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What Could Have Been

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He wasn't gay, right?

No, he couldn't possibly be gay. In the fifth grade he kissed a girl. A real girl, even if the other Losers loved to tease him and insist he made it up. It was disgusting, though, and Richie never wanted to kiss anyone ever again. 

And in spite of his constant jokes about fucking Eddie's mom, Richie had never been in any kind of relationship let alone loved someone. Right? Because he wasn't gay, so what he was feeling wasn't love. This warm, breathless feeling in his chest and the blood rushing to his cheeks- rendering him absolutely useless and disarmed of his usual wit and charm. The feeling that took over his every thought, that amplified his need to be close and present and frankly annoying in order to gain attention. It wasn't love. It wasn't. It just wasn't. 

He sometimes noticed the way Stan looked at Bill. Richie had practically grown up with Stan. They were quick as thieves- that was a phrase Stanley liked to say- even if they had their fair share of arguments. Like the time Richie borrowed Stan's bird book to do his science homework and accidentally spilled coke all over the cover. Stan wouldn't talk to him for a week after that, but they couldn't keep apart and were soon joking around and laughing like normal. But then Stan passed up going to the arcade with Richie for hanging out at Bill's house, and Richie suddenly realized that he was wasn't as important to Stan as Bill was. 

He didn't understand. They hadn't grown up together, and Stan always liked going down to swim in the quarry as opposed to sitting inside all day. But in those quiet moments at lunch or drying on the rocks, Stan turned his head toward Bill- who was looking off in the distance somewhere- and there was something soft in that gaze. Something warm and yearning. Richie didn't understand. So he went to the only person he trusted with these thoughts- Bev.

"I think it's love." Bev shrugged. They were in the park, sitting at the edge of the empty stage and sharing a bag of m&ms they got from the pharmacy. 

Richie snorted. "You don't actually believe that shit, do you?" But she gave him a funny smile and he thought- of course she does. She loves Ben. She and Ben weren't exactly 'together'- at that age, they didn't know what constituted being together but they held hands sometimes walking home from the quarry and gave each other kisses on the cheeks when the others weren't looking. "Whatever." Richie turned away and stuffed another handful of m&ms in his mouth. 

"What about you, Rich?" Bev asked and kicked her legs a little, her flower-patterned dress fluttering at the hem in the light summer breeze. "You like anyone?"

Richie nearly choked on the m&ms. "No! I mean, hell no. That's gross."

"Wow, all your jokes about screwing and you've never even had a girlfriend?" Bev laughed, but Richie shifted uncomfortably. "I mean, hell, if I didn't know better I'd say you were crushing on Ed-"

Richie stood up suddenly. His hand flew to his face to adjust his glasses- but he was really trying to shield the blush he could feel heating his cheeks. "Hey, Bev, I gotta go." He barely gave her any time to protest as he waved goodbye and practically ran from the park. "Seeya tomorrow!"

As he fled the scene, he knew his cheeks were burning, but he didn't know why. When Bev had said his name, Richie felt panicked. A deep and visceral fear of her knowing that he had these- these thoughts about him. But- If Stan and Bill loved each other, why couldn't he... why didn't he deserve love?

"You playing with them fucking queers again, Richard?" 

Richie flinched. It was different. It just was. 

Eddie would have called it a disease. He would have said Rich was sick. Eddie wouldn't want to be around someone as sick as him. 

When he got home, he went straight to his room and cried. Not that anyone would know. Nobody would ever know that he was crying about something as silly as that. As him. Him. With the bright smile, with the freckles on his nose, with the little "How are you, Richie?"s and the "Are you okay, Richie?"s. 

Nobody ever asked him that except Eddie. Not in the same way. Like he knew that everything was wrong and at any moment he could crash and fall. Like he knew that deep down Richie was tearing himself up because, god- it hurt to love like this. 

It hurt worse than slicing his palm with glass. It hurt more than a promise. 

Sick fucking queer. He'd never make anyone happy. Not his father or his friends, not Eddie. He was better off away from the other boys. God forbid they ever find out. God forbid anyone finds out. He was just a fucking disappointment. A mistake. A-

Tap-tap-tap- a handful of pebbles hit his window and he grabbed his glasses. Nobody could see him like this- it didn't matter if it was Bill or Ben or Mike. He shoved on his glasses and rapidly dried his red eyes on his bed sheets. Then, still shaking, he opened the window. 

Eddie looked up from the garden, bathed in afternoon sun and sporting a wide grin. Okay, worst case scenario. Richie could do this. 

He helped Eddie inside and shut the window. Heart racing. Blood pumping. 

"Hey Rich, I just wanted to stop by and check on you." Fuck. Bev must have said something. She knows, then, and now Eddie's gonna know, and he's never gonna see him ever again because he'll hate him now that he knows-

"Rich?" 

Richie couldn't meet his eyes. He kept his blurry gaze fixed on his shoes. "I'm fine, Eds, geez. You don't have to be my mom all the time." 

"You sure? Cause you don't look fine." Eddie stared at him critically. "Do you feel hot? Your face is all red, you might have a fever. Let me feel-"

Eddie reached a hand toward him and Richie practically jumped away, shaking his head vigorously. "I'm fine. Don't touch me, please." He couldn't touch him. He couldn't feel his skin- it was wrong- he'd be sick-

"What's going on? You look really not okay, Rich, let me give you some aspirin at least."

"Please, Eddie," Richie felt his voice crack. "Please, leave me alone. I can't be near you, I can't, you can't be here, I'm- I'm fucking sick, Eds, I'm sick and I- You can't be here, I can't-"

A smaller hand took his, and with one tug they were both sitting on the edge of Richie's bed, both of his hands in Eddie's. 

"Breathe, Rich. In and out. You can do it."

Richie fought off hiccuping sobs and tried to breathe- he really did try- but the tears kept coming and he knew he was making such a fool of himself. "I'm sorry, Eds, I'm so sorry, I can't be near you."

"I'm not leaving you like this, okay?" Eddie released one hand and put it on Richie's heated cheek. He gasped and lowered his head at the touch. "Tell me what's wrong. I'm not leaving."

"I- I- I like you Eddie- so, so much- and I'm- I hate myself so much b-but I- I understand if you don't want t-to be near me 'cause I'm s-sick," Richie managed through tears. "I l-love you so much Eds and I know it's wrong and I- I'm wrong so please just leave, I- I can't be around you I'm a mistake I-"

Eddie had fallen silent. He'd really done it now. It was all over. 

"Richie, baby, look at me."

With both hands on his cheeks, Eddie lifted Richie's head. 

"I love you so much, okay? I love you so, so much." He wrapped both arms around Richie's shoulders and pulled him into a tight hold. Richie shook in his arms. "I don't hate you. I promise. I didn't know you felt the same way. I wish you'd told me, Rich. I love you. You're okay." 

And in that moment, he was.