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The System

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It started with a cat. An energetic little Tuxedo Scottish Fold which Ray named Mask. He loved being the center of attention and hanging out with Ryan while he did his streams. He lived in the second guest bedroom, the one that Ryan used for streaming, as the cat grew accustomed to the house.

Mask often lay on the shelf above Ryan’s screen, watching him play. He occasionally let out little purrs and the chat would fill with little cat emotes. Sometimes Ryan would reach up and scratch at Mask’s ears during a loading screen or a brief pause.

The web camera was perched on the same shelf as Mask. It was old and had a wobbly base and if Mask hit it just so, the camera would fall over. Ryan planned to replace it and the new one was going to come in tomorrow with no stability issues.

Mask stretched and her paws tapped the camera, knocking it slightly to the left. The shift wasn't enough to be immediately noticeable and with the speed of the game Ryan couldn't do anything until the game was over. He would have done something immediately if the chat protested loudly enough; they had a keen eye for little changes like that.

Then there was The System. It was how Ryan and Ray kept everything running smooth. It was how their streams never collided. It was why they were separate, never Ryan and Ray, always SortaMalicious or BrownMan.

The System had many factors. It involved a set schedule for Ryan's streams-Tuesday and Thursday night beginning at 8pm. Ray could stream whenever he wanted since that was his job but they had different set ups. Ryan used one room while Ray used another and when they streamed, neither talked to the other. They had a dry erase board for messages, sticking mainly to direct yes or no questions, shaking or nodding their head in response. The System worked- or it did until that day.

Ryan had just finished a match when he noticed Ray leaning against the doorway, smiling at him, their dry erase board in hand. Ryan smiled back at him, eyes flicking to the computer, non-verbally communicating that he was still streaming. Ray nodded and began to scribble on the board. He turned it around.

I'm going to sleep, good night babe.

Ryan held up a finger, indicating one moment and Ray nodded.

That was part of The System: no speaking, none.

Once the game was over and Ryan had won by a close margin, he stood up without preamble.

“Gotta get another drink, guys, one second,” he said, waving the empty can of Diet Coke absentmindedly.

Mask jumped down from her perch and rubbed up against Ray’s legs.

Ryan came up and pulled Ray into a hug. He buried his face in his hair and grinned. “Good night, babe,” he said.

“Good night and good luck on the rest of your stream,” Ray said. He tilted his head up.

Ryan pulled back.

The kiss was light, just an innocent good night kiss. But Ray lingered for a moment, starting to press against Ryan insistently, hands drifting down Ryan’s ass, an obvious sign of familiarity that only lovers could share. There was a silent promise of more if Ryan followed Ray to bed. Ryan's eyes fluttered at the thought of abandoning the stream and going to bed early but it was Tuesday night.

Ryan stepped away from the embrace but not before pressing a kiss to Ray’s forehead. “Good night,” Ryan whispered, low enough that the microphone wouldn't pick up.

Ray smiled at him and left without a word.

Ryan went to the kitchen and grabbed two cans of Diet Coke. Mask trailed behind him, rubbing against the furniture. He had been in the bedroom for a few days already.

Back at his desk, Ryan couldn't keep the dreamy smile off his face. Things were going well in his life. He had a good job, good friends, and a great relationship. He shook his head and chuckled; it was time to get back in the gaming and entertaining mindset. He had a job to do.

The first thing he noticed was his chat had blown up. Comments were going by in a chaotic rush, too fast for him to catch anything solid. He managed to catch a “RIP”. The thing that caught his attention and stopped him and sent his heart racing were all the comments mentioning “Ray”.

The little window showing the view from Ryan’s camera showed the camera wasn’t pointing at the chair, it was pointing at the door, the now empty doorway. Ryan wasn’t even in frame.

The chat was still going furiously. The mods were doing their best but there was no stopping the sudden mentions of Raywood and shoutouts for Ray.

Ryan scrubbed at his face. His mind was racing. There was no stopping this. Maybe they hadn't seen anything. In his mind, he knew that wasn't the case though. The camera was aimed perfectly at the door and had likely captured every private moment between he and Ray.

With shaking hands, Ryan clicked on the Discord chat and pulled up the gif chat. One of the members, Laurmander, was a prodigious gif maker; if the chat had seen anything, she would have made a gif.

There were three. Three gifs. His heart sped up.

The first gif had a clear view of Ray, and Ryan approaching him before they hugged; it was innocent enough- Ryan could have possibly passed it off as Ray just spending the night or something. The second gif was the incriminating one. That one- there could be no other explanation. It was Ryan ducking his head and pulling Ray into a kiss. The last was probably the worst of them all. They were still kissing but as Ryan watched in growing horror and apprehension, Ray’s hand slowly dipped down and tucked into the back pockets of Ryan’s jeans, squeezing his ass; the entire gesture replayed in agonizing slow motion, the pleasant tingle that action had caused was replaced by a frightful chill.

The mod chat on Discord was lighting up now. Ryan, fearful of what he might see, clicked on the chat.

This chat was slow and each mod was sending him messages, but they were asking about his silence and if he was okay, wondering what was going on and why the camera was still pointed at the door. A few of them asked if they needed to start policing the Raywood comments. Ryan didn't know how to respond to any of it.

Ryan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, counting down the seconds before exhaling and inhaling in an effort to clear his head and stop his rising panic. He schooled his expression to one with a more affable countenance, trying to mimic his grin from before. It felt fake but the show must go on.

Smile in place, Ryan turned the camera back to the chair; he offered up a quick apology to his followers. The chat was already inundated with comments but once they saw him it was bombarded; there was a flurry of messages, faster than before, with the same comments from before. His befuddled mods were quiet, undoubtedly waiting for instruction on how to proceed. But Ryan ignored the messages; he ignored the chat. He had a job to do: entertain and play video games.

“Alright, so who’s ready for some more Move or Die? After a couple a games I’m going to switch to Overwatch,” he said.

New players joined the match and he released the code into the chat. Soon the comments choosing the next game type were pouring in and covering up the Ray comments, burying them in the chat history.

The game went quickly and before anyone could say anything Ryan started up another and new players replaced the ones from before. He cursed his performance; he complimented the other players. He thanked the new subscribers; once the chat slowed down to its normal speed, he even started commenting on people’s messages. Every so often a comment about Ray would pop up but once it was clear that Ryan wasn't going to say anything the chat forgot about the incident.

After a while, he sank into the game. The tension eased from his shoulders and he relaxed against his chair; every so often his mouth would twitch to the side during a demanding a moment. It was like any other stream. He fell into his online persona of entertainer. He lost himself in the stream.

When the night came to a close and he finished the good night story that had become a staple of his streams, Ryan looked back into the mod chat. The messages from before asking if he was okay were buried and gone. The mods were talking amongst themselves. They had decided that since Ryan hadn't responded to any of the Ray questions in the Twitch chat that that was what they would do as well, following his example. They wouldn't delete or police the comments unless they got out of hand. Ryan sighed and wrote a short message to the mods, thanking for working that night and taking care of the chat and he apologized to them for leaving the stream for that moment, he reiterated how much he loved and appreciated them and all their hard work. Lastly, he agreed with their policy about the situation: just stay out of it.

Ryan shut off his computer. He stared at the blank screen; his head slumped forward.


He groaned and rubbed at his eyes. Everyone knew. Everyone fucking knew about Ray and him now. There was no hiding or backtracking from those gifs- it was plain as day. They were screwed, royally fucking screwed. He groaned again.

What was he going to tell Ray? How would he tell Ray?

They had The System. It was supposed to be unbeatable and it had failed, burned to the ground so hard not even pitiful remains were left in its death. The System couldn't save him from the incriminating gifs.

Ryan ran his hand through his hair. He had to explain the situation to Ray at some point. Not right then because Ray was likely already dead asleep and waking him up would force him to stay awake for hours more thanks to his insomnia. It was better to wait until tomorrow. At least then Ryan could think about what he would say and maybe the fans would forget about it. Maybe it wouldn't be too big of a deal.

Ryan turned off the lights around the house and got ready for bed. As soon as he slipped under the covers Ray sidled up to him, his body curving around him, head tucking under Ryan’s chin. Ryan slid his hands up and down Ray’s back, already dreading the impending conversation. He kissed Ray softly on the forehead before closing his eyes and falling asleep.

The following morning, the sun was shining outside the window when Ryan woke up; the light was spilling past the blackout curtains. He squinted in puzzlement, brain slowly coming together as he stared at the light because something about it was off- something just wasn't right. Something, something- like maybe the clock saying it was already 8:15 and he was supposed to have been there at the latest by 7:30.

“Fuck,” he muttered, conscious of the still slumbering Ray next to him. He threw the covers back and rushed through his morning routine, taking a quick shower and grabbing one of Ray’s sugary breakfast bars before running out the door. He managed to leave the house in under 20 minutes.

When he arrived at the office, hair disheveled, Geoff glared at him before nodding at Ryan to take his seat. The others were already hard at work on the latest/newest Let’s Play. Ryan went to his desk and pulled his keys and wallet out of his pockets and set them in a drawer; he patted his pants in search of his phone and his expression fell when he realized in his mad dash to get out of the house that morning that he had left it behind. He gave a heavy sigh before taking his seat. Today was just going to be one of those days.

The next incident was that apparently Ryan’s brain and mouth just weren't working together that day. By the end of the Let’s Play Gavin had started a flub counter and it had reached over a staggering 23 times. The group was laughing uproariously at his continued mistakes but with each error, Ryan curled in further on himself. He focused on trying to win the Tower of Pimps, he was only a few items behind and he was far ahead of everyone. If he could just find those items then the tower was his, and the ugly knot in his stomach would unravel just a bit.

Right before the end, with one item left to go, his character glitched. He was stuck in the floor and no matter how hard he punched at the ground, his avatar wouldn’t budge. His hands clenched around the controller in frustration and he growled at the screen. Gavin hopped by and proclaimed joyously that he suddenly found the last three items needed- winning the game and the Tower of Pimps.

It was fine though. He could handle the game glitching because, well that’s what happened sometimes- and it's happened to everyone anyway.

It was hard to believe that it wasn't Friday the 13th, and their new cat wasn't black so he hadn't crossed paths with a black cat recently, but it was just the day of bad luck- fate had it out for him that day. Team Lads were up to their usual shenanigans, mostly thanks to Gavin, and one stray shot from the golf club and the ball hit Ryan’s full can of Diet Coke; the shot knocked the drink over and it poured onto his keyboard, mouse, and right into his lap, soaking his jeans.

Geoff shook his head when Ryan asked to go home to change (also to secretly grab his phone and perhaps chat with Ray and explain the situation to him). Geoff told him that since he arrived late as dicks then he could just go and grab a pair of merch pants and maybe they’ll have something in his size.

Ryan considered asking one of the guys if he could borrow their phone but stopped himself. It would be hard to explain why he needed to text Ray without giving away their… situation. He had to wait to tell him when he got home later that night.

A few hours into the day, Ryan asked Michael, who was making a run to the kitchen for drinks, to grab him a Diet Coke; he said sure and Ryan went back to his sticky computer.

Minutes passed by and no Diet Coke showed up on his desk. The office door opened and closed several times and still no Diet Coke. Finally, fifteen minutes later, Michael came back with a Coke and a few Red Bulls (probably for Gavin and him). He stopped at Ryan’s desk and gave a heavy sigh. Ryan tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for the silver can of delicious soda to appear.

“There’s no more Diet Coke,” Michael said.

“What?” Ryan asked, brow shooting up, surely he hadn't heard that correctly.

“Look- Rye, I only found Coke and Diet Pepsi, so I grabbed a Coke,” he said, holding out a red can of lying full-bodied soda.

Ryan huffed but took the can. He set it on his desk and stared ruefully at the can, daring it to shed its color and reveal that it was indeed a delicious Diet Coke.

For lunch that day, since he was late that morning, Geoff had him stay behind to finish editing videos so they would have time to get another Let’s Play done after lunch. Well, since Ryan didn't have time to grab anything before he had run out the door, so he had nothing to eat. Thankfully, Jack was kind enough to grab him a hamburger and fries from Whataburger.

By the time Jack got back though, the fries were cold and the bread was wet with grease. Ryan took one sip of the large Diet Coke before cringing at the watered-down taste. He ate part of the hamburger and fries, pointedly ignoring the sight of it, eyes on the screen in front of him. He didn't realize that the burger was dripping a thick mixture of sauce and grease onto his desk. Yet another mess that he had to clean that day.

Once he finished editing the video and went to save it- the power tripped. In a flash, everything he had been working on during lunch was gone.

When it came time for The Patch, Ryan was eager for the day to be over. One of the techs was working his mic and they did the preliminary check of the systems and Ryan took his spot on the set. He spent the beginning warily commenting on today’s topic and began to relax, believing his bad luck had receded.

Halfway through the podcast his mic went out. It went slowly, at first some of his words would go out and his sound would squeak but by the time the tech crew had noticed his mic was malfunctioning they were already nearly finished and Ryan had to raise his voice to make sure the mic could pick him up.

By the time Ryan could leave the office, dark clouds had swallowed the sun and the sky was pouring rain. It was the perfect reflection of his mood.

He had to run through the pouring rain and when he reached his car he was soaked through. It was just turning into a miserable day. The only silver lining he saw was that he was going home and seeing Ray and maybe they could cuddle on the couch and play some games together.

And of course, the day just had to find one more way to make itself worse. There was traffic on the highway home, and not the normal sit-through-this-everyday kind but rather the traffic that comes from people rubbernecking and staring at an accident on the other side of the road. It wasn’t even an interesting accident at that too; it was a simple fender bender, no big damage, nothing, but it had the traffic slowed down in both directions for miles.

So when he finally got home he was ready to order a pizza for Ray and him to share and maybe relax with some video games. Too bad he couldn't text Ray and let him know he was on his way back. But he consoled himself with that knowledge that he would be home soon. He just had a few more miles left.

Once he got off the highway he sped through the streets to the entrance to his neighborhood, ready to go breakneck and reach home all the faster. He pulled up to the stop sign, a blue minivan pulling up right before him on his right. It turned right into the neighborhood and Ryan followed after it. The car ambled along, going 27 in a 35. Ryan’s grip on the steering wheel was deadly as the pressure kept him from flooring past the other driver. The faux leather creaked underneath his white knuckles and it was only the Georgian upbringing that kept him from screaming obscenities at the van.

Ryan sighed when he reached his house, garage door chugging up, and he pulled inside. His shirt was sticking to his skin and he could finally change into something comfortable and dry.

“Ray, you would not believe the day I’ve had,” Ryan said, opening the door. He peeled off his soaked clothes and threw them into the laundry room; he’d get to them later, after he’d seen and kissed Ray.

There was no response. There were a few dishes in the sink, likely from Ray. The TV was off. The spare bedroom Ray used for streaming was empty and his setup was gone; Ryan frowned when he noticed that. He huffed and continued his search.

He checked the other bedroom, the one that the cat was using to grow accustomed to her new home, and it was empty as well, Mask lounging on the haphazardly made bed. Ryan’s phone was next to the computer and he grabbed that before leaving the room. He tried to turn it on but nothing happened. He went to the bedroom, still calling Ray’s name, with each yell it grew more and more into a question as he wondered where Ray was.

He turned his phone on and was suddenly blasted with alerts. The last one he saw had his heart racing- Ray sent him a photo of his computer screen, and there on his discord chat, were the same gifs that Ryan saw the night before.

There was a short text accompanying it. I can't do this anymore

Ryan collapsed onto the bed and stared at the text, stunned. There were several other texts on his phone but he couldn't bring himself to even look at them. His world had narrowed down to that one text.

What had happened?

He started typing out a message but deleted it and then wrote another, frowned at that one and deleted it as well. He rubbed his hand over his face.

Ray’s abrupt departure shouldn't have hit him so hard but it was. He didn’t want him to go. Seeing Ray and spending time with him that night had been the one thing keeping Ryan going through the day. It had helped him with everything. And he was gone- vanished into the night.

Ryan sluggishly pulled himself off the bed, maybe he hadn't left completely. He went to the closet and when he opened the door his face fell. Nothing. There was nothing left on Ray’s side. Every shirt was gone. Ryan checked the dresser drawers and it was empty too. Was everything gone?

Ryan changed into a clean pair of boxers, gray sweatpants, and a red cotton shirt.

His first stop was the kitchen. He opened the fridge and his frown deepened; the monsters were missing. The video games that Ray had brought over and just left were gone as well. The laundry was done and nothing of Ray’s was in there. The spare bedroom that he streamed from was emptied out; it looked like it had before Ray had started using it. What really put the nail in the coffin was when Ryan checked the master bath. That morning before he left there had been two toothbrushes in the holder, one blue and one green.

The green one was missing.

“Ray?” Ryan breathed out. His heart clenched in his chest. He swallowed back rising anxieties. “Fuck,” he said, slamming his hands on the bathroom counter.

He took a deep breath and focused on the one thing that had gotten him through this, The System. Ray and he had meant nothing to each other from the start; it was just a way to blow off steam. It was never supposed to mean anything more. But it had meant more. Ray was the highlight of his days. His heart clenched harder. He wasn't going to let this get the better of him. He could do this.

There were leftovers in the fridge from two nights ago and he reheated that. They came out lukewarm but he was too exhausted from the day to attempt to beat them up further, besides with his luck he’d burn down the house.

The house felt empty without Ray there and Ryan found himself scrolling through Netflix searching for something to watch but nothing clicked. He turned on some M*A*S*H and let the antics of the 4077 fill the house, for a show over thirty years old it was still humorous. But partway through the impromptu binge, he laid his arm on the couch and missed sliding his arm over Ray’s shoulder, Ray flashing him a quick grin before looking back to the screen and chuckling at one of Hawkeye’s many quips.

If Ray was streaming then Ryan could go into the guest room and just sit on the chair opposite the computer. It was placed perfectly so that the camera never saw it or him, Ryan could move in the chair and drape his legs over the arm and the camera would never see him. And Ryan could watch Ray play and quietly laugh at his antics. Like he had done hundreds of times before.

He even had a Twitch account and he had never told Ray the name. So he could sneakily comment on the chat without Ray knowing it was him. He's even subscribed. It was funny the first time Ray saw his name. His eyes crossed and he groaned. “Thanks for the sub, NotBrownMan,” he said sarcastically, eyes rolling.

It was a stupid, silly idea. He pulled out his phone and went to Twitch.

Weird- it wasn't showing up in his follow- or on any of the channels when he searched for Ray. Had he deleted his channel? Ray would never do that though; it was how he earned his living.

Ryan logged out and did the search again, this time, Ray popped up. His eyes widened at the sudden realization that he had been banned from Ray’s channel. His hands shook as he dropped the phone onto the coffee table.