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            “Okay, so here’s what’s up.” Jenna begins. She’s a little distressed to see her friends so bored. Did they really think she’d call for a Skype session if she didn’t have an amazing piece of gossip? “First off, have you noticed that Jeremy’s been acting weird?”

            “Yeah, but he’s been sick for the past two weeks.” Brooke points out. “I had to walk him to the nurse’s.”

            “Except he’s not sick.” Jenna answers. “Haven’t you noticed that he’s absolutely fine? Why doesn’t he have a cough or a runny nose or anything?”

            Brooke furrows her brow. “That is a little weird…”

            “Well, the other day, I saw Michael walking him out of the bathroom and he was crying.”

            Brooke’s face softens. “Is he okay? Did something happen?”

            Jenna shrugs. “No one knows. But I was asking around, and like, I got some really weird accounts. Someone told me they caught Jeremy chewing on his fingers in the middle of class. Someone else said he was muttering to himself in the bathroom. And I noticed he had a teddy bear in his backpack the other day. Then, after Michael got him out of the bathroom, this fell out of his backpack.” Jenna dramatically reaches down out of sight and reveals the blue pacifier.

            Brooke blinks. “Maybe he was babysitting?”

            “Except this is a NUK 5.” Jenna answers. “Meaning it’s for adults.”

            “Maybe he uses it to keep from chewing on his fingers.” Brooke suggests. “That’s why I have chew beads, because otherwise I bite my nails too much.” She pulls up her purple and blue necklace.

            “Or!” Jenna answers. “We could be sitting on a gold mine of gossip here! What if he has some public humiliation kink or something? What if he’s on hardcore drugs?”

            “Isn’t it better to ask him instead of jumping to conclusions?” Chloe points out. She looks beyond bored with this conversation, like such amazingly juicy gossip isn’t even remotely appealing.

            “Besides, he’s not hurting anyone.” Brooke points out. Instead of looking bored, she looks uncomfortable.

            Jenna isn’t sure which is worse, but she knows she has to reel them back in somehow. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to start out with the juiciest probabilities, especially since these two seemed to care for him so much. “I wasn’t saying it was a bad thing, or that he needed to be busted. I just thought you guys would be worried, too. I’ve been doing some digging and he could also be an age regressor, too.”

            Chloe glances up from her phone. “A what?”

            “Someone who acts younger to deal with their stress.”

            Brooke’s eyes widen. “Do you think Jeremy’s that stressed?”

~

            Jeremy isn’t sure what the three girls want when they offer him a ride home, but when three of the most popular girls at school make you that kind of offer, you can’t really say no. His Squip made sure of that.

            He glances over at Brooke, who’s sitting beside him. She smiles, which makes his face go all shades of red, and he tries weakly to smile back.

            “So, Jeremy?” Jenna turns around in her seat. “We have a couple of things to ask you about.” As she pulls the blue pacifier out of her bag, all hopes of him being big fly right out the car window. “This fell out of your bag the other day.”

            His Squip looks flabbergasted. “When did she get that?” He begins pawing through Jeremy’s memory database. “How did she get that?”

            “Y-yeah? And?” His voice is already reaching maximum squeak. He’s screwed.

            “Well, we know it’s yours.” Jenna answers. “Plus, you’ve been acting weird lately. We wanna know what’s up.”

            They know. They know and now they’re gonna tell everyone. Jenna’s the queen of gossip, so it’ll probably be around school that Jeremy Heere’s a big pathetic baby before school starts tomorrow morning. His reputation will be ruined, and now people will pick on him more than ever.

            His chest heaving in panic, Jeremy bursts into tears.

            He immediately feels a burst of warmth around his head and shoulders, and he knows the Squip is doing his best to simulate a tight hug.

            Chloe rolls her eyes. “I knew this was a bad idea, Jenna! That was like, the worst way of approaching it I can think of. What did you even do?”

            Brooke looks heartbroken. “I know he has a lot of panic attacks.” She reaches over to touch his shoulder but pulls back at the last second, wanting to give him his space.

            “What do we do?” Jenna asks.

            “Brooke, are your parents home?” Chloe asks.

            “No.” Brooke answers.

            “We’re going to your house, then. He’ll need some place quiet.”

            The car falls into an awkward silence. The girls keep glancing at each other, and they clearly want to speak, but none of them dare break the silence. For Jeremy’s sake.

            The Squip begins rocking Jeremy, trying his best to keep Jeremy from dissolving into a full-blown panic attack in a car with three girls that wouldn’t know how to deal with it. It’s bad enough that that confrontation dropped Jeremy into headspace. “I’m sorry, Jeremy. If I had been fully operational last week, I would’ve been able to detect and factor in Jenna noticing your behavior and my AI would’ve been able to predict this as a possible outcome.” The Squip sighs, sounding a bit more regretful as he continues. “You probably wouldn’t have lost your pacifier either.”

            Jeremy sniffles, his face still hidden in his knees. “I want—”

            “I know.” His Squip sounds tired. Can Squips get tired? “You want your mom.”

            “Hey, Jeremy?” Brooke’s voice is soft and unbelievably gentle. “It’s okay. So if there’s anything you need to do or you need us to do to make you feel a little more safe, just tell us, okay?”

            Jeremy nods, feeling very little and very incapable of speaking at the moment. What he honestly needs to feel safe is to be with Michael right now, but he can’t bring himself to say that.

            “We didn’t mean to upset you or anything, and we’re sorry this happened, but we’re gonna make sure you’re okay until you feel better.”

            That was reassuring, at least in its own way. They weren’t dumping him at home and leaving him to deal with this alone. They didn’t know that would be ideal, especially since his Squip is probably itching to get him out of this situation, but somewhere in the back of his mind, Jeremy still appreciates their kindness.

            Brooke takes one of his hands. “You’ll be okay. You don’t even have to talk to us if you don’t want to. It’s whatever you want.”

            Jeremy bites his lip, about a second away from saying “I want Michael,” but the last thing he wants to do is drag Michael down with him. At least if his reputation is destroyed, Michael can make it out unscathed.

            When they arrive at Brooke’s house, she still has a hold of his hand as she takes leads him up to her room. The house is empty, but it’s still a precaution Jeremy appreciates.

            He collapses into a bean bag chair, still sniffling, and Brooke crouches beside him.

            “Do you need to be alone right now?”

            God, no. Jeremy shakes his head.

            “Are you willing to talk? Or do you just need quiet time?”

            Why couldn’t she have left it at a yes or no question? “Can talk.” Jeremy mutters, biting on his lip. He wants to chew on his fingers, but he’s sure the girls would just make fun of him for it. And he can’t have his pacifier instead and make his Squip happy, because that’s even more embarrassing. So he’s left with chewing on his lip.

            “How do you feel?”

            Jeremy lifts three fingers.

            “Three?” Brooke parrots.

            Chloe frowns. “Like, three years old?”

            Jeremy nods. He pulls at the front of his shirt. His first instinct is to start chewing on the collar, but he instead uses it to hide his face.

            “See? I told you guys he was an age regressor.” Jenna says. She offers Jeremy a comforting smile, one which he shyly returns.

            She continues on, but Jeremy’s already zoned out. He’s just glad that the attention is no longer on him, and he pulls his teddy out of his backpack. His Squip keeps a hand on his shoulder, going on about escape routes and false explanations that Jeremy’s too tired to listen to.

            “That’s a nice bear, Jeremy.” Brooke says, snapping him out of his thoughts.

            “Michael gave ’im to me.” Jeremy mutters, hiding his face behind it.

            Jenna’s eyes light up. “Michael knows?”

            Jeremy opens his mouth then stops himself. Should he be dragging Michael down with him? His Squip touches his face and offers him a comforting smile.

            “What should I do?” Jeremy asks.

            “Though I would recommend honesty for this particular situation, Jeremy, I must remind you to—”

            “Who are you talking to, Jeremy?” Brooke asks, and Jeremy’s heart stops. Suddenly there are three pairs of scrutinizing eyes on him.

            Jeremy looks to his Squip for help.

            “Guys.” Chloe says, stopping them. “He’s talking to his imaginary friend.”

            The girls begin to giggle, their hearts simultaneously melting.

            Jeremy’s face burns, and he sinks lower into the ground the more they laugh.

            The Squip frowns. His hand goes to Jeremy’s head, which Jeremy assumes is him trying to stroke his hair, but since the Squip can’t physically touch him, most of the effect is lost.

            “If you were to leave immediately, you could be at Michael’s house in less than five minutes,” Squip points out. He’s obviously less concerned with the consequences of such an action and more concerned with getting Jeremy out of this distressing situation as soon as possible.

            “Guys.” Brooke says, giving a pointed nod toward Jeremy. “It’s okay, Jeremy. We were laughing because we think you’re cute, not because we were making fun of you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you upset.”

            Jenna and Chloe also offer their apologies until Jeremy feels brave enough to peek out from behind his bear.

            Brooke grins and waves at him. “Hi!”

            Jeremy shyly waves back, causing Brooke to coo. Jeremy goes red up to his ears, ducking his face behind his teddy again, which causes Brooke to coo over how cute he is again, until the two of them are caught in a cycle of Jeremy being adorable and shy and Brooke losing her mind over it.

            Chloe scoots in. There’s enough of a smile on her face to put him at ease, but not enough for her to break her cool-girl façade. “So what do you do when you’re… small?”

            Jeremy shrugs. “Usually color or nap? Michael plays games with me, and my… imaginary friend likes to read me stories.” With a red face, he drops his gaze to the floor. He feels so dumb talking about an imaginary friend, but it’s the only way he can refer to his Squip at this point. Not that that makes him feel any less stupid.

            Jenna scoots in next. “So who takes care of you when you feel small?”

            “Michael and… my imaginary friend.”

            Brooke frowns, her lips in a half-exaggerated pout. “It can’t be fun just having your imaginary friend around for when you’re small.”

            Jeremy glances over at his Squip, who’s currently looking elsewhere and pretending to not look offended at Brooke’s last comment.

            “He does a really good job…” Jeremy shies back into his teddy bear, feeling a little suffocated at the moment.

            “But how’s he supposed to give you big hugs like this?” Jeremy can’t help shrieking with laughter as Brooke sweeps him up into fierce, cuddly hug. When she finally lets go, she wipes the last remaining tears from his cheeks and smiles at a job well done.

            “Brooke, stop hogging him.” Chloe grumbles. She begins to perch on the edge of his beanbag chair but stops. “You’re okay with this, right? Us being around?”

            Jeremy nods.

            Jenna gets a little closer. “Like, more than this one time?”

            The Squip appears again, taking great care to scrutinize each girl in turn. “I offer my approval with Brooke,” he says simply. “But I assume they’re going to be a package deal.”

            “Brooke’s nice.” Jeremy murmurs, once again forgetting that he’s speaking out loud. “Okay.” And just like that, he’s trapped in an airtight four-person hug.

            “We should watch a movie.” Jenna suggests.

            Jenna and Chloe sit on either side of him, and Brooke sits on the floor right in front of him. Jeremy lies on his belly, one hand wrapped around his teddy while Brooke holds the other one. They all offer him occasional affection, which he tries to return. He swears he saw Chloe’s heart melt the first time he snuggled deeper into one of her hugs.

            It gets easier, the more time that passes. They wouldn’t be acting so nice to him if they didn’t mean it, he’s sure. If they had to—for a prank or for the gossip or whatever—they’d probably be holding him at arm’s length the way Rich does. Rich is only nice to him because his Squip says he has to be.

            “You’re overdue for a nap.” Squip reminds him, and even though it’s the last thing he wants to do right now, Jeremy obligingly fakes a yawn.

            Someone—probably Jenna—throws a blanket over him, and someone else—probably Chloe—strokes his hair, so he’s out within seconds.

~

            Michael squints at his screen. He’s been added to some group chat entitled “Jeremy Protection Squad”?

            What did that even mean?