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Eddie’s never wondered at the fact that he’s never considered girls the way all of his friends do. He just quietly observes it, makes note of it, and focuses on other things, figures maybe he just doesn’t have that gene, the crush gene, the attraction gene, the sexual desire gene--whatever gene makes Richie secretly flick through his Dad’s Playboy stash whenever his parents aren’t home.

Then there’s Ralph Macchio. Eddie’d missed The Karate Kid when it first came out (his mom worried it’d be too violent; after all, the word “karate” was in the title), so Bill, Stan, and Richie are eager to make him watch it at a sleepover at Bill’s house when they’re in sixth grade. By the famous wax on, wax off scene, he's hooked--but there’s something else underneath that enjoyment, too, a fizzy little pleasure. He finds his gaze locked on Ralph Macchio, his cute accent, floppy brown hair, pouty bottom lip. He feels something that he can’t put into words. That he doesn’t have words for.

He won’t shut up about the movie for hours afterward, until Stan is shoving the VHS tape into Eddie’s grabby hands with a weary plea of, “Can we please play Zelda now?”

Eddie never gives Stan’s copy back to him. He spends the next several weeks wearing the VHS down until the static is so bad it’s unwatchable, and then to the point where it just doesn’t play at all anymore. His VCR gives a pathetic click-click-click and just gives up, spitting the tape back out at him.

-

Eddie’s first real life crush had actually been Bill, which would come as a surprise to no one, least of all himself. Bill’s beautiful and strong and kind, and all the Losers are at least half in love with him.

But that crush is pretty short-lived, and when his heart turns to Richie, it feels different. Bigger. Richie’s the one who makes him strong. He’s protective of him, too, just like all the others, but it feels more out of want than need. It sometimes feels like an obligation with the others. With Richie, it feels like a choice, an I choose to watch over you, even though I know you can take care of yourself.

As much as Richie annoys the shit out of him sometimes, Eddie also sort of has him on a pedestal. Richie’s all the things he isn’t: brash and unabashedly himself. He’s free in a way Eddie can never envision himself being, not even after this insane summer. And on a baser level that’s important to him as a thirteen year-old boy, Richie knows about stuff, the kind of stuff that makes Eddie blush just to think about let alone talk about--but he’ll listen to Richie talk about it. And while he loves every one of them, all six members of his found family, there’s no one he’d rather spend his time with.

-

It’s a more uneventful summer afternoon in the barrens that brings the most eventful news of Eddie’s young life, the tipping point that sets it all in motion.

They’re all laid out on rocks letting the late August sun dry the last remaining droplets on their baking skin, feeling cautious and far older than they should, though there’s a greater sense of ownership of this space, this wilderness, this town, than ever before. Rightful ownership, which, for seven losers with nothing going for them--and everyone in town reminding them of that as often as they can--is miraculous.

Richie sits up straight and quick like a carnival whack-a-mole that refuses to be defeated. “My nearest and dearest,” he begins, “British” accent shitty as ever, “I do believe I have an announcement to make. A pronouncement, rather. A solemn declaration on his lovely--”

“Oh my God, out with it, Richie,” Stan groans. Bill and Mike chuckle.

“We all know I’m rather partial to the female of the species…”

Stan delivers an annoyed moan right into his palms, which are both covering his face.

“...but the fact of the matter is…” He drops the accent and purses his lips, and Eddie’s eyes are suddenly wide, laser-focused on his best friend. “...I like dudes, too. Big time.”

Eddie sits up, his heart fucking hammering in his tiny chest. Stan does, too, followed by Bev, who’s all smiles, shades pushed up and into her fluffy hair.

“Now, Stan, I know you’re in love with me, but don’t get your hopes up; I’m saving myself for Rob Lowe. Plus, I’m not sure I’m ready to commit myself to the butt sex thing--”

Everyone’s elation immediately turns to amused disgust, except Eddie, who can only stare as Richie continues to ramble and then starts making up a song about butt sex, which he sings at the top of his lungs until Mike and Ben forcefully clamp hands over his mouth.

They walk home together later, alone, and Richie’s light on his feet, kind of graceful, actually, which lets Eddie know that his confession was a much bigger deal than he let on, which is Richie in a nutshell, really. Eddie feels his own confession buzzing in his chest like a little fluorescent light bulb. God, he wants to tell Richie, wants to scream “ME TOO!” so loud it echoes through town and sends every bird flying from the fucking trees. But he doesn’t want to steal his thunder, and underneath that, he’s also totally fucking scared.

Even though his gut feeling is that Richie wouldn’t give a shit--would be thrilled about it, even (We can talk about guys together all the time now!)--a part of Eddie can’t help envisioning the worst possible outcome. And besides, Eddie’s mom did a pretty bang-up job of severely impairing his gut feelings, anyway. He hasn’t trusted them in years.

-

It’s probably the biggest surprise of Eddie’s life so far that it turns out to be Richie who can’t be alone after the sewers, Richie who crawls into his window almost every night for weeks, taking shaky, fragile breaths as tears spill down his pale face, making Eddie suddenly, intensely protective.

Some nights it’s It that brings him there, Richie pushing Eddie’s hair back from his face and drinking him in like he’s afraid he’ll disappear at any moment, like he’s afraid he’s never been real to begin with. Other nights, it’s his folks, Richie’s voice impossibly small as he curls his fists into Eddie’s shirt, soaking it with his silent tears, and confesses, “They don’t even like me.”

Eddie makes himself as big as he can, wraps himself around his friend--his best and most beloved friend--and holds him the way he’s sure no one ever has.

-

By the time they’re laying on their stomachs, hushed and reverent in front of Richie’s TV watching Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix sit around a bonfire, Eddie’s about ready to fucking burst. Their shoulders are flush, and Richie’s blinking even less than he normally does when they watch movies together, taking several breaks throughout to glance at Eddie and take in his reactions to how everything's unfolding.

They both flip over onto their backs as the credits roll, and Eddie’s heart is thundering even harder than when Richie’d made his confession--because he knows his own is coming. He couldn’t stop it if he stuffed his own fist into his mouth. Richie, ever a true friend, gives him the perfect fucking opening, too: “I would totally blow River Phoenix.” Eddie can’t remember ever talking to Richie about a crush of his own, and he certainly wouldn’t have over the last year, since Richie himself has been occupying that position all on his own. He knows something even as simple and seemingly innocuous as agreeing a celebrity is cute will be a pretty huge fucking deal. He’s sure Richie will get it.

He does, and the warmth that’s always there between them stretches and expands, evolving into a dizzy joy.

Eddie’s own bravery is like a drug to him; once he gets a taste, he can’t help doing more. He has to do something else. And Richie’s right there, his dark eyes and freckles magnified, chewing on his bottom lip (I want to do that, Eddie thinks wildly). As he leans in to kiss Richie--his first fucking kiss--he feels a little stupid, a little clumsy, so he explains first, "I don’t know what I’m doing," hoping that’ll give him an excuse if he fucking sucks at it or if Richie is disgusted for another reason. But when he pulls away, he sees that Richie’s eyes are still closed and his lips are parted, which he thinks is a sign that he enjoyed it.

Eddie doesn’t know what to say. How was that? Was it okay? Do you hate me? Should I just jump out your fucking window right now? But before he can settle on words, Richie’s pulling him back in for more. He manages to get out a quiet “Oh” before their mouths meet again.

Eddie can’t help but smile a little; Richie’s gotten a green light, and when Richie gets a green light, there’s no stopping him, in any scenario.

He’s surprisingly gentle, his kisses as tender as his big hand cupping Eddie’s jaw. And he tastes really good, way better than Eddie would have expected, for all the shit he likes to give him about his hygiene and dietary choices.

He feels like home, Eddie thinks, then immediately hates himself for thinking it.

Eddie wants to vibrate right out of his skin when Richie drags his teeth over Eddie’s bottom lip experimentally, then licks at it to soothe the sting away.

“Your lips are really soft.” Richie sounds enthralled.

“Yours too.”

Richie’s like a puppy as he leads Eddie out the front door to just barely make his curfew, fingers light and gentle on his wrist and shoulder, eyes wide and bright as he gives him one final peck on the crown of his head and watches him until he disappears down the block.

When Eddie gets home and falls blissfully into his own bed, the thrill lasts only a little while before giving way to dread at the reality of what’s happened, of what’s happening. This can’t end well, he knows it. Even if he and Richie could actually be happy in private, together, they could never walk through the halls together and kiss the way they did tonight. He could never tell his goddamn mother, who, like it or not, still owns him at this point.

God, he can’t wait for college. It feels like an eternity away.

Chapter Text

If he thinks it was hard being around Richie after realizing his feelings, it’s fucking agony after they’ve kissed. It’s like this smoky haze has settled over everything: the grass, the water rushing over the rocks in the stream, his other five friends, who have no fucking clue, everything except Richie, the almost imperceptible red in his dark, dark hair, the delicate pink of his full bottom lip (I’ve felt that, I know that it tastes like), the knobs of his spine under his t-shirt, the way his nose wrinkles when he squints into the sun.

Eddie hates it. He doesn’t want things to change--and yet he wants everything to change, all of it. He feels even more trapped than he already has most of his life.

Apparently Eddie isn’t the only one incapable of cracking this limbo state, since Richie does and says almost nothing in the weeks that follow. The night of their first kiss begins to take on a dreamlike quality, and Eddie begins to genuinely wonder if it was in fact just that: a dream, or a hallucination. Considering their history, there are weirder fucking possibilities.

Just when Eddie’s about to sink comfortably back into a world where that kiss didn’t happen, or where it did but it didn’t actually mean anything, Richie tosses them both out of limbo in one fell swoop.

The seven of them are walking downtown, Eddie bundled from head to toe for an unusually cold fall afternoon (even for fucking Maine), shoulders bunched up to his ears and feet shuffling quickly along the sidewalk as Ben, Stan, and Bev debate the merits of Ernest Scared Stupid. Eddie, noticing Richie’s uncharacteristically quiet for such a conversation, is about to bump him in the shoulder and say something like, Have all of our dreams finally come true and you’ve lost the ability to speak?

But Richie slows his pace, falling behind until his long legs have given Eddie’s short ones a chance to catch up, the two of them now at the very back of their small throng. He grabs the sleeve of Eddie’s jacket and tugs him gently into a narrow side alley. Eddie’s blood pumps loudly in his ears as the sound of their friends’ cackles and good-natured arguing gets fainter and fainter.

Richie glances at the bright street they’ve left behind, not exactly bursting with people for the weather but just populated enough to make him apprehensive about what he’s about to do. He crowds Eddie against the wall, nearly a full head taller than him after the last year of growth (much to Eddie’s chagrin), and smiles down at him. And Eddie barely registers that holy fucking shit he’s never seen Richie smile like that, he doesn’t even know what to do with it, before Richie’s cradling his face in his cold, bare hands and pressing a warm, wet kiss to his mouth. It’s quick but heartfelt, and afterward, Richie’s long thumbs bracket Eddie’s lips like parentheses.

Eddie’s hands flail a little between them. They’re in public, anyone can see them (Bowers is dead, he reassures himself), it’s just too fucking real now, Richie’s brought it out into the light of day and made it real.

Richie looks equally nervous, but not at all for the same reasons. “We haven’t hung out alone in so long.”

“It’s only been a few weeks, Rich,” he says, glancing helplessly back in the direction of the main street.

“I thought--” Richie starts, then stops himself, his cheeks pink and his hands dropping to his own sides. For all Richie’s posturing, he’s always been the more vulnerable of the two of them, underneath it all.

Eddie wants to hold him, wants to take them both far away from this fucking town, even their friends if it means Richie’s heart’s safe, and that realization--that he would sacrifice literally everything for him--is horrifying. His heart’s never belonged to anyone, not even his own mother, and he suspects that no one else his age, not even Richie, has felt the magnitude of what he does in that moment.

He has never felt more alone.

Being Richie’s… what? Experiment? Good time? Practice? That’s way more heartbreaking than just being his friend, than suffering in silence never knowing how it feels to be held by him. Just the thought of it eviscerates him. He swallows down his tears, avoiding Richie’s eyes as he wriggles out from under him, the swishy slide of his windbreaker against brick loud in the alley. “You thought what?”

-

Richie is nothing if not forgiving, almost to a fault and especially where Eddie is concerned, so they’re able to slide back into some semblance of what they used to be. It feels like performance, but that’s fine, so long as the others are none the wiser and Richie’s no longer actively feeding the monstrous love that’s consuming Eddie from the inside.

He knows instinctively when Richie has started messing around with girls--and not just kissing. He notices him sneaking off from the Losers’ table during lunch to chat with a couple of the theater girls, flirty in his usual, goofy way, only a little softer. The sight of Richie’s thumb caressing Rebecca Trant’s hip over her jeans nearly sends him running to the bathroom and heaving into a toilet.

Richie’s a little quieter now when the group talks about sex, a little less buzzy, and to Eddie that speaks volumes. He doesn’t say a goddamn thing in front of Eddie, but Eddie can tell he’s withholding with the group and sharing plenty with Bill and Stan in private. Plus, the power of Eddie’s own imagination is enough to conjure a montage of every unspoken story.

It feels like the deepest betrayal, even though Eddie played an integral part in making it happen.

-

It’s toward the end of sophomore year that the Losers start going to parties and dipping into alcohol for the first time. It’s like some unspoken agreement among the entire student body that hey, they’re fifteen and this is what they’re all supposed to do now. Eddie finds it bizarre and stupid, but he tags along dutifully out of love for each and every one of them, even Richie, who he’s been avoiding more and more as the spring has worn on.

They haven’t even been there an hour before he sees Richie making out with some blonde girl on the living room couch. It’s only a split second visual, but the pain of it is so acute that Eddie finds himself reaching for whiskey shots, even though he’s never touched booze at any of the parties before and he knows he’ll have to face his mother down later. He feels beautifully reckless in the moment, though, eager to widen the rift between them, fuck it all.

The others don’t get it; they just think it’s hilarious and awesome and wow, check out little Eddie go. All except Bev, who wraps an arm around him after the fifth shot and gently leads him out into the backyard, where they sit together on the swingset and she holds his hand while he wears his vocal cords thin heaving wheezing sobs and never naming Richie as the source. He doesn’t have to; Bev knows that, too.

Richie comes outside eventually, alone, thankfully, and Eddie only catches a glimpse of the concern etched onto his face before he turns away, hiding his own face behind the thick chain on the swing.

“Eds, what’s wrong?” Richie approaches clumsily, the sound of his feet on the grass like an alarm to Eddie. He hastily wipes tears from his face and neck, even as fresh ones quickly surface.

“Richie: fuck off.” Eddie has no idea how she does it, but Bev somehow manages to sound both intimidating and kind. “I’m serious. Turn around and go back inside.”

Richie lingers for one agonizing moment before he obeys, the slam of the back screen door punctuating his retreat.

-

Junior year is a pivotal one, not just for the Losers but for the entire grade. They’re starting to have to think about what the hell the next step is going to be, whether or not they have the foundation to start a real life, whether or not they’ll actually be able to get out of fucking Derry. Alliances start to form and friendships start to disintegrate, everyone preemptively setting the scene for the Big Changes that are about to take place in the next couple of years. Any one of the Losers could have sworn their group would be immune to that shit, but Eddie supposes they are still human, even if finding each other fooled them into thinking otherwise.

While everyone’s head is down, the opening is there for Eddie to protect his heart and pull away from Richie for good. Even though they haven’t been genuinely close since that fucking kiss, the idea of them not being in each other’s lives still feels like jumping into a void. What’s going to be on the other side? Eddie can’t even picture it.

The group splits easily down the middle, by something as fucking stupid as which of them has access to a car: Eddie, Stan, and Bill in Bill’s dad’s old Ford Taurus, and Ben, Bev, Mike, and Rich in an old beat-up truck Mike’s grandpa rarely uses anymore and offers to him for rides to and from school. Bev’ll sometimes ride with Bill and talk about the others, try to keep that sense of oneness alive, but Eddie knows her bond with Richie runs deeper than with any of them and is something she’d never jeopardize. Her alliance is clear, even if she questions Richie’s behavior half the time.

They all throw themselves into different activities to beef up their college applications. Ben shocks them all by training hard for track through the bitter fall and winter so he can make the outdoor team in the spring, and trains even harder when he does, his physical transformation probably the biggest marker for how quickly their lives are all changing. Bill co-runs the creative writing club, which Stan joins in support even though he has zero real interest in it. Stan also helps run the Jewish Culture Club, which is super fucking small in a town like Derry but makes him feel way less alone in a way he never even realized he did.

Mike has his plate pretty full now that he’s going to public school and still helping out on the farm most weekdays and weekends. Bev dips her toe into a little of everything: theater, dance, debate, psychology club. Dance is her favorite. One day at lunch, she gushes to Eddie about how powerful it makes her feel.

Taking a page from Bevvie’s book, Eddie attends his first GSA meeting, which then turns into something he never misses. He claims he’s there as “an ally,” and everyone’s so accepting that they don’t bat an eye. Stan joins him every once in a while, though he’s far more bashful about it. He’s always quiet when he is there, sitting impossibly close to Eddie, listening attentively and observing, much the way he’s always done with his birds. He claims to be an ally, too, though Eddie definitely takes pause at it. He wonders if Stan does with him, too. Then he wonders if Richie ever told Stan his secret. Their secret.

Richie gets even more deeply entrenched in the theater crowd, an intense and intensely annoying crowd, Eddie thinks, even though there is, predictably, considerable overlap between it and the GSA. He always knows they’re walking the halls by the way they belt showtunes, everyone seemingly trying to outsing each other.

Richie does not sing, which is a fact that everyone knows, Richie especially, and hasn’t changed since they were kids and their voices were still breaking all over the place. He’s often cast as the non-singing comic relief in musicals, and he almost always goes off-script during the show’s run, to the point where the audience comes to expect and hope for it at every performance.

Eddie doesn’t miss any of his shows, and none of the others do, either, nor Ben’s track meets or Bev’s dance recitals. Even if they aren’t as close as they used to be, there’s that fierce need to always show up for and support each other. Eddie also thinks going to Richie’s plays is part masochism for himself, a way to feel strangely close to him again and sit in his longing for a few hours. He never sticks around afterward like the others do, but he knows Richie knows he’s there, and that’s enough.

The Monday after the spring musical, the last show of the year, Eddie finds a post-it in his locker, folded up so it’s sticky and he has to pull it apart, scrunching his nose all the while. He finds Richie’s scrawl in Sharpie: This fucking sucks. I miss you.

Richie’s reached out before, tons of times, but never with anything meaningful, always some stupid, gross joke that’s just pushed Eddie further away.

Eddie exhales heavily and leans his head against the cold metal of the locker next to his, wishing he still had his inhaler.

-

Eddie and Stan get invited to a graduation party by the seniors in GSA, and it ends up being the best party he’s ever been to--well, in high school, anyway. Just knowing he’s around people who understand him, who are like him or who are totally accepting is something he didn’t realize he was missing. None of the other Losers would have been not accepting, but as Stan had said to him once, there’s something about being with your tribe that makes you feel more yourself.

It’s the first time Eddie’s been hit on (well, by anyone other than Richie, for whom flirting is like breathing), and it’s not just by one guy; at least three have winked at him, slid a hand over his arm, or told him he looks really cute tonight, or some combination of the three.

One of them definitely gives him butterflies: Derek, a really tall, really cute senior with green eyes, dark, curly hair, and an olive complexion. Eddie’s pleasantly stunned that he’s giving him all his attention, but Stan doesn’t look surprised at all.

He leans into him at the cooler in the kitchen. “Uh, I think Derek likes you.”

No,” Eddie protests.

Yes.” Stan digs for a bottle of hard cider and hands it to him. “You should definitely go for it,” he says quietly.

Eddie looks at him.

“I won’t tell anybody,” Stan promises.

Eddie hands the cider back to him. “Be right back.” He slips through the crowd and up the stairs to the bathroom so he can fix his hair and squeal into his hands a little. He looks at himself in the mirror. He’s a little taller now, his jaw a little more angular, his hair a little longer and wavier, his eyes still big, brown, and bewildered. He smiles, then makes a holyshitisthisreallyhappening? face at himself.

He takes a deep breath before turning and easing the door open, only to find a very drunk Richie on the other side.

Fuck. He hadn’t even known he was here. Before he can squeeze past with a polite, “‘Scuse me,” Richie pushes him back into the bathroom and closes the door. Eddie has no idea what to expect. They lean against the door side by side. Eddie avoids his eyes.

Eddie Spaghetti,” he breathes, and it smells like whiskey, reminding Eddie horribly of the last time they were at a party together. Richie uses two fingertips to tip his chin up, urging him to meet his eyes. “You’re growing up to be a real heartbreaker, you know that?”

Eddie smacks his hand away, hard. “You’re hammered.” He reaches for the doorknob again, but Richie lays a hand over his.

“No, don’t go, don’t go. Please?”

Eddie exhales heavily through his nostrils, feeling them flare. He walks back over to the sink, pulling a dixie cup from the dispenser. “Are you drinking water?” he asks quietly, already filling the cup and handing it to Richie. He watches him down it and grabs it back, filling it again.

“Are you making out with that guy?” Richie shoots back. “That fuckwad, whatshisname, Derek Matthias?”

“Do you see me making out with him? No.” Eddie takes the empty cup back for a second time and fills it again, handing it to Richie, nearly jumping as their fingers brush. “He’s really nice. Don’t be a dick.”

“I love you.” Richie says it with the same cadence as he would Thank you, which is what Eddie’d been expecting him to say.

He responds, “You’re welcome,” then hears the echo of what Richie’d actually said in his head. “Wait, what?”

It takes Richie one step on his stupid long legs to be back in Eddie’s space again, one hand wrapped around the side of his neck and the other pushing through his hair. Eddie’d just been in this same position with Derek only minutes ago, and it was fun and sexy--but it wasn’t this, and he hates, hates that Richie still has the fucking power to make him feel this way, even after all this time. He’s not at all ready for Richie to kiss him again, not now, maybe not ever.

But Richie doesn’t. He just stares at Eddie’s face, looking desperate. “What did I do? You have to tell me what I did.” He pulls Eddie closer until they’re flush and kisses his temple, the hand around his neck creeping down to fist in his sweater. “I need you. I just need you, more than I need anyone else.”

Eddie looks at their reflection in the bathroom mirror, Richie’s shoulders bunched up and his hair a fucking mess, his own eyes already wet.

Richie’s voice sounds small and young, muffled in Eddie’s hair. “Don’t you understand that?”

Eddie knows Richie’s scale of drunken behavior intimately at this point, and he recognizes that he’s quickly approaching blackout territory. He knows Richie won’t remember anything he’s saying or that Eddie’s about to say, which is precisely why he says it. “I can’t. It hurts too much.” He leans his cheek against Richie’s shoulder, and finally lets himself cry. “You broke my heart, Richie.”

“You broke mine,” Richie chokes, shoving him away and then pulling him back in, clutching him. “You broke mine.”

“I have to go,” Eddie says, and it sounds like a plea as he slips out of Richie’s grasp, out of the bathroom, and back into the thrust of the party.

-

If junior year is pivotal, senior year is everyone surveying the damage and either picking up the pieces or just moving on, leaving the detritus of broken relationships in their wake.

Richie and Eddie literally don’t talk again until April, when Bev has a big birthday party at her aunt’s house. It’s been long enough that they’ve settled into what they are now: two former best friends who are no longer friends at all but give each other sweet, civil smiles when they pass each other in the halls and dance deftly around each other when they’re forced to be in the same space for longer than that.

Eddie’s had a boyfriend in the meantime, a sweet, quiet junior on the swim team named Victor. They’d lasted five months before deciding to call it quits now that Eddie’s heading off to college in August, five months of kissing and groping and lying to his mom. He’d ultimately been Eddie’s first--after they’d officially broken up, strangely. It had been awkward, terrifying for Eddie, and not sexy at all, though they’d trusted each other and taken care of each other, which is all that had mattered in Eddie’s book, even if they’d both looked at each other afterwards, a little exasperated, and said, “Maybe we should just stick to dry humping.”

Still, Eddie finds that now that he’s done it, he walks a little taller and feels way more settled in his own body, which is something he never thought he’d experience. He writes about it--not the sex but the lifelong process of figuring out who the hell he really is outside of what his mother’s told him--and when Bill asks if he can publish it as a special feature in the student paper, Eddie knows he’s asking more than just that. When Eddie agrees to it, he knows this is him coming out, to everyone.

He’s sure to have the conversation with his mom before the paper comes out, and that goes just as predicted, but at least Eddie’s more equipped to handle her reaction now. He knows not to hope for what she’s never going to be able to give him.

Everyone at school had been super supportive, at least to his face. And frankly, he doesn’t give a shit what anyone’s saying behind his back, as long as they aren’t gunning to beat the shit out of him.

He finds himself overheating (maybe he’s glowing) as he passes from room to room at Bev’s, chatting with his classmates and reconnecting with the other Losers, some of whom say they knew all along but are no less proud of him. After Ben gives him a bear hug and lifts him off his feet, he feels pleasantly dizzy but still opts to get some air.

Eddie pushes open the screen door at the back, inhaling deeply as he steps out onto the deck to look up at the stars and smell the wet dirt and fresh cut grass.

“Hey.”

He turns, seeing Richie, a lit cigarette attached to his hand, belatedly registering the smell of smoke. “Hey.” Richie moves to politely put it out, but Eddie stops him. “It’s okay.” He gestures vaguely to his face and throat. “I’m fine. It really doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Richie puts it out anyway. “Yeah, but I know you don’t like it.”

“Yeah, but you do,” Eddie says.

“I’ll make do, my lord.” Richie’s British accent has only gotten slightly better, but it warms Eddie’s insides to hear it, especially directed at him.

They stand there, looking up at the sky and breathing together.

“I, uh… I read your thing in the paper.”

Eddie looks at him with an exaggerated expression of shock. “You actually read the school paper?”

“Yeah, for the very first time,” Richie sings to the tune of “Like a Virgin.” Eddie giggles despite himself. “It was amazing. What you wrote.”

“I don’t know about amazing…” Eddie ducks his head, toeing at a loose plank in the deck. He glances at Richie, whose brow is furrowed; he’s clearly considering his words, something Eddie’s never seen him do.

Finally, Richie gives up, shrugging. “I’m super fucking proud of you. That’s all.”

The idea of Richie even reading it means more to Eddie than he could have predicted. The idea of it making Richie proud is almost too much to bear. He walks quickly over to him and pulls him into a warm, gentle hug. “Thank you, Rich.” He hears Richie exhale heavily before he tucks his face into Eddie’s shoulder. Being this close to him is a shock to Eddie’s system--but a good one. He smells exactly the same as he always did. He presses his mouth to Richie’s shoulder, feeling the heat of his skin through his shirt, and interlocks his fingers over his knobby spine.

Richie tightens his arms around him, impossibly tight. “I hear you’ll be at Middlebury, too.”

Eddie nods against him, hoping with ferocity that they find their way back to each other there, eventually.