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In This Cold Heart

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In his second year of college, Richie discovered that most other people didn’t have nightmares that culminated in waking up halfway, unable to move while something slid around in the room behind him, laughing and slobbering. Obviously it was fucking awful, but that was what sleep was, right? Wasn’t that why everyone complained about sleep deprivation all the time? Sleep was a fucking nightmare.

“I’ve never had that happen,” his roommate Jimmy said, with the slow, alarmed voice that meant Richie had done something weirder than usual. They had come to an uneasy truce after the first semester when Jimmy realized Richie wasn’t trying to drive him crazy, he just honestly had not realized it was three in the morning and Zelda was really loud and that the smell of burned macaroni and cheese and weed was probably kind of unpleasant. Richie swore to mute the TV and smoke up outside, and pre-made all his weed food on Sundays, when he was willing to wash dishes.

“What the fuck, really?” He looked around at all Jimmy’s friends, who were draped on the furniture in various states of undress and sobriety.

“I don’t even remember what I dream about,” Alex said. He liked Richie more than the rest of Jimmy’s crew—liked him enough to slide into his room a few times after parties and kiss him and one time, which Richie tried not to think about, to climb under the sheets with him and give him a handjob that was awkward and almost too fast to even be called a handjob. A fingertipjob, he thought, and tried not to grin like an idiot.

“All right, all right, I’m a sleep freak,” he said. “Cool, fine, great, brain meltdown.”

“Time for an MRI,” Jimmy said. “It would actually explain a lot.”

Several years later he remembered the conversation when he couldn’t sleep one night, and since he was already on his phone spiraling into a Wikipedia vortex anyway, he let himself fall deep into the world of sleep disorders and came out feeling better about himself. A little sleep paralysis wasn’t such a big deal, although yeah, it was definitely fucking freaky when your own mind betrayed you and let a hallucination laugh and whisper I know your secret, Richie! gleefully into your ear five or six nights a week while you couldn’t move. At least he didn’t have one of those genetic mutations where you stayed awake until you died.

*

So he was used to that feeling, the nightly struggle to even breathe while the thing behind him stroked his back and giggled. In the deadlights, he wasn’t afraid. He was resigned. Oh, he thought, here I am again. Underwater, watching the surface recede.

It always began with trying to move, and he started with his foot. While he concentrated on wiggling his pinky toe, he saw it play out: Eddie would throw the spike at the clown. Eddie would rescue him—Eddie, hovering over him—Eddie. Like a flip book, he watched his life unfold from this moment, just as Eddie’s fingers tightened around the fence spike, his monsterkiller, and he drew his arm back to throw it. Muscles tensing, frown deepening, lips just parting to scream at the clown. The thing that had crept up behind Richie all those nights, waiting to devour him, had come out into his vision at last to stare back at him, grinning.

He thought he screamed. It never hurt to break out of the paralysis, but there was a bright lightning bolt of pain through his head before he was released. It usually happened like that, the spell letting him go all at once. It was such a strange thing: sometimes he’d forget it had even happened the next day, or he’d just barely remember it and think how the fuck did I go right back to sleep after that? Just a night terror like all the others, important in the night and gone in the day. But this didn’t slip away and recede into the darkness of his closet or under the bed or out the window; he hit the rocks hard enough to knock the breath out of him for real, and when Eddie clambered on top of him, he could only gasp out his name exactly the way he had in his vision.

“I killed It,” Eddie said, his face sharp in the light, brilliant with triumph.

“Eddie,” he said again, pained. “Get the fuck out of the way.”

“What?” Eddie patted his face. “Did you see, Rich?”

“Gonna,” Richie said, trying to lift his arms. He was dimly alarmed to realize it was very difficult. “Not dead. It’s gonna.”

Eddie shook his head, and Richie gathered himself up because he had seen this happen already, he had seen the surge of light rising behind Eddie just before the jolt through him as if he had been shot, the spray of his blood all over Richie’s face, had seen Eddie’s astonished eyes pleading with him, asking him to explain why Richie had allowed him to be hurt.

Trembling, he wrapped his arms around Eddie and rolled them over twice, just as the clown struck out. It was so close that he actually felt the air move behind him, and he would discover later that it had split open the back of his jacket, but before he could think through what was happening, he had let Eddie go and Eddie was grabbing his hand and hauling him to his feet. He didn’t look back, scrambling back to the little crevice they had hidden in. He had a sudden sharp sense memory of running through the woods to the Barrens, Henry Bowers in hot pursuit behind them, Eddie’s hand in his. Come on, Richie, don’t fucking fall, I’m running here and I can barely fucking breathe, you gotta keep up–

“Come on, Rich, come on,” Eddie said, pulling him hard when he stumbled on loose rock.

He skinned his knee and kept going, kept going, until they were out of reach again—the world shook a little and he knew the tentacle had hit the wall of rock behind them, and they stopped running, gasping. He bent over at the waist, clutching his own knees and trying to suck in a full breath. He got through one in and one out before he vomited all over the rocks under him.

“Jesus,” Eddie said, with no heat whatsoever.

“Sorry.” He retched again, and when Eddie touched his back he realized he was crying. He covered his face and tried to stop, but he could still see the entirety of the deadlights before him and ended up screaming into his hands instead. It helped, and he did it once more before he realized he could easily just keep screaming and never stop. He cut himself off, gulping.

“Hey, we gotta figure out how to finish It off,” Eddie said, soft and apologetic. “I have an idea.”

“I know,” Richie said, taking off his glasses and scrubbing his palms over his face. “You want to make It smaller.”

“Yeah,” Eddie said. “Did you make It shrink too, when you saw It?”

“No.” He stood up and took in Eddie, bleeding, wide-eyed, braver than anyone he had ever fucking known. “But it’ll work.”

“How—Rich, wait. How do you know?” Eddie said as he turned to go back out into It’s lair.

“I saw it in the deadlights,” Richie said, and shrugged his shoulders, shook out his arms and hands, ready to go kill a fucking clown.

*

“I need to go to a doctor,” Eddie said after they had been wading in the quarry for ten minutes or so. “There’s no way my face isn’t infected.”

“Well, take off the bandage so it isn’t soaking in dirty water,” Bev said, and Eddie gagged a little but did as instructed. The cut had gone perfectly through his cheek—when Richie had helped him bandage it up, he’d been able to see clear through to his teeth and had had to stop to almost throw up twice—but the skin around it wasn’t pink or swollen or much of anything.

“It might not even scar,” Mike said, squinting at him. “But maybe you want a scar. I don’t know.”

“No thanks. How am I gonna even explain this to my wife?” Eddie said.

Richie, caught in his own thoughts, jumped at that. In the other life—the one he had seen in the deadlights—they had drawn straws to decide who would contact Myra Kaspbrak, but by silent agreement, Richie hadn’t even taken part in it. He thought Bill was probably the one who had called her.

“Hey,” Bev said, swimming close and sliding her arms around him for a brief, tight hug. She gave good hugs, he remembered.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“Because I know you saw something,” she said. “I recognize that look.”

He shook his head. “He died,” he whispered. “On me, Bevvie. When we were here in the quarry, without him, I had to wash his blood off my glasses.”

“I know,” she said, holding his hand.

“You saw all of us die,” he said. “But now…now it’s not going to happen, and I don’t know what to do because it’s still behind my eyes.”

“I know,” she said again.

“I want to forget again,” he said. He could feel that scream that he had shoved down rising up, threatening. “I don’t want to see that every night.”

“I don’t think we get to forget this time,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure it out together, the six of us.”

“Fuck.” He pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve never needed a shower more in my fucking life. I smell like a flesh-eating alien clown took a shit on me in a sewer.”

“Did you say shower?” Eddie said. “Because guys, I kind of think I might have to find a different hotel.”

*

He showered in Richie’s room, after they cleaned the bathroom in his own room and threw away the other half of the shower curtain.

“I’ll just tell them I slipped and cut my face. They’re not going to ask any questions if I blame them,” he said, peeling off his hoodie and then looking around the room like he didn’t know where to set it down. Richie waved at a corner.

“Does anyone even work here?” he asked, flopping back onto the bed.

“I had to talk to an actual person to book the room, so I’m assuming so,” Eddie said, kneeling to undo his shoes.

“Eds,” Richie said, lifting his head. “We’re setting everything we’re wearing on fire. No need to be delicate.”

“I know,” he said, staring down at the dark green carpet, his chin on his knee. “I just feel like I need something really, really normal right now.”

“I’ll take you out for a fucking ice cream cone later,” Richie mumbled, turning over and falling asleep instantly, dreamless and quiet.

He woke when Eddie sat on the edge of the bed and touched his back, under his disgusting shirt. “Hey,” he said. “Your turn. I mean, your turn after I wash my hand again. What did you lie down in?”

“Your mom,” he said, sitting up and glaring at Eddie, who was half-naked, a towel wrapped around his waist. “How do you all look so good and I ended up looking like fucking Christopher Lloyd? Like, not young Christopher Lloyd. Present day.”

Eddie’s hand was still tucked under his shirt, rubbing a path across his lower back. “I guess you did grow into your looks.”

“Oh, fuck you, you weirdly muscular little shitweasel,” Richie said, escaping to the shower so he didn’t have to look at the slope of Eddie’s arms. He was weak for that, the line of a man’s shoulders and back. He was weak for all of Eddie, really. After everything he had seen, he guessed it was something he could admit to himself. There was no panic left in it.

He leaned his forehead against the shower tile, letting the water run down his back. In the other timeline, he had done this too, and he had stared down at the drain while the water turned gray at his feet, thinking of how the last of Eddie was washing from him and down into the sewer, down into where Eddie would remain in the dark forever. Eddie’s body under his hands, still warm even as the others pulled him away and out of It’s lair.

“You okay?” Eddie asked when he was out of the shower. 

“Fine, why?” he asked.

“It sounded like you were…” Eddie shook his head. “Never mind. I booked a flight out tomorrow. There’s one to O’Hare. You going?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I never did cancel the one I booked earlier.”

“They, uh,” Eddie said. “They know me. You know, by now. I had some requests. So they gave me a refund.”

Richie tilted his head back and laughed. “I bet they did. Maybe I should let you take care of mine.”

“I would,” Eddie said. He was sitting on Richie’s bed, having laid a dry towel down on top of the blanket. The TV was on, but muted. The local news had scrolled past while they spoke, with not a word about the collapse of a house on Neibolt Street, or a missing child, or a body in the library. But the people on the screen seemed to be less dead-eyed, confused but more alert. He felt it too. Something was different, and it was more than just the lifting of the smog that had settled deep into Derry. He had been to many places over the years that had felt old and wrong, and felt a strange sort of nostalgia—old and wrong was home, even if he couldn’t quite remember home—but now Derry was just a town. He was surprised the entire place hadn’t just collapsed into the sewers when the clown had died, but something had collapsed nonetheless.

He passed the rest of the day in one of those cotton-headed vague states that come with lack of sleep and too much exertion. They were all punchy as hell. “No Chinese,” Mike said, and they all agreed. No Chinese food for a long time, if ever. Then again, there was Leo’s Pizza. They had all gone there after baseball games and afternoons playing at the quarry or in the Barrens. The back wall had been all nickel candy then, and Richie would get a bag or two and take it to the arcade. The candy was still there, but it was a quarter now, four dollars a bag. They ordered two large pizzas and sat at one of the wooden tables outside, squinting in the dying afternoon light. It hurt—that light, the childhood summer light. But it didn’t last long, and when the sun had dipped down behind the trees and they ate in the lowering evening, Richie felt less like he was reaching across the years to his teenage self and trying to say something to him. Enjoy some small bubbles of happiness, maybe. It’s not all terrible. Sometimes you’re thirteen and you’re tired from playing all day and it smells like freshly mown grass and the light is just right, and your friends are with you eating pizza and laughing at the jokes you stole from Arsenio Hall.

He bought a bag of candy on the way out, nodding to the teenager at the counter in solidarity.

“What’s up?” he asked Eddie when Eddie followed him into his room.

Eddie shrugged. “I don’t want to be alone tonight,” he said. “Is that weird? I know the clown’s dead. I mean, I can feel it.”

“Yeah,” Richie said. “Me too. But the last time you went into your room you got stabbed in the face, so maybe it’s not so weird.”

Mike had taken him to urgent care and gotten his face stitched up, and he had enough antibiotics to disinfect a rhinoceros, but he didn’t seem that concerned about it. “I don’t want to think about anything,” he said. “And if I go back to my room, alone, I’m gonna think about it all night and freak out.”

“All right,” Richie said. “But I’m telling you now, if you have like some kind of air purification machine or what the fuck ever, I will strangle you in your sleep.”

“Fuck you,” Eddie said. “Do you know how much shit you’re inhaling?”

“Edward, you fucking heard me,” he said. “Just snore like everyone else.”

Eddie grumbled under his breath while he made his chosen side of the bed, his own blanket spread out carefully so he didn’t have to touch the sheets at all. He wore a t-shirt and flannel pajama pants, and Richie wanted to touch him with a longing that was so fresh and bright and cutting that he felt like a teenager again, when that kind of feeling was new to him and it was as sweet as it was painful. He was ready to shove it away, roll over, and turn off the light, but Eddie gave a little sigh.

“Mm?” he asked.

“Do you think we’ll forget again?”

“Doesn’t seem like it,” he said. “Nothing is fading, not like last time.”

“I hope it does,” Eddie said. He was staring at the ceiling, hands crossed neatly over his sternum.

“Well, fuck you too,” Richie said, ignoring the fact that he had wished for the same thing only hours earlier.

“It hurts,” Eddie said brokenly, and suddenly he rolled over onto his side, facing Richie, his hands over his face.

“Shit,” Richie said, patting his shoulder. “Come on. It’s all right.”

“No, it fucking sucks,” Eddie choked out, grabbing onto the front of Richie’s old Who t-shirt. “I lived over half my life in a, in a fucking dream, and now I’m awake and I realize it’s been a nightmare the whole time.”

“And you want to go back to the dream?” Richie asked. “I don’t. I feel like I’d be dying. I think that’s gotta be why Stan checked out. Everything that happened after we left Derry is a lie, isn’t it? The town is built around it. What’s real is you and me and the rest of the Losers and that fucking sewer. I don’t want to lose what’s real again.”

“No, I can’t go back to the dream.” Eddie wriggled further into his space and he tried to keep his distance, but after a minute he sighed and pulled him close. The flannel of his pajama pants was soft against Richie’s legs and he shivered and surrendered to it, the warm weight in his arms that he had always wanted there and never allowed himself to have.

“What will you do?” he asked, tracing lines on Eddie’s back. When they were young they had done that without any self-consciousness at sleepovers, laughing when something tickled and telling each other stupid jokes and ghost stories. He had done it with Bill too, and with Stan—but that hurt too much to think about.

“I don’t know,” Eddie said, breath hot between them. “I have to think about some things. Everything, actually.”

“Me too.” He sighed, and it turned into a yawn. “My job isn’t as boring as yours though.”

Eddie laughed, but kicked him, his leg sliding between Richie’s. “I like my job.”

“Of course you do. You get to issue dire warnings 24/7. If you could spray Listerine on everyone, it would be your dream come true.” In spite of himself, he was sliding into sleep. He smoothed his hands over Eddie’s back and tried not to enjoy the feel of him.

“I won’t spray Listerine. Jesus Christ, have you ever cleaned anything in your life?” Eddie asked, and Richie fell asleep smiling.

When he woke up, he realized with a horrible twist of pleasure that they had only moved closer together in the night. He had sprawled on his back at some point and pulled Eddie with him, and Eddie had wrapped around him like a vine around a tree. It felt…it felt like the nicest thing that had happened to him in years. When was the last time had he simply loved something so much? His life wasn’t a bad one. He had friends and people whose company he really enjoyed. He didn’t date, but sex was always available when he wanted it, and if it wasn’t particularly affectionate, it still felt good. The realization, after Mike called, that he had been slowly tucking away bug-out money was jarring, at odds with how he had thought he was living his life on the surface. There was a Netflix special in the near future, for fuck’s sake. He’d been genuinely happy when that deal went through.

But this…there was something absolutely total and clear about it, like a bell in a silent room, Eddie’s slow, even breath, heartbeat steady against Richie’s chest, his fingers still tight in Richie’s shirt.

I love it, he thought, and his eyes stung. It wasn’t just that it was Eddie. It was that he wanted it, and sometime in the night, as he was sleeping, he had let go of the need to push it away. He had asked himself the question a thousand times. The one therapist he had seen as an adult had asked him too: Richie, what are you so afraid of? He really couldn’t have said. His parents were dead. His friends weren’t dickheads. Saying the words out loud—I like men—would definitely hurt his career as it was, but it would also build it in a different direction. There was no foundation for the fear, or hadn’t been until he had come back to Derry and saw that memory, that old, old sick terror. But it was gone now. Even if he hadn’t seen that other life, there was some infection that had been healed, now that he could remember it.

He closed his eyes, wiping away the wetness that had slipped ticklishly down his temples and into his hair, and shook Eddie. “Rise and shine, Kaspbrak,” he said. “You’re late for your flight.”

Eddie bolted upright. “Shit,” he said, feeling around for his phone. His hair was flat on the side that had been pressed against Richie’s chest, and stuck out straight on the other side. He looked at his phone, which beeped seven o’clock as if on cue. “You dickhead.”

“Yeah, well,” Richie said, swinging out of bed. “You wouldn’t move and I had to piss.”

“Should have stepped on you,” Eddie said darkly. “We know how that turns out.”

“That was second grade,” Richie said.

“That was sixth grade, and you didn’t talk to me for like a month,” Eddie said.

“Do you want me to pee on you again, is that what this is?” he asked. “I’m going to the airport at noon. You coming with?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said. “My flight’s at five.”

Derry Town House did not have a continental breakfast, thank god. He might have been morbidly tempted to try it if it had. There was a little diner just outside of town, designed to look like it had been around for decades. He was perfectly happy to revel in brand new authenticity, sitting in a sticky booth with his arm slung around the back of it behind Mike. Bev and Ben didn’t sit near each other, but even if he hadn’t had a little extra insight, Richie would have sensed something there. It had always been there from Ben, of course, coming off in waves, but now it was coming off both of them. Get it, Bev, he thought, biting into his bacon with great satisfaction.

“Off to Florida, Mikey?” Bill asked.

“I forgot about that,” Mike said, poking at the remainder of his pancakes. Richie snagged a particularly good piece, really soaked in syrup. You didn’t get good syrup or blueberries like that just any old place.

“You gotta get out of Derry though,” Ben said. “Right? You always wanted to get out.”

“We all did,” Mike said. “Yeah, I guess I’m due some sunshine.”

“Blue skies and waves,” Bev said, tilting her head and looking off into the distance with a small smile.

“A dog,” Ben said, watching Beverly.

“Calm and quiet,” Bill said, and Eddie raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“I’m taking a break,” Richie said. “New material. My manager is gonna shit an actual brick.”

“Original material?” Eddie asked, and he nodded. “I guess now you’ll see if you actually suck.”

“Yup,” he said, and stole a grape from Eddie’s side of fruit. “But I’m gonna get drunk and sleep for a week first.”

“Richie, did you not eat enough already?” Beverly asked, looking at his large, empty plate, but Richie was watching Eddie, who gave him a little wobbly grimace smile.

*

On the way out of Derry, his suitcase and Eddie’s fucking matching suite of cruise ship luggage tucked in the back of the car together in a way that made him feel uncomfortably smug, he had a thought.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m gonna stop for a second, okay? I have something I want to show you.”

“Is it scary?” Eddie asked. He had settled into the rental car with a sigh of pleasure that he immediately belied by complaining about the safety rating.

“Would I show you something scary, Eddie? Fucking seriously?” he asked.

“This is Derry,” Eddie said. “I trust literally nothing.”

“All right, well, no. It’s not scary,” he said. Then, thinking it over, he added, “I guess.”

“That’s reassuring,” Eddie said. He had spent much of the morning texting with someone Richie assumed was his wife. Don’t even think about it, he thought. Part of him wanted to poke at it, but there was another part that had clammed up tight the second Eddie had said he was married, especially after a few minutes of Facebook stalking. He didn’t generally consider himself a jealous person, but he sensed just from the edges of what he let himself feel that he could go from zero to Real Housewife in a hot minute.

It only took a few minutes to get to the Kissing Bridge, and when he pulled over just before the covered part of the bridge, Eddie looked suspicious.

“Seriously,” he said. “Not scary?”

“Not the kind of scary you’re thinking of,” he said, chewing on the inside of his lip. All of a sudden, bringing Eddie out here seemed like a really fucking bad idea, but he was committed now. He remembered—he remembered Eddie’s dead, open-eyed stare. He remembered standing in the water in the quarry and thinking but what if he was still alive and we could have helped him but we left him there and then well, if he was alive before he’s certainly not now—and it made him grit his teeth together and get out of the car.

“You all right?” Eddie asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “The thing I wanted to show you is over here.”

His legs felt detached from his body as he walked to the bridge, hands shoved into his pockets. The sweet, peaceful light that had made him want to confess to Eddie was gone, and in its place was a distinct desire to vomit.

His fingers remembered gripping the prickly wood of the bridge while he carved with his other hand. There was a little chunk missing in the wood under his palm that he would think of every time he passed by afterward and saw his own handiwork, satisfied that everyone would know and no one would know: Richie Tozier loved Eddie Kaspbrak.

“Dude, if you’re about to show me where you wrote that you fucked my mom, I’m gonna push you off the bridge,” Eddie said behind him.

“No, that’s on your old locker over at the middle school,” Richie said, stopping in front of it. Still there after all this time. He shouldn’t have been surprised that none of the wood had been replaced even though it wasn’t exactly safe. Like there was a fucking safety committee somewhere in Derry making sure bridges wouldn’t fall apart.

“Then what the fuck,” Eddie huffed. Richie touched the old carving and backed away a little so Eddie could see it too. He got it immediately, Richie knew. His eyes flicked to Richie and then back to the bridge again, squinting like he was about to ask if something was hypoallergenic.

“This was me,” Richie said before he could try to figure out what to say. “1989. Richie…”

“And E?”

“Yeah,” Richie said. “And Eddie.”

“Oh.” Eddie’s voice was soft, full of wonder.

“I forgot, but I think I kept part of it with me,” Richie said. He couldn’t stop looking at the carving, smiling to himself and running his thumb over it. It was faded, but no one else had carved over it or even around it, as if the intensity of his secret had pushed away anything that would ruin it over the years. It was sacred, inviolable, that stupid love he had only remembered three days before.

“Rich,” Eddie said, sounding lost. “I’m married.”

Startled, Richie finally looked up at him. “I—no, Eds, that’s not why I brought you out here. I’m not…I just wanted to show you. This was the thing I was always afraid everyone would find out, and I’m not afraid anymore. I’m tired of it, man. I’m tired of living afraid of it. But this isn’t, like…I don’t have your yearbook signature in my wallet or anything.”

“Okay, that was weird, right?” Eddie said.

“Super weird,” Richie said. “Good for them and everything, but fucking yikes.”

They were quiet for a while. It was good, Richie thought. The nerves were still there, but it felt like someone had taken that old pain, a snarl of wire and nails, and carefully untangled it and smoothed it out.  

“I’m glad you told me,” Eddie said, reaching out and almost touching the bridge but pulling his hand back at the last second. “I would never have known. What was all that bullshit about feeling up…god, what was her name?”

“I don’t know, it was some girl I made up from camp,” Richie said. “Seriously though, I realize we didn’t exactly have comprehensive sex ed, but I’m pretty sure I told you I put my fingers inside this imaginary girl’s clitoris and you didn’t even question it.”

“Dude, your dirty stories were the sum total of my sex education,” Eddie said, and turned red. He went to pinch the bridge of his nose, but the movement pulled the stitches on his cheek and he winced. “Anyway. Like I said. Glad you told me.”

“Yeah, man, no problem. Any time you need to feel better about yourself, just call me up and I’ll tell you about how much I was into your fucking seventeen fanny packs, or whatever.”

“You wore Tivas. In the winter,” Eddie said. Richie had turned to go back to the car, and was walking at such a brisk pace that Eddie almost had to skip to keep up.

“All right, all right. If I start getting into all your unfortunate middle school clothes choices, we’ll be here for like a week,” Richie said, patting the car. “Come on, let’s get to the airport.”

*

And that was—that. He thought. Stanley’s letter arrived a week later and he went for a walk, blindly storming through the city until he realized he had no idea where he was. He used his GPS to guide him back to his apartment and saw Eddie had called.

u all right, he texted when he had returned home, sliding down on the floor beside his bed.

Yeah, Eddie replied. You ok to talk?

sure, he wrote, even though he fucking hated talking on the phone.

“I got Stan’s letter,” Eddie said as soon as he answered.

“Yeah,” he said, and surprised himself by crying like his heart was breaking.

“I didn’t realize how much I would miss him,” Eddie said after Richie had tried to talk a few times and just made noises.

“Shit,” Richie said, leaning his head against the side of his bed and sniffling. “I haven’t seen him for like twenty-five years. I don’t know why it feels like I just saw him yesterday.”

“I feel like he was right here with us the whole time,” Eddie said.

“He was,” Richie said hoarsely. “He was there. Like he could take himself out of the game. Fuck, man.”

“Yeah.” Eddie’s voice was shaking. “Are you okay?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t fucking know. Tell me something about your job so I can blow my nose and not worry I’m missing anything good.”

“I told you, I like my job,” Eddie said. “It’s the one thing in my entire life that I chose, you know?”

Richie shoved a piece of tissue up both nostrils and lay back on the bed. “What, you don’t feel like you’re in control of anything else?”

Eddie sighed. “You know how my mother was.”

“I knew her intimately, Edward,” he said. “But you’re forty years old. You haven’t lived with her in what, at least two years.”

“Dude,” Eddie said. “She’s dead.”

“Ah, shit,” he said. “Sorry. Seriously though. You make your own choices, right?”

“No,” Eddie said. “Look, I have to go. I’ll call you later.”

“All right,” he said, and stared at his phone, frowning, for a good thirty seconds after the call ended.

*

He didn’t expect Eddie to call him back, but he did two days later, while Richie was sitting at his desk writing in his underwear.

“I’m sitting at my desk, writing in my underwear,” he said when Eddie asked what he was up to.

“It’s two in the afternoon,” Eddie said, sounding scandalized.

“And? You think my meeting with the pizza delivery boy requires business casual?” he asked.

“Whatever,” Eddie said. “I just wanted to see how you’re doing.”

“I’m writing new shit,” he said.

“Was your manager pissed?”

“Uh, yeah.” He scratched his nose and tried not to smile at the memory of Steve’s face. “Yeah, he was pissed. Then I told him I was gay and he actually blustered for like five minutes. I didn’t know people did that in real life. He sounded like a car engine turning over.”

“Are you?” Eddie asked. “Gay?”

“Yeah, dude,” he said. “Was I not clear when I showed you my teenage declaration of true love?”

“Not really. I just didn’t want to get too…I don’t know. I didn’t want to pry.”

“Oh. Well, yeah. Pretty fucking gay,” Richie said. He had doodled a big bowtie on the paper he was using as a mousepad, and started drawing a man attached to it. Short, lots of hair, wearing a cardigan.

“I didn’t know. It could have meant some other things,” Eddie said. “Were you really into me, back then?”

“Yeah. I told you,” he said. “Thirteen-year-old Richie wanted to marry Eddie Kaspbrak and have eleven children and a dog.”

Eleven,” Eddie said. “I don’t even like kids.”

He snorted. “Really? I’m super great with them.”

“Actually,” Eddie said, and stopped.

“Actually?”

“I…do want kids,” he said. “I don’t know why I always say I don’t like them.”

“They’re not that likable,” Richie said. “Why don’t you have kids then?”

“We can’t,” Eddie said. “I have to go. Talk to you later.”

*

And he fucking did. Richie was not used to people who said they would call and then called. If it had been almost anyone else, he wouldn’t have picked up the phone, but it was Eddie, so he always picked up.

“Tell me about what you’re writing,” he would say, and Richie would tell him for twenty minutes, until he had to go. Or, “Mike just told me Ben and Bev moved in together,” and Richie would gasp and hang up to text Mike about his feelings of deep emotional betrayal.

Five months after they killed the clown, Richie finally asked him, “Eds, are you doing all right?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. Eddie Kaspbrak. I’ve told you everything about my boring life. I even sent you pictures of my apartment, man. You’re giving me nothing. I wouldn’t know what your life is like at all if your wife didn’t post seven picture albums a week on Facebook and tag you in everything.” And wasn’t that a punch in the dick. Eddie never posted anything. Neither did Richie, for that matter—he had a social media manager with an official Facebook page for all that crap—but he hadn’t even tried to avoid looking at pictures Eddie was tagged in. There were so many. Nine thousand pictures of Eddie giving the same tight smile in different settings, usually health retreats. Eddie had cycled through bullet coffee, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, and CBD oil. Eddie did not look pleased with any of these things, but to be fair, it was difficult to tell when Eddie was pleased with anything.

“I’m…fine,” Eddie said. “Same as always.”

“Same as always is not fine,” Richie said. “What the fuck are you even saying?”

“I’ll send you pictures of my fucking bathroom, Richie. Jesus,” Eddie said.

“Is your bathroom a sore spot?” he asked.

“I just don’t need to tell you every little fucking thing.”

“Excuse the fuck out of me,” Richie said, but Eddie was in a real snit and got off the phone fast. He was due; it had been at least a month since they’d argued about whether Richie was allowed to make closet jokes at his own expense. Eddie said no, Richie said yes, and Bill said to stop fucking calling him in as a mediator because he wasn’t any good at it. Richie really thought Eddie wouldn’t talk to him again after that one, but he did.

The real fight came three days later, when Richie made an absentminded joke about Eddie’s mother.

“Rich, come on, man,” Eddie said.

“Sorry, sorry,” Richie said. “I’m doing this one bit and it’s just sort of falling flat. I tried it out at a club the other night and even the guy who steals my shit wouldn’t touch it.”

“It had better not be a joke about fucking my mom,” Eddie said.

“Nah,” Richie said. “Besides, that’s your job at this point.”

Eddie was quiet for a second, during which Richie reconsidered his entire life. “What the fuck?” he said finally.

“Uh,” Richie said.

“No, dude, what the fuck?”

“I mean,” Richie said, wincing. “It can’t have escaped your notice that your wife resembles your mother more than a little bit. Or a lot. They could be sisters.”

What.” Eddie’s voice had gone very, very dangerously low. “The fuck.”

“Could you forget I said that?” Richie asked. “What’s an Oedipus? Never heard of it.”

Eddie hung up on him, and after a week, Richie was certain he’d fucked it up for good. He berated himself about it every night. Don’t bring up the wife, he thought. You knew this, you idiot. You knew if you went there it would be bad.

“You could call him, you know,” Ben said after Richie had exhausted even his good will.

“What? Ben, no. That’s not how this works,” Richie said, but that night he texted Eddie.

sorry about the thing. i shouldn’t bring up ur personal shit. i know u don’t like it, he wrote. Immediately his phone indicated that Eddie was typing, but then it lit up with a picture of Eddie’s scowling face. He answered so fast he almost dropped the phone.

“Are you okay?” he asked, knowing he sounded panicked. Eddie was very strict about calling between noon and seven. They never talked at night, much less at one in the morning.

“No,” Eddie said. “I’m not okay. I left my wife.”

“Oh damn,” Richie said.

“I fucking can’t,” Eddie said. “I feel like I murdered someone.”

Eddie,” Richie said. “Where are you right now? Do you need me? I’ll come get you wherever you are.”

“Yeah, I do kind of need you.” Eddie’s voice hitched.

“All right, I’m coming.” He stood up and looked around, patting himself down. Where the fuck was his phone?

“Wait, no,” Eddie said. “Don’t. I’m fine, I swear. I just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Yeah, okay.” Richie opened up his laptop. “But where are you though?”

“I’m in my own apartment in FiDi,” he said. “I started renting it a few months ago. Right after we got back from Derry, actually.”

“Took you a while,” he said. “What the fuck is FiDi?”

“Oh my god,” Eddie said.

Richie got to his place around noon—he thought it was noon, but his phone kept trying to tell him it was nine and his Apple watch was synced to his phone—and when Eddie opened the door, he didn’t even have the grace to look surprised.

“I was led to believe you couldn’t get an apartment anywhere in New York without three roommates and a bed made of cockroaches,” Richie said.

“I’m paying out the ass,” Eddie said, crossing his arms. “I told you I was all right.”

“Yeah, but I’m not.” He tossed his bag over Eddie’s head and heard it land somewhere expensive. “I wanted to see you.”

Eddie stared at the wall over his shoulder, considering. “All right, yeah,” he said. “I’m glad you’re here, or whatever.”

“Me too, or whatever,” he said, pushing past Eddie into the apartment. The building itself seemed kind of boring from the outside, just brick and glass, but the apartment was more light and imaginative than he would have ever thought Eddie capable of wanting. The kitchen and living area were open and a wall of windows looked out into the city. No balcony, but it wasn’t like Eddie would love a balcony anyway. On the right side of the living room, a spiral staircase led to a loft, with a bedroom and bathroom off the kitchen to the left. It was plain, but clean and calm, with polished wood floors and actual paintings on the walls. The accent wall beside the staircase—accent wall, he scoffed inwardly, grimacing, you asshole—was covered by a canvas that was easily as tall as Richie was. When he walked a little further into the room, almost tripping down the steps into the living area before he caught himself, he saw that the painting was of a clearing in the woods, birches and tiny yellow-green spring leaves and an apple tree in bloom, glowing in the sunlight that had fought its way into the shadow of the woods.

“It’s the Barrens,” he said, smiling.

Eddie followed him, looking up at the painting. “Shit,” he said. “I never even—I saw it in a window, walking by a gallery on the way home from work like six years ago, and I bought it that day. Not exactly an impulse buyer, you know? But I wanted it.”

“It’s perfect here. In your bachelor pad.” He couldn’t even pretend Eddie’s exasperated sigh didn’t delight him—that having him there, close enough to touch, wasn’t the only thing he wanted.

“You’re right, you know,” Eddie said, quietly enough that Richie turned to make sure he was okay. “It took me forever to move out. I used to daydream about…about leaving. All the time. But I didn’t think I could ever do it until I just did it.”

“You did it, though.” He squeezed Eddie’s shoulder and Eddie leaned into it, closing his eyes. “That’s all that matters. Who says you have to have a timeline? I mean, I probably did, but you can ignore me.”

“I never actually pay attention to you,” Eddie said. “How long can you be here?”

“I’m out of here tomorrow. Didn’t want to overstay my welcome that you didn’t actually give,” he said. “I can get a hotel room, if you want.”

“No, man, stay. There’s room. You can sleep in the loft or on the couch or whatever.”

“Thanks.” He kicked at his bag, which had landed on a little side table in the living area but not broken anything. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I don’t know if I’m okay,” Eddie said. “But I’m better than I was before.”

“Fuck yeah,” Richie said. “Let’s get drunk.”

*

Eddie, Richie discovered, liked very expensive whiskey.

“What the fuck is wrong with that?” Eddie asked, snatching the gleaming bottle of Highland Park away from him.

“Nothing,” Richie said. “You’re just fancy.”

“Well, it’s really fucking good,” Eddie said. “Like, you don’t even want to get drunk. You just want to sit and meditate with it.”

And it was that good—Jesus, it was like fire and honey—but he wasn’t about to admit it to Eddie. “Fuck, this is amazing,” he said after the second sip, and Eddie just shrugged and watched him from the other side of the sofa, looking pleased. He was a little thinner, a little more tired around the eyes, than he had been in May. The scar on his cheek was a faint white line that was only really noticeable when he smiled. You don’t have to change out of your pajamas on my account, Richie had said, and he didn’t, but he had put on a nice sweater. Richie looked down at himself—jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt he had barely noticed when he got dressed—and wondered if he would ever reach the stage where he thought about looking nice when he bought clothes.

He cleared his throat. “All right. Spill it.”

Eddie shook his head, but said, “I don’t know.”

“No.” Richie gestured with his tumbler. “Tell me everything or I’m gonna guzzle down this entire bottle of fucking ridiculous whiskey without even tasting it.”

Fine.” Eddie took a deep breath. “I got talking to Bev. She knows exactly how I feel. We both kind of…”

“Married your parents? Doesn’t everyone though?” he asked, wiping his palm on his thigh. He hadn’t missed the bruises on Bev’s arms, although he had thought they were from something Derry related. But there were other bruises, older ones, on her upper arms. One cigarette burn, new enough not to be a childhood relic. At one point while they ate pizza at Leo’s he had linked her arm in his and patted the dark purple ring around one wrist gently, not wanting to hurt her. He looked down to see that she was nodding. Yes, the nod said, that was taken care of. That was over. She rested her head on his shoulder and he hoped she was right. He hoped she had hurt him.

“I guess, but maybe we were more literal than most other people,” Eddie said. “I don’t think anyone else could understand. Like, why would you get away from—from that bullshit, and then go right back into it?”

Richie opened his mouth to say he understood, but stopped and shook his head. “No, I don’t get it. But I’m not in your head. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Eddie folded his legs up, clutching the whiskey tight. He looked like he had been wounded somehow and was still recovering, protecting himself from attack. “You feel so stupid. It’s not like I didn’t know my mother fucked me up. It’s not like I didn’t know all my health problems were fucking lies. Knowing doesn’t do anything. It’s like you’re in quicksand. Being like, well, shit, I’m in quicksand isn’t going to get you out of it. If you can’t grab onto something and pull yourself out in time, you’re fucked. I met Myra when I thought maybe I could get out, but there wasn’t anything to grab onto, and I was just tired. It seemed easier to stop fighting it.”

“She didn’t make you sick, though, right? Not like your mom,” Richie said.

“My mom didn’t make me sick. It wasn’t like a Munchausen’s thing. My medicine didn’t hurt me, it was just sugar pills. It always has been,” he said. Something about the way he sighed and rested his head on the back of the couch made Richie want to wrap him up in a blanket and hold onto him for a long time. He satisfied the urge by kicking off his shoes and stretching out, nudging Eddie’s feet with his own.

“Maybe she didn’t poison you, but she still hurt you,” Richie said.

He thought Eddie would snap at him—he had really loved his mother, Richie remembered, though for the life of him he couldn’t understand why—but he nodded and patted Richie’s calf. “I know,” he said. “Myra was so upset when I got home. My face was all fucked up, I threw away my inhaler, I wasn’t acting like myself. I mean, I was acting like myself, my real self. I knew I had to leave, but Rich, I didn’t want to hurt her. It took me five tries because I just—I just couldn’t fucking hurt her. She didn’t make me sick. She just liked that I was sick so she could take care of me, and I was never brave enough to stop it.”

“Hey.” He sat up straight and snatched Eddie’s whiskey out of his hand, setting both glasses on the coffee table right next to the coaster. The desire to hug him flared up again and this time he didn’t push it away, sliding across the sofa and dragging him close. Eddie hugged him back fiercely and he closed his eyes tight against whatever was welling up in his chest. “I wish you could see how brave you are.”

“All I see is a dumbass who’s wasted most of his life being scared.” Eddie moved closer, his legs tangling with Richie’s.

“You know being brave isn’t about not being scared. It’s about doing it anyway, and you always do.”

“Yeah, but why am I always so much more scared than everyone else in the first place? That’s what I don’t fucking get.” He rested his head against Richie’s shoulder and Richie, his heart beating so fast he was reminded of the one time he had done coke and thought he was dying, slowly stroked his hair.

“It’s because you’re a compassionate person,” Richie said. Eddie shook his head. “No, listen to me. You were a nice, sensitive little kid, and your mom took advantage of that. She made you think that if you acted like yourself at all, if you were just Eddie Kaspbrak, that you would hurt her. That would fuck anybody up, Eds.”

Eddie didn’t reply, but he also didn’t pull away. They stayed there, entangled, in a silence that shifted gradually from comfortable to a strange sort of awareness. Richie was suddenly very, very alert to every sense, the quiet rush of the heating vents, Eddie’s clean, warm smell, the way his arm tightened around Richie’s waist. It sent a little electric line of pleasure down his spine and he tried to breathe normally.

“Do you remember the last night in Derry?” Eddie asked. “We fell asleep like this.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I—held you all night.”

Eddie shivered and nodded. “I liked it.”

“Yeah? I can do it again,” Richie said. “This sofa is big enough for both of us.”

“No, I mean.” Eddie lifted his head and looked at Richie, calm, determined. “I liked it.”

“You—” Richie said, confused, and Eddie kissed him. He reached up automatically—to push him away or pull him closer, he didn’t know—and ended up cupping the back of Eddie’s head, allowing himself to respond for just a second, and then another second, and another. Eddie shivered against him again when he parted his lips and they were really kissing, slow, stretched out, somehow not clumsy at all. He was dazed when Eddie pulled away, not understanding, and made a dismayed noise.

“No, I’m not—I don’t want to stop,” Eddie said, shifting around until he was—astonishingly—climbing into Richie’s lap. He ducked his head down and kissed him again, breathless, thighs tightening around Richie’s hips. Richie realized after a moment that he was holding his arms stiffly at his sides and brought them up to almost touch Eddie, uncertain—he wanted to touch so much he felt like one long line of pure, terrible longing—and finally rested his hands on Eddie’s back. At the touch Eddie rocked against him, kissing a little harder, with the sweet sting of his teeth in Richie’s lip.

“Eddie,” he groaned, surging up helplessly. Eddie pulled away and buried his face in Richie’s neck.

“God, you smell so fucking good,” he said, his voice thick.

“What—what are we doing? What do you want to do?” Richie asked.

“I don’t care, anything,” Eddie said. “Anything you want, please.”

“Can you be a little more specific?” Richie’s hands pressed restlessly against Eddie’s back and he wanted to just fuck up against him and not think and just—

“No, I don’t know,” Eddie said, kissing Richie’s jaw. “I’ve had sex with exactly one person and you know how that went.”

“Do I?” Richie asked. “I assumed it was either a total disaster or incredibly fucking kinky. Nothing in the middle.”

“No, the sex wasn’t bad. It actually was in the middle. It was everything else that was a horror show.”

Richie shrugged. “At least you didn’t just run away. That’s my M.O.”

“You gonna run away now?”

Eddie hit a good spot on his neck and he gasped, eyes rolling back in his head. “No,” he choked out. Eddie, here with him, wanting him, was so warm and exciting and not just right but correct, the way it felt watching an object fit exactly into the space that was meant for it. “If you had to name one thing you wanted, right now, what would it be?”

“I don’t know,” Eddie said. He sighed against Richie’s neck, making him shiver. “I know I want to kiss you. I always kinda did, you know? Even if it was just to make you shut the fuck up. And I like this—I like being like this. Why, what do you want?”

“Now I’m embarrassed about the gigantic double ended dildo in my suitcase,” Richie said. He shook his head to try to clear it but gave up. He was too fuckbrained to think straight. “I want you to feel the best you’ve ever felt in your life, but that’s—way too much pressure. I just want…I want you to not think about anything else but what I’m doing to you.”

“Oh,” Eddie said. “Yeah, fuck whatever I said. Let’s do your thing.”

They bumped noses and then teeth when they both went for a kiss at the same time, and for a split second Richie wondered if they were going to fuck it up, but instead he adjusted and Eddie adjusted and everything fell into place again like they were designed to go together. His hands didn’t suddenly become confident and certain but it didn’t matter because they were right; he slid them into Eddie’s hair as he kissed him and felt Eddie’s breathless moan into his own mouth and it was a beautiful feedback loop, Eddie’s pleasure into his pleasure and back again.

It wasn’t even a conscious decision to roll them over and press Eddie down onto the sofa. They just sort of slid there and Richie held him down while Eddie wound around him, a leg thrown over his hip, fingers tight in Richie’s belt loops and dragging him down harder, harder. He’d been half afraid that Eddie wouldn’t be hard and half afraid he would, and now that he could feel him through their clothes, he wasn’t afraid at all. He wasn’t thinking of much of anything, just rubbing against him harder the way he seemed to want it and listening to his harsh breathing, kissing him through it, letting the slide of fabric and the pressure against his cock push him closer and wondering if it felt good—but he knew it did. Eddie had a death grip on him and was making short desperate noises every time Richie moved against him.

“What do you want me to do to you?” Richie panted.

“Make me come,” Eddie said. “I’m going crazy. Just—whatever. Please make me come.”

“I can do that,” he said, and had to pry Eddie’s hands off him so he could move down the sofa and tug his sleep pants and black boxer briefs down his hips, over his cock, and slide his mouth around it. Eddie arched under him and Richie held his hips down as he sucked, and he felt the muscles tensing under his hands as Eddie moved helplessly under him.

“Rich—Richie,” he gasped, sliding his hands into Richie’s hair and holding on tight. He didn’t push Richie’s head down, which said something Richie wanted to turn over in his mind for a long time.

He had always been kind of neutral about sucking dick. It was nice to make someone else feel good so easily, and he was a big fan of dicks overall, but he didn’t love or hate it. This, though, he loved this, Eddie in his mouth, thick and heavy and so responsive that everything he did, sucking hard and then slow and then fast, made Eddie writhe and cry out, his voice rising with something that was almost panic. Richie stopped holding him down and slid his hands under his ass to encourage him to move at the pace he wanted, and Eddie grabbed his hand and squeezed urgently.

“I’m—” he moaned, and he was coming before Richie could even tell him to go ahead. He winced, anticipating the bitterness of it, but realized he didn’t mind, not like he had minded before. He was too caught up in the fact that he had just done something he had fantasized about so much when he was younger that it was a permanent, reliable feature film in his spank bank vault. It was Eddie, and he—there was an emotion there. Some emotions. There was no room to think about what was or was not messy or unpleasant, because he liked that it was messy and he liked the taste well enough to kiss his way down Eddie’s cock and lick it again, liked the way his lips felt a little raw, liked the way Eddie rubbed his thumb over Richie’s again and again while he came down, his other arm covering his eyes.

Richie propped himself up on one hand and looked down at him, the expanse of bare skin between his sweater, which neither of them had bothered to even push off, and the sleep pants that were pushed down to his thighs. His cock was still hard against his stomach, wet from Richie’s mouth, which made a quick flutter of pleasure dart through him. He ran his fingers over Eddie’s thigh, hip, stomach, soft skin and tight muscle.

Fuck,” Eddie said. He dragged his pants and underwear over his hips and struggled to sit up. “You okay?”

“I’m good,” he said. Eddie’s hands grasped for him, pulling him close, touching the side of his face.

“You’re really, really fucking good,” Eddie said. “But are you—”

“You don’t have to,” Richie said, trembling all over. “I said—I said I’d make you come.”

“Rich, let me just—I want to,” Eddie said, reaching for him and undoing his pants, hand tight around his cock and moving, slick already because he was wet, he’d been on the verge of coming for so long, and he lurched forward and rested his head on Eddie’s shoulder and made uneven, absolutely mindless noises while Eddie’s hand slipped over him fast and sure and he was so close, Eddie’s voice in his ear whispering yes, come on, Richie, I wondered, I wondered what it would be like with you, I wanted to kiss you so fucking much—and he surrendered to it with Eddie holding him tight, coming all over his fingers in a rush of delirious release. It hit him so hard it was almost painful, a little punishing but so good, so overwhelming he was out of it for a while and didn’t know what the fuck was going on until Eddie kissed the side of his neck and he realized Eddie was actually comforting him.

It was never like this for him. He got off and it was always an all around good time, and then he took a shower and it was half-forgotten by the time he was done. He’d never felt destroyed just because someone touched him, but he was destroyed now.

“Eddie,” he said, his voice wrecked. “I feel weird about fucking your mom now.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Eddie said, shaking with laughter. “You idiot.”

Eddie’s apartment was full of health food Richie refused to eat, so they ordered steak and mashed potatoes and two huge pieces of apple pie from the steak place a block over and picked at them while they argued about what to watch. Eddie, it turned out, almost never watched television, and had neither Hulu nor Netflix nor Amazon Prime. Richie grumbled about it until Eddie let him connect his phone to the TV, after which point Richie promptly forgot about watching it and turned on the news instead. He stretched out on the sofa with his head resting on Eddie’s thigh and dozed there until they went to bed, where he tried not to freak out too visibly when Eddie crawled into his arms.

“That was the first time anyone’s ever done that to me,” Eddie said after Richie had turned the lights out.

Richie couldn’t pretend he didn’t know what he was talking about. “You’ve never gotten a blowjob before?”

“No.” Eddie yawned.

“Did you like it?”

“It was the best I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said, and Richie could tell he was smiling even in the dark. He wrapped his arms around him and tried not to squeeze too hard, his throat tight.

*

He left for LA the next day and they didn’t talk, beyond the text he sent to let Eddie know he had gotten home safely. He had a meeting with Steve to talk about the Netflix special, and it went approximately as well as he had thought it would go.

“I think,” he said, “I want to come out onstage. On that stage.”

Steve blustered again, and Richie waited him out. “Rich,” he said. “Half of your act has been built on stupid shit you’ve done in relationships. With women.”

“Yeah,” he said, “and now it can be about stupid shit I’ve done with dudes. I have endless material.”

“Aren’t you worried about your fanbase?” Steve played with pens whenever he talked to anyone, invariably snapping the clip off the pen cap and sending it shooting across the room. “I’m not trying to cram you back into a closet or something, but you do have a pretty devoted group of fans who might not react well.”

“A couple of months ago, the thought of that would have freaked me the fuck out,” he said. “But I gotta tell you, I don’t give a shit if I’m canceled by some homophobic dweebs. I really don’t, man. I’m pretty sure there’s a market for non-homophobic dweebs and I want to aim for that.”

Steve sighed, and sighed more, and made a complicated series of lawn sprinkler noises when Richie said, “I tested out these Tinder hookup jokes at a club full of, like, aggressively heterosexual tech bros, and it killed. It probably helps that I look like I work at Google.” The thing about Steve was that he would make noises and fuck up at least three pens, but he would also let Richie do whatever he wanted to do, as long as he didn’t break a talk show engagement. Then and only then would Steve get pissed enough to say the harshest words he knew: “I think we need to review your contract.” But Richie wasn’t about to screw over any talk show hosts, and they parted with Richie patting Steve on the shoulder and assuring him that he probably wouldn’t talk about double penetration in the special, though he guaranteed nothing when it came to tour.

*

So really, he was pretty busy. Busy enough to not have a meltdown about Eddie for at least two days.

“Shit shit shit, shit, shit shit shit shit,” he said, racing around his apartment with his hands in his hair. “Shitty shit fuck, I fucked up.”

His apartment, never the cleanest of places on a good day, looked like the before pictures on an intervention reality show. He had dumped out the bag he’d brought with him to New York, looked at the t-shirt he had brought back with him—Eddie’s shirt, not his—and suddenly threw all the other clothes across the room. And this, see, this was what happened when you fucked the only person who was capable of talking you down from a balls out freakout in the middle of the night. He’d actually never needed someone to talk him down from anything before, but now here he was requiring emotional maintenance, like a fucking asshole.

Like a man plunging into a frozen lake, he took out his phone and called Eddie.

“Hey,” Eddie said.

“Shit, I didn’t think you were going to answer,” Richie said, and hung up. He closed his eyes and pretended not to see his phone light up instantly, but after it went to voicemail and Eddie called again, he answered. “Yeah, sorry.”

“Do I even have to ask what the fuck is happening?” Eddie asked.

“Please tell me you’re not freaking out,” Richie said.

“I wasn’t until you called,” Eddie said. “Do I need to freak out? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said, guiltily looking at the underwear dangling from the curtain rod.

“You had that meeting with Steve, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Yeah, that went pretty well, actually.”

“So it’s me you’re freaking out about, then,” Eddie said. “Having some regrets?”

Eddie sounded pretty calm, all things considered, and it tethered Richie somehow to the earth. “No, I don’t regret anything,” he said. For a moment he saw Eddie’s face before him, his eyes open and blank. “Not a fucking thing.”

“Good, because I don’t either,” Eddie said. “Well, one thing maybe. I didn’t get to reciprocate.”

“Recipro—what, you wanted to?”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it since you left,” Eddie said.

“The thought of a dick in your mouth doesn’t make you want to shower with rubbing alcohol or something?” Richie asked.

“If I felt like that about sex, kissing you would have put me over the edge. Do you know how disgusting the human mouth is?”

“Well, I’m glad to see you’ve softened in your old age,” he said. “I figured you’d donkey kick me in the face if I tried to finger you.”

“I mean, don’t stick your fingers in my mouth after you just stuck them in my ass, and we’ll be fine,” Eddie said. “That’s just basic fucking courtesy.”

“Yeah, I think Emily Post recommends waiting seven to ten business days,” he said. “Do you want me to do that to you, though?”

“I want you to fuck me, yeah.” Eddie’s voice went low and soft in a way that made Richie suddenly aware of himself, sitting on his own uncomfortable couch in his t-shirt and boxers.

“I will,” he said. “I’ll do anything you want me to do to you, but if we keep talking about this, you need to know I’m already at like a ten in terms of needing to jerk off.”

“So jerk off,” Eddie said. “I’ll listen to you.”

“What—where are you? Are you at work?” he asked.

“Rich, it’s ten o’clock at night. I’m in bed.”

He closed his eyes and thought of Eddie’s bed—one of those sleep number things, which Richie had fucked around with until Eddie snatched the remote away from him and put it in the bedside table drawer. The room was painted dark, with blackout curtains and special lightbulbs to encourage sleep. Richie usually slept on his side, in a position that unfailingly produced knots in his shoulders, neck, and back in the morning when he rolled out of bed groaning like an old man, but after sleeping with Eddie curled up on him, warmth seeping into every cold place, he woke with no pain at all.

“Do you want me to be there?” he asked, tapping his fingers on his thigh and then scratching it in an attempt to stop his hand from wandering toward his cock.

Yes,” Eddie said. “When’s the next time you can get out here?”

“Weekend after next,” he said.

“This is sad,” Eddie said. “I’ve never jerked off so much in my life. I need you to fuck me or I’m gonna go crazy.”

“Fuck, I need to touch you,” Richie said, and gave up, sliding his hand into his boxers. “Speaking of jerking off, this is gonna be fast.”

Eddie’s breath hitched. “Okay,” he said. “Don’t be quiet, Rich. I want to hear it.”

“You really like to listen to me, huh?” he said.

“I love the way you sound when you’re turned on,” Eddie said. The words tumbled out of him in an unsteady rush like he’d been wanting to confess for a while. 

“Really, really fast,” Richie said, tilting his head back on the couch and pretending it was Eddie’s hand on him, stroking him. He had a lightning flash memory of Eddie saying I wondered what it would be like with you and shuddered. “You know, I didn’t even know you were into guys. I had no idea. You surprised the hell out of me when you kissed me.”

“It wasn’t something I thought about a lot until I saw you again,” Eddie said. The phone went staticky for a second, like Eddie was moving around. “I almost asked you to practice kissing with me once, at a sleepover.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? I would have spontaneously combusted.” He ran his fingers over his cock, not quite squeezing, to draw it out. “Are you—are you touching yourself?”

“Of course I am,” Eddie said. His voice was ragged and Richie thought that’s because he’s close, he’s so close, and imagined being there in that bed with him, sliding his mouth around him again, and he tightened his hand around his cock and stroked twice, coming helplessly so hard his toes curled. Dimly he heard Eddie’s breathing go harsh and fast and felt an aftershock of pleasure at the knowledge that he was coming too, that he wanted—whatever Richie gave him.

“Jesus Christ,” he said when he’d caught his breath. “That’s so intense. I don’t remember sex being like this.”

“Is that a good thing?” Eddie asked.

“Yeah.” He looked down at the come on his hand, spattered on his shirt, and said, “A little messy. I think I have to change.”

“Yeah, that’s why I took my clothes off,” Eddie said.

“You’re naked?” Richie said, shoving his face into the crook of his arm. “I’m going to die of a broken dick before I get to see you again.”

He slept hard that night but woke sometime before dawn, listening for something he wasn’t sure he could actually hear. It was the same feeling he had had the morning after they killed the clown—the morning after Eddie hadn’t died—when he had woken into that perfect quiet clarity and knew he wasn’t afraid anymore. In a strange way, it was almost like someone—Stan, maybe—had tapped him on the shoulder and said Hey, how are you? and he was able to reach into himself and answer from something far deeper than his surface hierarchy of needs.

Well, dead Stanley, I’m in love with Eddie, he thought. No surprise there from the universe, or Stan.

Why Eddie, though? he could almost hear Stan asking.

I don’t know, he thought, but he did know. There was always something about him, that irritable, fussy outside and soft inside, like the very best Tootsie pop, the cherry-flavored ones. But it couldn’t only have been about that, because Stan was fussy and a little harsh but sometimes sweet, and he had loved Stan but he didn’t love him. He thought—really, deep down, Eddie understood him, approved of him somehow in a way nobody else ever did or had done. Eddie’s sense of humor, stripped down, was just like Richie’s, and understanding Richie’s sense of humor was paramount to knowing him. Never again in his life had he found someone who could get that like Eddie, and that was something that hadn’t changed.

“This is probably bad, though,” he said aloud, and realized with a shiver that he expected an answer. Instead, the raw feeling in his chest eased a little and he fell asleep again with the sensation that he was being watched over by someone who loved him, like a parent at his bedroom door checking on him in the night.

*

In the elevator in Eddie’s apartment building, he thought about what he was going to say. Hi, Eddie. I see you’re enjoying the sex. Now that you’ve just gotten out of a marriage based on codependent neediness, would you care for more of the same? Eddie would be very kind about it if Richie told him he loved him, in his own way, but he would run. It was the same argument Richie had been having with himself for a week, and he was no closer to deciding whether he was going to tell Eddie or not. Between keeping silent and having Eddie and not keeping silent and not having Eddie, his choice was obvious, but the problem was that he didn’t know if silence was really an option. It was already overflowing in strange little ways. He had washed Eddie’s t-shirt with his own clothes and found himself treating it tenderly, berated himself for being nice to a t-shirt, and then he had thrown it into his bag before dragging it out again, ironing it, folding it carefully, and putting it back in. He was in grave danger of acting so weird that Eddie would either figure him out or be so uncomfortable he’d shut things down anyway.

“Hi,” Eddie said when he opened the door.

“Hi,” Richie said. His voice didn’t crack, but he felt like it had. On a spiritual level, he was thirteen again and there wasn’t a deodorant in the world that could save him or the armpits of all his shirts.

“Come in.” Eddie tugged on his arm.

“Ok—” he began, but as soon as the door was shut behind him Eddie pushed his bag out of his hand and kissed him, pulling him down by the back of his neck to get more. He had said at least once that the second he saw Richie he was going to jump on his dick, but Richie wasn’t prepared for the reality of Eddie’s hot mouth on his, his leg sliding between Richie’s immediately. The thick, stiff line of his cock was obvious against Richie’s thigh and his hands went to Eddie’s hips without even thinking about it, pulling him closer in quick, sharp movements so Eddie could rub against him the way he so clearly wanted to.

“You’re so hard,” he whispered. “Were you thinking about this, waiting for me to get here?”

Eddie nodded and dragged him back down again, fingers digging into his shoulders. He made desperate noises, low but painfully urgent and getting more so as Richie shifted so he could push him against the door, and when Richie pulled back for a second he saw how swollen his lower lip was, face flushed and drawn with pleasure. Richie loved him so much he knew it was all over him, in his eyes, in his mouth when he kissed him, in his hands when he gave him what he wanted. He pressed his leg more firmly between Eddie’s so he could ride against it even harder, sliding his hands over Eddie’s ass to direct him, and kissed him, kissed him, kissed him while Eddie rubbed against him again and again until he stiffened, hips jerking. He buried his face in Richie’s neck and cried out brokenly, muscles tightening and releasing, tightening and releasing, until he went lax in Richie’s arms, breathing hard.

“Fuck, that didn’t go as planned,” he said after a few minutes, letting go of Richie and flopping back against the door, his head hitting it with a thump. His upper lip was shiny with sweat and his nice gray pants were wet all along the right side of the fly.

“That was the greeting of a fucking lifetime,” Richie said, straightening his clothes unnecessarily.

Eddie patted his arm and held on like he was too exhausted to do much more. “I wanted to get fucked,” he said.

“Still on the menu,” Richie said. “If you’re interested.”

“Really?” Eddie undid the button of Richie’s jeans and reached in, fitting his fingers around his cock.

“It’s a heavy sacrifice, but yes, I will fuck you,” Richie said.

And he did, though he wondered, with his fingers spreading Eddie open and working him up until his cock was twitching and starting to harden again, if it wasn’t more like worshipping. It wasn’t fast and hard, the way it had been in the kitchen. He slid into him slow, careful, his hands smoothing over Eddie’s legs and then up along his torso and then the firm muscles of his arms, grabbing his hands and holding them down to the bed so his arms were stretched out above his head.

“Fuck,” Eddie moaned, pushing up against him. “Yeah, like that, I like it.”

“I thought you would,” Richie said, kissing him to cover up the way he was starting to lose it. He rolled his hips experimentally until he found an angle and rhythm that made Eddie go hot and pliant around him, and he stayed there and drove them both mindless with it.

“Richie, don’t—don’t stop,” Eddie said. “Right there, okay? Don’t stop.”

“I’m not gonna stop,” he said. “I’ll give you whatever you want, sweetheart, whatever feels good.”

He moved at a glacial pace, guided by the way Eddie begged him to stay with him, exactly like this. Eventually he slid a hand between them and grasped his wet cock and slowly, slowly drove him over the edge while Eddie’s shouting grew so frantic it sounded like he was on the verge of tears. Richie finally let go too when the long pulses around his cock were so overwhelming he couldn’t take it anymore, and there was a moment of freefall, almost, before the pleasure rushed in like a flood and absolutely tore him apart. He leaned his forehead on Eddie’s neck and kissed whatever skin was under his lips and gave himself over to loving him, for whatever length of time he was allowed.

*

“Hey, hey,” Eddie said sometime in the night, shaking him.

He had been frozen in place, and Eddie’s touch released him from it, but all he could do was put his own hand over his heart and gasp, almost sobbing. Eddie pulled him close and he held off for a second before burying his face in Eddie’s shirt, letting himself be held tight.

“You’re a shitty sleeper,” Eddie said. His mouth was pressed against Richie’s forehead, and he kissed him there again and again, almost absently.

“Yeah, sorry,” he mumbled.

“What did you dream about?”

“Clowns, dying, clowns eating kids, dying, clowns that turn into Paul Bunyan, more dying,” he said. “Variations on a theme. How do you sleep so well?”

“Melatonin,” Eddie said. “And you’re here.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think I’ve ever had a good night’s sleep,” Richie said.

“You gotta get that looked at, Rich,” Eddie said. “You’re gonna get Alzheimer’s.”

“Oh, I’ll be dead of so many other health issues before that.” Richie flopped onto his back. “I don’t even remember the last time I ate a vegetable or drank a glass of water.”

“If you fucking die from some easily avoidable thing, I will be such a dick with your Wikipedia page,” Eddie said. “And no one will be able to stop me because I’m a subject matter expert.”

Richie stared at the ceiling long after Eddie had fallen asleep again, picking up the argument he’d been having with himself before Eddie had opened the front door and dragged him in. Stan, I’m not keeping that oath very well, he thought, please don’t be disappointed in me.

*

He managed to get away to New York every other week or every third week on a regular basis. Sometimes he couldn’t make a weekend and would show up in the middle of the week instead, doing stupid tourist shit while Eddie was at work. He set up all his television subscriptions on Eddie’s TV and programmed it to come on at weird times while he was gone.

Eddie did not come out to California, and Richie never suggested it, although he would have liked to show him around. Sometimes it seemed like there was a version of Eddie in his apartment with him, eating takeout with him and listening to new material, telling him to just give in and hire a cleaning service. This version of Eddie knew how he felt and was sympathetic from a distance, the way you’d be if your friend had fallen in love with someone who didn’t return his affections.

Steve, true to his word, had discussed Richie’s change of direction with the creative team handling his special, and there were meetings all throughout February and March, going back and forth between the merits of doing a cold opening at a few clubs first versus having his first Netflix appearance center almost entirely around a coming out. Richie stared at his phone during most of these meetings and answered when called upon, but his reputation had preceded him well enough that they all seemed to realize at once that he would work hard but do exactly what he wanted, and after that the meetings were focused on booking a venue.

During one weekend with Eddie, Richie discovered an inhaler in the junk drawer in the kitchen while he was looking for matches.

“Did you get a new one?” he asked.

“Uh,” Eddie said. He was in the middle of making a salad that Richie was not going to fucking eat, and looked like a rabbit about to run. And then he did run, actually, setting down the tongs he was using and grabbing a jacket and leaving the apartment. Richie watched him do it and then looked down at the salad.

“This is your fault,” he said. “What the fuck good are you anyway?”

He had eaten half the lasagna by the time Eddie got back, his jaw tight like he was preparing for a real fight.

“Hey,” Richie said. “That was weird.”

“I know, all right?” Eddie said, not looking at him as he hung up his jacket and kicked his shoes off. “Just—this is how I used to handle arguments with Myra or my mom. I realize it’s not a healthy fucking coping mechanism.”

“Yeah, dude,” Richie said. “Since when do you fight with me the way you fight with your mom? You think I need you to get yourself under wraps and become a calm, cool, collected person instead of an angry little turd?”

“No, but I can’t fight about this,” Eddie said, pointing to the junk drawer. “I can have a completely rational discussion with a doctor or I can run away, but that’s it.”

“What is there to even fight about?” Richie turned off the television and patted the sofa next to him. “I’m not mad. I just didn’t know.”

Eddie sighed and sat beside him, stiff at first and then, when Richie took his hand, unbending a little. “It was this big, symbolic thing, burning it. It’s bullshit, right? It’s literally water. I know that. I’ve always known it.”

“Okay, but like, if you can’t breathe, do you think I’m going to snatch the fucking thing away from you and let you suffer because it’s just water?” He ran his fingers up and down Eddie’s arm, which never failed to make him shiver in pleasure. “Fine, it’s psychosomatic, but that’s not something you change overnight.”

“It feels like I’m backsliding.”

“Well, you’re not. How often do you even use it?” he asked.

Eddie shrugged. “Every few weeks, I guess, if something’s bothering me.”

“Yeah, and you used to use it like twenty times a day,” Richie said. “Be easy on yourself, Eds. Look at how much you’ve done and just be kind.”

Eddie flopped back onto the sofa with a groan. “Why does it make so much sense when you say it and then when you’re gone, all my freakishness just pinballs around in my brain until I want to scream?”

Richie shook his head. “Maybe you should just always listen to what I say because my advice is great.”

“Two hours ago you tried to put garlic bread in the microwave with the foil wrapper still on, so I think I’m good,” Eddie said. “But sometimes you’re not a total idiot.”

“Find a chef who can make you come three times in one night and then you can replace me,” Richie said.

Eddie used the inhaler a couple of times around him after that, but the instances grew farther and farther apart. Richie had grown to think of it like cigarettes, and had sort of expected Eddie to rely on it less before he got rid of it entirely, but instead it faded in and out of use but never really left. Bev asked him if it would bother him if Eddie kept it around forever, and it took him a long time to answer.

“No,” he said eventually. “And I don’t think any of us really let go of the objects we tossed into the artifact anyway, did we?”

“Not at all,” she said.

“So who the fuck am I to talk about letting go, of all the fucking people?” He played with the string on his hoodie. “All you can do is not let it rule you, I guess.”

“Does yours rule you, Rich?”

He smiled, closing his eyes. “It’s everything to me,” he said, “and it hurts all the time.”

“Yeah,” Beverly sighed. “But it’s better than forgetting again.”

*

“So,” Eddie said. “I met with a divorce lawyer.”

It was April; the city lights were indistinct, blurring together through the rain streaming down the windows. Richie was in the kitchen fixing a drink. He had gotten in sometime in the afternoon, but was so tired he had fallen asleep facedown on the couch, using Eddie’s lap as a pillow, for a few hours, and he was still groggy.

“I don’t know why I didn’t even think about you actually having to get a divorce,” he said, swirling the liquid in his glass slowly. “Was it bad?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said. “I had to use my inhaler.”

Richie made a little sympathetic noise that he hadn’t known he was capable of before. “Well, soon you’ll be a free man out on the prowl,” he said, trying for a shaky smile. No, he hadn’t thought about the fact that Eddie couldn’t just snap his fingers and say “I divorce you” three times, but he had known this was coming, hadn’t he? The little bubble of acidic pain that was always there, hovering in his throat, was hard to ignore.

“Free man?” Eddie said.

“I mean, you want to date again, don’t you?” he asked.

Eddie stared like Richie had told him that, as a matter of fact, someone had filled his humidifier with toilet water. “Rich,” he said. “I am dating.”

“Shit, really?” Richie asked, gripping the island hard.

“Yeah, you actual fucking idiot. I’m dating you.” Eddie tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling. “What the fuck.”

“Since fucking when?” Richie said.

“Since you flew out to stay with me when I told you I was sad and then sucked my dick on the couch,” Eddie said. “It was kind of hard to miss.”

Richie shook his head and then couldn’t stop shaking it. “Actually, no, it was pretty fucking easy.”

How?”  

“Maybe because you never said anything except ‘Richie, fly out here and fuck me,’” Richie said. He could see Eddie was about to protest and pointed at him. “No. No. How was I supposed to know?”

“I don’t fucking know, dude, I kind of thought the fact that you call me sweetheart while you’re fucking me meant we were on the same page after five months,” Eddie said, his hand slicing through the air in such a familiar gesture that Richie wanted to kiss him and also wanted to hit him over the head with a fucking pillow. “Five months, Rich!”

“And you never said,” Richie brought out his phone. “I’m fucking texting Bev. She’ll be on my side.”

“No, she won’t, because I told her we were dating when we started dating,” Eddie said. “Jesus Christ, did you think I was just using you this entire time for my great ass awakening? Richie, come on. How am I the one who’s not the worst at this?”

Richie ignored him, typing hey quick survey. if ur sleeping with someone for five months and they never say ur dating would u assume that dick is on lock or what

“She’s gonna back me up so fucking hard,” he said, glaring at Eddie.

“Or she won’t, because you should have known,” Eddie said. “In what fucking universe do I do casual dating?”

His phone buzzed. Eddie never said he loves you? Bev wrote.

“No,” he said, thrusting the phone at Eddie so he had to read it. “Eddie never fucking said he loves me.”

“I touched your feet, dude. Of course I fucking love you.” Eddie turned away from him and went to the windows, hands across his chest, staring out at the city through the rain.

“Seriously?” Richie said. His face was too hot, heart racing. “I feel like you can’t blame me for not figuring that out.”

“Fine, yeah,” Eddie said. He was still pissed, but Richie didn’t think it was at him so much anymore. The line of his body had softened and Richie ran his eyes over his shoulders, his back, his neck, helplessly wanting him. “I never said it. That’s on me. But I maintain that you should have picked up the fact that we were dating from the incredibly fucking subtle clue of us actually dating.”

“Through what, osmosis?” Richie approached him from behind, making enough noise to give him time to move away if he was really angry, but he stayed where he was and relaxed back against Richie when he put both hands on his shoulders. “You never said, and I was afraid to ask. I just figured it would end when it ended and I didn’t want to ruin whatever time I had with you.”

“You think I’m that much of an asshole?” Eddie asked.

No,” he said, and was alarmed when his voice broke. When he shut his eyes, he saw Eddie’s terrified face above him, blood spraying out of his mouth. Eddie had always been so afraid of dying, so afraid of being alone in the dark. He swallowed hard. “I saw something when I was in the deadlights.”

Eddie turned around fast. “Something about us?”

“About you. You—fucking died,” he said, blinking until his vision cleared. “When we were killing the clown. I watched the whole thing happen. You died, and I went out to that bridge and cut our initials into it again, and I lived the rest of my life without you.”

“I fucking knew it,” Eddie said. “I knew you saw something fucked up. You were totally shaken when we were at the quarry, and I heard you crying in the shower.”

“Shook, Eddie. I was shook,” he said, and at Eddie’s glare, he added, “Sorry. Kind of. But yeah, I was upset, and ever since then I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I feel like somehow, some way, it’s gonna happen, I’m gonna lose you, and like—that shit I saw in the deadlights, that was bad enough, but if it happens now, that’s fucking it for me, man. I’m done.”

Eddie stared at him for a moment, biting his lip, before he slid his arms around Richie. “To be clear,” he said shakily, “I love you.”

“Okay,” Richie said.

“Not as a friend,” Eddie said. “Since apparently I have to spell things out for you because you’re really stupid.”

Richie kissed the top of his head and rested his cheek there. “Yeah, I get it.”

“I did even when we were younger,” Eddie said. “I don’t know if you remember that time we had a school trip to Funtown and you and Bill and Stan—it was right before Stan moved away, but after Ben had already left—you convinced me to go on that loop-de-loop water slide. I didn’t want to go. I mean, those things are like a fucking petri dish on a good day. You’re pretty much guaranteed diarrhea or an ear infection, and there’s a non-zero chance of meningitis—”

“All right,” Richie said, running his fingers through Eddie’s hair. “Rein it in there, WebMD.”

Anyway,” he said. “We waited in line forever, and Bill and Stan went, and then you did, and I just…fucking chickened out. I had to climb back down and bump every single kid in line out of the way. I got so sunburned my mom called the school and found out I had faked her signature on the permission slip and I was grounded anyway, but I wished—I just fucking wished I’d gone down the slide so I could at least have done it. And you snuck into my room that night and put lotion on my back and you told me it was braver to climb down knowing all the kids would make fun of me than it was to go down the slide in the first place.”

“I remember,” Richie said. “I still think that. You always had a lot of conviction. Misguided and weird, but you know. Firm.”

“I don’t even think I knew I wanted to kiss you then, but anytime I felt bad, I’d think about you telling me I was brave, touching me, being nice to me.” Eddie pulled away and took his hand, lacing their fingers together.

“I’m always nice to you,” Richie said. “I’m a nice guy.”

“You actually are pretty nice as long as you’re not talking,” Eddie said. “But I liked it when you were nice just to me. I liked that I could ask you to do something and you wouldn’t even complain, you’d just do it.”

“That doesn’t sound like me,” he said. Eddie was starting to back up in the direction of the bedroom, pulling Richie with him.

“No, you like to do things for me,” Eddie said. “Sometimes I don’t even have to ask.”

“Maybe I actually love you.” Richie shrugged.

“Maybe you should take your fucking pants off, dickhead,” Eddie said.

“See, now I know we’re really dating,” Richie said, and let go of him with a little push toward the bed.

*

In May, they all met up again—not in Maine, but in Florida, at Mike’s beach house in Cocoa Beach. It was a big, breezy place, about fifty yards away from the beach, and the entire back of it was painted pink. Richie called him Dorothy and Mike rightly pointed out that he was more of a Rose and that out of all of them, Richie was the most Dorothy, which made Eddie laugh until he was almost sick. Richie protested and they watched a few episodes for research until the others arrived and Mike took them out to a crab shack down the road.

“Ah, crab shack,” Richie said. “One of my favorite pet names for your mom, Eddie.”

Eddie, who had just returned from the bathroom, wasn’t listening to him. “Okay, that dude definitely didn’t wash his hands,” he said, pointing to one of the workers.

“Do you notice that kind of thing?” Ben asked.

“Of course I do,” Eddie said. “Only thirty percent of men wash their hands after they use the bathroom. That’s from the CDC.”

Their nachos, piled high with cheese and peppers and bacon, arrived just as Ben said, “No way. Thirty?” and they stared down at the nachos without touching them.

“Yeah, I have to talk to these OSHA violating motherfuckers,” Eddie said, sliding out of the booth again.

“Can you keep in mind that I come here a lot?” Mike asked, and Eddie waved his hand without looking back at them.

Richie watched him go, shaking his head a little, and said, “All right, Mikey. My number one priority is going to that Gators and Golf place. I will play mini golf with an alligator and anyone who gets in my way is gonna get stabbed.”

“Well,” Mike said, “you don’t get to play with an alligator—”

What? Fuck this place,” Richie said.

“—but there are baby alligators in the water all around the course, so in a way, you’re always playing with them.”

“No. No, that’s not satisfactory,” Richie said. “I don’t want some fucking existential alligators. All right, cross that off the list.”

“I don’t want to do anything but sleep in the sun,” Bill said. “I’ve been hunched over my computer for three months doing revisions.”

Richie shook his head. “I already bought tickets to Disney for all of us.”

Eddie wandered back over to the table and Richie turned a little, smiling up at him.

“Hey,” he said. “Did you live out your dream and talk to someone’s manager?”

“No,” he said. “The guy washed his hands and someone else is making our food, so they were reasonable.”

“Oh good, nobody overreacted at all.” Richie tugged him closer by the belt loop and Eddie leaned against him, holding onto his shoulder.

“I told them I ordered the cheeseburger, so you get the side order of spit,” Eddie said, reaching past him to grab a nacho.

“You know we got one of those little kids over there to lick that chip, right?” Richie said. “I hope the child snot is delicious.”

Mmm,” Eddie said, crunching on it right next to Richie’s ear as he pushed past him to get into the booth.

He was aware that the others were watching them, and let Eddie settle in next to him before he said, “Is there something you’d like to say?”

Bev smiled slyly, going for the nachos. “No, nothing at all.”

“Richie and I are moving in together,” Eddie said.

“What?” Bill said, looking back and forth between the two of them.

“I got sick of weekend booty calls,” Richie said, taking a long sip of his margarita. “Oh, that’s good.”

“When,” Bill tilted his head. “When did…what?”

“Damn, dude, you’ve really been out of the loop,” Eddie said. “Are you even in the group text?”

“Good for you, honey,” Bev said, squeezing Richie’s hand. She caught his eye and he knew they were both remembering that other life. She had seen it all play out, for each one of them, but not this ending—not this life. She had always seemed brittle and tentative in some way, as long as he had known her, but that was gone now. The watchfulness was still there, a kind of waiting to see what might happen next, but it wasn’t a waiting that expected tragedy. No more nightmares.

He put an arm around Eddie and swiftly kissed his temple, disguising it as an opportunity to whisper, “Hey, Mike says the alligator golf is bullshit.” 

“That’s false advertising,” Eddie said, squeezing his leg.

Thank you,” he said. “So now my afternoon is unexpectedly free. Maybe we can just fuck on the beach.”

“I’m not going anywhere near that fucking beach until I check the salinity and pollution level,” Eddie said. “You know there’s flesh eating bacteria in most of the swimming areas, right?”

“In the beach house, then,” Richie said.

“Yeah, I can do that,” Eddie said, and Richie sat back and smiled at the table—Bill using his fork to underscore his hotly contested point that actually none of them were Blanche; Ben holding Bev’s hand under the table; Mike shaking his head and bringing out his phone, ready to prove Bill wrong; Eddie pressed comfortably against his side; the space, always left open, where Stan should be. No more nightmares, he thought. It could happen.