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Beverly Marsh leans heavily against her bathroom sink, hands shaking as she desperately attempts to steady herself. Her ragged breaths sound heavy, suffocating, to her own ears.

(You're still my little girl, right?)

The ghost of a hand curling around her hair, hot breath wafting in her face, forces shivers down her spine as she clenches her eyes tightly.

(Yes, Daddy.)

Shame, hot and heavy, curls its way into her gut. Tears pour silently down her cheeks as she attempts to swallow the growing lump in her throat. Raising her head slowly, she stares at her reflection in the grimy mirror. She struggles to recognize the person that gazes back. It’s a vague kind of detachment, like she’s not really there at all; like all she is is what he’s tried to make of her.

Her hand lifts as if of its own accord, fingertips trembling as they stroke over long strands of hair. Her father's voice still rings in her ears as she reaches over and grasps a pair of scissors. Taking a deep, quivering breath, she holds them firmly in her grip and grabs a handful of hair. A strange kind of exhilaration fills her as it’s cut away, as it swirls slowly down the drain.

Another chunk goes, and another, again and again until finally she looks at her reflection in the mirror and sees herself. It’s really her, for what feels like the first time in forever, despite the tear tracks and blotchy skin and red rimmed, haunted, eyes staring back.

As she reaches up to run her hand through what’s left of her hair, she feels as if she can finally breathe again. In this moment - this brief, shining moment - she is her own.

It’s this feeling that urges her forward, away from the walls and the person that always feel as though they’re closing in on her. She quietly unlocks the bathroom door, relief flooding her system at seeing her father's bedroom door firmly shut, taking gentle steps until she reaches the side door and slips through it.

As she clicks it closed behind her, she leans back and tilts her head up towards the sun. Something builds in her chest as the rays hit her bare neck, a kind of warmth she hadn’t realized she was missing. A laugh bubbles up out of her mouth, loud and sharp and almost hysterical, and she flings herself down the stairs of the fire escape with a reckless kind of ease.

She starts to walk without a destination in mind, the cold autumn wind at constant battle with the sun. Her hands itch for a cigarette, and she shoves them deeper into her pockets as she wraps her cardigan tightly around her.

Realizing after a while that she’s headed in the vague direction of the quarry, she decides that it’s as good a spot as any to waste away a few hours of her Saturday. The red and gold of the autumn leaves reflect off the dark water, and something in her stills.

____________

 

In a house on the other side of town, one Richie Tozier is going out of his goddamn mind. He lays flopped down on his twin sized bed, lanky limbs awkwardly folded beneath him as he finds himself reading the same paragraph of his history textbook over and over, eyes blurring slightly and fingers tapping erratically against the pages. Sighing, he unfolds himself and sits upright, throwing his pencil down somewhere in the general vicinity of his bed.

“Hey, Stan,” Richie says, trying to gain the attention of his friend sitting across the room, whose homework is currently being cast aside in favour of an attempt to organize the disaster zone that makes up Richie's desk. When Stan doesn’t look up, focused on rearranging a small pile of comics, switching from going by author's last name to volume number to general colour scheme and back again, Richie decides it might be in Stan's best interest as well as his own to be provided with a proper distraction.

“Stan. Staaaan. Stan the Man.” Receiving no response for his efforts besides an annoyed huff, Richie jumps from the bed and bounds across the room, wrapping his arms around Stan's shoulders and resting his chin gently on top of the other boys' curls. As Stan tenses slightly beneath him, fingers pausing in their restless efforts, Richie puts on his best British gentleman voice. “Why my good fellow, I daresay you oughta give your best friend in the whole world some love and attention before he dies of heartache!”.

Turning slightly and removing himself from Richie's grip, Stan rolls his eyes. “You 're right, Rich. Toss me my phone so I can give Bill or Eddie a call.”

Richie groans loudly, clutching at his chest, “Staniel, why must you wound me so! I have never, in all my thirteen years of life, been so hurt. Alas, if I must battle Big Billiam for your affections, it’s a hardship I choose to accept. I don't know about Spaghetti though, his little face is just too damn cute to mark up.”

“Let's not ignore the fact that Eddie could kick your ass,” Stan points out.

Richie has to agree on that point. “Yeah, Ed’s a feisty one.” He glances down, a small smile on his face, ignoring Stan’s raised eyebrow. What he doesn’t ignore, however, is that Stan’s released his grip on the comics. Mission accomplished, then, although he catches Stan's fingers twitching slightly like they itch for nothing more than to return to their previous activity.

Deciding the best course of action to prevent this is a change of scenery, Richie spins Stan fully around in his chair before grabbing his hands and pulling him to his feet. “Stanny my boy, it is a Saturday and I refuse to spend any more time wasting away in the mental prison that is this history homework. We need to be free, and wild! We need to experience an epic adventure, to make a name for ourselves so that one day some poor children will be reading about us in their history books!”

Stan sighs loudly, crossing his arms. “Okay, what’s the big plan then, genius?”. Doubt laces his tone.

Richie blinks quickly, reaching up to adjust his glasses. “Oh, uh.. wanna hang out at the quarry or something?”

Yeah, that sounded about right. 'Epic adventure’ my ass, Stan thinks. He has vague concerns that he may permanently damage his eyes from rolling them too hard if he continues to hang out with Richie so often. Still, he collects his belongings from where he stacked them in the single corner of Richie's room that's cleared of trash and dirty clothing. Turning towards Richie, he zips up his jacket and smooths his collar down neatly. “Why is the quarry your first thought when it's the middle of November and there's frost on the ground? There's no way I'm going anywhere near the water,” he threatens, no real heat behind his words.

Richie grins widely, nodding his head. “Uh huh, uh huh, definitely not, no way José. Going in the water would be very irresponsible and not at all hilarious,” he says in the most serious voice he can muster.

“Okay, whatever you’re planning, I’m not dealing with it alone. Text Bill and Eddie to meet us there.”

“On it my good sir,” British Richie salutes, faltering slightly when he gazes around his whirlwind of a room to try and remember where in the chaos he left his phone. His best bet is that it's buried somewhere in the tangled sheets upon his bed. This hunch is proven correct when he marches over and, before Stan can think to stop him, grabs said sheets and whips them as hard as he can into the air. His phone goes sailing across the room, landing with an unfortunate sounding thud on the hardwood floor. “Whoops,” Richie laughs sheepishly, picking it up to inspect the damage. His grin turns triumphant when he turns it over. “All clear!” he shouts, holding it up in the air triumphantly.

“Rich can you see anything out of those fucking glasses? That thing is smashed to hell.”

“Nah don't worry, it was already like that. This baby's a trooper,” Richie coos down at his phone while he texts their friends about the plan for that afternoon. “There ya go Stan, the cavalry is on the way! Now let's get the fuck outta here before the boredom physically kills me.” Throwing an arm around the slightly taller boy, Richie leads them into the hallway. He shouts a half assed goodbye to his mom as they pass while dodging the windbreaker she tries to toss him, and then the two boys are grabbing their bikes and heading for the quarry.

____________

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Eddie Kaspbrak looks up from where he’s perched cross legged at his kitchen table, reaching over and swiping off his phone alarm with practised fingers. Time for his afternoon pills. With a sigh, he rolls his shoulders and stretches his arms slightly before getting up and heading toward the cupboard. Grabbing a glass, he inspects it carefully before filling it with water and swallowing down a medley of slightly bitter pills in one go.

“Eddie Bear?”

Sonia Kaspbrak shuffles into the kitchen, voice sickly sweet as her gaze lands firmly on her son. “Have you taken all your pills? You know it's not good for you if you don't stick to a strict schedule every day.” Her voice leaves little room for debate.

“Yes Mommy, I took them as soon as my alarm went off. Like always.” Eddie winces slightly as his last sentence comes out sharper than he intended, hoping his mother doesn't pick up on his tone.

Unfortunately for him, her eyes narrow just slightly at his words, before a smile slowly spreads across her greasy face. “Well we can't be too careful, now can we? Let me just have a quick looksie at your phone, make sure everything's still in order. You're so delicate dear, who knows what would happen if I didn't look out for you.”

She holds her hand out expectantly, and Eddie reluctantly passes his phone over. Typing in the pass-code she’s long since memorized, she pulls up the abundant number of alarms she had programmed in the day Eddie first got his phone. She scrolls through them slowly, a satisfied glint in her eyes.

When Eddie's phone pings suddenly with an incoming text, he instinctively reaches over to try to grab the phone back from his mother. This movement is aborted when she clenches the phone tighter in her hand, drawing her arm into her side. Eddie is usually so careful about avoiding this exact situation. It’s no secret that his mom doesn’t approve of his friends. He always deletes every message from them immediately after he responds to it.

His careful system is no help in this case however, as Sonia's mouth pinches into a tight line, brows furrowing as she reads the words that have appeared at the top of his screen. In a carefully mediated voice, she turns the phone towards Eddie. “Eddie, dear, who is this?”.

Eddie's heart sinks as he reads the words on the screen. It’s a text from Richie, reading ‘eds! Get your cute ass over to the quarry asap! oh and tell your mom i say hi and i’ll swing by for a visit later ;)’.

Clenching his teeth tightly, Eddie raises his head back to look at his mother as anxiety courses through his system.

“Well? Who is sending you these filthy texts?” Her voice has turned steely as she looms over her son.

“That,” Eddie squeaks out before clearing his throat, “That's uh, it's Richie, Mommy.”

“Ah,” She closes her eyes and nods slightly, breathing out a heavy breath through her nose. “That boy- he is not a good influence for you, Eddie. Going to the quarry, especially in this weather? He's going to get you killed! I don't want you associating with him any longer.”

Anger begins to rise in Eddie's chest. “He's one of my best friends Mom, I've known him for years, you can't tell me I'm not allowed to see him.”

“Well I am!” Her harsh words echo through the kitchen, reverberating in Eddie's ears. “He’s a bad kid, a dirty boy, and I will not let him infect my child.”

Infect? “What do you mean in-”

“He is sick, Eddie!” She’s shaking slightly now, a manic gleam in her eyes.

Eddie glances back down at the texts, nausea curling in his gut as he finally understands the meaning behind his mother's words.

(Get your cute ass over to the quarry)

For reasons he can't understand, tears begin forming in Eddie's eyes, and he wills them away as he works to get his words out. “That's not.. he was just kidding mommy. Richie's not like that, I promise.”

He can't stop the thoughts that start pounding their way through his brain. Even if Richie was like that, who cares? Who cares if Eddie was like that? Just because Derry is apparently stuck in the 1950's, it doesn't mean the whole world is.

He isn't like that though. And neither is Richie.

Sonia continues to stare down at her son, anger suddenly gone, replaced with that familiar sickly sweet expression. “You know I only ever do what's best for you, Eddie Bear. I love you, and I have to protect you. Now, you seem stressed out today, why don't you go for a nice lie down. I'll hold onto this for the time being,” she gestures to the phone still clutched firmly in her sweaty palm, “We don't want anything distracting you from getting your proper rest.”

Her hand firm on his back, she leads him out of the kitchen and towards his bedroom. His shaky hands click the door gently shut, and as soon as he hears her heavy footsteps padding away in the direction of the living room, he leans heavily against the frame. Tears leak slowly out of his eyes, and he takes two gasping puffs from his inhaler to try and get his breathing under control.

As his body slowly settles back to normal, he feels his anger from earlier returning. Who did his mom think she was? To pass harsh judgments on his best friends, to constantly police who he gets to see, where he gets to go. He paces back and forth in front of his bed, unable to stay still as his mind whirls.

It's not fair. He knows the way she keeps him cooped up isn’t normal. Just because he’s sick doesn't mean he can't live his life - what's the point of choking down pills day in and day out if he can't even leave his bedroom?

His mind drifts back to Richie’s text. Heading back towards his door, Eddie’s able to hear his mother's stories playing on the television, accompanied by loud, groaning snores. He steels himself and marches over to his bedroom window, opening it and climbing out before he can change his mind.

____________

Ben Hanscom, despite having resided in Derry for several months now, is still known only as The New Kid. While he knows there are much worse things he could be called, he can't help but hate the nickname, and the isolation that comes along with it. He’s yet to make a single friend - the only people who even seem to acknowledge his existence are Henry Bowers and his lackeys. As much as spending so much time alone hurts, that pain is nothing compared to the bouts of terror he’s been forced to endure at Henry's hands.

He shivers at the memory of his last confrontation with the gang, when they cornered him after school the previous afternoon. They had pushed him off his bike and refused to let up until Henry got a phone call from his father and hurried off after one final swift kick. Now, sitting in an empty corner of Derry Public Library, Ben adjusts his sweater slightly in a failing attempt to have it sit more comfortably upon his bruised body. He flips idly through the pages of the poetry book in front of him.

He normally loves poetry; there’s a certain kind of magic he thinks only a really good poem can create. Today, however, Ben can’t even concentrate enough to make out the words. His mind keeps drifting to that most recent beating, where not a single person came to his aid. It’s nothing new, but Ben still hasn’t quite figured out how to stop himself from caring.

While he’s always been one who can appreciate silence and his own company, it’s only since moving to Derry that he really learned the difference between being alone and being lonely.

Sighing quietly, he returns the book to the shelf and meanders slowly out the library doors.

He’s wandering listlessly down Derry’s main street, thumbing through apps on his phone, when he hears a sickeningly familiar voice call to him from a passing car. Henry Bowers shouts at someone to turn the car around, and Ben breaks into a run.

He has no idea where to go, where to hide, and panic is truly beginning to seep into his bones when a hand shoots out of nowhere and pulls him down a side alley that Ben hadn’t noticed in his frightened state.

 

Whipping his head towards the person connected to the hand he’s currently clutching like a lifeline, he huffs out a breath in recognition. Mike Hanlon, his brain supplies. The home-schooled kid.

Mike continues pulling Ben down the alley, then turns down a side street and cuts through a stranger's backyard. He doesn't stop until they’re both far away from the main street, Henry somewhere off in the distance. Ben huffs in big breaths of air, body hunched over and hands on his knees as Mike watches him in concern.

“Are you okay?”

Ben doesn't trust his voice quite yet, so he lifts one hand and gives a rather awkward, shaky thumbs up.

Mike huffs a slightly shaky laugh. “Okay, good. They were after me too, that's why I was hiding down that alley in the first place.”

Finally able to stand up fully, Ben shoots Mike a small grin. “Is it rude if I say I’m kind of glad? You probably just saved me from a heck of a lot of pain.”

Mike shrugs his shoulder, and grins back. “Yeah, I’ve been there too. Anytime man, really. I’m Mike, by the way.”

“I'm Ben. Anyway, thanks again Mike.” Ben makes to head off with a small wave, not wanting to keep Mike longer than he already has.

“Wait!” Mike calls out, and Ben turns back in surprise. “I mean, Bowers is probably still out there. We should probably stick together, for a little bit at least.”

Ben freezes, an odd, tight feeling in his chest. He hadn’t thought of that. What if Henry’s looking for them right now? He nods, expression serious. “Good idea. Where do you think we should go?”

Mike glances down a worn dirt path weaving through the woods to his left. Mouth set, he tilts his head at it in questioning. “What do you think, should we see where it goes?”

Ben follows his lead.
____________

Bill Denbrough smiles quietly to himself as he reads Richie’s text inviting him to the quarry, groaning slightly as he unfolds his legs and stands up from his bedroom floor. Hopping over the art materials haphazardly spread all over the ground, he grabs a jacket off the back of his desk chair and shuts his door behind him on the way out. It’ll hide the mess from his parents, although he really doubts they would notice either way.

They don’t notice much about him in general, these days. Not that Bill can really blame them.

His mind wanders back to the previous year, that familiar guilt slamming into him all over again as he recalls what his friends refer to as 'The Georgie Incident'. It had been Fall that day as well, but the similarities pretty much ended there. Today is beautiful; shining sun, clear skies. That day it had rained. Poured, really, bucketfuls of water dumped continually from storm grey clouds.

Georgie had wanted to go play. And Bill hadn’t.

There wasn’t anything more to it. He just - didn’t want to. So he’d faked a cough, thrown in a few sniffles, and sent Georgie off alone with just a paper boat and a plea to be careful. Georgie was just a kid though. And he was all alone.

He hadn’t seen the construction beam in time, and it knocked him unconscious. Bill had grown worried when Georgie was late getting home, and he told his parents where Georgie had gone. They were furious when they realized Bill had let Georgie go out alone, and rushed through the streets to find him still passed out cold in a puddle of water. Georgie was rushed to the hospital where he was treated for a concussion and pneumonia, and Bill was pushed firmly to the background of his parents' thoughts.

A year later, and Georgie is long since good as new. For this, Bill is eternally grateful. He loves his little brother more than anything in the world, can’t even stomach the thought of something happening to him. His parents, though - they’ve never quite figured out how to forgive him. He's not sure they’re even really aware of it. Bill tries not to let it get to him.

Georgie is okay, and that's all that really matters.

He wanders now into the kitchen, spotting his mother sitting at the counter, bent over a book with a coffee in hand.

“H-hey Mom, I'm gonna go to the quarry with some f-f-friends now if that's okay with you?” He asks hesitantly, not wanting to disturb her.

“Alright dear,” she answers absently, not looking up from her page, “make sure you're home by curfew.”

Bill nods slightly despite knowing she's not watching, not trusting himself to speak over the odd lump that has formed in his throat.

Heading into the hallway, he immediately feels better when he spots his little brother hovering by the door. “Hey G-georgie,” he grins, ruffling his hair gently, “how's it hangin'?”.

Georgie giggles, swatting Bill's hand away. “I'm fine Billy. I hope you have fun with your friends.”

The guilt ratchets up a notch. His parents have been so overprotective of Georgie in the last year, he’s hardly ever allowed to go out and have fun with his own friends.

He crouches down and wraps his younger brother up in a tight hug. “I w-won't have nearly as much fun as I have h-hanging out with you. Want me to bring you back an i-i-ice cream sandwich when I get home?” he asks, knowing full well what the answer is going to be. “I can sneak it to you in your room l-later and we can read for a bit before you g-go to sleep.”

Georgie gently releases himself from his brother's grip, nodding and grinning toothily up at him.

“Thanks Billy.”

“Of c-course little man. See you later, I love you.” With a parting kiss to the top of his brother's head, Bill heads out the front door. Grabbing his trusty bike from where it rests against the side of the house, he begins his journey up to the quarry.

“Hi-ho Silver, away!”

Chapter Text

Stan and Richie are the first of their friends to arrive at the quarry, Richie clumsily dropping his bike in the dirt and heading towards the cliff's edge. Stan follows a few moments later, having carefully propped his bike up on the kickstand. Staring at the still body of water below, frost crunching slightly under their shoes, neither boy speaks for a moment.

Stan eventually turns to look at Richie, squinting slightly. “Just so you know, if you’re planning some way to push me into the water, I will actually murder you.”

At this, Richie barks out a surprised laugh, and turns to face his friend. Putting on a breathy voice of shock and outrage, his eyes widen dramatically as he clutches at his chest. “Why Stanley! How dare you think so little of me, I'm just here minding my own business and planning out my next quality lay with Mrs. Kaspbrak, and you dare to accuse me of-”

He breaks off suddenly, eyes narrowing slightly at something behind Stan's head.

“Rich, what-”.

Shh!” Richie holds a hand out, effectively cutting Stan off. “I thought I heard something, by those trees over there.”

Stan whips his head around at this, searching the treeline for any sign of movement. “Maybe it was one of the guys coming down the path?”.

Richie looks uncertain, taking a few steps forward so that Stan is standing safely behind him. “Bill? Eds? Is that you guys?”. Receiving only silence in response, he feels himself relax slightly; maybe he imagined it.

--Crack!

There it is again, Stan's wide eyes confirming that he heard it too this time. Then comes the muffled sounds of someone swearing, and a hurried shuffling sound. Curiosity getting the best of him, Richie marches towards the voice, with Stan hesitantly trailing behind him a few beats later.

Coming to a stop a few steps past the treeline, the boys are met with the sight of Beverly Marsh in the middle of what was clearly intended to be a hasty exit through the trees and back towards the path.

Beav- I mean uh, Beverly?” Richie hastily corrects himself after feeling a sharp elbow digging into his ribs, courtesy of Stan. His eyes rake over their classmate, who’s currently staring at them like a deer in headlights.

Despite having never spoken two words to the girl, Richie knows exactly who she is; her reputation throughout the school precedes her. Still, staring at the girl stood frozen in front of him, her eyes wide and slightly red-rimmed, ginger hair cut short around her pale face, Richie feels a tug of something deep in his gut.

Slipping into his Southern Gentleman voice, he attempts to break the tension that’s settled thickly upon the three of them. “Why my lady, what's a fine young thing like you doing out here all by her lonesome? Ain't you got any friends to keep you company on a fine day such as this one?”

Richie winces as the words pour out without permission. Stan groans quietly beside him. It was no secret that Beverly didn't have any friends - people only paid attention to her long enough to fling harsh slurs and insults her way. Opening his mouth to butcher his way through some sort of apology, he pauses when Beverly beats him to the punch.

“Is that the best you got, Tozier? Cause I've been called a lot worse than friendless by people a lot bigger than you. Besides, you're not exactly rolling in admirers either, asshole. When's the last time you talked to anyone outside your little club of losers?” Her words are biting, shoulders drawn up and face hardened. She looks like someone who has learned the hard way to expect a fight, always scrabbling to get the upper hand.

“Losers club, huh?” Richie pauses, considering. “ You know what, that actually has a nice ring to it. Whaddya think Stan?”

Without waiting for a response from his friend, Richie plows on. “Losers club. Yeah, I like that. Is four people enough for a club though? I've never been part of a club before, unless orgies count, so it's hard to say.”

He stops for a moment, shoulders slumping when all he gets is raised eyebrows at his joke. “I do think five sounds more official than four though, don't you guys think? So, Bev,” Richie grins, bug eyed and buck toothed, excitement breaking over his features. “Are you in?”.

Beverly blinks at him, confused at the sudden turn in conversation. Directing her attention towards Stan, she asks “Do you know what he's trying to say?”. Stan shakes his head silently, eyebrows arched and curls bouncing.

Richie sighs dramatically, put out by their utter incompetence. “Come on you guys, keep up! I'm saying, the others are meeting us up here today, and I think you should join us, Miss Marsh! You were already hanging out here for some reason, and I'm way more interesting to talk to than a bunch of trees. It's gonna be a blast, we brought cards and music, and Stanny here's trying to talk all of us into going swimming.” He ignores Stan's indignant scoff in favour of keeping his focus trained solely on Beverly.

She narrows her eyes at him, searching his face for any sign that this is a joke or, worse, some kind of pity invite. She finds only hope and a brief flash of insecurity. “Fine. I'm in. On one condition.”

Richie nods, grinning. “Whatever your wish, I shall grant it for you my dear,” he channels his best impression of the Genie from Aladdin as he sinks into an awkward bow, nearly face planting as his foot catches on a rock.

Stan snorts out a laugh, and Beverly grins mischievously. “I'll hang out with you guys if you promise not to do any of those weird...accents? If they can actually be called that, for the rest of the day.”

Richie's mouth gapes open like a fish.

“But my dear, those are my Voices! And they’re magnificent I'll have you know, everybody loves them. There's no way my friends can go a whole day without hearing them.”

He’s met only with silence, Beverly waiting him out while Stan looks like he just won the lotto max.

Richie throws his hands up into the air. “Fine! The sacrifices I make for friendship, you guys could never understand. Beverly Marsh, I promise that for the rest of the day you guys will be bored out of your minds, as I refuse to entertain you with a single Voice. You'll of course come to regret this decision, but I’ll stand firm by my oath.” He holds a hand out to Beverly, pinkie finger extended.

Bev feels a grin splitting her face, as she reaches up to wrap her own pinkie firmly around Richie's. “Then it's a deal Richie Tozier, no backing out now.” She means it as a joke, but there’s an undercurrent of worry that laces her tone, as though she's scared he's going to.

Richie understands this fear all too well, and reassures her in an uncharacteristically soft voice. “Wouldn't dream of it.” He slowly separates their pinkies, his smile crinkling his eyes.

Stan, having been silent for the majority of this interaction as he observed a side of Richie that’s so rarely shown, pipes up now. Grinning at Bev, he holds out his hand for her to shake. “Anybody who can get Richie to drop those fucking accents is automatically my new favourite person. Welcome to the Losers Club, Beverly.”

While Bev shakes Stan's hand, unable to reign in the wide smile on her face, Richie lets out a loud whoop.

“The name's catching on guys! I'm telling you, this is gonna stick. It feels right, y'know?”

Beverly understands what Richie is trying to say, a feeling of acceptance spreading through her for perhaps the first time in her life. Catching Stan's eye, it's clear that underneath his layer of perpetual irritation, he feels the same.

Still cheering, Richie throws an arm around each of their shoulders and leads them back into the sunlight.

Chapter Text

When Bill's bike finally crests the top of the hill leading to the cliff, the view he happens upon has him stopping in his tracks. As expected, Stan and Richie arrived before him. They’re both sitting cross legged on a large flat rock, Stan perched on a jacket laid out neatly underneath him. The cause for Bill's current gaping, however, is the fact that none other than Beverly Marsh is with them. Head thrown back in laughter at something Stan says, she bumps his shoulder affectionately as though they’ve been friends for years.

It’s common knowledge among his friends that Bill’s carried a torch for Beverly ever since third grade when they kissed in the school play. He’s never tried to do anything about it though, the whole ‘admire from afar’ thing being more up his alley. His friends tease him about his obvious pining, but to his knowledge none of them actually know her either, so what is she doing hanging out with Stan and Richie on a Saturday?

Bill lays his bike down beside Richie's, clearing his throat awkwardly. “Uh, h-hey guys. Hey B-Beverly?”. His attempt at a smooth greeting comes out more like a question, and he inwardly curses himself.

Beverly grins brightly at him, putting down the hand of cards she's holding as she turns her attention towards Bill. “Hey Bill! I hope it's cool I'm crashing your hangout today.”

“Of course it is!” Richie pipes up. “Bill, she's kicking Stan's ass at Go Fish and I don't think I've ever been this happy.”

Stan rolls his eyes. “Don't sound so cocky Richie, she's kicking your ass too.” Richie sticks his tongue out in response.

Stan looks back up at Bill. “Bill, this girl is an actual angel. She got Richie to agree not to do any accents for the entire day. The entire day Bill! None of us have ever been able to make him stop for more than an hour. I'm still in awe.”

Beverly grins down at her cards, flushing slightly at the praise. Bill feels his heart beat pick up slightly, noticing the way it makes the freckles sprinkled on her cheeks stand out. Once his friends' words finally register, he lets out a light laugh.

“Well with r-rave reviews like that, I guess I can't c-c-complain,” Bill jokes, heading over and settling down on the rock himself. Bev's knee jostles his own as she collects the cards to deal him in for the next round, and he throws Richie a subtle warning look at the smirk the other boy isn't even trying to hide.

“Hey, where's Eddie?” He questions, in a rather see through attempt to get Richie's attention off himself and his embarrassing crush.

It works, however, as Richie's brow furrows. “I don't know. He never answered my messages earlier. I texted him again to see if he was on his way and I still haven't heard anything.”

Stan bumps Richie's shoulder lightly. “I'm sure he's fine Rich, it's probably just his mom keeping him home again.”

Richie nods absently. Stan was probably right, but still. Eddie’s been forced to miss out on a lot of things over the years because of his mother, but he always let one of the boys know when he can't make it somewhere. Now, Richie can't help but worry slightly.

He’s pulled out of his momentary stupor when Bev turns her head towards the path. “I think I just heard something, maybe that's him now?”.

Richie immediately perks up, face morphed into a hopeful smile. “Eds? Is that you, ya weenie? What's up with the silent treatment?”

Expecting to hear a shrill complaint about the nickname or a large puff of an inhaler, it comes as a slight shock when two strangers stumble into the clearing instead.

Well, maybe not total strangers.

The taller one, broad shouldered and dark skinned, is recognizable as Mike Hanlon, Derry's resident home-schooled kid who lives on his grandfather's farm on the outskirts of Derry. The other one, shorter and visibly uncomfortable with the weight of so many eyes trained on him, definitely goes to their school, although none of the boys can quite put a name to the face.

“Hey new kid on the block!”

Bev is waving at the boy with a look of happy surprise, causing his cheeks to turn a blotchy red. He smiles shyly back at her. “Hi Beverly, how are you?”.

“Eh you know, I'm just hangin' tough.”

The boy blushes even more fiercely at her words, sending her a slightly pleading look. The others share a look between themselves, confused by this interaction. Bev just laughs, waving the two new boys over to the group.

“Guys, do you know Ben? We met after school last week, and he's in my soc class.”

The other boys, glad to avoid the awkwardness of having to ask his name, all welcome Ben agreeably. Well, agreeably enough, though Richie is clearly struggling with not slipping into some kind of Voice. He’s not exactly a fan of having to just be himself around these new people, without any persona available to hide behind.

Still, he makes up for the lack of accents by being even more obnoxious than usual, jumping up and bounding over to where Ben and Mike have moved to stand together beside the rock.

“Hey there Haystack! Good to meet ya!” He ruffles Ben's sweaty hair, ignoring the boy's slight grimace, before turning his attention over to Mike. “Home-school! It's Mike, right? What's that short for? Micycle? Micholas? You seem more like a Micholas, I'm gonna go with that.”

As Richie opens his mouth again to continue his one-man game of 'make these new people as uncomfortable as possible', Bill reaches over and grabs his arm, gently pulling him back.
“B-beep beep Richie, let th-them take a b-breath.”

Mike lets out a laugh at this, slightly overwhelmed by all the attention. One glance at Ben shows that the other boy has somewhat shrunk in on himself, so Mike decides to take the reins of the conversation for his sake.

“You guys can just call me Mike, it's really great to meet you all.”

“So how do you two know each other?” Bev pipes up, gaze flitting curiously between Mike and Ben.

Ben lets out a stilted laugh. “Oh, we uh- don't, really? We just met today in town...” he pauses, unsure how to regale the embarrassing tale of Mike saving him from being beaten to a pulp by the town's bullies.

Just then, Mike cuts in, saving Ben once again. “Yeah, Henry and his goons were after me, and I was heading down an alley to find a decent place to hide when I ran into Ben. They were after him too but we got away before they found us. We thought it was probably best to lay low for a bit, so when we saw the path up here we figured it could work as well as anything.”

Richie lets out a loud whistle. “Well, damn! Glad you two got away, those guys are fucking psychopaths.” There are murmurs of assent from the rest of the group; nodding heads and scuffling shoes. “So tough guys, either of you two up for a swim? I've heard the water's great this time of year,” Richie asks in his most persuading voice, trying to convince at least one other person to join him in the water that day.

Ben looks scandalized. “In this weather? It must be freezing, we'd all catch colds for sure.”

Stan scoffs, speaking over Richie's protests. “Don't worry Ben, none of us are going swimming. Richie's the only one here with an apparent death wish.”

“Well excuse me for wanting to have a fun time! Are you seriously telling me not one of you will even think about cliff jumping with me?!”

Bev hums quietly behind him, considering. “I don't know. I think I could be persuaded.”

Richie's face breaks out into a huge grin, and he claps excitedly. “Well there we go! At least somebody here knows how to have a good time! Now, how about the rest of you?”

He’s met with dead silence.

“Seriously? Bitches, every single one of you,” he points his finger accusingly at each person in turn, dropping his hand only when he gets to Beverly. “Except you of course Bev, you're an angel and we're lucky to have you here.” She grins lazily at him, holding her hand up for a high five.

Bill snorts. “Rich, w-w-will you sit down already? It's n-not gonna happen. Ben, Mike, we were about t-to play a new r-r-round of Go Fish, you g-guys wanna be d-dealt in?”

Before either boy can get a word in edgewise, Richie groans loudly. “I'm bored of Go Fish, let's at least do something exciting! How 'bout a nice clean game of Strip Poker?” He looks around the group, deflating slightly when Stan shakes his head at him.

“Well fine then! Let's hear some of your brilliant ideas then folks.” He sweeps his arms wide mockingly, clearly expecting nobody to come up with anything better.

Instead, the group explodes into a chorus of voices, each person trying to yell their idea louder than the last. The suggestions thrown out range anywhere from charades to bingo to making up choreographed dances. Only Ben remains quiet, content to gaze around at this group of people who seem to have taken him in without a second thought, who after today, he might be able to consider his friends. He doesn't think he's ever felt this kind of happiness, wonders if he ever will again.

It's in the midst of this chaos that Eddie finally arrives, rage still sizzling under his skin after his earlier encounter with his mother. He had halfheartedly tried to calm himself down on the way over, but in truth the anger is the only thing really keeping his anxiety at bay. The thought that he had just snuck out of his house for the first time ever won't stop swirling around his brain. His mom will definitely notice his absence sometime soon, and he doesn't want to think about what that's going to mean for him upon his return.

Eddie's musings are stopped short when he actually takes in the scene in front of him. Why his best friends are seemingly arguing with three virtual strangers over what should or shouldn't be considered good group dance moves, he really can't say.

Everyone is so wrapped up in this debate, it seems, that not one of them has taken notice of Eddie's arrival. Huffing an irritated sigh, Eddie drops his bike in the existing pile, adjusts his fanny pack, and marches over.

“Hey!”

Nobody responds, everyone talking much too loudly to hear anything above the din of their own voices.

“Hello!”

Eddie tries again, waving his hands slightly to try to gain someone's attention, still to no avail.

“Hey! Assholes!”

His shrill voice finally cuts through the wall of sound, and everyone jumps slightly as they turn to face him.

Bill is the first to react, as his face splits into a wide grin. “Eddie! We d-didn't think y-you were gonna be able t-t-to make it today!”

Eddie sighs. “Yeah well,” he lays his jacket down on the rock before flopping down in between Bill and Richie. “Here I am.”

His bad mood is easily picked up on by the rest of the group, many exchanging small frowns.

Richie leans over, poking Eddie lightly on the cheek. “Everything okay, Spaghetti Man? I never heard back from you earlier.” He speaks lowly, keeping the conversation between the two of them. Eddie swats at Richie's hand, no real heat behind the action.

“I'm fine Rich, just- just some stuff with my mom, I guess. She took my phone, sorry I never answered you.”

Richie's frown deepens. He hates the power Eddie's mom has over him, the way she can take this boy usually overflowing with energy and make him feel so small, so tired.

“It’s fine Eds, I'm just glad you're here. Wanna talk about whatever happened?”

He sounds so genuine, and part of Eddie wants nothing more than to say yes, but his stomach flops unpleasantly when he imagines actually saying it out loud.

(He is a bad kid, a dirty boy, and I will not let him infect my child)

At best, Richie would be hurt by his mother's cutting words, forced to wonder if there’s truth behind her insults, if he really is a bad kid like so many say. At worst, he would be offended at the very notion of being gay, disgusted that someone might think that of him. Horrified that Eddie isn’t horrified.

No, telling Richie just isn't an option here.

“Nah. not right now Rich. I kinda just feel like thinking about anything else. Wanna tell me what those three are doing here?”

Richie knows Eddie, can tell something is seriously bothering the kid. He didn't even blink at Richie's use of the typically despised nickname, but Richie forces himself to respect Eddie's wishes and not pry any further. Instead, he catches him up on the afternoon's events, and who the new additions to the group are.

When Eddie is finally caught up, courtesy of Richie's dramatic storytelling and flailing arm gestures, he accepts the inclusion of Bev, Ben, and Mike more easily than anyone expected. Eddie has always been a creature of habit. He takes his pills at the same time every day, buys the same brand of hand sanitizer in bulk whenever it comes on sale, has spent years talking only to the same three friends.

Today, though. Today, he defied his mother for the first time ever, and despite being terrified of the consequences, realized that it feels pretty damn good. So really, what's a few more changes on a day like today? Eddie can't see the point of getting worked up over it.

Instead, he throws himself wholeheartedly into the debate that has started up again around him. The general consensus seems to be on making a kickass choreographed dance, though nobody can seem to decide what dance moves to include in it, or even what song they should use. Eddie is adamant they should go the Lady Gaga route, Ben suggests boy band after boy band but always circles back to New Kids on the Block, Bev throws out names of multiple indie artists that nobody else has heard of. Richie's suggestions are the stupidest of all, his final two choices being either 'Shake it' by Metro Station or a mashup of the entire Crazy Frog discography.

In the end, they don't end up settling on a song. Maybe they never will make a ridiculous choreographed dance, or maybe they have all the time in the world to do so. For the time being, they’re content to just sit together. They waste the afternoon away, the seven of them, laughing and bickering and getting to know each other. At times, they shout so loud it's a wonder they can each hear the others at all. Other times, they’re silent, the only noise being Stan's soft voice pointing out birds as his binoculars are passed from hand to hand.

Dusk finds the group still settled on the rock, now laying with their heads resting together in the centre, hair overlapping and blowing gently in the evening breeze. They watch as the sky swirls pink, orange, a thousand colours right before their eyes, until it settles on a deep navy blue as the sun goes down for the night.

For several minutes, nobody speaks as they stare up at the emerging stars.

Eventually, Richie sits up, stretching his arms. “Guys, I'm gonna do it. I'm jumping in the quarry. I know it's dumb, I can't explain it, and you guys don't have to do it with me, but-”

Eddie cuts him off. “I'll jump with you Richie.” Everyone turns to him in shock, and he stands up, shaking his head. “I'm serious. Let's do it,” he marches resolutely over to the cliff ledge, staring down at the inky black water swirling below. “Let's live.”

Bev jumps up next, grinning widely as she walks over to Eddie. “Well you guys know I'm in, of course. Anyone else?”

After a few beats, Bill is the next to join. The rest are quick to follow, after that. There’s just something about Bill, a presence and confidence he doesn't even know he has, that could make them willingly follow him straight into hell if he so much as asked.

Standing in a line at the edge of the cliff, they feel something settle in the air around them. It feels like a promise of sorts, a comforting weight that finds a home in each of their chests. As they reach out and blindly clasp the hands beside them, one thought is running through everybody's mind.

The Loser's Club.

It feels like something bigger than themselves. It feels like a future.

Later that night, each of the seven will return to reality. Richie, to a family that loves him but doesn’t know him, to a home that feels like it never settled quite right. Ben, to a town with it’s back perpetually turned, a family that glosses over problems before they know they’re there. Stan, to an overbearing father and an itch in his mind that just won't let him settle. Bill, to parents whose eyes will pass right over him like he isn't even real. Mike, to his grandfather and his animals but never again to his parents. Eddie, to a mother waiting frantically for his return, pills clutched in hand and punishment on the tip of her tongue. And Bev, to another sleepless night spent under the same roof as a monster disguising itself as family.

But for now. For now, they cling tightly onto hands, cling tightly onto the idea of each other. In this moment, standing on the edge of a precipice, it’s enough.

They close their eyes, and jump.

Chapter Text

Eddie's mom is livid when he arrives home that night, drenched and shivering and happier than she could ever make him. He, along with the rest of the Losers, catches a nasty cold, and they don't see him for nearly two weeks. His mother keeps him neatly quarantined in his bedroom, ushering him out only for anxiety fuelled trips to the emergency room.

His one tenuous grasp to the outside world comes in the form of Richie, who seems to make it his mission to sneak into Eddie's room every night during his house arrest, flopping gracelessly onto the floor and grinding dirt into the carpet.

This habit is nothing new to the two of them. Richie’s been sneaking through Eddie's window for as long as either boy can remember. These nights tend to consist of candy fuelled comic book binges, pointless bickering, accidentally staying up until they see the sun break out over the horizon.

Sometimes they’re different. Sometimes Richie crashes in with all his practiced chaos, but the smiles are plastered on a touch too forcefully, the jokes come out slightly too loud. Eddie never asks why. He doesn’t want to be shut down, turned away.

Now though, Richie’s here for Eddie. Every night without fail he taps on the window Eddie still keeps up the pretense of locking every night. Eddie grumbles, rolls his eyes, but never hesitates in letting him in.

For the most part, Eddie acts believably annoyed by Richie's presence. He snaps back at every nickname, scoffs at every rude comment, and goes on long winded rants every night about the dangers of Richie sleeping over, terrified that they're just going to continue passing their germs back and forth between themselves until one of them drops dead.

(“Oh Spaghetti Man, germs aren't the only things that can be spread in bed, just ask your mom.”

“Shut the fuck up asshole, or you'll be sleeping on my fucking window ledge tonight.”)

Whatever vague threats Eddie manages to come up with in his foggy, sick-addled brain are consistently undermined by the way he crawls into one side of his bed and leans against the wall, covers thrown back in a clear, if unspoken, invitation.

Richie, happy to oblige, always snuggles up to Eddie in a way that somehow has as many bony limbs as possible digging into Eddie's sides. Eddie, for reasons he blames solely on the fever coursing through him, finds himself snuggling back, wrapping his arms around the taller boy's torso and not letting go even when sleep overtakes him. His head feels fuzzy, his body distantly heavy as if it's not his own. The solid weight of Richie beside him, surrounding him, is grounding.

Truthfully, Richie's presence helps Eddie more than he cares to admit. On the nights when he’s just too stuck inside his own head, mind swirling with thoughts of germs he swears he can feel crawling on his skin and multiplying inside his traitorous body, Richie is surprisingly adept at pulling him out of it.

If Eddie is too wired to sleep, overwhelmed with the anxiety sweeping through him, Richie distracts him with his stupid jokes and stories. As much as Eddie pretends to hate them, the insistent tug at the corner of his mouth is a dead giveaway. On nights when Eddie wants nothing more than to allow the bliss of sleep to wash over him, Richie is still there, humming quiet lullabies and brushing away strands of sweaty hair from his forehead. No matter how sick or tired he feels, he always stays awake until he's sure Eddie is asleep, listening for the telltale signs of his even breathing and watching for the way the boy finally relaxes in a way he never allows himself to when awake.

And on one particularly rough night, after Eddie’s spent long hours in the emergency room with his mother breathing down his neck, he finds himself breaking down in Richie's presence. It starts off slowly, so gently that Richie hardly notices. As Richie absentmindedly runs his fingers through Eddie's hair, Eddie's head resting on his chest, he feels the smaller boy begin shaking slightly.

Richie pauses in his ministrations, glancing down in concern, only to find Eddie's eyes squeezed shut as tears leak slowly from the corners. He feels a sharp pang in his chest, panic shooting through his veins.

“Eddie? Eds, hey- shhh, what's wrong?” His voice is laced with worry, throat tight as he gazes down at his friend.

Eddie doesn't respond at first, eyes remaining shut as he takes several shaky breaths in an attempt to ward off further tears.

Eventually, he looks up and his watery gaze locks with the taller boy. “I-,” he chokes out, cheeks flushing with embarrassment at his current state. When he sees no sign of amusement or mockery in Richie's eyes, he clears his throat and forces himself to continue. “Am I... I mean- do you, do you think I'm weak?”

He rushes through the last few words like it causes him physical pain to get them out, and Richie's eyes widen in surprise. He manages a shocked “What?”, before Eddie pushes on, as though getting through that first question was all he needed in order for the floodgates to open.

“Because she thinks I'm weak.” Richie finds himself grinding his teeth at this, knowing exactly who Eddie is referring to. “Delicate. And I don't know, maybe she's right. I mean- shit, look at me! I need basically an entire pharmacy to myself just to function, I can barely get through two sentences on a good day without using my inhaler. The entire goddamn world scares me, and she knows it.”

His words are picking up speed, voice becoming slightly breathless. “And the one time- the one time I decide to do something for myself, the one fucking time I don't listen to her, I end up so sick I can't even get out of bed except to go to the fucking hospital! Am I really that weak? I must be, and I hate it, I hate that I'm like this, and I can't- I can't-,” He cuts himself off as wheezing sobs begin to wrack his entire body.

Richie, who remained frozen the whole time Eddie was talking, jumps into action. He grabs an inhaler off the dresser, holding it up to the boy's lips until Eddie finally grasps it and takes a large, grateful puff, and then another, his breaths eventually evening out. There are still tears pouring from his eyes, a hot flush of shame evident on his cheeks.

Richie finds himself gently rubbing between Eddie's shoulder blades, trying to find anything comforting to say.

You're not weak, he thinks. Eddie is probably the farthest thing from weak he's ever seen. He puts up with all this shit from his mom, gets bullied on the daily, has a million illnesses that Richie knows terrify him to his core, but he continues to live his life anyway. He goes on, every day, never letting the world turn him bitter. He can be angry, sarcastic, rude, but underneath all that is someone who loves fiercely, with his whole heart. Someone who would go to any lengths for the people he loves. And if that isn't bravery, Richie doesn't know what is.

Richie is no good with words though. Not when they have to actually mean something, do more than just fill up empty space and waning silences. When they require a weight behind them, he finds himself always falling short, never quite seeming to find the right combination.

So instead, he does what he can. Wrapping Eddie up in a bruising hug, he rests his chin on top of the other boy’s head. “Eds, you're tough as hell. Please don't believe your mom when she tells you you're not. She may be great in the bedroom but she can be a real bitch outside of it.” Richie winces. That wasn't really what he meant to say. He wants so badly to show that he's being serious, but the stupid joke just flew out of his mouth without permission.

Eddie huffs out a laugh. In the cover of darkness, with only the slight glow of moonlight illuminating their faces and reality feeling just far enough away, he seems to understand what Richie was trying to say anyway.

“Thanks, Rich” Eddie rasps, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Richie’s for a brief moment, breath gently ghosting over Richie’s face.

Richie feels his whole face flush, ugly red splotches crawling their way up from his neck. He can't explain the sickening swirling feeling that has appeared suddenly in his stomach, tries to ignore the sweat newly beaded on his forehead.

He shakes his head slightly, trying to calm his rapidly beating heart.

Huh. Weird.

Must be the fever.

And if the feeling of Eddie's skin warm against his own lingers in his mind long past the point of being sick, well, he's sure it's not something worth dwelling on.

Chapter Text

The Losers all feel something change in the months following that first day at the quarry. A subtle shift in the atmosphere, the ground settling beneath their feet for the very first time. Stable, now they're finally where they're meant to be.

There are still tremors, of course, moments when the comfort of one another feels just out of reach; fingertips barely grazing something that longs to be held. Moments when their backwater, insignificant town and every miserable person in it seems to swallow them whole, threatens to drown them in an endless sea of judgment and apathy.

None of them know this more than Beverly. She has eyes on her everywhere she goes, can hear the constant whispers thrown around her like knives.

Some days, she feels an overwhelming desire to add fuel to the flame, to walk into town and pick someone and just make the rumours true.

She would burn.

She knows she would, can feel the way the flames would lick at her, consume her from the inside out.

She would burn, but at least she would strike the match herself. She would claim the titles already bestowed upon her without her consent. If they were going to call her a slut either way, then let her be a slut goddammit.

But she won't.

She’s learned, recently, how it feels to be truly wanted. Not for her looks, or body, or flirty smiles flashed at leering adults, but for everything that she is. This ragtag group of rough looking boys, all skinned knees and stupid arguments and fierce, fierce warmth, have taught her what it is to be loved.

And she, in return, loves them. She loves them, with everything she has in a way she doesn't think she's loved anyone before. To be fair, she hasn't exactly been surrounded by the greatest candidates so far in life - but god, these boys. They've carved a place in her heart, cracked and messy and undeniably theirs. Through never ending nights, bruises blooming on pale skin, moments she doesn't think she’ll ever be able to talk about out loud - she holds on to that, on to her boys.

There are things she doesn't tell them though. Things she doesn't explain, like the subtle ache deep in her gut that never quite goes away, that becomes a sharp pain in the moments she feels her father's heavy gaze land on her.

And she wants to explain the way the ache settles, twists into something else, new and a little scary but not altogether unpleasant, when she spots a pretty girl walking down the street; when she notices the soft way girls run their hands through their hair after letting it loose from a ponytail; when her heartbeat picks up from brushing fingertips with the girl passing back the homework assignment.

Instead she pushes it down, buries it away. She finally has something good going on in her life, and she doesn't want to scare away the people that are so quickly beginning to feel like home. She has proof every day that they care for her, the same proof reflected six times over, but she isn't willing to risk it.

Especially not for things that she can barely admit even to herself.

There also comes the added complication that she’s not entirely unobservant, is able to pick up quickly on the way some of the boys in the group feel about her. With Bill's stuttering blushes every time she hugs him, and the way Ben's eyes light up when she sits next to him, it's almost impossible not to notice.

She doesn't know what to do. It scares her, the number of things in her life that she doesn't have control over, and she hates that this has become one of them. She doesn't want to hurt either of them - just the thought of it makes her feel sick. She loves them both so much, but not in the way she knows either of them hope to be loved.

She doesn't know what to do, so instead she does nothing. And in return, neither boy does anything either. While they're both downright terrible at hiding their feelings for her, neither of them attempt to actually make a move, and Bev hates how relieved it makes her feel.

So they stay quiet, and all she can do is hope that both boys continue to follow this unspoken rule of theirs, to never talk about the tension that lies just under the surface of their every interaction.

And for a while, it seems to work.

Then one day, early March, her carefully constructed facade comes tumbling down around her. She arrives home from an afternoon at the Barrens, after spending hours with the club trading comic books and eating candy that Ben had sneaked out of his kitchen cupboards for them. This type of hangout has become almost second nature to the group by now, having wasted away countless days with only each other for company, none of them needing more than that. Still, as much as she’s become used to days like today, Bev finds herself determined not to take them for granted. She can remember vividly how lonely her life was before meeting the other Losers, can envision all too easily what it would be like to lose them.

Now, she slips quietly past her father asleep in the living room, shutting the door to her bedroom and wishing, not for the first time, that there was a lock on it. As she unzips her backpack to grab the issues she traded Stan and Eddie for, plastic coverings crinkling as she pulls them out, something else flutters out of her backpack to land unassumingly on her bed.

She pauses, eyes narrowed slightly. Heartbeat picking up slightly as she moves to grab it, curiosity ends up outweighing her concern when she sees it's nothing more than a postcard. She just catches a glimpse of a lighthouse on one side, some chicken scratch handwriting on the other, before the faint sound of scuffling from the living room catches her attention.

Heart in her throat, she clenches the postcard tightly in her fist as she flees from her bedroom and into the bathroom, locking the door quietly behind her. Hearing no further approaching footsteps, Bev allows the adrenaline coursing through her system to gently ebb away. She heads over to the bathtub, the one place she feels relatively safe in this apartment, the one place her father can't immediately get to without any warning.

Head resting gently against the wall and feet dangling over the sides, she begins to read.

Your hair is winter fire...

A soothing warmth spreads through her at the words, at the thought that somebody cares enough about her to do this, to write this poem with only the intention of making her feel happy, and wanted.

Your secret admirer.

Even as a wide grin refuses to leave her face, she feels tears begin to prick behind her eyelids. This means so much to her - this admission that she’s worthy of love, that there’s more to her than what the rest of the town sees, more to her than what her father makes of her.

The poem is so pure, radiating an innocence so severely lacking in her everyday life, and she knows she'll cherish the damn thing forever.

And yet.

It's clearly from either Bill or Ben, no one except one of the Losers would have had the chance to slip it into her backpack earlier. How is she supposed to ignore this? The truth is she doesn't want to. It means too much to her to pretend it never happened. But addressing it will change everything. No more delicate balancing act, carefully weaving her way through being their friend without ever letting on that she knows they want something more.

She’s tired of running away from her problems.

So she decides to start with Bill. Early the next morning, standing with him at the school bike racks before first period, she squares her shoulders, steadies her breathing.

“...January embers?”.

Her voice comes out hopeful, eyes glancing over to gauge his reaction before quickly cutting away. She can't explain why she so badly wants it to be Bill, can't explain the disappointment weighing her down when it turns out he has no idea what she's talking about.

Fumbling her way through the rest of the awkward, stilted conversation she created, relief floods her when the first bell finally rings and she has an excuse to leave, a very confused Bill left standing in her wake.

The rest of the school day passes by in a haze, Bev trapped in her own repetitive thoughts. Why did she care so much that it wasn't Bill who wrote it? The prospect of having to let either boy down is nauseating, why is it so much worse now that she knows for sure it's Ben?

The answer finally comes to her later that afternoon, when she pulls over on the bike ride home, signalling for Ben to do the same while the rest of the Losers continue on ahead.

“Is everything okay, Beverly?”.

Deep concern laces his tone, and in this moment, looking into Ben's eyes, she figures it out.

She knows that Bill has a crush on her, but that's all it is really. A crush. She's confident he'll get over it at some point, that eventually someone else will come along and succeed in stealing his attention away. This thing with Ben – it feels deeper than that. In the few short months that she's known him, it’s become adamantly clear to her how deeply Ben cares, about everyone. He has such a big heart, and doesn't seem capable of loving people with anything less than everything that he has. That's not to say he's in love with her, of course. But she can see that happening, one day, if she lets it. She's not cruel enough to allow that to happen. Ben deserves better.

So she drops her bike and lowers herself so that she's sitting cross-legged on the ground. Beside her, she sees Ben do the same. Reaching into her backpack, she pulls out the postcard, eyes already glassy as she smooths it out slightly on her knee.

Steeling herself for the second time that day, Bev looks up.

“January embers...” It comes out less of a question this time, her soft voice giving away that she already knows the answer.

A shy smile finds its way onto Ben's face, voice quivering slightly with his reply.

“My heart burns there too.”

Hearing the words actually come out of his mouth, the lilt of hope behind them, is too much for Bev. The tears already threatening to spill over her eyelids begin to slide down her face, and she leans forward to wrap her arms around him.

She holds him tightly, pulling him as close as she can, arms wrapped around his neck and face buried in his shoulder. She shakes slightly with her tears, and after a moment Ben wraps his arms around her as well, hugging back just as tight. They stay like that for several minutes, neither one saying a word. There, on the side of the road, as cars drive by and kids meander past on their way home, they clutch each other like a lifeline, taking a moment to just exist.

Bev eventually pulls away, none too subtly trying to wipe her tears on her sleeve. Ben's eyes have become red-rimmed, his lips gently pulled up into a sad smile, and she knows he realizes what this means. Bev feels her heart break anew, wanting nothing more than to wipe that look off his face, hating that she's the one who put it there.

“Ben, I - ”

The rest of her sentence is choked by a lump in her throat that she can't seem to swallow. Ben reaches forward and takes her hand, rubbing his thumb soothingly over her knuckles. “Please don't cry, Beverly. I never meant to upset you, I just – I really just wanted you to know how special you are.”

A wet laugh escapes her, her heart swelling with affection for the boy. “You didn't upset me, Ben. This poem – it means so much to me, you mean so much to me, you have no idea. You're one of my best friends, I hope you know that. I love that you wrote this for me, you're talented as hell and I really love you, I love you so much, but I...”

A pained expression crosses Ben's face, one she knows he's trying to hide. “It's okay Bev, really, it is. I never... expected anything to come from the poem, I honestly didn't even know you'd know it was me.” He runs a hand through his hair almost sheepishly, lets out a light laugh. “Please don't feel bad. This is my problem to deal with, not yours.”

And Bev looks at this boy in front of her. This wonderful, sweet boy, who cares about her so much and genuinely doesn't expect anything in return, doesn't expect her to want him back just because he'll be hurt otherwise.

And she knows she doesn't owe him any more than what she's already told him, doesn't owe one goddamn person private information about herself, but she looks at him and for the first time in her life, she actually wants to tell someone.

So she does.

“Ben,” Her voice comes out shakier than she expected, and she clears her throat slightly, attempts to swallow her nerves. “It's not just.. you. It's not – god, I don't even know how to say this, how do people do this? Okay. It's not that I'm just not interested in you or whatever, it's that I don't, it's that I'm not – ugh.” She sighs in frustration, Ben's face growing more concerned the longer she continues to ramble. What is she doing? This moment could ruin everything. She has no idea how Ben might react, and she's more terrified than she’s willing to admit.

“Ben, I think I'm gay.”

The words rush out of her before she can force them back down, and for a moment they hang, suspended, in the air. She shrugs, almost defiantly, lifts her chin as she forces herself to meet his gaze head on.

“Oh.”

Before she even has a chance to start over-analyzing what that means, what he might think of her now, she finds herself wrapped back up in his arms. “Thank you for telling me,” he whispers, chin hooked firmly over her shoulder. “And um – I don't really know how this works, if it's okay for me to say this or not, but uh, just in case you need to hear it – I hope you know it's okay.”

Bev feels everything within her shut down, just for a moment. And then - then she feels as if she can finally breathe. Maybe that's all she needed to hear, all that she has ever needed to hear. It's okay, she's going to be okay. One day, far away from Derry, she may even be allowed to be happy.

She nods slightly, cheek pressed firmly up against Ben's own. “Thank you.”

She doesn't think there's anything more she needs to say, really. She knows Ben is still hurting, hates that, but she also knows he's still here, in front of her, and she isn't going to lose him.

Ben turns his head, kisses her temple lightly, pride clear in his tone. “There are people out there Bev, people out there you haven't met yet who are going to love you.”

Beverly smiles, closes her eyes. Ben holds her.

And they breathe.

Chapter Text

Stan has never considered himself an especially patient person, but as he sits now, counting down the final moments of his last day of eighth grade, he finds himself feeling especially restless. The clock on the wall ticks by endlessly, the sound seeming to echo and reverberate around his skull.

The classroom itself is unbelievably stuffy, hot sun beating down relentlessly through windows that are closed too firmly to allow a single waft of fresh air. Students shuffle and squirm in their seats, sweat beading on necks and foreheads, as the teacher drones on in the same monotonous tone he has for the last year, his dry voice finishing up a lecture not one person is bothering to listen to.

Across the room, Stan can see Richie throwing balled up pieces of paper at Eddie, whose face gets progressively more pinched until finally he snaps something unintelligible back in Richie’s direction. Richie simply leans over and pinches one of Eddie's cheeks while whispering something that seems to make Eddie even more worked up, and proceeds to throw another paper ball.

Stan wishes he sat closer to his friends in this class, could join in their conversation, let himself get lost in the banter and meaningless bickering. Instead, all he can do is watch, eyes drawn time and again to the pieces of paper that now lay scattered around the floor near Eddie's feet, collecting dust and pencil shavings, joined by a frankly obscene amount of bent paperclips and chewed up pen caps.

God, does this school even have a janitor?

Paperclips should be used to keep papers neat and organized, pens should never be left uncapped-- the ink will dry out and the sets won't match and Richie needs to stop throwing paper and Eddie needs to stop batting it onto the floor and what kind of person doesn't know to only sharpen pencils over a garbage can and why is that clock ticking so fucking loudly-

A loud ringing jolts him out of his thoughts, and he glances up in confusion before realizing it's the bell signalling the end of the school day. The end of eighth grade.

Sighing, he begins collecting his things, storing them carefully in his backpack despite knowing they'll all end up in a garbage can out front within a manner of minutes, as per tradition.

He catches up with Richie and Eddie in the hallway, as they’re halfway through a conversation figuring out how to celebrate officially being done with middle school.

“-- and of course, I still have some condoms from the pack I bought with your mom Eds, so we're all covered there, and--”

“Jesus Christ trashmouth, would you shut the fuck up that's so disgusting--”

“Eds don't use the Lord’s name in vain in front of Stanley! You know he's Jewish, it's practically a requirement that he has a hard-on for the guy--”

Stan tunes them out at this, their endless back and forth becoming a kind of white noise as they continue moving through the school hallways for the last time. He might love them, but they're completely insufferable when they get like this. They can go on for hours before either one gets even slightly winded.

His mood lifts slightly when he spots Bev and Ben waving at them, shoving their way through the crowd as they make their way over.

“Hey guys!” Ben chirps, face breaking out into a wide grin.

“You losers ready to blow this popsicle stand?” Bev links her arm through Eddie's, marching them back down the hallway and out the front exit, the rest of the group following closely behind.

As silly as it sounds, feeling the wind hit his face as the school doors slam behind him for the last time is unexpectedly liberating, and Stan feels a genuine smile make its way onto his face. It may be a small, silly victory in the grand scheme of things, but it's still a victory.

As they make their way to a garbage can near the buses out front, black paint peeling and exterior dented after many weathered years of being slowly beaten down by the student population, they find Bill already there waiting for them, backpack in hand and gleaming excitement in his eyes.

“Are you guh-guys ready?” He’s already unzipping his bag, unable to wait any longer.

Richie leans over, clapping his hand on Bill's shoulder. “Billy boy, I've been ready since September.” And with that, he haphazardly drags his backpack off his shoulder, tugging the zippers down and watching with total satisfaction as everything falls into the garbage can; a flurry of crumpled papers and binders, old candy wrappers and broken pencils. He attempts to subject his backpack to the same fate, only reluctantly saving it at the slight head shake Bill shoots his way.

The rest of them quickly follow suit, Bev and Ben sending each other slightly amused glances as the only two who haven't participated in this particular tradition during previous years.

As senseless as this whole thing may seem to an outsider, to Stan, it's so much more than just throwing away school supplies that could technically be recycled in years to come. It's their official start of summer, bringing with it the feeling of freedom and power that’s always so lacking during the school year. And standing around this stupid, grimy garbage can, they’re starting it together. Just as it should be.

He wishes Mike were here with them, though, and he knows the others do as well. When they're split up into pairs, groups of three, four or five, it's different. But when they’re six strong, so close to being complete, to truly being them, they can't help but feel the physical space where the last of them should be standing.

And it’s so often Mike who's missing. Mike, who’s lost more than any of them, and works harder and asks for less. Who wakes up at the crack of dawn every day to take care of the farm, do chores around the house, look after his grandfather who he can't help but worry about as he gets up there in age. Mike, who not only never gets to see them in school but also misses more hangouts than any of the others due to his responsibilities and distance - who they all know sometimes feels as though he doesn't truly belong with them.

As much as they all know this about Mike, they also know that he would never admit any of this aloud, would never want to burden any of them with problems he feels as though he should be able to handle himself. So they all just do their best to show him how much they love him, how much they appreciate his bright grin and kind heart and warm presence. It doesn't stop any of them from missing him fiercely when he's not there though, or stop the worry that fills them at the thought of him always alone on the farm, the weight of the world on his young shoulders.

Stan shakes his head slightly, trying to focus on the present moment. The knowledge that they all have plans the following day, Mike included, helps ease some of the tension that’s been forming in his gut at the turn his thoughts have taken.

They begin heading over to the bike racks, Bev hopping up onto Richie's shoulders when he attempts to snag the cigarette hanging loosely in between her lips. He manages to throw her off mere steps from the bike rack, breaking into a run before heaving himself onto his bike, turning his head slightly to yell at the others.

“Hurry up losers, we're racing!”

“Racing where?! We're all going different directions!” Eddie yells back, even as he picks up his pace, grabbing his bike before starting to pedal as quickly as his short legs allow.

Stan gladly follows suit, feeling lighter and more carefree than he has in ages as the wind whips through his hair, makes his eyes water slightly. None of them are really competing, besides Richie and Eddie, who are currently side by side as Richie swerves and almost hits Eddie before pulling away at the last second, laughing at Eddie's angered expression as he pushes himself off his seat and pedals furiously while swearing at Richie.

That's not really the point though. The point is that they’re practically flying down the street as they let out loud whoops of laughter, hearts racing and eyes bright. The point is that they're free.

Eventually they all start splitting off their separate ways, waving goodbye and confirming plans for the next day. Stan slows slightly as his legs begin to tire, beginning to turn in the direction of his own street, pausing as he hears Bill call out behind him.

“Stan, w-wait up! Did y-you wanna come over f-for a bit?”.

Stan considers for a moment. His father’s going to be home tonight. They’re probably meant to have a Uris family meal, a coveted event meant to celebrate Stan’s newest accomplishment, complete with uncomfortable formal wear and long chats about Stan's future. Somehow, hanging out at Bill’s sounds more inviting.

“Sounds great Bill, thanks. You sure I won't be intruding?”

“No way. Georgie's going to a f-friend's house tonight, it'll be n-nice to have you there.” Bill tries his best to sound casual, but Stan can read the worry in between his words clearly. Georgie isn't often absent from Denbrough family dinners, as their parents are still fiercely overprotective of the boy. When he is, however, and Bill’s left alone with just his mom and dad for company, he always shows up quiet and subdued the next day. It's like their complete apathy towards Bill transfers onto Bill himself when he’s too exposed to it, and it sometimes takes him days to shake it.

They ride the rest of the way to Bill's house in relative silence, the only sound the clicking of the playing cards on Silver's spokes as Bill coasts gently down the street.

Entering the house, Bill kicks off his shoes and heads further inside in search of his mother. Stan follows a moment later, carefully unlacing his own sneakers and lining them up beside the door.

They find Sharon Denbrough perched on the couch in the living room, a small frown gracing her delicate features as she stares down at the phone clutched tightly in her hands.

“H-hey Mom,” Bill speaks quietly, sounding reluctant to interrupt. “I invited Stan over for dinner tonight, if that's okay?”.

She glances up briefly, barely long enough to send an absent smile in Stan's direction before returning her attention back to the phone. “Sure honey, sounds great.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Denbrough.” Stan does his best to sound grateful, despite the uncomfortable twist of his insides that he doesn't fully understand as he observes the scene in front of him. As the two boys turn away to head up the stairs to Bill's bedroom, Bill's mom calls out behind them.

“Have you heard from Georgie at all? I told him to call me right away once he gets to Jake's house, but I haven't heard anything from him yet.” Worry laces her tone, more emotion in her voice than Stan ever hears when her attention is focused on Bill.

“N-no, but school's barely been out f-for twenty m-minutes, they w-would s-still be on the bus.” Bill tries to sound reassuring, although it's obvious his mom is barely listening anyways, more intent on simply voicing her worries aloud than focusing on anything her son has to say. Stan tries to ignore the pang of guilt that hits him at the way Bill's shoulders slump slightly, the way he drags himself slowly up the stairs. He knows it's not his place to say anything to Bill's parents, but god he wants to. The only thing stopping him is how embarrassed he knows it would make Bill, the large hit his pride would take if he felt that Stan had to fight his battles for him. So instead Stan just turns away without another word and follows his friend upstairs.

Stan has always loved Bill's room. It's not nearly as organized as his own, but there’s something so comforting about it, a familiar feeling of home that settles in the air around him. It’s like a strange form of nostalgia, of missing something that’s still here. Bill’s always been their leader, his house their original meeting ground; it’s like they grew up here, in some way. Like his room is more than just a room. To Stan, to Richie, to Eddie - it was the beginning of them.

Now, Stan finds himself sat primly on Bill's desk chair, legs together and hands resting on his knees, as Bill makes room for himself on his bed, pushing off half finished stories and dirty paint brushes before throwing himself on top of the covers, legs leaning against the wall as his head hangs over the edge. He stares upside down at Stan, silent for a moment before his lips quirk up in a small half smile.

“I c-can't believe we're actually done eighth grade. We're guh-gonna be in high school n-next year.”

Stan can't find it in himself to share Bill's excitement over this. In all honesty, the thought of starting high school scares the living shit out of him. Bill seems to sense some of this in Stan's expression. He rolls over on the bed to face him more directly, head in his hands as he rests on his elbows. “W-what's wrong?”

Stan feels stupid even thinking about it, let alone admitting it out loud, but he knows if there's one person in their friend group who wouldn't tease him about this, it's Bill. Taking a breath, he shrugs slightly. “What if we drift apart in high school? All of us, I mean? I asked my dad once if he still keeps in touch with any of his friends from middle school. He couldn’t even remember their names. What if something happens and I’m just… I don’t know. There, I guess. Alone.”

His voice cracks slightly at the end, and he twists his hands more tightly together. “Sorry. I’m just being dumb.”

Bill shakes his head, voice soft but sure as he responds. “That's not d-dumb, Stan. I think… I think we're all scared. Maybe for good reason but - but we’re all gonna have each other. I know th-that much.”

Stan knows Bill can't truly promise this, that as much as he might honestly believe in what he's saying, he can't actually predict the future. But Stan thinks that maybe, even if every terrible thing he’s been imagining does happen, even if everything goes wrong, he might just make it through as long as he has his friends by his side.

They're called to dinner shortly after, and the whole affair is - awkward, to say the least. While Stan is no stranger to troubled relationships with parents, his comes in the form of harsh words, of failed expectations. This, this kind of non-relationship, void of any kind of warmth or familiarity, is utterly unknown to him.

They sit there, looking for all the world like the picture perfect nuclear family, a home cooked meal in a three story house surrounded by the idealistic white picket fence. One has to look closer, deeper, to see the way in which the mom hasn't actually taken a bite, hands too busy clenching the phone that requires constant updates from the youngest son, the way the dad hasn't said a word since arriving home besides What's for dinner, eyes unfocused as they stare in the direction of the television left on in the living room. And the eldest son, who’s long since given up trying to start conversations, waiting until he is spoken to before he says a word - who jumps at the chance whenever he's given the slightest bit of attention, desperate for the connection all kids long to have with their parents.

When, about twenty minutes into the meal, as Stan quietly folds and unfolds a napkin in his lap and tries not to show how uncomfortable he feels, Bill's mom finally glances up and asks “So boys, how was your last day of school?”, Bill's face visibly lights up.

“It w-was great! We duh-didn't really have to do much w-work, with it being the last day a-and all, one of my t-teachers even brought pizza in f-for the class. It had mushrooms on it, which I had to p-pick off, but it was r-really nice anyway. Oh! And my English t-teacher finally handed back our sh-short stories that we handed in like a month ago, mine just said 'see me after c-class', so I was really worried that I had f-failed or something, but when I went up to talk to h-her afterwards, she said it was one of the best things she’s read in a really l-long time, and it's something she thinks I could actually p-pursue as a career if I wanted to. I couldn't b-believe it when she said that, I mean I love to w-write, but I...”

Stan glances up as Bill trails off in the middle of a sentence, excited voice turning soft and meek, and anger surges through him when he sees why. Bill's mom is blatantly not listening any longer, holding her phone up to her ear as she tries to call Georgie to check up on him again. It doesn't seem like his father bothered to start listening in the first place. Bill stares intently down at his dinner plate, shoulders hunched, and Stan knows he's trying not to cry.

Later that night, after deciding to meet up with Bev and Richie at the arcade, Stan pulls the group aside before they charge in. He tells them what Bill’s teacher said, lets the pride in his chest coat the words with warmth. He sees as it sinks in, as it lights up Richie and Bev’s eyes in turn, as their reactions colour Bill’s cheeks.

They demand to know what the story was about (“Full recap, Billy, don’t leave out any dirty details!”) (Yeah, Mr. Bigshot, we want the inside scoop.”), so Bill tells them. In a quiet voice just for them, his eyes crinkling slightly and his mouth unable to stop its slow upward curve.

Maybe nothing’s really changed. Maybe Bill’s parents still don’t care, and maybe Stan still doesn’t want to go home, and maybe Bev and Richie have their own reasons for being here as well. But maybe they can keep that look on Bill’s face just a little bit longer. Maybe they’re together, will be together for a thousand more maybe’s.

Maybe Stan doesn’t have to be so scared.

Chapter Text

Eddie's summer, unfortunately, starts off pretty damn similar to every other summer of his life.

He's had such high hopes for the coming months, has dreamt of sunny days and ice cream trucks, ferris wheels and late night conversations. Of movie marathons, slushies slurped down from the local 7/11, scary stories told around campfires. Of spending his days with the six people he loves most in the world, a few gentle months that are just for them.

So, naturally, his mother manages to ruin that within minutes of him waking on the first day of vacation, barging into his room and bringing reality crashing in with her.

“Eddie, what are you still doing in bed? It's time to take your pills. And get dressed, we're going to visit your aunt for the day.”

“Wha-” Sleep is still weighing him down, a comforting blanket he has to force off as he blinks heavily and works to meet his mother's gaze. “What are you talking about? I can't today mommy, I've made plans with my friends already--”

“Family comes first Eddie bear, you know this. And you spend far too much time with those friends of yours as it is, I don't like the influence they've been having on you.”

“What influence?” Eddie asks, unable to help the scorn in his voice as he throws back his sheets and gets out of bed.

“You've been going out more, barely making it home by curfew, talking on that phone of yours at all hours of the night... I'm worried about you sweetie.” She cups his face in her hand, the grip of her plump fingers on his chin just on the edge of too firm to be comforting - to be anything other than a warning.

Eddie steps away, anger rising in his chest despite the voice in his head telling him not to take the bait, to just nod his head and let his mother's words wash over him without soaking into his skin.

“It's called having friends Ma. If it's that strange of a concept to you then maybe I'm not the one we should be worried about here.”

Her face purples slightly, vein in her forehead twitching as she narrows her eyes.“That! That is exactly what I'm talking about, where is this attitude coming from? It's not you, not my sweet boy. It's that Tozier boy, I swear, or that dirty Marsh girl--”

“Don't call her that!” A powerful sense of protection swells up in him, wipes any lingering thoughts of self preservation from his brain. “That girl is one of my best friends, and I'm sorry if you're too dense to see how great she is but that doesn't mean you get to go around insulting her to anyone that will listen to you--”

She levels him with a look, then, a fixed grin with an undercurrent of rage so strong that Eddie feels his next words die in his throat. Her voice is back to that tightly controlled, simpering tone that makes his skin crawl ever so slightly. “I am not going to do this with you right now, Eddie bear. You are going to get dressed, come downstairs to take your pills, then we're going to spend a nice day at your aunt's house. That sounds good, hm?” There is an air of finality in her tone, and she shuts the door firmly behind her as she shuffles out of his room.

As he gets dressed, parting his hair just right and pulling his socks up to his knobbly knees, he feels the fight drain slowly out of him. She's his mother, and that's supposed to mean something. As much as she might not like his friends, he knows she's trying to look out for him because she loves him. That's what she does, she looks out for him.

She protects him.

Still, as he leaves his room and lets her guide him down the stairs into the kitchen, he can't help but wonder. If this is bound to be the only constant in his life; if, when everything else has eventually faded away, all he’ll be left with is the bitter taste of pills on his tongue and his mother's ever-present shadow looming over him.

And so they head to his aunt's house. The day passes by in a blur of stale treats and stuffy furniture, of condescending questions disguised as concern and silent thoughts of how much fun his friends are off having without him.

He feels petty even wondering that, knows that they couldn't have done anything once his mother was set on her decision. They deserve to have fun, with or without him, and he shouldn't be so bitter about spending time with his family. Even if his aunt is far too similar to his mother, even if spending time with both of them at once feels vaguely like being smothered under the weight of a thousand judgments, a thousand unspoken accusations.

When he's finally able to return home, emotionally drained, exhausted from his attempts to navigate his way through the rocky terrain of conversing with his family, the one bright point in his rather miserable day comes in the form of numerous texts from the losers relaying how much they had (to his rather embarrassing relief) missed him. With a small smile on his face, he falls asleep to the thought that hopefully the next day will be better.

But damn if that first day doesn't just set the precedent for his whole fucking summer.

His mother is, somehow, worse than she's ever been. She cuts him off from his friends slowly and precisely, peeling away layer after layer of his happiness, never seeming satisfied. It starts off small; requesting he uses his phone less in the house, spends more time with her because she just misses him so much during the school year.

Then it's not allowing him out for sleepovers - for his own safety of course, she doesn't want him to accidentally forget to take his pills.

Then his curfew is cut earlier, and earlier, because it's just not safe out there at night for a boy of such a delicate nature.

And Eddie tries to fight it, he does. Tells himself over and over that this is only temporary, she's just in one of her overprotective moods, she'll get over it and things can go back to normal. But he doesn't know that - not for sure, not really. And it makes him so tired, going head to head with his mother when he knows all he'll ever do is fall short.

So, eventually, he stops arguing. Stops doing anything really, except muddle his way through the hot, sticky days while endlessly counting down the weeks until school starts again. Until he can see his friends every day and there's not a single thing anyone can do about it.

It's sad, really, that it gets to the point where the high moments of Eddie's summer are the days where his mother lets him out of the house to run errands, but. Well. That's kind of just where he's at lately.

And so it comes that, on the day Sonia Kaspbrak comes bustling into his room while he flips listlessly through a comic book with glazed over eyes, and requests that he goes to pick up refills for his medication from the pharmacy, Eddie does so gladly.

Spirits high, he glides through the streets on his bike with the sun shining down on him beneath an endless clear blue sky. Yeah, today feels like a good day.

Countless possibilities run through his mind as he rides. If he picks up his refills fast enough, he can pop by and visit at least a few of the losers before his mother gets suspicious of his whereabouts.

Bill, maybe? Oh, but he'd love to see Ben. Richie’s admittedly not high on the list as he still sneaks through Eddie's window more often than Eddie cares to admit. Mike's farm is too far, he'd run out of time before he even got there. And how to choose between Bev and Stan? Maybe, if he's lucky, they're all together somewhere, and he can spend some time with them at the quarry, Barrens, movies. Wherever, honestly, as long as he gets to see them.

Thoughts still whirring with where to check first, he enters the pharmacy and heads up to the counter that’s become far too familiar to him over the years. Mr. Keene's beady eyes fix upon him with a certain resignation, as Eddie musters a small smile in an attempt to be polite despite how uncomfortable the man always makes him feel.

“Here for your refills, Eddie?”

“Yes Sir, thank you.”

Eddie clears his throat slightly, drumming his fingers on the counter top as Mr. Keene heads away to, presumably, collect the required pills.

A loud snapping noise grabs his attention, and he notes with some surprise that there's another person behind the counter, magazine held up in front of their face. It's lowered slightly to reveal the ever scowling face of one Greta Keene, the pharmacist's daughter, looking straight at him as she obnoxiously chews her gum with a wide open mouth.

Eddie can't help the look of the disgust he feels form on his own face, as he watches the flecks of spit that collect between her teeth and spray out onto the counter. He's never really had to interact with her one on one before, but he's heard enough horror stories from Beverly to know that this is one person he wants to try and avoid if at all possible.

So the way she watches him now, eyes sharp and glinting, a hint of amusement behind them that seems the farthest thing from funny, causes a ball of dread to form in the pit of Eddie's stomach. He tells himself he's being silly, she's just a mean girl from school. He'll ignore whatever she does and be on his merry way with his pills in just a minute, off to finally have a good time with his friends.

But then she speaks.

And Eddie's entire world shatters.

He leaves the store without a sound, numb fingers tightly clenching the paper pharmacy bag, her words ringing in his ears.

(You know they're bullshit, right? Your pills.)

Bullshit.

They're bullshit. He's bullshit.

Everything he is, his entire fucking identity - for as long as he can remember, he's always been that kid. The asthmatic. The weird kid with the fanny pack. The one who could never participate in gym, who had to sit on the sidelines and watch the others have fun.

He’s always been what his mother made of him. Has always trusted her, instinctively. Blindly. Has always believed that - despite her overbearing, nagging tendencies - she’s truly been doing her best to look out for him. And now to think that she- that she-

He's barely made it a minute down the road before he’s pulling over to vomit into the ditch, again and again, until there's nothing left. Until he's empty.

Visiting his friends now the furthest thing from his mind, his thoughts are whirring with what he's going to say to his mother when he gets home. He's going to call her out, demand an explanation. See right through her twisted manipulation.

And then he gets home.

And he sees his mom. Asleep in her chair, snoring loudly as the television casts moving shadows over her face.

And he puts his pills on the counter. Goes to his room. Climbs into his bed.

And he doesn't say a word.

He wanders through the next several days in a fog, going through the motions without really being there at all. Swallows his pills, kisses his mother on the cheek, keeps his inhaler handy.

How much can he really trust Greta fucking Keene anyway? Isn't this exactly the kind of stunt a person like her would pull, lying to the poor sick kid for a laugh?

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that's not it; that what she said was true. Maybe, somehow, he's always known. Never acknowledged, never addressed, but always known.

But then he looks at his mother. The same mother who comforted him after every nightmare, got him patched up after every scraped knee. And sure, maybe her version of care has always been different from the average parent, but she's always told him it's because she loves more. Because she cares more.

And if he can't trust his own mother, the one person he has in the world who’s meant to love him unconditionally, then who's to say he can trust anyone?

It's almost strange, how easy it is to slip into denial, to convince himself almost entirely to put the incident out of his mind, forget it ever happened.

It works.

Until it doesn't.

Until the day the losers, fed up with never seeing Eddie, show up at his house and demand his mom lets them in to see him. And Eddie, crouched at the top of the stairs, watches the whole thing. Watches as his mother insults his friends, one after the other, vows to keep them away from her only son, slams the door in their faces. Watches as she wipes her sweaty palms on her hands as if cleansing herself of their proximity. Watches as a smug, self-satisfied grin finds its way onto her face as she turns back towards the living room.

Eddie loses it.

If he tried to look back on the next few minutes, later on in life, he would find the memory hazy, hard to bring into focus in his mind. What he would remember, the part of this that stays with him, is the anger. The hurt, the betrayal. The endless, all consuming rage that sweeps through him, makes his head swim and his vision blurry.

He knows that he yells, stronger and more self-assured than he’s ever been in his life. He knows he's finally had enough, that the bottle of pills he smashes on the floor at his shocked mother's feet feels like a release.

And he knows, as he runs out the door and down the street with his mother shrieking and sobbing at him from the front porch, that there is no coming back from this.

Chapter Text

I am not an outsider.

The phrase rattles endlessly in Mike's brain, the constant repetition helping drown out all other thoughts in his mind.

I am not an outsider.

It’s his first day of high school. His first day at any school, really, but the fact that it's high school somehow makes it so much worse. He's never been part of the public school system, doesn't really know what to expect. A childhood spent being homeschooled by his mother, spending the vast majority of his time in his parent's company, might sound like hell to any other kid.

Mike though, Mike wouldn't have traded it for anything. Especially now.

When all he has left of them is the memories, bittersweet and tinged with grief. Like looking through an hourglass and knowing what's to come when the last grain of sand falls to the bottom, powerless to stop it. All he can do is remember; the good days, all laughter and old books and dirt under fingernails from long days of gardening, a love soft and sweet like honey. And the end; a fire, all consuming, taking everything Mike held most dear, burning his very soul right out of his chest.

His grandfather took over teaching him, after that. A rough old man hardened by life, all calloused hands and sun-wrinkled skin, and the only real family Mike has left. He does his best, works the fields and takes care of the animals and looks after Mike, loving him with everything that he has. Mike can see the toll it takes on him though.

It kills him, just a little bit every day, to see how much of a burden he places on his grandfather. He helps as much as he can; waking up with the sun every day to start on his chores, cooking breakfast for the both of them, always staying on top of his schoolwork, never demanding more for his life than what his grandfather is able to offer. They’re each all the other has, now - are the only ones who can truly understand the loss they’ve both gone through.

Mike has friends now though.

True friends that, a year ago, he would have thought were an impossible pipe dream. He doesn't see them as often as he would like, unwilling to leave any responsibilities abandoned for his grandfather to pick up, even for the losers.

Still, in the early days of summer, when Ben suggested that Mike should consider transferring to their school with them, so that they could all be together, Mike didn't dismiss the idea as easily as he thought he would. A seed had been planted in his mind, growing larger each time one of the others would broach the topic again.

And the day Bill asked him about it, eyes filled with hope as they focused entirely on Mike, he felt the seed bloom into a flower, golden tendrils twisting their way around his thoughts and refusing to let go.

That night, he steeled himself and went to talk to his grandfather.

He had a speech prepared and everything, a solid plan for his schedule so that he could still help out just as much, and his grandfather wouldn't have to worry about teaching him anymore.

He took it surprisingly well, agreeing readily. Mike pretended it didn't sting to see that hint of relief in his grandfather's tired eyes.

Now, he stands staring up at the hulking building he’ll be spending five days a week in for the next four years, heart thrumming rapidly in his chest.

I am not an outsider.

He's supposed to be meeting the others outside the main doors, so they can all head in and pick up their schedules together. He tries to push down the budding feeling of panic in his chest when he doesn't see any of them straight away, reminding himself that he got there early. They'll be there in just a moment.

As hordes of students rush by, bumping into him and paying him no mind, endless chatter sweeping over and around him, he feels a strong and sudden longing for the solitude of the farm, the comfort of his grandfather's steady voice.

“Mikey!”

His eyes cut toward the sound, a sigh of relief escaping his lips as he spots Bev's signature red hair bobbing through the crowd, cigarette between her teeth as she grins widely at him.

She pulls him in for a hug upon reaching him, before pulling him back and cupping his chin gently in one of her hands, eyes squinting as she studies his face. “You doin' alright Mike?”

Mike does his best to swallow his nerves, smiling gently at the girl. “Better now you're here,” he answers, aiming for charming and nonchalant, falling somewhere among slightly too honest for his comfort. He doesn't want any of his friends to feel like they have to look after him. He never wants to be anything but a source of comfort for them.

He's brought out of his thoughts by the arrival of Stan and Bill, Eddie coming up shortly behind them, curiously free of his signature fanny pack. When he gestures at the boy's waist, question in his eyes, Eddie stills, mouth opening slightly before he closes it again with an almost embarrassed slump of his shoulders.

Bill takes notice of this, placing a concerned arm around Eddie's shoulders, as the smaller boy looks up at him and shakes his head slightly. An understanding seems to pass between the two, and the crease in Eddie's eyebrows lessens as a relieved looking smile finds its way upon his face.

Mike can't help but wonder what that was about, but figures it's really none of his business. They're his friends, and they'll tell him about whatever that was about if or when they're ready to. He'll take what’s offered to him, no less and no more.

Richie comes next, a whirlwind of wild energy as he slams into Bill from behind, wrapping his wiry arms around the other boy's torso. “What's this Big Bill, you making a move on Eds?” His tone is joking, eyes bright with silent laughter as Eddie flushes and moves out from under Bill's arm to punch him on the shoulder.

“Don't call me that, asshole!”

Richie lets out a cackle at this, moving to ruffle Stan's hair, ignoring his loud sigh, before greeting both Bev and Mike himself with sloppy kisses on the cheek, before finally settling on a spot beside Eddie.

Mike loses himself in the moment, feeling the utter adoration he has for his friends bubble up in his chest and spill out of him in the form of an ear splitting grin.

By the time Ben joins them, apologizing profusely for being the last to show up, a shy grin lighting up his face when the others cheer at his arrival, the last of Mike’s worries have drained away.

I am not an outsider.

And for the first time that morning, as the seven turn and begin to head towards the entrance together, Mike believes it.

Chapter Text

As Bill pulls open the heavy oak doors of his school for the very first time, wrist straining slightly with the weight, he feels an unexpected sense of dread wash over him. He's spent so long trying to convince his friends that everything’s going to be fine, that they have nothing to worry about.

The truth is, though, he has no idea. The next four years of his life are stretched out before him, a gaping black hole he has no choice but to dive into blind. All he has is his friends, just as small and scared as he is.

As he takes a deep breath and begins pushing his way through the intimidating crowds swarming locker-lined hallways in a quest to pick up his schedule from the office, he chances a quick glance behind him to see the rest of the losers are fighting their way through the swarm right after him.

He sees Richie first, hawaiian shirt and baggy zebra print shorts practically screaming for attention, even as the boy himself gazes around with a plastic grin, shoulders hunched as if to make himself appear smaller.

His eyes are drawn to Beverly next, on Richie's left. His eyes are always drawn to Beverly, no matter how much he tries to convince himself to look past her once in a while. She’s staring straight ahead, short hair falling slightly into her eyes as she refuses to budge for the older students trying to shoulder their way past her.

Ben walks just behind her, Mike and Stan right after. Stan looks uncomfortable. Bill feels a flash of empathy, knowing how scared Stan was of starting high school. Mike, too, even if he never voiced it out loud. Bill thinks maybe he can read Mike’s silences now, couldn’t ignore them if he tried. He should be doing something more, anything more, to try and help him get through the day. He swallows and forces his gaze away, resolving to check in with everyone at lunch.

Eddie brings up the rear, practically stepping on Stan's heels in his effort not to get separated from the group. Bill frowns to himself, recalling the moment outside when Mike noticed Eddieès fanny pack was missing.

Clearly, Eddie hasn't told the others what he told Bill a few weeks ago.

~

“Eddie?”

Standing on his doorstep, for the first time in months, was none other than Eddie Kaspbrak.

Bill had just returned home from an unsuccessful attempt with the Losers to get Eddie's mother to let them see him, and now, out of nowhere, the boy stood there in the flesh.

There was a split second, when he first swung the door open, that his heart lurched with happiness at the sight of his best friend. But then he actually took in Eddie's appearance. The red rimmed eyes, flushed face, clenched fists, trembling mouth.

“Eddie?” He asked again as he glanced into the entrance-way behind him, before stepping outside and quietly shutting the door behind him. “Ed? Wh-wh-what happened? Are you okay?”

Eddie seemed to notice Bill's presence for the first time, snapping out of his thoughts as he looked up at his friend's face. He nodded, then paused. Nodded more vigorously and opened his mouth to speak.

Instead, he let out a laugh. A sharp, unhinged sound, erupting from him as though of its own volition.

Bill looked on in concern, arms half outstretched in an aborted gesture to offer comfort. He had no idea what to say, had never seen Eddie quite like this before-- unpredictable in a way that left Bill distinctly unsettled. He could feel his heart beat in his throat, ready to drop into his stomach at whatever Eddie said next.

“You wanna hear something funny, Billy? Like, really fucking hilarious?” Eddie sounded almost manic, wringing his hands together and shifting his weight from side to side. A lopsided smile painted onto his face, so very far from reaching his eyes.

“Ed, hey, t-t-tell me what's g-going on.” Bill spoke gently, as though trying not to spook a wild animal.

Eddie swallowed, blinked; a slow thing. His energy seemed to drain from him very suddenly, leaving him slumped over, curled in on himself and smaller than Bill ever wanted to see him.

“They're fake, Bill.” His voice was thick, quivering with unshed tears, and Bill itched to help him despite his lack of understanding. “My pills, my illnesses, allergies, probably my fucking asthma. My entire goddamn life, pretty much.”

“...What?”. It wasn't something Bill could comprehend, the words ringing in his ears as his brain worked overtime to accept them, to accept that this was apparently something a parent was capable of doing to their child. And to see Eddie standing there, cracking apart under the knowledge that this whole part of his identity, this whole part of himself that he had been forced to accept and adapt to all his life was a lie, was about enough to break Bill's heart.

“And you know what else? I found out fucking days ago. I've known for days, and until today I didn't fucking do anything! What the fuck is up with me Bill, that I found out there's nothing wrong with me, I'm perfectly fucking healthy, and I still kept taking my goddamned pills! And I'm – I'm scared shitless y'know? Like, how do I – how do I even function now? I don't know how to be anything but the sick kid, it's all I've ever been, and I - I keep thinking I wish I never found out, how fucked up is that? I'm such a goddamn coward, and I – I-”.

Eddie was crying by this point, huge, gasping sobs that wracked his whole body, and Bill had to reach out and plant his hands firmly on the other boy's shoulders to get his attention.

“Eddie! H-hey, look at m-me. You're not a coward. You're not. Come w-w-with me.” Bill reached down to grab Eddie's hand in his own, dragging him along as he marched down the driveway where his bike lay kicked over in the dirt.

Eddie looked at him confused, tears still dripping silently down his face as Bill mounted Silver and gestured for him to stand on the pegs. Bill didn't know what to say, didn't know if there was anything anyone could say in this situation that wouldn't just make Eddie feel worse.

But he could act. He'd always been good at that, at jumping into action to help those he loved, even if he didn't always think through the consequences.

So that's what he did now, leading the two of them through the streets in silence, legs burning with exertion and chest aching with an unexpected sadness. He pushed on, never slowing, until he pulled up to his destination.

Dismounting, he turned to see Eddie had hopped off and was looking at him with eyes full of skepticism.

“The kissing bridge? What are we doing here Bill? If you try to get me to carve something rude about my mom into it, I can tell you right now I'm not gonna do that. Most of the messages on here make me sick, have you seen some of the shit people write? Not to mention how fucking gross it is, have you seen the state of this thing? It's a million splinters waiting to happen! Just imagine a piece of old, rotting wood jammed into your skin, do you know how much bacteria and fungi could be coating it! It's practically begging for an infection at that point, really, and-”

Eddie cut himself off abruptly. “Fuck. Shit. Fuck! Do you hear me right now? What the fuck! She's fucked me right up Bill I swear to God, what am I gonna do? I'm stuck like this aren't I, how the-- how the fuck do I get her out of my head?!”.

Bill walked to the middle of the bridge, leaned against the railing and looked down at the Kenduskeag rushing past below him. When he felt Eddie join him, he held out his hand expectantly. “Give me y-your fanny pack.”

“What?”

“Eddie, I need you to trust me. Give me your fanny pack, it's gonna be okay.” And it was Bill's lack of a stutter in that moment, more than anything else, that had a dazed Eddie reaching down to unclip the garment from around his waist and place it heavily into his friend's waiting palm.

Bill unzipped it, reaching in and grabbing the first thing his hand came into contact with. Holding it out, he saw it was a bottle of nasal spray - for Eddie's numerous allergies that had always been curiously absent around anyone except Sonia Kaspbrak. He handed it to Eddie, whose fist curled around it even as a question sat on the tip of his tongue.

Before he could ask, Bill gestured to the roiling water just below them.

“Throw it.”

“What?” Eddie repeated. It seemed all he could fathom to say at this point.

Bill explained nothing, just cocked his head firmly to the side and gave Eddie a challenging stare.

Gaze turned suspicious, but never one to back down from a challenge, Eddie held his arm out over the side of the bridge, loosening his grip just enough that the nasal spray slipped between his fingers to land with the faintest splash in the water.

As it swirled further into the depths of the river, carried away by the current, Eddie turned his gaze back to Bill with raised eyebrows. “What was the point of that?” he asked, his tired voice sounding too drained to be properly curious.

Bill didn't answer, just pressed another small object into Eddie's palm. This time, it was a bottle filled with plain white capsules, Eddie's name printed clearly on the label. Eddie scowled at it, scratching his thumb along the sticker until the words were nothing more than some balled up paper under his nail. Without any prompting from Bill, he uncapped the lid and turned the bottle upside down over the edge of the bridge, watching with a hint of satisfaction as the pills cascaded down and disappeared from view. They were followed by the bottle itself, thrown with more force than the nasal spray before it.

When Eddie turned back to face Bill, his skin was flushed, face aglow with the adrenaline that had begun pumping through his system. He held his hand out almost expectantly.

Bill handed over a roll of gauze. Eddie threw it.

Next up was a thermometer, an old birthday present engraved with Eddie's initials. Chucked into the depths of the river.

Baby wipes. Bandages. Polysporin. Antihistamines. Eddie took each item and threw it over the ledge without hesitation, laughter bubbling up from his throat as he flung everything with as much force as he could muster.

“Fuck you!” He shouted into the air, voice scratchy and ecstatic. This earned him some judgmental stares from an older couple passing by on the street, but he couldn't have paid them less mind if he tried.

“Fuck you--”, another splash. “I'm over it, I'm FUCKING done--”. He continued to yell, airing his grievances into the sky. It demanded nothing from him, took everything he chose to offer without judgment.

They carried on this way, with people passing by and the sun beginning to set in the distance, until Bill reached his hand into the fanny pack once again only to come up empty, fingers brushing against the fabric and closing around nothing. Eddie looked at him confused for a moment before a look of understanding flashed across his face. Swallowing thickly, he held out his hand.

Realizing there was only one object Eddie could possibly be waiting for him to pass over, Bill handed him the fanny pack. Baby blue and adjustable, it had always been a favourite of Eddie's. Now, the boy turned it over in his hands, gaze heavy on it as he twisted the strap between his fingers.

Sensing Eddie's hesitation, Bill stepped closer before reaching down and moving one of Eddie's hands off the object, clasping it firmly in his own.

When he gently squeezed, Eddie looked up at him with a watery smile and squeezed back. As Eddie lifted his arm and let the fanny pack dangle over the water for a moment before silently letting it go, leaning over to watch it as long as he could until it was swept out of view, Bill couldn't shake the sense that he had just witnessed something important.

The end of something, maybe, or perhaps a beginning. A defining moment. Defining what, Bill had no idea. All he knew was that he was there, standing on an old defaced bridge with his best friend on what was probably one of the worst days of Eddie's life, holding his hand as a bittersweet feeling squeezed its way around his heart.

They stayed that way for a few more moments, neither of them speaking, before Eddie let out a deep, shuddering breath and gently let go of his grip on Bill's hand. There were fresh tears streaming down his face, but his eyes were bright. Eddie seemed lighter, as if the weight of more than just a fanny pack had been lifted from him.

As they headed back to Bill's house together, making rushed plans for Eddie to crash there overnight, Bill thought maybe he felt a bit lighter as well.

~

Bill can't fault Eddie for not telling the others yet. It's not exactly a casual conversation, after all. He can't help but wonder, though, how Eddie’s doing in the aftermath of everything. Eddie had gone home the next morning, steeling himself for whatever he would find upon his return, and hadn't been in contact with Bill or the others for several days. When he finally began texting them again, he made no mention of the events that had gone down, so Bill didn't either. Instead, Bill had taken to cursing out Sonia Kaspbrak in his head every way he knew how. He doesn't think he's ever hated anyone quite as strongly as he hates that woman.

He pulls himself out of his memory spiral only when he finally manages to navigate his way to the office. They collect and begin to compare their schedules, all of them hoping to have at least one other loser in each class with them. Bill has homeroom with both Richie and Ben, so the three friends split away from the group after saying goodbye, and begin the trek across the huge school to find their classroom.

Homeroom passes by in a blur of nervous chatter and lectures on proper school etiquette, and all too soon Bill is heading to his next class, Geography, alone. He doesn't recognize anyone in the room, and takes a seat in the back right corner. He spends the entire period on edge, only speaking when spoken to, hyper-aware of every stutter and feeling like everyone is staring at him. History goes better, as Bill has Mike by his side throughout. Mike seems slightly overwhelmed at being surrounded by so many other students, but his genuine excitement over the course content seems to overpower his discomfort, and leaves an overwhelming fondness curled in Bill’s chest.

By the time lunch rolls around, some of the tension he’s been carrying around all morning melts away as he and Mike meet up with the others, his eyes starting to scan for a free table. Without realizing it, Bill’s begun to let his guard down slightly.

And therein lies his mistake.

Because as he starts to make a beeline for the empty spots he noticed near the centre of the room, an all too familiar figure appears from nowhere and blocks his way.

“Sup, mushmouth?”

Bill feels a sense of dread settle in his bones, fear curdling in his gut. Although none of the losers had actually brought it up, one thing about freshman year they’d been dreading the most was the fact that they would be going to the same school as the town's most notorious bullies for the first time in years.

Seniors now, the Bowers Gang practically have the run of the school, and have zero qualms about using this power to every single advantage they can. One advantage, it seems, is the ability to now make the losers' lives hell during regular school hours as well as outside of them.

As Bill stares up into Henry Bowers' beady eyes, the older boy smirks, towering over him.

“Wh-wh-wh-what? You got nothin' to say, Buh-buh-buh-Billy? First day and all, must be scary.” His voice has taken on a mocking tone, and Bill feels his cheeks heating with humiliation even as he tries to figure out Henry's next move.

“Do you even know where to buy your lunch? No? Well, here. Let me help you out with that. Want some fresh meat, fresh meat?”

And in one swift move, Henry proceeds to upend the entire contents of his lunch tray onto Bill's head. A mixture of cold sloppy joe and mushy peas coats Bill's face and front, a large portion of it running down the loose collar of his t-shirt.

A collection of gasps ring throughout the cafeteria, and for a few long moments nobody moves. Bill stands frozen, mind whirling too fast to form a coherent thought and body burning with shame.

Then, Richie steps forward. “What the fuck, Bowers.” His voice is like ice, strong and steady as his fists clench at his sides. It’s a side of him so rarely shown, that Bill sometimes forgets how scary Richie can be when he is well and truly pissed.

Henry moves forward, the other members of his gang coming up to crowd behind him, egging him on. The losers step forward as well, fanning out around Richie and Bill at the centre. Two sides squaring off.

“What's the matter, Bucky Beaver, mad you didn't get the free lunch?” Henry speaks almost lazily, as if the eyes of the entire cafeteria on him don't affect him in the slightest. “Or are you jealous mushmouth over here was getting all my attention? You know, I'm surprised. If I was going to pin any of you as a faggot, it would be wheezy over here in his goddamn short shorts.” Henry nods his head over Bill's shoulder in Eddie's direction. Eddie flushes something furious, eyes stinging as his fingers flex to grab an inhaler he no longer carries.

Beverly bristles, eyes flashing. “Watch your goddamn mouth, Henry. Why are you spending so much time thinking about other guys' sexualities anyway, have something you'd like to share with the class?”

The tension in the air is mounting, a coil growing tighter and tighter, needing just one more good twist before it snaps.

Henry sneers, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. “You are such trash. Always so good for an easy lay, now you're whipped by these fucking fairies? I'm disappointed, Marsh. Banging them has turned you into such a goddamn dyke.”

Something about that seems to hit too close to home for Bev, who doesn't say anything as tears spring to her eyes.

And before he can really comprehend what's happening, before he realizes what the flurry of movement behind him is or who the hoarse yell that follows erupts from, Bill watches as Ben rears back and slams his fist square into the jaw of Henry Bowers.

Chapter Text

A sharp crack echoes through the air in the moment following Ben's strike, and Bev has no way of knowing if the damage was done to Henry's face, or Ben's hand. The hell that breaks loose immediately following is enough to block her view. Not that she would really be able to tell anyway-- not with the tears currently obscuring her vision.

And isn't that just great - that as far as she thought she's come in terms of dealing with her sexuality, all it really takes is a few uninspired slurs from the town bully to force that all-too familiar feeling of shame to bubble up in her stomach again.

She stands there, mind screaming at her to move, as her friends begin throwing themselves at their bullies with an almost worrying lack of self-preservation. She watches, as Richie tries to kick Patrick in the shins, only to miss and flail wildly before being shoved roughly onto his back. A worrying thump resounds as his head hits the linoleum, the wind knocked out of him as he struggles to sit back up.

She watches, as Bill and Mike attempt to tackle Henry, almost succeeding at bringing him down, before Belch is also upon them. A tangle of movement, bitten off cries and sounds of desperate scuffling, and suddenly Bill's nose is gushing blood and Mike is clutching at his eye.

She watches, as Stan is yanked by his hair and thrown into a table, shoulder colliding roughly with the wooden corner before he collapses onto someone's half eaten lunch. She watches, as Eddie lets out an animalistic shout and elbows Vic Criss in the chest, managing to swing his leg up and knee him directly in the crotch before Victor gets the upper hand and punches Eddie solidly in the gut.

And then, suddenly, she's had enough of watching. She's had enough of being Beverly Marsh; town slut, centre of the rumour mill, unwilling daughter of Alvin Marsh. Full of guilt, and fear, and shame, all the fucking time.

She wants to be Bev. The girl she is around her friends, the girl she’s working to become. Someone who’s brave, and strong, and unafraid to love openly. A girl made of fire - proud, and daring, and never, ever, the victim.

She steps into the fray.

She is immediately overwhelmed by the sheer force of those she's up against, all height and muscle and hot breath wafting down her back. But now, now - for the first time in her life - she can fight back. The thought rings through her, lights her blood on fire and sends electricity crackling through her veins. She can fight back, and she does. All the pent up rage, the bottled anger and twisted sadness, comes pouring out of her in the form of swinging fists and unbridled fury.

She fights back, and she feels alive.

Somewhere in the middle of scratching vicious red lines down Belch's face and biting into Henry's forearm so hard she breaks the skin, someone seems to have the bright - and very delayed - idea to inform a teacher that there's a full on fight happening in the middle of the school's cafeteria.

The next thing she knows, she's being forcibly pulled away from the centre of the commotion, limbs flailing and a never-ending stream of curses falling from her lips without restraint. She can hear the hush that falls over the crowd as the fight is broken up, but her vision is too tunnelled to take in much at all of her surroundings. The only thing she really processes is that her friends are being dragged away as well, leaving the Bowers gang standing in the centre of it all, looking far too pissed off for comfort.

By the time the firm grip on her arm loosens enough for her to wrench it away, she’s been led directly to the reception area of the principal's office. Everyone’s directed to sit and wait in a chair lining the windowless wall. The teachers clear out as quickly as they came, one of them staying behind only long enough to whisper something to a sour looking receptionist, who nods back with a pinched expression.

When it's only the seven of them and the receptionist - Ms. Jones, judging by the cheap looking nameplate on her desk - left in the room, she clears her throat far too loudly and steps out from behind the desk. Smoothing down her polyester blouse, she levels them all with a scathing look.

“I'm going to go grab the principal, you children had better stay put while I'm gone.”

As soon as she's shuffled her way out of their eye line, Bev whips her head around to take in the condition of the rest of the club.

The sight that greets her isn't exactly pretty.

Mike is sporting the beginnings of a pretty spectacular black eye, his lids swollen partway shut. Stan's hunched over, one shoulder held unnaturally stiff, eyes glistening with tears as he tries to wipe off the food now splattering his shirt. Richie's eyes are glazed over, movements slow as he clutches the back of his head.

Bill's a complete mess, his entire upper body a mix of slimy cafeteria food and drying blood, his nose still bleeding slowly as his face begins to swell. Eddie’s probably the least bloodied of all of them, hands resting tenderly on his stomach and still vibrating with barely contained energy. The kid's a whirlwind, clearly having gotten dragged from the fight too soon.

And Ben - sweet Ben, who couldn't stop himself from jumping to her defence, from willingly going up against someone bigger and stronger and who has already done him so much damage in the past - is trying to flex the fingers on his right hand, wincing when something seems to tug wrong. His knuckles are split and bleeding, dark bruises already forming. Bev wouldn't be surprised if something turns out to be broken.

“Holy shit, are you guys okay?”

Richie swings his head up quickly, then seems to sway slightly in his seat. “Ready to rrrrumble,” he slurs, giving her a very wobbly thumbs up.

Eddie glances over at this, eyes narrowing. “Rich. Richie, hey, look at me.” Eddie gets up, wincing, before crouching down in front of the other boy. “How are you feeling? I saw you go down during the fight, I think you might have a concussion.”

“Pfft...nah spaghetti head, I'm fine! Don't worry your- your pretty head about me. I'm not the one who decked Henry Bowers right in the fuckin' face.”

At this, Eddie lets out a slight snort, looking over to Ben. His face falls when he sees the state of Ben's knuckles, hands twitching towards a fanny pack that's no longer there, bandages he doesn't actually have. “Jesus fuckin' christ Ben! I can't believe you actually did that, I swear, you're like the walking definition of go big or go home.”

“Yeah, I guess I usually go with the second option, huh?” Ben laughs, before lowering his gaze. “I just... I couldn't just - let him get away with saying that stuff, you know? It's not okay. It's not, and he shouldn't be allowed to go around thinking it is and always getting away with it! I don't know. I'm just sorry I dragged you guys into it. I didn't mean for any of you to get hurt.”

“Hey,” Bev cuts in, voice sharp. “Don't apologize for standing up for us, Ben. For standing up for me. Seriously. You're my hero.”

Ben's face lights up at her words, eyes crinkling in the corners. “Always, Bev. Always. I've got you, no matter what.”

God, Bev loves him. Loves all of them, so much it's kinda fucking terrifying. Even here, post-fight and waiting to get chewed out by the principal on their very first day of school, so far from their best moment.

Bill hasn't said a word since the fight, body sagging under a palpable guilt that Bev struggles to understand. Stan has stopped scrubbing at himself, apparently realizing it's futile, is now sitting ramrod straight and picking at the skin around his thumbs. Mike just looks tired. Exhausted, really, right to the core. Weary, like he should have expected this to happen when all he wanted was to fit in.

It burns Bev, to see them like this. She's come to realize that she would do anything for these boys. Do anything, fight anyone, lose everything else she's ever had. As long as she's got them, she's got her family. She just wants them to be safe, and happy, because there are no other people who she can think of who deserve it more.

“Hey, you guys,” Richie pipes up. “D'you think... hey guys. Do you think the principal's gonna be hot? Cause I can- I can think of a punishment I wouldn't mind takin', if you... if you know what I mea-”.

Before anyone can cut him off with a well-deserved 'beep beep', Richie lurches over, puking suddenly and violently onto the floor. It narrowly misses Eddie, still crouched by Richie's feet, and Eddie gags loudly as some vomit splashes up onto the sides of his shoes.

“Holy shit, Rich-!”

“Richie, oh my god, are you okay?!”

“Fuck trashmouth, you alright?”

“Guys! Guys, give him space!” Eddie commands, once he gets his gagging slightly under control. He sounds panicked, but determined. “Seriously, back up a bit, he needs air. Rich! Rich, you with me?” Eddie leans forward slightly, a hand on Richie's knee as he takes Richie's chin in his other hand and tilts his face up slightly.

His eyes flick between Richie's own, eyebrows furrowing with concern. Richie gazes back as best he can, swaying slightly and clearly woozy.

“Okay, Rich. Shh, you're okay, how's your vision?”

Wack,” Richie replies, clumsily raising a hand to tap the lens of his glasses.

“No, I mea- ugh. Are you seeing straight? Do you feel foggy, is your vision spotty at all? Are you seeing stars?”

“I always see stars when I look at you, Spagheds.”

Eddie flushes brightly, eyes widening. “Wh- shut up Richie! Guys, he definitely has a concussion, we need to go to the nurse.”

Bev nods in agreement. “Yeah, fuck this. Why are we all sitting here waiting for some crusty principal to rail on us when we're literally bleeding on the floor? Let's go.”

She stands up, the others following with varying degrees of reluctance. Just as she reaches the door handle, though, she hears a throat clearing loudly behind her.

“Excuse me!” An unfamiliar voice barks out, and Bev turns to face what must be the principal. A deep resignation fills her as she takes in his appearance. Pale, wrinkled face, frown marks etched deeply into his skin, tufts of wispy white hair and an ill-fitting suit. Hard eyes.

It's not hard to envision how well this is going to go.

Still, she's gotta try to get on his good side, for the sake of her friends. They all need at least some level of medical attention, and Richie looks like he's seconds away from passing out on the spot. She pastes on a grin, wide and plastic and usually far too effective on older men she'd rather not be around.

“I'm so sorry, Sir. We were just trying to take our friend here to the nurse, he's not feeling so well at the moment.”

“Yes well, maybe he would be feeling better if one of you hadn't instigated a fight directly on school property. Take a seat, immediately.”

Bev swallows, quickly locking eyes with Bill, who gives an almost imperceptible nod. She lowers herself back to her chair.

“Now,” the principal's voice is like chalk, dry and raspy, the sound coating the air unpleasantly. “My name is Principal Dridy. I would say it's good to meet some new students, but - well. We all know why we're here, don't we?”

The only response he gets is that of scuffling shoes, bodies squirming in seats with a quiet and unified defiance.

“No? Well, let me refresh your memories. One of you punched another student in the face, with no precedent,” (Eddie lets out a loud scoff at this) “And the rest of you proceeded to join in on the violence, no thought to school property or the damage you were causing, demonstrating a complete and total lack of respect for both your school and the people in it. Does that sound familiar?”

Again, he’s met with only silence.

“Okay then. Who threw the first punch?”

His voice is quieter now, dangerous. It's a tone Bev recognizes all too well, and she can feel herself tensing up as her heart begins to pick up speed. She silently wills Ben to stay quiet, not to cave under the withering glare. Ben, apparently, doesn't get the memo.

“Um, that was - that was me Sir.” His voice quavers, sounds thick with unshed tears. Bev could kill someone right now.

“Was it? Hm.” His eyes rake over Ben's appearance judgmentally. “That's... unexpected. Okay son, let's hear the reason. And just to warn you, it better be good.”

Ben shifts, lowers his gaze. “Henry Bowers is... he's a bully, Sir. He dumped food on Bill's head, and he called my friends some really awful things. He said Bev was a- a-”. He can't seem to get the word out. Bev figures now is as good a time as any to step in.

“He called me a dyke.” The word rings out in the office, leaving a heavy silence in her wake. Everyone seems uncomfortable, on edge. Until, that is, the principal lets out a sharp laugh.

“Well dear, I think it's best if you learn to brush that off. This isn't the first I've heard of you, Beverly Marsh, not by a long shot. And I think we can all safely agree that, with your reputation, you should save this drama for words that have some truth behind them.”

Bev can faintly hear the others' harsh outbursts around her, but doesn't take any of it in. She feels hollow, suddenly. There’s a strange ringing in her ears.

“Wait, so-”. She leans forward in her seat. “You're saying... you're actually saying I have no right to be upset by any of this because - because I'm not actually a lesbian? Because half of this town I've slept with all tend to look a hell of a lot more like you, is that right?” Her chest is heaving now, unable to get a full breath, the tension building in her chest threatening to choke her. “Well, what if you're wrong?”

Dridy leans forward too, a menacing challenge in his eyes. “Wrong about what, dear?”

His stale breath hits her face, and she has to fight the urge to close her eyes, stumble back, retreat. “What if I was gay?”

So focused on this moment, this asshole principal and this breath that’s still fighting to leave her lungs, Bev feels a large, warm hand slipping into her own. She glances down, and Ben squeezes her fingers lightly. She looks back at Dridy, directly in his sharp, mocking eyes.

“What if I am?” And just like that, she lets out her breath. For a moment, the office feels strangely suspended in time – this moment when Bev feels both a stranger to everyone around her, and also the most herself she’s ever been.

“I'm gay. So fuck you, or anyone else in this goddamn town, who has a single thing to say about it.”

Dridy stares at her for a few beats, apparently struggling to find words. “...Well then. Good luck with that, Miss Marsh.” He sounds anything but sincere. “In the meantime, detention. All seven of you, in the library at 3:15 sharp today after class. You will be informed about the duration of today's detention and the ones that are to follow when you arrive. Now, get the hell out of my office and go to the nurse.” He glances down at the pile of vomit still on the floor. “And send a damn janitor here.”

As everyone scrambles to get up, Bev glances over at her friends for the first time since her announcement. Bill's eyes are, she notices with a sinking feeling, glassier than they were minutes before. Still, he meets her gaze and sends her the most reassuring smile he can seem to manage in the moment.

Mike sends her a wink as he throws his arm over Stan's shoulders, guiding the smaller boy out of the office as Stan glances back, warm grin on his face as he looks at Bev. Richie seems too out of it to even realize what just what happened, but he throws her a sloppy peace sign on his way past nonetheless. Ben's grin is practically splitting his face, and he presses a firm kiss to the top of her head as he gently lets go of her hand, eyes shining with pride.

And Eddie, well. Eddie has a strange look on his face, like something is crawling its way up his throat and he has to force himself to swallow it back down. Bev feels a tug of recognition, has seen that own expression reflected back in the mirror too many times to count. She wonders if, maybe, Eddie holds the same thing inside himself that she did for far too long.

Walking out of the office and back into the cafeteria, Bev can immediately feel the weight of hundreds of eyes staring at the group, whispers rippling through the students like waves. Mike lets out a wry laugh, tightening his grip on Stan and throwing his other arm around Ben, pulling them close. “So much for laying low, huh guys.”

Bev finds herself grinning. It's not the peaceful, stress-free first day she longed for. Couldn't be farther, really. But, if she's going to bring the attention of the entire school crashing down on her shoulders, if she's going to fight bullies and stand up for herself and finally learn to exhale, she's proud that she can do it alongside friends. Alongside her family.

As she wraps an arm around Richie's waist to help a struggling Eddie support him, she thinks that, maybe, she’s finally learning how to be Bev.

Chapter Text

It's a nice thought, isn't it?

That people can come together one day and never truly separate; can stand tall against the rest of the world without bending, without breaking. It's a nice thought, sure, but then it's tested against reality, a reality cruel and unyielding and so eager to destroy.

The losers can spend months and days and minutes, spend all their effort and all their love, pour everything they have into one another, and in the blink of an eye they can fall apart anyway. No outside force required.

Ben has, since the first moment he met the others, been savouring his days. Making them count, remembering every laugh and every joke, all the pointless banter and shared secrets. Tucking the surreal feeling of belonging somewhere deep in his chest where he can always feel its warmth.

Because he knew, of course he did, that what they all built together couldn't last. One moment of cosmic destiny, when the sun seemed to look down upon them all and say 'you belong together', one day of coming together, of standing and then jumping, of falling without fear because with the others he was invincible. It turns out it was nothing really, up against time. Time, and situations, and the cold truth that every one of them is more complicated than they want to be, more screwed up than they pretend to be.

Ben remembers that day at the quarry, the memory bathed in a hazy light, so much so he might have thought it a dream if it weren't for the other losers. They had all felt something, the same something, thrumming through their bones, their very cores. Connecting them. Whatever souls are made of, Ben had thought that day, remembering a quote he'd read years before, yours and mine are the same.

He’d thought that he finally understood what those words meant. How could he not? He supposes now that he'd been naive. He can't fix other people, and other people can't fix him. He thought maybe the losers could, that if anything in the world could help him it would be them.

And he doesn't know - has no way of knowing - if this is the same problem the rest of them have. If this subconscious expectation he placed on the rest of them had been placed by everybody in turn. If it was this, or something else, that was the beginning of the end.

It's hard to pinpoint where exactly everything started to fall apart.

Maybe it was with Eddie, trusting Bill with the truth about his pills months before he felt comfortable bringing it up to anyone else. Maybe it was Mike, always feeling torn between his friends and his responsibilities, exhausted from his efforts not to let anyone down. Maybe it was Richie, hurt and feeling like Eddie didn't trust him, like maybe none of them trusted him, lashing out with jokes that hit them all too close to home.

Or Bill, who worked hard to support Bev when she came out but still felt a loss, still felt like he didn't deserve to be upset over something he never even had. It could have been Stan, who struggled with finding his place in high school, floating along day by day but never finding his footing enough to land. Or Bev, perhaps, who came out and came into herself and found herself glowing only until it was time for her to head home, and none of them quite knew why. None of them knew if they really wanted to.

Ben knows he's responsible for losing the others, but not for the others losing each other. He shouldn’t have had that big an impact on them. He should have been able to fade into the background of their lives and watched them continue on, six strong and none the wiser.

And maybe it was their disastrous first day of school, which banded them together but painted a target on their backs. Maybe it was the daily detentions that followed, that banned them from speaking to each other and made time spent in the presence of friends feel like a never ending chore. Maybe it was Bill joining soccer, finding a quiet sort of popularity that brought a proud, embarrassed flush to his cheeks. Maybe it was new teachers and new expectations and a whole new set of roles they all had to try to fill.

Maybe it was that they didn't really know each other at all; maybe it was that they didn't want to be known.

It was nothing dramatic. It wasn't screaming fights, sobbing tears, hateful words thrown with the intent to hurt. It was quiet, something too easy to slip through the cracks and break apart a foundation they hadn't quite realized they were standing on.

It was cancelled plans and essays to write. It was no time to meet at the quarry because there was practice to get to. It was projects completed efficiently in the library before going separate ways.

It was grand plans for the future and inside jokes and group schemes devolving into pleasant small talk, jaws tight from the effort put into plastic smiles. It was priorities changing and communication becoming a foreign concept.

Ben wishes it had been something finite, something final. Something, anything, to make him stop feeling like he's still waiting for the other shoe to drop when he knows it plummeted straight off the earth a long time ago.

He's spent his life living in his head, always feeling two steps away from the world everybody else lived on. It was only with the losers that he finally began to feel like he was being heard, like he was truly being seen for the first time. It hurts, in an absent sort of way, to think that that's over for him now.

When Bev first came out to him, Ben had, selfishly, considered himself heartbroken. But now, he shoves himself through crowds of people in the hall with no fearless leader to guide the way.

Now, he watches as Eddie comes the opposite way down the hall with his head down and hands tightly clenching his backpack straps, glancing up and making eye contact with Ben before looking harshly away and taking faster steps.

Now, Ben veers a sharp left into the nearest bathroom to catch the breath that so suddenly evaded him. He sees Stan standing in front of the farthest sink, staring blankly at the mirror. He takes half a step towards him, tentative, before Stan seems to snap back to reality, hiking his backpack further up his back and exiting the bathroom without a single word.

Now, Ben realizes something he wishes he could forget.

Friends can break your heart too.

Chapter Text

Stanley is floating.

That's what it feels like, he thinks, as he travels down the hallway in between classes. He can't quite remember which ones, doesn't know where he’s just come from or where he’s heading. All he knows is the route; he takes the same one every day, lets the hallways and lockers and shoe-scuffed floors become familiar pictures in his mind. Familiar, with the hazy promise of becoming habitual if he was to let it – if he wasn't always floating just slightly too far above the ground to ever really know it.

He tries not to think of them often.

The Losers.

It feels like something best left untouched. Preserved in his memory, untainted by his present.

His six best friends in the entire world, the people he thought he would always have a place with. And now simply running into one of them in the bathroom apparently does nothing but trigger some sort of skewed fight or flight response, does nothing but send Stan striding out of the bathroom before the thought of staying even enters his mind.

There’s a heaviness in his limbs, weighing him down; one he can't escape. Most days, he can't even find the energy to try. Still he surges forward, a slow shuffle but forward nonetheless, back straight and backpack straps gripped tightly, eyes glazed as he attempts to manoeuvre his way through ever-present hordes of students in the hall.

He registers a grunt, just before two hundred pounds of muscle masquerading as a high school senior slams into Stan's shoulder on his way past, sending Stan reeling.

He stumbles, back slamming into a locker, students continuing to shove past as they pay him no mind. They have places to be, seats to fill and notes to take and friends to gossip with. And Stan, Stan is left leaning against the locker, destination forgotten as the uncomfortable sensation of feeling lost blooms in his chest.

It's a sensation he's growing used to, like everyone around him has figured out something he hasn't, like whatever direction he picks will end up being wrong. Like he's always one step behind no matter which way he turns.

As the bell rings and the hallways clear, as Stan fails to move, a teacher he knows he knows but can't quite place approaches, concern on his face as he lays what’s surely meant to be a comforting hand on Stan's shoulder. It leaves Stan feeling itchy.

“Are you quite alright, Mr. Uris?”

Stan thinks. He thinks about alright. And he thinks about water; floating, and how to stop. About sinking below a surface, bubbles obscuring his vision only as long as he continues blowing out air to create them. He thinks of dying, in a sense. Or, rather, ceasing to exist. To fade into nothingness, for the constant buzzing in his mind to finally stop.

He thinks about missed opportunities, about existing in the world but not really living in it. He thinks of all the years stretched ahead of him, the space he is required to fill and the emptiness he will fill it with.

He thinks of home. Thinks of six shining faces, smiles and jokes and people that used to know him.

And he aches.

“Yes,” he replies. “I'm fine.”
_________

Richie is great. He's doing great. He's at the top of his game! He's popular! Everybody loves him! His jokes are the peak of comedy! He's taking Derry High by storm!

The words repeat on an endless loop in his mind, never stopping. Never letting them stop. He tries not to dwell on why.

“Okay! So here's a new one for you guys, catch a drift of this-- a lizard, a Texan, and an Irishman walk into a bar. Now, the Irishman's got his eye on someone in the corner booth but what he doesn't know is-”

“Hey, Tozier. I'll give you the rest of these Doritos if you dump your milk on Winterby's head.”

Richie freezes. The punchline of his joke slips from his mind faster than he can blink, and dammit. That was gonna be a good one.

His gaze skips around the cafeteria, flits over nerds hunched over textbooks and girls french braiding hair and Eddie Kaspbrak digging in his backpack for change and Mike Hanlon sitting with strangers and Bev Marsh pushing her way out the back doors with her lighter in hand (and it's a big room, why does he always seem to find them, why can't they just leave him alone, why does it still hurt--) to land finally on his assigned target.

Alex Winterby, fellow freshman. Short, scrawny at first glance with a few extra pounds around the middle, headphones shoved in his ears as he squints down at an outdated tablet. A regular kid, far from popular but not quite a loser (not one of them, never one of them), someone Richie would prefer to just leave the fuck alone.

But that's not up to him, not part of who he is anymore. He can see what's expected of him, knows this will get laughs the way his forgotten joke never would have. So he looks around his lunch table, at people he now considers friends, hard glints in their eyes and phones already set to record.

He wonders if any of them would play shitty card games and watch the stars with him, lend him a cigarette and a hand to hold on days they know he needs it most, let him crawl through their window night after night after night.

He knows the answer, swallows down the question.

“Throw in a night with your sister and you've got yourself a deal, Nick.” At the middle finger he gets in reply, Richie stands, casual as anything, and swipes his carton of milk as he walks away. He reaches Winterby all too soon, doesn't really know why he thought it would take longer. It takes the kid a moment to notice anyone's there, and he only stares with defensive eyes when he does, not saying a word.

Richie glances back at his table, sees the guys already laughing, and realizes there's nothing else for it at this point. So he pours the milk, cardboard folding underneath his clenching fingers. He upends the whole container in a flash; can't bear to do it slowly, to draw this out. Watches Winterby splutter in shock, flailing in his efforts to stand as the milk drips down his face and clothes, cold and sticky and humiliating.

Richie squeezes his eyes closed, and when he reopens them - just for a second - it's Bill standing in front of him. Bill, on their first day of high school, cold meat and chunky sauce oozing down his shell shocked face, an empty tray held in Bowers' hands and a cold smirk firmly in place.

He stumbles back, stomach churning.

As Winterby grabs his backpack and hightails it into the hallway, Richie looks around to see the eyes of the whole cafeteria looking in his direction. And he's a performer, isn't he? That's what he's here for. So he straightens up, fixes an invisible tie, sends a few winks around, and takes a bow.

As he makes his way back over to his table, settles in and snags the Doritos he knows he didn't earn, his friends break out in cheers, whoops and hollers and laughter; a sea of approval. He doesn't quite know where to let it settle on his skin.

And so what if he ends up throwing away an almost full bag of chips because he feels too sick to eat them. So what if he cuts his last class and smokes until his fingers are numb and his throat feels thick and raw. So what if he's stopped imagining a future where he makes it out of this town.

He's fine! Good, even. Richie is doing great.
_________

Bill has never been afraid of spiders. He doesn't fear sharks, small spaces, or heights. He can deal with snakes, thunder, even clowns.

What Bill fears - always has, more than anything - is letting down the people he loves. Which is kind of shitty luck, he reckons, since that's all he ever seems to do. Georgie, his parents, and now he's failed his friends. There's no other way to look at it really. He failed them.

He failed them the minute they first walked through the school doors, frightened and unprepared. He failed them when they were forced to fight because of him, and he failed them in everything that came after. He let them drift apart, let things fester; hurt feelings and changing loyalties and broken trust.

They would have followed him anywhere, Big Bill their fearless leader. But maybe that's not what he wanted, and maybe he's realizing too late. He held too much power with them, an influence he never really acknowledged, reaching and untapped. He liked the feeling though, an invincibility of sorts, a high he didn't know how to chase.

It doesn't matter though, any of it. He faded into the background when they needed him most, and now he has to live with it. So here he is, striker on the JV soccer team, every practice spent surrounded by admiring faces.

Bill hates soccer.

Hates most sports really, always has. His interests lie more in biking around town and adventures in the woods and exploring creepy abandoned buildings.

What he hadn't hated, however, was the almost proud glint in his father's eye when Bill told him he was considering trying out for the team. The attention he soaked up, felt like he could drown in, when his parents bundled Georgie up for the cold weather and attended his first real match. Georgie made a sign to cheer him on and Bill thought there could be nothing better in the whole world.

And he could have sworn he spotted some faces in the crowd that first game, a flash of red hair and someone layered in plaid, springy blonde curls and coke bottle glasses. Every game since, impressive goals and hard fought wins and team celebrations, has felt lacking, empty in a way he can't explain. It seems to echo through his very bones.

He feels stuck, now, in this strange new life he’s created for himself, and it’s a feeling he hates more than anything. It makes him want to run - away from his responsibilities, from his failures, from everything. But he has nothing to run towards, nobody to run to.

Maybe it's better this way, anyway. He'll fail everyone in the end.
_________

Mike didn't cry at his parent's funeral.

He remembers the day clearly, so sharp in his mind it could have been yesterday, the years stretched in between doing nothing to dull the images. Dressed in an ill fitting tux, shoulders not yet broad enough to fill it out and hems too long for a child's legs.

He had taken his seat in the front left pew, silent as the funeral director warbled on about two new souls finding their way to heaven, silent as his grandfather's nails bit crescent moons into the flesh of his upper arm.

He gave a speech, practised and prepared, voice steady and eyes fixed forward. Watched, back straight, as two graves were lowered into the ground. Threw a handful of dirt in after them. Listened for the impact, the proof of his final interaction with his parents, and instead heard nothing.

He helped host the wake, clasped hands and shared memories, thanked everyone for the casseroles and condolences. Then he retreated to his room, loosened his tie, and curled up on his bed. He didn't sleep, didn't cry, didn't think. He woke the next day, rising with the sun, did his chores and cooked for his grandfather and didn't say a word about his parents dead in their graves.

His silence became a comfort. If he didn't talk about it that meant he wasn't still aching about it, wasn't still a carved out gutted shell of the boy he barely had a chance to be. If all people saw was the bright young man with the warm grin and comforting touch, then that's all he was.

And it worked. It worked for so long, he began to wonder if there was even another way. If, had the silence rejected him, he would have ever found the right words.

Then came the losers, and Mike learned not to worry about right. Maybe he was silence and maybe he was all the wrong words and maybe he was dirt under his nails and a jagged soul. It didn't matter, because he was one of them.

He must have been wrong though, somewhere down the line. Because they're gone now, and his silence has filled their place. It fills the spaces between good grades and impressed teachers, the cracks between polite, neat new friends, between his grandfather and the farm and every spare moment of happiness he can wring out of his existence. Sometimes it weighs on him so much he can't breathe.

He can feel it now, that hard press of nothing on his lungs as he heads to the school bus at the end of the day. He can see Bill in the distance, cleats in hand as he strides towards the soccer field. And he sees Eddie, face firmly focused on the ground as he marches on a collision course straight to Bill. He watches, frozen, as Eddie notices a second too late, as he stumbles and Bill reaches out a hand to steady him, concern in the furrow of his brows.

It hurts – a visceral thing – to watch, in those brief few moments, as Eddie seems to hover in Bill's orbit. Like Mike could blink his way back to months ago, when Eddie would have sniped and Bill would have laughed and Mike would have made his way right over to tease the both of them.

Instead he gets this. He gets Eddie ripping his arm away like he's been burned, staggering away as fast as he can. He gets Bill, sagging and hollow but making no move to follow, turning instead back to the field. And he gets himself, always watching and always noticing and never doing a goddamn thing.

He wonders if there's something wrong with him, to be able to feel so much and say so little.

But, he supposes, he has no one left to say it to anyway.

He becomes silence, and silence becomes him.
_________

Eddie has always had a thing about heroes.

Ever since he was little, he wanted nothing more than the newest Spiderman comic or Iron Man Happy Meal toy. He TiVoed Sky High every time it came on, relentless in his quest to find heroes to look up to.

He never really had a favourite hero, or one power he valued above all the others. What he really liked, his favourite thing about them, was the way they made him feel.

Powerful, like he could do anything or be anyone. Like the life he lived growing up wasn’t who he would always be, like it might one day be just a backstory to the amazing life he would create for himself.

His mom indulged him in this, since sitting in the living room reading with a blanket tied like a cape around his shoulders was much less dangerous than going out of the house.

But Eddie grew a little, and while his heroes always stayed with him, so did the new people he met along the way.

And he's not sure when, but somewhere down the line he stopped thinking of heroes as Captain America punching Nazis and Batman protecting his city, but rather as young boys with red hair and green eyes and a saviour complex a mile long.

Bill Denbrough was his first friend, his best friend, but his hero above all else.

Others inevitably came into their group. Next was Stan followed quickly by Richie, then Mike and Bev and Ben all at once. And Eddie loved them all, but not the way he loved Big Bill. Not with stars in his eyes and his heart in his throat.

Through every shitty thing they had all gone through over the years, bullying and parents and a world that became too harsh too soon, Eddie never lost faith, even for a second, that if they followed Bill they would come out standing.

To learn this was a lie left him with no solid ground to stand on. To learn that Bill wasn't a hero, wasn't his hero, was the most heartbreaking thing of all.

Bill’s always been just a person. With his own life and his own struggles, a person who has always tried to do right by his friends. And it took years, but he finally let Eddie down. Eddie's still not sure he's going to survive it.

Because it's not just that, is it? It's Bill and his mother and his friends that aren't his friends and it's stepping into a world that doesn't know him day after day.

Everywhere he goes, everything he does, he’s become a stranger.

And his mother picks up his pills now, drops them on his desk with a pained smile and a kiss to the forehead, a quietly turned back as he shoves the whole package into the garbage. It seems they've found a new kind of normal.

And he plays flag football in gym, his mother's note to excuse him shoved deep into his backpack, runs until he can't breathe and then has a fit at the mud that cakes itself all the way up the backs of his legs.

(“If you didn't want to get muddy, why didn't you just sit out?” Eddie doesn't answer, can't answer, because once upon a time, he'd had people who understood him enough they'd never had to ask.)

And he types and retypes words into the same abandoned group chat, and he never sends a thing.

And every night he leaves his window unlocked, just in case, and every night he falls asleep alone.

He feels ready all the time, a thrumming in his bones telling him to just do something, try anything to fix what has somehow become so broken. But all he does is think, of all the different outcomes and all the ways it could go wrong. He thinks of ending up alone, of being right back where he is but without any hope left at all.

He feels torn, constantly lingering on some edge of his own design.

He ran into Bill today. Felt his steadying arm and his concerned gaze, and it was all just too much. Far too reminiscent of something he can never get back.

Eddie has always had a thing about heroes.

But it might be time to let that go.
_______
You get used to being afraid.

This is a truth Bev learned very early growing up, one she’ll carry with her the rest of her life. Fear is a staple in her household. Rather than family photos and old artwork stored in boxes, Bev gets a sick burst of adrenaline every time she walks in the front door and an ever churning nausea in her gut.

It's nothing new, and she’s been thinking for a while that maybe she can make it through. Four more years, then she can run towards a future brighter than anything she’s leaving behind.

Lately though, things have been changing.

As long as she's got them, she's got her family.

Bev remembers thinking those words, months earlier - a time when she thought it was enough, a time she allowed herself to believe they would always be there and she would always have a place.

Bill, Ben, Eddie, Stan, Mike, Richie.

How can she get them to release the hold they still have on her heart? Because it's starting to choke her. Thinking about them, seeing them, wishing she knew what was in their heads - it's a physical thing, clawing its way up her throat. She doesn't know what would happen if she let it out.

She's stopped sleeping at night. She catches time, here and there, twenty minutes in the library and a catnap at lunch. The hours of darkness though, she’s begun to hate. It never used to bother her, the idea of opening her eyes and seeing only shadows, the barest hint of her surroundings. It feels different now. The kind of all-consuming darkness that makes a person forget there was ever a light.

It's a relief now, the biggest she's ever felt, when she can rise in the morning and know she spent the whole night alone. She's not naive. She knows, has always known, where her father's heated glares and sharp smiles, his seething comments and roaming eyes, have been heading. She can deal with violence, with bruised arms and split lips and a town that’s far too comfortable turning its back. But not that. Just not that.

And it's come close. The creak of her bedroom door at 3am and the stench of alcohol wafting over her pillow, another body laid on a bed that suddenly feels far from safe, as she curls into a ball, clenches her eyes and prays for the morning light.

And she's done. Done with feeling like she’s nothing more than the sum of those who hurt her. Four years seems suddenly too far, a someday she's no longer sure she'll make it to.

This town knocks her down, holds her under, but she always rises. She gets up, time after time after time. And this time? She'll get up snarling.

So she finds a phone booth, steps inside. Reaches in her pocket and snags a ripped piece of notebook paper hastily shoved inside. Squints at the ten digits she had scrawled down earlier, copied from the spare phone book at the library. A Portland area code glares back at her.

She picks up the phone, and makes a call.

Chapter Text

Bev is gone.

Without warning, without explanation, she’s just – gone

The morning after she leaves, they each wake up oblivious to the change, to the fact that one of their own boarded a bus in the early light and has plans never to return. It seems like something they should know, something they should feel right to the very core of who they are.

But they don’t. They have no idea, and that’s maybe the worst thing of all.

Then comes the text - from Bev to the others, a single message sent in a group chat long abandoned. It’s a heart. Only a heart, large and red and entirely unclear.

Like winter fire, Ben thinks, as he stares down at it and tries to find a meaning. He has no way of knowing it was sent somewhere between Cumberland and Freeport, miles and towns stretching between this single connection that’s more than they've had in months.

And Ben’s been working on something. Or - building something is more accurate, he supposes. It’s a skeleton of a plan, the bare bones of a way to try and reunite his friends. He didn’t want to show them until it was finished.

But this could change things, he thinks. This could change everything. Bev went first and now it’s his turn. And maybe the rest will follow and things will finally be okay, things will finally be right again.

So Ben takes a breath, decides this is how he can start. Palms sweaty, heart in his throat, he calls Bev.

And calls her and calls her, again and again and only gets a dial tone, an automatic message asking him to please leave a message. He never does. He can’t, because with a twist of his gut he understands well enough the one she's trying to leave for him.

_______

 

Mike doesn't see her in class. Granted, they don't sit together, haven't all semester, but it's a small enough room and besides, he would recognize Bev anywhere. Normally he wouldn't dwell on it too much. Bev has never exactly attended class religiously, but with the text she sent still sitting heavy in his pocket, he feels entirely uneasy and unable to let it go.

So he swallows down his silence and raises his hand. Asks where she is, heart pounding for reasons he can't entirely explain.

The answer he receives is curt at best, far too dismissive of something that steals his breath from his lungs. She’s been pulled from their school, headed to live with her aunt in Portland.

Mike excuses himself quietly, gathers his things.

He barely manages to close the classroom door behind him before he starts to shake.

________

 

Eddie hears it from his mom, before he even leaves the house that morning. He's not sure how she found out quite so fast, except that sometimes he swears she has an ear pressed up against every door in the neighbourhood, has eyes all over town.

“One more dirty thing I don't have to worry about hurting you, sweetheart.” She kisses his forehead, smudges away the lipstick left behind before shooing him out the door. Eddie feels sick.

He cuts class, that morning, for the very first time. The fear of getting caught is usually too much, but right now it doesn’t even cross his mind to care. He wanders the hallways, thoughts flitting through his mind too fast to really settle.

Curly red hair, dirt caked on well worn boots, the kindest eyes he’s ever known. A hand clasped in his own, rough calluses and fraying bracelets and chipped blue polish. The feeling of family, warm and unconditional and too beautiful to last. He doesn’t have siblings, an only child until the end. He thinks he knew, though, for a while, what it was like to have a sister.

He's still wandering when he finds Mike.

He’s curled in on himself on the floor, eyes shut and backpack clutched tightly to his chest. And Eddie doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t know how he ever could. Before he can quite comprehend it, he finds himself crouched down across from Mike, arms around his shoulders and Mike's trembling head burrowed firmly into his neck.

I have to go, he thinks.

This isn't right, he thinks.

He doesn't need me and I shouldn't need him.

Mike raises his arms and latches them tightly around Eddie's back.

Eddie stays.

_____

 

Stan gets the text and it makes him feel more than he has managed to for a very long time.

The fog retreats. It doesn’t disappear, no, Stan knows it’s not gone. But it’s taken a hit. It’s shied away; curled into the forgotten, wounded recesses of his mind. Maybe it could stay there forever.

Maybe Bev will greet him in the hallway - a nod, or a smile, that little half smirk she had that always meant love, always meant home. She’ll smile, and it will mean I see you. It’ll mean Stan’s not alone. It’ll mean he’s real.

Maybe she’ll greet him and he’ll greet her back and he’ll be standing in the hallway with a friend, feet on the floor and head on his shoulders and a mind that’s clear. And the others will join, because they should, because they must, because they’ve been apart for too long and Stan doesn’t even know why anymore but he knows that it’s bullshit and he knows that he loves them and he knows that the world feels wrong without them.

He learns later that Bev sent the text because she is leaving them - leaving him - behind. He wishes he could feel nothing at all.

_____

Richie sits with his friends at lunch, same as any other day. Except, he supposes, for the tight pinch of his mouth, the hard tension in his jaw. Except that he doesn't say a word to any of them, except that the only thing at all he can make himself do is pick up his phone and delete the text.

He used to joke that Bev was his soulmate. That she was his person, the most beautiful girl he’d ever laid eyes on, the absolute love of his life, the girl he was going to marry. He wasn’t serious, of course, about the marriage part at least.

The rest though, the rest he might have meant. He almost wishes it had just been some stupid romantic thing. That would have been easier to explain, to understand. He doesn’t know how to come to terms with what it really was; that maybe they were all his great loves, the six of them. The kind of love people wrote songs about, built monuments to. The kind that seems built to last forever. The kind he’s learned destroys everything in its path when it doesn’t.

And he’s hiding now, behind his lies and his jokes and his reassurances that he is happy. But he doesn’t know how to stop it, to be anything other than what he’s already become.

So he breathes out, breathes in, and deletes her number as well.

____

Bill quits soccer in the afternoon. Leaves his uniform behind and walks away, hands in his pockets. It’s so much easier than he thought it would be. It’s shedding a skin; it’s peeling away the layers until he finds something that feels almost like himself.

It’s realizing that Bev was never his to lose, and now he's lost her anyway. The difference is now it's for good. He couldn't, wouldn't, talk to her while he still had the chance, and now she feels so far out of his reach. He wants to grab onto something real.

So he lets his feet carry him forward, away from school, to a house that isn't his but at one point might as well have been. He knocks, three steady beats, and waits, nerves alighting in his chest.

And Richie opens the door.