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Dad's Heere

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Here’s the thing: Mr. Heere never meant to become the Father Figure to all of his son’s friends, it just sort of… happened.

One minute he’s desperately trying to get out of whatever funk his life had become, the next he’s trying to be the real dad his son deserved - even if it came with a few hard choices, and the next he’s near-about adopted seven more kids.

Do you know how many kids that is? Eight. Mr. Heere had eight teenage children all now living under his one roof, all becoming more and more close to him, and apparently all dating one another. Can they do that? Is that legal?

He figured they’d figure it out as they went.

Because, if he’s speaking honestly, Mr. Heere wouldn’t trade them for the world. Not for anything.

He loved his kids.

Chapter Text

Pika-chu!

 

Jeremy slowly opened his eyes, his brain foggy and body still tired. He found himself oddly calm as his mind wandered, idly trying to figure out why he’d woken up before his alarm went off. He figured it had to have been some kind-of noise or something, but in his sleep-muddled state he couldn’t quite remember.

 

Pika-chu! It sounded again.

 

Okay, he definitely heard it that time.

 

Jeremy groaned and sat up slowly, reaching for his phone on the nightstand. He clicked the on button to confirm the culprit of the early-morning wake-up call: Michael. He smiled fondly and unlocked his phone, thinking back to how his boyfriend’s ringtone became the familiar noise in the first place…

 

Jeremy, Rich, Jake, and Christine all sat together on the stage as they waited for everyone else to show up to play rehearsal. They were having a pretty funny conversation, only interrupted by Jeremy’s phone as he and Michael texted one another. In the middle of a hearty laugh, Jeremy wasn’t paying attention and Rich swiped his phone from him, already messing with it.

 

“Wh- Rich!” Jeremy shouted, standing to swipe his phone back. Without even glancing back up, Rich stood as well and started running.

 

“I’m sorry, but if I have to hear the goddamn waka waka of pac-man one more time, I’m gonna scream!” He half-yelled, running around and surprising everyone by being so slippery and hard-to-catch for such a small guy.

 

“Don’t! Michael and I have matching ringtones!” this prompted a cute “Aww!” from Christine, and a snort from Jake.

 

“To match your matching tattoos, yeah, yeah! Can’t you guys match enough?!” Rich yelled back at him. After about a minute more of chasing, he skirted to a halt and handed the phone back. “There!” he proclaimed, almost proudly. “Now it’s Pikachu! You guys like Pok émon, right? Everyone loves Pok émon!” Jeremy rolled his eyes, a rebuttal ready on his lips when Mr. Reyes and the rest of the cast walked in, ready to start rehearsal.

 

(Michael claimed to hate it, when he found out. Practically screamed “Pikachu? Pikachu! Oh my – how little does Rich know me? I am personally offended! Surely he knows, I am totally a Charmander type of guy!”)

 

Jeremy snapped himself out of it. His happy smiled disappeared as soon as he read the messages.

 

Player1<3: hey man this is important

 

Player1<3: i know you have some of my clothes at your house

 

Player1<3: would you mind bringing me some clothes??

 

Player1<3: doesn’t have to be a full outift just,, if you could bring some pants that’d be nice

 

Player1<3: and maybe some underwear

 

Player1<3: and maaaaaaaybe an old hoodie of yours i can borrow?

 

Player1<3: sorry babe thank you love you see you soon!!

 

Jeremy did not like this. He didn’t like the urgent feeling behind the texts, he didn’t like the sinking anxious feeling in his chest, nor did he like the weird, unknown reason his boyfriend needed clothes in the first place. The fact that Michael’s messages implicated he didn’t even have his standard, bright red, patch-filled hoodie was a whole other ball game of worry.

 

Wanting to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible, Jeremy got right to getting ready, packing the said clothes for Michael in his bag. He knew Michael said not to bring a full outfit, but he did, just in case. He grabbed an old hoodie of his he knew Michael wore around his house because it smelled of him, and even picked up some random shoes of his own on the way out. He hoped Michael still wore the same size as him. He quickly said bye to his dad before deciding that today his bike would have to do, and sped towards the school.

 

When he arrived, he texted Michael that he would be waiting for him right where he parked and locked his bike, and started waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And –

 

MyPlayer2: where are you?

 

Player1<3: i

 

Player1<3: i cant get out of my car

 

Jeremy didn’t know if it was appropriate to laugh.

 

MyPlayer2: are you stuck?

 

Player1<3: no

 

Oh.

 

Jeremy ran through the parking lot, not caring about the dangers in doing so. Once he spotted Michael’s cruiser, he ran over and knocked on the window. When Michael didn’t move, he knocked again.

 

He almost broke the damn window when Michael finally turned to him and he could see the tears streaming down his face, if Michael hadn’t immediately opened the door after that. He stumbled out, standing dejectedly in front of Jeremy, looking down and not meeting his eyes. Jeremy’s heart broke at the sight of him, even more so when he started seeing the wet spots appearing at Michael’s feet as the tears fell from his face.

 

“Michael…” Jeremy spoke, stepping closer, “Why are you wearing this?”

 

The this Jeremy was referring to was the bright pink tank top, denim skirt, and pink sandals his boyfriend wore. He looked so out of place. Not that Michael couldn’t pull of wearing anything he wanted, it was that he very obviously didn’t want to be wearing this. He shrunk into himself, hugging his own arms as he tried to hide all the old scars there. Jeremy swore he saw a hand-sized bruise there too, but he would get to that later.

 

“Michael, it’s okay, man,” he reached out to him, grasping his shoulder. “I brought your clothes.”

 

Michael started openly sobbing, unable to control it. He grabbed Jeremy and pulled him close, burying his face in the crook of Jeremy’s neck and balling his fists into his shirt.

 

“My dad, my, my old man took my fucking clothes!” he shouted. “Both of them, actually home last- hic!- last night and, and, and,”

 

“Shh, calm down, it’s okay.” Jeremy soothed, rubbing his hands up and down Michael’s back.

 

“She made dinner! She, she made us all sit together and I made some stupid, stupid joke and he-” Michael broke into another sob, his body starting to shake against Jeremy’s. “He stormed around the house, Jer! He yelled and yelled about how he thought I’d be over this phase now, and he, he-” Another sob let loose. “Mom wouldn’t say anything! She just shook her head when I tried to look at her! What kind of--” Jeremy felt Michael purposefully shake his head in his shoulder, as if to shake the thought away. “He tore up my room! He tore down my posters and took all my clothes and only left me with the girl ones! I-” Michael paused to let out another sob. “He saw my polaroid of us on the mirror, Jer, I had – I had to explain who you were! He didn’t remember you! My own dad didn’t remember my best friend of twelve fucking years! My boyf-” Michael couldn’t finish his sentence, but then kept going when it kept coming back to him, “He, he tore it up! Right there! My favorite picture.” A couple more sobs, then, quietly, “He would only call me Michelle.”

 

Jeremy saw red. He very rarely got angry but right now he was furious. He swallowed down a curse and kept his hold of Michael as if the world would end if he didn’t.

 

When Michael felt up to it, the two of them snuck to the bathroom, Jeremy acting as a human shield to stop anyone from seeing Michael in his undesired wardrobe. Thankfully, this didn’t end up being too many people, as Jeremy had heard the first period bell ring while they were still in the lot.

 

Jeremy guessed it just had to be the perfect coincidence that they ran into the other boys in their not-so-small friend group in the bathroom. Jake and Rich stopped talking to stare at Michael as he embarrassingly shuffled into a stall.

 

“Uh,” Rich started, and then stopped when Jeremy frantically made stop and not now motions with his hands. He dug into his bag, flashed the clothes at the guys, and handed them under the stall to Michael. The three boys made eye contact while Michael was changing and Jeremy relayed what happened to them. Either that, or they just figured it out by the looks of, which seemed a lot more likely.

 

Michael coughed and opened the stall. He looked way more comfortable while still looking tired and like he couldn’t stop curling in on himself. “Do I look okay?” He asked them meekly.

 

Jeremy could positively say he’s never seen Rich or Jake snap to full attention so quickly.

 

“Holy shit, bro!” Jake exclaimed, smiling down at his friend. “You’re looking so good today!” He slung an arm around Michael, pulling him out of the stall and into the center of his friends.

 

“Yeah!” Rich added. “Like, if we weren’t all already dating, I’d totally hit on you right now, man! What do you use in your hair?” Michael blushed at the attention. Jeremy saw what they were doing and decided to join in.

 

“Richard Goranski!” he mock-gasped, sliding his arms around Michael from behind and resting his head on the boy’s shoulder. “This is my handsome man! How dare you flirt with him! In front of your own boyfriend!”

 

Rich giggled and looked to Jake, who declared “I can’t blame him! Look at him!”

 

Michael tried not to blush too hard and looked away, hoping they wouldn’t see the tears pooling in his eyes again.

 

Suddenly, a tackle from Rich sent them all to the floor. After laughing for what seemed like an eternity, the boys untangled from each other and sat themselves up comfortably, going back to the way Jake and Rich were originally.

 

“Wow.” Michael finally spoke. “How old are we? Mr. Reyes is going to come through that door any minute, and we’re all going to get detentions.”

 

“Sorry,” Rich piped up, surprisingly quiet about it, “I hate seeing people cry.”

 

Michael smiled at him, a peaceful and quiet moment forming around them as he told them, “Thanks, you guys.”

 

Jake nudged their shoulders together. “No problemo, man.” Rich nodded, affirming this.

 

Jeremy pressed a kiss into Michael’s shoulder. “I love you, Michael Mell.”

 

Taking in a deep breath, holding it, and releasing it gave Michael the level of calm he needed. “So, here’s what exactly happened, without all the gross sobbing parts…”

 

-

 

Apparently, after the whole bathroom incident was over, Rich and Jake got word to the rest of the group, and Michael found himself more happy to have made these friends than ever before. If anyone saw him in the hall, they shouted compliments at him as they passed. Every time. His phone constantly went off with random nice texts from Christine about “You should really step from the tech and into the spotlight on our next production! You fit the prince’s charming good looks so well, Mikey!!!” along with really goofy and bad pick-up lines from Rich and Jake, and stupid memes about handsome bois from Jenna with captions like “boy u know this is u ;)”. Chloe and Brooke sent him multiple offers to hang out and do everything they could think of to be ~manly~, like broga, or dudelates, or offering to buy him a whole new wardrobe just to tell his dad to fuck off. Plus his jacket smelled like Jeremy, so that was an added bonus.

 

He didn’t even have to ask Jeremy if he could stay at his place, they just drove straight there after school and neither questioned it.

 

“Hey, boys!” Mr. Heere greeted from the couch. “You staying tonight, Michael?” he asked.

 

“Y- yeah. If that’s okay.” Michael stammered. He wasn’t really sure why he felt so nervous out of nowhere.

 

Mr. Heere eyed him carefully, as if studying the boy. When Michael was about to turn around and book it, Mr. Heere laughed lightly. “It’s never been a problem before, Michael. Why would it be one now?” Michael didn’t think he was supposed to answer, and his thoughts were confirmed when Mr. Heere turned back around to the television to continue watching Wheel of Fortune.

 

Jeremy and Michael went ahead upstairs to Jeremy’s room, where they no doubt were going to play some video games. Mr. Heere sighed to himself, wondering what could possibly be up with his son’s boyfriend to make him so suddenly nervous around him. He didn’t like it. Maybe it had something to do with the boy’s folks; he did see Mr. Mell’s truck parked in their driveway yesterday.

 

-

 

Later that night, an idea struck Mr. Heere. He knew just what to do to ease Michael’s tension and make him feel more normal and at home: Dinner! He had been practicing cooking actual meals again and he figured, why not? Then he and the boys could eat it together and talk about their days and everything would feel better, he knew it.

 

He started up the stairs, headed towards his son’s room, and knocked on the door. “Jeremy? Michael? Can I come in?” he asked, and received no answer.

 

“Boys?” he asked, deciding to open the door.

 

He should really stop doing that.

 

Michael was under Jeremy, who was kissing him and whispering things that sounded like compliments on his masculinity, to Mr. Heere. Or, they were like this, until they were both screaming and flying to opposite corners of the room when they realized Mr. Heere had opened the door.

 

“Oh, my god, Dad!” Jeremy yelled, flustered.

 

“I, I’m sorry, Mr. Heere! It’s not what it looks like!” Michael exclaimed, his hands up in self-defense and his face burning red.

 

“So, my son and his boyfriend weren’t making out like a normal couple? Then what were you two doing?” When neither of them answered, he laughed to ease their tension. “I’m joking boys, it’s perfectly normal! I don’t mind! I just wanted to ask if you two wanted to make and eat dinner together this time, just for funsies?” He asked, not failing to notice how Michael went from red with embarrassment to red with anxiety.

 

“I don’t think - ” Jeremy started, only to be interrupted by Michael.

 

“We’d love to, Mr. Heere!” Michael shouted over him. Both Jeremy and Mr. Heere eyed him for a couple of seconds before Mr. Heere nodded and started to head back downstairs.

 

“Well come on now, boys! Food awaits!” He said with vigor.

 

Jeremy was back to Michael the second his dad had turned away. “You really don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

 

“No, no. Your dad isn’t mine. Your dad is actually pretty nice. I genuinely want to. I don’t know why I’m so nervous.” He laughed awkwardly. Jeremy gave him an encouraging look before they went to the kitchen.

 

“Pizza!” Mr. Heere shouted. He had gotten out all the ingredients and made three separate ‘pizza stations’ for each of them. This was the first time he saw Michael relax a tiny bit, and he felt accomplished.

 

“Dad,” Jeremy chuckled, “Instead of ordering a pizza, you want us to make our own?”

 

“Sure!” he laughed, heading over to Michael and guiding him to his own pizza. “It saves us a fortune!”

 

The boys laughed at that, leaving Mr. Heere feeling even more accomplished than before.

 

As they all started putting their individual pizzas together, Mr. Heere noticed a certain… pattern going on with his son and his son’s boyfriend.

 

“Michael!” Jeremy sighed, pretending to faint on him as Michael tried to hide his giggles. “The way you throw those pepperonis onto your pizza is just-” he continued to sigh and drape himself over Michael’s back.

 

“Jer, stop.” Michael laughed, obviously holding no meaning behind the words.

 

“But Michael!” Jeremy started again. “The way you sprinkle that cheese! Only a real man’s man could sprinkle cheese like that, Mike!” It was then when he leaned over the opposite side of the counter while Michael was using the knife to do something with his pizza Mr. Heere had no idea about, and whispered provocatively “Show me more.”

 

“Jeremiah!” Michael practically screamed, jumping a foot in the air.

 

Quickly followed by doubling over and shouting “Shit!”

 

“Michael?” Mr. Heere all but ran over to him. “Michael, are you okay?”

 

Michael didn’t answer. He didn’t even move. The air stood stock still as the Heeres watched Michael keep his position bent over, clutching his hand to his chest, whimpering just the slightest bit.

 

It wasn’t until Mr. Heere realized that the sound was Michael whimpering and saw a couple of red drops fall onto his kitchen floor that he snapped into action.

 

“Michael, let me see it.” He stood in front of him, holding his hands out. “Michael, son, you have to let me see it.”

 

Michael looked up at him, his eyes shining. Mr. Heere’s heart clenched in his chest, moving his arms even closer to Michael to let him put his own arm there. “S-Sorry, Mr. Heere. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I really, I’m sorry I ruined everything. I-”

 

“Jeremy, could you give Michael and I some time alone while I check out his injury?”

 

Jeremy and Michael made eye contact, Jeremy looking reassuring and Michael looking absolutely terrified. Jeremy finally nodded and left to the living room while Mr. Heere guided Michael to the sink.

 

He held up the slice in Michael’s arm, looking it over. “I’m going to run it under some water, okay? It’ll sting a little, but it’ll be over soon.” He told him, guiding his arm into the sink and turning the faucet on. He walked over to the fridge to pull down the first-aid kit from the top of it.

 

After what seemed like an eternity in silence as Mr. Heere worked on washing and bandaging Michael’s cut, he couldn’t keep it down anymore.

 

“Michael,” he said slowly, “You know that it was just an accident, right? Which is fine. Not, not – it’s not fine that you’re hurt, of course not, but accidents happen. It wasn’t your fault, it wasn’t Jeremy’s fault, and I’m not upset about it at all.” He looked at him, hoping to meet his eyes.

 

Michael was silent for a minute, before glancing up at him and then around the room, speaking softly, “I dunno. Seems a lot like Jeremy’s fault.” He smiled.

 

Mr. Heere truly laughed at the remark, causing Michael to smile just a bit more. The two kept telling little jokes like that until Jeremy walked back in, wondering what the racket was.

 

Jeremy couldn’t help the smile that grew on his face at the sight of them, his dad’s belly actually jiggling with laughter as he clapped Michael’s shoulder, while Michael himself was giggling so much he was hitting his leg, trying to be mindful of his newly-bandaged arm.

 

God, Jeremy loved them both so much.

 

-

 

It had been a full week.

 

Michael Mell had stayed the night and simply hadn’t gone home.

 

Not that Mr. Heere minded at all. In fact, he didn’t even fully realize this until he was sat at home alone watching Wheel of Fortune and waiting for the boys to get home from school. They should be back any minute now, and he really wanted their nose back to occupy the silence. Idly, he wondered what Michael’s parents thought about it. Did they know Michael was even here?

 

His thoughts were interrupted by a rapid and angry knock at the front door, causing Mr. Heere to have to get up from his comfortable spot on the couch to see who it was. He opened his door to come face to face with a very angry looking Mr. Mell, who was clutching Michael’s hoodie like it had done him personally wrong.

 

“Where’s my daughter?” He demanded.

 

“Your daughter?” Mr. Heere responded, genuinely confused. “You don’t have a daughter.”

 

“Don’t bullshit me, Heere!” Mr. Mell screamed at him, getting in his face. “You know damn well what I’m talking about!” He jammed his pointer finger at him, causing Mr. Heere to take a step back. “I’m going to ask you one more time, because I have had enough!” He stomped his foot, almost like a petulant child.

 

“Where. Is. Michelle?”

 

Michelle?

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

Michael isn’t here right now, but I could gladly take a message for him. I’m sure he would really love to see his asshole, pathetic excuse of a father right now, but he and his boyfriend are on their way home from school. So truly sorry about that, Mr. Mell.”

 

Mr. Heere didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone’s face look so angry. It made him want to laugh his face. Michael deserved so much better than this. Mr. Heere wasn’t going to let his life go on like this any longer, if it was the last thing he did.

 

“You know what?” Mr. Mell seethed, hurling the hoodie into Mr. Heere’s face. “Keep it!”

 

Mr. Heere caught it naturally, bringing it up against his chest. “Really? I don’t think it’s quite my style, but I’ll tell Michael you gave it to me! I’m sure he wouldn’t mind!”

 

“God damn it! Tell that ungrateful bitch to never step foot into our home again! You can keep her! I’m sure she fits right in with your freakshow family!”

 

He didn’t know what came over him, but Mr. Heere grabbed him. He held his collar bunched up in his hands and got right back up in his face.

 

“Get the hell off my lawn, you ignorant, transphobic bastard.”

 

He pushed him away, staring him down as if daring him to try and say anything else. As he walked away, he shouted at him again.

 

“Oh! And don’t ever lay your hands on MICHAEL MELL again!”

 

He slammed the door shut and spun around, ready to stomp his mood to the fridge and find something inside to calm his angered nerves.

 

When he saw Michael.

 

“Oh, you’re home.” He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Where’s Jeremy?”

 

Michael’s breath slightly hitched when he tried to answer.

 

“You heard?”

 

Michael nodded, the tears falling freely now.

 

“Are you okay with that? Staying here from now on?”

 

Instead of an answer, Michael hugged him. And sobbed.

 

From then on, Mr. Heere vowed to never let him go.

Chapter Text

“Ahhhhhhh! Noooooooo!”

 

Michael’s character fell to the ground on-screen, dooming himself and his virtual partner to failing the level once again. Michael gripped his controller with all the might he could muster to keep himself from throwing it.

 

“Fucking hell!” he yelled, deciding to passive-aggressively toss it to his side on the couch. “I’m sorry, Jer, we were so close!”

 

Jeremy chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s all good, Mike. We got this close this time, we’ll get there again.”

 

Michael nodded in agreement, and both fell into a comfortable silence to allow their nerves to calm from the intense hype of Apocalypse of the Damned. They sat in their now shared living room, passing the lazy Saturday afternoon away by trying yet again to beat the level they had been stuck on. Needless to say, it wasn’t going so well.

 

After a bit more quiet Michael asked, “What’s your dad cooking?” He was genuinely curious, realizing both that he was pretty hungry, and also that Mr. Heere’s cooking smelled really good from here.

 

“Some kind of pasta?” Jeremy guessed. “He said something about how pasta was supposed to be easy and quick earlier, but he’s been cooking it for a while.” The boys both laughed a little at that, before falling into silence once again.

 

“So, do you want to try again?” Michael asked, taking his controller back from the couch and holding it up.

 

Jeremy took a breath to answer, only to be interrupted by a somewhat quiet knock at the door.

 

“Boys!” Mr. Heere shouted from his spot at the kitchen. “Could you answer that?”

 

“Sure thing!” Michael shouted back, heading to do just that.

 

Michael didn’t really know who to expect at the door; he didn’t think it could be any salesman or church-goers, as it seemed kind of late for that. He knew it wasn’t anyone they were expecting, or else he would have been told about it, now that he was also a resident member of the household, and all. His mind hadn’t even thought about it being Rich.

 

“Rich?” He asked as he swung the door open fully. “What are you… Rich?”

 

Rich stood in front of him, looking away to try and hide his full face. This, however, didn’t stop Michael or Jeremy from seeing the bruises or red marks there. Neither wanted to imagine what he was hiding under the way-too-big for him jacket he was wearing.

 

“H- Hey, guys!” Rich greeted shakily, raising his hand to rub the back of his neck, still not turning to fully look at them. “What’s shakin’?”

 

Neither knew what to say. So many emotions passed through at the same time, and all of them wanted nothing but to help Rich.

 

“Boys?” Mr. Heere asked, showing up behind them, holding a dish towel to wipe off his hands. “Who’s at the-”

 

Rich had turned to fully face them all in surprise at the new voice, showing off a deeply bruised black eye to match the other bruises and scuffs he sported. He started to shrink into himself, realizing what he had shown them. He cringed while meeting Mr. Heere’s eyes, afraid of just how dark and angry they were.

 

“Richard, come in.” He said calmly.

 

An awkward silence followed as Jeremy and Michael quietly stepped to the side to let Rich in. They all followed Mr. Heere into the kitchen-slash-dining room, Jeremy and Michael taking a seat as Rich took Mr. Heere’s silent instructions to step over to him, under the light. The silence continued as Mr. Heere grabbed a plastic bag, filled it with ice, and handed it to Rich. Rich pressed it to his eye without needing to be told to, and waited anxiously while Mr. Heere took out the first aid kit.

 

Rich didn’t know what to do. He felt so scared. He didn’t know that Jeremy’s dad would be home, and now he felt so stupid for not even thinking about the possibility. He didn’t know anything about Mr. Heere, but with his limited experience of fathers, it didn’t take much for him to imagine that Mr. Heere was about to break the silence to scream at him, and he really didn’t want any more of that today. He had just wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t home.

 

Mr. Heere’s heart clenched tight in his chest. He had turned back around to start looking Rich over to make sure he was okay, only to find a scared straight child. Rich was shaking in his presence, small tears starting to leak out of his eyes, and he was just so small that Mr. Heere couldn’t take it.

 

“Hey, Rich, it’s okay.” He tried to calm him. “Why are you so afraid? What happened?”

 

Rich finally turned to look him in the eyes – well, eye, as one of his was currently swollen shut. He didn’t know what to say until he just found himself stumbling out, “My dad’s not having such a great night.” He tried to chuckle to lighten the situation, but it only came out garbled.

 

Mr. Heere didn’t have the time to react before Michael and Jeremy had jumped out of their seats in indignation, both shouting “Your dad?!”

 

Rich started actually crying now, not knowing what to do with how much these people apparently cared about him. “I’m sorry,” he got out, “I didn’t know where to go.”

 

“Rich, it’s okay. I’m glad you came here.” Mr. Heere told him, sounding eerily calm compared to the anger emanating from Michael and Jeremy. “Nothing’s going to happen here. It’s safe here, I promise you.” Rich nodded, trying to let himself calm down.

 

After some silence and Mr. Heere looking at the black eye, Rich thought it was over.

 

“Rich, take off the jacket.” Mr. Heere instructed him.

 

“Uh, no. That’s fine. I’m fine. It’s just the eye, really! Nothing else, Mr. Heere, I’m all good!”

 

Mr. Heere looked like he didn’t believe him for a million years.

 

“Richard, please.” He asked. He hated how Rich cringed at his full name, but he would talk to him about that later.

 

When Rich took the jacket off and set it down on the chair, he felt so uncomfortable that he wished he had gone somewhere else.

 

“Holy shit, Rich!” Michael yelled at him. “Why haven’t you told us about this before?! You’re absolutely covered in bruises! What the hell?” Michael was so angry he couldn’t help but yell. He didn’t notice how much Rich was cringing and almost trying to get away until Mr. Heere himself had to yell.

 

“Michael!” Mr. Heere gestured towards Rich with his eyes, who had started violently shaking again, hugging himself to try and hide it.

 

“I’m sorry!” He choked out, sitting down in the chair Mr. Heere guided him to. “I- I-” he squeezed his eyes shut, afraid to look at any of them. “I was too scared!”

 

“Hey, hey man, I’m sorry.” Michael apologized, suddenly next to him with his hand on his back. “I know what it’s like to be scared. It’s okay.”

 

“Wh- Really?” Rich asked him, opening his eyes to look up at him.

 

“Yeah, man.” He nodded. Rich felt Jeremy standing on the other side of him, further cementing their support.

 

“Well, nothing too fatal, so that’s good.” Mr. Heere spoke up again, standing in front of him and looking him over. “But this- this is never okay.”

 

After a beat of silence, Jeremy spoke up. “Hey, Rich, you want to help us try and beat this video game level we’re stuck on?”

 

Rich lit up at the idea, smiling at him. “Yes! God, I haven’t gotten to play a video game in years!” Michael and Jeremy looked to each other at that, both feeling even more sympathetic for their friend than before.

 

“Before that, how about we eat the dinner I worked hard on, huh? What do you say, Rich? Are you hungry?” He laughed, trying to completely ease any tension that was still there.

 

Everyone was happy to see Rich jump from his chair to shout “Hell yes!”

 

-

 

A few hours later, and Mr. Heere was heading out. The house had gone quiet, leading him to assume that everyone had went to bed, which is exactly what he’d been waiting for.

 

He pulled on his own jacket, walking into the living room to grab his keys when he saw the glow coming from the tv. Walking over to now grab his keys and turn off the left-on tv, he found one of the most precious moments he would hold onto forever.

 

Rich was laid down on the couch, looking the calmest he had all night. He had a blanket draped over him that one of his boys had to have put there. Jeremy and Michael were sitting on the floor by his feet, Michael’s head on Jeremy’s shoulder, and Jeremy’s head on his. They were even holding each other’s hand.

 

Mr. Heere couldn’t object to taking a quick picture of the moment with his phone, grabbing his keys, shutting the television off, and walking out the door.

 

-

 

Jeremy woke to the sound of screaming.

 

Pitch black, he’s on the floor, and someone’s screaming.

 

It took what seemed like forever to remember where he was, what had happened, and to weed out that the screaming wasn’t Michael.

 

He stood up as quickly as he could, fumbling for the lamp, and waking Michael in the process.

 

“Wh- Rich! Rich, wake up!” he heard Michael saying. “Rich, come on, whatever it is isn’t real! Wake up!”

 

Jeremy finally got to switch the lamp on, flying right back to Rich on the couch.

 

“Rich!” he grabbed him by the shoulders, trying to shake him to wake him up. Which, surprisingly worked out.

 

Only he didn’t stop screaming.

 

“No! No!”

 

“Rich! Come on, man!”

 

“I don’t wanna die!”

 

“You’re not going to! You’re at my house, remember?”

 

“Jeremy? Jeremy, you have to get out! I- I started a fire! I didn’t want to! The Squip made me! You gotta help, Jeremy!”

 

“Oh shit.” Jeremy heard Michael mutter next to him.

 

“Michael! Michael’s still in the bathroom, you gotta help him, Jeremy!”

 

“No, he’s not, he’s okay! He’s right here! We’re all right here, in my living room!”

 

“But… but I just…” His eyes finally cleared up, and he looked around, spotting Michael watching him with concern.

 

“Rich, that was months ago. Everyone’s fine, and the squip is gone.” Jeremy tried to calm him, his hands still on his shoulders.

 

“Oh,” was all Rich said in return. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay. As long as you’re okay, so we are we.” Michael told him earnestly. Jeremy nodded, agreeing with him.

 

Heavy silence followed, Jeremy not moving his hands from Rich’s shoulders, and Rich looking anywhere but at his friends. “So, uh,” he started, “How did I not wake your dad?” he laughed at his attempt of lightening the situation.

 

“That’s a good question, actually.” Jeremy answered. He stood up from his spot, taking the stairs two steps at a time to check his dad’s room.

 

He wasn’t there.

 

“Uh, dad?” He yelled, and received no answer. He looked everywhere he could upstairs – even checking his and Michael’s now shared room – before going back downstairs to check. “Well, uh, weird news guys… Dad’s not here.”

 

“You mean he’s not heere?” Michael supplied, chuckling.

 

“What do you mean? Where would he be at this time of-” Rich started, his sentence tapering off when his eyes grew wide with urgent realization. “Michael, can you drive us to my place?”

 

“What? Why would you want to go back home now?” Michael asked him, looking at him as if he’d hit his head. “OH! YEAH TOTALLY I CAN COME ON JER LET’S GO.”

 

Both boys left Jeremy standing there in a whirlwind, still not quite sure about what Rich was talking about. He stood there awkwardly trying to figure it out, along with if Rich or Michael knew that they both ran out to Michael’s car in their borrowed pajamas. After about a minute of standing there confused, he finally got it.

 

“Oh! Coming!” he ran out the door.

 

-

 

“I told you – hic! – that it isn’t any of your – hic! – o’your business!”

 

Mr. Heere was this close to starting a full-on fist fight with this man.

 

“See, I understand that Rich isn’t my son. But I’ve been more of a father to him tonight than you have in your entire sorry life!” Mr. Heere yelled, growing louder as the sentence went on.

 

“Your ex – hic! – exactly right, he’s not your son!” Mr. Goranksi raised his beer, chugging the rest of it down.

 

“Not yet he’s not!” Mr. Heere yelled trying hard not to yell too loudly, not wanting any other random drunks from down the hall to show up.

 

“What?”

 

Mr. Heere almost jumped out of his skin, turning around to yell at whoever it was that this wasn’t any of their business, but the person who spoke up happened to be the very kid they were talking about.

 

“Richard Gor- Goranski! Get your ass over here!” Mr. Goranski demanded, throwing his empty bottle to the ground, making Rich shudder at the sound. Rich listened to him, walking over to stand next to Mr. Heere.

 

When his dad grabbed him, right there, and punched him so hard he fell to the ground.

 

“What were you thinking, you-”

 

Mr. Heere punched him square in the jaw, just as hard, if not harder, than he had hit Rich. Rich’s dad fell to the floor, disoriented. He didn’t even try to get up, he just grabbed another beer that happened to be only half-empty on the floor next to him. Mr. Heere helped Rich up from the floor, making a point of holding him close and staring down his father.

 

“Get your things, Rich.” He told him, not looking away from the eyes of his poor excuse of a father. Rich did as he was told, only grabbing a few things and meeting Mr. Heere back where he was. “We’re leaving.” Mr. Heere seethed.

 

“Fine!” Mr. Goranski yelled after their retreating forms. “Good riddance!”

 

Michael and Jeremy were waiting in the cruiser when they finally saw Mr. Heere come out, closely followed by Rich, carrying a small pile in his hands. They waited for someone to tell them what was going on, watching Mr. Heere ask Rich something before getting into his own car. Rich walked over to the cruiser and got back in.

 

“So, Mr. Heere adopt you, too?” Michael asked, looking at him to make sure he was okay. He looked visibly shaken.

 

Rich looked from Michael to Jeremy, starting to smile. “I guess so.”

Chapter Text

Now that Rich had been added to family, Mr. Heere couldn’t help but notice something.

 

His kids never stopped playing video games.

 

Where Michael and Jeremy had been stuck on a specific level of Apocalypse of the Damned, with Rich added to the equation, they had beaten it within the month. Then they completed another game together. Which was followed by another. Which was followed by the one they were playing now.

 

Mr. Heere glanced at the boys on the couch, laughing to himself at how rambunctious they were. Jeremy would raise his controller high in the air when he was concentrating, his arms looking as though they were towering over the heads of Michael and Rich. Rich easily moved the most out of the three though, squirming in his seat and shouting at everything, and Mr. Heere swore the kid jumped on the couch when they beat the levels. Michael probably moved the least, but that was because when he was concentrating, he would become a humanoid ball – he would either bring up his legs to sit cross-legged or would bring his knees to his chest, resting his head on them and sticking out his tongue without noticing, his attention never wavering from the screen.

 

When Mr. Heere had asked Jeremy about the sudden surge in the area of completely finishing any and all games possible, his son responded that Rich was so happy to play them again, especially with friends, that they just didn’t stop. No one wanted to.

 

And so, Mr. Heere didn’t want to take away from their fun, so he let them. Any time spent not sleeping or doing newly-assigned chores was used with the family television, leaving Mr. Heere to find a way to occupy his own time. He decided to try and take up reading.

 

Okay, so he was reading cookbooks, which really meant he had taken up more cooking, but he enjoyed it. Sue him.

 

“Hey! Hey! Mr. Heere!” Rich appeared next to him suddenly, smiling broadly and laughing after a joke that one of the other boys had made. “Can…” His smile faded, replaced by nervous shuffling and refusing to meet Mr. Heere’s eyes.

 

“What is it, Rich?” Mr. Heere asked, trying to sound as nice as he could. Rich was having a great time living here, true, but he was still learning to cope with the changes. While he was much more open and bright person around the house, he would still have moments of worrying if he’d done something wrong, or being too nervous to ask anyone for something (including the shower – Rich finally admitted to being too scared to try and figure out how the knobs worked and too anxious to ask anyone to help him after a week of not bathing).

 

“Can Jake come over for the weekend? Our game is a multiplayer game, and he could totally play with us!” Rich asked, the sentence coming out easier as it went on, he was practically jumping by the end with excitement.

 

“Sure, he can.” Mr. Heere responded, smiling at him. “Just tell him to come whenever he wants.”

 

Rich started actually jumping, letting out a quick “Thank you!” before turning around to head back to the others.

 

“Hey, Rich, hold on a sec, I need to ask you something.” Mr. Heere called out, stopping him just before he broke into a run.

 

Rich turned back to face him, looking nervous yet again. “Uh, what is it, sir?” He asked.

 

Mr. Heere gave a small laugh to ease the boy, starting to stand. “What would you like to eat for dinner tonight?” He asked him, his smile growing when Rich’s eyes lit up.

 

“I can choose?!” Rich almost yelled, and Mr. Heere swore he sounded more six than he did sixteen. “Really?! Okay, okay, I want…”

 

-

 

When Jake arrived, he opted for ringing the doorbell.

 

“Come in!” Jeremy shouted from the couch, unwilling to look away. Jake did so, laughing at the sight of his friends and swinging his bag to the ground next to them.

 

“Where’s Richie?” He asked them once they beat the level. They gave each other a high-five and looked around, not finding him.

 

“He went to go ask Mr. Heere if you could come over for us. Guess he’s still talking to him.” Michael told him, looking toward the kitchen-slash-dining room.

 

“Wait, did you call him Richie?” Jeremy asked, causing Michael to turn back to looking him while they laughed.

 

“Sure did!” Jake laughed along with them. “I’m the only one he lets call him that.”

 

“Hey, Jake!” The very boy himself greeted, walking over to them. “You’re here already?”

 

“It’s been around half an hour, Richie.” Michael told him, trying out the name.

 

“Don’t call me that.” He told him, no malice behind the words.

 

“What?! Jake gets to call you that!” Michael cried, shooting his arms up in the air.

 

“Yeah, and he’s the only one.” Rich laughed, throwing an arm around Jake’s waist, pulling him closer. Jake returned the closeness by throwing his own arm around Rich’s shoulders, leaning down to kiss the top of his head. He then stuck his tongue out at Jeremy and Michael to say ‘I told you so’.

 

“PDA! Get a room!” Michael shouted, throwing a decorative pillow at them. Rich let go of Jake to throw it right back, hoping his blush wasn’t too evident.

 

“Shut up, Michael!” He yelled as he tossed. “Like you and Jeremy weren’t PDA-ing all night in your bed while some of us were trying to sleep!”

 

“Rich!” Jeremy almost screamed, starting to blush as well.

 

“Okay, lovebirds!” Mr. Heere laughed heartily, calling from the kitchen. “Jake, you’re just in time for dinner!”

 

“Race you there!” Rich yelled, running past Mr. Heere. While no one took him up on the offer, they all smiled after him.

 

“Burgers!” Jake yelled along with his friends as they took their seats. “This smells amazing!”

 

“I got to choose, and this is what I chose!” Rich proclaimed proudly, putting his hands on his hips. “I wanted to make this Polish food, this stuff that my parents used to make a lot. ‘Cause Mom loved to make it – she was from Poland, y’know, originally.” He didn’t notice just how rapt everyone’s attention was to him. “Dad’s ancestors were from there, but Mom came here from Poland herself. She was awesome.” Rich sighed. “But Mr. Heere didn’t have all the ingredients, so we’ll make it another time!” He smiled to Mr. Heere.

 

“That’s why he was in the kitchen with me for so long,” Mr. Heere spoke up, smiling back at Rich to hopefully make him more comfortable after randomly sharing so much. “He was telling me how to make it.”

 

Everyone nodded in understanding and dug in to their meals.

 

“If we’re getting to try each others’ food, I call next new meal!” Michael told them. “We can have either some Ecuadorian, or some Filipino. You guys can choose which comes first.” He smiled slyly, looking around to let them know that they at least had that choice in the matter, winking when he looked at Jeremy.

 

“Oh yeah?” Jeremy said, looking just as sly. “Then at some point we get to have some Jewish food.”

 

“Jer, I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve been here and tried all the Jewish food you’ve had over the past twelve years.” Michael laughed and pointed his fork in Jeremy’s direction.

 

“That’s true, but has Rich?” Mr. Heere added, looking around at all of them pointedly.

 

“Nope!” Rich said happily, his mouth full of food.

 

“See?” Jeremy stuck his tongue out at Michael.

 

“Keep that tongue out and I’ll bite it next time we-”

 

“I haven’t gotten to try any Jewish food either!” Jake piped up to interrupt Michael from oversharing at the dinner table. “I’ll have to come over when all this intense meal-making is happening.” He laughed.

 

“How is the food we have every night not ‘Jewish food’ if Mr. Heere made it?” Rich asked as if he had discovered something profound, causing everyone to laugh.

 

As the conversation and banter continued, Mr. Heere paid more attention to Jake. He watched Jake simply watching the other boys talk without interjecting too much. While he did look somewhat happy and laughed along with the jokes being made, he also looked… sad.

 

Lonely.

 

Mr. Heere sighed inwardly at himself, how many kids was he going to do this to?

 

-

 

When everyone was finished eating and the conversation started to lull, it was getting obvious that the boys were excited to get back to playing their game.

 

“Okay, okay,” Mr. Heere chuckled, standing up and taking his plate. “You boys can go play your game again. Except Jake, how’s about you help me wash the dishes, hmm?”

 

Jeremy, Michael, and Rich eyed him suspiciously. “But, Mr. Heere,” Rich spoke first, “Jake doesn’t even live here!”

 

“Well, no. But he did eat off one of the plates, didn’t he?” Mr. Heere offered, laughing a very dad-like laugh.

 

“It’s okay, that actually sounds fun.” Jake told them, shooing them off. “I’d love to, Mr. Heere.”

 

“Well, if Jake wants to, then I’m not stopping him!” Michael said, starting to walk off. “Hey Rich, race you there!”

 

With the other boys gone, Mr. Heere had the chance he needed.

 

“Sounds fun? You’re not just trying to appease an old man, are you?” He joked, walking around the table to grab the other plates.

 

“Not at all!” Jake answered, helping him pick them up and noticeably not looking up at him. “I… I’ve never gotten to help anyone wash dishes, so I thought it sounded cool.” He used a free hand to awkwardly rub the back of his head before grabbing some left-over cups.

 

“What, your parents just make you do it yourself?” Mr. Heere wondered aloud, genuinely curious. He could see how that might be a chore the kid had to do, but not how it might lead to him being eager to help someone do them.

 

“Uh, I guess you could say that.” Jake laughed a little and followed Mr. Heere to the dishwasher.

 

“Are your folks sort-of strict? Give you a lot of chores to do, or something like that?” Mr. Heere asked him, taking each plate Jake handed him and running it under the sink before loading it in the washer.

 

“I… guess you could say that, too.” Jake told him quietly, looking sad yet again.

 

“What do you mean by that?” Mr. Heere finally decided to ask, hoping for honesty. He looked him in the eyes to try and get across that he only cared.

 

“Well, uh, my parents leave me to do… everything. Because they’re not there.” Jake answered, this time not looking away.

 

“They’re not there? Are they always away on business trips?” Mr. Heere guessed, taking his eyes off of him and back to the dishes.

 

“No.” was all Jake said in return.

 

“Son,” Mr. Heere started, suddenly feeling like he was walking on eggshells, “Where are your parents?”

 

It was a small quiet that followed, Jake turning around to lean against the counter and cross his arms, not looking at anything but the floor.

 

“Gone.” He admitted. “They, uh, laundered some money and got caught, decided to make a run for it. I had no idea, until one day I got home from school and there was nothing. I waited for so long… they never came home.”

 

Mr. Heere had no idea what to say. He stood there, letting the water run over his hands and the quiet continue. He felt so many things at once that he didn’t know what to do; he was angry that anyone’s parents would up and leave their kid like that, without any explanation. He was sorry for Jake, his mind wondering just how long the kid had been alone.

 

“What are you doing for money?” He asked when the thought crossed his mind. “Are you eating? Are you healthy?” He started to look the boy over, just to be sure.

 

“That’s how I found out,” Jake told him, still looking at the ground. “About two weeks in, I woke up and there was a pile of cash, just, sitting there. That, and a note explaining what happened. Mom wrote it, her handwriting.” Jake smiled somewhat, remembering what it looked like. “She said they couldn’t bring me with them, that I was too much of a hassle they didn’t need.” He turned his head to only let Mr. Heere see the back of it, and Mr. Heere couldn’t tell if he might be crying.

 

Mr. Heere looked at him sadly, and found himself at a loss for what to say again. That is, until-

 

“Wait,” Mr. Heere grabbed his shoulder and spun him until he was looking at him directly, “I thought Rich accidentally burnt down your house around Halloween. Jeremy had told me about it.” He kept his hand on Jake’s shoulder, sounding more stern than he meant to.

 

“He did.” Jake shrugged. “I’ve been staying at this hotel on-”

 

“You what?” Mr. Heere spoke as calmly as possible, which to be honest, wasn’t at all. “You’ve been staying at a hotel? And the manager is just letting this obviously sixteen-year-old boy just stay there? Without asking any questions?”

 

“It’s… not really an upstanding place or anything.” Jake murmured.

 

“Okay, that’s it.” Mr. Heere spun him around again, this time to where he was pushing on his back to guide him to the front door.

 

“Boys, we’ll be back!” Mr. Heere shouted to them, walking out the front door with Jake without giving them a glance.

 

-

 

When they got back, it was a bit late. It appeared that Michael, Rich, and Jeremy had gone up to their room.

 

“Well, goodnight.” Mr. Heere told him, patting Jake on the shoulder.

 

“Thank you.” Jake told him as Mr. Heere walked to the kitchen to finish what they had started with the dishes.

 

“It’s no problem.” Mr. Heere said earnestly, smiling at him. “Go to bed.”

 

Jake nodded and headed upstairs, opening the bedroom door with what little he owned, happy to see that the guys were still awake. While they didn’t say anything, he walked over to the one of two beds crammed in the room that somehow obviously belonged to Rich, setting his belongings down and sitting next to them.

 

“So, I think your dad just adopted me.”

Chapter Text

“Why are you such a bitch?!”

 

Chloe froze on the spot, holding her makeup in the air next to her face and staring at herself in her small locker mirror.

 

Shut up. She thought back at the voice. You don’t know anything about me. But she still couldn’t move.

 

“Oh please.” Her Squip’s voice responded. “Did you see Jenna’s face when you said that? You totally hurt her. You know you did. But did you apologize? No.

 

Trying to completely ignore it, Chloe snapped back into reality, finished applying the makeup and returned it to its rightful place in her bag.

 

“You can’t ignore me.” The Squip taunted. “I know who you are, what you think. And who you are is an awful person.”

 

Fuck off. She thought at it.

 

Bitch.”

 

“Hey, Chloe!” Brooke ran up to her, smiling brightly. “The period passed by so slow! I missed you!” Brooke was just as cheerful as ever, causing Chloe to smile along with her.

 

“Really?” Chloe let out. It sounded more real than she wanted Brooke to hear, and now Brooke was frowning at her, worry in her eyes.

 

“Yeah, of course.” Brooke leaned against the lockers, reaching a hand up to play with a piece of Chloe’s hair absentmindedly. “Are you okay?” She looked her in the eyes, knowing that Chloe could never look away from them when they were like this.

 

“Yeah, fine.” Chloe told her, lying through her teeth. “I just, do you think I hurt Jenna’s feelings earlier? At lunch?” She tore her eyes away from Brooke, opting for the floor.

 

“If you’re worried, just talk to her.” Brooke offered. “I’m sure she knows you didn’t mean anything by it, that sometimes things just come out the wrong way.”

 

Chloe groaned. “Yeah, but I – I shouldn’t even say it in the first place if I know it’s going to come out wrong when I say it. Everything comes out wrong when I say it, I’m too much of a bitch to-”

 

She was interrupted by Brooke taking her chin in her hand, forcing her to look in her eyes again. “Who called you that?” Brooke asked her, voice dripping in venom. “Because-”

 

“’Sup, heteros?” Michael interrupted, smiling big at the two of them and shooting tiny finger guns.

“Michael, sweetheart,” Chloe started, putting all the mock-sweetness in her voice that she possibly could, “how many times do I have to tell you that that greeting isn’t valid when literally none of us are straight?” She added a bit of eyelash-batting just to push it the extra mile.

 

Michael laughed and bumped her shoulder with his. “Forever, Chloe. I am never not going to use it.”

 

To this, Chloe just rolled her eyes.

 

“Well!” Brooke piped up. “Since that was last period, and we have no rehearsal today, we were just getting ready to head to Jeremy’s!” she gave them both a smile and took a breath to say something else, only to be interrupted yet again.

 

“I think you mean Jeremy, Michael, Jake, and Rich’s house!” Rich strolled up from the opposite direction. “In case you forgot.” He winked.

 

“Yeah right, like we could forget.” Chloe laughed. “You never shut up about it.”

 

A flash of hurt went across Rich’s eyes like lightning, and then he was laughing it off.

 

Chloe didn’t know if anyone else saw it, but she knows she did.

 

“You know, telling us all about how awesome Mr. Heere is, and how much fun you guys are all having living together, and how much better you’re doing there.” Chloe said a little too quickly, trying desperately to fix whatever hurt she’d brought. “We’re all really happy for you, Rich.” She gave him a genuine smile, now trying to fix the awkward (well, it felt awkward for her) silence that was everyone staring at her. “And you too, Michael!” She laughed, grabbing for Brooke’s arm and pulling her close.

 

“Was it just me, or did I hear Chloe Valentine totally not being bitchy for once?” Jenna asked, walking to stand beside Michael and add herself to the group quickly forming around Chloe’s locker.

 

What did I tell you?” Chloe’s squip hissed.

 

Chloe tried to snap back into reality, hearing Brooke start to defend her with a “Jenna!” and Jenna responding with a lighthearted “I was only joking, I swear!” and everyone laughed.

 

Except Chloe.

 

The damn thing is right. Chloe thought. Jenna totally hates me now, you could hear it in her voice.

 

“Hey, guys!” Christine practically yelled, running up to them and panting. “What’re we talking about?”

 

“Only about our shindig at our house!” Rich told her, proudly enunciating every word and gesturing at Michael and himself when he got to ‘our’.

 

“Oooh! Fun!” Christine clapped. “What’re we doing at this shindig?” She wiggled her eyebrows at Rich, causing him to giggle a small bit.

 

“I thought we agreed on watching some movies?” Jake suddenly spoke, appearing beside Rich from nowhere. “Mr. Heere already agreed on letting us order out for dinner tonight, and I convinced him to get some popcorn and snacks.” He said confidently, taking his phone out of his pocket and waving it around.

 

“You were texting dad?” Jeremy popped in, throwing his arm around Michael’s waist and making him blush just the tiniest bit. “I thought I convinced him to get snacks?” He asked, puzzled.

 

“Wait, I thought I was the one who convinced him.” Michael told them, looking from Jeremy to Jake with disbelief.

 

“Well, I asked him nicely.” Rich said simply.

 

“Okay, okay, we’re all here now. Let’s go.” Chloe finally spoke up, trying to ignore everyone’s looks when her voice came out smaller than normal.

 

As everyone nodded to each other and began to walk to the doors, Chloe fell to the back of the group. Brooke started to walk next to her, but was caught by Christine, who had to ask her something about a change to her costume in the next play. It wasn’t that no one cared, it was just that everyone was too caught up in their conversations to notice her hanging back. Everyone except Michael.

 

“Hey, Chlo,” Michael said, walking beside her and trying to look her in the eyes, “are you okay?”

 

Chloe turned her head to meet his eyes, and instantly looked away again. She couldn’t handle how concerned they looked, not right now. “Yeah,” she told him, “I’m fine. Just trying not to be too bitchy.” She tried to make it sound like a joke, but Michael didn’t laugh. His brows creased further.

 

“You’re not a bitch, Chloe.” Michael told her, sounding soft and stern at the same time.

 

Chloe only hummed in response.

 

-

 

What once was movies, turned into video games.

 

Again.

“I’m just saying,” Jeremy said, his eyes never leaving his spot in the race on-screen, “that I don’t get why dad doesn’t legally adopt you guys.”

 

“Well, he’ll probably adopt Rich, just so his dad doesn’t try and stir up any trouble.” Michael said nonchalantly, cruising past Jeremy’s Yoshi. “But as for me, my parents don’t care where I am anymore, as long as I never step into their house again. At least, that’s what they yelled at Mr. Heere.”

 

“Did your parents really say that?” Christine asked meekly, not wanting to ask too personal a question.

 

“Yeah, but I-”

 

“But I still don’t get it!” Jeremy interrupted, only really hearing his and Michael’s conversation at the moment. “Couldn’t your parents cause some trouble too? Like, what happens when Jake has to go back to the hospital to check on his legs?”

 

“Nah, man,” Jake offered, “My parents don’t even know about my legs. I take care of it myself every time I go.”

 

“How do your parents not know?” Brooke asked, not trying to win anymore as her Baby Peach cruised in last place.

 

“They laundered money and they’ve been on the run ever since.” Jenna answered her.

 

“Jenna!” Christine took a hand off of her controller to try and gently swat her without looking. “That wasn’t yours to share!”

 

“It’s okay.” Jake answered, sounding a bit saddened.

 

“How did you not know, Brooke?” Christine wondered, her eyebrows scrunching up. “Chloe had to have known, which means she would have told you.”

 

“I didn’t know!” Chloe snapped, no anger in her voice. “He told me they were just out all the time. Besides, I wouldn’t have told Brooke if he had. Too personal.”

 

“Thanks, Chlo.” Jake said, still sounding sad.

 

“No probl-”

 

“But Michael,” Jeremy interrupted again, “What if you have to go to the hospital or the dentist or something, and-”

 

“We’ll figure it out as we go, Jer.” Michael said, interrupting him this time.

 

“But why can’t he adopt you or Jake if he’d adopt Rich?” Jeremy asked, virtually throwing a green shell at his boyfriend.

 

“Because you can’t marry your brother!” Michael yelled in frustration, both at the conversation and at the goddamn green shell.

 

No one spoke a word, Jeremy staring at Michael as if he had committed the most heinous crime of the century, blushing so much you’d think he was sunburned.

 

“It’s New Jersey. Everything’s legal in New Jersey.” Christine broke the silence timidly, smiling and looking around at her friends from her spot on the floor as the race ended.

 

“Did you just quote Hamilton?” Chloe asked her.

 

“Is my name Christine?” Christine answered, laughing.

 

“Why don’t we do Hamilton?” Rich asked from the couch.

 

“Because, one, we don’t have enough people. Two, you’re all going to argue over who gets to play Hamilton. And three, one of us isn’t going to get to be a Schuyler and will have to be Maria.” Chloe said, smiling triumphantly at her hard-won third place.

 

“Oh, please,” Jake said, “You would totally be Maria.”

 

What?” Chloe almost screeched.

 

“Yeah,” Michael agreed. “You’d be an awesome Maria, Christine would be Eliza, Brooke would be Angelica, and Jenna would be Peggy.”

 

“Why am I Peggy?” Jenna frowned.

 

“And Michael would be Hamilton.” Christine said matter-of-fact.

 

“What?!” Rich and Jake said in unison.

 

“No, no, no, no. I don’t do on-stage parts, Chrissie. We’ve already discussed it.” Michael laughed awkwardly.

 

“I don’t know,” Jeremy said shyly, his blush still evident on his cheeks, “I think you’d be amazing as Alexander. I know you can sing it.”

 

“Yeah, he does it every morning in the shower.” Rich grumbled, crossing his arms.

 

“Oh, come on, Rich. You’d be Hercules.” Christine offered.

 

“Mulligan?!” Rich looked at her as if she’d grown a second head.

“Of course! You’d be Hercules, Jake would be Lafayette, and Jeremy would be Laurens.” She told him.

 

“Yeah, but you just say that because you ship Hamilton and Laurens, don’t you?” Chloe asked her, eyeing her down.

 

“Hey, tumblr is good at making you ship ships, okay?” Christine looked away, blushing.

 

The conversation continued like this as they started another round.

 

And no one noticed Mr. Heere smiling fondly at them from the kitchen doorway.

 

-

 

Mr. Heere really didn’t want to get up.

 

He really, really, didn’t want to get up.

 

But the small, almost-silent sounds of crying continued.

 

He groaned, rolling over and creaking his eyes open to look at the time on the clock.

 

3:10.

 

He really didn’t want to get up yet, but he knew he had to. If he was going to decide to take such an interest in the well-being of all these kids, he knew he had to commit.

 

He got out of his bed and lazily threw the blankets over it, too tired to care about making it. He made sure he was fully dressed, threw on some slippers, and headed downstairs to follow the sounds of whimpering.

 

When got to the bottom, he just knew that he would have to have a talk to the kids in the future about falling asleep in the living room, with the tv still on. He noticed it was only about half of the group sleeping there, which meant that those who had beds probably went to use them. The more he looked, the more he could tell about the head of hair poking up from the couch, shaking slightly and obviously being the culprit of the late-night cries: Chloe.

 

Chloe apparently didn’t hear him come downstairs, didn’t hear him walk to the kitchen, and didn’t even notice him turn the lights on and make a couple cups of tea.

 

Mr. Heere finished up his own cup, surprised he even remembered how to do this, or that they even still had some. He hadn’t made tea since his ex-wife was still around and demanded asked him to make her a cup. He knew it was better than coffee for any late-night shenanigans, especially for the young ones.

 

A warm cup in each hand, he walked over to the couch. His heart almost broke into a million pieces right on the spot when he found the poor girl curled up on the couch, her knees to her chest and head buried there, the sobs way clearer now that he was next to her. That must be how she hadn’t noticed him the whole time.

 

Mr. Heere gently tapped her knee with his hand, offering her the cup when she looked up at him, her face a mess of tears, mascara, and snot (it was kind of gross, but Mr. Heere ignored it). “Come on, Chloe.” He whispered to her, gesturing toward the kitchen-slash-dining-room with his head.

 

She followed him to a seat, squinting at the lights and accepting the box of tissues that formed in front of her.

 

After a second of Chloe wiping away the mascara and her nose as best she could, Mr. Heere asked “Now, do you want to tell me what’s bothering you so much?”

 

Chloe’s eyes didn’t stop letting tears fall as she took a small sip of the tea. “This is good,” she got out between ragged breaths, “How did you know to make it?”

 

“Jeremy’s mother used to have it a lot.” He answered simply.

 

“His mom?” Chloe asked, taking another sip and wiping at her eyes with her hands. “What happened to her?”

 

“She left me.” Mr. Heere admitted softly.

 

“Oh,” Chloe said, and for some reason started crying harder at that, “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be.” Mr. Heere told her, reaching over to squeeze her shoulder in comfort. “She wasn’t a very nice person.”

 

Chloe just looked him in the eye for a few seconds and nodded.

 

“At least Jeremy’s got both of you.” She almost bit out.

 

Mr. Heere began inwardly worrying and wondering just how many kids in this town had either none or shitty parents. He hoped her situation wasn’t like Jake’s, he couldn’t handle the thought of one of these kids being so alone again.

 

“Did something happen to your parents?” He asked her, trying to sound a bit more stern in hopes that she tell him the truth.

 

“It might as well have.” Chloe took another sip, making it longer so she could think of how to say what she wanted to say. “They’re rich – and I don’t mean small-town Rich, I mean they live in some big mansion somewhere else and dumped me here with some house they bought and stuffed with maids, and, and they don’t care either!” She hid her face in her hands, not wanting to look at Mr. Heere. “And I try not to complain because I know I have it lucky and everyone else’s home life sucks and I don’t have any room to complain about how pressured I feel or how alone I feel, I mean, I’m such an awful person, Mr. Heere!” She started to sob again, getting more hysterical. “They didn’t even raise me, and yet, they raised me into such an awful person, I’m so mean and hurtful and almost everything I say I’m hurting one of my friends, I’m such a bitch that-”

 

“Don’t say those things about yourself!” Mr. Heere whisper-yelled, furious but not wanting to wake the other kids. “Those things aren’t true, Chloe. Don’t call yourself that, please.” He looked at her pleadingly.

 

Which only made her sob harder.

 

“I’m telling you, Mr. Heere, I turned out awful and they don’t even care! And, and, and just wait until Brooke and I come out to them!”

 

Mr. Heere could swear on his life he didn’t think he’d felt such an emotional stabbing before.

 

“There’s not just me! I have siblings! They pumped us all out and left us with nothing but guides to be perfect and everyone turned out but me!” Chloe set her head on the table, squeezing her eyes shut and hugging herself tightly. “None of us are close. Because they’re all off doing amazing things with their lives and I’m flunking History!” She let out another sob into the table. “Do you know what they got me for Christmas? Textbooks! Textbooks and a disappointed letter!” She sobbed again, breaking Mr. Heere’s heart into more and more tiny pieces. “They didn’t even visit me.”

 

Mr. Heere had enough, standing and pulling Chloe up with him before pulling her into a hug. She kept crying into his shirt and he locked his arms around her tight.

 

“Chloe, I’m sure they care about you.” He tried to soothe her.

 

“They don’t! Ask Brooke! You could fax them adoption papers and they’d practically give me away!” She sobbed, not really paying attention to what she said.

 

“I’ll do just that.” Mr. Heere said solidly.

 

“Wh- What?” Chloe asked, standing still. “No, Mr. Heere, I didn’t mean-”

 

“So, you wouldn’t want that?” Mr. Heere asked her. “Because I promise, Chloe, I’ve already taken in three children and I’m not against taking in another one. But it’s your decision.” He looked her in the eye. “And I know you didn’t just randomly say that.”

 

She laughed somberly into his shirt. “I didn’t think you’d actually do it if I asked.”

 

He chuckled and sighed, telling her “Of course I would.”

-

 

Chloe was back in the living room after giving him the number so he could have some privacy while calling up her parents. He had to admit how annoyed he was at how long he was waiting after Chloe told him that they should be somewhere where it mid-day right now, they answered, and after hearing who he was and what he wanted, put him on hold.

 

Apparently, for forever.

 

When they finally did pick back up, the first thing he heard her father say was “Do you have a fax machine?”

 

Dread built up in his gut. “Yes, I do.” He answered.

 

“Well, get to it.” Mr. Valentine snapped. “And do tell me the address.”

 

Mr. Heere walked back upstairs to his bedroom, where he had crammed his work things and a desk. Included in these things was a fax machine, which had barely been used.

 

“We’ve looked over all of our knowings on Chloe, and have found that she has not brought much to the family name.” He heard Mrs. Valentine tell him, he must be on speaker. “In fact, I’m afraid she’s a bit of a bad spot on an otherwise perfect sheet.”

 

“Now, listen, that’s your-”

 

“She’s been doing poorly in her classes, and there’s been a rumor spreading that she is dating another girl there? No, that simply cannot do. She’s nothing valuable. You can have her. Just give me the faxing address and I’ll send you the adoption papers, all ready to go, all you have to do is just sign them.” Mr. Valentine said pointedly.

 

Mr. Heere’s blood boiled. He gave them the address and bit his tongue.

 

“There,” he said, signing and sending them back, “Now, let me tell you someth-”

 

“Thank you for taking care of this pest.” Mr. Valentine interrupted, and the line went dead.

 

The fax machine went off once more, and he received what he assumed was his copy of the papers. He stared at them a long time, trying to let his anger cool. He had never, in his life, ever met any parents who had such little value for their kids. To just look at her, this living, breathing, feeling person as just an opportunity to gain more in the family name was just, awful.

 

Mr. Heere was going to let that girl never know what they had said to him on that phone call, but he was definitely going to make sure she knew that just because she came from awful people, it did not make her one.

 

He collected the papers and hurried back downstairs, ready to tell Chloe, when he found her asleep on the couch with everyone else.

 

He would tell her in the morning.

 

Ugh, which meant he’d be making breakfast in a few hours.

 

-

 

Even though she had had a rough night, Chloe found herself the first of all her friends to wake up.

 

Probably because of that delicious smell.

 

She stood and stretched, working out any kinks that had formed from sleeping on a couch in your friends living room.

 

She followed her nose to the kitchen, where Mr. Heere was flipping pancakes and adding them to a gigantic stack. He had an assortment of syrups all taken down from still-open cabinets, wearing his pajamas and a bathrobe, and whistling showtunes.

 

Chloe smiled a big and genuine smile as she walked over to inspect the syrups.

 

“Where did you get all of these?” She asked.

 

Mr. Heere jumped, almost not catching the pancake. “Chloe!” He sighed in relief. “You scared me, kid.” He laughed and took a glance at the flavors. “They’re from different little stores scattered around, I’ve just found them.” He told her.

 

“How long have they been in there?” She asked, poking at the crust on the lid of one of the bottles.

 

Mr. Heere hummed. “You might want to check labels before using any.” He admitted. “But, before you do, could you wake up the other kids?”

 

“Sure.” She told him honestly, turning and heading out to do just that.

 

“Oh, wait just a second, Chloe!” He stopped her, frantically setting the skillet to the side and going to the papers on the table. “I… you were right, about your parents.”

 

She frowned and looked sad for a split second before she started beaming. “Wait, does that mean you adopted me? Like, legally adopted me?!” She asked him.

 

“’Fraid so, kiddo.” He smiled at her.

 

Her response was to walk over to him and give him another hug, which he returned without a second thought.

 

“Thank you, Mr. Heere.”

 

“No problem, sweetheart.”

 

She broke the hug and went to get the rest of the sleepy children for breakfast. After a few minutes, she returned with Jeremy as the rest just groaned from their respective spots around the house.

 

“So, uh, Jeremy,” Chloe started, almost running around the table to grab the adoption papers, “you remember last night’s conversation, about your dad legally adopting?”

 

Jeremy, way too tired to fully comprehend what was going on, half-asleep in his chair, just nodded at her.

 

“Well, uh… you now have a sister!”

Chapter Text

“You’re breaking up!” Jeremy spoke loudly.

 

A small bit of static, and then Chloe’s voice came through clear again.

 

“Sorry, rough patch. Did you hear what I said?” She asked them.

 

“Nope!” Rich answered, leaning into the phone set on the table to make sure she heard him answer her, pushing through and nudging everyone huddled around it.

 

“I said we’re not exactly sure how to tell them.” Chloe told them.

 

Today was the day she and Brooke were going to muster up the courage to finally come out to Brooke’s parents. Everyone was nervous for them, but Brooke herself was definitely the one who felt it the most – her parents were very strict religious people, and she was hoping that they would accept her despite what they’d shared about their beliefs before. Deep down, Brooke felt like she knew her parents would accept her; they loved her, right? She was tired of hiding and she was afraid that if she wasn’t the one to tell them they’d find out from someone else sooner or later.

 

“I was thinking of a joke, or, y’know, something silly to ease the tension, but Brooke thinks we should just be honest.” Chloe explained from her end.

 

“Don’t do the joke,” Michael told her, leaning into the phone himself, “those don’t work out.”

 

“Michael says not to do the joke, Cookie.” They heard Chloe relay to Brooke.

 

“Did you just call her cookie?” Jake asked, the unwelcome sweetness dripping from the word while he made a grossed-out face in the phone’s general direction.

 

Chloe just laughed at him. “Yeah, I use to call her ‘Brookie-Cookie’ when we were kids, and it’s just been shortened to ‘Cookie’ over the years!” She clarified.

 

“That is disgustingly sweet.” Michael half-swooned, turning to Jeremy. “How come you never call me anything like that?”

 

“I- I call you cute things all the time!” Jeremy exclaimed, trying hard to hide his blush.

 

In the background of the phone call, there was the sounds of a dog barking, tires squealing, and someone starting to yell.

 

“Everything okay there, girls?” Mr. Heere asked from his spot in his recliner.

 

“Yeah, Brooke just had to swerve to miss this idiot dog.” Chloe answered him, followed with “Sorry, not-an-idiot dog. Just-a-confused pupper.” She paused to let everyone finish laughing.

 

“You two be careful! Don’t be driving all crazy or anything.” Mr. Heere warned them, imagining all the bad scenarios that could happen if they didn’t drive carefully.

 

“We’ll be more careful,” Chloe promised. “We’re here now, so we have to go. I’ll call back later… or just tell you when I get home!” She told them, sounding happily comfortable in her ability to say those words.

 

“Alright, goodbye, girls!” Mr. Heere yelled to the phone and started to get up and head to the kitchen, while everyone else said their goodbyes as well.

 

“Bye!” Brooke and Chloe chorused, and hung up.

 

Rich leaned back into his spot on the couch, sighing contently. “Not to sound rude or anything, but I’m just glad she’s headed out for a while!” He looked to each of them.

 

“Rich!” Mr. Heere reprimanded him from his spot at the fridge.

 

“What?!” Rich asked, throwing his hands up in defense. “I love her just as much as any of you guys, but one can only take so much bathroom hogging.” He said lightheartedly, laughing along with the other boys.

 

“Yeah, but you could say that about you or Michael, too.” Jake told him, still laughing. “Every time you use the bathroom, you get distracted by your phone and stay in there forever, and every shower Michael takes he serenades the whole house.”

 

“You all love my singing.” Michael pouted, folding his arms and sticking his tongue out at Jake.

 

“I know I do.” Jeremy sighed.

 

“Sure, but it only makes it frustrating when you’ve got the talent but refuse to use it!” Jake told him, sticking his tongue out right back at him.

 

“Chloe even gets her own room!” Rich interrupted them, throwing his hands up in the air and mock-scoffing. “I call special treatment, Mr. Heere!”

 

“Would any of you like to share a bedroom with her?” Mr. Heere yelled back to them and laughed when the following silence answered his question. “This house is kind of small, but we’re lucky Linda and I bought in when we were planning on having two kids!” He said, hoping they got the hidden ‘be thankful for what you’ve got’ message.

 

“Yeah, but we’re also lucky to have so many helping hands to help with emptying all the junk that was in there!” Michael laughed. Everyone nodded in remembrance of the full three days it took to empty the room, find other places to put the things that were in the room, and also place a couple stacked air mattresses for Chloe to sleep on until they could get another bed.

 

“Besides, I think I quite like sharing a bed with you.” Michael said, leaning over to peck his blushing boyfriend’s cheek.

 

“Aww!” Jake and Rich said in unison, trying to poke fun at them.

 

Rich giggled. “I think I feel the same way.” He leaned over until he was leaning completely on Jake’s chest and looking up at him.

 

“Aww!” Jeremy and Michael returned the gesture.

 

“Hey, boys, I’m making some grilled cheese if anyone else wants some.” Mr. Heere told them from the kitchen doorway.

 

He had to move out the way as they all ran past him.

 

-

 

Chloe didn’t call back or come home for a long time.

 

It couldn’t have been that long, but it certainly felt like it.

 

Mr. Heere couldn’t deny the anxious feeling gnawing in his chest, and it took little to imagine the kids felt the same way. It had been hours since that phone call, and it was starting to get late. The sun had set, and his adoptive daughter hadn’t made it home yet.

 

The boys all sat in the living room yet again, each one looking down at their phones as a way of trying to ignore their worry. They were so nervous they didn’t even feel up to video games, which was its own major red flag.

 

In the midst of the silence surrounding everyone in the house, Jeremy suddenly shot up and started to yell.

 

“Chloe texted me!” He shouted, earning everyone’s attention.

 

“Well?!” Michael asked him.

 

“Uh… it says, ‘Emergency. Pinkberry. Your dad. Now.’… and then she sent ‘Please’.” Jeremy relayed, looking to his dad as Mr. Heere was instantly throwing on his coat and grabbing his keys.

 

“We’re going with you!” Rich demanded, standing and heading toward the door with him.

 

“No!” Mr. Heere yelled sharply, instantly regretting it when Rich’s posture turned stock still and awkward. He sighed. “I mean, if something’s happened – which it hasn’t – but if something has, we don’t need to cause a scene or upset the situation.” He explained to them. “I’ll go, and Chloe and I will share when we get back.” He commanded, looking at them all pointedly.

 

“If something really bad happened, you’d call and tell us, right?” Rich spoke up, looking at him pleadingly.

 

“I promise. I have to go.” Mr. Heere nodded to them and was out the door.

 

-

 

When he saw both girls sitting at a table, both silent but whole, he almost collapsed with relief.

 

“What’s happened?” He asked their backs, going around the table to sit in front of them.

 

When they looked up at him, he had to bite his tongue. His blood boiled.

 

Brooke’s cardigan had a rip in the arm, where there was a small red stain of blood, showing a couple brightly colored Scooby-Doo band-aids through the hole, while a few smaller Hello Kitty ones littered both of their hands. Chloe’s face sported an angry-looking red handprint, that was just starting to bruise around the palm.

 

“What the hell happened?” He demanded.

 

“Take a guess.” Chloe said simply.

 

“I’m… I’m homeless.” Brooke said, starting to cry into her frozen yogurt.

 

“I told you, you’re not homeless.” Chloe told her, reaching over to hold her hand.

 

“Girls.” Mr. Heere said, sounding short of temper. “There are four boys at home who are very worried about you. Please, tell me what happened.”

 

“Okay, okay.” Chloe started, starting the story as Brooke tried to wipe her tears away with the torn sleeve of her cardigan. “So, when we hung up, we decided to go with Brooke’s idea of just being completely honest.” Brooke nodded at that, sniffling. “We sat her parents and her grandma down and just told them, ‘Hey, Brooke’s pan and I’m her girlfriend!’ and they thought it was a joke. They started laughing and her gran was all ‘since when is my grandbaby attracted to pans? You don’t look like cookware to me!’” Chloe imitated a grandma’s voice. “Then we explained that pansexual means that Brooke could find anyone attractive, but especially me.”

 

Mr. Heere gave her a look.

 

“And then they freaked the fuck out.” Chloe kept going. “Her dad started cussing us out and throwing things at us.”

 

“He called…” Brooke couldn’t finish her sentence. “He called me a…” She sobbed.

 

Mr. Heere really didn’t want her to finish that sentence.

 

“He went on and on about how he thought he raised her better than that and how she disappointed and dishonored her entire family name, and then went into her room and started destroying everything she owned – by continuing to throw it all at us.” Chloe rolled her eyes.

 

“He found the box of notes from Chloe that I had kept over the years, and he burned them.” Brooke spoke up, starting to cry harder.

 

“Everyone was yelling and we were dodging and then they told Brooke to leave and never come back.” Chloe told him.

 

“They said they didn’t want a disgrace like me for a child.” Brooke got out between hitches in her breath. “They said they wished it had been drugs, that you could fix drugs!” Her breath hitched again. “They told me I could only come back if I saw the light of God and was ready to go be exorcised at our church.” She laughed wryly.

 

“So, we started to leave and get in Brooke’s car, when she kissed me in front of them.” Chloe giggled, seeming almost delirious with disbelief at the day they’d had.

 

“Just as a way to tell them to go fuck themselves.” Brooke sniffled again.

 

“And her grandma grabbed me, slapped the hell out of me, and called me a ‘filthy, devil-worshipping skank’.” Chloe continued.

 

Mr. Heere started actually biting his tongue.

 

“Who knew such an old lady could pack such a punch, huh?” She tried to smile.

 

“Chloe.” He gave her another look.

 

She went on with the story. “And then, to top it all off, we start driving away, and they throw a literal huge fucking rock through her back window, which shattered the glass and flew through the car until it hit Brooke’s arm, which cut her. Like, it apparently was a sharp rock. Why the hell are there sharp rocks?!”

 

“Chloe.” He had to interrupt her again.

 

“And then, as we were screaming because we didn’t know what the hell was happening, Brooke accidentally hit a tree in their yard. The car could still move, ‘cause we reversed and still drove away, but the front is all busted. We drove to the CVS and got band-aids for Brooke’s arm, and then when we were cleaning the glass shards from the back seat, some of the tiny glass pieces cut out fingers! So we had to go back inside to get smaller ones!” She hit the table lightly, shaking her hand off when it stung.

 

“That was your car out there?” Mr. Heere asked, remembering seeing it when he was parking.

 

“Unfortunately.” Brooke sighed, dejectedly spinning her spoon in her frozen yogurt.

 

“When all was said and done, we came here so I could buy Brooke some frozen yogurt and we could calm down. And then I texted Jeremy.” Chloe finally finished, looking down at the table that had hurt her.

 

“Well,” Mr. Heere sighed, leaning back in his chair, feeling exasperated. “I’m starting to think I’m the only real parent in this entire state.”

 

“You’re telling me.” Chloe agreed.

 

“Brooke, she’s right. You’re not homeless. You’re more than welcome to stay with us.” He told her, holding his hand up and telling her “No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

 

“Mr. Heere, I couldn’t possibly-” Brooke started, and let herself give a small smile when Mr. Heere gave her a look to say, ‘What did I just say?’

 

“Oh, Mr. Heere!” Brooke stood from her seat and leaned across the table to give him a short hug. “Thank you! Thank you so much, I promise I’ll get a job and I’ll totally help around the house!”

 

As Mr. Heere took a breath to tell her that wouldn’t be necessary, an adult employee popped in and told her “Hey, we’re hiring here!” She gave a look to Mr. Heere, and set two more small bowls of fro-yo on the counter in front of the girls. “Here you girls go, that’s on the house. It’s getting late, and we’re about to close up shop, so maybe you all should head home and have a good night’s rest, hmm?”

 

“Yes, we should. We should go home, let me take a look at your hands to make sure you didn’t get any glass stuck in there,” Mr. Heere started to say, only to be interrupted by Brooke.

 

“We could have gotten it stuck in our fingers?!” She almost shouted, looking very worried.

 

“Yes, you could. Especially if there were pieces that small. You should’ve just left it, and I would have cleaned it up.” Mr. Heere told them, hoping that his small glass safety lesson got across to them clearly. “And we need to let the boys know you two are okay. They’re all worried sick.”

 

“Oh my gosh, the guys! You have to tell them we’re okay!” Brooke told him frantically.

 

“Tell them yourself.” He reminded her, starting to stand from his seat.

 

“Oh, yeah.” She said, smiling sheepishly. “What about my car?”

 

“You are not driving that thing again.” Mr. Heere demanded.

 

“Just leave it here, sugar. You can come back for it in the morning.” The woman told them.

 

“Thank you, so much.” Mr. Heere told her, shaking her hand. “Come on girls, the sooner the better.” He told Brooke and Chloe, putting his hands on their backs to mock-push them toward the door.

 

The employee stood and smiled as she watched them go.

 

-

 

“Mr. Heere’s back! He’s back!” Rich yelled for the others, jumping at his spot of watching through the window blinds.

 

“What about Chloe and Brooke?!” Jake asked, running to look through the blinds with him.

 

“I don’t see them.” Rich answered shakily. “Wait! They’re in his car!” He started jumping again.

 

“Why are they in Dad’s car?” Jeremy wondered, hurrying to open the front door.

 

“I don’t know!” Rich yelled at him, all the anxious energy in him releasing.

 

Mr. Heere, Brooke, and Chloe all came inside, all hugging back the hugs they received.

 

Rich froze in his embrace with Chloe while he was pulling away, anger growing obvious in his face. “Who hit you?” He seethed.

 

“It’s a long story.” Brooke offered him.

 

“Wait, wait, let me guess!” Jeremy laughed. “Dad adopted you, too?”

Chapter Text

Christine couldn’t move.

 

There she was, standing right at the entrance to the auditorium, ready to persevere and nail her desired spot in the next play, when she saw the stage and froze.

 

She didn’t know what came over her, but just seeing the stage sent her mentally flying back, feeling short of breath and sick to her stomach. She felt like she hated the stage. She felt like she never wanted to see it again. She felt like she never wanted to be up there again.

 

She was going to be sick.

 

She was having a panic attack.

 

Christine turned around and ran out of the auditorium, leaving an oblivious Mr. Reyes alone to continue in wonder when Christine would arrive.

 

-

 

No one has seen Christine.

 

Correction: no one had seen Christine until she showed up after a week straight of school absence and no contact, only for her to finally show up, dressed completely in black, and successfully avoiding every one of her friends for the entire day.

 

And to top it all off – she never showed up to play rehearsal.

 

The next day she was absent again, leaving her friends frustrated with how little they knew about what was going on.

 

“Okay, since when did one of my best friends turn into a fucking cryptid?” Michael broke the awkward lunch silence, speaking what they were all thinking.

 

“Is she okay, you think?” Brooke asked, looking around worriedly.

 

“She didn’t show up to play rehearsal! What does that tell you?” Michael whisper-yelled to her.

 

“Something’s definitely wrong for her to miss rehearsal,” Jake spoke, nodding in agreement with Michael, “Even Mr. Reyes was asking around for her! She hasn’t stepped foot on stage since last production!”

 

Everyone looked at each other in mutual worry.

 

“And did you see what she was wearing?” Chloe asked them.

 

“Chloe, I really don’t think now’s the time to-” Jake started, only to be interrupted.

 

“No, I mean Christine would never wear all black. She’s way too bubbly for it! There was no bright colors, no clashing patterns, nothing!” Chloe redeemed herself.

 

“She’s right,” Jenna told them, “Christine hates wearing one solid color.”

 

“She didn’t speak to me at all, I think she was avoiding me.” Jeremy admitted, looking sadly down at his crossed arms on the table.

 

A chorus of “Me too!” made him look back up.

 

“And she won’t answer any texts or calls on her phone!” Rich stated, feeling more anxious by the second.

 

“What do you think’s going on?” Brooke asked any of them.

 

“Do you think she somehow got into drugs?” Jenna asked.

 

“What? Like weed?” Michael looked to her disbelievingly.

 

“You know that’s not the drugs I meant.” Jenna told him.

 

“No way!” Jeremy interrupted them. “Not Christine!”

 

“She did look… frazzled.” Chloe said, trying to find the best way to put it.

 

“Ugh, why don’t we just make a plan, alright?” Jenna offered.

 

“We’re listening.” Rich said after a small silence followed.

 

“We keep trying to get in contact with her, and whoever she answers first, tell her to meet us all at… you guys’ place, since it’s becoming the resident Safe Space, or whatever.” Jenna explained, her hand waving around in gestures while she talked. “And then we hold an intervention to find out what’s wrong.”

 

“That sounds… kinda shady.” Michael told her.

 

“Yeah, interventions always make me uneasy.” Jeremy agreed.

 

“We’re not going to, like, force her to tell us or anything. We just care about her. And I, for one, can’t think of another way to get her to talk to us again.” Jenna told them, sounding defeated.

 

“She’s right, man.” Jake admitted, sighing.

 

“Okay, so we’ve got a plan?” Jenna poked her fist into the middle of them all.

 

Everyone stacked their hands on top of hers, nodding and agreeing, “Plan.”

 

-

 

Eliza!

 

Jeremy woke halfway, not really understanding what was happening in the late-night dark. He closed his eyes again, rolling over to readjust his sleeping position with Michael.

 

Eliza!

 

All four boys groaned.

 

“Whose phone is it?” Rich mumbled into his pillow.

 

“Who’s texting this late?” Michael asked, his voice vibrating against Jeremy’s chest.

 

Eliza!

 

“Did you set someone’s text tone as goddamn Eliza Schuyler?” Jake asked, poking his head up just a tiny bit before plopping it back down.

 

“Yeah, after that Hamilton conversation the night my dad adopted Chloe.” Jeremy answered, feeling around for his phone.

 

A beat of silence, and then Rich shot up. “So it’s Christine?!”

 

This made the other two sit up as well, rubbing their eyes and trying to wake themselves up.

 

“Don’t look into the light, guys.” Jeremy warned when he found his phone. Everyone practically hissed at him when he first clicked the screen on.

 

“She… she says she needs someone to talk to.” Jeremy told them, squinting to try and readjust his eyes and read the text at the same time.

 

“Well, tell her to come over.” Rich yawned, resting his head on Jake while they were sitting up.

 

“It’s two in the morning!” Jeremy fake-yelled at him, sliding his phone open to completely open his text messages.

 

“Yeah, so?” Rich told him. “We’re teenagers. We’ve all been up ‘till ungodly night hours.”

 

Michael and Jake hummed in agreement.

 

“Okay, okay.” Jeremy said. “But I’m texting Jenna, so you guys can wake up Chloe and Brooke.”

 

“I call Brooke!” Michael said quickly.

 

“Nose goes for Chloe!” Rich said just as quick, pressing his finger to his nose as soon as he got out the words.

 

“I wasn’t watching that, but I’m guessing Jake is the lucky winner of the Chloe Club.” Michael laughed.

 

Jake groaned.

 

-

 

“What are you kids doing?” Mr. Heere asked from the bottom of the stairs.

 

Everyone jumped and turned to him, their eyes wide.

 

“You scared the crap out of me, Mr. Heere!” Brooke told him honestly.

 

“Sorry,” he told her, “but really, what are you all doing?”

 

“Okay, it’s a long story.” Jeremy said, raising his hands. “Christine has been acting weird lately,”

 

“And not like ohmygod she’s so weird weird, but Christine didn’t show up to play rehearsal weird.” Rich interrupted him.

 

“And she wore all black all day.” Chloe added.

 

“And she was absent for a week straight.” Jake added.

 

“And she avoided us completely yesterday.” Michael added.

 

“And she won’t answer her phone.” Brooke added.

 

“Well, she hadn’t, until a few minutes ago.” Jeremy supplied. “So Jenna came up with a plan that whenever Christine finally answered, we have an intervention here, since we’re all so worried for her.” He added the last bit.

 

Mr. Heere just looked at them blankly for a moment before turning and heading into the kitchen.

 

“I’ll make some tea.”

 

-

 

Jenna was there within ten minutes.

 

“How were you even able to come here so late?” Jeremy asked her.

 

“Is she here yet?” Jenna asked him, completely ignoring his question.

 

“No, not yet.” He answered, stepping aside to let her in.

 

“Good, ‘cause I brought her favorite snacks.” Jenna waved the bags around and headed toward the kitchen, where everyone else was waiting.

 

-

 

Christine was there within twenty minutes.

 

And she was wearing the same all-black outfit she wore two days ago.

 

“Christine!” Jeremy answered the door, so happy to really see her again that he hugged her when she stepped inside.

 

Which only made her burst into tears.

 

“Woah, Christine, what’s wrong?” Jeremy asked, rubbing her back.

 

When she didn’t answer and only kept bawling, he led her to everyone else, who were out of their seats the instant they saw her.

 

“Every- everyone’s here?” She spoke timidly.

 

“Well, everyone but you and I live here now, so that’d be everyone but me, and that would have been a little unfair.” Jenna joked with her.

 

Which only made her burst into more tears.

 

“Christine, honey, you have to calm down.” Mr. Heere took a seat beside her, running his hand up and down her back to try and soothe her, and offering one of the cups of tea.

 

She took it, her breath calming down a bit before starting to quicken again.

 

“Christine, you’re panicking.” Michael was suddenly in front of her. “Just look at me, okay?” She listened to him. “Okay, in,” Michael inhaled for four seconds, “and out,” he exhaled for four seconds. They continued until Christine was finally relatively okay, tears being her only issue as she sipped her tea.

 

“Just, tell us whenever you’re ready.” Rich told her, sounding more gentle than anyone – other than Jake – had heard before.

 

Christine took another sip, set the cup back down on the table, and held it between her hands.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to totally ignore you all, I just, it’s been a hard time.”

 

“What’s been a hard time?” Brooke asked her.

 

“I…” Christine choked up again, wiping at her eyes and finding the courage to continue with her friends around her. “My parents died in a car accident when I was young, and I was living with my grandma.” Her voice pinched when she got to ‘grandma’. “And she died.”

 

Mr. Heere almost started crying himself.

 

“Oh no,” Chloe whispered sympathetically, “what happened?”

 

Brooke looked at Chloe pointedly, but Christine answered her anyway.

 

“She had cancer.” Christine got out between small sobs.

 

“Hey, if it’s any consolation at all, Chrissie, I know what that’s like. My mom died from cancer, too.” Rich told her, still sounding the most gentle he ever had.

 

“Really?” Christine looked to him, saying what everyone was secretly thinking.

 

“Yeah,” Rich said, “She developed lung cancer after inhaling too much secondhand-smoke from the cigarettes my dad used to smoke.”

 

“Oh, Rich,” Christine let out another sob, “I’m sorry.”

 

“Hey, no, it’s okay. It was a long time ago. You don’t have to be sorry, Chrissie.”

 

Christine took a minute to keep crying.

 

“I tried to try out for that part, in the new play,” she told them, “And I couldn’t! I got there, took one look at the stage, and panicked.” She let out another soft sob. “I started doing theatre at first to entertain my grandmother, and then when she got sick, I did it to escape what was going on at home… and now that she’s gone, I don’t know if I can keep doing it!” She started sobbing harder, hiding her face in her hands.

 

“Christine,” Michael spoke up, “You love rehearsal, don’t you?”

 

Christine sobbed again, nodding the smallest bit and spoke into her hands, “Yeah… I do.”

 

“Then we’ll get back to it. If you need us to help you, we will. We’re a team.” Michael said solidly, looking her in the eyes.

 

Which, of course, only made her cry harder.

 

“Christine, why didn’t you ever tell anyone about your grandmother?” Jake asked her, also earning a sharp and pointed glare from Brooke, but Christine still answered the question anyway.

 

“I guess… I guess it felt like, when I was anywhere but home, I could pretend that it wasn’t really happening, especially during rehearsal.” She answered.

 

“Christine, we’re so sorry.” Jenna offered, trying to hide the shine in her eyes of her own small tears.

 

“I just… I just don’t know what I’m gonna do now.” Christine admitted softly. “She was all I had left.”

 

“Do you have any family members you can stay with or anything?” Mr. Heere asked her.

 

“No, I don’t.” She started crying harder. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

 

“Stay here, then.” Mr. Heere answered for her.

 

“I can’t,” Christine told him, looking up at him with sad eyes, “There’s hardly any room left here. I can’t take more of it up.” She cried.

 

“Christine – Michael, Jeremy, Rich, and Jake all share one bedroom. Chloe and Brooke share the other, and I’m sure they’d be happy to let you share.” Mr. Heere said, looking over to the girls in question, who nodded their affirmations to Christine.

 

“I can’t take up your space!” Christine started sobbing harder, shaking her head.

 

“Listen, this house is kind of small for all of us, I do admit. Sometimes, supporting everyone might be kind of hard, but that’s just how life goes. We’ll keep working hard and who knows, maybe one day we’ll get a bigger house with more breathing room for everybody, but for now, we stick together with what we’ve got. And what I’ve got is you kids, and this house. So please, Christine, it’s no trouble.” Mr. Heere tried to convince her.

 

Christine didn’t answer for a moment, looking as though she was thinking it over. “I can’t.” She sobbed.

 

“Christine, honey. Do you have somewhere else you can go?” He asked her.

 

“No, they… they took my grandma’s house back.” Christine admitted, sobbing again.

 

“I wouldn’t want you to live alone, anyway.” Jake whispered to her, sounding revealingly honest.

 

“Then it’s either here, or the streets, and I’m sorry, but I am not letting any of you sleep on the streets.” Mr. Heere told her after taking a second to recover from looking at Jake with concern. “I promise, it’s okay if you stay here. Everything will work out okay.”

 

Taking a tissue from the box that had somehow gotten its way in front of her and blowing her nose from crying, she swallowed and whispered, “Okay.”

 

Mr. Heere smiled at her, hoping it would help her feel better. “Good! I’ll go and set you up a place to sleep, alright? And tomorrow, we can go get anything we need to straightened out, like getting your things, or if I need to take legal guardianship over you, or anything like that, is that okay?” He asked her.

 

“Yeah,” she returned his smile, “that sounds good.”

 

When Mr. Heere stood and backed up from the table, everyone came to Christine’s side like a magnet.

 

First it was Jeremy that wrapped an arm around her shoulder to give it a comforting squeeze, followed by Jake on the other side of her, followed by Jenna wrapping her arms around her from behind her head, which was followed by Chloe and Brooke hugging half-boy and half-Christine on each side of her, followed by Rich pouting until he purposefully fell to the floor and hugged Christine’s legs.

 

Christine started laughing at them (and Chloe’s arm starting to tickle her). Soon, they were all quietly laughing, sharing this moment between them.

 

“So,” Rich looked up to her from the floor, “Welcome to the family.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t that Jenna was feeling left out, it was just…

 

Okay, so Jenna was feeling the most left out she ever had – and it hurt.

 

She didn’t want to bring it up with anyone, as everyone seemed to have way too much on their plates lately – Michael and Brooke’s parents disowning them, Jake living alone, Rich’s dad being an abusive alcoholic asshole, Chloe’s parents just giving her away, Christine’s grandmother dying. And then they all had to readjust their lives and get used to living in a full house together (Mr. Heere definitely helped).

 

Jenna knew what living with a lot of people was like, and she was one hundred percent sure that she would much rather live in a house full of friends than in a house full of uncaring strangers.

 

Well, she hoped they were her friends.

 

She wasn’t ‘one hundred percent sure’ about that.

 

She wasn’t really sure about a lot of things.

 

Like if she’s really wanted here, or if anyone actually cares, or if she should try harder, or if they’re talking about her behind her back, or if she deserves any of them, or if the Squip was right and she’d be better off dead and –

 

“Jennnnna?” Christine was waving her hand in Jenna’s face.

 

“Huh? Oh, sorry about that, I was just thinking.” She laughed it off, ignoring the quick look of concern Michael shot at her from his seat.

 

“Are you gonna eat your lunch?” Brooke leaned in so she was visible to Jenna from Chloe’s other side. “Bell’s gonna ring soon!”

 

Jenna looked down at her food, feeling sick to her stomach at the sight of it. She’s not going to eat it, and she knows it. She couldn’t tell if her Squip had gotten its way into controlling her appetite to go along with the constant mental torture, but she wasn’t feeling food much lately.

 

Wasn’t feeling much of anything, lately.

 

“No, I don’t think so.” Jenna tried to laugh it off. “You guys want some?” She turned the open end of the bag out to them and tried to ignore the small feeling of disappointment when they just nodded and took the offered food. “What were we talking about?” She asked them, trying to get back into real life and ignore herself.

 

“Oh, we were just laughing about the other night.” Christine told her, giving her a purposefully big smile when they made eye contact. Jenna was so happy that Christine seemed to be getting better with the help of her friends, and Mr. Heere.

 

“What happened the other night?” Jenna asked them, not actually wanting to know. She felt like an unwanted eighth wheel.

 

“It was nothing.” Chloe told her, shooing with her hand as if to fan the idea away.

 

“Why don’t I get to know?” Jenna found herself saying, and she inwardly cringed at how open it sounded.

 

“Why, you wanna go gossip about it?” Jake teased her, meaning nothing malicious by the words.

 

Not that intention stopped the burn it left her with.

 

“We have to do it again sometime!” Jeremy suddenly spoke up, starting to laugh at the memory of whatever had happened.

 

Everyone started talking about it again. And she still had no clue what it was.

 

Jenna sighed and started to pretend to listen in.

 

It was going to be a long day.

 

-

 

“I’m telling you guys, something is wrong with Jenna!” Michael yelled, pacing in front of the living room tv and throwing his hands in the air.

 

“Nothing seemed wrong with her.” Brooke told him, not looking up from scrolling her phone on the couch.

 

“I think you’re worrying a bit too much, Michael. She seemed fine at lunch today. Now, stop stepping in front of the screen!” Jake tried to trip him with an extended foot as he passed by.

 

“Are you kidding me?! She hardly even touched her lunch!” Michael reprimanded, standing directly in front of the screen to intentionally piss Jake off in return.

 

“So? Maybe she really wasn’t feeling well, or something. Flu has been going around.” Now even Jeremy was siding with them, making Michael scoff in his direction.

 

“No, no, guys, he’s right!” Rich yelled to them from the top of the stairs and started running down them to join in. “Think about it, when’s the last time you even remember seeing Jenna eat her lunch?” Rich asked, skidding to a halt beside Michael.

 

“Maybe she eats it another time?” Jeremy offered, his voice raising a pitch with his own disbelief at what he was saying by the end of the sentence.

 

“Come on Jeremy, really?” Rich asked, exasperated. “Okay, okay, what about this: she’s been totally out of it, hasn’t she? We tried to get her attention for like, five minutes before she stopped ‘thinking’ today.” Rich made air quotes.

 

“So she might be in a funk, she did have a test today. Maybe she was just tired after taking it.” Chloe tried.

 

“Guys, as someone who knows what depression looks like, please. I think something’s wrong with Jenna.” Michael told them, looking back at them all pleadingly when everyone snapped their heads up.

 

The air now felt thick and serious, the other kids starting to eye Michael and Rich with concern.

 

“Okay.” Jeremy told them, breathing out as if he’d been holding it in for a while. “I’m sorry.”

 

“No, no babe, it’s okay, I just – Jenna is our friend, and she’s been there for all of us, and I want to make sure we’re there for her, if she needs us to be.” Michael told them, feeling thankful for Rich when he caught him nodding out of the corner of his eye.

 

“If you’re that worried, son, invite her over for dinner tonight.” Mr. Heere suggested, coming out of the kitchen to join them. “And you can all ask if everything’s alright with her then.”

 

“You’d be okay with that?” Michael asked him, starting to fidget with hands in anxiety. “Because, honestly, I’ve been kind of worried for a while now.”

 

“Of course,” Mr. Heere chuckled lightly, “what does she like to eat?”

 

-

 

No one knew what Jenna liked to eat.

 

They’d all laughed about it while Mr. Heere started cooking some simple spaghetti instead, but it started to make everyone share in Michael’s concern.

 

“You know, considering how fast she gets here normally, I’m starting to get worried.” Jeremy shared with them from the dining table.

 

Starting to?” Brooke asked him, leaning against the counter beside Mr. Heere and his noodles and sharing a disbelieving look with Christine.

 

“Well, I mean-” Jeremy started to defend himself when he was interrupted by the doorbell.

 

“I’m getting it!” Rich yelled from the living room, running to get the door.

 

“Hey, Jenna!” everyone chorused to her when she walked into the kitchen with Rich at her side.

 

“Hey.” She responded simply, both sounding and looking noticeably… tired.

 

“So, I tried asking the kids what you would’ve liked to eat, but they weren’t quite sure!” Mr. Heere laughed, trying to ease the sudden awkward tension. “Is spaghetti okay with you, hon?” He asked Jenna.

 

Jenna turned to look at him, and he swore she was about to snap something out at him, when she just nodded an answer.

 

“You tired, Jen?” Chloe asked her. “You seem worn out.” She admitted.

 

“No, I’m good.” Jenna told them. “I just had a harder time getting over here than normal.”

 

“Oh, how so?” Jeremy asked her.

 

“It was nothing.” Jenna answered, walking over to take one of the empty chairs at the table.

 

“But, I really want to know, normally you get here within, like, ten minutes and-” Jeremy started, until Jenna snapped at him.

 

“I said it’s nothing.”

 

And the awkward silence continued.

 

“Oookay,” Mr. Heere spoke up after about a minute, “Dinner’s ready, if someone’ll help me pass it out.” He gave a pointed look to Jeremy, who was up and at his dad’s side in an instant to avoid being in the center of the weird and heavy silence.

 

Everyone took their seats at the table, thanking Jeremy when he handed each of them their plate and trying not to nudge each other too much in the little space between them.

 

“This smells awesome, Mr. Heere!” Michael smiled, leaning into his plate to breathe it in.

 

“Thank you, Michael.” Mr. Heere laughed, finally getting to sit down in his own seat at the head of the table. He looked over at Jenna beside him, trying to decide if he should say anything.

 

“What do you think, Jenna?” Chloe asked her in hopes of getting a conversation started.

 

“It smells good.” She told them, looking up and offering Mr. Heere a small smile.

 

Mr. Heere smiled back, and started thinking that everything might just work out tonight.

 

That is, until the conversation continued.

 

“I’m glad you like spaghetti, we honestly couldn’t remember whether you liked it or not.” Rich laughed a small bit, trying to get Jenna to laugh.

 

She just hummed and twirled her fork in her food.

 

“So… school today, right?” Christine tried.

 

“Yeah, how were all of your days?” Mr. Heere asked them, receiving a few nods and some “Good.”s.

 

“Jenna, how was your day?” Jeremy asked her shyly.

 

“Fine.” She answered simply, voice edging on aggravation.

 

“Hey, Jenna,” Michael started, “are you okay? You haven’t really… eaten anything.” He sounded genuinely concerned.

 

A beat of silence, and then –

 

“Like you care.”

 

“I… I do care, Jen.” Michael told her, looking to her worriedly. “You haven’t been eating your lunches for days, either.”

 

“Shut up, Michael!” Jenna suddenly snapped at him, bringing her head up to look him in the eyes.

 

“Hey! Don’t yell at Michael! He was just trying to help!” Jeremy snapped back at her, standing and throwing his arm around Michael’s shoulders.

 

“He doesn’t care – none of you care, you’re all just curious!” Jenna yelled at him.

 

“Jesus, Jenna! We aren’t you from a few months ago! We just wanted to know if you’re okay!” Chloe spoke sharply, making Jenna laugh.

 

“Oh, good one, Chloe! And here I had almost forgot how much of a total bitch you were!” She seethed.

 

“Hey!” Brooke stood, starting to shout as well. “You don’t get to call Chloe a bitch just because you’re being one!”

 

“Oh, shut the hell up, Brooke! You don’t care either!” Jenna stood as well, angrily standing her ground.

 

“We all care, Jenna! Really!” Rich piped up, sounding desperate.

 

“I’m not stupid, Richard!” Jenna yelled at him, putting all the verbal poison she could onto Rich’s full name and only subconsciously feeling bad when he visibly flinched.

 

“Stop it, Jenna!” Jake yelled.

 

“Jenna, why are you so angry? We just want to help.” Christine put her hands out toward her, trying to sound calm.

 

“You don’t care either, Christine! None of you do! Stop pretending that you care about me!” Jenna threw her arms into the air in frustration.

 

“I promise that we do!” Rich told her, and she did her best to ignore the small tears evident in just his voice.

 

“Oh, yeah? None of you even know what kind of food I like!” She screamed. “I bet you don’t even know my middle name!”

 

“You’ve never told us!” Brooke shouted.

 

“No, you never asked!” Jenna shouted back.

 

“Do any of you know anything about me? My home life? My grades? My goddamn tumblr posts, anything?!” Jenna trailed off, getting exasperated.

 

“I’ve… met your parents before!” Chloe tried, pointing to her.

 

Jenna started laughing. “Oh my god, really? That’s amazing, because I haven’t!”

 

She tried to ignore the way Christine shrunk back from her.

 

“You don’t know anything! You can’t even pretend to know anything! Oh, my god!” Jenna kept going. “I live in a foster home, Chloe! My parents fucking abandoned me! And, haha, no one wants to adopt the fat and ugly kid, they want the cute and cuddly little shits!” Everyone shut up to watch her break down in horror. “I’ve been bouncing around foster homes around here this whole time and no one noticed! I hardly ever go home because it’s not like they give a shit, either! But did any of you know that, nope! Imagine that!” Tears started leaking out and she laughed again. “And I’m a straight-A student, too! Do you know how hard that shit is?! I don’t know why, it’s not like I’ve got anyone to show it to!” Rich’s hand shot out to grab Jake’s under the table. “Holy shit! Do any of you even know about Madeline?!”

 

What about her?!” Brooke yelled desperately, her voice becoming scratchy.

 

“Madeline’s been so obsessed with being better than Chloe here that she became, like, the new trademark school bully! And apparently, I’m an easy target!” Jenna laughed, bordering on hysterical. “God, none of you care about me at all! The goddamn Squip is right!”

 

Jeremy noticeably stopped breathing.

 

“Why don’t we all try and calm down, okay?” Mr. Heere spoke up soothingly, reaching a hand out to Jenna’s shoulder.

 

“Oh, fuck you!” Jenna yelled at him, swatting his hand away.

 

Everyone went dead quiet, the anger clearly emanating from them all.

 

“Don’t talk to him like that.” Rich told her calmly, yet he was visibly shaking.

 

“Oh, please! He’s not my dad!” Jenna screamed.

 

“No, he’s ours. And you need to knock it the fuck off.” Jake warned her.

 

“Fuck you! Fuck all of you!” Jenna stormed out, leaving everyone in mixed-emotioned silence as the front door slammed.

 

“Is everyone okay?” Mr. Heere looked to them all, already knowing his answer.

 

At his side, Jeremy’s breath released a small bit, followed by quickly sucking in more air, which turned into a full-blown panic attack. He grabbed desperately for Michael, who started to help him breathe again and calm down while looking like he was trying to help himself at the same time.

 

Rich and Jake were both visibly shaking, squeezing each other’s hands and saying nothing, trying to let themselves cool off.

 

Brooke had her hand on Chloe’s shoulder, and Chloe had hers on Brooke’s knee as they shared shaken looks.

 

Christine was crying, and looked as though just one more little thing would send her over the edge into full-on bawling.

 

Mr. Heere sighed and sat back down, waiting and giving everyone time to calm down.

 

-

 

“You’re gonna adopt her, right?” Jeremy asked him.

 

It had been about a couple hours since dinner happened, and Mr. Heere had found himself still sitting in that chair and letting his mind wander while the kids went off to do their separate things to really calm down. Jeremy had apparently taken a shower, as his hair was still sopping wet, dripping all over the floor and soaking the t-shirt he wore.

 

“Why do you ask, son?” Mr. Heere asked him back. It was quite obvious to him that, yes, he was going to end up adopting Jenna and adding her to their rambunctious family, but after all that she said, it didn’t take much for him to imagine the kids might not be so keen on the idea.

 

“Because you have to.” Jeremy told him.

 

“Yeah,” Rich was suddenly there, too, looking much calmer than before in his new blue fuzzy pajama pants, “We can’t let her keep going like that. She deserves a good home, just like the rest of us.”

 

Mr. Heere looked at them, stunned.

 

Suddenly they were all there, peeking into the doorway and waving. “We were listening.” Chloe admitted to him. “They’re right. Jenna’s hurting. We have to help her – like she’s helped us.”

 

“You know what, I’m so proud of you. All of you.” He grabbed as many of them in a surprise hug. “Keep being good kids, okay?” They smiled back at him, and he felt content.

 

“Now, I’m going to make a few phone calls and find Jenna Rolan.”

 

-

 

The next morning, Jenna still felt exhausted when she woke up.

 

Of course, the falling asleep angry and crying probably wasn’t the best idea.

 

And it wasn’t like Harry was helping the situation, nudging her again and again with an empty beer bottle.

 

“Kid. Hey, wake the hell up.” The foster-care parent told her repeatedly. “Some guy outside for ya.”

 

“What?” Jenna asked him, sitting up in her bed and swatting the bottle away. “What guy?”

 

“That man that’s adoptin’ ya or whatever.” Harry stumbled out, already dragging himself out of her tiny room and back to whatever he’d been doing.

 

“What?!” Jenna almost ran to the door.

 

After last night, she truly didn’t expect it to be the very people she had been so horrible to.

 

Yet there they all stood, Mr. Heere at the front, smiling and holding some kind of folder full of papers.

 

Jenna had no idea what to say, she just gaped at them all.

 

“Surprise!” Rich yawned softly, making small jazzhands.

 

“You-” Jenna’s breath hitched in her throat. “Overnight? I-”

 

She looked up at Mr. Heere, who gave her a purposeful and kind smile when their eyes met.

 

“I’m sorry.” She let out. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so-” She had to place her hand over her mouth as the tears started flooding out, unable to control the onslaught of emotions that was hitting her. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” She started to sob.

 

Mr. Heere hugged her.

 

And then everyone else was hugging her.

 

She couldn’t stop crying.

 

“It’s alright, you’re alright.” Mr. Heere soothed her. “Let’s get your stuff and go home, hmm?”

Chapter Text

“Ssssh! Sssssh! Shut up!” Rich whisper-yelled, giggling at himself when he heard the way his lisp affected his shushes.

 

“Okay, okay, I’m too excited. Someone get Jer to leave, I have to talk to you guys about it.” Michael told them, looking around and nonverbally trying to make someone volunteer to come up with something.

 

“Uh…” Jake mumbled, his mouth open as he thought. He suddenly ran over to the fridge, threw it open, grabbed the milk carton, and chugged it all.

 

“Oh, my god, Jake!” Jenna started giggling herself, unable to help it with Rich right next to her. “You’re gonna be sick!”

 

Jake finished gulping and ran to the trash can, throwing the carton away by slamming it in and wiping away the milk-stache he had created with his arm. “It’s gonna be worth it!” He whispered to them, before he was already running up the stairs to Jeremy in their bedroom.

 

“Hey, Jeremy!” Jake yelled, out of breath (and totally not already feeling nauseous from the stunt he just pulled). “What’s up, dude?” He leaned against the doorway and crossed his arms, attempting to look completely normal.

 

“Uh, just finishing some homework.” Jeremy told him, looking up at him suspiciously from his spot on his and Michael’s bed with his laptop.

 

“Cool, cool. Quick question: could you go to the store?” Jake asked him quickly.

 

“What?” Jeremy asked, any grasp at understanding what was going on completely flying over his head.

 

“Could you go to the store? You know, to get some groceries? We’re, uh, all out of milk and Brooke and I were really craving a nice bowl of cereal!” Jake laughed, inwardly cringing at how awful the lie sounded (probably because he was making it up as he went).

 

Jeremy stared at him, looking more confused than ever. “Dad’s not going to get some?”

 

“Well, Mr. Heere’s really tired after work today, so tired in fact, that he’s, uh, taking a nap! So, I figure, one of us can do it, right!?” Jake told him, walking to stand closer to him.

 

“Can someone else get it?” Jeremy asked, looking back down to his computer. “This is due Monday, and I really need to finish it.” He admitted.

 

“Uh, nope!” Jake said, a little too quickly, earning another questioning glare from Jeremy. “Uh… we’re all super busy! More busy than you! Uh, that’s why I’m all out of breath, see, because I’ve been working really hard!” Jake slumped over in exaggerated pain.

 

“With what?” Jeremy asked him doubtfully.

“Oh, you know, stuff!” Jake laughed. “So, anyway, will you please go pick up some groceries? Please?” Jake offered him a fake pout and refused to move until he got what he wanted.

 

“Fine, fine, fine. I’ll go ask Dad for some money… and the keys.” Jeremy gave in, getting up from the bed.

 

“Great!” Jake yelled and turned around to run back down the stairs.

 

When Jeremy had finished asking his dad for the money to buy the groceries and got to the bottom of the stairs, Rich greeted him.

 

“Oh, thanks Jeremy, you’re the best!” He told him, grabbing the ‘we need:’ list from the fridge and shoving it into his hands while he pushed him to the front door. “So, here’s the list! And again, we really appreciate it! Bye!” He closed the door before Jeremy could say anything and watched out the blinds to make sure he was leaving.

 

Once he had pulled out and driven off in Mr. Heere’s car, Rich was shouting.

 

“Okay, he’s gone! Free range!”

 

Mr. Heere laughed at how excited Rich seemed, coming down from peeking around the wall to watch Jeremy leave the house.

 

“Did you get it, did you get it?!” Christine asked him eagerly, running into the living room to greet him with everyone else.

 

“Sure did!” He held up the box in his hands, revealing the Nintendo Switch logo to them.

 

“Yes! Jeremy’s gonna love this!” Michael told them, smiling huge at the box.

 

“I thought you two like the more ‘retro’ stuff?” Brooke asked him.

 

“I mean, yeah, but I like it way more than Jeremy does.” He laughed. “Besides, liking retro doesn’t mean you can’t also like the totally cool and shiny new stuff!” Rich grabbed his shoulder and started to shake it in shared excitement.

 

“I can’t wait for tomorrow!” He told them. “Are we sure Jeremy doesn’t have a clue?”

 

“About that,” Chloe spoke up, “Are we really set on the whole ‘letting him think we forgot’ thing?” She asked them, biting her lip in worry.

 

“Yeah, it’ll make it way more of a surprise!” Brooke answered her. “I love surprises!”

 

“Don’t worry, Chloe. It is his birthday, I’m sure he’ll figure us out the first thing we say. He knows we wouldn’t really forget.” Mr. Heere told her. “Now, where’s that wrapping paper one of you picked up?”

 

-

 

Meanwhile, Jeremy was having a tough time paying attention at the store.

 

He already secretly hated shopping by himself, and now he was feeling sort-of out of it while he pushed the buggy around.

 

Tomorrow was his birthday. His sixteenth, to be exact. He always felt a bit weird that it was so late in the school year, as it made him one of the youngest in his class.

 

He grabbed a couple boxes of cereal from the shelves.

 

He didn’t really want any big celebration or anything, but at the same time, he felt like he was supposed to. Other kids had huge sixteenth birthday parties, didn’t they? He’s not really all that sure about it – it wasn’t like he’d ever been invited to anyone’s huge sweet sixteen bash or anything.

 

He looked down at the list and tried to make out something written in Jenna’s handwriting.

 

That was a weird thing, too. Normally his dad would’ve been asking him all about what he wanted to do or what he wanted weeks before his actual birthday, but his dad hadn’t brought it up once. Of course, they had been busy going on an adopting-spree lately. He decided to look the list over again to check if there might’ve been some food he liked written down for his dad to cook him tomorrow.

 

Nope.

 

He kept walking, his mind still wandering.

 

Maybe they just didn’t have a lot of money right now.

 

Maybe they forgot.

 

Jeremy shook his head, trying to shake that thought. He knew his dad wouldn’t forget about him…

 

Right?

 

Jeremy inwardly groaned at himself. He kept trying to ignore this weird bag of emotions he’d been feeling a lot lately. He loved Michael, and he loved his friends, and he was truly happy for them, really, but everything at home felt so hectic all the time now. His dad was always letting Jake help him cook, or telling Christine really dorky jokes just to make her laugh, or taking Michael up on offers to play a quick game with him, or asking Jenna for some random fact about herself, or listening to Rich talk to him for hours about the stuff he liked, or asking Chloe and Brooke what to wear to work the next day. He hadn’t really been doing anything with Jeremy.

 

Jeremy scoffed at his own thoughts, telling himself he was not some stupid kid whose parents just had another baby.

 

Even if his dad were to forget about his birthday, surely they couldn’t all forget, right? Michael would definitely remember… right?

 

Jeremy tried to ignore his stupid feelings and really focus on getting groceries for everyone, but he could still feel it inside, gnawing away at him.

 

-

 

At dinner that night, Jeremy felt it again.

 

He hadn’t said anything the whole meal, and no one noticed.

 

“Oh yeah, that reminds me. I have to go into work again tomorrow, so I need you all to do me a favor.” Mr. Heere told them.

 

“What is it?” Jeremy piped up. He grew a bit hopeful at the words, thinking that maybe this might be a verbal nudge to his upcoming date of birth.

 

“Could you all make sure to do your chores while I’m gone?” Mr. Heere asked them. “It’s gonna be a busy day, and it’d be terrific to come home to a nice, clean house.” He smiled.

 

“Of course!” Michael smiled back at him. “Anything else for tomorrow?”

 

Jeremy watched intently as his dad scratched his beard and thought for a moment.

 

“Nope, that’s it!” He answered simply.

 

Everyone nodded and got back to eating their food while starting their own individual conversations.

 

Jeremy wasn’t hungry anymore.

 

-

 

When the clock struck midnight, the boys were still awake.

 

Jeremy was laying upside-down on his shared bed, scrolling the internet on his laptop while watching Michael, Jake, and Rich play a game together on the tv in their room.

 

“Hey, Jer-bear, what time is it?” Michael asked him without looking away from the screen.

 

Jeremy felt the anxious hope rise in him again.

 

“Uh, midnight?” He answered, hearing how obvious the hope was in his voice.

 

“Cool. Thanks, man!” Michael shot him down.

 

-

 

Jeremy was jostled awake by Michael getting up from the bed.

 

“Good morning, sleepyhead.” Michael smiled at him lovingly.

 

Jeremy brain was still too heavy with sleep to monitor what he was saying. “Do you know what day it is?” He asked his boyfriend.

 

Michael was silent as he made a face of exaggerated thought. “Sunday?” He guessed and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s just Sunday, Jeremy, why do you ask?”

 

Jeremy smiled back at him even though the answer had hurt. “Just wanted to know the day.” He lied, rolling over to face the wall instead of Michael and pretending to go back to sleep.

 

“Okay, love.” Michael whispered to him gently, leaning down to kiss his temple before he went to get some breakfast.

 

Jeremy lifted his head and turned to see if Rich and Jake were gone as well. When he saw that they were, he let out a sigh. He debated actually going back to sleep, but the stupid feeling of hope had him thinking that maybe if he went downstairs, he might be greeted with a surprise french toast breakfast and laughs from his friends.

 

So, he decided to see if that might be the case.

 

It wasn’t.

 

“Hey man, your Dad’s already gone. He didn’t have the time to make breakfast or anything, so hope you bought some cereal that you like yesterday.” Rich told him through a mouth full of Lucky Charms.

 

Jeremy nodded an answer to him, feigning sleepiness and walking to the fridge. When he thought no one was looking, he grabbed the magnetic calendar from the side and hid it in the doorway while he flipped through it. Right there, on everyone else’s birthdays, there were handwritten ‘my birthday!’s, but when he got to his own, there was nothing there.

 

Well, of course he wouldn’t have to write down his own birthday on the calendar, his dad already knew it.

 

But… not even a quick ‘Jeremy’s Birthday’ written there by his dad?

 

Jeremy put the calendar back where it was and closed the fridge, sighing.

 

He looked over at his friends at the table, all of them laughing and talking with one another. They all looked happy and like they were enjoying their breakfasts.

 

Jeremy felt jealous of them.

 

-

 

Their plan had been ingenious, really.

 

The whole day, Jeremy was convinced they had forgotten his birthday. Everyone went about it as if it was a normal day, and while it somewhat pained them to see Jeremy pretend to be okay with it, they held on excitedly for nightfall. After they had all cleaned the house, Brooke and Chloe asked him to help them with their History work – which totally worked out, because they actually needed the help. So while they distracted him and kept him upstairs, the others decked out the entirety of downstairs and waited for Mr. Heere to get home.

 

When he finally did, he opened and closed the door as quietly as he could, whispering, “Hey, kids. It’s raining pretty hard out there.” He closed his umbrella and set it against the wall, followed by removing his wet jacket. “Woah,” He looked around at their decorations and his smile grew. “This is amazing! Are we ready?”

 

The kids all nodded to him, and Jenna took out her phone to send the signal text to Chloe and Brooke.

 

-

 

XOXO, Jenna’s ringtone chimed on Chloe’s phone.

 

Brooke snapped her attention away from what Jeremy was pointing to in her textbook over to Chloe, watching her expectedly.

 

Chloe put down her phone and waited a few seconds before grabbing Jeremy’s attention.

 

“So! I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting hungry!” Chloe told them. “Why don’t we take a break?”

 

“Yeah, let’s go grab something to eat in the kitchen.” Brooke ‘suggested’.

 

“Sure.” Jeremy told them. Chloe felt so ready to be done with this, she hated how tired Jeremy kept sounding every time he spoke. “Uh, I’ll meet you guys there… gonna… use the bathroom.”

 

Neither girls had a problem with that, as it gave them the opportunity to get to join in on jumping out at him in surprise. Chloe gave him one quick glance-over, and then they both proceeded downstairs.

 

-

 

“Is he coming?” Michael whispered when he saw them coming down without Jeremy.

 

“Yeah, he had to use the bathroom!” Brooke whispered back to him as she looked for a place to hide.

 

-

 

“Did he fall in?” Mr. Heere joked.

 

Jeremy had been in the bathroom for a while.

 

“I don’t know,” Michael answered, “Maybe he got sick? I’m gonna go check on him.” He told them and went to take the steps two at a time.

 

“Jeremy?” He knocked on the bathroom door. “Hey, Jer, you alright in there?” He didn’t receive an answer. “Are you not answering because you’re straining? If so, I get that.” He tried to joke, but still got no answer. “Jeremy?”

 

Nothing.

 

“Okay, if you don’t say anything, I’m coming in!” Michael warned.

 

Still nothing.

 

“I’m coming in now!” Michael warned again, opening the door while using his other hand to cover his eyes, expecting to hear Jeremy tell him to turn around and get out.

 

But still, nothing. Michael realized how bad the rain must be outside, as he was hearing it loud and clear through the window.

 

“Jeremy?” Michael asked slowly, uncovering his eyes to looks around.

 

Jeremy wasn’t there.

 

He realized he heard the rain so clearly because the window was left open.

 

“Oh, shit.” Michael muttered.

 

Quickly followed by running back downstairs and shouting “We have a problem!”

 

“Did he actually fall in?” Rich asked, joking.

 

“I’m serious!” Michael told them, starting to shout with anxiety.

“Whoa, calm down, what happened?” Mr. Heere asked him as everyone came out from their hiding spots.

 

“Jeremy’s not here.” Michael said.

 

“Excuse me?” Mr. Heere asked him.

 

“Jeremy’s not here!” Michael repeated, his voice giving more urgency.

 

Mr. Heere bounded up the stairs himself, starting to yell out for Jeremy. He returned a few seconds later, his own face now stricken with worry. “Where the hell did he go?” He asked them.

 

“Wait, he’s really gone?” Jenna spoke up, looking from Michael to Mr. Heere and back.

 

“He climbed out the fucking window!” Michael yelled.

 

Everyone was silent for a moment.

 

“I’m going to go see if he’s outside.” Mr. Heere told them, grabbing his umbrella again and going to check around the house. When he came back in, he looked like he was about to freak out completely.

 

“He’s not outside, it’s pouring rain, and the cars are still here. Where could he have gone?” Mr. Heere said frantically.

 

“What? Like, he ran away or something?” Rich asked incredulously. When Mr. Heere and Michael’s silence answered him, he shouted back “We have to go look for him!”

 

They all looked to Mr. Heere in hope, while he thought about it.

 

“Okay, looks like we might have to.” He decided. “Michael: you, Rich, and Jake take your car and start checking the places he likes to eat. Chloe: you and the girls take yours and start checking any stores you know he likes. I’ll drive around the blocks and see if he’s just walking around. Okay?”

 

Everyone nodded and ran to their cars.

 

-

 

“Dude, he’s not anywhere!” Jake shouted to them once they got back in Michael’s cruiser.

 

“He can’t not be anywhere! He has to be somewhere in this damn town!” Michael yelled back, his hands shaking as he put his keys in and sped out as quickly as he could. He turned up the heat to warm them from the biting cold the rain brought.

 

He hoped Jeremy had at least taken a jacket with him.

 

-

 

“What are we going to do if we can’t find him?!” Chloe asked them from her front seat, aggravated at how much of their time this red light was taking up.

 

“We’ll find him.” Christine said from the back, her voice serious.

 

“Well we haven’t found him yet, and Michael hasn’t found him yet, and Dad hasn’t found him yet-” no one cared enough to bring up that she had just openly called Mr. Heere ‘Dad’, as Christine interrupted her.

 

“We’ll find him. We have to. It’s his birthday.” Her voice broke.

 

-

 

Mr. Heere wasn’t sure when it might be an appropriate time to call the police.

 

Because he was going to go crazy if he didn’t find his son within the next hour.

 

What was Jeremy thinking? Running off from his own home, in the pouring rain like this? Mr. Heere had half a mind to ground him for a month when he saw him again.

 

He was probably thinking we forgot his birthday. His mind reminded him.

 

His chest sank with guilt-ridden anxiety as he came to another red light, and he found himself starting to cry.

 

“Oh, Jeremy,” He said to himself, running a hand over his head, “We should have never gone through with this. I should have listened to Chloe.”

 

The light turned green, and he sped up to keep searching the roads.

 

“I should have known this would have gotten to you,” Mr. Heere kept going, “I’m your father!”

 

His mind betrayed him with thoughts on how Jeremy could be getting hurt, or sick, or into trouble right now, all alone and cold.

 

“I just got to start being your father again and I’ll be damned if something happens to you!” Mr. Heere yelled, hitting the steering wheel in frustration when he still couldn’t find his son on the roads.

 

He started remembering Jeremy’s past birthdays, and how those had been okay memories without having ever tried to pull this stunt on him before.

 

He remembered this one year, when Jeremy turned six, and he and Linda took him and Michael to the park. It had seemed almost miraculous that Linda put actual effort into her son’s birthday, she’d made them a full picnic, and spent the whole day with them at the park, no fighting, no cruel words, no hitting. Just a nice, warm day at the park with some good food. He had almost cried when she even started pushing Jeremy on the swingset when he’d asked her to. Of course, she was back to her old self the very next day, but that day she let it all be about Jeremy.

 

That’s it!

 

Mr. Heere found a way to turn around as quickly as possible, speeding towards that park.

 

-

 

His son was sitting in the exact same swing his mother had pushed him in.

 

Mr. Heere sent a quick text to Michael and Chloe, telling them to head home and that they’d be there shortly, before looking back up to Jeremy and preparing himself.

 

Jeremy looked so sad that it looked movie-worthy. His loose t-shirt and pants clung to him, as he was absolutely soaked to the bone. The curls in his hair stuck to his face as he kept his gaze down at his feet, and Mr. Heere could hear him sniffling from where he was standing at the surrounding gate.

 

Mr. Heere walked over to him, taking off his jacket and clearing his throat to get Jeremy’s attention.

 

Jeremy looked up at him like a deer in the headlights, not knowing what to say.

 

“Put on my jacket, son. You’re going to get yourself sick.” He held it out to him, sighing in thanks when Jeremy finally took it from him and did as he was told.

 

Mr. Heere sat in the swing next to Jeremy, cursing himself for being in such a hurry that he had left the umbrella.

 

“I’m sorry.” Jeremy spoke quietly, looking back down at his shoes again.

 

“Jeremiah, why would you do something like this?” Mr. Heere questioned, looking over at him and hoping the use of his full name would make him talk.

 

Jeremy was silent, and Mr. Heere let him be. Finally, he spoke again, just as quiet.

 

“It’s my birthday.”

 

“I know it is, son.” Mr. Heere told him honestly, meeting his bloodshot eyes when he looked up at him.

 

“You do? But, but everyone…” He trailed off.

 

“There was a surprise party waiting for you right down the stairs, Jeremy.” He told him.

 

Jeremy looked at him blankly, and then started laughing loudly. His laughs became sobs, and Mr. Heere scooted the swings closer to grab him in a hug.

 

“I, I, I’m sorry!” Jeremy sobbed. “I, I was so sure you’d forgotten about me!” He confessed. “I tried to be okay with it, cause I thought you had been too caught up with everyone else, but I just couldn’t!” Jeremy sobbed into his shirt.

 

“Jeremiah,” Mr. Heere said softly, setting his head on top of Jeremy’s in their embrace, “I wouldn’t ever forget about you.”

 

“Well, I, I, I just – you’ve been so busy doing stuff with everyone else that we haven’t done anything lately, and I, I thought-”

 

“Why haven’t you said anything?” Mr. Heere asked him, taken aback. “I’m so sorry, son, I – I didn’t even notice how much time I’ve spent with the other kids and… not with you.” He rubbed Jeremy’s back as he started to hiccup through the crying.

 

“No! Dad, I’m really happy that you’ve taken in my friends. They all were going through some rough stuff and you helped them out, and that’s so cool!” Jeremy raised his hand to wipe at his nose. “I just – it’s stupid, I felt so left alone.”

 

“That’s not stupid, Jeremiah. I’ve just gotten back to being your dad again, and I’ve already messed up. I’m sorry.” Mr. Heere sighed into Jeremy’s hair.

 

“Well… I think this counts as making up for it.” Jeremy told him.

 

Mr. Heere chuckled and let him go. “You’re a good kid, Jeremiah. You know that, right?”

 

Jeremy wiped at his nose again and smiled at him. “Thanks, dad.” He started pushing himself back and forth the smallest bit with his feet. “You, uh, you remembered that day with Mom?”

 

Mr. Heere looked over at the picnic table not too far from them and smiled. “Yeah, I did. I was driving around the blocks looking for you, when I remembered it.” He told him. “It was a good day, that one, wasn’t it?”

 

“Yeah, it was. She cooked, and drove around, and pushed me on this swingset, all without telling me how worthless I was!” Jeremy laughed, and he and Mr. Heere both shared in that pang of hurt that came with the remembrance. “When I blew out the candles, she told me she loved me.” He grew still in the seat, looking to his shoes again. “She said it like she meant it, too. She went ‘Happy Birthday, son. I love you.’ and ruffled my hair. I… I thought maybe she was turning it all around.” Jeremy admitted. “I remember thinking, ‘Whoa. Maybe she really means it.’… And then I heard her screaming and slapping you again the next night from my room.” He shared with him.

 

“Jeremiah…” Mr. Heere spoke up, his voice cracking. “I’m sorry our life turned out the way it did. I should never have let her keep making us miserable.” He cleared his throat and wiped at his eyes, looking away so Jeremy couldn’t see.

 

“Dad… I’m sorry I was so hostile after she left.” Jeremy told him. “I didn’t know how I felt about her, and it was just this really weird and confusing time.”

 

“I surely didn’t help by becoming a bum.” Mr. Heere answered quietly, still looking away, not wanting Jeremy to see him cry. He had never, in all his son’s life, let Jeremy see him cry.

 

“It’s okay, dad.” He felt Jeremy’s hand on his arm. “It was hard for both of us.”

 

They smiled at each other and sat in the silence a bit longer.

 

“We need to go, Michael’s going to die of stress if we don’t get home.” Mr. Heere said. “Are you ready to go, Jeremiah?”

 

Jeremy wiped at his eyes for the final time, and answered, “Yeah, that sounds good. But can you stop calling me ‘Jeremiah’ now?” He asked as he stood.

 

Mr. Heere threw his arms around his shoulders. “Sure thing, Jeremiah.”

 

They shared a laugh and headed for the car.

 

-

 

When Jeremy walked into the house, he felt anxious all over again. He could feel the mix of emotions radiating from his friends, and he felt so guilty for the stunt he pulled that he refused to meet any of them in the eyes, instead staring down at his feet and beginning to cry again.

 

Michael was at him in an instant, talking fast and intertwining languages. Jeremy had no idea what he was saying, only caught the English thrown in here or there. Michael was shouting at first, some Spanish followed by “-you idiot!” and then he was hugging him. He squeezed him and whispered foreign words into his ear, finally telling him “I love you, so, so much, Jeremy.” And began kissing at the tears falling on Jeremy’s cheeks. “I am so sorry, my-” he called him something sweet in Filipino.  

 

Jeremy squeezed him back, and Michael let him go so everyone else could have a turn.

 

“I’m gonna hug you, you idiot.” Rich said, throwing his arms around him. “Don’t do that shit. We’re all really sorry we made you feel so bad.” He let himself be honest.

 

When Rich let go, Chloe was there. Jeremy felt a pang of guilt the moment he saw the tears in her eyes before she hugged him tight. “I tried to tell them.” She laughed wryly.

 

“I’m sorry, Chlo.” He whispered back to her.

 

She let him go and dabbed at her eyes, and Christine almost tackled him with her hug. “Jeremiah Heere, don’t you ever do that again!” She told him sternly. “Do you know how worried I was? I thought you might have ended up getting hurt! What would I have done, Jeremy, if I lost my grandmother and then had to lose you, too?!” Jeremy heard her voice start to break.

 

“I’m so sorry, Christine. I’m okay.” He promised her.

 

She let him go, and Jake was hugging him. Jeremy had never hugged Jake before, but he was surprised at how gentle Jake did so. “Hey, I don’t do this often, so appreciate it.” Jake whispered to him. “I was worried about you, man.”

 

“I know.” Jeremy replied. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s all good.” Jake patted his back before he let him go for the next person.

 

Jenna hugged him, and he made a mental note to find chances to hug her more often. “I was worried, too, you know… Please, don’t ever think I wasn’t.” She confessed to him quietly.

 

“I won’t, Jen.” He told her.

 

Brooke finally got to hug him, and she kissed his cheek.

 

 (“Don’t worry. She does that.” He heard Chloe tell Michael in the background.)

 

“Jeremy, that was scary, don’t ever do it again... I’m really sorry we made you feel so bad you ran away, we thought it would make the surprise better.” She explained to him.

 

“If it makes you feel any better, it definitely feels awesome now.” Jeremy told her, and she smiled.

 

“Okay, time to enjoy what we’ve worked hard on!” Mr. Heere clapped Jeremy on the shoulder and started to lead him to his cake.

 

-

 

When Jeremy answered Mr. Heere’s wake-up-for-school call with coughs and sneezes the next morning, he sighed and didn’t make any of them go.

 

“I knew you’d get sick.” Mr. Heere fussed at him, bringing him up some soup in bed on an old mother’s day tray.

 

“Serves you right.” Michael told him, no spite behind the words as he brushed Jeremy’s sweat-soaked curls behind his ear.

 

“And when you get sick from staying in bed with him, it’ll serve you right, too.” Mr. Heere chuckled. “Rest up, Jeremiah.” He ruffled his hair a slight bit and headed out the door.

 

“I love you, Dad.” Jeremy called to him.

 

Mr. Heere turned back and smiled. “I love you, too, son.”

Chapter Text

Mr. Heere was… confused, to say the least.

 

Today was Father’s Day. He didn’t really think about it, expected maybe a tie from Jeremy or something, and he didn’t stress over it too much. He had other things to deal with, he didn’t very much mind if they skipped over it.

 

Even with it being said holiday, they had needed him at work. So, he worked for the allotted hours and was happy when it was over. He thought, maybe he could fix something he wanted for dinner tonight, and the kids would just have to put up with it, and that would be the end of it.

 

But as he walked out to his car, he found his kids parked next to and waiting for him.

 

“Hey, Mr. Heere!” Michael yelled out to him, getting everyone’s attention. “Are you ready?”

 

“Ready for what?” He laughed as he greeted them.

 

“For your Father’s Day present!” Chloe told him like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

 

“You kids got me a present for Father’s Day?” Mr. Heere asked them, looking to them all graciously. “You didn’t have to do that.”

 

“Of course we did!” Rich spoke, springing out from his seat in the opened-door cruiser.

 

“…And you couldn’t wait to give it to me at home?” Mr. Heere questioned.

 

He felt uncomfortable in not knowing what was going on as the kids grinned to one another.

 

“It’s, uh… a big surprise.” Jeremy told him.

 

Mr. Heere raised his hands, as if in defense. “Okay, whatever you kids say. So, let’s go home and see it, hm?”

 

“The thing is,” Christine told him, running to stand in front of so he couldn’t get into his car, “that it’s such a big surprise, that we kind of, maybe need to blindfold you and take you home ourselves.” She said quickly.

 

Mr. Heere stared blankly at her, and she waited patiently for him to cave in.

 

“Okay, okay. Who am I going with?”

 

-

 

He was driving with the boys in Michael’s cruiser as Jake drove, apparently because “Jake knows the way best.” (as put by Christine).

 

They’d made completely sure he couldn’t see out of his blindfold, and they’d been off.

 

“Why does it feel like a longer drive than normal?” He asked them suspiciously.

 

“I don’t know, Dad. I think you’re imagining things.” Jeremy laughed to him.

 

“Ha ha,” Mr. Heere laughed sarcastically. “So, how has everyone’s day been so far?”

 

“Exhausting.” Rich answered honestly from behind him. “My everything hurts.”

 

Michael groaned and told him, “Same.”

 

“What? Why? What happened?” Mr. Heere asked, starting to get somewhat worried.

 

“Oh, no, we’re fine… you’ll see.” Jake told him, and he felt the car turn.

 

After a few more minutes, Mr. Heere felt Jake park the car and he reached up for his blindfold.

 

Until Jake stopped him.

 

“No! We have to lead you, Mr. Heere.” Jake told him, chuckling with anticipation.

 

Mr. Heere sighed in mock annoyance. “You know, I am getting way too old for this stuff. You kids better not give me a heart attack.” He warned.

 

“We won’t… I mean, hopefully.” He heard Michael tell him.

 

What?!” He asked, now intensely curious as to what in the world was going on.

 

He felt the car door open at his side, and he got out, letting one of them grab his arm to guide him. They didn’t walk very far, maybe just around the car, and then he was hearing the excited giggles of all his kids.

 

“Okay, stand right there.” Brooke’s voice instructed him.

 

“Aaaaaand, take it off!” She instructed again, sounding farther away.

 

He did, and he was so stunned, he didn’t know what to say.

 

“Happy Father’s Day!” All of them shouted, huddled together and striking poses as if to display the house they were standing in front of.

 

“What… what is this?” Mr. Heere asked them.

 

“It’s our new house!” Chloe answered.

 

What?!

 

“Our… new… house.” Mr. Heere said slowly, still mentally reeled back.

 

“I mean, if you don’t like it, it’s okay. If – If the other one holds special meaning or anything, we can stay there.” Jake told him, although sounding a bit disappointed.

 

“No, no, it’s not that.” Mr. Heere told him, his hand reaching out to grab Jake’s shirt sleeve. “It’s just, how did you get a new house?! And look at it!” Mr. Heere gestured madly at it.

 

“With… money?” Jake answered, his face confused.

 

“What money?!” Mr. Heere asked him, starting to worry that they had secretly stolen someone’s home.

 

“I told you, Mr. Heere, my parents left me a bunch of money.” Jake explained.

 

Mr. Heere was shocked into pure silence for a moment.

 

“They left you that much money?” He was almost shouting.

 

“I mean, the laundered a shit-ton more of it, so… yeah?” Jake smiled cheekily to him.

 

Mr. Heere turned and started to walk up the driveway to inspect the outside of the house more.

 

“And… and you bought this house? This is our house?” He asked them, hands still wildly gesturing at all of it. It felt so huge to him, he just couldn’t handle it.

 

“Yeah! It’s got five bedrooms!” Rich told him eagerly.

 

Five bedrooms?!” Mr. Heere shouted in disbelief.

 

“We made sure of it!” Jenna told him. “There’s your bedroom, and the four others for us to share. Because, no offense to you guys, but we all needed more space.” No one argued with that, just nodded.

 

“And we already decided who gets what rooms!” Michael said happily. “Jeremy and Rich are gonna share, Jake and I are gonna share, and then Jenna and Chloe, and Brooke and Christine!”

 

“Did… did you not like sharing the rooms so much?” Mr. Heere asked them, feeling disappointed in himself for not realizing it if they had been uncomfortable.

 

“No, no! I loved sharing a bed with Jake, we just, kind of agreed that we weren’t really ready for all that.” Rich explained, and everyone nodded again.

 

“Aaand we already moved everything in and bought beds and furniture and stuff so please don’t hate it!” Christine got out in a rush.

 

Mr. Heere was quiet yet again.

 

You bought furniture, too?!” He yelled.

 

“Actually, Chloe did.” Jake answered, pointing his thumb at her.

 

“What? Did you guys think I would be stupid enough to not ensure I had my money while I could?” She smiled brightly, almost proud.

 

“And you got it moved here, all while I was at work?” Mr. Heere eyed them.

 

“Well, we’ve been looking at houses and stuff for a couple weeks.” Brooke admitted. “But we paid for the house yesterday, and yes, paid some movers and helped move it all here while you were gone.”

 

“You paid for it already?!” He yelled again, feeling like his eyes were going to just fall out of his head if they kept bulging like this.

 

“Yep! It’s our present to you!” Jake told him, spinning him around and making a grand sweeping gesture of the entire front of the house.

 

“But before we go inside, we all have some things we’d like to say.” Jeremy spoke, and Jake spun them back around and went to join the others in front of him again.

 

“Okay, and I’m first.” Jeremy started, stepping up a step so he was in between the group and Mr. Heere. “I just wanted to tell you how happy I am to have you as my dad. You have been and continue to be the wisest and kindest man, like, ever, and I feel lucky that I get to look up to you. Happy Father’s Day Dad, I love you.” Jeremy walked over to give him a quick hug, and stood beside him as Michael stepped up.

 

Michael took a deep breath, held it, and released. “Uh, I just wanted to say, that you’re the first parent to accept me. I mean, the only parents I really knew were my own and Jeremy’s, but, you accepted who I was without a second glance. You’ve helped me in more ways than you’ll know, and I’ll never be able to fully repay you for it, but here’s a shot.” He gave Mr. Heere his hug and stood beside his boyfriend, grabbing his hand and quickly wiping away the tear that got out.

 

Rich stepped up next, and he took his own deep breath, looking utterly serious. “I genuinely love you, Mr. Heere.” He told him, and if Mr. Heere wasn’t already tearing up, he was now. “In the few short months that I’ve lived with you and this makeshift family, I have become so much… happier.” His voice broke, and Jake extended a hand to rub his back in support. “You have treated me with only kindness and love, and I hope to only return it in the future.” He tried to laugh away the tears leaking out when Mr. Heere returned his hug as tightly as possible. He went to stand with Jeremy and Michael as Jake stood to take his turn.

 

“So, I’m not exactly the best with words,” He rubbed the back of his head, “But uh, what Rich said, same goes for me.” He laughed. “It’s kind of amazing to go from living all alone and feeling like a ghost in your own home, to living with eight other people. Every day I’m more and more thankful for you, Mr. Heere. On my last birthday night, I sat at home alone, crying as I blew out a candle I lit myself, in a store-made cake I bought for myself.” He refused to meet anyone’s eyes. “The- the point is, that night, I wished for a family… And you’ve given it to me. Thank you.” Jake hugged him, and hoped Mr. Heere wouldn’t tell anyone about him crying into his shirt a little bit when he so fiercely returned the hug.

 

Chloe stepped up, the tears already forming in her eyes. “I feel bad, I don’t have such a long speech or anything.” She laughed. “I just wanted to say: thank you for showing me what real family is like. And, you know, not just Mr. Heere, but all of you. Thank you so much, for encouraging me, and loving me, and dealing with me when I get a bit… you know.” She laughed again. “I’m not good with words, either.” She said a bit too quickly and enveloped Mr. Heere in her hug. She stood with the rest, and gave an encouraging smile to Brooke as she stepped closer.

 

“You always hear so many stories about parents never accepting their kids – I mean, look at my own – that you never really expect there to be a parent that does accept you.” She smiled sweetly and started fiddling with her hands, looking to the ground. “And that night, after my family did all that horrible stuff, you took me in. You were angry when we told you what happened, you yelled at us for possibly getting glass in our hands, and you refused to let me drive my busted car home. You’ve shown me so much open love that I don’t really know what to do with it. Other than to say thank you.” She hugged him, kissed his cheek, and stood with the others.

 

“At first, I felt like I didn’t actually belong with this adoptive family.” Christine admitted for the first time, earning everyone’s concerned look. “I felt like, everyone came to you with bad home lives, and I showed up just because I ran out of other options.” She dabbed at the tears starting to form. “But my grandmother used to tell me that when you find people you love and who love you, you never let them go. And since I made the mistake to let her go when she got sick, I’m never letting any of you go.” She was letting tears fall now, her voice wavering as she cried. “Hope you don’t mind.” She ran to hug him, taking a minute to let him calm her down and cry into his shoulder. When she was okay, she joined the others, and they all smiled encouragingly to Jenna.

 

“I have lived my whole life gossiping about other people.” She started. “I learned everything I could about others, because nobody wanted to get to know anything about me. Every foster care parent could care less, every classmate at school acted like I wasn’t there at all unless I made myself known. And then I met you guys. And that night, even after I said all those awful things to all of you, you broke through and helped me. Mr. Heere, you have asked me more things about myself than even I had known. I’ll always be thankful for you. You’re the best father we could all ask for.” She laughed a small bit to try and stop her own forming tears, and gave him his final hug.

 

“Thank you all, so much. I love you.” He told them, wiping at his eyes. They all smiled sincerely back at him with shining eyes.

 

“Alright, let’s go check out the cool house my kids bought me.”