Actions

Work Header

is this a forest? 'cuz there sure is a lot of pine

Chapter Text

Michael’s Tagalog is conyo at best. He can understand Tagalog with no problem, but don’t count on him to string together a sentence in it without having to resort to the kind of Taglish that he’s sure would make his mom wince. He only ever speaks it at home to his family, so he doesn’t get too much practice. But if there’s one thing Michael does a lot in Tagalog, it’s swear.

Tangina!” Michael says over Jeremy’s victorious whooping. On screen, the K.O. flashes almost mockingly. “I can’t believe this. All our years of friendship and you kill me without a second thought?”

“Dude, you were gonna do the same, so like, suck it up. I win.” Jeremy grins. He leans back into the beanbag while Michael stands up and rummages around for something disgusting and sugary to shove into his mouth.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Bask in it while you can, Jer, ‘cuz I’m not letting you win the next round.”

“What’d you say? I can’t hear you over all the sore loser in the air.”

Michael throws a Reese Cup at Jeremy’s head. Jeremy sticks out his tongue at him.

“Hey, what’d that thing you say awhile ago mean?” Jeremy asks, handing over the Reese Cup to Michael. Real friendship is surrendering the snack projectile you just got pelted with because you know your friend still totally wants to eat it.

“What thing?”

“That thing you said like, right when you lost.”

“Oh, ‘tangina’?” Jeremy nods. “Standard Tagalog curse word. You know this already.”

“Yeah, but like, what does it mean y’know? It never hurts to have a few more swears in my vocabulary.” He tells Michael, turning to him. Ridiculously earnest, he says, “Can you teach me some? It’d be cool to know curse in another language.”

“Okay, okay. It, uh. Tangina comes from putang ina which is a shortened form of puta ang ina mo which literally translates to ‘your mom is a whore’. But now it’s just an all around swear.”

“How do you use it?”

“Uh, it’s pretty versatile? Like I guess it can work like how the word fuck works. Fuck it. Fuck this. Fuck. Tangina mo, if you want to use it on somebody specifically, like fuck you.” Michael laughs at Jeremy’s very focused look. “Try saying it. Tangina.”

“Tahng eeh-na.” Jeremy says. Michael tries really hard, he really does, but he doubles back in laughter. “What? Shut up! I said it just like you did!”

“No, you fucking didn’t, oh god.” Michael takes a deep breath. Jeremy is pouting at him, god. This boy. “Try again, but like. Whatever you were doing with your vowels? Don’t do it.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I dunno, just try again. Tangina.”

“Tahh—You’re smiling already, jerk.” Jeremy plucks the Reese Cup Michael had apparently just been holding this entire time and throws it at him. “Tahng eeh nuh mow!”

“Oh geez, oh god,” Michael is wheezing. Somewhere out there, his mom just got a headache out of nowhere. Who’s conyo now, mom? “You’ve at least got the aggression down, man. One last time, I’ll help you out, now, really.”

“You’re just gonna laugh again,” Jeremy rolls his eyes.

“I swear, I won’t! One last time, please?” He bats his eyelashes. Jeremy’s told him before that this just makes Michael look like he got dirt in his eye.

“Okay, fine.” Jeremy breathes in. “Ta—”

Michael grabs Jeremy’s face.

“—what.” Jeremy says.

“No, no, keep going.” Michael says. For a guy with such an angular face, Jeremy has soft cheeks. “When you do the vowels you make them too big. I’ll stop you from doing that.”

“Taa—” Michael squeezes Jeremy’s face, and the ‘a’ sound that comes out is not exactly music to Michael’s ears, but it’s more bearable. “—ngeeh—”

“Less of an ‘eeh’ and more of an ‘ih’.”

“Ih?” Jeremy tilts his head.

“Yeah, there, better!” Michael lets go of Jeremy. “Last syllable now.”

“Nah?”

“A little shorter. Na.”

“Na.”

Na.

“Na?”

“Batman,” Michael couldn’t resist, and Jeremy actually laughs. “You got it, though! Now all together.”

Jeremy takes a second to compose himself. “Tangina,” he says, it doesn’t sound too much like mangled American garbage.

“There’s my boy!” Michael claps and gives Jeremy a standing ovation.

“Thank you, thank you,” Jeremy stands up too and makes a big show of bowing to the one man audience in the room. “What else can you teach me?”

“What else do you wanna know?” Michael says, finally eating the goddamn Reese Cup.

“Uh, how do you say,” Jeremy mumbles something incomprehensible.

“What?”

“How do you say,” more mumbling.

“Speak up, buddy, these glasses help me see, not hear.”

“I said. Uh. How do you say ‘I love you’?”

Michael chokes on peanut butter cup goodness.

“Oh, wow, holy shit,” Michael coughs. Is his face warm? It better fucking not be. Pull yourself together, Mell. Breathe. “Where’d this sudden romantic side of you come from?”

Jeremy, uncharacteristically calm, shrugs. “I figure it could be a nice icebreaker for Christine, or something? I don’t know. It’s stupid, you don’t have to tea—”

Mahal kita,” Michael says. The ache in his chest now has nothing to do with chocolate and peanut butter. The things he does for this boy. This boy. “I love you in Tagalog is mahal kita.

“Oh,” Jeremy says. “That’s just two words, though.”

“Love is mahal. The I and you come together to become one word; kita. Romantic right?” Michael pushes his glasses up his face and focuses on something else, anything else in the room that isn’t Jeremy.

“Mah-hahl kee-tah,” Jeremy says, then his face scrunches up, seemingly aware of the abomination he managed to say. “Ma-hahl? Mahal? Mahal kita? Am I saying it right? Mahal kita?” Jeremy looks Michael straight in the eye and says “Mahal kita.”

Michael’s soul is being ripped from his body as he speaks. If this is a good thing or a bad thing, he’ll decide later when he’s alone and Jeremy fuckin’ Heere isn’t around to tell him he loves him.

“Yeah, you’re saying it right, buddy,” he twirls the cord of his headphones around his finger, ignoring the burn in his face. “You’ve got my seal of approval.”

“Thanks,” Jeremy grins, completely unaware. “You know, for somebody who still makes the bunny ears when tying shoelaces, you’re a pretty good teacher.”

Gago ka,” Michael throws a wrapper at Jeremy. “Don’t diss the bunny ears. We were taught that way for a reason.”

“What did that mean?” Jeremy asks. “Gago ka.”

“Uh, well. Ka means you, and gago—” The ache in Michael’s chest dissipates slightly, forgotten instead for the iron control he needs to not laugh right now and give himself away. “Gago means best friend.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yep.”

“So, Michael, I’m your gago?”

“Absolutely, dude.”

“Cool,” Jeremy says. “You’re my gago too.”

Somewhere out there, Michael’s mom’s headache just turned into a migraine.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way, Jeremy.” Michael says, keeping a straight face only due to years of practice of schooling his features in front of Jeremy. “Now, come on. I’ve got sugar in my system and vengeance in my soul. Get ready to get beat!”

“Oh yeah, dream on, gago.” Jeremy says, smiling, giddy at the new word.

Michael will probably have to tell him some time that gago does not mean best friend, probably before Jeremy ends up saying it in front of Michael’s family and Michael’s mom whacks him upside the head, but that’s something for another day. Now, he grabs his controller and sets up a new game. Now, he tries to will away the ache in his chest. Now, he glances over to Jeremy, relaxed smile on his face illuminated by the TV screen.

Tangina, Michael thinks. Tangina.

Chapter Text

Michael doesn’t really have a taste music so much as an erratic collection of songs and albums he just so happened to get obsessed with. His phone on shuffle has been described as an experience. There was the one week where only the soundtracks of 1st gen and 2nd gen Pokemon blasted from his headphones. For three days he only listened Dreams by Fleetwood Mac over and over again. There was Electroswing Saturday, which lasted for a solid month. Last time he and Jeremy got stoned, Michael cried to the lyrics of MacArthur Park.

(“He left the cake out in the rain, dude,” Michael says, high off his bat and overcome with so many emotions he couldn’t name any of them. “It took so long to make it, Jeremy.”

“I know, it’s okay,” Jeremy pats his head, giggling. Richard Harris croons in the background on tinny speakers. “Shit happens.”

“It took so long the bake it, Jeremy.”

“So long.”

“And he’ll never get that recipe again!” He says over Jeremy’s cackles.)

Today, he finds himself in music limbo, clicking aimlessly on Spotify like a desert wanderer looking for an oasis of kicking jams. After maybe an twenty minutes of impatiently skipping past every random song that didn’t catch his attention, he finally stops on a song.

The first thing that gets him is that the lyrics are in Tagalog. Lahat ng hassle ay nawawala. Then the beat comes on, his foot tapping along to it. By the time the chorus hits, Michael knows he’s got another Dreams by Fleetwood Mac situation on his hands. He sets the song on repeat, puts his headphones on, and goes to school.

It takes maybe three more listens for his multilingual ass to actually parse out the lyrics, and by that point, he’s humming along to it in the hallway. By the time it’s lunch, Michael’s singing to it and dance-walking through crowds of students who wordlessly part for Anti-Social Headphones Kid.

Wala na tayong, mga problema,” he sings, skidding into the cafetorium, eyes scanning around for his favorite lanky boy. Michael finds him sitting at their table eating a fruit cup. “Tanggal lahat ng ating tinik sa dibdib.”

“Michael!” Jeremy greets. Michael doesn’t remove his headphones or stop the song, but he does crank the volume lower so he can hear his best friend. “You look happy. Is it a Marley day?”

“Nah, man, but I did find a great song which I’m gonna listen to on repeat until I get tired of how awesome it is,” Michael says. He slings an arm around Jeremy and sings the soft lyrics still playing “At sa mali mo’y, may liquid paper. Sa—” Oh fuck, wait. “—love life mong panis, control alt delete.”

“Oh, cool, it’s in Tagalog.” Jeremy says, no doubt recounting the tangina incident. “What’d those lyrics mean?”

“'For your mistakes, there’s liquid paper. For your, uh, spoiled love life, control alt delete.'” He translates, ruffling Jeremy’s hair. “It’s a great song. Ayuz by Rico Blanco.”

“Awesome, I’ll listen to it later. Speaking of, do you wanna come over after school?” Jeremy asks.

“Don’t you have like, this big trig test tomorrow?” Michael grabs Jeremy’s wrist, stealing a spoonful of fruit.

Jeremy shoves him away, Michael happily snickering. “Yeah, I do but it’s not like studying for one night will actually help. Thought I’d just kick back instead. Is that a yes?”

“When have I ever said no?” he says, met with Jeremy’s stupid dumb gentle smile.

God.

Lunch passes uneventfully, mostly with Michael just rattling off the cool shit he watched on Discovery last night, Jeremy nodding along, asking questions here and there. They part when the bell rings, off to their last few periods.

That’s when Michael’s day goes not so great.

Something is screwy with his usual chair in class so that it creaks awfully with every move. This wouldn’t have been a problem if he sat still, but Michael hasn’t been still since he was an egg cell. He’s pretty sure it’s physically impossible for somebody to sit and not bounce their leg up and down, but with every move, the chair creaks obnoxiously. With every sound, he gets dirty looks from other students, which just makes Michael more anxious, which makes him bounce his leg more. It’s an ouroboros cycle of nervousness that feels like it lasts forever.

It’s stupid, it's so stupid, but the whole thing gets him so on edge he can’t focus on anything for the rest of his classes. Every sound is a screech, every voice a yell. Michael can’t put his headphones on during class, so he settles for wearing his hood, but there’s only so much that can do. When class lets out, he scrambles to get his headphones on and lets Rico Blanco tune everything out. Wala na tayong mga problema. We don’t have any more problems, god, if only.

By the time he meets Jeremy over where he parked his car, he’s pretty sure he looks like shit.

“Whoa, dude, you look like shit,” Jeremy says. Sensory overload be damned, he lowers the volume of his music. Jeremy’s voice never feels like too much for Michael. “What happened?”

“Noisy chair. It’s whatever,” he waves it off, pasting a smile on his face. “Come on.”

He and Jeremy get into his car and Michael tries his best to shake off the uneasiness crawling inside him. Ayos na, ayos na, ayos na, plays in his ears softly. Everything is fine. Deep breaths. Everything is fine. Start the goddamn car and drive. Just—

“Michael,” Jeremy says, hand hovering over Michael’s arm, unsure to reach out.

“Sorry, yeah, I’m just zoning out—”

“No, it’s okay. It’s just a little dangerous to drive with headphones on, right?” Jeremy says. He’s holding out the aux cord. “Why don’t you just play your music here?”

“Right,” he pulls his headphones down and plugs his phone in. “It’s only going to be this one song over and over again for the whole drive, so I hope you don’t mind.”

“Dude, if I didn’t mind Dreams for three days I don’t think I’ll mind this for a drive,” he laughs, the song begins to play, The combination of familiarity calms him down enough to actually start driving.

Michael hums along, and out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jeremy nodding his head along to the beat adorably.

Wala na tayong mga problema. Tanggal lahat ng ating tinik sa dibdib

“What did that mean?” Jeremy asks.

“Uhhhh,” Michael rifles through rough equivalents. “'We don’t have any more problems. The thorns in our chest have been removed.' Or something like that.”

“Cool,” Jeremy smiles. Then he puts the windows down.

“What’re you doing?” He asks.

“Letting everybody else hear the song,” Jeremy shrugs. “It’s nice.”

Finally realizing that Jeremy is trying his awkward best to try and make Michael feel better, be it by taking his mind off of things or by just doing something as simple as letting the music spill out of the car, whatever uneasiness in left inside Michael fades away, replaced instead with a big, awful, mushy love for his best friend.

“Jeremy,” Michael says.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“No problem, dude.” Jeremy says before clumsily mumbling along to lyrics Michael is sure he’s butchering under his breath.

“I can’t even hear you but I know you’re saying it wrong,” Michael laughs.

“Well I’m a better singer, at least!”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffs. Michael belts out the chorus along with the speakers, “Basta’t kasama kita, ayos na, ayos na, ayos naaaa.” Why the fuck is this song so damn fitting, Michael thinks. That big, mushy love bleeds into that other type of love he likes shoving all the way to the back of his mind. “Lahat ng hassle ay mawawala, basta’t kasama kita.

“Booooooo!” Jeremy heckles.

“Oh, you are so dead when we reach a stoplight.”

“You can’t kill me, we’re going to my house,” he says. “What does the chorus say?”

Michael reaches out to swat at Jeremy, but he expertly dodges. “If you think you can distract me that easily—”

“No, no, seriously. I just wanna know.” And there’s the stoplight.

“Well, it just repeats a lot but it’s basically just,” Michael takes a deep breath. “‘As long as I’m with you, everything’s okay. All the hassles disappear, as long as I’m with you.’”

“Is it?”

“Is what?”

“Is everything okay now?” Jeremy looks at him.

Michael’s had a bad day caused seemingly by nothing, and it’s probably going to bug him later. He went through a few classes without listening to a word, so that’ll also come to bite him in the ass. But he’s in his car listening to a song he’s been listening to on repeat with his best friend who he maybe likes a little bit more than just big, mushy friend love.

Basta’t kasama kita, ayos na, ayos, na, ayos na.

“Yeah,” Michael says. “It’s all good now.”

(Later, when Michael gets home, he’ll accidentally press the shuffle button on his Spotify and it’ll play him another song. Your Universe by Rico Blanco. It’s in English and he'll listen to it alone in his bedroom, and think shit. He’ll think fuck.

The song goes: Tell me something, when I'm feelin' tired and afraid, how do you know just what to say to make everything alright?

It goes: I don't think that you even realize the joy you make me feel when I'm inside your universe.

It goes: I’ll always be the lucky one.

Tangina, Michael thinks. Tangina.)

Chapter Text

To heerefarwhereveryouare

:(((((((

From heerefarwhereveryouare

??? What’s up?

To heerefarwhereveryouare

dude super sorry but i gotta cancel on the star trek marathon

emergency thing came up in the form of Responsibility

From heerefarwhereveryouare

Awww. What do you mean?

To heerefarwhereveryouare

a couple of relatives had a thing that led to a thing and they need somebody to take care of a thing

that somebody is me

that thing im taking care of is a 7 year old

aka im babysitting my gremlin cousin today

:(((

:(((((((((((

From heerefarwhereveryouare

Oh, okay.

Can I come over? We can still hang.

Plus, you’re kind of terrible with anything that can be defined as a child, so I’m a little worried.

To heerefarwhereveryouare

im not that bad :((((

but yes pls get over here oh my god

From heerefarwhereveryouare

Alright, I’ll be there in a few.

Turn that :( upside down.

(:

-

Michael admits that he finds kids confusing, but he really isn’t that bad with them. He just doesn’t know how to interact with kids, but that’s him with almost everybody. If it’s a non-Jeremy lifeform, chances are he really has to focus to understand anything that’s going on, or just wing everything completely and hope nobody gets injured.

Nikki is definitely a non-Jeremy lifeform.

Nikki is a tiny seven year old terror with at least five colorful clips in her hair at a time. It took at least three family gatherings for her to tolerate Michael within a three meter radius of her, and two more to actually talk to him. Tita says she’s just naturally shy around new people, so Michael tries to relate to her, but most of his attempts are met with head tilts, suspicious squinting, or, when she gets more comfortable around him, derisive comments.

(“It’s broken,” she tells him in Tagalog, waving the Game Boy Color in Michael’s face. “I can’t see anything.”

“It doesn’t have a backlight, so you have to play it somewhere well lit,” he explains.

She frowns, “That’s lame.”

Michael would rather an axe to the face than anybody dissing his Game Boy Color.)

Suffice to say, he’s thankful that at least he won’t be dealing with her alone today.

“Hey, dude,” Michael greets Jeremy at his front door when he arrives. “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem,” Jeremy says, stepping in. “Where’s your cousin?”

“Living room,” he answers. “Just a heads up, she doesn’t speak much English. She can understand it, yeah, so you can relax, but she only speaks a little..”

“That’s alright,” Jeremy shrugs, walking into the living room.

Nikki is sprawled out on the couch in the living room with the kind of defiant pettiness all kids under ten seem to have, swiping disinterestedly on her ipad.

“Yo, Nikki, my friend is here,” Michael calls out. Immediately, Nikki jolts, whipping her head to Jeremy before shyly ducking behind a throw pillow like a cave goblin seeing light for the first time. “Say hi.”

Nikki, obviously, does not say hi, but Jeremy isn’t deterred.

Jeremy sits on the opposite end of the couch and says in a soft, gentle voice, “Hi, I’m Jeremy. What’s your name?”

Puzzled, Michael says, “I just told yo—”

“Nikki, po,” she says softly, eyeing Jeremy over the pillow.

Michael blinks.

“Nice to meet you, Nikki. I like your clips.” Jeremy says, and Nikki actually smiles, raising the pillow up higher to hide it.

Salamat po,” she says, fiddling with one of her clips that has a tiny cupcake on it.

“Uh, she said ‘thank you’,” Michael translates when Jeremy glances at him, slightly dazed at whatever is going on here.

“You’re welcome. Do you like baking?” Jeremy asks, and Michael is pretty sure he just ended up in another universe because Nikki shoves the pillow down and grins brightly. “We can make something today, if you want?”

“Yeah!” She says, turning to Michael. It’s almost terrifying seeing her smile in his direction. “Kuya Mikey, can we? Please?”

“Wh—Uh. Okay. Sure.” Michael says off of Jeremy’s meaningful glancing and eyebrow movements. “Let’s go check if there’s stuff in the kitchen.”

“Yay!” Nikki cheers, hopping off of the couch and running to the kitchen.

What.

“What,” Michael says to Jeremy’s smug looking expression. “What did you do? Oh my god? Are you some magic kid whisperer or something?”

“It’s not magic,” Jeremy rolls his eyes. “Kids just like doing what they like. Have you only ever tried to talk about video games with her?”

“Yeah but—”

“Not everybody likes video games,” Jeremy says, which, duh of course Michael knows. It’s weird, and he can’t really process it but he knows. “Some people like baking, Mikey.”

“Shut it,” Michael grumbles. “Keep it up, though. I haven’t seen her look anything other than bored or unimpressed, so as weirded out as I am, this an improvement.” Michael leans dramatically against Jeremy. “What would I ever do without you, Jeremy Heere?”

“Probably crash and burn,” Jeremy laughs. “Dude, get off.”

They walk into the kitchen where Nikki is standing, blinking up at cupboards she can’t reach, probably figuring out that this is not her house and that she has no idea where anything is. She turns to them expectantly.

“Okay so,” Michael opens a cupboard. And another one. And another. Just when he’s about to give up, he hits jackpot. “Bingo! We’ve got some brownie mix leftover from the last time we, uh—” Jeremy elbows him the side. “—the last time we made totally normal regular brownies.”

“Are you okay with making brownies, Nikki?” Jeremy asks in that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad soft voice of his that’s starting to make Michael dumb and fluttery.

“Yeah,” she nods enthusiastically, looking at Jeremy like he hung the stars. Which, okay, he can relate to.

“Okay. Michael can you get uh,” Jeremy reads the instructions on the box. “A bowl, a whisk, and whatever, you know the rest. Nikki, can you fetch me two eggs? I’ll get the other stuff.”

Nikki practically bolts to the fridge, and Michael can’t help but smile at seeing her so excited. When he returns laden with a bowl, a whisk, and a brownie pan, Nikki is jumping up and down next to Jeremy, an egg in each hand.

“Here,” Michael hands Jeremy the bowl and Jeremy pours the mix in.

Uy, wala akong makita,” Nikki says, tugging at Jeremy’s jacket.

“Sorry, uh,” Jeremy glances at Michael. “What did she say?”

“She can’t see what you’re doing,” Michael tells him, looking at Nikki whose head just barely peeks past the kitchen counter.

“Oh, well,” Jeremy bends down and lifts Nikki up much to her delight, if her delighted squee is anything to go by, before depositing on the counter. Michael’s heart clenches for some reason. “Better?”

“Yes po,” she smiles. “Salamat, Kuya Jeremy.”

Michael is speechless.

Jeremy tasks Michael with greasing the pan while he cracks one egg into the mix, doing it slowly in front of Nikki so that she can crack the next one, which miraculously ends in only a few shells landing in the mix. Jeremy lets Nikki mix everything together.

Pwede ko pong i-try?” Nikki says, tongue dangerously close to the whisk.

Jeremy may not understand the words but he does understand that mischievous look Nikki has. He swipes the whisk away from her grubby mitts. “Nope, sorry. It’ll be better later when it’s finished.” He says. Nikki crosses her arms and pouts, which causes Jeremy to laugh, which makes her pout falter.

They pour the batter into the pan, expertly greased, if Michael may say so himself, and pop it in the oven.

“The box says it’ll take around twenty minutes.” Michael says. Nikki is crouching by the oven, staring at the brownies.

“Alright,” Jeremy says, patting his pockets. “Hey, I think I left my phone in your living room. I’ll be right back. Watch over the brownies for me?”

Michael raises an eyebrow, “They’re not gonna walk away—”

“I will, Kuya Jeremy,” Nikki says solemnly, face as serious as if she’s a bodyguard and that she’ll guard these brownies with her life.

“Thanks,” Jeremy smiles, and he leaves the kitchen.

There’s a beat of awkward silence.

Then Nikki says in Tagalog, “Do you have a crush on Kuya Jeremy?”

Michael is really glad he isn’t eating anything this time.

“I—I’m sorry what?” He stutters. “What are you talking about?

“You’re always looking at him,” she grins.

“Yeah, well, you’re always looking at him too!”

“Because I like him too,” Nikki whispers.

“What? That’s not allowed. You’ve known him for like, forty minutes.” Michael says, an odd, protective feeling washing over him for Jeremy. Which is ridiculous.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” she steps on his foot.

“Ow!”

“And you better not tell him! It’s a secret!”

“I won’t, don’t worry,” Michael sighs. “I haven’t even told him myself.”

Nikki gasps, and fuck. “So you do like him!”

“No, I don’t. Shut up,” he hisses. The glint in Nikki’s eyes should’ve warned him that only trouble was to come, but by the time it dawns on him, she’s running out of the kitchen with her tiny little goblin legs.

“KUYA JEREMY,” Nikki yells, skidding into the living room, fuckity fuck. “Kuya Mikey li—”

Before any traitorous words can be said, Michael does a sick slide on the floor, catches her, and covers her awful demon mouth.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up, please,” Michael hisses to Nikki. “Please, I am not kidding, please.”

“Uh,” Jeremy says from the couch, phone in hand. “What’s happening?”

“Noth—Oh my god, ew, did you lick me?” Michael pulls his hand away from Actual Confirmed Gremlin Nikki Mell.

Nikki sticks his tongue out at him, but she looks like she maybe might have an ounce of mercy for Michael.

Maybe.

She points at Michael, “Torpe si Kuya M—” and he covers her mouth again.

“What now?” Jeremy asks and, fuckity fucking fuck. He glances over to Michael. “What does torpe mean?”

Michael is just about to pull another lie straight out of his ass but Nikki beats him to the punch by biting him, Jesus.

“Dude, not cool.” Michael holds his hand to his chest, hoping to look sad and pitiful so Nikki won’t do anything else that’ll jeopardize Michael’s soul.

It doesn’t work. Nikki stands proud and says in straight English, “It means somebody who is too shy to say how they feel to their crush.”

Michael never thought he’d one day vividly fantasize about launching a seven year old child out a window, but here he is now.

“Okaaaay,” Jeremy says cautiously, picking up on the tension. “So what were you guys talking abo—”

“You!” Nikki says.

“YEAH, YOU AND CHRISTINE,” Michael all but screams. “Haha! We were talking about how you still haven’t told Christine how you feel yet.”

Nikki scrunches her eyebrows, “Christine? Sino yun?”

“Oh, well, I guess that makes sense.” Jeremy, oh so thankfully oblivious Jeremy just smiles sheepishly and scratches the back of his head. “I really do get shy around her, so yeah, I’m torpe.”

“Yeah, you sure are, dude,” Michael carries a squirming Nikki over to the couch and deposits her next to Jeremy. “Jer, why don’t you tell her more about Christine, yeah? I’ll go check on the brownies.”

Michael goes back to the kitchen and catches his breath. That was a close call. That was several close calls in the span of a very short time. Jeremy and Nikki are still in the living room, so this is not time to have a Jeremy Feelings Crisis. Michael takes a second to rein everything back in, then he goes to fetch an oven mitt.

Once the brownies are safely cooling on the counter, he returns to the living room. Nikki is staring adoringly at Jeremy who seems to be waxing poetic on how great Christine was when she was called to read an excerpt of the book they’re reading in class. Nikki notices Michael, and for a seven year old, she conveys quite a lot of emotion into a slight frown.

It’s a look that he interprets as sorry you like your best friend who likes somebody else. Ugh.

“Yo, the brownies are done,” Michael says, and Nikki is back to her bubbly goblin persona in a second. “But they’re still cooling so—”

Nikki runs past him.

“—so I guess you can just go anyway and burn your mouth on molten fudge, or something.” Michael says to the living room and Jeremy. “Dude, thanks again.”

“For what?”

“For coming over, for making Nikki happy, for baking brownies with us,” Michael tells him. “I really appreciate it.”

“It’s really no problem. She’s fun, and I get to hang out with you,” Jeremy slings an arm of Michael shoulders. “What are gagos for, right?”

Oh geez, Michael thinks, suppressing his laughter. “Absolutely.”

When they get to the kitchen, Nikki is trying and failing to climb onto the counter to get to the brownies. Jeremy lifts her up onto the counter as he slices the brownies, Nikki excitedly swinging her legs back and forth. Michael watches, eyes trained on Jeremy as he happily prattles on about Christine’s really cool socks or something. Nikki meets his eyes a few times looking way too understanding for a tiny monster, and Michael just shrugs at her.

Yeah, he’s torpe as fuck, but it’s fine. Being Jeremy’s friend is enough, and he wouldn’t trade it for a dumb confession.

He’s okay. Really.

Chapter Text

The English Project Christine Crisis begins with Jeremy wordlessly sitting next to Michael during lunch, back stiff, face pale, looking a little bit like a gargoyle that just saw another, uglier gargoyle, before grabbing his bag and raptor screeching right into it.

“I have no idea what you’re doing or why you’re doing it, but honestly? Hard same,” Michael says, patting Jeremy’s back as his screeching slowly dies down into pained warbling. “Let it all out, buddy.”

“Mmmmmmrrr,” Jeremy says into his bag. He turns his head to face Michael, face creased from the bag, “Dude, do you ever feel like sometimes the universe is trying to be nice to you but it’s spent so long being a dick to you that everything is still kinda awful?”

“Uh,” Michael says. “I’m going to need a little bit more context.”

“Like, are you ever given a really, really good thing, but it’s the worst thing ever at the same time?”

“Okay, I catch your drift now,” Michael’s got the worst crush on his incredible best friend, so yeah, he gets it. Michael pats Jeremy’s head. “Wanna tell me what’s up?”

“Christine,” Jeremy sighs dreamily.

“Was she, like, extra cute in the hallway today or something?”

“She’s always cute in the hallway,” Jeremy says. “But uh, in English today, there’s this paper we’ve gotta write.”

“Uh huh.”

“And it’s by pair.”

“Alright.”

“And Christine was assigned as my partner,” he says, voice getting more urgent with each word.

“Well, that’s great news, isn’t it?” Michael grins, but Jeremy just looks like somebody just killed a bunny in front of him.

“It isn’t! I’m going to have to talk to her and spend time with her and stuff and it’ll be great but I’ll mess everything up because I always do,” He groans, burying his face back into his bag. Michael has to lean in to hear the rest of his muffled words. “How are people even supposed to function around people they like?”

Michael, expert at functioning around a person he likes, decides to be sympathetic. “Okay, first off? You don’t always mess everything up. That’s my best friend you’re talking about, so don’t be too hard on him,” he ruffles Jeremy’s hair. “It’ll be fine, okay? Just act like you normally do.”

“Anxious, tense, and weird?”

“Funny, sincere, and interesting,” Michael says, fingers threading through Jeremy’s hair. “A little awkward sometimes, but hey, who isn’t?”

“You’re my best friend, you’re practically contractually obligated to think all that,” he grumbles, but then he looks at Michael. “Thanks, though. Also, if you keep touching my hair like that, I’m gonna fall asleep.”

“Whoops,” Michael jerks his traitorous hand away. “So, uh, what’s project about?”

“The Tempest,” Jeremy answers, smiling a little bit. “Christine and I talked about it a little before class ended, and she was so excited, god it was so cute. It’s dumb, but I wish she’d get excited about me too.”

“Geez, dude, this project sure is going to be wild ride, huh? You just switched from dreamy lovey dovey to mega sawi in under a second.” Jeremy makes a questioning noise, one that Michael’s come to understand as Jeremy’s shortcut for what did that mean now that lately, Michael’s been speaking a bit more Tagalog around him.

Sawi literally means 'unlucky' in English, but lately it’s been kind of specific to describe people who are down in the dumps and shit when your love life is kind of crummy,” Michael explains.

“Why the hell does your language have so many fitting words about love?” and Jeremy’s face is back in his bag again.

“No idea, dude,” Michael sighs, wondering the exact same thing.

-

Here’s the thing about Jeremy:

He’s a big ball of nerves who’s anxious ninety percent of his entire existence. He second guesses his second guesses and doubts as if he’s being paid good money to. He tries to hide it, but he’s bitter and pissed off about a lot of things in life like his parents or his social standing. Sometimes, even if he doesn’t mean it, he’s a bit of an asshole. The state of Jeremy’s self-esteem is akin to an on fire screaming garbage can that keeps setting itself back on fire every time Michael tries to put it out.

But he also wears these dumb cardigans that are really soft and often are too long, covering his hands til only his fingers peek out. He’s got a weird, adorable, wheezy laugh that’s a remnant of the asthma he grew out of when he turned eleven. He keeps a paperclip or two in his pockets all the time to give to Michael just in case Michael feels like he needs to fidget with something. He always remembers Michael’s birthday. His Tagalog is atrocious, but he tries to speak words and phrases of it anyway.

The thing about Jeremy is that he’s pretty much the best person Michael knows.

-

heerefarwhereveryouare is calling...

“Coolest guy on the planet speaking, how may I help you?” Michael wedges his phone between his head and shoulder so he can continue to rinse plates with his hands. On the line, Jeremy lets out a very emotional screech. “Uh, buddy?”

“Are you busy right now?” Jeremy asks.

“Just dishes,” Michael grabs another plate. “What’s up? I thought you went to Christine’s place for the project?”

“Exactly! I mean, I’m home now, but, oh my god! I went to Christine’s house!”

“Ohhhh, I get it, this is call is going to be gushing about the whole experience, am I right?” Michael says fondly.

“No—I mean, yeah, but, you know.”

“It’s alright, Jer, you don’t have to justify it,” Michael thinks that if he actually had any other friends, he’d love to gush about Jeremy to them. Alas, he wasn’t as lucky. “Go for it.”

“For real?”

“It would be a privilege to have your sonorous voice wax poetic while I get sudsy with plates,” Michael tells him sincerely. “Unleash the raving dude. I am ready.”

“Okay, well,” Jeremy says. “Okay. Okay. I’ll start from the top. So like, she lives pretty nearby so we walk and it’s kind of awkward for a bit? I’m like, agh, fuck it, so I just say whatever the hell is on my mind and it turns out what that was was dolphins.”

“You fucking furry.”

“Says the guy who followed Meerkat Manor religiously,” Jeremy fires back with no hesitation. Michael has never been prouder of his boy. “There was a documentary about them on Animal Planet a few days ago focusing on their sonar powers so I just kind of blurt that out weirdly. I wanted to like, dive into a gutter and die, but then she just keeps asking about it? She got really interested in it. At one point, she makes this adorable dolphin noise, it was—” Jeremy makes a noise which Michael understands fully. Michael also feels very random noise over cute shit Jeremy does all the time.

“See? Being sincere works! Even if it’s about dolphins,” Michael laughs. “How’d the rest go?”

“Uh, well, we we’re productive, for most of it. We drafted what parts of the drama we wanted to expound on,” Jeremy sighs. “She’s really, really, smart Michael. I’m okay in English, but she’s a genius. She’s so passionate and perceptive about the themes and ironies present in the text. She’s a huge theatre kid and she’s super excited for the school play which is gonna have their sign ups soon. Dude, if she signs up, I will too.”

“Nice!” He smiles. “I’m loving the confidence!”

“Yeah, I—She’s just really confident with herself so she makes me want to try to, if that makes sense?”

“Of course it does. I’m glad she’s bringing this out in you, man.”

“I am too,” Jeremy sighs, ridiculously fond. It’s a soft sound, but it echoes in Michael’s head, bouncing off the walls of his brain, clattering around, causing all kinds of shit like aches in his chest or a hunch to his back. Oh, how he wishes. He wishes, real bad.

“Michael? Michael, you still there?” Jeremy voice brings him back. Right. Rinsing a plate and on the phone with a boy who’s got no idea.

“Yeah, still here, dude,” Michael says. “Just zoned out a bit. You know how I get with the dishes. All the soap gets really existential.”

Jeremy snorts, “Whatever you say, man. Listen, I’ve gotta go. I promised Christine I’d message her the google doc link to what we made today. Thanks for listening, Michael! You’re the greatest.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Michael dries his hands. “Good night, dude.”

“Night!” and Jeremy hangs up.

Michael takes a deep breath. Then another. And another. He runs a hand down his face and thinks, fuck. Michael is happy. He’s gotta be happy. His best friend is actually interacting with the girl he’s crushing on, so Michael is over the moon. But the tight feeling in his throat stubbornly says otherwise.

Sawi doesn’t even begin to describe whatever this is now.

-

Here’s the thing about Michael:

His head is a cluttered mess that goes eighty eight miles per hour basically every second, but never in any useful direction. He likes obscure stuff that not many other people can relate to. He gets that sometimes he speaks too fast or is too loud or generally just is too much, but doesn’t know how to tone himself down. He’s weird and uncool but he’s also aware that there’s honestly nothing wrong with that as long as he’s having fun. He’s a loner, but he doesn’t care because he’s got Jeremy.

Michael’s also been Jeremy’s best friend ever since they met twelve years ago at some undisclosed sandbox where Jeremy talked to him out of nowhere holding a beetle in his hands. He’s seen Jeremy at his highest (first place at the sixth grade science fair with his experiment that tested out the slipperiness of certain fruit peels), and his lowest (“Michael? Can I come over? Uh, well, I’m fine, I swear. It’s just—mom left and. I’m fine, I’m—”). He slowly dug himself a hole of non platonic feelings for his best friend and only noticed he didn’t bring a ladder with him to get out once he was already in too deep.

The thing about Michael is that he’s had a lot of practice at this.

-

Somebody taps Michael’s shoulder in the hallway and he almost has a heart attack. He turns around slowly, apprehensive, because Jeremy never touches Michael out of nowhere without clear visual warning, so it’s either a bully, an axe murderer, or the heaviest fly in the world.

None of the above. Michael has to look down a little bit to see Christine Canigula waving at him sheepishly.

“Uh,” Michael pulls his headphones down. This is odd. People don’t talk to Michael. Christine is people. He should probably say something. “Hi?”

“Hi, uh, I don’t know if you know me,” Christine says, gesturing wildly already despite only having spoken for two seconds. “But you’re Jeremy Heere’s friend right? Michael?”

“Yep, that’s me,” Michael smiles. Nickname wise, Jeremy Heere’s Friend is a lot better than Anti-Social Headphones Kid. He hopes it catches on. “You’re Christine.”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“Jeremy talks about you a lot,” he says because he’s a goddamn good friend, damn it. “Like a lot. You’re a great English partner. The absolute best, if his words are to be believed.”

“He’s just overselling me,” she laughs. It’s a dorky, wheezy laugh, Jesus Christ, they’re made for each other. “Jeremy’s really sweet.”

“Yeah, he’s like, the softest boy in the world,” Michael tells her.

“I really like your patches,” she segues, pointing at the Rise Above Racism one in particular.

“Thanks. I really like your dress.” Michael says, for the lack of anything else to say. There was never a walkthrough on how to do smalltalk. It really is a nice dress, though.

“Thanks!”

“So, uh,” Michael fiddles with the wire of his headphones. “What’s up?”

“Oh! Right,” Christine blinks, slinging her backpack off her shoulders. “He forgot his cardigan back at my place, yesterday. I could’ve returned it tomorrow, when we have class, but he’s pretty thin so I was worried that he might get too cold. I really don’t want my English partner to die from, like, hypothermia, or something. Especially since he’s been a great partner. I’m really glad I got paired with him, because I’m pretty sure everybody else in the class doesn’t really care all that much about the text. It’s like, there’s a reason Shakespeare is timeless, y’know? But a lot of people nowadays don’t wanna give it a chance long enough to see just how incredible all his works were, and still are, even now!” She says, impressively, all in one breath.

“Yeah, dude, rock on Shakespeare,” Michael smiles, kind of taken aback, but charmed all the same. Michael’s about as straight as a circle, but he can see why Jeremy likes Christine. “Jeremy’s the raddest.”

“Rad!” Christine cheers, Jeremy’s cardigan in hand. It’s adorable. “Here, you go. Heh, Heere. Heere you go.”

“Oh geez, I’ll tell him you said that, he’ll lose his shit,” Michael laughs.

“Nice,” she rocks back and forth on her feet, then suddenly she jolts, as if remembering. “Whoa, wait, sorry I’ve gotta run. Thank you so much, Michael. See you around!”

And she whirls off, walking away with a happy skip in her step.

-

Here’s the thing about Christine:

Michael doesn’t know her. He knows the adoring stained glass image collage of her that Jeremy has created through dreamy anecdotes and forlorn sighs. He’s aware that there might be a lot different between that image and the real Christine Canigula, but just by going off of what he’s seen, Christine is a great girl

She’s nerdy and unapologetically passionate about her interests. She’s a little all over the place, but so is Jeremy. She smiles a lot and happiness trails after her like an devoted puppy. She layers clothes like a boss. Michael doesn’t know her all that well, but she makes Jeremy happy.

The thing about Christine is that she makes Jeremy happy. And that’s the most important fucking thing.

-

“Dude, are you wearing my cardigan?” Jeremy asks later when they meet for lunch.

“Sure am,” Michael says, picking up his juice carton. “I bumped into Christine earlier and she told me you forgot it and gave it to me instead of waiting to see you tomorrow because she was worried your skinny ass would die from the cold.”

“She was worried about me?” Jeremy smiles like a dweeb, before blinking and saying, “Wait, that doesn’t explain why you’re wearing my cardigan, though.”

“It’s soft as fuck,” Michael bites his straw to hell and back. “You can have it back after lunch.”

“Fair enough,” he says, starting to eat whatever mush it is the cafeteria served today. “So what’d you think?”

“Of what?”

“Christine,” Jeremy says. “That’s the first time you met her, right?”

Michael nods, deciding to pick on Jeremy a little bit. “She’s nice, I guess.”

“You guess,” he hisses. “That’s it, take off the cardigan. Only people who appreciate Christine for all her glory is allowed to wear it.”

“Agh! I’m kidding, I’m kidding, she’s incredible and perfect and she’ll wage an army of puppies to fight off people who don’t like Shakespeare,” Michael laughs, batting away Jeremy’s grabby hands.

Jeremy huffs, sitting back down, and he’s silent for a moment. Then he says, “I think I might tell her soon.”

Those seven words rattle in his head. Clang, clang, clang, motherfucker. But Michael’s been doing this long enough to expertly cram all of it into a box in the corner of his mind for later. Priority number one: Jeremy. Always.

“Dude! So proud! High five,” Michael raises his hand. Jeremy sheepishly swats at it. Close enough. “How are you going to do it?”

“I haven’t thought that far ahead yet,” he grumbles. “I always stutter and forget how to talk when I’m around her.”

“Maybe you can try writing a letter?” Michael suggests past the tight feeling in his throat. “She’ll love something like that.”

“You really think so?” Jeremy smiles, a little unsure, a little perfect.

“I know so,” Michael assures him. “And whatever happens, I’ll be here to help you through, ‘kay?”

“Thanks, Michael,” Jeremy leans his head against Michael’s shoulder. “What would I do without you?”

“Probably crash and burn,” he says, swallowing all the aches down.

-

His point is this. Christine, should she ever like Jeremy back—which is highly probable given that Jeremy is a fucking catch—would be really good for Jeremy. They’d be really good for each other. They’re both nerdy and cute and they’d be so good.

Michael might be the pining best friend, but really, he’s a best friend first. Best friends make best friends happy. Above all, Jeremy deserves that.

Even if it’s with somebody else.

Chapter Text

He figures it starts because Jeremy has a one shitty day after the other in quick succession. If Michael were to say that Jeremy’s had a bad few days, it would be the understatement of the century. Of course, that’d also be a bit of an exaggeration, but they’re teenagers. It’s practically their job to make everything the end of the world.

The English Project Christine Crisis ends unceremoniously with the both of them finishing their paper and Jeremy going back to square one. Jeremy, whose choices are steered mostly by a rat in his brain constantly pressing on a big red button labeled DOUBT, slinks back into being shy as shit and not talking to Christine because he has ‘no good excuse to’.

(“Dude, that is bullshit. You don’t need a “reason” to talk to Christine. She’s practically your friend, now.”

“But what if I’m annoying her? I don’t wanna annoy her.”

“That’s the anxiety rat talking, man.”

“The what?”

“Oh, have I not told you about my latest metaphor for your brain?”)

Michael resorts to using most of his non-academic energy to help Jeremy start talking to Christine again, which would ultimately lead to Jeremy’s happiness. The sign ups for the upcoming school play was the perfect opportunity. Of course, this blows up in face when Rich decides it’s still hilarious to not be straight, shooting Jeremy’s already shot self-esteem into smaller smithereens.

By the time they meet up later to play video games, Jeremy is officially Down In The Dumps to the point that he’s talking about a bullshit drug Rich told him about while he was taking a piss. It’s so obviously a scam, but there’s a flicker of hope in Jeremy’s eyes. A tiny glint of what if.

“Okay, okay, fine,” Michael pauses the game, setting aside his controller and turning to Jeremy. “Let’s say the fakest sounding drug in the world is real and works and you become the coolest person in the world. No, the universe,” he scoots over to Jeremy and throws a hand out at the great unknown of Jeremy’s poster clad walls.

“Shut up, man,” Jeremy shoves his head playfully.

“If it works, will you be too cool for—” Michael gestures at the room, trying his best not to point at himself. “—video games?”

Jeremy’s smile softens, understanding all the same. He says, “No way. Never.”

Beginning of the end, really. In Michael’s defense, he had no idea. He was just doing whatever it takes to make his friend happy.

-

To heerfarwhereveryouare

yo dude whered u go?

here at the food court and ur evidently no longer here

nvm i found christine and she told me you left

she also told me u had like a seizure or something?? shit?????

she sounded really worried im like really worried

are you okay?

are you okay??????

dude????

dude yo buddy man my friend my bro

broski

broseph

broremy heere

okay fine i get it u wanna be alone

but pls like reply just so i can stop worrying k

like i know youve had a shit few days but fuck that

fuck rich and his tictac

youre already cooler than cool

youre ICE COLD

alright alright alright alright alright alright alright alright

okay see you tomorrow

i hope u feel better soon

-

Jeremy and Michael have been friends for twelve odd years, and through all of that, they’ve had their ups and downs. While most of their friendship was smooth cruising, just two bros living their lives at each other’s side, you don’t get this close to somebody absolutely perfect and scot-free. What Michael means is that they’ve had their fair share of arguments, spanning from ridiculously childish to end of times serious as fuck.

When they were six, they fought over crayon. At nine, something about Jeremy’s braces. Eleven, some stupid misunderstanding over a video game, a stray dog, and a ballpen. So on and so forth. It’s pretty cheesy, but all the dumb shit they’ve fought over through the years made them stronger whenever they made up. By this point, Michael and Jeremy both were pros at arguing with each other and then subsequently apologizing, ending up in a hug pile of mushy friendship and flimsy vows to never fight again.

The usual pattern for their squabbles goes a little something like this: whatever they were fighting about happens, they ignore and avoid each other for however much time they seem fit, they figure out that life kinda sucks without the other, and they make up.

So it’s pretty puzzling when Jeremy ignores Michael the next day for seemingly no reason.

“Hey, Jeremy!” Michael calls, waving to Jeremy in the hallway. Jeremy pays him no mind, walking past him easily before high fiving some random kid who Michael is pretty sure kicked the shit out of Jeremy back in eighth grade.

“Yo, Jer, buddy!” Michael greets him later at lunch, but Jeremy just blinks, adjusts his course, and sits with Brooke and Chloe. When did that happen? Jeremy is scared shitless of popular girls, but none of this shows when he starts eating lunch with them.

“Dude, you wanna come over and hang or someth—” he tries one last time after class in the parking lot, leaning against his car. Michael was expecting at least a sheepish no, sorry, but he barely even gets a glance in his general direction.

Jeremy just walks forward with a confident swagger and a self-assured smile. It’s subtle, but it’s a good look on Jeremy, who usually always looks like he’s trying to get lost in the background. Now, he looks like he’s standing out in the way dull high school hallways love; bright and brash; cool.

It’s a good look but damn does it look just a little bit off.

“Jeremy, hop in!” Brooke calls from her mom’s car where Chloe sits in the back.

“Thanks for the ride, girls,” Michael hears Jeremy say, not a stutter or voice crack in sight as he slides into the shotgun seat.

They drive off, leaving Michael alone in the parking lot with only the cold feeling in his gut.

-

To heerefarwhereveryouare

quick question uhhh what was up w/ u today

u straight up ignored me like every time i tried to talk to you

and ur ignoring me now????

or maybe youre just,,,really busy,,,,

or something

whatever

i get if you wanna be alone but you dont need to pretend i dont exist you can tell me :/

last time i checked we gotta fight about something first if we r ignoring each other

but like nothing happened so uh this is on you?

talk to me?

pls?

To heerefarwhereveryouare

yo

yo

yo

dont test me jeremiah

i am NOT afraid to send you the entire bee movie script line per line

JEREMY

according to all known laws of aviation,

there is no way a bee should be able to fly

its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground

To heerefarwhereveryouare

jer check out this vid it’s like 20 mins long but it is RIVETING

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5T8xHFOMP5w

it’s got marbles

u love marbles

……

………..

….

…………….

youre gonna have to read these eventually god

tbh id take being seened wtf just

notice me???

-

The longest Jeremy and Michael had ever gone ignoring each other was a whopping three whole days. It’s pretty pathetic, but given that neither of them had any other friends, life without the other not only sucks ass, but is very, very boring. He figures there’s a little something here to be said about co-dependency issues, but they never let it get so far that it actually becomes a problem. Or, well, never before.

Michael, who’s been tailing after Jeremy in the halls or in the cafeteria for four days, trying his best to get the guy to at least look at him, is starting to get antsy. He’s starting to get pissed. He’s already scanned past his actions for the past month, rifling through the clutter of his head, trying to see if he messed up somewhere and forgot, or something, but he comes up empty every single time.

(“Dude,” Michael says. They had just made up over a fight that was because Michael had apparently embarrassed Jeremy in the mall. Jeremy stopped talking to Michael for hours. “Sometimes, I can’t tell.”

“Hm?” Jeremy sits up, looking at where Michael was sunken in his beanbag. “Can’t tell what?”

“I can’t tell if I’ve done something wrong,” he explains. “Not that I don’t have a moral compass, or whatever. I do. My head is just messy and I have trouble picking up on stuff so. I just—”

“Michael, I already said it was okay.”

“No, but like, in the future, man,” Michael tells Jeremy. “In the future, if I do something wrong or if I hurt you, you’ve gotta tell me because sometimes I can’t figure it out on my own and—”

“Okay, okay,” Jeremy says, voice a soothing contrast to Michael’s own distressed words. “If ever there’s anything, I’ll tell you. Promise.”)

“Jeremy,” Michael says, grabbing Jeremy’s wrist when gets out from play rehearsal. He’s well past waving passively at Jeremy in the hallway. “Jeremy, can we talk?”

Jeremy looks at him, and for a moment, the soft sear of anger under his skin dissipates at having Jeremy’s eyes on him again; at having Jeremy close again. This is his best friend in front of him, and all Michael can feel is relief.

Until Michael realizes that Jeremy isn’t looking at him, but through him.

Jeremy jerks his hand out of Michael’s grasp, turns around, and walks away.

Away.

“Michael!” Somebody says. “Michael, hello?”

“What?” Michael blinks, coming back to the real world. Christine is adorably waving her hand in front of his face. “Oh, hey.”

“Thank god, I was worried you were narcoleptic and that you’d fallen asleep standing up with your eyes open, or something,” Christine sighs, eyes scanning his face. “Are you okay?”

“I—” his hands feel like there’s static running inside them. “I don’t know. I mean—yeah. Sure. I’m fine.”

Christine frowns, concerned, well aware that Michael is lying, but she’s also kind enough not to press. Instead she asks, “Have you seen Jeremy?”

Ha. “I don’t know, either,” he scoffs bitterly, shoving his hands into his pockets. “He sure didn’t see me.”

“Are you guys fighting?”

Third time’s the charm. “I dunno. Wish I did, but I don’t.”

“Oh,” Christine bites her lip. “Well, I think there’s something wrong. He’s been really different lately? It’s not completely a bad different but it’s really—”

“Off?” She nods. “Yeah, I see what you mean. I don’t know what’s up. He won’t talk to me at all. I basically don’t exist anymore.”

“What’s your number?” Christine segues suddenly after staring at him for a few seconds, searching.

“What?”

She takes out her phone, shoving it into Michael’s face. A new contact page. “What’s your number? I want your number.”

“Uh, okay?” He takes Christine’s phone and taps it in because looks like she might not let him leave if he doesn’t. “Why?” Michael hands her her phone.

“There, I sent you a text.” Michael feels his phone vibrate, swipes it open, and smiles at his screen. Christine had just sent him a “hey!! :3” “You have my number now.”

“Thanks, but you didn’t answer my question. Why?”

“Because you’re nice and I wanna be your friend,” Christine says, and it’s so simple.

Past the angry static in his body, he can’t help but think that Jeremy really picked a good one to fall in love with.

-

 

To notheereanymore

sooooooo it seems im mister fucking cellophane to you now haha

alam mo just cuz u wear an eminem shirt doesnt mean u can be a DICK

bc you are. ure being a dick. being a dick entails 1) ignoring all my texts and messages 2) ignoring my calls and 3) ignoring me irl

but it’s fine!!! i’ll just ignore u too so we’re fucking fair!!!!

i dont need u!!! today christine just gave me her number and said she wanted to be friends with me

YEAH THAT’S RIGHT I GOT CHRISTINE’S NUMBER I BET U DONT HAVE THAT HUH

HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHHHHHH

To notheereanymore

uy gago get angry and reply dude cmon

To notheereanymore

it’s been a week this is getting old

To notheereanymore

did i do something wrong

you promised youd always tell me if i did something

meron ba akong ginawa

-

Jeremy, the prick, continues to pretend that Michael has incredible powers of invisibility. As much as this fucks Michael up, he’s at least proud of himself for cutting back on how desperate he’s been to get Jeremy’s attention back. He stops messaging. He stops greeting him in the hallway. As much as possible, though this is still a work in progress, Michael tries to stop looking at him entirely. Fair’s fair.

But it’s fucking difficult. This is Jeremy, his best friend, and the absence gnaws at him like his ribs are made of wood and he’s got termites in his lungs. Tiny, termites all named Jeremy. Texting Christine helps, especially since Christine is quite possibly the most perfect human on this planet, but Christine is no Jeremy.

It’s hard to adjust to life with no Jeremy.

Today, Michael is feeling a little masochistic. There in the hallway, he sees Jeremy standing, a hand messaging his temple, and he thinks, fuck it. Michael just leans against the wall next to him, pretending that everything is fine. He pretends that they’re going to his place after this or the mall and Jeremy just got a headache and—

“Michael?” Jeremy says, breathless, looking—looking at Michael. His face breaks into a smile, and not the cool, cold one he’s been wearing lately; it’s a goofy, warm, one hundred percent Jeremy smile. “Oh my god, I’m so glad to see you!”

What courses through Michael can’t be relief. Relief is a word. It’s too simple a word to describe how it feels like he’s been breathing through a straw for the past week, but now he’s finally gasping for air. But the ugly part of his brain bats away at it, still angry. Still fucking pissed.

“Really?” Michael steps back. The dissonance in his head is blinding. Jeremy’s here Jeremy’s looking at you Jeremy’s talking to you Jeremy Jeremy Jeremy who ignored you for days. “So you haven’t been avoiding me all day? You haven’t been pretending I didn’t exist all week? You just, oh, I dunno, haven’t opened your phone for ages?”

“What?” Jeremy gapes, confused. The ugly part of Michael’s head is so, so satisfied at getting a response, but the rest of him wants nothing more than to hug Jeremy. Michael is pathetic. “What are you talking about? I haven’t seen you since—since—” he trails off, eyes going glazed, face going through expressions as if he’s talking to somebody Michael can’t see.

“Jeremy?” Michael says, worried, pushing away everything, the ugly want for revenge, the blinding need for his best friend to keep looking at him, and focuses on Jeremy. Priority number one. “Jer, what’s going on?”

He waves his hand in front of Jeremy’s unresponsive eyes and nearly has a heart attack when Jeremy grabs his wrist.

“Aah! Holy shit!” Michael screams, trying to pull his hand away in vain. When did Jeremy’s grip get so strong? “Dude, what the hell? Let me go, you’re kinda hurting me.” Jeremy says nothing, he just keeps on staring. Michael wanted Jeremy to look at him again, but not like this. Not like some hanging computer. “Seriously, what’s up with you? You’ve been acting like a pile of shit ever since—”

Oh.

“Shit, wait, is this—is this that tic tac? Jeremy? It worked?” And it’s turning you into an asshole?

Jeremy doesn’t say a word. His eyes flicker like a monitor powering down and starting up again.

“Jeremy?” Michael tries one last time, and Jeremy finally, finally turns to him.

Jeremy’s gaze goes right through him.

He releases Michael’s wrist and walks away.

-

To notheereanymore

theres something really wrong isnt there

what the fuck have you gotten yourself into

-

Michael throws himself into the dark recesses of the internet, checking every nook and cranny for anything on some bullshit pill from Japan called a SQUIP. Everywhere he looks, there’s either nothing or a suspicious lack of something that screams that the information that used to be there was deleted. The closest thing he gets to results is this an academic article on squids and their reactions to different colors, which he reads anyway because he’s frustrated and it’s pretty interesting.

Focus, Michael.

He starts asking around, sending messages and emails to anybody who might know anything and everybody else too because this is an emergency. He’s pretty sure he gets blocked by half the internet, but he can deal.

“Kuya Mikey,” Nikki knocks on his door. Her parents were working late again. In Tagalog she asks, “Can I use your computer? I’m bored.”

“Yeah, sure.” Michael’s still shitty with kids, okay, he admits it, but he’s been trying harder lately. He can always continue his fruitless search for information on his phone. He moves to his bed. “Here you go.”

Nikki hops onto his desktop chair and opens Candy Crush. “How’s Kuya Jeremy? Can he come over?” She asks casually, clicking away at fruits.

“He’s—sick. Super duper sick,” he says, hoping that that’ll appease the lack of the Kuya she really wants to be hanging out with. “So bad. Fever. Snot. Death.”

“Ew,” she scrunches her nose. “Uhhh, somebody is messaging you. Something about a pusit?”

Michael blinks. Pusit? He rifles through his awful little conyo vocabulary to remember and—

“Shit, Nikki!” Michael vaults out of bed, pushing the chair and Nikki out of the way to read the message. It’s from that guy he plays Warcraft with.

Hala, bad word. I’ll tell Tita.” Nikki chastises him, but he shushes her, reading over the message. When he’s done, he reads it again. And again. And again.

Jeremy, what the hell have you done.

-

To notheereanymore

jeremy youre in danger

fuck it youre not gonna see this

it’s not gonna let you see this

it’s just going to keep making you an asshole til it breaks your brain

im not letting that fucking happen to you

-

Christine, the absolute angel, is the one who tells him that Jeremy’s going to be at Jake Dillinger’s Halloween party. She’s the one who gives him the address and the time and also sends him a bunch of pictures of herself in her costume with accompanying “does this look okay???? ^w^” messages to which he assures her that she looks perfect and that she is perfect and that the world doesn’t deserve her.

When he actually gets to the party, he doesn’t have to sneak around too much since everybody is either hammered or dancing so badly to the thrum of music that they might as well be. Michael gets handed a red solo cup filled with what could easily pass as rocket fuel. Yep. The grand high school party experience. How fantastic.

Michael ends up in the bathroom because there are too many people who keep brushing up against him and the bass practically rocks the walls of the house. Desperately, he wishes he brought his headphones to block out everything; the party, the noises getting louder and louder, the anxiety of seeing Jeremy again, the fear of what he knows, but he left them at home, afraid he’d get recognized. Instead, he steps into the bathtub, draws the shower curtain, and runs his hands over the cold, smooth, porcelain over and over again to calm down.

He runs through his plan in his head: find Jeremy, get him to somehow listen to Michael past the computer in his head, hopefully get Jeremy to stop being a dick long enough to find a way to get the dumb processor out of his head, save the day—oh, he should also use the time to get angry at Jeremy because he thinks he deserves that much. Michael’s got a whole pissed off monolog he’s slowly been adding to in his head. He’ll fit that in somewhere before saving the day. Maybe immediately after he finds Jeremy. Sure, the whole evil computer thing was pretty important, but so are Michael’s feelings and—

The door opens. He forgot to lock it.

Michael sneakily pulls the shower curtain back, ready to tell whoever it is to scram, but then he sees a familiar head of soft hair he’d recognize anywhere. Honestly, Michael can’t really be blamed for how he reaches out to touch Jeremy’s hair.

Jeremy screams. An all out, high pitched, totally not-cool scream. Michael is probably a bad person for smiling.

“Fucking fuck!” Jeremy whips his head around, a hand on his chest like a dainty old lady, eyes focusing on Michael. On. Not through. Thank god. “Michael!?”

“Sup,” Michael waves, a little bit a loss. Christ, it feels good to exist to Jeremy again.

“I didn’t know you were invited to this party,” Jeremy says, trying to get his voice back to normal. Nerd.

“I wasn’t, but that doesn’t really matter.” Michael says. He has a plan. Find Jeremy? Check. Get mad. Let’s do this. “Speechless? SQUIP got your tongue.”

“No, it’s—it’s off,” Jeremy says, blinking blearily, eyes glassy but not blank and unseeing.

“That would explain why you’re talking to me,” Michael scoffs. “You know, I’m really pissed off at you. I’ve got this whole monolog that goes through twelve years of epic friendship and—and—You know what, I’m trying really hard to be angry but I can’t do that if you’re looking at me like that!” Michael says, petulant, trying his best to keep his crumbling anger intact in the face of Jeremy gazing at him like he’s an oasis in a desert.

“It’s just really good to see you, man,” Jeremy breathes out, relieved. Goddamn, Michael is weak, he thinks, crossing out the angry monolog from his plan. Onwards we go.

“It won’t be. Not after I tell you what I found out about,” Michael taps Jeremy’s temple.

In a second, Jeremy’s expression turns defensive. “What? How? There’s nothing on the internet—”

“Which is weird right? But I did find something and—it’s not good,” he says. “This guy I play Warcraft with had a brother who went from a straight D student to a freshman at Harvard.”

“Good for him,” Jeremy frowns.

“No! Not good for him!” Michael hisses. “A few months later he’s at a mental hospital. He lost it.”

“I don’t see what that has to do—”

“Jeremy,” Michael grabs his shoulders. Jeremy is still looking at him. His eyes are on the edge of anger, but he’s still looking at Michael. “Don’t you get it? We’re talking an insanely powerful super computer. You really think its primary function is to get you laid? Who made them? How did they end up in a high school? In New Jersey? Of all possible applications for such a mind-blowingly advanced technology, you ever wonder what it’s doing inside you?”

Jeremy jerks out of Michael’s grasp, standing up, grumbling to himself.

“Jeremy, fucking listen to me,” Michael scrambles out of the bathtub.

“Maybe!” Jeremy raises his voice. It bounces on the walls of the bathroom. “Maybe, I just got lucky! Maybe this is the first good thing to have ever happened to me after a life that sucks.”

Michael feels something sick and cold in his stomach, crawling up his throat. It feels like water. Like drowning. Blankly, he says, “The first good thing, huh. Your life really sucked, huh?”

Jeremy falters, “C’mon, you know what I mean, man. It’s just—whatever. Just ‘cuz your friend’s whatever couldn’t deal with life, doesn’t mean his SQUIP made him crazy—”

“It didn’t,” Michael said, the water starting to fill his lungs now. “He went crazy trying to get it out.”

“Then I’ve got nothing to worry about. Why would I want that?” Jeremy makes his way to the door, but Michael, stupid, stupid Michael, stands in his way. “Dude, move it.”

“Or you’ll what?” Michael says, searching Jeremy’s eyes for the Jeremy he knows. The one who has an awful American accent when he speaks Tagalog. The one who’ll yell-sing along to songs with him. The one who’s sweet to his little cousin. Michael figures he’s in there somewhere past this computer generated asshole.

Jeremy doesn’t take his eyes off of Michael, just what Michael wanted, but Michael feels a chill go down his spine when Jeremy’s gaze hardens.

Jeremy is looking right at Michael, not through him, when he says, “Move it, loser.”

Michael steps aside.

Jeremy opens the door and leaves.

This time, Michael locks the door.

He goes back to the bathtub, running his hands over the porcelain, trying to remember the facts; it’s cold, it’s smooth, Michael can’t breathe. The water in his lungs has reached his head. It's threatening to spill out of his eyes as he gasps for air he logically knows is all around him, but stubbornly won’t travel into more useful places. The porcelain is cold, it’s smooth, it’s wet. Vaguely, he thinks, oh, super, I’m crying, I’m having a panic attack, as if that’s a helpful thought, but then again, nothing really is, which doesn’t really matter. He can barely think past the noise, facts running through his head like a desperate mantra, the only thing keeping him afloat as he drowns.

The porcelain is cold, it’s smooth, it’s wet, Michael can’t breathe, the music is loud, somebody is knocking on the door, everything is loud. His breath hitches as he presses his hands against his ears. Everything is so loud. He shouldn’t have come. He should’ve stayed at home. If he never came, this wouldn’t have happened. Jeremy looking at him like how he did wouldn’t have happened. Move it, loser, wouldn’t have happened.

The worst part, Michael thinks, isn’t really what Jeremy said. Jeremy’s called him a loser tons of times. What got him the most was how Jeremy looked at him, cold, cold, cold, with the intent of hurting Michael. Jeremy’s hurt Michael a bunch, but never on purpose. Never like this.

The porcelain is cold, it’s smooth, it’s wet, Michael can’t breathe, the music is loud, somebody is knocking on the door, everything is so goddamned loud

Michael can’t really tell for how long he stays there, curled up in the bathtub, wheezing and crying like a freak, but when it’s over, he feels tired to the bone. He’s coughed out all the water, and now he just feels empty. He feels like crawling into bed and maybe never getting up ever again.

With shaky hands, he gets out of the bathtub, hand lingering on the porcelain (cold, smooth), stands, leaves, and goes home.

-

To notheereanymore

hi!!!!!!!!!!!! im alive btw!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

u kno!! after the fire at jake’s place!!

jsyk!!! if u cared or whatever!!

lmao!!!!

why am i stll messaging you

youve made it clear that even with the squip off you dont want anything to do withme

gets ko naman!! ok!!! fine live your life!!!!!

go destroy it too if thats what you want you gago fucker

fyi gago doesnt mean best friend!! google translate it for all i fucking care

UGHGOOGLE TRANSLATE JUST SAYS IT MEANS SILLY

FUCK OFF IT MEANS ASSHOLEJERKFUCKERWORSTPERSONEVER

i fucking hate that i cant even call u gago bc u made it some stupid dumb affectionate term

fuck you pakshet ka kupal ka

sdjhfweufbk tangina at alam mo???? the worst part about this is that youre right

loser nga ako

i just didnt think it mattered long as i had you

but i dont anymore i guess

anuna haha goodbye na ba ‘to

just

sorry i dragged u down for so long lmao

sorry talaga

-

Michael is already the spitting image of the angsting teenage boy, so he figures to just go through with it all the way.

Michael sits on his porch, headphones on, smoking a joint, rifling through a little box filled with mementos his sentimental ass decided to hoard over the years. Spotify takes him through a bunch of OPM hits as the high starts to calm him down enough to actually get a fire started.

As it burns, his fingers hesitate. There’s a lot of stuff. There’s a Magic the Gathering card Jeremy gave him for the birthday nobody else remembered. The ticket stub from their first concert. Every single paperclip Jeremy gave him. A few pictures; a strip from the photobooth at the mall where they’re wearing funny shades and throwing up peace signs; another that Michael remembers his mom taking where they’re snot-nosed kids covered in dirt, playing with the sprinklers in his backyard; a whole bunch from Michael’s photography phase.

A new song starts, crooning soulfully into his ears. ‘Di mo lang alam, naiisip kita. Baka sakali lang maisip mo ako—

Most of the pictures he took were godawful, either terribly processed or just too blurry to be anything more than a Jeremy shaped cryptid of sorts, but one is. One is.

Ako'y iyong nasaktan—

One is of Jeremy sitting on the sidewalk in front of Michael’s house. It was summer and they were maybe fourteen, or fifteen. Michael had just gotten a skateboard, and they took turns pushing each other on the road, wobbly and fucking awful at skateboarding, but having the time of their lives. He took it just when Jeremy hadn’t been looking, and in the picture he’s got a quirk to his mouth that isn’t a smile so much as the remnants of one, eyes looking outwards to something out of the frame.

He fell off his skateboard a lot that day, but he starting falling in a completely different way too.

Ako'y nandirito pa rin hanggang ngayon para sa 'yo—

Goddamn it.

Goddamn it.

Who’s Michael trying to kid. There’s no way he can leave Jeremy to broken by a stupid pill. Not even after everything. He has no idea whether this makes him pathetic or devoted.

He’s still mulling over which one it is when Mr. Heere in all his pantsless glory pops up from the shrubbery.

-

To notheereanymore

you owe me so much for this

not only am i coming to save ur ass after you kicked mine to the moon and back

but im pretty sure i just got your dad to buy some fucking pants

youre fucking welcome

who am i kidding dude even if your dad didnt talk to me i still wouldve come back

id always come for you

because

because

your dad asked me if i loved you

and after everything u know what my answer is?

oo

i do

i still fucking do

-

So Michael saves the day. It’s pretty ridiculous, in hindsight, but after he negotiates Mr. Heere’s continued existence fully clothed with his agreement to make sure Jeremy doesn’t turn into assholezilla, he goes online, chugs maybe two cans of energy drink, gets blocked by another half of the internet, and finds out the truth behind Mountain Dew Red’s short lived availability.

The play is a disaster, not only theatrically, but behind the scenes too. It’s all pretty much a big blur of adrenaline and caffeine that ends with everybody screaming their heads off and Michael screaming too because he is freaked. When it’s all over, everybody drops, unconscious, and Michael staves off another panic attack by pacing around like a maniac before he comes to his senses and calls an ambulance. He tells the paramedics it was drugs. Technically, he isn’t lying.

Which leads him to where he is now, where he’s been for the past three days; at Jeremy’s bedside waiting anxiously for the idiot to wake up.

Rich Goranski in all his de-SQUIPed lispy glory is in the next bed kept warm by the embrace of a full body cast, and he keeps trying to talk to Michael, which Michael doesn’t really care for. Most of his time by Jeremy’s side is spent listening to music loud enough to block Rich out and sending Christine close up pictures of Jeremy’s pores.

Jeremy is going to kill him when he wakes up, he thinks, snickering, when his eyes land on the bedside table.

There’s a bouquet of flowers from Brooke, a heartfelt get well soon card from Christine, the price tag of Mr. Heere’s newly bought pants, and a phone. Michael didn’t leave Jeremy anything because he’s here himself so—

A phone.

Michael reaches for the phone, Jeremy’s phone, and switches it on. The lockscreen is still the same; both of their sneaker clad feet next to each other. The password is the same too, all zeroes because Jeremy is a dweeb who doesn’t care about privacy.

Michael swipes it open and is bombarded with literally every message he’s sent this entire time.

To pleasewakeup

WOW okay so i just went thru my backlog of messages and jfkghkjgkjeg it sure is

embarrassing as shit

half of it is all super extra and teenage angsty ew

the other half is the bee movie script ffdjghkjrdg

the only reason im still messaging u now is cuz it’s cathartic af

also ur still asleep

and theres nobody else to talk to

and im not fucking talking to rich cuz he basically caused this

ok no he didnt

but i need somebody to blame right now and it sure as hell isnt going to be you

not after all the effort i just put in to save you

i guess hes not much of an asshole now that his squip is gone

i hope u wont be an asshole anymore either

but if you still wanna be one thats whatever i guess

do whatever you want dude just wake up

pls wake up i

i miss your sorry fucking ass

i miss playing video games with you and getting stoned with you and arguing over stupid shit like if hsm 2s fantastic lyrics and song composition were enough to make up for its weak plotline

i miss when you look at me

not through me but

at me

tangina miss kita

tangina mahal kita

di mo lang alam

kgkjskjdhfkds and u never will hhahahahkjskshdkfd

yeah

youre not seeing any of this

michael makes an exit bitches

Michael has his phone in one hand and Jeremy’s in the other, both showing the same messages. On the bed, Jeremy sleeps, tranquil and untroubled. He takes a deep breath and puts his phone down.

He scrolls up all the way to the beginning on Jeremy’s phone and painstakingly deletes every message.

-

Jeremy eventually does fucking wake up, and Michael is pissed beyond belief that the first person to talk to him isn’t Michael, but Rich. He decides to whine about that some other time, instead going over to Jeremy’s bedside.

“Michael,” Jeremy says, voice soft. He’s looking at Michael. Really looking at him, but it’s different. It’s warm. It’s Jeremy. “Michael, what—What ha—Why are you looking at me like that?”

“It’s just really good to have you back, man,” Michael says. This is all nowhere near fine and perfect, but his best friend is back. He’s back. They’ll figure out everything else later.

His headphones lie around his neck, still playing the song he’s been listening to on repeat. 'Di pa rin nagbabago ang aking pagsinta—

Jeremy smiles, lopsided and so not cool, “Glad to be back.”

Chapter Text

In a perfect world, maybe things would be a little bit awkward after Jeremy got out of the hospital, a little stilted, perhaps, but with no more evil computer messing things up in every direction, things would just slowly go back to normal and everything would click back into place.

This doesn’t happen, obviously, because if the world was perfect, SQUIPs wouldn’t have existed in the first place.

What does end up happening is this: Jeremy goes back to school despite Michael telling him that he’s pretty sure digital demonic possession is a valid reason to take a day or two off. Jeremy goes back to school and waves at Michael in the hallways again, but not before flinching at the sudden noise first. They start eating lunch together again, and Michael tries his best to make everything okay by talking about random shit, to which Jeremy gamely listens to, just like before, but sometimes he’d get this far off look in his eyes. Blank.

They haven’t hung out aside from school, but it isn’t because anything is wrong. Jeremy just doesn’t invite Michael over, and Michael, not wanting to risk it, doesn’t ask Jeremy either.

Jeremy isn’t lonely, though. After the shitshow that happened in the play, an odd camaraderie was struck between everybody who drank the dickbag drink, sans Mr. Reyes of course, because that’d be fucking weird. Not that what’s currently going on is any less weird. Brooke and Chloe openly talk to Jeremy. Rich and Jake high five him in the hallway. Michael catches Jenna hanging around Jeremy’s locker, chatting amicably. Then, of course, there’s Christine, who Jeremy is slowly getting closer and closer to.

Michael is ecstatic that Jeremy has more friends, because the kid sure deserves them after everything he’s been through, but after twelve years of it just being the two of them, it’s...different, to say the least. If Michael were being held at gunpoint, he’d admit that he feels out of place, hovering along the edges of Jeremy’s new, arguably cooler friends, awkwardly trying to figure out if he was supposed to join in or if this was how people started to grow out of each of other.

The irrational part of Michael’s brain would have preferred it if everybody was kind of a dick to Michael, because at least then he could blame them, but they aren’t. Chloe is still a bit of a bitch, but not in the way that it causes real damage; just in the way that she wears it like a cool jacket. Rich is actually a dweeb who lisps and has close to no brain to mouth filter. Just yesterday, Jake gave Michael a red button and said, bright, sincere, and puzzlingly malice free, that he found it in his locker and that it reminded him of Michael.

By this point, Michael is entertaining the idea that he’s been teleported into a surreal alternate universe where people can see he exists. He doesn’t really think they want to be friends with him, though. They’re probably only just doing it because he and Jeremy are a package deal; buy one get the other whether you want it or not, just a fact of life. Or, well. Maybe. Michael isn’t really sure about that either. Things between him and Jeremy are different now, despite how much Michael pretends it isn’t so.

Of course, nobody needed to know about all this, really. Jeremy, especially. He’s got enough on his plate, and he really doesn’t need Michael’s stupid feelings dragging him down even more. It’s not like there’s anything really wrong. They chat about random shit, even though Michael is worried Jeremy might be getting bored with every word. They hang out during lunch, even though Michael thinks that maybe Jeremy might secretly want to go sit with Brooke and Chloe. If there’s something off, something that feels like a glass wall muffling and distorting the other, they don’t talk about it.

Jeremy doesn’t need to know. Just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.

“Michael,” somebody greets out of nowhere. Michael jerks, messily shoving his lighter and cigarette into his pocket. He turns to see Christine smiling at where he’s leaned against the bleachers out by the field. “Yoooo.”

“Yo,” Michael relaxes. “What're you doing here? I thought you left—”

“I forgot something in my locker,” Christine shrugs, shuffling next to him. “And what about you? I thought Rich invited you and Jeremy over to play video games?”

“Nah, I’ve got—stuff,” Michael says. “I’ve got stuff to do.”

“Stuff.”

“Yeah. Super important stuff.”

“Like smoking by the football field like a hipster?”

“Exactly.”

Christine sighs, “Michael—”

“Okay, okay,” he breaks. Curse Christine and her scary perceptive powers. “I didn’t really wanna, y’know, intrude, or whatever.”

Christine tilts her head, “Intrude? But you were invited.”

“Rich is just being polite,” Michael waves it off, blinking at the absurdity of Rich being in any way connected to the concept of politeness. “Besides, those two have a ‘we were fucked up by the computers in our head’ bond going on, yeah? I wouldn’t really—” he gestures vaguely. “You know?”

“Not really,” Christine laughs, a little fond. “Well, tomorrow, Jeremy and I are thinking of going to see a movie. Wanna come?”

“Yeah, maybe not.” Michael winces inwardly. He loves Christine to bits, but the thought of third wheeling that hard between her and his best friend he can barely speak to without feeling like he’s annoying the shit out of him is undesirable, to say the least. “I’ve got—”

“Let me guess,” she quirks an eyebrow. “Stuff?”

“Yeah. Stuff,” Michael grinds his shoe into the ground, trying to shake off the weight of her gaze. “You guys have fun, though.”

“You do know that we want you around, right?” Christine says, straightforward and probably lying, Michael thinks. “You know that Jeremy wants you around, right?”

“Of course,” Michael lies. It’s not one of his best lies, if Christine’s little eye roll is anything to go by.

“Have you talked to Jeremy about this?” And now this is veering dangerously into the uncharted territory of things Michael really doesn’t want to think about much less talk about.

“I talk to Jeremy all the time—”

“Michael,” she says, voice steely. Fuck with Christine Canigula at your own risk. “You know what I mean.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Michael caves, but only slightly. “We’re good. No—don’t look at me with those judging eyes, we are. You weren’t there, but back at the play, he apologized for being a dick. Everything is fine.”

“I don’t think you really think that,” Christine says gently, as if she knows that the words feel like suffocating nonetheless. Truths usually do. “And I don’t think Jeremy does either.”

Michael shrugs. “Well, if he wants to talk about it, he’ll tell me.”

“Both of you are ridiculous,” Christine sighs. “That’s the exact same thing he said about you.”

“Oh,” Michael is torn between guilt and laughter. Figures.

“Will you talk to him?”

“Maybe,” he says. “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Christine huffs, but doesn’t push. “I don’t know what’s going on and I won’t pretend to, but I hope it works out. I really don’t like seeing either of you like this.”

“Like what?”

“Like you miss each other even though you’re both just there,” she says. A chill runs down his spine. They should go soon. It’s starting to get cold out.

“Come on,” Michael pushes off the bleachers. “I can drive you to your place, if you want.”

“Thanks, Michael,” she smiles. “That’d be great.”

-

(One time, when Michael and Jeremy were kids, they jokingly listed down each others flaws on the backs of math homework they both didn’t want to do. Michael’s list for Jeremy had shit like “thinks ketchup is gross”, “not enough cool socks!!!”, and “Master Thief of Fries.” Jeremy’s list for him was similar, ragging on Michael’s preference for velcro strap shoes because shoelaces suck, how he makes fun of how Jeremy can’t snap his fingers, and how Michael didn’t think ketchup was gross.

The last bullet point of Jeremy’s list for Michael, in all its chicken scratch glory, said “too chill”.

“What’s that s’pose to mean?” Michael asks.

Jeremy shrugs, “You’re just too chill. You always just go with the flow. You don’t, like, freak out about stuff like I do. And when you are, you don’t say it.”

“Oh,” he says. “Do you really think it’s bad?”

“No, duh.” Jeremy laughs. “I just don’t get it. Like the ketchup.”

“You don’t like ketchup because you’re a coward, Jeremy—” and it devolves into a less coherent debate over that.

He didn’t really get Jeremy’s point, back then, but he does now. From an outsider’s perspective, Michael probably does seem calm and uncaring, always just riding out whatever life had to give him, which isn’t really because he is calm and uncaring.

He just didn’t, and still doesn’t, see the point of trying to change things that can’t be changed.)

-

“Hey, uh,” Jeremy says over lunch. “You busy after school?”

Michael may or may not go through a crisis that lasts roughly three seconds, trying to figure out whether the correct answer is to tell the truth by telling Jeremy that he’s literally never busy, dooming Jeremy to feel obligated to invite him to something with the others, or lie, something he’s sure Jeremy is starting to catch on to.

Three seconds of subtle face journey is three seconds too long. Jeremy sighs. “Nevermind—”

It’s so dismissive and resigned that Michael can’t help blurting, “I’m not! I’m—not. Busy. Never am, dude.”

“Cool,” Jeremy smiles slightly, and very suddenly Michael misses when his smiles were easier. “I was just wondering if—”

Michael braces himself for Jeremy asking him to go do stuff with the others, another mess he has to find a way out for, when it doesn’t come.

“—if you wanted to come over? Just the two of us? You can stay the night, if you want,” Jeremy says. In his hands, he fidgets with the drawstring of his jacket. “Like bef—” Jeremy stops himself, looking elsewhere.

Like before.

Michael can do that. Michael can do old times. “Sure, dude.”

Jeremy slumps, relieved. “Nice.”

“Did you think I was gonna say no, man?” he says playfully, arm going out, almost instinctively, to sling around Jeremy’s shoulders when it stills in the air. He puts his arm down.

“Kinda,” Jeremy says. “That’s what you’ve been doing, lately.”

“That’s—well—”

The bell rings. Michael can’t tell if it saved him or if it’s the opposite.

“I have to go,” Jeremy starts packing up his stuff. “But I’ll see you later?”

“Yeah, of course,” Michael nods. Nothing is wrong, but his stomach still churns, uneasy. “I’ll meet you by my car.”

“Okay. Bye, Michael.”

“Bye,” Michael waves, trying to get his head together past the feeling in his gut. Just like before. He can do this. Anything for Jeremy.

-

(When they were seven, Michael accidentally banged a door straight into Jeremy’s face and knocked one of his front teeth straight out. Jeremy was surprisingly very unruffled by the experience while Michael screamed at the blood, convinced that he’d just killed his best friend, until his mom finally went on to check what all the ruckus was about.

For days after this incident, Jeremy didn’t smile or laugh. Michael was terrified he was angry until Jeremy finally told him what was up.

“I don’t want you to see,” he says, ‘e’ whistling slightly through his teeth. “It’s—weird.”

“You can hit my face with a door too and we can match,” Michael suggests.

“No!” Jeremy blurts before covering his mouth. Through his cupped hand he says, “That’s stupid. I just—I’ll smile again when the big tooth grows out.” Jeremy says, seemingly unaware of just how much commitment that would entail.

“But I miss seeing you smile,” Michael pouts, and Jeremy breaks. It’s really easy.

“Okay, fine, but you have to pretend nothing is different, okay?” Michael nods enthusiastically, and Jeremy puts his hand down.

Tentatively, he smiles, and Jeremy’s kind of right. It’s weird. There’s a gap right in the middle of Jeremy’s smile, but Michael is a good friend who doesn’t bat an eyelash or laugh, which makes Jeremy breath a sigh of relief. Michael gamely pretends Jeremy has all his teeth until one of Michael’s own falls out a week later and they bond over how they can stick a straw through the gap.

From then on, Michael gets pretty well versed in the art of pretending nothing is different, should the situation call for it. Nothing is wrong as long as you believe in it hard enough.

Right?)

-

The drive to Jeremy’s place is like a puzzle piece being shoved into a space that’s just a little bit off. Michael plugs in his phone and lets his music obsession of the week take them away, like before, but past music blaring through his car, there sits a stubborn, heavy awkwardness. Jeremy taps his fingers along to the beat, humming quietly, looking out the window, like before, but not. Michael drives right through this haze, because as not as it is, everything is fine.

Things start to look up when they get to Jeremy’s place. They carry a bunch of snacks to his room and play video games, trading barbs easily, teasing. If Michael sees Jeremy twitch sometimes at the sounds from the television, he pretends he sees nothing. They put on a movie when they get tired of yelling at the television, letting the rich, booming voice of Nicolas Cage take them away.

“Yo, how is sleep gonna work,” Michael rubs at his eyes under his glasses. “I’m pretty sure we can’t both fit in your bed anymore without one of us falling off.”

“I was just gonna dump a bunch of blankets on the floor and sleep there,” Jeremy shrugs.

“What? No way in hell am I letting you sleep on the floor in your own damn abode.”

Jeremy pauses the movie, stopping at an unflattering shot of Cage. “I get my bed all the time, dude, it’s fine.”

Michael slides off the beanbag, onto the floor. “Too late. I’m already here. Either you take your rightful place on your bed, or we both sleep on the floor.”

“Fine, then.” Jeremy reaches up to pull his comforter off his bed onto the floor.

“That wasn’t supposed to work like that,” Michael grumbles, standing up to fetch more blankets to make the floor a little more forgiving while Jeremy switches off the television.

In the silence, shuffling around, the haze settles between them once again.

“Hey,” Jeremy says, a bunch pillows in his arms. “Michael, is it okay if we, uh, talk?”

“We’re talking right now?” Michael concentrates on arranging the blankets in a nest-like shape to get his mind off of the sinking feeling in his gut.

“No, I mean, like. Talk talk,” Jeremy sits, laying all the pillows down. “Like really talk. About—”

“We don’t have to,” Michael says quickly, turning to Jeremy. He’s got his arms around his knees, drawn up and small. “We really, really don’t have to.”

“I want to,” he says. “It sucks and thinking about it sucks but I want to because—because I was an asshole and I’m—.”

“Buddy, that wasn’t you,” Michael cautiously sits next to Jeremy. He doesn’t dare touch him. He needs to get this right. “That was the SQUIP. I don’t blame you for anything you did because of it.”

“But not all of it was the SQUIP,” Jeremy runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “At Jake’s party, it was off. It was off and in the bathroom—”

“I don’t care about that anymore,” Michael says even though he does. He does, he does, he does, but Jeremy looks like he’s about to cry. “You apologized at the play.”

“That was barely—Michael, that wasn’t enough.” Jeremy turns to him, face a hodgepodge of so many emotions Michael can’t name a single one.

“It’s okay,” Michael says soothingly, and it ticks something off inside Jeremy.

“It’s not,” Jeremy says, hands clutching at the blankets beneath him. “And—and you need to stop pretending it is!”

“Dude, what the hell,” Michael feels something like anger bubble up from where he’s been shoving it down, unexamined and ignored. “I’m trying to help you. You flinch when you catch yourself slouching, you zone out every other second, and you’re terrified all the time. I’m trying to make things easier.”

“That doesn’t mean you can just forget everything I did to you,” Jeremy says, words urgent and desperate.

“Yes, it does!” Michael tries to find any words to make Jeremy understand. “So what if you hurt me, man? It’s nothing compared to everything you went through.”

My pain doesn’t get rid of the fact that yours exists too!

The words rattle off the walls. They rattle against Michael’s skull. His ribs. His heart is either pounding or silent, afraid to make a noise in reply.

“Michael,” Jeremy says, voice wavering. “I hurt you. And I did it on purpose because I was scared but it was me and even though I didn’t mean the words, I still used them to hurt you.”

Michael can’t speak. He’s trying to, but there’s something unraveling in his chest; a knot that’s been tied ever since that night.

“Michael, I’m sorry,” Jeremy says.

It takes a lot of willpower not to say “It’s okay,” because it isn’t. It isn’t. Instead, Michael reaches out slowly for Jeremy’s hand, still twisted angrily in the blanket, giving him every opportunity to pull away.

He doesn’t, so Michael lays his hand over his Jeremy’s. Michael says, “I forgive you.”

Jeremy lunges for him in a second, knocking the air out of Michael's lungs. Jeremy's arms come around Michael’s neck and he clutches tight. Michael, who almost forgot just how much he missed hugging Jeremy, clutches back, a hand in Jeremy’s hair. They’re so close, and after weeks of being so, so far, it’s almost overwhelming.

“I just want you to be okay,” Michael murmurs into Jeremy’s shoulder, running his other hand over Jeremy's back.

“I’m not,” Jeremy says. “You aren’t either. And I don’t think that pretending everything's fine will get us anywhere.”

“I just thought,” Jeremy pulls away, but doesn’t let go of Michael. “I thought that was what you wanted. ‘Like before’ you know?”

“When I said that I meant like before when you were by my side.”

“I’m always by your side,” Michael says, looking at Jeremy here in front of him, surrounded by pillows and blankets on the floor. He’d never want to be anywhere else.

“I know, but you’re—distant.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll try not to be.”

“Why are you, anyway?”

Michael reaches up to scratch the back of his head, “Uh, well your new friends are cool. I don’t really mesh well with them, and I didn't wanna bother you.”

“In what universe have you ever bothered me?” Jeremy asks, and Michael bites back the urge to say 'whatever universe your SQUIP was trying to make.' Instead, he pays attention to Jeremy's words. “None of my new friends are you. None of them are my favorite person.”

Michael’s face splits into a smile, “Is it really true?”

“Shut up,” Jeremy shoves him, laughing. Michael falls to the blanketed floor.

“That I’m still your fav-wit person?” Michael croons, and Jeremy hits his face with a pillow.

“We were just having a moment, god,” Jeremy rolls his eyes, lying down next to him, and Michael feels lighter. The heavy haze of whatever it is dissipating like smoke wafting up and away. "Jerk."

“Your favorite jerk,” he grins.

“Yeah, yeah, you are,” Jeremy smiles. “You are.”

The silence that stretches on in that moment is still strained at the edges, but on its way to being better. That’s all they need, really.

“Jeremy,” Michael says.

“Yeah?”

“One of us is going to have to stand up to switch off the lights.”

“Oh my god,” Jeremy groans into a pillow and Michael laughs. This is all he needs.

-

Michael wakes up feeling warm and safe, eyes blinking open groggily, hesitant to leave the comfort of sleep. He stretches slightly, pretty sure that his back has some complaints concerning sleeping on the floor,only to be stopped by the body haphazardly curled around him.

Michael opens his eyes and sits up to see that Jeremy has koala’d himself to Michael’s body, arm over Michael’s waist and a leg thrown over Michael’s own. He tries to pull himself out of his grasp, but all this does is get Jeremy to make an adorable noise, arms pulling Michael closer. This was fine, when they were kids and Michael didn't have feelings, but now? He's maybe three seconds away from dying.

“Jeeeeesus Christ,” Michael says, watching Jeremy’s pillow creased face scrunch, waking up. His eyes meet Michael’s. “Morning, ganda.”

“Whuh,” Jeremy says in all his messy haired sleep drawl glory. “What’d you say?”

“Nothing,” Michael pats Jeremy’s hair in a futile effort to get it to calm down. “You mind, uh, letting go of me? I kinda have to pee.”

“What?” Jeremy says before his eyes widen, all of his limbs pulling away from Michael so he can stand. “Sorry.”

“Don’t sweat it, man. You were an A+ blanket. Ten out of ten, would sleep with again,” Michael says before he can realize the disaster tumbling out of his mouth.

Thankfully, Jeremy is too sleepy to notice. He just curls up in the blanket Michael just vacated, eyes shutting once more. Michael can’t help but look for a second longer. Like this, asleep, Jeremy is peaceful and worry free. Like this, it’s so easy to pretend the whole ordeal didn’t happen, that it was all just a really weird acid trip. Like this, Michael could convince himself rather easily that everything is okay.

It isn’t, though. But that doesn’t mean it never will be.

Michael would really rather be here by Jeremy than off pretending things that could be worked for for real.

Chapter Text

The next day, over french toast and slightly charred eggs, Michael and Jeremy renew the vows of the friendship pact they probably made twelve years ago by spitting on their hands; the one where they promise to tell each other everything, no matter how dumb, because best friends, is why.

“Yeah, and I remember you took it really, really, seriously,” Michael reminisces, leaning back into the couch. “You told me you were a bad person because you accidentally killed an ant you were trying to pick up.”

“My problems were a lot smaller, back then,” Jeremy sets aside his plate. “But my point stands, man. I don’t want us to feel like we can’t tell each other shit. Because best friends.”

“Because best friends,” he says. “I’m not spitting into my hand, though. That was gross.”

“Oh thank god, I thought so too,” Jeremy sighs, relieved. He offers a fistbump instead. “To, uh, not being weird and distant and stuff?”

“To that,” Michael taps his fist to Jeremy’s with a smile. “Do you want me to start us off with a secret of mine?”

Jeremy looks nervous, but he steels himself and nods. “Go for it.”

“At Jake’s Halloween party I—,” Michael says, not breaking eye contact. Jeremy swallows nervously. “I— thought your costume was the dumbest fucking thing I ever saw in my goddamn life.”

“Fuck off, dude,” Jeremy laughs, shoving Michael lightly.

“You looked like a condom,” he says. Jeremy starts to hit him with a throw pillow.

You look like a condom, shut up.”

“I’m wounded,” Michael clutches his chest dramatically, leaning all his weight onto Jeremy as he squawks. “How will I ever recover from this? Scorned by my own—”

“You started it,” Jeremy pushes Michael off, his hand lingering on Michael’s arm. “Can I, uh, say something too?”

“Shoot, man. That’s the whole point,” he says, wondering just what Jeremy’s got on his mind as he slowly links his arm with Michael’s.

“Is it okay if I do this?” Jeremy asks very quickly. If Michael weren’t adept to translating Nervous Jeremy into standard coherent language, he might’ve missed all those words completely.

“Do what?”

“Uh, god this is weird, but, uh. Is it okay if I, like, hold you?” Jeremy says. Michael blinks, and Jeremy rushes to explain himself. “It’s just—back when I, y’know, I—I couldn’t see you. At all. And holding you just kind of helps me calm down? Like, you’re here. Really here. But I know how you feel about touch and stuff, so it’s not big deal really and—”

“Jeremy, yo, dude,” Michael stops him before Jeremy can win a medal in outstanding backpedaling. “You’re totally free to snuggle my arm if it makes you feel better.”

Jeremy stares at him, seemingly disbelieving that Michael actually agreed.

“But—”

“Just make sure you don’t surprise hug me out of nowhere, man, and we’re good,” Michael assures him.

“You are—you,” Jeremy says, probably trying to look for arguments against his own damn want because he’s weird like that, before he gives up. He lays his head on Michael’s shoulder. “You’re way too good of a person.”

“I stole all the red crayons for myself back in preschool,” he reminds Jeremy.

“It was your favorite color, who could blame you?” Jeremy shrugs. His hand trails over Michael’s, and Michael tries very hard to continue breathing normally. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“Jeremy, it would be my utmost pleasure,” Michael says, ignoring the loud drumbeat his heart is pounding out. “Anything for my best friend.”

Michael is beginning to think he lacks self preservation, but he can’t really care about it too much. Not when Jeremy leans against him in an effort to feel okay. Michael’s pretty sure that this at least won’t end up as bad as nearly destroying human civilization with a computer. Learn to look on the bright side.

-

Michael, in his life, has done many things for Jeremy Heere. He’s lied to cover Jeremy’s ass, he’s gotten up at unholy hours of the morning to come over because Jeremy wanted company, he’s helped vanquish virtual megalomaniacs through the power of vintage fizzy drinks. Y’know, the usual bro stuff. They’re all things Jeremy would do for Michael, should Michael ever ask.

That being said, cuddling Jeremy for the greater good of his mental state has gotta be the hardest thing Michael’s ever done to date.

Once Michael had given the a-okay, Jeremy had begun to cling to Michael like a barnacle any time he was in proximity to do so. It’s pretty much like Michael got a cat; a really long, gangly cat named Jeremy that hums when Michael plays with his hair. Michael is sure some people might find this annoying, but the only thing he can feel when Jeremy is close to him is an inexplicable warmth. It’s not an uncomfortable warmth that gnaws at the skin; it’s more of like shrugging on a jacket after a long day of wind.

Then it’s ultimately followed by the usual bone deep ache of don’t kid yourself.

This cycle repeats basically every other second Jeremy shifts in his hold. It’s rather taxing.

The thing that really gets Michael about this is how casual it is. It’s not this big, awkward thing that they fumble into. Instead, it’s natural; it’s probably one of the easiest things that’s come to them after the SQUIP. They hang out together at lunch, Jeremy’s head comfortably leaned against Michael’s shoulder as he scrolls through memes on his phone. Playing video games is a bit more of a hazard now that Jeremy sits that close to Michael. He’s already accidentally elbowed Jeremy in the face twice. In the hallways, Jeremy walks right by his side, his left arm linked with Michael’s right.

“Jeremy, Michael!” Michael turns to see Rich calling out for them.

“Uh,” Michael says. He’s barely spoken a word to Rich ever since the hospital and every other time Michael blew off his invitations to hang out. He’s pretty sure his track record with the guy isn’t all that great.

Thankfully, Jeremy starts talking, “Hey, Rich, what’s up?”

“Nothing, nothing, I just,” Rich takes Jeremy by the shoulders. He moves Jeremy to Michael’s left. “There we go,” he stands back, smiling, seemingly very happy with the cosmic arrangement of Jeremy relative to Michael. “You may carry on.”

“What was that all about?” Michael asks, looking at Rich disappear into the hallway with a grin on his face.

“No idea,” Jeremy shrugs, taking hold of Michael’s arm. “Rich is actually pretty weird. He has a wicked pog collection.”

Michael’s 90s senses just squealed. “Holy shit, are you for real?”

“Yeah, you’d love it,” he says, fingers fiddling with the cuff of Michael’s hoodie. “Would you mind if the others hung out with us too?”

“They don’t have to hang out with me, man, you can always just chill with them if you want.”

“That wasn’t what I said,” Jeremy huffs. “You said you felt left out. None of us want that. I want you there. Are you okay with, like, interacting—”

“Of course,” Michael rushes to say even though he’s still a bit iffy on the idea. He doesn’t know how to make friends. Jeremy and Christine basically dragged him into friendship, but left to his own devices, Michael is clueless. But he said he’d try. He’ll be damned if he doesn’t at least try.

“Cool,” Jeremy smiles, fingers brushing against Michael’s palm. The warmth comes and goes, replaced by the ache he’s at least used to feeling. “Gotta go, dude. See you later.”

“See you,” Michael waves, hand tingling.

Michael didn’t think that Operation Why Can’t We Be Friends would be enacted so quickly, but later that day at lunch, he and Jeremy sit down for maybe two seconds before everybody else materializes from the walls, or something.

“Sup dudes!” Jake slides onto the bench carefully. Rich, holding onto Jake’s crutches, sits next to him.

“Michael, my man,” Rich says to Michael. Michael is taken aback. Rich snatches a bunch of papers from Jake’s notebook and shoving it in Michael’s direction. “Look at this. It’s insane.”

“Wow, this sure looks like, uh,” Michael squints. “Like a whole lot of complicated math.”

“Jake takes AP Calc,” Jeremy explains. Around them, the others settle in too. Brooke and Chloe sit across from Michael. Jenna takes Jeremy’s unoccupied side while Christine sidles up next to him, watching what seems to be a video of corgis on her phone.

“Why would you ever subject yourself to that?” Michael blurts. He’s about to shrink into his hoodie, but Jake just laughs.

“I dunno, it’s fun,” Jake says. This prompts Rich into an anti-math tirade that Jake seems to weather rather fondly.

“Hey, Michael,” Brooke says, tapping on her phone. “Jeremy told me you used to do photography.”

“Kinda? It was really shitty photography,” he says.

“Still,” she leans over the table, showing Michael a selfie of her and Chloe on her phone. “Which filter is better? This one or—” she swipes to the left, “—this one?”

“Uh,” he watches carefully as Brooke swipes from one filter to the other. This feels an awful lot like his last eye exam. “The second one, I guess. The colors are nicer.”

“Thanks!” Brooke beams, sitting back down and typing quickly.

Jenna is talking to Jeremy about what sounds like the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model. Jake looks like he’s trying to explain whatever his homework is to Rich who just keeps shaking his head and saying “witchcraft”. Chloe isn’t talking, but she seems happy to listen to Brooke. The entire time, Jeremy’s arm is holding on to Michael’s, a steady weight against him. It’s pretty noisy, and while nothing in particular is bothering him, he fingers itch to slip his headphones on out of habit to disappear a little. It’s what he always does.

Next to him, Christine very carefully taps his arm. On her phone, she’s got an unsent text that says “are you alright?”

Michael maybe wants to hug Christine, but he settles making a discreet thumbs up under the table. Christine smiles.

“Wanna watch this video with me?” She offers an earphone. “It’s a bunch of Labradors jumping into a pool.”

“Have I mentioned that the world doesn’t deserve you?” Michael takes the earphone.

“Yeah, duh, you say that like, everyday,” Christine giggles.

She presses play and Michael lets himself get absorbed in the pure glee inherently present in every dog video. The table is still noisy with friendly chatter, but Michael finds that it isn’t really grating on him. At his left, Jeremy is still talking to Jenna, but his hand a constant weight on Michael's arm; grounding.

The ache that usually follows can’t seem to take hold right now. Maybe it’s the Labradors or Chloe’s soft snickers or Jake assuring Rich that “really it’s easy, just look at it like this,” or something else entirely. Maybe it’s how Jeremy’s hand shifts, moving to fidget with the cuff of Michael’s hoodie again, rubbing his thumb soothingly, back and forth. Right now, all Michael feels is the steady, safe warmth.

It feels pretty good.

-

Slowly but surely, the SQUIP gang integrate Michael into their clique despite the fact that the most malignant thing Michael’s ever been possessed by is the occasional urge to eat peanut butter straight from the jar like somebody who’s lost control of his life.

Before he knows it, his hallway walks a little busier seeing as he’s waving to six more people now. Jenna is really into weird experimental indie music and gives Michael a whole lot of recommendations. He starts talking to Brooke a lot, since they actually share a few classes together. He finally takes up Rich’s offer to chill and play video games, inviting him over to Michael’s place instead so that Rich doesn’t have to worry too much about his dad.

It’s a little overwhelming to go from one friend to two to seven, but he’s kind of having a blast. The niggling fear that they’ll all realize that they don’t really want him around still bothers Michael, but he can’t even find the time to pay attention to it when he’s complimenting Brooke’s eyeliner or signing Jake’s cast. Friendship is literally keeping him busy enough to not stress out over friendship. Funny how the world works.

Of course, the most distracting thing is still how Jeremy’s a cuddlebug and how Michael’s brain is having a lot of trouble with it. It’s one thing to have feelings, and it’s another one entirely to have the object of those feelings so close all the time. His brain is starting to get dumb and mushy. Really, what he needs is a quick reminder of the reality of the situation. Christine and Jeremy hang out a lot. They talk a lot. They’re getting closer and closer.

Michael figures it’s time for him to hear the verdict for real.

“Hey, Christine,” Michael starts one lunch. The only ones at the table right now were Christine, Jake, and himself. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, of course,” she says. “What’s up?”

“Are you and Jeremy dating now, or what?” Michael decides to rip it off quickly like a bandaid, wincing just a little bit how he says it. Was that aggressive? He hopes it wasn’t aggressive. He really just needs to know that the answer is a solid yes so his overactive brain can calm the hell down and—

“No,” Christine tilts her head.

“Cool, that’s cool. You guys we’ll be gre—” Michael blinks, rewinds, and surveys what Christine just said. “I’m sorry, what?”

“We aren’t dating,” Christine says slowly, a confused lilt to her words. “Did you think we were?”

“What?” Michael says dumbly. “I mean—yeah. Kinda. You guys always spend time together.”

“Yo, if we’re going by that logic, that means Jeremy is dating all of us,” Jake says over his scary math homework.

“He’s got a point,” Christine laughs. “Sorry for the misunderstanding, Michael. I kind of realized that I’m not really interested in dating.”

“But,” Michael’s world is in a bit of tizz right now. The reality that Michael had always foreseen was one where Christine and Jeremy eventually got together and that finality would put an end to Michael’s stupidly long crush for good. And now it’s—not going to happen?. A protective surge builds up inside of him. “Why? Jeremy’s the greatest. He’s—he’s funny and he’s sweet and he’s an asshole but a loveable one. He’s also good with kids. What’s not to like?”

“Dude, no offense,” Jake says, twirling his pencil casually. “But that just sounds like you wanna date him.”

“I—” Michael gapes. A slow smile spreads on Jake’s face while Christine just coughs into her hand. “Excuse m—No! What! That is not—Shut up!”

“We didn’t say anything,” Christine bites her lip as if she wants to laugh but she cares too much about Michael to wound him like that. Goddamn her.

“Yes you were. In your heads. I could hear it,” Michael says, pulling his hood over his head. “Whatever it is you’re thinking it’s not—I’m—”

“Chillax, man, we won’t tell him or, like, anybody else,” Jake assures him. “That’s on you.”

“Nothing’s on me because I don’t—God, I’m just digging my own grave now, huh,” he lays his head on the table so that they can’t at least see how he’s blushing like some dumb teenager. Which he totally is, but whatever.

“Yeah, you kinda are,” Jake says.

“Just so you know,” Christine pats his head. “He knows that I’m not interested, so you don’t have to worry. He’s was really nice about it. And it’s not that I don’t like Jeremy. He’s awesome and I love him, but I just don’t wanna date him.”

The mere concept of it is too bizarre to wrap his head around. Michael turns to look up at Christine and says, “How?

“Oh, Michael,” Christine says, patting becoming more determined.

“Totally not because I wanna date Jeremy, or anything,” Michael throws out, just to salvage whatever he has left of his facade.

“What do you mean, you don’t wanna date Jeremy?” Rich drops by out of nowhere sending Michael sitting up in a second.

“Uh,” Michael says.

“That’s your best friend you’re dissing right there,” Rich tells him, faux offended. He points to Jake, “Jake’s my best friend and I’d date the fuck outta him in a heartbeat!”

“Huh,” Jake drops his pencil.

There’s a brief beat of silence punctuated only by Christine coughing into her hand again. The pencil rolls off of the table.

“Hey guys,” Jeremy says, sitting next to Michael. Jeremy's arm easily slips alongside his. “What’re you all talking about?”

“The weather,” Michael deadpans. Everybody else currently at the table is either having an awkward stare off or wheezing, so he gets no objections. “How was class, Jer?”

-

It’s Jenna’s idea to go the arcade that weekend. Something about defending her title as air hockey champion. This leads to Michael pulling up at Jeremy’s house and beeping obnoxiously until Jeremy sticks his hand out of his bedroom window and flips Michael off.

“I think you woke up half the neighborhood,” Jeremy slides into the shotgun seat.

“Dude, it’s noon,” Michael says. “If anybody was still sleeping, I was doing them a favor. Seatbelt.”

“Yes, mom,” he rolls his eyes fondly. “Who else are we picking up?”

“Just Christine,” Michael pulls out of the driveway, “Jenna lives closer to Brooke and Chloe and I figure Rich is just planning on launching himself and Jake there with a giant slingshot, probably.”

“Reasonable enough,” Jeremy laughs, looking out the window, watching the houses and the roads and the lives pass by.

When the pick up Christine, she settles down at the back swaddled in the cutest scarf which she apparently knitted herself. She plugs the aux cord into her phone and, much to Jeremy’s endless delight, plays Cut to the Feeling by the Queen of Pop herself. By the time they get to the mall, Michael’s had his ears yell-sung to death by his friends, lyrics very stubbornly stuck in his head wanting some satisfaction, take me to the stars, just say oohhhhhh.

“Get fucked, Rich!” he hears Jenna yell the moment he steps into the arcade, Jeremy hanging off of his arm. There by the air hockey table, Rich was slumped in defeat while Jenna whooped in victory. “Who’s next?”

“Christine!” Michael pushes her to Jenna’s merciless mitts.

“Michael!” Christine huffs, and Michael so knows he’s gonna pay for it later, but he’s too busy dragging a laughing Jeremy to where they’ve still got the Tekken games.

“First to win three?” Jeremy grins, settling into the game next to Michael’s.

“As always,” Michael glances at Jeremy from the corner of his eyes. He’s looking better, these days. Less zoning out. More present. “Winner gets, what, bragging rights?”

“Loser has to get the winner something from the claw machine,” Jeremy says bravely. The claw machine here is a nightmare.

“Oh, you’re on, Jer,” Michael pushes his glasses up, starting a new game.

He slips into the easy habit of joystick button controlled combat, happy to let the welcome noise of the arcade wash over him. Michael thinks he hears Brooke and Chloe try out the claw machine. Rich is cheering on Jake down by the shooter games, yelling something about how all that archery is useful for something. Christine fucking swears.

When he loses to Jeremy, Michael can’t even find it in himself to be bummed out. He watches Jeremy raise his arms in victory, whooping like the dweeb he is.

“You’re getting rusty, Michael,” Jeremy turns, smug smile on his face.

“Well, of course I am. My hands haven’t been getting much movement, lately, what with how you’re always latched onto them,” he stands up, and Jeremy, as if to prove his point, takes Michael’s arm stubbornly. “Yeah, yeah, you leech. Come on, let’s go watch me suffer at the fate of the world’s worst claw machine.”

“Hey,” Chloe intercepts their walk to the claw machine. “I need to borrow, Michael.”

“What?” Michael says.

“Later,” Jeremy waves her off.

“Five minutes,” Chloe pouts. Very suddenly, Michael is nervous. She points to the photobooth. “He’s the only one I don’t have pictures with.”

“Fine,” Jeremy says, letting go of Michael. It’s only Chloe’s strong gaze that stops Michael from clasping onto Jeremy like shield. In the background, Christine yells “you fucking snake!” “That sounds interesting.” Jeremy laughs, making his way to the air hockey table. “Don’t forget you owe me something, Michael.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Michael says, throwing up a finger gun for good measure right before he’s pushed into the photobooth by Chloe Valentine.

He and Chloe don’t talk much. Michael doesn’t share any classes with her and, out of the whole bunch, she’s by far the most intimidating. He’s sure she’s a great person with a good heart, but right now he feels like he’s about to be interrogated while a camera intermittently snaps photos of them.

“You like him, don’t you?” Chloe says. Goddamn it, Michael didn’t actually want to be right.

“I don’t know what you’re—” he starts, but Chloe just raises a perfectly arched eyebrow. Michael sighs. “Right, okay, fine. Who told you?”

“Nobody,” Chloe deadpans. “I have eyes.”

The camera takes its first shot. That’s gotta be an interesting picture.

“I can’t be that obvious,” Michael shrinks back against the booth.

“You aren’t, actually,” Chloe raises her hand for him to see before patting him on the shoulder. “I just know how it looks like.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Michael says, throwing up a peace sign behind Chloe’s head for the next picture.

“Pot meet kettle,” Chloe waves to him. “I’m pretty well versed in the whole business of liking your best friend.”

“Oh,” Michael says, everything clicking into place. The camera takes its second shot, Christ. “Wow, uh. Condolences?”

“Thanks,” Chloe quirks a smile, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “You should tell him, y’know?”

“Right,” Michael drawls. “And you’ll tell Brooke?”

“Obviously not,” she says, and Michael’s just about to call her out when she continues with, “It’s different. You’ve got a chance.”

And he’s lost. “A what now?”

“He likes you too,” Chloe says, enunciating every word carefully as if she thinks that’ll make them any less absurd.

“Hardy har, yeah right,” Michael pushes his glasses up with his middle finger just in time for the camera to take a third shot. “Also Rich is tall and Christine hates play rehearsal.”

“I’m dead serious,” she tells him, and when she says it like that, Michael is tempted to believe her out of pure fear. Too bad she’s wrong. “He literally holds your hand, Michael.”

“It calms him down,” he explains. “Hand holding can be platonic.”

“Of course it can, but it sure isn’t with you two,” Chloe reaches over and plucks Michael’s glasses of his face. “Yoink.”

“Chloe, I appreciate the solidarity, really, but he—he doesn’t,” Michael blinks.

“Believe what you want,” she says, looking at Michael intensely. Or he thinks she is. “But have you ever thought to check?” Chloe slides his glasses onto her face. “Oh, wow, the grade on this is high.”

“Thanks, they’re for my eyes.”

“Last pic,” Chloe puts her hand up for Michael to see again before slinging her arm around his neck. “Smile. Say ‘pining’.”

“Jesus,” Michael says and the camera shutters. He isn’t blind enough to miss Chloe’s picture perfect grin.

“Here you go, these almost gave me a headache,” she hands him his glasses back. “Really, though. You two would be good for each other.”

“Jeremy doesn’t like me like that, he—” Michael says, pushing his glasses back on, about to say that he likes Christine, but they weren’t going to happen anymore. But Jeremy could still like her. God, was this just going to be an endless circle of hopeless unrequited feelings? “He doesn’t.”

“I just think that you’ve spent a long, long time looking from afar,” Chloe tells him. “So long that you’ve never bothered to see if he’s looking back.”

The thought is too hopeful, too bright to entertain. Michael’s got a lot of practice at not hoping. Not hoping is safe. He tries to push her words out of his head, but if he’s looking back bounces around stubbornly against the confines of his head along with Carly Rae Jepsen’s dulcet tones. I wanna cut to the feeling, oh yeah.

The pictures drop into the little compartment in front of them. It’s a really odd lineup vaguely reminiscent of the seven stages of grief compacted into four shots. This right here is the human experience in a nutshell.

“These are awful pictures,” Chloe takes the photostrip. “I love it.”

It dawns on Michael that Chloe is her own brand of weird altogether.

“Okay, well, nice talk, Chloe,” Michael says awkwardly. “It was super uncomfortable but weirdly affirming, in some aspects. Seven out of ten.”

“I can’t make you do anything, but think about, kay? You’ll never know unless you try,” she says. “This is me being nice. You better appreciate it,” only Chloe can make kindness sound threatening.

“Got it,” Michael nods, and then they’re out of the photobooth back into the arcade and the noise.

Chloe leaves him to go to Brooke who’s watching Jake annihilate vampires with scary good aim while Rich shows everybody how to be a hypeman to the highest degree. Michael goes over to pick up his boy where’s he’s nervously darting his eyes from side to side as Jenna and Christine brutally duke it out on the air hockey table.

“Who do you think will win?” Michael asks him.

“I honestly don’t know. This is scary to watch,” Jeremy says, hand going to hold Michael’s wrist without even looking away from puck angrily whizzing it’s way left, then right. Then left.

Then into Jenna’s goal.

Jenna’s eyes narrow.

“Okay!” Michael says, the fear of Jenna Rolan suitably settling in his gut. “I owe you humiliation at the claw machine.”

“Yeah, totally,” Jeremy laughs, relieved at the convenient way out, and they make their way to what Michael now calls the second most evil contraption that exists on the planet. It used to be the first, right up until a month ago, of course, but second is still pretty good.

This particular claw machine had it all; weird stuffed toys of bootlegged characters, a joystick that did only what you wanted it to if it was the full moon and you were blood type B positive, and the claw grip strength of a newborn infant with very slippery fingers. Michael and Jeremy have used this claw machine so much that they’re sure it was configured for the sole purpose of being a pain in the ass, brazenly showing you what could be while very deliberately telling you to fuck off.

Needless to say, it’s shitloads of fun.

“Alright, dude,” Michael pushes a token into the slot, bringing the monster to life. “Take your pick of whatever deformed toy you wanna see me drop like fifty times.”

“The Pikachu right in the center,” Jeremy points to a yellow mass atop the pile of other oddly shaped masses. “The one that looks like it’s going through a midlife crisis.”

“Hey, don’t be too hard on him,” Michael snickers, pushing the joystick, watching the claw lurch vaguely in the direction he wants it to go. “You don’t know what he’s going through. How am I looking at that side?”

“Uh, a little to the left,” Jeremy closes one eye, guessing the distance past the glass. “No, no, too far, back it up—there! Stop!”

Michael hits the button. The claw descends and lovingly caresses the toy head on, pulling back up empty.

“Glad we gave the guy a tickle,” he says. “Second time’s the charm.”

“It’s third, man,” Jeremy leans against the glass, watching Michael painstakingly position the the claw again.

“Shhhh, don’t jinx it,” he presses the button again. The claw mockingly jostles the toy slightly to the left. “Ugh.”

“You don’t have to get it, dude,” Jeremy tells him. “I was just kidding. Plus, I kind of wanna play air hockey with whoever wins, back there.”

“Do you not know what fear feels like?” Michael says incredulously. “One last time. You said it yourself, third time’s the charm.”

“There’s no way you’ll get it anyway,” he teases, and just for that Michael decides to shake it up.

“Maybe it specifically won’t let you win if you’re trying too hard,” he turns away from the claw machine, focusing instead on the reflection of it on a screen nearby, pushing the joystick with randomly

“That makes zero sense, Michael,” Jeremy says. On the reflection, Michael can see him roll his eyes.

“You never know unless you try,” Michael says, remembering what Chloe had just told him minutes prior.

The thought jolts him, mashing the button of the claw machine before he’s ready. In the reflection of the screen, he sees the claw go down, but past it, Jeremy is there looking at him. It’s fond and soft and something else that takes Michael’s breath away. In his head, Chloe’s words echo. If he’s looking back.. Carly Rae is there too, because Michael can’t catch a fucking break. —take me in your arms and make me ohhhhh.

A small, small voice in Michael’s head pipes up, tiny and hopeful.

“Michael, what the fuck!” Jeremy yells, bringing Michael out of his head. He turns his head to the claw machine.

Its spindly little metal fingers have successfully grasped onto Midlife Crisis Pikachu, dropping it into the hatch.

“Holy shit, I didn’t think that’d actually work,” Michael says honestly. Jeremy pulls the toy from the hatch, holding it out like Simba for a moment before cuddling it to his chest. It looks like a mushy piece of corn with a face, but Jeremy holds it like it’s precious.

“You’d tell me if you got probability manipulation powers, right?” Jeremy asks like the nerd he is.

“I’m pretty sure the universe just used up all the luck meant for my entire life in this moment right here,” Michael laughs nervously. The comfortable warmth is a bit more, right now. Not too much, but just enough for him to want a moment.

In the background, he hears something that sounds suspiciously like an air hockey puck hit the wall followed by a cry of victory.

“Sounds like somebody finally won,” Michael slings his arm around Jeremy’s shoulders. “I’ve gotta say, I’m really looking forward to seeing your ass get beat.”

“Strong words for somebody I beat at Tekken.”

“Hey, I literally just won you this corn blob at the world’s worst claw machine with only pure skill, so watch your mouth,” he says, poking the stuffed toy. “That thing better not replace me. I’m way better at cuddling.”

“Yeah, you are, you don't have to worry,” Jeremy elbows Michael softly before Christine waves him over to the air hockey table.

Michael watches him go, weird stuffed toy in hand and a smile on his face. He leans back for a second. Just for a second to take a breath. Don’t kid yourself, he thinks. Not hoping is safe, he thinks.

But the small thought in his head, the one he never entertains, thinks loud enough for him to hear, loud enough for him to not ignore; what if, it thinks. What if.

Chapter Text

After the first few months of Michael hopelessly pining for Jeremy, Michael had honest to god drawn a flowchart of How He’d Get Over Jeremy Heere because he was both pessimistic concerning anything that would ever happen between them but optimistic that he’d at least be able to deal with it. The flowchart had a lot of arrows that didn’t need to be there and it read a little bit like those quizzes you see on teen magazines, but its main point was this: Michael would eventually grow out of these feelings because Jeremy will never like him back.

Slowly, Michael comes to realize that the ‘eventually’ referenced in the first bit would take a whole lot longer than he’d originally hoped, still well in the territory of Pining Best Friend McFuck years later, but that isn’t too much of a surprise, given who Michael is.

It’s the second bit that’s the kicker. Never in his goddamn life had Michael thought that Jeremy would like him back. It’s just a fact that was about as fundamental as atoms or Jake’s scarily perfect teeth. But then he grows up and learns about quarks and that Jake wore a retainer for a good portion of his childhood. So sometimes truths can change, or maybe Michael just wasn’t looking at the bigger picture, and once he finally does, the new information clicks in and reveals something he didn’t know before.

Anyway, Jeremy maybe probably might just perhaps reciprocate Michael’s feelings.

Which is. What?

Ever since the arcade incident epiphany, Michael starts paying attention to Jeremy. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t before, but instead that Michael has his own special type of optic nerve blocking that trashed anything Michael noticed that didn’t happen to coincide with his preconceived beliefs. Surprise, surprise, it’s called anxiety, but he pushes through it. He pays attention. He observes. His brain asked him what if and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t get a clear-ish answer.

If Michael’s being completely honest with himself, he’d say that Jeremy’s painfully fucking obvious. This makes a lot of sense. Michael’s grown up with Jeremy so he knows that emotionally, Jeremy is about as subtle as a hardboiled egg to the face. Jeremy is sad? He shows it. Jeremy has a crush on Christine? Yeah, everybody knows. Jeremy might like Michael back?

Now that Michael’s looking, he sees it.

Jeremy has a habit of staring at Michael, probably sure that totally nobody notices. When Michael turns back, oh so smooth Jeremy turns away abruptly, fidgets with his hair, and starts a conversation with whoever is closest about whatever it is they’re doing, no matter how mundane (“Brooke! I love your scrunchie! So much scrunch!”) Jeremy is very touchy with Michael, and while Michael knows he does so to cope and also that he’s started casually holding hands with the rest of their friends, there’s something different about it when it’s them. Something softer. Jeremy’s smiles are as stunning as they usually are, but they’re tinged with just that slightest bit of nervousness; like there’s something else on the line now.

Michael makes a venn diagram. One circle is labeled as ‘observations’ and the other is labelled as ‘stuff Jeremy did when he had a crush on Christine.’ There are a lot of differences, because Michael isn’t Christine, but there sure are a lot of similarities too. A lot.

One bullet point he can’t seem to place says ‘excessively gushes to others about crush’. Not one to leave something of this magnitude to chance, he grabs his phone and frantically messages Christine.

To chrisamonroll

YO SO UH QUICK QUESTION and ur not allowed to ask why but

does jeremy talk about me

to you

about

t h i n g s

about me

From chrisamonroll

uhhhh

suddenly i cant read! i dont know!!

To chrisamonroll

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN

pls chris this is for the greater good

From chrisamonroll

what kind of greater good?

To chrisamonroll

the type thatll keep me from fleeing into the woods to become a crazed hermit or something idk

From chrisamonroll

...okay no idea what you’re talking about but

if

hypothetically,

i were to rate jeremy on how much he talks about you on a scale of 1-10 (1 being silence and 10 being a tedtalk)

i’d say it’s a pretty solid 12 0w0

To chrisamonroll

hshjhghdgfhDDGSDGJSDSJ

From chrisamonroll

my lips are sealed when it comes to what he says though!!!

michael i love you but i can’t break friend code - ~ -

To chrisamonroll

yeah no it’s aight thats all i needed to know

thanks

brb gotta launch myself into the sun now

From chrisamonroll

have fun <3

Michael tosses his phone over his shoulder, hopefully towards his bed and not actually out the window like that one time. He presses his hands to his face. Much to his dismay, his face is warm because Michael might love denial, but he also can’t argue against the cold hard facts. Or perhaps the soft warm facts. The facts that are Jeremy shaped and keep reaching for Michael’s hand.

Jeremy likes him.

It’s finally starting to take hold in his brain. Jeremy likes him. Probably. Maybe. There’s a good 75% chance, and that’s 75% more than Michael’s ever hoped. Jeremy likes him.

And Michael hasn’t the slightest idea what he’s supposed to do with that.

-

“What do you mean ‘you don’t know what to do’?” Rich hisses that day during chem lab, very precariously waving a box of matches around. “You struck jackpot, man! The guy you’ve been pining for likes you back. Called it, by the way, with the backpacks.”

“Put those down,” Michael plucks the matches from Rich’s hold, replacing it with a pen he borrowed from Jenna because he keeps losing his goddamn pens. It’s a glitter gel pen. Baby blue. “And it isn’t that simple. I’m not even, like, a hundred percent sure yet.”

“Bullshit,” Rich says, filling up their lab report. Michael was very apprehensive with this lab partnership at first, even if they were friends now, but it’s turning out pretty well. Rich has better handwriting than Michael and Michael is better at keeping things from blowing up. “Take the risk. All you have to do is confess, then bam! You’re dating. Happily ever after.”

“Why do I have to be the one to confess,” Michael grumbles, lighting the Bunsen burner.

“Because you’re not as obvious as Jeremy is, so he’s never gonna figure it out. I didn’t ‘til you told me.”

Michael nudges the burner away from Rich. “What happened to having totally called it?”

“It was just a bunch,” he shrugs.

“A...bunch?”

“Bisexual hunch,” Rich explains. “You’re over complicating everything. Just tell him.”

“I am not going to tell him,” Michael says to Rich. He repeats the same thing to Brooke later in class when he makes the mistake of relaying everything to her and asking her for advice. Brooke gasps, swats him in the shoulder rather hard, and says “Tell him!”

“Why not?” She pouts. Silently, he sends a little prayer to Chloe Valentine. Brooke’s pouts are deadly

“I don’t wanna put that kind of pressure on him,” he sinks into his seat. “And what if I’m making it up? Or what if lately he’s just a lot more touchy and blushy and stare-y and it has nothing to do with me? Or what if I do confess and he goes along with it to make me happy or because he thinks it’ll keep us together or—”

“Michael,” Brooke gently interrupts him. “You’re working on a lot of maybes here. The only way you’ll know anything for sure is if you talk about it.”

“That sounds like a lot of confrontation,” Michael grumbles. He ends up saying the same thing to Jenna later in the hallway as he thumps his head against his locker.

“That’s how communication works,” Jenna says.

“Ugh. How awful. Also, thanks for the pen. Here you go.”

“You asked me for advice and I’m giving it to you.” She takes her pen back, looking unimpressed. “Silent pining will only get you angsty poetry and sad Spotify playlists. Just tell him.”

“What if,” Michael says valiantly. “What if he confesses to me!”

“Jeremy? Jeremy Heere?” Jenna says. He slumps against his locker. Point taken. “If you actually want that to happen, you’re going to have to show clear, neon signs that you like him before he actually gets a clue, much less the confidence to say anything.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” He asks Jenna. And because he’s so desperate, when he gets home Michael makes the mistake of asking his mom too.

“Oh, Mikey,” his mom cooes as Michael tries not to die from the mortifying realization that he just asked his mom how to court his best friend. “It’s Jeremy, right? Or is it one of your new friends?”

“It’s Jeremy, oh god,” Michael lays his head down on the dining table. “Nevermind, it’s okay, forget I asked, oh my god.”

“Don’t be like that, anak,” she tsks, ruffling his hair. “Jeremy is such a sweet boy and I always had a feeling you liked him. Do you remember when you were kids and you gave him parsley for Valentine’s day—

“Mom.”

“—Because you wanted to give him flowers but you were worried the pollen might give him allergies?”

Mom.”

“See, that was courting already. What did he do with the parsley?”

“We ate it. Totally not romantic. Not that—I wanna be romantic—or—” Michael takes a deep breath and lets out short screech. He lifts his head up just in time to see his mom laugh good-naturedly.

“Give him a rose,” she suggests while working at the stove. What is up with adults and roses? “That’s a rather obvious sign. Try to hold his hand. Be closer.”

“We do that already,” he says. His mom turns to look at him while his face flushes. “The hand holding, I meant, not the, uh. Roses. I hold his hand already—but—Uh!”

Probably understanding that if she says anything on the matter, Michael would bolt out of the room and start digging his own grave out in their yard, she doesn’t push it. Instead, she says, “Do you know what a harana is?”

“Mom, oh my god.”

By this point, Michael realizes that asking people for advice just ends with him more embarrassed and confused than before. All he’s managed to figure out is that if anybody is going to confess anything, it’s gotta be Jeremy so Michael can really, truly be sure that this is all real and not some increasingly sad delusion he’s created. But if that’s going to happen, Michael will have to go against every instinct he’s cultivated over the years that keeps his feelings subtle and under wraps. And he has to do that while both making it clear that this isn’t just a best friends thing but also in a way that doesn’t overwhelm Jeremy. And—

“Gahhhhh,” he flops onto his bed.

“What’s wrong with you?” Nikki asks from where she sits by his desk, awkwardly strumming a ukulele Tita bought her.

“Nothing,” Michael says. Nikki swivels in his chair looking very done for a gremlin child. “Oh my god, fine, stop looking at me like that. It’s Jeremy.”

“Kuya Jeremy?” Nikki perks up and Michael can’t help but smile. And maybe tease a bit.

“Yeah, Kuya Jeremy. He might like me, and that’s pretty weird, so I’m stressed out about it.”

Nikki’s resulting face journey is priceless. Her expression goes from confusion to shock to a rather terrifying amount of jealousy to suspicious squinty eyed contempt. She asks, “What happened to Christine?”

“They didn’t work out,” he says.

“And now he likes you?” Nikki grimaces disbelievingly.

Michael’s about to throw something passive aggressive right back, but maybe she’s right. Him? Really? “I think so,” he says quietly, looking at his ceiling. “But I could just be making it up.”

His bed dips slightly and then Nikki is punching him in the shoulder.

“Ow! Hey!”

“I was joking,” she frowns, scooting next to him, ukulele still in her hands. She strums a C chord. “How do you know that he likes you?”

“I don’t,” Michael shrugs. “Not really. I just have a feeling and—and maybe he looks at me a lot.”

“Ew,” Nikki scrunches her nose. “What’re you going to do about it?”

“Die?”

“Lame,” she says. Nikki shifts her fingers to a different chord, messing it up kinda awfully. “You should tell him.”

“You should hold the ukulele right,” Michael sits up and adjusts her wrist. “You have to hold it like this or else you’ll have trouble getting your fingers to the other frets for more complicated chords.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Nikki sticks her tongue out but lets Michael move her hand. “Are you going to tell him?”

“No,” he says.

“Why? Are you scared?”

No,” he says. “He has to be the one to tell me. Just so that I’m sure.”

“That just sounds like you’re scared,” Nikki says. “But that’s okay, I guess.”

“You think so?” Michael asks, stunned. Validation is starting to come from the oddest of places. “Try strumming again.”

“Yeah,” Nikki shrugs, strumming once more and the sound is much better. The proper strings are pressed and the note rings out true. “You’re the one who has to deal with it, so it’s on you. You’re both weirdos, anyway, so maybe it’ll work out.”

“Hey, I thought you liked Jeremy and now he’s weird?” Michael laughs. He never would’ve thought that out of all the people who’s given him advice, it’s this tiny monster who manages to inexplicably make him feel okay. It’s Nikki who tells him it’s okay to be scared.

“I didn’t say weird was bad,” she huffs, practicing the new chord over and over again. Belatedly, Michael realizes that that’s the closest Nikki’s ever gotten to giving him a compliment. He’d hug her, but she’d probably claw his face off.

He settles for saying, “I can teach you how to play the ukulele. I still know how to play the guitar, and it’s basically the same thing but smaller.”

“Really?” Nikki says before ducking her head to hide her smile because showing an outwardly positive emotion towards Michael is on par with the world exploding.

“Yeah, really. Stay here,” Michael stands. Jeremy-wise, he still doesn’t have a plan. He’s still confused and still pretty goddamn embarrassed and his underlying fear has been brought into the light, but when has he ever had anything completely figured out? One thing at a time. “I’ll get my guitar and I’ll teach you what I know.”

“Cool,” Nikki says trying desperately not to sound as ecstatic as Michael can tell she is. One thing at a time.

-

To say Michael starts courting Jeremy would be inaccurate because he doesn’t really change how he acts all. The only thing he does is shrug off the thin veneer he’s always worn, the one that reminds him to cool it with the heart eyes or step back and not stand so close. Michael tosses that out into the garbage and what he gets is just how he usually acts, but without the nervous feeling hanging around his edges. Without that ache that likes to curl up in his chest when Jeremy is nearby.

Michael and Jeremy hold hands in the hallway. They sit next to each other at lunch. They play video games and chat and laugh at stupid jokes. Michael goes shopping with Brooke and he buys this cool keychain that catches his eye. It’s basically a blue marble, but super sparkly and on a keyring.

“What’s this?” Jeremy asks when Michael gives it to him the next day at lunch.

“Ancient artifact that allows for magical girl transformation,” Michael says. “I dunno, I saw it yesterday and thought of you.”

“You—You thought of me?” Jeremy mumbles, rolling the keychain in his palm

“You love marbles, man,” he says simply.

“I love marbles,” Jeremy nods. There’s a voice in Michael’s head that sounds suspiciously like Chloe. The voice says is he really talking about marbles, Michael? Shut up, brain-Chloe. “It’s really cool. Thanks.”

“Did you ever watch that marble race compilation video I sent you forever ago?” Michael deftly steers the conversation into something safer.

“Huh?” Jeremy looks up from where he’s sliding the keyring onto his backpack zipper. “What video?”

Right. Impulsively deleted all of that. “Nevermind, just,” Michael pulls out his phone. “You have to watch this.”

“It’s twenty six minutes long. You have the attention span of a squirrel, how did you watch all of this?”

“Shut it and watch the marbles, Jer.” Michael says and Jeremy breathes out a quiet laugh, laying his head on Michael’s shoulder as the video begins. “Trust me.”

“What it’s—oh. Oh my god,” he says.

“Right?”

“Holy fuck.”

Right?”

“Sup, nerds,” Jenna greets.

“Shhhh!” They both say, not taking their eyes off of the video. Under the table, Jeremy’s hand easily finds Michael, fingers intertwining as the marbles roll into oblivion.

There’s something quietly liberating about it; about not really changing, but not holding back anymore. Michael never really thought that this whole pining thing affected him too much, but now with his freer laughs and glances he doesn’t care to steal anymore, just looking on anyway when Jeremy turns to him, it feels a little like he’s finally taking a break from dancing around his feelings.

Well, almost. Because Michael doesn’t say anything.

There are moments when he can feel the words at the back of his throat, gently urging him to just say something, but he swallows them down and tries to convey them through an arm on Jeremy’s shoulder or a playful shove in the hallway instead. Michael isn’t holding these words back; he’s just scared shitless of saying them, sue him.

It’s not like it’s a chore. Everyday is weird mix of the usual boring high school hellscape made brighter by his friends and Jeremy. The days that pass are good ones, and he wouldn’t trade them for anything.

So it’s easy to forget that bad days happen too.

It’s subtle and obvious at the same time. Jeremy walks through the hallways with his back ramrod straight. Jeremy offers Michael a weak wave and a smile that looks like it’s cracking at the edges as a greeting. Jeremy is looking at places that have nothing in them. At least nothing to Michael’s eyes.

At lunch, Jeremy keeps his hands to himself, nervously wringing them under the table. Michael doesn’t make a move to touch him. Instead he just asks, “You okay?”

“No,” Jeremy admits. His face is stuck in a faraway expression. Michael wishes he could reach into Jeremy’s brain and rip out everything that makes him feel bad, but that’s not how this works.

“How can I help?” He asks. “We can hang at your place later, if you wanna.”

“Can we go to yours? I kinda don’t want—it’s—”

“Sure,” Michael says. Jeremy’s told him before that he can’t really explain most of the things that set him off nowadays, and that trying and failing makes him feel like he’s just overreacting over nothing. “I’ve been meaning to show you the weird dent in my wall that showed up three days ago.”

Jeremy’s mouth quirks just a bit. Just the tiniest bit less faraway. A little bit more here. “Exciting stuff going on in the Mell household, huh?”

“You have no idea, dude. So much going on,” Michael smiles. Jeremy still isn’t touching him, but his hands have stopped fidgeting so much. One thing at a time. “Weird noises in the night that aren’t weird enough to really worry about, cold spots,” he counts off on his fingers.

“Ooh, are we talking about weird house stuff?” Christine asks when she gets to the table. “I’m pretty sure a telepathic rat lives under our porch.”

“Okay, wow, this wasn’t even a competition but you just won anyway,” Michael says over Jeremy’s bark of laughter.

“You can’t just say that and not explain,” Jeremy tells her, his eyes focusing not on an empty space behind Christine, but instead on her.

Christine grins, “Okay so it’s like—”

Lunch passes with Jeremy nodding along to Christine laying out the evidence of her theory while the others come in, chiming in with their own weird house stories. The entire time, Jeremy alternates between listening intently and suddenly jerking in another direction. Everybody notices, but nobody brings it up. They all know bad days happen, but they also know Jeremy can handle this however he wants to. Jeremy smiles and laughs and talks and Michael’s hand is uncharacteristically empty the entire time.

Michael hadn’t realized his hands got cold this easily.

Michael waits by his car for Jeremy after class, and by the time Jeremy gets out, he looks. Well. Like shit. He looks like somebody held their hand out for a butterfly only to crush it before his goddamn eyes. In spite of this, Jeremy still forces a smile for Michael. He’s not okay.

The drive to Michael’s place is uneventful, punctuated only by Jeremy fiddling with the radio, clicking past song after song as if he’s looking for something. When they actually hole up in his room, they mostly take it easy and watch sitcoms on Jeremy’s laptop side by side on Michael’s bed. Jeremy doesn’t talk much, and Michael doesn’t push him, trusting that Jeremy that will say when he needs something, will tell Michael how he can help. For now, sometimes it’s enough to just be there.

Over the course of a few episodes, Jeremy keeps slowly pushing Michael off his own damn bed because he’s an evil worm, and Michael’s too stubborn to stand up and admit defeat, so he slinks down to the floor as Jeremy laughs.

“You seem comfortable there,” Jeremy stands, stretching his legs.

“You put me here, heathen,” Michael fixes himself, sitting on the floor properly, back against his bed.

“Ow!” Jeremy hisses, hopping on one foot, apparently having stubbed his toe one whatever mass was laying by the wall of Michael’s room covered by a pair of jeans that haven’t reached the point of needing an actual wash. “What is—”

“Whoops, sorry,” Michael says when Jeremy kicks the jeans off, revealing Michael’s guitar. “Forgot to put that thing away.”

“You’re playing again?” Jeremy asks, grabbing the guitar by the neck.

“Well, I never really stopped. I just got out of the whole phase where I thought I was gonna be fantastic at it,” he shrugs, reminiscing his early teens wherein he decided to try out a new hobby each month. “I’m teaching Nikki.”

Jeremy smiles, bringing the guitar over to Michael’s bed. He holds it awkwardly in his hands. “I miss Nikki.”

“Oh, she sure misses you too,” Michael nudges Jeremy’s leg teasingly while Jeremy knees him in the shoulder.

“She’s learning the guitar? She’s like,” Jeremy holds out his index finger a few inches away from his thumb. “This small.”

“The ukulele, actually,” he laughs. “Much more size appropriate. They’re different like, chord wise, but the basics are the same.”

Jeremy drags his fingers over the strings, and Michael starts clapping and cheering.

“Musical genius right here, everybody,” Michael calls out, cupping his hands over his mouth.

“Asshole,” Jeremy laughs, pushing at Michael’s shoulder. He sets the guitar into Michael’s lap. “Play me something?”

“Uh, sure,” Michael settles the guitar in his hands, his heart suddenly beating a little bit faster. “Any requests?”

“What are you teaching Nikki?”

“The scales. And how not to get wrist cramps,” Michael snorts. “Neither make too good of a show, unless your wrist is hurting from holding a guitar wrong.”

“Yeah, I’ll pass on that gripping concept. Ha. Gripping,” Jeremy laughs to himself like an absolute nerd, falling back on Michael’s bed. Then he doesn’t say anything at all, but the silence doesn’t feel too bad. It just feels like Jeremy’s thinking.

Michael actually has been teaching Nikki a song. It’s one she asked him to teach her. His fingers find the frets easily and the strumming is second nature, playing the unsung song into the room while Michael hums the lyrics instead of saying them.

He gets through one play through the song and starts over again because his music habits don’t change just because he’s the one making the sounds. From where Jeremy’s gangly legs hang over the edge of Michael’s bed, he can see Jeremy’s foot tapping along to the beat.

“This is nice,” Jeremy says. “What’s the song?”

“It’s by Eraserheads. Ligaya,” Michael answers as he gets to the chorus.

“What does that mean?”

“Uh,” Michael shuts his eyes, trying to keep his hands moving while rifling through his vocabulary. “Happy. Or happiness. Something like that.”

“Are you?”

“What?” Michael cranes his neck to look at Jeremy. Or at least he tries. He can’t really see Jeremy from his spot on the floor, but he can see how Jeremy’s holding his hand out in front of him, reaching for the ceiling. “What do you mean, buddy?”

“Are you—” Jeremy says. There’s something in his voice. Michael can’t call it a waver, but there’s something unsure in his words. “Are you happy?” He asks.

Michael is nervous, all of a sudden. His hands keep playing, albeit a bit softer. He doesn’t think either of them could take a silent room right now because there’s something heavy in the air with them.

“Sorry,” Jeremy sits up, dragging his hands down his face. “Sorry, that was weird and over philosophical and—”

“Hey,” Michael says gently. “Don’t say sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just thinking of an answer, is all.”

“Okay,” Jeremy says, and Michael can tell he’s biting back another apology, bringing his hands down to fidget with the covers of Michael’s bed.

“I am.” He says, meaning it completely. Above him, Jeremy looks forward. Is Michael’s life perfect? No. Nobody’s is. Does he have everything he needs anyway? Great friends, a loving family, and—Michael looks up at Jeremy and he says nothing for a while. He just looks at how Jeremy blinks, as if willing something away. Michael’s never been a hateful person, but the anger he has for whatever it is that haunts Jeremy’s brain is sears under his skin. Leave him alone, he wants to scream. But that won’t help. That’s not how this works.

“Jeremy,” Michael says, and Jeremy tears his gaze away from empty space in front of him. His gaze meets Michael’s and Michael says. “I’m happy.”

“That’s,” he says. “That’s good. I’m glad.”

“Are you happy?” Michael asks.

“I’m getting there,” Jeremy tells him.

“Good,” Michael hums. The song is on its third cycle. “We’ll all be here for you either way, so take your time.”

“You’re way too nice to me,” Jeremy smiles, a little sad. “All of you are.”

“Fuck off, we’re the perfect amount of nice to you, you walnut,” Michael says, strumming louder for emphasis. "We care about you."

“Does this song have lyrics?”

“Woah there, segue master,” he laughs. “Give me a second to get over the whiplash, yeah?”

“Fuck you, I’m honestly asking,” Jeremy says. His smile is more playful now. There we are.

“Yeah it has lyrics, nerd,” Michael rolls his eyes, starting the song up from the beginning. “Ilang awit pa ba ang aawitin, o giliw ko?

“What does that mean?” Jeremy settles back onto Michael’s bed, his head at the edge instead of his legs, eyes on how Michael changes from chord to chord.

“You can’t expect me to be an accurate translator, sing, and play the guitar all at the same time, dude,” Michael dodges Jeremy’s finger going in for a poke.

“Boooooo,” Jeremy heckles, and he’s so close Michael can feel it against his neck.

“If you think it’s so easy, you do it.”

“No, no, geez,” he laughs and Michael swears he feels his heart stutter. “Keep going, I’ll just sit back and listen.”

“As you should,” Michael says haughtily, looking up at Jeremy, and he should probably look away, because there’s something brimming in his chest. It isn’t the words he’s scared of. It isn’t even a feeling. It’s just something that’s been true for a long time that he’s never really, really thought about. Now, it pushes against his lungs, his voice, his heart.

See, Michael throws around the word ‘love’ a lot on a pretty regular basis. He loves slushies. He loves music. He loves video games and writing the letter g. He loves his family and his friends and maybe by this point, they’re the same thing already. He loves his best friend in the whole world, and this he’s known this ever since they were kids.

But looking at Jeremy now. Looking at Jeremy look at him, he knows. God, he knows.

He loves Jeremy.

Sagutin mo lang ako aking sinta'y walang humpay na ligaya,” Michael sings. If he thought he was scared before, it’s nothing compared to now. The words he's terrified of manage to spill out through the song.

Jeremy doesn’t notice, though. He doesn’t ask what it means. He just listens.

Michael can only hope that Jeremy understands, one way or another. He can only hope that maybe, Jeremy will be the braver one of them.

At asahang iibigin ka,” Michael leans his head back, his face against Jeremy’s. “Sa tanghali, sa gabi, at umaga.”

“Michael,” Jeremy says. “Thank you, for this. For all of this. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Me neither,” he smiles. Despite the epiphanies running like static under his skin, the fear holding his voice hostage, and the warmth in his chest, he still means what he said earlier. Michael looks Jeremy in the eye and he hopes. “Ligaya.”

Chapter Text

Michael always jokes that he’ll end up dying in a 7/11 just because it sounds hilarious and given just how often he ends up in one, seems rather probable. He didn’t actually mean it as like, a suggestion or an invitation to come true, but here he is. Michael in the middle of a too-bright convenience store aisle being mocked by packaged snacks. He’s got his headphones on, Jenna’s latest ambient noise band recommendation blasting his eardrums, but past the music (?) he can hear the words he’s apparently been running from.

He loves Jeremy.

In every meaning of the word, he does. He loves Jeremy. Goddamn it, he loves him.

He wants to laugh hysterically. Michael can feel it bubbling in his chest, it would be a really good laugh, but he refrains. He settles for standing nearly still, foot tapping nervously as he begins to zone out from reality and enter a weird limbo of oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, but he does not laugh. If he starts, he might just not stop at all. Then he’ll die. Maybe some stuff will happen in between, like, say, a cause of death, but that’s just semantics. Michael will die and the last thing he’ll see is this shelf of ribbed condoms. He’s going to die because his brain has finally caught up with his heart and he figures that by this point he should just make the phrase “I don’t know what to do about that” his catchphrase.

He should have just died last night. Michael doesn’t know how he survived, what with Jeremy staying over and initiating another cuddle snooze fest. At the time, he was mentally exhausted and didn’t have enough energy to freak out too much at Jeremy’s warm body against his. He didn’t freak out when he felt Jeremy’s arm gently wrap around him right as Michael was on the edge of sleep. He didn’t freak out this morning when he unthinkingly brushed Jeremy’s hair out of his sleeping face. He didn’t freak out when Jeremy’s eyes peeked open, catching Michael in the act, only the smile crookedly and mumble “S’too early,” before wiggling back into the covers.

All this great not freaking out continues through driving Jeremy back to his house because Jeremy and his dad were doing this Saturday brunch thing now. It continues until he parks at a 7/11,overcome by snack cravings. It continues until now.

Michael doesn’t know if anything here was the final straw—as if maybe upon being confronted by the thin film of dust on everything present in all 7/11s pushes his clusterfuck of emotions from his chest, past his throat, and into his head, leaving him helpless and only capable of thinking I love him and fuck— but that’s besides the point here.

Is Michael freaking out now? His rapid foot tapping and gradual disconnect from tangible space is a huge sign that means yes, but logically, he shouldn’t be. He’s known he’s liked Jeremy for the longest goddamn time and the only thing that’s different now is one measly little word. Literally everything else about the situation is the same. Michael still won’t say anything and just keep trucking on lest Jeremy say something first, the end. Nothing has changed except for one word.

That can’t possibly be that big of a deal. It can’t be and it’s not.

But Michael’s brain stubbornly doesn’t want to accept this. All it wants to do is make Michael feel many confusing things he can’t even begin the parse out. Desperately, he wishes his brain could be normal for maybe like ten minutes so that he can at least drive home and have this needless ordeal not surrounded by the stale air of capitalism with an apathetic employee a few meters away, but alas, Michael’s brain never listens to him. Neither can his heart, apparently, but he’d made peace with that a long time ago.

Or he thought he did.

“There’s nothing wrong,” he tells himself, probably just looking like a real piece of work murmuring to the condoms. Michael shuts his eyes and tries to take deep breaths, but the moment he does, all he can see is Jeremy’s stupid goddamn smile or how the corners of his eyes crinkle when he laughs. Standard Jeremy material to swoon over, but Michael’s chest feels tighter. “C’mon, there is nothing fucking wrong, what the hell? What the hell?”

“Are you like, okay?” Somebody says loud enough for Michael to hear past his music and his descent into another plane of existence made from unease. He opens his eyes to see the girl who usually gives him his slushies looking at him worriedly.

“Absolutely not,” Michael blurts, pulling his headphones down and wincing. “I mean. Yeah. Sure. Sorry, I’ll buy something, swear. After—After this thing I’m having. In my brain.” Great job, Michael.

“Oh-kaaayyy,” She says slowly, miraculously not too put off by this. “Do you have like, a friend to talk to or something? You look like you’re gonna die.”

“Yes,” Michael agrees about the whole dying bit, only catching up to the first thing she said a second later. “Yes. I will. I will talk to somebody. Right now.” He takes a few steps back, making a show of fishing his phone from his pocket. “Thanks for the concern, dude.”

Appeased or perhaps just so weirded out she decides she doesn’t want to deal with Michael anymore, she nods, making her way back to the cashier while Michael tries to keep smiling til she’s out of view. Once she is, he slumps against the wall, shakily swiping his phone open to go and talk to somebody anyway. If Michael yelling at himself to calm the hell down isn’t working, the next plan of attack is to find somebody else to do it for him.

This is how he ends up tapping a message out on his phone for Christine, barely even looking over what it is he’s saying. All he knows is that Christine is a great friend and she’s smart and she’ll totally be sympathetic and she’ll tell him everything will be fine. Michael will ramble and then he’ll ask Christine to talk about how her life is going, how her cacti terrarium is coming along or how she’s thinking of getting a streak in her hair like Jenna, and he’ll lose himself in her world. And everything will be fine.

Michael hits send the same moment he realizes he did not send his message to chrisamonroll.

To CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

waddup im having a crisis whats new

FUCK wrong send

my bad dude

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

CRISIS? WHAT IS THE CRISIS MICHAEL

I’LL PUNCH IT IN THE FACE

with my fist

that just also happens to be holding a knife if you want this to escalate into murder


Oh, Rich. Against all odds, reading the messages brings a small smile to his face even as he types his way out of this corner he backed himself into.

To CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

nothing it’s fine omfg

that was for christine but your names are like right next to each other

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

my name starts with an R?

To CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

do really u think im some kind of square who actually saves contacts as ur real name

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

true

now im curious though

what is my contact name?

and what is the crisis??

To CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

both are unimportant

so you can forget this all happened

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

fiiiiiiiine


Michael was in the process of typing some sort of exit message, but the rest of Rich’s messages come in before he can finish it.

but youre okay right?

you dont have to tell me jackshit but youre alright?

tho if you arent thats mega chill too just lemme know how to help

if you want any that is

Michael’s fingers hesitate, goddamn it, Rich. The swirl of his emotions mixed in with his need to share it with anybody is clouding his reason. Very quickly, he runs the pros and cons of caving and just rambling to Rich instead of Christine. Pros, he’s never done it before so it’ll at least be marginally less annoying for him and Christine can finally catch a break. Cons, literally everything else.

Rich is a great bro but he’s a whole lot more blunt and would not pull his punches with Michael. Everything will not be fine, if he tells Rich. But hell, after all the running and hiding he’s been doing, maybe what Michael needs is five feet and five inches of Hold The Fuck Up.

Or maybe Michael just wants to talk and he’s spending too much time justifying this all. He’s spacing out a 7/11. He should just accept that this is absurd just because that’s life.

In his hand, his phone keeps vibrating.

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

if not then that is a-okay

hurry up and reply because im losing all my sappy points

i need those for the rest of the year

did my awesome yet probably uncharacteristic show of kindness KILL YOU

it better not have because then jeremy would kill ME

ooohhhhhh

ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh fuck this is a jeremy crisis aint it

NOT THAT IT’S ANY OF MY BUSINESS

again. jackshit.

shit. of jack.

MICYCLE MELL PLS REPLY

To CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

i thought i was a double texter holy shit

micycle mell???????????????

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

oh hey nice yo so u alright or what

To CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

im actually Not

but uhhh dont worry cuz it’s not Serious

it’s just Weird

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

three strikes of weird capitalization and you’re OUT

To CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

can i call you?

From CANYOUTAKECLEARERPICTURESOFOURLABREPORTS???

OH MAN IT’S GOING DOWN

i mean yes you can call i’d love to be a shoulder to rant on

my shoulders were made for this

“Jesus Christ,” Michael laughs, and it’s not the I’m losing control of my life laugh that he was afraid of. It’s just an Oh, Rich, kind of laugh. The needless crisis is still thrumming annoyingly in his thoughts, but as he taps on Rich’s number to call him, he’s starting to think he at least won’t die here.

“Good morning, sweet prince,” Rich picks up the phone.

“Morning, dude. I uh—” Michael says because he doesn’t know what else to say right now. Does he just get to it? With Christine, he can just make an inhuman screech and she’d know what was going on. Rich is going to need a bit more than that. “I appreciate this.”

“No problem, but I literally haven’t even done anything yet.” Rich snorts. Sometimes Michael can’t believe this is the same guy who tripped Michael in the halls in sophomore year. “I am so ready to lend an ear. Or two, because I have two ears. What is the crisis, lay it on me, Michael. What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a happening.”

“Why did you say that in a tune?” Michael blinks.

“It’s a song. Christine’s been getting me into musicals,” he says. “Not the point. Crisis.”

“Right, right, yeah. I just, uh. I don’t know where to start. It’s stupid and complicated but not really and—”

“Just start where it makes sense,” Rich interrupts him. God, where could that be? At fourteen, young and dumb and under the assumption that this crush on his only friend would be gone in a month? At sixteen, losers united with Michael resigned to sigh forever at hopeful nevers that won’t come true? At seventeen in a bathroom, or Jeremy’s bed, or by the cursed claw machine, revelations upon revelations stacking up against the longing that lives in his chest? Michael makes a pained noise and Rich just laughs, the bastard. “Okay, or if nothing makes sense just. I don’t know, man. Say the crux of what’s getting you in a tizz? Do an interpretive dance? Yodel? Write a boo—”

“I love Jeremy,” Michael says mostly just to stop Rich before he gives Michael even more ridiculous suggestions but also because those three words encapsulate his main problem. “I’m spacing out at a 7/11 because I love Jeremy.”

“Oh, okay,” Rich tells him nonchalantly. A part of Michael’s brain wants to scream because how the hell can he be so calm about that when Michael’s world feels as garbled as it does? “Is that it?”

“What do you mean, is that it?”

“I dunno, I thought you knew this already? You told me you liked him a week ago when you were having your other crisis where you thought he might like you back, remember?,” Rich explains. “I mean, you seem kinda freaked out about it now, so, uh. What happened? Was Jeremy extra cute, or something? Oh, by the way, is the guy okay? He looked fucking rough yesterday.”

“He’s okay.” Michael assures him. “If he isn’t, he’s getting there,”

“Good, good. I worry about that nerd a lot.”

“Says the nerd.”

“Back to the topic at hand,” Rich says. “What’s up with freaking out about Jeremy?”

“It’s stupid. Really, really stupid,” he groans.

“Hey, instead of putting yourself down why don’t you just like, talk about it, dude.” Rich tells him bluntly.

“Okay,” Michael takes a breath. “Okay. Nothing’s changed but everything’s changed, I guess.”

“That’s some deep shit.”

“Fuck you. I’m trying to make the words work in my head,” Michael pinches the bridge of his nose while Rich snickers. He takes a moment to silently stare at the rack of magazines before diving into the whirlwind of emotions in his mind. “I—I love Jeremy.” He says. ”I’ve always loved the guy. I mean, he’s my best friend, y’know? But I also knew that I had non-friend feelings for him and I’ve known that for a while, but I didn’t like thinking about it much, duh, because that’s just masochistic. And I guess now with everything that’s happened, with Jeremy and I patching things up and with him maybe acting like he might feel something in return is making me weird and dumber than usual and. And—”

Michael is rambling, his train of thought lost completely in the torrent of things he wishes he could say. Rich doesn’t say anything, and he can’t tell if that’s kind or cruel. Michael runs a hand through his hair. “And my point is that I love him I kind of really only figured out how deep it ran last night. I don’t just have feelings for him. I don’t just like him. I love him and that’s stupid, right? Nothing’s changed but one word, just one stupid word, and that means nothing but it means everything and now I’m having the delayed reaction to all of this right here right now staring at this goddamn health and wellness magazine and—”

“Okay,” Rich cuts in and Michael is very relieved that he has an excuse to shut up especially since his words were starting to reach Jeremy levels of fast. “Wow, so, this sure is—This sure is something, huh?” He says. Michael can’t see him, but he can hear the grin in Rich’s voice. “Geez, Michael, buddy, I don’t know where to start.”

“Thanks,” Michael grumbles.

“Agh, don’t take that the wrong way, man,” Rich amends. “I just should’ve been taking notes, or something. Do you want advice or did you just want to get that off your chest?”

“Neither? Both? God, I don’t know. Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize for, dude. You’ve evidently been going through a lot of mental turmoil,” he says. Tired of standing still and tapping his foot, Michael starts walking through the aisles while Rich continues to speak. “I can ask you some shit, because first, I’m actually pretty curious about some of this stuff and second, it’ll let you talk some more. Just tell me to fuck off whenever, and I’ll tell you about atrocities I’ve witnessed at Jake’s chess club instead. That good with you?”

“Yeah, sure,” Michael says. He’s probably way overdue for so much emotional externalization. “Hit me.”

“Why are you freaking out about this?”

Michael doesn’t stop walking. He decides to multitask, actually going to get the snacks he came here for in the first place while he rattles off an answer into his phone. “I dunno. It feels like a big thing. Big L word, right? God, I’m seventeen, what the fuck do I know about love?”

“I’m definitely no expert on this,” Rich says, voice a little wistful. “But I think you might know enough to know what you’re feeling. I mean, you kinda helped save Jeremy’s life from an evil computer. That’s love, bitch.”

“Anybody would d—”

“Michael, I was there at the hospital the entire time you were waiting for Jeremy to wake up,” Rich tells him, shutting Michael up. “You wouldn’t talk to me and I couldn’t move for a while, so all I ended up doing was watch your sorry ass longingly gaze upon sleeping beauty. That looked like love, bitch.”

“You’re the weirdest pep talk I’ve ever recieved,” Michael says honestly, grabbing a couple of candies.

“Damn right, I should be. Next question, and I think you’ll like this one,” Rich tells him excitedly. “What do you love about Jeremy?”

Michael drops a pack of gummy worms. “Nope. Not allowed. Absolutely illegal. I’m skipping this turn.”

“Come on! Use this opportunity to moon over Jeremy like you’ve always wanted to!”

“I cannot,” Michael says, bending down to fetch his snack from the floor. “possibly tell you everything I love about Jeremy without making this call last at least an hour.”

“Awwww,” Rich croons. “Be still my beating meat.”

Michael drops the gummy worms again. “Oh my god.”

“The heart’s a muscle, so it counts.” Rich explains. “But really? You really don’t wanna go into detail with everything you love about Jeremy? I figured it might help you unpack why you think this whole love business is so heavy and complicated when maybe it might just be simple.”

“Goddamnit, that actually makes sense,” Michael sighs, clenching his gummy worms. “What, you want the extensive lineup? I love his smile and the sound of his dumb wheezy laugh. I love how he gets when he’s happy and excited. I love how he, god, I don’t know, tries so fucking hard to be better but I hate how he does it because he thinks he isn’t enough.” Each thing he says feels cathartic but Michael is also slowly getting horrified that all of this is tumbling out of his mouth. “I love how he’s passionate and has a heart too big for his own good. I love how he’ll probably end up with five kids and three cats in the future. I love—I’m just going to keep on going, Rich. I wasn’t exaggerating, I could go on for a while. Please, stop me. I’m begging you.”

“You know, I’m no romantic, like. I’d be chill with getting proposed to with a slice of pizza at the back of a dumpster,” Rich says, sounding a little bit like he’s about to cry. “But that’s some of the gayest goddamn shit I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“You literally asked for it.”

“And I’m glad I did. How’s your crisis?”

Michael thinks that over. He’s a bit more calm now. He doesn’t feel like he’s two seconds away from astral projecting into a universe where feelings don’t exist, so there’s been an improvement, he figures. The tightness in his chest is still there, but really, is that ever going to go away? “Better, I guess, now that I talked about it a bit. It’s not all okay, but that’s fine. Thanks, for this, by the way.”

“No problemo, Mell, but I’ve got a controversial little opinion for you. Are you ready for this?” Michael makes an affirmative sound, so Rich says, “You should tell this shit to Jeremy.”

“You know I can’t do that,” Michael rolls his eyes, debating whether or not he should get chocolate milk or something fizzy. “That’s old news. I can’t tell him. I ran this through you a week ago.”

“Exactly. A week ago.”

“Okay?”

“A week ago,” Rich continues, sounding awfully smug. “You didn’t have this grand love-y revelation, yeah? Everything’s changed now, yeeaaah? You should totally tell him.”

“Me realizing this stuff actually means I should tell him even less, god.” Michael chooses the milk. “This is—”

“Okay, sorry to interrupt, but I just need to ask you one last thing before you dig yourself even deeper in your fun hole of silent emotions forever,” he says. “It’s a little similar to the last thing, but I think the difference will drive my point home.”

“Go for it, dude.” Michael places his snacks down on the nearest surface lest he drop them again.

“Awesome,” Rich says. “Why do you love Jeremy?”

Michael inhales sharply, “What?”

“Why?” He repeats. “Simple enough, right? Why do you love him?”

“I—” Michael says. Why. Why, why why. “I love him because—because I do. Because I always have.”

“So you just don’t know how to not love him? Is the Michael Mell experience just automatically loving Jeremy Heere?”

“No,” Michael says slowly. He doesn’t know how, but Rich’s words are rummaging through the boxes of shut away feelings in Michael’s brain, airing everything out mercilessly. “No, there’s nothing about loving Jeremy that’s automatic. Loving him is difficult and messy but people don’t love other people because it’s easy.” Michael explains, memories running past days of being ignored. Mind skimming through a dark moment of cold eyes and cold porcelain and even colder words clanging around while music thumped in the background. “It isn’t easy. It isn’t. But people do it because against all fuckin’ odds, they want to. I want to. I—” Michael takes a shaky breath. “I love him because he’s Jeremy. He’s the best person I know and I’ll make the choice to love that incredible goddamn weirdo each and every single time.”

“Now, see,” Rich says after a beat of silence. Michael feels like he’s been wrung out. “Again, I’m no expert on love, but. But if somebody loved me like that, I think I’d want to know.”

“What if—”

“Whatever happens after, happens after,” Rich trucks on. “But I think Jeremy would want to know this. Wouldn’t you, if somebody loved you like that? If, oh, hypothetically, Jeremy did?”

Of course he would. More than anything, he’d want to know, but fear is just such a safe blanket to hide under. “What if this makes things weird? What if he hates me? What if this messes up everything?”

“What if none of that happens?” Rich counters.”What if it’s just one dude telling another another dude something true, you know, what you and Jeremy do all the time anyway?”

“But—”

“Spoken things are a whole lot easier to deal with than unspoken things,” he says, jesus.

“Rich,” Michael rasps. He doesn’t know what to say, but his mind is curiously not as messy as it was before. There’s a painful clarity now. None of the circular reasoning and roundabout excuses. Now, there’s just a quiet yet resounding oh. Fear is safe, but Rich is right. “Rich, oh my god.”

“You okay? You sound like you’re dying.”

“I’m at a 7/11 staring at the spinny hotdog grill thingy that never has any hotdogs in it and you just sucker punched honesty into all my repressed emotions,” Michael tells him.

“The thingy is called a rotisserie, Michael. Get it right”

You’re a rotisserie, fuck off,” he says and Rich laughs. “But, uh. Dying aside, I think I needed this.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Michael says. “Really. Thank you. You’re uh. You’re a really great friend.”

“Oh, wow, Michael. Be still my—”

“Do not,” Michael says over Rich’s raucous laughter. “Let me be sappy. Thank you, Rich.”

“You’re welcome,” Rich says, sounding very proud of himself. “Anyway, I hate to cut this short because I really wanted to tell you about the chess club, but I’ve gotta go. And I think you’ve gotta like, fucking buy something if you’ve actually been in 7/11 this entire time.”

“You can tell me about it later, dude. Least I can do in return for talking your ear off.”

“Rad,” he says. “Talk to you later, loverboy.”

“Later, Rich,” and Michael hangs up.

Michael takes a breath. Then another. Then another. The stale air doesn’t feel as harsh as it did when he entered. The world doesn’t feel as confusing as it was earlier. In his head, it’s the same words that caused this whole ordeal anyway, but for the first time in a while, he isn’t as scared of them.

He loves Jeremy.

Jeremy would want to know this. Wouldn’t you?

“Hey,” the girl at the cashier says when he’s paying for his crisis gummy worms and carton of milk. Michael realizes that she probably heard his half of that entire phone call. “Uh.”

“Sorry about all that,” Michael murmurs, reaching behind his head to pull his hood up, but before he can, the girl just shrugs.

“Nah, it’s cool,” she hands him a his snacks in a bag. “Just. Well. Good luck.”

“Oh,” he says. “Thanks.”

“Rock on,” she says.

Michael walks out of the store, snacks in hand, thoughts clear, feeling just a just little bit braver than he’s ever felt before. It’s okay to be scared, and Michael is an expert at waiting and holding back, but he thinks it’s probably time.

Jeremy would want to know.

And Michael really wants to know what he’d say back.

-

Michael makes another flowchart because Michael is the type of person who sometimes needs some extra help to function like a human being. There’s no shame in that. Plus, it’s a nice bookend to begin his Jeremy related feelings with one flowchart walking him through how he’d get over everything and to end (one way or another) with another flowchart about how he’s going to tell Jeremy.

It’s divided into three main parts: before, during, and after. The before focuses on finding a nice time to tell Jeremy. It doesn’t have to be the perfect moment, but he really wants it to just be the two of them perhaps where nobody else can hear or see them. He’d also like it if there was no time pressure, like a next class to run to or a Mr. Heere to come home and watch out for, so that if they need to, they can have time to talk it out. Of course, should finding the perfect moment fail too many times, the flowchart continues with a fun bubble that says “FUCK IT, MOVING ON”.

The during portion is, for the lack of a better word, a mess. Michael can’t just tell Jeremy “I love you” because Jeremy’s brain could string that into so many different interpretations, none of them being the one Michael means. So he has to do a lot of explaining before getting to his point. He has to make sure Jeremy will actually believe him in the way he wants to be believed in when Michael tells him he loves him, and the flowchart goes through various ways of how to do that based on Jeremy’s facial expressions and, for some reason, the weather.

The after portion is simple. When Michael was drafting this bit, he thought of a lot of outcomes spanning from awkward acceptance to a really weird and depressing scenario involving a surprise bear attack. He trashed that draft, narrowing all outcomes down into three categories: Reciprocation, Rejection, and It’s Complicated. The third category was created because if anybody could complicate something as seemingly straightforward as being loved, it’d be Jeremy Heere.

Armed with a guide that goes through most of the probable situations, Michael faces the new week with a plan and an end in sight. Unfortunately, the week is busy with tests or meddling friends who keep unknowingly butting in every moment he and Jeremy are alone while Rich makes “well, what can ya do?” shrugging gestures in the background.

Jeremy’s week is packed with hanging out with the others, and Michael’s is too because while they’re best friends, he’s really glad they’re learning how to exist more when the other isn’t there without being afraid. Though after each day, Michael frustratedly inches closer and closer to “FUCK IT, MOVING ON.” Thankfully, Jeremy saves him from settling when he asks if Michael wants to watch a movie with him.

“Cool, who else is going?” Michael asks over his lunch.

Jeremy scratches the back of his head, “Uh, nobody. I was thinking, just the two of us? It’s just been a while since—”

Yes,” Michael answers enthusiastically. Loudly. The conversation of their lunch table goes silent, and Michael glares at the rest of their friends and their expressions of amusement, just daring them to say anything. “Yeah, Jer, that’d be awesome.”

So that weekend, Michael does his thing. He drives up to Jeremy’s place and beeps obnoxiously, though this time he’s got a good beat going to it. Michael sees a pencil get hurled out of Jeremy’s bedroom window, probably meant as a projectile, but it just ends up rolling off the roof and into the gutter. Jeremy flips him off the moment he climbs into the passenger seat.

The movie is not fantastic and Michael is ecstatic it sucks because that means he and Jeremy spend most of the time quietly heckling it in the dark like the assholes they both truly are, trying hard to keep their laughter down before they get kicked out.

They’re back in his car, driving to Michael’s place where they’ll continue the day being dicks, when out of nowhere, Jeremy stops mid-sentence.

Stop the car,” Jeremy says. He doesn’t grab Michael’s arm or anything, but the absolute urgency in his voice nearly has Michael swerving.

“Agh! What, why? Who the fuck is dying?” Michael switches on his hazard lights and slows to a stop at the side of the road.

“Oh, shit. Sorry, it’s nothing serious,” Jeremy says, a lot less like they’re getting tailed by an axe murderer. “I just saw a drive through and I want fries. And a sundae.”

“A sundae, Jer, it is forty eight degrees right now.”

“I’m not a coward.” Jeremy deadpans.

Which is how they end up sitting in Michael’s car in the parking lot of a fast food joint. Upon Jeremy’s request, Michael’s phone is plugged into the stereo blasting the eclectic collection of songs he’s found on Spotify, jumping from instrumentals to bubbly remixes to gongs, for some reason. Jeremy’s being the weirdo he is, dipping his fries into his sundae before popping them into his mouth while Michael obnoxiously sips his soda and gnaws at his straw. After Jeremy’s done explaining for the nth time why fries and ice cream belong together, Michael tells him about the chess club, much to Jeremy’s delight.

“And then Emily, and I don’t know who the fuck that is but Rich assures me she’s real and exists in our chem class sometimes, she just. Grabs the rook and hurls it like a bullet two inches past Jake’s face.”

“Fuck,” Jeremy says, around the fry in his mouth. “Why does the chess club sound like it could have fatalities?”

“I’m ninety percent sure somebody’s already died but the chess club just expertly hid all the evidence,” Michael chews on his straw, grinning when Jeremy laughs.

The heater in Michael's car is trying its best, but Jeremy’s ears are still a little flushed from the cold. Jeremy’s head is bobbing slightly to the music playing as he dips another fry into his sundae. Jeremy has a little smile on his face and Michael knows he’s probably got one to match. Today was great and happy and they’re together. And. And—

“Hey,” Michael says. “Can I tell you something?”

The song fades out and a Spotify ad plays.

“Dude, you’ve gotta get premium already,” Jeremy talks over ad, looking over to Michael. “Sorry, what did you say?”

If this had happened a few weeks ago, Michael would’ve easily gone for the out, shrugging it off before defending his irrational sentimental attachment to Spotify ads. But, god, he’s so done with running.

“Uh, I asked if I could tell you something.” Michael says, jamming his soda into the cup holder.

Sensing the change in mood, the smile falls off of Jeremy’s face. “Of course,” Jeremy nods, setting aside his food. “Of course you can. Because best friends, remember?”

“Yeah,” Michael smiles, looking down at his hands. “Because best friends.”

Neither of them say anything as Michael grabs his phone, turning the volume down just enough to be able to talk over comfortably but still loud enough to hear. He’s about to open his flowchart next, but now that he’s in the moment, the thought seems ridiculous. His flowchart obviously didn’t take into account just how nerve wracking this would be.

The ad ends. The first few notes of a new song begin, guitar loud yet soft at the same time.

“Michael?” Jeremy says, voice gentle. Michael puts his phone down, wrenching his gaze to Jeremy instead. Jeremy whose eyebrows are scrunched just that tiniest bit, confused. Concerned.

“Yeah, sorry. I’m just,” he laughs, running a his hand through his hair so that maybe Jeremy won’t notice that it’s shaking. “I made a flowchart.”

Jeremy blinks. “A flowchart?”

“Yeah like. This thing I wanna tell you is so complicated that I planned it out because why not? It had different colors and bullet points and everything,” Michael explains, happy to see Jeremy quirk a disbelieving smile at his penchant for visual organizers. “But, I dunno. Reading it out from my phone feels cheap, so I’m just going to wing this”

“And, uh, what is this?” Jeremy asks, his eyes nervous but not breaking contact.

“I’m getting to that. I just have—God. Okay. Let’s do this,” Michael steels himself, starting where he thinks might be good. “Do you remember when I got a skateboard for my birthday and we dicked around on it for days?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy nods, looking a little wistful as if reminiscing on the days of knee scrapes and summer. “Yeah, that was fun. Where’d that thing go?”

“Away? Stolen by raccoons? I dunno,” Michael shrugs. Ugh, focus, Michael. “But uh. That was really fun. And I think it’s the earliest moment I can think of where I first thought—where I first felt—this.”

“What—”

“Just hear me out,” Michael says, giving in a little bit to the cowardice inside of him, looking away. Michael stares at his own fingers gripping the steering wheel tight. “It’ll make sense in the end, just hear me out.”

“Okay,” Jeremy says, and there’s a twinge of something in his voice that Michael wishes he could understand.

“Okay,” he repeats. It’s now or never. “So that day was the first time I thought about this. Of course, back then, I didn’t really think too much of it. I was like ‘oh, this is normal, this happens all the time, right?’ and I went on with my life with you at my side. Then I just kept going on with my life and this never stopped. Not at fifteen, or sixteen, or when I thought the Michael and Jeremy team was over. I kept feeling this because I wanted to, even when things got hard. I feel this—” Michael smiles, probably looking like he’s fraying at the edges. “Because you’re you, Jeremy.”

Michael’s stereo keeps playing softly.'Di ka ba nagtataka kung bakit ngyayari 'to? 'Di ka ba nagtataka kung bakit nandito tayo? Pwede bang pakinggan mo awit ng puso mo?

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jeremy laughs, and Michael can’t help but turn to him and—Jeremy’s looking at Michael. He’s looking at Michael with hopeful eyes and a small crooked grin.

“It means you’re you,” he says. He’s surprised the words actually come out. He’s surprised he can say anything at all when Jeremy’s looking at him like maybe, he knows exactly what Michael is trying to say. “It means you’re Jeremy Heere who likes thumbholes and marbles and the color blue. You’re the dweeb who always double knots his shoelaces. You’re the kid who threw a broccoli out the window when I didn’t want to eat it. You’re the guy who cares so much all the time. You’re—”

“Michael,” Jeremy says, voice wavering. Michael is having trouble breathing.

“Yeah?” He manages to get out.

“I really hope I’m not reading this wrong,” Jeremy mutters to himself. How Michael hears this past the pounding of his heart and the soft croon of music, he has no idea. Jeremy scooches forward, leaning over the gear shift, face so close Michael can feel his breath against his cheek. Jeremy slowly raises his hand, slow enough for Michael to see and shy away from, but he stands his ground, because he’s having trouble believing that this is real life. Because he wants to be close to Jeremy.

“Michael,” Jeremy says, placing his hand on Michael’s neck, his thumb oh so close to Michael’s lips. “Don’t move. I’m gonna do a thing. Punch me if you want me stop.”

“I—” Michael’s says. His voice is failing him. The cogs in his brain are slow, but they’re turning, and he can put two and two together. He can’t believe it, but this is real. He can hear the faint rattle of his car’s engine. He can see the gloomy, cold scenery from the corner of his eye. He can feel Jeremy’s hand on his face, thumb tracing up and down his cheek, holding Michael as if he’s something precious. “I really don’t think I’m going to do that.”

“That’s good,” Jeremy laughs and god, he looks beautiful.

Bahala na ang tadhana—

Jeremy shuts his eyes, leans in, bridging that last inch, and presses his lips against Michael’s. Michael doesn’t know what to do but to submit to the overwhelming pounding in his ears, to the static under his skin, the warmth in his chest. He brings a hand to hold Jeremy’s wrist, solid and real because this is happening. This is happening and Michael’s always been a sucker for romance. He’s heard first kisses be described like fireworks, but that isn’t really accurate at all. Jeremy’s lips are soft against his, a little cold from his sundae. The hand on his face is trembling, and that’s fine because Michael is sure his is too. This angle isn’t the greatest, and Michael is pretty sure the stick shift is stabbing Jeremy, but he can barely care.

The press of Jeremy’s lips, just this solid weight that’s real, does not feel like fireworks. It feels like the answer to all the things he’s been shoving aside in his heart, It feels like happy sleepovers or blowing out candles. It feels like Jeremy, unsure and hesitant but so many more good things Michael can’t even begin to name.

And then Jeremy is pulling away. And then Michael can’t take any more of this.

“I love you,” he says. Jeremy’s eyes open, shocked and bright. He looks at Michael and Michael never wants him to look away. “That’s what this is. What I’ve been trying to say. I love you. I’m in love you. I love you.”

“Holy shit,” Jeremy says, and it’s such a fucking Jeremy thing to say at the moment that Michael let’s out an incredulous bark of laughter.

“You sure do have a way with words, huh?” he teases.

“Shut up,” Jeremy takes hold of Michael’s collar, the hand on Michael’s face travelling down to rest on his shoulder instead, as if Jeremy is grounding himself. “Holy shit.”

“I love you,” Michael repeats his brain is a mess and his heart only knows those three words. But Jeremy is silent, eyes cast downward, so he urges himself to find more. “I love you, but if you don’t that’s—that’s okay. I just needed to tell you because you deserved to know and—”

“Shut up, oh my god. I literally just kissed you,” Jeremy says, and while Michael is over the moon, he knows Jeremy isn’t done yet. “But. I don’t know. Fuck, I don’t know.”

“Hey,” Michael’s gut goes cold, but that’s not important. Jeremy sounds so fucking sad, so he takes hold of one of Jeremy’s hands, stroking over his knuckles soothingly. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know how to do this,” Jeremy lifts his head. He smiles, too sharp and sad, eyes a little wet, and says, “I don’t know how to—how to do things right. You of all people should know this, and you of all people should know how bad things get when I mess up. I will mess up, and I don’t—I can’t do that. Not to you. Not with this.”

Michael loves this idiot. Simply, he says, “I don’t care.”

“Michael—”

“No,” Michael squeezes Jeremy’s hand. “I don’t care. Dude, if I expected you to be perfect with no mess ups whatsoever, we wouldn’t have made it past preschool. You convinced me eating glue was normal. You’ll make mistakes, and in case you haven’t noticed, I will too. But I don’t care.”

“This is different. This isn’t—” Jeremy sighs, intertwining his fingers with Michael’s. For all that he’s trying to convince Michael this is a bad idea, he doesn’t pull away. He looks at their joined hands like somebody who yearns and wants so badly, and Michael had no idea how it looked from the outside looking in. “I didn’t even know, until after the SQUIP fucking erased you. I didn’t even know until you were so far away and all I wanted was for you to be back. I didn’t know, until I did, and even then, even now, just because my feelings say one thing doesn’t mean I can actually be good at—at this. Michael, you say you love me, but I don’t know the first fucking thing about loving somebody right.”

“But do you?” Michael asks. Maybe he’s being unfair, because it’s a heavy question, but Jeremy technically hasn’t given him an answer yet and he’s tired of things being left unsaid. So he looks at Jeremy, the messy, incredible, fantastic boy he’s decided to love, and he asks “Jeremy, do you love me?”

“For fuck’s sake,” Jeremy says. “Yes. Yes. Michael, I love you.”

And Michael is the one who starts this time. He’s a little excited and maybe goes in too fast, but he pulls back. He slides his lips against Jeremy’s, hesitating because Michael’s got no idea what he’s doing, but Jeremy makes a noise. Jeremy pulls him closer, kisses him deeper. Michael lets his eyes fall closed. He lets Jeremy wash over him. Lets himself get lost in the feeling of it all, grounded only by the soft hand he holds in his own. They kiss and Michael can’t tell how much time has passed. Michael probably wouldn’t notice the end of the world right now. All he knows is Jeremy. Jeremy who loves him.

Michael, for all that he wishes he could go on forever, pulls back first. Breathless and dizzy with possibilities, he leans his forehead against Jeremy’s. For a moment, they don’t say anything. They don’t move. They sit there, holding each other as much as they can.

“If you’re going to reject me, reject me,” Michael says softly. “But don’t do it because you think you have to. Because you think I’m better off. I’m best when I’ve got you.”

“I’m going to be bad at this.” Jeremy tells him.

“I might be too.”

“I don’t know anything about dating.”

“Dude,” Michael says, giddy at the word ‘dating’. Because that’s going to happen. Because Jeremy is going to be his boyfriend. If he’s reading this right, Jeremy already is. “I don’t either. Most of our dates are going to be video games at my place.”

Michael can’t see it, but he feels Jeremy smile in his hands. “Good thing we both love video games then, right?”

“Yeah,” Michael says. “If you wanna give this a try—”

“I do,” Jeremy nods. “I really do.”

“Then let’s just do this like how we do everything else.”

Jeremy pulls back, not far enough that Michael has to let go, but just enough for Jeremy to look at him. Michael takes note of everything; the slight flush to Jeremy’s skin, the ruffled mess Michael’s made of his hair, and the small, dazzling smile on his face. “Like a bunch of idiots?” he says.

“Pretty much,” Michael shrugs, laughing. “But I was thinking more like we’ll figure it out as we’re going. You and I against the world.”

“You and I,” Jeremy nods, and finally, finally, he looks sure of something. Michael can’t believe it, but he’s here. This is happening. Jeremy says, “Sounds good to me.”