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when being buried i'd prefer he be the dirt

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i.

Mike drives all the way out to him. He’s not the first face Stanley sees when he wakes up but he’s the first to make Stanley realize what he’s done, what he’s tried to do. His wrists are bandaged up and he can’t yet admit to himself what this reminds him of.

“Stanley,” Mike says, he’s standing at the very edge of the hospital bed. He looks too tall, and out of place, and like he knows, better than anyone else, why Stanley is here.

Everyone’s expecting him to offer an explanation but there’s nothing he can say that hasn’t already been said. He’s only been out of Derry for a few years and it’s already gotten to him. He was never meant to live without them. Something scary about the way the nurses treat him, like this isn’t a big thing, like they’re not surprised. They kept asking if this was the first time and not if it would be the last. Stanley couldn’t give a real answer to them and he can’t give a real answer to the question Mike’s hidden in the way he says his name.

“I miss you,” he manages once the silence has gone on too long. He wants to, and doesn’t, ask Mike to move closer. He wants to know about the drive there, about the others, he wants to beg Mike not to leave him again but he’s done that before and it hadn’t helped.

Later he will no longer remember if Mike had said it back but he drove all the way out there, so it doesn’t matter if he had put it into words.

ii.

Richie shows up the same day they discharge him. He pretends not to recognize Stanley and then knocks the wind out of him when he promises he won’t break if Richie hugs him.

“You,” he goes, pointing at Mike. “I have beef with. You should have called me sooner.” Mike’s unpacking his bag in Stanley’s living room and he doesn’t turn to look at Richie as he answers:

“I didn’t know if Stanley wanted to see you guys,” which all three of them recognize as a lie. He didn’t know if Stanley wanted them to see him like this, and Stanley hadn’t known either. He doesn’t mind now but Richie’s always had this effect on him, he’ll remember his reasons the moment he’s left alone.

They make home in his living room before he can even ask them if they’re staying. Richie’s brought an inflatable mattress that he drags to Stanley’s bedroom and he makes Mike play rock, paper, scissors for the couch.

They watch tv with Stanley sandwiched between them. His body, and their bodies, and his hands in theirs, and their voices, surrounding him. They order take out and dangle it dangerously over his expensive table, laugh when Stanley pushes Richie’s heels off of the couch.

When he wakes up in the middle of the night, suffocating from the idea of being forgotten, Mike’s already sitting on the corner of his bed, pulling Stanley into his arms. He doesn’t remind Stanley that he’s still there, that they’re okay, that he hasn’t left yet, that both Richie and he have decided to stay as long as it takes, but he matches Stanley’s breathing, holds Stanley’s wrists both gently and like he never plans to let go.

iii.

Beverly’s next to Mike at his kitchen table when Stanley walks out to make coffee. She looks like she might cry if he moves too suddenly or says the wrong thing.

“If you cry, I’ll cry,” he warns and grins when she jumps up to throw her arms around him.

“I’ll cry if I so please, Uris,” she tells him after pulling away, voice too stern for the smile on her face when she’s looking at him.

“Okay, Marsh,” he mimics and she pulls him in again, holds him tighter than the other two have dared the entire time they’ve been with him. “You’ll break my ribs,” he complains and Beverly doesn’t ease up in the slightest.

“I’m happy you’re here,” she says and he knows what she means, of course he does. Feels the need to apologize but fears ruining the moment.

Eventually, Mike clears his throat, gestures at coffee going cold on the table. Beverly lets go of him but moves to sit so their knees are touching under the table. Mike pulls her into a conversation about work to save Stanley from having to come up with safe topics. He still remembers how Stanley takes his coffee.

iv.

Ben shows up right after, carrying a sweater Beverly had left in the car. He’d gone to book a hotel and Beverly had insisted on waiting for Stanley to wake up. Ben presses his cheek against the top of Stanley’s spine.

“Hear my heart from there?” Stanley jokes, puts his coffee back down because he doesn’t want to move too much with Ben pressed to him.

“I hear your heart all the way from Nebraska,” Ben answers, no joke behind it. It hangs, for a moment, as they all think about the implications of that. Stanley wants, desperately, to reach out and touch Ben, but he’s still too afraid to move.

Leave it to Ben to know exactly what to say to make it dawn on Stanley just how much it would affect them, too, had he left them because he was afraid they were going to leave him. Had already left him. Had abandoned memories of him back in Derry, like the moving boxes couldn’t fit him. He can’t tell if his wrists are itching or hurting, if he can feel them at all. His hands around the coffee mug. Mike is watching him from across the table. Mike knows exactly what he’s thinking about, how could he not. Beverly shifts to rest her head on his shoulder. His body, and their bodies, together, again.

They let him slip away once the coffee’s gone cold, once his heart has stopped thundering like it wants to jump out of the prison cell of his chest.

He promises to go get dinner with them. He can’t get his bandages wet so he kneels in front of his tub as Mike washes his hair. He hadn’t asked if Stanley wanted to get in and Stanley doesn’t wonder who had washed his blood out after. He thinks of his childhood, of his mother’s fingers as gentle in his curls as Mike’s are now. Richie’s already left his shampoo in Stanley’s bathroom. It hasn’t changed since the last time they saw each other. It still smells like citrus. Mike reaches for it without being asked to. The sound of the water running and then the smell of his best friend’s shampoo. It’s all too familiar. Mike had put down a towel for Stanley to kneel on. It’s all too familiar.

v.

Bill calls because he can’t find Stanley’s building, because there’s no parking, because there’s something he fears about coming up there and seeing them again. Instead, he asks Stanley to come down, opens the passenger side door for him. They drive in silence until Stanley can no longer tell if his building is west or east of them and then he starts crying.

“I’m sorry, Bill,” he manages though he feels breathless and sick and Bill moves one of his hands away from the wheel to hold Stanley’s. “Don’t,” he says because it’s an easy way to go back to when they were teenagers, when Bill would drive him to school in a car much worse than the one he’s driving now but a car that Stanley will always remember fondly. “Hands on the wheel, Bill.”

Bill starts laughing. It should be insensitive, and ugly, but it’s the most beautiful sound Stanley has heard all year.

“Y-you haven’t c-changed, Stan,” Bill says, he sounds just as fond as he did when they were kids. He sounds happy in a way that should scare Stanley and doesn’t. He wipes his tears away. He breathes in. He regrets, a little, making Bill let go of his hand.

“Will you stay?” he asks because he’s been too afraid to ask the others but this is Bill.

“Of course,” Bill answers. No hesitation. No stutter. He reaches out to hold Stanley’s hand again when they stop at a red light.

He drives them back. He pushes Richie off of the couch to make room for the others, not himself. He’s brought them gifts, of course, that’s the kind of person he is. He’s brought Stanley a sweater that Stanley recognizes, remembers, he’d worn it so many times when they’d go out and he would forget to bring one. It smells like home, which is to say it smells like Bill and the rest of them too, somehow, even though it’s been years. Bill has always brought comfort like no one else could. Mike looks at the book Bill got him and puts it in Stanley’s bookcase, right where it’s supposed to be, alphabetized, like it’s there to stay. Like he’s there to stay, too.

vi.

Eddie shows up in the middle of the afternoon and insists on rebandaging Stanley’s wrists. He’s late. Richie tells him as much, repeats it over and over the entire day, like it’s somehow hurt him more than it has Stanley. As if Stanley could be hurt by Eddie in the first place. He’s here now, they’re all here now, it’s all that matters. Stanley’s universe, once the size of Derry, now finds itself confined to his living room. Falls together.

Eddie cleans his wrists right there on the couch. He curses under his breath when he takes off the old bandages and Stanley’s heartbeat picks up. They’re all watching. This is him, in all of his messy glory, every inch summarised in the scarring on his wrists. His vulnerability and fears materialized into two ugly scabs. This is him, this is the most of himself that he has shown them, or anyone, since he was thirteen.

They shift all at once, like tectonic plates going backwards, they all find ways to be touching Stanley, they’re changing the foundation of his world again, they’re all here. The sensation of his own body weighing him down returns, his own shaking voice echoes back, he had once yelled at them for leaving him and this time he can barely manage a whisper. He pleads with everything he has, which isn’t much once you take them out of the equation:

“Don’t leave,” again. “Don’t leave me.”

None of them answer, or maybe all of them do. Eddie continues cleaning and rebandaging his cuts.

“No more of these,” Eddie says, not just to him. Not just about the ones on his wrists. They’re too young to have collected so many. They’re too young.

He falls asleep on the couch before any of them have even tried to go back to their hotels and wakes up because Richie’s fingers are raking through his hair, because he’s warm next to him, because he feels well rested, because he dreams only of good things now.

“Not that I mind sleeping in your bed while you take the couch,” Richie’s saying, softly, almost unlike himself “but you’ll thank me in the morning.”

They carry him to bed. Mike carries him to bed. Mike stays when Stanley refuses to let go of him, although the mattress is right there, although the bed is too small, although he’s done enough just by showing up in the first place. Stanley thinks about seeing him in the hospital back then and pulls him down next to himself. He doesn’t ask Mike to stay but he doesn’t need to at this point. He drifts off again. He’s warm, he’s safe, he’s with them. He’s in the arms of home.

vii.

His kitchen’s too small to fit all of them at once but that could never stop them. Stanley wakes up to laughter and the smell breakfast, they’re always there before him. He stays in bed listening to the sounds of everything being okay again.

He watches them fill up spaces that were never meant to be empty. He says, over and over:

“I love you,” and gets it back just the same.

When he walks out into the living room, Mike’s reading something on the couch. He looks, achingly, like he belongs there. Like this is as much his place as it is Stanley’s. Which maybe that’s true, maybe everything he owns is theirs just the same and yet this feels different somehow.

“Thank you,” he says. He’s leaning against the wall, his eyes fixed on Mike. Bill and Eddie are arguing about something in the kitchen. The others are out buying groceries. It’s any day now that they’ll have to go back to their lives. They’ve been stalling, he can tell, but they cannot stay forever. Mike turns to look at him, something like surprise on his face. “I didn’t know if you’d show up when I told the nurses to call you,” he admits and moves to sit next to Mike.

“Why wouldn’t I have showed up, Stan?” Mike asks. He sounds almost hurt in a way that doesn’t fit him, rests his palm on Stanley’s knee, squeezes it.

“I was afraid you had better things to do than come take care of me,” it’s a confession of sorts. He wouldn’t have called anyone else if Mike hadn’t come to him.

“There’s no better than you,” he sounds like he’s making a confession of his own, he’s turned to face Stanley but Stanley cannot look at him just yet.

“I want you to stay. Not just in my life, but here. With me,” he should have said this years ago but he’s always feared that-

“Okay,” Mike answers. It sounds like he’s exhaling, like he’s smiling, like he knew this would happen, like he’s been waiting for Stanley.

“Okay?” Stanley asks, to make sure that the smile that’s climbing up his face is not for nothing. The moment he turns to look at Mike, Mike kisses him. Hands on Stanley’s face, no longer as gentle as they had been the entire time he was here. Like he no longer fears that Stanley is fragile, like this is different and about something else completely, like it’s been a long time coming. Stanley kisses back with everything he has, shifts to get a better angle, clings onto Mike’s shirt to make sure he doesn’t pull away. As if he would, as if he didn’t just agree to living with Stanley. As if he didn’t just kiss him, kiss him, kiss him.

Later, Richie holds Stanley by the back of his neck, presses their foreheads together and says:

“Promise you’ll call us before you do something stupid next time.”

Surrounded by everything he has ever loved, Stanley thinks there will never be a next time but he promises nonetheless.