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1.

They had to work together, meaning they had to learn to get along. Okay, work might be a generous term for a kindergarten show and tell, but what sort of sadistic teacher assigns group show and tell? The kind who expects them to make friends and learn cooperation? Yeah, right. As if they weren't already cliquey enough.

Jeremy's dad had promised him that he'd make friends in kindergarten, that they were all as scared as he was. How was he supposed to know that half of them were already thick as thieves because their moms shared a book club or whatever? How could he possibly have known or prepared? What could Jeremy do about it except sit in the back of the class, keep his head down, and enjoy the company of his imagination?

Oh, right. He was such a desperately plain kid that he didn't even really have one of those.

They made fun of him for that. He couldn't draw and he couldn't tell jokes and he thought books were boring unless there were pictures (and even when there were, because most normal pictures didn't move). He couldn't throw or catch or run without tripping, so he was useless on the playground. All he could really do was play video games, and even then the only ones he'd had a chance to play were his dad's old playstation Pitfall cartridges and the V-Smile Leapfrog puzzle game he'd gotten from his grandma.

They made fun of him for being boring and useless and they made fun of his long, curly hair ("You look like a girl") and his ghostly fair skin and they made fun of his dad and his mom (or lack thereof) and whatever else struck their fancy.

Jeremy was a loner and a nerd—and not even an interesting nerd at that. He was at the bottom of the social ladder before it was even supposed to exist.

At least this kid seemed to be in a similar boat.

The first thing Jeremy noticed was his boundless energy. He knew that he couldn't sit still before he cared to know his name. He was the "problem kid" who always had to go out in the hallway to "blow off steam" or something when he started distracting everyone around him.

Jeremy also knew that he hadn't picked on him before, which was a feat in itself.

"Hi!" He called, skipping over after the teacher assigned them their groups. "I'm Michael!"

Jeremy just waved. He didn't even look up from his crayon scribbles. He couldn't draw, but at least he could color inside the lines.

"Are you shy? That's okay! My Mama says I should talk to the shy people because they need friends, but if you don't want to be friends, that's okay."

Great. Even this one nice kid—Michael, right?—could see that Jeremy was a loser. Still... he wasn't picking on him.

"I dunno," Jeremy said.

"That's okay too!" Michael bounced in the desk next to Jeremy's. It clacked against his and sent his crayons rolling around. "That's really cool," he said, leaning over Jeremy's shoulder to squint at the wax-covered paper. "I wish I colored like that."

"It's not that good."

"But you’re all in the lines! When I color, it ends up all like—" Michael threw his hands around and made some sort of makeshift rocket ship noise. He was beaming. The glimmer of his smile glared off of the tiny, plastic-rimmed glasses that sat on his nose. Jeremy had seen glasses before, obviously, but never on a kid. His dad wore them at night sometimes when he was reading. He said it was because he was old and his eyes got tired. Michael wasn't old yet, but he still had big ol' circles in front of his eyes.

Maybe they called him four eyes the same way they called Jeremy girly.

"Hey!" Michael lit up and started bouncing even more, if that were possible. Jeremy could almost see the lightbulb over his head. "We should totally show everyone your coloring for show and tell! I bet no one’s as good you are!"

Jeremy didn't yet know what it meant to go pale, but he definitely felt his face get all cold. "Uh, no thanks."

"Seriously! It's awesome!"

"No it's not."

"We have to show everyone!"

"No we don't."

"They're all gonna love you!"

Jeremy didn't know why he hated that sentence so much. All he wanted was to fit in. All he wanted was for someone other than his dad to love him... but everyone? "No, I don't want—"

Michael didn't stop his excited tirade. He snatched Jeremy's coloring sheet—carefully torn from the book along the perforation and even more carefully filled in—and a crayon and continued babbling on about how Jeremy could totally be a great artist one day and could he please have his autograph now so he could say he knew him before he got rich and famous, but really Jeremy just wanted him to stop talking and stop looking at him and give him his picture back and go back to ignoring him just like everyone else did.

But he didn't shut up and he didn't get out of Jeremy's personal space and Jeremy snapped.

"Leave me alone!" he cried. His voice was louder than he'd intended, and his skin started tingling at the sudden burst of emotion, and for the first time ever, Michael went silent and still.

In an instant, he clammed up and shrunk in on himself. Wordlessly, he slid the paper back onto Jeremy's desk and stood, trudging back from whence he came.

What was that? Did..? Wait...

Jeremy had shut up the Loud Kid™, somehow. There was static tingling in his hair and the air tasted like Lucky Charms. Something in his chest ached a little bit as he watched Michael go back to his own desk and sit there and stare down at it, looking somewhat like a zombie and entirely like all the wind had been sucked out of his sails.

He didn't even know what had happened, but Jeremy felt kinda bad. He didn't mean to be mean.

At least he was leaving him alone.

 

2.

It certainly didn't last long.

Not even the next day, Michael was sidling up to him at lunch and offering him sips of his grape juice with a cheerful announcement of, "Mama says my dad really liked grape juice, but I just like it because it's purple."

"Does your dad not like it anymore?"

Michael shrugged and pushed his glasses up his nose. "Dunno. Never met him."

And so it turned out that they had at least one thing in common, and by fourth grade when the lack of matriarch was really starting to bug Jeremy, Michael offered to share his moms (the lucky bastard had two).

Michael was there when Jeremy's teachers finally figured out that his hatred for books wasn't just boredom, it was dyslexia. He was there to remind Jeremy that it wasn't his fault he couldn't read and that it didn't mean he was stupid, because "I've still never seen anyone else who can color a picture like you can" and reading didn't have any connection to brain power or "smartness." He was there to balance Jeremy's classroom issues with his own ADHD-fueled drama. He was there every time a stupid, unfair, absolutely-not-his-fault accident got Jeremy sent to the principal's office, mostly because they were both involved in the first place. He was there to assure Jeremy that he did not look like a girl and that the other kids' fragile masculinity didn't have to mean anything and that "Hey, even if you did look like a girl, you'd still be prettier than all these Barbie wannabes."

Michael was there for every skinned knee and failed test and conquered game level.

So when he told Jeremy he was being shipped off to summer camp, it hit like a ton of bricks.

"What? Why?"

Michael shrugged, not taking his eyes off of Mario Kart. "Mama said I was old enough now." He said it like a question.

"Most people stop going to summer camp when they get to middle school," Jeremy reasoned.

"That's what I told her, but... uh..." Michael paused the game to twiddle the joystick around. His constant, boundless energy focused in on him, and Jeremy could see the way his skin twitched with the desire to tap and move and maybe run. He cleared his throat. "She said my dad would want me to do this."

Woah. Okay.

Mrs. Mell didn't talk about Michael's dad. Not really, not since she got married again (Michael and Jeremy were adorable flower boys at age seven). It was sort of like how Jeremy never heard anything about his mom. They didn’t talk about it. His dad didn’t need to remember she was gone and Jeremy didn’t need to remember that he couldn’t remember her. If he'd never met her, he wasn't about to worry about what she'd want for him or from him.

"Why do you care what he thinks?" Jeremy asked.

Michael just looked at him with wide, open eyes. They shone behind his glasses, soft and pleading and cracked. Jeremy's chest clenched and he made up his mind on the spot.

"Take me with you, then," he said.

Michael's desperation melted away to confusion. "Huh?"

Jeremy gave him a friendly whack on the shoulder. "I'm not about to let you go alone. What kind of best friend would I be if I didn't stick with you?"

Michael's face lit up with a grin for a split second before falling again, looking even more miserable than before. "I don't think you can," he said.

"Why not?"

"My—my mom said it was like... like a special summer camp," Michael said, biting his lip. "She said it was only for people like me."

Well that stung. Jeremy had thought—Well, he thought he was like Michael. It was always both of them in the principal's office, always both of them making a scene, always both of them hanging out in the corner of the playground so as to avoid getting hit by an "accidental" stray four-square ball. Two player game, right?

He couldn’t just let Michael leave.

"Please?" Jeremy said, emotion pooling in his stomach. "Please take me with you," he practically begged, feeling tears in his eyes and a push in his voice.

Michael's expression relaxed. The pained glint in his eyes went soft and he began to smile. "Okay," he breathed.

"O—kay?" Jeremy's skin pricked with goosebumps, even in the warm room. The air was smooth and syrupy around him. He wasn't sure when Michael's bedroom started smelling like flowers, but he caught a whiff of roses.

"Yeah," Michael said, glazed smile growing. "It'll be fun!"

"Right..." He shook his head. "Yeah, it'll be fun!" Jeremy's concern at the sudden change of pace quickly washed away in Michael's sleepy excitement. This would be good. They were staying together and—and Michael looked really happy now.

Jeremy liked seeing him happy.

It shouldn't have been that easy. There were still the issues of parental permission, but somehow Mrs. Mell agreed when Michael looked at her and said Jeremy had to come with. Something about the look in his eyes, she'd muttered under her breath.

And if it involved an oddly intense and secretive phone call with Jeremy's dad, then so be it. Jeremy only overheard small snippets of "But what if?" and "You didn't see what he did" and "You can't deny this forever, Heere" before he was being sent home to pack his bags for summer camp.

And if his dad was even more closed off than usual, Jeremy didn't care to notice.

 

3.

Jeremy had adapted relatively well to the news that his mom was a goddess. Really, getting attacked by harpies on their drive to Long Island was enough to keep just about anything else from surprising him, and at first he was perfectly content with that.

But after a while... Well, the floor of the Hermes cabin wasn't comfortable for long.

Michael had been claimed almost right after they got there. Mr. D was a bit of a dick who couldn't even be bothered to get people's names right (Jeremy had gotten used to answering to Jared when Dionysus was involved), but he at least cared enough about his kids to give a crooked and knowing smile when Michael introduced himself.

Jeremy, on the other hand, just kept getting kinda sad looks and offhand apologies and no actual information. He'd spent his whole life not caring much about his mom, but now that he knew she was out there intentionally ignoring him, it stung.

Michael's half-sister (yeah, that was a thing too, and it was really weird) kept trying to cheer him up. Over the few years that Jeremy had known Christine, she'd done everything in her power to be almost obnoxiously friendly. She'd introduced him to all her satyr friends, insisted he participate in a reading of a play she wrote, and even managed to hook him and Michael up with a steady supply of whatever narcotics they wanted, from weed to enchanted wine to a really scary bit of ambrosia that may or may not have turned Jeremy into a dolphin—he’d been too high to know for sure. None of it was allowed at camp, but the black market between cabins four and twelve could not be stopped.

Christine's newest act of Amazing Friendship was to compile a full-fledged theory of who Jeremy's mom could be. Unfortunately, there was still the possibility that she was a majorly minor goddess, so the binder of notes was the size of Zeus's ego to compensate for the nearly infinite possibilities.

"Well, we know who it's not," she said, crossing Nemesis off the list of potential mothers after Rich Goranski (one of the Ares kids) tried to give Jeremy the classic 'Lord of the Toilets' swirly treatment and Jeremy couldn't bring himself to even blame the guy. Also marked as rejects were Hecate (he was so bad at using the Mist that it actually fooled him half the time), Persephone and Demeter (he'd managed to under-water a cactus), and most of the muses (his prime artistic achievement was still just an accurately colored Lisa Frank leopard, but they did cover non-artsy shit sometimes, so they weren't totally out-of-the-question).

Still, it didn't exactly help Jeremy feel any better about who she was, and Christine must've seen it on his face.

"You know," she said, "Michael had a demigod dream last night."

"Oh gods, no," Jeremy said, his own predicament overshadowed by concern. Demigod dreams were bad news, basically being a massive hodgepodge of prophecies and cryptic messages and angry spirits. "Is he okay?"

"Yeah, he's fine," Christine assured him. "I probably shouldn't be the one to tell you about it, but..."

"...But?"

Christine gnawed at her lip and twirled her hair. "I heard him talking to himself about it this morning. I might've heard wrong, but," She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye, a crazed light glinting desperate in her gaze, "apparently it was about you."

“What?”

"From your mom.”

Of course, Michael wouldn't tell him shit. Their secluded corner of a run-down courtyard gave them all the space they needed to have their heart-to-heart as lifelong best bros, and Michael's lips were stubbornly sealed.

"I can't tell you," he said. "You don't understand, it's not like I knew who she was either."

"Bullshit," Jeremy said. "Why can't you?"

"It's not how it works. She needs to claim you."

Jeremy crossed his arms. "Yeah. That’s what Chiron keeps saying and I'm sick of it." He was sick of sitting at the end of the Hermes table just to eat his godsdamned pancakes, his ass half-hanging off the bench. He was sick of waking up in the night because one of his half-a-million unclaimed cousins stepped on him on the way to the bathroom. He was sick of being forgotten about and even sicker of his pointless self-imposed pep-talks that never managed to make him forget about the emptiness behind his sternum. "Just tell me, man."

Michael wrung his hands. His foot scuffed against the cracked marble path. "No."

"Come on, it's not like I'm asking you to make her talk to me. I just want to know who she is." Although, if there was a reason she'd been avoiding Jeremy, he'd sure as Hades like to know it, considering she was clearly capable of communication.

Michael wouldn't meet his gaze. His eyes were turned resolutely to the strawberry fields in the distance. "I really don't want to talk about it," he said.

"What? Did she give you some kind of horrible prophecy? Am I gonna die or something?" Jeremy tried to ignore the tightness in his chest. His mother couldn't be bothered to talk to him. Fine. But she'd somehow gotten his best friend in on the deal, and that hurt more than he'd care to admit.

"No."

"Are you gonna die?"

Michael ran a hand through his hair. "I don't think so."

"Then why'd she talk to you in the first place?" Jeremy asked. If nothing was wrong, why did this negligent goddess need to be contacting Michael?

Somehow, Michael closed in on himself even more. He started bouncing in place, prepared to bolt. His eyes were clouded behind his glasses, looking like Zeus's worst storms, or like he was resisting some kind of creeping mania.

They still weren't entirely sure if Michael had inherited his dad's madness, but with the way he was glaring at the budding strawberries, Jeremy wouldn't be surprised.

He didn't answer, just stared into space like he was grappling with his sanity, and Jeremy's mind snapped. The tears he'd been choking down began to prick insistent behind his eyes.

Why? Why wouldn't she just talk to him?

"Why did she talk to you and not me?" Emotion bubbled in Jeremy’s throat. For as broken as he felt, his voice came out strong and smooth, washing over both of them.

The breeze stilled, the sun beat down warmer, and the strawberries flared redder in the distance.

Michael's gaze softened. The clouds cleared from his eyes, leaving him cracked open. Vulnerable. Jeremy didn't know how he knew, but he knew he was about to tell him. Give him an actual answer. Just...

Well, he was honestly a bit scared of what he might say.

"I was praying to her for advice. I didn't expect her to respond."

"What were you praying about?" Jeremy's timid whisper still floated on a stream of sugar.

Michael blinked and looked over at Jeremy, as if he was wondering for a moment if he should continue. If he should actually pour out whatever this secret was, but Jeremy let himself give a pleading gaze (he'd always had scary convincing puppy eyes), and Michael's reservations melted away, replaced by a shy grin.

"You," he said, open and honest. "I like you. I wanted her input."

" Like me?"

"I love you, Jeremy."

 

4.

Some of the more popular kids at school were throwing a party, and Jeremy normally wouldn't have bothered himself with it, but his girlfriend was dragging him along and there was a voice in his head saying he needed to go for the sake of his reputation.

Having a decent one of those was kinda a new thing.

Still, when shit hit the fan (as it always does when demigods try to party in the mortal world), Jeremy was back to his normal routine, hanging in the bathroom with Michael.

They sat on opposite sides of the tiled room and resolutely avoided eye contact.

"We shouldn't have left camp," Michael finally said.

"It's summer camp, not boarding school."

"We stayed year-round for five years."

Jeremy glared over at him. Michael sat on the edge of the bathtub, tapping his foot and staring at the ceiling. "I should get back out there," Jeremy said.

Michael snorted. "Why? So you can charm your way up the mortal social ladder? You've always known that's worthless."

Jeremy kicked at the cabinets under the sink. "It's better than waiting around for her."

"Is that what this is about?"

Jeremy didn't respond. The voice in his head told him not to.

He knew he shouldn't have done it. He knew he should've be patient and appreciated what he had, but when Rich came up to him at the end of summer and shoved the jewel into his hand, he'd been too curious not to at least ask.

"Siren Quartz," he'd explained. "It's got magic to make you cool."

"I don't want to be cool," Jeremy said.

Rich smirked. "Yeah, but your mom might want you to be. Think about it. This could get her attention."

And Jeremy knew it was wrong. He knew it couldn't possibly make any difference at this point. He'd accepted that his mom didn't want him. He knew it could throw his life into chaos.

But he took it anyway.

And the first thing it did was tell him to leave camp. "You need to play hard-to-get, Jeremy."

It wasn't Jeremy's fault Michael had refused to let him go alone.

Michael came to sit next to him on the floor, just a hair's breadth away from pressing their shoulders together. "You've been different since we came back here."

Jeremy remained silent.

"What happened, man?"

"I got better."

"No you didn't."

Jeremy scowled at the mark his shoe had left on the cabinet. "I've got a girlfriend. I've got friends. I got invited to this shitfest. How could this possibly be worse wasting my drachmas on a stupid goddess who won't even answer?" He wasn't entirely sure when 'play hard-to-get' had turned into this—into betrayal, into suddenly wanting the acceptance he'd resigned himself to never getting, into saying 'fuck it' and running as far away as he could—but he trusted the whispers in his head when they said it wasn't worth it to go back.

"You don't belong here."

"I don't belong there either," Jeremy said, because he didn't. If he did, they would've given him someplace to belong besides the stupid limbo of Hermes's Reject Cabin.

Michael turned to look at him. "Seriously, dude," he said, the glint of betrayal in his eyes, "you can't just turn your back on us."

" Us?" Bile crawled up Jeremy's throat. "You're really taking her side?"

Everyone took her side. Everyone said he just had to be patient. Everyone thought he was being rash and impulsive and overly sensitive. Everyone said it was okay to be forgotten and kicked to the curb.

"I'm taking the side that doesn't lead to you getting eaten by hellhounds somewhere down the line," Michael said, face grim.

"I know how to take care of myself."

Michael knocked his head against the wall, studying the ceiling again. Jeremy watched his jaw work at the words, chewing at nothing. "Is that what it's been telling you?" Michael asked.

Jeremy's blood ran cold. Michael couldn't have known about the quartz. It told him early on not to spill the beans. "Huh?"

"That siren shit. You know it's manipulating you, right?"

Shortly after, it told him to avoid Michael entirely, and Jeremy was starting to see why. "How do you know about that?"

Michael didn't answer, just stared at the ceiling like he was trying to make it cave on top of them. His teeth were still clenched. Jeremy could almost hear them grinding.

He sighed and crossed his arms. "My mom told you, didn't she?"

"Jer—" Michael said, closing his eyes.

"No, it's fine," Jeremy said. It was fine. Really. Perfectly fine. So fine that his mom had rejected him and yet still had the nerve to pass messages to his friend behind his back. Jeremy forced himself to his feet. "She clearly cares more about you than me."

Michael stood. "Jeremy—"

His tongue was sour and his blood burned. He wanted to bite. Wanted to say something that would sting. Jeremy barked out a bitter laugh and spat, "Is she still playing matchmaker?"

The look in Michael's eyes could be described as many things. Broken, concerned, watery, closed-off, on the verge of tears, crumbling, dark, slightly crazed, but the thing that speared Jeremy in the chest was guilt.

It was answer enough. Michael still thought he could drag Jeremy back because he was too far gone to let him go.

"That's what I thought," Jeremy said, making to leave. He had better things to do than sit in a bathroom with the Eros-struck son of Dionysus. He had a girlfriend. He had a social standing. He had better things to do than waste away worrying about what the gods wanted or what Michael wanted.

Except Michael was blocking the door.

"Move," Jeremy said.

"No."

Seriously? "Michael."

Michael's stance was set. His face was stony. For the first time in a long time, he was standing completely still. He was determined, on the brink of becoming unhinged. Insanity rolled off of him in waves. "No," he said again.

Fuck it. If Jeremy wanted Michael to move, he'd make him move. "Get out of my way, loser," he said, pushing with his voice.

He meant it as a final warning before he pulled out a dagger and did something he'd regret, but the tension in Michael's shoulders softened. The purple aura of madness became tinged with pink, and the smell of wine went honey-sweet. Michael ducked his head, the fight gone from him. He stepped to the side without a word and Jeremy pushed past, back into the world that actually wanted him.

 

5.

Except he couldn't run from the Fates for long.

The party burned down. They said it was an accidental house fire, started by faulty wiring and too many bodies, but Jeremy knew better. He had paid enough attention in his monster studies to recognize the dual heads and snake tail of the fire-breathing creature that chased him and Michael back to camp.

The Chimera was the least of their worries, though. The voices in his head—the Siren that he was starting to think wasn’t such a good influence—got louder. And spread.

How Capture the Flag had turned into a zombie apocalypse was beyond him, but as Jeremy looked over at the camp full of possessed half-bloods, he knew it was his fault.

"I'm going to improve your life, Jeremy," the Siren sang, "even if I have to take over the entire camp to do it."

"That's not what I wanted," Jeremy said.

"It's the only way to achieve what you want. Look at them. They love you. They want you."

Jeremy stared at the army of demigods: a sea of dreamy smiles, with Michael at the center, nearly glowing pink.

It made him sick, not because of how they were looking at him—how Michael was looking at him—but because he knew it wasn't real. They didn't love him. They didn't want him, or at least they wouldn't after this. He was controlling them. He was manipulating them. The Siren was speaking through Jeremy to bend the world to his will.

He needed a shower.

Michael was the worst. He looked happy, sure. A vacant smile adorned his face and a dull, doll-like shine glazed his eyes. He looked happy, but in the way a clown looked happy. It was more unnerving than anything, because it wasn't right.

Michael looked at him as if he'd hung the stars, but he looked with empty eyes.

Jeremy knew Michael loved him. He'd known since kindergarten, when all of his shoving couldn't keep Michael from sharing his grape juice. He'd known since the day Michael looked so crushed at the idea of leaving for camp. He'd known since the party, when he'd refused to let him destroy himself and had helped him fight off the Chimera and the fire and the fallout. He'd known since Michael had looked at him with a different dreamy gaze—one broken open and shining in the sky—to say "I love you, Jeremy." He didn't need robotic approval from him, he just needed him.

The crowd parted, leaving just Jeremy and Michael in the clearing with the Siren.

"That's not Michael," Jeremy said, staring into the glassy eyes of his not-quite best friend.

"I assure you, it is—only his fears and insecurities have been removed."

Fears? What fears? Yes, living as a demigod meant living as if any day could be your last, but... Insecurities? About what? Michael was perfect. He'd always been perfect. He'd always been the confident one. The competent one. He was a bouncing ball of friendship, a shining beacon of everything Jeremy admired. Hades, even Jeremy's own mother seemed to love Michael, and Jeremy really couldn't blame her.

He loved Michael.

The realization sent a tingle up his spine. He loved Michael. He had for a while.

And then his stomach sank. He'd done all this hoping to earn someone's love: his mom's, society's, he honestly wasn't sure anymore. He'd been searching for acceptance when Michael was right there. Already loving him.

Getting pulled into the crossfire.

Michael stood there, looking through him, and Jeremy felt sick. This wasn't love. Love was sharing a juice box and complimenting a six-year-old's shitty coloring. Love was everything Michael had ever done for him, not a siren song.

Jeremy's gut twisted. "He'll do whatever I want."

"That's what I promised," the Siren said.

Jeremy's fist clenched around his vial of nectar. He didn't know if it would work. He couldn't possibly know, but he'd guessed that the drink of the gods could rescue him from his anti-Olympian rebellion. He barely had enough for one mouthful. Enough for one person. He was going to use it. Going to save himself from the sneaking whispers in his subconscious, but...

But Michael.

A bubble of tears inflated in his throat as Jeremy wrapped Michael in a hug. He was stiff. Complacent. A fucking puppet.

Jeremy fought his face into a sweet smile, sugary and perfect. He didn't care about getting the voice out of his head when Michael was standing there, mindless and empty.

Michael would do whatever he wanted, but Jeremy just wanted him back. He looked at him with every bit of affection that he'd been ignoring and denying for who knew how long. It pressed in on him, coming to bubble out of his mouth.

"Drink this," Jeremy said, holding the vile up to Michael's lips, his voice sweet and smooth, heavenly as the nectar.

A knowing light returned to Michael's smile, his eyes sparking with something... well, still smitten, but human again. Finally.

He swallowed, and the world dissolved into static as the Siren shrieked through the forest and ripped a path of sparks through Jeremy's mind.

 

+1.

Aphrodite was nice enough. He'd only sorta met her once, in his post-Siren blackout.

She looked a little like Christine, a little like one of the Apollo girls Jeremy had admired from afar, and a little like the mortal girl the Siren had bribed him into dating, which made no sense considering they all looked drastically different.

And which became very gross approximately ten seconds later when she started explaining why she hadn't claimed him sooner.

"That's the trouble with love, sweetie," said Aphrodite. "It's easy to have too much of it in the wrong place." She smiled at him, and he was suddenly able to understand why the Siren had worked. If he had even a smidgen of her beauty, the tiniest bit of her magic, it was no wonder people would do whatever he told them to. Her smile made his insides go soft, and she was his mom.

Yuck.

"You're my son through-and-though, Jeremy," she said, "but you've been looking for love in the wrong places."

"Yeah," he said. "I know."

"Michael's lucky to have you."

Jeremy gave a weak smile. "I think I'm luckier to have him."

Aphrodite beamed, ruffling his hair. "You're finally starting to get it."

He was pretty sure that she left some magic in his hair, partially because he woke up with perfectly styled ringlet curls to match his "child of the love goddess" toga and makeup (how glad he was to not be back in mortal elementary school, because it would certainly earn him major “Jeremy’s a girly girl” bullying) and partially because confidence tingled along his scalp even as he told Michael everything.

He told him all the things he knew already: the desperation, the abandonment issues, the fuck-the-system bid for acceptance. He told him things he didn't know in detail: the Siren and how it sang too-sweetly in his head to drive him further towards self-destruction. He told him the thing he couldn't even articulate yet, and when the words failed, he just pulled him into a nervous kiss, which Michael returned happily.

One of Jeremy’s sisters (yeah, he had those now) explained the power of words to him. The power of sugared words, of sweet words, of loving words. She didn't need to tell him what happened when they were used with poisoned honey. The Siren still hummed sometimes, proving it to him just as easily as it made his blood run cold.

Jeremy didn't know if Michael knew. A run back through their history proved that he was certainly susceptible to Jeremy's charmspeak. It made him feel even worse, knowing that so many turning points of their friendship—the meeting, the sticking together, the admission of feelings, the fights—were influenced by the same sort of thing that had almost destroyed both of them. Maybe all of human civilization.

Except Michael had to know, because he was practically begging for Jeremy to use it.

They were messing around behind the pegasus stables, Michael trying to see if he had any kind of cool plant-y wine powers by wreathing the back wall of the wooden barn in ivy. So far, he'd succeeded in little more than turning himself green with the effort.

"I think she lied, man," Jeremy said, as Michael kicked at the budding vines he'd been attempting to expand.

"No," he replied, "I've seen her do it. I definitely just got cheated out of my sick-ass powers." Christine, apparently, could pull off various vineyard tricks.

"We never did decide if you could drive people crazy or not."

Michael laughed. "Or if it was me or the ambrosia that turned you into a dolphin."

Jeremy felt himself go pale. "You mean that wasn't just a vivid drug trip?"

Clapping him on the back, Michael said, "Nah, bro. You definitely had a blowhole."

Jeremy glared back. "I'll blow your hole."

Michael suddenly erupted into laughter raucous enough to make the pegasi whinny and flap their wings in their stalls. He shook with it, holding on to Jeremy to stay on his feet as he took off his glasses to wipe at his eyes.

Call him a hopeless romantic, but Michael's laugh was one of Jeremy's favorite things (second only to Michael himself, as cliche as that sounded). It could brighten up even his worst moods. It could make Jeremy fall in love with him all over again. It could probably cure diseases and slay monsters and overthrow Olympus. It could certainly drive Jeremy insane.

"Holy shit, dude," Michael finally gasped through fading giggles.

Tingly fire began to bleed into Jeremy's face, even as he couldn't fight down a smile of his own. "What?"

"You're gonna kill me one of these days," Michael said, grinning up at him from the stranglehold on his arm.

Jeremy shrugged him off, embarrassment seeping in. "I get it," he said. "I'm sorry I suck at telling jokes."

Michael chuckled and knocked their shoulders together. "I laughed, didn't I?"

"I mean, I guess," Jeremy said, wishing that he'd considered asking one of the Athena kids to lend him an invisibility hat.

Michael still wouldn't stop giggling. "But I gotta know," he said, a mischievous glint in his eyes, "would you?"

He had a bad feeling about this. "Would I what?"

"You know..." Michael said, backing him up into the wall of the stables with an evil smirk.

Oh gods. "Please don't."

Michael couldn't even get the words out past his bubbling laughter, but Jeremy knew what he was getting at. "Blow my hole?"

Jeremy’s face burned hotter than the waters of the Phlegethon. "Stop it," he said.

"I think that ambrosia messed you up in more ways than one," Michael said, still gasping for breath. Jeremy figured he was probably trying to be sexy or intimidating or both, but the image was marred slightly by his complete break of character.

Unfortunately for Jeremy, just having Michael's hands against his chest and his lips mere inches away was enough to pour boiling water down his collar. "Dude—"

Michael smirked. "I'll bet Chris could get us more," he said.

His eyes were bright and deep up close, rich and intoxicating as wine. Jeremy wanted desperately to close the distance, but Michael had him pressed against the stable.

Overcome by snickers again, Michael said, "We could actually play with your blowhole this time," and it set Jeremy's blood on fire.

"Michael!" he half-shrieked. "Stop teasing!"

"You started it," Michael said with a playful and wobbly pout that Jeremy longed to press his lips against.

"I did not."

" I'll blow your hole." Michael’s Jeremy impression was atrocious, but apparently enough to raise Jeremy’s fever even higher.

He was so stupid. Jeremy loved him so much.

"Michael, please," he begged. They were so close, and obviously Michael was doing this on purpose. Jeremy wasn't at all against flirting, but he wished they could get on with it.

"Please what?" Michael was so close that Jeremy could see every fingerprint and speck of dust on his glasses. He was so close that Jeremy could taste the contraband weed and Doritos on his breath.

"Just—" Jeremy shook his head. "Just shut up."

Michael smirked, pressing impossibly closer. "You shut up."

"I—" Yes, Jeremy knew what Michael was doing. He was working him up, getting him desperate, making him want more. He hated that he loved the guy, because a lifetime of friendship meant he knew all the right buttons to push.

Michael must've known about the charmspeak. Really, there was no reason why he wouldn't. He'd been on the receiving end of most—if not all—of it. And he'd been in fairly frequent contact with Aphrodite, who gave Jeremy the powers in the first place. Of course he knew about charmspeak.

Meaning of course that's what he was trying to get Jeremy to do.

Somehow, he didn't feel so icky about it when Michael was just one step away from literally asking for it. "Make me," Jeremy said in one last magic-free plea.

Michael quirked an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"

Fuck it. If Michael wanted charmspeak, he'd give him charmspeak. "Make me."

This time, the words were laden with magic. They tasted like spun sugar on Jeremy's tongue as they wafted into the air with enough floral scent to almost overpower the stench of the pegasi. Michael relaxed, adoration flickering in his eyes as he pressed closer to Jeremy and finally, finally connected their lips.

Jeremy’s tongue was sweet with words of persuasion and words of love. And even sweeter with the taste of the love that had stuck with him through all of it.