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It's a regular Saturday afternoon at the mall when it all goes to hell.

Michael, Jenna, and Christine are sitting at a table in the food court, heatedly discussing overrated restaurants while they wait for the others to make it to their little rendezvous point. Michael’s explaining why The Cheesecake Factory is a waste of money when he shoves his glasses up his nose too roughly, smudging the left lens with a grubby fingertip.

"Argh." Michael wipes his fingers on a napkin and pulls his glasses off to clean it haphazardly with the hem of his hoodie. “So what I’m saying is, there’s a lot of good food out there that I can get for a lot cheaper, okay?”

He’s expecting Christine to argue his point, so it’s weird when he’s only met with silence.

“Uh, guys?” He squints at the two dark shapes sitting opposite of him, and starts lifting his glasses back up to his face.

“Don’t move,” Jenna says, and Michael freezes.

“What?” He wonders if there’s a wasp or something poisonous sitting on him. Oh god, is he going to die? In the mall? Is his last meal really going to be a taco? It was a good taco, so it could’ve been worse, he supposes. At least it wasn’t Sbarro. Or, god forbid, Cheesecake Factory. “Am I in danger?”

Christine coughs. “No, no. Not at all.”

“You look…different without your glasses,” Jenna says.

Michael’s shoulders tense up, the urge to pull his hood up over his head prickling across his skin. He shoves his glasses back on, trying not to show how self-conscious he feels. “Well, yeah.” He focuses on the empty trays on the table. “Everybody looks different with something on their face.”

Jenna makes a small, frustrated noise. “I mean, you look good without glasses.”

That gets Michael to shoot her a disbelieving look, which she counters with a raised eyebrow.

“Jenna’s right,” Christine says, resting her elbows on the table as she leans forward with an earnest expression. “You look really nice without them, Michael. Can we look again?”

Michael hesitates. He doesn’t like showing his face sans glasses to other people, mostly because he doesn’t enjoy being blind, and also because his bare face isn’t exactly the best thing to look at. He prefers the way he looks in his glasses, the way they distract from any dark circles and complement his face. He’s pretty sure he looks like shit without them.

But Christine is giving him the puppy eyes and Jenna looks completely serious, and these are his friends—he’s still getting used to having multiple of them—who didn’t even judge him when he dragged them to Spencer’s Gifts in his quest for a box of Mountain Dew Red.

“You guys are weird,” Michael says, but he takes his glasses off again.

Christine hums. “He really does look very nice like this.”

“How the fuck did none of us notice,” Jenna mutters. Michael suppresses the urge to fidget at the sense of being evaluated. “I’m taking a pic.”

“What,” Michael splutters, jamming his glasses back on, but Jenna’s already holding up her phone so that he can see a photo of his face on the screen. “Jenna!”

Jenna shoves her phone into his face. “Seriously, look at it.”

Michael does look at it, and all he can see is his face, looking a little naked and unfamiliar. He lost the ability to see into a mirror without specs back in middle school, so it’s been a while. His brows are drawn together and his mouth is pursed in a grim line, probably because he’s on the verge of blindly squinting and he’s uncomfortable as hell, so it looks like he’s giving the camera a displeased stare. “What, it’s just my face looking extra bitchy.”

“How are you this blind,” Jenna despairs.

Christine peeks at the photo. “It’s a good smolder. I really like it.”

Michael shrugs, a little pleased by the praise but overall skeptical. He decides to take the compliment but not put too much stock in it. “Thanks, I guess.”

“I’m putting this on Instagram,” Jenna says. He can hear the silent question in the way she cocks her head at him, and he thinks, what the hell, why not.

“Sure,” he says.

This is the moment Michael unwittingly triggers what is later dubbed as The Great Middleborough Melltdown of 2017.

-

He doesn’t realize the enormity of his mistake until Monday morning, after he steps into the building of Middleborough High with his music cranked up, humming his way to his locker. He’s halfway there when a blonde girl in cheerleading uniform falls into step beside him, a little too close for comfort. Michael pulls his headphones down when he realizes she’s smiling at him.

“Hi,” she says, beaming. “You’re Michael, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” Michael ransacks his memory and comes up with no clue as to why a cheerleader would be talking to him. “Sorry, do I know you?”

She grins, her perfectly white teeth shining in a way that makes unease coil in the pit of Michael’s stomach. “I’m Alison. We could get to know each other from now on.”

“Okay…?” They slow to a stop in front of his locker. “Do you need something?”

Alison gives him a slow once-over that makes his skin crawl. “Oh, definitely.”

His soul is saved from screaming its way out of his body when Chloe’s voice crisply cuts in with, “You’re blocking my locker, Bennett.”

The sly look on Alison’s face curdles as she steps aside to let Chloe through. “So, Michael,” Alison says, attempting another coy smile, “I was thinking we could—”

“He’s gay,” Chloe injects without turning away from her locker.

“Uh,” Alison says.

“I’m gay,” Michael confirms rapidly, even though he’s not sure why that’s relevant right now. It never hurts to assert his gayness, though, so he taps the rainbow patch on his shoulder. “Very gay. So homosexual.”

Alison’s mouth opens, closes, opens again, then shuts with a very final click. Then she spins around and, in dignified fashion, runs away.

Belatedly, it occurs to Michael that the hallway is very quiet today. Everybody’s staring or sneaking glances at him, whispering under their breaths.

Unnerved, he tugs his hood more securely over his head and wrestles his locker open. He isn’t sure what the fuck is going on, but he’s not going to freak out about it where everybody’s watching. He’s going to grab his stuff for chemistry, make a detour to the bathroom, and then have a quick, condensed What The Everloving Fuck Was That meltdown in one of the stalls before he goes to class. He’s got this.

“Michael?”

Michael stiffens momentarily before his brain processes the familiarity of the voice, and then the tension melts away as he turns towards blue eyes regarding him with mild concern. “Jeremy, hey.”

“Hey,” Jeremy echoes. “You were a little zoned out. You okay?”

Michael musters a smile to dispel any worry on Jeremy’s part. “Yeah man, just weirded out for a moment.” He holds his hand out so they can perform their customary handshake, and the familiar motions calm his nerves. “Whatcha doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be in the auditorium for drama?”

“I still have like, four minutes,” Jeremy says. He digs through his backpack and pulls out Michael’s chemistry notebook. “You left this at my place yesterday. I thought you might need it.”

“I forgot about that. Thanks.” As Michael takes the notebook, he notices two other girls over Jeremy’s shoulder, peering at him from a few feet away. Tittering, they turn away from his gaze, and Michael feels that unnerving sensation swoop into his stomach again. “Uh.” He refocuses on Jeremy. “See you in study hall?”

“Yeah, see you then." Jeremy waves to Chloe and leaves.

There’s still a few people staring, but Michael ignores them, the panic held at bay for now, and turns to Chloe. “Okay, let’s go.”

-

The stares don’t go away. Everywhere he goes, he can feel the weight of everybody’s eyes on him. The stares follow him from chemistry to English to pre-calc to study hall, and Michael finally loses it in the privacy of Mr. Reyes’s classroom, a favored study hall haunt for drama club members.

“What the hell is going on,” Michael asks with a groan, slumping into his seat. He has a headache from the tension that keeps building at the base of his skull, and he feels jittery with all the noise in his head. “What the fuck did I do to warrant this?”

Sitting across from him, Brooke and Jake share a brief, silent conversation with increasingly widening eyes and jerky head motions.

“Michael,” Brooke says, having lost the silent argument, “it’s about your Instagram photo.”

“I didn’t post any new photos,” Michael says. His Instagram is mostly aesthetic shots with the occasional update about the pet rock he gifted Jeremy four years ago. He’s pretty sure that the latest update about Dwayne Johnson chilling in the Heere household’s freezer wasn’t outrageous enough to elicit this kind of reaction from the whole student body.

“No, the one that Jenna posted,” Brooke corrects.

The headache intensifies. “The one she took at the mall? What about it?”

Before Brooke can answer, Jeremy walks into the classroom and makes a beeline for the empty seat beside Michael’s. “Hey guys.” He pauses in the middle of slinging his backpack off his shoulders, concern creasing his forehead. "Michael? Is something wrong?"

"Apparently my face," Michael says, pulling his glasses off to pinch the bridge of his nose. He thinks he hears a sharp inhale from beside him, but it's hard to tell over the thudding pain in his head.

"There's nothing...wrong with your face," Brooke says very slowly, like she's struggling to string words into coherent sentences. "It's...a very nice...face. Which is...kinda the problem?"

Michael pinches the bridge of his nose harder. "What does that mean?"

"It means you're hot, dude," Jake says, and the entire world screeches to a halt.

"Wait," Michael says, putting his glasses back on to squint at Jake, who's eyeing Michael with a frightening intensity. "What the fuck?"

Jake doesn't even blink. "You're good-looking and now the whole school knows it."

Next to Jake, Brooke nods in agreement with this ludicrous statement. The both of them look so serious that the inside of Michael's stomach twists.

"That's pretty funny," Michael says, keeping his voice as steady as he can. He's not going to let this kind of joke get to him. At the very least, he's not going to let anybody notice that this kind of joke is getting to him.

Beside him, Jeremy straightens up in his seat like an animal sensing danger. "Michael?"

"Seriously though," Michael continues in his best approximation of a mildly irritated tone, tamping down on the urge to pull his hood up and hide, "I'd appreciate an actual answer, you know."

Jake and Brooke trade bewildered looks.

"But," Jake says, "We're not—“

"I'm just gonna," Jeremy blurts, grasping Michael's sleeve and tugging him up and towards the door, "go have a quick talk with Michael in the bathroom."

Michael doesn't resist, keeping his eyes on his sneakers as he follows Jeremy out the classroom and down the hall into the boys' bathroom. His head hurts, buzzing with paranoia and frustration and I thought we were friends. He just wants to go home and smoke away the noise in his head.

"Michael," Jeremy says, voice gentle but firm, "look at me."

Michael doesn't want to. He doesn't want to look up and see pity in Jeremy's eyes, but he's never been good at saying no to Jeremy. So he drags his gaze upwards hesitantly, the twist in his stomach loosening a little when he meets blue eyes and sees only worry there.

"You're getting a headache again, aren't you,” Jeremy murmurs with a sigh. He steps close and curls a hand around Michael's nape, squeezing with just the right amount of pressure to make Michael melt into the touch. He closes his eyes and drops his forehead onto Jeremy's shoulder, the noise in his head quieting as warm fingers massage the tension away. "Better?"

Michael hums in affirmation, basking in the peace and proximity. Jeremy smells like lavender and fresh cotton, like the only safe place in the hellscape that is high school. Michael is so close to him right now, their chests only scant inches apart, and he aches to curl both arms around Jeremy and breathe him in until the day is over.

"They weren't joking," Jeremy says softly, his hand still massaging the back of Michael's neck. "They wouldn't make fun of you like that. Just hear them out, will you?”

Michael wants to protest, but it's hard to resist Jeremy's pleading when there are clever fingers digging into the tense muscles of his neck with devastating precision and the soothing scent of lavender lulling him into a false sense of security.

"Fine," Michael finally huffs. "But only if you keep doing this for a little longer."

Jeremy laughs, squeezing Michael's nape, and Michael's chest tightens again with that urge to curl his arms around Jeremy's waist and press his mouth to the pulse point under Jeremy's jaw. He holds his breath for a long time, pretends it's his lungs that are aching and not his heart.

-

"You're really hot, bro. I swear," Jake says, once Michael and Jeremy return from the bathroom.

"We wouldn't say it if we didn't mean it," Brooke says with huge, wounded eyes, and Michael feels like a jackass for ever doubting her.

"I mean, we've always known you're kinda okay-looking," Chloe muses in front of their lockers, "but I guess it took us a nudge to realize that you're, well."

"Dude, I'd bang you in a heartbeat," Rich says at lunch.

Jeremy chokes on his juice while Michael blinks, taken aback. "Uh, thanks?"

"Seriously," Rich continues as Jake smacks Jeremy's back to resuscitate him, "as a bro, if you ever need—“

"O-kay," Jenna interrupts, sticking a corn dog into Rich's mouth. "You get the point now."

Michael most definitely gets the point. Even now, he can count at least nine different people fixing stares of varying intensity and hunger towards him, which is pretty fucking unsettling.

"This is a phase, though. Right?" Jeremy wheezes, still recovering from his near-death experience. "It's not like it'll last forever."

Michael groans at the thought. "I hope not."

"It'll die down," Christine says, sympathetic. "I had a lot of people pay attention to me after I was in Romeo and Juliet, but it didn't last very long. Just give it a few days!"

Chloe nods. "Yeah, it'll be over soon. You're going to be fine."

-

Michael is not going to be fine. He isn’t even in the same time zone as fine.

"So you're like, half-Latino?" Ryan Ackerman, a tall, freckled redhead who’s apparently forgotten the concept of personal space, has been pestering him for the past five minutes while they wait for computer science class to start, leaning in too close for Michael's comfort.

"Half-Ecuadorian," Michael grits out. "And half-Filipino."

"So...you're full Latino?"

Michael is not even on the same planet as fine. "The Philippines is in Asia."

Ryan leans in even closer, looking fascinated. Michael scoots his chair away from him. "That's wicked, man. So, do you speak like, Ecuadorian?"

"You mean Spanish," Michael says.

"No, I mean Ecuadorian," Ryan reiterates.

Michael suppresses the urge to smash his face into the computer screen in front of him. "They speak Spanish. In Ecuador."

"Oh, oh, okay. Cool." Ryan nods. "So you speak Spanish?"

"Kinda," Michael says, and he's saved from this terrible conversation by Mr. Chang calling for their attention as class starts.

"So," Ryan whispers two minutes later, "can you speak Asian?"

-

"This is dumb," Michael grouses as Chloe tightens the strap around his forehead. "Not you," he clarifies at her pause in motion, "but the whole thing about people suddenly thinking I'm hot news or whatever just because I took my glasses off one time."

"It is," she agrees. Chloe isn't the kind of person to mince her words. "We're in high school. We're oversaturated in dumb." She tips his chin up, and Michael fidgets with his glasses in his hand, wondering what she sees. "Well, to be fair, I'd be tempted if I didn't have Brooke."

Michael squints at the dark blob in front of him. "Aren't you a lesbian?"

"Well, there's that too," Chloe says. Then, "Fuck, I need masking tape. Stay here."

Michael watches the shadowy figure move away and hears the costume room's door click open as Chloe goes, leaving him sitting alone on a stool with a prototype lion headdress for the school's upcoming production of The Lion King sitting precariously atop his head.

He itches to put his glasses back on, but he has makeup on his face that he doesn't dare smudge because he fears Chloe Valentine like any sane human being should. So he sighs and kicks a heel against his stool, wondering how much longer he'll need to be Chloe's practice model for her makeup designs before he can go home and get away from the today's insanity. He's repeated just how solidly gay he is on the Kinsey scale to four different girls, and he's rebuffed Ryan Ackerman and Dustin Kropp, too. It's ridiculous.

And yeah, okay, maybe a little flattering. Michael's never been on the receiving end of so much attention before, and as much as he'd rather go back to relative anonymity as soon as possible, it's hard to hate the fact that other people apparently find him attractive.

In the end, though, the one person Michael wants attention from is the only one who hasn't treated him any differently today, who hasn't said a single word about Michael's so-called attractiveness.

Honestly, if taking his glasses off was all it took for Jeremy to think of Michael as more than a friend, Michael wouldn't have spent the past three years with an embarrassingly huge, unrequited crush on him. He's taken his glasses off in front of Jeremy plenty of times over the course of their twelve-year friendship and it never changed a thing. On the contrary, Jeremy's always seemed to dislike looking in Michael's direction when he took his glasses off to wipe them. Michael's pretty sure Jeremy finds his bare face unsettling to look at.

It'd be a miracle if Jeremy finally found Michael attractive after all these years, just because of one dumb photo. 

Michael wishes it was that easy.

The door clicks open and Michael straightens up, pushing the wistful thoughts out of his head. "Chloe, this strap thing needs to be tighter. It keeps trying to slip off my head."

He hears the sound of footsteps on the carpet approaching him, and it occurs to him that the blurry silhouette he's looking at is definitely not the same blurry silhouette that left the room two minutes ago.

"I'm not Chloe," a soft, feminine voice says. "I'm just here to drop off these costumes." He can hear the sound of fabric rustling. "Uh, you're Michael, right? Michael Mell?"

"Yeah, I am." Michael thinks he's heard this voice before, but he can't quite put a face or name to it. He's about to risk being murdered by Chloe and just put his glasses back on when he's caught off-guard by a blinding flash of light. "What the—“

"Sorry!" The voice says, and then she's out the door and gone.

"What the shit?" Michael says to the empty room, his brain belatedly seizing upon the fact that somebody just took his picture out of the blue.

The door clicks open again barely three seconds after it closed in the wake of the photo bandit's departure, and Michael tenses up just as a familiar voice says, "Michael?"

Michael relaxes a little. "Jeremy?"

"Yeah," Jeremy says. The blurry shape of him starts to walk closer, then doubles over with a clanging noise as Jeremy trips over something. "You're not wearing—never mind," Jeremy mumbles. He makes the rest of his way up to where Michael's sitting. "Why did Madeline Garcia just run out of here?"

"That's who it was?" Michael asks. "She just took a picture of me and ran off!"

"She what," Jeremy says in a flat voice that has Michael stilling in his seat. He recognizes that particular tone from the one time a senior called Christine a slut for getting the lead role of the school play. The only reason that incident hadn't ended with bodily harm was because Chloe had promptly 'spilled' her coffee over the senior's head.

"Hey," Michael says, his offense at Madeline taking the backseat as his need to soothe Jeremy takes over. He reaches out blindly on instinct. "Jer, it's okay. It's just a dumb picture."

"It's not okay," Jeremy snaps, catching Michael's hand in his. "She didn't have any right to do that."

Michael runs a placating thumb across Jeremy's knuckles. Coaxes, "Hey, look at me."

Jeremy makes a furious, strangled noise. "You're the one not looking at me."

"Shit, right." Michael fiddles with his glasses for a second with the hand not holding Jeremy's and shoves them on, Chloe's wrath be damned. Jeremy's glaring hard up at the ceiling like it said something rude about his grandparents, but his eyes snap down to meet Michael’s when Michael tugs his hand. “Jer, dude. Don’t sweat it. Seriously.”

Jeremy opens his mouth like he’s about to refute Michael’s words, but he stops and chews on his lower lip, looking pensive. Michael gets a little distracted by the view and nearly misses the words that come out of that red, bitten mouth. “So…you’re okay with it?”

“Hmm?” Michael blinks, ripping his self-incriminating gaze away in a hurry to look Jeremy in the eye again. “Uh, yes? Wait, no. I mean.” He mentally slaps himself out of his gay stupor and focuses back on their conversation. “It’s not okay, but it’s not something to get all worked up over. You get what I mean?”

There’s a small frown on Jeremy’s face, but the rage is dissipating, the furrow in his brows evening out into mild upset instead. “But it’s bothering you.”

God, Michael wants to kiss him so fucking bad.

“I’ll get over it,” Michael says, though it feels like an empty promise. He just wants Jeremy stop looking so personally affronted, even if it makes him feel warm and pleased on the inside. “It’s not a big deal.”

Jeremy looks dissatisfied, but he relents, his shoulders slumping down as he sighs. “Fine. But we’re making her delete the picture.”

“Yeah, of course,” Michael says, squeezing Jeremy’s hand. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she already deleted it. I probably look shitty with all this makeup.”

“I think it’s kinda cool,” Jeremy says, a corner of his mouth quirking up, and Michael feels triumphant as the last of Jeremy’s irritation seeps away in favor of amusement. “Can’t imagine it’d look flattering on me, though. I’m kinda too pale for this.”

Michael snorts. “Yeah, I think a lot of the cast is pale for a bunch of African lions.”

“Okay, Mr. I-Speak-Spanish-Not-Ecuadorian,” Jeremy teases, which makes Michael groan. “You should’ve auditioned and improved our diversity, then.”

“Because having the entire school stare at me is my idea of a good time,” Michael says, sarcastic. “No thanks.”

Jeremy’s smile widens a little. “You make a good lion though.”

“Fuck yeah, I bet,” Michael says, because he has a lion bias that’s only second to his Jeremy bias. Feeling a little emboldened by his small victory of chasing off Jeremy’s bad mood and by their still-linked hands, he leans into Jeremy’s personal space and brings up his free hand to beside his face, curling it into a fist as he winks. “Like, y’know, rawr?”

“Oh my god,” Jeremy splutters, letting go of Michael’s hand to shove his shoulder hard enough that Michael nearly falls off his stool cackling. “That was the worst thing I’ve seen.” His face is so red it’s a miracle he hasn’t combusted. “I’m gonna go drink a whole container of bleach for that. Jesus.”

Michael laughs harder, both hands now clutching at the headdress so that it doesn’t fall off his head and crash onto the floor.

“Proud of yourself?” Jeremy asks, crossing his arms with a red-faced huff, but Michael can hear the bemused fondness in his voice, can see the twinkle of humor in his eyes. Not for the first time, Michael can’t help but think that he’d gladly make a fool of himself if it meant that Jeremy’d smile.

It’s an incredibly sappy thought, but also a sobering one. It frightens Michael a little, the intensity of his feelings for Jeremy. How easy it is to drop everything and prioritize Jeremy’s needs. Michael is pretty sure that it’s not good for a crush to be this all-consuming, but he doesn’t know how to stop his heart from racing at Jeremy’s proximity or how to stop his breath from stuttering at Jeremy’s laughter or how to stop his universe from rearranging itself around Jeremy Heere. He doesn’t know if it’s even possible to stop. If he wants to stop.

“Michael?”

Michael struggles to say something to Jeremy's quizzical look, to find words that don’t give away the overwhelming tightness in his chest, but then Chloe slams the door open, causing them both to jump.

“I was gone for five minutes,” Chloe growls, marching over to where Michael and Jeremy have frozen. She shoves her phone at Michael’s face. “How did this happen?”

On her phone screen, there’s an unmistakable photo of Michael’s face in stage makeup and no glasses. It must be the one Madeline just took.

It’s on Twitter.

Michael groans. “Fuck me.”

Beside him, Jeremy makes a sound like a dying animal. Michael agrees wholeheartedly.

-

By the next morning, the original photo’s been deleted by Madeline, courtesy of Jenna and Chloe working their high school girl witchcraft—Michael doesn't dare ask if it involved blackmail—but the damage has been done. Michael’s gotten ninety-four new friend requests on Facebook, over two hundred new Twitter followers (ditto with Instagram), and an entire hoard of people chasing after his heels as soon as he steps onto the school grounds.

Michael's never been overtly bullied, never been shoved against the lockers or shoved into a locker before, but today's the day he learns what it's like to stuff himself into his own locker to escape a crowd of crazy high schoolers.

"They're gone," Chloe says after she successfully misdirects the crowd towards the opposite end of the building. "You can come out now."

"This is a new kind of coming out.” Jake says, grabbing Michael’s elbow when he stumbles his way out of the locker.

Michael straightens up with a scowl. "Ha fucking ha.”

Rich leans against the pillar adjacent to the lockers and sings, "Coming out of my cage and I've been doing just fine."

"I am not doing fine." Michael kicks his locker shut with a grunt. He levels an accusatory glare at Jake, then Chloe. "Nobody ever chased after you guys like this.”

Chloe raises a sharp, perfectly shaped eyebrow and Michael immediately backpedals, raising both hands in fearful surrender. "Right, of course, sorry." He refocuses on Jake. “Nobody’s ever chased you like this.”

Jake shrugs with a bright grin. “Nope, not really!”

“So why are people chasing me?”

“Raw animal magnetism,” Rich says, clapping a hand to Michael's shoulder with a sage nod.

Michael gives Rich an unimpressed look. "Dude, what the fuck."

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Jake says.

What the fuck?” Michael repeats, because that’s the only acceptable response at this point.

Chloe rolls her eyes. “People are chasing you because of your face. So unless you can change your own face, there’s nothing you can do about it. Now let’s go before more idiots show up.”

Michael resists the urge to slam his face into his locker door and disfigure himself for the peace of his mind. Maybe if he hits his head hard enough, he’ll knock himself out and then wake up to discover that this was all a bad dream. Or an acid trip gone wrong. It’s a beautiful thought.

“Buddy, you zoning out there?” Jake asks.

“I’m not, I’m not.” Michael sighs and wistfully bids a silent goodbye to his locker door and his fantasies of giving himself a concussion. “Let’s go.”

-

"You look like shit," Jenna comments when he runs into the classroom with thirty seconds to spare before world history starts.

"It's my new skincare routine." Michael throws his backpack onto the desk behind her, wiping the sheen of sweat off his forehead and dropping into his seat. He just sprinted from the opposite end of the building and up three flights of stairs, and he needs a moment to get his breath back. "I go hide in a bathroom stall every break and then dash to class right before it starts."

Jenna’s clicks her tongue. "You need a better routine."

"I'm open to suggestions." He frowns at the empty seat next to his. "Where's Jeremy?"

"No idea."

Just then, the bell starts to ring. Three seconds later, Jeremy barrels through the door and catapults himself into his seat.

Jenna offers a silent slow clap.

"Right on time, Mr. Heere." Mrs. Emory's typical dry tone always reminds Michael of deserts and vultures. Circling overhead, always ready to pick you to pieces. "Now then, please turn to page ninety-seven.“

Michael tunes her out to lean a little sideways and whisper, "What took you so long?"

"Groupmate from bio wanted to talk," Jeremy mumbles as he unzips his backpack on his lap. There must be more to the story, though, because there's a displeased furrow to his brow and a sour pinch to his mouth, like he's tasted something foul. It’s not a good look on him.

Michael leans forward, inching into Jeremy's line of sight so he can stare him into spilling the beans.

Jeremy's eyes flicker from his backpack to Michael, then back to his backpack. Michael knows he's won the moment Jeremy exhales harshly through his nose. "He wanted to talk about you."

Michael blinks. "Me?"

"Yeah." Jeremy shuffles through his backpack with singular focus, his movements a forceful. "Wanted me to introduce you guys or something."

"Jesus." There's apparently no end to the insanity. "You said no, right?"

Jeremy grabs his pencil case and shoots Michael a look that he can't quite decipher. Something like frustration and incredulity and exasperation all mixed and matched into bright blue eyes and a red, bitten mouth. "Of course I said no."

The pit of Michael's stomach feels funny. He shrugs the feeling off with practiced denial and gives Jeremy a curt nod. "Good."

The bead of sweat he can feel sliding down the bridge of his nose provides him with an excuse to look away from the piercing blue of Jeremy's eyes and lift his glasses up to discreetly wipe the perspiration away.

A loud clattering sound startles him as he pushes his glasses back in place, and he sees that Jeremy's dropped his pencil case onto the floor, a few rogue pens rolling away from the spot of impact.

"Any complaints about the Opium Wars, Mr. Heere?" Mrs. Emory asks from the front of the classroom, glancing back from her whiteboard.

"No, nothing, I'm sorry," Jeremy babbles, his face red, leaning over to hastily grab his pens and pencil case and place them on his desk.

Michael waits until Mrs. Emory has her back turned towards them again before he whispers, “You alright there, clumsy-pants?”

“Shut up,” Jeremy hisses through gritted teeth, still red-cheeked and eyes glued to the textbook he’s opening on his desk. The sour, pinched look is gone though, so Michael chalks it up to a win and doodles in his notebook for the rest of class.

-

It's a small miracle that nobody tries to proposition Michael at their table during lunch time, considering that he's been taking refuge in various bathroom stalls during breaks and he's had at least three different guys coming onto him in the middle of class today. Then again, lunch is one of the few things considered sacred on high school grounds, so maybe it's not that surprising.

"People are posting about Michael Mell sightings on Twitter now," Jenna observes, scrolling down her feed as she takes a sip of her juice. "Like you're a cryptid or something."

Michael doesn't bother to respond and shovels more chicken nuggets into his mouth. He needs to refuel for his hide-and-run stunts for the remainder of the school day.

"It sure looks like a cryptid sighting." Jake taps on his own phone screen to open a twitter photo featuring a blurry red shape disappearing around a hallway corner.

Christine frowns. "It's rude to take pictures of people without their permission."

"High school runs on rude and stupid," Chloe says in the tone of somebody who's lived with that fact for too long. "At least most of them don't show his face properly."

"There's a hashtag now," Brooke says from across Michael, causing him to choke on his mouthful of nuggets.

"What," he gasps, leaning forward to get a look at her phone. She turns it around so he can see #MiddleboroughMelltdown on some of the tweets. He'd be impressed by the pun if he weren't the subject matter. "You've got to be shitting me."

"Well, it's not like it's trending," Jenna pauses ominously, "yet."

"Think we could get Mikey boy here Twitter certified?" Rich asks, swiping a tater tot off Jake's tray.

Michael scowls. "I'm deleting Twitter. I'll join Jeremy in social media monkhood."

Jeremy, who's been wordlessly forking over half of his chicken nuggets onto Michael's tray throughout the meal, pats Michael’s shoulder. “Whatever makes you feel better. Want my orange?”

Every nutrient helps. “Yes, please.”

-

Sometime during musical rehearsal, Michael is sitting in the sound tech booth when he receives an unsolicited dick pic from a guy who took geography class with him last year. He takes a screenshot, blocks the guy, spends ten minutes on Facebook to find the dude's mom, then sends her the screenshot.

Then, he locks his social media accounts down to private. He can't get rid of the people who already follow him, but it's nice to pretend he has a semblance of control over his life going to hell.

-

"Fuck today. Fuck high school. Fuck everything," Michael growls, pulling his sweater off and throwing it into the hamper with more force than necessary.

If Monday had been Intro to Hell 101 and Tuesday had been the second circle of hell, Wednesday is the fifth circle. Michael spent every spare moment that wasn't class time like he's a fugitive of the law training for the Olympics, running and hiding from people who just wouldn't leave him alone. At one point, he vaulted over his desk to escape from Sam Wells, a persistent jock from his English class. Michael is going to be recruited into the school's track-and-field team at this rate.

The only good thing that happened today was when some dude had attempted to approach their lunch table. Michael had tensed up, ready to bolt with his half-eaten sandwich. Out of the corner of his eye, he'd noticed Jeremy switch his grip on his fork so that he was holding it like a knife. Then, before anybody could say anything, Christine and Rich had both slammed their hands down on the table and stood up in terrifying synchronicity. They'd both ripped into the guy for bothering someone during lunch, yelling their lungs out until a teacher came over to reprimand the tiny duo of righteous fury. It'd been the highlight of Michael's day.

He doesn't even want to think about what came afterwards.

After a good sniff, Michael decides his shirt needs to go in the hamper too. He pulls it off and drops it in, then starts rummaging around his dresser for a new teeshirt. Behind him, he hears a series of coughs.

Michael cranes his head around to shoot a concerned look over his shoulder. “You okay?”

Sitting on the edge of Michael's bed, Jeremy flaps a hand as he clears his throat. "I'm fine," Jeremy wheezes. "Throat felt funny for a sec."

Michael frowns, pulling on an old teeshirt and then his red hoodie. "You gonna be okay with the smoke?"

Jeremy gives him a thumbs up as he clears his throat. His cheeks are flushed a dull red. ”Yeah, yeah. I'll be fine." He stands up in a hurry, lifting up the plastic 7-Eleven bag full of snacks and jerking his chin towards the bedroom door. "Ready?"

"Yeah, let's go.” Michael takes his stash of weed out from where he squirreled it away in the back of his bedside drawer and follows Jeremy down to the basement, ready to smoke today out of his head entirely.

As soon as he’s seated on the couch with his feet propped up on one of the beanbags, Michael doesn’t waste any time rolling and lighting up a joint, his frazzled nerves settling at the familiar taste of smoke. He revels in the soothing sensation for a moment, the quieting of his brain in anticipation of the hit kicking in. Then he offers the joint to Jeremy, who takes it with careful fingers.

"Feel better?" Jeremy asks.

Michael rolls his shoulders and neck with a hum. "I need to get properly stoned before I can answer that question."

Jeremy shrugs and lifts the joint to his mouth, inhaling slow and easy. Michael watches with a small sense of pride. Jeremy's always been shit at taking hits off a joint, frequently devolving into coughing fits and mediocre highs, but he's improved a lot under Michael's tutelage in more recent months.

He watches Jeremy hold the smoke in his lungs, his eyes sliding shut in bliss before he slowly exhales in one smooth breath. Watches the smoke curl from Jeremy's lips, mesmerized. He doesn't catch Jeremy's eyes fluttering open, his heart stumbling hard in his chest when those lips quirk in a small, awkward smile and speak. "What?"

Michael tears his gaze away from Jeremy's mouth with a guilty jolt and meets Jeremy's eyes. Thankfully, there's only curiosity in Jeremy's expression.

"Just thinking you've gotten a lot better at this," Michael says, gesturing at the joint. "You used to be so bad."

Jeremy rolls his eyes. "Shut up." The fondness in his tone is a drug of its own, sending a buzz of pleasure through Michael’s blood. "Not all of us can be naturally skilled stoners."

"What can I say?" Michael throws a faux-casual arm over Jeremy’s shoulders, relishing the warmth as he leans against Jeremy’s side and pokes him in the ribs. “I'm just talented like that.” He steals the joint back. "You've learned well, my padawan."

Jeremy snorts. "Sure, Obi Weed Kenobi."

"No respect for your master," Michael tuts. He smirks and sticks his tongue out when Jeremy elbows him, because he knows it drives Jeremy crazy.

Sure enough, Jeremy pouts and flicks at Michael's tongue. "Put it back. What are you, a lizard?"

"I prefer dragons," Michael says, baring his teeth in an imitation of a hiss.

Jeremy rolls his eyes. "Yeah, the pot dragon that breathes smoke. Real majestic." 

Michael laughs and takes another hit, luxuriating in the buzz enveloping his senses. He starts humming the Star Wars theme under his breath and smiles when Jeremy joins in. They don't say anything for a while, just passing the joint between them and humming their way through different theme songs, until Jeremy sighs and flops his head sideways onto Michael's shoulder, nuzzling into the fabric of his hoodie.

"Dude, are you falling asleep on me?" Michael cards his fingers through Jeremy's hair. He catches a faint whiff of Jeremy’s shampoo and contentment seeps into his bones, like he entered a warm room and realized that he’d felt cold until now, the chill thawing away in Jeremy's proximity.

Jeremy makes a pleased sound at the touch. "It's soft. I like this one, not what you were wearing today."

"Yeah, well.” He resists the urge to press a kiss to the top of Jeremy’s head. “Good thing I didn't wear this hoodie to school today, then."

Michael had purposefully chosen a black sweater for the day in the misguided hope that it would make him a little less recognizable. It had helped at first, but it hadn't been enough to stop people from trying to chase him down in the hallways. And then some asshole had the bright idea of throwing a cup of soda into Michael's face in an attempt to make him take his glasses off.

At least nobody was ever going to try that stunt again; Michael hadn't ever seen Jake slam someone against the lockers like that before, his smile gone, teeth bared like a wolf, ready to rip out throats. It had taken both Chloe and Rich to pull Jake off the guy.

Then Jeremy’d whisked Michael away to the bathroom to help him wash the soda off, and Michael had felt the anger slip through his fingers like water as he'd watched Jeremy hold onto Michael's backpack with white knuckles and shaking fingers, teeth gritted in silent fury. He'd rinsed the sticky liquid off his face, combing wet fingers through his hair as he slid his glasses back on, and Jeremy'd barely been able to meet Michael's gaze. He'd shoved Michael's backpack into Michael's arms and had mumbled about how they were late for rehearsal, radiating distress all the way to the auditorium.

Now, with Jeremy practically melting against Michael, that awful incident seems so far away, like another lifetime ago. Here, with Jeremy's soft curls brushing the underside of Michael's chin, with the scent of lavender and smoke in Michael's lungs, the outside world seems like a dream. Like this is the only reality that matters.

He feels like he's missing something obvious here, but he can't quite put a finger on what it could be.

Jeremy yawns and mumbles something about being hungry. He moves away from Michael to bend forward and snag the plastic bag on the beanbag not serving as Michael's footrest, and Michael feels a little cold, a little hollow. Like his heart just left and made its home elsewhere. Like—

"Want some?" Jeremy offers him a bag of sour gummy worms.

Michael blinks, his train of thought derailed and lost. He squints at the gummy worms, then shrugs. He’ll figure it out later. ”Yeah, thanks."

-

Thursday morning, Michael strategically takes a side entrance into the school building two minutes before the bell rings and sprints into first period just as the bell ends. He's planned all his exit strategies for today, and he already knows the perfect hiding spot to seek refuge in between this period and the next.

When the bell rings at the end of first period, Michael already has his stuff zipped into his backpack and he's out the door in a flash. He takes one flight of stairs up and then turns the corner, just fifteen feet from his chosen shelter, and runs right into Jeremy.

"Michael?" Jeremy looks puzzled. "Did you already sign the attendance sheet?"

"No, I'm hiding first," Michael explains, then hears the sound of students pouring into the hallway. "Shit."

In blind panic, he grabs Jeremy's wrist and runs to the the spare supplies closet that's never locked and flings himself inside, pulls Jeremy in with him, and slams the door shut.

"What the fuck?" Jeremy sputters, his breath hot against Michael's jaw, and Michael realizes what a huge fucking tactical error he just made.

The closet is certainly roomier than a student locker, but it's not enough space for two people to fit comfortably. Even with their backpacks dropped beside their feet and their backs leaning against opposite walls, Jeremy's chest is literally two inches from Michael's. Their knees knock against each other when Jeremy shifts on his feet, one foot slotted between Michael's, so close that Michael can almost feel Jeremy's body heat.

"Why did you drag me in here?" Jeremy hisses. It's too dark in here to see anything, but Michael can feel Jeremy exhale against Michael's throat and it's like a jolt of electricity, Michael's whole body magnetized to Jeremy's, and he barely manages to swallow a whimper.

"Because I'm an idiot." It's the goddamn truth. He pushes down the pull he feels towards Jeremy's warmth, the urge to lean forward and press Jeremy into the wall and kiss him. He tries to focus on the outside of the closet rather than on what Jeremy might sound like if Michael kissed his way down his throat. "Ugh, and if you go out now, people are gonna notice."

"Great. So we're stuck here." Jeremy shifts, his leg briefly pressing against the inside of Michael's thighs, just a little too close to his crotch.

Michael is going to fucking die in this closet.

Jeremy's phone screen lights up, illuminating his face as he checks the time. "Seven minutes until the bell. Cool."

"We'll go out in five." His brain gleefully seizes onto the parallel to seven minutes in heaven and Michael violently slams a lid on that thought. "Almost everybody should be gone by then."

Jeremy sighs. "I can't believe we're hiding in the supply closet." Then his eyes go wide. "Shit."

"What?"

"Nothing!" Jeremy clicks his phone screen off, plunging them back into darkness.

Michael raises a disbelieving eyebrow even though Jeremy won't be able to see it. "Nice try. What's going on?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Jeremy says with the voice of someone who knows exactly what Michael's talking about.

"Tell me, or I start tickling you," Michael threatens. It's an empty threat, because if Michael puts his hands on Jeremy right now, all bets are off and he's going to irrevocably ruin their friendship forever, not to mention that their cover's going to be blown immediately.

Fortunately, Jeremy doesn't catch onto the fact that Michael's bluffing, and he makes a frustrated noise of defeat. "Fuck. Uh." He inhales a deep breath, then says in a single breath, "This is the supply closet Brooke and Chloe use sometimes."

Michael processes that for a moment. "Brooke and Chloe."

"Yeah."

"Use this supply closet."

"Uh-huh."

“For making out?"

“Yes, now stop asking,” Jeremy whispers furiously.

They stand in silence after that, just the sound of their breathing filling the air between them, and Michael's heart is pounding so loudly that it's a miracle that they haven't been discovered.

His brain observes that it would certainly be easier for Brooke and Chloe to indulge in some making out here, since they’d take up less space. It wouldn't be that hard for Michael and Jeremy, either. All they need is for Michael to take half a step forward, and then he'd be pressing his whole body against Jeremy's, and it would be so easy to kiss him, to swallow the noises from Jeremy's mouth, to lick his way in and taste him. To run his hands down Jeremy's sides and hold him by the hips, to shove a thigh between those legs and spend seven sweet minutes in heaven between classes.

Fuck. Michael wrenches his mind out of the gutter and starts mentally running through the periodic table. Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium—god it's hot in here—boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen—it's like they're running out of oxygen—fluorine, neon—like the way Michael feels like he's lighting up when Jeremy touches him, neon-bright. Fuck, he wants to touch Jeremy. They're only inches apart and he swears that the proximity alone could trigger combustion, could burn him up right here and now. He wants to test the chemistry of Jeremy's skin against Michael's, to see if every atom between them could bond together, hard and tight and Jesus fucking Christ, Mell, get your fucking shit together.

Michael valiantly restrains himself from banging his own head against the closet wall. That would only attract attention from people in the hall, and then it’d render all his suffering in here for moot.

On the other hand, he’s starting to think that it might be better to go risk being mauled by his peers than stay in here with Jeremy any longer.

"How many more minutes?" Michael’s voice rasps from how dry his throat is.

Jeremy checks his phone. “Two.”

Two minutes. Michael can survive two minutes. Michael can keep his hands off Jeremy for two more minutes. “This is kinda boring, huh.” Michael hopes he sounds casual and not on the verge of hysteria. “Sorry for dragging you in here.”

“Well, it isn't as bad as your Mario Golf phase," Jeremy says, the corner of his mouth quirking up just as the light from his phone screen fades out. "That was really boring."

Michael chuckles. ”Fuck off, that game was a classic.”

"It was a complete drag and I hated it." The toe of Jeremy's foot nudges against the side of Michael's. His voice drops from a stage-whisper to a hushed breath that Michael can barely hear. "I hate that you have to do this."

Michael shoves both hands into his jean pockets. "I hate it, too."

"I wish they'd leave you alone." Jeremy sighs, a warm exhalation that brushes gently against Michael's jaw. It sends a shiver down Michael's spine, an abrupt sense of longing unspooling in the pit of his stomach.

"I missed you," he blurts.

After a pause, Jeremy says, "We hung out the whole afternoon yesterday."

"No, I mean, yes. We did." Michael isn't even sure why he said anything. He doesn't know how to explain this feeling, doesn't even have a name for it. He flounders for another moment before a passable metaphor occurs to him. "It's just like, school's turned into a one player game. And it's not fun anymore."

For a long moment, Jeremy doesn't say anything, and Michael feels his anxiety spike at the unsettling sense of missing his step in the dark, and he's so sure he's said the wrong thing. Then the warm weight of Jeremy presses up against him, his arms going around Michael's shoulders and his fingers curling into the back of his sweater, and Michael freezes on the spot.

It takes him a wild, breathless second to realize Jeremy is hugging him. "Uh, Jer?"

"I missed you, too.” Jeremy’s voice is muffled from where he's buried his face into the juncture between Michael’s neck and shoulder. Michael can feel the heat of the words mouthed through his clothes. “It was better when it was a two player game.”

Michael’s throat is too tight, his fists clenching in his pockets with the need to hug Jeremy back.

But if he holds Jeremy now, he doesn't think he'll be able to let go.

He wavers on the precipice of indecision, his hands pulled from his pockets and hovering by Jeremy's waist, uncertain, and then the decision is taken out of his hands by Jeremy pulling away.

"We should be able to go now," Jeremy says, ducking his head to check his phone as he bends to the side and picks up his backpack.

Michael feels bereft. Cold. "Yeah, okay. Let's go."

Jeremy pushes the supply closet door open and stumbles out as Michael grabs his own bag and follows, shoving the door closed behind him. He steals a glance towards Jeremy as they walk towards their study hall classroom, but it's hard to tell what Jeremy's thinking. His mouth is set in a thin line and his shoulders are hunched in a way that makes Michael want to soothe the tension away with his hands, and he feels an unexpected pang in his chest. Jeremy isn't supposed to look like that when he's alone with Michael.

They don't talk, even as they manage to sign their names right as the bell starts to ring, even as they trek downstairs and walk into Mr. Reyes's classroom. Brooke and Jake are already there, leaning over a poster board, and Mr. Reyes is staring at his own computer screen while munching on a hot pocket.

"Oh good, you're here," Brooke says, shoving a pair of scissors at Michael. "Could you please cut these out for me?"

Michael looks at the piece of paper she slides over, full of printed images of cars, trains, and a submarine. He squints at the half-finished poster board and skims the printed paragraphs there. "Physics class?"

"My presentation is next period," Brooke says, hurriedly gluing the cutout of an airplane Jake just handed her. "Jeremy, could you help me gluing these?"

"Sure," Jeremy says, setting his backpack down and circling the desks to stand next to Brooke.

"You guys were taking forever to get here," Jake says, snipping away at what looks like a photo of an Aston Martin. "We thought you guys skipped out on us."

Michael huffs, scooting his chair closer to the desk so he can start cutting out the submarine. "Nah, I was just hiding again." His eyes dart towards Jeremy, who doesn't look back. He focuses back on the submarine picture. "Jeremy joined me this time."

"Huh, weird." Jake straightens up in his seat with a small frown, and Brooke also looks up from her poster board, looking puzzled. "I thought we took care of that."

Michael blinks. "Huh?"

"Were people chasing you today?” Brooke asks.

Michael opens his mouth to respond, then closes it as he rewinds through his morning. He hasn't actually been chased today, but it isn't like he gave anybody the chance. But…he didn’t hear anybody try to follow him today. At least not yet. “I don’t know. I was too busy running to check if anybody was following.”

“They shouldn’t be doing that anymore.” Brooke reaches across their desks to pat Michael’s hand. “We made sure of that.”

Jake nods. “Yeah, no more dick moves.”

We?” Jeremy echoes, his brows scrunching together in confusion.

Brooke shrugs. “Yesterday, while you two were in the bathroom, we decided to lay down some ground rules for everybody else. I think Jenna took a video.”

“Do I wanna know what you guys did?” Michael asks.

Jake grins, wolflike. “Nothing special.”

“I don’t wanna know what you guys did,” Michael concludes.

Brooke waves her glue stick around as she gestures with her words. “At any rate, nobody’ll be bothering you until last period is over, and only respectful conversation requests are allowed. Anybody who breaks the rules,” she says with a bright smile befitting a member of high school royalty, “will suffer for the rest of the school year.”

Jake points a finger gun at Michael. “We got your back, bro.”

“You guys are terrifying,” Michael says, cracking a smile as Brooke giggles and Jake winks. He meets Jeremy’s eyes and smiles wider when Jeremy’s mouth twitches upwards. Jeremy rolls his eyes and ducks his head, back to his gluing duties, and Michael tasks himself with cutting out the submarine, a warm glow filling his chest.

School was always more bearable when it was a two player game, but—having more players to team up with isn’t so bad, either.

-

True to Brooke's word, nobody chases Michael on his way to Spanish class. There's still a fair share of staring, but nobody makes a move towards his direction, which is such a relief that he doesn't even care about all the eyes on him.

By the time he's sliding into his seat in the classroom, his guard is completely down.

Which is why he isn't expecting to be ambushed by Christine dropping into the adjacent seat and saying, "You're dating Jeremy and didn't tell me?"

Michael chokes on thin air.

"I mean, you're not obligated to tell me everything about your private life, of course," Christine continues, seemingly oblivious to Michael coughing his way back to the land of the living. "But you've been pining for ages and I'm just surprised that you didn't tell me as soon as it happened, you know?"

"I don’t—Chris, what the fuck," Michael gasps, recovering from his narrow brush with death. "We're not dating. Who told you that we're dating?"

"Diana said she saw you two leaving the second floor supply closet together." Christine cocks her head to the side, puzzled. "Wait, so you two made out but you're not dating?"

Michael resists the urge to headbutt his own desk. "We didn't make out." God, he wishes. "Trust me, I'd have texted you if any making out with Jeremy Heere had happened. We were hiding because I thought people were still chasing me."

"Oh, okay, that makes sense." Christine nods. She presses her lips together in an obvious attempt to stifle her laughter. "So I guess you didn't know that the second floor supply closet is a hotspot for couples?"

This time, Michael lets his forehead hit his desk with a resounding thunk. "I didn't know. Jeremy did, so that was awkward as fuck."

A kind hand pats his back. "Aww, it's fine. I'm sure Jeremy didn't mind at all."

"I think he minded a lot," Michael moans, glum. He thinks of the rigid set to Jeremy's shoulders and his grim determination to not look at Michael on their way to Mr. Reyes's classroom. The way he'd waved Michael off and hastily left for his next class as soon as study hall ended. It could've been residual awkwardness from the impromptu hug, but Jeremy's usual reaction to embarrassing friendship declarations is to laugh it off, and this had felt different.

"Michael," Christine says, her tone full of exasperated patience. "Jeremy walked into a wall when you took off your glasses earlier. Maybe you should actually look at him."

He turns his head to squint up at her. "I don't get it."

"I don't think glasses are enough to fix your eyesight on this one." Christine pats his head with a sigh.

He doesn't get to ask her to explain herself because that's when the bell rings, alerting the start of class. By the time they finish their pop quiz, he's forgotten about her last comment entirely.

-

"Not that I don't appreciate the peace and quiet," Michael says, hoping like hell he isn't jinxing himself, "but it's so weird to be back to normal?"

He's sitting in the sound tech booth, going over the tech cues with Jenna, and he's still processing the rapid 180 he's experienced today. After Brooke and Jake's explanation, he'd expected some harassment after the last period today, given how people still stared at him in the hallways, but nobody had approached him. He's grateful for the return to normalcy, but it's also a little unnerving, especially after the past couple days.

Jenna rolls her eyes, not bothering to look up from her script. It's covered in scribbles and notes and post-its, like every good stage manager's script, and she's flipping through the pages, making sure she hasn't missed anything. "After yesterday? I bet they're too scared to make a move, especially if you're not alone."

"Well, that's reassuring,"

Jenna hums, scribbling another note in the corner of her script as she says, "Also, there's a rumor going around that you're dating Jeremy."

Michael drops his pen. "What."

"Something about you and Jeremy in a supply closet," Jenna says. "They think you're taken now."

"Oh my god." He covers his face with both hands.

"I could make it go away," Jenna says casually, "but it's just a dumb rumor, and it seems to be keeping everybody off your back. So I figured we could let this one go for a bit until people cool their jets about your face."

Michael slides his hands down until they only cover the lower half of his face so he can stare at Jenna. "Does Jeremy know?"

“I don't think so.” Jenna looks up from her script. "I don't think he'd mind, either."

"You don't know that," Michael says. He turns to look out the window into the auditorium and sees Jeremy on the stage, a wide grin plastered on his face as he goes through his choreography with Jake and Rich.

"I guess I don't." Jenna's voice is casual, but there's a challenging undertone to her words. "But neither do you."

-

The rumor mill is still turning on Friday, given the sharp decrease in stares aimed at Michael's way. There's a hefty number of disappointed looks, too. Michael's decided to be honest to anybody who asks for the truth and to feign ignorance  in the meantime. Jeremy doesn't seem to be aware of the rumor at all, though he seems happier about getting to hang out with Michael at his locker between classes again.

The past week almost feels like a bad dream. After the nightmarish several days, Michael's happy to be back to an almost nobody, content to walk with Jeremy and bask in the warmth Jeremy's presence brings him.

In fact, he's been looking a lot more at Jeremy. Something about his conversations with Christine and Jenna yesterday keeps prickling at the edge of his mind. Like he's missing something obvious.

"Dude, is there something on my face?" Jeremy asks, his cheeks flushed pink. The tips of his ears are turning red, too.

“I don’t know,” Michael says, which prompts a look of fondly exasperated annoyance that, against all reason, Michael finds charming as hell. 

Just as Jeremy opens his mouth to say something in response to that, he stiffens at the sight of—Michael turns to look and blinks—some guy leaning back against Michael’s locker.

“Oh man,” Michael mutters. Last period just ended, and since there’s no rehearsal today he was just going to drop stuff off at his locker and drive Jeremy home, but of course it won’t be that easy.

The stranger catches sight of Michael and straightens up with a bright grin. He has dark hair and impressively broad shoulders and an easy smile that is eerily reminiscent of Jake's. “Michael Mell, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Michael approaches with caution, and is slightly relieved when the guy moves out of his way to let him open his locker. “And you are?”

The stranger doesn’t seem put off by Michael’s wariness at all. “I’m Leo. I’m a senior, and uh, you probably don’t remember this, but you took pictures of us for yearbook a while ago? I’m on the football team.”

Oh, that explains why Michael finds him vaguely familiar. It also explains the shoulders and arms, because damn.

“Anyway,” Leo continues, “I don’t wanna bother you too much, so I’ll get outta your hair in a minute. But I wanted to ask.” His gaze flicks to the side over Michael’s shoulder before he redirects his gaze to Michael. “Are you dating anybody?”

“Uh,” Michael says. There’s still a fair number of students bustling around, a few of them sending curious looks at Michael and Leo, but hopefully none of them are really listening. “No.”

Leo beams. “Cool! Just wanted to check, in case this got weird.” He bends down to pick up a box that Michael hadn’t noticed earlier, then holds it out to Michael. “I don’t wanna pressure you or anything, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to score a few extra points in my favor.”

Michael looks down and reads the packaging of the box, pauses, then rereads it. 

“Is this a box of Crystal Pepsi?” Michael hisses. “What the hell, I couldn’t find these anywhere!”

“I asked around and heard you liked this kind of stuff,” Leo says cheerfully. “And I have an uncle who has easy access, so. Y’know. It’s for you.”

Michael’s hands itch to take the box from Leo’s hands, but accepting edibles from a stranger doesn’t sound like a good idea. It sounds like a very bad, strings-attached idea.

As if reading his mind, Leo shrugs. “If it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to take it. And you don’t owe me anything even if you do take it. You can say no and I’ll just leave you alone, no hard feelings.”

“So…you’re asking me out, and this is a bribe,” Michael clarifies in disbelief.

“Kinda?” Leo laughs. “It’s nothing serious. I got this box for free, and you’re my type and I figured I’d just give it a shot. Seriously, no pressure.”

Michael hesitates, but eventually succumbs to the siren call of Crystal Pepsi and takes the box. “Well, thanks. I’ll, um, let you know?”

“By Monday would be nice.” Leo indicates the post-it sticking to the top of the box in Michael’s arms. There's a phone number written on it. “You can call me whenever. Or text me. Just think it over, okay?” He steps away, shoving his hands into his varsity jacket’s pockets. “Bye!”

And just like that, he leaves.

“Wow,” Michael says. He can’t believe that just happened. He’s never been asked out by anybody before, let alone getting a gift like this from a person he barely knows. Not to mention, Leo is, well. Kinda hot. Pale for a football player, but Michael’s always liked pale ones.

Speaking of which.

Internally wincing, Michael turns around to look at his best friend. “That was weird, right?”

“I guess,” Jeremy says in such a flat tone that Michael feels inexplicably guilty. He tugs on the straps of his backpack, not meeting Michael’s eyes. “Can we go now?”

“Yeah, just gimme a sec.”

Michael kicks his locker shut and locks it with one hand, balancing the box of soda against his hip with the other, and he starts walking towards the parking lot. Jeremy walks beside him without saying a single word, his lips pressed together in a tight line and his eyes downcast. 

The drive to Jeremy’s house is equally full of terse silence, the box of soda and Michael’s backpack dumped in the back seat, Jeremy hugging his own backpack on his lap, chewing his lip in that way he does when he’s concentrating or upset or both. Michael cranks up the radio, feeling too wrong-footed to try break the silence, and hopes like hell that Jeremy will stop giving him the silent treatment by the time he pulls up to the Heere household’s driveway.

Jeremy gives him the silent treatment the entire way home.

“So,” Michael starts, staring at the garage door of Jeremy’s house. They’ve been parked for a good fifteen seconds and the silence is excruciating. “You wanna tell me what’s the matter?”

Jeremy doesn’t so much as twitch, sullenly glaring at his knees for a long moment that has Michael wondering if he needs to repeat the question. Then, in a small voice: “You seemed happy. About the Pepsi.”

Michael thinks about that. “Well, yeah, I guess. It’s really hard to get. You know how I am about retro shit.”

“But like,” Jeremy says, hunched over and clutching his backpack to his chest, still glaring at his knees, “he’s never even talked to you before, and now he just wants to give you stuff like that because everybody’s been plastering your face on Twitter.” A splotchy red flush is starting to creep down his throat, and it’s nothing as charming as the blush Jeremy was sporting earlier when he was flustered by Michael’s staring. “And now these people want a piece of you when they don’t even know you, all because of some photos, and you hate that kind of attention but they don’t even care—”

“Jer, it’s okay,” Michael says, the words tumbling out of him before his brain can filter anything. His internal Jeremy In Distress sensor is blaring and he just wants Jeremy to calm down and breathe. “I don’t hate it that much,” he babbles. “I mean, it’s not like I’ll ever have a better chance to have like, options for my dating life. And who knows, maybe this is an opportunity for me to finally just get a fucking date, y’know?”

He’s talking too fast to mean any of the empty reassurances spilling from his mouth; he winces at his own words as soon as he says them, because there’s no fucking way that he’d want to date anybody aside from the boy beside him right now.

The boy who has gone pale and still, his wide eyes finally looking at Michael.

“Is that,” Jeremy says, his voice small and wobbly, “is that what you want?”

Michael tries to say no, it’s not, you’re the one I want, you’re the one I love, except the words catch in his throat and his heart fucking backflips in his chest, his whole world lit up in a different light and showing him what's been there all along. A truth that's been under Michael's nose this entire time. 

Oh goddammit, he really had been missing the obvious thing after all.

In the ensuing silence, Jeremy must hear a confirmation that Michael doesn’t mean, because his whole face crumples, the bright blue of his eyes going glassy as his voice cracks open. “Okay. That’s—okay, then.”

Jeremy turns away and fumbles the door open, stumbling out of the cruiser with his backpack still clutched to his chest and slamming the car door shut without looking back. Like he’s holding broken pieces of himself together. Like Michael just hurt him.

Michael sits in the driveway, unable to leave, unable to go after Jeremy. He stares at the fluttering curtains visible from the kitchen window for a very long time.

-

Later that night, he thinks about how sometimes he doesn’t realize he’s cold until he’s in a warm room, the tension melting out of his spine. How everywhere else feels just a little off until he hears Jeremy’s laughter, and then everything slots in, like coming home.

All the rare sodas and retro games and charming strangers in the world can’t compete with that.

In retrospect, nobody else ever stood a chance.

-

Saturday morning, after Michael scarfs down breakfast and brushes his teeth, he goes and knocks on the Heere house’s front door. Nobody answers for a good five minutes.

“Jeremy, I know you’re in there,” Michael yells. “Open the door so we can talk.”

Silence.

“Dude, I literally saw you through the window. Let me in.”

“Go away,” Jeremy yells through the door.

Michael rolls his eyes. Jeremy can be such a dramatic little shit.

“I just figured you should know,” Michael says loudly, “that I called Leo last night.”

Jeremy doesn’t answer.

“And I told him,” Michael says, hoping he hasn’t read this all wrong, that he’s not fucking over their friendship forever, “that I’m sorry but I can’t go out with him, because I’m in love with an idiot who hasn’t realized that his best fucking friend of twelve years isn’t interested in anybody else.”

For a few heart-stopping seconds, nothing happens. And then there’s the sound of scrabbling with the doorknob as Jeremy unlocks the door and swings it open, stumbling forward to a stop right in front of Michael.

“I—you,” Jeremy stammers, his eyes wide and his hair in disarray, in mismatching socks and an old teeshirt and pajama pants. He’s an absolute mess. The most perfect thing Michael's ever seen. “Did you just call me an idiot?"

“A complete dumbass," Michael says, "who is blinder than I am and needs this spelled out." He takes a deep breath and finds courage in the red flush creeping across Jeremy's face. "I love you."

Jeremy makes a choked noise. One of his hands move towards Michael, and Michael grabs it, entwining their fingers together.

“Me too." Jeremy stumbles over the words, as if he didn't ever expect to use them. "I, um. I love you too."

All the air rushes out of Michael's lungs in relief. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Jeremy says, a smile stealing across his flushed face like sunlight breaking across the sky at dawn.

Michael finds himself mirroring the expression, smiling back as the warmth floods his chest all the way down to his toes. They stand there on the porch in giddy delight until the sound of a car driving by pulls them out of the moment.

"Shit." Jeremy rubs his bright red cheeks with his free hand and tugs Michael's hand with the other. "Let's go inside."

Jeremy leads the way upstairs to his bedroom, his fingers still tightly clasping Michael's. Michael follows, the last of the cold chased away from his bones, warmth soaking into him as he finally finds his way home.

"It's a good thing my dad isn't home right now. It would've been embarrassing if he'd heard us yelling at each other like that." Jeremy makes it to the middle of his bedroom and hesitates. After a moment of dithering, he pulls Michael towards the bed and sits on the edge, indicating for Michael to sit next to him.

"Well, if your dad was home, you'd have opened the door a lot sooner. Or he'd have opened it for me," Michael points out. The pit of his stomach has gone fuzzy and hot at the implications of sitting on a bed with Jeremy, how he could push Jeremy down onto it and see what else of Jeremy he can have, now that he knows Jeremy's heart isn't off-limits. He wants to put every boundary to the test. For starters, he lifts their joined hands to press a kiss to Jeremy's knuckles. "But yeah, I'm glad he isn't here."

Jeremy squeaks, his fingers spasming in Michael's hold. His blush has gone all the way down his throat, under the collar of his teeshirt. Michael wants to know how far it goes down.

"Fuck, I wanna," Jeremy breathes, leaning in a little before he jerks back. "Wait, I just. I wanna make sure. That guy, Leo, he's not gonna bother you about this?"

Michael pouts at the aborted gesture. "I don't think so? I offered to give him the Pepsi back and he just laughed and told me to keep it. Said he wouldn't have any use for it anyway." He shrugs. "He wished me good luck with you."

"That's nice of him," Jeremy mutters, his mouth scrunching in disbelief at his own words.

"I guess. But do you really wanna talk about him right now?" Michael leans in close, dropping his gaze to blatantly drink in the sight of Jeremy worrying his lower lip with his teeth. When he glances back up, there's a hungry look on Jeremy's face, his pupils blown wide and the tip of his tongue peeking out to lick his lips.

"Right, yeah, forget about him," Jeremy says distractedly, his eyes darting to Michael's mouth. "I wanna kiss you."

He leans the rest of the way in and presses his lips to Michael's for a breathtaking moment, their eyes sliding shut, hands clasped tightly between them on the bedcovers. Then Jeremy pulls away the slightest bit, his eyes fluttering open a second after Michael's, their noses bumping against each other as they breathe.

The next second, they're kissing again, a series of short, chaste kisses, one bleeding into another and then another. Jeremy's free hand comes up to cradle Michael's jaw, tilting his head to change the angles at which their mouths meet, and Michael presses kisses to the corner of Jeremy's mouth, to his cupid's bow, to the plump, red lower lip that drives him crazy.

On impulse, he bites down gently on Jeremy's lower lip, and Jeremy fucking whines, pressing closer, his hand sliding from Michael's jaw to the back of his head, fingers threading through the curls there.

Emboldened, Michael licks Jeremy's lower lip, soothing the sting, then licks at the seam of Jeremy's mouth, and Jeremy's lips part with a sigh that Michael swallows. He learns how Jeremy tastes, how sensitive the ceiling of Jeremy's mouth is, how Jeremy shudders when Michael coaxes Jeremy's tongue into his mouth and sucks on it. It's the best educational experience of Michael's life.

"Can I," Jeremy says, his lips bruised and spit-slick, and Michael has to push down all the filthy ideas of what he wants to see that mouth do and focus on Jeremy's words, "can I mark you?"

Michael raises an eyebrow. "Like, give me a hickey?"

Blushing, Jeremy nods.

"Jeremy Heere, are you marking me as your territory?" Michael asks, delighted and so fucking smitten that it's probably visible from the goddamn moon.

"Would it bother you?" There's that look in Jeremy's eyes again, the one Michael's glimpsed before but never quite deciphered. Now he can name it: possessiveness. It sends a pleasant shiver down his back.

"Fuck no." Michael motions for Jeremy to go ahead. "I'm all yours."

Jeremy breaks out into a dorky grin. "Yeah, you are."

It takes them a minute to negotiate positioning, and Jeremy ends up straddling Michael's lap, sucking a dark spot high up on the side of Michael's neck, every graze of his teeth against Michael's skin an electric shock of pleasure.

"Can you make it spell 'Property of Jeremy Heere' while you're at it?" Michael jokes breathlessly, his grip on Jeremy's waist tightening when Jeremy bites him in response.

"Maybe that should be our new matching tattoo." Jeremy pulls back to admire his work, nodding in satisfaction at what he sees. "This should work."

Speaking of matching. "Can I do you too?"

Jeremy pauses, then leans down to peck Michael's lips. "Yeah," he whispers, his voice a little husky in a way that makes all of Michael's brain cells snap to attention. "Do me."

Groaning, Michael presses his mouth to Jeremy's neck and mouths you goddamn menace against the skin right above Jeremy's shirt collar. Then he bites down.

"Fuck," Jeremy moans, and it's fucking indecent, the way his breath hitches, the way he tilts his head to offer better access. How is Michael meant to resist an offering like that?

He licks and sucks at the mark, his pride perking up at the dark bruise making itself at home on Jeremy's skin. Once he deems that one finished, he finds another optimal place to sink his teeth into and gets to work, basking in the sound of Jeremy's moan, the jerk of Jeremy's hips in Michael's grip. He goes on like that for a while, sucking and biting and licking until there's an entire constellation of his design coloring Jeremy's neck, all the way down to his collarbones.

"The whole school is gonna know about us now," Jeremy says, running his fingers through Michael's hair. He doesn't sound bothered by the idea. On the contrary, he sounds rather smug.

"Gotta let everybody know I'm off the market." Michael hums and leans into Jeremy's touch.

Jeremy laughs, brushing an errant curl off Michael's forehead, then his movements pause. He traces the rim of Michael's glasses. "It's so weird that all of this happened because of your glasses." He taps them with a finger. "Can I?"

Michael nods. "Go ahead."

Careful fingers lift his glasses away and everything goes blurry, Jeremy reduced to a pale shape with a dark blob of hair, the blue of his eyes barely visible.

"You know, they weren't wrong," Jeremy says, sounding bemused. "I've been trying to avoid looking at you when you don't have your glasses on because you're so fucking hot without them."

Michael chokes on his laughter. "Wait, no, seriously? I always thought it was because you thought my bare face was ugly!"

"I hate to break it to you, but you're hot with or without glasses," Jeremy's voice deadpans. "It just happens to be a lot more noticeable when you're not wearing them."

"Good to know you don't hate my face after all." Michael ponders this new tidbit of information for a while. "So, you want me to wear my glasses a little less often?"

He's joking, obviously, but there's just the tiniest hint of worry there, that niggling thought of is this the version of me you want?

Of course, Jeremy picks up on that immediately and soothes the uncertainty away. "I love you. Glasses or no glasses." He slides Michael's glasses back on, and Michael's vision focuses on blue eyes full of laughter and a smile full of adoration. "So keep them on. You're blind as fuck without them anyway."

Michael laughs, warmth making itself home in his chest. He doubts he'll ever feel cold again. 

Jeremy ducks down to share a slow, lazy kiss with him before pulling away with a mischievous grin. “Besides, I wanna keep this part of you to myself."