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i don't have much in my life (but take it, it's yours)

Chapter Text

By the time the late bus roars out of the parking lot, it becomes apparent to Jared that he’s been forgotten again.

His foster mother must be out buying up the grocery store’s supply of red wine, or perhaps she’s already passed out on the couch. It is Friday, after all.

Jared shivers pitifully, his threadbare sweater doing very little to keep the cold out. The rain is coming down without mercy. Jared has only been attending this school for a month, so his usual keen knowledge of nooks and crannies to hide in doesn’t apply quite yet. For such a tall kid, he’s great at making himself disappear. Back in second grade, he hid in a janitor’s closet for upwards of four hours before a police officer found him and took him back to his group home in the cruiser. Jared remembers writing a note on a gum wrapper from his pocket and leaving it between the seat cushions, hoping someone would find it and write him back. It wasn’t the first time, nor was it the last, that he found himself in the back of a police car being taken to whatever “home” was at the time. At least, what other people told him was home. He likes to think that anywhere could be home.

Home for now is a small two-story with foster parents who mainly ignore him and two large german shepherds that he has been bitten by more times than he can count. Every time Jared wants to complain about it, he harshly reminds himself that it could always be worse and he should appreciate the roof over his head and the meals he eats alone at the kitchen table.

Jared is startled out of his thoughts by a voice calling out behind him.

“What are you doing still out here, son?”

Jared turns around. One of the school receptionists is leaning out of the front door with a concerned look on her face.

She beckons him to come inside. “Come in, for heaven’s sake. You’re going to get sick.”

Jared obediently follows her through the doors and up to the front desk, trying to stop shivering. He leaves a trail of wet footprints across the ugly green tiles of the lobby.

“The worst rainstorm of the year and it’s the day you don’t have a ride,” the receptionist says. “You poor thing. I can call your mom for you, dear.”

Jared, luckily, remembers the house’s phone number. He had moved in with his new foster family about a month into the school year, and they hadn’t bothered to submit the proper paperwork giving the school their phone number and home address. That also meant he couldn't take the bus, because his street was never added to the route.

The receptionist calls the number twice, but gets no answer.

She gives Jared a pitying look. “Tell ‘ya what. There’s a club meeting in the computer lab until four. Why don’t you join them while I try to get in touch with your parents?”

Jared reluctantly agrees. He supposes it’s better than getting soaked outside or sitting in the lobby being questioned by the receptionist.

“Down that hall,” she says, pointing, “through the double doors on the left.”

Luckily, Jared has stopped dripping by that point, and his hair is only slightly damp. He tries to open the doors as discreetly as possible.

Of course, the doors squeak loud enough to wake the dead, and Jared is painfully aware of five sets of eyes on him.

The computer lab is rather small and poorly-lit. There are ten large, square computer monitors around the perimeter of the room. Seated in a circle of office chairs in the center of the room are five teenage boys, seemingly in the midst of a meeting.

“Who the hell are you?” the tallest one, a boy with curly hair and “Jaws” t-shirt, asks.

Jared hunches his shoulders as if he’s trying to curl in on himself and disappear. “I’m Donald, but, uh… everyone calls me Jared.”

The tall boy narrows his eyebrows. “That’s… weird.”

Jared shrugs apologetically. “The lady at the front desk told me to come here because I don’t have a ride home. I’m really sorry if I’m interrupting something.”

“You’re not interrupting,” one of the other boys says. He’s wearing a purple hoodie and has impressively dark bags under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept in days.

The boy farthest from Jared, sporting dark-framed glasses and a rather impressive beard for a high-schooler, nods. “We were honestly just arguing about Star Wars.”

I wanted to drop it ten minutes ago, but Gilfoyle won’t leave it alone,” the boy to his left says.

The bearded one, presumably the aforementioned Gilfoyle, crosses his arms. “I can’t help it, I have a visceral reaction to bad Star Wars opinions. Sorry you’re wrong, Dinesh.”

Dinesh frowns. “Movie opinions can’t be wrong.”

“Guys, would you be quiet about this already?” Purple Hoodie snaps. “Besides, Return of the Jedi is clearly a better film.”

Dinesh lets out an affronted gasp. “You’re only saying that because it's still fresh in your mind. It came out like five months ago, it hasn't proven it ages well yet. I have to watch a movie at least three times before I call it a great. Besides, entertainment level alone doesn’t determine the overall quality of a film, you have to consider the impact on pop culture, the way A New Hope changed science fiction forever-”

“Hey guys?” the boy in the chair closest to the door pipes up. His tone is flat but he’s looking at Jared with genuine concern. “Wanna get Jared a chair or something?”

So Jared ends up a part of the circle, seated on a too-short office chair that aggravates his lower-back pain. It’s still nice to be in a group of (mostly) friendly faces for once.

He gets introduced to everyone in the club. The guy in the “Jaws” shirt is named Erlich. The short one with the bored-sounding voice is apparently called “Big Head,” which Jared finds slightly disturbing. He’s been on the receiving end of many cruel nicknames throughout his life, and the size of various body parts has been a common theme. But if Big Head embraces the name, Jared supposes he can call him that.

Purple Hoodie’s name is Richard, and he’s apparently the president of the club. He’s slender and unassuming; Jared notes his terrible posture. He explains that he had founded the club during his sophomore year. Now, as a senior, he’s hoping that “president and founder of a successful school club” will stand out on his college application.

“We’re still working on the ‘successful’ part,” Big Head jokes.

When Jared asks what college he’s hoping to get into, Richard rolls his eyes.

“Stanford, where else?” he says as if it’s obvious.

Jared shrugs. He supposes it would be obvious to anyone who knew enough to have an argument over Star Wars and hang out in a computer lab every week. He is definitely not one of those people, though a computer lab seems like a better place to hang out than his cold, rodent-filled attic bedroom or the library down the street where he gathers concerned stares from employees and older women when he stays for multiple hours.

Eventually, the conversation dies down and the circle dissolves. Dinesh and Gilfoyle head off to play Galaxian on the Atari in the back of the room. (It’s Gilfoyle’s, he describes it as “something my mother used to try to buy my affection” and explains that he keeps it at school so she never tries to take it away as a punishment. Jared is a bit scared of Gilfoyle.) Erlich picks up a book that Jared doesn’t catch the title of and wheels his chair to one of the computers. Big Head grabs a large, plastic handheld game of some sort from one of the tables and starts tapping away on it, producing a flurry of beeps and flashing red lights.

Richard, however, sticks around, and this is the most non-bullying attention Jared has ever gotten at this school in one sitting. He’s almost suspicious.

“Are you a senior?” Richard asks. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”

Jared nods. “I’m new here. I moved about a month ago.”

“Oh, okay.” Richard gives him a nervous half-smile. He’s clearly not the most adept at casual conversation, but Jared wholeheartedly appreciates his effort.

They talk about school; what classes they’re taking, their favorite subjects (Richard likes math, because of course he does), their favorite teachers, how excited they are to be out of this hellhole come graduation. They discover that they share a hatred for eating in the cafeteria and a tendency to endlessly annoy their peers. Jared finds out that Richard has a penchant for correcting his teachers on simple arithmetic or grammatical mistakes, which frustrates them to no end. Jared, in contrast, is a teacher’s pet almost religiously.

“I even got a detention last week,” Richard says.

Jared asks what he could have possibly done to earn that. He’s never gotten a detention. The most mad a teacher has ever been at him was when he was late four days in a row back in middle school because his aunt couldn’t be bothered to bring him in on time. It turned out the teacher wasn’t very mad, moreso concerned, but Jared cried anyway.

“We were talking about the spread of computers and their growing accessibility in my Advanced Tech class,” Richard says. “I brought up Ted Nelson’s suggestion that the computer’s largest potential lies not in computation but in widespread media.”

Jared nods. “As one does.”

He understands nothing.

“And my teacher said that it was a bit radical,” Richard continues, “so I asked her if she had even read Computer Lib and she told me I was being ‘fresh’ and gave me detention.”

“I can’t imagine,” Jared says, wide-eyed.

Richard is, in many ways, the antithesis of Jared. Defiant of authority, outspoken when he’s wronged. Outwardly plain but vast and complex in his mannerisms and expertise. Jared dresses with care and intention, coiffs his hair just so to ensure a certain standard. Richard seems unburdened by that level of concern with one’s appearance.

Of all the computer club guys, Jared is definitely the most intrigued by him.

Four o’clock comes, and the guys start to file out of the room. Jared hangs back, though, unsure of what to do. The receptionist never came back, so his foster mother is presumably unreachable. He doesn’t want to ask for a ride for fear he’ll be a burden. As comfortable as he felt spending time with Richard and the rest, he really barely knows them. Jared doesn't feel important enough in their lives to take up more of their time than absolutely necessary.

By some miracle, Richard notices his discomfort and seems to experience a rush of compassion.

“Do you need a ride?” he asks, shoving his hands in his hoodie pockets.

“Oh, if it wouldn’t be any trouble,” Jared says. “I can always walk if it’s too far, don’t feel obligated to go out of your way for-”

“Dude, it’s fine,” Richard interjects. “My parents pay for my gas, so…”

Jared smiles. “Thank you. I live on Kipling Street, near the canal. I can always reimburse your parents for the gas money if you’d like. I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

Richard narrows his eyes at Jared. “That’s like… seven miles from here. You were going to walk?”

He shakes his head and starts out the door before Jared gets the chance to respond. Jared hurries to follow him, noting the way Richard shakes like a leaf when the cold air hits as they step outside. Jared wishes he had a jacket to offer him.

Wait, that’s weird. Forget that.

Richard’s car is a brown Chevette with a large scratch and remnants of red paint on the bumper. Jared barely manages to fold himself into the passenger seat, and every time he shifts his weight his head bumps lightly against the roof. Richard opens his mouth as if to apologize for the state of the interior (fast food bags on the floor, loose change in every crevice, a large stain on the carpeted floor that is presumably, hopefully, soda) but thinks better of it. Not that Jared minds. His foster father’s car has cigarette burns in the upholstery and permanently smells of rank sweat. Richard’s car smells nice, like pine air freshener and bubble gum, and the seats are surprisingly clean.

The rain makes the ride treacherous. Jared can see Richard grinding his teeth anxiously every time they skid around a corner, but to his credit, they stay on the road. Neither of them speak. Jared doesn’t mind the silence, though. He’s always thought that the sound of rain is one of life’s greatest, simplest pleasures.

“Third house on the left,” Jared says when they reach his street.

Richard pulls into the driveway and the car skids to a stop inches from the Peugeot 504 right outside the garage. He gives Jared a lopsided smile.

Jared thanks him probably enough to drive him crazy, but Richard takes it in stride.

“Um, you should come to the meeting next week,” Richard calls out right before Jared closes the door. “If you want.”

Jared grins. “Yeah. I could do that.”

He watches Richard back up, nearly take out the mailbox, and steer down the road and out of sight. The rain has soaked through his sweater by the time he realizes he’s standing dumbly in the driveway staring down an empty street. He fumbles his keys out of his pocket and hurries to the front door, already chilled to the bone.

It’s not a surprise when he’s met with an empty house. His foster mother must have taken the pickup to a friend’s house (“Friday is poker night,” he’s sure she’ll say whenever she gets home, despite the fact that poker night has previously been on Wednesday, only changing because she wants to get drunk for free by mooching off of her friends). His foster father carpools to save gas, leaving his precious Peugeot available for joyrides on Fridays. Jared’s never gathered the courage to actually do it, but he gets enough of a thrill just from knowing that he could.

He goes up to the attic two stairs at a time and pulls his wet sweater off, tossing it in the wicker basket that he’s pretty sure is meant to be a trash can but serves as his laundry hamper. His slacks fared much better, so he folds them and returns them to his bottom drawer. He only has three pairs; tan ones, black ones, and a dowdy pair of jeans that he hates.

He pulls on his favorite soft, green henley and a pair of sweatpants. He has the house to himself until his foster father gets home at six, but before he can ask himself what he wants to do first, his stomach growls and answers the question for him. He makes sure to turn the light off before he leaves the bedroom.

He's careful not to wake Gunther and Frauke, both sound asleep on their beds in the corner of the kitchen. They’re an endless torment when they’re awake, more often than not making him retreat to his room in fear of getting bitten.

He eats a bowl of leftover chicken soup, then takes an ice cream bar from the back of the freezer. He scarfs it down in about a minute as if worried that someone will take it from him. His foster father always scolds him for eating them, telling him he’s sickly enough as it is without indulging in junk foods. They’re Jennifer’s, anyway.

When he’s finished eating, Jared heads straight to the den. He puts on his beloved Carole King Tapestry record and leans back in the tweed bergère he’s forbidden from sitting in when his foster father is home.

It’s Too Late lulls him to rest and he thinks about the computer club, about Dinesh and Gilfoyle’s bickering and about Richard’s soft eyes, the way he smiled absentmindedly when explaining how the club came to be like it’s a fond memory.

Jared likes them. He hopes something comes out of this, if not friendship at least some sort of esprit de corps.

It’s a rather optimistic viewpoint, but Jared is an optimist out of necessity. For much of his life, the hope of something better awaiting him has been the main motivating force behind his persistent tolerance of mistreatment. He’s just waiting for the moment that the present is good enough for him to be indifferent to the future.

Chapter Text

Jared sees Richard in the hall the following Monday and they exchange pleasantries. It’s nice to have a friendly face around the school, even if they’re not exactly friends. Yet.

Jared hopes they become friends.

He fulfills his promise and shows up to the computer lab the next Friday afternoon. His foster mother had responded only with a disinterested nod when he told her she wouldn’t need to pick him up that day over a breakfast of somewhat stale, but still edible, Frosted Flakes. Jared appreciates the lack of questioning. When he lived with his aunt and uncle, he had to explain everything he did and everywhere he went in great detail. While the interrogation bothered him, the rapt attention he received made him feel meaningful. As if his activities were at least important to somebody. His current guardians seem only to care what he does if it inconveniences them.

Nonetheless, Jared is happy to have a reason to get out of the house.

Richard’s face lights up when he sees Jared at the door to the computer lab, tall and ungainly as he is. Jared has always felt apologetic about his existence, as if the space he takes up is too much and the way he moves about his environment is cumbersome, but he feels welcomed.

There’s a sharp twinge in his back when he sits down. He makes a mental note to look through the phone book for physical therapists nearby.

“Hey Jared, you don’t happen to know Basic, do you?” Big Head asks as Jared struggles to raise the chair up so that his knees don’t bend so awkwardly as he sits.

Jared cocks his head. “Basic what?”

The entire group laughs, but not meanly.

“The programming language,” Richard explains. “Basically everyone who has a micro knows it to some extent. It’s used in a lot of computer games. Not the best language by a long shot, but it’s easy to learn.”

Jared doesn’t know what a micro is and he’s never played a computer game in his life. He still nods as if he understands. “You could teach me.”

Richard looks surprised. “If you’re really interested, yeah. Do you want to like… join the club? We could always use another coder. Administration is on our tails about not having enough members to get proper funding and visibility.”

“You still haven’t invited that girl in your finance class to join,” Erlich pipes up.

Richard shrugs, looking guilty, but skirts around the subject.

And Jared is a member of the club, just like that.

It’s insignificant, writing his name on the club roster with a pen that Big Head found on the floor, but it enlivens him. He’s been given the privilege of inclusion. Such a fleeting concept that has escaped him for most of his life, the feeling of existing as a well-fit piece of a whole rather than the cog out of place. Jared knows his comfort is premature. At the same time, he doesn’t wish to deprive himself of a pleasure he seldom knows.

Though Richard is certainly his closest connection in the club, Jared makes an effort to talk to everyone. He makes the most ground with Big Head. He's sweet, despite not being the most… engaging conversation partner Jared’s ever had. He shows Jared how to play the handheld game he seems to take with him everywhere. It's simple: the display shows a baseball diamond, with a red dot as the baseball. The buttons at the bottom allow the player to pitch or hit. They play head-to-head; Jared strikes out 26 times and gives up 14 runs. His sole hit, however, is a home run, which earns him a high five from Big Head.

The meeting ends in what seems to be the typical way: an awkward cut-off, promising to continue the current debate or discussion the following week despite everyone knowing the topic will be long forgotten by that point.

Richard drives him home again. They still don’t talk much, but they exchange amiable farewells and a mutual understanding that they’ve begun a routine.

Jared eats an ice cream bar and thinks about the way Richard white-knuckled the steering wheel like he was hanging on for dear life.

His foster father comes home late, angry about work, pacing about with thunderous footsteps that shake the whole house. Jared’s handwriting, already not as neat as it could be, is made a mess by the quaking of the kitchen table. He sets his nearly-finished English homework aside and waits for the storm to pass.

He can faintly hear his foster parents talking in the den.

“The fucking meeting ran forty-five minutes late,” his foster father complains. “They act like our time is something they own. I have a family to come home to.”

“You should stand up for yourself more.” His foster mother’s voice is soothing, when she’s not drunk or just finishing a cigarette.

His foster father snorts. “Yeah, and then what, Jen? I’ll get fired. They just want us to sit down and shut up and take what they throw at us.”

“It does make good money.”

“We’d be better off if we didn’t have to drop so much on the kid.”

“Don’t talk about him like that, Bill.”

They’re consciously talking quieter now, and Jared misses snippets of the conversation.

“He’s eighteen, at least I think he is, we don’t even know that for sure for Christ’s sake. This thing is such a mess, don’t you think we-”

The refrigerator fan starts up. Jared gets up and heads towards his bedroom, walking through the den even though it’s not the most direct route to the stairs just to make a point. He doesn’t make eye contact but he sees them staring at him in his peripheral vision.

“Now look what you’ve done,” he hears faintly as he heads up the stairs.

Jared climbs into bed, still in his jeans and polo, and lets the chest-wrenching sobs escape him. He’s no stranger to late-night cries, the events of the day building up in his chest until they escape as wet tears down his face and shuddering breaths that make his lungs burn. There’s an overarching absurdity to it all. He hates crying, hates the way he sounds and can only imagine the way his face contorts. It’s grotesque. But it empties him of his despondency and bitterness. A necessary evil.

He hears the creak of the attic stairs, and immediately turns on his side to feign sleep. Tears are still drying on his face but he doesn’t move to wipe them away.

The door opens, and he can tell from the soft footfalls that it’s his foster mother. She doesn't enter, just stands in the doorway, humming a familiar but unnameable tune. Jared keeps his breathing deep and steady.

Jennifer is a strange creature. Much like Jared. She seems to genuinely care about him when she thinks she's alone, but seems hesitant or downright averse to giving him anything more than the bare minimum when he's around. She treats him as if saying the wrong thing will set him off, so it's better to say nothing at all.

Jared has been treated like fine, breakable china and he’s been treated like a punching bag. Both are interminable.

Jennifer whispers something that sounds like an apology, but Jared can’t be sure. Then, as quickly as she appeared, she’s gone, and the only reminder of her presence is the creaking of the stairs as she descends.

Jared rolls over onto his back and stares up at the exposed support beams in the ceiling. It’s easy to get wrapped up in his circumstances. Since he was a young child, he taught himself to pick one moment from every day that made him feel good, no matter how trivial. Sunny moments, he used to call it. He would then center on that single event and list why it felt good and how, if possible, he could experience it again. A child’s game, really, but comforting nonetheless.

Tonight, the sunny moment is the look on Richard’s face as he met Jared’s eyes when he appeared in the doorway. His attention immediately grabbed, bright eyes crinkling at the corners. A smile suits him.

Jared doesn’t know when he drifts off to sleep, but he wakes up still in his clothes from the previous day, his teeth unbrushed. The dogs start making a racket downstairs as his foster father heads out for his morning jog. Jared can almost smell the coffee he knows his foster mother is brewing. All routine again. Like a reset button has been pushed, the peace is restored.

Jared goes to the library and rents Star Wars on VHS.

///

The next meeting, Richard starts teaching him Basic. They pull two chairs up to a computer in the far corner of the lab. They have to lean in to clearly see the screen, and when they do their shoulders touch.

“So, basically, what we’re doing is giving the computer a set of steps to follow to solve a problem,” Richard says. “That’s the basis of programming. We’re using Basic because it’s easy to learn and it’s a good starting point for learning other languages.”

The computer takes a few moments to turn on. When it finally does, Richard jumps right in and starts throwing technical terms at Jared, then explaining them when he sees the confusion on his face.

LET assigns a value to a variable,” Richard explains. “A variable is a changeable value that can take many forms; characters, strings, and integers, for example. This version only allows for integer variables.”

Jared tries to remember everything that Richard throws at him, but he feels like he should probably be taking notes. The information drifts through his head, some anchoring there as things he’ll remember and other things, the ridiculously in-depth information that Richard can’t seem to avoid explaining, goes in one ear and out the other.

If, Then, Else is used for comparisons… LIST displays the inputted code… The original Dartmouth Basic had MAT as a matrix keyword…

It’s so confusing it almost makes Jared feel stupid, but by the end of the meeting he’s able to (with Richard’s help) make the computer say “Hello” and “Goodbye” and perform simple arithmetic.

He's also able to list off a myriad of random factoids if prompted: Basic stands for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, it first appeared in 1964, and it was developed by John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz at Dartmouth in New Hampshire.

Despite retaining that, he somehow repeatedly forgets to enter Cls when beginning a new task.

He can tell that Richard is a bit impatient, but the way he smiles and tells Jared he did well makes Jared feel warm, like he’s just put on a cozy sweater.

He realizes that he wants to impress Richard.

It’s different than the way he feels about his foster parents, or his teachers, or any authority figure in his life. He’s eager to please not because he is worried about the consequences of not doing so, but rather because he likes the result.

Jared somehow ends up in a discussion with Dinesh and Gilfoyle about who the best Star Wars character is. Ripe with information after watching A New Hope twice since the last meeting (and narrowly avoiding a late fee at the library), Jared is excited to sound knowledgeable for once.

“I don't know how you could argue against Han Solo,” Dinesh says.

Gilfoyle shrugs. “I guess I'm not blinded by a massive crush on Harrison Ford like you are.”

“I do not have a crush on Harrison Ford,” Dinesh retorts. “Han is a combination of all the best hero tropes. The series would be nothing without him.”

Gilfoyle turns to Jared. “Tell Dinesh he’s wrong, would you?”

Jared hums, mulling it over. “I must say, I’m more of a fan of C-3PO. He’s just so delightfully polite and intelligent.”

Dinesh and Gilfoyle both roll their eyes, camaraderie found in their mutual disagreement.

Erlich wanders over and joins the conversation. He proclaims that the Ewoks are the best characters, apparently just to piss Dinesh and Gilfoyle off, judging from his laughter when they immediately react in disgust.

“Sorry to interject,” Jared says, “but what is an Ewok?”

“They’re annoying little pieces of shit that are supposed to be cute,” Gilfoyle explains. “Have you not seen Return of the Jedi?”

Jared shakes his head.

Richard and Big Head have since wandered over, intrigued by the loud discussion.

“You haven’t seen the best Star Wars movie?” Richard asks, earning an annoyed huff from Dinesh.

Jared shakes his head again. “Only the first one.”

“I have The Empire Strikes Back on VHS,” Richard offers. “It’s honestly the worst one, but Return of the Jedi hasn’t been home released yet. You could come over and watch it some time.”

Jared smiles. “I would love that.”

Richard scratches the side of his neck nervously, but smiles back.

The prospect of going over to Richard’s house is exciting, yet nerve wracking. Jared has never been solely invited to a friend’s home before. He recalls some elementary school birthday parties, where he always ruined the fun by being allergic to the cake or injuring himself while trying to keep up with the others. His few friends since the start of his teenage years had always been vaguely distrustful of him. But Richard likes him. Richard offered to open his home to him by his own volition. Even just for a movie, it’s still a nice feeling.

Jared stops himself before he gets too comfortable. As genuinely nice as Richard seems, Jared has misjudged many a character before, and complacency is a luxury he can’t afford.

Chapter Text

Jared sees Richard in the cafeteria on Tuesday, and they sit together at a small table near the windows in the back. It’s noisy and unbearable as always. Even in the back of the room, the sound seems to surround them like a bubble, making it hard to decipher anything being said in the vicinity.

Richard picks at his chicken sandwich but doesn’t actually seem interested in eating it, in contrast to Jared who has to make a conscious effort to stop himself from inhaling his salad.

“Are you serious about wanting to come over and watch The Empire Strikes Back?” Richard shouts over the commotion.

Jared puts down his fork. “Absolutely, if you would have me.”

Richard’s face brightens. “Cool, cool. So, uh… after the next meeting? If that’s okay? Or basically any other time, I don’t do anything outside of school, honestly.”

“Friday would be perfect,” Jared says. “Thank you, Richard.”

Richard quirks his eyebrows. “‘Thank you’ for what?”

Jared just shrugs and smiles, then stuffs a forkful of lettuce into his mouth.

As the bell rings to signify the end of lunch, Richard pulls a Walkman out of his backpack and slips the headphones over his ears. Noticing Jared’s intrigued glance, he slides the headphones down so that they’re hanging around his neck.

“Do you have one?” Richard asks.

Jared shakes his head.

“Here, you can borrow mine,” Richard says, holding it out to Jared.

Jared shakes his head and gently pushes the Walkman back towards Richard. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly. It’s yours. I like records, anyway.”

Richard insists, taking the headphones completely off and holding the machine out again. “Come on, it’s way better than a record. Just try it out.”

Jared finally accepts, though hesitantly.

“You can give it back to me on Friday,” Richard offers.

Jared nods. He wants so badly to say no; he can feel the guilt already gnawing at him. Richard has given him so much, has been so generous and benign. Jared knows that he has nothing to give Richard in return. It’s hard enough for Jared to trust and accept help when there is mutual benefit, so the added unselfishness that Richard offers him puts him on edge. There’s always a catch. It always ends with stupid, naive Jared letting people run rings around him when they show him kindness. Nevertheless, he slips the Walkman into his bag without crossing swords.

When he gets into his foster mother’s car at the end of the day, she gives him a strange look.

“What's gotten into you?”

Jared quirks an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“You just seem… peppy,” she says. “I don't know.”

Jared wonders how miserable he usually looks if the mood he's currently in is considered “peppy.”

Jennifer turns up the music, her favorite Culture Club song, and leaves the conversation at that. Jared leans his head against the window and closes his eyes.

The drive home is quiet, as usual. Jennifer looks over at Jared every once in a while; he can see it out of the corner of his eye, and she seems to have something to say to him. Of course, she doesn’t end up saying a word. When they pull into the driveway, Jared hops out of the car before she can give him a speech about telling her how he feels or the importance of trust or some other well-intentioned sentiment that never ends up meaning anything.

Jared grabs a box of raisins from the pantry on his way up to his bedroom, and accidentally wakes up Frauke as he walks by. She seems to decide that it’s too much effort to get up and chase him, so she settles for growling at him until he leaves the kitchen.

Jared drops his bag on his desk and takes the Walkman out. He’s careful with it, so scared that he’ll break it and make Richard mad and no longer be welcome at Richard’s house and-

He takes a deep breath. You have a penchant for catastrophic thinking, his childhood psychologist used to say. The first step in addressing these thoughts is to acknowledge when they occur, and move away from the extremes. Consider other options.

Jared puts the headphones over his ears. It takes him a moment to find the play button, but he eventually does and the music starts up. It’s a sound that Jared isn’t used to, a gentle guitar riff with airy vocals and synthetic sounds over the snare-heavy drum pattern.

The next song has a stronger, fuller sound. Jared taps his foot along with the chorus. He tries to imagine the way Richard listens to it, wonders what his favorite song is. One of his music teachers once told him that you can learn a lot about a person from the music that they listen to and relate to.

There’s a clicking sound, eventually, and the music stops. Jared recalls needing to flip the tape to the other side when he was working the cassette deck in one of his music classes. He assumes the same for the Walkman. He presses a button on the top and the Walkman pops open, letting Jared pull the tape out.

Summer ‘83 is scrawled on the cassette in blue ink. Below it, so small Jared has to hold it up to his face and squint, is the list of songs.

Colourless Dream- Sad Lovers & Giants is first, followed by Boys Don’t Cry- The Cure, Love My Way- The Psychedelic Furs, Bye Bye Love- The Cars, and various other songs from artists Jared had never heard of. When he flips the tape over, it's blank. It seems to be unfinished. Jared pops the cassette back in and listens to the whole first side again. On the second listen, he decides that the first song is definitely his favorite.

He finds himself humming it at the table that night, during a rare dinner for which everyone is present. Jennifer gives him an intrigued glance but looks away when he meets her eyes and starts a forced conversation with Bill about how to fix the large crack developing at the base of the driveway.

Jared listens through the tape again while he does his homework, and finds that he’s already memorized the lyrics of most of the songs. The headphones are uncomfortable but Richard was right, he likes the Walkman. He doesn’t like the sound quite as much as the sound of a record, but he likes how small and portable the Walkman is. He can blast the music to drown out Gunther and Frauke’s barking and avoid chastisement from his foster parents, who always seem opposed to the music he listens to.

That night, he dreams that his foster parents give him a Walkman for Christmas. Gunther licks his face and Jennifer looks him in the eye and the house smells like cinnamon instead of cigarettes.

Chapter Text

Jared gives the Walkman back as he’s walking out of the meeting with Richard.

“Liked it?” Richard asks, looking hopeful. He grins when Jared nods. “I knew you would. I don't know if the songs are necessarily your style, but still. It's cool.”

“I liked the songs,” Jared says.

They reach the car, and Jared hits his head on the top of the door frame, like usual, as he gets in.

They talk about music on the drive to Richard’s house. Jared tells Richard about his favorite Anne Murray and Carole King records.

“My mom has I'll Always Love You on record,” Richard says. He’s more talkative today, perhaps due to nervousness. Of course, Jared doesn’t mind. He likes hearing Richard talk.

Richard pulls the car onto a side street, pretty and lined with magnolias and California pepper trees, and parks streetside in front of a cream-colored Spanish Colonial. There’s a stone walkway curving through the front lawn and a well-maintained garden nestled between the steps up to the door and the side of the garage.

“Here we are,” Richard says, a bit awkwardly, holding his hands out as if to present the property to Jared.

Richard’s house is a lot closer to the school than Jared’s, and Jared feels a pang of guilt for the fact that Richard goes so far out of his way to drive him home every week.

Richard pulls a set of keys out of his backpack and unlocks the front door, stepping aside to let Jared in first. “You can leave your bag right here.”

Jared sets his bag up against the wall next to the door and follows Richard into the kitchen. It’s lit warmly and the wallpaper is a soft, chestnut brown. There are leafy plants hanging above the cupboards.

“Want a soda or something?” Richard asks. He pulls open the refrigerator. “We have Tab.”

Jared nods. “I’d love one. Thank you.”

They each take a can and head for the den, where there’s a television up against one wall and a faded, pink bridgewater sofa facing it. Richard’s house is cozy on the inside, unlike its manicured and contrived outer appearance. Jared can see bits and pieces of lives that are lived here. There is an unfinished piece of cross-stitching on the coffee table beside a stack of comic books. The top comic is an issue of The New Teen Titans. Jared picks it up. He had loved comic books as a child and read multiple times through the limited number of issues that were stocked in the library of one of the group homes he stayed in. They were old and had some pages missing, but provided a spark for Jared’s imagination during a rather dark time of his life.

On the inside cover of the comic is a name written messily in black marker: Daniel Hendricks.

“Who’s Daniel?” Jared asks.

Richard, who had been messing with the VCR up to that point, looks up. “Huh?”

Jared holds up the comic book.

“Oh, Danny’s my little brother,” Richard says. “He’s obsessed with superheroes and stuff. I don’t get any of it.”

Feeling discouraged about his nostalgia, Jared quickly puts the comic down.

Richard finally puts the tape into the VCR, then sits on the sofa and beckons Jared over to sit beside him.

Empire is set three years after the first movie,” Richard explains through the starting credits. “And R.O.T.J. is set right after this one.”

Jared nods, splitting his attention between the text on the screen and Richard’s commentary. As it turns out, Richard never really stops providing extensive background information on the writing, production, and even critical reception of the film. He quiets during the most thrilling action sequences, then starts right back up again with a factoid about the special effects. Jared misses some dialogue, but gains the knowledge that Harrison Ford ad-libbed the “I know” scene. A fair trade-off, he supposes.

When the movie ends, Richard jumps up to turn the VCR off, then turns to Jared expectantly. “Did you like it?”

Jared nods. “Yes, though I am somewhat confused.”

“That’s okay,” Richard says. “You’ll have to watch it a few more times.”

They’re entertaining, sure, but Jared isn’t sure that he understands the obsession with these films. Perhaps he does just need to watch them again.

Before they can decide what to do next, the front door opens. A short, slender woman in a blue blouse strides into the kitchen with her arms full of grocery bags.

“Hi, Mom,” Richard calls out.

“Help me with the groceries, would you, dear?” she replies.

Jared follows Richard to the kitchen, figuring he might as well help and make a good first impression. Richard’s mother smiles when she sees him and shakes his hand vigorously.

“This must be the friend he’s been talking so much about,” she says. “Pleasure to meet you.”

She’s nearly a foot shorter than Jared, and he feels a bit awkward and boxed in. Her excitement also seems to embarrass Richard, who is standing off to the side silently. Jared covers up his unease with superfluous politeness and flattery.

“I love your hair, Mrs. Hendricks,” he says. “It’s very Marion Ross in Happy Days.”

Despite the maladroit delivery of the compliment, Mrs. Hendricks is delighted. “Aren’t you sweet!”

The three of them unpack the groceries, then fold the paper bags and put them in the cupboard below the sink.

“Thank you boys for the help,” Mrs. Hendricks says. “Now, run along while I make dinner. Why don’t you show him your room, Richie?”

Richard grimaces at the nickname. “Okay, Mom.”

He leads Jared up the stairs.

“Sorry about her,” Richard says when they are out of earshot of the kitchen.

“Oh, it’s okay,” Jared replies. “You should consider yourself lucky that you have a mother who loves you so much.”

Richard gives him a concerned glance but doesn’t ask him to elaborate. Instead, he pushes open the door to the right of the top of the stairs and says, unceremoniously, “Here’s my room.”

The room is about twice the size of Jared’s, yet Richard has still managed to fill almost every inch of the space. There are stacks of coding books on every flat surface. The walls are plastered with movie posters: Apocalypse Now, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and other films that Jared has never seen (and probably will never end up seeing; he’ll stick to Harold and Maude and Days of Heaven).

There’s a fish tank on top of one of the chests of drawers, with two goldfish inside.

“I like your fish,” Jared says, peering into the tank. “Do they have names?”

“Oh, yeah,” Richard replies. “The big one is Vannevar and the one with the black spots is Pascal.”

Pascal stares at Jared, fins wiggling and mouth rapidly opening and closing.

“Cute,” Jared muses, smiling.

“We probably have almost an hour until dinner,” Richard says. When Jared turns to look at him, he’s holding a stack of board games. “Have you ever played Go For Broke?”

Jared has. In fact, he used to play it with his uncle, beating him nearly every time until he got so frustrated with losing to Jared that he stashed the game away in the attic.

They set the game up on the floor in the center of Richard’s room. Jared sits cross-legged despite knowing that it won’t be good for his back to hunch over the game board. Richard pops a cassette into the stereo on his desk and hits play, and the room is filled with upbeat music.

Moonlight Feels Right,” Richard says when he sees Jared bobbing his head along, “by Starbuck.”

“I like the marimba,” Jared says.

Once they start playing the game, all of Jared’s past strategies come back to him. As it turns out, he hasn’t lost his aptitude for the game. Richard doesn’t stand a chance. Unlike Jared’s uncle, however, Richard takes his defeat in stride.

“Dude, you’re good at this,” Richard says.

Jared shrugs, diffident.

They play a few games, and Jared wins all of them. Before they can start another one, Richard’s mom calls up the stairs.

“Be down in five minutes!”

They pack the game up and Richard stows it on the top shelf of his closet. Jared stands by the door, waiting for Richard to lead the way.

Richard approaches him, but doesn’t open the door. He just stands there, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. They’re too close to each other. Jared can see every small imperfection on Richard’s skin and could probably count his eyelashes if he had the mind to. Richard shudders, near-imperceptible, and looks up to meet Jared’s eyes.

The tension is so thick it’s unbearable. Jared is hit by the staggering thought of Richard pushing him up against the wall. He scolds himself silently for letting himself imagine such things.

“We should probably go downstairs for dinner,” Jared says. He hates how hoarse his voice sounds.

Richard’s eyes flick over to the door, still shut. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

His words are thick, like they catch in his throat before he utters them. He still hasn’t moved.

Jared’s thoughts terrify him. Images keep flashing through his mind; grabbing Richard’s hand, running his fingers through his hair, kissing him. He tries to squash them down, and instead gets a flood of speculative disgusted reactions from Richard if he could read Jared’s mind. Jared takes a breath, too loud and sudden. Richard breaks eye contact and takes a step away.

“I’m starving,” Jared says too loudly.

Richard nods in agreement. They head downstairs without another glance at each other, eager to leave the awkwardness behind.

The dining room table is set nicely with matching tableware and cloth napkins. Richard seats himself, and Jared hastily takes the seat beside him. Richard’s parents and a boy around twelve who must be Daniel are already seated.

“You must be Jared,” Richard’s father says. He’s a tall man with a short, reddish beard.

Jared nods. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.”

Dinner goes by rather smoothly. Richard’s parents seem to like him, and they ask him well meaning questions about his family. Jared is sure to keep his answers vague enough to not draw concern.

Richard’s mother is a wonderful cook. Jared eats a chicken breast and a large portion of green beans, but his egg allergy prevents him from trying the cornbread. Nonetheless, he eats well.

“When does your mother expect you home, dear?” Mrs. Hendricks asks.

“Oh, she doesn’t care,” Jared says automatically.

Mrs. Hendricks frowns. Jared sees it developing on her face: the pitying look, the awkward concern that she isn’t sure whether or not she should voice.

“Pass the cornbread, Dad,” Richard says, preventing a tense silence from developing. Jared smiles thankfully at him.

Mr. Hendricks clicks his tongue. “Did you forget something?”

Richard rolls his eyes, but indulges him. “Please pass the cornbread.”

Richard’s family is just so… normal. His mother lovingly prepares homemade meals instead of TV dinners. Richard’s childhood photos and elementary school art projects are displayed around the house. He’s lived with the same people, and probably even in the same house, for his entire life. Judging by the photos of grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles framed on the walls, he actually keeps in contact with his extended family. He has a bedroom full of things that he likes that he’s built up over the years.

Jared longs for normal.

They finish eating, and Daniel and Richard clear the table. Jared starts to help them but Mrs. Hendricks waves him back into his seat.

“You’re the guest,” she says.

It’s late by the time they finish clearing the table, so Jared grabs his bag and he and Richard head out to the car.

“Sorry if my parents got kind of invasive,” Richard says after they pull out of his street.

Jared shrugs. “It’s okay. They meant well.”

“I know, but…” Richard tightens his grip on the steering wheel. “I just feel bad. You, uh… you deserve a family that appreciates you.”

It’s a simple statement, but something about it is so sincere and compassionate that Jared feels like crying. He’s never had a friend show him so much solicitude.

Jared clenches his jaw and takes a shaky breath. “Thank you, Richard.”

“I mean, I’m not going to pretend that I understand,” Richard continues. “But you could, like, tell me. If something’s bothering you.”

“Thank you,” Jared repeats.

Richard is silent for the rest of the drive. He only barely clips the curb when he turns into Jared’s driveway, then shifts the car into park.

“See you at school on Monday,” he says.

Jared offers him a lopsided smile. “Yeah. See you then.”

He wants to add something else, something to express his gratitude. Preferably without crying. Instead, he just sits and smiles at Richard for a beat too long, then struggles to extract his entirely too tall and spindly body from the car. He gives Richard a short wave and watches him drive away.

His eyes well up with tears before the tail lights are out of sight. He has realized something tonight, between the movie and seeing Richard’s room and dinner and the drive home.

He deeply, deeply cares about what Richard thinks of him.

The house is dark and silent when Jared gets inside, and the Peugeot wasn’t in the driveway when he arrived. His foster parents must be out enjoying Jared’s absence. Like he does every time the house is otherwise unoccupied, Jared heads to the den and puts a record on. He chooses Anne Murray's I'll Always Love You, this time, remembering that it’s a favorite of Richard’s mother’s.

Just as his tears begin to dry, his brain cruelly reminds him of the thing that had occurred in Richard’s bedroom. Heaven knows Richard is replaying it in his mind as well. At least, Jared tells himself, Richard hadn’t been aware of his perverse reverie.

Jared takes a deep breath. He had thought similar things about one of the older boys at his group home, and he had gotten past that with a bit of self-flagellation. A normal friendship can still be salvaged. He just has to keep that part of himself out of the way.

The record player goes quiet for a moment, then Broken Hearted Me comes on. The irony is not lost on Jared.

Chapter Text

Though Jared thoroughly convinces himself that the absolute worst-case scenario will occur, it doesn’t. His relationship with Richard doesn’t change. The incident in Richard’s bedroom is, on the surface, forgotten (that is to say that neither of them acknowledge it, but surely they both have a lasting recollection of it somewhere in the subconscious). Things return to normal when the next week begins and the computer club can focus on the larger issues at hand. Mainly, adding another member so that they have enough participation to ensure official recognition by the school as an extracurricular.

The solution to the club’s quandary arrives on the Friday before Thanksgiving break in the form of a girl in a maroon blazer and hoop earrings.

“This is Monica,” Richard says, “from my finance class.”

Monica is tall and rather glamorous, and something about the set in her shoulders and her sharp gaze makes her seem much older than she is. She regards the group with muted interest.

“Do you code?” Erlich asks.

Monica rolls her eyes. “Of course I code. Why else would I be here?”

Erlich shrugs. “Fair enough.”

Monica is briefed on the inner workings of the club and the goals for the year. Jared zones out a bit when Richard starts talking in-depth about code, but Monica seems interested. She asks question after question, making Richard a bit flustered, but he powers through to explain everything. He even draws a diagram that Jared can’t make heads or tails of on the chalkboard in the back of the room.

The day, overall, goes so well that Jared begins to prepare himself for the inevitable calamity that must be awaiting him.

//

Bill gets home drunk and angry just before midnight. Jared is still up, poring over his college application at the kitchen table. He hopes that Bill will just pass him by.

Instead, Bill stops a few feet away and gives him a venomous glare.

“Why isn’t the trash at the curb, Jared?”

Oh, heavens.

The meeting had gone late; Richard got a bit carried away with his exposition. It was so late when the group left the school that they had decided to go out for dinner together. Most of the rest of the evening had been spent in the corner booth of the Mexican restaurant near the school, talking about code and movies and, of course, college applications. The conversation, though pleasant, brought Jared’s perturbation about his own application to the forefront of his mind. By the time he got home he was so fixated on it that he got right to work. The trash had slipped his mind, pushed aside in favor of a more pressing issue.

More pressing to Jared, at least, but evidently not to his foster father.

“I apologize,” Jared says. “I was out to dinner with my friends and-”

Bill scoffs. “You were what? Out prancing around with kids from school when Jen is here, working hard to make you dinner and take care of you? Do you do this often?”

Jared hunches his shoulders. “No, sir.”

“Oh, I bet you do,” Bill continues. “Neglecting your responsibilities, your family.”

When have we ever been a family? Jared wants to scream. The next breath he takes is tremulous.

“Jen!” Bill shouts. He seems to be hit with a wave of nausea and has to steady himself against the counter.

Jennifer appears in the kitchen, dressed in her nightclothes. When she sees Jared, her face falls.

“Since he can’t be bothered to do it, why don’t you take the trash out?” Bill says.

Jennifer nods quickly and starts toward the garbage can, but Jared opens his mouth before he can stop himself.

“Don’t make her do that.”

He surprises himself with his defensiveness. Jennifer freezes and looks back at him.

“Excuse me?” Bill snaps.

Jared feels a boldness rise within him, clenching around his chest. “Do it yourself. You aren’t doing anything else important.”

Jennifer pales. “He doesn’t mean it,” she protests, grabbing Bill’s arm as if holding him back even though he hasn’t moved. “He’s just tired. It’s late, we’re all tired.”

Though Bill doesn’t move, his gaze sharpens to something vicious. “You’re gonna wish you didn’t say that.”

As quickly as the boldness overtook Jared, lifted him up like a wave, it vacates him so suddenly that it leaves behind a yawning empty space.

“Bill, stop it,” Jennifer says, quivering. “Let me get the trash. I can do it, we can-”

“Get out.” Bill’s voice is cold and clear as day. It’s directed at Jared.

Jared just stares at him, mouth agape.

“Are you deaf? I said get the fuck out of this house,” Bill says. He’s slurring his words and his eyes are bloodshot.

Jared opens his mouth as if to ask where he’s supposed to go but decides against it, just nods soberly and moves towards the door. It’s a quick switch. His defiance disappears and all that remains is an empty sort of compliance, as if he’s rehearsing a scene. A theatrical mechanism of self-defense.

Jennifer snatches the beer that Bill is holding. “Stop it, Bill! How dare you kick him out of his own home?”

“It’s my home,” Bill says, “and I can tell him to leave if I want to.”

Jared reaches out for the doorknob, but Jennifer moves in front of him. “Stop it, Jared, don’t leave. He’s just drunk, he doesn’t really… he doesn’t mean it.”

“He’s an adult, Jen, he’s a man. He doesn’t need you to protect him,” Bill barks. “Get out of the way.”

Gunther and Frauke have been roused from their sleep by the sound of voices, and they stand behind Bill with their hackles raised. Jared tries again to grab the doorknob, eager to escape the situation before it gets dangerous. He’s done this all before; all the words are familiar and he knows exactly how it’s going to end. His movements are almost mechanical, controlled by some external force.

“Don’t listen to him,” Jennifer says in a low voice, looking right at Jared. “I won’t let you… I don’t want you to leave.”

Bill is only getting louder behind them, and when his voice reaches a certain register the dogs begin to bark. The noise is overwhelming. Jared makes an effort to keep his breathing steady when he reaches again for the doorknob. This time, he grabs it.

“Please move,” Jared says. Jennifer has her back up against the door now, and there are tears welling up in her wide, brown eyes.

“Don’t do this, Jared,” she says, but she obeys his request and takes a step away from the door. The sound of the dogs fills the whole room, and Bill’s truculence only worsens as the seconds tick by.

Jared is shaking as he pulls the door open and grabs a jacket from one of the coat hooks. Jennifer is still pleading with him, her sobs just adding to the cacophony of sound spilling out of the kitchen. When Jared steps outside, she starts to follow him, but stops before she steps over the threshold.

“Jared,” she calls out, plaintive.

Jared doesn’t look back at her. He doesn’t want her to see his tears.

The dogs stop barking when the front door closes, and the neighborhood is quiet as Jared sets off on a walk with no destination.

//

Jared isn’t sure how long he’s been walking or exactly where he is. The sky is clear and the moon is huge and bright, illuminating the road enough that Jared can see most of what’s in front of him. He stopped crying at some point. There’s something curling in his stomach, an anger, a cruelty that frightens him. He isn’t sure if it’s directed inwardly or outwardly.

He isn’t sure which would be worse.

Jared sees headlights approaching. He moves further off of the road, pulling his too-big jacket tighter around his body.

The car suddenly screeches to a stop. Jared tenses, ready to flee from the potential assailant.

“Jared?” the driver calls through the open window.

Jared looks up. Through the darkness, he can make out a mop of wavy hair. The car suddenly seems very familiar.

“Come on, get in,” Richard says.

Neither of them knows what to say at first. Richard has turned the music down, but the chorus of Space Age Love Song is unmistakable.

“Why are you walking in the middle of nowhere at one in the morning?” Richard asks finally.

“Why are you out driving in the middle of nowhere at one in the morning?” Jared retorts.

“There’s a meteor shower,” Richard says. “Best visibility is supposed to be at quarter past one. There’s a field a few miles from here without many houses nearby, so it’s the best place to watch without light pollution.”

There’s a telescope, a boombox, and a fleece blanket in the backseat.

“I’ve never watched a meteor shower,” Jared says, “but if you wanted to see it alone…”

Richard scoffs. “No, you can come. I want you to.”

It isn’t long before they reach the field. Richard pulls the car up alongside a wooden fence, then grabs the things from the back and leads the way to a spot about halfway between the road and the line of trees at the far side of the field. Jared follows him, cautious, afraid that if he acts too boldly Richard will somehow realize his bad judgement and send Jared away.

Richard lays the blanket out and sets the stereo up on the corner of it. “Want to pick a cassette?”

Jared nods and takes a look at the selection. There’s the mixtape that Richard had initially lent him, as well as a few tapes from bands Jared didn’t know. Jared ends up picking one with red text on an off-white background simply because he likes the way it looks.

Wings,” Richard says. “Good choice.”

He pops the cassette in, and the music plays as he starts to set up the telescope. Jared sits down on the blanket and watches him. He isn’t entirely sure what to say, if anything. His mind is a mess of gratitude and comfort and bitter, gnawing guilt. This scene is too peaceful, the place too beautiful. He feels like an intruder.

“You never answered my question,” Richard says, still looking down at the telescope. “About why you were out walking.”

Jared sighs. “I got kicked out.”

“What?” Richard exclaims, looking up in alarm. “When? How long have you been alone?”

“Oh, not very long,” Jared lies. “It’s okay, it’s not anything I haven’t dealt with before.”

Richard frowns. “It’s definitely not okay. Oh my god, Jared, I can’t believe you act like this is normal.”

The telescope seems to be finished. Richard doesn’t say anything else, and Jared wonders if he’s made a mistake. Has he let Richard care about him too much? Has he hurt Richard? Has he made himself too visible, allowed other people to take on his pain?

“Want to take a look?” Richard asks, breaking the excruciating silence. “I can already see some meteors with my naked eye.”

Jared makes his way across the blanket. He leans down, needing to hunch to get his eyes level with the eyepiece.

“See anything?” Richard whispers. He’s so close to Jared. Jared can feel his breath against the side of his neck.

A meteor streaks across the sky as if on cue.

“Yes,” Jared gasps. “Oh, Richard, it’s beautiful.”

He stays like that, fixated on the streaks of light through the viewfinder of the telescope. He used to be scared of space. It’s so vast, full of unanswerable questions and events that humanity can’t fathom. Never in his life did he think about it as beautiful.

But it is. Lonely, boundless, and beautiful.

They watch the meteor shower for what feels like hours. Eventually they tire of the telescope and lie down flat on the blanket, side by side, staring straight up at the sky. Jared lifts his arm up to direct Richard’s attention to a particularly bright meteor, and when he brings it back down to to his side, he brushes Richard’s hand.

“Hey, Jared?” Richard whispers.

Jared turns his head to find Richard sitting up, leaning on an elbow.

“Yeah?” Jared whispers back. He strains to mimic Richard’s posture.

The moon is bright enough that they can see each other’s faces. The air is cold, making their breath visible, but the blanket is warm beneath them. The music breaks up the silence without disturbing the gentle stillness of the night.

It feels like the middle of nowhere, like they’re the only people for miles around, and it’s because of those things that Jared lets Richard lean in and kiss him.