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Jeremy stares at the karaoke machine and feels the hair rise on the back of his neck.

He really should’ve expected that he wouldn’t get out of here with his dignity intact. Still, the glaring eyes of peer pressure aren’t helping. Neither is Michael’s semi-encouraging shove towards the living room “stage.”

Jeremy isn’t about to ask why Jake Dillinger owns a karaoke machine, nor why it seems to be loaded exclusively with shitty 2000s movie musical soundtracks. He’s not going to breach the question. Partially, it’s because he’s holding his fourth half-empty solo cup and his head is too cotton-filled for him to not sound like a dick bashing on Jake’s idea of a good time (having new friends is a pain in the ass when you still don’t know the boundaries for banter). Partially, it’s because everyone else is living it up. Christine is giggling her head off, cheeks tinted red as she takes a dramatic bow after her slightly garbled rendition of Fabulous from High School Musical 2 (Jeremy also isn’t about to admit that he’s never actually seen that movie). Partially—mostly—it’s because he’s too busy swallowing down icy bile.

This party was supposed to be just a small, casual, end-of-the-year deal. Kick off the summer with their mismatched friend group in Jake’s reconstructed living room. Jeremy hadn’t expected booze, but he also isn’t complaining. It’s a lot harder to feel self-conscious when there are three-and-a-half doses of liquid courage settling in his stomach and seeping through his blood.

That is, until Christine grins and holds the mic out to him and the alcohol starts to feel more like someone shooting his veins full of gravel as Jeremy swallows hard. “You don’t want me to sing,” he slurs in vain. Okay, so maybe he’s more drunk than he thought.

But he’s still not drunk enough for this.

“C’mon, Tallass,” Rich says, swaggering over to the glorified jukebox and scrolling through a grocery list of Jeremy’s demise, “we can duet.”

Jeremy resolutely ignores the heat rising to his cheeks as Rich breaks into self-satisfied snickers. (“Get it? Duet? Do-it?”) Instead, he rolls his eyes, praying to whatever deity might listen that no one else is paying enough attention to think the flush in his face is anything more than his stupid pale skin showing off just how low his tolerance is.

What deity should he pray to? The part of him that tries (and fails) to be a good Jew tells him that he should obviously not be questioning his choice of higher power because duh monotheism. But also, he’s drunk and Christine ranted to him earlier about some Greek mythology musical that’s up for like fourteen Tonys and Michael’s been rereading the Percy Jackson books for nostalgia’s sake and Jeremy needs more of a concept of a god to rationalize his thoughts to than an actual holy being.

He could pray to Dionysus. God of wine could help him handle his liquor and not drag himself into this mess. Or he could get him more drunk so at least he’d forget about it all by tomorrow. Or Apollo. If he’s about to butcher karaoke, it might help to have the god of music on his side.

...And he’d never admit it out loud, but Aphrodite might be helpful, because Rich is still wasted and is staring at him with laughter-glazed puppy eyes and it makes something in Jeremy’s chest squeeze a little too tight.

He’s so not drunk enough for this.

Except Michael has a hand on his back and is not-so-gently guiding (shoving) Jeremy to the front of the room, where Rich is grinning like a madman and Christine is holding out the microphone as far as the wire will allow. Everyone Jeremy knows and considers a friend is sitting around him, piled on couches and the carpet and egging him on. Jenna has her phone out and it isn’t discreet at all.

Jeremy’s not drunk enough for this, but he’s also not sober enough to protest.

So, he stumbles up off the couch, carefully balancing his solo cup so as not to slosh beer all over Jake’s carpet and because he needs every last drop of luck he can get.

Rich has a stupid dopey grin on his face, showing off slightly crooked teeth that are probably responsible for his lisp. The lisp that’s even more prominent when he’s drunk and the smile that Jeremy has had his eyes locked on far too much lately. He has to crane his neck down just a bit to look Rich in the eyes, which are bleary but a really nice color, holy shit.

“You gotta take the mic, man. Otherwise I’m gonna use both,” Rich says.

Damn him. “...No, don’t do that,” Jeremy mutters. He takes the miniature microphone from Christine and it slips around in his clammy fist. Come on. His hands shouldn’t be this sweaty. He shouldn’t be nervous. Sure, he’s never been one for public attention, but he’s drunk and it’s just his friends…

Right. Yeah. His friends. Nice, normal, been-perfectly-nice-to-him-since-all-the-supercomputers-went-away friends, and… And…

Rich. Fucking Rich.

Jeremy isn’t sure when his racing heartbeat around him became a product of something other than fear, to be honest. Well, no. Not fear, exactly, but for a few months it was really hard to compartmentalize the differences between Squipped Rich and Post-Squip Rich. Jeremy, of all people, should be able to recognize just how much that cybernetic Tic-Tac probably fucked with him. Hell, Jeremy himself is still a mess and he had one for a fraction of the time Rich did, but it’s still hard not to flinch when the guy who bullied you for years tries to pull you in for a bro hug.

It’s even harder to realize that the anxious squirming in your stomach has somehow turned into butterflies.

Jeremy knows Rich is into dudes; he still can’t get over the hilarity of the mildly horrified look on Michael’s face when Rich tried to flirt with him. Jeremy knows that he’s probably also into dudes, and it really wasn’t fair for the Squip to decide to look like his first celebrity crush to simultaneously make him come to terms with it and be disgusted by the very idea. No offense to whoever programmed it, but he’s never sleeping with an abusive supercomputer, no matter what sixth-grade him thought of Keanu Reeves’s bone structure.

It’s his current crush that’s the problem, though. Not even Michael knows, because he's not looking forward to the teasing that would inevitably come with telling him. Jeremy can feel his impending doom over the horizon as he stands in front of all his peers in a delicate state, pulse thundering in his ears and a toxic cocktail of beer and “oh shit, he’s like, really close right now” thundering in his head.

But he’s getting off-track, because Rich is waving a hand in front of his face and biting his lip in concern.

“You okay, dude?”

“Yeah!” And Jeremy’s voice definitely doesn’t crack at the word.

“You’re sooo out of it, Jerry,” Brooke says from where she’s lounged on an armchair. “How much have you had?”

Jeremy feels his face collapse in on itself. They’re all looking at him, and he’s such a lightweight that he’s already wasted and Rich is right here and Jeremy’s just drunk enough to think that the second-best option is to kiss him now and get it over with. The best option, of course, is to make Michael drive him back to his basement where they can get crossfaded and black out and not have to think about this ever again.

Except Rich is cracking up again, and Jeremy would really rather be able to listen to it. He laughs with snorts and giggles and Jeremy loves it so much. Rich is such a tough guy, but when he’s happy, he’s just as much of a dork as anyone Jeremy’s ever met.

“Dude,” he says, choking on his laughter. “Your face looks like some kind of Kermit the Frog shit. How do you even do that?”

“I’m actually a puppet. My skin’s made of felt and there’s a hand up my ass that controls my mouth.” Jeremy deadpans without thinking, and then immediately wishes he could stick his head in a box. For one, there couldn’t be a clunkier way to phrase that, even in his mind-fuzz state. And worse, he just made a really bad joke in front of the cool kids (yeah, they’re his friends now, but they’re still cooler than him). One of whom is his crush.

And who’s laughing his ass off again.

Huh.

Okay. Cool.

Rich laughs at his jokes. Jeremy knows that already, of course, but usually he tells moderately decent ones. Sure, he’s never gotten Chloe to crack a smile, but usually he can at least make Michael and Christine chuckle, so it’s not weird for Rich to laugh. But this stoned-at-3am-level bad joke? No one else is laughing, so either Rich is an especially giggly drunk or…

Jeremy hates to get his hopes up, especially when he’s already not thinking clearly, but he’s pretty sure he read somewhere that if you like someone you’re more likely to think they’re funny. Of course, that somewhere might’ve been a WikiHow article for all he can tell, but the point stands.

Rich finally gasps his breath back, and Jeremy’s skin catches fire when he looks up at him, eyes alight with mirth and… oh, god. Is that mischief?

“You just gave me the best song idea,” Rich says, and he doesn’t wait for a response before he’s scrolling and scrolling and pressing play and Jeremy’s heart is in his throat again.

You know the saying ‘pick your poison?’ Yeah, well Rich seems to be picking Jeremy’s poison for him.

“Dibs on the first verse.” And Jeremy doesn’t have the processing power to argue right now, so he leans against the fireplace (really? Jake’s new house has a fireplace after what happened last time?) mantle and tries in vain to figure out what song he’s in for. He doesn’t recognize the intro, at least, so he chugs the rest of his beer. Hopefully he can blame his mediocre performance on the drink.

He nearly chokes when Rich comes in on the melody. Firstly, because he sounds so different when he sings. His voice is soft and introspective all of a sudden. It’s still laced with underlying laughter, because he is apparently a giggly drunk, but it sounds…

Jeremy doesn’t want to say it sounds hot, because that’s completely mortifying, but it’s certainly a pleasant surprise that’s catching his tipsy attention more than he’d care to admit.

That is, until the chorus, where the secondly part comes in.

Somewhere in the recesses of his past, Jeremy has buried almost two decades of horrible geeky moments. These little obsessions that are best left to the shadow under his bed and the blurry memories of the few people who knew his sorry ass in fourth grade. Unfortunately, one of those people is lounging on the couch with glasses askew and he’s cackling because Michael remembers Jeremy’s phases all too well and they’re both getting flashbacks to the few weeks where Jeremy would watch the Muppet Movie (the revival version that you can’t even claim has value as a classic) on repeat.

Michael hated him for it at the time. Looks like this might be payback.

Possibly even more mortifying than the fact that he’s having to duet (Get it? Duet? Do-it? Fuck ) with his crush while half-drowning in the beer going up his nose is the fact that he knows the damn song. Knows it well. Well enough that part of him feels like he’d be letting down his nine-year-old self if he didn’t completely own it.

Again, he’s still not entirely sure he’s drunk enough for that.

But the track is speeding into the second verse and his panicked deliberation is screeching into some very wobbly notes. He’s not even entirely sure he’s in the right key, because his mind is locked on the squirming pit in his chest and the sweat between his palm and the microphone has gone from clammy to downright slippery. Also, it’s a little hard to focus on singing when Rich is staring up at him with wide eyes and a dopey smile.

“Hell yeah!” he says when Jeremy gets to the chorus. “Sing it, Heere!”

Fuck it.

The dam breaks. Maybe the last half of his beer has finally made it to his brain or maybe the supercomputer vestiges have decided to give him a shot of confidence or maybe he’s just finally passed his anxiety’s threshold of giving a fuck because Jeremy grins back and lets himself not care as the bridge comes in and he even tries to harmonize.

Now, he’s still not loose enough to be completely ignorant. He’s finally having fun, but he’s also very attentive to the way Rich’s eyes keep flickering over to him. His rational brain would say that it’s judgement and that he should go hide out in his closet forevermore. But, his rational brain is beer-soaked and his drunk brain is making his heart beat a little faster and his face fill with buzzy warmth. So, he stops trying to bite back his lovesick expression and sings his heart out.

Because yeah, it’s stupid. He looks like an absolute clown singing an idiotic song and falling to his knees as he belts out the high notes, but Rich is at least as much of a dumbass as he is, and everyone else is laughing with them. And, if worst comes to worst, he can always pretend to forget about it in the morning.

Though he really doesn’t want to after they sing their last chord and Rich immediately wraps him in a rib-cracking hug. Jeremy’s blood is on fire and Rich’s face is pressed up against his thundering heartbeat as he lifts him halfway off the ground.

“Dude,” he says, letting go so Jeremy can breathe again, “that was sick!”

Jeremy’s cheeks are sore with smiling and he’s pretty sure he’s about to pass out, based on the static in his head. “Thanks, uh… You too?”

And Rich has his hands gripping Jeremy’s arms and he thinks he might like where this is going as his gaze drops to his lips, but then the hollering of their friends tunes back in and Jeremy reels backwards. Someone (probably Christine) is shouting encore and Rich seems to have snapped back into the moment as well. The glazed glee in his eyes has faded back into an amused smirk.

He… Somehow, Jeremy wants to kiss him even more now than when they were within inches of each other, but he doesn’t voice it. There’s a spark licking its way up his spine, tingly and insistent, but again—

He’s not that drunk.

“What do you say, Jer-bear? Should we give them more?” Rich entwines their fingers together, and Jeremy is pretty sure he hears Michael’s indignant muttering that he’s the only one who can call him that, but he doesn’t give a single shit about nickname copyright right now. Fuck yes he wants to do an encore. This is the most fun he’s had in ages. And, more importantly, this is the closest he’s probably ever been to connecting with Rich. God knows he’s never going to be able to confess anything when sober, so he might as well take every bit of vibrating joy he can get while Rich is just as tipsy.

“What the hell,” Jeremy says. “Let’s do it.”

“Fuck yeah!” And, bouncing on the balls of his feet like an excited puppy—sometimes it hits Jeremy just how cute he is—Rich calls out to their friends, “Any suggestions?”

Jeremy can’t hear the jumbled roll call of songs over the metronomic pendulum of Rich swinging their linked— they’re holding hands!— fists, but a certain dread creeps back in between his ribs when Rich perks up again.

“Hell yeah!” he says. “Tallass, you be Gabriella.” Jeremy’s—still—too drunk to protest, and also still not drunk enough to admit that he knows jackshit about any of the HSM movies as Rich loads up his doom: The Start of Something New, according to the onscreen text. 

Jeremy's pretty sure he isn't actually a muppet, but sometimes he thinks he'd be better off.