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Cooperative Gameplay

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Patsy’s Pies is never going to work out for him.

Not that Ian wants to wash dishes, bus tables, and take orders from occasionally belligerent customers for the rest of his likely statistically shortened life. Fuck no. But just about from the moment he started, after Fiona had ushered him into the job six months after he left the Cook County psych ward at seventeen, he’d known it was going to be nothing but time spent circling the drain.

And what a slow circle it’s been. A year of broken dishes and spilled orange juice and early hours staring vacantly at Mr. Sullivan, who comes in every morning for coffee and a slice of cherry pie.

He still lives at home, helps Fiona with chores and kids while Lip’s away at Chicago Polytechnic, and contributes $800 to the squirrel fund each month.

When he was a dumb kid, he’d wanted to join the military--to become an officer. As sick as it makes him, Ian still finds himself subtracting his current paycheck from the amount of money he could be making and stewing over the difference.

He knows he’s just a teenager. Fiona still kisses his head and calls him her kid brother. But coming home from work at 9 PM with skin peeling off his hands, aching feet, and food stains on his T-shirt isn’t exactly the life he’d imagined he’d have at his age. For starters, he’d hoped to be at West Point. Then there was the fantasy of being all buff and in a crisp gray uniform and having a hot cadet boyfriend to fuck. No, no, and no.

He’d gotten skinny after his diagnosis, had stopped working out, and somehow completely bucked the notion that lithium makes you gain weight. Throw in the fact that he’s pale and ginger and, well, he looks a little dead sometimes. He feels a little dead sometimes.

Far from Mr. Muscled Military Guy, he thinks, staring at himself in the bathroom mirror. He’s just home from work, dressed in his gray Patsy’s shirt and sporting the worst variety of dark circles beneath his eyes like a goddamned consumptive Victorian child.

Pulling open the bathroom door, Ian heads to the kitchen in hunt of the KFC bucket. Upon finding it crammed awkwardly onto one of the shelves in the fridge, he grabs a breast and a drumstick, lays them out on a styrofoam plate, and then digs back around in the fridge for a bottle of Old Style.

There’s laughter coming from the living room. Liam’s. Someone else’s. And beneath the chortles of nine-year-olds is the tinny audio of someone swearing profusely.

“Fucking fuck,” the voice says, and Not Liam snorts and then lightly repeats, “Fuck!” in a gentle tone of voice like he’s being scandalous. Ian smirks and bumps the fridge closed with his hip.

Chewing a bite of the chicken drumstick, Ian saunters into the living room to find Liam and his friend from school--Jacob? Jordan? J-something--watching a video on Liam’s phone.

“Whatcha doin’, punk?” Ian asks, sitting down beside his brother and leaning over to peer at the screen.

“Watching a YouTuber.” Liam lowers the volume and backs up the video a minute or two, holding his phone out so Ian can see. “His name’s MICK MILK, and he plays these scary video games.”

Ian sets down his plate and beer on the coffee table and takes the phone in hand, pressing play on the video.

The player--a dark-haired guy in a tiny square in the bottom left corner of the screen--controls a blond character who’s walking down a dark hallway holding a rifle.

The character slowly creeps along, the darkness only illuminated in spotlit circles from what appears to be a weak flashlight. Ominous instrumental music hums in the background, and the player--MICK MILK--murmurs as if to himself, “Where aaare youuuu, fucker?”

At that, Liam and his friend laugh. Ian raises an eyebrow and continues to watch as the character moves forward a foot, then another, and another, and all of a sudden, along with a crescendo of strings, a realistic, groaning, blood-covered zombie leaps from the shadows and grabs him.

Ian practically jumps out of his skin, his heart rate kicking up and limbs going adrenaline-weak.

“Shit!” he yells, mouth breaking into a grin as the kids to his right point and laugh at him, Jacob holding his belly and leaning backward into the couch cushions, all full of genuine glee that only a kid can have.

“Ah ha, you got me,” Ian frets, playing it up, enjoying the innocent little burst of happiness in the living room. “You like watching this?”

Liam nods and reaches over to back up the video a few seconds to the part Ian had missed due to his frightened outburst. “It’s funny ‘cause Mick does these faces, see?”

The jumpscare plays again, and it’s not nearly as alarming this time. In fact, it seems pretty predictable. Ian bites his lip and watches as the game pauses and the tiny face-cam box expands to full-screen.

Mick looks about Ian’s age. He has dark hair in a mid-fade that’s a fluffy flop on top, and he’s dressed in a slim-fit floral short-sleeved button-down. In his earlobes are flat black studs the size of pencil erasers, and he has weirdly perfect eyebrows to such a degree that they would look groomed if it weren’t for the stray hairs visible beneath the arch.

He’s cute.

Ian watches as Mick makes a dead-eyed, dramatically unimpressed face that sends the kids once more into stitches.

“He never jumps at jumpscares,” Jacob says excitedly, tossing his messy, mousy-brown hair out of his eyes. His front teeth look too big in his mouth, and when he says scares, he presses his tongue to the edge of them in a lisp at the s sound. “He’s thtone cold! And he’s from Chicago!”

“He is, huh?” Ian smiles at the boys and taps play on the phone to watch a little more.

The full-screen face-cam shrinks away back to the bottom corner, and Mick deftly fights off the zombie, ending with a sickening crunch as the character stomps his boot through the zombie’s face, spewing blood and brains.

“Fucking fuck,” Mick exclaims, and Ian wanders his eyes down to watch him take a slurp off a charcoal gray coffee mug featuring the image of a milk carton labeled FUCK U-UP. He’s got tattoos on his knuckles, and his thumbnail only is partially painted with severely chipped black nailpolish. He swallows in an inelegant gulp and continues with, “Zombie-ass motherfucker. How much ya wanna bet he’s got his buds on the other side of that door?”

Mick sets down the coffee mug and picks up the controller again, moving the character in the direction of a wooden door at the end of the hallway. “Just look at that fuckin’ door. Shit ain’t subtle. SneakAttack Games, you owe me fifty bucks for bein’ so fuckin’ obvious.”

He walks the character up to the door, and the moment the blond guy reaches for the doorknob, a cut-scene begins that’s startling enough that Ian jerks his foot.

The face-cam box takes over the screen again, and Mick sighs dramatically and points a finger-gun. “What’d I tell ya? Christ.”

“What do his knuckles say?” Ian asks, handing the phone back to Liam.

“F U-UP. It’s kinda his thing. He has T-shirts and stuff that say it.”

Huh. Ian picks back up his beer and resumes eating his chicken as the kids watch the rest of the video, MICK MILK’s comically irritated voice and the giggles of little boys acting as the happy soundtrack to his meal.

---

It’s not that he becomes obsessed with MICK MILK. It’s that he’s bored, and he’s lonely, and watching a cute guy make annoyed faces and crack wry jokes about horror games occupies Ian’s time in a way nothing else does.

He’s lying in bed one morning after the kids have gone to school and before Fiona’s come to yell for him to get up for work. He plugs his earbuds into his phone and does a YouTube search for mick milk.

His channel’s called Nightmare Hour, and he has videos dating back to 2016, all various horror-themed games split into hour-long increments in videos called things like WTF JUST HAPPENED?? and ZOMBIE GUTS.

Curious, Ian clicks on a video called PARTY LIKE PORN STARS, Until Dawn pt 1, and snuggles down into his star-print blanket to watch.

The video begins with a black screen and the milk carton logo. The world is a vampire from The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” plays and then slowly fades out after sent to drain, the logo screen dissolving into a video game menu and Mick in the bottom corner sporting a pair of expensive-looking white headphones. He’s wearing a cheetah-pattern short-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way to the collar, and a lock of the fluffy bit of his hair is hanging over his forehead.

“Waaaassup,” he says in a bored tone of voice, fidgeting a little with the gray camo PlayStation controller in his hands. “Today we’re gonna play something I already played on my channel like three years ago. You can go back and look for it if you want, but don’t. It fuckin’ sucks ass and I look like I’m four.”

His eyes trail away from the viewer, and the corner of his mouth quirks up for just a second before dropping back down as if it never happened. “I don’t remember if I liked the game or not, but I’m bored and nothin’ good’s out right now, so I figured I’d give it another shot.”

Ian smiles to himself as he watches Mick talk through the controls and gameplay settings, his bored tone fading out and a nerdy excitement seeping into his speech.

Mick starts up the game, and Ian watches him play for twenty minutes, getting just as engrossed in the way the guy repeatedly says fuck, his white teeth pressing into his bottom lip, as he does in the game itself.

“Up and at ‘em, Sweetface,” Fiona calls from the top of the stairs, and Ian groans and pulls the covers over his head, cocooning himself in with Mick, who’s controlling a video game rendering of Hayden Panettiere.

Over the course of a week, Ian watches the entirety of Mick’s Let’s Play of Until Dawn and begins the first two installments of Resident Evil 2. He watches mostly on the L ride to and from work and at night while in bed after Carl and Liam fall asleep.

It’s hard to pin down what Ian likes so much about him--what makes his videos so addicting--but the guy does have 14 million subscribers on YouTube. Whatever it is apparently isn’t a personal thing.

Mick’s abrasive and acts so utterly annoyed by the clichés that seem to wiggle their way into nearly every horror game. He spends much of the Let’s Plays complaining about predictability and flaws but is never shy about complimenting the game designers when he feels it’s deserved, wandering onto geeky tangents about graphics and storylines and character development that make Ian feel like he’s watching a university lecture by a hot, foul-mouthed professor.

Mick’s smart, and though a portion of his subscribers seem to be pre-teens--if only because of his viral no-nonsense approach to jumpscares--casual scans through the thousands of comments left on his videos reveal a wide and varied audience, viewers leaving a mixture of gut reactions, slightly sexual comments about his appearance, complaints about his gaming style, and intelligent discussion launching off of Mick’s own commentary.

Though Ian feels awkward about how much he watches Nightmare Hour, he doesn’t feel awkward about watching it in general. In fact, it makes him want to boot up the old, likely stolen Xbox in the Gallagher living room and play games he hasn’t attempted since he was fifteen.

He registers for a Google account so he can subscribe and like as Mick suggests at the end of each video, and he downloads the YouTube app onto his phone and sets alerts for all of Mick’s new uploads.

It’s fun, and it passes the time, and it makes Ian feel productive because he’s learning about game strategy and design and slowly getting involved and interested in a community.

One night, when he’s taken the rare shift off from work and is attempting to distract himself from Debbie talking about her period at the kitchen table, he searches up MICK MILK’s Wikipedia page.

To say that it’s sparse is an understatement.

Aside from that his real name is Mikhailo A. Milkovich, he’s twenty years old, Chicago-born but currently lives in LA, Ian learns basically nothing about the guy aside from the fact that he’s known for maintaining a guarded personal life and refusing to answer interview questions that reference his life prior to the start of his YouTube career.

In bed that night, Ian searches him up on YouTube and watches all the interviews he can find, which aren’t many. In them, Mick’s his usual grouchy, sarcastic self but not to the detriment of his character. Like how he appears during his Let’s Plays, his attitude doesn’t come across as demeaning or off-putting but endearing somehow, like it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to want him to yell at you.

He smiles enough to soften any blows he deals, and his grins are face-scrunching and precious and don’t look at all out of place on such a grumpy person. He always thanks the interviewer at the end and gives them a polite handshake, and though Ian learns basically nothing new about Mick’s life from these videos, he feels like he learns a hell of a lot about his personality.

After the interviews, Ian moves on to perusing a few of the Best of compilation videos spliced together by fans. His favorite is the Best of Mick Being Done with Life compilation, which is a nearly five minute video of the guy looking entirely unimpressed by various jumpscares with Wii music playing overtop.

Strangely, there’s also a Best of IBIATCL compilation in which people of all ages and genders are dancing or otherwise headbanging to “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by The Darkness, the top bar across the video indicating that they’re all part of Mick’s Twitch streams.

Ian’s confused about that one until he sees a related video linked in the sidebar called IBIATCL ORIGINAL MICK MILK. It’s of a gaming break countdown screen on one of his streams, and in the bottom corner, clearly having no clue his video’s still on, Mick is spinning in his chair and lightly headbanging to the song, at one point even picking up a pair of drumsticks from outside the range of the camera and drumming on the desk in front of him.

About halfway through the song, he stops and abruptly cuts his camera. When he comes back, he looks absolutely murderous and endearingly red-faced and embarrassed. He says, “Are you guys fuckin’ kiddin’ me right now?” and drops his head dramatically down on the desk.

Ian watches the video no less than five times in a row and even adds “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” to his Spotify playlist. He thinks it’s the cutest fucking thing he’s ever seen, and it makes his stomach hurt with butterflies.

---

Shit, why’s he gotta develop a crush on the guy?

He was feeling good about watching his videos for the longest time--feeling like a fuckin’ intellectual or something in his head. He was even bonding with his little brother over it, the two of them sitting on the couch sometimes after Ian got home from work and watching Mick’s latest Let’s Play together.

Now Ian’s gotta go off and think Mick’s not only cute but more than that--that he’s this grumpy little guy he wants to hold just a bit--and it’s thrown a wrench in his plans to just watch Gaming YouTube to pass the time while he waits for his life to change. It’s fucking inconvenient.

Ian has to watch his live streams now, bringing his earbuds to work and sometimes tuning in on weeknights when business is slow and he can sit at a booth and take out his phone.

The live streams give him a whole new list of songs to add to his Spotify playlist. At the start of every stream, Mick puts on a ten minute countdown clock and plays, in the same order each time, “Monkey Wrench” by Foo Fighters, “Party Hard” by Andrew W.K., “99 Red Balloons” covered by Goldfinger, and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.”

He always turns his video on after the world is a vampire and inattentively drinks his coffee in a merch mug or tumbler until the song finishes and he can give his bored “Waaaassup.”

Then, halfway through his stream, he takes a break and plays a video sent to him by a random subscriber of them dancing to “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” He also always plays Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” as well as “No Diggity” by Blackstreet, “Livin’ On a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, and “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure.

He turns his video on halfway through “Boys Don’t Cry” and drums his fingers to the beat for a minute before starting back up the game.

See, the live stream thing sucks for Ian because if he misses it, he’s missed it forever, as Mick rarely saves the videos on Twitch or uploads them to YouTube. And he’s embarrassed now that he’s watching this shit all the time.

One night while he’s watching, Fiona comes up to him during his break and rubs the back of his neck, leaning down to see what he’s doing.

“Whatcha watchin’?” she asks sweetly, and Ian can’t decide whether to be annoyed that she’s touching him like he’s a kid in the way she’s done since his diagnosis or embarrassed that he’s watching a celebrity YouTuber play one of the old Silent Hill games on a streaming site.

He mumbles “None of your business” in peak teenage irritation and gets up to head back to the kitchen, pocketing his phone and hoping Mick doesn’t do anything cute until the end of his shift.

---

During his live streams, Mick frequently references Twitter, saying he “read on Twitter that…” or he “made a Twitter post about…” Ian hasn’t used Twitter in years, but he manages to get back into his old account under a goofy, military-related handle.

He searches up Mick and finds his account, which was created in 2016 and has thousands of tweets. There’s an automatic post whenever he uploads a new video to his channel, but he also retweets gamer-related articles, writes not-so-kind things to game developers he thinks have dropped the ball, and sends along genuine compliments to devs he thinks have done shit right.

Occasionally, he’ll engage his followers a bit, asking them questions about their favorite games, their opinions on plot points, and sometimes even about things like horror movies and music. Ian follows him, then follows a couple suggested MICK MILK related accounts that pop up, which leads him down a goddamned rabbit hole.

By the time he’s finished with his foray into Twitter for the day, he’s followed thirty-plus MICK accounts, including several self-proclaimed “stans,” which he has to look up in Urban Dictionary.

And well, these accounts are something else. They all call him “Mickey” as if he doesn’t even go by “Mick,” and every so often they post 15-30 second videos of spliced together clips of him matched up to the beats of various synth-heavy pop songs.

Ian reads his timeline until he feels like a middle schooler with a crush and then goes to take a shower.

---

Though he’s a bit overwhelmed by Twitter and feels like he doesn’t fit in demographically, it does allow him to catch the link Mick--Mickey?--tweets one day soon after Ian’s nineteenth birthday.

Monster Energy and SneakAttack--creators of the games featured in some of Mick(ey)’s most popular Let’s Plays--are sponsoring a contest drawing for an opportunity to have a private, cooperative gaming session with MICK MILK. Three cities--New York, Chicago, and LA--and three winners. Winners must pay their own travel but will be treated to a free one-night stay in a luxury hotel, plus a free meal with Mickey and various prize packs from the sponsors.

Ian clicks the link and only thinks about it for a minute or two before he fills out and submits his information for the Chicago contest. Frankly, it’d be stupid of him not to do it. He wouldn’t have to worry about travel expenses in the event that he did win, and there’s no way in hell he’s turning down an opportunity to meet Mickey, even if he hasn’t played a console game in years and would be shit at the gaming session.

After submitting his entry, Ian likes Mickey’s tweet and types his first reply: Done. 😎

---

In addition to game-related tweets, Mickey also shares links to his Instagram posts via Twitter.

Instagram is another form of social media that Ian hasn’t used in a couple years. Truthfully, following his diagnosis, there’s a lot of shit he doesn’t do anymore.

He was never a social media guru; his old Twitter account, for example, only had nine weird retweets and a couple embarrassing, juvenile posts. He’d also been hacked at some point and had tweeted about a dozen adult singles tweets with sketchy links.

But while he was never involved in social media--growing up dirt poor in Southside Chicago with enough family drama to script ten seasons of a soap opera didn’t give him much impetus to spend a ton of time online--he at least had enough interest to make the occasional post.

Now he can’t even remember his Instagram password or the email address he used and has to create a new account altogether.

He takes his time with it, picking out an artsy-looking profile picture from his phone’s camera roll, then following a few family members, people he knows, and around forty celebrity and special interest accounts. Ian tops off his following spree by searching up MICK MILK.

His account is neatly organized and features an unusual amount of dramatic black-and-white pictures. Most of them are of him gaming, are reposted professional photos from various magazine spreads, and are geeky pictures of his tech setup, complete with thorough descriptions of his specs that make absolutely no sense to Ian.

His few most recent pictures are selfies with over 300,000 likes each. In one he’s wearing a burgundy Nightmare Hour beanie and a pair of tortoise-shell Clubmaster sunglasses; in another, he’s wearing a plain black beanie and smoking a cigarette, the picture captioned don’t smoke, kids.

In the most recent picture, Mickey’s standing in front of a rainbow wall mural and sticking out his tongue. He looks cute as fuck. Ian likes the picture and reads through the comments, which range from mickey says gay rights to king shit to Are you gay??? 😞

And if Ian spends several minutes Googling “mick milk gay” and “mick milk girlfriend,” well, whatever.

He doesn’t find shit, either way.

And it’s not like it’s of consequence to Ian in any form or fashion. He’s never going to fuck him. MICK MILK is a celebrity with a net worth of six million dollars. He may be originally from Chicago, but he lives in Los Angeles and has so many followers on his social media accounts that no matter how often Ian leaves him comments on his videos and replies to his tweets and Instagram posts, he’ll always be a grain of sand in the goddamned desert.

Ian knows that’s true. He’s not a kid again secretly crushing on SexyBack-era Justin Timberlake. Whether Mickey’s gay or not shouldn’t be relevant to him. But that doesn’t stop him from looking for clues, especially when a person named 👾 madz 👾 on Twitter tweets, so are we still pretending mickeys straight in the year of our lord 2020? every time he plays love on top the gays keep winning 🌈

Soon after, Mickey begins a video series with a game that allows for player choices to shape the direction of the story. At the beginning, he’s given the option of having the main male character flirt with a girl or a guy, and without even commenting on it and with seemingly no hesitation, Mickey chooses the guy.

This leads his character down a long, romantic arc, and never once does Mickey comment on the queer story; he simply treats the game like he treats any other game he ever plays: he’s a critical grump about the quality of the horror, but he’s complimentary of the graphics and gameplay mechanics.

Ian reads the comments on the last installment and finds they’re mixed. The game ending--which featured a kiss between two male characters--receives nearly a 60-40 split of likes and dislikes, and many of the comments are shit like I don’t mind gay people but I don’t know why you had to make this playthrough gay. It feels unnecessary and distracts from the story.

Growing up Southside, Ian’s used to homophobia, unfortunately to the point that it hardly even fazes him. He’s more lenient than he should be about casual offensive comments spoken in his presence, and he’s always been on the outskirts of everything, working in gay clubs, fucking guys when he had the drive and energy, daydreaming about having a boyfriend, but never hanging out with other gay people or thinking about things like politics and rights.

He is what he is, but he’s also poor, Southside trash who’s not even registered to vote, and that’s kind of how it’s always been.

For some reason, though, he feels as if he needs to comment on this video--something to show his appreciation for Mickey’s approach and to offset some of the shitty comments.

Hey, this is the first comment I’ve ever left on a Youtube video. :) I just wanted to say that I appreciate how you treated Thierry’s story and romantic relationships, specifically how you just played him as a normal dude and let him be gay without making a big deal out of it. I live in a pretty homophobic area and I grew up hearing shit all the time about how being gay was gross or wrong. I’m gay myself and just reading some of the comments here I’m realizing how much homophobic shit I see and hear all the time, so much that I don’t even notice it anymore, and that sucks. I think if I was a kid and people made games like this and people like you played them, I would have been happier with myself and wouldn’t have internalized so much shit that’s just a part of who I am now. Thanks for treating the gay stuff in this game like it’s normal and don’t listen to the people who are leaving shitty comments about it. You made at least one person feel good with your play style, so maybe that’s worth something. ~Ian

He reads back through it once it’s posted. It makes him cringe, but he leaves it; Mickey probably won’t read it anyway.

On the way home from work the next day, he opens up the YouTube app to watch the next installment in Mickey’s current Let’s Play series. Once the app loads, he notices that he has an alert by the bell in the top right corner.

He figures it’s another notification that a user has replied to his comment from the night before, as he’s had a few of them already. What he isn’t expecting is to see that MICK MILK has replied.

His heart pounds so hard that he’s sure the other passengers can hear it, and he has to take slow, deep breaths to keep himself in check when he clicks on the notification to read the reply.

hey thanks man. yeah, i’m just treating normal shit like normal shit, if people have a problem with it they can unsub, i don’t give a fuck. happy to hear you enjoyed. -MM

It’s such a simple message with very little substance and even less of an attempt at a personal connection, but Ian takes a screenshot so he can keep it forever and spends the rest of the ride home pink-cheeked and excited.

He casually checks Twitter when he gets home and, like he does sometimes because he might be a little bit of a crazy stalker, checks Mickey’s mentions by searching his username. He smiles when he sees someone has tweeted a screenshot of his reply to Ian’s YouTube comment and added, you dropped this, king 👑.

---

Ian expects his crush to go away after a while or at least to wane once he gets used to seeing a lot of Mickey online. He expects, really, for him to eventually become less of an embarrassing fanboy.

But somehow it’s the end of May, and he’s been watching MICK MILK videos since March, and he’s still liking what he knows now are called “fancams” on Twitter and has push notifications set up for Mickey’s tweets, YouTube videos, and Instagram posts.

He’s never really been a fan of anybody in his life--not more than in a casual sense--and it’s progressed to the point by now that he feels like if he even mentions Mickey to anybody, even Liam, he’s going to blush and give himself away.

So he stops watching MICK MILK uploads with his brother and even asks, “You’re still watchin’ that guy?” when he goes into their bedroom one night and hears the tinny sound of Mickey’s profuse swearing through the speakers of Liam’s phone.

That doesn’t stop him from using his brother for his own selfish, Mickey-related whims, though.

On June 1st, Mickey tweets and posts an Instagram story with a link to register for Gamerpalooza, a one-day gaming conference at the Marriott in downtown Chicago with a limited Let’s Play gamer guestlist and autograph sessions.

Ian nearly has a heart attack when he sees the tweet, and he’s surprised his phone doesn’t crash from the quickness at which he taps the link to the registration website.

Tickets are $40 per person to attend the basic conference sessions, but the Creator Circus add-on--involving admission into a room with the YouTuber guests at autograph booths--costs an additional $25, bringing the ticket price to sixty-five bucks a pop.

Ian questions just how early it’s socially acceptable to give Liam a tenth birthday present, all the while digging in his underwear drawer for the roll of cash he keeps stored for his savings--just a little left over from each paycheck.

He has almost $300 saved since his last purchase, and shit, maybe it’s irresponsible, and maybe it’s weird and stalkery and something he’s too old and too male to be doing, but he unrolls half the bills and shoves them in his pocket and then texts Fiona not to put him on the schedule for June 13th.

---

Liam, full of premature reserve, still manages to appear unbearably excited when Ian tells him about the conference and then proceeds to ask Ian to take Jacob, as well.

He can’t really afford to shell out another sixty-five bucks, but Jacob’s parents are rich as shit, and a couple weeks after an awkward conversation with an old-money trophy wife, Ian finds himself ushering two nine-year-olds through the ticket and wristband line at Gamerpalooza and into a Wicked Circus -themed wonderland.

There are twinkling, light-filled trees in the hallway leading to the conference area lobby, and once inside, the boys’ skin goes aglow with the pink and purple lights wrapped around the four large columns surrounded by seating in the center of the room. By the doors to the main conference hall is a twelve-foot tall, black and purple circus tent you have to pass through on your way in, and from the roof of it streams silvery bunting that criss-crosses its way, vine-like, toward the walls.

In every corner is a circus-themed display, from giant, black and white striped popcorn buckets with purple smoke seeping out to weird, creepy clown shit, and all along the front wall near a merch stand are cardboard cut-outs of various popular video game characters dressed in circus wear--some characters Ian recognizes from Mickey’s Let’s Plays, some Ian’s never seen in his life.

With his phone, he snaps a few pictures of the kids, who are so excited they’re practically vibrating, and then walks with them through the circus tent and into the main hall.

It’s much less impressive inside, the event planners having seemingly used up their budget on the lobby. The room is large--too large for the small amount of booths set up, causing the hall to look empty and lonely. Ian lets the kids run toward the free gear spread out on the white tables lining the walls and unfolds his information booklet.

There are twenty-two video game related sessions held throughout the next several hours--each rotating through different conference rooms branching off the main hall. Most of them seem interactive and like they would be fun for people who actually know shit about games. There’s presentations on, among other things, Fortnite, Animal Crossing, weapons and warfare, motion capture, and fantasy sound design; there’s a Rocket League audience-involved competition Ian knows the kids will be all over, as well as a room to play with VR and even an arcade dedicated to video games of the 80s.

Fine. Sure. Ian might check some of it out to pass the time.

But really, all he actually cares about is the 2:00 Horror Fest in Conference Hall C-7 featuring a one-hour show where he can join MICK MILK of Nightmare Hour as he explores some of the greatest horror games of the past and present. No children under 18 permitted without an adult.

Ian smiles when he examines Mickey’s picture in the booklet--a grinning one where he’s looking down to such a degree that his eyes appear closed. He’s absolutely cute as fuck, and Ian thinks--if the personality that comes through in his Let’s Plays holds true--Mickey probably has a grumpy thing or two to say about the photo that was chosen to represent him.

He looks like someone you’d want to gather up and kiss.

---

The morning passes slowly. All the kids want to do is watch Fortnite and Rocket League competitions interwoven with stops by the arcade. Ian catches the weapons and warfare presentation on his own, which is actually pretty cool--an examination of weapons in video games and how the gameplay mechanics have developed over the past twenty-five years.

After lunch, the boys head to the virtual reality room, which is incredible. Various reps from VR tech companies are there to help them suit up in the headsets and gloves, and Ian spends nearly ten straight minutes badly playing tennis until he gets the hang of it and declares himself a pro.

He checks out a space simulation game and the newest Half-Life Mickey played on his channel, and he gets so engrossed that he almost tunes out Liam’s, “Ian, we’re gonna miss MICK MILK!”

Hell no they’re not. Ian gets off the headset and gloves and quickly ushers the kids to Conference Hall C-7.

It’s packed to the gills--easily the most popular session of the day--and Ian and the kids can only manage three seats near each other toward the back. He’s unfairly pissed they couldn’t get closer--shit, he’d even take front row like the nerdiest of nerds--and he thinks he’d jump out a window in frustration if he weren’t feeling lightheaded with nervous excitement.

Liam and Jacob--the two of the three who should be excited--are seemingly bored with the wait for it to start and are flipping through pictures from the day on Liam’s phone. Ian taps his foot anxiously against the gray, carpeted floor and scans the right wing off the stage for any sign of life.

He thinks he might throw up when the lights dim to hoots and hollers from the audience. The large screen to the left of the stage that’s been running a MICK MILK highlight reel goes black, and Ian holds his breath.

In a quick flash, there’s suddenly a beeping countdown to five

four

three

two

one--

The world is a vampire.

The crowd goes batshit. Ian thinks he might pass out.

And okay, maybe the event planners spent the rest of their budget on MICK MILK’s show because the music is loud enough that Ian feels it in the pit of his stomach. The FUCK U-UP milk carton logo is now projected on the ceiling and the lights are flashing off and on in beat with the Smashing Pumpkins song and, well, shit.

Ian’s two seconds away from screaming along with the rest of the audience, and he might, he still might. He leans his head back and brings his hands up to cup around the sides of his mouth and is about to do it--he’s about to do it--

when the lights cut. The music cuts.

The hall is in perfect darkness, the silence only broken by occasional, high-pitched yells from the audience.

Ian swallows and brings his hands back to his lap. He hears Jacob and Liam snickering in nine-year-old excitement and then--

Fuck.

Out of the darkness comes an endearingly awkward, perpetually, preciously bored, “Waaaassup.”

Ian leans over and rests his elbows on his knees, rubbing his sweaty palms across his cheeks as the crowd around him goes nuts with screams.

And when the lights come up, the screams grow even louder.

MICK MILK--no, fucking Mick, fucking Mickey--is there, sitting in a high-backed chair behind a gaming station on wheels.

Because he’s so far back in the audience, Ian has to watch him projected on the closed-captioning screen to the right of the stage.

He’s dressed in a black, electric pink and blue floral-print shirt buttoned up to the collar and black skinny jeans tucked into black Timbs. On his head is a black beanie, which he removes and sets down on the desk in front of him, using his fingers to brush through his hair self-consciously.

“Hey,” he says again into the microphone mounted to his right.

The crowd screams, and Mickey makes a grumbly noise that sounds staticky and deep and that turns Ian on so completely that he feels his cheeks growing hot with it.

“Will ya shut the fuck up and lemme talk?” Mickey reprimands, and that just makes the crowd burst into laughter. At that, he shakes his head, and there’s the tiniest smile pulling at his lips in such a way that Ian knows this shit’s all an act.

“Jesus fuck,” Mickey grouses. “Chill your tits and let’s get this show on the road.”

And with one final and extended wooooo from the audience, Mickey grabs up the white PlayStation controller from the desk in front of him and signals for the tech guys to start up the first game.

---

Ian’s enraptured.

He’s always liked video games, though he wasn’t able to play them very often--usually only when a decent gaming system had fallen off the back of a truck and was in their home for a few short weeks until it was sold for cash to pay the water bill or until Frank’d pawned it for booze money.

There’s the ancient Xbox from God knows where they’ve managed to hold on to for a few years--the system sticker-covered and cracked and too roughed up to sell--but Ian hasn’t played since he was diagnosed.

But watching MICK MILK play is like watching the most exciting movie Ian can imagine. And more than that, listening to him talk about tech specs and the science of horror and why Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2 is one of the greatest video game monsters ever is so captivating, Mickey’s voice even and warm with just the littlest underlying thread of excitement, that Ian can hardly look away from him.

He’s lulled by him. Fascinated. Ian watches Mickey play small bits of Silent Hill 2, The Last of Us, Outlast, Resident Evil 2, and Amnesia, and he listens to him discuss what works and what doesn’t and why horror games are incredible ways of exploring feelings of guilt, hatred, and fear.

“It’s cheesy as fuck to say, y’know, but they’re more than dumb fuckin’ jumpscares and shit. When they’re done right, they’re stories about the darkness inside us, and that’s really fuckin’ cool.”

Ian watches Mickey’s face gather a bit to the left in what looks like a hint of shyness. Watches him sniff and then rub his itchy nose with the back of his wrist.

He wants to know this guy.

Ian blows out a breath and crosses his arms over his chest.

---

When the show’s over, Mickey says, “I’m signin’ stuff later, I guess, so…” He shrugs and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans, and Ian watches over the screen as he quirks his mouth in a smirk. “Buy my shit and maybe I’ll put my name on it.”

The crowd laughs, and Mickey raises a hand in a wave, grabs his beanie, and unceremoniously heads off the stage.

“Can we buy his merch, Ian?” Jacob asks, standing up from his seat and wandering over to pat Ian obnoxiously on the hip. “Please, please, please, please, please?”

Ian levels him with a stare. “You got any money?”

“Mom gave me a hundred dollars.”

“Well shit, you can buy us all some merch.”

Liam puts his arm around his friend, and Ian follows them to the back of the conference hall to where there are booths with overpriced MICK MILK merchandise--T-shirts, hoodies, beanies, tumblers, and coffee mugs. Ian helps Jacob buy a shirt and beanie, and he shells out some of his own leftover cash for Liam’s T-shirt because he isn’t actually going to take some kid’s rich mom’s money.

He considers buying a tumbler or something for himself but decides against it when he looks around and realizes that the vast majority of people crowded around the merch booths are between the ages of twelve and sixteen and are overwhelmingly female.

Feeling awkward and just a little bit creepy, Ian places his hands on Liam’s shoulders and steers him and Jacob out of the crowd and back toward the doors.

They take pictures out in the main lobby with the circus decorations and then get in line for the Creator Circus when the doors open at four.

The closer and closer Ian gets to the entrance, the more and more his stomach hurts.

He’s about to see and maybe even talk to MICK MILK, Mick, Mickey.

Liam and Jacob are getting their T-shirts signed and Ian’s playing big brother, and maybe Mickey’ll find the kids cute. Maybe he’ll find them cute enough to comment about them to Ian, probably assuming Jacob’s his brother instead of Liam, and then Ian’ll get to explain the situation, and maybe Mickey will smile at him and ask if he has anything he wants him to sign. Maybe he’ll bend his perfect eyebrows in the infuriatingly adorable way he does when he’s being witty. Maybe he’s gay after all and will covertly ask for Ian’s number.

Fuck.

Ian’s gotta get a grip because he’s spiralling into a state the most dedicated of quote-unquote “stans” probably don’t even reach.

He’s at the front of the line now, and the employee’s scanning his neon wristband, and then he’s being ushered into the Creator Circus.

He takes a deep breath once he’s in and Liam and Jacob are on either side of him, clutching their T-shirts excitedly.

The room is much more basic than Ian had anticipated given the fact that it’s housing what’s called the Creator Circus, but he guesses he shouldn’t be surprised after the lackluster decor of the main conference hall. It’s a square room with light-wood floors and annoyingly garish lighting. There’s some attempt at a creepy circus theme, the same bunting from the lobby zig-zagging across the ceiling and black and purple balloons lying about, but combined with the varying styles of the creators’ booths, it just looks messy.

Along the walls are booths set up and decorated in accordance with the aesthetic tastes and channel themes of each YouTuber, and a red velvet rope barrier marks a one-way path around the room, passing the booths and encouraging only brief visits at each one.

Ian quite literally has no idea who any of the YouTubers are with the exception of Mickey. And well, his heart gives a bit of a kick when he spots him--third booth from the end, a black zippered hoodie pulled on over his floral shirt. He’s tossing a Sharpie into the air over and over again, looking bored as hell as he waits for the first fans in line to make his way to him. Ian bites back an endeared smile, feeling a burst of warmth in his chest.

As they make their way around, Ian holds back near the edge of the roped-off area, letting the kids greet the YouTubers they apparently know and watching them use their nine-year-old cuteness to con them into selfies, which aren’t strictly permitted.

When they’re two booths away from Mickey and Ian’s finally able to get a good look at him, he leans against the velvet rope, feeling the give and then hitch as it catches, taught, and unashamedly watches MICK MILK sign T-shirts and do various sweetly human things like scratch the slight stubble growing at his jawline and lick his lips.

“Sir?” a member of convention staff calls to Ian, voice overly loud and stern. “Off the rope, please.”

Ian straightens immediately--jerking out of his dreamworld--only to wither in humiliation when Mickey turns from where he sits at his booth twenty feet away and looks at him--looks straight at the idiot who got reprimanded for leaning against the rope barrier.

Ian looks away quickly, his cheeks flaming up and going all hot under the eyes.

When he dares to look back, Mickey’s got a funny little twist to his lips and has clearly just diverted his eyes the moment Ian turned toward him.

Shit.

How fucking embarrassing. Ian’s celebrity crush thinks he’s a loser before he’s even met him.

And it doesn’t help matters that when Ian and the kids finally make their way to his booth, Ian realizes he’s misplaced the convention booklet he’d planned to get Mickey to sign and stands there like a complete numbnuts, patting his front and back pockets over and over again and peering around awkwardly, wondering where the hell he’s left it.

“I got a card, man, chill,” Mickey says, and Ian looks up to see Mickey grabbing a white 2x3 card from a stack on the table in front of him.

Blood rushes in his ears as he watches Mickey--a sweet lock of hair falling over his forehead--sign his name in a sweeping, messy scrawl with a silver Sharpie.

He holds out the card to Ian.

Ian exhales slowly, and before his brain fires off enough for him to react, Mickey shakes the card and raises his eyebrows like Ya gonna fuckin’ take it?

“Thanks,” Ian pushes out quickly, taking the card from Mickey and noting the tiny sliver of leftover black polish along the corner of his thumbnail. He sees the FUCK on his knuckles and the tiny bit of white fuzz on the sleeve of his hoodie.

Ian takes a step back, heart creeping up into his throat, and watches Liam and Jacob talk animatedly to Mickey, who doesn’t look like he finds them especially cute at all and instead listens to them with an entirely disinterested expression. He signs their T-shirts and says “thanks” in the most even-toned, unexcitable voice Ian’s ever heard in response to Liam’s, “Your Let’s Plays are awesome.”

Mickey doesn’t ask him which one’s his brother, and he doesn’t give him a fond look like he thinks the kids are cute.

Instead, once Liam and Jacob have moved along to the next booth, Mickey raises his eyebrows at Ian and asks impatiently, “Ya need somethin’? Kinda holdin’ up the line here.”

“Shit. Fuck.” Ian squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head before holding out his hand with the card in an awkward wave.

“Thanks,” he quakes, feeling like the most dumbass of all dumbasses. “For signing this. I like your stuff.”

Mickey nods at Ian, brows still raised like he’s confused as fuck, and Ian thumbs toward the other booth.

“Gotta go.” He starts to walk away and, bumbling like a fool, murmurs another awkward “thanks.”

“Yep,” he hears Mickey mutter with complete disinterest.

Once Ian’s safely at the next booth and he can hear fans behind him fawning over Mickey, he takes a second to close his eyes in a cringe, gripping the autograph card in his right hand. Can he be more of an embarrassing loser?

Not only is he a nineteen-year-old guy with a fanboy crush on a celebrity YouTuber, but said celebrity YouTuber thinks he’s an idiot.

Great. Ian paid 130 bucks in order to disappoint himself.

He shoves Mickey’s autograph in his back pocket, places his hands on Liam’s shoulders, and follows him around through the remaining booths and out the doors into the lobby.

---

They hit the arcade one more time before the convention ends at six, then Ian hands over the rest of the money he’d brought along for popcorn for the kids, which is being served in the lobby by an unfortunate convention staff member dressed in what’s supposed to be a goth emcee outfit but what looks like Beetlejuice’s suit.

While the kids eat, laugh, and take selfies on the bench by the cardboard cut-outs display, Ian hits up the bathroom.

Having been used heavily throughout the day, two of the three stalls are out of order, it smells like a barn, and there are people in line for both the remaining stall and the urinals. Ian backs out quickly and wanders, instead, down one of the offshooting hallways, following the hotel-mounted sign directing him toward additional bathrooms.

The one he finds is more private--tucked away in an alcove off a long, empty conference hallway--and it’s blessedly empty and clean, looking like it hasn’t been occupied all day.

After using the bathroom, Ian washes his hands at the sink and then splashes water on his face. He leans over the porcelain and stares into the mirror, eyes running over the freckles standing out prominently on his cheeks in the light of the bathroom and the embarrassed redness beneath his eyes just now beginning to fade away.

He huffs a breath, eyes meeting eyes, considering how on one hand, he’s excited he was able to see MICK MILK play live and then speak actual words to him and get his autograph, but on the other, he’s frustrated because Mickey thinks he’s a goddamned idiot.

It doesn’t matter, though, he thinks, stepping away from the sink and moving over to grab a paper towel from the dispenser. He dries his hands meticulously and ponders the bit of polish on Mickey’s thumb, wondering when and why he ever paints his single thumbnail black.

It doesn’t matter. Mickey doesn’t know him, and Ian doesn’t know Mickey--not really--and no matter whether the guy saw him today and thought he was dumb as a box of rocks or the love of his life, Ian’s free to think whatever he wants about him.

He’s free to contemplate the nailpolish on his thumb and the stray lock of hair that kept slipping down over his forehead and the bit of white fuzz on the sleeve of his hoodie.

He’s free to do whatever he wants because they don’t know each other, and it doesn’t fucking matter.

Ian wads up the paper towel and tosses it in the trash, and he’s spinning around to move back in the direction of the door when someone comes bursting in with a huff, a rush of frenetic energy sizzling through the air the moment he steps onto the tiled floor with his immaculate black Timberland boots.

Ian thinks he might swallow his tongue. Or throw up. Or do any number of dramatic things.

Instead, he just stands there, eight feet away, and watches MICK MILK, Mick, Mickey squeeze at the bridge of his nose as if irritated, holding a phone in a white case against his ear.

“I’m not fuckin’ doin’ it,” he murmurs, a thread of exhausted intensity in his voice. “I ain’t givin' that motherfucker a cent, and Iggy can shut the fuck up and stop bein’ such a pussy.”

He hasn’t yet noticed Ian, his eyes downcast, tilted toward his boots. Ian watches silently as Mickey kicks his boot at the floor and then shifts his weight to the other foot.

Mickey inhales, an odd hitch catching him in the middle, then whispers, like he’s at the end of his rope, “Yeah, well. Fuck you, too.”

He ends the call and takes two steps toward the sink before jerking in surprise upon spotting Ian, his brows knitting together unhappily. “Can I fuckin’ help you?”

“Sorry,” Ian apologizes, heart drumming as he fidgets over by the trash can. Fuck, he needs to get out of the bathroom.

He’s being awkward, but well, MICK MILK is standing at the sink, leaning against the porcelain in such a way that the water shaken from Ian’s hands is probably getting on his hoodie.

Apparently choosing to ignore him, Mickey tilts into the mirror and examines his right earlobe. He’s clutching something tightly between his index finger and thumb and, with hurried movements, brings it up and fiddles with the back of his earring.

After several seconds of unabashed staring, Ian realizes Mickey’s lost the stud back and is attempting to work a bit of pencil eraser onto the post.

He considers saying something, but anything he can think to say immediately drips out his ears the moment it enters his muddled mind, and he’s left staring and gaping like a fucking dumbass as he watches Mickey do something for which he probably doesn’t want an audience.

That’s only confirmed a moment later when, after catching Ian’s reflection in the mirror, he sneers, “Take a picture, why don’t you?”

Ian huffs a breath and wipes his damp palms on the hips of his jeans. “Sorry,” he apologizes again quickly, averting his eyes and deciding whether to finally leave the bathroom or stand there, continuing to be a fucking weirdo but a weirdo who manages to have another conversation with MICK MILK.

Mickey ignores him once more and instead curses at his earring, pulling it all the way out of his ear and taking a minute to jab the post down into the eraser, creating a hole he can then use to his advantage when he attempts to use the eraser as a makeshift stud back.

“What happened to your earring?” Ian asks, voice light in an attempt at a casual tone.

Mickey cuts his eyes at him for the briefest of moments before responding, “Don’t really feel like talkin’, man, no offense.”

Ian blanches and presses his lips together. “Yeah, okay. Sorry.” He blows out a resigned breath and starts to make his way toward the door.

He’s a second away from opening it, arm outstretched to grab at the handle, when he decides to be an idiot one last time.

He turns back to Mickey and says, voice as sure and even as he can make it, “I’m the one who left the comment about your Black Orchid playthrough, by the way.” Ian swallows and then clears his throat, forcing himself to continue. “About Thierry and how you made him gay like it was no big deal. You replied to my comment. It…” He pauses and lowers his arm to his side. Shrugs. “It meant a lot, I guess. I don’t really see gay stuff like that very often, and it’s good that you were cool about it. And that you replied to me.”

Ian doesn’t know what he’s expecting Mickey to say to that. In all fairness, it’s an awkward thing he’s just said--a way too heartfelt confession in the Marriott bathroom while Mickey’s holding a pencil eraser in one hand and an earring in the other.

But for all the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s expecting, Ian knows it sure as hell isn’t, “Whatever, man. You ain’t special.”

Ian’s mouth drops open and all the air leaves his lungs in an embarrassing whoosh, like he’s been kicked in the back. He swallows again. “I didn’t say I was.”

Mickey turns away from him and sniffs irritably. He leans back into the mirror and starts working on his earring again. “You think it.”

“Um.”

“You all think you’re fuckin’ special if I like your tweet or your Instagram comment or your fuckin’ boohoos about your faggoty-ass shit.”

Ian lowers his eyebrows, heart slowing to a stop. “What’s your fuckin’ problem?”

Mickey shrugs as if he hasn’t just used the phrase faggoty-ass shit to Ian’s face. “Ain’t got one, man.” He pushes the stud post as hard as he can into the eraser and, when it seems to stick, murmurs under his breath, “Fuckin’ finally.”

“I wasn’t boohooing about anything,” Ian continues, a sizzle beginning just under his skin, crackling up his spine. “I was just saying--”

“And I was just sayin’ you ain’t special. No offense.”

“Holy shit,” Ian exclaims, crossing his arms over his chest. “Can you be more of a dick?”

“I ain’t bein’ nothin’, man. I told you. I’m not in the mood to talk to somebody I don’t know in a fuckin’ bathroom.”

“Fine.”

Mickey raises his eyebrows and waves his right hand in a go on gesture. “Bye.”

Ian turns to go, his heart, having fallen out of his chest cavity, lodged firmly in his gut and being eaten away by acid.

But just as he’s got his hand around the door handle, he turns once more to the conceited piece of shit leaned back against the sink. “So just to confirm. You called me a faggot?”

Mickey scoffs and pushes away from the sink. “I didn’t call you shit.”

“No, you called my YouTube comment faggoty-ass shit.”

“Look, it ain’t like that, man.” Mickey twists up his mouth and shakes his head as if sorely regretting his words, the homophobic motherfucking celebrity accidentally outing himself as a piece of shit to a fan.

A fan with a social media account.

“You’re an asshole,” Ian fumes, blood boiling and turning the tips of his ears hot.

Mickey groans and makes an exasperated, breathy laughing sound, rubbing his palms up and down his face. “Why the fuck are you still here?”

“Why? Don’t wanna be alone in a bathroom with a fuck-ing queer?”

“Are you kiddin’ me, man? You’re fuckin’ crazy.”

“Fuck you.” Ian jerks open the door so hard it swings back and bangs obnoxiously loud against the doorstop.

He feels like his guts have turned to mush, like the muscles in his calves are atrophied, limbs weak with just the heaviest, most overwhelmingly exhausted disappointment.

He’d known he wasn’t ever going to be anything to MICK MILK; he’s dealt with too much already to have any sense of optimism or lighthearted hope in his life. Mickey could turn out to be an alien in human skin and it wouldn’t really matter to Ian.

But the fact that he’s a rude, condescending piece of homophobic shit makes Ian want crawl under the covers of his bed and never come back out.

Fuck.

And now his whole day’s ruined--this entire experience, the awe he felt listening to Mickey talk about horror, the butterflies in his belly when he watched his tiny grin while he was on stage, and even the silly embarrassment from his flustered self at the signing. It’s all gone down the drain, and Ian wants to cry.

He should’ve known, he thinks, sauntering back down the hall toward the lobby, where he spies the boys playing Jacob’s Switch while they wait. He should’ve known it’d turn out like this.

Celebrities all fuckin’ suck, obviously. They’re jerks with God complexes because they have money and fame and followers who, after they’re kicked in the face, will simply ask them to do it again.

Fuck that.

Ian’s stomach hurts.

He shoves his hands down in the pockets of his jeans and goes to get the kids. They’re going home.

---
---

It’s hard to just…stop.

MICK MILK has become such a large part of Ian’s life over the past few months, his spare hours having been spent watching his streams and videos, reading his tweets, and liking his Instagram posts.

When he’s home that evening, changed into sweats and a tank-top and stretched out on his bed, Ian scrolls through Mickey’s Instagram account, re-examining all his pictures, looking for clues that he’s an asshole beneath the precious little badass exterior.

In the pictures that aren’t professional or posed, he appears just like any happy twenty-year-old, holding tumblers of coffee and making silly faces and looking excited to be in whatever faraway location he’s been able to explore--a veranda overlooking Paris, a park in rainy London, a restaurant in Rome.

He’s rarely in pictures with other people, and if he is, it’s always other celebrity gamers or the rare post with fans from a meet-and-greet.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe Mickey’s so much of an asshole that he doesn’t have any friends. Maybe that’s why he keeps his life so private--he’s hiding that dark shit that, if exposed, would cost him everything he’s got.

Ian scrolls back to the top of Mickey’s page, taps the “Following” button, and then “Unfollow.”

It sends a tiny surge of stress into his chest, but he does it again with Twitter and then again with YouTube. And when he’s done, he locks his phone, tosses it to the foot of his bed, and buries his face in his pillow, wanting to scream.

None of this matters in the long run, but MICK MILK had been a source of comfort for Ian. That he’d had to prove himself to be an asshole sucks all the life out of everything, Ian’s initially boring, unproductive, uninspiring existence seeping back in to fill in the gaps left behind.

---
---

Two nights later, Liam posts a picture on Instagram of MICK he’d taken at the con--a grainy-from-the-zoom photo of him on stage, playing Amnesia. He’s tagged Mickey, and Ian can’t help but click his name on the photo and head over to his account.

He sees that Mickey’s posted a series of photos of him posing in various locations within the conference center--in front of the cardboard cutouts, by the giant, smoking popcorn bucket, and sitting at the portable gaming station on stage, his beanie on and his tongue out.

thanks for the fun @ctagevents and @mynabirdgames! always glad to be back in chicago 🤘 it’s captioned. Ian rolls his eyes so hard his head moves with it.

Curious and feeling like one hell of a masochist, he taps the comments and scrolls through, seeing heart emoji after heart emoji after fire emoji after pleading emoji and i love you. There’s fans commenting on the show and on the convention. There’s fans saying they were happy to meet him at the signing.

Ian decides right then that he probably needs a friend or two to tell him to shut the fuck up because, without even thinking twice, he finds himself tapping into the comment box and typing out something that he’s going to regret in twelve hours.

Wanna tell everybody about how you’re a homophobic piece of shit who thinks he’s god’s gift to mankind or will that ruin your image? This “f*ggot” hopes you tripped on your way out of the bathroom, asshole 🖕

Ian closes out of the Instagram app and shoves his phone under his pillow. There’s no way Mickey’s going to see it, so it was probably a waste of his time and energy to post.

But shit, he can’t deny that it feels good.

---

The next morning, he manages to wait until after breakfast to check Instagram, curious about whether anyone had liked or replied to his comment or if--as he predicts--people have ignored it altogether as it got buried beneath nearly 2,000 comments.

A lump forms in his throat when he sees the reality.

His comment has over fifty replies and 102 likes and is now the top comment out of 2,941.

“Shit,” he whispers under his breath, tapping the replies and scrolling through them, heart pounding.

The responses are mixed--about a third of them complete vitriol bordering on threats, a third of them confused exclamations and prompts for more details, and the final third statements of agreement with a few personal anecdotes mixed in--stories about how MICK’s been a dick to them and how they’re not surprised he’s also a homophobe.

In addition to the replies to his comment, Ian has twelve direct message requests from people asking for more information, and nine strangers have followed him.

How the hell did this make such a stir?

Curious, Ian heads over to Twitter and checks MICK’s mentions.

Shit.

It’s flooded with screenshots of Ian’s comment side-by-side with Mickey’s rainbow mural photo and people writing, make it make sense. There’s tweet after tweet calling him homophobic trash, saying go fuck yourself, and trying to get the hashtag #MICKMILKCANCELLED trending.

Occasionally, in the midst of the flames, is a histrionic tweet in his defense, which in and of itself garners twenty-plus likes and replies ranging from why are people so mean to him???? to stfu 🖕 and 💀.

Ian brings the neck of his T-shirt up over his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut.

Has he accidentally gotten him fuckin’ cancelled?

He hadn’t actually intended to stir up shit, even if Mickey probably deserves it.

Taking a deep breath, Ian taps over to his timeline to see what the fans he follows are saying. Some of them are declaring they’re stepping away from him, some are having CuriousCat wars with anonymous followers, but still many are coming to his defense.

Nightmare Maggie, who often makes cryptic posts like she somehow knows secret information about Mickey, tweets

everybody needs to stfu about shit they know nothing about and leave him alone. block me, idgaf, i will go to my grave over this. 🖕

The tweet has an enormous amount of replies, most of them 👀 emojis or responses to the effect of wait. dm me? There are even a couple quote tweets on his timeline from respected Mickey fans saying things like, 🚨🚨 listen to mags, people 🚨🚨 and LOUDER FOR PEOPLE IN THE BACK 🗣🗣.

Ian swallows hard. His stomach hurts.

He considers deleting his Instagram comment, suddenly feeling anxious, the response and fall-out like a boulder pushed off a cliff and picking up speed, Ian helpless to stop it.

He’s also mildly concerned about Liam seeing his comment. He’s just a kid and doesn’t need to know this shit.

Ian sets down his phone for a minute and folds his arms on the table in front of him, leaning down, closing his eyes, and resting his face against his wrist.

Someone comes into the kitchen. Probably Debbie, her shoes clack-clacking in an unpracticed fashion as she walks.

He hears her voice then, pitched upwards with concern. “Ian?”

Ian lifts his head and yawns, taking a minute to stretch. He feels lousy, like he hasn’t slept well even though he went to bed at eleven and slept until ten.

“Hey, Debs,” he greets sleepily, running a hand across his face.

Debbie’s standing by the fridge, dressed in heels and a pink shirt tucked into a short skirt. Her hair, newly cut, is pulled back in the middle in a silver clip, and she’s sporting eyeliner and mascara, new additions to her daily routine.

She eyes her brother curiously, and Ian feels the question coming before she even asks it. “You okay?”

Debbie isn’t as frequent as Fiona with her check-ins and tendency to baby, but it always hurts Ian’s heart whenever his kid sister acts concerned. He remembers the day he flushed his pills--back before he got his meds balanced--and how he’d scared the shit out of her enough that she’d run off with Liam in tow to get Fiona at Patsy’s.

“I’m fine, Debs,” he says now, leaning his head from side to side and stretching his neck. “Just tired.”

“You sure?”

Ian sighs and forces a smile, shoving up into standing and pushing in his chair. “Positive.”

---

He changes into shorts, throws on some sneakers, and goes for a jog. He’s actively trying to get the social media shit off his mind--to stop thinking about Mickey on the phone in the bathroom, Mickey running a hand over his face in exhaustion, Mickey trying desperately to get his earring fixed. Mickey with the sliver of leftover black polish on his nail.

It doesn’t work, of course. Spotify brings up “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” when he’s on mile two, and when he taps for the next song, it’s fucking “Love on Top.”

By the time he’s done with his run, having made it four miles to his pre-diagnosis eight, Ian’s committed to deleting the Instagram comment.

He sits down on the porch steps, sweat pouring down his temples and breath coming in hard pants, and pulls out his phone.

When he gets to Instagram, he sees that his comment’s already gone.

Shit.

Mickey’s followed two people since Ian was on his profile that morning. He notices because his count went from exactly 100 to 102.

He’s been online.

He’s been online, and he both read and deleted Ian’s comment.

Holy shit.

Heart pounding, Ian goes over to Twitter and sees that people are complaining in Mickey’s mentions about him blocking them for calling him a homophobe.

Ian squeezes his eyes shut in a cringe. What the fuck has he started?

If Mickey deserves it, and probably he does--Nightmare Maggie likely doesn’t know anything--then whatever. Fine. Serves him right.

But there’s something about the sequence of events that has spiked Ian’s anxiety to an eleven, blood rushing in his ears and his skin feeling like ants are running around beneath.

He blows out a breath and grabs for the front of his shirt, pulling it up to wipe the sweat off his forehead.

Either way, this fucking sucks.

---

Ian manages to delete Twitter off his phone after his compulsive timeline-checking makes him feel like he’s losing his mind. It helps.

He still finds himself occasionally searching up MICK MILK’s Instagram account, checking out his new posts, which seem to come about once a week as usual, as if Ian’s comment and the ensuing Twitter flames and failed attempts to cancel him never happened.

Ian thinks he’s an absolute dick--actual homophobe or not. Whether his use of faggoty-ass shit was intended the way Ian took it or in some other way that for whatever reason a third of his Twitter fans think he needs to be left alone, he still said it. He still used it to refer to Ian’s sincere comment on the YouTube video. He still acted like a condescending asshole when Ian was just trying to talk to him.

Ian can take shit. He’s fuckin’ Southside. He can go toe to toe with any motherfucker who wants to throw down, and he’ll do it without a second thought. He’s not afraid to tell people what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to get his knuckles bloody.

The way Mickey acted hurt him. It takes nearly three weeks for him to realize this.

And he knows Mickey doesn’t owe him anything, and he knows that it can’t be easy just needing to use the bathroom mirror and having a fan stare at you and try to make conversation. He knows that from the getgo he’s had zero chance of ever being anything to Mickey, and therefore, he shouldn’t feel upset about him turning out to be a conceited dick.

But Ian can’t help but feel a little bit like he’s had his heart broken.

---

June turns to July, and though it’s still never going to work out for him, Ian’s putting in more time than ever at Patsy’s as customers start waking up earlier with the sun for breakfast and coffee, prompting Fiona to change the hours.

He goes in at five some days and works twelve, fourteen hour shifts, filling in wherever he can, washing dishes and taking orders and bussing tables while wearing his grease-stained white apron. The dry skin peels on his hands and his nails get cracked and his feet feel bruised at the soles from standing practically all day.

He doesn’t go running, and he doesn’t eat as much as he should, and for all intents and purposes, he’s completely lost whatever it was that watching MICK MILK videos gave him.

A sense of curiosity. Stimulation of the brain. A silly little crush that left him smiling in the dark.

Fuck it. Whatever. Mickey’s an asshole.

Ian takes a deep breath, and he does his thing, builds back up his routine, endures Fiona’s head kisses and Debbie’s concern and Carl’s weird questions about whether being crazy makes him feel like stripping off his clothes and running naked through the street. He lets Liam talk to him about video games because he’s a little kid, and he entertains Jacob when he’s over and allows him to lisp and jibber about whatever nerdy thing he’s into at the moment.

Ian moves on.

No. “Moves on” is too dramatic. He just keeps going. He doesn’t stop, at least.

And then it’s just after the Fourth of July. Ian’s checking his email for scannable coupons so he can help out with the groceries, when he finds a message from someone named Morgan Stoll, subject line Congratulations!

Dear Ian:

I’m pleased to inform you that contingent upon confirmation, you have been selected as the Chicago-area winner of the 1-on-1 cooperative gaming session with MICK MILK of Nightmare Hour, sponsored by SneakAttack Games and Monster Energy.

The event will take place at the Uptown360 hotel on N Michigan Ave., Chicago, from 12pm to 6pm on Friday, July 17. A catered lunch will be provided, as well as exclusive prizes from our sponsors and a one-night hotel stay in a luxury king room with skyline views. You will be responsible for your own transportation and cost of travel.

Please respond to this email by Wednesday, July 8 with a scanned copy of your photo ID including proof of age, as well as with a list of any medical needs or dietary restrictions.

If you are unavailable on this date and cannot provide a replacement over the age of 18, or if you do not respond by July 8, another winner will be chosen.

We hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

Mo Stoll
Fahrenheit Management, Los Angeles

Ian feels like he did the time he fell off the monkey-bars in elementary school, broke his arm, and got the wind knocked out of him. He feels like he did the time in sixth grade when Aaron Linder out of nowhere came up and punched him in the face because of something Lip said. He feels like he did the first time he had sex, quick and breath-heavy in the dark of the empty school locker room.

Holy shit.

Ian sets down his phone and runs his hands over his face. How the hell is this possibly happening?

There had to have been upwards of a thousand Chicago entries. How is it possible that Ian was chosen?

It makes absolutely no sense and yet of course, of course this would happen. Of course Ian would have submitted a contest entry in order to meet his celebrity crush, would have then met said celebrity crush through other means and discovered he’s the asshole of the century, would have accidentally started a minor social media cancellation campaign and moved on from him, and then would have subsequently learned that he’d won a one-on-one catered lunch and gaming session with him.

What the fuck?

Why would this happen to him, and shit, how the hell does he turn this down?

Mickey’s a dick who may or may not also be a homophobe. Ian wants to punch him in the face. Ian also wants a catered lunch, a one-night stay in a luxury king hotel room, and exclusive prizes from sponsors. He kind of wants to look MICK MILK in the eye and call him an asshole to his face. He maybe wants to see his expression when Ian walks into the room, knowing he has to spend six hours hanging out with him.

He wants to see where MICK MILK ends and where Mickey begins, and he wants to ask him why the fuck he acted like a condescending prick that time in the bathroom.

He wants to ask him why he had to break Ian’s dumb, secret fanboy heart and why that shit had to result in him ripping away the one form of happiness Ian’d managed to have in his shitty, monotonous life.

Ian picks back up his phone and rereads the email, biting his lip.

Absolute worst case scenario? He gets into a fight with a celebrity. Absolute best case scenario? He figures out what makes Mickey tick.

Ian purses his lips and taps reply.

Dear Mo, he types, holding his breath. I’m free on the 17th.

And y’know what? Whatever.

Whatever MICK MILK of Nightmare Hour, Mikhailo A. Milkovich, Mick, Mickey with the eraser stud back and the leftover black nailpolish, the lock of hair falling onto his forehead and the white fuzz on the sleeve of his hoodie.

Get ready.

Game fucking on.