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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: swall0wit1973@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.