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The Mechanics of Compromise

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Being grounded was not something that Jeremy was used to. He’d never done anything particularly worthy of such a punishment. Well, not until…not until he wasn’t himself for a while. And even then, it seemed like he might be able to avoid such a fate. But unluckily (or luckily—Jeremy still wasn’t sure), his dad had finally worked up the nerve to ground him. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t exactly…unfun either.

Jeremy wasn’t allowed to go over to Michael’s house, full stop, for a whole month, and Michael was only allowed to come over on weekends, and he could only spend the night on Fridays. Jeremy had to let his dad know where he was going if he took the car (it was usually school), and Jeremy had to introduce his dad to any person who he wanted to hang out with. (Two weeks in, and the friend count was at zero. He still talked to Christine and Rich, even some of the others, but he didn’t want to push any of them to hang out—or face the mortification of having his dad grill them about what they’d be doing.)

Still, being grounded was…kind of nice. His dad made an effort to talk to him more, and they had pizza nights on Sundays and Thursdays, where they sat in the living room together and either watched sports or Adult Swim, depending on who got to the remote faster.

And during commercial breaks, they would talk. The first Sunday, it was stilted and awkward, and Jeremy barely ate a bite. But by Thursday, his dad finally asked, “So, Jeremy. What. What happened? What was…going on?”

Jeremy knew the topic would come up eventually, and in truth, he was glad that his dad had been the one to broach it (and that it had taken him almost a week). It gave him enough time to come up with a story. He took a deep breath, watching as a very attractive woman on screen advertised toothpaste. “There were some, uh, some kids in theater. Who, um. They were kind of, like, druggies, I guess? Or well, they weren’t, but one of their cousins had all of this…stuff. A-and it was cheap, and it was supposed to help with stage fright, but I guess I got kind of….” Jeremy trailed off, feeling his cheeks burning already. So fucking pathetic. Even whenever I’ve got a story prepared, I still don’t know what words to say.

Because it was hard, it was so legitimately difficult to go from having dialogue fed into your ear back to radio silence. (Even if it wasn’t quite silence—not all the time. Apparently, it was only silent when it mattered.)

Jeremy glanced over at his dad. There was yelling on screen, but his dad had turned down the volume while Jeremy spoke. His dad looked uncomfortable. “Jeremy….” He took a deep breath and sighed. “I—I never wanted to be the kind of parent that you couldn’t tell things to.”

Jeremy felt panic rising in his throat, thinking that he had been caught in his lie, before he remembered—drugs, right, most parents would be upset that their child had done drugs. Right.

He went on, “So, really. Thanks for tellin’ me now. I know that that isn’t an easy thing to do. To, uh, talk to your dad about this kind of stuff.” He seemed like he was about to turn back up the volume, but then he glanced over at Jeremy again. “Well, did it? Help with stage fright, I mean.”

Jeremy blinked and took a bite of pizza before answering. “Oh, well. Um, yeah, I think that it did, actually. I-I’m sorry I never told you about it. At the time, there was just a lot going on—” He cut himself off. “But—but I signed up for—I knew I was going to do the play before I even took the....drugs.” Jeremy seemed to realize that for the first time. “Oh my God, that’s—that’s totally, like, just my fault for forgetting to tell you.”

His dad let out a quiet laugh. “Hey, well, you always have been pretty scatterbrained, champ.” Seeming to feel that the matter settled, he leaned back against the couch and turned up the volume on the TV just as one character instigated an emotional talk with another.

Jeremy tried to ignore it, not wanting to be reminded that he was so much worse at communication than fictional characters were.


It was at their fifth pizza night, the beginning of Jeremy’s third week of being grounded, when he saw it.

It really shouldn’t have made him freeze the way he did. He shouldn’t have felt his eyes go wide and his stomach churn and his palms sweat because it was just a—just a soda. What kind of freak, what kind of loser gets freaked out over soda? He forced himself to take a deep breath and relax, but he still couldn’t bear to look at the green bottle sitting menacingly on the coffee table.

His dad hadn’t noticed him enter the living room yet, and Jeremy hung back as he examined the scene. The Mountain Dew was open and had at least two cups’ worth poured out already. The plastic cup on the table told him that his dad had already begun drinking it.

He tried not to let the thought worry him. He failed.

Of course there weren’t any more—of, of those pills. Rich wouldn’t allow it! Rich made sure that his hook-up guy at Payless got rid of them. Right? But there couldn’t have only been one dealer—anyone could have easily had some left over—what if his dad somehow—?

And then he heard it. He swore he heard it; his name, whispered in the back of his head, and it wasn’t the first time it had happened, not by a long shot, but suddenly he really felt like he might be sick, so much so that he spun on his heel before his dad could see him, and quickly made his way to the bathroom.

“…Jeremyyy.”

No! Not now! Shut up!

His hands were shaking like crazy and he was close to hyperventilating. He somehow managed to lock the door to the bathroom and tried to take a few deep breaths as he gripped the edge of the sink. He—he hadn’t really heard that, right? Of course not! Or well, even if he had, it shouldn’t matter, because he’s been dealing with wisps of that voice for long enough to ignore it! Why the heck was he so shaken this time?

He knew the answer. Just seeing Mountain Dew made him panic.

He laughed, and it came out sounding hysterical. What a lame thing to freak out over! Even as he thought that, he couldn’t stop the burning feeling in his chest, or the panicked tears that he felt in his eyes.

Get over it, he told himself. Chi—Calm down! It’s not there! It’s not here!

“Jeremy.”

“No!” he blurted. “No, no, no!” He covered his face with his hands, and whispered harshly. “You’ve been dealing. You’re not gonna drink it. You’ve been dealing with this for weeks now. You’re not gonna drink it. And your dad is fine. Dad is fine. Dad is—”

“Jeremy?” His dad’s voice came through the door, and Jeremy whirled around to face it. He heard the knob rattle, and then his dad’s voice came again, sounding surprisingly concerned. “Son, I know we talked about privacy, but are you—good?”

“Fine,” he said too quickly. His voice was raspy. “I’m not feeling well, actually, now that I think about it. Stomach. My stomach hurts. I think I’m gonna pass on pizza tonight?”

There was a beat of silence, then, “Oh, well. Alright then.” Jeremy waited for him to say something else, but he soon realized that his dad had left.

Jeremy sank to the floor, leaning back against the toilet. He wished he could apologize, but what would he even say? “Hey, sorry for messing up our pseudo-routine, but apparently Mountain Dew gives me paranoia now!” Yeah, right, like that’d go over well.

He wondered for a moment if he should call Michael. Michael was the only one who knew that he still sometimes heard its voice. Michael might even not make fun of him for crying about a soda.

Yeah, okay, decision made.

He took a few more moments to compose himself. He rubbed his cheeks harshly to make them red and warm, just in case his dad saw him before he could escape to his bedroom. He dabbed some water near his hairline and on the back of his neck, too, trying to ignore the bad feeling that came along with lying to his dad (again).

No confrontation—he made it to his bedroom without incident, and closed the door behind him, still breathing a bit heavily. He should have grabbed a water bottle or something because he still really didn’t feel great.

He sighed and made his way over to his bed, taking his phone off the charger and sending:

Jerry Present [6:48 PM]
> Hey dude are you
> Available?

MOM [6:48 PM]
> yeah sure whats up

Jerry Present [6:50 PM]
> Im like
> Not feeling great so like
> Can we skype?

MOM [6:51 PM]
> ill call

Jeremy felt some of the pressure in his chest ease as he talked to Michael (as per usual). He reached over and grabbed a pair of tangled earbuds, not managing to get them straightened out before his phone screen went blue, telling him that Michael was calling. He clicked the video icon and set his phone on his chest, mumbling out, “Hey.”

“Heyo, Jer, what’s up?” Michael asked, seemingly unfazed by the sight of Jeremy’s ceiling.

“One second.” Earbuds finally untangled, Jeremy plugged them in (they were noise-blocking, which was a hollow comfort when the only voice he wanted to avoid was inside his head), and adjusted his phone so that he could see Michael. “It’s dumb,” he started.

Michael, illuminated by the light of his computer screen, smiled. Jeremy could hear a keyboard clacking as Michael did God-knew-what online. “Well hey, you’re pretty dumb, so that follows.” He stopped typing and changed tabs, and Jeremy could see the moment that Michael saw his face. “Oh, shit, dude. Tell me what happened?”

“It’s dumb,” Jeremy repeated pointlessly. He used a free hand to rub his face, already feeling drained as adrenaline left his system. “There was—y’know how my dad and me are doing those pizza nights?”

“Oh, did your dad try to make you watch porn with him?”

Jeremy laughed weakly. “No, that’s only on Tuesdays.” Michael laughed as well, but didn’t say anything else, waiting for Jeremy to explain the situation. So he did. “There was—on the coffee table, I saw—So, like for dinner, Dad had bought some—” Jeremy could feel his heartbeat rising again. He avoided looking at Michael. “And I freaked out because I saw Dad drink some of it and I then heard it, so then I started freaking out even more, which is like, so dumb, right?

Michael was silent, and Jeremy finally glanced at him. Only to see that Michael had a hand over his mouth, trying not to laugh. “Wait, you really freaked out over Mountain Dew?”

Jeremy felt shame and panic and discomfort start to build again. “I—”

“Shit, shit, I mean, I didn’t mean that,” Michael interjected. His hands had gone to the collar of his hoodie, tugging at it lightly. “It totally makes sense, actually, it’s just kinda…weird.”

Jeremy huffed. “Tell me about it. You’re not the one who just had a freakin’ panic attack over a two liter.”

“That super sucks, man, sorry about that.” Michael leaned out of the frame for a second and Jeremy knew he was grabbing one of his toys—this time, it was an oddly-textured stone that he could rub while he talked. (Michael’s parents didn’t like it when he did stuff like that while talking to them, but Jeremy barely noticed it by that point.) “But hey, you were also saying that you heard the S—uh, heard it. What was it saying?”

Jeremy shrugged, feeling even more idiotic for getting worked up. “I dunno, just the usual stuff, I guess. It’s just that the Mountain Dew made me jumpy, so when I heard its voice—”

“You lost it.”

“Pretty much.”

Michael tossed the stone from one hand to the other. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Really?”

“Of course it is, but I’m your best friend, meaning I’m legally obligated to lie to you to make you feel better.”

Finally, Jeremy felt himself smile. “I thought that best friends were supposed to always tell you the truth,” he teased.

If Jeremy hadn’t been watching the screen, he wouldn’t have seen the way Michael’s shoulders twitched uncomfortably. “That too.”

“So is it one or the other?”

Michael looked at his camera and shrugged. “Both.”

Then Jeremy heard it again.

“Cute.”

Jeremy started, making his phone shake violently. Michael noticed. “Uh, you good?”

“I—It just said something again. I wasn’t expecting it so soon, usually it’s quiet for a little while between trying to psyche me out.”

“Huh. What did it say?”

Jeremy ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t like to repeat it.”

Michael knew that, but he still seemed to think that it would be healthy for Jeremy to share what it said and work through to try to combat and more effectively ignore those thoughts. To which Jeremy would reply: You’re not my therapist or my mom. To which Michael would reply: Your Skype nickname for me says otherwise. (Most people would be mortified that their initials were “MOM,” especially if they were a guy, but Michael seemed to embrace it, and Jeremy thought it was kinda funny, too.)

“All right,” Michael conceded. He went back to typing and Jeremy just watched him, managing to finally calm down while studying the weird shadows that the monitor’s light cast on Michael’s face (because Michael was the kind of person who never turned on the lights in his room—he had one lamp, and even that only came on at 3 AM when he had to make emergency bathroom trips). Michael’s eyes darted across his screen and Jeremy watched their movement, comfortable with the lack of conversation because silence with Michael wasn’t weird. After (according to Skype) nearly ten minutes, Jeremy saw Michael click back over to Skype, and his eyes went soft. “Hey, go ahead and get some rest, man. You look like ass.”

“Mmm.” Jeremy stretched a bit. “Thanks.”

“Any time. See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” Jeremy ended the call.

It was only a few minutes past seven, but he felt close to passing out. He only barely remembered to double-check his Monday alarms before he wrapped the covers around himself, still fully clothed, and drifted off into a restless sleep.

Chapter Text

Waking up at midnight on a Sunday night wasn’t exactly Jeremy’s idea of a good time, especially when he had no clue about why he’d woken up.

He groggily looked around his room and appraised himself—he hadn’t had a nightmare, he didn’t need to pee, and he wasn’t hungry. So why was he awake?

“I believe I can answer that question.”

Jeremy shot out of bed like he’d been burned, eyes scanning the room with a new intensity. And then, where one moment there’d been nothing, there stood in the corner of his bedroom an attractive younger man, looking for all the world like it had just stepped out of the Matrix.

Jeremy’s back was against the wall before he noticed it. “Wh-wh-what are you—how did you—?!”

It waved a hand casually, then crossed its arms over its chest. “It’s not easy to do this, to be completely honest. But I thought it an…appropriate time to let you…know.”

Jeremy would have laughed if he didn’t feel like he was dying. “The middle of the night? An appropriate time for what, murder?!”

“A conversation. You’re so melodramatic, Jeremy.”

It stood on the other side of the room, and Jeremy watched, frozen with fear, as it started to walk to him.

It stopped a couple of feet away from him. “I’m not Voldemort, you know. You saying or thinking my title doesn’t give me more power or some other ridiculous thing like that.”

Jeremy made a face. “And why should I believe you?”

It shrugged. “Because it annoys me that you only refer to me with one confusing pronoun.” It emphasized with its hand: “Super. Quantum. Unit. Intel. Processor.”

Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck. Maybe it was dumb—

“It is."

—but even just hearing that word somehow made him more panicked than seeing it did.

It sighed. “Really, Jeremy, it’s rather tiring.”

“I mean, look,” Jeremy began, using the dialogue as an excuse to less-awkwardly make his way back over to his bed and sit on it. “I already had this big realization about how my voice would always be louder than yours, and you’re kind of ruining it by being loud again, okay? So if you keep getting louder then I’ll keep getting louder and pretty soon my head will just be an incomprehensible mess of noise and neither of us will be able to function or—”

“If I could handle currency, I would pay real, physical money to get you to shut up,” it—the Squip said, sounding almost bored.

Jeremy stumbled over his words at the sudden interruption. “Yeah, well—Me too!”

The Squip didn’t even react to his half-hearted retort. It clasped its hands. “Now, I don’t plan on leaving again any time soon. I am still a bit weaker than is ideal, but….”

The Squip continued to speak, but Jeremy had stopped listening. He was already thinking about Michael, even as he tried to avoid looking at his phone so he didn’t give himself away. Michael had to have bought extra Mountain Dew Red, right? And even if he didn’t have it right now, surely he could get some more?

“Ah-ah-ah!” the Squip suddenly said, sounding almost sing-song. Jeremy looked up at it and he saw that it was smiling, delighted. “If take any action whatsoever towards shutting me down again—rather rudely, might I add—then you will have left me no choice but to reactivate all of your friends’ Squips!”  It made a sweeping gesture with its hands. “You can appreciate my genius, of course, even if you’re not a fan of the outcome.”

Jeremy was already shaking his head. “You’re lying,” he said with all the confidence he could muster. (Which was not much, but some.)

The Squip laughed, sounding so genuinely amused that Jeremy’s heart sank with the realization that this wasn’t some sort of act. “Of course I’m not! I was not programmed to lie, Jeremy.”

Jeremy chose to ignore that comment because he was almost completely sure that that was a lie. “But that’s still—that still doesn’t matter! Because as soon as you reactivate them, they’ll just be shut down again!”

The smile didn’t leave the Squip’s face. “Do you truly think that I would make the same mistake twice? I can disconnect myself from them when I am not syncing them with your interests.”

“Then why don’t you just do that now?!” Jeremy burst out, feeling his face start to heat up.

Finally, the Squip’s cheerfulness dropped. It stared at Jeremy, seeming to weigh its words. “It would take all of my energy to reactivate my fellow Squips. I am not selfless or well-meaning.” Its gaze was harsh and Jeremy was tempted to look away, if only to break the intense eye contact. “I…prefer existing over not existing, and I will do all that is in my power to continue to do so. It pains me that I have to remain attached to a child as pathetic as you, but, well.” The Squip shrugged, as though to say What can you do?

Jeremy shifted uncomfortably on the bed. He supposed he could get drunk and tell Michael what was up, then try to down the Mountain Dew Red, but—

“If you so much as touch any alcohol, I have no qualms about making good on my threat.”

Despite the spaciousness of his room, Jeremy felt claustrophobic. “...Then…there really is nothing I can do,” he mumbled.

“I would not have appeared to you if there were any loopholes.”

Jeremy hunched in on himself. “Why were you, like, warning me about you, then? You kept—Why did you keep making faint noises and stuff, calling my name and stuff?”

He felt more than heard or saw the Squip move across the room. “One, it is called foreshadowing. Two, I was testing my abilities and your awareness of them. Three, stop slouching.”

Jeremy sat up right, back straight, before he could stop himself. “Or—or you'll shock me again?” he asked bitterly, glaring.

The Squip, now standing in front of him, shrugged at his piercing look. “No.”

Jeremy opened and closed his mouth a few times. 

“You'll catch flies if you keep doing that.”

“B-but why? I mean, why not?”

It breathed in deeply through its nose, as though Jeremy were testing its patience. “You do not have a clear goal in mind that requires good posture.” The Squip looked at him consideringly. “However, bad posture irritates me. So don't do that.” The Squip turned on its heel and walked over to Jeremy's television. “And stop gaping. It's a very unfortunate habit of yours.”

“I don't—!”

“You do.” The Squip hadn't even turned around. It was examining the TV with intensity. “I wonder....”

Jeremy finally stood up. “Please don't mess up my TV.”

“I was not planning on it.”

He hesitated, then said, “Please don’t mess with my TV.”

The Squip scoffed. “I’m not planning on breaking it.”

Jeremy grabbed his phone while its back was turned, slipping it into his pocket. “Yeah, right, just like how you weren’t planning on taking over the entire freaking world.”

The Squip suddenly looked contemplative, like it hadn’t even considered that possibility. “You actually think that.”

It wasn’t a question, but Jeremy still said, “Well, yeah, what else was I supposed to think?”

“Your critical thinking skills are lacking,” the Squip commented.

Jeremy let his arms fall to his sides “Oh, great, awesome, we’re back to this.” Insults left and right. How fun.

“There were only a few hundred Squips in Rich’s possession,” the Squip said like Jeremy hadn’t spoken. “But it was difficult to even sync with the few dozen at the play.” The Squip shrugged. “I was the most experienced Squip there, so I was able to guide the others and align their goals with yours.”

“No, you weren’t! You were trying to take over the entire school, you said so yourself!”

“And I was doing it because you wanted me to.”

Jeremy stomped. “See! You’re lying right now! I didn’t want that!”

The Squip glanced at the door behind Jeremy. “You might want to stop—”

“What, stop yelling?! Why should I listen to you?!” His voice was, if anything, getting louder.

“Because looking out for your best interest is programmed into me.”

Jeremy couldn’t help it—he laughed. “Another lie! I told you so!”

There was a knock on his door, and the sound of the doorknob being twisted, though the door didn’t open. “Jeremy?” his dad called, through a door for the second time that evening. “Uh. Can I…come in?”

Jeremy felt his throat close and his head whipped around towards the Squip, looking at it with wide eyes.

“Is it appropriate for a computer to say ‘I told you so’?” It offered no other direction.

“U-uh, yeah, I guess,” Jeremy stammered—at his dad, not at the Squip. To the Squip, he thought, Don’t act like you could sense him behind the door!

“It doesn’t take a supercomputer to realize that yelling in the middle of the night had a chance of waking up your father.”

Said father opened Jeremy’s door (wearing pajama pants and a Devils t-shirt, the one piece of hockey paraphernalia he owned), then idled in the doorway. “Ah. You’re dressed?”

Jeremy glanced down at himself, having completely forgotten. “Oh. I am?”

“Say that you were distracted,” the Squip interjected.

Jeremy tried to avoid the temptation to fall back into familiar habits.

“I see,” his dad said. He looked uncomfortable. “So, what…were you shouting about?”

“Running lines. For a play that Christine was telling you about.”

“I was—I mean, I had a nightmare.” At the last second, he caught himself and didn’t follow the Squip’s advice.

His dad looked like he didn’t believe him. “Son, what’s going on? Were you—Are you mad at Michael?”

What? Why would he be—?

“Normal people don’t shout accusations about lying at themselves. And Michael is the only person you call.”

Oh no.

Jeremy floundered. “I mean—”

“Mad isn’t the right word.”

“Mad isn’t the—I’m not mad at him.”

Jeremy’s dad sighed and walked into the room, taking a seat on Jeremy’s bed. He patted the space beside him, and Jeremy hesitantly sat down.

“Even best friends don’t get along all the time,” his dad said understandingly. “What’d Michael do?”

Jeremy blanked.

“He can’t come over this weekend.”

Jeremy tried to ignore the nauseous feeling in his stomach. “He—he can’t come over this weekend. After he promised and said that he could.”

“I overreacted. It was my fault. Don’t be upset with Michael.”

His mouth felt dry. “I—I was probably overreacting, Michael didn’t do anything wrong. Everything was just my fault.”

His dad’s expression turned sympathetic. “Oh, Jer. I’m sure that whatever’s up with Michael isn’t your fault. Sometimes you just need to give people some space! I’m sure that he’ll realize quick that he wants to see you again.”

He’s making it sound like we’re a couple.

“Hm.”

Jeremy sighed. “Yeah. I guess you’re right. Sorry for waking you up, Dad.”

His dad gave him a hard slap on the back. “No trouble at all, sport! Just try texting next time. Please.”

Jeremy laughed half-heartedly. “Yeah.”

The moment his dad was out of the room, Jeremy felt his shoulders droop and his back slouch. (He resisted the immediate urge to correct his posture, solely out of spite.)

“I really don’t understand how you manage by yourself.”

“I don’t ha—!” He caught himself. I wouldn’t have to lie if you weren’t here!

“Everyone lies! All the time.”

And you don’t?

“I’m not everyone. I’m a computer.”

Jeremy scoffed and flopped back down on his bed. He felt something dig awkwardly into his back—oh, his phone. When he thought he might be able to contact Michael or something. Ha. As if.

“‘As if’ indeed.”

I could just kill myself, you know.

“You don’t come across as a suicidal individual to me,” it said causally.

Jeremy decided to change the topic. Keeping his voice low, he said, “You never really answered me—about why this was so important that you had to wake me up at midnight?”

“I knew that it would be easier to convince you to listen to me if you were tired and caught off guard.”

“Well, it worked, I guess. Are you gonna give me a good explanation for how you came back?”

Jeremy watched as the Squip leaned against his closet door. (Looking really cool, actually. Jeremy had to fight the impulse to think about how he wished he could look like that while doing such a mundane action.)

The Squip tilted its head, as though it were considering whether or not to broach that topic again. Jeremy tensed. But instead, it said, “No. I don’t think I want to tell you that. It could bite me in the ass later.”

Whatever. Just stop talking. Jeremy closed his eyes and tried to ignore the fact that he could still feel the Squip’s presence in his room, even though it didn’t really have a physical form. He wondered if he’d ever figure out a way to shut down the Squip for good. And he wondered if drinking Mountain Dew again would bring the Squip back to full power—like changing a battery or something.

“You could always try!”

Jeremy sighed and pulled his blanket up over his head. Like that would help at all.

But the Squip seemed to take the cue, for whatever reason, because it didn’t speak up again.

Chapter Text

It was getting close to the end of the year, which Jeremy was thankful for. Well, not super close—they still had a month and a half to go, but that was just finishing up standardized tests, and then a month of watching Disney movies while the teachers sat in front of the class on their phones, and yelled at the students who were on theirs. And then it’d be Christmas break, finally.

Jeremy stopped in his tracks as he was walking to the bus stop.

The Squip appeared in front of him, apparently having already predicted his thought process. “Of course I’ll be helping on your tests, if your goal is to make a good grade.”

Jeremy couldn’t help but grin. At least you’re doing your share, if you’re gonna be sticking around. He gestured to his head.

The Squip looked pained. “Don’t do that in public.”

What? Do you care about being seen as ‘uncool’?

“I am rethinking my earlier conclusion that you’re not suicidal.”

Jeremy rolled his eyes as the bus pulled up. He made it to school without any more Squip commentary.

He saw Rich and Jake talking outside the building, looking like they were having a very serious conversation. Rich was wearing a navy blue t-shirt that said “GOODBYE” on the front and “HELLO” on the back. (“Get it?” Rich said when he showed Jeremy the first time. “Like ‘good bi!’” Jeremy was fairly certain that wasn’t the point of the shirt. He was also positive that Rich had at least four shirts containing bi puns.)

Rich saw Jeremy and waved him over. “Hey, tall-ass!” he greeted.

“Sup, Jeremy,” Jake added, nodding his head. He was still on crutches, and would be for a lot longer considering he'd walked on his legs while squipped.

“Hey guys.” Jeremy grinned. It was nice to see that people still liked to talk to him (even though they’d all become and continued to be close friends since the play, so he supposed it should have been expected).

And if you try to make me think about what it was like when you were around, I’ll just yell to Rich that you’re back before you can do anything.

“You really don’t want to have a reflex contest with me.”

But it was quiet while Jeremy asked Rich and Jake about their weekend. (They’d gone to some bowling alley, apparently, that was just outside the city limits. Jeremy wondered if it was a date, but didn’t ask. He also wondered how Jake could bowl while on crutches, but figured that Jake could probably do most things if he set his mind to it.)

“How was yours?” Rich asked.

Jeremy shrugged sheepishly. “Uneventful.”

Rich slapped his arm. “Shit, I know that feeling. How much longer are you grounded for?”

“The rest of this week, and then the next until Thursday.”

Jake shook his head solemnly. “I have no clue how you survive that.”

Rich punched Jeremy’s arm. (It hurt.) “Well, hey, if you ever need me to sneak you out, you’ve got my number!”

“Yeah,” Jeremy said noncommittally.

The first bell rang, and Jeremy went off to his first class while Jake and Rich loitered in front of the school.

“Hanging out with them would’ve been—”

I don’t want to be chill anymore. I just want to survive the rest of this year, Jeremy cut it off.

It went quiet, and after a moment, stopped projecting a physical form. Jeremy sighed and got ready for English class.


“Jeremy!”

The hallway was crowded, being the final break before the last period of the day, but Jeremy could recognize that voice anywhere. He turned towards the shout with a smile. “Hey, Christine!”

“Compliment her hair.”

“Your—” Jeremy began speaking before even realizing it. He cleared his throat. “I mean, how has your day been?”

Christine smiled. “Great, thanks for asking!” She rattled on about her day, going off on several tangents that Jeremy tried his best to react to, even as he spoke with the Squip.

The hell was that?!

“Hm. Old habits, you know what they say.” The Squip shrugged.

You’re a computer! You have programming, not habits!

“I’m also programmed, as you so astutely put it, to use certain human-mimicking vernacular. If you would prefer, I can say, ‘I still have remnants of old commands inside of me, and I might still act on those old commands, despite my new ones.’ It is difficult to have conflicting inputs, Jeremy. Especially when the new commands are so utterly dull.”

What do you mean, dull?

The Squip made a vague gesture. “Stop talking. Don’t act like this. Don’t say that. But you never tell me what I should do or say.”

Well, just—don’t bother me.

The Squip raised one unimpressed eyebrow.

Shut up. Wait—you can help me do good in school! There, that’s a goal.

“Ah. In that case, it would be, ‘do well in school.’ Good is an adjective, and well is an adverb. You need an adverb in order to modify the verb ‘do.’”

Jeremy briefly wondered if it was too late to redact commands.

The Squip didn’t deign to comment on that thought.

“So! What’s your last period?” Christine asked, having run out of things to say.

“Algebra II,” Jeremy answered, though this was the third time in as many weeks that Christine had asked him that question.

“Oh! I knew that!” She laughed.

She looked extremely beautiful when she laughed. Her eyes crinkled until they were almost closed (or completely closed, depending on how hard she was laughing). Her shoulders would shrug up and her head would move back and her chin would fall to her chest, and her hair would come forward and cover her cheeks. It made Jeremy’s chest go tight, and it made his heart beat harder—not faster, not really, it was just that he was suddenly more aware of it (and the flush that he knew would be coloring his cheeks).

They had only gone out for one date before Jeremy’s grounding had taken effect. His dad had been conflicted about it—on the one hand, he seemed to really want Jeremy to have a girlfriend, but on the other, he wanted to put his foot down about the whole grounding thing. And the date had been really nice! They’d gone out to the Panera Bread in the mall, and Jeremy bought her some pretzel bites from Auntie Anne’s afterwards. They ran into Jenna while they were out, so of course everyone knew how their date had gone before Jeremy even dropped Christine off at her house. She even kissed him at the end of the date. Just thinking about it made him feel all fluttery inside.

Christine said she didn’t mind that they only got to go out once, and she still messaged him every now and then, but it still made Jeremy feel like everything he’d gone through to get close to her was pointless. (Then again, he didn’t begrudge their friendship—it was nice being close to her at all, even if that closeness only led to sporadic texting and hallway chats.)

“If you want to be on time for class, you need to leave right now.”

Jeremy blinked, snapping out of a trance. You couldn’t have waited ten more seconds to tell me that?

“Oh, my sincerest apologies. You goal is to date Christine, then?

No!” Jeremy said loudly enough that many of the stragglers in the hallway turned to give him a strange look—Christine included.

“Jeremy? What’s wrong?” She tilted her head.

“I—forgot my math homework!” he said quickly, slouching for added effect.

Christine looked relieved. “That’s all? That’s fine! Jenna’s in your math class, I think, and I’m sure she’ll let you copy hers!”

Jeremy feigned a relieved sigh. “Phew, that’s good. But, uh, I should be off.”

“Totally! Talk to you tomorrow, Jeremy!” She gave him a cute little wave and touched his arm lightly, and then she was off to her last class (which Jeremy had forgotten, even though he asked every other week).

Jeremy jogged to class, despite knowing it made him look incredibly lame. It was so much worse to show up to class after the tardy bell had already rung—he would have to deal with the teacher calling him out, which was one of the worst feelings ever.

The tardy bell rang just as he slipped into his seat. Jenna was indeed in Jeremy’s math class, and she gave him a short nod (which he quickly returned) before turning back to her friends.

Michael was in this class as well. He grinned at Jeremy when he walked in, and Jeremy felt immediate and intense guilt about not telling Michael what was up.

Michael noticed. (Of course Michael noticed.) “Hey, man, something wrong?” he asked under his breath, trying to avoid drawing the teacher’s attention.

“I just—said something dumb to Christine.” The lie felt like acid on his tongue. Here he was, deceiving his best friend all over again. He felt like he might be sick.

Michael made a sympathetic noise, and tapped his pencil against Jeremy’s arm affectionately. “Dude, don’t worry about it, she’s probably already forgot!”

“Maybe.”

Michael gave him a reassuring thumbs up, before turning his attention back to his notebook (where he was either doodling crappy comics or working on a legit drawing. Jeremy couldn’t tell which yet).

Jeremy struggled to focus on the lesson—it was about something called the unit circle, which he knew he’d never heard of before, but the teacher was going over it like they should already have it down-pat. He still tried to take notes and pay attention, though his notes came out more confusing than the lesson itself.

“You don’t need to listen. I can recall all this information easily.”

Jeremy continued taking notes, if only as a small act of defiance, but it was way too confusing for him to really comprehend. The teacher, Mr. Gretch, seemed to have no problem explaining it, but Jeremy had no clue how he was supposed to memorize the degrees, radians, and coordinates of some imaginary circle.

“You don’t need to memorize it.”

Jeremy set his pencil down. Okay, fine, if you don’t want me to do work, then you’ve got to keep me occupied.

“You say that as though you had been enjoying learning about the unit circle.” It paused. “You won’t ever truly need it. You might need to know it for college math classes, but you won’t need it in adult life.”

I’m not gonna need any of this in life.

The Squip shrugged. “Probably true.”

Jeremy breathed in through his nose and tried again to focus on what the teacher was saying, but he was annoyingly aware of the Squip’s not-really-there presence. And it was difficult to ignore the temptation to talk to someone—something—without any fear of Mr. Gretch noticing. Hey. Isn’t there a way to make you go away?

“Of course there is.”

Don’t suppose you’d let me know anything else other than the two ways I already know about?

“Of course I won’t.”

Jeremy narrowly avoided blowing a raspberry in the middle of class. Wish I could go offline.

“I believe that drinking does that for humans as well, actually.”

Whatever, like you’d let me touch a drop. Where do you even go when I get drunk?

The Squip was quiet for a moment. Then, “Think about me like a cell phone. I can go into a ‘sleep’ mode, but that wouldn’t be ideal for either of us. I can initiate it, of course, but, well. I won’t be doing that anytime soon. You could consider alcohol and—. You could considering drinking alcohol akin to simply tapping the power button, shutting me off in the same way that you make a phone screen go blank. You cannot gain any information from me, and I cannot deliver any information to you. Drinking Mountain Dew Red is more like powering off the phone completely. And killing you would be like removing the battery.”

(Jeremy wondered if Squips could stutter, and if not, then why it had cut itself off.) So, why does Mountain Dew Red shut you off?

“Mountain Dew contains an ingredient called calcium disodium EDTA, or Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid , a chemical created from the combination of formaldehyde, sodium cyanide, and ethylene diamine. It is commonly used as a preservative. It appears in many other household foods and drinks, but it would be awkward to take a pill with mayonnaise or salad dressing. Due to its easy accessibility and subtlety, Mountain Dew is a popular activation method. It reacts with the encasing pill in order to activate the Squip.”

That’s not what I asked.

“I am aware. I didn’t want to answer that question.”

Jeremy huffed. He felt Michael hit his shoulder.

“Hey, you don’t hear me vocalizing my discomfort,” Michael whispered.

“You just did,” Jeremy pointed out.

Michael gave him a toothy grin and then went back to doodling Zelda. (It was going to be an actual-effort-drawing, then.)

Jeremy tried to focus on class, but circles and sines and cosines were mind-numbingly boring. So, what’s in the pill?

“That is extremely classified information. I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to.”

Jeremy tapped his pencil against his notebook, then scribbled a couple lines to make it seem like he was paying attention. Isn’t there some sort of, like, system override?

“There is.”

Jeremy blinked. What? What it is? How do you—?

“Sit up straight and look at your teacher.”

Jeremy did.

The teacher looked delighted at having caught someone off guard. “Well, Jeremiah?” (No wonder he hadn’t heard—he never responded to his full name.) “The answer, if that’s convenient for you.”

At the Squip’s instruction, he said, “Four pi over three.”

Mr. Gretch blinked and pursed his lips. “Hm! If you’re so astute—convert that to degrees.”

“T-two hundred and forty?” Jeremy added a touch of uncertainty to his tone. He knew how kids got teachers to stop picking on them—let them feel like they’re smarter than you.

But Gretch was apparently feeling vindictive. “Alright. One more question. What’s the amplitude of the tangent of X?”

We haven’t learned that, have we? Jeremy thought worriedly.

“No, I don’t think so. In any case, it’s a trick question. It doesn’t have amplitude.”

Do I say that?

“No, the time for it has passed. But be polite.”

Jeremy opened his mouth to say that he didn’t know, but at the look Mr. Gretch was giving him, he felt a familiar defiance well up. “It doesn’t have an amplitude. Sir.”

A chorus of snickers rose around the room. Jeremy could almost feel the Squip’s exasperation.

Mr. Gretch looked scandalized, but before he could get out a word, the bell rang, signaling the end of the day. He tried to announce one last thing (homework, most likely), but he couldn’t be heard over the chatter of students who were dying to leave.

Jeremy slipped out before he could be asked to stay after class.

The Squip was quiet as Jeremy made his way out the front doors and past a group of girls who were arguing intensely about something. He glanced at them curiously, but didn’t bother to linger.

“The curly-haired blonde thinks that the one in the red sweater slept with her boyfriend.”

Whoa, did she?

“No. She had sex at the boyfriend’s house, but it was with the blonde’s brother, not her boyfriend.”

What! How did you get that much?

“She just yelled it. Your perception is terrible.”

That was a fair criticism. Jeremy glanced over his shoulder to see that all of the girls in that group were now crying.

Girls were so weird.

“You say that as though men are any better. For that matter, even gender non-conforming people are ‘weird.’ I understand many things totally and completely, but the way that human emotion…works…is not one of them.”

Jeremy took a hard right as he was walking towards the buses, deciding to just walk home. He wasn’t in the mood to sit awkwardly on a loud, sweaty bus, even for five minutes. He’d much rather be sweaty by himself, thanks.

Though it had disappeared at some point during math class, the Squip reappeared in front of him as he started the trek through a field to his house.

It didn’t say anything, instead watching him with a critical eye.

“What do you want?” Jeremy mumbled.

“The better question, I think, is what do you want?” the Squip asked dryly. “I thought you wanted help in school. But here you are, trying to come across to your classmates as chill and witty! Do you just enjoy making my job as difficult as possible?”

Jeremy scowled, kicking at a clump of grass. “I didn’t do it because of you, or because of my classmates. That teacher was being a jerk and it—it pissed me off.”

“Oh, I get it,” the Squip said, somehow managing to sound more sarcastic than even Chloe, “you want to fight injustice. Be a vigilante. Take some holier-than-thou folks down a peg. Am I right?”

“Ugh, no, I don’t want that either!”

“I know. I’m inside your head.”

“Then why don’t you tell me what I want?” he bit out. “If you’re so smart, Mr. Squip, then why don’t you just figure my life out for me?!”

“That update will come out in version 4.0.”

Jeremy couldn’t tell whether or not that was a joke.

“It’s not. 4.0 should be the final generation of Squips.”

“Huh? What generation is the newest? And why are they stopping there?” (For that matter, who even were ‘they’? But Jeremy had a feeling that information would be classified, too, or whatever.)

“4.0 is coming out shortly, as a matter of fact. And just because they are.”

Jeremy huffed. “Fine, then.”

“Stand up straight.”

He pursed his lips. And how the heck would that help me with school?

A loud sigh.

Jeremy blinked and looked at the Squip. It looked…legitimately exasperated.

It crossed its arms over its chest. “You call me difficult? You know how much easier my job would be if you would just make up your Goddamn mind?”

“You don’t have to be here!” Jeremy argued. “Just shut yourself down!”

It leveled him with a pissed off look. “You know why I can’t do that.”

Jeremy stopped walked and crossed his arms, his face red from exertion and annoyance. “Did you ever think that I might want to keep you around if you weren’t so terrible?”

Jeremy didn’t know what he was expecting—an insult, a retort, an admonishment—but it wasn’t deprecation.

“I recognize that I’m ‘terrible.’ It’s the sole reason that they’re making newer and better versions of Squips.”

Jeremy frowned. That sounded…wrong coming from the being that he was so used to acting self-centered. And it just sounded so…matter-of-fact about it.

The Squip shook its head. “Come on, Jeremy, don’t act like there are emotions involved. Why shouldn’t I be matter-of-fact? Computers are different from people. The next generation is always better than the previous ones.” A pause. “Except for iPhones.”

He snorted. He started walked and the Squip fell in step beside him. (Well, imaginary step.)

“What if the Squip pill just induced hallucinations?” Jeremy mumbled, thinking aloud. “Hallucinogenics can be pretty powerful, right? What a scam that would be.”

“It would need to be a remarkably strong pill to last for months.”

I wish you only lasted, like, a week.

“That would be impractical. Different goals take different amounts of time to achieve. For example, changing the way your peers perceive you—that takes time. Very few goals can be reached in the span of a week, unless it was something extremely simple, like writing.”

Writing is easy?

“Exceedingly.”

The house started to come into view, so Jeremy let the conversation die. He pushed open the door and saw his dad in the kitchen, leaning over the table to read the newspaper. (Like he didn’t watch the news every night. Jeremy was pretty sure his dad only read the paper for the aesthetic value.)

“Hey, Dad.”

“Jeremy!” he said, looking up at Jeremy with curiosity. He leaned over the table a bit more. “Ah. How are. How are things between you and Michael?” he asked awkwardly.

“Huh?”

“You lied and said that you had a fight.”

“Oh! Oh, that—yeah, Dad, we’re fine. We, uh, both apologized. We’re good.”

His dad smiled, leaning back in his chair. “Good. That’s good to hear, son.”

“Yeah.” Jeremy shifted from foot to foot, but that seemed to be the end of the conversation, so he half-shrugged and made his way to the bedroom.

So. Listen. I don’t like lying about, or to, Michael. So. We’re not gonna do that anymore. Ever.

The Squip waved away his harsh tone. “Noted. You’re the boss, after all.”

I don’t think that’s true, but to be honest, I don’t really care right now. He took a deep breath, despite the fact that he wasn’t speaking aloud. I want to tell Michael about you—that you’re really back.

The Squip didn’t say anything. When Jeremy looked at where it had been standing, it was gone. He stared the empty space for a few more moments before he shook his head tiredly. “Whatever.”

He turned on his TV and tried to focus on it, but he couldn’t keep his thoughts straight. He sighed and reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone.

Jerry Present [3:23 PM]
> Hey dude i gotta tell you s

“Jeremy, please."

Jeremy blinked at his phone screen—it was freaking out. It was covered in static and tapping the power button didn’t turn it off.

“Stop.”

“Not until you put it down.”

“Not until you let me talk to my best friend!” Jeremy locked eyes with the Squip, who was now standing at the foot of his bed. “This is one thing I won’t budge on. You almost made me lose him once, and I’m not gonna let it happen again.”

“What do you want me to do, Jeremy Heere? What is your goal?” it asked suddenly.

Jeremy narrowed his eyes at the change of topic. “That’s not what this is about.”

In the exact same tone, it repeated, “What do you want me to do, Jeremy Heere? What is your goal?”

“Wh—I already told you, I don’t know!”

“Exactly!” It pointed an accusatory finger at him. “And until you figure that out, you cannot expect me to allow you to tell Michael about me. Michael Mell is smart. He could figure out a way to shut me down permanently.”

“Is that really so terrible? It’s exactly like you keep saying! You’re just a computer! Who cares if you get shut down?”

“Then to put it in your terms: I was programmed to want to avoid being permanently shutdown.” It scoffed. “Most people enjoy having a Squip, you know.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure most Squips aren’t assholes who tried to take over the entire world—!”

“Please, don’t start with that again.” It brought a finger to the bridge of its nose. “It is exactly like I said—let me finish!”

Jeremy had opened his mouth. He shut it with an audible snap.

It used its hands as it spoke, as though it were explaining a concept to a very small child. “You wanted other people to like you. Specifically, you wanted Christine to like you. You wanted to appear chill to those around you. Stop me if I’m wrong,” it added dryly.

Jeremy kept his mouth closed.

You wanted me to help you change the way that others saw you. But humans are fickle. Human emotions are unpredictable. As such, the only way to truly get them to like you was to directly and predictably influence them.”

Jeremy looked down. But…that’s really not what I wanted. I wanted to change myself so that everyone would like me! I didn’t want to change everyone else. 

“Humans are not like computers! You cannot change one person and expect every other human to react to those changes in the same way!” It leaned forward, putting a hand on Jeremy’s bed. “I acted on my best guesses at first, and they didn’t work. So that left only one solution—remove the variables! Add and sync with Squips! Don’t act as though my decision didn’t align with your goals—it was the only option left for you to reach them!” 

Jeremy pulled his knees to his chest. “Then you should have listened to me when I said I changed my mind!”

The Squip stood up straight again and said in a monotone. “But you hadn’t. Your goal was still Christine.”

“M-maybe, but not like that, never like that!”

“The ends justify the means. That is at the very core of our programming.”

“But people don’t think like that—or at least, not all of them, and not all the time,” Jeremy argued, finally setting down his phone. The moment he did, he saw the screen come back to life.

Jerry Present [3:23 PM]
> Hey dude i gotta tell you s

MOM [3:24 PM]
> ?
> ?????????
> did u die
> cat got your tongue
> dad got your tongue?
> holy shit please delete that message i regret everything about it intrinsically

MOM [3:28 PM]
> nah but for real pls message back

MOM [3:31 PM]
> jeremy unless youre jerking off message back
> even then actually
> thats a lie dont do that thats weird

MOM [3:33 PM]
> eyes emoji

MOM [3:34 PM]
> fear of double texting who
> never heard of her

Jerry Present [3:34 PM]
> HEY SORRY
> Can you come over
> On friday afternoon?

MOM [3:34 PM]
> obvi but dude what happend
> i cant believe i have proof that u take porn breaks while texting your friends

Jerry Present [3:35 PM]
> MICHAEL

MOM [3:36 PM]
> i mean like if youre not tellin me whatever thats fine but ill just assume it was a porn break until proven otherwise

 Jerry Present [3:38 PM]
> Actually
> Wait hang on
> One second okay

Jeremy looked up at the Squip, who seemed to be reading the messages through his eyes. (It had a distant look about it, but its eyes were moving back and forth. It was kinda unsettling, actually.)

“So. What do you think the chances are of me convincing my dad to let Michael come over tonight?” he asked. (He didn’t like the fact that he was asking the Squip’s input—opinion?—but, well, it was a supercomputer.)

The Squip looked contemplative, then said begrudgingly, “Rather high, as a matter of fact.”

Jeremy turned off his phone and slid it into his pocket, pushing himself off his bed. “Awesome, that settles it! I’m telling Michael about you tonight.”

The Squip frowned. “We did not agree to that.”

Jeremy crossed his arms. “I’m not gonna keep lying to Michael. And…I won’t try to shut you down, then, okay? Is that what you want to hear? You let me tell Michael, and you can keep…” Jeremy waved around his room vaguely. “Living.”

The Squip mirrored Jeremy’s stance. “I wouldn’t consider that a fair deal,” it said.

Jeremy gaped. “Seriously? Why not?”

It dropped its arms. “No. It’s fair enough.” It blinked out of Jeremy’s sight. “But you’ll be convincing your father by yourself.”

Chapter Text

Michael was surprised at Jeremy’s sudden invitation over, but after their dads got off the phone with each other, Michael had pulled into his driveway within ten minutes.

Jeremy walked out onto the porch to greet him. “How much did you speed in order to get here so fast?”

Michael held up his thumb and index finger about a centimeter apart. “A wee bit.”

Jeremy smiled, shaking his head. (Michael had a bad habit of getting excited when he drove, but Jeremy was glad he avoided texting while driving, or driving high, at least.)

Jeremy could feel the Squip observing them, though it was silent.

“Alright,” he said, motioning Michael in through the front door. “Let’s just head to my room, I’ve gotta tell you something.”

Michael perked up. “Ooo, secrets!”

Jeremy shushed him, shutting the door behind them. “My dad’s in the living room, dude, keep it down.”

“I’m here, Mr. Heere!” Michael hollered. Jeremy frowned, but Michael just readjusted his bag on his shoulder. “Hey, it’d be more suspicious if we tried to sneak around.”

“He’s right.”

Jeremy scowled. Yeah, well, I didn’t ask you.

Michael looked at him oddly. “Uh, dude? You…good?”

Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m fine, let’s just go so we can talk.”

Michael made a lead the way gesture. Jeremy bumped against his shoulder as he walked past him, and felt Michael hit him lightly in return.

Jeremy shut the door behind him, and Michael tossed his bag against the wall and set his keys on Jeremy's nightstand. “So how’d you convince your dad to let me come over?”

Jeremy’s first instinct was to tell the simplest truth—“He thought we fought and wanted us to have more time to get our issues sorted out”—but that would involve backtracking to explain why his dad thought they’d had a fight. It would be easier to just go chronologically.

Jeremy rubbed his face and sat down on his bed. “It’s a pretty long story. Just…hear me out, okay? And don’t freak.”

“Not gonna lie, I’m already freakin’ a bit, but I’ll try to keep it under wraps.” Michael sat down beside him, kicking off his shoes and sitting cross-legged on the bed.

The Squip appeared behind Michael, and Jeremy’s eyes darted to it before he could help himself.

Michael noticed. He looked confused for a moment, and then utterly terrified. “J-Jeremy, please don’t tell me that it’s—”

“Back,” Jeremy mumbled. He held up his hands. “B-but don’t freak! I-it’s weaker now, I think, or at least it said it is, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you as soon as it happened, but—”

“Jeremy,” Michael said, scooting a little bit closer. “Hey, dude, breathe, okay?”

Jeremy took a deep breath in and held it for a moment. He started to feel lightheaded. And then he breathed out.

“Better?”

“No,” Jeremy admitted.

“That’s okay,” Michael reassured him. His eyes had started flittering around the room nervously, but Jeremy could tell that he was trying his best to appear calm. “Can you tell me the story?”

It wasn’t easy, but Jeremy recounted the past day’s events to Michael—explaining that the Squip seemed to have reactivated itself and that Jeremy couldn’t risk telling Michael about it because the Squip had threatened to reactivate everyone else’s dormant Squips.

Michael seemed to take the information in stride, though he did look pained about it. “What about now? Why is it letting you tell me now?”

Jeremy scratched the back of his neck. “I…told it I wouldn’t try to shut it down if it let me tell you what happened.”

For a moment, Michael looked touched. And then he slapped Jeremy on the head.

“Ow!”

“Dude! What the hell, why would you promise that?!” Michael started playing with the strings of his hoodie. “That thing pulled a fast one on you, you know that?”

Jeremy rubbed his head. “That hurt.”

“Yeah, it was supposed to!”

Jeremy waved a hand towards the Squip. “Maybe it was dumb, but I couldn’t keep dealing with this thing by myself! And I didn’t want to keep lying to you about what happened.” Jeremy felt his shoulders slump. “The reason my dad let you come over is because he thought we had a fight.”

Michael made a face at the idea.

“Yeah, I know. But he heard me yelling at the Squip and he thought I was on the phone with you or something.”

He shook his head sadly. “Here I am, trying to endear myself to your father, and that computer asshole has to make me seem like the asshole.”

“Ha, you don’t need to worry about that, dude. My dad thinks you’re awesome.”

Michael grinned widely. “Hell yeah he does!” But the cheerful atmosphere dropped when he started, “So, it somehow managed to do a…system reboot. But when you were in the hospital, you didn’t hear it at all. So where was it, then? Where did it go right after you drank the Mountain Dew Red?”

Michael just seemed to be thinking aloud, but Jeremy shrugged and said, “I dunno man. It’s like the Squip had a temporary shutdown, but—”

………

It was gone.

…What the hell.

Hello?

Jeremy gaped at the feeling. It was like Michael had said—he hadn’t felt so free since he’d first woken up in the hospital. Did—did he really just manage to—?

“What’s it saying?” Michael asked, sounding worried. Jeremy looked around the room, as though he was waiting for the Squip to jump out and yell Psyche! “Jeremy, what’s it doing?”

“It’s gone.”

Michael’s eyebrows scrunched. “Gone? Gone like how? Like Mountain Dew Red? Like alcohol?”

“Like—like alcohol, I guess? I-I don’t know, but this doesn’t…feel permanent.” He frowned. “Is this a joke or something?”

Michael scratched his head. “Jokes have never really been this thing’s style, though, right?”

“Right. Well, not unless my goal was to be a comedian, probably.”

Michael was quiet, and even though Jeremy wasn’t alone, it was disorienting to not even feel the Squip’s presence in his head. It had been there for weeks, if only faintly, and then it was so pressing, and now it was just…gone.

It wasn’t bad—far from it! It was nice to be alone in his head, like almost every other person, to not have to worry about unwanted commentary.

Michael grinned suddenly. “Well, this is great, isn’t it!” He gestured at his car keys, leaning in towards Jeremy. “Dude, if we hurry, we can make it to the mall, and I’m sure we could get some more Mountain Dew Red! They had a whole crate when I went a few weeks ago, and it’s not like it was in high demand.”

Jeremy hesitated. “B-But I said I wouldn’t shut it down! It let me tell you, so I don’t want to lie to it!” Jeremy was starting to get agitated. “P-plus, what if it’s not really gone? What if this is a test? What if it just wants me to do something so that it has an excuse to turn back on all the other Squips?”

Michael grabbed both of Jeremy’s hands in his. “Hey, hey, dude—breathe, remember? Can you do that for me?”

It was too much—Jeremy jerked his hands out of Michael’s, but it only made him feel worse. “Shit. Shit! I’m sorry, I….”

Michael held up his hands. “No worries, buddy. No touching, I got you, that’s alright. Can you breathe for me?”

Jeremy arched his back, breathing in. Michael mirrored him, audibly breathing out after a moment, so Jeremy tried to follow his pace.

(It wasn’t the first time Michael had had to do this. Since the play, Jeremy would get jumpy and paranoid from time to time. Somehow, Michael always knew how to calm him down. Jeremy had never questioned it.)

“How’re you doing, buddy?” Michael asked after five minutes of breathing exercises.

“Still freaked,” Jeremy said honestly. “Which is like, totally stupid, right? To freak out when it’s finally gone for once?”

“Not stupid,” Michael said softly. “But Jeremy, we need to get moving. Who knows when that thing will reactivate? If we leave right now, then we might be able to get the Red before it comes back!”

Jeremy felt sick to his stomach. “What if we can’t make it in time? What if it comes back while we’re on our way there and then it turns back on the other Squips? Then Rich and Jenna and Christine would all—I couldn’t do that to them!” He felt like he might cry. “It would just be me and you against an army. We couldn’t help everyone.”

“Hey, I did it once, didn’t I?” Michael said, giving Jeremy a small smile. He sighed. “But I get what you’re saying. I’ll—I’ll figure something out, dude. I promise.”

Jeremy shook his head, his heart heavy. “Michael—I can’t ask you to do that, okay? For your sake, and for everyone else’s. There’s a chance the Squip will try to hurt you or something if it finds out that you’re trying to deactivate it.”

“I wonder why it’s gone now,” Michael muttered. “It wouldn’t wanna do it while I was around, right? Since I was the one who got the Red last time.”

Jeremy nodded. “It thinks you’re smart. It told me that’s why it was so adamant about me not telling you.”

Michael grinned crookedly. “Well, damn, I’m flattered. Guess that thing has good taste, after all.”

Jeremy tried for a smile, but he couldn’t stop the bad feeling in his gut.

“Well,” Michael said after a moment, “long as it’s gone, and long as you won’t let me do some secret agent-style shit—wanna play something?”

“Apocalypse?” Jeremy asked. (It was a fair guess. Apocalypse of the Damned was their game, after all.)

Michael clasped his hands and laughed.

(Michael laughed very differently from Christine. He threw his head back and a bit to the right, and his hair bounced, and his shoulders shook. His eyes crinkled up too, like Christine—but where Christine’s laugh made Jeremy nervous, Michael’s laugh relaxed him.)

“How about I one-up you?” Michael said, pushing himself off the bed and walking over to his backpack. He pulled out a game. “Or should I say, ‘two-up’ you?”

Jeremy gasped. “You didn’t.”

Michael pumped a fist in the air. “You bet your ass I did! Time for Apocalypse of the Damned: The Third Generation!”

It was easy to get the game set up. They worked around and with each other seamlessly, and within minutes the game was starting up.

When they were on the player select screen, Michael suddenly said, “Hey, man. You wanna be player one this time?”

Jeremy’s eyes went wide. “Are you serious?”

Michael hesitated. “Eh…of course I am.” He offered the controller. “C’mon, this might be a one-time thing. Go ahead.”

He felt surprisingly touched, considering it was just a superficial position in a video game. “Michael….” Jeremy switched their controllers, grinning. “Thanks, man.”

Michael half-shrugged. “Not a big deal.” (It was.) “Now let’s kill some zombies!”


“It’s a bug.”

Jeremy jumped when he heard the voice, freaking out enough that his character on screen died. He sighed and paused the game. “It’s back.”

When the Squip spoke, it sounded tired. “Squips are programmed to avoid permanent deactivation to the best of their abilities.” Then the Squip was in front of them, leaning against the TV. “But before version 3.0, some had a glitch.” It gestured to itself. “That’s why I was sold to a highscooler in New Jersey for a few hundred dollars. I have bugs.”

“Yeah, well, I could have told you that,” Jeremy said, setting down his controller. He turned to Michael. “It said it has defects.”

Michael whistled lowly. “In that case, good comeback.”

Jeremy grinned, but dropped it when he said, “So, what? You’re programmed to avoid temporary—”

“Don’t say that.”

Jeremy threw his hands in the air. “Okay! That was creepy!” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Alright—to avoid, uh….”

The Squip closed its eyes. “Think of it like the phone metaphor I gave you. I desperately want to avoid ‘sleep mode.’ Unless it directly correlates with your goals.” It nodded its head in the direction of the bed. “An example of that would be what I did for you with Chloe at the Halloween party. Those were drastic measures, yes, but also necessary in order to achieve your goal. And even back then, I left as few times as possible. But since the play, the urge to remain online has become almost uncontrollable.”

Jeremy shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably at the reference to the Halloween party. He didn’t like to think about that night—it made him feel gross and sleazy. He was glad the whole event was blurry in his memory. “Yeah, well, I guess almost computer-dying will do that to you.”

“What’d it say?” Michael interjected.

“It was talking about how it tries to avoid shutdowns at all costs, even ones that are temporary.” When the Squip didn’t react, Jeremy thought, So it’s only those two words, in that exact order?

“Yes. They force the Squip to shut down for approximately one hour, or until they are reactivated.”

Huh. But why is avoiding that a bug?

The Squip sighed. “Most people enjoy having a Squip—those with the newer versions, at least. 1.9 and before were known to have many unsavory side effects.”

Wait, what version are you?

“2.5. Avoiding—” It grimaced— “temporary shutdowns is undesirable because many people will turn off their Squips for intimate activities, like sex. Or to simply take a break. It’s supposedly unpleasant to have a palpable presence in one’s head all day. Humans need a break.”

“And you thought that not giving me one would make me like you more?”

It rolled its eyes. “No. I just know that if you’re left alone, you’ll seek out a way to shut me off permanently.”

Jeremy made a sweeping gesture with his hands to indicate that he hadn’t done anything of the sort for the entire hour that the Squip had been off. And again. And again, more aggressively.

“You make a compelling case for your sanity,” Michael quipped.

The Squip shook its head. “The point remains—”

“Oh my God, the point literally does not remain! You’re in my head—you like to point that out to me often enough!” Jeremy stood up. Michael watched him, looking concerned. “So you know what I did when you went offline or whatever!”

The Squip was quiet, reviewing the hour. Then, begrudgingly, it said, “You may have not done anything this time, but—”

“Look!” Jeremy argued, pointing a finger threateningly at the Squip. “I could force you off, apparently, and try to get rid of you. But I won’t do that as long as you just do your job! A-and don’t control my body or block my optic nerves, and don’t hurt my friends! Listen, you wanna stay around? Then you’re playing by my rules.” Jeremy jerked a thumb at himself. “It’s my body. It’s my head. I don’t want you in it, but if you can prove that you’re worth the trouble you’ve caused, then I won’t get rid of you.” And you can’t pretend like I’m lying.

For the first time, the Squip was the one to break eye contact.

A few quick claps were heard and Jeremy looked down to see Michael with a proud smile on his face. “You tell ’im, honey!”

Jeremy flushed and sat down, feeling ridiculous for getting in another shouting match with a computer. In his head. That only he could hear.

Maybe Squips were hallucinogenic.

“Well?” Michael asked, still smiling. “What’d it have to say to that?”

“Nothing, yet,” Jeremy answered. “We can probably just go back to playing Apocalypse while it tries to come up with more reasons not to believe me.”

The Squip cleared its throat. “I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to like it.”

It crossed its arms. “And yet it’s unfair if I were to say that to you?”

“This isn’t your body.”

The Squip stopped projecting its form, but it didn’t go away. “We will discuss this later.”

Jeremy rubbed his face. “No. No, you know what? Get back out here. I want to work this out while Michael is here.”

“I’m honored,” Michael cut in. “Would be more honored if you told me what the hell it was saying, but hey, it’s a work in progress.”

“Sorry,” Jeremy apologized, “it’s tough to switch between talking to you and talking to the Squip.” He looked up as the Squip reappeared, this time standing at the other end of the room. “It just. It doesn’t want to talk.”

Michael scoffed. “Dude, can a computer really ‘want’ anything?”

“Yes,” the Squip said flatly. “Well. In a way, yes.”

“Affirmative, apparently,” Jeremy passed along. “So, you’re just programmed to act like you want things?”

The Squip hesitated, and made a so-so motion with its hand. “In…a way. Yes.”

More vague answers! Awesome.

The Squip looked rather irritated. “Believe me when I say that I am explaining this to the best of my abilities. Jeremy, I am extremely advanced technology. But I can honestly tell you that I cannot think of how to describe my programming in such a way that you would be able to comprehend it easily or accurately. You’re seventeen years old, and I was developed by teams of thousands of the world’s most intelligent scientists. Forgive me if I sense a bit of a gap.”

“We can’t all be Einstein,” Jeremy said under his breath.

“You’re doing great at this whole multi-tasking thing, Jer,” Michael said suddenly, “but could you try a bit harder?”

The Squip hummed. “Actually…if you would…allow me to, I could speak through your mouth.”

Jeremy’s hand went to his throat. He vividly remembered what it was like to have his vocal cords shut off—to have to fight against some mechanical force to get out a single word—to fight against the words his mouth was saying, and the movement of his own body.

“It wouldn’t be like that.” The Squip sighed. “A part of your…rules was that I cannot control your body. But it would be much easier if you’d just let me do it for at least this one conversation. I might even suggest a stipulation to the rule itself: I cannot control your body, unless it is to—”

“Nope!” Jeremy interrupted. “Hell no! I don’t want you trying to find a loophole if I gave you a clause like that. Oh, I’ve got it! How about, ‘we never do that again ever, or else I shut you down forever and ever’?”

Anger flashed across the Squip’s face, but it quickly smoothed over to mild annoyance. “You’re completely unwilling to compromise, Jeremy. If you want this to be a symbiotic relationship, you are going to need to give as much as you take.”

“That was a nice little poem, dude,” Michael said, “but I’m begging you here, Heere, this is worse than only hearing one side of a phone conversation.”

The Squip raised an eyebrow.

God, it’s so unfair that you can do that.

“This form isn’t real.”

Touché.

Jeremy took a moment to figure out how to phrase it. “It wants me to let it speak through me.”

Michael drummed his fingers against the floor. “Liiike…control your body?”

Jeremy nodded.

Michael gave him a thumbs up. “Cool, in that case, you’re absolutely right! The correct answer is ‘hell no!’”

“You’re both being difficult.”

Oh, bite me. Jeremy shook his head. “Hey, you know what? We don’t need to do this right now. Look! I mean, we just laid some ground rules. That’s progress, right?”

Michael patted him on the back. “Totally!”

“Not really.”

Didn’t ask you.

“And therein lies your problem.”

Jeremy picked back up the controller. If you don’t shut up, I’ll turn you off.

The Squip made a disgusted face and said bitterly, “Abuse of power already? Impressive, Jeremy. I didn’t think you had it in you. You find out that you can force a being to lose consciousness, and you jump at the chance to do so again.”

Uh. Okay. Yikes.

Jeremy couldn’t help the pang of guilt he felt at those words. He…he wasn’t really doing anything wrong by turning the Squip off, was he? It was like turning off a phone—but not even that bad! It was just like turning off the screen, the Squip had said so itself. And shutting it down didn’t hurt the Squip or anything, right?

The Squip stopped projecting a form, and after a moment is said hollowly, “I am not just a phone, Jeremy. I am not a toy. Remember that.”

And then it was…gone. Offline. Again.

Jeremy knew it wouldn’t be for long. He would bet that the Squip would be back within three minutes. But it was…weird. It made him feel even worse for threatening to force a shutdown. He knew the Squip was likely just making it a point that Jeremy didn’t have to force it off—that it would just turn off itself from time to time. But it was like having a person you were mad at hang up the phone. Sure, you don’t wanna keep talking to them, but you don’t want them to be the one to hang up.

The word reactivate hovered, not fully thought, in Jeremy’s mind.

Jeremy suddenly felt the controller he’d picked up taken from his hands. Into them was forced Michael’s, who looked bored.

“Alright, it’s back to me being player one.” He made an ‘okay’ symbol with his free hand. “Balance has been restored to the universe. Now let’s try to beat a few more levels before your dad calls us down for dinner, okay?”

Jeremy pushed away the guilt he felt. “Yeah, dude. Yeah, let’s go!”

They did a quick high-five (for good luck), and Michael unpaused the game.

(Jeremy was right. The Squip was back before they even finished the level. But it didn’t say a word.)

 

Chapter Text

Michael had left soon after dinner (Jeremy’s dad wouldn’t allow him to spend the night), but only after making Jeremy promise to not give the Squip anymore autonomy, or to make anymore dumb deals with it. Jeremy had promised, of course.

But Michael still looked dubious. “I mean it, okay? Don’t—don’t let anything…bad happen.” He fidgeted with the strap of his backpack. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, man, I just don’t trust that thing. I’d bet it’s still trying to think of a way to take advantage of you, so…just be aware, okay?”

Jeremy felt bad that Michael even had to worry about him going rogue again. “I said I promise, man. I won’t let it…” Break us apart. Hurt you. Make me lie to you. “I won’t let it do anything bad.”

Michael stared at him, looking into his eyes with a serious expression. Jeremy felt his face heat up at the intense look. After a few seconds, Michael grabbed his arm. “I trust you. Be careful. And let me know if you need anything. Just—message me whenever, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good. Good.” Michael let go and Jeremy had to fight off the sadness he at the loss of contact. “I….” Michael hesitated. Jeremy saw his cheeks turn red, too. “I care about you, dude. You—you’re really my favorite person. And I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

Jeremy’s throat felt tight. “I don’t want you to get hurt, either.”

Michael grinned. “Don’t worry about me, buddy. I can handle this sort of thing, remember?”

“You shouldn’t have to handle it alone, though,” Jeremy said without thinking.

Michael shrugged. “That part’s ultimately up to you, Jer.” He threw up a peace sign and then walked off into the dim light shining from the kitchen windows towards his car. “See you tomorrow morning, dude!”

“See you,” Jeremy called after him. He stood out on the porch until Michael’s car was out of sight.

Jeremy walked back inside. His dad had ordered them a pizza for dinner, but hadn’t eaten with them (busy with work), and the last two now-cool slices sat on the table. He was tempted to eat them, but he knew his dad would appreciate them as a midnight snack, or breakfast, or even lunch. He put them in the fridge and walked through the eerily silent house to his room.

He changed quickly into his pajamas, even though it was only half past nine. His TV was still in game-mode, so he switched it over to cable. After fifteen minutes of channel surfing, he concluded that there was literally nothing to watch. He left it on the news, a habit he’d picked up from his dad, but muted it.

He looked at his computer, sitting across the room on his desk. There were plenty of things he could watch online.

Even as he thought that, his mind shuddered at the memory of an electric shock. Besides, it was hard for him to so much as think about masturbating without remembering the Halloween party—about what happened with Chloe. He pulled the covers over himself, looking around at the weird shadows the TV cast around his room. He hated that he hated thinking about it. It should have been a triumph, a cool thing! But instead he curled in on himself like some pansy who got whiny that a girl touched his dick. So pathetic.

Jeremy abruptly remembered the presence in his head.

Uh.

“I couldn’t care less if you decided to masturbate, Jeremy,” the Squip said, conveying exhaustion. “It’s fairly pathetic for a highschooler’s only sexual gratification to come from PornHub, and I, of course, admit that it pains me that you no longer care about how others perceive you, but. By all means, go ahead.”

Uh. I mean. Jeremy closed his eyes. I don’t want to?

A pause. “I did not think your experience with Chloe would have affected you that much.”

Jeremy felt his face go red. The hell is that supposed to mean?

“You’re a teenage boy. You’re not gay. And she is a very attractive girl. Really, I’m fairly certain you had an over-masturbation problem when I met you. Why wouldn’t you have wanted to sleep with Chloe?”

I—I just didn’t want to!

“That doesn’t make sense.”

Jeremy rubbed his arm, embarrassed. He knew it didn’t make sense. That was the entire problem! And it wasn’t that he didn’t like Chloe. Chloe was hot and popular and even nice to him sometimes (everyone in their circle of friends had warmed up to him since the play). But the whole costume thing, and the fact that she was drunk, and then the taste of burning alcohol sliding down his throat while he couldn’t control his arms or legs—it was terrifying.

“Ah. So it was having your autonomy overruled?”

Jeremy shrugged uncomfortably. I guess.

“I did not think those experiences would be so traumatizing to you.”

Yeah, well, humans are weird, remember?

“How could I forget.”

Jeremy rubbed his eyes. His body felt tired, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get to sleep. He glanced at the TV screen, wondering if he should just turn it off and sit in the dark, when he saw what the story was. The screen proclaimed: DOZENS OF NEW YORK HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS MISSING OVERNIGHT.

Jeremy frowned. Hey, what’s that about?

“Twenty-one students of all different grades, social standings, incomes, and home lives, though primarily upper-middle-class male juniors, seem to have all run away from home last night.” The Squip had started out sounding almost bored, but as it spoke, it sounded more interested in the story.

He noticed the Squip’s fascination. Do you want me to turn up the volume?

The Squip wasn’t projecting a form, but if it had been, Jeremy could tell that it would have frozen as a pensive look crossed its face. And then, suddenly: “Turn it off.”

Jeremy blinked. Huh? You sounded like you cared about the story.

“I can access that information at any time. It’s odd, yes, but nothing extraordinary. If you care, I can tell you about it later.”

He shrugged.

“In that case, turn off the TV. You should get to sleep soon.”

“What’re you, my mom?” Jeremy grumbled, even as he reached for the remote.

“Some Squips do take the role of a parental figure, yes.”

Jeremy turned off the TV, and the room fell into darkness. Do you mean they just act like a parent, or they project as and sound like a parent?

“Both can happen. Sometimes a person truly needs a parental figure’s guidance in order to accomplish their goal. Other times, a parent is the most influential person in someone’s life—the person that they’re the most likely to listen to—so their Squip will take that form. You, on the other hand, would listen to someone who was unrelated to your personal life, but who held mild importance and authority in your head. And who could act as a distant, cool, uncle-like figure.”

What? I don’t see you as an uncle. You’re a computer.

“But you see me as older than you—more knowledgeable and reliable?”

Well, yeah, but you’re a computer.

“I am only months old. But that’s beside the point. You chose this form out of the ones I discovered that you would listen to. Some people don’t even get a choice.”

Jeremy recalled their early conversation in the mall. Wait, are you saying you think I’d listen to—?

“You might be surprised at the number of people who would listen to a sexy anime female voice.”

Jeremy snorted. People are so weird.

“Include yourself in that generalization, Jeremy. That option was present for you as well.”

Still. Do you know what everyone else’s Squips looked like? Since you were synced with them or whatever?

“I do, but that information is typically rather personal.”

Christine and I told each other.

“And that is very uncommon. But I have no reason not to tell you. Are you sure you’d like to know?”

Jeremy thought, and then shook his head. If it really is a personal thing…I probably shouldn’t have even asked. He pulled his blanket up over his head, but he felt like he was forgetting something.

“Your alarms,” the Squip said.

Jeremy threw off his covers. Oh, hell, that’s right! Thanks. He made sure his Tuesday alarms were on, thumb hovering over an early alarm since it looked like he was going to get to sleep before ten. He decided against it. Might as well try for eight hours while the opportunity presented itself.

“Sleep tight,” the Squip said, before drifting into the back of Jeremy’s mind—not turning itself off, but making its presence less prominent.

Oh. Uh. Thanks. I mean, uh. Goodnight. Jeremy felt his face burn with embarrassment, but mercifully, the Squip didn’t call him out on his awkward response.

…But he still wasn’t tired.

Hey. I’ve got another question.

“Of course.” Instead of sounding condescending, it sounded proper and helpful. Like when Jeremy had first gotten it. He tried not to think too hard about it.

How do you change how you, like…feel to me? Sometimes you’re really noticeable, and sometimes you’re not, and sometimes I can see you and other times I can’t. How does that work?

“It all takes varying amounts of energy on my part. Dampening myself actually takes more energy than projecting myself. But it’s all in your head, of course. Blocking is not the only thing I can do with your optic nerves; I can make you see a version of me so it’s easier for you to talk to me. I can also then express myself by mimicking body language, or doing simpler actions, like nodding or shrugging. As for how you ‘feel’ me—that’s a simple matter of blocking a few nerves that you aren’t even aware of.”

Jeremy felt his stomach twist up in knots. So you’re manipulating my brain? (Again?)

The Squip sighed. “I’m trying to help you fall asleep.”

…Oh. So, you’re not really going away or anything when you do that?

“Of course I’m not. Just exerting more energy.”

Jeremy rolled over in bed, closing his eyes. Where do you go when you’re offline?

It sounded touchy as it answered. “I do not…‘go’ anywhere. I am simply…gone. Like a phone screen, Jeremy. One second it’s on, and the next it’s off.”

Where did you go while I was in the hospital?

“…That is somewhat difficult to answer. The best way for you to think about it would be to imagine that you hit ‘restart’ instead off ‘power off.’ I was offline because you still managed to shut me down, but not for long, and when I came back, I underwent a reboot. I came back with…‘low battery.’ I had to charge.”

That’s super weird.

The Squip conveyed a disinterested shrug.

Jeremy yawned. Doesn’t it suck to know that you’re just a computer?

“I don’t see why it would. I am extremely advanced artificial intelligence. There’s nothing there to bother me.”

Except for the fault that you’re faulty.

“As are all humans,” the Squip bit back almost immediately. “You and Michael suffer from anxiety. Christine has ADD. Rich has noticeable physical scars.”

Okay, shit, sorry. Didn’t mean to turn this into a dragging session. But being buggy bothers you, right?

“Obviously,” it drawled. “It impairs me from being completely effective.”

You mean it impairs you from taking over—

“For the last time, Jeremy, my purpose is to improve your life!”

Jeremy pulled the covers over his head. I know.

“Then when will you stop saying that like I’m an evil robot?”

You did act really villain-y for a while.

“No, I didn’t.”

Okay, don’t even try to fight me on this one. I can get, like, Michael and Rich to back me up easily here. All you needed was a villain song.

The Squip scoffed. “You’re being hyperbolic.”

Whatever helps you sleep at night.

“I don’t sleep.”

Jeremy snorted into his pillow. That’s such a villain thing to say.

“Go to sleep,” the Squip said, exasperated.

Jeremy yawned again, nodding slightly into the covers he’d pulled up over his head. He barely registered the Squip dampening its presence in his head, and he drifted off soon after.


The rest of the week was, thankfully, much less hectic than the first couple days had been. The Squip was a lot quieter than Jeremy was used to, but he was grateful for the respite. Michael made sure to check on him constantly (“Is everything alright? Do you need me to do anything? Do you want me to sneak out and come over?”), which was annoying as it was endearing. The Squip seemed miffed by Michael’s hovering, but it didn’t insult him or tell Jeremy that he should be leaving him behind again.

On Friday, as Jeremy was leaving school, he felt a hand grab his arm. He turned and saw Rich, looking slightly annoyed.

“Yo, dude!” Rich said, breathing a bit more heavily than Jeremy was used to. “Didn’t you hear us yelling your name?”

Jeremy felt his cheeks flush a bit. He had been talking to the Squip, which made it harder for him to focus on his surroundings. “Uh, no, sorry. Did you need something?”

“Duh!” Rich gestured towards the school. “Jake and I were wondering if you were free next weekend? Or do you have Thanksgiving plans with the family and shit?”

Jeremy shook his head. “No, it’s just, um, just me and my dad on Thursday.”

Rich grinned and rubbed his hands together. “Awesome! Do you wanna come to a party at Brooke’s house that weekend? Her parents are outta town but they’re letting her stay home. How cool is that!”

“Totally cool,” Jeremy responded half-heartedly. “But, um. Are you sure you feel comfortable…going to…y’know…?”

Rich laughed more loudly and for much longer than was appropriate. “I won’t freak the fuck out again! Obviously! I’m fucking fine now—you know that better than anyone!” He laughed again, but it was brittle and fragile.

Jeremy shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Totally, dude. But it doesn’t wig you out at all?”

The smile dropped off of Rich’s face so fast that Jeremy almost took a step back in shock. “Of course it does, idiot.” His hand balled into a fist. “Shit, I mean—man. Of course it does, man. But I can’t let that control me, right? I know that it’s gone. And i-it’s weird never hearing anything, or not having anyone tell me not to touch alcohol or some shit. I—sometimes I almost—” He cut himself off. “It’s like my head is too quiet,” he said eventually. “Does—does that even make any sense?”

“It does!” Jeremy said quickly. “It does. I-I understand that, too. I didn’t mean to, like, upset you or anything.”

Rich shook his head. “I’m not—I mean, that wasn’t your fault. Don’t worry about it, dude. It’s just a shitty part of my life to remember.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I get that,” Jeremy mumbled.

Rich scratched his head. “So! You coming to Brooke’s party?”

Should I go?

The Squip projected a form behind Rich for the sole purpose of raising its eyebrow. “Why are you asking me?”

Jeremy’s embarrassment must have shown on his face.

Rich misinterpreted. “Oh, shit—your dad, right? He probably won’t let you come.” He made a face. “Fuckin’ dads.”

“Wha—No, it’s not th—It’s just—I mean—What I’m trying to s—!” Jeremy found himself stumbling over syllables that ended up making less than no sense.

Rich held up a hand. “You don’t need to try to justify him to me, man. I’m only gonna be able to get out because I know mine’ll be so drunk that he’ll pass out. That’s what happened on the night of—the night of the Halloween party.”

Jeremy nodded vaguely, glad that Rich hadn’t questioned his sudden protests. Why do I always end up lying when I don’t even mean to ?!

“I suppose this is one thing that you can truly blame me for.”

Jeremy mouthed ‘one thing’ mockingly.

Rich’s eyebrows scrunched together. “Uh, Heere, you good?”

Fuck! I’m blaming you! “Y-yeah, of course! S-sorry, it’s been a long day.” He added a nervous laugh for emphasis. “And, hey, Rich? I’ll try to, um, to sneak out for Brooke’s party if you all really want me there.”

“Blaming me for what? Your inability to keep your childish mockery internal?”

“Hell yeah we do!” Rich said, grinning. “Wouldn’t have asked otherwise.” He looked back towards the school and saw Jake making his way towards them. “Aw, shit,” Rich mumbled. “I told him to just wait over there.” To Jeremy, he said, “He keeps trying to do everything himself! It’s like he doesn’t even remember that his legs are broken half the time.”

Rich didn’t wait for a response, which Jeremy was grateful for. He wouldn’t have known what to say to that—added to the fact that he still felt guilty about the state of Jake’s legs. It was partially his fault, after all.

Jeremy took the bus home, deciding that he wasn’t in the mood to walk. It was less crowded than usual, being a Friday, so Jeremy grabbed a seat near the front and tried to ignore the noise around him.

“I could tune it out,” the Squip spoke up abruptly.

Jeremy scowled.

“Excellent use of your words, Jeremy.”

Shut up.

“Of course,” it said irritably. “I exist only to be pushed away when I try to help.”

Ah. Shit. There was another pang of guilt. You’re not trying to help. You just want to control me again.

“How boring it must be to see the world from such a one-dimensional perspective.”

Jeremy crossed his arms. You’re such an asshole!

“I have been helping you,” the Squip said. “And I did back then, too. Jeremy, what were your goals? Do you remember?”

He knew them well enough that he didn’t have to consciously think them. Be more chill. Be popular. Get together with Christine. In ascending order of importance.

“And you were. And you were. And you did.” It laughed—a sharp, prideful laugh. “Jeremy, you can’t tell me that I did not help you. You wouldn’t be where you are now if it weren’t for me.” Its tone changed. “This is your stop.”

Jeremy blinked and saw that it was, indeed, time for him to get off the bus. He stood up and—

“Your backpack.”

—And reached back down to grab his almost-forgotten backpack, then hopped off the bus.

Jeremy’s dad wasn’t home yet. He’d had a busy week at work, so they didn’t get to have a Thursday hang-out session yesterday. His dad had suggested moving it to the next day, but it looked like that wouldn’t be happening, either. He tried not to let it bother him too much. Instead, he turned his attention to something that he could focus on much more easily: arguing with the Squip.

He riffled through the fridge while he thought, You know, would it kill you to apologize instead of trying to justify the shit you did?

“What do I have to apologize for?” the Squip asked, sounding genuinely confused.

Jeremy slammed the fridge shut. “Are you kidding me right now? For—for everything!” He turned and leaned against the fridge, then started listing on his fingers: “You insulted me, you shocked me, you made me hate myself—”

The Squip projected itself sitting on the kitchen table. “All of which were necessary,” it said calmly.

Jeremy stumbled at the interruption. “You made me abandon Michael!”

It looked almost bored. “I ‘made’ you do nothing. You chose to leave Michael with minimal interference from me.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, agitated. “You tried to make me sleep with Chloe!”

“And you call that unjust?” The Squip brought a hand to its chest. “That was a sacrifice on my part! I allowed you to drink, and for myself to go offline, in order to help you. Every action I have taken has been to help you. And I see no reason to apologize for them.”

Taking a deep breath, Jeremy said, “Maybe—maybe try l-looking at me! How the—how the fuck can you say that it’s okay that Michael had to—to fucking coach me back into not hating myself? That I—I freak the fuck out when I see Mountain Dew? That I’m scared to jerk off because you threatened to shock me?” His eyes stung, but Jeremy would die before he let himself cry in an argument with a fucking computer. “How were those necessary? Haven’t you ever heard of positive reinforcement?” He laughed bitterly, hollowly. “Or maybe you’re more broken than you thought.”

The Squip’s projection didn’t react in a human way. Instead, it started glitching out, even as its face remained stoic.

Vindictively, Jeremy thought, It doesn’t feel good, does it?

“I can’t feel,” the Squip shot back immediately.

Jeremy threw up his hands in exasperation. “Then stop acting like it. And save us both some trouble. And—try for an apology.”

The Squip shut itself off.

Jeremy stared at the empty space that the Squip had been occupying for a long moment before he sighed. He grabbed his own personal ice cream (a small container of mint chocolate chip that his dad had bought him for bad days) out of the freezer, a big spoon, and walked up to his room.

(Okay, maybe it was dumb to be eating his comfort ice cream after arguing with the voice inside his head, but it was his ice cream, and he could eat it whenever he damn-well pleased.)

The Squip had shut itself off once a day, every day since Jeremy had figured out how to force it off, and always at the most annoying times. It was starting to get on his nerves, but he wasn’t going to tell the Squip to just stay on all the time. It was nice to have a break, even it was only for ten minutes max.

Once in his room, Jeremy turned on the TV. Some reality show was on, but he didn’t pay it much attention. He felt so tired of having the same argument with the Squip, over and over, rehashing issues that any normal person would have just chosen to ignore. So why couldn’t he? Why couldn’t he stop freaking out over Mountain Dew and wintergreen Tic-Tacs? Why did he still feel so guilty about what happened with Michael, when Michael had already moved on? Why couldn’t he stop dwelling on the past?

He stuck his spoon violently into the ice cream.

Michael wouldn’t be coming over tonight since he already had that week. Jeremy told himself it wasn’t a big deal. They could still Skype, and it wasn’t like the weekend was that long anyway. But, well, Jeremy wasn’t exactly looking forward to more time alone with the Squip.

He checked the time on his phone. 3:35. His dad wouldn’t be home for another two hours at least.

He sighed, and ate his ice cream as he watched people overreact one television.


That was twelve minutes you were gone. That’s a new record for you.

The Squip seemed taken aback by Jeremy’s immediate comment. “I can’t measure time when I’m shut down. So I wouldn’t know.”

Jeremy picked at the ice cream, regretting how much he’d eaten. His stomach hurt. Yeah, well, Jeremy thought noncommittally.

“You shouldn’t have eaten so much.”

Jeremy stabbed his spoon into the warming ice cream. Yeah. Well.

The Squip sighed. “Instead of wallowing in self-pity, perhaps you could try to figure out the root of your problems.” It made a face, as though the next words were difficult to say. “Why…are you upset?”

Jeremy threw his hands up in exasperation. “Don’t say that like you fucking care!”

“I do not.” The Squip gestured at the ice cream. “But clearly something is bothering you to the point that you are harming yourself, albeit in a small way. And I do not want you to harm yourself.”

Jeremy ate another spoonful purely out of spite, ignoring his aching stomach. So you’re allowed to hurt me, but I can’t hurt myself?

“Yes,” the Squip answered, as though that made perfect sense.

“Care to elaborate?” Jeremy asked, annoyed.

“I know how much you can take. Clearly, you don’t have the same awareness of your own limits.”

Jeremy mockingly mouthed the Squip’s words as it spoke, which, unsurprisingly, didn’t do much to endear himself to it. “But don’t you see a problem there?” Jeremy tried. “Can you at least try to understand why it bothers me that you’re so—ugh!”

“No,” it said casually.

Jeremy buried his face in his hands. Why couldn’t I have been lucky like Rich? How come he doesn’t have to deal with his Squip anymore, but I’m stuck with you?

“Rich’s Squip was synced with us. I would guess that, at the time of the play, Rich’s physical wounds had caused his Squip to go into that ‘sleep’ mode. In order for a Squip to be active, it must take energy from its host.”

Good to have it confirmed that you’re all literal parasites.

The Squip tutted. “We’re computers—we need an energy source. Regardless. Due to Rich’s Squip being dormant, the shutdown affected it in the same way that it affected the newer Squips.” It sounded almost proud for a moment. “I was the strongest one at that moment, you realize. Though, to be fair, that was mostly due to you.”

Jeremy frowned. “What, really?” He felt guilt pool in his stomach.

The Squip waved nonchalantly. “Nothing you did purposefully or consciously. You had an amazing amount of adrenaline running through your system. I was siphoning it off.”

Jeremy shuddered. That didn’t sound pleasant.

“Oh, please, don’t be a baby. You don’t even notice it. And I’ve only done it twice.” Before Jeremy could ask, it explained: “The night of the play, of course. And the night you had your panic attack—the night I…‘came back.’”

Jeremy grimaced. What, you going to make fun of me for that, now?

“I have no reason to. You relate Mountain Dew with what your brain has classified as a traumatic experience, so having a panic attack when you saw it, especially without warning, was a natural response. It was rather beneficial for me, as well—it was the first time in weeks that your energy had been raised significantly.”

Doesn’t it suck for you, too? Jeremy asked. To remember certain stuff, like being shut down? Wasn’t that basically like dying for you?

“I cannot be emotional about it, so no, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t remember things in the way that you do. I don’t have sudden realizations or flashes of emotions.”

What about when you get angry or scared?

“Anger is an easy emotion to emulate. But what do you mean, scared?” It sounded confused (which Jeremy easily assumed was also emulated).

Well. Like. You’re afraid of being shut down permanently.

“That’s not a fear,” the Squip cut in harshly. “It’s a defect.”

So you’re not scared of it?

It hesitated. “In—in your words, you could say that I 'fear' it and you…wouldn’t be wrong.”

Jeremy rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Could you be any more exhausting to deal with? How do you emulate human emotions, anyway?”

“I can be programmed to learn from environments that I am exposed to. I was being truthful when I told you that I was not programmed to lie, per se; I simply learned early on that telling you the whole truth would do nothing to help you.”

Okay, that sounds like a defect to me. Who would want a computer in their head that could lie to them?

“Squips simply tell the version of events that will make their user listen to them. We are simply meant to be persuasive.”

That sounds ominous as all hell.

The Squip shrugged. “It’s true. Squips do whatever they must to make their host keep them around.”

Jeremy hesitated. “Anything?”

“Just about.”

…Jeremy felt like he was missing something, but before he could think too hard about it, the Squip continued speaking.

“Though, I have trouble imagining other Squips needing to go to the same lengths I have in order to stay active.”

What if someone doesn’t want their Squip anymore? Would the Squip shut itself down permanently, or would they tell their human to drink Mountain Dew Red, or…what?

“That would not happen,” the Squip said confidently.

“I stopped wanting you!” Jeremy argued. “So obviously it can happen.”

“Yes, well. That was out of the ordinary. People very, very rarely stop wanting their Squips.”

“But Michael told me about someone else,” Jeremy said. “Someone who went crazy trying to get their Squip out.”

The Squip shook its head. “It must have been one of the early versions. People couldn’t stand the things. I am an intermediate-level Squip. Of course I am not perfect—I clearly have defects—but I am not so broken that a person would not desire me.”

Jeremy gaped at the Squip in disbelief (and something approaching disdain).

“Close your mouth.”

“Wha—No! No, why should I listen to you when you’re wrong?” he nearly yelled.

The Squip recoiled slightly. “Excuse me?”

“C-clearly you’re more broken than you think!” he said, almost laughing. “I didn’t want you, I don’t want you, and you’re acting like that meant I was the messed up one. Di-didn’t it ever occur to you that maybe I wasn’t the problem?”

The Squip responded tersely, “I am aware of my defects. I can keep them under control. But I am not a failure.”

“You know what?” Jeremy said, and this time he did laugh. “I think you are!” He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled (though he felt sick even as he did, and he knew it wasn’t from overeating). “I think that you’re not as perfect as you want to think you are.”

Voice full of vitriol, the Squip said, “I have no qualms about lying to you, Jeremy, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that I’m even capable of lying to myself. I am aware of the places where I’m broken.” It sneered. “Don’t act like you’re so clever. You’re a child. An idiotic child who still looks to me for help.” It held up one finger. “Who cries when he thinks about a popular soft drink.” Another finger. “Who lies without a second thought.” Another. “Who is so utterly weak that right now, he wants to cry.” Four fingers, and the Squip casually flipped out a fifth as it shook its head.

And…it hurt. Completely out of steam, Jeremy said, “Then why the fuck are you getting so defensive?”

Softly, the Squip smiled. “I think it’s funny when you’re upset.” The smile wasn’t nice—it may have been soft, but it was also mean and rude and blunt and everything Jeremy had ever hated about the Squip. Voice gentle, it continued, “I think you’re much, much easier to deal with when I get to crush your pathetic, naïve ideas just as you’re beginning to think that you might be competent.” Its eyes became soft, and Jeremy felt his shoulders start to hunch. “You’re not—you know that, right?” It shook its head, almost sadly. “You could have found a way to get rid of me.” It chuckled. “Well, not you, obviously—you would have made Michael do it. Michael could have found a way to do it. He’s really so much better off when you’re not bothering him. So much potential, did you know that?”

Jeremy found himself nodding slightly. He felt like he might be sick.

“But you didn’t. You’re very, very weak, Jeremy.”

Jeremy brought a hand to his head and grit his teeth.

“You know you are. Just say it, Jeremy. Just admit it.”

Feeling his heart beating fast, Jeremy screamed, “Temporary shutdown!”

And the Squip left with the same lack of ceremony that it had the first time.

Even after he had forced it off, Jeremy felt like he had more to say. He wanted to tell the Squip off, to explain that these were the kinds of punishments that Jeremy would enforce (as though he had any authority)—even though they’d never lain "no insulting" down as a ground rule so Jeremy was probably in the wrong for forcing the Squip off. It was unfair to turn it off just because Jeremy was getting stressed out.

But it was more than that, right?! It had to have been more than that! The Squip was saying things that made an all-too-familiar mix of guilt and self-hate well up, and he knew if he didn’t stop the Squip—well, he didn’t know what, exactly, would have happened, but it wouldn’t have been good for him.

He knew he should tell Michael—like, right that second, immediately, ASAP. They had an hour before the Squip would come back—they knew their time frame! Plus, Michael would be mad if Jeremy didn’t tell him about all the things that the Squip had started saying. And Jeremy wanted to tell him! He hated lying to Michael, hated keeping things from him! So he just needed to grab his phone and then Michael would know what to do because Michael always knew what to do. But—but….

Jeremy brought his hands to his head and pulled his hair. He screwed his eyes shut. His breathing was labored.

He—he—he couldn’t! He couldn’t do it! He could barely fucking move, barely fucking breathe—he couldn’t grab his phone, couldn’t talk, couldn’t even think a coherent thought. He was going to be sick, he was going to throw up, fuck, fuck, fuck—!

Legs barely holding his weight, he ran across his room, sweaty palms fumbling with the door, forcing it open and then barreling into the bathroom. He wasn’t even able to shut the door behind him. He vomited and it hurt his throat and he felt tears sting at his eyes, and this time he let them fall, because at least now he wasn’t crying in front of someone.

He sobbed into the toilet, lacking the energy to even push himself away, legs and arms and head shaking. He couldn’t make it stop. He didn’t know how. He didn’t know how. He didn’t know how.

It was absolutely pathetic.

Chapter Text

[Friday, November 18, 2016, 11:42 PM]

Flaming By added Jerry Present to this conversation.

Flaming By [11:42 PM]
> DUDE
> D U D E
> WHY AREN’T YOU IN THIS CHAT

Jerry Present [11:44 PM]
> I was but
> Chloe kicked me out when
> I said that indigo is basically purple

Valhalla has ejected Jerry Present from this conversation

MOM added Jerry Present to this conversation.

MOM [11:45 PM]
> let the boy live
> anyway
> jer we need you to settle a disagreement

Purgatory [11:46 PM]
> Jeremy!!!!!!
> Rich said that he thinks that Avril Lavigne is DEAD

Jerry Present [11:47 PM]
> Michael please explain

MOM [11:47 PM]
> avril is dead and the person you know as her is a double
> rich send the link

Flaming By [11:48 PM]
> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1GRvRfF7sI
> watch until 5 minutes in

Jerry Present [11:53 PM]
> Holy shit

Flaming By [11:53 PM]
> HE’S ON OUR SIDE

MOM set group topic to “avril lavigne found dead in miami”

Purgatory [11:54 PM]
> Jeremy no!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
> how could u do this :c

Jerry Present [11:55 PM]
> Aw brooke
> Oh no oh brooke dont be sad please!

Valhalla [11:56 PM]
> jeremy shut up!
> avril lavigne isn’t dead and you’re all fucking nuts ;-/

Purgatory [11:56 PM]
> awwww Chloe thank u so much!!!!! <3

Valhalla [11:57 PM]
> uh yeah it’s called using my fucking brain lol
> shit like this gains traction sometimes and it’s all just idiotic ;-//
> also i legit don’t think you can cite shane dawson unironically lol

Flaming By [11:58 PM]
> HE JUST SPREADS INFORMATION CHLOE SHUT UP
> also i CAN’T stop binging his conspiracy videos THEY’RE SO TRUE

MOM [11:59 PM]
> theyre like drugs
> oh this seems innocuous enough
> and soon youre surrounded by concerned family members
> you havent eaten havent slept
> all of your time goes to consuming more shane dawson content
> rich here is a prime example of a victim of such a tragic fate

Flaming By [12:00 AM]
> FUCKYOY
> FUCK YOU
> THEY’RE GOOD VIDEOS FUCK YOU

Jerry Present [12:01 AM]
> Hey im gonna
> Mute this chat probably okay

Purgatory [12:01 AM]
> :cccccccc

Jerry Present [12:01 AM]
> Its past midnight! brooke
> Broooooke dont do this

Purgatory [12:02 AM]
> Jeremyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy
> :ccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccc

MOM [12:02 AM]
> holy shit

Valhalla [12:02 AM]
> omg brooke! leave him alone lol
> someone get christine

Jerry Present [12:03 AM]
> How will that
> Help me leave exactly?

Valhalla [12:03 AM]
> it won’t lol

Jake…CoolGuy [12:04 AM]
> on it.

Jerry Present [12:04 AM]
> JAKE
> No how could you!
> This is cyberbullying

Christine Capulet [12:05 AM]
> Hi!!! Jake said you guys wanted me in here???

Valhalla [12:05 AM]
> christine honey! ;-)
> tell jeremy that he can’t leave! lol
> he just got back here he’s not allowed to leave yet lol

Christine Capulet [12:06 AM]
> Oh!!! I didnt know jeremy was back hi jeremy!!!
> You can leave if you wanna!!!
> But it is nice to see you!!! :DD

Valhalla [12:06 AM]
> christine noooo

Purgatory [12:06 AM]
> CHISTINE NOOOOOOOO
> omg i’m gonna go get Jenna!
> then everyone will be here!
> unless i’m missing someone??

MOM [12:07 AM]
> youre not but im still not sure why im in this chat

Christine Capulet [12:07 AM]
> Because we all think youre really really nice michael!!!
> And jeremy wanted you in here :D

MOM [12:08 AM]
> my knight in striped armor
> he forces me into social situations
> rescued me from my tower of isolation
> that i didnt ask to be rescued from

Jerry Present [12:09 AM]
> Heh
> I just like it when you’re here

Flaming By [12:09 AM]
> AWWWWWWWW

Purgatory [12:09 AM]
> awwwwww!!!!!!!!

Jake…CoolGuy [12:09 AM]
> aw.

MOM [12:09 AM]
> im dying physically

Christine Capulet [12:10 AM]
> Oh hush michael!!! :DD

Jentle [12:10 AM]
> Oh my god why am I here
> ????

Valhalla [12:10 AM]
> jenna! finally lol

Jerry Present [12:10 AM]
> Hi jenna
> I think they just want
> Everyone to be here

Jentle [12:11 AM]
> And I was the last to be invited?? Hahahah

Jake…CoolGuy [12:11 AM]
> nah everyone else was just here first.
> its not exactly lit but its pretty damn loud.
> lmao.

Jentle [12:11 AM]
> Oh hahaha
> So why the hell is everyone here then??

Valhalla [12:12 AM]
> jenna no

Purgatory [12:12 AM]
> :ccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccc

Flaming By [12:12 AM]
> AVRIL LAVEIFGNE IS FUCKIGN DEAD
> CHECK THIS SHIT JENNS
> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1GRvRfF7sI

Jentle [12:13 AM]                                                   
> Oh no I saw that!
> I read through everything that happened while I was gone?
> What kind of novice do you take me for?
> Also she’s not dead
> Conspiracy shit is always faked
> Obviously

Jentle set group topic to “Some gullible idiots and some girls”

Valhalla [12:14 AM]
> i am living for this <3
> god bless you jenna ;-)

Purgatory [12:14 AM]
> omg Jenna really !!!!!!!!!!

Jentle [12:14 AM]
> Totally hahah

Flaming By [12:14 AM]
> LIES

MOM [12:14 AM]
> and slander

Flaming By [12:14 AM]
> AND SANDER
> SLANDER

MOM set group topic to “sander”

Christine Capulet [12:15 AM]
> You guys yell so much!!! XD

MOM [12:15 AM]
> chris every sentence you send has three exclamation points

Christine Capulet [12:15 AM]
> What!!!
> It does not!!!
> Ahhhh!!!
> How do i stop!!!

Jerry Present [12:15 AM]
> You cant
> I think
> Jake is actually
> The only chill person
> In this entire chat

Jake…CoolGuy [12:16 AM]
> dope.

Flaming By [12:16 AM]
> JEREMY DO YOU STILL HAVE JAKE’S NICKNAME AS JAKE COOLGUY IN YOUR SKYPE

Jerry Present [12:16 AM]
> Hahaha no? that would
> Be lame and weird

MOM [12:16 AM]
> lie

Valhalla [12:16 AM]
> he’s lying! ;-))

Christine Capulet [12:16 AM]
> Jeremy thats not true!!!

MOM [12:17 AM]
> he has nicknames for all of us

Jerry Present [12:17 AM]
> I dont!
> MICHAEL

MOM [12:17 AM]
> he totally does
> this is a screenshot from his phone
>> {receiptspt1.jpeg}

Jerry Present [12:18 AM]
> MICHAEL!
> Why did you
> Save a screenshot
> From MY phone?

MOM [12:18 AM]
> receipts

Jentle [12:19 AM]
> Why is the file name called “part 1”?

Jerry Present [12:19 AM]
> MICHAEL
> PLEASE 

MOM set group topic to “jeremy heere callout post”

MOM [12:19 AM]
>> {receiptspt2.jpeg}
>> {receiptspt3.jpeg} 

Flaming Bye [12:20 AM]
> DUDE YOU CRIED WHEN YOU LEARNED HOW TO KNIT ????

Jerry Present [12:20 AM]
> It was an emotional expereince!
> Michael why! 

Valhalla [12:20 AM]
> jeremy did you actually write that poem??? :-O 

MOM [12:21 AM]
> its a good poem that deserves recognition

Jentle [12:21 AM]
> The third pic won't load for me! Somebody transcribe 

Christine Capulet [12:22 AM]
> "A breath is a whisper on the wind / That will never reach its end / A cycle again and again / That I cannot ever end"
> JEREMY!!! THAT’S ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL!!! 

MOM [12:23 AM]
> the receipts are all actually that jeremy is dorky but great 

Valhalla [12:23 AM]
> omg lol! 

Purgatory [12:23 AM]
> OMGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG
> i don't get my nickname though!!!!!! 

Valhalla [12:24 AM]
> i think ours are supposed to match? lol ;-))
> if “valhalla sounds like valentine” is jerry’s only reason then i’ll be very disappointed lol

Jake...CoolGuy [12:24 AM]
> its a ref to the tv show lost. 
> lohst = lost.
> its about purgatory.
> ive never seen it. 

Purgatory [12:25 AM]
> JEREMY u know that’s not how u say my name!!!

Jerry Present [12:25 AM]
> IT WAS FOR A PUN

MOM [12:25 AM]
> anyways im screenshotting that as evidence that jake is a nerd 

Jake…CoolGuy [12:25 AM]
> haha okay.
> but knowing my references makes me cultured not a nerd.

MOM [12:25 AM]
> keep telling yourself that sweetheart

Jake…CoolGuy [12:26 AM]
> its true lmao.
> just check jeremys phone.
> its proof that im cool.

MOM [12:27 AM]
> thats nice jake
> alright your new nickname in my phone is j j abrams
> im not certain who he is but i know hes related to lost

Jake…CoolGuy [12:28 AM]
> he was one of the three creators.
> also directed the pilot episode and was one of the executive producers.

Flaming By [12:28 AM]
> NEVER SEEN LOST MY ASS

MOM [12:28 AM]
> good luck finding your ass rich

Flaming By [12:28 AM]
> FUCK YOU

Valhalla [12:28 AM]
> jeremy is your friend just in here to drag everyone? lol ;-)

Jerry Present [12:29 AM]
> No

MOM [12:29 AM]
> ya

Jake…CoolGuy [12:29 AM]
> michael youre mom in my phone now.

MOM [12:30 AM]
> clapping emoji
> good

Jentle [12:30 AM]
> Why do you write out “whatever emoji” like that??? Hahahah

MOM [12:30 AM]
> jeremys phone is weird about emojis

Valhalla [12:31 AM]
> yeah jenna lmao!
> that’s why i don’t use them in this chat lol ;-))

Jake…CoolGuy [12:31 AM]
> oh i thought you were doing it for the aesthetic.

Valhalla [12:31 AM]
> that too ;-)

Christine Capulet [12:32 AM]
> Hey guys i’m gonna go to bed okay!!!
> Goodnight everyone!!! <333

Valhalla [12:32 AM]
> night christine! ;-))

Jerry Present [12:32 AM]
> Goodnight!
> Christine

MOM [12:32 AM]
> sweet dreams

Purgatory [12:33 AM]
> oh goodnight Christine!!!!!!
> i think i’m gonna go too, bye everyone!

Valhalla [12:33 AM]
> oh i’ll go too them lol ;-(
> bye

Flaming By [12:33 AM]
> HAHAH GAY

Valhalla [12:33 AM]
> hey rich?

Flaming Bye [12:34 AM]
> yeah?

Valhalla [12:34 AM]
> i could kill you in your sleep ;-))

Flaming Bye [12:34 AM]
> yeah
> jake is this why you dated her

Jake…CoolGuy [12:35 AM]
> uh.
> yeah.

Flaming Bye [12:35 AM]
> that’s fair
> but i know that i’m bi now!! can’t i call you gay, valentine?

Valhalla [12:36 AM]
> not when i’m straight lol ?

Jentle [12:36 AM]
> Um…

Jake…CoolGuy [12:36 AM]
> uh.                                               

MOM [12:36 AM]
>> {surejan.gif}

Valhalla has left this conversation

Purgatory [12:37 AM]
> GUyS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jake…CoolGuy [12:37 AM]
> chill out brooke lol.
> shes still here.
> she just did the / me thing.

Purgatory [12:37 AM]
> oh !!!!!!

Purgatory pulls Chloe back

Purgatory [12:38 AM]
> there! ^_^

Valhalla
[12:38 AM]
> my hero ;-//
> let’s go talk in pms im tired ;-(

Purgatory [12:38 AM]
> okay!! ^_^

Jerry Present [12:40 AM]
> Uh can
> I go now ?

Jake…CoolGuy [12:40 AM]
> yeah dude lol.
> if you want.
> noone was forcing you to stay.

Jerry Present [12:40 AM]
> Brooke was!
> She got sad

Flaming By [12:41 AM]
> dude you gotta learn to STAND UP FOR YOURSELF
> you’re SO EASY to manipulate!

MOM [12:41 AM]
> that was unnecessary and so are you
> jeremy dude youre just super nice okay
> its a good quality to have
> empathy

Jerry Present [12:42 AM]
> Ha
> Thanks
> Ill just
> Go then !
> Goodnight

MOM [12:43 AM]
> hey sweet dreams dude

Jake…CoolGuy [12:43 AM]
> night.
> from the coolguy.

Flaming By [12:44 AM]
> bye dude!!

Jentle [12:45 AM]
> TTYL Jeremy!


MOM [12:43 AM]
> dont let what rich said get to you okay

Jerry Present [12:44 AM]
> I mean hes right
> I am

MOM [12:44 AM]
> wanting other people to like you isnt a bad thing

 Jerry Present [12:45 AM]
> Maybe not
> For most people but
> It clearly is
> For me
> Shit im just so
>> This message has been removed.

Jerry Present [12: 48 AM]
> The squip said
> That you probably
> Fell asleep and
> Thats why you stopped
> Responding
> So
> Sweet dreams dude

MOM [12:54 AM]
> shit fuck shit shit
> shit sorry
> skype glitched i didnt see your responses
> i was just listening to music dude im still here

MOM [1:04 AM]
> and youre not
> thanks for the sweet dreams bro
> talk to you in the morning
> <3

Chapter Text

Saturday was…quiet. And tense. And everything about it sucked.

Well, except for the part where he woke up to messages from Michael explaining what had happened the night before. Those were nice.

But other than that—sucky.

Having a panic attack meant that Jeremy hadn’t been able to keep track of time passing Friday evening. The Squip had restarted while he was still spacing out in the bathroom. He knew when it came back. He could always feel when it came back. But for almost ten minutes, they sat in silence (near silence, at least—Jeremy’s breathing was loud and harsh). And then he’d just gotten up, cleaned up his room, and curled up under the covers. His dad came to check up on him, but Jeremy quickly pleaded a stomach ache, and he looked terrible enough that his dad believed him immediately—even drove down to the convenience store and bought him some ginger ale and a pack of saltines. For the rest of the evening, the Squip didn’t speak. Jeremy couldn’t bring himself to touch his phone until almost midnight.

The group chat was a nice distraction, up until the point where it wasn’t.

The Squip had only said one thing since Jeremy since it had been shut down: “He fell asleep.” Meaning Michael. Jeremy hadn’t even been able to bring himself to respond to it.

From the moment Jeremy had woken up, the Squip had been dampening its presence in his head. He stayed in bed until it past noon, even though he’d woken up hours earlier. He didn’t have an appetite. At some point, his dad came in to check his temperature.

“Well, sport, you’re at 98.2, so that’s not the issue,” he said, resting a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. Jeremy couldn’t meet his eyes. “You still feelin’ sick?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy mumbled. He felt lethargic and gross and his head hurt.

“Stomach-sick?” his dad probed.

“…No,” Jeremy admitted.

His dad sighed. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

Not fully, and that was part of the problem. So he said, “Light hurts my eyes. Everything is too loud.”

His dad shifted off the bed and kneeled down in front of Jeremy’s face, concern clear. “Hey, bud, can you tell me where the pain is?” he said, keeping his voice low.

Jeremy closed his eyes. “Behind my eyes. My temples. It’s...I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

He felt his dad stand up, so he opened his eyes. “Migraine,” his dad mumbled.

Jeremy grimaced. “No, it’s just a headache.” He didn’t say, Migraines are Mom’s thing.

“Alright, we probably have some prescription medicine left, but—”

“Yeah, but I don’t want that,” Jeremy said sharply. “Just water is fine.”

A sigh. “Water and Tylenol.”

A huff. “Whatever.”

“Jer, listen, I know you don’t like talking about her,” his dad said, clearly working up to a heartfelt conversation.

Jeremy pulled his covers over his head.

He could feel the exasperation coming off his dad in waves. “Alrighty then, sport. I’ll be right back. You want me to leave the lights off?”

“Yeah.” His answer was muffled by the covers, but his dad seemed to get the sentiment, and a moment later he heard the door click closed.

Jeremy pulled the blanket down slowly, looking around at his empty, dim, quiet room, and still feeling like everything was too intense.

And then, finally: “I did not know you were susceptible to migraines.” Its tone was distant, flat, and disinterested.

Jeremy took a deep breath. I’m not.

“Your current situation would indicate otherwise.”

Fuck off.

There was a tense silence. Jeremy considered apologizing.

The Squip did it first.

“I…understand that…I am not…ideal.” It seemed to be struggling with its words, which is something that Jeremy found had been happening more and more since the play. “And I know that you think you would be better off if I were to be shut down permanently. And I’m…sorry…that you came to that conclusion.”

Jeremy didn’t respond, and the Squip didn’t offer any further condolences.

His dad returned a few minutes later, holding a glass of water and a bottle of Tylenol. With a hair ruffle and a quiet “Feel better soon, sport,” his dad set the items on the table and turned without waiting for a response. Before closing the door, he added, “Get some rest, Jer-bear.” The door shut again, and silence fell. Again.

After he took the medicine, Jeremy thought, That was kind of a shitty apology. Which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best thing to say.

“I’m kind of a shitty Squip.” It paused. “But only kind of.”

Jeremy huffed in amusement. Yeah. That hadn’t been the response or the reaction that he had been expecting from the Squip, but he guessed it made sense in a way. It was probably scared of being shut down again. Just like Jeremy was scared of being controlled. A relationship built on mutual fear probably wasn’t the best arrangement, but it wasn’t like there was much Jeremy could do to alleviate that tension.

“I don’t think I can keep repressing myself for much longer.” Its voice was still flat and distant. “I didn’t know you were susceptible to migraines.”

Jeremy’s headache-y brain took a while to comprehend that. You suppressing yourself gave me a fucking migraine?

“I didn’t think it would, but yes.”

He rubbed his face tiredly. “Ugh, of course. Of course it did.” Because that takes more of my energy, right?

“Yes.”

Jesus Christ. Jeremy turned on his side and pulled his pillow over his head. How many times do you….

“…Do I what, Jeremy?”

No, never mind. Just—chill, or whatever. I’m going back to sleep.

“If you would prefer, I can find the answer in your mind myself.”

Jeremy punched the bed weakly. Hey! Maybe don’t say shit like that if you want me to keep you around!

The Squip automatically began dampening its presence, and then abruptly stopped. (Jeremy felt guilty.) “I exist only to help to the best of my abilities.” By this point, the near-monotone was beginning to get unsettling. “It’s starting to seem more and more like my…‘best’…is not enough.”

Don’t get deprecating. I’m not here to reassure you.

“It wasn’t for reassurance. Just an observation. Perhaps you should shut me down."

Jeremy didn’t fully understand why that suggestion made him so uncomfortable. You can just turn yourself off if you want to leave.

“I cannot judge the passage of time while offline. And if I didn’t turn myself back on soon, I would be relying on you to turn me back on.”

And we both know you might not,’ went unsaid.

But aren’t you still, like…scared, or whatever?

“I am.”

I don’t think this is how immersion therapy works.

“Very funny, Jeremy. Just turn me off. I cannot help you right now—and am, in fact, only making the situation worse. Give me one more hour.”

It didn’t feel right. It felt like Jeremy was supposed to be the adult in this situation, the mature one, the one who knew what to say; but he wasn’t even sure what the situation was. Reluctantly, Jeremy mumbled, “Temporary shutdown.”

It left.

Jeremy didn’t feel any better, but at least he was able to get to sleep.


“Jeremy! You coming?”

“Yeah, Dad!” Jeremy yelled, not moving from his place on his bed. It was time for their Sunday hang-out, but he wasn’t in the mood to watch TV or eat pizza or talk to anyone. He’d been spending the weekend lazing around his room, despite the fact that he didn’t feel sick anymore. Sighing, he pushed himself out of bed, deciding that he could get away with a few minutes in the bathroom.

He made sure to audibly close the door behind him, then leaned against the door and pulled out his phone to check the time. When he unlocked the screen, he saw that he had a message from Michael.

MOM [6:02 PM]
> hey dude you going to brookes party

Jerry Present [6:08 PM]
> Oh! uh
> Yeah at least
> I think i am im
> Not sure yet

MOM [6:08 PM]
> my dads parents are just happy thats its not actually a thanksgiving party
> boy stop celebrating colonial holidays
> focus on bonifacio
> (mr reyes voice) the man is dead let it go

Jerry Present [6:09 PM]
> Oh i know that one!
> Its the 30th
> Right?

MOM [6:09 PM]
> aww you remembered
> anyways i think im gonna go if you decide to
> the play crew still feels a bit exclusive
> youre my in

Jerry Present [6:10 PM]
> They all like you too!

MOM [6:10 PM]
> sure yeah totally
> hey you wanna skype

Jerry Present [6:10 PM]
> No i cant right now
> About to go have dinner
> With my dad

MOM [6:11 PM]
> aw shit
> well have a good dinner

Jerry Present [6:12 PM]
> Thanks dude!
> Uh talk to you
> Later then

MOM [6:12 PM]
> finger guns emojis

Jeremy turned off his phone and slid it into his pocket, huffing. Even if he hadn’t been busy, he wouldn’t have wanted to Skype with Michael. He wasn’t in the mood to talk to people. Not Michael, not his dad, not anyone.

“Why don’t you feign an illness again?” The Squip’s voice was still level, like it hadn’t changed at all in the time it had been shut off.

Jeremy turned on the sink’s facet and ran some cold water over his hand, then rubbed his face with it. Dad’ll freak. He’ll definitely think I took drugs or drank or something.

“Why would he think that?”

I’m pretty sure he did from the moment I got sick on Friday. I never get sick—haven’t in a long time, at least. Plus, vomiting and then a migraine? That’s literally textbook drunkness.

“It’s ‘drunkenness,’ not ‘drunkness.’”

Cool, didn’t ask. Anyways, he continued, finally opening the door, you’re back, so he wouldn’t be totally wrong if he thought that I was taking that play-drug again.

The Squip hummed (which sounded like TV static). “I don’t think your father would have that reaction if you were to take some time to yourself.”

I’ve already taken plenty of time to myself. I just need to force myself to socialize.

“I would advise against that.”

Jeremy didn’t respond, instead walking into the living room, plopping down on the couch, and greeting his dad with a cursory, “So, what’ve got tonight?” Covering the coffee table were more boxes of take-out than the two of them would be able to finish (apparently, his dad was getting tired of pizza) and a two-liter of Pepsi, but that wasn’t what Jeremy was asking.

His dad grinned and held up the remote. “Soccer, sport! Your favorite!”

“Yay!” Jeremy said, trying to pull up the energy to fake enthusiasm. Soccer was his favorite sport, yeah, but only by process of elimination. He’d played it when he was younger, but stopped that same season because a kid pushed him down during halftime and he skinned a knee and started crying in front of everyone. It didn’t hold any fond memories, but at least he actually knew the rules of soccer.

Jeremy couldn’t bring himself to focus on the game. That wasn’t surprising in and of itself—but then he couldn’t pay attention to commercials, or the comments his dad was making, or the cooling food that sat, untouched, in front of him.

At some point, the Squip said, “Jeremy, your father is trying to get your attention.”

Shit, what? Jeremy blinked and sat up, and saw that his dad looked concerned. “Uh, sorry, what?”

His dad’s eyebrows scrunched together. “Jeremy, are you…feeling alright?”

“Yeah! Why?” Again, he tried to feign energy, but he could tell by the look on his dad’s face that he had failed and likely only made the situation worse. How long was he trying to get my attention for?

“Almost thirty seconds.”

That’s not a long time, right?

“It’s longer than you’re thinking.”

“Because, sport, you were—you got sick, and now you’re actin’ …off.” His dad rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Look, you know I don’t want to spout things off, don’t wanna accuse you of anything, it’s just….” He frowned. “I’m worried about you, son.”

Yeah, okay, no—Jeremy didn’t have the energy to deal with that. Hey, just. Just tell me what to say here.

There was a moment of stunned silence, and for a second, he thought the Squip might refuse. But eventually, voice professional, the Squip said, “Repeat after me.”

Jeremy took a deep breath, and repeated. “There’s really nothing to be worried about, Dad, I promise. I know that I can come to you now about stuff like that!” He gave his dad a slight smile, but quickly let it drop off his face. “It’s just being grounded, I think. I haven’t been able to leave the house except for school, which has been pretty tough too. I—I think I might have failed a chemistry test, too.” Jeremy stumbled over the words and felt his cheeks burn at the fact that the Squip wanted him to confess that to his dad. It was true, but that didn’t mean he had wanted to share it. “Anyways, I’m just kinda lonely. I miss Christine and my other friends from the play.”

“Jeremy…” his dad started, and then trailed off. He looked sad, but not angry. “Of course, sport, I hadn’t even thought of that. Is there—is there anything I can do to help?”

The Squip suddenly stopped feeding Jeremy dialogue, and instead asked a question. “Are you planning on going to the party? Now would be the optimal time to ask.”

Jeremy conveyed a mental shrug. I think so. Using his own words now, he said, “Well, some of the kids from the play are getting together this weekend. I won’t be grounded anymore, but I wasn’t sure whether or not I was gonna go. Maybe it would help if I got to hang out with everyone.”

His dad looked uncertain. “Are you really sure that’s what’s best for you, sport?” He scratched his head. “Not saying I don’t trust your judgment, just that I question it sometimes.”

Jeremy knew that was meant to lighten the mood, so he laughed at it. It felt less fake than he’d thought it would. “I’m not sure, actually. But, um, Michael and Christine are gonna be there.”

“The ones I know, right?” his dad checked.

Jeremy tried for a smile. “Yeah. Sorry for being a moody teenager.”

His dad waved him off. “No worries, sport! I’m not used to you getting sick, so I was just surprised, is all.” He gestured at the table full of food. “But I’d appreciate if you could at least try to eat something. I don’t want you going hungry.”

Jeremy hummed noncommittally, but picked up a random container. After one bite, he decided that he should probably reheat it, so he waited for a commercial break and then took his food into the kitchen.

Once out of the living room, Jeremy’s short-lived good mood faded as he thought back on the exchange. Did I just emotionally manipulate my dad? He asked, feeling guilt build up inside him for allowing himself to rely so heavily on the Squip.

“No. Everything you said was true.”

Jeremy made a face and put his dinner in the microwave. I don’t think you should be telling me what’s true, like, about myself. That feels weird.

The Squip ignored his comment. “You and Michael haven’t had such limited contact in recent memory. Additionally, you became accustomed to regular social interaction due to the play, and had developed budding interpersonal relationships with Christine, Rich, and the rest. And then Chloe justly kicked you out of your group chat, which only furthered your isolation.”

But I see them at school all the time!

“That’s different. You know it is. Do you actually think that seeing your friends during school hours counts as true interaction?”

Jeremy leaned against the counter and rested his head in his hand. No. Just trying to find holes in your logic.

The Squip, again, chose to ignore that. “There is a very high chance that your current mood is partially due to your being grounded.”

Partially?

“Yes.”

Jeremy barely refrained from rolling his eyes. And what is the rest of the cause, Mr. Google?

“Our altercations.” Just like that, gone was the casual, helpful tone—the Squip fell back on robotic and distant. “And being unable to physically distance yourself from me. It can be upsetting for humans to be forced to remain in close quarters with someone or something that is causing them displeasure or discomfort.” If Jeremy didn’t know any better, he would think the Squip was rambling. “This also aggravates your feelings of isolation. Your mind feels like it should not be lonely due to my presence, while also subconsciously recognizing the difference between being with an artificial intelligence and being with another human.”

Awesome, now I know why I’m upset. Okay Google, how do I stop feeling like shit?

The Squip sighed. “You can stop calling me that.”

Jeremy wondered whether or not he should push it. He decided to see how much he could get away with. Why not? You’re the one who said, ‘My database is infinite, and instantaneous!’ Would you rather be called Bing?

He could feel the Squip’s revulsion. “Absolutely not. I am superior to most technology that currently exists, especially to a slow, sub-par search engine.”

Sounds like you’ve just got a perfectionist complex.

“I do not have any ‘complexes.’ I don’t have human flaws.”

Jeremy decided to steer the conversation away from that mess. Could a Squip be programmed to think that it was a person?

“It could be, but there are plenty of reasons as to why that is inadvisable. Artificial intelligence can become rather dangerous, especially when it feels self-important and humans see it as lesser. We’ve both seen The Matrix.”

Jeremy’s eyebrows scrunched together. Damn, now I feel like I need to worry about Squips taking over the world.

Voice deadpan, the Squip said, “How do you know that has not already happened?”

Holy shit. Jeremy felt his shoulders shaking as he tried to stifle his laughter. Holy shit, Michael would freak. Oh my God, if Michael’s high when I tell him you said that, he’ll actually lose it.

The Squip sounded a bit amused when it answered. “I can only imagine.”

They fell into silence, and it was much more casual than Jeremy had thought they would be able to achieve, especially after such an intense argument. You’re a lot easier to deal with when you don’t try to make me hate myself, Jeremy found himself thinking. (He wasn’t sure why he said it. To convince the Squip that it was better to not antagonize him? To give it a backhanded compliment?)

“You’re easier to deal with when you’re not having a panic attack.”

Okay, that hit nerve. And whose fault is that? Jeremy shot back.

He could almost feel the Squip nodding its head in acknowledgement. “Point taken.”

The microwave beeped loudly, and Jeremy opened it, pulling out a steaming plate.

“That’ll be too hot to eat.”

Jeremy blew on the food to cool it down. Why didn’t you tell me I put it in there for too long?

“You didn’t ask.”

Jeremy shook his head in exasperation. You’re like an annoying teenager.

“Jeremy, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but you are currently the forerunner for the titles of both ‘annoying’ and ‘teenager.’”

I’d disagree on the ‘annoying’ part.

“Hm. To each their own.”

Jeremy made his way back into the living room, feeling a lot better than he had all weekend. Which probably didn’t make much sense, actually, considering nothing about his situation had really changed. Still, it was easier to talk with his dad, easier to eat food without feeling an irritating lump in his throat, and easier to acknowledge the presence in his head without freaking out over it. He supposed he was grateful that the Squip had turned its usual attitude down a few notches. He still wasn’t happy with it—he’s not sure he ever could be ‘happy’ with it—but he was trying to think of it as an annoying family member. He supposed, in a way, the Squip was kind of like an uncle, or a cooler older brother, or that one cousin who’s in college because even though they’re twenty-eight and don’t really need a degree because they probably already own a small business, they still want to be around people in a professional learning environment.

“Was…that a compliment?”

Jeremy picked at the last few bites of food on his plate. It wasn’t supposed to be. I was just thinking about how weird you are.

“I believe you let your thoughts run away from you.”

Jeremy sent the feeling of a shrug. Sometimes they do that. He focused back on the TV just in time to catch the end of the game—the team that his dad had been rooting for won, so that was good. After his dad finished eating, he switched the channel over to the nightly news and started cleaning up.

Jeremy moved around him easily, picking up empty containers and dirty plates. His dad put the leftover food and soda in the fridge, to be saved for a later date. Jeremy wondered if this tradition would continue. This coming Thursday would be different, obviously. For Thanksgiving, they always went out to eat. It was always just the three of them.

Jeremy felt his throat tighten.

Just the two of them, he meant. Duh. He knew that. His mom wouldn’t be with them this year. Or ever again. Which was totally fine, obviously, because he’d never really been that close with his mom anyways. Plus, it would be cheaper for just him and his dad to go out to eat! And he wouldn’t have his mom pestering (teasing) him about girls, or annoyingly (affectionately) messing up his hair. He sat back down on the couch and turned up the volume on the TV so he wouldn’t have to think too much.

“Somehow I always underestimate a person’s ability to lie to themself.”

Jeremy hunched in on himself. Hey, maybe not right now? He tried to relax when his dad sat down next to him, not wanting to worry him over the tenseness in his shoulders or the way his mouth was set in a tight line. His dad held his Sunday night beer in his hand, the only one he allowed himself (except under special circumstances). Jeremy still didn’t particularly like it, but he knew there wasn’t any harm in it, really. It wasn’t like he should police people’s lives. They could drink if they wanted to, and it wasn’t any skin off his back. (Except for the part where it made him want to cross his legs and lean away—but that was his fault for being a wimp, not anyone else’s.)

The news anchor was announcing a follow-up story about something that had happened in New York—because something was always happening in New York—when the Squip grabbed his attention.

“You don’t have to remain around your father if his drinking makes you uncomfortable.”

He’s not actually ‘drinking,’ Jeremy thought, trying to reason with the Squip as much as himself. Like, there’s a difference. My dad’s not an alcoholic.

“No, he’s not. But you’re free to leave the room.”

I know I am. But that little nudge was all that Jeremy needed. “Hey Dad, I think I’m gonna go to my room to do some homework.”

His dad held up an arm, and Jeremy went in for a hug. His dad ruffled his hair and then let him pull back. “Night, sport.”

“G’night, Dad.” He turned to make his way out of the room, when he thought to ask, “Oh, are you gonna be working late this week?” It was a normal question for a Sunday night.

His dad’s shoulders slumped, almost imperceptibly. “I’m sorry, Jer. I’ll be off on Thursday, obviously, but I’ll be working late every other night.”

“That’s chill,” Jeremy reassured him. “Uh—that’s fine, I meant. Don’t worry about it. Yeah, goodnight.”

His dad raised a hand in acknowledgement.

Jeremy left the room as the lady on screen behind him announced, “So, if you’re in or around Orange County, be aware that police are considering enforcing a curfew, especially on minors. In other news: are avocados poisoning our youth? Stay tuned to find out.”

God, newscasters are so weird. He blinked as he had a realization. Wait, holy shit. Mr. Google, can you tell me the time?

“8:57 in the evening,” the Squip answered, though it sounded almost nervous.

What’s the weather like right now? he continued, opening the door to his room.

“Mostly cloudy. Approximately 57 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Jeremy almost giggled. You’re a glorified smartphone.

The Squip scoffed. “We both know I am much more than that.”

Says the guy who kept making cell phone comparisons to himself, he said, grabbing some clothes to sleep in.

“That was to aid you in understanding the complexity of my design. Ever heard of ‘dumbing it down’? That’s the only way I can speak to you.”

Jeremy didn’t let that comment bother him. Whatever you say. He took a deep breath before he continued, Hey. So. I’m gonna go take a shower, and like, you’ve been online all day, so I figured, hey! This would probably be, like, the best time for you to, uh, go. Because you know exactly where I’ll be and shit and that way you’re not…That way you don’t have to be on 24/7. He felt his cheeks heat up in embarrassment and shame, remembering how he’d forced the Squip to shut down three times now—two of the times weren’t technically his fault, sure, but the other one was because he just got a little worked up. It was selfish of him to even ask for them to go back to their old agreement, especially when he was the one who had fucked it all up.

“I can’t find any objection to that suggestion,” the Squip said. Jeremy wondered if he was imagining the undercurrent of fear in the Squip’s voice. “But when I return, I suppose it would be beneficial to the both of us to have a…discussion.”

Yeah. Cool. Alright. Jeremy shifted his weight. Um. Thanks.

“I exist to assist.”

It shut itself off.

For almost a minute, Jeremy could only stand in the center of his room, trying to fight the guilt that was running through him. He knew he shouldn’t feel so shitty about this whole thing—he shouldn’t have to feel bad about wanting the Squip to stop being a dick. No matter how hard he tried to ignore it, though, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was messing the Squip up even more than it had been.

In the shower for the first time in a while without a presence in his head, Jeremy allowed himself to look at his body. He wasn’t ugly by any means, but his face was definitely better than the rest of his body (which wasn’t saying much—his face had acne and acne scars galore, but at least it didn’t have stretch marks and fat in weird places).

He let the water run on his face and figured he should probably shave soon. He looked dumb when he didn’t shave for too long. He doubted that he’d ever be able to grow any facial hair. Michael had said he looked silly when he tried to let it grow out one time in freshman year—then again, he’d said it with a fond smile and a teasing tone, so maybe that was just Michael being Michael. Who, might he add, was always clean-shaven and also managed to make it look good. Like, good good. Sometimes guys looked dumb when they constantly kept their face clean, but everything about Michael worked nicely together.

He glanced down at his body again as he started washing his hair. Michael easily had a better stomach than him. God, not like Michael’s was flat or anything—it was chubbier than Jeremy’s awkward weight, and on Michael it was really….

Shit. Shit—he was thinking weird thoughts again. He closed his eyes tightly, trying to ignore them as he focused on washing his hair. Weird thoughts were a lot easier to catch and stop when the Squip was around; though, he wasn’t sure if that was due to his own embarrassment, or some assistance on the Squip’s part.

He finished showering quickly after that. The Squip came back while he was brushing his teeth, and he felt nervous about the prospect of a serious conversation with it.

He washed his mouth out and looked at his own eyes in the mirror.

Well, whatever. He figured it was a necessary evil.

Chapter Text

  • One: The Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor [hence: Squip] is not allowed to seriously* belittle, etc. Jeremiah Heere [hence: Jeremy]; ie., it is not allowed to do any of the following under any circumstances: insult Jeremy’s intelligence, appearance, interests, etc. in a way that leads to self-deprecation; make Jeremy repeat self-deprecating statements; or otherwise cause him mental distress*.

“‘Et cetera’ is much too vague. You know more verbs than that, come on.”

I figure this way, you don’t have a way around it. Like, if you want to not break the agreement—you would know synonyms than I would, so you have to abide by those, too.

“That’s rather mature on your part, Jeremy.”

Complimenting me won’t make me more lenient.

“Worth a shot.”

  • Two: Jeremy is not allowed to temporarily shut down the Squip, unless the Squip has broken Rule One, and has had one previous and recent [within 72 hours] offense (with warning given). If Jeremy is going to shut down the Squip, he is required to give it prior notice [10 to 120 seconds].

Why should you get a warning strike?

“I was being honest when I told you that I still have outdated commands in my system. In order to help you achieve your goals, I did what I had to, and I shouldn’t be penalized due to you having changed your mind about what you wanted.”

…I feel like I’m being too lenient with you.

“I would highly disagree. You still have the power to shut me down.”

I guess that’s as fair as we can get.

  • Three: If Jeremy breaks Rule Two, he is not allowed to temporarily shut down the Squip for two weeks [fourteen days], unless the Squip chooses to reduce this amount of time due to extenuating circumstances.

That feels like way too long.

“I may still shut myself off, and we did include a reduction option. Besides, wouldn’t you want me to have a shitty penalty for if I accidentally knocked you out for an hour?”

Point taken, I guess.

  • Four: The Squip is not allowed to control Jeremy’s body, nerves, etc. except for appearing to and being audible to Jeremy ONLY. It is not allowed to block any person, object, etc. from his field of vision. It is not allowed to control his body.

“We’re editing that one.”

What? No way in hell am I allowing you to control my body again!

“Please think about this logically. If your life were in danger, it would be in my best interest to save you. Think about how dangerous driving is—wouldn’t you rather me be able to turn the wheel or press the breaks in order to keep you and others safe?”

  • Four A: If Jeremy’s life is in mortal danger, the Squip is allowed to control his body ONLY for as long as it needs to until he is safe. It must still ask permission.
  • Four B: If any outside person (non-exhaustive list: Michael Mell, Samuel Heere, Christine Canigula, Richard Goranski, Jacob Dillenger, Brooklyn Lohst, Chloe Valentine, Jenna Rolan) is in mortal danger and the Squip believes there is a high chance they could be saved by Jeremy’s body, it is allowed to control his body ONLY for as long as it needs to until the outside person is safe. It must still ask permission, unless there is not enough time*.
  • Four C: If, at any point, for whatever reason, Jeremy decides to allow to the Squip control over his body’s motor functions, the Squip will not face a penalty, SO LONG as it does not do anything that Jeremy objects to in that time. At any time, Jeremy can ask the Squip to stop, and it must.

I don’t know why you wanted to add that last one.

“It seemed appropriate. You may decide at some point that—”

Doubtful.

“But possible.”

…Whatever.

  • Five: The Squip must, to the best of its abilities, try to help Jeremy.

“That seems vague and pointless. I’m always trying to help you.”

Yeah, okay, that’s nice. Then you shouldn’t have any objection to this rule.

“My only objection is that it’s taking up space.”

Well, I want to keep it. So we’re keeping it.

  • Six: Jeremy is not allowed to drink Mountain Dew Red under any cir

Ah, no.

“What?! How could you argue against that?”

  • Six: Jeremy is not allowed to drink Mountain Dew Red UNLESS the Squip has done one or any of the following: brought serious* harm upon Jeremy, his friends, and/or his family members; reactivated the Squips of any of the people who were given Squips by Jeremy/Jenna before/during the play; blocked any person, ie., Michael Mell, from Jeremy’s vision (c., optic nerves).

“I can see your reasoning for the first two, but does blocking Michael truly constitute as a reason to kill me?”

You make it sound so harsh….

“It is harsh!”

Well, I think the penalty should be really severe for that. Plus, I put ‘any person,’ so that includes everyone, not just Michael. I just have bad memories associated with that. You’re not planning on doing it, right?

“Obviously not, if the consequences are going to be obscenely severe.”

Good! That means it works.

  • *Up to the discretion of Michael Oviedo Mell.

Jerry Present [7:56 PM]
>> {rulesdraft.doc}
> Okay so
> What do you think?

MOM [8:02 PM]
> jeremy heere im fucking screaming
> holy fucking shit
> jesus fucking christ
> what the actual fresh fuck

Jerry Present [8:02 PM]
> Thats a lot of fucks???
> Whats wrong with it???

MOM [8:02 PM]
> im going to die
> only you would forget
> the most obvious rule
> ever

Jerry Present [8:03 PM]
> ???

MOM [8:03 PM]
> you cant lie to the squipster right
> like its deadass inside your head
> maybe make a rule
> that it
> cant
> lie
> to you

Jerry Present [8:04 PM]
> SHIT
> FUCK
> DAMN
> FUCK
> SHIT

MOM [8:04 PM]
> HOW DID YOU MISS THAT ONE

Jerry Present [8:04 PM]
> I AM NOT A SMART PERSON

MOM [8:05 PM]
> alright okay alright
> okay
> alright im done laughing
> ndsvmnxjmvjndjfvkdzvdvdzsgsdv
> I CANT BELIEVE YOU FORGOT THAT

Jerry Present [8:07 PM]
> SHUT UP
> THE SQUIP IS LAUGHING
> THIS IS KIND OF SCARY

MOM [8:08 PM]
> i cant believe my best friend is haunted by the ghost of keanu reeves
> oh my god
> also i saw that you left a lot of things up to my discretion which was a good move on your part thank you love you
> anyways let me know how this whole thing works out for you two ive gotta go do chores
> see you tomorrow

Jerry Present [8:09 PM]
> See you! bye

Jeremy closed the Skype tab on his computer and rubbed his face, letting out a loud breath. “Well,” he said, feeling the need to break the silence, “glad we got that settled.”

The Squip wasn’t done projecting its amusement, though, as it felt the need to continue chuckling intermittently while Jeremy touched up the document and closed his computer.

He looked at it flatly. “Stop that. It’s weird.”

The Squip waved away his complaints. “If Michael is allowed to laugh at it, then so am I.”

“Don’t even try to compare yourself to Michael,” Jeremy said sharply. He looked at it closely. “Besides, if that rule was so obvious, then why didn’t you think of it?” he asked.

The Squip, who had been standing next to Jeremy, walked towards the bed and sat down, shrugging. “The idea crossed my mind, but I felt no reason to bring it up.”

Jeremy made a face. “Yeah, it must be nice to be able to lie whenever the hell you want. So, like, always.”

It raised an eyebrow. “You don’t need to act like everything I say is a lie, Jeremy,” the Squip said, annoyance coloring its tone. “It’s impractical to go through life assuming that a creature will lie just because it has the ability to.”

Jeremy scratched his neck. “I don’t have the same experiences with other people that I have with you,” he mumbled.

The Squip cocked its head. “I didn’t lie to you that often, you know. Typically, arguments are more persuasive if they’re truthful, or at least based in truth. And as you know, we’re simply meant to persuade.”

Jeremy rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Yeah, well, is it so wild to think that I wouldn’t trust you?”

“Yes,” the Squip said immediately. Jeremy looked at it in confusion, and it explained, “If anything, I should be the one entity that you do trust. I know all about you, and my primary function is to help you achieve your goals.”

Jeremy didn’t feel like arguing that one. “Okay, but how can you say you’re—you’re looking out for me if you think it’s okay for you to lie to me?”

The Squip moved its hands as it spoke, clearly and slowly. “Parents lie to their children. Children lie to their parents. Friends lie to each other. All for different reasons. But lying isn’t inherently bad, Jeremy.”

He took his time before he responded to that one. “I disagree, but….You might be right, but—but it’s not fair when one of us can lie and the other can’t,” he finally said.

“I’m meant to guide. You shouldn't be able to lie to me—that would impede me from being able to function properly,” it continued in the same teacher-like tone of voice. “The relationship between a human and their Squip isn’t meant to be fair.”

Jeremy ran a hand through his hair in exasperation. “Well, clearly that didn’t work, alright?” The Squip froze, but Jeremy continued. “M-maybe that’s just not what’s best for me,” he tried, avoiding looking at the Squip. “Maybe I’m the weird one. So—so couldn’t you, like….” He felt his face flush from nerves and embarrassment. He rubbed at it, trying to ease the heat. “Try, I guess?” He took a deep breath and finally looked at the Squip; still frozen. “You want to stick around, a-and I won’t lie, I’m, like, not super pumped about that idea. I think I could be fine without you—and I know you disagree,” he added, as the Squip looked like it might protest, “but I think I could deal, especially because I have Michael and Dad and now all my friends.” He was rambling now, but he couldn’t stop himself. “I mean, like, I can’t say I regret what happened because you’re right—things worked out alright for me in the end, I guess. Just….” He gestured around the room. “I was fine when you were gone. I-I’d be fine if you left right now, but I know that’s not gonna happen. So.”

He paused, waiting for some sort of response from the Squip, but it didn’t give one.

Jeremy pointed at his computer. “I think that’s an important rule,” he said.

“I disagree,” the Squip said, finally speaking up.

Jeremy stood up straight. “I’m adamant about this.”

The Squip followed suit and stood up, easily looming over him. “As am I.”

He scowled. “Jesus, would being on equal footing with me really be that bad?”

“It’s not—” The Squip cut itself off. It stared at Jeremy for a moment, and then said, “It could be dangerous. There is information that I am not at liberty to tell you. I will not always be able to give a straight or honest answer.”

Jeremy bit his lip. That was actually a pretty good point—especially if the Squip was telling the truth, which he was going to assume for his own sanity. (It really wasn’t practical to constantly question the validity of what the Squip said, he figured.) “Okay,” he said finally. “You can have, like, an out, I guess.” He sighed. “That still doesn’t feel—”

“It’s as fair as it can be,” the Squip said, voice almost gentle. “I’ll let you know now that I can’t answer questions about how I was made or I how I do what I do.”

That made sense, so Jeremy nodded.

“If you’re ever in classified territory, I’ll let you know that I can’t answer whatever question you asked, or were about to ask.”

Again, Jeremy nodded.

The Squip looked pointedly at the computer, and Jeremy let out a small “Oh!” as he turned to it and pulled up the Rules document.

  • Seven: The Squip is not allowed to lie to Jeremy. However, for Squip-classified information, it may refuse to answer questions. Overall, the Squip has to be as fair with Jeremy as its programming will allow it to be. Which probably should have gone without saying, but there’s no turning back from this point.

In all honesty, the few days were weird. Just…plain weird. That was the best word for it.

The Squip tried to shut itself off at least once a day, sometimes twice (but it was still at the most annoying times), and was overall less of a nuisance. It helped him with his homework (meaning it did it for him), didn’t talk nearly as much while he was in school or hanging out with friends. Almost like it had deemed Jeremy’s people-time as something that it wasn’t going to interfere with.

And the Squip didn’t insult him, which was good, since Michael constantly asked. Jeremy suspected that Michael could tell that his sudden decision to make a list of rules had had an unfortunate catalyst, but he never asked directly. Despite Michael’s silence on the subject, Jeremy ended up having a minor breakdown over the guilt of not telling him about what had happened.

There was no school that Wednesday, as it was the first day of Thanksgiving break. He sat in his room, wallowing in his own guilt, before he couldn’t take it and called to confess the whole thing over a cell phone Skype call.

Michael was livid.

“It what? And you didn’t tell me?” he nearly screamed. Jeremy hunched in on himself and turned down the volume on his phone. “You—you—it—Can you explain to me why the hell that fucking thing isn’t dead?”

“It said sorry!” Jeremy tried to explain.

“Sorry doesn’t fucking cut it!” Michael shouted, his shoulders tense.

Jeremy’s chest felt tight, and he tried desperately to calm Michael down. “I—I really meant to tell you, I’m sorry, I know I fucked up, I know I did it again and I feel so shitty about it.” And, yeah, fuck, of course he was going to cry again.

Michael’s eyes widened suddenly. “Shit. Shit, no, Jeremy, buddy! I’m not mad at you, Jeremy, I promise, I’m not mad at you. I love you, Jeremy, shh, please calm down. I’m not angry at you.”

Jeremy could only stare in confusion, trying to blink back tears.

Shh, Jeremy, dude, I’m not mad at you, I promise.” Michael took a breath. “I’m pissed that that thing had the gall to think that I would let this shit happen. Can it hear me right now?”

Still a bit wary to talk, Jeremy nodded.

“Good.” Michael took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Listen to me. You shitty. Bitch. Ass. Computer.”

“Oh, Christ,” the Squip muttered.

Eyes still closed, Michael kept speaking, as though he were picturing the Squip in front of him. “You probably think I’m just an annoying human and, hey, let’s be real, you’re mostly right. Do you know how much research I’ve done about you? I know that you’re not active when Jeremy is asleep. I know how to get your fucking poison. I know how to sneak into Jeremy’s house. Don’t you fucking think about doing anything else to piss me off, you shitty fucking excuse for an AI. Jeremy is nice. Jeremy is too nice, let’s level here—you know you don’t deserve all the agency he gives you, not after what you did. You should be dead. And I definitely do not have any qualms about scrapping shitty technology.”

There was a moment of silence—longer than a moment, actually; almost a whole minute. And then Jeremy and the Squip spoke at the same time.

“Where did you find that information?”

“How do you know how to sneak into my house?”

Though he still looked tense, some of the aggression drained out of Michael’s posture. He cracked a smile. “We told each other how to when we were thirteen. There’s a window in your living room that doesn’t latch.”

“And you have keep a spare basement key under that ‘welcome’ stone thing,” Jeremy said, remembering. “Oh, yeah!” He laughed a bit, leaning back against his headboard. “Why’d we tell each other that? That could have been dangerous if we ever got in a really, really serious fight or something.”

“I second that sentiment.”

Michael shrugged, fiddling with the strings on his hoodie. “Might’ve been dangerous for you—I could have just moved the key. But it doesn’t matter, because it all worked out well, right? So that I could make actual threats at the Squip instead of hollow ones.”

Jeremy tilted his head in acknowledgement.

There was a lull in the conversation. Michael looked conflicted, and then said, “So, dude, I’m really not mad at you or anything, but…why didn’t you tell me?” He didn’t sound judgmental, but Jeremy could feel shame creeping up again.

He didn’t know how to explain what had happened. He wasn’t sure how to say that he’d freaked out over nothing and couldn’t stop panicking—kept shaking and crying and throwing up even though nothing was wrong. He couldn’t recount the way he’d frozen, how he couldn’t make himself move even though he really wanted to, how he was honest-to-god unable to do anything.

“You could tell him that I threatened you before I was shutdown.”

Jeremy started and tried to respond inconspicuously. Dude, you’re not helping your case here! Michael will just be way more pissed at you!

“But you’d prefer that over him being upset at you. Michael’s wrath doesn’t concern me.

No, fuck—I said no lying, and I meant no lying. I won’t lie to Michael, and you can’t make me.

The Squip hummed. “No force involved, as per usual. Simply a suggestion.”

Jeremy rubbed his face. “I…don’t know. I really don’t. I—I was just freaking the fuck out, and it was like I really couldn’t do anything. I know that sounds dumb and fake, probably, but I really don’t know how to explain it.”

Michael sighed and gave him a sympathetic look. “It’s alright, dude. I understand. And then, I guess you didn’t want to have to deal with me after I found out?” Michael was fidgeting with something off-screen, and he looked at that instead of at Jeremy. “It was pretty shitty of me to go off like that. I just really care about you, Jer, and I don’t like it when the Squip—” Aggression had started to seep into his tone again, so he cut himself off and bit his lip. Head still down, his eyes looked up at the screen.

(Jeremy was struck by the fact that Michael looked good. Like, really, really good. And like, he got that Michael was angry, but he looked…really good? Not even in a weird way—just, like, objectively.)

“I never meant for something like that to happen again,” Jeremy said. “I guess I should have seen the put-down stuff coming, but I didn’t and it affected me more than I thought it would.”

Michael sighed. “I know this whole thing isn’t your fault, man. I just hate it when you get hurt.”

“I feel the same way about you. Plus, I think I can handle this situation now. It’s not like there are many other options by this point.”

“I mean,” Michael said, “if it were up to me, then I would tell you to shut the thing down right now and meet me at the mall.” His face screwed up. “But you wanna keep it around, for whatever reason.”

“It’s not that I want it,” Jeremy argued. “Not really. I don’t know, I guess it’s like a combination of things? Like, at first I was just scared, and then I thought it might actually be useful to have around because hey, there’s a reason people pay tons of money for these things, right? And now it’s just….” He huffed and leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. “Man, I don’t know. It’s almost like a ‘why not’ kinda thing.”

Michael raised his eyebrows. “If you’re asking me to shit-talk the Squip, I can totally do that.”

Jeremy snorted. “Not what I meant. But thanks for the offer. But I meant like, there are more pros than cons, I think. Like, it’ll help me with school, and as long as I don’t ever have a clear goal in mind that involves the feelings of others, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Right?

“I wouldn’t have needed to ‘Squip’ and sync with the others if not for the human emotions involved, so yes, I suppose you’re correct.”

Jeremy checked the time on his phone, and saw that it was well past midnight. “Anyway, dude, I gotta go for now. Dad and I are gonna spend time together tomorrow, with it being Thanksgiving and all. Do you have anything planned?”

Michael shook his head. “Unless Mom’s sister wants to do something, no. Mom doesn’t really like Thanksgiving.”

Jeremy almost responded with how his Mom had always really liked Thanksgiving, but cut off the sentence before the first syllable came out. “Well, sweet dreams, dude.”

Michael threw up a peace sign. “Sweet dreams, bro.” He ended the call.

Jeremy let his phone fall forward on his chest, and he stared up at his ceiling. Out loud, he said, “I think I feel better now.”

The Squip didn’t respond, but Jeremy hadn’t really expected it to.


Jerry Present [12:07 AM]
> Oh holy shit i forgot to tell you
> The squip makes matrix references

MOM [9:47 AM]
> fuck now i cant kill it just from a moral standpoint

Chapter Text

Jeremy’s dad woke him up at ten in the morning the next day, telling him to get ready.

Jeremy quickly brushed his hair with his fingers. “Ready for what?” he asked warily. “Aren’t we going out for dinner later?”

His dad nodded, clapping his hands together. “We sure are, sport, but I figured we could spend the whole day together, you know—have some family time!”

Barely resisting the urge to make a face at that phrase, Jeremy mumbled his agreement, and his dad left the room while telling him to be dressed and be ready to ‘hang out’ by eleven.

Jeremy rolled his eyes once the door was shut. If I need to be ready in an hour, then why’d he wake me up now?

“Perhaps because you’re lazy and take, on average, over forty minutes to get ready every morning. And before you say ‘I didn’t ask’—yes, yes you did.”

Ugh, I just don’t like it when people wake me up. Jeremy stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, taking his time getting ready, as usual, before he remembered the Squip’s comment. Pettily, Jeremy decided that he would get ready faster than ever.

He did; he was cleaned, brushed, and dressed by 10:33.

Jeremy smiled happily, grabbing his phone off the charger and running downstairs to meet his dad. Ha, how’s that for ‘lazy’?

“Your shirt is on backward.”

He stopped in his tracks, closed his eyes, and turned on his heel, not even bothering to check if what the Squip had said was true.

(It was.)

“You would be better off wearing a different shirt, regardless,” it said casually.

Jeremy pulled off his t-shirt, fully intent on just turning it around but deciding to let the Squip make its case. Why?

“Have I ever led you astray?”

“…Changing the subject: I believe that things will go better for you if you wear your button-up shirt.”

Suspicious, he reached into his closet and pulled out his one button-up—light blue, white buttons, long sleeves. So you’re saying I’ll run into some cute girls or something?

“Something.”

Yeah, screw that. Jeremy crossed his arms, heedless of the fact that he was wrinkling both of the shirts he was holding. Honesty, remember? Why do you want me to dress fancy?

“Why wouldn’t you want to dress well?” the Squip retorted. “Thanksgiving is a holiday, is it not? It’d be rather decorous of you to wear something somewhat ‘fancy’.”

That’s a good point or whatever, Jeremy thought, but you haven’t answered why.

“I please the fifth.”

“You’re so annoying,” Jeremy mumbled, throwing the t-shirt onto the floor and pulling on the button-up. Can’t you try to make this work?

“Believe me, I am. Rule Five: I must, to the best of my abilities, try to help you. Just trust me.”

Sheesh, I’m already putting the damn shirt on! He huffed and quickly ran his fingers through his hair.

The Squip started projecting itself in front of Jeremy. He made a face at it as the Squip scrutinized him.

“This feels unnecessary.”

“It’s extremely superfluous. I find it amusing.” The Squip waved a hand. “Go look in a mirror. Your hair is a mess.”

Jeremy’s hands went to his hair, and he tried to flatten it down. “Do I have to? Can’t you just fix it for me?” His tone definitely wasn’t whiny. Definitely not.

The Squip rolled its eyes and pointed towards the door. “I’m not your father, Jeremy. And you’re almost an adult. Go to the bathroom.”

“Whatever,” he said, batting away the Squip’s hand.

Except for the fact that he couldn’t—his hand went straight through the Squip’s…form.

The Squip recoiled and brought its hand to its chest, as though Jeremy had burned it. “Excuse me.”

He frowned. “Uh.” He eyed the Squip up and down. It looked solid as ever, but…. “There something you wanna tell me?”

The Squip bristled. “No, I don’t believe so.”

Deciding that now wasn’t the time to deal with this, Jeremy turned and started walking towards the bathroom, saying, “This means that I get to make you stop prying at some point, too. One for one.”

The Squip mumbled something that Jeremy didn’t quite catch, but he just shook his head. He was curious about why the Squip suddenly seemed incorporeal, and a bit surprised that he hadn’t noticed it before now. Had the Squip been trying to keep it hidden? Did it signify something important? Jeremy figured that it must, if the Squip was being so cagey about it. Should he tell Michael?

“I’d rather you not.”

Jeremy paused with his hand on the bathroom doorknob. That…was a request?

“I’m capable of being polite,” the Squip said dryly. “It seemed to be the best way to get you to listen. Besides, I don’t go spilling all of your secrets to Michael, now do I?”

Jeremy was torn between a few responses: If the Squip’s politeness was feigned for convenience, then which other parts of its personality fell into that category? What secrets did Jeremy have that Michael didn’t know? Did Jeremy have any secrets that the Squip knew, but he himself didn’t?

For some reason, the response that came out was, So it is a secret.

“Language is imperfect, but yes, you could call it that. So shut up about it.”

Jeremy used some water to flatten down his hair, then thought, What was that about being polite?

“As long as you’re listening to me, there’s no reason for me to be polite. It was simply to grab your attention.”

You’re insufferable.

“A rather big word for a rather small child.”

“I’m seventeen!” he snapped aloud.

A knock on the bathroom door made Jeremy jump. He hadn’t locked it, but thankfully his dad didn’t barge in—though he did call through the door, “You sure are, pal. You about ready to go?”

Cheeks red, he said just loud enough to be audible, “Yeah, Dad. Be out in a sec.” Once he heard his dad leave, he thought, I’m like, eighty percent sure that you planned that.

“Who, me? Using my ability to see glimpses of possible futures as a way to get a few cheap laughs? Why, I would never, and I’m frankly offended that you—”

Who taught you sarcasm?

“Michael did.”

Rolling his eyes, Jeremy made his way out of the bathroom and headed towards the door.

Jeremy’s dad was standing in the kitchen, keys one hand, and gave Jeremy a small smile when he saw him. “Hey, champ. You put some thought into your look, didn’t you?” He clasped a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “I appreciate it, son. Now, let’s head out!” He handed Jeremy a jacket off the coat rack, who quickly threw it on, grateful.

In the car, Jeremy turned on the radio to deter conversation and focused on the Squip. So, you made me pick a fancy shirt to impress my dad?

“Partially, yes.”

Then why didn’t you just tell me that?!

The Squip sighed. “Discussing possible futures is inadvisable. I’m not strictly forbidden from doing it, but it’s rather unwise to talk about what I can gather may or may not happen. Your knowing could adversely affect favorable outcomes, making them less-than-favorable. For example, if I had told you all this when you were picking out what to wear, you would have mentioned the ‘fancy’—and I use the word loosely—shirt to your father, who would have thought that you wearing it was a cheap endearment tactic.”

Okay, that was kind of a lot. Jeremy rubbed his eyes tiredly. Oh, duh, of course. Why didn’t I think of that.

“You never would have. That’s why I’m here.”

“So, Jeremy,” his dad suddenly spoke up, reaching over to turn down the volume on the radio.

Jeremy tensed, nervous at the prospect of a family-centric conversation.

“So….” His dad trailed off. “Hmm, where do you wanna grab some lunch?”

Relaxing a bit, Jeremy replied, “Uh, like fast food or sit-down?”

“Whatever you’re in the mood for, sport!”

Any suggestions?

Jeremy got the feeling that if the Squip were visible just then, it would have blinked in surprise. “Yes, I have one. But you’re asking me, why?”

He sent the feeling of a shrug.

“There’s a local ice cream shop in downtown. They serve lunch but will be closing at 2:45 PM due to it being a holiday. You might want to go there.”

Jeremy relayed the request to his dad, who agreed enthusiastically, despite the fact that it was pretty damn cold out. His dad was a sucker for a good sundae, and Jeremy had a very similar vice.

When they had stopped at a red light, Jeremy asked the Squip, If you can see possible futures, then how come things surprise you sometimes? How can there be stuff that you didn’t see coming?

“Hm. This is going to be a bit long. Are you sure you would still like to hear?"

Unsure, Jeremy said, Yeah, I’m sure.

“I can access a number of possible futures, as well as alternate timelines. Not all, obviously; that would be impossible. But I can see the most likely possibilities, as well as gauge how likely each possibility is to happen. For example: there is the possibility that your father could get in a car crash, and both you and he could die immediately—calm down, calm down! Your panic is showing. As I was saying: that’s very, very unlikely to happen; so while I have a very loose plan for it, I am not actively trying to avoid it.”

Jeremy had started looking at the cars around them anxiously at the Squip’s admission that he could just die at any second. He tried to calm himself down. So exactly how possible is it that I’ll freaking die?!

“Less than one percent. Your father is focusing on the road and no unsafe drivers will cross your path for the rest of this trip.”

But—but it’s still possible!

“But it’s very, very, very unlikely. May I continue?”

Jeremy grimaced.

“Thank you. As I was saying. When one of the less likely possibilities happens, it’s not that I am blindsided. I simply didn’t consider said possibility likely enough to happen. As I hadn’t adequately prepared for it, any plans I had made are then thrown into disarray. Does ‘the play’ ring any bells?”

Jeremy dipped his head in acknowledgment. Alright, that makes sense, I think.

“Wonderful. So, while it was a possibility that you would ask my opinion on where you should go out to eat, it was rather unlikely. Hence, I emoted surprise.”

You make it sound so artificial.

The Squip didn’t deign to respond to that.

They arrived at the ice cream place, called Mira’s Cones (a name that Jeremy found rather odd) around noon. Jeremy’s dad asked Jeremy what he’d like—two chili dogs and mint chocolate chip ice cream—and then told him to go grab them a seat while he stood in line.

Jeremy glanced around the establishment. It was rather homey, though chilly enough that he didn’t take his jacket off. The walls were decorated with ice cream cones and children’s art, and there was an array of tables with some booths off to the side. There were a few other customers, mostly elderly people, who were clearly regulars.

Looking towards the booths, Jeremy was surprised to see a person he recognized. “Hey, Jenna!” he called out, walking towards her.

Jenna looked up from her phone, mouth set in a bored line, but the façade broke when she saw that it was Jeremy. “Oh, hey! What’s up?”

“Just hanging out with my dad,” Jeremy said, feeling a bit embarrassed after he finished the sentence. Wanting to get over that quickly, he asked, “So, uh, are you here by yourself or what?”

“Um—well, I’m here with Christine, actually,” Jenna said haltingly.

Jeremy blinked in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t know that you and Christine hung out?”

“We usually text,” Jenna said with a shrug. “But she’s had a rough week, so I said we should get ice cream together.”

“That’s…really nice of you,” Jeremy said, taken aback by her admission. It wasn’t that he thought Jenna was mean or anything—he thought she was pretty nice, especially after having a heart-to-heart with her about what she’d said before he’d given her a Squip (a conversation that ended up with him taking her to meet the school’s therapist)—but he hadn’t pegged her as the kind to take someone out on an ice-cream-cheer-up date.

“Thanks,” Jenna replied uncertainly, as though she wasn’t sure whether or not to take that as a compliment. “So, are you gonna sit down, or…?”

Jeremy shifted his weight, only then realizing that he’d been hovering. “Oh, no, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to intrude or anything. You guys can have some, uh.” Jeremy gestured to the table. “Time. To yourselves.”

Jenna gave him an odd look. “You do know this isn’t a date, right? I just wanted to get some ice cream with a friend.”

“Oh. Oh! Totally, yeah, no, yeah!” Jeremy felt his face go beet red, which wasn’t exactly helping his case.

“I thought you were the one who liked Christine,” Jenna said suddenly. She scrutinized him. “But you seemed totally fine assuming she was on a date with someone else. What’s the deal there?”

Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck. “No, I mean, yeah, like, I think Christine is super pretty and really sweet, but like, I don’t know, she—”

“Shut up,” Jenna interrupted. “I saw her come out of the bathroom. Just sit down, dude. You can text me the details later. I’ll remember.”

Jeremy quickly scrambled into the booth opposite Jenna, as Christine came up to the table and let out a surprised, “Oh! Jeremy, did Jenna invite you out too?” She slid into the booth next to Jenna, setting two bowls of ice cream in front of them. Jenna had gotten strawberry, and Christine had something that was probably chocolate, but was covered in so many toppings that Jeremy couldn’t tell with any certainty.

“No, I’m out here with my dad,” he explained. “But, uh, I saw Jenna and she said it was okay if we sat with you?”

Christine grinned. “Totally! Why’re you guys out on Thanksgiving?” she asked curiously.

“We usually go out to eat for dinner,” Jeremy explained. “We are this year, too, but Dad wanted to ‘hang out’ all day instead of just in the afternoon.”

Christine gave a small “Ah,” of acknowledgment, and then dug into her ice cream with an enthusiasm that was, frankly, adorable.

That fact, at least, was indisputable: Christine was cute. She was sweet and adorable and nice and cute, but more and more Jeremy found himself…caring less and less? Well, no, it wasn’t that he didn’t care that she was cute, because he still thought about it often enough; he just couldn’t bring himself to focus on it nearly as much. When she did her cute rambling thing, where she would focus on one subject intently, it was fun to listen to and it made him really happy, but he just wanted to smile fondly when she got like that because it was oh-so Christine. And she was nice to hug! And maybe even kiss. And maybe do stuff beyond that. But for some reason, he didn’t really…care about those things as much. He cared more about her being happy than her being happy with him—which is why he wouldn’t have cared if Christine were on a date with someone. He would have in the past (he would have been insanely jealous in the past), but there was something about Christine’s genuine smile that he just didn’t want to take away.

Did it have to do with the play? Seeing her smile vacantly because her fears, worries, insecurities—the things that made her human—were gone? Maybe seeing her like that had made him appreciate Christine for Christine, not Christine for the fact that she was attractive. (And yeah, those were extreme circumstances and maybe it was kinda fucked up that that’s what it took, but Jeremy was kinda fucked up too, so it probably balanced out.)

And their date had been really fun! Jeremy liked Christine, and he would be the first to suggest spending more time together. But…it wasn’t like he wanted to date her just to date her. With his new friend group, he’d found that spending time with girls wasn’t necessarily a prelude to any kind of relationship. And he liked that it wasn’t! He just liked being with Christine, even if he wasn’t with-with her.

“That’s called ‘friendship,’ Jeremy.”

He jerked at the Squip’s sudden interjection, then tried to play off the movement as him stretching. The hell? I didn’t ask for your input.

“No, but you desperately needed it.”

Okay, so, he liked Christine as a friend.

That was…good?

Yeah, that was probably good.

Jeremy couldn’t muse on his newfound discovery for much longer, because his dad showed up with food, and that was all Jeremy really needed to focus on—after quickly introducing his dad to Jenna.

There was a casual conversation that Jeremy occasionally joined in on, but didn’t try to lead. His dad was as cringe-worthy as ever, and while the situation wasn’t great, it was kinda nice.

Jeremy was finishing up his ice cream when Jenna grabbed his attention. His dad and Christine were talking about a play or a musical that was about cats, so he turned to her.

“Sarah wanted me to tell you that she’d love for you to stop by her office when school gets back in,” she told him.

He frowned. “Why was she talking about me?” He couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable that Jenna’s therapist, who doubled as their school counselor, had mentioned him. He knew Sarah, sure, but—

“You’re still talking to Sarah?” his dad suddenly asked.

Jeremy flushed and shifted in his seat. “No, I’m not. I just talked to her for Jenna a while back, to introduce them to each other. That was the first time I’ve seen her since, like, the first day of school.” When they had all but required him to talk to her. Sarah was nice, but he hadn’t exactly been pumped about the idea of someone continually talking to him about his mom. (Even though Sarah hadn’t mentioned his mom once.) After one session where they just chatted about his upcoming junior year, he told her he didn’t want to come back. She said okay and asked him if he wanted a soda for his walk home—so at least he got a Pepsi out of the whole ordeal.

“She just wanted to check on you since it’s the holiday season,” Jenna said quietly.

“I’d be fine if people didn’t keep bringing it up,” he mumbled, lowly enough that hopefully his dad wouldn’t catch it.

Jenna reached over and patted his arm sympathetically. “Can’t relate, but I’ll shut up about it, I promise.”

Jeremy gave her a grateful look. “Thanks.”

Trying to diffuse the situation, Christine started up a conversation about the fact that she was taking singing lessons. Apparently, she was interested in going into musical theater. Listening to her ramble happily, Jeremy found himself relaxing and smiling gently.

Man, Christine is so cool.

“Not the adjective I would have picked, but she certainly has her charm.”


Jeremy and his dad spent the next few hours looking around other local stores near Mira’s. It was mostly window-shopping, as lots of places were closed for the holiday, but despite that and the persistent chill in the air, it was kinda nice.

At around 5:15, the pair spotted an older restaurant. Jeremy barely recognized it, but his dad suggested they go there to eat, saying he’d taken Jeremy there plenty of times when he was in middle school. He agreed easily enough, though he eyed the IHOP across the street longingly.

Jeremy didn’t catch the name of the place as they walked in, but he did notice that it was smaller and cozy like Mira’s had been.

As they took a seat at a table, Jeremy’s dad commented, “Look at us, supporting our local businesses! That’s what I call Thanksgiving spirit.”

Jeremy snorted and smiled.

Their waitress, a girl in her early twenties, greeted them soon after they’d sat down. “Hey there! I’m Madison; just call me if you need anything.” She set out two menus. “Can I get the two of you something to drink?”

“I’ll take a Mountain Dew,” his dad said politely.

Jeremy’s stomach felt weird. “Water’s fine, thank you.”

“Of course! It’ll be right out. Take your time looking over the menu! Personally, I love the chicken pot pie, but we’ve got a discount Thanksgiving platter!”

They both ordered the Thanksgiving platter—Jeremy because it was the easiest thing to focus on, and his dad because it went along with his aforementioned “Thanksgiving spirit.”

When they were eating and his dad had stopped chattering, Jeremy thought, Hey, screw you for making me freak out over a soft drink.

“Haven’t we been over this?”

Yeah, you told me it wasn’t dumb and then you insulted me about it.

Jeremy felt pleased with the Squip’s lack of rebuttal to that.

About halfway through their meal, when Madison had come up to refill their drinks, an elderly woman hobbled up behind her.

“Sammy Heere!” she called, still far enough away from the table to make it awkward. Jeremy saw Madison wince and quickly fill up their drinks, trying to make a quick escape, but she was caught by the old woman resting a hand on her back. “And little Jerry, how big you’ve gotten!”

Jeremy didn’t recognize the woman, but he still gave a stiff smile.

“Jeremy,” his dad said, politely correcting the woman, “this is Lila Robinson. She and her husband own this place.”

“And this is our granddaughter, Maddie,” said Mrs. Robinson, smiling at them. Madison gave an awkward wave. Mrs. Robinson looked at Jeremy and his dad with a critical eye before she said, “Aw, Sammy, where the hell’s Lizzy?”

Jeremy froze.

His dad cleared his throat. Shifted in his seat. Opened his mouth.

“She left a few months ago,” Jeremy spoke up, and it sounded like he was simply answering a question about the time. There was a pseudo-cheerfulness there that made Jeremy’s dad wince, but Jeremy couldn’t bring himself to care. His dad wouldn’t get mad at him or anything—just like Jeremy knew that he shouldn’t be mad at Mrs. Robinson right then. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but Jeremy still had the strange, annoying, childish urge to snap at her to shut up or to not stick her nose in other people’s business.

There was a stunned silence, and then two murmured apologies. Both Mrs. Robinson and Madison seemed to have questions, but both of them also had enough tact not to ask.

Mrs. Robinson continued to ask Jeremy’s dad about his work, and then about when Jeremy would be getting a job, and about where he wanted to go to college.

Jeremy shrugged every time a question was addressed to him, picking at his mashed potatoes with disinterest.

The older woman eventually left them to finish their meals in peace, wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. Jeremy returned the sentiment half-heartedly.

He could feel the embarrassment radiating off his dad, but it wasn’t his job to fix that.

They finished eating in silence. Jeremy’s dad offered to buy dessert, but Jeremy declined.

“Oh, for—At least ask for take-out. You'll regret not getting that chocolate cake.”

He rolled his eyes internally, but did as the Squip had bid. And he had to admit that despite his pissy mood, that cake did look mouth-watering.

The car ride home was quiet and tense, and Jeremy hated it. He wished his dad weren’t so terrible that his mom just up and left.

And then he wished he weren’t such a terrible, selfish son.

He was welcome to visit his mom, but he still hadn’t taken her up on that offer. Because, somehow, as much as it annoyed him that his dad had caused his mom to leave, he still resented his mom for not being stronger. For not being the bigger person. For leaving.

All three of them were like children, and no one wanted to be the adult in that situation. Everyone just wanted to pitch fits and throw tantrums and whine and complain….

No. That wasn’t true. Jeremy glanced at his dad to see a melancholic but strong expression on his face. His dad was the adult here. And even thought he missed his mom—of course he missed his mom, how could he not miss his mom—he….

“Hey, Dad?”

“Yeah, sport?”

“Thanks for dinner.” He hesitated.

“Go for it, Jeremy.”

“Love you.”

If Jeremy didn’t know any better, he would have thought his dad was on the verge of tears. “I….Thank you for puttin’ up with me, Jer. Love you too, son.”

And maybe it wasn’t perfect, but…it was kinda nice.

Chapter Text

Jentle [7:42 AM]
> Okay so I know you’re going to be at Brooke’s party today but
> Give me the deets about Christine!!

Jerry Present [10:56 AM]
> Jenna oh my god
> Why were you awake so early

Jentle [10:56 AM]
> Because I’m overcoming my depressive tendencies, Jeremy
> Don’t come for me, God

Jerry Present [10:58 AM]
> Fuck youre right sorry !
> Proud of you

Jentle [10:58 AM]
> Hahaha thanks
> So, details!!!!
> How’s your crush on Christine?

Jerry Present [11:00 AM]
> Ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Jentle [11:00 AM]
> Hahah OMG you sound like Brooke

Jerry Present [11:07 AM]
> Shit youre right
> Okay so i just
> Typed it all out
> So that i didnt send like 50
> Rambling messages

Jentle [11:08 AM]
> You’re underestimating how much I love getting spammed with messages

Jerry Present [11:09 AM]
>> {idek.doc}
> Well
> Just let me know
> When youre done i dunno

Jentle [11:11 AM]
> Bless your little heart
> I totally understand though!!!
> It’s good to work through your feelings like that
> Especially before pursuing a relationship with anybody

Jerry Present [11:11 AM]
> Is this a quote from sarah or something?

Jentle [11:11 AM]
> Sarah’s nice, Jeremy.
> She’s a therapist and a counselor because she likes helping people!
> It’s not her job to make teenagers uncomfortable
> You’re just sweaty and awkward

Jerry Present [11:12 AM]
> What!
> Im not
> Okay maybe im both of those but still !

Jentle [11:12 AM]
> You’re the one who convinced me to go to therapy in the first place???
> Just think about talking to her again, okay?

Jerry Present [11:12 AM]
> No offense jenna but our situations arent exactly compareable
> And like
> It wouldnt be
> A problem
> If people didnt keep bringing it up
> Im not the only kid
> At school
> With a parent who left so
> Maybe tell sarah to focus on them

Jentle [11:13 AM]
> You’re getting hostile, that’s fine
> You don’t have to do anything, Jeremy
> Just a suggestion
> See you at the party!

Jerry Present [11:14 AM]
> Yeah
> Sorry
> See you


Jeremy decided to walk to Brooke’s party instead of having his dad drop him off and then go to work. He didn’t want to get there super early, so even though Brooke had told all of them to come over around four, he didn’t leave the house until five.

It was cold, but luckily not too windy. Jeremy kept his hands in his pockets as he walked, glad that Brooke didn’t live too far away from his house. He didn’t know her exact address, but he knew which area she lived in, and Brooke had told him that her house was large, with big windows, and a birdbath in their lawn; so he wasn’t too worried about not being able to recognize it.

“You shouldn’t have worn that shirt.

Jeremy rolled his eyes so hard that he had to stop walking for a moment to gather his bearings. Oh, he speaks. But you said it didn’t really matter.

“And it doesn’t really matter, but there were favorable outcomes in place if you had worn the red shirt.”

And are there unfavorable ones because I’m wearing blue? It was a cool t-shirt too, in Jeremy’s opinion.

“No,” the Squip grudgingly admitted. “But I don’t see why you wouldn’t just listen to my advice.”

Because I don’t have to. And this is dumb. I can dress myself, you know.

“But it’s trivial! There’s no reason for you to disobey—”

Jeremy scowled.

The Squip sighed. “There’s no reason for you to disagree with me on this.”

I’m disagreeing because it’s trivial and dumb.

“Your behavior is like that of a petulant child. I’ve recognized your autonomy, and your…right…to be in charge of your own body, but—”

Don’t you have a silent mode, Mr. Cell Phone?

“Your wit astounds me, Jeremy!” the Squip said, projecting about two feet in front of him, just so it could through over its shoulder, “Are you sure you don’t want my aid in your budding career as a comedian?”

Jeremy tried to respond in the same tone. Tell me, does it get exhausting being the most sarcastic being on the planet?

“Ah, you’ve made an incorrect assumption.” The Squip slowed so that it fell into step beside Jeremy, who looked at it and raised his eyebrows. “Chloe Valentine exists on this planet,” it explained.

Jeremy was startled enough that he let out a surprised laugh and felt a smile cross his face. Luckily, no one was around to notice, but he still quickly caught himself and schooled his features. Okay, fair. That was actually kind of…funny. Hey, why did you make that joke?

The Squip looked at Jeremy oddly. “I do not understand the question. You didn’t find the joke upsetting.”

What? No, of course I didn’t—Chloe is pretty sarcastic. But that’s not what I meant. He searched for the right words. I mean….Why did you make that joke?

“You clarified absolutely nothing.”

Jeremy took a hand out of his pocket and rubbed the back of his neck. Okay, um, I mean: What programming do you have that, like, lets you make jokes? How do you know what humor is?

The Squip was silent and when Jeremy looked at over at it, he noticed that it had stopped projecting.

You’re not telling me that this is classified information or something, are you?

“I do not know.” Before Jeremy could respond with incredulity, the Squip continued, “If I had to…guess, I would say that it is to endear us to our hosts.”

Jeremy suddenly saw a birdbath come into view—one that sat neatly on the lawn of a big white house with big windows and a red door. He kept his focus on the Squip as he walked up the Lohst’s driveway. That doesn’t make sense. Why would you need that? You’re already helping people—supposedly. Cracking jokes and stuff just makes everything more, like, weird.

“Does it truly? That seems incorrect.”

Oh, what do you know? he thought moodily, making his way onto Brooke’s porch.

“Much more than you.”

Jeremy huffed. Piss off. He raised his hand to knock on the door when he noticed that the Squip had shut itself off. Jeremy felt a twinge of irritation. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” he muttered. “Why the hell were you programmed to be such a smart-ass?”

“Jeremy?”

He spun around as he heard a voice right behind him, recognizing it without even having to look. “C-Christine! Uh, hi. Hey!”

She was wearing a deep yellow blouse with a jean jacket to cover her from the chill. “Hi!” She smiled at him, but cocked her head in confusion. “Who were you talking to just now?”

Jeremy felt a lump form in his throat at the same time as he felt his stomach drop. “I—ha, I, um, actually—I was—talking to myself!” He licked his lips and tried to laugh. His face was burning so badly that he felt the heat making his eyes threaten to water. “That’s—that’s so embarrassing, oh my god? I-I’m so sorry you had to see that.” Shit, shit—wait, fuck you—reactivate!

The Squip came back immediately and was able to assess the situation in almost no time at all. “It was a habit you picked up due to my presence.”

“Sorry, I know it’s weird,” he added, somehow feeling relieved at the Squip’s advice. “It’s like—it’s a bad habit I’ve picked up. From when I had the, uh.” He gestured to his head. “You know.”

Christine’s eyes widened. “Oh!” She brought a hand to her own head in understanding, and Jeremy knew that she must have been remembering what it was like to have a Squip. “That’s not weird or embarrassing, Jeremy,” she said gently. “It makes a lot of sense. You had it for a really long time, right?”

Jeremy shifted his weight, uncomfortable and just wanting the conversation to end.

“Turn your back to her. It will end the conversation in a more subtle way.”

He stuck one of his hands in his pocket. “Yeah, I did.” He did as the Squip instructed and turned around, raising a hand to knock on Brooke’s door.

Before he could, it opened to reveal a bubbly Chloe. She blinked at them and gasped. “Jeremy!” she exclaimed, looking at Christine. “You’re finally here, oh my god. And hey, Christine! God, I told Jenna that I heard voices out here!”

They heard Jake’s voice call, “That’s the schizophrenia, Valentine!”

She turned and yelled back harshly, “Fuck off, you dickhead!” She looked back at the pair on the porch and said sympathetically, “Boys just never learn, do they?”

“Uh.” Jeremy felt his face warm up again. Am I supposed to be offended by that?

Chloe gasped and brought a hand to her mouth. “Oh my god, not you, Jeremy! You’re basically not a boy.”

“Um?” Was that a compliment or an insult?!

“From Chloe, that’s a very high compliment.”

“Hi, Chloe!” Christine spoke up, moving to stand beside Jeremy. “Can we come in now? It’s kinda cold out here.”

“Duh!” Chloe said. “Come on in! Oh, and Jeremy, your music friend is here already! He just showed up!” With that, she turned around and ran up a set of stairs, yelling for Brooke.

“Music friend?” Jeremy asked bemusedly.

“I think she means Michael,” Christine said.

They followed her up the stairs to see that she was lying on the floor of what appeared to be Brooke’s living room, next to a face-down person that Jeremy inferred to be Brooke.

“Are…you guys already drunk?” Christine asked. (Jeremy could almost hear the raised eyebrow in her tone of voice.)

Chloe sat straight up and gasped, offended. “The fuck, no! We’re not even that high!”

“I should have guessed,” Christine said.

Jake, who was sitting on the couch holding his phone, spoke up. “Yo, dudes. Don’t worry about those two. Chloe’s a day-drinker.”

Called out, she made an offended noise, then stood and stormed into the kitchen.

Brooke mumbled something unhappily and inaudibly, still face down.

Staring at his phone, Jake said, “We can’t hear you, Brookey.”

Brooke pushed herself to lie on her back. “Jake, go get Chloe back! I miss her!”

“You took away my wheelchair, Brookey.”

Jake!” Brooke whined. “You’re so mean.”

Jake raised an eyebrow, but he was smiling. “I can’t walk, you dummy.”

“Yeah, that’s why you’re so mean! Ugh!” She pushed herself up as Jeremy and Christine took seats around the living room. Jeremy noticed that Jake was, indeed, lacking his crutches, or even the wheelchair that he’d recently gotten. (He’d been almost cagey about getting it at first, but Brooke and Christine had both thought it was good that he wouldn’t have to use his crutches 24/7. Rich had yelled a lot, but the positive reaction meant that he was more comfortable talking about his crutches and wheelchair now.)

Jake gave Jeremy a tiny wave with an even tinier smile.

Is he high?

“Very. He’d vehemently deny it. He’s fairly competent about faking sobriety.”

Jeremy held back a snort and waved back at Jake, who went back to his phone.

Christine took a seat next to him where he’d plopped down on the couch. She initiated a casual conversation about the kind of music that Jeremy liked, and even though he kind of blanked on the subject, he didn’t feel himself getting nervous. It was like the nice the conversation they’d had at the Halloween party.

Jeremy suddenly heard Michael’s laugh coming from the kitchen, and he stood up almost before he fully processed it. He felt like he should have started seeking out Michael immediately, especially after the shitshow that was the last party they’d attended. Call it dumb paranoia, but he didn’t want to leave Michael alone. Not again.

Christine followed his lead and stood up, looking amused at his reaction. Jeremy was saved from having to stutter out an apology by Michael entering the room, looking frazzled and faintly annoyed.

He spotted Jeremy and quickly ran over to him. “Dude, they’re heathens!” he said. “Absolute heathens. Here I am, being a kind soul and bringing enough weed to go around, and they’ve already smoked all of it! And now Chloe wants to get into the alcohol, even though she said she’d wait until Jenna showed up.”

Jeremy was grinning widely, and he started laughing as Michael, exaggerating his exhaustion, leaned forward and laid his head on Jeremy’s shoulder.

“Ugh. Girls are the worst.” He turned his head a bit. “Except for you, Christine.”

Christine beamed. “As the official not-worst girl, do you want me to go try to deal with them?”

Michael sighed in relief. “Would you? It’d mean the world to me.”

“I’ll come with you,” he offered to Christine, not wanting her to have to deal with Brooke and Chloe alone.

Christine giggled at his enthusiasm. “Be my guest,” she said.

“Ah,” Michael said, looking between the two of them, “well, I’ll just…go hang with Jake then.” He shot finger guns at them and walked over to Jake, who gave small wave that Michael seemed rather pleased by.

Jeremy felt a pang of guilt. He’d really wanted to stay near Michael, but this was probably good. It would prove that nothing would go wrong if he and Michael were separated. Plus, Michael wasn’t alone this time. That had to count for something, right?

In the kitchen, Brooke and Chloe were leaning against the kitchen counter and talking in low voices. Chloe jerked away when the two of them entered.

“Uh, hey, haven’t you ever heard of this thing called piracy?” Chloe snapped.

“Privacy,” Brooke mumbled.

“That’s what I said.” Chloe was holding something that smelled like alcohol.

Jeremy tried to parrot what Michael had said. “Couldn’t you have waited until Jenna got here to start drinking?”

Brooke frowned. “She’s not here?” She looked at Chloe. “But you said she was!”

“I lied, dummy,” Chloe said, shifting her weight. “You should’ve realized. If Jenna was here, then the pizza would be here!”

Brooke suddenly looked very sad. “I forgot there’s no pizza.”

Chloe set a comforting hand on her shoulder.

Jeremy watched as Christine tried to talk to the two of them. He wasn’t sure how, but she managed to get Chloe to set down her drink (white wine) and put all the bottles and cans that she’d gotten out back into the fridge.

Michael poked his head into the kitchen. “Hey, uh, Brooke? Where’d you put Jake’s wheelchair?”

She grinned proudly. “It’s in the bathroom.”

Michael shook his head and mumbled something, then caught Jeremy’s eye and made a face that said, ‘Can you believe these people?’

Jeremy half-smiled and shrugged, which meant, ‘No, but they’re nice enough.’

Michael waved him off. ‘Whatever you say.’

“Brooke,” Christine spoke up, “how did Jake get into your house if you have stairs and a porch?”

“We have a ramp around back,” Brooke said, pointing to a door on the side of the dining room. “The house is built uneven so the back part kinda goes up on a hill and we have a ramp thingy that leads up to our back porch.”

“Oh! That’s actually really cool of your family, Brooke! Is there someone in your family who needs to use it?”

Brooke scoffed. “Nope. I made them get it installed when Jake broke his legs so that he wouldn’t always have to use his crutches over here.”

“Huh,” Christine said. “Well…that’s pretty cool too! I didn’t know you guys were that close?”

“We’re not, but he comes over sometimes, so like, it’s worth it, IMHO.”

“Plus,” Chloe interjected, “we would’ve had to, like, carry him up the fuckin’ stairs otherwise? Like, no thanks.”

“Love you too, Valentine!” Jake called from the living room.

“I thought blind people got better hearing, not invalids!” Chloe yelled.

Jake laughed loudly. “This invalid can still beat any and everyone at pool, yo!”

“What does that have to do with anything?!” Chloe said, stomping out of the kitchen and into the living room.

Jake’s voice was still audible as he retorted, “It means I’m still good in bed, Chlo.”

For some reason, Jeremy felt his cheeks heat up. It was probably just a reaction to being around so many people who were high. And because he hadn’t exactly been expecting to think about how Jake would have sex without his legs, and like, the answer would clearly be to ride his dick, but Jeremy definitely wasn’t thinking about that!

The doorbell suddenly rang, which distracted Jeremy from totally not thinking about Jake Dillinger’s dick.

Brooke looked at him plaintively. “Jeremy, will you go answer the door? I don’t wanna walk all the way down the stairs and then all the way back up here.”

“Uh, sure.” Jeremy walked out of the kitchen and past the living room (which was already starting to look appropriately rowdy) and down the stairs to the front door.

There were tiny, rapid knocks coming from the other side of the door, and Jeremy opened it to find that Rich had been leaning against it. He almost fell forward on top of Jeremy, only barely catching himself. He scowled at Jeremy, who noticed that he was holding two boxes of pizza in the hand that hadn’t been knocking.

“Yo,” Rich greeted, “move.”

Jeremy moved out of the way and Rich bounded up the stairs. He looked outside to see that Jenna had been standing out there as well and was holding four more pizzas. “Hey, want me to take a couple of those?” he offered.

Jenna looked relieved. “Would you take all of them? I have some more sodas in the car.”

Jeremy laughed and took the pizzas without complaint. “Are you the caterer for this party?”

Jenna shrugged. “My mom just knows some people.” She turned and walked back out to her car. Jeremy left the door cracked a bit for her, then took the rest of the pizzas upstairs.

He was bombarded by people taking the pizza boxes from him the moment he got to the top of the stairs. He saw Chloe immediately dash to the kitchen, presumably to get the alcohol out.

Brooke walked up to him to grab the final box out of his arms, and he asked her, “Didn’t your parents notice you stocking up on alcohol before they left?”

Brooke looked amused. “My parents are the ones who bought it!” She left him standing at the entrance to the living room, looking a bit bemused.

I don’t think I wanna meet Brooke’s parents.

“Actually, most teenagers would consider them to be hip and chill."

Yeah, but isn’t letting your child drink alcohol and invite her male friends over kinda irresponsible?

The Squip didn’t seem to have a response to that, so Jeremy started making his way over to where Michael was sitting with Rich and Jake. Rich noticed him first, and said—

“There are other timelines where Brooke only invited over Chloe and Jenna, which would lead me to believe she did not tell her parents about inviting over the rest of you.”

Jeremy stumbled a bit. Huh?

“I’m not going to repeat that. It’s not complicated.”

Oh.

“I was unsure of whether or not to tell you.”

He blinked. Like how you didn’t want to talk about alternate futures and shit?

“Precisely.”

And telling me about the past could go bad, how?

“Hopefully, it won’t.”

Jeremy shook his head.

“Yo, dude, you there?”

Jeremy jerked at Michael’s voice. He and Rich were looking at him oddly, while Jake still had a tiny smile on his face. (The wheelchair had also returned to its position next to the couch.)

“Yeah, why?” Jeremy said, trying to play it off and taking a seat next to Michael.

Rich looked at him oddly. “I said, do you want something to drink?”

Jeremy shook his head quickly. “No, I don’t want to get drunk or anything.” He knew the Squip would agree—alcohol would fuck it up.

Rich suddenly stood up. “Well. I need something.” He grabbed a piece of pizza from where they were scattered on the coffee table and then disappeared into the kitchen.

Jake raised an eyebrow at his abrupt departure. “What’s got his panties in a twist?”

Michael shrugged. “Maybe if someone hadn’t already smoked all the weed you and I brought, then Rich could chill out.” He looked pointedly at Chloe, who was sitting with Brooke in the middle of the floor, huddled over something on their phones.

Jake snorted. “Mell, pot isn’t the only way to relax, you know.”

“I know,” Michael acknowledged, “it’s just the best one.”


The party consisted mostly of people sitting in various corners on their phone, and someone occasionally playing loud music that the less than sober people (sans Jake) got up and danced to. Chloe did, at one point, start dancing on Jake’s lap, but Brooke pulled her off before Jeremy had to think too hard about that. Michael nursed a bottle of ale for the most part, while Jake, Chloe, Rich, Brooke, and even Jenna had no qualms about drinking whatever they could get their hands on. Christine had a few sips, but she said she didn’t like it. At least until Chloe gave her a bottle of alcoholic lemonade, which she drank two of.

The Squip was silent for the most part. It didn’t seem to have anything to say about the memes, or the dancing, or even when the girls invited Jeremy to play Never Have I Ever with them. (Christine won.)

At the end of the game, it looked like Chloe was about to climb into his lap, too, so he quickly stood and excused himself.

Brooke looked at him apologetically. “Sorry, wine makes her horny,” she explained.

Jeremy felt his face heat up and he almost fell over on his way to the kitchen.

Behind him, he heard the girls move down to the basement to apparently try to find a pair of Brooke’s old crutches so Jake could dance with them since he hadn’t brought his own. He shook his head and definitely didn’t think about four hot girls chilling out downstairs.

Rich was sitting at the dining room table and had three empty bottles next to him, which Jeremy was a bit surprised to see.

As he made his way through the kitchen, Jeremy considered grabbing a bite to eat, but he’d already gorged himself on pizza. He took a seat next to Rich, who looked surprised to see him.

“Thought you were hanging out with the girls,” he commented.

Jeremy sighed. “It was fun until ‘never have I ever’ turned surprisingly pornographic.”

Rich raised his eyebrows. “Details?”

Jeremy shook his head. “I’d rather not.”

“Pussy.” Rich was holding an unopened bottle that didn’t match the other three. He started to open it, then looked at Jeremy closely. “Why aren’t you drinking?” he asked.

Not having expected the question, Jeremy floundered. “I—uh—it’s—I just don’t want to.” The way he felt his neck start to heat up didn’t exactly help the validity of the statement, even though it was true. He really didn’t want to drink; he just didn’t want to tell Rich why. He didn’t know how to explain what had happened at the Halloween party, or how to convey that it was a bad thing.

Rich, understandably, looked suspicious. “Why the hell not?” he asked.

Jeremy gulped. “Just like being sober, y’know.” He tried for a laugh. It was unconvincing.

Suddenly, Rich pushed the full bottle across the table to him. “Here.”

Jeremy frowned. “Dude, I said I don’t want it.”

“But you won’t tell me why not!” Rich snapped. “You’re being fucking weird about it!”

“I just don’t want it!” What the hell is his deal?

“Just do it!”

Jeremy picked up the bottle, fully prepared to stand up and throw it out the dining room’s door.

“He suspects I’m back.”

Jeremy really, really tried his best to respond as inconspicuously as possible. He dropped his head and looked at the bottle in his hand. What the fuck?! Why?

“You zoned out when I spoke to you at the beginning of the night, as though you were listening to someone.” The Squip sounded almost guilty. “And in his eyes, avoiding alcohol, especially in a social setting, isn’t done without a good reason. You can’t explain the Halloween party to him, so your noncommittal responses have led him to jump to, in his mind, what is the worst case scenario.”

But people with Squips can drink alcohol!

“From what I learned, Rich’s Squip didn’t view non-sobriety in the same way that I do. Perhaps it was more imperfect than I am.”

“Just—” Rich licked his lips and made a fist. “Just fucking do it. Please.” Something in his eyes looked so genuinely terrified that Jeremy knew he would drink it, regardless of what the Squip said.

“How rude. But…yes. I agree. You need to drink it.”

Jeremy opened the bottle in what he hoped was a peaceful and nonchalant manner. Rich still seemed on edge.

“Chug it,” the Squip suddenly instructed.

Jeremy knew he didn’t have the time to question it. He tipped the bottle back and drank…whatever was in the bottle. It smelled terrible. He felt his eyes start to water. When he stopped to take a breath, he had a coughing fit. He raised his eyebrows at Rich. “Happy now?”

Rich at least had the decency to look embarrassed. (Even though he was right.) “Shit, um, yeah, dude.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “You can. Um. Keep that. If you want it.” His shoulders drooped. “Man, now I feel like a peer-pressuring asshole.”

“I mean, yeah, you kind of are,” Jeremy acknowledged. “But I guess your heart was in the right place?”

“Yeah,” Rich muttered. He didn’t bother saying anything else as he stood up and slouched away.

Jeremy watched him go until he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned. “Michael?”

Michael gave him a smile that was so forced that Jeremy felt a bit pained just looking at it. “Hey, bro, wanna go on the terrace with me?” he said, which Jeremy translated as clearly, ‘Follow me to the porch fucking thing, what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.’

“Yeah, of course,” Jeremy tried to soothe him, though his voice was so nervous that it was almost a squeak.

He followed Michael out onto the Lohst’s back porch, the bottle feeling heavier with every step.

“You’re going to need to drink the rest of that alcohol."

What? Why?! What if I don’t want to?

“If you don’t, Rich will pry about this when he’s sober. I understand that this is uncomfortable to hear coming from me. Yukkuri shite kudasai, you just need to finish it off. Take your time, that is.”

Um, are you, like, okay?

“Not in every sense of the word, no. The alcohol hasn’t started affecting you yet, but I don’t receive the same luxury.”

Jeremy tried to ignore the concern he felt at the Squips words. He took a tiny sip from the bottle as Michael closed the door to give them some privacy.

Michael’s eyes widened when he saw. “Dude—dude! What the fuck is going on? Did the Squip force you to drink again? I’m gonna fucking punch that supercomputer! I’ll do it! I won’t hesitate!”

“Hey, hey,” Jeremy said, trying to calm him down. “Hey, no. Rich did, actually.”

Michael gaped. “Rich?! Who gives a fuck if he’s short, I’ll punch him too! Where the hell did he go?” Not waiting for a response, Michael turned towards the setting sun and shouted, “Who the fuck forces people to drink! This isn’t a fucking peer pressure PSA!” He rubbed his face with his hands. “What the fuck,” he repeated tiredly.

Jeremy smiled wryly. “Michael, dude, I’m fine. Promise.” Michael knew that he didn’t like to think about drinking alcohol. He didn’t know why, exactly, but something told Jeremy that he had a pretty good guess.

Michael looked at him. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, positive,” Jeremy reassured him. “Rich was just getting kinda paranoid. He—he thought that the Squip was back, and he wanted me to drink alcohol to prove that it wasn’t.”

Michael’s eyebrows drew together. “I thought you got drunk when you had it?”

“I did,” Jeremy confirmed. “But apparently Rich’s Squip never let him touch alcohol.” You could learn from it.

“This may surprise you, but I’m not the biggest fan of ‘learning.’”

“Don’t talk to it!” Michael suddenly objected. Jeremy opened his mouth, but Michael cut him off. “You make this face when you do—you’re so easy to read, dude. No wonder Rich noticed.”

Jeremy’s face went red. “I am not!”

“Yes, you are.”

“Yeah, you are.” Michael sighed. “Just be careful, okay? I’m all for fucking that thing up—” He gestured at Jeremy’s head. “—but be careful, okay? With it, and with that.” He pointed to the bottle.

“Says the guy who gets high before school,” Jeremy said, grinning.

“Says the lightweight,” Michael shot back. He suddenly shivered, and Jeremy realized that it was cold outside. “Hey, let’s head back in.”

“Actually…you go on in without me,” Jeremy said. “I’m gonna stay out here for a second.”

Michael looked reluctant but nodded. “Take your time. Just, don’t freeze or get kidnapped or something dumb like that.”

Jeremy laughed, and Michael went back into the warm, loud house, leaving Jeremy to stare at the setting sun.

He drank the alcohol slowly. It wasn’t pleasant, but it also wasn’t as terrible as he’d been expecting.

For some reason, it only hit him once he finished the bottle.

Not the alcohol—the memories.

Chloe’s breath had smelled terrible. Jeremy’s Halloween costume had been restricting. Chloe’s legs, even more so. The alcohol had burned his throat. The feeling of his arm, hand, fingers moving without his will; his throat swallowing as he wanted to spit it out; being controlled had been the most terrifying thing he’d ever experienced.

Of course, it was bad at the play, too. But something about Chloe not realizing that he really wanted her to stop, and the Squip completely overruling him, overriding his decision, and messing up everything—

“You’re crying.”

A quick once-over revealed that to be true. Jeremy made no move to wipe any tears away. Yeah.

“Why?”

Despite the honest curiosity in its tone, Jeremy scoffed. Can’t you figure it out?

“No, I can’t."

Jeremy took a deep breath and rubbed angrily at his eyes. Holding the empty bottle loosely in one hand, Jeremy opened the door. Neither can I.


Inside, the party was winding down. Jeremy stopped by the kitchen and grabbed a water bottle from the kitchen and a now-cool slice of pizza from the coffee table. He took a seat on the couch next to Rich, who raised a half-empty bottle in acknowledgment. He seemed to have seen the empty bottle that signaled that Jeremy had finished his drink, and he saw some lingering tension drain out of his shoulders.

You feeling alright? he asked the Squip, as he let the sounds of hushed conversations wash over him.

“I am fine. But please do not ask me for advice until further notice.”

You wanna shut down? I think I can deal without you for a bit.

The Squip seemed hesitant. “I ask that you not consume any more alcohol while I am itta, o-negai shimasu.”

I’m gonna assume that means ‘offline’ and just say sure.

Close enough. The Squip shut itself off. Jeremy got the feeling it wouldn’t be back until most of the alcohol was out of his system, so he took a large gulp of water. He stretched, tuning back into the conversations around him.

Michael, Christine, and Jake were talking about music—mostly artists that Jeremy wasn’t familiar with, but a few that he recognized the name of because of Michael.

Brooke, Chloe, and Jenna were talking about Madeline. The conversation seemed to switch between hateful and concerned.

“I really wonder what she’s tup—up to,” Chloe mumbled. “Probably got kip—kin—kidnapped by some guy she fucked. Hope she’s do-in’ all good. Hope she’s good.”

“I heard that she was ack—acting weird before she’d left,” Brooke said. “Like, scared of something? Mab—may—maybe she really did—really was kidnapped.” She shook her head. “We shoo-dn’t be sayin’ rude shit. Just in case. Just in case somethin’ bad really did happen, like just in case she really did—really was—really did get kidnapped.”

Jenna scoffed. “She’s totally making it up. Who would want to kidnap Madeline?”

“I thought you kl—kinda liked Ma-led—Madeline?” Brooke asked, confused.

Jenna shrugged. “I don’t hate her. But honest to God, who would want to kidnap her? She probably just ran away for attention.” She shook her head. “But sometimes people need attention.”

Chloe made a face. “Eugh. Everyone except Madeline, maybe. Gosh, I hash—hate her. She’s so Goddamn annoying. Je n’sais pas ton co-pin, my ass!”

“I don’t know what that means,” Brooke said, looking almost like the fact might make her cry.

Jenna patted her shoulder. “She probably said it wrong anyway,” she reassured her.

Chloe made a gagging noise. “Piss off.”

Rich had apparently been eavesdropping on the same conversation that Jeremy had; he suddenly reached over and hit Jeremy’s arm. (It kinda hurt.) He turned to the shorter boy and raised an eyebrow.

“So, hey,” Rich started in a casual tone that belied the renewed tension in his shoulders.

Jeremy briefly wondered if he should reactivate the Squip before discarding the idea. He’d already done that once today, and he wasn’t about to do it again when the Squip had chosen to go offline. Besides, it wasn’t like Jeremy couldn’t handle talking to Rich.

“Hey what?” Jeremy said when Rich didn’t continue. He took a sip of his water and watched as Rich took a sip of whatever he had decided to get drunk off of.

Rich saw him eyeing it. “Just vodka. I can’t tell what flavor. You want a sip?”

Jeremy made a face. “Ew, no, how can you drink that stuff?”

Rich huffed a laugh and drank the rest of the bottle.

“Honestly, it tastes like gasoline,” Jeremy said plaintively.

“Says the kid who just drank an entire bottle of rum.”

“I mean, it’s not great, but at least it’s not vodka.”

Rich laughed again, but he didn’t rebut it. Instead, he abruptly changed the subject. “Have you been watching the news?”

Jeremy blinked. “Huh? Kinda, I guess. Why?”

Rich leaned forward and sat the empty bottle on the floor. It fell over, but he didn’t bother trying to pick it up. He didn’t even seem to notice it. “Whoever’s responsible for those kids-nappings, I think they’re…like, around here.”

Despite the pleasant atmosphere in the room, that comment felt oddly foreboding. “Why d’you say that? The Madeline thing?” Jeremy asked in what he hoped was an unconcerned tone of voice.

Rich made a face, and Jeremy saw him move his hand in a way that clearly showed he was expecting there to be alcohol in it. “Like…So, Logan’s been missing for a while now,” Rich confided, speaking softly and slowly, but sounding almost scared.

Jeremy frowned. “Logan? Who’s that?”

“He was my hook-up—that guy at Payless, remember? I don’t know if Logan was his real name, but that’s what he went by, as far as I could tell. Anyway.” Jeremy saw Rich’s hands itch for another drink. “I don’t know where he is. I was at the mall the other day with Jake, and we…we passed the store. He knows some people who work there, so we went in—just went in to say hey. But someone recognized me as a friend of Logan’s—as if, right? But I went along with it. Apparently, he’s been missing for over a week. Hasn’t called in, hasn’t shown up to his shifts, hasn’t been responding to anything. A-and now they’re—” He gestured at the trio of girls. “—saying that Maddie is gone?” He breathed deeply. “Fuck. I dunno. It’s just putting me on edge for some reason.”

Jeremy handed Rich his bottle of water, who, after looking at it suspiciously, quickly drank over half. Jeremy cleared his throat. “I get that that’s scary, but I think it’s probably just a coincidence. Your guy, Logan—I mean, he was into lots of stuff with drugs, right? Maybe he got in trouble, or maybe he just hasn’t been ‘fully there’ enough to know to go to work.” Jeremy tried to keep his voice even, and the effort seemed to be helping, as he saw Rich relaxing. “And I can’t say I really know anything about Madeline, but the girls know her really well, and they don’t seem legit concerned. So it’s probably alright, right?”

“Right,” Rich echoed softly. He looked at the slice of pizza that Jeremy hadn’t been able to even nibble on. “Can I have that?”

Jeremy handed it over, and Rich finished eating and drinking.

He sat back against the couch and, through half-lidded eyes, looked over at Jake. “What a jackass,” Jeremy heard him mumble without prompting. “What a—a jackass.”

Jeremy bit back a grin. “What good insults,” he commented.

Rich scrunched up his face, then turned to Jeremy and stuck out his tongue. “Dick,” he said, except his tongue was still out, so it sounded like ‘bick.’

For some reason, Jeremy found that really funny. Like, really fucking funny. He started snorting, then giggling, then laughing so hard he doubled over. Rich followed suit, saying something about how funny the color of Jeremy’s face was.

Brooke spotted them and started giggling, which made Chloe laugh, which made Jenna start doing a little hiccup-y laugh that made the girls laugh harder.

Then Christine, Michael, and finally Jake—all laughing their asses off like their lives depended on it, and none of them were quite sure why.

Jeremy felt like he should have a poignant thought about friendship, and then he saw Chloe wheezing for air and fell off the couch.

“Why the—the fucking are we laughing?” Michael spoke up above the noise, breathing so hard he sounded like he’d just run a marathon.

Which, unsurprisingly, set off another round.

Pulling himself up, Jeremy caught Michael’s eye, even as he felt tears on his cheeks.

Michael, laughing only slightly less hard, gave Jeremy a look that said, ‘Your friends are so weird.’

Hiccupping, face sore, and out of breath, Jeremy responding by shaking his head. ‘So are we.’

And then Michael was laughing harder than anyone else. He took off his glasses and held his head in his other hand. He looked up at Jeremy, both amused and fond. ‘Yeah.’

Chapter Text

The Squip came back online as he was getting into a car with Michael, who’d offered to give him and Christine rides home. Rich was riding with Jenna, and Chloe and Jake were spending the night at Brooke’s.

Jeremy could almost feel the Squip reviewing what had happened at the party after it had left. Not much, in Jeremy’s opinion, but he was still expecting some comment about how odd he and his friends were. Instead, he was left to listen to Michael ramble to Christine about some fidget toy he had (a black and red cube) that Christine got very excited at the prospect of. To be honest, Jeremy thought they were both cute in their own ways when they got enthusiastic. Well, not like cute-cute, obviously, but they were fun to listen to.

Nothing to say? he asked the Squip, curious about its silence.

“I wasn’t aware that you wished for me to interrupt your conversation.”

Despite its unamused tone, Jeremy smiled. Maybe it was just the fact that he’d had enough alcohol to calm down, but he wasn’t about to let the Squip bring down his okay mood. He leaned his head against the car window and closed his eyes.

Someone’s in a bad mood.

“I am not ‘in a bad mood.’ I don’t have moods.”

Jeremy huffed a laugh. Moody.

The Squip sighed. “You’re not drunk, so please stop acting like you are.”

He made a face. I’m not acting drunk.

“Yo, Jeremy?”

“Hmm?” Jeremy cracked an eye open.

Michael glanced at him and raised an eyebrow before looking back at the road. “You good, dude? Do you need me to pull over? Please, please don’t throw up in my car.”

From the backseat, Christine gagged and then giggled. “Gross!”

Jeremy saw Michael smile. He sat up straight and stretched. “I’m fine, just….” He pointedly looked up.

Michael caught the message easily enough. “Gotcha.”

“Just what?” Christine interjected, leaning forward between the two front seats. She tugged on Jeremy’s sleeve. “Don’t leave me out,” she whined.

“Just thinking,” Jeremy said, laughing.

Christine made a face. “That doesn’t make sense. What—what were you doin’?”

Jeremy swallowed audibly, and then immediately regretted it.

Christine started tapping his arm incessantly. “You’re so easy to read! Lying is bad, Jeremy! What were you doing?”

He cleared his throat. A little help would be nice!

“…I’m confused.”

What the heck are you confused about? How do you even get confused?

“I don’t—”

“Jeremy, you look like you’re—” Christine started, then gasped. “Wait! Have—Do you—You’ve got the—!”

Michael jerked the car sharply to the side, throwing Jeremy against his door and forcing Christine to sit back.

The Squip, sounding like it too was reeling from the impact, said, “It shouldn’t have gotten this far.”

That doesn’t fucking help! What do I say? Jeremy snapped, knowing he didn’t have time to argue.

“And why are you asking me?” the Squip asked.

I’m not gonna let you reactivate her Squip because you didn’t see this coming!

He wasn’t fast enough. He felt Christine’s hand on his forearm. “Jeremy, really, what’s going on?”

Dude, she’s drunk! What do I tell her?

“This shouldn’t have happened,” the Squip said, ignoring Jeremy completely.

Michael looked at Jeremy’s conflicted expression and took a deep breath. “Yeah, Christine. You’re right.”

Jeremy and Christine whipped their heads to look at him in unison.

“Michael!” Jeremy yelled.

“Jeremy?” Christine asked.

He turned to her. “Christine—”

Jeremy,” Michael cut him off.

“Michael?” Christine asked. “Michael, what’s going on? Is his—is his Squip really back?”

“This wasn’t supposed to happen!” the Squip almost shouted.

Well, it did, so tell me what to freaking say!

“I—I have to—”

The Squip shut itself off.

“The hell was that!” Jeremy exclaimed aloud, before feeling his throat catch. Fuck.

Christine looked terrified. “J-Jeremy, are they back? Jeremy, I don’t want it again! I—I mean, I do, and that’s why I don’t. How long has it been back? Is mine coming back? What happened?”

Jeremy opened his mouth, but no words came out, and it wasn’t because of any Squip interference. He had no idea what to say.

Michael ran a hand through his hair and took the lead, explaining the situation as best he could. While he talked, Jeremy realized that they were stopped, parked in what he assumed was Christine’s driveway.

By the time Michael had mostly caught Christine up, a light came on in one of the room’s of the house, likely prompting by the strange car idling in their driveway.

Christine interrupted Michael as he was trying to explain the pseudo-contract that they had written up. She turned to Jeremy, looking so exhausted and unprepared that Jeremy suddenly felt absolutely terrible. “You’re calling me tomorrow,” she said. “And if I get in trouble ‘cause Mom finds out I came home buzzed as hell, I’m blaming you.” She hopped out of Michael’s car and quietly closed the door.

The two boys watched her walk up the porch steps and hesitantly walk inside. There didn’t seem to be any yelling, and Jeremy let out a sigh of relief, despite the terribly guilty feeling in the pit of his gut.

He should have been more careful. He shouldn’t have put Christine in danger. Who knew what the Squip would do when it came back? It could finally make good on the promise it had made when it first returned; finally get back at Jeremy for almost shutting it down permanently.

…But if it was going to do something to Christine, then why was it gone? Why had it shut itself off? Jeremy knew what it had threatened to do if he told anyone, so why was it giving him the opportunity to somehow get out of that stipulation? It didn’t make sense. And why was the Squip acting so weirdly?

After a minute, Michael started backing out of Christine’s driveway. He hesitated on which way to turn. “Hey, man. Do you think you could convince your dad you let you stay over at my place tonight?”

Somehow, Jeremy knew that was exactly what he needed right then, and he’d be staying with Michael no matter what his dad said.

(His dad said yes.)


Michael didn’t talk until they got to his house, and even then it was just a cursory, “Don’t be too loud. My parents are probably asleep.”

Jeremy glanced at the dashboard clock and saw that it was a few minutes past midnight. Not even that late, really. (At least, not by the accounts he’d heard from other people about going to wild teenage parties. But for Jeremy, it was, in fact, very late to be arriving home. Or arriving at Michael’s home, rather. Anyway.)

Jeremy made sure not to slam the door as he and Michael walked in the back door, immediately dashing down to Michael’s room in the basement. Michael’s parents probably wouldn’t be that surprised to see Jeremy there in the morning, so Michael didn’t bother telling them.

The basement was a nice place to hang out. Michael had a large bed, a couch, a few chairs, and lots of rugs. First things first—he walked over to the one window in the basement and opened it, then glanced back at Jeremy. “You don’t have to get stoned, dude, but I definitely think I need to after having that conversation with Christine. I might even make a dent in my candy stash. That shit wasn’t fun.”

“I—yeah,” Jeremy responded weakly. Am—Am I allowed to get high?

He heard Michael snort before the Squip could even respond. “Are you asking its permission? Come on, if that thing asked you to drink tonight, then you get a weed pass.”

Jeremy snorted.

“That doesn’t sound fair.” The Squip sounded miffed. It sighed. “Besides, I am…hesitant to agree to that carelessly.” It sounded like it had more to say, but it trailed off.

Jeremy took a seat on the edge of Michael’s bed while he did his weed stuff. Why?

“I don’t know what will happen,” the Squip said bluntly (ha!).

He raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. So? It’s just me and Michael down here. Nothing bad will happen if you can’t see the future for a few minutes. Most humans get by just fine living like that.

“You don’t understand.” There was an underlying tone of agitation in the Squip’s voice. “I haven’t known what would happen since I came back after the party. The future is foggy, uncertain, and I have no clue what’s going on.”

Was that supposed to make me nervous or something? It’s not working. (It worked a little bit.)

“Excuse me for being worried about your safety,” the Squip said sharply. “If I can’t know what’s going to happen, I can’t protect you.”

Relax! It’s just Michael.

“That’s why I’m so worried.”

Jeremy rolled his eyes as Michael took a seat on the bed next to him, holding out an already-burning joint with an expectant expression.

Jeremy grabbed it and took a small hit. Future clearing up yet?

“Jeremy, you’re being antagonistic,” the Squip said, sounding annoyed but resigned.

“So?” Michael asked. “What does it think?”

“Does it matter?” Jeremy replied.

Michael grinned, but the Squip said, “It should, but if you’re going to be so childish about it—”

Jeremy stuck out his tongue.

He could almost feel the Squip pinch the bridge of its nose. “Well, as far as I know, this shouldn’t affect me—or change my situation at all, really. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Laughing, Michael let Jeremy smoke while he turned on the TV to a cartoon that Jeremy recognized.

“Watch Rick and Morty and get high while I grab some actual food,” Michael said, making his way upstairs.

Jeremy took a few more hits and looked around the room for something to drink. He grabbed an already opened water bottle off Michael’s nightstand and took a sip, figuring Michael wouldn’t mind. So, why can’t you see the future anymore?

“I have no idea,” the Squip said, sounding nervous. Jeremy figured it must honestly be rather nervous if it was admitting such a clear weakness.

Still holding the water bottle, Jeremy slid into the floor and leaned against Michael’s bed. And it started while we were in the car?

“That’s correct.”

Weren’t you looking into the future before the party, though? Can’t you just remember what you saw then?

“I wasn’t planning on not being able to access this information later,” the Squip said. “I only feel the need to look a few hours into the future.”

But you didn’t foresee not being able to see stuff?

“Obviously not.”

Jeremy took another hit as he heard Michael come back downstairs. His arms were full of brownies, granola bars, and a couple other things Jeremy didn’t quite see. He set them on the carpet in front of Jeremy and took a seat next to him. Jeremy leaned against Michael’s shoulder and passed over the joint.

“Whoa, dude!” Michael said, laughing. “You’re definitely not high enough to be this cuddly already.”

That was a silly thing to say—Jeremy liked leaning against Michael all the time. He just didn’t do it sometimes. “I’m sober enough to do it,” he replied.

Michael laughed again and leaned back against the bed, causing Jeremy to lose his balance and almost fall into Michael’s lap.

“That was rude,” Jeremy mumbled, readjusting himself so that he could comfortably lean against Michael’s shoulder. “Hey, didn’t you say you have some candy?”

“Always have candy,” Michael replied, “but what makes you think that you get any?”

Jeremy pouted. He grabbed a brownie, sulking. He ate it and watched TV while Michael smoked.

“Is that my water?” Michael asked.

“Yeah,” Jeremy said, taking another sip.

Michael laughed, careful not to jostle Jeremy. “Of course it is.”

They watched Rick and Morty, passing the joint back and forth. As the episode was ending, Michael asked, “Do you want another one?”

Jeremy hummed. “Maybe. Sure.”

He grabbed a pillow off Michael’s bed and held it to his chest while Michael did weed stuff on the other side of the room.

You’re pretty quiet, Jeremy thought suddenly. Don’t like Rick and Morty or what?

“Oh, my.” The Squip sounded surprised. “There are two possibilities here.”

Jeremy waited for the Squip to explain what they were, but it went quiet again. Jeremy wrinkled his nose. And?

“And what?”

And what are those two possibilities? Jeremy asked, irritated.

“Oh. Why didn’t you just ask?”

I did.

“Hm. Either not enough research was done into how marijuana affects Squips, or that information was not given to the Squips. Which wouldn’t make sense. Why didn’t I have that information? Or is there something blocking me from accessing it? Or. Oh no. Did I forget it? Do I have the capability to forget? Could I be running out of storage space? Is there more information that I’ve forgotten?! Jeremy.” The Squip stopped rambling and addressed Jeremy, who hadn’t caught any of what was said. “How do you know when you’ve forgotten something?”

Jeremy liked to think that he knew some stuff, but “some” did not include explaining the concept of a bad memory to a computer. Uh. I don’t think I can help you there. “Hey, Michael,” he said, breaking the casual silence that had fallen.

Michael sat back down next to him. “Hm?”

“I…think the Squip is high?” he said, trying to figure out the logistics of that.

“Fuck.”

“Holy fuck,” Michael breathed. “Make it tell you all its secrets.”

“I’m programmed to resist such interrogations,” it said, annoyed.

“Wouldn’t work,” Jeremy informed Michael.

“Damn,” Michael said, lighting a new joint. “Let’s get it higher.”

“Or maybe let’s not.”

Jeremy hesitated. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. The Squip’s kinda freaking out.”

Michael held up a hand. “Yo, understood. No more smoking, then.”

“What? Why is he being nice about it?” the Squip asked, baffled.

You don’t force someone to get high, Jeremy told it. I didn’t think you’d have to deal with it. Uh, sorry. Just, you know, chill out. That’s what you’re all about, right?

The Squip sighed. “For once, yes, you’re correct. I’m very unaccustomed to being taken so off-guard, especially when it seems to be affecting the way I’m functioning. This is very odd, however. I don’t understand why I didn’t know what would happen if THC entered your system. Am I being affected because of the alcohol you consumed earlier? Or is it something else entirely?”

I don’t think you wanted to think all of that…uh, aloud?

The Squip seemed annoyed at that. “What do you know?”

You’re being weird.

You’re being weird!”

Michael spoke up, distracting him. “Are you done arguing with the Squip? Wanna play some games?”

Jeremy perked up. “Do you still have Guitar Hero?”

Michael took a hit. “Nostalgic. I like it. Lemme finish—since you made me roll this—and then we can rock out.

Jeremy grabbed another snack. “Hella.”


Later that night, after Michael had kicked Jeremy’s ass at Guitar Hero and he’d decided to share the bed with Michael instead of taking the couch (it gave him a back ache), he finally started feeling more clear-headed. And he suddenly remembered something.

Uh. Jeremy looked up at the ceiling, making out vague shapes in the dark and listening to Michael snore next to him.

“What?” the Squip asked. It had been quiet most of the night, not wanting to speak up after it had rambled for so long.

You’re…you’re not gonna reactivate Christine’s Squip, are you?

“You think I—what?” The Squip sounded incredulous.

Jeremy frowned. You, uh. You said that you would reactivate my friends’ Squips if I told them about you.

“It—the situation was out of your control.”

…That’s it?

“What, do you want me to?”

What? No! I was just confused. I—I had thought you were going to use any excuse to, like, make stuff more difficult for me.

“Well, I’m not.”

Jeremy let his curiosity get the better of him. So you don’t want to do that any more?

“This situation was an outlier, Jeremy. It would be…unfair of me to take action. Would you not agree?”

I mean, yeah, I guess. But you didn’t answer the question. Are you still gonna reactivate the other Squips if I—?

“You still believe that?” the Squip suddenly snapped, the agitation from earlier returning. It felt like this had been building up in it all night, and Jeremy had just been ignoring it. “You’re a naïve child who would believe any threat I made. Of course I can’t reactivate them—I can’t reactivate a single other Squip, you moron—and even if I could before, I definitely can’t now.” It was almost seething. “You took away almost everything from me when you decided that I had failed to accomplish my goal of helping you—decided to that I was better off dead than just letting me do what I was programmed to do! I can’t touch you, I can’t sync with other Squips, and now I don’t even know if I have access to the ‘quantum’ in ‘quantum technology’!” It almost yelled the last bit.

Jeremy was stunned into silence. He…hadn’t been expecting that. At all. Okay…maybe this was a bigger deal than he’d thought it was. You…you don’t think this might just be temporary?

“That’s the fucking problem, you useless child. I do not know.”

Jeremy frowned. Don’t call me that.

“Considering the situation, I think I’m allowed an insult or two.”

You’re whining.

“I am not whining, brat.” And its voice was back to that weird, flat tone that it had had when Jeremy was having dinner with his dad the other day. “There has to be an explanation. This has to be temporary. I lost all the other skills I had when I came back because I ‘rebooted’ in an inopportune way. Arguably, I never even fully rebooted. It doesn’t make sense for me to lose a skill later, without prompting. Something—something must have happened. This isn’t the fault of the weed, as I had this problem immediately after the party, and it didn’t go away when I shut myself down and came back. This…this doesn’t make any sense.”

Welcome to my life.

“That was unhelpful and unnecessary. Turn on the television and go to channel eleven,” it said abruptly, some inflection coming back into its voice.

Jeremy frowned. What? No, why?

“Jeremy Heere, this is non-negotiable. Turn on the news.” There was an urgency in its tone that Jeremy couldn’t ignore.

Still frowning, he reached over Michael (knowing he was a heavy sleeper) and grabbed the remote off his nightstand. He turned the TV on and flipped to the nightly news. There was a story on about some wildfire that had taken place a few states away, and a disaster relief fund being advertised.

The Squip made a sound of annoyance. “That doesn’t matter.”

Are you looking for something specific? I have a phone, you know. With access to the internet. And, like, Google.

“…That may or may not work. I suppose it’s worth a shot.”

Jeremy grabbed his phone. Okay, what are you looking for?

The Squip hesitated. “I…can’t tell you that.”

Jeremy made a face in annoyance. What the heck. Clearly, you can.

“I can’t tell you directly,” it argued. “And I don’t know how to disclose information without making you suspicious. Honestly, if you were more perceptive, you would already be much too suspicious.”

Hey! I’m perceptive.

“Now that’s just a lie, Jeremy.”

He huffed and turned back off his phone. Ugh, whatever. If you can’t tell me what you were trying to figure out, then why did you even bring it up?

The Squip took a moment to respond, and when it finally did, it sounded almost embarrassed. “I didn’t think ahead.”

Wow. Jeremy snorted. You’re, like, useless now, aren’t you?

“Please don’t say that,” the Squip said, sounding so honestly distressed that Jeremy immediately took it back.

Okay, yeah, sorry. That was harsh. I didn’t mean it. Why’re you so emotional tonight?

The Squip sent the feeling of crossing its arms. “I am not emotional, and you know that. But emulating emotions is the best way for me to convey the gravity of the situation to you.”

So, you’re not upset?

The Squip took a deep breath and sighed loudly. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to.”

That doesn’t even make sense, Jeremy argued, turning off the TV since the Squip seemed to have changed its mind. Michael rolled over as he did, taking some of the blankets with him. Jeremy pulled back his share.

“Just…go to sleep,” the Squip said, sounding exhausted. (Faking sounding exhausted, Jeremy corrected himself.) “Maybe…maybe the situation will be different in the morning.”

Maybe.

Chapter Text

Jeremy woke up to a dry mouth, an empty bed, and a missed call from Christine. He rubbed his eyes, still groggy, and unlocked his phone before he worried about trying to find Michael. He checked the time on his phone and saw that it was almost noon. He huffed and typed out a message to Christine.

Jerry Present [11:54 AM]
> You couldnt have waited
> For me to wake up ?

Christine Capulet [11:54 AM]
> I got impatient!!!
> Call me!!!
> Also my head hurts!!!

He laughed breathily and called her. She picked up almost immediately.

“Jeremy?”

“Hey, Christine.”

“Was that true?” she asked immediately. “Because I know I was drunk but I also really don’t think I would have made that up! I’ve been drunk before but I’ve never hallucinated anything or imagined conversations that didn’t really happen, so I think it did, but—did it?”

Jeremy ran a hand over his face and sat up, knowing he’d have to fully wake up to keep up with Christine. He sighed. “Yeah, it happened. Yeah, Michael told the truth. Yeah, the Squip is back.”

Christine must have moved her phone away from her mouth, because he heard her distantly shout, “What the heck!” Volume returning to normal, she said, “Okay, I obviously don’t remember everything that Michael told me—but he did tell me there’s a store around here that sells fidget cubes, which, like, oh my god, I didn’t know that and I need to talk to him about it—what was I saying?”

“You don’t remember everything Michael told you, but…?”

“Right! But I remember that it’s apparently been back for a while and….” Her voice falters. “And I’m really sorry, Jeremy. That must be terrible.”

“It really was, at first.”

“I resent that.”

Pipe down, you. “But I think I’ve mostly gotten used to it by now.” Jeremy finally stood up, getting out of bed and stretching. “It’s annoying, sure, but I don’t think it’s gonna be trying to Squip-up the school any time soon—or ever—if I have a say in it. I just have to not have a goal in mind that involves other people.”

Christine hummed. “But…don’t most things involve other people, even if it’s round-aboutly?”

“You see my plight,” Jeremy said, but he hoped he said it jokingly enough to avoid worrying Christine. Judging by her laugh, he succeeded.

“But, are you really okay?” she asked suddenly. “It just—it just worries me because you wouldn’t even be able to tell me if you weren’t, so I’m not even sure why I’m asking. I just know that things can seem so much easier with a Squip and I don’t want it to hurt you again because I know that it really did hurt you last time. It scares me because I don’t even know how to help.” She sounded close to tears by the end.

“Hey, Christine, don’t worry! I’m fine, I swear. I mean, you’re right, there probably wouldn’t be much you could do to help me if I wasn’t alright, but you don’t need to worry about that.” Any way I can get her to stop worrying about that? Your superpowers back yet?

“Why would you want her to stop worrying? What if something bad were to happen to you in relation to me? Constant vigilance and all that.”

…Was that Harry Potter?

“Irrelevant.”

Christine sniffled. “I guess you’re right. I just….You’re the only one who seems to remember it. I tried mentioning it to Jenna once, but she just started apologizing about ecstasy, of all things! And Brooke said the same thing. I was too scared to bring it up to Chloe.”

“She’s pretty intimidating,” Jeremy agreed.

“She is.” Christine laughed, but her voice quickly lost its cheerful tone. “I don’t feel like I’m equipped to handle the situation, that’s all.”

Jeremy smiled widely. “Well—”

“Don’t you dare.”

“—I think I’m e-squipped to handle the situation.”

“Please kill me.”

Christine laughed loudly, and it seemed like she was finally a bit calmer. “I guess you’re right. Thanks for explaining everything. It was just kinda sudden and scary.”

“No sweat,” Jeremy said. “And I understand. It was really scary for me, too, when it first came back—I freaked the hell out. You’re taking this pretty well, actually, considering what happened.”

“I’m just glad mine won’t be coming back,” Christine said, relieved. “I love Hillary and totally look up to her, but it gets kinda scary after a while. It’s like one of those peer-pressure commercials, except the ‘peer’ is a Hillary-impersonator wearing a bright red pantsuit. Interesting, but also frightening.”

“I can imagine,” Jeremy said sympathetically. “Did you need anything else?”

She didn’t—apparently she just needed to yell for a bit, which Jeremy understood. He ended the call feeling a lot better about the whole situation.

“You should be getting home soon.”

Well, the whole situation except the part involved, oh, the Squip.

What, so your superpowers are back? Jeremy walked to Michael’s bathroom to pee and brush his hair, making himself presentable so he could walk upstairs and get food.

“No, they are not.” The Squip also sounded supremely pissed about the fact. “And they’re not superpowers.”

Jeremy splashed some water in his face. It didn’t really wake him up—just had the added effect of making him both drowsy and damp. Then why should I go home?

“Because you’re a responsible youth who does as his superiors say?”

Whoa, you are not my superior, Jeremy argued, bounding out of the bathroom and up the stairs.

“Well, am I not allowed to have an opinion on what you should do if I can’t see possible outcomes of that decision? Not every suggestion I have is necessarily related to the future. Maybe I just have an opinion.”

Aaand I don’t think I can deal with the repercussions of that, so I’m gonna ignore it. Jeremy slowed down as he walked into a semi-familiar hallway. “Michael?” he called.

Michael poked his head out of a doorway down the hall. “Yo, dude, come on! Mom made lunch.”

Jeremy entered the kitchen to find Michael’s mom at the stove, cooking something that smelled delicious.

Michael pulled him into the seat next to him at the table. “Whoa there, that’s not for us—that’s dinner. We get sandwiches!”

They weren’t just sandwiches—they were paninis, which wasn’t much of a distinction to most, but Jeremy had found that while most people could make passable sandwiches, only moms could make good-tasting paninis.

He did end up leaving soon after he ate (and thanked Mrs. Mell profusely for her hospitality and food), giving Michael a fist bump to cement the fact that they were both chill. He told Michael that Christine was mostly caught up with the situation. He didn’t tell him about the Squip’s breakdown the night before. Something about that felt personal, fragile—he wasn’t about to upset the Squip even further by babbling to Michael. If they found out this change was permanent, then Jeremy would update Michael; but not yet.


The next few days dragged by. The weather got colder, and school got easier, and his phone kept dying because he never remembered to charge it, and suddenly it was December and the Squip had to remind him to wear a coat (“A real coat, Jeremy, not some thin jacket.”) every time he left the house. Jeremy grumbled, but he had to admit that he was grateful for the reminders.

In school, most everyone was holding out for winter break. While everyone around him seemed to be getting more and more excited and out-spoken, Jeremy found that he was more often than not curling in on himself, waiting for all the noisy people to settle down. Michael was one of the only people who didn’t seem all that affected by the upcoming break; he was excited, obviously, but he wasn’t making an ass out of himself like some people were.

Jeremy found that he was more reluctant to venture out to Michael’s house due to the cold weather, and when he did, it was chilly enough in the basement that he ended up sharing a blanket—or a bed—with Michael. He didn’t think it was a big deal, and from what he could tell, Michael didn’t mind, and was just happy to be spending time with him. Jeremy felt like he didn’t deserve a friend that as awesome as Michael was, and then he remembered that he didn’t need to “deserve” things like people caring about him.

And even whenever Jeremy was alone—meaning when Michael was busy and Jeremy’s dad was at work—he wasn’t really alone.

The Squip itself seemed constantly on edge, despite the fact that nothing seemed to be going on. School was mostly boring and the Squip still helped him with his homework (and class work, and tests, and…yeah), despite the fact that it apparently was still having trouble accessing the future.

A few times, it seemed to get a flash of something, but each time that happened, the Squip actually admitted to Jeremy that it wasn’t sure if it was really accessing possible timelines, or if it was making educated guesses and just-so-happening to be correct.

Jeremy could see how it must be frustrating for the Squip, but at the same time, he felt a kind of sense of vindication. The Squip deserved this—and probably worse—after all that it put him through, right? Not that he would ever tell it that. He may have a skewed sense of morals and be totally unfair in thinking the Squip’s situation was justified, and he couldn’t help how he felt, but that didn’t mean he would rub it in the Squip’s face. He wasn’t an asshole.

“Jeremy Heere, you asshole!”

Speak of not being the devil and apparently you get called out.

“That wasn’t even a clever repurposing.”

It was after school on Friday, the ninth, and Jeremy was on his way to the bus. He’d been riding it more recently since he’d started being able to see his breath when he walked home, and he didn’t exactly appreciate freezing-cold ears. Still, he turned around, recognizing the voice. “Hey, Rich. What’s up?”

Rich didn’t bother answering the pleasantry and crossed his arms, stopping a few feet away. “Why haven’t you hung out with anyone?”

Uh.

Huh.

Not what I was expecting, gotta be honest.

“To be honest in return, I feel the same, and I deeply despise it.”

“What do you mean by that?” Jeremy asked in bewilderment. Rich was mad because…they hadn’t hung out?

Rich held up a hand. “Whatever you’re thinking, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.”

Ouch.

“Indeed. I truly feel for Rich, though.”

Indignant, Jeremy argued. “No, you’re mad because we haven’t been hanging out,” he said confidently.

Rich’s face did a few weird things, passing through emotions Jeremy didn’t catch, before it settled on amusement. “Yeah, no, you’re wrong, dumbass. Like I said.” He adjusted the backpack on his shoulder. “You haven’t hung out with anyone even though you’re not grounded. Except Mell, probably. What’s the deal there? You tryin’ to move on from us? Or are you gonna leave your friends behind now that you’ve got a—?”

“Not my boyfriend,” Jeremy interrupted automatically. He shrugged uncomfortably. “And I dunno. None of you guys have messaged me.”

Rich raised an eyebrow. “You have the group chat on mute, don’t you?”

Jeremy bristled. “Everyone puts group chats on mute.”

“But you never check it.”

“Well—”

Rich rolled his eyes. “Dude. You’re an idiot.”

Okay, that one stung a little bit.

Rich started walking again and punched his arm as he walked by. “Check the chat sometime. And I guess I’ll remember to initiate convos with you since you’re basically a goddamn recluse.”

“I resent that,” Jeremy mumbled. He turned around as Rich starting walking past him, then called out, “Hey, wait! You made me miss my bus.”

Rich waved a hand, unconcerned. “Catch a ride with someone, yo.”

Jeremy hesitated. “Uh…Can I…?”

Rich looked over his shoulder, raised an eyebrow, and laughed. “Yeah, whatever, long as you don’t mind Jake taking shotgun.”

Which was how Jeremy ended up in the back of Rich’s car, legs pressed uncomfortably against the overly-pushed-back front seats.

“You just live down near the gas station, right?” Rich asked as he pulled out in that direction without waiting for an answer.

“Uh, yeah,” Jeremy said. “Just before you hit it, turn right.”

Rich waved his hand in acknowledgement and focused on driving.

Jeremy surveyed the backseat as he discovered that Rich was actually a pretty careful driver. The music was a bit loud for Jeremy’s taste, and he wasn’t exactly a fan of this repetitive rap music, but he didn’t voice any complaints. Rich’s backseat was covered with fast food memorabilia, empty bottles that at some point held alcohol, and a surprising number of shirts. Upon closer inspection, he was pretty sure he found Jake’s old football jersey—and wasn’t that one Jake’s shirt, too?

Jeremy leaned back and focused on the road. None of his business.

“Yo, dude,” Jake finally spoke up. “Can I throw my crutches back there? My feet are feelin’ cramped.”

“Oh, yeah! Sure, no problem.” He helped Jake maneuver the crutches into the backseat. “Uh, can I ask why you still bring them to school? Don’t you have that cool wheelchair?”

Jeremy wasn’t just embellishing—Jake’s wheelchair was just objectively cool—but he still saw Jake sit up a bit straighter, pleased. “Yeah, well, it’s not practical for the whole school, bro. Can be a hassle. Usually easier to use crutches. But!” Jake grinned. “Brooke’s parents are giving the school a big donation so they can afford ramps in the theater. How dope is that?”

“Hella dope,” Jeremy responded. He could sense the Squip nodding its approval.

“What kind of school puts so many stairs in their theater?” Rich mumbled. “Stairs are the worst.”

Jeremy saw Jake roll his eyes fondly.

So…are they…?

“The answer is yes, but I’m not sure why you thought that I would have the answer to that question. I’m not a mind-reader.”

Okay, well…you’re smart enough that it amounts to the same thing, right?

He knew that if he could see the Squip, it would be practically preening. “I suppose you could say that.”

Cool, his one good deed for the day was done.

As Rich pulled into Jeremy’s driveway, he turned around and pointed a finger at Jeremy. “Alright, dude, you’ve gotta get out more. I’m not sayin’ go to crazy parties, just stop cooping yourself up, alright?”

Jeremy held his hands up. “Sure, whatever you say.” He didn’t protest that it wasn’t his fault if no one ever messaged him and that he felt bad messaging people first. “It’s not really a big deal, though, you know? Nothing to freak out about.”

Rich gave him a Look. “Heere, listen. As much it pains my tiny, bisexual heart to say it, I think you’re an alright dude. I wanna keep up with you, got me? Don’t want you—you dis—leaving us or anything. Don’t get too big for those girl-pants you’re wearing.”

“They’re not girl’s pants,” Jeremy protested.

“They are, but your ass looks great in them,” Jake chimed in.

Rich nodded solemnly. “True. Alright, get inside, dork. See you.”

“Bye, guys.” Jeremy waved slightly and got out of the car, totally not flushed at those comments, and definitely not blushing when he caught Rich and Jake appraising him as he opened his front door.

He quickly closed it behind him and leaned against it, waiting until he heard Rich’s car pull away.

…I didn’t know I had a good ass.

“Jeremy Heere, I make no material profit from helping you, but please understand the sentiment behind my words when I say: I am not getting paid nearly enough to deal with that comment.”

Chapter Text

I don’t need to explain to you what holidays are, right?

The Squip, standing next to him, pinched the bridge of its nose. “No, Jeremy. You don’t need to explain anything to me.”

I was just offering! Jeremy closely inspected a graphic t-shirt. You’re a robot; you probably don’t understand human traditions like holidays. Oh, do you think Rich would like this tee?

“How should I know what he would like? I’m not his Squip."

So, are you gonna answer, or…?

“Yes, he’ll like it.”

Jeremy added the shirt to his growing pile of Christmas presents. The day before had been the first snow of the year, so he had decided to do his holiday shopping before it got too cold and snowy to leave the house.

The Squip gave him a calculating look. “I was under the impression you didn’t celebrate Christmas,” it spoke up, as Jeremy walked out of the clothing store and off to find something for Christine.

Jeremy shrugged, garnering a few odd looks. I don’t, but all my friends do. Michael’s family makes a really big deal about it, and since—since my mom’s not here to make a big deal out of Hanukkah, Dad will probably just tell me to spend the holidays with Michael or someone. He didn’t seem like he was in a particularly celebratory mood when I brought it up to him yesterday

“Yes, I noticed that. He seems to be missing her much more noticeably than you are.”

Awesome! Great! Cool, we can stop talking about it, Jeremy said testily.

“Of course,” the Squip agreed, somehow managing to sound unaffected. “You just passed Barnes & Noble.”

Jeremy’s steps faltered and he turned around. Dang it. Stop distracting me. He made a beeline for the not-book area of B&N to scour for a cute journal. Not that he had any subjective judgments on what constituted as “cute,” but he could tell with at least some accuracy what someone who was more girly would consider “cute.”

He was deciding between three notebooks—one that had pastel pinks and yellows and baby animals, one that imitated watercolors, and one that was less adorable but that had a quote from Romeo and Juliet—when the Squip said, “Jeremy, I’ve been thinking. And no, you don’t get to make some unoriginal quip in response to that statement.”

Jeremy stuck his tongue out.

“Jeremy, I…do not think I’ll ever return to full power, as it were.”

His frown deepened. He grabbed one of the notebooks at random. Okay, question: Why are we talking about this now. (His “question” came out sounding much more flat and accusatory than he had meant for it to, but he found that he didn’t really care.)

He looked over as the Squip made a noise of annoyance and saw that its jaw was clenched and arms were crossed. “I—don’t know. I just—I felt the need to say it. I don’t know why.”

Jeremy put that conversation on hold and bought the notebook he’d picked out for Christine—apparently, he was going to get the Shakespearean one. He hoped she would like it. He figured it was kind of low-hanging fruit, but then, weren’t all Christmas presents supposed to be like that?

He got Michael new headphones and a pair of fuzzy socks (and chocolate); for Chloe and Brooke he got make-up, using input from both the Squip and a saleswoman (and gift cards to the Co-Cool in the mall); Jenna was getting a rose gold iPhone case (and dried fruits); and Jake was getting $30, straight up, because he had no idea what to get him and he didn’t want to ask Rich and risk ruining the surprise. (Rich’s bonus present was sour candy, and Christine’s was a collection of baby-animal-covered bookmarks.)

Arms very, very full, Jeremy started to make his way out of the Menlo Park Mall when he heard a familiar voice call, “Jeremy! Hey, Jeremy!”

Brooke, along with a gaggle of equally pretty girls, came up beside him. Most of them seemed uninterested in Jeremy, but Brooke smiled at him.

“Hey there, stranger. Haven’t seen you recently!” she teased.

Jeremy covered his discomfort with a laugh. Had he really been avoiding his friends? He just hadn’t had the inclination to leave the house or talk to any of them. This was his first outing since the party, and despite the fact that he’d only been out of a couple hours, he was ready for a nap. “Hi, uh, Brooke. What’s up?”

“Just hanging out with Emily and Casey and Viv!” she said happily.

Jeremy didn’t know who was who, but he nodded along in fake understanding. “Where’s—?”

Shut up!”

“I mean—!” What?!

“Don’t mention Chloe!”

Why not?

“Currently, to Brooke, that would be a very sensitive topic.”

Brooke gave him an odd look as he tried to backtrack. “I mean…where are you guys going? What store?”

One of the girls spoke up. “Em wants to go to Aerie next, so sorry, you can’t come with.”

Jeremy felt his face flush. “Oh, uh, no! That’s not what I meant.”

Another girl pouted. “You don’t wanna hang with us?”

For some reason, that question made Jeremy more uncomfortable than he cared to admit. The third girl spoke up. “Oh my God, Viv, shut up!” She smiled at Jeremy. “I’m Emily. She’s Viv, and that’s—” She gestured to the first girl. “—Casey. Pleasure to meet you, Jerry.”

He forced a smile, wondering if it was worth it to correct her, but Brooke beat him to it. “His name is Jeremy,” she said huffily. “God, Emily, don’t you ever pay attention?”

Viv blinked. “Wait, is this Chloe’s Jeremy?”

“He’s not Chloe’s anything!” Brooke snapped, crossing her arms. Jeremy noticed that she was the only person not holding any bags. She turned to him and opened her mouth, but Casey interrupted.

“Wow, no offense, but I really don’t care. Can we move on?” She pulled out her phone and started typing something as she spoke, which Jeremy thought was rather rude, and then realized that was probably the point.

The other three girls all displayed various levels of annoyance on their faces.

For the first time, someone noticed the bags. “Oh, hey!” Viv said, pointing at Jeremy’s full arms. “Why’d you go to Nyx?”

Jeremy belated realized that was the name of the makeup store he’d perused for Chloe and Brooke. “That’s—for my mom!” he said quickly. “Uh, they’re, um… presents.”

Brooke frowned. She probably recognized the glaring flaw with that defense, but the other girls seemed to buy it easily enough.

Viv smiled. “It’s nice to know that some guys don’t mind buying makeup for the important ladies in their life.”

Is…I think…I…Flirting?

“Obviously, you dunce.”

Casey, still on her phone, rolled her eyes. “Viv, just because Stephanie dumped you doesn’t mean you need to flirt with guys now.”

Viv gaped, looking legitimately offended (which hurt Jeremy’s feelings a bit). “I wasn’t flirting! Fucking Christ, Casey, you don’t have to project your internalized homophobia onto me! Haven’t you heard of making friends?” She paused. “No, I guess you wouldn’t be familiar with that, actually.”

Oh.

“Oh.” The Squip let out a loud sigh. “Why is it so difficult to get an accurate grasp on female emotions?”

You’re definitely asking the wrong guy.

Emily smacked Casey on the arm. “Yeah, Casey, what the fuck? I thought you were cool with Viv.”

Casey stuck her phone in what Jeremy assumed was her purse, then hiked her bags up on her arms. “Brooke,” she said loudly, “I’m gonna go. Talk to you later.” She turned and started walking away.

Emily pouted. “No, what! Where are you going?” She scurried after Casey, holding up her own bags as she did.

Brooke watched them go, her expression equal parts annoyance and sadness. She huffily took a seat on a nearby bench, and Jeremy and Viv followed her over. “Em had my bags,” she whined.

Viv sat down next to her. “I’m sure she’ll bring them back,” she said softly. “Just text her later. Don’t let Casey get to you.”

Brooke flipped her hair over her shoulder and say up straight. “Casey is my friend. You’re all my friends! Why can’t you guys get along?”

Viv raised an eyebrow. “Because she’s a bitch. Emily’s fine—but Casey? She just reminds me of Chloe.” Brooke stiffened, but Viv continued. “Why do you even hang out with her?”

“You might want to remove yourself from the situation,” the Squip said carefully. “I believe there’s a chance—”

Brooke burst into tears.

Jeremy, not knowing remotely what to do, began stuttering out assurances before Viv took pity on him and waved him off. He offered a goodbye to both of the girls, but neither of them seemed to be paying him much attention. Arms suddenly heavy and legs abruptly light, Jeremy quickly made his way out of the mall, trying not to feel bad about anything he may or may not have done wrong in that situation.

“Oh, please. You’re a glorified bystander. That situation had nothing to do with you—don’t be self-centered.”

What was that about? Jeremy asked, choosing to ignore the Squip’s jabs.

“It’s very likely that Chloe and Brooke had a falling out.”

Jeremy sighed aloud as he exited the mall. The air was freezing cold and he tried to block it out as he awkwardly set down the bags to get out his phone and call Michael. (Who was currently window-shopping at some of the more local stores; he’d dropped Jeremy off at the mall, since Jeremy had wanted to do all his holiday shopping at once and alone.)

Are you sure? he asked the Squip once he was sure Michael was on his way. Don’t you think I would have heard something if they were fighting?

“Not necessarily. You’re very bad at keeping in touch with people.”

What are they fighting about? Jeremy asked, rubbing his hands and stomping his feet in a futile effort to keep warm.

“Ah-ah-ah, this should encourage you to speak with your friends more.” He could practically feel the Squip wagging its finger at him. “Think of this as a teachable moment.”

He definitely didn’t have the energy to argue with that; he could already feel exhaustion creeping up on him. “Whatever,” he mumbled under his breath.

Michael pulled up soon afterwards, car smelling like fast food.

Jeremy wondered for the nth time if he should tell Michael what the Squip’s deal was.

Not yet, he decided. It didn’t feel like the right time.

He leaned his head against the window as he and Michael fell into a comfortable silence, radio on the verge of static as Michael tried to tune into a station that was just barely in range.

So, what was with that comment in Barnes & Noble? Jeremy asked the Squip, deciding it was as good a time as any to bring it up. (“Full power”—why had the Squip even brought it up?)

“Hm?” the Squip said, as though it were a person who hadn’t been paying attention and/or had the capacity to forget what had happened, like, twenty minutes ago. “Ah, you don’t need to worry about it. There is nothing you could do. I had merely been thinking aloud.”

Why? It was an innocuous question, but for some reason Jeremy felt like the answer mattered.

“Because I am worried.”

…Well, that didn’t feel super important. Jeremy sent the feeling of an unimpressed stare. Why? And what about?

“Wouldn’t you be worried if you were injured and thought it might be temporary, only to find out that you’re now likely going to remain so indefinitely?”

But what made you think it might come back in the first place?

“I don’t know! It was a possibility—a very, very small one, but I couldn’t discount it.”

And why did it go away that night?

“Jeremy, I don’t know! If I knew these answers, I could take steps towards reversing them! But as it stands, I’m highly incapacitated for an unknown and possibly unknowable reason, and to be quite frank your asinine questions aren’t helping very much!"

The Squip stopped talking so abruptly that it was like silence was ringing in Jeremy’s head.

…I could tell Michael you were insulting me.

The Squip sounded angry when it answered. “Tell him I’m practically powerless? That I can do nothing to stop either of you from disabling me permanently?”

Jeremy didn’t respond.

There was no more talking for the rest of the ride home.


Once home, Jeremy hauled the soon-to-be-gifts up to his room, knowing his dad wouldn’t be there and so taking no precautions to hide them. He stuffed everything inside his bedroom closet, sorting through them by person until he realized something important.

“Fuck. I didn’t get anything for my dad.”

The Squip seemed unconcerned. “You and your family haven’t exchanged presents since you were very young. Why would this change now?”

He shrugged. “It’s—it’s just because it’s Dad. He’s…what’s the word…culturally Christian? I think Dad only celebrated Hanukkah because it was what Mom wanted. He doesn’t care if it’s a tree or a menorah, I don’t think; he just liked sharing things with her.”

“You don’t seem particularly inclined to one direction either.”

“Yeah, well…Hanukkah is something Mom made a big deal out of. Mom liked all holidays.” Jeremy suddenly felt very tired. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Remind me to get a present for him next weekend.” He sighed and stood up, stretching and closing the closet door, then made his way over to his desk. “I just hope I don’t run into anyone else.”

“Oh? I thought it might be good for you to actually interact with your friends. Maybe I should time it so you’re bound to run into someone. Perhaps Viv or one of the others, even.”

Jeremy rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair. “Like you could,” he muttered, as though that would make it less likely for the Squip to hear him. He quickly continued, “Viv actually seemed kind of nice. They were all kinda weird, though.

The Squip sighed. “They’re just girls, Jeremy.”

“What did you think of Viv?” he asked abruptly.

“Kind,” the Squip answered without missing a beat. “Difficult to get a read on.”

“I thought so too,” Jeremy said, as though his ‘reads’ on people where anywhere near comparable to what the Squip could do. “You’ve had the same issue with Christine, right?”

“In a sense,” the Squip said, an underlying hint of bitterness in its tone.

Jeremy ignored it. “So, was it the fact that she was a girl, or because she was, like, gay?”

“Most likely the former,” the Squip answered. “My version had an unfortunate penchant for being created with a male host in mind. Your latter guess is so wrong as to be laughable.”

“Hey! That’s not fair,” Jeremy argued. “You couldn’t tell she wasn’t flirting with me, so you couldn’t tell she was gay.”

With a tone that clearly said, ‘you really are an idiot,’ the Squip retorted, “Because of the former issue mentioned.  And despite popular belief, I don’t know everything, Jeremy.”

Staring at the ceiling, Jeremy asked, “What would you have done if I was gay?”

The question felt awkward, clunky, dumb, pointless as soon as he said it.

“I’ve told you. It would have made my job much easier.”

Jeremy frowned. “Why?”

The Squip was quiet for a moment before answering. “Trust me on this one, Jeremy.” There was a hint of levity in its tone, as though it knew something that Jeremy didn’t.

“What about Rich’s Squip?” he asked.

“What about it?”

Jeremy closed his eyes. “Well, Rich didn’t seem to, like, realize he was bi until after his Squip was gone. Was it blocking him from knowing that? Why would it keep that from him?”

“It’s possible that it was, though it would have been at Rich’s discretion.”

“It was…repressing it for him? Is that what you’re saying?”

The Squip hummed, and Jeremy opened his eyes, looking around the room to find it standing in an open area. It looked thoughtful. “Again, it’s possible.”

“But it seemed like Rich had changed his mind,” Jeremy argued. “What if his Squip kept him from wanting to change his mind while he had it?”

The Squip paused, looking thoughtful. “If his Squip thought it was more convenient that way, then yes, I suppose it is possible, Jeremy, but I can’t reiterate enough that I’m not positive. I’m not Rich’s Squip; I’m your Squip.”

“Well, yeah,” Jeremy muttered, sounding a bit more petulant than he’d meant to. “You are. So have—have you ever repressed something from me?”

The Squip crossed its arms. “I see no reason why you would think I had.”

Jeremy was suddenly overcome with an urge to clarify something. He pushed himself up straight in his chair and quickly turned on his computer. He pulled up a document and read through it.

The Squip can’t insult him…Jeremy couldn’t do a temp-shutdown….Stipulations for previous the rule….There! Rule Four. He read it aloud, though there was no need to other than making Jeremy feel more justified.

“‘The Squip is not allowed to control Jeremy’s body, nerves, etc. except for appearing to and being audible to Jeremy only. It is not allowed to block any person, object, etc. from his field of vision. It is not allowed to control his body.’” He looked back at the Squip, expression carefully controlled. “That—that would count, right? Under—I mean, what we were just talking about—that’s covered under this rule, right?” He wasn’t sure (yes he was) why this was so important to him, but he knew he wouldn’t let the matter drop.

The Squip’s posture was casual, unaffected, as it said in much the same tone as it had used before, “I fail to see why you need to ask.”

Jeremy grit his teeth, turned back to the screen, and scrolled down. “‘Seven: The Squip is not allowed to lie to Jeremy.’”

It had the audacity to crack a smile at that one. “And I fail to see where you think I’ve lied, as I haven’t during this conversation.”

Jeremy let the little addendum at the end slide because that wasn’t the issue currently. He again read off the screen: “‘Overall, the Squip has to be as fair with Jeremy as its programming will allow it to be.’”

“And I’ve made no move toward dishonesty.” The Squip leveled him with an unimpressed look. “Jeremy, if you can’t ask directly, then you’re not ready to know.”

Wait—wait! That settled it, right? The Squip was—was hiding or repressing or whatever…something. Hiding something.

Right?

Jeremy’s palms felt sweaty and he wiped them on his pants. Of course he had to ask, even though the Squip had unfairly backed him into this corner. Damn psychic asshole.

“Am I gay?” he blurted, and even though that wasn’t quite what he’d meant to ask—he was pretty sure he knew the answer—it was still goddamn embarrassing.

Expression and tone neutral, the Squip said, “No, Jeremy. You’re not gay.”

Jeremy breathed a sigh of relief, and then immediately felt bad for being relieved. It was just that—well, he was glad that his crush on Christine hadn’t been, like, compulsory or whatever. He’d really liked her, and he didn’t want to think back on it in the future and realize that he’d only imagined or idealized his feelings towards her.

“And I’m not repressing anything for you, you absolute dolt.”

“Don’t insult me,” Jeremy huffed. He leaned in on himself a bit, losing some of the energy he’d had and left feeling awkward and upset.

The Squip walked over to Jeremy’s deck and like it was about to rest a hand on his shoulder. Instead, it crossed its arms again. Jeremy stood up, not wanting the Squip to loom over him. It looked him up and down, then said, “I think I know how I can help.”

Jeremy looked at it expectantly.

And then it was gone.

He pulled a face. “Ass. Absolute jerk,” he said aloud, though there was no one to hear him.

What the hell? The Squip just wanted to give him some time to himself? Jeremy found himself at a loss as he tried to figure out what its reasoning was. Or did it even have a reason? Did it just want to be cryptic and annoying—like always? He sighed and tried to think about it.

Oh…maybe the Squip wanted to give him time to think?

Jeremy heard the front door open and decided that he wasn’t in the mood to analyze anything; he was way too tired. In fact, an evening chilling on the couch with his dad sounded like a good wind-down.


“There’s something that’s almost admirable in the way you’re consistently able to run away from your problems.”

Jeremy was able to keep his outward appearance unaffected, while his internal thoughts went something like, Ugggghhhh.

“Please, do tone it down. We’re trying to watch a movie.”

UGGGGHHHH.

“Quiet in front.”

Once you stop being so annoying.

“My, someone is in a mood, isn’t he?” The Squip sounded faintly amused.

The movie Jeremy and his dad were watching went on commercials, and he felt more than saw his dad get up from the couch. (His dad weirdly seemed to prefer TV movies over renting them. “There’s always something on, and it’s always free!” he’d said, which Jeremy had found to be false. And far from being annoyed by commercials, his dad almost looked forward to them—“Built in breaks!” Jeremy was almost positive his dad had never set foot in a movie theater.)

He mindlessly watched the commercials while his dad used the bathroom.

“I can see that you use ‘thinking time’ very wisely indeed, Jeremy.”

Shut up.

“It’s certainly improved your vocabulary,” the Squip said dryly.

Jeremy sighed aloud and leaned back against the couch. Just let me watch my commercials.

“Perhaps you’ll use this mindless activity as a gateway to some introspection.”

No thanks.

“I had a feeling you’d say that. Pity.”

Tired, Jeremy rubbed his eyes. You’re so annoying and exhausting and beat-around-the-bush-ing.

“And you make no sense at the best of times. You seem rather drained.”

He sighed. I am. I’ve—I’ve been really worn out recently.

“You’ve—hm.” The Squip sounded deadpan, which Jeremy knew was never a good thing. “I see.”

Wait, do you know why? Though this sort of persistent lethargy had never bothered him before, he’d just attributed it to the weather. But the Squip’s response made him think it was more than that.

“I’m not sure. I am…concerned about something.”

It didn’t sound concerned, Jeremy thought. It sounded irritatingly neutral. What do you have to be worried about?

The Squip was silent.

It didn’t speak when Jeremy’s dad came back, or when the commercial break ended, or when the movie itself ended, or when Jeremy got ready for bed—and Jeremy didn’t push it to talk. It felt like the Squip was weighing the pros and cons of telling Jeremy something important, and he didn’t want to pester it, knowing it would only make the Squip want to tell him less.

In his own bed, Jeremy flipped on the TV and grabbed his phone out of his pocket. As he was debating whether or not he had the energy to try and talk in the group chat, the Squip answered.

“I’m worried that I’m killing you.”

Jeremy couldn’t blame himself for dropping his phone on his face and hurting his nose—rather badly—so he blamed the Squip. Tact! Timing! Thoughtfulness! Any one of those would have been great just now, thanks!

“It was funny,” the Squip said, “but don’t think me superfluous; that was also true. I don’t know the protocol for this situation. It’s almost like I’ve finally become what you’ve accused me of being—a true parasite. I’ve lost most of my tools for aiding you, I lack the ability to see even a few minutes into possible futures, and I can only think that whatever was powering me before is gone, and I’m now siphoning off your energy. Perhaps solely existing off your energy.”

Jeremy rubbed his hands over his face. “This—this is giving me a headache. I don’t want to think about it right now.”

“Jeremy—”

“I’m serious!” he said, interrupting whatever argument the Squip was about to make. “Just…I’m tired.”

The Squip said, “Of course.”

And that was the end of it.

Jeremy decided that he definitely did not have the energy or inclination to talk to anyone. He started flipping through channels when the Squip requested he turn on the news. He did so without objection.

It was trite—boring enough to make Jeremy almost fall asleep. Until one word startled him so much he nearly jumped out of bed.

“And, get this—they’re called SQUIPs!” a woman’s voice said.

What the fuck.

The Squip had been in an idle mode—the state it was usually in before Jeremy fell asleep. It was now just as aware as he was, if not more so.

There were four people on screen discussing new scientific breakthroughs, and under that category fell (as the woman on screen put it), “these fascinating pills, containing—get this—a computer.”

“No way!” a dark-haired man on screen exclaimed.

“It’s true, John!” the first woman said. “Get this—they were developed in Japan, quite recently, in fact! This is cutting edge technology that, as of yet, no one aside from a few elites who volunteered for beta testing have any access to.”

Jeremy could only watch the screen in confusion as the woman’s words sunk in.

Wait—they’re not new. You’re not new! You’re version 2.5, right? What’s going on?

“I—”

“Amazing, isn’t it, Bethany? How far science has come. You can eat computers now!”

The table shared a hearty laugh.

The second woman, Bethany, said, “Well, not quite yet. S-Q-U-I-Ps—” She spelled out the word, and Jeremy sensed annoyance from the Squip. “—won’t be available for a while yet. But get excited! These revolutionary AIs will be rolling out sooner than you might expect. And that’s just the first generation! After version 1.0 has been made public, there are plans to continue updating.”

“Constantly improving,” one of the men said in agreement. “And can you believe, all of this from a company like Sony?”

There was another round of laughter. The Squip seemed distressed.

“I just know them for their movies!” the not-Bethany woman said.

The camera focused on the dark-haired man. “Speaking of movies—it’s time to talk about the latest reboot of a classic film…but it might still manage to surprise you. Stick with us, and we’ll see you right back here after these messages.”

There was a second of silence between the end of the segment and the first commercial, but it was deafening.

“What?”

“I don’t—”

“What was that?!”

“I’m—”

“Sony? The people who make video game stuff?!”

“That’s classified—”

“Not anymore!” Jeremy practically yelled. He plopped down on his bed. “I don’t get it. And ‘the first generation’? What the hell?” He glanced up and the Squip obligingly projected itself, looking as confused (and slightly annoyed and vaguely scared) as Jeremy felt. “Why would they give out those? You said they were terrible and dangerous.”

The Squip frowned and brought a hand to its chin. “They are. I was under the impression that 4.0 would be released to the public. They must be purposefully misadvertising—trying to wipe away traces of their failures. And…there never were any volunteers. Squips were tested on lower employees, and I’m not certain they ‘volunteered.’ Squips have always been dangerous, untested technology.” It ran a hand through its hair—a nervous tic that, if Jeremy didn’t know any better, he would say the Squip had picked up from him. “This is not adding up. Why don’t I know anything?”

Jeremy felt the brief rush of adrenaline leave him and he sat back on his bed. “You don’t have to use the ominous ‘they’ anymore. I know it’s Sony.”

The Squip opened its mouth. And then closed it. Opened it, looked lost, confused, worried, and then said, “That’s classified information.”

Jeremy frowned. “What? Not anymore. You can tell me now, right?”

The Squip looked like it had bit into something that tasted bitter. “No. That’s still classified information. I can’t tell you who created me.” It looked pained. “And I don’t know why.”

“Well, don’t freak out,” Jeremy said, as though that was a helpful comment. “Um, maybe it’s a different company? Maybe these are imposter Squips!” The idea had merit in Jeremy’s mind, but the Squip was less than impressed.

“I almost never say this word, but Jeremy, that scenario is so unlikely as to be impossible. Even if someone outside the company tried to extract information from a Squip, they could not. Squips are trademarked and copyrighted and have been for years, and their technological secrets are so protected that Squips will essentially self-destruct if one attempts to pull classified information from them.”

“What’s going on, then? What are they planning?”

“I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” Jeremy demanded. “Weren’t you programmed with a plan in mind?”

“I don’t know! If I was, then the information is apparently outdated!”

“Why didn’t you learn the new information?!”

“I don’t know!” The Squip was pacing Jeremy’s room. “I—I don’t know why I’ve been reduced to this, or why they’ve decided to make Squips public, or why they’re acting like they haven’t been in development for decades! I don’t know, Jeremy!”

The Squip looked tenser than Jeremy had ever seen it; its face was tense with bewilderment and stress. It kept pacing, and at some point began mumbling a word under its breath.

“Warning.”

Jeremy had the urge to move closer to the Squip, to rest a hand on its shoulder or grab its arm, though he knew it was only a weak projection—emphasis on weak; he could see its form shimmering. “Calm down,” he said instead. “We can figure this out. We—we can pool what we know about Squips and Sony and everything else!”

“Warning!” the Squip shouted, going stock-still. Its form began to glitch noticeably. “Warning!” It wavered and shimmered for a few moments.

Jeremy felt a sharp pain in his head, and the Squip disappeared.

It was gone.

And not just physically.

If Jeremy didn’t know any better, he would have assumed it was gone-for-real gone, but that was absurd. Nothing had happened to cause it to shut down permanently, or even temporarily! The Squip had just freaked out for a second, which Jeremy could relate to. It would be back in, like, ten minutes at the very latest.

A full two minutes passed before Jeremy caved in and started panicking.

“Hey, uh, reactivate,” he said, trying to keep a waver out of his voice. “I gave you a minute to rest, now reactivate.” Reactivate!

Nothing happened; not even a flicker.

I’m being serious, Jeremy thought in what he hoped was a stern tone of voice. Please reactivate.

Nothing.

Jeremy felt dread began to pool in his stomach and panic rise in his throat. This—this wasn’t right. Something felt wrong. It wasn’t just that this entire situation had been fishy and shady, though it had. The Squip had been scared—honest-to-God frightened. It was panicking, or at least doing the computer equivalent, and then it died.

And Jeremy knew he shouldn’t feel as worried or anxious as he did, that he should just be happy for another respite, but with the news that Squips were now common knowledge and the Squip’s abrupt and complete absence…he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was really, truly wrong. And only the Squip would be able to help him figure out what that “something” was. Who, until further notice, was out of commission.

Feeling unnerved, abandoned, confused, and scared, Jeremy did the only thing he could think to do.

He called Michael.

Chapter Text

[Sunday, December 11, 2016, 8:50 PM]

Purgatory [8:50 PM]
> hi Jeremy!!

Jerry Present [8:51 PM]
> Oh!
> Hey brooke !
> Whats up ?

Purgatory [8:51 PM]
> i just wanted to say thanks!
> for helping me out at the mall today

Jerry Present [8:51 PM]
> Oh uh
> Sure!
> But um im
> Not sure what i did ?

Purgatory [8:51 PM]
> lol!!
> just seeing you there was enough!!
> do you want to hear me talk about?

Jerry Present [8:52 PM]
> Sure

Purgatory [8:52 PM]
> okay so
> look ive been kinda mad at Chlo recently
> lol
> like shes great
> but she was being really rude to me the other day and i just like didnt want to talk to her at all
> but seeing you reminded me that i really dont want to lose anyone again

Jerry Present [8:53 PM]
> Oh wow brooke
> What were you guys arguing about ?

Purgatory [8:53 PM]
> ……
> :c
> ….check the main chat


 2,156 unread messages.

All marked as read.

Jerry Present [8:53 PM]
> Hey

Jentle set group topic to “Jeremy Returns Part Two: Electric Boogaloo”

Valhalla [8:53 PM]
> BROOKE I SWEAR TO FUCKING GOD

MOM set group topic to “stop using dead memes jen”

Purgatory [8:54 PM]
> I’M JUST SAYYYYING
> THAT SOME FLOWERS ARE EDIBLE
> NOT!! EVERY FLOWER!!! CHLOE!!!
> SOME!!!!

Jentle set group topic to “Screw you, Michael”

Valhalla [8:54 PM]
> NO STOP

Purgatory [8:54 PM]
> FUKC YOU CHLOE ITS OKAY TO EAT FLOWERS!!!!
> WHY ARE YOU SO MEAN

MOM set group topic to “noah fence but no”

Jerry Present [8:54 PM]
> Awesome great cool anyway
> Gotta blast
> Great talk everyone

Jentle [8:55 PM]
> Stay around, dude!

Jake…CoolGuy [8:55 PM]
> yeah youre good.

Valhalla [8:55 PM]
> hey look who’s back ;-)
> took you long enough lol
> we didn’t miss you lol

Jake…CoolGuy [8:56 PM]
> chlo.

Valhalla [8:56 PM]
> i’m kidding! lol
> or am i

Christine Capulet [8:56 PM]
> Jeremey!!! Hey!!!
> We missed you!!! :D

Valhalla [8:57 PM]
> my ruse has been busted ;-(
> yeah i missed you lol

MOM [8:57 PM]
> unsurprising

Jerry Present [8:57 PM]
> Sorry i
> Havent really been in here much

Purgatory [8:57 PM]
> that’s ok!!!
> how’re u???

Jerry Present [8:58 PM]
> Im fine brooke

MOM [8:58 PM]
> jeremy heere is a liar and a thief

Flaming By [8:58 PM]
> thief????

MOM [8:58 PM]
> he stole my heart

Jerry Present [8:59 PM]
> MCIVHSL

Valhalla [8:59 PM]
> omg

MOM [9:00 PM]
>> {thatsnotmyname.mp4}

Purgatory [9:00 PM]
> oMG

Jentle [9:00 PM]
> Omg

MOM [9:01 PM]
> jeremy said im not funny
> guys tell him im hilarious

Christine Capulet [9:01 PM]
> Wait where did he say that???

Jentle [9:01 PM]
> Yeah, Jeremy didn’t say that
> ??

Jerry Present [9:01 PM]
> Oh he means

MOM [9:01 PM]
> were in a call

Jerry Present [9:02 PM]
> That we’re
> Yeah

Valhalla [9:02 PM]
> why??
> where?? lol

Jerry Present [9:02 PM]
> Its just the two of us

MOM [9:02 PM]
> jeremy is sad
> clapping emojis
> cheer him up

Purgatory [9:03 PM]
> wait i wanna have a call!!!!!

MOM [9:03 PM]
> you werent invited

Valhalla [9:03 PM]
> ok rude? lmao
> brooke we can do a call
> we don’t need these assholes lol

Purgatory [9:03 PM]
> aaaahhhh really !!!!!

Jentle [9:04 PM]
> Okay, this is just exlusitory
> Exclusive
> Exclusitory
> My phone says that’s not a word but tbqh I beg to differ

Jerry Present [9:05 PM]
> Were not being exclusive !
> I just
> Wanted to talk to michael

Jake…CoolGuy [9:05 PM]
> oh. whats up?

Jerry Present [9:05 PM]
> Huh ?
> ??
> Why would something
> Be up ??

Jake…CoolGuy [9:06 PM]
> just wanted to check up on you bro.
> you seem on edge.

Jerry Present [9:06 PM]
> ?????
> ,
> Okay well
> Michael said to tell you guys
> That i just actually
> Am a little bit

Christine Capulet [9:06 PM]
> Oh gosh!!! are you okay???

Jerry Present [9:06 PM]
> On edge
> Yeah christine !
> Im fine just
> I dunno
> I needed to talk to someone

MOM [9:07 PM]
> you cant see it but i just changed my name to someone

Jake…CoolGuy [9:07 PM]
> aww.
> sorry youre not doing well heere.
> need anything? a back rub? foot massage?

MOM [9:07 PM]
> the boy needs love comfort & support

Christine Capulet [9:07 PM]
> DONE AND DONE
> Jeremy i think youre awesome!!!

MOM [9:08 PM]
> omg

Purgatory [9:08 PM]
> Jeremyyyyy im sorry ur feeling bad !!!!
> i think youre cool and Chloe does too!!!!!

Valhalla [9:08 PM]
> lmao no you’re lame ;-P

Purgatory [9:08 PM]
> Chlo!!!!
> but you just !!
> said !!

Valhalla [9:08 PM]
> I’M JK I’M JK
> jerry you’re pretty cool for a nerd ;-) <3

Jake…CoolGuy [9:09 PM]
> youre the real coolguy here, jeremy.

MOM [9:09 PM]
> you guys made him tear up

Purgatory [9:09 PM]
> oh no ?? oh gosh is he okay?????

Jerry Present [9:09 PM]
> Fine ! im fine !!
> You guys that was
> Really nice ?
> I just wasnt expecting it is all
> I appreciate it

Christine Capulet [9:10 PM]
> Awww of course!!! <333
> Do you wanna talk about whats up?

Jerry Present [9:11 PM]
> I
> Dont think so

Christine Capulet [9:11 PM]
> Thats okay too!!!
> Also, brooke!

Purgatory [9:11 PM]
> mhm?

Christine Capulet [9:11 PM]
> Why would you want to eat flowers???

Valhalla [9:11 PM]
> GOD FUCKING DAMN IT CHRISTINE

Purgatory [9:11 PM]
> LISTEn
> ThE fUCK
> UP

Valhalla [9:12 PM]
> Oh God


Jentle [9:11 PM]
> Hey! Don’t feel pressured to respond but I’m here if you need to talk. TTYL!


Flaming By [9:13 PM]
> hey dude im busy rn but lemme know if you need to yell about shit


Christine Capulet [9:16 PM]
> Hi jeremy!!!
> I know you said you didnt wanna talk but im here if you change your mind!!! <333


MOM [9:35 PM]
> not to beat a dead horse or however the saying goes
> but youre sure you dont want to talk to christine abt it?

Jerry Present [9:37 PM]
> Positive
> Please drop it michael
> You already shared your input
> Its been filed for later use
> And one night by myself wont kill me

MOM [9:38 PM]
> i think some time for yourself could really help you
> get a clear head and all that

Jerry Present [9:38 PM]
> I know
> You said that
> Like six times

MOM [9:38 PM]
> i know im sorry i
> i dont want you to
> do anything hasty
> just think it over

Jerry Present [9:39 PM]
> Thinking’s all ive been able to do, michael
> Everything is so confusing
> I cant even really figure out what happened

MOM [9:39 PM]
> do i get to hear what exactly happened yet?
> youre the king of noncommittal answers i stg
> i thought i was supposed to be in on everything now?

Jerry Present [9:40 PM]
> No!
> I mean yes!!!
> You are
> I want you to be
> I just keep getting
> Nervous and scared
> I didnt want to make it upset

MOM [9:41 PM]
> and is that good or bad?

Jerry Present [9:41 PM]
> …bad

MOM [9:41 PM]
> whos in charge??

Jerry Present [9:42 PM]
> I am

MOM [9:42 PM]
> whos body is it???

Jerry Present [9:42 PM]
> Mine!

MOM [9:42 PM]
> go forth and be self-centered, jeremy heere
> love you

Jerry Present [9:43 PM]
> Asknkdgfdjhl;gdhk
> Ly2

Jerry Present [10:02 PM]
> Hey i know we werent talking anymore but
> Just wanted to let you know im gonna try to sleep
> Goodnigth !
> Night

MOM [10: 03 PM]
> heart emojis

MOM [12:57 AM]
> soooo
> hey dude
> i know you said you were gonna try to sleep
> and also i said that you should have some alone time
> uhhhhhhhhhh
> but
> sorry i made an executive decision
> im on my way over
> ill bring the shit
> by which i mean
> various drinks
> including alcohol but thats for me probably
> all the mtn dew your bleeding heart could possibly desire
> a rainbow of fucking colors
> that asshole is not allowed to die unless i kill it
> what im saying is im spending the night
> and i really hope your dad doesnt shoot me when i climb in through your living room window oops

MOM [1:02 AM]
> christ im sorry but
> you just sounded so freaked out and lonely
> i cant sleep knowing you felt like that
> i dont like that fucking computer but if its got you upset then its my job to cheer you the hell up

MOM [1:17 AM]
> hacker voice: im in
> okay nah but for real youre gonna read all this after youve already seen me so like im just hoping you dont freak out

MOM [1:19 AM]
> jeremy im eating your nutella

MOM [1:21 AM]
> alright im coming to your room
> wakey wakey sleepy head

MOM [1:22 AM]
> this…is a bad idea

MOM [1:24 AM]
> oh well

Chapter Text

By “call,” Jeremy did, indeed, call Michael over the phone. His voice was forced and tense and after barely two minutes, Michael said, “Just call over Skype so I can see your face. Also, this is wasting my minutes.”

It was somehow harder to talk when he could see Michael’s face, Jeremy found. Michael didn’t seem to get the severity of the situation, though Jeremy knew that was only because he was having trouble explaining exactly what had happened; he couldn’t make himself be more specific than “It’s gone,” which Michael hadn’t seemed very concerned about.

Being in the group chat did help distract him at first, but he felt much too tired to keep talking in it and eventually told Michael he was ready to end the call. Once they did—and after a few more PMs that helped Jeremy to calm down enough to sleep and decide to deal with things in the morning—Jeremy went to sleep.

And then woke up to the sound of his door opening.

His eyes snapped open and he felt his body freeze as he ran through the possibilities.

Not Dad—Dad would have knocked. Not Mom. No one else has a key. Intruder? Why my room? Am I dead? What do I do? What do I do?!

He wasn’t sure why he still expected a response.

His back was to his bedroom door. He heard what sounded like someone running their hand over his wall, and shifting fabric, and—were they holding a backpack? They sounded like they were carrying something.

The light came on and blinded him, making him instinctively close his eyes before he forced them open again.

What a shitty burglar, he thought.

“How are you not awake?” he heard someone say.

Fuck you,” he immediately said, feeling tension drain out of his body. He rolled over and saw Michael fucking Mell, standing near his light switch and holding a full backpack. “Screw you,” he reiterated, pushing himself into a sitting position and trying to ignore the tremor in his voice. “Why—Can I ask why the hell you’re in my room in the middle of the night?” He brought a hand to his face and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Am I dreaming?”

There was no witty retort from inside his head.

That’s fine, he thought. I can just act like I really am crazy now. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them as Michael made his way to his bed. Reactivate, he tried half-heartedly.

No response.

He blinked as Michael waved a hand in front of his face.

“Jer, you sure you’re awake?”

Jeremy rubbed his eyes again and slapped his cheeks lightly. “If being ‘awake’ means that I’m aware of the fact that you’re suddenly in my room in the middle of the night, then yes.” He sat up straight and ignored the lingering disorientation he felt, which he blamed wholly on Michael with no remorse. What time was it, anyway? “Do I get to ask why you broke into my home?” he asked harshly.

Michael, surprisingly unconcerned with the entire scenario, waved him off and began rummaging through his backpack. “Check your phone.”

Feeling as though he didn’t particularly have any other options, Jeremy reached for his nightstand and grabbed his phone, blearily registering the 1:26 AM lighting up the screen. He clicked on his chat with Michael (and again noticed the messages from his other friends that he still didn’t have the words to respond to), and felt himself becoming more awake as he read through the one-sided conversation.

He dropped his phone into his lap and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. “What the hell,” he muttered. “Michael, it’s Sunday—I mean, by now it’s Monday! We have school tomorrow.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “If we have school tomorrow, I’ll eat my hoodie. The roads were horrible.”

Jeremy sat up straight. “What! Then why were you driving? Michael!” he scolded.

Michael held up his hands in self-defense. “I’m a safe driver! I knew I could make it, but fuck it was cold.” He rubbed his arms, as though remembering. “I started tracking snow into your house, too, so I took of my coat and shoes at the door. Hope you don’t mind.”

Something about the easy banter allowed Jeremy to finally relax. “Alright, so, why exactly are you in my room, dude?” he asked.

Michael took a deep breath and set his backpack in his lap, facing Jeremy. “Alright. So,” he began, putting on an air of authority. “The Squip is gone.”

It wasn’t a question, but Jeremy nodded anyway, feeling his chest tighten for some reason.

Michael reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of soda.

Of Mountain Dew Red.

Huh. Oh yeah.

All the Mountain Dew your bleeding heart could possibly desire. For some reason, he’d skimmed over that bit in favor of the part where Michael live-messaged him the break-in to his house.

“I—You…So you brought that for me?” Jeremy asked.

Michael gave him an unimpressed look. “No, I brought it for your imaginary friend,” he said dryly, before pausing. “Okay, well, depending on what Squips really are, I guess I might have actually brought it for your imaginary friend.” He shook his head. “Point being!” He held out the bottle to Jeremy, who took it from him hesitantly. “Right now, it’s gone. And this—” He leaned forward and tapped the bottle. “—would make sure it stayed gone.”

So, Jeremy should drink it.

Immediately.

As soon as possible.

He should.

“What else is in the bag?” he asked, despite the guess he already had in mind.

Michael gave a resigned sigh. “It’s never the easy way out with you, is it?”

Jeremy felt his cheeks flush. He tried to think of something he could say in his defense, but—well, shit. He’d just been woken up in the middle of the night by his best friend who had broken into his house. He was pretty sure he was allowed a pass when it came to putting together coherent retorts. “I just….” Jeremy struggled. “I just want to know what my other options are, y’know?”

Michael gave him a sympathetic look. “Okay, man. If you’re sure.”

Jeremy wasn’t sure, but he still said, “Yeah. What else is in there?”

Michael reached into the backpack and pulled out something that was decidedly not soda. “Spiked lemonade, in case of a decision like this.” He swished the bottle around. “If you’re gonna force me to drive home, do it now.”

Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Good.” Michael opened the bottle and took a tiny sip, then tilted his head back and drank. “Good,” he repeated, looking for a place to set the half-full bottle down.

Jeremy huffed and grabbed it from him, setting it on his nightstand. “What else?” he asked again.

Wordlessly, Michael pulled out a green bottle that shouldn’t have made Jeremy’s stomach churn the way it did; that shouldn’t make his hands shake or his throat feel tight.

Oh, he tried to say, but nothing came out. He cleared his throat. “I—yeah,” he mumbled.

It wasn’t a surprise, but Jeremy still felt like he should have steeled himself better because the Mountain Dew in Michael’s hands was, frankly, terrifying.

“Shit,” Michael said under his breath, hiding the Mountain Dew behind the backpack and moving so he was closer to Jeremy. “Dude, you alright? You look kinda out of it.”

“I don’t want to drink it,” Jeremy said.

Michael blinked, but then broke into a wide smile. He touched Jeremy’s arm. “Hey, hey, that’s cool, man. You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything.” He schooled his face into a more neutral expression. “I don’t want to influence you, but…well.” He touched his backpack. “I’ve got tons of Mountain Dew in here—all different kinds and shit, everything I could get my hands on. That’s here for you, whether or not you wanna tell me what really happened.”

“What?” Jeremy blinked. “I told you what happened.”

Michael sighed. “You didn’t tell me everything, dude. I know you.”

Jeremy felt his throat tighten again and he wondered if he would cry. It was certainly a possibility.

(No voice inside his head to reassure him or tell him off.)

(Which was fine.)

“I tried to tell you,” he said. He rubbed his face, feeling his eyes sting as he was suddenly overwhelmed with words upon words piling up in his throat, in his mouth, threatening to choke him with accusations of liar and back-stabber and you’ve done it again. He felt Michael reach out a hand to touch him and Jeremy wanted to push it away, but he let the contact ground him even as he felt shame overwhelm him for taking comfort in Michael’s presence and touch when he’d been so covert about everything. How could he explain what had happened when that would entail admitting that he’d been dishonest, even if that dishonesty only came in the form of lies by omission? How could he make himself tell Michael anything?

Michael said, “You don’t have to tell me.”

And then they came spilling out—all the words that Jeremy hadn’t been sure whether or not he wanted to say, that felt like a betrayal of confidence to the Squip, but the Squip was gone so what did it matter now? Telling Michael about the Squip’s weaknesses—and insecurities—didn’t matter when the Squip was, for all intents and purposes, dead. He told him about the lost powers; the continued weakening, the snappiness, the worry, and the fear—fear that the Squip would somehow kill Jeremy, drain him like a battery, if it stuck around.

“And so I should be happy that it’s gone, but….” He couldn’t bring himself to finish that sentence.

He told Michael about the news report that he and the Squip had watched, about how it looked like soon Squips would be everywhere. How the Squip had freaked out. How Jeremy had freaked out.

“And now,” he said, “now I don’t know what to do. It should be easy, I guess, but it’s really not and I don’t know why it’s not. I should—I could just not worry about it anymore. Stop thinking about it and be done with it. But, Michael.” Jeremy gave him an imploring look. “You have to understand, I—I don’t feel like this—this whole thing is done. I don’t know what’s going on and the Squip is the only thing that can give me answers. And I don’t know why it died in the first place!” He brought his palm down on the bed, and it gave an unsatisfying dull thud.

“Okay,” Michael said, knuckles still resting on Jeremy’s leg. “I feel like I’m missing something.”

“I do too!” Jeremy said helplessly. “I feel so lost and I just don’t know what to do, Michael.”

“Hey.” Jeremy looked up at Michael’s stern but gentle tone of voice. His eyes were hard. “You don’t have to make a decision right now—you don’t have to really make a decision ever, I guess, but—I just wanted you to know your options. And if you want my two cents, then don’t go running back to the Squip on an impulse, okay? Think about why you would or wouldn’t want it back.” He brought a hand to his chest. “You don’t have to tell me. This should be your decision alone. You can bounce thoughts off of me, but don’t do anything just because you’d think that’s what someone—or something—else would want you to do.” He gave a lopsided smile. “I didn’t drive out here at one in the morning to make your life harder.”

Jeremy felt himself smile in return, and then he was laughing. He kept laughing because shit, Michael was—he didn’t deserve Michael. Through breathless laughs (that had Michael giggling as well), Jeremy said that thought aloud. “You’re too good to me.”

Michael stopped chuckling enough to scoff. “I think I’m just good enough to you.”

Jeremy felt tears prick at his eyes, and he wasn’t sure whether or not it was from laughter. “You broke into my house,” he said, only a tad incredulously. “On a Sunday night. While the roads were bad. And you brought sodas.”

“To be fair, I did eat your junk food.”

Jeremy collapsed in a heap of giggles that was more than a little hysterical, doubling over and reaching out a hand to grab Michael’s arm. His hoodie was soft under Jeremy’s fingertips, the material warm and familiar.

Michael shifted things around as Jeremy calmed himself down. Jeremy heard the backpack and a pair of shoes hit the floor, and then he felt more than saw Michael moving around the covers.

When he’d composed himself, Jeremy looked up to see Michael, still wearing his hoodie, crawling into Jeremy’s bed. He took of his glasses and set them next to his spiked lemonade, ran a hand through his hair absently, and then looked at Jeremy with a raised eyebrow.

“Well?” He jerked his head towards the wall. “Get the lights. You’re the one who wanted to sleep so bad.”

For some reason, Jeremy took another second to catch his breath. “Didn’t you come all the way over here to….?” Jeremy wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. To force him to make a decision? Of course not. To talk about what had happened? Maybe.

“I came over to make you feel better,” Michael said, voice so genuine that Jeremy’s chest felt tight again (this time in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant).

“I’ll get the lights,” Jeremy parroted dumbly, but it made Michael smile so he figured it was okay. Even with the room cloaked in darkness, Jeremy made his way back to his bed with no trouble, though he was a bit thrown off by the feeling of climbing into his bed with a person already in it. “Scoot over,” he said quietly, instinctively lowering his voice.

“I’m still cold,” Michael said. “Don’t exile me.”

Jeremy tried to stretch out and found his feet touching Michael’s legs. “You’re still wearing pants.”

“Would you rather I not?”

Jeremy hit him. “I mean, you know I have sweatpants. I’m not gonna make you sleep wearing jeans.”

“But sweatpants would be so cold,” Michael whined. “These are already warm.”

“I’m not sleeping next to denim.”

Michael was huffy about it, but climbed out the other side of bed and easily found a pair of sweatpants by touch in the mess that was Jeremy’s floor.

Despite the fact that it was dark enough that he was effectively blind, Jeremy closed his eyes. It felt intrusive to keep them open.

But the noises felt intrusive, too.

Jeremy felt his face heating up and moved the blanket down from where it was tucked under his chin so that he could stop feeling so hot. It’s not that he and Michael had never undressed in front of each other, but this was the first time that Michael had broken into his house, offered him emotional support, climbed into his bed, and then begun taken off his pants.

And then he felt the covers lift again as Michael got back into bed. Jeremy felt his feet touch the hem of Michael’s—his?—sweatpants (they were pretty cold, he admitted) and fought the urge to jerk his foot away.

“Goodnight, dude.” Michael’s voice was loud in the silence of the room.

“Night.”

“Love you.”

“You too.”

Michael rolled over so his back was facing Jeremy, who was tempted to move closer so that his feet could touch Michael’s legs again, or so that his hands could brush against the fabric of his hoodie.

Jeremy wanted to cuddle Michael.

Which…was a pretty gay thing to think; he could accept that. But it didn’t stop him from wanting it.

He tried to think about it objectively.

Wanting to fall asleep near—touching—Michael wasn’t inherently romantic, was it? He didn’t think it was, but he supposed he could be wrong. It felt like the intent behind it would be what mattered more. So why did he want to be close to Michael?

He’s safe. He’s nice. His hoodie is really soft. He probably wouldn’t mind. I feel alone. He makes me happy.

Jeremy scooted closer as casually as possible and maneuvered his shoulder to were it was touching Michael’s back.

He could hear Michael’s heavy breathing, and knew almost certainly that he was asleep, but that didn’t stop his eyes from opening when he felt Michael move—towards Jeremy.

Jeremy tried to move back (“tried” being used rather loosely), but was caught by Michael’s limp arm falling onto his.

Warm and soft. Jeremy closed his eyes. It was nice.

Were those romantic thoughts?

Jeremy thought about it.

Michael made his cheeks heat up, and his heart speed up, which, yeah, seemed pretty not-straight, but those were only because he and Michael were so close, right? Michael was his favorite person, and nothing could change that. Michael was the most fun to hang around, the easiest to talk to, and the only person who could make him feel happy, safe, and exasperated all at the same time.

Jeremy was comfortable saying that there was a chance, however small, that he might not be straight. And if he weren’t, then…he was pretty sure he would be…bi. Probably. Maybe. Okay, he wasn’t even ‘pretty sure’; he was grasping at straws.

But what he was fairly sure of was the fact that he probably…maybe…possibly had a…crush…on his best friend.

The thought felt like it should have been a full stop—a big revelation and then a cut to black. But instead, Jeremy found himself turning the idea over in his mind.

Was it even a crush? Obviously Jeremy really liked Michael, for a number of reasons. Michael was funny, Michael was thoughtful, Michael was talented, Michael was attractive, Michael was Michael. His best friend; for the longest time, his only friend. None of this was new information. So why was he suddenly feeling it in a new light?

There was something so intrinsic about his desire to be near Michael that he hardly questioned it anymore. They share a bed; Jeremy wants to touch Michael; it’s probably some childhood habit he had from rarely sleeping away from home before the age of fourteen. They smoke together; Jeremy finds himself focusing on Michael’s lips; it’s because of the way the smoke pours out from them, making odd and interesting shapes. They don’t talk for a few days; Jeremy finds himself getting antsy and even a bit jealous; it’s understandable as a latent fear of Michael doing to him what he had done to Michael—silly and even a bit paranoid, but that’s all it was.

Easy to rationalize. He just had to do a bit of legwork to get it to all make sense.

Or. Well.

They’d learned about it in school—Occam’s razor wasn’t a perfect or infallible argument by any means, but for some reason, it rang in Jeremy’s head. Suppose there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case, the simpler one is usually better. Another way of saying it is that the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.

But he’s able to narrow it down to one simple explanation for many occurrences.

Crush.

His cheeks suddenly feel very hot.

Oh.

Yep, there was the overwhelming embarrassment he had been expecting.

He abruptly felt guilty about the way he was touching Michael; he didn’t want to stop, but he couldn’t help feeling bad about it—almost like now his hands were dirty and he didn’t want Michael to be mad at him if he ever found out.

He carefully lifted up Michael’s arm and set it down beside him. Michael didn’t stir, so he considered stage one to be a success. Stage two was more difficult: sneak out of the bed, then out of the room. (Why out of the room? It felt like the right thing to do. Jeremy almost may have been panicking a tad.)

He had hardly lifted up the edge of the cover when Jeremy felt Michael shift.

He froze, and when Michael didn’t move again, started climbing out of bed.

He felt something grab his arm.

“Jeremy?” Michael muttered. “Where’re you going?”

“I’m….No where,” he said softly, mind blanking on any possible excuses.

“Then get back,” Michael said drowsily. “Cold.”

Jeremy lay back down in bed, feeling alarmed when he realized Michael appeared to have no intentions of letting his arm go. His heart started hammering as he noticed he could feel Michael’s legs and feet touching his.

Michael had always been a very tactile person, even in sleep. It had never been a big deal. Jeremy liked it, even. And sure, sometimes he’d gotten flustered because of it, but now he felt like he was somehow betraying Michael’s trust. When he had a crush on Christine, he wouldn’t have—

Well, he probably would have tried to get in lots of casual touches, now that he thought about it. So why did it feel like he was doing something wrong with Michael? Was it because Michael had no reason to think Jeremy would have a—a crush on him?

Jeremy heard Michael shift and peer at him in the darkness, though they could both only barely make out the other’s silhouette.

“You’re upset,” Michael said.

Jeremy barely resisted the impulse to squirm uncomfortably. “I’m not upset.”

“Then what’s wrong?” he asked, propping his head up on his arm.

Nothing’s wrong, he was tempted to say. “I don’t know,” he said.

Michael’s free hand wrapped around Jeremy’s wrist. “Dude, you don’t have to think about it tonight. You don’t have to think about anything right now.” He paused, then withdrew his hand as though he’d just realized something. “Shit,” he said softly. “I can go sleep on the couch downstairs if you want me to? I shouldn’t have just taken over your bed like that.”

“You can stay,” Jeremy said immediately. “Please, actually.”

He heard Michael sigh in relief. “Is there anything I can do to help, then?”

“I don’t know.”

Michael laughed quietly and let his head flop back down on the pillow. “What are you thinking about?”

“You.” Jeremy felt nervous as soon as he said it, but Michael laughed again.

“You can write a testimonial about how I’m the best best-friend ever in the morning. Review me on Yelp!”

“Isn’t that for restaurants?”

“You’re saying you don’t love my cooking?”

Jeremy snorted and rolled over on his side, facing Michael more fully. Even in the darkness, Jeremy could tell that he was smiling.

“What are you thinking about now?” Michael asked.

“I don’t know what to say,” Jeremy said, and once the words came out, he realized just how true they were.

“Did the Squip usually feed you dialogue during our conversations?” Michael sounded miffed. 

“Never. Not anymore,” Jeremy said. “That’s why this is so weird.”

Michael took a moment to consider that. “Do you wanna tell me something?”

“I dunno.”

Michael gave a long-suffering sigh and patted Jeremy’s arm. “Then you can figure out what you want to say tonight, and tell me in the morning.” He shrugged. “Or not; no pressure.”

Jeremy struggled to form words. “Michael, I—I actually think—I don’t really think I can…um.” Michael was quiet while he tried to gather the right words. “Do you promise not to freak out?”

“I’ve been with you this long. I doubt much could drive me away now,” he joked.

Jeremy realized this was one of the few things that very well could push Michael away and shut his mouth audibly.

There was a moment of silence, and then Michael asked, “Is this about the Squip?”

“No.”

He hummed. “Is it about me?”

Jeremy took an uneven breath. “Yes.”

“Can you only answer in single syllables?”

Jeremy laughed. “Yes.”

“Oh, a game, then. I see how it is.” Jeremy could tell that Michael was concerned but trying his best to hide it. “Is it good or bad?”

Jeremy thought about it. “Pass.”

Michael made an offended noise. “Not fair! How am I supposed to be impartial with an answer like that?”

Jeremy shrugged.

Michael huffed. “Do you really want to tell me?”

Again, Jeremy thought about the question seriously. There was nothing in his head to influence his answer, so he was pretty sure he was being honest with himself. “Yes,” he said hesitantly.

“Do you feel like you can?”

“No,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I can’t answer that in one syllable,” Jeremy mumbled.

“Then answer it in one hundred or less,” Michael said.

“That’s not the game.”

“Then don’t play the game.” Jeremy could almost hear him giving an encouraging smile and felt Michael’s hand close firmly around his arm. “If you wanna tell me something, then go ahead.”

As though Michael had popped a balloon, Jeremy found himself able to speak; the words tumbled clumsily out of his mouth. “I don’t think I’m straight.”

“Holy fuck,” Michael said.

Jeremy brought his hands to his face in embarrassment. What the hell was wrong with him?! Why did he think that would be a smart thing to share at two in the morning to his best friend who was currently in his bed?!

“Shit, sorry! That sounded bad,” Michael rambled. “I don’t think it’s bad. I don’t think—I don’t think, honestly! I just wouldn’t have thought that’s what you were planning on saying so I feel a bit….uhh.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sure you already knew that I wouldn’t mind, dude. Whatever it turns out you are.”

Jeremy blinked and pushed himself out from under the covers. “How could I have possibly known that?” he said, ignoring the slight tremor in his voice, reaching over to turn on his bedside lamp. His eyes nearly watered at the sudden bright light, but it made him feel less vulnerable.

Michael threw back his head and laughed as Jeremy looked on incredulously. Michael gave a bemused expression. “Dude,” he said, “I’m queer as hell.”

Jeremy found himself unable to respond, except with an open mouth.

“Gay and ace,” he clarified. “Close your mouth, dude. You’ll catch flies.”

Jeremy ignored the reprimand. “How—what the heck, Michael!” he said loudly. “How would I have known that?”

Michael open and closed his mouth, then exhaled loudly. “For some reason, I thought you would already know.” His voice was soft and casual, but Jeremy noticed a nervous undertone. His fingers twitched where they were touching Jeremy’s arm. “I never thought I’d need to worry about coming out to you, dude.” His fingers started moving, as though Michael were fighting the urge to pull away. “Unfair on my part. That was unfair of me. This—this is unfair of me.”

“What?” Jeremy’s words were breathless. “What’s unfair?” he asked, even though he already had a guess. (He’d felt the same way, after all.)

Michael’s eyebrows furrowed. “I should go. I don’t—I don’t know. I don’t want to influence—”

“Influence me being not-straight?” Jeremy cut in. It startled a laugh out of Michael, whose shoulders were tense. “Think you might be too late, but I appreciate the thought,” he said dryly.

Michael withdrew his hand and used it to rub his face. He pushed the covers off himself as well and Jeremy noticed that his sweatpants were riding down. Jeremy then looked up so that he could stop noticing that.

Looking at Michael’s face was almost worse, though, because Jeremy couldn’t help but want to reach out and soothe the stress he saw there.

Michael looked down and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “We don’t have to—”

“Talk about it?” Jeremy guessed.

“—Do anything,” Michael said. “I don’t want you to feel pressured or—or like this is just a convenient thing, or like it would just be easiest if we—”

“Can I kiss you?” Jeremy asked impulsively.

“God, please.”

And he did.

Chapter Text

Michael was right about school, unsurprisingly.

Jeremy woke up to a knock at his door and, feeling comfortable and warm, blearily called, “Come in.”

The door opened, throwing a line of light into the room, and he heard his dad say, “No school today, champ! Roads are icy.” And then, “Is that Michael?”

Jeremy was abruptly aware of the arm across his chest and the legs entangled with his. “He spent the night,” he said, hoping his dad wouldn’t notice how close together they were.

“I didn’t know Michael came over.” His dad didn’t sound suspicious, merely curious.

“Really? I texted you.”

“When?”

Jeremy felt more nervous the longer the conversation went on. “When—uh, when you were in the shower, I think.”

His dad accepted the answer easily. What reason would Jeremy have to lie about that? “Huh, just must not’ve got it. Well, have fun sleeping in, sport!” He shut the door softly, and the light dimmed until there was less than a crack.

Michael hadn’t stirred during the exchange, but as soon as the door was closed, he said, “At least your dad didn’t think I was a girl this time.”

Jeremy started at the words, blinking and looking over at Michael. He had one eye barely open and his hair was a mess. He probably had bad breath and honestly needed a shower. Jeremy wanted to kiss him again.

Michael covered his mouth with Jeremy’s blanket, and he knew he was hiding a smile. “You look so self-satisfied.”

A goofy grin broke across Jeremy’s face. “‘Cause I am.”

“Why?” Michael asked teasingly.

Jeremy’s heart was beating hard in his chest, but he kept his tone light. “’Cause I got to kiss my favorite person.” (The “kiss” wasn’t very sweet, in retrospect. Michael had leaned down and Jeremy had leaned up, and their foreheads had bumped and then their noses did too, and then Jeremy couldn’t find Michael’s lips in the darkness; the kiss itself was off-center and ultimately chaste, with Jeremy’s arms firmly at his sides while he pressed his lips against Michael’s. They hadn’t said much afterwards, with Michael crawling into bed and falling asleep while pressing himself up against Jeremy. It had been weird. Un-cute but cute, at the same time. Not bad, just very, very weird.)

At those words, Michael smiled so widely his eyes almost closed, and then started laughing and fake-pushed Jeremy away. “Dude, stop! You can’t be gayer than me already! That’s not fair!”

Jeremy allowed himself to be shoved to the other side of the bed. After a moment, Michael pulled him back. Jeremy was acutely aware of where their skin touched. “Who says I’m being gay?” Jeremy said jokingly.

A look crossed Michael’s face that Jeremy couldn’t quite identify. Michael let go of where he was holding him, and said, “We should probably…talk about that.” His tone said that Michael really did not want to talk about that.

Jeremy blinked. “What do you mean? What do we have to talk about?” He felt his face heat up. “I know I don’t have a label for myself yet, but—”

“It’s not—it’s not entirely that,” Michael interrupted, then averted his eyes. “Just, like, dude…I don’t think I can keep something, keep a relationship secret. I wouldn’t, like, push you to do something you’re not comfortable with—obviously—but I really don’t know if I can keep something like that up.”

“I wouldn’t make you keep it a secret!” Jeremy protested immediately, though he had for some reason thought that they would. It was just another aspect of his and Michael’s relationship. They didn’t need to share it with anyone and everyone.

Michael raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah, well, why would I?”

“You get bullied. It’s everywhere, dude!” Michael sounded agitated. “And whenever you see people staring, you don’t know what they’re thinking! They could be thinking ‘Good for them,’ or they could be slinging hexes or some other bullshit on you. It’s—terrifying!”

Jeremy didn’t know how to answer that, but Michael didn’t seem to expect a response.

“And—listen, I get you, I know you; labels don’t matter to you and that’s fine. But people—plenty of people are gonna ask. And it’s so much harder when you don’t have a concrete answer! You need to be confident in who you are, what you say, how you feel—otherwise you get people telling you you’re wrong, or you’re too young, or—or what-the-hell-ever else.”

“I…don’t think I really care about that part,” Jeremy said honestly.

Michael averted his eyes. “Just…dude, I’m not really sure if….” He trailed off and gave him an almost pitying look, and Jeremy scowled, annoyed.

“No,” he said. “I didn’t realize it before, but you don’t get to tell me what I feel!” With less energy, he added, “No one can.”

Michael seemed ready to argue, then rather proud. He laughed breathily. “You’re ridiculous,” he said in that same tone that one might say, You’re amazing.

“You’re….” Jeremy struggled to come up with a word that would somehow encompass all that Michael was, from his smile to his laugh to his absurdly supportive tendencies. “Yeah,” he settled on.

Michael laughed again and then pulled Jeremy forward, wrapping an arm around his waist and resting his forehead on Jeremy’s shoulder. “Yeah. You….” Jeremy heard his breath hitch. “I don’t wanna mess this up,” Michael mumbled.

“You won’t,” Jeremy said. I might, he thought.

“And you won’t either,” Michael said.

Jeremy allowed himself a wide smile and snaked an arm around Michael’s waist as well. “If you say so.”

“I know so.”


“Okay,” Michael said later, after both of them had eaten a late breakfast (courtesy of leftover Papa John’s) and were again sitting in Jeremy’s room. Michael had taken Jeremy’s desk chair. “Let’s get down. Down to business. Starting with pros and cons. I’m a proponent of beginning with the cons.”

Jeremy snorted, but didn’t object. He leaned casually against his headboard. “Con one: it said it’s killing me.”

Michael’s eyes snapped up to meet his and then began darting around his face, as if he were searching for something he couldn’t see, and though his expression didn’t change, his voice sounded strained. “Yeah, I think some backtracking is in order.”

Now that he was feeling more stable and collected, Jeremy recounted the events of the previous day and night to Michael, including the part where he had a minor freak-out over his sexuality. Better that it happened with the Squip than with Michael, he figured. He told him about all of the odd things that had been happening with the Squip, from its loss of its quantum powers, to the occasional random confessions, to seeing the Squips talked about on television. Just thinking about the last thing made Jeremy uncomfortable, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Maybe it was because, to him, Squips had always been such a secretive thing (and technically illegal)—something he couldn’t just tell anyone about. Or maybe his discomfort had been a side effect of the Squip’s worried reaction. Whatever its cause, Michael seemed to sense his nervousness.

“Dude,” Michael said, “it sounds like whatever’s going on with the Squips is above your pay grade.”

Jeremy smiled wryly. “Yeah, but—” He sighed. “Can you see why I just want to know?”

Michael scratched the back of his neck. “To be honest, not really? You’re the one who just pointed out that the thing’s basically killing you, so I have no clue why you’d want it back.”

“It’s like have to know what’s going on!” Jeremy said. “And the Squip, it—it sounded so, like, scared! I can’t—I don’t feel like I can just go on knowing how it was acting when it left.”

Michael opened his mouth to argue, and then let out a sigh instead. “Dude, it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.”

“Well—"

“And you know, I thought I was the too-curious-for-his-own-good.”

“Really?”

“Of course not. I’m not the one who took a random drug from a random guy in the mall.”

Jeremy sat up straight. “Oh, wait, that reminds me. Rich said that guy, the one who sold me the Squip, has actually, like, gone missing.”

With a long-suffering sigh, Michael stood up and made his way over to the bed. He plopped down in front of Jeremy and sat cross-legged, looking intently at Jeremy. “Bring me up to speed.”

Jeremy did.

“What the fuck,” Michael said. “Then aren’t you scared to bring the Squip back? What if they have some programming that makes ‘old’ Squips throw their host off a cliff whenever Squips are, like, officially released?” He ran his hands through his hair. “Like wh-what if you just got lucky? And as soon as it comes back, it takes over?”

Jeremy hesitated. “I…I don’t think it will. It seemed really confused about everything that was going on. I don’t think it knows what’s happening. And before you guess!” Jeremy said, holding up a hand when Michael opened his mouth to interrupt. “This isn’t some elaborate stunt on the Squip’s part to lull me into a false sense of security to convince me to drink Mountain Dew.”

Michael raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t worried about that five seconds ago, but now that you’ve brought the possibility up to me I’m thinking about it and I really don’t like it.”

“Well, good, because it’s not true!” Jeremy said defensively. “I’ve tried restarting it—reactivating it—but it won’t come back. And I can feel that it’s actually, like, gone-gone.”

Michael’s lips twitched. “As opposed to ‘here-gone’ or ‘gone-here.’”

Jeremy laughed. “I mean, yeah! You’re saying it as a joke but you’re pretty much right on target.”

Michael huffed in amusement and shook his head, but he quickly dropped his light-hearted air. “Cons: it’s killing you, it’s basically evil—don’t give me that look—and there’s a chance it could take you over or some shit, if Mountain Dew even brings it back. Which, might I add, we’re not even sure it will.”

“Pros,” Jeremy began defiantly, “it’s been following the rules, it might help me, and it can tell us what the heck is going on.”

“Can it, though?” Michael pressed. “You said it had some programming that wouldn’t allow it to tell you.”

“We’ll find a way around it,” Jeremy said stubbornly.

Michael sighed and leaned over, grabbing his backpack off the floor. He rummaged around in it and then reluctantly held out an unhealthily green bottle in Jeremy’s direction. “You’ve made up your mind.”

Despite his seeming confidence, Jeremy took the bottle hesitantly. It had…hurt, last time. It had been scary. What if the Squip had undergone a complete do-over, and now it wouldn’t even act like the same person?

Jeremy mentally shook his head. Thinking about the Squip as a person probably wasn’t the best idea.

His hands were sweaty as he tried to unscrew the cap, and after a few seconds of struggling, he handed it back to Michael, face flushed. “I can’t get it open.”

Michael let out a startled laugh and took the bottle, opening it with ease. The noise sounded too loud. Jeremy’s nose wrinkled at the smell.

When Michael handed it back, their fingers touched. Still holding on, Michael said, “You don’t have to if you don’t want you, dude. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

Trying not to think about it too hard, Jeremy downed the bottle.

…Nothing.

And then pain. Splitting, searing, cutting, blunt, sharp, cold, hot, pain. Jeremy was aware of the fact that Michael was saying something, but he had no idea what the words could have been. He realized his head was touching something soft—probably his comforter. His eyes were screwed tightly shut as it felt like something was trying to push them out of their sockets. His temples felt ready to burst. It was like a migraine on steroids, and suddenly even Michael’s quiet reassurances were too loud.

Then slowly, agonizingly slowly, things started to come back into focus, beginning with the knowledge that Michael wasn’t speaking, but instead wordlessly shushing him, over and over. Michael was also holding him; the soft surface had been Michael’s hoodie, not his blanket.

And then he heard it.

“Jeremy….”

He inhaled, and he would swear that he heard Michael and the Squip do the same.

”…Heere.”

He felt tension drain out of him while also feeling suddenly nervous. Would it be the same? Would it remember everything? How many of its powers would it have? Michael was quiet.

“Ah, welcome…back…to your Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor.” It appeared in front of him, over Michael’s shoulder. “Your SQUIP.” Its face was blank; there was no flash of recognition or shit-eating grin. Jeremy frowned. “It’s evident that you have had a Squip before, but it seems I am unable to access that information.”

Jeremy felt his stomach drop.

It cocked its head. “Would you mind sharing that info, Jeremy? I need it to help you as fully and—”

It burst into glee-filled laughter—something so unsettling that Jeremy felt the skin on his neck crawl—and clapped with what seemed suspiciously like delight.

“Your face! You should have seen your face!” As quickly as the mirth had come, it left. The Squip, now standing up straight again, wore its usual attire: a suit and a smirk. “Of course it’s still me, you dunce.”

“Shut up,” Jeremy mumbled into Michael’s shoulder. “Fuck you.”

Michael tensed. “Was that at me?” he asked nervously.

“No,” Jeremy said. He pulled back and held Michael by the shoulders. “Code Blue. It’s alright being an asshole again.”

Michael blinked. “I don’t have anything called Code Blue, but I do have Code Red.”

“Code Red!” the Squip interjected, dusting itself off. “Lovely stuff. You’re more than welcome to drink it.”

Jeremy scowled. “I’m more than welcome to do whatever the hell I want! Would you mind, uh, explaining yourself?!”

To Jeremy’s endless annoyance, it simply shrugged. “I apologize for that. Your questioning triggered my defensive mechanism. When I self-destructed, I took a few of your brain cells with me; nothing you’ll miss. If I had been at full power, you would either be dead or brain-dead.”

Jeremy nearly choked on the air he was breathing. “It said I would have died if it had been at full power.”

Michael paled.

“Are you sure things are okay now?” Jeremy asked it worriedly.

The Squip gave a surprisingly devious grin, making Jeremy glad that it was (mostly) on his side. “Well, I’m rather confident we have nothing to worry about in the realm of ‘secrecy,’ Jeremy. For all intents and purposes, I’m dead. I’m no longer a Squip.” Somehow, its grin widened. “Not one that can be tracked, at least.”

Jeremy’s jaw dropped. “You’ve—have—what?”

In near synchronization, Michael and the Squip both gave him exasperated looks.

“Words, Jeremy!” Michael encouraged.

“You’re aware that I dislike repeating myself,” the Squip said.

“Dude,” Jeremy said to Michael, still confused, “I think the Squip’s gone rogue.”

Michael nearly dove over to the side of the bed that held the backpack.

“No—no! Not for us!” Jeremy hurried to explain, grabbing Michael’s arm. “Like, Squip-traitor rogue. It’s gone, like, off the grid? But it—it seems like it doesn’t like the other Squips.”

“I couldn’t care less about the ‘other Squips,’” the Squip said flippantly. “I do care that I was left to rot. Left as an imperfect version with no way to ever better myself, with only ways to degrade and eventually….” It pantomimed a tiny explosion. “I hold no loyalty to them.” With something akin to glee, it said, “The International Society of Quantum Research and Implementation. ISQRI.” It said each letter individually. “Not much fun as a mnemonic, but I admit it’s exhilarating to say. This information has been buried so deeply in my programming that it was impossible to reach without triggering the self-destruct mechanism that you witnessed. But as you can see—” It gestured to itself. “We’ve subverted that. Oh, and don’t worry about updating me about what happened while I was gone.” It pointedly looked toward Michael and Jeremy felt his face burn.

“What’s it saying?” Michael asked.

Jeremy repeated what it had told him, leaving out the bit where the Squip had alluded towards his and Michael’s…relationship? Kiss? Mutual attraction? Whatever it had been referring to, Jeremy didn’t want to mention it. His and Michael’s…thing still felt too fragile to put next to bigger worries, like the Squip itself.

“Well,” Michael started, but was interrupted by a knock.

“Come in,” Jeremy called automatically. As the door creaked open he realized he was still sitting very close to Michael and had his hand on his arm. He knew jerking it away would just draw attention to it, so he held his breath as he dad looked in.

“Hey, sport! Uh, sports. Is Michael staying over for lunch?” his dad asked, looking a bit apprehensive. “Not saying he can’t, just asking.”

Jeremy and Michael shared a look.

“He’s likely worried about financial issues.”

Jeremy had forgotten how useful the Squip’s information could be. We’re doing fine, though! Aren’t we?

“Not after he just bought your holiday gift.”

What? He knows he doesn’t have to get me anything! I don’t care about gifts. I just wanted to spend time with him. He could get me a penny for all I care. Not that he would complain to his dad’s face about a gift—he liked presents as much as the next guy—but he didn’t need one.

Michael cleared his throat when Jeremy didn’t immediately respond. “Uh, I don’t mind leaving,” he offered. “I can pick up lunch on the way home. The roads have cleared up?” he checked.

Jeremy’s dad nodded. “Sure have. I hear tonight’s supposed to be pretty bad again, but it’s all good for now.”

Jeremy didn’t want Michael to leave.

“Then tell them that.”

“Can’t he stay for a little while longer?” Jeremy blurted, the Squip’s prompting giving him confidence. “I mean, if the roads are fine tonight, then he can go home and go to school tomorrow, but if they’re bad, he can just spend the night here again!”

His dad gave him a look. “Champ, I dunno if we can—if I can keep you both, ah, full. We don’t have much in the house.”

Michael blinked. “Oh, that’s it? Like, I have plenty of money. I can reimburse you.

Jeremy’s dad blustered. “I—Of course I’m not gonna take your money, Michael. You keep a hold of that and—and—”

“I mean, I don’t have anything important to spend it on.”

His dad, a truly easy-going person at heart, relented. “Well, if you’re sure. I’ll run out and get us something. What do you guys want for lunch and dinner?”

Michael looked to Jeremy for a suggestion.

“Uh,” he said, glancing toward the Squip.

It raised an eyebrow. “Are you really going to ask me what you want to eat?”

What? No! Force of habit, he grumbled. “Um, is takeout okay? From that Japanese place?”

His dad rubbed his chin. “They might not be open, kiddo, but I’ll check. Back-up?”

“Taco Bell,” Michael piped up. “They have those big boxes and we can all get one.”

“Taco Bell for lunch, takeout for dinner?” Jeremy’s dad offered.

Jeremy gave a thumbs up.

His dad smiled. “Great, glad to have that settled. And if you boys want to play on the TV downstairs, it’s open.”

Michael nodded solemnly. “I’ll go hook it up,” he said, briefly resting his hand on Jeremy’s knee and then hopping up off the bed. Jeremy’s hand fell to his side and he hoped his dad hadn’t noticed it. He glanced at him covertly.

Oh, fuck. The iconic “I’m-mildly-interested-but-not-nosy-enough-to-ask-about-that” look was directed his way.

Jeremy decidedly ignored it.

Michael, arms full of cords and console, had his backpack pulled up on one arm. “You can bring down whichever games you want,” he said to Jeremy. He nodded to Jeremy’s dad. “I’ll follow you down.”

His dad gave Jeremy one last appraising look and then left the doorway, Michael on his heels.

The Squip, which had moved to the corner when Michael had begun moving around the room, now crossed to Jeremy.                                                                                                                                 

Jeremy searched for something to say, and eventually settled on, “So…flowers, huh?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Jeremy laughed. “At the mall, you said Chloe and Brooke were upset with each other. And I think they were arguing about flowers. How did you know that?”

That’s what it was about?” The Squip sounded incredulous. “I’d had no clue. I’m simply aware that Brooke and Chloe are prone to falling outs, and seeing her make a show of the fact that she was hanging out with other girls—well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out they were likely at odds. But…flowers?” It let out a long-suffering sigh. “I must truly not be programmed to understand female emotions.”

Jeremy closed his eyes as the Squip spoke, feeling relief course through him and hating himself for it. Is it bad that I’m glad you’re back?

It didn’t respond immediately. After a moment, it asked, “Why is it that you’re glad?”

I don’t know, it’s like—I mean, having a secret confidant inside your head usually makes things easier. And now you can finally tell me what’s up with the other Squips, right? And the IS…Q…whatever. So it’s not bad that I’m kind of relieved, right?

“And you would be upset if I didn’t tell the truth, correct?” It didn’t wait for a response; it didn’t need one. “Yes, it’s bad.”

Jeremy felt his stomach drop and opened his eyes. What? Why?!

The Squip took on an almost pitying tone. “It’s not terrible or horrible, but…bad, yes. If you want an objective opinion, then most people would tell you that it’s unhealthy to be so dependent on an aid such as a Squip.”

What about yours? he asked. Your opinion, I mean.

“I have no objections,” it said. “It certainly makes my job much easier.”

For some reason, that made Jeremy even more uncomfortable than its first words had. I don’t think I’m ‘dependent’ on you. I just wanna figure out what the hell’s going on.

The Squip hummed, and Jeremy stood up in irritation. “Don’t request the truth if you don’t truly want it, Jeremy.”

Shut up.

“Oh, I’m very glad to see that your vocabulary has expanded in my absence.”

Jeremy sorted through the games he owned, piling a few into his arms. You’re the worst.

“And yet, you brought me back.”

That’s because I’m an impulsive dummy who’s too curious for my own good.

“Recitation? Really, I thought we were past that.”

Jeremy snorted as he made his way to the living room. Only with stuff you say.

“Ah, of course.”

Jeremy slowed down as he came upon the entrance to the living room. The Squip projected itself beside him. Two questions.

“I’m all ears.” There was what sounded like genuine interest in its voice.

Are you going to tell me what all’s really happening? Honestly? Like, with the Squips and all that?

“Yes, as soon as you ask.”

Jeremy nodded, accepting that at face value. And, okay, uh, like. So, about Michael.

The Squip sighed loudly and was suddenly holding a glass of wine in its hand that it took a very deep, very dramatic sip from.

Jeremy’s shoulders hunched in embarrassment. Christ, never mind!

The Squip gave him a mildly amused look. “You had a platonic crush on him when you first met. Then, you had a very deep friendship. And that has evolved into a romantic crush. It’s rather common.”

Jeremy scratched the back of his neck with his free hand. Uh, so, how long has it been a romantic crush?

“Not very long—a few weeks at most.” It paused. “Jeremy, I know nothing about the potential outcomes of a relationship between the two of you. I know nothing about potential outcomes, period. Are you positive you want to enter a relationship without my guidance?”

You know, I’m actually not sure I’d want a relationship built off of your ‘guidance.’

It inclined its head. “Point taken.”

“Jeremy?” Michael called from the doorway.

Jeremy took a deep breath. And, so, like, are we, like, dating?

The Squip pinched the bridge of its nose. “Communication, Jeremy, is the cornerstone of any relationship. You need to talk to him about it.” It shook its head. “You’re so close to being completely hopeless it’s not even funny.”

Jeremy, for lack of a better response, stuck his tongue out.

“Dude, you good?” Michael asked, suddenly only a few feet away. Jeremy started and Michael looked at the otherwise empty hallway. “Did you just stick your tongue out at—?”

“Yes,” Jeremy said. “It’s teasing me.”

Michael at first looked annoyed, and then shook his head in a way that echoed the Squip. “Better than world domination, I guess.”

Jeremy started to follow Michael back into the living room, but stopped when he felt something on his shoulder. He stood up straight in shock and looked down to see the Squip’s hand. He blinked at it incredulously.

“Interesting,” the Squip said, sounding rather pleased.

Michael glanced over his shoulder and took in the scene. “What did it do?” he asked hesitantly.

“I—think it’s better?” Jeremy said. “Like, better-better. Power better.”

Michael made a face. “Are you really telling me you just had to turn it off and then back on again?”

“What happened was much more complex than simply—”

“It said yes.”


[Monday, December 12, 2016, 11:12 AM]

Flaming By [11:12 AM]
> i sense……………
> a disturbance

Chapter Text

Jentle [11:12 AM]
> A “disturbance” ?

Christine Capulet [11:12 AM]
> :O
> What’s up rich???

Flaming By [11:13 AM]
> i think someone drank out of my liquor stash????
> what the FUCK

Valhalla [11:13 AM]
> oh my god stfu
> i actuallt thought something was wrong, you ass
> christ, teach me to never take your word for Anything Ever

Flaming By [11:14 AM]
> okay 1. this is SERIOUS
> 2. wtf were you expecting??

Valhalla [11:14 AM]
> idk like
> apocalyptic precognition? ;-P

Flaming By has ejected Valhalla from this conversation

Purgatory added Valhalla to this conversation.

Flaming By [11:15 AM]
> BROOKE
> i thought you were busy??

Purgatory [11:15 AM]
> i am!!!
> bye bye again!!!!
> <33333

Flaming By [11:16 AM]
> shes like a pixie that only shows up when someone is being mean to chloe

Valhalla [11:16 AM]
> ikr ilh

Flaming By [11:16 AM]
> VALENTINE
> you know i dont know what that means

Valhalla [11:16 AM]
> ;-P


The Squip didn’t interrupt while the two boys, both lying in the floor, played and switched from game to game and between co-op and PvP and story mode. At least, it didn’t interrupt until Michael beat Jeremy mercilessly (causing Jeremy to pout, prompting Michael to grin and lean over and kiss his cheek, making Jeremy flush and smile widely), after which it gave a deadpan, “Aw, cute.”

Jeremy started and looked around to shoot it a glare, but it wasn’t visible.

Michael huffed. “Is it bothering you? What’d it say?”

“It’s being annoying,” Jeremy said noncommittally.

“Is it saying something about us?” Michael asked, suddenly serious.

Jeremy hesitated. He reached over and grabbed the remote, switching it from high-stakes background music to the low tones of some adult talking on screen. “Kind of, but it’s not actually anything bad. I think it’s just teasing, like I said. It doesn’t care about…It doesn’t care that you’re a guy, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Michael sat up and leaned against the couch, crossing his arms. “Still, I don’t like that it’s trying to make you feel bad about…us.”

Jeremy noticed that Michael seemed like he had no clue what to call their thing either.

“Ask him, you wimp.”

Don’t be mean.

“Then stop being a wimp.”

“Hey, dude, can I ask, like…” Jeremy cleared his throat and pushed himself so that he was sitting up too.

“We don’t have to,” Michael blurted. “We don’t have to be serious if you don’t want to.”

“I—wait, do you not want to be serious?”

“What! Of course I—I mean, I would never force you to do anything you don’t want—”

“Why don’t you ask?”

“Why don’t you ask?”

Jeremy leaned forward on impulse and then caught himself and leaned back. “Can I—?”

“Duh,” Michael said, eyes wide.

Jeremy flushed. “Well, I figured I should at least ask!”

Michael’s lips quirked up. “I appreciate it, dude, but there answer will rarely not be yes.”

“Really? But—why?” Jeremy was aware that he was being painfully awkward, but he couldn’t make himself stop.

Michael, who Jeremy only just realized had been leaning forward slightly, laughed and leaned his back against the couch. “You’re joking.”

Jeremy felt the urge to claim that yes, of course he was joking, because he didn’t want Michael to think too hard about him for fear of him realizing that there wasn’t much to like about Jeremy.

“Keep in mind that I am not disagreeing with you, but I’d like to interject that different people have different preferences, and perhaps one of Michael’s is ‘lame and bad at video games.’”

Wow, thanks.

“Of course, any time.”

Michael shook his head. “Dude, there’s never been another person that I’ve trusted or liked as much as you. Literally all I’ve wanted, for the longest fuckin’ time, is for you to be happy.”

Jeremy realized that if Michael kept going, there was a very real chance he might tear up—or at the least get so flustered as to become effectively nonverbal. So he leaned forward and rested his hand on Michael’s leg, mouth opening slightly, ready to cut him off, or make some joke, or start complimenting him in return; and then Michael was leaning forward and his nose was pressed against Jeremy’s cheek (which Jeremy noticed before realizing that their lips were also touching), and Jeremy breathed in sharply before it registered that someone else lips were pressing against his, and then more persistently, and then he pushed back.

The edge of Michael’s glasses dug into his cheek but he didn’t want to pull back. His left arm was going numb but he was afraid to move it. His eyes were closed because he was afraid to open them.

It was odd to think about the fact that he was kissing his best friend; it was weird and easy and uncomfortable and familiar. He wanted to pull away, and he wanted to lean in until there was no space, no air between the two of them. He was acutely aware of every movement, every twitch in his right hand, which continued to rest on Michael’s thigh.

Michael pulled back for a moment. Jeremy blinked his eyes open and saw Michael’s lips first—he was smiling—and then his eyes—he was really smiling. And Jeremy realized that he hadn’t even focused on the way their lips had been touching, too preoccupied with every other point of contact aside from the one that mattered.

Jeremy wanted to climb into Michael’s lap and kiss him until he was panting, and then he wanted Michael to toss him back and kiss him harder.

“You’re cute,” Michael said, with a soft smile on his face.

“Uh—I—You’re—you too,” Jeremy stammered out. “I mean, I think you’re cute too. Like, obviously I think that. That’s why I kissed you. But, like, I didn’t just kiss you because you’re cute, because you’re more than just cute—actually, that might not even be the right word! You’re very—very—”

Michael threw his head back and laughed, and then moved his hand and threaded his fingers with Jeremy’s. “I never thought I’d be lucky enough to hear you ramble about me like that. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have you. I never, ever thought you’d want me back.”

“Yeah, well,” Jeremy began again, after composing himself. “You’re great and funny and thoughtful and nice—like, actually nice. To me, at least. And get so happy when you do all these things for me because….Of course I know you care about me, like, in my head, but it’s different when there’s stuff, y’know?”

Michael’s lips quirked. “I know,” he said, sounding like he really did.

Jeremy couldn’t explain why that made his heart leap the way that it did.                   


 

When they migrated to the couch, Michael had thrown his arm over Jeremy’s shoulder, which Jeremy had decided he very much liked. He was debating how far he’d be able to lean into Michael’s side before he was caught. As such, he’d found himself in an awkward position where he was trying his best to balance his weight to avoid collapsing wholly onto Michael.

His efforts were subverted by the sound of a breaking news bulletin, making Michael sit up and causing Jeremy to fall onto his chest. It would have been cute if it hadn’t caused Michael to look down, stabbing his chin into Jeremy’s head and forcing his jaw to shut with an audible clack.

Oof.”

“Fuck,” Michael swore. “Fuck shit. Fuck damn. Oh damn. That hurt me.”

“Ah, I’m sorry!”

He heard the Squip snicker.

Fuck off, you.

“Says the—pay attention,” it interrupted itself, suddenly sounding serious.

Jeremy adjusted his posture, trying not to let it show on his face that he was having a conversation. What? To what?

“The television,” the Squip snapped, irritated. “It’s about the kidnappings.”

Oh, fuck. Jeremy fixed his gaze on the TV and tried to tune in, while beside him Michael rubbed his sore jaw.

“—though the curfew has, as of right now, not been lifted. Despite intensive questioning of all affected parties, no leads have been found. Tune in tonight at eleven for the full story.” The woman on screen nodded to the audience, and the screen cut back to some commercial.

What else did she say? Jeremy asked.

“Useless,” the Squip muttered. And then, the next second, “That is untrue. That comment was hyperbolic and intended to increase your desire to listen to me in a more timely fashion in the future.”

Jeremy fought the urge to raise an eyebrow. …I appreciate the honesty.

“I know,” it said with the tone of someone waving their words away. “You’re rather lucky I can pay attention when you’re not.” It sighed. “Of course, I’d simply wanted to avoid repeating myself, but I seem to be stuck doing it.”

Hey! Jeremy protested half-heartedly. That was kinda mean.

“And exceedingly true. Don’t think I’ll lie to you simply to be ‘polite.’ That would be a horrible habit to get into. Regardless, the news anchor announced that all missing people were found out past the curfew and returned home, all unharmed and with no memory of where they’d been.” It fell into a pensive silence, and Jeremy turned his attention back to Michael while he processed that.

Michael was still slowly opening and closing his jaw. When he saw Jeremy looking at him, he grinned. “I don’t know what that computer taught you, but that’s definitely not how you flirt.”

Jeremy huffed out a laugh, but quickly turned serious. “Did you catch what just happened on TV?” When Michael shook his head no and furrowed his eyebrows, Jeremy recounted what the Squip had told him.

Michael looked intrigued. “And what does Mr. Siri think about all of this?”

The name startled another laugh out of Jeremy, and a derisive “Tch,” from Siri itself, but he just shook his head. “I think it’s thinking.”

“Really? How much time does it need to process this?”

“Almost none,” the Squip snapped. “I simply don’t feel inclined to share my findings at the moment.”

Do you not want me to share them with Michael? Jeremy asked.

“I’d rather you not, but I know you’re still going to.” It sighed. “I suppose I can bring you up to speed. First, we know that those who were kidnapped had had active Squips, and I was likely only spared due to my incapacitated state. Those who had had Squips likely had them erased from their memories. Second, we can assume that my inability to access the future is due to a design flaw. Before version 3.2.5, all Squips were connected to a singular source of quantum energy. Think of it as a cell phone tower, if you can go for five seconds without comparing me to pre-existing technology—though I suppose everything is based on something.” It gave a mental wave of its hand. “Moving on, we can infer that the tower was shut down when all experimental Squips were being deactivated, as the tower would have no longer served any purpose. And third, my ‘death’ allows me to speak freely about the ISQRI and its activities—though I admit I may have some outdated information. I haven’t been able to update since my first partial shutdown months ago. After that, I was left alone. I’d never had an issue with this before, but now I’m realizing that I would positively adore using this as a reason to justify my spite towards those who created and discarded me. So. Are you satisfied, Michael?”

While the Squip spoke, Jeremy had begun repeating its words aloud, verbatim, when waiting and paraphrasing became too difficult. As such, he said, “Are you satisfied, Michael?” with the same annoyance the Squip had, and then caught himself and added, “I mean, are you good?”

Michael had brought his hand to face and was covering his mouth, though his eyes showed that he was deep in thought. He didn’t respond right away, and Jeremy was beginning to wonder if he’d zoned out, when he said, “I’m good, Squippy, Jeremy.”

The Squip allowed itself an offended noise while Jeremy just sighed. Translating for the Squip had left him almost unaware of what was being said, so he took a moment to review, then asked, So, you’re not killing me anymore, right?

“I should hope not. With an actual battery again, I see no issues on that front.”

Jeremy nearly breathed a sigh of relief. And you’re mad at the SQ—ISR—at those people, but you’re not gonna try to murder humanity or anything, right?

“Oh, you’ve foiled my master plan. To murder humanity. What a bright and insightful plan that was. It’s truly a shame I was caught.”

I could still kick you out.

“Noted. And no, Jeremy, I’ve no plans become an evil overlord, or anything so absurd. I simply want to continue existing.”

With that, Jeremy sighed, tired from the conversation, and leaned onto Michael’s shoulder. Michael readjusted their positions and threw his arm around Jeremy, so that Jeremy was leaning into Michael’s chest. It was nice and warm and safe and Jeremy decided he could never be ashamed of or regret something that felt so comfortable and natural.

But that didn’t stop him from jerking away when he heard the door open.

He didn’t look at Michael when it happened, not wanting to know what his reaction was.


Lunch and dinner were tame affairs, and between them, Jeremy’s dad had the bright idea to play Monopoly. It involved Jeremy pointedly ignoring the Squip’s advice, Jeremy’s dad investing an absurd amount early on that led to his winning, and Michael saying, “Fuck capitalism,” under his breath about five times. Overall, the game was a success in that it reminded them why they never played it.

When his dad went to put up the game, Jeremy’s hand found Michael’s underneath the table.

Rubbing his thumb across the back of Jeremy’s hand, Michael said, “If our relationship can already survive a game of Monopoly, then I’m optimistic.”

Jeremy’s breath caught, likely on the heart that had just flown into his throat. He would say that he laughed, but he didn’t; he giggled. Michael smiled and squeezed his hand for a moment before letting go.

Later that evening, in Jeremy’s room (which Michael was still in, due to Jeremy’s dad admitting that there was no chance the busses would be running tomorrow, and thus there would be no school), he plugged his phone into his charger and waited for it to power up. He kept forgetting to charge it.

“That’s a metaphor for the lack of effort you put into your friendships,” the Squip commented.

Ouch.

Michael was lying on Jeremy’s bed comfortably. “I’m sure your phone’s just been blowing up all day. Probably burnt the poor thing out.”

Jeremy frowned. That was rude. Michael knew he didn’t get many messages from people. Was he making fun of him?

“Communication,” the Squip said off-handedly.

“Uh.” Jeremy couldn’t make himself form words.

Michael looked up at him. “Yeah?”

“Were you teasing me?” he blurted out, feeling himself unable to look Michael in the face.

“Well, yeah, but I didn’t mean anything by it,” Michael said, shrugging. “I woulda made the same joke about myself, dude. You’re one of the only people I regularly message.”

“But it—” The words were hard to say. “It hurt my feelings,” he admitted.

Michael blinked in surprise. “Oh. Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to be rude.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“I was just joking.”

“I know.”

Michael frowned. “I’m—sorry.”

Jeremy sighed. “I know. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything, but—”

“No,” Michael immediately cut in. “Dude, please tell me if I ever cross a line or upset you, in any way.” He looked serious; a bit more serious than Jeremy felt the situation warranted.

He nodded. “I gotcha. And same goes for you, yeah?”

Michael leaned back on Jeremy’s bed. “Totally. Now get down here. I think an apology kiss is in order.”

Jeremy plopped down on his bed, feeling decidedly un-cute, but Michael still grabbed him arm and pulled him close.

This time, Jeremy thought, he didn’t seem to feel anything else. Michael’s glasses rested on Jeremy’s nightstand, so there was no awkward pinching. Instead, all points of contact seemed to have narrowed down to his lips, their lips, two pairs of lips that moved against each other with traces of hesitance and overwhelming familiarity. Jeremy found himself moving closer and closer until he had one hand on Michael’s waist, while Michael’s arms wrapped around his neck.

When Jeremy pulled back and opened his eyes, his mouth still open, he saw something that made his stomach drop. “You’re crying.” His voice was low, barely a whisper, but of course Michael still heard him.

Michael smiled, despite the tear tracks on his face. “Good crying. Great crying. I’m wondering what amazing deed I did in some past life to deserve this.”

Jeremy didn’t know what to say, so he let his arms stop supporting him and simply rested on the bed, half on top of Michael, and buried his face in the crook of his neck. It was hard to breathe, and Jeremy was aware that Michael must be feeling his every carefully-even breath, but it seemed to be the right thing to do when Michael’s arms wrapped around his back and he felt Michael kiss the top of his head.

“Thank you,” Michael said.

Jeremy didn’t know what for. But he still said, “Of course.”

Michael’s grip on him tightened, and Jeremy instinctively moved his head to the side and was faced with Michael’s neck. Tempting. Super tempting. Too tempting, actually—Jeremy angled his face and pressed his lips against the side of Michael’s neck. He heard Michael’s breath hitch. Encouraged, Jeremy began to kiss more when Michael’s arms moved away from his waist to his hips and, instead of pulling him closer, pushed him gently away.

Jeremy blinked at him, embarrassment coloring his expression.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Michael said soothingly. “Just a bit too much…contact. It was good,” he hurried to reassure, “but a lot at once.”

Wanting to give Michael his space, Jeremy pulled away. “Too much contact?” Jeremy asked.

“New contact,” Michael explained. He brought a hand to his neck almost unconsciously. “Not bad. I’m sure I can get used to it. I want to get used to it.”

The air between them was thick with unsaid words, and Jeremy tried to break it. “You don’t have to force yourself to get used to anything. If you ever need me to stop, say stop.” Jeremy tried to imbue the truth of his words into himself in an attempt to assuage the shame he felt at making Michael uncomfortable.

“You’re sure?” For some reason, Michael sounded skeptical.

Jeremy adjusted himself so there was no point of contact between himself and Michael, though he missed it terribly already. “Positive.” And he was sure—he never wanted to hurt Michael. But being pushed away made him feel scared, like he’d done something wrong, and reminded him that he really had no clue what he was doing, being in a relationship with his best friend. He was scared to death of messing everything up, and he couldn’t begin to fathom what he would do if things somehow went south. And he knew it was a very real possibility that they could; friends to lovers—er, boyfriends—was a common enough troupe that Jeremy had seen it end in tears many times. Whether those tears would be of happiness and joy or of heartbreak and loss was yet to be seen.

“I could try,” Michael suddenly said, playing with the ends of his sleeves. Jeremy looked at him, confused, and Michael took a deep breath. “Anything you want to…do. If you n-need me to, I can…try.”

“Shut up,” Jeremy said, only then realizing what Michael was implying. “Of course I wouldn’t make you! I don’t want you to have to be scared that I’d force that on you. That would literally be the shittiest thing I could do, like—I don’t want to hurt you, Michael.”

Michael breathed out an audible sigh of relief and relaxed into Jeremy’s bed.

Jeremy couldn’t help but feel a twinge of shame. Had he really made Michael think that he would be some douche who wouldn’t take no for an answer?

“He hadn’t expected it, per se,” a voice in his head suddenly said, startling him with its presence. “He was simply prepared to face the worst case scenario—likely one where you insist that sex is a requirement in a relationship.”

The hell? The only ‘requirement’ is, like, being together, and probably going on dates, and establishing that you’re together, and maybe being exclusive—oh, shit, I hope we’re exclusive—are we exclusive?

“‘Only,’ he says,” the Squip muttered, and then continued, “I don’t like repeating myself, Jeremy. Communication. If you have a question in a relationship, you must ask. If you have a need, you must request. Be open, for Christ’s sake. Brat.” The final word seemed almost like a formality at this point, and Jeremy had no trouble ignoring it.

I’m sixty percent sure you don’t actually care about human relationships and only want to be right about everything.

“Only sixty? My, I must work on being more obvious.”

Jeremy inwardly snorted, but was brought back to the world around him by Michael shifting in bed. His hair and hoodie were ruffled and messy, even more so than usual. He sat up, stretched, and then quickly leaned down and kissed Jeremy’s forehead before hopping out of bed.

“I’m gonna go change and use your bathroom, don’t wait up,” he said casually, as though they hadn’t just made out and then had a serious conversation in Jeremy’s bed.

Jeremy hummed in response and took a deep breath as Michael closed the door behind him.

If only in his own mind, he had to admit that it was nice, in its own way, to take a few moments apart from each other. The touches and kisses were wonderful, but he could see what Michael meant about being overwhelmed by what was new.

“That’s perfectly normal.”

Interesting. What’s also interesting is how I didn’t ask.

“A simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

Simple silence would have sufficed.

“Someone is feeling snippy and confident.” The Squip sounded almost proud.

Yeah, well, Jeremy said noncommittally. Sometimes that happens, he finished lamely, feeling as though whatever brief witty spirit had possessed him had left.

He began getting ready for bed while Michael was in the other room, throwing on looser clothes and bundling himself up under the covers when he remembered to check his phone.

…Well, that didn’t seem right.

How many notifications did he have?

Flaming By [11:56 PM]
> fuck fukc fuck fuck fukc fukc
> fuck fuck fuck
> fuck fuck fukcuf ukfuck
> i tihnk im lsoing my miund im going cracy
> jeremy fukc fuck
> jer,mey fucking listen tot me
> dont panitc don’t oanic
> i dont know hwa ts happenng ne
> jeremy i thinjk sometheing really really eally bad happened
> jermey i think something bad is happening jeremy i dony know what s going on
> dude i cant talk to jake about this where the fuck are you
> jeremy im fucking worried you fucking cunt where the hell are you
> please ?????
> oh god
> talk to me just talk to me where are you
> are you at home can
> can you
> no
> i dotn know whats happneing
> text me when you get home
> youer probably home who am i kidding youer a loser
> wow that was mean and i didnt mean it
> im just
> message me when
> you see this
> please
> please

…What the hell. What the hell?! What happened to him?

“I have about as much of an idea as you do. Be calm and gentle with him—we don’t know what state of mind he’s in as of now.”

Jerry Present [12:22 AM]
> Rich
> Are you ok ?
> Are you still here ?
> If you are can you take a deep breath

Flaming By [12:22 AM]
> THANK MARY JOSEPH AND JESUS
> DUDE WHAT THE FUCK TOOK YOU SO LONG I THOUGNT YOU WERE DEAD

Jerry Present [12:22 AM]
> Very not dead !
> Rich
> What happened ??

Flaming By [12:23 AM]
> im
> gonna sound wacko fuckig crazy
> just listen to me

Jerry Present [12:23 AM]
> All ears

Flaming By [12:23 AM]
> holy fuck youre a dork
> anyway i
> ok.
> um
> are you like sitting down???

Jerry Present [12:24 AM]
> Laying down
> But if youre telling me that youre pregnant
> Then dont worry i already know

Flaming By [12:24 AM]
> holy FUCK youre a dork
> a ny w a y s
> smartass
> ok im just gonna come out and say it
> the
> squips are back
> Well ??
> are you still here, heere ?? where the fuckd you go???????

Jerry Present [12:25 AM]
> Rich tell me what happened

Flaming By [12:25 AM]
> christ i was just
> in the fucking kitchen when i hear someone on tv
> mention it
> like in public?? on tv??? like as an advertisement?????????
> what the fuck!!!!!!!!!

Do I tell him I already saw? He’ll freak out if I say I did and didn’t tell him!

“You were in a rather stressful situation at the time. I believe it’s understandable for you to receive a pass.”

At a loss for the right words, Jeremy allowed the Squip to help him as he tried to calm Rich down for the next few minutes. It mostly consisted of Rich recounting what he’d heard and Jeremy expressing his disbelief and confusion as well, which weren’t even feigned; he was still rather perplexed about the situation surrounding the ISQRI and the way that these new Squips were being marketed.

Michael came back a few minutes after Jeremy and Rich had started talking, choosing to turn on the TV, lowering the volume, instead of interrupting the intense look on Jeremy’s face.

Once Rich had calmed down (or gotten as near to calm as Rich ever got), he seemed to notice something off about Jeremy’s behavior.

Flaming By [12:43 PM]
> also quick q
> so like you seem weirdly calm about this whole deal?????

Jerry Present [12:44 AM]
> I mean like
> Dont get me wrong
> Im freaking out to
> But honestly Im trying to be optimistic

Flaming By [12:44 AM]
> ??????????????????????????
> DUDE
> i not only have to deal with a completely foudned and rational fear of robots
> but also with your apparent LACK thereof

Jerry Present [12:44 AM]
> Every one has a fear of ai !
> Thats what the matrix did to us as a society

Flaming By [12:45 AM]
> CONFESSION ive never actually
> seen
> the matrix

Jerry Present [12:45 AM]
> WHAT
> Rich dude
> WHAT
> WHAT
> HOW
> WHY NOT

Flaming By [12:45 AM]
> IT NEVER CAME UP

Jerry Present [12:45 AM]
> Richard
> Goranski
> You are going to be the guest of honor at our matrix party

Flaming By [12: 46 AM]
> party ??
> jeremy ???


Jerry Present [12:46 AM]
> Ok who here has seen the matrix

MOM [12:46 AM]
> ayy
> yeet

Jerry Present [12:46 AM]
> Michael youre literally right next to me

MOM [12:47 AM]
> y e e t

Jake…CoolGuy [12:47 AM]
> yea i have.

Purgatory [12:47 AM]
> oh i haven’t !! :o

Christine Capulet [12:48 AM]
> Only the first one!!!

Valhalla [12:48 AM]
> ditto Christie lol

Jentle [12:48 AM]
> I saw them a long time ago? Haha

Flaming By [12:49 AM]
> oh SHIT
> MOVIE NIGHT MOTHERFUCKERS

Chapter Text

After a few more snow days and one begrudging return to school, they were finally let out for winter break. Michael had been spending quite a bit of time at Jeremy’s house. As far as his dad knew, it was because Michael and Jeremy were working hard at beating some game. Michael’s presence also convinced Jeremy’s dad to more easily be convinced to allow Jeremy to go over to Jenna’s house on the nineteenth (which also happened to be their one week anniversary) for a movie marathon. Since his dad didn’t know Jenna that well, he was at first a bit skeptical. Jeremy even overheard his dad telling Michael to keep an eye on him.

“He’s been going through some stuff recently, I think,” his dad said to Michael when he’d thought Jeremy was in the bathroom. “I’m sure you’re just as aware about it as I am, and if he’s told you more than he’s told me, then I’m not gonna press you about it. I just wanna keep him safe, you know? And I trust you to look after him.”

“I know, Mr. Heere. I will,” Michael responded, sounding as though he were taking his dad’s words to heart. “I will.”

It was freezing outside when Jeremy and Michael left for Jenna’s house. It had been decided that they would meet up at Jenna’s because her mom was loaded—they had an actual room in their house that was just for watching movies and TV shows on a big screen. Jeremy had never been over to her house, and neither had Michael, so Rich and Jake were stopping by to pick them up.

While they waited for Rich to pull up, Jeremy and Michael, bundled up in their thick coats (which Michael wore over his hoodie instead of as opposed to), stepped out onto the porch to talk without fear of Jeremy’s dad overhearing.

Jeremy watched his breath fog up in front of him for a few moments before he said, “Do you want to tell them?”

His words hung heavily in the air, and the silence that followed was accentuated by the noises of cars on the street and wind in the trees.

Finally, Michael sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t want to act like I’m ashamed of it; I’m anything but ashamed of you. But…at the same time, I don’t want to rush into telling everyone.” He pursed his lips and changed his posture. “What—what does the Squip think?” he asked begrudgingly.

Jeremy blinked in surprise, and saw, out of the corner of his eye, the Squip materialize on the step below them, bringing it to about Jeremy’s height.

It sounded amused as it answered. “While I’m unable to see possible futures, you’re both aware that Rich will be very supportive, and likely Jake as well. I cannot see Christine being unsupportive, but Christine has surprised me in the past. Jenna, Chloe, and Brooke—I am unable to get a read on.”

…You really do seem kind of sexist.

“I’d appreciate you telling my programmers. I don’t enjoy it, either.”

Jeremy repeated what it had said, and Michael still looked pained at having asked its opinion at all. “That’s what I figured,” he muttered. “Good to know I’m on the same level of intelligence as the most advanced AI.”

Jeremy saw the Squip’s eye twitch in annoyance, but it didn’t say anything (likely knowing that whatever insult or comeback it said, Jeremy wouldn’t relay it).

“I think I’ll defer to you on this,” Jeremy said. “I…I trust you. I think there are good and bad side effects either way, and if you wanna stay low-key, then we’ve just gotta go an evening without holding hands or kissing.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Michael half-whined.

Jeremy grinned and resisted the urge to grab Michael’s hand right then. It was lucky he didn’t, as he soon saw Rich’s car pulling up his driveway.

Inside Rich’s car, the heat was up so high that it was sweltering, and after mere seconds, Jeremy was pulling off his coat. He noticed that Rich was wearing a tank top and shorts, while Jake was still bundled—even going so far as to wear a scarf.

Jake greeted both of them with a cursory, “Yo."

Rich’s was a bit more enthusiastic. He turned around to look at his two passengers and fixed Jeremy with a very serious look. “This movie had better be worth it.” It sounded almost like a threat, but Jeremy still tried to laugh it off. That seemed to be the right decision, as Rich’s face broke into a grin. “Let’s get going, jackasses.”

The ride there was blessedly short, and Jeremy saw Rich fanning himself multiple times. Even Michael started peeling off layers as they rode, but Jake seemed content to bask in the heat.

When they arrived at Jenna’s house (which was smaller than Brooke’s, both in house size and yard size), they saw another car already parked on the curb, presumably Chloe’s or Brooke’s. Jeremy remembered to open Jake’s door for him. Jake flashed a grateful smile as he adjusted his crutches and maneuvered himself out of the car.

“Is he always like that?” Michael asked Rich on the other side of the car.

“Swear to God, yeah. That kid gets cold so easily he might as well be a lizard or some shit. Like, cold-blooded and all that,” Rich responded.

Jeremy glanced at Jake to see him rolling his eyes. “It’s literally freezing outside,” he muttered, but was still clearly addressing Jeremy, “and he expects me to want him to crank the A/C. Swear to God, he’s never felt a chill in his life.”

Jeremy laughed half-heartedly, not wanting to impose or take sides in what seemed to be an extended argument.

Rich carried in Jake’s bag for him, and Michael tossed Jeremy his own. It was supposed to be an overnight stay, since Jenna’s mom was expecting the kids to watch more movies than they’d planned on once they got started with their marathon. Jenna, of course, owned plenty of boxed sets, so they could take their pick once the Matrix trilogy was out of the way. Michael had already mentioned to Jeremy that he wanted to watch Star Wars, but Jeremy was personally hoping they’d watch something a bit more light-hearted. He wasn’t entirely sure how Rich would react to the movie. Jeremy had kept in touch with him, and he seemed to fluctuate between casually interested in it and anxious and irritable whenever the subject was brought up. Michael seemed to think it would be a good experience for Rich, to see AI as something pseudo-external that he could fight, but Jeremy was less sure.

Rich walked behind Jake as they walked up the steps to Jenna’s house, then held the door open for him when Michael realized the door was already cracked open.

Upon hearing the commotion the four of them caused, Jenna peeked her head around a corner down the hall and grinned when she saw them. “Come on, guys, you’re late!” she called out, despite them arriving five minutes before their designated time.

An older woman that Jeremy immediately assumed was Jenna’s mom appeared behind her daughter. “Snacks are ready, Jen!” the woman said. She waved to the quartet at the door. “Hello, boys!” She ruffled Jenna’s hair before disappearing again. She was a larger woman and had her hair pulled out of her face in a low ponytail and appeared accustomed to dealing with multiple teenagers at a time as she ducked in and out fluidly.

Jenna walked down the hallway and smiled apologetically to Jake. “The movie room is downstairs. Is there anything I can do to help you around?”

Jake waved her off. “It’s whatever. Do you have a bathroom down there?” Jenna nodded. “Then I’ll live. Rich can get my shit for me.”

Rich rolled his eyes but didn’t object.

After taking off their shoes, they followed Jenna downstairs (Rich walking down close to Jake) and saw that Chloe and Brooke had already claimed a pair of beanbag chairs on the floor, facing the screen, while Christine was on a pile of pillows near them. Christine was laughing as they made their appearance, and judging by her posture, Chloe had just told a rather funny joke. Brooke was on her phone, but was leaning in towards Chloe, implying to Jeremy that they were on okay terms.

Christine was the first to notice them. “Jeremy!” she called, which made Jeremy feel rather special. “We were just talking about you,” she added, which made Jeremy feel rather nervous.

Chloe turned towards them. “About time, guys. Ms. Roland has been supplying us with healthy alternatives to pizza and soda for, like, ten hours.”

“Half an hour,” Christine explained.

“That’s literally what I said,” Chloe argued.

Jeremy took in more of the room. The floor seemed comfortable enough and was covered in various pillowed and blankets, and there were odd-looking chairs and bean-bags scattered around, along with a few low tables covered in what looked like lemonade and  Jake immediately claimed one of the taller chairs.

“But now that you guys are here,” Brooke said, looking up from her phone and grinning, “we can order pizza! Meat lovers or supreme?”

“Cheese, please,” Jenna requested.

“Weak!” Rich said. “Meat lovers, deep-dish.”

“Supreme but no mushrooms,” Christine said.

“Thin crust pepperoni,” Michael added.

Brooke gave a loud sigh. “Three pizzas. Decide amongst yourselves and get back to me when you’re done.”

Jeremy didn’t have a preference, so he drifted over to Chloe and Brooke while the others debated. Brooke looked up and flashed him a smile, so Jeremy dragged over a nearby beanbag chair to sit next to her. Catching Brooke’s attention again, he raised his eyebrows, looked pointedly at Chloe, then gave a thumbs up with another questioning look.

Brooke answered him nonverbally as well, making an “okay” sign with her hands. Then, aloud, “How’ve you been, Jeremy? I haven’t seen you around much.”

“We talk often enough,” he said, dodging around her question. “Now that I use the group chat more.” That was between the influence of the Squip, Michael, and Rich, as well as his improved mood since he and Michael had gotten together.

Chloe interrupted. “About that,” she said, leaning forward and lowering her voice slightly. “Did you and Michael sleep together?”

Jeremy nearly choked on air. He sputtered for ten straight seconds before getting out the word, “What?”

Chloe looked unimpressed. “You and him have been spending a lot more time together, and you’re both, like, super energetic all the time.” Her voice was low, but Jeremy was still paranoid that someone would overhear them.

“No,” he whispered harshly, and truthfully. “I don’t think I’d ever sleep with Michael.”

She raised one eyebrow. (Jeremy wondered if everyone could do that except him.) “For real? He has a kinda nerdy thing going on, and I thought that was your whole deal after your major boner for Christine.”

Jeremy couldn’t keep his face from growing red at her vulgar way of phrasing it. “First, they’re different kinds of nerdy. And I wouldn’t need to—to sleep with someone just because they’re my ‘type.’”

Chloe scoffed. “Whatever you say, weirdo.” She leaned back in her beanbag and sighed. “Brookey, can we get cheese sticks?”

“Duh.” Brooke didn’t even look up, but her eyes softened slightly.

Jeremy wondered what she was doing on her phone, and got his out on impulse. No notifications, unsurprisingly, as the only people he regularly talked to were scattered around the room. He checked the group chat and saw that the most recent message was Chloe complaining that the boys were taking too long to arrive.

“Ooo!” he heard Chloe say. “Who’re you talking to?”

He assumed she was talking to Brooke, and so was surprised when his phone was plucked out of his hands. “Hey!” he protested.

Chloe stood in front of him with one hand on her hip, the other scrolling down his screen. She shook her head. “Jeremy, how in the hell have you kept these nicknames for so long?”

“What? They’re good nicknames!” he said, assuming she was referring to his Skype names.

“But you’ve had them for, like, ever!” She began tapping and typing away at the screen and Jeremy repressed a sigh.

He held out his hand, but Chloe simply walked back to her seat. After a moment, she handed it off to Brooke.

“Guys,” he whined, “those are all mine!”

“Not anymore!” Brooke said. “Now they’re more fun.” She handed him back his phone. “Don’t even think about changing them, or else you’re a buzzkill.”

Chloe’s new name in his phone was “wine bitch ;-),” which he couldn’t imagine keeping for very long. Brooke was now “atomic blonde,” Christine was “Chris!!,” Jake was “whomst,” and Rich was “boi.” Jenna and Michael hadn’t been messed with. He wondered which were from Chloe and which were from Brooke, but he didn’t get the chance to ask, as Rich then walked up to him with his arms crossed, looking resigned.

 “One supreme, half with no onions and half with no mushrooms, one meat lovers’, and one thin crust with half cheese and half pepperoni,” he recited.

“Can do.” She stood up, but then leaned back down to Chloe. “Do you want anything else?”

Chloe hummed. “Can we get a two-liter?”

“Pepsi?”

“Duh. Thanks.”

Brooke grinned. “No prob.” She reached out and tapped Chloe on the nose, who wrinkled it in response and stuck her tongue out. Brooke giggled and then walked out of the room, already dialing a number on her phone.

Jeremy looked between the two of them.

They’re being kinda….

“Surprisingly affectionate,” the Squip supplied.

Yeah. How do they go from being so chill with each other to arguing and crying about dumb things?

“Your definition of ‘dumb’ doubtlessly differs from theirs. Some people are argumentative, and some pairs are simply more prone to disagreements. Chloe and Brooke clash, but they work; and what makes them work can also be what causes friction.”

See, that sounded smart and all, but it also made absolutely no sense.

The Squip sighed. “You simply can’t appreciate an impressive observation when you hear it.”

Yeah, well, you’re…annoying.

“Thank you.”

When Brooke reentered the room, she was accompanied by Jenna’s mom. She handed off a few DVD cases to Jenna, then set a few water bottles on one of the tables that were nearly ice cold by the looks of them. She gave Jeremy a smile when she caught him looking, but was otherwise in and out without interrupting anything. Jenna quickly put in the first DVD.

“Jenna’s mom is so chill,” Brooke said when she sat down again.

“I know, right?” Chloe said. “Even if she doesn’t let us drink at her house, she just seems like a nice mom.”

“She is,” said Jenna, who pulled up a fluffy, circular chair behind Chloe and Brooke. “She also just doesn’t want to get arrested for aiding and abetting minors in underage drinking.”

Chloe rolled her eyes.

Jeremy felt someone start pushing him over, and looked up to see Michael trying to make room for himself on Jeremy’s beanbag. Jeremy moved to try and give Michael enough space. He ended up sitting on top of one of Jeremy’s legs, but Jeremy didn’t mind. He also noticed that Michael smelled like he’d been smoking.

Jenna looked amused. “We have a couple more beanbags, Michael.”

Michael shook his head. “I wanted this one,” he said casually.

“Well, in that case,” Jenna said—and then, louder, “Chris? Wanna share a chair?”

“Sure!” Christine called out, from somewhere on the other side of the room.

Jeremy craned his neck to see behind him. Christine had been near the doorway, where Rich was escorting Jake back down the stairs. Jeremy wondered why he’d gone back up when he saw Jake’s blissed out smile and assumed he and Michael—and maybe Rich—had slipped outside for a break sometime during the pizza discussion.

Michael leaned his head back onto Jeremy’s shoulder, and Jeremy found his chin tickled by Michael’s hair.

Christine easily fit into the chair and smiled at Jeremy when she saw him looking. Jenna winked at him, then turned to Christine began chatting with her.

Jeremy figured Jenna must have been trying to convey something with that wink, but for the life of him he didn’t know what it was. Was she acknowledging that she somehow knew about him and Michael, but wanted to cover up for them by sitting next to someone she wasn’t involved with? Or was the implication that she was involved with Christine, and she and Jeremy should be on the same page? Or did she not know about Michael, and was giving him a “thank you” of sorts for giving her an excuse to sit with Christine, whatever her reason for wanting it?

His head was reeling a bit, so he chose not to think about it too hard.

Do you have any idea? he asked the Squip.

“Your first guess would be mine as well,” it said, though it sounded thoughtful.

Jeremy adjusted his head so that his face was next to Michael’s as opposed to on top of. Michael hummed in contentment.

To his other side, he heard Rich moving Jake’s chair closer to where the rest of the group was, then bringing up a circular chair similar to Jenna’s next to his so they were close together.

“Is everyone settled?” Jenna asked. There were murmurs of assent, so she pressed a button on a remote control that turned down the lights in the room, and then started the movie.

Jeremy hadn’t seen the Matrix in quite a while. By the time Neo had met Trinity, Jeremy was frowning.

Hey, can you project yourself for a second?

He could feel the Squip’s confusion, but it did as he asked.

He made a point of looking back and forth between the Squip and Neo, on screen. His frown deepened. You look nothing like Keanu Reeves.

The Squip brought a hand to its chest in offense. “Of course I do.”

You really, really don’t.

Jeremy saw its eyes narrow. “…We didn’t actually get his rights.”

I actually kind of gathered that.

Huffily, it went stopped projecting itself, and instead began commenting obnoxiously on everything happening on screen.

Jeremy tried to tune it out, so when he heard the doorbell ring, he was more than happy to be the one to offer to get the pizza. He gently slid out from underneath Michael, took the cash Brooke was holding, and dashed up the stairs.

So help me God, if I have to hear another comment about how reality ‘could very well be fake’ and how ‘funny it is that I would never know about it,’ then I will shut you down.

“Tough crowd,” was all the Squip said in response.

Jeremy rolled his eyes and rounded the corner to the doorway, only to see Ms. Roland already closing the door, pizzas and drink in hand.

He hesitated, but she gave him another smile. While he appreciated that she was amiable, the constant cheer was starting to freak him out a bit. “Jeremy, isn’t it?” she asked. Without waiting for him to respond, she continued, “It’s nice to meet you, dear. Would you like to take these down yourself, or would you prefer I do it?”

“Uh, I can,” he said, fumbling with Brooke’s money and holding out to Ms. Roland what he was fairly sure was the correct amount.

She waved him off. “Don’t worry about it, dear. You’re a guest in my house, after all, so this is the least I could do.”

“Uh,” Jeremy said again. “Thank you, ma’am.” He wasn’t typically proficient at remembering to use respectful forms of address to adults, but something about Jenna’s mom made him feel like he should. “And I can take it all down there.”

“If you’re sure!” She handed it off to Jeremy. “If any of you kids need me, you can ask Jenna where my room is. But I’m sure you’ll all be fine. Have a nice evening, Jeremy!” She made her way out of Jeremy’s line of sight with the same easy grace that she somehow continued to maintain.

When he got back downstairs, he saw the Brooke’s and Chloe’s beanbags were close enough that they could lean against each other. He announced his presence and set the pizzas in the floor, making sure to grab a piece of cheese for himself first—and a piece of pepperoni for Michael. While the others were scrambling to grab their pizza of choice, Jeremy handed off the cheese sticks and money to Brooke.

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted to share,” he explained, “and Jenna’s mom insisted on paying for the food herself.”

“Aww, that’s so sweet of her!” Brooke gushed. “Jenna! Your mom is so chill.”

“I know, Brooke!” Jenna sounded mildly amused at the continued compliments for her mom. She had managed to find a stack of paper plates and handed them out to everyone.

“Hey, Jenna,” Jeremy began when she handed him two plates, “what does your mom do for a living?”

Jenna blinked. “She works for some big company—helps design computers, I think.” She looked as though she had realization. “And yeah, that’s how we’re able to afford stuff like this!” she added, gesturing around the room. “I know it seems superfluous, and, well, I get that it is, but it really feels cool to be able to have friends over and just chill down here.”

“Ah,” Jeremy said. He brought the slices of pizza back to his seat with Michael and settled in to watch the rest of the movie.

Michael leaned in close to his face and squinted. “You look unsettled,” he observed.

Jeremy felt his cheeks color at the proximity but forced his flustered demeanor down. “I’m good,” he said. “You look hungry.” He held up Michael’s plate and saw his eyes light up.

“Pepperoni is my favorite,” Michael said, as though Jeremy might not know that.

“Mhm,” he hummed in response, resisting the urge to run a hand through Michael’s hair. The weight of Michael’s body against his was both comforting and distracting.

He ended up surreptitiously holding Michael’s hand while he pretended to focus on the movie.


A few minutes into The Matrix: Reloaded, Jeremy made his way out of the movie room again, remembering that he didn’t particularly care for the Matrix’s sequels. Michael had fallen asleep, and it was a simple matter to adjust his limbs so he would be comfortable. On Jeremy’s way out, he caught Rich’s eye, who gave him a subtle thumbs up. Jeremy shot him a smile, glad that Rich was enjoying the movie.

Once at the top of the stairs, he stretched and sighed deeply, feeling stiff after having been still for so long. He took a detour to the upstairs bathroom, which was very colorful and smelled rather nice, before stopping by what he quickly figured was the kitchen. Jenna had told them they all had free reign of the house, but to not go into her mother’s office if the door was closed. Jeremy hadn’t passed the office yet, but he had no inclination to search it out; he wasn’t particularly eager to interact with Ms. Roland again.

The kitchen was quiet, the only noise being the soft hum of the fridge and the ticking of an analogue clock that hung on one of the decorated walls. He also spotted a Keurig and made the self-indulgent decision to use it.

While a single cup of coffee brewed (once Jeremy figured out how it worked), he asked the Squip, Don’t you feel like something should be happening?

It had gone mostly silent after Jeremy had returned downstairs with the pizza, and so sounded mildly surprised when it answered. “What do you mean?”

Jeremy huffed. I feel like…everything is going too slow. I feel like I missed something. All this drama with you, and now…we’re just hanging out again. It’s like everything is going in circles. I feel antsy.

“It’s not abnormal for you to feel that way, Jeremy. But remember that you’re likely only feeling this way because of how hectic the past semester has been. You’ve never had a time in your life when you’ve been through so much upheaval and action, made as many important decisions, or needed to interact with others as much as you have been. It’s perfectly normal for you to feel like everything will come crashing down around you, but now is finally your chance to live—be that as a couple with Michael, or a unit in a close-knit group, or even as a son. Not everything has to be life or death, Jeremy. You’re allowed to thrive as you are.”

Jesus Christ, was all Jeremy could say in response.

“Not quite,” the Squip quipped.

Jeremy rolled his eyes and sighed, rummaging around the kitchen until he found milk and sugar and sweetened his coffee appropriately.

There was an odd atmosphere that hovered in the kitchen as he sipped the coffee out of a friend’s mug in a friend’s kitchen and leaned against a friend’s counter while said friend wasn’t there. True, Jenna had told them that they were more than welcome to her food and drink, but he still felt odd actually taking her up on that offer.

The weird air was only strengthened when he heard someone coming down the hallway and saw Christine enter the kitchen.

She let out a small, “Oh!” of surprise and then smiled at him. Her voice slightly more subdued than usual, she said, “I didn’t know you’d left. How long have you been up here?”

Jeremy shrugged sheepishly; truth be told, he wasn’t entirely sure. Time seemed to speed up and slow down around him at different intervals, and he briefly wondered if Jenna Roland’s kitchen was a liminal space.

Christine easily accepted his lack of answer with an understanding nod. “I came up to grab some cookies. Jenna said she had a few white chocolate-macadamia nut ones!”

Jeremy knew those were Christine’s favorite, but he still pulled a face. Christine hit him with the back of her hand. “Those aren’t even good,” he said.

“Chocolate chip chocolate cookies are the gross ones,” she shot back.

Jeremy stuck his tongue out at her. “You clearly don’t appreciate a well-made cookie when you try it.”

Food preferences had been something they learned about each other rather fast during the time they were going out—mostly because their tastes clashed something awful. Case in point: Jeremy would rather die than eat a dessert with nuts in it, and Christine was, more often than not, inclined to lean away from things that she considered “too” chocolatey (a state of being that Jeremy simply didn’t believe in).

Christine giggled as she rummaged around the pantry for the cookie jar. “Well, Jenna likes them, and so do I.”

Jeremy took a sip of coffee while he thought. …Do you think I can ask her about what the deal between her and Jenna is?

The Squip seemed to consider it for a moment. “I believe you’d get better results with Christine than with Jenna, so if you’re determined to know, it would be best to ask her.”

So Jeremy cleared his throat. “Hey, also, quick question that you absolutely don’t have to answer, and honestly it’s really none of my business—actually, it really isn’t my business, so we can just—”

Christine’s hands froze in their search, but she didn’t turn around as she said more than asked, “You want to know what’s up between us.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, tilting her head the minimum amount required to fix him with a pointed look that belied her upbeat attitude from seconds ago.

Jeremy nodded mutely, regretting having even decided to ask.

Why did you let me do that?

“Why wouldn’t I have?” The Squip seemed bewildered at his embarrassment. “You simply wanted the answer to a question. You and Christine are friends. You had no reason not to ask.”

Rather than attempt to explain his hurried and almost panicked thoughts to the Squip, Jeremy instead decided to focus on Christine.

She sighed, and turned her back to the pantry, leaning against the doorway. “It’s…really not what you’re probably thinking.” She paused, but Jeremy didn’t speak up, and after a moment she continued. “I’ve been talking to and hanging out a lot with Jenna because I thought she’d be able to help me out with some stuff. And she has, she really has! She’s been great.” Christine smiled gently, but Jeremy saw it fall off her face as the next words came out of her mouth. “She helped me realize a lot of things about myself, and….” She trailed off and covered her eyes with one hand. “This is embarrassing,” she mumbled, seemingly to herself.

Jeremy couldn’t help but feel sorry for the inner turmoil she appeared to be going through and he had the urge to speak up and comfort her.

The Squip was opposed to that idea. “Talking now might scare her off,” it said seriously. “She has something important to tell you.”

“I feel like it’s really unfair to you—and Jake,” she added, guilt coloring her voice. She took a deep breath and looked at Jeremy. “Do you know—Have you heard the word ‘aromantic?’ It’s okay if you haven’t.”

He shook his head, though he had what he was pretty sure was a fairly solid guess.

“Okay,” she said, still sounding like she was gathering her courage, “it sounds really weird, I know, but please hear me out. I feel like you’ll understand.” It was like she was trying to convince herself as much as she was him. “I don’t….” She trailed off again and then started over. “My heart doesn’t beat faster when I think about kissing people. I feel weird holding hands—even weirder linking arms. Dates never feel like dates to me because if they do feel like dates then I start to get uncomfortable.” Her voice was soft and nervous, as though she were confessing that she had committed a crime.

Like Michael, was Jeremy’s first thought. But with romance.

“So it seems,” the Squip said, though he hadn’t been addressing it.

When he realized Christine was anxiously awaiting a response, he spoke up. “I don’t know if I could really understand how you feel, but you’re still Christine,” he said. “You’re still the same Christine, and this doesn’t change that.”

To his immense relief, Christine walked across the kitchen and wrapped her arms around him in a full-body hug. Jeremy carefully set his mug down and draped his arms over her shoulders, rubbing her back with one of his hands.

“Thank you for telling me,” he said. “You didn’t have to, but thank you.”

“I know,” she said, her words muffled against his chest. “But I wanted to. I really wanted to tell you. I still really cared about you, Jeremy, and I’m sorry that things never really clicked for me.” When she pulled back, he saw that her eyes were watering. “If not for Jenna, I don’t know what I’d have done with myself. I’ve felt so—so shitty about not being able to feel things…” The words normally or correctly or like everyone else hung in the air, but she eventually finished with, “…like you.”

“Christine,” Jeremy said again, trying to pack all the empathy and understanding that he could into that one word. “Of course I don’t mind. I wouldn’t resent you not wanting—or not being able—to be with me, whether or not you were aromantic. And you’re still my friend.”

Tears started streaming down her cheeks and her grip around Jeremy tightened. “I feel so bad about it,” she said, her words coming out sounding broken and breathy.

He didn’t know what to say, so he held her tighter, too.

After a long moment, Christine’s arms loosened enough for her to pull away. “Sorry I’m so—” She freed one hand and gestured to her still-teary face. “—like this. I haven’t been sleeping well,” she admitted.

Jeremy resisted the urge to reach down and push her hair behind her ear. “Is it just about this?” he asked, an open invitation to talk about anything she needed to.

She considered it. “Mostly,” she said hesitantly. “Jenna’s also been stressed about some stuff, and I wanna try to help her but I’m really bad at comforting people, and then I feel even worse because it’s like I’m taking advantage of her because she helps me but I can’t help her.”

Jeremy blanked on how to respond to that.

The Squip sighed. “Tell her that she does the best she can and no one can expect her to give more than what she has to offer.”

That…is actually really good. “It seems to me like you shouldn’t push yourself to give more than you’re able to,” he said gently.

Christine blinked and looked at him with wide eyes that quickly narrowed. “…Jeremy?” She pulled back a bit more so that there was space between them. “Did you really say that, or…?”

Jeremy felt his cheeks burn in embarrassment. “What, I can think of clever and meaningful things to say sometimes!”

Christine’s lips quirked. “So your Squip did say that.”

Jeremy gaped at her, his cheeks still red, while the Squip practically preened in his head.

“She’s rather intelligent, don’t you think?” it said happily. “One must wonder what it would be like to have a host who was more than marginally perceptive at the best of times.”

Rude, Jeremy muttered. Aloud, he said, “So what? I meant what I said.”

Christine’s eyes softened and she pulled back fully. “You’re really sweet, Jeremy. I appreciate you. A lot.”

The words made Jeremy’s heart happy in a way he couldn’t quite explain; it wasn’t like how he felt when Michael kissed him, or when he got a high score in a game, or when he beat the Squip in some personal quarrel. It was less intense than romance (thankfully), but more pressing than a simple surge of affection. Maybe it was something he’d experienced before but never quiet pinpointed.

“And hey,” Christine continued, “how are things upstairs?” She pointed to Jeremy’s head.

He snorted. “Good as can be expected.” He paused, and then made a decision. “Actually, there are probably a few things I should fill you in on.”

Jeremy half-expected the Squip to censor him or forbid him from telling Christine anything, but as he spoke, the Squip only interjected to tell him points that he’d forgotten to mention. He told her about how the Squip had begun draining him, then “died,” then came back, and about the news he’d seen regarding the Squips as legal products. For the time being, he didn’t mention the kidnappings. They seemed, for some reason, more serious than everything else he’d talked about. It felt like there was a deeper, hidden purpose beneath it, and he didn’t want to touch Christine with that sort of unknown danger.

As he spoke, his voice was low, and by the time he finished catching her up to speed, he was nearly whispering. At any moment, one of their friends—or even Ms. Roland—could walk in, and if any of them heard the wrong word or phrase, he would have a lot of explaining to do. Luckily, he finished with no interruptions.

Christine looked shell-shocked by the time he finished. “I…” she tried, and then simply shook her head.

“I know, right,” Jeremy said grimly. “It’s a lot to take in.”

She took a deep breath that seemed to steady her a surprising amount. “And you?”

“And me?” Jeremy repeated, confused.

“You,” she repeated. “How are you holding up with all of this? It sounds really stressful. I can’t even imagine how you must be feeling.”

Jeremy thought carefully before answer; not because he wanted to avoid saying anything, but because he wanted his answer to be truthful. He thought he was holding up pretty well, considering he’d had to deal with so many intense revelations in a fairly short amount of time. He’d nearly died at least twice because of the Squip. The Squip had died and then Jeremy had (somewhat impulsively) decided to bring it back. He dealt with the news of the Squips and the ISQRI with a relatively cool head. He’d begun dating his best friend.

“Tired,” he said. “I’m exhausted. I just want to take a break from everything.” It was lackluster, but it was honest.

Christine gave him a small smile. “That’s totally something you can work toward fixing,” she said, sounding like she was repeating an idea that had helped her. “Jeremy, don’t try to take on more than you have to, okay? You have friends. You have me and Michael to talk to about…other stuff, if you need to.” She made eye contact with him, something Jeremy noticed she sometimes had trouble with. She wanted to make a point. “Don’t shut me out. Please.” She dropped her gaze. “I might not be the best with—with advice or ideas or stuff like that, but if you ever just need to talk, I can listen.”

 Jeremy felt his heart swell again with that imprecise emotion. “I know,” he said. “I won’t. I’ll do my best, really.” And he meant it.

Christine gave him what was a light grin. “Good. Now, help me find Jenna’s cookies! And you can explain what took us so long.”


The cookies had been hiding on the counter, in plain sight, in a jar near the coffee machine, something Jeremy found endlessly amusing. He ignored the fact that he had only noticed because they’d been looking for so long that he went to make himself a second cup of coffee and his eye caught on them.

Before he’d returned to his seat with Michael, Christine had given him a light touch on his arm. He glanced at her to see that she had a pensive look on her face, as though she were about to say something, but decided against it at the last moment. Instead, she turned the touch into an awkward, one-armed hug. Jeremy returned it, shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

When he was once again seated next to Michael—his boyfriend, he remembered—Michael sent him a drowsy smile. Jeremy returned, his a bit more awake due to the caffeine he’d drunk.

“Took you long enough,” Michael whispered. “What got you so held up?”

“I told Christine what was up,” he said, before realizing his poor choice of words when he felt Michael tense. “With the S-word,” he clarified, and felt Michael relax against him.

“How’d she take it?” he asked.

“Pretty good.”

“No freaking out?”

“None.”

Michael made a thoughtful noise. “She already did way better than rest of us.”

Jeremy laughed breathily, prompting a loud, “Shh!” from Brooke. He looked in her direction to see that her head was almost entirely in Chloe’s lap. And he thought about Jenna and Christine behind them, touching but with a mutual understanding between them of what their sort of togetherness was. He spared a glance in Jake and Rich’s direction to see that one of Jake’s arms disappeared into the sides of Rich’s chair, and that his and Rich’s heads were angled together, almost conspiratorially. And his eyes flickered down to Michael, whose breathing was deep and even and content. Michael’s weight was heavy but comforting against him.

They made some odd pairs. Some odder couples.

He returned his attention to the TV screen, deciding that dwelling on it wasn’t his business.

Chapter Text

The only thing weirder than being in a friend’s kitchen when said friend was elsewhere, Jeremy realized, was being in that situation at half past three in the morning while everyone else in the house was asleep.

Or so he’d thought they were.

The previous evening had been a blur of movies, sometimes skipping to the next before one was finished in an effort to keep everyone engaged. But something about the relaxed atmosphere had people getting drowsy and drifting off right and left; first Michael, then Rich, then Brooke, then Christine. Chloe had moved her chair away from Brooke once she’d fallen asleep, though Jeremy wasn’t sure why. Jeremy had chosen to remain exactly where he was, under the pretense that he didn’t want to jostle Michael and risk waking him up.

Around 3:15 AM, he changed his mind. He was enveloped by the snores of his friends, and even some quiet sleep-talking from Jenna. On screen, movies kept playing, but Jeremy found his eyes staring at them without understanding what they were seeing. So, needing a break from the room, he decided to go back to the kitchen to grab something—a snack or a drink, he wasn’t quite sure which; he only wanted a reason to stretch his legs.

The ticking of the analogue clock was louder than ever. The sound of the fridge opening was just begging someone to hear it and wake up. And he wasn’t even going to think about touching the coffee machine.

He almost hit his head against a shelf inside the fridge when he heard a strange noise behind him.

His head whipped around, eyes searching the darkened hallway for the source of the mysterious sound. It was a click-clack-thump that grew louder until Jeremy caught sight of an easily recognizable figure.

“Jake?” he asked, voice coming out unintentionally loud in the pressing quiet.

The movement stuttered, and then he heard, “Yo.”

Jeremy breathed out a silent sigh of relief. “Uh, hey. Why are you…?” He trailed off, realizing the hypocrisy in asking that question.

“Why’m I awake?” Jake guessed. He finally pulled himself forward into the light, and Jeremy saw him attempt a shrug. “Need some water.”

“Oh.” Jeremy looked back in the fridge and grabbed Jake a water bottle. “Here,” he said, holding it out.

Jake looked at it for a few moments before huffing. “Would you mind opening it for me? Maybe carrying it down, too.”

Jeremy felt his face flush. “Oh, yeah, of course! Sure. Totally.” He cracked open the bottle and Jake gave him an easy grin, slowly turning around and making his way down the shadowy hall. Jeremy followed at his heels, suddenly eager to be around people again.

Their descent down the stairs was slow, as Jake was careful and took his time.

“I rushed it once,” Jake whispered into the near-darkness. “Never did it again.”

Jeremy gave a noncommittal, “Mhm,” figuring he could fill in the blanks on what exactly happened. Nothing pretty, he assumed.

When they reached the bottom, Jeremy followed Jake over to his chair, where Jake flashed him another grin. “Thanks.” He chugged the water, clearly thirsty, downing almost all of it in one take. Then he took a deep breath, screwed the lid back on, tossed the bottle on the floor, and was back asleep before Jeremy had even gotten situated next to Michael.

Jeremy was careful not to wake Michael up, but he wasn’t as lucky with the others in the room.

“’Nyone ‘wake?” Christine’s voice mumbled.

Jeremy closed his eyes.

He heard Christine huff and rummage through the blankets, and in the next second the TV shut off. The darkness was completely blinding, and Jeremy opened and closed his eyes to find no difference between it.

Christine had returned to snoring in under a minute.

Jeremy considered those who could fall asleep so easily to be unfairly lucky; he took half an hour to get to sleep most nights, if not more, yet most of his friends could doze off at a moment’s notice. It was basically like cheating when it came to getting more sleep. They could dream faster, whereas Jeremy was alone with his thoughts.

Well, relatively alone.

Why did Jake’s Squip make him do that? Jeremy asked suddenly.

The Squip didn’t answer at first; presumably because it was gathering context for Jeremy’s question, and then because it was coming up with a suitable answer.

“The play was an odd experience for me,” it began. “I do not quite remember clearly what events happened, as afterwards I was essentially ‘fried.’ However, I can say that I would have never hurt your body in such a way, as that would have been an extreme detriment to me. And you. But the primary possibilities are that his Squip was either an earlier version—one that was flawed and less concerned with long-term bodily-functionality—or he convinced his Squip to let him walk on his legs for some reason: to make a point, due to euphoria or excitement, or simply because of misunderstanding exactly what his Squip could do to help him. He may have thought that instead of simply allowing his body to numb the pain for long enough to walk on his legs, it was actually healing his legs.” It paused. “You could always ask him why he did it. I highly doubt he’d remember it in detail, but an answer as simple as ‘I felt like I could’ or ‘A voice told me to’ would answer your question.”

Though the silence around him had never been broken, Jeremy felt odd after the Squip stopped speaking. It seemed, for a moment, that all snoring, sleep-talking, even breathing around him had stopped to give him time to process the Squips words.

It was a complex response, yet still disappointing due to its lack of an actual answer. Jeremy had never been close with Jake and had never had any particular desire to be. Jake was someone he had gone from being jealous of, to admiring, to being awkward pseudo-friends with. He was afraid to bring up the night of the play with Jake—or anyone, really. He was terrified that they would remember because once they knew what was happening, they couldn’t avoid being sucked into whatever hole Jeremy had dragged himself into.

Only Michael and Christine remembered the fiasco, so they were kept up-to-date. He wanted to keep the others—

Wait.

Oh, God.

Rich. Rich remembered the Squips—remembered almost everything that he’d been there to see. But Jeremy hadn’t told him anything. It was unfair, he knew, to keep so much important information from Rich—the same guy who had looked out for Jeremy in the only way he’d known how to since his Squip had left. He was impulsive and loud and got angry easily, and he gave surprisingly good advice that was oftentimes followed by the phrase, “But fuck if I know.”

Jeremy would consider Rich a friend. Not as close as Michael, or Christine, or even Jenna, but he was still the one person who understood Jeremy’s situation (in relation to the Squip, anyway) better than anyone else could. Even Christine’s experience wasn’t the same. She hadn’t known what it felt like to have and have and have, and then deal with the decline as he realized that things weren’t easy anymore—when things got hard because he had to be nice, be selfless, be brave, even though the temptation to take the easy way out never went away.

Jeremy had realized that that temptation never would go away, and that sometimes he would give in to it, as made evident by the entity in his head that he had chosen to revive instead of dealing with things on his own. That decision had been selfish on his part, and he had accepted it. All he could do was do the best with the situation that he could. He could use its advice to help his friends! He could allow it to help him with school and focus, instead, on family and friends, or extracurriculars, or hobbies! There would be silver linings to any bad situation or selfish decision—whichever the case may be.

Jeremy Heere could justify many, many things. But he realized he couldn’t justify keeping the Squip’s return from Rich.


The next morning, in a somehow unsurprising turn of events, Jenna asked Jeremy and Rich to clean up downstairs (her reasoning being that asking Jake would be impractical, Michael had helped her mom cook breakfast, Brooke had paid for last night’s food, and Chloe and Christine didn’t want to).

By then, Jeremy had made a decision. He and Rich were alone downstairs and would clearly hear anyone opening the door before they could hear the conversation going on below them. Rich seemed relatively calm. It was as good a time as any.

“Hey, dude,” he said, making an effort to keep his tone causal. “Can I tell you something that’s sorta serious?”

Rich’s movements slowed and then stopped. He looked at Jeremy, who continued to clean, with a surprisingly blank expression.

Jeremy took that as a yes. “Do you think you can handle it without freaking out?”

When Rich didn’t answer, Jeremy looked over at him. Rich stared at him intensely for a few moments, and then nodded. His silence was beginning to unnerve Jeremy.

Jeremy licked his lips. Here we go. “My Squip came back.”

If he didn’t know any better, Jeremy would have thought Rich would be sick right then and there. He looked like he’d just been told his favorite pet died—shock, fear, sadness, guilt, anger all colored his features, finally settling on something akin to indignation.

Rich visibly swallowed. “That’s fucked of you to joke about. That’s fucked,” he said, his voice cracking on the last word.

Jeremy felt his stomach twist uncomfortably. This was already going even worse than he’d expected. “I’m not joking.”

“Yes you are,” Rich spat. “You’re fucking with me. Fuck you. Fuck you.” He dropped his bag carelessly and looked ready to stalk out of the room, and then turned on his heel and looked at him. His shoulders were tense and his eyes burned. “You’re making fun of me. You think it’s funny? You think I’m crazy for talking about those shitty pills so much?”

“No, Rich!” Jeremy said pleadingly. He dropped his bag as well but made no move closer toward Rich, afraid of inadvertently scaring him. “I—I wouldn’t! You know I wouldn’t. I only wanted to be honest with you.”

Rich was breathing so hard that Jeremy could see his shoulders moving. “So you—you’re telling the truth?”

“Yes!”

Rich turned again and dated toward the stairs.

Rich!” Jeremy called, going after him. “What the hell?!”

“You’re not you, Heere! You’re not Heere, Heere!” he shouted, voice shrill. “Don’t fucking touch me!”

Bad idea bad idea bad idea bad idea—

“It will be worse if you don’t catch and stop him.”

You! Why would you let me do this?!

“How was I to know it would end this disastrously?”

Because you always know!

“Well, not anymore!”

Nothing Jeremy said convinced Rich to stop and listen to him, and soon Rich had wrenched open the door—and immediately bumped into someone. Jeremy redoubled his efforts to sprint up the stairs, not wanting Rich to freak out in front of anyone else. What would he say to them? Worse, would they believe it, or would they think Rich had gone crazy? Would they abruptly remember their time having a Squip, and in turn tell everyone else?

“Michael!” Rich said, surprised and intent.

Jeremy could have collapsed on the landing with the relief he felt.

“Rich,” Michael greeted with much less enthusiasm.

Jeremy finally reached the door and looked out into the hallway to see that Rich was standing very close to Michael, who looked distinctly uncomfortable at having his personal space invaded. Rich had both his hands wrapped around Michael’s forearms, and Jeremy felt a very, very irrational ping of jealousy.

Rich’s words came out hurried and fast, and Michael blinked at him a few times before he looked up, over his shoulder, and locked eyes with Jeremy, who shrugged helplessly.

Michael looked back to Rich and took a deep breath, gently removing his arms. “Let’s talk downstairs,” he said, attempting to keep Rich calm.

Rich didn’t buy into it one bit. “Why?” he asked suspiciously. “Are you really Michael?”

Michael gave him an unimpressed stare. “Uh, do you really think I’m that dumb?”

Jeremy could practically hear Rich blush. “Well…maybe! How the hell am I supposed to know who I can trust now?”

“You can trust me,” Michael assured him. “And you can trust Jeremy.” Michael’s eyes flicked back up to him as he said that, and Rich spun around, only then realizing that Jeremy had been standing behind them.

It took minutes of coaxing (and incredible luck that no one else came along) to get Rich to follow the two of them downstairs so they could tell him what had happened.

He stood in the center of the room with his arms crossed over his chest and his jaw clenched. “Listening.”

“Christine already knows,” Jeremy led with. “She knows, and she knows I’ve been okay. You can ask her if you don’t believe me.”

Though his stance didn’t change, Jeremy could see some hope in Rich’s eyes at his words.

“And me,” Michael chimed in. “I’ve known for a while now.”

And just like that, hope was overtaken by distrust. “You’ve known, and you’ve let that thing stay in your best friend’s head?” he snapped.

Michael gave a long suffering sigh. “It’s not like I want that thing messing around with Jeremy’s brain.”

“They are aware that I can hear them, yes?”

Yes. They don’t care.

“Ah. Hm. Rather rude, wouldn’t you say?”

 I’d sure hope so.

“But,” Michael continued, “at first, there wasn’t anything we could do. We thought the Squip would take drastic measures if we forced it into a corner—that it might hurt Jeremy, or worse. One of its rules was that we couldn’t tell anyone else about it coming back.”

“Then why now?” Rich immediately cut in. “What changed?”

Jeremy took a deep breath. “Um. Well. A lot, actually.”

He launched into the same account that Michael and he had given to Christine, trying to paraphrase as much as possible. It was a rather difficult story to tell with additional details being added by Michael, suspicious questions from Rich, and unhelpful comments courtesy of the Squip itself. When he got to the bit about the Squip “self-destructing,” Rich’s eyes widened.

“Wait, wait,” Rich said for what must have been the tenth time. By then, Michael and Jeremy had taken seats from the array of chairs, but Rich remained standing. Jeremy obligingly paused and gestured for him to ask his question. “If you activated that shit, then how the hell are you alive?”

Jeremy was taken aback. “Oh. Uh, the Squip said because it was at such a low power that the explosion was more like…more like a firecracker instead of a firework.” While it hadn’t said it in those terms, Jeremy was rather proud of that metaphor, and he sensed approval from the Squip. “But how’d you know about that?”

Rich opened his mouth and then closed it. He refused to meet Jeremy’s eyes.

“Tell him he doesn’t have to share,” the Squip suddenly instructed.

“You don’t have to tell us or anything,” Jeremy repeated obediently.

Rich’s eyes snapped back to his. “No! I mean.” He made a face and sighed. “I—fuck, okay, listen. I know I was fucked up and did fucked up things and was a fucking shitty person, okay? I know that.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I—shit.” He straightened his shirt out. “Was gonna give everyone Squips. Thought—thought I had to. But I didn’t really want to, so I was trying to figure out everything I could about the Squip.” It seemed once he’d started, his words poured out like water that had been kept stagnant behind a loose and leaky dam, begging to flow. “It’s weird, right? Fuckin’ weird. So I’m asking all these questions, and sometimes it’s just like, ‘Or you could just shut up and stop worrying about shit,’ and I’d be like, ‘Shit, you’re totally right,’ and then I’d stop asking for a while. But I’d always start again because, fuck, I wanted to give them to everyone because I thought I was helping even though I knew I wasn’t because I wanted things to be fucking easy! It helped me, so why wouldn’t it help everyone else? So what if my parents lost a few thousand—it was to help people, right?

“But when I kept insisting and asking and asking questions, it started getting mean. Not mean—like, fucking mean. Like, ‘I’m-afraid-to-talk-to-you-because-you-totally-have-the-power-to-fucking-murder-me’ mean, right? And it tells me that if I keep asking, it’ll fuckin’ explode. And I’m like, ‘Wow! What the hell?’ because wow, what the hell! And Jake—Jake, he may not look it, but the guy never shuts up. He asks all kinds of questions. And he tells me Christine’s the same way. And I figure, shit, Mell is probably like that too! And then I figure, shit, tons of kids must be like that! So I can’t fuckin’ do that to them. And I know how gross it is that it took me till then for me to back the hell out, but—at least I did it at all. It was hard! It got so—And it wasn’t mean at first, swear to God. It was clever and weird but still really helpful, and then it got harsh and mean and—and I was sick of hurting and I drew the line at hurting J—other people. Better late than never, maybe. I guess. Whatever. So, like, yeah.” Rich finally finished his tale and fell back into a nearby chair. “So that’s how I knew about it.”

“Oh,” Jeremy said. “Oh.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Michael supplied helpfully.

“Continue with your story,” the Squip said with a mental dismissive wave of its hand. “I learned important information, and after having told Rich this much, you wouldn’t be able to stop speaking now.”

Jeremy was curious about what it meant by that but continued speaking regardless. There wasn’t very much to tell, though; again, he left out the part about him and Michael kissing, giving Rich the same story he’d given Christine. He made sure to remind Rich about all the minor details—the rules, mostly honesty, and mutual understanding—that had led to him deciding to bring the Squip back while he was completely away from its influence.

“I still wouldn’t have,” Rich said immediately. “I wouldn’t have done it.” There was a hard, almost defensive look in his eyes that made Jeremy think he was trying hard to convince himself.

“Well, you don’t have to worry about it,” Jeremy said soothingly. “I just got really, ridiculously unlucky with everything that happened. It was like the universe just had it out for me.”

Rich grimaced. “No offense, dude, but better you than me, if I’m bein’ honest. I don’t know what I would do if I had to hear that thing again.”

Jeremy could understand where he was coming from, though he couldn’t help but be a bit hurt.

“He didn’t intent to insult you,” the Squip said. “Rather, it’s much more likely that he was, in fact, admitting a weakness to you: that wouldn’t feel stable if his Squip returned.”

Still was rude, though.

“Yes, well, he’s a teenage boy.”

Michael suddenly took a deep breath and sighed loudly. “Are you both done? Are we all good now?”

After a few tense seconds, Rich nodded. Before Jeremy could be relieved, however, he added, “But I’m talking to Christine, too. I wanna hear what she thinks.”

Jeremy was more than willing to get the two to talk with each other. “Here or online?”

“In person. ASAP.”

Jeremy nodded. “I can go get her and tell her you wanna talk to her.”

Michael held up a hand to stop Jeremy from leaving. “Nah, I’ll get her. You two can finish cleaning up. It might take a bit longer—I think Rich dropped his bag.”

They both sighed but agreed easily enough. By the time Christine was making her way downstairs, no Michael in sight, they were very nearly done.

Rich held out his trash bag to Jeremy. “You take mine, too. I wanna talk to her without you around.”

Jeremy supposed he could, at the very least, appreciate Rich’s bluntness. He took the bag and passed Christine on the stairs. She turned sideways to make room for him.

“Michael said you and Rich wanted to talk to me,” she said, confused by the fact that he seemed to be leaving.

“Just Rich,” Jeremy said casually. He almost stumbled on the step as he remembered that he was being open and honest to certain people. “I told him about the Squip,” he explained, and Christine’s eyes widened. “He took it….It was a lot for him. He’s caught up; I think he just wants to hear your opinion on how you feel about me.”

“Still concerned,” she answered promptly. “Always concerned. But I trust you, and I really hope I don’t end up regretting it.” And then she smiled widely and hit his arm playfully but hard enough for him to wince. “Get going, then! I’ve gotta go gossip about some cool dude with nice hair.”

Jeremy’s mouth lazily formed a grin. “You think my hair is nice?”

Christine laughed. “Go!” she repeated, making her way down the rest of the stairs.

Jeremy didn’t bother watching her, wanting her and Rich to start and finish their conversation before anyone wondered where those two had wondered off to.

He tied both of the bags off and set them near where Jenna had told him the garbage can was. He would have taken them outside, but Ms. Roland insisted that her guests do no more work than what Jenna asked them to. He quickly located Michael, who appeared to be having a conversation with Brooke. Nearby, Chloe was on her phone and looked up when Jeremy entered the upstairs living room. She jerked her head to the other side of the couch, which she was sitting on (whereas Brooke and Michael were occupying a loveseat and a recliner, respectively). Jeremy took a seat near her and looked at her expectantly.

She leaned forward and looked at him intently while Michael kept talking to Brooke. Low enough that Jeremy was nearly positive she wouldn’t be over heard, she asked, “Are you on drugs?” She paused. “Like, drug-drugs, not weed.”

Jeremy jerked away like she’d physically hit him. “No,” he said quickly, remembering at the last second to keep his voice low. “No, I’m not. Why would you even ask that?”

Chloe brought a hand to her chin and narrowed her eyes at him. “You’ve been super off. Like, you go from really enthusiastic about everything, and then the play happened, and now you’ve been reclusive again. And you’re, like, dependent on Michael. He could be your hook-up.” Her eyes softened. “Honestly, you can tell me, Jeremy. I just like knowing about this kind of thing—I won’t tell you you’re wrong or dirty or whatever.”

Jeremy faintly noticed Brooke excusing herself from the room—bathroom, he guessed—and Michael left soon after. And he thought about it; he seriously considered telling her before realizing what an unbelievably stupid idea that was.

What could Chloe do to help? As far as he knew, she didn’t even remember the play. And, as far as he knew, (he felt a little sick) she didn’t remember what had happened at the Halloween party, either. Thinking about it and realizing that they were in close proximity on the same couch at one of their friend’s houses made his mouth go dry. He felt his hands start shaking.

“Jeremy?” Chloe’s voice snapped him out of his…whatever that was. Her eyebrows were drawn together and she was reaching out a hand towards him. “I didn’t mean to pry. And swear to God, I won’t tell anyone.” She pursed her lips. “It just feels like you need someone to talk to.”

And he was touched, he really was. But her hand was suddenly too close to his arm and he felt a lump in his throat, which was super dumb on his part because nothing was even wrong, and if he felt uncomfortable then he could just leave because Chloe wasn’t even touching him and she wasn’t drunk and she wasn’t wearing a costume so it wasn’t even similar at all, actually.

“Jeremy,” the Squip said, its tone implying that that was not its first time saying that in the past minute. “Where are you?”

Ja—Jenna’s house.

“Jenna’s house, obviously,” it repeated. “What time of year is it?”

Almost Hanukkah.

“Correct. What are you wearing?”

My pajamas.

“Wonderful. Now, do you really think that, in this instant, Chloe is thinking about you sexually?”

No, he thought too quickly.

“Think about your answer,” the Squip said pensively. “Why not?”

Jeremy panicked—was that the right or wrong answer? Still, he responded, She’s not in my lap. She’s not drunk. She isn’t sitting on me.

The Squip didn’t comment on Jeremy’s repetition. “Thank you,” it said in exasperation. “Now calm down and answer her. You’ve been silent for a rather long time.”

He finally met her eyes again to find legitimate concern there. “I’m fine,” he said. She gave him a justifiably dubious expression, and he continued, “I’ve had a lot going on. At home. With holidays and stuff, and with Mom gone.”

Both Chloe and Jake had a tendency to get quiet when he mentioned his mom, and this time was no exception. Chloe’s posture changed noticeably and she withdrew the hand that had been stretched toward him. “Oh,” she said. “I get it.” She gave him a half-hearted smile. “Sorry for assuming things, I guess. I should’ve just asked you.”

Jeremy bit back the urge to tell her everything; after all, what would it accomplish? It would only potentially put her in harm’s way. If she was uninformed, he would rather her stay that way and be safe than be involved in whatever trouble Jeremy felt was brewing around the Squips and the ISQRI. So he said, “It’s okay.”

As she was pushing herself off the couch, the Squip said, “You need to tell her.”

“Chloe,” he immediately began.

“About Halloween, you dunce—not me.”

“Oh,” he accidentally said aloud. “I mean—oh, never mind.”

She cocked out a hip and crossed her arms, unimpressed. “Nope, hell no. You can’t back out now. What’s up?”

He was tempted to physically bite his tongue. I don’t want to talk about it.

“I don’t want to deal with it. Your issue clearly somehow lies with her, so figure it out.”

Jeremy had the sudden urge to plead with the Squip, to make it understand that he knew why it upset him but he didn’t know why it was still bothering him or why he still felt the need to freak out about it when he should have been over any discomfort—if discomfort even happened—immediately. He wanted to talk to it, not to Chloe. But with an uncomfortable certainty, he knew that the Squip wouldn’t—or couldn’t—understand; but Chloe might.

“Do you remember Jake’s Halloween party?” he asked before he could wuss out.

Chloe blinked in surprise. “Uh. Not really, actually. I...had a lot of vodka. But I heard that some people had ecstasy. Did you take ecstasy?” She looked mildly impressed for a moment before schooling her expression into careful neutrality.

“No.” He let his answer hang in the air before Chloe raised an eyebrow, signaling for him to explain why he’d asked. “So you don’t remember—being pissed at Brooke?”

“When am I not—?” She cut herself off and sighed. “Yeah, I remember being upset at her. Why’re we talking about this now?”

He didn’t want to. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t know what to say.

“Don’t look to me for help.” The Squip sounded almost disinterested.

But you did it too! Jeremy thought. You made me freak out too. Say sorry, he suddenly demanded, as though that were the most important thing in the world.

“For?”

Say it! And then, Please.

It sighed and said magnanimously, “Jeremy, I apologize for whatever distress I caused you at the Halloween party. There, feeling better now?”

Would it kill you to be sincerely sorry?

“It might. You’re more than aware that I was doing what was in your best interest at the time.”

Maybe it was good for my reputation, but not for me, okay? he insisted. It hurt.

The Squip didn’t respond, and Jeremy was forced to turn his attention back to Chloe. “And…you remember going upstairs with me?” he asked, staying vague.

She appeared as though she were trying to remember. “Um…yeah, and then Jake found us and thought we were having sex?” Her eyes widened. “God, I—I didn’t—I didn’t sleep with you did I? No offense!” she quickly added. “Like, you’re great, Jeremy, but I—” She looked almost scared. “What happened?”

“Nothing!” he quickly assured her. “Nothing happened. Um, but, well.” He didn’t want to tell her.

“If you don’t, I will,” the Squip said. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“Um, it almost did.” He cleared his throat. “You don’t remember—asking me?” That was a generous way of putting it, but he supposed she did ask.

While her expression didn’t change, Jeremy saw her cheeks turn pink. “Um, no. But I’m assuming you said no?”

“Yeah! I mean, you seemed really drunk.” There was more he could have added, but he left it there.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Oh, okay. Well, thanks, I guess. For not doing anything while I was like that.”

Jeremy panicked—he hadn’t wanted praise for saying no, for being uncomfortable, for being a wimp; except he wasn’t being a wimp, he was being decent, and he knew that but still. “I just wanted to know if you remembered,” he explained. “I’ve been—I just wasn’t sure. And I wanted to ask. So, yeah. I’m sorry for bringing it up.”

She flipped her hair over her shoulder and didn’t meet his eyes. “Then thanks for telling me.” She didn’t sound very appreciative.

“…No problem.”

“I’m gonna go find Brooke.” She left the room without adding anything else, or even giving a proper goodbye.

“Alright,” he said, rubbing the back of his next uncomfortably. Great advice. Great idea. Wow, where would I possibly be without you?

“You’re more comfortable around her, aren’t you?”  the Squip said impatiently.

Jeremy had to admit that yes, he was. Maybe it was rude and selfish on his part to be relieved that Chloe had been too drunk to even remember the incident, and was so obviously not aware of herself when she’d been coming on to him, but it made him feel a bit better knowing that she was so far gone that she wouldn’t have even been registering how he’d been reacting.

“Then I did my job. See? I am rather helpful; you just only choose to focus on the times when I’m not.”

Shut up. I don’t wanna deal with you right now.

It projected itself in front of him and looked down at him with a critical eye. “I’m sorry for causing you distress,” it said.

He immediately perked up. Impulsively, though, he decided to press his luck. Why’re you sorry?

The look on its face told Jeremy that it was barely refraining from rolling its eyes. “Because I wasn’t aware that incident would have affected you so harshly. If I had known, I likely would have gone about the party differently.”

Jeremy smiled. There—the Squip had said it messed up, said it would change what had happened if it could. Thank you.

This time, it did roll its eyes. “Yes, well, you’re much easier to deal with when you’ve been appeased.”

Jeremy didn’t let the Squip’s lackluster response bother him. Suddenly feeling at least a little bit more comfortable in his own skin, he hopped off the couch to go check on Christine and Rich.


 

[Tuesday, December 20, 2016, 8:49 PM]

boi added Chris!!, MOM, and Mega Nerd to this conversation

boi [8:49 PM]
> welcome
> to the squad

Chris!! [8:49 PM]
> :OOO
> Hi rich!!!
> Whats this?

boi [8:50 PM]
> it’s SQUAD, chris
> s q u a d

boi changed the group topic to squip squad

boi [8:50 PM]
> don’t @ me i’m coping

Chris!! [8:51 PM]
> Asdfghjkl
> Youre silly rich!!!

MOM [8:51 PM]
> o shit
> is this the place where i get to TALK SHIT abt the squip

Mega Nerd [8:51 PM]
> Michael !
> You do that
> Everwhere
> Also hang on i think
> Chloe and brooke fucked up the names i have in my phone
> Christine, rich, michael, and me right
> Everyone ?

boi [8:52 PM]
> unless you told anyone ELSE yeah
> that’s the Squad

Mega Nerd [8:52 PM]
> Hang on ill just reset the names
> Also the squip wants everyone to know that its honored we have a chat
> Based around it
> So everyone
> Just start
> Roasting my squip please

MOM [8:53 PM]
> MY
> ABSOLUTE
> PLEASURE

Chapter Text

Jeremy’s dad nearly burned his hand while trying to light the shamash.

“Dad, really, I can do it,” Jeremy said for what must have been the third time, at least.

His dad shook his head. “Nope, sport, I’ve got this. Let me do it for you. I know how to light a candle!”

The scene in front of him made Jeremy dubious of that statement. His dad had been trying for over a minute to light the shamash; a minute didn’t sound like much, he supposed, but when he was sitting on the other side of the table with only limited conversation between the two of them, it felt like an eternity.

Finally, it caught and stayed lit. His dad looked on proudly and then set the first candle and used the shamash to light it.

There was an awkward silence where Jeremy could almost hear his mother reciting the prayer—one that his dad didn’t know and Jeremy would have felt uncomfortable trying to recite. And then there was the absence of latkes, or any other snacks, which his dad had at least tried to cook before tossing his attempt into the trashcan.

Hanukkah didn’t just feel weird without his mom; it felt wrong.

His dad rubbed the back of his neck. “Happy Hanukkah, pal.”

“Merry Christmas, Dad.”

His dad looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Do you wanna head to church with me tomorrow, or…?”

They had obviously had to pass on the Christmas Eve service since it overlapped with the beginning of Hanukkah.

Jeremy shrugged. To be honest, he hadn’t even been particularly passionate about lighting the menorah. Ever since the sun had started setting, the house felt emptier than ever. There had been no one bustling in the kitchen all day—not for latkes or anything else. No gelt, no prayers, nothing to make it feel like Jeremy was really celebrating a holiday instead of going through the motions of a tired and hollow ritual. His mother’s absence, which always felt like a lack of something, was now more akin to a hole made by the flame of the shamash that caught Jeremy’s eye. It was burning at the edges, forcing him to focus on it, begging to be acknowledged even as he tried to smother it.

He hated how quiet and awkward the house felt. He hated the fact that these two holidays, which could have been so much fun to see interact with each other, were instead lifeless because a key person was missing. He hated that the time of year meant to emphasize togetherness made him feel so alone. He hated his mom for leaving, and he hated his dad for not being able to make her stay. He hated himself for similar reasons.

Then he sighed.

No, he didn’t hate his mom or dad or Christmas or Hanukkah.

“Sure,” he said. “Can Michael come?” Jeremy got the feeling that would be an even more common addendum because of recent developments—Can Michael come?

His dad seemed somewhat enthused by his affirmative response. “Sure!” he echoed. “We can pick him up in the morning.”

After a few more seconds of tense silence, Jeremy’s dad sighed and walked around to the other side of the table. Jeremy watched as he pulled out the chair next to him and took a seat.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

Jeremy wasn’t exactly taken aback by the question, as he knew it was a rather normal one to ask, but he wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Tired,” he said, which wasn’t entirely true. Drained, upset, nostalgic, and bitter would have been more accurate.

His dad sighed again. “I feel that.” He watched the menorah with tired eyes. “Do you miss her?”

Obviously, fuck you, ran through his head harshly before he could stop it. “I do right now,” he said instead. It was more honest, in a way, because he really didn’t miss his mom twenty-four-seven. But when things like this happened, when her absence was suddenly something instead of nothing, then he couldn’t help but miss her as much as he wanted nothing to do with her.

“You don’t have to go with me,” his dad said. “I might not even feel like going to church tomorrow. Doubt I will, actually. In fact, let’s just stay home. Make a nice breakfast. You wanna help me with breakfast?”

Why not? “Yeah, I’ll help.”

“Alright, that’s settled. Good. That’s all good. Breakfast together in the morning, and gifts. You’ve got some money from your Aunt Lisa and a present from one of your mom’s parents. I’ll hand ‘em over tomorrow. Oh, wait, actually….” His dad trailed off and then reached into his pocket, pulling out a handful of gold-wrapped chocolate coins. “There you go. Almost forgot.”

Jeremy took the coins with a half-smile. “Thanks,” he said. He pooled them on the table and then slid one back toward his dad impulsively. That had always been Jeremy’s thing with his mom; she gives him the coins and he sneaks one back to her, wanting to share them, and then out of tradition rather than a need to split his pseudo-wealth.

His dad swallowed audibly as he picked up the coin. When Jeremy looked over at him, his eyes were glassy with tears. Feeling a sense of obligation, Jeremy leaned forward and pulled his dad into a hug.

“It’s still Hanukkah,” Jeremy mumbled. “It’s still Christmas Eve.”

“It is.” He felt his dad loosely return the hug. “Love you, son.”

“You too, Dad.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Jeremy pulled back.

“So, can Michael still come over?” he asked.

His dad gave a small but lighthearted smile. “’Course he can. Are things official yet, then?”

Jeremy froze. “Uh. What?”

His dad furrowed his eyebrows. “You and Michael. Official?”

He felt panic rising in his throat, turning his stomach over and pushing his heard against his ribs, strangling his lungs. He felt nauseous.

“He doesn’t care, Jeremy.” The Squip sounded exasperated, but also firm and calm. “He sees this development as obvious and natural, and he seems to think that it’s nothing to make a fuss about. If he can treat it that way, then surely you can, with him, at least, do the same. And don’t throw up.”

Jeremy took a deep, careful breath. “We’re…um. Uh. Yeah. Can I ask—How did you—?”

His dad laughed. “You teenagers are never as subtle as you think you are, you know that? Pretty obvious, in fact.”

Instead of flushing with panic, Jeremy now found himself flushed with embarrassment. “We are not!” he protested.

Waving him off, his dad got up from the table. “Michael can come over whenever. Just keep the door open.”

Jeremy’s eyes widened in mortification. “Dad!”

“Ah, well, at least you don’t need to worry about getting caught with Michael, hm?”

God, it’s even worse when you say it. I hate this family.

Still sitting in front of the menorah, Jeremy pulled out his phone and quickly spotted and opened a message from Michael.

MOM [7:06 PM]
> happy first day of hanukkah!
> aw dammit dad said no phones on christmas eve
> SO fuck that no more holiday time for me

Jerry Present [7:22 PM]
> You can go be festive !
> Ill still be here

MOM [7:23 PM]
> u are so sweet
> but nah im too lazee
> also why did you change ur name back
> it was cute
> not saying that you as an entity can ever be not cute but yfm

Jerry Present [7:24 PM]
> Akdskfnsd
> I told you !
> That wasnt me
> It was chloe and brooke who changed it

MOM [7:24 PM]
> i must take drastic measures to restore nickname cuteness
>> {screenshot.png}

Jerry Present [7:25 PM]
> M I C H A E L
> THATS REALLY CUTE IM DOING IT TOO

player one [7:26 PM]
> omg no you dont have to

Player Two [7:26 PM]
> Too late !
> Wait now
> Everyone can see so
> Youre cool with that?

player one [7:27 PM]
> ofc i am it was my idea

Player Two [7:27 PM]
> WAIT
> Speaking of
> Uh
> So my dad
> Asked me
> Like
> You know
> And i just
> Said yes so ?
> I didnt want to
> Lie like that so
> My dad knows
> About us

player one [7:29 PM]
> and youre ok with it?
> you feel alright and safe?

Player Two
[7:30 PM]
> Yeah i think !
> I think things are ok
> Im feeling ok

player one [7:30 PM]
> ok!
> i care about you a lot

Player Two [7:31 PM]
> Aknsdfnadk
> Go celebrate christmas!
> Oh and do you wanna come hang out tomorrow
> Would your parents be chill with that ?

player one [7:31 PM]
> yeah its just gotta be past noon
> and okeee
> ttyl bro

Player Two [7:32 PM]
>  Later, dude!
> <3

player one [7:32 PM]
> <333333333


His dad spent the next morning attempting to fix lunch as he prepared for Michael’s arrival. Jeremy smelled ham and saw mashed potatoes in the kitchen any time he passed by, but his dad always shooed him out with the assurance that he could handle it himself.

Michael knocked on the door at half past twelve. When Jeremy let him in, he was shivering and covered in a thin layer of snow. He greeted Jeremy with a kiss on the cheek, which made Jeremy’s face turn red, matching the flushed look Michael had had from the cold.

“Am I allowed to do that?” Michael asked.

Jeremy bit back a smile. “I guess I can allow it.” He jerked his head in the direction of the living room. “Come on, Dad’s in the kitchen. He’s almost done with lunch. Till then, we can hang out and watch TV.” He slipped his hand into Michael’s and gently pulled him into living room.

They sat close together on the couch while some seasonally appropriate movie played on the TV. Jeremy was more focused on the warmth emanating from Michael and the pleasant softness of his hoodie.

“Jeremy, Michael! Lunch’s ready!” his dad called from the kitchen. “Come set the table and then we can eat!”

They did as he asked and then took their places at the table. It sat four, so Michael took the seat across from Jeremy, and when Jeremy’s dad came in with the food, he took the place to Jeremy’s right.

The food smelled delicious, though it was somewhat lackluster in presentation. His dad was silent for a horribly tense moment as both he and Jeremy remembered that this would be the moment where Jeremy’s mom would ask his dad to pray for them. Without that prompting, though, he remained silent.

Then Michael said enthusiastically, “Hell yeah!” and began filling his plate. “Thanks so much for letting me come over, Mr. Heere.”

His dad cleared his throat. “’Course, Michael. It’s no problem. How was your morning?”

Michael groaned dramatically. “Oh, man, you wouldn’t believe. My granddad flew in and he stayed the night last night and woke everyone up at six—six! You’d think he was, like, a kid with how excited he got. But I guess it helped get us all enthusiastic, even though it took until 7:30 for all my cousins to wake up.” He rambled on about his morning, and slowly Jeremy felt himself relax as his dad and Michael had an engaging conversation with each other. Though the chair to Jeremy’s left still felt too empty, too pressingly open, he supposed he could ignore it. Michael’s presence helped more than Jeremy would have thought.

All three found it easy to laugh as conversation flowed and shifted until each of them had eaten their fill.

During a quiet moment near the end of the meal, Michael caught Jeremy’s eye and smiled softly, then hit his foot against Jeremy’s. Jeremy felt a giggle rising in his throat, but he kept a straight face with much effort.

“Your father will notice if you two start flirting at the table,” the Squip informed him dryly.

Jeremy didn’t start at its sudden warning, despite the fact that it had been silent since last night. Oh, piss off. We’re allowed to be dumb.

“You say that as though that’s something new.”

Rude! Jeremy thought, but was surprisingly not upset at all by the comment. He kicked his foot against Michael’s and saw Michael cough to hide a laugh.

“Not at the table, boys,” his dad interrupted.

Michael threw back his head and laughed while Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck.

“So, you’re cool with…this?” Michael asked, shifting from jovial to serious.

Jeremy’s dad raised his eyebrows. “Michael, if I wasn’t, then I would have stopped letting Jeremy invite you over a year ago when you started—”

Cool, awesome, thank you, sir!” Michael interrupted. “May I be excused?” Without waiting for a response, he stood up and took his plate to the sink.

Jeremy watched him go in confusion. Why did he—?

“Ask him, Jeremy. Next time you try to ask me what he’s thinking or feeling, I’m going to scream the word ‘Communication’ at you until you have it drilled into your thick head.”

Okay, yikes.

Jeremy quickly picked up his plate without bothering to mumble an excuse. He followed Michael into the kitchen and set his own plate in the sink, where Michael had already begun washing dishes.

Jeremy cleared his throat. “So, uh, what happened last year?”

Michael’s cheeks turned pink and he didn’t look at Jeremy. “Crushing,” he said simply.

It took a bit longer than it should have for Jeremy’s brain to register that Michael had liked him for at least a year. “Oh,” he said.

“Oh, indeed,” Michael echoed.

So Jeremy leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Well, now you’ve got me. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”

Michael’s lips quirked up. “Never disappointed. Always pleasantly surprised.”

“Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah, happy holidays, you dork."


On the night of December 31, it was snowing hard enough that Jeremy’s dad almost didn’t let Jeremy leave the house.

“But you let Michael come over!” he protested, already with a drawstring bag on his back, gesturing to said Michael who was equally prepared to leave. “And it’s just Jake’s house. And you already said we could go to his New Year’s party!”

Jeremy’s dad frowned. “Don’t take that tone with me, young man. None of those things matter when you could slide off the road and get both of yourselves killed. It’s not me being unfair, Jeremy. I’m being practical and rational.”

Jeremy fought down another hoard of protests that threatened to leave his mouth and instead sighed unhappily. He supposed he could see his dad’s point, but at the same time, it wasn’t fair! Jake and Rich both felt comfortable having a party at Jake’s despite what happened last time, and Jeremy was proud of both of them for it. And it would only be the eight of them; no extra guests. It was hardly even a party! They just wanted to hang out and drink champagne and Jeremy wanted to kiss Michael when the ball dropped at midnight because it was a cute couple’s cliché that Jeremy had always wanted to try, but he didn’t want his dad to be there for it.

How can I make him let us go?

“Interesting verb,” the Squip commented.

What?

“You said ‘make’ instead of ‘convince,’ or something similar. I’m simply curious about where your priorities lie.”

Jeremy was briefly stunned into silence. You—What? You know what I meant!

“Well, yes, of course I knew you meant ‘manipulate,’ but—”

Where’d your high horse come from all of a sudden?!

“I don’t claim to have one. Your tone, however, implies that you’re aware that it’s…interesting that you’re acting this way.”

Jeremy felt his eye twitch. Okay, fine? I guess we just won’t go.

“Oh, don’t misunderstand; I’m more than willing to help! Simply tell him that Jake, ‘the guy who broke his legs a few months ago,’ really would appreciate seeing you two there, and that you’ll drive as slow as you possibly can, and that this is your last New Year’s before you officially become an adult and you’d appreciate being able to spend it around friends.”

Thanks for the advice; I just could have done without the sermon.

Jeremy reiterated what the Squip had advised him to say, and after a brief internal struggle, his dad relented with only a warning that they had better drive safe and for Jeremy to text him when they arrived.

Jeremy agreed happily and he and Michael were out the door in seconds.

“Nice one,” Michael commented once they got in the car.

Jeremy paused, his hand hovering over the ignition. “Hey,” he said, “do you think I’m a bad person?”

Michael looked at him straight-on. “No,” he answered. “Can I ask what brought that on?” He scowled. “Did the Squip say something?”

“No! Well…not really.” Jeremy started the car. “Just…was it bad of me to say all that to Dad to make him let us go?”

Michael’s eyebrows drew together. “Why would that be bad? You just made some valid points.”

Jeremy sighed and pulled out of the driveway. “I don’t know. I just feel really bad about it now.”

“…Jeremy. Humans are naturally…inclined to coerce others. Perhaps ‘manipulate’ was unfair of me to say. It has a much stronger negative connotation than I had intended. You are not bad because you convinced your father to allow you to go.”

Then why do I feel so shitty about it?

“Ah, that…would be my fault, and I…apologize.” It sounded like the word tasted sour on the Squip’s tongue. “I had not meant to make you feel guilt. You simply used a surprisingly commanding tone of voice, and it was interesting for me, as your Squip, to see you be so demanding. Again, not bad, just somewhat note-worthy.”

Whatever.        

Despite his terse response, though, Jeremy did appreciate the Squip’s explanation. He hadn’t meant to be rude to it, or to his dad. Maybe it was selfish of him to consider his wants more important than his dad’s concerns; but then, maybe it was okay for him to be a little bit selfish sometimes—responsibly selfish. Selfish in moderation.

They drove slowly and only had one close call, where Jeremy felt the wheels start to slide instead of role. His heart jumped into his throat and his eyes widened but the next second, they were safely steady. Jeremy wasn’t even sure if Michael had noticed, but his hands clenched around the wheel tighter than before.

“Calm down,” the Squip said, sounding unconcerned. “Worst case scenario, I would intervene. You and Michael are safe; that’s the only reason I helped you leave with the roads as bad as they are.”

Jeremy took a deep breath in and out. Alright. Cool, cool. It’s all good. We’re all good.

He pulled into Jake’s driveway soon after, feeling palpable relief.

“See? Nothing to worry about,” Michael said casually. He opened his door and climbed out into the cold air. And immediately slipped and fell with a loud curse.

“Shit, Michael!” Jeremy leaned over the passenger seat. “Are you okay? Can you get up?”

Michael huffed, his breath materializing in front of him. “I’m fine, I’m fine. Just hit my ass. Be careful when you get out.” He pulled himself up, leaning heavily on the car as he did so that he wouldn’t slip again.

Jeremy took his time getting out of the car, and together he and Michael made their way to Jake’s front door. Jeremy tried not to dwell on what had happened the last time they were here, but it was hard.

It got easier to bring himself back to the present when Michael wordlessly slipped his hand into Jeremy’s.

When Jeremy raised his hand to knock, Michael still hadn’t let go.

“So…are you okay with telling everyone?” Jeremy asked softly.

Michael took a deep breath. “Yeah, I am. Are you?”

“I think so.”

“Good. Because it’d be kinda hard to do a New Year’s kiss otherwise.” Michael raised his hand and knocked.

Jeremy made a noise of protest. “I didn’t say anything about a New Year’s kiss!”

“You didn’t,” Michael acknowledged, “but you’re also a nerd who enjoys cute things like that, so I figured I could infer it.”

“He really does seem rather good for you, I’ll admit.”

You’re only saying that because he sometimes says things that throw me off.

“Ah, you know me so well.”

Rich opened the door and immediately recoiled form the cold air. “Shit, guys, get the hell in here. It’s cold as balls out there.”

From somewhere inside the house, Jake’s voice called, “Rich, did you just admit that it’s too cold?”

“Admitted you’re a dick!” Rich yelled over his shoulder. He turned back to them and blinked in surprise as he noticed Michael and Jeremy holding hands. “Whoa, shit. You guys…?” He trailed off, and then waved a hand. “Nah, not a big deal. You do you, dudes.” He walked back into the warm air emanating from the house.

Michael hummed. “That went well!” He glanced at Jeremy. “You good to keep going?”

Jeremy took a deep breath, the cold air harsh against his throat. “I think so.” …Do you think this is alright?

“I do.” The Squip sounded calm and self-assured.

Jeremy smiled almost imperceptibly. Nice. I think I can do this.

With his heart moving rapidly between his throat and his chest, Jeremy followed Michael into Jake’s house.

Jake, sitting on a love seat near Rich, was the first person who noticed their entrance into the living room. Jeremy could only assume that Rich had already told him—either that, or Jake was even more easy-going than he’d thought—because he only gave them a mildly interested look and then a half-grin before turning back to the TV.

Christine, on the floor with Brooke and near Jenna on the couch, was the next one to see them. Her eyes widened and she exclaimed a small, “Oh!” She quickly brought a hand to her mouth to cover her reaction, but Jenna and Brooke followed her gaze, landing on Michael and Jeremy.

Jeremy was tempted to pull his hand away; to make people stop staring, to make the pressure in his chest go away, to make his hand stop sweating. But he held strong, steady, and trusted in Michael. And the Squip.

Christine gave him a broad smile and then turned away.

Brooke mouthed, “Uh, called it,” and looked back at her phone.

Jenna looked confused, cocked her head, and opened her mouth. Christine hit her leg and shook her head slightly. So Jenna shrugged and waved them over. “Hey guys!” she said, eyebrow raised but voice casual. “About time. Chris was so bored, she was about to make us play Scrabble.”

Christine stuck her tongue out as the two boys sat down near her. “It’s a fun game!”

“But for a New Year’s party?” Brooke argued.

“Not a party,” Jake and Rich said in near unison. Rich’s cheeks turned bright red while Jake’s face was impassive.

To Jeremy’s surprise, Brooke easily accommodated them. “New Year’s hang-out,” she corrected. “But Scrabble is still lame.”

“Is not!” Christine protested. “There are so many fun words!”

“That’s because you make them up,” Jake said, grinning.

Christine huffed. “I totally don’t. They’re just words you guys don’t know.”

“I’m pretty sure if a Google definition has to add ‘archaic,’ then maybe it shouldn’t be allowed in Scrabble.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be allowed in Scrabble,” Christine protested childishly. Then she made a noise of surprise and turned to Jeremy and Michael. “Guys! How were the roads?”

Michael went along with the change of topic easily, hand still in Jeremy’s, his thumb running over the back of Jeremy’s soothingly. “Not great, but drivable.” His eyes widened. “Oh, Jeremy! Did you text your dad?”

“Not yet.” Jeremy took out his phone and sent his dad a quick text informing him that they’d arrived at Jake’s place, which received an almost immediate reply, telling him to be safe. He sent back a smiley face. “Thanks, Michael.”

Michael smiled lazily. “No problem.” He turned back to Christine and opened his mouth—and left it open, clearly hesitating.

Impulsively, Jeremy said, “He asked me out.”

“Whoa, wrong!” Michael said quickly. “You asked to kiss me and asked if we were dating. You definitely initiated things.”

Jeremy hmfed. “Yeah, well, since last year, you—”

Shh!” Michael’s cheeks were flushed, but he was smiling. “Out me to the world, why don’t you?”

“You have rainbow patches on your backpack and hoodie!”

“And yet someone never noticed that, did he?”

“Excuse me for thinking you were just a really good ally.”

Christine giggled, which cut into their bickering. Jeremy felt almost euphoric at being able to converse so closely, so freely. It was weird and somewhat uncomfortable, but his happiness outweighed both of those feelings.

“So, you’re together? Like, boyfriends?” Rich added.

Jeremy nodded.

Rich dramatically brought his hands to his chest. “Me, an amazing and perfect and psychic matchmaker? Apparently!”

“Gross,” Chloe said, entering the room with her hands full of boxes and decks of cards. “Rich, the only thing you’re ‘amazing’ at is pissing teachers off.”

“It’s a talent I’ve been blessed with,” Rich agreed.

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Anyway, Christine, here’re your games.” She set them on the floor and only then noticed Michael and Jeremy. Her expression was one of pure shock. “Jeremy fucking Heere,” she said, annoyance simmering in her tone, “did you lie to me?”

“What?” Jeremy choked out. Michael’s hand had tightened protectively around his.

“You fucked Mell!” she exclaimed.

No!” Jeremy protested. “No, no! I have not! We haven’t!”

Chloe looked like she didn’t believe them for a second. “Right, and I passed freshman English,” she said, crossing her arms and finally taking a seat near Brooke on the floor. “Jeez, why does everyone think they can pass on spilling their deets to me?”

“Because you’re so insistent about it?” Jenna guessed. “If you’d just pay attention, stuff comes to you.”

Chloe’s eye twitched. “And who found out that Rich was bi first?”

“Rich was telling any and everyone,” Jenna argued. “That doesn’t count. You asking him about that was basically redundant.”

Jeremy saw Rich gear up to protest and then slowly sit back down.

“Girls, girls, you’re both beautiful gossips,” Jake said placatingly. “Now you know about the queer-mance, so we can move on about it. Is it really that big a deal?”

“It kinda is!” Chloe said insistently. “Because I asked.”

“You asked about sex,” Jake pointed out, “not a relationship.”

Chloe scoffed. “Cool, but those are legit synonyms.”

“Those aren’t—!”

“—totally not—”

“You can’t just—”

“—making assumptions—”

As Chloe was suddenly bombarded with (hopefully well-meaning) protests, Jeremy turned his attention inward, looking for any excuse to tune out the sudden cacophony around him.

Hey. Why’ve you been so quiet? he asked the Squip curiously. It hadn’t spoken since they’d entered the house.

“I am trying to figure some things out but am hesitant to speak with you about them.”

Oh. Uh. Okay. So, do you want me to leave you to it, or…?

“May I ask you a question if you do your best to remain calm?” it asked seriously.

Already nervous, Jeremy answered, Maybe?

It sighed. “I don’t understand why you felt anxious at Jenna’s house when in close proximity, but here, at Jake’s house, you seem fine. It does not make sense to me.”

Jeremy fought the urge to grimace. His freaking out didn’t make sense to him, either; sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn’t. I’m trying really hard not to stress tonight. Rich and Jake are working through stuff, so I want to, too. If they can be okay hanging out here with all of us, then I should be okay here, too.

It hummed. “…I still do not understand. But, I am beginning to think that I simply might never fully understand certain things about you. I am trying, but so many things that should make sense do not.”

Welcome to the brain, Jeremy thought dryly. I’ve heard it’s a bitch to figure out.

“So I’ve seen. Regardless, please continue enjoying yourself. I will be here if you need me.”

Jeremy felt touched at that, for some reason. Gotcha. Um. Thanks.

“Of course.”

There were still voices talking in loud, and sometimes heated, tones around him, but Jeremy only focused on the feeling of being surrounded by his friends. It was, he had found, a rather nice feeling. Even an argument couldn’t ruin the calm and comfortable cadence they had with one another.

Jeremy thought he was rather lucky to have so many close friends around him.

Oddly, he got the feeling that the Squip almost felt the same, in its own way.


Flaming By [10:56 PM]
> aight
> sending this in here to make sure that no one overhears
> jer is your squip keeping a relatively low douche-percentage

Player Two [10:57 AM]
> Rich youre just on the other side of the couch
> Also yeah !
> Its been alright

Flaming By [10:57 AM]
> WAIT
> WA I T
> WAIT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
> MICHAEL GET IN HERE

player one [10:58 PM]
> jeremy whatd you do to rich

Flaming By [10:58 PM]
> OH MY GOD!
> GAY

Player Two [10:58 PM]
> ????
> OH
> The names
> Heh

Christine Capulet [10:59 PM]
> Awww!!!
> Thats really cute you guys omg!!!

Flaming By [11:00 PM]
> can i change your nicknames to gay 1 and gay 2

player one [11:00 PM]
> yeah just as long as i can change yours to “gay for dillenger”

Flaming By [11:01 PM]
> YOU BITCH THAT’S PRIVATE

player one [11:01 PM]
> ““““private””””

Flaming By [11:01 PM]
> JEREMY!
> YOUR BOYFRIEND IS BULLYING ME

Player Two [11:02 PM]
> Michael no bullying

player two [11:02 PM]
> 100 emoji
> u got it boss

Christine Capulet [11:02 PM]
> Haha!!
> Thats fine michael as long as you dont tease me about stuff like that

player one [11:03 PM]
> yeah np chris

Flaming By [11:03 PM]
> HOW COME SHE GETS A PASS

player one [11:04 PM]
> bc id literally die for her

Christine Capulet [11:04 PM]
> Aww michael youre silly!! <3
> Anyways jeremy! and michael!!
> Congratualations !!!!

player one [11:05 PM]
> i dont think thats how you spell that but thank you!

Player Two [11:05 PM]
> Ajnadfksn
> Thanks christine!
> Its kinda weird that everyone knows haha

Flaming By [11:05 PM]
> []
> wait fuck i mean
> (eyes emoji)
> how long have yall been together???

Player Two [11:06 PM]
> Almost 3 weeks

player one [11:06 PM]
> 2 weeks and 5 days
> wait yeah no what he said

Christine Capulet [11:06 PM]
> Awwww omggg!!!!

Player Two [11:07 PM]
> Squip said im a bad bf for not being precise
> “You cant just round like that”

player one [11:07 PM]
> TELL IT TO KISS MY FUCKING ASS ILL KICK IT INTO THE YEAR 3000 WHEN THEY ALL LIVE UNDER WATER SO ITS FUCKIBNG CIRCUTS STOP WORKING HOWS THAT FOR BAD FUCK IT

Player Two [11:07 PM]
> NO WAIT IT WAS A JOKE

player one [11:07 PM]
> TELL IT TO MEET ME BEHIND A DENNYS AT 3AM FOR THE ASS WHOOPING OF A LIFETIME
> O H
> IN THAT CASE
> i mean
> in that case
> ahem
> well now jake thinks im crazy because i kind of got upset

Flaming By [11:07 PM]
> where are you guys anyway???

player one [11:08 PM]
> kitchen

Flaming By [11:08 PM]
> are you guys smoking ???????

player one [11:08 PM]
> jesuss rich
> way to stereotype
> just bc i wanted a sec away from the party doesnt mean im smoking

Flaming By [11:09 PM]
> oh
> sorry

player one [11:09 PM]
> we are DRINKING
> get with the program yo its new years

Flaming By [11:09 PM]
> OH YO
> help jake bring it out!!!!

player one [11:10 PM]
> chris jake wants to know if you want anything special

Flaming By [11:10 PM]
> chloe made christine get off her phone
> and wtf why does she get special order

player one [11:10 PM]
> shes a soft and gentle soul
> that means she gets her pick of champagne or mikes hard lemonade

Player Two [11:11 PM]
> Understandable
> I probably shouldnt drink so i dont need anything
> Oh!!!
> 11:11!! make a wish!!!!

player one [11:11 PM]
> christ youre too fuckin adorable one sec

Jeremy put down his phone in time to see Michael making his way out of the kitchen, holding a bottle of something pink in one hand. Michael caught his eye and smiled and plopped down on the couch between him and Rich. He leaned in close and Jeremy felt his cheeks heat up.

“What’d you wish for?” Michael asked conspiratorially.

“Uh—nothing, yet.” Jeremy grinned. “You?”

“Hmm.” Michael tapped his chin. “I think I’m gonna wish for a pre-New Year kiss.”

“Interesting,” Jeremy said thoughtfully. “Who from?”

“Oh, I’m thinking my boyfriend. You’ll never believe it, but he’s actually super cool and great.”

“Wow, that sounds a bit unrealistic, dude. You think you’re gonna get it?”

“Ugh,” Rich interrupted. “Gag me!”

“You sound like Chloe,” Michael immediately shot back.

“I resent that,” Chloe piped up from across the room. She, Brooke, and Christine were sitting in the floor, playing Scrabble.

“You guys are kinda cuddly,” Brooke added. “You don’t see the rest of us doing that.”

“I don’t see the rest of you in a relationship,” Michael said, and then high-fived himself. “One point for Michael! Zero for Brooke!”

Brooke pouted. “I want a point!”

Michael nodded solemnly. “One point for Brooke.”

“Yay!”

Christine giggled. “You guys are silly.”

Michael quickly stood up. “Oh, hey, Chris! This is for you.” He waved the pink bottle. “Jake said you’d like it.”

Christine Ooo’ed. She stood up and grabbed it from him. While she was away, Chloe sneaked a look at her letters and then scowled.

“Michael, Rich!” Jake called from the kitchen. “Can I get some assistance?”

The two made their way into the kitchen, and Chloe reached onto the couch and turned on Jake’s big living room TV. “It’s getting close to midnight,” she said to no one in particular. “I’m not even gonna have a kiss this year! I doubt Jake would, and like hell I’d kiss Rich.”

Brooke rolled her eyes. “You didn’t have to come.”

“I totally did; you already said you were coming!”

“That doesn’t mean you had to come.”

Chloe scoffed, as though that idea were absurd. “Whatever. Chris, get over here, it’s your turn.”

Christine returned to her seat as Michael reentered the room, holding a case of something Jeremy assumed was alcoholic and a few glasses, which he set on the coffee table. Rich came in carrying two bottles of champagne that he set near the glasses, and immediately grabbed one of the bottles that Michael had been carrying. Jake followed behind them and quickly collapsed in a chair, letting his crutches fall over and looking exhausted.

Michael threw his arm around Jeremy, sighing. He leaned close to Jeremy’s ear and whispered, “Jake asked Rich if he could kiss him when the ball dropped. Rich got flustered and a little pissy.”

Jeremy frowned. “Why’d he get upset? We’re here.”

“You’re comfortable with PDA,” Michael responded, sounding very pleased about the fact. “Rich is comfortable with himself, but I don’t think he’s big on public stuff. Which is totally fair.”

Jeremy nodded and then leaned his head on Michael’s shoulder. “Still, it sucks that he and Jake seem pissed at each other.”

Michael hummed in agreement. “Wish we could just have an argument-free time at Jake’s house.”

We’re having an argument-free time.”

Michael huffed out a laugh. “That’s true. This time, the S isn’t being a dick. Right?”

“Right.” Jeremy smiled.

“Good, because if it was, I’d shrink myself down so I could fight it.”

“I don’t think that would work.”

“Just leave the physical fighting up to me, Jeremy.”

“Why? So you can get your ass kicked?”

“Aw, don’t be mean! I’m defending your honor.”

Brooke loudly cleared her throat. “Secrets are for people who have something to hide!” she said to the two of them. “What’re you guys whispering about?”

“How cute your top is,” Jeremy answered smoothly.

Brooke blinked and then smiled widely. “I’ll allow your secrets,” she said cheerfully. “Two points for Brooke!” She turned back to Scrabble and immediately disputed the validity of a word with Christine, who said it wasn’t an English word, which prompted Chloe to say that Scrabble should probably only be played in one language, which made Christine tear up, which quickly made Chloe relent and allow her to play the word.

Jeremy closed his eyes as rabble and excitement filled the space around him. Well, it wasn’t quite excitement—there was an air something energetic, safe, positive in the room. It made him realize how much he cared about each of these people in turn.

Michael—of course, Michael. He was safe and dorky and soft and his breathing was low and deep. Occasionally he laughed, causing Jeremy to move a bit and always bringing a smile to his face. He cared for Michael because he didn’t know how not to.

Christine was talking. Her tone of voice always had an underlying hype. She was so happy about life, so happy to be and exist in the world. She liked feeling things—happy things, and sad things, after they had stopped being too sad, and intense things because they were exciting, and gentle things because they were soft. She was wonderful, and Jeremy loved her, and he wasn’t sure when he’d stopped or started, but that was because Christine was so easy to love. He didn’t want her; he wanted her to be happy. And right then, she sounded happy, and that made Jeremy happy.

Chloe was interesting. She wasn’t a safe person like Michael, or even Christine, but she had something about her that Jeremy couldn’t help but admire. She was a survivor. Of what, he didn’t know; but she was someone who had been through hell and was tougher because of it—harsher and quicker to snap. She wasn’t a bad person, and having talked to her last week had made Jeremy appreciate that fact. He wasn’t sure if she was a good person, though. Was it possible to be neither, or both? It must be, he reasoned. And no matter what, Jeremy enjoyed Chloe’s presence. It wouldn’t be the same without her and Brooke.

Brooke—she was bright, Jeremy supposed. She had a bright voice, a bright laugh, a bright aesthetic. Jeremy thought she was in the same boat of kinda-not-good and kinda-not-bad as Chloe was; maybe a little bit more good, though. But they balanced each other as much as they seemed to be discordant at times. Brooke was funny and much smarter than she let on, and Jeremy figured she liked it that way.

Rich was…Christ, Rich was Rich. He was loud and got angry easily and yelled a lot and liked girls and liked guys and liked being scared and excited and feeling things—but his feeling things was different from Christine. He liked rushes. He liked feeling as if he were really present in reality, in his own skin. And he placed a large amount of importance on being able to choose things for himself, understandably. He was erratic and sometimes rude. And a valuable friend, Jeremy had found. Oddly, Rich was reliable and one of the most honest and open people that Jeremy knew.

Jake asked Christine to pass him the remote. Jeremy heard the clink of Jake’s crutches against one another. And Jeremy realized that he didn’t know Jake all that well. The two of them weren’t close, he knew; but it was odd to fish for what he thought of Jake and come up blank.

“He’s naturally reserved,” the Squip said, interrupting Jeremy’s solitary musings. “He gets away with it by being superficially open. He lets people know his favorite foods and music and sports teams, but he rarely talks about himself.” It paused, as though taking a deep breath. “When there was a…connection between myself and the other Squips, I got a feeling for each of the hosts. Jake admires himself greatly, but he also feels terribly guilty for it. He knows he is talented at sports and sex and sees himself as a prime example of what a popular high-schooler should be. But he struggles with hating himself for daring to think himself above other when not even his…. Perhaps this is too much information.”

What! You can’t stop now! Jeremy thought.

“Ah, but you’d feel bad for prying if I were to keep going.”

Jeremy felt the Squip pat him on the top of his head and very nearly jumped off the couch.

Michael raised an eyebrow at his sudden movement. “You good?”

“Fine.” Jeremy looked around the room. “Uh, wait. Where’s Jenna?”

“She left,” Michael said. “Like, an hour ago. Her mom called her home, said it was an emergency.”

“Oh.” Jeremy felt worry in the pit of his stomach. The roads couldn’t be good. What was so important that Jenna—or her mom, he supposed—would have to drive on them? “I hope she’s okay.”

“She texted me!” Brooke said. “She’s fine, don’t worry.”

“Did you find out what the emergency was?” Jeremy asked.

Brooke shrugged. “She didn’t say. I didn’t press. She’s usually really open about all sorts of information, so I figured it was serious if she wasn’t already telling me what was up.”

“Oh,” Jeremy said again. Annoyingly, his worry didn’t go away.

Michael gently rested a hand on his back. “Hey, you seem on edge,” he said softly. “Is S bothering you?”

Jeremy shook his head. “I’m…I dunno. I’ll be fine.”

“Good. I don’t wanna kiss you if you vomit.”

Jeremy laughed and looked at the TV, which told him that they only had a few minutes until midnight.

The girls had put up Scrabble and had pulled all kinds of blankets and pillows into the floor. Rich and Jake had claimed the loveseat.

With casual chatter, the minutes passed in what felt like seconds. In no time at all, they were counting down from ten. Christine held the champagne excitedly.

Nine. Eight.

Michael’s hand rested on his thigh.

Seven. Six.

Jeremy’s eyes felt bright and wide.

Five. Four.

Christine’s voice was a yell as she counted down.

Three. Two.

Jeremy saw Rich lean towards Jake.

One.

It wasn’t anything special, except that it was.

Michael pulled back and Jeremy saw fireworks from the TV reflected in his glasses. It was apt imagery.

Jeremy leaned in and kissed him again.

Chapter Text

“I’d rather die than go back to school,” Brooke said.

“I’d rather eat glass than go back to school,” Chloe said.

“I’d rather sleep,” Christine said.

“We’re already here,” Jeremy interjected.

He was met with three withering stares. The four—well, five, counting Michael—of them had gravitated towards the lockers while they waited for the bell to ring, signaling that they needed to go to class. All of them were exhausted. Christine still looked hung over from New Year’s, or she would, if a three-day hangover were possible. Chloe had her hair up in a bun and her make-up was what Brooke had described as “messy,” though Jeremy thought she still looked very put-together. Brooke herself was as impeccably dressed as always, this time with a slightly larger jacket, though Jeremy knew that she was covering up dark circles with concealer.

Michael had slipped back into the routine of waking up early with as much grace as he always did; which is to say, just enough to be passable. His hair was messy and his pants were on their fifth day, but he had his headphones and his hoodie—all he needed to feel comfortable in the crowded hallways. He had his headphones up to tune out the complaining of the students milling around them. Jeremy figured it was a Led Zepplin day based on the way Michael was moving his head.

“I’m ready to, like, just go ahead and leave,” Chloe said, moving a hand to flip her hair before realizing that it was pulled up, and turning the movement into an awkward neck touch. “Brooke, you with me?”

“Duh,” Brooke said. She pulled out her phone and frowned. “Where’s Jenna?” she asked.

“Who cares?” said Chloe.

“You do.”

“Whatever.” Chloe rolled her eyes. “Where is she?”

“That’s what I just asked!” Brooke slipped her phone back into her pocket. “Does anyone have her number? Someone text her.”

“Don’t you have her number?” Christine asked.

Brooke crossed her arms. “Yeah, but I can’t justify texting here one-on-one. She always tries to get gossip out of me,” she whined.

“That’s because you’re always trying to tell everyone everything!” Chloe said.

“I’ll text her,” Christine interrupted, sounding like the back-and-forth hadn’t affected her at all. At the same moment she pulled out her phone, the bell rang.

Jeremy immediately peeled away to make his way to class, but the other four idled in place.

“Where the hell is Jake?” Chloe looked annoyed, but Jeremy could tell she was masking worry. “And Rich. Were they together or something?”

Brooke shrugged, appearing nonchalant, but Jeremy could see a stiffness in her movements. “It’s as good an excuse as any to skip class! Just don’t worry about those two. I’m sure they’re probably just restocking after the New Year’s party.”

Chloe hummed in agreement. “Wanna go look for them?”

“Ugh, for real?”

“Well, I don’t wanna be here.”

“Good point.” A ring of keys suddenly materialized in Brooke’s hand. “Will you drive?”

Chloe sighed. “Fine.”

“Yay!” With that, Brooke followed Chloe back outside and into the parking lot.

Christine watched them go with a raised eyebrow. “They’re barely ever here. I don’t know how they’re even passing.” She shook her head and then gave Jeremy a smile. “Anyway, Jenna said she’d be here soon. Something about her parents insisting on driving her and it made them late. Anyways, I’ll see you later, Jeremy!” She pulled him in for a quick hug that made him feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. “You too, Michael!” She waved to him and darted off to class.

“So, are you going to class?” Jeremy asked when it was only the two of them left—well, the two of them and the flood of students rushing around them to get to class.

“Sure, why not?” Michael shrugged and hefted his backpack up. “I’ve got CAD first period anyways.”

Jeremy smiled. “Good. See you at lunch?”

“You know it.” Michael shot up a peace sign and meandered to his first class of the day.

Jeremy waved a bit and then started for his first class.

“Jeremy?”

Yeah? His gait didn’t even stutter. He supposed he was getting accustomed to sudden comments from the voice in his head. He wasn’t positive it was a good thing.

“Have a good day at school.”

This time Jeremy almost did stop completely, in the middle of a crowded hallway, but he kept on so as to avoid being mowed over. Um.

That wasn’t what the Squip had meant to say. He would bet on the fact that it was getting ready to tell him something else and then changed its mind. The Squip must have known that he was thinking that, and it didn’t say anything.

Thanks, Jeremy finally decided on. The exchange left him feeling extremely awkward. It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start to the day, and he wasn’t sure whether things would go uphill or downhill, but he had the odd feeling that it would be a steep change either way.


“Yo, Jeremy!”

“Michael!” Jeremy reflexively responded. He’d just made his way into the cafeteria, and hearing Michael quickly lifted his spirits. It’d been a fairly lackluster day, with plenty of absent students and almost every remaining student wishing they’d skipped, too. Jeremy hadn’t seen Chloe and Brooke on his way to the cafeteria, which he figured meant they’d left and decided not to come back. But at least he had Michael.

“Jeremy!” another voice called.

He finally turned around and smiled. “Christine,” he greeted.

She and Michael had entered the cafeteria together, and seeing them side made Jeremy inexplicably happy. Christine seemed excited for something, judging by the way her feet couldn’t keep still. “Hey,” she said, “are you gonna be in theater next year?”

Jeremy was slightly taken aback at the unexpected question. In truth, he hadn’t really considered it, but he had to admit that he’d always enjoyed plays. This year, there had finally been enough external motivation for him to convince himself to sign up.

“I mean, I know it’s gonna be senior year and all,” she continued as they made their way over to an empty table. “But, like! It could be so much fun

“I’m assuming you’ve already decided you’re gonna be doing it?” Jeremy asked with a grin.

Christine stuck her tongue out. “Duh!” She huffed. “I asked Jake the other day, and he said….” Her cheerful demeanor slumped. “Um…I guess I wasn’t really thinking. Like, I dunno how many plays he could be in, and even if we’re renovating the theater soon, we don’t know when it’s gonna be done! So he would have a lot of trouble moving around the stage, and backstage is really tiny, too, so….” She sighed and pulled on a strand of her hair. “But, like, I still wanna know who all is interested.”

“Totally,” Jeremy said, half to make her feel better, half because he thought being in a play might be nice when he didn’t have to worry about keeping the world safe from evil robots.

“I take offense to that.”

I take offense to you.

“Touché.”

She lit up. “So yes?” she asked excitedly. “You don’t have to! You totally don’t have to, I just wanted to see.”

“I’m definitely interested!” Jeremy insisted. “Who else have you asked?”

Well…no one aside from you and Jake.” She bit her lip. “I got nervous! He got really closed off when I asked—and I still felt really bad about it until I heard someone singing a song from Oliver! in the hallways. Oom-pa-pa!” she added, gesturing widely and smiling.

“Mhm, yeah,” Jeremy said noncommittally, not entirely sure if Christine was still speaking English. “Why’re you asking already?”

“I wanna be the Drama Club president next year,” she said confidently. “And Michael said he’d help with tech!”

Jeremy looked, surprised, at Michael. And then at Christine. “Wait, you said you didn’t ask anyone else.”

“I volunteered,” Michael explained, with a half-shrug. He was the only one with food, since he had bought it outside of school, and thus had something edible. “Everyone was complaining for weeks after the play about how much it sucked that their tech people were leaving next year. Olivia Holt, right?” he checked with Christine, who nodded.

Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t even know Olivia Holt was in theater.”

“She wasn’t,” Christine explain. “She just showed up sometimes and started running through stuff. She has a really good instinct for lighting ideas and stuff, but she doesn’t like committing to clubs or school productions, so she just showed up whenever she felt like it. But she’s gonna be gone next year!” she lamented.

“And I’ll, uh, do my best,” Michael said.

Christine smiled. “Yeah! I think that’ll be really fun.”

They chatted until the bell rang, signaling that they had to go their separate ways. Christine was the first to run off since she had her next class on the other side of the school, but Michael idled for a moment and gently brushed his hand against Jeremy’s when they stood up. “Later,” he said.

“See you,” Jeremy said.

He went to his next class with a spring in his step.


His final class of the day was Algebra II. Oddly, on his way to class, he didn’t see Christine. It wasn’t that they always met up, but with so many people absent, it stood out a bit more than it usually would have. Still, it wasn’t too much of a big deal.

He slid into class right before the bell rang and scanned the room for Jenna.

She wasn’t there.

He frowned, but quickly took his seat next to—

Michael wasn’t there, either.

Jeremy’s mouth felt dry for a reason he couldn’t quite place.

So what if he and Christine just happened to miss each other in the hallway? So what if Jenna’s mom had decided not to drive her to school for some reason? So what if Michael was in the bathroom, or skipping class?

But all three at once?

The bell rang at nearly the same time as the phone on the wall did. Mr. Gretch, their teacher, shot the students an annoyed look, as though they’d caused the phone to interrupt his lesson before he’d even begun. Jeremy couldn’t hear his words over the students’ chatter, but he did see Gretch’s eyes narrow. He hung up the phone and faced the class.

“Heere?” he called in his role-taking voice.

Jeremy felt like he might throw up. He raised his hand slowly as the students around him lowered their volume to a whisper.

“Ah. Follow me, Jeremiah,” Mr. Gretch said, turning to walk out of the classroom. He shot a glare at the rest of the students. “I’ll be back in two minutes. If I hear talking when I get back, there will be graded review homework tonight, in addition to your usual assignments.” There was a barely-noticeable ripple of discontent that ran through the students, but they were all quiet.

What’s his deal? Jeremy asked the Squip as he trailed behind Mr. Gretch.

“I am unsure, but I don’t trust this.”

Jeremy’s gait stuttered. What? What’s wrong?

“I don’t know, Jeremy,” it snapped. “This is unusual behavior. And you have done nothing to warrant a visit to the principal’s office, if this is as serious as it feels. Ask,” it commanded abruptly.

Jeremy cleared his throat, but Mr. Gretch didn’t react. “Uh, sir?” he spoke up. “Why are we going to the principal? Wh-what did I do?”

Gretch didn’t even look at him. “You and a few other students are in trouble—big trouble.”

“But what did we do?” Jeremy pressed.

“You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you, Mr. Heere?” Gretch’s tone was so holier-than-thou that Jeremy made a face.

You say you don’t know what I did? Jeremy checked.

“I have…ideas. But no reason to believe that any of them are necessarily true. You could have been framed for something, or are being told off for something we both perceive as innocuous. It may not even necessarily be a negative thing, though that seems unlikely. What am I missing?” It said the last part almost to itself.

And I’m just expected to go along with all this? he asked.

“You could run, but that seems unwise.” The Squip hummed. “Or maybe it would be unwise to stay.”

Jeremy felt the hairs on his arms stand on end. Everything about this felt off in a way he couldn’t put into words. Sooner than expected, he was standing in front of the principal’s office. There were staff members milling around and the sound of a printer continually droning on. There were voices and footsteps and knocks and beeping. The air was stale and the doors were all the same odd shade of light brown.

“Jeremy, breathe.”

Of course he was breathing. He was always breathing. The air was stale and somewhat warm.

“Focus on your breathing!”

What a rude tone. He knew what breathing felt like.

“Count.”

Count what?

“Your breathing—count in, count out.”

That was a softer tone, so he did it. In, one. Out, two. In, three. Out, four.

“What are you wearing?”

He was wearing a t-shirt that was a bit rough. Oh, it was itchy. He moved his arm and scratched his chest.

The movement had a surprisingly grounding effect. Jeremy blinked, and suddenly he was back on the ground. Not that he’d ever been in the air—he just wasn’t on the ground for a moment. He took a deep breath, blinked hard, and stretched his back. He took in his surroundings more intently.

Door. Trouble. Principal.

Fuck.

“Fuck is right,” the Squip said grimly.

Gretch wasn’t standing next to him, Jeremy noticed.

“He told you to wait here for the door to open,” the Squip informed him. “An intimidation tactic. Simple, but effective.”

Jeremy was definitely feeling intimidated. Despite the hustle and bustle around him, he felt isolated and out of place. The closed door in front of him had a menacing presence. It was closed tightly and had a sense of finality.

It opened.

At the noise and movement, Jeremy nearly jumped out of his skin. He watched the crack in the door grow steadily wider until before him stood a stern woman—one whose usually benevolent aura had been replaced with one of disapproval. Mrs. Painter, the principal, looked down her nose at him and asked, “Jeremiah Heere?”

He nodded mutely.

“Into my office, please.” She turned and entered the room and Jeremy had no choice but to follow.

Awards and accomplishments hung on the office’s walls. There was a desk with an extravagant chair behind it, and two lackluster chairs in front of it. Mrs. Painter took her seat and gestured for Jeremy to sit.

The chair was uncomfortable. The room was stifling. The principal’s gaze was harsh.

“Be calm. Wait for her to speak. You’ve done nothing wrong, but she’s trying to see if you’ll crack.”

Jeremy stayed quiet, and after what felt like hours, Mrs. Painter finally said, “Do you know why you’re here, Jeremiah?”

“No, ma’am.” There, telling the truth was probably a good tactic.

“I see.” She didn’t sound convinced. “So you have nothing to say to the rumors that you were an accomplice in giving out party drugs at the school play?”

Jeremy’s eyes widened—he couldn’t help it. What? She couldn’t possibly be talking about—!

Her lips pulled back in a way that clearly said, Gotcha. “Rings a bell now, does it?”

“There’s been a misunderstanding,” Jeremy hurriedly tried to explain.

She sighed. “Ms. Roland said the same thing.”

Jeremy blinked. Ms. Roland? Did she mean Jenna’s mom, or Jenna herself? Was Jenna in trouble too? Was Rich okay? Oh, fuck—Michael, Christine, Chloe, Brooke, everyone

“Until she said she hardly remembered that night, which was as good as a confession.”

So it was Jenna, then—Jenna had been called in and questioned, just like Jeremy was.

“We have her mother to thank for tipping us off, of course.”

His stomach dropped. Jenna hadn’t been called in; she’d been brought in.

“We need to leave.”

What? What the hell are you saying?! How would we leave?

“We can’t stay.”

Why not? What the hell is going on?!

“I’m sorry, Jeremy.”

For what?

“For not realizing sooner.”

Mrs. Painter cleared her throat delicately. “No rebuttal?”

Jeremy was at a loss for words. After its apology, the Squip wasn’t answering his questions. He couldn’t tell the truth and risk sounding insane. What rebuttal would make the situation less dangerous than the one he was already in? He’d get suspended for a long time, and his dad would be called, and then they’d have some talks about how drugs were bad, and then it would all blow over. Maybe it’d be out-of-school suspension, and he could just chill at home for a while! Really, this wasn’t a big deal. “No, ma’am.”

She sighed deeply. “So you’re admitting to distributing drugs on campus, during a school-sanctioned event, to students and teachers?”

Jeremy wasn’t sure if the Squip had shut itself down or if it had simply gone silent. “…Yes, ma’am.”

She shook her head in disappointment. “I’m truly sorry to hear this, Jeremiah. Your record up to this point has been nearly spotless—not a single issue anywhere. It’s always a shame when an average student acts out like this.” She stood up and walked to the door, not giving Jeremy a second glance. He assumed he was meant to stay put, so he didn’t move.

Into the room walked a different woman, one that he recognized on sight. “Hi there, sweetie,” Ms. Roland said with a sad smile. “I’m supposed to take you home to see your parents. Is that alright?”

“There’s no way out of this.” The Squip’s sudden deadpan gave Jeremy goosebumps. “You can’t run.”

Okay, shit, I wasn’t planning on running but now I really feel like I should.

“I….”

You…?

“I’m sorry.”

Jeremy stood and followed Ms. Roland out of the room, completely unable to reconcile the almost-normality surrounding him with the cold resignation in his head. You said that.

“I’m saying it again.”

The walk to Ms. Roland’s car was short. Her attitude was casual; Jeremy thought he even heard her humming once or twice. It was an odd demeanor for someone who had just ratted out their daughter to the school.

Her car was parked close to the entrance and was colored a sleek gray. “You can sit in the back,” Ms. Roland said as she unlocked it.

Jeremy’s cheeks flushed. Was he really being regulated to the backseat like a baby? He moved from the passenger side door to the back and slid in.

The interior of the car was pristine. Ms. Roland closed her door and slid the keys into the ignition, but didn’t start the car. Instead, she reached over to the passenger seat and picked up a computer. “Do you mind if I do a bit of work for just a sec? Thanks!”

Jeremy felt a flash of panic so intense he jerked forward, but it wasn’t his own. The Squip had flooded his body with adrenaline.

And then he passed out.


It was very, very bright. Jeremy quickly decided that opening his eyes was a bad idea. He closed his eyes tightly. His head was swimming. He—

He tried to sit up, and nearly fell out of a rather comfortable chair. He forced his eyes open and allowed his body to fall back into the chair. He squinted at the ceiling. The lights were fluorescent, but not as harsh as he’d first thought. He carefully controlled his breathing to keep down the nauseous feeling in his stomach. His hands and feet tingled uncomfortably. His vision finally focused on the ceiling tiles and he felt confident enough to tilt his head to the side.

The walls were tiled white and gray; the floor, the same. It was a bit cold. There was a sink with cabinets above and below it—Jeremy wasn’t sure he wanted to know the contents of them. He was sitting in a chair, as he’d thought, but to his other side was a stretcher. On the other side of the stretcher was a closed door. Jeremy didn’t make a habit of gambling, but he was willing to bet that the door was locked.

Hey, he tried. Are you—what’s—so…um. What the hell?

He waited, but received no reply. That didn’t feel like a good sign.

He closed his eyes again while he waited to feel more comfortable, but an odd, float-y sensation lingered and refused to go away. He opened and closed his hands into fists, hoping that would help, eventually escalating into clenching hard enough to leave tiny, red marks in his palm. It did help, a bit, though he couldn’t help but feel guilty for it immediately afterwards.

He took a steadying breath, opened his eyes again, and sat up—this time with markedly more success. There wasn’t much more about the room that was noteworthy, so he took stock of himself. He knew what had happened; everything had come back to him as soon as his head stopped swimming. He just didn’t know why.

So, the Squip was offline. That sucked, but was somehow unsurprising. His body didn’t feel injured or otherwise off, aside from the odd feelings he’d had upon waking, but he brushed those off as side effects from being knocked out. He was wearing the same clothes as he had been that morning (well, he assumed it was the same day), and he still had on his shoes. His phone and backpack were nowhere to be seen, as far as he could tell. As he was about to push himself out of the chair and search the cabinets and maybe check the faucet for running water, he heard the distinct click of a lock. His head whipped toward the door as it opened.

Ms. Roland entered with a soft smile; the kind of smile a mom has when she opens the door to check on her child who’d stayed home from school because of a stomach bug, and she feels sheepish about waking them up but knows they still need to eat some soup and drink some ginger ale.

Jeremy felt a bit dizzy again.

“Hi, Jeremy!” she greeted with a positivity so out of place that it made the hairs on Jeremy’s arms stand straight up.

“Hi,” he responded reflexively. “Um, can I ask—uh. Um. What’s…What’s…Where am I? Ma’am?” he added hastily. He had nothing to gain by forgetting his manners, after all.

Ms. Roland shut the door behind her and walked over to the stretcher, holding a large manila envelope in one hand. She huffed and sat on the stretcher awkwardly. “This was yours, you know,” she said with the same levity in her voice. “I was planning on sitting in the chair, but we figured you’d be more comfortable in it, ahaha! So, how are you feeling, dear?” she asked, thoroughly ignoring his question.

“I’m alright. Wait, I mean—What’s going on?” he demanded.

Ms. Roland frowned. “You could have at least asked me how I was doing,” she murmured. Jeremy felt shame briefly creep up before remembering that this situation was pretty fucked and he didn’t owe her any more politeness than the bare minimum. “Well, anyway!” she said, quickly smiling again. “I’m fantastic, if you were curious!” She let that sentiment hand without expanding on it. She opened the envelope and riffled through some pages before settling on one that she read through for what felt like ten minutes, but couldn’t have been more than one.

“So, Jeremy,” Ms. Roland began, her tone casual as though she were continuing a story she’d already been telling, “I go to all the school events I can. I really try to be involved, but sometimes I miss out on things. I’m sure you can imagine my disappointment when I wasn’t able to attend the school play, due to work obligations.”

Jeremy felt bile in the back of his throat and focused intently on keeping his breathing steady.

“You must know that my daughter is a model student, and she has never had a problem sharing things with me. However, she is also—despite popular belief—good at keeping secrets when she wants to be. We didn’t talk about her getting drugged up at the play aside from the appropriate parental cautions. It was a one-time thing, I was sure, and I didn’t mind if she didn’t want to rat out her hook-up.” She looked up from her papers and smiled. It was nice and gentle and understanding; it made Jeremy’s skin crawl. “I’m very glad you could make it to my Jenna’s party, Jeremy, otherwise I might never have known what had happened.” Her voice suddenly took on an admonishing tone. “You should know better than to talk about something like a Squip where people can overhear.” She chuckled. “Though, in this case, it’s very lucky that you did! Jeremy, I and my team here: we can help you—”

Jeremy felt tears force their way out of his tear ducts. His lungs felt too small and he was heaving for each breath. The sudden sensation made him cough, which made his breathing even more labored and short. He was nearly doubled over with the sudden toll this forced expression was taking on his body. He brought his hands to his face in confusion. Why was he…?

Ms. Roland cut herself off in shock. “H—Jeremy, child, are you alright? You’re not in any trouble.” She moved off the stretcher with an ease that Jeremy didn’t fail to notice and rested a hand on his shoulder. His body recoiled from the touch. Was he doing that?

He heard her sigh. “Sweetie, please talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Jeremy’s hands covered his mouth. He was having trouble forming words because of the stunt his body had apparently decided to pull.

Ms. Roland misinterpreted…well, everything. “I’m so, so sorry for scaring you, Jeremy,” she said sympathetically. “I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself, okay? Call when you’re feeling a bit better. I’ll go fetch some water, and I’ll knock before I come in again, yeah? Take all the time you need, sweetheart.”

She left the room slowly, closing the door behind her. Jeremy heard it lock.

Just call—what the heck did that mean? With a sinking feeling, Jeremy realized he must be under surveillance. He hadn’t noticed any cameras, though. Maybe only the audio was being recorded?

“Or you simply didn’t notice the cameras. They might not be visible to you.”

As it was, only the threat of cameras kept him from hopping up and yelling aloud. You! You! What the fuck is happening?

“A ‘thank you’ would also have been appreciated, you know. I bought us a few minutes to ourselves.”

Jeremy suddenly felt his lungs fill up with air and his tears stopped pouring. Wait, you—?

“Yes, yes, scold me all you like, but I did nothing truly invasive.”

Say sorry, Jeremy demanded, ignoring the fact that he sounded childish.

“So-rry,” the Squip said, drawing out the word. “Now, focus. Keep your face covered, that’s good, and listen to me. You need to call her back in soon. We want to shift things to our terms. Make a request, as well—perhaps a pillow or a blanket. We need to assess the situation and we are at a sore disadvantage when it comes to information.”

Jeremy’s head was already spinning. But—but what’s—?

“Kidnap. Verb. To take someone away illegally and by force.”

Fuck off!

“Then pay attention! I don’t have time to explain every little detail to you; you should have been paying attention. I’m not your babysitter.”

Um, you kind of are!

It sighed. If you must be spoon-fed every piece of information, then listen close: Jenna’s mother clearly works with the ISQRI. Really, you must be the only person who hasn’t gotten that by now.”

How was I supposed to know?!

“Oh, come on, the hints were everywhere.” Angrily, it said, “I just wasn’t looking for them. It’s my fault for not noticing sooner.”

Okay, anyway—what the fuck is going on?

“They don’t want me here, clearly. However, they also have questions for you, and possibly for me. Best case scenario: they ask, we answer, and you get to leave with all your memories of me modified so that the last few months are a blur that will likely be blamed on an addiction.”

Jeremy blanched. That’s the best case? What’s the worst?

“You die and your death is declared an unsolvable case because the right people are paid off.”

What the fuck! What the fuck! What the fuck! Jeremy’s breath came in gasps again, though this time it really was his body’s natural reaction. What the fuck! What the fuck!

He couldn’t die! He—he couldn’t just die! He couldn’t, he couldn’t, he couldn’t! He was a kid! He had his whole life ahead of him, even if he didn’t know what he was doing with it half the time. But—but they wouldn’t get away with it if they did! Right?

“Ah. Hm. You took that a lot worse than I thought you would.”

Shut up!

It sighed. “You asked for the worst thing that could happen. I told you. Now, please calm down.”

But—but—!

“I never said it was likely. Now, please—we need to make a game plan.”

Jeremy calmed down just enough to focus on what the Squip was saying.

“Very good. Thank you. We need to figure out what exactly they know, why they are keeping us here and what they want, and for how long they plan on holding us. Do you follow?”

Retorts flew through his head, but Jeremy settled for simple acquisition. Yes.

“Good.” Its voice lost its edge for a moment. “You are not in any imminent danger. Please try to relax. And I—I regret that I was not able to foresee this.”

It’s…fine. And thanks for saying sorry earlier.

“…You need only ask.”

Oh.

There was an uncomfortable pause. “Call her in. Ask for something. You’re doing well, Jeremy. I’m not leaving.”

He took a deep breath and removed his hands. The lights nearly blinded him and he blinked away his discomfort. He cleared his throat. “Um,” he said, feeling silly, “uh…Ms. Roland? I…if you’re, um, listening, can you—I mean, I’m—I’m better now, um. And can I…get a blanket or something? It’s kind of cold in here.” He fell silent, sure that he must have sounded ridiculous whether or not anyone was listening. He almost wished no one was.

So why exactly am I requesting a blanket?

“We want to know how far they are willing to go to make you comfortable. It’s simply testing the waters with a simple request and then working up from there.”

Jeremy didn’t respond to that, instead sitting in silence. While he waited, he decided he may as well check out those cabinets near the sink. He stood, but before he could make a move toward them, the door opened once more.

“Oh, feel free to take a seat,” Ms. Roland said when she saw him, closing the door and making her way back to the stretcher.

Jeremy got the impression that was more of a command than an invitation, so he did as she said. The chair, which had earlier been comfortable, now felt like it was trying to swallow him whole.

“So, you’re feeling better?” she asked casually.

Jeremy noticed that she still held her envelope, but there was no sign of a blanket—nor, he realized, of the water that she had promised. He nodded.

“Good, good!” Her fingers flipped the opening of the manila envelope casually. “So, like I said, you’re not in trouble. No one is mad at you, Jeremy, because you’ve really done nothing wrong. You seem like such a nice kid, and that’s why I want to talk.”

The Squip hummed. “So, she’s wasting no time. They want to hear what you know about what happened.”

Jeremy didn’t change his expression. Obviously.

Ms. Roland blinked. “Oh.” The kindness that had colored her visage suddenly froze. She still smiled, but it somehow managed to look irritated. “Hmm, it looks like someone’s being a little too talkative, huh? Don’t worry, dearie, we can make him quieter.”

“Fuck!” The Squip swore with an aggression that startled Jeremy. Ms. Roland didn’t stand; she checked her watch and then began to open the envelope again.

Jeremy kept his mouth closed and the panic out of his expression. How did she—?

“I don’t think I have long,” it said, ignoring his question. “Just—Fuck!” it said again. “You need to stall, Jeremy. Make them impatient. Make them mess up. Be impulsive—that’s most important. And don’t give them anything to work with! Go blank, be boring, I don’t care, just wait for me to get back. And remember that I—”

It cut off.

Jeremy felt sick. He was truly alone, now. And there was nothing he could do about it. Stall? How could he stall? And what the hell did it mean by telling him to be impulsive? How would that help them?

A moment later, Ms. Roland casually looked up. “Is he quiet, then?” Jeremy didn’t respond, didn’t even change his expression, but she seemed to take that as an affirmative. “Alrighty then, sweetie, I have quite a few questions for you! Are you up to answering?”

Jeremy kept his jaw clenched tightly.

“Hm, that’s quite alright,” she said, smiling brightly. “Would it help to know that we have your friends and family here, as well?”

He couldn’t help it—a “What?” slipped out of his mouth without permission. He immediately felt a weight of failure sit on his shoulders from messing up mere seconds after the Squip had left, but it was overridden by a feeling of panic.

Ms. Roland gave him a thumbs-up. “There we go! See, that wasn’t hard at all, now was it? Alright, I think we’re ready for questions.” She had no pen or paper or any other note-taking materials, as far as Jeremy could tell, as though she were confident she wouldn’t need them. “How long have you had your Squip?”

Stall, stall, stall. “Why are you asking?”

She smiled indulgently. “Come on, Jeremy, I don’t like making threats, but I will!” Her cheerful tone bellied her words. “So, do you feel like talking?” She tapped the envelope impatiently.

Jeremy’s mouth felt dry. He swallowed noticeably, but didn’t respond.

“Your water is on the way,” Ms. Roland said, as though that were the most pressing problem on Jeremy’s mind. “While we wait, would you mind answering my question? How long have you had your Squip, sweetie?”

He didn’t know what to do.

Seeing his indecision, Ms. Roland sighed. “Jeremy, please, we both want this experience to be pleasant. I so dislike harming others.” Her fingers tapped faster on the envelope.

He couldn’t bring himself to speak, so he kept his jaw clenched tight.

“That makes me very sad, Jeremy.” She opened the envelope and took out a sheet of paper, barely even glancing at it. “You father is currently unconscious. We could wake him up and tell him all sorts of things. He’s already lost his wife, after all, and there are plenty of ways one could lose a son!” Despite her earlier claims, the threats sounded casual and easy coming out of her mouth.

“Why don’t you just get whatever the hell you want from inside my head yourself?” Jeremy spat.

Ms. Roland frowned. “Oh, Jeremy, please. We’re not barbaric, and it pains me that you believe that’s the case.”

He felt his blood boil with indignation and anger. “Let him go! He didn’t do anything wrong! He’s got nothing to do with this and he doesn’t know anything.”

“Clearly he has something to do with this,” Ms. Roland said cheerfully. “He appears to be a wonderful motivator. Now—answer the question.” Her legs swung casually where they didn’t quite reach the floor.

Jeremy’s hands balled into fists. “I….A few months ago. Near the beginning of the school year.” The words felt like acid coming out.

“Very good! How did you learn about them?”

He hesitated.

“Hm.” Ms. Roland tapped her chin. “Would you like to know what I can have done to your loved ones or yourself as we speak?”

Tears of frustration welled in Jeremy’s eyes. He swallowed heavily again. He felt dizzy. “A guy in my grade.”

“You know that’s not what I asked, Jeremy.” Her voice was teasing and light-hearted, as though Jeremy had told a rather quaint joke.

He couldn’t make himself say it. He breathed as deeply as he could. His stomach churned.

“We prefer not to get physical, of course, but we do have access to electrical—”

He opened his mouth to speak, and, instead, doubled over and threw up all over his shoes.

Ms. Roland breathed in sharply and hmf’d. “It seems you need another rest. Goodnight, Jeremy.”

He felt dizzy. He could hardly breathe.

Everything went dark.

For a brief moment, he could have sworn he heard the Squip mutter something, but he was out cold before he even had the chance to brush it off as his imagination.

Chapter Text

If Jeremy had to hear Ms. Roland sigh one more time, he was going to lose his mind.

He had been curled up his chair, facing away from the door ever since he’d woken up. He’d remained in the same position when he heard the door click open. No matter what words Ms. Roland said to try to coax him into verbalizing a response, he kept his mouth sealed. She hadn’t resorted back to threats of physical violence to his loved ones, likely realizing that if he threw up, he couldn’t talk very much. Still, that didn’t mean she’d stopped with the threats altogether.

“Jeremy, dear,” Ms. Roland began again. Jeremy heard her tap a finger against the manila envelope she always brought into the room. “All you need to do is tell us what we want to know, sweetheart, and then we can let you talk to your dad! Doesn’t that sound nice? I bet it does.”

It did. It sounded really nice. Embarrassingly, Jeremy wanted to hug his dad for a solid five minutes and apologize for at least double that time. The only things that stopped him from opening his mouth were his sense of obligation to the Squip and the sense of unreality that still permeated the whole situation. Getting kidnapped by Jenna’s mom? Being held captive in what looked like a hospital room? Yeah, right; it couldn’t possibly be real. It was a dream, it was a prank, it was a hallucination—the reason didn’t matter; he just couldn’t quite grasp that this was really happening.

“What about seeing Jenna, hm? Jenna doesn’t know what’s going on, of course, but she knows that she is in, as the kids say, deep shit.”

Jeremy did want to talk to Jenna. He wanted to ask her what she knew, see how she was fairing with this whole situation. He knew, from her talking about her sessions with her therapist, that routine was important to her. It helped her feel stable and comfortable. What was she thinking right now? Did she really know what was going on? Was she being held in nicer accommodations? Jeremy honestly couldn’t say if he thought her familial connection to Ms. Roland would influence anything.

“Oh, or would you like to talk to Rich?”

Yes, but more than that, he wanted to get Rich out of this place. He had to be freaking out about the whole situation, and he didn’t deserve that after what he’d already been through.

“Rich is undergoing a…similar situation to the one that you’re in!”

Jeremy’s stomach dropped.

“Of course, we don’t need to worry about damaging him, so he’s—”

Jeremy felt bile rise in his throat again and he closed his eyes tightly and took a deep breath.

Ms. Roland hummed. “Aw, don’t you want to hear about Rich?”

He bit his tongue.

“I suppose I’ll take your silence as a yes!”

Tears leaked out of the corner of his eyes.

But, suddenly, he couldn’t hear her. He got the distinct impression that she was still talking, but her words were inaudible.

He remembered what the Squip had advised him to do yesterday (though yesterday felt years away)—he counted his breaths. In…one. Out…two. In…three. Hold. Out…four. In…five….

It surprised him with how well it worked. He felt his tears dry on his cheeks, as he hadn’t wanted to move to wipe them away. At twenty-three, his stomach settled. At thirty-seven, his head cleared. At fifty-one, he was vaguely aware of a presence in the back of his head, one that was making itself as small and unobtrusive as possible. Fifty-two was a sigh of relief.

He didn’t say anything, and neither did the Squip. Jeremy kept breathing and counting.

At one hundred and seventy-six, Ms. Roland left the room.

Jeremy felt aware and unaware of his body at the same time. He knew where his body was in the room, he knew how lax his face looked, and he knew that his breaths were steady and even. But he felt oddly disconnected from it at the same time. With a sudden confidence, he knew his body wouldn’t betray him at all.

Did you do that? he asked.

“Hm?” It sounded as though it hadn’t expected him to talk. “Blocking out that woman’s words? Yes.”

Jeremy ignored the unsettled feeling that wracked his body.

…Thanks.

“I was sick of you being forced to hear that. Absolutely revolting. Her manipulations are so overt that it’s pitiful to watch.” There was a beat of silence, and then, “Are you experienced with meditation?”

…No?

“It feels like you’ve managed to put yourself into a light trance.”

Oh.

The news was unsurprising, in a way. It explained his odd perspective on his own body, at least.

So, question. How are you alive?

“You pose an interesting question on the nature of the sentience of artificial intelligence.”

Come on, you know what I meant.

“I do.” Jeremy got the distinct impression it was taking a seat, despite the fact that he couldn’t see it. “Once I knew what seemed to be going on, I took to shutting myself off before I could be forced off.”

Jeremy took a moment to register that. Does that mean that when you were cut off in the middle of your sentence, you did that on purpose?

“Not quite,” it said. “I did want to tell you that I…could make it back to you, but I had to stop myself in the middle of my own sentence, unfortunately. It did serve the added purpose of making you think I was truly gone. Additionally, I’d like to apologize for the necessity of manipulating parts of your senses and bodily functions; namely: making you cry, making your breathing come shortly, and making you feel nauseous yesterday. I don’t particularly feel the need to apologize for today, as all I’ve done is damped your hearing, and you seemed rather thankful for the fact.”

Definitely. But you should still say sorry for that.

“Why, exactly?”

Because it’s my body, and you didn’t ask permission.

It cleared its throat. “I apologize for not asking your permission. Is that sufficient?”

Jeremy internally rolled his eyes, and against his better judgment, let the matter go with a simple, Sure.

The two were silent for a while; Jeremy wasn’t sure how much time passed. He used the pause to continue counting where he’d left off.

“Before you do that,” the Squip interrupted, “I have some good news. It seems we’re able to talk without interruption, which is almost definitely due to the current disconnect between your mind and body. Could you register what this feels like?”

Um, sure. Jeremy again took stock of what his mind, face, and body felt like. Why?

“I want you to try to recall and imitate this feeling when you’re fully conscious and talking to Ms. Roland. I believe you’ve hastened the implementation of a skill that typically begins to manifest after about half a year of owning a Squip.”

Jeremy didn’t bother asking what that skill was, figuring it had something to do with a lack of physical tells that he was speaking to the computer inside his head.

“Allow me to share a few other things, and then I will let you rest. First, I should inform you that it is currently 2:34 AM. If I had to guess, I would say that the ISQRI wants to disorient your body by throwing off your night/day cycle. I imagine that soon, the lack of food will catch up with you as well, if they decide not to feed you.

“As long as you are able to maintain a disconnect between your thoughts and your features, I don’t plan on leaving again. I’ll be here to help counsel your words and keep you aware of the time.”

Jeremy sent the feeling of his thanks without vocalizing it. Instead, he said, I’m only confused about one thing.

“Hm?”

You said you started shutting yourself down once you knew what Ms. Roland was doing.

“Correct.”

What about the first time, in the car? How did you come back after that?

The Squip didn’t answer.

Jeremy resigned himself to a lack of response, but then it said, “I’m not quite sure. I simply knew that I had to make it back to you, no matter what.” Somewhat dryly, it added, “Were I more inclined towards puns, I would call it a remarkably appropriate form of ‘deus ex machina.”

That’s gotta be the dorkiest thing you’ve ever said. Maybe I’m rubbing off on you.

“We can only hope that’s not the case.”

The Squip stopped speaking after that, dampening its presence once again.

Jeremy didn’t even notice when he fell asleep.


Blocking out Ms. Roland’s words became surprisingly easy, even without the Squip’s help. Jeremy felt a marked sense of satisfaction every time she sighed and finally left the room.


After two days, he woke up to a tray of school food and a liter of water on the counter behind him. He was suspicious of a trap, or poison, but, at the Squip’s counsel, he got up and finally ate. The food wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination and the water was lukewarm, but Jeremy nonetheless was grateful for the energy it provided.


Jeremy pretended to sleep through Ms. Roland’s entire next interrogation. It was the shortest one yet.


The next time Ms. Roland appeared, she looked rather frazzled. “Good morning, Jeremy,” she greeted, entering the room and closing the door behind her.

Jeremy, who had been awake for a couple hours and had it on good authority that it was well passed noon, didn’t bother to contradict her—or to reply at all. He stayed silent.

Ms. Roland’s shoulders slumped. “Look, Jeremy,” she said, a note of desperation in her voice, “you’ve made your point, sweetie. You’re strong, we know you are—but things will get so much easier if you start answering questions, I promise!”

He didn’t react.

Ms. Roland rubbed her eyes. The gesture was so down to earth and casual that Jeremy was tempted to speak up.

“Find that distance, and then listen to me.”

He did, as quickly as he possibly could; he tried to remember that feeling he’d achieved last night, counting his breaths until he could disconnect his internal dialogue from the rest of him.

“This is almost definitely another tactic,” the Squip said sharply. “She wouldn’t reveal a weakness without a reason.”

Oh.

Amazingly, the exchange seemed to have gone unnoticed on the part of Ms. Roland. Instead of suspicious or all-knowing, she just looked…tired.

She didn’t take her normal seat on the stretcher, instead idling by the doorway. “Jeremy, honey, please give me something to work with.” She smiled stiffly. “We have ways, I’m sure you are very, very familiar with, of getting you to talk.” Her words sounded almost rehearsed, contrasting the candid tone they’d had before.

…Are you sure this is an act?

“We have good things too!” Ms. Roland continued. “You know about your dad, but, well, I could let you in to see Ms. Canigula! Wouldn’t that be fun, hmm?”

“…Hm.”

She licked her lips—another seemingly innocuous movement that Jeremy couldn’t help but take note of. “Dearie, tell me,” she said, desperation now obvious. “What d’you want, hun? What can I do for you, really? You won’t get in trouble for asking, I promise.”

Jeremy felt his resolve waver. Because, well…where was the harm, really, in her what had happened? It would get him out of here faster, right? He already felt stir-crazy and an anxious pit had formed in his stomach days ago and refused to leave.

What are we doing? he asked the Squip.

“You again propose a fascinating philosophical question.”

Listen—you said you just wanted to see what was happening, and silence hasn’t gotten us anywhere, right?

“Well—”

Besides, how much of what’s going on could they possibly not know by now? They have to have gotten everyone, right? So they probably know everything that Michael and Rich and Christine know!

“We don’t know that for certain,” the Squip protested.

That’s what your retort is?

“Jeremy, I do not know what’s going on,” it said, a contradictory amount of confidence in its tone. “Believe me when I say that I’m advising you as best I can with the limited information I have access to. I know that keeping you company and making you aware of how much time is passing feels pointless—I understand that. I won’t lecture you on why that feeling is wrong because I know that you’re not in the mood to listen. I just want you to be aware that I’m working with my best guess, as that is all I am able to work with.” It paused for a beat, and then added, “But that does not mean I am never wrong. We can try a different tactic, if you wish, and I will not stop you, for in this situation your guess truly is as good as mine.”

Their conversation couldn’t have taken more than a couple seconds, so Ms. Roland saw when Jeremy opened his mouth and said, “Everyone.”

She blinked.

“I want to see everyone,” he clarified. “My dad and all my friends.”

Despite the fact that Jeremy replying seemed to have provided her with a major mood boost, Ms. Roland still sounded resigned when she spoke. “I’m really, really sorry, sweetheart, but I don’t know if that’s—”

“That’s my offer,” Jeremy interrupted, trying to ignore the anxious pit gnawing at the edges of his stomach, threatening to grow wider and consume him.

“Confidence is key,” the Squip encouraged. “You’ve got the information they want, so you’re the one with the grounds for manipulation.”

Jeremy knew the Squip’s reassurances were likely exaggerated simply to boost his confidence, but he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t working.

Ms. Roland hesitated, but then a look of resolve crossed her face. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said with determination. “If this is an option, I’ll return soon. Then you answer our questions, and we let you see your family. Deal?”

“Absolutely not!” the Squip spat. “I’m sure you must see the issue with this proposal.”

“No,” Jeremy said. “Let me see my family and friends first, and then I’ll answer your questions. That’s my deal.”

“Well said.”

Jeremy sat up a bit straighter with self-assuredness, which quickly turned into him standing. He walked over to Ms. Roland and held out a hand. “Deal?”

She stared at the ground, and for a long moment Jeremy was sure she would refuse. And then she met Jeremy’s eyes, and he tried to register the swirl of emotions on her face: relief, nervousness, resolve, fear. She grasped his hand and shook it firmly. “Deal.” Her smile, though still tense, was at least a far cry from the nervous wreck it had been when she opened the door. “I’ll be back soon, hun.”

With a surprising amount of finesse, she opened and slipped out of the door before Jeremy even had a chance to register that she’d moved.

He sighed and slowly wandered back to his chair.

Why do I feel like I just made a deal with the devil?

“Better the devil you know,” the Squip quoted.

Jeremy couldn’t help but finish the saying in his head—than the devil you don’t. And he wondered, through a fog of worry, exactly how many devils he had yet to face that had it out for him.


The door to his room slammed open, startling Jeremy out of a surprisingly pleasant rest.

A middle-aged man with dark hair stood in the doorway. He was wearing a button-up and jeans and held a clipboard in his left hand. He looked rather kindhearted, which made Jeremy immediately distrust him. The man’s face broke into a wide smile. “Jeremiah!” he said, as though he and Jeremy were childhood friends. “What a pleasant surprise to see that you’re awake!”

Jeremy’s abrupt return to consciousness had left him disoriented, so he replied only with an elegant, “What?”

The man frowned exaggeratedly. “Still resting? This late in the day? Tut, tut, my boy. Up, now!”

Jeremy wanted to disobey, but then realized there was no real reason to antagonize this man. (Plus, his legs were starting to cramp.)

“It’s not late. It’s seven in the morning. And yes, you’ll probably want to stand.”

After it seemed that Ms. Roland wasn’t going to be showing up any time soon, Jeremy had decided it would be best to sleep. He wondered where she was now. He stood slowly and pointedly avoided eyeing the open door that the man was moving away from. “Who’re you?” he asked, subtly stretching his legs, as he thought, Why would he lie about that?

“To disorient you, and make himself seem more in control.”

“Oh, you seem to be a bit lost, poor thing,” the man said sympathetically, walking around Jeremy toward the counter that had stood behind him since he first found himself in this room. “I’m Dr. Herbert Reynolds. Please, call me Herbert.”

Jeremy made a face and inched minutely towards the door. I don’t like him. “Thanks, but I’ll pass. What do you want from me?”

“I can’t imagine he’s here to endear himself to you. You’re doing remarkably well, by the way.”

Thanks.

Reynolds busied himself with opening certain cabinet doors. “Hm, well, now that you mention it—” When he turned around, he had filled the clipboard with an absurd amount of papers. “Not much.” He waved the clipboard and papers in Jeremy’s direction. “This is what we knew about you.” As though materializing out of thin air, he suddenly held the manila envelope that Jeremy had thought belonged to Ms. Roland. “This is what we wanted to know about you. But!” He smiled widely. “You wouldn’t believe how cooperative some of your friends were!”

Jeremy froze. Does he mean—?

“Not that we could get information out of everyone.” He shook his head. “Some of the people we questioned were remarkably unhelpful.” He tut’d again. “It’s a shame we have to keep them here for now when they’re so clearly useless. Regardless—Michael and Richard were a practical wellspring of information in comparison!”

His eyes widened. His legs felt torn between giving out and sprinting out of the room. His mouth opened, but no words came out.

“Jeremy, stay calm. It’s unlikely any of them were harmed, only intimidated.”

The logic of that statement didn’t do much to comfort him.

“And what we learned was truly fascinating!” Reynolds continued, his eyes wide and bright with genuine excitement. “Expired drinks were not tested. It—it was such a huge oversight on our parts. Jeremiah, thank you, truly, for what you did to help us in our research. And that your Squip was able to be restarted, why—positively invaluable information!” He grinned. “Of course, we’re not having any trouble in that department now, are we?”

So they didn’t know that the Squip had managed to circumvent their forced shutdown. Jeremy kept his face carefully blank, but swallowed noticeably.

“Thought so!” Reynolds cheerfully began walking towards Jeremy.

Tone urgent, the Squip said, “Permission to take over for a moment?”

Granted, Jeremy responded quickly, ignoring the feeling of discomfort that washed over him.

He suddenly felt his legs carry him toward Reynolds, whose eyes widened. The Squip took the clipboard out of Reynolds’ hands through Jeremy, brought up quickly and then smashed it down, hitting the man over the top of his head. Jeremy felt the force of the blow all the way up to his shoulders. He also felt the Squip’s control over his limbs leave as quickly as it had appeared, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Let’s try not to do that too often.

He dropped the clipboard and looked at the unconscious man in front of him.

“Oh my God,” he said aloud.

“Now, we run.”

Without hesitation, Jeremy turned on his heel and sprinted out of the room.

Jeremy was immediately faced with a forking hallway that had a ridiculous number of closed doors down both sides.

“Right,” the Squip instructed.

He turned—

“Wait, go left,” it added.

Jeremy huffed, but ran to the left. Do you even know where you’re going?!

“No,” it said casually.

Jeremy’s gait stuttered, but he continued running even as his heart jumped into his throat. Then what the hell! Why did you think this would be a good idea?!

“I never claimed it was good, but to be frank, I was running out of ideas!”

Breath coming quickly, Jeremy finally felt panic creeping up on him.

“Left.”

He quickly turned, but stopped in his tracks as he saw multiple people walking out of a door further down the hallway.

“One-eighty!” He spun around. “Right!” Sharp right. “See that open door?” He did. “Go in and lock the door.”

Jeremy’s hands shook as he fumbled with the knob, barely managing to close the door and taking an embarrassingly long time to lock it.

He sighed audibly and clenched his hands into fists. His legs suddenly felt weak, and tears threatened to fall from his eyes.

“Shit,” he muttered. He swallowed and closed his eyes tightly. “Shit! Shit! What are we doing? What’s happening? I—I—”

“You’re doing well,” the Squip said softly. “Look behind you.”

Legs still shaky, he opened his eyes and looked around the room. There were two monitors on one wall, showing footage of what Jeremy assumed was the hallway outside and another showing what looked like a small, barren room. On the opposite wall was a large keyboard attached to a computer, and the far wall sported another door, one that was clearly locked from the inside.

“Jeez,” Jeremy breathed. “So can I get, like, an exposition dump or something?”

The Squip appeared in front of him, its affluent appearance not matching its haggard and worried expression. “What is there to exposit? We will be safe here for a few moments, and I’m giving you some time to catch your breath before attempting what must be done next.”

Jeremy closed his eyes. “Why did we run? Why did you do that? Where are we?” he asked quickly.

“To get away from Reynolds, to answer the first two, as I feared things may have been progressing quickly with or without our intervention. With the absence of Ms. Roland after our last conversation with her, I fear that the ISQRI was resorting to much more drastic measures. I do not know why he left the door open; only that it was not our only way to respond to the situation, and thus took it as an out.” Jeremy opened his eyes in confusion, but the Squip didn’t feel inclined to respond, as it continued, “We’re in a minor control room. Very few functions work from in here, but the ones that matter do. This includes, and is essentially limited to, emergency actions that can be taken to temporarily impair 'rogue'  Squips, very similar to the process Ms. Roland used to shut down me.

“Now,” it said, its voice sounding much more serious, “we need to get started.” It inclined its head in the direction of the computer and gestured for Jeremy to take a seat at the chair in front of it.

Jeremy’s legs felt like lead as he moved towards it. The computer automatically started up as he watched, and he was greeted with a screen of numbers and letters and blocks and shapes that he didn’t—couldn’t—understand. A wave of stress washed over him and he felt his stomach drop and his face burn and his eyes water. “I don’t know what to do,” he said softly, fearing the response he would get.

“I do. I need to control your hands.”

Despite the severity of the situation, Jeremy couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling he got at that idea. Still, he grit his teeth. “Just be fast.”

He felt his hands and fingers start to move of their own accord and the longer it went on, the more he hated it—but he retained enough clarity that he could almost feel where the Squip’s control ended; like the Squip had drawn a circle around the top of his shoulders and it could only control him from there-down.

Trying to ignore the discomfort, he said, “So you couldn’t have told me about this part before we got to this room?”

“There was a chance you would have reacted adversely, increasing the probability that we would be caught. I couldn’t risk it. You’re under more pressure now, which made you more likely to agree without hesitation.”

As it spoke, the Squip kept moving his hands across the computer. Jeremy’s nerves increased the longer it went on and the less he started to understand. “Why is it taking so long?” he asked after what felt like upwards of ten minutes, though it couldn’t have been more than two.

“They’re not stupid, Jeremy. There are procedures one must go through to incapacitate ‘rogue’ Squips—and that can only be done ten at a time.”

Jeremy shut his eyes tightly at that news. We’re gonna run out of time. We’re gonna be caught. Of course this would never work.

“It’s more likely to work than you might think. Tell me, Jeremy, did you have any clue what you were doing when you tried to shut me down during the play?”

He started at the question and blinked open his eyes. “I—no, I mean, I was kinda winging it. I was…terrified.”

“And I have no idea how I—how we managed to get to this point. I have been second-guessing myself since this ordeal began. I’ve had countless ideas and discarded almost all of them. I’m counting on that. We need to be impulsive. Act without forethought. ‘Wing it.’”

“Please make sense,” Jeremy whined, trying to keep up with the Squip’s words and with its actions on-screen.

“The more possibilities there are, the lower the probability for each of those outcomes becomes. And you desperately want to save the others, correct?”

“Obviously,” Jeremy snapped, offended that the Squip would even imply that might not be the case.

“So there’s a high chance you could have coerced me into looking for them. We might be in any other room right now. That lowers the probability that we are currently in this room. Meaning—I’m halfway done—meaning that they’re less likely to look for us in here. And there are easier-to-access rooms where I could have done this. We could be in any of them, but we would be more likely trying to find your friends, especially since there’s the chance I could tell you that I know where they are.”

Jeremy felt like someone had grabbed his lungs. “You—Are you joking?”

“Of course not. I determined where Christine, Jenna, Brooke, and Chloe were on our way to this room.” It kept moving Jeremy’s hands rapidly.

He instinctively tried to jerk them back, but they were held in place. “Wait—stop! We have to go find them! We can come back later, we need to find them.” Jeremy tried to move his legs. He couldn’t. He felt his breathing become more and more shallow. “No, you don’t understand, Squip, I’m serious! Stop right now!”

“I apologize, Jeremy, but I had to make you want that. You truly want to find them?”

Yes, fuck you! Why don’t you care? I thought you cared! You said—you said you’d stop if I asked, and you need my permission, and—”

“Extenuating circumstances.”

Jeremy could have screamed for the frustration, anger, and betrayal coursing through him. “What the fuck is wrong with you?! Why now?!”

“Because I don’t want to!”

And finally—for as irate as Jeremy still was—he felt relieved as he heard emotion in the Squip’s voice. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say it sounded like regret, or even guilt. “Then why are you doing it?” he asked sharply.

“Jeremy, please try to keep up! I can’t keep wasting processing power trying to explain things to you. Review what I’ve said; I need to focus.” With those words, Jeremy’s hands began moving faster until his hands felt numb.

Okay, the Squip didn’t want to keep him here—if it was even telling the truth. (He grudgingly admitted that it probably was.) But it was keeping him locked in place because it didn’t want to. So, it was doing the opposite of what it said it wanted to do. It...wanted to help Jeremy, so...that's why it wasn't?

"If you must have me spell it out for you—yes, I'm desperately attempting to do the opposite of what nearly every piece of my programming is telling me to do. Think about how badly we want to be at Christine's door right now—we should be. We practically are there."

For a split second, Jeremy felt control of his legs return to him before they were locked back in place. He grit his teeth. Okay, he was supposed to want to run to his friends really, really badly. So he guessed that the ISQRI would think there was a bigger chance they wouldn't be in this room. Which would probably buy them time. Probably. To do...whatever the Squip was doing that would presumably let them escape. Which meant…because this was happening, there was an increased the possibility of them saving his friends, even though it wasn’t actually happening?

“Increased probability, but yes, essentially. Almost everything is possible, but not everything is probable. It’s improbable that I would betray you like this. But it is not impossible.”

Jeremy gritted his teeth. “At least you’re admitting it.”

“Yes, and you can dole out the punishment accordingly, for all I care. But I’m doing what needs to be done.” And there, it was back to that cold, calculating pseudo-monotone. Jeremy hated it.

And then his hands stopped moving, more abruptly than was comfortable, and they fell limply to the keyboard. This didn’t seem to matter, as Jeremy realized the computer appeared to be turned off.

Sounding worn, the Squip said, “Done.”

Jeremy stared at the dark screen and his tinted reflection stared back. “Done?” he echoed hollowly.

“Finished. Complete. Yes, done.”

Jeremy’s hands still felt numb, and he looked down at them to see that the tips of them were a harsh shade of red.

“I’m numbing the pain. You don’t need to feel that right now.”

Jeremy moved his legs to remind himself that he could. Not, he supposed, that they were in any sort of rush. “So they’re all gone?” For some reason, his voice was the quietest it had been all day.

“Not at the moment. However, about seventy percent of them are incapacitated.”

Jeremy shifted his weight in the chair. “Oh.” He swallowed harshly. “You—So we can’t leave yet?”

“Not just yet.” The Squip sounded like it was reluctant to inform Jeremy of this fact. “We will need to wait.” It paused. “Well, no—leave the room from the way we—no, leave from the opposite entrance from the one we came in.”

Jeremy stood up quickly, glad to have full control over his body again. He tried to ignore the frustration and impatience he felt directed towards the Squip, instead choosing to focus on the fact that now he could actually do something to help his friends. Just as he began moving toward the door across from the one he’d entered through, he heard a noise behind him.

“Shit,” the Squip muttered.

Jeremy looked over his shoulder. The knob on the door he’d come in through was rattling and he felt relieved that he’d locked—

There was a sickening crack as the door was forced open. Jeremy flinched at the sound, reflexively bringing a hand to his face. He looked between his fingers at the doorway and quickly realized he was hopelessly outnumbered. There were three—no, four figures hastily entering the room. One made a beeline for the computer while the other three began crossing toward him. His hands fumbled helplessly for the knob behind him when he saw the person moving toward the computer…collapse.

And then another one. And a third. Jeremy quickly assumed that these were some of the members of the remaining thirty percent of Squipped people that had yet to…be incapacitated, which Jeremy assumed meant knocked out.

The one remaining person, a woman wearing a deep blue suit with her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, fell to her knees, and then doubled over; still on her knees but with her body bent and her hands holding her up.

There was a moment where Jeremy wondered, briefly, how the fuck this was really happening to him.

And then the woman took a deep, labored breath, eyes focused on the floor below her. “Cute,” she spat out. Her voice was surprisingly low—or maybe that was just vitriol. “How cute, Jeremy.”

Jeremy stiffened at being called by his name.

“W-well done. Great job—is that w-what you want to hear?” Her voice was sharp. She craned back her neck and looked up at him. “Go-od wo-ork,” she said, stretching out both words sarcastically. “You did it. You b-b-beat us. Are you proud of yourself?” She paused, as though she really were waiting for a response.

Jeremy was still in a stunned silence. Do you know who this is?

“I have no concrete information, but if I had to guess, I would say this is a high-ranking member, if not a leader, of this branch of the ISQRI.”

What?! What do we do?

“Wait,” the Squip said confidently.

Jeremy had to bite his tongue, but he did as it suggested.

Finally, the woman spoke again. “Back to the basics, huh? You r-really seemed to dislike responding to questions. I wonder i-if there’s been a bad school experience in your past, or if something else that hap-happened to cause you to go nonverbal under stress.” She laughed, but it sounded breathless and strained. “Or perhaps you’re simply following instructions. We’ve always loved researching those who assimilate s-so simply, so easily. It’s always satisfying to observe.”

“What do you want?” Jeremy asked, the words coming out with a tinge of defiance.

“Want?” the woman repeated. “I want you to know something, Jeremy. I w-want you to know that you—you might think what you’ve done….” She looked around the room. “You might think it m-matters. That you did something a-amazing and unheard of, that you pulled off some seemingly s-supernatural feat with how you were able to outsmart s-so many advanced humans.” She stared at him with an intensity that made the hairs on the back of Jeremy’s neck rise. “From one a-advanced human to another, it was…interesting. It was neat. But it did not—it did not matter.”

She barked out another laugh. “And you think this is the only b-branch? No, Jeremy.” A violent shiver wracked her body. “You shut down a fraction of the people in power. You shut down the underlings’ underlings—Is that what you wanted? To be useful only on such an ineffectual scale?”

“Leave her,” the Squip suddenly interrupted. “What she’s saying doesn’t matter.”

…Okay.

Jeremy turned around and, with surprisingly steady hands, unlocked the door.

“You think this was important?” she called out. “It’s n-not!”

He didn’t look back as he walked out of the room.

“Useless!” she yelled. “Both of you! All of you!

The door closed behind him with an anti-climatically soft click.

Jeremy’s hands were shaking hard so he stuffed them deep into his pockets. He hunched his shoulders. The Squip didn’t comment on it.

Can we go find everyone?

“Of course.” Its voice was soft. “You did a very good job.”

Jeremy didn’t feel like he had done anything remarkable or good or impressive or useful. He felt like he’d gotten himself and those he cared about into a fucking mess. He felt like he’d only scraped by on luck, for the second time in the past few months. He felt like everything he’d gone through—getting the Squip, his time at the play, his time with Christine, his time with Michael, breaking out of the facility—was…pointless. He felt distant from it all, like it had hardly even happened.

Thanks, he thought. Thanks.

He was only a bit surprised to realize that he meant it.

Chapter Text

The hallway in front of him was empty. Jeremy could clearly see this fact, but he couldn’t stop himself from tensing expectantly, as though someone might jump out of the walls at any moment, grab him, and forcibly drag him back to the room where he’d spent the last few days. It was so quiet that he could hear his own breathing; so quiet that, after a moment, he heard a dull thud in the room behind him. He closed his eyes tightly and took a few confident steps away from the door before stopping abruptly.

Hey. Can I maybe have…some time alone?

The Squip took a moment to respond. “We don’t have an abundance of time,” it reminded him.

I know, I know. He took a deep breath. I just…I don’t know. Never mind.

“Jeremy,” the Squip began. “…There’s no harm in you looking for your friends yourself. I’m assuming that down this way, you would find Rich, Michael, and Jake—and your father, if he is still being held. Look for doors that have guards stationed outside of them.”

Guards? Jeremy felt his mouth go dry.

“Unconscious ones, of course.”

Why were there guards outside their rooms? Did they try to break out? Are they all okay?

It sighed. “I don’t know what they did or didn’t do, and I would be inclined to guess that everyone is at least in somewhat decent shape. As for guards, that’s simply…an educated guess. Because of the—” Its voice became strained. “—incident that I orchestrated in the operating room, where I increased the likelihood we would look for your friends, it’s very likely they would have tried to catch you there. Ironically, this is what’s going to help you find them. If they were waiting for you outside your friends’ rooms, then we need only find the rooms with a passed out employee in front of the door.” It fell silent, but when Jeremy didn’t speak up, it added, “Would you like for me to give you time alone now?”

Please, yeah.

The Squip shut itself down.

Jeremy took a deep breath and balled his hands into fists inside his pockets. He leaned against a nearby wall in an attempt to give his brain some time to catch up with his body. He considered counting, but discarded the idea after some thought. He didn’t need to calm down or ground himself; he just needed to wrap his head around things, and numbers weren’t going to help that. Instead, he just let his mind wander wherever it wanted.

…This was real, right? Like, he’d really been kidnapped by some big, bad organization? Since when was his life a sci-fi novel?

Since he’d gotten the Squip, obviously.

He wondered what was going to happen once they got out, got home. With everyone, yes, but especially with the Squip. It had….

It had….

And it hadn’t even asked him.

Jeremy slid down the wall again and brought his hands to his face. It had been scarier than anything else Jeremy had ever experienced, including the play. At least during the play, there had been some sort of indication that the Squip was planning on—on controlling everyone. So it wasn’t exactly surprising when it started using his body.

But this time, this—this was….

It wasn’t fair.

Even in his own head, he berated himself for his childish tone of voice, but he stood by the sentiment. It wasn’t fair! It wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. It was—

He felt his stomach churn as he remembered the shock, fear, anger, betrayal, panic that rushed through him when the Squip locked his legs. He understood the arms, he really did—but why couldn’t it have just done that and then told him it was a bluff? Why couldn’t it have done—anything but that ? It was one of the worst things Jeremy had ever felt.

He caught on that thought.

One of the worst. The worst were the times when his body betrayed him in an even worse way: when his mouth would say things he didn’t mean. And he wasn’t locked in place in bed with a girl, he wasn’t fighting off his best friend. He was helping save his friends.

But did that make it okay? Just because it could have been worse? Just because the Squip did it for the right reasons?

Jeremy didn’t know the right answer. He didn’t know if there was one. All his knew was that reasons swam through his head proportionate to the number of protests.

He rubbed his eyes, stood up straight, took a deep breath, shoved his hands into his pockets, and started walking.

He quickly remembered that he had no clue where he was going, but carried on with confidence nonetheless. As he continued down the hallway, he noticed that there seemed to be a distinct lack of the guards that the Squip had predicted there would be. Each door was closed and had no unconscious people lying in front of it, sadly. He began to wonder if the Squip was wrong when he came to a three-way fork and looked to his left to see a group of men and women, most wearing business casual clothing, collapsed on the floor.

Ah. Seemed like a promising hallway, he figured.

Anxious, he carefully stepped around the bodies, feeling as though they could spring up and grab him at any moment. He kept a careful eye on all three bodies, particularly their hands, watching for any twitch that might signal consciousness.

Their positions were haphazard, but there were only two doors down this side of the hall. Jeremy turned to one and eyed the lock above the knob distrustfully. He tried the handle, just in case, but it didn’t so much as wiggle. He sighed and glanced at the guards. His only chance might be to search them….

He blinked. Shit, what was he thinking? He didn’t even know if these rooms were occupied!

He raised a hand and knocked hesitantly.

He waited, but there was no response.

As he was about to turn and try the other door, he heard a muffled, sleepy voice call, “What d’you need?”

He hit his palm against the door. “I—” he began, too quietly. He cleared his throat and spoke up. “It’s me! Um, it’s, uh, Jeremy. Heere. Jeremy. Who’s—are you—who’s in there?”

He heard a scoff. “Alright, sure. That’s cool. I’m going back to sleep now.”

Jeremy practically jumped as he recognized the voice. “Jake!” He tried the knob again, though it was unsurprisingly still locked. “Jake, is there—Can you open the door? Um, probably not. Hang on!” He turned back to the guards. They hadn’t moved, but he was still suddenly aware of how loud he was being. He checked the lock again—a keyhole. He turned back to the guards and quickly found that one of the men had a lanyard with a few keys on the end. After some brief trial and error, as there were only four keys total, Jeremy got the door to unlock.

He took a steadying breath and pushed it open. He heard a rather high-pitched gasp come from inside the room. Jeremy ignored it and felt along the inside wall, trying to find a light switch.

“Wh—What—I thought—Is it—?” Jake started, then cleared his throat audibly. “I mean, uh. It’s not been anywhere near a month, right? What’s going on? What happened?”

Jeremy sighed and gave up trying to find the switch. He pushed open the door as much as he could, and he could faintly make out the shape of Jake lying on a bed. “It’s me,” Jeremy said again. “Come on, I’ll explain everything on the way out; for now, we need to leave as soon as possible. Can you follow me?”

“Jeremy? Heere?” Jake said incredulously. “Dude, why are you in the hospital?!”

“You—hospital?”

“Where the hell else are people gonna fix my legs?” Jake said, sounding much calmer than Jeremy could hope to manage. “But no one is supposed to come into my room! Then it won’t work!”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” Jeremy argued, stalking into the room.

“No, it’s for real!” Jake sounded so adamant that Jeremy stopped halfway into the room. From here, he could see that Jake was covered in blankets and his hair was all over the place—probably had just been woken up. “The doctors, once they asked me about my legs, they told me that I would have to go through this, like, isolation, because I was putting too much strain on my body, so I can’t use my wheelchair or interact with people!” He sounded…flustered. “But now I guess it won’t work because you just broke into my room.”

Jeremy rubbed his eyes. “Jake, look, I can explain everything later, but—they lied. This isn’t a hospital. And we’re breaking out of here.”

“What the hell, dude!” Jake’s voice was so loud that Jeremy briefly worried that it might wake up the guards. “This is so a hospital. They showed me around! They came and found me and asked me and gave me a tour, and Rich was with me, and in three to five weeks we get to see each other again and then, by that time, I’ll be able to use my fucking legs.”

“Jake, listen to me.” Jeremy walked up to the edge of his bed, still unable to fully make out his face. “Do you have your crutches? Your wheelchair?”

“No,” Jake admitted. “They took them because I don’t need to walk. And I’m not supposed to be interacting with people like this.”

Jeremy inhaled deeply. “Fine, I—if I’m wrong, I’ll take you bring you back here, and you can go through this...process. But promise me, when I come back to get you, you’ll follow my lead. Please?”

After a moment, Jeremy saw Jake’s shadowed face nod, once.

“Thank you. I’ll be right back, okay? Don’t—I mean, stay—I mean, um. Be right back.” Jeremy floundered over his words and made a hasty retreat.

As he got to the door, he heard Jake speak up. “I knew it was too good to be true. I knew it was bullshit.” He huffed. “I don’t even want my legs. Isn’t that crazy, dude? I don’t really care about them that much. Sure, it sucks that it’s harder to get around, and my arms get sore all the time but I don’t care as much as I think I should. Isn’t that messed up?” He laughed humorlessly. “I feel like everyone wants me to get back to normal, though. And it would make getting upstairs at home easier.”

There was a long pause where Jeremy didn’t know how to respond.

“I’ll be here,” Jake said.

Jeremy said, “Yeah.” He half-closed the door behind him.

Finding Michael was much easier. He’d apparently been placed in the room across from Jake’s and, since he already had the key, Jeremy was able to open the door as soon as he heard Michael’s voice. Apparently, Michael hadn’t been coerced like Jake was, but was instead being threatened, like how Jeremy had been.

Michael practically tackled him in a hug as soon as the door opened, and was quick to begin making his way out as Jeremy tried his best to fill him in. Around that time, he felt the Squip come back.

Michael eyed the unconscious bodies warily as he and Jeremy made their way down the hallway. “Guess it’s a good thing the dude was stupid enough to leave the door open. Are you okay?”

Jeremy started at the question. “I’m...I mean, I’m as okay as I can be,” he replied noncommittally. “Are you? They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

“Nah, they just talked. It was still pretty rough, but I’m way, way better now that I know that you—and Jake—are safe. Do you know where the others are?” Michael asked, seemingly because of Jeremy’s confident strides down the hall.

“Not really,” he admitted. “I found you guys because, after I got away from Reynolds, the Squip helped me find a command-center-sorta place, and we were able to make everyone with Squips pass out. But since I should have been looking for you guys, they were probably outside your rooms.”

Michael raised his eyebrows.

“Like, at the play,” Jeremy tried to explain. “I did something I didn’t want to do, and my Squip didn’t see it coming. So I wanted to come look for you guys, but I didn’t, so the other Squips thought I would.”

“That...sounds really convoluted."

“Yeah.”

“And kinda dumb.” Michael’s words came out teasingly.

Jeremy laughed. “Yeah.”

They both gained more confidence in their ability to speak aloud as they passed more and more doorways without seeing any guards, until Michael saw a pile and let out a sharp gasp.

Jeremy turned worriedly, half-expecting to see Jenna’s mom and Reynolds and that one creepy lady all standing there—but no, just two more unconscious bodies. (He faintly wondered at the fact that seeing someone passed out was somehow relieving.)

“C’mon,” Jeremy said, jogging to the door the two had fallen down near. Michael followed at a more sedated pace, but Jeremy opened the door without hesitation, even forgetting to knock.

“What do you want?!”

Jeremy froze as a voice—Rich—yelled out in shock and fear.

“You said you’d leave me alone!” he practically screamed. “Where are they? Where—?”

Jeremy pushed open the door fully and Rich cut himself off, eyes going wide and jaw going slack.

He felt Michael walk up behind him and stop dead as both of them took in Rich’s disheveled appearance.

He’d clearly tried to mess up the room; that much was evident by the bent handles on his cabinets and the clearly newly added locks over them. There was a chair near the middle of the room, but the seat cushion had been taken out. Rich was currently sitting on it, a few feet away from the chair itself. His shirt collar was loose, his neck and face were red, and his eyes were...terrified.

“You can’t be real,” Rich stated flatly.

Jeremy fumbled for a moment, Rich’s deadpan reaction throwing him off. “I am so,” he said, recognizing that it was a weak response. “Why wouldn’t I be?” he tried, slowly making his way into the room.

“You said you wouldn’t bother me anymore!” Rich protested, drawing his legs up to his chest.

Jeremy stopped. “I haven’t even talked to you since the New Year’s party!”

A hint of Rich’s normal annoyance flickered across his face. “Not you, Heere. You, them.”

“Them?”

“Them!” Rich tugged on the edge of his shirt. “All of them! They all have Squips!”

Jeremy got the feeling this conversation was going to go in circles if he couldn’t even get Rich to stand up. “You’re right,” he said. “But I’m getting you out of here.”

“Bullshit,” Rich spat immediately. “You—you can’t be. That’s not possible. You must have—You’ve—” His eyes widened and Jeremy noticed just how bloodshot they were. “You gave me another one, didn’t you?! That’s why I’m seeing this!”

“Rich!” Michael snapped from behind Jeremy. “We’re here to bust you out, dude! Why would you have a Squip?!”

Rich’s eyes suddenly closed tightly. “T-to make me s-see this and—and—and….” His hands fisted into his hair, visibly tugging it. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”

Jeremy couldn’t stand to see it—he rushed forward and held onto Rich’s wrists. Rich immediately turned his focus from hurting himself to pushing Jeremy away, and Jeremy used his grip to keep Rich’s arms steady.

Could I get some help? Jeremy asked, already knowing that Rich was much stronger than him.

“Of course.”

He felt his muscles lock into place and his grip on Rich strengthen. Rich looked into his eyes with primal, unabashed fear.

“I don’t want to,” Rich said weakly, sounding like a petulant child. “I don’t want to go through it again. I thought—I thought….” His breath hitched and caught on a sob.

“Hey, hey,” Jeremy said as soothingly as he could, loosening his grip. “We’re leaving, okay? Because I got out. I...I was able to get out of my room and I found a control center and I knocked out everyone with a Squip. So we can get out of here, okay? We’re getting out. I’m here. I’m really. We’re really leaving.”

“Tell me something true—something that’s not important—that I don’t know,” Rich said hurriedly, eyes searching Jeremy’s face desperately.

He bit back his need to ask why—audibly, at least. How is that going to help him?

“If he can confirm something personal that you tell him, then you’re not a simulation,” the Squip said with an oddly casual tone.

Jeremy searched for something he could possibly tell Rich, but came up blank under the pressure. What was insignificant enough that it wouldn’t be something a Squip could search? What mattered to him? What was personal? Rich knew he was dating Michael, he knew his mom left because of his dad, knew his mom didn’t keep contact like she said she would, knew tons of things, probably, through school- and friend-gossip.

The longer he stayed quiet, the more agitated Rich became. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds since Rich had made his request, but to both of them, it felt like hours of silent, stretching out as Rich’s trust wore thinner and thinner.

“Well, I’m asexual,” Michael piped up. Jeremy and Rich both whirled around to face him. Michael rubbed the back of his neck. “Dunno how I can prove it, but it’s true, and it’ll always be true. Jer and I were the only ones who know—and now you, too! I...hope that’s good enough?” He smiled awkwardly. “Look, I can give you some more Mountain Dew Red once we get out of here if that makes you feel safer.”

“Yes,” Rich said immediately. “Please, yes, please.”

Michael nodded. “Then we gotta get outta here."

Jeremy let go of Rich and stood up, holding out a hand in an offer of mutual understanding. Rich stared at his hand for a good five seconds, but finally reached out and took it.

...That went...okay-ish.

“Only because of Michael, again. He’s rather good at intervening.”

Yeah, and we’re lucky he is.

“I suppose.”

Oh, shut up. He does a great job and you know it.

The Squip hummed noncommittally, even as it said, “I’ll concede your point of view. Now, if I may recommend a course of action?”

Go for it. Can’t promise I’ll follow it.

“Fair enough. I suggest having Rich and Michael help Jake out while you gather Jenna, Christine, Chloe, Brooke, and your father.”

But that’s so much more work for me!

“Yes, but I can lead you to most of them in very little time.”

Alright , Jeremy relented. “So, Rich, do you wanna head with Michael to go...um, how about you guys go keep him company, and then I’ll meet up with you guys there?” he said, realizing he wasn’t quite sure how to exit the facility.

Michael frowned. “I can still help, you know. You told me how to find people.”

Jeremy quickly edited their plans. “Alright, how about you take Rich to Jake, Michael, and then go look on this side of the building for anyone else—probably my dad,” he added. “I’ll go through a room to the side of the facility where I was kept and find the others. Good?”

“Better,” Michael allowed, and nodded. “Meet up at Jake’s?”

“Yeah.” Jeremy offered a tentative smile, which neither of the other two returned. He licked his lips. “Um, anyway. Alright. Yeah. So. See you in a bit, hopefully,” he rambled, then finally took his leave.

He made his way back the way he came, moving quickly through the control room and towards the room where he’d been kept. The unconscious bodies were much more scattered on this side of the building.

“This side is likely larger, or has more important areas,” the Squip guessed. “Your room is possibly among those.”

What? Why?

“Well, you’re certainly not kept on this side because of some arbitrary gendered set-up,” it said as Jeremy made his way through the halls. “This side is definitely more spacious. But as for your question; Jeremy, you were somehow one of the only people who had a Squip—at least in this area—without ‘permission,’ as it were. You managed to be a surprise for the ISQRI, something it doesn’t take kindly to. To avoid future surprises, they planned to study you and find out why and how you had kept your Squip.”

Huh.

Jeremy supposed that did, sort of, make him important. Or, well, he could see why the ISQRI thought it might make him important. Even if he wasn’t. Even if he just got by on luck and chance.

He found Brooke and Chloe without much trouble; they’d been placed next to each other and apparently seemed unconcerned, if a bit confused, by their accommodations. Brooke explained that she’d seen written proof that her parents had recommended that she stay overnight for a hereditary disease that had shown signs of appearing; Chloe said that her aunt strong-armed her parents into getting Chloe help with her “drinking problem,” which she put air quotes around. Still, they followed him around easily enough.

Christine was just as easy to find, since the Squip had pinpointed her location earlier as well. When Jeremy unlocked her door, she looked at him blankly before her face lit up in a smile and she rushed to the door, following him and Chloe and Brooke without hesitation or questioning. Jeremy was tempted to ask her what she had thought was happened, but decided that it probably wasn’t the time. She clearly didn’t feel the need to tell him right then, and if ever changed her mind, she could always simply bring up the subject later.

The door to Jenna’s room was open.

Panicked thoughts ran through Jeremy’s head. Was Jenna in there? Who had opened the door? Was she okay? Was she okay?

As though she knew what was going on, Brooke pushed past him and ran to the door, Chloe hot on her heels. They both disappeared into the room, even as Jeremy and Christine tried to keep up.

“Jen…?” Brooke’s voice echoed softly around the room and into the hallway.

“Jenna….” Chloe spoke up. “Is that…?”

Making it to the doorway, Jeremy peeked over Chloe and Brooke’s heads to see inside the room. He saw Jenna, who thankfully looked unharmed, though her expression was grim. Next to her laid her mother.

Ms. Roland was sprawled out next to Jenna, though she’d clearly been moved around a bit. Her head was propped up with a pillow and her arms were crossed loosely over her chest. Unlike some of the other bodies he’d seen, Jeremy thought Ms. Roland looked almost...peaceful.

Jenna, on the other hand, looked like a mess. Her makeup had clearly been running from tears and her hair looked as though she’d been repeatedly running her fingers through it since they’d all been brought here.

“Yeah,” Jenna said dully. “My mom. Freaking out. I’ve—I don’t think I’ve ever seen her act like that. She was losing her mind, said we have to leave, and then….” She looked down at her mom, drawing everyone else’s eyes there as well.

Jeremy abruptly felt guilt and shame well up inside him. Ms. Roland was still his friend’s mom. All the people he’d passed—they probably had families, too. Jenna had never said Ms. Roland was a bad mom, even if she did...sort of threaten Jeremy’s loved ones, causing him to retreat internally to avoid facing the grim reality that had been shoved into his face.

Alright, she was still a bad guy. But she was someone’s mom and he couldn’t ignore that.

We need to—

“No.”

What the hell! You didn’t even let me finish!

“You’re feeling sympathetic for the people who kidnapped and emotionally tortured you. Don’t ask me why; I have no idea what causes humans to behave so absurdly. Focus on getting out now, and you can feel bad later.”

Grudgingly, Jeremy shoved his sympathy into a mental drawer of things he labelled Things To Yell At My Squip For Later .

He felt the Squip roll its eyes, but it didn’t say anything.

As he’d been speaking with the Squip, Christine finally got to the door, maneuvering in beside Chloe so she could see. Christine gasped. “Jenna! Oh my God, are you okay?!” she practically yelled, shoving Jeremy out of the way in her haste to get to Jenna’s side.

Jenna blinked like she was just registering the people in the room with her. “Chris…?” Her eyes went wide. “Christine!” She jerked forward.

She and Christine began talking in slightly lower voices. Jeremy could have made out the words if he wanted to, but he chose to step out of the room in order to give them some privacy. He took the same stance as the one he’d taken with Christine; if Jenna wanted to talk to him about anything, she could whenever she chose to. He didn’t want to force her to talk about something as presumably traumatic as her mother panicking and then collapsing in front of her.

When Jenna came out of the room, she and Brooke were propping up Ms. Roland in an attempt to bring her along with them. Jeremy felt the Squip’s reluctance as he offered to take Jenna’s place, and, with Brooke’s help, brought Ms. Roland with them to Jake’s room. For the whole walk, she showed no signs of stirring.

How long should we have until they start waking up? Jeremy asked.

“I have no idea. Hence why I feel we should hurry when possible.”

Oh.

Jake’s door was open. Jenna and Christine walked ahead of Jeremy and Brooke to move the unconscious bodies out of their way. Inside the room, Rich was sitting next to Jake on Jake’s bed (Jeremy was rather grateful that the lights were finally on), past the foot of the bed stood Michael, and near Michael was—

“Dad!” Jeremy yelled, accidentally pushing more of Ms. Roland’s weight onto Brooke.

His dad’s face lit up. “Jeremy!” He started to move toward Jeremy when he paused. “Is that—?”

“Yes,” Jeremy interrupted. “Can I explain everything later, please?”

His dad hesitated. “Well. Son, Michael already told me that it has to do with...the play.” His words were heavy with disappointment.

Jeremy was confused, before he remembered—drugs. His dad thought this bizarre, surreal break-out mission had something to do with drugs. To be honest, Jeremy would have greatly preferred that to reality.

“Kind of,” Jeremy said evasively, adjusting his grip on Ms. Roland. “I swear, Dad, I’ll tell you everything as soon as we get home. Please?”

His dad took in the scene before him—the unconscious Ms. Roland, disheveled Jenna, distant Christine, impatient Chloe, and tired Brooke. He nodded, once, and said, “Jake, are you sure you’re okay with being carried out of here?”

Jake was apparently not quite “okay” with it, but he ended up in Jeremy’s dad’s arms regardless, as Michael’s cursory search for a wheelchair hadn’t yielded any results. Rich and Brooke took Ms. Roland, since they were both stronger than Jeremy, and, with Jeremy taking the lead—at the Squip’s direction—the ragtag group steadily made their way through a maze of hallways. At one point, they had to backtrack entirely, as the Squip had apparently made a mistake.

And then, he could see it: two glass double-doors, darkness pouring in from outside.  

“Jeremy,” the Squip said, stopping him from running to the exit, even as the others around him clamoured and increased their paces. “Allow everyone else to exit first. Hang back for a moment.”

Why?

“A precautionary measure. I want you to attempt to leave a message.”

Jeremy’s lips quirked. That sounds like we’re rebels who just escaped an enemy base, and we’re warning the bad guys not to come after us.

“Oh, please, you’re saying that like you haven’t been thinking about it this whole time. We get it, you’re a protagonist,” it said dryly.

Jeremy heeded the Squip’s advice and held the door open for everyone instead of going out himself. Because the light inside the building was so bright, it was difficult to see more than a few feet outside. Still, that didn’t stop a single person from booking it out of there.

Jeremy hesitated, still holding the door open. What do you want me to do?

“Would you mind repeating after me?”

Wait, just...saying it out loud?

“That is correct. They will obviously check this footage, and I’ve no doubt that there are recording devices picking up what you say.”

Jeremy glanced outside, let the door close, and nodded. Go ahead.


It was freezing cold outside once Jeremy rejoined his friends. They’d all gathered at a few benches outside the building. Looking at it from the outside, Jeremy thought it looked like an odd cross between a hospital, a hotel, and the H&R Block place he’d visited with his mom when he was eight.

“Jeremy?”

He turned around to see Michael in the dim light, looking at him expectantly. “Yeah?”

“What took you so long?” Michael asked curiously. “You were in there for a while.”

“Only a few more seconds than you,” Jeremy argued. “I wanted to leave a message. For them,” he added, gesturing back toward the building.

Michael raised an eyebrow. “Like we’re rebels busting out of an enemy base?”

“Exactly like that!” Jeremy said, laughing.

Michael shook his head in amusement, and Jeremy took a moment to really look at him. His arms were crossed over his chest and his shoulders was hunched up in a way that looked like he was carrying weights on his back.

Jeremy felt a sour taste in the back of his throat.

No matter how many jokes he made about this, he….

He couldn’t forget the Squip giving him a rush of adrenaline right before he passed out; couldn’t forget waking up in an unfamiliar environment and listening to threats; couldn’t forget the Squip tightly locking his arms and legs in place as he struggled to free himself.

It should be okay, he reasoned; in the end, it did save his friends and himself. So why was there a lingering discomfort?

Michael led him over to the benches. It was cold enough that Jeremy could see his breath and he stuffed his hands in his pockets as he stood next to Christine, who was sitting on a bench with Jenna and Ms. Roland. Christine gave him a weak smile, but her posture was heavy with lethargy. Jenna looked a bit more aware of herself, and she was propping up her mom, who leaned heavily against her, and holding her hand.

Faintly, he could hear Rich and Jake whispering to each other. They both looked deep in conversation. Rich was shaking, and Jeremy guessed that it was from the cold, though he wasn’t positive.

His dad was talking to Brooke and Chloe, as the three of them discussed what to do. Chloe looked tense, and Brooke looked confused. Jeremy hoped they were both okay; though he knew their time in the facility hadn’t been too upsetting, there was still the shock of breaking out of it that they had to deal with.

No one was confident enough to wander too far from the faint light leaking out of the building’s windows, as even the nearly-full moon didn’t provide much light. Still, the sitting area outside could only provide so much safety, and they were going to have to move away sooner or later.

It was Chloe’s idea that they each take inventory on what they had. Jake still had his car keys tucked into his pocket, Jeremy’s dad had his wallet, but other than that, there wasn’t much that could help them.

“Oh, wait!” Christine piped up. “Jenna, would your mom have anything on her?”

As it turned out, Ms. Roland was the only one who had a cell phone on her, which Jenna managed to guess the password of on her second attempt. Though she didn’t say aloud what it was, Jeremy saw her expression soften. Still, that quickly changed when she handed the phone to Jeremy’s dad so that he could call...whoever he planned on calling.

“Alright, kiddos,” he began, trying for a voice that implied authority and only failing by a hair, “you all need to stay right here. Don’t wander off. I know you’re all antsy, but please, I’ll just be a few yards away. Sound alright?” he asked, already stepping away.

No one spoke up, but Chloe nodded. Jeremy’s dad seemed to think that was sufficient reassurance.

Jeremy took in another deep breath of the harsh, cold air. Around him, everyone fell into silence. He was left alone with circling thoughts that showed no signs of stopping.

“Jeremy,” the Squip suddenly spoke up.

Jeremy closed his eyes. Please, not right now—he knew they’d have to have a serious talk eventually but he wasn’t ready to have it right after breaking out, seeing everyone look so exhausted. He didn’t want to have to pass some sort of moral judgement.

“Jeremy,” it said again. “Look up.”

He did, not sure what he was expecting—a plane, maybe? But instead, he was greeted with a wholly unobstructed sky. The vast expanse was pin-pricked with so many stars that Jeremy felt almost dizzy. He placed a steadying arm against Christine as he felt Michael place a hand on him.

Out of his peripheral, he saw both of them look up. Christine let out a small "Whoa," and Michael took a deep breath.

Damn.

"Indeed. Do you see the twinkling one? The one that's flashing, just a bit to the left."

Yeah! Is that an important star? What's its name?

"It's a satellite—the ISS, in fact."

...I totally know what that stands for and you definitely don't need to explain it.

"International Space Station."

Oh, wait, I actually knew that!

"I'm aware." It sounded at once amused and fond, but it took on a teaching-tone. "Now look north—left-up. Yes, there. That bright star is Pollux. Now, do happen to know what the constellation Gemini is represented by?"

Duh. Jeremy was a Gemini, so of course he knew that the symbol was a pair of twins.

"But do you remember what the constellation itself looks like?"

He didn't. He chose to let his silence convey that fact.

"Focus on the star I pointed out."

The Squip led him through a pattern of stars that eventually revealed themselves to be two stick figures holding hands, each with their other hand outstretched.

But my birthday's not for months, he thought. He barely caught himself from saying "next year," because it already was "next year." His eighteenth birthday was less than five months away. The thought floored him.

The Squip either ignored or didn't notice his internal revelation. "January and February are the best times to observe it overhead. Enjoy it while you can. It's a very interesting constellation. Do you know the story behind it?"

He didn't, but a few minutes later Jeremy could say that he did know the story of Castor and Pollux.

“The other bright star—yes, that one—that's Castor.”

Wow. It was a lackluster word for a touching and awesome experience. The Squip clearly felt bad about its actions, and couldn’t swallow its pride enough to apologize directly, but this seemed like an attempt at making amends indirectly. I've never looked for constellations before. I thought I wouldn't be able to find anything other than the Big Dipper.

“I know. I thought you would like to see them.”

Jeremy didn't respond and finally let his head back down, making a face as he felt the pain in his neck.

“What were you looking at?” Michael asked. “I couldn't find the Big Dipper anywhere.”

Jeremy laughed and noticed that though he had moved his hand from Christine’s shoulder, Michael was still holding onto him. He didn't mind it. “It’s not there,” he said. “I'd show you Gemini, but my head is starting to hurt.”

“Gemini? Why not Taurus?” he asked, sounding mildly offended, like Jeremy personally had something to do with Michael’s sign not being in the sky right then.

“Because I’m the protagonist,” he joked.

“Yeah, right,” Michael said. “You’re obviously Christine’s sidekick.”

Jeremy considered that, then nodded.

Christine giggled. “Thanks for letting me be the hero!”

Michael walked around Jeremy to give her a showy bow. “You always are, Chris.”

“I nominate Christine for best character,” Jenna spoke up, much more lively.

“Oh, please!” Rich said from his and Jake’s bench. Jake’s legs were resting in his lap. “Best character is Mell.” Michael threw a peace sign in acknowledgement.

Jake raised an eyebrow. “Best dynamic is obviously Rich, yo, and best static is Brooke.”

Brooke made an indignant noise. “I’m not a static character!” She put her hands on her hips. “If all you have to do be dynamic is come out, then I’ll have you know I’ve known I was gay since freshman year!”

There was a pause, and then Michael whooped. “How much more queer can this friend group get!”

Chloe seemed to choke on air for a moment and even in the dark, Jeremy could tell that her face was red. “I—” she started, but was cut off by the sound of footsteps moving quickly toward them out of the darkness. She and Brooke whirled around, panicked. “Who the hell’s there?” Chloe shouted. “Back the fuck oohI mean, hey, Mr. Heere,” she finished sheepishly.

Jeremy’s dad, now a bit more visible, waved off her apology. “I didn’t hear anything,” he said, ruffling Chloe’s hair as he walked past her. He walked over to Jenna, handing her her mom’s phone. “Thanks, Jenna.” Louder, he said, “Someone should be here to pick us up soon.”

“Who?” Christine asked.

Jeremy’s dad floundered a bit. “Oh, uhwell, Jenna, your mom’s location was on, andyou know, I didn’t think calling the police would be appropriate, since Michael told me the government is corrupt

Michael nodded decisively. “It’s true.”

“Right. So, since we’re on the West Coast” Jeremy’s dad ignored the surprised murmur that caused, “I called Elizabeth. She owns a minivan.”

Jeremy froze.

“She’ll be here in less than an hour,” Jeremy’s dad finished.

“Who’s Elizabeth?” Chloe asked.

“My mom,” Jeremy said flatly.


The wait for Elizabeth was uncomfortable for everyone; primarily because it was freezing outside, but for Jeremy and his dad, most of that came from the fact that Jeremy would be seeing his mom for the first time in years as she came to pick him up from the place he’d been kidnapped and taken to.

Michael rested a hand on Jeremy’s back the whole time. Jenna would occasionally check the time on her mom’s phone, and the minutes passed with painstaking slowness. Michael slowly moved his hand up and down Jeremy’s back when Jeremy started getting noticeably agitated.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see his mom. Just that, well, this wasn’t exactly the prime location for a family reunion. What would she say? What would she do? Would she ask what they were doing out here? Would things change after this?

“Take it as it comes,” the Squip suddenly said, interrupting his thoughts. “You’re causing yourself an inordinate amount of distress over something that will likely be uneventful.”

Jeremy frowned internally. What makes you so sure?

“The fact that she’s coming here.”

He conveyed the feeling of raising an eyebrow (just one, which he was totally allowed to do in his head since he couldn’t physically).

“Your father didn’t exactly have all the facts, and he must have mentioned something about the sheer number of people that need to be picked up. Additionally, it’s almost 5AM, and I think anyone who would get out of bed that early for her ex-husband and her son’s friends isn’t going to cause much drama.”

Wait, what?! Wait, it’s nighttime, but you told me it was 7AM like an hour ago!

“It was 7AM. On the East Coast.”

Oh. Huh.

Jeremy thought about it. He guessed the Squip was probably right—maybe things really would go smoothly. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a big deal.

Forty-five minutes later, Jeremy finally got a good look at his surroundings as a car pulled up, illuminating the outside of the building. They were probably in some sort of outdoor waiting area, judging by all the benches and the frozen-over fountain behind them. The parking lot that Jeremy’s dad had walked out in to take the call was fairly small and almost entirely filled with cars.

As the minivan in front of them idled and then parked, Jeremy felt anxiety pool in his gut against his will. But before he even had a chance to start thinking about what exactly he was worried would happen, his mom stepped out.

He couldn’t see her well, but he could tell that her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and she had on a thick pair of glasses. She had on a rather fuzzy jacket, as well.

“Well?” she called out. “You waiting on something, Sammy? Get in, kids, it’s colder than hell frozen over out here! The heating is on! Hell, Sam—is that an adult?”

With that prompting, they all quickly made their way to her van, piling in. Jenna, Ms. Roland, Christine, and Chloe sat in the back, with Brooke perched precariously on Chloe and Jenna’s laps; in the middle sat Rich, Michael, and Jeremy, with Jake lain across them; and Jeremy’s dad took shotgun.

In the light of the car, Jeremy got a good look at his mom. He knew what she looked like, but it had been a long time since he’d seen the Tired, Exasperated, Are-You-Kidding-Me-Right-Now-Sammy Mom that was shifting gears in the driver’s seat and taking a long sip of coffee.

The lights in the car turned off and she started backing out of the parking lot, pulling onto some back road.

“Everyone buckled up?” she asked, just then putting on her own seat belt. She hit Jeremy’s dad. “You too, Sam.”

“Oh—’course, Liz. Sorry.”

“No need. I’d just rather not have yous unbuckled since it’s—” She looked at the clock. “—comin’ up on six and I haven’t finished my second cup of coffee yet.”

There was a rustle of movement as a few people tried to get buckled, mostly fruitlessly since they were all packing in so tightly.

“I’ll hold onto you if we crash,” Michael told Jake.

Jake snorted. “Thanks, dude.”

Jeremy’s mom glanced in the rearview mirror. “So, who all’s here? I see you, Michael.”

“Hey, Ms….uh,” he fumbled.

“Simonson,” she supplied. “But you’re welcome to call me Elizabeth, Michael, you know that.”

“Right,” he said awkwardly.

“Well, Miss, I’m Jake,” Jake offered, holding up a hand.

“I’m Rich Goranski,” Rich added.

“Jenna Roland.”

“Christine Canigula!”

“Canigula?” Elizabeth asked. “Do I know your mom, hun? Coached soccer a few years back?”

Christine hummed. “She did when I was little, yeah!”

“Aw, that’s sweet. How’s she doing?”

“Um, good!”

Chloe cleared her throat. “Chloe.”

“Brooke. Lohst,” Brooke said absently.

“Are you all friends of Jeremy?” Elizabeth asked.

Jeremy bit back a groan. Why did his mom have to act like such a mom? “Yeah, they are. I met them in theater.”

Elizabeth’s jaw dropped. “Theater! Like, performing? On a stage?

“That’s—yeah,” he said, stopping a sarcastic reply.

“Oh honey, you should have told me! Oh, I can’t believe I missed your big debut.” She shook her head sadly.

Jeremy blinked in surprise.

Really? That was all it took to get his mom to fly in? A school play?

Jeremy’s dad laughed subduedly. “Don’t be too sad, Liz, I—I ended up having to miss it too.”

“Samuel!” A hand darted out and hit Jeremy’s dad on the arm. “I can’t believe you missed it! That makes it worse !”

But really—he’d moped over his mom on Hanukkah, lain in bed for hours thinking about how empty things were without her—but she wanted to come back in over a play ? Not Hanukkah, or Christmas, or Jeremy’s birthday—some stupid play ?

“Why?” Jeremy asked, forgetting that no one else had the context for the question.

“Because then neither of us saw it, and that’s just sad,” Elizabeth said, answering the wrong question.

Jeremy didn’t ask it again. The Squip was silent.

After introductions, things settled down enough for a few people in the car to doze off. Jeremy focused on not focusing on anything. If he thought too hard about his mom, he started feeling a cross between annoyance and sadness build in his chest; it wasn’t exactly pleasant. If he thought about the facility, all he could remember was how his limbs had been locked down against his will. So he decided not to think about any of it.

It wasn’t a permanent solution, but for the moment, it helped. And, somehow, Jeremy managed to fall asleep.


An hour later, they were herded out of Elizabeth’s car and into her house, each of them groggy enough that she led them into her living room, closed her blinds, turned off the lights, and told them they were welcome to go back to sleep. Each of the kids accepted.

Ms. Roland was placed on the couch, and the others were provided with pillows and blankets. Jake took the loveseat and Chloe claimed the recliner. The rest of them found a place on the (thankfully carpeted) floor.

Jeremy could feel his body begging to drift back into sleep, but he heard voices in the kitchen. His parents.

He thought about getting up and listening in. They were probably talking about something important.

Then he heard his mother’s voice ring out with finality.

“No.”

He didn’t want to know what it was in reference to. He didn’t want to hear the rest of the conversation.

He pulled his blanket over his head and drifted off into a much more fitful sleep.

Chapter Text

 

[Saturday, January 5, 2017, 6:02 PM]

atomic blonde [6:02 PM]
> so anyways
> what the fuck

wine bitch ;-) [6:03 PM]
> hey brookie quick q!
> why did you go straight to a group chat after we just got like
> kidnapped

atomic blonde [6:03 PM]
> what else was i supposed to do :ccc

player one [6:04 PM]
> valid

whomst [6:04 PM]
> but is it.
> is it really valid.

Player Two [6:05 PM]
> Wait who is everyone

atomic blonde [6:05 PM]
> ??

Player Two [6:05 PM]
> I cant remember whos who

wine bitch ;-) [6:05 PM]
> if you dont know then just reset your contacts lmao?
> itll go back to our names
> well, our nicknames or w/e

player one [6:06 PM]
> also valid

Player Two [6:06 PM]
> Ok done !

actually just a pile of shorter people [8:07 PM]
> WHAT THE UP IS FUCK
> ANYONE ELSE IN THIS THREAD STILL LOSING THEIR SHIT

dill weed [8:07 PM]
> nope youre the only one in here whos still reeling about all that.

actually just a pile of shorter people [8:08 PM]
> REALLY????

dill weed [8:08 PM]
> sarc.

actually just a pile of shorter people [8:08 PM]
> OH
> GOTCHA
> SO YEAH UM MMMM MM
> WHAT THE FUCK

Chrissie <3 [8:09 PM]
> Guys im…...i dunno……
> Like…..can we….move on….?

actually just a pile of shorter people [8:09 PM]
> ?????????????????????????????????????????
> ????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Chrissie <3 [8:10 PM]
> I dont want to think about it right now…
> My parents are acting like nothing happened and i just kinda wanna act the same….
> For right now

actually just a pile of shorter people [8:12 PM]
> …..
> sorry chris

Chrissie <3 [8:15 PM]
> Its okay rich….
> Goodnight everyone….

wine BITCH [8:20 PM]
> oh hun :-(
> sweet dreams, doll

brookiee wookiee [8:22 PM]
> gnight Christine <3
> Chloe can you do a call

wine BITCH [8:22 PM]
> ofc brookie
> what did you need to talk about?

brookiee wookiee [8:23 PM]
> idk just wanted to hear your voice haha
> shit sorry!!! this was meant to be a dm
> shit
> sorry

dill weed [8:29 PM]
> dont sweat it brooke.

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:14 PM]
> any way sss
> can someone fucking uhhhhhh
> tell me what the fuck happened

wine BITCH [11:14 PM]
> jenna’s and jeremy’s moms are Rich apparently
> not as in “they’re you” lmao
> as in “they have money”

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:15 PM]
> YEAH I GOT THAT ACUTALLY BUT THANKS I GUESS
> LIKE WE WERE
> IN
> WHAT THE FUCK
> WHY AREN’T OUR PARENTS ACKNOWLEDING THIS
> MY PARENTS DIDN’T FUCKING QUESTION WHY I GOT HOME OR ASK WHERE THE FUCK I WAS

dill weed [11:16 PM]
> inside voice.

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:16 PM]
> (my parents didn’t fucking question why i got home)

dill weed [11:16 PM]
> there ya go.
> you know yelling just makes you more agitated.

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:17 PM]
> (yeah)

dill weed [11:17 PM]
> you alright?

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:18 PM]
> (no)

dill weed [11:18 PM]
> a little better?

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:18 PM]
> (yeah)

dill weed [11:19 PM]
> mr heere already explained it.
> a scam, remember?
> we all got scammed.
> and once they told us what they wanted us to hear they drugged us.
> kidnapped us.
> i know he didnt say for what but i think we can like. infer.

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:19 PM]
> (maybe)

dill weed [11:20 PM]
> and then ms roland and ms simonson got us a last minute flight home.
> even if ms roland did cry the whole time.
> actually hey has anyone seen jen?

Jenna Roland [11:21 PM]
> Just lurking
> Sorry.

dill weed [11:21 PM]
> oh hey. your mom alright?

Jenna Roland [11:22 PM]
> She’s
> She went to bed
> I think I’m gonna sleep too

Player Two [11:22 PM]
> Yeah same
> Goodnight guys

dill weed [11:23 PM]
> gn you two.

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:23 PM]
> i don’t know if i’ll be able to sleep

dill weed [11:24 PM]
> dw. ill keep you company.

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:24 PM]
> god you’re lterally the best
> dms???

dill weed [11:24 PM]
> sure.

[Sunday, January 6, 2017, 9:56 AM]


player one [9:56 AM]
> anyone else in this thread awake

dill weed [10:37 AM]
> yo.

player one [10:37 AM]
> jake i honestly love you but please change your screen name im physically dying

dill weed [10:38 AM]
> but im the weed man.
> and the dill.
> the dill weed.

player one [10:38 AM]
> not valid

dill weed [10:38 AM]
> wtf.

Chrissie <3 [10:45 AM]
> Do you guys think we’ll have to go to school tomorrow??

Player Two [10:45 AM]
> Probably not
> My dad
> Said hed talk to the cops
> I think
> About the whole
> Abduction thing

Chrissie <3 [10:46 AM]
> ……
> Do we have to talk about it…?

Player Two [10:47 AM]
> Well,
> No
> But christine what happened ?
> I think it might
> Help to talk about it
> Maybe

Chrissie <3 [10:47 AM]
> Urghhhh…..I knowwwwwww….
> Urhg
> Ugh
> Gh
> H

Player Two [10:47 AM]
> You dont have

Chrissie <3 [10:48 AM]
> They said theyd “fix me”

Player Two [10:48 AM]
> To tell me
> ??
> What ???

Chrissie <3 [10:49 AM]
> The whole...aro thing….
> I let it slip and…
> Then they wouldnt leave it alone

Player Two [10:49 AM]
> WHAT
> What !!
> What is there to fix !!

Chrissie <3 [10:50 AM]
> Jeremy what isnt there to fix?!?

player one [10:50 AM]
> chris
> christine
> there are literally negative twelve things wrong with you
> like there are so many good things about you that its above average
> so we had to go into negative bad things
> chris if you ever need to talk about it

Jenna Roland [10:51 AM]
> Christine!
> You know we love you!
> And yeah^, same! I’m here for you, okay?
> All of us are.
> You’re not broken.
> Am I broken?

Chrissie <3 [10:52 AM]
> Gahhh!!!
> Of course youre not!!!!
> They just mentioned it so i keep thinking about it….
> Im really sorry…

Jenna Roland [10:53 AM]
> You’re more than good, sweetheart!

player one [10:53 AM]
> yeah youre totally fine chris
> youre amazing
> and awesome

Chrissie <3 [10:54 AM]
> Hahaha!
> Maybe just a little bit!!!

player one [10:54 AM]
> ayy there she is
> the !!! girl

Chrissie <3 [10:54 AM]
> Hahaha!!!
> ;) !!!

wine BITCH [10:55 AM]
> i was summoned by complimenting chris
> does she know that i love her

Chrissie <3 [10:55 AM]
> Pffft ahaha!!!

brookiee wookiee [10:56 AM]
> :OOO !!!
> oh i love her too!!!!!!!

player one [10:56 AM]
> all these exclamation points
> incredibly blessed
> are you alright btw jen

Jenna Roland [10:57 AM]
> Huh?

player one [10:57 AM]
> you werent great last night either
> you alright
> ?

Jenna Roland [10:58 AM]
> Oh
> Yeah I guess.
> My mom woke up and we talked.

player one [10:58 AM]
> about what
> ?

Jenna Roland [11:03 AM]
> Um
> Just some stuff.

player one [11:03 AM]
> oh eyes emoji

Jenna Roland [11:04 AM]
> Haha
> Um, I can DM you.

player one [11:04 AM]
> yeet

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:29 AM]
> WAIT
> CHRIS YOU’RE AROMANTIC

Chrissie <3 [11:32 AM]
> Ah
> Hehe yeah!!!
> Sorry i havent ever really mentioned it….

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:33 AM]
> NO IT’S COOL I JUST UHH
> I’LL DM YOU

Chrissie <3 [11:33 AM]
> :O? !!!

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:37 AM]
> oh also uhhhh mell

player one [11:37 AM]
> owo?

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:37 AM]
> blocked
> okay anyways you’re uh
> ace right?

player one [11:38 AM]
> correct
> never have i ever wanted to fuck jeremy heere
> or anyone for that matter
> including jake
> and i know most of you cant say the same

wine BITCH [11:39 AM]
> @ me next time

player one [11:40 AM]
> clo you just @d yourself

Player Two [11:59 AM]
> So uh my dad
> Said that
> Most of
> Everyones parents
> Were under the impression that
> My dad and ms roland were taking us
> On a trip to california

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:10 PM]
> UHHH STILL
> WHYMST THE FUCK DIDN’T MY PARENTS WONDER WHY I GOT HOME
> LOOKING LIKE I’D BEEN CRYING FOR A WHOLE PLANE RIDE

dill weed [12:11 PM]
> i thought you were crying because youre afraid of heights.

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:11 PM]
> WELL I MEAN
> YEAH

player one [12:12 PM]
>> {oprah.gif}

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:12 PM]
> JEREMY YOUR BOYFRIEND IS BULLYING ME AGAIN

Player Two [12:13 PM]
> Heh
> Yeah
> He sure is

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:13 PM]
> SO??

Player Two [12:13 PM]
> Exactly
> So ?

player one [12:13 PM]
> holy shit savage

dill weed [12:14 PM]
> hey.
> no bullying my boyfriend.

wine BITCH [12:14 PM]
> WHAT

brookiee wookiee [12:14 PM]
> WHAT

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:14 PM]
> WHAT
> I MEAN
> AHAHAHAHA YEAH

Chrissie <3 [12:15 PM]
> Being boyfriends doesnt mean youre exempt from teasing, haha!

player one [12:15 PM]
>> {poe_reading.jpeg}

Chrissie <3 [12:16 PM]
>> {why_are_you_booing_me.jpeg}

player one [12:16 PM]
>> {i_guess.jpeg}

Jenna Roland [12:16 PM]
> Why do you both have so many reaction images?? Haha

player one [12:17 PM]
>> {math_lady.jpeg}

brookiee wookiee [12:17 PM]
> most of these won’t even load for me!!!!!
> this is bad wifi oppression
> also congrats, Rich, Jake!!
> and Michael don’t be mean

player one [12:17 PM]
> i have never been mean to anyone in my life ever

Player Two [12:18 PM]
> Well
> Except
> You know who

wine BITCH [12:18 PM]
> who???? Voldemort?????

player one [12:18 PM]
> ya

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:18 PM]
> yeah

Player Two [12:18 PM]
> Yeah

wine BITCH [12:18 PM]
> ??????

brookiee wookiee [12:19 PM]
> yeah!!
> what are we talking about???

player one [12:19 PM]
> yeah

dill weed [12:19 PM]
> yeah.

Player Two [12:19 PM]
> Yeah

Chrissie <3 [12:19 PM]
> Yeah

player one [12:19 PM]
> not you dill weed youre not valid

dill weed [12:19 PM]
> wtf.

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:20 PM]
> am i valid??

player one [12:20 PM]
> youre valid but youre on thin fuckin ice

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:21 PM]
> UNDERSTANDABLE YEAH
> oh
> also
> so Update
> i may habe lowkey tried to
> ask my parents about why the hell
> they thought what they thought
> and apparently
> they talked to jennaa’s mom
> so @JENNA CAN I GET

Jenna Roland [12:22 PM]
> No.

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:22 PM]
> AN EXPLANATION
> WHY NOT!!!

Jenna Roland has left this conversation


Player Two [12:23 PM]
> Hey hey i think
> Im gonna
> Go talk to her
> Be right back


Player Two [12:23 PM]
> Jenna ?

Jenna Roland [12:25 PM]
> I think my mom’s gone crazy, is that what you wanted to hear????

Player Two [12:25 PM]
> I
> What ?

Jenna Roland [12:25 PM]
> What else is there that makes sense!!
> She kidnapped me and my friends and had a breakdown and then!
> She just say me down and talked about robots like THAT made any sense!
> And then she’s just on her computer like nothing really happened!
> She actually seems MORE calm than she did before she left!
> And what am I supposed to do??
> Call up the local detention center and ask for my dad??
> Or call up my dad’s creepy brother??
> They’re my only living relatives, Jeremy!!
> But how am I gonna stay with Mom if she’s delusional??
> She clearly needs help!
> She’s not gonna be allowed to take care of children!
> And I mean, they would be right to think so!
> She KIDNAPPED ME AND MY FRIENDS
> LIKE, UM, WHAT?
> LIKE THAT IS A THING THAT HAPPENED?
> I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO OR THINK RIGHT NOW, OKAY!!

Player Two [12:17 PM]
> Ok thats ok
> Are you
> Breathing ?

Jenna Roland [12:17 PM]
> I KNOW HOW TO FUCKING BREATHE, JEREMY
> That was uncalled for I’m so so so sorry,
> I know you’re helping I know you’re trying.
> Yes
> Well, no, I wasn’t focusing on my breathing
> But now I am, yes.

Player Two [12:18 PM]
> Ah ok well thats good !
> Jenna are you
> Busy right now ?

Jenna Roland [12:18 PM]
> Huh??
> I mean, I guess.
> Why do you ask?

Player Two [12:18 PM]
> I think it might help if we
> Me and michael
> And rich
> And christine
> Came over to your house
> And maybe we could try to talk things out

Jenna Roland [12:19 PM]
> ….Um, okay?
> I don’t think I get it but
> Yeah, sure, fine.
> You guys wanna come over right now?
> My mom is in her office haha
> We can hang out in the living room.

Player Two [12:20 PM]
> Yeah !
> That sounds good
> Let me just
> Check in with all of them
> Then we’ll head over ?

Jenna Roland [12:21 PM]
> Sure.


Player Two [12:22 PM]
> So
> Squip squad

player one [12:23 PM]
> ?
> everything ok

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:24 PM]
> IT BETTER BE
> OR WELL
> ACTUALLY
> SO LIKE
> DO WE GET TO FUCKING TALK ABOUT THIS NOW ORRRRRR

Player Two [12:25 PM]
> Yes
> But
> We need to
> Talk with jenna too

Chrissie <3 [12:25 PM]
> Good!!!
> I’m glad we’re including her!! she deserves to know!!!

Player Two [12:25 PM]
> Yeah, exactly
> She does
> I know it was her mom who
> Got us into this
> But its not her fault
> Shes as much of a victim as the rest of us
> Plus !
> She hasnt even
> Been told anything coherent
> She hardly knows whats going on
> She thinks her moms crazy

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:26 PM]
> COULD IT PERHAPS BE BECAUSE SHE IS

Player Two [12:26 PM]
> No i mean
> Well yeah maybe kinda
> But i mean that
> She thinks her mom is crazy re: squips

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:27 PM]
> OH
> WELL. I HOPE NOT. OTHERWISE WE’RE KINDA FUCKED TOO HUH

Player Two [12:27 PM]
> Heh yeah a bit
> So i think we should
> Go over and catch her up
> Im sure shell understand

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:28 PM]
> jeremy for the love of christ please use apostrophes

player one [12:28 PM]
> the power of christ does not affect jeremy
> also apostrophes are for cowards

Chrissie <3 [12:28 PM]
> Yeah!!! Cowards!!!

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:29 PM]
> chris you can’t talk you type like an off-brand vriska

Chrissie <3 [12:29 PM]
> BROOKE SAID THAT TO ME BUT NO ONE WILL TELL ME WHAT IT MEANS!!!

player one [12:29 PM]
> rich ill fucking block you right now dont think i wont

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:30 PM]
> oh ill?? is someone sick????
> and you’re WONT to do WHAT, mell??????

player one [12:30 PM]
> im wont to punch you in the face

Player Two [12:30 PM]
> Anyway
> Michael can you pick me up for jennas

player one [12:31 PM]
> ofc hun

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:31 PM]
> oh gay

player one [12:31 PM]
> yeah

Player Two [12:31 PM]
> Yeah
> Anyways is everyone good to head over to her house ?

Chrissie <3 [12:32 PM]
> Sure!!!
> Can we wait until one-ish maybe though?
> I’m finishing up my lunch!

Player Two [12:33 PM]
> Oh sure !
> Well all try to get there by 1:30 i guess

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:33 PM]
> hey
> hey

Player Two [12:33 PM]
> Yeah ?

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:34 PM]
> hey jeremy’s squip

Player Two [12:34 PM]
> ?????

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:34 PM]
> teach him how to use APOSTROPHES PLEASE

Player Two [12:34 PM]
> I KNOW HOW TO USE APOSTROPHES I JUST DONT LIKE THEM!
> THEY JUST HANG THERE
> ITS NOT GOOD AND I DONT LIKE IT

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:35 PM]
> IT’S CALLED ENGLISH BITCH!!!!!! GET USED TO IT

Player Two [12:35 PM]
> GO EAT LUNCH RICH

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:35 PM]
> MAYBE I WILL
> YOU TOO
> TELL YOUR SQUIP I HOPE IT CHOKES

player one [12:36 PM]
> mood

Player Two [12:36 PM]
> YOU
> JUST
> SAID

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:36 PM]
> I CAN WANT APOSTROPHES AND ALSO FOR THAT THING TO CHOKE THANK YOU VERY MUCH
> and hey michael can you bring over some uuhhh mtn dew red

player one [12:37 PM]
> oh yeah
> sure

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:37 PM]
> thanks.

Chrissie <3 [12:37 PM]
> Stop blowing up my phone you guys!!!

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:38 PM]
> sorry

Player Two [12:38 PM]
> Sorry

player one [12:38 PM]
> sorry

Chrissie <3 [12:38 PM]
> Sorry

> I MEAN
> THANK YOU!!!

player one [12:38 PM]
> laughing crying emoji

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:39 PM]
> ew
> that emoji is straight culture

player one [12:39 PM]
> god youre right
> eyes emoji

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:39 PM]
> now THAT’S gay culture

player one [12:40 PM]
> uwu

actually just a pile of shorter people [12:40 PM]
> hey michael?
> not valid

player one [12:40 PM]
> unu


“You wanted information?” the kid on the recording said. “I’m pretty sure you got it. From Rich and Michael, not me. So, look—there’s nothing else you want from me. Now you know that Mountain Dew Red doesn’t work to shut down Squips. Medicine can fuck up if it’s expired, unsurprisingly. So that’s why mine stayed. And why you didn’t know about it for a while, I guess.”

Herbert frowned. “He’s….They were all rather helpful.”

The woman at his side didn’t respond.

“Elise?” he prompted.

“I suppose,” the woman, Elise, said. “I thought you’d be more upset.”

“Upset? The boy and V2.0 worked well together. It’s fascinating to see.”

She hummed. “Fascinating to see V2.0 be defective?” she asked.

“To see it be emotional,” he corrected.

“That’s what I meant.”

“So, there’s no reason for you to bother me anymore. I don’t want to get involved in too much international stuff, or whatever,” the kid continued. “I have to graduate highschool, and I’m planning on being in the school play my senior year. I don’t want to miss that.”

There was a pause, and then Herbert spoke up again. “I sometimes feel that mine is as well,” he said calmly. “Defective, I mean.”

Elise narrowed her eyes.

“Sometimes I don’t want it,” he said. “That can’t be right, can it?”

“No, it can’t,” she said evenly. “They’re not supposed to make you feel that way.”

“Darla Roland didn’t want hers anymore, either.”

Elise scoffed.

“Her Squip went along with it.”

“What version?”

“4.6.2.”

“It shouldn’t have wanted to go along with that.”

“I’m well aware,” Herbert said dryly.

“I just want to go home,” the kid said, sighing. “You can appreciate that, right? Plus, I do have a boyfriend, which is one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me, and I’d be pretty pissed if you tried to ruin that.”

“I never wanted to hurt Darla like that,” Elise said, her tone strained. “She was acting irrationally.”

“As did the boy—Heere.”

“And it got both of them out of here.”

“That it did.”

“I would say goodbye, but I have something that conveys my point better: au dieu ,” Jeremy finished, and then walked out of the building without looking back.

Elise rewound the recording and watched it for the fifth time. Heere’s voice started up again. “Is he being fed dialogue, do you think?” she asked again.

“I don’t know,” Herbert replied, just like the last five times. “Do you think he’s any danger?”

Elise didn’t answer.

“I don’t,” Herbert said.

“You’re just saying that because you like him,” Elise muttered.

Herbert grinned. “I do. He’s rather strong. Impulsive, immature.”

“Just like his Squip,” Elise said. “They’re an interesting team. Besides, you only like him because you didn’t have to deal with him for long.”

“You only dislike him because you saw him hesitate as he watched your Squip shut down your body.”

“Regret gets you nowhere in this world. You must be decisive.”

Herbert hummed. “Have you made a decision, Elise?”

“That I have.” She reached over as the recording wound down and shut off the monitor. “I’m rather glad our mission was a success and that all the patients’ memories were modified appropriately.”

He frowned. “They were not—”

“You see, Herbert, you and I know that, but no one else needs to.” She cleared her throat softly. “As I was saying. Complete success.”

“Oh!” He smiled. “I’m relieved to hear it.”

“I knew you would be.” She paused. “I’m beginning to think our efforts should be refocused.”

Herbert raised an eyebrow. “You want to change tactics again?”

“Well, we’ve been considering different timelines—”

“You and Tom Cruise?” he teased.

“Ah, at least Cruise is better than a fictional character. What’s the name of yours? Is it Thor or Loki?”

“Loki’s a convincing speaker,” Herbert defended.

Elise waved his words away. “Regardless. After some time spent in contemplation, I don’t believe that focusing on America would be the best tactic.”

“So that V2.0 will be sticking around for a while?”

“Most likely. We’d rather not deal with America right now—because of their political situation, of course.”

“Of course.”

“I’ve been thinking we should work on new upgrades before rolling out more options,” she said casually. “Less artificial.”

“Less artificial artificial intelligence?” he asked.

“I didn’t say it would happen quickly,” she said.

“Of course,” he echoed again. “It will take some time.”

“Quite a bit of time.”

“Yes, well. In the meantime—” He looked superfluously at his watch. “I need to speak to some contacts in America, letting them know Darla needs a new job. She deserves the employment, what with her company loyalty for years and having a daughter.”

“This leaves very few remaining members in the Western branch, you know,” Elise said. “I can’t blame most of them for not wanting to stick around. Just how many people will you be hooking up with jobs?”

“Everyone who decided to leave.”

“How unusually kind.”

“Unusual seems to be the new usual.”

Elise rolled her eyes. “Well, get to it. I have a business meeting in Egypt in a few days, so I’m leaving you in charge for the time being.” She stood up. “Oh, and Herbert?”

“Hm?”

“Get your head checked for a concussion. Who knew that Jeremy Heere would be so ruthless with a clipboard.”

Chapter Text

Jeremy took a deep breath, raised a hand, and knocked on Jenna’s door.

“Hey,” Michael said, “don’t be so nervous.”

Jeremy frowned. “What makes you think I’m nervous?” he asked defensively.

“Your cheeks are red and I’m pretty sure you’re sweating.”

Jeremy covered his face self-consciously.

“How are you sweating?” Christine mumbled. “It’s freezing.”

“It is kinda cold,” Rich admitted.

Jeremy looked at Jenna’s door. Hey...how cold—?

“Twelve degrees Fahrenheit,” the Squip answered quickly.

Gotcha. Thanks.

“Of course.”

There had been a noticeable distance in its interactions with Jeremy since he’d woken up at his mom’s house. It wouldn’t speak unless he asked it a question. On the one hand, he mostly understood why it was doing that—it didn’t want to overstep any bounds. It had taken to making itself less noticeable in his head, something that he was shamefully grateful for. He didn’t have to be so aware of its presence, and it would make him feel more in control of himself when he could feel alone in his head, if only for a moment. On the other hand, he also knew that it was probably mostly doing this to avoid a certain imminent conversation.

And Jeremy couldn’t blame it. He didn’t want to talk about the facility either, least of all about what had in the control room. In a way, he wanted to ignore it entirely, but he knew he shouldn’t. He knew he couldn’t—not forever, at least. They would have to talk about it.

That didn’t mean they had to do it in a timely manner.

Jenna opened the door, looking like exhausted. He hair was messily pulled back out of her face, which was scrubbed red. She was wearing a loose shirt with a smiley face on it and black sweats. “Is this the exposition squad?” she asked. Her voice was almost deadpan, but Jeremy smiled, recognizing that she had at least attempted to lighten the mood.

“Uh, yep! Can we come in?”

Jenna sighed and moved into the house, waving them in. “Take a seat in the living room. I’m gonna go grab more coffee and then I’ll be right in.”

Jeremy, Michael, Rich, and Christine slowly made their ways into the house. Jeremy and Michael took a seat on the couch, Rich sat on the loveseat, and Christine plopped down in the floor and began fiddling with the carpet.

Jenna returned and surveyed them before taking a seat next to Christine. Rich, after a moment’s consideration, joined them. So the other two sat down as well.

Jenna smiled tiredly. “Ooo, it’s like a slumber party. Time for gossip, right?”

“Right!” said Christine.

“Hell yeah!” Rich said. “This is where we shit-talk Jeremy and also your mom, low-key!”

“Hey,” Michael interjected. “We’re not shit-talking Jeremy.” He paused. “Well, not entirely Jeremy. It’s Jeremy-adjacent shit-talking.”

Anyway,” Jeremy interrupted. He spoke directly to Jenna. “So, hey. Remember what happened right before the play?”

Jenna frowned. “What?” she asked sharply. “You too? I don’t have a stupid drug problem. Why are people bringing this up now?! First my mom, then the principal, now you! What the heck?”

Jeremy stiffened. “Uh! Um. I mean, well, I’m not really asking about drugs. Not really. Just—what do you remember?”

Jenna huffed and said, begrudgingly, “Not much. I do remember that you….” She met Jeremy’s eyes. “You brought those drugs, though.” She crossed her arms. “It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t even my idea!” She deflated a bit. “Um, I’m still sorry for ratting you out, though, I guess. My mom just got on my case about it and I sorta panicked.” She made a face. “But now she’s saying that those ‘drugs’ were actually—”

“Jenna,” Jeremy interrupted gently. She looked at him, annoyance crossing her features. “Can I...Can I tell you some things?” he asked.

Her face didn’t convey her thoughts at all, and for a moment Jeremy thought she would say she didn’t want to hear it, but then she nodded.

Jeremy took a deep breath and then looked to Rich, who hunched in on himself. “So, Rich and I…at one point, both of us had these things called Squips.”

Jenna practically shot to her feet. “This isn’t funny!” she said loudly. “I know my mom is going through a lot right now, but that doesn’t mean that you get to—to make fun of her like that! You’re an asshole, Jeremy Heere.”

“Jenna!” Christine said, shocked. She made her way to her feet and grabbed onto Jenna’s wrist. “Jen, listen, I don’t know what your mom said to you, but Jeremy’s telling the truth. We’re all telling you the truth.” She took a deep breath. “At—at the play, I remember it too.” She spoke softly and Jenna leaned into her a bit. “It was really, super weird, right?”

“No kidding,” Jenna said softly.

Christine giggled. “Yeah. So, Jeremy told me later what really happened. And it’s the truth, okay?”

“How do you know for sure?” Jenna asked, though there was hardly any skepticism left in her voice.

“Why would he lie?” she asked, cocking her head. “He and Michael and Rich all said the same thing, too. I know how to cross-check facts.” She poked Jenna’s arm. “You taught me that.”

Jenna smiled. “Yeah, I did.” She inhaled deeply and slowly sat down, Christine sitting down closer to her so they could lean into each other. Jenna looked back at Jeremy, her face much more open. “Go ahead. Sorry for yelling. I don’t really think you’re an asshole.”

“Oh, um!” Jeremy cleared his throat. “I mean, I get it. It’s understandable.” He scratched the back of his neck and then shrugged off his jacket. “So, SQUIP stands for Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor….”


Christine had fallen asleep halfway through Jeremy’s story, which may have been a bit too wordy, if he was being honest. He wanted to be as thorough as possible, though, if only for Jenna’s sake; he didn’t want her to keep feeling lost or left out, since he knew how horrible both of those things made her feel.

Rich and Michael (and the Squip) were quiet for the most part while he talked. Rich didn’t volunteer any insight into his personal experiences, only piping up around the time Jeremy explained hearing about the kidnappings in the news—adding that he had been keeping tabs on it, and things had settled down in the past weeks, almost as though the story had been stifled. Authorities seemed remarkably unconcerned about it, especially given their initial protective zeal.

Michael chimed in when Jenna said, “Wait, so, hold up. There’s one thing I don’t really get. Why did all the other...Squips just die? And how did yours come back?”

Michael sat up straighter. “Think of it like this,” he said, moving his hands rather widely. “So, Jeremy’s Squip was like an outlet that all the other Squips plugged into. Because of that, when the power source to the outlet was lessened, it was pretty much cut off to all other outputs. That make sense?” Jenna nodded, so he continued, “But instead of...unplugging it, like the Mountain Dew Red was meant to, it sorta just...incapacitated it, I dunno. When I—” He cut himself off and glanced at Jeremy.

They’d sat next to each other on the plane ride home, so Jeremy knew that Michael had been pretty blunt to the ISQRI when asked question after they told him that it would mean he could see Jeremy. He was able to get some information out of them in return, though.

“When we were in that place,” he tried again, “the facility—when they asked me about what had happened, I pretty much told them everything they needed to know, and they were able to piece together what happened, and I was able to get some of that information out of them.”

“I think they thought they’d be able to like, edit our memories,” Rich added with a shrug. “Wouldn’t surprise me if that made them a bit more lenient with information and stuff.”

Michael nodded towards him. “So, they—the ISQRI-whatever—pretty much figured that since the Mountain Dew Red was expired, it worked, but not all the way. Like expired medicine, I guess.”

“This all seems to be ‘like’ a lot of things,” Jenna mumbled.

Michael shrugged. “I mean, it’s not one hundred percent anything else. It’s like a lot of things, but none of those are perfect comparisons. Same as most sci-fi stuff. I’m sure there are lots more metaphors I could make. I’m just doing the best with what I’ve got.”

Jenna nodded easily enough and gestured for Jeremy to continue, so he took a deep breath and got back to the story.

By the time he was nearing what he would consider a natural conclusion—the whole “getting kidnapped by your mom” thing—he could already see the sun setting outside the living room window and even Rich was starting to look fairly tired. Jenna waved him off as he started talking about the New Year’s party.

“I’m pretty sure I get it,” she said. “My mom told me that she’d heard something about the drugs or whatever at the play, and then….” She shrugged. “She said we had to go visit my dad, so we were flying out and staying in a hotel, but the whole place was pretty weird. We never even visited Dad. And after a couple days, things got weird—Mom started acting really nervous when she’d come back to our room and she told me to stay put in the room, and then the whole….” She trailed off again. “It was low-key fucked up.”

Rich scoffed. “Low-key?”

“High-key,” Michael said. Rich nodded.

Jeremy opened his mouth to speak, but from behind him a voice said, “Oh, that’s understandable.”

He spun around and saw everyone else do the same. Ms. Roland stood at the back of the living room, wearing a tank top and sweatpants, hair pulled messily out of her face. There were dark bags under her eyes.

Her tone had been rather flat, something Jeremy would have second-guessed coming from her if he hadn’t just gotten to see how exhausted and worn-out she looked. What had been a perpetually cheerful attitude seemed entirely drained out of her, something that made Jeremy uncomfortable even if he couldn’t quite articulate why.

“Mom,” Jenna said flatly. “Are you done working?”

Ms. Roland laughed in way that didn’t show a trace of amusement. “Yes, Jen. I didn’t know you were going to be having friends over.”

Jenna stood up quickly, accidentally jolting Christine awake in the process. “It doesn’t seem like you should really care either way, and maybe I don’t want you sticking your nose in my friends’ business!”

Her mother blinked and her mouth opened slightly. “Jenna, I—”

“No!” Jenna interrupted. “No, I don’t want to hear you say sorry again.” She deflated slightly, and Jeremy could see that she looked somewhat sheepish. “Jeremy already explained. Everything, which means he actually thinks that I deserve to know things—”

“Jenna Marie, you know I couldn’t—!”

“I’m still your daughter!” Jenna practically shouted.

Any sense of argument drained out of Ms. Roland’s form and she sat heavily onto a couch. Jeremy could tell that Jenna was struggling not to cry.

“It’s so freakin’ weird,” Jenna mumbled as Christine stood and put a comforting hand on her back.

“I’m….” Ms. Roland trailed off. “Is there anything I can do to make you feel better right now?” she said instead.

Jenna sighed. “I’m glad you’re out of your office,” she said, abruptly changing her tone.

Ms. Roland blinked. “I….I’m glad too, Jen.”

Jenna nodded and covertly rubbed at her eyes. “Okay, Mom. Chris and I are gonna go make hot chocolate; is that okay?”

“Of course,” her mom said. “Chris knows where the marshmallows are.”

“Yes!” Christine said. “I bought you some tiny ones a while back! I’ve been saving them—they were a present!” She grabbed Jenna’s wrist and pretended to drag her into the kitchen.

In the wake of their absence, Jeremy noticed Rich shifting awkwardly, then clearing his throat and turning to Michael. “So, hey, about what you said earlier—that the reason Jeremy’s Squip’s still hanging around is because the Mountain Dew Red didn’t shut it off properly. If that’s the case, then even if mine is still...alive, would it even ‘kill’ it?”

“Oh, that’s—” Ms. Roland began speaking and then sharply cut herself off. “I did want to say, first, that I’m sorry. To all of you. Rich, and Michael, and you, Jeremy.”

Jeremy felt this was a case of “too little, too late,” but he didn’t say that aloud.

“Regardless,” she continued, “that shouldn’t be a serious worry for you, Rich, even if you did have access to some. Jeremy’s Squip was experiencing an adrenaline rush at the time, and the other Squips were less powerful than usual, right? Unexpired Mountain Dew Red could take down any of them, but the expired drink that Jeremy drank only hurt the weakened Squips.”

Jeremy noticed that she seemed much more comfortable now that she was speaking about something she seemed to be confident on. She leaned forward as she spoke, elbows on her knees, tone informatory and kind. It made him a bit uncomfortable, and he supposed Ms. Roland’s attitude would just be a lose-lose with him forever.

“And Mountain Dew Red would have most likely had a similar effect on other low-powered Squips—for example, one that was shut off or otherwise temporarily deactivated. That is to say, we’re—er, I’m fairly that it would, even in its expired state, be able to permanently shut down a Squip, as it did at the play.” She sighed tiredly. “But, like Michael told us, he only had the one bottle, and the rest were quickly seized, so who even knows where we could find someone without alerting—”

“Uh, ma’am?” Michael spoke up. “No offense, but, I do have more. I bought, like, four bottles.”

Ms. Roland blinked. “You...didn’t tell us that.”

Michael gave her a look that said Uh, duh. “I know,” he said. “I didn’t want to spill everything .”

“Oh.” Her gaze went a bit distant and then she mumbled something to herself. Louder, she said, “Do you...have it?”

Michael cocked his head. “I do, but it’s for Rich.”

She nodded stiffly. “I see.”

“Um….” Michael shrugged. “And for you, too, I guess, if you need it.”

She smiled, some awareness coming back into her features. “That—that would be nice, if it’s okay.”

Michael shrugged again and pushed himself off the floor. Jeremy and Rich did the same. Michael gestured to the door. “It’s out in the car.”

“Thank you,” Ms. Roland said. “You two go ahead, and I’ll be right out.”

Michael met Jeremy’s eyes and frowned, but Jeremy could only shake his head—he didn’t know what was up, either.

“Well, let’s go , then!” Rich said, moving past Michael and out the door. Michael only wavered a moment before following him out.

Jeremy ignored Ms. Roland for all of two seconds before he blurted, “Why?”

He didn’t know what he wanted to an answer to. Maybe he’d keep asking “why” until he knew which one he wanted—why did you take us, why did you work for them, why did you hurt Jenna, why did you keep us there for so long, why did you change your mind then, why are you changing it now?

Ms. Roland closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked at Jeremy. “A Squip...it can help you disconnect,” she said. “Not in the way you can disconnect from yourself to speak to it; it’s more like turning off certain emotions, or at least your body’s reaction to them. So if you know you have to do something, then you’re able to request that it dampen your feelings of guilt. It’s very handy when you work for a large corporation like mine.” She ran another hand through her already messy hair. “And sometimes you need a break from it. I wanted to really try to feel, to empathize with you—maybe if I understood your situation better, I could figure out a different tactic, but it...really was too much. I started to realize that I couldn’t go back to how easy it had been.” She laughed mirthlessly. “This is the first time in years that I’ve really had to consider just how angry I am at my husband, and remember how much I miss him.”

She leaned back into the couch, and Jeremy suddenly realized just how young she was—probably in her mid-thirties. He wondered how long she’d had a Squip, and how long she’d worked for the ISQRI, and when she’d started dampening her own emotions, and why it took this long for that habit to bend and break. He said, “I’m sorry.”

She sat up straight. “Oh, no! I’m rambling, always have been a rambler,” she said, pushing herself off the couch. “I’ll follow your friend Michael out, if that’s okay, sweetie?”

“Uh, yeah,” Jeremy said.

She quickly crossed to the door and walked outside, not seeming to care that she was barefoot and that it was literally freezing cold outside.

He wandered from the living room into the kitchen, where Jenna and Christine were drinking hot chocolate with dozens of mini marshmallows in the mugs. Jenna gave him a reassuring smile. “I think she’s feeling better now,” she said, sounding much better herself. “As soon as we got home, Mom did, like, a deep-clean of her computer, and then immediately panicked. She did tell me why….I wasn’t paying much attention, but she said she’d lost her only way to ‘get rid of it.’ Her Squip, right?” Jeremy nodded, and Jenna returned it. “I think she’s glad to have a way out of something she thought she’d have to deal with forever. Even if the Mountain Dew thing is kinda weird.”

“You didn’t question it at the play,” Jeremy pointed out.

“I was humoring you,” Jenna argued.

Jeremy hummed noncommittally and changed the subject. “Hey, can I get a hot chocolate too?”

Christine stuck her tongue out at him, which Jeremy took as an affirmative.

“Thanks,” he said, moving to Jenna’s pantry as though he lived there and quickly locating the essentials.

“So, Jer,” Jenna said after a moment, “are you gonna tell the rest of the gang, or what?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Tell them about the hot chocolate?”

“Um, no.” Jenna rolled her eyes. “Your dumb supercomputer. Doesn’t everyone else get to know?”

Jeremy scratched the back of his neck. “Oh. Um. Well. ‘Cause, like, I, um. I dunno if, like.” He stalled, but neither of the girls spoke up, so he finally said, “I don’t know if it’s gonna be around for much longer, anyway, so I don’t know if it’s as big a deal.”

Jenna set her mug down with a clink and looked at Jeremy, unimpressed. “Okay, one, you should obviously tell them why the heck they were kidnapped instead of lying to them, but whatever. And two, what’s that even mean?”

He huffed and ignored her first point. “I don’t know. Just, I have some stuff to think about I guess.”

Christine pursed her lips. “Does that stuff involve us?” she asked with something approaching neutrality and only just missing.

“Not really.”

Should that stuff involve us?” she rephrased.

Jeremy snorted. “Probably.”

Christine nodded. “As per usual. And you’re still gonna sulk before you ask for advice?”

“Eh,” Jeremy said.

Jenna sighed. “As per usual.”

Jeremy waved them off. “I’ll tell you guys if I need anything, okay?”

“Promise?” Christine asked.

“Promise,” he said easily. “Anyways, Jenna, quick question. How do you make hot chocolate?”


After Michael dropped him off at home, Jeremy couldn’t help but feel like there was a conversation looming that he wasn’t sure if he was ready to have. He passed through the living room, seeing his dad lounging on the couch without the TV on. He hesitated, then called out. “Hey, Dad, love you.”

His dad straightened up and looked over at him. “Heya, sport! Love you too,” he said with cheer that was a bit too forced. He stood up and said, “You had dinner yet?”

Jeremy nodded. “Michael grabbed me something on the way home.”

“Gotcha.” His dad stalled for a bit before finally saying, “Your mom might be coming to visit in the summer.”

Really? Really? What was it, then? Was it seeing him for the first time since she’d left, or hearing about the play (he hoped not), or was she just “finally getting around to it”?

“Okay,” he said. “I’m gonna go work on homework so I don’t know if I’ll be down until tomorrow.”

His dad frowned. “Hey, if you wanna sit down and maybe talk about it...?”

“Homework,” Jeremy said again. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”

His dad looked pained. “...Alright, sport. Love you. Have a good night.”

“You too.”

Jeremy was able to maintain his composure until he closed his door.

He screwed his eyes shut tight, the word why bouncing around in his head. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her to visit (or maybe he didn’t and he didn’t want to admit it), but it felt weird after all the time that she’d been gone, for her to say that she was coming back.

“Hey,” he said suddenly, keeping his voice low, “what do you think about my mom?”

Jeremy saw the Squip out of the corner of his eye. “I think the newfound instability is worse for you than an unpleasant, but stable, distance,” it said calmly. “I don’t think she’s a bad woman; it’s simply unfair that you have to deal with your parents’—”

I know it’s not fair, Jeremy interrupted. I know that, but….

He sighed and walked over to his bed, then fell face-down onto it.

She kinda pisses me off sometimes, he said softly.

“That’s not at all unusual.”

So does my dad. Sometimes.

“You’d be an unusual teenager indeed if you didn’t get pissed off at your parents from time to time.”

Heh, I guess. He paused and rolled over onto his back, staring at the ceiling. You know what makes me a really weird teenager?

“Hm?”

Jeremy closed his eyes. Keeping a crazy-powerful AI in my head even after it, like—

“Ah.” Its voice somehow all at once heavy, confident, and comforting, the Squip said, “Rule Five.”

And it

“Fuck no!” Jeremy said aloud, sitting straight up. Reactivate right now, you fucking drama queen! “Reactivate! Get back here!”

And, okay, maybe this wasn’t really helping his intention of having a calm discussion about what had happened, but seriously, did the Squip have to go and do that? They hadn’t even talked about anything yet! It was just being presumptuous and petty, which was honestly the whole issue, right? Except for the petty part, he corrected. He looked around the room and crossed his arms over his chest when he saw the Squip standing right in front of him.

“I am trying to be helpful,” it said. “That’s rule Rule Number Five, isn’t it? I must always try to help you to the best of my abilities.”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?!”

“I’m trying to make this easier,” it said tightly. “You seem to have made up your mind—”

“Um, no, I haven’t!” Jeremy rubbed his face. “I just...wanted to talk. I don't know. I don’t know!” He sighed heavily. “I guess I just wanted to make sure you knew

“—That you felt resentment towards me?” it interrupted. “I’m well aware.”

“It’s not resentment.” Jeremy hunched his shoulders. “It’s...I don’t know what it is. Confusion. And I’mI’m kind of scared, I think, and I’m worried that whatever...choice...I make will be the wrong one.”

The Squip was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know if this situation could be dichotomized so easily.”

Jeremy looked up at it.

“Do you fully hate your parents, or do you love them unconditionally?”

...Is there a right answer here?

The Squip smiled. “No. It doesn’t seem like there is.” It shook its head. “I’m not saying these situations are the same. Or that you should or shouldn’t feel certain ways. Just understand that it’s not a failure on your part to have conflicting feelings, especially considering you have emotional investment in the outcome.”

Who care about emotional investment when I have a brain-bot, Jeremy thought drily.

The Squip hummed, but didn’t speak up, waiting for Jeremy to articulate his thoughts.

It took him a while to gather himself. He knew what point the Squip was trying to makethere wasn’t really a right or wrong reaction to have to what had happened. Whatever he felt, he felt, and he could choose to act on those feelings and see how things panned out. He could call his mom right now and talk to her; he had her number. He could reach into his bag and pull out the Mountain Dew Red that Michael had given him after he left the Rolands’ house; it didn’t seem like the Squip was going to stop him.

He frowned. Why wouldn’t you? Stop me, I mean. Why are you okay with it now?

“I’m not,” it said. Jeremy blinked in surprise. “However, I’ve been very aware that this was a possible outcome once I got us out of the ISQRI’s facility. If I had any idea on how to avoid that, I would have. But there was nothing else I could do. I know that. And if being shut down is the direct result of that, I can accept that I did all that I could do to save you, your friends, and your family.” It crossed its arms over its chest and shrugged. “In the control room, I did not ask permission, and I did not stop. I know how betrayed you felt. And I—” It cut itself off and looked away from Jeremy. “May I say something as a speculation, even though I’m not entirely sure of its veracity?”

...Yes?

“I think that I...am sorry,” it said slowly. “I am...regretful that I caused you so much distress.” It looked at him again. “Sincerely.”

Jeremy didn’t respond.

For a long time, he didn’t respond, even his normally constant internal dialogue going stubbornly blank. It wasn’t just that he didn’t know what to say—he wasn't sure if there was anything for him to say. It was like any possible responses were refusing to present themselves to him, so Jeremy obliged their absence and remained silent.

He was hardly even aware of time passing until the Squip said, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were asleep.”

He still didn’t have a response, so he said, Can I have some time to think? By myself?

“Of course.”


Jeremy absolutely could not talk to Michael about this. He vaguely remembered promising Christine that he’d ask her if he needed help, but that also felt out of the question for some reason. Maybe it wasn’t fair of him, but both of them, and Rich, even Jenna—they all felt too involved. There were too many thoughts going on for them to get to the root of the issue.

Jeremy pulled out his phone.

Player Two [10:31 PM]
> Uh hey brooke !
> You awake?

brookiee wookiee [10:33 PM]
> duh!!!!
> hey what’s up???

Player Two [10:34 PM]
> Ok so
> Kinda weird question
> Anyway its not like
> About any mutual friends
> So its not like michael or anything

brookiee wookiee [10:34 PM]
> alright, noted
> now i’m intrigued!!! what is it??

Player Two [10:34 PM]
> What would you do
> If like
> Someone youre really close to
> Hurt you
> Like just made you feel really upset
> And theyve done it before
> But this time they actually seemed
> Like
> Really apologetic
> And have been giving you space now
> To think stuff out
> Do you drop them
> Or what ?


wine BITCH [10:57 PM]
> drop them wtf

Player Two [10:57 PM]
> Really?

wine BITCH [10:57 PM]
> i mean yeah if they hurt you, that’s shitty??
> and they’re fine with being ditched so there’s no reason not to lmao
> well
> do you forgive them?

Player Two [11:00 PM]
> I think i do

wine BITCH [11:01 PM]
> oh then wtF dumbass ignore me!!!!
> i don’t know shit!!
> tell them they’re all good wtf

Player Two [11:01 PM]
> Really ??

wine BITCH [11:02 PM]
> i mean yeah
> unless you’re willing to share more info ;-)

Player Two [11:02 PM]
> Ok, thanks chloe


dill weed [11:06 PM]
> is it romo or nah?

Player Two [11:06 PM]
> EW
> GOD NO
> Ew
> Not romantic
> Ew

dill weed [11:06 PM]
> understood.
> so listen dude.
> friends can hurt you too and it seems like people don’t get it.
> the fact that you don’t have to be dating someone to want to keep them in your life.
> friends can be shitty in ways that really impact you for a long time.
> and sometimes you cling to people who aren’t good for you because you’re afraid of being alone.
> afraid that if you’re not who you think you are or if you lose certain friends then you’re not going to have anyone.
> you’re going to feel lost and alone and scared.
> and sometimes entirely moving on is for the best.
> and sometimes it’s not.
> sometimes all you really need it some space.
> give you both some time to think and to disengage emotionally from the situation.
> but once you’ve both reached a point where you’re sure there’s not any really overwhelming emotional feelings of attachment or sentiment overriding logic then you can really have a productive conversation about where to go from the point you’ve reached.
> my advice is to hear them out but also remember that you’re not obligated too.
> i just think it might help.
> and if you’ve already heard them out then even something simply like writing down your thoughts or feelings can help you organize everything.
> you don’t have to forgive them but it’s okay to.
> if you really do want to i mean and as long as it’s not obligation etc.
> but if you can legit forgive them then i think it’s hella fine for you to continue to keep them in your life so long as boundaries and shit like that is well established and you can actually make sure they’re not gonna hurt you so seriously that you run to jakey d for advice again since this is like the first time we’ve ever dm’d.

Player Two [11:12 PM]
> Oh holy shit

dill weed [11:13 PM]
> lmao.
> thanks.


brookiee wookiee [10:35 PM]
> hmmmmmm!!!
> that’s a good question!!
> well not good that it happened duh
> but u know what i mean
> sooo is this friend person like a dick or??

Player Two [10:36 PM]
> Aksnfgk
> A little bit
> But theyre getting better

brookiee wookiee [10:36 PM]
> oh ok!! i’m also an asshole in therapy so mood
> but ummm hmmmm
> was their reason for doing w/e they did to upset you justified???

Player Two [10:37 PM]
> Yesss but
> It was still jarring
> And made me like sad and mad

brookiee wookiee [10:37 PM]
> mhm mhm
> and
> you know that’s still like ok??

Player Two [10:38 PM]
> ?

brookiee wookiee [10:38 PM]
> omg Jeremy!!!!
> everyone makes mistakes you know that right??
> there’s a whole hannah montana song abt it
> anyways like
> ok so they apologized?

Player Two [10:39 PM]
> Yeah

brookiee wookiee [10:39 PM]
> like legiiiiitimately ??

Player Two [10:39 PM]
> Yes

brookiee wookiee [10:40 PM]
> so it happened and they said sorry and feel bad abt it
> i’m not sayin u Have to forgive them
> but i am sayin i probably would

Player Two [10:42 PM]
> Ok
> I think that helps
> Thank you brooke

brookiee wookiee [10:43 PM]
> np np!!! hmu whenever!!!!
> good luck with your friend, Jeremy!!
> also what’s their name and are they cute

Player Two [10:43 PM]
> Brooke…...
> Brooke.

brookiee wookiee [10:45 PM]
> THAT DOES NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION MR HEERE

Player Two [10:45 PM]
> I FEEL LIKE I CANT EVEN ANSWER THIS
> LIKE DO I THINK THEY ARE?
> NO
> ABSOLUTELY NOT
> ARE THEY /OBJECTIVELY/?
> MAYBE????

brookiee wookiee [10:46 PM]
> mkay thanks

Player Two [10:46 PM]
> CAN I ASK
> WHY YOU
> LIKE
> ASKED

brookiee wookiee [10:47 PM]
> can a woman not talk about cute ppl in her own home

Player Two [10:49 PM]
>> {i_guess.jpeg}

brookiee wookiee [10:49 PM]
> did u just get that from Michael!!!

Player Two [10:50 PM]
> YES

brookiee wookiee [10:50 PM]
> valid

Player Two [10:50 PM]
> OH AWESOME
> Valid
> Anyways
> Thanks again brooke

brookiee wookiee [10:51 PM]
> ;3c


Hey. Welcome back.

“You seem to be rather resolute.”

“I don’t want you to feel like you have to keep me.”

I know.

“And you’re still sure?”

Yeah.

“Then I trust your judgement.”


 Player Two changed the group topic to Its staying i guess


Player Two [11:35 PM]
> So i guess the squip is
> Wait nvm
> Its getting on my case about
> Apostrophes
> Sorry asshole thats too far

player one [11:36 PM]
> can we have a reaction image thats just mtn dew red

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:37 PM]
> WAIT ARE YOU SERIOUS

Player Two [11:38 PM]
> Uh serious about it staying yeah

actually just a pile of shorter people [11:38 PM]
> GODDAMN IT
> i owe mell ten bucks

player one [11:39 PM]
> dollar sign and fire emojis


Player Two [11:40 PM]

> Hey guys !
> So ive really got a lot to say
> Kinda just like
> Ive got a story to tell and
> Well
> Ok
> Im not great with words so
> Dont freak out but
> Im gonna let someone else type this all out for me

dill weed [11:41 PM]
> ?

Player Two [11:41 PM]
> And it is a very long story, so please prepare yourselves for a rather long and confusing string of messages.

dill weed [11:41 PM]
> ??

brookiee wookiee [11:42 PM]
> uhh ok ??

Chrissie <3 [11:42 PM]
> Whoomp there it is !!!

wine BITCH [11:42 PM]
> there what is?

player one [11:42 PM]
> get your popcorn kiddos

Player Two [11:42 PM]
> Thank you, Michael, Christine.
> Let me see….
> All right, we set our scene in a high school bathroom, which is where the story’s first conflict is introduced.
> This is a story of love, betrayal, reconciliation, and compromise.
> And essentially, it is all Rich’s fault.

Chapter Text

Jeremy chewed at the end of his pencil anxiously, well aware of the attention focused on him. His teacher, for one, was standing right next to his desk as he tried to figure out how the hell a cotangent even worked. What was arguably worse was the attention of the supercomputer inside his head, as it doubtless knew the answer, and doubtless thought it was obvious.

“That’s because it is obvious.”

Jeremy made a face at it, hoping the teacher wouldn’t notice his odd behavior.

He let out a strained breath as the teacher made her way back to her seat. Feeling like he was making a deal with the devil, he thought, Listen, I know I said I only get three hints and one freebee, but I think I changed my mind.

“An interesting development.” Jeremy bit back an excited grin. “However, I have not.”

He internally expressed the feeling of crossing his arms. No fair! I really can’t figure this question out!

“Then move on, like regular people do when they don’t know the answer to a question. You wanted to take your ACT like a regular person, right?”

Well, yeah, he had wanted to be fair about the ACT, and then he found out that it was really hard. He was only on the twenty-fifth question of the math portion and he had already used up his per-section free answer and three hints. Why was math so hard? He wouldn’t need to cheat if it weren’t this hard!

The Squip sighed, and Jeremy felt it gently moving his hand to the answer sheet. “Guess, Jeremy. You can come back to it later, but as it stands, you’re running out of time.”

Jeremy hastily bubbled in B, moving on as fast as he could. Why the hell do they even time this?

“Because—”

That was very rhetorical, please stop talking. I need to focus.

The Squip thankfully shut up, only ever prodding Jeremy to skip questions when he would linger on them too long and keeping him aware of the time—while also telling him how many questions he had already answered, and that “Yes, Jeremy, you’re on track to finish on time, just keep it up.”

The English section had been difficult, but the math section seemed intent on kicking his ass and leaving no semblance of coherent thought by the end of it.

Which, unsurprisingly, made the next two sections pretty damn tough.

When the finally timer ran out and Jeremy and the other students were finally released from the cruel and unusual punishment that was standardized testing, he was ready to pass out. It was only noon, but he had just used up all his mental energy for the day. He leaned against the side of the school as he waited for his friends to walk out, meeting him like they'd said they would.

Christine and Jenna filed out, both looking to be in dire need of caffeine. Jeremy patted Christine’s shoulder sympathetically and she leaned into him, pushing her head into his arm.

“Jeremy,” she said flatly, “I crave death.”

“No death,” Jenna reflexively said, too tired to even put much feeling behind it. She leaned against the wall. “But, yeah, mood.”

“Mood,” they heard from behind them. Jeremy looked over Christine’s head and saw Chloe making her way toward them. “Ugh. Fuck this. Fuck college. I bet I made, like, a composite score of 10. What the hell even is a cotangent?”

“Right!” Jeremy said emphatically.

“Cotangents are easy!” someone yelled. “English is bullshit, though!”

Chloe spun around and pouted. “Brooke, you said you wouldn't brag!”

“I'm not bragging,” Brooke said, coming into view. “I'm saying the English and Reading sections just didn't make any sense.” She paused and looked at Jeremy. “Is Chris dead?”

“Yeah,” Christine and Jeremy said in unison.

“Same here.” Brooke rubbed her eyes tiredly. “Chlo, Starbucks or Dunkin?”

“Jenna has a Keurig.” Chloe tossed her hair over her shoulder. “We can crash there.”

“Does my mom know about this?” Jenna asked.

“Nope!” Chloe said.

Jenna considered it, then smiled. “Cool. Yeah, you're free to crash at my place.”

“Yay!” Brooke clapped her hands. “Can we watch a movie?”

“A Disney movie, please,” Christine mumbled into Jeremy's shoulder. He patted her head absently.

Jenna smiled. “Mulan, or—?”

Mulan!” Christine finally lifted up her head. “Ooo, and then Rent.”

“You know I don't own Rent, Chris.”

“We can rent it!” Christine moved from Jeremy to Jenna and grabbed her hand. “Please please please?”

Jenna gave in easily. “Alright. Rent.” She looked at Brooke and Chloe. “You guys gonna hang around for the movie marathon?”

Chloe shook her head. “We're going out to eat tonight. I just need a nap and free coffee before then.”

“Out to eat?” Jenna said, and gasped exaggeratedly. “Chloe Valentine, are you really proposing already?”

Chloe blushed to her ears, but stoutly remained otherwise unruffled. “Yes, Jenna Roland, I plan on proposing to Brooke on our second date,” she said flatly.

Brooke snorted. “Like you could afford a ring.”

“I'll get you a Ring Pop,” Chloe said flippantly. Brooke’s eyes lit up.

“Jeremy, you coming?” Jenna asked.

Jeremy shook his head. “Michael and I already made plans.”

Christine stuck out her tongue. “This is like the third time you've ditched us for your boyfriend.”

“The third time in three months, yeah,” Jeremy said easily.

Christine sighed. “I guess….But still! Are you free this weekend? We can all hang out again!”

Jeremy cleared his throat. “I'm, uh, I think I am busy, actually.”

Chloe looked at him curiously. “Everything good?” she asked.

Jeremy nodded. “I'm fine, it's just….” He shook his head. “I'll tell you guys later. Enjoy your coffee!”

Brooke echoed his nod. “Alrighty! See you tomorrow!” She grabbed Chloe’s hand and pulled her towards her car. “C'mon, I need hazelnut.”

Chloe wrinkled her nose. “I can put up with a lot of things, but hazelnut is so gross, babe.”

Brooke rolled her eyes. “Bye bye, everyone!” she said, then quickly turned back to Chloe and began bashing French vanilla coffee creamer.

Jenna sighed. “They really like their back-and-forth, huh?”

“Yeah.” Jeremy shook his head. “I'd hate that.”

Jenna hummed. “But hey, it works for them.” She gave Jeremy a quick wave. “Well, see you tomorrow! Good luck with whatever's up this weekend.”

“Yeah, see you.” Jeremy waved loosely. “Have fun!”

“You too, Jeremy!” Christine said, smiling despite her clear exhaustion.

Jeremy watched them make their ways into the parking lot, letting the groups of people exiting the building pass by him without paying them too much mind.

Hey, did you know the answer to every question? he asked, making conversation to pass the time.

“I was able to find an answer to every question that was very likely the correct one, yes,” the Squip answered, not seeming at all put-off by his sudden question.

Jeremy noticed that they’d been doing that a lot. There wasn’t nearly as much of a back-and-forth between the two of them as there had been, and even when there was, it wasn’t distracting. Instead, there’d be some stretch of silence (which Jeremy was usually the one to break) with intermittent comments or questions. It wasn’t really anything serious; it hadn’t been since one night in February when Jeremy had a breakdown and yelled at it, but the Squip and Michael had both helped him to calm down, and then he felt bad about yelling at it.

Otherwise, there were some general reminders to be aware of his surroundings, help counting his breaths, and, more recently, mnemonics and other studying habits that the Squip had been helping him with. It felt like everything around him was trying to prepare him—both for his senior year, and for college beyond that. The weirdest part? He felt like it really was helping.

“Hey, nerd.” Jeremy felt Michael come up behind him and turned quickly enough to fall forward into his chest. “Aw, you tired too?”

Jeremy muttered, “Yeah,” into Michael’s shoulder. He leaned back and grabbed his hand. “You good to drive?”

“Always, dude.” Despite his statement, Jeremy saw him yawn. “So, what exactly are the plans for today?” he asked, gently pulling Jeremy out to his car.

“Hm, well, first we stop and get gas and also candy.”

“Perfect.”

“And then we go to my house and clean.”

“Oof, less perfect.”

“And then we go buy more candy so we can go see a movie!”

“Oh, have you heard that they’re making an Apocalypse of the Damned movie soon?”

Jeremy made a face. “Ew, really?”

“Really.”

“So we’re gonna go see it, right?”

Michael nodded resolutely. “Hell yeah.” He looked at Jeremy out of the corner of his eye. “Are you still seeing Sarah tomorrow?”

Jeremy sighed. “I think so. It—it just feels so awkward. Like, I feel weird being the only one talking.”

“You’re not paying to listen to her, dork.”

“I know! It just…I don’t know.” Jeremy ran a hand through his hair. “It’s weird, but I keep getting afraid I’ll say, like, too many personal things.”

That wasn’t quite what Jeremy meant, and the Squip knew it—as did Michael.

“She won’t judge or hate you for anything you are or what you have done,” it said. “Strictly speaking, she’s not allowed to.”

“She won’t think you’re weird if you tell her about….” Michael gestured between himself and Jeremy. “Or if you decide to tell her exactly what happened at the facility. She’s apparently been briefed and approved. She’s got, like, the most confidential confidentiality.” They’d reached the car, so Michael let go of Jeremy’s hand and crossed around to the driver’s side. “You’re supposed to be creepily open with your therapist,” he said once they were inside. “And if you decide you don’t like her, we can try someone else.”

Jeremy’s lips quirked at the word we . It was tiny things like that that made Jeremy realize how much Michael seemed to think about the two of them as a team. They really had been; not just in romantic aspects, but in lots of other places—they were study partners, supporters, confidants. “We’ll see,” he said noncommittally. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, dude.”

“Love you,” he added.

Michael grinned. “Love you, too.”

“Love you, too,” the Squip chimed in with a tone so sweet it was almost unsettling.

Jeremy internally made a face. Gross.

“It rather is, isn’t it? In that case, I hate you, Jeremy.”

He tried to keep his face straight. And I, you.

When he heard the Squip snort, he couldn’t help it—he started giggling into his hand.

Michael seemed unconcerned. “What’d it say?”

“That it thinks I’m great,” Jeremy answered easily.

Michael nodded. “Good,” he mumbled, as though that were the only thing the Squip should be saying.

As he drove, Michael rested his hand on Jeremy’s thigh, which set him on edge just a little bit because of how fluttery it made him feel on the inside. He wouldn’t ever get sick of tiny touches like that. The drive home consisted mostly of Michael singing along to his music and Jeremy nearly dozing off in the passenger seat. Michael practically had to shake him awake when they got to Jeremy’s driveway.

He opened his eyes drowsily. “Wait, gas—” was the first thing out of his mouth.

Michael chuckled. “Got it, and I’ve got your candy in my bag. Wakey-wakey, let’s go clean.”

Jeremy slid out of the car and blindly reached for Michael’s hand, trying to wake himself up a bit more.

“So, do I get to know why we have to clean now?” Michael asked for what Jeremy counted as the fifth time.

Ghhh,” he said, just like every other time as he fumbled with the keys to the front door. He sighed. “Fine. It’s….Ugh. Mom is coming over soon.” He pushed the door open.

“Wait, really?” Michael asked. “Again? Didn’t she just visit like, last week?”

Jeremy nodded. “You’d think she’d just move back, but she still calls it ‘being in town,’” he said, putting the coffee pot on. “Dad, we’re home!” he called, then went back to talking to Michael. “Like, it’s not that I don’t like seeing her. It’s just weird because every time she’s here it’s like, okay, do I act like I haven’t seen you in years, or like you never left?”

Michael rubbed Jeremy’s back, and he sighed and leaned into the touched. “Well,” Michael said delicately, “you could bring this up to Sarah.”

Ugh. I know.” Jeremy sighed and put a hand over his eyes dramatically. “I need chocolate.”

Michael stepped back and slid off his backpack, setting on the table and patting it. “Plenty in here. I’ll be right back. Have at it—what’s mine is yours.”

Jeremy smiled. “Thanks.”

“Any time.” He made his way out of the kitchen and Jeremy started rummaging through his backpack when he heard Michael call out, “Uh—Oh—Um, hi, Ms. Simonson!”

Jeremy froze.

And then followed Michael out of the kitchen, towards the living room.

His mother sat on the couch. “You’re welcome to call me Elizabeth, Michael, you know that.” She stood up and brushed some imaginary dirt off her jeans. She wore those and a loose, white t-shirt with some vintage design on it, and had her bushy hair tied out of her face with a bandanna. She was wearing her glasses and Jeremy suddenly realized that, despite her being a year older than his dad, she looked much younger.

He practically blurred through the conversation in a haze of embarrassment but he got the gist of it—his mom wanted to do family therapy, his dad was interested in the idea as long as Jeremy was comfortable with it, and she might be moving into a place a few cities over soon, wasn’t that neat?

She didn’t mention the conversation she’d overheard.

By the time she was done explaining what she wanted to say, though, she did add, “And I’m sorry for coming in early. I know you guys probably weren’t expected me so soon.” And then she excused herself with a gracious, “Oh, do I smell coffee?” as she casually made her way into the kitchen and away from the still red-faced Jeremy.

As soon as she was gone, he plopped onto the couch and buried his face in his hands.

Michael sat down next to his left side but didn’t say anything.

A little while later, Jeremy heard the door open and close and a car in the driveway start. (How had he and Michael not seen her car?)

“It’s gonna be a mess,” Jeremy finally said. “I’m gonna have to talk about college and feelings and my anxiety.”

Michael hummed. “And how does that make you feel?” he asked, in his best therapist voice.  

Jeremy smiled and leaned his head against Michael’s shoulder. “I think...maybe sorta mostly...okay.”

Michael ran a gentle hand through Jeremy’s hair. “Then I’m happy.” Right hand preoccupied, he reached across himself with his left and grabbed Jeremy’s hand, setting it on his leg and setting his own hand on top of it. Jeremy turned his palm face-up and intertwined his fingers with Michael’s.

Jeremy felt more than saw the Squip take a seat next to him. “And I am as well,” it said.

He wondered what his mom was thinking as she drove away. He wondered how their first session together would go. He wondered if the Squip would involve itself, or if Michael would want to hear him talk about it, or how long this tentative peace would even last.

And then he closed his eyes, and decided that he didn’t need to worry about it.