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boyf-riends (but more than friends)

Chapter Text

Morning sunlight filtered in through shuttered windows, lighting up an otherwise dull room. The rays of light spilled over furniture and floor and a messy, messy bed. The soft white duvet was wrinkled with the restless sleep of Michael Mell. Michael's warm-toned skin contrasted the stark white of the sheets, looking utterly lovely and inviting. He lay in the middle of the queen-sized bed, shoving his partner to the side.

His partner didn't mind, though.

Jeremy lay on his side, facing Michael. The taller boy studied his player one, unable to stop a small smile from playing across his lips at the sight of him. Michael's dark, messy hair stood in utter defiance to all laws of gravity. His flushed cheek was all squished up against his pillow, which he squeezed rather tightly. A string of drool splayed itself across the fabric. 

Unfortunately, the scene wasn't as peaceful as it might seem. Okay, well, it was now, but it hadn't been the night before. Both boys had stayed up rather late. Michael had been hunched over a large bowl for hours, vomiting every thirty minutes or so (Jeremy had been timing it to see if it would get any better). Jeremy had been cleaning the bowl and Michael's face all night, gently rubbing his lips with a warm washcloth to clear it of excess... chunks. He surveyed his short boyfriend with tired eyes now, remembering the feeling of panic when Michael had first called out to him during supposed sleep.

"Jer..." It'd started with a quiet, pained groan. Jeremy had been completely zonked out at this point. "Jeremy."

He'd awoken with a start, scanning the room around him in alarm. "What? Michael?"

"Jeremy, I'm gonna-- get a bowl," Michael croaked, hunched over in a seated position. The way he clutched his midsection gave Jeremy a funny feeling in his chest. He jumped up from the bed, scrambling across the hardwood flooring in a pair of colorful socks that Michael had picked out for him (they were decorated in alternating sizes of marijuana leaves).

Jeremy barely made it back to the bed in time. 

The rest of the night had been spent just like that, with Michael being carefully stroked and coddled and lovingly kissed in between episodes. Jeremy cradled him as he cried softly from the pain in his stomach. They figured it must be a sort of stomach bug or food poisoning or development of an allergy (which Michael assured Jeremy was normal; he'd seen on Discovery that people his age would often develop allergies to things they'd formerly enjoyed and binged on).

In the present moment, those chaotic hours spent tracing small circles on Michael's back seemed like a dream. The poor darker-skinned boy had only gotten an hour or two of slumber, at most, and Jeremy had pretty much pulled an all nighter, wanting to make sure Michael didn't wake up out of nowhere when he wasn't ready.

Michael let out a long, slow breath. His thick eyelashes fluttered against his cheeks.

Jeremy smiled at his best friend, taking a hand and trailing it across Michael's face. His skin was white hot, a fever clearly present. Jeremy's smile turned into a concerned frown.

"Jesus, Mike," he rasped, voice gravelly in the early morning. "You're burning up."

Michael didn't move. Jeremy sighed. "C'mon, bud. We've gotta get you out of these covers and into something that doesn't smell like puke so I can take you to the doctor."

"Mm," Michael murmured, scooting closer to Jeremy.

"Michael. I'm serious. Get changed."

This time the sleepy boy looked up, a mischievous gleam to his bleary eyes. "That excited to get my clothes off, huh, Heere?"

Jeremy smirked, blushing. "Shut up. Put clothes on."

"Why-y-y-y," Michael groaned, flipping over and pressing his pillow into his face. Jeremy sat up and shifted over so his chin rested on Michael's shoulder.

"Because you're hotter than usual, and we need to fix that," Jeremy said, immediately regretting his choice of words when Michael tilted his head and fixed the boy above him with that trademark goofy grin.

Jeremy rolled his eyes, kissing Michael's feverish temple.

"I don't think I feel up to going," Michael lied. He turned to face Jeremy, giving him serious puppy eyes. Jeremy raised an eyebrow.

"Pwease?" Michael pleaded, pushing out his bottom lip. Jeremy chuckled.

"Are you lying to me, Michael? You know what happens when you lie to me," Jeremy pressed.

Michael broke his sad expression for a moment. He looked genuinely confused.

"When you're a bad boy... you just have to be punished," Jeremy taunted, voice a soft yet sharp velvety tone. Michael smirked.

"I thought you said I could top this time," he said, chuckling. Jeremy laughed.

"Jeez, we're one of those couples," he snorted. 

"That's just how it be sometimes, Jer," Michael said, shrugging like he couldn't do anything about it. "That truly is just how it be."

"Okay, enough stalling though," Jeremy said. "Up. Out. Get at 'em."

"No-o-o-o," Michael whined. "You can't make me. Besides, I really don't feel up to it."

Jeremy still looked skeptical. Michael's arms shot out to defend himself, gesturing wildly. "I swear, I really don't!"

"Oh, really?" Jeremy tested. "So you'd rather go into work today? Check stocks? Tally prices? Oh, and your personal favorite, talk to people?"

Michael processed that, scrunching his nose. "Well-- Okay, when you put it like that--"

Jeremy rolled over to Michael's side of the bed, taking his player one's hands and yanking the warm boy up to a sitting position. Michael sat for a moment, hand resting on his aching stomach, before throwing his legs over the side of the bed.

Both rose from the bed, peeling off their sweaty pajamas and spraying on layers of deodorant, hoping to cover the scent of male B.O. and vomit. Jeremy was the first out the bedroom door, grabbing his keys on the way out. Part of him longed to return to his perfectly comfy spot next to his boyfriend, happy and sleepy and with all the good warm fuzzy feelings. But he knew what needed to be done, and no matter how big of a hassle it was (or how frickin' expensive a single checkup would be), he was going to do it. For Michael's sake. And because he felt that if he didn't act as the adult, his childish partner would never go out and take care of himself alone.

Well, he felt that. And he also knew it for a fact.

But that was partly why he'd fallen so hard for his player one.

---

By the time the boyf-riends returned to their small apartment, it was practically midday. The sun was tipping over to the west, indicating its descent. Jeremy had had to call into work when Michael refused to do so himself. It had been kind of awkward, explaining to one of their employees why they couldn't make it in. The employee, whose name was AJ, understood the situation but was quite miffed. "You couldn't have called in last night, when Michael was puking his guts out?"

Jeremy glanced over at his boyfriend, who was close to passing out in the passenger seat of their bright red vehicle (Jeremy had wanted a nice, sensible color, like black. But Michael just had to have red). 

"Look, AJ, I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but we really thought he'd feel better today, or that I could at least come in. But-- things got complicated. Michael had a fever when we woke up and I can't just leave him at home. He could barely get up to get in the car."

"Yeah," AJ replied lamely, audibly sighing through the phone. Jeremy pictured him running a hand over his face. "Alright. Fine. I'll call Sarah and see if she can fill a shift today as well."

"Dude, you're a lifesaver. I owe you one," Jeremy said, reaching over to hold Michael's hand so he'd stay awake. He didn't want to have to go through the trouble of waking him up again. His player one, thankfully, responded to the hand grab with a weak squeeze.

"Yeah, you do. Don't forget."

"I won't, man, I swear. Thanks again," Jeremy said before tapping the end call button and carefully pulling into the urgent care clinic.

Now, back at their humble abode, Michael didn't look much different than he had in the car. His heavily lidded eyes groggily blinked every so often as he struggled to stay awake. Jeremy had offered him coffee but Michael, uncharacteristically, had refused. Didn't want to further excite his stomach, he said.

Jeremy led his boyfriend into the apartment, holding his arm so he wouldn't just flop over onto the couch. Seeing how tired he was, Jeremy began to leave after tucking Michael in.

Michael, as sick as he was, could barely register the movement. He just knew Jeremy wasn't at his side anymore. His brain felt like a hazy mess, but the one thing it consistently told him was to call for Jeremy. So he did.

"Jer," he called softly. His player two rushed back out from their bedroom. He clung to the doorway with one hand, allowing himself to just hang there.

"Yep?"

"I need you," Michael murmured, quiet and a bit embarrassed.

Jeremy chuckled. "You don't need me. What you need is rest, you barely got two hours in last night. That's bad enough without being sick, pal."

"Please?" Michael pleaded. "I know I'm sick and gross and smelly and so sleepy that it probably won't even matter, but, like... I just want you right now."

He wrinkled his nose at himself, giggling deliriously. "Ew."

Jeremy grinned at him. "Alright, ya big sap. I'll stay."

Michael threw his hands in the air half-heartedly. "Yay-y-y-y-y!"

The taller boy snorted as he left to grab pillows and pour some water in their tea kettle to heat up. Whenever the couple needed to relax or rewind for some reason, they always shared a pot of green tea. Michael would always make the same stupid joke that the two of them just couldn't stay away from green-colored drinks. For some reason it never failed to make Jeremy laugh.

When Jeremy returned to the couch, Michael had already shifted himself over and grabbed an extra blanket. Jeremy set their mugs down on their coffee table, eyeing his boyfriend skeptically.

"I thought you said you were too nauseous to walk by yourself?"

"Well, you know," Michael said with a teasing tone. "Ya gotta do what ya gotta do for your loved ones." He held the soft throw out in front of him, giving Jeremy a sort of challenging look.

Jeremy rolled his eyes playfully, taking it. "Gee, thanks."

The two of them snuggled close, stuffing their pillows on either side of the couch to provide padding if they were to decide to lay down. Michael picked out another one of his Discovery documentaries that he hadn't seen yet.

"How many of these exist?" Jeremy asked him.

"Oh, lots," Michael answered. "We've barely scratched the surface."

"How? We literally only watch these," Jeremy sputtered. "I swear, we've watched at least seventy together since I first met you. There can't be that many left. We've seen, like, all of them."

"Nah," Michael said, flapping his hand at Jeremy. "Only about half."

"Half-- HALF?"

Michael almost spit out his tea.

They snuggled closer, taking in the movie but mostly taking in one another. Michael surprisingly hadn't passed out quite yet. He was fighting it with all his might. He tried to focus on the penguins on the screen, or breathe in the scent of his very favorite person, but everything seemed to make it worse. Especially the tea. The tea had some kind of sleep draught in it, Michael was sure.

Jeremy glanced down at his player one, tucked safely in his arms. Michael's eyes were looking even droopier than before, which was saying something. "Hey."

Michael slowly lifted his head. "Hey," he muttered, smiling sheepishly.

"You still awake?"

"Oh, yeah, WIDE awake," Michael claimed, covering a yawn with his hand.

Jeremy pulled his boyfriend closer. "Alright. If you say so."

"I say so."

"Okay. Then you won't mind if I just maybe..." Jeremy trailed off, leaning his body backwards until his back was set up against the plush arm of their couch (and an impressively high wall of pillows, which sank with his weight). Michael went down with him until his head rested on Jeremy's still rather scrawny chest. His warm body lay in between Jeremy's legs, limbs splayed out across the rest of the couch, his feet propped up on the opposite wall of pillows.

"That's just cruel," Michael giggled while Jeremy slowly lowered his arms to rest on Michael's stomach in a protective manner, hugging him closer. Michael clutched his player two's arms lovingly.

"Well, now you're not even watching the movie," Jeremy teased. "Kinda rude considering you picked it out and made me watch it."

"Hey, that's not fair!" Michael laughed. "You laid down and took me with you."

"Are you trying to argue with me again? You know what happens when you're disobedient," Jeremy taunted. Michael blushed lightly, smirking.

"Dangit, Jer," Michael grumbled.

"What?"

"Now I'm horny," he complained. Jeremy laughed.

"Is that such a bad thing?"

"It is right now!" Michael exclaimed. "I'm sick and I can't do anything with my stupid penis and the rest of my stupid body without puking everywhere."

"Ya know, some people find that hot."

"Kinky," the shorter boy commented.

Jeremy waggled his eyebrows at Michael, who chuckled before setting his head back down on Jeremy's chest. 

"No, but I really am getting sleepy," Michael said. Jeremy nodded, squishing himself further into the mountain of pillows and pulling his boyfriend closer.

"We can just sleep here."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"Are we gonna have to go back to work tomorrow?"

Jeremy contemplated that. "I guess so. I'd feel bad asking AJ to come in again so last-minute."

Michael nodded in somber agreement. "I love our job, but sometimes... sometimes I'd rather just stay home with you."

"Same," Jeremy sighed.

"We could just stay in all day. It could, like, rain and stuff, and the skies would be all cloudy."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. And we'd stay in bed until lunchtime, and then wake up and have breakfast-lunch, like something good like banana pancakes. And we could play on the console... maybe go back and replay Apocalypse of the Damned."

Jeremy chuckled. "We've already beaten it eleven times, babe."

"Well, this could be number twelve! We could set a world record."

"For the biggest losers?"

"I think our lives are already proof enough for an award like that, dude."

"Mm... you're not wrong," Jeremy mused. "But wait, keep telling me about this day where we don't go in and work and stuff.  Sounds pretty friggin' appealing at the moment."

"Okay," Michael said, letting out another yawn. "After we beat the game again, we could build a pillow fort. A huge one that covers the couch and the coffee table and the TV, and... all the other things. And we could make it all cutesy and romantic and put candles under it and stuff. Maybe smoke a blunt or two."

"Michael, I think you're the gayest dude I've ever met."

"You still fell for me, though," Michael shot back.

"Touche," Jeremy admitted. "That's still a fire hazard though. Smoking under a blanket."

"Your face is a fire hazard."

"Because it's so hot?"

"You know it," Michael giggled, Jeremy along with him.

"After we build the fort, though, we could snuggle under it, and maybe..." Michael grinned in spite of himself. "Get a little spicy."

Jeremy laughed, flushing bright red. But not in embarrassment. Just because he was so happy to have someone like Michael.

"I'm definitely down," he said, kissing the top of Michael's head.

His player one turned slightly so his cheek pressed against Jeremy's chest.

"I'm tired now," he whispered. Jeremy chuckled.

"Sure," he nodded, knowing Michael was just using it as an excuse to cuddle closer to Jeremy. "Alright, love. Goodnight."

He pushed his neck forward, pressing a kiss into Michael's soft, messy hair. Wrapping his arms tighter around the smaller boy, Jeremy smiled to himself. 

He was so lucky.

Chapter Text

The clock ticked noisily on the wall, blaring through Michael's ears. The noise bounced around his head like a ball, making him cringe slightly with each point of contact it made with the walls of his mind.

Swallowing roughly, Michael forced his rebellious eyes to look down at the paper resting on the surface of his desk. His vision was still blurry. Michael blinked a couple times to clear whatever film covered his pupils, but it did nothing. He sighed, tapping his pencil against his head. His knee bounced up and down with nerves and hyperactivity. Michael could feel sweat pooling in his underarms and resting atop his forehead. He swiped at it hurriedly.

Almost done. No big deal.

"Five more minutes," the teacher called.

Pencils began to scribble across pristine white paper even faster than before. A kid in the back of the classroom coughed a couple times, and another closer to the front sniffled before returning to her test. Michael's senses were going haywire, picking up every little sound, smell, and hint of movement they could.

Another cough.

A hiccup.

The soft click of a pen becoming as loud as a jackhammer.

The teacher's careful footsteps blended perfectly with the pounding of Michael's heart, which he was certain everyone could hear. How could they not?

Michael's hands shook as he marked down the last few answers to the quiz and slammed his pencil down rather harshly, making everyone in the class (including himself) wince.

A look of exasperation passed behind the teacher's eyes before he smiled tightly, glancing at Michael's paper.

"Mr. Mell," he nodded.

Michael ignored him.

Or rather didn't hear him.

All the sounds, all the things going on, were becoming far too much to handle. His eyes darted around from spot to spot, searching for a still point, something calmer than everything else.

Unfortunately it felt like everything was beginning to move even faster. The walls of the test room itself spun, combining with every twitch and titter of the people within it.

Michael swallowed again.

Almost.

"Time," the teacher called, clicking the screen of his phone once. "Pencils down."

A few students sighed, others immediately returned to chatting with one another. They rose from their seats, slinging their backpacks over their shoulders.

"Class dismissed," the teacher yelled over the voices of his pupils. "Return your papers to my desk as you walk out; you'll get them back on Monday."

Michael was out the door first, running for the bathroom. His heartbeat echoed down the hallways loudly, reverberating off the locker-covered walls. Or maybe it was his footsteps.

Michael didn't know.

He didn't care.

His heart raced and blood pumped. Sweated leaked from every pore of his skin, and his body felt heavier than it ever had, yet lighter than a feather. The walls tilted as Michael stumbled towards the door labeled "Boys." He threw it open.

The deafening roar of high school boys boomed from the doorway, making him tumble backwards. He tripped over his own feet, falling onto his butt.

The force of the impact startled him back to reality yet quickened his heart rate. A hasty glance around him showed students whispering and laughing behind their hands, glancing down at him. Blushing furiously, Michael scrambled to his feet and took off in the opposite direction of the rest rooms.

After turning several corners, the gym's dark doors appeared at the end of the hallway, dark and empty and quiet and just what Michael needed.

The heavy metal doors shut loudly behind him as he rushed to the bleachers, clambering over the cold steps until he was nestled safely behind and underneath them. Michael's heart rate slowed ever so slightly as he took in the familiar sight of the dingy corner. He would come to this spot only rarely, when he was feeling more panicked or nervous than usual. An empty bottle of crystal Pepsi was the only evidence from his last visit.

Still quivering rather violently, Michael struggled to zip open his backpack. He yanked out an old throw with Pokémon all over it and wrapped it around himself, feeling his frustration and anxiety bubble up when he found his feet still uncovered.

When Michael got like this, it only took the tiniest things to send him over the edge.

Gritting his trembling teeth, Michael threw his favorite pair of vintage headphones on with nothing playing in them. Now alone with all of his chaotic (and rather harmful) thoughts, Michael pressed his hands over his ears tighter, curling into the tightest ball he possibly could.

He wished covering his ears would silence the war inside his head. He wished everything, everyone there would just shut up. Leave him alone.

He couldn't stand it.

What had happened to cause him to panic so much?

Surely there was something.

Michael reflected on what'd happened so far that day. He'd woken up like he had for the last two weeks, the same feeling of emptiness in his chest. No big catastrophes, but no miracles either. He went to classes just like always, saw Jeremy for a few minutes, took his anxiety and ADHD meds (not that they were really helping much at the moment). Nothing had really happened that would set him off in such a big way.

Nothing that should have, anyway.

Sure, he hadn't been feeling so hot lately, mentally.

But Michael forced it down. This happened sometimes, and he always bounced back. There was no reason that this instance would be any different. Right?

A pang of guilt followed that thought. Everyone close to him had asked if he was alright, questioned after his wellbeing in some way. And he'd pushed them away. Brushed it off.

Not to say he had many people he was close to.

Just his mothers and Jeremy.

Well, lately... just Jeremy.

And what had he done? After Jeremy had been so thoughtful as to ask what was bothering Michael, the idiot had told him it was nothing. And when Jeremy questioned further, Michael snapped at him. Told him to drop it.

Both boys had been a bit shocked by that.

Normally it was Jeremy being the hot-headed, snappy one. The one you had to walk on eggshells around when he was angry. But in that instance, for perhaps the first time, it was Michael.

Sweet, sensitive, dorky Michael.

In the present moment, Michael felt a few tears build up in his eyes, the volume of them increasing as the pang in his chest from that one little drop of guilt worsened and worsened. It wasn't even a big deal. Why was he making it such a big deal? Why was he crying over it?

Why did Jeremy even hang around him anymore? What was the point? Jeremy had gotten squipped, and that whole situation was awful, but then he got back up from that. And now? He was more popular than ever. Sure, he wasn't as well-known as Jake or Chloe, but even those who didn't really know his name liked him well enough. And Jeremy had found close friends in Christine and Rich and Jenna and Brooke. He didn't really even need Michael anymore.

That thought brought another wave of emotion over Michael. A sob escaped from his quivering mouth. He covered it hastily, tightly.

His fingernails dug into his palms, a nervous habit he had picked up over the years. He felt a warm sensation and saw a flash of red, but could barely take any notice of it.

Jeremy didn't need him anymore.

He didn't need him.

This was just like when the squip was around.

Wasn't it?

What if Jeremy was just pretending to be his friend now? What if he didn't want to be around him anymore and he just did it out of pity, or for old times' sake?

Michael's fingernails dug deeper, just as painful and sharp as the thoughts crowding his mind.

Jeremy didn't need him.

His mothers didn't need him.

No one did.

No one.

No one.

No one.

No one.

The words repeated in his head, over and over.

Who would want him anyway? Getting a panic attack over nothing. Literally nothing. It was just his stupid brain being overactive and attacking its stupid self.

Michael's hands reached for his backpack.

He unzipped it quickly, eyes dry.

Mouth shut tight.

His hands grasped around for a moment before locating the item they were searching for, one of them spreading blood all over the inside of his bag.

Entire body shaking with a slight chill, Michael struggled to open the lid of his anxiety meds. He popped one in his mouth, dry swallowing it like he usually did in emergencies.

His hands gripped the bottle tightly.

He was suddenly very aware of everything around him.

The blanket making contact with the skin of his arms and ankles.

The weight of his bag against his side.

The amount of pills inside that tiny, seemingly innocent orange bottle in his feeble hands.

Time slowed down.

Michael emptied the bottle into the palm of his bloodied left hand, some little white pills escaping and rolling onto the hardwood floor. The shaking boy under the bleachers barely noticed.

He barely saw what he was doing.

He barely felt anything.

He stared down into the pile of small white capsules, some stained a bit red.

They were so harmless.

"Michael?" a voice rang across the gymnasium, familiar and raspy. "Michael, are you in here?"

Michael couldn't move.

"There you are!" Jeremy exclaimed, laying eyes on his best friend. He jogged over to the corner. "Thought I might find you in here."

Michael still didn't move.

"Michael?" Jeremy asked quietly, climbing through the cold metal slats to get closer to the bundled up boy. "What happened? Is everything okay? I mean, obviously it's not, but— are you okay?"

Michael felt the warmth of Jeremy so close to him.

He turned ever so slightly.

Jeremy's eyes went from Michael's scarily pale face to the pile of pills in his shaking, bloodied hands.

That in itself said a lot.

But the pleading look in Michael's eyes said more.

Jeremy drew a shaky breath as he pulled Michael close, leaning over his friend's knees to get to him. Michael melted at his touch, hands losing control and dropping the small white shapes everywhere. The soft clattering of each one hitting the floor was drowned out by Michael's sobs as he shifted himself further into Jeremy's form.

Jeremy turned with his back to the wall, pulling Michael into his lap and wrapping his arms tighter around him. He pulled his legs into a closed circle so they surrounded the small bit of space Michael was taking up. Jeremy cradled his friend's head to his chest, resting his chin on it.

Michael's thoughts slowed for the first time in days, perhaps weeks. He felt a strange warmth in his stomach that he sometimes felt around Jeremy only in close, quiet moments like this. He let himself cry, let himself show his emotions, finally. He was a bit embarrassed and scared to know what Jeremy might think of this meltdown, but couldn't get himself to stop crying long enough to even smile to show Jeremy that there was nothing to worry about.

"Michael," Jeremy whispered. "What's wrong?"

Michael sobbed again.

"Please tell me," Jeremy pleaded, voice cracking with emotion. "I know you, and I know that you'd rather cover all this up with some joke or stupid fact you learned on Discovery, but I'm your best friend. And I want to be here for you."

The sound of sobbing slowed, but the tears only seemed to quicken.

"I love you, man," Jeremy chuckled sadly. "I love you. And I don't fully know what's going on or why you— why you would—" Jeremy cut himself off. He cleared his throat.

"You don't need me anymore," Michael blurted, sniffling.

"I— what?"

Michael buried his head further into Jeremy's chest, not wanting to see the look on his face. "It just feels like you don't need me anymore. You have all these awesome new friends, and I'm so happy for you, but, like— sometimes, I just think—"

It was Michael's turn to trail off.

"You don't need me anymore. And sometimes— sometimes I think you stick around because you feel bad."

"Michael, that is so— I can't even tell you how wrong that is. Dude, I love you."

Michael chuckled half-heartedly. "That's gay."

"Your moms are gay," Jeremy fired back, laughter mixing with the emotions in his voice.

"Yeah," Michael said, pulling back, wiping at his eyes. "They are."

"No, but seriously. I love you. And I have all these new friends, and I'm a little more popular than I used to be, and all that shit. But none of that means anything to me compared to what your friendship means to me." Jeremy took Michael's hand. "What you mean to me."

The two boys smiled tearily at each other.

The tardy bell rang just then, signaling that the boys would be getting into some kind of trouble upon their return to class.

Michael glanced at Jeremy.

Jeremy shook his head, opening his arms again.

Michael couldn't help but smile as he nestled back into Jeremy's hold. The taller boy pulled the Pokémon blanket from around Michael and used it to encompass the both of them. The boys leaned against the wall, letting the warmth from each other's bodies soothe them.

"I love you, Michael."

"I love you too, Jer."

Jeremy only hugged his friend tighter.

Chapter Text

Artificial light blared from the stairway to any passersby of Michael's basement. Before, the only witnesses to the flashing strobes were Michael's mothers, but now, at 3:00 A.M., it was only Michael's fat cat. The fluffy feline slipped through the crack in the door, curious at the sounds of two boys yelling so intensely between long bouts of silence. His soft paws padded down each wooden stair until he reached the bottom.

The owners of the screaming voices turned out to be Michael Mell and his best friend Jeremy Heere. The two of them shouted at the flatscreen TV encompassing the entirety of the nook in the far wall and flashing with rather gory images.

"Left! Zombie, to the left!" Michael called to his friend. Jeremy yelped in response, button-mashing in hopes of his digital weapon landing at least a few hits on the beast. The zombie was knocked back until it fell to the ground and faded to oblivion, suffering an in-game death.

Michael grinned as he finished off another member of the undead. "Nice."

"Is that all?" Jeremy asked, astonished. "Was it just me, or did that level pass by way too quickly?"

"No, it's not just you. I think we're actually improving," Michael replied, equally taken aback.

"Wow," Jeremy said. "Who'da thunk?"

As the screen played the ending victory banner, the two boys high-fived each other enthusiastically. Michael's cat laid beside his bean bag, licking its front paw lazily, giving its owner and his best friend an apathetic side-eye.

"Wanna take on the next level?" Michael asked, flipping through the achievements and levels they'd unlocked from beating that last event.

"I don't know, man," Jeremy replied through a yawn. "I'm starting to feel it."

"Feel what? That icee sugar-high wearing off?" Michael teased. His best friend snorted.

"Yeah, something like that."

"See, I've learned how to handle that crash at the end of the day. When you go to Seven-Eleven as often as ya boi, you figure out a few things. Your body gets used to the mass amounts of sugar getting pumped into it with every sip of that Xtra-large beverage."

Jeremy laughed. "You're fuckin' weird, dude."

Michael shrugged. "I try."

"You succeed."

"Don't worry, young grasshopper," Michael said in a wheezy voice. Jeremy cracked up at his best friend's face, which greatly resembled the one he made when he was stoned. "You'll get there someday, too."

"Yes, sensei," Jeremy bowed.

The taller boy stood up from his bean bag-chair, which had caved around him to form a Jeremy-sized dent. He stretched, yawning again.

"So where'm I sleeping tonight?" he mumbled.

His player one glanced toward the closet behind them. "Well-- Okay, listen, it wasn't my fault, but--"

"I'm-- you're making me sleep in the closet?"

"What? No, no," Michael laughed. "Don't worry, I'm not an ABSOLUTE sociopath. I have some decency at least."

"Michael, where is this going?"

"Okay, well-- you know how I moved rooms n' stuff?"

"Yeah?"

"Right, so-- my mom ordered me a new mattress for my bed frame because my old one was gettin' kinda raggedy, and we just felt it was time. You know how they get, old mattresses, all creaky and smelly and stuff. And that's not even mentioning the stains from food, and from-- well, from other things--"

"Michael, tell me where the hell I'm sleeping."

"The air mattress," Michael sighed.

"Wait-- oh," Jeremy said, confused. "Why were you so afraid to tell me that?"

"I just felt kinda bad," Michael admitted. "Because I know that my mattress was already pretty bad and you're tall and somehow still growing even though you're already a freaking giant, and you have a lot of back pain so I thought this might just make it worse, but--"

"Dude. It's really okay."

"I know it is. I just still wish I could give you something better to sleep on."

"Well, you'll have something when you get your new mattress. Don't worry about it."

"Alright, I'll-- I'll quit."

Jeremy turned from his friend, digging in his duffel for his pajama pants. His mind turned the scene that'd just played over and over, examining it like you would a rubix cube you were trying to solve. Jeremy had one of those at home, on his desk. He wasn't very good at it.

And just like that mind-numbingly frustrating little multi-colored toy, Jeremy couldn't figure out why that interaction between him and Michael was bothering him so much. There was a weird sort of energy within it, a kind of... tension. He'd felt it before, in specific moments, but this one felt especially awkward. Why had Michael been so afraid to bring up the place Jeremy was going to sleep? An air mattress really wasn't that bad.

It had been sweet that he'd remembered what Jeremy had said about his back pain, though.

As Jeremy finished brushing his teeth, he caught a peek at Michael through the doorway of the bathroom. What was different about him? There was definitely something, but Jeremy just couldn't place it.

He watched as Michael changed into his PJs, pulling off his jeans and t-shirt. His lean muscles rippled under his warm-toned skin as he pulled his top off, throwing it to the side. His arms weren't quite toned, but they had a sort of outline to them that gave Jeremy a funny feeling inside. And that shape, the way his broad shoulders led down to his abdomen and formed a smooth V, and further down into his--

Ahem.

Jeremy turned back to the mirror, scraping his toothbrush across his teeth even faster than before.

--

Michael grabbed quilts from a basket in the corner of the den, turning to Jeremy, who'd picked up pillows from Michael's new room upstairs. Michael's cat had taken a spot at the end of the bed, where the air filter that supplied the mattress with its buoyancy was emitting a radiating sort of heat.

Jeremy laid himself down on the air mattress, sighing as he felt the formative material sink under his weight. It wasn't quite the feeling of being at home in his own bed, but it was just what he needed at the end of a long day filled with icees and zombies.

"GERONIMO!"

And with that singular word, Jeremy was launched several feet in the air, the force of Michael's body hitting the air-filled mattress more than enough to send his friend flying.

Jeremy landed back down with a winded "oof," Michael's laughter nearly drowning it out.

"Dude!" Jeremy laughed. "What the hell?"

"You went, like, five feet up!" Michael cackled. Jeremy cracked up right along with him, the tension of their previous moments melting away under a sense of familiarity.

"That was really impressive," Michael said whenever he could breathe again. "We should do it again, and aim for higher."

"We definitely should," Jeremy agreed. "But in the morning."

"Are you really that tired?"

"Yes! We've had a busy day!"

"Mm, I don't know. I think you're just getting to be an old man."

"Oh? And what's your evidence, besides me being exhausted by something that would make any other NORMAL human being also exhausted?"

"The back pain, how you like going to bed early if you're given the choice, how you get cold so easily," Michael listed, counting them off on his fingers. "Shall I go on?"

"Shut up," Jeremy muttered, giggling.

The two of them laughed for a few moments more before realizing just how close they were.

How close their faces were.

They scooted slightly apart. That tension that had departed the space between them for a short time returned just as quickly as it'd arrived, settling uncomfortably. After a good amount of time had passed, Jeremy shifted his weight, folding his arms over his chest. He glanced over at Michael, who'd turned so his back was facing Jeremy.

"Hey, Mike?" Jeremy began quietly.

"Mm?"

"This is gonna sound weird, but-- why were you so scared about the whole mattress thing?"

Jeremy saw Michael's shoulders tighten for just a split second. If it'd been anyone else watching, they would have missed it. But from years of spending time with Mell and getting to know every quality and mannerism he possessed, Jeremy knew what Michael's emotions looked like.

And this one was fear.

And maybe a little bit of dread.

"What do you mean?" Michael asked. He phrased the question to sound like he had absolutely no clue as to what his pal was speaking of. But he knew. And Jeremy knew he knew.

"You seemed kind of-- well, kind of afraid to tell me where I was gonna sleep, even though I could've slept on the ground and been fine. Was there something to that, or...?"

Michael hesitated. "I'm sorry, I don't really know what you're talking about."

"Ah," Jeremy sounded. He knew there was more to it, but didn't push. With this newfound, unexplored tense quality to their relationship, Jeremy wasn't sure how far he could push Michael before the boy would snap, and he didn't want to find out.

The two of them laid there, completely still, as if movement would break the fragile barrier between them. As if a single sound would reveal the elephant in the room that neither of them wanted to address.

"I just-- I remembered what you said about your back pain," Michael murmured.

"And I appreciate that," Jeremy insisted sincerely. "But I've had to sleep on floors and couches plenty of times, or even outside in a tent when we tried camping that one time."

Michael chuckled. "That was a disaster."

"Yeah," Jeremy snorted. He glanced at his player one, who still hadn't turned over or moved in the slightest.

"My question is," he continued, "why was this time so different?"

"Different?"

"Yeah. Like, if I had to sleep in all those less desirable places and ended up completely fine afterwards, and you were a witness to that... why were you so scared about this particular instance?"

"I-- well." Michael stumbled over the words, trying to find the best way to explain what he felt without exposing himself so fully. He was glad his back was to Jeremy. He was certain his bright-red complexion would serve no good purpose as to what Jeremy thought was going on inside his friend's brain.

Michael swallowed the small lump in his throat. "This is gonna sound weird, so... prepare yourself."

"I'm no stranger to weird, dude," Jeremy joked. Michael could hear the smile in his player two's voice, and it gave him a little burst of courage.

"Well-- things have just felt different lately. Between us, I mean."

Jeremy was silent for a while.

"Sorry, that was-- uncalled for," Michael covered up. "I just thought--"

"I've felt it, too."

That made Michael freeze for a moment. "You have?"

"Yeah, it's like... this weird tension, you know? Like, nothing's changed between us recently, right?"

"Right."

"So... why do I feel like I have to be-- I don't know, careful around you?"

"I don't know! But that's exactly how I feel." Michael exhaled forcefully, turning over to face Jeremy. "And I hate it."

"Same."

Neither boy said anything for a while. Jeremy discreetly scooted closer to his friend who, in turn, shifted towards Jeremy. Michael was very aware of the fact that their legs and hips were touching. Jeremy's skin was cooler than his. It felt nice under the too-hot blanket they shared.

Jeremy's voice snapped him out of whatever overly-observant state he'd just been in. "I mean... I kind of know why it might be different now."

"You do?"

"Well, it's just a theory, but--"

"A game theory," Michael blurted in a raspy voice. "Sorry, couldn't help myself. Continue."

Jeremy grinned, laughing softly. "Nah, you're good. I just thought-- well, I don't know. But we've, uh... we've never really talked about what happened."

"What-- oh, you mean--"

"Yeah."

Michael nodded. "Let's talk, then."

Jeremy sighed. "I guess we should start with the, um-- the squip." He could barely let the word form on his lips, the taste of it just as horrible as the thoughts and memories.

Flashes of events played through his mind. Taking the pill, and feeling the immense pain just from it entering his body. He should've realized something was off from that moment alone. He remembered the way the squip would give him a small but jarring electric shock if he were ever to try and masturbate or slouch slightly. The insides of his wrists and the small of his back were marked with stress veins and even scars, in a pattern that resembled that of a computer's wiring. Most people, when they saw it, thought it was a tattoo that Jeremy had gotten, and complimented him on it, asked what had given him the idea. Jeremy always told them that it was a reminder of something.

And it was, in a way.

Jeremy felt a tear stream down his cheek. Which was weird, considering he hadn't even felt slightly emotional before this. To be completely truthful, he hadn't really cried at all since the whole experience had gone down. Too busy trying to get past it.

Michael saw the glint of the tear in the dim lighting, and watched the small droplet trail down his friend's face. His voice was soft. "Jer?"

Jeremy turned his head to face Michael, whose brow was creased with worry. The compassion in Michael's eyes, and the way he, too, looked ready to cry... it only made Jeremy tear up more.

His face scrunched in on itself, the way it does when you're feeling something deep down inside, when the emotions of the moment rise to a surmounting wave, a tide coming in that swamps everything else in your mind and in your heart. Jeremy dove into Michael's arms.

He sobbed with everything he had, the strangled sounds coming from way down deep inside. He sounded broken, alone, like he'd been holding onto this for way too long. Michael's heart broke for his friend. He felt a tear run down his own cheek as he pulled Jeremy closer.

Jeremy's thin body trembled and convulsed with each choked cry. In a way, his own feelings had been choking on themselves for the past few months, holding each other back and generally making Jeremy feel less and less stable. It felt like when you're sick and you know you're going to eventually throw up because the intense, sharp pain in your stomach worsens and worsens with every moment, and you wish it would just get over with so you could feel better. But it just stays inside of you, making you wish every agonizing moment would end right then. Making you wish you didn't have to feel anything at all.

The mattress shook with the taller boy's sobs.

Michael held Jeremy ever closer. He wished he could take the pain away, wished he could feel it instead. Sure, he'd had his fair share of heartbreak during Jeremy's few months of squip usage, and it had been awful. Terrible. Probably the worst thing he'd ever gone through. He thought he was losing his best friend. Thought he'd already lost him.

And he almost had.

"I'm so--so sorry," Jeremy choked out, nose running all over the front of Michael's shirt. He spoke through his sobs, wanting his friend to hear what he'd needed to hear all along.

"I'm s-sorry for everything I p-put you through. You were o-only good to me and I just-- I just threw it away-ay."

"Jeremy, it's okay," Michael insisted, crying almost as much as his friend.

"N-no, it's not! I hurt you. I hurt eh-everyone. It was all m-my fault..." His voice trailed off through another string of hacking cries, the trauma of everything raging through his body.

"It's really okay, Jeremy, please just--"

"Stop! Stop saying it's okay, because what I did was not oh-okay. I hurt every person that meant anything to m-me. I drove them away, and that's what I deserve. I deserve to be alone, I d-deserve..." Jeremy choked on his tears, not able to get the words out. "I don't deserve you, M-Michael. I'm so sorry, I'm s-so sorry, oh god..."

Michael was sobbing now, trying to envelope Jeremy entirely with his own body. Trying to cover the pain he was feeling, trying to take it and make Jeremy stop suffering. It was agony to watch.

"I d-deserve to die for what I did. I hate myself, I hate everything ab-about me and I j-just-- I shouldn't be here anymore, I--" The words were lost again.

"Please, Jer, stop!" Michael pleaded. "Don't say that. Don't you dare ever say that, do you hear me? You mean more to me than-- oh god, than anything! Do you hear me? You mean-- I love you, Jer. I love you and nothing you could ever do can change that."

Jeremy only cried harder, shaking his head into Michael's chest.

It was a long night.

--

The two boys lay there, completely silent and still, the fog of emotions and that after-cry feeling fervent in the air surrounding them.

Michael still had his arms wrapped tightly around Jeremy, whose head hadn't moved from Michael's chest. He didn't want to, to be perfectly honest. This is the calmest, warmest, safest he'd felt since... well, since ever.

"Mike?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm getting tired."

"Me too."

"I'm gonna move, but-- but can you still, uh-- well--"

Jeremy pushed himself off of Michael slightly. He didn't look in his player one's eyes, though. He felt a little sheepish, which was silly. There was no reason for it.

"I'm gonna turn over, 'cause I always sleep on my right side, you know, but I want you to keep-- well, not like this, of course, but I don't want to leave-- do you know what I mean?"

Michael couldn't help but smile slightly. "Heere. Are you asking me to spoon you?"

Jeremy laughed, a little from nerves and a little from hysteria. "I mean-- only if you want to."

"Turn over, my dude."

Both grinned slightly as Jeremy shifted over, forming himself into a curve that Michael could curl around. Michael was shorter than Jeremy, but somehow it worked perfectly. The boys felt themselves blush as Michael pressed himself up against Jeremy's back.

The taller boy's stomach filled with a fluttery feeling at the way Michael's abdomen felt against the small of his back. He was hyper-aware of the fact that Michael's stomach was right up on Jeremy's scars. That butterfly effect only increased when Michael wrapped his left arm over Jeremy's waist to hold his hand.

"Is this, uh--is this okay?"

"Yeah," Jeremy chuckled, a warm feeling in his face and stomach. "It's just what I needed. Thanks."

"Sure, pal."

"Oh, uh--Michael?"

"Yep?"

"Thanks for listening, and-- and everything. I know it was a lot, and it probably seemed out of the blue, so--"

"Hey, slow down. It's okay. I'm glad I could be hear to listen, and to, uh--hold you?"

Jeremy laughed. "Yeah. Me too."

Chapter Text

Two boys laid together, side by side, on a plush queen-size bed. Their bare chests rose and fell heavily. Neither of them dared to say a word, worn out from the session they'd just had.

Michael Mell, the shorter of the two, couldn't believe that had just happened. It all felt like a dream. And not just being intimate with Jeremy and finally getting to do the stuff with him that he'd wanted to for so long, just their relationship in general. They'd started dating three months ago, and this was their first time.

And Jeremy? To be quite honest he wasn't really thinking coherently whatsoever.

He was speechless.

Michael broke the silence. "H-holy crap."

Jeremy made a noise of affirmation.

Michael glanced over at his player two. Jeremy was still staring up at the ceiling, lean chest moving up and down rhythmically. It was mesmerizing to Michael. Not to mention the rest of Jeremy's perfect body. His long, thin legs and the way they led up to his narrow hips. His slightly muscular arms and veined hands. Jeremy didn't have much muscle, but what he did have was absolutely breathtaking. To Michael, at least.

Also, he had a cute butt.

"You're amazing," Michael breathed, scooting closer to his boyfriend. "You know that?"

"So are you," Jeremy said, smiling warmly at Michael.

Then he noticed Michael's eyes slowly trailing themselves down Jeremy's naked body, taking in every inch of him. He blushed deeply, folding his arms together over his stomach. He crossed his legs at the ankles as well. He hoped every undesirable part of him was covered.

Michael watched as Jeremy grew more and more uncomfortable by the second. "Jer?"

Jeremy didn't answer him, simply turning his body and rising to a seated position, trying to put his clothes back on as quickly as he could. Michael reached out and laid a hand on his arm, moving so he was sitting right behind the taller boy.

"Hey, wait," Michael said, concern in his tone. "Did I do something? What happened?"

"No, no, it's-- it's nothing. Don't worry about it."

"Jeremy, I don't want to push you or anything, but I know you. I can see that you're uncomfortable."

Jeremy wouldn't make eye contact with Michael. "Yeah."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Michael asked cautiously.

"I-- don't know."

"Well--" Michael paused, unsure what to say to that. He pressed a kiss to the smooth skin of Jeremy's back. "I'm here to listen, love. You can tell me anything."

"I know," Jeremy remarked shyly. "I just..."

He stopped himself, swallowing.

"It's stupid."

Michael moved himself so his chest and stomach were pressed against Jeremy's back, legs wrapped around his thin body. "Nothing you say is stupid."

"It's just-- I don't know, I guess I'm just... insecure?"

Michael said nothing, showing Jeremy that he would wait for as long as his player two needed to get his words out.

"I'm just really tall. And, like, freakishly thin. And I've always hated how scrawny I looked in the mirror, and how when I raised my arms up you could see my rib cage... Just my arms themselves are-- disgusting. I don't know, I've always hated them." Jeremy was blushing furiously at this point.

He had never shared how he felt about his body with anyone, let alone someone he was so close to. He never thought he'd have the strength to. It was always something he'd struggled with. Looking in the mirror and seeing something, someone, you absolutely hate the sight of... it fucking sucks. It hurts, a lot. And Jeremy hadn't wanted anyone to know that he was so defenseless against the anxiety of that, how weak he was when it came to how he looked and what he thought of himself.

Especially Michael.

"Jer, look at me," Michael whispered.

He did.

"You're perfect. I love everything about you. I love your long legs and your skinny body and your perfect tall frame. You're-- god, you're fantastic."

"Michael, I'm really not, I--"

"Jer. I love you. I love what you look like." Michael whispered the words in Jeremy's ear, which tickled the hairs on his neck and made him shudder.

"Thanks, Mike," Jeremy murmured, forcing a smile. "I appreciate the kind words, and I know you mean them, but I... I still just can't stand certain things about myself. Like I said, it was stupid. I shouldn't have brought it up in the first place."

"No, no, wait!" Michael protested quickly.

Jeremy waited.

"I know what you mean," the shorter boy admitted, scooting off of his boyfriend's back. Jeremy turned to watch Michael as he spoke. "I-- I'm not exactly in love with the way I look, either."

Jeremy snorted in disbelief. "You? Michael, wait-- you? Are you serious?"

Michael nodded.

"But you're always so confident, so-- sure of yourself!" Michael looked like he wanted to interrupt, but Jeremy kept going. "And dude, look at you! Your body is-- I mean, wow. I would give anything to have it. It's perfect, it's-- agh, it's wonderful. I love everything about it, about you."

"See, and that's how I feel about you!" Michael butted in. "But you still feel... well, insecure. Right?"

"...Yeah?"

"Yeah. Same. And I wanna help you. And I feel like you want to help me, though correct me if I'm wrong."

"No, you're pretty spot on so far. Whatever will make you see how perfect you are."

Michael wrinkled his nose. "Gross."

Jeremy's only response was a quick kiss on his boyfriend's cheek.

"Anyways, as I was saying," Michael continued through a grin. "Why don't we have a quick little... therapy session?"

"A therapy session?"

"Yeah! It'll help us get stuff off our chests." Michael paused, smirking. "Plus, it'll give me a chance to get to know your perfect body a little better."

Jeremy blushed. "That's GAY!"

"You're gay!"

"No, you!"

"We're both gay!"

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

Both boys were cracking up, their little jest a bit of an icebreaker in the otherwise heavy moment. Jeremy was the first to speak again. "But, as to what you were saying... That sounds great. I just-- I don't know, I don't usually talk about this stuff."

Michael nodded. "Neither do I. And if it's going to make it worse or make you feel more anxious, then we don't have to say a word. Only if it's going to be helpful to you."

"I... I think it will be," Jeremy said slowly. "Let's just start with something small."

Michael thought for a moment before his eyes opened wide. Jeremy couldn't help but smile at the expression. It looked like a lightbulb had gone off in Michael's head.

"I have this scar," the shorter boy began, pointing to a spot on his upper arm. "From when I went ice skating as a kid. Being your average nerd, I didn't really sport very much and athletic activities were not my forte. But my family was going and they said I could bring a friend, so... why not? What's the worst that could happen?"

Jeremy thumbed the little cavity in his partner's skin, watching Michael's face as it broke into a small smile, reliving memories of his childhood.

"I fell SO many times. One of those times my friend was coming right up behind me and ran right over my arm with his knife shoes. Got a nice chunk of skin, there." Indeed, it looked like someone had gauged out a hunk of flesh from his bicep, about the size of a quarter.

Jeremy let out a low whistle. "Yikes. That's... ouch."

"Yep," Michael chuckled. "What can I say? I'm a clumsy, clumsy guy."

"Yeah, but you're my clumsy guy," Jeremy said lovingly, pecking his boyfriend's arm right where his scar was. Michael smiled at him bashfully.

"I have I fun scar story, too," Jeremy admitted. He pointed to a spot on his chin, where a thin little line ran underneath his jaw. "To put it simply, had a little too much fun on a trampoline. Bashed my chin on the metal bar on the edge when I tried to do a flip, and voila! Eleven stitches and a lot of blood."

Michael laughed. "Wow. Look at us. Failing miserably at any type of athletic event. You name it, we've probably gotten hurt doing it."

"I broke two toes and fractured my wrist playing soccer," Jeremy added.

"Dude, seriously?" Michael giggled, a bit astonished at how big of a klutz his boyfriend was. "I've never broken a bone."

"What? Never?"

"Nope. Ya boi's got some thick bones."

Jeremy cackled at that. "I must just be a twig, then. I snap at any point of forceful contact."

"I guess so," Michael chuckled. "But you sure are a cute twig."

"Oh, whatever."

"Hey, also... do you want to keep going? I definitely have many more things I don't like about myself, so, if you're down to keep this ball rolling..."

"I'm down. You start."

"Alright. For starters, my stomach. Look at it." Michael watched as Jeremy's eyes trailed down to his boyfriend's soft belly, where a few rolls had folded over themselves.

"What about it?"

"It's just--big, ya know? Chubby. It's always been that way. When I was little, I remember my moms' friends referring to me as 'husky'. It's stupid, and small, and I know they didn't mean it to be hurtful, it's just-- it does hurt. And I still think about it when I see myself in the mirror or in pictures or whatever."

He thoughtfully picked at a piece of skin hanging off to the side of his fingernail. "I don't know... that and my stupid-- what are they called? Love handles? I don't know, it's-- I don't know."

Jeremy's brow was creased with a sad sort of feeling. He reached out to his boyfriend, scooting himself closer and placing his hands on Michael's waist. His skin was hot. Both in temperature, and in general level of attractive-ness.

The taller boy looked deeply into Michael's eyes. "I love your lil' love handles. They're soft, and nice, and warm, and perfect. Just like you." He kissed Michael's lips sweetly.

Michael's face warmed. He was embarrassed to be touched in a place he was so severely insecure about when the person across from him knew how much he hated that about himself, but... strangely, he was comforted. Knowing that that part of him could be attractive to someone, even desirable, was mind-blowing. It felt... well, it felt amazing.

"Thanks, Jer," Michael whispered, not able to make eye contact. Thankfully, Jeremy backed off from him.

Still, Michael couldn't help but smile at his boyfriend's words.

"Kind of along those lines-- I hate how bony I am," Jeremy continued the chain. "That sounded weird-- I'm just super scrawny, and my bones stick out everywhere because I don't have any muscle or fat to cover them, and it's embarrassing and just-- I don't know, I've always hated that." He paused. "Also, I wish I was shorter. I thought it was good to be tall, but-- with the body type I have I feel like I'm just super disproportionate and awkward and everybody feels too bad about it to tell me."

Michael smiled at his player two. "You're not disproportionate, trust me."

"Well-- that's good, at least," Jeremy said. "But still, I'm just so skinny. Like grossly skinny."

His eyes widened for a moment, and Michael chuckled. "What now?"

"I just remembered-- when we first started going out, I was su-u-u-uper duper insecure about how thin I was--well, am. And I was, uh, scared to even cuddle with you, afraid that I'd be uncomfortable to sleep on or lean on or-- whatever, you get the point."

Michael nodded, thinking. "Do you still feel like that?"

"Sometimes," Jeremy admitted quietly.

"Dude, then I'm here to tell you that you don't have to worry about that. You're, like, the most comfortable pillow I've ever had."

Jeremy laughed. "Yeah?"

"Yeah! You're super comfy, and sure, there're some poky parts, but a quick readjustment and-- boom, I'm asleep." Michael grinned at Jeremy. "Seriously, please don't worry about that. You're not too bony, and certainly not uncomfortable to snuggle with. I always sleep the best when we're cuddling."

"Same," Jeremy agreed, smiling genuinely. "And... thanks."

Michael gave him finger guns and made a clicking noise, winking.

"Oh, but before your turn, I do have one more thing-- stretch marks. I've got 'em all down the backs of my calves and my hips. They're not the cute, kind, either, like yours-- they're long and pale and wrinkly and they look like little pink worms in my skin. They're-- ugly."

"Wait, you have stretch marks?" Jeremy nodded, to which Michael tilted his head. "Huh."

"What? Didn't notice?"

"No, no, it's not that," Michael dismissed. "Although that is true, I hadn't noticed them. I just-- I guess I just thought stretch marks only happened to people like me."

"People like you?"

"Yeah, like-- ya know."

Jeremy waited for Michael to continue. He sighed.

"Just, like-- fat people."

"Oh, no. Absolutely not," Jeremy stopped his boyfriend.

"Jeremy, you don't have to--"

"No. You're not fat. Sure, you have a bigger body type than I do, but that does NOT-- by any means-- make you fat. And even if you were, I'd love you just the same."

Michael's blush deepened. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. And Michael-- "fat" isn't a bad word. And it's not a bad thing. It's just that stupid people said it to make other people feel bad about the way they looked."

"I know that, deep down, it's just-- there's still this whole... thing, around it, around-- being bigger. A stigma, if you will."

"Which is completely and utterly pointless and you can't convince me otherwise."

Jeremy grinned at the sound of his boyfriend's laughter. It made him feel better to know that his words were at least getting through to Michael.

This whole exercise was really turning out to be a great thing.

"Well, okay, back on the subject of stretch marks-- I have 'em. On my shoulders, and around my waist, right here--" Michael gestured down to his midsection before continuing-- "And all down and around the backs of my giant thighs and a little bit on my cankles, too."

Jeremy raised an eyebrow at his player one. "Cankles?"

"Yeah, calf-ankles."

The taller boy still looked skeptical.

"Look at them! You have to admit I don't really have separate ankles and calves. Just kind of one long... appendage."

Jeremy snorted. "Right. Okay. Cankles."

He leaned towards Michael, whispering, "Your cankles are cute."

Michael let out a yelp of a laugh, covering his mouth. He reached out his hand, taking Jeremy's long fingers in his shorter, stubby ones. He squeezed once, gently.

"Thanks, man."

"Anytime."

They sat for a few moments, just looking each other up and down. Really appreciating the presence of the other person. Their whole conversation had gotten both of them thinking and, although it hadn't magically cured every insecurity they possessed (which was quite a few), it had definitely made them feel more comfortable around each other. Looser. Both felt a significant weight lifted off their shoulders, and a kind of tension that they hadn't even noticed was there disappeared. Vanished.

It was crazy what a little closure could do.

--

Later that evening, the two boys were cuddling with each other, Jeremy wrapped up tight in Michael's big, soft arms. Sometimes it was the other way around, but they would switch off, making sure the other person always got their share of being the protector versus the.... protect-ee?

Jeremy was still thinking about their earlier conversation. He'd had something else he'd wanted to share, but wasn't sure how to bring the topic around to it. Or if he even wanted to. It was kind of a sensitive subject.

But when would he ever get the chance again?

"Hey... Mike?"

"Mm?"

"Ya know what we were talking about earlier? The whole body positivity thing?"

Michael laughed softly. "Yeah, what's up?"

"I-- Okay, this is weird, but I had another thing I wanted to tell you about."

Michael pushed himself away from his partner, looking down at his face. Jeremy still wouldn't quite look Michael in the eye, but he was doing his best. He tapped his forefinger against the comforter.

"Shoot," Michael encouraged.

"So, uh, back when the whole-- squip thing happened," Jeremy said quickly, like the name of the supercomputer was a curse word he wasn't supposed to say out loud. "He-- I mean it, uh... it would, um-- punish me."

He spoke the words slowly. Michael frowned, partly in concern and partly in puzzlement.

"Punish you? God, that sounds-- what do you mean?"

"Nothing too terrible, don't worry," Jeremy assured him hurriedly. "Just... some electrical usage. Shocks and jolts, stuff like that."

Michael winced at him. "Why? Why did it do that?"

"It said it was bad for my image to, uh, masturbate. Also, slouching was a big no-no."

"So... he would electrocute you. For... being horny?"

Jeremy laughed. "Basically. And for having bad posture."

Michael got quiet before he spoke next. And when he did, his words were gentle.

"Where did it...?" He trailed off, unsure how to phrase the question.

Thankfully, Jeremy didn't need him to finish. He lifted his arms at the elbow slightly, exposing the underside of his forearms. His wrists were streaked with dark lines, similar to that of computer wiring. Angry little red veins surrounded them from the stress of what had caused it and how often it happened.

Michael was speechless. He gazed down at the scars, mouth agape.

"So, um... yeah," Jeremy finished. "I also have them on my back."

He didn't turn over, simply held Michael's hands and led them around his waist to the small of his back. Michael ran his fingers over the ripples of scar tissue. He traced the lines gently, giving Jeremy goosebumps.

"Jer, I..." He trailed off again. "I'm so sorry."

"Eh, it's-- it's okay. I mean, everything's okay now, right?"

Michael watched as Jeremy gave him his best attempt at a smile. He smiled sadly back at him, pulling his long body back into a cuddling position.

"Yeah," Michael answered, stroking his boyfriend's curly hair. "Everything's alright now."

Chapter Text

Music poured through the hallways of the cramped house, pounding in a way that shook the cheaply decorated walls. It was as if the home had a heartbeat. People gathered and danced and talked and laughed in every open spot, filling up any space that could be taken. Multicolored flashing lights were the only thing illuminating their drunken faces. Everyone there fit right in with one another. Every girl that passed through the doorway looked and acted the same, as well as every guy. Popular, rowdy, drunk out of their mind. It was the same in every room.

Michael seemed to be the only one immune to it all.

He had managed to curb the anxiety that was rearing up in his stomach, if only barely. He had to stick it through for Jeremy.

That was what he kept telling himself, at least. He needed something to focus on, a motivation. Something to keep him grounded. Otherwise he knew he’d go spiraling. Jeremy tended to be that anchor in most situations. Since they first met in middle school, Jeremy was the one whose presence calmed him. One time their class had gone to an amusement park a couple cities over, and Jeremy and Michael had decided to go on one of its biggest rollercoasters together. By some infinitesimal chance, the ride got stuck at the top of the first hill. If Jeremy hadn’t been there, Michael would not have been able to make it through the ordeal. Through the forty-something minutes they spent trapped in the front car, Jeremy held his best friend’s hand, telling jokes and stories, singing songs, feeding him comforting words. It was one of his special abilities. Calming down Michael Mell.

Michael could really have used him right then, huddled behind a group of jumping girls at this obscenely loud party.

Honestly, the parties hadn’t been very bad so far. Then again, most of the ones Michael had attended were full of board, card, and video games through which he could alternate. If not gaming, then art. Crafting parties with the chill liberals of the campus, discussing current events and joking over cups of coffee. Even the louder ones weren’t filled with people like these, popular kids who behaved like animals once they were hit with even an ounce of alcohol. This was a whole different world to Michael. He’d known this type of party existed in college, had even been to (aka survived) a few in high school. They could even be fun if you were with the right people.

But after spending time with the kids in his Creative Writing and Liberal Arts classes, Michael found a whole new perspective to the party scene. He could still enjoy a stereotypical one from time to time, but mostly he relished the time he spent at simple get-togethers. Events with music that didn’t make him feel like the musician was threatening him.

Jeremy actually did enjoy this type of scene, as strange as the concept was to Michael. Jeremy had never really obviously taken pleasure in high school parties as far as his best friend could tell. But after attending his first college booze-fest, Jeremy seemed to flip a switch.
“There’s just something different about the ones here,” he’d claimed after Michael asked. “The ones in high school were so chaotic and immature and just… hostile.”

“And the ones here aren’t?” Michael asked in disbelief.

“Okay, I will admit they’re still chaotic and maybe a little dirty—”

“A little?”

“—but there’s this energy to them that’s just— electric, you know? It feels safer. Everyone’s friendlier, it’s not as competitive. There’s not this underlying expectation to be cool and there’s not really anyone trying so hard to be popular. I mean, there is, but no one pays them any attention. Nobody really cares.”

“And you like that.” It was more of a statement than a question.

“After high school, where you’d basically be socially executed if you were still a virgin by senior year? Yeah, I’d say I like it."

So Michael would go to some of Jeremy’s parties, and Jeremy would go to Michael’s. Jeremy seemed to enjoy it no matter who was there or what the vibe was. Said it didn’t really matter because everyone was fun in their own way. Michael was a bit more particular in his outings.

Feeling someone bump into him, Michael moved a bit to the left. Besides being loud, the venue was just much too crowded. Michael just wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe the fact that he used the word “venue” when describing a frat house was an indicator that he wasn’t cut out for this.
Sighing as he peered through the crowd, Michael checked the time.

Jeremy was supposed to meet him at the door about ten minutes ago. Michael, knowing full well that being on time was not his best friend’s specialty, decided he’d wait it out.

A few different songs had played all the way through before Michael checked his phone again.

Another sixteen minutes had passed, with still no Jeremy. And not even a text or call showed up on Michael’s lock screen.

Michael let another twenty minutes pass before he resolved that he might have to start looking for Jeremy.

Tapping a finger against his thumb as he walked, Michael slipped through crowds of people cackling at each other. He dodged flailing arms as he rounded the corner of the main living room. Stepping over someone who he hoped was unconscious, Michael hopped up the carpeted steps towards the second story. The music only barely faded.
Michael passed room after room, some doors closed, others open, two simply missing from their doorframes. Though he tried not to look, he couldn’t help but glimpse a scene or two within the rooms. A couple, moaning loudly from the bed of one. Laughter and the sound of vomiting from another. Legs sprawled out into the hallway, connected to a very drunk student. The sights, sounds, and terrible smells drove Michael’s legs faster as he rounded the corner to the next story.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to go much further to find Jeremy.

He could hear his best friend’s voice coming from the bathroom.

Peeking his head around the doorway, Michael felt the urge to squint in case he saw something unseemly. Luckily, it was only Jeremy. Crouched in front of a scarily dirty toilet.

Michael took several careful steps forward. “Jer?”

Jeremy’s head bobbed a little, sunken over the bowl. He turned ever so slightly. Michael’s heart sank at the defeated look in Jeremy’s bloodshot eyes, dried saliva pooling in the corners of his mouth. He smelled like a frat boy. He smelled like his name was Kyle.

A little smile on his mouth broke the almost foreign expression on his face.

“Hey, Mike…” Jeremy trailed off, leaning forward a bit too far. Michael knelt down quickly, catching Jeremy by his slim shoulders. Michael scooted forward, allowing his best friend to lean against him for support. He wrapped a protective arm around him.

“How long have you been up here?” Michael asked.

“Not long, couple minutes maybe…” Jeremy answered. His face held the same puzzled look for a good while. “What time is it?”

“Almost two A.M.,” Michael said.

Jeremy turned his head pitifully, more confused than ever. “You serious?”

“Yeah.”

“No, that’s not… I was only up here for…” He paused. “Well, shit.”

Michael let him think for a bit before asking, “Do you remember what happened?”

“No, I… I was dancing. With Aaron. And Brooke. And Evan, too… absolute madman, that guy.”

He was quiet for a moment, grinning stupidly. He continued, “We were doing shots, I think. And then they dared me to drink the rest—” he burped —“so I did.”

“Jer, you’re such a lightweight,” Michael said, trying to make light of the situation. “What else?”

“I drank.”

“You drank?”

“Yeah.” He paused. “And then this girl was taking me up some stairs, so I followed her. She smelled good. I think. I can’t remember…” Jeremy scrunched up his nose. He seemed frustrated.

Michael waited.

“I can’t remember anything else…”

“That’s okay, Jer. No worries. Let’s head out, okay?”

“Where were you?”

“Just downstairs. I was waiting but you got a little caught up and you weren’t in our meeting spot, so I came to find you.”

“I just… left you?”

“You didn’t leave me. Geez, when you put it that way it sounds like you did it on purpose. No, you were just having fun.”

Jeremy was silent.

“Alright, ready to go?”

Jeremy nodded but said nothing. When Michael pulled on his friend’s arm, Jeremy didn’t move a muscle.

“C’mon, pal. I’m not carrying you,” Michael said gently.

Jeremy mumbled something incoherent.

“What?”

“I’m so sorry…” Jeremy’s head hung low.

“You— wait, what? Hold on,” Michael stuttered. He was so confused. “Why are you sorry?”

“I left you.”

“Jeremy—“ Michael was cut short by the look on Jeremy’s face. His trembling lips, the tears running down his cheeks. Michael sat back down immediately.

“I’m so sorry, Michael. I keep doing this—“ Jeremy cut off, wincing at something “—and you don’t deserve… you’ve never deserved it. I’m s-so sorry.”

“You’re drunk, we should get you out of here—”

“No, no, no, no.” Jeremy tumbled over the words, getting them out as fast as he could. He looked into his best friend’s eyes. His best friend who he hurt. Guilt ate at him.

“Jeremy, you’ve done nothing wrong. What’s going on?” Now Michael was genuinely scared. He’d seen Drunk Jeremy before, and had seen Emotional Drunk Jeremy a handful of times. But mostly those emotions arose over minuscule things, like a cute dog passing by or seeing a close friend who he “just loved so much.” But this was a different type of emotion. This one was real, and tight, and closed-up.

This one was more.

“I left you behind in high school, and I keep doing it, and this time I didn’t even need the squip to do it. What’s wrong with me? I’m so sorry, Michael, I’m awful, I’m terrible…”

“Jeremy. Look at me.” Michael cupped his best friend’s tired face in his hands. A blend of tears and snot pooled themselves in Michael’s palms, but he held on. Even if his internal self was gagging.

“That was a long time ago. You are not squipped. You are drunk. I forgave you, it’s in the past. You have nothing to feel bad about.”

“But I did it again!” Jeremy argued. “And I keep doing it, at these stupid parties.”

“So? I sometimes split from you at my parties, too. Hell, I go to parties by myself sometimes. That’s leaving you out.”

“It’s different.”

“How?”

“Because that’s you, and I know you’re doing it because you find it fun and because those are people you like to be around.”

“Is that not why you go to these?”

“NO!” Jeremy snapped. Michael flinched at his tone. He knew it was because of the alcohol, but it scared him nonetheless. Jeremy was never aggressive when he was drunk.

“I go to get out and escape. I hated myself, I hate— I need this. I never had a positive atmosphere to do this, and now I do, and it’s all I ever do but I can’t keep doing this because I’m going to ruin my life and my friendships… And I know that because I’ve seen it happen.”

Michael wasn’t sure what to say.

“Those people downstairs are my friends, yeah, but not like actual— not real. They’re not real. They don’t get it and they don’t really care. And I thought I liked that but I’m not so sure. They’re not real, they’re not real, they’re not you.”

“Jer, slow down—”

“You’re all I have, all I’ve ever had. You’re all I want. I need you, Michael. And I keep leaving you behind because I’m scared.”

“Scared?”

“Of the past. Of what I did. But because I’m scared I keep repeating the past but I can’t do that because look where the past got me!” Jeremy let out a cackle that sent a shiver down Michael’s spine.

“I almost lost you. I can’t do that. I can’t keep doing it. I’m so scared, Michael. Of myself. And of you. Not of you, but of not you.”

“Jeremy, you’re not making sense!”

“I’m scared of any type of anything that doesn’t have you in it. A future where you’re not there. I need you. I want you, I need you…” Jeremy trailed off again, choking on his own words and tears and emotions.

He hunched over the bowl, vomiting again. Michael jerked his head away, unable to avoid the smell or the sound. Running a washcloth under warm water, he scooted over so he sat behind Jeremy, ready to catch him. Ready to hold him.

As the thin boy dry heaved a couple more times, unable to get anything up, Michael asked, “Done?”

Jeremy nodded sullenly.

Michael wrapped his arms around Jeremy, leaning back so he was against the wall and Jeremy was against his stomach. He wiped at Jeremy’s mouth gently with the washcloth.

“Sorry if it smells weird, I don’t know whose towel this is. Honestly, I don’t know whose house this is.”

Jeremy let out barely a breath of a laugh. Something to let Michael know he was still there. Just enough.

“Tired?” Michael asked.

Jeremy bobbed his head again.

“Thought so. How about I take you back to my room so you can sleep?”

“Mm… no…” Jeremy groaned lightly.

“Why?” Michael asked, brushing a sweaty strand of hair from Jeremy’s forehead.

“What I said… did you listen? Did you hear?”

“I heard, Jer,” Michael comforted. “I heard.”

“Can we talk about it?”

“How about tomorrow?”

“No, I— I’ll forget what I said. I’ll forget what I need to say. I’ll forget…”

Michael thought for a moment, throwing the gross washcloth into the bathtub beside them. “What if I promised to remind you?”

Jeremy shook his head violently. “I need to say I’m sorry, I need to tell you… have to…”

“Okay, I get it. It’s okay. I’m here. I’ve listened.”

Neither boy said anything.

“Can I take you back to my room, and then we can talk about it?”

Jeremy groaned again. “I need to apologize!”

“I know, bud, I know…” Michael thought for a moment. “You apologized, though, didn’t you?”

“Not nearly enough.”

“But you have, right? And I’ve said it was okay?”

“That doesn’t make it okay.”

“You’re right. What you did, in high school, was not so great,” Michael said slowly, trying to get Jeremy’s intoxicated brain to hold on to what he was saying. He shifted Jeremy so he was sort of cradling him.

“But that was high school. We’re in college now. And somehow, even though all that shit went down, we’re still together. We’re still best friends.”

“But I hurt you. And best friends don’t do that.”

“Are you saying you don’t want to be my best friend?” Michael asked, prying for logic.

“No, no! No…”

“Good, because you don’t have a choice. You’re my player two, and that means you’re stuck with me. Even if you do something stupid like take a pill that turns you into a douchebag and ignore me for a little bit.”

Jeremy cracked a delirious smile. “Even if I almost destroy the world?”

“Even then,” Michael answered easily. “And you’re not ignoring me now, or leaving me behind.”

“I’m not?”

“Nope.”

“Even if I leave you behind at a party to go vomit in the bathroom?”

“I hope that wasn’t your original intention, but yeah, even then.”

Jeremy grinned sleepily. “Cool.”

“Isn’t it?” Michael asked, laughing a little. “Now, can we get out of here? This place smells like herpes.”

“Herpes has a smell?”

“Geez, Jer, I don’t know.”

Scooping Jeremy up carefully bridal style, Michael climbed back down the two stories of stairs, rushing out into the cold. He was surprised by just how chilly it was, his breath fogging in the air. Luckily, Jeremy was quite warm in his arms.

On the drive home, Jeremy fell asleep. His gentle snores were the only sound in the small vehicle. Michael, though quiet, felt a symphony of thoughts within his mind.

Well, only one was very loud, really.

He kept replaying it, over and over.

That moment.

You’re all I want.

I need you. I want you, I need you…

Jeremy’s words.

Jeremy’s drunken words.

Chapter Text

“Yo, tall-ass,” a familiar raspy voice called.

Jeremy turned, rolling his eyes. Sure enough, standing menacingly at the end of the hallway was Rich Goranski. He wore a pair of Adidas joggers with some band t-shirt. Jeremy had never even heard him listen to that band. What a dude.

“Really gonna head to lunch without me?” he asked playfully, bumping Jeremy’s arm with his shoulder as he tried to match stride. Being quite a bit shorter, it was hard for him to fall in line with Jeremy’s long legs.

“We do this every day, Rich,” Jeremy replied in a snarky tone.

“So?”

“So shut your mouth,” Jeremy laughed. “How was class?”

“It was class,” Rich answered. “Nothing really new. Got a few laughs at my presentation. All in a day’s work.”

“Naturally.”

“You?”

“Eh, math’s never really been my strong suit.”

“I feel that.” Rich looked around for a moment, glancing behind them. “So… where’s your boyfriend at?”

“Boyfriend?”

“Duh. Mike. Micah. The Mellon.”

“Oh, he’s got a doctor’s appointment today,” Jeremy answered before realizing what Rich had just said. “Wait, he’s not my—”

“Sure, ‘doctor’s appointment.’ Probably getting stoned. Maybe behind Seven Eleven. Definitely behind Seven Eleven.”

“Possibly, but I know he was going in for flu shots,” Jeremy frowned. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Right, of course not,” Rich replied reassuringly. He coughed into his fist. “…yet.”

“What?”

“Hm? Nothing.” Rich sprinted ahead.

“Hey— we’re not done talking about this!”

Shaking his head, Jeremy tumbled after Rich, tripping over an untied lace.

~~~

After having found themselves a table, Jeremy picked at his food for a second. Rich was busy chatting with one of the guys at another table, some new kid he was crushing on. Jeremy still couldn’t get their conversation out of his head.

This joke had been ongoing for a couple years now. Technically, it’d started way back in middle school, when everyone had noticed how close of friends he and Michael were. They’d be teased constantly by their peers, some in a hostile way, some just poking fun. Jeremy had pointed the blame on Michael, because of his moms and the ever-present pride patch on his signature red jacket.

“It’s not my fault kids are dicks,” Michael had defended.

“Valid point.”

The two had gotten over it after a while, especially after the squip debacle. Most kids had given up, or had befriended them and made it more of a friendly jab. Nothing harmful.

Jeremy wasn’t offended by it; Michael was a cool guy. He just wondered why people said it. Like, sure, they were close, but they’d never done anything. There was no reason for anyone to think they were a couple unless they did couple-y things. Which they didn’t.

Okay, sure, they might snuggle occasionally. And hold hands when one of them was feeling especially angry or anxious. And they would go to every school dance or event together.

Jesus Christ, maybe they were a couple.

Rich sat down, snapping Jeremy out of his thoughts.

“I really think I might have a chance with this one,” Rich said excitedly, a slight blush to his cheeks.

“He’s gay?”

“He said he’s queer, which to me means he’s open for business.”

“And he’s not in a relationship?”

“Nope,” Rich chirped back happily. His face fell a moment later. “Unless he was lying to me…”

“I’m sure he wasn’t,” Jeremy reassured absentmindedly. His tone felt like a hand waving away at Rich’s problem like it was fly he was trying to shoo.

“Got something on your mind?” Rich asked, pushing aside his crush.

“A bit,” Jeremy replied shortly.

Neither said anything for a moment, so Rich went back to his food. Today was Friday, which meant they were serving chicken nuggets along with whatever other leftovers they had from the week. Thursday was always chicken nugget day. And they weren’t the cheap, gross kind of chicken nuggets that tasted like nothing but also fish; they were those dinosaur ones that everyone grew up eating. The fancy kind.

“Ever think it’s funny that the most expensive food our school gets us is boujee chicken nuggets?” Rich asked, biting the head off one of his dinos.

“Do you really think me and Michael are planning to get together?” Jeremy blurted.

He blushed as Rich looked up at him in surprise. “And here I was thinking about chicken nuggets.”

“…Well?”

“I mean, neither of you are planning anything, I can tell you that. Little coward boys is what you are.”

“Rich.”

“Well, if you must know,” Rich continued, dipping another nugget in ketchup. “Me and the rest of the gang have… a bet.”

“A bet.” He said it as a halfway statement, halfway question.

“Yep,” Rich answered matter-of-factly.

“That’s all you’re giving me?”

“What more do you want?”

“I don’t know, maybe when did you guys make a bet? And what even is the bet on? And how much is it for?”

“Woah there, young grasshopper,” Rich teased. “Sloweth down.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“A hostile grasshopper, I see.”

Jeremy silently fumed as Brooke and Christine joined them at the table.

“Why are we calling Jeremy a grasshopper?” Brooke asked.

“Because he has oh so much to learn,” Rich answered. When the girls glanced at each other in confusion, Rich explained, “I’m telling him about the bet.”

Both newcomers snorted, Christine erupting into giggles.

“By all means, keep going,” she snickered.

Jeremy’s head bounced back and forth like he was watching a ping pong tournament. He just wanted answers, dammit.

“So, the bet,” Rich elaborated, sweeping his arms like an elaborate storyteller. “We made it back a couple months ago, can’t really remember the exact month. Not too long after the squip happened and you and Christine decided to stay friends and all that shit went down for nothing.”

Christine glared at him, and Brooke sighed. “Move on, Rich.”

“Basically, the gang got together—”

“Who was in the gang at this point?” Jeremy cut in.

“You and Michael, Christine, me, Jake, Brooke, Jenna. Kinda Chloe but not quite because she still thought she was a little too good for us.”

“I still do,” Chloe piped up, revealing herself further down the table.

“As I was saying,” Rich continued, “We made a bet that out of everyone in the squad, you and Michael were going to be the first to get together. Like, date, not just hook up.”

“Are you serious?” Jeremy asked in disbelief.

“Straight-up,” Rich replied easily. He laughed at the look on Jeremy’s face. “C’mon, tall-ass. Did you really think we didn’t have some jokes about you and the boo?”

“No, I knew you had them, I just never knew you had an actual bet about it.”

“Surprise,” Brooke chirped, waving her hands jazzily.

“Don’t take it personally, bro,” Rich assured. “I mean, it started out as a joke but… it just became obvious that you were meant to be.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Are you actually mad?” Christine asked, a bit worried.

“No, no, not at all,” Jeremy replied. “Just shocked you guys could keep this to yourselves with your big-ass mouths.”

Rich punched him in the arm while the girls laughed. Jake and Jenna approached the table, confused.

“What’d we miss?” Jake asked, sitting next to Chloe.

“You never told me you made a bet about me and Michael!” Jeremy exclaimed, turning to the tall jock.

Jake’s face lit up. “Did it finally happen?”

That sent the squad into another fit of laughter.

Jeremy laughed along, unable to help himself. He really did love his friends.

Michael would definitely be hearing about this later.

Chapter Text

Jeremy could not stop thinking about what had happened at school that day.

It wasn’t a bad feeling, and he didn’t necessarily mind being shipped with Michael, just the thought of his best friends making an entire bet centered around it… it felt like an invasion of privacy. There was nothing going on between them, after all. They were best friends.

“Got something on your mind?” Michael asked. Jeremy turned from facing the counter where he’d been pouring a can of mountain dew into a cup.

He shrugged. “Kind of?”

“Are we playing another round of ‘Guess Jeremy’s Obsessive Thoughts’?” Michael prodded, coming closer to grab a cup from the cabinet. “You know I always win at that. All time champion.”

“Maybe cause you’re the only one that ever plays.”

“Don’t minimize my winning streak.”

“My apologies, oh Great One.”

Michael chuckled, pouring another can of the green-ish soda into his cup. He took a sip and turned around, leaning against the counter. Arms folded against his chest, he raised an eyebrow at Jeremy. “So? What’s up?”

Jeremy sighed, scratching at the back of his head. On the one hand, the rest of their friends were coming over in a bit to hang out, so he wouldn’t get another chance to talk to Michael alone for another few hours, maybe until the next day. On the other, it was kind of weird to talk to your best bro about a bet between the rest of your friends regarding the two of you cuffing. So what was the best option here?

Suffer through another twenty-four hours of thinking about this stupid thing?

Or get it over with?

Michael and Jeremy always told each other everything (when they could). As weird as it might be, they’d faced weirder.

“Rich said something today that kind of… well it didn’t bother me, necessarily, it just— caught me off-guard?”

Michael snorted. “Sounds like normal Rich to me.”

“Yeah… except usually it’s just stupid, exaggerated stories or random facts or thoughts that he came up with throughout the day. This one was true.”

“How do you know?”

“Because everyone else at the table was backing him up.”

Michael raised his eyebrows at that. “That’s a first.”

“Yeah. That’s why it’s kind of tripping me up.”

“Should I be… concerned?”

“No, no,” Jeremy shook his head. “It’s nothing serious. Just kind of weird, I guess.”

“Lucky for you I’m not new to weird,” Michael grinned.

“Ha,” Jeremy forced a laugh. “Lucky me.”

Michael studied his best friend’s face. He wasn’t sure what emotion was displayed there. He looked nervous, and hesitant, but not scared. It didn’t look like bad news, but it didn’t look like a happy announcement either.

“You know you can tell me anything.”

“I know.”

“C’mon, Jer,” Michael said gently, hiding his slight irritation. “You’re scaring me a little.”

“Rich made a bet,” Jeremy admitted. “About us.”

“That’s it?”

“Everyone’s in on it.”

“O-o-o-kay,” Michael said hesitantly. “What is the bet?”

“That me and you are gonna date.”

“That— what?”

“Ya know. They ship us.”

Michael looked shocked. He’d been raising his cup to his lips to drink but he seemed frozen mid-sip. Jeremy wasn’t sure what that reaction meant.

“Should I have kept it to myself?”

It took a second for Michael to snap back to reality.

“No, no, don’t worry about it,” Michael assured, laughing. “That’s really funny, actually.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Oh God, do you think they gave us a ship name and everything?”

“Jesus, I hope not…”

“Can you imagine? What do you think it is, like… Jichael?”

“Ew ew ew,” Jeremy laughed, cringing. He tensed his shoulders up. “That sounds like a disease.”

“We ARE a disease, are you kidding?”

Jeremy clutched his stomach in pain, cackling.

~~~

“Okay… Rich.”

He turned to face Brooke, an overly-determined look on his face. “Ready.”

“Truth or Dare?”

“I’ll take truth.”

Chloe and Jake booed from their spot in the bean bag chair.

“Boring,” Chloe called, folding her arms.

“What can I say, I’m a simple man,” Rich sighed dramatically. “Okay, go ahead. Give it to me. I’m ready.”

“You sure? You seem unsure,” Brooke joked.

“Tell me-e-e-e…”

“Okay, okay,” she caved. “Have you ever shoplifted?”

Rich laughed. “Of course. Who’s next?”

At the sound of protests, Rich held up his arms like Moses parting the red sea. “You never said I had to explain the situation in which I lifted the shop.”

“C’mon, you know that’s implied,” Christine complained.

“News to me,” Rich claimed, leaning back against the wall. “Now… who do I want…?”

He scanned the room.

Christine excitedly shot her arms up in the air. “Me! Me me me me me—”

“Michael.”

“Dammit,” Christine and Michael said in unison.

“Truth or dare?”

“Truth.”

“Feeling boring today, are we?”

“You picked truth before I did, dingus!”

“That’s beside the point, nimrod! Now lemme ask the question!”

“FINE,” Michael exclaimed dramatically. “Ask away.”

“Do you have a crush currently?”

That stopped Michael in his tracks. His ears turned as red as his jacket. He tried to keep his eyes on Rich and not let them wonder to anybody— anywhere else.

“A-a-a-and there’s our answer, kids,” Rich joked.

“At least let him talk,” Christine defended.

“Yes,” Michael let out.

Rich looked surprised that he actually said it. Usually Michael kept to himself about that stuff. In fact, everyone seemed a bit taken aback. But nobody more so than Jeremy.

He wondered who Michael’s crush was.

He felt weird about Michael having one at all. Why, though? He shouldn’t care. Why did he care?

“Okay, so now I get to ask someone else, right?” Michael’s voice snapped everyone back to the present. Nobody could really believe he’d just admitted something like that.

“But wait— who?” Jenna asked, suddenly focused on something that wasn’t her phone.

Michael smirked. “You never said I had to tell you who.”

She groaned, going back to her phone. She grumbled to herself, “The one time I take my eyes off my cell, the ONE time…”

“For my question, I pick Jeremy.”

That sent Jenna’s phone completely out of her hands. Everybody seemed to be paying attention now, waiting for Michael to spring the question. They weren’t sure what it would be but they knew it was going to be important.

Michael knew how much power he held in that moment. He could ask Jeremy the most innocent question, and let everybody down. Or he could ask a tension-heavy one. One that Jeremy couldn’t avoid.

Did he want to do that to Jeremy, though?

Michael looked at his best friend. Jeremy was obviously trying to hide the fact that he was freaking out. His eyes were wide, his mouth flat. He looked like he wanted to say something, anything, to break the tension.

Luckily, he didn’t have to.

“Jeremy. Truth or Dare?”

Nobody breathed.

“D-Dare.”

That knocked Michael back. He’d been expecting Jeremy to stick to the forged path that everyone else had been following. Jeremy was never one to stand out.

Oh, how he stood out right now.

He had this look in his eyes, one that Michael hadn’t seen before. A longing. A plea.

And Jeremy?

Jeremy knew what he wanted. He had for a while, he just wouldn’t let himself admit it. But today, and everything that happened… he knew what he wanted. He knew how he felt. He hoped that in this moment Michael could see that and wanted it, too.

“Uh… I dare you…”

Silence.

“I dare you to kiss me.”

Without skipping a beat, Jeremy crawled over to Michael, who was seated against the wall. He could barely feel his fingers resting on the carpet. Softly, gently, Jeremy cupped Michael’s face and leaned in.

He was so soft.

They only held the kiss for a few seconds, but to Jeremy it felt like an eternity. He wanted to stay like that, for longer. Michael smelled like every good thing, every little reason Jeremy loved him. He tasted even better. Deep down, a little voice was screaming at him for doing this in front of the rest of his friends. But the rest of him had waited long enough.

Jeremy leaned back after a bit, one hand still on Michael’s face.

“Damn,” Michael breathed.

“Damn is right,” Rich said quietly, unable to believe it himself.

Jake coughed softly. “Pay up, guys.”

Chapter Text

Michael’s hands were shaking. Rather violently, actually.

Jeremy wasn’t sure what to do.

This was the first time he was seeing Michael like this.

The two boys were a fresh pair of best friends, having met when they were eleven. They were both thirteen now, in their last year of middle school, and they’d only been super close for a little less than a year now. While they’d hung out with one another plenty and were practically twins, the pair of middle schoolers hadn’t gotten to the “inseparable” stage until two years after their initial meeting. Partly because of mixed up class schedules, and partly because best friends could often be mistaken for a couple, and middle school was already hard enough.

For those reasons, Jeremy had only really gotten to know Michael, the real Michael, in the past nine months. He’d never had someone he was so close to, someone he could confide in so regularly and easily. It was amazing. The best feeling.

The two told each other everything. Jeremy knew basically any trivia fact about Michael, from his favorite cereal brand to his plans for the future. He’d heard every story Michael had in store, every memory, every thought.

When Michael had told him that he was suffering from a delightful mixture of depression and anxiety (and had been for a while), Jeremy hadn’t thought much of it.

“So… are you sad?” he’d asked.

Michael had nodded. “Yeah, sometimes. But it’s not necessarily always sad. It’s… numb. Empty, you know? Like a hole I can’t fill. A gravitational pull that won’t let up.”

“Huh,” Jeremy mused. He thought for a moment. When he spoke again, he was quiet. His voice held a trace of concern.

“Is it bad?”

“Not always. Some days are worse than others.”

“Is it…” Jeremy paused again. He wasn’t sure how to voice his thoughts, having never dealt with a situation like this before. He’d never had a friend with depression before. Then again, he’d never really had a friend before.

Michael waited patiently for his friend to find his words. He could tell Jeremy was trying his best.

“Is it bad,” Jeremy said hesitantly, “when I’m around?”

His face made Michael’s heart drop an inch.

“No, no! Of course not!”

Jeremy didn’t look convinced. “Am I making it worse?”

Michael laughed at that, which made Jeremy feel worse. “Jeremy, you make me feel better. My therapist told me that having something to look forward to in your day or your week helps with feelings of hopelessness. And I get to look forward to seeing you nearly every day.”

Jeremy had grinned at him. Those words were exactly what he needed to hear.

He’d seen Michael down a few times after that. Had to pull him out of bed a couple times, send motivating texts. No matter what, he was always there for him. Soon enough he got used to that side of Michael, the side that just didn’t want to get up in the morning. He knew what to do when it happened. Michael had given him tips after that first conversation, and Jeremy picked up a few of his own. Little things, like bringing Michael a slushie or taking him out of the house for a few hours.

But now they were facing a whole new side of Michael.

And of course, he’d mentioned it. The anxiety.

He’d had to explain to Jeremy that there was a difference between feeling anxious (as Jeremy had pointed out that he was anxious practically all the time for tests and girls and the future and generally most things) and having anxiety. Using the words of his beloved therapist, he had told Jeremy that when the anxiety starts interfering with your wellbeing, when it begins to affect your quality of life — that’s an issue.

Everybody gets anxious. Anxiety just likes to trip some people up a little more.

Even with a thorough walkthrough of Michael’s mental health, Jeremy had never experienced an anxious episode, or a panic attack. He’d seen Michael’s downs, but never his way way ups.

So one can imagine how helpless Jeremy felt in that moment.

They’d just finished dinner and had gone down to Michael’s basement to play video games, and bam. Something had gone wrong.

Jeremy didn’t notice at first. He cracked a joke about beating Michael in this next level, and when he heard no laugh or snarky response, had turned to get his best friend’s attention.
Only… his best friend didn’t seem to be home.

His eyes darted wildly, flicking from his shaking hands to the TV in front of them and then back. His breaths came in and out quickly. His lip trembled slightly, and he curled his fingers into fists, silently hoping the bite of his fingernails against his palms would center him.

It only added another stimuli to the mess of senses.

Jeremy looked him up and down, trying to read his body language. It was jarring to see Michael, calm and collected and sometimes lethargic Michael, in such a state of panic.

Jeremy, panicking a little himself, reached out to tap Michael’s shoulder.

The poor kid flinched away, suddenly finding himself in a room with another human being.

“Michael?” Jeremy asked carefully. “What’s—”

“I don’t…” Michael cut himself off, confused and afraid. He staggered backward into a seated position, back against the wall.

Jeremy tried to decide whether he should follow.

He took a deep breath. Tried to remember his previous encounters with Michael’s opposing depressive episodes. How depending on the situation, Michael needed different things. Wanted different things. Would respond better or worse to different things.

“What do you need from me?” Jeremy asked gently.

Michael took an eternity to answer. “You.”

“Me?”

“Just… you. I need you, come here.” His words were fast, tumbling over one another, racing each other. Too fast.

Jeremy nodded slowly, thinking that sharp movements might make it worse. He eased up next to Michael, not getting too close, but just enough that their shoulders were barely touching. Just enough to give him some warmth, but not enough to overwhelm him with yet another sensation.

They sat like that for a minute as Michael began to take deep breaths, timing them out in his head like his therapist had taught him in sessions. In for eight, hold for four, out for seven.

As he counted, he grasped around, feeling for Jeremy. The taller boy obliged, taking Michael’s hand gently. Slowly, carefully, he rubbed soft circles into the back of Michael’s hand. Not too much. Just enough.

Just what Michael’s racing mind needed.

Even after his breathing had slowed and the trembling had gone down significantly, Michael seemed severely shaken up. There were tears in his eyes, but they didn’t fall. They pooled, still and shining. As if they, too, were afraid a sharp movement would send Michael back into a panic.

Jeremy continued to rub his friend’s hand. Afraid he might make Michael feel embarrassed, he watched their hands intently, only occasionally glancing in Michael’s direction. He waited.

And waited.

Michael took a final long breath.

Let it out.

“Thank you,” he breathed. The weakness in his tone made Jeremy’s heart ache.

Jeremy nodded once.

“I n-need to explain myself,” Michael began, taking a shuddering breath. “Let me— I’ll—”

His mouth just wouldn’t quite work right.

Thankfully, Jeremy understood. “You don’t need to do anything right now.”

“But—”

“I know, I know,” Jeremy shushed softly. “But we’re calm now. And we can figure out the whys and the whats later. You’re the most important thing right now. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Do you want me to go home?”

Michael shook his head. He didn’t seem to be able to find his thoughts, a jarring contrast to a few moments ago when his thoughts were impossible to avoid.

“Do you need anything? Water? Food? A hug?”

Michael nodded at the last word.

“Okay. Let’s just…” Jeremy looked around, searching for a soft place to just sit and hold somebody. To just sit and be held. “Stay right here.”

He squeezed Michael’s hand, grabbing a half-empty water bottle from the TV stand and a dented beanbag chair, leaning the chair against the wall and handing the bottle to his friend. He sat back against the soft cushion, opening his arms.

Michael smiled weakly.

Both boys a little confused. Both a little scared.

Both unsure.

But both with a sense of momentary peace.

And sometimes, that’s all you need right then.