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Stammer

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At the end of his first day of preschool, Michael informs his parents, not without a certain amount of glee, that one of the kids in his class talks really funny. Not in an accent kind of way, because accents aren't funny, but in a words stuck in his mouth kind of way.

“And when he talks it’s like I-I-I-I- I I’m J-j-j-j-j—” the syllables pop and bubble out of Michael, and it feels good, really good, to repeat them in this way, to the point where he's almost ready to take that up as his normal mode of speech, right along with Jeremy Heere, who has a green backpack and likes dinosaurs.

“Be nice!” his mother snaps, leaning over to still Michael’s hand, with an exasperated sort of sigh. That’s when Michael realizes that he’s been beating his fork against his plate in time with the sounds he's been making, and his rice is everywhere.

“How would you feel if somebody was making fun of your way of talking?” Michael’s dad asks, with a placating gesture towards his mother.

“I'm not making fun,” Michael tries to protest, but his parents don't believe him. They never do, and for the whole night Michael hates Jeremy for turning him into a liar. This hatred lasts all of twelve hours, and it's one of Michael’s few tastes of animosity towards Jeremy, because the next day they become best friends.

He knows that they are best friends, because Jeremy tells him so right after snack time. To prove it, he agrees to swap his cookie for Micheal’s grapes, even though everybody knows that the cookie is better. At recess, Jeremy drags Michael to sit underneath the slide, and takes a full ten minutes to reiterate just how cool he thinks Michael is, and how much he likes his light up shoes, and how happy he is that they are friends. To be fair, it's not exactly a soliloquy, and the minutes are made up more of sputtering and repeated syllables than anything else, but Michael waits for Jeremy to get it all out, and by the time they walk back into the classroom, they are holding hands, and their friendship is cemented.

———————-

Chapter Text

In second grade, Jeremy is known as the quiet kid who won't sit still, and sometimes falls out of his desk in the middle of class for no apparent reason. He's also known for the time he kicked Johny Westerna in the butt for making fun of Michael’s glasses. Maybe it's not the ideal claim to fame, but it's something.

In second grade, Michael is known for his “crayon shavings club”, aka his one and only (disastrous) shot at popularity. It starts with Michael sitting at his desk, fidgeting with a blue crayon (a cobalt blue crayon), that he can only half remember removing from his crayon box. He's rubbing it back and forth in his fingers, and pretty soon he has the paper off, so he can feel its waxy texture, and how the heat of his hand changes it, not enough to make the crayon melt, but definitely enough to make a difference. Then he realizes that if he scrapes the sharp end of his pencil against the crayon just-so, pieces of it flake and come off onto his desk, and soon he's learned that he can mix different colors, to create the most satisfying little piles of waxy confetti that human kind has ever seen.

And that’s when it hits him that maybe, just maybe, he's found his calling. He's superb at making his crayon shavings, and choosing just the right colors to go together, and arranging them in neat, attractive little piles. He waits until play time, and he screws up the courage to go over to where a group of other kids (Brooke, and Dustin, and Richie, and Marcus, and Tohmee) are playing, and beckons them over to see what he's done.

It goes really well! Marcus wants Michael to make him shavings that are bright green, just like the Incredible Hulk. Brooke jumps up and down, clasping her hands together, before pointing out that she has glitter crayons, and then running off to get them. Jeremy seems doubtful at first, but he screws up the courage to tell everybody that he likes colors that don't match too much, because not matching is c-c-cool.

For two days, Michael runs his crayon shaving empire unmolested, and is loved by all, because he is a benevolent leader. On the third day his teacher, frustrated with how the bits of crayon get absolutely everywhere, issues a decree strictly forbidding the production, possession, or distribution of crayon shavings.

That's when the rumors start. Michael Mell snorts crayon dust, they say, or Michael Mell is wrong in the head, from all the wax he's inhaled. The other kids warn each other to avoid Michael and his peer pressuring ways, and it just doesn't seem right. After all, their teacher had gotten just as mad at Johny Westerna for making fake farting noises every time her back was turned only a week ago, and that had just made the other children admire him all the more. Michael doesn't understand, but he realizes and feels, very keenly, that something he'd seen as good and interesting is now being used as a weapon against him, and it's an act of cruelty.

It takes a week for everything to come to a head, and it's not even about crayons. The teacher is muddling her way through a lesson on phonics, and Michael is picking at a thread on his sweater, slowly unraveling his sleeve, and the teacher snaps at him.

“Do you have tear apart everything you touch?” she asks him. “First the crayons and now this!”

It’s too much for Michael. He huffs out a breath, then another, then another, each one so heavy that one might think he was imitating the wolf in the Three Little Pigs, the one who huffed and puffed and blew down whole houses, the one who tore things apart. On the third breath he bursts into tears.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he hears Jeremy, who never shuts up when it's just the two of them, but barely talks in class for fear of being made fun of, telling off the teacher, only he sounds like an owl. who-who-who-who-wh-whowho did the teacher think she was anyway?.

And the funny thing about it all?

The teacher apologizes. Not at that moment, and not in front of all the students. Not even before making Michael sit alone in the corner to “calm down” for most of the lesson. She waits until everybody is getting ready to go to lunch, and then asks Jeremy and Michael to stay behind for a minute.

She speaks to Jeremy first.

“You know,” she tells him, too brightly, “it was very brave of you to stick up for your friend like that. Especially with everybody listening. You did the right thing.”

Michael just wants to shrink back away from both of them. The teacher always acts like this whenever Jeremy has something to say, and somewhere in the back of his mind, Michael and Jeremy both know that she feels bad for him because he talks weird. She doesn't feel any sympathy for Michael, because he is weird, and there's no forgiving that.

Sure enough, when the teacher turns to Michael, it's with this certain fun-but-strict persona that turns his stomach even more than the solicitous talking-to-a-baby persona she’d adopted with Jeremy.

“You feeling okay, pal?” the teacher asks. “Are you doing better now?”

Michael sucks in his breath through his nose, and nods, because that's what she's expecting.

“Good. Good. It was pretty rough there for a while, huh?”

Another nod.

“Do you understand why I was frustrated with you?” the teacher asks.
“Cause I broke some crayons.”

“Take a look at your sweater, Mikey,” the teacher says, and Michael does, even though the only person allowed to call him Mikey is Jeremy. He can see now that he’s really gone to town on the arm, and his parents are going to probably be mad at him. The teacher continues to talk to him about taking care of himself, and being attentive, and personal responsibility, and how he's too smart to be doing things like this. The lecture only lasts a minute or two, but it's still a relief when it's over, and Michael and Jeremy can finally leave the room.

“That was g-gay,” Jeremy whispers to Michael, as soon as they are out of the teacher’s ear shot, and Michael feels his shoulders relax.

“Tell me about it,” he whispers back.

———————

Chapter Text

By sixth grade the kids have taken to calling Michael’s best friend (who still falls out of chairs, and is still ready to defend Michael at every turn, but has swapped his green backpack for a blue one, and currently likes Pokémon way better than he likes dinosaurs) “J-J-Jeremy”, and when they use this name, the repeated Js sound like machine gun fire. The problem is that Jeremy really wants these kids to like him, and Michael can't understand why, but he watches all of the little things that Jeremy does to try to fit in with some emotion that straddles the line between horror, concern, and jealousy.

By sixth grade, Jeremy is seeing a speech therapist after school, because his stammer is not “developmentally expected” at this point, and also because he wants to. In fact, Jeremy is scarily enthusiastic about this chance to change himself, and he talks about it a lot.

“She told me to pretend everyone I speak to is you,” Jeremy explains one day, as they are walking home from school.

“What?” Michael answers, through the laugh that’s caught in his voice. “I'm not saying the world wouldn't be a better place if everyone was me, but still.”

Jeremy shoves him. “It's because I like you, and you’re like… like not an asshole.”

“No, I'm a nerd.” Michael is grinning. “Or maybe a geek.” He's been trying out words like this to describe himself, and learning to like them. If nerd means person who is incredibly good at pirating music, and geek means somebody who can beat every level of Pac-Man at the local arcade, and loser means somebody who saves up his allowance to buy an actual honest to god cassette playing Walkman , then these are all things that he is willing to be. And if he's willing to own these words, then it's not like they can hurt him when they come out of the mouths of his peers.

“You’re definitely more of a geek,” Jeremy says.

“You think?”

“Nerds are good at science. And, you’re like, only ok at science? Oh! And sometimes nerds are like…like…like vengeful. I think there’s an um… like a movie about that! Anyway, you’re the least vengeful person I know, so yeah. Geek all the way.”

“I could be lying in wait,” Michael teases. “Formulating plans of nerdy vengeance. Brilliant plans.”

“T-totally.” Jeremy licks his lips, and looks away from Michael for just a split second, so Michael slings an arm over his shoulder. “God, I'm such a dork.”

“So?”

“I don't even have to pretend that everyone I talk to is you. Everyone I talk to is literally you.”

Michael doesn't know if he should be offended by this or not, so he chooses not to think about it. “You’re good at talking to me,” he says. “I'd miss you if you didn't, bro.”

“But how do I get good at talking to other people?”

Michael shrugs, and says the first thing that pops into his mind. “You could get a pet rock and try practicing on that?”

“Riiiight. A rock. That's how I want to live. Just me, my rock, and Michael.”

“One big happy family.”

“The rock could be our love child. No homo.”

“Our spawn,” Michael says, and soon both boys are laughing as if that's the funniest thing in the world.

They do get Jeremy the rock. They find it in his backyard, draw eyes on it, name it Bullwinkle, and make a home for it amongst the mess on Jeremy’s bookshelf.

“We’re such good parents!” Michael says. “We’re surrounding her with literature.”

“She’s gonna be really smart.”

Gazing at the rock, Michael feigns a loving sigh, and puts his arm over Jeremy. “Our darling spawn!” He pretends to wipe a tear from his eye.

“Dude… dude, this is so weird,” Jeremy says, but he's smiling all over. “We're weird. This is weird. Weird. Can't we just play video games or something?”

Chapter Text

Jeremy’s mom has a big heart and a terrible memory. Michael first notices this when the two of them are little kids. There are days when Jeremy shows up to school without lunch, a snack, or any explanation beyond mommy forgot. Eventually he takes to lying, because the teachers are making noise about food scarcity in the home, and how skinny he is, and the possibility of free or reduced price lunches. And thus Jeremy starts deliberately forgetting his backpack on the school bus on no-lunch days, so that he can blame himself for the missing food. Michael knows that Jeremy has enough to eat at home, because he's over at Jeremy’s place almost every other day, and there are snacks galore; he still passes half of his sandwich over to Jeremy when he doesn't have anything of his own, because that's the whole point of friendship. On days when Jeremy does have lunch, sometimes his mom throws in practically an entire box of fruit roll-ups, with notes about how she loves him and hopes he’ll have a good day, and instructions about how he should share with Michael.

This issue stops being an issue in middle school, because Jeremy’s parents give him a choice of packing his own lunch from whatever is in the house, or else taking a few dollars from the jar on the kitchen counter, and buying something at the cafeteria. Usually Jeremy buys something. His mother finds new things to forget.

There's a calendar with Far Side cartoons on the wall in Jeremy’s kitchen. On this calendar he's carefully marked which days he needs to go in for speech therapy, but that doesn't mean that anybody actually takes him. Mr. Heere works late most evenings, and Mrs. Heere is all over the place, but rarely where Jeremy needs her to be at the time when he needs her. When he has a four o’clock appointment, she’s grocery shopping, and when he has a five o’clock appointment she’s asleep. He manages to get him in at the proper time one Saturday, but the next week the Heere household is getting a barrage of phone calls because somebody forgot to fill out some paperwork somewhere, and the insurance companies want blood.

Jeremy is so like his mother that sometimes it hurts. He's tall and thin like she is, and has the same shy smile. He can't keep track of when his homework assignments are due, and though he's not really abysmal at any academic discipline the way that Michael is at geography, geometry, and apparently anything that starts with the prefix “geo”, he can't keep himself together for anything other than rare and random bursts of stunning competence.

When Jeremy’s speech therapy sessions sputter to an abortive end, he explains it to Michael like this:

“I'm a disaster. I made her… made her freak out. She… something happened to her, and it was like she couldn't breathe? She kept asking what people will think of her. S-so I guess the two of us wonder about the same kinds of stuff. Like what people think of us.”

Michael hates the confusion he feels, because he always seems to be caught in the middle of something when it comes to the Heere household. It’s not that he minds listening to and helping Jeremy, it's just that it blows his mind that nobody else is doing it the way they should be, especially considering Jeremy’s parents are both so nice.

“Is it really that hard for her to just drive you to your appointments?” Michael asks, then wishes he hadn't. He is trying to be sensitive, but that sensitivity isn't coming across in his words or his tone, and Jeremy is turning red, because he's never had an emotion that didn't show up immediately on his face.

“It's too much, you know? Having to keep up with all my bullshit on top of her own? And she told me to always remind her the day before, but I usually forget, so…”

Michael groans.

“I know!” says Jeremy. “I'm really forgetful!”

“You are, but you’re also really lying. You talk about those sessions all the time.”

Oh great, now Jeremy is sweating, and it's Michael’s fault. He pulls uncomfortably at the hem of his sweatshirt. There’s no going back. He’ll just have to keep talking until he says the right thing instead of the wrong one, and trust in Jeremy to understand how much he cares and wants to help.

 

“You don't need speech therapy anyway.”

“I…”

“I'm an authority on cool,” Michael rambles. “Get this. You remember how Jake Dillinger was bragging at school yesterday about his dad buying him beer?”

“You mean for the party that we’re not invited to?”

“Right! Well, it got me doing some research, and it turns out that alcohol totally fucks with your…well, basically your everything. Liver, brain, heart, even your sperm count.”

“Ok? I mean, probably.” Jeremy looks unconvinced. “Just say no,” he says, somehow mustering an unenthusiastic little fist pump. That's when Michael decides it's time to blow Jeremy’s mind.

“I know a guy who knows a guy online, and he knows another guy, and it all started because I was trying to get my hands on these old games for Sega Genesis…”

“Do you even own a Genesis?”

“That doesn't matter!” Michael says, barely able to contain his excitement. “This guy is gonna sell us pot!”

Jeremy makes a sound that isn't any kind of word, and Michael just laughs.

“Cool, right?” he teases.

“Illegal!” Jeremy counters, and then seems to consider it. “Which is… yeah, actually, you’re right. That makes it cool. You’re the best.”

“I know,” Michael pretends to preen. He doesn't mention that it's been about a minute since so much as the tiniest stammer has come out of Jeremy’s mouth. Noticing things doesn't mean that he's obligated to say them all out loud. This is good, because he's already been banned by his parents from talking about multiple topics ranging from Myth Busters, to Brutal Paws of Fury, to cephalopods, because he just goes on and on about the things that he likes, but Michael likes Jeremy more than he likes any of these things. He is certain that if he just started blurting out all of his Jeremy facts, it would result in so much rambling that even Jeremy himself would just get bored and ditch him.

Besides, there are other reasons not to tell Jeremy that his stammer has stopped for the moment. For one, the reason it has stopped is that he's not nervous and he's not thinking of it, and there is no better way to ensure that somebody thinks of something constantly than to tell them to put it from their mind. It’s not as if Michael is bothered by the way that Jeremy talks, or anything about him, but Michael and Jeremy are more or less at opposite ends of the spectrum there; Jeremy dislikes many, many things about himself, and regards the things he actually likes about himself with the deepest distrust and uncertainty.

But Jeremy is waiting for him to say something, so Michael shakes his head to clear it, and begins to recite all of the reasons why weed is better than alcohol, and their lives are going to be hella glamorous once they get their hands on some. Their conversation continues for a long time after that, easy, excited, and it's not like Jeremy doesn't stutter here and there, but there is definitely something to be said for getting him into the headspace where it goes unnoticed.

Chapter Text

The phrase “Michael Rant” first sneaks into Jeremy’s vocabulary the summer before freshman year. And, of course, it all originates from a series of late night text messages.

The first message:

just marathoned ALL the xmen movies… feelings he’ll

The second:

HELL hell feelings he’ll

The third:

feelings hell srly f*ck autocorrect.

The fourth and final:

can i call u gotta michael rant

“Michael Rant”, as it turns out, simply means that Jeremy likes a thing, and is going to need at least forty-five minutes to explain why he likes it right down to the minutest detail. As the year goes on, Jeremy manages to explain other characteristics of the “Michael Rant” to Michael, who is grimly fascinated by what it all means, seeing as the phenomenon is named after him.

“If I'm going into a Michael Rant I might repeat the rant again word for word tomorrow,” Jeremy explains one day, after Michael asks him about it.

“I can only Michael Rant about really weird topics, but like weird topics that interest me, so not toothpaste or whatever,” Jeremy says another time.

“This is a total Michael Rant,” Jeremy informs him on a different day. “I hope you like hearing about Attack on Titan, because that's all I'm talking about for the next ten years, probably.”

Michael Rants are many things. They are loud, and boisterous, feverish in their intensity, and practically unending. Sometimes they include sound effects. They repeat the best bits of information on a kind of loop, and alternate between vague and meticulous in other places.

Michael’s uncertain about the term. Hearing it reminds him of the time he went to the doctor’s to see why swallowing sometimes hurt him so bad, and ended up with with an endoscopic camera shoved down his throat. Granted, the comparison only works on a low scale back-of-his-mind kinda level, because Michael trusts Jeremy more than he does most human beings (especially strange doctors wielding even stranger medical equipment), but it's still there; the associated nausea exists, but it's minimal. The feeling of being invaded exists, but not so strongly, because if there are boundaries between him and Jeremy, Michael has yet to find them and make a firm decision as to what they are. Even the fear that something is wrong with him and it's going to get dug up isn't nearly as strong when Jeremy is doing the digging, but that doesn't mean it goes away entirely.

Jeremy means well. Michael knows that Jeremy means well, but beyond the shitty endoscopic camera analogy, Michael finds himself thinking about how his mom used to talk about his Pacing, with amusement and affection at first, and then more pointedly with the goal of stopping him. Because Michael totally used to pace as a hobby, for hours on end, in circles around his dining room table, and that was weird. Anyway, it's been years since Michael has done that, and he's not sure if he's glad or not, but he does know that the first step in stopping that behavior was identifying it, the same way that Jeremy has with his rants.

And they are His rants, because when Jeremy does it, it's only a watered down version of Michael’s ranting glory.

“You probably could rant about toothpaste,” Jeremy tells him. “You’re a ranting pro.”

Towards the end of Freshman year, there is a week when Jeremy doesn't show up to school. He's somehow managed to be the only human being to get chicken pox twice, and this time he's gotten it as a teenager, so he's hella miserable in addition to being hella contagious. Michael doesn't know precisely how badly Jeremy is doing, because nobody will let him anywhere near him. Michael, whose first bout of chicken pox (at the age of six) had been a gift from Jeremy, does lots of research into how rare it is to have it twice, but nobody cares about his findings.

School is bad. At first it's just lonely and boring. Then disaster happens. A group of kids invade Michael’s lunch table, and start asking him questions upon questions about music, of all things. Michael is halfway through an explanation on the difference between reggae and hip hop and feeling pretty good before he realizes that he is ranting, and they are asking him these questions the same way that popular boys sometimes pretend to flirt with and ask out ugly girls on a dare.

(The endoscopic maniac doctor never did find a medical explanation as to why Michael sometimes can't swallow, but Michael spends the rest of the school day hiding in the bathroom, because his throat is so tight that he can't even get his own spit down past his esophagus, and it's either hide or sit in class drooling and spitting into his water bottle.)

A week passes. Jeremy’s parents let him out of the house, and the first thing he does is run over to Michael’s place, scabby all over from his illness, and redolent with pent up energy. If Michael is in a bad mood after all this time being left to fend off the demons of Middleborough high school all by himself, he tries not to show it. He and Jeremy have developed a routine by now. There's no reason to break it, especially when all of the things Michael is feeling are not Jeremy’s fault.

It's not long before Michael has booted up the Nintendo, and they've taken both their usual controllers and their usual spots sitting on the floor at the foot of Michael’s bed.

“I missed you sooo much. Chicken pox sucks. You’re tired, and achy, and there's a distinct lack of Michael. Anyway, you’re the best,” Jeremy gushes, somewhere around the sixth round of Mario. “I love you man.”

Gushing about how much he likes Michael is very much a Jeremy thing. Jeremy has been doing it since before he learned how to read an analogue clock, and before Michael learned how to tie his own shoes, and before either of them learned how to color in the lines. In recent months, Michael’s dad has taken Michael aside once or twice and explained, without once looking him in the eye, that he might want to encourage Jeremy to be a little more subtle in how he voiced his affections. Because maturity. And safety. Or something. Michael takes a deep breath, keeping his eyes on the TV.

“I l-l-l-love you,” he repeats, meanly, his voice high like Jeremy’s, and crackly like Jeremy’s, and stammering over the words, although Jeremy hadn't.

“I didn't— I—” Jeremy’s hand goes to cover his mouth, his eyes bugging out. “He—h-hey. Damnit! You st-started me!”

“Is it that easy?” Michael teases, even though he'd known full well that it would be. That's why it isn't a nice thing to do. He may well have messed up Jeremy’s speaking for the rest of the night.

“Yes! Shit.” Jeremy is smiling. He even lets out a short laugh. But then he has to restart his next sentence three times, and he looks less happy about that.

There is a sudden sense of heaviness in the air. The way that Jeremy is biting his tongue, so that it just juts out between his teeth, would have usually been funny, but as things are Michael’s mind is struggling to find a way to justify his behavior to himself.

Then a reason comes to Michael, and he seizes upon it.

“If you get to make fun of me and imitate me for ‘Michael ranting’,” Michael explains, complete with finger quotes, “then I… I-I—I get to do the same thing with your Jeremy stutter.” He swallows hard, remembering how difficult the last week has been.

Jeremy is reddening in that certain Jeremy way, and Michael looks away, playing with the edge of his hoodie.

“I’d never…” Jeremy tries. He licks his lips.

Cautiously, Michael looks back at him.

“I-I mean I— would—wouldn't. I love the way you talk about stuff. It's just… I can listen to you all day. I was trying to… I wanted to…”

Michael places a hand in Jeremy’s shoulder. He feels terrible now. “Hey. Don't worry about it.”

“You’re really smart. And interesting. I wanted to…”

Michael closes his eyes for a moment. Probably Jeremy will never guess how much effort it takes Michael to get himself into a good headspace, but he can do it. He's in his own basement. No catastrophes here. Just the right level of light, and the stale weed smell, and his stuff, and his best buddy, who he chooses to invite in.

“I know I'm interesting,” Michael flashes Jeremy a smile. “And you totally wuv me—”
teasing again, but the kind that doesn't hit on any sensitive spots. Michael ruffles Jeremy’s hair, who ducks away, grinning, and no longer looking quite so much like a kicked puppy dog.

Jeremy gives him a playful shove, and soon the two of them are back to their video games, and all is right with the world.

Chapter Text

“Sophomore year is going to be the year of self improvement,” Jeremy announces. They’ve just come back from Target, where Michael’s dad had dropped them off to get school supplies. Now they have all of their goods spread out on Michael’s bed, and they are doing inventory, because even if it's pens, notebooks, and binders, there is something to be said for getting to buy a whole load of nominally useful shit with their parents’ money. Besides, school supplies could be dope as hell. Michael, for instance, managed to find these tiny sushi shaped erasers, that could be taken apart and reassembled into different rolls, and they were the best things ever.

Jeremy’s purchases stand out in sharp contrast: yellow number two pencils, plain pens, ordinary pink erasers, and solid colored notebooks. He goes through these, writing the names of his classes in permanent marker, while Michael leans back and watches him.

“So, no more slacking off?” Michael guesses.

A shrug. “I mean, I'll probably still slack.”

“But you have an organization plan or something?”

“Well, like, not really? I'm just not going to suck so much this year, y’know. I'll like… I’ll… I’ll… it's like I’ll…Hey, remember how Commander Riker was a total tool in the first season of Next Generation, then he grew a beard, and after that he was cool?”

Michael raises his eyebrows. “You’re going to… grow a beard?” he asks slowly. The thing with Jeremy is that Michael feels himself uniquely capable of riding his trains of thought, but he's never quite sure what the destination is going to be. Michael gets Star Trek references. He is totally aware of how much first officer Will Riker improved in season two. It's just hard to tell if what Jeremy wants here is a literal abundance of facial hair, or something more metaphorical, like the ability to zoom around the galaxy at warp speed reaping glorious sexual exploits with practically every female in the universe. Maybe he just wants to find his footing. Maybe he wants to do battle with the Borg.

“I'm going to level up,” Jeremy explains. “Be cool. Or at least, not an obvious loser…”

“I might not know much about the mechanics of coolness but…”

“I know, I know, it doesn't start by comparing yourself to a Star Trek character.”

“I was gonna say it's not all that important as long as you’re happy.”

“Well m-maybe I’m not,” Jeremy says shortly. He picks up another notebook, and begins to look through it, which is a really stupid way of avoiding eye contact, considering it's empty. Rookie mistake. “Happy, I mean. Maybe if I could trick p-people into thinking I'm not gross and weird, things w-would be easier.”

“You’re not gross, and there's nothing wrong with weird. Also, Riker? Probably the least weirdest character on Next Gen and also the boringest.”

“I'm going to write down all of the dumb mistakes I make every day in this notebook,” Jeremy says. “Then I'm going to learn from them.”

“Well,” Michael counters, holding up one of his own notebooks, “I'm going to draw gnarly pictures in this while I'm supposed to be taking notes, then I'm going to post them to Deviant Art, and then I'm going to get Internet famous. And who knows what could happen after that? Maybe I'll get rich selling T-shirts.”

Jeremy scoffs, but not meanly. He grasps his notebook, the one that he's going to use to write down all of his mistakes, in both of his hands like it's something important, and Michael’s stomach sinks. Jeremy is adept at hating himself to just the right degree that nobody notices, or at least nobody notices it as a problem. There's a reasonably good chance that somebody at school will catch Jeremy in the act of cultivating his notebook of failures, but if they do they’ll just laugh, because that's the kind of shit that’s funny in the world of high school, which is precisely why high school is nothing more than a load of heinous bullshit bathed in ugly fluorescent lighting.

“Want one of my Spider-Man pencils?” Michael offers.

“Nah.”

“Come on. It's hard to feel bad about yourself when you’ve got Spidey watching your back.” Michael waves the pencil temptingly in front of Jeremy’s face. Last year all of Jeremy’s school supplies were covered in super heroes, sharks, and video game characters, in a mismatched and exciting jumble that had made Michael much more comfortable with Jeremy’s mental state.

“I…”

Michael presses the Spider Man pencil into Jeremy’s palm, and presses his fingers gently closed around it. Jeremy stares down at their joined hands, but he doesn't pull away, so Michael gives his fingers a quick squeeze before turning back to his own pile of loot.

“Hey, trade me your red notebook?” Michael suggests. “It's my favorite color, and I'm kinda regretting this one with the pandas.”

Before long, Michael has managed to prevail upon Jeremy to take a green pen, the panda notebook, and a little notepad with a french fry on it. He has not managed to get Jeremy to give up his Log of Mistakes.

—————

Michael is glad that he's not Jeremy. Jeremy is awesome and amazing, but to be Jeremy and think like Jeremy? Michael’s sure that he wouldn't be equipped to handle that. When things go bad for Jeremy, Jeremy assumes that something is wrong with him, and it makes him crazy. Michael does have his own crazy streak, but at least it's directed outward rather than inward. He can deal with it. It involves minorly inconvenient shit, like wanting to curl up in a tiny ball in the middle of class because he can hear the electricity buzzing through the lightbulbs, or feeling nauseous because Chloe Valentine likes to coat herself in a layer of bubblegum scented perfume that is apparently secreted directly out of Satan’s asshole. It's just that, even with all this, Michael is okay. He's able to escape into his own mind, where it's comfortable, and the music is totally bangin’.

If sophomore year is going to be the year of self improvement, then Michael has his own idea as to how it will go. It involves armor. Armor is a crucial part in the design of every character, even the ones that nobody would guess were going into battle. Armor comes in many shapes and designs, from plate, to chain mail, to boiled leather, to earbuds, a sweatshirt with a hood, and sushi shaped erasers. Armor is undeniably awesome, and so Michael sets about building his, sometimes through Taobao orders and music downloads, and sometimes with a needle, thread, and a patch that says “Fight Racism” in bold capital letters.

Michael has his first ever Official Panic Attack just before the start of winter vacation. A kid called Rich is to blame, and he's like literally the pint-sized personification of every stereotypical teen movie villain ever, only for some reason everybody eats it up. He's not even original or clever. He's just mean.

It starts in Mrs. Maguire’s fourth period English class. To say that it's one of Michael’s least favorite classes is an understatement. It's not that Michael hates reading or anything, although he's happier putting on an audio book while playing a mindless video game than he is trying to immerse himself in a hunk of reprocessed dead tree. But still, high school English literature causes no problems for him. The problem is that Mrs. Maguire insists on leaving the window open no matter how cold it is, and that she can't control the students to save her life, so the room is really just an icebox full of screeching adolescents and obnoxious hijinks.

And Rich, who is the most screechy and obnoxious of them all.

Rich has it in for Michael.

The first offense is featherlight, a finger ghosting over the back of Michael’s neck, while he's busy staring at Mrs. Maguire’s forehead to trick her into thinking he's listening. Micheal whirls around to find the source of the touch, but Rich is sitting behind him, calmly taking notes. Michael’s skin tingles, and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

Two minutes later there is another touch, and then another. Each time Micheal looks back, Rich is engaged in his notes, but now he is smirking. He stops for a few minutes, but it almost doesn't matter, because Michael feels like he has ants crawling around all over his skin, and he's twitching so much that anybody looking at him might come to the same conclusion. He pulls up his hood. Rich yanks it back down. He pulls up his hood. Rich yanks it back down. Somebody snickers. Michael feels something wet on his neck. Did Rich just literally lick his neck? What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck

“Did you seriously just do that?” somebody whispers behind Michael, and Michael wants to verify that he did just do that, and he's fucking sick for doing that. The problem there is that his throat has closed up, and he can't talk.

“That's fucking sick,” another voice whispers behind him.

No kidding.

“Isn't you tongue, like, coated in dandruff?”

Michael hopes it is. It would serve him right.

“Do you think he ever washes his hair?”

Michael pushes his desk foreword, away from Rich. The girl in front of him lets out a squeak as his desk rams into her chair, but Michael doesn't care, because she scrambles to scoot foreword, and at least Michael is able to put some distance between himself and his nemesis.

This time, when Michael puts his hood up, nobody stops him. When he puts in his earbuds and starts up his Ipod, nobody stops him either.

In retrospect, Michael figures that the painful shock that goes up through his earbuds and burns through his ear canal could not have been from Rich. The kid isn't magic after all. There has to be some other explanation, faulty technology, or Michael being so on edge that he can't correctly interpret sensations. In the moment, however, he's livid. He lets out a pained shriek loud enough to make the hectic classroom seem quiet in comparison, and rounds on Rich, pushing all of his things off the desk before storming out into the hallway.

Seconds later, the bell rings.

Seconds after that, Michael collides with Jeremy, who is red and out of breath, as if he'd been running.

“I-I overheard Jenna Rolen saying Rich and some other kids had a bet going that they could make you lose your shit in English class and… oh shit.”

“Tell me about it.” Michael wipes at the eyes with the heel of his palm, walking straight past Jeremy, knowing that he will follow.

They end up sitting in Michael’s car, where Jeremy isn't supposed to be, because Michael has not yet passed the probationary period that all new drivers are supposed to go through, before they can start carting friends around. Then again, Michael isn't supposed to be in his car either, since it's the middle of a school day. So what it boils down to is that nobody is supposed to be in Michael's car right now, and Michael doesn't give a fuck, because he's too busy leaning his head on the steering wheel and trying to remember how to breathe. Besides, it's not like they’re driving. The keys aren't even in the ignition.

“Can I touch you?” Jeremy asks, his hand hovering over Michael’s shoulder.

“The next–” gasp “person to–” gasp “touch me is my–” gasp “sworn enemy.”

Jeremy jerks away as if burned. Michael keeps his head on the steering wheel, and doesn't say anything else. He needs to focus on important things, like breathing and not having a heart attack. A few more minutes of gasping, and Michael has enough air in his lungs to let out a scream of pained frustration. It just about sends Jeremy flying out of his seat.

“D-don't throw anything, alright?”

That gets Michael’s attention. The look he gives Jeremy must be all wrong, from the way that Jeremy jerks back. It must be incredulous, and it must be a glare, but really Michael hadn't been planning on throwing anything, and he can't make sense of Jeremy’s request, so he doesn't try to. He just puts his head back on the steering wheel, and waits for the world to be something that he can deal with.

Once it is, the first thing that Michael deals with is Jeremy.

“Wanna go to my place?” he asks. His voice is hoarse but gentle, because the other boy looks almost as rattled as Michael feels, and also because Michael really wants Jeremy to come home with him. As far as the scene he made in class, a sort of numb detachment is already starting to settle over Michael, but he can't view the scene he made alone in his car with Jeremy in the same light. He knows that everything will be fine between them, but he wants to get their mutual balance back as soon as possible, because he can't survive without it.

Jeremy nods, and it's enough. Michael still feels like he's tingling all over, and his hands are numb, and his face is numb, and his eyes hurt, but he manages to get his key in the ignition after four tries, and they drive off.

 

——————-

 

By some miracle, they make it to Michael’s basement in one piece. They get snacks and soda. They turn on music. Jeremy insists on preparing a blunt for Michael, and it's rolled wrong and falling apart because Jeremy is shit at this kind of thing (and also really shaky, which is bad), but Michael smokes it anyway.

They get settled on Michael’s bed. Michael opens up his laptop. He types in amazon.com, and starts his search for a good pair of noise canceling headphones, something big and clunky that goes over your ears instead of in them, because he's definitely never putting anything in his ears again.

“My earbuds broke,” he explains to Jeremy.

“Oh.”

“Glitched, like bzzz.”

“That sucks.”

“What's the name of that spray you put on furniture, to make it taste bad so your dog will quit chewing on it?” Michael asks.

“Oh my god, are you getting a puppy?”

Jeremy sounds so excited that Michael actually smiles for a minute. Then he remembers why he's actually looking for this stuff. “Rich licked my neck in class.”

“What the fuck? He did what? Who does that?”

“Rich.”

“What's his problem? And more importantly, why does everybody seem to dig it so much? So…so imagine if we went around randomly licking people. Our social status would be even lower than it is now! We'd be at a whole new level of loserness.”

“I'm not really up for analyzing the ins and out of popularity with you right now,” Michael says. “Kinda zonked.”

“Rich is a new kid, isn't he? I don't remember seeing him last year. I'm pretty sure he's new.”

“Don't care. No offense. You know I love you, Jer. Just don't care or want to talk about Rich anymore.”

“Have you noticed how Jake Dillinger…”

Michael lets out a slow breath. A google search tells him that the spray he’s looking for is called bitter apple. He’s going to have to start coating his neck with it. As a deterrent. In case anybody ever tries to lick him again. Armor. He puts a bottle in his Amazon cart, selects the fastest and most expensive shipping option, and checks out with his mom’s credit card, which he is only supposed to use for emergencies. Well, this was an emergency.

“Why’d you ask me not to throw anything back in the car?” Michael asks. He shuts his laptop, putting it to one side, and leans back into the bed. He removes his glasses, and puts them on the bedside table.

“I…um…”

“Has somebody been throwing things at you?”

“No!”

“But somebody has been throwing things.” Michael guesses.

“J-just my mom. She's s-stressed. So, like, d-dishes. Bang. Smash.” Jeremy throws up his hands. “It's not a big deal. She never yells at me or dad. Most parents yell at their kids sometimes, right? And it's not like our plates care that they’re b-being b-broken.”

“Probably not,” Michael agrees, his voice carefully non-committal. “Come here?” he pats the bed next to him.

To say that Jeremy dives for him would be an understatement. The speed with which Jeremy wraps his arms around Michael’s stomach practically knocks the wind out of him, and
Michael lets out a low grunt.

“You wouldn't let me hug you in the car,” Jeremy explains. “I was so worried, but I knew I needed to wait till you said it was okay, s-so yeah.”

“That's cute,” Michael teases.

“Smooth,” Jeremy teases right back, and even without his glasses on, Michael can see how red Jeremy’s skin is, because this is one of those times when their teasing sounds dangerously like flirting, even though it isn't. In fact, Michael is sure that it isn't, because even if he was gay and in love with Jeremy or whatever, he would not be up for flirting at this very moment, because he's had a terrible day, and he's exhausted both physically and emotionally. Having come to that conclusion, Michael decides that it is a safe time to run a hand through Jeremy’s hair. Jeremy, in turn, decides that the moment is ripe to hold Michael’s other hand in his own. And it's all very nice, until it isn't.

Because Michael’s mom? Well, she decides that the perfect moment has come for her to arrive home from work, storm down the stairs, and fling open the door to Michael’s room without knocking.

—————

Chapter Text

Jeremy ruins any attempt Michael could have made at looking chill and not guilty as his mother enters the room. Specifically, he ruins it by scrambling off Michael like he's on fire (or flaming gay and trying to hide it), and falling onto the floor in long-limbed tangle. Michael shoves his glasses back on just in time to see his mom’s eyes widen before she slams the door and leaves.

At first Michael can't do anything but sit on his bed, blinking and feeling the vibrations from the slammed door. He imagines them like ripples in a pond, but more jagged and distinctly green, emanating out towards him, cartoonish and pixilated, like something from a video game. He needs to think of a strategy to deal with this before his day goes to hell even more than it already has.

“Errg…” Jeremy says from the floor.

“Yeah. I feel you. I feel you. Probably not in the way my mom currently thinks I do.” Michael groans at his own joke. He runs his hand up through his hair, then tries to smooth it down. His mom hates the way he's always making a mess of himself, and if she comes back, he doesn't want to meet her looking disheveled, with his hair sticking out in every direction. Besides, all things considered, she might take it as a sign that he and Jeremy have just been making out.

“Blrrrrg.” Jeremy answers. Michael pulls him up by his shoulders. He starts to try to smooth out the other boy’s clothes and hair, then stops. Maybe now is not the time for them to be all over each other in this way.

“I’ll tell her it’s a conspiracy,” Jeremy offers.

“Yeah, she’ll think it's a conspiracy against her for sure.”

“But seriously. Rich started it. He did all that stuff with your neck, then he electrocuted you…”

“Rich electrocuted me? With what, the power of his mind? Thank you very much Agent Mulder, but nope, sorry, no. Not buying that.” Michael is rummaging through the drawer of his bedside table as he speaks, because hope springs eternal, and maybe his mother will pretend not to smell the pot on him if he finds his bottle of febreze and wields it with the tenacity of ten teenaged stoners. “Get over here so I can spray you,” Michael orders. “Dude, you can open your eyes, it's not like I'm going to spray you in the face. Come on, put your arms down. This isn't an arrest.” The words come out of Michael almost as quickly as the pounding of his heart. He is so screwed. “If these are the last moments I get to spend with you, then I'd rather you didn't spend them cringing like I'm literally attacking you with air freshener.”

There's a knock at the door. It's soft and hesitant, but Michael throws the febreeze bottle onto his bed. Jeremy covers it with his blanket, and and throws a pillow onto the ashtray on the bedside table. It falls onto the floor.

“Uh… come in!”

The door opens.

“I’m not homophobic!” Michael’s mother announces. She sounds too high-pitched and too excited, like she's shouting ‘surprise!’ to welcome Michael and Jeremy to an unexpected birthday party. The only thing missing is rainbow confetti raining down from the ceiling.

“Hooray!” Michael responds in the exact same voice. It's probably not appropriate for the situation. They both look at Jeremy, who shifts uncomfortably and doesn't look at either of them, before breaking into the most awkward round of applause that anybody has ever heard.

That does it. Michael starts laughing (he’s still sort of high), and his mom starts laughing (it's forced), and Jeremy lets out a wheezy chuckle or two, and the tenseness in the atmosphere doesn't fade much, but even objectively shitty laughter is better than anything else that could be going on right now.

“I'm very very worried!” Michael's mother goes on. She's waving her phone at Michael. Her voice is remains high, and her smile doesn't reach her eyes.

“Uh… would now be a good time to tell you Jeremy and me aren't a couple?”

Michael’s mother doesn't seem to hear him. “So many calls from the school! From Mrs. Maguire! I left work early! Drove two hours to get here! Called you, texted you, no answers! You! Skipping classes! Throwing another boy’s things! Screaming! Running out in hysterics! Go home, Jeremy!”

Jeremy kind of jumps at that. His eyes dart from Michael to his mom. He pats Michael on the arm, then gives his mother an uncertain solute.

“I’ll…” he starts to say, and then stops, pats Michael’s arm again, and disappears up the stairs.

“Be safe!” Michael’s mother calls after Jeremy, before going in for the kill.

—————-

It's not a very bad kill. Or maybe it is. Michael finds it hard to be objective. It's the kind of kill where nobody is dead by the end, but everybody is tired and wrung out till they're only hanging on by threads.

It goes like this:

Step One: wait until dad gets home to have The Conversation.

Step Two: wait until past midnight, because that is how long it takes dad to get home.

Step Three: rediscover the joys of Pacing while mom paces in another room, ringing her hands and looking at her wits end.

Step Four: Mom Pacing, by the powers of Mom Logic does not count as pacing because it is not Weird.

Step Five: kill some time being reassured that if Michael wants to be gay for Jeremy that’s fine. Mom likes Jeremy! Just be careful, for the love of god.

Step Six: “but mom I'm not…”

Step Seven: let's bond by looking up hate crimes against gay people on the internet as evidence of how important it is to be careful

Step One Hundred and Eighty Three: Dad’s home!

Step Forty-Two: ~the meaning of life~

Step Eight Point O: Michael tries to explain his side of the story.

Step Nine Point O: Michael is declared by parental decree to be wrong about everything.

Step Gazillion: We’re not saying that what this “Rich” did was right. We’re saying that you are in control of your own actions.

Step Nine Gazillion: Hood up. Hands over ears, because evil could still be lurking in earbuds. Cry.

Step ?????: Hugs from mom. Tears from mom because Michael doesn't want to be hugged. Make plans to send Michael to a therapist. Reassurances of impermeable familial love.

Final Step: Curl up in bed. Call Jeremy.

——————

“Dude, are you okay? I sent you like eight billion texts. Michael? Are you there? I'm guessing that you want to talk, because you called me instead of texting. Hello? Do you want me to sing for you? Tell you a story? Summarize season six episode four of Voyager? Michael?”

“This has been a heinous day.”

“Tell me about it. Your mom called my mom and told her we were dating.”

“Uhg. I'm sorry man. Mom likes to jump to conclusions. I wouldn't date you without telling you first.”

“…”

“Jere?”

“Everything is fine here at my house. Mom and me had a moment, but I told her we weren't dating. She wants you to know that she loves you no matter what. So… are you… like…?”

“I dunno man. I hardly know my name at this point. I’m drained. Feeling under a lot of pressure.”

“Got it.”

“Goodnight Jeremy. I love you.”

“No homo?”

“Tentative, entirely optional homo.”

“Good to know. Night Michael.”

Chapter Text

“Dude, you look rough. What's up?”

“Just got attacked by Christine Canigula.” Michael feigns wiping sweat from his brow, as he slides down next to Jeremy at their usual lunch table.

“In the auditorium?” Jeremy isn't even trying to look chill. Michael can practically see the exclamation points bouncing around in his skull. “She's pretty, don't you think?”

“Prettier when she's not chasing you through the theatre. Never going in there again.” There's an air of finality to the words. Michael empties his 7-11 bag and starts to arrange the contents on the table. Slightly warm California rolls, a slightly melted slushee, and a fifty cent apple pie because he found a couple extra quarters in the pocket of his hoodie and decided to put his fancy pants on today.

“The play’ll get cancelled if they can't find enough actors.”

“Not my problem.”

“Christine’ll be sad.”

“That's… unfortunate?” Michael guesses he should probably sound more sympathetic. He doesn't have anything against Christine Canigula. She seems genuine, at the very least, like the kind of person who just wants theater to happen and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. It's refreshing, but not refreshing enough to make an actor out of Michael.

Jeremy obviously thinks more of her. He's all pink and splotchy, and he's twirling his gross cafeteria jello around with his spork instead of eating it.

“The play’s about gay people! You’re into that now!”

“I'm into a lot of things.” Michael says, and he's not sure what he means by it. Jeremy talks like this is a new interest of his, and Michael doesn't know. What he does know is that there’s a rainbow patch on his hoodie now, on his left pocket above his Ecuadorian flag, and the ugly light house that he'd only sewed on because his mom got it for him while she was away on business in Maine. The pride patch is the newest one on there and it's been serving him well. Mom’s initial suspicion that he might be gay, after finding him engaged in an entirely platonic cuddle with Jeremy, had left him feeling backed into a corner as far as his sexuality went. It’d taken him a few weeks of internet searches, soul searches, and mild panicking, to find that he actually liked this corner and wanted to make a home in it. He'd talked to Jeremy about it. He'd talked to his shiny new psychologist about it. Things were going well.

Things going well is exactly why Michael doesn't want to consume all gay media indiscriminately. He wants to stay happy with himself and his place in the world. To accomplish that goal, he's had to develop certain standards.

“The gay person in the play—” Michael takes a bite of his sushi, and continues through a full mouth, “dies. Not my thing.”

“How do you know he dies?” Jeremy asks.

“It's kinda the whole point of the play. He dies, and we all learn a valuable lesson about homophobia is bad, which is true, but I'm already getting enough talks at home about how I now need to be extra careful that bad things don't happen to me. I'm on a quest for happier narratives, like…”

“How do you know the point of the play?”

A sigh. People liked to tell Michael that he was single-minded, but that was nothing compared to how Jeremy could get when he was in a certain mood.

(The mood was called desperation. Michael wished that it wasn't..)

“I asked Christine.”

“You talked to Christine?” Jeremy’s voice goes high. “Like an actual conversation about theatre and mortality and shit? Was she nice?”

“She started it, and no.” Michael rethinks his words at the way that Jeremy’s face falls. “Look, I don't mean ‘no’ she wasn't nice. I mean ‘no’, I'm not doing the play.”

Jeremy continues to pout. “The gay person doesn't have to die. If we’re in the play together, I'll personally keep him from dying. Remember last year, when the school did Jesus Christ Superstar, but they changed Jesus’ name to Jimmy Weiss to make the show more inclusive for non-Christian students?”

“And made him a sea monster?”

“And got sued by Andrew Lloyd Webber?”

A moment of silence passes between both boys, as only seemed appropriate to honer the memory of Jimmy Weiss Sea Mon-Star, and the particular place his short life holds in the Middleborough hall of fame.

“You ever think about how Sea Mon-Star sounds kinda like semen star?” Jeremy asks, with an air of grave thoughtfulness that leaves Michael no choice but to flick bits of dropped sushi rice in his general direction. Jeremy retaliates by grabbing his slushee and stealing a sip. The play is forgotten, at least for a little while.

—————

“I read the Laramie Project and Angels in America yesterday,” Jeremy says, with a certain swagger, as he plops down on one of Michael’s beanbags, ready for an afternoon of video games, movies, and pizza.

“Two books in one day? I'm impressed.”

“They’re plays!” Jeremy is positively glowing.

“Aaah.” Hoodie, up.

“Then I listened to Rent, Bare, and a Chorus Line. I… um… so Christine. I th-think I really like her, and maybe we could… I dunno… have something to talk about or whatever. Especially if you and me try out for the play.”

“Jeremy…” there is a hint of warning in Michael’s voice. “I'm not trying out for the…”

“Haveyouseencatsallthegirlshavetails?!”

“I…?”

“In Cats! All the girls have tails! So, like, imagine if we did Cats, and Christine wore a tail?”

Michael chokes on his soda. “Jeremy. Buddy. Pal.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Nothing. I'm flattered you feel safe unloading all your weird shit on me. So, quick question, is it Christine you’re into, theatre, or… tails?”

“Are you sure you won't try out for the play?”

“Completely.”

Jeremy bites his lips, thinking it over. “Theatre isn't really our thing.” He gestures to himself and Michael a little frantically.

“It could be your thing. You can try out without me. And hey, I promise to see your shows and listen to you talk about it as much as you want, as long as you don't do something crazy like quit video games.”

What Michael doesn't add, is that he'd much rather listen to Jeremy gush about plays and musicals than listen to him gush about Christine (or tails). He's never been one to try and keep Jeremy from having his own interests; it just seems as though the things that Jeremy likes have always naturally fallen in line with Michael’s own fixations, the only occasional difference being taste in music.

“I'm not ready to commit to a whole new identity” Jeremy says.

“We’d have to buy you one of those beatnik theatre dude hats.” Michael’s big smile does not belay the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. A whole new identity?

“I'd look stupid.”

“Wanna watch a movie to celebrate your new identity? I bet there are at least a million versions of Shakespeare on Netflix.” As soon as Michael asks, he knows that it's a test. What Jeremy answers here will be important.

“No.”

Michael bites back any sound that he might have made. Time for a change of topic.

“Look at my arm,” Michael says very gently. Sometimes it's important to pull Jeremy out of his own thoughts without startling him. He yanks up his sleeve as far as it goes, revealing an expanse of bare skin.

“Uh…”

“Well?”

“…That is definitely an arm.”

“Not for long.”

“I… huh?”

“I have connections,” Michael explains rapidly. “From the internet. And they’re gonna get me a tattoo. Which I'm then going to hide from my parents until my eighteenth birthday.”

Jeremy hums out his appreciation. He’s impressed. “What're you gonna get?”

“That's what I need you to help me pick out. Maybe we can get matching ones?

(Three weeks later, Michael withstands needles, weird smells, and a strange person talking to him to get his Pac-Man tattoo. Jeremy chickens out at the last minute. But it's okay. Michael understands.)

Chapter Text

Michael’s psychologist’s name is Jessica, but he calls her Dr. Murry, because he isn't some kind of heathen who goes around calling adults by their first names. She’s okay, in part because she has a vested interest in being okay; it’s her job, after all. Another reason for her nearly astounding okayness is that she’s old enough to be far removed from teenage hierarchy battles. It's entirely possible that she’s engaged in all kinds of personal and professional turmoil with her grown-up friends and grown-up peers. For all Michael knows, she could even be the Chloe Valentine of the of the oldish brain doctor lady world, but she isn't going to drag Michael into that any more than Michael is going to get into a pissing contest with a clan of squirrels.

(Okay, so maybe Michael also isn't going to spend his time helping young squirrels sort through their issues at the behest of fretful squirrel mothers, who worry about their little squirrelings no matter how they insist that they are foraging for nuts just fine on their own, thank you very much. He's pretty sure that there are people who do that, though. Wildlife rangers or whatever, with training similar to doctor Murry’s. The fact still holds that, in a cosmic sense, Dr. Murry’s relationship to Michael is the same as Michael’s relationship to squirrels and other small woodland creatures. It's as though they are all on different planes of existence, like alternate universes, but in clear view of one another.)

Surprisingly, Jessica Murry, Phd. doesn't seem to believe that every aspect of Michael, from his handwriting to his taste in video games, needs to be fixed. She says that he's very self-aware, and that's a good thing. It's useful, after all, to be keenly sure of what you like, what you don't like, and what you’re trying to get out of life. She has some suggestions for him about becoming more aware of other people, and his surroundings, as if those aren't precisely the things that Michael spends a lot of his time floundering to block out.

“Jeremy is clearly an important part of your life,” she says during one session, “but nobody can be everything for another person like that. It's not good for either of you.”

Michael wants to say that he doesn't need anybody else, that he’s satisfied, but he’s not sure. For one thing, he can't shake the feeling that he better start wanting a boyfriend pronto, or else relinquish his pride patch. Whenever he imagines the gay stuff that he most definitely imagines, it's either involving two guys who are not himself or anybody he knows, or else involving himself and Jeremy. There's something worrying about both scenarios, the first because Jeremy is straight and probably wouldn't appreciate it, and the second because Michael feels like he should at least be involved in his own damn fantasies.

(Michael does sometimes try to invite himself into his day dreams, as like a game or maybe a psychological exercise, but it doesn't work. If he's thinking of Tom Paris and Harry Kim from Voyager, for example, the years and years of friendship and shared experiences between the characters are what's important. It can't be Michael and Tom, because Michael and Tom never got stranded in the Delta Quadrant together, and never fought against the Borg, and never teamed up to fix disastrous holodeck malfunctions. It can't be Michael and Harry, because Michael doesn't have the right kind of skeletons in his closet to make himself Harry’s perfect foil, and therefore perfect lover. It just doesn't work.)

“I guess Jeremy and I are handling ourselves okay,” Michael tries to explain. “I mean, how do you define ‘not good for either of you’? Lots of things aren't good for either of us, like the cost of healthcare in the United States, and um… like the rise in right wing politics. Also, global warming. That's going to kick our asses sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, Jeremy and I are bros. we've got each other's back. That's important! Even in the scheme of high school problems, I've heard that there's black mold growing in the auditorium, and then there's this one girl at the school who pretends to be French because she has incredibly low self-esteem. I can't imagine having to do that all day every day, but I can totally understand why she's desperate enough to try it. Anything to survive, right? At least me and Jeremy can be exactly who we are with each other.”

Psychologists, it turns out, can assign homework. Dr. Murry listens to everything that Michael has to say, and assigns Michael the homework of holding conversations with three people outside of his family who are not Jeremy.

Michael agrees. He agrees a little too quickly, because nodding along with the doctor’s orders seems like a better option than going on a rant about Star Trek pairings to her, or trying to find the right words to clearly reexplain everything he's already said. He's also afraid that if he doesn't agree, she will magically become aware that he kind of showed up for this appointment stoned. Anyway, he doesn't feel precisely bad about it, just nervous.

“Imagine it this way,” Dr. Murry says, with this wry smile that older people wear whenever they think they are being very wise and also very hip to youth culture. “It's kind of like a quest. It's kind of like you’re leveling up.”

————————-

Michael chooses the girl who works the front counter weekday mornings at 7-11 for his first conversational target, since Dr. Murry refuses to let him retroactively count his tattoo artist. On the scale of giddy to anxious, Michael finds himself at a point that could most clearly be described as nauseous. At least he doesn't have to be ultra vigilant to make sure that the needles 7-11 Girl is using are clean, because she's not using needles, only a familiar slushee machine, with which Michael has already formed a long and trusting relationship.

“I like these,” Michael tells the girl, tapping the cherry slushee that he's just purchased. She's not technically a one hundred percent new person to speak to, but this sentence is outside of their usual repertoire of hey / that’ll come to four twenty-five please / thanks / have a good one / you too.

“I figured,” the 7-11 girl replies dully.

“Really?”

This gets Michael a smile. “You kinda buy them every day. You go to Middleborough?”

“Yeah. Lucky me, right?”

“Hey, at least high schools have to give you your textbooks for free.”

“Textbook prices are a crime,” says Michael. He hasn't had to deal with them himself, but that doesn't keep him from having opinions on the matter. “Also, I totally believe in a fifteen dollar minimum wage. That would be super good.”

“That'd be the dream,” 7-11 girl agrees.

Leaving the store, Michael feels light and happy, which isn't unusual. There's a reason that he makes buying food at 7-11 part of his daily ritual, and that's because he likes it. He, Michael Mell, is eternally stoked at getting to eat crappy convenience store sushi for lunch every day. The only strange thing is that he's not especially second guessing this conversation that he's just had.

The next day, he gathers up his courage, and asks the 7-11 girl a question.

“Are you in college?”

“Basically. As much as I can be.”

Michael isn't sure what to answer to that, but luckily the girl goes on without any prompting from him.

“Community college. Nights and weekends. Hey, is Mrs. Rosch still teaching bio?”

“Yeah, she is. But everyone calls her…”

“Mrs. Roach,” the girl finishes, smiling. “She's the best, isn't she?”

“She's… uh…” creepily obsessed with insects is the first thing that jumps into Michael's mind, and he's not quite sure how to put that delicately. “She keeps Madagascar hissing cockroaches as pets. That takes a certain kind of person.”

“Uh-huh,” the girl agrees. “Hey, if you see her, could you tell her that she inspired Elena Nelson to major in biology? I'm Elena Nelson, by the way. Wait two minutes, I'm gonna write her a quick letter. You’ll deliver it, right?”

Michael can only nod, and watch in slight awe as the girl scribbles out a note on one of the napkins kept by the the little glass box where the sandwiches live.

“Are you one of those weird insect people?” he blurts out, as she's handing him the letter.

“Totally. Anyway,” she straightens up, slipping back into her customer service face, as if it's a mask that she can put on and take off at will, “have a good one.”

“You too.”

Michael slides his headphones up over his ears as he leaves, but he finds for the second day in a row that he doesn't feel terrible about this bit of social interaction. And yeah, he guesses there's a reason for that, and it goes back to the relationship between adult professionals, high school students, and squirrels. Being in college is also its own thing, and it doesn't matter that he’s just called the 7-11 girl a ‘weird insect person’, because to her he's just an awkward child who likes slushees, definitely not worth exacting vengeance against or whatever.

Michael wonders what he’ll be like in college, and is surprised by how hopeful he feels about the prospect. It's a cool idea, though, this concept of being an adult but not, having choices about what and where he studies, and the promise that his place in the world and his place at Middleborough are two entirely separate things. College, Michael decides, is going to be the best time of his life.

Chapter Text

Conversational Target Number Two finds Michael rather than the other way around.

Conversational Target Number Two is actually Jeremy’s mom.

According to the rules set out by Dr. Murry, Jeremy’s mom is technically an acceptable person to talk to. She's not Jeremy. She's not a part of Michael’s family. Also, although Michael has talked with her plenty of times in the past, (and on this particular occasion he says less than five sentences to her) the conversation is so stressful and weird that he figures it ought to count as another hurdle jumped in his dumb talking to people to make his psychologist happy challenge.

It starts out normally enough, with Jeremy texting him to come over. In retrospect, maybe Michael should have guessed that something was up, because Jeremy doesn't say anything about being bored or needing Michael to pick up snacks because he's hungry and doesn't drive, but it's not as though it's unusual for him and Jeremy to spend their Sunday afternoon together, and Michael doesn't stop to think. He doesn't stop at all. He just gathers up some games for them to play, goes to the store for a few packs of double stuffed peanut butter Oreos, and doesn't check his phone between leaving his house and arriving at his destination.

(It's minutes and minutes too late before he sees the other texts that Jeremy has sent him, stuff like nm its a f*cking war zone over here save urself, and can i come over to yours insteadand f*ck dude answer me im dieing. Michael feels terrible by then.)

Normality for Michael only lasts right up until he opens the door of the Heere household, then it’s blasted apart like one of those horror movies where turning the wrong doorknob can send you spiraling into an alternate universe populated by red-faced sobbing mothers surrounded by dish shards, and… and holy shit is that blood???

Michael closes the door, inches it back open to see that the blood he’d imagined is just a shattered red cup, and then closes the door again because even if the thing going on in the Heere living room isn't precisely a murder scene, it's still something very very bad. Hoodie up, headphones on, lean against the door and pant…. Wait, wait no. Don't lean against the door and pant. Get inside and find Jeremy.

Michael knocks at the door softly, and then a little harder. Mrs. Heere opens it, with a watery sort of smile. It’s a problem, it's a problem, it's a very big problem. The house is a big problem. Michael’s mother is always telling him that he makes big problems out of small ones, that he's the type to encounter one broken cup and see a sea of glass, but the Heere living room and the Heere kitchen are a literal sea of glass right now, and the curtains have been ripped down.

“Is Jeremy…” Michael waves his bag of games. Words don't want to come out of his mouth, and he finds himself thinking of how hard it is for Jeremy to speak when he's nervous, because Michael is so uncomfortable right now that he can't think of a good way to go back to calm. “Jeremy and I are supposed to play games together.”

Jeremy’s mother blinks, and then steps away from the door, holding out her hands with a gesture of grand invitation that doesn't fit the scene.

“Um…Jeremy?” Michael manages to ask. There's a smell in the air, wine if Michael would have to guess, but he's not entirely sure, because his family doesn't drink much, and it's not like Michael gets invited to alcohol sniffing parties or anything like that.

“I…” Jeremy’s mother smiles, wipes her eyes, then turns away briskly. “There was a problem with the dish washing machine,” she starts to explain. “It spit out all the dishes. Into the living room. It does that sometimes.”

“Uh-huh…”

The story reminds Michael of the kinds of things Jeremy used to say when they were little kids. Stories where he didn't lose Michael’s toy sword, pirates stole it, and he didn't wet the bed at their second ever sleepover, that was a dog who climbed in through the window, and he didn't break the vase that Michael’s dad had made in his pottery class, it was most definitely the fault of a hurricane in the living room.

Michael is torn between going to find Jeremy right away, and staying with Mrs. Heere, who probably shouldn't be left alone.

Jeremy, as a child, never had figured out that Michael saw through all his stories because they made no sense. He'd just decided that Michael had some kind of preternatural ability to guess at anything that he was trying to hide, and taken to telling Michael the truth about everything, no matter how weird, embarrassing, or guilt inducing it was. Michael is sure that if he goes to Jeremy now, Jeremy will tell him exactly what is going on.

And so Michael starts to inch towards the staircase, thinking to bolt for Jeremy’s room. Mrs. Heere is rummaging around in a drawer, hands shaking, and she grabs out a handful of little square papers, some of them fluttering to the ground before Michael realizes that they are photographs.

“Look!”

Michael freezes.

“Here. Come here. Sit down.”

Jeremy’s mom sounds imploring, and with one more longing glance towards The staircase, Michael complies. He takes a seat at the kitchen table, and focuses his eyes anywhere but on Mrs. Heere’s face. This, at least, turns out to be easy to do, because Mrs. Heere starts spreading out photographs for him to look at. There are a lot: Jeremy as wrinkly newborn, Mr. and Mrs. Heere on their wedding day, that stupid school Thanksgiving recital that looks even stupider now that Michael is sixteen and knows that Thanksgiving was a lot more evil than his second grade music teacher led him to believe. Probably one picture out of every dozen includes Michael, at so many stages in his life that he looks more like a family member than some weird kid who latched on to Jeremy back in preschool.

“How is school?” Mrs. Heere asks, as though it is a normal Tuesday afternoon, and she's a normal parent, about to offer him milk and cookies, as parents normally do.

Michael doesn't answer. He stares at a photo of himself and Jeremy at a water park, back in fourth grade he guesses. In the photo he and Jeremy are grinning brightly, with water slides in the background, the redness at Jeremy’s shoulders and the bridge of his nose barely belaying the sunburn he would have by the end of the day.

“You’ve always been such a good friend to Jeremy,” Mrs. Heere goes on. Her hands are opening and closing nervously as she speaks. “He's lucky to have you, Michael. You’re really smart. Has anybody ever told you that?”

No answer.

“And nice. We all approve of you immensely in this house.”

Michael wonders if this is where Jeremy’s tendency to randomly launch into speeches about how much he likes him comes from. Mrs. Heere is flipping through the pictures now. She squints at them closely, considering. Sometimes one eye is open, sometimes the other, and at other times they both widen for a moment, before clamping shut as if the act of having two eyes open at once is hurting her.

“Ah-hah!” She snatches up one picture, and shoves it towards Michael. This one is kinda recent. Last Passover, he thinks, or maybe earlier than that. The Heere's have been inviting Michael over for holidays as long as he can remember, and the years have started to blur together. The picture could have been from two passovers ago, but not three, because Michael recognizes the shirt he's wearing as one he bought when he went to visit his grandparents in Manila just before the start of Freshman year.

“I want you to keep this,” Mrs. Heere says.

The Jeremy in this photo looks surprised. He hadn't really been expecting his dad to shout “family picture!”, and shove a camera in his face. Michael, for his part, is grinning like some sort of gremlin, which tends to happen to him in photos. Mrs. Heere is the only one of the three of them who looks serene and composed. It's a striking difference from this moment, where Mrs. Heere is a reeking, disheveled mess, Michael is frowning so hard that his face hurts, and Jeremy is no where to be seen.

Jeremy.

“I should… uh… probably find Jeremy.” Michael says. He takes a breath, then reaches across the table to pat Mrs. Heere's hand, so clumsily that it's more like he's trying to give her knuckles a high five, and even though it makes his skin crawl, he wants to believe that it's the right thing to do. Obligatory physical contact completed, Michael gets up fast enough to jostle the table, and sprints up the steps.

Jeremy isn't in his room, and that's when Michael finally gets around to checking his phone. He reads the messages, and then calls Jeremy, who picks up after the first ring.

“Dude, where are you?” Michael asks. “Are you…”

Jeremy hangs up. A second later, Michael gets a text. library, it says. cool, be right there, Michael shoots back. On his way back down the stairs, Michael sees that Mrs. Heere in no longer in the living room. He's just about outside, when Mrs. Heere opens the door of her bedroom.

“I'm going to sleep!” she calls out. “Goodnight Michael!”

“Night!” Michael calls back, as he makes his escape.

—————-

Chapter Text

It takes Michael two minutes to drive to the public library, twelve minutes to find a parking spot, and another seventeen minutes to find Jeremy (not for lack of texting him to get his exact location, but Jeremy’s response of near the books doesn't exactly give Michael a ton to go on). Jeremy is in the textile history section, with his arms wrapped around himself, and his eyes trained on the book titles as though his life really might depend on differentiating between various kinds of century old linen. In truth, Michael guesses Jeremy has found his way here because it's in a secluded corner of the library, far away from the more popular novels, the reading couches, and the line to use the computers. It's the kind of place where you only end up if you are trying to to hide.

Michael falls in next to Jeremy, pulls out a book at random, and opens it. The pages are yellowing in this one, and it has swaths of real fabric glued in, probably by human hands, who knows how many decades ago. A cool find, in its way. Maybe they should come here in a non-crisis situation sometime. Michael flips through three or four pages without speaking, only watching Jeremy out of the corner of his eye. The other boy looks like he might shatter, and Michael doesn't want to push him, so instead he keeps himself buried inside the book, occasionally letting his fingers ghost over an interesting texture, but mostly just waiting for Jeremy to say the first word.

Jeremy coughs to clear his throat. He wipes his hands on his jeans. Michael can see his fingers working, his movements so similar to the movements his mom had been making back at the house.

“M-Michael?”

“Right here, buddy.”

Jeremy exhales heavily.

“Hey. It's alright. You wanna go back to my car? Or look at…” Michael holds up the book. “I think this chapter is about flour sack dresses.”

“Y-your— your. I want— I want t-to go back to your car.”

“Okay,” Michael agrees. “We can do that. Come on, Jeremy. It's okay.” He waits for Jeremy to come in closer to him, and then loops an arm around his waist, wondering at how easy it is to do that. Sure, Michael feels terrible, but he doesn't feel paralyzed around Jeremy the way he did around Mrs. Heere. He doesn't imagine that he could, even if Jeremy were to get drunk and throw glass, not that that is a situation that he wants to experience.

As they walk in silence, Michael goes through a litany of questions in his mind, a dozen small variations on when to bring them up, and how to word them. They get to the car, and sit down. Michael watches Jeremy fumble with his seatbelt for a full two minutes, before he can't take anymore, and he reaches over to do it for him. Jeremy freezes like a statue, his eyes trained on Michael’s hands.

“Sorry, bro.” Michael backs off quickly. “Just looked like you needed…”

Jeremy nods. He swallows hard, and Michael mentally kicks himself. He's supposed to be calming Jeremy down, not weirding him out. He starts the car, but doesn't pull out of his parking place. He watches Jeremy, and tries to assess what is going on with his friend. He looks sweaty and almost ill at best, but he's not crying or hyperventilating. Maybe he's carefully controlling himself, or maybe he's almost okay and just needs a while to wind down.

“I was thinking,” Michael says, “that we could just go back to my place. Chill for a while. And then later, we can go down to Family Dollar, and pick you up some plastic plates and cups.”

“P-plastic plates and cups?”

“Right. So your mom can't… you know.”

“I-I-I… It's… I… uh… so… I-I…Michael?”

“Yeah, Jere?”

Jeremy pushes himself back against the seat, hard, as if he's trying to knock the stammer out of his voice. Michael hasn't heard it go quite this bad in years, and a part of him wants to remind Jeremy that he's never had any problem waiting for him and listening to him, not even when Jeremy was tiny and couldn't help but repeat every syllable out of his mouth, but a bigger part of Michael knows that the best thing he can do is not comment at all. He just watches as Jeremy takes several deep breaths, obviously willing himself to continue, as though the act of getting words out of his mouth is a mind over matter type of deal, and maybe it is at this point.

“Sh-she's mad because—b-because I sorta s-stole dad's anti-d-depression pills. They—they've been there for—for years. He doesn't t-take them anyway, b-but when she n–noticed and called he–him to come home, he… he was at… at work a–and…”

“Your dad’s depressed?”

“Not— not anymore. M-maybe? H-he's out a lot, and mom… mom says he's a mess, b-but she's one to talk, y’know? A few years a–ago remember he was sick and…”

Michael nods, storing that information away for later. Right now there are a lot of things he needs to ask Jeremy, and he can't explain why, but the heavy worry that's settled on him is oddly steadying. It makes his voice deeper somehow, and evener.

“How much have you been taking?”

“One a d-day. Maybe two. I'm not trying… I'm not trying to…”

“To hurt yourself?” Michael finishes

“Right! Right!” Jeremy sounds relieved. “I'm not suicidal. I mean, I’ve… I've thought or whatever, but I'm not.”

“Hey Jeremy?”

A nod.

“Can I hug you?”

Another nod, and Michael leans over the seats to hug Jeremy, regretting for the second time buckling him in, because he doesn't seem to have the presence of mind to unhook himself, and it's hard for Michael to twist his body enough so that he can get a proper hold on his friend, without flat out crawling into his lap. The best Michael can do is clamor up into a kneeling position on his own seat, and push the upper half of his body into the passenger side, and around Jeremy.

“Dude, what…?”

“I'm trying to help you,” Michael says, which gets him something like a smile from Jeremy as he pulls away. “So, the medicine,” he continues. “Are you…um… depressed?”

Jeremy shrugs.

“You don't know?”

“R-right. I d-don't feel good m-most of the time. I—It's like everything is wrong, and… and like I'm so gross, and everybody’s s-staring, and I know they aren't b-because I’m s-super normal, right? And…”.

“You’re not normal,” Michael interrupts, getting faster when he sees Jeremy flinch. “You’re awesome. And, yeah, a lot of people are missing that, but that's just high school for you.”

“I w-want to do things, and I can't. It's so bad. A-and I thought… I thought maybe I could pop s-some Zyrtec and…”

“Wait, wait… what? What was that medicine there?”

“Z-Zyrtec?”

Something like a laugh tries to escape, and Michael pushes it back down, leaning over instead to push the hair out of Jeremy’s face. Jeremy closes his eyes. God, he looks miserable.

“Jeremy. That's allergy medicine.” Michael says, and all at once the absurdity of it just seems sad. Are things really so terrible for Jeremy that he's turning to expired antihistamines for help? Are things such a mess in his house that he caused the kind of explosion Michael saw earlier, just by swallowing a pill that was supposed to stop you from sneezing?

“I mean, it's fine,” Michael goes on carefully. “It's a mistake anybody could make, if they don't at least google what they’re taking, which you should definitely do next time. But hey, I bet your nasal passages are clear, even if your head isn't. Has it been making you feel any better? There have been studies and stuff done about the placebo effect, and if it has been helping, Claritin is over the counter, so…”

“I feel like I might throw up,” Jeremy says. Michael’s hand, which has been tracing little paths through Jeremy’s hair, stills. “N-not in your car,” Jeremy hastens to promise. “Dude, I wouldn't do that to you. No way.”

“Do you need to get out?”

Jeremy shakes his head.

“Do you want to get out?”

“No.”

“Alright then,” Michael turns the key in his ignition, backing out of his parking spot. “Let me know if you need me to pull over, ok?”

“‘K”

A few minutes pass. “You know,” Michael says, “I definitely don't want you to throw up in my car, so don't take this as an invitation, but you’d still be my best friend, even if you did.”

“Good to know.” Jeremy licks his lips. “You'd still be my best friend even if you set all of my Pokémon cards on fire. B-but don't.”

“Oh really?” Michael grins. “Because you’d still be my best friend even if you threw my Nintendo 64 into the ocean.”

“What if I punched your first born child in the face?”

“Asshole baby probably deserved it.”

“W-what,” Jeremy looks out towards the road. “What if I stopped being such a fucking coward and asked out Christine?”

“I…” Michael has to think about this one. “You’d still let me third wheel, right?”

“Dude, no. You could never be a third wheel. You’re the most important person in my life.. my life. You could get a boyfriend, then we'd have four wheels. Like a car.”

“Like a car,” Michael agrees, with less questions than he otherwise might, because at least Jeremy is starting to look less tragic. Michael wonders what Dr. Murry would say about Jeremy. He's not quite like Michael. Jeremy deals with a variety of nefarious, free floating anxiety, while Michael feels as though he's typically a pretty happy person himself, except for short bursts where the entire world goes wrong and he can't cope. Would Dr. Murry give Jeremy drugs? Would she advise that he marry Christine Canigula immediately, and focus on creating a stable family to replace the bullshit one he was born into? Michael feels like he ought to convey some wisdom onto Jeremy, something to help him through his life.

“Vroom vroom motherfuckers,” Michael says instead, because he is not a psychologist, but he does know how to make Jeremy smile.

Chapter Text

By the time the day of Michael’s weekly appointment with doctor Murry rolls around, he has a game going on with Elena from the 7-11. Every time he comes in she shares a random insect fact with him, and if he can remember them all by the fifth day she’ll “accidentally” overfill his slushee cup. Today he learns that honeybees have hair on their eyes. It makes him glad that he's not a honeybee, and even gladder that he will one day be a college student, because he imagines college as a world where people can spout off whatever weird knowledge happens to interest them, and not be made fun of for it.

Mrs. Heere sends him fifty dollars through Jeremy for “medicine from the Michael apothecary”, and as much as Michael would like to believe that she means something wholesome like laughter or hugs, he's eerily certain that she's trying to pay him to give her son even more pot than he already does. Jeremy, in a fit of rebellion, pretty much stops smoking, but insists that Michael keep the money. In the end, Michael convinces Jeremy that they should use all of the money to buy a refurbished VCR for their future dorm room. It makes him feel prepared for the future, which is ironic in just the way that Michael most appreciates, because only he and Jeremy would prepare for the future by buying a piece of super cool outdated technology. It's like a symbol of how they are great friends who can withstand anything, even if Jeremy is such a total mess right now.

The VCR makes Michael feel like he has everything. What he does not have, however, is a third non-Jeremy conversational partner. He's been busy with Jeremy, to be honest, mostly doing fun stuff, but with the certain knowledge that they are having fun in order to keep Jeremy from going off the deep end with the rest of the Heeres. He's got a plan for what to tell Dr. Murry, though. He's going to go through everything with Elena and Mrs. Heere, and then reveal with a flourish that Dr. Murry herself is his third conversational partner. It's genius! Like, sure, it's half-assing his psychological homework, but at least it's clever.

He's made up his mind to do this, when Christine Canigula surprises him out of nowhere. At least this time she's not trying to make him into an actor, but she's also sought him out specifically, which puts so much pressure on Michael that he feels like he's up on a stage. And there's no pretending that she isn't trying to talk to him in particular, because there's no other way to explain her showing up at his locker and tapping him on the shoulder.

“What do you want?” Michael asks. Not a positive start. Christine takes a step back, and then blinks, as if half blinded by stage lights.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asks. “Because I don't think that I did anything wrong. Lemme see, I came up here to ask you a question, then I stood and waited for you to take off your earphones and say hi, then I… wait, I get it! I surprised you, didn't I?”

“Ah…” Michael doesn't know what to do in the face of this barrage of words, so he keeps doing what he was doing before, which was… he can hardly remember, to be honest, but he's pretty sure he'd been rummaging to pack up all of the books he needs to take home with him, so he grabs an armful of the random crap at the top of his locker, and starts to shove it into his backpack. All he can think is, here he is with Christine Theatre Girl Canigula who Jeremy is in love with, and he's forgotten his lines and his blocking.

“You okay?” Christine asks. “You’re dropping stuff. Here, let me…”

And then Christine is on the ground, gathering up Micheal’s locker debris in her arms, and Michael goes down after her, because he’s not so inconsiderate as to let somebody clean up after his mess, and not even try to help.

Michael clears his throat. “So…um… not to be rude, but what do you want? Because I just asked you that, and I kinda need an answer before we can continue with this conversation.”

“This is going to sound weird, but you know your friend?”

“Which friend? You’re going to have to be more specific.”

The strangest look passes Christine's face. They’ve picked up all of Michael’s things by now, but they are still crouching on the ground, like a pair of socially awkward frogs.

“Um… the one who isn't invisible. That's a joke. Is that a mean joke? I totally don't mean it meanly. It's just I'm sure you have tons of good friends, but at school I only ever see you with one.”

“Oh him,” Michael says. “What about him?”

Christine twists the edge of her sweater. Michael's legs are starting to cramp from the position he's keeping them in.

“Is your friend making fun of me?” Christine blurts out.

“What? No.”

“‘Cause today, I ran into him on the way to class, and he was like ‘hi Christine’, but he was kinda staring at me like I had spinach in my teeth, and then suddenly he goes ‘ha ha ha ha ha’ just like really forced laughter, like ‘ha ha ha ha ha you’re such a dork’, and anyway, I thought you might know if I'm reading too much into that. I'd ask him himself, but he ran away after, so please don't think of this as gossiping, just looking for an expert opinion.”

“I don't know what was going on there,” Michael admits. “But trust me when I say that Jeremy wasn't making fun of you.”

“You’re grimacing.”

“We’re squatting on the floor.”

“Oh! Right.” Christine gets up first, then offers Michael her hand. Standing up and watching her smooth out her skirt, Michael has to admit that maybe there is something to her, and just maybe that something is that she's actually a nice person. And besides, he doesn't know her well, but she is wheel number three of four on the metaphorical car that he is carting Jeremy around in, so maybe he should try to help the situation out here, no matter what misgivings he might have.

“Jeremy would never make fun of anybody,” Michael says. “Especially not you.”

“Why especially not me?”

Because he loves you.

“You don't deserve to be made fun of.”

“Wouldn't you say nobody deserves it? That's something I really care about. I really care about a lot of stuff. Like anti-bullying campaigns. And yoghurt. But anyway, I've been writing some skits about that to perform at primary schools in the area. You’ve gotta start young with this kind of stuff. Unfortunately, Mr. Reyes is more interested in zombies, so we’ll see if my idea ever gets off the ground.”

“I dunno,” Michael says. “Kinda prefer zombies to yoghurt. And bullying. But anti-bullying stuff is cool. You should really go with that.”

“Thanks! I will. Anyway, I better get going. Nice talking to you!”

“You too,” Michael says. As she takes off down the hall, there is a spring in her step which is undeniably endearing… cute even. It isn't surprising that Jeremy likes her so much.

Right now what Michael likes is the idea of escaping the building, and enjoying a couple hours of solitude before driving off, homework completed, to get willingly brain probed.

End scene.

——————

The meeting with Dr. Murry goes ok. Michael writes out notes of what he's going to say to her beforehand, a habit he's gotten into after clamming up and not saying anything for most of their first meeting, spending the second meeting explaining in minute detail why Farscape is the best example of early 2000s science fiction television, and spending his third meeting trying to trick her into thinking Jeremy’s issues were his issues, in order to sneakily get some advice for his friend.

Today is his seventh meeting, and he thinks he's getting good at them. He's even okay with Dr. Murry asking probing questions, because it's her job to do so, and she's not weirded out by listening to them any more than Elena the 7-11 girl is weirded out by people buying tampons and condoms (not that he's asked her if that weirds her out, but he's never seen her shriek and jump back in disgust at anybody’s purchases, so he can only assume that she's gained a high level of professional coping skills).

Today Dr. Murry wants to know if Michael chose Elena to speak to because she is older, and not part of his potential peer group.

The answer is yes.

She wants to know if he hopes that he and Elena will become friends.

The answer is no, but he likes their bug game.

Dr. Murry also wants to know if Michael is aware that two out of his three conversations were Jeremy related. Michael points out that Christine thinking that Jeremy was making fun of her has more to do with her than Jeremy, and that they also covered a plethora of other topics, ranging from bullying, to yoghurt, to theatre, to zombies.

(“I'm not sure why she brought up the yoghurt though. It was kinda a non-sequitur.”)

Dr. Murry gives Michael the homework of asking Christine about yoghurt. He guesses that it serves him right for bringing it up in the first place. Also, Jeremy was totally going to be jealous of his homework.

After his appointment, Michael calls Jeremy.

“Your head shrunken yet?” Jeremy asks.

“Kinda. Feels like I have too many words knocking around in it. It's a trip dude, I'm telling you. How was your day?”

“Terrible. I'm terrible. I, like, officially humiliated myself and now I need to dig a hole to Antarctica and live there.”

“It’s all good. Did you know there's a bowling alley at the Amsundon-Scott South Pole station? So, you know, once you’ve stopped beating yourself up you can at least crawl out of your Antarctic hole and go bowling.”

“Thanks dude. I'll keep that in mind.”

“So what happened?”

“I tried to talk to Christine.”

“She told me.”

Jeremy groans. “It's worse than I thought. Anyway, w-who goes up to a guy’s best friend and tells him about his social failures? What the hell?”

“No, listen, it’s fine. She just wanted to know if you were making fun of her.”

“W-w-what?! Why? How could she even think that? I wouldn't make fun of her! Not in a million years!”

“Calm down. I told her that. But dude, what’s up? She said you went up to her and laughed in her face? Like ‘ha-ha-ha’. What were you going for there, buddy?”

Jeremy mutters something incomprehensible.

“What?”

More pained muttering.

“You don't have to tell me if you can't. Or you can text me. That sound good?”

“Hamilton!” Jeremy says. “I wanted— wanted to show her that I'm chill, and like down with her whole th-thespian thing, so I was trying to ask her about Hamilton. Theatre people love it.”

“And you?”

“As of today, Alexander Hamilton is my sworn enemy.”

Chapter Text

Summer starts in the usual way, and not a moment too soon. Michael doesn't know who invented summer vacation, but he owes that person his life.

(Summer vacation is a thing because of the agrarian farming calendar and kids in the olden days needing to take time off to plant and harvest crops. Michael learns this on the internet.)

The benefits of summer vacation are manifold. For some people they involve swimming, volleyball, and days on the beach. Michael wishes these people well, although he is not one of them. He hopes that they wear sunblock, stay in the shade, and keep hydrated.

(Some people get heat rash if they stay in the sun for too long. Heat rash is caused by sweat ducts trapping perspiration under the skin. Michael learns this on the internet.)

Others spend their summers engaged in summer jobs, ranging from fast food to retail. Michael is also not one of these people. He understands the importance of saving up for college, but he doesn't understand how one goes about dealing closely with the general public day in and day out without respite. Michael already does this from September through June, and time off to recharge and get back up to his ultimate potential is totally necessary.

(More than 300 dollars worth of student loans are taken out every second. Michael learns this on the internet.)

For still others, summer is a chance to travel. This can mean anything from seeing the Eiffel Tower, to backpacking through the forests of Shang Ge Ri La, to checking the time on Big Ben, which is super huge and impressive as far as clocks go. Michael doesn't want to see Big Ben, because he's certain it would only remind him of the minutes ticking by until he will be forced to go to school again. Sometimes he forgets how hard school is, until summer comes, and then one day in late July he finds that he is relaxed enough to take off his hoodie and rediscover that he has skin underneath it.

(That day in the summer when Michael takes off his hoodie always makes him feel like a baby discovering his toes for the first time. There's something about the increased awareness of his particular flesh prison that makes him realize that he rather likes it. Also, that tattoo that's usually hidden? Bangin’)

(Michael has traveled before. He's been to the Philippines four times, and it's good. His grandma spoils the hell out of him, and his cousins are fun to hang with.)

(Big Ben continued to function through World War II. Michael learns this on the internet.)

Summer, for Michael, means long days spent in the comfort of his own basement. It means waking up and going to bed whenever the hell he feels like it. It means lots and lots of pot, and it means sleepovers with Jeremy that sometimes span as many as four days before Jeremy goes home to get clean clothes and reassure his parents that he doesn't hate them and totally isn't avoiding them. After Jeremy’s mom gets a house sitting gig in upstate New York, and drags Jeremy along with her for vacation and bonding, summer means copious amounts of time spent in the internet, and daily texts from Jeremy regarding his unfolding Situation.

 

——————————-

Texts from Jeremy: Day 1

this place is huge like f*ck u wouldnt believe

no bigger then that

dogs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

they have two fogs a rlly big one and a rkly small one and seriously its so f*cking cute and shit. theres a cat to and a fishing pond and a hot tub

its yeklow

since when does my mother know rich ppl????

wtf mike nooo dont even joke about that

Texts From Jeremy: Day 2

im swimming are you jealous

yes

its fune im not going to drop it in the aster

water

im not going to drop my phone in the water i can swim and text you its called multitasking

i dont believe you

wanker

its not british its truthful

yea :) :) :$

nite!!!!!

 

Texts From Jeremy: Day 3

het michael im gonna rickroll you

the rickroll is cominh be careful michael

here it comes

ok michael go watch this video that totally isnt rick astley singing never gonna give you up

Rick Roll

haha made u think i was gonna rickroll you but i didnt

dont be so dramatic

christine could be the red one

i dont care that he sued our school id sue our school too if i was rich enough to afford a lawyer

its art

am not

AM NOT

LIES
sweet dreams

Texts From Jeremy: Day 4

brb hiking

Texts From Jeremy: Day 5

Texts From Jeremy: Day 6

Texts from Jeremy: Day 7

im aliiiiiiiiiiiiiive

sorry man mom tricked me into camping in the wiods with no wifi

fun? totallu dudnt expect to enjoy it but it was really fun except for the mosquitos amd the bears

sike no bears

i feel rlly close to mom its like i finially understand her anyway dad works a lot you know and its hard for her to do everything by herself and you know how sometimes its rlly hard to keep track of everything at school amd what not?? because having an entire kid is way harder then going to school not that im a bad kid or anything but i need a lot of shit

no no its good

i dont think your gettinb it

no we’re fine she says that we can relate to each other as adults for now on and honestly? i dont know why? we didnt think of that before???

pepperoni

is it good?

thats nice

so id have to spend my summer being a farmer

lame

i only know that its a very big cock

CLOCK

CLOCK

CLOK

CLOCK

I WAS TRYING TP TYPE CLOCK

C

L

O

C

K

CLOCK

you should date big ben haha

Texts From Jeremy: Day 8

why the sudden interest in praying mantises?

oh

but praying makes sense to because the way they hold there hands together its kinda like tey are praying

mantis g-d wants u to repent

Texts from Jeremy: Day 9

im drunk and i misd u

mom gabre. Me

wine

all

yeh

seriouslh m im so hammered the

i realyy miss you. Michael,,

i cant fell my faces

miss you

nt tired sad

i cant decide if im really normal aor really stupid everybody hates me except for you and it gets tiring and idk distreh i hate my voucr

Voucr

Vour

no im fine mom and me are gonna go outsudea and look at the atars

stars

un your multitute

scarce to be counted

filling the darkness

Wiyh order and light

do you ever wanna die

fine

i threw up

goodnight

Texts From Jeremy: Day 10

yea ok headhurts but im in bed with two dogs and a cat so i cant complain

totally

jjst ignore it im fine

a corgi and a newfoundland mix

gonna close my eyes kinda rough

hanging in there

dude i was sleeping im fine you dont have to text me every hour

Texts from Jeremy: Day 11

weird weird weird convo with mom

she was like i dont wanna hurt you and i was like its all good you could never hurt me and then she got all doomful like on game of thrones or whatever and was like YES I COULD

no its ok

i dont know

no ill b back the day after tomroowx anyway

totally

prepare to be anialated

Texts From Jeremy: Day 12

mom stole my asthma medicine as revenge

for stealing dads zyrtec

yea im breathing fine its been like a year since i had any problems i only packed it because idk i thoughg maybe the trees or something would get to me but its all good just kinda immature you know

but i guess im also immature like i did steal that zyrtec shes not wrong

this is so gay

sorry dumb gay isnt a bad thing old habits die hard

i cant stop thinking about f*cking asthma attacks

do you know how much breathi g sucks when you cant stop thinking abogb yuof breathing
that wont work i need to forget im breathing not count my breathing

i tried it

noooooo

still thinking about brathing thos i s the worst thing thats ever happened to me

its orobably a pharmisotical compiracy

yarrr

tomorrow

Texts From Jeremy: Day 13

mom made pancakes this is the best day of my life

i had an asthma attack so she gave it back and apologized

i mean maybe i had an asthma attack but maybe i was faking

i dont know it didnt feel like i was faking at the time but it felt like i was faking after

no srsly i have no idea

peach

we dont eat bacon remember?

i like chocolate chip better

were driving back at 3 its like 7 hours w out traffuc

can i sleep over?

i cant wait!!!!

feels like years

Chapter Text

Michael assumes that Jeremy’s mom is done with him after they get back from their house sitting adventure. Nope! Turns out she's got tons of nefarious plans in store for the coming days.

On Monday she takes Jeremy to the Bronx Zoo. Jeremy claims to feel dumb about it, but Michael can tell he's actually kinda into the whole wandering around and looking at cute animals thing.

On Tuesday she takes him shopping, and comes back with an absolute armful of stuff, including a book on Feng Shui and some prismatic crystals for Michael.

“Mom picked them out for you,” he explains. “They’re from her.”

Why?”

“She says you’re getting really cool as you grow up, and like giving off this spiritual hippie guru vibe.”

“What the ever loving fuck?”

“She bought me lavender oil. To calm me down. I'm wicked high strung.”

“So that's why you smell weird. You should get vaccinated against measles.”

“… and out of left field, Michael Mell dispenses good advice that like, so does not have anything to do with this situation.”

“Well, you said your parents fought about that? Right? And right now I'm kinda thinking you’re gonna get measles and she's gonna try and cure it with perfume. You can't cure measles with perfume!”

“I come here searching for hippie guru wisdom and that's the best you can give me?”

“It's sound advice.”

On Wednesday Jeremy’s mom tries to take him to get his nose pierced and fails miserably, because Jeremy does not want a needle anywhere near his nose.

“Remember how I asked her to take me for my thirteenth birthday and she said no?” Jeremy explains later. “She missed her chance. I m-mean do you think I should’ve gotten it?”

“You gotta do these kinds of things on your own terms, man.”

Thursday is really fucking dramatic. Jeremy’s mom gets him drunk again, and he calls Michael crying because he’s decided that he hates drinking and wants to be un-drunk. He's dry eyed, if sniffly, by the time Michael makes it over to his place.

Friday is just plain weird. Jeremy sleeps until two in the afternoon (awkward, because he's sleeping on Michael). At around four his mom shows up with five pizzas, a couple of Thai appetizer platters, and three curries, and a bag of apples. Jeremy just shrugs and invites Michael to lunch.

Michael isn't certain exactly what time Jeremy’s mom leaves. He doesn't see Jeremy all day on Saturday, and when he texts him the evening to tell him that he's watching a documentary on the importance of resilience, he doesn't get any answer. That means that Saturday is a very boring day for Michael, as is the beginning of Sunday.

Then Jeremy calls to tell him what’s happened.

—————

“So she left a note?” Michael asks, trying to understand. He's pacing around and around his basement, his phone pressed to his ear.

Silence. “Jeremy, buddy, you with me?”

“Uh…”

“Cool. I'm gonna take that as a yes. Right. So she left a note? And that's it? No contact info or anything? Just a note? Who the hell does that? Like man, I don't know if you realize this right now, but that was a serious dick move on her part, and in no way your fault.”

“W-whatever.”

“Seriously! No contact info. Nothing. Nada. Just a note. Not even a good note. What. The. Hell. But you’re fine Jeremy. You didn't do anything wrong, trust me. Your mom’s just Satan.”

“You’re k-kinda not helping.”

“A note!”

“Michael!” Jeremy’s voice cracks, and that’s a problem. That's definitely a problem, and the problem stems from the fact that Mrs. Heere has abandoned her family with no explanation or warning except for one lousy, heartless, hollow, nonsensical, unforgivable and incandescently shitty note. A goddamned note, and nothing else.

“I just… a note. Dude, that's low. I can't believe…” Michael stops his pacing for a minute, pushes his hand up through his hair, and then starts up again. “Like, I understand that people get divorced, but there's supposed to be lawyers, and paperwork, and child support hearings, and weekend visitations. What she just did isn't normal. You know that, right? There's a whole process that you’re supposed to go through if you want to ditch your parental duties. Like, why not just leave you in a basket in the church yard when you were an infant if this was her grand plan?”

“M-maybe she wanted to make s-sure I was Jewish? S-so, you know, the church thing wouldn't have worked.”

“A synagogue then. This is right up there with leaving babies at synagogues. Naked. And then spitting on them as you walk away.”

“I d-don't know what I did wrong.” Jeremy’s voice is so soft.

Michael groans loudly.

“Nothing my friend. You did nothing wrong. She left you that note because she is spiteful, uncaring, and irresponsible.”

“I… m-my dad…”

“Is stepping up his game?”

“Crying in his underwear.”

“Well, fuck him. He needs to get his act together. A note!”

Heavy breathing.

Jeremy hangs up. Michael knows from experience that this doesn't mean the conversation is over. Abrupt switches from talk, to texting, and back again are normal between him and Jeremy.

Sure enough, Michael gets a text from Jeremy a few minutes later.

i dont even have an sct to get together i have nothing

Michael frowns at his phone before answering.

you have me.

can we play video games and never talk about this again?

sure dude

mom dad notes and family bs are all banned topucs ok?

got it

thanks. your the best.

—————

True to his word, Michael doesn’t so much as mention Jeremy’s parents when he he comes over. He doesn't mention home, or Jeremy’s mental state, or notes. He finds a game with two players, and makes sure to watch Jeremy’s back, because his hands are shaking, and he's not exactly with it.

Things get better. Before the night is over, Jeremy’s got his game back on, and he's smiling and talking about movies he wants to see later that week. Michael begins to wonder if this new problem with Jeremy’s could turn out okay after all. His internet searching powers have led him to believe that Mrs. Heere had a drinking problem, maybe, and that shit is genetic, so Jeremy is probably better off without her giving him wine. Mr. Heere doesn't tend to be explosive, just kind of lackluster and overly focused on his work. Jeremy can probably handle him okay.

Jeremy laughs at one of Michael’s jokes. He asks about that resilience documentary. Jeremy is coping.

Chapter Text

For the next four chapters click here.

 

Notes:

- The link goes to another fic that I wrote prior to starting this one, about the last week of summer vacation before they start junior year. It fits into the canon of this story and is now officially part of it. Consider it required reading in order to understand the plot of this fic, which continue with chapters about the start of junior year, the squip, and the aftermath.

- Because the linked fic was written before this one, it's a little different in that it's in past tense, and also includes two Jeremy POV chapters.

- I promise this isn't another Cats Video.

Chapter Text

Junior year. Day one. The first day of being halfway there, like in the Bon Jovi song, with there being the beginning of college, and more importantly, the end of high school. Michael rolls out of bed, changes out the jeans he slept in for a pair of jeans that he didn't sleep in, splashes some water on his face, and tells himself over and over again that he is not preparing himself to enter the gates of hell. Just purgatory, where pagan babies and virtuous non-believers in high school and all of its bullshit can stand around, without any reward or any punishment, waiting to ascend to something better.

Michael is cautiously optimistic. Being an upperclassman gives him more freedom over his schedule than he's had during previous years, so he's chosen astronomy with Dr. Amory, who is notorious for keeping his students on a regimen of “self-learning” worksheets, outlawing talking above a whisper in the classroom, and not giving a shit. Then there’s creative writing, which he's chosen because apparently the teacher just takes her students to the computer lab, and lets them do whatever they want, so long as they produce twenty pages of literally anything by the end of the semester; Michael’s not a writer, but he figures he can crank out some bad song lyrics, or write video game reviews, or describe the daily weather in great detail or something. He's also got two study halls, a drawing class, and Asian history.

The one class that he's looking forward to is Biology II with Mrs. Rosch, who decided he was her favorite student some time after he started delivering notes from Elena. Turns out she’s really cool. She, like, even took Michael aside last semester to tell him he could go in and out of the classroom as he pleased, no questions asked, as long as he made his new destination somewhere like the bathroom or the school library, and didn't leave campus or do anything that could get either of them in trouble. She likes Michael’s homework, seems to enjoy teaching, and is kinda endearingly protective of her hissing cockroaches. The cockroaches are named Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and this is because Mrs. Rosch is a nerd, albeit a pretty mainstream one. It's hard to explain, but Michael knows that those cockroaches and their names are the surest sign that he can trust Mrs. Rosch.

Upstairs, Michael can smell bacon and eggs cooking, and even the lingering mental image of Mrs. Rosch’s darling pets doesn't stop his stomach from growling. Most of the year Michael gets to fend for himself as far as breakfast is concerned, but his dad always makes him a big meal on his first day of school. It's kind of their thing, and even on years when the airline dad works for has tried to send him off in late August or early September, he's always refused. It's hella weird, to tell the truth, the way that Michael’s dad, who’s missed Christmases and birthdays galore, is so adamant about being there for the first day of school, but there's no way that Michael is going to complain about free bacon. Today there’s bolon de verde too, and hot chocolate, because Michael can't seem to develop a taste for coffee, no matter how much sugar he adds to it.

Michael’s mom pours his hot chocolate for him. Neither of his parents know how to be casual in the face of new beginnings or education.

“Aren't you excited?” his mom asks. “This I going to be your year! I just know it!”

A hug. Uhg. So not casual.

“You should trade out one of those study halls for a math class or something,” his dad suggests.

“He's taking two science classes! Two!” Mom is beaming.

“That's why I need the study halls,” Michael says. “Gotta keep up with all that awesome science.”

Actually, he needs the two study halls so that he can listen to music and maybe sleep, but he's not about to say that.

“Michael likes science now.” Mom puts her hand on his shoulder. “We need to let him concentrate on science.”

Michael spares his mother a smile, before turning to his real goal, which is pushing delicious food into his mouth. As he eats, his parents talk about who will and will not be home in the coming weeks. Dad is flying out to Kazakhstan on Friday, and he’ll be flying routes between there and China until the end of October. Mom needs to go to Concord, New Hampshire, to supervise a store opening tonight, but she’ll be back on Thursday. They’ll have to arrange a family dinner. And Michael will be left alone for a few days towards the end of the month, but he's so mature and responsible now. He's a junior! In high school!! How wonderful!!!

“Text me and tell me everything that happens today,” mom says, as Michael gets up to go out the door. “Don't keep Jeremy here all night. Remember, you both have classes now. School is important!”

“Mega important,” Michael agrees. He knows that if he can appear enthusiastic today, keep most of his grades in at least the B range, and avoid publicly freaking out about anything, he’ll be largely left up to his own devices in the coming year, which is exactly what he wants. In fact, the promise of freedom makes coming on a little strong seem worth it, so he adds a few more gushing declarations about how great the school year is going to be, before rushing out the door.

——————

Jeremy is waiting by Michael’s locker when he gets in, ready to compare schedules. They have lunch together four days a week, and one shared study hall. Jeremy looks clean and put together— more clean and put together than Michael, to be honest, but also utterly, utterly nervous. It's in his hands, mostly, the way that they play with the sleeves of his cardigan, but it's also in the way that he slumps against the lockers, keeping carefully in front of Michael, like he's hoping Michael’s body will shield him from the views of others. It's not a big deal, really. Just regular Jeremy behavior, but Michael can't help that he's been particularly attuned to Jeremy lately.

“This year is gonna be good, promise,” Michael says, mustering some of that same enthusiasm that he'd used on his parents, but this time for a completely different reason.

“Like sophomore year was a good year? Or freshman year, for that matter?”

“Think about it,” Michael says. “This is the year that we can do whatever we want, because we’ve got one foot out the door, right?”

“Uh… I think that's next year, actually…”

“That's just because you’re too focused on the present. You gotta focus on the future, man. There’s a exit door right in front of us, metaphorically anyway. This place? It's nothing! Nothing we do here actually matters, because we’re gonna leave. Isn't that great? You should do something to celebrate. You should try out for the play! You know, once sign-ups start. Because hey, even if you like super blow it, it’ll only be temporary!”

“I don't know, man.” Jeremy tugs at the collar of his shirt looking, if anything, even more uncomfortable. “I just don't know. I-I think I'm gonna lay low.”

Michael shrugs. “Your choice.”

The bell rings, and Michael and Jeremy part ways.

————-

Michael’s lab partner in astronomy is Brooke Lohst. She's well known for being the second hottest girl in school, Chloe Valentine’s sidekick, and not much else. What Michael learns about her before their self-study sheets are handed out, is that she shares Chloe’s fondness for putrid perfume. Hers smells like coffee, but it's that kind of coffee that's made of poop. Michael is absolutely certain that there is a kind of coffee that is made of poop. He uses his phone to google it under the table, while Dr. Amory drones, with glazed over eyes, about the class rules.

The coffee is called kopi luwak. It's Indonesian, and it's made with the feces of the Asian palm civet, which is like, some kind of funky feline caffeine junky that subsists on coffee cherries. It's crazy expensive, which is probably why Brooke chooses to smell like it. That doesn't change the fact that it’s poop, though, and it makes Michael want to gag.

As Dr. Amory finishes his spiel, Brooke slides in closer to Michael, brandishing her worksheet. There's a queasy feeling in the pit of Michael’s stomach, and it's not entirely because of the poop-coffee perfume. He hadn't known, when signing up for this class, that he'd be stuck doing group work, much less with a popular girl, who probably hates him. He tries to remember if Brooke has ever bothered him specifically, but the thing with her and her ilk is that those who are not the ringleaders kinda blend together. Brooke isn't much to him but a laughing face, a nose stuck high in the air, a significant glance shared with others as a way of acknowledging and reaffirming Michael’s place at the bottom of the high school social ladder. And yeah, it's not like he cares, but part of not caring is the ability to opt out and not interact with anybody who wants to make him miserable.

“Do you understand any of this?” Brooke whispers. Her breath is hot and damp on Michael’s ear. Too close. He shrugs and leans away. He only catches Brooke’s little scowl out of the corner of his eye, because he's concentrating on not looking at her. He squints instead at his worksheet. The print is small, the text is dense. The first time Michael reads through it, it's like reading something in a foreign language.

“Seriously, hey, do you like, talk?” Brooke taps Michael on the shoulder, causing his whole body to stiffen.

“No talking in class,” Michael tells her.

“But we’re partners?”

“I’ll let you copy.”

“I'm not stupid,” Brooke huffs.

“Oh. Gnarly.”

“I—” Brooke starts, but Micheal’s got his headphones on and his music blasting before she can say another word. If he didn't know better he would say that Brooke looks hurt, but that doesn't make sense. More likely she's just used to people paying lots of attention to her, and doesn't know what to do when somebody doesn't.

It takes Michael about five read throughs to even begin to understand the contents of the worksheet. He risks a glance at Brooke, who is still staring at it like she might cry. Making girls cry isn't on Michael’s agenda for the day. He slides his headphones off.

“I hate this class,” Brooke whispers. “Aren't teachers, like, supposed to teach?”

“Uh-huh. I hate this class too.”

A smile from Brooke… an unmistakably watery smile. “I'm not good at science. I'm…um…a Sagittarius.”

“Oh. Ok. Is that the non-science sign or…” something dawns on Michael, and he barks out a laugh. The sound is too loud in the quiet classroom. “You thought this class was about astrology!”

“Shh!” Brooke is blushing like she'd like to sink into the ground.

“Sorry. Sorry.” Michael stares at Brooke for a few seconds before making his decision about what to do. She just looks so uncomfortable, and Michael isn't a mean person. He just can't be mean to her. “The paper wants us to use light angles to calculate stuff,” he explains.

“And how are we supposed to do that?”

Michael bites his lip, and squints at the paper for another minute or two before answering. “So… don't freak if I'm wrong and we both flunk out of high school because of it, but I think it's like this…”.

Things go alright from there. Astrology has more to do with math than planets or stars, and once Michael’s got the dense language of the worksheet stripped down to some equations, Brooke is able to do pretty well, and even catch a few mathematical errors on Michael’s part (because god knows he can't concentrate properly with Brooke Lohst, who is not his friend, leaning over him in the too hot, too stuffy, too bright, too stinky, not nearly quiet enough classroom). They don't finish the worksheet before the end of class, but from the groans and complaints of the other students, Michael suspects nobody else has either.

“Hey, Mitchel?” Brooke says, as the two of them are getting ready to leave. “I like, totally love gay people, just so you know. It's kinda, I don't know, inspiring? I guess? Like, I read a book with gay people once, and it really made me think, right?”

And Michael doesn't know what to say to that, so he gives her an awkward thumbs up, and an even more awkward smile before doing what's he's been wanting to do since the class began, and making a break for it.

————-

Jeremy isn't at lunch. He's supposed to be at lunch, but he isn't. At first, Michael just waits for him, assuming he's late or something. Then he tries texting him, but doesn't get an answer. Did they read each other’s schedules wrong? That doesn't make a lot of sense. Surely too pairs of eyes would get things right, but then Jeremy is always so flustered when he's at school, and maybe Michael had been seeing what he wanted to see. Still, Michael had been looking forward to a half hour Jeremy oasis to better fortify himself against the hostile terrain of Middleborough.

Michael doesn't see or hear from Jeremy until the end of the day, when he finds the other boy standing against his PT Cruiser, waiting for a ride home. This is normal. Michael smiles at him.

“Get in the car!” he shouts, without turning down the music on his headphones, because he's halfway through a song, and doesn't want to interrupt it. “Let's get the hell out of dodge.”

Keys in the ignition. They pull out of the school parking lot. They final hey-yay-yay-ya-ay of What’s Up? by Four Non-Blondes dies into the quieter final verse, and then into nothing, so Michael starts the song again, this time on the car stereo.

“One day down! Too fucking many to go!” Michael announces. “Bio was good, Asian history taught by a white woman, go figure, prettttty sure study hall teacher fell asleep, astronomy is gonna kill me until I'm dead, and you, my friend, look like someone just shot a puppy in front of you. What’s the deal? And while we’re at it, what happened to our lunch date?”

“Sorry, was in the nurse. Dude, no, look at the road, not at me, I'm fine.”

Michael only half succeeds in keeping his eyes on the road. Jeremy is red and splotchy around his neck, which could mean nervous hives, or that he's finally contracted measles and is going to spread it around the school, leaving misery and destruction in his wake.

“What happened?”

“Y-you know my green notebook?”

The green notebook is Jeremy’s log of social failures, the spiritual successor to the one he started back in Freshman year.

“Yeah. Still think you should ditch that.”

“Jenna Roland knows about it! Maybe she saw it or… dude, I don't know. B-but she was explaining it to Chloe and Brooke a-and…”

“I knew I didn't like Brooke!”

“I— yeah. I mean? I can see why they thought it was funny. It's k–kinda pathetic.”

“And you went to the nurse?”

“Thought I was having a heart attack. Or an asthma attack? And, you know, didn't want to die in front of a bunch of laughing girls. Wouldn't be able to live that one down.”

“Tell me about it. You okay now?”

Jeremy nods. They’re nearing Jeremy’s house. Michael slows down as he approaches Jeremy’s driveway, then speeds up again, deciding his place would be better.

“So my parents don't want you to stay over tonight, because of school or whatever,” Michael begins, “But if you just happen to accidentally pass out in my bed at eight o’clock, dad won't make me wake you up.”

“Sounds good,” Jeremy agrees. “I’ll let you text my dad about that. After the fact, of course.”

—————————

Chapter Text

By mid-September Michael is convinced that Rich and his mother have been reading the same encyclopedia of bad things that can happen to gay people, only Rich has been taking it as an instruction manual, and his mom has been taking it as a kind of extended public service announcement about the dangers facing her son. As for Michael, he's not sure why he has to take it at all, because it's crap, and as an added bonus, it's directed just as much at Jeremy as it is at him.

It's a series of little things. Jeremy leans into Michael at lunch to whisper about something that happened during the day or at home, and suddenly Rich is there behind them making kissy noises, and Jeremy is springing back with his hand covering his lips, and sheepish apology in his eyes. Jeremy loses his math book for three days, only to have it appear back in his locker, with at least fifty or sixty stunningly rendered dicks lovingly hand drawn across the pages. Rich doesn't deny that it was him, only asks if Jeremy has ever heard the term ‘random act of kindness’ before.

(Chloe, Jenna, and Brooke don't take the pictures as a sure sign that Jeremy is gay. Gay people have style after all, and Jeremy doesn't. They debate about whether he is a perv with a bizarre number fetish, or a raging misogynist who is trying to compensate for his sad skinny arms and assert his manly dominance over math by drawing penises. No word on what they take his frantic and near constant attempts at erasing them and covering them up to mean.)

Michael finds shaving cream sprayed all over the inside of his locker one day. He doesn't have any questions about what that’s supposed to represent, but he does have some questions about how Rich got into his locker in the first place, and how he's going to replace the books, and what his teachers are going to think when he hands in his homework all damp and... creamy.

(Brooke is weirdly compassionate about Michael’s ruined astronomy homework, but is also adamant that Rich is a sweet little guy deep down, and only pretending to be homophobic to brighten everyone's day. Michael isn't buying it.)

Everything happens, and it happens too much, so Michael deals with it the way he usually deals with things, which is to say, he uses thoughts and video games and music to build a mental barricade between himself and his problems, all the while getting sucked down deeper into Jeremy’s. Dr. Murry tries to tell him not to do that, and Michael snaps at her that he’ll do what he wants, because god it's not like he's a little kid or whatever. Then he tells her that he's been reading online that sunlight is good for mental health, and that maybe he should work on getting some of that. She doesn't argue. She never does. She only asks questions.

“What do you think getting more sunlight will accomplish?” she asks.

He shrugs, takes off his glasses to clean them, and then returns them to his face, adjusting them carefully at the bridge of his nose. He's been so out of sorts lately, and he doesn't know why. Like, sure, there's the bullying and shit, but he's handling it, and it's not as though he feels bad about himself, just off.

“Could you, like, just assign sunlight homework and get it over with?” Michael asks.

“Have you spoken with Christine again, like I suggested?”

“Dude, that ship has sailed.”

Oh great. Now doctor Murry is arching her eyebrows. Michael shifts in his chair, and tries again.

“I mean…um… miss that ship has sailed. That ship has sailed doctor.”

An amused smile from Dr. Murry. Maybe a sympathetic one. It strikes Michael that he's usually not this formal with her. Maybe he ought to be?

“Why don't you tell me what you think your homework should be this week,” Dr. Murry suggests.

“I think I should have to spend fifteen minutes a day outside.”

She seems to consider this for a minute, and then she nods. “Very well then. But if I'm letting you assign yourself this project, then I need you to go through with it. No loopholes.”

“Uh-huh.” Michael is looking out the window already, because he totally does want to be outside—outside Dr. Murry’s office, and outside the school, and in his car with the windows closed heading for his home and his basement. Which is why he should make his homework to go outside outside.

He stares for too long, then turns his attention to the arm of his seat. It's wide and made of rough beige fabric, like an old carpet. It's covered in bits of fuzz, which create a sort of halo around it if he squints just right. Now is not the time to squint just right. He looks at the clock instead. Almost done.

“There's an abandoned hardware store like two blocks from my house,” Michael tells Dr. Murry, just for something to say to fill up the last three minutes of their appointment. “It's a good place for roller skating. I bet I don't strike you as the roller skating type, right? But I'm actually super good at roller skating. Not in the hardware store. In the parking lot. Learned how to drive there, too. My dad taught me. But actually I'm just rambling because I don't want you to feel bored, and it would be better if you let me go early, as a gesture of doctor-patient trust.”

Dr. Murry doesn't say anything right away, so Michael gives her a bright smile and a thumbs up, even as he searches his mind for something to say to her if she refuses his request. Like maybe he could tell her about the shaving cream thing, or about how he's behind in all of his classes except for bio because he doesn't like them, or about how old school Sonic game cartridges do this really cool thing where they attach onto each other to form longer, more advanced games with extended levels and extra characters.

“Let me get those pamphlets that you wanted for your mother,” Dr. Murry says, and Michael feels something unclench within him.

“Ones that won't make her freak,” Michael reminds her. He's already getting up as she gets the pamphlets out of her desk. They are glossy, and show smiling, presumably autistic kids and parents. Maybe they aren't, though. They could just be models. Most of them are younger than Michael, and none of them quite match his aesthetic, but it's not like he expects super awesome, kinda greasy, retro stoner gay kids to show up on pamphlets. The more he thinks about it, the more the kids and parents on the pamphlets are definitely models. He takes them from Dr. Murry, and thanks her anyway. He’ll read them himself later, and decide what to do with about things, including whether or not he wants to keep going to these appointments.

—————-

“Sign-ups for the play are going to be up any day now,” Michael tells Jeremy. They are sitting cross legged on the grass in Michael’s backyard, with a timer set for twenty minutes until they can go into the house and get stoned.

“Can I put leaves in your hair?” Jeremy blurts out. There's no shortage of leaves around them. Jeremy has a big orange one in his hand, which he's been slowly picking apart since they got out.

“Why?” Michael asks. “Not that I mind, but seriously dude, why?”

“I dunno. Just popped into my head. It's kinda weird, right?”

“You’re kinda weird,” Michael counters, but he pulls down his hood, and leans his head towards Jeremy. “Okay. I'm ready. Leafify me.”

Jeremy bites his lip. Then he opens his fist, and lets the fragments of his orange leaf rain down on Michael’s head.

“How was it?” Michael grins at Jeremy, resisting the urge to push the bits of leaf off his head, now that they’re there.

“Anti-climatic”

“There's nothing anti-climatic about my hair.”

“Yeah, but the leaf…”

“What? Do you need me to put more leaves in my hair? I'll do it.” Michael grabs two red leaves out of the grass, tucking one behind each ear. “See? Anything for you, buddy.”

“Still anti-climatic,” Jeremy says. “Do you get that, though? Like, y’know, the thing when you’re sitting around, being normal and shit, and then out of nowhere it's like… boom! Smash! And then all you can think is that you wanna throw leaves at my head, or…”

Michael takes that as his cue to grab up as many leaves as he can, and throw them at Jeremy’s face. It goes great too. Some of them get in Jeremy’s mouth, and he's sputtering and spitting them out, and objectively it's hilarious.

“Ass.”

Michael flicks another leaf in Jeremy’s direction.

“But,” Jeremy continues, “like, it’s not just leaves. Last night I wanted to lick the wall. What would you do if you literally wanted to lick the wall?”

“Uh…” Michael’s first impulse is to say that if he really wanted to lick the wall, he'd go for it, but it's hard, because that's not on the list of things he wants to do. Also, he's searching his mind for ways that it could backfire, because he doesn't want Jeremy to get sick from licking walls because he told him it was okay to give in to temptation.

“Sorry,” Jeremy says quickly. “I'm an idiot.”

“Dude, no. Um… so, I'd say it depends on how old your house is. You don't wanna lick lead paint. So maybe do some research and then make your decision. Your well-being is important, man.”

“Sometimes I want to jump out my window.”

“Fuck.”

Michael grabs on to Jeremy’s hands. The other boy is already bright red, and trying to back out of his previous statement.

“No, no , no… it’s not like… not serious. It's just… just a dumb thought, and it p-pops up and I ignore it, and I thought probably everybody… I mean… y-you never…?”

“No.” Michael’s thumbs trace circles over the back of Jeremy’s hands. “I don't. I'm worried about you, man. You gotta… you gotta get something for yourself, so you can start feeling better. You gotta… dude, I don't know. You should try out for that play!”

Jeremy groans. “The play.”

“It'd distract you! Oh, and you could start talking to Christine! Look, I know what to do.”

Jeremy groans loader. “Christine.”

“But get this. I gotta full proof plan. Write her a letter! Just lay it all out there. All your feelings and everything! I'll help.”

Another groan. Then mumbling. Michael can't understand what Jeremy is saying, so he just absently pats his back. If it’s important, Jeremy will try again in a minute.

He does.

“You know what Rich will do if I try out for the play.”

“The same shit he already does?” Michael’s stomach sinks, and he shifts uncomfortably, even as Jeremy leans his head on his shoulder. “It's not that bad, right? I mean, it is that bad, from… like, the stand point of how it reflects on his character. He's gross and irredeemable and all that, but we’re okay, aren't we? ‘Cause it doesn't make sense to be worried about trying out for the play and not worried about hanging out with me every day.”

“Trying out for the play is optional. Hanging out with you isn't.”

That doesn't sound good. Michael moves away from Jeremy, maybe too quickly, from the way that the other boy almost face plants into the grass.

“That's not how I m-meant it!” Jeremy protests. “What I meant is just, Micheal, you’re so important to me. Rich could punch me in the dick with an AK47 every time I spoke to you, and you’d still be stuck with me.”

“I…” Michael trails off, honestly unsure of what to say. Jeremy looks so serious, and earnest, and red, and agitated, and nervous, and god what is Michael ever going to do about Jeremy?

“I'd kiss you if you wanted!” Jeremy goes on. “Not in a gay way. J-just… just because I trust you. L-like a trust fall. Into your mouth. I m-mean, if you want to.”

Now it's Michael’s turn to groan. The timer goes off. Absently, he silences it. Has it really only been twenty minutes? Maybe Michael is wrong about going outside for the sake of his mental health. It feels like they've been having this conversation forever.

“You don't have to kiss me to prove that you trust me.” Michael laughs weakly. “It's pretty obvious that you trust me. Dude, you let me use your computer without clearing your internet history or closing any of the fifty or so filthy tabs you have open. That's either trust, or a profound lack of shame, and you know what? I’m choosing to believe it's trust.”

“Right,” Jeremy says. “B-but… but… I could still kiss you to prove that I trust you.”

Jeremy is so red, and Michael does consider taking him up on the offer. It seems opportunistic, though. Besides, as much as Michael would like his first kiss to be with Jeremy, having it happen with someone who is genuinely into it is even more important. He sighs, and searches for a way to give Jeremy an out.

“Jer, no. Do you have any idea how much you’re sweating? You look like you’ve been traipsing around in a typhoon. No thanks.”

It's the first thing that pops into Michael’s mind, and it's a bit of an exaggeration. Nonetheless, Jeremy wrinkles his nose, examining the damp spots at the pits of his cardigan with sudden interest, before wrapping his arms around himself. Ok, so maybe that wasn't the best excuse Michael could have used to get out of kissing his probably disinterested friend.

“Sweat is hot!” Michael counters. “Literally! Because of… weather! It's also natural.”

“And gross!”

“Nuh-uh. It makes you like one of those buff-grimey action heroes. Like Wolverine after a fight. Anyway, you know what? Fine. Brace for impact. We’re doing this.” Michael leans over towards Jeremy and brushes his lips against his damp cheek, all the while sternly telling the butterflies in his stomach that this isn't a real kiss and it doesn't count “There. See? No homo, full trust, love you tons.”

Jeremy flops backwards onto the grass, and the only reason that Michael doesn't panic is that there's a smile on that red face of his. That smile stays in place even as Jeremy covers his eyes with his arm, as if trying to shield them from the sun.

“We’re so weird,” Jeremy says.

“Yep.”

“We’re total losers.”

“I can live with that.” Michael lies down next to Jeremy, copying his position. It's a good feeling, a complete feeling, and a pleasant contrast to Michael’s recent sense of agitation.

“This is the weirdest conversation we’ve ever had.”

“I can think of some contenders. Like the time you—”

Michael doesn't get to finish the comment. Jeremy shifts to lean on top of him, elbow poking into his ribs in a way that Michael would never put up with from anybody else. As things are, Michael goes still, his breath hitching. His eyes flutter open, just in time to see the wicked grin on Jeremy’s face, as he stuffs a leaf into Michael’s mouth.

By the end of the day, Michael is referring to the leaf incident as a murder attempt. He also concedes that by pulling that, Jeremy successfully pushed that afternoon and that conversation into officially being the weirdest one they've ever had.

 

It takes Jeremy all of two days to start rambling to Michael about something even weirder. It's from Japan. It's a grey oblong pill. And it ruins everything.

Chapter Text

Michael drives Jeremy to the mall, because he's a good friend. If Jeremy wants to fuck up his brain by swallowing an entire computer, then Michael is going to help, gosh darnit. He's going to help, and enable, and facilitate, and encourage, and fire the very first shot at Jeremy’s execution.

“So I've been thinking,” Jeremy says in the car. He's staring the window, hands opening and closing and opening and closing, restless and nervous though the rest of the boy is still. He goes on. “ Y’know the m-movie Sharknado? Like. Um. O-okay, imagine… j-just imagine they did a remake, but with… with alligators.”

“Alligatornato?”

“N-no. You’re doing it wrong. Gatornado. L-like gatornado. Gay. Tornado.”

Michael laughs. Everything is good. “See? This is why we gotta get you cool capsules.”

It's a joke.

“F-full title… Gatornado: Prepare to get blown.”

“That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.”

He means dumb affectionately. Jeremy clamps his mouth shut, hands still working. “Cool capsules?” he repeats softly, after a few minutes have passed.

“Popularity pills. Macho meds. Dynamic drugs. Come on, man, anything sounds catchier than squip.”

Michael is joking. He's joking. He's grinning wide and saying silly things, because he wants Jeremy to be happy. He doesn't mean any of what he's saying. It's all a joke, and he's joking.

“Like, one of these days when you’re rich and famous,” Michael continues, “you’re gonna be telling an interviewer about the pill that turned your life around, only they’ll think you said ‘squid’, and it’ll spawn this fad diet that totally destroys the ecosystem of the ocean.”

Jeremy’s laugh is weak. Michael is joking. He's joking, and thinking about his Crystal Pepsi hookup. He might not have taken Jeremy to do this, if not for the prospect of Crystal Pepsi. Michael hates going to the mall by himself

“You’re not going to actually do this, right?” Michael asks, as they get out of the car. “Weird scam and all.”

Jeremy doesn't answer.

Chapter Text

Jeremy is acting weird.

Jeremy has a problem.

Jeremy suddenly hates Michael.

Or maybe Michael died in a car crash on the way home from the mall, and is now a ghost who nobody can see, and he hasn't realized it yet, only that doesn't make sense, because his mom is still feeding him, and his teachers still apparently expect him to turn in homework. Maybe hell also has homework. And surprisingly good dinners. Nothing is adding up.

Chapter Text

??????????

Chapter Text

Once, Michael went two full weeks without talking to Jeremy. Thing was, he’d been in Manila at the time, with his lola who still used a landline telephone, and didn't believe in the internet. And it hadn't been that bad, not really. No big. Sure, he'd sent Jer around eight postcards, which arrived a few days after Michael himself got back, but he'd also had fun visiting family and playing the role of the American cousin, who was weird because he was international, and not because he was a social disaster with no friends.

Jeremy feels farther away now than he had when Michael was on a whole other continent, with the entirety of the ocean between them. He doesn’t sit with Michael at lunch, he doesn't speak to Michael, and he doesn't answer texts. He stares through Michael like he's made of glass.

And there's not anybody else to notice that something is wrong. Especially not Michael’s parents. Obviously. That's why, out of nowhere, mom tries to make and enforce rules about Michael not spending all of his time in the basement, and drags Michael upstairs to do dumb and annoying things, like helping her husk corn and chop onions for dinner. She talks to him a lot, and doesn't listen.

“I want you to take self-defense lessons!” she announces one night. She's smiling. Very close. Picking corn-hair off his sweatshirt. It's now been four days since Michael talked to Jeremy, and why the hell does corn have hair? Why oh why does that hair have a texture like threaded plastic? Why is mom touching and staring? Why is Michael’s supposed best friend blocking him out for no reason?

Mom expects Michael to speak.

“Is this a gay people die young thing?” he asks. “Because if it is, I’d rather n—”

“I know one gay person who’s going to live forever!” mom announces. “Because I'm going to sign him up for self-defense lessons!”

“Pretty sure Sir Ian McKellen doesn't need your charity.”

A blank stare. Blinking. Because mom doesn't get Michael’s wit.

Then.

Then.

“The adult ed pamphlets says that there will be self-defense classes at the church on Thursday nights. Only sixty dollars for ten lessons! So reasonable! And at the church! Even Jesus wants you to kick some ass!”

Michael is quite sure that Jesus does not want him to kick ass, and that his mom doesn't honestly want him to either. Like, if school called with tales of Michael’s feet assaulting enemy buttocks? It'd be bad. Michael would be in so much trouble.

“I’ll call now! Sign you up!”

“I don't want…”

“I’ll sign me up!” mom interrupts. “I’ll defend you! We’ll go together and bond.”

What Michael really wants to do is defend himself against his mom, her weird ideas, and maybe also the entire world, but he can't. Too much is happening, so he lets her make the call, figuring he’ll find away to get out of it later.

Just in case he can't, he spends the rest of the evening holed up in his room watching kickboxing videos on YouTube, and trying to copy the moves, so that he won't have to deal with his mother picking on him in class.

She gets called to go to Nebraska the next day. The classes never happen, and Jeremy still isn't talking to Michael.

And, it's like, usually Michael doesn't miss his parents that much when they’re away. Mom texts constantly, and dad comes back with CDs of British pirate metal, or Kazakhstani folk music, or highlights from Kunming’s underground punk scene. Michael knows it's not anything against him personally that keeps his parents away. He just kinda wishes there were somebody around.

Chapter Text

Milagro. Episode eighteen, season six. Titled in Spanish to make it sound mysterious, ‘cause whatever. Original air date, April 18th 1999. No lone gunmen in this one. Too bad.

It starts with a murder. Some lovers walking in creepy woods arguing at night, creepy mystery guy comes in and rips their hearts out. Typical horror movie tropes, juxtaposed with scenes of some scruffy nerd dude writing a novel. Turns out he lives next to Agent Mulder, and he's got a thing for Scully. Uncomfortable “erotic” writing scene that doesn't quite show Scully’s boobs. Pretty low key, because it's 90s Fox, not HBO or whatever.

Writer guy meets Scully in a church. He's totally a stalker. But a magic stalker who writes about murders, then they come true. He goes to prison for a few minutes (cinematically speaking), then gets out. Then the heart stealing guy comes for her. Sticks his hand right into her chest (boobs still not showing). Scully isn't going to die, because she's Scully, but she bleeds a ton.

Episode ends with Scully sobbing on the floor of Mulder’s apartment, and also fire. A happy ending, unless you care much about Scully’s emotional well being, or the dead lovers from the obligatory shocking opening.

Jeremy talked to Michael at school today. Said hi and everything, but then boom! Back to being invisible Michael. Jer left humming some kinda crazy person chant about needing an upgrade. Maybe Michael needs one too. He needs to be deductive like Scully, and willing to make Mulder level leaps of faith. It's nice, in a way, to watch an episode where they both make a shitload of mistakes, and bad things happen, but they are okay and together in the end.

Anyway. The squip. A lot of popular people like Jeremy now, even though he literally wandered around for a while singing “upgrade upgrade upgrade” like he was in his own personal musical. Like, not a long while. Only a few seconds, followed by some weird twitching, but still. Seems more glitchy than cool, but what does Michael know? Certainly not Jeremy. Nothing in their twelve years of friendship could have prepared him for this.

Kickboxing YouTube videos are going ok. They kinda make Michael feel like a video game protagonist.

He's going to fix things somehow. Systems still processing. Complete reroute and reconfiguring of everything Michael has ever known 65% complete. God this sucks.

Chapter Text

Things that Michael Finds Online While Trying to Defeat the Squip: Part One

 

1) Information on the Squip Himalayan salt inhaler. It can cure maladies ranging from earwax to snoring. It is not grey, oblong, or nefarious. Customer reviews are generally positive, and it does not change your personality.

2) Many EBay listings for Squip the Squid, a Beanie Baby whom several people wish was worth actual money.

3) A research and team building company called “Quip”. Not relevant, not even the right word. Way to fail, Google.

4) SQIP - Super Quality Improvement Program. Where's the U, huh Google?

5) A wikihow page on how to get better search results on Google.

6) A bunch of websites in Chinese which turn out to be about (drumroll) Himalayan salt inhalers.

7) A fucking squid soup recipe.

8) Existential despair. Maybe tears.

Chapter Text

While Brooke Lohst is trying to use Michael as a source of information on Jeremy, she unwittingly becomes a source of information herself.

It happens during Astronomy. Brooke has never acknowledged Michael’s existence outside of that classroom, but for forty-five minutes twice a week they make an okay pair, or at least a pair who evenly divides their labor, and combines what few powers they have to complete each and every stupid worksheet thrust in their path.

Whatever problems Michael might have with Brooke as a person, it's hard to complain about her as a lab partner. She pulls her fair share. Bla bla bla, something about her parents disowning her if she doesn't pass. She reads Simple English Wikipedia before class, and shows up with surprisingly clear explanations of what they are supposed to do. Bla bla bla some noise about her not being intelligent enough to understand what's going on otherwise, bla bla bla bla bla something else about how she isn't pretty enough to rely of her looks the way Chloe could, if she wasn't too smart and perfect to have to.

(If Brooke was the kind of girl to need sympathy, Michael is pretty sure he'd have nothing but sympathy towards her. But she doesn't need it. She basks in the warm glow of high school popularity, and the illusionary flawlessness that it offers her. Sure, maybe she’s second best to some other popular girl. Doesn't change that she’s leagues ahead of the game.)

Today, for the first time ever, Brooke's equations are going unfinished. She alternates between twirling her blonde hair around her finger, looking out the window, and scribbling hearts in the margins of her notebook. It's not like her.

She sighs.

Michael clears his throat.

Brooke blushes, and looks away, oh so casually covering the hearts she's drawn with a perfectly manicured hand.

“So…um… Mitch.”

Michael raises his eyebrows at her. He's pretty sure she bats her eyelashes in his direction, only that can't be.

“You’ve seemed pretty tired lately,” she says. “So what if I did all our work today, and you just, like—” she taps her ears “—go wherever it is you go when you blast those tunes of yours which, by the way, I totally respect even if they aren't what I'd personally choose to listen to.”

Brooke’s words have a weird singsong tone to them. She smiles, teeth showing. She leans forward on her chair, eyes locking so tightly with Michael’s that it almost hurts. Michael doesn't need to be told twice to turn on his music and get away.

“Wait!”

Michael jumps. His pen falls onto the ground, and he bumps his head against the desk leaning down to get it. Best of all, his glasses slide off his face when he makes impact, giving a little clink as they hit the floor.

“Oooh, sorry… sorry… sorry…” Brooke says. She does actually sound sorry. She is holding onto Michael's arm now. Somehow she's managed to bend over and retrieve his things without causing a disaster, though Michael can hear a guy a couple of rows back announcing, too loudly, what color her panties are.

(Green. Michael is convinced that his brain has decided to latch onto this particular bit of information specifically to thwart him, because it's certainly not like he wants to know.)

Brooke is blushing deeply by the time that Michael gets his glasses adjusted back on his face.

“I wanted to ask you about Jeremy,” she whispers, close and intimate. “You’re his best friend, and I just… I just wanted to know…”

She stares imploringly at Michael, who doesn't say anything. She reaches for his hand, and he backs up.

“Never mind,” she says softly. That's when Michael realizes he might find something out if he listens to her.

“No,” he says. He runs his hands up through his hair. He hasn't washed it this week, and he can feel it standing up everywhere, like the excess oils have endowed it with an unnatural level of structural integrity. “Ask me anything. It's all good. Love talking about Jeremy with girls.”

Brooke makes a face like she's just stepped in roadkill, but there's no going back now. “Does he ever talk about me?”

“Nope. Nah-uh.” Michael scratches the back of his neck. “Last time he said a word about you was when you helped Jenna steal his notebook. That one where he wrote down…”

Brooke looks stricken. “No, that was all Jenna. And besides, I lo—. I mean um… I don't hold that notebook against him. Like at all. If anything, I like it. It shows he isn't like other boys. He has a soft side. An insecure side!” Brooke clutches her own notebook to her chest. “I know it's there, Mitchel, under that suave devil-may-care exterior. I knew it when I saw him crying over Eminem and…”

“Wait, wait. Hold up. Eminem?” If Brooke had said M&Ms, like the candy, Michael might have believed her, but Eminem, the rapper? Sure, his death has been all over the news, and sure Jeremy is (or used to be) the kind of person to care about his fellow man, but even then it's a weird thing for him to get sad over.

“We shouldn't judge him for liking outdated music,” Brooke says curtly, but then she makes a face. “Outdated music written by known misogynists.” She shakes her head, as if to clear it. “A boy who will cry in front of you is a boy you can trust,” she tells Michael, as though it's an undeniable fact.

Don’t, Michael wants to tell her.

“Does he ever talk about me?” Michael asked instead.

Brooke’s eyes flick from the rainbow patch on Michael’s arm, to his face, and then back again. With something between a smirk and a pout, she shakes her head.

Michael doesn't even have the energy to tell her how much she isn't understanding. He hasn't realized, yet, that they are riding together on the shitty Jeremy rollercoaster.

Chapter Text

Things that Michael Finds Online While Trying to Defeat the Squip: Part Two

 

1) The difference between the Deep Web and the Dark Web.

2) Duolingo

3) How to set up a Tor network for encrypted browsing.

4) How to buy cocaine and heroine online (he doesn't).

5) How to order a hit man to kill your enemies.

6) How to hire a hit man to kill you.

7) Dead Babies. For purchase.

8) A 13-step program for restoring one’s faith in humanity.

9) Fear of getting arrested

Chapter Text

And it's not like Michael doesn't try to talk to Jeremy as the Squip is working its diabolical changes in him. Michael calls, texts, hollers across hallways, e-mails, and sends notes. He does everything short of sending out smoke signals and homing pigeons.

Michael doesn't know what tone to set with these one-sided non-interactions. Should he send Jeremy GIFS of dogs in Halloween costumes, in hopes that something goofy and fun will thaw the ice between them, and they can just forget that the past few weeks ever happened? Should he send insults, because Jeremy is being an asshole and doesn't deserve the effort Michael is putting into getting him back? Should he be responding with gentle concern and forbearance to the fact that Jeremy Heere’s body has been made a vessel for a personality that is not his own, and the real Jeremy, if he's in there, has got to be freaking out right now?

Michael can't decide, so he tries everything at once, and without much rhyme or reason, trusting his whims at each moment to guide his communication techniques. Nothing works.

The closest that Michael comes to getting a response from Jeremy is when he catches him making out with Brooke behind the school. Jeremy’s mouth is on Brooke’s, his hands are in her hair, his hips flush against hers and it makes Michael’s stomach twist. The worst of it is that Michael can't tell if he's jealous of worried, and if he is worried, he doesn't know who it is he's worried for. Is it Jeremy, who’s being taken advantage of by a wintergreen tic-tac, or Brooke who is being taken advantage of by Jeremy? Is it unfair and deluded to assume that either of them are being taken advantage of by anything?

Either way, Michael interrupts in the loudest and most obnoxious way he can think to do — by wolf-whistling, and joy of joys, lucky day, that gets Jeremy to look at him, with wide blue eyes that don't quite match the sneer on his face.

“Brookey!” Michael exclaims, all fake smiles. “How's my favorite star buddy! Rad to see you hanging here! Hanging Heere, get it?” Michael chokes out a wheezy laugh, and waggles his eyebrows at them, because if there's one thing he knows how to do, it's how to kill a romantic mood.

“Can I borrow Jeremy for a minute?” Michael asks. Already Jeremy is turning his attention back to Brooke’s lips, with the singlemindedness of a robot who has been set to complete one task and one task only. A well-timed wink from Michael is all that it takes to get Brooke to push Jeremy away.

“Mitchel wants to talk to you.”

“Oh.” Jeremy blinks, like somebody who has just been blinded by light and doesn't know what to make of it. “Hi Mitchel.” His voice is so soft.

“Follow me. Now.” Michael doesn't wait for an answer. He starts hauling Jeremy over towards the bleachers, where he can chew him out without Brooke listening.

“Dude. What the hell?”

Michael’s heart soars. Words! Actual words, from Jeremy’s mouth!

“I could say the same to you!”

“I said it first.” Jeremy licks his lips. His back stiffens, eyes going cold, and then empty. Not him. “What, were you getting off on that?” he asks. “Jealous that it was a girl I was kissing and not you?”

“At least if you were kissing me, we could both be kissing somebody we don't actually like,” Michael shoots back, because he doesn't like Jeremy at the moment, especially not what he's become. “A little more fair by leading somebody on, don't you think?”

“What do you want anyway, Mitchel?”

“What do you want? What do you even think you’re doing?”

“I want…” a sharp intake of breath hisses through Jeremy’s teeth, and his whole body jerks like a fish, hand going to his head for a second before he's stiff and straight again, not looking at Michael anymore but through him.

Then Jeremy Heere, clumsy asthmatic Jeremy Heere who faces most athletic challengers with the grace of a newborn giraffe, leaps up over the bleachers and makes a run for it.

—————

Chapter Text

Back at home, Michael paces in an endless loop, all the while wondering, in an equally endless loop, what the hell went wrong. He'd thought that if he could just get Jeremy to look in his direction, to say a few words to him, then he'd be able to find his friend and drag him back to his senses, but he hadn't. If anything, Jeremy had just gotten worse. Mitchel? Leaping over bleachers? Mitchel? seriously?

It’s because he went in without a plan, Michael realizes. The next time he barges in on Jeremy’s Squip saga, he is going to have to do so with a bit of comprehension, a strategy, a clear and functional solution that can bring them both back to where they started, safe and free and waiting to make their break into something better.

For as long as he can remember, Michael has been solving Jeremy’s problems. When Jeremy’s mom forgot to pack him lunch, Michael had given him half a sandwich. When Jeremy had felt like a loser for having only Michael, Michael had found him a pet rock and made him laugh. The blue plastic plates and cups that lined Jeremy’s cupboards, and could not be easily broken no matter who decided to throw them, were Michael’s work. He'd helped Jeremy buy laundry detergent when he started to stink, and helped him clean his house when that also started to stink. He'd held him when he was stupid drunk and put leaves in his hair and stopped him from licking lead paint and…

Jeremy had wanted to lose himself. He'd said as much so many times in so many ways, and what had Michael done?

Dismissed him? Failed to take him seriously? Nothing?

No, not nothing.

His best.

Michael has always done his best, and that’s God’s honest truth.

He's even doing his best now. The Heeres have never been all there, and it's always always been Michael’s job to keep Jeremy present. That hasn't changed. He's just going to have to get better at it! Jeremy isn't the only one who can upgrade.

Michael stops his pacing. He shoots a text to Dr. Murry, letting her know that he's not feeling well, and is going to miss counseling again tonight. He sits down at his desk, and opens his laptop. Passive searches, even in the scariest corners of the internet, are not going to get him the information he needs. He's gonna have to take a more active role. Why did Jeremy get the Squip in the first place? Because he was a loser, and more importantly, a miserable loser. Being a miserable loser, as Michael understands it, is not really all that unique, and it stands to reason that Jeremy can't be the only miserable loser to have ever ever sacrificed his problems up to the promise of a grey oblong pill. All he has to do, Michael decides, is find the other miserable losers on the internet and start asking the right questions.

~~~~~~~~~~~
Click Here
~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter Text

Michael leaves virtually no stone unturned. Virtually. Because all the stones that he lifts are cyber stones, which makes them by default virtual, which is to say products of the internet.

It's kinda fun at first. His carefully worded posts across eighty-five sub-reddits cause some random net person to write a poem about him, and that’s cool… legit cool and legit funny. There's a rush that comes with being the topic of a poem. Then there’s his “fan fic”, which is a clever and hilarious parody of fan fic. He's proud of it, all ninety-four stories. He's doing well. He's being resourceful. He's rocking the whole internet sleuth thing. He, Michael Mell, is gonna own that squip’s shiny metal ass, and be awesome while doing it. Onwards and upwards, Michael to the rescue.

The euphoria doesn't last long.

The gaping Jeremy-shaped hole in Michael’s heart is still there once his fingers have started to ache, and he's sick of staring at the computer screen. And then there's the guilt, that he's just sitting there and not at the library wrestling knowledge out of the card stacks like the heroes of old. He's seen Tomes and Talismans, probably more times than anyone not born in the 80’s ever has (which is to say he's seen it once). He ought to be harnessing the world saving power of the Dewey Decimal System, only it's like four in the morning, and he's pretty much stopped sleeping, so some of his plans suck.

Hope shrivels. Hope dies. But, as usual, the Internet has a way of bringing it back.

The replies start rolling in, and Michael begins to document them.

Ninety-three netizens cleverly suggest that he try turning off the squip and turning it back on again.

Thirty different forums ban Michael for trolling.

Fourteen people want to know what he's got against Himalayan salt inhalers.

One person calls the Squip a Mary Sue.

One person on tumblr explains to him why pogs are problematic, and 98658 people reblog that post.

Two people call him un-American.

A surprising amount of people tell Michael to watch his back, and one sends him a Google maps image of his house, along with his mom’s license plate number.

A little over a dozen people send him useful information. In the end, the most useful person is somebody Michael already knows, somebody who’s been part of Michael’s Warcraft guild for over two years already.

It starts with a few words said over the game speakers (“sorry guys, can't help with the raid, but if you have any information of squips…”), and leads to an e-mail from lich_please69, finally telling Michael the beginnings of what he needs to know.

Chapter Text

Lich_Please69’s Tale

Subject: squips
Sent: 3:36 AM October 19th, 2019
From: Lich_Hirundo_rustica@hotmail.com

As George Orwell once aptly stated, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” As such, I think it behooves me to address, with absolute and cacophonous clarity, the terms of our arrangement. To put it simply, what I'm about to send you is privileged information. If you don't wish to put yourself, myself, my brother, your friend, or the whole world in danger, you shan't frolic the fields of Internet posting these secrets willy-nilly where the vile and loathsome eyes of our shared enemy may alight upon them. Furthermore, you owe me eight hundred gold pieces for this, and seeing as you profess not to have them, our current relationship can not but be tinged with a certain and undeniable stench of inequity. I know what you are thinking now. You are asking yourself, why oh why is the great and benevolent lich_please69 lowering himself to help me, when I have nothing but a measly level four power sword and four hundred gold pieces to offer in return? What sort of vile worm am I to take advantage of lich’s lingable genority? I believe the time is ripe to remind you of the beauty of Malaysian proverbs, in particular this little gem: “One can pay back the loan of gold, but one dies forever in debt to those who are kind.” It can not be denied that I am being kind, exceptionally kind, by sharing the story of my life with a mere child such as yourself. As such, on the day that you die, if you have not provided me with my gold pieces, you shall be in my debt, and while I am by virtue of my intellect an atheist with no belief in the human soul, I know that you are not, and I swear by the stars that your pithy, illusionary, purvile, delusional and deluded God shall smite you if I do not see a full repayment of what is rightfully mine.

What is brotherhood? The word derives from the Middle English brithirhod, and is defined by Webster as meaning “the condition or quality of being a brother or brothers”. Or, to put it more succinctly, Hellen Keller once said “The idea of brotherhood re-dawns upon the world with a broader significance than the narrow association of members in a sect or creed.”

As a miniature child, I always looked up to, nay admired, my little brother Timothy. He was not what you might call academically gifted, but he was beloved by all, for he was one who rejoiced in the company of his fellow man. The German word for cannabis is der Topf. The Chinese word is 炒菜锅 (chǎocài guō). Regardless of what language you choose to use, my brother smoked copious amounts of it, and dispensed it freely amongst his many copratriots, allowing that plant to become the origin of both his popularity and his poor grades.

As with many before him, the soft embrace of this gateway drug led him into the thornier arms of other substances, among them, squisis computatorium. Namely, he was under great pressure from our parents to do better in school, and as with the entirely female spectrum of dinosaurs in Les Parces Juràssic (Jurassic Park, for the plebeians among us who don't speak French) , life found a way.

I can't say how Timothy got the pill. Nor can I say from whom. What I can say is that it made him smarter, but not kinder. Although he seemed not to study, his grades moved quickly from Ds to As with such alecerity that you would ponder that they were being presumed by a horde of fire ants. In the time which he did not spend studying, he joined all the right clubs. He ascended to the star of our high schools’ football team, while singing solos in the school choir, and received accolades as the first straight president of our high school’s gay straight alliance. He wrote and published essays on topics ranging from feminism, to bears, to microbiology. Three and a half years later, Timothy was accepted into Harvard university.

It is hard to say when things began to degrade for my dear brother. As Abraham Lincoln once famously spewed, “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Even before he left for Harvard, he began to dismiss me. He refused to speak to me in the halls of our school, or even acknowledge me as a part of the family. So persuasive was he, that even our parents began to consider me a waste of resources. There were times, at night, when I heard queer shouting emanating from my brother’s room. He would cry and beg for something or somebody to stop, but come morning he always denied it. He walked through life with hollow, empty eyes, periodically tensing as though being prodded with a burning staff.

His first “episode” at Harvard was minor. His dormitory comrade entered their mutual living space to find my brother smashing his head, unceasingly, against the desk. This resulted in a brief hospitality, but was mostly overlooked, as professors preferred to fawn over my brother’s brilliance than see him for the troubled and wretched creature that he was.

On a second occasion, poor Timothy attempted to launch himself out a window, declaring that if he died, at least he would take the thing in his head with him. After much discussion, it was concluded that he needed to be watched more closely at school, and challenged more.

On the third occasion, he placed a carving knife through his cerulean orb, in hopes of reaching his brain through this orifice. He claimed that he had swallowed a very small computer, and needed to cut it out. It was then that a thorough investigation into his condition was begun.

In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (which I presume you have neither read nor heard of), electricity plays a key element in reanimating the dead. The only physical problems that the doctors could find with Timothy were a series of electrocution scars, taking up the entirety of his back. The problem was with his mind, and to use a euphemism, he was put in a place where he could be “looked after” (translation: a mental hospital).

Two years later, I embarked upon my current career, as a middle school English teacher. I tell you this, because it was through my teaching position, that I was able to discover what befell my brother, and free him from his tormentor, though not from the aftershocks of his torment.

You see, Squips are more common than you may believe, and their aims are quite certainly nefarious in nature. Like the Baobab trees in Le Petit Prince, Squips are a thing which can destroy a planet once they take root (with planet, of course, being a simile for the human mind, and the Baobab tree being a simile for Squips). In summary, middle school is a vulnerable age plagued by a myriad of plundersome pitfalls, and I have seen at least five students fall under the wiles of squips during my tenure.

It was from a young girl named Lucy that I learned the secret of how to stop the robot, for one day she fell over in class flopping like a fish (das Fisch), and begging for the sweetest crimson dew drops from the rolling hills of the relatively recent past. If you deduced that she was begging for Mountain Dew Code Red, you are incorrect. There was no code in her desired beverage. Lucy, unfortunately, set herself on fire that evening, and is no longer with us. However, I can say with absolute certainty that a quaff of Mountain Dew Red would have rid her of her squip for good, having tried it on my brother and others since her.

I shall end this email with a haiku

Roses are red
And here is a tip
Drink Mountain Dew Red
To stop a squip

Warmest regards,

Lich_please69

sent from my iPhone

Chapter Text

“Michael.”

Michael is halfway out of the biology classroom when Mrs. Rosch says his name. He freezes in the doorway, jaw tightening and then tightening further when two or three classmates jostle past him. He's in the way, and he's about to get told off by the only teacher at school that he actually likes. He’s vaguely aware of her conducting the last couple of retreating students to one side of the door frame so that they don't hit him.

“I just want to talk to you for a minute.”

Oh great. She’s reasonable-teacher-voicing at him. She's going to tell him in a minute that she's not mad, just disappointed. She's going to make him clean up the bits of shredded straw wrapper near his desk. He'd found the wrapper in the pocket of his hoodie just before the lecture, and he hadn't thought of it much at the time, but he'd meticulously pinched and tore it into at least a gazillion pieces while Mrs. Rosch was talking, and of course she must want him to clean it up. She must also want to talk to him about this homework that he's stopped doing.

Michael whirls around to face her, grins wide, and gives her a peace sign. It's a thing he does. When he's cornered. Nervous tic, supplicating gesture, he's not sure. Doesn't do anything useful with other teens, and tends to piss adults off more. The smile flattens into a forced frown.

“I’m not angry,” Mrs. Rosch says quickly.

“I know, I know, just…”

She's wearing a necklace made of plastic ants. Easy to buy around Halloween, but Michael guesses she’ll probably still be wearing it come Christmas. It looks scratchy and uncomfortable. Too many legs.

“I'm worried,” Mrs. Rosch informs him.

“Right. Right. Totes justified. Homework, right?”

“…Not so much. You seem off your game, Michael. Is anything going on?”

Michael pushes his glasses up his nose. Somewhere in the back of mind he's aware that he’s staring up at her like a dumbstruck owl, and she's waiting for an answer, so she can go back to reenacting Potter Puppet Pals with her cockroaches, and waiting for her next lesson to start.

“Computer problems?” Michael supplies weakly. “Gotta mega sucky computer to deal with, and I've ordered some stuff to fix it from my…um… suppliers so…” He points at the door.

Mrs. Rosch raises her eyebrows, but doesn't ask. “You do know that you can ask me for help if you need it, right?”

“Hell yeah. Yes. Awesome.”

Though Mrs. Rosch nods, she seems to deflate a little, her worry as clear as the crease on her forehead. “Well, don't be late for your next class,” she says. Michael doesn't have to be told twice.

The next day, however, Michael asks Mrs. Rosch if he can eat his lunch in her classroom instead of the cafeteria, and she agrees. He doesn't even have to tell her about how he's not sleeping well, and how that's not helping him deal with the world at large. He does have to tell her that he's not eating because of that problem where he can't swallow, which is back with full force now. She encourages him to get it looked at. Michael promises to do so, and spends the lunch period typing up overdue lab reports on her classroom computer, because that's the cost of this respite.

A couple days later, the school sends home mid-semester reports to students who are in danger of failing some of their subjects. Michael carefully hides the reports he gets from Creative Writing and Asian History, choosing instead to focus on his squip research, which is now yielding more results than he ever expected.

Chapter Text

Subject: please help
Sent: 7:00 October 24th, 2019
From: shipwarrior333@me.com

Riiiiiiiiiight so idk I don't even know where to start with this. I've been searching the Internet like forever, and there's been NOTHING NOTHING AND MORE NOTHING, and suddenly you. Anyway, I think my friend Rebecca has been on squik for a while now. She says she isn't, but the thing is the girl is dyslexic af, a good writer, but she can't spell to save her life, so she used to send all her stories to me before putting them on AO3 (dean and cas are our sexy gay babies), but now she suddenly thinks fanfic is for FAKE WRITTERS and she's writing a novel and everything is spelled perfectly? And it's really really good, but it's not her, and also she hates me, and I didn't even do anything. She has all these new friends and she says I'm FAT and EMBARASSING and idk maybe I've always been fat and embarrassing and I'm reading too much into this or whatever, but I swear we used to be really good friends.

Anyway, I don't know why I'm telling you all this, but do you know any intervention programs? I tried to tell our English teacher she was doing drugs but she laughed at me, and that's another weird thing, because she used to be really nice, but maybe I'm just being stupid.

———————-

Meanwhile on Tumblr: https://cartoonallstars2therescue.tumblr.com

——————-

Subject: squips
Sent: 9:00 October 25th, 2019
From: lilysmommy@aol.net

I've never told this story to anybody before, out of an abundance of caution, but maybe it's time I started to talk. You see, the more you know about squips, the more obviously insidious they become. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's better to begin at the beginning.

Being a new mom can be extremely isolating, even more so when you’ve just moved to a new city. That's the situation that I found myself in back in January of 2015. My hubby had jut gotten a promotion at work, which led to us packing up our home, infant and all (lol), and heading off to Sunnyville South Carolina. Now, coming from Seattle, I expected it to be somewhat of a culture shock, but much to my surprise, I started making friends almost the day that I arrived.

This is…. harder to write than I expected. The above two paragraphs were written four days ago. I'll continue when I get a chance. Sending this now so that I won't chicken out. To be continued.

--------

Subject: re: squips
Sent: 9:00 October 29th, 2019
From: lilysmommy@aol.net

Sorry. I haven't slept in days, and my hands are shaking so badly I can barely type this. You’re getting the readers digest version. It's the best I can do. Long story short, my neighbor Karen brought me some sweet tea to welcome me and ease my “transition” into the “community”, and do you see where I'm going with this?

I don't even know how describe what it's like having one of those things inside of you. It's simultaneously the best and worst thing. It destroys, but it also rebuilds. I wish I could explain it better, but you have to understand, I'm just starting to get my life back. I have to stop here.

---------

Subject: re: re: squips
Sent: 4:45AM October 30th, 2019
From: lilysmommy@aol.net

They came for my fucking baby. That's what did it for me. John had been trying to free me from that thing for months, but I was just… I thought I was so much better with it! And you know, at first Lily was safe, because you can't give Squips to children under the age of six months, but just as soon as she was old enough Karen, Hellen, and the others were so insistent that we give her a squip. Their children all had them, and were doing wonderfully.

I can't do this. Please don't contact me again. Just be aware that once one person gets a squip, others are sure to follow. Not even infants are safe.

Chapter Text

October 30th, senior year, the day before Halloween. Michael starts his morning at the computer, having not slept, reading and rereading every scrap of squip information that he's managed to gather. Then he dresses, and eats toothpaste (because his skin feels weird and he can't deal with brushing his teeth, but he has to do something). He drives to school rattled, attends his first class rattled, and stands rattled outside his second period class, debating whether to go in or sneak home.

In Astronomy, Brooke asks him about Halloween.

“Jake’s having a party,” she gushes. “Biggest event of the year! What kind of costumes does Jeremy like?”

No answer. Michael has nothing to say.

“I was thinking maybe a sexy doll, like Sally in the nightmare before Christmas, only much, much sexier.”

Michael could say something here. He could tell Brooke about how Nightmare Before Christmas was made, because he once watched a documentary on that. He doesn't want to.

“I want my costume to be unique, but not tacky. Last year Cindy Moffat was trying to be unique, but it totally came off as tacky. Do you remember what she was?”

The last time Michael had been to a party was Ellie Cane’s ninth birthday, where he'd gotten sick, but it’d been a triumphant sort of sick, because his parents had stopped forcing him to go to class parties after that.

“She was a sexy pizza box. It was meant to be, like, commentary on how girls are under so much pressure to be a sexy anything, and at first I thought it was kind of meaningful, you know, but then Chloe pointed out how she'd rubbed oil all over herself to get the attention of boys.”

“Did it work?”

“Oh yes.” Brooke lets out a world weary sigh. “Extremely well, but it was still tacky. About Jeremy and costumes…”

“Palm civet.” Michael scratches out some numbers on his worksheet.

Brooke tosses her hair and goes back to the worksheet as well, which Michael takes to mean that she doesn't know what a palm civet is, and is too prideful to ask. That's ok. He's up for explaining.

“It's a wild cat species from Indonesia that poops coffee.”

The look on Brooke’s face, from her pursed lips to her scrunched up nose, makes Michael think of somebody who just bit into an apple only to find a maggot in it.

“I've always imagined you as a cat that poops coffee,” Michael adds, because why the hell not?

Brooke opens her mouth, closes it again, and then seems to make up her mind. “This is why nobody likes you,” she says, in a voice that sounds oddly like Michael’s mom, when she's trying to gently lecture but would really rather set her head on fire and run around screaming. “You always say things like that.”

It isn't fair. It really isn't. Michael reaches for his hood, but then Brooke stops him with a hand on his arm, and Michael is just beyond done with her, and her weird ass popular girl version of reality.

“No I don't,” he argues. “I don’t! This is the first time, after almost two months of dealing with you, that I've said the words ‘palm civet’ out loud! On what planet does that even start to equate to always saying things like that?”

“Half the time you don't even answer me when I speak to you. I don't know if you’ve noticed, but I've been trying very hard to be nice to you, and not, by the way, because Jeremy cares if I am or not, so you can get that thought out of your head.”

“That's only because we’re sitting alone. If Chloe or Jenna were here, you’d be trying to make me feel like shit, and failing, because I don't care what you think, but some people do, and you don't even notice! And, you know, maybe if you’d just noticed the kinds of things that you always say, Jeremy and literally every single other person would be better off.”

At his desk, Dr. Amory, who has been asleep since around September third, startles and stops snoring long enough to shush Michael, with an unmistakable glare. He isn't the only one who is watching Michael. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael can see that Rusty Sidafritz has gotten his phone out, and has it pointed in Michael’s direction, because nothing says funny like video footage of the classroom freak being freaky. Well, he won't give them a show. He's totally capable of not giving them a show. He pushes his desk away from Brooke, crumples his paper, turns up his music, and closes his eyes to wait out the lesson.

He's not completely unaware of the few classmates who try to get his attention, presumably so that the hilarity can continue. He's also not completely unaware that Brooke is the one who is pointedly keeping them away. He just pretends to be. By the time class is over, nobody cares anyway, Michael included.

———————

Lunch is spent in Mrs. Rosch’s classroom, drinking crystal Pepsi and eating applesauce, because Michael still can't fucking swallow right, but if he doesn't eat something Mrs. Rosch will call his parents. He also technically, according to school rules, needs to be doing some kind of work to stay in there, and so he's embarked on an extra credit research project comparing the ingredients in different soda brands across the decades, with a special focus on Mountain Dew. He's got four big spreadsheets full of data now, and Mrs. Rosch has stopped bugging him to give her a hypothesis as to what he's trying to figure out, and is just leaving him to it.

(“I am still expecting you to come up with one,” she warned, four days earlier. Today she's not in a position to question him on the validity and usefulness of his work, because she's using her lesson prep time to make a construction paper coffin for Ron the cockroach, who has died. Besides, she doesn't question so much as encourage. She's a really good teacher.)

Between using his phone to look up chemical compounds that he can't quite pronounce, Michael’s using his phone to send e-mails and messages. His hook up at Spencer's has got the Red, so that's a good start. Lich_Please69 says he knows how Red works, but as a teacher, he believes in letting children find their own information, lest their innocence be spoiled with knowledge that they are not yet equipped to handle; alternately, Michael can trade another two thousand gold pieces up front for everything that Lich_Please69 knows, because the guy has a kink for shoving his head so far up his own ass that he can't figure out that Michael is flat broke in the Warcraft universe.

Lilysmommy has stopped answering Michael’s e-mails, not that she'd really answered them before, which sucks, because he has so many questions for her. Can she verify that Mountain Dew Red was what had disabled her squip? What are the effects of taking the stuff? Did the squipped members of her little North Carolina town go after her? And what about free will? Free will is a big thing. How much of it did she have while she was under the Squip’s influence?

This is where Michael has had to read between the lines. Lilysmommy talked about destroying, and rebuilding, and refusing her husband’s attempts to help because she felt that she was better with the thing in her head. That suggested that the squip, in spite of having a high level of power over her, did not entirely take over. As soon it threatened something important to her, she'd ditched it. Now all that Michael has to do is convince Jeremy that their friendship, like a mother’s baby, is more important than a wintergreen brain tic-tac. Easy. They’ve been friends for twelve years, after all, and Lilysmommy hadn't even had her kid for one yet.

Twelve fucking years

Michael pushes his phone away, and rests his head on the desk, research and all. Mrs. Rosch hums a funereal dirge, and leaves him to it.

Chapter Text

Texts from Michael’s Mother

 

-October 23rd-

Home @ 7. What do u want for dinner?

That's not dinner food.

Nice try, wise guy. We're having baked macaroni and fish balls.

Sorry I’m late. Picking up pizza.

-October 24th-

Get ready to get your fish ball on!

I'm not trying to be cool. I am cool. I'm kul. That's how the cool people spell it, is it not?

Well, that's how your mother spells it.

But you love fish balls.

Why don't you invite Jeremy over here?

Since when does he hate fish balls?

I'll talk about FISH balls all I want. Talking about balls that are made of fish is not the same as talking about balls that are made of genitals.

Yes I did type that.

Of course I win. See you at dinner!

October 25th

Dad gets in at 9:45 today. Try not to make too much noise. He'll be jet lagged. Family dinner tonight.

Well, you have to eat.

You’re seventeen years old. What do you want me to do, buy you baby food?
I've got you a blender and a doctor’s appointment. It's Thursday at noon. Do you want me to come?

I'll be with you. Don't worry about that.

Well, fine, then I won't be with you. See? I do respect your wishes and your privacy.

-October 26th-

On my way to Detroit.

Of course it's delayed.

A new line of concealers.

Yes, and it's not fair.

How was school? Are you rocking that science?

Kul <3

I've been getting phone calls? From the FBI?? They want to shut down our internet?

Well, they just texted me your social security number.

Yes the FBI do text people their kids’ social security numbers. They just texted me yours!

Now they are sending me threats about your penicillin allergy. Your doctor’s appointment is canceled.

What's trolling?

I've called the police, and they told me the FBI doesn't text people their kids’ social security number.

How?

Well, tell Jeremy not to play those kinds of pranks, and don't share your social security number with him again.

-October 27th-

Have you been buying porn with my credit card?

Guns??????

Yes, I would rather you buy porn than guns. The gun laws in this country are atrocious.

Exactly. I heard on the news that they are having lockdown drills in primary schools.

Well, you're in high school, and with the way the world is, of course you have lockdown drills.

I'm sorry that they scare you. You should discuss that with Dr. Murry.

Next time you need to buy something on the internet to make yourself feel better, go with music. You love music!

I always have music recommendations. <3

Don Ho. Tiny Bubbles.

Homework is important!!!

-October 28th-

I'm glad you like it!

Yes, it is incredibly evocative. I love Ho.

That's a bit excessive.

You can like a song without listening to it on repeat for twelve hours.

You should like things without listening to them on repeat for twelve hours.

Moderation, remember? If you can go ten days without listening to Bubbles by Don Ho I'll put fifty dollars in your bank account.

Deal.

-October 29th-

Is Jeremy dead? Haven't seen him in a while.

Good to know.

What do you mean Jeremy is on drugs????

Why would you let Jeremy do drugs?

Yes, it is your job to keep Jeremy from doing drugs.

Jeremy isn't smart like you. You need to keep him from doing drugs.

I'm calling his father.

Good point. If I ever walk around the house in my underwear, you have permission to disown me.

It's inappropriate.

As far as you know I don't have underwear.

Of course I have underwear!

If you keep cats in bags, they suffocate.

You know your father is allergic to cats.

You can have a cat when you’re married. Just don't choose a husband who is allergic. And don't be one of those people who have cats instead of children.

Let me know if you need any help.

I can book a flight.

Smudge-proof mascara

-October 30th-

Dr. Murry says that you aren't going to your appointments,

If you're so sick why did you cancel your doctor's appointment?

You need to take care of yourself and let Jeremy take care of himself.

Of course you have to stop Jeremy’s drug addiction. Who else is going to do it?

You need to talk to Dr. Murry about that. I'm sure she’ll have some suggestions.

I'll be home tonight.

He flies out tomorrow. Family dinner!

-October 31st-

I’m off to LA. “Creepy” cosmetics convention.

We don't sell fake blood.

Not even for Halloween.

That's fantastic!!!

You should go to parties at your age

You can make friends who don't do drugs.

I'm proud of you.

Do you need a costume? You can use my credit card.

We can host a party at our house for the feast of Saint Anthony

That's the point. We’ll buy wholesale stockings.

Have fun!!! Make friends!!!

Chapter Text

On Halloween morning, Michael takes himself to the mall, where he stands paralyzed outside of the Monster Stop, trying to unfreeze his feet so he can go inside to buy a costume. He needs one. He’s going to a party. He rushes the door after a full fifteen minutes of indecision, and without taking off his headphones or looking at anyone, he grabs the first thing he comes into contact with, some kind of hairy claw-glove-thing. Rad. He pays for it, and maybe he jostles a four-year-old would-be princess on his way out, but the thing is, he's got this party to go to.

Then it's on to Spencer’s Gifts, the moment of truth, where he buys his weapon, and forges his path to victory. As Michael exits the mall, the bottles of Mountain Dew Red glitter hopefully in the bright late autumn sunlight. He's going to a party. He's got this.

Evenings fall early on Halloweens, and end late. The littlest trick-or-treaters need to get their fun in before the sun goes down, and wild party-goers (like Michael!) need to rock and revel until it comes back up again in the morning. Michael fills a plastic bowl up with candies that his mom bought, and tosses it by the door with a sign cautioning the coming onslaught of costumed children to take only one piece each. Not like he has the time or inclination to give the stuff out. Party to go to and all. Gotta get dressed for that party, which he's totally going to.

The party is happening, and Michael’s going to be there. It's happening, and nothing's can stop it, but there's no way Michael can go to Jake’s house looking like he always does. Everybody is invited, but nobodies aren't. He needs to be someone different. He ditches his hoodie and jeans for a Creeps T-shirt and cargo shorts, very un-Michael like, at least for people who don't know that he loves his Creeps T-shirt and wears it under the hoodie at least three times a week. He's gonna have to leave his headphones at home, too. All that Michael can see when he looks himself over in the mirror is skin and skin and skin, like those nightmares where you show up at school in your underwear. His armor is off, and he’s vulnerable to attack on all sides, which is good, because it means he's not himself. Maybe he should take off his glasses as well, a Clark Kent becoming Superman type of deal, but he can't see for shit without them, and his aversion to being blind is even bigger than his aversion to being practically naked.

“I can do this,” Michael says to into the mirror. “I can super do this. I am pumped to do this.”

He flexes like wolverine, tries a smile, and then tries a scowl, but in a victorious way. He tries to look like somebody who is about to enter into a hardcore, super-dangerous robot battle, and win. He's got to win this.

He grabs two bottles of Red to complete the picture, and practices a few moves from those kickboxing YouTube videos. Then he grabs his monster claw, removes the tags with his teeth, and puts it on, practicing the same moves again.

“My name is Michael Mell.” He thrusts a bottle forward like it's a sword, and he's been overtaken by the spirit of Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride. “You douchebagified my best friend. Prepare to be deactivated.”

It sounds good. It sounds legit. Michael squares his shoulders, eyes going cold as he faces his imaginary foe. “My name is Michael Mell. You douchebagified my best friend. Prepare to be deactivated.”

One more time for good measure.

“My name is Michael Mell! You douchebagified my best friend! Prepare to be deactivated!” Michael lifts the Mountain Dew Red bottle high above his head, and imagines sparks flying from it— thunder and lightening and infinite badassery.

What is he going to say to Jeremy?

His shoulders slump. He lets his arm drop, puts the Red on the table. He sits down. Seriously, what is he going to say to Jeremy? Are there two villains in this story, or only one? Jeremy did, after all, choose this path, or kind of choose this path, or not choose this path at all…. Michael doesn't know, and that's the hardest part.

Maybe the best way to approach Jeremy is just to lay it all out for him. Remind him they've been friends for twelve years. Remind him that they met in preschool, and sometimes it took Jeremy two or three minutes to stammer out a single sentence, but Michael always listened. Remind him that they used to hold hands on the playground and crossing the street, and that Michael tied Jeremy’s shoes for him until Jeremy was in second grade. Talk about the video games they'd played, and the stupid parties they'd decided not to go to, and how Michael had been there whenever Jeremy’s mom did something weird. Let him know that he'd been there for Michael too, and that Michael needed him still.

Maybe not the last part. Michael doesn't want to emotionally blackmail Jeremy into coming back, just make him aware that he was an absolute jackass for leaving in the first place.

Michael picks up the bottle of Mountain Dew Red once again. He repeats his speech for the Squip one more time. His speech for Jeremy, he keeps close to his heart, and does not say out loud. It's too painful to go though twice. He’ll save it till the moment.

—————-

The party is loud. The music isn't bad. Michael likes most music. The music is just earsplitting. Also murderous. The music is trying to murder Michael specifically. There are sweat covered people. The house smells like beer, pot, boozier booze, vomit, and hot, and cigarettes, and people. Holy shit. There's dancing, which Michael is ok with doing as long as other people don't try to do it with him, but there’s too much of it here and he doesn't wanna. play it cool. Somebody hands him a red solo cup full of beer, which probably means they seriously don't recognize him, and somebody else calls him ‘Mike’ which means maybe they do, but are too drunk to care. A third person is dead ass convinced he is Nicole’s boyfriend from, like, another school, or another life, or another dimension or whatever. This guy gets him another cup of beer, to toast to his conquest of Nicole, and Michael gulps it down, even as his chest and every muscle in his body tightens. He looks around for Jeremy.

Michael is not the only person looking for Jeremy. Brooke is leaning against a wall, and looking like a sad puppy dog (literally. dog costume.), as Chloe tries to comfort her (or mock her. hard to tell). Is Jeremy late? Is Jeremy not coming? Has Michael seriously overestimated his ability to cope with the kinds of things that every other human being in the world copes with, because loud crowded parties (Halloween or otherwise) are normal?

Another half cup of beer, and Michael needs to pee. He stumbles to the bathroom, not because he's drunk, but because there is too much happening and he can barely see straight. It's quiet inside, a sanctuary of sorts. Michael doesn't want to leave, and maybe he doesn't have to. Jeremy will have to come in eventually, after all. Everybody does. Bathrooms are inevitable. They’re a private places to talk, and more importantly they’re not loud.

Michael finishes his business, and washes his hands. He unlocks the door. Luckily nobody comes barging in right away. That gives Michael the precious seconds he needs to crawl into the bathtub, close the curtains, and lie down to wait.

There are lots of words for the kind people who hide in bathtubs, listening while what seems like hundreds of people filter in and out to use the toilet. Usually “loyal friend” and “Squip-Slayer” are not the first ones that come to mind, but Michael intends to be both those things. He can only hope that in years to come, what he remembers about this night will be how happy Jeremy was to be saved from the shitty technology in his brain, and not the much more literally shitty sounds and smells that Michael is subjecting himself to to get to that point.

Chapter Text

How to Fail at Everything and Be a Loser
~a ten step guide with pictures~

1. Get out of bed in the morning. Do the things.

2. Show up.

3. At a party.

7. Drink beer. Don't be Nicole's boyfriend.

12. Nicole’s boyfriend is probably an asshole. So good not to be him.

4. Go into the bathroom. Lie down in the tub.

 

1999. Y2K

5. Pull the shower curtain closed. Wait for a really long time.

6. Listen to the piss and fart symphony, with full understanding that if you’re caught you’re dust, ‘cause nobody will understand your motives.

8. Jeremy.

8. Jeremy!!

8. Jeremy :(

69. A stupid number. Probably full of BS anyway.

8. Be mad at Jeremy because he's an asshole who doesn't deserve you.

8. Be less mad at Jeremy, because he goes from looking scared witless to happy to see you in an instant, and it's goddamn heartbreaking.

8. Don't lecture on the meaning of friendship. Lecture on how you are right and he's wrong.

8. He's super wrong and doesn't get it.

8. Fail at everything.

8. Be hated by Jeremy who is probably going to set himself on fire and chop his eyes out, or else be very cool and popular forever.

8. Either way, it's gonna happen without you.

63. Whitney Houston’s birth year.

10. Despair

Chapter Text

Dr. Murry is big into mindfulness and attention to detail as a way to stave off blind and irrational panic. And, yeah, that's probably a good thing, if you’re panicking over something that's not real. Like if you got bitten by a rat once, and watching Tom and Jerry throws you into a flashback, taking a careful account of the sofa beneath your ass, and the dumb buzzing ceiling light, and your mom running around the room negating the validity of your emotions in a familiar and not-rodent-like voice is probably a good way to get back your equilibrium.

The problem is, Dr. Murry has made a big error when it comes to Michael. She's come to the conclusion that he freaks out about things that aren't real, when in fact he uses things that aren't real to keep from freaking out, because his real situation is just so heinous and pitiful and sad.

And Michael knows where he is. He's in a bathroom, at a party. He knows every detail of that bathroom, from the grout, to the sink, to the thunderous angry knocking.

And Michael knows who he is. He knows his name, what kind of car he drives, how alone he is, and that he'd be better off dead.

And Michael knows, in an abstract sense, what's happened. He's messed up, and he needs to get out, but there's too much knocking and he can't.

Chapter Text

Step 11

ESCAPE.

Don't forget to thank your hosts. :)

Chapter Text

It's cooler and less stuffy outside the house, but not quite a respite. The music inside pounds on. Usually music is Michael’s friend and his sanctuary, but not tonight, and not like this. Each note settles down into his bones, a dull ache. He needs to get away.

He's not the only one.

Brooke Lohst’s car is parked just in front of his on the street. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees her try and fail to get the keys in the ignition, and then try and fail again. He walks past, opening the door to his own car, and then pausing as he hears Brooke’s start up. He looks behind him, through her front window. She's resting her head on the steering wheel, and… barking? No, not barking. That's just her costume playing tricks on Michael. She's crying. Her ridiculous doggie ears bob with the shake of her shoulders.

Well, Michael’s shaking too. His hands are trembling, his face is numb, his eyes hurt, and the spasms his heart’s making feel more like the gurgling of a clogged bathtub drain than they do a beat.

“She's gonna get into a car accident and die,” Michael says to himself, out loud in a kinda sing-song that means he's really fucking out of it. “Not. My. Problem.”

Only it is his problem. The entire world is Michael’s problem. He's a problem. Nothing is good, everything is bad, and even with all that he doesn't want to be the kind of person who lets drunk girls die, and maybe kill other people, because that's very much a thing that drunk drivers do. What if he walks by and Brooke runs over an entire herd of trick-or-treating toddlers?

He knocks on her front window.

“Get lost, Mitchel.”

Oh. Ok. He tried. Back to his car. Tonight is not his night to save the world. The toddlers should be home by now anyway, and if not Michael is kind of jealous of their opportunity to get run over by a car before they hit their teens and get hormonal and gangly.

“Wait!”

Michael freezes in his tracks.

“Can you—” Brooke wipes her nose on one of her fluffy arm pom-pom things. “Can you help me carry Madeline? She's passed out in back.”

Michael squints, and is just able to make out Madeline’s sprawled out form, lanky and limp, ballerina outfit stained at the chest and riding unevenly up her thighs.

Brooke takes Madeline’s feet, Michael takes her shoulders, and together they get her into the back seat of Michael’s PT cruiser. She smells like beer, cigarettes, and something sour, and she mutters a barely comprehensible request not to hurt her, which sits in Michael’s stomach like a shard of glass.

Brooke takes shotgun. Michael thinks… he thinks he feels steady enough to do this.

“Never thought I'd be going home with you,” she quips.

“Taking you to your house.”

“Take me home with you.” Brooke's voice is breathy now.

“Uh…” Michael is not steady enough to do this.

God, it’s not like I'm coming onto you. Why’re you such a dweeb?”

Yep. Michael is definitely the very opposite of steady.

“Hey,” Brooke’s voice is softer now. “Hey. Calm down. You’re the captain here, gotta drive the car. I'm not gonna spoil your… your dweeb cred. We could be friends. Do each other’s nails and bond over how we both hate Jer… Germ. Germy. Germy. The first step to healing is admitting that you hate germs. That's a pun.”

Brooke smiles sweetly at Michael. In the light of the street lamps, between the mascara running down her face, and her ridiculous dog get up, she looks like a furry going through its goth phase, but at least she looks like a friendly and sympathetic furry going through its goth phase. Michael exhales through his teeth, making a sound akin to a whistling teakettle.

They end up back at his place.

 

———————-

Brooke has very specific instructions for the care and keeping of Madeline. Put her on the couch. Give her two pillows and a clean blanket without any boy germs. Make sure to lie her down on her side, and not her back. Leave some Tylenol, a glass of water, and a note on the coffee table for her to find.

(Michael reads the note. It says “don't worry about anything sweetie, Book and Mitchy got your back”. For somebody who is too drunk to correctly spell her own name, the cutesy jack-o-lantern and kitty that Brooke draws at the bottom of the note are both shockingly good. Maybe she wrote ‘Book’ on purpose? As, like, an in joke?)

“We’ve known each other since kindergarten,” Brooke explains, when she sees Michael staring. “Y’know, before she could say Brooke, so she used to call me ‘Book’. Kinda went in different directions, with me going in the direction of finding her annoying as fuck. Still no way in hell I was gonna leave her at that party. Girl code.”

“Oh.”

“Not gonna lie, Mitchel. I'm having a rough night.”

Michael nods.

“Looks like you get what I’m talking about. So wanna talk about it? Just you and me?”

A shrug. There are words for everything that has happened tonight, but they aren't in Michael’s brain, and they certainly aren't in his mouth. He takes off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose, where the pressure is starting to build up again.

“So…um… maybe we’re not gonna talk a lot or whatever but is there somewhere I can crash?”

Michael points to the stairs. His parents aren't home. She can sleep in their bed.

“Riiiight. Anyways. Mitch. Look, I don't know how to put this, but you should totally ditch Germy. He's an asshole, and he, like, talks shit about you all the time. You, and Madeline, and knowing him, I'll be next, so… yeah. We gotta face that he never liked either of us in the first place, because he doesn't know how to like anyone but himself. We can do better than that. You um… really deserve way better than that. So thanks for not being a jerk.”

Brooke kisses him on the cheek and turns to go up the stairs, very solemn for somebody whose Halloween dog tail is bouncing behind her with each step.

Michael sinks into the living room armchair, where he sleeps until Madeline rouses herself enough to tell him to stop creeping on her, at which points he retreats to the safety of his basement.

Come morning, both girls are gone as if they had never been there in the first place.

Brooke texts Michael later, not to thank him or make conversation, but to let him know that Jake’s house burned down, courtesy of Rich, but not to worry, because nobody died (except maybe Rich… conflicting reports on that one).

Michael feels hungover, not that he drank a lot, but he knows that hangovers are caused by dehydration, and with all the tears and stupidity of the previous night… well, it's really not much of a surprise, is it?

If he had known, back in the bathroom, that death could have come as easily and blamelessly as just staying in the house, he would have done it. Let it be an accident, so his parents wouldn't have to deal with the guilt of a suicide. But it's too late for that, and barring any other kind of convenient disaster, Michael can see his entire life stretched out before him. That's a good thing, right? He doesn't feel like it is, but he also doesn't want to want to be dead. Better to flounder for a way to want to live. Maybe he was saved for a reason, who knows? What Michael does know is that the time has come for him to set another kind of fire, one that can burn the past, so that he can move on.

On impulse, he texts Brooke back, just a quick message, one that isn't heavy and emotionally fraught at all.

’Sup. Do you think I'm a worthwhile person?

It's dumb, but Michael sort of needs somebody to say ‘yes’, and since he's not going to text his mom or Dr. Murry, and as Brooke is one of the few people at school who he kind of knows, she seems like the best bet.

His phone buzzes.

You’re a complete and total dweeb, but in light of recent events, I'm glad you didn't burn to death. Is that what you’re after?

Michael takes a moment to contemplate that, and then texts back.

lol pretttttty much. l8er, Book.

He expects that to be the end of it. It's not. He gets another text:

Do you think I'm a worthwhile person?

This makes Michael smile, though he can't say why. He sits down, without breaking his grin or taking his eyes off the phone, and types his message.

Yep. Especially appreciate the way you’re not crispy and dead. See you in class.

Chapter Text

The next week at school is crazy. The students of Middleborough respond to news of the fire with a level of hyperactivity and distraction usually saved for approaching holidays. Teachers don't teach, and students are more interested in texting and posting on social media than learning all the stuff that's not being taught.

Michael’s social media accounts start falling one by one. He discovers this early on a Wednesday morning. His tumblr deletes itself. All of his fake fanfictions spontaneously combust. Twitter!Michael and Reddit!Michael bite the dust. Even his ye olde Neopetz and DeviantArt accounts go the way of the dodo. He’s confused and moderately distressed, until he tries to sign onto Warcraft, at which point he's very distressed and hyperventilating, because there are people he's known for years on there, and who almost like him. Not anymore! Time to welcome in a new era of complete and total isolation! Hands shaking, he tries to log into Skype, but it's gone too. Facebook? Dead, dead, dead, not that he'd ever used it for anything other than talking to his aunts and cousins. Before he knows it, the only thing left is his gmail, and much as he hates to admit it, he's pretty sure that it's only because Google has spent years forcing him to change his password to eight hundred increasingly difficult to remember variations, ‘cause of dumb security bullshit. Three cheers for dumb security bullshit. He changes the password to something so long and intense that gmail itself is probably overwhelmed by the sheer amount of letters and numbers, writes his new password down neatly in a notebook, hides the notebook in a drawer, picks up his keyboard, and throws it against the wall.

Smash!

Well, that wasn't crazy at all.

Michael pushes himself up from his desk chair. His legs are shaking. Side-effect of virtual death, and irl awfulness. He should probably get something soft for breakfast and go to school, before he throws his computer too. He spares a glance at his ruined keyboard, and starts to look around for his shoes.

School is shit. No surprise. Even lunch with Mrs. Rosch is bad. She's getting serious about wanting to know what his expired soft drink spreadsheets are about, and all he can do is gesture wildly and make some vague sounds about feeding Mountain Dew Red to bees to see how it effects their hive mind. Bees have hair on their eyeballs, and Michael doesn't want to do anything, least of all pull a fake experiment out of his ass, but he can't exactly tell Mrs. Rosch that he was trying to use the drink to fight a super computer. That would just sound weird.

Michael isn't fighting supercomputers anymore anyway. Could be a good thing that all his online avenues for doing so are closing. It's bad enough that he has to see Jeremy in the halls, looking so cold, so good, and so utterly unaware of him. At least now Michael doesn't have to deal with moral dilemmas over whether or not to play the role of anti-squip ambassador online to anybody and everybody who happens to stumble upon his virtual flailing. That's all over now, unless somebody decides to e-mail him, which nobody does.

On Saturday morning, Michael texts Brooke to wish her luck in the play. She doesn't text back, because they are not friends. Michael doesn't have any of those, and it's time that he learned to own that truth. He'd never shied away from liking weird crap, from being a loser, or from being anything else that he was. Time to be the most dramatically friendless person ever!

Step one: Find everything related to his relationship with Jeremy.

Step two: Gather it up.

Step thr—

No. Michael grabs his head between his hands, and squeezes his eyes shut so tight that he's afraid that they might pop, in a Shakespearean ‘vile jelly’ type sense, not that he knows anything anything about Shakespeare, least of all what play that line came from and whether or not it referred to the human ability to explode their own eyeballs by crushing them with their eyelids. According to the internet Shakespeare is mostly dick jokes anyway, but Michael is not going to think about Shakespeare, because that is called disassociation, and more importantly, he's not going to start making mental lists, because sure lists are a great way to put a barrier between oneself and a total meltdown, but sometimes it's important to just be present. Dr. Murry would agree.

First Michael has to calm down. Second…

No.

Michael rolls himself a blunt, and smokes it. It genuinely helps. He takes a walk around his room, and gathers up everything that reminds him of Jeremy, from old concert tickets, to birthday gifts, to photographs, to yearbooks that he was the only one to ever sign. It's all fake, and it needs to burn. Michael has been thinking about doing that since the party. Well, he's brave enough and steady enough now. He's going to do it. Nothing can stop him.

Chapter Text

Mr. Heere stops him.

Chapter Text

On the topic of Shakespeare, the Disney’s the Lion King is based on Hamlet, which Michael has never seen or read. He's seen the Lion King though, like a lot. Jeremy was a mega fan back in pre-school. He'd dressed as Simba for Halloween back in kindergarten, and then in first grade he'd had these Lion King sneakers that he couldn't tie.

Standing on his front porch in his boxers and a T-shirt, burning mementos in dented metal stove, Michael doesn't want to think of Jeremy as a pre-schooler, a kindergartner, or a first grader. He doesn't want to think of Jeremy giving him a Magic the Gathering card for the tenth birthday that even his parents forgot, and he doesn't want to think of Jeremy bouncing around in the backseat of dad's car at the age of thirteen, singing along to Weird Al lyrics. He's mad invested in forgetting all that. It might well be his new life goal.

But then, like the vision of Mufasa appearing to Simba in the clouds, Mr. Heere appears to Michael, in all his pantless glory. A mid-autumn wind is blowing. Majestically, Mr. Heere’s bathrobe billows around him. Michael hides his joint.

“Rememberrrrr,” Mr. Heere rumbles.

That's Michael’s cue to hakuna matata himself right the fuck out of that situation, and he tries, he honestly does.

“Rememberrrrrrrrr,” Mr Heere repeats. The clouds part, and a beam of light shines square upon his tighty-whities. “Michael Mell, you have forgotten who you arrrreeee!”

At that moment, Michael is blinded by the realization that he's pretty much doomed to save the world, and he doesn't get to peace out of his heroic duties just because he's a human being who feels stuff. Forget taking a breather while Jeremy makes his own mistakes, and super forget any possibility of extricating from a horrible situation. There’ll be none of that for Michael. It's his duty to march up to Pride Rock and prepare for battle.

Also, the conversation that Michael has with Jeremy’s dad isn't anything like in the Lion King. That's just stupid. What really happens is that Mr. Heere leaves the house for the first time since the disappearance of his esteemed wife, walks up to Michael, and demands to know if he loves Jeremy, as though he has any right to know that, when even Michael himself is deeply confused about some of the details there. Then Mr. Heere admits that he knows Jeremy needs help, but guess what? He can't do give it! Only Michael can, because only Michael knows what's going on! Amazing!!

It takes so little, to make Michael begin to hope. About two minutes into the conversation, and he's back in old patterns of trying to fix things for Jeremy. Convincing Jeremy’s dad to start dressing again, for instance, is something that Michael does. He’ll be a better friend, Mr. Heere will be a better dad, and maybe somehow everything will be better. Maybe Michael has one more chance to save Jeremy, and maybe if Jeremy can apologize… well, maybe then things can be okay again. Maybe.

Mr. Heere goes to Kohl’s to buy pants, and Michael goes to his basement to prepare. In this case, preparing means sitting on his bed, clutching a liter of Mountain Dew Red for a good twenty minutes, and trying to steady his breathing. As the panic passes, however, a sense of resolve comes over Michael, similar to the energy he'd felt getting ready for the that heinous party. He's not going to go into this like some scared, desperate loser, that's for sure. He's going to be like Kalewar the Zombie Slayer, from Apocalypse of the Damned. He's going to make his entrance, and show that Squip whose boss.

Chapter Text

Michael Makes an Entrance: Expectations VS Reality.

Expectation:

Michael makes an entrance! He finds Jeremy backstage after the play is over. He looks tired and scared. He glances up at Michael, tears and recognition shining in his eyes.

“Dude,” he says. “I'm so sorry. I've been an asshole to you these last couple of months because the Squip is controlling my mind and body. I would never willingly do or say the things that I've done and said, but I'm still so sorry for ever swallowing that dumb iPhone knock off, and for hurting you. I acknowledge that I hurt you a lot, and promise nothing like this will ever happen again. You’re my favorite person, and I love you. I just wish there was a way to get the Squip out of my brain.”

Michael sits down next to him, looping an arm over its shoulder. “I won't lie, Jer. It's been tough, but I forgive you and want to help. Here, drink this. My sources say it’ll kill the Squip.”

“You’re the best,” Jeremy says, as Michael hands the bottle of Mountain Dew Red over to him. He drinks deeply, then rests his head on Michael’s shoulder, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Is it…?” Michael ventures.

“Yeah, man. It's totally gone. Just like it was never there. Wanna go to my place and play Apocalypse of the Damned?”

Michael agrees. They get back to Jeremy’s house to find Mr. Heere wearing pants, cooking dinner, and on the phone making doctor and psychologist appointments for Jeremy. For what feels like the first time in decades, everything is okay.

Reality:

Michael makes an entrance! He just hopes he isn't too late. Jeremy has somehow squipped the entire cast of a Midsummer’s Nightmare, right up to and including Mr. Reyes. This all could have been avoided if Michael had just forced the Red down Jeremy’s throat on Halloween instead of being a wimp about insults! The only thing carrying Michael forward now is false bravado, lack of choice, and a thin shred of hope that maybe Jeremy will still apologize, and they’ll get that fucking computer out of his brain, and somehow everything will be okay.

The battle starts like this:

 

And ends like this:

In the middle, there’s lots of weird zombie bullshit, a regrettable and badly timed attempt to just get Jeremy to fucking say he's sorry, and tons of chances for Michael to try his kickboxing YouTube video moves, plus a whole host of other stuff he'd only ever seen in video games and never expected to do himself. Adrenaline is one hell of a drug, because whoah, Michael kinda rocks the whole fighting thing.

Nobody dies, and it's a wonder. Jeremy’s prognosis when he first gets carted away in the ambulance is anything but certain. Michael’s throat is raw from screaming, and it's a mystery how somehow in the midst of that he got his brain and his hands to work well enough to let him call 911.

The Squips do get deactivated, so that's a plus. Objectively it's the most badass thing that Michael has ever done, but also the scariest.

Actually, it's the second scariest. Sitting by Jeremy’s bedside afterwards, not knowing when or if he will wake up is comparatively understated, but way scarier. And it lasts for days. So for days, as Michael sits there, he tries to stretch out the events of the play and the events proceeding it into a more comprehensible narrative, but he fucking can't do it. He knows that he met Jeremy in preschool, and then they raised a pet rock together, and then high school and middle school were terrible, and then Jeremy ate a computer, and then there were zombies, and now Jeremy’s chances of survival are stuck at an an indeterminate percentage that is not 100. The thing with the play was that it happened so fast, all bursts and images, and now Michael doesn't know what to do, except stick by Jeremy like he always has.

Chapter Text

Poetic Interlude that is NOT Actually Part of the Story

my name is germe
i am alive
i want to do
moar than survive
and since i want
to be moar hip
i’ll spend my cash
to lik the squip

my name is squip
i’ll make you kühl
i’ll help you take over
the schül
chrysteen you’ll date
we’ll find a way
to seal her fayt
we’ll squip the play

my name is mike
im super gay
and wen its time
to save the day
i do not fret
or lose my hed
for geremy
must lik the red

my name is squip
ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha
you can't defeet
the lyks of me
i’ve taken over
geremy

my names christine
i drink the red
the chayne reaction
from my head
kills all the squips
a happy end
yet now we have
one worried friend

Chapter Text

There is a plaque outside of Beth Israel, bronze with gold lettering, informing guests of the hospital’s illustrious history. Michael knows it well. He has a routine of reading it three or four times before walking in, to ground himself in calming minutiae before going inside. The place opened in 1891, and had only twenty beds. Forty Jewish investors bought a building at twenty-five cents a piece, and started treating patients. It's cool, and like hella inspiring, how these people founded an entire hospital before the internet existed, let alone readily available electricity in private houses. In 1891, orange carrots also hadn't yet been invented. Carrots were usually white, or purple. The whole orange carrot thing was a genetic mutation. The world of 1891 had been a completely different place with weirdly colored carrots, and yet a bunch of bros had made a hospital that still existed today.

Luckily, 1891 is mega over, because if not, then Squip casualties would take more than a quarter of the hospital space. Also, Jeremy wouldn't be on medicine and oxygen therapy to reduce the swelling in his brain, so he could wake the fuck up. He'd be dead.

There are 398 tiles on the floor of the room that Jeremy is moved to once the doctors get him stable (if an honest to god fucking coma can be called stable). There's a crack on tile number 273, and a scuff in the corner of 231. Those two tiles are Michael’s favorites, because they aren't eerily perfect. The curtains are eerily perfect. They are green. They have a texture, but it's not a very distinct texture. There are too many trees looming outside, staring in the window like an encroachment of funeral flowers on steroids. The walls are white. Hospital white, with no spiderwebs or water marks or anything. There are 12 long fluorescent lightbulbs on the ceiling. The smell in the room is searingly antiseptic, over a layer of stagnant sickness, with notes of something which is trying (and failing) to be aggressively odorless.

There are wheels on the bottom of Jeremy’s bed, and a silver railing on either side. There are scratches on the wheels. The blankets are white. The sheets are white. The pillows are white. The machines make computerized beeps and boops, which aren't so different from the sounds in an old school video game, except for their perfectly timed and unmelodic intervals. The IV fluids are the same color as crystal Pepsi, and they lead into blue veins that are starting to look bruised. Those veins circulate like wires through the sickly white of a body which belongs to Jeremy.

Time passes weirdly in hospitals. Mr. Heere spends a lot of time telling Michael that he doesn't understand what happened, and trying to feed Michael cups of coffee, which he doesn't like. In turn, Michael tells Mr. Heere that Jeremy swallowed some nanotechnology, and it kind of went to shit.

“…That’s exactly what he said happened,” Mr. Heere says, when Michael finishes his story. “I should have believed him.”

“Old people don't understand technology,” Michael replies, as if it is an undeniable fact. He wants to absolve Mr. Heere of some of the guilt he must be feeling, because he's afraid if he doesn't, Mr. Heere’ll rip off his clothes or something, and Michael will have to figure out on his own what to do with a maybe brain-damaged Jeremy. The last thing he wants to do is make Mr. Heere feel culpable for this whole mess, and chase him away in the process.

“And you say the computer tried to take over the school, and then you deactivated the it using Mountain Dew Red? Can you explain to me how exactly that worked, son?”

“Old people don't understand technology,” Michael repeats.

———————-

Jeremy’s roommate is Rich, who is also in a coma, plus a full body cast. It makes him a lot less intimidating. That's not to say Michael would be totally surprised if he jumped up, shouted some homophobic slurs, and took advantage of Jeremy’s helpless state to draw dicks on his face in sharpie. Michael keeps a close eye on Rich.

The cast of a Midsummer’s Nightmare starts to wake up. Chloe is first, because that girl is apparently bullet proof. Her absolute refusal to stay put in her hospital bed and give herself time to recover is a story that makes its rounds throughout the nurses. Michael hears two of them, who have come to attend to Rich, whisper things about ‘unlawful confinement’ and threats of lawsuit. Chloe walks out of the hospital after one day, looking more like a movie star than a girl who is wearing sunglasses because the light hurts her eyes. Michael figures that's the end of her Beth Israel stint. Two hours later, Michael catches a glimpse of her through the window, walking back in with a basket of yellow flowers which is almost too big for her arms. She’s there with Brooke when she wakes up. They both stop by Jeremy’s room before they leave.

“I only just saw your text, wishing me luck in the play,” Brooke says. She's never seemed awkward before, but she does now. “So thanks for that.”

“Kind of offended that you texted Brooke and not me,” Chloe says. “What the hell was that about, Michael?”

“His name is Mitchel.”

“The point still stands. Anyway, Mitchel, next time text both of us. Especially with updates on how Germ is doing.”

“He’ll be fine,” Brooke says, her voice quieter than Chloe’s. She takes a flower out of the basket she's holding, and puts it on Jeremy’s nightstand. She hands another to Michael. She starts to give one to Mr. Heere, but freezes, flower hanging uncertainly in the air between them, before she crushes it into her pocket.

Mr. Heere remains silent throughout he whole exchange. In all fairness, Michael doesn't say much either, but he's the kind of quiet where he's listening, and Mr. Heere is the kind of quiet that means the only thing he's registering are the machines and the sound of Jeremy’s breathing.

“If two of the people who had Squips already woke up, Jeremy probably will too,” Michael tells him. Finding his voice is difficult, like searching for something that's been submerged in deep water. He speaks anyway, because it's what he has to do.

Mr. Heere doesn't answer.

————————

Mr. Reyes is the next to wake up, followed in close succession by Jenna Rolan, and then Rich. Michael is there to see Rich spring into the land of the living. He hears some groaning first. And then a soft “hello” that makes his stomach lurch uncomfortably, even though it's not like Rich can do anything.

“Is anybody there?”

Michael moves his chair to the side of Jeremy’s bed that is closest to Rich, putting his body between Jeremy and their long time bully, just in case.

“Antisocial headphones kid? Is that you?”

There's something off about Rich’s voice, a toothy whistling around the th’s and the s’s, that takes Michael a minute to figure out, but when he does his face scrunches up with rage and disgust.

“Look, Mell, I’m sorry I called you that.”

Seriously, fuck Rich so much. You’d think if he was going to make making fun of Jeremy for having a speech issue the very first thing he did upon waking up, at least he could get the right one.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Michael informs him coldly.

“What?”

“It s-s-sounds m-m-more like th-th-this.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“What I'm talking about is how you should fucking cool it with the fake lisp!” Michael all but shouts.

Rich laughs. He laughs and laughs and laughs, until he cuts off with a moan of pain. “Get the nurses to get me some goddamned painkillers before I die,” he says. Michael just stares. He stares long enough for it to strike him that Rich waking up and not being dead means that statistically five out of eight people have come to after being in a similar state to Jeremy. Those are good statistics. Letting one of them die would add a scary element to those statistics. Michael finds a nurse.

—————————-

Michael’s mom makes a rule that he can't stay in the hospital over night. There's no sneaking out, because the minute she finds out that Jeremy is in the hospital and what state he's in, it's like all of her latent mom instincts kick into gear and she takes two weeks off work.

“I understand that Jeremy is important to you,” she tries to explain, after the fourth night of showing up at the hospital to drive Michael home.

She totally doesn't understand.

“But I won't have you making yourself sick, just because he is.”
She's bizarrely convinced that Michael is too focused on Jeremy the focus on driving, hence the whole picking him up from the hospital at night, and dropping him off in the morning thing. She even packs him lunch in a brown paper bag, complete with dunkaroos. It makes Michael feel like a little kid being sent off to a summer camp where the main activity is sitting around in a sterile time vacuum, and fearing the worst.

Other than dragging him away from his post at night, the only thing that Michael’s mom does is force him to see Dr. Murry at four o’clock each day.

“I have some concerns about my grade in creative writing,” Michael tells her on the first day, after their usual greeting. It's been a very long time since he's seen her. “And…uh… let me check my phone for my notes.”

She nods, so Michael takes out his phone, and opens the document where he keeps his psychological discussion notes. God, he hasn't updated them since early September.

“The last thing I've got here are some questions about bigotry within the Catholic Church, and whether I need to be worried about that, since my parents aren't bigots. There's… um… also something about UV rays. I think I saw a documentary that got me thinking about that. Not really worried. Just thinking. Don't remember what I was thinking.”

“Are these really the things you want to talk about?” Dr. Murry asks.

Michael takes off his glasses so that he can rub his eyes, which are aching. He pushes his hand up through his hair, then moves on to the nape of his neck, rubbing at the skin there. It feels good. Dr. Murry waits for him.

“I think I’ve formed about twelve percent of a friendship with a girl from school,” he says. “She doesn't know my name, but her name is Brooke.”

Nothing but a nod from Dr. Murry.

“Aren't you going to say something to that? You’ve been trying to get me to make friends since, like, forever. I would’ve expected at least a ‘well-done’ sticker or something.”

This gets Michael a smile, that reminds him a little of the way Mrs. Rosch looks some of the time, like she's amused but totally not patronizing. At least Michael hopes that Dr. Murry isn't being patronizing, because then he'd have to find a new psychologist, which would be a pain in the ass.

“Do you want me to get you a sticker?” Dr. Murry asks unpratronizingly.

“Dude, since when do you even have stickers? This is, like, the most sticker free office I’ve ever…”

Dr. Murry opens up one of her drawers. Out comes a clear container filled with at least fifty rolls of stickers of every description. Another container follows it, and this one has an assortment of cheap plastic toys in bright colors. She hands them both to Michael. He stares at them, open mouthed, before adjusting his glasses at the bridge of his nose.

“Okay,” he concedes. “You win.”

“I like to be prepared.”

“Can I have one of the rainbow slinkies?”

“Of course.”

Michael takes his slinky, and hands the boxes back to Dr. Murry, he tucks them back into her drawer.

“Your mother talked to me about Jeremy’s condition.”

Michael winces. “Thought I was supposed to talk about things that aren't Jeremy. Unhealthy codependency, and needing to identify other things and people in my life and all that.”

“First of all, you’ve always had every right to talk to me about anything you need to talk about. Encouraging you to branch out from talking about Jeremy doesn't mean that I expect him to stop being an important part of your life. Secondly, given the circumstances, I think you have a very valid reason for possibly wanting to talk about Jeremy right now.”

Michael lets out a shaky breath. He pushes his thumb against the coils of his newly won rainbow slinky.

“Alright,” Michael says. “So, Jeremy. Everything kinda went to hell with Jeremy, and he's not okay, and I'm not okay, and I don't know how to deal with this.”

Chapter Text

Mr. Heere starts sleeping during the day, while Michael is there to sit with Jeremy. It feels like an absence, even though he's got a hotel room five minutes from the hospital, and he's sitting with Jeremy every night.

Christine and Jake don’t wake up. Jeremy doesn't wake up either.

Rich’s headache is something to contend with. It's so strong that Michael swears that he can feel the aftershocks of it whenever he steps within ten feet of the boy. That, paired with some pretty gnarly third degree burns, conspire to keep Rich in constant need of painkillers, and therefore constantly either high as a kite, or passed out. You’d think that would be enough to put a stop to his making fun of people with lisps routine. Nope! He's dedicated to that in a way that only somebody who is high and and fixated on a certain topic can be.

It's something that Michael gets to hear all day, coming from Rich’s side of the room.

“Sycamore,” he says, followed by giggling. “Sbarros,” he says next. Rapturous laughter.
“Sexual excitement and satisfaction.” Peals of glee. It goes on and on.

“Could you please shut up?” Michael mutters after a few hours of this. Jeremy is as immobile and pale as a corpse.

“Are you saying that you seek my silence and cessation?

Michael clenches his fists. He could punch Rich. Not like Rich hasn't punched him plenty of times. Even with the full body cast, it would be fair, considering all that Rich has done to Michael.

“I'm asking you to stop.”

“I'm enjoying myself.”

“Well, it’s mean.”

“I’m not making fun of people with speech problems.”

“Yes, you are!”

“This is my voice.”

“No it isn't!”

“Listen, Mike…”

“Like listening to you ever did anybody any good?”

Rich opens his mouth. He takes a deep breath, like he's gearing up to yell something. Then he goes quiet. Michael is glad, because he's given his headphone to Jeremy, and he doesn't want to take them back to drown Rich out, especially when Jeremy needs Rich to be drowned out too. Some people in comas hear things, after all. That's an undeniable fact.

“Michael.”

Michael flips up his hood and covers his ears with his hands. It's not enough to block Rich’s voice out.

“Look,” Rich says. “I'm fucking sorry, okay?”

Michael keeps his eyes closed, until minutes have passed without Rich talking. When he looks up, Rich is staring up at the ceiling, because that's the only thing that he can do. He can't even turn his head to look out the window without getting a nurse to help him.

“How much of it was you, and how much was the Squip?” Michael asks dully. He turns back towards Jeremy, and keeps his eyes trained on him.

“Got hard to tell where I ended and it began, after a while.”

“But what about that time you licked my neck. Was that you or the Squip?”

“Aaah, yeah. That one was me.”

Michael wraps his arms around himself.

“The Squip started it,” Rich clarifies. “He's the one who told me to make you have a meltdown or whatever. It gets to the point where you want to do what it wants you to do. So you take some initiative, y’know?”

“I don't know.”

“But you want to,” Rich guesses. “How else are you gonna excuse your boyfriend over there for half the shit he pulled?”

There's a lump in Michael’s throat.

“Could you not call him my—”

“Yeah. No problem,” Rich interrupts, way too amiably. “Old habits. Those computer chips can be fucking homophobic. It's like they’re all stuck in a teen movie from the 80’s or some shit.”

“I want to know how much free will you had when that thing was on,” Michael says. He's trying to sound assertive, so Rich will have to tell him.

“Starting right in with the hard questions,” Rich says. There's something tight behind his flippancy.

Michael is silent, waiting.

“I don't know,” Rich admits.

“That's not helpful.”

“It could take over my body,” Rich says. “Shock me when I messed up. There were… maybe… some hard limits. Not a lot. It knew, like, that I wasn't going to poison my dad in his sleep, but it also knew not to make me, so I guess that was mutual. Not like killing my dad would have accomplished anything useful. I had some input, but I knew what it wanted, so I tried to stick within parameters. Fuck, I don't know. Funny thing is, it'd know what to say to you, but I sure as hell don't.”

“Do you think I should forgive Jeremy?”

“What, like you haven't already? Sleeping Beauty over there might not have noticed yet, but the only way to get you to leave his bedside is to drag you off kicking and screaming.”

Michael looks away, not at Jeremy and not at Rich.

“Look,” Rich says, after a pause. “If you need somebody to be pissed at, be pissed at me. God knows I deserve it"

Chapter Text

Psychologist appointments become a daily thing instead of a weekly one. That's another intervention from Michael’s mom. She wants him out of the hospital and unloading his shit on someone for an hour a day, so she goes to the hospital every afternoon, abducts Michael, sits in the car while he talks, and then drops him back off until nightfall. She considers this a compromise, since she's not preventing Michael from sticking by Jeremy, just forcing him to take breaks.

Michael wonders how similar his mom passing him off to doctor Murry is to Jeremy’s dad passing Jeremy off to him. Dr. Murry is horrified when he voices those concerns, at least insofar as professionalism will allow her to be horrified, which is to say, she doesn't run around in circles and scream or anything like that, but she does clearly disapprove.

“It's an unfair amount of pressure to put on you, as one of Jeremy’s peers,” is how Dr. Murry puts it.

Michael has a cheap paddleball thing that he got from Dr. Murry’s toy container. He's not playing it the way it's supposed to be played, because that would take a level of exuberance that is beyond him right now. Instead, he's twisting the elastic that attaches the ball to the paddle around and around the handle, and then back again.

“I can take it,” he says. “I'm seventeen.”

“You shouldn't be expected to. Caring about your friend is one thing, but Mr. Heere should be turning to other adults. That's what your mother did when she turned to me.”

Michael wants to ask Dr. Murry if he was such a mess of a kid that his parents needed extra help to raise him. He thinks he's okay. He's self-sufficient enough to be on his own for days at a time. He doesn't hurt people. He smokes a lot, but it's not like he bothers anybody while he's doing it. His grades are usually solid Bs and Cs. He's got a mega rad aesthetic.

The string that Michael has been twisting snaps. He closes his fist around the ball, and stares up at Dr. Murry.

“I think your mom could see that you were struggling, and wanted to make sure that you had every support.”

“I wasn't, actually.” Michael licks his lips. “I mean, when I first met you, before Jeremy got weird, I wasn't struggling. I know, I know, I know, co-dependance is bad and all that, but it's not like I minded, and it's not like i couldn't do things on my own, too. I didn't need a bunch of friends. I still don't feel like I need a bunch of friends. I don't like crowds, or having to explain shit, or not knowing if people are making fun of me or not.”

“But you deserve a support system, don't you?”

“Isn't that taking advantage of people? What am I supposed to do? Call up Brooke, and be like, yo yo yo it's me Mitchel your lab partner, could you come by and heal my emotional wounds?”

“Judging from what you’ve told me, you’ve all been through a shared traumatic experience.”

“Right. So we’re both kinda rough.”

“You both might need somebody to talk to. If not about the incident at the play, then in general. Think about it.”

(Michael does text Brooke after the appointment. He sits by Jeremy’s bedside, and sends her a GIF of a dog sledding. She responds with a GIF of some TV show he's never seen. Jeremy lies still and breathes.)

Chapter Text

When Michael was six years old, his mom was in a car accident. It wasn't a very bad one, but his babysitter, Stella, hadn't known how to keep her cool, so things had seemed pretty catastrophic. By the time they got to the hospital, Michael had thought his mom was probably dead, which sucked. The worst part had been being stuck in the hospital waiting room for what felt like forever. There was only so much distraction to be had reading expired parenting magazines, using Stella’s quarters to buy grainy hot chocolate, and wondering which of his mom’s possessions he'd inherit now that she was gone.

Michael had really had his eye on his mom’s plastic kitchen timer for some inexplicable, weird-little-kid reason. He'd paced and imagined all of the things he could time once his mom’s demise was official, and the timer was his. He'd paced and paced and paced, clicking his tongue in a soothing tick-tick-tick as the seconds went by, and wishing that an alarm would go off to tell him that this ordeal was done.

An hour passed before Michael was allowed to see his mom, who was bruised, but not broken or bleeding. He'd taken in the sight of her blue hospital gown, and smiled. Not only was his mom alive, but she was also wearing something he'd never seen before!

“Mommy!” he'd said. “I like your new dress!”

Cue laughing, delighted doctors, and a tearfully smiling mother.

The new dress story was one that Michael’s mom loved to tell people, but the way she told it, he was a kind, sensitive child, who’d complimented his her hospital garb, because he'd known she'd feel self-conscious about her black eye, and the bruise on her cheek. He'd never told her about the kitchen timer, and in all fairness, once the full realization of what had happened sunk in a couple days later, he'd gone through weeks of nightmares and months of fear every time she stepped inside a vehicle.

That had been Michael’s earliest experience with hospitals, not counting his own birth, which he didn't remember.

Michael's second experience with hospitals happened the day after his tenth birthday, the one that everybody but Jeremy had forgotten. He couldn't blame them for forgetting him in this case. His grandpa had been on death’s doorstep, all thanks to the many wonders of total organ failure. That had been… scary. He remembered waking up at four o’clock that morning to the sound of the phone ringing, and his mom and dad debating whether or not to bring him along to pay witness to Grandpa Mell’s grand finally. His father had thought that nine was too young, his mother had thought he needed to understand that death was a part of life, and Michael had been so deep in his inner debate over whether or not to remind them that he'd been ten for a whole twenty-four hours already, that he hadn't said a word as his parents got him out of bed and bundled into his coat. He'd just pocketed the Magic the Gathering card that Jeremy had given him, and gone to the hospital.

It hadn't been a thing like visiting grandpa at his house. For one, grandpa didn't laugh, or try to teach Michael to speak Spanish. The only sound that escaped his lips was this breathy heaving, which might have been hi hi hi repeated over and over, or might have just been a struggling body’s final attempt at breath. Either way, Michael hadn't reacted well. He'd been too scared to look at his grandpa, even when his grandpa had reached for him, and he'd nearly thrown up when grandpa kicked off his blanket to reveal spindly legs and diapers.

“I can call Stella to come take you home,” Michael’s father had said, sensing his mounting panic, even though he still hadn't said a word. That's when Michael’s hand had brushed against the card in his pocket. Maybe he could ask his dad to call the Heeres instead of Stella. Being around Jeremy always made him feel better. Then again, maybe he could stick it out. His age was in the double digits now! He should be able to cope with things.

“I wanna stay,” Michael had said hoarsely, surprising even himself. And he’d stayed. He'd stayed to watch his grandpa lurch up in recognition when the priest gave him his last rights, and to know that grandpa’s final words were no sé repeated precisely four times, as if to somebody who was not in the room. He'd stayed long enough to learn that time passed differently in hospitals than it did anywhere else on earth, and to learn that a part of waiting for somebody to die was wishing that they'd just get to it already, no matter how much you loved them, because anything seemed better than being on the edge of this strange precipice, where everything hurt, and seconds didn't move.

The story of how Michael sat so calmly by his dying grandfather’s bedside was another one that his mother liked to tell. She always talked about it as if he was so good, and noble, and brave. Only nine years old at the time! Or ten! She couldn't quite remember, except that he'd been wise and poised beyond his years. She didn't talk about how he'd had his Magic the Gathering card in his hands, or how he'd rubbed his thumb over the front of it so many times that the image had worn off. She didn't talk about how she'd threatened to throw it out in the week the followed, as he used it to get through the constant upheaval of funereal preparations, visiting estate lawyers, and grieving parents. She didn't talk about backpedaling on her threats the moment she saw his face, or the moment when she relented in her attempts to get him to speak at the funeral. Maybe she saw it as positive reinforcement, only ever talking about times in the past when he'd been brave, or mature, or cute, and erasing the rest.

——————-

Michael doesn't have his Magic the Gathering card now. His fault for setting it on fire.

He tries ticking, until Rich comments.

Or rather, he doesn't try ticking, but he ticks, and Rich totally does comment. It happens when Michael is sitting by Jeremy, feeling as if seconds aren't quite real, and the precipice is. He doesn't notice what he's doing until Rich points it out like this:

“You trying to communicate with him by Morse code over there?”

“Huh?”

“You’ve been clicking your tongue for like four hours.”

Michael stops clicking his tongue.

“Oh fuck. I wasn't trying to shut you up. You can keep clicking if you want.”

Michael doesn't.

“It's fine!” Rich says. He sounds exasperated. “Listen, I'll click with you.”

Rich starts to click. Michael clears his throat.

“Could you not do that?” Michael says. Rich stops. He sighs. They don't talk for a while.

Rich is good at breaking silences, or maybe he's just bad at dealing with them.

“Yo, Headphones.”

“What do you want?”

“Could you do me a favor?”

“Probably not.”

“What if it's not really for me?”

Michael doesn't even want to answer, except that it's good to have the distraction of another human voice.

“What is it?”

“Could you go look in on Jake for me?”

“Why? All I'm going to see is some popular jerk with a bunch of machines and IVs. I can see that here.”

“He's not…” Rich trails off, with a series of muttered curse words.

“I'd feel guilty just staring at someone I don't even know when he’s like this,” Michael says. “If I was in a coma, I wouldn't want him to visit me. Don't trust him.”

“No, no. You should totally go visit him. I can't, and nobody else is gonna. Just talk to him or some shit. It's like… if you don't talk to people while they’re like this, it decreases their chances of waking up, right?”

Michael isn't so sure. He's talked a lot about the specifics of comas with Dr. Murry, who’s good for helping him out with research without sugar coating things. They've been working a lot on coming to terms with the idea that this situation isn't hopeless, but that it really might not get better, and how that doesn't mean that Michael won't be able to come back from it even if Jeremy doesn't.

(It's a process. Michael is still suffocating, and nowhere near the point of coming up for air, but he’s doing his best. He and Dr. Murry have been going through scenarios, and role playing what to do if the worst happens, or the best happens, or something in between happens, or more weird shit goes down. Emotions are still gonna be a bitch no matter how things go, but Michael’s already starting to feel like he's lived through everything and more.)

Michael doesn't visit Jake the day that Rich asks him to, but he keeps the idea in his mind. Dr. Murry, per usual, doesn't tell Michael whether or not he should go visit Jake. Actively providing comfort to somebody who used to torment him isn't his job. He doesn't get to be an ass and use this as a time to exact vengeance of whatever, but he's not expected to play Mother Teresa to high school bullies, either.

The thing that finally makes Michael trudge down the sterile halls of Beth Israel to find Jake is Jeremy. Even passed out and totally unresponsive, Jeremy remains the catalyst for so many of Michael’s decisions. That's going to have to change, eventually. But anyway, Jeremy. Awake, he’d probably feel hella guilty that his adventures in popularity had done so much damage to Jake’s legs, and maybe his brain. He'd want somebody to go to visit him, so Michael does.

Jake’s expression, or lack there of, makes his face look like Jeremy’s. His mouth is slack in the same way, and his cheeks have the same hollowness that comes from not eating real food. It's uncanny seeing two people who have never before looked similar suddenly look alike. Michael struggles to visualize the Jake that he knew. From afar, he'd always seemed so warm, and funny, and kind whenever he interacted with his friends, the sort of person who drew others to him like moths to a flame. In practice, of course, most of Jake’s interactions with Michael had involved Jake calling Michael a freak, or shoving him out of his way if Michael dared to pass too close by in the halls. One time he'd snapped at Michael for looking at Chloe with his mouth open, just to remind him that he was so low on the high school social network that he couldn't even stare into space and breath without attracting criticism.

Michael doesn't have anything to say to Jake, but just standing there won't do anything.

“Hi,” Michael says. He thinks of his grandfather’s death rattle. He's got to say more, but what? He doesn't even know how to introduce himself to the likes of Jake. Should he call himself Mitchel? Would that ring a bell? Headphones? Jeremy’s antisocial friend?

He stares. After all, staring is caring! Or not caring, which has always been how Michael dealt with people like Jake. Pretending they didn't matter has been great for Michael’s self-confidence, but he’s already entered the room, and there's no chickening out now.

“Rich thinks if I talk to you it’ll wake you up,” Michael says. “So, if you wanna do that, here's your cue. No? Okay, well, good luck with that.”

On impulse, Michael pats Jake’s hand. Then he retreats. Job done, demon faced, back to unreality central in Jeremy’s room.

————-

Two days later, Christine and Jake both wake up within hours of each other. That improves Jeremy’s statistics, but doesn't erase the bitter taste in the back of Michael’s throat.

Chapter Text

Even awake, Christine takes longer to recover than Chloe, Brooke, Jenna, or Mr. Reyes. Her dads fawn over her. Michael has seen them around the hospital a ton, but they've looked like ghosts up until this point. Now, they've got their color back, and their smiles, though they still have dark circles under their eyes, probably because their only daughter is still piecing together basic skills, like how to drink from a cup without dropping it. It's been a week and a half since everything started, but it feels so much longer than that.

Michael is returning to his post after a visit to Dr. Murry’s, when one of Christine’s dads stops him at the hospital entrance. He's come to think of them as ‘Leather Jacket Dad’ and ‘Well Manicured Orange Beard Dad’. The one he's dealing with now is Leather Jacket Dad (LJD). Michael scrunches up his nose, and backs off. Unexpected physical contact, and an unexpected cloud of cigarette smoke will do that.

“Sorry,” LJD says.

(Maybe, Michael thinks, he ought to think of the guy as Mr. LJD Canigula. That's a more formal and appropriate way to think of somebody’s father.)

“I didn't mean to startle you,” Mr. LJD Canigula continues. “Michael, right?” He waves his cigarette. “I'll put this out. Nasty habit. I'd gone about a year without. Desperate times! Ryan hates the smell.”

Michael hates just about every smell if he's not given fair warning about it, but now isn't the time to say so. Also, he's not so sure about the Mr. LJD Canigula moniker, because it's even more syllables than Leather Jacket Dad. Maybe he should just mentally refer to the guy as Leather Jacket Dad. Or Cigarette Smoking Dad, but that makes him sound like part of an X-Files conspiracy.

“You can call me Sang.”

Crises averted, problem solved, the dude’s name is Sang, and Michael can continue.

“Um… Hi,” Michael says. “It's nice to m— I mean, shit. No. It's not nice to meet you. We’re in a hospital.”

A shrug. Silence. Awkward silence. Epic fail. Good thing hospitals are liminal spaces where nothing matters.

“Nice patch,” Sang Canigula says, with a nod towards the pride patch on Michael’s sleeve.

“You too.”

Sang Canigula does not have a patch, but Michael hopes he’ll get what he’s trying to say. Maybe he should explain it more. He should definitely explain it more.

“Metaphorically. The one in your—” Michael touches his chest. Apparently his mouth has decided that it would be appropriate to insinuate that Sang Canigula has a rainbow flag on his heart, instead of sticking to important things, like the condition of his daughter. Awesome. Time to reboot this conversation.

“Congratulations,” Michael says, “on your gay marriage and your lovely offspring, and I'm really sorry for everything that went down at the play. Is Christine okay?”

“Better every day!” Sang smiles tiredly. “From what she tells me, you played a big role in… something.”

“Something,” Michael repeats.

“Something to do with turning off an evil robotic version of Hilary Clinton, which had taken over her brain. Using the power of Mountain Dew.”

“I— ” Michael opens his mouth wide, drawing out the syllable, and then shuts it again, tightly. He hasn't thought about how to explain this to other people.

Sang gives a short laugh, like he doesn't exactly find the situation funny. “You know, it doesn't surprise me that the things Christine would hallucinate on drugs would be very political and a little out there, but it does surprise me that she would do them in the first place. Do you know anything about what happened?”

Michael shakes his head. “I'm firmly anti-drug. I was inspired at a young age by anti-drug PSAs from the 90’s to just say no. To everything, in fact. That's why I wasn't even in the play, just the audience. Jeremy asked me to try out with him, but I said no. Speaking of Jeremy, I should go back to him. Everybody is waking up, you see, more people by the day, and I wouldn't want him to wake up and have Rich be the only one there.”

Sang Canigula nods slowly. “Well,” he says. “Thank you for being where you were, and calling 911. This whole mess would have been worse if you hadn’t. I should get back to Chris, and Ryan. I imagine she’ll be by to see you soon enough. Better everyday, like I said. Our girl’s a trooper.”

Chapter Text

Jeremy wakes the next day. Rich is the only one there, which has to be some kind of cruel cosmic joke, like god was waiting for the most #ironic moment to bring all of Michael’s faithful waiting to fruition.

But still, the next day, Jeremy wakes up. Only Rich is there, but Michael gets there soon enough, and Jeremy wakes up.

Chapter Text

But before Jeremy wakes up, Christine comes to visit him and Michael in Jeremy’s hospital room. She also visits Rich, but he doesn't count, because Michael hasn't entirely reconciled himself to the existence of post-squip Richard Goranski.

Christine makes her entrance at around eight o’clock, which means about an hour before Michael’s mom comes to get him, and half an hour before Mr. Heere usually shows up to take Michael’s place. She makes her entrance in a muted way, with only a fraction of that Christine sparkle that Michael’s come to associate with her, even keeping his distance as he has. She smiles at Michael in way of greeting, and he gets up from his chair. A standing ovation for the star of the show.

“I just thought I should come see him,” Christine says. “And you. I'm thankful.”

She reaches out her hand. Michael takes it.

“I'm Michael.”

Christine's eyes widen for one incredulous second that melts into the shrewdest look Michael has ever seen.

“I can see why the two of you are friends,” she says. She gives Michael’s hand a squeeze. She releases it. “I don't think I've ever been such close friends with anybody. I don't understand teenagers.”

“Uh…” says Michael.

“You are a teenager,” Rich supplies.

“I know! That's the most confusing part of it! My dads say it's because our bodies and minds are changing rapidly. Anyway, almost starting a zombie apocalypse is a very teenagery thing to do, and one day I hope to look back on it all and laugh, but right now I feel kinda like Helen of Troy. Not in every sense, obviously, but in a ‘I was just doing my own thing and then suddenly I was catalyst for a war’ kind of way.”

“The face that launched a thousand Squips!” Rich interjects. He sounds so proud of himself. Christine covers the aforementioned face, reddening.

“That's exactly the sense that I didn't mean it in,” Christine says through her fingers. She takes a pointed breath, trying not to be flustered. She moves her hands away from her face to tug at the hem of her skirt. “Anyway. Wow. Just wow. This has all been…”

“A mess?” says Michael.

“The biggest mess. Just to be clear, in case you see them again, the story my dads are getting is that nobody knows who drugged the pansy serum, and the part where you deactivated our robot overlords using expired soft drinks was just a zany hallucination. They’re pretty calm most of the time, but losing consciousness for almost two weeks isn't really a most of the time thing. They’re just beginning to stop freaking out. Barely.”

“That's fair,” Michael says. “I mean, my mom is acting weird, and I didn't even get squipped.”

“Exactly! Mine hated you! She said you were a staunch republican, an enemy of the state, and a Trump supporter.”

“Seriously?” Michael hopes that the look he shoots Jeremy isn't too bitter. “Why didn't she just tell you that I was a loser or whatever? Like, she could’ve made you hate me without making me a total dick.”

“Mine told me that you would seduce me,” says Rich. “Do what you want with that information, since I sure as shit don't know what to make of it, in retrospect.”

“Yeah, I'll be over here, ignoring that,” Michael grumbles.

“Anyway…” Christine trails off, in a way that makes it clear that she hasn't thought out what she is going to follow that anyway with.

“Anyway?”

“I’ll see all of you around?” says Christine. “Hopefully all three of you.”

“Hopefully,” Michael repeats.

As Christine leaves, Rich lets out a low whistle. “Hate to break it to you, but Jeremy’s a lost cause.”

“Christine might still date him,” Michael protests. “I mean, he wanted her to so bad, and she wants him to wake up! That's a good sign.”

“Yeah, but if he didn't wake up at the sound of her voice, he's not going to wake up for anything.”

Chapter Text

Jeremy wakes the next day. Maybe Christine visiting is the thing that drags him (belatedly) back into the land of the living. Maybe it isn't. She's not there to see the moment when he opens his eyes any more than Michael is.

But still, the next day, Jeremy wakes up. Christine isn't there, and Michael isn't on time, and it's all so maddeningly ineffable, and Jeremy wakes up.

Chapter Text

But before Jeremy wakes up, Michael finds out just what kind of truths his mom has been hiding from him, and Jeremy too.

“I've called Jeremy’s mother, to let her know about his condition.”

She says it while she's driving Michael home from the hospital for the night, and at first he's too tired to think much of it, as he stares out the car window and squints at the street lights.

“What'd she say?”

Michael’s mom doesn't answer.

“No, I mean seriously. What’d she say? And wait, why did you know how to contact her?”

Michael sits up, his own question ringing in his ears. His mom keeps her eyes on the road.

“How much did you know?” Michael asks. “Did you know that she was going to leave? Because Jeremy had no fucking clue.”

“Language!” his mom snaps.

“Jeremy had no freaking clue. Mr. Heere had no freaking clue, and you see what it's done to him. Nobody had any contact information or anything, except apparently you did, so where is she? And why didn't you tell anybody anything?”

“Well, if you’re going to treat this like an interrogation, then I'm not going to say another word.”

And right there, in that sentence, is everything that Michael doesn't like about his mother. Sure, she's great a lot of the time, and yeah, she loves him, but she always thinks she's right, and she won't budge, especially when Michael dares to get angry with her.

True to her promise, Michael’s mother doesn't answer any of his questions the entire drive home, even as he rants at her. She manages to give him her patented you’re always wrong and I'm disappointed look for the rest of the journey, without ever looking away from the road.

Chapter Text

Jeremy wakes the next day. It's a Tuesday, and the big event happens somewhere in the area of six o’clock. His mom isn't there, obviously. In all fairness, neither is Michael, at least at first. He gets there, but not on time. Jeremy’s dad gets there too, so at least Jeremy has one parent to supervise his adventures in not being comatose. A ton of things about Jeremy’s waking life remain far from ideal.

But still, the next day, Jeremy wakes up. His dad is wearing pants, and Rich is covered in casts and bandages, and Michael is too excited to have any chill whatsoever, and Jeremy wakes up.

Chapter Text

There's one more thing that happens before Jeremy wakes up. This also happens before Michael and his mom argue in the car. Christine comes to visit for the second time that day, this time with both her dads, Jake Dillinger, and (most notably) pizza. They come in like a small parade, with Christine pushing Jake’s wheelchair in the front, and Ryan Canigula bringing up the rear, with six big Sbarro’s boxes in his arms. It disrupts the gloomy, tense atmosphere of the hospital room. Is that a good thing? Michael’s not sure. He's had so much time to become accustomed to his stomach being filled with dread that filling it up with pizza seems like an abrupt left turn.

“I was talking to my dads about how hospital food makes you feel like you’re not a person,” Christine says, in way of explanation. “Or at least like you’re not yourself. Being here feels a little bit like those stories where you step into a fairy ring, and everything is like real life, but also not. Appropriate, considering a weird version of a Midsummer Night’s Dream started it all. So, anyway, my dads said maybe we all need to feel like people again. We need to feel like kids is the way they put it.” Here, Christine stops to cast an affectionate smile at her pizza-laden fathers. “Anyways, that’s why we’re here. Behold! We come bearing gifts! You can thank us later.”

A silence follows that would have been terribly awkward in the face of anybody other than Christine. Rich looks away from them, and Michael contemplates the finer points of whether or not he’ll be able to swallow. Christine, on the other hand, carries on as if nobody is broken, and begins handing out pizza slices.

“My family is lucky,” says Christine, “in that we all favor the same pizza toppings. Those would be onion and pineapple, by the way. We talked a lot about what kind of flavors we should get to keep everybody happy, and decided to just go with onion and pineapple for all, as a symbolic gesture. Tonight we’re all family. Also, if you happen to be strongly opposed to pineapple on pizza, you’re welcome to pick it off, but just be aware I'll be silently judging you the whole time.”

Michael takes his slice, and does not pick off the pineapple. Now is not the time to oppose the heathens. Christine also places a plate at the corner of Jeremy’s bed, and as much as Michael has often found other people difficult to understand, he understands Christine’s meaning entirely; Jeremy can't eat, and probably isn't aware of what's happening, but Christine is including him anyway.

“Jeremy likes pineapple on pizza,” Michael supplies, like a good wingman.

“Yo, Chris,” Jake interrupts, “wheel me over to Rich, so I can shove some pizza down his throat.” To Rich he adds, “Seriously, bro. We’re good, and I'm gonna feed you, so don't make this weird.”

—————

The night progresses. Ryan and Sang, perhaps sensing how unused to pizza parties in hospitals Michael is, sit next to him and tell the story of how they met. According to Sang, he was once a muscular lifeguard who saved Ryan from drowning, only to accidentally woo him via the powers of mouth to mouth resuscitation. It's one of those things that seems legit enough to Michael, until both men are losing there shit laughing. Sang starts his own story, about being a fireman who carried Ryan out of a burning building, with the finesse of somebody who has told this tale many times, only to look over at Rich and Jake, cover his mouth, and blurt out the truth about how he and Ryan met online.

Jake is determined that Rich being covered from head to toe in bandages and essentially immobile is not going to stop him from enjoying his pizza. Judging from the brazen way Rich jokes and pretends to flirt with the nurses who come in to help him with stuff, Michael would have guessed that the guy had absolutely no shame. Judging from Rich’s tense, hasty whispers that Jake shouldn't be trying to take care of him after everything, Michael isn't so sure. Rich and Jake interact like they are good people who care about each other, which is even more incongruous to Michael, who has never known them to be anything but out to get him.

The Feeding of Richard Goranski is something of a train wreck, though. There’s nothing visibly wrong with Jake's arms or hands, but he drops pizza on Rich at least three times, and hits Rich’s nose instead of his mouth even more times than that.

“Stick more pizza in my nostrils,” Rich jokes. “I wanna be able to smell it later to commemorate this… whatever this is.”

“Motor skills, man.” Jake says, as he manages to guide the pizza from Rich’s nose to his mouth successfully.

“Mine are almost back to normal,” Christine says. “Check it out.” She touches the tip on her nose with her left hand, and then her right, in quick succession. “Oh, but have I told you all how I can see auras now? Pretty cool, right? Like, Michael, yours is red. Very red. Like super vibrantly red. It suits you.”

“I've been getting that too,” Jake says.

Michael looks down at his arm, half expecting to see the aforementioned aura, but all he can see is his hoodie.

“Rich’s is white,” Jake continues. “Jeremy’s too. And hey, Christine, yours is green! It even matches your dress.”

“You sure you two aren't just seeing, like, reflections from our clothing or whatever?” Rich asks.

“Nah, these are auras,” Jake says.

“Totally auras,” Christine agrees. “My dads are black and grey respectively.”

“Sort of like their clothing,” Rich points out.

“Sort of like their souls.”

Sang raises an eyebrow at this. “Honey, remember what we said about not pointing out the blackness in my soul to others?” he says, with a glance down at his decidedly black leather jacket.

“At least,” muses Christine, “the blackness won't be in your lungs, once you re-quit smoking.” She smiles sweetly. Michael wonders if this is what things are always like in their household.

Chapter Text

Jeremy wakes up.

Jeremy wakes up.

Jeremy wakes up on Tuesday at six o’clock. The words keep repeating over and over in Michael’s mind, like a heartbeat— steady, life-affirming, and vital.

Jeremy wakes up on Tuesday at six o’clock. The fact replays, like a stammer, a single syllable uttered again and again, until words are lost and the sentences that come before and after start to unravel. There needs to be a different way of saying things, a way of chasing clarity.

Jeremy wakes up on Tuesday at six o’clock, and Michael isn't ready to make a coherent narrative of it yet. He knows that a lot of shit went down to get them to this place where Jeremy can re-enter the story, but even Michael’s best attempt at processing it just dredges up a jumble of disordered events from the previous day. Michael also knows that there is a lot of shit still to come, but he's not ready to face it yet. Jeremy is awake. That's everything. He wakes up on Tuesday at six o’clock.

On the day (Tuesday) that Jeremy wakes up (at six o’clock), Michael gets dropped off from what feels like a particularly unproductive meeting with Dr. Murry. Things have been going on too long. The air outside the hospital isn't any different than usual. Michael stops to read the plaque. He ticks as he scans the words. He goes inside. The secretary at the front desk, where they've long since taken to ignoring him, stands up. She's beaming.

“You’re here!”

Michael doesn't answer her. His heart leaps to his throat, and he takes off down the hallway. It's a wonder that he doesn't collide with anybody. There's no shortage of damage for him to do, from doctors carrying equipment, to people in wheelchairs and on crutches, to an old man in a stretcher.

“Calm down,” somebody tells him right outside the door of Jeremy’s room. It's a nurse, who he half recognizes. She puts her finger to her lips, and her hand on Michael’s shoulder. Michael can just make out Rich’s voice, and Jeremy’s. He his whole body is vibrating.

Also, Rich is totally bisexual. That's what he's telling Jeremy. The nurse nudges Michael towards the door. Rich is still talking about how he's bisexual, like it's a big deal. The words cool epiphany, nobody gives a shit about you are on the tip of Michael’s tongue, but Rich looks blissed out, and Jeremy is awake, which makes Michael happy too, so instead of being an ass to Rich, he just wishes him luck and closes the curtain to block him out.

Then Michael and Jeremy are alone. Jeremy’s eyes are blue, and familiar, and and as unfocused as a newborn’s for a second, until they lock with Michael’s. He's still pressed to the bed, too pale even for him, amongst blankets and wires. Michael takes a step back, and then a step forward, and another.

“What happened?” Jeremy asks. His voice is hoarse from lack of use, but for the first time in so long, it's his own. “All I remember is noise and…”

And now it's time for the awesome sci-fi explanation that Michael’s had time to develop, just in case it turned out that he was successful in saving the world and didn't make Jeremy’s literal brain explode.

“Oh man, it was genius! They were communicating with each other! They were linked! Which means… when you consider the kind of high frequency sonic disturbance needed to wipe out a system that powerful…”

Words and words and words. Jeremy winces. Right. Michael hasn't been regulating his volume.

“My head still hurts,” Jeremy confirms, and it’s the still that gets Michael, because even if Jeremy had opened his eyes at the exact moment that Michael let his mom drive him away, he can't have been awake for more than two hours. Why are they even talking right now? And if Jeremy isn't up for talking yet, what should Michael be doing instead?

“Right. Ah…” Michael looks down at Jeremy, and unable to decide on any other course of action, he barrels through with his previous explanation. “Turns out you didn't have to destroy every Squip. Just one. And then…” Michael grabs the table next to Jeremy’s bed, shaking it violently, like an explosion.

It’s all boom, boom, boom until Michael realizes that Jeremy is wincing again, and drops what he's doing. He's been around Jeremy when he was hurting before, and he's helped. Why can't he do that now?

Michael stills. Jeremy’s expression slowly goes from recoiling to something more akin to taking Michael in, really and truly scrutinizing every inch of him. Against the blankets, Jeremy’s fingers twitch once, and then stop.

“I don't get it,” Jeremy says. “After everything I did, you were still there for me. Why?”

The official word on that is that it has a lot to do with love. He and Mr. Heere had the whole big talk about it (and also pants). Seems a lot more complicated now, with the real Jeremy looking at Michael as if he's simultaneously afraid of him and afraid that he might disappear.

“I can't take all the credit,” Michael says weakly. “Let's just say your dad can be shockingly persuasive.”

“My…”

The door opens. Mr. Heere comes in. Not only that, but he's clothed and keeping his shit together, even in the face of a Big Deal event, which is honestly more than Michael ever expected of him, and exactly what everybody needs right now.

“Jeremy? Are you okay?”

Jeremy looks his dad over, and finds the energy to sit up. “Actually, I'm great.”

Michael doesn't know anymore if he was planning on being angry at Jeremy, or demanding some kind of atonement for the things he's done. He does know that he can't be. Not with Jeremy looking so happy and relieved just from seeing that his dad has put pants on.

They talk for a while, mostly about Christine, until Jeremy begins to get less responsive, which is to be expected. Exploding technology in his brain and all. The doctors also come in, to talk to him, perform some tests, and figure out what he needs. Michael can't do much else but wonder at Mr. Heere’s quiet patience, and seeming competence as he explains things to Jeremy, and gets the doctors to turn down the lights for him. Michael’s so accustomed to being the person that Jeremy needs most, that it's strange to see somebody else take on that role. He texts his mom to come and get him early, and sits down in a chair in the far corner of the room, away from Jeremy, Mr. Heere, and Rich,

“I’ll come by soon?” Michael offers, before he leaves. His throat tightens when Jeremy doesn't answer right away, because what if he doesn't answer at all? Then Jeremy nods.

Before Jeremy woke up, Christine came to visit him.

Before Jeremy woke up, Michael’s mom revealed that she knew how to contact his mother.

Before Jeremy woke up, Christine’s dads staged a bedside pizza party.

Lots of things happened before Jeremy woke up. Tons more things happened before he was out in the first place.

Today, he can nod.

Today, Michael can't bring himself to touch him.

Today, there are a ton of things to worry about, and at least a few to hope for.

Jeremy wakes up on Tuesday at six o’clock. The fact keeps repeating over and over in Michael’s mind, like a stammer or a heartbeat.

Chapter Text

A Graph of Michael and Jeremy’s Emotional State Over the Course of this Fic

alternate title: meta break / chapter in which the author stops actually writing the story in order to dump some thoughts about the story, with illustrations

Analysis

Michael’s overall mood veers towards okay, and even cheerful, with occasional intense crashes. The most visible ones seen in this graph represent the second grade Crayon Shavings Incident, the time Rich licked his neck, and Michael in the Bathroom. Jeremy being squipped, comatose, and everything else also isn't good for Michael.

Jeremy is anxious and on edge most of the time. Freaking out is his okay and all. During his time with the Squip, he's emotionally scrambled, with intense highs and lows that seem to happen at the same time, and it’s all a confused tangle, but he's also not entirely feeling it. Overall, still better than normal. Or maybe not. At least the Squip wants him to believe it's better than normal. Then he's in a coma, and not feeling much of anything. Now he's back, and has yet to really land on any one emotional state.

Chapter Text

Jeremy being awake doesn't change things much, at least at first. Michael goes to the hospital every day, albeit for less hours than before. Jeremy is tired, and Michael finds it hard to watch him sleep without waking him up every fifteen minutes or so, just to make sure that he still can wake up. Jeremy has a wicked headache that he can't shake off. He's uncoordinated, which isn't in and of itself unusual, but his first time trying to drink a slushee results in him poking himself in the eye with the straw, and then dropping it, which is a bit much even for him.

Rich roars with laughter. Jeremy stares at his mess as though trying to decide what he thinks of it, before joining in with a hesitant laugh of his own. Michael moves to help him with the rest of it, but then stops. He can't make himself touch Jeremy. Mr. Heere picks up the slack (and the slushee cup).

Christine and Jake also had major coordination problems when they first woke up, but they’re fine now. It is known. Michael tells Jeremy, who still gets red and a certain kind of flustered at any mention of Christine. It's reassuring. Sometimes talking about her makes him despondent. That's less reassuring.

Michael talks about her a lot even so.

Michael talks about Christine because Michael needs space.

That's something that he's discussed with Dr. Murry. Now that Jeremy’s big crisis is over, Michael wants to be around him and be bros and all that, but he also needs some non-Jeremy time to process, and get back to feeling like himself, especially because he doesn't know how to explain what Jeremy has to do to regain his trust, and he honestly doesn't want to require anything from Jeremy until he's well, or at least semi-functional again. Nothing screams bad time to demand apologies like realizing that a friend you’ve known since preschool needs his dad’s help to use the bathroom.

So Michael talks about Christine. Jeremy watches him, usually silently, as he goes on and on about Christine. Michael talks about how Christine is like them, so like them that he can't even describe it. Michael talks about how Christine is pretty and has a nice smile. He talks about how Christine is totally fine right now, so Jeremy shouldn't worry about her, just date her. He talks about the impromptu pizza party, and the meaningful and undeniably romantic slice left on Jeremy’s bedside table.

(This gets a response from Jeremy. A very excited outburst of, “I love pineapple pizza!” followed by a lot of laughter all around, because of all the things to get a reaction out of Jeremy, of course it had to be pineapple pizza.)

(“You’re wrong,” Michael answers. Usual banter. Funny stuff. Jeremy startles as if he's expecting Michael to hit him, and Michael can't deal with that, so he talks about Christine.)

Jeremy gets brain scans and MRIs. Michael talks to him about Christine.

Mr. Heere shuts down for a day, after receiving a package of insurance paperwork and divorce papers in the mail from his soon to be ex-wife. He asks Michael to explain to Jeremy, because he can't, but Michael can't either, so he talks about Christine.

(He also kinda accidentally tells Jeremy that this stupid ‘get well soon’ teddy bear that his mom sent him was from Christine, which, yikes. Biiig communication failure there.)

Jeremy sees a physical therapist once, before Mr. Heere realizes that that's not in their budget. They are quickly approaching the point where nothing is in their budget. Michael talks about Christine.

Jeremy comes back from some tests sporting an open-back hospital gown, that reveals a series of lightning shaped scars crawling up his spine, and Michael makes him promise that he’ll ask Christine on a date. No chickening out now! Especially when everything they've both been through has been leading up to this moment.

Michael remembers that he maybe had a thing for Jeremy before the Squip. He redoubles his efforts to make sure that Jeremy ends up with Christine. It's the right thing to do. Jeremy needs it. Michael needs it. Christine might not precisely need it, but she certainly deserves to have a boyfriend that cares about her the way that Jeremy does.

If there is a part of Michael which does not want Jeremy to date Christine, or that is worried that Christine won't be as gung-ho about this plan as he is, he ignores it.

————

Jeremy’s physical recovery is objectively fast, considering what he's gone through, but it feels slow to Michael. Michael’s mom mom decides to send him back to school two days into it, and school without Jeremy is hard. It's also taken on a unique brand of unfamiliarity, that is objectively Jeremy’s fault. For one thing, teachers who used to ignore Michael and let him fade into the background are suddenly intent on involving him in the class. For another, people have a lot of questions about Jeremy, who has somehow achieved his lifelong goal of popularity through the power of becoming a major dickwad for a few months, and then almost dying. Actually, on Michael’s first day back, the rumor is that Jeremy did in fact die, and even with him, Christine, Chloe, Jenna, and Brooke to say otherwise, there are still more than a few people who cling to the notion of Jeremy’s demise.

Christine, Chloe, Jenna, and Brooke are another thing that makes Michael feel like he's walked into a mirror universe, where the aesthetics of day to day life are more or less the same, but the realities have changed. By the time lunch rolls around on his first day back at school, Michael is already feeling a little like a hunted animal, in the face of all the questions and attention his been getting.

Then Chloe Valentine invades his table in the cafeteria. She sits down across from him, all perfect hair and predatory stare, and noxious bubblegum perfume.

“You chew with your mouth open,” she informs him. “Nobody wants to see that.”

Michael freezes. Their eyes are lock, and holy fuck, she’s exactly like that snake from the Jungle Book movie.

“You also breathe with your mouth open,” Chloe continues.

“It's a valid way of breathing,” Michael says. It breaks the spell. And he's right. It is a valid way of breathing. It's so valid that he breathes harder.

“Do you want my jello?” Chloe asks. “I hate it.”

Michael nods, and she slides it over to him. Hopefully it's not poisoned. Michael finds himself thinking about how Jeremy would always narrate the things that popular people did, absolutely perplexed at how they could get away with half of it, while he and Michael could barely get away with blinking the wrong way. As much as Michael had tried not to pay too much mind to those conversations, they seem particularly relevant now. He's sure that if he took an unwanted seat across from another student and started to criticize their chewing habits, he'd be accused of gross social ineptitude, but nobody would ever call Chloe Valentine socially inept.

Christine is the next to arrive at the lunch table. She sits right next to Michael. “‘Sup?” Her voice is low, and Michael wonders if the greeting is meant to be a joke, or an attempt at seeming casual about how she’s just invited herself into Michael’s lunch and maybe his whole life out of nowhere with no proper explanation. She smiles at Michael, bumps shoulders with him, and starts in on her sandwich.

Brooke and Jenna are next.

“Mitchel!” Brooke greets him. Jenna turns, presumably to correct her, but Christine gets there first.

“Actually, it’s Michael.”

“No. It's Mitchel.” Brooke turns to Michael for confirmation, who shrugs.

“His name is totally Michael,” Jenna verifies. “Michael Bernardo Mell.”

“I mean, yeah, kind of.” Michael doesn't know whether to be more worried about the look Brooke is giving him, or the fact that Jenna knows his middle name.

“Jeremy called you Mitchel,” Brooke argues.

“Seriously? I mean, well, you know…” Michael taps his temple.

“You wrote Mitchel on our lab reports!”

“It just kind of seemed like the thing to do.”

“Oh my god! You could've told me your name.”

“Michael played you,” Jenna says. “He played you good.” She takes a somehow contemplative sip of her chocolate milk. Chloe whispers something in Brooke's ear.

“My middle name is Margret,” Christine says. “Hey, what if we go around in a circle and everyone says their middle names, since we’re all friends now?”

Jenna snorts, like she finds this funny, but apparently she's game, because she starts. “Hi, I'm Jenna Rose Rolan, and I'm a recovering Squipaholic.”

“Bernardo,” Michael chokes out, even though everybody already knows, thanks to Jenna.

“Chloe Amber Valentine, and fuck you Jenna, it was ecstasy, and you only ever took it once.”

“I'm Brooke Samantha Lohst, and…”

“You sure as hell aren't,” Chloe interrupts, to which Brooke turns to Michael with the very most intense of stares.

“As far as he knows I am.”

The oddest thing about it all, is that Michael is smiling. If somebody had told him months ago that he'd go through about the worst emotional crash of his life, and the thing that would release some of the knots in his stomach would be a popular girl refusing to tell him her name, he would have never believed it, but that's where he's at.

—————

Michael’s next class is astronomy. Brooke walks him to it.

“Dr. Amorosi switched out my lab partner for Robert Snark,” she says. “But now that you’re back, I’m going to try to get us reinstated. Robert’s like, really good at science, but he doesn't even give me a chance to do anything. Asshole.”

“Oh,” Michael says. “At least more or less equally sucking works in our advantage.”

“It's not that I want to do astronomy, but it pisses me off when somebody tries to imply that I can't. Seriously. I think that's called reverse psychology?”

Michael nods.

“Oh. I've been meaning to tell you something,” Brooke says. “It's… like… while I was high at the play, Taylor Swift told me that I need to open up to people, like share my secrets and shit so…”

Michael’s eyes widen. “I thought it was Hilary Clinton? Christine said it was Hilary Clinton.”

“Christine's weird.”

Michael pushes his hands up through his hair. He needs to handle this without getting hung up on details. “Right. So, it doesn't matter whether you saw Hilary or Taylor. Just as long as she didn't fuck you up too bad. Other than the coma. I mean, shit. She's gone, right?”

“Yeah, but you’re kind of missing the point.”

“Did she also tell you not to talk to me?”

“She said that you pirate all of your music, and don't support artists.”

“Do you not? Pirate music, I mean.”

“Michael!” Brooke steps in front of him, so he has to look at her and stop walking. “There's something I've been wanting to tell you since I first met you.”

“Oh. Okay. Shoot.” Michael looks around him. The volume of Brooke’s voice, and the look she's giving him, were enough to draw a small audience. Brooke notices too.

“Never mind,” she huffs. “You, Michael Bernardo, have no discretion, and it's going to be the death of me.”

(That evening, while Michael is hanging out the hospital with Jeremy and his headache, Brooke texts him that she's bisexual and has a crush on Chloe. Michael’s glad that she texts, because if she'd just told him in the hallway, he might have blanked. Faced with the same confession on the screen of his phone, he's able to do the appropriate thing, and send her a series of eight purple, pink, and blue unicorn gifs in quick succession. She assures him that she appreciates it. It's a good distraction. Jeremy’s mouth starts to bleed, because he's chewed up the inside of his cheek.)

Chapter Text

“Ask Jeremy why he was out for so long,” Rich says, as Michael comes into Jeremy’s hospital room. He's got his backpack slung over his shoulder, so that he can pretend he's going to do some homework while he's there. Paying approximately his normal amount of attention to Rich, Michael puts the bag down on the floor, and takes his seat next to Jeremy. The word ‘RIENDS” stares up at Michael from where Rich wrote it almost two and a half months ago. The ink is fading, but permanent marker never fades entirely.

“I’m serious,” Rich says. “Ask him. You’ll love it.” Rich is grinning like they've been having an animated conversation, and Michael grits his teeth. Since when does Jeremy tell Rich things before he tells Michael? Also, since when does Jeremy talk and laugh with Rich, then bury his head in the pillow and look tragic as soon as Michael gets in?

Michael reaches out to tousle Jeremy’s hair, and then stops himself just in time. No doing that now. His hand hangs in the air. Jeremy’s eyes are half closed, but he sees, Michael is sure of it. He lets his hand drop, and grips the edge of his chair to keep it from betraying him again.

“Why were you out so long?” Michael asks.

A grunt. Jeremy rolls over so that he can give Rich the middle finger, and great, now Michael is jealous of Jeremy flipping another guy off, but he has a right to be. Why is he even here, if Jeremy is going to block him out?

“It's hilarious,” Rich continues, oblivious.

“It's not,” Jeremy says.

“What is it?” asks Michael.

Finally, he gets an answer from Jeremy, muttered into the folds of his pillow. “I dreamt there was a clock ticking, and every time the alarm went off, I’d throw it against the wall.”

“Wonder what that could’ve been,” Rich says. Asshole. Michael ignores him. Well, Michael mostly ignores him. The little voice in Michael’s head that insists he should have been saying the right words to wake Jeremy up instead of clicking his tongue at him like some kind of deranged squirrel has a lot of opinions about the matter at hand, but that voice is about as annoying and irrelevant as Rich.

“You’re telling me you stayed out for a week and a half because you kept hitting some kind of cosmic snooze button?”

Michael is teasing Jeremy, lopsided smile and all, because teasing is their normal. Nothing could be more normal… or more forced.

“I was tired!”

“Typical.”

“Sorry.”

That smile of Michael's, already plastic, falters. “What are you sorry for?” he asks, like the jerk he is, only he doesn't know if he's being a jerk or not. Maybe he's just telling Jeremy that he doesn't have to be sorry for the whole coma thing, because god, it's not like he could help it. It's like, Michael knows that he might be asking Jeremy for a litany of all the ways he's fucked up in recent months, but he doesn't necessarily have to be.

Jeremy closes his mouth. He clams up. Michael sits on his hands, and starts suggesting possible date locations for him and Christine. He's getting to know Christine very well these days, and she has no qualms about sharing her thoughts and opinions about anything and everything for as long as anybody is willing to listen. It means that Michael has a lot of information to relay to Jeremy.

————

It's a Friday night, when Michael takes his first steps down the path of making things between him and Jeremy not suck. He's lucky that it's a Friday night, because that means he can get away with sleeping at the hospital. Sleeping at the hospital ends up being very much a thing, because those first steps? They’re freaking big ass steps.

Jeremy has a headache, which is normal. Michael reaches for him, and stops himself. Also normal. He talks about Christine.

Jeremy starts scraping at his mouth with his teeth, which is normal. Michael reminds him not to. Also normal. Michael isn't sure why he does that, only that most of the time he's eerily still except for it, but it's hurting him and making the skin flake off his lips. Michael starts to reach for him and stops himself. He talks some more about Christine.

The next time that Michael starts to reach for Jeremy, Jeremy isn't doing anything in particular, just looking at a fixed point of the wall. Before Michael can retreat, Jeremy grabs hold of his hand, and pulls it toward himself. Michael tightens. He freezes. Then he looks down at Jeremy, and sees the dark circles under the other boy’s closed eyes, and something in him unclenches. He uses his free hand to smooth back Jeremy’s hair. He's been meaning to do that forever.

He could hurt Jeremy right now. He could punch him in the nose, or go for something more subtle, like listing off all of his flaws one by one, and just walking away. Jeremy trusts him not to do that. Michael’s never given him any reason not to trust him. He rakes his hand through Jeremy’s hair again, and then just rests it there, splayed against Jeremy’s temple, and the area right below his ear. Somewhere deep inside his skull, there's deactivated speck of metal, no bigger than a SIM card. Somewhere in there is Jeremy himself. Even awake, it still feels like he's retreated to some far off corner of his mind.

“You doing okay in there, buddy?” Michael asks, in a voice that wavers, and through a tightening throat. He can see Jeremy’s own throat working, in the slight bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallows hard, several times in quick succession. It's followed by a quick gasp, which means he's crying, and that's as clear and eloquent an answer to Michael's question as any.

Michael just continues to stroke Jeremy’s hair. When Jeremy’s body tightens, and he buries his head in the pillow, not even breathing in his attempt to stop, Michael rubs circles in his back and shoulder, and whispers for him to relax, to take in some air, to stop fighting so hard. Michael’s the only one there, after all, except for Rich, who had the decency to close his eyes and pretend to be asleep the moment that Jeremy started to crumble.

Without really thinking about what he’s doing, Michael finds himself kicking off his shoes, and climbing into bed next to Jeremy. He puts his arms around Jeremy, but he's already managed to stifle his tears, and Michael should have known better. Climbing into bed with Jeremy because he's crying and needs Michael there with him is one thing, but superfluously stealing half of Jeremy’s hospital bed is another thing entirely. The only thing is that Jeremy is still holding Michael’s hand. He hasn't let go. Then Jeremy reaches up to stroke Michael’s hair, the same way Michael was doing for him, and Michael doesn't cry, but he makes a distressed noise in the back of his throat, and pulls Jeremy tightly to him.

“Try to relax,” Jeremy whispers Michael’s own words back at him. His voice is too thick with emotion to be soothing, but his hand feel nice where it come to rest, at the nape of Michael’s neck. He leans into Michael’s haphazard embrace, which feels nice too. Michael can hardly remember the last time he willingly hugged anybody that wasn't Jeremy, other than perfunctory greetings and goodbyes, usually with relatives who lived in other countries. He doesn't think he's touched another person since late September, before he took Jeremy to buy that dumbass tic-tac. And usually Michael is okay with not being a very tactile person with the world at large, and saving that for Jeremy, but right now it's been so long that Michael feels like all of the sensation in his body is concentrated under Jeremy’s fingers, and at the place around his collarbone where Jeremy’s breath his hitting his neck.

“Are you doing okay in there?” Jeremy asks, once again throwing Michael's own words back at him. He scratches his fingers through Michael’s hair, and it's all that Michael can do not to hum in appreciation. He lets out a breath, and nods. There are plenty of reasons not to be okay, but he's going to allow himself a break from those for now. They’ll still be there whenever he's ready to go back to them.

Chapter Text

Hospitals are a lot of things, but they are never pitch-black. Rooms run from unnaturally, glaringly bright by day, to slightly dimmed in the dead of night. Hospitals are also never entirely quiet, either. They are hushed and tight, but there is always beeping somewhere, and groaning somewhere else, and the constant movement of feet and whispers of doctors, patients, and nurses.

Michael doesn't remember falling asleep, but when he wakes up, the hospital is as close to dark as hospitals get, and as close to quiet as it's ever going to be. He rubs his eyes to try and dispel some of the blurryness around him. There is a warm weight at his side, and a stiff blanket covering him. The weight shifts, and something cool finds its way into Michael’s hands— his glasses, returned to him with a brush of thin fingers. Somebody must’ve taken them off him.

Michael rubs his eyes again. He adjusts his glasses on his nose. The room comes into focus. Mr. Heere is curled up in a chair, snoring, his head in his hands in a way that can't possibly be comfortable. Michael’s mom is there too, her own chair pulled up near the bed, her eyes shut, and her cheek resting on the blanket over Jeremy’s knees.

“How long?” Michael whispers.

“Like fifteen hours,” Jeremy whispers back. “Some teachers from school came to visit me and made some truly hilarious jokes about which one of us was supposed to be in a coma anyway.”

“Hilarious,” Michael echoes. He keeps his eyes trained on the ceiling, as Jeremy shifts again, leaning his head against Michael’s chest. Is this it? Is everything forgiven and back to normal? It feels too easy. Idly, Michael’s hand finds its way to Jeremy’s hair. It's comforting and soft, which just goes to show that Michael should do something sensible like get a puppy, and save his heart.

(Michael is fine with jumping in whenever Jeremy needs him. It's reciprocal need that's scary. Needing Jeremy hasn't been all that good for Michael thus far.)

Michael can feel Jeremy staring, not at his face, but at some point around his elbow.

“I messed up,” Jeremy says. His voice is so quiet that Michael can only just hear it.

“Yeahh.” Michael wonders if he should recount the ceiling lights. He starts in the corner. One, two, three…

“I’m not a good person,” Jeremy says, still quiet, but in the tone of one having a revelation.

“How much of it was you, and how much was the Squip?”

“Michael, I'm serious. I'm not a good person.”

Michael lets his hand drop. This isn't what he wants to hear. He restarts his counting, having lost the thread of it somewhere around the point of Jeremy’s outburst of at least dubiously justifiable self-hatred.

“I want to make it up to you,” Jeremy says.

“I just want you to be okay.”

“I can do that! If that's what you want, I can totally do that.”

Michael's mom shifts, mutters in her sleep, and then settles again. Jeremy has become louder and higher-pitched in his sincerity. It's a lot to take in. Jeremy may not be a good person all the time, but he's still Michael’s favorite. That might be the result of imprinting from an early age, or it might be a result of every thing that Jeremy ever was until the day that he took the Squip.

“Did you know that Beth Israel Hospital opened in 1891?” Michael asks.

“I didn't know that.”

“Yeah dude. Forty Jewish investors bought a building at twenty-five cents a piece, and started treating patients.”

“Hey Michael?”

“Hmm?”

For the second time, Jeremy reaches out to take his hand. “Nothing,” he says. “I'm just really glad you’re here.”

Chapter Text

The girls all have different ways of addressing Michael. Brooke, as though in defiance of her months spent calling him by the wrong name, now calls him “Michael Bernardo” without fail, or “Michael Bernardo Mell” when she's trying to get his attention. He does not get to call her by her middle name in retaliation. She gives him a different one every time he asks. Brooke Samantha turns into Brooke Felicity, then Brooke Kirsten, then Brooke Kit, then Brooke Molly. Somewhere in the middle of all this Christine catches on that Brooke is using the names of American Girl Dolls to create her fake identities. Michael has no clue about those, but they must be a big deal, because Brooke and Christine let out unholy shrieks only rivaled by that time stuff happened. No zombie robot slaying on this occasion. They just shriek, and become friends… like legit (albeit entry level) friends, and not people who sit together because a megalomaniac supercomputer happened to wreck havoc on the previous high school hierarchy.

Brooke tries to claim that she was more into the American Girl thing for the clothes than the historical aspect, but the degree with which she's able to keep up with Christine on the historical aspect belays something else. Who knew Brooke Lohst was a closet history nerd? Even the clothing aspect is pretty damn historical, as Michael finds out during a lunch period spent listening to Brooke and Christine gush, with glowing eyes, about the difference between colonial and civil war era ladies’ undergarments.

Chloe still calls Michael “Mitchel” (or “Mitch”, or “Mitchelin”, or “Mistachio Brunhilda Jones”), usually while looking Brooke dead in the eye. Sometimes she wants to know why they are hanging out with him anyway, which Michael assumes also points to a change in the pre-existing hierarchy, considering Chloe was the reigning queen of the old one and certainly had first say in who she sat with. Brooke reminds him that invading his lunch table was Chloe’s idea in the first place. Michael’s not sure about Chloe. She points out all of his flaws, and she's so convinced that he loves the horrible cafeteria jello that soon she gets their entire lunch table shoving jello towards Michael, as though in tribute. If he eats it, it's because he's still not swallowing as well as he'd like to be.

To Jenna, Michael is frequently “Mike” or even “Mikey”. Jenna is nothing but nice to Michael, but he doesn't trust her. In her hands, anything could turn into the gossip of the year. Michael doesn't know how his feelings about the color orange, for example, could turn into a bigger school scandal than the seven recent Squip related near death experiences, but he knows that Jenna could pull that off if she so chose, so he's careful.

Christine calls Michael by his name, and she means it. It's genuine, without any bells or whistles. Michael’s friendship with Brooke has been tenuous from the start, forged through weeks of awkward and often tense interactions. Michael’s friendship with Christine seems to form overnight. One day all that Michael knows about Christine is that she likes theatre and Jeremy likes her; the next, she's hanging out by his locker at the end of the day regaling him with pictures of her pet rabbit, and launching into a speech about how people incorrectly assume that rabbits are low-effort starter pets, but actually a lot of effort goes into keeping them healthy and happy. The day after that, Christine goes on a straight up diatribe about her opinions on a Christmas Carol. Then, on the third day, Christine is kind enough to inform Michael about ~Every Single Aspect~ of the life and works of Evan Hansen, who is very dear, very dishonest, very fictional, and totally not one of the brothers who sang MmmBop. Christine's method of friend-making seems to be going up to her preferred social target, picking a topic, and talking about it endlessly. It suits Michael well enough, especially when on the fourth day, Christine announces that she's been talking too much, asks Michael to fill her in on the finer details of Apocalypse of the Damned, and listens with a level of interest that Michael has never experienced from anybody other than Jeremy.

—————-

Chloe says that Christine is a bit much over lunch one day, and Jenna nods her head in what could be agreement or an enticement to continue. Brooke doesn't say anything.

“I think she's perfect,” Michael says, not only because Christine is sitting right there, but also because fuck Chloe Valentine.

“Boo-Yeah!” Christine does a little fist pump of agreement, gives Michael a thumbs up, and goes back to her meal. Is she hurting from Chloe’s comment? Choosing to ignore it and focus on the kinder things in life? Michael doesn't know. He never passed Social Interaction 101, and now he's expected to keep up with it at this newly intense master-class level.

“Most interesting people are ‘a bit much’,” Jenna muses. “You, Chloe, for example, are a lot much.”

“And proud of it.”

The set of Christine's shoulders relax a little bit. So she was bothered, and trying not to show it! She feels better now, because the comment has become a joke. At least that's one take on matters.

“Are you developing a straight crush on Christine?” Chloe asks, facing directly towards Michael.

“Yeah,” Jenna deadpans. “Because after everything with Jeremy, he's going to jump right in with stealing his girlfriend.”

“I'm not…” Christine grips the table, looking from Jenna to Michael. “I mean, we haven't talked about it.”

“I thought Hilary Clinton wanted you to date him?” Jenna asks. “Wasn't that going to be part of your whole political platform?”

“Awww,” says Chloe. “Imagine you two like, adopt a cat, and you have to explain to Mr. Shakespeare McFluffykins that his parents fell in love because of a bizarrely political ecstasy trip.”

“Isn't that getting a little ahead of ourselves?” Christine asks.

“Right,” says Michael. “The cat’s gonna be called Sir Shakespeare McFluffykins, or maybe…”

Christine gets up and leaves the table.

——————-

Michael does not expect Christine to be standing by his locker at the end of the day. Like, sure, it's become their ritual, but Michael’s just spent the entire afternoon thinking that he pissed her off, and she's never going to speak to him again.

“Hey,” Christine greets him. She's wringing her hands, and smiling a trapped sort of smile.

“You don't have to date Jeremy,” Michael tells her immediately. That's another thing he's been mulling over the whole afternoon, and honestly most of it was preparing speeches to try to convince Christine that dating Jeremy was something she had to do, with only an embarrassingly belated epiphany to tell him that there was no way he could do that without being an utter douche. “You also don't have to worry about what will happen to Jeremy if you don't date him. I'll have his back, right?”

“It's not that I don't want to date Jeremy,” Christine says.

“So you will date him?” Michael could almost hug Christine, but he refrains, because she doesn't look as excited as he is.

“I like Jeremy. I think I even, like, like like him. I just imagined making friends with somebody first, and maybe being friends for a couple of years, before hopping right on the dating train. And, yeah, I know that the whole thing with Jake makes me seem like a hypocrite, but it seemed so exciting! It seems exciting with Jeremy too. I just don't like people speculating about my future cat, when I haven't even decided that I want a cat, let alone a boyfriend. I mean, what if the cat ate my rabbit? What if Jeremy expects me to go with him to Eminem concerts? I hate concerts, they're too loud and… oh, wait, Eminem is dead, so I don't have to worry about that scenario.”

“I don't think Jeremy actually likes Eminem,” Michael says. “It was just the—” he taps his head.

“Well, that's a relief.”

“You don't have to date him,” Micheal reiterates.

“I want to! I just… I guess I want everything to slow down. Like, I want to hang and get to know him, and let him get to know me, and I'm up for calling these things dates, but I don't want him to kiss me on the first night, and I want him to realize that I'm a ‘little much’ as Chloe put it, but that he still wants to be with me anyway, and I want to learn all kinds of little things about him that other people think are strange, and I want come to the conclusion that I kinda dig those things and… and…are you following all this?”

“Totally, and..uh… so I've got this one killer suggestion…”

“As long as it doesn't involve edible technology, I'm all ears.”

“So, get this, what if you told him all these things? You know, like boundaries and stuff. Boundaries are good in a relationship. My shrink told me so. I suck at them.”

“I'm great at them!” Christine says. “So great at them that I haven't had any real relationships up until now. It's a thing. I'm usually in rehearsal, and I swear, being part of a cast is like being part of a family, until it's over, but… never mind. You should try it sometime!”

“No,” Michael says, too quickly.

“Congratulations!”

“Huh?”

“That's a boundary! You just set one!”

“I mean… I guess.”

“Now it's my turn.”

Michael shifts, a little nervously, but he nods.

“If you and I are going to be friends, it can't be about Jeremy.”

“Does that mean that I can't hang around the two of you, if you're together?” Michael asks. “I'm not saying that I'm gonna tag along on your dates, but like, if I see you talking or whatever, do you need me to go away?”

“No, no, no. What I mean is, if Jeremy and I break up, you and I are still friends. If Jeremy and I never get together, you and I still talk and all.”

Michael thinks about it, then nods.

“I can do that,” he agrees. He certainly hopes that he can. He and Christine shake on it.

Chapter Text

Jake gets out of the hospital. He calls Michael “homie” and “home-slice”, and he's amiable as fuck while doing so. That's the thing about Jake— even back when he was calling Michael “freak” and “creeper”, he'd done so with a certain buoyancy, that made it feel less malicious and more like a puppy chewing apart a discarded sock. Who cared if the sock represented Michael’s already frayed ability to deal with social situations? Puppies were cute, and socks were smelly. Not like Michael could blame people for enjoying Jake’s antics.

Michael tries to get used to the new Jake, but his nice tone of voice and mannerisms aren't that different than his mean tone of voice and mannerisms, only now if Nice Jake lays hands on Michael, it's to try and bond with him, not to shove him out of the way.

Jeremy gets out of the hospital next. He calls Michael by his name, though a lot of times he doesn't call Michael anything. He's so much quieter than before. He smiles a lot, and laughs when he's supposed to. At lunch, he sometimes touches Michael’s hand under the table, when Jake tries to talk to Michael too much, and it makes him squirm. Jeremy, once the squirmiest person that Michael knew, does not squirm. He sits with perfect posture, and does not fidget. He seems happy, though. He starts dating Christine right away, and Michael knows that she's happy, because she tells him so.

It doesn't take long before Rich is the only one left at Beth Israel. Michael doesn't care that the asshole who used to call him homophobic slurs and vandalize his property is left behind to suffer alone; he cares somewhat that the asshole who tried to keep him company while Jeremy was out, and was so goddamned worried about Jake Dillinger’s well-being is left behind to suffer alone. Thing is, they’re the same asshole. It's the kind of duality of thought that pops up in Michael’s mind from time to time as if for the sole purpose of being worked out with Jeremy.

Michael debates doing just that. He's got Jeremy now! Things aren't the same as they were before, but maybe they could be if one of them just made the plunge and started the rebuilding process.

So Michael debates asking Jeremy what he thinks of Rich.

And debates it.

And debates it.

He logs fucking miles walking around his room debating. He pulls at his hair and sighs in a way that his English teacher would call Byronic, and your average teen would call emo ass bullshit, and his mom would call a Problem, and Dr. Murry would call psychosomatic multiadaptational algebraic quasi-hydroelectric stimming, and Jeremy (the real Jeremy). would call absolutely and totally fine.

And Michael decides to call Jeremy. It's about more than just to seeing what his opinions are. It's about checking in to see if Jeremy is letting his real self out to play.

Michael sits down on the bed, and scrolls down to J in his contacts, and makes the call. It's late at night, but Jeremy picks up on the first ring.

“Michael!” Jeremy says. “You called me!” He sounds thrilled.

“Yep.”

“Uh…uh… Wait!”

Silence.

“What am I waiting for?”

“Nothing. Sorry. So. Yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Michael echoes hollowly. The only reply he gets is static on the other end. So far so shit, but he'll try to ask his question and see if that goes any better than just shooting the breeze. “What are your thoughts on Rich Goranski being left at the hospital by himself for like another two weeks?”

“Dude, he's not going to be. He isn't even alone right now. My dad’s visiting him. They bonded while I was out.”

“Traitor,” Michael hisses. “Actually, Jer, that's what I meant to ask you. Are you cool with your dad being around Rich? I mean, it's sort of like being around Voldemort. Shit, Jeremy, your dad's a death eater.”

“My dad's a useless dipshit who can't put his goddamned pants on. Talk about faulty genetic material.”

Michael winces. More static.

“I didn't mean that,” Jeremy says, too softly.

“Is he like…”

“He's trying really hard,” Jeremy says.

“Is he wearing pants?” Michael has only been to the Heere household once since Jeremy was released to it. Jeremy wouldn't let Michael go in his room, and it was too weird, so Michael hasn't gone back. He doesn't know if it's gone to hell again or not, but he does know that Jeremy never used to call his dad names. Like, sure, he'd complained about his dad before the Squip, just like anybody would given the situation, but he'd done it differently.

“He's wearing pants,” Jeremy says. “And cooking dinner! He bought these cookbooks, and we’re working through them together, like Master Chef. It's fun.”

“Oh,” Michael says. “That's good.”

“It's good.”

“Good.”

Michael flops back onto his bed, still holding the phone to his ear. The other end of the line is quiet. Michael tries to imagine what Jeremy is doing. Is he pacing, or fidgeting, or in bed with his blankets pulled up to his chin? Is he sitting perfectly, with his back straight and a smile pasted on his face?

“About Rich,” Jeremy starts.

“Hmmm?”

“He's okay. Without the… I mean….”

“Okay without the Squip?” Michael guesses. The words weigh on him. He still wants to think of Jeremy and Rich as being different, incredibly different, but all evidence points to a glaring, unignorable litany of similarities.

“Michael?” asks Jeremy, the boy who spent almost two months ignoring him.

“Yeah?”

“Have you seem any good documentaries lately?” asks Jeremy, who broke Brooke’s heart like it meant nothing at all.

“Tons. Dude, you know me. Why?”

“Just… what have you seen?” asks Jeremy, who once called Michael a loser and left him alone at a party, even though the Squip was off.

“So, there was this one about bird migrations, and…”

“Bird migrations!” exclaims Jeremy, who shouldn't be able to create warmth in the pit of Michael’s stomach just by sounding excited about something, especially after all he's done.

(Also, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why does Jeremy suddenly care about bird migrations?)

“Exciting, I know,” Michael teases. Ten points for playing things off casually.

“Could you tell me about them?”

“I mean, yeah. What do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

“Okay then.”

That's how, without knowing why, Michael ends up spending twenty-five minutes explaining bird migrations to Jeremy. When he finishes, Jeremy asks him what else he's seen, in a tired voice that makes Michael think of a little kid asking for a second bedtime story. He gets it, too. At Jeremy’s prompting, Michael spends another hour explaining the history of Cuba, and then the alarming disappearance of various species of frog.

“Dude, I can barely keep my eyes open,” Michael says at last. He's pretty sure he's nodded off mid-sentence once or twice at this point.

“Me too,” Jeremy says. “Get some sleep.”

“You too."

Chapter Text

Texts from Jeremy

Are you coming to monopoly Tuesday at Christine’s?

Oh yeah. I should have told you. Yep, Monopoly Tuesday is a thing.

No way.

Seriously, no. It's not a date. At least, it's not like a romantic date.

Her dads are playing with us!

Christine platonically adores you, and maybe-not-platonically adores me.

Shut up. I've always known how to spell.

There are *supposed* to be two spaces after periods.

Seriously! I swear. Look it up.

I'll put as many.____________ Spaces.____________After periods.as I want.

I do.

I can handle it.

Yeah. Sorry about the Jenga incident. I suck sometimes. I was being immature.

Most things about me suck, to be honest.

You’re right. Everything about me sucks. Thanks for being patient.

You didn't?

Sorry. I misread that last message. Thanks fir the pep talk.

*For the pep talk.

Yeah, sorry. I was having another conversation.

It was a long conversation.

See you at school.

Chapter Text

Texts from Christine

Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Yepp!

:P

Have some more!

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
― Anaïs Nin

 

“Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find.”
― My homeboy Bill

bill is short for William btw. Can you guess which William?

You rock!

I’m high as a kite.

On life, haha. :) :) :)

He's a sweetheart.

I found one from Bob Marley. You like him, right?

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” -BOB MARLEY, SINGER OF SONGS, SMOKER OF WEED, BELOVED OF MICHAEL MELL

Relevant? How so?

Fair enough. Didn't mean to pry.

Take your time. We’re now bosom companions (if you’re cool with that). You can tell me about anything.

Here's a whole page of Marley Quotes about friendship:
http://www.quotes-friendship.com/by/bob-marley/

Are you coming?

Yay!

We’ve been playing every tuesday since I was about four.

Well, we started with candy land. It's not always monopoly, but it's a good test for relationships, lol.

Nobody hates board games.

He said he loved board games.

I can see that, actually. But if he hates board games he should tell me himself,

I used to hate painting cause I was bad at it, but then I learned that being good at things isn't a requisite for enjoying them.

Omg do you wanna go to one of those places where you paint ceremaic sculptures like for little kids’ birthday parties???

Yes now!!

How about next weekend instead?

Cool cool. It'll be fun!

Chapter Text

Texts from Brooke

christine just sent me those.

you totally copy and pasted christine’s quotes, sent them to me, and tried to pass them off as your own

dweeeeb

yikes

did I scare you off?

Michael Bernardo,,,

come out come out where ever you are

josephina

Brooke Josephina Lohst

do you think dr amorosi has ever seen a star in his life?

because stars are so pretty and his worksheets are so lame

like you

Chapter Text

“Brooke is exactly like Rumpelstiltskin,” Christine tells Michael, as school is ending on Tuesday afternoon. She always does this thing where she leans against his locker, right up in his personal space like a varsity football player in a 1950’s movie, only when she does it there's this big smile that shows her dimples, and she can hardly stand still, and sometimes she laughs at her own jokes. She's doing it now, and Jeremy is standing about a foot behind her. His hands are at his sides, his hair is disheveled, and he's wearing that horrible Eminem shirt, but he's almost smiling, and looking at Michael instead of past him.

“How is Brooke like Rumplestiltskin?” Michael asks. He has to tear his eyes off Jeremy, but Christine is waiting for a response.

“This whole thing where you have to guess her name…”

“I wouldn't have to guess if she would just tell me!”

“That,” says Christine, in a voice that goes low and dramatic, “is the point.” She touches Michael on the nose, leaving Michael to wonder, not for the first time, just how he's gotten so close to Christine so quickly. It's not how he expected things to happen. Then again, his friendship with Jeremy had been fast and intense right from the get go, at least as intense as a friendship between pre-schoolers could be.

“Did you order the pizza?” Jeremy asks.

Michael waves his phone. “Yep, yep. Pineapple and onion for the heathens, and hamburger supreme for me.”

“I like hamburger supreme too,” Jeremy reminds him.

“Then I guess that puts you in a position to eat off of everybody’s plate. Lucky you.”

“I can't imagine pizza without pineapple. I mean, I can, but it's borderline dystopian. You see, the pineapple is there to counteract the acidity in the tomatoes. It plays an important role…”

“Is pizza a stage now?” Michael asks.

“The world is a stage!”

If the world is the stage, then Christine gets all the best lines, and Michael is cool with that. She takes Jeremy’s hand as they leave the school, and Michael is cool with that too. He's not third wheeling. Christine and Jeremy are just playing supporting roles in his life, in which he is the star. At least that's what somebody with a good sense of boundaries, and the ability to effortlessly form healthy social attachments would think. Michael is trying to be that person. He's trying to be better.

Jeremy is trying to be better too. He hasn't talked about it much, because he just isn't talkative anymore. Michael misses that about him, but he has said some things here and there, about how he's focusing on his own inner voice and trying to make it stronger than all those other inner voices— the ones that belong to his insecurities, his fears, glitchy electronics, and Evil Keanu Reeves. Michael figures he can wait for Jeremy’s outer voice to catch up to whatever he's trying to sort out in his head.

Then there’s Christine.
Christine, who has always seemed so bright, and full of energy and flare, has been especially in her element lately, and Michael wonders if there was some truth to what she'd said in the hospital, about never having had close friends before. If so, Michael hopes that he can one day find something that sustains him the way theatre has sustained her. Because, yeah, Michael likes a lot of things, like documentaries and video games and anything with an 80’s or 90’s aesthetic and mixed tapes and so so many things, but almost losing Jeremy had still almost been enough to make him lose himself. He doesn't want to be in that position again. Christine doesn't seem like the kind of person to ever be in that position. She's got too much going for her.

Michael has to shield his eyes as he exits the school. The sun is shining, and there's a bright hint of frost in the air. Autumn is giving way to winter, even though it's only mid-November. Next week will be Thanksgiving, and god has that ever snuck up on Michael. He doesn't like Thanksgiving, considering it sort of stands for genocide and stuff, but it's hard not to use it as a marker of the passage of time, what with how determined every mall and 7-11 is to deck the halls in plastic turkeys (alongside the over-eager Christmas decor).

Where was Michael last year at this time? Probably doing something comfortable and unremarkable with Jeremy, his only friend. Now he's doing something comfortable and unremarkable with Christine and Jeremy, and he has a lunch table full of pseudo-friends who could maybe be more than that if he let them. Horrible as the Squip had been, Michael has to admit that it shook up the status quo, into this new, shinier status quo.

Maybe that's something to be thankful for.

——————-

The first rule in the Monopoly rule book is to choose somebody to read the rules. Seriously. Christine and Dad-Ryan have a good natured argument about who the rule-bearer is going to be, which Christine wins. Michael suspects that Christine has won every argument in her house since the day she was brought into it.

Jeremy does not appear to hear the rules, and is quick to take Michael up on his offer to play as a team, since he doesn't have any leet board game playing skillz. Jeremy’s contribution to their cause is an absolute and unshakable insistence that they play as the dog instead of the race car, and not much else.

Sang, Ryan, and Christine are good at the game, like ruthlessly good at the game, and not above some unconventional gaming practices, as Michael finds out pretty quickly. Right near the beginning, Sang manages to steal all of the pizza, and grow his economy by charging five dollars in game money per slice. Ryan, in retaliation, becomes the lord of soda, and charges ten dollars for that commodity. When Christine ends up in jail, she asks Jeremy to break her out, but he's like super zoned out and misses the question, so she launches into this long description of mugging him in the street, stealing his Eminem t-shirt, and framing him for her crimes. They play rock-paper-scissors to decide fairly whether or not she succeeds.

“You have to beat both of us, though,” Michael reminds her. “‘I'm totally on the watch for criminals such as yourself.”

“There are no other criminals such as myself,” Christine says. “I'm a master of crime.”

She agrees to the second rock-paper-scissors game anyway, and loses.

“We could get game-married,” Christine suggests, in light of her defeat.

“But you just tried to mug Jeremy!”

“Yes, and that didn't work, so now I'm trying to marry him. And you. It will be a feudal marriage. I'll be like the mom from Brave. Have you seen it? You should see it. Anyway, what are your thoughts on polyamorous feudalism, because I think it's as good a strategy as anything.”

Michael looks to Jeremy, who is looking at the wall. He waves a hand in front of his face to get his attention. “How do you feel about polyamorous feudalism?”

“Uh… yes?”

“Anything to win,” Michael translates. “I mean, capitalism sucks, which is kind if the whole point of monopoly. We should fight it in any way possible.”

Christine nods, and moves her chair closer to Jeremy’s. She touches the crook of his elbow, and he seems to melt into attention. “Now,” she says, “Let’s see about combining our assets,”

———-

Christine, Michael, and Jeremy win the game. As a prize, they get to finally dig into the now-cold pizza that Sang has been hoarding.

“We’re good at this game,” Jeremy says, as if he really played.

“Next time you should come to my place,” Michael offers, “try one of my games. Hey Jer, Apocalypse of the Damned is at your house, right? I left it there before, you know...”

Jeremy flinches. “I'll… have to… find it.” He pronounces each word carefully, with long pauses between them. His hand twitches, then he stops. He straightens.

“It's all good,” Michael says. He hopes it is. “I know what you’re room is like. It's cool if you got to do some rummaging or whatever.”

“Rummaging,” Jeremy agrees (or maybe just repeats).

Christine glances from Michael to Jeremy. If she's anything like Michael, then her something-is-wrong senses are tingling, and she doesn't want to show it, at least not yet.

(On the drive home, Jeremy opens his mouth to say something, and there is blood on his teeth.)

((The next day, everything is normal, sunny, and fine.))

(((The day after that, Michael gets an e-mail.)))

((((And the day after that, Rich gets out the the hospital.))))

Chapter Text

Subject: squiks
Sent: 7:00 November 20th, 2019
From: son-of-the-sea@me.com

hey so i got ur e-mail by stealing my friend (or ex-friend) Kayleigh’s phone. u know how a while back u got a e-mail from shipwarrior333@me.com? yah, welll thats her. all that squik bs she talked about stills going on and shits getting real. beccas got it, kayleigh’s got it, original english teacher ms jacobs got it, and about twenty other kids. there like all creepy and like they read each others minds and try to sneak these pills into ur food and shit so that u get infected. it's like a fvching zombie movie u know?

i know u we're looking for a cure. did u get one? i can't find anything online. please get back to me before i end up like will smith in i am legend or whatehv

thanx 3q 3q

justin

 

——————

Subject: re: re: squiks
Sent: 7:45 November 20th, 2019
From: son-of-the-sea@me.com

fvck u u fvckng asswipe u seriously expect me to fix this with soda????? i dunno if i was clear bout this before but my friends are turning into fvcking electro-zombies. thats not even the worse of it. this one girl shirley went all exorcist and was like writing stuff on the bathroom walls in blood and this other guy who used to be like super nice punched a seventh grader boy in the nose for whereing a pink shirt. if u ain't gonna be serious then pls dont waist my tmi.

——————-

Subject: re: re: squiks
Sent: 7:47 November 20th, 2019
From: son-of-the-sea@me.com

my mom says not to give my address and phone number out to ppl online. stranger dancer!

Chapter Text

Rich is loud on his first day back. He gestures wildly (and oftentimes lewdly), as he describes literally every nurse at Beth Israel, the dudes and the ladies alike, and how they all had massive boners for him.

“Well, I hope they didn't,” Christine says. “Seeing as how you’re sixteen and that's wildly inappropriate.”

“Baby, I was born inappropriate.” Rich waggles his eyebrows in a way that could not have ever possibly gotten him girls.

“God,” says Chloe. “If you’re trying to gross us out couldn't you just, like, make fart noises or throw spitballs at Jeremy’s food or whatever?”

Rich’s smile falters. He reaches for his straw, and Jeremy covers his lunch tray. “Fuck,” he says, hands out in front of his chocolate milk in surrender, “I'm not gonna pull any shit on you. Just drowning my sorrows in calcium. Jesus, Chlo, could you be anymore of a bitch?”

Chloe shrugs, with a self-satisfied smile that suggests that she's taken Rich’s words as a compliment.

“I for one think Chloe’s nice,” says Brooke. “I mean, she gives Michael Bernardo her jello every day!”

“A lesson in g-gen…” Jeremy covers his mouth.

“A lesson in generosity that we all can learn from,” Christine finishes. She pushes her jello forward, and the others follow suit with great solemnity, until Michael has received six bowls in tribute. Jeremy’s stays on his tray. He lets his hand drop to the side, where it stays still. There's another movement, a subtle twitch of his cheek that most people wouldn't notice, but which Michael does, because he knows full well that it means Jeremy is chewing up the inside of his mouth again. He nudges his foot against Jeremy’s, hoping it will make him stop, but all that happens is that Jeremy glances around the table to see what he's missed, and then with a look that is somewhere between fear, and apologetic confusion, pushes his jello over to Michael.

“Uh… thanks dude.” Michael’s throat feels dry. Jello should not be this fraught. Jello should not be this heartbreaking. He tries to eat Jeremy’s first, but one bite tells him that he is not in a comfortable swallowing mindset.

“Soooooooo,” Rich draws out the word, arms wide, as if he's about to tell the best story ever, “how many of you lame-ass suckers have ever microwaved peeps, ‘cause let me tell you…”

“Dude,” says Michael, “literally everybody here knows what happens if you microwave peeps.” He spits a glob of jello back into its bowl as discreetly as he can. What is with the whole jello thing anyway? Why is everybody buying it all of a sudden? Is Chloe making them buy it? Is the ability to make dumb, arbitrary decisions about other people’s gross cafeteria purchases one of her popularity super powers?

“I've seen things,” says Rich.

“I've seen something even more interesting,” Jenna interrupts, in that kind of singsong voice that foretells fresh gossip.

As she talks, Rich goes back to stabbing his food. Michael feels almost bad for him. Almost, but not quite. Still, it must be weird to have a coolness coach in your brain for over a year, and then suddenly not. Like, that's just gotta be strange. A few weeks ago, anything Rich said would’ve had everybody eating out of his hand, and now it just doesn't. Lunch is only thirty minutes, and the guy has been shot down three times already.

“Guys, guys,” says Jake, hand on Rich’s shoulder, "and Jenna, Jenna my man, your dirt is killer, but listen up, and let me tell you about the last time I microwaved peeps, because it was a trip.”

At least whatever used to make everybody hang on Jake Dillinger’s every word was not computer generated, as evidenced by the fact that the computer is long gone, and everybody still does. Michael doesn't much care about why. He's got plenty of his own shit to think about. Some of it is philosophical, like the meaning of friendship, because he's becoming increasingly certain that he’ll be spending time with the likes of Chloe, Rich, and Jake for the rest of his high school career, but he hasn't made up his mind about whether or not he likes them yet. And like, considering what went into forming their little group in the first place, isn’t spending time with them kind of like spending time with the Borg collective? Oh god, has Michael been assimilated? Should he start calling himself Eight of Eight and get it over with?

On the more concrete side of Michael’s Many Concerns is Jeremy. He's still being depressingly wackadoodle, and man oh man does that suck. Worse still is not knowing what to do about it. And then there's Justin from in the internet. Does Michael have a responsibility there? How is he going to handle it?

The bell rings. Goodbyes and jokes all around.

“See you tomorrow!” says Chloe.

“Resistance is futile,” Michael agrees. He salutes her.

Chloe's eyebrows raise, because what-the-hell-did-the-dork-just-say.

Jeremy’s eyebrows raise, because he knows exactly what the hell the dork just said, and also why he said it.
Rich cackles, for no other reason than because he's Rich. Maybe he's planning to steal candy from babies, or burn the school down or something. Even so, Michael hangs back with him while the others start to filter out. They need to talk.

“Can you meet me in the parking lot after school today?” Michael asks.

“Sure! Like a date?” Rich winks, and for the life of him Michael can't tell if he's serious or not, but he's about to throw up in his mouth a little at the thought.

“Do not fucking start with me.”

“Got it, so it's going to be an interrogation, right?”

“Something like that.”

Rich cracks his knuckles. “Awesome,” he says. “I love interrogation dates. Bring it on.”

 

——————-

Michael and Rich end up sitting in Michael’s car in the parking lot of Taco Bell, having gone through the parking lot and bought a shit ton of ninety-nine cent tacos, at Rich’s insistence.

“I'm living it up,” Rich says. “Eating non-Squip approved food, flirting with hot guys, not changing my underwear every morning because sometimes you don't fucking feel like it, looking up pictures of—”

“I don't need to know!” Michael interrupts, before Rich can tell him something that will make him want to wash his brain out with soap.

“Digging the Borg references, man,” Rich says. “That'd make me One of Seven, right? If I ask nicely, can I be Seven of Nine instead? She was hot.”

“One of Eight,” Michael interrupts (he's just going to ignore the Seven of Nine comment).

“One of Seven. You weren’t Squipped. You aren't part of the collective.”

“Yeah, but you all hover around me, so…”

Rich snorts. “My Squip would have a conniption.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” He stops fiddling with his taco to lean over and look at Michael, all thoughtful and shit. “I think they knew that you would be trouble for them,” he says. “They have this thing where they can predict possible outcomes. They must've seen that you messing up their grand plan was a likely one, so, y’know, they kept you away. Tried to pull shit to divide you from Jeremy.”

“That was dumb of them. Like, did they not realize that they could've taken over the entire school, and I wouldn't have given one solitary flying fuck as long as they left Jeremy out of it?”

“Low hanging fruit,” Rich says. “Jeremy had… like, I'm not sure how to put it, ‘cause it's not like he's a shitty human being or he deserved it or anything, but if anyone in our school was going to bend to the whims of our new technological overlords, it was Jeremy.”

“Why would you even think that?” Michael isn't sure that he wants to know.

“Dude, the kid was desperate. You must have noticed.”

Michael thinks back to sitting with Jeremy in the grass, talking with him about whether or not he should lick walls, and jump out windows. He thinks about making grocery shopping lists for Jeremy, and Jeremy panicking over something as simple as fabric softener. He thinks of Jeremy trying to cure whatever was eating away at him with stolen allergy pills. He thinks, and then he shakes his head to clear it. If only he could stop thinking.

“I’m getting e-mails from another kid,” Michael says. He hands his phone over to Rich. “Sounds really young, like twelve or something. Just read it and tell me what you think.”

“Stranger dancer.” Rich grins.

“Let me know what you think, without being an asshole about it.”

“Don't be so quick to assume I’m being an asshole. Maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic for all the dumb shit I wrote when I was twelve. So, he's turning down your offers to send him the Red?”

“Yeah, pretty much. He's got my phone number and stuff, but I think I freaked him out.”

“Right,” says Rich. “So, imagine you sent him the Red, and he started giving it to his friends?”

“Their Squips would deactivate. No more zombie apocalypse.”

“Yeah, but first they'd all go into comas, and you’d be that creep on the internet who poisoned a bunch of middle schoolers.”

Michael pales. He hadn't thought of that. “That doesn't mean that I can just leave it though! What about that girl writing on the walls in her own blood or whatever?”

“She's resisting her Squip,” says Rich.

“So that's just what she's naturally like?”

“That redrum bullshit isn't the Squip. It's somebody trying to fight it. Trust me. Even if they do make you feel batshit batshit crazy on the inside, they’re pretty good at making you look sane to other people. It's just when you try to cut those puppet strings that things get wacky. So, you know. You write stuff in blood. Burn down people’s houses. Whatever.”

Rich shrugs like it's nothing, even though obviously it's quite a lot. A treacherous voice in the back of Michael’s mind tells him that Jeremy must not have been trying very hard to fight with his own Squip, considering he hadn't done anything that would freak out the world at large, just those who knew and loved him.

“But with Justin,” Michael says. “There’s got to be a way that I can solve this, without going to jail or whatever.”

“Totally,” Rich agrees.

“What is it?”

“Hate to break it to you, Mike, but I'm kind of an idiot. I have no idea.”

Chapter Text

Texts From Jeremy

I'm watching TV. It's so good!

4:11. Shit. Did I wake you up?

Yeah! I'm kicking back, relaxing, and being happy.

I don't know. I wasn't paying attention.

To kick back!

Obviously.

I'm going to eat cereal for breakfast. I’m really looking forward to it.

No, don't call me. I don't want to wake people up.

My bed.

That's what I was going for. :)

See you at school!

——————————————————————-

At school, Michael bugs Jeremy to dig up his copy of Apocalypse of the Damned. It's been long enough, after all.

“Tomorrow,” Jeremy promises.

——————————————————————-

Texts from Jeremy

That's just Chloe.

You should take it as a compliment.

Would you prefer something else, like pudding?

I'm going to give you pudding and you can't stop me.

I'm on a doing what I want to do instead of what other people want me to kick.

I want to give you desert.

Yikes, sorry.

Well, it was a dumb thing to write, so sorry.

Dessert dessert dessert.

It's a mystery.

Am not.

No, you’re a mystery.

——————————————————————-

Jeremy doesn't bring the game, so Michael reminds him again. He says he’ll bring it tomorrow.

——————————————————————-

Texts from Jeremy

Christine always tells me to cutest things!

Yes!!

Let the gushing commence.

Today we went for bubble tea. Have you ever tried it?

Good point.

Wait! I take that back. Bad point. You could've tried it in the Philippines or when I was in the hospital or secretly while I was looking the other way.

She said she loved the bubbles in bubble tea because they are quiet.

Yeah, quiet! Wasn't that the cutest thing to say?

I don't want to imagine.

Good job with the nightmare fuel.

I'm so lucky that she exists.

Yeah, I'm glad that you like her, and she likes you. It'd suck if my favorite people hated each other.

Always.

Everything is going great. Life is good. I'm very happy.

Seriously, a flip phone that makes car noises? That's so you.

Of course you have to buy it. Buy ten!

——————————————————————-

“T-t,” Jeremy says on the third day, and it reminds Michael of his own ticking back in the hospital. Jeremy closes his eyes, and freezes, right there in the middle of the hallway.

“Tomorrow?” Michael says tentatively, his voice soft. Bombs tick, just as much as clocks and kitchen timers do. Turns out there's no stopping this explosion. Jeremy takes off down the hall, and Michael bolts after him.

A second later, and Michael is in the bathroom with Jeremy, listening as he retches behind the closed door of one of the stalls. He waits until Jeremy is quiet, and then he waits some more, until Jeremy flushes and comes out. He's very pale, and stiff, and he has his arms wrapped around himself. He doesn't say anything to Michael, just looks at him.

Without thinking, Michael pulls Jeremy into a tight hug. Although Jeremy is tense and shaky, he puts up no resistance, even resting his head on Michael’s shoulder. He breathes in slowly and deliberately, like somebody exerting every ounce of their will to keep from unraveling. Michael rubs his back until the bell rings.

“Want me to take you to the nurse?” Michael offers. Jeremy shakes his head.

“I'm okay to go to class.” He pulls away. He doesn't look okay to go to class.

“I'm driving you home after school,” Michael says, because he's beginning to think that he won't get anywhere with Jeremy if he doesn't push a little. “We can look for the game together.”

Jeremy swallows. He nods like he's agreeing to his own execution. Then he goes to the sink to rinse of his face, fix his hair, and straighten out his clothes.

Chapter Text

Subject: re: re: squiks
Sent: 10:46 AM November 24th, 2019
From: son-of-the-sea@me.com

My mom said u can send me soda if she can talk to ur mom on the phone and make sure ur not an ax murderer.

——————————-

Subject: re: re: squiks
Sent: 4:05 PM November 24th, 2019
From: son-of-the-sea@me.com

Fvck it, nm about calling, need help now

My address is 162 Hessian Ave, Tarrytown NY, 11245.

Send the Mountain Dew, pls. Things are getting freaky. Hope ur not an ax murderer.

-Jus10

Chapter Text

The last time that Michael had Jeremy alone in his car was back in September, when he'd driven him to the Menlo Park Mall. He'd also expected to drive Jeremy home that day, broke and despondent, but himself and not this fragmented, entirely different version of himself that Michael is still trying understand.

Maybe driving Jeremy home today will be an end to that journey they started nearly two months ago. Maybe all Michael needs to do is get his strange, quiet, straight-backed friend home, and then they’ll plop down on Jeremy’s bean bags, boot up the Nintendo, and resume their games like nothing ever happened.

“Good day at school?” Michael asks, and god is that a dumb question. For one thing, Jeremy threw up in the bathroom earlier today and Michael saw it with his own eyes. Totally a bad day.

Jeremy only gives a vague nod, his eyes on the road ahead of them, while he sits with perfect poise and stillness, and knaws away at his cheek.

“I don't like it when you do that,” Michael says.

“Huh?”

“Buddy, you need to stop chewing yourself up like that. It's not good for you.”

Jeremy makes a motion with his hand, like he's trying to wave away a fly, but stops abruptly to clutch at the edge of his seat. There's something about that— the new found stillness in Jeremy’s hands, and the incessant chewing that's replaced it, and Michael feels like such an asshole as it dawns on him that the nervousness that used to come out through Jeremy’s fingers is the same nervousness that's now moved to his mouth. As Jeremy clenches his jaw, lips curling inward, Michael wants more than anything to take his words back. By the time they get out of the car, there's a big bite mark glistening on Jeremy’s lower lip.

“God, Jer…”

Jeremy looks away. Should Michael being trying to calm him down? Maybe he should be trying to calm him down, but he's not outwardly panicking, and besides, Michael is here to see what's up and maybe get his game back. Careful pushing is the way to go. He trails after Jeremy, watching the other boy fumble for the key, and unlock the door.

A rush of familiarity washes over Michael as he enters the Heere household for the first time in forever. Some photos have been taken down and moved around, but everything else is still where he remembers it being. The smell of the house is even the same, which isn't to say that it's distinct in any way, but every building has its own smell, Jeremy’s house included.

“Are you hungry?” Jeremy asks.

“For adventure!” Michael throws an arm over Jeremy’s shoulder, all false cheer. “In the form of killing totally awesome pixilated zombies.” With his free hand, he crosses his fingers that Jeremy doesn't puke again.

“I–” Jeremy covers his mouth. Michael deflates.

“If you don't have the game, you could just tell me.”

Jeremy shakes his head.

“Is that a ‘no’ you don't have the game, or a ‘no’ you don't want to tell me?”

Jeremy shakes his head again.

“Jer, come on,” Michael holds him by the shoulders. “You used to tell me everything. Can you just tell me what’s going on? After everything I went through to get you back, I'm not going to ditch you over a missing copy of Apocalypse of the Damned. You gotta know that, right? So just talk to me.”

Another shake of the head. Jeremy’s straight up hyperventilating now. Shit.

“Okay,” Michael runs his hand up through his own hair. “Cool. Should’ve prepared for this. Let's sit down. Come on. Is your dad home?”

More head shaking.

“Is the sky blue?” Michael tries as an experiment.

A definitive ‘no’ to that from Jeremy.

“Are we in New Jersey?”

And another ‘no’.

“Okay,” Michael says, maneuvering Jeremy over to the couch, and helping him to sit. “Okay, it’s okay. Deep breaths, can you do that for me?”

Predictably, Jeremy shakes his head no. Questions might not be the best strategy. Michael tries calling out for Mr. Heere, but there's no answer. Seems Jeremy was right about him not being around.

“Let's just try,” Michael says. He takes Jeremy’s face in his hands, fingers threading through his hair. “Come on, take a breath for me. There, that's good. Sort of. Now try for longer and…like, not freaking out.”

“I-I-I…” Jeremy coughs, choking on nothing.

“You?” Michael encourages.

Jeremy sniffs, heave-coughs, and swallows hard. He's crying now, tears running fast down his face. Nothing Michael is saying seems to be helping, so he pulls Jeremy into his arms. “Alright,” Michael says softly. “Crying’s good too. It's all good. This is super okay and good…. You’re doing everything exactly right, and this is fine. This is okay.”

It may be the most unsuccessful attempt at talking somebody down from a panic attack ever, but the thing with those is that they can't go on forever. They just physically can't. So Michael waits it out, until Jeremy stops sobbing, and his breathing is almost regular, except for these small hiccuping spasms, like little kids get when they cry very hard for a very long time. Michael rocks Jeremy through those, until even they are over.

“Why don't we go lie down in your room, alright?” Michael suggests.

Jeremy’s lips move. He's definitely attempting to say something, but it's just a few abortive sounds before he's covering his mouth. Talking really isn't working out for him today. Michael’s been wondering what the Squip did to Jeremy ever since he found out Jeremy had the thing, pretty much, trying to piece together bits of terrifying information from Lich, and Lily’s mom, and Rich, and even Justin, but he's yet to hear anything from Jeremy directly. Right now, more than ever, he needs to know what’s going on, and he's totally going to grill Rich for answers later, but that's not the same as getting the answers from Jeremy himself. Michael gives Jeremy another pat on the shoulder, and shifts, pulling Jeremy to stand up with him.

“It's…” Jeremy winces, and rubs his lips together. “It's… it's…” He looks like he's going to cry again. “It's… Fuck it…” he gestures towards the staircase, and holds tight to the railing as he leads Michael up.

What Michael finds up there is an empty room.

Well, not strictly empty. Jeremy’s bed is still there, but his galaxy themed comforter and pillowcases have been replaced with stark navy blue ones. His bookshelf is still there, but there isn't a single thing on it. Almost the same goes for his desk, which is bereft with nothing but Jeremy’s MacBook, a pen, and a scattered pile of homework. All of his books, and posters, and knickknacks, and video games are gone.

Jeremy takes a seat on the bed, and waits for Michael to stop gaping and say something.

“Was it the Squip or you?”

“G-guess.”

“Why'd it make you do all this?”

“I-it- it…” Jeremy slams his hand against the mattress, and curls up on his side on the bed, with his shoes still on. Jeremy has always stuttered when he was nervous or upset. Right now, his stutter seems to be a huge part of what is making him nervous and upset, which in turn is probably making it worse than usual, which is hella unfair.

“We don't have to talk,” Michael offers.

A nod.

“I can go if you want me to.”

“S-stay.” Jeremy jerks at the repeated ‘S’ as if somebody just doused him in boiling water.

“Okay.” Michael goes over to Jeremy’s computer. “Going to stream something on Netflix,” he says.

Jeremy nods.

After some clicking and searching, Michael starts up Monsters Inc. Seems as good a movie as any. He takes off his shoes, sits down on this bed that he doesn't know, guides Jeremy to lay his head in his lap, and tries to pretend he's in some cheap ass spartan hotel room, and not the place that has always been like a second home to him.

Michael doesn't pay much attention to the movie. He focuses instead on playing with Jeremy’s hair until he falls asleep, then reading and rereading Justin’s e-mails, forwarding the information to Rich, and trying to figure out what the hell to do.

Chapter Text

Michael agrees to meet Rich at Denny’s at midnight. Nothing says hardcore, illicit, and weird like waiting till the witching hour for a rendezvous with Satan’s pipsqueak son. Jeremy is fast asleep, and usually Michael would just curl up with him at this point, but this shit with Justin isn't going to wait. Michael opens the left bottom drawer of Jeremy’s desk, where he used to keep his notebooks and stuff, thinking to snag some paper to write him a note, to make sure he knows that they're still cool and all that.

There's nothing in the drawer. Of course.

Michael slides the door shut, and looks back at Jeremy. He's out. Like super out. So out that Michael remembers that he's no longer comfortable watching Jeremy sleep, since all that BS with the coma. He shouldn't wake Jeremy though. He totally shouldn't do that.

Another glance back at Jeremy, and Michael decides to do something else that he probably shouldn't— he decides to go through Jeremy’s desk drawers, one by one, just see if there's anything there. The left three are completely empty, except for the top drawer, where a big-ass daddy long legs spider has taken advantage of the spacious and airy accommodations, and more power to him.

The top and middle right drawers are empty too. The bottom drawer is where Micheal hits the Snooping Untrustworthy Friend jackpot. There's this notebook that, God, must've been from primary school. Probably math, judging by the haphazard scattering of numbers. Mostly it's full of notes and doodles, some written in Jeremy’s handwriting, and some written in Michael’s. He flips to a random page. Of all the things to keep, when everything else is gone!

 

Michael kind of wants to keep it too. It might be melodramatic to want to start hoarding relics of childhood innocence and impermeable friendship, but there's never been a better time for it. Michael puts the notebook down on top of the desk, and continues his investigation.

Shoved way to the back of the drawer, there are two stuffed animals. Noey the rabbit, and Sharky the shark. Total blasts from the past, but Michael recognizes them right away. Noey had been worn and missing an eye already when Michael first met Jeremy in preschool, and Jeremy had viewed the toy as a protector of sorts, until kindergarten had brought with it the realization that a bunny was a deeply uncool companion for a little boy, and Sharky had been brought in to fill the gap. Come to think of it, Michael remembered Jeremy banishing Sharky to the attic in maybe fifth grade, after finally outgrowing stuffed toys in general. The attic had to be where Jeremy was getting these things.

Michael stands by the desk, drawer open, and one ratty stuffed animal in each hand.

“You guys got any advice?” he whispers. The toys stare back at him, even quieter than Jeremy, holding their ancient wisdom deep inside. Michael is tempted to tuck them under Jeremy’s arms, so he’ll have something to hold onto if he's feeling as raw when he wakes up as he was when he fell asleep, but that's a solution for seven year olds, not seventeen year olds. Both Michael and Jeremy have passed the point where their toys can protect them from monsters.

So Michael puts the toys back in the drawer, along with the notebook. He shrugs off his hoodie, and drapes it over Jeremy, because he can't stand the thought of leaving without giving him something. Then he goes down to the kitchen, snags a paper towel to write on, and leaves his note:

Hey dude~
Had to make a run for it, but don't worry. Text so I know you woke up, and don't worry. Love you.

The last words are added on impulse. Michael has exchanged platonic ‘I love you’s’ with Jeremy hundreds of times, but that was before everything with the Squip made him realize that there was always a fair to middling chance that loving Jeremy, or anybody for that matter, could wreck him entirely. But it's like that Marley quote that Christine sent him: “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”

Given the choice between an eternity of suffering for Jeremy, and a life without him, Michael knows that he would choose the suffering any day of the week.

Chapter Text

Even after the note to Jeremy and all that, Michael still gets to Denny’s an hour early. Good. Gives him time to find a secluded parking space and hotbox in his car, in hopes that he’ll be chilled out enough to eat something later. He hasn't had much time to sit around and smoke lately, between hospital visits, saving the world, and all his new social obligations.

As the minutes tick by, Michael finds his eyelids growing heavy. He leans back, headphones on, humming along with his music. It's dark, his car is warm, and Michael is up for taking a moment of peace wherever he can get it at this point.

All too soon, Rich is pounding on his window, grinning like the fucking gremlin that he is. Michael rolls the window down.

“You sharing or what?” Rich hisses (as gremlins do).

“Nope.”

“Fine, if I can't smoke my worries away, then I wanna eat them. Hurry up.”

Rich strides into the restaurant like a cross between a Klingon warrior and a camp gay rockstar, demands a black coffee and a honey jalapeño grand slam from a waitress with blood shot eyes, and shoots finger guns at Michael when it's his turn to order (cheesy fries, a strawberry milkshake, and the comfort of the abyss, if you please.)

“So,” Rich starts in, “I've been thinking about what to do about this whole Justin situation. Your dad’s a pilot, right?”

Michael glares. “How did you know that?” Rich isn't supposed to know anything about him. Whaling on a kid for two years when all you’ve got on him is his name and the rainbow patch on his arm is shitty, but taking the time to learn stuff about him, like what his family does, or what he likes, or how he's an actual human with an actual life makes it even worse. It’s sort of like how Rich liking sugary breakfast food in the middle of the night makes him worse, because it shows that he's a human with human preferences. Michael prefers to imagine him dining upon rusted nails, the sparkling gizzards of virgins, and live kittens, like the demon that he is.

“Jenna.” Rich takes a nonchalant sip of his water. “She also told me that your middle name in Bernardo, which explains about half the story with Brooke. You do realize Chloe is going to try and seduce you any day now, right?”

“Uhg. Wait? What? Fuck no. Is that a thing that she does?”

“It's totally a thing that she does. If Brooke likes a boy, even platonically, Chloe tries to get with him. She does it ‘cause she's jealous, insecure, and also a bitch.”

Michael wonders if Chloe ever tried to get with Jeremy, and what he'd thought of it if she had. He doesn't like the idea of people trying to get with Jeremy when he was on the Squip, and he's afraid that if she did, all of the jello in the world isn't going to make him able to deal with her.

“That can't be healthy,” Michael says, tucking away his… whatever it is. Concern? Jealousy? He's not sure how consent could work when one is playing puppet to a deranged computer, which leads him to believe that it doesn't.

“Sure as hell ain't.”

Rich laughs, jovial and fake. Even this pretense of mirth disappears quickly, and he leans in to grab Michael’s wrist, something like desperation in his eyes.

“I know so much about Chloe,” he says. “Chloe, Jeremy, Jenna… fuck, even you. That's the worst part of it. I know too much about people, especially like, the crappy broken parts of their personality. That's a thing it used to do— tell me when people were about to do something, and why they were about to do it, or just all the awful thoughts going through their minds. You know what it's like to shove somebody’s head up against a wall, hear it go thunk, and then get this voice in your own head letting you know that he's thinking of going home and drinking bleach, but not to worry, ‘cause there's only a 0.8 percent chance of him actually doing it? It's like BANG—” Rich smacks both hands down on the table so hard that the silverware on Michael’s side rattles “—this one has one foot in the grave, Richard, but not to worry, he's a coward just like you… just like you. Hey, maybe you could help him out. You ever think of that, Richard?”

All Michael can do is stare. It seems like he should offer some advice or comfort. “Hey,” he says instead. “So, just now, when you were talking as the Squip, your lisp went away. Why is that?”

Rich smacks his hand across his forehead. “You really do hate me, don't you?” he mutters.

“You covered my locker in shaving cream. I still wear bitter apple on my neck to repel you, incase you try anything. That's the stuff you use to make furniture taste bad, so your dog won't chew on it, just so you know.”

“Are you sure it's really me you’re mad at, and not like, Jeremy? He did kind of…”

“Shut up,” Michael warns. He feels Rich’s words in his stomach, his throat, and the treacherous stinging of his eyes. It should not be so easy to upset him, after everything.

The waitress comes back, and sets down Michael’s milkshake and Rich’s coffee, promising that the food will be ready shortly.

“Anyway,” Michael says, slumping back in his seat and forcing nonchalance, “good try with the psychobabble, but you licked my neck. Pretty sure it's you I'm mad at. Not to be a jerk, ‘cause I get that you feel like shit, but we aren't friends. I don't like being around you. I just wanna know stuff, like why your lisp went away just now and how the Squip got rid of it in the first place, and why it's back, and also how to deal with Justin and his school without hurting a bunch of little kids and maybe getting arrested.”

“Oh,” Rich says, and that's it. Just oh.

“The lisp,” Michael reminds him.

A shrug. “Training. Taught me how to hold my mouth. Shocked me if I fucked up. Said it re-wired some stuff, with my brain and muscles and shit to make it easier.”

“You’re lisping deliberately now, right?”

“It's how I talk!”

“Yeah,” Michael leans across the table at Rich, “but are you doing it deliberately, or did it just come back? Was it bad, when the Squip was getting rid of it? Traumatic? What are the worst things it did to you? Not just about the lisp, but in general.”

“For fuck’s sake, Mell.”

“They’re important questions!”

Rich rubs his eyes with the back of his hand, then rests his head in his arms, like one thoroughly vanquished. He stays like that until the waitress comes back with his grand slam and Michael’s fries, only rousing himself to poke despondently at his bacon.

“I know what I'd tell you if I was your Squip,” Rich says, eyes trained on his plate rather than Michael. “And like, you gotta understand here that Squips are all about achieving their goals, not morality or doing the right thing or other people's well-being or anything like that. But anyway, think of it this way… we’re sitting here together, and you’re you, and I'm this lame-ass waste of space, and if I was your Squip I'd say to you, ‘Listen Michael, this Rich kid is one sad fuck up. Throw him a bone, and he’ll do whatever you want. Then, when he thinks you’re bros, turn on him. It’ll be so much fun!’ Then I'd conjure up some back-up singers, probably dressed like Denny’s waitresses, or even milkshakes and fried eggs if I was in the mood to make things extra trippy, and there would be this big musical number about the fine art of betrayal. Maybe there would be a glitter canon at the end. It would be epic.”

“Uh…” Michael stares.

“Are you gonna throw me a bone or not?”

Michael pushes his milkshake over towards Rich. “It's not a bone, but it's ice cream, which has milk, which has calcium, which is good for bones. But, look, I'm not gonna betray you after. This milkshake is the best I can do, but at least I'm not going to be all weird and villainous about it.”

Rich sighs. “My Squip said you and I could never be friends. He said you wouldn't ‘get’ me. Whatever, man. Let's get started on this Justin situation.”

Chapter Text

“We could steal your dad’s plane, fly to Japan, find Squip headquarters, and take down those bastards where they live.”

It's Rich’s first suggestion. Michael’s eyes widen, and he drops his French fry.

“What?” Rich says, like Michael is being unreasonable.

“Dude, where do I start?”

“You’re the Chosen One Michael Mell, you gotta live up to it.” Rich’s voice seethes with conviction. This time, Michael chokes on his fry. So much for eating.

“This is totally going to be my entire life now, isn't it?”

Rich cocks his head, hands out toward Michael in a way that says well, obviously.

“Shit, it could be,” Michael continues. “I’m not like Lich Please 69, and…”

“Wait… wait… is that a person or a request?”

Michael had hoped that Rich, who had become subdued and serious upon realizing they could never be friends, would keep up that act. No such luck. In fact, Michael is pretty sure he's being like this on purpose. Stealing planes. You’re the chosen one. People and requests. Stupid Rich.

“Lich is a guy from Warcraft,” Michael says. “Told me about the Red. Too self serving to be a full-fledged person. He knows stuff, but I didn't have enough gold to trade for info, and now I don't even have a Warcraft account, so…”

“I can help there. I live up to my name in the Warcraft ‘verse.”

“Huh?”

“Rich is my name,” Rich explains.

Michael scrunches up his face. “Huh?” he says again. He knows Rich’s name is Rich.

“It means lots of money. I have lots of money in Warcraft. Not in real life, but whatever. I can donate to our cause.”

“Oooooh,” says Michael.

“Oooooh,” Rich repeats, long and exaggerated. Michael winces in spite of himself, because Rich sounds like the Rich that he remembers, the one who was always so quick to point out whenever he did anything odd, or vulnerable, or wrong. Michael was never afraid of this Rich or hurt by him the way that Jeremy was, but he'd kept himself away. Also, that bullying took place before the thing with Jeremy and the Squip. Back then, Michael had known where he stood in the universe, and been a master at accepting it. So much has changed.

 

Rich bites his lip, watching him carefully. “I'm not making fun of you,” he says. “Not meanly, at least.”

“That doesn't matter.” Michael is chill. He's himself. He doesn't care. “We’re not here to talk about non-Squip related issues.”

“Whether or not I'm making fun of you is a Squip related issue. Assume from here on out I'm not,” Rich talks quickly, barely stopping to breathe, like he's trying to change the subject before Michael can interrupt. “So are you dedicated to this whole Justin thing? Are you gonna swoop in and solve this kid’s problems, come hell or high water?”

Michael thinks about it. “Was it worth it, getting it out? Like the coma and everything? You had it longer than anyone else. Would you be better if I'd left it in? Jer…” Michael swallows. He can't go airing Jeremy’s issues to Rich, who is the enemy, but damn if they aren't relevant.

“Some of us who got it out seemed pretty fucked up after? That what you’re trying to say?” Rich asks carefully, like he knows.

A thick nod from Michael.

“Getting it out is worth it,” Rich says. “And if little kids getting assimilated into the Squip collective is how the world is going, I'm gonna fight that world till it bursts into smithereens.”

“It's not safe for babies under six months of age,” Michael says. “One of my contacts told me that.”

Jesus

“I know.”

“I don't think you do. Just… fuck.” Rich looks like he's going upchuck his milkshake all over the table (hello, osteoporosis). That should be on the warning label for Squips. Warning: may cause residual stomach upset long after removal, leading to osteoporosis from vomiting up your only viable source of calcium.

“Do you need to take a breather?” Michael doesn't say.

“That was from one of my other contacts,” Michael says instead. “She overcame her Squip when the other Squip Moms tried to give one to her baby, which leads me to believe that overcoming ones own Squip is possible, even if you and Jeremy totally failed there.”

“It's not that easy,” Rich insists (Michael would be lying if he said he wasn't a little glad). “Like, I'm legit shocked this woman even noticed she had a baby, if that's what got her to turn it off. Anyway. Anyway, anyway, anywayanywayanywayanyway…”

Michael puts a hand on Rich’s arm. It's like he's glitching.

“Anyway,” Rich says, more decisively, “here’s what we know: First, offing one Squip is enough to off an entire network. Second, you can't send the Red to Justin, or you’ll be the Internet creep who sent an entire middle school worth of kids to the hospital with your sketchy 90’s soft drinks. Third, you probably shouldn't even talk to Justin anymore. Let's take him out of this. Fourth, we’ve got to drive to Tarrytown after school tomorrow, give Red to somebody, probably an adult so we don't get screwed as bad if we’re caught, and then we’ve gotta get the hell out of dodge.”

For the second time that night, Rich pounds his hands on the table, but this time he's doing it with a purpose. He's thought his through. Obviously he's thought this through. There are just a few issues.

“What do you mean by ‘we’,” Michael asks.

“I'm helping. While we’re at it, we should probably tell somebody what we’re doing, so they can force Red down our throats if we come back weird. Jeremy?”

Michael shakes his head. Life might be a two-player game, but based on tonight alone, he's pretty sure that Jeremy had better sit out this round. “Christine,” he says.

“Awesome. Christine is our fail safe.”

“How are we going to get somebody to drink the Red once we get to Tarrytown?” Michael asks.

“Don't know. We’ll figure it out once we’re there.”

—————

It's four AM by the time Michael gets home, and lucky him, joy of joys, he's got school in the morning.

He can't sleep, so he decides to smoke instead. He also sends some texts to Mr. Heere. Hooray for decisions made at four in the mornings while stoned!

————-

Texts from Michael

Get Jeremy psychology and psychiatry and pills that are medicinal and not evil.

If you don't do this you are a bad father.

He also needs a puppy. Get out of bed and get him a puppy this instant.

This is your only chance of redemption. Go do it. I know what's up.

—————-

Mr. Heere does not answer. Michael smokes some more, then at 6:30 he takes a shower, and gets dressed for school. At least he tries to get dressed. Jeremy has his hoodie, which kills a lot of that going to school motivation. Michael’s phone buzzes. Michael is buzzed.

—————

Texts from Jeremy

I'm sorry for everything, I'm grateful for everything, and not to be weird but I hope you’re not a werewolf.

Your clothes are here! You’re gone! There's this dog. I woke up to this gigantic black dog licking my neck.

Thank god you are texting me and not a werewolf.

Crying.

No, it's fine. You’re gone, your hoodie is here, and there is a god, that's all.

Typo. There is a dog. That's all.

Yes, he's a good dog.

Yes, I need a hug. But only if you’re up to it. I'm really sorry about yesterday. I'm sorry about so many things. We need to talk. I'm sorry. Why is there a dog?

Chapter Text

Michael finds Jeremy at his locker, and follows up their usual high-five routine with the tightest hug. He pulls away, but keeps his hands on Jeremy’s shoulders, holding him at arm’s length, scrutinizing through bleary eyes. He's wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and nothing resembling a coat or sweater. He has a scattering of acne across his forward, and by the corner of his mouth. The skin on his lips is dry, peeling, and uncomfortable looking, as well it might be, all things considered. Messy hair, kind of greasy. Dark circles under his eyes. He's got Michael’s sweatshirt bunched up in his arms. He fidgets with it under Michael’s gaze, until he catches what he's doing, and stops himself. He shrugs out of Michael’s grasp, and hands him back his hoodie.

“So, a dog,” Michael says. There’s a proliferation of black hair on his hoodie which certainly seems to suggest it came into contact with some kind of animal. He slips it on anyway.

“Yeah! A dog!”

Michael woots. “That's awesome! A dog! How awesome is that?”

“Really awesome! It's a huge dog. Kinda mangy. A-and…”

Jeremy stops. He just flat out stops. Michael remembers what Rich said, about how his Squip would shock him when he spoke wrong. If that was going on with Jeremy, then it's no wonder he's a little freaked out.

“Hey,” Michael says. “I gotta jet. There's a teacher, and I told her I'd help her do the stuff. You get yourself sorted for the day, and text me about the dog, right? I'm hella interested and wanna read everything about it.”

Jeremy nods, so Michael hugs him again, and takes off down the hallway like somebody who has somewhere to be (even though he doesn't have anywhere to be for at least another ten minutes). This is giving Jeremy space. This is being sensitive. Michael’s proud of himself. As he turns the corner, his phone buzzes. He leans against the wall to read it.

The dog is kind of mangy, and super huge, like direwolf huge. My dad said it was the only dog he could find for free on Craig's List at four in the morning. Said he found three cats, but knew I really needed a dog, and I was floored so I said the cats would have been just as good, and he had this glint in his eye like cats might happen at any moment. I'm not even going to pretend to understand, but my dog is the best dog. His old owners named him Peaches. Idk if I'm going to change it or not. He seems to know his name, so changing it might be a dick move.

Michael is about to text back that Jeremy should call the dog Princess Peach, when Brooke taps him on the shoulder. He jumps so high that it almost knocks her off balance.

“Whoah…” Brooke says. “Easy there, Michael Bernardo.”

“In the middle of a conversation. Did you want something?”

“Just to ask why you look like hell warmed over,” she says. She flips her hair. She's holding a Starbucks cup in her hands, and looks the very opposite of hell warmed over. “I'm serious,” she continues. “Your eyes are, like, really red. Do you need a hug?”

Michael shakes his head.

“Well, okay,” Brooke chirps. “How about a granola bar?”

“Uh… sure.”

“Cool. Hold my coffee.”

Michael does. He stands there with Brooke’s coffee in one hand, and his phone in the other, as Brooke opens up her bag, pulls out a granola bar and a bottle of water, and hands them over to Michael in lieu of hugging. It's one of those expensive French bottles of water, too.

“Thanks,” Michael says.

“No problem. See you in class. Stay hydrated!”

As Brooke leaves, Michael wonders how he could have ever disliked her. Or rather, he knows why he used to dislike her, but he doesn't want to think of it, because it feels better to be happy to have a friend who cares about him enough to share her granola. He texts Jeremy the Princess Peach idea, and goes to class.

——————

Michael is in Asian History class endeavoring to sleep without closing his eyes, when he reaches into the pocket of his hoodie and finds the note tucked in there. His heart speeds up, and he opens the envelope with a mixture of trepidation, and the thrill one gets from opening a Christmas present. It has to be from Jeremy, but for a second he thinks that it isn't him, because he doesn't recognize the handwriting. He takes off his glasses, wipes them on his hoodie, and looks again, at the loopy Ts and the even loopier lowercase Ks and the way the letters line up perfectly on the unlined paper.

Dear Michael,

I’m so sorry about last night.

Michael scans the page, willing those uncanny letters rearrange themselves into words, and those words to rearrange themselves into sentences, which he knows without a doubt Jeremy did write, strange new letters be damned. After all, his mannerisms are different now, he doesn't like to talk, and all of his ticks and fidgets have been uprooted. Why shouldn't he have new handwriting to match the new him?

There was this one time, when Michael was bored and scanning tumblr, and he came across this chart of emotional combinations featuring the characters from Inside Out. Revulsion, it said, was a mixture of fear and disgust. It's the first word that pops into Michael’s mind for what he's feeling, but it’s not enough to explain the emotional cocktail brewing in his gut. There's fear, yeah, that Jeremy will never be Jeremy again, and also disgust, because this handwriting has plunged shit straight into the uncanny valley and Michael doesn't know how to climb back out of it. But there’s also joy, because regardless of what is wrong with Jeremy, he still cares— he's still reaching out. Sadness is there, and she is kind and sympathetic towards Jeremy, but a knife carrying sadist when it comes to her treatment of Michael and his poor heart. The anger is the worst of it though. It pounds against Michael’s skull demanding to know how Jeremy could've been idiotic enough to pull all the shit that he did, and screaming that he deserves to be left alone for it.

Michael reads on. He tells Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Joy to stop their petty squabbling, and he reads on.

Dear Michael,

I’m so sorry about last night. I didn't mean to freak out on you last night. You didn't deserve to have to do that. It was gross. I'm a waste of space who is always pulling shit and making you deal with it. I'm really sorry. I won't do it again. I know that you want me to be ok, and I'm working on that. I'd say I'm about 95% ok, and last night was just a mistake. I'm sorry about the game. I gave it to Goodwill. Christine and I have been looking in Goodwills all over the state, but we can't find it, and we've been looking online. I'll never give up on looking for it, even if it takes me the rest of my life. I'm sorry about deleting all of your online accounts—

Here, Michael’s eyes widen. “So it was you!” he says out loud, which is bad, because now the teacher and all of the other students are looking at him. Shit. Way to fail, Michael. Gotta think fast. What sounds like so it was you and is reasonable to shout in the middle of class?

“I gotta poo!” Michael announces, then runs out of the classroom.

(There's a certain level of weird and inept where people just stop questioning. Michael has reached it. He reads the rest of Jeremy’s letter in the bathroom.)

I'm sorry about deleting all of your online accounts. I'm sorry that I can't just talk to you like a person. I don't feel like a person. I'm sorry for biting my mouth. It's disgusting and it's okay if you’re disgusted and need to get away from me. I'm sorry for hitting you during the play, and for criticizing your sushi habits. I love your sushi habits. I’m sorry for not saying sorry quickly enough. I'm sorry for being the last person to wake up when we were all in the hospital. I'm sorry for calling you a loser. You’re not a loser. You’re the best person in he world. I'm sorry for never being enough, and acting like you were the one who wasn't enough. I'm sorry for always telling you my problems. I don't really have any problems. Everything would be fine if I would just get my act together. I'm sorry for ignoring you. I couldn't see you. I’m sorry for agreeing to make the Squip make me not see you, and for telling Brooke that you stole my underpants and rolled around in them like a dog and telling her that your name was Mitchel. I'm sorry for that time I'm traded my soul and free will to the Squip for a plate of garlic bread even though that didn't have a lot to do with you, because maybe I would have been less of an asshole if I'd had some foresight. I’m sorry for my face. I'm sorry for always refusing to make lego models with you when we were kids. I'm sorry for being distant and not telling you things. There's not a lot to tell, because things are great. Just sorry.

Jeremiah Heere

PS - I'm sorry for all of the dog hair on your hoodie. There's suddenly a dog.

“Hello?” the voice of a kid who Michael knows, but only vaguely, calls through the door of his bathroom stall. “Uh… headphones kid? Mrs. Seward asked me to check if you’re okay?”

Michael gives the door a peace sign. “Okay,” he says, upon realizing that the other boy can't
hear hand gestures. “Explosive diarrhea. You know how it is.”

A pause, and then: “not really, but good luck!”

Michael waits until he hears the door slam, and then he goes back to read the letter again. The letters are messier at the beginning than at the end, more recognizably Jeremy’s. Michael chokes back his tears.

Chapter Text

Heartbreaking letters aside, the rest of the day passes like everything is normal, and Michael isn't planning on driving to New York to play zombie slayer as soon as the final bell rings. He wonders what a video game based on his current predicament would be called, if somebody decided to make one. After some thought, he settles on Mell in Hell: Revenge of the Breath Mint. He spends astronomy doodling a pixelated version of himself holding up a pixilated bottle of Red, surrounded by small pixilated creatures, representing demon middle school children. Brooke expresses some doubts about how he's using his time, but it doesn't take a lot of effort to convince her that he's only doing what's necessary.

He texts Christine to meet him by his car during lunch, and he texts Jeremy not to worry about him and Christine not being at lunch. He also texts Jeremy an ‘I-don't-hate-you-but-I’m-gonna-have-to-get-to-you-later-please-cuddle-your-dog-and-try-to-feel-happy-when-you-get-home’ message. Hopefully that's enough for now.

Christine’s right on time. She shows up with a jello cup.

“I don't know if you really like these things or not,” she says. “I've noticed that sometimes they’re the only things you eat at lunch, but sometimes you just swish them around in your mouth and spit them out, and other times you eat everything but them. Anyway, I saw this cookbook online with strange jello recipes from the 1950s, where people would use it to make floating potato casseroles and things.”

Michael takes the jello from Christine.

“I have mixed feelings about jello,” he says.

“Me too! Me too. But I know that's not what you texted me to talk about. You look ready to collapse.”

“Do I?” Michael takes out his phone to check. The image of himself that stares back at him is greasy and red-eyed, with a bit of stubble, which is frankly shocking, because he's never been able to grow much of it when he was actually trying. Maybe he's getting older! Totally feels like he's aged a million years since September. He rubs a hand over his chin. It's scratchy and gross.

“Michael?” Christine asks.
“Hmm?”

“How would you feel if I hugged you? I don't even know if you’re into hugging.”

Michael kind of is, but he's very picky about who does it. That's for like level ten friends.

“Go for it,” he tells Christine. She does, loosely at first, then tightening, before backing off a little to place her cool hands on either side of Michael’s prickly face. Michael isn't sure what she's doing, but he's sure that she means it, and he covers her hands with his own. It's 50% similar to a double-decker version of
that painting of the melty-faced screaming man painting that is also an emoji., and 50% the most cinematically romantic platonic gesture Michael has ever engaged it. According to Math, that adds up to 100% nice and comforting. Even after their hands drop, Michael’s face still feels warmer.

“Just so you know,” Christine says, looking straight up at Michael, all seriousness and sincerity, “we’re friends and I'm here for you.”

There's a stinging behind Michael’s eyes that says Christine giving you permission to fall apart, now do it.. There's a tightening in his throats that says Christine Canigula gives a shit, now lose yours. There's a quivering all over that says Cry! Cry so hard that it’ll make Jeremy’s explosion from yesterday look like nothing!. Michael doesn't do any of these things, because lunch period is hella short and he's got a lot that he needs to accomplish

“So… there are things,” Michael says, which isn't as communicative of his present predicament as he'd like it to be. He looks away. Looking at Christine’s unbroken gaze is getting to be too much.

“You gonna tell me what's up?”

“So much is up!” Michael throws up his arms. “You’ll never believe how much is up! Everything is up! It's just… just… ah!”

“Ah?” Christine repeats. “Like ‘ah’ as in aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah?”

“Yes! Yes! Ah!”

“AaaAaAAaaaAAAah!” Christine stomps her foot, throwing her arms in the air just like Michael had a second ago.

“Which is exactly why I need your help. You see, Rich and I are driving to New York State this afternoon, because there's this one middle school that's been overtaken by Squips, and… shit, it's a lot to explain. Sit in my car? I'll show you some e-mails and stuff.”

“Right,” Christine agrees. She wrinkles her nose as soon as she gets into the car. The pot smell is strong. Michael cranks open the window. “So what about the e-mails?” she asks.

Michael hands Christine his phone to read. “Oh my god,” she says, when she's finished. “These are little kids! So you and Rich are going to Tarrytown to give this Justin kid the Mountain Dew Red? Isn't that going to cause problems, when everybody passes out and doesn't wake up?”

“We’re not going to give it to him, actually. We’re going to try to find some other way to get it into one of the squipped students. Don't ask me what, we’re kind of winging this, and…”

“Right,” Christine frowns at the phone.

“We’re doing the right thing, aren't we?” Michael asks. “I mean, the after effects of the Red aren't exactly good.”

“Oh, I'd rather deal with the after affects than the Squip,” Christine says. She gets quieter as she continues. “It's not that I had it that bad, comparatively, but it was like… It… it felt okay at the time. It was so easy… nothing is ever easy like that! But… but it was like preparing myself to be laid out like this ‘sacrificial virgin’ for its plans and… I mean, it's scary, because I know that Jeremy would never do that to me, but I wouldn't have had a choice.”

Michael puts a hand on Christine's shoulder.

“It's fine,” Christine says. “It's over, and Jeremy and I are taking things very, very slowly, for both of our sakes. But, anyway, I think you’re doing the right thing trying to stop the Squips, and it's good that you’re doing it instead of this Justin kid. It must be a lot to deal with. Is it a lot to deal with?”

“Kinda, yeah, but…”

“But you’re dealing with it?”

“Right.” Micheal leans back in his seat, head rolling back so he faces the roof of the car, uncomfortable position be damned. “Anyway, I asked you to come here so that somebody would know if this all goes to hell, and ‘cause I want to give you a bottle if Red in case things get weird, and I get weird along with them.”

Christine nods. “Understood.”

Michael rummages in his bag, finds a two liter, and hands it over to her. It's like handing somebody a sword and telling them to protect the homestead while you go out to war.

“I don't know if you’ll need costumes for what you’re doing,” Christine says, “but you might, and I know where all of the old props and things from the school shows are kept. Raid the theatre with me?”

“Sounds good.”

Michael leaves school that day with a fake mustache, a swooshy cloak, a long prairie skirt, two wigs, that terrible letter, a few useless scraps of academic knowledge, a mission, and an unflagging confidence in the goodness and reliability of Christine Canigula.

Chapter Text

Rich and Michael discuss what to do in the car as they drive to Tarrytown. It's not a very long trip, but Rich has them stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts and a McDonald’s drive through on the way, in order to assure that he has the perfect amount of sugar, fat, and caffeine to carry out their task.

Michael suggests that they put on wigs and mustaches, pour the Red into the slushies at Seven Eleven, and then assume that eventually (hopefully before the machine is cleaned) one of the many squipped children will drink it. Rich points out, through a donut filled mouth, that slushies are not Squip approved beverages. Michael then suggests dressing as janitors and mixing red in with the cafeteria food, or the school’s water supply, or anything that the kids might eventually ingest.

“First of all,” says Rich, “if school is out for us, then it's out for them. Furthermore, they've got the next five days off for Thanksgiving just like we do. So, you know, if your idea is just to scope out the terrain, spend five entire days stressing over this bullshit, and then come back, then we can try something with the school. If you want to end this now, then we’ve got to find something we can do now.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Michael asks.

“That we celebrate.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, think about it,” Rich says. “What are the cool kids up to the night before the start of a holiday weekend?”

Michael waves is hands in an exasperated kind of half shrug. Not like he'd know what cool kids are up to. He's never once been cool. He's still holding out for the whole cool in college thing.

“Think about it,” Rich prompts.

“Getting drunk at some stupid house party.”

“Right! Gold star! You got it!”

“We’re not going to a middle school house party,” Michael says.

“Of courses not. Middle school parties are for dweebs. Even middle schoolers know that. We’re crashing a high school house party. I crashed about a eight million college ones when I had my Squip, so it stands to reason some of the squipped middle school kids will manage to sneak into a high school one and make terrible decisions, just like I used to. All we gotta do is spike some already spiked drinks, then spike the un-spiked drinks too, and then kick back and enjoy ourselves.”

“And make sure nobody burns the place down,” Michael reminds him.

“Harsh, but we’ll be prepared for that! Trust me, no houses are getting burned down on my watch.”

“Sure. Right.”

“They aren't! You think it was fun the first time, tall ass?”

Michael flinches. He's pretty sure Rich is going to hit him. He pulls the car over, and turns towards Rich with his very best if-you-come-at-me-I'll-come-at-you glare.

“Fuck, I'm not going to fight you, tall ass,” Rich shouts.

“Well, I'm not going to fight you either!” Michael shouts back. His own voice vibrates all the way through his body.

“Then act like it!” Rich screams. Michael covers his ears, and but manages to keep up his glare. Rich says something, but he can't hear him because his ears are covered. Hooray for that!

“I don't want to fight with you,” Rich says, as soon as Michael lowers his hands.

“Then stop picking fights.”

“I… look, Mike, I don't even know what to say to that. I'm not picking fights. Just trying to make a plan for tonight.”

“And if it doesn't work?” Michael asks.

“Then we’ll consider the terrain at least partially scoped, and try your plan with the water supply on Monday.”

They don't talk for the rest of the drive.
—————-

Since it's still only late afternoon by the time they arrive in Tarrytown, Michael insists that they walk around for a while. It's an okay city, hilly as fuck and the most suburban of suburbs, but okay. It used to be one and the same with Sleepy Hollow. Michael texts Christine about that, and she texts back an order to find Ichabod Crane’s bridge, and traipse dramatically over it, so he and Rich do. The bridge is in a park, with a stream, some grass, and tons of plaques to read about the headless horseman.

“How would you go about killing a ghost?” Rich asks. It's their fourth time walking over the bridge, but Michael needs to move, and Rich hasn't made any objections. It's also the first words out of his mouth since their argument in the car, and he is very tentative and lispy about them.

“With research,” Michael says. Obviously. Why does Rich even need to ask? When you need to kill a Squip, you research. When you need to kill a ghost, you research. Michael hopes he’ll never need to kill an alien, but he's sure if he did, he'd research it somehow. All this killing is pretty awful, though. When did his life become a kill the enemy type deal? Michael has hardly ever hurt anything or anybody deliberately, but who knows how things will go from here on out?

“I'm talking about the headless horseman, of course. Judging by the paths our lives have gone down so far, you’d probably discover that you needed to shove expired Doritos down its throat.”

“No head. That's why it's headless.”

“But it still had a throat.”

“Its ghost horse had a head and a throat,” Michael points out. “So, are we decided? If we run into the headless horseman, are we going to choke his horse with Doritos and run like hell?”

Rich giggles. Weird. They continue their pacing, and Michael sighs. Killing ghost horses with Doritos is cruelty to animals, and therefore not an option.

“Do people just assume you’re stoned when you walk in circles like this?” Rich asks.

“If I had it my way, I would be. Already was earlier today, but again is fine. Sometimes it happens. Wanna? I hate parties. Usually I wouldn't let you near my stash, considering I also hate you, but we’re a team for the night, and if you leave me alone at that party you’re deader than the horseman and his horse combined, so I might as well share. Maybe we’ll get along better.”

Rich’s face splits into a smile. “I'm up for that. You have no idea how much I'm up for getting along better.”

Michael looks towards his car longingly. He doesn't know this city, and the last thing he needs is to get caught smoking in a parking lot that he thinks is secluded, but actually isn't at all.

“We can't,” he says.

“Then let's at least get some ice cream or something,” Rich says.

Michael looks him over. Where is he putting all this food? As long as Michael has known Rich, the kid has been built like a cross between an Oompa Loompa and a pro-wrestler, but now that he thinks about it, he's starting to see the outline of a potbelly growing under his shirt. Maybe this is a good thing for him. Maybe it's like oompa loompa dupity dee, muscles aren't good if the brain is not free, oompa loompa dupity do, when people have Squips they’re totally screwed…

Rich waves his hand in front of Michael’s eyes. “Yo, snap out of it.”

“Huh?”

“You were just humming that song from Willy Wonka.”

“No I wasn't.”

Rich shrugs. Michael’s words might not be true, but he's going to accept them. “Ice cream or no ice cream?”

“Ice cream for you, music break for me,” Michael decides. Some quality time with his headphones is the next best thing to weed.

“Sounds fair.”

————-

The ice cream and music break lasts for two hours, in a little cafe with pictures of cupcakes and brownies painted on the walls. While they’re at it, Rich takes Michael's advice and researches, over like Snapchat or twitter or something, to find out where they are going for the night. He gives Michael the driving instructions, and instructions on how to look low key and cool.

“You could take of your glasses,” is one of his ideas. “Like Clark Kent becoming Superman.”

“More like Michael Mell becoming blind,” Michael retorts.

“Okay, so that's out.” They go back to the car, and from that point on, Rich focuses on his own appearance, spiking up his hair in Michael’s rear view mirror, and honest to God flexing.

“Nervous,” Rich says. His teeth are chattering, even though the heat is on.

“You’ve tricked people into thinking you’re cool up until this point,” Michael reminds him. “I'm sure you’ve got it down by now, right?”

“Unfortunately.”

“Why did you care so much?” Michael asks. “Enough to take the Squip, I mean.”

“Don't you know?”

Michael shakes his head. Even now that he's starting to understand the appeal of having more than one friend, it's hard to fathom swallowing a pill to get that. After all, Christine isn't Cool (at least not with that capital C), and she almost certainly would’ve been friends with Michael before any of this happened if he'd just gotten his head out of his ass and tried to befriend her. And then there’s Brooke, who is Cool with a capital C, bold lettering, and italics, but who Michael connected with all on his own. The only reasonable belief to take away from all that is that popularity pills are useless.

“So, imagine how rad the last three years would’ve been if you had this big social group, and jerks like me left you alone and…”. Rich gestures into the distance, like he's talking about a far off fantasy world, like Middle Earth or Narnia.

“That would've been hella rad,” Michal says, “but I always kind of assumed that was your problem more than mine.”

“Must’ve been nice!”

“I mean, not really. I was still getting my stuff vandalized, and my neck licked. I just kind of assumed that some people, like you and Jake, liked to hurt others for fun and that was how the world worked.”

“Jake?” Rich balks. “Seriously? He's the nicest guy on the face of the earth.”

Michael gives Rich a doubtful look.

“Like, he's self-centered sometimes,” Rich continues, “but he's not mean to people. He just doesn't always think, which messes him up, with girls especially, but…”

“He was right there for everything you ever did to Jeremy or me. He called me a freak more times than I can count. And a loser. And a fag. The best thing I can say about Jake was that he was less of a jerk than you.”

“Guess he wasn't thinking of you as a person.” Rich says softly. Michael is not impressed.

“What else would I be?”

“Weird,” Rich says.

“Wow. Thanks.” Still not impressed.

“I'm weird too!” Rich says. “I'm so freaking weird, and before the Squip I didn't have anybody, not even one person, like you had Jeremy. I mean, that's why I did it. Everything about me was wrong, or at least I thought it was wrong, and I found a way out, so I took it.”

“It seems like such a stupid thing to do,” Michael says. “I can imagine Jeremy doing it, because he's Jeremy, but literally anybody else would probably know better. Yet, from what I found online, sometimes these things take over entire schools, even towns. Obviously there's some trickery involved, but it looks like tons of people fucking choose it.”

“Guess we’ll have to stay stocked up on Red,” Rich says. “Might be we’ll be stuck going on tons of missions like this one from here on out. Maybe if we keep fighting this, you’ll get what we’re up against one of these days.”

————-

Chapter Text

****Michael at the Party Version One****

Occasion: Halloween
Characteristics: Loud, overwhelming, sickening, loud, loud, loud, drunken, loud, crowded, hot, loud
Music: L O U D
People: l o u d (and mostly familiar)
Notable Guests: Jeremy Heere (aged 17, dressed like a cyborg, tall and thin, pale, obnoxiously pretty face, confused, mean, thoroughly and belligerently squipped)
Mission: Failure
Final Outcome: Panic attack in the bathroom, fire, burgeoning friendship with Brooke Lohst

****Michael at the Party Version Two****

Occasion: The beginning of Thanksgiving break
Characteristics: Loud, overwhelming, sickening, loud, loud, loud, LOUD, loud, crowded, hot, loud
Music: L O U D
People: l o u d (and unfamiliar, save for Rich)
Notable Guests: Ridwana Last Name Unknown (aged 13, skirt and crop top, medium height, tan, black hair down to her waist, confused, tearful, squip that manifests as her dead father, overwhelmed)
Mission: Success! Sort of.
Final Outcome: Five seizures (and probably more elsewhere), probably comatose children, clean escape, panic attack in the car halfway home, maybe the grudging and tentative beginnings of a friendship with Rich Goranski

Chapter Text

The house has a cobblestone walkway, flowers in the windows, a green roof, and not enough parking. People are being told to go park at the train station, which would be a ten minute walk away, if Tarrytown weren't a place of steep terrain more suitable for mountain goats than people, particularly when those people were teenagers whose only real physical exertion was lugging textbooks, video game style boss battles, and occasional jaunts to the roller rink . Rich handles it well enough, and Michael tries to pretend that he does too, but he's definitely out of breath by the time he gets back to the house (whether from the exertion or from literally forgetting to breathe is anybody's guess). Aside from being on the base camp of Mount Everest, the house is pretty, way too pretty for a night of drunken revelry, which in retrospect probably means that the owners are rich, and therefore it is perfect for a night of drunken revelry. Michael can hear the music blasting from outside, and kids like him (but insane, probably popular, and from a whole different state) laughing, shouting, singing, and talking.

Rich is at Michael’s side. Sucks that Rich isn't Jeremy instead. To Jeremy, Michael would say I’m sorry, but I can't do this, and Jeremy would know from his face whether or not to tease him about it, but basically that would be it. Not like they'd never come close to crashing a party together before, but Michael’s dislike of the partying vibe always won out. Concerts typically went better, but once or twice when Michael’s dedication to music had failed him, Jeremy had been supportive of last minute escapes.

“We doing this?” Rich asks.

“I was born doing this.” Michael rubs his hands together as quickly as he can. The need to move is mounting all over his body, even more than usual. “We are super doing this.”

’Make your escape!’ the part of Michael’s brain, that insists this is a common party and not a battle that must be fought, screams. ’If you just topple over and start rolling down the hill like a log, Rich will be too baffled to stop you!’ bellows the part of Michael that has literally no common sense.

Michael makes his way for the the door, stepping around some girls who are smoking on the porch, and arguing loudly about whether or not their upcoming physics final is banned party conversation.

(“It is,” Rich supplies. One of the girls giggles and points after him.)

Doing this isn't really a question of Jeremy or Rich, when it comes down to it, and it has nothing to do with Michael’s likes or comfort. He has to do this, just like he had to do the play. It's like being assaulted by a wall of pure and undulated bad going into that house, though, made worse by the fact that so many of the components of the party are things that Michael likes and takes comfort in. Ridiculously, Micheal imagines Jeremy reaching out for Sharky, only to have Sharky transform into a megalodon and grind his body to a pulp before swallowing him up, and that's a pretty apt analogy for the difference between the music that Michael blasts from his headphones, and the ferocious beast known as party music.

(Megalodon teeth used to be called “heartstones” back when they were being found by 17th century peasants who had no way of knowing that they were discovering prehistoric shark teeth. Those teeth, in addition to being the largest teeth of any sea creature ever, really were heart shaped. Adorable! Megalodons had a range the covered all of the prehistoric oceans of the world, and were similar in size to Leviathans, which were the largest known whale species.)

“This way,” Rich shouts, right in Michael’s face. His first instinct is too push him away or cover his ears, but instead flips up his hood and follows, into what thankfully turns out to be a secluded corner of the party, rather than the center of the thrall.

“You got the red?” Rich asks (more screaming). Michael nods. “Give it over here.” Michael does, and then Rich is off, leaving Michael in his corner.

(He rubs his hands against his sides, until he remembers his phone. He's got six texts from Jeremy, which is scary, because what if he's hurt or they are just reiteration of that letter? They aren't though. The first one is a reply to Michael’s earlier message telling him to do what he needs to do, and the rest are dog pictures. Never in his life has Michael been so happy to have dog pictures. He resolves to get through this, if only so that he can make things right with Jeremy and meet his dog.)

“This party sucks,” Rich says, when he gets back, still holding an almost full bottle of Red. “Is there a keg? Nope. Any kind of punch? Nada. Can't spike individual cans and bottles.”

“Does anybody here look obviously squipped?” Michael asks. He's up for pulling something like he did back at the play if it comes down to it. That might be the best case scenario, even. He could use some adrenaline to get him through. Seems better than just standing here and feeling more overwhelmed every second.

Rich answers, but Michael can't hear him over the din, so he has to answer again. Eventually he manages to convey, via a mix of shouting and hand gestures, that he's going to get a beer, and that he's totally on the lookout.

(He comes back hefting a six pack and a trio of chairs)

“Why three?” Michael hollers.

“More fun.”

“Totally isn't.”

Michael sits down. Rich plants his ass in one of the chairs, and his foot on the other. He pops a beer, and watches. Michael watches too, foot bouncing with the beat of the music, until he starts to get desensitized to it, and then he starts to get into it, and finally the volume isn't so heinous anymore.

“Over there,” Rich says, pointing to a group of five girls who are way too young to be at this party, but are walking like they own the place. Michael reaches for the Red. Three out of the four of them are tiny, and the other is pretty chubby, but that doesn't necessarily equate to combat skills. He could probably take them down.

“No, wait,” Rich says. “It's better if we don't just jump them. That's bound to get taken wrong. Wait for one of them to start drinking. That’ll shut her Squip down, then we close in.”

Chapter Text

The night wears on. Michael gets up to walk around a few times, sticking to the perimeters as he tries to get a feel for the place. He scopes out the exits, and the doors that lead to secluded places, like closets, bedrooms, and bathrooms. He finds a landline phone in the kitchen, which is good, because he can use that to call 911 when things go down.

Rich finds stuff too. Namely, he finds a cup of jello to hand Michael.

“How did you even…”

Rich laughs and laughs. It's the first time all night he's looked anything but grim. The jello is alcoholic jello.
Keeping an eye on the squipped girls is easy. There's something about the way that they carry themselves that commands attention, and the worst thing about the situation is that they’re getting it, and in all the wrong ways.

“You sure about not just wrestling one of them down and force feeding her the Red?” Michael asks.

Rich doesn't respond. His eyes are glassy. Michael’s just about made up his mind to shake him out of it, when Rich points to a spot in the distance. “There,” he says.

One of the girls backs into the wall. She looks around her, left and right, like somebody waking from a dream to find herself in a surrealist nightmare. She tries to take another step backwards, but she can't. She sinks down against the wall instead.

The rest scene doesn't change. Somebody nearly steps on the girl. Michael leaps into action only realizing once he's leaning over this kid with his hand outstretched that he doesn't know what this action is. He looks back at Rich, who facepalms, ‘cause apparently Michael is already doing this wrong, but there's no going back now.

So Michael tries to think back to his confrontation with Jeremy at that other party, the one that he's been trying hard not to think about. How did he mess that one up? He's so close to the girl that he can make out the individual strands of hair on her head, and she's looking away and drawing into herself reflexively, as though if she doesn't make eye-contact and she keeps herself very small, he Michael will disappear. Only Michael won't disappear. He needs to get it right this time.

Chapter Text

Things Michael might have done wrong at the Halloween party: A 2000 Word Study in Critical Self-Reflection, Reconciliation, and Destroying Squips

Thesis: Although Jeremy’s behavior at Jake's Halloween party could most aptly be described as that of as asshole and a meanie-head, Michael Bernardo Mell did not approach the situation in a way that was likely to yield optimal results. Naturally, the reader can assume that Michael was doing his best at the time, and does not deserve harsh criticism for his first failed attempt at rescuing Jeremy Heere. Furthermore, as one will soon see illustrated through the example of Michael’s behavior towards another squipped individual at a different party, Michael is learning and growing. This paper will list five specific unsuccessful communication methods that Michael used at the first party, and juxtapose them with his thoughts and behaviors at the second.

1. He startled Jeremy, jumping out of the bathtub and shit.

Michael reaches out for the girl in front of him. Seeing her flinch, he rocks back on his heels, putting some distance between them.

“Hey,” he says, his voice cracking from the effort to keep it soft. He rakes a hand up through his hair. “I come in peace. Totally not going to hurt you. Just wanna get you off the floor.” He offers his hand to the girl, who watches it warily. At least she's looking at him now. “Come on,” Michael says, with what he'd like to think is precision level gentleness. “I can help you.”

The girl takes his hand, and he pulls them both to their feet.

 

2. He failed to address the fact that Jeremy was mega freaked out.

Michael is a bit wobbly from crouching, and the girl a lot wobbly, probably from a whole host of things. She nearly falls over twice on the short walk back to the corner where Rich is waiting. As soon as she sits down she starts kicking her feet against each other violently, and Michael can't figure out what it is, until Rich points to her shoes.

“You want help with those?” Michael asks. She nods, and stops kicking so that Michael can lean down undo the straps. It's no big surprise that she was having trouble walking. The heels are high enough and sharp enough that they'd be great murder weapons, but it’s hard to imagine a human being successfully walking around on them.

“Better?”

The girl nods.

“How much have you had to drink?” asks Rich.

The girl sniffles, and wipes her eyes.

“Enough,” Rich decides. “Enough to turn the thing off.”

The girl looks like she's trying to push herself back into her chair. She pulls at the hem of her shirt several times, and then gives up, wrapping her arms around her exposed stomach, hiding skin with different skin. Her fingernails dig deep into her flesh.

Maybe Michael should give the girl his hoodie. She wants to be covered, and a hoodie would accomplish that. Michael loves his hoodie and doesn't want to lose it.

“Rich, give her your sweater,” Michael orders, and sure, Rich looks kinda surprised at the command, but he complies, slipping it off to hand the girl. She stares at his skin, and Michael stares at his skin. It's pink and white, blotchy burn scars everywhere, and another kind of scar at the base of his neck.

“Well!” Rich clears his throat. “Put it on, why don't you. And how about a drink, okay?” Rich reaches for the red, and Michael stops him with a hand on his arm. It doesn't seem right to give it to this girl when she's completely terrified, and it's going to hurt her, and she doesn't even know what’s happening.

“If you drink another beer, it’ll keep the Squip shut down for longer,” Michael says, looking to Rich for confirmation. “That's how it works, isn't it?”

“That's how it works,” Rich agrees. “Beer it is, then.” He hands the girl one of the beers at his side. She takes it, but just holds it between her hands, not drinking, not even moving. The sweater is bundled up in her arms.

“You know about the Squip?” the girl asks, for the first time daring to look at Michael. “Do you want one? I can… I should give you one. I should…” she bursts into tears.

“Whoah,” Michael says.

“Whoah,” Rich agrees. And then, to the girl: “Whoah… hey. Hey. You’re okay. It's not talking to you, right? And that's scary, right? But we want to keep it quiet just a little longer, so we can talk to you about what's going on. You want to know what's going on, don't you?”

“Will it hurt it?” the girl asks. “The beer, I mean.”

“It won't,” Rich says. “You could drink a whole liquor store, and it'd come back as soon as you started to sober up, just the same as ever. Trust me.”

The girl looks from Rich, to Michael, and then back at Michael. She flips open the can of beer, and swallows it so quickly that as much of it goes dribbling down her chin as goes into her. She holds out her hand for a second, which Rich gives to her. She takes a sip of this one, and wipes her mouth.

3. He didn't ask for Jeremy’s side of the story.

“So, who are you?” Michael asks, but then he realizes that she could be asking him the same question. “I'm Michael, by the way, and this is Rich.”

“Ridwana,” the girl says softly into her beer. She looks down at Rich’s sweater, still not putting it on, but smoothing it over herself like a blanket.

“How did you end up with a Squip?”

“I dunno…” her voice us so quiet that it's hard to make out the words. “It hurt, and then he showed up at lunch last week.”

“Who is he?” Rich asks.

More quiet mumbling.

“Hilary Clinton?” Michael guesses. Ridwana wrinkles up her nose. “Taylor Swift?”

“I don't know what you’re talking about,” she says. Michael wonders just how many models of Squips there could possibly be.

“Can they… can they be real people?” Ridwana asks. “Not like Taylor, or Hilary, but they make you smarter, don't they? They make you able to see things that others can't see.”

“What are you seeing?” Rich asks.

“Ghosts… like spirits. And they’re helping me! Sometimes.” She takes another gulp of her beer.

“But not tonight?” Michael guesses.

“They’re trying! It's me that's the problem! I don't belong here!”

“True,” Michael agrees. Rich shoots him a look.

“I don't belong anywhere! I should be dead, but if I just listen to them, maybe I can be okay. Maybe I don't have to die.”

“You definitely don't have to die,” Rich tells her.

“My dad died. Sometimes people have to die. But now, with the Squip, my brain’s expanded, and I can see him again. If he wasn't so loud, and angry, I could…” she shakes her head, a bit wildly, rocking in her chair.

“Are you hearing him?” Michael asks.

“No.” And the girl is crying again. “It's just… I'm terrible. I'm so terrible. And I almost wish he didn't come back and see how terrible I am, and how much I've disappointed him, and I'm trying to make it right, but I'm too terrible and everything I do is wrong. Can't even walk in a stupid pair of shoes without him helping me. Can't find a boyfriend. I mean, I thought I didn't want one, but that's what all ugly girls say so that we don't have to admit we’re ugly. I'm just ugly, and stupid, and…”

4. He himself became mega freaked out over insults, when Jeremy wasn't even thinking straight.

Michael reaches out to pat Ridwana’s arm, and what he hopes will be a comforting manner.

“Fuck off, four-eyes!” she spits out. Michael is taken aback, both by the venom in her voice, and her choice of insults. Seriously, four-eyes? Four-eyes??? Does anybody use that outside of those dumb videos that teachers make you watch in primary school, to teach you about how not to bully?

(In defense of those videos, Michael guesses that they did successfully teach his classmates that making fun of people’s glasses was a shitty thing to do. His glasses are probably the only thing Michael has never been made fun of for… up until now.)

Apparently, Rich is thinking the same thing as Michael. “Somebody at Squip Headquarters is getting all of their insults from cheesey teen movies. Speaking of which, get this Mike, if we take off your glasses, fix your hair, and do your make-up just so, you’ll be worthy of love.”

“Right!” Ridwana agrees.

Michael and Rich exchange looks.

“No, wait,” says Ridwana. “I take that back. You're both losers. Dad said to stay away from losers.”

5. He acted superior to Jeremy, when really Jeremy just needed to know that somebody was on his side.

“You’re not terrible,” Michael says. “You know that, right?”

Ridwana blinks, taken aback, as well she might be. She did just call Michael a loser and all.

“Is that how your dad used to talk to you when he was alive?” Rich asks. “Did he tell you you were terrible?”

Ridwana bit her lip. “No.”

“Think about some of the things he used to say to you,” Michael says.

“He said that I was smart. He wanted me to go to college. He worked so hard. He set up a bank account with money that he was saving to send me to college.”

“You are smart,” Michael agrees. “And college is way better than middle school.”

“The money’s gone,” Ridwana says. “It was only six hundred dollars. These are six hundred dollar shoes.”

“Shit,” says Rich. “So, your Squip-ghost-dad told you to empty out your college fund to buy a pair of shoes?”

Ridwana nods.

“That's another thing your real dad wouldn't want you to do, I bet,” says Michael.

“He… he said my face was a lost cause.” Ridwana rubs her hand over it. She’s gonna start crying again at any moment. “So ugly.”

“Your dad never told you you were ugly when he was alive, did he?” Michael asks.

Ridwana shakes her head.

“We can help you get rid of the Squip,” says Rich. “It's not really your dad, and I think you know that. We can send it away permanently, and you can get on with your life.”

“I don't understand anything!” Ridwana says. “If this thing is real, if he's my dad, then he hates me. If it's not real, then my real dad would hate me, seeing all the things I've done. He told me to take care of my mom and sister. I've been so mean to them. I've been terrible. This is terrible.”

“Then end it,” Rich says. “You know how you have to drink Mountain Dew to activate it? Red Mountain Dew shuts it down. So happens we have a whole bottle of the stuff. Also, you see Michael there? His boy friend just got his Squip out, and Michael totally forgave him, right?”

Michael shoots Rich a look, but now isn't the time to correct him on the whole boyfriend thing. To Ridwana he says, “I mean, yeah. Basically. We’re working through some stuff, but when you love somebody you put your… er… your whole heart into the whole loving thing, and you try to understand when shit goes down, as long as they try their hardest to make amends. I'm not gonna lie. I don't know what you’ve done and what you haven't, but you’re probably going to have some apologies to make after this is all over, but it'll get better.”

Ridwana sighs, “I want this to be over.”

“Thought you might,” says Rich. He moves to hand Ridwana the Red. Again, Michael stops him.

“So, here's what's going to go down,” Michael says. “It's going to hurt when you drink this. Then you’re going to sleep for a while. Maybe a long while. Like, a very long while, but you’re going to wake up. When you do, you might want to see a psychologist or something. That'd probably be good. Having your brain taken over by an evil computer that's pretending to be your dead dad probably isn't the best thing for your mental health, you know?”

“Right,” Rich agrees. “And don't think you don't deserve help after all this, because you do. Got it?”

Ridwana nods.

“Ready?” Michael asks.

Another nod.

“Go to the phone and call an ambulance,” Rich says. “I’ll handle this from here, and grab you when it's over.”

Michael stands up. As he walks away, he glances back at Rich and Ridwana. He has Ridwana’s face in his hands, and seems to be telling her something dead serious, but the music drowns it out, so Michael can't hear.

He makes the call. He's barely said the address of the house, when the screaming starts, Ridwana’s voice mingling with what shrieks out as a few others, and then a lot of others, as even the non-squipped partiers freak the hell out. Rich grabs onto Michael and pulls him towards the door.

“Let's get the fuck out of here before the police show up.”