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Protector

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People protect what they love.

-Jacques Yves Cousteau

“So,” Jenna says at lunch, “what’s up with you and Ashley Parker?”

Everybody is abuzz with energy for the first week back from spring break except the seniors, who know what kind of hell awaits them. Brooke and Christine are in the lunch line, and the other members of the group haven’t shown yet, so it’s just Jeremy and Jenna at the table so far. Jeremy supposes he should be grateful that Jenna chose to broach this topic while nobody else is paying attention to them. “Oh my god,” he whinges. “Nothing. Nothing. She just…wanted to see if I’d be interested in hanging out sometime.”

“Mmmhm.” The corner of Jenna’s mouth ticks up in a way that bodes terribly for Jeremy’s blood pressure. “So you didn’t actually have sex with her in the janitor’s closet?”

“No, I locked myself into the janitor’s closet because she tried to have sex with me," Jeremy hisses. "Who does that?”

“I don’t know, not a lot of guys would lock themselves in a closet to get away from a hot girl—”

“I meant who tries to have sex with a guy they hardly know at school, in the morning, while entirely sober? I’ve only talked to her like, twice!” Jeremy has been in high school for nearly three years and high school is still bizarre to him.

Jenna pats his hand. “It’s because you’re cute. You have a distinct vibe. Like a hamster.”

“Like a what, now.”

“Like a prey animal,” she clarifies. “Totally easy kill for a girl who knows what she wants.” She pauses. “Or a boy.”

“Oh my god,” Jeremy wheezes.

“Michael was worried during physics class. He probably thought she’d eaten you up during sex like some grotesque praying mantis deal.” Jenna takes a bite of her corndog. “You should reassure him that your chastity and head are still intact.”

Jeremy flops over the lunch table and groans. “I can’t believe a girl tried to take advantage of me at school.”

“Didn't Chloe try the same thing to you before?"

"She was drunk," Jeremy says into the table, flapping a hand to emphasize how different the experience was. "And she was still in the closet." Nothing had happened back then, except Chloe bursting into tears and drunkenly going on and on about how she didn't even like boys. She'd apologized and demanded his immediate amnesia of the night's events as soon as she'd sobered up. "And it wasn't at school."

Jenna pats his head this time. "You're really hung up on that part, aren't you."

"I have English class with her next period," Jeremy laments. "I don't wanna go. She wouldn't try anything in class, would she?"

"I dunno, you're easy prey," Jenna says.

"Stop saying that," Jeremy whines, lifting his head to pout at her. He's not edible, for fuck's sake. "I'm not a hamster."

"Wanna bet? Hey guys," Jenna addresses Brooke and Christine as they sit down with their lunch trays. "Would you say Jeremy's a herbivore or a carnivore?"

"What?" Christine asks, confused.

Brooke, on the other hand, doesn't miss a beat. "Herbivore."

"Brooke!" Jeremy feels betrayed here. "Why would you say that? I thought we were friends."

Suddenly, Michael is right there, one hand settling on Jeremy's shoulder as he drops into the adjacent seat. Behind him, Jeremy can see Rich and Jake walking up to the table. "What did I miss?" Michael asks.

"We were talking about whether Jeremy qualifies as a prey animal," Jenna explains. "Did you just sprint from the cafeteria entrance?"

"He heard Jeremy’s distress call," Rich says, dropping his tray onto the table and taking a seat. "Had to go rescue his dude in distress. Didn't even finish talking to us."

"Bros are important," Jake supplies cheerfully.

Michael gives them both an unimpressed look before responding to Jenna. "A prey animal?"

"You know, given how he was almost devoured alive by Ashley Parker just today--"

"Wait, I didn't know about this," Christine says, seconded by Rich. Jeremy feels Michael stiffen, so he elbows his best friend’s side in reassurance while he tries to explain no, he was not a prey animal, he was not some lanky hamster being snatched off to be eaten by a female bald eagle, no matter how much Ashley Parker's nails had felt like sharp talons on his arms that morning.

"So a hot girl threw herself at you and you threw yourself outta the way?" Rich cackles once the explanation ends. "Dude, you're like those Victorian knights. Chivalrous as fuck."

"The Victorian era didn't have knights. You're thinking about the medieval ones," Christine points out.

Rich shrugs. "Eh, same thing. Scandalous ankles and shit, right?"

"If you're saying Jeremy has the sensibilities of a Victorian lady..." Michael pauses. Then grins. "You're absolutely right."

"Not you too," Jeremy groans.

"No, he's right," Chloe says, having sat down during Michael's dramatic pause. "You almost fainted from seeing my bra strap. I can't believe I tried to sleep with you. You would have passed out if I took my shirt off."

"It's okay," Brooke coos and leans over to pat Jeremy's cheek. "You were the only boy I dated who didn't try to grope me. I think it's sweet."

Jeremy splutters like a dying car engine.

"I like herbivores," Christine assures him, like that helps at all. "They're the backbone of the ecosystem!"

"They are?" Jeremy asks weakly.

Jenna points her fork at him in triumph. "The exes have spoken. You're officially on the prey list in the high school food chain."

"You know, that used to mean I might get bullied, not sexually threatened," Jeremy says, defeated. He gives up. High school is the worst. “But, like, it probably won't happen again, right?"

"Only you would find hot girls trying to seduce you sexually threatening," Rich marvels.

"Girls are scary," Jeremy says, and he's not even ashamed of saying that out loud. He's sitting with some of the scariest girls he knows. "And dude, unwanted sexual advances are scary regardless of gender."

Rich points a finger gun at him. ”You have a point."

"Anyway, it probably won't happen again," Jeremy repeats with a conviction he doesn't feel. His survival instincts nag at him, so he turns to Chloe. "Please sit with me in English class?"

She smirks at him. "Oh yeah, I'll protect you from the big bad Ashley Parker. Don't worry, Heere."

-

It happens again.

Not in English class, mind, but after school, when Jeremy's let his guard down and walking down the hall to find Michael and go home. Somebody grabs him by the back of his cardigan and pulls him into the girls' locker room. For a moment, Jeremy thinks he's going to be beat up, but then he half-turns and looks down to see the tiny, terrifying Gina Sanchez smiling at him like she's a lioness ready for lunch and Jeremy's a tasty gazelle.

Goddammit, the prey and predator metaphors have invaded Jeremy's brain.

"Hello Jeremy," Gina purrs at him, rolling the r sound in his name like a cat purring before it pounces. "How's it going?"

"Um, good, I guess?" Jeremy tries to subtly edge away from her, but her hand still has an iron grip on his cardigan, and he fears that she'll actually rip it off of him if he makes a sudden movement. Gina isn't as pretty as Ashley Parker, but she has a charisma and force of personality that can rival Chloe's, with eyeliner sharp enough to cut Jeremy to shreds. "I was just, uh, going home."

"Aw," Gina says, the hand not gripping his cardigan patting his hip, and Jeremy almost squeaks. "You in a hurry?"

"N-no," Jeremy stammers, then mentally flings himself off the school rooftop because why is he incapable of lying under pressure? "I mean, Michael's probably waiting for me in the parking lot. So, um."

Gina smiles even wider, with just a hint of teeth. Jeremy is starting to seriously consider just feigning a heart attack. "I think he can wait just a bit more.” Her hand inches down, dangerously close to groping his ass. “Don’t you think so?”

He’s just about to test his acting skills to the extreme when he's saved by the door slamming open.

"Jeremy, there you are!" Brooke chirps, sugary sweet, not even sparing Gina a glance. She curls both arms around one of Jeremy's and continues talking like she hasn't just walked in on the great prelude to Jeremy being ravished by a five-foot girl. "Michael asked me to fetch you because you were taking forever, and he promised me a Pinkberry stopover, so you need to hurry."

"Brooke," Gina says, smiling with all her teeth and a glare so intense Jeremy wants to hide. "We're kinda in the middle of something."

"Too bad," Brooke says, still smiling brightly. "I think whatever that something was, it ended."

Here's the thing about Brooke: she's meek and soft-spoken and always deferential to Chloe, but that's because she loves her best friend to bits and doesn't mind being second to her.  Chloe could boss Brooke around from Florida to Alaska and it’d only be possible because Brooke would allow it. Brooke is no doormat. People are so used to seeing her bend to Chloe's whims that they forget Brooke is on top of the social ladder too, and that she can enforce the laws of high school hierarchy when she sees fit to do so.

So Brooke stares Gina down with a sunny smile that just screams I will murder your entire social life if I need to, don't test me, and Gina, who's attractive but has little influence in the grand scheme that is Middle Borough High, folds like wet paper and releases Jeremy's cardigan. Then she pushes past them and stomps out the door.

"I think I owe you a life debt," Jeremy says.

"You can buy me my fro-yo,” Brooke assures him, leaving one arm hooked around his as she starts leading him outside. She's texting on her phone with her free hand, presumably to alert Michael that Jeremy has been safely taken into her custody. "And thank Michael. He's the one who asked me to help look for you.”

"You were really badass, by the way," Jeremy says. Brooke smiles at him, not in a terrifying way, but in a soft, fond way that emphasizes her dimples.

"And you're adorable," she tells him. "Be careful, all the other girls have noticed."

"Oh boy," Jeremy says, shoulders slumping. He hopes today was just a freak accident, and that he'll go back to being the unremarkable kid with some remarkable friends. He's not sure his nerves can handle any more of the prey life.

-

Jeremy's not completely inexperienced with girls. He dated Brooke for a couple weeks last semester, which had involved a few kisses and them mutually agreeing they just weren't going to work out, and there'd been the incident with Chloe at Jake's party, which had mostly ended at a kiss that they both hadn't enjoyed at all. He'd dated Christine for a month or so over the past winter before they realized that the chemistry between them was strictly friendly.

So Jeremy's not entirely girl-innocent, and he actually watches porn on a regular basis, thank you very much. Yes, he would like to eventually graduate from being a virgin, but it’s not like he’s going to jump into bed with the first person that offers. The Chloe incident cemented how much Jeremy doesn't want to do the whole one night stand thing, and since breaking up with Christine he's not in a hurry to date anybody new. He's okay with waiting and jerking off alone for the time being.

The fact that he’s kinda terrified of the girls in his high school is really just an unfortunate bonus.

“That’s my girl,” Chloe crows when he relates yesterday’s events to her during their morning study hall period. They’re sitting in Mr. Reyes’s classroom because he lets them use it when he doesn’t have class, and the classroom tends to be empty most of the time. As for now, it’s just Jeremy and Chloe, having come here as soon as they popped by the study hall classroom to sign the attendance sheet. Rich and Jake are in their study hall block as well, but they haven’t shown up yet. They’re probably making out. 100% consensually. It’s tragic that Jeremy’s more jealous about the consensual part than the making out part. “I wish I could’ve been there to see it. Fucking Gina Sanchez, as if she stands a chance against Brooke.”

“I don’t get why this is happening to me,” Jeremy says. He’d given Ashley a wide berth this morning, and he’d nearly been accosted by Gina again before Jenna had magically inserted herself beside Jeremy, escorting him to study hall. He’s pretty sure Madeline Garcia winked at him on the way there, too.

“You’re cute, I guess,” Chloe says, like Jeremy being cute is a concept she knows about but doesn’t quite believe in. To be fair, Jeremy doesn’t believe in that concept either. “I don’t know if you’re fuckable, but. If you were a girl.” She squints at him for a long moment. “Maybe if you were a girl,” she finally confirms with a nod.

“Gee thanks, Chloe. I’ve always wanted to be theoretically fuckable as a girl,” Jeremy deadpans.

“Lighten up,” Chloe says, kicking his shin gently. “So you’re the hot news in school for now. It’ll die down. And until it does, we’ll make sure you’re not wandering the halls alone like a lamb to the slaughter.”

Jeremy heaves a sigh, tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling. “It’s just—I feel bad for complaining about this? Because haha, oh poor me, I can’t handle girls trying to hit on me, what a loser. But I hate this, too. It’s like this big cosmic joke that everybody’s in on and I’m the punchline.” He rubs his face with both hands. “I don’t know why this is bothering me so much, this is stupid, I’m sorry.”

On the way to study hall, he’d asked Jenna if there was some girls locker room dare going on to humiliate him, and she’d promised to snoop around in case his sudden popularity boost had any nefarious ulterior motives. He knows he’s being paranoid, but he can’t help himself.

Chloe clears her throat, prompting Jeremy to look at her properly.

“Look, you're a virgin who thinks girls are intimidating," she says without a trace of malice, like every word isn't a critical hit to Jeremy's practically non-existent ego. “And now they’re aggressively trying to get in your pants without even buying you dinner first. Of fucking course you’re uncomfortable about it. You have every right to be. And as somebody who’s spent a lifetime being objectified, let me tell you, this shit can wear you down. So don’t think you gotta work through this alone.” She kicks his shin with her toe again, a friendly impact. “We’re here for you.”

She says it all in a brusque manner, because Chloe likes to think she’s allergic to mushy feelings, but the sentiment comes through anyway. The way she spells it out for him easy and clear does the trick, draining most of the tension from Jeremy, allowing him to muster a weak smile and nudge her foot back in gratitude. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” They sit in silence for a minute before Chloe checks her watch. “Ten bucks on the lovebirds not showing up at all.”

Jeremy looks at the clock. There’s still at least twenty-five more minutes before the period ends. And Jake rarely plays hooky, even for study hall. “You’re on.”

-

Jeremy loses that bet.

“I hate you,” he tells Jake sullenly as they sit next to each other for biology class. “I can’t believe you spent the entire period making out with Rich.”

Jake just laughs, the smug bastard. “Rich is really good at making me forget what time it is,” he says, and it’s not even like he’s aiming for innuendo or anything; he just says it like he’s proud of his boyfriend being able to kiss his brains out. Jeremy’s almost jealous of the casual way Jake wholeheartedly loves Rich. “We didn’t mean to actually skip the whole period.”

“Not like you really missed out on anything,” Jeremy says. He’d ended up taking turns with Chloe playing Crossy Road on her phone. She was still miffed that he’d beaten her high score. That soothed the sting of losing ten dollars a bit.

They stay quiet for a moment as Mrs. Schwartz drones on about the human digestive system, Jeremy doodling in a corner of his notebook, Jake jotting down the occasional note. It’s nice, normal, and everything is fine until Jeremy’s eyes slide to the left and meet Veronica Lee’s from across the room.  He averts his gaze, half because he looks away from all accidental eye contact automatically and half because Veronica is intimidating as fuck. He’s never talked to her before, but there’s something unsettling about her, the way her bangs almost cover her eyes most of the time, the quiet air about her that forbids most people from ever sharing her space. Mostly, it’s the fact that Jeremy’s never seen her smile.

He waits a solid ten seconds before he chances glancing in that direction again and what the fuck, she’s still staring at him. Intensely. Like she’s a part-time serial killer out to shop for potential victims and she thinks Jeremy would make excellent murder material.

“Is it just me,” Jeremy hisses through his teeth to Jake, “or is Veronica Lee about to kill me?”

“Hm?” Jake hums, then whispers, “Oh wow. What did you do?”

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Jeremy mumbles, resolutely keeping his eyes focused on his textbook now. The visuals on his textbook inform him what his intestines would look like spilling from his guts if Veronica Lee were to disembowel him.

He wishes Michael were here to distract him from the possibility of being serial murdered, because Michael always knows how to derail Jeremy’s anxiety and deconstruct the tower of panic Jeremy ends up building in his mind. Michael would protect Jeremy, whether it be from a serial killer or a very intimidating high school girl. It’s the way they’ve always worked. The two of them against the world (or, well, high school).

Except, there’s more than the two of them now, which is pretty nice, and they have only one class together, which sucks. Michael had looked at Jeremy’s crushed face after they got their respective class schedules and squeezed Jeremy’s hand, had said we should learn to be a little less dependent on each other anyway. He’d said it with forced levity, as if this was the natural thing, the inevitable thing: the independence and growing up and growing apart. And as much as Jeremy had accepted that, there was still an inner part of him that balked at it. That wanted Michael to stay.

Then yesterday, amidst the terror of being cornered in locker rooms and janitor closets, there had been Michael, furious on Jeremy’s behalf, worry in his eyes as he’d patted Jeremy down for any possible damage left by Gina. During the entire drive to Pinkberry, Michael had started talking out a game plan on how to make sure Jeremy was accompanied by a friend at all times at school until the insanity had died down. Brooke had contributed to the strategy-making, and both of them had dismissed Jeremy’s concerns of such a plan being overkill. And listening to them both heatedly discuss how to best chaperone Jeremy during the school day, Jeremy’d found himself pathetically touched by Michael’s overprotectiveness. Had even been pleased by it.

And now Jeremy wishes Michael were by his side, keeping him safe. And maybe keeping him sane, too.

-

“So it turns out, this might actually be our fault,” Jenna says at lunch.

They’re all crowded around their usual table, no space for any rogue girls to attempt squeezing into, and Jeremy is safely deposited between Michael and Christine, who’d both had to kidnap Jeremy from an incredibly persistent sophomore girl because Jeremy had walked alone to his locker after fourth period, not expecting to be ambushed right then and there.

Jeremy takes back what he said about a full-time chaperone system being overkill. He will take every bit of chaperoning his friends can offer.

A sophomore girl. What is the world coming to.

“Explain,” Chloe demands.

“So, remember when we had the water balloon fight in Jake’s backyard during spring break?” Jenna asks. Everybody at the table nods. “Remember that I posted pics from that on Instagram?” Everybody nods again. Jenna posts everything on Instagram. “Remember I posted this?”

What Jenna holds up on her phone is a candid photo of Jeremy, with his hair dripping wet and a shy smile aimed somewhere off-camera, shirtless.

“I remember that,” Jake says. Jeremy puts his face in his hands and stifles a scream, because he’d okayed that photo because he doesn’t do social media and had figured he’d never have to see it online. Michael makes a choked noise from beside him.

“If you look closely,” Jenna says dryly, “you can see that Jeremy Heere has some kickass pecs, which he acquired from becoming workout bros with Rich Goranski.”

Rich whistles. “Daaamn, you look good, bro! I told you it’d pay off!”

“Paid off too well, apparently,” Michael says in a strangled voice.

Jenna continues. “Then there are the little things, such as Jeremy’s reputation jumping since he dated Brooke, and Jake no longer being on the market. Also, it didn’t help that Christine tells anybody who asks just how great her ex-boyfriend is.” Everybody turns to look at Christine.

“But it’s true!” Christine says. Jake pets her head.

“You did nothing wrong,” Jenna assures her. “But it pretty much solidified Jeremy as the best available boy in our grade right now.”

Jeremy tries to figure out where everything went wrong. “But how does that translate into girls actually, I don’t know, trying to actively maul me?”

“Well,” Jenna says, “that’s partly because your prey vibes are too strong. The other part is that what Chloe did at the Halloween party last semester has belatedly started a terrible trend.”

“Fuck,” Chloe says. Jeremy bleakly echoes the sentiment.

“So in short, we’ve collectively turned you into prime girl-bait,” Jenna concludes.

“You found all of this out just this morning?” Rich asks, stealing fries off of Jake’s tray. “You were in class with me for half the day. How do you do that?”

“I have my sources,” Jenna says.

“You’d make a great CIA agent,” Rich tells her.

She snorts. “The CIA couldn’t afford me.”

“So,” Michael finally says while the rest of the group digests the info dump, “there’s no way to like, fix this?”

“I mean, unless we somehow make Jeremy unattractive overnight, we can’t really do much,” Jenna says. “Some girls really dig the vulnerable pretty boy aesthetic.”

“Oh my god,” Jeremy says.

Brooke offers him a breadstick with a sympathetic look. Christine pats his back. Neither of them deny what Jenna just said.

“We could try finding somebody else for the girls to fixate on, but unless Jake becomes single again…” Jenna says, trailing off and looking at Jake, who firmly winds both arms around Rich and rests his chin on Rich’s head, a forbidding expression on his usually cheery face. “Yeah, I thought so. And we don't have any other likely candidates for school heartthrob, so it looks like we’re stuck with the buddy system until everything goes back to normal.”

“High school is never normal,” Chloe says. She makes a vaguely apologetic face at Jeremy, presumably for her role in contributing to the insanity that has become his life. “Learn some self-defense, pretty boy.”

“Oh my god,” Jeremy repeats. At this rate, those three words are soon going to be the only vocabulary he’s capable of. Like I am Groot, except infinitely more pathetic. He slumps sideways into Michael, burying his face in his shoulder. “Michael, save me.”

He feels Michael's hand on his, squeezing his fingers under the lunch table. “I wish I could, Jer,” Michael says in a low voice into Jeremy’s hair, like he’d fight Jeremy’s battles for him if only it were possible. Like it hurts to be unable to do so.

-

The rest of the day passes more or less without incident, which helps Jeremy calm down a little. Sure, Madeline comes batting her eyelashes at him before sixth period and Gina makes yet another attempt to grab him when the last school bell rings, but Jake throws an arm over Jeremy’s shoulders and wards Madeline off with a megawatt smile and Christine bodily drags Jeremy off to musical rehearsal before Gina can claw at him.

There’s a hiccup during rehearsal when Tiffany, one of the cast members, just sashays up to where Jeremy is sitting in the back of the auditorium for a break and sits on his lap.

“Um,” Jeremy squeaks, frozen and completely taken aback. Tiffany is tall, dark-skinned, and a varsity volleyball player, which is why she participates in extra-curricular theatre only during the off-season. She could break Jeremy with one hand. Which is kinda hot, but the fear outweighs the arousal in this case.

“Your singing is very good,” Tiffany says, casual as a panther lounging in a jungle. “And your dancing is getting better.”

“Er, thank you?” Jeremy internally screams at himself for being the most spineless moron on this side of the hemisphere. It’s like he’s a mouse trying to be polite to the cat about to eat it alive.

“I’ve been having trouble with the ballroom scene,” Tiffany says, leaning closer, and Jeremy hopes that somebody sets the school on fire right now. Or a comet comes crashing into the auditorium. Even a zombie apocalypse would be welcome as long as it happened right here and right now. “So I wondered if you might want to help me with it?” She smiles, predatory. “Just the two of us?”

“Uh,” Jeremy says, and is saved from having to figure out what to say next by Michael’s voice ringing out through the room.

“Hey Jeremy, costume crew wants you for a fitting right now!”

Jeremy practically melts with relief. “Right, yeah, um. I gotta go,” he says, waiting for Tiffany to reluctantly stand up before he bolts.

He joins Michael out in the hall, throwing his arms around Michael and clinging onto him for dear life. “Oh my god, that was so scary,” he exhales, sagging in Michael’s arms. “You are my savior. You win the best friend Nobel prize. Don’t ever let me be alone with a girl ever again.”

“You’re burdened with the curse of being too attractive,” Michael says. “Sophomore-you would never believe this.”

“Junior-me doesn’t believe this,” Jeremy argues into the fabric of Michael’s hoodie. “I’m not even that good looking. I’m average at most. Why do girls say I’m cute? I’m not cute. I’m pale enough to reflect sunlight and look like a human flashbulb in photos. And now I have like one photo that maybe looks nice through the power of filtering and photoshop, and girls are suddenly caught in this misconception that I’m—”

“Woah, woah, slow down, buddy.” Michael gently pushes him back by the shoulders so they can be face to face. “You are good looking. You could break hearts with those blue eyes of yours, my friend.” Michael pauses, reassesses his words, then smacks his face with one hand. “I mean, you’re attractive. Very. And you’re pale, so what. I like it.” Another pause. “Girls like it. Brings all of them to the yard and all that. Jesus christ, you have pecs. That makes you automatically twice as hotter than you usually are. And you have nice hair, um, and your eyes are nice. Pretty. Ugh, you get what I mean. Please tell me you get what I mean.”

Michael’s rambling calms Jeremy’s nerves. “Okay, I get it. I’m not hideous.”

“Argh,” Michael says, scowling. Then he takes Jeremy’s face with both hands and says, “Jeremiah Heere, you listen to me. You are attractive. And you are a good person. You deserve to be loved by everybody out there, but you deserve better than girls trying to bully their way into your pants. You hearing me on this?” A thumb strokes Jeremy’s cheekbone, sparking warmth through him. Brown eyes look into his pleadingly. “Jer, you’re worth all of them and more. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jeremy says weakly. Everything feels weak inside of him right now. Knees, throat, chest. Vulnerable, just like when he’s cornered by aggressive girls with sharp nails and feline smiles. But here, he’s not scared. Not with Michael. With Michael, he feels safe. 

“Okay,” Michael parrots back. Fleetingly, Jeremy thinks Michael’s gaze flicks a little downwards, but then Michael releases him and laughs a little too loud. “Alrighty, then. I wasn’t kidding about the costume fitting. Let’s go see you suited up!”

“Yeah,” Jeremy breathes, pulse thrumming in his ears, blood a little too hot under his skin. He tries not to stumble as he walks his way to the costume studio, wondering why his heart is beating so fast.