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Broken Record

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Richie grabbed a bottle of bourbon on the way back to his room.

Mike had gone home, Bev and Ben had went upstairs together, Bill was brooding. “You need to get some s-sleep,” he told Richie as he blew by him towards the inn’s bar, hopped over the counter and found a full bottle of Jim Beam waiting for him like a Goddamn promise fulfilled.

“Yes, sir,” Richie considered saluting, but he was too exhausted to manage it, too worn down and run over to boast any sort of shtick. He was fucking done. He pulled himself up the stairs and along the hallway, legs heavy, mind heavy, and passed by Eddie’s empty room beside his own. Don’t go there, not now, not ever. Bourbon in hand, he unscrewed the cap as he pushed his room’s door open with his shoulder.

The room was dated in what he supposed was meant to give it a vintage vibe, but it was too authentic and faded to be anything but original, he’d thought when first checking in - a bronze chandelier caked in dust, wallpaper browned with cigarette smoke, a lumpy bed covered in crocheted orange and brown granny squares - but now he noticed nothing aside from that corner bed beckoning him. He tripped over a tasselled carpet as he slumped onto the bed and leaned against its headboard, intending to do his best to pass out from alcohol poisoning. Derry’s fucking finest.

Eds. Oh Christ, Eddie.

Eds and his stupid, empty room that shared the wall behind his bed. Richie pressed a hand against that wall, felt the tobacco melted into it, the sticky tar glued to the wallpaper from decades of cheap cigarettes smoked by travellers passing through - because who the hell would ever want to stay in a place like Derry for more than a night or two - and he wondered what Eddie would be doing if he’d made it out alive. If he wasn’t crushed under the weight of that nightmare house, left alone in a fucking sewer like forgotten garbage. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Eddie hated the fucking sewer

He’d probably be sleeping. God knows Rich should be. But that frenetic energy that once drove Eddie to pace around the clubhouse and rant endlessly, to talk with his hands and tap his foot rhythmically against the metal back leg of Ritchie’s desk one row in front of his in geography class - maybe that sort of panicked, nervous energy would have kept him awake on a morning like this one. 

Maybe he would have needed company. Maybe Rich could have been that company.

He drank. The bourbon burned his throat. 

It was devastating, just how much he’d forgotten, Richie thought idly, hand still firm against their shared wall; memories that seemed less like casual childhood recollections and more like the foundational tenets a person was built on, the sort of memories you store away for life because they mark you, and he’d only just remembered them. The screwed up shit he should be in therapy for - the cistern and the Paul fucking Bunyan statue and Eddie’s scream when Pennywise had him pinned in the kitchen on Neibolt - all that bullshit wasn’t the important stuff; they weren’t the memories that shaped him somehow even in their absence. No, the defining memories were quieter, and Richie thought how the fuck did I forget this, how did I forget you - the stamp stamp stamp of Eddie’s runners as he traipsed through the Barrens ahead of him, leading him somewhere, anywhere, it didn’t really matter where or why as long as they were together; the distinct ding of Eddie’s bike’s bell on the driveway outside Richie’s house, summoning him to school or the arcade or the quarry or again, where-the-fuck-ever, because the prospect of the destination wasn’t what made Richie throw his still-open backpack over his shoulders and run outside with his laces untied; the press of forearms against one another on a shared armrest at the Capitol Theater during a Halloween showing of The Thing, and Eddie leaned into him, breath held, as on screen MacReady tested the blood samples with an electrified wire; a full-mouthed “Suck it, Bowers,” as the two of them ran down a school hallway away from a call of “Fucking fags,” and Eddie was indignant, disgusted at the idea… and so Richie plastered the same grossed-out expression across his face as he yelled, “Suck a dick,” back behind him as he charged after Eddie.

A childhood of forgotten experiences and buried wants. Remembered only a few days ago, and now Eddie - 

He took a long swig of bourbon and hit the back of his head against the headboard. Eyes closed behind cracked glasses, the triad of Deadlights still burned into his retinas, bright and circling above him. An incandescent flash of orange and red, a scream (Eddie?), an eldritch roar, and then, quite disconnected from all that, the outside of the house on Neibolt, still standing somehow, and Bill was halfway up the front steps, talking, and Eddie was just in front of him, within only an arm’s length, and Richie wanted desperately to reach out across the divide that separated them for decades and take his hand, pull him away from all this, lead him down the street, away from this Goddamn horror show they had no fucking right to be involved with. Take him home. Somewhere safe. Far from this hellhole. Anywhere. But Bill was still talking, something about going in alone, and then Richie could almost feel himself saying something about killing this fucking clown, and with that they all walked up the front steps and entered the house, but Eddie wouldn’t walk out.

Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

“...this curse, this fucking thing that’s inside you all, it started growing the day I m-made you go down to the Barrens because all I cared about was finding G-G-Georgie.” Richie’s gaze wandered from Bill to Eddie in front of him, watched him watching Bill on the steps of the house; Richie followed every one of Eddie’s inhalations and exhalations, transfixed by the evenness, the ease with which he breathed. Keep breathing, you idiot, he thought without a clue why. “Now I’m going to go in there and I don’t know what’s going to happen but I can’t ask you to do this.”

Somewhere to his left, Bev picked up a fence stake from the ground. “Well, we’re not asking you either.” (Eddie was still breathing.)

Mike stepped forward, “We didn’t do it alone then, Bill. So we’re not going to do this alone now.” (Eddie was still breathing.)

Then Ben beside him, “Losers stick together.” (Eddie was still breathing.)

Richie counted Eddie’s breaths and thanked a God he didn’t believe in for the steady rise and fall of his chest as Eddie said, “So does somebody want to say something?”

“Richie said it the b-best when we were here last,” Bill said. (Eddie was still breathing.)

“I did?” He tore his eyes away from Eddie long enough to look up at Bill. “I don’t want to die?” 

“Not that.” 

What had he said? Fuck, it was so long ago. “You’re lucky we’re not measuring dicks?” (Eddie was still breathing.)

“No.”

“Let’s kill this fucking clown?”

Bill smiled. “Yeah.”

Richie looked again to Eddie and briefly thought I need to keep him breathing. Then he gritted his teeth and nodded to Bill, “Let’s kill this fucking clown.”

*

*

*

 

“Hey, fuck face!” Pennywise threw Mike across the cavern and rounded on Richie. He picked up a rock, and he almost thought of a time twenty-seven years ago on the banks of a stream across from Bowers and his moron friends, Mike caught between them in the water. “Want to play truth or dare? Here’s a truth: you’re a sloppy bitch.” It almost had the decency to look offended. “Yeah that’s right. Let’s dance. Yippee-ki-yay, mother - ”

The cavern exploded in an oppressive surge of red and orange light, undulating across from him like some kind of sea monster, some protozoan creature from one of Eddie’s eighth-grade biology notebooks he spent a semester cribbing notes from. That was the last coherent thought Richie had before being raised off the ground: the image of himself sprawled across Eddie’s tidily made, plaid bedspread, binders scattered in front of him, copying Eddie’s neat notes with his own chicken-scratch. Eddie had jumped on the bed next to him, comic book falling open between them, socked feet touched his, only briefly, and a flushed, panicked need.

And then everything around him - the rocks, the lair at the center, Pennywise himself, the other Losers - all of it was absorbed in the heat and brilliance of that light. Everything burned away like a piece of Eddie’s note paper in a flame, and the world was reduced to three spinning orbs that seared his pupils and ignited deep into his retinas. An all-encompassing roar, animalistic and brutal, somewhere ahead of him. And then visions of Eddie: his chest dripping blood, his eyes glassy; face down in the cistern; a slice of a claw and the drop of his head from his body, a scream Richie thought was his own; limp in Richie’s arms outside the collapsed house; floating in the Deadlights.

The scorching light dulled around the corners of his sight, and he felt himself land on the rocks below, the visions forgotten before impact. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of the cavern again, and it was only Eddie he saw, leaning over him, his ever-present worried expression mixed with tentative elation. “Hey Rich, wake up.” He could barely see anything around him, but Eddie was alive, thank fuck this idiot was still alive, still breathing. “Hey, yeah there he is, buddy. Hey Richie, listen. I think I got It, man. I think I killed It. I did, I think I killed It for real.” 

He tasted the splash of Eddie’s blood before he saw the claw stab clean through his chest. Blood sprayed from both the gaping wound and from Eddie’s mouth as he whispered, “Richie? Richie?” 

Eddie was yanked back and Richie was only somewhat aware that everyone around him was yelling. His vision was still white-hot, a triangular afterimage branded into his eyes from the Deadlights.

“Eddie?” He asked to no one, a desperate plea into the abyss. 

Like once, so long ago, he’d barely whispered “Eddie?” to a car’s rear bumper disappearing into the horizon as Eddie was driven away by his mother, out of state, out of his life for what amounted to forever once Richie left too, some years later, and the memories of him faded altogether.

There was flailing movement Richie couldn’t track, but he heard Eddie’s pained grunts and cries, the sound of a body - oh, God, that was Eddie - hitting stone after stone as he was flung into a crevasse across the cavern, and the thud thud thud of every roll. 

Richie staggered to his feet and ran towards the sounds; he stumbled down the rocks, the world around him still a muted blur of photo-bleached images. Running footsteps tapped behind him, but Richie got to Eddie first. 

Eds. It was bad. It was beyond just bad. His chest was macerated; spilled tendons and muscles and organs, and deep red blood coating his shirt, and for a moment Richie couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t fathom this had happened to Eds. It was a trick of the Deadlights, some sort of It-induced hallucination, a nightmare made real. It had to be. 

But Mike and Ben were laying him against the cavern wall, and Eddie’s breath was a series of hitched, staccato beats. (Eddie was still breathing.) And Richie would recognize his breathing anywhere.

He threw off his jacket, balled it up, and pressed it against Eddie’s torn chest.

Somewhere near the opening of the crevasse there was hammering and a singsong, “Come out and play, losers.” Richie could barely hear it. He timed Eddie’s breaths. (Eddie was still breathing.)

Richie stayed bent beside him. “He’s hurt really bad. We’ve got to get him out of here.” 

“How are we supposed to do that, Richie?” Bev asked, not unkindly.

Eddie’s brown eyes, slitted in pain, met Richie’s. “I almost killed It. The leper. My hands were at his throat. I could feel him choking. I made him small. He seemed so weak.” His voice was quiet and slow, not his usual hyper, addled cadence, and Richie kept a hand on his shoulder, watching the irregular rise and fall of his bloody chest. “He seemed, he seemed so weak.”

Mike rambled about the bullshit ritual that got Eddie into this nightmare, Ben found some passageway, Bev said something about making Pennywise small. But Richie wasn’t listening to any of it. He stayed knelt with Eddie (Eddie was still breathing.) 

And then they were moving him again, Rich’s arm was around Eddie’s waist as he carried him with Ben through the tunnel, away from the hammering and hissing at the entrance to the crevasse. Eddie cried out as Richie lowered him back down to the ground, helped him lean against a smooth rock face, his jacket still tight against the wound. That would help right? It was slowing the bleeding. Eddie - I don’t know what to do. You’re the one who knows about medical shit. Tell me what to do? (Eddie was still breathing.) 

The others left through the end of the tunnel. There was yelling in the cavern, the sound of frantic running on rock.

Eddie’s eyes opened and closed. With every flutter of his eyelids, deep brown eyes - ones Richie would know anywhere, even with his own vision still shot to shit - those eyes found Richie’s and held his gaze until they drifted closed again. Keep them open. Look at me, look at me - didn’t I ask you that before? When we were kids, huddled together on the kitchen floor on Neibolt? I thought I was going to die and I just wanted to see you. Don’t close your eyes, just keep looking at me. Let me see you some more. It’s been so fucking long. Keep breathing.

“Richie, I’ve got to tell you something.”

Anything. “What? What’s up, buddy?”

“I fucked your mother.” Eddie laughed just a little, but it devolved into bloody coughing. Coughing was good. Coughing meant breathing, right? (Eddie was still breathing.)

Richie cushioned Eddie’s head with his hand, felt his damp hair between his fingers, and leaned a little closer. “My mother would have destroyed you, dude,” he whispered, “Chewed you up. You’re not man enough for Mrs. Tozier.”

Eddie smiled and blood spilled from his mouth, eyes alight with something familiar and comforting, a tradition, a second language that was theirs; the two of them on their bikes in the middle of a quiet street somewhere between Richie’s house and Eddie’s, a sparred litany of fuck yous and eat shits and your mothers; a fight over the hammock, a fight over the last can of Coke, a fight over who jumped the furtherest off the jumping rock, excuses all of them; a fond shout of “You’re disgusting, you know that, Richie,” as Richie flung a handful of mud in Eddie’s direction, and Eddie only hesitated for a split second before dipping his own hand into the soaked earth and throwing more back at Richie, laughing a little manically.

Mud flinging. It was what they did. And so Eddie opened his mouth, ready to throw some more, but only a sputter of blood came out with a painful gasp.

“Hey, man,” Richie pressed a little closer. “Don’t talk, okay? You can tell me to fuck off later. Just keep breathing right now.” (Eddie was still breathing.) 

Eddie nodded and blinked hard to keep his eyes alert.

Whatever bullshit the rest of the Losers were doing, it seemed to be working. Richie glanced away from Eddie and watched as It recoiled, shuddered, shrank, shifted into another form, one right after the other. 

“A dumb, fucking clown!” Richie called out, mimicking whatever Bill was shouting. His hand squeezed Eddie’s shoulder. “Almost out, man,” he added. “We’re almost out of here.”

Let’s kill this fucking clown and get Eddie the hell out. Get him to the hospital, get him a transfusion and stitched up, fix whatever was causing that rasping, crackling breath, then get him the fuck out of Derry. Richie got up and joined the others. (Eddie was still breathing.)

*

*

*

“Richie - ” Bev’s voice broke.

“Eddie’s gone.” Bill said, somewhere behind him.

“He’s alright. No, he’s just hurt. We’ve got to get him out of here. He’s hurt, Bev. Bill, he’s okay. We’ve got to get him out of here, Bev.” He was okay, he was okay, he was okay, he had to be okay. (Eddie had just been breathing.)

“Richie - ” She sounded like a child again.

“What?”

“Honey, honey, he’s dead.” (Eddie had just been breathing.) “We have to go. Come on, come on, Richie.” Not without him. He’d lost him before so many years ago and hardly fucking survived it, he only now realized.

Eddie was so still, his eyes open and glassy, but he’d just been breathing; Richie had made sure he was breathing. Because...because...because he swore he remembered Eddie not breathing before, and he wouldn’t, couldn’t let that happen again. 

“We’ve got to go.” Bill grabbed Richie’s shoulders. 

The floor started to shake beneath him. A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line. He could hear smashing somewhere further down in the cavern, and an impossible underground wind picked up around them. Bill was pulling him back but he clung to Eddie, wrapped one arm around his back and threaded his fingers through his sweaty hair. He pressed Eddie’s head against his shoulder in a sort of sick parody of an embrace he used to fantasize about, and he buried his face in Eddie’s bloody neck. (Eddie had just been breathing.)

Mike or Ben or Bev or all of them had joined Bill and he was heaved off the ground, torn away from Eddie. “Guys, we can still help him,” he cried, and he threw his body forward, tried to dig his heels into the shattering rock giving out under him, but they dragged him away. (Eddie had just been breathing. He could still be breathing.)

And later, after Ben had hauled him up the hatch and across the drowned cistern, after Mike had somehow pulled him up the well and out of a collapsing house, after they’d watched as the house finally imploded into the ground, after the panic and fight and desperation ebbed into exhaustion and he’d fallen on Neibolt sobbing and puking, after Bev managed to lead him to the quarry, defeated, and after he cried some more in the water and then shambled back to the inn, broken open inside but too dead-tired to show it, after all that, he ignored Bill when he told him, “You need to get some s-sleep.”

Richie grabbed a bottle of bourbon on the way back to his room. 

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing. Richie didn’t know why this surprised him.

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked, still breathing.

“Richie said it the b-best when we were here last,” Bill said. 

“I did?” He tore his eyes away from Eddie long enough to look up at Bill. “I don’t want to die?” 

“Not that.” 

What had he said? Fuck, it was so long ago. “You’re lucky we’re not measuring dicks?” 

“No.”

“Let’s kill this fucking clown?”

Bill smiled. “Yeah.”

“Let’s kill this fucking clown.”

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing. Richie didn’t know why this surprised him.

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked, still breathing.

“Richie said it the b-best when we were here last,” Bill said. 

“I did?” He tore his eyes away from Eddie long enough to look up at Bill. “I don’t want to die?” 

“Not that.” 

What had he said? Fuck, it was so long ago. “You’re lucky we’re not measuring dicks?” 

“No.”

“Let’s kill this fucking clown?”

Bill smiled. “Yeah.”

“Let’s kill this fucking clown.”

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing. Richie didn’t know why this surprised him.

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked, still breathing.

“Richie said it the b-best when we were here last,” Bill said. 

He tore his eyes away from Eddie long enough to look up at Bill. 

He remembered what he said like it was Goddamn yesterday.

“Let’s kill this fucking clown.”

*

*

*

Richie grabbed a bottle of bourbon on the way back to his room and wondered whether he’d forget Eddie again when he went home to L.A.

His childhood memories had dulled into only the vaguest of outlines when he fucked off from Derry to L.A. at nineteen, but the impressions of them had remained, sharp and raw and painful in a way he’d never been able to understand after the specifics dimmed. If he drank enough he’d get sappy and be inclined to muse that something like a hole had been carved into his soul in Eddie’s wake when his mother had dragged him off to Hartford only months after It (“I don’t want to go,” Eddie had told him, his brown eyes locked with Richie’s, “I don’t know what I’ll do without you,” and Richie hadn’t said anything because the words that threatened to spill out of his mouth would ruin everything). He’d been trying to fill that hole for almost three decades, and he hadn’t realized why he always felt so depressingly empty until he showed up at Jade of the Orient and saw Eddie’s dopey face. It’s you, he’d thought at the restaurant, several drinks in, it’s always been you. How did I forget you?

But he wasn’t drunk enough to dwell on that thought yet, so he took another gulp of bourbon and thought instead maybe I should stumble my way up to the kissing bridge and throw myself over it, and he snorted at the fucking cliche of it all and how incredibly dumb this whole thing was, like something out of a really bad book, the sort of trash Bill would write. Derry and killer demon alien clowns and everyone back together like they’d never parted and fucking tribal rituals and Eddie bleeding out and he’d just got up and left him to die alone and Jesus when did he start crying? He drank more, tears slipping over his lips with every swallow, and he briefly wondered how much of the bottle it would take before he passed out. 

It would be a kindness to forget. Eddie’s face, his Goddamn doe eyes widened in shock and pain, blood pooling out of his mouth, dripping garishly down his chin, and Richie had been covered in it; blood that Eddie’s heart had just pumped had soaked Richie’s hands, slivered under his nails and into the cracks on his glasses. It was in his stubble and eyebrows, smeared over his shirt and arms, and no amount of quarry water could wash it away. He dripped Eddie’s blood. He would forever.

He could catch the next flight to L.A. and drift back into lazy, languid emptiness. If he forgot why he felt so hollow, then at least then he could chase something to fill it, even if it was pointless. He wouldn’t know it was pointless though, wouldn't remember brown eyes staring at him lifelessly and the stillness of his unmoving chest, wouldn’t remember those eyes alight with recognition only hours before, a hesitant, “Hey, man,” at the restaurant, an awkward, one-armed half hug, a lingering glance that made Richie ache in a way he hadn’t thought possible prior to returning to Derry. He used to ache like that all the fucking time, he remembered now.

If he forgot, he could go back to fucking random groupies, drinking himself sick, chasing another Netflix special. It would be easier.

But would he even forget now that It was dead? Who the hell knew. None of this shit made any sense. He stopped trying to figure it out and drank until he didn’t taste the bourbon anymore.

Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

It was just the two of them alone in the tunnel. Eddie’s chest was ripped open, Richie was holding his jacket against the wound, the others had just left to try and shrink It down to size, and Richie thought I’ve been here before.

It must have been the laboured sound of Eddie’s breathing that ticked something off in his memory. Years of witnessing his supposed asthma and panic attacks, long seconds spent searching Eddie’s second fanny pack for a spare inhaler as Eddie gasped for breath beside him, an afternoon in Bill’s garage examining maps of Derry when Eddie wheezed, “That’s where I saw it. That’s where I saw the clown,” between gulps of air, and Richie knew that struggled, raspy inhale even twenty-seven years later. 

“Richie, I’ve got to tell you something.”

“What? What’s up, buddy?”

“I fucked your mother.” 

“My mother would have destroyed you, dude. Chewed you up. You’re not man enough for Mrs. Tozier.”

Eddie opened his mouth, but only a sputter of blood came out with a painful gasp.

That sound. That fucking sound. He’d heard that exact sound before. A crackling inhale of a collapsed lung crushed by broken ribs, filling with blood. Where the hell had he heard that sound before? 

“Hey, man. Don’t talk, okay? You can tell me to fuck off later. Just keep breathing right now.” 

*

*

*

Eddie’s chest was ripped open, but he was still breathing.

“Richie, I’ve got to tell you something.”

“What? What’s up, buddy?”

“I fucked your mother.” 

“Mrs. Tozier always did have shit taste in men.” And before Eddie could respond, “Hey, man. Don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.”

*

*

*

Eddie’s chest was ripped open, but he was still breathing.

“I know you’ve got shit to say, but don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded, eyes struggling to stay open. “Maybe we shouldn’t have burned your inhaler.” Eddie laughed and spewed blood in Richie’s face.

*

*

*

Eddie’s chest was ripped open, but he was still breathing.

“I know you’ve got shit to say, but don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded, eyes struggling to stay open. “Does any of this seem familiar to you?”

Eddie managed, “Track and field day.”

Richie laughed, “I said no talking.”

*

*

*

Eddie’s chest was ripped open, but he was still breathing.

“I know you’ve got shit to say, but don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded, eyes struggling to stay open. “You know what this is? This is sixth-grade track and field day when you had that asthma attack and Mr. Hickson let me hang out with you on the sidelines, and we got to just sit there and watch Bill and Stan make asses of themselves running around the school yard all day.” Somewhere in the cavern Bill was yelling like a jackass. “Having flashbacks, is what I’m saying.” Eddie laughed and spewed blood in Richie’s face.

*

*

*

Eddie’s chest was ripped open, but he was still breathing.

“I know you’ve got shit to say, but don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded, eyes struggling to stay open. “Remember when I popped your arm back into place? Think I could do the same with your lungs? Or is that higher than my pay grade?”

Their eyes met and Eddie managed, “I was just glad it was you who did it.”

“You were screaming Do not fucking touch me the entire time.”

Eddie smiled, “I wouldn’t have let anyone else do it though. Just you.”

Something caught in his throat and it tasted like cheap bourbon and tears. “I’m going to get you out of here, Eds.”

“I know.” Eddie coughed and spewed blood on Richie’s face.

Richie didn’t bother wiping it off. Instead, he knelt forward and touched Eddie’s bandaged cheek with gossamer-light fingers and almost caressed him before stopping himself. “I said no talking.”

Eddie leaned into his touch. “You asked the question, man.”

*

*

*

Richie knew where the bourbon was stored behind the bar on the way back to his room, and he wondered whether he’d forget Eddie again when he went home to L.A.

He didn’t want to forget, he thought vaguely, one hand pressed against their shared wall, the other holding the bourbon to his mouth. The world around him already dimmed and blurred in an alcohol-created fog. The dust on the chandelier glowed in the hazy, antique light. 

Forgetting would mean forgetting all of it, and he didn’t think he could survive that, not now when he’d only just reclaimed it.

The summer of 1987, before Pennywise, before the sound of Eddie screaming for help in that fucking kitchen on Neibolt would wake him from sweat-soaked nightmares in his childhood bed, before everything went to hell, they’d all spent long days at the quarry. Bill and Stan would build rafts with scattered branches and driftwood and he’d try to sink them; Eddie would lay on a rock with a comic until one of them, usually Richie, would drag him in. “Don’t be such a pansy,” he’d said more than once, and Eddie would kick him under the water and yell, “Your vagina’s going to get a yeast infection from this contaminated water,” and Richie would laugh and dunk him some more.

The press of thighs underwater as they fought. A brush of a hand against his when they’d both pulled themselves up on Bill and Stan’s raft. A joking, somewhat muffled “Screw you, Tozier,” as Richie stuffed the last of Eddie’s mom’s horrible wheat-free, nut-free, dairy-free cupcakes in Eddie’s mouth. The catch of round, brown eyes looking in his direction, darting away when Richie turned to him. Were you looking at me? Can I look back at you? He would have liked to ask. But he didn’t, because he wasn’t a fucking queer, he told himself over and over. But riding his bike back home on those days, trailing behind Eddie, his stomach was taut with both anxiety and something else: a warm, almost reassuring flutter that spread over him when Eddie was there.

He couldn’t forget this. He couldn’t forget only hours ago when they’d walked to the clubhouse and their strides fell together at the back of the pack, and Eddie looked over at him, eyebrows furrowed in an expression Richie couldn’t begin to parse. He bit back words that had been stuck in his throat for decades - I missed you even after I forgot you. You were everything to me, Eds - and words that were more recent - You grew up good. You don’t take after your mother, thank fuck. You've changed but your eyes haven’t. He swallowed each word then like he swallowed the bourbon now. Their eyes had met on that walk, idled together for a little too long, and Richie thought about making a Wookiee sound or doing a kissy face or some other bit because if he didn’t break that contact, didn’t draw attention away from the abject want he was sure was painted across his dumb-as-rocks face, well, what the fuck would Eddie think when he caught on? But he just looked away, face a little red. Silent for once.

Richie sat the bourbon on the nightstand and threw his glasses next to the bottle. He slumped down on the bed and curled into moth-eaten pillows. The alcohol was still warm in his throat and chest, his tears cool against his fevered face. He might be sick, puke it all up like he did the day Mike called. That was only days ago. It felt much longer.

Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

Eddie was so still, his eyes open and glassy.

“We’ve got to go.” Bill grabbed Richie’s shoulders. 

Richie looked across the cavern in anticipation of a boulder crashing into the center of the lair. Splintered chunks of rocks ricocheted out from the impact and into the air, and Richie saw an especially large piece of stone fly up and land with a crash exactly where he knew it would. 

He held onto Eddie, unmoving and ashen, then turned to Bill and said coolly, “I’m not leaving without him.” And Bill was trying to pull him away, and Richie could have sworn this had happened before, but that didn’t make any sense so he shrugged off the thought just as he shrugged off Bill behind him. He pushed Bill back as the others looked on hesitant, then he bent over to haul Eddie up. He was limp and heavy, dead weight, but his blood was warm and he’d just been breathing, and so Richie rested him over his shoulders as delicately as he could manage. Eddie’s arm draped over his chest, and Richie wrapped his fingers around his wrist to keep him in place. 

And if he couldn’t feel a pulse that was only because the cavern around them was collapsing more and more with every second, and Richie couldn’t focus on counting the beats of Eddie’s heart right now.

“Honey, he’s dead,” Bev repeated, crying openly.

“We need to run now,” Mike yelled over the pounding of the falling rocks around them. “You can’t carry him. It’s too late.”

Ben dodged a chunk of debris and stepped back. “Richie, please.”

“Go!” Richie motioned them forward. “I can still help him. I’ll keep up.”

They looked to Bill, whose face was all deep creases and lines. A boulder fell feet behind them and Bill urged everyone forward. “Now, everyone go.”

Bill shouldered Eddie with Richie, and together they trailed behind the others. 

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s wrist as if to say I’m going to get you out of here, Eds.

So many yards ahead, Bev looked back as she reached the vertical channel leading to the cistern; her eyes met Richie’s then Bill’s, and with a pleading expression, she disappeared up it.

The wind from the destroyed Deadlights picked up, and Bill and Richie struggled forward, battered hard to their left. Bill ducked as debris catapulted past his head. Over the gusts, Richie yelled, “Does it feel like we’ve been here before?”

“We have, Richie.”

“No, not when we were kids. I - uh - I don’t know.”

An explosion sounded somewhere above them - not an explosion, Richie thought fleetingly, an implosion, the fucking house was collapsing - and Richie held tight to Eddie as they were knocked back away from Bill. The air was heavy with rocks and wood, and grey water rained down from above, from the cistern; he lost Bill to the chaos of the storm, lost sight of the channel upwards. It was just him and Eddie. 

Something struck him in the side of the head, hard and heavy. He fell back, desperately trying to position himself to break Eddie’s fall, but he couldn’t manage it. The rocks below him were jagged, and he thought he could feel blood dripping down his face. Richie reached for Eddie and blacked out.

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was standing again. 

Bill was talking about going in alone. How?

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked, still breathing, still fucking breathing and alive and not dripping his Goddamn organs out of his chest.

“Richie said it the b-best when we were here last,” Bill said. 

“Holy fuck.”

Chapter Text

How many times had it been?

How many times had Eddie crouched over him with an apprehensive smile that made Rich want to reach up and brush the curve of his bottom lip? A smile that was too tentative, too cautious, and Richie would have given anything, each and every time, to loosen him up just a bit, to see Eddie relax into it. And just as suddenly as the smile came, it was gone as Eddie’s face contorted first in surprise then pain, his chest split open. Richie could barely move, the glare of the Deadlights still blinding, as Eddie was yanked back, out of his reach.

How many times had Eddie huddled on the floor of the cavern, covered in blood and viscera? And how many times had Rich looked at the sheer amount of gore and wondered how it was possible that someone could bleed that much? He was dead, lifeless, breathless, fucking offed - it was so obvious, Richie could see now through sick repetition. Eddie’s eyes had been empty and his chest morbidly still, but even with some perspective, even after seeing it time after time, Richie could still feel desperation rewiring his senses, instilling a frantic fucking certainty that he must be alive because it was too Goddamn cruel to have Eddie back only for him being taken again.

And again and again.

The same conversations. The same patterns but the details shifted slightly with each round, never enough to change anything that mattered. The feel of Eddie’s blood-soaked chest under the pads of his fingers once. A caress of a bandaged cheek next. His hand cushioning Eddie’s head after. How many times had Richie held him when he was dying? How many times had he just got up and left him there alone to take his final gasping breaths?

The others were circled around him, watching him with concern on already worried faces. Bill might have been saying something. It was impossible to concentrate.

Richie could still feel the strike of something heavy against the side of his head; he’d staggered and fell to the ground, he remembered, and the crush of a boulder was oppressive on his back even now; the lasting numbness in his legs tingled where he stood. He’d tried to get up and shield Eddie, and the panic from the realization that he couldn’t get to him was still palpable. He might be hyperventilating, or maybe he had been before, when he was scrambling for Eddie in the dark. The world was spinning a pixelated jumble of before and now, and it was too fucking much.

Richie’s stomach lurched and he doubled over, his knees hitting the dead grass of the lawn on Neibolt before he retched.

He tried to do the math, to work out the numbers. Just how many times had they gone through the same waking nightmare? How many times had Eddie -

“Richie, you okay, man?” Richie’s head snapped up, reverie broken. Eddie was kneeling next to him, eyebrows furrowed together, forehead wrinkled, and Richie clung to his voice like a drowning man to a buoy.

Eddie, talking with ease; his face ruddy and colored, his eyes alert and blinking and watching Richie with an expression somewhere between anxiety and affection. You look older than you are when you’re this worried, Richie almost said to him. You have no business looking so old. Eddie and his stupid, perpetually sad eyebrows and his downturned lips. It was the same expression he had when he was pressed into the corner of the kitchen on Neibolt, frozen from the encounter with Stan’s head. The same expression as when they faced those three doors. The same expression as when they sat together against the cavern wall, Richie counting his breaths, Eddie having the fucking audacity to look worried about him.

Fuck. This ends now.

Richie said to Bill, “We’ve done this before.”

“That’s what I was s-saying,” Bill said. “You should all leave. It’s my fault we went down there in the f-first place and - ”

“Shut the fuck up. I’ve heard your dipshit speech already.” Richie spat on the ground and waited out another violent shudder as he heaved again. Eddie’s hand was on his back, warm and reverberating so strong a pulse that Richie had to willfully tune it out to avoid counting the beats again. He rubbed the bridge of his nose behind his glasses - fuck, when had he started sweating this bad? - and he looked back over at Eddie beside him, really looked at him because, Jesus fucking Christ, it was everything to see him now, after all the times he’d seen him before.

“I mean,” Richie turned back to Bill, “We’ve done this today. Or yesterday. Or something. Fuck, this is hard. No one else remembers?” The others stared at him blankly. “We’ve been here, exactly here and now. We went in the house, went down the well, went even further, killed Pennywise. We came back out. The house collapsed. None of this seems familiar?”

“Richie, I think you’re - ” Bev started.

“No, I’m not fucking crazy, Bev. Really, no one else remembers?” Nothing. “Fuck, guys. We’ve run through this a bunch of times. It always goes the same - we go in and there’s Stan’s head but it’s a spider and then there’s Bev’s naked grandma chick in the cistern, and then we go down further and there’s the doors - remember the three doors from when we were kids, Bill? - and then Pennywise has fucking claws or talons or some shit and, and, and - ” Eddie speared in front of him, his face, oh God, his face when he realized what happened, “And we manage to finish It - squeeze the fucking life from its heart - and the house implodes and we get out,” not all of us, don’t think about it, “But then I fall asleep back at the inn and I wake up and we’re always back out here again, and it’s been,” Richie paused and closed his eyes, tried to do the math again. When he spoke, he hardly recognized his own voice, “It’s been at least a dozen times. Maybe more. It’s hazy. I think I’ve been remembering bits and pieces the last few times, but it only just clicked now. At least, I think - ”

Eddie’s hand had moved from the flat of Richie’s back to his shoulder, and he gripped his tense muscles. “He needs to rest,” Eddie said to the others, his voice firm. “We should take him back. We’ve waited this long. We can wait a few more hours.”

“Please, I’m not crazy.” Richie smacked his temple with his palms, hard and repeatedly out of desperate frustration; everything in his head was messy and blurry and impossible to convey. Eddie’s hands found Richie’s wrists and he pulled them away from his forehead.

It was so fucking hard to think, the memories scattered and nonsensical still. It reminded him of the boxy CRT TV that used to sit on the dresser in his childhood bedroom; an ancient grey box, old even then, a hand-me-down from his sister. A shitty set of rabbit ears had been perched on it, and Eddie would obsessively jiggle them to try and shake free the unceasing static that consumed Next Gen or whatever crappy C-grade horror movie they watched on Friday evenings after the weather turned and the nights came early.

Static. That’s what his mind felt like.

“No one t-thinks you’re crazy,” Bill said.

“You’re very stressed,” Bev added softly. “We all are.”

“Fuck, guys, I’m not having some sort of breakdown, I swear.”

Ben was quiet, “Maybe it’s a trick, Rich. It could be Pennywise messing with you.”

Shit. What if - ? No. 

“Assholes, just listen to me.”

Richie took a steadying breath and fleetingly remembered a time - they couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven, he thought - when the four of them - Bill, Stan, Eddie and him - had been running through the snow in the Barrens. Away from Bowers and his gang? Or some other bully? He wasn’t sure. But they’d been running for fucking ever and finally stopped somewhere miles out, and Eddie couldn’t breathe. No one could find his inhaler or his spare. He’d been gasping, clinging to an icy tree with gloved hands as he struggled for air, and as Bill and Stan searched his backpack for the fourth time, Richie had done the only thing he could think of when Eddie was panting like that - grabbed his arms and told Eddie to breathe with him. And together they just stood there in the snow for what felt like a lifetime of wheezing breaths, as Richie inhaled and exhaled as evenly as he could manage, Eddie trying to match him. Brown eyes met his own, and Richie had felt warm despite the weather.

Richie took another breath. “Mike,” he said finally, “you want to tell them about the fourth side of your vessel thing for this bullshit ritual? You left out a few details when you told us all about it, huh, man?”

The group was quiet, unsure.

Richie stood up. The world swirled around him for several moments, and he staggered into Eddie, who had followed him up off the lawn, his hand still reassuring on his back.

“It doesn’t work. The ritual is bullshit, Mike, and I think on some level you know that.”

“Richie, let’s calm down, okay?” Ben reached out to him, but Richie backed away.

“Why the hell should I calm down?” He gestured to Mike. “Show them the vessel. Show them how you scratched out the other side. Tell them what happened to the who-the-fuck-even-cares tribe.” He was yelling. When had he started yelling? “About how the ritual didn’t work the first time. About how it’s all bullshit. How would I know that, Mike? How would I know that if I haven’t been through this before?”

“What’s he t-talking about?” Bill asked.

Mike had his hands in his pockets. He looked away. “The ritual has to work. They just didn’t believe - ”

Richie could feel Eddie next to him vibrating at the same frequency he would have recognized anywhere from when they were kids. “What the hell aren’t you telling us?”

“It wasn’t - the ritual - it wasn’t exactly successful before. The tribe was wiped out,” Mike whispered.

“What the fuck?” Bill swore.

“You lied to us again?” Ben asked.

“We needed a reason to believe. We can still do this. It has to work,” Mike insisted.

“And I’m here telling you, it doesn’t. What proof do you all need? We go down there. We burn our crap artifacts. It shows up and - ” The words lodged in his throat. “And we still win. We find a fucking way. I know what to do now. You guys have to believe me.”

Eddie shook his head. “This isn’t possible.”

“Dude,” Richie turned to him. “We’re fighting a Goddamn killer clown demon from fucking space, and you’re saying some time travel isn’t possible?”

“Show us the vessel, Mike.” Bev said, and with a sigh, Mike took the vessel from his bag and handed it to Bev, who examined the worn fourth side before passing it to Bill.

“So everything R-Richie said was true? About the tribe and the ritual - it didn’t work before?” Bill eyed Richie with some unease, and Mike nodded silently.

“Believe me yet?”

No one said as much, except for Ben. “I have no idea what to think, but Richie’s right. It wouldn’t be the most outlandish thing to happen to us.”

“Did you say we’ve done this a dozen times?” Eddie asked.

“Give or take, but fuck, it’s hard to track it all.”

“Shit,” Eddie breathed. “But we’ve beaten It each time?”

“Yeah.”

“Wait,” Mike said. “So we kill It even though the ritual doesn’t work?”

“Yeah, man. We literally just shout the clown down. Scream insults at It. Shit self-esteem, I guess, sensitive little turd. Playground name-calling is all it takes.” Richie shrugged. “It won’t be hard to do again now that I remember everything.”

“Ironic that the Losers just have to bully It away.” Bev almost smiled.

“So if we’ve killed It all these times, what the h-hell is going on with Richie’s time loop? Why does it even exist?” Bill asked.

Eddie caught his eyes. “And why is Richie the only one who remembers?”

“Does there have to be a reason?” Bev asked.

“Well something must be causing it,” Mike answered.

Ben stretched his arms up. “Nothing caused the one in Groundhog Day, right?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t use an old Bill Murray m-movie as a template for the logic b-behind this,” Bill said.

Eddie shifted next to Richie. “Don’t you usually have to fix something to reset a time loop?”

“Usually?” Richie snorted. “Risk analysts fuck around with space-time often?”

“Like in Star Trek and stuff, idiot. Something goes wrong and then you keep resetting until you fix it.” Eddie gestured a little wildly and Richie felt a rush of fondness sweep over him that he tried to keep off his face.

Mike shook his head. “That doesn’t begin to explain why this is happening in the first place.”

“Plus nothing went wrong. We beat Pennywise, right?” Bev looked to Richie.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. He didn’t want to upset Eddie anymore than he already had, didn’t want to set in that deep-seated anxiety that occupied him since they were kids. The slight tremor in his voice; the agitated shake of his hands when he spoke; miles of nervous pacing; the look in his eyes that he expected only the worst every time. Richie didn’t want to confirm it.

It will help keep him safe, he reminded himself. If everyone knows, they can all watch his back.

Richie turned to Eddie and said, warily, “Don’t spaz out, okay.”

“I’m definitely going to spaz out if you have to tell me not to spaz out.”

“Just breathe, dude.”

“I died, yeah?” Eddie’s voice was uncharacteristically calm and quiet, small in a way that was uncannily like how he used to talk to his mother. Deferential, nonresistant.

Raspy, crackling breath that must have hurt with every inhalation. Eyes squeezed shut as if in prayer. A shift against rock and a strangled sigh as Richie heard something like bone rubbing bone in Eddie’s chest as he tried to reposition himself. Doubt on his face as Richie told him, “I’m going to get you out of here, Eds.” He answered, “I know,” but belief never reached his eyes.

“It won’t happen again.” And as Richie watched Eddie - saw the twitch in his cheek, the hard line of his mouth turn further downwards, the way he nodded with a sort of resigned acceptance that told Richie he’d been expecting this all along - as he saw Eddie’s already limited optimism shatter, Richie wanted to do something incredibly stupid in that moment, the sort of thing he used to think about a lot as a dumb, love-struck kid; the sort of thing he’d tried to bury away as a knowing teenager, who understood these thoughts would only make Eddie reject even friendship. And holy shit, losing Eddie would have destroyed him then. It sure as fuck destroyed him every time underneath Neibolt.

But he still felt it, even if he knew better: that knife-sharp impulse to reach out and pull Eddie closer. To take his face in his hands and touch his cheek, bandaged or not. To tell him he’d never let it happen again, he’d protect him. To press their lips together. And in a world where he could do that, in a place and time where it might be the type of thing Eddie would permit, fuck, maybe even want, Eddie would open his mouth to Richie, press back against him, rest his arms on Richie’s shoulders. It would be the sort of kiss that’s both a fulfillment of a need now and a promise of more. More kisses coming, only time stood between them.

Jesus Christ, he needed some bourbon.

Instead: “I know what happens in there. You’re going to be fine this time.” Eddie was so fucking quiet. “I promise, Eds.”

*

*

*

“Rule number one: no one splits up. You got that?” They entered the house, flashlights drawn. Black sludge - or was it blood? - flowed down the main staircase. “I’m serious. No wandering off. Everyone stays in the same room together. I don’t give a fuck what shiny trap Pennywise had laid out for you in the next room, or what thing It’s whispering in your ear - no one leaves the group. This is horror movie 101, people.”

Richie held the door open to the kitchen and ushered them all inside. Eddie walked in last.

“Rule number two is you stay next to me unless I say otherwise, got it?” He told Eddie as they surveyed the empty kitchen.

“I don’t need a babysitter.” Eddie said, but he stuck elbow to elbow as Richie led him to a far corner of the room, opposite to where he’d stood all the previous times.

The fridge started to rattle.

“It’s just Stan’s head. Everyone has their fence stakes? That’s rule three, by the way - keep your weapon on you at all times. There’s also a knife on the ground there if anyone needs it,” Richie gestured to the kitchen knife on the floor.

Why the fuck hadn’t they all brought weapons the first dozen times? Richie thought as the fridge door opened with a creak and Stan’s disembodied head rolled out across the room.

A collective gasp, a few cries.

“Holy fuck.”

“Shit.”

Beside him Eddie backed into the wall, gulping air in heavy breaths.

“I’d still be alive if it wasn’t for you, Bill,” Stan said.

Bill stepped forward as if to talk to it, but Richie ran across the room first, motioning for Eddie to stay back, and he stabbed Stan clean through with his stake several times before it rolled away with a high-pitched scream, disappearing behind cracked-open tiles in the wall.

“The little fucker’s going to jump out from somewhere, probably with spider legs this time. Just keep stabbing it.”

A scuttling sound above. Bev and Bill turned their flashlights to the exposed wooden beams of the ceiling, trying to locate the noise. A brief glimpse of a segmented leg as it scurried away from the light, and Richie went back to Eddie, who huddled tight to the boards of the wall.

“It’s okay, man - ”

A screech from the far corner and Richie reeled around to see Stan drop on Mike, fangs-bared. Bev was closest; with a swing of her stake like a baseball bat, she smacked Stan off of Mike’s face; it flew across the room, landing hard against the wall near the fridge with a loud thump. It staggered back to its feet and launched itself on Bill.

Ben grabbed the kitchen knife and charged, impaling the head with several wet stabs before Bill managed to fling it off. It squelched as it hit the floor, then it stumbled back up, trailing yellow bile as it dragged itself from the room through another hole in the wall.

“Everyone alright?” Ben asked.

“Just a little scratched,” Mike said, running a hand through his hair.

Bill nodded. “I’m fine.”

“Everyone believe me now?” Richie asked, motioning to the door to the basement. “Come on, man.” He took Eddie’s arm and lead him down the staircase.

*

*

*

They stood together at the end of the tunnel. Ahead of them was the flooded cistern. “Bev gets grabbed by grandma before she makes it to the island. Eddie stays on the island, the rest of us in the water to help Bev. Understand?”

“You alright?” Ben asked her.

Bev exhaled. “Survived it before, I guess.”

“You’re going to be fine. You always are. Everyone ready?” Richie asked, and was answered with a few weak nods. “Single file, not too much space between.”

*

*

*

Mike climbed down the hatch. Bill followed.

“You guys, I can’t do it. I can’t - you saw what happened. I couldn’t help Bev and I’m guessing from how you were acting in the kitchen that I was fucking useless there too. The last times, I mean. I just fucking freeze up. If you let me go down there with you, I’m going to get us all killed.” Eddie was shaking his Goddamn inhaler, and Richie swiped it in one swift motion.

“You want the pep talk I always give you or a new one?” Richie asked.

“What if I get us all killed? What if that stops the loop and we all stay dead?” Eddie lunged for his inhaler, but Richie kept it out of reach.

“Does that mean I don’t have to have this conversation again? And dude, it’s not fucking asthma. It’s anxiety; we both know that.”

Eddie turned away, his legs shivering nervous energy. Richie really fucking hated this sudden bout of insecurity that just wasn’t Eddie, not really. He remembered it all, every fit of self-doubt followed immediately by stupid, brave action; Eddie was the first to run out and help Ben was he was bleeding in the stream, the first to insist they had to dive into the quarry after Bev; during the rock war Eddie jumped from the banks of the stream into the water so he could aim better, even though it put him closer to Bowers and the other Neanderthal assholes throwing concussion-sized rocks at their heads; and when they’d climbed down into the well, the very first time when they were just kids, Eddie had just shimmied down the rope one-handed without so much as a look back; Richie could still hear a manic scream of “I’m going to kill you,” and the soon-following smack of a hard kick to a demonic face.

You’re so fucking brave - you’ve saved my worthless ass a dozen times now. Why don’t you see how strong you are?

“Listen to me. You had a moment. We’re all fine. We’re all going to be fine. We know what’s coming, so we can all stop it.” Eddie was still avoiding his gaze, brown eyes focused on something far away. Fine, Richie thought, I’ll do the pep talk. “Who javelin-speared a clown demon straight through its ugly face?”

“Me, apparently.”

“Who saved me from being eaten by said clown demon?”

“Also me, apparently.”

“Who only freaked out a little at the Pomeranian?”

Eddie finally looked at him. “I guess that was me, too.”

“Yeah. You’re braver than you think.”

Eddie nodded, hesitant but acknowledging nonetheless. “Thanks, Rich.” They turned back to the open hatch. “Was it the same speech?”

“Same idea. Next time I’m going to save my breath and just tell you to man the hell up, okay?”

*

*

*

They crouched in the passageway leading up to the main cavern and watched the empty lair.

“Rule four: do not turn your back on It. I’m so fucking serious right now. Eddie, that goes double for you. Dodge the claws and don’t give It a chance to pin you against anything.”

“Duck and weave, people,” Ben added.

“Try to stay in the main cavern. We need to be together to shout it down. The second It shows up, just rip into It like every asshole at school did to us. That being said, if you need to duck into one of the tunnels to stay safe, do it. Just remember we need to do this as a group so get back as soon as you can. We’re safer together anyway. If It splits us up, it’ll just exploit our fears, so stay the fuck together.”

“Everyone follow Richie’s lead. Let’s f-finish this,” Bill said.

The opening to the lair was incredibly narrow - a time-consuming crawl for only one or two persons at a time. “Ben first,” Richie urged. Get Ben and Mike in first, then Eddie, Richie thought. He’ll have people on both sides to keep him safe if Pennywise shows up early. Ben started to scoot through the passage, and Richie was about to help boost Mike up when a voice, mockingly sing-song, sounded behind them.

“Team meeting? Can I join too, Richie?”

He spun around to see the clown behind them. Its limbs were already grotesquely distended, insect-like, and its claws protruded from the clown suit and clattered on the rock beneath it as it advanced towards them.

They were pinned.

“Never were one for strategy games, eh Richie? I’ll play with you though.”

“Dumb piece of shit,” Richie yelled, pressing Eddie behind him instinctively. “You look fucking ridiculous. You’re nothing but a clown.”

The others didn’t need any prompting; the group shouted a clashing echo of insults that reverberated throughout the narrow chasm.

“A clown, you’re a clown!” Mike screamed.

Bev, “A fucking bully!”

Ben, from somewhere in the passage behind them as he scooted back to join the group, “A mimic!”

Bill, “An imposter. You’re not anything!”

“You can shapeshift into literally anything, dude, and you choose a clown?” Eddie screamed. “A dumb fucking clown!”

It shivered and reeled back. A screech of nails on a chalkboard as its claws shredded the floor of the passageway.

“Eater of worlds,” It roared.

A chorus of answers:

“You’re worthless!”

“An old woman!”

“A leper!”

“A headless boy!”

“A mummy!”

“A fucking clown!”

It faltered to one side and landed against the side of the passageway, and its legs sputtered uselessly in the air like a thrown insect, striking wildly at the rocks until it righted itself.

“Sloppy bitch,” Richie screamed.

The clown flailed again and took several retreating steps away before shaking violently and hurling forward again, limbs askew. One of its back legs knocked heavily into Bill, smacking him against the cavern wall. Richie saw another arm coming toward him, talons sharp and glinting in the dull light as it descended chaotically into their crowd, swinging with an unpredictable rhythm. Richie kept Eddie behind him.

Richie felt the rip of claw against his side as it grazed him; a burning tear of flesh seared across his obliques, and he struggled to stay standing as the air was knocked from him. He refused to look at how bad it was, but he could feel his shirt adhering to sticky, wet skin. He kept yelling. He tried to keep focused. He stayed on his feet despite the need to kneel down, and he made sure Eddie was still protected behind him.

“Dipshit, you motherfucking cocksucker! A dumbass clown!”

It stumbled back, claws retreating, and the group pushed forward, moved It further down the tunnel. It changed forms again and again, more rapidly now - a mummy, Stan’s distorted woman, a leper, Bev’s piece of shit father, the old woman - and It shrank down with each change.

Amidst the shouting, Richie realized he couldn’t hear Eddie anymore. He whipped back and saw him on his knees, slumped forward and curled in on himself, clutching his stomach, body slack.

No.

The clown forgotten, the pain in his side forgotten, Richie ran back, leaving the others to finish Pennywise. It wouldn’t take long. It was their size now.

Eddie was spitting up thick clots of blood, his chin and neck streaked with red ribbons of viscera. The ground beneath him was sopping as it pooled out from his stomach. Richie could see ruptured intestines spilling out from the wound.

Richie had his jacket off and pressed into his stomach before he could fully process the damage of it. Eddie sobbed at the pressure.

His eyes were heavy. They met Richie’s and he tried to say something, but only a rush of blood spewed from his mouth.

“Don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Familiar fucking words. Words said too often. Eddie slumped further forward, and Richie took him gently by the shoulders. “I’m going to lay you down.” He cried out again as Richie laid him back against the slope of the crevasse, and a hand soaked in blood found Richie’s. Their fingers threaded together; Richie wasn’t sure which of them did it, but he squeezed Eddie’s hand as the tremors evened out and his grip weakened.

Desperation flicked at the corners of his mind. “I’m going to get you out of here, Eds,” he’d said again and again all the other times. He didn’t say it now. Eddie could barely keep his eyes open.

I promised I’d keep you safe. I told you that you were going to be fine. Liar. Liar. Liar.

The roar of the shouting down the tunnel had quieted. Richie heard footsteps on the rocks behind him. It was over.

“We’ll try again, Eds,” he whispered as the others approached.

“Oh, Eddie,” Mike breathed.

Bill closed his eyes. “Fuck.”

“You all need to get out. The cavern’s going to collapse. Get back to the inn. Strategize. Try and remember this. I don’t want the same fucking song and dance routine outside trying to convince you again.”

On the other side of the crevasse, the same supernatural green wind that ripped apart the cavern began gusting. Boulders started to fall further down the tunnel.

“Richie, we’ve got to go.” Bill grabbed Richie’s shoulders.

“I’m not leaving him.”

“Honey, honey, he’s dead,” Bev told him, crying openly. Again.

“He’s still breathing,” Richie said, and this time it was true. He didn’t bother checking his pulse; he knew it was fading as Eddie’s hold on his hand slackened further. But he was still breathing, and Richie wasn’t leaving him alone. Not again. Not after all the times before. “If I carry him out, he’ll just hurt more.” Rich lowered his voice. “He’s dying anyway. And it doesn’t make any difference if I go with you or not - we’re all ending up back where we started anyway.” The ground beneath them began to shake in earnest and debris battered the cavern-facing side of the crevasse. “Jesus, listen to me. Get the fuck out. We’ll regroup again next time.”

The group looked to Bill, whose face was all deep creases and lines. A boulder shook lose feet behind them and Bill urged everyone forward. “Now, everyone go.”

“We’ll figure this out tonight,” Ben yelled above an explosion of wind, before turning and running.

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s hand again. “You still with me?” He asked as the rocks around them rattled. Eddie’s nod was almost imperceptible, but Richie saw it. “I’m not going anywhere, man.”

Twenty-seven years ago, they climbed back up the well, and Richie went behind Eddie. One arm in a cast, and the asshole had somehow managed it, and Richie spent the entire climb up spotting him, trying to figure out how he could break his inevitable fall without ending up with a broken neck too. They’d emerged from the dark of the house on Neibolt to overwhelming daylight, and looking at Eddie, covered in black sludge and reeking of grey water, Richie had thought, I’m so fucked. I love you so much.

“Want to know a secret?” He asked but Eddie was already gone.

Water streamed into the crevasse from the opening to the cavern, and as he watched the levels rise, it was only then Richie realized just how badly he was bleeding too. He lifted his shirt and saw a long, deep gash etched across his torso. The pain flared at the sight of it, but he ignored it, stretching out next to Eddie as the boulders above them quaked. He turned Eddie to his side so his face wouldn’t get the worst of the impending collapse, and he curled around him protectively.

A deafening, brutal crush and Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

They didn’t remember. Because of course they fucking didn’t.

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked, breathing again. Richie watched him for any sign of recognition. There was none.

“Richie said it b-best when we were here last,” Bill said.

“None of this seems familiar, huh guys?” Nothing. “No déjà vu? Don’t feel like you’ve all said the same exact things like a dozen times now?” Blank stares. “Fuck me.”

*

*

*

They sat on the steps outside the house. Eddie was beside him, pale.

“We need to plan now. Last time we fucked around too much, took our time. It tipped him off and he pinned us down outside the cavern. There’s no space there. It has to be in the main cavern and not any of the tunnels where there’s too many dead ends, too many places to get trapped. We need room to run.”

“The first t-times it happened, it showed up after the ritual failed, right?” Bill asked.

“Yeah.”

Bill leaned forward. “So we g-go in there again. Straight in. Do the ritual and let it f-fail. Lure it out.”

“And this time no one splits up, got that? Just start yelling right away. Stay together as a group.” Richie looked to Eddie. “You stick with me, and I swear to God, if you die again, and I’m going to kill you myself next time.”

*

*

*

Mike placed the vessel in the center of the lair. “It can only be attacked in its true form. The ritual will show us that.”

“And what is it’s true form?” Ben asked.

“Spoiler alert: it’s not a puppy,” Richie said, shoulder to shoulder with Eddie.

“It’s light. Light that must be snuffed out by darkness.” Mike squeezed lighter fluid into the vessel and sparked a match. “Your artifacts - place them in the fire. The past must burn with the present.”

“Come on, man. We don’t need the whole bit again. Everyone just toss their shit in. Hurry the fuck up. There’s a red eye I could still make to L.A.” Richie jittered his knee in agitation, looking up and around the main section of the cavern, trying to figure out the best vantage point.

The paper boat. The inhaler. The postcard. The yearbook page. The Capitol Theater token. The stone. The shower cap.

“Okay, grab hands,” Mike instructed. Richie slipped his hand into Eddie’s and didn’t think about how it had been holding his only hours ago, slick with blood and intestinal fluid. “The ritual of Chud. It’s a battle of wills. The first step was our reunion. The second - ”

“Speed it up, Mike,” Richie said.

The flame in the vessel snuffed out and the cavern opened up above them like an eldritch mouth, pulsating and pricked with incisors. The Deadlights circled down.

“Don’t look at them,” Richie yelled as a burst of air streamed from above.

“Turn light into dark, turn light into dark - say it!” Mike called.

A few tentative cries as they started chanting together.

“Keep going,” Richie said. “And get ready. We’re almost there.” Eddie squeezed his hand as the Deadlights descended between them. “Don’t look, Eds.”

“Turn light into dark, turn light into dark, turn light into dark.”

The light was blinding even with his eyes closed, and Richie felt a hot flare somewhere deep beneath his corneas. A surge of memory from before struck him and almost knocked him back, almost set him ablaze from the oppressive heat of it. Visions of Eddie: his chest dripping blood, his eyes glassy; face down in the cistern; a slice of a claw and the drop of his head from his body, a scream Richie thought was his own; limp in Richie’s arms outside the collapsed house; floating in the Deadlights. Visions he’d seen before, he was certain. When he was caught in the Deadlights? Those memories remained an indistinct, nebulous static.

The Deadlights disappeared into the vessel, and Richie blinked stupidly, deliberately, trying to rid his eyes from the afterimages still burned there; three rotating orbs of sun-hot light and phantoms of Eddie dead, branded into his retinas.

Mike capped the vessel and the fucking red balloon that plagued his nightmares since childhood pushed out of it.

“Get ready,” Richie shouted, pulling Eddie back out of the center of the lair as the balloon kept expanding out and out. “Everyone come to me and stick together. When it pops, it’s going to make your ears ring.”

The balloon swelled out past the outer spikes of the lair and exploded with a deafening pop. Richie fell back from the force of it; Eddie hit the ground next to him. The world was silent except for a resonant, tenor tone that drowned out the sounds of the others scrambling across rock to join them. “Get out in the open,” Richie yelled above the ringing. He grabbed Eddie, still clutching his ears, and led them all to an empty section of the cavern where they couldn’t be pinned down as easily.

Ben and Mike aimed their flashlights at the lair. “Any minute,” Richie whispered, pushing Eddie behind him.

The beam of Mike’s flashlight fell across a long white face peeking out from between the center spikes.

“Oh, did it work, Mikey, did it - ”

“You’re a fucking clown!” Richie shouted immediately. “A stupid, motherfucking clown! Who the hell gets up in the morning and decides to look like that? You ugly ass clown!”

Beside him, Eddie yelled, “You can shapeshift into literally anything, dude, and you choose a clown?”

“A clown, you’re a clown!” Mike screamed.

Bev, “A fucking bully!”

Ben, “A mimic!”

Bill, “An imposter. You’re not anything!”

It almost looked surprised as it shivered and reeled back. A screech of nails on a chalkboard as its claws shredded the floor of the cavern.

“Eater of worlds,” It roared.

A chorus of answers:

“You’re worthless!”

“An old woman!”

“A leper!”

“A headless boy!”

“A mummy!”

“A fucking clown!”

The clown flailed again and took several retreating steps away before shaking violently and hurling forward again, limbs askew.

It charged through the center of the lair and out into the open, shifting erratically from one form to the next, angling towards Bill as it bolted forward. Richie kept Eddie behind him, and as the talons, sharp and glinting in the dull light of the cavern, descended chaotically toward Bill, Eddie wrenched forward away from Richie and grabbed Bill, pulling him out of the talon’s reach. The claw veered sideways and swung clean through Eddie’s neck.

Richie screamed and chucked his stake at It.

Sometime later as the cavern started to collapse, Richie decided that next time there would be no more pep talks about being braver than you think.

*

*

*

They sat on the steps outside the house. Eddie was beside him, pale.

“Eddie stays out here,” Richie said.

“I don’t want to be by myself.”

“Too fucking bad, man. You stop dying, you earn your haunted house privileges back.”

A few hours later, after they’d entered the house leaving Eddie pacing on the lawn, after the smoothest it had gone - Mike was scratched up from Stan’s head, Bev a little waterlogged but okay as ever, and Bill’s back was gashed from Pennywise’s claw as it charged through the lair, but it was relatively minor all things considered - and after everyone managed to haul ass out of there without being crushed by any falling debris, Richie exited the house at a full sprint and found Eddie strewn across the front steps, chest ripped apart, eyes open and glassy.

“Oh, Eddie,” Mike breathed.

Bill closed his eyes. “Fuck.”

Richie didn’t say anything, just closed Eddie’s eyes and picked him up, resting him across his shoulders as delicately as he could manage. Eddie was limp and heavy, dead weight, but it didn’t matter. Richie walked towards the street.

“Honey, honey, he’s dead,” Bev told him, crying openly. Again.

“No shit, Bev. I’m not leaving him here alone all night.”

“What if we’re stopped?” Ben asked. “The police?”

“It’s barely morning. No one ever sees us,” Richie said, not stopping.

“You weren’t carrying a - ” Mike began.

“A what? A corpse, a body? It’s fucking Eddie. I’m not leaving him here. Discussion over.” Richie yelled, walking further away.

They went back to the inn in depressing silence; the adrenaline of finally winning dashed into an exhausted mourning as Richie kept a tight hold of Eddie’s hand. Partway through town, Bill asked Richie if he needed help; Richie declined. Eddie’s lifeless arm draped across his chest the entire trip, his blood soaking into Richie’s jacket.

The inn was deserted. Because who the fuck would want to visit Derry unless you were stuck here in an unexplainable time loop with a killer clown murdering the only person who ever really made you truly happy?

Bill might have been saying something again. Richie wasn’t listening. He pulled himself up the stairs and along the hallway, legs heavy, mind heavy, and passed by Eddie’s empty room beside his own. He pushed his room’s door open with his free arm, and laid Eddie out on his bed, head against the pillow.

Richie thought about Friday night sleepovers at his house with horror movie marathons. Bill and Stan and Eddie would fight over who got the bed with Richie, and in the early hours of the morning, after the last of the popcorn was eaten and the stolen beers from his dad’s garage fridge were drunk and the bottles hidden away for careful disposal the following morning, after the final low-budget slasher flick finished, Richie and Stan would kick each other’s ankles for more room on the bed as Bill and Eddie rolled out sleeping bags. Eddie slept on the ground next to Richie’s side of the bed, and sometimes after Stan was snoring and Bill was drooling into his borrowed pillow, Richie and Eddie would drift off talking. “You’re shivering. You want the bed? We can trade,” Richie had said one January Friday, and Eddie shook his head. “Stan kicks in his sleep,” he’d answered back, and Richie dug through a pile of laundry at the foot of his bed and threw Eddie a spare blanket.

He pulled the covers up over Eddie’s chest wound and tucked him in, and then he took a clean shirt from his bag before going back downstairs and grabbing a bottle of bourbon. The others were already at the bar. He felt fucking numb.

*

*

*

Richie was drunk as shit but he kept knocking back the bourbon, leaning heavily over the bar as the world around him tilted violently on its axis. “Everyone tell me a fucking secret,” he slurred.

“What?” Bill asked, motioning for Richie to hand him another bottle of whiskey.

Richie passed a half-empty bottle of Jack over to him. “You all take so-so-so long to believe me. We need to speed run this shit along. Tell me a fucking secret, something I couldn’t know. Make you all take me fucking seriously before you see Stan’s head in the fridge.”

Collective silence, then Bev sat up in her chair, vodka in one hand, cigarette in the other. “My husband’s awful. I basically married my father. Guess that’s what happens when you don’t remember the man who raised you was a monster. Thanks for the mind fuck, Derry.”

“Bev,” Ben whispered beside her.

She shook her head. “It’s done now anyway. Whatever happens here, I’m not going back.”

“Shitty husband!” Rich declared, toasting her with his bourbon. “Ben, you’re next.”

“I - uh - I don’t know. I carried the yearbook page around in my wallet since we were kids,” he muttered.

“I knew that already from the other rounds, but I guess that didn’t come up this time?” Richie asked the group. “Either way, I’ll take it. Ben’s hopelessly in love with Bev, got it.” Richie toasted him too. “Lucky for you, she’s leaving her husband if we ever see tomorrow. Mike, what you got?”

Mike took a drink from his glass, the only one of them who had bothered with anything other than a bottle. “You even going to remember any of this?”

“I’m appropriately drunk for the situation,” Richie said. “Mike, go.”

He sighed. “I thought about leaving Derry a few years back. Bought a plane ticket and everything. Couldn’t do it though.”

“Because of Pennywise?” Bev asked.

“Mostly I just didn’t know what I’d do anywhere else. This place is all I know.”

“And Mike’s chickenshit.” Another toast. “Wrap us up, Bill.”

Bill sat sullenly with his whiskey at the bar. “It w-was my fault G-G-Georgie was taken. I f-faked being sick so I didn’t have to p-play with him that d-day,” Bill said after a long swig. 

“It’s not your fault,” Bev whispered. “You didn’t know. You were just a kid.”

“None of this is any of our faults,” Richie added. “Although I have to wonder what shitty cosmic karma bullshit Eddie is working off. Anyway,” he staggered out from behind the bar. “Cheers to the Losers,” he said, toasting the group with the last of his bourbon. “I’m going to go pass out. See you all on Neibolt. Act surprised to see me.”

“Wait, buddy,” Ben said. “What the fuck’s your secret?”

“Speculate amongst yourselves. We’ll discuss this...never, I guess.”

Upstairs in his room, Richie tripped over the tasselled carpet as he took a spare pillow from the recliner, and then he curled up on the floor next to Eddie’s side of the bed.

Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

They didn’t remember. Because of course they fucking didn’t.

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked, breathing again. Richie watched him for any sign of recognition. There was none.

“Richie said it b-best when we were here last,” Bill said.

“Everyone shut the fuck up and listen.”

*

*

*

“What’s the rule?” Richie hissed to Eddie as Mike placed the vessel in the center of the lair.

“Do not help Bill,” Eddie repeated.

“Because?”

“Because Bill will be fine and I will not.”

“Do not help anyone.” Richie added. “Be a selfish asshole and let us all get stabbed if that’s what it takes. Do not intervene, got it?”

“Yeah, man. I understand.”

The vessel ignited. The paper boat. The inhaler. The postcard. The yearbook page. The Capitol Theater token. The stone. The shower cap.

Richie side-eyed Eddie. “I really feel like you’re not taking this seriously.”

“If you’re going to be a jackass about it, why don’t I just wait outside next time?” Eddie asked.

Richie laughed a little wildly. “You think I haven’t tried that? Just do what I say. Don’t help Bill or me or anyone, okay?”

“For the hundredth fucking time, okay.”

The flame in the vessel snuffed out and the cavern opened up above them like an eldritch mouth, pulsating and pricked with incisors. The Deadlights circled down.

“Don’t look at them,” Richie yelled as a burst of air streamed from above.

“Turn light into dark, turn light into dark - say it!” Mike called.

A few tentative cries as they started chanting together.

The Deadlights descended as the group chanted. Mike tried to contain the red balloon in the vessel. It expanded out, pushing everyone out of the interior of the lair. Richie gathered everyone together, tapped his foot impatiently, and waited for the inevitable, deafening pop to sound. The explosion echoed throughout the cavern.

Ben and Mike aimed their flashlights at the lair. “Any minute,” Richie whispered, pushing Eddie behind him.

The beam of Mike’s flashlight fell across the section of spikes where Pennywise’s cracked face should have been. There was nothing there.

“Something’s wrong,” Richie said.

He whipped around to face Eddie, and before he saw the glint of the claw, Richie heard the same breathless inhale that had buried so deep into his mind from so many nightmarish repetitions that he was sure the sound would be a part of him forever: a sharp intake of breath, a surprised, ragged sigh, and a whispered, “Richie? Richie?”

Behind him, Eddie had been stabbed clean through the chest with the claw. Blood sprayed from both the gaping wound and from Eddie’s mouth, and he was yanked back, out of his reach. Like before. Like all those terrible times before. Richie screamed.

“Beep beep, Richie.”

He was only vaguely aware that the others were yelling as Pennywise flailed Eddie across the cavern on his claw. He only heard Eddie’s pained grunts and cries and the sound of his body hitting stone after stone as he was flung into a crevasse across the cavern, and the thud thud thud of every roll.

“Do it now,” Richie yelled to the others as he ran across the cavern and down the slope to where Eddie lay sprawled across the jagged rocks. Richie’s jacket was off before he reached him, and he pressed it into his torn chest as he reclined him against the cavern wall.

“Didn’t get a chance to save you this time,” Eddie said with a cough.

“Good listening, asshole.” Out in the cavern, Richie heard the other Losers shouting. “They won’t take long. I’m going to move you to the other side of the passage. Once they’ve cleared the cavern, we’re getting out. I think we’ve got a real chance this time if we move fast - ”

“Rich,” Eddie interrupted. “We both know I’m not surviving this,” he gestured to his chest. “I didn’t before, I won’t now.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Listen to yourself. It’s a fucking impaled chest wound.” He coughed again and spat blood. “Collapsed lungs, crushed or broken ribs, probably damage to the liver, stomach, and spleen. It’ll be the blood loss that does it first though, man. There’s no point in trying to get me out. Fuck, I wouldn’t survive this if it happened outside the Mayo Clinic.”

“Shut the fuck up, Eds.”

“You can’t be surprised.” Eddie’s eyes, his stupid, big, brown, beautiful eyes bore right through him, and Richie took his hand.

“Doesn’t mean we can’t try. You’re very conscious right now. That’s not always - ”

“Probably the adrenaline.” Eddie said. “Won’t last. You should go with them. Brainstorm. Figure something out.”

“I’m not leaving you. If you’re staying, so am I.”

The shouting had stopped. The others ran into the crevasse.

“Oh, Eddie,” Mike breathed.

Bill closed his eyes. “Fuck.”

“We have to get him out,” Ben said, going to Eddie’s side. “On three, Rich. Come on.”

On the other side of the crevasse, the same supernatural green wind that ripped apart the cavern began gusting. Boulders started to fall further down the tunnel.

Richie looked to Eddie, who shook his head. Richie exhaled and slumped down against the cavern wall next to him, keeping a hold of his hand. “Bill, get everyone out. The cavern’s going to collapse. Go back to the inn. Strategize. Try and remember this. I’m so sick of having the same conversations with you all.”

“But Eddie?” Bev was crying openly. Again.

“No point in trying,” Eddie answered. “I’ll just slow you down.”

A chorus of protests.

A familiar boulder crashed into the center of the lair. Splintered chunks of rocks ricocheted out from the impact and into the air, and Richie saw an especially large piece of stone fly up and land with a crash exactly where he knew it would.

“You need to move now if you’re going to make it. Trust me, Bill, please,” Richie said.

The group looked to Bill, whose face was all deep creases and lines. A boulder shook lose feet behind them and Bill urged everyone forward. “Now, everyone go.”

“Eddie?” Bev asked again, stepping away.

“It’s alright,” he said, voice weakening as he coughed up more blood.

“We’ll figure this out tonight,” Ben yelled above an explosion of wind, before turning and running.

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s hand again. Eddie’s eyes were heavy. The adrenaline was wearing off. He looked ashen and tired as he leaned heavily into Richie’s shoulder.

“If your last words to me are I fucked your mother, I will actually go out and find your mother when we get out of here. I will track her down and make you watch. It will not be pleasant for anyone involved. Except your mom, who’ll fucking love it.”

“Were those actually my last words?”

“Like an embarrassing amount of times. You should feel a little ashamed, dude.”

Eddie laughed and spewed blood on Richie’s face. The laugh devolved into a hoarse, rattling cough, and as his breath got raspier and more blood came up, and Richie wiped the viscera from Eddie’s mouth with the back of his hand.

It was too intimate a gesture, and Richie regretted it immediately. Fingers against bloody lips; a macabre distortion of the sort of thing he’d thought about so many years ago. But Eddie had pressed into his touch and Richie felt a sick flutter in the bottom of his stomach as he brushed Eddie’s lip with his thumb.

Fuck it.

“Want to know a secret? Seeing as you’re not going to remember any of this.” Eddie’s eyes were closed but he was still breathing. He nodded weakly into Richie’s shoulder. “I’ve been in love with you since I was ten. Didn’t remember that until I got here, obviously, but it turns out you can still be in love with someone even after you forget they existed. It’s like I’ve spent my entire useless life looking for something and then you turn up again and, Jesus Christ, you’re fucking everything to me, Eds. It’s always been you.”

Eddie was already gone.

Chapter Text

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked.

“Richie said it b-best when we were here last,” Bill said.

He rubbed his eyes behind his glasses.

Planning wasn’t working. Nothing was working. Exhausting group pow-wows on the steps outside the house involved long, circular discussions about Groundhog Day and Star Trek and Bioshock and Edge of Tomorrow - and if Bill pretentiously insisted one more time that All You Need is Kill was superior to the film adaptation, Richie thought he might throw him to Pennywise the next time around just to see what happened - and none of it was doing anything. Every time, every single fucking time, Eddie -

Richie couldn’t think about it. The sounds of Eddie’s crackling, rasping last breaths were etched into his eardrums like scratches on a broken, over-played record. The sort his dad had listened to years ago; long hours spent in the attic, his father bent over a barely-functional turntable fumbling with dials to get the sound just right, while Richie shuffled through albums so aged the covers were discolored. With the tips of his fingers he’d traced the corners of The White Album, no longer truly white but yellowing at the edges, and through the paper-thin sleeve Richie felt worn-in grooves along the surface of the vinyl. Side two, track three skipped over the words take these sunken eyes and learn to see again and again, and his father would laugh a little and say, “Your mom wore this one down. One of her favorites, back when this old thing still worked properly.”

Round and round, the words repeated.

Eddie stood next to him, like always. Richie could still feel the slick of Eddie’s blood on his fingers from when he’d brushed it off of his parched lips. His breath on Richie’s hands had been unsteady and faltering, but it was warm and real and alive, and Richie would have given so much to feel that breath on his palm again. In a different place, another time, a better circumstance.

All of the discussions were only tipping It off, Richie thought. It had surprised them multiple times now, veered off the established path in order to attack them out of sequence. It must be listening, must be waiting on Richie to give the others instructions so It could counter them.

Because if It wasn’t listening...well, that meant It had noticed the loop too. Or caused it.

Richie shook his head and his eyes caught Eddie’s, and he thought it’s time for a change of pace. They might have a better shot if he just played along with the original version of events; no giving away the game to the clown. Keep quiet, guide the group without an explanation, make sure Eddie stays safe, and if it worked Eddie and the others would stay unburdened with the knowledge of how long this had gone on, just how many ugly, painful ways Eddie -

He still refused to think about it. Denial was what kept him standing, what kept him returning to the well in the basement.

A change of pace was worth a shot. God knew he had the time to try it.

Richie sighed. “Let’s kill this fucking clown.”

*

*

*

“Turn light into dark, turn light into dark, turn light into dark,” Richie chanted with the group, as though it was the first time he’d heard the stupid, useless words.

The Deadlights spiralled down between their linked hands, inflaming the same visions of Eddie, dead, always dead, that Richie had seen before when he’d been caught in their light the first time. “Don’t look, Eds,” he yelled as the sun-bright triad descended into the vessel at the center of the lair. Eddie clutched his hand.

Mike capped the vessel and the red balloon that plagued his nightmares since childhood pushed out of it; Eddie’s grasp tightened.

Richie didn’t warn the others of the impending pop, but as the balloon expanded past the spikes of the lair, Richie led a stammering Eddie out of the circle, keeping ahold of him as they backed into the open space of the cavern. Richie braced himself for the explosion, and suddenly pop; the world was silent except for a resonant, tenor tone that drowned out the sounds of the others scrambling across rock.

Richie managed to keep standing as Eddie knocked awkwardly into his side, pushed back from the force of the explosion. “Stay on your feet,” he shouted, or at least he thought he did. His ears rang as the others gathered together, and Eddie staggered up.

“Wait, where’s Mike?”

“Mike?”

“I’m here.”

“Did we do it? Did we do it?” Eddie asked.

The beam of Bev’s flashlight fell across a long white face peeking out from between the center spikes. A grotesque, dripping smile, a high, familiar laugh, and Eddie startled and reeled back into Richie.

“Oh, did it work, Mikey, did it - ”

“Jesus Christ, you’re one ugly motherfucker! You’re just a sad, lonely, dumbass clown!” Richie yelled immediately.

“Richie, what the fuck, man?” Someone - Mike? - asked behind him.

Someone else said, “Dude, what are you doing?”

He continued, “You’re pathetic. You’re nothing but a Goddamn joke,” he screamed. “Guys, yell at it. Trust me, please.” He straightened his back and stepped forward, approaching it. “You’re a clown, a stupid fucking clown.”

“Richie?” Ben was retreating. “Don’t provoke it.”

An eruption of pale blue light from the vessel. “The Deadlights - don’t look at them,” Bev shouted.

Richie shielded Eddie as Pennywise advanced. Its sunken eyes were narrowed, appraising Richie with every heavy step, and at each of Richie’s words, It would stutter, shake just enough that Richie knew It was feeling it, somehow, in that blackened heart; but the clown was still growing as It proceeded towards them, claws scratching the surface of the lair as its elongated limbs dragged across the ground.

“You’re a loser! You’re fucking nothing!” Richie yelled again. He could hear the others backing away behind him, taking hesitant steps on the sheer rock floor.

“Richie, you’ve got to move!” Bill grabbed him by the shoulder and tried to wrench him away.

“Listen to me, it’ll work. I swear, just insult it. Scream at it. Guys, fuck, come on. We need to do this together.” Richie pushed Eddie, who was fixed to Richie’s side, back into the cluster of the group behind him. “Fucking clown!”

“Twenty-seven years, I dreamt of you. I craved you. Oh, I missed you, waiting for this very moment,” It growled, front talon rearing up. “Time to float!”

It lunged forward, and Richie ducked back away from the strike. It lashed out to Richie’s side and struck Eddie across the chest.

*

*

*

The beam of Bev’s flashlight fell across a long white face peeking out from between the center spikes. A grotesque, dripping smile, a high, familiar laugh, and Eddie startled and reeled back into Richie.

“Oh, did it work, Mikey, did it - ”

“Fuck you, you stupid, ghetto clown! You’re a sloppy bitch!” Richie yelled immediately. “Everyone yell at it. Don’t ask why, just fucking believe me. Roast the motherfucker!”

“Richie, what the fuck, man?” Someone - definitely Mike - asked behind him.

Someone else, Eddie, he now realized, said, “Dude, what are you doing?”

“If you trust me at all, scream it fucking down.” He glanced back momentarily at Bill. “Please,” he begged, before turning back to Pennywise. “You get dressed in the dark? Who the fuck even does your makeup? You look like a reject from Drag Race.”

An eruption of pale blue light from the vessel. “The Deadlights - don’t look at them,” Bev shouted.

Somewhere behind him, Bill called out, his voice unsure, “You’re an imposter. You’re not anything.”

It stuttered as if hit by a gust of wind, and then pressed forward.

Eddie, “An asshole!”

Mike, “A clown, you’re a clown!”

Bev, “A fucking bully!”

Ben, “A mimic!”

It almost looked surprised as it shivered and skittered back. A screech of nails on a chalkboard as its claws shredded the floor of the cavern.

“Holy shit, it’s working,” Eddie said.

“Richie?” Bill asked.

“Just keeping going,” Richie answered.

“Eater of worlds,” It roared.

A chorus of answers:

“You’re worthless!”

“An old woman!”

“A leper!”

“A headless boy!”

“A mummy!”

“A fucking clown!”

The clown flailed again and took several retreating steps away before shaking violently and hurling forward again, limbs askew.

The group stepped backwards, avoiding its jerky thrashes, and as the others continued to shout, Richie grabbed Eddie by the elbow and nodded to a nearby tunnel. “Run. Just trust me. We’ve got this.” The flashes of the Deadlights illuminated Eddie’s brown eyes, and Richie could see anxious confusion and rejection as clearly as if they were in daylight.

“What the hell, man?” He asked.

“Do you trust me?”

Without pause, “Yes.”

Like something from before - an early summer morning at the quarry, the two of them perched on the edge of the jumping rock, Bill and Stan in the water below. “I’ve done it a million times,” he’d said, and Eddie, fingers tapping out some unrecognizable melody on the stone, looked at him and said, “I could die. I could snap my neck and be paralyzed and be stuck in a wheelchair forever and have to wear diapers and you’d never visit me and - ” And Richie shook his head and said, “Nothing will happen. Do you trust me?” An answer, “Yes.”

“Then run. Vamanos, Eduardo.”

Eddie swallowed and nodded, and Richie covered him as they continued to back away from Pennywise with the group, inching towards the entrance to the tunnel. Only feet away, Richie kept himself between Eddie and the beating talons, still flinging chaotically against the walls of the cavern as It shuddered with every insult.

“You’re a fucking mess,” Richie shouted.

Eddie turned for the tunnel and It stabbed him through the abdomen before his second step away from the group.

*

*

*

“Hey, fuck face!” Pennywise threw Mike across the cavern and rounded on Richie. He didn’t bother picking up a rock. “Want to play truth or dare again? Here’s a truth: you’re a predictable, basic bitch.” It almost had the decency to look offended. “Yeah that’s right. Let’s dance. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!”

The cavern exploded in an oppressive surge of red and orange light, but Richie had his eyes closed.

“Don’t look! Follow my lead,” Richie yelled over the baritone notes of the Deadlights. “Hey, Krusty? You think you’re shit but honestly this is just sad - obsessing over us for, what, like three decades? You’re a pathetic clown,” Richie screamed.

“Richie, what the fuck, man?” Mike asked.

Eddie said, “Dude, what are you doing?”

“Bill, wherever you are, please just trust me. We just need to yell at it. Make it small.” Richie could hear claws approaching but he kept his eyes closed, the burn of the Deadlights white-hot even through his lids. “What have you even been doing for twenty-seven years, you ugly ass clown? You need to get a fucking hobby!”

Somewhere across the cavern, Bill called out, his voice unsure, “You’re an imposter. You’re not anything.”

Eddie, “An asshole!”

Mike, “A clown, you’re a clown!”

Bev, “A fucking bully!”

Ben, “A mimic!”

The lights dulled and Richie opened his eyes, hand shielding his face from the lingering ambiance above as he watched It stalk towards Eddie, who was pressed against the rock wall near the mouth of the tunnel that led to the three doors. The clown flailed again as the shouting continued, and It took several retreating steps away from Eddie before shaking violently and hurling forward again, limbs askew.

Richie sprinted across the cavern but Eddie struck first, hurling his stake forward into Pennywise’s chest. The stake lodged deep, and the clown stumbled back, insect legs whipping disjointedly as It staggered from the blow. Its balance gave out, and as It fell, Richie watched as one talon swept up and into Eddie.

*

*

*

As the cavern collapsed around them, Richie thought about autumn in L.A., and how you had to travel outside of the city to see any fall foliage.

Eddie’s body was slack against his. His bandaged cheek lay motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy. He closed Eddie’s eyes and rubbed his bloody palms on his balled-up jacket.

Red blood, red leaves. He’d never bothered to make the drive to see the leaves change himself, but it was the sort of thing that his manager or some of the other guys brought up by the end of every October - taking the wife and kids out for a trip to see the red and yellow and orange - and Richie would nod politely as he sipped his bourbon at whatever dive they were drinking at post-gig that night, as if any of it was at all relevant or mattered. As if the notion of family fucking road trips wasn’t as foreign to him as trekking back to good old Derry and its picturesque New England colors. As if he hadn’t spent every autumn of his childhood surrounded by dead and dying leaves littering the sidewalks on his bike rides to and from school. He hadn’t remembered the details at the time, of course, but the sound of wheels crunching over crisp leaves had imprinted somewhere in his hindbrain, along with the image of a round-faced boy throwing his bike on a leaf-strewn lawn. A kick of sneakers in his direction and a flutter of leaves following it, then a shout of “leaf fight,” as a handful of dried, red leaves were shoved down the back of his shirt.

L.A. didn’t have red like that, and Richie wondered whether Eddie would have wanted to drag him on family fucking road trips if he lived in L.A. too. What a stupid thought.

A deafening, brutal crush and Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

When they entered the house again, Richie lingered at the main staircase, watching the black sludge - or was it blood? - as it trailed down the steps. For a moment, just a few seconds longer than he’d normally wait there, he stared at the drip drip drip of the murky liquid, and he thought about how twenty-seven years ago he’d hurtled down those stairs with Bill as Eddie shrieked in the kitchen just beyond the staircase. The breaks between his screams for help had been worse than the shrill, panicked sobs themselves, since Richie had been certain each pause marked the last time he’d hear Eddie’s voice. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, Richie had thought, jumping the final step of the staircase and rounding on the kitchen door.

But he hadn’t been, and some hours later, after Eddie’s mom dragged him away with declarations of “Eddie is done with you,” Richie lay exhausted and cried-out on his bed, having realized that if anything had happened to Eddie, he wouldn’t have survived it either.

Fuck.

Richie shook off the memory and headed to that same, cursed kitchen, but the door slammed shut before he got there, leaving Bill and Eddie alone on the other side.

He tried to pry it open, but it was wedged shut as if welded in place. Eddie’s cries from the next room overwhelmed him as he struggled with the door. The movements behind him were a haze of Ben’s screams and Bev and Mike’s frantic, nonsensical words, but none of that was clear; the world had narrowed to nothing more than Eddie’s cries and words that sounded like, “Richie, please, Richie, help.” He pulled on the door, bracing himself against the frame with one leg as he yanked back desperately with all of his weight. Eddie’s screams went suddenly quiet, and Richie begged a God he didn’t believe in for another sound, another cry or yell or anything to indicate he was still alive.

“Eddie,” he called. “Say something.”

No response.

A shatter of broken glass, Ben’s relieved gasp, and the door finally gave way as if it had never been locked. Richie fell backwards as it swung open, and he launched himself into the kitchen.

Both Bill and Eddie lay on the ground, faces torn apart. Eddie’s jugular was ripped open.

Richie ignored the others’ protests as he carried Eddie out of the house and to the inn. He grabbed a bottle of bourbon on the way back to his room.

*

*

*

The group stood together at the end of the tunnel. Ahead of them was the flooded cistern.

“Shit, this is it. This is where it happened,” Ben breathed.

They waded through the grey water, their flashlights shining the path to the center island. Richie idly flicked the scummy film floating on the water with his fingers, ready for Bev’s grandma to show up.

“You okay, Bev?” Richie asked as they crossed.

“No, but I just need this to be done. Not exactly fond memories here,” she said, gesturing to the cavernous space above them. “I don’t like to think about the Deadlights.”

“No shit.”

“I forgot the visions when I left Derry. Coming back, it’s like I relived them all again,” Bev said quietly.

Richie glanced back at Eddie directly behind him. “You saw how everyone - ”

“Yeah,” she finished.

He nodded his head backwards. “What about him?” Richie mouthed.

Bev raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth to answer, but she was stopped by Ben in front of them, who had turned around, unmoving as he faced Eddie.

“Eddie, what is it?” Ben asked.

Richie spun around. Eddie was now several paces behind, looking back at the entrance to the cistern.

“Nothing,” Eddie said before Richie could reach him. “I thought I heard - ”

The leper surfaced between them and grabbed Eddie by the throat. “Time to sink,” it croaked, pulling Eddie under as he tried to wrest away.

Richie dove under and grabbed the leper by one of its arms; the limb broke off as Richie yanked it up, and Richie was propelled back by the force of it. He threw the arm down and felt a surge of water as the others joined him under the surface. He swam deeper into a sunken chasm where the leper had dragged Eddie.

Mike was prying its bony fingers from around Eddie’s throat as Eddie kicked violently at it. Richie dug his fingers into its eye sockets, wrenching its head backwards and twisting its neck, hoping it would come free as easily as the arm had. It bucked, knocking its rotten head into Richie’s skull, and Richie was flung off again.

Black dots at the corners of his vision. A furious ache in his chest. Richie pushed up and surfaced for a desperate breath before immediately diving back down.

As he dove under, Bill and Mike were ascending for air too. He swam further down, determined and reckless, but he couldn’t see the leper or Eddie. Further down still, and down and down and down, until the little light from the cistern had dulled completely. Which way was up? He felt a hand grasp his shoulder and pull him in the opposite direction, and he surfaced next to Bev, gasping for much needed air.

Eddie was floating facedown.

*

*

*

The claw had somehow become dislodged when Pennywise stabbed him, and as horrifying as it was seeing Eddie with that talon stuck into his chest, Richie thought this is very, very good. This is a fucking gift.

He’d watched enough B-grade medical dramas on flights between gigs to know that you never take a knife out of yourself if you’ve been stabbed; it puts pressure on the wound, slows the bleeding, holds everything together, and so as Richie leaned over Eddie and surveyed the claw - entry wound, no exit - he knew this might be the one to do it.

Hope that he hadn’t experienced in several cycles warmed through him; it was a sort of hot, embarrassed crest of heat across his face that reminded him of evening walks to Eddie’s house. Anticipation and potential and longing. “It’s going to be okay, man,” he said, believing the words himself.

Eddie looked down at the claw sticking out of his chest and gagged. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Hold it together.” Out in the cavern, Richie heard the other Losers shouting. “They won’t take long. I’m going to move you to the other side of the passage. Once they’ve cleared the cavern, we’re getting out.” Words he’d said during other iterations, Richie was sure, but this time, this time -

He couldn’t carry Eddie on his back like he had before; it would only drive the claw in further. “Hold onto my shoulders,” Richie said, hauling him up, one arm under his knees, the other against the small of his back. Close like this, Richie could feel his pulse and measure his breaths as his chest rose and fell against Richie’s own. (Like so many cycles before, he counted his breaths. Eddie was still breathing.) “Good thing you’re small, bro,” he said.

“Fuck you,” Eddie exhaled in uneven, short breaths as he clung to Richie, eyes shut in pain.

“When we get out of here I’m buying you a burger.”

Richie carried him to the far side of the passage where it circled back near the quickest route out. He looked out to the cavern and saw the Losers together in the center of the lair. The shouting had stopped. Richie flagged them over. (Eddie was still breathing.)

“We have to get him out,” Ben said, going to Richie’s side.

On the other side of the crevasse, the same supernatural green wind that ripped apart the cavern began gusting. Boulders started to fall further down the tunnel.

Everyone looked to Bill, whose face was all deep creases and lines. A boulder fell feet behind them and Bill urged everyone forward. “Now, everyone go.”

Ben scooped Eddie’s legs under his arms, and together the three of them trailed behind the others as they ran towards the hatch that led to the cistern.

“Richie, when you need to switch, let me know,” Mike called back.

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Eddie squeezed Richie’s neck with clammy hands. “I’m slowing you down,” he said, blood dripping down his chin as he spoke. (Eddie was still breathing.)

“Shut the fuck up and think light thoughts,” Richie yelled above the wind as it picked up around them. Ben ducked as a stone flew above his head.

Bill waited at the hatch for them as Bev and Mike started to climb up. “How are we going to do this?” Bill shouted.

A vertical climb with Eddie between them seemed impossible, but Eddie had enough strength to hold onto Richie as the three of them managed to stumblingly maneuver one-handed up the hatch, each supporting Eddie; Richie’s arm wrapped awkwardly around Eddie’s torso while Bill and Ben each supported a leg. Water rained down from the cistern above, and Richie snorted a mouthful of it as he assessed how long the climb would take. “Keep your face down,” he said to Eddie, who buried his head in the crook of Richie’s neck, inhaling staccato breaths with every jerk upwards. (Eddie was still breathing.)

They climbed over the ledge of the hatch and Mike and Bev were waiting. “Run ahead, we’ll catch up,” Richie shouted as water continued to pour down over them in heavy sheets. His lungs were burning from the climb and he puffed as he and Ben rearranged Eddie and waded through the cistern, now fully flooded with neck-deep water.

“Chin up,” Bill yelled, struggling to keep both himself and Eddie above the water.

The current pushed against them, pummelling them back, and Richie felt Eddie’s breath growing shallow. (Eddie was still breathing.) Almost there, he repeated to himself as they fought upstream.

The water receded as they approached the well, and Richie said, “Keep holding onto me,” as they started another graceless climb. Eddie leaned heavily on Richie, face still hidden in his neck, breath unsteady and rasping. His hold on Richie was loosening.

“I’m numb,” he gasped into Richie’s shoulder. (Eddie was still breathing.) A jostle as they pulled themselves out of the well, and the claw dug deeper.

“Almost there,” Richie managed between wheezes. “Don’t ever let go of me.”

Out of the well and up the basement stairs, through the kitchen, out the main entryway as the house crumpled behind them, and into the morning light.

(Eddie had just been breathing. Eddie had just been breathing. Eddie had just been breathing.)

Rich curled around him on the pavement, soaked and sweaty and panting.

*

*

*

As the cavern collapsed around them, Richie thought about all the other domestic shit Eddie probably liked - the sort of things he and his wife would do together on lazy Sunday afternoons.

Not just fall foliage. Destinationless walks in the park, cooing over small dogs in strollers. Garden shows to pick out annuals for the front yard every spring. Couples’ cooking classes. By the numbers rom coms at overpriced, chain cinemas. Should we serve Brie or Camembert with the charcuterie? Fond arguments over what color to repaint the dining room.

Crap, all of it. God awful, boring, cliched-as-fuck, wife-has-you-by-the-balls bullshit. The sort of stuff he mocked in his material; his bit about farmers’ markets got him the Netflix special, his manager had told him once, and he’d bet his condo that Eddie had bought his fair share of organic, locally grown produce at whatever farmers’ market he was sure to frequent with Myra. It wasn’t the sort of shit Richie had ever wanted for himself or looked for in a partner. Partner, Rich almost laughed, quick, shameful, semi-anonymous fucks don’t qualify.

But with Eddie...well, farmers’ markets would still suck, but the company might just make it okay. What a stupid thought.

A deafening, brutal crush and Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

Eddie fell against Richie as the claw ripped through his neck. Hot spurts of blood soaked Richie’s hands, and Eddie convulsed breathlessly for long seconds before his complexion turned to an ashen blue and he went still in Richie’s arms.

*

*

*

Eddie tried to push his intestines back into the hole in his abdomen; his brown eyes were wide in panic, his mouth open in a silent plea he couldn’t possibly vocalize. Richie pressed his jacket against the wound; it wasn’t so much to slow the bleeding as it was to hide the worst of the carnage from Eddie’s sight.

*

*

*

Eddie was flung off of Pennywise’s claw into the far wall of the cavern. His body hit the rock with a bone-crushing smack and he fell to the jagged rocks below, his limbs bent crookedly at disjointed angles as he lay motionless on the ground.

He was gone before Richie got to him.

*

*

*

Eddie’s chest was ripped open and his pulse silent, and Richie wondered how many more times it would take until he stopped hurting like this.

*

*

*

As the cavern collapsed around them, Richie thought about how fucking pointless it was to speculate about family fucking road trips and farmers’ markets and the sort of familial happiness that had never been in his cards.

“I’ve tried everything, Eds,” he said into Eddie’s hair.

Eddie’s body was slack against his. His bandaged cheek lay motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy.

“If I leave you outside, you’re dead across the front steps when we get out, no matter how fast we are. If I hide you in a tunnel somewhere, you’re dead when I get back. And that’s assuming I can even get you into a tunnel, because half the time I try that, you end up dead on the way.” He closed Eddie’s eyes. “I try attacking It right after the ritual, you end up dead. I wait until after we all split up and then I avoid the Deadlights, and you still end up dead. I get caught in the Deadlights again - not a fun trip, by the way - and I make sure you don’t have that fucking fence stake to throw, and you still die. How have you even managed to see forty, man? You have the survival instinct of a fucking goldfish.” Richie pressed closer, face pillowed in Eddie’s disheveled hair. “I don’t know what to do.” 

The repetition was destroying him; the same conversations, the same events, the same pained look in Eddie’s eyes - a mixture of horror and hurt and confirmation - and every time Richie thought don’t look like that, don’t look like you somehow expected the worst, like this was inevitable, like nothing could save you. There’s a way. There has to be.

This couldn’t be the sum of Eddie’s life, these terrible moments played over and over. There had to be more, right? Something, anything beyond this.

*

*

*

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s hand again.

“Tell me something I don’t know about you, Eds,” he said into Eddie’s hair.

Eddie shifted next to him, and Richie heard something like bone rubbing bone in Eddie’s chest as he tried to reposition himself, face buried in Richie’s shoulder.

“What sort of thing?” Eddie asked, muffled.

“Something from when we were kids.”

A pause, then, “When I stabbed Bowers today, all I could think about was how miserable he made us. I was so scared of going to school. Was it fifth or sixth grade when it got really bad? And he threw me into Mr. Moore’s compost pile and you had to fish me out and mom wanted to pull me from school altogether? But the only thing worse than the idea of going to school and facing Bowers was the thought of not going and never seeing you guys. I had panic attacks some mornings, after all that.”

Richie thought of Eddie waiting with his bike on his driveway before school, all too-fast words and balled fists and stimming knees smacking the body of his bike; the crunch crunch crunch of sneakers tapping on fallen, autumn leaves as Eddie almost vibrated right off the driveway.

“I wish you’d told me how bad it was, back then.” I wish I’d realized it myself.

“Wouldn’t have made any difference.”

Might have. At least I could have been there for you. I should have been there for you. More than I was, anyway. I’m trying to be there for you now, please believe me.

“It felt good stabbing him,” Eddie said through a cough. “Should I feel bad about that?”

“Well, seeing as I put an axe through him, I’m going to have to go with no, don’t feel guilty about it.” Richie watched as Eddie’s cheek twitched underneath his bandage, the white cotton stretching as he clenched his jaw. “The asshole was a walking hate crime. He had it coming. Don’t feel guilty about defending yourself.”

“Thanks, Rich,” Eddie wheezed, head lolling heavily on Richie’s shoulder as he spat up more blood.

“Don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded. “I’m not leaving you.”

Sometime later, Eddie’s body went slack against his. His bandaged cheek lay motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy.

He closed Eddie’s eyes. “I should have realized how freaked out you were by Bowers when we were kids. I should have been at the inn when Bowers showed up,” Richie said, caressing Eddie’s swollen skin around his bandage. “I should have done a lot of things differently.”

*

*

*

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s hand again.

“Tell me something I don’t know about you, Eds.”

“What sort of thing?”

“Something from after you moved away.”

A pause, then, “Hartford was - I don’t know? - normal, after everything that happened here. It wasn’t anything. It was just sort of empty.”

“You never called,” Richie whispered.

“We didn’t have a phone right away, I think. And then by the time we did…”

“You’d forgotten.”

“Happened fast.” Eddie’s voice was a world away. “I always felt sort of lost after, though. Like nothing was quite right. Like I was missing something. Fucked up, huh?”

“No, I understand that.” Richie ran his thumb over Eddie’s knuckles and stopped himself from doing it a second time.

“Not going to make fun of me? No calling me a sentimental asshole or a princess or something?” Eddie coughed, head lolling heavily on Richie’s shoulder as he spat up more blood.

“Not today. Don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded. “I’m not leaving you.”

Sometime later, Eddie’s body went slack against his. His bandaged cheek lay motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy.

He closed Eddie’s eyes. “I thought about you all the time before I left Derry.”

*

*

*

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s hand again.

“Tell me something I don’t know about you, Eds.”

“What sort of thing?”

“Something you remembered all this time. I know we forgot most of it, but was there anything that stuck?”

A pause then, “Street Fighter.”

Street Fighter?”

“Yeah. I always remembered the arcade and stacking up a roll of quarters between us.”

Rainy Saturdays, just the two of them; Stan at the synagogue, Bill somewhere with Georgie. And they’d stand elbow-to-elbow at the console, Eddie smashing the buttons seemingly at random. He swore every time he was KO’ed.

“You sucked, bro. Like, you were really, really bad. I know it’s a button masher, but oh man, Eddie, you really didn’t know what you were doing. I must have showed you how to play a hundred times.”

“Some of us had better things to do than waste all of our free time practicing combos,” Eddie said, eyebrows raised in a challenge, lips quirked in a half smile.

Richie took the bait. “Trying to climb back up inside your mom doesn’t count as a better thing to do.”

“Dude, gross.” But Eddie was smiling, too. “I remembered arguing over who got to play as Ryu.”

“No one wanted Ken,” Richie agreed.

“Yeah, fuck Ken.”

Richie laughed, “And you used to bring those sterile wipes for the buttons because of - what was it? - E. coli and MRSA and norovirus? Fuck me.”

Eddie shook his head into Richie’s shoulder. “Mock me but you got the flu every winter without fucking fail. The CDC - ”

“You got the flu, too!”

“Yeah, I caught it from you, and you caught it from the arcade!” Eddie laughed and he spat up more blood.

“Don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded. “I’m not leaving you.”

Sometime later, Eddie’s body went slack against his. His bandaged cheek lay motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy.

He closed Eddie’s eyes. “You’d always come when I asked. You hated the arcade, but you’d still come. Did I ever say thanks?” He hit the back of his head on the cavern wall. “Thanks.”

*

*

*

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s hand again.

“Tell me something I don’t know about you, Eds.”

“What sort of thing?”

“Something about that lovely wife of yours.”

A pause, then, “The house in Hartford was right next to hers. Mom always liked her. We hung out a lot when we were kids.”

“Why’d you marry her?” Richie asked, voice too even.

Eddie gasped as he moved again, leaning away from Richie so he could look up at him. “It wasn’t so bad at first. Easy, I guess. Safe thing to do.”

“Risk analyst, huh?”

“What can I say, I found my calling.”

“Are you happy?” He asked.

Eddie was quiet, watching Richie watch him. “Happy is relative,” he said finally.

“Is it?”

“Yeah. I’m happy relative to,” he paused, “being alone. Being by myself. I’m not good at uncertainty. Myra’s certain.” Eddie kept eyeing Richie, eyebrows tilting further down in measured curiosity. “Why do you want to know?”

“Just want you to be happy, Eds.”

“Too late for that, I think.”

Richie smiled a little. “There’s always next time.”

Eddie coughed hard, hacking up several clots of blood. “What do you mean, next time?” He asked, head lolling heavily on Richie’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry about it.” Eddie’s eyelids were drooping; he was slipping in and out, dozed enough to dismiss whatever Richie had just said. “You just deserve to be happy,” Richie whispered into his ear, lips too close to its shell. He pulled back. “Don’t talk, okay? Just keep breathing right now.” Eddie nodded. “I’m not leaving you.”

Sometime later, Eddie’s body went slack against his. His bandaged cheek lay motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy.

“Want to hear something kind of funny? Like funny in the way that if you didn’t decide to laugh about it, you’d just cry instead.” He closed Eddie’s eyes. “I have a - I don’t know what you’d call it - a type, I guess? Short, brunette assholes with a stubborn streak who give as good as they get. Guess I was looking for you even after I forgot you.”

Richie smoothed a loose strand of Eddie’s hair off his face. “Not that I’m fucking around much these days. Can’t risk my sterling reputation as a dudebro. You don’t build a career making jokes at the expense of a non-existent girlfriend and then just walk down Melrose Avenue holding your boyfriend’s hand.” Richie sighed and rested his head on Eddie’s. “Derry fucked me up real good, huh.”

*

*

*

A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line, and Richie squeezed Eddie’s hand again.

“Tell me something I don’t know about you, Eds.”

“What sort of thing?”

“Whatever it is you’re thinking about now.”

A pause, then, “I’m scared.”

Richie heard Eddie’s voice break and something - the last bit of hope he’d been clinging to for God only knew how many cycles now, or maybe it was the frayed strings of his remaining sanity, Rich wasn’t sure - but whatever it was, it plummeted when he heard Eddie say I’m scared. It tore up the insides of his own chest to match Eddie’s wounds, and a wave of cold, dispassionate knowledge struck him like the icy, late autumn air of his childhood.

Blood-red leaves on the sidewalk, a boy with a perpetually anxious expression that Rich spent years trying to lighten walked beside him, dried crunching underfoot, and a soft, “I’m scared I’ll see Bowers.”

He hadn’t helped then. He couldn’t help now.

Richie pressed his face into Eddie’s hair and hot tears fell, his body shaking as he clung to Eddie.

“Hey, hey, Rich.” Eddie leaned up, hissing at the movement. “You can get out, run for it. Your old-man ass can still make it.”

“I told you, I’m not leaving.” He sounded so fucking broken, a pathetic jackass crying as exhaustion and desperation and - the worst of it, the absolute worst of it - acceptance rolled through him. This was it. This was his life and Eddie’s life and there would never be anything more than fear and pain and these sad, stolen minutes he waited for. These few minutes before Eddie died were the only chance they had together, and how Goddamn depressing was it that the only moments he looked forward to were the ones when Eddie was most scared.

Richie sobbed.

“Richie, please. It’s okay.” Eddie squirmed next to him, bracing himself against the cavern wall as he pushed himself up to Richie’s height, inhaling sharply as he straightened up, the muscles in his jaw clenching.

“And now you’re comforting me. Fuck, I’m such a useless piece of - ”

Eddie pressed his lips against Richie’s.

His mouth was wet with blood; he tasted like metal and salt, but Eddie’s lips were firm against his, reassuring and weighty and there, and Richie kissed him back. A brush of stubble, a bump of a nose, and Eddie tilted his head just a little to the right as Richie reached up and slipped his hand behind his head, threading his fingers through Eddie’s hair.

A chaste peck; an overture, a prologue, an opening act. It was the sort of kiss that demanded more, unfinished and incomplete, and Jesus fucking Christ Richie wanted not only more, but all of it, everything, whatever Eddie would give him, but Eddie’s breathing was ragged now, his grip on Richie’s hand weakening.

“I used to think about that a lot,” Eddie said, his voice weak and raspy.

“I love you, Eds.”

Eddie opened his mouth to speak but only blood pooled down from his lips. He coughed hoarsely and more viscera spilled out, and Richie wiped his mouth with the pad of his thumb in a long, lingering caress.

“I’m so sorry,” Richie whispered against Eddie’s lips, pressing them together again.

Eddie’s body went slack against his. His bandaged cheek lay motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy.

He closed Eddie’s eyes and cried. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said to no one.

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

Hands in his pockets, Richie turned and left the yard. 

Chapter Text

Richie wiped away tears that were no longer streaking his face.

“What the fuck, dude?” Eddie asked, his hand curling around Richie’s bicep with a level of force that Richie noticed, momentarily surprised not only at the strength of his grip but by the muscle behind it. Only minutes before, Eddie’s hand had slackened in Richie’s palm; his fingers, slotted between Richie’s, had sagged limply as he’d slouched over into Richie’s shoulder.

And now Eddie held him to the spot on Neibolt Street, several houses down from number twenty-nine.

Richie stilled, unwilling to pull away from Eddie’s touch even if it seemed to burn caustically through the sleeve of his jacket to his very core; Eddie’s death loomed overhead like a Goddamn spectre, like a cluster of red fucking balloons, and a touch that Richie would have welcomed, no, craved, seemed wrong somehow when it couldn’t possibly last. Whatever happened between them, whatever solace Richie found (a press of lips, Eddie’s face so close that Richie could see the chestnut striations in his irises even in the dim light of the cavern), none of it mattered because the outcome was always the same: Eddie hurt and scared and dying, and then forgetting whatever little good had come before.

But fuck, that kiss had meant everything.

The Losers had followed him as he’d walked down Neibolt. Bev got in his face. Ben begged to know what had changed since they left the library. Mike said something about strength in numbers. Eddie called him a pussy, more than a few times. Bill was the only one who stayed standing on the steps of the house, his face all deep creases and lines. The others conferred behind Richie as Eddie grabbed his arm, hand firm and warm in the cool night air, and Richie tried not to think of his grip weakening, his pulse quieting. “I thought we were sticking together,” Eddie said. “Back at the inn, you said - ”

That was so long ago.

But he still remembered the conversation. Richie stored away those casual moments just to keep with him because it was Eddie, and after years of forgetting him, at least he could have the memories now, if nothing else.

After the argument in the parking lot of the Jade, and after he’d drove back to the inn, watching in his rearview mirror as the headlights of Eddie’s car followed behind his, they’d both ran up the inn’s stairs together, and Richie had leaned across the door to his room as Eddie fumbled with his keys. “We’re in this together, okay?” Richie had said, catching brown eyes he’d spent years of his adolescence determinedly not thinking about, not stealing covert glances at. “We’re packing up and then Kessel-running the fuck out of here. Have each other’s backs like before, yeah?”

Eddie had nodded, finally unlocking his door. “Meet you down there,” he’d said.

And then the conversation in the inn’s bar destroyed that plan, but Richie would have been lying if he failed to admit that a part of him - a small, petty, unreasonable part that was more thirteen-year-old idiot than adult - was relieved they were stuck in Derry for the time being while they resolved the clown issue, since it meant just a bit more time with Eddie before they fucked back off to their respective lives on opposite coasts. He hadn’t yet realized just how stuck they were; he hadn’t yet had months to feel sick about once thinking all I want is more time with him.

As the others had filtered out of the bar, Mike saying they needed to trek out to the Barrens for some reason, Richie had looked over to Eddie and asked, “Still in this together?”

Eddie’s expression had been unreadable, somewhere between a sad smile and a grimace. “Guess so.”

Instead, on Neibolt now: “I know what I said,” Richie shrugged. “But I can’t be here anymore,” he said, refusing to face Eddie’s expression as he pulled away and walked down the street, back downtown. The others let him go.

Richie turned onto Canal Street and found The Thirsty Cow. It seemed as good a place as any. A dive, but what else was there in this shithole? It wasn’t the house on Neibolt or the inn or the fucking cavern, and that’s all Richie needed.

He took up residence on a lonely corner stool at the far end of the bar and ordered bourbon. Then some more. And then some more after that. After drinking straight from the bottle at the inn for so many nights, the glass made for a nice change.

The bar: vintage Derry, unchanged in character since his childhood. As if time stopped, Richie thought with a snort that masked the lump in his throat. Loud, drunken truckers getting shitfaced-stupid on their downtime; boys barely old enough to drink dressed in warehouse overalls, passing around a cracked phone streaming something that blared a high-pitched, frantic, mewling noise - she’s faking it, guys, Richie thought but refrained from saying, sipping his drink instead; the standard assortment of mullet-sporting, bandana-wearing, teeth-missing hicks that had never made it out of Maine. Decades-old country music blasted over a tinny speaker.

Thank fuck I got out.

Then: Guess I didn’t.

Richie drank.

He tried not to think about what was happening to Eddie.

He tried not to think about the kiss.

Richie drank some more.

But Jesus, how could he not think about it? Eddie had kissed him. Eddie had kissed him. How was he supposed to process that? It had never occurred to him that Eddie would want -

“I used to think about that a lot,” he’d said to him, and Richie continued not thinking about things. He didn’t think of summer at the quarry, the two of them floating on one of Bill and Stan’s rafts, and how he’d turned to Eddie to find him already looking his way, brown eyes darting immediately off. He didn’t think of Eddie leaning into him while watching The Thing at the Capitol Theater. He didn’t think of hours spent bent over Street Fighter, elbows touching. He didn’t think about how when Bill dared him to kiss Sharon Bouchard at sleepaway camp, Eddie hadn’t talked to him for a week after he found out.

The air in the bar had become blurred, cloudy like the smoking sections in the restaurants of his childhood. The stool swivelled under him - or was that him losing his balance? - and Richie held onto the counter as he knocked back the rest of his drink.

Maybe Pennywise will come here and wreck this crap shack, he thought. Might as well order another drink while the bar is still standing.

Before he could, a drawl sounded from the table behind him, “Fucked that fag up good. I’m still half-hard from that beat down.”

Another voice, “We don’t need trash like them here.”

Richie turned and saw two of Derry’s fucking finest pieces of trailer trash drinking half-crushed cans of Busch. The smaller of the two rolled up the sleeves of his denim jacket and tilted back in his chair. “Pervs had it coming. Throw that libtard shit in my face and you get what’s owed.”

“You want to say that again?” Richie slurred, half falling from his stool as he approached the table.

The larger one stood up. “Got a problem?”

Richie stumbled forward. “You Deliverance-looking motherfuckers serious right now?”

“What,” the small one said. “You’re a fag, too?”

“Oh sorry, I’m not interested. Nasty looking rash you have there.” Richie rubbed his mouth. “Wouldn’t want to catch whatever the fuck it is you’re carrying.”

The larger one took a swing and Richie narrowly avoided it before moving in. He shoved him to the floor of the bar and struck hard, somewhere around the douchebag’s face or his neck or his head; Richie wasn’t aiming. Again and again and again, he hit him, and at some point Richie wasn’t sure whether he was even hitting this asshole anymore or whether it was Bowers or Pennywise or every other jackass who’d ever hurt Eddie.

Someone pulled him off. His hands were bloody. There was yelling. The music had stopped. As he was shoved against the bar, Richie thought he heard a siren somewhere outside.

Richie blacked out.

When he woke up he was in the back of a police car, handcuffed.

Richie blacked out again.

*

*

*

“What the fuck, dude?” Eddie asked, his hand curling around Richie’s bicep. “I thought we were sticking together,” he said. “Back at the inn, you said - ”

“I’m a selfish asshole,” Richie shrugged. “Thought you knew that,”  he said, refusing to face Eddie’s expression as he pulled away and walked down the street, back to the library where his car was parked. The others let him go.

He needed to get the fuck out of Dodge.

Richie took the 95 south to Bangor, a late-night rebroadcast of American Top 40 playing over his car’s radio because he couldn’t be bothered to sync his phone. He passed by the Stillwater River and vaguely recalled a college tour at the University of Maine he’d blown off in favor of smoking pot with Stan near the reservoir.

He drove through the outskirts of Bangor and hung west with the interstate. Through Newport and Pittsfield, then back south by Waterville and Augusta, and past half-remembered vacation spots, family camping trips, a rented cottage on Messalonskee Lake; Richie had trudged an hour through mosquito-ridden brush to the payphone outside the visitor’s center to call Eddie for an update on what he’d missed on the week’s episode of Next Gen. The call hadn’t been because of the show though, really.

Somewhere north of Portland, Richie pulled over at a gas station and refuelled. He bought a bag of chips and a Gatorade.

He tried not to think about what was happening to Eddie.

He tried not to think about the kiss.

The sun rose as he crossed the bridge into New Hampshire. He turned off the interstate and from a spot near the Piscataqua River, he watched the summer sunrise. A hazy orange swept lazily up into the sky, doubled below as the sun reflected in the water of the river, and Richie lay on the hood of his car, leaning back against the windshield, hands covering his face as he peered through spread fingers to see slits of apricot and coral and peach-colored sky.

It almost felt like the real world here, and not some eternal waking nightmare. No killer clown demons or time travel or Eddie spilling his Goddamn intestines out of his gut. Just a river at sunrise with a few morning boaters. The calm was almost too much, the complacency dangerous, and Richie looked behind him, half expecting Pennywise to materialize.

Everything stayed quiet, unremarkable in a way that was fucking unnerving.

Eddie had kissed him. That alone seemed so wholly unlikely that Richie was half convinced it was a hallucination, some new manipulation by Pennywise. I’m being played, Richie thought.

Except he didn’t believe that, not completely. The press of Eddie’s lips, his nasal inhale as he’d nodded further into Richie, his voice when he’d said, “I used to think about that a lot,” and how ever-worrying eyes met Richie’s as if to ask is that alright?; it was Eddie, all Eddie, and Richie knew those deep brown eyes were beyond facsimile.

“Fuck,” he whispered to himself as the sun crested over the trees on the far side of the river. Morning meant it was nearly over, and Eddie would be by himself. Alone and scared. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He climbed back into the car and tried not to think about it, driving further south, aimlessly.

He was nearing Boston when he glanced down at the clock on the dashboard - 7:08am. He blinked for only a second and when he opened his eyes he was standing outside of the house on Neibolt.

*

*

*

“What the fuck, dude?” Eddie asked, his hand curling around Richie’s bicep. “I thought we were sticking together,” he said. “Back at the inn, you said - ”

“I‘m sorry I wasn’t there for you with Bowers - when we were kids and today, too,” Richie shrugged. “I’m sorry I’m not there for you now,” he said, refusing to face Eddie’s expression as he pulled away and walked down the street, back downtown. The others let him go.

He stopped at a liquor store that had once been a Blockbuster, and left with a bottle of bourbon in a brown-paper bag. He walked through the downtown without a destination until he hit Bassey Park, then he followed it west to the outskirts, along the kissing bridge.

Meg and Connor forever

AD and SP

Tracey hearts Shawn; Shawn was barely visible under aggressively deep scratches.

Chris loves Amanda

Some of the etches were shallow, faded and softened with time; others were new with rough wooden splinters still clinging to the curves of the letters, and Richie ran his fingers idly through the indentations as he walked across the bridge. How many of these couples were still together? Were these inscriptions that last remaining evidence of once-felt loves forgotten to adulthood? A Rosetta Stone, a cuneiform tablet, a relic of lost childhoods.

He stopped beside an abraded R + E and swung his legs over the bridge, sitting facing the Barrens below.

Richie drank.

He tried not to think about what was happening to Eddie.

He tried not to think about the kiss.

Richie drank some more.

Sometime later, he found a tree to pass out under.

*

*

*

“What the fuck, dude?” Eddie asked, his hand curling around Richie’s bicep. “I thought we were sticking together,” he said. “Back at the inn, you said - ”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Richie shrugged. “I can’t go in there,”  he said, refusing to face Eddie’s expression as he pulled away and walked down the street towards the inn. He didn’t know what else to do. The others let him go.

Richie grabbed a bottle of bourbon on the way back to his room and wondered whether his liver was accruing any damage through all this.

He pulled himself up the stairs and along the hallway, legs heavy, mind heavy, and passed by Eddie’s empty room beside his own. Don’t go there, not now, not ever. Bourbon in hand, he unscrewed the cap as he pushed his room’s door open with his shoulder. He tripped over the same fucking tasselled carpet he always did as he slumped onto the bed and leaned against its headboard, intending to do his best to pass out from alcohol poisoning.

Richie drank.

In college he’d fucked around with this literature major - a short guy with a Québécois accent who could quote original Proust and had an exhausting habit of dropping French phrases into every conversation, and Richie had been fully aware that he was a stuck-up prick who was a complete buzzkill at parties, but his ass was perfect and the sex had been good - and he’d been obsessed with liminal spaces.

“Liminality,” he’d told Rich, who nodded vaguely from his position sprawled across the dorm-room bed, mind elsewhere, just sticking around long enough for the eventual blowjob he’d be rewarded with if he could suffer through another lesson. “It’ll be my thesis, je pense. Everyone’s written about liminality in Shakespeare - The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, really any of the ones where they traipse around a forest for a while - but no one seems to have really tackled it in Proust, especially the original À la recherche du temps perdu.

“It’s the waiting, the in-between, the transition that separates the point of action from the resolution, where the protagonist does the work of transformation, even if it seems immobile and static, removed from the forward momentum of the narrative. It’s critical to central arcs, but it’s grossly understudied. I think my thesis would have a good chance of standing out amidst all the sellouts writing queer theory and feminist deconstructions and all that postcolonial merde.”

Richie had told himself that the blowjobs were worth it.

Liminal spaces, he thought now, tipping the bottle of Jim Beam back; train stations, poorly lit stairwells and empty elevators, hospital waiting rooms. He drank deeply. Corner barstools. Deserted interstates after midnight. Kissing bridges. The same half-day in Derry, months over.

What if there’s no resolution? What if the liminality continues past the final paragraph, seeps across the blank last page and through the back cover? What happens then? What happens if eternity is liminal?

He tried not to think about what was happening to Eddie.

He tried not to think about the kiss.

It’s just that he’d spent the better part of his adolescence obsessing over what kissing Eddie would be like. When he’d kissed Sharon Bouchard at camp, it had been okay, he supposed, but as he’d walked back from the girls’ bunks, his thoughts were about Eddie. And in tenth grade when he finally threw himself at Matt Collins, that had been just fine too, and afterwards if he wondered what Eddie was doing in Hartford and asked himself why the fuck he’d never called, well, that’s just how it went.

Fuck.

The thing was, that had been one hell of a shitty first fucking kiss. Comically bad, if it wasn’t so damn painful. Eddie half-dead, blood in their mouths, the cavern collapsing around them. At least Eddie doesn’t remember, he thought, his throat constricting in something caught between a laugh and a sob.

Is it even a first kiss if only one person remembers it?

Richie drank some more.

The air in his room had become blurred, cloudy like the smoking sections in the restaurants of his childhood. The bed dipped under him - or was that him losing his balance? - and Richie braced himself on the shared wall between his and Eddie’s room as he appraised the remaining bourbon.

He stumbled back down to the bar, managing to fall on only the last step. A success, he decided.

There was a quarter bottle of Michter’s Single Barrel stashed behind some bottom-shelf vodka, and Richie traded it with the cheapass Jim Beam he’d been drinking, pissed that he hadn’t found it cycles ago.

He slumped down in a chair near the window and waited. For Pennywise. For Bill and the rest. What did it matter, really? He waited and drank. Drank and waited.

The sun rose outside, but Richie didn’t notice.

Sometime later, the sound of the front door opening, and the others - Bill, Ben and Bev - walked in, damp and worn.

“Eddie?” Richie asked.

Ben answered, “Gone. Mike too.”

“How?”

Condemning silence, and then Bill, his eyes hard, said, “It could have b-been different if you’d bothered to c-come.”

“Hope you had a quiet night in, Rich,” Bev whispered, turning away towards the staircase.

“Holy shit,” Richie said to himself. “I did.”

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

“So does somebody want to say something?” Eddie asked.

“Richie said it b-best when we were here last,” Bill said.

“Everyone shut the fuck up and listen.”

*

*

*

“Are you okay, dude?” Eddie asked as he and Richie arrived at the inn.

He’d been uncharacteristically quiet during the trip back, pale and contemplative since Richie sat them down on the front steps and motored through a tired explanation; “Bev’s husband is a dick, Ben’s carrying around a yearbook page with Bev’s signature, Mike bought a plane ticket out of here but he’s too chickenshit to leave Derry, Bill blames himself for Georgie,” and Eddie used to think about kissing me. “Believe me yet?” An exchange of nervous looks, and Bill had nodded hesitantly.

Then, much later, after the same questions, the same answers, the same discussions about Groundhog Day, “It didn’t come after me once I left Neibolt, is what I’m saying,” Rich had insisted. “So I take Eddie back to the inn and you all know what to do here. It’s worth a fucking shot. I’m out of other ideas.”

Richie had looked at Eddie, silent and hunched over on the steps, chewing his lower lip and tapping the back of his sneaker against the porch in place of his usual pacing, and suddenly Richie felt thirteen.

At the inn now, Richie opened the door and they stepped into the lonely lobby. “Peachy as the day I met your mom,” he said with false levity. Put on a show - at least that’s something you’re good at - don’t let him know how beyond fucked up you are, don’t feed his anxiety.

Eddie’s whole body bristled with unspent energy. “You look like shit, man,” he told Richie.

“Thank you, I always look like this,” Richie grinned, too light, too easy.

“No, dude, you don’t.”

“And you know what I look like how, exactly? You have my headshot framed on your desk?”

“You didn’t look this old this morning.”

This morning was months ago, Eds.”

Eddie’s knee jerked rhythmically, bobbing up and down in time with the bouncing of his feet; his fingers twitched as he balled and unballed his hands into fists. “You look like you haven’t slept in a week,” he added.

“More than that, technically,” Richie said, watching as Eddie continued to stim. Just breathe, he wanted to say, I’m here. The space between them felt thick with memories that Eddie didn’t recall, but Richie dismissed it and rubbed his upper arm with an awkward pat pat pat. “It’s going to be okay,” he managed, when what he really thought was it has to be okay. If it’s not, I don’t know what we’ll do.

“You should nap. Sleep deprivation is the leading cause of - ”

“No,” Richie interrupted. “I’m not sleep deprived. I’m just, just,” he paused and smiled. “I’m just over it, you know?”

Eddie leaned into Richie’s hand still on his arm. “You need a drink?”

The bar beckoned in the adjoining room - numbing alcohol and its burn down his throat and the relief that the forgetfulness and apathy and anaesthesia brought - but Richie shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “No, I’m good, man.” Need to stay alert, need to keep him safe. “You want something?” Eddie eyed the bar, but declined and headed to the stairs.

“I’m going to change my bandage.” The familiar creek of stairs Richie had memorized the noise patterns of; the third from the top always squeaked, and Eddie startled as he walked over it. He lingered at the top as Richie followed behind. “Come with? I, uh,” Eddie looked away, thrumming his fingers over the bannister. “I don’t want to be alone.”

“Yeah, Eds.”

Eddie’s room was almost identical to his - dusty chandelier, smoke-browned wallpaper, a granny square blanket folded across a double bed pressed against their shared wall - and Richie tried not to contemplate the blood splatters dotting the tiled floor of the bathroom as Eddie sat on the edge of the tub and opened boxes of medical supplies.

Richie leaned across the doorframe and watched as Eddie’s hands shook as he ran them under the faucet. He reached for the gauze sponges and dropped the box under the sink.

“Here, let me.”

“No, I can - ”

“You’re shaking.”

“I’m fine.”

“You look like when I dragged you on the drop tower at Funtown.”

“Fuck off.”

“Just sit down.”

“Wash your hands first.”

“Yes, Mrs. Kaspbrak.”

Richie tossed his jacket on the ground to Eddie’s disapproving look, then scrubbed his hands with an exaggerated flourish, flicking water at Eddie, who sat again on the side of the tub. Richie wet one of the sponges and sat down beside him.

He almost squeezed Eddie’s knee, almost took his left hand and wrapped it around Eddie’s bent, ever-jostling leg in an effort to calm his rapidfire, one-hundred-miles-per-hour nerves. Can I touch you? Is that okay? What’s the fucking etiquette when someone doesn’t remember you’ve kissed before? Instead, Richie loosened one of the pieces of tape sticking the bandage down and dabbed the damp sponge over it to remove the worst of the adhesion.

“It’s fine, you can just -  ”

“I’m the doctor here,” Richie said, easing the tape up with more water. The first strip peeled off; a brush of fingers on sensitive skin, and Eddie flinched as Richie moved to the second piece of tape, wetting it down and then throwing the whole bandage in the trash as it lifted off.

“Christ,” he breathed. “It went right through?”

“Yeah, man.”

It must have been a thin blade, Richie assumed; it was still open and oozing small droplets of blood, and the surface of the wound was a glossy, exposed pink.

“You’re kind of a badass now, you know that, right?”

“Shut up,” Eddie smiled, handing Rich the box of sponges. “Wet one down and clean anything that looks gnarly. Start from the middle and work your way out. You don’t want to push any bacteria into the center.”

“Yes, nurse Ratched.”

This close, Richie could see that Eddie’s dimples had turned to soft, inset lines with age, and he resisted the urge to caress down them with his thumb, to feel the slight crease. He glanced at Eddie’s eyes, which were looking pointedly at the far wall; he was still shaking.

Eds, he should say, I swear I won’t leave you again. I’ll stay with you every time. You won’t be alone.

Eds, he should say, you kissed me. Can I kiss you?

Eds, he should say, I fucking love you. I’m a Goddamn sap for you.

Richie stroked the sponge over the wound in place of the words. “It’ll be okay this time.”

A reflexive twitch; Eddie rolled his shoulders and finally looked at Richie. “I don’t want to die.”

“I know.” What else could he possibly say?

“I’m scared.”

“I know.” Richie stopped dabbing his cheek and impulsively brushed a tear that threatened to roll down Eddie’s cheek into his exposed skin. “You’re braver than you think.” Eddie snorted. “No, I’m serious. You’ve been through some serious shit but you’re always so fucking brave in the end.”

A deep exhale. “Thanks.”

“This looks clean. Do I just bandage it?”

“Yeah.”

Eddie’s cheek flexed as Richie spread the clean bandage over the wound and stuck fresh pieces of tape down, and Eddie turned away, eyes shut in an almost pained expression as Richie pulled back. A brush of a thumb across the bandage and Eddie sighed as if balmed.

Fuck, I’m an idiot.

Richie closed the little distance between them and kissed him, and for a moment it was a mistake, a colossal fuck-up only he was capable of. Eddie was motionless, back rigid, lips tense, and Richie moved away, horrified and embarrassed and already coming up with quips that could maybe make this right (self doubt flared across his synapses; the cavern had been a pity kiss, or some combination of blood loss and head trauma, or a trick by Pennywise, or fuck, this was all an elaborate mindfuck), but then Eddie pressed into him, his hands finding Richie’s flanks and clutching them as his lips parted.

This was how Eddie kissed. It wasn’t some exhausted, half-conscious last act of comfort.

No, it was like he did everything else: a little too much, too eager, worked up while simultaneously skittish, fidgety. Open-mouthed, a knock of teeth, a nip at Richie’s bottom lip. Fingers released Richie’s sides and grasped his hair instead with an intensity that suggested he thought Richie might pull away if not tethered.

A shift as they changed angles; Eddie tilted his head and knocked Rich’s glasses askew. Fingers tightened in his hair. Thighs came together and Eddie gasped, sucking some of the air out of Rich’s mouth.

Needy, that’s what he was, Richie thought. Desperate, and Christ, what a fucking thought that was - that Eddie was desperate for him - and then Eddie was pulling him up from their awkward position on the side of the tub; Richie was knocked back into the cool tiles of the wall, stooping to kiss Eds now that their height difference was more pronounced. He swept his tongue against Eddie’s and -

“Fuck,” Eddie swore, breaking apart.

“Shit, is it your cheek -  ”

“Yeah, it’s okay, it’s okay -  ”

“Sorry.”

And Eddie was against him again.

Chests met, a press of hips, and Eddie whined into Richie’s mouth, low and overwrought, as he slipped his hands under Rich’s shirt to the small of his back. His whole body resonated at a frequency Richie couldn’t match; he vibrated with an urgency bordering on manic. Hummingbird wings, Richie thought; keyed up and rushing like he was outrunning an inevitable end.

Richie would have liked to tell him slow down, it’s alright, there’s time, but there wasn’t time, not really. An illusion of it perhaps; the repetition bred hours and hours, but the threat of It hung over the room, and the prospect of Eds bleeding and dead here -

Not now.

Richie pulled him closer, arms resting over his shoulders, the perfect height for him, one hand cupping the nape of Eddie’s neck, and the full length of their bodies knocked together. Eddie bucked against him, hips jerking into Richie’s in a sharp stutter. A moan - Richie wasn’t sure whether it was his or Eds’, maybe both - and Eddie’s hips rubbed against him again.

“Rich,” Eddie gasped. “Have we - ” A low cry as Richie slotted his leg between Eddie’s thighs and pressed up. Eddie pushed back and Richie couldn’t think anymore. “Have we done this before?”

“You kissed me a few rounds back.”

“Was it - ” Eddie’s eyes were round, his cheeks flushed. “I mean, did you want it? Was it okay?”

Blood in his mouth, broken ribs in Eddie’s chest, a hand clutching his that was already growing cold. Eddie didn’t need to know that bullshit.

“It was good, Eds. It was with you; how could it not be good?”

Eddie made an almost feral noise in his throat and kissed him again.

A breath and, “I used to think about this a lot.”

“I know. Me too.”

They fumbled out of the bathroom, knocking hard into the door as Eddie’s lips moved from Richie’s mouth to his neck, finding the sensitive juncture of his collar bone.

“Watch your cheek,” Richie managed between gasps as Eddie sucked on the hollow ridge above the bone.

“I’m not fucking delicate.”

Warnings about freshly cut grass and unsigned permission slips for school field trips to the rock climbing place in Dexter. Training wheels attached to his bike long after everyone’s dads had detached theirs. Dairy-free, nut-free, egg-free, gluten-free brown-bagged lunches in the cafeteria. Phone calls every hour on the hour during sleepovers. And Eddie being yanked into the front seat of his mother’s junky AMC, still clutching his broken arm, “You know how delicate he is,” she’d said, and Eddie winced.

“I know you’re not,” And Rich pushed him into the wall, hard, and pinned him there while kissing roughly down his neck, teeth scraping his Adam’s apple; Eddie’s breath was a series of shallow, staccato pants, and Richie nipped at the arch of his neck again, needing to hear more. “You sound fucking incredible.”

It wasn’t enough. It might never be enough. Richie picked him up and crowded him against the wall, cupping his ass to support him. Eddie’s legs immediately wrapped around Rich’s waist.

We fit together, Rich thought, his coherency fading as the world was reduced to the sounds Eddie made and the grinding of his hips against Richie’s. Eddie was hard and getting off on him, and that was like some half-remembered teenage wet dream, the sort of thing that had made him unable to look at Eddie the next day at school. Richie groaned and rocked his hips forward, and Eddie’s legs clenched around his waist.

“Fuck, Rich,” he sighed as Richie rolled his hips into him again, then again, and again, finding a languid pace that kept Eddie pushing back against him for more contact. He kissed across Eddie’s neck and up behind his ear, laving the outer shell as Eddie bucked up into him. Richie’s glasses rubbed into the side of his face, and Eddie reached to take them off.

“No, I want to see you.”

And hell, Eddie was a sight straight out of his id: flushed, hair-tousled, lips kiss-swollen and red, eyes already blown, looking at Richie with an expression he was fairly sure no one ever had before.

“Rich, please.” Magic fucking words on Eddie’s tongue, and Richie carried him across the room and flung them both on the bed, climbing over Eddie to straddle him, and it was then he saw just how the denim of Eddie’s jeans strained up. Fuck.

“Yeah?” He asked, “What are you asking for, Eds?”

“What are we even doing?”

“Whatever you want.”

“I’ve never -  ”

“That’s okay.”

“Wait, you have? With guys?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck,” Eddie moaned, grinding up. “I don’t know what - ”

“You’ve thought about it before, though?”

A pause, then a nod. “Guys? Sometimes. Most of the time.”

I’ll give you anything. Whatever you want. However you want it. Just please, let me touch you. I’ve wanted to touch you for decades.

He should just tell Eddie that. But giving voice to it made it real, and that longing was so acute, so aching in his chest that it was too much; it would be too much to say at any time, but now - when Eddie’s life was hanging on a precipice - he couldn’t voice it only to have the words ripped away again the next time he found himself standing in front of the damn house on Neibolt.

And then Eddie was sitting up, kneeling in front of Richie and grabbing him by the shoulders with unsteady hands so he could pull him down to kiss again. Eddie’s mouth was wet and frantic, kissing like he wanted to consume or maybe be consumed, and Rich didn’t especially care which as long as they kept kissing like this.

“You’re overdressed, man.” Richie didn’t have to be told twice, awkwardly undoing his button-down while still kissing Eddie, then pulling his black t-shirt over his head and tossing it away too.

Eddie’s hands were on him, graceless and shameless, combing through his chest hair as it tapered down his stomach and around his belly button, and Richie wouldn’t have traded Eddie’s clumsy inexperience for all the finesse in the world because it was just so very Eddie and that’s all he’d ever wanted.

Richie slid off Eddie’s hoodie and slipped his hands under the cotton shirt, easing it up over Eddie’s shoulders.

“Of course you’re a gym douche,” Richie laughed, hands gliding over the lean muscle of his abdomen. Taut definition, evidence of sit-ups and crunches. “Didn’t skip arm day, I see,” he said as he caressed Eddie’s deltoids.

Eddie’s smile reached his eyes; he raised a challenging eyebrow. “Should I say something about your dad bod or would that hurt your frail ego?”

“Well you’re still here so I think that makes me a DILF.” Eddie smirked and squeezed Rich’s flanks. “I’m just disappointed I missed what must have been spectacular twink years.” And before Eddie could tell him to fuck off, Richie quieted him with another kiss. He teased down Eddie’s chest with his fingertips and stopped over the center of his breastbone, tracing circles into the muscle with his thumb.

Whole and unbloodied, unmutilated, his body was together, intact; not safe, of course, but oh the fantasy of it was here - just the two of them alone, no murderous entities or temporal traps - and beneath that unharmed, pristine skin, Eddie’s heart was beating to the rhythm of bike rides and summer days and weekend movie marathons, and the words fell from Richie’s lips as if by accident, “I love you,” he said into Eddie’s hair. Eddie jerked back, looked up. “Always have, always will.”

Eddie’s voice broke, “Richie, please, I need you.”

He was suddenly hot and dizzy, and Eddie’s voice - the sheer want in his words - was overwhelming; Eddie was too far away even just inches apart, and Richie pushed him back against the headboard, crawling over him for another long kiss. There were too many layers still between them, and they’d been separated for so long that Rich couldn’t fucking bear the distance anymore. He tossed off Eddie’s shoes and socks before unbuttoning his jeans, Eddie raising his hips so Richie could pull them off.

And Jesus fucking Christ, Eds was something out of a porn vid. Grey briefs tented obscenely, the outline of the head of his cock visible against wet fabric. Dripping, he was fucking dripping, and Richie had only enough restraint to kick off his own shoes and socks and then tug his jeans down, almost tripping as he stepped clumsily out of them, distracted, before climbing over Eddie on all fours.

“Rich, please.” Eddie’s eyes were dark, dilated, his chest heaving. He doesn’t even know what he’s asking for, Richie thought. Doesn’t matter, I’d give him anything.

He kissed down Eddie’s chest, brushing his lips over every defined ab, licking into the slight divot along his obliques, and Eddie moaned, hips pushing up under Richie. “I’ve got you,” he said, trailing wet kisses past his belly button and into the sparse hair that disappeared into his briefs.

Richie watched as the wet patch spread just a little, and fuck it, that was all the invitation he needed. He kissed the head of Eddie’s cock through the fabric, open-mouthed and messy, tasting the salt of his precum, and Eddie keened, high and needy, a litany of fucks and pleases, as Richie sucked him through the cotton, tracing the prominent flares of his tip with his tongue.

His own cock ached, bent awkwardly in his briefs, and he pushed his hips into the mattress for some relief. It wasn’t nearly enough, but Richie was so consumed by Eddie’s cries that everything else was secondary.

“Please, Richie, please.” Eddie’s hips stuttered up, rocking as Richie pressed his hand over the length of his shaft, squeezing gently as he kept tonguing his head. Richie felt Eddie’s fingers thread through his hair. “I need you, please, fuck,” Eddie gasped, fingers further twisting into Richie’s locks.

“Need me to do what, Eds?”

Please,” Eddie sobbed as Richie licked his slit, a hot spurt of precum dribbling out through the soaked fabric.

“Tell me.”

Say you want to fuck my mouth, and I’ll let you. I’ll kneel in front of you and you can hold me still by my hair, and be as rough and fast as you need. You won’t hurt me; you’d never hurt me. You can use me for whatever you need.

Say you want to fuck me, and I’ll let you. I don’t do that a lot, but I would for you. It would be good with you; everything always is. Bend me over, make me yours.

Say you want me to fuck you, and I will. Slip my fingers into you, stretch you out, slick you up. Have you done that yourself before, thinking of some jacked-up jock at your gym? I’d lay you down on your back so I could see your face, or would that be too still for you? You’re always moving Eds; would you want to ride me?

Anything, Eds. Just let me keep touching you, let me make you feel good. You deserve it all.

Eddie babbled nonsense, hips pistoning back and forth at an increasingly desperate speed as Richie kept mouthing him. “Rich, please, I don’t know - just you, please - I want you - please, please - fuck, Rich, I’m so fucking close already.”

His cock pulsed hot and heavy through his briefs, and Richie gave him a last, wet kiss on the tip before relenting and pulling off Eddie’s briefs.

“Shit,” Richie breathed. Eddie was wet; his cock, red and coated with streaks of his own precum, twitched against his sticky stomach, and white rivulets dripped down over tightly-drawn balls. “Fuck, Eds.”

Eddie, scarlet-faced and gasping, reached down and tugged at the waistband of Rich’s underwear, pushing them down as Richie shuffled them off, sighing in relief as his cock flexed up. He crawled back up Eddie’s body, capturing his lips again.

“Can I touch you?” Quiet-voiced, Eddie’s face was pressed against the crook of Richie’s neck, drawing hot, dewy breaths over his skin as he spoke.

“You don’t have to ask.” And Eddie’s hand, no longer shaking, wrapped around the base of Richie’s cock.

A tentative stroke up, then down. A squeeze. A caress of a thumb over a vein, and Richie’s breath hitched. Eddie’s hand was smaller than his and held him in a way that was wonderfully new, and if Richie had been capable of processing anything other Eddie’s warm touch and the soft sounds he made into Richie’s shoulder, he would have thought that Eddie’s touch bordered on reverent. His fingers were agile, the palms of his hands gentle, and he stroked slowly, pausing at the swell of his head to thumb the frenulum before moving up to trace over the slit.

“Is that okay?” Eddie asked.

“You’re fucking perfect.”

“Don’t mock me, asshole. You know I have no idea - ”

“Jesus, take a compliment, Eds. You’re fucking perfect.”

Richie leaned down and kissed him again, Eddie’s lips parting for him as his hand worked between them, now bumping against both of their stomachs as Richie pressed close into the kiss.

Eddie’s hand stilled for a moment, releasing Richie, who whined at the break in contact and watched as Eddie scooped some of the precum still leaking from his own cock and spread it across the flare of Richie’s cock as lube. “Fuck,” Richie breathed, bucking into Eddie’s fist.

This was easy in a way sex had never been before. No pretense, no screwing around with either feigned intimacy or shows of overt casualness; this just was, and it was everything. Eddie fit against him like they’d been built for each other, and his free hand reached up and adjusted Richie’s off-center glasses, straightening them before tracing the bridge of his nose with a finger.

His palm tightened around Richie’s cock, his thumb brushed the sensitive head again, and Richie grinded down into Eddie, who cried out sharply at the friction.

“Richie - ”

“Come here.”

Richie’s hand stretched over Eddie’s, interlocking their fingers as he pulled him off his cock and pressed their erections together, wrapping their joint hands around them both. A throaty sob that bordered on panic, and Eddie arched up into him as if electrified, moaning as Richie guided their hands up and down in an easy rhythm.

His breathing was so ragged that it made Richie nervous, made him watch Eddie’s face for any sign of pain; I’ve heard you pant like that before, I’ve heard you gasp for breath you couldn’t catch. Eddie’s eyes were shut as if seeing it would be too much, and Richie kissed his closed eyelids.

A twinge in Richie’s back from leaning over him so long on only one hand, and he flexed his sore shoulders. “Old man back problems,” he said. “Sit up with me.” And Richie sat back on his knees before pulling Eddie onto his lap so that he straddled him. “This good?” He whispered, pressing their cocks together again and wrapping his fist around them as Eddie clung to his shoulders, nails digging into his back.

“Not going to last,” Eddie exhaled, the wet warmth of his breath blowing across Richie’s neck.

“I’ve got you,” he said, his hand speeding up, readjusting his hold so that the side of his thumb crested over the ridge of Eddie’s head with every stroke. “You’re a fucking faucet,” Richie laughed breathlessly as Eddie shuddered and another thick spurt of precum dripped from his slit down between their cocks.

“Fuck off,” Eddie said, voice shot.

Richie kissed down his jaw and up the soft folds of the dimple lines of his unbandaged cheek. “It’s hot as hell,” he said, skimming his thumb over the white beads collecting at Eddie’s slit, and pressing into the silken flesh.

Eddie’s hips stuttered up, rhythmless and manic. “Rich,” he cried. “Please, fuck, Rich.” Begging, and that thought alone was nearly enough to do Richie in completely, and he let Eddie fuck his fist sloppily, his cock rutting hard against Rich’s with every thrust.

Eddie’s mouth was on his again - Richie wasn’t sure who initiated it - and Eddie kissed him wildly, clumsy and desperate, and Richie must have bumped Eddie’s sore cheek at the pace they were kissing, but Eddie didn’t seem to be bothered.

A chorus of, “Richie, Richie, Richie,” into his mouth and then he stilled quite suddenly, body taut, and a hand he’d held a hundred times now found Richie’s free hand and squeezed. A guttural sob, and Richie felt only the first hot splashes of Eddie’s orgasm between them before his own was ripped abruptly from him; a throb of pleasure-pain from the intensity, and his body clenched as he held Eddie’s hand with enough force to bruise. A wave and then another, and it was almost like that feeling of inevitability after having just hurled himself off the jumping rock into the quarry.

Eddie’s breath - evening out, relaxing, so very alive - fluttered over his face, their foreheads together.

“Okay, Eds?”

“Yeah, that was - ”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve never felt like that.”

“You have a promising career in adult films.”

“Shut up.”

“No, I’m serious. We could make - well not millions - definitely thousands though.”

“Oh, you’re included in this too?”

“Obviously.”

“Might need to hit the gym with me first.”

And Richie laughed and pressed another kiss to Eddie’s lips, and when he pulled away, Eddie’s warmth was practically radiating off of him. He was happy, and that was all Richie wanted.

“Shower?” Eddie said, smiling. “Come with?”

Richie nodded.

*

*

*

“I don’t want to forget this,” Eddie whispered, back in bed; limbs entwined, the pads of Eddie’s feet slipped over Richie’s calves, his bandaged cheek lay on Richie’s chest. Richie’s fingers combed through Eddie’s hair.

“I know.”

“Don’t let me.”

“If it works - ”

“And I’m saying, if it doesn’t work, don’t let me forget.”

*

*

*

The sun rose, and its orange light streamed through the dusty curtains hanging over the window. Eddie dozed, head still on Richie’s chest.

Richie waited. For Pennywise. For Bill and the rest. For an answer to whether they’d see tomorrow together.

Sometime later, the sound of the front door opening, and Richie hesitated to leave Eddie sleeping by himself - a trick, he thought, a trap - but he could hear the others - Bill, Ben, Bev, and Mike - speaking in the lobby below. He eased out of bed so not to disturb Eddie, and threw on his discarded t-shirt and jeans before cautiously leaving Eddie’s room.

The Losers were circled near the front desk, damp and worn.

“It’s done,” Bill called to him. “Is E-Eddie okay?”

“Sleeping,” Richie managed through a sudden sob.

It was over.

He collapsed on the top step and the others ran up the stairs. A group embrace, familiar from so many times before in the quarry, and Richie wiped his eyes behind his glasses as exhaustion struck.

It was over.

The others made plans for the following day - something about checking the site on Neibolt to make sure everything really was destroyed; Bev suggested drinks that night and Richie vaguely thought he’d never be able to stomach bourbon again - but he wasn’t focused on the discussion.

It was over.

Mike went home, and the rest separated to pass out in their respective bedrooms. As Ben turned the corner down the hall, he leaned back and saw Richie opening Eddie’s door.

Ben gave him a thumbs-up; Richie gave him the finger.

Eddie stirred when Richie climbed back into bed. He turned over in his sleep and curled around him, sleep-contented face pressed into the crook of Richie’s neck, and Richie thought he’d never seen Eddie look so calm before. Richie slipped an arm over his shoulders and fell asleep within seconds.

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

Chapter Text

Richie pushed past Bill and stormed up the front steps, swinging the door open so hard that when it banged on the side of the house, the top hinge bent and snapped, and the whole door crashed to the porch.

It was over.

“Motherfucker,” Richie screamed, grabbing a cobweb-encrusted wooden chair from the floor of the sitting room. “Get the hell out here, I’m going to fuck you a new asshole myself, you cunty clown.” He slammed the chair into the nearby loveseat and a plume of dust erupted from the upholstery as the chair broke into pieces. “Fucking coward,” he yelled again, spluttering through the thick cloud of falling dust. He kicked the loveseat back into wall with a thud and more dust filled the air, then he rammed the chair’s broken leg through the face of the antique grandfather clock that leaned crookedly against the wall. “Scared-ass bitch, come out and let’s fucking end this.”

It was over.

The others were stepping over the front door that now laid across the threshold of the house, but Richie barely noticed as he crossed the room and picked up a broken window shutter.

“I’m not afraid of you,” he screamed, mindlessly beating the plank against the door that led to the kitchen where Eddie - no, don’t think about it; chunks of splintered wood flew off as he hit the door again and again and again, and someone might have been saying something to him, but he wasn’t sure. “Grow a pair of balls and come out here,” he shouted to It, to the house, to God, to no one; he wasn’t sure. The mirror that Bev had shattered so many times glinted on the far wall, and it showed a crazy person, Richie realized, catching sight of his reflection - an absolute schizo, a batshit-insane idiot pummelling a door like it was the thing that had caused all this, and he struck the mirror with what was left of the shutter before it could continue judging him for his breakdown. The glass shattered, thin cracks spreading out from the impact like the strands of the spiderwebs that shrouded the interior of the house, and glass shards pooled beneath the mirror’s frame as Richie looked on at his distorted likeness.

It was supposed to be over.

“R-R-Richie?” Bill called.

The Losers stood behind him.

“What the hell was that, man?” Eddie asked, and Richie closed his eyes because it hurt to look at him.

Racing thoughts involving dynamite or a bulldozer or a machine gun or anything that would level this hellhole. But none of it mattered. No amount of destruction would end this. They were stuck here in fucking Derry of all places, the cesspool he’d grown up hating and ran from the moment he could, and now this was his life, maybe his fucking eternity. He’d been so Goddamn close to getting out that Richie had let himself believe as he fell asleep what seemed like only seconds ago, that Eddie would be safe and happy, and fuck, he’d been idiot enough to let his mind wander for just a moment to the notion of the future, like this was a fair fucking universe where they might have one together. A sudden, hot rush of rage coursed through him and Richie grabbed a radiator pipe laying near the mirror and he kicked in the kitchen door.

He shoved the table into the corner of the room. The cabinets almost dissolved as he struck one after the other with the pipe, the rotting wood giving way like wet papier-mâché from a long-ago art class. The burners on the stovetop snapped, the doors to the hutch caved in, the cracked ceramic bowls sitting on the countertops exploded into sharp fragments, and the insects that had been nesting in them scattered out through holes in the wall. The fridge buckled as Richie beat it.

This shithole was crumbling, and it wouldn’t change a fucking thing.

“Richie,” Eddie’s hand was on his shoulder, the other was taking the pipe from him. “You’re hyperventilating.” Was he? He hadn’t noticed, but now in the abrupt quiet he could hear wheezing, wild gasps and it took him several seconds to connect that to the tightness in his chest, the spots in the corners of his vision.

Richie couldn’t look at Eddie, because staring back at him were eyes that hadn’t seen what had happened last night, lips that had never kissed him or whispered the words “Can I touch you?” in such a tentative voice that Richie had felt broken open by the sincerity of his words. It was as if last night never happened. Because it hadn’t happened, not for Eds.

Exhaustion, or perhaps hypoxia, overcame him, and he reminded himself to breathe.

“None of this is going to work,” he said, finally, turning to the others.

Mike, always so Goddamn insistent, “The ritual - ”

“It’s bullshit, Mike,” Richie said, kinder than he had been in the past. “It won’t do anything. We all need to discuss some shit. What can I do to convince everyone to go back to your place or the inn or anywhere we can just sit down and talk that’s not a haunted fucking house trying to kill us all?”

“I’m going down.” Bill motioned to the door that led to the basement. “This curse, this fucking thing that’s inside you all, it started growing the day I m-made you go down to the Barrens because all I cared about was finding G-G-Georgie.”

“It’s not your fault,” Richie said, back to an argument twenty-seven years ago in the middle of the street outside of Eddie’s house. He’d shouted at Bill, “Eddie was nearly killed,” because all he’d been able to see was Eddie huddled against the same table that now sat crumpled on the floor in the corner, and the fucking clown had been on top of him, fangs exposed, salivating. “I know the day Georgie was taken you were faking sick so you didn’t have to play with him.” Bill stepped back and seemed to shrink into himself. “You were a kid. None of this is on you - not our involvement, not Georgie’s death.” Not Eddie’s, either. “It’s not your responsibility alone, Bill.”

“How d-do you - ”

“Yeah, I can explain that, but somewhere else, okay?”

*

*

*

As they walked to Mike’s apartment over the library, Richie and Eddie’s strides fell together at the back of the pack, and Richie tried not to look at him because the pain burned something akin to the Deadlights, but then Eddie called him a dipshit for trying to single-handedly demo Neibolt, and Richie smiled.

*

*

*

Mike’s place was fucking weird. “The librarians know you live up here, right?” He’d asked as he surveyed the monument to Mike’s obsession that he called a home. Mike only frowned, and Richie honestly wasn’t sure how to interpret that as an answer.

Eddie had never died here though, so it had that going for it.

Eddie paced back and forth in the kitchen, his mug of coffee forgotten, rapidly cooling on the counter. Who the fuck gave him stimulants right now ? Eddie looked ready to jump out of his skin; he curled and uncurled his fists with every few steps, tapping his palms on the sides of his jeans to some unheard tune. He had too much undirected energy with no Goddamn outlet, and Richie knew that for as much as Eddie paced and fidgeted, his brain was stimming faster, cycling the same anxious thoughts over and over with no place to churn them out.

Hands he’d held in his own spasmed with nerves. A familiar twitch of a cheek covered in a bandage that needed changing. Lips he’d mapped - intimate cartography, something he’d once thought about in geography class with Eddie sitting directly behind him - they were now pursed, tight; a compulsive bite on his lower lip, and Richie thought no come here, bite mine instead.

Claw-sharp pains shredded Richie’s chest.

Fuck, it hurts.

Ben was saying something, but Richie couldn’t hear him over the soft treads of Eddie’s pacing that roared in his inner ears like he was underwater, like he’d jumped into the quarry and rocketed beneath the surface and the noise of the world above was muted by the rush of the water around him.

He stood up from his spot at the hoard of books Mike passed off as a dining room table and walked over to the kitchen, pushing a knife block out of his way as he pulled himself up onto the countertop.

“You ever watch Buffy?” Richie asked, easy as anything. Plaster on a fucking smile, tell some stupid joke, make sure he feels better than you do right now.

“What?”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

Eddie stopped in front of him. “What? Some, sure.”

“This place,” Richie gestured to Mike’s weird-ass library-cum-apartment, “it has a Sunnydale High library vibe; like, some of these books are definitely demonic guides to the occult and there’s probably a portal to hell in the pantry. We’ve got our own Giles in Mike. So do you want to be Angel or Spike?”

“What the fuck are you even talking about?”

“Well I’m obviously Buffy in this scenario, right. Sarah Michelle Gellar and I are both the hot cheerleader type, so that’s obvious.” Eddie snorted and hopped onto the counter beside Richie, his whole-body restlessness evening out to just a smack of his heel against the cabinet doors. “Just trying to make you smile, man,” Richie said softly. “But for real, the shit that goes down in Derry makes way more sense if you assume it’s built on a Hellmouth.”

Eddie side-eyed him. “So you were squad captain at Derry High, I take it?”

“I looked hot as fuck waving my pompoms at all the football games. Only cheerleader to ever show some brain in his miniskirt.”

A smile, the first real one since Richie had shattered his little remaining optimism this round, and Richie almost took Eddie’s hand, almost reached the few inches that separated them and threaded their fingers together.

Oh, by the way, I know you’re dealing with a lot right now - space clowns, time travel, your impending death that keeps happening and might just repeat daily for all eternity - but hey, just wanted to let you know I jacked us both off last night and you were super into it. Here, have a gay crisis.

“If it’s not Eddie then what’s causing the loop?” Bev asked from the far end of the table as Richie finally tuned back into the conversation.

Bill, sitting with his back to the kitchen, turned around. “Rich, there has to b-be something you’re missing.”

“Something that happens every time,” Mike said. “That we can change somehow.”

Ben nodded. “Can you walk us through - ”

“No, I can’t walk you through every single time. This has been going on for months.”

Eddie looked at his feet. “How long exactly?”

Richie swallowed. “About five, give or take,” he said. Eddie’s eyebrow twitched.

“Fuck,” Bill breathed.

“The last one was the only time we all survived?” Bev asked.

“Yeah.”

“And It died?” She asked again.

“Yeah.”

Bev lit her third cigarette. “Then it’s not us all surviving and killing It, which seemed like the obvious answer. What else could it be?”

More talk that led nowhere, circular discussions that were at the very least new, and Richie wondered how many more times they’d have this exact conversation, how long it would take him to memorize what everyone would say next. Mike paged through his stacks of books as if one somehow contained a miraculous key to all of this while Ben put on a second pot of coffee. Richie found Eddie staring at him.

“Back at the house, you were - ” Eddie began.

“Demolition derby, yeah, sorry about that.”

“No, man, you don’t have to apologize.”

“It’s just,” Richie couldn’t finish. It wasn’t just anything; this day-in-and-day-out trauma, months over, couldn’t be minimized or simplified into something that was just one thing. It was overwhelming and exhausting, an aggregate of every insecurity and damage he carried around now and since childhood - losing Eddie, and being stuck in the bottom of the barrel pit that was Derry, and feeling so fucking trapped by the Goddamn lies he told and the feelings he denied himself for the sake of his survival and his pride - and this whole fucking nightmare was arranged around such a basic task: keep Eddie alive, but he was fucking failing at that just like he’d failed his entire life at getting any of the things he actually wanted. The stress of it was all-encompassing, stress that he would live like this for-fucking-ever and that a future - one that he’d thought about the night prior with so much naïveté that he shouldn’t even possess anymore after so many months in this hell - that future would always be beyond his reach. It couldn’t be condensed to just a clean statement that he could convey in any meaningful way to Eddie without collapsing and crying first. “It’s just lonely, that’s all,” he said eventually. “I’m just fucking lonely.”

Eddie didn’t respond beyond a half nod and an expression that Richie couldn’t parse.

He tried to listen to the others again.

“It could be something with the house.”

“How c-could the house be causing this?”

“I don’t know. You’ve seen the house. It’s creepy as hell.”

Eddie lowered his voice, “Do you think It will show up here?” He asked Richie.

“I don’t know. It never followed me off Neibolt, but I guess everyone else was keeping It busy.” Richie paused. “I wish It was going after me instead, Eds.”

“Fuck off with your bullshit,” Eddie said.

“I’m not just saying that.” Richie held his gaze and Eddie looked taken aback when he realized Richie was serious.

Mike was still flipping through one of his books. “I must have missed something.”

Eddie sighed and hunched forward on the counter. “There’s too many variables to assess this rationally, guys,” Eddie said. “Our data is shit. It’s not just our actions we have to take into account, or even the clown’s.” He fidgeted again, fingers strumming the edge of the counter. “Fuck, that’s the real problem here. We don’t even know all of the variables - what the hell is It anyway? How does It function? Maybe this is some kind of alien death throe thing? We have no way of knowing.” His voice was high, well-worn anxiety seeping into the chords. “And we’re all just assuming that fixing something will stop this - hell, that’s what I thought at first, it’s like classic sci-fi, but the more I think about that, the less sense it makes. There has to be an underlying cause and I have no fucking clue how we even go about finding out what that is, let alone stopping it.” Eddie closed his eyes and when he opened them he was a world away. “Has anyone considered that it might be completely independent of us?”

“What do you mean?” Richie asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe the Hadron Collider exploded and fractured time somehow. Maybe some C-grade super villain developed a time ray. Maybe this is the first stage of an alien invasion. Maybe there’s a God and He’s bored and fucking with the world. Maybe whatever it is that’s causing this is completely outside of us and it just happened to occur on a really inconvenient day.”

Everyone was silent.

Jesus Christ, no.

“You r-really think that?” Bill asked.

Eddie gripped the countertop. “My professional assessment is that we should all start drinking.”

“But I remember,” Richie insisted. “That can’t be a coincidence, dude.”

“Sure it can. You’ve got some sort of recessive gene or neurological tick that lets you see it. Or some other reason I can’t begin to speculate about because all of this bullshit is way above my pay grade.” Eddie reached for his inhaler, and -

Fuck it, Richie took Eddie’s hand and squeezed, feeling the familiar lines of his palms, the soft hair on the back of his hand, the bend of his index finger - did you break it, he wondered, would you tell me how? I want to know you completely, even now, even when the world is fucked up beyond fixing and we’re just rotting the same day away, especially now - and something that Richie might have once taken for a flush warmed Eddie’s cheeks, but it was probably just adrenaline, he thought.

For a solitary moment Richie swore he saw a flash of recognition in Eddie’s eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it came. Eddie dropped Richie’s hand and he tried to ignore how cold he felt when his hand wasn’t covered by Eddie’s.

“The Deadlights,” Bev said suddenly. “It has to be them. That’s why Richie remembers - you said the first times it happened, before you realized what was going on, you were caught in the Deadlights.”

“We know they fuck with time. Bev saw the future, or possible futures or something,” Ben said.

“Holy shit,” Richie nodded. “How did I not see that?”

Mike leaned back in his chair. “Then why isn’t Bev remembering now too?”

“Maybe because whatever is causing this hadn’t happened yet when Bev got caught?” Richie suggested, looking to Eddie for approval. “I don’t know, none of this shit makes any sense. We’re dealing with demon alien clowns - shitty horror tropes are Bill’s department, not mine.”

Bill glared. “Thanks, buddy.”

Eddie rubbed his face, weary hands too rough on worried eyes, “If the Deadlights are what’s letting Richie realize this is happening, it’s possible they’re what’s causing it,” Eddie said. “But we need more data.”

A shuffle over the far staircase, a rattle of something sharp dragging against the bannister, and a voice, mockingly sing-song, sounded behind them.

“Team meeting? Can I join too, Richie?”

He spun around to see the clown behind them. Its limbs were already grotesquely distended, insect-like, and its claws protruded from the clown suit and clattered on the floorboards as It advanced towards them.

Richie jumped off the countertop and stood in front of Eddie. “You’re trying too hard, man. Can’t stay away from us for one lousy night? Don’t you have any other murderous clown friends to annoy or are you even too much of a loser for them, too? You’re a pathetic clown!”

Everyone was up and backing away, but there was nowhere to go. They were pinned.

Eddie, “An assole!”

Mike, “A clown, you’re a clown!”

Bev, “A fucking bully!”

Ben, “A mimic!”

Bill, “An imposter. You’re not anything!”

It almost looked surprised as it shivered and reeled back. A screech of nails on a chalkboard as its claws shredded the floor.

“Eater of worlds,” It roared.

A chorus of answers:

“You’re worthless!”

“An old woman!”

“A leper!”

“A headless boy!”

“A mummy!”

“A fucking clown!”

The clown flailed again and took several retreating steps away before shaking violently and hurling forward again, limbs askew as It teetered into piles of Mike’s books.

The room exploded in an oppressive surge of red and orange light as a triad of orbs emerged from It, scorching and brilliant, igniting Richie’s already sensitive retinas that had been branded by their fire so many previous times. Richie stumbled back into a bookshelf, shielding his eyes, as he pulled Eddie with him. “Don’t look at them,” he called.

Eddie, the jackass, immediately stepped forward into the path of the Deadlights.

His eyes rolled back into his head before he was lifted off of the ground, a steady stream of blood dripping up from his nose, and Richie lunged forward to grab him by the leg.

“Keep yelling,” he shouted to the others, frantically scanning for something, anything, that could work. He spotted the knife block on the corner of the countertop and darted forward to pull out a long carving knife. “Please, please, please,” Richie begged as he chucked it across the room.

Bullseye, right in the face through its peeled-back mouth. The clown shuddered and fell back momentarily as the Deadlights flickered and faded, and Eddie collapsed to the floor, body crumpled in a heap, eyes still white and unblinking. “Eds,” Richie shouted, shaking his shoulders. It was standing again, approaching with the knife still lodged in its agape mouth. “Eds, come on.” Nothing. He grabbed him under the arms and lugged him to the wall, trying to get him as far from It as he could manage, but the clown stood between them and the stairs out. It was still wobbling forward into the barrage of insults, its limbs knocking chaotically into the walls and the furniture in the small space of Mike’s apartment. “You have you wake up, Eddie.” They needed to move; they needed to run, but Eddie lay as if comatose, face expressionless and empty, eyes unseeing. Richie smacked him on the cheek, the unbandaged one, and then harder over his bandage, but Eddie failed to flinch. “Fuck.”

It was something out of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or some other lame Disney shit that Richie hadn’t liked even when he was a kid, but fuck it, it worked on Bev. Richie leaned down and brushed Eddie’s lips with his, a barely-there kiss, a one-sided flutter hardly more than a brief caress, but suddenly Eddie’s eyes were open and wide and looking at him. Was that recognition in his expression now? A memory recalled that was once forgotten? Richie couldn’t pause to decipher the confusion that spread over Eddie’s face.

“We need to - ”

He couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t breathe.

Richie couldn’t register anything other than his need for air; he inhaled, but nothing warmed his lungs. It was like he was choking, like there was a vice around his chest that was squeezing, harder and harder with every gasp. No, it was like he was drowning. Everything was wet and sticky, and his lungs burned like he’d breathed in quarry water.

Eddie’s hand was on his, and as he looked between them Richie saw blood, so much fucking blood coating his chest and stomach, streaming down him like a grotesque fountain, something out of a Halloween funhouse he‘d dragged Eddie to every year despite all his protests, and he wanted to take off his jacket and press it to Eddie’s body like he had before, except his whole body was so cold and numb he felt paralyzed by it. And as he tried to see how bad the wound was, he realized it wasn’t just Eddie who was bleeding. They’d both been hit; the claw had gone straight through Richie to stab Eddie.

He was lying down. When had that happened? Had he fallen? He was sure he had just been kneeling over Eddie. If there was pain in his chest it was overwhelmed by his desperation for air, and Eddie was cupping his face. His mouth was moving, but Richie couldn’t hear his words. Richie tried to focus, tried to listen.

“...see if I remember...if it’s the Deadlights…”

“Better data?” Richie managed; blood spilled from his mouth as he spoke.

“Yeah, man. Mostly didn’t want you to be lonely anymore though.”

Richie blacked out.

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

He could breathe again, thank fuck.

Eddie was doubled over on the lawn, hands clutching the dead grass as he convulsed.

“Richie,” he sobbed. “I can still feel it.”

He was next to Eddie, arms around him before he could even process that Eddie remembered. “You’re okay,” he said, hands pressing against Eddie’s breastbone. “You’re not bleeding. See?” He grasped Eddie’s hand and held it to Eddie’s unbloodied chest, their fingers interlocked. “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay,” Richie repeated until Eddie’s breath started to even out. “Just keep looking, see that you’re not bleeding.”

“Can still feel it,” Eddie heaved

“It’ll pass. You’re not bleeding; remind yourself that you’re not bleeding.”

“I’m not bleeding.”

“Eds?” Bev whispered. The others were circled around them, watching Eddie with concern on already worried faces

“I can’t be here. I can’t, I can’t,” Eddie pleaded to Richie. “Please, I can’t breathe here.”

Richie pulled Eddie to his feet. “We’re going to have to rain check this,” he said to the others, holding onto Eddie as he led him to the street.

“What’s going on? What changed in the last minute?” Ben asked, following them out.

Bev’s eyes were hard. “We have to do this now. Eds, you just have to believe.”

Richie kept walking. “It’s been twenty-seven years, guys. It can wait one more night, and no offence Bev, but that belief bullshit hasn’t exactly worked out for Eddie yet.”

“You can’t just leave - ” Mike said.

Eddie was half-limp in his arms, shaking, one hand still tangled in his shirt over his breastbone, the other clutching Richie.

“We’re not leaving leaving. We’re going for a drive. We’ll regroup tomorrow and do this exact same thing then, okay?” Richie looked back at Bill, still standing on the steps of the house. “None of this is on you alone, man. Go back to the inn with them.”

*

*

*

“How much do you remember?” He asked, still supporting Eddie as they walked the deserted road to the library parking lot.

“It’s a jumble. I can’t think straight.” His crying had stopped and his breathing was easier, but Eddie’s voice was still on the edge of panic, a tone Richie knew from innumerable memories involving Bowers and his gang.

“It’s okay, there’s literally no rush to remember.”

“Is that supposed to be funny? Some sort of time loop joke?”

“After a while here, your sense of humor gets screwed.”

“Yours has always been screwed,” Eddie said, his sweaty hand readjusting its grip on Richie’s shoulder, and Richie pulled him closer.

“That’s the spirit, man.”

The parking lot was empty, and Richie opened the passenger door to his car and helped Eddie in, reaching across him to buckle the seatbelt.

“I’m having a nervous breakdown but I’m not infirm.”

“Just let me help, you little turd.”

Eddie sagged into his seat, obviously drained. “Where are we even going?”

“New Hampshire,” Rich answered, crouching next to the car to meet him at eye level.

“What? Why?”

Richie took Eddie’s hand again, held it for a beat. “I know a spot. And you can sleep on the way.” He guided Eddie’s hand to his breastbone again. “You’re not bleeding. You’re okay.”

Eddie was asleep before they hit the interstate. He slumped over, mouth half open, eyebrows furrowed in a way that Richie was sure that whatever he was dreaming about wasn’t pleasant. So different to how he’d slept before, when it had been the two of them tucked together at the inn, in what he’d thought then was relative safety. You’re a fucking idiot.

Richie took the 95 south to Bangor, radio off so that Eddie could sleep in peace. He stuck an earbud in his left ear and flipped through Spotify, skipping over Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and Whitesnake’s 1987, finally settling on Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, because why the fuck not wallow in childhood memories some more, seeing as the universe had seen fit to stick him back in Derry with Eddie. Christmas of 1988 he’d begged his parents for a Walkman, and before noon on Christmas Day he’d already traipsed through the snow to Eddie’s with it, red bow still taped onto the metallic blue casing, and they’d holed up in Eddie’s bedroom for the rest of the afternoon, sharing the headphones as they cycled through Eddie’s cassette collection. Eddie had plucked out Guns N’ Roses first.

He drove through the outskirts of Bangor and hung west with the interstate. Through Newport and Pittsfield, then back south by Waterville and Augusta as Nightrain played in his ear.

Somewhere north of Portland, Richie pulled over at the same gas station as before and refuelled while listening to Think About You. He bought a bag of chips and some Gatorade and water, leaving Eddie sleeping in the car as he ran into the station.

He made better time than before, having forgone the aimless meandering around the 202 and the 16, and by the time he reached the bridge into New Hampshire, there were still hours to sunrise. He turned off the interstate and found a familiar spot on the banks of the Piscataqua River, pulling out his earbud as the final chords of Paradise City played for the third time while he parked.

Eddie was curled up in the passenger seat facing him, the side of his face buried in the backrest, and Richie thought seriously about just letting him sleep because he looked like he needed it, and Jesus Christ did he deserve a rest, but Richie suspected Eddie wouldn’t appreciate not being consulted.

“Eds,” he whispered, hand gentle on his shoulder. “Hey, man.”

A flail of an arm as Eddie jerked up into the seatbelt, eyes a little wild before he saw Rich.

“You’re okay,” Richie said. “And we’re here. Do you want to sleep some more?”

“Where’s here?” Eddie asked, rubbing his face.

“The Piscataqua River.”

“Why?”

Richie shrugged. “Nice sunrise. Few hours off still. Plus it’s far from Derry.”

“Well as long as it’s not Derry.” Eddie unbuckled his seatbelt and rolled his shoulders with a crack, and Richie bit back a comment about finding him an all-night gym. “I’m up.”

“Water or Gatorade?”

“Water.” Richie passed him the bottle from the gas station and Eddie unscrewed the cap as he got out of the car, stretching; Richie followed him.

It was a desolate little greenspace, vacant in the barely-morning hours, and it overlooked an equally quiet stretch of river; the only noises were the soft ripple of water against the rocky shore and Eddie’s breathing. Richie tried not to count his breaths, but what did they say about old habits being a bitch to break?

The lights of downtown Portsmouth further downriver were few, and the sky above was awash with stars that Richie hadn’t seen in years.

“Don’t see much of that in L.A.,” Richie said, nodding to the sky. “Same as New York, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Eddie flexed his shoulders again and wandered down to the water. “You remember Stan’s busted old telescope?”

“Hardly worked, that piece of crap was older than his dad.”

“Kind of fun at sleepovers though.”

Richie remembered. A poorly-assembled tent in Stan’s backyard. Rolled out sleeping bags crammed together. The only light a lantern Richie brought home from his family’s last camping trip. The smell of Eddie’s bug spray. And the four of them gathered around a telescope mounted on a flimsy tripod, Stan and Eddie arguing about what angle to set it at.

And then later, after Bill and Stan were asleep, Richie pulled Eddie out of the tent. “I think I found Jupiter,” he’d whispered, and even if Eddie insisted it was just dirt on the lens, they’d still fiddled with the dials together until the morning broke.

Richie watched as Eddie skipped a rock across the still surface of the river, and he tried not to ask whether he remembered anything about the inn.

What do you remember? Does it feel real to you? It doesn’t feel real to me.

“Everything’s still really fuzzy,” Eddie said, as if answering Richie’s unspoken question. “I can only remember parts of it all - the cavern mostly.” He pressed his hand to his breastbone again. “I can still almost feel it.” Then he laughed a little, too calm, too casual for it to be genuine. “Not sure whether I’ve invented some shit. Did you remember everything all at once?”

“Not really. The first few times are still kind of blurry, honestly.” Richie walked to the edge of the river and skipped a rock too. “Weird that you remembered right away; took me a dozen or so times, I think.”

“Maybe because there’s been so many iterations since? I don’t know. It’s useless to speculate.”

Eddie managed four skips. Then Richie got six. Eddie swore and tried again, making five.

“You’re a fucking dumbass for doing it,” Richie said.

Eddie looked over and Richie wished he could see his face better in the dark. “Now we know it’s the Deadlights, asshole. That’s data, that’s progress.”

“Yeah, and you had a panic attack over it. I spent years of my life trying to prevent you from having those, or calming you down after. I don’t want to see you like that. And I hate that you have to remember all those times now. Ignorance is bliss, right?”

“We needed to know. And, dude, you look rough. You said it yourself, you’re lonely. You need - ”

“Please, do tell me what I need.”

“Me.”

Richie didn’t have anything to say to that. He hated it when Eddie was right.

“It’s all really confusing. I can only remember bits and pieces,” Eddie said. “But you stayed with me, before all the cave ins.”

“Nothing better to do. I mean it’s Derry.” Richie faked a grin that Eddie couldn’t even see in the blackness. “Would you rather get stuck in a cave or have to deal with how to spend a Saturday night there.

“I wish you hadn’t - ”

“I wouldn’t leave you alone.”

“You were crushed.”

“It was fast, most of the time.”

“How are you so calm about this?”

Richie raised his voice. “I’m not calm about this. I’m losing my fucking mind, Eds. But the cave ins? Whatever, it is what it is. Worth it to make sure you weren’t alone.”

Eddie inhaled like he was going to say something, but instead he turned back and walked towards the car.

Do you remember the inn? Please say you remember and that it wasn’t a Goddamn mistake or some fucked up hallucination that my brain conjured up to stop me from throwing myself off the kissing bridge time after time.

“You know,” Eddie said, refusing to look back at Richie as they both approached the car. “When Mike called me, I was so terrified I almost didn’t come. I couldn’t remember a lot from when we were kids, but I remembered being scared and never wanting to feel powerless like that again. But then I could almost picture your face, and I could almost hear your voice and that’s why I came.”

“Eds - ”

“Shut up, asshole, I’m not done. I couldn’t even tell you your name but I remembered that time in the Barrens when I didn’t have my inhaler and you got me to breathe; and I remembered riding bikes and never wanting to go home, partly yeah, ‘cause I didn’t want to see my mom, but mostly because I didn’t want to leave you; and I remembered spending hours at that disgusting arcade I fucking hated, but I went solely to be with you; and now I remember all of this shit from the past five months apparently, and I can’t tell what’s true from what I’ve invented - ”

Richie kissed him, and Eddie didn’t waver this time; he kissed back immediately, the same open-mouth, too wet, gawky enthusiasm as before, and he knocked Richie into the side of the car, wrapping his arms around Richie’s waist, fingers clenching Richie’s back like he was a lifeline and Eddie was adrift. Richie threaded his fingers through Eddie’s hair and let him set the pace.

Too soon, Eddie broke apart and asked, “The inn?”

“True.”

“I think I kissed you in the cavern, too.”

“Also true. A bit before the inn.”

Eddie pulled Richie back down to him and he nipped Richie’s bottom lip. “You’re too fucking far away. Why the hell are you so tall?”

“It’s you who’s too short - ”

Eddie reached behind Richie and threw open the passenger-side door. An uncoordinated pile of limbs and Richie fumbled for the button to recline the seat, which he swore used to be under the chair but ended up on the side of the console instead, and then Eddie was on top of him, bodies flush, and it was everything when Eddie leaned into him, cheeks ablaze, and said, “Help me remember.”

The hesitancy from the inn was gone, but the urgency was still overwhelming, and Richie thought that if this was what the rest of his life was made of, well, there were worse ways to spend it. Eddie’s mouth was on his neck and over his Adam’s apple, kissing down into his collar, and Richie pulled his shirt off, smacking his elbow on the window as he tried to get it over his head without toppling them both. And Eddie laughed into his mouth between long kisses and the sound of it was something out of his thirteen-year-old self’s fantasies.

More awkward struggling to get Eddie’s shirt off, and Richie realized this whole thing might be easier if they just separated for a moment, but the idea of taking his hands off of Eddie wasn’t an option after they’d spent so much time away from each other, so he clumsily shed Eddie’s hoodie and shirt, a knock of arms, Eddie bent back over the dashboard, and he finally threw the clothes over the steering wheel.

His palm covered Eddie’s breastbone and his fingers circled the pliant flesh there.

“Rich,” Eddie breathed.

“You’re okay.”

So quiet, “You said you love me?”

Richie paused, caressed the now-smooth skin that had been broken and ruptured so many times before. “True. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

And after - after more frantic attempts at removing their remaining clothing; and after Eddie’s face flushed a deep, rich red that Richie committed to memory because it rivalled the coming sunrise in color; and after Eddie’s breath turned hot and desperate against the side of his face so that Richie’s glasses fogged; and after Richie thought that the feeling of Eddie wrapped around him like this was the closest thing to divinity that his skeptical, atheist soul had ever felt; and after Eddie slackened on top of him, breathless in the only way Richie ever wanted to see him, and Richie lifted Eddie’s hips up so he could slide gently out to the sound of a soft hitch in Eddie’s breath - after all that, a hazy orange swept lazily up into the sky, doubled below as the sun reflected in the water of the river.

They dressed and lay together on the hood of Richie’s car, Richie leaning back against the windshield as Eddie slotted against him, Richie’s hands covering his face as he peered through spread fingers to see slits of apricot and coral and peach-colored sky.

“Not a bad sunrise,” Eddie said and Richie smiled into his hair.

“New York have better?”

“Can’t remember the last time I watched a sunrise. L.A.?”

Richie took Eddie’s hand and traced the lines on his palm. “Same sunrise, better company here though.”

“We could come back and see it again,” Eddie said.

“For as long as you need, Eds.”

 A pause, then, “You don’t want to?”

“That’s not what I said -  ”

“It’s what it sounded like.”

“Look.” Richie pulled him close. “If you can’t handle the cavern soon, we can come back. Fuck, we can go wherever you want to.” He kissed Eddie’s tousled hair. “But I need to try this again. I need to move past it. I need to move past Derry. I’m stuck here, not just because of the loop, but because of everything that happened during our fucking nightmare of a childhood. I never got over any of it; Bowers calling me a fag every day and all the casual gay bashing that I carry around with me twenty-seven fucking years later. I’m stuck emotionally - Jesus, I sound like my therapist - and I need to break this Goddamn cycle. I need to move forward. And hell, if this bullshit loop is anything, it’s an opportunity to get over this garbage and find a future I actually want.” Richie tried to keep his voice even. “I’ve been reliving all this crap my entire life, and I can’t keep pretending it’s okay.”

Eddie’s eyes were closed. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sound so coherent.”

“Fuck off,” Richie said fondly.

 Eddie sat up and looked out over the river. “So what’s next then?”

“Well, our best guess is the Deadlights, right? So I guess I get caught in them again and see what happens now that I know it’s them.”

“And you think that’ll work?”

“Worth a shot. Whatever happens, I’ve seen worse.”

“And after it works?” Eddie asked, suddenly quiet and fiddling with his wedding ring.

Richie smiled. “Optimism looks good on you,” he said. “After it works you should move in with me.”

Eddie’s lips quirked, but he raised an appraising eyebrow. “That’s presumptuous.”

“They have insurance companies in L.A. too. Or, fuck, go to medical school. Or quit your job and be my trophy husband and waste your days at some bourgie gym and get stupid tanned and spend all my money.”

“Is that a proposal?”

“Whatever it fucking takes, man. I want to get the fuck out of here and have a future with you.”

Eddie laid back down and folded into Richie’s body, winding their legs together as he pushed his face into the crook of Richie’s neck. A kiss. A laugh Richie loved, and “I’m holding you to the trophy husband offer.”

Richie tugged at the hem of Eddie’s shirt. “Well then don’t let your body go and we have a deal.” He kissed Eddie’s wrist and glanced at his watch. “We still have a couple of hours before it resets at seven.”

“Round two?”

Chapter Text

The house on Neibolt was still standing.

“...this curse, this fucking thing that’s inside you all, it started growing the day I m-made you go down to the Barrens because all I cared about was finding G-G-Georgie,” Bill was saying as the others looked on, all except Eddie. Eddie was smiling at Richie. A sort of half, semi-smile; an inside joke meant for just them at the absurdity of everything.

Eds. My Eds. Fuck, Eddie would hate it if he called him that, and Richie swore to himself he’d work it in eventually just so he could see the scowl cross his face. My Eds, alive and aware and, Jesus fucking Christ, in love and looking at him with eyes that remembered it all, and it was almost enough for Richie. It was a hell of a lot more than Richie ever had before, and if he was honest, it was more than he thought he’d ever get too. Almost enough, though. Selfish, greedy asshole that he was; restraint had never been his strong suit.

Enough would be Eddie and tomorrow, then all of the following tomorrows.

Bill was still speaking, and Richie mouthed the words along with him, eyebrows deeply furrowed in his best impression, “Now I’m going to go in there and I don’t know what’s going to happen but I can’t ask you to do this.” Richie watched Eddie roll his eyes in a way that seemed to say here we go again, but his attention was already back to the house.

“You want to get out of here?” Richie whispered, closing the distance between them, alert to the beginnings of a chewed lip, the increasingly manic tap tap tap of fingers on the sides of his jeans. Don’t panic. I’ve got you. “We could head north. Get some maple syrup and beaver tails,” he smirked.

“Is that a euphemism for something?” 

“No, it’s pastry,” Richie said innocently. “They’re actually really good.”

“You’re losing your edge, man. That seemed like a gimme.” Eddie’s hand found his, and the casualness of it was jarring. The ease with which their fingers slid against the other’s was like they’d had the time to explore the topography of their digits as they shaped together, like hand holding was just something they did, no big deal. Richie supposed they had practiced it in a way, but crimson-soaked hands grasping one another over an open wound as Richie choked on the smell of Eddie’s blood wasn’t the sort of experience he wanted to recall. This, though, this offhand intimacy of fingers meeting palms, this was something Richie would chase forever, he realized, if given the chance.

Eddie surveyed the house again and Richie felt Eddie’s hand twitch, his pulse quicken under the touch of Richie’s fingertips. “We need to get this the fuck over with.”

“You want to go in now? We don’t have to, Eds. Like I said before - we can take as long as you need. Beaver tails are only a few hours away.”

A long exhale, then Eddie whispered back, “No, let’s do it. Waiting’s worse somehow.” 

I understand. I’ve been waiting for almost three decades. 

The others had quieted around them. “Your line, Eds,” Richie hissed.

Eddie startled. “Oh yeah. So does somebody want to say something?” He asked, a little dramatically, and Richie snorted.

“Richie said it b-best when we were here last,” Bill said.

Hand still snug in Eddie’s, he nodded, “Let’s kill this fucking clown.”

They stepped up the front steps behind Bill and walked through the front door, returned to its hinges once more, and they stayed hand-in-hand as they entered the house. If anyone noticed, nothing was said.

“Keep quiet about everything?” Eddie said as they passed the main staircase, the others searching around as if it was their first time back here in twenty-seven years. “Let it all play out so we don’t derail anything?”

“Yeah. And rule number one - ”

“I don’t need your fucking rules, Rich.”

“Just one rule: don’t Goddamn die. If it works and you’re dead - ”

“I stay dead. No shit, asshole.”

Richie squeezed his hand as they approached the kitchen door. “I’m serious. You officially know better. Do not die.”

“And you’re going to what - just jump in the Deadlights and see what happens?”

“I guess,” Richie shrugged. “You keep away from the clown. Don’t pull me out unless It’s going to eat me or something.” Richie pushed the kitchen door open as Bill turned the corner towards them. “Ready?”

“I’ll grab the knife.”

*

*

*

“Hey, fuck face!” Pennywise threw Mike across the cavern and rounded on Richie, who didn’t bother picking up a rock this time. “No more games, jerk-off, let’s finish this.”

He looked one final time at Eddie near the mouth of the tunnel and - 

The cavern exploded in an oppressive surge of red and orange light, undulating across from him like some twisted scene out of Evil Dead or Re-Animator or The Fly. They were the sorts of movies he used to borrow from Blockbuster on Friday nights, the punk teenage clerk behind the counter indifferent as Richie’s twelve-year-old ass stacked a pile of R-rated movies in front of him. That was the last coherent thought Richie had before being raised off the ground: the image of himself and Eddie buried under several blankets at the foot of Richie’s bed, Richie explaining that the special effects were really nothing - corn syrup and powdered dyes, squibs and garden sprinklers, painted prosthetics, as Eddie peeked out from behind his hands at the flicker of the television.

And then everything around him - the rocks, the lair at the center, Pennywise himself, the other Losers - all of it was absorbed in the heat and brilliance of that light. Everything burned away like a reel of film in a flame, and the world was reduced to three spinning orbs that seared his pupils and ignited deep into his retinas. An all-encompassing roar, animalistic and brutal, somewhere ahead of him. And then visions of Eddie: his chest dripping blood, his eyes glassy; face down in the cistern; a slice of a claw and the drop of his head from his body, a scream Richie thought was his own; limp in Richie’s arms outside the collapsed house; floating in the Deadlights.

Visions he’d lived before, watched unfold not from inside the Deadlights but in this circular reality of the past five months, and he tried to reach out and stop them, to intervene in any way at all, but he was body-less here, wherever the fuck here was, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe. It was as if he was in a void, or perhaps part of a void himself, but instead of blackness it was every terrible way he’d watched Eddie die, every way he’d failed to save him.

What was that old book he’d taken from his dad’s nightstand one summer? The one that had given him nightmares before they were replaced by the clown? I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. He couldn’t scream now. 

The heat around him was otherworldly (but if he was body-less, then how the fuck was he so hot?). When he was ten or eleven, Richie had taped a star chart to the wall over his bedroom desk; it hung uncomfortably next to a torn-out magazine spread of Metallica and a collection of Polaroids of Bill, Stan, and Eddie he’d taken with his sister’s camera. In the bottom corner of the chart was a diagram of the sun: the corona, neatly labelled in block lettering, radiated out from the chromosphere, spiked with flares and prominences, and Richie had spent evenings doodling over his math homework, wondering just how heatproof Next Gen’s shuttlecrafts had to be, given how often they veered through a solar wind.

But this was an extraterrestrial sort of heat; not of Earth, not even solar. It was something deeper and more primal than mere nuclear fusion, greater than the proton-proton chain reactions that fueled the sun, which Richie vaguely remembered reading about. No, this was an internal heat that could only exist through sentience and malice.

Richie was ablaze.

The void was white: an overexposed, oversaturated photo, the colors washed away by an overbearing light. The concrete images of Eddie lightened to nothingness, and only the white-hot burn of the Deadlights remained, embryonic and dimensionless, silent. Richie tried to flail or kick or propel himself - he must still be himself, right? - but there was nothing to manipulate and no direction to travel. He tried to scream, but only long-forgotten words from a book off of his dad’s nightstand lodged somewhere his throat should be: Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known as human, a thing whose shape is so alien a travesty that humanity becomes more obscene for the vague resemblance. Inwardly: alone.1

How long had he been stuck here? It was as if time had stopped, or perhaps it had sped by so infinitely fast that it was indistinguishable from stopping. Richie couldn’t tell; the very concept of time was made meaningless here in the nothing.

Minutes or hours or days, he wasn’t sure.

Eddie, he thought. Are you okay, wherever you are? Am I okay, wherever I am?

Where am I?

*

*

*

And suddenly he could breathe again, move and kick and scream again, and the heat was almost tolerable enough to withstand. He blinked away the burning in his retinas, and the world started to come into view at the center of his sight, the edges of his vision still luminescent and aflame. 

Neibolt. The kitchen.

And the sound was everywhere, pulsing through his core - after so long or so short without any audio, the noise was overwhelming, an alarming pitch Richie couldn’t parse as it echoed over him; it drowned out his senses like a siren and made it impossible to hear the words he was sure were there - but it was a familiar sound, something long-loved, and as Richie squeezed his eyes shut and tried to get his vision back, he finally heard it properly. A sob, a frightened yell, and a voice from his childhood, “Richie, help.”

Richie staggered up - had he fallen? - and slammed into the side of the fridge. “Eddie?” He called back in a voice that hadn’t been his in decades, young and high.

Hands, smaller than they should be, pulled him forward along the counter, blindly trying to find Eddie.

“Please,” Eddie cried in a little-boy voice.

A growl with a faux-sing-song levity, “Want to play a game, Richie?”

“Fuck you,” he shouted, voice stale. He couldn’t see them, but Richie knew where they must be; the sweat-soaked nightmares in his childhood bed had always been the same after the first trip to Neibolt, after finding Pennywise crouched over Eddie as he pressed himself back against the toppled table.

He launched himself across the room into the larger of the two shapes he could only somewhat distinguish from the rest of the formless blurs that comprised the kitchen, and the clown was knocked over momentarily. Richie scrambled towards Eddie to put himself between him and Pennywise, but it was too late: It was already up, arm around Eddie’s neck as It dragged him towards what Richie thought must be the basement door, everything still too shapeless and confused to discern. A desperate grab around his ankle and Richie pulled Eddie back.

Richie could hear the wet bone-on-flesh sound of It’s teeth extending, It’s gums lengthening grotesquely out of It’s mouth, embedded with rows and rows of canines and incisors.

Richie yanked on Eddie’s ankle, but he couldn’t get him away from the clown. “Eddie,” he yelled. “Come on.”

A scream, pained and wild, and Eddie convulsed, kicking as he continued to writhe, his cries tapering out to little more than broken, spastic sobs as his breath failed. The clown had stopped dragging him away and Richie’s vision was suddenly clearer, and Eddie - just a kid and so much smaller than Richie remembered him, baby-faced with round cheeks and eyes large like a doll’s - he laid on the floor of the kitchen, thrashing, a large chunk of his shoulder missing amid torn bite marks, his clavicle broken straight through. Pennywise kneeled behind him, smiling garishly at Richie while chewing on torn pieces of Eddie’s shoulder, his mouth awash in blood as muscle sinew caught between his oversized front teeth.

“Richie,” Eddie cried as more blood gushed from the wound, soaking Eddie’s shirt and Richie’s hands as he hauled him up and away. His snapped clavicle was bent up, sharp little fragments sticking out of the break like wood splinters, catching Richie’s palms as he tried to figure out where they could possibly escape to. Eddie heaved at the touch. 

The doors, both the one to the main foyer and the one to the basement, were gone, now covered by cabinetry as if they’d never been there.

Is this real? I swear he only broke his arm.

“It’s going to be okay,” Richie said, and then said again and again, because it was the only thought cycling through his mind as he pressed Eddie against the far wall with his own body.

Pennywise stood up, bloody tissue hanging down his chin, and stalked slowly over.

“Don’t you fucking touch him,” Richie yelled. Eddie’s small hand wrapped around Richie’s waist, his wet face tucked against the back of his neck.

It’s face contorted into a parody of sorrow, It’s mouth lilting theatrically downwards. “Only you can do that, Richie?”

“Fuck off!”

Richie was batted away like he weighed nothing, thrown off Eddie and into a row of cabinets; a loud crack and something in his leg popped as he fell to the floor. An immediate, intense wave of nausea at the sharp, almost paralyzing pain up and down his shin, but he lugged himself forward across the floor.

The same, haunting scene again: It hovering over a balled-up, crying Eddie, and then the clown turned towards Richie for a fraction of a moment with a wide, sharp-toothed smirk, before lunging at Eddie’s neck.

Eddie’s scream was a cacophony of white that overtook the room. The world around Richie exploded in the brilliant glow of the Deadlights, and he tried to crawl forward and find Eddie, but he was already gone.

The white of the Deadlights was fallen snow, a foot deep at least; deep enough that it had wedged into the tops of his boots as he ran through the desolate winter Barrens, his broken leg suddenly fine. The snow trapped in his boots melted into icy rivers as it stuck to his jeans, and Richie was cold, despite the new coat his mom had just bought him and the mitts his nana had knitted and mailed over - memories that seemed somehow fresh and new. 

He could hear Eddie gasping. Those telltale hitches and wheezes guided Richie past snow-covered tree after snow-covered tree, through iced-over brush that crunched underfoot, near the clubhouse then back to the frozen stream again, but Eddie was nowhere.

“Eddie?” He yelled.

A stuttered inhale, “I can’t find my inhaler.” 

“You need to breathe. Just try and breathe with me.”

Eddie choked on his words. “Where are you?”

“Where are you?”

This had happened before, Richie knew, or at least he thought so. Not exactly this, but something similar to it. Eddie panting and holding onto a frozen tree with gloved hands, a lost inhaler Bill and Stan searched for, and Richie reaching out, taking Eddie by the arms - the closest he dared to touching his hands - and breathed with him until he wasn’t wheezing.

Wasn’t that what happened?

He looked for the tree Eddie had been leaning against - a greying maple with icicles hanging along its empty branches - but there were only pines and firs. 

Richie shouted again, “Eddie?” Suffocating gasps answered him. “Eds, please, in and out, nice and slow.”

He spotted Eddie’s beat-up blue coat in the otherwise white landscape and ran towards him, legs heavy in the fresh snow. Eddie was bent against the maple, clutching the hollows of its bark as he slumped down, half-conscious. Richie fell to his knees beside him, and took his face in his hands.

“Breathe with me,” he said as Eddie went increasingly limp. The warmth of Richie’s breath filled the frozen air between them with hot, little clouds, but nothing similar came out of Eddie’s still, blue lips. “Please, Eds,” Richie whispered, shaking him as he slackened into the snow. “This isn’t what happened.”

The frozen-hard snow crumpled into sheets beneath him as Richie leaned Eddie’s head back and breathed two long breaths into his mouth, and -

Eddie was kissing him.

The winter melted away to reveal the collapsing cavern, and Richie felt himself again: the right size, the proper proportions.

Eddie’s mouth was wet with blood; he tasted like metal and salt, but Eddie’s lips were firm against his, reassuring and weighty and there, and Richie kissed him back, because how could he not, but also because he was sure this was how it went before - hadn’t it? A brush of stubble, a bump of a nose, and Eddie tilted his head just a little to the right as Richie reached up and slipped his hand behind his head, threading his fingers through Eddie’s hair.

A chaste peck; an overture, a prologue, an opening act. It was the sort of kiss that demanded more, unfinished and incomplete, and Jesus fucking Christ, Richie wanted not only more, but all of it, everything, whatever Eddie would give him, but Eddie’s breathing was ragged now, his grip on Richie’s hand weakening.

“I used to think about that a lot,” Eddie said, his voice weak and raspy.

“I love you, Eds.”

Eddie opened his mouth to speak but only blood pooled down from his lips. He coughed hoarsely and more viscera spilled out, and Richie wiped his mouth with the pad of his thumb in a long, lingering caress.

“I don’t know when we are. Do you? I’m so lost.” Eddie only looked confused. “I’m so sorry,” Richie whispered against Eddie’s lips, pressing them together again.

But Eddie jerked away, eyes cold in a way Richie had never seen them before; the generous brown of his irises diluted as if by the white of the snow or the blare of the Deadlights. “You’re sorry?” He asked, voice shaky but now edged with something steely. “You’re sorry? If you’re so fucking sorry, why are you letting this happen?”

“Eddie - ”

“No. Do you know how many times I’ve died here?” A thick spray of blood drizzled down Eddie’s chin and Richie reached out to clean him up again, but Eddie shoved his hand away. “Over one hundred and fifty times, asshole. You’ve let me die and rot here over one hundred and fifty times.”

Richie couldn’t hold Eddie’s gaze, his eyes too exacting, uncanny against intimately-studied features. “I’m so sorry,” he said, briefly shutting his eyes to avoid Eddie’s stare.

“That’s not good enough. Shit, you haven’t changed - you’re still a useless fuck up.” Something resembling a geyser streamed from Eddie’s mouth; frothy, sick blood flowed down his torso and onto Richie then onto the rock below in heavy rivulets. “You couldn’t even figure out it was the Deadlights without me.” He motioned above them. “How fucking obvious was that?”

“I’m sorry,” Richie repeated. The back of his neck prickled as Eddie kept speaking, and it was like he was a child again; a shiver down his spine in Eddie’s bedroom after school or in the playground at recess or trailing behind Eddie on their bikes, then queasy flutters in his stomach, a realization that normal boys don’t feel like this about their friends. Eddie had made him nervous then, and he was nervous now too.

More blood, a heady current until they were both covered, slick with it. “You have anything else to say? You owe me an explanation after putting me through this, man.”

He didn’t have the words Eddie deserved to hear, or any words at all for that matter. The visions from the Deadlights played behind his eyelids like a film, like the shitty horror flicks he used to make Eddie watch because he’d always been a selfish monster; Eddie dead, so many times over, stabbed and bleeding like he was now, deep and shallow wounds alike, crushed ribs, punctured lungs, ruptured intestines spilling filth into his body cavity, and all of it was because Richie couldn’t protect him.

Richie’s hands shook, and he realized that his jacket - still held tight to Eddie’s wound between them - had become so saturated with Eddie’s blood as it poured out from his chest that the fabric itself was dripping crimson. 

“You say you love me, but this has been going on for five months,” Eddie said as he coughed up a surge blood.

“I do love you,” Richie managed.

“And it’s, what, just a coincidence that the only times you bothered to keep me alive were the ones you got to fuck me, too?”

Richie doubled over, head in hands. “I swear it wasn’t like that. I - ”

This isn’t right. This isn’t how it went.

Eddie’s voice wasn’t hoarse any longer. “You wanted to see more of me. That’s what you thought before the loop, when you realized we all had to stay in Derry to deal with Pennywise. You thought all I want is more time with him.” Eddie grabbed Richie by the chin and forced eye contact. “You got what you wanted, didn’t you? You have all the fucking time now.” His blood was everywhere; it lapped at Richie’s legs as it formed a shallow pool around them, slowly deepening as more and more spilled out from his mouth as he spoke. “And whatever the hell I said at the inn or by the river, you know that was some bullshit PTSD talking. I’m married, asshole, to a woman. If we ever get out of this, I’m not going home with you.”

Of course.

Obviously.

I’m such a dumb fuck.

Eddie let go of Rich’s face in disgust, and Richie only doubled back over to watch as his tears created little ripples as they splashed down into the growing puddle of blood beneath him. 

Why did I let myself believe he’d...

His glasses were splattered-wet with tears.

The walls of the cavern dripped Eddie’s blood; it caked onto the dust and spiderwebs, dragging the detritus down with its heavy, scarlet weight into the pool on the floor. 

“Happy, Rich? I can’t fucking leave you now, can I? Is that why you haven’t tried to end this? Because you know I’d never choose you.” 

“No, Eds, please believe me - ”

“This is the only way you’d ever get me.”

“I wouldn’t just let this happen,” Richie sobbed, slamming his hands into the bath of blood that had risen over his legs.

The levels rose rapidly, flooding out endlessly from Eddie’s mouth and chest, streaming down the walls in thick gushes. It bubbled to the height of Eddie’s chin as he laid slumped against the cavern wall, and Richie begged, “Please, Eddie,” trying to get him to sit up; it was going to overtake them, but Eddie was unmoving as if stuck to the floor, expression accusatory and knowing. 

“How many pints do you think I’ve lost? After one hundred and fifty times, do you think this even comes close?”

“We need to move, please.” But beneath them the floor was suddenly gone and they were both pulled under, and Eddie was choking, drowning as the blood engulfed them. Richie wrapped his arms around Eddie’s stomach and tried to swim up, but the blood was thick like the corn syrup of the horror movies of his childhood, and he couldn’t swim through it.

Richie gasped for breath and swallowed only blood as Eddie languished against him.

The world was a wet red and Richie let it wash over him. He stopped struggling and deliberately inhaled the metallic scent, and Richie felt it swell into his lungs like a searing River Styx. He sank deeper and deeper until he found the floor of the cavern again, waiting for the end. 

When he exhaled, the atmosphere was dry again.

Well, not completely dry, but he wasn’t drowning. The floor was sticky with streaks of blood and viscera. He wasn’t in the cavern, but in something of a similar layout and size, except it was fleshy and alive; it was squishy and viscous, pink and red like the insides of some organ, something out of ninth grade biology - formaldehyde and frogs and pregnant cats and organs pinned to a laminated diagram - and it seemed to undulate with something of a pulse that rocked Richie up and down. The walls, lofty and cavern-like in height, were veined with thick, rubbery arteries, the interiors of which pumped a sludgy black blood, Richie assumed. The whole of wherever he was contracted rhythmically like a beating heart or breathing lungs, and Richie was taken by the cadence of it before crawling to a living corner and sagging against the wall, head in hands, exhausted.

The Deadlights glittered above him, distant enough that they could be mistaken for the stars that he and Eddie once gazed at in Stan’s backyard.

“I give up,” he announced to the lights above. No response. Was it real? Had anything ever been real?

Here he could feel injuries from all the loops: dislocated shoulders and crushed bones, snapped femurs and a talon through the chest. It was a removed sort of pain, the memory of it; something like a phantom limb or the fleeting sensation of a tactile dream upon waking. Leaning into the fleshy wall as it pulsed, he felt rocks crush him in the cavern and a boulder strike his head as he carried Eddie out to the hatch and a claw scissor his chest in Mike’s apartment, and maybe if he concentrated enough on it all, it would all be enough and he could just die here and stay dead. But he wasn’t that lucky.

Slouching further into the pulse of the wall, wedged between two palpitating arteries, he felt something else too, something that was decidedly not his own: fear and anxiety that were akin to his own emotions, but still distinct. The emotions were outside of himself, linked to memories or experiences that seemed wholly separate and other, otherworldly like the heat of the Deadlights, and Richie couldn’t explain the feeling but he sank further into the wall to explore it, to focus on anything other than the all-consuming soul-ache that drowned him like Eddie’s blood had.

Fevered self-preservation in face of a certain defeat. A last-ditch attempt. Plan B. Desperation reverberated through whatever organ he was in; it flowed through the arteries along with the black blood, giving not life but hysteria to sustain the creature it presumably kept alive, and Richie recognized it instantly because he’d been operating on the same instinct for the last five months.

What had Eddie said at Mike’s apartment? Something about an alien death throe?

It doesn’t fucking matter anyway.

“Richie?”

He pushed himself further into the wall, eyes closed, face in his knees. He couldn’t listen to anything else Eddie had to say; his mind was already overcooked, fried the fuck out to the point where he couldn’t sort reality from fantasy. It hurt though; Eddie’s voice ripped through him like the clown’s claw, and the prospect of hearing it confirm what he already knew was too much. 

It’s my fault. All of it.

“Richie?”

Squish squish squish. Footsteps on a soft, biological floor.

“No. Not again.”

“Rich?” A hand on his shoulder, squeezing with a familiar weight; the trace of a deeply inset scar that matched his own discernible even through the barrier of his jacket. “It’s okay.”

“I can’t hear it again, Eds.” 

Even if it’s true - and I know it’s true, it’s fucking true - please don’t say it again. I caused all of this, every time you’ve bled to death, every time your Goddamn organs fell out of your chest, it’s all been because of me and I know that. And I know if we ever manage to get out of here you’re going back to your life because at best I’m just some trauma-induced, last-night-on-Earth-so-why-not, desperation fuck, but Jesus Christ, I swear I’m not letting this drag on. I swear, I swear I’d never let you hurt like this if I could prevent it. I can’t hear you say that again; I can’t hear what you really think of me.

“Hear what?” Eddie whispered above him.

“I know it’s my fucking fault. I know. I know. I - ”

A shift and he felt Eddie sit in front of him; Eddie’s hand cupped the back of his neck like he deserved comfort, and Richie pulled away like he’d been burned by the Deadlights. A sigh, a too-even breath that could only mean Eddie was trying to stay calm, and then, “Whatever you saw, it’s the clown fucking with you. Just like the missing posters and the in-memorium note.”

“I’m so sorry,” was all he could say.

“Rich, you don’t have anything to apologize to me for. Well, except all the mom jokes. You can definitely apologize for those.” Richie glanced up to Eddie’s face, clean of blood and clots, but washed in worry.

Richie shook his head. “Everything that happened to you is my fault.” Eddie’s blood - enough to be pulled under by, enough to drown in - it had spilled because of him, because he was too stupid to figure it out.

“Fuck off with that bullshit.” And Eddie kissed him. Richie shrank back, waiting for whatever punishment the universe or God or the Deadlights would surely deliver, whatever next hellish memory he’d be thrown into, but Eddie’s hand had found his neck again, and he was reassuringly warm and real and smelled like the soap he’d brought to the hotel, and when he pulled away from Rich’s motionless lips and said “I love you,” it was like coming home. “You’ve done everything to stop this. You tried every way possible. I remember it, and I remember you staying with me in the cavern, even though you should have left. None of this is your fault, Rich. If you so much as think that again, I swear I’ll feed you to that clown myself.”

Warm brown eyes with striations he’d once memorized found his own, and Richie recalled thinking once that they were beyond facsimile, and, fuck, he couldn’t trust his own mind or memory, but, God help him, he trusted Eddie.

“Eds?”

“Yeah?” 

“It’s you?”

“Yeah, Rich.” Eddie slipped next to him, edging away from the pulsing wall with a wary look, and wrapped an arm around Richie’s back. “It’s me.”

Eddie’s shoulder was firm under Richie’s head as he leaned in close. “How the fuck are you here?”

“I got worried. You were taking an assload of time.” Hands interlocked and Richie breathed for what seemed like the first time since he was caught in the Deadlights.

“How long? Feels like I’ve been here for days.” 

Body-less and trapped in a limitless white void, and Richie shivered and pressed into Eddie. Concrete and whole.

“Shit, no, only a few minutes. But it was getting a little dicey out there, and I figured if anything really bad went down, we should be in it together, right?”

“Right. Wait, no, wrong. You jumped in the Deadlights again?” Braver than you think echoed in Richie’s head.

“Yeah, so?”

“Jesus, Eddie. You need to stop doing that.”

“Found you though.” 

“You did.” Richie pulled Eddie close and found his lips, and Eddie’s mouth was hot against his; he tasted like something from decades ago that Richie couldn’t pinpoint: the freedom of the last day of school and secret handshakes and code words and a desperate longing in a shared hammock. When they parted, Eddie kept their foreheads together.

“Whatever you saw before, it was bullshit,” he repeated.

Richie wasn’t sure, so he said nothing.

“So what do we do now?” Eddie asked.

Richie palmed an artery climbing up the wall behind him; it throbbed in the same panicked frenzy that permeated the whole room. “It’s scared, I think. You were right before - alien death throes - the loop was because the Deadlights knew It was losing and all of this was some sort of desperate Hail Mary to get another chance at surviving. Try again until it worked out for It, I guess.”

Eddie eyed the wall. “How can you know that?” 

“Can’t you feel it now that we’re inside the Deadlights?” 

A delirious energy pulsed through the chamber; an awareness that the worst case scenario had already passed and would again and again, and if Richie pushed back into the wall, if he wrapped his hand around the fleshy veins behind him, he could sense that foreign panic and feel time itself sliding through it. A consciousness other than his own scrambling to try again, to find a better time, an opportunity elsewhere. He squeezed the vein and felt a white-hot flash rush through him like a solar wind, like a prominence or a flare, and he could almost see -

The kitchen on Neibolt. Eddie pushed against the table.

The Barrens. Eddie wheezing and clinging to the maple.

The cavern. Eddie bleeding, spewing blood from his mouth.

Memories he could slip into so easily, he thought. Richie wasn’t just seeing them; he could feel them too. If he shut his eyes and focused, he could smell the decay of the kitchen; the rancid odor of inches-thick dust and insects and damp wood. He could feel the give of the rotting tile underfoot, and if he reached out he could run a hand that hadn’t been his in decades along the buckling countertop. Too much, and he yanked his hand off the wall before Pennywise could turn around, before his teeth extended to Eddie’s neck again.

Eddie pressed his hand against the wall with some hesitancy, flicking his wrist back at the contact. “How is this even possible?”

Brief flashes of sleepovers and afternoons at the quarry, Eddie’s mom driving him away in a packed to bursting car as Richie watched heartbroken, a one-way road trip to L.A., his first stand-up gig in college; Richie ran his fingers over the vein and almost fell into kissing Eddie in the bathroom of his hotel room. “We know it fucks with time. This must be where it processes memory or transports itself, or, fuck, I don’t know.”

“A cerebral cortex, but the sci-fi version,” Eddie said.

“Some sort of Star Trek timeship or temporal transporter.”

“Except it’s organic. Can always count on you for a Trek reference though.” Eddie rolled his eyes, and Richie almost smiled.

“Fuck off, you loved it, too.” And impulsively, Richie took Eddie’s hand and wrapped it around a vein, a memory of countless evenings together suddenly real and tangible, and they were twelve and sitting on the edge of Richie’s bed as Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission… played on the television in front of them. Eddie whipped his head around to face Richie, mouth open.

And then Eddie tore their hands off the wall. “Dude, don’t just do that without warning me,” he chided.

We can control it. 

“That’s how we end this,” Richie whispered. “We can shut the Deadlights off with its own power.”

“How?”

He rubbed the bridge of his nose behind his glasses. “Mike’s stupid chant thing - turn light into dark, right?”

“Yeah, that thing that totally didn’t work.”

“I know it’s some Peter Pan shit, but believing worked before, sort of - it’s what let us shout It down every time, maybe that’s what made the fence stake knock It back when you threw it all those times too. We just need to do the same from inside the Deadlights to finish them off and break the loop. Maybe.”

“So we just yell it down from here?” Eddie glanced up at the faint trio of lights circling above. “I don’t think that’s going to work, Richie.”

“No, we just need to turn off the lights.” Richie stretched out his hand and Eddie took it immediately. “Let’s go.” He pressed their linked hands against the artery, images of a summer night in his head.

*

*

*

Stan’s backyard was dark except for the lantern Richie had brought with him earlier that day; its dim, kerosene-lighted flame flickered in an opaque container, illuminating little more than the telescope it sat beside. 

“Eds?” Richie whispered into the night, his voice too high, his hands fumbling with oversized glasses.

A shuffle in the tent, and Eddie tripped out of the front flaps. “I don’t like this at all,” he said, appraising himself. 

“Nice shorts, buddy.”

“Oh, fuck off. My mom called and she wants her glasses back.”

“That’s not all she wants.”

“Just because you look twelve doesn’t mean you have to act like it.” Eddie jumped at the sound of a squirrel in the yard’s hedge and hurried to Richie’s side. “So what are we doing here?”

“Turning off a light,” Richie answered, gesturing to the lantern.

Eddie frowned. “You think it’s that easy?”

“No, but we have to believe or something. I do believe in faeries and all that shit.” Richie reached out to the lantern and was about to twist the knob when something sounded inside the tent; a movement, Bill or Stan turning over in a sleeping bag.

“Wait,” Eddie said. “Are we really in the past? This isn’t some sort of delusion or hallucination, but we’re actually in Stan’s backyard like thirty years ago?”

Richie nodded. “I think so.”

“And I thought this couldn’t get weirder.”

“Come on, man.” Richie took Eddie’s hand - small and light but still not remotely delicate, even at this age - and he briefly let himself sit with the idea that his actual twelve-year-old self would be beyond ecstatic if he’d been holding Eddie’s hand like this, and then together they twisted the lantern’s knob to off.

A shift backwards, and they were holding the artery again.

The fleshy cavern shuddered around them. It vibrated as the pace of the ever-present pulse quickened; the veins in the walls constricted as the muscles around them contracted at an alarmed frequency. Beating like a hammer, Richie thought. It was stressed, energized.

“You might be onto something.” Eddie said.

“No shit.” And Richie touched their hands to the wall.

*

*

*

They were in his childhood bedroom again, the only light that of a blinking television back once more to the opening titles of Next Gen. Tonight was Trek and movies; tomorrow Eddie would write Richie’s paper on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that was due Monday because Richie hadn’t bothered reading the book.

Eddie, clad in flannel pajamas, hopped down from the bed. “You still owe me for that essay.”

“I’m like eighty-percent sure my mom pinned it to the fridge.”

“Of course she did. It was great; I fucking wrote it.”

Richie jumped down from the bed too and they looked at the television as a wave of static distorted Geordi’s face. “Turn it off together?”

A rattle of something outside his bedroom door; the sharp sound of claws dragging across the floor that Richie had heard too many times to mistake for anything else, and Eddie knocked into him, grabbing his arm. “It knows,” he breathed into Richie’s neck. Their fingers entwined.

“Keep moving,” Richie said, turning the television dial with their linked hands.

A shift backwards, and they were holding the artery again.

*

*

*

The arcade was packed.

They stood in front of Street Fighter, a roll of quarters stacked between them on the machine.

“What do we - ” Richie couldn’t finish.

Screams echoed from outside as the front of the store exploded inwards; shattered glass and a cascade of bricks, and a Pac-Man console knocked over into Dragon’s Lair, sending both machines falling to the ground with a smash as children dodged the flying debris.

“Unplug it,” Eddie yelled as kids ran past to the back exit.

Pennywise skittered through the destroyed entrance. Its limbs were already grotesquely distended, insect-like, and its claws protruded from the clown suit and clattered on the floorboards as It advanced towards them, knocking into the walls of the narrow space of the arcade as movie posters crashed down.

Richie dove for the power cord, but It charged him before he could reach behind the machine. He backed away, past Contra and Gauntlet and towards the far wall. “I guess I’ll take you up on that game,” Richie shouted, keeping It’s attention on him. “Seriously, pick anything here. First round’s on me.” Eddie darted behind the machine and out of Richie’s sight as the clown flailed and hurled forward again, limbs askew. “You don’t even have thumbs, asshole; it won’t be much of a challenge.”

Street Fighter blinked off.

A shift backwards, and they were holding the artery again.

The cavern was quaking, seizing like it was having some sort of fit, and the arteries were pushing blood through at a frantic rate.

“How many paradoxes do you think we’re creating?” Eddie asked as he slammed their hands back onto the wall.

*

*

*

Richie woke suddenly to water splashing his face; he looked up to an unpatched section of the clubhouse’s ceiling as a steady trickle of rain dripped down.

He lay in the hammock with Eddie across from him, legs tangled together in an awkward knot. Eddie shined a flashlight over a Spider Man comic.

“Your memory?” Richie asked as Eddie prepared to turn the flashlight off.

The drag of claws on wet grass sounded outside. “I thought you were cute when you slept.” Eddie smiled and flipped the switch off.

A shift backwards, and they were holding the artery again.

“You were watching me when I was sleeping? You’re a creep, Kaspbrak.”

“Not the only one with a crush, Tozier.”

Richie allowed a grin. “I have another idea,” he said, hands together.

*

*

*

Eddie’s hotel room was the same as it had been several cycles before.

Richie leaned across the doorframe to the bathroom and watched as Eddie’s hands shook as he ran them under the faucet before coming to and straightening up, turning the tap off while nodding to something behind Richie.

The dust-caked chandelier hung in the center of the bedroom, the light from its antique filament bulbs filtering through layers of grime to create a mottled amber glow, and Richie reached across to pull the cord - 

Pennywise launched through the door, claws extended, body distorted, and It knocked Richie clear across the room and into the back wall, and then rounded on the bathroom where Eddie was trapped.

The lights in the room seemed to tremble - not the light of the chandelier itself but some other ambient glare that wasn’t produced by a particular source, Richie thought - and it was as if the very atmosphere of the space, the air itself, was oscillating, fluctuating, or perhaps pulsing in time with some unknown, chaotic rhythm that Richie couldn’t detect.

He flung himself forward to the chandelier, but It whipped back, one of its long spider-like limbs catching the side of Richie’s torso with its talon as he was hurled back again, landing hard against the brass bedpost. Blood, a lot of it; his palm was soaked as he pressed it against his obliques before charging once more.

“Eds,” he yelled as It smashed through the doorway to the bathroom.

The clown flinched back, and then back again, and Richie caught sight of a pair of medical scissors plunged deep into It’s forehead and a set of tweezers stuck in one of It’s bulbous eyes.

Almost there, almost there. Richie grabbed the chandelier’s cord and - 

They were in the cavern again.

But not where he’d been lifted into the Deadlights. No, they were in the crevasse where Eddie had died so many times, and it was a sickly familiar sight: Eddie huddled against the wall, blood dripping down his mouth.

“Did you - ” Eddie started.

Richie shook his head, standing up protectively over Eddie. “No.” He surveyed the cavern and heard the others yelling insults at It in the main chamber. “I didn’t get a chance to turn the light off. I didn’t send us here.”

“It did?”

“I think so. It must have realized what we’re doing. I can’t pull us out.” Richie closed his eyes and tried to picture themselves back in the organ room; he could almost feel the arteries in his hand, almost feel the sink of the biological floor underneath him, but they remained rooted in the cavern. “Can you?”

“No.” Eddie coughed roughly and a fine spray of blood misted the air.

“We need a light to turn off. Distract it long enough to regroup.”

Overhead the Deadlights wavered unpredictably; a hot, overwhelming ray like a car’s high beam shone through the cavern then abruptly faded into nothingness, and then another burst of light, shorter and more intense. A strobe light effect flashed off and on throughout the cavern - death throes - as Richie shielded his eyes, searching the floor for anything they could use.

Eddie’s discarded headlamp lay near the mouth of the crevasse. 

Richie sprinted forward, vaguely aware that his side was no longer bleeding. He dove for the light and wrapped his hand around the strap, ready to switch it off when Pennywise was suddenly on top of him, claws pinning him down as he lost his grip on the headlamp and it fell further into the crevasse, rolling out of his reach.

“Scared you’re losing?” Richie shouted as one of It’s talons dug into his forearm, blisteringly hot and jagged. He tried to shift away but the clown only shoved another claw into the meat of his thigh; Richie bit his tongue until it bled to keep from screaming.

The Deadlights circled above like searchlights; their erratic contractions swirling violently as It leaned over him, wet trails of saliva oozing down its chin and onto Richie.

“I’m not losing, Richie,” It sang back, raising another claw threateningly above Richie’s face; it descended to eye-level, the needle-edged tip coming to rest on Richie’s forehead as he struggled to maneuver away. “Is that why you stuck with Street Fighter? Never were very good at other games.” It drove the claw into Richie’s forehead so that it just broke his skin. “What do you see now?”

Overlaid on the cavern in front of him, atop his line of sight, was another vision: a young Eddie screaming as It tore him apart in the kitchen, then Eddie dead and covered in inches of snow in the Barrens, and finally Eddie, as he was now, drowning in a pool of his own blood only feet away in the crevasse, choking as he tried to call out for Richie.

“Which one will it be?” It sang, laughing.

Richie hurled himself back along the sheer rock, the talon that stabbed his forearm drilling deeper into his flesh as Richie kicked aimlessly with his free leg, gritting his teeth as the claw hit what he thought must be bone.

Do you know how many times I’ve died here? Eddie had asked before, or rather something that looked like Eddie and said things that the real Eddie was too kind to voice, but Richie knew to be true nonetheless. This was just another time he failed him, another time he fucked up and Eddie paid for his mistake.

Then - 

“Beep beep, motherfucker,” Eddie yelled, collapsed on all fours only feet away, a trail of stark-red blood behind him staining the path he’d crawled. Eddie clutched his bloody chest with one hand and the headlamp with the other. 

Click, and the headlamp dimmed.

A shift backwards, and they were holding the artery again.

Richie lunged at him, winded. “You okay?”

A shaky breath, a nervous hand pressing against his unbloodied breastbone, “Yeah,” Eddie said. “You?”

“Fine. I’m fine. You’re sure you’re fine?”

Eddie nodded to the cavernous sky over them, distracted by the fireworks above. “Look.” The Deadlights spiralled haphazardly; the usually neat triad pattern now loose, anarchic as they continued to blink sporadically, whooshing across the edges of the fleshy cavern like shooting stars.

“We’ve got to be close,” Richie said. “It’s like they’re short circuiting.”

Eddie leaned into him. “Where next?”

Richie wasn’t sure. He was exhausted; the tear in his side and the wounds in his forearm and thigh still ached despite the healed skin, and worse than that, his head thrummed a steady pain behind his eyes, like the burning from the Deadlights had driven deep inside his skull. Whether it was because of the time fuckery or stress or just, shit, doing this low-budget direct-to-Netflix sci-fi nonsense for five fucking months without a rest, he didn’t know, but it must have been something objective because whatever it was, it was affecting Eddie too. He slouched heavily on Richie, eyes hollow.

A scuttle of claws, and It appeared around a column of flesh, bolting towards them with a frenzied expression and rolled-back eyes.

“Fuck it. Hold on.” Richie grabbed Eddie’s hand and pushed against an artery without any idea of where they’d end up.

*

*

*

Home. They were home.

Richie knew it to be home even though he was pretty sure he’d never been here before. He was stretched out in a bed that wasn’t the one in the bedroom of his condo - his bed was a crappy IKEA thing he’d had since moving out of his last place over a decade ago when he finally had enough cash to ditch the roommates; he’d never bothered to upgrade because it wasn’t like he was inviting dudes up to his place when there were perfectly acceptable, anonymous hotels on every corner - and this bed was nice: a king, its salvaged-wood headboard stacked with the type of pillows sold at frou-frou stores he couldn’t be paid to shop at, and it wasn’t something Richie would have picked out himself because, well shit, it didn’t look like it belonged in a dorm, but still it was his, he was sure. Somehow.

And his head was on Eddie’s lap. Eddie, who was sitting up against the headboard - which, as Richie looked at it, he was sure it had caused Eddie to say in some pretentious furniture showroom in Beverly Hills, “You don’t cheap out on beds, Rich. No wonder you have back problems, old man.” - Eddie holding a book in his hands, looked down at Richie with a confused expression that must have mirrored Rich’s own, and Richie saw a faint, barely-there scar on his cheek underneath a bit of evening stubble.

Eddie reached overhead to a dangling reading lamp mounted over the headboard like he knew it was there all along, like he turned it off nightly and had it memorized by feel alone.

Home. Or some place that would be home, their home. A dresser that was too nice for any place he’d own sat under a framed The Thing poster he’d had since college, and on that dresser stood a photograph that Richie couldn’t make out without his glasses, but he was fairly certain it was of the two of them.

Like they were the sort of people who went places together. Travelled and took pictures to bring back home, to print out and frame in a bedroom that was theirs. Like they were a couple with a future or something.

“Richie - ”

A frantic scratch scratch scratch on the floor outside the bedroom; a heavy body knocking into a wall as It rounded the corner from a set of stairs Richie intrinsically knew were just past a guest bedroom stacked with boxes from Eddie’s old New York apartment that he still hadn’t bothered unpacking.

Scrambling to sit up, Richie locked hands with Eddie and switched the light off.

A shift backwards, and -

*

*

*

The scorching light dulled around the corners of his sight, and Richie felt himself land on the rocks of the cavern below. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of the cavern again, and it was only Eddie he saw, leaning over him, his ever-present worried expression mixed with tentative elation. “Hey Rich, wake up.” 

Richie grabbed his arm and pulled them both back along the rocks, craning over Eddie’s shoulder to see behind him, blinking away the white-hot afterimages of the Deadlights.

Where was It? Where were It’s claws?

He couldn’t see more than a few feet off, but the memory of it - the taste of Eddie’s blood before he even saw the talon explode through his chest, Eddie whispering, “Richie? Richie?” in a fruitless plea - that image was burned into his brain like the Deadlights had branded his retinas, and so Richie dragged them further back, stumbling up and yanking Eddie with him.

“Did we do it?” Eddie asked next to him. “Where is It?”

The Deadlights above had faded entirely into blackness - a dead star, a black dwarf on Richie’s long-ago star chart - and the dusky gloom of the cavern seemed more pronounced than ever.

“Oh, Richie, your nose.” It was only as Eddie wiped the streaks of blood from his face with his hoodie that Richie realized just how much his nose was bleeding; syrupy red trails were smeared down his mouth and neck, sopping into his shirt.

“It’s fine - ”

A shriek from further out in the cavern stopped them. A scritching sound against the marbled juts of rock in the inner lair as talons screeched across it like nails on a chalkboard, and Richie ran forward, Eddie only a pace behind him.

“Eds, careful,” he said. “If something happens now -” if you die -

“It’ll probably stick. I know. But you’re fucking crazy if you think I’m letting you do this alone.”

It was curled up in the far corner of the lair, deflated and small like all the water had been drained from It; wrinkled and helpless and gasping, pathetic.

“No more games,” Richie said.

The others gathered around them.

“What happened?” Mike asked.

Bill gripped Richie’s shoulder. “D-did you two do this?”

“Finished it off from within the Deadlights, yeah.” Richie said, cautiously stepping forward and breaking off the last of It’s swishing claws and throwing it to the ground outside the lair with a clatter. “It’s just a scared clown without them.”

Were they separate entities? Symbiotic somehow? Had It even been aware of the loop? Richie didn’t think so; It was wilted into itself, just as terrified, just as surprised as every other time. 

He reached into It’s chest, past inhuman viscera and steaming, black blood, and pulled the heart free from its casing of arteries and veins. It slid out without resistance, small and tachycardic, beating erratically like the Deadlights had pulsed before, like the vibrations in the fleshy cavern. 

Eddie cupped Richie’s extended hand, his fingers slotting between Richie’s, then Bill and Mike and Bev and Ben, and together they squeezed. Like before, and Richie thought please, let it be the last time.

The heart turned to charcoal, to dried up and burnt cinders, and little droplets of solidified blood floated up and off of it into the space above them, becoming little more than petrified ash in the air, finally evaporating out of existence.

A silent, “Oh,” as the clown shrank into the rock and calcified into it before flaking away into nothingness.

No one spoke.

Richie could have collapsed, could have passed out right there. The headache that had throbbed in his temple had faded along with the Deadlights and vanished entirely in the moment It’s heart petrified, but the bone-tired exhaustion remained, and he wrapped an arm around Eddie to steady himself, although Eds looked about as done as Richie felt, too.

The floor started to shake beneath him. A rumble of rocks against rocks, a summer avalanche, a rockslide, an earthquake nowhere near a fault line. He could hear smashing somewhere further down in the cavern, and an impossible underground wind picked up around them.

“We’ve got to go,” Bill said finally.

Eddie pulled him along the trembling ground, hand-in-hand.

*

*

*

As they watched the house on Neibolt implode, Richie’s fingers slipped from Eddie’s hand to his wrist. He counted the beats underneath his fingertips and listened to Eddie’s even inhalations and exhalations. (Eddie was still breathing.)

Richie breathed too.

*

*

*

They skipped the quarry and opted for a shower at the inn, and Richie managed to keep from crying as Eddie said something about how they were all prime candidates for staph infections, given how bruised and bloody they were. Because it was so very Eddie, and the fact that any of him remained after everything they’d been through was nothing short of fucking miraculous, Richie thought, his heart pounding.

In the shower though, under a stream of hot water and inundated by the smell of Eddie’s soap, with Eddie half under him supporting his weight and wiping the blood from his nose with a washcloth, Richie curled around him and sobbed.

Please, let it be over.

He’d thought it was over before, leaving Eddie asleep in bed only feet away as he sat at the top of the stairs just outside Eddie’s door; well, he hadn’t sat so much as he’d fallen down from sheer fatigue and relief. And in that moment, as the other Losers had held him, Richie had let himself relax, let himself get complacent and wistful, and that had only made facing Neibolt after seem that much worse.

Please, let it be over.

I can’t do this again.

He curved into Eddie, face buried in his neck, hands tangled in his hair. “Rich, you need to breathe,” Eddie whispered to him, his hands clutching the small of Richie’s back, and he could feel the neatly trimmed edges of Eddie’s nails scrawl against his skin like he was writing him secret messages. An intimate code just for them.

“Do you know how many times I’ve told you to keep breathing?” Richie asked between hitched breaths.

Eddie turned his face into Richie’s, and he could feel Eddie’s lips moving as he spoke, brushing almost-there kisses against his cheek bone. “I know. But don’t have a stroke on me now of all times, okay?”

The water was too warm and Eddie’s soap too clean and Eddie’s body - naked and secure against his - was so real and solid that it seemed almost surreal in its certainty, a heightened reality more akin to fantasy, like some trick of the Deadlights, because this kind of calm, loving intimacy was something Richie had never known, not in any sort of meaningful sense anyway, and surely it couldn’t last now. Showering together, Eddie’s hands climbing up his back in gentle circles, it was like they were people with so much accumulated time together that they had a routine, a way they did things because there was indeed a they, a unit. Like there were days and days both behind and ahead of them, and as Richie wiped snot away from his nose and inhaled a hot jet of water with a cough, he thought I won’t survive it if this is taken away again.

I’m fucked. I’m so fucked.

Eddie took Richie’s snot-covered palm and ran it under the shower head with a smile that was equal parts disgust and fondness. “It’s done,” he said, so easy, so light, like he didn’t have any lingering doubts, and Eddie leaned up and captured Richie’s lips with his own.

Confident. Eddie was confident, and Richie wasn’t sure that any amount of mornings waking up next to Eddie would ever instill in him confidence that it all couldn’t be taken away at any moment by some supernatural bullshit bent on destroying him, but that kiss - soft but reassuringly firm - made an excellent case for just turning off his panicking brain and leaning into ignorance.

Eddie’s hand caressed along Richie’s arm and found his hand again, and for the first time Richie really registered the smooth band of Eddie’s wedding ring as it dug into his calloused palms. 

Fuck. “You should know that if this does stick this time,” if if if, “I don’t hold you to anything you said before.”

"What are you talking about?"  

“The whole moving to L.A. thing.” Richie couldn’t look at him. “That wasn’t fair to even suggest. Neither of us were thinking clearly - ” 

Eddie’s hands flitted across his knotted hair, soaked through with sweat and blood and grey water, and he stroked the fine hairs that stuck to Richie’s temples. “What you saw in the Deadlights before I showed up, it wasn’t real,” he said. And Richie closed his eyes as Eddie tilted his head back under the stream of the shower, fingers combing through the curled wisps that framed his face as he rinsed the worst of the grime off.

The words Eddie - or not Eddie, Richie supposed - had spoken in the Deadlights had confirmed everything he already knew to be true: I’m married, asshole, to a woman. If we ever get out of this, I’m not going home with you. 

If he had freed them from the Deadlights, and he prayed he had, Richie had also condemned himself to living without Eddie again, and Christ, he wasn’t going to make it through that.

A squirt of shampoo and Eddie was streaking it through Richie’s damp hair, the pads of his fingers working through each layer, massaging the cream along every strand. “You can tell me, if you want, or don’t, that’s fine too, man - about what you saw, I mean - whatever it was that spooked the hell out of you.” A caress against the base of his neck, along the top of his spine, and Richie bit back a low moan at how good that felt. “But you need to know that I meant I everything I said about L.A.” Eddie laughed quietly. “I told you, I’m holding you to that trophy husband proposal.”

Richie knocked Eddie’s hands off of him, standing back up to his full height. “Everything was my fault. Jesus, Eds, I let this happen.”

“Look at me,” Eddie said, voice firm and uncharacteristically steady, and Richie actually listened for once. Eddie’s stupid doe eyes were big and impossibly warm, flecked with too many shades of brown to count, but Richie wanted to try anyway, even if he didn’t deserve it. “You tried everything. And you got us out.”

“We don’t even know if it worked - ”

“It’s over,” Eddie insisted.

“How can you be so sure?”

“We both saw it. You must have felt it too.”

The bedroom that wasn’t his but was somehow theirs. It had sparked vague memories that Richie didn’t possess. Memories that hadn’t happened to him. Yet. Maybe. Evenings spent together, Eddie reading some book or another, Richie scrolling through his Twitter feed, reading stupid shit that he found funny out to Eddie as he lounged with his head in Eddie’s lap. Other times: a slip of briefs over hip bones, a shirt pulled over taut shoulders, a laugh Richie coveted as he said something into Eddie’s ear, and Richie knew that Eddie would reach over him to riffle through the nightstand on Richie’s side of the bed - the side closest to the ensuite, Richie knew as if through rote, as if he could almost remember standing with Eddie in some other house that wasn’t theirs and he heard himself saying, “It’s nice but there’s no ensuite,” - and Eddie would take forever to find the lube and complain that Richie should really clean his nightstand out; long kisses, never any less desperate than the first ones, despite the luxury of time, and Eddie’s breath was hot against the back of his neck as Rich gripped the overpriced sheets Eddie had insisted on. Mornings too, with a tangle of limbs and Eddie’s alarm beeping him awake, and a kiss paired with, “Dinner tonight after work?” and “I want to try that new Vietnamese place,” as Eddie stretched next to him.

A fucking future.

“We’re happy there, Richie.” Eddie pulled him close again, his hands tracing the suds that trailed down Richie’s back. “All of this panic you’re feeling, just remember there’s a future outside the loop and we’re happy and I love you and - ”

Richie kissed him. 

Everything still felt uncertain; insecurity and exhaustion bubbled in his chest, but Eddie’s hands were in his hair, his lips pliant, and even if Richie couldn’t trust that everything was okay, that everything would stay okay, he trusted Eddie, and that was enough.

“When did you turn into the calm one?” Richie asked into Eddie’s wet hair.

“An actual vision of the future is a risk analyst’s wet dream.”

Eddie washed the shampoo out of his hair, fingers combing through section by section, strand by strand with a gentle ease that Richie hadn’t thought jittery Eddie capable of. “Bed?” He asked, and Richie could only nod, lulled by the feeling of Eddie’s fingertips massaging his scalp.

He curled into Eddie’s chest and watched the minutes tick over on Eddie’s watch resting on the nightstand beside them, glasses still on so he could see the movement of the second hand. It was still hours away from 7:08, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open for more than a few seconds before he drifted off momentarily only to snap awake again. 

Eddie idly traced the outer shell of his ear. “You should sleep.”

“And if we end up on Neibolt again?”

“We'll still be together.”

Wrapped up with Eddie, Richie slept.

Chapter Text

Tomorrow

Richie woke to sunlight streaming in through flimsy curtains. Those idle beams of light caught the tiny dust particles that hung floating in the air above the bed and reflected off of them like little, flickering stars.

He was half-flung over Eddie, limbs so entwined that he had to unwrap Eddie’s ankle from around his knee in order to roll across the bed and reach his glasses strewn on the unused, crisp second pillow. Hooking the glasses over his ears, the world came into focus again, and he watched as Eddie shifted in his sleep, his nose scrunching up for just a passing moment before relaxing again, face pressed into Richie’s back.

Whatever happens, we’ll still be together. That’s what Eddie had said. Richie repeated it to himself as he turned to the nightstand.

Eddie’s watch read 3:47.

He pawed around for his half-dead phone abandoned on the floor. It also said 3:47.

If he hadn’t been so bone-tired, he would have cried - just like that morning in the shower, with overwhelming exhaustion and relief and disbelief and trepidation - and everything hit him at once as he gasped, lurching forward to grab the watch and see as 3:47 ticked over to 3:48. He couldn’t do much of anything except cling to the watch and shakily curl back into Eddie, face buried in the hollow between his shoulder and jaw, away from the aggressive afternoon sunlight, and whisper, “Eds, Eds.”

Eddie stirred around him, hand coming up to shield his eyes. “Rich?”

“It’s 3:48. No, now it’s 3:49.”

And Eddie kissed him, barely awake and lazy and open-mouthed, like they had the time now to relish it, and they did, Richie realized as the watch ticked to 3:50 then 3:51. There was time enough to take it slow, and so Richie kissed back, matching Eddie’s leisurely pace that seemed so counter to the rushed, frantic kisses of before, and they weren’t outrunning anything, weren’t on a fucking deadline with an end date looming overhead anymore. He dropped the watch on the far side of the bed. 

Richie wasn’t completely awake - was this a dream? Fuck don’t let it be a dream, or if it is, don’t let me wake up - and he rolled them so that Eddie was on top of him, and fuck, that felt good. Eddie’s comforting weight settled over him, grounding him to the here and now - 3:58. The press of a knee, the jut of Eddie’s hip bone, the easy crest of relaxed, just-woken breathing echoing through Eddie’s chest against Richie’s, and it was right in a way he’d never felt before. Like everything had fallen into place, the stylus of an old record player finding a familiar groove in the vinyl. 

Words dissolved into his tongue; Eddie kissed them from his mouth, and Richie was speechless, peaceful in a sort of surrender to Eddie’s pulse. 

It’s over.

Richie’s hands slipped over Eddie’s ass. They’d never bothered to dress after the shower in the early hours of that morning, Richie too tired to navigate back to his room and sort through his duffle bag. The intimacy of just sleeping next to each other unclothed and unguarded struck Richie only now, as he splayed his fingers across the underside of Eddie’s perfect fucking ass that no forty-year-old had any right to possess, cupping him so that their bodies rocked together as Eddie shifted up to straddle him, still leaning over Richie on his palms so not to break the kiss.

“It’s tomorrow,” Richie said breathlessly. Eddie laughed against Richie’s lips.

It was messy, graceless in a way that could only be good with Eddie. Richie wouldn’t disentangle their limbs out of some vague fear that parting, even momentarily, might just give the universe another opportunity to separate them again, so they moved together, Eddie’s hand slipping between their locked bodies, as Richie sighed, “Need you, please.”

Remind me you’re here. Remind me where and when here even is. I’m so fucking scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to blink and lose you in that quick moment my eyes aren’t on you. 

Later, Eddie fell back asleep curved around him, and Richie listened to his deep, nasal breathing while trying not to sleep, even though his eyes craved rest. 

Don’t close your eyes, he thought.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he snored a bit, especially when he was really tired, but Richie wouldn’t piece together that it was exhaustion related until after a few more months of bedsharing.)

4:28. 4:29. 4:30. 4:31. 

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he was always the big spoon.)

5:13. 5:14. 5:15. 5:16.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he claimed he hardly dreamed, but sometime after they bought the house and Richie started pulling late nights in the crunch before the HBO premiere, he’d come home to Eddie already asleep, stretched out over Richie’s side of the bed like an oversized starfish, and Richie would just watch him for a moment before climbing into bed next to him. Eddie’s eyes moved back and forth under his eyelids, and a small smile played on his lips that could only mean whatever it was he was seeing, it was good.)

Hours of waiting for the watch to stutter or stop or backtrack somehow - and it never did, only ticking steadily forward - and suddenly there was a knock at the door. Eddie‘s grip tightened around his waist, and he muttered, half asleep, “Not it.”

Another knock. “Hey, Eds?” Ben called.

Richie stumbled out of bed, tripping on the fucking tasselled carpet like a jackass, and he blearily grabbed a pair of Eddie’s briefs and a neatly folded polo that was at least two sizes too small for him from off of the sofa near the door.

“You know where Richie is? He’s not in his room,” Ben said through the door.

Richie pulled the door open. “Found him.”

Quiet, an awkward glance at what was definitely Eddie’s too-short shirt showing Richie’s belly hair, then, “Oh, hey man,” Ben said dumbly. “We thought we might get some food soon.” He not-so-discretely looked past Richie to see Eddie still sprawled across the bed behind him.

“You want dinner?” Richie called over his shoulder.

A muffled, “Okay” into a pillow.

“We’ll be out in a few,” Richie said as he started to close the door, smiling as Ben grinned openly.  

Ben gave him a thumbs-up; Richie gave him the finger.

*

*

*

They ate at a subpar Mexican joint where the pico de gallo resembled canned tomatoes, but it was fucking fantastic seeing as Richie had barely eaten anything in five months.

The others split a few pitchers of margaritas while Richie passed on the drinks entirely - he could almost taste the burn of the bourbon in the back of his mouth even now - and Eddie nursed a glass of white wine.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: given the opportunity, Eddie always ordered white. When called on this by Rich some months later and asked “Isn’t red supposed to be good for your heart or something?’ Eddie shrugged and said, surprisingly, “Yeah, but white tastes better.”)

Richie tried not to focus on the racing thoughts frying his fucking brain.

Don’t close your eyes.

Nothing was explicitly said about how Richie pushed his chair closer to Eddie’s or how Eddie’s left hand stayed on Richie’s knee during the entire meal, but Bev was all smiles as she flicked a lime at Richie, laughing as Eddie caught it midair, and the way she glanced at Ben after with a knowing look told Richie that Ben had at least mentioned to her where he’d found Richie earlier. Loose plans to visit Bill’s upstate cottage sometime over the winter were made, and Richie leaned back in his chair and wondered fondly how much of a fuss Eddie would make over the dangers of ice skating.

“We can check flight times back at the inn?” Eddie asked as a plate of soggy churros was handed around the table.

Richie nodded. “Pit stop first.”

*

*

*

The house on Neibolt wasn’t anything more than a hole in the ground.

The debris that had been scattered throughout the yard - bricks and broken glass, the disparate pieces of the collapsed roof, planks of wood, the entirety of the grey water-sodden, ruined interior that they’d ran through earlier that morning - it was like it had been consumed, Richie thought, sucked down into the lair below and destroyed by the same imploding force that wrecked the cavern, leaving little more than concrete chunks of the foundation wedged precariously into the ground along the perimeter of a sunken crater.

Standing on the street next to Eddie, behind the police tape that had been erected around the boundaries of the property, Richie counted in his head:

One.

Two.

Fuck.

Come on, asshole.

Three.

He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, and the house remained gone.

“It’s over, Richie,” Eddie whispered. “It’s done.”

Eyes closed.

Eyes open.

Eyes closed.

Eyes open.

Eyes closed.

Eyes open.

The house on Neibolt was still gone.

“How can you be so sure?”

Eddie was so calm, so even, and that alone made Richie nervous because he knew it was put on for his benefit. There was no way he should be as restrained as he was after all that had happened to him, but still he sounded so sincere when he said, “We saw it.” The bedroom. Their bedroom. Their future.

“I can’t shake the idea that it’s not over,” Richie said, quieter than a whisper, as they walked back to his car parked further up the street.

“What can I do?”

Richie didn’t need Eddie to do anything; he just needed him here. “Just stay.”

“Deal.” And Eddie took off his wedding ring.

*

*

*

The next tomorrow

Eddie texted Myra during their layover in Philadelphia.

“It’s going to be bad,” Eddie said, sipping his coffee from the airport Starbucks as Richie watched the increasingly rapid tap tap tap of his fingers on the surface of the bistro table.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: the man took his coffee black. Always. No cream or milk - not even the shitty oat milk that seemed right up his alley - and no sugar either, and Richie found himself ordering increasingly cloying Frappuccinos to piss him off.)

Richie wanted to take Eddie’s hand. Like he’d wanted to for the entirety of his adolescence every time Eddie panicked - which, let’s be real here, was often - but now, like back then, Richie bit back the impulse because of the consequences.

Then: Bowers and his gang, his survival at school already hanging on by a fucking thread, his certainty that he’d be kicked out of the only group of friends he’d ever had once they knew he was queer, and worse than all that, the absolute worst thing his twelve-year-old self could imagine before Pennywise - Eddie rejecting him, and then he wouldn’t even have him as a friend anymore.

Now: his career built on a certain reputation that gay just didn’t fit, his shot at another Netflix special with the same sort of material that the execs expected, the trolls on his Twitter and the hate he’d receive, what the late night guys would definitely say if he came out, and Christ, what his buddies would say, and -

Eddie was chewing his lip as he stared at the three, small dots blinking at the bottom of his text.

Fuck it.

He took Eddie’s hand.

*

*

*

“I’m shocked this place isn’t a biohazard,” Eddie said, looking around his condo as twilight settled over L.A.

Open concept. Modern, minimalist finishes. Sparse furniture. Walls the same shade of generic off-white they’d been when he bought the place. A television that took up most of the living room wall, surrounded by two decades worth of movie hoarding mounted around it. Too many video games. A stove in the kitchen that Richie was fairly confident had never been used for anything other than keeping delivered pizza warm.

“My maid does excellent work.”

“It’s what every college dorm wants to be when it grows up.”

Richie grinned. “Well we don’t all have a wife to decorate - ”

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he actually had pretty good taste when it came to, well, most things. He’d been responsible for most of the decorating in his old apartment  - Richie only saw it the one time, almost a year later when their lawyer finally talked Myra’s into something resembling a fair deal, and they’d trekked across the country to sign the final papers and grab the last of Eddie’s stuff on a late spring day - and the place was nice, like somewhere an actual grown up would live, with geometric backsplashes and copper accents and furniture made from actual wood and not the cheap fiberboard that was slowly being phased out of their condo the longer Eddie lived there. The condo had stopped being Richie’s and started being theirs an indeterminate time ago, possibly the first night he’d stayed.)

As if on cue, Eddie’s phone buzzed in his hand. Another call from Myra, or Myra’s sister, or Myra’s mother, and Richie took the phone from Eddie and shut it off, flinging it across the room and onto the far couch. “No more of this shit tonight.”

“You look so tired,” Eddie said, removing Richie’s glasses. “You should sleep.”

“You going to put me to bed? Tuck me in?” The words came out huskier than he intended.

Something about Eddie being here made it real in a way that it had never been in Derry. The idea that he was still being mindfucked, tricked, trapped in some warped vision from the Deadlights pervaded the whole, sick town of Derry, and that fear made Eddie seem surreal, like something he’d conjured up to keep himself sane in the loop. But here they were in the real world, tangible and reliable. The evening lights of West Hollywood shone outside, even on his relatively quiet residential street, and further past them the glow of downtown created an indistinct haze of light pollution that kept the skyscrapers just out of focus, and the white noise of the city was ever-present too - traffic and clubbers and chatter - and it was so actual, so definitively absolute that Eddie was in his condo without a wedding ring, having just texted his soon-to-be ex-wife that the divorce wasn’t up for discussion, and more than all of that, Eds was looking at Richie like it had just hit him too.

And if Richie couldn’t close his eyes out of fear that this would all be taken from him at any moment, well, he was going to fucking enjoy it now.

The lights in the bedroom were never turned on - Eddie would first see the dingy IKEA bed and the The Thing poster hanging over it the following morning, the room now highlighted only by the dim shades of the ambient glow from further down the hall - and Richie was knocked hard into the door frame as Eddie pinned him there, mouth to his neck. He threw Eddie down on the dark bed, climbing over to cover him with his body while kicking off his own jeans. Eddie was faster, already down to just his briefs, and Richie slid them off without fanfare, because he was sure he’d die if he didn’t get his hands on Eddie again.

Eddie’s mouth was everywhere: claiming Richie’s mouth, sucking on his earlobe, bruising his jaw and neck, grazing lower across his chest, and he paused for just a moment, Richie feeling a brief surge of hesitancy as Eddie glanced up, uncertain, before lowering his head back down and swiping his tongue clumsily across one of Richie’s nipples. Richie threaded his fingers through Eddie’s hair - soft and still tousled from travel, the perfect length for holding like this - and Richie stifled a groan as Eddie’s teeth chafed him; it was inelegant and sloppy, but Eddie’s mouth was hot and wet, and every inch of his 5’9” frame vibrated in want, and that alone made Richie arch into him.

It was like he couldn’t pick a place to settle, couldn’t choose one part of Richie to focus on; he flitted back and forth, across Richie’s neck and chest and shoulders, distracted and desperate, and fuck, the idea that Eddie was overwhelmed by him was simultaneously so seemingly impossible and so hot that Richie could only stroke Eddie’s hair and let the sensation of Eddie’s lips kissing down his body wash over him as he lay inert by the need of it all, cock straining against his briefs.

“Richie?” Eddie said, voice low. “Can I?” He was kissing lower, down his torso, over his belly button and into the dark hair that trailed into Richie’s underwear.

“You remember me telling you that you don’t have to ask, right?”

There was no pretence, no teasing, no build up; they’d both waited long enough. Eddie had Richie’s briefs off and his lips on him immediately, sucking the flare of his cock into his mouth, tongue running along the frenulum with more technique than Eddie had any business knowing, and Richie moaned and fought to keep his hips from bucking up into that silken, unrestrained heat. 

Eddie hummed something that sounded like gloating, and edged forward to take Richie deeper and -

Just as quickly as Eddie had taken him in, he pulled off.

“Shit,” Eddie breathed.

“Oh fuck, your cheek?”

“Yeah. I forgot.” And Eddie laughed sheepishly, and that sound was enough to make up for the fact that Richie’s cock was pulsing against his stomach, wet with saliva and almost painful in how fucking hard he was for Eddie.

Richie tugged Eddie back up to him. “Dumbass. We’ll call someone about it tomorrow, get it looked at.”

Eddie was already kissing him, medical necessities forgotten in so uncharacteristic a way that Richie could only understand it by how blown Eddie’s pupils already were. “Fuck me?” He asked, catching Richie’s bottom lip between his teeth.

“You’re going to kill me talking like that.”

“Fuck me into the mattress?” Eddie smirked, an eyebrow raised.

Richie flipped them so he was on top again, fingers slipping between Eddie’s thighs, kneading the curve of his ass.

“Fuck me so hard that I feel it in my throat?”

Richie moaned, “Christ, Eds. Good thing you’re in L.A. and can get that porn career started.”

“Just fuck me already.”

Richie agreed.

*

*

*

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and...

Waking up to Eddie, morning after morning, was borderline revelatory.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he was a morning person, which was honestly a pain in the ass since Richie was hard-pressed to get out out of bed before ten unless he had a meeting or press, but Eddie made up for the shrill ring of his phone’s alarm at seven every morning by kissing him awake, his brown eyes so reverential that Richie almost had to look away to keep himself steady, and then Eddie would make Richie coffee, delivered to bed while Richie idly scrolled through Twitter as Eddie showered and got dressed.)

They settled into something akin to a vacation. Fuck the world and responsibilities and jobs, and hell, even fuck anywhere just outside of their bed. 

There was no adjustment, no awkward shuffle of figuring out how they worked as a unit. It was as if they’d always been together, as if Eddie had always been here, as if the intervening twenty-seven years had just been a short break in an otherwise long-lasting relationship.

And if Richie woke up in a cold sweat in the hours too early even for Eddie, visions of the cavern behind his eyelids, the metallic smell of Eddie’s blood clinging to his olfactory nerves, Eddie would shift in his sleep as if he knew Richie was spiraling, even when unconscious, and he’d pull Richie back down against his chest so that Richie could count his breaths and listen to his heartbeat.

His manager was pissed that he rescheduled the three upcoming Reno dates, but whatever.

He couldn’t have performed even if he wanted to - and he didn’t want to; he didn’t want to do much of anything except memorize Eddie’s body and make up for the decades they hadn’t been fucking - and his material was crap in a way it hadn’t seemed before anyway. It rang false, wrong, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

If he felt a little sick staring at a blank Google Doc that judged him with its wordless pages that seemed to shout fraud and imposter and what’s the point when you’re not sure any of this is even real?, disappearing between Eddie’s thighs was always easy solace.

“You here with me?” Eddie asked, cupping Richie’s face one night on the couch. “You’re a hundred miles away, man.”

Richie hid his face against Eddie’s neck. “I’m so fucking scared it’s not over, Eds.” Eddie slipped his hands over Richie’s shoulder blades and rubbed reassuring circles into his tense muscles.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he really liked Richie’s shoulders. Richie had never been particularly self-conscious about his body, even next to the gym-rat that was Eddie Kaspbrak, but it did catch him a little off guard when Eddie - stretched out on the edge of Richie’s recently upgraded bed, with Richie kneeling on the floor between his spread thighs - when Eddie dug his fingers into Richie’s deltoids and groaned, “You’re broad as fuck, Rich. You look so fucking good like this.” And later, long, exploratory kisses over the slope of Richie’s shoulder, along taut deltoids and down his trapezius, lips bruising already sensitive, barely healed skin from a previous evening’s busywork; and the next morning a yell of, “Christ, Eddie,” from in front of the bathroom mirror. “I look like I’ve been mauled, dude.”)

*

*

*

Eddie was a jogger.

Because of course he was. 

Because the universe had fucked Richie over enough in his life, and now he was owed a jogger with a perky ass and toned thighs, who walked around the condo in indecently short hotpants, stretching obscenely over the kitchen island with one leg bent up, leaving absolutely nothing to Richie’s imagination.

*

*

*

Richie lugged a heavy-as-fuck package in from outside the front door. “What’s in this thing? It’s like five hundred pounds. Didn’t know Amazon shipped your mom through prime.”

“I haven’t seen you eat a single piece of fruit since I got here.”

“So what, you ordered all of them?” 

“It’s a juicer. Now you won’t get scurvy. You’re welcome.”

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he hid kale in every smoothie he ever made, even the good strawberry and banana ones that Richie wouldn’t admit to liking.)

*

*

*

They Skyped when Eddie was in New York.

More divorce bullshit. More State Farm transition team bullshit, because apparently his boyfriend - boyfriend, a word Eddie casually used once and now Richie couldn’t shake it from his head - his boyfriend was really good at his job and finding a replacement had been a bitch for the company or something.

More increasingly hostile blank Google Docs that were supposed to be full of new material that he’d stayed in L.A. to work on when he should have just gone with Eddie and wrote from the hotel room or a coffee shop or somewhere closer than a country-length away from him.

More porny video calls with Eds laying against hotel-white linen, and Richie would say, “Hold your phone up. I want to see your face, too.”

“You’re a true romantic, Richie.”

“Fuck off. You love me. And I miss your stupid eyebrows.”

More nightmares when Eddie wasn’t in bed with him. Normally he could stave off the worst of it with Eddie next to him; Eddie’s legs slotted between his, his arms around a compact frame, fingers digging into Eddie’s hips, and it was easy to remember that Eddie was safe, in one piece and not slumped bleeding in that fucking cave, dying. But waking up in an empty bed, sweat-soaked and heaving as he lurched to the bathroom to vomit whatever passed for dinner without Eddie around to incentivize cooking, it was impossible to shake off the images that he’d spent five months living. His shivering hands, clinging to the side of the toilet as he retched, could still feel Eddie’s palm slick with crimson blood, and he doubled over, head against the bath mat, trying to even out his erratic breathing.

It was over.

Please, let it be over.

He felt his way back to the bedroom in the dark and turned on Eddie’s reading light, then grabbed his phone off the charger and the earbuds beside it. Four in the morning in New York. He threw his phone down before swearing and picking it back up immediately.

Eddie’s voice was sleep-slurred. “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Nightmare again?”

“Yeah.”

“Got your earbuds in?” A familiar strategy from too many previous phone calls like this one.

“Yeah.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

And he drifted off to the sound of Eddie breathing in his ear as they both fell back asleep on opposite coasts.

As he stared at the blank Google Doc the next afternoon, he wondered if this was all pointless since he didn’t think he’d survive touring anyway. He shut his laptop and grabbed his Xbox controller, opting for Mortal Combat instead of existential dread.

The rescheduled Reno shows were cancelled entirely and his Twitter feed blew up with rumors he was in rehab.

*

*

*

Eddie swapped State Farm for Liberty, and got a pretty hefty signing bonus, too.

“Who’s the trophy husband now?” Eddie asked on his way out the front door on his first day, and Richie managed to restrain himself from messing his freshly styled hair or loosening his tie. Eddie looked good in a suit.

“Does this mean I have to go to the gym?”

“Nah, my trophy husband can still have a dad bod.”

On mornings when Eddie had early meetings, Rich forced himself out of bed to make scrambled eggs with the egg replacement thing Eddie still insisted on using, and it tasted less like cardboard if he added a metric-shit-ton of shredded cheese to it. He’d make Eddie his equally disgusting black coffee and then lay everything out on the table with more care than he’d ever bothered with when just feeding himself.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: before the new morning ritual - before Eddie got up to shower while Richie stumbled grousing to the kitchen, before they ate their fake eggs and Richie drowned his coffee in cream just to see Eds’ mortified look, before they talked about Eddie’s awful new intern or that thing Richie was writing but would only speak about in the vaguest of terms - Eddie would stretch awake in bed and lean over to kiss Richie, and Richie would smile as he waited for Eddie to say, like he did without fail every morning, “Your morning breath is disgusting,” and he’d respond with some variation of, “Not as bad as your mom’s,” because tradition. Eddie would roll his eyes, but would still kiss him again, morning breath and all.)

*

*

*

Richie posted obnoxious couple selfies of the two of them in the Losers’ group chat because, “We’re not losing to Ben and Bev.”

“It’s not a competition,” Eddie said while chopping red onions for the salad one evening.

Popping a cherry tomato in his mouth from his spot atop the counter, Richie waved his phone at Eddie. “They have a boat, Eds.”

Eddie set the knife down on the cutting board. “Wait, what? They have a boat?”

“Yeah. Didn’t you check the group chat today?”

“No, I muted it after you and Bill got into that gif-off.” Eddie grabbed his phone off the counter. “That’s a huge fucking boat.”

“I told you.”

“Get the hell over here. And bring the glazed salmon for the background, all casual. Wine glasses, too. And fix your hair, you look homeless.”

Richie grinned. “I thought it wasn’t a competition.”

“They have a boat, Rich.”

*

*

*

He kissed Eddie at the arrivals gate of LAX when he returned from another divorce-related overnight in New York.

They hadn’t exactly been hiding their relationship, but public makeouts were new.

He’d texted his manager with the heads up months before, and Steve had immediately responded with is this a bit? But he came around quick enough, although he wanted to talk about Richie’s career trajectory in a way that made Richie’s stomach flip flop, so he just kept bumping their scheduled meetings.

I’m writing something, he thought about texting, something I could do here. I don’t think I can tour, and even if I could, I don’t want to anymore. I don’t want lonely hotel beds and fast food and too many hours to kill at bars between gigs. I don’t want to be away from Eddie for months of the year.

And he’d introduced Eddie to a few of the other guys who came up in the circuit with him, years back, and Eddie had held his own, casually responding to, “So this is the dude who turned Tozier gay!” with, “Yeah, hey man, better not get to know me too well,” and a wink. 

Eddie had dragged them to half of the more pretentious restaurants in the city, which Richie enjoyed despite himself even though molecular gastronomy was stupid and whatever new South Asian, haute French fusion thing that just won a James Beard award wasn’t as good as the Popeyes Richie had introduced Eddie to, and Richie wasn’t sure he’d ever been more smugly satisfied as when Eddie admitted that the spicy bonafide chicken was probably the best thing he’d eaten ever.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: most of his food sensitivities could be solved by an antacid, but nuts were still off the table, and Richie sadly parted with his Skippy out of an abundance of caution.)

Richie would slip his hand into Eddie’s sometimes when they were at Whole Foods or Starbucks or leaving a restaurant, and when they ate out together they sat on the same side of the booth, thighs pressed together. At the movies - a little cinema off of Santa Monica Richie had been going to for the better part of a decade - Richie inevitably ended up throwing his legs over Eddie’s lap in a way that couldn’t be construed as platonic.

But he was always aware that this could be the time that a picture hit Twitter; this could be when dirtbag comedian Richie Trashmouth Tozier was outed.

No one took a picture of Eddie and him making out at the arrivals gate though, which was equal parts a relief and a disappointment.

“You’re not as famous as you think you are,” Eddie said with a barely contained smirk as they pulled onto the freeway, baiting, begging for a response. “No one’s going to secretly snap a picture of us and post it online.” He leaned across the console and kissed Richie again for emphasis.

“All I hear is a challenge, Kaspbrak.”

He met Eddie outside the gym after his next Saturday morning workout with a pair of disgustingly green smoothies from some overpriced organic juice bar Eddie liked, and they walked Sunset several blocks hand-in-hand without so much as a second glance from the passing tourists or a mention on Richie’s Twitter.

No one took a picture of them sucking face at the trendy farmers’ market on Fairfax either, which was especially frustrating since Richie had only agreed to go to the stupid thing thinking it would be a shoe-in.

“Want to go to a Lakers game?” Richie called out one evening, hunched over his laptop on one end of the couch as Eddie came in the front door.

“Only if you actually want to see a game and not because of some desperate attempt to be outed on a kiss cam.”

Richie scowled. “I have four million followers! Some of them have to be in L.A. Why isn’t this working?”

“Just tweet something and get it over with.”

Maybe the issue was that it would be easier if he was outed. Maybe speaking the actual words himself was harder, and putting together some intentional tweet that announced it to the whole fucking world seemed impossible. Maybe. It’s not like he thought about it a lot though.

*

*

*

They spent New Year’s all together at Bill’s cottage. Cottage was a bit of a misnomer though; Richie learned that a mammoth Swiss-style chalet is what several books worth of film rights could buy you, if you were so inclined to outdoorsy, mountaineering bullshit.

Eddie was shockingly proficient at hockey for someone who hadn’t been allowed to skate as a kid, even if he did look like a dork in the helmet he insisted on wearing. On the frozen lake that backed the cottage, he outscored Mike and Bill - the only two who really knew what they were doing - and he only gloated a little as he helped Rich off his ass for the third time.

“You know I was an indoor kid,” Richie said, wiping snow off of his pants.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he could pick up just about any sport despite never having played any of them, and he would, the following summer, annihilate Richie at half-court basketball regardless of the height disadvantage, and Richie wouldn’t hear the end of it for months.)

When they went to bed well after midnight in the cozy, blanket-strewn guest room on the upper floor, Eddie was a little white-wine drunk and handsy, pulling Richie’s shirt off before they got under the warmth of the covers. His hands were winter-cold on Richie’s stomach. “Let me warm you up,” Richie breathed into his neck.

Hours later, Richie woke from a deep sleep, gasping.

Eddie’s body slack against his. His bandaged cheek motionless on Richie’s shoulder. Richie watched his eyes for any movement, but they stayed open and glassy. He was so cold.

But Eddie was still breathing behind him, arms curling protectively around Richie’s middle at his movement, body radiating heat from under a pile of blankets. 

“Rich?” Eddie asked, hardly conscious, as Richie shifted up and out of the bed, his bare feet cool on the hardwood before he threw on a pair of socks, tucking them into his pajama pants.

“Just getting some water. Back to sleep.” Richie kissed Eddie’s temple, and he was already snoring softly.

He padded down the stairs towards the kitchen, and startled at Bill sitting at the breakfast table in dim lamp light.

“Could have at least turned on a real light, man? Fuck, you scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry. Couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I get these d-dreams - ” Bill didn’t need to finish.

Richie slumped down across from him. “Yeah, same. Thanks for another lasting memory, Derry. Our childhood is the gift that keeps on giving.”

“Eddie get them, too?” 

“Not often.” Not as often as before. They had tapered away some - the nightmares that left Eddie shaking and wheezing, clutching his chest and coughing this terrible, hacking rattle that sounded too much like his last breaths - and Richie would hold him, one hand pressed to his breastbone as the shaking slowly subsided.

“Distractions help.” Bill waved an old paperback with a spine so bent the title had abraded away. “Even if I’ve read it s-six times.”

Richie looked up at him tentatively. “Want something new?”

“Whatcha got?”

Richie grabbed his laptop, abandoned hours ago on the nearby coffee table. “Mr. Professional Writer can tell me if I’m wasting my time.”

“Your jokes aren’t funny, I can tell you that already,” Bill said, unable to hold a straight face.

“Ha ha.” He opened up the first of several Google Docs and pushed the laptop across the table to Bill.

“A script?”

“First four episodes are written, but the whole season is planned out; eight episodes in total. It’s probably crap but I literally can’t write material anymore, and this just seemed - I don’t know - easier somehow to slip into someone that was very obviously not me.” Richie swallowed. “I couldn’t write authentic material before, and it turns out I still can’t, even though I don’t have any excuses anymore.”

Bill was skimming the text, eyes darting back and forth across the screen.

“You’re the lead?”

“That’s what I’ll pitch.”

“And you think you can play a hitman?”

“That’s the joke, dude. It wouldn’t be funny if it was someone competent.” Richie leaned back, hands in his hair. “Besides, the hitman thing is just the hook. It’s really about being lonely and trying to find a community and redefining yourself. Bunch of feely bullshit.”

“Very obviously not you, huh?” But Bill was still reading, his forehead creased in concentration as he scrolled down the Doc.

“I know it’s not your genre, but I haven’t written in a decade. Just tell me if it’s shit.”

Bill straightened up. “I can’t read with you l-looming over me. Go the fuck back to bed, get some sleep.”

Hours later, after he woke to Eddie sleeping next to him - a rare occurrence, attributable only to the wine - and Richie walked back down the stairs to see Bill still stooped over the laptop, a half-empty pot of coffee next to him.

“Good, you’re up,” he said with caffeine-addled enthusiasm. “So the acting instructor needs more f-fleshing out. I’m thinking the obvious way to do that is either a love interest or maybe like a son or something - could p-present a nice parallel with his relationship with Barry. But if you went the love interest route with the detective, that really opens up possibilities for the final episode and ramifications for a potential second season.” A long gulp of coffee. “Hank’s going to steal the s-show, just so you know. Like, I get that it’s about Barry, but this guy will make or break it. Casting’s going to be tricky.”

“So it’s not crap?”

“Oh, didn’t I say?” Another sip of coffee. “I emailed some guys I know at HBO. They want to add more c-content with Thrones ending soon anyway, and this is the sort of thing they’ll be interested in. It’s really fucking good.”

*

*

*

Richie came home one Saturday afternoon after a working brunch with the HBO guys ran long, and Eddie had taped paint swatches to the living room wall.

“It’s too white in here. Everything is this off-white sanitarium color and it’s making me mental.” He pointed to the middle swatch. “Is the green too much?”

The green was definitely too much, Richie thought.

(Something he would learn about Eddie: he would paint their future house whatever color he damn well pleased, despite Richie telling him four times that the green sucked. And soon after the worst of the boxes had been unpacked, and Richie came home in the early hours from a night shoot, semi-asleep as he stumbled in the front door, he thought briefly, I’m in the wrong house as he surveyed his newly green living room with some confusion. It grew on him, though, eventually.)

“Fuck it, let’s just move.” Richie shrugged. “We need more space for all your Goddamn protein powders and juicers and smoothie makers anyway. They’ve taken over the kitchen, man. Might as well find somewhere with more cabinet space.”

The place we both saw didn’t need to be said.

*

*

*

The first house they toured in Studio City had a good pool, but Eddie took one look at the bedroom and said, “It’s not right,” - and it wasn’t; the window was on the wrong wall and the ensuite was smaller than Richie was sure he remembered, as blurry as the vision was - and so they tried another place only a few blocks over, close to a lauded ice cream shop that Richie insisted on visiting after Eddie decided the layout was off.

Eddie found a listing online for a place in Westwood that looked like it might fit the bill, but the stairs faced the wrong direction and the bedroom closets weren’t what Eddie swore he remembered.

Another place in Beverly Hills. Then two houses in North Hollywood, and then one within walking distance of their current condo.

Their realtor fucking hated them, and Richie didn’t blame her. Linda sent them perfectly nice listings every day that were exactly to Eddie’s specifications, and Eddie responded with two or three word replies from his work email, terse Not rights or Definitely nots, and poor Linda took Richie aside after a viewing in West L.A. that had lasted only a few minutes, and said, “I just don’t understand what you’re looking for.”

After Linda left - with an exaggerated, professional smile stapled across her face as she chirped, “Next one will work, I can feel it!” - Richie took Eddie by the hand as they walked to Eddie’s behemoth of an SUV parked across the street.

“We could just pick any house you like. That first one in Studio City was really nice - ”

“No,” Eddie interrupted, opening the driver’s side door with more force than was necessary. “We need to find the one.” 

(Something he had learned about Eddie decades ago, but was reaffirmed on a daily basis: the dude was a stubborn jackass.)

“Any of them could be the one. Whatever we pick will be fine.”

“You’re not listening, Rich.” Eddie knocked his head back into the headrest, eyes closed, fingers strumming the wheel. “Just knowing it was all going to be okay because of that bedroom, because I felt we were happy there, it’s just...” he trailed off for a moment. “The certainty of it was nice.”

And it clicked. New, suddenly calm Eddie who was shockingly even throughout the ever-lasting divorce from hell, who adjusted to L.A., and the new job, and fuck, the bullshit that came from living with a semi-neurotic, semi-celebrity, ADHD-plagued trainwreck that had HBO-related crises weekly and still couldn’t come out on Twitter - and somehow Eddie was okay through it all, and while Richie was still paranoid that this was all going to be wrenched away by some supernatural fucking force out of the pits of Derry, Eddie just carried the hell on, like he hadn’t been stabbed through the chest for the better part of five months, like he was confident it would be alright in the end.

Because he had seen it. In their house. Proof fucking positive that they had a future and it was good.

Fuck.

I need to find that fucking house.

*

*

*

Tomorrows ticked on, and Richie was so grateful for every mundane, boring, routine detail. Weeknight takeout when they both worked late and Richie crushing Eds at Mortal Combat and relaxed Sunday mornings where Richie ignored the incessant texts from the producers so he could sidle closer to Eddie under the covers, Eddie pressing into him in a lazy morning fuck as Richie wrapped a leg around Eddie’s waist.

Richie got final script approval from the network guys and casting was underway, and being on the other side of the table making the decisions was terrifying.

Eddie’s new, crappy intern couldn’t master his Starbucks order, which Richie thought was actually pretty impressive given that it was just black coffee.

Linda fired them as clients, and he was pretty sure that her replacement, Cathy, would end up firing them, too.

The divorce was finalized, and they celebrated signing the papers by having a long weekend hauled up in a New York hotel room together, phones shut off, calls going straight to voicemail.

*

*

*

Richie was location scouting for the exterior of Sally’s apartment when he saw the house.

On the border between Westwood and Brentwood. Spanish style. Two and a half stories. Cream stucco. Low-pitched, red clay roof. Roman arches over the front door. Double-hung windows. Ostentatious three-car garage that Eddie would definitely get off on. Terracotta finishes. A few palms on the front lawn.

No for sale sign.

But it was the one, Richie was sure. He could almost feel a buzz emanating from the house; a familiarity that electrified the air around it. Like coming home to a childhood house after years away. Or, that’s what he imagined it must feel like, because Derry didn’t evoke any such nostalgia in him. 

Memories that hadn’t happened yet, inexact and out of focus, but still real. Kissing Eddie under that arch, before he watched him run for the SUV on a rainy morning, Richie still sipping coffee as he waved bye. Carrying groceries in from the car. A dog - definitely a dog - a breed that was big and stupid and perpetually happy and drooling all over Eddie’s meticulously curated furniture, and Eddie yelled, horrified as Richie brought it inside. “You did what? You cannot just buy a dog without fucking consulting me first.” But after that, Richie would come home late in the evening after a long day of shooting, and Eddie would be half asleep on the couch with a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound lapdog snoring across his legs. 

Richie pulled his car over, texting the crew from his work phone that he was taking the afternoon off, while calling the bank on his other phone. 

A knock on a door he would open thousands of times, and a middle-aged woman answered. “Hi, I’d like to buy your house.”

(Something he would learn about Eddie: big romantic gestures got Richie laid every time.)

*

*

*

“It’s better than a boat. It’ll win the group chat.”

“Bill and Audra looked pretty good at Bill’s premiere last night. We’re not beating that.”

“It’s a house, Eds. We’re winning.”

A stupid selfie. The partially unpacked kitchen in the background, the countertops covered in half-empty cardboard boxes and an already worn-out juicer from only a year of use. Richie kissing a slightly embarrassed, smiling Eddie on the side of his mouth.

Richie opened the group chat and hesitated before sending it, looking over the happy crinkles under his glasses and the way Eddie’s brown eyes caught the light.

He posted it to Twitter instead.