Patty doesn’t wake up to a bed full of people, but that’s only because Stan wakes her before the first knock comes. He doesn’t mean to, lucid enough within his nightmare — nightmare, he reminds himself, it’s not real, it’s a nightmare — to try to bite his tongue, but they’ve shared a bed for so long at this point that they notice even the smallest tells.
He wakes with a scream still caught in his throat. It comes out a pathetic whimper. His hair is plastered sweaty to his forehead and Patty’s murmuring, “I’ve got you. You’re safe. Stan, it’s okay, you can wake up. I’ve got you.”
Stan curls towards her, burying his face in her shoulder. He breathes in slowly, his heart still pounding too loud in their quiet bedroom. But it is their bedroom. Their bed, their house, over a thousand miles away from hell. Their sheets, that smell like laundry powder and the last twenty years of his life. He breathes out. There was a moment there, a few days ago, when he was sure he’d never get this back.
“Time is it?” he asks, rubbing his nose against her skin, knowing it will make her laugh, and not disappointed at all when she chuckles. It’s one of Stan’s favourite sounds.
She strokes his hair back, pressing kisses to every part of his face she can reach. “You don’t want to know,” she says, which means it must be after four thirty, when chances of returning to any kind of prolonged deep sleep are slim to none. She tugs him closer, and he goes willingly, the drop after the adrenaline rush of panic making him loose-limbed and cuddly. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Stan thinks back on the stop-start horror movie that keeps playing over and over behind his eyes. The hard jolt in the pit of his stomach that came with Mike’s phone call, like carpet being pulled out from under him. An axe in the back of a childhood bully and Richie’s vomit on his shoes. The dank, rotting smell of the Neibolt house, something lurking in the shadows. Ben screaming, words carved into his stomach, again. Mike calling out in the dark, but he can’t see him. Richie floating. Ice cold adrenaline in the back of his throat, pins and needles of panic spreading from his head out over his body, because he knew, he knew that he was going to fuck up. He was going to let his friends die. He was never going to see Patty again. He was going to die down in the sewers. He was going to die down here, alone. He was going to get them all killed. No, no, no, no. Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.
Seven handwritten letters in his top desk drawer.
Stan shudders. “Not really. Not right now. I think - I think I need a glass of water.” He shifts in her arms. Detangles and stretches, as if it was easy, letting her go after the week he’s had. After the lifetime. Patty still looks unsettled, and he can’t stand that. He bends down and kisses her forehead, her mouth. “Do you want me to fill your glass too?”
She shakes her head, props herself up on their pillows. He can feel her eyes on his back as he pads across their bedroom to the en suite.
Stan drains the first glass in one go, then refilling it, he sips it slower. He fills the glass a third time. He knows he’ll regret drinking all this water in half an hour, because his bladder hates sleep as much as his subconscious does these days, but he feels better now he’s hydrated.
The knock comes just as he’s setting his glass down. He and Patty share a look, but there’s really no one it could be that Stan would turn away right now. Patty nods when he glances at her, and he opens the door.
There’s still a part of Stan’s brain that startles every time he sees them. Bev, Bev, remember Bev, she’s still here, she hasn’t disappeared. Bev! But he barely has to look at her to know this isn’t like any of the times she woke him up in the middle of the night at sleepovers, grinning, mischievous, promising all sorts of clandestine fun. He recognises the expression on her face, it’s the one he was wearing in the mirror.
She’s drowning in what Stan assumes is one of Ben’s t-shirts, her face a mess of snot and tears. The dark rings under her eyes are more pronounced than when they’d said goodnight, her skin a sleepless sickly white.
Stan opens his arms without a word and she falls into them, tucks herself under his chin like she used to when they were in high school and he was starting to out pace her growth spurts. He squeezes her tight, like the hugs she always gave him. Tight enough to make the rest of the world go away. She sobs, burying her nose in his collarbone. He can feel his skin getting sticky with snot and tries not to focus on it.
Patty makes a soft, sad sound from the bed, and Bev’s sobs quieten into sniffles that eventually peter out.
“This is a stupid question because it’s early and I haven’t had coffee, but are you alright, Bev?” Patty asks. Bev huffs a not quite laugh into Stan’s neck.
“Sorry,” she whispers, and Stan just keeps squeezing her. “Sorry. Oh, Stan,” she says, pulling back slightly, “I didn’t mean to get you all snotty. Here, I’ll just …”
She looks around and Patty’s already holding out a box of tissues. Bev takes it, a small smile twitching up before it falls from her face, and she’s crying again. Stan knows that feeling, existing on the verge of tears, once you’ve started you can’t stop.
“Let me,” he says, pulling a few tissues from the box, not giving her a chance to argue. He cleans his chest and neck first, then guides her to the bed and gets her perched on the end so he can dry her eyes and help her blow her nose.
Patty crawls down the bed and puts a tentative arm around Bev’s shoulder. When she leans into it, Patty shuffles even closer. Bev sniffs, but doesn’t start crying again.
“It’s okay — ” Stan starts to say before she cuts him off.
“No, really. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like being gross. Snotting all over Ben is one thing. Snotting over Richie in the quarry was fine too, he’s pretty consistently gross, but you — ”
“Beverly Marsh,” Stan interrupts right back, smiling at her. “Did I, or did I not brave a bathroom of blood for you at thirteen? I can stand a little snot. Now, tell me why you’re crying in my bedroom at,” he finally checks the clock on his bedside table, “ugh, 5.14am.”
“Told you,” Patty says, and he attempts a glare, but can’t quite manage it.
“Nightmares.” Bev’s voice is strangled. He watches as she closes her eyes, tries to force the words out. He settles on the bed beside her, puts a hand on her knee. “Deadlight nightmares.”
Patty catches his eye, confused. There’s been so much to cover, so many horror stories to tell, he’s not sure they ever got around to the visions Bev’s been stuck with for twenty seven years. Being haunted by the gruesome deaths of her friends, being haunted by the gruesome deaths of six strangers, he can’t even begin to imagine.
“I thought … I thought they’d stop, now that It’s gone.” Bev says, frustrated. She runs her hand through her hair, scrubs under her eyes where there are still tear tracks. She looks like she’s at the end of her tether. “It’s stupid, I know it’s stupid. Just because It’s dead doesn’t mean we get a clean slate, all that stuff is still in my head, but I thought … and then I woke up and you … god, this is so stupid. Sorry. I’m a grown woman, I didn’t even wake up alone. But the last few nights, with all of us in the same room …”
“It’s easier to make sure we’re all safe when you just have to raise your head off the pillow,” Stan says. “I get it. You don’t have to apologise. It’d be pretty hypocritical of me to judge, I mean, I just woke up in a cold sweat.”
“I just,” she sighs. “I thought it would get easier.”
Bev looks at him, and he knows, without having to ask, exactly what she saw in her dream. His stomach drops. He can feel his own tears coming and tries to swallow them down.
“I hate seeing you like that … I hate seeing all of you like that. When you arrived at the Jade I was so sure it was a trick, Stan. I was so sure that fucking clown was using you against us,” she whispers.
He remembers. She’d gone white as a sheet, stood still when the others ran forward to hug him. He remembers seeing the fortune cookie words spread out on the table beside her.
“I’m sorry,” he says quietly.
She’d told him a little about what she’d seen, when they’d got back to the Townhouse. His body, so much older than she had known him, covered in his own blood and cooling in the bathwater.
Bev shakes her head. She shifts, tipping towards him until she’s resting on his shoulder. “If you hadn’t shown up,” her voice wobbles. She takes a deep breath. “If you hadn’t come, Stan, the rest of us wouldn’t have made it out. Not all of us, anyway. I’m sure of it. I’ve seen it. Bowers killed Mike. Or Bill didn’t make it past Neibolt. Or Pennywise stabbed Eddie. Without you, without all seven of us … I’m just glad you made it. I’m really fucking glad you’re alive. I missed the hell out of you, Stanley.”
Stan can see all of it vividly. It’s right there when he closes his eyes, all the close calls they’ve had. He is right back in his nightmare. He’s such a fucking mess. Even after he squeezed It’s heart into dust he can barely breathe when he thinks about it.
Patty catches his eye, she starts taking deliberate, slow breaths. He copies her. In through his nose, out through his mouth.
“I missed you too, Bev.” He rubs her back. We’re all such fucking messes , he thinks. “We’re all such fucking messes,” he says out loud, because he thinks she’ll understand, and because acknowledging a problem is the first step in the direction of a solution, or so the therapist he saw in college had told him. And then, because now he’s thinking about therapy, “maybe we should all see someone about it.”
Bev snorts. “What do you call couples therapy for seven?”
“Septuples therapy?” Patty suggests, and all three of them get the giggles. Stan can’t bring himself to try and stop, or even keep them quiet, no matter that it’s only funny because it’s too early and Patty sounds like she’s genuinely trying to figure out the right vocabulary. Not when Bev’s smile is starting to seem more solid.
They sit there like that — Patty humming something that might be a lullaby but is also possibly a Bananarama song under her breath, and Stan with his hand in Bev’s hair scratching her head while she pushes against it like she’s a cat — until Stan hears Patty and Bev’s breathing start to synchronise and even out.
“Alright you two, hop into bed.” He pulls away from them both, standing, stretching, hearing something in his back pop.
Patty crawls up to the top of the bed and flops onto the pillows immediately, but Bev just looks up at him, sleepy and confused.
“Go on, we’ll have a sleepover. It’ll be like the motels on our roadtrip, or every second weekend growing up. I’ll go get Ben, if you want,” he cajoles, until she’s moving up the bed too. Once she’s under the covers, Patty wraps herself around her and pulls her close. His wife is a perennial big spoon and he loves her so much.
Getting Ben up is fairly easy, even though Stan remembers him as a heavy sleeper. Not one to wake up in the middle of the night when Richie and Bill are snickering through farting competitions. That dubious honour went to Stan, who was a light sleeper, and Eddie who pretended to be grossed out right up until he was joining in, and, on occasion, winning.
Tonight, Stan just has to shake Ben’s shoulder and start saying, “Bev’s in our room if you want to come.” He doesn’t actually make it past “Bev” before Ben’s lurching out of bed and stumbling across the landing.
He’s not completely single minded though. He does keep looking over his shoulder at Stan, guiding him with a hand on his back, like if he doesn’t have eyes on him he’ll slip away.
Stan knows the feeling.
Once Ben has crawled in beside Bev and Patty, Stan has a thought.
“Mike,” he blurts out, and all three of them seem to understand that when he says Mike what he means is if I woke up in my wife’s arms mid nightmare, and Bev woke up in Ben’s arms mid nightmare, and Richie and Eddie and Bill are all roughly within arms reach of each other in the lounge room possibly mid nightmare, who is going to be with Mike if he wakes up? because Patty says, “you should go get him” at the same time Ben props himself up and asks, “should I go get him?”
“I’ve got it,” Stan says, smiling down at them fondly. He has a brief moment, in the quiet dark of the downstairs hallway, to wonder if he should find it stranger than he does, his wife sharing a bed with his friends. People she had never met before last night, and who he has not seen in years.
It is objectively strange, he supposes. But they had tried to sleep in their own rooms in the Townhouse, that first night after It. Tried being the operative word. They had not lasted long at all.
Mike had crashed in Bill’s room instead of going back to his apartment, and Stan had heard the floorboards creak outside his room as Bev made her way to Ben’s bed. He’d been contemplating calling Patty, even though it was the middle of the night, because being alone after everything was awful and he couldn’t stop thinking, when there was a knock on his door.
“I can’t sleep alone tonight,” Richie had babbled, words tripping over themselves, before Stan could get a word out. “I can’t. I’m sorry Stanley, I just can’t .”
Stan nodded, because neither could he and he wasn’t about to turn Richie away. He stepped aside to let him in.
He’d glanced across the hall at Eddie’s door before closing his own, and when he looked back he caught Richie blushing in the dark. “Yeah, no, I couldn’t do that either. Not tonight. Maybe not ever. Besides,” he smirked down at Stan, who had instantly regretted opening the door, “I can’t leave you all by your lonesome.”
“Beep beep, Richie.” Stan had shoved him towards the bed and gone across the hall himself. When Eddie opened the door, Stan looked past him at the still made bed, the suitcases propped up against the bathroom door, like they were keeping something in, and nodded to himself. “C’mon,” he said, no room for argument. “We’re sleeping in my room.”
Eddie had taken his hand and followed him across the hall. Fingers tangled together like they were nine again and everything was that simple. Being with the Losers, Stan had realised, was just like that; full of repetitions and a closeness that needed no definition.
The three of them shared the bed; Stan in the middle, because he was the only one who didn’t wriggle in his sleep, a fact they all remembered from childhood, and also because Richie sent him desperate looks behind Eddie’s back.
They had tried to sleep untangled, but they were three grown men and it was only a double bed. Richie had been the last hold out, and Stan got it, even if he didn’t Get It, but he also wasn’t prepared to worry about Richie falling off the edge of the bed all night.
“This bed is too small for propriety, Tozier. Stop trying to be a gentleman and spoon me already.”
Richie snorted, but his body, which he had been holding stiff, relaxed into the mattress. “Always the romantic, aren’t you Staniel?”
But he’d rolled over onto his side, wrapped an arm around Stan, and that had been that. In the morning he’d still been spooned between them, and Richie’s hand was wrapped around Eddie’s wrist.
They’d all stayed two nights in Derry, exhausted and not quite ready to face reality or the road.
When they were packing the cars and getting ready to head to the airport, making promises to see each other in two months, Stan had suggested, not quite casually, “or you could come to Atlanta. You guys can meet Patty. And we wouldn’t have to split up just yet. It’s out of your way, I know, and you might not want to, but I thought - ”
“Sounds good to me.” Mike cut him off with a clap on the shoulder. “I just want to get out of Derry. I don’t mind where I go.”
“Yeah man, we could even make it the road trip that never was,” Richie said, hands stuffed into his jacket pockets, but grinning, bright and genuine.
“I’m in,” Bev said, sharing a look with Ben, which meant he was in too. Eddie shrugged, said he didn’t really want to go back to normal life just yet. Bill said “everywhere is one the way to California if you’re leaving Derry, man”, and they’d left. Just like that. Keeping each other this time is more important than anything else , Stan thought as they drove out of town.
They’d shared rooms with double beds in the two motels they stayed in, none of them self conscious enough to insist on sleeping on the floor. Or maybe it was that they were all bruised and forty, and both the floor and the one cushionless couch seemed like terrible options. He’d thought, a couple of days and the need to be near them constantly will fade. A couple of days and they’d all be able to stand the thought of living in different states, of seeing each other in video calls and on holidays. A couple of days and a long overdue road trip and dinner with his wife will be enough to make up for decades of distance and the very real fear that they were all going to die.
But here, now, in the early morning quiet of his house, they feel too far away. Well, Stan , he thinks, in a voice that sounds a lot calmer than he feels, alone in the hallway, you were wrong about that, but at least there’s an easy fix.
He knocks on the study door, but he’s not really expecting a response. He startles when it comes.
“Was that a question or an answer?” he asks, opening the door.
Mike’s sitting up on the bed, reading lamp on, book open in his lap. His reading glasses have slipped down to the end of his nose, and Stan is hit once again with the sheer number of years between now and the last time he saw him.
“It’s 5.30 in the morning, man. Cut me some slack. I wasn’t sure if it was a knock or if I was imagining things.”
“Have you slept at all?” Stan asks, vaguely horrified. At least he’d had several hours of mostly peaceful sleep. If Mike hasn’t slept at all …
“I had a couple of hours. Woke up around 4, I think. Couldn’t get back to sleep.” Mike yawns. Shifts his glasses onto his head so he can rub his eyes, the bridge of his nose. He yawns again, and this time it gets Stan.
He remembers nights and nights of sleepovers, trying to beat the dark and stay awake until sunrise, getting caught in yawn circles.
“Yeah, well, it looks like you probably can now,” Stan points out, and Mike chuckles. “I know it seems pointless, because it’s closer to sunrise than any kind of reasonable bedtime, but Bev and Ben are sleeping with Patty right now, if you want to come join us?”
Mike looks on the edge of refusal, and Stan wonders when he’s going to stop holding himself up on his own. Twenty seven years of carrying all seven of their lives on his shoulders won’t be easy to shake off. He thinks of Mike, last night in his kitchen, worried out of his mind that he’d missed something, that he hadn’t prepared properly for new monsters now their old one was dead.
“I didn’t come all the way downstairs because I wanted you to say no, Mikey.” Stan’s not really playing fair, but if Mike didn’t want to join them he’d have said no outright, and he’s determined now to give Mike what he wants, to let him take what he needs. He deserves that much at the very least.
Mike looks at him, quiet and serious, before letting a small smile break out across his face. “Okay,” he says, softly. “Yeah, okay.”
Before they head upstairs, Stan ducks back into the living room to check on the three people not currently in his bed.
“Oh wow.” Stan just barely keeps his snickering quiet enough to not immediately wake them.
The snickering is justified though, because the vision that greets them is … cute. There is no other word for it.
Richie is on his back, sprawled across the blow up mattress, mouth open and snore a constant low-level rumble. They set up the room after Stan and Patty went to bed last night, and they’ve clearly prioritised a middle school sleepover throwback over any kind of practicality, because they moved the table and one of the chairs, but left the couch exactly where it was so the blow up is in reach of Bill, curled up on the edge of the couch. His arm is flung out as far as it will go, his hand on Richie’s shoulder, like he wanted reassurance, even in sleep, that he wasn’t alone.
But cutest of all is Eddie. Stan will never say that out loud for fear of incessant, loud retribution, but it is a fact.
The blow up mattress is a double. They’d bought it years ago, when Patty’s parents came to stay after her father’s second heart attack, so that they could sleep together on something wider than the pull-out while her parents took their bed. But instead of taking advantage of the space Eddie has curled up mostly on Richie’s chest, his left hand fisted in Richie’s t-shirt, their legs tangled together.
Eddie snuffles. The arm Richie has around him tightens in his sleep, and Bill’s hand moves closer, the tips of his fingers brushing Eddie’s hair.
“Wow is … yeah,” Mike says, muffling his own laughter with the back of his hand. “Wow is the right word.”
“We should just leave them, right?”
“I mean, yes? Unless … ”
“Do you have your phone on you?”
Mike nods. “I left it charging in the kitchen.”
He tiptoes over and back without making a sound, and Stan has never been so glad that this house doesn’t have creaky floorboards.
They take a few photos, both of them trying so hard to hold back laughter that there are tears in Stan’s eyes and Mike has started making wheezing noises.
“This is going straight in the group chat,” Mike whispers.
True to his word, the three phones left in the room light up immediately with notifications. Eddie’s and Richie’s are on vibrate, but, either because he forgot or because he is a monster, Bill’s phone beeps. Loudly.
“ Motherfucker .” Richie jerks awake, sitting bolt upright and almost sending Eddie rolling off the mattress. Richie’s instincts are clearly more awake than the rest of him. He tugs Eddie back into his chest, before looking dumbly down at him, then up at Mike and Stan, and then back at Eddie. He shoves him to the empty side of the mattress, blushing if Stan’s mostly adjusted eyes aren’t deceiving him.
Eddie shoves him lightly. He blinks blearily up at them, rubbing his eyes. His voice is sleep-soft when he asks, curious rather than angry, “What the fuck?”
Stan starts laughing and cannot stop. There’s something about the combination of bewildered looks, gravity defying hair, and Bill, who is somehow still asleep, snoring like he’s trying to ward off evil. Mike shushes him, but it doesn’t help because he’s laughing too.
Richie groans, and shoves himself off the mattress. “Assholes,” he says, affectionately, slinging an arm around Stan’s shoulders. “Where’s the party?”
“Stan’s bed,” Mike says through chuckles when Stan can only stand there, wheezing. “And we’re all invited.”
“Shut up, Richie,” Eddie yawns, and Richie softens, turning back to help him up. “Are we having another sleepover?” He frowns, adding, “God, what am I, thirteen? I feel like this should be weirder than it is.”
Stan turns and starts to head towards the stairs. “Oh, it definitely should be, but we’re ignoring that.”
Mike shakes Bill awake, and explains gently that there’s no fire, just a regularly scheduled Losers hangout, and the five of them traipse upstairs.
The exhaustion suddenly catches up with Stan. It nearly takes his legs out from under him, the only thing keeping him upright is the knowledge that he can collapse onto a very comfortable mattress when he makes it to his bedroom and sleep until midday if he wants. That, and the fact that if he falls backwards there is no way anyone but Mike, who is currently nudging Bill up stair by stair (“just one more, Denbrough. Okay, that was a lie, one more again”), is awake enough to catch him and they’ll have survived the clown to wind up with their necks broken at the bottom of the stairs like so many bowling pins.
Eddie and Richie are whispering, a conversation that seems like a continuation rather than something new. This can’t be normal, right? Who cares about normal. Yeah, I guess, but I didn’t know. Know what? I didn’t know I could love people like this. Sure you did, we just forgot for a while .
When they finally make it, Patty, Bev, and Ben are all fast asleep, but, whether by design or happy accident, they have left enough room for one more person at the head of the bed — two, if those people are Eddie, Bill, or Stan. Like a nursery rhyme Stan can’t remember, they wind up piled in, top and tailing, legs and arms and whole bodies tangled.
As Stan falls back to sleep, surrounded by bodies, way too hot and finally comfortable, he thinks maybe they don’t love each other like normal people. Maybe fighting a demon when you’re in middle school and then again when you’re on your way to middle age changes that. Or maybe the reason they were able to fight It in the first place is because they don’t love each other like normal people. Maybe the feeling, the deep and settled rightness of all seven of us, together, finally , was the universe tying them together.
Or maybe he’s just tired, and it’s too early and too late at once. Even as Richie snores and Bill’s foot inches towards his face, and the sun is starting to spill in at the edges of the blinds, Stan drifts into a dreamless sleep.
Six foot one is at least six inches too tall to be sharing a bed with seven adults , Ben thinks as he shifts around — very slowly, very carefully, very, very quietly — and assesses the lay of the land.
He’s boxed in on all sides. Bev has burrowed into his chest during the early hours of the morning, and judging from the soft huffing noises accompanying the puffs of warm air on his back, it’s Eddie spooning him from behind. Mike’s legs lay heavily on his, and there’s no space anywhere to gently roll any of them either. There is no way out of this bed that does not wake at least one other person, and he’d really like to avoid that if he can.
He sighs. He hadn’t thought this through when he followed Stan out of the guest room last night. He knew he was an earlier riser than most of his friends. He had lost the ability to sleep late sometime during his junior year of college and never got it back.
“It’s like a bizarre game of horizontal human Jenga, isn’t it?”
Ben looks over and sees Patty awake on the other side of Bev. Her face is full of laughter even after an interrupted night of sleep. It’s kind laughter too. He may not have known her long, but Ben is willing to bet all of his money that Patty Uris doesn’t have a mean spirited bone in her body. A sarcastic one, sure. She had proved that much last night, keeping up with Richie, egging him on. Her middle finger is probably full of mischief; Stan wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone without a little bit of fire. But her smile is generous and open, when she looks over the tangle of limbs that was once her bed.
She reaches over her shoulder and strokes Stan’s curls before — with what Ben can only assume is ease that comes from years of practice — manoeuvering their bodies until she is the one on the edge of the bed. She slides off the mattress, kissing the back of Stan’s head as she goes.
Ben must be staring because she grins down at him, bowing with a flourish. “Impressive, no?”
He huffs a laugh, surprised. “Very.”
“Single beds in college dorms and a preference for early morning classes that he didn’t share,” she explains, smiling softly down at her husband. Ben takes a moment to thank the universe that Stan found someone who looks at him like that.
With Patty out of bed there’s enough room to extract himself without jostling anyone too much, so Ben, still very, very carefully, joins her on the landing.
“I was thinking I’d make everyone breakfast,” she says, when they’ve made it to the kitchen. He watches as she hums absentmindedly, checking the fridge and pantry, before getting coffee started. “But first, caffeine.”
“I’ll help. On both counts.”
Ben goes to where he thinks the mugs came from last night, and, having remembered correctly, pulls two down. Patty smiles at him, and they lean against the bench in companionable silence until the coffee is ready.
He doesn’t remember the last time he spent the morning with company. Not before going back to Derry, which is kind of sad now he thinks about it. He had roommates in college, and he spends the holidays with his mum, but her place doesn’t have a spare room, so he usually opts for a hotel nearby. He’s dated sporadically over the years, but he hasn’t been in a relationship since he was in grad school and he doesn’t really do casual sex. There hasn’t been a reason for anyone to be in the same space as him until he leaves the house.
He’s not sure how he’s going to go back to mornings alone after this.
“Oh wow.” Patty’s voice startles him out of his head.
“Nothing,” she says, shaking her head, eyebrows disappearing beneath her dark curls.
Patty smiles into her mug. “Really, nothing. It’s just, you went away somewhere just now, and that look? It’s a lot like the one Stan gets when he’s caught in his head. It’s weird seeing it on someone else. There was a lot of that last night. He got his curls from his mother and his in company posture from his father, but the rest. I think the rest is all of you.”
“Ah,” Ben smiles too. He remembers that. The way teachers and parents would double take sometimes when the seven of them were together. Has a memory suddenly, so clear it’s like it happened yesterday. Maggie Tozier walking into the kitchen, and he had been doubled over laughing at something Eddie was saying, and, without looking up from the pile of mail in her hands, she called him Richie. Oh, Ben. Sorry sweetheart, I could have sworn I heard Richie laughing . “That used to happen quite a bit. It goes seven ways. We’re a little … ”
He searches for a word that isn’t co-dependent, because while he thinks they possibly are, that isn’t what he means.
“You’re family,” Patty says. She had said it last night and it gives Ben the same warm feeling this morning as it had then. Like the sun rising.
Ben nods. It’s going to take some getting used to, he’s going to have to stretch muscles he forgot he had, but he thinks of the bed he woke up in this morning, the chaos of too loud road trip conversations, and sitting in the living room shooting the shit, planning for a future filled with more evenings like last night’s, and knows he’ll put in the effort it takes to make this his old-new normal, no questions asked.
“Right,” Patty says, draining the last of her coffee and pushing off from the counter. “What do you feel like for breakfast?”
They decide on eggs and mushrooms, tomatoes and spinach, and, “Oh, toast!” It sounds almost like she’s swearing. “I can’t believe we don’t have any bread.”
“Do you have yeast?” Ben asks.
“I think so?” Patty says, brow wrinkling. “Let me check.”
After a thorough search of the pantry she comes up with a small packet of yeast to add to the flour and salt she’s already pulled out.
“I haven’t made bread in years, but doesn’t it need time to rise? Actually, if you know what you’re doing, I’m not going to question it,” Patty says, brushing off her hands. She hops up onto the counter, swinging her legs. They didn’t know each other as kids, but he’s beginning to think that in the long run that won’t matter. “You make the bread, and give me directions if you need me.”
They chat as he mixes everything together, using his hands because that’s the way his grandmother taught him and that’s the way he likes to make things. He loves getting his hands dirty, always has. Whether they’re sticky as he works dough, or getting splinters and blisters, rough from building a clubhouse, or his extension — the only thing he’s properly built in years, since the firm took over his life. It makes him feel useful, connected to his body. He likes being able to feel the things he’s creating as they become.
He learns, as the dough proves, that Patty is an inveterate hummer, with a penchant for 70s and 80s pop and advertising jingles. She loves cooking but not baking, because she has no patience for precise measurements. She is an elementary school art teacher, who almost always has paint under her nails, charcoal in her fingerprints, a pencil behind her ear. That she loves the kids, loves teaching, loves some of her colleagues, but is so tired of the bureaucracy of the education system that she has considered implementing what she calls her running away to join the circus plan. So , she says, grinning at him from her perch, a children’s television show would be the perfect new project. Ben wants to believe it will happen. Wants to believe he can build something new with his friends.
When he starts to knead the dough, Patty turns the questions around on him.
“So, you and Beverly?” she hints, and Ben feels his cheeks lighting up. Some things change, some things will always, always remain the same. And the way his entire face is unable to hide, unable to lie, especially when it comes to questions like this, will be with him forever. That’s another reason he’s kept his distance from people in the years since the Losers.
“Uh,” is about all he is capable of articulating.
“Sorry,” Patty says immediately, grin fading a little. “I assumed, since you shared the spare room. And Stan and Richie mentioned something about an underwater kiss.”
There’s something about the cool early morning light, Patty’s gentle voice and the otherwise silent kitchen, the dough moving under his hands. Ben unbends.
“There was, there was a kiss. And a conversation. But it wasn’t long. We’ve had hardly any time alone together until last night, and we passed out pretty quickly. I don’t,” he clears his throat. “I don’t want to push her. To rush her into anything. And I’m not … ”
“Not what, Ben?”
He concentrates on flouring the tin, organising his thoughts. “I don’t think I know how to be in a relationship, even if she was ready to jump straight from her marriage into a new one. I don’t. I don’t know how to be with someone long term, and that’s what I’d want with Bev. If we were together, she’d be it. She already is. I’ve been in love with her since we were kids.”
Patty hops down off the counter, moves around to the opposite side of the kitchen island so she can look Ben in the eye. She makes sure she’s holding his gaze before she talks, and Ben tries not to look away. “Can I offer some advice?”
Ben nods. He’s been in his own head about it for a week. Since Mike’s phone call if he’s honest, when he finally remembered the person behind the note in his wallet, remembered why it hurt to think about throwing it out decades after he’d moved away to college. If he doesn’t talk about it now, with Patty, he’ll be blurting it out to one of the others before the end of the day.
“Okay, it’s actually two pieces of advice. The first is this. It doesn’t matter how many people you’ve dated, or how long you’ve been with them. Every relationship is different. And in all of your relationships, not just the romantic ones, you learn something about yourself that you can bring with you into the future.
Stan and I started dating when we were nineteen. We were married at twenty, against all advice … Seriously. All advice. But we’re not still together decades later because he’d been single for nearly a year, or because the last person I’d gone on a date with had been so boring I pretended to get food poisoning to get out of it early. We’re not together because we make sense, or because it’s easy. We’re together because every day we wake up and choose each other, we try really hard not to go to bed angry, we’ve put in the time and the energy and when things get rough we talk about them. We survived the weird limbo of our post college years, when we were barely making ends meet, working crazy hours and trying to figure out if either of us could afford grad school, but only because after months of keeping all our frustrations and fears to ourselves we finally talked about it. There was ugly crying and we both had to call in sick to work the next morning and we ate plain pasta and cheese for four nights that week, but we decided we wanted to keep committing to each other.
And I make that choice every day. Even after he told me about impossible monsters. That comes from feeling a love that comes naturally, sure, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, but it also comes from a lifetime spent working on it together.”
Ben focuses on shifting the dough off his fingers, getting soap under his nails until all the flour is gone and the warm water runs clear down the drain. The only evidence of what he’s made this morning are the neat tin in the oven and the baking explosion on the bench.
He had always, he realises, thought of love as something that just happened. Not something you made, not something you created over time, but something that was or was not. Little kid love, the kind that sweeps into your life and leaves you breathless and silly with it, but that fades with time. But here is Patty, sitting in her kitchen, humming Picture This under her breath and drawing a garden in the flour dusted counter top, not pressing, not watching him to see how he takes her advice, just letting him sit with it. Easy.
Ben thinks about love as a choice. He thinks about choosing. About how loving his friends had been the easiest choice in the world. Even in Derry, where love turned inwards, sour and rotting, turned hateful and dark so easily, loving the Losers had been as easy as breathing, as easy as one foot in front of the other. Easy, but still a choice.
He thinks about the first kind smile he’d seen directed at him in Derry; Bev fresh from a confrontation with Gretta but still kind to him, still ready to reach out, to tease him about music and sign his yearbook. And Bill, Stan, Richie and Eddie, already investigating, already caught up in their own horrific Boy's Own adventure, but choosing to press pause, to run back and help some kid bleeding out in the water. Eddie choosing to clean and dress the wound, even with his head full of Sonia Kaspbrak and AIDS and danger, danger, danger . Mike, choosing to be alone, choosing to live alone with the memories of his friends in tact so he could make sure that what happened to them did not happen again.
He thinks about waking up with Bev in his arms, her hair in his mouth, and the way she moved closer in sleep, like even unconscious she recognised him as a place she wanted to be. A person she wanted to be with.
He clears his throat, which has gone tight trying to keep all that love inside. “And, uh, the second?”
“Ah, the second piece of advice,” Patty says, looking up at him again, smiling. “A pearl of wisdom formed in the mollusk of a twenty year marriage.”
Ben snorts. “A rare gem indeed.”
Patty winks, reaching across the island to pat his shoulder. “The second piece of advice is always always going to be talk to her . And that’s catchall advice, you can apply it to almost any interpersonal problem you ever have, and you can have it for free!” Patty grins at him, and he smiles back, relaxing into the shared morning again.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Patty, whether because she senses that Ben needs time before going further down the Bev rabbit hole or because she’s done with that line of questioning, swiftly changes the topic.
“What do you have to do to become a famous architect then?” she asks, popping a blueberry into her mouth. He laughs.
“Am I? A famous architect?”
Patty shrugs. She offers him the punnet, but he shakes his head.
“It was implied.”
“Well, I’m not like Bev or Richie or Bill. I’ve never been an answer on Jeopardy, which I believe Richie claims is his crowning achievement. No one’s going to recognise me on the street. But I’ve done pretty well for myself.”
“Have you always liked designing things?”
And they’re off, Ben telling Patty all about designing and building their underground clubhouse, filling sketchbooks with ideas that might as well have been castles in the clouds with how unrealistic they were. Big houses, enormous sprawling houses, with seven bedrooms and big open communal spaces and windows that looked out on oceans or gardens that looked like nowhere near Maine.
They talk until the smell of fresh bread coaxes Bill downstairs, hair a mess and yawn threatening to swallow the Uris home entirely. He pads over and leans into Ben’s side like he needs propping up.
“Morning sleepy. You don’t have to get up yet, you know. We’re not doing anything this morning.”
Bill just shrugs. “Could smell good things upstairs. There coffee too?” he mumbles.
Patty raises an eyebrow, but Ben just leans over Bill’s head for another mug.
“He’s always like this in the morning. No full sentences until he’s fed and coffeed, isn’t that right, Bill?”
Bill glares, but he can’t refute the truth so he sulks into his coffee and pretends he can’t hear Ben and Patty laughing.
The others all find their way downstairs reasonably quickly after that. Mike looks fresher than the rest of them, and offers to make blueberry pancakes. Stan appears with the paper, and he and Eddie pass sections of it back and forth, reading bits and pieces out loud for the rest of them. Patty suggests they do the quiz together over breakfast and Ben has to explain the look of horror on Mike’s face when Eddie nods enthusiastically.
“It’s alright, man. It’s not trivia, there are no teams. We can survive Eddie and trivia style questions as long as there’s no whiff of competition.”
Eddie whispers something that sounds suspiciously like everything’s a competition , and Ben catches Stan’s painful looking eye roll before he jumps in to change the subject. He can’t imagine any of them are ready to rehash the 1992 game night debacle.
“Did I hear someone question Spaghetti Man’s right to win a non-existent competition? Because you know I’m always on his team,” Richie says, through a yawn. “Morning, Losers.”
Everyone but Stan chimes back, “Morning, Richie.” Stan jabs Richie’s chest with a finger and says, “Do. Not. Start. Richard. Besides, it’s too early for your terrible John Forsythe impression.”
“The fact that you can tell what I was aiming for just goes to show how perfectly timed my John Forsythe impression was Stanislavski.”
This is, of course, when they notice they’ve run out of mugs, Stan realising no one remembered to put the dishwasher on the night before. Ben waves Richie over, holding his mostly full mug of coffee out for him to take. Richie leans up against the kitchen bench beside him, hiding another yawn in Ben’s neck because he is gross and fifteen still. Or maybe it’s again. He takes a sip of Ben’s coffee, smiling gratefully.
“Red’s still snoring,” he says quietly. “I’m guessing her nightmares are still pretty bad?”
Ben nods. “That’s how we all ended up in Stan’s bed last night. Bev dreamt about him …” but there’s no way he can say that out loud. Not in the morning, with the sun shining in the window and the kitchen full of laughter, everyone in pyjamas and Patty and Mike cooking breakfast at the stove. That’s a conversation for the dark, for late at night when things are less real. He clears his throat. “She wanted to check on him anyway.”
“Yeah,” Richie nods. Ben follows his gaze to Eddie and Stan, heads bent together, Eddie’s socked feet standing on Stan’s bare ones to warm them on the cool tiles. “Yeah. I should probably talk to her about the nightmares.”
“Are you getting.” Ben stops, but it’s Richie, who has never judged anyone for saying the wrong thing. “Are you having deadlight nightmares too?”
Richie looks back at him, smile brittle, but he doesn’t pull his mask back up. “I’m not sure about the deadlight part, but I think we’re all getting nightmares, Handsome.”
“I know what I said.” Richie bumps his shoulder, and they go back to watching the morning unfold around them.
When Bev finally makes an appearance, just as breakfast is being served, it’s to mocking from Bill and Richie that she always did have suspiciously good timing.
She flips them off, coming to stand in front of Ben. She snuggles back into him, her back to his chest, and tugs his arms around her front.
“I missed you when I woke up,” she says, soft and just for him.
He tries to remember why he felt nervous about this, but all his reasons seem silly now. Ridiculous to worry about the hows and whys of a situation warped by truly demonic evil. Absurd to think that they could ever be wrong for each other when all he wants is to love her, to be a safe place for her to come home to, to give her whatever she’s comfortable taking and take whatever she’s willing to give. He loves her so much he feels full from it. Full and overflowing, and utterly content.
“Mmm, but I have a feeling if I’d woken you before now I would not have been sleeping with you tonight.”
Bev turns in his arms so she’s facing him, still pillow-creased and dopey. She leans up on her tiptoes and brushes a soft kiss to his chin.
“You know me so well.”
Ben stops waiting for the other shoe to drop. That feeling had reminded him almost painfully of that first summer. He kept waiting for them to get sick of him, to leave. Because they only saved his life ‘cause you don’t just let other kids die like that. Because they would think his taste in music was stupid. Because what kids with friends and bikes and adventures wanted to spend time with the nerdy library boy. It wasn’t really until it was all over and he could take a step back and breathe, that he had realised that they still hadn’t left. That Richie and Bill would absolutely make fun of his taste in music, but they would still put whatever songs he liked best on the group mixtapes. That Mike and Stan were not feigning interest in all the weird shit Ben found fascinating. That when Eddie and Bev invited him out for ice cream they genuinely wanted him there. Being with them, from the very first moment, had been like magic. Like he hadn’t been friendless because he was unloveable, but because he hadn’t met them yet. He’d been waiting for them, and they’d been waiting for him.
Feeling like that was an elaborate fake out at fourteen had sucked. Feeling that way at forty, well, he can own that as being deliberately obtuse. Trying to build walls to protect himself from rejection that wasn’t coming.
Richie passes his mug back, full again with fresh coffee. He takes a sip, passes it down to Bev, and helps carry the mountains of breakfast food to the table.
They sit around the table, elbow to elbow, passing plates of pancakes and eggs, tussling over maple syrup and salt and nearly spilling orange juice. The third time Richie misses his mouth mid laugh, Stan groans.
“Your mouth is huge dude, how do you keep missing it?”
“Yeah, whatever babylove, ” Richie says, managing to both stick his tongue out and shovel more mushrooms into his mouth, and Eddie has to whack him between the shoulder blades when he starts choking.
The closeness doesn’t overwhelm him this time. He lets it wash over him. Leans back on his chair and let’s Bev snuggle into his side. She steals the toast he made them right off his plate.
After breakfast Stan slips away from the table. Richie watches Patty watch him go, an almost worried wrinkle between her eyebrows. He catches her eye and manages to indicate through some hopefully subtle head movements and hand gestures that she doesn’t have to worry, he’ll go after him.
He shoves back from the table, grabbing a few plates to carry through to the kitchen, and goes in search of Stan.
He finds him in the study, bent over the desk. His shoulders painfully taut under his ridiculous button up pyjamas. Richie can hear his ragged breathing from the doorway and his heart hurts.
“Stanley?” He hesitates, not wanting to push his way in when he’s not sure of his welcome, and feeling thrown by that lack of confidence. When they were kids it didn’t matter how many buttons Richie had pushed in a day, if Stan needed comfort he’d let him in.
Stan turns slowly, and forces out a smile even though Richie can still see the stress in his face, behind his eyes.
“Hey,” he croaks.
“Can I come in?”
Stan sighs, but it’s not his frustrated one. It’s the one he uses when he thinks he should be disapproving of his friends but is secretly just fond. He opens his arms. “Get over here, Trashmouth.”
Richie feels that old familiar tug in his heart, in his gut. The one that doesn’t let him stand far away when his friends need him. The need to reach out, touch a shoulder, offer a hug, tickle until it’s laughter that bubbles out of them. He didn’t know he still had that. Or maybe he did, he just hasn’t had people that inspire it in a long time.
He’s across the room, wrapping his arms around Stan before either of them can second guess it.
Stan tucks himself under Richie’s chin, and Richie can almost hear the cogs turning in his head as he tries to reason his way out of whatever is threatening to take control of him. He remembers long, circuitous conversations, always after dark, when they were teenagers and little buzzed. Stan trying to understand how they thought, how Richie and Eddie and Bev could just let their emotions explode outwards. Them trying to explain that they didn’t, not always, but you can’t think your way through everything, sometimes you just have to react.
“Stan, buddy, it’s me,” he whispers into Stan’s curls. “You can let it out. Whatever it is.”
Richie feels it the second Stan lets himself fall apart. His whole body shakes with it, his chest warm with Stan’s ragged breathing and the front of his old Patti Smith t-shirt a mess of tears. He stands as steady as he can, arms firm around Stan’s shoulders, holding him up.
Memories hit him. Fourteen and too long to still be lying under Stan’s bed. It’s not a good hiding place now that his feet stick out the end. Wrapped around each other, one of them crying while the other held them tight. They all had ways of making each other feel safe, but Richie doesn’t think Stan cried in front of any of the others after his bandages came off and school went back. Maybe Mike, out at the farm which always felt a little like it wasn’t Derry. Another world. But mostly, when he wanted to let go, he’d call Richie about a project for school or drag him back to his place after hanging out with the others, his grip making the bones in Richie’s wrist ache.
Speaking of aching bones, Richie really needs to not be vertical right now. Or sleeping on air mattresses. Or maybe moving his back and bending his knees ever again. Now he’s noticed it, the pain is all he can focus on. He clenches his teeth, tries to think about literally anything else.
“You alright there, Richie?” Stan asks.
Stan pulls back, scrubs the tears from his face, and raises an eyebrow. That eyebrow has dragged more confessions out of Richie than any parent, teacher, manager, cop, or therapist. It is a very powerful eyebrow. “Just groaning and holding yourself rigid for the fun of it?”
Apparently Richie is not as sneaky as he thought. Figures.
“Yep. It’s what everyone’s doing for fun these days. You wouldn’t know about that, on account of being allergic to fun, but it’s a whole thing.”
“Uh huh.” Stan adds a knowing smirk to his Eyebrow and Richie knows he’s fucked.
“So, not sure how much you could see down there, what with Bozo the Clown’s penchant for mood lighting, but my emergency post deadlights landing left a lot to be desired. Like a crash mat. Or a bungee cord.”
Stan’s expression goes from knowing to concerned at lightspeed.
“Shit, Richie. Why didn’t you say? You’ve been sitting in cars and sleeping on shitty mattresses for days! Sit down, or lie down, or stand against the wall, whatever feels best. I’m going to get you a heat pack and some painkillers.” He moves towards the door, shakes himself, and heads back to the desk, rifling through the drawers until he comes up with an address book. “You should make an appointment with my physio, too.”
“Who are you? Eddie? I’m fine, man, I just need to stretch it out, although I won’t say no to the drugs. But I came in here to check on you.”
“Nope. We’re shifting gears for a second, and ,” Stan says, voice climbing to speak over Richie’s next interruption, “I will tell Eddie you haven’t been taking care of yourself after sustaining a potentially permanent injury if you don’t let me take care of you. You can grill me about my outburst when I get back, okay?”
“Fine, fine. You’ve got yourself a deal.” The thought of Eddie worrying about him was not wholly unpleasant. He’d spent every single day of his childhood and adolescence chasing his attention, practically shouting LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME while doing increasingly ridiculous things. But if Eddie starts worrying about how Richie’s sleeping with a sore back, he might not wake up with an armful of Eddie again, and he’s not a Bad Person, per se, but he’s also not a very good one either. It was the best he’s slept without pharmaceutical assistance.
Stan makes him shake on it, which is hilarious and kinda makes Richie want to cry, and shuts the door firmly behind him.
Richie lowers himself slowly into the chair behind the desk, keeping his movements small, like if he telegraphs them obviously enough, his body will go easier on him.
“Fuck me, this is the oldest I’ve ever felt.”
The full body groan that ripples through him when he’s finally settled reminds him so much of his dad he feels another freak out coming on. It seems like every time he looks in the mirror now he sees something newly Went-ish. It isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it makes him feel like the Cryptkeeper.
He needs a distraction from the grey hairs and old man bones. Like, right now.
There’s a framed photo of Stan and Patty on the desk. On holiday somewhere, short sleeves and a technicolour beach sunset. Stan’s got his Hawaiian shirt buttoned all the way up. God, Richie’s missed him so much.
He opens the top drawer, looking for something shiny. Metaphorically speaking.
There are more fancy pens than any two people could possibly need. Two of them are engraved. S.U. and P. U. Of course they have matching engraved fountain pens, picture perfect couple that they are. There are a stack of letters, neatly addressed in Stan’s tidy penmanship. He’s always had the neatest hand of all of them.
Richie wouldn’t open the letters. Not normally. But the first one is addressed to William Denbrough and Richie can’t help but shuffle through them until he gets to Richard Tozier . And then it’s fair game, isn’t it? No one can accuse him of snooping when it’s literally got his name on it.
Richie doesn’t even make it to the end of the first sentence before he feels the hot stinging of tears in the corners of his eyes. They roll down his cheeks, and he feels his face crumple, just like his heart.
I know what this must seem like, but this isn’t a suicide note.
“Fucking fuck, Stanley,” he whispers, voice thick.
I knew we’d all die. So, I made the only logical move. I took myself off the board. Did it work? He slams his mouth shut before he starts sobbing loud enough to draw attention.
He can see it. This new adult Stan he’s been learning, sitting at this desk, calm in the knowledge that he was making the only logical move he could see. He’d alluded to it, in Derry, but Richie hadn’t thought … couldn’t think about it going this far, being this close to losing Stan before they even got him back.
I lived my whole life afraid.
Oh Stan , Richie thinks, I know all about that. You know I do . His whole adult life, every moment post Derry and a lot of moments in it, he has been afraid of himself. Afraid of anyone trying to see past the Trashmouth of it all, of letting people get too close, close enough to touch. Don’t touch the other boys, Richie.
Be who you want to be. Be proud.
Richie is openly weeping now. There’s no way he’ll be able to hide this from Stan when he comes back, prepared to aggressively care Richie into submission. Did he know? Did Stan know, before Derry, that Richie was still afraid of it? It wouldn’t surprise him. Stan had always known Richie too well. It was part of the reason Richie had told him in the first place, fifteen with his heart in his mouth, offering his best friend the words that could destroy him.
Be proud. Had Stan written personalised letters and addressed them to the group so Richie would feel like he could talk to the others about things long left unsaid?
Richie looks up. Stan is standing in the doorway, looking all deer in the headlights, whiteknuckling the pill bottle and a glass of water.
“Stan.” Richie holds his hands up, placating, not bothering to wipe the tears off his face in favour of trying to wipe the scared look off Stan’s. “Stanley, breathe.”
“Richie, I … ” Stan’s voice is so soft it breaks Richie’s heart.
“It’s okay,” he sniffs. “It’s okay.”
“No, no it’s not. Shit, Richie, I’m sorry. You weren’t supposed to read that. You were never supposed to see that. Not after … I’m sorry, Richie.” Stan’s crying again, which sets Richie off, and this is not what Richie wanted, but it might be cathartic.
They might also end up needing another nap, because crying always knocks Richie out. Sometimes it’s the only way he can guarantee a full night’s sleep.
He heaves himself out of the chair and moves, hesitantly, towards Stan. He doesn’t want to spook him, but he wants to be close enough to hug him if he’s allowed.
Palms still raised, tears almost under control, he says, “kinda seems like I was, Stanley. It’s got my name on it and everything.”
“I’m sorry - ”
“No, Stan. It’s okay. I’m not, I’m not whatever it is you think I am? I’m not mad at you or anything. I get it, alright. No, no, stop trying to interrupt me, let me be genuine for once.” Stan snorts. “I get it, okay? I’m not going to keep talking about this if you don’t want me to, although Stanley, I think you should definitely talk to someone, because if this seemed like an option for even a second … Look, I don’t want to live in a world without you, okay? I don’t want that. Patty doesn’t want that. The other Losers out there, eating you out of house and home, they don’t want that. I need you in the world, Stanley. It doesn’t make sense without you in it. Okay?”
They stand there, a foot apart, getting their breathing under control, and Stan keeps nodding. Every time they catch each other’s eyes they regress, gasping and sobbing, and it’s too much. Richie reaches out and Stan folds in on him, grabbing Richie’s t-shirt and pulling him close.
“I was just … ” Stan says, into the space between them, his forehead pushed hard against Richie’s sternum. “I was so scared, Richie. I was so fucking out of my mind scared. I thought. I thought I was going to get you all killed. I just, I thought I couldn’t do it. But I did, I did it, and you weren’t supposed to see these. I was going to get rid of them. You weren’t - ”
Richie rubs circles into his back, presses a firm kiss to the crown of his head. He murmurs the first things that come out. Doing what he does best, talking. “No, hey, buddy, it’s okay. It’s okay man. We couldn’t have done it without you. You showed up. You came through. You were so fucking brave. Second bravest person I’ve ever met. Actually no, that’s Bev. Third bravest.”
Stan snorts again, sounding snotty. “You’re real good at this comforting thing, Tozier.”
Richie beams down at him. “I’m so fucking proud of you, Stanley the Manly. So fucking proud.”
“I’m proud of you too, Trashmouth.” Stan pats his chest and pulls away.
They wipe their faces. Richie’s sure he looks just as red and puffy and exhausted as Stan does. Just as grossly emotional. He pushes through the creeping embarrassment, says one last thing he knows he needs to say.
“Thanks for showing up, Stanley.”
Stan punches him in the shoulder. “Richie, you fucker. I just got myself under control.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Trashmouth’s an asshole.”
“You’re not an asshole, Richie,” Stan says, rolling his eyes. “Thank you. I love you too.”
“He can be an asshole and we can still love him, that’s kind of the deal with Rich, if I’m remembering right,” says a voice from the door.
Stan and Richie jump, looking over to see Eddie leaning up against the doorframe. Arms crossed, eyes warm but smile a little pinched, a little worried, assessing them both. No doubt looking them over for outward signs of injury or distress. A perfect encapsulation of Eddie Kaspbrak.
“Eduardo! How long have you been standing there?”
Eddie raises his eyebrows, amused. “Literally just for that last bit. Long enough to discover you’re an asshole and that Stan loves you, two brand new pieces of information. I came to see if you guys wanted to go for a walk. We’re all going to go to some park Patty says you like, Stan. And then we were going to talk, but that’s not important because you look like someone died, but pretty much everyone we know is here, so,” he hesitates, “are you both okay?”
“Yes,” Stan says, at the same time Richie says, “nope,” popping the ‘p’ like some attempt at lightheartedness will make the stomach drop feeling of ‘you look like someone died’ go away.
Eddie moves into the room. He takes the pill bottle from Stan and unscrews the top. He shakes two pills out, and offers them to Richie. When Richie just stands there, looking confused, he takes his hand and puts them on his palm. “I know they’re for you. Do you think I haven’t noticed you holding yourself funny? That fall can’t have done you any good, old man. Now take those, and tell me what’s going on.”
“Who are you calling old man? We are the same age.” Richie talks like he’s going to fight about it, but they all know he’ll fold so he cuts the crap and takes the pills. He tries to swallow them dry and Stan shoves the glass of water at him and pounds on his back when he starts to choke.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Eddie says, rolling his eyes. “I forgot you’re not an old man, you’re actually a child, completely incapable of taking Advil without killing yourself, Jesus Richie. Now, tell me why you both look like you’ve tried to drown yourselves, or I swear to god I will get Bev in here and she will get it out of you. It’s much easier for all of us if you just tell me.”
“God, Eds. Calling in the big guns? Ease up, dude, it’s no big secret.” Stan glares at Richie, but Richie figures that that truth will come out eventually, when Stan is ready. It’s not his to tell right now. “You know, I’ll cry at anything these days. Literally the drop of a hat. Spilled milk takes me days to recover from. And I’m just worried.” He stops, starts again. “I guess, I’m just worried about,” he’s having trouble talking. That lump in his throat’s returned, his old friend nausea. Fuck sincerity is a hard bike to get back on.
“Rich?” Eddie’s eyes are huge with concern. Stan’s hand is still resting between his shoulder blades.
All over again it hits him. How could he have forgotten them?
He knew Stan and Bill before he knew how to talk, Eddie before he could spell all the words he’d learnt. They used to run around his backyard playing adventure, mud in their socks and scabby knees. Build forts and wage wars on each other down by the Kenduskeag. Always Stan and Bill against Richie and Eddie. Fall asleep on the sleeping bags laid out on the floor, no one ever in the actual bed because that meant missing out on whispered conversations, words slurring until they were dreaming together too. We’re Losers. And we always will be. Fucking hell, Stanley.
Richie heaves in a breath. “I guess I’m scared about what comes next.”
Stan furrows his brow. “What do you mean?”
“What comes next is the rest of our lives, Rich,” Eddie says, gentle, in that way that Richie craved as a kid but always ended up ruining because it was too much. Too much to have Eddie’s hand wrap gently around his wrist, his whole arm burning with it. Too much to focus on those eyes. Richie, full grown and with two demon battles under his belt, still feels like pulling away. He doesn’t though.
“What comes next is whatever we want. I mean, if you go back to comedy you need to start writing your own shitty jokes instead of telling someone else’s, would a little authenticity kill you? But other than that, it’s whatever you want. What do you want, Rich?”
Richie swallows. What does he want? He wants to sleep in his own bed. He never wants to wake up alone again. He wants to not throw up at the thought of writing his own jokes. He wants to tell Eddie how he feels. He wants to never say those words out loud. He wants to go back to California. He doesn’t want to go more than two days without seeing the Losers ever again. He wants to live the rest of his life without being afraid all the time.
Trying to figure out what to keep from those Loser-less years and what to take out the back and shoot is going to take time, he knows that. It sucks, but at least he’s not the only one relearning everything he knows about himself. At least, he hopes he’s not. He feels like a teenager again, setting off for college with no idea how to be an adult, endless possibilities unravelling in front of him. Terrified and elated.
“What if I want to make a kid’s show with you guys? What if that actually sounds like a really good idea to me?”
Eddie squeezes his elbow, and Stan beams at him.
“Then that’s what we’ll do. Pat and I talked about it last night. Our life doesn’t have to be here in Atlanta. In fact, I want to be wherever you guys are. L.A. New York. Wherever. As long as it’s not fucking Maine. I am never going back to fucking Maine.” Richie’s never calling it anything but Fucking Maine from now on, just watch him. “Let’s make a tv show. I have no idea how to do that, but we’ve done bigger, scarier, more impossible things. I’m sure we can figure it out.”
“I have some contacts,” Richie says. “Might be able to get some meetings. If I’m not completely toxic now I’ve ditched my tour and gone off grid. If that doesn’t work, we can film it ourselves and put it up on Youtube. It’s what all the kids are doing.”
“How on Earth would you know what all the kids are doing?” Eddie asks, grinning. “You’re not the only one with L.A. connections either. Bill’s bound to know someone if you don’t.”
“Is that a challenge, Eds?”
Eddie shrugs. “Nah. I’m just saying. If this is what you want, I’m in too. It’ll take time for me to get my shit together, but I’m in. And I’m willing to bet at least some of the others are too, judging from the enthusiasm last night. We’ll make it happen.”
Standing there, in Stan’s study, exhausted before midday, Richie looks at the determined set of Eddie’s shoulders and thinks, yeah, he’s going to make it happen. I can’t fucking wait.