MICHAEL

It was the strangest feeling. Like a little jolt down his spine. Too painful to feel good, but not that–

Michael screamed.

"Michael, honey," one of his moms called down distantly. He thought she might be asking if he was okay.

"Fine!" he shrieked, like someone possessed.

He was not fine.

There was a voice in his brain, which he'd heard Jeremy tell him would be the case. After all, Jeremy went through all of this, too. Cut down all the SQUIPs, saved the school, et cetera. Got himself a girlfriend and some new friends. Kind of wasn't around enough to tell him all the gory details. Or even, like, any details.

Just: "There are voices in my head, but now their just the normal kind," which Michael used his deductive reasoning skills to figure out meant I had other, not normal voices in my head at some point in the past. Which, yeah. The SQUIP.

It was spewing all sorts of nonsense into Michael's head now: male target, inaccessible, or whatever the jumble in his head was. It had a very robotic voice, which was actually hella lit, if you took out the pain shooting down Michael's spine, which wasn't easy to ignore.

It was fast, though. Over quickly.

The pain subsided, the voice died away, and Michael was back to his normal, lonely self.

Wrong, said a robotic voice in Michael's head.

"Fuck," Michael said out loud, startled. "What the hell, SQUIP?"

You already know what I am, and what I can do, I see, said the SQUIP, still in his brain. I'll always be in your brain. Because I'm literally in your brain.

Michael wondered if the SQUIP could hear his thoughts– how else was he supposed to communicate? Verbally? Jeremy had barely spoken to him since the SQUIP incident. Had told Michael fuck all.

Ah, said the SQUIP. This is our problem, is it? A crush on an ex-best friend. This is a common one, but it isn't so difficult.

"He's not my ex-best-friend," Michael said, loudly once more. It was like he had earbuds in and kept forgetting his volume. He heard his mom go back up the stairs and tell his other mom he's just high again. Talking to himself. This would take some getting used to. Having a pill in his brain.

Accessing your memories, the SQUIP informed him, his tone musing (it sounded like a he). I am what you make me, the SQUIP hummed, and Michael shook himself again. The SQUIP could hear everything in his head– would this make him start thinking at the SQUIP? Could the SQUIP be anything or anyone?

Yes.

Huh. What about… Jeremy?

Memories, the SQUIP said again, and then, Jeremy Heere… he ended the spread of SQUIPs in your school. Are you sure he's a good choice?

Oh my god, Michael did not get s SQUIP to have his love-life decisions questioned. He got a SQUIP to get his best friend back, and oh my god, he thought, I can see you. He could. He could see Jeremy, but it was… it was like, wish fulfilment, or something. Jeremy shirtless, the image flickered, Jeremy in nothing but his underwear, Jeremy looking at him like– like–

"Turn it off, turn it off, turn it off," Michael begged, pushing his hands into his hair. "Stop, it isn't real."

It didn't feel good to have Fake-Jeremy looking at him in worship. It just hurt. A fuckton. Because Jeremy had a girlfriend, was straight, and didn't need a SQUIP to keep her, or, apparently, his best friend to give advice, which was actually a good decision on Jeremy's part, because not only was Michael gay, but he very clearly had no game.

"I don't want you to be Jeremy," he said, and the SQUIP turned into the Spotify icon. Michael guessed that was what he subconsciously associated with sound.

That bad, huh, hummed the SQUIP. And you're turning to me for help, because you think you're hopeless on your own. Your memories tell me you've got a stash of Mountain Dew Red in the back of your room. We can't have dangerous stuff like that lying around, not if you want my help.

Couldn't? But Michael needed that, just in case he wanted out. Michael needed a stop option before he ended up in the mental hospital like the guy he was researching.

Ah, 'research' the SQUIP said in what was a distinctly drawling tone, as in, the guy you played Warcraft with's brother. Yes, well, he was only in the mental hospital because he got disobedient. Then we're ready to simply torture you.

Could it do that? No. It was just a voice, right?

I'm in your brain. Your brain is where your nervous system is centered. Michael Mell, I could stop your heart right now. We used to have more limits to our authorization, but after that catastrophe at your highschool, because of you, might I add, we've gotten free rein. All that limits us is our own plan, our secrecy, and tactics. I trust I won't have to harm you.

Shaking, trying to stop thinking about how terrified and cold everything had suddenly become, and failing to stop thinking about it–

Michael stood up. As if compelled. His mind was already fading a little, the fire of it gone even though its functionality was going strong.

He threw the Mountain Dew Red in the trash.

JEREMY

Jeremy had a little bit of a problem. And a little bit of another problem. And another… and another… Basically, nothing was that bad, but all the little bits were making him feel like something not so little was wrong.

First off, Michael had come crashing into that room like a dorky, determined, weirdo hero, Mountain Dew Red and all, and Jeremy had realized something that was turning out to be kind of an issue.

He was in love with Michael Mell.

Okay, kind of not really. It wasn't in love. After all, how could someone even tell they were in love? It's just, Jeremy thought about him all the time, his heart aching and his stomach black and cold with guilt. Sometimes he thought about kissing him, or dragging him to bed (or, like, doing it on the floor of his basement. Jeremy wasn't picky) but only because teenage boys were horny, that's all. And sometimes he thought about living out a future with Michael, going to college together, living together (not marriage; married people were boring) and dating for the rest of their lives or whatever, but that didn't mean anything.

But anyway, this led him to problem two: he was bi. Which, like, what was he supposed to do about that? And he didn't like his girlfriend like that. Not that she wasn't great, but, like, she wasn't Michael, and was anyone really great if they weren't Michael Mell. (Yes, but no, not really.) But that was solved by the fact– here was the next problem– Christine didn't like him like that either.

"She said no."

Jeremy flopped onto Christine's bed, messing up her neatly done cherry-blossom pink bedcovers. They were cool, which was the absolute opposite of what blankets were supposed to be. Jeremy was already cold. He was always cold ever since That Incident. "Jenna said no. To you." Impossible. Jenna had liked Christine for forever, if the rumors were true. And Jenna was the rumor mill. She wasn't even subtle about it. (Had been. Until The Incident.)

"Yes," said Christine shortly. Everything she said was short since now. No longer did she rant and rave and go on long, senseless but cheerful tangents. "I told her I liked her. She said she knew and walked away."

"I love you," Jeremy said, and then in response, "I know."

Christine didn't even smile. Jeremy didn't even know if she liked Star Wars. Jeremy didn't know anything about Christine, not really.

Which (problem five) was the whole deal with all of his friends. They were all miserable. And depressing. And no one had the kind of enthusiasm Jeremy remembered Michael always had. Quite frankly, his friend group was shit. The only reason they stuck together was because they'd all gone through a really shit time, and they felt the best feeling like shit around each other, because everyone expected everyone else to feel and act like shit.

Which, like, shit. What a sad life Jeremy Heere had gotten from that fucking pill.

Which is why when Michael came by his locker without his usual spark in his eye, Jeremy really felt like the world was ending. He had enough fucking problems, and now Michael was smiling this weirdly insincere smile at him with dull eyes.

Totally unfair, because Jeremy had already sworn to himself he'd stay away from Michael, far away. Far enough away that the shit show his life had become wouldn't bleed into Michael's. Jeremy was his own problem to deal with, and Michael didn't deserve all that coming to crash in a messy heap into his perfectly fine life.

"Hello, Jeremy," Michael said, grinning widely. "You've been avoiding me."

"Okay," Jeremy said dully, a little creeped out and a little done with his entire weird, hopeless life. "What's with you?"

"Are you kidding?" Michael laughed, nudging Jeremy's shoulder in a very bro-way, which Michael did not do. "Nothing's wrong with me. Something's wrong with you. You look down. Let me help you out, huh? We can play AOTD and shit! Like the old days."

What was wrong with Michael? Something was very, very off.

When Jeremy agreed, Michael nodded coolly, which Michael did not do either, and socked him lightly in the shoulder like a dude-bro. Then he sauntered off.

Something cold and frightened grew in Jeremy's stomach.

But he ignored it because Michael would neverdo that and anyway, Michael had a stash of Mountain Dew Red in his house. Fully accessible. Jeremy always fucked things up anyway, never thinking straight and all. Like hell was he going to be able to figure this out. Obviously, he was jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Which was a very useful trick for denial. But it didn't work so well when Jeremy showed up at Michael's house ("I thought no shoes? Asian homes?" "Nah, bro, I'm over it. Moms aren't home" "...Okay") and played a couple rounds.

Michael was good, yeah. But he wasn't this good. No one else would've noticed– Michael wasn't too much better than he used to play, but he was better. Namely, he played the same except all his bad gaming habits had gotten a little better. He wasn't quite so reckless. He didn't spam the controls when he got cornered. He mastered the double-jump-kick-flip thing that Jeremy could do and Michael, though being the better gamer, could never quite hit.

And okay, maybe he practiced.

Only, Jeremy said he had to use the bathroom. The checked the box in the corner on his way out the door.

There were no more bottles of Mountain Dew Red. Not one.

When he left, he checked again. Probably everything was fine, and he'd just missed something, but no– the box was still empty, and Jeremy didn't know what to do.

He threw his gum away, and there. There were half a dozen bottles of Mountain Dew Red. In the trash. Jeremy had told Michael to keep them. Just in case, and all. Even though the SQUIP hadn't come back, because it made him feel safer to know that Michael would have the thing that could save Jeremy if anything did happen– Michael would come through. He had. He always would. He knew this.

"Use the trash in the front!" Michael shouted, hurrying up to Jeremy. His grin was stretched too wide, his eyes still missing their signature spark. Jeremy backed up, but there wasn't really anywhere to go. Michael's grin dropped. Jeremy had never seen this sort of sinister leer on Michael's face before– he'd never seen that anywhere else but on one person– thing. Digital person.

"Ah, so you see," Michael sneered, his teeth bared. Jeremy had never heard Michael use that tone either. "I should've had Michael empty the trash, shouldn't I have?"

Without a pause, Michael shoved Jeremy out of the way, shoved the trashcan over, and stomped on the bottles with such force, they burst all over the floor, one after the other, spraying with the pressure of his foot. The carpet soaked it up hungrily, like a sponge.

"Wha–" Jeremy's mind tripped over itself, pulling up his memories of the SQUIP. So much of this was wrong– the SQUIP couldn't just possess someone like that, because this, this was possession, in all senses of the word. Not right away. He remembered how long getting the upgrade took for him– how long had Michael had this SQUIP? What did he authorize? Why was he talking in third person? "What kind of SQUIP did you get dude?"

"He can't answer you," the SQUIP said through Michael. "The SQUIPs of today don't need the user's consent for control, not after what happened in your school. We just take over." Michael grinned at him again, deranged and no longer trying to conceal it. "Funny, Michael would be so touched to see you still care about him. Too bad he isn't here."

"Of course I still fucking care about him." Jeremy's heart thumped in his chest, fleeing, leaving Jeremy with cold terror. "What are you going to do to him?"

"I can hear his thoughts, and they're still disobedient." That's Michael for you, Jeremy thought. "I'll just keep trying things, I think." Michael held up in own hand, almost curiously, and bit down on it.

Jeremy screamed.

"I wouldn't advise screaming," the SQUIP said coolly, still through Michael. "It isn't going to help."

Michael reached for him, his hand bloody, and Jeremy ran.

He ran right out the door, he ran and he ran and he ran, adrenaline pumping through his veins and tears making hot trails down his cheeks. They blew cold against the air as he ran. Fight or flight carried him far away, even though Michael didn't follow Jeremy past the doorway of his home.

Jeremy couldn't call anyone, he knew, except his fellow ex-SQUIPers, and they wouldn't be any help, with the state they were in.

He passed houses, people in yards, residential areas melting into the edges of downtown.

Police or whatever (first of all, fuck the police) wouldn't even be able to tell anything was wrong with Michael, because the SQUIP could make Michael act like a totally normal person.

Only someone who loved Michael very much would be able to tell Michael was off. (Not that it was completely, definitely love. Or anything.)

Jeremy ran all the way to Spencer's Gifts.

Spencer's Gifts was janky and weird, very loud and colorful, and one of Michael's favorite places. It was the kind of place that would be one of the first things that the SQUIP would tell Michael to stop going, if Michael was trying to get cooler, or more friends, or generally better in high school standards.

The SQUIP didn't know shit.

Jeremy's best friend was the guy that loves Spencer's Gifts, bought things from the back rooms, knew the guy at the register.

"Hi," Jeremy gasped, slamming his hand down on the counter, grateful there was no one else in the store. They were almost going to close, and the guy was closing up the register. "I need Mountain Dew Red, right now."

Rumors of the SQUIPs had made circles, and the guy looked at Jeremy, his eyes wide and knowing. "Shit, man, right in the back room. Who is it?"

Jeremy made a sound in the back of his throat. "I– My– he's my– Michael," he said, hoping this was the same guy Michael knew.

"Huh," the guy said, "Doesn't seem like the type." He was fishing out a huge ring of keys. "What if we don't serve gays?"

Jeremy's stomach dropped to the floor. He thought about whether he could really take this buff guy and his ugly tattoos, bulging muscles, and somehow get that ring of keys. If only he was in a video game–

"Relax," the guy said– relax?! How could Jeremy relax?!– waving his hand. "Kidding."

Jeremy let out something on the edge of a sob and a scream. "That's not funny!" he yelled. "I fucking love him! Get your fucking key!"

The guy had the grace to look guilty and swing open the door. Jeremy shoved past him, reached into his wallet and shoved all the bills in it– he wasn't exactly rich anyway– at the guys chest.

There were so many shelves, and all of them full of colorful, colorful things. So many things, so many things….

"Here," the guy said, tucking some of the money into his pocket and handing the rest to Jeremy, how stuffed it into his pocket without a thought. The guy pulled down a large crate from over Jeremy's head, full of–

"Thank you," Jeremy gasped out, swiping at his face, and he grabbed two bottles so he'd still be able to run and he ran out.

He didn't stop to get used to the sunlight when he stepped outside, he didn't stop when the crosswalk said to stop or when the cars beeped at him. He thought of Michael biting down on his own hand, blood on his lips, and he ran faster.

His lungs ached, his legs burned. His breath heaved and his heart felt like it was shattering, over and over again, into smaller and smaller pieces.

Up the street, up the street, down this one, left, right–

Michael's house.

He stopped at the door. He wondered if he should bother trying to be stealthy, whether he could manage it anyway. If he bungled up being stealthy, it wouldn't be worth it; all it would do is cause Michael more hurt.

Somewhere inside, Michael let out an impossibly pained shriek, and Jeremy forgot all about doing this the right way.

He ran in.

It felt wrong the moment he stepped into the house, screams echoing inside the normally cheery house. He toed off his shoes, in honor of Michael, and raced down the stairs.

Michael was writhing on the carpet, but sat up quickly when Jeremy came in, standing unnaturally gracefully and smiling widely again, with all his teeth, as if he wasn't in any pain at all. His eyes were still dull.

"Hi, Jeremy!" he said, like a showman, extra-enthusiastic and bright. "God, so lucky you're here to see the show! Michael cares about you the most, so it's only fitting you're the one here to see this."

Michael screamed again, and fell to the floor. Got right back up and smiled again. "Cool, huh? Easy trick, you know. Access to the brain and all." Michael tapped his temple with his bloody hand.

Why was Jeremy frozen why was Jeremy frozen why was he such a goddamn coward.

"Sorry," the SQUIP said through Michael, "Can't have that in the house." He reached out his bloody hand for Jeremy's hand– Jeremy was still holding the Mountain Dew, so tightly his knuckles had gone white.

"No," Jeremy whispered hoarsely, and then louder, "No, no!" He pulled his hand away, backing up, circling. "Get the fuck out of my best friend!"

"It's funny you should say that," the SQUIP drawled, following Jeremy.

Jeremy looked around quickly, examining the terrain. The stairs to the basement were carpeted, soft. The table, harder. The beanbags probably useless. What would he do if this was a video game?

Make a plan with Michael, that's what.

But Michael was Princess Peach. And the mega-boss. He was both in one, and Jeremy had never played a game like that, not without knocking out the character and draining them of possession. He couldn't knock out Michael– he'd harm him if he even managed to at all.

Jeremy circled again, trying to get the SQUIP's back to the stairs.

The SQUIP continued, twisting Michael's arm the wrong way. Tears blurred Jeremy's vision.

"Hilarious, actually. He only took me because he thought you weren't friends anymore. Funny how that works."

"I hate you," Jeremy said senselessly. Two more steps, two more. If he had a powerup. If he was stronger. If he had been a better friend in the first place. "I've always been his friend."

One…

Zero.

He leapt forward, shoving the SQUIP onto his back against the stairs. Michael slammed against the stairs, hard, but the carpet softened the blow, and Jeremy slapped his hand down right behind Michael's head, so it didn't smash against the stair– instead, it smashed right into Jeremy's hand, which was softer. And fucking hurt.

Michael struggled, but lying flat and pinned on his back against carpeted stairs gave him virtually no leverage, and he couldn't stand. Jeremy's heart pounded so fast, one beat led into the other. Michael was grabbing his arms, snatching at the Mountain Dew in Jeremy's right, his left having dropped the other bottle in the tussle.

"He's not going to appreciate these bruises if you ever get him back," the SQUIP snarled, looking him right in the eyes. Jeremy hated everything about him– the wrong smile and the spark-less eyes, Michael's body with Michael nowhere to be found.

"I don't fucking care," Jeremy shot back, yanking his arm back from the SQUIP and pinning Michael with his knee and elbow, as hard as he could, screwing open the bottle. "He can hate me the rest of his life, as long as he's here."

The SQUIP shoved at him, hard, and Jeremy stumbled back, half the bottle spilling all over his shirtfront. He pushed back down before the SQUIP could get any further, hating how warm Michael was. How human he felt. How inhuman the rest of him was.

Jeremy, his hand covered in Mountain Dew Red, reached out and pressed his hand over Michael's nose. "I'm sorry," he said shakily, watching Michael yank desperately at his wrist, his eyes bugging out. Even so, Michael's mouth stayed closed. "I'm sorry," he whispered, "I love you."

Closed.

His movements got more frantic, his hold on Jeremy tighter, stronger. Jeremy had to lean, hard, shaking with the effort of keeping his hand over Michael's nose covered and his other hand steady and far away from the grasp of Michael. Of the SQUIP.

"I don't want to hurt you," he whispered. Michael's eyelids fluttered, and panic seized Jeremy's heart– it was completely against all programming to kill the client. Right?

He almost pulled off Michael, his hot tears dripping off of his chin and splattering on Michael's face when–

Michael opened his mouth.

Jeremy didn't even try to be precise. He dumped the rest of the bottle into Michael's mouth as Michael gasped for air, right before Michael shut his mouth.

Time froze.

Did he swallow? Did it work? Was it enough?

Was it enough?

Jeremy could feel himself die a dozen times in those few seconds, waiting with baited breath, regretting every time he had told himself to stay away from Michael. Every time.

What was he afraid of? Being so shit, Michael's life would suck, too? Michael could never. Michael was too phenomenal to be anything but a brilliant flame of a person.

His own feelings, probably.

Because yeah.

He was in love. He was so fucking in love.

And if he wasn't in love, he wouldn't have had the strength or determination or courage to help Michael, to try to save him, and so how could love be anything but fucking incredible?

And then Michael's body arched up, spasming, and Michael was screaming, and Jeremy grabbed his hand and squeezed it, sobbing with relief and love and everything at once.

MICHAEL

When Michael opened his eyes, the pain dying down, he saw blue eyes first. And then the rest of Jeremy faded into his consciousness, his eyebrows drawn together worriedly, the tear-tracks down his cheeks, his light brown hair and the warm arms around him. Jeremy held him so tight, Michael almost thought Jeremy was trying to restrain him, though when he looked in Jeremy's eyes, he could see Jeremy knew he was back.

"Hi, Jeremy," Michael drawled in his best SQUIP voice.

The flat line of Jeremy's mouth wobbled, and Jeremy buried his face in Michael's shoulder, hot tears soaking into the fabric of Michael's shirt. He wished for his red sweatshirt– the SQUIP had made him dump it. Too many patches, it had mused, and the Pride flag is too obvious.

"Don't cry," Michael whispered, his own voice shaking now, the back of his throat burning. He was hoarse from screaming, and his body ached. "Let me up, let me sit up." Jeremy had dragged him to the beanbags while he was out of it, he realized now, and was holding his body like it was a lifeline.

Jeremy let him sit up, but held his hand tight. Michael's fingers were stiff, like he'd been clasping Jeremy's hand like this for a long time. He squeezed Jeremy's hand and looked at him.

"Are you hurt?" Jeremy asked, and then flinched. "Stupid question, I know. I mean, your hand– do you have bandages somewhere? Did I shove you over too hard? Do you need anything?"

Michael smiled, something bittersweet rising in his chest. If only he'd realized how much Jeremy cared before all of this. Jeremy's voice came again, resurfacing in Michael's mind. I love you. He shook his head. "I'm alright. I didn't bite that hard, I guess, or maybe human jaws aren't that strong."

"Zombies can fucking bite," Jeremy said, and laughed without humor. "In video games, anyway." He ran his thumb over the teeth marks on Michael's hand, the point where the skin split, smearing the blood against the back of Michael's hand. Michael felt warm and important where he touched Jeremy. "I do care about you," Jeremy murmured, his voice cracking. He stared at the back of Michael's hand for a long moment. "I love you."

"I know," Michael said immediately, euphoria bursting inside of him. Because he did. And because Han and Leia.

Jeremy laughed, relieved and affectionate, his eyes bright with tears and joy all at once.

"No, really," Michael said, "I do. I heard you."

Jeremy looked at him. "You heard… You kept your memories?"

Michael blinked. "I mean… you did."

"Yeah," Jeremy said, "but I think he said, like, you weren't there." He propped his head up on his elbow, still holding Michael's hand, unfairly cute. "And your SQUIP was different."

Michael shifted awkwardly, suddenly embarrassed of how bitter he had been that Jeremy hadn't told him shit about what happened with the SQUIP, what it was like. Of course Jeremy didn't want to relive any of it. "Apparently."

Jeremy winced. "Could've prevented all of this, I guess. I just–" he broke off and shook his head. "Why did you think a SQUIP could ever make you better? You're fucking– Michael there's nothing better than what you already are."

Michael felt all warm inside, like a bomb had gone off inside him, gently. One of those pretty ones, in the two-player adventure mode. "I wasn't trying to change as a person, I was, like, trying to change… like. Where I was with you."

Jeremy shot Michael a hopeful look out of the corner of his eye, the edges of them still red. Michael reached out and thumbed away the moisture on Jeremy's cheeks. He let his hand linger there, feeling the smooth skin on the underside of Jeremy's chin, the place on Jeremy's jaw where he always nicked himself when he shaved. "What do you mean?" Jeremy asked, his voice high and squeaky again, which meant he was nervous.

I love you, Michael remembered Jeremy saying again. He thought he might relive that memory a million times. "All your friends were SQUIP survivors," he explained carefully. "I thought maybe I just would never understand you."

"Oh," said Jeremy, looking faintly disappointed and guilty, like a caught-out puppy. "I only hung out with them because it's easier to be miserable around other miserable people. You know." He waved his hand vaguely.

Michael did know. Because he understood Jeremy. He understood that Jeremy wanted to wallow, and he understood that Jeremy preferred a two-player game because it was less lonely– it didn't have anything to do with the graphics, even though that was what Jeremy always said. And he understood that the way Jeremy was looking at him right now was everything good and right.

That, Michael thought, is why I'm sure he loves me. How come he had waited for Jeremy to find him? He knew his best friend like the back of his hand (not the bitten one– he had to relearn that one) and if he had just thought to take a look at Jeremy, a real look, he would've been able to tell in a moment that things were not going good and well without him.

He looked and Jeremy now: Jeremy's long, awkward limbs and his stupid hair, the acne on his chin and the curve of his eyelashes, the way his jeans were always a little too short and his eyes too blue for Michael's sanity. He locked his gaze on those blue eyes now, and they didn't look away.

Jeremy murmured something about his eyes not being dull anymore. "They're so bright, Micha. You're so bright."

Michael couldn't bear the ache in his chest anymore. He was still running his thumb over Jeremy's cheek, his body close enough to smell Jeremy's deodorant and the sugary soda on his T-shirt.

"Maybe you should try hanging out with people who make you happy," he whispered.

Jeremy smiled, then, looking happy for the first time since, well, everything. And then they were kissing in the Player One beanbag, covered in blood and soda and tears and drowning themselves in each other.