Chapter 1 – Summer Break, After Freshman Year
We All Float Down Here – Four Year Strong
Richie pulled into his parents’ driveway just after midnight and cut the engine with a sigh. He had three long months ahead of him – three long months living at home again after being on his own, of trying to remember how to fit back into a life that he wasn’t sure he still fit into. His freshman year of college had been…life-changing. And now he was back in Derry. Again.
Richie grabbed his backpack off the passenger’s seat and kicked his door open, unfolding out of the car he’d been in for the better part of ten hours. He had put off leaving until the very last minute – his last final had been four days ago, he’d been free to leave since Tuesday afternoon. But the dorms had been open and accessible until noon on Saturday, so Richie hadn’t packed up his car until 11:45 that morning, had lingered at the radio studio – his home away from home – for another hour after that.
But Derry was unavoidable, no matter what Richie did, so he slammed the car door shut and clicked the lock on his key fob twice. He’d empty the car in the morning, there was no way he was unpacking tonight – not alone, in the dark, in that weird in-between state of being fucking wired and bone-deep tired.
He blamed the bone-deep tired part for his inattentiveness – he wasn’t alone. There was a person sitting on the top step of the front porch, curled loosely into himself with his knees pulled up to his chest and his face in the shadows, but Richie would recognize that silhouette – those curls – anywhere.
“Stan my man,” Richie called delightedly, slowing to a stop at the foot of the stairs and throwing his backpack down at his feet. “Get the fuck over here.”
Stan, ever so predictably, uncurled languidly and traipsed down the steps at a leisurely pace. Like he hadn’t been sitting on Richie’s damn porch like a puppy, waiting for his best friend to get home at dumb-o’clock in the morning, like he didn’t laugh and hug back just as fiercely when Richie yanked him in tight.
“Goddamn, dude, it’s good to see you,” Richie said through a grin, pulling back just enough to grab at Stan’s face. “Lemme look at you – shit, looks like Georgia’s doing you good.”
“Atlanta’s great,” Stan agreed. He held Richie out at arm’s length, looked him over from the top of his messy curls to the soles of his battered red Chucks. “You should come visit sometime, maybe you’d look less like a scarecrow if you ate a good southern meal.”
“Man, I’m too broke to buy food, what makes you think I can afford a ticket to Atlanta?” Richie swatted away the hand now poking into his ribs. “If I’d known you were this eager to see me though, maybe I would’ve scraped up enough loose change. Maybe that’s what it takes to finally bang that sweet Jewish ass of yours.”
“I didn’t miss you at all,” Stan said, utterly deadpan.
“Sure you did,” Richie took a step back and scooped his bag up off the ground before bounding up the steps, beckoning Stan along behind him. “C’mon, I’ve had to take a piss for like 200 miles. How’d you even know when I was going to be home?”
“Your mom,” Stan told him, following Richie through the unlocked front door and into the dark foyer, though not into the shoe rack that Richie almost immediately tripped over. “Turn a light on, dumbass. Your mom told my mom, who made the horrible mistake of mentioning it in front of Bill.”
“Ah, your mom finally left the Rabbi for a real man?” Richie, defiant as ever, pointedly bypassed two different light switches as he led them both toward the kitchen.
Stan, long-accustomed to Richie, ignored him. He flipped the kitchen light on and settled onto a stool by the counter as Richie slammed his way into the small bathroom off the hall, rifled through Richie’s backpack while Richie peed with the door half open. There was nothing interesting in his backpack, and Richie wouldn’t care even if there was, so Richie left him to it.
“Bill wanted to throw you a surprise party, have us all be here when you got back,” Stan continued, only after Richie had washed his hands and moved on to pilfering the refrigerator. “You’re the last one in, you know. Ben got home two days ago, everyone else has been here for almost a week already.”
“Finals ran late,” Richie lied, busying himself with spreading three different packages of cold cuts, lettuce, a tomato, and an onion out in front of him. “You want mayo on yours or not?”
“Obviously,” Stan rolled his eyes. “I told Bill it was a colossally bad idea for like, at least ten different reasons. So instead of a surprise party tonight, you can look forward to being woken up at an ungodly hour tomorrow morning by a handful of overly enthusiastic assholes demanding your immediate attention. I’d recommend locking your bedroom door.”
“And deny my people the pleasure of my company?” Richie scoffed. He needed something else – pepper, maybe?
“I’d hardly call it a pleasure,” Stan shot back. “More like an unavoidable nuisance.”
“Aw shucks sugar, you sure know how to make a girl blush,” Richie cooed, sweet and coy and dripping with southern belle charm. He flicked a limp piece of lettuce at Stan, who watched it fall to the floor two feet short of its target.
“Is it possible you’ve actually gotten worse at that?” Stan sighed, but he looked fond and charmed in spite of himself. Anyway, Richie knew the truth – his Voices were absolutely getting better. Better enough that he was known around campus for them, that people asked for them on demand, that Richie’s catalogue had grown to include a solid ten different personalities he could pull out on cue. He used them less frequently, too – bigger impact that way, he was totally learning.
“It’s a right hit with the lads though, mate,” Richie slipped British this time, waved a knife absently at the cabinet closest to Stan, who stood up and pulled two plates out without hesitation. “Ladies too. Your boy’s been positively drowning in good dick this year.”
“Eddie has a boyfriend.”
Richie smoothed a layer of mayo onto a slice of bread with precise strokes, careful to spread it evenly to the very corners of the crust. Most of the people in his life would have laughed at the idea of frenetic, wild Richie being methodical, but he knew himself. His focus was just…selective. He liked cooking, liked the well-practiced pace of it. Besides, he was committed to making this the best “welcome home from a semester of ramen and shitty dining hall meals” sandwich ever to be eaten on this green earth, goddammit.
It was the care with which Stan said his name that would – much, much later, when he was finally alone – be Richie’s undoing. He and Stan weren’t gentle with each other, they didn’t take care when dropping unholy truths. But Stanley and his achingly gentle pronunciation of Richie’s name, deliberate and soft, was unavoidable.
Richie neatly sliced Stan’s sandwich in half before picking up both plates and stepping into the inevitable. Stan watched him carefully, Richie tried not to bristle under it as he slid one plate across the counter to where Stan sat.
“Good for him,” he said finally. Good for Eddie. A boyfriend. Good for fucking him.
Somewhere, deep in the pit of his cold, guarded heart, Richie genuinely meant that.
“He’s been pretty gushy about it,” Stan continued, without actually acknowledging Richie’s response. He mostly spoke to the sandwich in front of him. “Hasn’t shut the fuck up, honestly. I’m pretty sure even Ben’s like two minutes away from putting a full out embargo on the b–word, and we all know what a sucker for love he is.”
Love. Richie mouthed the word into the meat of his sandwich, barely one bite in and suddenly, emphatically not hungry.
In another life – or another year – Richie would have known first-hand whether or not Eddie was in Love. Eddie Kaspbrak, the ying to Richie’s yang, the Laurie to Richie’s Fry. The only friend in the world Richie loved as much as Stan.
But in this life Richie and Eddie hadn’t spoken since January. Four months, he supposed, might be enough to fall in love with someone. He wouldn’t know – he’d certainly never been asked to chart the progression of his Great Love Affair.
Stan winced like he could see Richie’s face, even though he hadn’t looked up from his sandwich. Laser focus like that he was going to wind up toasting the whole thing with his eyes alone, Richie thought, only a little hysterically.
“Not that it’s love. Puppy love, maybe, not the real thing. I don’t know. I just…”
Stan trailed off, and oh crap, suddenly grew a damn backbone. He lifted his head and made eye contact with Richie, staring him down resolutely until Richie huffed out a breath and put his food down, giving Stan his rarely undivided attention.
“We both know Eddie can be a little…cavalier sometimes. Or maybe just oblivious, I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure he’s not going to tell you himself, and I didn’t think you’d want to find out for the first time when Eddie blurts out some stupid “my boyfriend and I were in the dining hall…” story in front of all of us.”
Richie squirmed under the scrutiny. Or maybe it was the guilt. Maybe it was the suffocating weight of knowing that here Stan was trying to protect Richie, trying to spare his feelings, and he had no idea that Richie had already felt every bit of it. That Eddie’s delivery of the news would not have been cavalier or oblivious, but calculated and intentionally cutting.
Richie almost felt bad for denying Eddie the pleasure. Almost.
Stan was still watching, studying Richie for a reaction, a sign, anything that might tell them both how to move forward with this painful drag of a conversation. Richie didn’t have anything to give him. He yanked his glasses off his face by one arm, precisely way his optometrist always told him not to, and dropped them down on the counter. These days he wore his contacts pretty much exclusively, only made an exception for the long drive he’d covered today, but he was grateful for the excuse. He could still feel Stan’s eyes on him, but at least Richie couldn’t actually make out the pity on his face anymore.
“It’s fine. Eddie’s got a boyfriend. That’s great. As long as Eddie’s happy, good for him. I bet he’s a good guy, Eddie wouldn’t suffer an asshole.”
Stan looked up like he heard the unspoken words tacked onto the end of that sentence, even though Richie had been so careful not to even think them. In his next life Richie planned to pick a less-observant best friend.
Shrewd and observant as he might be, at least Stan knew when to keep his mouth shut. He chewed the second half of his sandwich in silence, left Richie alone to chew his thoughts instead.
Eddie had a boyfriend. Well. Good for fucking Eddie.
“Well gee, Mistah Uris, it sure has been swell havin’ you,” Richie said finally, earnest and young but somehow lacking the necessary spark to really pull it off. Stan barely even rolled his eyes, just raised an eyebrow expectantly at Richie. Richie, glasses still abandoned on the counter between them, pretended he couldn’t see Stan at all.
“Side effect of talking to myself in the car all day,” Richie shrugged defensively. He picked up his mostly untouched sandwich, poked morosely at what minutes before had promised to be a worthy midnight snack. Well. He could probably wrap it up and stick it in the fridge – knowing his asshole friends he’d need a grab and go breakfast anyway.
God, he’d missed them.
God, he’d give anything to not have to see them tomorrow.
God, he’d drive his car straight into the Atlantic fucking Ocean to avoid them.
Stan, who even at his most understanding never managed to suffer Richie spacing out, stood up. Richie startled hard enough that he dropped his sandwich back down onto his own plate, jumped and looked around guiltily. Stan stood with his arms across his chest and a stern expression that didn’t quite reach his eyes, the uncharacteristic gentleness still lingering in the soft look he leveled at Richie.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Stan demanded.
“Dear God no, Stanley,” Richie insisted.
“Do you want me to leave so you can not talk about it all alone with just yourself and no witnesses?” Stan’s expression was sly, tone light and teasing enough that Richie barked out a laugh, but the offer was genuine. They both knew that Richie wasn’t going to go jerk off to the idea of Eddie and some mysterious, nameless, faceless guy, but they sure as shit were never going to acknowledge Richie’s need to go cry about it.
“Also no, jackass,” Richie sighed. “Did you want to leave?”
“Told my mom I was spending the night like, four hours ago. Be weird if I came home now,” Stan shrugged. Like it meant nothing. Like he hadn’t gone out of his way to be there for Richie, literally be there for Richie.
When Richie drove his car into the Atlantic to avoid having to see his friends, he decided, he would take Stan with him. Stanley Uris takes a bath – deep in the heart of the deep blue sea, best friend at his side.
Richie was, he realized too late, saying all of this out loud. But Stan just smirked broadly at him, stepping forward to grab the plate still holding Richie’s uneaten sandwich before making his way back to the fridge. He took the time to cover the sandwich with saran wrap, Richie noticed fondly, like an actual, functional human being and not like the tragic slump of a college freshman Richie had turned into.
“You’ve been a tragic slump of a human being since you were four,” Stan said drily, slamming the refrigerator door shut behind him. “I can’t imagine why you thought college would change that.”
“You wouldn’t want me to change, Stanny,” Richie cooed, grabbing his backpack up off the floor before slinging one arm around Stan’s shoulder. “How else would you get your kicks? Who else would you give the chucks? You need me, sugar.”
Stan never just rolled his eyes – he lifted his whole face heavenward, rolling his eyes high toward the ceiling before twisting back down to look at Richie. Richie, arm still around Stan’s neck as he led them both up the stairs, felt it more than he saw it.
“You have anything to unpack?”
Richie hiked his backpack up a little higher on his shoulder with his free hand. His mom had put clean sheets on his bed, his backpack had pajamas and a toothbrush, a change of clothes and his contacts. What more did a person need, really? A quick trip to the bathroom was all that stood between Richie and a nice long night of sleep in his childhood bed. Richie hadn’t been home since January, hadn’t slept with those familiar pillows, his well–worn comforter, in months.
He hadn’t been alone that last night either. But that was a thought that Richie couldn’t afford right now.
Richie and Stan might have been two nineteen–year–old boys with a combined twelve and half feet and three-hundred-plus pounds between them, but they had been sharing Richie’s shitty little twin-size mattress since the dawn of time. There was something comforting in the familiarity of the routine, of knowing how to position himself to avoid Stan’s sharp elbows, where to hook his ankles on the footboard so his feet dangled just right off the edge. College had been good to him; Richie loved his new friends, his new life, but there was more history in that little bed than most people got in a whole lifetime of relationships.
“What time do you think Bev will be here in the morning?” Stan mumbled the question directly into the pillow he was pressed face-first into – the words had gone soft and a little surreal by the time they reached Richie’s ears. Floated over to him, in that late-night haze that made Richie realize he’d been dozing – not outright sleeping, just that more time had passed than he’d realized.
“Not before ten, if she knows what’s good for her,” Richie grumbled back.
Bev, he knew, would be banging down his bedroom door before eight. If it was anybody else he’d lock the door, leave the phone off the hook, do not disturb before noon, but it was Bev. Beverly Marsh, light of his life, kindred soul, twin of his heart. Beverly Marsh, traitorous bitch that didn’t come home for winter break, that Richie hasn’t seen since August. Yeah, she’d be there before eight, and Richie would welcome her in with wide fucking open arms.
“Think she’ll be alone?”
“Ben’s definitely too smart to show up at my house before noon, and Bill’s not dragging his sorry ass out of bed that early either.” Richie shrugged one shoulder, despite knowing full-well that Stan couldn’t see him. Despite knowing full-well that Stan wasn’t asking about Ben, or Bill, or Mike. “Mike’s probably got work to do before he can come into town.”
Stan hummed noncommittally, the closest he’d ever get to calling Richie’s bluff.
No, Stanley, Richie thought. Obviously Eddie was not going to come here tomorrow morning. Eddie and his perfect new boyfriend and his perfect new life and his perfectly good reason to stay far the fuck away from Richie’s bedroom.
But Richie only thought it, because Stan didn’t know. Stan didn’t know that Richie ran away, that Richie crawled back to school two days earlier than planned with a broken fucking heart hemorrhaging in his chest. That Richie could still feel the sucker-punch of Eddie’s rejection, of Eddie’s dismissal. That Richie had fled his own fucking bedroom, leaving his dignity tangled on the floor with their clothes, both of them hiding tears they’d never admit to again. That while Stan had written letters and Bev had made weekly phone calls and Bill had made the drive up from Poughkeepsie for one glorious, ridiculous weekend, Richie and Eddie hadn’t spoken one single word to each other in four months.
“She’ll be alone,” he said quietly. Definitively. The real answer, though not the full answer. And Stan stayed silent, the kind of silence that said more than any words that could come out of his mouth. Because really, what else was there to say?
Richie let that silence lull him into a dull, restless sleep.
Richie woke up slowly. That ideal kind of waking, when there’s no alarm, no rush, just a gradual lightening of consciousness until you blink blearily into the morning light and realize you’re awake. Richie woke up warm but not overheating, curled comfortably on his side with his back flat against the wall and a soft someone in front of him. He kept his eyes closed and his body relaxed and let himself be lulled by the dull, rolling murmur of quiet voices nearby.
“How’d he take it?"
“Like you’d expect Richie to take it.” And then a pause. “Actually, no. Not at all how you’d expect Richie to take it.”
“Sarcasm and a Voice?”
“Right – not that. He was…quiet. He didn’t really say much about it. Or at all, really. After.”
There was a second head on Richie’s pillow – his face was nearly buried into the top of someone’s skull. Silky hair, soft and clean-smelling, a lingering hint of cigarette smoke…
Richie tightened the arm he’d only just realized was around Beverly’s waist, pulling her in closer against him. The voices – Bev, apparently, and Stan – stopped immediately. Richie didn’t care. Let them talk about him. They were two of his best friends, if they wanted to go behind his back to talk about his emotional welfare or some shit then who was Richie to stop them?
“Mmph,” he grumbled, pressing his face further into the top of Bev’s head and planting a kiss in her hair. “Hey beautiful.”
Bev’s fingers, loosely curled around Richie’s wrist, squeezed tightly in response.
“I was talking to Stan, but it’s good to see you too.”
The grip on his wrist turned into a nasty pinch, sharp fingernails with an added twist at the end, and Richie grinned into Bev’s hair and hugged her a little tighter into him.
“I didn’t miss you at all,” Beverly sighed, relaxing deeper into their cuddles. Stan, petulant at being left out even when he pretended not to want in, shifted until he could prop his head on the arm Richie had stretched out under the pillow.
“You know, I’m pretty sure Stan said the exact same thing,” Richie mused. “Right before following me inside like a stray dog and hogging the bed all night.”
“Stanley has been eagerly awaiting your arrival since like Monday,” Bev said conspiratorially, tilting her head up just enough that Richie knew she was grinning at Stan. “Every time someone asked when you were coming home he’d be the first to say Saturday all long-suffering and mopey.”
“He pines for me,” Richie simpered, soft and southern belle. “My sweet Stanny-boy, he suffers through the long cold months an’ he pines for me, Miss Marsh. Pines. The poor dear.”
Stan kicked a foot halfheartedly against Richie’s shin, Richie flicked him in the back of the head in response.
“Mm, now it feels like being home again,” Bev sighed, and Richie could hear the satisfaction in her voice. “It’s too early for roughhousing, assholes.”
It was too early for roughhousing. It was too early to do anything, really, that wasn’t cuddling in a too-small bed with three too-old teenagers that barely fit. So Richie threaded one hand through Stan’s hair and curled the other around Beverly’s ribs. Stan slumped forward until he and Bev were practically nose to forehead, Bev melted between Richie and Stan until there was no empty space, until they were balanced comfortably in the center of the mattress and lulled into a warm, sleepy doze.
Richie never fell back asleep, exactly, but time passed in a lazy haze anyway. It was the first day in a long time that he didn’t have any obligations, there was nowhere pressing that he needed to be, and Richie was going to bask in that for as long as he could.
He didn’t know how much time passed before a gentle tapping on the bedroom door roused all three of them from their lazy stupor. He probably should’ve said hi to his mom, probably would’ve been a good son thing to do, but Richie had been so damn content…
But the smudgy blur of a figure in the slowly opening doorway wasn’t his mother.
“Wow, do you two have like, a homing beacon on him? Was he here five whole minutes before you showed up?” Bill Denbrough’s voice asked.
Richie grinned, lifted his arm from around Bev’s waist to hold one hand out to Bill, and was promptly greeted by Bill climbing unceremoniously on top of all three of them.
“Oof, oh my god you’re heavy.”
“That’s my kidney, asshole.”
“You’ve got two of those anyway.”
“I don’t know whose hand is on my ass but he better move it.”
“Richie!” Bill said delightedly, mouth way too close to Richie’s ear. “Welcome home man, we missed you.”
“Hey,” Richie poked a finger into Bev’s back, the only part of her he could reach now that Bill was pinning down his arm. “Which one of them missed me more, Bill or Stan?”
“Stan,” Bev and Bill said in unison, not missing a beat.
“He’s been talking shit about you all week, he was clearly pining,” Bill added. If he lifted his head and twisted his neck Richie could just barely catch the shit-eating grin on Bill’s face, but it was the red flush on Stan’s cheeks that really made him burst out laughing.
“Dude, I missed you too.” Richie was still laughing, but that didn’t quite erase the sincerity from his tone. He scrubbed his hand lightly through the back of Stan’s hair, and Stan grumbled but didn’t actually push Richie away. “Everyone knows you’re my favorite.”
“Yeah, right, Stan’s your favorite.” Bill snorted.
Bev went tense, Richie felt it all the way down the length of his side where they were still pressed together. But Richie was fine, Richie was made for moments like this, sticking his nose into a sudden turn for the awkward.
“Well if you’re jealous, Billy, I’m holding auditions for a new favorite this afternoon.”
Bill smiled, but there was something muted about it, like he realized he’d stepped in it even with Richie’s graceful redirect.
“Breakfast first,” Bill announced, and wow did that get everyone’s attention.
“Breakfast?” Bev perked up, lifting her head up off Richie’s arm for the first time since she got there.
“Mike’s meeting us at the diner in half an hour,” Bill nodded. “Eddie’s rounding up Ben, I had a weird feeling I’d find more than one of you here.”
“There’s that jealousy again, Big Bill,” Richie teased. “Now get the fuck off me, some of us actually like to shower before showing their face in public.”
“Thank God,” Bill quipped back, “you reek.”
“Like your mom’s pussy,” Richie agreed.
They all groaned – Bill the loudest, Stan aiming a weak kick in Richie’s general direction. Richie just beamed and shoved lightly at Bill. There was breakfast in his future, goddammit, and an invigorating need to look as good as he ever did while eating it.
It took some effort for all four of them to get untangled and off the bed, but they eventually managed it without anyone actually bodily falling off. Freshly freed and newly motivated, Richie stumbled blindly toward the bathroom. Stan trailed behind him, carrying a backpack Richie hadn’t even noticed the night before.
“I’m not opposed to sharing the shower with you, but you can’t get mad at me if I get a little handsy.”
“Shut up, Dick,” Stan sighed, shoving Richie through the bathroom doorway. “No one wants to get anywhere near showering with your skinny ass, I’m just brushing my teeth.”
Sometimes, when he was feeling homesick and nostalgic at school, Richie wondered what it would have been like to go to the same college as all of his best friends. Growing up they’d always been in each other’s pockets, running wild through the summers and banded together like a pack through the school year, but they’d always had their own houses to retreat back to at night, their own little bubbles of parents and family dinners and early morning rituals that they didn’t really share. But college, Richie had realized very quickly, eliminated so many of those boundaries. He tried to remember if Stan had ever before felt comfortable enough to follow Richie into the bathroom, to stand at the counter and brush his teeth while Richie burned himself on scalding hot water. To snark loudly about Richie steaming up the mirror but not actually caring enough to leave the bathroom, apparently.
Oh yeah, Stan definitely missed him.
Richie had missed him too. Richie had missed all of them, desperately, but that didn’t stop him from dreading breakfast. Something had been irrevocably changed in the balance and dynamic of their group, even if the rest of them didn’t know it yet. It had been easy to talk to them all one-on-one throughout the semester, but to have everyone together again, for the first time since winter break? Reality would be unavoidable then. The rest of them would notice. Richie had taken his own two hands and done the very thing he’d always been so afraid of – he started the slow, inevitable unraveling of their friendship. And pretty soon the rest of them would know it too.
By the time Richie slid the shower curtain back and stepped out into the admittedly steamy bathroom Stan had changed into a polo and khakis, his hair tamed into something that didn’t look like he’d slept on it for nine hours, and apparently had left the bathroom, just long enough to swap out his backpack for the one Richie himself had forgotten. Thank God for that, honestly – Richie was starting to become acutely aware that his mouth tasted like something had died in it, and he dove for his toothbrush with all the grace and poise of a squirrel.
“So,” Stan said finally, and ah. Richie knew there was a reason he was still there. “This is probably your last chance to talk about it before…”
Before. Before he walked into more jokes like the one Bill had started. Before he was faced with a room full of people who expected another performance of the Richie and Eddie show, all sass all the time. Before he had to sit squished into the same too-small booth as the bitchy little asshole that had stomped on his heart, the fucker.
Richie spat out a mouthful of toothpaste and shrugged. Honestly, what was there to talk about, really?
“Can you pass me my contacts?” he asked instead, gesturing for his backpack. He was trying to study his hair in the still-foggy mirror, but that was way easier said than done. “And there’s a bottle of mousse in there somewhere – yeah that one.”
“Demanding showers, putting mousse in your hair, who are you?” Stan teased, handing over the contacts first. Richie slipped them in easily, blinking until he could finally fucking see something, and then smirked at Stan.
“There’s a time and place for being a hot mess, Stanny,” he said bluntly. He squeezed out just enough mousse to hold his curls without making them look greasy, scraped his foam-covered fingers through his wet hair. “And there’s a time and place for looking as fuckable as you can manage.”
College taught Richie a lot of things, so far. He was taking classes that were stimulating and thought provoking, he met students and professors from all walks of life, laundry was a lot less complicated than he’d been afraid of.
But college also taught Richie a lot about people. Richie had always been a fan of people-watching, had always been in touch with the deep-rooted desire to make people laugh, to lasso their attention and push their buttons. He’d been accused of being oblivious to his effect on people – both positive and negative – but Richie was far from it, really. He knew how to read people, how to interact with them, how to get a reaction out of them – he just had a tendency, when he was younger, to be more interested in poking at the wrong buttons just to see what would explode.
But Richie had spent the last year trying new approaches. For the first time in his life Richie was in a place where nobody knew him, where he didn’t have a reputation for being anything other than an incoming freshman, and that was an opportunity to experiment with using his people skills in a whole new way.
He hadn’t been lying last night when he told Stan he’d been doing just fine with both the guys and the girls at Geneseo.
Richie reached into the backpack Stan was still holding in his lap and pulled out a pair of dark wash jeans and a maroon t-shirt. Stan gaped dramatically.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear solid colors.”
“Time and place, Stanley.”
Both the jeans and the shirt were a little more fitted than was really in style, but Richie had a good friend at school who was a fashion diva and insisted “the slim fit look is coming back, Rich, and you’re going to be ahead of the curve,” right before making him spend way too much money on a single pair of jeans.
At least the jeans did fantastic things to his ass. Richie would take any weapon he could if it added to his arsenal.
“Well?” he said finally, holding up both hands and looking expectantly at Stan. Stan gave him a critical once over, studying the tight line of the t-shirt over Richie’s shoulders, the bizarre illusion that he actually had biceps, the slight curve of the jeans around his hips, until a slow, lascivious smirk spread across Stan’s face.
“Eddie’s going to shit himself,” he said bluntly. “Hell, I’d fuck you.”
Richie beamed. “That, Stanley my love, is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
Mike was the first one to notice them. He yelled Richie’s name across the crowded dinner and Richie couldn’t fight the grin off his face as Mike scrambled out of their booth and ran toward him. It was so fucking good to see them again, to see all of them, God he’d missed his friends so fucking much. He’d forgotten that. That buried underneath the fear and guilt and hurt he’d been stewing in for four months was his deep, unending love for his best friends.
Richie threw his arms out wide and waited for Mike to barrel into him, hugging Richie tight enough to lift him up slightly off the ground. Richie was helpless with laughter as he wrapped his arms around Mike’s shoulders and held on through the bear hug.
Still, Richie could see over Mike to the table behind them, where Eddie sat coughing so hard his face was turning red, a glass of water in front of his mouth like he’d been mid-sip. Like something had startled him into swallowing the wrong way.
Stan slapped Richie’s back lightly, right as Mike put him down again, and slid into the booth after Bill with a loud “geez, Kaspbrak, I thought you’d be better at swallowing than that. No one’s carrying an extra inhaler around for you anymore, you better be careful.”
Goddammit, Richie loved him so fucking much. Eddie Kaspbrak? Who the fuck was he. Stanley Uris was the love of Richie Tozier’s tragic life. A sexual innuendo, an insult, and a subtle dig at the fact that Richie wasn’t sitting around fawning over Eddie anymore. Stan didn’t even know the extent of it, didn’t even know half of it, just knew that Eddie coming home with a boyfriend was going to fuck Richie up, and that was good enough for him.
Richie didn’t deserve Stanley fucking Uris.
And then Ben was sliding out from his seat next to Eddie in the oversized round booth, and Richie was suddenly entirely too busy gaping at him. He detangled himself from Mike with a loud, smacking kiss to his cheek that left Mike laughing, and turned to Ben with his hands held out in a wide ‘what the fuck’ gesture.
“Holy shit, what happened to you? Did you ever actually sleep, or have you just been living inside the gym all year? I bet you have – fuck, you do, look at you!” Richie grabbed at the hem of Ben’s shirt, yanking it up far enough to see a hint of abs defining Ben’s stomach. Ben’s face was bright red, but he didn’t even try to stop Richie, and Richie knew Ben was proud of this. Hell, Richie was so fucking proud of this, proud of Ben for shoving back at his own demons and doing something to make himself feel better about them. God he loved his people. “You look incredible, Haystack, Jesus.”
“Thanks, Richie.” Ben finally swatted Richie’s hand away from his stomach, reaching out instead to pull him in for a hug. “You look pretty good yourself, man.”
“It’s all for you, hot stuff” Richie simpered, patting Ben’s cheek.
But also, at the table behind them, “he looks like he’s been shopping in the kids’ section,” mumbled just loudly enough for Richie and Ben to hear it. Ben gave Richie a sympathetic look as he pulled away, soft and apologetic, and Richie’s good mood soured. If this was how it was going to be from now on, everyone looking all puppy-dog-eyed at Richie every time Eddie so much as breathed in his direction, the scene was going to get old really fucking fast. And that was how it started…he’d start avoiding them, just to avoid the awkwardness, to avoid the tension, to avoid being miserable, and fuck.
In a round booth it was pretty impossible to not be sitting close to someone, and for the better part of their lives Richie had always, always claimed the seat right in the back and center, right next to Eddie, but his sweet beautiful wonderful friends seemed to know better. Bev and Ben sat to one side of Eddie, Mike, Stan, and Bill blocking him in on the other. Richie slipped into the empty end seat next to Ben and hid his gratitude behind a too-bright smile.
“So,” he clapped his hands together and put on his Radio Host Voice, the one that never failed to get the attention of the room. “Who has gossip? Life updates. Ridiculous college stories. If it doesn’t end with you shirtless and passed out under a stranger’s bed then it’s not worth telling, but I probably want to hear it anyway. Who’s going first?”
“Well, I’ve kind of been seeing this girl,” Stan said, all matter-of-factly. Richie gaped across the table at him.
“Stanley! You don’t spend the night with a man and then wait ‘til morning to break his heart! Jesus, how long you been sleeping on that one!?”
Eddie, from the sound of it, was having trouble with his water again. Richie didn’t bother looking at him.
“Wow guys, already having sleepovers without us? I was kidding about it taking you five minutes to be reattached at the hip,” Bill chimed in.
“Bill,” Richie said earnestly, “Stan was already at my house when I got home. He was waiting for me.”
“I was just –”
“Pining,” Bill and Bev said in unison.
“My favorite,” Richie cooed simultaneously.
“I hate you all,” Stan said sulkily, as the rest of the table laughed.
“Someone pinch his cheeks for me, I can’t reach,” Richie begged, reaching across the table without coming anywhere close to Stan’s face. Bill, bless his heart, happily complied.
“Get a room,” Eddie grumbled. Richie ignored him.
“So, tell us more,” Ben said loudly, cutting over Eddie. “What’s the story?”
“Not really much of a story,” Stan shrugged. “We only went out like twice before the semester ended, nothing too serious. I guess we’ll see what happens when the semester starts up again, go from there.”
“Good for you, man.” Mike nudged his shoulder into Stan’s, looking so earnest that it broke Richie’s heart a little bit. “I hope it works out.”
“What about you?” Richie threw Mike a pointed look, nodding at him. “Any beautiful women stumble your way recently?”
“Hell no,” Mike laughed, shaking his head with a self-deprecating smile on his face. “Besides, why are you even asking me when you’re sitting next to all that glory?” He waved one hand at Ben’s newly-honed everything.
“Yeah!” Bill chimed in. “You must be beating them off with a stick.”
“Beep beep, all of you,” Ben sighed, much to the delight of the rest of the table. “Not even close. I had to declare my major this semester, which means I spent pretty much all of my time at the library or the gym. Not much of a social life in either of those places.”
“You’re going to the wrong school then, man,” Richie laughed. “The Milne is the place to be on Sundays.”
“More importantly,” Bev jumped in, leaning in toward Ben, “what did you declare?”
“It might be crazy,” Ben said with a shrug, his face turning red again. “I don’t know. Remember that time we built that clubhouse, back when we were kids? I just, I was thinking about that, and…well, engineering.”
“I think you’ll be amazing at it,” Bev said firmly, wrapping an arm around Ben’s shoulders and giving him a little sideways hug that, Richie assumed, probably made Ben’s entire day.
“My boyfriend’s an engineering major,” Eddie added. “It seems like a ton of work, but he says it’s really interesting, so as long as you like it that’s what matters.”
There was a pause, just on the awkward side of too long, where no one said anything. It took Richie a beat to realize that it was because everyone – sans Eddie – was looking at him. No…no, even Eddie was looking at him. Not quite directly at him, not in a way that would result in accidental eye contact, but close enough that Eddie would be able to gauge Richie’s reaction.
“I fucked an engineer this semester,” Richie said nonchalantly. He took a sip from his water glass, raised an eyebrow at Stan across the table. “Sound engineer though, not the kind that builds clubhouses. He works at the radio station with me, actually.”
“Was that the one I met at that mixer?” Bill asked.
“Oh yeah!” Richie grinned. He and Bill had done some damage the weekend Bill came to visit – it had been wild and debaucherous in the way that only college freshmen could be, and they had fucking reveled in it. “Yeah, like two weeks after you came up to visit.”
“He was hot,” Bill mused, nodding thoughtfully. “I’ll allow it.”
“Thanks, Big Bill,” Richie laughed. “He’s dating my friend Amanda now, but I’m still glad you approve.”
“Didn’t you hook up with your friend Amanda?” Bev asked, leaning around Ben to give Richie a capital-L Look.
“What can I say, she was pretty hot too, right Bill?”
Bill shrugged, smiling sheepishly, and most of the table laughed.
“Wow, we’re so proud of your sluttiness,” Eddie snarled.
“Jealous?” Stan asked, a perfectly mild expression on his face as he glanced over at Eddie. He let it settle in the air, just for a second, before adding. “I mean, the grass must look greener on the other side of the fence when you don’t get to play the field.”
Stanley fucking Uris.
“At least I’m getting some regularly,” Eddie shot back, even as he blushed a deep, telling red. “I’m sure you and your two dates didn’t get all that far, must have been a pretty dry semester for you.”
“Pretty dry semester for all of us,” Bill cut in, shooting Stan a look out of the corner of his eye. “Remember when we were all here last summer talking about how college was going to be the dream, the escape from loserdom and the land of sexual freedom and God knows what else we thought was possible?”
“Speak for yourself, Bill,” Mike said wryly, “Derry’s still just as Derry as it was before you all left.”
Everyone laughed, but there was an extra strain of tension in it that hadn’t been there before. Mike stayed in Derry voluntarily and eagerly, made it more than abundantly clear that he was happy taking correspondence classes while working on his family’s – his, really, by now – farm. But there was still something weird in knowing that Mike stayed, something that made it feel more like they’d abandoned him than like they’d all naturally just gone their separate ways.
“You gotta come visit, next semester,” Richie said loudly, reaching around the gap in the bench to clap Mike on the shoulder. “I’ll bring you to a party, you’ll meet more people in one night than you’ve met this year. And the girls, Mikey, you’re going to love them.”
“Oh yeah, upstate New York ladies,” Stan scoffed. “Come to Georgia, all of you. We’ll show you some good old Southern hospitality.”
“Who’s we, you’re still from Maine,” Ben teased, grinning. “They remind me of that every single day in Texas.”
“Oh my god, guys, who cares,” Bev sighed dramatically. “Sorry Ben, not you. I mean, there are hot girls everywhere. None of you are special. Hot guys, too,” she added, cutting Richie off with a knowing look before he could say anything. “Tell me about your actual lives, not your fantasy sex lives. Or, at the very least, order your damn breakfast, Brenda’s waiting.”
She was. But Brenda was always their waitress, and Brenda was one of the few adults in Derry that didn’t look like the very life and soul had been sucked out of her. She loved the little gang of losers that had been camping out in her diner since middle school, wasted a good few minutes pinching Richie’s cheeks and scolding him and Ben both for not eating enough, poking at Stan’s mystery date until he coughed up a few more facts. When she left to put their orders in Richie felt like he could choke on his nostalgia for Derry, his affection and warmth and love for this stupid town. He leaned into Ben’s side and started shooting question after question at him, coaxing out more details about the engineering degree, what Ben thought he might concentrate in, what that meant for his life after undergrad.
Ben, after a few false starts that seemed to hinge more on embarrassment than unwillingness to share, slowly started giving Richie more and more detailed answers. He sounded happy, he sounded like he was really excited and enthusiastic and confident in a way he so often wasn’t, and Richie was so proud of him.
Except theirs wasn’t the only conversation at the round table, and Richie couldn’t filter out the other one. Couldn’t stop himself from hearing Eddie’s voice, the smooth, warm way he said my boyfriend, laced with affection and just a hint of smugness. “My boyfriend and I go into the city sometimes, you should come down and visit one weekend, Bill.” “You should go see Toy Story for sure, Stan, I think you’d like it. My boyfriend wasn’t so sure about seeing a ‘kids movie’ but I wanted to see it so badly he gave in and he loved it. It’s so good, honest.” “Staten Island’s alright, but I’m not really sure about it. My boyfriend says it’s a man-made island, built on a dump. I’m living on garbage, can you guys even believe that?”
(Richie could, and in a different life Richie would be halfway across the table at that news, laughing his ass off about Trashmouth and Eddie the Garbage Man. But they didn’t live in that life, not anymore, now they were here.)
Here, where Richie tried so desperately to listen to Ben talk about the difference between mechanical and industrial engineering and the merits of both concentrations. He tried, he asked questions and stared intently at Ben’s face and nodded along to the answers, but the voice in his head was just Eddie Eddie Eddie and his fucking trash-pile city-living movie-loving boyfriend.
And when Bev leaned in to catch Ben’s attention and lead him her way, a question and a nudge about post–graduate education and would he ever consider the Midwest, what about Chicago – that was worse. That was worse than feeling bad for not listening to Ben, because now Richie had nothing, no distractions, no outlets, nothing to focus on but the tear in his lungs that made it hard to breathe every time Eddie said “My boyfriend and I were at – ”
“Damn, does the poor guy have a name or do you even call him My Boyfriend when he’s fucking you?”
Eddie turned on a dime, like Richie knew he would, but the vitriol he’d been expecting wasn’t there beyond the angry flash of Eddie’s eyes. No, instead Eddie looked indifferent, like Richie was nothing more than an acquaintance at a party, buzzing around the edge of a conversation and throwing in a comment where he didn’t quite fit. Annoying, maybe, but ultimately insignificant. Richie had been doing his level best to ignore Eddie since he’d walked in the door, sure, but Eddie had been snide and nasty in a way Richie sure as fuck didn’t deserve. Richie was entitled to one good jab, thank you very much, and Eddie could have the goddamn decency to look affected by it.
“Don’t worry, Miles rolls off the tongue just fine when I’m moaning it,” Eddie said sweetly.
He didn’t bother waiting for a response, just turned back toward Bill like nothing had happened. Like Bill wasn’t staring at Eddie, like Bev wasn’t gaping open-mouthed at Ben. But Richie was ready for this, Richie had been waiting for this, and he didn’t miss a goddamn beat when he snapped back.
“Well, I suppose that’s better than Eddie!” Richie let his voice go high and tight and whiny, a better impression of Mrs. Kaspbrak than he’d ever managed before in his life. It might’ve been a joke, in another time, except for the bite in Richie’s voice as he spit the words out.
“At least he knows my name, gives him a leg up over you.”
In a better time, a better tone, a place less stifled with tension and apprehension radiating from every corner, Richie would’ve taken that and run with it. Deep in a humid, late-night house party or the dark back corner of a bar Richie would’ve smirked, leaned in close enough to whisper directly into the shell of Eddie’s ear that he’d be happy to let Eddie get a leg up on him, give them both a chance to prove that Richie definitely knew Eddie’s name. Hell, a year ago in this very same diner Richie might’ve done the same, blown Eddie a kiss and a wink across the booth and delighted in the way Eddie’s cheeks turned pink.
But now in the middle of a crowded diner, where the lights were suddenly too bright and the pressure in the room could crush a lesser group of people, things were different. Where Ben was shifting uncomfortably and Mike was focused on the salt shaker like he could disappear into it if he tried hard enough, Stan was staring daggers through the side of Eddie’s head and Bill and Beverly still hadn’t moved. Now things had changed.
And Richie couldn’t shake the memory, hazy with alcohol and sleeplessness, deep on the wrong side of midnight, of running his hand down Eddie’s side and his lips up Eddie’s throat, pressing the word Eddie, Eddie, Eddie over and over into Eddie’s skin. Of Eddie tightening his grip in Richie’s hair and whispering fuck, Richie back.
“Yeah, you know what,” Richie stood up, fished into his too-tight back pocket for his wallet, “I’m not really hungry, and I still have to unpack my car.” He threw a handful of cash on the table, more than enough to cover the breakfast platter that he hadn’t even been served yet. “Let me know what the plan is for later, I’ll meet up with you guys.”
He walked away calmly. Didn’t storm off or make a scene of it, tried not to look too much like he was running away. He wasn’t running away, just refused to sit slowly suffocating at that table for another minute longer than necessary. Richie didn’t deserve that, and his friends didn’t deserve that, and even Eddie, really, didn’t deserve that. He had made his choice and that was fine, and Richie had had four whole months to get over that mistake.
“What the fuck, Eddie?” he heard Mike hiss, snappy and sharp. Richie shoved the door open a little harder than necessary, gave in to the urge to bolt outside before he could hear anything else. Mike didn’t get angry, Mike didn’t get involved – Richie didn’t want to be around to hear that fiasco. Didn’t want to feel guilt – fucking guilt, why should he feel guilty – in the sunken depths of his stomach.
Goddammit, he really was so fucking hungry. He still had that sandwich from last night but damn had he been looking forward to those pancakes. Richie wondered if Stan loved him enough to bring a to go box of his breakfast back to the Tozier house. Maybe not on a regular day, but overprotective asshole Stan had clearly been at play since the minute Richie got home, so maybe. Maybe they could sit on his bed and shovel bacon into their mouths (because kosher Stanley only existed at home) and pretend life outside his bedroom didn’t exist.
Richie stopped walking. He didn’t turn around – he didn’t need to, he’d know that voice if it uttered one single word in a sold-out football stadium. Instead he just scrubbed the heel of his hand over his brow, closed his suddenly burning eyes, and waited for Eddie to catch up to him.
“Why are you walking?”
Richie’s eyes snapped open. He stared at Eddie, incredulous, and watched him shrug with something between defiance and indifference. Really? That was how Eddie wanted to kick off this conversation, with questions about his transportation options? What was next, were they going to talk about the weather?
“No car,” Richie said, forcing himself to sound calm, casual. Indifferent. “Bill drove us here.”
“Right,” Eddie nodded. “Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
“I’m good,” Richie shrugged. “Go back inside.”
“And face Mike again?” Eddie said wryly, the first sign of actual emotion cracking the mask of his indifference. “No thanks. My car’s over here.”
“No really, I’m good.”
“It’s four miles back to your house.” Eddie sounded exasperated, a little frustrated. Richie more than understood those particular feelings right now.
“I could use the walk,” he said shortly.
Eddie huffed out a breath, and for a second it was like nothing had changed. Like it was just them as they’d always been after a meaningless fight, Richie being stupid and stubborn, Eddie hiding his guilt behind indifference, both of them pushing closer and closer to cracking a joke until finally one of them broke the tension in the air and everything went from bitter to beautiful again.
But that wasn’t true, not like this. Neither one of them was coming back from this with a few well-timed eye rolls and a twist of self-deprecating humor.
“Look, I’m sorry about what I said, okay? Just get in the car, Richie, we should–”
“How long have you and what’s his name been seeing each other?” Richie asked suddenly, and it was one of those questions. One of those times when Richie’s subconscious was faster than the rest of him, when thoughts came out of his mouth that he hadn’t even processed yet. He thought he’d gotten better at that, at filtering himself and reigning in that childish impulse and using his fucking brain every now and then, but Eddie always did bring out the worst in him.
“How long?” It was the hesitation that made Richie’s blood run cold, that made him suddenly, acutely aware of why he was asking and how much he wasn’t going to like the answer.
“It’s complicated.” Eddie said cautiously. Elusive and sly, the aggression suddenly gone from his tone. Richie didn’t recognize him. His Eddie was snappy and biting, kept Richie on his toes with every comeback fired off as good as Richie gave, friendly or otherwise.
“Well, I know I’m pretty stupid, but if you use small words and talk slow I might be able to understand it,” Richie said, patience running thin. It didn’t matter, it was a moot point by now – he already had all the answer that mattered.
Eddie closed his eyes for a beat longer than a blink, visibly composing himself before meeting Richie’s glare head on and admitting “technically since Thanksgiving.”
“But it wasn’t like that, though,” he added quickly. “Not then, it wasn’t. We weren’t anything official until…”
“Aw, wait, let me guess,” Richie jumped in. All the hurt he’d been marinating in was melting into something else, crystalizing into something harsher, harder. “You went home for winter break, made a drunken mistake or two, and that’s what made you realize your feelings for him. Oh my god, how sweet,” he cooed, vitriol like venom in his voice, bitter and sharp. “Don’t forget to invite me to the wedding, I can give a great speech about the time you cheated on him with me and that’s what convinced you of your one true love.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake Richie,” Eddie snapped, finally squaring up into fighting stance, “I just said it wasn’t – I didn’t cheat on him –”
“No?” Richie shook his head, “then what, it really was just me that was the mistake?”
Eddie deflated like an old balloon. And that, really, was the crux of it, wasn’t it? At the end of the day it didn’t matter whether or not Eddie had a boyfriend. What mattered was that Richie wanted Eddie, Richie wanted him, and Eddie wasn’t ever going to want Richie back.
“It wasn’t...I didn’t mean…” Eddie sounded helpless, sounded speechless, tripping over himself as the fight went out of him as quickly as it came.
“It wasn’t what?” Richie spat, voice breaking with his newfound anger and the hurt he’d so desperately been trying to hide. “It wasn’t what?”
But Eddie just shook his head. He didn’t know, or he didn’t know how to say it, or he didn’t want to hurt Richie, or whatever who fucking cared anymore. Richie didn’t care. That was for fucking sure. He took a deep breath, willed the bite and bark out of his voice, wet his lips thoughtfully before finally opening his mouth again.
“I don’t know what you expected to happen here,” he said carefully. A little coldly, maybe, but not cruelly. “I don’t know if you thought that we’d come home again and things would just go back to normal, that you’d snark at me and I’d tease you back and we’d pretend that nothing ever happened. I don’t know how you thought I’d take the boyfriend bomb, or if you even thought about it at all, who fucking knows you probably didn’t."
Eddie made a noise, not quite a protest and quiet enough that it didn’t really interrupt. Richie ignored him. Pulled himself together just a little bit – literally, drew himself up to his full height, back straight and shoulders square, looked down on Eddie in every way possible.
“I’ll tell you what is going to happen here,” he continued. “You’re going to go back inside. Tell Mike we’re fine, everything’s cool. Or avoid him, get in your car, go home. I don’t really care. And when it comes down to it, we’ll be civil. Fine. We’re not going to be dicks that put our friends in the shitty position of having to choose between us. But you were right.”
“It wasn’t –”
“No, it was.” Richie cut Eddie off. His voice was soft – softer than he would have expected it to be, softer maybe than it had ever been before. Soft and quiet and deadly calm. “It was a mistake. And I don’t know if I can just pretend it never happened. So I’m going to go. And you’re going to leave me the fuck alone.”
“Don’t you think maybe we should talk about it?” Eddie asked, a little desperately. “You just left, you didn’t even tell anyone you were leaving. I haven’t seen you in months, we should talk about it.”
“Honestly?” Richie laughed, a hoarse, hollow little sound that sounded achingly bitter even to him. “I’d rather never talk to you again.”
And Eddie just…stood there. Just stood there and took it, nodded slightly and made absolutely no other move. So Richie nodded too. Just once. Nodded once and then turned around pointedly and didn’t look back. Just left Eddie standing outside the diner, silent and staring, as the threads that had always bound them together snapped and broke with every step Richie took.
Peel your skin back to show what you're made of;
Too bad you never did have the guts to know where your heart should go.
There is a playlist for Winterbreak - if you'd like to listen to the whole thing all at once, you can find it here. If you'd like to listen chapter by chapter, the chapter 1 playlist is here. I'm mostly a lurker on tumblr these days, but if you'd like to pick my brain about my very firm and utterly baseless headcanons about Richie Tozier you can find me here.