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The thing about living in the city is that you can almost never really see the stars. Richie’s moved out of the heart of the city now, got a place in the quiet suburbs of Chicago when he stopped doing standup and started working freelance instead. And it’s nice. He likes it, honestly. He has a yard, and a picket fence that could be white if he painted it, and privacy, and space. His neighbours are generally nice and always say hi to him but never try to talk to him. It’s good. But no matter how far he is from the highrises and the streets that never sleep, there are still a hundred lights on all night that never turn off. His property is perpetually bathed in warm, not-in-my-backyard light pollution. Through the haze of that, he can barely catch glimpse of anything smaller than the fucking moon.

But like this, stretched out on a reclining lawn chair in the three inches of snow on the ground, staring up into the darkness, the swirling snowflakes almost look like stars, against the backdrop of the sky. It’s a poetic thought, he thinks. Maybe a bit dystopian-depressing. Like they can’t see stars anymore so they have to create an artificial sky. That’s probably just like a decade away from being reality. But for now, it’s all natural. Organic stand-in stars. The kind that move, which doesn’t happen for Richie unless he’s extremely drunk. Which he never is anymore. So this is fun. It’s like a substitute for seeing stars and being blackout drunk.

He tries to smile, and mostly fails. He sighs instead. He feels deeply tired, the kind of tired that settles into his bones and sticks in his joints. It’s not that late—it gets dark at five fucking o’clock, these days—but it feels like he’s been awake for a hundred hours. He barely even left his bed today, so that doesn’t even make sense. But winter does this to him, sometimes. Sinks its claws into him and drags him down into the cold, stark blackness. Fights him when he tries to claw his way back to the surface. Holds him down. Like black roots sprouting out from his mattress and wrapping around his body, making him work for hours sometimes to tear them away before he can get up. And then always clinging to him, all day, trying to draw him back, draw him down again. So no fucking wonder he’s always so tired.

He inhales the cold, sharp air, and then exhales a cloud of fog. The snow keeps swirling, falling, landing on his yard, his body, his glasses. His vision is getting blurry, his lenses speckled with tiny pinpricks of water. Snow is gathering in the folds of his clothes. He pushes his hands deeper into his coat pockets.

This winter hasn’t been bad. Not compared to last year, or really any of the years before that. This is probably his best winter since he moved out of Derry for college. But all those decades of shitty winters have piled up. They sit on his chest like an unwanted guest. And after last year— Well. PTSD, he suspects. Or something like it. This winter has been good so far, but he’s always on thin fucking ice. Always thinking he might be on the brink of taking one wrong step and plunging through into the icy rapids below. And sinking. Again.

Inhale. Ice in his lungs, tickling through his throat, filling his mouth. Exhale. A cloud of warmth. The neighborhood is quiet and dark, like it’s sleeping, or dead. Richie’s not sure if he loves it or hates it.

Being alone on Christmas Eve always feels like shit, huh? No matter how far you’ve come.

Inhale. Exhale. His breath mixes with the snow above his face. The stars continue their dance. The cold settles in deep.

A door opens in the distance. “Hey!” a voice calls, from very far away. Richie doesn’t listen to it. Except for then it says, “Hey, Richie! What the fuck are you doing out here?”

Richie blinks his eyes open. He sits up a little, snow shaking loose from his coat. “Huh?”

Eddie is standing on the other side of his fence, frowning and shivering in the cold. “I said, what the fuck are you doing out here? It’s like ten degrees, and you’re way underdressed. Get inside.”

Richie smiles, lets his head fall back against his chair. “Hey, Eddie Spaghetti,” he says, wrapping around the warmth and the vague, aching throb that bloom in his chest simultaneously. Can’t have one without the other. “When did you get in?”

“Five minutes ago. I called you, and you didn’t answer. Because you were outside, apparently, fucking...stargazing in December! With no hat on!”

“It’s about the Vitamin D!” Richie says. Now that he’s moved a little, he can really feel the cold—his ears are aching, and his face is numb. “Reflecting off the moon, or something. I have seasonal depression, you know!”

“You have seasonal stupidity,” Eddie mutters, audibly rubbing his hands together. “Just get inside.”

“Yours or mine?” Richie jokes.

Eddie doesn’t get the memo. “Mine, obviously. I’ll make you hot chocolate.”

“Oh,” Richie says, and sits up. “Um. Okay, be right there.”

“Oh, thank god,” Eddie says, and hightails it to his back door, cursing about the cold.

Richie smiles again, and this time it’s all warmth. He takes his time getting up, legs shaky from how cold they are, and brushes snow from his coat and hair, and then walks around to the front of his house, down one door, and in through Eddie’s, not even bothering to knock first. He can hear Eddie fucking around in the kitchen. “Hey,” he calls from the front entrance, toeing off his snowy shoes.

“Hey,” Eddie calls back. “Sit down, get a blanket. Can you feel your face? If you have frostbite, I swear to fucking god—”

Richie laughs. “I don’t have frostbite, Eddie, Christ. I’m not a child.”

“Really, Richie? Really? I swear to god, please, for the love of everything good, please prove it to me.”

Richie snorts, hanging up his jacket and trying to cover up how violently he’s shivering, now, in the warmth of Eddie’s home. His teeth are chattering, which he thinks is cliche of them. He sits down on Eddie’s soft brown couch and sinks into it, pulling a cozy throw blanket over himself. Richie always figured Eddie’s home would be stark hospital corners and plastic modern furniture that can be easily sanitized, but it’s not like that at all. He let Myra keep their apartment and most of their furniture in the divorce, started fresh after that, and somehow ended up with exclusively homey, deeply comfortable shit. It all feels like it’s been owned for eight years and is perfectly broken in. Richie feels like he could sink into it forever, and never resurface.

By the time Eddie comes in with his two mugs of hot chocolate, thankfully, Richie has stopped shivering. He takes his mug gratefully, closes his eyes as he drinks it. It’s crazy sweet, just how Richie likes it, and it pours down his throat like molten gold, settles in his stomach, warm enough to fight off the lingering chill. Richie sighs, breathes in the steam.

“Richie?” Eddie says, and Richie realizes with a start that Eddie’s been talking but Richie hasn’t been listening and, even more strangely, hasn’t been saying anything himself.

“Hm?” he says, blinking his eyes open, taking another sip.

Eddie looks at him from the other end of the couch with eyes that are softer and warmer than Richie ever expected any gaze directed at him to be. And then Eddie puts down his mug and moves closer, and Richie’s heart kicks into higher gear, thudding in his jaw, until Eddie reaches out and takes Richie’s face in his hands and then just looks at him, slow and careful, thumbs resting just under Richie’s eyes. Richie blinks. Eddie looks concerned, but not worried, not like he used to. He looks like he’s staring into Richie’s eyes to make sure it’s still him in there. Richie inhales, and stares back.

“You with me?” Eddie asks. His palms are warm and soft. Richie’s heart brims full, and he swallows it back down.

He smiles. “I’m with you.”

“Good,” Eddie says. “You know I get worried when you don’t say stupid shit for too long.”

“I know,” Richie says, and tries not to press too obviously into Eddie’s palms. He doesn’t bother worrying about what Eddie sees when he looks at Richie this closely. If he hasn’t noticed yet, he’s not going to.

Finally, Eddie lets go and moves closer to his mug again, but not as far as he was before. “Aren’t you going to ask how the Kaspbrak Family Reunion of 2018 went?”

“Let me guess,” Richie says, tension draining out of him as he leans back on the couch, quirking a smile. “Your aunts pinched your cheeks, your grandma forgot your dad has been dead for thirty years, your uncles tried to convince you to join some kind of obvious Ponzi scheme, and someone asked you where Myra is.”

“Oh, no,” Eddie says, eyes fluttering shut as he picks up his mug again. “Myra was there. Apparently she still considers herself part of the family.”

Richie’s stomach turns, stupidly. It’s not like Eddie’s somehow going to fall back in love with her, or be convinced to get remarried. And it’s not like Richie has any claim over him regardless. “Oh?” he says, bringing his mug to his mouth to cover his frown. “And how was that?”

“Hellish,” Eddie says. “I told them I’m gay.”

Richie chokes, and almost snorts hot chocolate up his nose. He sneezes it out painfully, and when he recovers from that Eddie is laughing, and Richie has to laugh, too. He kicks Eddie for almost killing him, and Eddie kicks him back and cusses him out for almost knocking over his mug, and Richie laughs, and laughs.

Winters are fucking hard. But some things are and always will be easy.

<><><>

“Okay!” Richie calls out as he shoulders his way through Ben and Bev’s front door, arms full of tupperware containers of still-hot food. “The party can start now!”

Bill rolls his eyes from the other side of the door, his smile warm. “Oh good, we were all just waiting for you.”

Eddie snorts as he stamps snow off his shoes on the front mat, coming in behind him. “That’s what I was telling him. Hurry up, Rich, I said, how can they enjoy Christmas-slash-Hanukkah without your bad jokes? Without your terrible imitations? Without your really gross jello salad?”

Richie’s chest goes a little too tight, and he berates it. He knows a joke when he hears one. He didn’t mean it. “I left my jello salad in the car,” he says. “Hang on, I gotta go back out.”

Eddie stands in front of the door and wrinkles his nose, looking Richie straight in the face. “Nah,” he says, a moment too late. “I’ll go. Get in there and start telling jokes.”

“Yeah, Richie, stay,” Bill says. “Come see Mike’s sweater, you’ll get a kick out of it.”

Richie’s mouth twitches. “You know what they say. Richie Tozier, Fashion Expert.” He glances back at Eddie. “You sure?”

“Yeah, dude, of course. Can’t deprive the Losers of their only entertainment.”

“Where’s Richie?” Bev calls from another room. “Tell him to come in here and do his Bill Clinton impression, Ben says he’s never heard it.”

“Oh Christ,” Eddie groans, but he’s still looking at Richie carefully, like he’s a cup uncomfortably close to the edge of a table.

Richie elbows him gently, looks away. “Go get my jello,” he says. “Bill, take me to the sweater, my audience awaits!”

“The Richie Tozier I know would never fully give up stand-up comedy,” Bill says with a grin.

Richie huffs a laugh and kicks off his wet shoes to follow him.

“Snowing out there?” Bill asks, dropping off the food in the kitchen on their way around to the living room.

Richie nods. “Coming down pretty hard. Took us half an hour to get here.”

“Yeah, you’re the farthest out, huh?” Bill pries up the lid of one of Eddie’s bowls and peeks inside. “Too good for the city now.”

Richie scowls. “Had enough of the city, honestly.”

Especially at the end, there. He’d needed a change of scenery. Desperately.

“And you took Eddie with you, greedy bastard,” Bill says, but he’s grinning.

“Hey, now, I never even hinted to him that he should move into the neighbourhood. That was all him,” Richie protests.

Bill laughs. “You tempted him into it just by existing.”

Richie rolls his eyes. He tempted him just by being pathetic, more like.

They make it into the living room a minute later, and a cheer goes up when Richie steps into the room. It’s ridiculous, but it makes Richie smile, and it makes the weight on his chest lift. They have, apparently, moved on from Bill Clinton impressions, but Richie still gets to make fun of Mike’s sweater, and everyone laughs at his impression of the horny 80-year-old man that would buy it from the back of a Spencer’s. It’s a dumb joke—all Richie has are dumb jokes—but if his friends laugh, it’s worth saying.

The whole gang is here, for once. They all live within an hour radius of each other, accounting for shitty Chicago traffic, but someone always seems to have a work event or a dentist appointment or a deadline to meet. It’s better than when they still all lived scattered across the United States, though. A lot better. A year ago, Richie would never have thought it was even a possibility. Now, he can’t imagine living without it.

And it’s their first time spending the holidays together. So that’s something.

Eddie walks in a minute later, dusting snow from his hair and carrying the jello bowl. When Bev sees it, she pretends to gag, and Patty flings out a hand and says, “Don’t you dare, Beverly, you know my sympathy gag reflex is off the charts right now.”

Richie almost cries laughing. “Baby Uris likes jello salad, doesn’t he?” he coos, already sitting on the floor next to the loveseat Stan and Patty are sharing, close enough to talk directly to Patty’s round belly.

“Baby Uris is going to have better taste than that, or I’m giving him up for adoption,” Stan says dryly.

“I’ll adopt him,” Richie stage-whispers to Patty.

“Deal,” Patty says. Richie loves her. “What’s this jello controversy?”

“Richie’s mom used to always make this disgusting jello salad for like...block parties and barbecues and things,” Bill says. “One of those monstrosities from the 50s. Richie was the only one who ever liked them and has been threatening us with it the entire time we’ve been planning this party.”

“It’s fucking good!” Richie says. “And the bowl always came back empty!”

“Yeah, until you hurled three pounds of jello back into it,” Eddie says with a grimace.

“You don’t even know what it tastes like,” Richie says, reaching across the room with his foot to kick him. “You weren’t allowed to eat at potlucks.”

“It looked gross before you horked it back up.”

Richie makes a face. “That only happened once.”

“It was enough,” Eddie says gravely.

Richie sighs hugely. “I come all the way here in the snow just to be mocked by all my friends.”

There’s a second of tense silence, then, just a moment of hesitation between Richie saying that and everyone else reacting. Richie figures the others don’t even notice it. But he does.

And then Bev is the one reaching across the living room with her own foot, poking Richie in the forehead. “Aw, baby. You know we do it out of love.”

Richie rolls his eyes in the face of everyone’s concerned looks. He knows. He obviously knows. They don’t need to be like this, still, after all this time.

But it’s nice anyway. Knowing they care. Knowing that all of these people care about him.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Are we gonna eat or what? Eddie spent more time than he’s willing to admit on that stuffing.”

<><><>

The thing is, last year’s Christmas hadn’t just been bad. It was bad bad. It was...it was life-changingly bad.

It’d been a few months since the whole Pennywise fiasco. But not that many months. Everyone was still dealing with shit, trying to scrape their lives back together, figure out how to live in the aftermath of something so shatteringly huge. Richie was in Chicago, but he was the only one, at the time. Eddie was still in New York, working through his divorce and only visiting maybe once a month, tied up with his job and meetings with his lawyer and other bullshit. He didn’t come down until after the holidays. And Ben and Bev had been on a cruise, Bill was on a set, Mike and Stan were both with family.

Richie stayed home and had a week-long breakdown that he never fully recovered from.

It was...really, really bad, looking back on it from the other side. He’d just started making preparations to come out after a few more months of fucking terrible shows and a lousy attempt at a comeback. He was starting to think maybe he hated his job. Killing a clown and also Henry Bowers was finally catching up with him, and so was almost dying, almost watching his friends die. He was scared and wracked with doubt and so fucking alone, and he hadn’t known how to ask for help. His manager was pissed at him. And his friends were—in his mind—too busy for him, had people they cared about more than him. He’d spiraled, and hard. He stopped sleeping. He stopped leaving the house, scared of people looking at him, seeing him, unable to get out of bed regardless. He stopped answering his phone.

And then, at the end of it, Eddie came to check on him, and had to practically peel his blanket off of him. It was gross, and pathetic, and Richie still looks back on it with horror. And Eddie looked freaked out—understandably. Like he thought Richie might already be dead, instead of just halfway there.

But then Eddie just. Got into bed with him. Into Richie’s gross, weird-smelling bed, which hadn’t had its sheets changed in months, and Richie had barely moved from in weeks. And he’d just laid there with him, and held his hand, the same way Richie once crawled into Eddie’s bed as kids and held his hand as Eddie came down from an asthma attack that was never really asthma. And Eddie just stayed there, in bed with him, until he was ready to get up.

And Richie started healing.

Things are better now. Obviously. Richie’s on medication, and he stopped doing standup because it gave him unbearable anxiety, and he has friends nearby and support and therapy every other week. The Great Richie Meltdown of 2017 had been, Richie suspects, the impetus for the Losers’ Chicago Congregation of 2018. Eddie had been the first to make the move, renting an apartment two blocks from Richie’s until Richie had to get out of his condo and moved to the suburbs and then, two months later, the house next to his went up for sale and Eddie put in an offer the same day. And then the others had followed, one by one. Uprooting their lives just to be close to each other. And maybe because Richie needed them. But he’s okay with that (most of the time). Life is better with them all together, all there for each other.

Things are so much better now, but Richie’s still scared of his own ability to just break down like that. He’s scared of it happening again, especially now in the winter, when everything already feels shakier than usual. He’s not the same person he was before it happened, and in a lot of ways he’s better, but in some ways he’s not. The chemical makeup of his brain has quite literally changed. He’s happier, now, than he ever was before. But he’s also more nervous. Both more and less settled than he was in the past. Or rather, more settled but less committed to pretending he’s something he isn’t. Less dedicated to playing a part.

People look at him different, talk to him different. Care about him too much, at times, make him sick with how much they care about him. In a good way. It’s scary as fuck, being seen. But good. It’s good.

It’s Christmas now, and it’s so good. It reminds Richie of last year, reminds him of his darkest moments, yes, but it also reminds him of everything that’s changed since then. How far he’s come. So that’s good, too.

Dinner is a loud, crowded, chaotic affair. Everyone is crammed into Ben and Bev’s dining room, reaching over each other to serve themselves food, talking and laughing and trying to make themselves heard. There is wine, which Richie does not drink but is consumed by most of the other Losers—apart from Patty, who is very pregnant, and Eddie, who is on medication, and Stan, who is also on medication but also doesn’t drink anyway. So only half of the Losers, really, are consuming the wine. It took a few months to convince them that they could, that Richie really didn’t mind.

Things get rowdy. Richie, for one, does not need to drink to get rowdy. Patty demands stories, and Richie gives selflessly. He likes her, and he likes that she’s been absorbed into their group, almost three decades late. She was a loser too, once upon a time. Now she’s a capital-L Loser. The only thing she’s missing is clown trauma, and they all agree that’s alright.

“Okay, so what happened is,” Richie starts to say, trying to speak over Mike on the other end of the table and Bev’s laughter. “What happened is that— Right so Eddie’s bike had a flat, or something, we were maybe eleven years old—”

“No, Richie, you’re not allowed to tell this story, I hate how you tell this story,” Eddie interjects immediately, pointing his fork at Richie warningly.

“I’m just telling the story!” Richie says, grinning. “Pat asked to hear the story.”

“It’s not even a good story,” Eddie complains. “Stan, tell her.”

“It’s a pretty funny story,” Stan says with a shrug, stirring his mashed potatoes.

Richie laughs. “So we’re eleven years old, and Eddie has a flat or something, so he’s on the back of my bike.”

“Why is he on your bike?” Patty asks, already smiling wide.

Richie opens his mouth, but Bill cuts in first, says, “Richie always offered first.”

“Eddie had a shit bike back then,” Richie protests, going a little warm. “And Bill was like, super possessive of his, and Stan would never offer, and this was before we had other friends—”

“He just liked offering,” Bill stage whispers. Richie’s going to kill him.

“Anyway,” Richie says loudly. “Eddie was on the back, like. What we did was, Eddie sat on the seat and I stood on the pedals and he held onto me and I couldn’t sit down and just had to pretend my skinny little legs could hold out for the whole bike ride.”

“Once again, you always offered,” Eddie says, glowering.

Richie ignores him. “And then one day I’m like, I told Eddie I was tired, like my eyes were tired and I was going to close them for a second—”

“While he was riding a bike!” Eddie says, fork jabbing the air. “He always tells this story like it was my fault but he fucking closed his eyes! While riding a bike!”

Richie can barely speak through the laughter bubbling up in his throat. “And so I tell him to take the handlebars, because I’m fucking—my eyes are closed, right? So I tell him to steer us for a second, like I swear to god my eyes are closed for five seconds, and then he’s like, Richie!”

“My voice never sounded like that!”

Richie, look out!” Richie imitates in a high, whiny voice. “And so my eyes snap open and we are inches from a mailbox, like I don’t even know how it snuck up on us like that—”

“And we fucking fall in the ditch,” Eddie says, apparently giving up on trying to pretend it didn’t happen. “I like, throw myself from the bike—”

“Eddie was like, fuck this, I’m not taking this fall for you,” Richie laughs.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Eddie says. “And Richie just fucking. Lets the bike fall on him. In the ditch.”

“Hurt like hell,” Richie agrees, grinning. “And there were fucking...spiky burrs everywhere. So many fucking burrs, I came out of there looking like a fucking cactus. And Eddie is just sitting in three inches of water, after Double-Oh-Seven diving from a moving vehicle, and he is pissed at me.”

“Still am,” Eddie says, making the exact same face he did thirty years ago.

Richie is, as he always is, fucking dumbstruck by how much he loves him. He was back then, too. Spent half his life trying to get Eddie on the back of his bike just to feel Eddie’s hands on him, before he even knew what it meant. Did anything to get a reaction out of him. And he’s still doing it. Still fucking straining for it. Doing anything in his power. And then still getting hit over the head with the force of his own feelings.

“Anyway,” he says loudly, over Patty’s laughter and Bill’s excuses for why he never let Eddie ride on the back of Silver. “Jello?”

“No,” Stan says.

Richie grins. “Yes.”

He escapes to the kitchen to go get it, and only realizes once he’s there how tense he is, how stiff his shoulders are. He likes telling stories, obviously. Likes making people laugh. As he always did. But after the, the breakdown and everything, after all the therapy, it feels different. He’s hyperaware of how performative it all is. Sometimes, a year later, it still feels like he’s just trying to convince people he’s okay. And it’s tiring, even though he knows it doesn’t have to be. That he can relax. It’s hard to relax, even now.

He stands in the kitchen for a minute, in front of the open fridge, seeing nothing. Letting the tension drain from his shoulders, letting his foot stop its incessant tapping. He takes a deep breath, lets it out. The cool, refrigerated air feels good on his face, soothing, the same way the cold air outside felt good earlier, looking up at the sky. He moves, now, to the back sliding door, opens it up a crack and squeezes outside to feel the breeze on his skin. The snow is still falling heavily, thick and slow, just beyond the covered porch against the black sky. The whistling of the wind makes him shiver, the soft shushing noises of the snow, the distant sound of cars. It’s cold out, but quiet. Everything muffled by the snow. Blocking everything out. Keeping everything in.

And behind Richie, he hears his friends. Laughing, chatting, arguing. Laughing again. Warm and happy and together. It feels good. Knowing they’re all there. Behind him. Waiting.

“Rich?”

Richie nearly jumps out of his skin. “Huh?”

Eddie is standing just inside the door, looking out at him. “Get lost?” he says, cracking a smile. “The kitchen is inside the house.”

Richie laughs softly. “Yeah. I’m coming. Just came to look.”

Eddie hums, rakes his eyes over Richie’s face. “You okay?”

Richie smiles. Eddie looks good, like this. All backlit and dressed in a warm knitted sweater and wearing striped socks, arms crossed against his chest, leaning against the doorframe. Waiting for Richie. Wanting him to come in. To be there with him. “Yeah,” Richie says. “I’m good. You?”

Eddie huffs a laugh. “I’m good. Come on, it’s fucking cold out here. What is it with you and the cold?”

Richie doesn’t say, I like the way it stings my face and slaps air into my lungs. He doesn’t say, I like how it makes me feel something. He doesn’t say, I was scared for a long time of not feeling anything.

Looking at Eddie is the same thing. Makes him feel so much it’s almost unbearable. Aches, after a while. Settles deep into him. Like it might never leave, no matter how much he sometimes wishes for it.

But then he steps back inside, and loving Eddie is kind of like that, too—warm and familiar and so easy it’s impossible not to do it. Comfortable. So comfortable it makes you scared of being cold again. A constant push and pull.

But he’s being dramatic. He’s been living with this for most of his life, after all. All the parts that mattered, anyway. He’ll keep on living with it. Forever, maybe.

He gets the jello and brings it out to share.

<><><>

The jello salad goes over exactly how it always has, at every single function it has ever made an appearance at—everyone turns their noses up at it, deigns to take one single bite, admits it’s not as awful as they remember, and then an hour later it’s gone and everyone claims it wasn’t them that ate it all, they just took a spoon or two. Richie is terribly pleased with himself.

Richie expects to go home, after that. They had a late dinner, and took a long time to get through dessert, and Eddie’s not really one for late nights, and they drove here together. He expects for them to stick around for a little more of the post-meal chatter, and then for Eddie to start giving Richie meaningful looks and nodding towards the door. They’re planning to see everyone again tomorrow, anyway, so it’s not like they have to say goodbye for long.

But it never happens. The hour gets later, and Eddie is still talking animatedly with Stan across the table, spoon waving in the air, and then with Bev on the loveseat, club soda sloshing in his wine glass. (He drinks club soda. Richie loves him so much.) Around midnight, Richie catches him having an animated conversation about the coral reef with Ben. At 1am, he’s furiously pretending he knows a single fucking thing about football to Bill. At 2am, Mike has Eddie in a headlock on the floor, and Richie doesn’t know why, but it has him in stitches.

It’s in the middle of that mess that Patty says, laughing so hard her eyes are bright with tears, “Okay, I need to head home. This is getting absurd and Baby Uris is not pleased.”

“Agreed, I’m tapping out,” Stan says, standing up.

“Oh, Pat, just stay,” Bev says from the corner of the room. “We have a guest room.”

“You’re a sweetheart, Bev, but we’re literally a block away,” Patty laughs. “And I’ll be miserable trying to sleep without my pregnancy pillow.”

From the window, Bill turns around and says, “That offer for the guest room still open, Bev? I’m not relishing driving in this.” He jerks a thumb at the road.

Mike clambers up from the floor, with Eddie having given up against him a minute ago and the two of them just lying there, panting. “Oh, shit,” he mutters. “That’s gonna be a disaster.”

Richie groans, looking out. The drive was already rough on the way out, but the snow’s piled up since then, and he doubts the snowplows have reached all the suburbs yet.

“Oh, absolutely,” Bev says, glancing at Ben for confirmation. “Anyone’s free to stay, I don’t want anyone sliding off the road, especially not at this time of the night. Not sure we have enough room to sleep all of you, though—”

“We have a guest room, too,” Patty says, waving her hand. “And we’re not far. We can even all drive together, so we don’t have to dig more cars out of this snow.”

“We’ll go,” Richie says. “We got here last, so I probably parked you in anyway. We can take my car, and come back for yours when the snow’s cleared out a little.” He glances at Eddie quickly—he’s still sitting on the floor, his hair mussed from...whatever the fuck he and Mike were doing. “Unless you want to go home?”

Eddie cracks a smile and shakes his head. “Nah, I’m good to stay over. I was dreading the drive anyway.”

Richie smiles, and looks away from Eddie’s flushed cheeks. “Alright,” he says, heaving himself upright. “Let’s go dig out my car.”

It’s a whole ordeal, just getting the snow and ice off of Richie’s car with Stan and Eddie’s help and then backing out of the driveway when his tires just want to spin. He’s glad they didn’t decide to try driving home in this. But then they’re finally on the road, with a very pregnant woman in the back seat and Eddie behind the wheel because he apparently doesn’t trust Richie’s driving with “stakes this high” (which is cute as fuck for him to say). And Stan and Patty live literally two minutes away, but it still takes them ten, easing around corners and taking six times as long to stop at every sign and light. Eddie is tense as a stretched rubber band and Richie holds his shoulder, shakes it a little.

“Don’t distract me, asshole, we’re going to get into a fucking wreck,” Eddie snaps anxiously.

Richie grins and shoots Stan a look over his shoulder. “Eddie, who would we even hit? We’re the only people on the road.”

“We could hit a house, genius,” Eddie says.

“But we won’t, because you’re an excellent driver,” Richie says placatingly. “Right, Stan?”

“Leave me out of your lovers’ quarrel,” Stan says, rolling his eyes from the back.

“We’re not quarreling, I’m encouraging my husband,” Richie says.

“Shut the fuck up,” Eddie says tersely.

Richie grins. It’s an old joke, calling Eddie his husband, or partner, or lover, or mistress. An ancient joke, honestly. Eddie my love, he used to sing, parroting a song his mom liked from the 50s. When they were kids and Richie barely even knew what any of this meant. Eddie always just rolled his eyes.

It’s always easiest to tell the truth so loudly that everyone thinks it’s a lie.

They do make it to Stan’s eventually, and Eddie relaxes as soon as they’re all safely inside. Patty goes to get herself ready for bed, and Stan shows them to the guest room.

“Ah,” Richie says, taking in the small, cozy room in the middle of being turned into a nursery, the double bed crammed in next to the crib.

“If you make a joke about me taking the crib, Rich, I’ll strangle you,” Eddie says.

Richie grins. “Well, I just don’t know if I’ll fit—”

Stan rolls his eyes. “Sorry, the setup is for the baby. Obviously. So one of us can sleep in here if we need to.”

Richie waves his hand. “Nah, it’s fine. We’re crashing here unannounced, anyway. I can take the couch—?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Eddie says. “We can share the bed. And don’t call me short.”

“Eddie, darling, you’re making fun of yourself before I can. Give a guy some time to crack a joke.” Richie tries to smile convincingly. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, course. Rich, we’ve shared beds before.”

Stan raises his eyebrows at them. Richie adds him to his hit list.

“Yeah, when I was having a breakdown,” Richie says, forcing a laugh. “But whatever, if you’re cool with it. Let’s go to bed, I’m wiped.”

“Bathroom’s across the hall,” Stan says, already shuffling towards his room. “Don’t wake up my wife, she’ll kill you before I get a chance to. See you tomorrow.”

“Nighty night, Stan my man.” Richie blows his a kiss, which Stan blatantly ignores as he walks away. Richie turns away from him, and comes face to face with Eddie pulling his belt out of its loops. Richie licks his lips nervously. “You didn’t happen to bring your pj’s along, huh?”

“No, Richie, I didn’t think to bring anything to sleep in,” Eddie says with a snort. “Or a toothbrush, by the way, so you better hope Stan has mouthwash or something.”

I better hope?” Richie says. “What, are you planning on sleeping on my face? The bed’s not that small, Eds, we don’t have to be sucking face to fit.”

“You’re so annoying,” Eddie yawns, turning away. But Richie thinks his ears look a little red, so he counts it as a win.

Or at least, it feels like a win right up until they’re sliding into bed together in just t-shirts and underwear, closer together than Richie is strictly comfortable with when he was just talking about...making out, and Eddie being his husband, and every other dumbass comment he’s made today and every day leading up to this. Eddie was telling the truth, they have shared beds before, plenty of times, but not recently, not since Eddie got a divorce and came out as maybe-probably-gay-don’t-ask-questions and continued treating Richie exactly as he always treated him except with extra compassion because he was having a fucking mental breakdown. Well, technically they have, but Richie doesn’t count all the times Eddie got into bed with him while Richie dry-sobbed. Possibly the least romantic kind of bedsharing out there.

The point is, Richie knows how to share beds with Eddie under very specific situations, and this isn’t it. He holds his breath in the dark. After a few seconds, he hears Eddie’s breathing stop, too. Everything is very quiet.

“Are you dead.”

Richie huffs out a laugh. “Yes.”

“Oh thank god,” Eddie says dryly. “Why are you not breathing?”

“Why are you listening to my breaths?” Richie shoots back. It’s weird, hearing Eddie’s voice in the dark, his eyes still adjusting to the meagre light shining in from between the blinds. And knowing Eddie’s so close. Just inches away. Practically feeling him.

“Because I like hearing you breathe, dipshit,” Eddie says, like it’s both obvious and annoying that he asked.

Richie swallows hard into the silence and says, “That’s fucking weird, dude.”

Eddie snorts. “Shut the fuck up. It’s like a white noise machine, it’s nice. Stop talking, I’m tired as shit.”

“Such a romantic, Eddie my love,” Richie says, and then instantly regrets it.

But Eddie just laughs, soft and sleepy, and says, “Goodnight, Rich. Love you.”

Richie’s eyes immediately prick with tears. Shit, fuck. He’s such a fucking idiot. “Yeah,” he chokes out, and turns over so that his back is to Eddie. Too close, he thinks, too fucking close. This is too close to what he wants. And usually he’s so good at knowing what he is and isn’t allowed to have. At not fucking…yearning. It’s so much harder when he forgets to keep his distance. This is his own fucking fault.

He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. It’s fine. It always ends up being fine. He’s doing good, he had a good day. He spent time with his friends, who love him—Eddie loves him, and that’s still important, no matter what kind of love it is—and it’s Christmas, and he’s doing so good. And that’s all that matters.

One more deep breath, and a smile he has to scrounge up out of the depths of his chest. It’s fine. It’s good.

“Merry Christmas,” he whispers, noticing the time for the first time. It’s 3am. They’re three hours into the holiday.

He doesn’t get a response.

<><><>

The best and worst part about sharing a bed with Eddie is, Richie discovers, waking up to Eddie.

It’s too fucking early to be awake. Richie doesn’t know what time it is, but he knows he hasn’t been asleep for enough hours. But there’s sunlight streaming in through the blinds—at just the right angle to squeeze through the plastic slats, so it must be hitting late morning—and it’s falling across the bed like a personal alarm clock. Richie yawns hard enough to crack his jaw, turns away from the light.

And there’s Eddie, fast asleep, on his side facing Richie. His hair is mussed, curly in the way it gets when he doesn’t put product in it—he must have rinsed it out last night before bed. The sunlight falls across his face, clearly not bothering him in the least, highlighting the spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks. He has one especially dark freckle just under his left eye, and two on his lower lip, and if Richie lets himself look for too long, he’s going to want to kiss them. He always wants to kiss them.

But what really kills him is Eddie’s hand, reaching out between them, palm up on the mattress. Like he’s offering it to Richie to hold, like he wants Richie to take it. Or like maybe they were holding hands, at some point, and Richie was the one who let go.

Richie closes his eyes, and sighs. It’s warm under the covers, and comfortable. He can hear Eddie’s breaths puffing between them. He looks so soft like this, so vulnerable. Eddie is all sharp edges during the day, quick words that cut through the air and harsh expressions. He’s gotten softer over the past year. Gentler. For Richie’s sake, he suspects. But maybe not. They’ve all changed.

But right now, like this, in the warm morning light, he looks especially so. And Richie wants so badly to keep him.

He drags himself out of bed. It’s not a good idea, to want.

Patty’s already up, making herself toast in the kitchen, so Richie joins her, pours himself some orange juice, chats with her quietly in the warm morning light. A few minutes later, there’s noise from the bathroom, and then Stan stumbles in, hair wild, eyes bleary. He swings around Patty’s chair, kisses her forehead, pats her belly. He doesn’t say anything—Stan never did, not until noon at least unless provoked—but Patty smiles and meets his eyes and they seem to be talking anyway. Richie envies them that, this easy silence, the way they orbit around each other like breathing. Richie is happy with what he has, friends like family and people who love him and live nearby, but sometimes he sees Stan and Patty, or Bev and Ben, and he wishes he had something like that, too. A person.

A specific person, he thinks, as Eddie groans audibly from the guest room and then heaves himself into the hallway. Richie grins and turns away, because he already decided not to think about that today. He didn’t write a wishlist this year. He didn’t ask for a Christmas miracle. So he doesn’t get to yearn like this.

“Morning, dickwads,” Eddie says a minute later as he shuffles into the kitchen, looking like he’s still half asleep. His hair is so cute, and he’s rubbing his hands vigorously over his freshly-washed face. “Sorry, not you, Patty, I love you.”

Patty grins and starts to get up carefully from her chair. “Sit down, Eddie, I’ll get you something to eat.”

“I would rather die than make a pregnant woman make me breakfast, Patricia, sit the fuck down.”

There are only three chairs around their little table, with one side of it pushed up against a wall and the old extra seat replaced by a high chair. Eddie slathers raspberry jam on a slice of toast and then walks over to bump Richie’s shoulder with his hip before attempting to squeeze onto the edge of his chair next to him.

Richie laughs and says, “You could just ask me to get up,” but Eddie shrugs, starts eating. Richie doesn’t move, letting the warmth from Eddie’s side seep into him. He’s a bit of a masochist, sometimes, but he also craves this in general. Richie’s become even more tactile than he used to be, desperate to be touched, to be comforted. Not even in a sexual kind of way, or romantic or anything. He takes it from anyone. Soaks it in like a sponge. Relishes this physical evidence that someone likes him, that someone feels comfortable enough with him to touch him. That he’s not repulsive.

And sue him, he especially likes it from Eddie, who has seen him at his worst, who has seen his nearly-naked body, who has seen him depressed and disgusting and weeping and shaking, who has seen him prepubescent and gangly, and middle-aged and gross. Eddie, who is, if nothing else, probably-mostly-gay, and even if he’s not interested in Richie at all like that, it still means something. It means something to Richie, that Eddie can touch him with such ease.

They spend the morning at Stan and Patty’s, relaxing and dozing in the living room and snacking on Hanukkah gifts and baked goods from Patty’s family. It’s a gorgeous day today, sunny and brilliantly white, and the plows have been through by now, clearing off the roads. They get word that Bill and Mike have both gone home to get their gifts—Eddie harrasses Richie about how great it was that Eddie thought ahead enough to have made sure both of them had their own presents ready and in the car yesterday already. Obnoxious, adorable motherfucker.

Around one in the afternoon, they pack up and make their way back to Ben and Bev’s place. The plan had been to have the second half of their festivities at Bill’s place, but with the weather and all of their cars still at the Marsh-Hanscom House, they decide against it on a whim, agree to just order pizza later on in the evening. So they load Stan and Patty’s presents into the trunk of their car next to Eddie’s and Richie’s and drive the two blocks back.

“Hey, Rich,” Stan says when they reach the house, grabbing armloads of presents from the trunk. “I’ll grab your stuff if you make sure my wife doesn’t wipe out on this ice, please.”

“Oh, it would be my pleasure,” Richie says, pushing off from where he’s leaning against the passenger door to reach for Patty’s hand as she levers herself out of the backseat. “Though maybe you should ask Eddie, he has a very low center of gravity.”

“Ha fucking ha, dickface. I’ll kill you.”

Richie grins, watching him go by with his arms full of wrapped boxes. “You can’t, I’m helping the pregnant lady.”

“Are you?” Patty says, holding onto his hand as she gets her footing. “To me it looks like you’re checking out Eddie’s ass.”

Richie chokes and looks away quickly, hoping fervently that Eddie didn’t hear. Goddamn perceptive woman.

He and Patty walk arm and arm up the slick driveway, and then out of the cold and into the warmth of the house. In the doorway, he holds onto her so that she can toe out of her wet shoes. Something bumps into his head, and he glances up. “Bev, why is there holly hanging from your ceiling?”

“That’s mistletoe!” Bev calls from the kitchen. “Kiss!”

“That’s not mistletoe, mistletoe is white,” Richie says.

“I know, but we don’t have any mistletoe, so just pretend that’s what it looks like!” Bev yells.

Eddie pokes his head into the front hall, brows raised. “You better do it, I had to kiss Stan.”

Richie goes warm. “Gross,” he says, and then turns to Patty, who rolls her eyes with a smile.

“This is against basic human rights!” Richie yells, already stooping. “This is poor consent culture!”

“Ask her for consent then, moron!” Bev yells back. “Hold on, I’m getting my camera!”

“Patricia?” Richie says, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Don’t tell my husband,” Patty says, and offers her cheek.

“Sounds like your husband’s been kissing men,” Richie says, and leans down to give her a wet kiss on her rosy cheek.

There’s a click of camera shutters. Bev is wielding a Polaroid like a weapon. Eddie is looking on fondly.

“Does Bev still have that camera?” Stan calls from wherever he’s depositing his presents. “Give that to me, I have to destroy it.”

“It’s too late, I already heard what happened,” Patty says, wandering away in her socks. “Eddie, you’ve stolen my man fair and square.”

“He’s a tough nut to crack,” Eddie says with a grin, and Bev holds out a photo for Patty to see—she laughs delightedly. Richie is too worried looking at it will awaken something in him, either lust or jealousy; he pretends to be distracted by his shoelaces.

He makes it to the living room eventually, where everyone has gathered to open presents. Eddie and Stan already brought Richie’s in—he just got everyone personalized Losers Club shirts, including one for Baby Uris. He thinks they’re fucking cute, but it’s not like they’re that thoughtful.

Thankfully, he’s not the only one who doesn’t have extremely meaningful gifts, although everyone does love their shirts—even if Eddie punches Richie in the arm for putting Eds on the back of his, and Bill rolls his eyes at his saying Big Bill.

“Be grateful I didn’t make yours say Spaghetti Man, because trust me, I really considered it,” Richie says, tearing open his present from Mike—a book, like it always is. But it’s a graphic novel, and it looks pretty badass, so it gets a pass.

“I’m not sure whether to be offended or deeply grateful for this,” Eddie says, opening what looks to be a deep tissue massage gift certificate from Bev.

“Grateful. But you may curse my name while they put you through the wringer,” Bev says graciously.

“Yeah, okay,” Eddie says with a laugh, and then starts handing out his own presents.

Richie doesn’t pay close attention to what other people are getting from Eddie, busy unboxing one of those heavy weighted blankets from Stan—“For those depression naps; I know how it is.” When an envelope falls into his lap, he barely even thinks before ripping it open. There’s just a slip of paper inside, and single, gold token.

Rich— the letter inside says, in cramped, familiar handwriting. You never actually got to face this fear in Derry. I wanted to give you another chance. You, too, are braver than you think. -Eddie

“Eddie,” Richie says, too loudly, a little wobbly.

Eddie looks back from where he’s giving his gift to Ben. “Huh?”

“C’mere,” Richie says. “I need to give you a hug.”

“Oh.” Eddie grins. “Okay.”

Richie tries to get up at the same time that Eddie gets a knee on the couch to come to him, and they sort of fall together, Richie arms around his waist, squeezing tight. “Thanks,” he whispers against the curly hair tickling at his nose. “I really appreciate it.”

“Course, Rich. Chuck that thing into the fucking sea or something. You’ve earned it.”

Richie smiles into his hair, eyes wet, and kisses the side of his head soft enough that he thinks Eddie won’t notice.

There’s the familiar click of camera shutters. “Oh!” Bev says, a second too late to disguise it. “Ben made cupcakes earlier. Can someone help me bring them out?”

Richie sniffs and squeezes Eddie one more time, and then struggles out from under him, before things get out of hand. “I will,” he says, leaving Eddie on the couch in his place. “I’m snacky.”

“I meant someone other than you,” Bev says, rolling her eyes.

“What, you don’t like me, Marsh?” Richie says, snatching the Polaroid out of her devious hands and tossing it to Bill nearby. “You think I can’t handle a couple cupcakes?”

“You’re dumb and oblivious, darling,” Bev says, patting his cheek. “But now you’re already up, so forget it. Come on.”

Richie shrugs and follows her.

“Ah!” Ben calls from the floor. “Mistletoe!”

Richie freezes and looks up. There is, indeed, another sprig of fake holly hanging above the doorway to the kitchen. “Ohoho, lookie here.”

Bev grins and rolls her eyes. “Lay it on me, Tozier.”

“It’s my one and only dream,” Richie says, and plants a loud, sucking kiss on her freckled cheek. When he pulls back, he says, “Unfair that I’m kissing all these ladies and no ladies are kissing me.”

“I can’t reach your face,” Bev says with a laugh. “Lean down a little.”

Richie tips his head down obligingly, and Bev places a delicate kiss on the bridge of his nose. Richie grins. She doesn’t recoil. No one recoils from Richie, not anymore, not like he always imagined people would, how his friends would if they knew what he was. It’s nice to be touched. Nice to be loved.

“So?” Bev says as they get the cupcakes out of the fridge. “Oh, Richie, can you help me put little pretzel antlers into these? Ben would be so sad if he realized he forgot to do the pretzel antlers.”

Richie snorts and takes the tray to the table. “Sure. I’m a known cupcake artist.”

“Oh, I believe it.” Bev brings a bag of pretzel sticks from a cupboard, glances at him. “Anyway. So? How are things going.”

Richie groans. “Bev, you don’t have to ask me that. I don’t need to be coddled.”

“I’m not coddling you, moron, I’m asking you how you’re doing.” Bev elbows him, and not that gently. “How are things? How’s Eddie?”

“How’s Eddie? What is he, my dog?”

Bev gives him a meaningful look, which Richie thinks would be more effective if he knew the meaning behind it. “Why are you being so cagey? Don’t keep secrets from me, Tozier.”

“I’m not! I’m fine, Eddie is...fine? You can ask him yourself? I’m fine.”

“Richie,” Bev says. Richie hasn’t heard that tone since he last called his mom.

He sighs gustily. “Honestly, Bev, just. It’s tiring for people to ask me how I’m doing all the time. I know you just want to know. But everyone just wants to know, all the time. You have one fucking breakdown and everyone thinks you’re a ticking timebomb for the rest of your life. I’m good. I’m fine. My therapist is very proud of me. My psychiatrist thinks the meds are working well. If someone uses their special I-know-you-have-depression-so-I’m-treating-you-like-glass voice on me one more time I’ll scream. Like, I promise, I appreciate the thought. But it’s fucking exhausting.”

Bev looks at him thoughtfully. Richie's breaths are too loud and obvious between them, and he abruptly feels embarrassed. Bev's hip bumps against his. “I love you,” she says.

Richie’s eyes prickle with tears unexpectedly. He laughs. “I love you too.”

“I worry that you won’t tell anyone if you’re not doing well. I know things are different since last year. But I worry.”

Richie quirks a smile. “That’s fair. I do love to repress my emotions and never tell anyone anything.”

“I know.” Bev pats his arm, and starts getting out pretzel sticks, sticking them into cupcakes. A few seconds pass in silence, and Richie starts helping her until she says, “From now on, instead of asking how you are, I’ll just say getting fucked, Tozier? and you can just say hell yeah, Bev! Or hell no, obviously, if that’s the answer.”

Richie laughs out loud. “What the fuck does that even mean?”

Bev shrugs, places another antler artfully. “I don’t know. That’s the point. It’s a code.”

Richie grins and shakes his head. “Okay. You know what? I’m in. Don’t tell anyone about our secret code.”

“Pinky promise,” Bev says, and offers her little finger.

Richie seals the deal. “You’re the only girl I’ll ever love, Beverly Marsh.”

“I’m telling Patty you said that,” Bev says smugly.

Richie gets to bask in that for about six seconds before a voice—Patty’s—calls, “Eddie, is this your jacket? Black peacoat, red lining?”

“Yeah, why?” Eddie calls back warily.

“Don’t sound so panicked, I just knocked it off the coat rack, and I think something fell out of the pocket. It’s a letter, or something?”

“Don’t read that!” Eddie says, way too quickly.

“Oh, never mind, I think it’s a poem,” Patty says. “Or something. It’s very romantic, I don’t think it’s yours.”

There’s a moment of very heavy silence, and then Stan says, “Well look at that, a budding Ben Hanscom.”

“Sorry!” Patty calls. “I put it back!”

“It’s not a fucking poem,” Eddie hisses, voice low, like he's not sure he wants anyone to hear. “It’s just, fucking. Notes.”

Notes?” says Bill. “For what?”

“Nothing,” Eddie says. “Shut up.”

“Like, speech notes?” Mike says. “Eds, are you planning a confession?”

“Oh my god,” Eddie says. “Shut the fuck up.”

Richie’s stomach drops through the floor.

“Eddie’s planning a confession,” Bill declares. “Guys, this is big news.”

“I’m not planning anything!” Eddie says, but his voice is a hiss, frantic and embarrassed. “It’s just, it’s notes.”

“Right, for no one in particular, I’m sure,” Stan says dryly.

“I’m just thinking ahead!” Eddie insists.

Richie needs to sit down.

“Does Eddie have a secret boyfriend?” says Ben. “Hey, Bev! Does Eddie have a secret boyfriend?”

Bev glances at Richie uncertainly. Richie wishes she wouldn’t. “Leave me out of this!” she yells back.

“I think it’s sweet,” Ben says. “I didn’t know you were seeing someone.”

“Shut the fuck up, I’m. I’m not seeing—” Eddie makes a frustrated noise. “It’s not for right now.”

“But it’s for someone,” Bill presses.

Eddie doesn’t say a fucking thing.

Richie swallows thickly. It’s fine. He’s fine. It’s not like— He can’t say anything. It’s not like Eddie’s not allowed to, to move on. He’s been divorced for a year, and he talks about guys sometimes. Not dates, really, but guys he knows. From work, or from the gym, or the nice barista who gives him extra espresso shots for free sometimes. Richie’s been pretending not to hate them for a year now. As if that would stop Eddie from falling for any of them.

Bev is still looking at him. Richie forces a smile. “Good for him,” he says, too quietly for anyone in the living room to hear.

“Rich?” Bev says carefully.

Richie shakes his head. “Let’s get these decorated!” he says quickly. He prays for his voice not to crack. “One thousand pairs of antlers coming right up!”

His voice wavers at the end there, and he grimaces. It’s fine. He’s glad he’s...not in the room with the others. That he doesn’t have to see Eddie’s face, his red ears, his embarrassed frown. That he doesn’t have to see Eddie trying to keep this a secret, like he doesn’t want them—want Richie—to know. He’s especially glad he doesn’t have to see the notes. Shit, fuck.

God, fucking Christmas. He hates it so fucking much. Nothing good has ever happened to him on Christmas.

He can’t escape the living room forever, though. There’s only two dozen cupcakes to decorate, and then they’re ready to be brought out, and Richie can’t just stay in the kitchen. So he goes back, trails along behind Bev, pastes a half-smile to his face. Everyone seems to have moved on from the Eddie talk. Eddie himself is still on the couch, where Richie was sitting before. He catches Richie’s eye and pats the space between himself and Stan.

Richie works up a smile and shakes his head, sits down on the floor in front of the TV, out of his direct line of sight.

“Rich?” Eddie says, forces Richie to look at him again. He looks confused, maybe a little hurt.

Richie just flashes him another smile, shakes his head again, looks away. He knows he’s acting fucking weird. But he can’t. He can’t look at him. He can’t sit next to him, pressed up against him, feel the weight and warmth of him against his side. He’s really fucking close to crying as it is.

It’s not that he—that he thought Eddie would just stay single forever. He never necessarily thought that. But it feels like it’s too soon. Selfishly, Richie wanted to have him to himself for a little bit longer. He, he wanted to have Eddie forever and. It’s not like he’ll lose him. He lives right next to Richie. Unless he moves out. God. Richie’s going to miss him so much. He already misses him so much, it’s ridiculous, nothing has even changed. He said it’s for the future. He said it’s not for right now—but it’s for one day, and it’s for someone. He must have someone. And Richie isn’t ready. Stupidly, he didn’t prepare himself for this.

He barely says a word for the rest of the afternoon. People notice—because of course they do, usually the trouble is getting Richie to shut up—but when they ask, Richie just smiles and says he doesn’t feel well. Which is true, at least. His stomach fucking hurts, his head feels hot, he feels like puking. His head is spinning, mostly between don’t fucking think about it and what, exactly, is making me so fucking upset? But he knows. He knows, and he hates it.

I’m jealous, he tells himself, because it’s the truth and he should acknowledge it. I’m jealous of whoever it is. I’m jealous that Eddie wants them and not me.

But there’s something else. Something even harder to swallow. Something rooted more in self-loathing, something caustic and rancid. They have something I don’t have, he thinks, and ’they’ means everyone who isn’t me. He thinks: I have never had that something. He thinks: No one has ever wanted me like that.

Richie has made progress in the past year. A lot of it. He has overcome hurdles he never thought he would. Accepted parts of himself he never thought he’d accept. He has learned how to feel loved and wanted and fucking worthy of love. But god, this is still always the hardest part. Being single is not Richie’s greatest struggle. It’s just, fucking...the implication of it. Lots of people care about him, love him, but not like that. Never like that.

“Richie?” Bev says, softly, but not softly enough. She’s watching him from the other side of the room. “You good?”

Richie musters up at least half of a smile, chest aching, eyes burning, feeling the pain of it in his fucking teeth. “Getting fucked, Bev.”

She bites her lip, half a smile, half a worried frown. Like she’s not sure if it’s the answer she wanted. Richie isn’t either.

He tries to pay attention to what other people are saying, tries not to look at Eddie unless he absolutely has to. It’s not Eddie’s fault—Richie’s not mad at him. It just hurts. But he tries to look at everyone else, his friends, his family. Their smiling faces as they make their jokes, tell their stories. No one asks Richie anymore questions. It’s only been a year, after all, since they saw him much worse than this. They learned.

It takes an hour, but he pulls himself together, a little. The shock of it wears off, starts fading into heavy resignation. Maybe it’s part denial, part suppression. It’s not like he can fully deal with this right now, in the middle of a crowd. So he buries it in his chest, ignores the ache of it as he slides back into conversation, pastes a grin on his face, cracks a few weak jokes. They play a few rounds of cards, and Richie throws himself into it, grateful for the distraction.

“I fucking hate this game,” Richie says with a laugh that’s only a little shaky. “All I do is lose and forget the rules.”

“Technically Bill is losing,” Bev says, holding the score sheet. “By thirty points.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Bill says, unperturbed.

“See? Bill doesn’t even know what he’s doing and he’s only losing by thirty points. I’m just losing for no reason.” And ain’t that the fucking rub.

“Bill’s losing because he doesn’t care and lives in perpetual chaos,” Eddie says. “Richie’s losing because he fucking sucks.”

Richie’s breath skips. “Hey, aren’t we going to order pizza?” He throws down his cards like they’re burning his hands. “I’ll go find a place that’s open on Christmas. You guys keep playing.”

Seven pairs of eyes watch him stand up and move to the kitchen to make the call. No one stops him. Richie doesn’t think he wanted them to, but he’s never fucking sure.

It’s not actually that hard to find a place that’s open today, and he already knows everyone’s orders—they all get pizza every other Thursday. He looks up a menu, makes the call. Takes a few deep breaths. Looks at his reflection in the microwave door. Tries out a semi-convincing smile, and sighs.

He runs directly into Eddie on his way back through to the living room, has to grab his shoulder to stop both of them from ending up on the floor. Eddie looks up at him and laughs a little, and Richie manages a snort.

“Watch it, Kaspbrak,” he says, and tries to maneuver around him.

“I’m just trying to get some water, you’re blocking my way to hydration,” Eddie tells him very seriously.

“I’m trying to move, just—”

“Ah!” Ben calls from the floor. “Kiss!”

Richie freezes. Eddie freezes too, shoulder going stiff under his hand. They look up.

That stupid fucking fake holly, hanging over their heads.

“Uh oh, Tozier,” Eddie says, eyebrows doing something complicated and incomprehensible. “You don’t know where these lips have been today.”

“Aha,” Richie says. “I’ll pass.”

“Kiss!” Patty sings.

Richie avoids Eddie’s eyes, doesn’t want to see what face he’s making, whatever look he’s giving Richie. “Nah, I’m good. I’m saving myself for marriage, actually.”

“Oh, come on, Rich,” Eddie laughs, fingers at Richie’s elbow.

“I had to kiss him,” Stan complains. “Bev, where’s your camera now?”

“Rich—” Bev starts.

“Could you, like, lean down?” Eddie says, tugging on Richie’s arm a little.

Richie’s heart kicks up into his throat. He stares at the wall over Eddie’s shoulder. “No thank you.”

“God, you’re really making this difficult,” Eddie says, and Richie sees him leaning in in his peripheral vision. His head goes chaotic and dark.

“Eddie,” he says, stepping back. “I don’t want to.”

When Richie finally manages to look, Eddie looks like he’s been slapped. His hand falls from Richie’s elbow. “Rich?” he says. “You okay?”

Richie’s breath comes sharp and shallow. Everyone always asks that, and he never fucking knows the answer.

He ekes out something that might be a smile, and then he turns and walks back through the kitchen doorway, to the back sliding door, and outside onto the deck.

The frigid winter air slaps him in the face, shocking enough that the wetness gathering in his eyes seems to freeze on contact. He sucks in a deep breath, moves to the deck stairs to sit down. The first stair is protected by the overhang—he rests his feet there, protected by just his socks, as he sits down, a few inches above the snow. It’s fucking cold outside, but he doesn’t care, stuffing his hands into his sweater pockets and hunching his shoulders. It’s kind of nice, in a way. Bracing.

He always seems to end up back here. Outside, in the cold. It clears his head, and he thinks maybe that’s why he does it. Likes the sharpness of it, the crystal clarity of it. The porch lights are sparkling off the snow, hard and glittering. The sky is dark, the moon is out. It makes Richie feel very small, but in a way that he likes. The world is so fucking big, and Richie is just one guy. And things fucking suck. Things fucking suck a lot of the time. Less now than they used to. But it’s the same feeling. Of everything being so big and so hard, and him just being one person. And he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to do it. But everyone else does. And so he tries. And he tries. And he tries. And eventually, he’ll get it. Eventually, eventually. Look at how long he’s been doing it. Forty fucking years. One cold fucking night at a time.

The door slides open behind him. Richie breathes out fog. Inhales ice into his lungs.

Eddie sits down next to him. “Hey,” he says. He’s wearing his shoes, and a coat. Like a person with some actual forethought.

Richie has to bite his tongue before he can say, “Hey.”

“I’m sorry,” Eddie says, in a huff of breath. “I—I’m sorry for that. Back there. I didn’t mean to, to make you. Kiss me.”

Richie shakes his head. “It’s fine. I said no.”

“I know, I. I should have stopped right away.”

Richie shrugs. “You’re fine.” Richie’s the problem.

Eddie sighs, a plume of condensation in front of his face. He’s not touching Richie anywhere, but Richie still feels the urge to move farther away from him. He can feel Eddie’s presence like electricity. Always has.

“Rich,” Eddie says carefully. “Listen.”

God. God. No, Richie doesn’t want to fucking listen.

“I.” Eddie rubs his hands over the tops of his thighs. “I know this is all, like. New for you. Being out, and...and gay and. But, you know, sometimes when you’ve been conditioned to hate something for so long even when you know it’s not bad or when you, you are that thing, it can be hard, yeah? To accept it, or see it in other people—”

A short bark of laughter burst from Richie’s lungs before he can even think of stopping it. “What, you— You think I’m angsting over all my internalized homophobia?”

Eddie looks at him with eyes that could cut glass. “Don’t fucking laugh,” he says. “What am I supposed to think? You didn’t have a problem kissing Bev or Pat, earlier. And to be honest, you seemed pretty pissed about me being into a man, I mean, just. Maybe you’re fine with being gay as a concept but in action you’re like—”

This time, when Richie laughs, it’s a little less harsh, more genuine. His throat feels less like it’s about to close up completely. “Eddie, no, fuck. That’s not it. That’s so not it. I mean I might have that too, kind of, but like. Not for this.”

Eddie frowns deeply. His dimples are so deep when he does that, and Richie hates that he notices it every time. And the way his hair curls around his ears, and the way his freckles stand out against his cold-flushed cheeks. “So then what?” Eddie says, snapping Richie back to reality. “You’d be fine kissing any other man?”

Richie sighs, looking back out across the yard. He tries not to think about it, honestly, as a rule. But all he says is, “Yeah, tell Ben to come out here right now. Let me at ‘em.”

Eddie scoffs, loud and harsh. “So it’s just me, huh.”

Richie wrinkles his nose, blinks hard. God, he wishes this conversation was over. This is hard enough without Eddie here, reminding him of all the ways he falls short. “Yeah, it’s just you,” he says, too blunt, too honest. “Can you, like, fuck off? I’m trying to freeze to death in the snow.”

“Wow, what the fuck, dude.” Eddie stands up abruptly, and Richie hates that that’s exactly what he wanted, and yet still feels like he wants him to stay. “Fucking forget it, I’ll try to fucking—care about you less, I guess.”

Richie smiles out at the snow until he hears the door close behind him, because it’s the only thing keeping him from fucking crying. And he can’t cry right now. It’s too fucking cold.

The cold goes from being painful to being numbing. Richie sits and stares. He breathes. That’s all he can do, right now. Inhale, exhale. God. What a fucking mess.

And then the door opens again, and Richie thinks it’s Eddie. Back to confront him, maybe, or to apologize, or to demand an apology. Or to hold Richie’s face between his palms and say, Hey. You in there?

But it’s not Eddie. It’s Stan, dropping Richie’s coat around his shoulders before sitting down on the top step of the porch stairs beside him, where Eddie was before. He looks at the side of Richie’s face, and Richie looks out at the snow. Neither of them says anything.

Stan lifts his hand, and smacks Richie over the head, hard.

“Ow,” Richie hisses. “What.”

Stan huffs out a short laugh, and presses up close to Richie on the step, his body long and warm and solid. He doesn’t shy away from Richie. Not Stan. “Richie,” he says.

For some reason it makes Richie want to cry again. Stan, his best fucking friend since they were kids. The first friend he had, in a sea of other kids who couldn’t stand him. Who saw him and hated his jokes and thought yeah, okay, I’ll stick with him anyway. I’ll stick with him. And he did. God. “What,” he croaks.

He sees the corner of Stan’s smile. “Richie,” he says again. “I know this year has been shit for you. Listen. I know.”

“I know,” Richie says, and the words barely come out. He knows Stan knows. Maybe better than anyone. He knows that Stan had his own huge fucking breakdown, and he knows that Stan didn’t have the Losers around to help him out of it.

Stan slides a warm hand around the back of Richie’s neck, holds it there. Grounding. “I know this year has been shit for you, but Rich. You gotta pull yourself together.”

Despite himself, Richie barks out a laugh, eyes prickling. “People don’t usually say that to me.”

“I know. They feel like they’re probably not allowed. But I know that you can, Richie. I’m not saying that you have to be all the way better right now. Because obviously that’s not possible. And you’re allowed to feel like shit and need to take breathers and have lapses in judgement.” He squeezes Richie’s neck. “But at some point it’s time for you to pull yourself back together, and I fucking know that you can. We’re all here for you. We’re capable and willing to help you. But some things you have to do yourself. Yeah?”

Richie sags against him, tired and aching, and closes his eyes. Hot tears leak out from between his eyelashes and drip down his cheeks, cold lines of ice. “Yeah,” he says, sniffing. “It’s just fucking hard.”

“I know,” Stan says, and moves his arm around Richie’s shoulders, hugs him tight against his side. And it feels so good, to have someone holding him up, steady and solid. “And Rich, I know your therapist’s probably said this a hundred times, but. Sometimes, it’s going to have to hurt before it can get better.”

Richie squeezes his eyes shut and thinks about Eddie, inside, not fucking knowing what he did wrong. And Richie, never telling him the truth. “I know,” he whispers.

The door opens again. A knit hat is pulled down over Richie’s ears sloppily. Bill drops down to the deck on his other side, leans into Richie like he belongs there. “Hey,” he says. “Enjoying the view?”

“Yeah, fucking ace,” Richie sniffs. “Stan’s telling me I need to get my life together.”

Stan laughs softly. “I didn’t say that. All I’m saying is, I think you’ve spent enough time outside in the cold. But I can’t drag you inside myself. You’re going to have to stand up on your own.”

Bill hums, head tucked up against Richie’s shoulder. “Not to bring up the clown on this holy day, but. If that bastard taught us one thing, it was that by sticking together, and sticking up for each other, we win. But buddy, you gotta pull your weight.”

Richie laughs, wet and tired. “Yeah. Yeah.”

“It’s time to pull that fucking bat out of the trash pile,” Bill says. “This is your moment.”

Richie smiles tearfully, breath shuddering in his chest. It’s so fucking good, to be sitting here, not alone, but with his two oldest friends. For so long, he was so scared of them not accepting him, and not loving him. Not if they knew him. But they do. They know him, and they’re here. With him.

“God,” he says, throat thick. “I wish Eddie was here.”

“I know,” Stan says, voice barely a hum.

He wants Eddie, because he always does. He wants Eddie to come and hold his face and ask him if he’s okay and peel him up off the ground like he did last year. Eddie makes things better. But Richie has to do things himself sometimes. And he can. He’s strong enough. He’s brave enough.

He moves one numb hand to his pocket, where the gold token is warm from his body heat. Thirty years ago, Richie was scared fucking stiff of who he was and the things he wanted. And in Derry, he started—just started—to face that fear. But he never got a chance to, back then. Not until after, when he stood up and looked at himself in the mirror and thought, that’s who I am. That fucker right there. And he thought, back then, that saying it to his own face was facing it. And then he thought that it was saying it to his friends. And then to his parents. And then to the general public. And then to his therapist. And it was, it was, but that still wasn’t all of it. There was still, always, at the heart of it, the wanting. And the shame behind the wanting. That’s what this fucking token says to him. Remember that? Remember how scared you were of your own desire?

He’s still fucking scared. But not being afraid isn’t what being brave means.

“I’m in love with him,” he says, the words tearing out of his chest like a scab. “Did you know that?”

Silence rings through the air. Bill and Stan don’t let go of him.

“I don’t know,” Stan says. “Maybe I did.”

“I don’t know most things,” Bill says. “But I’m not shocked.”

“I need to get up,” Richie says. He swallows hard.

Stan turns his head, kisses the side of Richie’s skull, just under the brim of his hat. “Okay.” He peels himself away, stands up.

“Attaboy,” Bill says, and gives Richie a quick hug, gets up on Richie’s other side. “Need a hand?”

Richie shakes his head, looks out at the snow. He plants his feet firmly and heaves himself up, legs shaking.

“There you go,” Stan says.

“We’ll go inside first,” Bill says, patting his shoulder. “See you in a minute?”

Richie nods. “Thanks, guys. I mean it.”

“Nah,” Stan says.

Bill hums. “Losers stick together.”

They go inside. Richie stays, and breathes deep.

The cold still feels good, on his face and in his lungs. In a too-sharp, too-bright kind of way. But it’s time to go inside now. It’s time to get out of the cold.

He turns around and opens the door.

<><><>

The heat of the house burns when Richie steps inside. His frozen fingers and toes sear with pain from the change in temperature, and then itch fiercely. It’s a good kind of pain, though, a healing pain. Like it’s burning something away. Richie stands there in the kitchen for a minute, letting it fade, and when it does, he feels lighter.

It’s so warm inside, and something about that pricks at Richie’s eyes. He can hear his friends talking in low voices in the living room. It smells like the cupcakes Ben baked earlier, and like wood smoke—there’s a fire crackling in the living room. Richie squares his shoulders, and smiles. Because everything fucking sucks, a lot of the time, but if nothing else, all of his friends are here, together. And they’re inside, where it’s warm. And that’s good.

He leaves his coat and hat hanging over a chair and walks into the living room, and knows immediately that Eddie isn’t there. Before he can ask why, Bev stands up, wraps her arms around him. Richie smiles, hugs her back, tucks his cold face into the crook of her neck. Ben stands too, grips his shoulder, slides his hand down to Richie’s to squeeze it. Mike smiles up at him from the couch and reaches for his other hand. Richie’s eyes burn. God, he loves his friends so goddamn much.

He sniffles a little when they all pull away, smiles his bravest smile. “Thanks,” he says roughly. “Where’s—”

“He went down the hall,” Patty says, watching them with fond eyes from the armchair. “I’m guessing guest room.”

Richie nods, swallows thickly. His heart beats loudly in his chest. He’s not— He’s not going to let his own stupidity ruin another Christmas. He won’t.

“Okay,” he says. “Thanks.”

He leans down when he passes by Patty’s chair to kiss her cheek. Because he loves her, too, and because she’s a Loser now. And then he walks out of the living room, into the hall.

Eddie is, indeed, in the guest room, sitting on the edge of the bed, back to the door, staring out the window. His arms and legs are all crossed tightly, like he’s holding himself together through sheer force of willpower. Richie sighs and knocks gently on the doorframe. “Hey.”

“Fuck off,” Eddie says, voice quiet and tight.

Richie swallows and considers it, considers backing off and giving it some time. But he can’t. He can’t let this fester. He pads into the room, rounds the bed. Sits down next to Eddie and joins him in staring at the dark window. Eddie doesn’t move except to shift away from him, probably—hopefully—just to get his balance when Richie makes the mattress dip. Richie twists his red, aching fingers together in his lap. “Eds,” he says softly. “I’m...sorry.”

Eddie doesn’t respond, just jerks his head in a quick nod.

Richie chews on his lip. “I was being a dick. I shouldn’t have...said what I said. Not like that.”

“Yeah, you got that fucking right,” Eddie mutters.

God, this is so hard. Richie has to remind himself to breathe. “I was just...upset. And I needed some time. And I—I think it’s too easy, sometimes, for me to. Be a dick. Because I’ve been able to use the fact that I’m, I’m a fucking mess, as an excuse. For too long. But that’s shitty of me. I still am. A mess, you know. But that’s not why I said that shit. That was just me being an asshole, and I’m sorry. I—I’m trying to get better. And be better.”

Eddie lets out a short breath. “Well, good,” he says. “I haven’t sunk all this time and effort into helping you recover for nothing.” And then, after a weighty pause, “I’m sorry I tried to kiss you. I won’t do it again.”

Richie blinks hard, forces a smile onto his face. “Yeah, no, I—” God, shit, his chest fucking hurts. “It’s okay. I was just, I was being...dramatic. I’m sensitive, you know, today. I know we’re trying not to let our trauma be an excuse but, just. Christmas is usually really shit, for me. Last year especially. Brings back...bad memories. I’m working through some shit. So. It wasn’t your fault.”

Eddie sighs, and uncrosses his arms. He reaches out, settles a hand on Richie’s knee. Squeezes a little, rubs his thumb over rough denim.

Richie can’t handle it. “Eddie,” he says, a little choked. He pulls his knee away. “You can’t do that, to me.”

“Oh.” Eddie’s hand hovers in midair for a second, and then he pulls it back quickly, curls it into a fist and smacks it down on his own thigh, like a punishment. “Okay. I—god. So you weren’t lying, huh? It’s just me.”

Richie’s eyes feel hot, his face is burning. “I can’t,” he says quietly, voice thick. “I can’t, I need— time.”

“Time for what, Richie? Am I really that repulsive? That you need time to recover from—” Eddie stops short, and his voice goes quiet. “Oh, god. Shit. You know, don’t you.”

Richie doesn’t want to answer, his heart clenching painfully in his chest. “About?”

“The fucking…notes. You know.”

Richie bites his tongue. Christ, he doesn’t want to think about it. He really doesn’t want to think about it. “I. Yeah, Eds, I could hear you all from the kitchen.”

“No, but you— God, I don’t know why I’m pressing this, you obviously— Look, Rich, I’m sorry. I thought, maybe... I wasn’t going to, it was just, but. You’ve made yourself very clear, and I just, I wasn’t picking it up, and then the fucking. Mistletoe, and. No fucking wonder you were pissed.” Eddie laughs, wet and a little hysteric. “I’m sorry. Shit.”

Richie’s blood runs cold. He feels lost and confused, but Eddie sounds like he’s finally figuring something out, and Richie only has one secret. Fuck. Richie does know. He knows that...that Eddie knows. And that Eddie doesn’t feel the same.

The token is heavy in his pocket. Richie touches it through his jeans and takes a deep breath. “Eds, I’m sorry,” he says quietly.

“No, fuck, it’s okay,” Eddie says, wiping his face quickly. “It’s not your fault.”

God, if Eddie’s crying, then things are really falling apart. Richie wonders if this is the end of their friendship. If they can’t bounce back from this. His chest aches with it, a burning kind of pain. “I thought maybe you knew. All along.”

“What? No, Rich, I never knew. I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have tried to kiss you if I knew. God, just. I think I must have, just. Interpreted things wrong, I know we’ve been really close this past year, I promise I wasn’t— I know most of that was just, platonic comfort, I promise I wasn’t misconstruing things when we were fucking, you know, holding hands on the couch and shit.”

Richie tries really hard to smile. He mostly just ends up crying. “I know,” he says, rubbing at his eyes. “Eddie, I’m so fucking sorry. I’m just, I wanted to— With the token. Can I just say it once?”

“What?”

Richie bites his tongue hard, breathes in deep. “I love you.”

Eddie’s breath shudders. “Rich, come on, don’t say that to me.”

Anger flickers bright and hot in Richie’s chest. “Eds, come on, man, you can at least let me—”

“No, it’s not fucking fair,” Eddie says, curling in on himself.

“It is fucking fair! You can’t give me my token and tell me to face my fears and then not fucking let me!”

Eddie turns and looks at him, really looks at him, for the first time since Richie walked in. “This was your greatest fear? I thought you said you didn’t know.”

Richie frowns. “I knew about—about me. I just didn’t know about you.”

“What do you fucking mean you knew about you?” Eddie demands.

Richie laughs a little, overwhelmed, and Eddie glares at him and says, “Don’t fucking laugh at me!”

“I’m not laughing at you!” Richie says. “Eddie, come on. I knew about— Shit. I knew I was in love with you.”

Eddie stares at him, eyes wide. Richie’s heart skips a beat. There. He said it. It’s out there in the world, now. Fear...faced. Now, for the fallout.

But Eddie just says, “Are you telling me I fucking missed my chance?”

Richie...has no idea what the fuck he’s talking about anymore. “What?”

“Look, I don’t know exactly what’s happening here, either, but you’re using the past tense, so I don’t know how long ago this was, but—”

“What?” Richie says. “Eddie, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m in love with you!” Richie says, and then bites his lip. He didn’t mean to fucking...yell it. “Eddie, come on, I’m. That’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time. I’m in love with you.”

Eddie openly gapes at him. “I...have not been talking about that this whole time.”

“What?” Richie fights the urge to panic. “What have you been talking about?”

Eddie makes a sound between a laugh and a hiccup. “The fucking— Richie. The notes. I’m in love with you.”

“What?”

They stare at each other for a second of tense, palpable confusion. Richie looks into Eddie’s eyes and thinks he begins to understand.

He bursts out laughing.

“Richie, what the fuck!” Eddie says, punching him in the arm. “Stop laughing, you piece of shit! Why are you laughing, this is not funny.”

“It is fucking funny,” Richie guffaws, wiping at his face, tears of, of laughter and relief and shock dripping down his face. “Eddie, it’s fucking hilarious. What were we even talking about? You’re in love with me?”

“Yeah, or I was until about five seconds ago, when I confessed and you fucking laughed!”

“I’m in love with you,” Richie says emphatically, trying to get the point across even as he laughs at this whole fucking stupid situation. “Eddie, I don’t know what the fuck is going on. You didn’t know?”

“No, I didn’t fucking know! I thought maybe, but then you freaked out about the mistletoe thing and essentially told me you didn’t even want to touch me! I thought you knew about me and my dumb fucking feelings!”

“No, I freaked out because I’m in love with you, and I thought you were gearing up to confess your feelings to someone else.”

“Someone—what? Richie.” Eddie looks him straight in the face, dead serious, and says, “Who the fuck else is there?”

Richie’s heart rams itself up into his throat, and his eyes don’t stop dripping. “Oh, holy shit,” he says breathlessly. “You’re in love with me.”

Eddie looks simultaneously fond, and like Richie has lost his mind. “Yeah, dipshit. That’s what I’ve been saying.”

An enormous weight falls from Richie’s shoulders, and he sags. “Eddie,” he says, voice choked. “I’m in love with you. I’ve been in love with you since before I knew what that meant.”

“Oh,” Eddie breathes, face going slack. “I— Token?”

“Token,” Richie says, and pulls it out. “I mean, the token was more about, you know. Well, I told you guys. Being scared to...be who I was, and. Accepting myself. But a huge part of that, of being me, was...being in love with you. So. Here I am. Facing that last bit.”

Eddie’s throat bobs. “I didn’t know.”

Richie manages a real smile this time. “Yeah, I’m figuring out that that’s what you meant, now.”

Eddie finally laughs a little, an overwhelmed sound, and runs his fingers through his hair. Richie watches the motion, and wishes he was the one doing it. It’s such a deeply familiar feeling that he almost doesn’t realize he could, now. Maybe. “Yeah, I’m. I’m reframing, now. We’re really a couple of morons, huh?”

Richie snorts, and his heart jumps when his knee bumps against Eddie’s. “In my defense, I mean, really. How was I supposed to know?”

“Rich,” Eddie says, giving him a flat look. “I moved into the house next to yours.”

Richie shrugs stiffly. “Yeah, when I was in the middle of a fucking breakdown. Quite frankly, I have a hard time believing anyone would fall in love with me in the middle of that mess.”

“Please,” Eddie scoffs. “I’ve been on the brink of falling in love with you for basically my entire life.”

That squeezes a small, pitiful, “Oh,” out of Richie’s chest.

“I honestly cannot believe this is shocking to you,” Eddie says, mussing his own hair again. “I risked my fucking life to save you. And then I moved states for you.”

“Yeah, and so did all the other Losers, which is something I’m going to have to cry about later,” Richie says. “Eds, come on. Literally never in my life has someone been—” His voice cracks, and he looks away. “Literally never in my life has someone been in love with me.”

Eddie is quiet for a long moment, and Richie berates himself silently. God, what a fucking pathetic thing to say. And then Eddie stands up, and blinding fear flashes through Richie’s chest, that it was so pathetic that he’s changing his mind.

But Eddie just says, “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

Wait, Richie wants to say. Wait, I didn’t even get to kiss you.

Oh, Jesus Christ. He really wants to kiss him.

It takes Eddie a minute to come back, and Richie spends the entirety of it trying to wrap his head around...this whole thing. Eddie being in love with him, and what that means. Picking apart everything that happened today, with all of that in mind. The mistletoe, and the argument. Eddie sharing a bed with him, and a chair at the breakfast table. Richie can barely even comprehend it. How? he’s desperate to ask. Why? It doesn’t make sense.

“Sorry,” Eddie says, stepping back into the room. “Patty put it in the wrong pocket, I—”

“Listen, Eds, it’s okay if you’re not sure,” Richie says quickly. “If you need to take it back or are having second thoughts, it’s fine, I get it. It’s been a weird year for both of us, I know that can, you know, make you think you feel things—”

“Richie,” Eddie says. “Shut the fuck up, for once.”

Richie clicks his mouth shut. Eddie smiles at him a little, sits down on the end of the bed, lifting his knee up onto the mattress so he can turn to face Richie. He has a sheet of folded paper in his hand, which he opens to read.

“This is really embarrassing,” he says, eyes flicking up to Richie. “So don’t make fun of me.”

Richie swallows thickly and nods.

“Number one.” Eddie sniffs and frowns. “I changed my mind, you can read it yourself.”

Richie laughs a little, and it comes out shaky. He reaches out, and Eddie tentatively holds the paper out to him.

List, it says, top center and underlined. God, he’s such a fucking dweeb. The paper is a little crinkled, worn at the edges, the folds soft and wearing thin. Like it’s been kept around for a long time. Months, maybe.

And what follows is a cramped column of words and phrases, starting with makes me laugh, moving into strong as fuck, and then going straight into takes his coffee with four sugars three creams? What the fuck. The next line just says holy shit.

“What?” Richie says, scanning over the rest of the list in bewilderment.

“Yeah, it devolved into weirdness pretty quickly,” Eddie admits. “There’s more on the back, too.”

Richie turns the paper over. It says his voice in the morning oh my fucking god and talks to the neighbor’s dog and hums when he’s nervous and I just want to be close to him?

“I don’t...get it,” Richie says, looking back up at Eddie, who looks embarrassed and anxious. “Is this about me?”

“Obviously it’s about you,” Eddie says with a little scoff.

“It’s just facts about me?” Richie says, rubbing his thumb over his coffee order.

“What? No, it’s.” Eddie rubs the back of his neck. “It’s...I mean, it’s a list of reasons. Why I’m in love with you. Or something.”

Richie swallows thickly. “Or something?”

“Well, I don’t even know what it is, I was just, you know, having a lot of feelings, and I had to put them somewhere.” Eddie gesticulates lamely. “So I...wrote them down. In a list. Which I realize, now, is because I’m neurotic about lists.”

Richie looks back down at the paper. “Eddie, most of these are just facts. They’re not even positive facts.”

“Yeah, well.” Eddie shrugs. “Sometimes you do dumb, normal shit, and I think oh my god, I love him. So. There it is.”

Richie’s heart gets all stuck up in his throat again. He would laugh, or roll his eyes, except that he thinks that about Eddie all the fucking time. Wasn’t he just swooning over Eddie’s underlined little title? And his club soda and his bedhead and his cranky morning face? Richie sees Eddie do dumb, normal shit every day, and he loves it every single time.

“Look,” Eddie says, hands rubbing over the tops of his thighs. “I know you’re a fucking mess. I know...literally everything about you. You’re loud and dumb and obnoxious. And maybe...maybe people who don’t know you as well as I do only see that, and honestly that’s their loss, because you’re also fucking...funny and brave and thoughtful and you care about people, and you care about things, and I just fucking love you, okay? So. That’s all there is to it.”

Richie’s breath shudders in his chest. He looks back down at the list, still trying to take it in. He opens his mouth and what comes out is, “This one just says dreams.”

Eddie’s ears go red. “Oh, yeah, I have a lot of dreams about you. Like, not even just racy ones, a lot of them are very boring, but I felt it was relevant anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” Richie says, holding out a hand. “Did you say not just racy ones?”

“You know what,” Eddie says, “I think we’re focusing too much on me here.”

Richie laughs, and it shakes something loose inside him. “What, is it my turn now? Do you want me to write a list, too? Talk about how much I think about which order I would kiss your freckles in if I could? You know what, that sounds more embarrassing out loud than it was in my head, forget I said that.”

Eddie breaks out into a grin. “You can, you know.”

Richie blinks. “I can what?”

“Kiss me.” Eddie tips his head to the side. “I’d let you.”

Richie’s breath gets caught in his throat, right under his beating heart. “Oh,” he says.

Neither of them move. Eddie’s smile falters, then falls. “You don’t have to. Obviously. Shit.”

“No! I. I want to.” Richie rakes his fingers through his hair, swallows around how fucking badly he wants to, and the nerves that surround that. “I just. I don’t know. How.”

“You don’t know how?” Eddie gives him a perplexed look. “Richie, I swear to god you’ve kissed someone before—”

“I have, oh my god, Eds, but I haven’t. I haven’t kissed. You.” Richie rubs his hands over his face. “I don’t know how. I’ll do it wrong.”

“Yeah, no shit. So we’ll do it again.”

Richie drops his hands. Eddie is smiling again, a crooked quirk to his mouth. Richie fucking loves him.

“Are you not as blown away by this whole thing as I am?” Richie asks.

Eddie makes a soft sound, between a laugh and a cough. “Honestly, Richie, I guarantee I will not sleep for three days. I’m compartmentalizing. I’m a man on a mission.”

That sounds about right. Eddie used to be pretty good at staving off panic attacks until he was alone in his room—or alone with Richie. “And what’s the mission?”

“To get you to kiss me before Christmas is over.”

Richie’s throat bobs. “You could kiss me, you know. It takes two to tango, and all that.”

Eddie huffs. “Last time I tried to kiss you, you literally said no thank you and ran outside.”

“That was different. I was not in possession of all the facts.” Richie rubs Eddie’s list between his fingers. “I promise to be receptive this time.”

Eddie rolls his eyes and smiles. “Fine, fine. Make me do all the work.” He stands up.

Richie’s heart kicks into high gear. “Oh my god, are you actually going to?”

“I was planning on it.” Eddie rounds the side of the bed slowly. “Are you...changing your mind?”

“Fuck no. I just—I didn’t wake up this morning thinking I was going to be kissed by Eddie Kaspbrak, you know? I wasn’t mentally prepared.”

“We’ve been talking about it for a while now,” Eddie says, leaning against the wall next to the window. “Frankly for like six times as long as I imagined.”

“Is this about those dreams again?” Richie says. He doesn’t know why he’s still talking. He would really like to stop talking. His pulse is fluttering in his jaw.

Eddie laughs. “Let’s not talk about those today.”

“I’d like to talk about them,” Richie says, which is a lie, because what he’d like to be doing is kissing, but he can’t stop fucking talking.

“No,” Eddie says, and pushes off the wall.

Richie takes a deep breath and holds it. Eddie looks at him warily, like he thinks Richie is about to pass out. Maybe he is.

“You can still take it back,” Eddie says.

“Please fucking kiss me,” Richie blurts.

Eddie smiles and takes a step closer, and then another. He stands right in front of Richie’s knees, waits for him to spread them so that he can inch closer. With Richie sitting on the bed like this and Eddie standing, Eddie’s about three inches taller than him. It’s kind of nice. Richie wishes he had the brain space to appreciate it. As it is, he has absolutely zero brain space, at all. There is absolutely nothing between his ears.

Eddie puts his hands on Richie’s shoulders. His thumbs rub against Richie’s collar. His face is very close, and gets closer as he leans in.

“Wait,” Richie breathes, eyelids fluttering.

Eddie sighs through his nose. “What?”

“I’m taking in the moment.” Richie breathes in deep. Eddie’s face is inches away from his, his eyes closed, his mouth slack. Richie can feel his breath on his face, and it makes him dizzy. Eddie’s about to kiss him. Richie’s about to kiss Eddie. He can’t fucking believe it.

“Okay,” he says. “Go ahead.”

Eddie laughs a little, and then he closes the distance between them and presses their mouths together.

It is, at its core, the simplest and most boring, run-of-the-mill kiss Richie has ever received. There’s absolutely nothing to it. Just warm lips pressing against his own, chaste and to the point.

Richie loses his fucking mind.

“Eddie,” he says, half a whimper, as their lips part with a soft sound. He brings them back together again, reaching out, grabbing at the sides of Eddie’s sweater. “Eds, holy shit.”

“Mhmm,” Eddie hums, and kisses him again.

It’s mind-numbing. Richie’s world instantly narrows down to four points of contact—Eddie’s lips against his own, the tip of Eddie’s nose against his cheek, Eddie’s hand cradling his jaw, Richie’s hands on his waist. It feels like sinking into something, suffocating in it, like something warm and thick is pouring into his lungs with every breath he drags in through his nose. Eddie’s lips part, and Richie gasps, tilts his head, pushes up into another kiss. Slicker, hotter, and— The edge of Eddie’s teeth against Richie’s lip, the tip of his tongue. Richie whines, crushes their mouths together, slides one hand up under the hem of Eddie’s sweater.

Eddie catches his wrist immediately, and Richie makes a startled noise, tries to pull back immediately. “Sorry, I just—”

“Mmm.” Eddie kisses him again, doesn’t let go of his wrist—just pulls it closer to his front, pushes Richie’s palm flat against his stomach.

“Oh,” Richie breathes, sliding his palm over feverishly warm skin, feeling Eddie’s abs jump under his hand. His lips feel like they’re buzzing, and his eyes are stinging, and his head is throbbing with how much he wants this, how fucking happy he is that he gets to have it. Eddie’s mouth is insistent and hot and better than Richie ever imagined, and his hands are eager and possessive, and he wants Richie to touch him. Their chests heave, and Richie palms Eddie’s ass with the hand not on his stomach, drinks in the sound Eddie makes. Richie feels a little wild with it, wants desperately to touch more, feel more.

“God,” Eddie mutters, and seals their mouths together, curls a hand in Richie’s hair and kisses him so hard and deep it makes Richie’s head spin. He licks into Richie’s mouth, and Richie makes an embarrassing noise, has to wrap his free arm around Eddie’s waist just to stay upright. It’s overwhelming, and incredible, and Richie feels like he’s going to pass the fuck out. Half an hour ago he thought Eddie was in love with someone else. And now he’s got Eddie’s tongue in his mouth.

“Eddie,” he says, breaking away, breathing hard. He keeps his eyes closed, his nose pressed into Eddie’s cheek. “Are you in love with me?”

Eddie laughs breathlessly. “Yeah, I think we’ve established that.”

“Tell me.”

“I’m in love with you.” He kisses Richie again, thumb pressed into the corner of his mouth. “I love you.”

If tears gather at the corners of Richie’s eyes at that, well. It’s a fucking miracle he hasn’t bawled already.

“Hey,” he says, running his fingers through Eddie’s curls, just like he’s always wanted. “Should we—should we go back out there? What do they think we’re doing in here?”

Eddie snorts, lips pressed up against Richie’s cheek, next to his nose. “Well, I told them I needed my notes for my confession speech, so I assume they think we’re making out. Or having sex, I guess.”

Richie goes hot and barks out a laugh, like a nervous teenager, and then holds Eddie’s head steady so that he can press a kiss to the freckle under his eye. “Speaking of those notes,” Richie says, seeing the paper on the mattress next to him. “Why the fuck did Patty see that and think, wow, so romantic?”

Eddie laughs, leaning his elbows against Richie’s shoulders and knocking their foreheads together, making it hard for Richie to kiss the freckles on his lower lip. “She’s married to Stan,” he says, words muffled against Richie’s mouth. “That’s probably high romance for him.”

“I was going to say poor Patty, but I think that’s my life now, too.” Richie starts a little at his own words. “Oh my god, Eddie, are we dating now?”

“Is it called dating when you’re forty years old and practically live together already?” Eddie asks, kissing Richie’s upper lip very gently. “Can I give you a hickey?”

Blood rushes in Richie’s ears. “Jesus fucking Christ, Eds, I will die, and I will die happy.” He tips his chin up eagerly. “Go at it.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever given someone a hickey before,” Eddie says with a grin that’s just a little bit feral, and then he presses open-mouthed kisses along Richie’s stubbled jaw, down to his throat, where he starts sucking a bruise into the delicate skin.

Richie makes a pathetic whining sound. The idea of a) Eddie giving him a hickey, like they’re fucking teenagers, and b) Richie being Eddie’s first hickey, is just fucking incredible to him. It’s going to be fucking visible, and Richie doesn’t even care. He’s going to bear that mark with pride.

Eddie Kaspbrak is into me. We made out. He likes me.

Eddie pulls away with one last scrape of his teeth over Richie’s throat and says, voice rough, “Did I do it right?”

Richie laughs breathlessly. “I don’t know, you tell me.”

Eddie pulls back a bit, frowns. “Yeah, it’s pretty red.”

“Christ, I’m going to have a fucking massive hickey,” Richie laughs. “Incredible.”

Eddie grins down at him. “This means we’re going steady, right?”

“Oh my god.” Richie can’t stop smiling back. “I’ll make an honest man out of you yet, Kaspbrak.”

Eddie hums, catches another kiss from his lips quickly. “You’re aware that phrase implies marriage, right?”

Richie’s face goes hot. He did not know that. “Um. Right.”

“Mmkay.” And Eddie smiles and kisses him again, and Richie doesn’t get to ask whether or not that was an agreement to marry him. Maybe that’s for the best.

He’ll ask again one day, probably. He’s starting to get the feeling Eddie might say yes.

<><><>

Richie finds that it isn’t so cold outside with all of his friends.

The others, of course, have not spent quite so much time outside alone, and so do not share in this feeling.

“Fucking cold out here,” Bill mumbles into his scarf, shuffling his feet against the sidewalk, hands deep in his pockets.

“Stop being so straight and come stand closer to us, then,” Richie says, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with Ben on one side and Stan on the other in a tight circle. “If you’re not breathing each other’s air, you’re not trying hard enough.”

“I’m watching for Eddie, he’s never going to find us again,” Bill says.

“Aww, Big Bill, always looking out for us.” Bev grins from where she’s trying to burrow into Ben’s coat.

“If my baby gets frostbite I’m going to sue you, Rich,” Stan says, rubbing one of Patty’s hands between his own.

“I don’t think the baby’s going to get frostbite from inside the womb,” Patty says with a laugh, leaning into his side. “My feet might give out from under me, though. I wish there were more places to sit down.”

“Patricia, darling, I will get down on this ground so that you can sit on my knee if you so desire,” Richie tells her.

“Rich, this is the third time today that you’ve made a grand gesture for someone else’s wife,” Eddie says, coming up behind him and squeezing his way into the circle. “I’m starting to feel neglected.”

“Aww, Eddie-bear, are you getting jealous?” Richie grins, pinches his cheek. “Also, good, you found us.”

Eddie rolls his eyes, slaps away his hand, and then folds their fingers together—Eddie’s in wooly gloves, of course—and tucks them both into his coat pocket. “Yeah, I could see Bill’s worried face from a mile away. Also your shoulders are as wide as the fucking Pacific.”

“Ha,” Bill says triumphantly, finally joining their huddle, squeezing in next to Mike. “Did you find a not-gross bathroom?”

“It was passable,” Eddie says primly. Richie loves his fussy little face.

“What time is it?” Bev asks, teeth chattering. “I want to go inside and get some drinks.”

Richie pulls his phone out of his coat pocket and taps it with cold fingers until the screen lights up. “Six more minutes, baby.”

“Let the record show that I suggested having New Year’s at my place,” Mike says. “I was outvoted.”

“Let the record show that I told you to dress warmly, Mikey,” Richie says, pointing at him accusingly. “No one told you to wear a nice little jacket and a nice little hat so that you can look way hotter than me.”

“He doesn’t have to wear nice clothes for that, Rich,” Bill says, and Richie gasps exaggeratedly while everyone else ooooo’s appreciatively.

“Eddie, stand up for me!” Richie says.

Eddie hums vaguely. “I’m letting it slide because that was very gay of Bill to say.”

“What—” Bill says, at the same time that Bev interrupts to say, “Okay, enough bickering, children. It’s New Year’s. Think about your...goals or something.”

“New Year’s Resolutions?” Ben offers.

“Survive being a father,” Stan says. “Try not to accidentally kill a tiny new human.”

“I’d really just love to get my new business off the ground,” Bev sighs. Ben squeezes her encouragingly, and she smiles up at him.

“Finish my book,” Bill agrees with a grimace. “Try not to disappoint everyone.”

“You disappoint me every day, Bill,” Richie says graciously. “I still love you.”

Bill rolls his eyes and shoots Richie the finger.

Richie grins. “Literally, I’m just trying to get by. No goals. Continue to get better, I guess. Try not to get my ass dumped. Oh! I promised my therapist I’d start exercising more, and Eddie’s going to make me, so I know I actually will.”

“I told Richie he’s going to start running with me in the morning and he laughed at me,” Eddie says.

“Eds, be realistic. I am old and frail. I pulled a muscle picking up a sock yesterday.”

Eddie scoffs and elbows him. “That’s why you need to start exercising, dumbnuts.”

“Two minutes,” Ben says suddenly, looking at his watch.

“Reflections on the past year?” Bev says.

“Good,” Mike says immediately. “Healing.”

“Better than last year, that’s for fucking sure,” Stan says.

“Made some good decisions,” Bill agrees with a nod.

Richie breathes in sharp, cold air. There’s snow falling, just gently, from the sky. The city is milling around him. Busy, full of life, bright and chaotic even at midnight in December. He doesn’t say anything about his year, but he thinks, good. He thinks, hard. He thinks, rewarding. He started off this year on the worst note possible, had an absolutely fucking hellish first couple of months, and has struggled through most of the rest of them. He’s fought hard to make it through. But now he’s here, with his friends, alive, thriving. He started this holiday season dreading the memories it would dig up, and is ending it realizing for the first time that this is his chance to replace them with new ones. Better ones. The best.

“One minute,” Ben says.

“I had a good year,” Eddie offers. “One of my best yet.”

Richie grins and holds tight to his hand, chest tight with how happy he is.

The streets of Chicago are buzzing, now, tense and excited. People are counting down. People are coming together, finding their loved ones, embracing.

“Thirty,” Ben says.

“After this we’re going inside somewhere,” Patty says, smiling, one hand on her belly, the other holding Stan’s.

“Seconded,” Bill says.

“Twenty,” says Ben.

“A toast,” Bev says, holding up an imaginary cup. “To the new year.”

“Let’s kill this fucking clown,” Bill says.

Richie laughs out loud, and it feels good.

“Ten. Nine. Eight—”

“Richie,” Eddie says, quietly enough that no one else can hear in the sudden rising of voices. Richie looks down at him, and Eddie grins. “Get ready.”

“What?”

“—Three! Two! One!”

The cheering is deafening. Fireworks explode from the Chicago River and light up the sky. Richie doesn’t notice, because Eddie is leaning up and kissing him, his lips warm and smiling. Right there in the middle of the fucking street, with his hands on either side of Richie’s face. Slow and warm and sweet, and firm enough to feel like he means it. He always kisses Richie like he means it.

The year is over. And it was a fucking tough one. But Richie is ending it with his friends and with Eddie, and he’s outside in the cold, but god. He feels so fucking warm.