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He has never been the type to use ‘love’ lightly. It’s one of his quirks, something no one would notice until it’s pointed out. He doesn’t love parties, he doesn’t love the majority of the girls who he locks eyes with (and then some), he doesn’t love being perfect. Love cannot, should not, be used to discuss television shows or books or all those little things unless those little things have truly changed your life.

Jake can sum up the list of things he loves with little thought. He loves his parents; not despite their absence, really, because he can respect why they had to leave. He’s learned how to accept everything that happens--they taught him that, just like they taught him how to aim for perfection and how to hide shifty eyes and shaky breaths. He loves Model UN, loves the ability to fix problems bigger than himself, even if they aren’t real. He loves football, of course; the resentment that comes with the sport is always fleeting, because the validation and ease keep him on track.

He loves Rich Goranski. He does--he’s rolled the words around in his mind, whispered them to himself to know how right they feel. It’s embarrassing, maybe. Definitely. Too often, he’s sitting curled up in his bed, cloaked in blankets and darkness--heat is expensive, and so is electricity--as he stares at some nonsensical tweet or a picture he’d snapped when Rich was at his softest, and he whispers the phrase. I love you. It’s as close to a guilty pleasure as he can afford to have, and he indulges often.

Here’s the thing: Jake is perfect. No, that’s not it--he’s not, but he knows that’s what everyone expects, and that’s where the problem is. He has always given this illusion of prosperity. Trophies line shelves; as long as he shines them, they sparkle bright enough to keep anyone from looking at the peeling wallpaper behind them. Even before his parents left, that had been his role: keep everyone impressed, and no one will think to notice where their money is coming from, no one will think to question how everything is so well-kept.

The trophies are covered in dust now.

It doesn’t matter, he reasons. They aren’t real gold, they’re cheap metal covered in gold paint, engraved with a name that used to mean something and set on shiny wood. It’s fitting, the fact that he could sell all of these as scrap metal and not even get enough money to cover one of his bills. That’s what his entire life has been: golden, shiny, and not at all important.

Rich Goranski deserves better than a gilded boy.

Even before the two had grown close, before Rich had made it onto the list of Things Jake Dillinger Can Think About When Everything Else Hurts , Jake knew there was something safe about Rich. He never described his homelife in such broad terms, but he would make comments, he would flinch, he would act in ways Jake couldn’t define until they became friends. Rich had not been afforded the illusion of a happy home anymore than Jake had been afforded the illusion of familiarity, but they both found some kind of shaky satisfaction in popularity (the existence of which seemed to hover on a line, real in its existence but perhaps questionable in its formation).

Rich is the first person who sees past the trophies. Not because Jake wants him to, really--he’d stayed the night and found the water not running the next day. Jake remembers that day clearly for a number of reasons; it’s easy to hide how he does homework by the street light filtering through his window, but it’s harder to hide how he hasn’t showered or brushed his teeth, so he makes an extra effort to keep that bill paid.

When Rich informs him that he thinks the shower might be broken, or something to that accord, Jake responds in a dry laugh and a nonchalant “Well, I get paid this week, so.” It’s so casual that it’s obvious it’s not at all something that needs to be treated casually. He stands, crosses his arms, shrugs, and Rich understands immediately. From then on, it doesn’t matter--Rich doesn’t comment when the lights are off, and he doesn’t say anything when he steps into a house as cold as the New Jersey winter.

The temperature never really matters, not with Rich there. Jake would never say this to him, lest he get pushed off the couch, but Rich is the perfect size to pull into his lap, the perfect height for Jake to rest his chin on. It’s this quiet intimacy that Jake craves; he sinks into every hug with a soft sigh, and though he still neglects to say the words aloud, he mouths them into Rich’s hair or the crook of his neck. He likes to think that Rich still understands what he means.

He keeps everything organized, all of his meetings written out on his wall calendar, his phone, and his weekly planner. It’s the only way to keep track of everything, and he has it down to a science. Football is in red to match his jacket, work is in navy blue to match the logo, all of his meetings are in light green because he hadn’t had time to choose a shade with a special meaning while plugging everything in.

It is a testament to Rich’s importance that he has his own section carved out of every weekend, lined in bright orange and marked with exactly five exclamation points. If asked, he’ll say he was running out of colors, but really, the orange sticks out the brightest; looking down to see grids of blue and green isn’t so overwhelming when he notices the warmth of the weekend nestled in between.

He doesn’t miss meetings, he isn’t late for work, and likewise, he’ll fight tooth and nail to insure he gets those hours of genuine happiness in. True, he often has to combine those hours with other quiet activities--working on homework while curled up next to Rich, typing up minutes in between laughing at whatever stupid movie they found online. Just as often, though, it’s just the two of them--fingers intertwined as they walk through the mall, soft words, embarrassingly tender tweets, the quiet creaking of the apartment as they take a well-deserved nap with rough sheets and gentle affection.

It’s all he can do to move away and get ready for work; he’s always slow, hoping to slip away without waking Rich up, but it never quite works out. Rich crawls out of bed too and leans against Jake as he brushes his teeth. He gets used to the taste of toothpaste and goodbyes; for Jake, a few hours is more than enough to warrant farewell kisses, though neither of them are ever too concerned about justifying their affection to each other.

Late at night, as he works a closing shift, Jake ducks into the bathroom and scrolls through a folder of selfies and candids. He leans against the wall and rereads old text messages before composing a new one, the words as warming and comforting as they were the first time he allowed himself to whisper them to himself.

I love you.