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Eddie has a problem.

That’s not quite true—Eddie has several problems, a list of them even, except his therapist doesn’t love when he refers to them en masse as problems. She prefers words like barriers or roadblocks or prefers to give a name to the particular problem rather than waving her hand over a series of his various neuroses from four decades of a hellish life and calling them problems generally, which is Eddie’s preference.

Lucky for her, this problem does have a particular name. He can identify the problem, isolate the source, trace its roots. He can parse out why it makes him feel the way it does. He can even start workshopping early approaches to manage (not eliminate, god he fucking wishes) the problem. His problem is, and has always been, Richie fucking Tozier.

Recently, the problem is that he wants to kiss Richie more than he thinks he has ever wanted anything and it’s really starting to interfere with his day-to-day life.

It’s not a new problem, not exactly. He spent most of his teenage years in between being deeply traumatized by local bullies, his mother, and the fucking clown, wanting to kiss Richie Tozier. It wasn’t so much a problem then as it was an itch at the back of his mind, something he ignored at every possible moment until Richie did something stupid, like throw rocks at Eddie’s window until his mother came to the door to yell at him, or like argue with their English teacher about things that weren’t in the curriculum, or like that one time he was hospitalized for breaking his hand on the face of a bully who shoved Eddie against a locker. Stupid in that he shouldn’t have done those things, sure, but mostly stupid in the way that it made it impossible for Eddie to ignore how he felt when he was trying very, very hard not to feel that way.

It was fine when he was a teenager, or as fine as wanting to kiss your best friend could be. It was so far out of the range of things Eddie would have ever dared to do that it was just an aching sort of fantasy rather than any sort of actionable idea.

Then he had some twenty-odd years in which he forgot Richie, which took some of the pressure off wanting to kiss him—hard to fantasize about someone you couldn’t remember! Unfortunately, he found himself instead spending far too much time thinking about kissing some shitty fucking blue comedian whose drivel only played late at night and whose only ounce of charm came from the occasional interview where he was marginally less shitty than he was in his stand up.

Then he came back to Derry and he was slapped with the realization that he has spent the better part of three decades wanting to kiss Richie and that even stupid fucking Derry clown magic couldn’t make him forget that. Even in Derry it wasn’t really a problem, because he was married and there was the whole fucking clown problem and, well, Richie was “straight”.

Things really started to get dicey somewhere between surviving Derry, coming out to the losers only moments after Richie did the same, divorcing his wife, moving across the country to live with Richie, and today, in their kitchen, with Richie cooking chocolate chip pancakes with the chips arranged to look like various emoji faces while Eddie sits up on the kitchen island.

“These ones are going to look like you,” Richie insists, pouring the (egg and dairy free!) batter onto the stovetop griddle he whips out at every opportunity. Today the opportunity was him popping his head into Eddie’s room before he was even fucking awake to say pancakes? in a way that was less of a question and more of a plea.

“If you make it the fucking doe eyes emoji I’m throwing it in the trash.”

“But that’s the one that looks the most like you,” Richie whines, peering at his phone. He has a series of emojis typed out in the notes app for reference. No one could ever accuse him of not being committed to the bit.

“Yeah? Well, you look the most like the fucking nerd emoji and I don’t see you making one of those.”

Yet. Next round. Yours first, because you’re a bitch before you’ve eaten.”

“Am not,” Eddie says, voice bordering on petulant. He decides not to reflect on how he proves Richie’s point.

He watches as Richie carefully places chocolate chips on the first pancake, making eyes with a few clustered chips, then dropping them in a straight line for a mouth. He moves onto the second pancake, nearly identical, but the corner of the mouth is upturned in a smirk. The third pancake has eyebrows that are exaggeratedly large. He adds a fourth pancake, a bare one, that he calls a snack-cake.

“Why wouldn’t you just distribute the chips evenly throughout the batter? That eyebrow one is going to taste like shit.”

Richie waves his spatula in the air in a showy little twirl before flipping the first pancake. “That’s where you’re wrong, Eddie my love. That will be the best pancake because it has the most chocolate.”

“If I wanted to eat a handful of chocolate chips I would have just done that.”

“I dare you to eat a handful of chocolate chips,” Richie says, pushing the glass jar across the island with his elbow. Eddie has to dart a hand out to stop it from sliding off the side.

“I just said I didn’t want to.”

“Yeah, I heard ya, and I’m daring you to,” Richie says with a grin, flipping the offending eyebrow pancake over. They’re all a pleasant, golden brown that makes Eddie furious. It’s really not fair that Richie can cook, let alone cook well.

“I’m not going to do it.”

“Coward,” Richie says, dipping his hand into the jar and shovelling chocolate chips into his mouth.

Eddie thinks that maybe, maybe Richie was born, but that it is far more likely he was designed in a lab by someone who thought it would be funny to create a human being whose every quality is perfectly aligned to make Eddie want to impress him, goad him, or kiss him. That is to say, all it takes is the barest glint of a challenge and Richie’s insistence on one-upping him to make Eddie reach into the jar and shove a handful of chocolate chips into his own mouth.

Richie grins at him, teeth covered in chocolate, disgusting, and Eddie wants to kiss him more.

“I’m not eating the fucking eyebrow pancake,” Eddie says after swallowing the last bit of chocolate, his mouth left pleasantly sweet and his throat a little dry.

“Okay,” Richie says easily. He reaches for the snack-cake.

He eats pancakes like a fucking insane person, pulling them off the griddle with his fingers, burning himself, dipping them in a small bowl of syrup he just pours out with 100% Canadian Maple Syrup, Eds, you can taste the Canadian! and shovelling them into his mouth like he’s eating a fucking poptart. The syrup drips down his chin and he leaves chocolate smudges on the corner of his mouth. He licks his lips exaggeratedly when Eddie points it out and still misses it. If Eddie doesn’t kiss him, he might murder him.


There’s a thought.

See, Eddie wants to kiss him so badly that sometimes Richie will be sitting on the couch laughing too hard at a line in a movie and Eddie catches himself leaning closer. He wants to kiss him so badly that sometimes his hands shake at his side at the sheer force required not to reach out and touch him. He wants more than that, of course. He’s no blushing maiden. He has spent the last five months living together imagining every possible way their bodies could fit together.

Most days, however, he thinks he would be content if he could just lean up and close the distance between them in the mornings in the kitchen, or out by the pool on warm afternoons, or curled onto the couch together in the evenings.

It’s the closeness he craves, as much as anything. And he’s an adult with self-control so he’s not about to press Richie up against the kitchen counter no matter how much his hands shake or how hard his heart beats in his chest, but it might be nice to take the edge off a bit.

He leaps down off the island and turns to face Richie. Richie’s eyes dart to him, but he doesn’t turn around, still flipping the pancakes off the griddle. They have, tragically, turned out to be excellent imitations of the emojis that very much do not look like Eddie.

“Success! Success!” Richie crows, turning to face Eddie. He’s beaming now, chocolate still smudged on his face, and waving the spatula to punctuate every word. “They look just like you. The perfect amount of grump, I daresay. I gotta take a photo and—”

It’s a cold day, as cold as days get in LA in early December, which means that Richie has jazzed up his usual, torturous outfit combo of a threadbare t-shirt and boxer briefs by still refusing to wear pants but adding a University of Chicago sweater into the mix.

It’s a soft sweater, Eddie discovers quickly, when he buries his face into Richie’s shoulder and slides his arms around his back. It is the kind of soft sweaters get when they’ve been washed a few too many times. It’s fresh out of the laundry that Eddie did last night and it doesn’t smell like Richie yet, still clinging to the light floral scent of their washing detergent.

That’s not the important part, and he’s not disappointed the sweater doesn’t smell like Richie, because that would be absurd. He’s focussed instead on how warmth seeps through the layers and how broad Richie’s chest is and how nice it feels to be this close to him, squeezing him a little too hard around the midsection because it reminds Eddie that he’s there.

Sometimes dire problems, like wanting to kiss your best friend and risk ruining the only cohabitation situation you’ve ever enjoyed, require short-term solutions.

For a moment, Eddie thinks it’s a mistake. It's a long moment too—closer to an eternity than to a second, but certainly somewhere in between. Richie stops talking mid-spiel like Eddie punched him in the fucking throat instead of just wrapping his arms around his middle. He doesn't return the hug right away, one arm limp at his side and the arm brandishing the spatula held aloft, like someone hit the pause button at a humorous time. He thinks, hysterically trying to process that he really shouldn't have done this and maybe he should move to fucking Georgia with the Urises, that Richie does have an off-switch and all it took was a surprise hug to find it.

Then Richie, the idiot, drops the spatula in a clatter to the floor. Eddie very nearly pulls away but then Richie slides one arm around his waist and the other around the middle of his back, hand fisting in the back of Eddie's henley. He ducks his head down until his nose is nestled against the crown of Eddie's head and the hug changes from nice to transcendent.

Eddie's not religious, he never has been, but he thinks if he was asked he would admit that it is downright fucking heavenly to be held by Richie Tozier.

It's warmer now, with Richie's arms around him, pulling Eddie close enough that their bodies are a single, long line together. He can hear Richie's heart beating and feel the soft, vulnerable middle bits around his stomach and his waist and his chest.

Eddie thought he knew what love was when he was married to Myra, something mild and vaguely pleasant like a walk in the park or a successful trip to the grocery store. It was nice to come home to someone familiar and nice to talk to someone about work at the end of the day, even if they spent so much time at each other’s throats. He forgot what this felt like, in the years in-between—what it felt like to love another person the way he loves Richie. Eddie wants to climb inside his skin and take up fucking residence. He wants to live in the space between Richie's body and the rest of the world. He wants to have every fucking ounce of Richie's attention for himself and he knows it's selfish, especially when Richie has so much attention to give, but he wants.

“You okay, buddy?” Richie says, mouthing the words directly into his hair.

“I’m fucking fine," he grumbles, face still pressed into Richie's shoulder. He wonders how long he can get away with staying here.

“Okay,” Richie says, stretching out the second syllable at least three times as long as necessary. There's a question in there he's nice enough not to ask.

Eddie doesn't know how long they stay like that, but by the time he pulls away he has already gotten used to how Richie's face feels pressed into his hair, how his body feels against Eddie's own, how his long arms wrap around him so completely.

Unlike Richie, he lived long enough on the east coast that a little chill in the air (if you can call 50 degrees a chill) doesn't bother him. He doesn't notice that it's the middle of winter because as far as the weather would have him guess, it's spring. He still feels cold the moment their bodies separate, barely suppressing the shiver that races up his spine.

They separate slowly, awkwardly, and Eddie has no idea what the appropriate post-surprise-hug etiquette is, if such a thing exists, so he pretends that nothing noteworthy happened at all and pulls himself back up onto the kitchen island.

Richie doesn't let him off quite so easy.

“You hugged me,” he says, the barest intonation slipping in at the end.

“Genius fucking observation, dipshit. Got any more enlightening news?” Eddie snaps, pulling his phone from the pocket of his sleep shorts to do something with his hands. He stares blankly at the lock screen.

Richie lets out something that might have been a laugh if it didn't sound so much like someone was stepping on his throat. "Cranky. Not that I'm complaining, but why?"

“I wanted to. Is that a problem?” Eddie spits out. He catches himself and looks up from his phone. Richie doesn't look upset, but he softens his tone anyway. “I mean—seriously, if it’s a problem, I won’t—"

“No, no siree, no problemo. It was nice. You just surprised me.”

"It was nice," Eddie agrees.

The silence that settles between them makes Eddie's ears ring, amplifies every ambient sound in their house. Eddie can hear the quiet sizzle of oil on the bare, hot griddle. Their heater kicks on for a moment before turning back off in a huff of air. One of their neighbours is mowing their lawn with a lawnmower that must be on its last leg from how the operator keeps pausing to pull the starter over and over again.

"Anyway, I gotta take a photo of these for Mike before you eat them, so keep your little hands away from them. Do you think they would look sexier for the photo with or without syrup? Hm, I can always try—"

Like any silence where the two of them are involved, it doesn't last long. Richie is the first to break as he ducks down to retrieve the spatula from the floor and toss it in the direction of the sink. He picks up like he never stopped, talking too fast with too many hand movements and pouring more pancake batter onto the griddle at the same time as he tries to position the room temperature emoji pancakes in the most favourable lighting.

As Richie continues, his voice drowning out the sound of the heater and the griddle and the lawnmower, Eddie finds himself more relaxed than he was before. He can still feel where Richie's arms snaked around his back and he can still smell their laundry detergent, burrowed in his nostrils, but there’s nothing urgent about it. Instead, Eddie feels light. His itch to kiss Richie has abated, curled dormant in his stomach, and all it took was a little hug. He could deal with that.

Take that, therapy. Eddie Kaspbrak is solving his own fucking problems.

The next week is significantly less agonizing for Eddie than before he started this whole hugging thing. It’s not a long-term solution by any means. Eddie knows this. He knows he can’t solve three decades of yearning with a few hugs here and there. The hugs are a placeholder, a bookmark, giving Eddie a chance to breathe while he assesses the risks.

Because there are risks, of course. There are risks with every decision—this is why companies hire people like him to assign a level of gravity to their particular decision. He’s good at his job and he likes it enough. He likes it more since moving to LA. In New York, his life was divided into Work and Home, and Work was a little soul-sucking and Home always felt hollow. Now his life is divided the same, except Home really just means Richie. Work is good, because he never works more than his forty hours, doesn’t need to come in on weekends, and has good benefits. Work lets him come home and not think about Work until he walks in the next morning. He likes his job now more than ever before because it really is just a job, a job that enables him to do things he likes more.

The point is, there are risks in every decision and Eddie is uniquely positioned to assess those risks. There were risks with hugging Richie, risks he admits he did not fully consider at the time, but that he thinks about so much over the next week that he admits he doesn’t quite work his 40 hours. He rationalizes by telling himself that he’s still risk assessing.

One of those risks he learns quite quickly, on hug number two. Hug number two is on the same day as the first but late in the evening, after Richie has dozed off on the couch halfway through their fourth episode of The Crown that evening. Eddie prods him awake and drags him off the couch.

Before he pushes him in the direction of his room, Eddie’s chest tightens for a moment and he wants desperately to kiss him, a lazy, sleepy kiss, letting his fingers drag over the couch creases on his cheek. Instead, he tugs Richie into another hug, loose-limbed this time, and both of Richie’s arms curl low around his waist and tug him closer, bodies swaying together unevenly. Eddie presses his face into the same spot on Richie's shoulder as the first hug. This time, the sweater smells like Richie’s cedarwood deodorant, like his vanilla body wash, like his sweat, and Eddie wishes he could bottle the scent.

Two hugs in and he is already fixated on how Richie smells and how badly he wants to breathe it in when they’re pressed together like that. It’s a risk.

Other risks that he notes over the week include: that Richie will spill his drink on Eddie if he’s surprised by the hug, that Richie will try to pick him up mid-hug and he won’t always be quick enough to dodge it, that Richie will put his giant fucking hand right in on the small of his back in a way that makes Eddie’s legs feel week, that Richie will tuck his face into Eddie’s neck, and perhaps worst of all, that Richie will never be the first to let go.

All these risks prove to be manageable, worthwhile. One risk that Eddie toys with but has not manifested itself is the risk that instead of taking the edge off, the hugs might make him want to kiss Richie more. He spends much of the week worrying over this eventuality, only for it not to arise. It seems, for the moment, that the hugs are the exact sort of tenuous balance he needs while he decides whether it’s better to confess his feelings, with all its attendant risks, move out, with all its attendant sorrows, or simply do nothing, with all its attendant anxiety. Something will inevitably be attendant, he just has to choose.

So Eddie isn’t concerned at all on the rare rainy Saturday, a week from the first hug, where they decide to stay in bed and watch movies all day. They’ve done this before, on top of the covers with Eddie putting enough distance between them that their limbs didn’t so much as brush when one of them shifted during the marathon. He worried, at the time, that the mere touch of Richie’s skin would set him off, that he would have to flee the room to avoid kissing Richie, or worse, that he would simply do it.

After a week of hugging Richie without incident, you could say Eddie is feeling a bit reckless. He would say he’s feeling fully risk-assessed.

During their first movie, Eddie burrows under the blankets, propping himself up with one of the eight fucking pillows Richie keeps on his bed. Richie does the same and Eddie shuffles close enough to him that when Richie laughs their knees knock together or their arms brush, little leaps of skin against skin, heat against heat. The movie is a comedy, which means they spend most of the movie laughing and shifting closer to each other. By the time the credits roll, their thighs are pressed together under the blankets, heat radiating from the space between them.

Eddie gets up for more water while Richie picks the next movie, and when he returns to the room, Richie has slid further down on the bed, mostly reclined now, with the blankets pooled around his waist. He's wearing an old, thin t-shirt, from a Cure concert he went to in college and it stretches tightly over his shoulders, his chest, his stomach. Eddie wants nothing more than to climb onto the bed and fucking straddle him, to get his hands on all the places where the shirt stretches too tight, to press him down into the mattress and kiss him until neither of them can fucking breathe.

Right. Hug time. A hug is definitely in order. It's only the third today, the first one in the morning when Richie stumbled into the kitchen with a blanket wrapped around him, complaining about the cold, and the second one an embarrassingly short period of time later when Richie brought him his coffee just as he likes it.

Eddie places the glass of water on the side table and slides back under the covers. Richie doesn't look away from the TV, still flicking through the on demand selection, and Eddie only hesitates for a moment before he ducks under Richie's arm, lays his head on his chest, and throws an arm over his midsection.

Richie stiffens under him, his elbow pulling in around Eddie, sucking his stomach in where Eddie's arm rests. With his head on his chest, Eddie can tell he stops breathing for a moment, missing the gentle rise and fall he expected when he laid down. It's a little unfair of him to be surprised, Eddie thinks. It's just another hug. They've had several and they seem to have gone well.

"Do you want me to fucking move?" Eddie snaps, ruder than he intends, but fighting the swell of embarrassment in the pit of his stomach that maybe he has pushed the hugging thing too far.

It breaks whatever tension that settles between them and Richie laughs, and Eddie can feel every punctuated breath from where he's lying, can hear how deep in his chest Richie laughs. Eddie always knew Richie laughs with his entire body but it's a different thing to feel, laying across his chest like this.

"If you wanted to cuddle, you just had to ask," Richie says, teasing, and hits play on Arrival.

Eddie's ready to protest that it's not cuddling, not really, it's just a hug that happens to be horizontal, under the covers, but then Richie puts the remote down on the bedside table and curls his arm around Eddie's back, pulling him further onto his chest, making Eddie's leg jerk and land on top of one of Richie's, and there's absolutely no mistaking it for a hug now. Richie's hand settles on Eddie's shoulder, wide and heavy, and Eddie can feel the little calluses on his fingers from how he holds a pen, scribbling ideas for a set his down on various things, from paper to post-its to bits of napkins and receipts, and leaving them around the house.

"It's cold," Eddie says, nonsensically, like he hasn't spent the last month of Richie complaining about the weather insisting that his east coast card has been revoked.

"Mm-hmm," is all Richie says in response, and while Eddie feels his hackles rising at that on instinct, he channels his energy into settling more of his weight on Richie.

They stay like that, bodies pressed together, until the credits roll again and Richie starts babbling about the ending. Eddie's still trying to work out what happened. He lost the plot somewhere between the naming of the aliens as Abbott and Costello and having to listen to Richie recite both parts of various skits from memory, and later, when things got complicated and he found himself distracted by listening to Richie's steady heartbeat.

Richie starts talking less about time loops and more about the single linguistics course he took in college and Eddie tunes back into the rant.

"You say this about every movie," Eddie interjects.


"Every time we watch a movie you want a career change. Two hours ago you wanted to be a private investigator."

He can feel Richie shaking his head. "No, no, linguistics is way cooler than detective work."

"Most linguists never meet fucking aliens," Eddie says, gesturing at the screen even as it fades to black.

"But you could meet an alien. You don't see people lining up private investigators when aliens land."

"You don't want to be a linguist," Eddie insists, tilting his head up to look at Richie this time.

His breath catches in his throat. Richie is already staring down at him, eyes bright, a little teary from the ending, something Eddie has come to expect. He has a smile on his face and a smug little look that he always gets when he has successfully trapped Eddie into a pointless argument, like it's some kind of victory, like Eddie doesn't relish every moment they spend bickering.

"What? I could do it. I love to talk," Richie says with a grin.

Eddie knows he's being baited but he thinks it has long been established that he enjoys that. "That's not the main fucking qualification of being a linguist. You're more qualified to be a PI."

"Aww, did you just call me qualified? I didn't know you cared," Richie almost purrs, and Eddie doesn't want to laugh, but he does.

When he stops laughing he meets Richie's eyes again. The corner of his mouth is still curled around his last laugh. Stubble lines his jaw, a few days now, having spent most of his time in the house trying to finish off a new set. The dark circles under his eyes that looked etched in for months have given way to soft, tender, healthy skin under his eyes, where Eddie has insisted he uses an eye cream and Richie has, remarkably, complied.

He's not thinking about skincare, not really, except as a gap thought between less logical considerations like fuck I think he's beautiful I am fucking deranged and sometimes I wonder what would happen if I just kissed him.

He could kiss him, like this. They are close enough that when Richie exhales he can feel the puff of air on his cheeks, across his lips. He can see every crack and fissure in Richie's lips, damaged in the dry winter air that is only cold enough to crack the tender skin of your lips if you, like Richie, refuse to use lip balm "because it's sticky". His lips would be dry to kiss now. It wouldn't even be pleasant, Eddie's mind supplies.

Another part of his mind, a more honest part, knows that he would kiss him any way he could, and that right here, their breathing almost in sync, bodies pressed together along the chest, the leg, the arms, he could lean up and close the distance between them like it was nothing. He could kiss that little curl to his lips to know what it feels like.

Eddie is a heartbeat away from leaning up and just fucking doing it when Richie sits up, knocking Eddie back onto his side of the bed, eyes darting around the room, almost frenzied.

"Dinner? Dinner. Before the next movie?" Richie asks, voice pitched higher than normal, pausing to clear his throat in the middle of the question.

Eddie sighs and settles back into the nest of pillows behind him. "Sure."

"Sushi?" Richie asks.

"Only if we don't order from the same place as last time."

He faces Eddie this time, but he doesn't quite look at him. His eyes settle on a small hole in the wall just above the headboard that Richie attempted to attribute to vigorous sexcapades but ultimately admitted was from a failed attempt to mount shelves on the wall.

Richie must have seen it, in his eyes. He must have. Eddie wonders how transparent he has been this week, if Richie has been humouring him. He has never once initiated a hug, and maybe he has spent this whole week figuring out what they mean and how to let him down easily, only for it to all culminate here, in this moment, with Eddie hoping the pillows swallow him whole and Richie staring at a fucking spot on the wall.

Then Richie's eyes dart down to meet his and he smiles his usual shit-eating grin. "The last place was good!"

"You didn't get teriyaki sauce with your fucking teriyaki dish!"

"Yeah, but if I had, it would have been delicious."

"No, that doesn't fucking count. Order from somewhere else," Eddie snaps, and Richie bites back a grin.

"Whatever you say, spaghetti," Richie says, and he slides out of the bed in an easy movement. "I'll be back."

"Unfortunately," Eddie snipes, and Richie tosses his head back when he laughs this time. Eddie can almost still feel the vibrations against his cheek.

Richie crosses the room and disappears down the hallway, putting on two voices the whole walk to the kitchen: loan me 50 cents. All I got is 40 cents. 40 cents? All right, give me the 40 cents and you owe me 10 cents.

When they settle into their third movie, Eddie keeps his distance this time, letting their knees knock together at the funny parts, hands occasionally brushing together as they reach across the bed for the components of their dinner spread over the covers. He doesn't return to his spot on Richie's chest during the fourth movie either, when both of them are sleepy, when Richie stretches out and hooks an ankle around Eddie's own. He doesn't lie down on top of his chest when Richie dozes off halfway through a movie that would probably make him want to be an astronaut. It's for the best. It wasn't really a hug. He shouldn't push his luck.

It’s been two weeks since Eddie started this problem-management technique, and while he hugged Richie twenty two times yesterday, he didn’t kiss him once. It is either a raging success or a failure so complete and consuming that he cannot physically confront it. He suspects it is closer to the latter, which has resulted in him fully embracing the idea that this is absolutely working without any issues at all.

The hugs are almost enough too, in some ways. Being that close to Richie, letting their bodies settle against each other, pressing his nose into the collar of his shirt or against his chest, all of it scratches at the itch running beneath the surface of his skin that begs him to reach out and touch. The way Richie's arms settle around him (sometimes low around his waist, sometimes higher on his back, once, when Richie was having a particularly bad night, curled high around his shoulders, cradling his neck) makes Eddie feel held in every way it means to be held by another person.

The problem is that they aren't actually enough, that now Eddie is left with the unenviable position of spending every moment they're together thinking about hugging him or kissing him, which has proven to be a multiplier of his Richie-related stress rather than any sort of relief.

It is particularly bad given that since the Movie Night Incident That Was Not Quite An Incident (or as he has started calling it in texts to Bev where he complains about wanting to kiss Richie and she tells him to fucking do it, the MNITWNQAI), the hugs haven't stopped him from wanting to kiss Richie so much as they have put him impossibly close to Richie such that every single fucking time he does it, he thinks about pulling away and kissing him.

It all comes to a head, as Eddie supposes it was bound to do, one week after the MNITWNQAI, when Richie is standing in the kitchen babbling about Christmas while chopping several cloves of garlic.

"Do I sound like an old person if we call it Festivus instead? I should ask Twitter. But seriously, look at us. Which of us has celebrated fucking Christmas in 20 years? What was Christmas like at the Kaspbrak household?"

"You know what Christmas was like with my mom," Eddie says from his usual spot on the kitchen island. Richie's cutting board is immediately to his right, and Richie's elbow bumps against his knee on each slice of the knife.

"I meant with Myra."

Eddie grimaces. "Bad. Stilted. She argued with my mom a lot about it because we always spent it with her family. I lied a lot about work events around the holidays to avoid spending time with them."

Richie puts the knife down and wipes his hands on his shirt, leaving little trails of garlic juice over the front of it. Gross. Objectively gross. Definitely nothing charming about it at all.

"You little rascal, lying to your wife."

"I lied to her for our entire marriage about being gay so a few fucking Christmas parties shouldn't be a stretch," Eddie admits. "I was a shit husband."

Richie laughs. "Don't worry, I know. You asked for a divorce over text. That's like, the shittiest fucking thing you could do."

"I had a fucking pneumonectomy," Eddie insists, although he knows he isn't winning this.

"Didn't stop you from bitching at me."

"Nothing could stop that," Eddie says, aiming for a biting tone that ends up closer to fond.

Richie flashes him a smile that makes Eddie's chest tighten and causes him to look away, staring instead at the ceiling of Richie's kitchen. Their kitchen? At what point does the tragically-platonic housemate's house become a little bit his? Was it when he moved in or when he convinced Richie to replace his couch with something made in this decade? Has it happened yet? Does it matter that Richie asks him when will you be home? What else is he supposed to ask? It would be weird to say when will you return to my house, so calling it home doesn't mean anything. Probably.

It is home to him, though. Home like growing up in Derry never was. Home like he called his place in New York, with Myra, until he moved in with Richie and realized it cheapened the word, to call a place he dreaded returning home. Not like now. Now he sits at work with an alarm set for five o'clock so he can leave right away. He picks up groceries on the way home or he picks up dinner. He walks in and Richie smiles up at him from the couch or pops out of the office still hanging onto the doorframe to holler a new joke at him. Sometimes on a bad day, he drops his work bag onto the floor and throws himself against Richie's chest and Richie holds him there, patting his back the whole time. How could it not feel like fucking home?

The only other time in his life he felt at home was when he was at the Toziers' in high school, laying on the grass in the backyard on long sticky summer days or curled up on Richie's bed in the winter flipping through comic books with him and Bev. He supposes that means that some things never change.

"—but maybe that's stupid. I don't know if I'm good enough at fucking cooking to host. What am I gonna do, fucking, cook a turkey? I don't know how to do that. Fuck. What do you think?" Richie asks, eyes still fixed on the cutting board, knife poised over a large sweet onion.

"It's not stupid," Eddie attempts, missing the context and relying on his tone. It's the sort of voice he puts on (high, uneven) when he's trying to feign aloofness. It never quite works. "What are you so worried about? They're our fucking friends."

Richie doesn't answer right away. He halves the onion, leaving the root intact, then peels away the layers of skin. He rests one hand on top of one half and positions the knife horizontally, cutting into the onion three times. He slices it again, from the top this time, into little strips.

"It's the first Christmas we have together," Richie says quietly, almost lost under the sounds of the chopping. "I just want it to go well."

Fuck. Of course it's that. "Rich."

Richie doesn't look up, sliding his knife through the onion half one last time and letting it fall away in little cubes. He reaches for the second half of the onion and Eddie grabs his wrist to stop him.

Richie stares down at the cutting board for another long moment before meeting Eddie's eyes. When he does, they're damp, glistening in the bright light of their kitchen, the blue of his eyes impossibly deeper under the sheen.

"Don't fucking cry, man," Eddie says. "It's literally just the losers for Christmas. What does it matter? You could burn the fucking turkey to a crisp and they'd all just be happy to be here with us. It's going to be fucking great. And you won't even burn the turkey."

"I'm not crying, asshole. It's the fucking onion," Richie says, malice not quite reaching his tone. A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

"I'm sorry, literally everything sets you off, not sure how I'm supposed to know."

"Can I have sincere Eddie back? He was so nice."

"I sincerely think you're a dumbass," Eddie says.

He wants to kiss Richie. He always does. But he thinks right now Richie may need this hug more than he does, so Eddie pulls the knife from his hands and sets it down on the cutting board. He tugs Richie until he is standing between his legs, towering over him for once. He pulls Richie against his chest and he comes easily, hands sliding low around Eddie's waist, face pressing into the crook of his neck. Eddie, for his part, slides one hand along his shoulders and the other to the back of Richie's head, his fingers digging into his hair and rubbing little circles into his scalp. He buries his face in Richie's hair too, breathing him in.

Richie takes a moment to settle but he leans close against Eddie, nose pressed right where his neck meets his shoulder, lips brushing against the taut skin stretched along his collarbone. It's not a kiss, not really, but it's close enough that Eddie lets himself pretend for a moment that it is, that Richie is pressing soft, closed-mouth kisses along his collarbone and his neck. He wonders if Richie can feel his pulse jump under his skin.

When he was a kid and his mother told him that he couldn't have candy on Halloween because it would rot his teeth, he bought the biggest bag of candy his allowance would give him and ate it until he was puking up half-digested Skittles and the happiest fucking kid in the world. Later, when he was older, his mother told him he couldn't spend time with the losers anymore, it made him yearn for them. He spent listless days thinking about when school would return so he could see them again. Then he spent years forgetting these quiet rebellions until he ate a fucking cashew in his Thai food four months ago and felt more alive than he ever did before.

The point is this: maybe it's the tenderness of the moment, or the feeling of Richie's lips on his skin, but just maybe it is the way that Eddie has always craved more than he was allowed to have that makes him press his lips against the side of Richie's head, just behind his ear. A gentle pressure, then lifting away and resting his cheek against Richie's head. Unmistakably a kiss, he knows this, but it's just a little one. It can hardly count.

Eddie thinks for a moment he has gotten away with it. Richie doesn't stiffen, or jerk away, or make a joke. He stays relaxed in Eddie's arms, letting Eddie hold him up a little. When he pulls away, somewhere between moments and hours later, Richie sighs and fixes Eddie with a Very Serious Look that he's never seen before and was not entirely convinced Richie had in his repertoire.

“Eds, we—we gotta talk about this,” he says in a way that sounds like he would rather die than talk about it. That makes two of them, at least.

"About what?" Eddie asks.

"The hugs, man."

The hugs. Eddie had entertained the idea, briefly, that the hugs were not as well-received as he hoped. He worried he was taking advantage of Richie, of Richie's willingness to be close to him, by hugging him constantly. He worried that there was something sinister about him wanting to hug Richie to stop himself from kissing him, if it was a motive so ulterior that his genuine desire to hug Richie could not quite overcome his intentions. After the MNITWNQAI, he momentarily vowed to stop the hugs, only to have Richie wrap him in a bear hug before Eddie left his room that evening. Once Richie started initiating hugs, less frequently but unmistakably intentional over the course of the last week, he worried less.

Maybe he was wrong.

"I thought you didn’t mind."

"I don’t," Richie says quickly, raising his hands in front of him, palms facing Eddie. It's not reassuring.

"Then what's the problem."

"There’s no problem."

"Then what are we talking about?" he asks testily, temper rising despite itself, something feral and defensive and scared, because the last thing he wanted was a fucking problem bigger than the one he already had.

Richie makes a frustrated noise and steps out from between Eddie's legs. Eddie briefly considers curling a leg behind his back, trapping him there, before deciding that is absolutely fucking insane and more likely to exacerbate whatever problem Richie's in denial about them having.

"I just—it just. You just started doing it. We never did it before. And now we’re doing it a lot," Richie says slowly, parsing out every word like he's cutting a cake for a room full of people when he knows there isn't enough for everyone.

"If you don’t want me to—" Eddie starts, but Richie shakes his head, cutting him off.

"That’s not it. I do want you to. I just—I think. I think I’ve been unfair to you," Richie says.

Any iota of this conversation that was making sense to Eddie evaporates. It would make sense to him if Richie was uncomfortable with the physical contact, the intimacy, how Eddie initiates them more frequently. It would make sense if Richie figured out what the hugs were preventing and decided he wanted no part of it. Anything could make sense. But the thought of the hugs possibly somehow, in any fucking universe, being unfair to Eddie, is where he draws the fucking line.

"Unfair?" he asks, incredulous.

"With the hugs," Richie says, a pained look twisting across his face. He seems to think that fucking clarifies something instead of making Eddie wants to eat the unchopped onion raw just to feel something that makes sense.

"Please. Tell me how you’ve been unfair," Eddie says, and Richie shakes his head again, stepping further back into the kitchen. "Seriously, Rich, tell me, because I’m the one who jumps you a dozen times a day."

Richie groans, leaning back against the sink counter opposite Eddie. "Could you not phrase it like that?"

Something unpleasant twists low in his gut and he feels his face heat from some sickly combination of embarrassment and anger. He wants to dial it back, to slink away from the conversation that doesn't feel like it's going anywhere but at the same time feels like a fork in the road or a point of no return, something where he is worried he will have to lay his heart bare in front of Richie and have it stepped on or held, or some milder option in between.

"It’s a fucking—it’s a figure of speech. I’m sorry the prospect of me jumping you is so abhorrent," he finds himself snapping. His hands drop down to the edge of the counter and he grips the marble, hard, trying to centre himself.

He's raising his voice. He didn't want to, not really, They got away for months without a real fight, spending their pent-up energy and boisterous voices on bickering over sugared cereals and preferred TV series instead. Maybe it was a long time coming but it never really felt like they would. They know each other well enough to know when to shut up and when to push. At least, Eddie thought they did.

Richie looks miserable, if it counts for anything. Eddie hasn't decided yet. "I didn't mean it like that."

Sure he fucking didn't. Eddie's anger simmers under his skin and he's tired of this, tired of dancing around it, tired of hugging Richie when he wants to kiss him, tired of saying stupid little things like sleep well, Richie or thanks for the coffee or I'll pick up dinner on the way home instead of saying I love you.

"Then can you just say what the fucking problem is? Because I gotta tell you, Rich, it sounds like you don’t want me to hug you, and I’ll stop. And I’m sorry if i’ve pressured you into—"

"Stop! Stop. fuck. You haven’t pressured me into shit, dude. If anything, I’ve been the problem," Richie says, gesturing wildly.

"Can you connect some fucking dots for me? How exactly have you been the fucking problem?" Eddie says, the flush on his face rising, the heat deepening.

"Don’t do this, man. Don’t do this to me. You know how I feel about you. And I thought I would be okay with the hugs, I really did, but it’s hard. It’s really hard."

It’s like a bucket of ice water over his head. All the anger that reached a rolling boil, the flush across his cheeks, his neck, his ears, the ringing in his head that told him he was about to ruin the best fucking thing he ever had because he couldn’t just move on with his life and stop pining over someone he loved for years, all of it comes to a screeching, freezing stop.

"What do you mean how you feel about me?" he asks, his voice resorting to a normal volume even as he stumbles over each word.

"You know," Richie says, voice barely above a whisper, nothing like the normal sound that fills the room and fills Eddie's chest.

"No I fucking don't, Richie."

"I carved us into the fucking kissing bridge when I was 13," Richie says, words coming out quick, jumbled, pained. "And I did it again before we left Derry. You know I—"

Whatever Richie wants to say catches in his throat, and he swallows, hard, throat bobbing. Eddie's head is swimming, every word out of Richie's mouth making him dizzier, more confused. If Eddie had been brave enough even once in the last thirty years he would have shouted it from the rooftops, told the world that he loved Richie, he always had, for the better part of three decades spent apart and together.

Love you. That's the end of the sentence. It is the end of every sentence, Eddie thinks, maybe every sentence they have ever exchanged. Maybe I love you has been hidden the whole time in between jibes and bickering and notes left on the fridge about running out of milk. Richie carved them into the kissing bridge at 13 because he loved Eddie then, during the worst summer of their life, and he carved them again because he loves him now.

"Oh," Eddie manages, a sound bordering on delirious.

“Yeah, fucking, oh,” Richie almost snaps, bringing up a hand to run through his hair. “I’m saying that I think I’ve been taking advantage of your sudden tactile nature because I want it so fucking bad. And I’m sorry, it wasn’t my plan, but—”

“I love you.”

Richie stops dead, mouth still moving around words he has lost the voice to form. His eyes bulge, almost comical, and Eddie thinks he would laugh if every cell in his body wasn’t focussed on remembering how to breathe, on striving to live in a world where he has asked for something he thought he couldn’t have knowing that he can have it. Knowing Richie wants it.

Every time he has finally, finally gotten a taste of something he hasn’t been allowed, it has never been enough. He wasn’t scared off of Skittles—even now he buys the family sized bag from the grocery store and refuses to share them. He orders extra cashews on Thai food now to prove a point.

He’s not sure what to do with a taste of Richie’s love for him except push off the counter, wobbling on his feet as he lands, and cross the gap between them. Richie is struggling to speak but Eddie doesn’t need him too, not now, even as he longs to hear about how silly they have been, how much time they have wasted since Derry, how much time they wasted back then, as he longs to hear about how they’ll spend the time they have left. He’s spent five months trying not to kiss Richie and he doesn’t have to fucking try anymore.

He gets his hands in Richie’s hair and Richie’s arms circle around his back and Eddie tugs him down to meet him. And Eddie doesn’t expect fireworks or a movie soundtrack, he doesn’t even really expect it to be good, not at first, not when it’s the chaste press of their lips together and the confirmation that Richie desperately needs to use lip balm. Then Richie’s arms tighten around his back, one hand coming up to cup the back of Eddie’s head, easing his head backwards, and it’s more than good. It doesn’t taste like anything, not really, but it reminds him of Skittles, of cashews, of home.

Neither of them stop but slowly their kiss becomes less hurried, easing back into the gentle slide of lips until they’re only breathing together in soft, panting puffs. Richie pulls away just far enough to press their foreheads together.

“I could get used to that,” Richie says, a wicked grin spreading across his lips that Eddie wants to taste.

“You’d better.”

“This doesn’t mean less hugs, right? Because I gotta be honest man, I’ve really liked the whole koala-bear-attacks-my-midsection thing and I’m not sure I want to give it up.”

Eddie rolls his eyes. “You can have as many hugs as you want, idiot.”

“Good, good, excellent, didn’t want to trade one good thing for another, you know,” Richie says, talking too much, always. He seems to catch himself, putting on an odd, breathy voice. “Another kiss, good sir? For practice?”

Eddie laughs and he hates him, he hates him for the cheesy grin on his face and the stupid little twinkle in his eye, for the way he says practice instead of asking for what he wants, for the way he tries and tragically succeeds to sound like some Hollywood starlet, but he loves him. God, he loves him. He wants to kiss him for it, and he can, so he presses Richie up against the sink again and brings their mouths together until the pink-orange sunset streams into the room and the kitchen fills with the scent of the chopped onion and garlic they abandoned on the cutting board. They put both in the fridge and order take-out (Thai, Eddie’s choice, and Richie smiles like he knows what it means) and kiss some more, against the kitchen island, the dining table, the couch, the front door after their delivery driver who definitely knows what they are up to leaves with a generous tip. They kiss until their jaws are sore and their bodies tired and Eddie thinks he’s never been so happy to be Richie Tozier’s problem.