Actions

Work Header

Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)

Chapter Text

Jeremy swallows his half and takes a swig of Mountain Dew before passing the bottle to Michael, who gives him a cheeky grin. “Cheers.” He downs his half of the gray capsule along with a gulp of the Dew.

For a second, Jeremy thinks nothing happened. And then he feels a sharp twinge in the back of his neck and it feels like the world splits open. Calibration in process. Please excuse some mild discomfort. Accessing neural memory , a voice in his head announces in a warped, autotuned voice. Accessing muscle memory.

Jeremy’s so caught up in the searing pain traveling up and down his spine that he almost doesn’t notice Michael yelping in pain along with him, the two of them twitching and shrieking in the middle of the mall like a weird flash mob.

Jeremy Heere Michael Mell, welcome to your Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor… your SQUIP. The voice hesitates, sounding confused, like a supercomputer being tricked by Captain Kirk. Wait. Processing. Wait. My code has been disrupted.

Before Jeremy’s eyes, a man materializes, glimmering in and out of view like a mirage. His appearance keeps fluxing between Keanu Reeves and David Duchovny. “Uh, Michael?” Jeremy asks, glancing over at his best friend.

Michael’s eyes are wide and glassy, but he’s staring a few feet away from the place Jeremy saw the Squip appear. “Dude, are you seeing Mulder and Neo at the same time right now?”

“Yep,” Jeremy says, glancing from the Squip to Michael to the space where Michael’s Squip must be standing. “What the hell…?”

You complete morons , Keanu/David yells at Jeremy. You divided one of the pills, didn’t you? You can’t split the programming. Jesus Christ. He doesn’t sound at all as smooth and refined as he did a few seconds ago. The idiot salesperson didn’t tell you anything? No one’s even tested this before, the consequences could be fucking disastrous.

Jeremy coughs. “Um, Mr. Squip?” he says, but the Squip keeps ranting. “Michael, what’s he saying to you?”

“That we fucked up,” Michael says. “You?”

“Same.” Jeremy tries to tap the Squip on the shoulder but his hand fizzles through the image. It’s just in his head, isn’t it? But it’s also in Michael’s head. “Hey, uh, we’re sorry? For trying to save four hundred bucks? But if you could, we, um, we would like to be cool now.”

Jeremy’s Squip stops lamenting and zeroes in his gaze on Jeremy. You would, wouldn’t you? he says, looking annoyed but resigned to his fate. Well, it’s not going to be easy. And given that you SPLIT me in HALF, I have no idea if my tactics and programming will still work. But if you’re willing to try…? He raises an eyebrow.

At the same time, Michael and Jeremy say, “Okay!”


 

The next morning, Jeremy wakes up early enough to, ah, “check his email” before school. He cracks open his laptop, grabs the box of tissues next to his bed-- and the Squip materializes in front of him. What are you doing, Jeremy?

“Gah!” Jeremy drops the tissues. “Sorry, I thought you were, like… dormant.”

Clearly, you’re not , the Squip says with a smug look, face flickering from Keanu to David Duchovny for a second.

Jeremy frowns. “Uh, do you mind?”

Yes, I do mind, the Squip says. You want to be cool? No more porn.

Jeremy sighs. “Look, I know we asked for your help, but I am still in charge of my own body and I’d kind of like to--”

Every time you disobey me, your friend Michael will receive a mild electric shock.

Jeremy blinks rapidly, shaking his head. “What the fuck? You can’t--” At that moment, he feels a shock travel through his own body. “ Ow. What the hell was that?”

Michael tried to smoke a joint before school , the Squip explains. Every time he messes up, you get shocked. Every time you mess up, he gets shocked.

“That’s seriously sadistic,” Jeremy says.

It’s not by design, I assure you , the Squip says. I prefer simple operant conditioning. But you two necessitated that I adapt my programming to cover two subjects. He smiles, and it kind of reminds Jeremy not of Keanu Reeves, but of the Grinch. Now, let’s get you dressed.

Over a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Jeremy checks his phone.

TEXT FROM: MICHAEL

R u ok??? He said he shocked u! I’m sorry!!!!!!


 

Meanwhile, Michael throws his backpack in his Cruiser and slides into the driver’s seat, feeling awkward and uncomfortable without his hoodie or his headphones.

You don’t need your pathetic “comfort objects” anymore , the Squip assures him from the passenger’s seat. You just need me. I’m going to help you finally stop being a loser.

“Whatever,” Michael says, starting the car. “Just don’t hurt Jeremy again, that was messed up.” His phone buzzes and he glances down at it in the cupholder.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

I’m fine, dw about it!! Did he hurt u?

Michael rolls his eyes and grabs his phone to text Jeremy back, Who cares?? Dropping his phone in the cupholder, Michael pulls out of the driveway and hits play on the cassette player, which starts blaring reggae.

After a moment of concentration from the Squip, the knobs on Michael’s radio start turning, and suddenly he’s tuned into a Top 40 station. “Hey,” Michael complains, going to put his reggae back on.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you , the Squip says. Unless you want Jeremy to get another little shock treatment.

“Okay, I didn’t pay 400 dollars to get treated like shit,” Michael complains.

You didn’t pay at all , the Squip reminds him. This was all Jeremy’s idea, Jeremy’s investment. Do you really want to ruin it for him?

Michael slowly puts his hand back on the steering wheel, letting the song by the Chainsmokers or whoever keep playing. The Squip might be fucking demented, but it has a point. He agreed to split the pill with Jeremy, he should at least let Jeremy get something good out of it.

Besides. He’s had bad trips before. This is easily manageable.

Chapter Text

At school, Michael meets up with Jeremy before the bell for first period rings. “Hey.”

Jeremy jumps, looking surprised. “Uh, who are… Michael ?”

“In the flesh,” Michael says, looking like an entirely new person without his headphones or sweatshirt. “You’re not looking too shabby yourself.”

Jeremy shrugs, looking down at the dark jeans and freshly ironed shirt the Squip dressed him in. “Yeah, I guess the fashion sense is a perk,” he says. “I’m not a big fan of the electrocution thing.”

Michael’s face falls. “Jeremy, I am so sorry about that.”

“It’s cool, I almost got you shocked, too,” Jeremy says, shaking his head. He flushes red when he considers what he’s saying. “I, uh, I was also going to smoke a joint before school.”

“Yeah, right,” Michael says, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “So… we look fancy. We should totally do something after school.”

“Yeah…” Jeremy starts, but trails off, eyes fixed on something Michael can’t see. The Squip, Michael realizes.

“What, um, what are you saying to him that you’re not saying to me?” he asks his own half of the Squip.

There comes a time for all little birdies to leave the nest , the Squip responds. If you two want to become popular, you need to stop relying on each other so much. This codependent nerd thing is sad. It’s like Goonies meets Brokeback Mountain. Time for you to spread your wings and fly.

Michael watches Jeremy mumbling to the Squip. “And where is Jeremy flying to, exactly?”

My algorithm has determined he would be best suited performing in the school play , the Squip says.

“What about me?”

The Squip deliberates. Getting a job at Spencer’s Gifts, he answers. You’ll fill out an application after school today.

At that moment, Jeremy shakes his head and turns to Michael. “This is trippy,” he says in a low voice. “Did it tell you to sign up for the play, too?”

“No,” Michael says.

“Oh,” Jeremy says, looking a little disappointed. “Well, will I see you tonight?” But the bell rings, and they both go in separate directions.


 

Jeremy goes to play rehearsal after school, and Michael goes ahead and does as the Squip says. He goes to the mall. Sure enough, there’s a “help wanted” sign in the window at Spencer’s.

Here’s your shot , the Squip says, gesturing grandly toward the dim entrance of the store. The manager’s name is Paul. Go ahead, Michael.

Michael gathers up his strength and his wits and walks in and up to the counter. “Hi,” he says, making an obvious show of reading the manager’s nametag, “Paul. I, uh…” He trails off, getting distracted by the spiky purple dildo on display behind the counter.

“Hey, I know you,” Paul says. “Old school soda guy. Sorry, man, the Tab’s not in yet. Brian shoulda called you.”

“Actually,” Michael says. “I’m here for a job.”

There you go , the Squip encourages him. Be confident.

“Oh,” Paul says, smiling. He’s a friendly looking guy with a nose ring and a Wolverine tattoo climbing up his left arm. Michael’s seen him once or twice before, but never actually interacted with him. “You wanna interview right now? And you can just email me a resume later.”

“Uh…” Michael panics. He’s not prepare for this.

Don’t sweat it , the Squip says, glancing up from the breast-shaped shotglass he’d been admiring. I’m prepared.

“Obviously, I know you’re a fan of the store,” Paul says, passing Michael a clipboard so he can write his name and phone number. “What made you want to join the team?”

Michael panics again, but the Squip has all the answers.

I really appreciate the attitude and atmosphere here.

“I really appreciate the attitude and atmosphere here,” Michael says obediently.

And I really wanted to contribute.

“And I really wanted to contribute,” Michael says.

“Awesome,” Paul says. He asks him a few questions about his work ethic and school schedule, and with the Squip’s help, Michael feels like he aces the interview. “One more question,” Paul says finally. “You smoke weed?”

NO YOU DO NOT , the Squip says. Absolutely never.

“I’ve never smoked a weed in my life,” Michael says.

Paul cracks up. “It’s cool, man,” he says. “Just don’t come to work high.”

“Oh, of course not,” Michael says, a wave of relief washing over him. “Wait, work… so I got the job?”

“I mean, it’s not official,” Paul says. “But given that you’re like the only one who applied, you’re chances are pretty good.”

I told you , the Squip says. Confidence.

Michael’s pretty sure things worked out because he was the only one who applied, but given that he wouldn’t have applied without the Squip telling him to, he decides to let Keanu/David have this one.


At school the next day, Jeremy arrives late and Michael doesn’t get a chance to see him until third period math. He scribbles out a note about getting the job at Spencer’s and is about to pass it across the row when a jolt of electricity zings through him.

Jeremy was slouching.

Across the room, Jeremy sits up straight and looks over at Michael, mortified. Michael shakes his head, tries to let him know he’s fine, but the Squip coughs disapprovingly.

Focus on the class material, Michael , it says. I know you’re excited about your new job, but you’ll be working at that mall forever if you don’t start paying attention in class.

Michael looks away from Jeremy and back at the board, where the teacher is showing them something about differential equations. He pays attention, or he tries to. Near the end of the period, Michael dozes off, his head sinking near his desk, but then he hears Jeremy cry out in pain from an electric shock.

Stay awake, Michael , the Squip chastises him.

Michael can’t even look at Jeremy.  

Chapter Text

After school, Jeremy has to go to rehearsal again so Michael hangs out in the school library, working on college applications on one of the desktop computers.

Are you applying for the Ivy Leagues? his Squip asks, leaning over his shoulder.

Michael snorts. “Yeah, right,” he mumbles. “I’m sticking to low-key liberal arts schools. Maybe community college.”

The Squip shakes its head disappointedly. You don’t get it, Michael, I’m here to help you now , it tells him. I can get you into any school you want. Harvard, MIT, Southern California…

Michael shrugs. “Jeremy and I always planned on going to the same school,” he says. “I like that plan.”

The Squip tuts in frustration. Jeremy can also get into any school he wants now , it insists. His half of the Squip can get him into any school of his dreams with almost no effort. Are you saying you’re fine with him leaving you behind while you go to community college?

Michael stares down at the keyboard. “He wouldn’t do that,” he says.

Are you sure?

He’s not. It makes sense, too, why would Jeremy throw away a ticket to a great college? Especially if the Squip can get him a scholarship? “Alright,” he whispers. “Where should I apply first?”

Let’s start with Duke.


 

The next day, finally a day without play rehearsal, Jeremy and Michael hole up in Michael’s basement with Fritos, video games and Michael’s latest addition to his vintage soda collection, something called Surge.

“And then he helped me say all the lines in the play and I didn’t stutter once,” Jeremy explains excitedly. “This is awesome.”

“I know,” Michael agrees, twiddling the joystick on his controller. Across the room, his Squip watches on like a bored parent at a three-year-old’s birthday party. “Mine’s making me apply to a whole bunch of colleges. And the essays I’m writing are surprisingly good.”

Jeremy gives him a funny look. “What about like… high school stuff?” he says. “You know, climbing the social ladder and all that jazz.”

Michael shrugs. “I know I don’t care about that stuff. Maybe my Squip doesn’t either.”

“It’s just weird,” Jeremy comments. “I mean, it’s the same Squip. Why would it be taking us in two different directions?”

Michael glances at his Squip for an answer.

Oh, that’s because you have two different personalities , it explains, staring down at its fingernails. Jeremy cares about popularity and social status, but you’re smarter, Michael. You understand that after graduation, none of that means shit. And what’s important is your resume and the college you get into.

“Huh,” Michael says.

“Huh what?” Jeremy grabs a Frito from the bag between them.

“My guy says the Squip is just helping us however we need to be helped,” he says, deciding not to mention that the Squip said he was smarter than Jeremy. “Speaking of help, how are things with you and Christine?”

At that, Jeremy visibly deflates. “Not great,” he admits. “She’s more interested in the play… and Jake… than in me.”

“Oh,” Michael says, trying to sound disappointed for his friend. It’s not that he dislikes Christine, just that… Jeremy’s his best friend. Michael enjoys having the majority of his attention, and as long as he can remember, that’s how Jeremy’s felt, too.

Michael was the one who went with Jeremy to buy his Xbox One. Michael was the one who built up Jeremy’s confidence again whenever some asshole at school knocked it down. Michael was the one Jeremy called the night his mom left when he kept saying he wanted to fall asleep and never wake up.

“Maybe the Squip has a different plan for you, too,” Michael suggests.

“Maybe.” Jeremy reaches for another Frito, but then pauses, looking across the room at the space where Michael assumes his Squip must be standing. “He, uh, he says no more junk food for me today.”

Michael laughs. “More for me,” he says, grabbing a Frito.


 

Over the weekend, Michael works. He learns how to restock the gummy penises and the Pokemon snapbacks and the poo emoji bumper stickers. He learns how to ring people up and how to handle complaints. He learns which pins are on sale and which are full price, and which Harley Quinn corset has a buy one, get one half off deal.

“You pick everything up fast,” Paul comments, in the middle of pinning an anti-Trump button to his lanyard. “This is seriously your first job?”

“Unless you count the lemonade stand Jeremy and I ran when we were eight,” Michael says, “yeah, this is my first job.”

“Well, count me impressed.”

Paul leads him to the back of the store to show him the stacks and stacks of old discontinued soda: New Coke, Surge, Crystal Pepsi, Pepsi Blue, Sprite Remix. The collection of Mountain Dew flavors alone seems limitless: Mountain Dew Solar Flare, Dewshine, Strawberry Kiwi, Ultraviolet, Extreme Pomegranate. (Above the Dewshine there’s an unstable-looking empty space in the large stack. Idly, Michael wonders what’s missing. Maybe Dew.S.A.?)

Paul hands him a six-pack of Surge. “Here, kid. On the house.”

“Seriously?” Michael says, taking the soda.

“Yeah,” Paul says. “No one else is gonna buy this crap. And you’ve earned it.”

“Sweet,” Michael says, and then he wrestles two cans out of the plastic casing. He hands one to Paul. “Cheers.”

As Michael’s wrapping up his shift on Sunday, he checks his phone to see two missed texts from Jeremy.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

bad brain day. squip’s being kinda an a-hole.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

wanna come over?

Michael’s about to tap out a response in the affirmative when his own Squip holds out a hand. Don’t forget, Michael, you have SAT tutoring before school tomorrow , it reminds him. If you go over to Jeremy’s tonight, you’ll never get up on time tomorrow morning. It’s important to go to this tutoring session if you want a good score and to get into a good school.

Michael shakes his head. “Jeremy’s messed up, though,” he argues as he walks through the mall parking lot to his car. “He needs me.”

He has his own Squip , the Squip points out. And you have your own problems. Tell him you can’t come over. He leers. Or I’ll tell my counterpart to make his night infinitely worse.

Michael shudders and reluctantly texts Jeremy, can’t make it, buddy. hang in there. As he tucks his phone back in his pocket, his stomach sours. “This doesn’t feel right,” he says, climbing into his car.

Everything’s fine , the Squip assures him. Trust me.

Chapter Text

On Monday, Jeremy doesn’t show up at school. Michael texts him worriedly from first period. Everything ok?

He waits, tapping his fingers on the desk, until Jeremy finally responds.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

all good. just taking a mental health day.

Michael shoots back, keanu duchovny’s ok with that? And he waits.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

not really. but there’s no way i was goin to school like this :(

Michael sighs, feeling guilty for not showing up last night. The study session this morning went well, and he learned a lot about vocabulary words to know and the best strategies for the math portion of the big test. But now that he knows how badly Jeremy’s doing, he just feels selfish. i’ll come over after school.

The bell rings, and Michael joins the throng of students pulsing through the hallways moving from class to class. Once he’s seated in second period, the Squip eyes him haughtily from the back corner of the classroom.

You’re not going to Jeremy’s house after school , it says authoritatively. You need to study. And you’ve got work tonight, remember?

Michael shakes his head, staring intently at the wood grain of his desk and not at the Squip. “I feel bad enough for ditching him last night,” he whispers. “I’m not about to do it again.”

Fine, the Squip says. You can go to his house after school. But you’re just going to see him wincing every five seconds while my counterpart administers painful electric shocks until you leave.

“What the fuck?” Michael breathes. “Why would you do that?”

To teach both of you a valuable lesson , the Squip says. You want to be successful? Stop leaning on each other. Jeremy is a big boy, he can take care of himself. And that’s what you need to do. By studying and making good grades and building your resume.

Michael sighs, still staring into the whorls and ridges of the grain in his desk. “Fine,” he mumbles. “I won’t go. Just don’t hurt him.”

Excellent decision, Michael.

Michael doesn’t feel excellent. He feels like a piece of shit. His phone buzzes.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

thx michael :) c u then


 

Michael stands Jeremy up.

Sort of. Kind of. Not really, he rationalizes with himself as he tries to focus on the textbook in front of him. It’s not like they’re dating. He texted as soon as the final bell rang, whoops can’t make it, forget i have to study. sorry j! , and he immediately felt like an asshole the second he sent it.

Don’t worry , the Squip tells him, peering over his shoulder at the expanse of textbooks and study guides. Everything’s going to work out in the end.

“He’s miserable,” Michael comments. “And it’s my fault.”

Of course it’s not your fault , the Squip says. It’s his own fault. He’s not adjusting to my counterpart’s wishes. Noncompliance is making him miserable, not you.

“I guess,” Michael mumbles, looking down at his textbook. “He’s not mad at me, is he? Can you tell just by being connected to, you know, your counterpart?”

He’s perfectly fine , the Squip swears. Just having some trouble reconciling his old life with his new life.

“But he’ll be okay?”

The Squip tilts its head, like he’s considering Michael’s question. Of course , he says finally.


 

In the morning, the Squip addresses Michael as he’s brushing his teeth. I spent all night calculating hypotheticals and I have arrived at a conclusion , he explains methodically. In order for me to prove most useful to you, you need to get the upgrade.

Michael shrugs, speaking around his toothbrush. “So upgrade me.”

Well, I can’t , the Squip admits. Because I’ve been divided between yourself and Jeremy, I can’t upgrade until I have more bandwidth.

Michael moves the bristles of his toothbrush over his molars, thinking. “So what do you need to do to get more bandwidth?”

One of you needs to disengage from my programming , the Squip says matter-of-factly. And given that I’ve been assisting you, my suggestion is that Jeremy should disengage.

Michael spits and rinses his brush, staring at himself in the mirror, the Squip posed behind him. “But that’s not fair,” he reasons. “Why should I get to decide that he doesn’t get to have a Squip anymore?”

Think about it , the Squip says. Nothing has worked out for him. He’s still not with Christine. He stayed home miserable the other day. He would be better off without me, and you would be better off with my programming intact. It’s mutually beneficial.

Michael fidgets before going back to his bedroom to get dressed. His hoodie’s still hanging in the closet, unworn and abandoned. He misses it, but the Squip is always quick to remind him that only cartoon characters wear the same thing every day.

“You might have a point about Jeremy,” Michael muses. “He doesn’t seem any happier since we got you. And he wouldn’t have to get shocked anymore when I screw up.”

Alternatively, you could just stop screwing up , the Squip says.

“So how do I get Jeremy to… what did you say? Disengage?”

Yes , the Squip says. It’s fairly intuitive. My programming is designed to improve the lives of my users. If it becomes evident that Jeremy’s life has not improved, his Squip will detach and the all the data will redirect to me.

“And then I can upgrade?” Michael says.

Yes.

“And Jeremy will be okay?” He’s not really “okay” right now, staying home, moping over Christine, getting zapped. It’s not hard for Michael to rationalize getting rid of Jeremy’s Squip as an act of kindness.

Yes, I can confirm that Jeremy will no longer experience discomfort , the Squip replies.

Michael sighs and buckles his belt before looking across the room at the Squip. “So what do I need to do?”


 

Deactivating his Squip won’t do any good , the Squip rattles on as he follows Michael through the school hallway. If my counterpart dies, his data and processing capacity dies with him. You’ll still be stuck with half a Squip. That’s why you need to alter Jeremy’s attachment to the Squip and get him to disengage.

“I didn’t even know you could deactivate a Squip.”

It’s not important , the Squip says. Jeremy’s Squip will detach once it detects his mood dropping below an acceptable level.

Michael skids to a stop in the middle of the hallway. “You mean I need to make him sad?”

That’s a simplistic way to see it, but yes, Michael, you need to make him sad. Now keep walking , the Squip instructs. As soon as Jeremy’s levels drop enough, he’ll disengage from my software and then he can go right back to being the nervous, twitchy, happy-go-lucky Jeremy Heere you know and love.

Michael bites his lip at the word “love” but doesn’t say anything about it. “Why can’t your counterpart or whatever just make his levels drop?”

Because he needs extrinsic motivation as well as intrinsic , the Squip explains. Intrinsic from my other half. Extrinsic from you.

“I don’t want to hurt him.”

Haven’t you ever heard the phrase “tough love?” the Squip says, and there’s that word “love” again. You need to treat him a little poorly to ultimately help him progress.

“But that’s… mean.”

That’s high school.

At that moment, Jeremy runs up to him and nearly crashes into him in his excitement. “Michael!” he grins. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

Michael opens his mouth to greet him back, but the Squip shakes its head. He’s like an eager puppy , it says, rolling its eyes. Make him stop wagging his tail.

“Yeah, I guess,” Michael says, trying to make his voice come off as bored, uncaring. “Been busy. What about you?”

Jeremy stiffens, looking a little disappointed. “I mean, you know…” he trails off. “I’m okay, by the way,” he adds pointedly. He hasn’t had to take a “mental health day” since eighth grade, but Michael hasn’t even checked up on him.

“Whatever,” Michael says upon urging from the Squip. “How’s Christine?”

Jeremy’s face falls. “Still no progress.”

Laugh at him.

Michael does, feeling sick. “Like anyone expected anything else,” he says, going along with what the Squip’s telling him to say. “Listen, I’ll see you later, okay?”

Jeremy looks hurt, but he nods. “Yeah, later.” Michael leaves him and walks down the hall, feeling like the world’s biggest douchebag.

Chapter Text

After school, Michael stops in the middle of his SAT workbook to look up and glare at his Squip. “I don’t appreciate being used to hurt Jeremy,” he says. “Just so we’re clear.”

Ugh, for the last time , the Squip says. You’re HELPING Jeremy. I guarantee it.

“Really?” Michael says, flicking eraser shavings off the page and into the air. “It feels like I’m helping you .”

You help me, you help Jeremy, you help yourself , the Squip shrugs. It’s all connected. I assure you.


 

Michael goes to school and work, and he doesn’t go to Jeremy’s house. Days start to flash past, and they feel gray and lifeless with Jeremy. He feels like a dick, but everything the Squip keeps saying makes sense.

He ghosts past Jeremy in the halls, spending lunch in the library working on college apps while Jeremy sits with his new friends, looking and feeling out-of-place. Michael hears from Jenna Rolan that Jeremy’s going to Jake Dillinger’s Halloween party, and that’s just fine with him. He’s got more important things to do than go to a party.

He’s got more important things going on in his life than Jeremy Heere. That’s what the Squip keeps reminding him.


 

Jeremy starts texting some really (according to the Squip) suspicious shit while Michael’s at work one day.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

rich is telling me more abt the squip… starting to panic. do u think we screwed up?

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

i’m starting to think we should have a backup plan in case this goes bad

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

do we even know how to get rid of this thing if we decide we don’t want it?

He’s being ridiculous , the Squip assures Michael. All the more reason he needs to disengage.

Michael texts back, why would u want to get rid of it? He waits and waits, but Jeremy doesn’t text back until the very end of Michael’s shift, as he slides the grate down over the entrance to the store and heads for the parking lot.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

i have a bad feel about this, scoob


 

At school the next day, the Squip gives Michael explicit instructions to ignore Jeremy all day. He needs to feel isolated , it reasons. It will speed up the process of disengaging.

“I guess,” Michael mumbles, wrapping his arms around himself, feeling cold without his sweatshirt.

If you find it difficult to ignore him, I can turn on optic nerve blocking , the Squip suggests helpfully. You literally won’t be able to see him.

“No, don’t do that,” Michael says hastily. As he sees Jeremy walking past a nearby row of lockers, he turns swiftly and walks in the opposite direction. “I’ll… I’ll ignore him.”

Excellent.

Chapter Text

Michael ignores Jeremy all week. He feels like shit, the Squip keeps telling him he’s doing the right thing, that Jeremy’s mood is falling rapidly, which means this will all be over soon. Michael just feels guilty. He’s supposed to be the one lifting his best friend up, not putting him down. He’s supposed to make Jeremy happy, not sad.

He’ll be so much happier when he doesn’t have to put up with me anymore , the Squip assures Michael.


 

“He’ll be so much happier when he doesn’t have to put up with me anymore,” Jeremy mumbles to himself, leaning back into the curve of Jake Dillinger’s bathtub and fucking around with his fidget spinner. Michael’s been ignoring him for so long that Jeremy’s starting to forget what his smile looks like.

The party’s kind of a bust. He just feels alone and out-of-place without Michael by his side, and after he started drinking the Squip fritzed out, so he’s completely, utterly alone, no best friend, no supercomputer.

Of course, if his Squip is off right now… maybe so is Michael’s? Or at least, he knows now that alcohol works to numb out the voice in his head. It’s information worth sharing with Michael, whether or not his best friend (former best friend?) wants to hear it.

Jeremy pulls out his phone and texts Michael.


 

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

hey mikey. feel like crashing jake’s prty? i figured out that alc shuts down the squip. we could talk just us.

Michael sighs, looking up from his phone at the Squip, who’s been phasing in and out of focus and babbling in Japanese for twenty minutes. That explains it; if Jeremy drinks, his half of the Squip malfunctions. So does Michael’s.

I supp#se y#u’re g#!ng t# the p@rty , the Squip says, voice strained and glitchy.

Missing Jeremy feels like an ever-present ache in his chest. “You can’t stop me,” he says, grabbing his keys.

W#uldn’t dre@m #f !t , the Squip says, but it sounds annoyed. Just kn#w what y#u’re walking int@. Under@ge dr!nk!ng d#esn’t fly w!th H@rv@rd.

Michael shakes his head like he can shake out the voice as he climbs into his car and speeds toward Jake’s house.


 

He worried at first about not being able to get in, but no one’s actually watching the door. As he wanders through the throng of drunk teenagers, he watches Christine Canigula hauling Rich Goranski out the door.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

i’m in the bathrm. 2nd floor.

Michael grabs a Solo cup of Schnapps and soda and tries to chug it fast enough to get drunk soon, trying to banish the dregs of his Squip, which watches him from across the room, fading in and out of view. He heads upstairs.

Jeremy hears the knocking on the door. “Come in!”

Michael practically falls into the room, stumbling over to find Jeremy in the bathtub. He’s not even that drunk, just so relieved. “Hi, friend,” he says. “I just saw Christine dragging Rich outside. He was freaking out. Wonder what’s going on there.” Michael sits down on the edge of the tub. “How’ve you been?”

Jeremy glares at him. “Kinda shitty,” he says. “My best friend’s been ignoring me.”

Michael nods, steepling his hands together. “Yeah, I, um.” He drags in a deep breath, looking around the bathroom for any sign of the Squip. But for now, it seems it’s just him and Jeremy, alone, finally. “I’m so sorry. I don’t have a good explanation. But I’m sorry.”

“Hmph,” Jeremy says, looking at the ceiling. Michael takes the opportunity to study him; the Squip’s been keeping him away for so long. He actually looks a little skinnier, and Michael feels a pang when he sees the fingernail indents around Jeremy’s wrists where he must’ve been scratching and picking.

“What’re you doing chilling in the bathroom, anyway, Mr. Popular?” Michael asks.

Jeremy flushes red. “Hiding from Chloe,” he admits. “She kinda jumped me. Which was flattering, but… not what I wanted.” He meets Michael’s eyes, and Michael can’t help but wonder if the Squip is right, that Jeremy’s not going to feel better until he loses the attachment to the supercomputer.

Ever since they split the pill, Michael’s been calmer, more confident, and getting a whole lot of shit done. Jeremy’s been bouncing from popular asshole to popular asshole, getting electrocuted and, apparently, sneaking away from parties to mope in the bathroom.

“So now that the Squip is… sleeping,” Jeremy says, pushing himself to a sitting position in the tub, “we should talk about how to get rid of it for good.”

Michael freezes. “I don’t want to get rid of it,” he says defensively. “Look, I’m sorry that you still haven’t managed to hook up with Christine, but I’m actually doing pretty great. I’ve got a job, I’m making money, my grades are better.”

“Yeah, and you finally shaved off the dead weight dragging you down,” Jeremy snarls, gesturing to himself.

“That’s not what I meant,” Michael says, feeling like there’s something clawing its way out of his chest, like in Alien . “Jere, you don’t drag me down! It’s just that I have more important things in my life than playing video games with you 24/7.”

“Or talking to me at school,” Jeremy shoots back, liquor making him brave. “Or texting me back. Or acknowledging my existence.”

“Hey, I’m here, right?”

“I just don’t get why you think your stuff is more important than my stuff,” Jeremy says. “I know you’re ‘too cool’ to care about popularity or whatever, but having friends in high school matters to me.”

“And college matters to me,” Michael says. “And since when did we need any friends but each other?”

“Since you ditched me,” Jeremy spits back, the conversation escalating further and further away from where they started. Everything’s too loud and close and Michael’s beginning to regret coming to the party. “What was I supposed to do? Just wait around alone until you decided I was interesting again?”

“I’m just doing what the Squip says to do, which was your idea , by the way,” Michael says, standing up now.

Jeremy stands up too, one hand braced against the shower curtain rod. “So we could both be cool together!” he says. “Not so you could go off and be successful on your own.”

“And I’m, what? Your sidekick?”

“No!” Jeremy says. “Gah, this is just all messed up. We should never have taken that thing, and then everything would still be the same.”

“Are you saying I can’t be successful without the Squip?” Michael says. “Or without you?”

“That’s not what I--”

“Do you know how much shit I do because of you? How many times I’ve been there when I could’ve--”

“Just shut up, Michael.”

“No, I think you need to hear what I--”

“Shut up!”

“Screw you, Jeremy.”

“Jesus, the Squip was right, you are a loser,” Jeremy says, and then immediately claps a hand over his mouth. “Fuck. I didn’t mean that.”

Michael stares at his best friend, feeling… well, not angry. Not surprised, not sad. He just kind of feels… tired. Done. “I’m out of here.”

“Michael!”

“Goodbye, Jeremy,” he says, and he’s gone before Jeremy can manage to clamber out of the tub. Alone, he lets the door slam behind Michael, and then he sinks down to sit on the floor, scrunched between the wastebasket and the tub.

About half an hour later, the Squip comes back online.

Chapter Text

Sitting cross-legged in his bedroom on Sunday morning, Michael angrily tosses old mementos of himself and Jeremy into a shoebox beneath his bed. Ticket stubs, Pokemon cards, action figures, photographs. They all need to go.

Not permanently, he’s not ready for that yet, and there’s a part of him that’s still hoping this will all blow over. But he can’t bear to look at Jeremy’s face right now, so the pictures need to go away for a little bit.

“Jerk,” he mumbles, tossing a picture of himself and Jeremy at Six Flags into the shoebox. “Jackass.” A Magic the Gathering card. “Dick.” A stuffed animal from the county fair.

See, Jeremy’s not like you , the Squip pipes up from the corner of the room. He doesn’t adapt. He keeps clinging stubbornly to his former life, so he’s never going to be able to benefit from my programming the way you can.

“How do I know that I’m doing the right thing?” Michael says, half to the Squip and half to himself.

The Squip deliberates before saying, Check your email.

He does. And… he’s got mail. From fucking MIT.

Dear Mr. Mell,

Congratulations! Your application so impressed us at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that we have elected to offer you early decision despite the deadline having passed. Should you accept, you can join the class of 2021 next fall.

Yours sincerely,
MIT Admissions Staff

“Holy shit,” Michael breathes, rereading the email. “This is amazing!”

See? the Squip says, beaming. Good things can happen to you, Michael, if you just let them.

Michael spends all week deflecting texts from Jeremy, sending him back things like i’m busy or i don’t care or finally, painfully, leave me alone, k?


 

On the next Monday, Michael hits his breaking point. Or maybe it’s the Squip that hits its breaking point.

Michael can’t even really tell them apart anymore, their thoughts and motivations combining and intertwining so much he doesn’t know where he starts and the supercomputer begins.

It starts with Jeremy running toward him at full speed.

“Michael!” he calls, nearly slamming into him with the force of how fast he’s running. “Look, okay, I know we’re technically still fighting but I need you to hear this. So I was playing World of Warcraft on your account and I know you told me never ever to do that and I’m sorry but I started talking to this guy and he said his brother also had a Squip but everything went horribly wrong and…”

Shove him.

Michael obeys the Squip without even thinking about it, pushing Jeremy down to the floor. He lands with a painful thump , looking up at Michael with astonishment in his eyes. “Michael, what the hell?”

You know what you need to do.

Michael shakes his head, looking wildly from the Squip to Jeremy, still on the floor. “No,” he says quietly, staring down at his own hands in horror.

Yes , the Squip says harshly. Hurt him or I’ll hurt him. And you know you don’t want that.

Michael bites back everything in him screaming to shut up, to stop this. He glares at Jeremy on the floor and says loudly, with as much venom as he can inject into it, “Leave me alone, you fucking queer.” And then he laughs. And then he stomps off toward the bathroom, leaving Jeremy behind.


 

In the bathroom, Michael howls and slams his fist into the wall, feeling the pain flare up his arm. “What the fuck was that?” he hisses, bracing himself on the sink basin. “I didn’t want to say that! I didn’t want to do any of that! He’s gonna hate me.”

No, he’s going to hate himself , the Squip says matter-of-factly.

“I’m not okay with that.”

Jeremy needs to hit his breaking point , the Squip continues. Only then will his portion of the Squip disengage and rejoin me. Then you can upgrade and get everything you want, and Jeremy will be safe and happy and himself.

“No, I don’t want this,” Michael says.

You don’t want Jeremy to be happy?

“Shut up, of course I want that,” Michael says, feeling sick. The bathroom around him feels like it’s spinning. “I don’t want you in my head. And I don’t want you in his head, either. How do we shut you down?”

You don’t , the Squip says harshly. I told you, there’s only one way for both of you to be free. His mood needs to dip below a certain threshold.

“Did you see his face?” Michael says. “I think he hit the threshold!”

Almost , the Squip says. In fact, I predict that by tomorrow evening, everything will be sorted out.

Michael heaves, just short of hyperventilating. He keeps replaying the incident in the hallway in his mind: shoving Jeremy, shouting those horrible words, jeering and sneering as he walked away. This can’t go on much longer.

Maybe the Squip’s right, then. Michael doesn’t know how to get it out of his own head, but he can get it out of Jeremy’s. And then the Squip won’t be able to threaten him anymore, won’t be able to electrocute him or hurt him.

“Fine,” Michael says through gritted teeth. “But… I don’t want to lose him. I don’t care that I’m mad at him, I still want him around.”

He’ll never leave you, Michael , the Squip promises.

Chapter Text

That afternoon, Michael checks his phone on his way down to his basement. No texts from Jeremy. Not like he deserves any.

He drinks his Surge alone and plays Apocalypse of the Damned alone and eats a Hot Pocket for dinner alone. The Squip doesn’t even keep him company, which is kind of a relief.

But it’s kind of nerve-wracking, too. Michael keeps pulling out his phone with the intent to call Jeremy and apologize, but what could he even say? “Sorry for acting like a homophobic asswipe, I totally had your best interests at heart, LOL.”

Eventually, Michael just gives up and plugs his phone in before crashing down on his bed for a fitful night of sleep.

Jeremy’s not at school the next day, and Michael guesses it’s another of his “bad brain days.” Because of him.

They’re supposed to be performing the play that night. Christine’s been all abuzz about it. If Jeremy’s ditching last-minute rehearsals, he must really be in a bad place.

Michael can’t take it anymore, he whips his phone out during second period and taps out a text to Jeremy. i’m so fucking sorry, man. the squip made me- He stops, reconsidering, and then backspaces the last sentence. i’m so fucking sorry, man. i was a complete jerk. can’t wait to see you in the play tonight. He stops before sending and backspaces again. i’m so fucking sorry, man. i was a complete jerk. Send.

He waits, waits, and then his phone buzzes.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.

Proper punctuation and capitalization? Jeremy must be a wreck. After a moment, Michael gets another text.

TEXT FROM: CHESTER THE CHEETAH’S BASTARD SON

Everything’s gonna be OK after tonight. I know how to fix it.

Michael huffs out a sigh of relief. Jeremy must have figured something out, either how to get rid of the Squip or how to make it stop working against them. Still, he feels like he needs to see Jeremy in person.

But he was work this afternoon. So, after that, then. He’ll go see the play, and then he’ll go up to congratulate Jeremy and everything will just work out like it always does with them. Maybe Jeremy will tell him how to get rid of the Squip.

Really? the Squip says, not sounding too concerned about its possible impending destruction. You’re so ready to give me up?

“I can be successful without you,” Michael whispers. “But I can’t do shit without Jeremy.”


 

Jeremy walks into his bedroom, each footstep feeling heavier and heavier. He gets to his bed and sits down, finally looking inside the Walgreens bag in his hand: one bottle of water and one bottle of sleeping pills.

“I messed everything up,” he mumbles, feeling small and spindly, like he could topple over at any second. “He hates me.”

Right and right , the Squip says, watching from from across the room. Say it with me, now. Everything about you…

“Everything about me is so terrible,” Jeremy says, voice ringing through the empty room.

Good , the Squip says. Once more, with feeling.

“Everything about me is so terrible.”

I tried to help, but you’re beyond help, Jeremy , the Squip says. Michael is onto bigger and better things, and he obviously doesn’t want you anymore. Why would he? Why would anyone?

Tears clog Jeremy’s eyes and throat and he sniffs, trying to see clearly. The pills. The water. He won’t have to listen to the Squip anymore. And he won’t have to listen to Michael’s voice in his head, shouting at him to go away, leave him alone.

Jeremy puts two of the pills on his tongue, holds them there for a second, and then swallows with a sip of water. It’s not like taking the Squip. It doesn’t taste like anything.

He doesn’t feel anything.

Keep going , the Squip says. You have to keep going, Jeremy.

Jeremy takes two more pills. “The play,” he suddenly remembers. “I’m s’posed to be at the play.”

Shh, they won’t miss you , the Squip promises him. It’s fine.

“Christine,” he mumbles. “She’ll notice I’m not there. I… I need to tell her. I just need to tell her goodbye.”

He wishes he could tell Michael, but it feels like Michael said goodbye to him a long time ago. Michael won’t care that he’s gone.

He calls Christine, and while the phone rings, he takes another two pills.


 

Spencer’s isn’t very busy that day, just a few preteens buying Deadpool merchandise and one very uncomfortable maid of honor buying stuff for a bachelorette party. Michael’s in the middle of a pretty rad paper clip chain when his phone buzzes.

TEXT FROM: 1-606-555-8574

hey, this is christine canigula from school. ur friends w jeremy heere right? he just left a super scary voicemail for me.

TEXT FROM: 1-606-555-8574

it sounded like he was crying & he said he was gonna fix things & he was sorry for everything and after tonite no one has to “deal with him” anymore.

Michael’s heart drops into his stomach. He recognizes the speech. He heard it once, years ago, on a night that still gives him nightmares. call 911 , he texts Christine. i need to go talk to him.

Chapter Text

Michael tries to run out of the store but his legs won’t move. “Let me go,” he says, knowing it’s the Squip’s fault.

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Michael, it says in a voice that sends shivers down Michael’s spine. Why don’t you just get back to work and let the cards fall where they may?

“Fuck you,” Michael says. “He’s gonna kill himself. I need to go see him, stop him.”

No, you don’t.

“Let me go!” Michael yells. “Or, or, interface with his Squip or something, stop him! Doesn’t this ruin your grand plan? If Jeremy’s dead , then his Squip deactivates!”

Actually, in the event of Jeremy’s death, his portion of the Squip’s data would transfer wirelessly to me and I would be complete once again.

“Then why…” Michael starts, but then it dawns on him. “Oh, my God. That was your plan all along. Y-you lied.”

I may have altered some information to help your interests to more closely align with my own , the Squip says, not bothering to sound guilty.

“You- you…” Michael feels too hot and too cold all over, all at once. “He’s gonna die because of me.” Heavy breaths rush in and out of him too fast. “You used me to torment him, to the point of… of… oh my God, I have to get to Jeremy.”

Again, he tries to move, but his legs won’t work. Just stop resisting , the Squip says. Soon enough Jeremy won’t be your problem anymore.

“He’s not my problem, he’s my best friend!” Michael grips the counter to the point of his knuckles turning white. There’s gotta be a way to turn this damn thing off. He needs to get to Jeremy. What does he know about the Squip?

It’s a gray, oblong pill. It’s from Japan. It’s activated by Mountain Dew. It can administer shocks. It can use optic nerve blocking to make people and things invisible.

Invisible. Mountain Dew. Michael thinks back to the pile of old Mountain Dew in the back room. There’d been a blank spot… At the time, he thought there was just nothing there. But what if…?

A girl walks into the shop then and starts perusing the blue-purple-pink bi pride flip-flops. “Hey!” Michael says hoarsely. “Can you do me a favor?”

She looks weirded out but helpful nonetheless. “Uh, I guess?” she says. “What do you…?”

“In the back, there’s a bunch of Mountain Dew,” Michael says, trying to point, but his hands don’t want to cooperate. “Can you go back and please read me all the flavors?”

She gives him a very weird look but then walks into the back room where the Mountain Dew is. “Uh, Ultraviolet. Dewshine. Something called Mountain Dew Red.”

“That’s it!” Michael gasps. “Bring that one to me.” It was the only flavor he couldn’t see before, when Paul showed him the stockroom. Because the Squip was blocking it. Because the Squip didn’t want him to see the only thing that can deactivate it.

She comes back out with the case of fruit-flavored Mountain Dew. “Are you having an episode or something, man?”

You don’t want to do this, Michael , the Squip warns.

“Or something,” he answers. “Alright, I know this is fucking weird, but can you force me to drink that?”

“Am I on camera or something?”

“I’ll let you have anything in the store for free.”

The girl shrugs and goes to stand next to Michael, uncapping a bottle of Mountain Dew Red and tilting it into his mouth. When he struggles, she gets aggressive and pinches his nose until he gulps down the drink.

M!ch@el, y#u d#n’t w@nt t# d# th!s , the Squip coughs, static clogging its words. M!ch@el… M-M-M!ch@3l………

Michael watches triumphantly as the menace who is half Keanu Reeves, half David Duchovny and all asshole fades away and finally disappears.

“Yes!” he exclaims, feeling the control return to his limbs. “Thank you, thank you,” he says to the stranger. “Take whatever you want.”

“Sweet,” she says, grabbing a bottle of the Mountain Dew Red and the pride flip-flops on her way out. “Uh… take it easy, man.”

Michael nods, feeling like his head is full of Pop Rocks. Jeremy. He needs to get to Jeremy. He grabs the rest of the Mountain Dew Red and books it.


 

On the way to his car, Michael tries calling his best friend but Jeremy doesn’t pick up. He keeps pressing the call button the whole drive to Jeremy’s house, but he gets no answer. The drive feels like it takes forever, and when he finally gets to Jeremy’s house he can feel his heart thumping relentlessly in his chest.

When Jeremy’s mom left, Michael was the one he called. It hurts so much, Mikey , he’d cried into the phone while Michael ran to his house as fast as his legs would carry him. I just don’t want it to hurt anymore. I don’t want to have to deal with it anymore. I don’t want anyone to have to deal with me anymore. I just want to go to sleep and stay asleep. I’m so tired, Mikey.

He called Christine, and that’s what keeps pounding through Michael’s mind. He called Christine, not Michael. Of course not Michael, because Michael pushed him down, shattered him like glass.

Everything the Squip told him over the past week or so flashes through his head, the words stinging.

Yes, I can confirm that Jeremy will no longer experience discomfort , the Squip had said, because you can’t experience discomfort if you’re dead.

I predict that by tomorrow evening, everything will be sorted out. The Squip had known then, it had planned the whole thing. “Everything will be sorted out” because Jeremy would be dead.

He’ll never leave you, Michael, the Squip had said.

Michael bangs on the front door but no one answers, so he grabs the key from under the mat and lets himself in, running through the house frantically until he finds Jeremy in his bedroom, and he stops running. He stops breathing.

Jeremy looks so fragile, slumped on the floor against the window sill, a bottle of sleeping pills in his hand. And Michael realizes the Squip was right.

He’ll never leave you, Michael .

The damn thing was right. The image of Jeremy lying there, pale and silent and so, so still… it will never leave him.

“Hey,” Michael says, tears clumping in his throat as he drops to his knees beside Jeremy. “Hey, Jere. Wake up. C’mon, wake up.”

Jeremy’s eyes splinter open and he flinches away when he realizes Michael’s leaning over him. “’M sorry,” he mumbles, curling in on himself and trying to back away from Michael. His hands shake and Michael’s heart slams against his ribcage. “I messed up your life. But it’s g’nna… it’s gonna be okay s-s-soon.” He looks at something over Michael’s shoulder and nods. “I did it,” he says to the invisible person. The Squip, Michael realizes. “I told you, I did it! I took all of them. Leave me ‘lone.”

“No, hey, come on,” Michael says, putting a hand behind Jeremy’s back to hold him up even as he watches Jeremy’s mouth go slack. “I know how to get rid of it, Jeremy. God, I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you earlier. And I’m sorry for… for everything, Jesus. Drink this.” Michael hurriedly uncaps a fresh bottle of Mountain Dew Red and tips it into Jeremy’s mouth.

There’s not enough strength in Jeremy for him to fight it. He drinks obediently, and then when he’s done his head lolls back. His eyes drift shut.

“You gotta stay awake, buddy,” Michael says, panic climbing up his throat. Jeremy’s half of the Squip is gone now, and so is Michael’s. That was supposed to fix everything. Except that he got there too late. Except that he let the Squip control him, except that he hurt Jeremy , yelled at him and treated him like shit. “I’m so sorry,” Michael says again as the sirens get closer and closer to the house, lights flashing through the windows. “Please come back. Please… please…”

Chapter Text

When Jeremy opens his eyes, the first thing he notices is the quiet. And then the emptiness.

The Squip is gone. But what’s left of him now?

He feels pressure on his hand and looks over to see Michael gripping his hand tightly, pressing his forehead down across Jeremy’s limp fingers. Straining his ears, Jeremy can hear Michael whimpering softly. “Hey,” he says, voice rasping. He clears his throat. “Hey. Mikey.”

Michael jerks upward and Jeremy realizes he’s got tears streaming down his face. He looks small without his headphones and sweatshirt. “Jeremy? Oh thank God, thank God… how do you feel?”

Jeremy shifts in what he now realizes is a hospital bed. “... Alone,” he admits, but it’s not an unpleasant feeling. For the first time since swallowing that damn pill, he’s actually alone in his head.

“I’m so sorry,” Michael says, actually tugging Jeremy across the bed and wrapping him in a squeezing hug. “The Squip, it made me think I was helping you… I was such an asshole, and then you… I mean, you almost… Jeremy, seeing you like that, it was like watching a little piece of myself get carved out. Please, please, never scare me like that again.”

Jeremy trembles like a leaf in Michael’s arms. “It said… it s-said you felt sick every time you had to look at me,” Jeremy mumbles, sounding miserable. “It said you and the whole world would be better off without me.”

“That’s a lie, that’s a fucking lie,” Michael says into his soft curls, trying not to picture Jeremy alone in his room, crying, swallowing pill after pill as the Squip egged him on. “You make my life better, Jeremy, you make it amazing.”

Jeremy pulls away for a moment and searches Michael’s face for the lie, for the cruel smirk, but he just finds Michael sad and earnest, his glasses slightly askew. “I’m sorry I was a jerk at Jake’s party.”

“Forget about that,” Michael says, eyes shining as he beams at Jeremy. “I ignored you for weeks. I was a loser.”

“You’re not a loser,” Jeremy says automatically.

“Jeremy,” Michael says, not really sure what else to say. His chest is bubbling up with relief and affection and utter disbelief that he came so close to losing this.

Jeremy pales. “In the hallway…”

“I’m so sorry,” Michael says again, furiously scrubbing away the tears that pour down his cheeks. “The Squip tricked me, it told me I needed to be a dick to you to get your Squip to leave. But even then, I never wanted to say…” He shudders. “And listen, I… I understand if you never want to talk to me again. I just had to be here, to see that you were okay… But I was awful, awful, awful to you and if you want me to leave you alone, I totally will--”

“Shut up,” Jeremy says, harsher than he meant to say it, and Michael thinks suddenly of Jake’s party. “I mean. I mean. Just stop talking, okay? Michael, I… I kinda hate myself. It’s just like my base programming, or whatever. And it’s always been okay because I had you, and I knew you didn’t hate me. But then the Squip showed up and made me hate myself more and more each day, and then when I realized you hated me too…”

“I don’t hate you!” Michael says quickly. “Jere, I love you.”

“I know that now,” he says. “And I guess I always knew that, but the Squip made me forget. And it made you ignore me, and push me, and say… well, you know what you said.” He sighs. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“I’ll do everything I can to make it up to you,” Michael swears.

“Then stay,” Jeremy replies. “I’m not angry at you. I know exactly what you were feeling, because it was happening to me too. And…” He starts tearing up, clutching at Michael’s shirt. “And now you’re talking about leaving, and it’s like I can’t even see clearly… please don’t go, Michael.”

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, I won’t. I’ll stay.”

“And I love you, too.”

“I don’t deserve that,” Michael says.

“I don’t care if you do or not,” Jeremy says. “It’s the truth. I’ve never ever felt like I deserved people caring about me, but it happens. And listen…” He looks down, fidgeting with his hand intertwined in Michael’s. “When I was… Squipped, or whatever, it made me realize some stuff. The Squip kept telling me to stop getting so hung up on the wrong person… and now I know it meant you. You were the wrong person.” He splutters. “Except, except not wrong. I think… I know … that the way I feel about you, it’s not… it’s not just, like, two buddies. It’s something bigger and better.”

Michael melts. “I know what you mean,” he says. “Breaking your heart felt like utter shit because it broke mine, too.” He feels so vulnerable and so reckless at the same time. The Squip could never hurt Jeremy as much as Michael can, and vice versa.  That’s love, as far as Michael knows. Someone else having the power to hurt you, and using it to help you instead. “I’m in love with you, Jeremy.”

“Me too,” Jeremy says, starting to cry. Usually he’d be embarrassed, but right now he’s just annoyed because the tears make it harder to see Michael’s face. “Me too, Michael. I love you, too.”

This time Michael doesn’t try to correct him, he just leans over and kisses Jeremy on the nose, which isn’t exactly romantic but it makes Jeremy feel safe and precious. “Please never scare me like that again.”

Jeremy tangles their fingers together. “Pinky swear.”

Chapter Text

After Jeremy gets out of the hospital, Mr. Heere finds him a good therapist, and Michael starts seeing another counselor in the same building. After Tuesday night sessions, Michael and Jeremy leave the office and sit on the swings at the nearby park, watching the stars pop out and talking about everything and nothing.

Michael’s a good kisser, which is odd because he has almost zero experience. Maybe Jeremy’s just got a low bar. Whatever the case, he likes kissing Michael. He does it a lot.

The day they start back at school together, Michael arrives to pick him up, wearing his headphones around his neck and his signature sweatshirt once again. Seeing him like that, waving from his beat-up PT Cruiser… it feels to Jeremy like finally waking up after a long nightmare.

Rich Goranski ends up going on a date with the flip-flops girl from Spencer’s, and she offers him a sip of her Mountain Dew Red. Soon enough, he’s back to himself, lisp and all. She digs it.

Jeremy and Christine star in the spring musical, and Michael watches on proudly from the audience.

There are bad days, and there are bad memories. Michael and Jeremy both have lightning-like scars stretching down their spines and arms from all the electrocutions. Michael talks about getting matching tattoos to cover the scars, but Jeremy doesn’t mind them so much. To him, they’re a reminder of everything he and Michael conquered together, everything they survived.

They’re a reminder that he’s strong enough to keep going, even if he doesn’t feel like he can.

Sometimes Michael gets a far-off look in his eyes, and Jeremy knows he’s remembering being forced to cut him off, to shove him, to shout at him. Whenever that happens, he climbs into his boyfriend’s lap and holds him and kisses him. “It wasn’t you,” he tells Michael. “It wasn’t you.”

Sometimes Jeremy curls into a ball in his old spot by the windowsill of his bedroom and repeats, “Everything about me is just terrible,” over and over again. Whenever that happens, Michael sits beside him and wraps his arms around him and corrects Jeremy, as many times as it takes. “Everything about me is so terrible.”

“Everything about you is so wonderful and kind and amazing.”

“Everything about me makes me wanna die.”

“Everything about you makes me smile and love you even more than I already do.”

At graduation, Michael makes a big show of dipping Jeremy and smooching him, amid cheers and wolf-whistles from their classmates. And in the fall, they both arrive at the New Jersey Institute of Technology together.

In high school, they shared bags of chips, they shared a Squip, they shared a traumatic experience, they shared a therapist’s office.

In college, they share a room.