around of its own accord, that required an enormous amount of strength and heart and bravery to endure. Strength and heart and bravery that Eddie didn’t think he had, so he’d told Richie that he couldn’t go on.

Since then, he’d been trying to find the exit, but he couldn’t, and he didn’t know if there was one. He wasn’t sure if it had a centre either, but if it did, then Richie still wanted to meet him there.

Eddie stroked his hands up against Richie’s chest, feeling how solid and real and unshakeable he was, feeling his lungs rise and fall. ‘You’re still waiting for me.’

Richie smiled, ‘I told you I could. You knew I would.’

’I couldn’t stay away from you long enough for you to stop,’ Eddie sighed. 

Swallowing, Richie decided, ‘I can wait as long as you’re fucking honest with me.’

‘That’s a problem,’ Eddie sighed. ‘I don’t even know when I’m being honest with you and when I’m not, because I don’t even know when I’m being honest with myself.’

Richie shook his head. ‘That’s not true. You know when you’re being honest. Sometimes you just need to force it out of yourself to see if it’s really right.’

Eddie thought about how he had declared to himself, and then to Richie, that he was gay, out loud. He’d needed to say it to know for sure. 

Richie watched a flicker of fear slash across his eyes, and his smile vanished. Unsteady, Eddie tried to settle himself, but couldn’t, muscles tensing sporadically in his thighs and shoulders.

‘What?’ Richie asked, worried.

Tremulously, Eddie opened his mouth, closed it, reopened it. Finally, he found the courage to whisper, ‘I like you, Rich.’

‘Fuck,’ Richie breathed, as though he was exhaling a cloud of toxic doubt. 

The emotion crowded into Eddie’s face and he inhaled raggedly. ‘Fuck.’

‘Really?’ Richie asked, but not because he didn’t believe it was true. He just wanted to hear it again, focus on each word in the sentence that tumbled from Eddie’s mouth, remember the inflection in his voice and the look in his eyes.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said quietly. ‘I like you. I really like you. A lot. Like that.’

‘Yeah?’

Tantalisingly passionately, deliciously, Eddie pressed his lips against Richie’s, knowing for the first time that he really did like him beyond the parts of him that were his friend and the parts of him that he could give to Eddie in the bedroom.

He didn’t know what these other parts were, where they sat inside Richie or what they looked like, but they had to be there, because Eddie’s heart was inscribing itself with Richie’s name, scarring into the muscle. 

After the kiss, Eddie drew him into a tight hug. ‘I’m so sorry.’

Prickling, anxious, Richie asked, ‘What for?’

‘Trying to leave,’ he said, looking over Richie’s shoulder. ‘Again. Like you mean nothing to me. You could never mean nothing to me.’ He closed his eyes, still struggling to truly be honest. ‘You mean so fucking much to me.’

Richie almost wanted to cry. He wanted to tell his parents. He wanted to run into the streets and holler at the houses. He wanted to break into Bev’s bedroom window and tell her everything. He wanted to gather the Losers in the clubhouse and tell them the story. He wanted a parade and banners and balloons.

‘Does that mean you’re not leaving?’ Richie asked hopefully.

Eddie kissed the crook of his neck, then his jaw, his cheek and finally, his lips. ‘If you still want me to stay.’

Richie beamed and kissed him again, blissful. ‘Fuck yes. Please stay. Stay forever.’

Rolling his eyes, Eddie chided, ‘You really don’t do aloof, do you?’

‘Nope,’ Richie grinned. ‘I’m obsessed with you. I’m not ashamed to admit that.’

‘You’re an idiot,’ Eddie said gently.

Richie crashed their lips together with such force that Eddie almost fell over. He snorted with laughter and grabbed at Richie’s shirt to balance himself, then kissed him as best as he could through his grin.

‘I am so glad you came over,’ Richie gushed.

Eddie flicked his eyes towards the door, ‘Shall we go to bed?’

Richie smirked at him, ‘Yes. Let’s go to bed.’

Chapter Text

The alarm rattled tunelessly next to Richie’s head. His eyes opened, vision blurry, head aching. He leaned to hit snooze, but as he did, he felt the dead weight wrapped around his waist to shift to grip him tighter.

‘Morning,’ Richie greeted, smiling to himself, and he heard Eddie groan behind him. ‘I have to get up for work.’

‘Right this second?’ Eddie grumbled, dotting kisses up the slope of Richie’s shoulder.

Richie sighed and wriggled out of Eddie’s embrace, which made him whine sadly, but then he rolled over to face him.

‘Stay with me,’ Eddie requested, locking Richie’s gaze.

Humming, Richie grazed his hand up Eddie’s arm. ‘I can be five minutes late,’ he supposed, then kissed him.

‘Whoa. Your breath,’ Eddie sniggered.

‘Yours too.’

Eddie kissed him through their mutual laughter. ‘I like waking up with you.’

Richie hauled him closer, ‘That’s because you like me.’

‘You’re gonna say that a lot, aren’t you?’ Eddie rolled his eyes.

‘Whenever I get the opportunity,’ Richie affirmed.

Eddie smiled, ‘I do like you.’ Saying it made him shiver. He detracted from it by jesting, ‘God knows why.’

‘My roguish charm and good looks, obviously,’ Richie snorted, his heart fluttering to hear Eddie admit it once more.

‘No, don’t think that’s it,’ Eddie denied.

Richie’s jaw dropped. ‘Oh, how you wound me.’

‘That was too easy,’ Eddie scoffed.

He cocked an eyebrow, ‘Want me to make things harder for you?’

Eddie growled, ‘Depends what you mean by that.’

Richie kissed him heatedly. Eddie’s arms slid around his back, nails digging into the skin.

The alarm went off again and they both grunted with displeasure.

‘I really should get up now,’ Richie sighed.

‘When do you get off?’

‘Most nights and most mornings, if I’m honest,’ Richie shrugged.

Eddie hit him, but he couldn’t help a laugh, ‘Off work, asshole.’

‘Want to see me again so soon?’ Richie dragged his nose against Eddie’s, and pressed their lips together impatiently.

‘That a problem?’ Eddie’s hands glided down Richie’s front.

‘No, sir,’ Richie huffed, tingling. ‘But I am working a double shift so I won’t get out of there until midnight.’

‘Oh,’ he pouted.

‘I have to work, darling, so I can buy you pretty things,’ Richie said, in a mock plummy accent.

‘Fuck off,’ Eddie grimaced.

‘If you insist.’ He pried from Eddie’s grasp and pulled himself to sit on the edge of the bed, stretching his arms out to the side until his back clicked.

Eddie watched him with shameless indulgence, the blades in his bare back and the tendons in his arms, the knots in his dark hair and the ragged edges of his nails.

‘When am I next seeing you then?’ Eddie asked, sitting up behind Richie and kissing the nape of his neck, wrapping his arms around his waist.

‘I’ve missed you asking me that,’ Richie gushed, craning around enough that Eddie could press his lips to the corner of Richie’s mouth.

Unsatisfied, Eddie shifted around to straddle Richie on the edge of the bed, rocking his hips up against him, draping his arms around Richie’s neck.

Richie danced his fingers over the marks he’d left on Eddie’s skin the night before, and was glad that Eddie would have a scarf to wear home. Still, seeing the red and purplish bruises there sent a sharp jolt through him, just knowing that he had made them, that Eddie had let him make them, that his teeth had sunk into Eddie’s flesh and his mouth had suckled around him, that he knew the taste of Eddie’s skin, that he heard the whimpers skirt past Eddie’s lips into his ear, hot and pleading.

Now, Eddie was astride him, unclad and uninhibited, it seemed, as his lips pushed hard against Richie’s and his back arched so keenly at Richie’s touch.

‘I wish we could stay here all day,’ Eddie hummed, and Richie only grew hotter.

‘Oh yeah?’ Richie asked. ‘But what could we possibly do for all that time?’

Eddie tugged at Richie’s lip with his teeth. ‘Sounds like you’re underestimating me.’

‘In imagination or stamina?’ Richie taunted.

Eddie laughed, ‘Both.’

‘You’re fucking worse than I am sometimes, you know that?’ Richie snarled.

Quivering, Eddie kissed him, wondering if that was really true. Richie certainly did awake something carnal and urgent in him; that had been evident from early on, even from that first kiss.

Sliding off Richie’s lap to kneel on the floor between Richie’s legs, Eddie huffed, ‘You bring it out in me.’

Richie wanted to hear that again. The thought was intoxicating. Almost as intoxicating as the image which lay before him, or the sensation which Eddie ushered into him with just a few strokes of his hands and flicks of the tongue.

‘Fuck, Eddie, and you dared to even ask for me to try and get over you,’ Richie shook his head, hands balling into fists around the bedsheets, staring down at Eddie with besotted desire.

Eddie snapped his eyes up to look at him and Richie almost lost it then and there, stifling a telling cry. The knot inside him threaded tighter when he noticed Eddie’s hand going to work on himself as he pleased Richie, and he slumped backwards onto the duvet once it was close to breaking, palms pushed up against his forehead.

There was a rap at the bedroom door and the boys leapt apart from one another, scrambling for underwear and pyjamas.

‘Richie, love,’ Maggie called from the other side of the door. ‘Don’t forget you have work today.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ Richie squeaked, indescribably glad that she hadn’t walked in, staring at Eddie’s marked neck, the slick shine on his reddened lips, the tent in his pyjamas.

Eddie’s heart pounded ferociously, terrified at what might have happened should Maggie have caught them in such a compromising embrace. He imagined her shock, her denial, her anger; the fire raging behind her usually kind eyes, the verdigris of her disgust plaguing sallow cheeks as she cast Eddie out into the cold. He dreaded to think what she or Went might do to Richie as punishment: would confession and Hail Marys suffice? He wondered whether the Toziers would call his own mother, how she would react to the news that her son had been found with another boy. He wondered if he would ever, ever be allowed to see Richie again. Unlikely.

‘Do you think she heard us?’ Eddie whispered as they heard Maggie’s footsteps descend the staircase.

Richie shook his head, ‘Don’t think so, but that was a close one.’

Eddie rubbed his eyes. ‘Do you remember that time that Bill told us he was caught with Beverly in his room?’

She’d not been wearing much of anything, and nor had he. The Denbrough parents had flipped their lids, ostracising Beverly for months and grounding Bill for almost as long. They were a straight couple, a couple who were only doing what was expected of them, a couple that everyone could know existed, that everyone could suspect did such things, even if they didn’t see it.

‘I remember,’ Richie said quietly.

Eddie winced, ‘If even they have to be scared, what fucking chance do we have?’

Richie went to him and threw his arms around Eddie’s shoulders. ‘Hey, don’t think like that, okay? Everyone else: they’re the ones who have it wrong. Bill and Bev: we’re just like them.’

‘But we aren’t,’ Eddie frowned, then kissed him. ‘God, I wish we were, but we’re not.’

‘Maybe in another fucking universe we could be,’ Richie said, tasting himself in Eddie’s kiss. ‘Or maybe things will change. Maybe one day we could tell everyone.’

Eddie whispered disbelievingly, ‘Maybe.’

Richie could hear the defeated doubt in his voice, and met his gaze. ‘Stranger things have happened, Eds. Stranger things have happened to us.’

‘Yeah, strange things have happened to us,’ Eddie acknowledged. ‘Because we’re strange, Rich. All of us Losers: we’re all fucking strange. That’s what makes us who we are and that’s why shit happens to us that doesn’t happen to everyone else.’

‘It’s not our fault that everyone else is fucking boring,’ he joked.

Eddie murmured, ‘Or maybe we just make things harder for ourselves.’

‘No. Nope, nope,’ Richie’s fists clenched, heart clambering up into his throat. ‘Do not do this to me, Eddie. Not after last night.’

‘Whoa, whoa,’ Eddie held his hands up in surrender, eyes widening. ‘Do what?’

Richie tensed, ‘Talk like you’re gonna leave again.’

‘I’m fine,’ Eddie promised, shock percolating through the gentle tone of his voice. Approaching him slowly, carefully, he said, ‘I’m here. I’m here, Rich. I’m not going anywhere.’

Richie let Eddie’s hands run up his arms gently, then exhaled. ‘Okay. Okay, sorry. It just sounded like —‘

‘I’m not leaving,’ Eddie said steadily, then kissed him. ‘But you need to if you’re going to get to work on time.’ He smiled softly.

Richie kissed him again, more intensely, feeling Eddie submit into him, pressing their chests flush together. ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?’

‘Sure,’ Eddie said. He jerked his head to the door. ‘Now go brush your teeth.’

He went.

Eddie stared at the threshold, and his heart rate slowed. ‘Fucking hell,’ he whispered to himself.

Fear had risen up and crippled Richie so rapidly, fear that Eddie would just turn around and change his mind in a matter of seconds, that one slightly pessimistic turn of phrase was all that it might take for Eddie to leave, even after Eddie had given himself to Richie so freely. A few negative words and Richie had spiralled, assuming the worst.

Eddie furrowed his brow. He wanted to be honest with Richie, but just because he now knew that he liked him and they were rekindling whatever it was that stoked between them, didn’t mean that Eddie had worked through all the darkness in his head and heart. Still, he didn’t want to give Richie palpitations every time he shared how he really felt, shared the thoughts which swept through his mind. He wasn’t fickle; it just took him longer to organise his mind. That was why he liked to order the world around him, so that it might distract from the chaos of his own inner workings.

Raking a hand through his hair, he pondered whether it could be possible to both reassure Richie and be open with him. He groaned; it had already been a heavy start to the day, and he and Richie needed to talk, but Richie had to work.

When Richie left, Eddie went home.

‘Mom, do you mind if I play a little?’ he asked as he came into the living room.

Sonia heaved herself out of the armchair with great effort. ‘Alright, but not too long.’

Eddie sat down at the piano and skated his hands over the keys. Without much hesitation, he began to play, and then he began to sing.

So true funny how it seems

Always in time, but never in line for dreams

Eddie thought about Richie. On one hand, things between them were still so discordant. Richie was dangerously in love with him, and while Eddie knew he liked Richie, and liked him a lot, he still felt that there was a gap between them, a gap he had to close. Not to mention that they were still two boys, and two boys had no place loving or liking each other in Derry.

Head over heels when toe to toe

This is the sound of my soul

This is the sound

On the other hand, things were perfectly in tune; they both liked each other, they both knew that the other liked them back, they were close enough friends that they could cover their tracks without much effort. The fact they were friends at all, that they had met each other, found each other, was some miraculous twist of fate in itself.

I bought a ticket to the world

But now I've come back again

If the world was where Richie wasn’t, then that was where Eddie had tried to go when he left him. A world where he could look like he was normal, where he could fit in, even if he knew he was different in invisible ways. But he couldn’t stay there, couldn’t exist in the world that way, because it was a world without the real Richie, and a world without Richie was profoundly uninteresting to Eddie.

Why do I find it hard to write the next line?

Oh, I want the truth to be said

Eddie felt like there was more truth inside him that he couldn’t see or hear just yet, clouded over with doubts and fears and lies to himself. Richie brought out the truth in him, made something ring inside him, cry out, and Eddie hadn’t wanted to listen to it, not until now. If he was coming back to Richie, then he had to open his eyes and ears completely, wholly.

I know this much is true

I know this much is true

Terrifying. Objectively terrifying. By staying the night with Richie, he felt like he’d inadvertently promised him all the things that he hadn’t been able to give him before. He liked him. He knew he liked him. That was wonderful and new, but that might mean that Richie now thought Eddie was ready to be in a relationship with him, ready to call Richie something other than a friend, ready to fall in love with him.

With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue

Dissolve the nerves that have just begun

For a brief moment, Eddie considered that maybe he was ready for those things, and as soon as he did, he felt nauseous. He wasn’t sure if it was nausea because he was ready or because he wasn’t, and it was equally likely to be either.

Listening to Marvin all night long

This is the sound of my soul

This is the sound

Whether ready or not, Eddie did realise that whatever assurance he did try to give Richie couldn’t come solely physically. Richie needed words; he’d always needed words, an unequivocal confirmation of how things really were. It made life complicated for Eddie, who had never understood the world that way. Eddie understood it through touch, through a burn in his lungs or ice in his heart, a parch on his tongue or an ache in his gut, sweat on his skin or a bolt through his spine, through a kiss on his lips or a scar on his palm.

Always slipping from my hands

Sand's a time of its own

Yet Eddie also understood the world in a way that Richie did, in a measure of time. Nothing had meant more to Richie than the time which Eddie had found for them, the time which he had created,  slowed and stopped for them. The time where they could just be together, without veneers or walls, where Eddie’s fears shrank and Richie’s masks fell away. Such precious time: stolen moments and fragile secrets. If Eddie didn’t have the words, if Eddie’s touches weren’t received with the meaning with which they were given, then he would find the time again.

Take your seaside arms and write the next line

Oh, I want the truth to be known

Eddie tried to convince himself that it might be enough, that if he and Richie settled back into their old routine that perhaps Richie would wait a while longer to ask the questions he so desperately wanted certain answers to. He tried to believe that things could be the same, could be as they were, as though there wasn’t so much more weight tied to a second chance. A last chance, Eddie both hoped and feared. Hoped for Richie’s sake, and feared for his own.

I know this much is true

I know this much is true

Eddie hoped because he wanted Richie to be safe. He couldn’t stand the thought of Richie being hurt, less still the thought of being the one that hurt him. His face contorted as he recalled Richie’s confession the night before: that Eddie had broken his heart when he left the first time. Could he really have broken his heart? He’d tried so hard not to, tried to make it gentle and easy and have it all make sense. Then again, his own heart didn’t much listen to logic. His heart listened to Richie.

I bought a ticket to the world

But now I've come back again

If the world was where Richie wasn’t, then Richie was both Eddie’s home and his forbidden planet. He was comfortingly familiar and constantly surprising, his safe space and his wildest fantasies, the only thing he’d ever really wanted and what he’d never dared dream he could explore. Richie was a world all of Eddie’s own.

Why do I find it hard to write the next line?

Oh, I want the truth to be said

Last time, Eddie had believed that he had the choice to come and go as he pleased, but that belief had disintegrated. The choice now that he landed once more on forbidden soil was to either stay or take a one-way ticket back, leave this home they’d built forever, never to return. Eddie wasn’t sure whether home was something he’d built with Richie or that existed in Richie, or both, or neither, or if it mattered.

I know this much is true

I know this much is true

Nevertheless, as he played the piano in the forgotten corner of his living room, he knew that he wasn’t home, and that there was nowhere that he would rather be than with Richie. He didn’t care whether that was to have Richie here, chin in his hands as he watched Eddie play, or whether that was to be in Richie’s bed as they had been this morning, or to slump in the hammock across from him as they had done for so many years. He just wanted him around, needed to be with him, know that he could go to him, come home to him.

This much is true

This much is true

I know this much is true

Eddie played on, thinking things over, planning and plotting, deciphering and decoding. All such things were easier when Richie was in front of him, when he could look into his eyes and see the devotion woven so intricately into each iris, when he could hear his voice and listen to every string being plucked in his heart, when he could hold him and feel the longing eke out of each pore of his skin.

This much is true

This much is true

Eddie drew the song to its close, looping the chorus over and over until the dull pain throbbed in his once broken wrist and he had to stop. He looked at the time. He had a few hours to get his homework done, and then he would be free to do as he pleased. An idea prickled into his mind and made his heart stutter, which he could only take to be a sign that it was a good one.

 

—— 

 

Richie was bussing tables at the end of the lunch shift, singing idly along to Romeo’s Tune as it played over the tannoy ambience. Singing made him feel better usually, but his stomach was in tatters as he’d realised where he was with Eddie.

Meet me in the middle of the day

Let me hear you say everything's okay

Bring me southern kisses from your room

He was right back where he had been, before Eddie had left.

When Eddie had told Richie that he liked him, Richie had been over the moon, and his brain had absorbed this new information as though it was a legitimately new development, only it wasn’t. It wasn’t new.

Meet me in the middle of the night

Let me hear you say everything's alright

Let me smell the moon in your perfume

Eddie had liked him before he’d ended things, and he’d ended things anyway, which was playing tricks with Richie’s head and heart. He couldn’t understand why Eddie would choose to leave him behind if he’d developed feelings for him; surely that was what Eddie had been waiting for all along?

Oh, Gods and years will rise and fall

And there's always something more

It's lost in talk, I waste my time

And it's all been said before

Richie wanted Eddie back. He wanted Eddie how they’d been this morning, waking up together, husky voices and sleepy kisses and easy repartee. Yet part of him knew that having Eddie back wouldn’t and couldn’t be sunshine and roses. After all, Eddie had tried to leave again just the night before. Something in him didn’t want to be with Richie, and it was killing Richie to know that.

While further down behind the masquerade the tears are there

I don't ask for all that much I just want someone to care

That’s right now

Richie didn’t want to lose Eddie again so quickly by asking him to define their relationship to each other, but he didn’t want to make the same mistakes as he had before. His gut wrenched as he realised both options seemed to lead to the same conclusion: Eddie leaving, and Richie’s heart breaking for a second time.

It's king and queen and we must go down now beyond the chandelier

Where I won't have to speak my mind and you won't have to hear

Eddie was worth it, no matter how long or short it lasted; Richie would let Eddie break his heart a dozen times if it meant he got to be with him eleven times in between. It didn’t mean he was looking forward to it. He didn’t think it would hurt any less the second time or the fifth or the ninth. In fact, it might hurt more.

Shreds of news and afterthoughts and complicated scenes

We'll huddle down behind the light and fade like magazines

The problem was that Eddie made him happier than anyone else, just as he could make him sadder, angrier, more confused and more frustrated than anyone else too. Eddie made him happier and kinder and more peaceful and more curious. Eddie made him see the everyday miracles, made him see everyone else in a better light, made him think that the world couldn’t be such a bad place. 

Oh now, meet me in the middle of the day

Let me hear you say everything's okay

Let me see you smiling back at me

It even made him more grateful for the bad things which had happened to him, because it was time he had spent with Eddie, grown with Eddie, learned with Eddie. It had all led him to Eddie. Eddie was knitted into the fabric of his skin and buried in the marrow of his bones and he almost felt as though he couldn’t live without him, like Eddie pumped oxygen into the room and let him breathe.

Hey, meet me in the middle of the night

Let me hear you say everything's alright

Hold me tight and love and loving's free

The way he loved Eddie Kaspbrak gave Eddie more power over him than he could even fathom for another person to have, an unconditional love. Did Eddie know that he wielded such power? Did Eddie know just how much he could abuse it? Not that Eddie would abuse it, not intentionally anyway. Eddie did care about him. Eddie did care. Eddie did. Eddie.

‘Eddie?’ Richie spluttered, almost dropping his tray full of empty glasses.

‘Hey,’ Eddie waved feebly.

Richie looked over his shoulders, as though expecting someone else to be standing there. ‘What are you doing here?’

Eddie hunched his shoulders awkwardly. ‘Came to see you.’

Laying his tray down, Richie raised an eyebrow at him, ‘You hate this place. You’re always complaining about the health code violations.’

‘Yeah,’ Eddie sneered, looking down his nose. ‘So we won’t eat here. No offence.’

‘Eat?’ Richie quizzed.

‘You get about an hour between the lunch and dinner shifts, don’t you?’ Eddie shuffled, hands stuffed in his pockets.

Richie nodded, ‘Yeah, I do. I don’t really have time to go home though.’

‘I know. You’ve got time to eat. Thought I’d come join you. Taco place round the corner is meant to be really good.’

‘It is good,’ Richie stammered, surprised.

‘Well, I’ll wait outside until you finish up and then we can go.’ Eddie smiled at him, then turned on his heels and pushed back out into the open air.

Richie was flustered, blushing uncontrollably. He broke into a nervous, flattered smile and returned his tray to the kitchens, before untying his apron.

‘I’ll be back in an hour,’ he hollered to the head waiter, then scurried out of the kitchen exit. On the side of the building, he paused and leaned up against the wall.

His heart was rioting inside him and he was trying to figure out why. After all, he and Eddie had spent countless days and nights alone together. This felt different somehow; Eddie seeking him out in the middle of the day, surprising him at work, going out of his way to this far side of the town just to spend an hour or so with him, and in public at that, and inviting him out for something to eat, suggesting a restaurant. It had all the earmarks of being a date.

They’d never done that before. Never ever. And it was Eddie’s idea.

Richie removed his glasses and rubbed at the pinch marks on the bridge of his nose. He had to be exaggerating, inflating his own expectations, making assumptions.

‘Rich?’

He jumped and crammed his glasses back onto his face. ‘Hi!’ he greeted, too brightly.

‘You okay?’ Eddie asked, flicking his eyes up and down Richie’s lanky frame.

‘Yeah,’ Richie said, but his voice cracked.

Eddie glimpsed over his shoulders to see if anyone had spotted him slip down the alleyway at the side of the restaurant, and satisfied that they hadn’t, went closer to Richie and lightly pressed their lips together. ‘You ready?’

‘Sure,’ Richie said.

‘Come on then, Trashmouth,’ Eddie grinned. ‘Food’s on me.’

’But I am the working man here,’ Richie protested, settling himself as he started to stride. 

‘Are you saying no to a free taco?’ Eddie blinked at him.

‘Just one? That’s all I get free?’ 

’With this attitude,’ Eddie teased.

’Tacos sound good,’ Richie smiled.

Eddie smiled back at him. 

As they walked, Richie hummed absentmindedly to himself.

Eddie recognised the song and, without thinking, started to sing under his breath. 

Meet me in the middle of the day

Let me hear you say everything's okay

Let me see you smiling back at me.

 

Chapter Text

Eddie was in bed. He kept replaying the look on Richie’s face when he’d come to the restaurant, such gorgeous surprise. Then Richie hiding himself down the alleyway, chest inflating and deflating, glasses in his hands, how he looked when he was adorably nervous.

After Eddie kissed him, Richie had relaxed, and the tacos really had been delicious. An hour was too short a time, but they’d laughed almost constantly, so it had been worth it. They stole another kiss in the alleyway, and Richie had gone back to work with a great, beaming smile on his face.

Eddie came home feeling lighter, satisfied. He’d been able to show Richie that he cared about him, that he wanted to see him, that he wasn’t leaving, without having to say such things in so many words. Curling onto his side, he was ready for a decent night’s sleep.

There was a clatter, and a muffled, ‘Son of a bitch!’ from the window.

Eddie shot up. ‘Not again,’ he mumbled.

Sure enough, there was Richie pressed up against the glass, fingertips gripping the peeling frame, glasses askew. He smiled crookedly at Eddie.

Darting a glance at his bedroom door, Eddie climbed out of bed and went to the window, heaving it open. ‘Rich, we’ve talked about this. Midnight window visits are too risky.’

‘Wanted to see you,’ Richie said, grinning as he clambered into the room. Adjusting his glasses, he added, ‘Squirrel in your tree was not happy about it.’

Eddie closed the window. ‘You only saw me a few hours ago.’

‘Didn’t stop you coming to see me at work today,’ Richie reminded.

‘My mother was not asleep in the neighbouring bar,’ Eddie hissed, chopping through the air.

Richie grabbed his hand and pulled him into a kiss, which Eddie fell into helplessly. Hastily, Eddie started to tug at Richie’s shirt hem with one hand and his belt buckle with the other.

‘Well, hello to you too,’ Richie chuckled into the kiss.

Only grunting in response, Eddie clawed at Richie’s clothes until he received the assistance necessary to remove them. Though it wasn’t his agency, it didn’t take much for Richie to lose himself in the moment, loosening Eddie’s pyjamas.

Richie started, ‘It was only this morning that we —‘

‘Got interrupted,’ Eddie finished, pushing Richie towards the bed.

‘You’re one to talk,’ Richie noted, collapsing onto the mattress. The duvet puffed out on either side of his body like ocean foam.

Eddie huffed, ‘Like you ever shut up.’

‘You can beep-beep me again now,’ Richie said carefully, removing his glasses.

‘Oh, can I?’ Eddie pinned his arms either side of Richie’s shoulders.

Richie licked his lower lip, ‘And I wouldn’t hate it if we were able to “fuck off” together again.’

‘I wouldn’t hate that either,’ Eddie agreed. He lowered his lips to Richie’s throat, dusting kisses lightly over the skin.

‘Eddie?’ Richie squeaked anxiously, pawing a hand through Eddie’s hair to encourage him to stop.

Reluctantly, Eddie raised his head and frowned. He glanced down the narrow gap between their bodies and concluded, ‘This isn’t why you’re here, is it?’

Richie shook his head.

‘You want to talk,’ Eddie elaborated.

Richie nodded.

With a sigh, Eddie climbed off him. Pulling the duvet over them both, he said, ‘You know you can just tell me that, Rich.’

Coughing awkwardly, Richie admitted, ‘It’s telling myself that’s the problem.’

Smirking in an attempt to conceal his burgeoning concerns, Eddie turned to face him. ‘What is it?’

Mirroring him, Richie rolled onto his side, just close enough that Eddie’s face was in focus without his glasses. Already growing emotional, due to fatigue and fear and doubt, Richie almost told Eddie to forget the whole thing, so that he could kiss him, hold him and touch him like he wanted to do forever.

‘You look scared,’ Eddie whispered, almost inaudibly.

As soon as Eddie said this, Richie’s mask instinctively came down, and he smiled, eyes flashing. ‘I’m fine.’

Eddie eyed him suspiciously, hating to see Richie disappear on him; he didn’t do that when they were alone, not anymore. ‘Go on,’ he urged.

Unsure how to begin, Richie said, ‘It was good seeing you earlier.’

Smiling, Eddie’s stomach fluttered, ‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah,’ Richie assured, hand sliding around Eddie’s waist. ‘Seemed like you wanted to see me just because you wanted to see me.’

Perplexed, Eddie said, ‘Of course I wanted to see you.’

‘No, I mean,’ he struggled, scanning over their bodies, ‘you couldn’t have this, but you still came to see me.’

‘Well, yeah,’ Eddie scoffed. ’What’s your point?’

Richie pursed his lips, unsure how to explain himself without using certain words which might make Eddie nervous, trigger his fear. Carefully, he said, ‘Well, it didn’t feel like you came to see me as a friend either.’

Understanding, Eddie pressed their lips together. As they snapped apart, he whispered, ‘I didn’t.’

Richie nearly squealed. He hadn’t been over-exaggerating. Still, he felt he needed to ask, ‘So, if you didn’t come to see me as a friend, then,’ he felt Eddie tense up underneath his hands, ‘what did you come to see me as?’

Eddie tried to kiss him as he joked, ‘As your neighbourhood health inspector.’

Leaning away, Richie smiled but stopped Eddie’s lips from meeting his. ‘Come on, Eds.’

Sighing, Eddie flicked his gaze away. ‘This again.’

‘Yeah, this again,’ Richie mocked.

Narrowing his eyes, Eddie glared back at him. The words again; always the words. The words Eddie didn’t have, the words he couldn’t say.

‘Why does this bother you so much?’ Richie asked, his voice small.

‘Why does what bother me so much?’

‘Putting a label on this. On us.’

Eddie groaned, ‘Why does there have to be one? You know I like you. You know I don’t see you just as a friend. You know that there is an us and that I want an us and that I want you. Isn’t that the stuff that matters?’

Richie didn’t have time to contradict him.

‘Labels suck,’ Eddie spat. ‘All my life; it’s just been labels. You can have this. You can’t have this. This will kill you. This won’t. This is real. This is fake. Twice a day. Once a month. Use when needed. I’m sick of them. Sick of the rules and needing to know the exact fucking ingredients. It’s so fucking rigid.’

‘You label yourself though,’ Richie countered.

‘You don’t.’

Clenching his jaw, Richie grumbled, ‘That’s not fair. I don’t know the word for what I am. You have one.’

Eddie nodded, ‘Yeah, and I hate the word. I hate it. I hate it so much that I can count on one hand how many times I’ve even been able to say it out loud. It makes me feel so fucking trapped. Like I’m crammed into a box.’

‘Is that how I make you feel too?’ Richie asked, voice trembling. ‘Trapped?’

‘No,’ Eddie said instinctively, but then his voice caught.

‘Fuck,’ Richie winced. ‘Is it?’

Eddie shook his head solemnly. ‘No. Not normally. But right now, or whenever you ask me that stuff, then yeah, I do feel a bit trapped.’

‘Why?’ Richie asked, face contorting, trying to delete this memory.

Eddie writhed, ‘Because somehow it’s only my decision what’s on the fucking label.’

‘Because we both know damn well what I want the label to be,’ Richie said, almost laughing with anxiety.

‘Do we?’ Eddie shrugged. ‘Rich, you never use the words either. It’s fucking pressuring watching you wait for me to use them.’

‘Well, I know that you’d freak out if I used them too soon,’ Richie defended.

Eddie shook his head, ‘You can’t even use them in a question, Rich. If you can’t even ask me using those words, then how can you expect me to answer with them?’

‘It just sounds like you’re deflecting, Eddie,’ Richie groaned. ‘Like you used to.’

‘I’m not deflecting,’ Eddie said, exasperated.

‘You are.’

‘You said you wanted me to be honest with you,’ Eddie reminded.

Richie nodded, ‘I do, but —‘

‘Well, that’s what I’m doing,’ Eddie sighed. ‘I’m trying to tell you the truth. For your sake and mine.’

‘Fine. Fine, Eddie. You win.’ Richie flopped back onto the pillow and stared up at the ceiling, unmoving and unsmiling.

Eddie propped himself up on his elbows. He was hurting Richie again, and he knew it. ‘It wasn’t supposed to be a competition.’

Richie tensed, ‘It feels like one.’

‘If it was, then we’re both Losers,’ Eddie jested gently. ‘We always have been.’

‘I’m tired of it,’ Richie admitted. ‘I wish we could be the fucking winners for a change.’

Eddie nudged him. ‘But you see, Rich? That’s what it comes down to. We either both win or we both lose.’

‘Feel like we have different ideas of what it means to win,’ Richie muttered.

Eddie smacked his lips together. His voice thick, he warned, ‘You need to stop thinking of me as some fucking prize. I’m not.’

Plaintive, he asked, ‘Then what are you?’

‘I’m your fucking teammate,’ Eddie said. ‘You don’t have to win me over. I’m already with you. It’s you and me. You and me against the fucking world.’

Richie twisted his lips. ‘You’re with me?’

‘Yeah, Rich,’ Eddie said quietly. ‘We‘re in this together, and we always have been. Maybe I couldn’t see that before, but we were and we are.’

Not willing to let himself be fooled by this, Richie recalled, ‘You’ve said that we‘re alone together. Now we’re in this together.’

‘What’s your point?’

Rolling onto his side to lock Eddie’s gaze, he asked bravely, ‘Why can’t we just say that we’re together?’

‘Would that make a difference?’ Eddie flicked his eyes away, squirming.

‘Yes,’ Richie said firmly.

Eddie thought about the first time Richie had told him that he loved him. He’d implied it before, Eddie had inferred it before, it had been mixed up and sandwiched in other sentiments and sentences, something known but not explicit. When he said, ‘I love you’, without the smoke and mirrors, that was when Eddie had really heard it, felt it, believed it. That was when it was real, and by God, it had felt good.

‘Fuck,’ Eddie mumbled. ‘You’re right. It does make a difference.’

Richie raised his eyebrows, a little surprised to have Eddie agree with him, but he didn’t smile. ‘Yeah, it does. Like it made a difference whether it was an experiment or a gamble.’

‘It’s always been a gamble.’

Richie scoffed sarcastically, ‘So, that’s it? Nothing’s changed and we’re exactly where we fucking were before?’

‘No,’ Eddie refuted. ‘It’s changed. It has.’

‘Alright,’ Richie sighed. ‘Enlighten me.’

Eddie lowered himself down onto the pillow and stared out over the expanse of his duvet. He imagined each of the peaks in the linen as mountains, ranges which swept on and on, a valley sweeping shallowly between him and Richie. Idly his hand smoothed the fabric down, until it met Richie’s in the middle, at the lowest point. Their fingers tangled together.

‘Maybe it’s still a gamble, but now we both know all too well what’s on the fucking line. We know how fucking high the stakes are, because we’ve already lost once. We lost and I broke your heart,’ Eddie’s breath hitched, his own heart splintering to acknowledge this fact out loud for the first time.

If he was honest with himself, Richie had barely even begun to put his heart back together. He didn’t dare expend the effort bandaging up his wounds, oiling the hinges in his valves and reinforcing the walls of his chambers, didn’t know how to let it heal, picking at the scabs and letting it infect itself, bleeding through his other organs, hurting.

‘We nearly lost everything,’ Eddie squeezed his hand, ‘but we still came back here, didn’t we? You could have thrown in the towel but you stayed and hoped that the odds would swing back in your favour and they have. I tried to walk away but I am right back at that fucking table and I want to play and I’m all fucking in.’ He gushed, ‘I’m all in, alright?’

Richie’s tattered heart stilted arrhythmically, ‘All in?’

‘You’ve been right in the past to try and make me think, Rich,’ Eddie admitted, ‘but sometimes I still have to listen to my fucking gut. Sometimes I have to jump. Sometimes I have to let myself —‘

‘Make mistakes,’ Richie finished.

‘Plural,’ Eddie agreed, the corner of his mouth pulling upwards. ‘Or if not make mistakes then, at least, take risks. Not everything is always going to make sense. Trying to make sense of it gets me so wrapped up in myself. Although we might have always been in this together, I’ve been making it all about me, as you rightly called out.’

‘How did that even happen?’ Richie asked, nostrils flaring. ‘How could we do this and you not realise that I was fucking part of it?’

‘Because you were making it all about me too,’ Eddie grimaced. ‘Or at least letting it be all about me. You were willing to let me hurt you and break you if it meant you even got a piece of what you wanted.’

Richie sat up. ‘Maybe,’ he whispered.

‘But I think that’s changed too,’ Eddie said. ‘You’re here and asking me this shit because you’re actually fucking looking out for yourself for once. I came to meet you at work today because I wanted to do something for you, something that I wouldn’t have done before, because I want to be better. Maybe I don’t know how to be, but I’m trying. I want to fucking deserve it even though I don’t yet.’

A worry line slicing through his brow, Richie checked, ‘Hang on. You don’t deserve what?’

Eddie hunched his shoulders, embarrassed and vulnerable. ‘Any of it. This. Us. You.’

‘What?’

Defeated, Eddie rambled, ‘I don’t really deserve you. I’m not good at this, Richie. I’m no good. I’m confused and I’m confusing and I don’t give you what you want and I can’t promise I will. I want to be enough but I’ve never been enough. It’s not –’

‘Holy fucking shit,’ Richie locked his hands behind his head, eyes wide and alert.

‘What?’

It dawned on Richie, orange light flooding over him. ‘That’s what it’s all been fucking about. Fuck. It’s about me but not because you don’t want me. It’s because you think I shouldn’t want you.’

Slammed with memories, Richie’s conscious fired phrases smattered here and there, collected from a dozen conversations.

What I want fucking scares me. I really don’t want to be gay. I’m confused. I’m scared. I still think I’m sick. I don’t want to be like this. You like girls. I didn’t have any control. You’re not supposed to love me. You might meet someone who can give you fucking normal. I don’t know how to cope with any of this. I’m still addicted to this.

‘Oh, Eds, you still think you’re sick,’ Richie said quietly, reaching out to touch him, but not quite letting his hands settle.

A lump coagulated in Eddie’s throat and he twitched for an inhaler. He knew there was one in the bedside drawer.

‘You’re lost,’ Richie went on, ‘and you think you’re out of control and you still don’t think this is normal, that we’re normal, or that you’re normal.’

Eddie shrank into himself, away from the threat of his touch.

I am a fucking idiot. I’m such a mess. I was never any good. I’ll be less of a fucking dipshit. I’m shit at the verses. I’m a clean-freak, I’m a control-freak, I’ve always been a fucking Loser. You don’t actually think I’m cute. I am a stubborn asshole. Sorry for my shitty singing. I’m not that observant. I don’t know if I’ve ever been happy. I’m fucking selfish. I’m no good. I don’t love myself.

‘Christ, and you said last night that you don’t love yourself right now but I’m wondering whether you ever fucking have,’ Richie’s chest cavity buckled. ‘I’m not sure you even like yourself, let alone love yourself.’

Eddie couldn’t look at him, eyes glazing. ‘Yeah, well, who fucking loves themselves anyway?’

Eyes wide, Richie said, ‘You don’t know how to love yourself, so you don’t think you know how to love me either.’

‘Do you love yourself?’ Eddie spluttered.

‘No, but I know how to fucking love you, Eddie. I do,’ Richie vowed. ‘So you know how to love me. You do.’

‘I don’t,’ Eddie admitted, locking his gaze. ‘I have no idea how to love you, Richie.’

I can’t keep doing this to you. It’s not fair of me. You could be happy if I stopped fucking you around. I’m a jerk to you. I hurt you. I don’t deserve it. Think a lot of people would have given up on me. I’m sorry for making you feel like shit. It’s my fault. I need to get you out of this. I need to get you away from me. I got you out. I can’t have you.

‘That’s what it fucking is,’ Richie breathed, stunned. ‘Jesus Christ. All this time I thought you were searching for something that wasn’t there and wouldn’t admit you can’t find it. But you found it. You found it and it terrifies you. I knew you were scared but,’ he reeled, ‘you’re not scared that you can’t give me everything I want. You’re scared that you can. You don’t think you’ll do it right. You think you’ll fuck it up. You think you’ll hurt me.’

Eddie chewed his cheek, ‘All I did before was hurt you. Over and over again. I’ve been fucking bad for you, Rich.’

Why do you want this? Why do you love me? What did I do? What did I ever fucking do?

‘You haven’t been bad for me,’ Richie promised, and kissed him hard. ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.’

Eddie sniffed, ‘Then I’m sorry the rest of your life has been so fucking disappointing.’

You beginning to wonder if it’s worth it? It’s not enough. I’ve never been enough. I want to give you an out.

Richie translated, ‘You don’t think you’re worth my time. You’ve been trying to protect me from you because you don’t think you’re enough for me.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Why the fuck not?’ Richie furrowed his brow. ‘Eddie, you’re fucking great. You are my absolute favourite person in the world, the best fucking person I know and I’m never going to meet anyone that I like more than I like you.’

Eddie wrinkled his nose. ‘Rich, I know you think you mean those things you say to me, but I don’t know how to hear them. They don’t compute for me.’

Curious, nervous, Richie asked, ‘What do you mean?’

‘Please don’t take this the wrong way,’ Eddie begged. ‘Please.’

His stomach boiling, Richie said, ‘I’ll try not to.’

Eddie breathed slowly. ‘When you say that stuff, it makes me feel like you’ve fallen for some idealised version of me that I can’t possibly live up to, like you see me as some divine entity when I’m just a fucking neurotic Loser.’

‘You are not “just” anything,’ Richie countered.

‘Somehow,’ Eddie continued, spiralling into self-deprecation, ‘you think that I’m a thousand times more fucking special than I am, a thousand times more special than you are. But I categorically do not deserve you, Richie. I’m not fucking good enough for you and I have absolutely no fucking clue why you even like me, let alone love me.’

Ragged heart caged and furious, Richie felt it rapping at the insides of his ribcage, desperate to burst forth and climb down Eddie’s throat to sit in him forever. If Eddie could only feel the love in Richie for a second, he would never doubt it again.

Sighing through his nose, Richie thought.

‘Richie?’ Eddie asked tentatively.

There was a long silence. Then Richie raised his head and looked at Eddie, unsmiling, blue eyes dark and sage. ‘Okay,’ he said, preparing himself. He spoke huskily, ‘Eddie, you are not perfect. You are an asshole. You can be really fucking annoying. You’re stubborn as hell. You’re not good at talking about how you feel and you wash your hands too fucking much. And you should eat some goddamn Cheetos if you want Cheetos.’

‘I don’t want Cheetos,’ Eddie muttered.

Richie smiled at him knowingly. ‘Now me. I am also an asshole. I am also very annoying. I make too many jokes and put on too many voices. I’m pretty gross and I hide way too much of who I am from other people, and maybe you’re right that I could stand to look after myself a little more than I do.’

Eddie nodded. ‘Yeah, I’d say that’s fair.’

‘You like me anyway,’ Richie shrugged. ‘And I like you. You can be all of those things and still be my favourite person in the world, still be the best person I know, still be the person I like most. Hell, you need to be an asshole because I’m an asshole. There is no one I love annoying more than you, and you know you love annoying me too. I’m gross enough to prove that not everything is out to get you, and you’re clean enough to stop me from dying of dysentery.’

Eddie laughed, ‘Only just.’

Richie jostled him. ‘You don’t have to be perfect, Eds. You’re a frustrating, confusing, fascinating dipshit and I am a hopeless, chaotic, ridiculous fuckwit and we are perfect for each other.’

Half-smiling, Eddie asked, ‘Yeah?’

Drawing him into a kiss, Richie affirmed, ‘Yeah.’

Eddie enjoyed it as though he could taste Richie’s words on his tongue and decide their flavour. ‘Dipshit and fuckwit, huh?’ he repeated with a laugh.

‘The world’s fucking worst buddy cop duo,’ Richie snorted.

‘Nah,’ Eddie said, ‘we’re more like the budget version of Simon and Garfunkel.’

‘Freddie and Bowie,’ Richie corrected.

‘Sonny and Cher,’ Eddie chuckled.

‘You’re Cher,’ they said in unison, then both laughed, foreheads coming to rest against each other’s.

‘You know,’ Richie pouted, his eyes flicking between Eddie’s, ‘Sonny and Cher were a couple.’

Eddie blinked slowly, eyelashes dancing shadows on his cheeks. ‘Yeah, I know,’ he said warmly.

Richie bit his lip, anticipating, hoping.

‘You just need to hear certain things, don’t you?’ Eddie chided gently.

‘Yeah,’ Richie said hoarsely. ‘I think I do.’

Dragging his hand up to Richie’s neck, Eddie felt his mouth dry until his tongue felt like sandpaper rolled too large in his mouth. Quiet, he murmured, ‘You have to ask if you want me to answer.’

Richie clung to Eddie’s waist as though it were a life raft, the only thing keeping him afloat. ‘Shit, okay.’ He puffed his cheeks, exhaled, and declared, ‘Eddie, I want to be together. I want us to be a couple. I want,’ he stammered, ‘I want to be your fucking boyfriend.’

‘Boyfriend?’ Eddie huffed. ‘Fuck.’

‘Shit. Fuck.’ Richie sputtered, fingers gripping into Eddie’s skin until it went white with the pressure. ‘Too much.’

Eddie looked at his face, at the complete devotion so evidently displayed there, the love which flushed into his cheeks and plumped his lips and shimmered in his eyes, as though it was all but inevitable that it would fall out of him and into Eddie. It was love Eddie wanted, needed, craved and that Richie really believed he deserved. Maybe one day, he could believe that too. Maybe.

‘You win, Richie,’ Eddie said gently, brushing their noses together.

‘What?’

Eddie was measured, carefully listening to his own body’s response to each word he spoke. ‘We’re together.’ He couldn’t help but tense as the unexpected joy fizzed inside him, like unopened champagne. ‘We’re a couple. So, you win.’

‘I win?’ Richie mouthed to himself, then his brow furrowed. ‘But, no. No, you said it’s not supposed to be a competition between us.’

‘It’s not,’ Eddie said, letting the happiness break over his face in a smile. ‘I win too.’

Richie rolled his eyes and grinned with relief, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, Eddie. Why would you do that to me? You’re gonna kill me one of these days.’

‘Got to keep you on your toes,’ Eddie said, and kissed him.

‘Are we really together then?’ Richie queried excitedly. ‘That’s what you want?’

Eddie took a moment, then nodded. ‘Yes. That’s what I want. If I’m really what you still want.’

‘Of course you fucking are,’ Richie kissed his cheeks.

‘Then I want to be together. I want,’ he realised suddenly, beautifully, ‘to be your fucking boyfriend.’

‘Boyfriend?’ Richie felt like he must have misheard.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie said, smirking to himself giddily. ‘Fucking hell. Didn’t expect that, but yeah.’

Richie smacked his lips together, ‘What do you mean you didn’t expect that?’

‘Jump,’ Eddie admitted. ‘Gamble.’

‘Well, I’m fucking glad it paid off!’ Richie exclaimed. ‘Christ.’

Cocking an eyebrow, Eddie snarled, ‘I do know how to put you through the fucking ringer, don’t I?’

Richie stared at him, at the boy he’d obsessed over since he was prepubescent, the boy he’d called his best friend for so long, the boy who was now, somehow, his first and only boyfriend.

‘I love you, Eds.’

‘Fuck,’ Eddie cracked. ‘I really missed hearing that.’

Pulling him closer, Richie teased, ‘Do you want me to say it again?’

Heatedly, Eddie kissed him. ‘Think that trashmouth of yours can be put to even better use.’

‘Oh, I like that look on your face, Eduardo,’ Richie chuckled darkly, hauling himself on top of him.

‘Call me Eduardo again and I swear it’ll disappear.’

‘Spagheduardo doesn’t have the same ring to it,’ he mused, latching onto Eddie’s collar.

Eddie warned, ‘Last chance, Trashmouth.’

‘God, I love it when you’re all bossy,’ he snickered, scrambling his fingers at Eddie’s ribs, which made him yelp.

‘Yeah?’ Eddie raised his eyebrows suggestively. ‘Want me to tell you what to do?’

‘Yes, please.’ Richie said, then giggled.

Eddie gawped at him. ‘The fuck was that noise?’

‘Oh, leave me alone,’ Richie whined, then dotted a series of kisses up Eddie’s neck. ‘I’m so happy.’

With a firm, perfect kiss, Eddie hummed his agreement. ‘Me too.’

‘Yeah?’ Richie stared at him.

‘Yeah,’ Eddie confirmed. ‘I’m really fucking happy.’