At least he had the photographs. All those shots of Richard—the candids and the up-shirts—taken first as shameful secrets and then, later, with Richard's bashful permission, his smile emerging slowly from a scowl across time. Paging through the album felt like watching their relationship take flight again, and Jared studied it wistfully. He watched Richard's trust in him expand, Richard learning to accept Jared's love for him, opening up for him, letting him in.
At least he had the photographs. Something to remember Richard by. It brought him an immense and sorely-needed warmth and comfort.
At least until the third day, when his phone battery gave out.
Jared spoke into the empty room, coughing from the dust motes. What was this place? How had he arrived here? It looked like it had gone untouched, and carried the unmistakable sense that it had not felt a living human presence, for very many years.
"Yeah. Uh. Yeah?" Richard's stammering, nervous voice seemed to come from a great distance. "Jared, I'm here. I'm - I'm looking in the box but you're not, uh - what the fuck - shit, Jared. Are you - wha - where the fuck are you?"
"I don't - " Jared paused and considered his surroundings. The room was blank: plain white walls, no markings on them; a rusted panel in the center of it, covered with switches and knobs; a large, dreadfully filthy hourglass that, beneath a thick layer of dust, contained sand that sparkled like gold. Jared checked his smartwatch as if it might have some information for him that the room itself was either unequipped or unwilling to provide. He found, curiously, that despite its freshly charged battery, his watch was entirely dead. He checked his cell phone, too: no signal.
"Apologies," said Jared. "I'm not quite certain. It appears to be some sort of... control room?"
"Can you find your way back?"
Jared felt afraid for the first time, a blind, instinctive terror that slid down his throat and into his stomach like a needle of ice. There is something about this place, he thought, something bleak and lifeless. He wondered if perhaps he was dead and this was limbo.
"Jared, you still there?"
"Yes." His mouth felt dry. He was beginning to panic. "I - I don't know what to do, I - "
"Look, just - stay where you are, okay? And if you move like, leave a sign, a - a - a trail or something." Richard's voice seemed to be growing further distant, pitching downwards somehow, rapidly fading out. "Alright? Jared? I'll - I'll be right there - I promise I'll find you. I'll - "
If he said anything else after that, Jared couldn't hear it.
What the fuck, thought Richard. Jared was right here just a second ago and now he was - well, where the fuck was Jared now?
They had been in the Raviga basement after hours, looking through Peter Gregory's old things. There were a lot of scribbled, senseless notes, odd things he had collected, weird experimental projects, stuff no one actually believed would work. And among those things, a strange, black box, large enough to fit a person. Jared stepped inside the box and disappeared.
Richard's voice felt small and useless, calling his boyfriend's name out into nothing. The box was empty. Jared wasn't there.
This is not possible, Richard thought. This is not logical. Richard's life was ruled by reason, by logic, by the neat and rigid order of mathematics and grammar and code. Anything that disrupted that order launched Richard into fits of sweat and nerves and anxiety. Even thinking of it now, he feels something hot rise in his throat, and a sudden need to cling to a nearby trashcan.
Jared, Richard thought, had always defied all of his logic. He'd made Richard redefine the rules he lived by, expand his horizons, and make room for another inside his small, hard-cornered life. The way he held up the sheets at night for Jared to climb into bed beside him.
He had to get him back.
Wherever Jared was, it was unfathomably endless. An infinite, seemingly-unbroken stretch of white hallway.
"Richard?" Jared called. "Richard?"
All he heard in response was the roaring of an ocean, or that might've been an ache inside his ears. Jared knew Richard had asked him to stay put, but after several hours alone in that control room, and conducting a verbal SWOT analysis, he decided it was better to stay on the move. To collect whatever information he could and in that way, make himself useful. Jared discarded small objects behind him, leaving a trail for Richard to follow. Buttons from his shirtsleeves, items from his wallet. His Palo Alto public library, Audubon Society, and National Public Radio membership cards.
"Richard?" Jared called again.
He walked and walked and walked, met with nothing but an eerie silence. And when it seemed clear that Richard wasn't going to answer his cries, Jared sang Sarah McLachlan songs softly to himself instead to fill it.
"Richard, it's 3am. What the fuck is it?"
He hadn't expected Monica to pick up, let alone on the first ring, her voice creaky, surprised out of sleep.
"Jared. He," Richard began to explain, but he didn't really know where to go from there. He felt epically foolish, certain that he would not be believed—especially not by someone as level-headed and practical as Monica. He wasn't even sure exactly why he'd called her, of all people, for help. But, he supposed, if he really thought about it, Monica was his best friend other than Jared. And she knew Peter Gregory's bizarre mind better than anyone.
"He - oh fuck," Richard said, "we're still at Raviga - I mean, I'm still at Raviga - and he, uh, he. I'm not crazy. He disappeared."
"What do you mean he"—Richard could hear her eyes roll, the air-quotes she was probably making with her fingers—"disappeared?"
"I mean, he stepped into some weird black box with like, a fucking hourglass on it and then he disappeared and he's not here!"
Monica gasped. "Holy shit."
Richard fought off the urge to throw up again. "Is it - that sounded... bad."
"Hourglass," Monica said, as if it should explain everything.
Richard waited for her to continue, and filled the silence when she never did: "I - I'm sorry, Monica. Am I supposed to know what that means?"
"Look, I'll get there as soon as I can, okay?" He heard rustling in the background, the sound of Monica stirring from bed. "I can explain when I get there but, Richard, I don't know how else to tell you - Jared is not safe."
"What do you mean he's not safe," Richard spluttered. When he looked down at his phone again, he saw that Monica had already hung up.
Jared was exhausted. He'd been walking for lord knows how long—the clock in his phone had stopped working, its digits clicking by at an impossible rate—and his knees and the backs of his eyes ached. He had to find someplace to rest.
Just when he thought he could not walk anymore, Jared came upon a doorway. He opened the door and stepped through into something like a large aircraft hangar. It looked familiar, Jared thought, and then he realized that was because it looked an awful lot like Arallon: the grey floors, steel industrial ceiling, even the occasional robot forklift. Jared felt cold panic rising in his chest at the thought of it, thrust back into the past with no escape plan. Terror to be back here, alone, again.
Jared huddled in a corner, curled in on himself to keep warm, though he'd learned in his time on the streets that his slender frame rendered him particularly vulnerable to heat loss. He wrapped his vest around himself like a blanket, teeth chattering in his oxford shirt and khakis.
You've been here before, Jared told himself, Donald. You've been more exhausted than this, more hungry, more freezing, more thirsty, more alone. He hugged his bony knees to his chest and shivered. You've been more terrified than this, more abandoned, more hopeless. And all those times, you didn't even have Richard looking for you. Richard is a genius. He won't give up. He'll work it out. He'll do whatever it takes to find you.
You love Richard, and Richard cares for you, and you're going to see each other again soon.
Jared told himself that over and over, and for the first ten years it almost worked.
"So Hourglass was some sort of... time travel project Peter was working on?"
"Time travel? Are you fucking serious?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Monica had shown up in her pajamas: blue flannel pants and an old Orioles tee shirt. She'd brought a thermos of coffee that looked like it could survive the apocalypse, downloaded everything she knew about the Hourglass project to Richard, and helped him find Peter's old notebooks where he'd sketched out his vision and plans.
"You knew about this," Richard said, "and you let us come here with no warning whatsoever?"
"What do you think I should have said?"
"Maybe you should've told us there was a chance one of us might step into a box and end up in - oh, I don't know - an alternate dimension populated by evil robots."
"I always thought it was bullshit!"
There was nothing bullshit, Richard thought, about the searing panic in his chest at the thought of losing Jared. Nothing bullshit about the way he'd reearranged his life to make space for Jared in it, and now couldn't imagine trying to put it back the way it previously was.
Richard would figure this out, he swore. He would break reality and time for Jared if he had to. After all, he had broken all his other rules for him.
Jared had given up on escape. He'd given up on being found or rescued or finding a way out of this place. As far as he could tell, he would have had to engineer his way out in one way or another, and engineering had never been in Jared's particular skill set. All the things Jared had tried—the manicures, the Wicca shop, even business development—when it came down to it, none of these were the thing Jared did best.
What Jared was best at, what his strong suit really was, was surviving.
This was his life now: the cold and empty hangar, long stretches of white corridor, doors that led nowhere and he had tried them all, the endless expanse of vacant, lonely nights and days. Jared got by. He'd murder a seagull for his supper if he had to. Drew on the wilderness survival skills he'd picked up in that boys' camp on the commune. Drones patrolled on a regular basis, but they hardly disrupted his routine now; after all these years, Jared could disable them without so much as blinking. He almost relished the chance to take out another one of them.
Jared's own anger had frightened him at first, when he felt it. Like something he'd spent years burying inside himself had finally broken free. It was monstrous, terrifying. He thrashed against the walls and hurt himself and howled, begged for help, pleaded for Richard, and when it was over there was no one to tend to the bruises he'd inflicted on his skin.
Jared had never wanted to be this—he knew well the wrath of angry men and strove never to be one—but the rage festered in him like an infection, and over time it grew and grew. He spent years on nothing but the indulgence of his anger: at everyone who'd ever failed or hurt him, which was a lot of people, but at Richard often, and at his own trusting, susceptible, exploitable younger self most of all. How had he believed he loved Richard? He'd let himself be taken in by this heedless, selfish child, who had broken his promise to save him. He'd allowed himself to played, manipulated, and taken advantage of. He'd been too foolish, too desperate, too pathetically, hopelessly romantic, too blinded by the depths of his ill-advised, self-destructive devotion and desire to see the truth.
If Richard ever does turn up, he swore, I won't be what he's expecting. I won't be so easy this time. I won't fall in line for him. I won't follow him blindly. Not ever, not ever again.
"Aha!" Richard exclaimed, feeling terrifically pleased with himself.
It'd only been twelve hours of caffeinated drinks and non-stop work and he'd figured it out already. Something Peter Gregory himself had toiled over for decades. Of course, Peter had never predicted Richard's revolutionary compression algorithm when he'd started his little interdimensional-space-time-travel project. Richard congratulated himself again, for what a fucking genius he was. Jared was going to be so impressed. He'd probably want to show Richard just how much he -
No, no, fuck. Richard shook his head. There was no time to get caught up in one of his sad little horny daydreams. There was important and potentially life-saving work to do here.
It had been some pretty simple coding, really. A lot of combing through Peter’s old notes and, with Monica's assistance, interpreting his unusual shorthand. Then, a few rudimentary mechanical repairs and the box was re-calibrated to allow travel back and forth between the present and its alternate timestream. Richard could step through the portal and bring Jared back home with him, and destroy this machine in the process, and it would be almost as if they'd never even left.
Now all he had to do was actually, you know. Do it.
"Go get your boy," Monica said, encouragingly. "Remember what to do when you get to the control room, and just - act fast. You'll only have so much time before the portal becomes too unstable to travel through again. You only get one shot at this, Richard."
"I know, I know," said Richard.
He couldn't help but note that Monica, who he could usually trust to at least sound like she believed in him, did not seem particularly confident.
It was strange to think Jared had been here. The control room was just as he'd described it to Richard: there was the dust and the knobs and buttons, and there was the hourglass Richard knew they'd have to use to get back. Before he could go on, he had a little work to do. Just a few minor adjustments and repairs. Then, he thought, he'd find Jared and they'd be out of here in no time. I mean, how far could he be?
Richard estimated he'd been walking the corridor for thirty minutes before he found the first sign Jared had left. A button from one of his shirts, it looked like. And about twenty minutes after that, a Palo Alto library card in the name of Donald Dunn. It looked like it had seen better days, like some sort of archaeological artifact.
Weird, Richard thought. But he didn't think much more of it, until the same thing happened with Jared's frequent visitor card from the allergy-friendly bakery near Erlich's house. When Richard picked it up, it almost crumbled to dust in his hands.
He followed the trail further down the blank corridor, until he found one last button, placed outside an ominous black door. Richard drew a breath and opened it. There, on the other side, in what looked like an aircraft hangar, was a tall, gawky man with unbearably blue eyes. He had grey hair, and weary lines worked into his skin, and Richard had never been more surprised or more happy to see him.
"Jared? Jared, fuck, it's you - it's me - it's Richard. Richard."
The hallucination gestured toward itself. Holy cow, Jared thought, how about that. Even after all these years, you still remember him so clearly, exactly as he was then. His twitchiness, the nervous, jerky mannerisms, his scrawny frame, exquisite cheekbones, and noble, aquiline nose. Jared's visions hadn't captured Richard this clearly in ages. Not to this degree of vivid, lifelike detail. He'd come to believe he had forgotten.
"Jared? It's Richard," the hallucination said again. "Is that - holy shit." It laughed nervously. "What the fuck happened to you?"
Jared ignored it, going about his daily business. It had been common, especially in the early years, for him to get carried away with fantasies like this, to let his imagination get the better of him. He'd seen Richard coming around every corner, his knight in shining armor, his captain, his savior, his prince. He wouldn't let his loneliness make him look so foolish now. He wouldn't let such folly interrupt him. Jared refused to give the vision credence by even acknowledging it.
But somehow, it kept talking. It rushed to keep apace with Jared as he conducted his daily chores. It was terribly, torturously persistent.
"I followed the trail you left. The buttons. The library card. But it looked all fucked-up and like, old, man. Monica said time might pass differently here but I didn't think that - jesus."
Jared collected a gallon of water to take with him back to his bunk.
"Fuck. I mean, you look old. Your hair is grey, Jared."
"Yes," he finally snapped. "Decades will do that to you."
"Jared! Thank fuck, you can hear me."
Richard laid his hand on Jared's arm, and Jared remembered the warmth of it, as clear in his mind as if he'd last touched Richard yesterday. In all these years, none of his visions had been able to do that.
"You're still here," said Richard.
"Yes, well. You didn't save me."
"No, no," Richard said, headstrong and insistent. "I solved it! It only took twelve hours. This is it. Here. This is the saving. This is the me. Here. Now. Saving you."
Jared pried Richard's hand from his arm. "I'm sorry," he said, "there's a lot on my to-do list."
"Your to-do list? Screw that. I mean we can go home right now."
"Home," Jared spat the word out like he didn't care for the taste of it. "Where do you think that is?"
He thought of all the times in his life he'd gone to sleep in strange beds, in unfamiliar and frightening places. At this point, he'd lived here a lifetime longer than he had ever lived anywhere. If Jared had a home in the world, this was it.
"If you're not coming, I'm staying," Richard said.
Jared slept fitfully that night, haunted by thoughts of Richard, and then tortured by his impulse to push those thoughts away. He wondered where Richard was sleeping, how he would find food and water, if he would even make it through this first night.
He was roused, at some point, from his tormented slumber by the sound of a shout and racing footsteps. The unmistakable whir and vocoder "please be careful" and "this is for your own good" of one of this place's aggressive patrol drones. Jared was out of bed, fully equipped in his makeshift armor, and into the hall within seconds. He grabbed the drone out of the air, just as it prepared to deliver a paralyzing shock to Richard, and disabled it instantaneously with his hands. He would bring the pieces back to add to his stores of possibly-usable refuse.
"Woah." Richard considered him, looking frankly impressed. "You really get this place."
Jared nodded brusquely. "Thirty years will do that."
"Well, thanks," Richard said. "You saved me." He turned as if he meant to go back out into the corridor, presumably to wander away the rest of the night and hope not to get himself maimed, paralyzed, or killed in the process.
"Perhaps, for safety's sake," Jared suggested, "it'd be best if you slept in here with me."
Jared beckoned Richard into the little sleeping nest he'd built himself out of scavenged and discarded materials. He offered Richard the bag that stood in for his pillow, wrapped him in the tarp that substituted for his sheet. He curled on his side, turned away from Richard, and he tried not to cry, tried to steady his breath, tried to stay still and effectively feign sleeping. It ached, it ached, having Richard so close and feeling so far away, as if he were worlds away from him.
Remember, Jared scolded himself, you swore you wouldn't fall for him again.
Despite Jared's better judgement, he found himself falling back into old patterns with Richard. A routine he'd nearly forgotten, but when he was in it, felt almost as natural as if he'd never left. He resumed his old post of looking out for Richard, tending to his needs, providing food and comfort and protection. Richard, for his part, let Jared provide the care he longed so terribly to give him, letting his guard down, allowing him in. They talked all day long, Richard helping Jared with his chores, finishing each other's sentences. Rewinning, piece by piece, the simple, quiet intimacy that had been theirs back in their old lives.
At night they lay next to each other, a chaste distance between them, sharing Jared's makeshift blankets. Sometimes Jared would wait until he was certain Richard was sleeping and then study his face in the darkness. Sometimes he would awake to find Richard's body pressed up against his, a thin arm cast around him, hot breath on the back of his neck. He would disentangle himself without saying a word and get up to go scavenge for breakfast.
"So," Richard said one night. Jared had built a small campfire, and they huddled together in its warmth. Richard would never get over being impressed with him. "Are you ready to go back yet?"
"The real timeline. When are we going back?"
"Richard." Jared swallowed. "I can't promise you I'll ever do that."
"Ugh." Richard let out a low moan. He tugged at his hair in frustration. He'd been certain, by now, of Jared's willingness to return with him. "You don't get it. If we don't go back there, we cease to exist. We lose everything. You and I. Everything we worked for. Everything we worked on. Pied Piper will cease to exist."
"Richard," Jared said, "even the way you're framing this conversation: that your world is the real one and mine is somehow less than. And in your version, who ceases to exist? Just me!" Jared was actually shouting, holding his ground, something Richard had never heard him do before. At least not without apologizing and feeling ashamed of himself immediately after. Who is this person, Richard wondered. Because it doesn't seem like the Jared I know.
"What about the age difference," he said, turning to reason, desperate to argue Jared out of this. "If we stay here, the portal will close up and then you'll die first and you'll leave me - what - here on this fucking alien planet, or whatever it is, in a box in Peter Gregory's basement, for maybe decades, as far as we know, completely fucking alone. And that's if I don't get myself killed immediately."
Jared was silent for a moment, staring into the crackling fire. This is it, he thought. The selfishness, the exploitation, all the things you swore to protect yourself from. Then, in a voice rigid with tension, he asked, "do you realize what you just said to me?"
Richard spluttered, "what? You know I, oh come on, you know I didn't mean it like that."
"I remembered you could be thoughtless. Selfish. Reckless. But this - this is worse than I thought."
But Jared, Richard thought, I meant I wouldn't survive it because I'm weak. Not the way you are. I am in awe of you. You made it this far because you're so strong.
He could not make himself say that so, "I came here to save you," he said instead, "and now you won't - even - " Richard pulled out his phone, a last-ditch effort, calling up a happy photo of the two of them, sat together on Jared's couch. A lovesick look of devotion on Jared's wonderfully open face. If he could only make Jared look at it, if he could only make Jared see.
"I understand." Jared nodded definitively. "You don't want me. You want him. You want someone who adores you the blind, foolish way that he did. I understand."
"No, but - "
Jared threw a bucket of sand onto the campfire. "I'm going to bed," he said.
The next day, Richard offered an apology Jared did not care to accept. And again the next day, and again the day after that.
"I realize I may have been unfair," Jared said, eventually. "I know it didn't feel like a long time to you, but you have to understand that I have been here, by myself, for years."
"I know, I know. And I'm sorry."
"May I ask you something, Richard?"
"Richard, do you love me? Not now-me necessarily but me when I was, well. Young."
Richard bit his lip. "I haven't said so. Not yet."
"That isn't an answer."
Jared turned to go back to his quarters, but Richard chased after him, practically nipping at his heels. He took firm hold of Jared's arm, tugging him back toward him.
"Okay, okay, if that isn’t good enough I'll tell you now then. I'm telling you. This is me telling you now that I love you. And you love me, too. I think. It was kind of hard to believe that anybody... but you say you love me all the time! Don't you remember what that felt like? What this"—Richard took Jared's hand and held it to his chest, where he could feel his heart rapidly pounding—"feels like? Do you really want to miss out on this?"
He was so warm. So warm. Jared felt the cage he'd built around his own heart collapsing, like Richard was dissolving its walls. With a bit of a shock, he found that he was crying. "It's been so lonely," he said.
"Can I just - can I try something," Richard asked, and when Jared nodded, he pulled him into a warm, enveloping hug, and they slid down onto the floor together. Richard held Jared while he wept into his arms, and they stayed just like that, together, for what felt to both of them like the exactly-right amount of time.
"I'm scared," Jared said later that night, looking up at Richard from beneath him. "I haven't, well. I haven't been... intimate with someone in more than thirty years."
"So that time when we - on my bedroom floor? That was your last time?"
"Right. Makes sense. That's alright." Richard smiled. "You know. That was my last time, too."
Finally what he saw when he looked at Jared matched the life Jared had lived, all the messed-up, tragic secrets he was always so eager to share with him. There were deep lines etched into his face, around his eyes especially, but his eyes themselves were as maddeningly blue as ever. Richard saw the Jared he knew and loved there.
"You still want me?" Jared asked, in a small, wobbly voice.
"So, so bad," said Richard.
Richard pressed a finger to his lips, lips to his neck, to his chest, to his stomach, lifting his shirt up and kissing along his waistband.
"Your skin feels different."
Jared shrugged. He apologized as if on instinct.
"Not bad. Just. Just different." Richard ran his hand up Jared's arm, over his shoulder, across his collarbone. "It's rougher here." Down his chest, his ribs, his stomach. "And here." Over a jutting hipbone to his pale inner thigh. "But here is like." Richard swallowed. "Still soft," he whispered, and he heard Jared's gasp, his sharp intake of breath, as Richard took him into his mouth.
Jared stirred at sunrise, as he always did, Richard still asleep and snoring softly beside him. Carefully, delicately, Jared slipped Richard's phone from beneath the pillow-bag where he'd stashed it and took it with him around the corner, where he wouldn't be easily seen. He crouched down on the floor and opened the photo album Richard had wanted so badly to show him. There was so much to look at: picture after picture of his younger self, and Richard just as he was now, and of the two of them, together.
Are my ears that big, thought Jared. Is my skin that pale. Is that really what my nose looks like. Other than the haircuts he gave himself, Jared had hardly bothered to think of his own appearance in at least a decade. Even the smallest of vanities still seemed a sinful thing to him.
It ached, it did, to look at the pictures. Incontrovertible proof of a life he'd been fortunate enough to live, and then unlucky enough to lose so brutally quickly. The happiness that had been stolen from him. The home he didn't get to spend enough time in. The Richard who should have come to his rescue but didn't. At least not when he should have.
There was one picture in particular that Jared found himself stuck on, that got caught in his head like a song. It was of the two of them, together on the couch in Jared's condominium. Richard was looking away—at what he couldn't possibly remember—but Jared was looking at him. Enraptured in attention to Richard's features, like studying Richard's face was the most fascinating subject in the universe. Between them, on the sofa, their hands knotted together tight.
"Hey," a voice said, low and sleep-colored, behind him.
"Oh." Jared turned, flustered, trying in vain to hide what it was he'd been caught staring at, as if it were some sort of awfully salacious material, placing his large hand over the screen of Richard's phone.
"You looked," Richard said.
Jared knew that if he told the truth, if he acknowledged quite how much the photographs had made his heart ache, if he expressed how badly he wanted that life back, that it might give Richard a hope he wasn't quite sure he could promise him. For as much as the pictures made Jared long for that life, he was also terrified; he knew that in order to get it back, he himself—as he was now—would need to die for it.
"I remember," Jared said, "how it felt to be him." And he moved his hand away, revealing to Richard the picture. "He loved you so much. He wanted you so badly. He was so - oh Richard - I still can't believe he got to have you, even for a day, even for a moment - "
Jared paused there, his voice breaking, his eyes wet, a storm of wild emotion threatening to make him come undone. He remembered what it'd been like, those first few years. When he'd longed and hungered and dreamt of Richard arriving to save him still. When he fell asleep each night fantasizing about their grand reunion: how sweet, how wonderful, how romantic it would be. He remembered how it felt to be that person.
And he remembered how it felt, before that, when he'd watched Richard turn down Gavin's ten million dollar offer and thought to himself, I would tear my life apart for that man. I would follow him anywhere. And he thought of Richard in the Raviga basement, figuring out how to reach him, being such a genius that he did it in less than a day.
"He wanted to love you so badly, Richard. He was so afraid you wouldn't let him." Jared reached up with his frayed and threadbare shirtsleeve to wipe hot tears from his face. "He wanted to love you. I want to give him a chance to do that."
"Does this mean you're ready to go back?"
"Okay," Richard said, "so it's actually a really simple mechanism. When you break the hourglass, we should be back at Raviga, and nobody should ever be able to get trapped in this shithole again."
"Good," said Jared.
"But you have to do it."
"You want me to rip apart time itself for you, Richard?"
Jared smiled flirtatiously. "I wouldn't do it for anybody else." He reached out his hand toward the dusty hourglass.
"Hold on, hold on. Do you think we should clean it first?"
Jared shrugged, and wiped the dust off the glass with his shirtsleeve. "All better," he chirped, and he reached out towards it, again.
"Richard? What's wrong? Sweetheart, I believe you're stalling."
"Just," Richard closed his eyes, "just wait."
A strange expression passed over Richard's face, and for a moment Jared worried that he might become ill on himself. He had forgotten this look: the one Richard got right before a speech was required of him.
"Jared," he said, "look, I love you. I love now-you. I mean, yeah it sucked at first but I love that you were so fucking angry at me. It makes it feel like, like equals, you know? And I love that you survived all these years here on this evil robot island or whatever the fuck it is - alone. I love that you can kill a drone with your bare hands. And I love the grey hair. You look hot. Like a - a - a - like a sexy professor." Richard blushed beet red. "You're strong and brave and I love you."
There was a part of Jared, still, that was so frightened. A part of him that didn't want to take the risk, that wanted to stay right here, in this time and place, where at least the awful routine of his life felt safe, with Richard.
Jared had spent so long being chastised and admonished, even by himself, for the things that he most wanted. For once, he thought, he would not allow that shame to steal something wonderful from him. He would have Richard, and love Richard, and save Richard. He did not need to be saved.
You tore your life apart for Richard once, he thought. You can do it again. For the both of you.
"I love you too," said Jared, and he smashed the hourglass.
Richard came to in the Raviga basement with a thunderous headache and an unmissable urge to throw up. Jared sprawled out on the floor beside him, rubbing at his temples and looking like he felt as queasy as Richard did.
"Well," Jared said, cheerfully, "that's the last time I leave my drink unattended at bingo night! I feel awfully hungover." He looked at his watch. "My goodness it's late. Did we... did we fall asleep?"
"I'm not sure." Richard looked around the room like it could provide an answer, but it was just the Raviga basement. Just the detritus of Peter's old things.
"Your hair's so dark," said Richard.
"Silly," Jared teased. "What else would it be?"
"Right. Right. Heh. I'm not sure why I said that."
"Richard," said Jared. "Let's go home."