Chapter 1: more than survive
“Fuck,” Michael hissed under his breath, tumbling out of bed. The blaring of his alarm set off his own warning bells, the noise quickly overwhelming. He really needed to pick a better tone to wake up to. Hands scrambled over the comforter before he was able to pull his phone out from where it had been hiding, quieting it quickly. Squinting, he scanned the screen before him, one text from Christine, some picture of a kitten accompanied with a wish that he’d have a good day.
At least the friend he’d managed to get was so shamelessly good.
Tossing his phone back down he leaned over to grab his glasses, shoving them on before flopping back down, the warm comfort of his bed was too nice to resist. Usually he liked to leave early, there was something about getting out of the house but also being able to pace empty halls. Unfortunately his car was in the shop so he was stuck with the bus. It did give him some time to just relax, though. He supposed he should at least sit up in an effort not to fall back asleep.
With a sigh he dragged himself up, grabbing his phone before collapsing into his desk chair. The silence was nearly overwhelming and it was starting to make him feel itchy. In an attempt to bring himself back to earth he rubbed his eyes under his glasses, rocking in his desk chair harshly. The repetitive motion was enough to calm him down but he kept going - why stop? He was comfortable and the consistent motion kept him grounded.
After a few minutes he sighed, slumping into his chair. It was in his best interest to get ready.
Dragging his feet he pulled himself up, nearly stumbling over to his dresser to pull out some clean pants. He went through the motions almost robotically, using the time to get lost in his head, brain buzzing with thoughts. As soon as he got to school his capacity to think would dwindle, drained out by the unforgiving halls. Mornings were his, no one else's. So he wandered, weaving through thoughts as he shoved his feet into chunky sneakers and pulled his hoodie over his head. It was starting to get a bit stale and he groaned at the thought of having to give it up for a day to be washed. He insisted on not throwing it in the washer, he didn’t want any patches falling off. That meant it basically had to be hand washed and air-dried, the effort meant he’d have to go without it for a full day.
Before he finally left his room he snatched his headphones off the desk, half the time he wouldn’t even plug them in. He was sure he was just getting dependent on the comfortable pressure. With a promise to treat himself to some wireless headphones he headed out of the house, holding his bag close. He wondered what the return policies would be - it wasn’t like he could try on new headphones. And fit was important! He loved his headphones and was only upgrading out of need. His new phone needed an adapter to plug into and he had a habit of losing it. But the thought of something new nearly made him shudder.
Hauling himself up the steps he ducked into the first open seat he saw, towards the front. He felt a shove on his backpack but just shrunk back into the seat, not bothering to look for the perpetrator. Back to his thoughts, that was easier.
The fit had to be nearly identical or it just wouldn’t be right. He’d just have to find out if he could return them, that way in the worst case scenario he wouldn’t be out too much money over something he wouldn’t even use.
After a few stops Christine finally sunk into the seat next to him, face buried in a book. He was just glad someone understood him. They were both able to sink into their own little worlds and didn’t need to worry about forcing a conversation. They were still best friends, even if they didn’t spend all their time together talking.
Which wasn’t to say they didn’t have their fair share of animated rants.
No matter how much high school sucked he was just glad to have at least one person by his side. It made it a lot easier to not get too stressed from all the rabble on the bus around them. Why had everyone decided today was the day to not get their own rides to school? It was like the universe was out to get him by way of overcrowding and anxiety.
Still, even if he knew he wasn’t going to turn to check, he couldn’t help but wonder who else was on the bus. If it seemed like everyone he was aware of, or shared classes with, was here with him, what were the odds Jeremy would be?
The thought alone was enough to send him into a starry-eyed daze.
Since when had they already gotten to school?
When they got through the doors Christine flashed him an apologetic smile, ducking away with a promise to meet up for lunch. It wasn’t ideal but he’d be able to get through the morning.
The halls were crowded, he swore someone was out to get him because the heat was suffocating and everyone had less respect for personal space than usual. He immediately regretted not double checking for his headphone adapter because his headphones could only do so much without any music. Shouts and whoops cut through his every attempt to stay calm and he picked up his pace, pulling up his hood as he rounded the corner. All he had to do was get to his locker and then to class. Easy. (Not.)
When he looked up he saw crowding around his locker, shifting on his feet nervously as he approached. Jake, Jake Dillinger was in his way. Just his luck.
Oh. And Rich. He seemed to be shifting on his feet himself, eyebrows furrowing as he said something to Jake. For once there were people who were talking quietly and even as he approached Michael couldn’t hear their conversation. That was good enough for him.
The second Jake shifted how he was standing, throwing his hands up in frustration, Michael made his move. Keeping his head down he made a beeline to his locker, deftly twisting in his combination. When he moved to shrug off his bag he swore he felt eyes on him. A subtle glance told him Jake was looking over him, saying something Michael couldn’t hear. Whatever it was made Rich look at him, face softening in what seemed like confusion. They met eyes briefly before Michael spun around to shove what books he wouldn’t need until the afternoon into his locker. No time to think too hard about anything.
By the time he was shrugging his bag back on he was sent headfirst into his locker, mumbling something under his breath. When he managed to recollect himself he caught a glimpse of two girls running off down the hall - Chloe and Brooke, it had to be. He heard the telltale smack of a ball against tiles. Sure, he got told to take his headphones off in the hall but jock assholes got to play sports between the lockers? Great.
With a sigh he closed his locker, keeping his head down as he headed back across the hall. If he could get to class early maybe he could get a moment of peace. As he power walked down the halls he let his gaze lift a bit. With the twinge of fall in the breeze the school was alight with activity. Not only was homecoming coming up.. There was something else. A poster stuck out among various advertisements for clubs who were close to getting cut from lack of engagement. It was bright, the yellow stuck out against the sea of white printer paper. It looked hand made. Stickers decorated the top and right below them it said..
Drama. School play.
It was a sign up.
Acting wasn’t his thing, no way. Maybe tech could be fun but he wasn’t really fond of the thought of being on a stage. He made a mental note to let Christine know, though, it seemed more her cup of tea. Over the last few months she had gotten increasingly obsessed with acting and theater.
With that out of the way he dipped his head again and kept walking. He practically skidded around a corner, trying to stay out of the way. The last thing he needed was any more attention. It seemed like people were really just trying to get in his bubble and all the shoving and bumping had him dangerously close to just skipping class. The skid had him stumbling a bit and he held on tightly to his backpack straps, keeping himself steady. With a sigh he supposed he should pay a bit more attention to where he was going so he adjusted his hood and slowly raised his eyes.
Of fucking course.
Jeremy fucking Heere.
Michael couldn’t help but feel himself melt a bit. In all his awkward glory Jeremy Heere was right in his path, bouncing on his toes as he filled up a water bottle. With some short lived confidence he headed to the second water fountain, digging a long abandoned and empty water bottle from his bag. As he filled up his own bottle he couldn’t help but glance over at Jeremy. Thin fingers moved to brush bangs away from his eyes, sleeves of a too long cardigan covered his hands, freckles were washed over pale cheeks. Eyes briefly met his own and wow - one of his eyes was a pale blue-gray and the other was a soft brown. Just when Michael thought he couldn’t get any prettier he was proved wrong.
“Uh..” Jeremy gave a sheepish smile, pointing at his ear. Michael got the hint, pulling his headphones off to let them rest around his neck. “Your.. uh, w-water bottle?”
With a jolt Michael glanced down to see water spilling up over his hand. Of course. He’d been staring and now his sleeve was covered in water and Jeremy was just looking at him.
Doing the only thing he could think of, Michael bolted with an exasperated noise, struggling to shove the cap on his water bottle as it sloshed around from his ducking and dodging. By the time he practically burst into the classroom both his sleeves were nearly soaked and his water bottle was only half full. Great, he made an utter fool of himself. The whole ordeal meant he hadn’t gotten to class as early as he would’ve liked and there were already others filing in behind him. With a sigh he dropped into a desk near the front - no matter how much he hated it he had to admit it helped. The further back he sat, the more quickly he’d get distracted.
It didn’t protect him from wadded up paper though - as class started he begrudgingly pulled his hood off and shoved his headphones into his bag, the actions were followed by a soft thump on the back of his head that made him just want to curl up and disappear. Barely stifled giggles felt like nails on a chalkboard to him. He fought the urge to shrink into his desk, fingers itching to just tug his hood back up. Instead he just twirled his hoodie string around a finger, pulling on it, trying to will down the burning heat settling over his cheeks. He hadn’t even done anything!
As the teacher tried to find out who’d thrown the paper, Michael just kept his eyes down, aimlessly scribbling in his notebook. Public school sucked. For a moment he couldn’t help but ponder the logistics of transferring - Christine really was the only one who would miss him but she was likeable, she could make friends. No matter how hard he ‘owned it’ or any shit, the nightmare never ended, losers were just losers at the end of the day. He’d been hopeful for too long. It wasn’t even like he particularly disliked himself, he knew that he was just trying to live and survive. Though, he had to admit, it was easier for him to change rather than all of his peers. Swallowing thickly he let his eyes flicker to the clock.
At least lunch was there for him. He could pull on his headphones and tug up his hood, ducking around classmates until he was the first one out the door. He could practically feel all the eyes on him, fingers fidgeting with the still damp ends of his sleeves. It was uncomfortable but he’d take that over being without wearing it.
Keeping his head down he passed through the hallways as quickly as he could, crossing the building to make his way to the lunch room. It was already bustling once he arrived and with a long breath he dropped into a seat on the edge of the room. At least people were avoiding him, avoiding the table he took up - he’d rather be avoided than harassed. Even if it put a heavy feeling in his chest.
“Mikey!” A soft voice cut through his headphones and he jerked his head up, pushing the headphones down around his neck at the same time. “Buddy, pal, duderino!”
“Hey Chris,” he couldn’t help the soft smile pulling on his lips, at least there was someone in his corner.
“Happy Wednesday! I got your usual.” She had a free period right before lunch and had begun taking it upon herself to head out and grab Michael some lunch every Wednesday. In exchange Michael would drive her places or take her out for smoothies or bubble tea. They had it all figured out.
“Thank fuck,” Michael groaned, happily accepting his slushie and tray of, honestly, half-decent sushi. He split the chopsticks apart before dousing the rolls with some of the included soy sauce packet, leaning over to take a sip of his drink. “Today sucks ass.”
“Aw, what happened?” Christine’s face creased in concern as she rested her chin on her hand.
“Well, I saw Jeremy.”
“Heere?” A smile toyed on her lips.
“God, yeah.” She giggled at that and Michael deflated with a groan. “He was getting water so in a stroke of utter genius I decided to get some water. Then my gay ass.. god, his eyes are so pretty. I literally got water all over myself and he thinks I’m a total dumbass.”
To emphasize his point he held up his sleeve to show where the fabric was still dark and damp. There was a light pat on his shoulder and Michael managed to flash her a weak smile.
“He’s a total clumsy geek,” Christine’s face was soft, a fond teasing in her tone, “I saw him trip in the hall Monday. He probably doesn’t think you’re too dumb.”
Michael couldn’t help a breathy laugh at that, maybe they could be disasters together.
“And didn’t you tell me,” Christine straightened up, turning her body to face him now, “that humans stopped evolving? So who cares if we’re weird, we’re still gonna survive!”
“Yeah, yeah. Using my own words against me, I get it.” Michael turned his attention back down to his lunch, eating his sushi at an almost alarming rate. They sat in a brief silence, Christine was content to turn her attention to her phone, one earbud in. So he let himself get a little lost, almost dozing as he propped his chin on his hand and chewed on his slushie straw.
“Mikey!” It was hissed in a whisper, brimming with excitement. “Look! Look over there.”
With a jolt Michael lifted his head, turning his head in the direction Christine was pointing (not too subtly). His face lit up with warmth and he swatted her hand, trying not to draw too much attention. It was Jeremy, in all his nervous glory. He seemed to glance over his shoulder before shuffling over to the same bulletin board Michael had passed that morning. Grabbing the pen connected to the board with a string he seemed to hesitate, writing his name in slow, messy letters.
“Holy shit.” Michael wrung his hands a bit. “The play.”
“The play!” Christine squeaked back, bouncing in her seat. “Michael, this is your chance!”
“Huh? Dude, fuck that.” He shuddered a bit at the thought of being in front of a full auditorium.
“C’mon! I’ll sign up too. You can.. do tech or something, I’m sure they’ll need all the help they can get.”
Michael groaned, slumping a bit where he sat.
“Well, I’m gonna sign up anyways, whether or not you’re coming with.”
That was enough for Michael to sigh, shouldering his bag as he stood up. In one hand he collected his trash, the other holding onto his slushie. “Fine. But I’m not acting.”
“That’s the spirit!” Christine grinned, hooking their arms together as she dragged him towards the poster. He tossed his garbage into the trash as they passed, doing a little fist pump in victory when he didn’t miss. Christine giggled at that, moving to push him forward towards the sign up, ahead of her.
Steeling himself he grabbed the pen, eyes lingering on Jeremy’s name for a moment. He could do it. He could do anything - couldn’t he? Grimacing he sighed, reaching up to scribble his name right below Jeremy’s before stepping to the side so Christine could add her name, too.
“Oh!” Michael heard a squeak and felt someone bump him as they pushed past, heading down the hall. “I wish I had a gay best friend, aw.”
Feeling his face heat up he made a noise that was drowned out by the bell, Christine just flashed him a soft smile. It wasn’t like anyone noticed him so he could only hope he was labeled as gay from his rainbow patch and not for the fact he signed up for the play. Either way, it stung to hear some insinuation that Christine was only his friend because he was gay. They’d been friends for years and Michael had only recently been able to put a word to his feelings. Shaking his head he pivoted on one foot, heading down the hall to his next class. He pulled his hood up and chewed on the already damaged plastic of his straw. All he had to do was make it until the end of the day.
By the end of his day his sleeves were dry, at least that embarrassment would be gone by rehearsal. Every time he shifted his leg the desk he sat in creaked, he bit his tongue. He only had to hold out a few more minutes. Choking back the urge to bounce his leg he fidgeted with his hands, drawing tight spirals in the margins of his notebook. His gaze darted between the paper and the clock.
Go, go, go, go.
Gripping his pencil he let his gaze dart around, briefly landing on Rich. They met eyes and Michael let his gaze drop - why was Rich looking at him? The most that had ever happened between them was Rich pushing past him in the hall, nearly sending him to the ground. As far as he knew Rich didn’t even know who he was.
As the bell rang he hopped out of his seat, not sparing anymore glances as he ducked out of the room.
Chapter 2: [he] love[s] play rehearsal / more than survive (reprise)
trying to balance out michaels normal attitude and finding ways he could fit the role of jeremy and fall into feeling the same way while trying to keep his original character intact. i suppose theres something to be said about who michael would be without jeremy as well, so i can play around with his character.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
So, he was never going to be cool. He could live with that, right? He’d never had an issue with being a loser before, but he just felt so tired. More than usual. At least the drama club was meeting. As far as he knew he and Christine were the only people who had signed up after Jeremy, that could be good. At least for the first meeting before Mr. Reyes would try to get more students involved. They could establish some sort of early connection, they’d have a reason to talk.
christine (2:52 pm): hey!! go ahead and head to drama im gonna be a little late
christine (2:52 pm): gotta run something to a teacher!
michael (2:53 pm): jesus christ now i gotta go alone?
christine (2:54 pm): you dont have to do this mikey
christine (2:54 pm): but if you dontttttttt i might just have to steal jers heart for myself over a bond of theatre
michael (2:55 pm): cmon dude how late are u gonna be?
There was no response, of course he’d be so lucky. With a sigh he tucked his phone into his pocket, pulling up his hood as he headed down one of the back halls. Once he got to the auditorium doors, he paused, taking a long breath to steel himself. He was Michael Mell, he was capable. ‘I’ve got this.’
The second he pushed the door open Jeremy’s head jerked up from where he was sat on the edge of the stage. He fidgeted with his sleeves, pulling them over his fingertips. Michael couldn’t help but wonder if his hands were cold, he couldn’t help but wonder if his own hands would be warm.
Pulling his hood down, Michael took a few hesitant steps across the auditorium, towards the stage. He tried to put his normal bounce in his step, fighting off the nerves that tried to claw up out of his chest. Clearing his throat he gave a half wave, “hey! Is this, uh, where you meet for the play?”
“Oh, this is where you meet for swim team,” something lit up in Jeremy’s eyes and he pulled a crooked smile. A flash of panic crossed his face as he noticed Michael lock up a bit. “Uh, I-I’m kidding!”
“I’m Michael!” He fought the urge to tug his hood back up, feeling his palms get sweaty. What was it about Jeremy that just utterly broke him?
“I’m Jeremy,” it was soft, accompanied with a barely stifled laugh that made Michael’s face heat up. Before he could choke out an ‘I know’ and embarrass himself any further Jeremy was speaking again. “You seem n-nervous?”
“I’m.. always this shaky.” Michael held his hands up as he shrugged, conveying a ‘what can you do?’ sort of emotion, smiling awkwardly. He bit his tongue, just willing himself to be steady.
“First time acting?” Jeremy patted the stage next to where he was sitting and Michael grit his teeth, steeling himself as he made his way to sit next to him.
“Uh.. yeah.” He’d prepared some monologue about how he was actually only there to do tech but it completely disappeared from his mind when he met Jeremy’s eyes.
“You’ll love it,” Jeremy assured him, reaching out a shaky hand to give his knee a pat. “Rehearsal is just.. a-amazing!”
Michael could have passed out, Jeremy’s voice cracked a bit and his eyes lit up as he sat up a bit straighter. He waved his hands a bit, excitement bubbling up out of him.
“I just love it.. it’s.. great.” He seemed to notice his overexcitement and tried to calm himself a bit, shoulders slumping slightly. “I just.. I can’t h-help but get so excited. You don’t have to worry a-a-about anything else when you’re acting. You don’t have to worry about school or homework or.. I have a lot of anxiety!”
It was blurted out and Jeremy flinched a bit, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Yeah, I.. get that. Me.. too.” Michael offered up a smile, watching how the light returned to Jeremy’s eyes.
“It’s easy to just.. r-read a script. You know what c-comes next and you don’t have to be afraid.” Jeremy stuck his arms back out, leaning back a bit where he sat. All of Michael’s worries melted away as he watched a beautiful boy bubble with excitement. “And life.. just isn’t like that. I get.. to be under a sp-spotlight without being too scared. I get to be s-someone I’m not for a few hours.”
All Michael could manage was a nod, keeping his eyes focused on a point behind Jeremy’s head. Eye contact was important, or at least faking it was, he wanted Jeremy to know he was listening. “Yeah.. for sure.”
“Ah,” Jeremy let out a shaky breath, almost wheezing out a sound. He waved his hands dismissively, face going red. “Sorry, I don’t know.. why I’m telling you a-all this.”
For a moment they sat in silence, Michael opened and closed his mouth, weighing his options. He wasn’t always the best at saying the right thing, but he wanted to try. Before he could say anything, though, Jeremy was talking again. “I guess.. part of me just w-wants to?”
There was a sheepish look crossing his face and Michael’s gaze shifted, truly meeting his eyes. He froze up a bit as Jeremy leaned over, bumping their shoulders together lightly.
“Yeah!” Michael felt his body buzzing from the contact, nodding a bit frantically as he dropped his gaze. “I get that. Sometimes.. I can’t help but just want to do everything? Like.. there’s so much to do and I want to try it all.”
Jeremy nodded, a smile flashing over his face. He reached out a hand, turning to face Michael a bit more directly as he laid a gentle hand over his shoulder. “Well I’m glad you’re here! I don’t think many people are really g-gonna come.. so..”
“Oh yeah, my uh, frien-”
Before Michael could finish the auditorium doors practically flung open to Christine popping in. Michael perked up despite the interruption because it was going well. The happiness didn’t last long, though, Jeremy jumped from the noise and pulled his hand away. A few more kids pushed in behind Christine and Michael deflated a bit. Of course.
“Thank god, the popular kids are here,” Mr. Reyes' voice was soft as he made his way onto the stage. Michael wasn’t really listening, regardless - of course this happened. Life couldn’t help but send him curveballs. At least Christine was there to help keep him grounded, taking her usual spot beside him.
Chairs scraped against wood as the popular kids dropped into some of the seats and soon Jeremy hauled himself up from where he sat on the stage to get a chair. After a moment Michael followed, offering Christine a hand to help her up. By the time he turned around he saw Jeremy sitting down next to Brooke. Brooke. He cringed a bit, taking his own seat, she was gorgeous. And she smiled at Jeremy, giving him a soft wave. Normally he was able to take note of his own merits, but now there was a beautiful girl sitting next to Jeremy with a wide smile and an incredible physique. Maybe he should have tried out for some sport. Maybe Jeremy had a thing for jocks.
A pat on his shoulder drew him back to reality and he relaxed at Christine’s comforting touch, zoning back in to whatever Mr. Reyes was going on about. Zombies? A play about zombies? Anything else was more interesting to him so he let his gaze wander a bit, glancing between his peers. He almost swore he felt eyes on him but when he looked up there was nothing. He couldn’t help but notice Rich who was on his left. He couldn’t help but think about that morning - for some reason Rich had noticed him. It almost made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, it was.. odd.
At least their first meeting was short. All Michael wanted was to go home and crawl into bed. Just when he thought he had a handle on life he had to have the worst of the worst days.
Couldn’t he just get lucky once? Couldn’t someone just help him out?
Christine gave him a wave and a sad smile before she ducked away, she had to get home before too late. Instead of taking the bus she was getting picked up. He couldn’t even have that small comfort of a friend on the bus.
“Hey, Jeremy right?” Michael winced, Brooke’s voice was as pretty as she was. The bus was still going to be ten minutes and the auditorium was a lot calmer than outside. Even if it meant he’d have to witness whatever was unfolding before him. He pulled up his hood as his shoulders slumped, aimlessly scrolling on his phone.
“Yeah. Uh, Brooke?” If he looked up Michael would have seen her smile, genuinely at him.
“Can I say something kinda dumb?”
There was a silence and Michael grit his teeth, just hoping Jeremy would say no, would get up and leave. He must have nodded and Brooke started talking again. It was almost hard to feel dread when her voice had that lilt to it.
“You.. were in the play last year, right?” Another pause. Michael pictured the bounce of Jeremy’s hair as he nodded his head. “You were the guy that died.”
Deciding he’d had enough Michael tugged his headphones up over his ears. They couldn’t muffle everything but it was enough to cut out the voices, they were speaking low enough. He let his gaze drift and fall out of focus, it was almost as if he’d blinked and he was alone with Jeremy. Alone. Brooke was gone. It made him perk up a bit.
With a jolt he hopped out of his seat, struggling to slip his bag on as he approached Jeremy who seemed a bit dazed.
“Hey, I saw the pins on your bag and if you ever wanted to play games I-”
“What did you say?” Jeremy spun around to face him, something far off in his eyes.
“Uh. Nothing,” Michael forced it out with a smile. “I’ll.. uh, see you?”
Even his tone seemed far off, breathless.
It stung, of course it did. Sure, maybe he was a bit head over heels for Jeremy but that wasn’t the point. For once he’d thought he’d made some sort of connection, a friend. He’d even thought he could take place in a play on a stage, now he’d just have to see if he could drop out. Even if Christine would tease him over it - he’d take that over the rolling nausea at the thought of performing in front of his peers. At the thought of Jeremy smiling back at Brooke.
Maybe he was just destined to be alone. The lonely, sad, queer kid. That’s who he was, wasn’t it? Just some loser. For the first time in years the thought stung. He and Christine had always branded themselves as losers and he was okay with that.
Until he wasn’t.
How was Christine still okay with it? She always had that smile on her face, no matter what she got called for hanging out around him, she always came back. She always made it through. So how come Michael felt like he was drowning? It had to be him, right? Something must have been wrong inside of him. He was the problem.
Michael Mell was a lot of things.
For once he wanted one of those things to just be.. okay.
It could have worse, it really could have. As far as rejections went it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There was still a familiar sting in his chest, the voice of his mom seemed to ring out in his head, babbling about rejection sensitive dysphoria, but all he could respond with was a plea for his mom to just stop treating him like one of her patients. To treat him like a son.
At least this time he didn’t have a panic attack.
Maybe he didn’t even have to survive high school anymore. All he wanted was for Jeremy to look at him like that, with that smile. For once he could feel seen and he’d be happy.
kudos and comments keep me going ;P