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The Way I Feel Inside

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 After Richard’s pained apology and Jared’s poor attempt of deflecting its effect, the two walked down the hall of the last board member’s office in silence, broken only by the occasionally tearful sniff from Jared, who still donned his absurd sunglasses. Richard knew that it would take time for the rift between them to heal and he had given up hope of Jared returning to his place at Pied Piper but he felt hopeful that, in time, he and Jared’s friendship would be restored. He hadn’t been lying when he told Jared that he missed him. Not just for what he did for the company but also as his confidant. Jared, for the past six years, had been an ever-present totem of optimism and support for Richard and he missed the glow of his regard. He didn’t need to be Jared’s captain anymore… He would settle for simply being his comrade. Richard was carefully turning these thoughts over in his constantly overclocked mind when they reached the lobby of the office building, where Monica, Gilfoyle and Dinesh stood waiting.

 Dinesh had a painful expression plastered on his face as he held his phone to his ear, each grimace timed with a muffled boom that could only be Wajeed’s reaction to the news of their acquisition of Hooli.

Monica, on the other hand, started toward them, heels clicking and a victorious grin on her face, “We should celebrate!”

“H-how?” Richard stammered, watching as Jared politely scooted past Monica.

“Dinesh said there’s a pretty cool karaoke bar a couple blocks from here,” she told him, brightly.

Richard blanched at the idea of karaoke, Monica knew as well as he did that he could barely speak in front of people without barfing, let alone sing.

 “You don’t have to sing,” she added quickly, as though reading his mind, “just have a couple of beers and watch Dinesh and me make fools of ourselves. You’ve earned it!”

Richard bit his lip thoughtfully for a second before smiling reluctantly back at her, “you’re right, we’ve worked our asses off to get here. Let’s do it!”

“We’re doing it?” Monica retorted, shocked at his easy acceptance.

She turned to Dinesh and Gilfoyle who were embroiled in what looked like a somewhat heated discussion with Jared, despite their hushed voices.

“It’s on, guys! I’m getting us an Uber!” Monica called out to them enthusiastically.

 With Dinesh and Gilfoyle’s attention turned away from him, Jared crept away, toward the revolving door.
Monica clicked toward him at a speed Richard didn’t think he could achieve in his worn sneakers, let alone in high heels.

“Ah, ah,” Monica corrected, startling Jared as she placed a hand on his shoulder, “you should come with us. You were integral and we couldn’t have done this without you.”

 “No fuckin’ way,” Gilfoyle cut in, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Yeah, Jared’s a fucking traitor to the cause,” Dinesh objected, looking annoyed to have to side with Gilfoyle, “he only helped us for his own gain.”

“Besides he’s got his precious new startup to get back to,” Gilfoyle added, staring bitingly at Jared.

Monica glared over her shoulder at both of them, only Dinesh seemed to wither at her glance.
 Richard felt a heat in his chest that he had, until then, only felt when Pied Piper was being threatened. ‘What is it?’ Richard pondered as he unconsciously started towards them. Jared’s mouth was downturned into a frown the likes of which Richard had never seen. ‘Protectiveness,’ Richard thought, naming the feverish ache he felt, taking in Jared’s kicked puppy expression, barely guarded by those stupid sunglasses.

“You can’t be seri-“ Monica started, before Jared was shrugging her hand from his shoulder.

“They’re right, Monica,” Jared said, his lip trembling.

“No,” Richard heard himself say before he had time to think.

“Richard,” Jared started sullenly, “I-I should go. Gwart is waiting for me.”

“NO,” Richard all but shouted before threading his fingers through his curly hair and screwing up his face in embarrassment.

He shook his head, let out a breath and tried again, “No. I-I really want you to come with us, m-man. If y-you really don’t wanna, go ahead but-but don’t say no because of these assholes. You’re part of t-this posse as much as anyone here, Jared. Please.”

 For the first time in days, Richard was delighted to see Jared’s lovely mouth upturn in a reluctant smile, “aye, aye, Captain.”

“Is that good with you two?” Richard asked rhetorically of Gilfoyle and Dinesh.

“As long as you never say the word posse in my presence again,” Dinesh replied looking thoroughly put off.

Richard looked to Gilfoyle, knowing he’d be the biggest voice of dissent.

Gilfoyle surprised him with a smirk, “whatever you say, Dick.”
And that’s how the group ended up in a crowded tiki bar, drinking strong but fruity drinks from hollowed-out pineapples, while Dinesh sang an ear-rending version of Crispin St. Peters’ “The Pied Piper,” with far too many leis around his neck.

“Doesn’t he know any other songs?” Monica inquired with a chuckle, popping a maraschino cherry into her mouth.

“I don’t think they have any Native America tribal chants on the machine,” Gilfoyle retorted, taking a swig from his beer.

 “Dinesh isn’t-“ Richard began to correct, only to receive a glare in return from the Satanist, “O-okay, yeah. You knew that."

Dinesh finished to the sound of scattered applause but returned to the table smirking, nonetheless, “Monica, you’re up!”

Monica kicked her heels off under the table and stood, drink in hand, “remember, hold your applause ‘til the end, gents.”

And with that, she cheerfully started toward the warmly lit stage.

“I’m killing it tonight,” Dinesh gloated, taking his seat next to Gilfoyle, “I’m telling you, there’s something in the air.”

“I wonder if it’s the shitty karma or if you’ve always just been that terrible at singing,” Gilfoyle mused mockingly.

 “Oh, fuck you, Gilfoyle. Like you’d have the balls to get up there and sing in the first place,” Dinesh sneered back.

On stage, Monica had broken into “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” by Cyndi Lauper, swaying back and forth, obviously buzzed after a few Blue Hawaiians.

“Her voice is quite lovely,” Jared spoke timidly.

It was pretty much the first thing he’d said since they arrived. He still wore his sunglasses as he sipped a virgin daiquiri but occasionally Richard thought he could feel his eyes on him.

“Yeah,” Richard agreed softly, just to feel like he and Jared were engaged in conversation.

 “How pissed do you think she would be if I recorded this and uploaded it to YouTube?” Gilfoyle inquired with a smirk, already hitting the record button on his iPhone.

“Uh, Jared,” Dinesh coughed, looking guilty, “are you okay, man? You know we were just busting your balls earlier, right?”

Jared cleared his throat and put on a forced smile, “yeah, of course, Dinesh. No worries.”

With that out of the way, Jared stood up suddenly.

“Excuse me for a moment,” he abruptly told his friends and stiffly started toward the front of the crowded bar.

 Having pocketed his phone, Gilfoyle turned his sights on Richard, “so what is his deal anyway? He’s the one who bailed the fuck out for some mediocre startup.”

“Yeah,” Dinesh added, “and correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t he the one who went psycho and shot you in the ass with a bb gun?”

Richard stifled cold chills at the memory of Jared’s wrath turned upon him; the eyes that once looked upon Richard with warmth and admiration, filled with blind fury and dangerous contempt.

“I-it’s not that simple,” Richard tried, “he… I… Things hadn’t been right for a while. I knew that and- and I didn’t-“

He was cut off by an uproar of applause around them as Monica’s song ended. He took the opportunity to bury the topic and clapped for Monica far more enthusiastically than necessary. Monica plodded back to them in her bare feet, her cheeks flush with exhilaration.

“Did I kill it or did I motherfucking kill it?” Monica cheered, some her drink sloshing over the rim of her pineapple as she sat down.

“Gilfoylerecordedthewholethingandhe’sgonnaputitonYouTube,” Dinesh tattled before Gilfoyle could stop him.

“What the fuck, Gilfoyle?” Monica demanded, palm out for his phone.

“You fuckin’ snitch,” Gilfoyle snarked at Dinesh, unlocking the device and passing it to her.

 Before Dinesh could reply, the emcee, dressed in a too-small Hawaiian shirt and a bucket hat, stepped up to the mic and cleared his throat, clipboard in hand.

“Hey, everyone, thank you again for joining us on another great karaoke night at Tooky’s Tiny Tiki Hut. Just a reminder, drinks are half priced for the ladies between 8 and 9 p.m.,” Dinesh was already sliding a twenty dollar bill across the table to Monica, “Anyway, next up on the docket is Jared Dunn. Jared Dunn, come on up!”

The room filled with polite applause and Jared’s lanky form filed up the stairs to the stage.

“What the fuck?” Gilfoyle spat.

“What the fuuuuck?” Dinesh echoed.

“W-wha the fuck?” Richard stuttered dizzily.

Monica looked oddly across their stupefied expressions before shouting toward the stage, “Woo! Go, Jared!”

 On stage, Jared adjusted his sunglasses and took the mic into his large but graceful hands. The sound of pre-recorded footsteps gave way to the opening of “The Way I Feel Inside,” by The Zombies. And with a deep and clear voice, honed with years of choir practice during his years at Vassar, Jared began to sing.

Should I try to hide the way I feel inside?
My heart for you?
Would you say that you would try to love me too?
In your mind, could you ever be really close to me?
I can tell the way you smile.”

 Richard’s mouth opened and closed uselessly, like a fish out of water, while Monica, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle turned to look knowingly at him.

If I feel that I could be certain, then, I would say the things I want to say tonight.
But 'til I can see that you'd really care for me, I will dream that someday you'll be really close to me.
I can tell the way you smile.”

 The cogs in Richard’s mind were working furiously to understand as he felt Jared’s eyes boring into him even behind the darkly tinted glasses. ‘How long?’ Richard wondered idly. He thought of Jared’s recent eagerness to make bad decisions just to be by his side, his constant stroking of Richard’s fragile ego, his warm glances and almost maternal care. ‘All this time,’ Richard concluded resolutely.

If I feel that I could be certain, then, I would say the things I want to say tonight.
But 'til I can see that you'd really care for me, I'll keep trying to hide the way I feel inside…”

In the most oxymoronic way of trying to, in fact, hide the way he felt inside, upon the coin drop signaling the ending of the song, Jared slung his glasses off and ran from the stage and out the back door of the tiki bar.

“What the fuck?” Dinesh said again, softly. Gilfoyle gave his standard monotone chuckle and took a deep swig of his beer.

 “I-I… What w-was that?” Richard questioned, his head swimmy with rum and feelings.

“I think that’s pretty obvious, Dick,” Gilfoyle retorted with a smirk, standing to leave, “refills anyone?”

He laughed again as he walked away, Dinesh following dumbly behind him.

“Did he just- Did Jared?” the rest of the sentence came out in a strangled groan as Richard’s brain gave up trying to grasp the enormity of it all.

“Um, Richard,” Monica started in a conciliatory voice, “I think that was a confession.”

 “Of-of what e-exactly?” Richard squeaked.

Monica rolled her eyes, having none of Richard’s blockheadedness, “of love, Richard. For you, I’m pretty sure.”

Richard replied with unintelligible, garbled syllables.

“Okay, it’s going to be fine,” Monica assured, suddenly very business-like, “what we need to determine now is how you feel. Do you- do you love him, Richard?”

“N-No,” Richard spat reflexively, wringing his hands in his lap.

Monica looked disappointed but carried on, “okay, then the next step is for you to let him down easy. It’s probably going to really hurt him and it’s going to suck but it’s important that you remind him that your friendship-“

Richard wasn’t listening anymore. He was too busy imagining the look on Jared’s face if he were to tell him that he didn’t love him. The way his delicate bottom lip would tremble, the way his pale blue eye would pool with tears and the way his lovely pale skin would flush with embarrassment. Richard couldn’t take it; breaking Jared’s heart would break his own.

“Yes,” Richard shouted, interrupting and startling Monica.

“Yes, what?” Monica asked warily, as Richard worried his lip between his teeth.

“Yes,” Richard blurted, “y-yes! I-I fuckin’ love him, okay?”

Monica smiled despite herself, “okay. It’s okay.”

“W-what do I do, Monica?” Richard begged, “tell me what to do!”

Monica laughed, not unkindly, and took a sip from the dregs of her drink, “well, Richard, you tell him how you feel.”

“Uhhh, I d-do what?” Richard cried, his heart pounding in his chest.

Go! Go tell him how you feel!” Monica demanded, pounding a fist on the table and pointing out the back door.

 Before Richard could think too hard about it, he shoved himself out of his chair and ran, legs weak beneath him, after Jared. The air had taken a turn toward brisk and Richard zipped his sweatshirt the rest of the way up as he made his way off the dimly lit patio. ‘If I was Jared where would I go?’ Richard asked himself as his sneakers hit concrete and without missing a beat, he turned down the alley alongside the bar. His hunch was correct.

“Donald, what have you done?” Richard heard echoed down the passage, “greedy, greedy idiot!”

Richard sped up his pace and found Jared curled up beside the dumpster, his hands fisted in his usually pristine hair. Richard noted the steadily darkening bruises and scrapes on his friend’s knuckles and an impressive dent in the metal of the dumpster.

“Did, uh, did you punch the dumpster?” Richard asked coolly, startling Jared, who launched to his feet faster than Richard could have anticipated.

 “Oh, hi, Richard!” Jared chirped with false cheerfulness, “uh, no. I… I slipped and, uh, yeah. Yeah, I did.”

Jared’s face fell and when he met Richard’s eyes, Richard saw the dark rings and redness indicative of past shed tears and sleeplessness.

“A-are you okay?” Richard fought the urge to reach out and take his battered hand.

“No… No, Richard, I am not okay,” Jared admitted miserably, his pale blue eyes shining with emotion, “I owe you more than one apology.”

Richard shook his head dismissively, but Jared forged on.

“I just put on that egregious display in front of our friends and I-,” Jared stared down at his trembling hands as though they held a murder weapon, “Richard, I hurt you. I let my anger get the best of me and I hurt you. I’m a monster! How can you bear to look at me?!”

Jared’s long, slender fingers had found their way back into his own hair and began roughly pulling at the tufts.

 Richard could no longer stand idly by. He grabbed Jared’s wrists and pulled them to where he could no longer hurt himself.

“Jared! Jared, it’s okay,” Richard soothed, “don’t do that, man. D-don’t hurt yourself.”

“But Richard, I caused you bodily harm, I besmirched you,” Jared continued, tears pooling in his eyes.

“You didn’t- you didn’t besmirch anything,” Richard said with a dry laugh, “it only stung for a couple of minutes.”

Richard didn’t tell him that it left a bruise that still mildly ached when he sat down, a week later.

 Jared frowned as though unsatisfied but tabled the matter for the moment, “I-I’m sorry for the song, Richard. It was very indiscreet of me. I honestly don’t have the slightest idea what came over me.”

Richard was suddenly overcome with the memory of Jared’s sweet baritone and became acutely aware of Jared’s pounding heartbeat beneath his fingertips.

“I, uh, never r-realized you f-felt that way,” Richard stammered, forcing himself to let go of Jared’s wrists and avoiding his gaze.

“And what a way to find out!” Jared exclaimed, his cheeks reddening.

Richard occupied himself by gnawing on a loose piece of skin on his lip as a heavy silence fell around them.

 “I suppose you’re here to let me down gently,” Jared quipped softly, his hunched form making him seem very small to Richard.

“Hm?” Richard replied smartly, yet again wringing his hands.

“Can you… just say it, Richard?” Jared asked, zeroing in on Richard’s eyes, “can you just tell me that you don’t feel the same? Please. I thought leaving Pied Piper would solve the problem, but it hasn’t. I still can’t- I need you to just do it, so I can try-“

“Y-you’re wrong,” Richard cut him off with a mumble.

“What was that, Richard?” Jared inquired with a pained expression. Richard was silent for a moment, staring at the ground, at war with all of his instincts.

 “Richard, I-“ Jared started before the air was forced from his lungs as Richard pummeled his way into his arms.

Without thinking, Jared pulled him impossibly closer.

“Richard, I don’t understand,” Jared said into the curly mop of Richard’s hair.

“You’re wrong,” Richard repeated, his voice muffled against Jared’s chest, “about how I feel.”

Before Richard knew what was happening, Jared was holding him at arm’s length, “what do you mean?”

Richard had no choice but the stare into Jared’s crystalline blue eyes, his pupils blown.

“I-I… do,” Richard stammered earnestly, “I f-fucking love you, Jared. I have for- for a long time, man. When I said t-that I missed you, it wasn’t just for what you can do for Pied Piper. Y-you’re my best friend and I-I… Feel the same way about you. P-please don’t make me say more things.”

“Oh,” Jared replied, tears spilling from his eyes, “oh, Richard.”

 And before Richard could begin to tell him not to cry, Jared took him, anew, into his arms and kissed him wholeheartedly. Jared’s lips were aching soft against Richard’s and tasted vaguely of coconut from his drink. Richard stood still in his embrace for a moment, as Jared pulled away, before the shorter man surged forward, recapturing Jared’s lips. He desperately threaded his fingers through the short hair at the back of Jared’s neck, reveling in the happy little hum that emanated from Jared’s throat. At that moment, Richard felt so unbelievably unencumbered. He knew the world would come crashing back down on his shoulders tomorrow and that Jared was still working with Gwart but, just then, he was content to stand in this cold, smelly alley with Jared’s cool, gentle hands framing his face. All too soon, Jared was pulling away, but Richard was in awe at the sight of his kiss swollen smile, mussed hair, and pinkened cheeks.

“We should go inside before the others miss us,” Jared explained with a huff of laughter.

Richard returned his smile and nodded agreeably. Jared offered him the crook of his elbow as though Richard were a fair maiden at a renaissance fair, but Richard simply took his arm and started for the mouth of the alley.

 Back inside, the nightlife had continued without them and Monica and Dinesh stood on stage singing and drunkenly dancing to “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and Richard spied Gilfoyle coolly leaned up against the window at the front of the building, puffing on one of Monica’s cigarettes. Jared spotted his sunglasses on the bar floor and stepped out of his way to crush them under his loafer.

Richard gave him a questioning look to which Jared simply replied, “they weren’t really my style anyway.”

As they sat down, side by side, at the table, Richard took Jared’s hand in his and placed a kiss upon the blossoming bruises on his knuckles, resulting in a delighted smile from the taller man. As the song ended, Monica left the stage and gave them an evaluative glance. Without thinking, Richard lifted their joined hands in the air victoriously, earning a dazzling smile from Monica as she ran toward them.

She pulled the pair into a tight hug and squeezed, “I had faith in you guys.”

“Monica,” Jared said with a bright chuckle, “I think this might be a bit much for Richard.”

“Oh, right!” Monica corrected, letting them go, with a strangled squawk from Richard.

She sat beside them and turned her attention to her drink. Richard flushed as Jared bashfully placed a kiss on his stubbly cheek, all the while Dinesh disastrously rapped along to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa.” It truly was a night worth celebrating.