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After everyone but Rich had gotten out of the hospital, and Jeremy and Michael had talked about what happened, things almost went back to normal at Middleborough high. Well, as normal as it could get after a theater production gets hijacked by a super computer and your best friend finally ends up dating the girl of his dreams. Michael thought it was weird; it had always only been him and Jeremy against the world, until suddenly it was just him, and now he had Jeremy back again, but Jeremy also came with a girlfriend and actual, popular friends. Granted, they would only casually talk in the corridors between classes the first couple of weeks, and it did seem a bit awkward since Jeremy had been dating Brooke and apparently cheated on her with Chloe, who was back to dating Jake, who used to date Christine, who was now, you guessed it, dating Jeremy.

Michael wondered when he got so invested in high school drama, but he guessed that was just his life now.

Even though things were mostly back to normal, and he and Jeremy had worked things out, Michael didn't see Jeremy nearly as often as before the SQUIP incident. It was expected, with Jeremy’s new relationship status, and Michael wouldn't begrudge him that; heck, he was the one constantly encouraging him to go eat lunch with Christine. He could hang back, go get lunch at 7-Eleven, it was fine, no problem.

"You sure?" Jeremy would ask, and Michael would give him a thumbs up or something similar.

"Yeah, dude, go for it! I'll be fine," he’d reply. Jeremy would give him a smile and say “thanks, man”, and Michael always smiled back.

He stopped smiling the moment Jeremy left.

He tried to take comfort in the fact that they could still hang out after school, though; because even though Jeremy was grounded for the rest of the year, his dad trusted Michael like a second son and had granted him special privileges to come and go as he wanted at any time. But even with that, Michael still felt like they didn’t spend time together like they used to. That, even after talking and crying and Jeremy apologizing over and over, there was something tense in the air between them; something unspoken, still left unsaid. Like they were both treading carefully, worried a wrong move could ruin them again.

Michael sometimes wondered if he should consider joining the theater kids too, with how dramatic he was getting. They were fine. He and Jeremy were fine.

Then came December, and Jeremy’s grounding downgraded to a strict curfew instead. Since he didn't have to go straight home every day anymore, he started going on actual dates with Christine, and it was easy to tell how excited he was about that.

Truth be told, Michael had kind of wanted to hate her. He had wanted to justify the sting he felt in his heart when he saw them together - her laughing at something and Jeremy blushing - and pretend it wasn't just bitter jealousy. Of course, he learned during an outing to the mall with them that he got dragged along to early in the month that it was actually near impossible to hate her. He would even go so far as to say that she was good for Jeremy and really wanted the best for him, and, well… that made her okay in Michael’s book, because he wanted the same. He would just have to take his jealousy and shove it somewhere else, where it didn't hurt as much.

December was also when Rich finally came back to school, scars covering half his body, and he seemed to alternate between sticking to Jake and Jeremy, obviously shaken by everything that had happened to him. Michael had found it a bit hard to trust the guy at first, even with the change in attitude and behavior, but he still somehow got dragged along when they all started having lunch together at one of the bigger tables; all of them being the kids who had gotten squipped, however briefly. It was kind of weird how they all fit together; Jake and Chloe had apparently already broken up again, but he still lived with her or something since his house burned down and his parents were still missing, and Chloe didn't go anywhere without Brooke, and because Rich wanted to hang out with both Jake and Jeremy, that also pulled the group of popular kids together with Christine and Michael, who were practically Jeremy’s +2 in this scenario. Jenna seemed to be the kind of person who table drifted a lot, but Jeremy somehow managed to convert her to a more or less permanent addition to their lunch table by simply calling out to her, waving her over, and having a friendly conversation with her. Michael had noticed he did that with her in the corridors as well sometimes, and her face would always light up a little more. He’d admit that she was actually a pretty nice person if you only stopped worrying about her spreading things about you online.

They all proved to have good sides that Michael genuinely appreciated, but even so, he couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. It was hard not to; he was never really good in social situations, he knew that most of his interests were obscure, and he was very aware that they only interacted with him because he was Jeremy’s friend. Which is why, when they decided to get together for group activities, Michael more often than not declined.

"Are you coming too?" Jeremy had asked him one time after excitedly telling him they were all planning on doing some late gift shopping together.

"Nah, I think I'll sit this one out. You have fun though,” Michael had replied, dismissing it with a wave of his hand as he grabbed the last things from his locker and shoved it into his backpack. Jeremy’s face fell into a mild frown for a few seconds.

"Oh, uh, okay. I'll see you tomorrow then?" he asked, and Michael forced an easy smile.

"Of course!"

And between that, the dates, group lunches, and the others, it was getting harder and harder for Michael to find time alone with Jeremy.

The holidays came and passed; Michael had gotten Jeremy a limited special edition of a new game, and Jeremy had gotten him a fidget cube with a cool gamer inspired design (“It even comes with a keychain, so you won't risk losing it!”) that Michael could not have been happier with. He used it daily since he got it, and whenever he looked at it he'd smile and be reminded of his Player Two. It made it easier to pretend that they hadn't barely had time to hang out anymore, that Michael wasn't missing him constantly, and remembering the days of complete loneliness because his best friend ditched him for an evil tic tac--

Wait, no, he wasn't supposed to go there. Better pack that up and shove it away again. He was fine. It was fine. They were fine. They had worked it out, and they were talking again; they were still best friends. Jeremy was just… busy.

That's what he told himself when New Year’s Eve arrived. It was true; Jeremy had been invited to celebrate and count in the new year with Christine and her family, who were hosting a small party for family friends.

It wasn't the first time the two of them spent New Years apart from each other, but it was the first time Michael was sure Jeremy wouldn't miss him. Every year in the past, the two would text each other and complain about family members or noisy fireworks or just send dumb memes back and forth, because no matter what, the other made everything better.

This year, Michael’s phone was mostly silent as the night approached.

It was fine, though. Jeremy had a girlfriend, his priorities would obviously be different. Michael wouldn't be his number one anymore, and he knew that. Still, as the minutes quickly neared midnight and the end of the worst year of his life, Michael found himself alone in his bedroom, seated on the edge of his bed, with his thumb hovering over Jeremy’s contact. He wanted to call him, like they always did when they couldn't physically start the new year together, but what if he was busy with Christine? What if, instead of talking to Michael, Jeremy wanted to ring in the year kissing his girlfriend like they did in those sappy rom-coms they both denied actually liking?

He swallowed thickly as he clicked back to his phone’s home screen. The time said 11:59. He quickly pulled out the messages app and typed out an overly enthusiastic “Happy New Year!!!!” complete with emojis and everything. It didn't match what he was feeling at all, but he couldn't help a small smile in spite of that. With bated breath, he waited for the clock to change, and then hit send. Breathing out a sigh, Michael let his phone fall down on the mattress next to him. Chances were big that Jeremy wouldn't see it until way later, so he might as well go back downstairs to wish his parents a happy new year, too.

Suddenly, his phone rang; the tune of Pac-Man Fever was just barely audible over the sounds of fireworks outside, but it was no mistaking it.

Jeremy was calling him.

"Happy new year!" Jeremy shouted through the receiver the moment he picked up, and Michael laughed, said it back with excitement and glee thrumming through him. "Why'd you text me, you dork?" Michael shrugged, even though Jeremy couldn't see him.

"I just didn't want to bother you," he answered truthfully. He could faintly hear the sound of music and people in the background. Jeremy must've gone off somewhere to call him. The thought warmed him, and he found himself grinning.

"It's New Years, you wouldn't have bothered, you know that."

"Yeah, but I couldn't risk dragging you away from your hot date, now, could I?"

Jeremy sputtered, clearly embarrassed, and Michael laughed despite the ache that accompanied his own teasing. It still couldn't dim the happiness of Jeremy actually calling him after all, though, and he was glad for that.

"Jeremyyy!" Michael suddenly heard in the background. "There you are!"

"Christine! What-- are you drunk?"

"Of course not, silly! I only had a few glasses of champagne," she answered with a giggle. "Ohhh, oh, are you talking to Michael?"

"Uh, yeah--"

"Hi Michael!" she shouted, loud enough to be heard more clearly through the receiver.

"Christine says hi," Jeremy repeated, and Michael snorted.

"Yeah, I heard her. Hi Christine!"

Jeremy relayed his greeting and he heard Christine make a happy noise in the background, making him laugh a little.

"Listen, Michael, I think I gotta--"

"Yeah, no, I get it. Go, enjoy the festivities. Let me know if anything funny happens, though."

"I will. Talk to you later, Michael!"

With that, the line went dead. Michael’s smile slowly fell, and he stared blankly at his wall for a little while, feeling too much yet nothing at all, until a sob tore its way through his throat and the feelings overwhelmed him. He missed his Player Two so much it was like an actual, physical ache in his chest, and he wanted so badly to have started the new year next to him; to know that the bad times were finally over, that Jeremy wasn't going anywhere. But he knew he couldn't have that privilege anymore.

Michael started the year by crying himself to sleep, with memories swirling in his head of when he had been completely and truly alone.

***

After New Years, things continued on in the same vein; Jeremy didn't have time to meet up, so Michael passed his time with a new Pokemon game and World of Warcraft, while counting the days until school started again. Only texting Jeremy for so long felt kind of lonely, but he could suck it up for a few more days, knowing that they’d at least see each other in the corridors, at lunch and whatever classes they’d have together. It got frustrating, feeling like he wasn’t really a priority in Jeremy’s life at times, but Michael knew that anything was better than not being part of Jeremy’s life at all; he would take what he could get, and suck it up. As long as he didn’t say anything, it couldn’t turn into a conflict, after all, and Jeremy wouldn’t realize what a clingy creep Michael was, or that he made a huge mistake in coming back. If he just said nothing, it wouldn’t be a problem. It would be fine.

It was fine.

Until it wasn’t.

They were in the middle of lunch on a Friday, about halfway through January already, and Christine had spent the bigger part of it ranting about theater, having to be reminded occasionally by their friends to slow down, breathe, and actually eat in between the fast paced words.

"I'm just saying," she said, pointing with her fork for emphasis, "that it is wholly unfair to shut off funding for the spring musical because one play didn't go as planned!"

"Christine, we all got sent to the hospital," Chloe deadpanned. Jeremy shifted uncomfortably in his seat between Christine and Michael, but if anyone else picked up on it, they said nothing.

“Well, yes, but still…! The arts are important, and should still be encouraged, even through setbacks!”

“Is there even enough of an interest after last year?” Brooke piped up. “I mean, didn't most of us just join for extra credits?”

A chorus of agreements and nods went around the table, and Christine’s face fell. Jenna, who sat on Christine’s left side, gave her shoulder a sympathetic pat.

“Don't feel too bad, Chris, I'm pretty sure the theater here is actually cursed. It's not exactly the first time an incident involving ambulances happened.”

That prompted the others to start sharing stories about things they had heard about the school theater and the frankly insane things that seemed to happen there, debating whether they could be true or not. Christine, however, had started poking at her food unhappily. Michael, who had been quietly toying with his fidget cube for most of the conversation, leaned forward, trying to catch her eye.

“Hey,” he said, and she finally looked up at him. “How about you look into local theater instead? I'm sure there's something open for new recruits.” Christine cocked her head and seemed to think it over for a few seconds, before she broke into a grin, her entire face lit up like a christmas tree.

“Oh my gosh, Michael, that's brilliant! Jeremy, are you in?” She turned to the boy between them, who seemed caught off guard over suddenly being pulled into the conversation.

“Oh, uh,” he stammered, flailing his hands just a little, “I don't-- I don't think so. I mean, theater is super fun, don't get me wrong, but…” He bit his lip for a second, let his hands rest firmly on his lap. “I think I want to just be me for a little while. You know? S-sorry…”

Michael and Christine shared a look. He noticed that Rich was also watching them from across the table, but he made no move to join in or draw attention from the other four still blissfully lost in their discussion about wild school myths. Christine took Jeremy’s hand, moved it up to her face and placed a soft kiss on his knuckles, while Michael placed a comforting hand on his back.

“No no, you don't need to apologize. I get it,” Christine said and smiled. Her eyebrows were slightly knitted, but it didn't do anything to take away the warmth and sincerity in her expression, and Jeremy gave a small smile back.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, squeezing her hand. He leaned in to kiss her cheek, before turning and giving Michael a smile too; the sight of it made something simultaneously twist and flutter in his stomach. Just like that, things were back to normal, and they rejoined the overall conversation, laughing at a joke Jake had told.

When lunch was over and they were all about to walk to their respective classes, Jeremy grabbed Michael’s elbow to stop him.

“We’re still on for tonight, right?” he asked, and Michael smiled wide at him.

“Hell yeah, we are! We’ve got another level of Apocalypse Of The Damned to beat, after all,” he answered.

The plan was that Jeremy was going to stay the night at Michael’s, since it was a weekend, and they would indulge in video games and junk food as long as they could stay awake, just like they used to. Michael had honestly been looking forward to it all week.

Jeremy gave him a grin in return, and they did a high-five, low-five, kick before parting ways for their classes. It would've been nice if they had more of them together, but it was okay. Michael got to have Jeremy all to himself the entire weekend, after all.

***

"On your right!"

"Behind you!"

"Watch out!"

"Fuck!"

Both boys groaned loudly as the words "game over" flashed over the screen. They had been at it for three hours already, and while they were steadily making progress on the level, the zombies still proved too much for them.

"There has to be some way to get past them," Jeremy lamented, letting his controller fall down on the old, beat up couch. Next to him, Michael dragged a hand through his hair as he slumped down in his seat.

"Whatever the secret is, we obviously haven't found it."

"Man, and I thought the Cafetorium level was hard."

They sat in silence in the mostly dark basement for a moment, just staring at the screen as a little marker hovered between "try again" and "end game". Michael turned to Jeremy.

"You want to grab something to eat and try again later?" he asked, and Jeremy smiled at him.

"Yeah, sure."

They made their way upstairs to the kitchen and started rummaging through the fridge. Michael’s parents were both visiting one of his aunts out of town over the weekend, so Michael was in charge of feeding himself. Thankfully, since neither of them really wanted to try their luck with cooking on that particular evening, there was still some leftover lasagna that they could easily heat up.

“I still can’t believe you missed that last shot,” Jeremy whined as they sat down to eat. Michael made an indignant noise.

“Well, what about you going left when I told you to turn right and instantly became zombie food?” he retaliated, pointing his fork at Jeremy for emphasis, who just rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, but I wouldn't have had to turn anywhere if you hadn't missed one of the keys.”

“Where the hell is that key, anyway? We’ve gone over the level several times now and it's like it doesn't even exist!”

“I mean, it has to be somewhere. At least we know how to get past the gatepost area now, right?” Jeremy said while forking up a piece of his lasagna, a small but triumphant smile playing on his lips. The sight, along with the memory of sweet victory of progress after half an hour’s trial and error just for that area alone, made Michael smile as well.

“True, that! And hey, if we already made it this far, we’ll definitely make it further!”

“Hell yeah, we will!”

They both grinned, excited to go back to kicking zombie butt again, and Michael was already thinking of new strategies to try out as soon as they were done eating.

“Oh, hey, we should invite Rich to join us sometime!” Jeremy suddenly said, startling Michael a little. “He's surprisingly into video games, although I think he mostly plays shooters and stuff.”

Michael didn't know why, but he felt something clench in his gut at the thought.

“I don't know, man. He's an okay guy and all, but it still feels kind of weird, you know?” He shifted in his seat, leg shaking under the table. He wished he had brought his fidget cube up with him.

“Oh,” Jeremy said. “I mean, I guess. It's weird to think it's only been a few months since he was still shoving people into lockers…” Michael mumbled his agreement and poked at his food while Jeremy seemed lost in thought. “Still, though,” he went on, having shaken himself out of wherever his mind had wandered, “you should give him a chance. I think you two would actually get along pretty well.”

“I… I'll think about it,” Michael eventually said, but he knew he couldn't keep some of the bitterness he felt out of his voice. He frowned down at his food.

Truth be told, he didn't really want to think about it, and he definitely didn't want to spend more time with Rich. The guy had tormented them both for a long time, and still put Michael on edge whenever he was near, even though he had clearly changed since the fire and the play. Michael knew he had been through hell, though he wasn't really aware of the details, but it still felt far too weird to him.

Most of all, though, he didn't want to risk losing more time alone with Jeremy. A part of him, something selfish and possessive that he tried to keep buried deep within him, wanted to cling to Jeremy and keep him to himself, and Jeremy saying to invite others made him feel like he just wasn’t good enough after all. The thought made something coil inside him, wrapping tight around his heart.

Silence had fallen between them; the only sound was that of their cutlery as they slowly ate, lost in thought. The air felt heavy, tense, nothing like the comfortable atmosphere they had had while playing, and Michael hated it.

They were supposed to be fine. So why weren't they…?

Eventually the silence became too much, and Michael sighed.

“I do like your friends, Jeremy, it's just… hard to get used to.” Michael looked up and saw Jeremy looking at him. Their eyes met, and Jeremy’s seemed almost sad.

“They're your friends too, Michael.”

“I--… Yeah. That's… That's also hard getting used to. I mean, it used to just be the two of us for practically all our lives, you know?” He gave a tentative smile, and Jeremy matched it from across the table.

“I know.”

Silence fell once more, but at least it felt less heavy now. Michael was turning their conversation around in his mind, and Jeremy’s downcast eyes and the way he poked at his lasagna told him he was most likely doing the same.

“Speaking of,” Michael said, and Jeremy looked up at him with curiosity, “it's kind of good to see Jake without his casts again, huh?”

“Oh, man, definitely. He really did a number on himself back when--” Jeremy cut off abruptly, but Michael knew what he was talking about. He nodded.

“It's honestly a miracle there weren't any complications after that,” he said, genuinely amazed.

“Yeah. God, imagine if Chloe’s parents hadn't let him stay with them. Where do you think he would have even gone?”

“Heck if I know. I was mostly surprised Chloe actually has a heart,” Michael joked, which made Jeremy snort and nearly choke on a mouthful of lasagna. He managed to swallow it down, somehow, even as his body shook with poorly contained laughter.

“Oh my god,” he wheezed, gasping for air and trying to collect himself, “don't let her hear you say that.” He took a last steadying breath and cleared his throat. “She is nice, though, just… a bit… You know.” He waved a hand and winced. Michael completely understood.

“Is it still awkward? You know, with what happened with you and Brooke and all that?” he asked. He had actually been wondering about it for a while, but there hadn't been an opportunity to ask before. He was a little surprised when Jeremy smiled and shook his head.

“Nah, not really. Talking things out with Brooke back then really helped, and she's a super sweet and understanding person,” he said, smile turning wistful and soft. “I kind of wish I had liked her while we were dating. She deserved that much, at least…”

“Hey. You didn't exactly have full control over what happened back then, remember? So… So don't keep beating yourself up over it, if she's already forgiven you.” Michael tried to be as encouraging as he could; it was always hard to see Jeremy fall back into his own spiraling guilt, and he wished he could do more to stop it. But for now, just getting a small smile and a sigh out of the other was enough. Just hearing him say a quiet “you're right” was enough.

“You know what still really weirds me out, though?” Jeremy went on, and Michael blinked, his eyebrows raised in question. “That half of the group still thinks the whole shitshow during the Play happened because someone snuck them ecstasy. Ecstasy! I mean, what the hell?” He gestured wildly as he spoke, emphasizing his disbelief over the bizarre situation.

“I know, it's so weird!” Michael agreed, though he was also mostly amused by it all, evident in the grin he couldn't keep off his face. “It's like a freaky conspiracy cover up, or something,” he said, and Jeremy nodded quickly, before frowning.

“I wonder what they'd say if they knew I was the one who ‘drugged’ them…” he whispered, and Michael’s grin instantly fell. Jeremy was looking down at his nearly empty place, biting his lip while his fingers scratched nervously on the table surface, clenching and unclenching in front of him. Michael reached forward and placed a hand of top of his, making his head snap back up to look at him.

“Jeremy”, he said gently. “I think they'd understand.” He could see Jeremy swallow, his eyes searching Michael’s for something.

“Y-you do…?”

“Yeah. The rest of us did, right?” Jeremy smiled slightly, and Michael silently cheered over the small victory. “If you ever decide to tell them, I’m sure it’ll be okay. And you've got me and Christine to back you up, too.”

Jeremy looked at their hands on the table for a few seconds, a small smile still playing on his lips, and he turned his hand to grasp Michael’s. When he looked up, his eyes were shining slightly.

“Thanks, Michael,” he said softly. Michael squeezed his hand in return. His face felt warm.

“Any time, buddy. Now, you want to go back downstairs and kick zombie butt?” he asked with a grin, and Jeremy eagerly matched it.

“Hell yeah!”

The night went on, and while there were moments where their worries still interfered, the air felt much lighter again. Despite everything, despite Christine, Rich, and the others in their squad, Michael was glad that he still got to have this, after all; that he and Jeremy still had something special, built on twelve years of friendship. It made the ache in his chest easier to bear, and chased away some of the loneliness that seemed almost fused with his bones some days. It made it just a little easier to forget his concerns and worries, and the fact that it was the first time they were hanging out alone since before New Years.

It made him feel happy, despite everything.

As it neared four o’clock, the boys were finally wrapping up, having beaten the level at long last and moved through two other games as well. There were crumbs and popcorn littered on the floor, surrounding the two boys currently spread out on the carpet and staring at the ceiling.

“I am… so tired,” Jeremy said, blinking in an attempt to wake himself up.

“Word,” Michael replied. Jeremy snorted and rolled over to look at him, eyebrow quirked in amusement.

“Dude, who even says that anymore? No one says that.”

“I literally just did,” Michael tried to retaliate, but Jeremy shook his head. Both of them were grinning, despite their bleary eyes.

“Yeah, but you're weird. Like, super weird. In, like, a super good way.”

As Jeremy reached out a hand to pat Michael - an awkward gesture, given the odd angle and his sluggish movements - the other boy moved to hide in his hoodie. He was blushing, and he knew it would be visible even in the low lighting of the basement, and wouldn't that be just mortifying. Jeremy went from patting him to poking him at the shift, and Michael only wanted to burrow further into the hoodie when he heard him laugh, full of geeky charm and tired happiness.

“Did you die?” he asked jokingly, and Michael gave a muffled noise in response, eliciting another laugh as Jeremy sat up. When Michael peeked out of the hood, he saw him stretching his arms above his head. “We should probably sleep, huh. Come on, sleepyhead. Let's blow up the mattress.”

“Nnnoo, I'm dead,” Michael whined. He really was tired, and the prospect of moving did not appeal to him at all. “Can't we just… sleep here?”

He could feel Jeremy’s unimpressed stare even without seeing his face.

“Do you actually want to sleep on the floor?” he asked. Michael was quiet for a while, actually contemplating the pros and cons, before sighing and sitting up as well.

“No. Let's get this over with, then.”

As reluctant as he’d been, the air-filled bed was set up in a matter of minutes and they had both practically thrown themselves on it. Michael was just about ready to pass out the moment his body made contact with the thing, and only barely remembered to put away his glasses first.

"Dude, are you really going to sleep in your hoodie?" Jeremy asked, a bit slurred by sleepiness. Michael gave a hum in reply. "Michael. You'll overheat." Another hum, and he rolled over on his side, away from Jeremy.

"'s soft though," he mumbled, and Jeremy laughed quietly before falling quiet again. Not long after, sleep claimed them, lulled by the soft sound of each other's breathing.

***

When Michael opened his eyes, he instantly regretted it. Light was streaming in through the tiny basement windows, and he felt uncomfortably hot and heavy in his layers of clothing. He tried shifting to at least shut the lights out, but instead noticed that he felt drenched with what could only be his own sweat. Groaning, he sat up and groped for his glasses and his phone. He wasn't at all pleased to see that it was already ten o’clock and yet he hadn't slept even nearly enough hours to feel rested.

He knew he shouldn't have worn the hoodie to bed, but going upstairs to change into a completely different shirt would've raised questions that Michael didn't want to answer. Feeling absolutely gross and resigned to a still too early shower, he started to crawl off the air mattress, trying his best to keep its wobbling to a minimum so as not to disturb Jeremy who was still soundly asleep next to him. It was hard, though; he practically held his breath as he heard Jeremy shift and groan behind him.

“Michael…?” he mumbled blearily as he squinted and blinked against the light in the room. “Where’re you going…?” He was clearly only half awake, and it made Michael smiled in spite of himself.

“Just going to take a shower. Go back to sleep, okay?”

Jeremy made a soft noise and rolled over, burying his face in his pillow. Within seconds, he was snoring softly again and Michael almost wanted to laugh. It was absolutely adorable.

He shuffled over to the stairs and made his way up to the bathroom, taking his time to shower off the sweat and drowsiness as well as he could. The hot water felt comforting, at least, and Michael sighed as he let it simply wash over him for a few minutes.

After he was done showering, he went into his bedroom and threw his hoodie in the laundry pile by the corner, giving it one last mournful glance and already missing the comfort it usually provided, before he walked over to the drawer to pull out a clean long-sleeved shirt. It was a simple shirt - black, with a cartoon print on it - and while Michael was definitely a bigger fan of short-sleeved T-shirts, he liked that one a lot. Finally feeling freshened up, he looked to his bed by the window. It looked soft and inviting, ten times more comfortable than the air mattress down in the basement, and Michael could definitely use a few more hours of shut-eye. But then he thought of Jeremy, still sleeping downstairs, and decided against it. Instead, he made his way back to the basement and carefully laid down on top of the covers.

While he waited for Jeremy to wake up as well, he attempted to kill time by messing around on his phone; he checked in with some of his WoW chats, seeing what he’d missed and what they were all up to (nothing much outside of memes, it seemed), and when that got boring he ended up on youtube, watching cute animal compilations for a while. When that eventually made him feel restless too, he let the phone fall down next to him and just barely resisted the urge to heave a deep sigh as he stared up at the ceiling. With nothing able to hold his attention for long, there was nothing left to keep his mind from becoming hyper aware of the body laid next to him. He tried to stop his thoughts from going there, he really did, but in the end, they won.

Michael rolled over on his side, head pillowed under his arm, and allowed himself to simply look at Jeremy.

The thing about having known someone for the majority of their life is that you knew practically everything about them; you had their features memorized after years of seeing them; the different oddities and the history behind them. Yet Michael still found himself counting the freckles dusted across Jeremy's cheeks and nose, as though he hadn't done exactly that countless times before. He let his eyes search over the sleeping face, taking in how relaxed Jeremy looked like that, noted how it had actually been a while since he had seemed truly relaxed, or the way his hair fell over his face and only just failed to hide the tiny, barely visible scar on his forehead from a biking accident when they were ten… The memory still made Michael smile. They had been so dumb back then, going on wild adventures and not caring about anything but each other.

It was weird, how quickly things could change.

That wasn’t to say that Jeremy didn't care, though; Michael knew he did, and it wasn't as though things had never been hard before. In fact, he could recall a couple of realization-filled months back during eighth grade that were absolute hell for him, even though Jeremy could never find out why, and the shitshow that had been Jeremy's parents' divorce had not been pretty to witness. But they had always made it through those rough ups and downs, because they at least had each other. The world was a two player game, and they could beat it as long as they stuck together.

Michael sucked in a breath against the pain that suddenly hit him at that thought. He swallowed against it, tried to will the dull throb in his chest away. Whatever had happened, Jeremy was back again. He was right there, snoring softly just a few feet away from him. Feeling his hands shake a little, Michael reached out slowly to brush a lock of hair from Jeremy's forehead. He couldn't say why he did it, exactly; he guessed that he just needed to be sure, on some level, that it was all still real, that he wasn’t dreaming. He let his fingers linger, moving over the soft hair, stroking it gently and featherlight. The tightness in his chest was still there, but it felt different, a mixture of pain and longing that was all too familiar to him, yet foreign in its new rawness.

No one affected him as much as Jeremy did. No one could make him as happy, or as miserable, dancing from one emotion to the other with a single smile or frown from the lanky boy. He swore it was enough to give him whiplash at times, and one of these days Jeremy, in all his oblivious, heterosexual glory, might just be the death of him.

For now, though, he was content to just have this, to feel that Jeremy was there with him, as his best friend. It was enough.

Eventually, Jeremy let out a quiet groan and curled into the pillow just a bit more, clearly about to wake up again. Michael quickly drew back his hand, trying to stifle a laugh at Jeremy's muffled and incoherent grumbling. On a whim, he reached back out and ruffled his friend's hair, eliciting a noise of protest and a weak swat that missed his arm completely.

"Rise and shine, sleeping beauty,” he teased, and actually did laugh when Jeremy glared up at him.

“You're too cheerful,” he muttered. “How long have you even been awake?”

“A while. I think it’s about lunchtime now or something.”

“Shit, really?” Jeremy stretched his arms over his head and gave Michael a lopsided smile. “Man, we really went all out last night, huh.”

“Yep,” he agreed, popping the ‘p’ cheerfully. “And today we’re not doing anything productive at all, if I have a say in it.” The comment made Jeremy laugh, and they both grinned at each other for a while. “Come on,” Michael said eventually, giving Jeremy’s side a teasing poke, “I'm hungry and your beauty sleep has kept me from a very delicious brunch long enough.”

“Alright, alright. Give me a moment, jeez.”

While Jeremy went into the bathroom, Michael went upstairs to the kitchen to start on their brunch. He roamed around the cabinets for a waffle iron and let out a whoop of triumph when he finally found it. By the time Jeremy finally joined him again, he was already cooking the third waffle.

“Took you long enough,” he said, but he kept his voice light and teasing. He let a sly smirk play on his face. “What, you had to rub one out before eating?”

He had expected Jeremy to blush and stutter, but instead he saw him pale as his eyes widened. “I wasn't!” he nearly shouted, sounding not only defensive, Michael noted, but almost… scared.

“I was only kidding, Jeremy, relax,” he tried to soothe. He frowned when Jeremy looked off to the side, his hands fidgeting with his shirt, before he flexed them into fists, as if to force himself stop.

It was a little thing, in the grand scheme of it all, but it was yet another reminder that things were different now. That Jeremy had changed after going through things Michael didn't actually know all that much about, things that had caused a gap between them. But Michael was determined to not let the dread that always lurked in his stomach at the thought ruin the weekend for them. It was going to be fine.

“Hey, think you could get the plates and stuff?” he asked, hoping to distract Jeremy from whatever was happening in his head at the moment.

“Wha-- oh, sure.”

“You can go ahead and pick a movie too while I finish up the waffles, if you want. But don't pick anything bad!”

That earned him a scoff and an eye roll from the other boy, but he was at least smiling again, which Michael counted as a solid win.

“Just for that, I'm picking Twilight or something.”

“Don't even joke about that!” Michael shouted after him but Jeremy just laughed all the way to the living room. The bastard.

When Michael was done with the last waffle, he took them into the living room and placed them on the coffee table, where Jeremy had laid out plates and glasses alongside chocolate sauce and a can of whipped cream. The TV screen in front of them was showing the opening menu for Lord of the Rings. Michael raised a surprised eyebrow at Jeremy, who flushed.

“What, I felt like fantasy,” he muttered, needlessly defensive, and Michael clapped him on the shoulder as he sat down next to him on the couch.

“Hey, I’m not complaining. I’m always down for reliving the most awesome introduction in cinematic history.”

“Just admit you have a crush on Aragorn, Michael,” Jeremy snorted. Michael grinned at him and grabbed the remote to start the movie.

“What can I say, the man is too rugged to resist.”

They were both joking, but Michael briefly thought that he would likely never live it down if Jeremy found out that younger teen Michael actually had been hopelessly attracted to the actor in question. Oh well. Some things he would just take to his grave.

As the movie started playing, with Galadriel’s voice laying out the exposition, the two boys ran commentary and dug into their food. Jeremy especially made some very appreciative sounds as he took a bite of his waffle, making Michael’s ego swell just a little with pride.

“Seriously, man, this is so good! How are you so good at making waffles?”

“Trade secret, dude. But the secret ingredient is love,” Michael joked, drawing out the word 'love' in an overly cutesy way, and Jeremy shoved at him with a laugh.

Things felt good, and Michael really was enjoying the movie after not having seen it in a few years. Most of all, he enjoyed Jeremy’s company, having him sit next to him, relaxed and smiling lazily like before everything happened. It made Michael feel normal, and calmed the buzzing anxiety in his head for a while. But just as he thought that, an actual buzzing was heard, followed by another, and another in rapid succession. Michael looked over to Jeremy, who dug his vibrating phone out with a curious frown. He made a noise, clearly wondering who could be texting him so much on a saturday, but then his eyes widened, his mouth opening in a small ‘o’ shape, and Michael couldn’t explain the dread he suddenly felt at the sight.

“Oh, shit,” Jeremy muttered.

“What’s wrong? Who is it?”

“It’s, uh… It’s Christine,” he got back. Jeremy winced and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I kind of maybe promised her I’d help her out with some stuff today, but then forgot about it until just now?” he explained, though it sounded more like a sheepish question. “She’s asking when I’ll be there.”

Michael knew where the dread came from now; it had been too good to be true.

He turned back to the TV, resolutely keeping his eyes on the screen where the movie was still running, and tried to keep his voice as casual and steady as possible when he spoke.

“You should go,” he said.

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah. You promised, right?”

“Y-yeah, but…”

“She’s your girlfriend, Jeremy. You shouldn’t ditch on her.”

Michael glanced at him and tried to smile, but his face didn’t feel right. Everything felt off; his chest hurt, he felt cold and his head was heavy with every racing thought, so fast he could barely pick them apart, screaming and yelling at him to keep Jeremy from leaving, that of course he was leaving, why wouldn’t he? How dare he just put Michael aside like that, but how dare Michael expect anything else when he didn’t even have any claim on Jeremy to begin with…? It was the same chaos that had gone through his head a thousand times before over the past few months - paradoxes and wishes and irrational emotions that all clashed against him - and it left him reeling and exhausted. He felt like it would completely overwhelm him, and--

“Michael?”

And Jeremy was saying something.

“S-sorry, zoned out for a sec. What did you say?”

“Are you, uh… sure it’s okay?” Jeremy asked, concerned frown weighing down his eyebrows. Michael’s hand clenched into a fist by his side, out of sight for Jeremy.

“Yeah, man, it’s completely fine. We can hang out some other time.”

He had to sound casual; he had no right to be possessive and clingy like that. It was pathetic, and it wasn't fair to Jeremy. The boy in question was silent for a moment, chewing on his lip. He wasn’t looking at Michael, and Michael looked away from him too, fidgeting with a loose thread in the couch cushion.

“Alright,” Jeremy said finally. He got up from the couch and left, probably to collect his things. Michael fought against the sudden and overwhelming urge to cry, feeling like a complete idiot. Things were going so well, and now…

He managed to take a few steadying deep breaths just before Jeremy returned, backpack slung over his shoulder. He stood there for a few seconds, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Um, do you need any help with cleaning up before I--”

“Nah, it’s fine. I got it,” Michael interrupted. He stood up and followed Jeremy to the door, where they still hesitated, and Michael felt the pressure in his chest growing with every second that Jeremy lingered.

“Are you sure it’s fine?” he asked again, and the pressure was too tight, too close to his throat, and Michael couldn’t hold back the frustration in his voice anymore.

“Just go already,” he snapped back, and regretted it in an instance when he saw Jeremy’s eyes widen. He cursed internally. “Sorry. It’s fine, seriously. I guess I’m just… irritable. Didn’t sleep well, it’s nothing.” He tried to brush it off, but Jeremy was still staring at him, shock turning into a frown. Michael blinked when he let the backpack fall to the floor with a ‘thud’.

“Okay, seriously,” he said, “what’s wrong?”

“Nothing! I just--” Michael tried to stammer out an excuse, anything, as he ran a hand through his hair. He had to come up with something; he couldn’t let Jeremy find out how damn clingy Michael had become, or he’d probably run for the hills. But he was just so tired. “It’s just that… We haven’t really had any time to actually hang out, lately, since you’re always off with Christine, and, I mean, I get that. She’s your girlfriend, and obviously that’s more important, but--”

“Michael--”

“But it still sucks, and--”

“Michael!” Jeremy cut him off, raising his voice. There was a frustration in his tone that set Michael on edge. “If you wanted me to stay, why the hell have you been telling me to leave for the past fifteen minutes? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“You think I didn’t want to?” Michael asked back, throwing his arms out in agitation. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh, scream or cry over how things were proceeding at the moment. “I feel like my head’s constantly screaming, and I don’t know what to do because half the time you’re too busy with your girlfriend or your cool new friends, and it’s not like I don’t want you to have friends - of course I do, but--” he cut himself off and grabbed at his hair with both hands. “I don’t know,” he finished lamely. “I don’t know.” He repeated it almost helplessly, his arms falling back down to his sides, all energy suddenly leaving him along with the quiet words. He couldn’t look at Jeremy, too afraid of what his expression might show, so instead he folded his arms closer to himself and stared off to the side, bit down on the inside of his cheek in a poor attempt to hold himself together.

“Michael…”

“I guess I just thought it’d be us against the world forever… It’s dumb.”

“It’s-- it’s not dumb,” Jeremy replied, his voice sounding strained. “Michael, that’s-- it’s not dumb,” he repeated, and Michael huffed out a humorless laugh.

He had wanted so badly for them to be fine, but there was only so long he could pretend.

“Michael, I’m serious.” Jeremy reached out to place a hand on his shoulder, but Michael still couldn’t look at him. “Look, I-- I know I might’ve been busy a lot lately, but you’re still my favorite person. You know that, right?” he asked. When Michael didn’t say anything, Jeremy’s voice got an almost desperate edge to it. “Right?

Michael shrugged his hand off and bit down hard on his cheek; hard enough that he could taste blood. He felt a sting behind his eyes, and he knew that if he tried to open his mouth to speak, he’d only break down crying. He heard Jeremy take a shaky breath, and saw him pull out his phone in his peripheral.

“There,” he said after a few seconds. “I sent Christine a text saying I can’t make it.”

That finally made Michael’s head snap up, and he stared at Jeremy with wide eyes and open mouth. He felt his jaw working but he could barely get any sounds out.

“Why…?” he finally choked out, searching Jeremy’s eyes. He didn’t really know what he was looking for, but he thought he found it when Jeremy met his with a steady, determined gaze.

“Because we promised we were going to hang out all weekend, and I’m not about to bail on my best friend when he’s clearly upset. I’m… sorry I didn’t notice, Michael.”

His voice was soft when he apologized, and he gave a small, regretful smile, and it was too much. The tears spilled from Michael’s eyes, and there was nothing he could do to stop it anymore as he hiccuped and choked on a sob. Jeremy was by his side in an instant, wrapping his arms around him and holding him close, and it was all Michael could do to just cling to his jacket as he cried while Jeremy whispered soothing nothings.

“I j-just,” Michael sobbed, “I tried to give you s-space, b-but fuck, Jeremy--”

“Shh, it's okay.”

“It's not! Things are awful without you, and-- a-and I know that's borderline codependency, I know, and, and I'm w-working on it, but it's hard!” He sniffed, buried his wet face in Jeremy’s shoulder, his voice becoming muffled by the fabric there. “It's always been j-just us, and now it's not. And I don't know what to do.”

He tried to take a few deep breaths through the sobs and sniffles in an attempt to calm down, to maybe stop crying. He felt Jeremy’s arms tightening around him. It felt grounding, in a way.

“I'm sorry,” Jeremy whispered. His voice sounded wobbly, unsteady. “I promised myself I’d never hurt you like that again, but now you're crying because I fucked up and I keep fucking up. I'm so sorry, Michael.” He pulled back slightly to look at Michael and reached up to wipe some of the tears from his cheek. His own face was blotchy and his eyes were wet and red-rimmed. “M-maybe it’s not just us anymore, but… b-but I would never replace you. You have to know that.”

He said it so earnestly, his eyes searching Michael’s face, and yet Michael couldn’t hold back the metaphorical voice in the back of his head that was still so hurt and bitter.

“You did before,” he whispered. He hadn’t even meant to say it, but it was the only thing that was running through his mind in that moment, an echo of thoughts he’d been having ever since before Halloween. His stomach dropped, however, when Jeremy sucked in a sharp breath, his eyes widening in shock, or-- or perhaps pain. He looked stricken, as though Michael might as well have just punched him.

(A part of Michael maybe wanted to, at times. But he tried very hard to keep that part firmly to himself.)

“I’m sorry,” Jeremy repeated. “Michael, I--… I don’t think I can ever say it enough. But I mean it. You-- you still believe that, right? I never…” His voice broke and he trailed off, chewed hard on his quivering lip.

Michael looked at him, and suddenly he felt so weary. He was already all cried out, he was exhausted, and seeing Jeremy fight back tears woke a practically lifelong instinct to protect and comfort, even though he didn’t necessarily want to. He still wanted to cling a bit longer to the hurt and bitterness he felt. In the end, though, that instinct still won. Michael let out a sigh.

“I know. I didn’t mean to say that…” he tried, but Jeremy shook his head.

“I-- I want you to be honest, Michael. I messed so many things up, and I d-don’t want to keep messing this up, too. Please,” he implored. Michael hesitated, opened his mouth to… he didn’t really know what he wanted to say.

“Okay,” he eventually replied. Jeremy let out a breath, a few tears escaping down his cheeks.

“I’m still so sorry.”

“I know.”

Jeremy gave a watery laugh that sounded halfway to a sob and wiped at his face with his sleeve.

“M-man, I’m supposed to be comforting you, but now I’m the one c-crying. How dumb is that?”

In spite of himself, and the whole disastrous situation he’d started, Michael actually felt himself smile.

“About as dumb as becoming zombie chow because you can’t tell left from right,” he quipped back and nudged Jeremy lightly with his elbow.

“Hey!”

They were both laughing now, and the air felt lighter, finally, but there was still something very somber to it. The laughter eventually died down, and they stayed quiet for a while, thinking. Michael rubbed awkwardly at his arms. He wished he still had his hoodie on, but he was at least glad for whatever limited comfort the long sleeves of his shirt could provide.

“So… what happens now?” Jeremy asked, still sniffling a little. “Do you, um… Do you want me to leave…?”

Michael shook his head. That was honestly about the last thing he wanted, after everything that just happened. Especially considering why it happened.

“Can we just… I don't know… go back to making dumb comments about movies?” he suggested, and Jeremy’s obvious relief coupled with the smile he gave him made something flutter back to life in Michael’s chest; something warm and familiar.

“I'd like that, yeah.”

“Cool,” Michael said intelligently, then grimaced. He was only just registering how sticky his face felt from all the crying. “I'm just going to, uh, go wash my face real quick, okay?”

“Yeah, I should probably do the same, I think. We're both kind of a mess, huh?”

“No shit,” Michael deadpanned. Jeremy looked ashamed at that, though, and Michael didn't like it. Not when they were finally edging back towards normality, however slowly. He bit his cheek in hesitation for a second or two, then reached out to ruffle Jeremy’s hair, earning him an indignant squawk. Michael snickered, satisfied with the distraction from anymore guilt and self-deprecation.

“Race you to the bathroom!” he shouted, and with that as his only warning took off down the hall, leaving Jeremy to gape and scramble to follow him.

“Wait what-- Michael! Wait up!”

Some time later found them both curled up on the sofa with blankets and snacks of all kinds, still watching what had turned into an entire Lord of the Rings marathon. It had taken most of the first movie, and Jeremy had visibly hesitated at first, but with Michael’s signal of go-ahead, he had leaned against him and then simply stayed there, laughing softly whenever Michael’s animated commentary managed to jostle him.

They were smiling and joking, just like always - like normal - and though it was perhaps much more subdued than it might've been in any other similar scenario, Michael thought it was exactly what they needed at the moment.

Things may not have been fine yet, he admitted to himself, but for the first time in a very long while Michael truly believed that they were going to be.