One arm extended, heels lifting slightly from the ground, Jared Dunn is reaching up past the cereal shelves. His back is arched; his sweater stretched taut across his shoulder blades. He looks like a baby deer trying to catch berries on a high branch.
Richard’s brain catalogues this information in the split second during which his attention moves from the document he’s scrolling through his phone, to the sunlight he sees coming in through the kitchen window. He can’t tell what Jared is reaching for. He doesn't really think about it. He thinks about the colour blue. Blue is what we see when we look at the sky, because of the way blue light waves are scattered by oxygen and nitrogen molecules. In high school, Richard remembers, his physics teacher told the class that the blue colour was due to small particles of dust, and droplets of water, even though that had been disproved by then. Richard wishes he’d thought to point out to his teacher that the sky is still blue whether the weather is humid or dry, which suggests that droplets of water have little to do with it.
“Richard? Do you need anything?” Jared has gotten what he wanted from the high shelf - backup teabags, apparently- and is now looking inquiringly at Richard.
It's not- he doesn't need anything, he just - “I just got this, um, document from Monica?”
“May I?” Jared asks, closing the distance between them and reaching for Richard’s phone.
Jared’s sweater is blue. And his eyes are blue. His sweater is blue like… like a shade of blue that that looks like it would stain easily. But his eyes look piercing. There’s something inexplicable about him. He’s much taller than everyone else in the house, and is far more helpful and knowledgeable than all of them, but he always fits himself into the margins of spaces. He’s not - it’s like there’s some information missing. About him.
Richard hands Jared the phone, and that’s when it happens: Richard gets a mental image of himself backing Jared up against the counter. Trapping him there. It’s only a very brief mental image, but it’s - vivid.
Later, after Jared explains the document to him - it’s a “memorandum of understanding” apparently - Richard sees that same mental image again. Himself flush up against Jared, pushing him against the counter. No other elements to the image, just that, though the little there is is bright, brilliant technicolour.
Richard really needs to sleep. He’s been working for - he’s not sure how long.
“Jared? How long have I been working?”
“Oh -“ Jared taps something into his phone. “Forty two hours and twenty three minutes.”
That’s a pretty long time. “That’s a pretty long time.”
Twelve hours later, Richard wakes up, wanders into the kitchen, and it’s like, really quiet. Probably because it's five am, but also, there's rarely music playing in the kitchen. Or in the house in general, for that matter.
People listen to music on their earphones to block out any other sound, but they don't have music playing in the kitchen. Which - it's not that Richard wants music playing in the kitchen, it's just that he feels like, if you exclusively listen to music when you're blocking out every other sound, then music becomes associated to solitude. Or to isolation, even.
Anyway it’s 5am, so. He can hear himself breathe in and out, that’s how quiet it is. That's its own music, probably.
Richard fishes out a mug and sets it down on the counter. When he looks up, he’s again hit with the image of himself backing Jared up into the kitchen counter. It’s still just a flash. No story to go with it, no explanation. Just him taking a step towards Jared and pushing him up against the counter. Jared letting him do it.
He makes himself coffee and discards the image as an aberration. He doesn’t see the point of the image and there’s no - there’s no place to store it in his brain. He doesn’t, like, have a repository for random mental pictures.
He can't get it out of his mind.
It's on the third day that it starts to bother him. Not that there’s anything… wrong? With the image? The image is fine. But it’s the same, over and over. Like having to listen to the same song for days.
“Jared?” Richard blurts out before giving any thought to what he’s about to say.
They’re in the middle of reviewing employee contracts. They're in the kitchen. No one else is around and Richard’s pretty sure he just interrupted Jared mid-sentence.
“Do you ever…“
The thing with Richard - no. The thing with what Richard does for a living, is that, generally speaking, the optimal working conditions are (1) complete isolation, and (2) as long as possible in one sitting. In practical terms, what that means is that programmers like him sometimes wish they could forego human bodies, and stop interacting with the rest of humanity entirely. Also, it means that he, Richard, has rarely given any thought to any of the impulses he has that aren’t work-related.
The point is, he doesn’t know how to say stuff.
“Do you ever…”
This is fine, he tells himself. Just be vague. “Do you ever get these images in your mind that like, you don't know where they came from? But you can't stop thinking about them?”
“Oh!” Jared sits up and clasps his hands together. “You’re thinking of unwanted or repetitive thoughts, sometimes called ‘stuck’ thoughts.”
“I do get them! Thank you for asking. They can be a symptom of anxiety, though I’m happy to report that I haven’t -”
They’re sitting side by side, and Jared’s hands are clasped and on top of his knees. He looks like he’s gearing up for an anecdote, but when he turns to face Richard, he stops mid-sentence. He blinks.
“Have you been experiencing stuck thoughts, Richard?” He leans in as he says it. How is it that Jared is so tall, and yet, he always seems to be looking up?
“Maybe. How do I make it stop?”
“Don’t move, I’ll make you some tea.” He gets to his feet. “You need to reduce your stress levels.”
While the tea is brewing, Jared patiently tells him everything he knows about stuck thoughts. And it’s informative, which is soothing, but the truth is, Richard finds that listening to Jared talk about anything is soothing. Some of his anecdotes can be unsettling but the thing with Jared is, he’s so sure of what he is. No matter how awkward he gets, he’s always utterly confident about his own identity. It’s… it’s… Richard likes it. He just does.
And then, inevitably, the question. “If I may inquire, Richard, what image has been so present in your conscious mind?"
“Oh, I - um.” Richard’s mind goes completely blank and his voice goes up a full octave. “Ummmm…”
He grabs what’s left of his tea, like maybe in the cup there’s an answer, but he jerks it back too fast and spills it - about half the cup - all over his front. There’s so much of it that his shirt sticks to his skin. This is just… Richard hears himself giggle before he realizes he’s doing it.
“Soaking my shirt instead of my pants, that’s new.”
Years ago, Richard met a girl on livejournal.
He didn't know she was a girl at first. But when he mentioned Tulsa in his journal one day, lj user critical_conjecture said "hey I live in Tulsa.” And he met Emma.
She was taller than him, with short dark hair, tattoos, and a tendency to express affection through mocking. They met in the parking lot at Starbucks, walked in, started talking, and within minutes it was as though they'd known each other for years. Emma didn't know much about computers, so they didn't have that in common, but she liked every band Richard liked, and they discussed music for hours, until the staff kicked them out.
What Richard remembers about the day they met, isn't what she said about Weezer, or Death Cab for Cutie - it's how, when they walked back out into the parking lot, she told him that she was awful to people who liked her romantically. She told him about the time she panic-broke up with a guy over email once, and told him that she felt like anyone wanting to spend time with her more than once a week was clingy and gross. Richard remembers listening her, in mute confusion, because his immediate reflex was to reassure her that on the contrary, he was sure she was actually very nice? Except, she sounded faintly boastful, so she obviously didn't want reassurance. She wanted... admiration? It was very confusing. So he just blinked, and figured it was her way of telling him that they were never, ever, ever going to be a Thing.
He'd been so caught up in their conversation that he hadn't gotten anywhere near the idea of thinking of her that way, so it was easy to tell his brain to never, ever pair up "Emma" with "libido." Not consciously, anyway. So strangest thing about Emma - or rather, the strangest thing about Richard and Emma - was that Richard only realized that he was attracted to her years after they stopped spending time together. He liked spending time with her - confusion and all - and he knew she was beautiful. But his own physical attraction to her was buried away where he couldn't find it.
When he did find it, it was years after they’d drifted apart, and he did nothing with the information. But he remembers the moment of realization like... like his memories of normal life are black and white while this memory is technicolour.
He was watching porn. It was the kind of amateur porn where you can hear music playing in the background, and just as the girl in the video started moaning really loudly, the Sweater Song started playing. It was a song Emma hadn't even liked all that much, but she'd had strong opinions about it and - and well all Richard knew was that suddenly, he was coming all over himself.
Next thing he knew he was looking for videos with tall girls with short hair and tattoos like he remembered Emma having, and coming his brains out all over again. Coming his brains out in a weirdly emotional way, actually, which was… It was… Well anyway he hoped he’d guessed right about Emma’s feelings, because it was too late to go back now.
When he dumps half a cup of lukewarm chamomile tea on himself, Richard’s first instinct is to take his tea-soaked shirt off. Except, Jared reaches for the top button at the same time he does. The two of them fumble like some kind of sitcom slapstick routine, but then they, well, Richard isn’t sure how things happen but he ends up with both of Jared’s hands in his. His hands are huge and somehow, the way they move against Richard’s makes him feel all quiet and calm inside, but also like he wants more of it. And that’s when something occurs to him.
What occurs to him is: maybe he’s overlooked something.
Because sure, a repetitive thought can be a symptom of anxiety. But what if it’s just like… A symptom his brain trying to get a message through? You know, like the way that, if you're thinking about water, it might just because you saw an ad for bottled water… but also it might be because you are actually thirsty.
He thinks: maybe I’m thirsty? But like… for men? Sexually? It would be a weird thing to realize in his thirties, but his entire life has been weird, so it would be in character, Richard supposes. And less embarrassing than like, fucking late-onset bedwetting.
He needs to investigate. As soon as possible. Not with a SWOT board.
So, gay porn. Richard watches gay porn for what feels like hours, but is actually just under twenty minutes, in an attempt to figure out if he’s been bisexual all this time and never noticed. It’s harrowing. The advertisements alone.
But just as he’s starting to think that he definitely feels no attraction whatever to men, something happens. He watches a scene in which one actor kinda bumps, unintentionally, into the other actor, and they start to giggle. They’re definitely professional porn actors, but the scene feels improvised, and it’s… different. The actors giggle and they look like they’re not sure what they’re doing for a second, and when they put their arms around each other Richard suddenly wants it. He wants to keep feeling whatever he’s feeling just then.
But as it turns out, it is shockingly difficult to search for some aspects of porn. Looking for tattoo girls back in the day was pretty simple, but now, hunting for a specific kind of awkward fumbling in gay porn - this is basically futile. He just completely gives up when he realizes that the tags on xhamster are in multiple languages and that there is obviously no one doing any tag wrangling. And then he gets totally derailed because who runs this thing? People with dicks for brains? He’s met people in porn, they don’t have dicks for brains. What the fuck.
One of them has narrow shoulders, dark hair, and blue eyes. The other has sandy hair and looks like one of those guys who are shaped like football players but give off this vibe of intense gentleness. They’re both… They just look normal. Jeans and t-shirts. More, ah, form-fitting than most people wear? But just… regular. Like they wouldn’t be out of place in a Bay Area Starbucks.
Anyway in the scene they’re just like, in a living room. Watching tv. And what happens is, one of them falls asleep. (He is obviously not asleep, Richard notes, but it isn't clear if the fake sleep is a ruse or just bad acting.) The other guy - football guy - then leans over to wake him up. So when he opens his eyes, their faces are really close together, and they stare at each other, inches apart, and then their eyes flick down to their mouths. And that’s the big seduction scene.
After that they lunge at each other and start tearing their clothes off. The way you know people are professional porn actors, Richard decides, is that they don't have tan lines. But the thought only lasts for a few seconds, because then the actors kind of stumble and giggle in a weirdly genuine way and all rational thought disappears from Richard’s mind because he is intensely, uncontrollably, aroused.
Six hours later, Richard wakes up wildly annoyed, and determined. Whatever reason there is for the lack of meaningful filtering and tagging in internet porn, it cannot be that hard to fix. Just like - a well-indexed aggregator. How hard can that be?
His brain distantly registers the unintentional pun. How hard indeed. Efficient tagging, the tagline will read. Making it less hard to get hard!
When he wanders into the kitchen for some cereal, Richard doesn't think about his stuck thought, but he does remember that he dreamed about Jared growing eggplants in the backyard. Dream Jared wasn't wearing overalls or any kind of gardening-appropriate wear as he lovingly harvested eggplants, he was wearing perfectly creased pants and a button-down. “Weird.”
“What’s weird?” Jared asks, walking into the kitchen behind him.
Richard drops the box and before he knows it Jared is crouching down and they’re on the floor together picking up spilled cereal. Heads together, hands touching. He nearly blurts out “at least this is easier than growing eggplants” before remembering that Jared cannot see his dreams.
“Look, I can't be the only programmer in the Valley looking for something specific.” Richard writes, later, in the Youporn comment section
“Something specific” turns out to be code on that part of the internet for “something illegal” so to clear up that misunderstanding Richard finds himself starting to explain that he means, like, for example, guys giggling in the middle of taking each other’s clothes off? Except he can barely get that far because typing the words makes him feel hot and embarrassed. It’s just mortifying for some reason. He, like, checks four times that there’s no way to trace the comment back to him before clicking post.
In any case it turns out that a comment like that gets you suggestions, except they’re not suggestions about optimizing porn searches, they’re suggestions of videos to watch. Dozens and dozens of videos to watch. Of men with no tan lines who make each other laugh. And then make each other come really hard, while clutching at each other and -
Anyway Richard doesn’t get a lot of work done, but the next day he wakes up with a renewed sense of annoyance. People shouldn't be forced to override their social ineptitude to find porn that meets their needs? Like, he’s pretty sure that people with strong social skills aren’t the main target audience for porn.
Determined, he finds a spare whiteboard and gets to work. Brainstorming on his own is how he started on the first iteration of Pied Piper and that turned out - ok it’s a huge mess. But it isn’t a mess because of its fundamental structure, so this part of the process is sound. He puts the whiteboard on his desk and maps out a project. No wait, he doesn’t, he writes “(1) crowdsourced or not-crowdsourced?” and immediately gets stuck and doesn’t write down anything for (2). Then he thinks, for the third time in as many days, that he cannot possibly be the only guy in the Valley to have tried to solve this.
“Jesus Christ, Richard.” Monica says when he gets her on the phone. “Of course finding porn isn’t efficient.”
She sighs. “If there wasn’t anything standing between you and what your boner wants, where would porn distributors stick the advertising?”
“Oh.” Well that’s… annoyingly likely. “You mean, no one’s built a decent aggregator because it wouldn’t be profitable?”
“Not with current revenue streams.”
“So if I use my time to build this -“
“Either you do a bad job and it’s just a waste of your time, or you do a good job and porn distributors are suddenly spending every waking moment shutting you down.”
“Huh.” Richard writes ‘revenue streams’ on the whiteboard.
Monica coughs delicately. “Why the sudden new project, Richard? Is it - are you trying for a passive income stream? ‘Cause I can -“
“It’s not for the money.” Richard immediately knows he answered too quickly.
“Then what are you -“ He swears he can hear her smile. “Did someone put you up to this?”
“No! I - I’m a… man. I could have needs. Did you think of that?”
“I’m hanging up, Richard.”
The next morning he dreams about the sound of knocking on a door, but he can’t find the door. He’s damp when he wakes up so he thinks he’s started night sweats again, but then he throws his comforter off and finds that the whole knocking door thing was a wet dream. Fucking… fuck.
And ok. Ok. Richard isn't stupid.
He’s not - he knows what this is about. Not the dream but the - everything. Ok? He knows. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew all along.
The thing about Jared is that he keeps fucking gazing at Richard. He keeps gazing, and he… Sometimes, Richard looks up, like, he’s in the middle of something, his head is somewhere completely different, and he looks up, and he and sees Jared across the room looking at him. Just looking at him.
He makes Richard fucking feel things. Richard isn’t even… He can’t even recognize anything about the things he feels. He could swear that he’s been attracted to other people before but not like this. It’s - like Richard sees Jared in the kitchen, totally focused on some stupid task, like making tea, and he’s, he’s just, there’s something about him. And it makes Richard crazy because he can’t figure out, he just cannot for the life of him figure out, if Jared is even aware of the effect he has on people.
Of course the reason Richard can’t cope with his attraction is really straightforward. It's this: Jared is emphatically not disposable. He’s not - like Richard can't experiment with him. He can't be all hey-no-pressure-let’s-just-try-this-out, he just can't. Richard has to either think of Jared as off limits, or be willing to risk his entire support system.
What the fuck else is he supposed to do? His own emotions have got to be easier to deal with than goddamn porn revenue streams, but he keeps wanting things. Inappropriate things. Things he’s not supposed to ask for. And his dreams are fucking him up.
But he wipes everything off the whiteboard anyway. Stupid displacement activity bullshit. Fuck.
Of course what becomes clear over the next month is that Richard’s support system is screwed no matter what he does. He can barely glance at Jared without blushing, so forget any closer contact. And Jared himself is…distant.
And like some kind of romance heroine, the greater the distance, the more Richard wants him. Is this what ‘pining’ is? It’s fucking embarrassing. He can't look anyone in the eye. He can barely leave his bedroom.
Richard stares up at his ceiling and thinks about Jared’s wrists. Jared’s sweaters. The honey in Jared’s goddamn tea.
There’s a knock at his bedroom door.
“Richard?” There’s something about Jared’s voice. It’s weird.
Richard’s heart, beating faster at the sound of Jared’s knock, starts pounding. “Yeah?”
“May I come in?”
“Yeah. I guess - fine.”
Jared walks in and he’s - he isn't carrying documents, or holding a laptop, or - is this an intervention? No. If this were an intervention the other guys would be with him. Richard doesn't like this, he doesn't like this at all, he doesn't like not knowing what’s going on and Jared’s quit once before and -
“Richard, I can't take this anymore.”
This can't be happening. No no no no no this can’t be happening. He can’t - Richard won't let him quit again, he’ll stop him, he’ll beg, Jared told him not to beg but he’ll beg. He gets up from the floor. He takes a step towards Jared, and he -
Jared cuts him off. “Richard, I can't take this anymore. I know how to cope with my own unrequited love, and I know how to cope with the lust -“ he makes a vague gesture towards Richard “other people occasionally feel for me. What I do not know, is how to cope with both those things happening simultaneously.”
“I cannot focus.” Jared says intently. “I’ve lost the ability to compartmentalize. Richard, the hungry looks, the blushing, the - I cannot even make myself tea without you gazing at me like you want to push me up against the counter and -” Jared closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. “If it were anyone else but you. If - if Gilfoyle had suddenly started looking at me that way. Or Monica. That would have been… Well, yes, it would have been remarkably awkward, but, ultimately, it would have been fine.”
Jared’s eye contact never wavers but his voice drops down to a whisper. “But it isn't anyone else. It's you, Richard. I’ve been in love with you for too long. When your eyes are on me, I feel like I’m choking. It doesn't matter if you're in another room, only visible through an open door, or so near that you could reach out and touch me. I can't breathe.”
Richard swallows thickly. “Did you say ‘unrequited love’?”
Jared nods. His eyes are. So sad.
“How - how, um.” Richard clears his throat. “How do you know it’s unrequited?”
Jared gasps. “Don't toy with me, Richard.”
“Answer me. I think you should - answer me. How do you know it’s unrequited?”
“I don't.” Jared breathes.
“You know that -” Richard scrubs his hands over his face. “Remember the stuck thoughts?”
“You never told me what they were.”
“It turns out - it took a long time to - but it turns out, they weren't a symptom of stress. They were symptom of - of being in love with you.”
“I’m not toying with you. I never wanted to toy with you. I just, I didn't tell you that, I just, I don't know what I’m doing.”
“I’m sorry you can’t breathe, please breathe, I love you, I just want you to -”
Jared lunges. He wraps his arms around Richard. His sweater is slightly fuzzy in a way that tickles Richard’s nose and his hands are cold and he’s so wonderful, he’s so wonderful.
“Oh, fuck. Fuck. Jared.” Richard says into Jared’s sweater. He reaches up to put his arms around Jared’s neck, angles his face up, and kisses him.
He - kissing is like - Richard can feel it in his entire body. And he doesn't think about it, he just thrusts his tongue right into Jared’s mouth, which… but then Jared moans around it, and it’s so hot, it’s so fucking hot.
They fall down.
“Richard! Are you hurt?” Jared asks, even though he’s the one flat on his back.
Richard is sprawled on top of him and cannot stop giggling. He rolls over onto the floor, still giggling, gets on all fours, and straddles Jared. “Ohmygod please fuck me,” he says, clutching at him. Jared smells amazing. “I love you, fuck, hold me down and fuck me.”
“Oh.” Jared’s eyelashes flutter.
Richard, feeling delirious, bends down to whisper in Jared’s ear. His lips move against Jared’s skin and it’s so soft. “I bet you know what to do.” He grinds down. “I bet you - you know how to be filthy and make me like it.”
“Stop - for heaven’s sake stop talking, Richard. Kiss me.”
“No, no, Jared,” Richard, still giggling, contradicts him. “We can’t stop talking now. You seem like - you’re definitely the kind of guy who wants explicit consent. I bet you want us both to say ‘yes I consent’ before we take our clothes off.”
Jared takes hold of Richard’s shoulders and, with unforeseen agility, rolls them over and pins Richard down. “Richard. I would like to take your clothes off, hold you down, and fuck you until I come in your ass. Do you consent to that.”