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Through Every Open Door

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Mike’s stayed at the Sattler Country Club and Resort with his family every summer since he was old enough to walk, and every summer it’s been an awful bore. When they were both young enough for the age difference between them to not matter as much when it came to having fun, Nancy used to help a bit, giggling with him about the little old ladies trying to learn how to dance and chatting up the dancing people. Now Nancy’s old enough to be the one trying to chat up the dancing people, and she doesn’t want her little brother hanging off of her, even if Mike’s seventeen now and not an idiot kid, thanks. So he has nothing to do except read what books he can pack and roll his eyes when his mother makes him do the hula with a bunch of boring lawyers and doctors and CEOs in Hawaiian shirts (his dad being one of them, to his never-ceasing fucking embarrassment). Sometimes he tries to play croquet because Dustin, the kid who teaches it, is actually pretty cool and way into science and Dungeons and Dragons, but Mike really, really sucks at croquet and losing is getting depressing.

“Michael, my man, this is getting embarrassing for both of us,” Dustin says when Mike’s ball goes off course badly enough to knock a Bloody Mary-sipping housewife in the foot.

“Sorry,” he calls when she purses maroon lips at him. Dustin is grinning, his hair wildly curly from the unrelenting humidity.

“I don’t care if I suck at it, it’s better than having to do the salsa with some mean old lady who smells like mothballs. Which is what happens in every fucking ‘dancing’ lesson they have here,” Mike says.

“I feel you, man, those lessons are a fucking sham. Steve hates teaching them, especially when they’re always hitting on him,” Dustin agrees.

Steve has been doing the dance stuff here for years, and Nancy’s crush on him has grown with every passing summer. It's gross as shit, and part of the reason Mike never goes to the evening dances is that he has to watch her make eyes at him while Steve tries not to make it too obvious he's looking back. As far as he’s aware, they’ve never actually hooked up, but then Mike really tries to pay as little attention as possible to his sister’s sex life, so what does he know?

“Tell me about it. If I can’t hit a croquet ball, I definitely can’t do the fucking merengue without tripping over my own feet,” Mike says, wiping his sweaty fringe back from his face. He’s never been athletic, always being string-bean thin and painfully uncoordinated, but it’s gotten a thousand times worse after his growth spurt and now Mike is the definition of two left feet. It’s never really mattered much to him. His dad is going to think he’s a disappoint regardless for thinking doing stuff with computers is a better option than, like, pursuing a degree in economics or whatever, and the kids at school will take the shit out of him no matter how swanlike and graceful Mike is. It’s not like he ever needs to dance outside of these stupid summer excursions.

“God, there’s nothing to do here,” he groans. It’s hot, his mom is always halfway-drunk, his dad is either golfing or talking business with a bunch of similarly boring corporate assholes, always coming back to their room smelling so strongly of Cuban cigars it gives Mike asthma, and his sister is stalking Steve Harrington. Mike can think of approximately sixty-seven things he’d rather do with his summer, and quite a few involve Troy punching him in the face on a weekly basis.

“You say that because you haven’t seen Steve’s new dancing partner. She’s teaching lessons to some of the ladies who actually wanna learn and not, y’know…”

“Fuck Steve?” Mike suggests drily. Dustin grins, cheeks dimpling.

"Yup. And to a few of the men too, and I hope those lessons aren't also a euphemism because El deserves better. She's fucking gorgeous. Not really my type, but half the guys here are in love with her."

“I’m sure she’d lose her mind to get her hands on all of this," Mike says, gesturing at the six feet and two inches of gangly, awkward teenage boy that is his stupid body. "Why would anyone want Steve Harrington and his gperfect hair when they could have a nerd who's bad at croquet?"

“Bad at croquet and dancing. You’re a real catch. Oh, hey, Will, get over here and meet my fabulously wealthy companion!”

Mike follows the direction of Dustin's wave and sees a kid around his age with huge eyes and a bowl cut that is possibly even more unfortunate than Mike’s heading towards them, grinning. He’s wearing one of the tacky white caterer’s suits, which must be sweltering. Mike deduces that he’s probably coming from the dining room, where Mike’s parents are having lunch and pretending that their marriage isn’t falling apart.

“Hey, what’s up?” he says to both of them, his eyes so genuinely friendly as he extends a hand towards Mike he smiles back automatically. “I’m Will. I’m one of the lowly servants.”

“Mike Wheeler,” Mike returns. Will has a smudge of paint on his thumb that’s such a specific shade of Saffron yellow that Mike doubts that he got it doing house painting. His eyebrows go up when he hears Mike’s name.

“Oh, Wheeler. Cool. My older brother has a huge crush on your sister. Shit, I shouldn’t have said that.” Will winces, rubbing his head sheepishly. “Um. If you could not tell anyone said that, that would be great. We’re strictly forbidden from having any kind of rendezvous with the guests.”

It’s Mike’s turn to raise his eyebrows.

“Dude, I have it on good authority that Steve Harrington has slept with, like, half the wives here. My mom’s friend Magda was bragging about it last year when her husband was, like, smoking a cigar with the boys or whatever.”

“Yeah, correction, we’re not supposed to sleep with the guests unless it’s profitable,” Will says amiably. “So, y’know, ‘private dance lessons’, anything that keeps this place running. We’re a capitalist enterprise.”

“It’s true,” Dustin agrees solemnly. “We weren’t all born with a silver spoon in our mouths, Mike. Some of us have to sell our hot bodies to horny housewives to get by.”

Mike shifts uncomfortably, forcing a laugh. His family isn't rich, exactly, but they're definitely upper middle class. There's a guest bedroom in their house, Mike and Nancy both got their own cars when they turned sixteen, and their lives, in general, are pretty comfy. Dustin, by contrast, was raised by a single mom who works long night shifts nursing, and Will’s catering tux indicates he’s not exactly living the plush life. He’s looking around the croquet course with a kind of blinking awe, like he doesn’t spend a lot of time outside in the sun. Mike feels kind of guilty for being sick of the smell of freshly mown golf-course grass when Will’s obviously had it much worse; cooped up in the dining room serving mimosas to bitchy middle-aged women who don’t tip.

“So what does your brother do?” he asks, just to change the subject.

“Photographer,” Will answers, and Mike immediately knows who he’s talking about. “So, Mike, tell me what’s it like being on the guest side of things here?”

“Boring,” Mike answers automatically, then winces. Will’s been on his feet all day working, obviously, and Mike going on about the evils of living in the lap of luxury being waited on by kids like Will and Dustin is pretty fucking insensitive. “I mean, you know, it’s cool that we can afford it, I guess, but it’s such a useless waste of money, and the people are—you know, they literally just pay a ridiculous amount to feel like people are bowing down to serve them, and they're fucking rude just for kicks. It's gross."

“Yeah, thank God you’re not like that. I hate the ones who complain just to ‘give me something to do’,” Will says with an honest smile. “It’s cool that you’re more aware than that. A lot of people aren’t, even the kids.”

"I was trying to convince Mike to come to the dance at the main building tonight, to see people have some real fun," Dustin says, nudging Mike with his elbow. Will's eyes widen.

“You totally should,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s the most fun anyone has over here, and you can see my sister dance. She’s so talented it’s ridiculous.”

Mike swallows, feeling the heat for the first time. He doesn’t really care about Will’s sister, as nice as Will is. Even if she is gorgeous and talented, it’s not like she’d ever notice Mike. Even the nerdy girls at school don’t really notice Mike.

“Yeah,” he says anyway because Mike doesn't have a lot of friends at home and Will's eyes are shining like he genuinely cares that Mike shows up, "yeah, sure I will."

…………………………………

"I'm going to the dance at the main building with Nancy later," he announces when he gets back to their cabin. Nancy’s locked away in the bathroom, talking in a hushed breathy voice on the phone with some guy that is probably not Steve Harrington. She’s learned how to pitch her voice just right so that no one can make out individual words from the other side of the door.

“Dancing?” his father says over the edge of his paper, derision obvious in his voice. Mike’s mother tightens her hand over his shoulder in a vague threat.

“I think that sounds like a lovely idea, honey. It’s about time you started taking advantage of what we’re paying for.”

Mike just rolls his eyes and waits for Nancy. She whines when she finds out she’s supposed to take him with her, but it’s more perfunctory than truly reluctant.

“You can stop huffing, I’m not going to cockblock you and Steve Harrington," Mike grumbles as Nancy pulls him along towards the main building, which is vast enough that it kind of reminds Mike uncomfortably of the hotel in The Shining. In the two hours since sunset, it's gotten cool enough for Mike to wish he'd brought a jacket, the cabins far enough away that Mike can only make out the illuminated windows.

“Not going to happen," Nancy says, but there are two spots of color high on her cheeks, even in the dim light. "He could lose his job, they're super strict about that now."

She sounds bitter. Mike blinks, confused.

“Um, not to be insensitive to your crush—“

“I do not have a crush!”

“—but Steve's been with half the women here," Mike says. Even though Will tried to explain it earlier Mike still doesn't get it. If private dancing lessons are a euphemism, surely the daughters would be just as profitable as the mothers?

“Exactly, the women,” Nancy says pointedly, like Mike is being purposefully oblivious. "Not the girls. Apparently a few years back, that one dancing instructor—the one who was a total asshole with a mullet, Billy what's-his-name—got some girl pregnant and her dad, like, sued the resort or something, so now they're super strict about keeping the gross borderline prostitution to the women who are post-menopause.”

"Ah," Mike says, feeling not for the first time very young in comparison to Nancy's worldliness. He knows it's dumb, being jealous of his big sister, but everything comes so easily to Nancy. She's popular, she has boyfriends, and she can adapt quickly to just about anything, always seems to understand the subtle social dynamics of any situation you put her in, where Mike would just flounder like a fish out of water.

“Plus, I wouldn’t want to be with Steve like that,” Nancy says, flushing even brighter. “I’d want to be with him because he liked me, not because he was getting paid.”

“Um, yeah, thanks, don’t need to know any of that,” Mike says, wrinkling his nose, and Nancy hits him.

When they arrive at the main building, the dance hall is crowded and steamy with the heat of overly exerted bodies, the colored lights low and romantic. Mike's face scrunches up even more involuntarily as he looks around. Apparently, they're in between songs, because a portly man with an obvious toupee is telling terrible jokes as the band tunes themselves, and the swaying couples are shuffling around awkwardly, hailing down the caterers circling with appetizers and drinks so they can have something to do with their hands. Mike cranes his neck, looking for the familiar bowl cut, and finally spots Will smiling fixedly at an older lady in a dress that looks like upholstery.

“Right, I see my friend, I’m gonna—“ he starts to say, but he’s talking to thin air. When he turns his head, Nancy’s already disappeared into the crowd. Mike shrugs to himself, hoping for Steve Harrington's she isn't planning on seducing him, and heads over to Will.

“Hey!” he calls, over the din of the crappy stand-up comic, who’s now serving as announcer.

“And now, it’s time to get sexy! Get ready folks, because it’s that time of night! Let’s get our mambo on!”

He does a horrible shaking move that makes his belly jiggle under his ill-fitting tux, and Mike and Will cringe in unison, meeting each other's eyes. Will's smile immediately turns genuine.

“Hey, you made it! Can I interest you in an iced beverage? We have watermelon juice that’s surprisingly good.”

Mike accepts a glass as a Latin beat starts, trying to look at anything other than the older couples trying to inject hip gyrations into their tired two-steps.

“Oh hey,” Will says, looking at something over Mike’s shoulder. “There’s my step-sister, look!”

Mike turns, sipping his watermelon juice, and time seems to slow. The music and chatter fade to white noise and Mike suddenly feels so isolated he can hear his own pulse fluttering in his throat. A spotlight is falling on the dance instructors, and Mike sees Steve Harrington's signature hair with a kind of bleary detachment. The one he can't stop looking at is the girl.

She’s tiny, bird-boned and delicate with long curls that are so furiously wild they have to be intentional, and she’s wearing a blue dress that clings to the contours of her body like a film of water. They way she’s moving makes Mike’s throat go dry. The sway of her hips isn’t comically exaggerated the way he’s seen some of the female instructors do, but it’s so breathtakingly natural it’s almost more obscene for it. Every gyration takes Mike’s pulse further into his throat, and when Steve spins her, her skirt fans out as if in slow motion so that Mike gets one glimpse of white cotton underwear. She kicks a leg out effortlessly, swinging it inwards and then upwards into what’s almost a split, her calf slotting onto Steve’s shoulder like it was made to rest there. He pulls her back so that the split deepens as her other leg drags, her back curving into an impossible arc that reveals her face to Mike. It’s as lovely as the rest of her—curved with a sly, lazy quality that settles warm into his stomach, her eyes rimmed with dark shadow and kohl liner.

Steve is spinning her again before Mike can blink, and her hips are sliding back against his, her face now fully visible to him. She's smiling, dimpling in her right cheek. Other people are starting to watch them, pausing in their own dancing to clap and cheer as she spins again, again, again, then back into Steve, who’s suddenly lifting her like she’s a little doll, her legs kicking back behind her like a ballerina.

“That’s El,” Will says, beaming with pride. “Isn’t she brilliant?”

It takes Mike a moment to answer, he’s so fucking entranced.

“Yeah. Yeah, she really is,” he says. A portly older man is heading towards Steve and El, his face thunderous. He makes a throat-slashing cut-it-out gesture, and just like that El and Steve are back to the same kind of simple mambo the rest of the floor is performing, with just a little more grace. Will sighs, rolling his eyes.

"That's Mr. Wilson, he runs all of this. He has this crazy idea in his head that if they show off too much, people won't want to buy lessons."

“What?” Mike says, incredulous. “Why the fuck wouldn’t that sell lessons? What would it not sell? Stamps?”

Will laughs.

Around a half-hour later, Will recruits Mike to get some watermelons from the freezer and pantry, which is at the very back of the main building by the kitchens. Mike is only a little reluctant to stop watching El. It’s not like he’s not going to see her again, and he likes Will. He wants to help him out.

"These for more of that juice?" he asks, praying his arms don't give out. The last thing Mike needs is to break his foot and ruin his pants by dropping a monstrous watermelon.

"Nah, these are for us. There are a few perks to being the help," Will says cheerfully. Outside, the grounds are almost deserted, all twinkling fairy lights and long stretches of lawn shadowed blue by trees and moonlight. It's a hell of a lot easier to appreciate how nice it is when it's nearly vacant like this. Will leads Mike away from the main building, away from the pagoda where some of the smaller dances are held, and down a cobbled path that ends in a bridge, beyond which there looks to be a kind of warehouse.

“I can get it from here," Will announces. Mike raises an eyebrow. Will's already carrying two watermelons, which together must weigh the equivalent of a large dog and Will's tiny. He makes Mike feel like Superman.

“C’mon, I want to help,” he says. Will’s brow furrows.

“Thanks, Mike, but I’ll be fine. Help only from beyond this point.”

Now, Mike really wants to carry the stupid watermelon. He peers at the warehouse, which is throbbing with the thump of a bass, and his curiosity piques even more.

"Let me help," he insists. "Come on, you can't possibly carry three watermelons on your own. What is it you don't want me to see, some wild orgy?"

Will sighs, and Mike knows he’s won.

“Look, don’t tell anyone I brought you, okay? I could get in big trouble, Mr. Wilson’s super strict. Just keep your head down and if you can help it don’t tell anyone you’re a guest.”

Mike nods, grinning to himself. He feels like he's on the brink of some crucial teenage experience he should have been having years ago, something exciting and forbidden that will magically turn him into a real adult. When Will opens the door to the warehouse, Mike's eyes widen, and just like that he's back to feeling like a stupid kid, totally out of his depth. The sensitive, wilting virgin, looking in on his peers like they’re an alien species totally beyond him.

The dancing the help are doing in this warehouse makes the salsa-ing and the mambo-ing upstairs look like a five-year-old’s ballet class. Inside, it's clear there isn't any air conditioning. If the dance hall had been warm, this room is sweltering, the humidity hanging thick as fog over the dance floor. Mike gulps, telling himself that his burning cheeks are because of that, and not because these people’s dancing does kind of look like an orgy. Hips grinding, hands wandering to rude places, what actually seems to be dry humping going on in a few corners. Even worse, they all look like fucking pros. Ridiculously flexible and coordinated, making even the really filthy stuff look weirdly professional, and Mike has never felt like such a goddamn loser in his life. He doesn't even have the skill to slow dance at the prom he probably won't even attend (it's not like there's anyone who would go with him), and here are people his age grinding with their boyfriends and girlfriends like it's second nature.

“This is what your people get up to?” he says, trying to sound sarcastic and unimpressed, but his voice comes out kind of choked anyway. Will shoots him a knowing look.

“Regretting living the good life?” he asks, no bite to his voice. Mike swallows heavily and tries to shrug. It’s impossible to find anywhere to look that doesn't make him feel like a Peeping Tom. Everywhere there are bare legs and hands groping, clothes that cling with so much sweat they look like mere suggestions. Mike has never seen this much of the female body (except for that one time he walked in on his parents and that is obviously exactly what he needs to think of to cool himself down), and kind of feels like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“Um, where do they learn to do that?”

"Beats me," says Will cheerfully. "I know I can't, and Jonathan's hopeless too. I guess in the basements back home." That makes Mike feel a little bit better, enough for him to follow Will through the press of bodies and to even look around curiously. He gets a few looks—girls who sneer, guys whose faces flash possessive warnings—and Mike's grateful when they get to the back of the room, where Will sets the watermelons down.

“I’m gonna take these over to Dustin to slice—oh, hey, El’s done!”

Mike's head snaps up so fast he just about breaks his neck. Sure enough, Steve Harrington and El are parting the crowds like the red sea, being greeted with wolf whistles and slaps on the back, and something torn between jealousy and yearning unfurls deep in Mike's dress when they start to dance. It's even more impressive this time, El’s dress clinging enough to make the swing of it in the main building look like something Mike's grandmother would find acceptable, her limbs shining with sweat and her dimple popping as they twist and turn. Mike’s never wished he was anyone else quite so badly as he does when she beams up at Steve Harrington, her body fitting against his like a puzzle piece.

“Poor Nancy,” he mutters, because it’s pretty obvious Steve Harrington isn’t going to be looking her way any time soon. He’s holding El’s pelvis firmly to his as she tips back, shaking her shoulders as her back curves into that same impossible arch. The next moment, he's pulling her up, letting her almost shimmy up his body until he can pop her knees on his shoulders, El grinning madly as she hovers over the crowd. Mike swallows again, sweat beading along his hairline and under the collar of his shirt, his breath coming unsteadily. Steve’s face is level with the flash of her white underwear, revealed every time she flips her skirt, the admiring wolf-whistling increasing.

“Huh?” Will asks, having totally forgotten his Dustin-locating mission to watch his sister with that same glow of pride on his face.

“Nancy likes Steve—aren’t they a couple?” Mike asks, his stomach plummeting even as he says it. It’s a ridiculous, dumb reaction. Even if Steve wasn’t in the picture, girls like El do not look twice at guys like Mike. His jealousy is about as rational as wishing he had telekinesis.

“Ew, no,” Will says, his whole face curdling. “Steve is, like, twenty-five or something and El is my age. Nah, they’re just like brother or sister. Or mother and daughter, maybe,” he says, mouth quirking. “Steve is such a mother-hen to her. ‘El, honey, make sure you do all your stretches so your legs don’t cramp and roll out your back before you go to sleep and can I get you anything to eat?’” he mimics in a high falsetto.

Mike is so inexplicably relieved he actually sags against the table, cursing himself for being glad a girl he doesn't have a chance in hell with isn't dating the dance instructor his sister's swooning over. Just then, the song ends, and the room erupts into cheering and congratulatory make-out sessions. El just hugs Steve, and he spins her around in a way that does seem more brotherly than anything else now that Mike thinks of it. The new song that starts up is something old and jazzy, something his mom might listen to.

“I’m a love man, oooh baby I’m a love man…”

When the dancing starts up again this time, El starts to migrate away from Steve, stopping for a beat to slide up against a guy in a leather jacket, or even to shimmy with another girl in a see-through tight white tee shirt. Mike realizes a second too late that she's heading their way. He actually gasps like a total loser when she all but leaps in front of them, like she's Michael Myers and he's a helpless babysitter. Her face is no longer glittering with delighted exertion. In fact, she looks kind of pissed, her lips pursed and her brow furrowed. It only emphasizes the deliberate smudging of kohl around her eyes, her bedhead of tousled curls suggesting all kinds of hair-mussing activities.

“Will,” she says curtly, and holy fuck her voice is everything Mike wouldn’t expect from her makeup. Breathy, honey-sweet, almost a little girl’s voice. He knows he’s blushing furiously now, feeling stupidly guilty for something he’s not even sure if he’s done.

“Is he a guest?” El asks, looking at Mike like he just picked his nose and ate it.

“Um, yes, but he’s cool, El—“ Will starts nervously, glancing between them. El cuts him off, eyes narrowing.

“Then why did you bring him here?” she asks, her voice quietly deadly. Mike’s mouth starts to open to say something incredibly dumb before he can stop himself.

"I carried a watermelon," he says, cringing immediately. The combination of her glare and his instant, excruciating mortification at himself for being such an obvious fucking dweeb is enough to make Mike wish he could melt into the floor. El just raises an eyebrow and flounces back into the crowd, skirt fluttering behind her.

“I carried a watermelon,” Mike repeats incredulously under his breath, kind of wondering if he could ask Will to knock him out and save him from melting into a puddle of extreme embarrassment. Will just winces in sympathy.

“Don’t worry about it, she won’t remember ten minutes from now,” he says, but he doesn’t look entirely convinced.

El looks at Mike not a minute later, her eyes finding him the second she has a good vantage point from where she’s leaning into Steve. Mike gulps, knowing he probably looks like a deer in the headlights. He fully expects her to glare again and leave him to his misery, but instead, she actually starts to walk over to him. Mike can only stare back at her, paralyzed, his feet glued to the floor and his heart trying to escape his chest. When she's a foot away from him—so close Mike thinks he might be able to feel her breath against his face—she takes his hands and tugs.

"Come on then," she says in a tone that leaves no room for protest. Mike's brain is short-circuiting. He looks at Will desperately for assistance—El probably wants to drag him away to murder him somewhere without witnesses, and Will cannot let Mike die a messy and gruesome death—but Will just shrugs, grinning a little, and flutters a hand at him. Mike fully means to stay stubbornly paralyzed, but his feet are already following El, his palms tingling from the damp press of her hands. El leads him to the middle of the dance floor and smiles almost sweetly.

“Let’s dance,” she says firmly. Mike still thinks it’s a trap—maybe it’s because he’s a guest and she thinks she’s duty bound to entertain him, and Mike feels sick at the thought—but he’s already obeying her when her hands go to his shoulders and push.

“Alright, bend your knees. That’s it, spread your feet a bit—“

Mike is pretty sure this can’t actually be happening to him. He’s not sure if it’s the best dream or a terrible nightmare, but surely there’s no way this gorgeous, dangerous looking girl is trying to show him how to dance, that Mike, with his two left feet and stupidly gangly limbs, is actually attempting to do as she says. But he’s already bent his knees and spread his feet, and when El dimples at him, he smiles back helplessly.

“Now roll your hips like this,” she says, and is suddenly moving against him the way she was against Steve earlier. Mike just stares at her, mortified and electrified by her touch, and she huffs a sigh. “Like this,” she repeats and actually grabs his hips.

It’s the worst and best thing to ever happen to him, El grinding up against him, somehow filthy and elegant in her every movement. Mike realizes dimly that he’s moving his hips too, which is impossible because he cannot fucking dance, and El’s smile is turning sly.

"Six feet one weigh two hundred and ten, long hair and real fair skin, long legs and I’m-a outta sight…”

El is mouthing the lyrics. The second Mike starts to relax just a little bit, he realizes something awful, which is that he is pretty much grinding with a girl that he is not dating, and the likelihood of something even more embarrassing happening is incredibly high. It's all very well and good if any of these other guys get turned on dancing—they're probably dancing with their girlfriends—but El is a stranger and Mike doesn't know her and he cannot possibly let himself…

“Keep your eyes on me,” El says, snapping him out of a fresh panic. “Good. See? You’re doing good. Now roll this way.”

Mike tries, feeling incredibly dumb again (and feeling dumb does a lot to alleviate the rush of blood down to parts of his body that are in direct contact with El) and sure he looks like a total idiot. He feels disconnected from his own body, clumsy and awkward as a newborn deer. El occasionally reaches out to place her hands on him again, guiding him every time Mike starts to flounder. It’s torture and it’s ecstasy. Her hands are impossibly hot against the waistband of his jeans, her hipbones sharp against his. Her smile is nothing like the mistrusting scowl she’d had earlier. Mike can almost believe she doesn’t mind dancing with him.

"Eyes on me," she says again when Mike freezes up for what feels like the hundredth time. Hers are impossibly dark and sparkling.

“Which one of you girls want me to hold you…which one of you girls want me to kiss you…”

"Good," El says, and suddenly wraps one arm around his neck. She takes Mike's hand and places it on the small of her back, and Mike's fingers curl around the curve of her waist instinctively, her skin much more than a suggestion through the dampness of her dress. His heart is in his throat, all the blood in his body trying to decide whether it wants to go to his groin or his face when she drapes her other arm around his collar so that her body is totally flush against his. "Okay?" she asks.

Mike can only nod and stare as she gyrates against him, her arms tightening around his neck. He lets his other arm loop her waist, pulling her even closer to him, and Mike half expects her to flinch away but she just smiles and presses closer, so close he’s acutely aware of the soft give of her breasts against his chest, her ever-shifting hips providing exquisite, excruciating friction. He knows he’s smiling, probably looking dopey as fucking hell, his eyes trained on her face. She’s gleaming with sweat, glittering from it, and Mike finally relaxes, letting his body follow hers. He doesn’t care what happens—if he trips and falls flat on his face, if he passes out, if he gets hard—it doesn’t fucking matter. All that matters is that Mike is pretty sure this is the best moment of his life and he wants it to last forever.

“I’m just a love man, a good ol’ man, I’m just a love man, a good ol’ man…”

As soon as Mike thinks of how badly he wants it to last, it’s over. The second the song ends, El un-loops herself from him casually, doesn't even glance at Mike as she walks away, disappearing into the crowd. Mike can only stare after her in shock—he thinks he should feel humiliated, but he just feels limp from exertion and maybe a bit of relief. It stings a bit, how quick she was to walk away, but what had Mike expected? If she'd stayed, it would have been awful trying to figure out what to say to her, if he should thank her or apologize or ask for another dance.

Mike leaves with only a wave to Will, gasping in relief at the cool night air. His skin feels like it’s on fire, and as he walks alone back to where the cabins are, checking his watch and finding out that it's well after midnight and everyone will be asleep, Mike can't drag his thoughts away from Will's stepsister. He's still thinking about El when he hears the rustling in the bushes as he passes the golf course, only stopping when he hears the cracking of twigs that means footsteps. Suddenly, Mike's Michael Myers reaction from earlier seems a lot more appropriate. He turns slowly, backing against the nearest tree so that he can't be seen as a couple emerge from the golf course, draped so closely around one another it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Mike can't make out the face of the boy, but when the girl’s is suddenly illuminated by a beam of moonlight, Mike has to stifle his gasp in his knuckles.

It's Nancy. She's trying to button her shirt with the one hand that's not draped around the guy, her short hair wild like someone's been running their hands through it all night. Even in such shitty lighting, Mike can make out the bruise on her neck.

He waits fifteen minutes before he follows her, the euphoria of dancing with El replaced with the feeling that something is going to go terribly wrong. Because Mike knows full well that Steve Harrington is dancing with El in a steamy warehouse, and hopes the sake of whoever Nancy was just with isn't an employee of the resort.

Chapter Text

At breakfast in the dining hall the next day, both Mike and Nancy are both obviously trying to look as innocent as possible. Their dad is oblivious as ever, but Mike catches all the suspicious glances their mom throws them, sipping his orange juice so he has an excuse not to meet her eyes every time she looks at him. Nancy is picking at her cheese Danish, peeling flakes of it off with twitching fingers. She keeps glancing at the window and chewing her lip. When breakfast is finally over, she pulls Mike aside.

“Hey, can you cover for me tonight?”

“Mom wants to go to the salsa at the pagoda,” Mike reminds her, knowing full well that if he covers for her he won’t have an excuse to get out of it. He isn’t dreading it as much as he might (because El might be there, a hopeful little voice in the back of his mind whispers), but he still isn’t exactly frothing the mouth to watch his mom and Nancy both swoon over Steve.

Though maybe Nancy wouldn't since she was apparently making out with a guy who definitely wasn't him last night.

“Look, Mike, I’ll owe you one. I never ask you for anything. Please? You can consider it payment from that time you raided my piggy bank and never paid me back. I’m going to tell them I’m not feeling well and then you go and check up on me once so they think I’m in bed, okay?”

“Yeah, fine, whatever,” Mike mumbles, vaguely annoyed that he’s being made to feel guilty about something he did when he was, like, thirteen. It’s not like he’s ever going to have anything to sneak out to to ask Nancy to return the favor for, but she is his sister. Turning her down cold would be a dick move.

“Thanks, Mike,” she says, and actually tries to hug him. Mike ducks it and makes a disgusted noise, but secretly thinks it’s kind of cool that Nancy’s being nice to him, even if it’s only because she wants something.

Salsa is pretty terrible. Now that he's no longer grinding with a pretty girl, Mike is back to being an uncoordinated string bean, and he gets glared at by the tiny old Mrs. Schauman for stepping on her feet as he tries to avoid falling on his face. Not that dancing with El had magically transformed Mike into a swanlike creature of extraordinary grace, but he'd been so caught up in the moment he'd at least temporarily forgotten to die of embarrassment. Mike thinks he might be even less coordinated than usual because he can't actually keep his eyes on his feet like he should be. El is dancing four feet away with a paunchy older man whose hands keep drifting too far down the small of her back, the softly glowing Chinese lanterns washing her in a kaleidoscope of muted color, and Mike can’t stop thinking I was dancing with her more closely than that not twenty-four hours ago. She was pressed up against me. He’d dreamed about her last night, and guiltily taken the edge off of his dreams in the shower the next morning in time-honored fashion, and now he feels like his eyes are physically glued to her.

Steve Harrington is nowhere to be found. This doesn’t really interest Mike at all (now that he knows he and El aren’t dating, Steve has faded into the classification of cool, but not sleeping with El or his sister, and therefore unimportant) until Mr. Wilson interrupts proceedings by forcibly guiding Nancy into the pagoda by the elbow, her clothes mussed and her lipstick all over her face.

“Mr. Wheeler?” he calls, and Mike pulls away from Mrs. Schauman to get closer to Nancy, ignoring the huffed “rude!” she sends after him. “I found your daughter on the golf course with one of our staff in a…in a compromised position.” Wilson’s voice is obnoxiously smug, and even though she’s resolutely glowering at him, Mike knows his sister well enough to see the wobble of her chin and the sheen of her eyes and know she’s going to cry in a few minutes.

"Nancy, what on Earth?" their mother gasps, white with shock. Next to her his dad is already glowering, and Nancy cowers away, crossing her arms over her chest.

“He had no business spying on me. What I do with my private time is no one’s business but my own.”

“Actually, that’s untrue, young lady,” Wilson says, superiority now radiating off of him in waves so strong it’s almost a physical smell: sweat, cologne, and lingering cigar smoke. God, he’s a pig. “Considering the young man you were involved with is one of our staff, and such relations are strictly forbidden.”

“Well, obviously she was coerced,” Ted says, his glare practically daring Nancy to try and contradict this explanation. “Whoever it is, I want him fired. If he’s taking advantage of such an innocent girl as my daughter, I’m sure he’s being inappropriate with many other young ladies in this establishment as well.”

"My thoughts exactly, Mr. Wheeler," Wilson returns graciously, giving a little half-bow that makes Mike want to knock him on his face. When he remembers him stopping El and Steve from dancing like they wanted the previous night, his hatred doubles. "This is certainly grounds for whoever it is to have their position terminated at once. Unfortunately, I did not see the young man. All I know is that he has brown hair and is about your height, sir.”

“Then how do you know he works here?” Mike asks before he can stop himself. Wilson spares him a withering look.

“I did see his attire, young man, and the kind of tux he was wearing is worn by half the staff. I have yet to see a guest dressed similarly.”

Mike shuts himself up, not knowing what to say to that. He’s just about to try and find a way to talk to Nancy alone and find out what the actual fuck she was thinking when a new development presents itself to the hushed and curious crowd: Steve Harrington is waltzing into the pagoda, clearly oblivious as to what he's interrupted, his brown hair unmistakable (it's nearly a foot high, how could it not be?) and one hand adjusting the bowtie on his tux. Mike can practically hear the conclusions being drawn.

“Harrington,” Wilson says coldly, and Steve stops, his cheerful expression falling with a suddenness that is almost comical. Mike can’t stop his eyes from darting to El. The set of her mouth is tight and angry, her face white. “And where you might be coming from, instead of working like you were supposed to?”

“Oh, uh, sorry sir, I was just—“

“Whatever lie you’re about to concoct, I suggest you rethink it,” his dad says icily. For the first time, Steve seems to notice Nancy, and Mike can almost feel the charge that passes between them. For the first time, Mike doubts his memory of the previous night. Maybe Steve Harrington has teleportation abilities that allowed him to go from the staff party to the golf course in less than ten minutes? But Mike is sure the guy he’d seen Nancy with hadn’t been Steve. The haircut had been all wrong.

“I know perfectly well what you were just doing with my daughter, and I’ll not stand for it,” Ted finishes, and realization finally settles on Steve’s face. He gapes, looking from Nancy to their parents to Mr. Wilson incredulously.

“Do you deny it?” Mr. Wilson asks, almost polite. Steve closes his mouth, throat working obviously.

“Um, I don’t—“

“It’s obvious she didn’t go with you willingly, and assault is a very serious offense. My Nancy would never behave like this without being pressured.”

His dad sounds sure, but his mom is looking at Nancy’s wide-eyed, obvious fear with something closer to true understanding. Mike doesn’t doubt Nancy went with whoever she was with willingly, and if she gets poor Steve Harrington in trouble for an actual fucking crime he didn’t commit, he doesn’t think he can forgive her. But Nancy’s always been brave. Whatever did happen, she has to be about to say it at any second.

“Steve,” Nancy starts, almost a plea. Mike realizes his hands are balled into fists. He forces them to relax and waits for the sister he knows, the one who is still a pain in the ass, but has a keener sense of justice than anyone he knows.

For a long moment, his sister and Steve Harrington stare at each other. Then, Steve nods, and his features solidify into something firm and adult. A decision obviously plays over his eyes, and Mike wonders why it seems like no one else is able to see it.

“I was with her,” he announces. “I understand that this means losing my position, and I’m sorry if my behavior has reflected on my fellow staff members in any way.”

Here, his gaze darts to El, who looks utterly furious. Her glare is white-hot, and Mike shivers. He’s not sure if it’s because her palpable rage is scary or exciting, like Galadriel going temporarily ballistic under temptation from the Ring. She’s still stupidly beautiful, her amber eyes glowing like embers in the low red light.

“But he didn’t force me to do anything,” Nancy interjects quickly, finally appearing to pull herself together a little. “I went willingly, I was the one who asked him out. Everything was my fault, and you should punish me, daddy, not Steve. He didn’t do anything.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, young lady,” says Wilson. “Guest-staff relations are strictly forbidden. Mr. Harrington, if you leave quietly you may still have your summer bonus.”

“But what about the talent show?” El bursts in. When every set of eyes in the pagoda land on her, she squirms almost shyly. Mike has to resist a completely ridiculous urge to go to her, to try and do something to comfort her. “If we don’t do the talent show, we don’t get our salaries. If you fire Steve, neither of us will get paid,” she says in a small voice, her gaze glued to her dainty feet.

Mike is suddenly angrier with Nancy than he can remember being in a long time. It's all well and good for her to have some fun, but she had to know how this could turn out, even if it wasn't Steve she was seeing. She knew perfectly well she might cost someone his job, and Mike's satisfaction at the obvious guilt on her face curdles poisonous and powerful in his gut. His sister, for all her belief that the two year age difference between them is more like twenty, is still just as naïve as he is in some ways. Mike likes to think he at least would have had the sense to think of the consequences for the other person before he chooses who to stick his dick in.

“It’s not Steve’s fault. You shouldn’t punish him and his partner for something I did,” Nancy says, with some of that old fire, and Mike’s sharp anger at her softens just a bit. He can see a glimmer of the sister who once upon a time dressed up as an elf for a campaign, can just make out the edge of the girl who, upon finding out Troy had broken his nose in the fifth grade, cut her knuckles on his teeth when she personally returned the favor.

“If anything, I was the one coercing him,” she continues, her voice picking up a confident, future Ivy League-alumni flow Mike is familiar with. It’s a lot more impressive when it’s not being used to lecture him. “I’m in a position of power over him, and when I propositioned him he probably felt like he couldn’t say no. Maybe he even thought I’d try and compromise his job here if he refused.”

Wilson’s face flickers for a moment, something like doubt crossing it, and Mike holds his breath. It’s gone as soon as it comes, and he actually laughs, like Nancy is nothing more than a silly little girl who just suggested unicorns forced Steve Harrington to have sex with her at gunpoint.

“Come now, Miss Wheeler, don’t be ridiculous. You’re a very pretty young lady. What kind of man would ever say no to a girl like you? If I let this one slide, every man on my staff will think they can take liberties with every young, pretty girl they cross, and I can’t afford to set that precedent. Harrington, you have a week to pack your things.”

“Steve,” El says warningly, stepping forward. Her voice betrays nothing, but Mike can see the way her hands are shaking, even from this distance. Her dress tonight is a black halter, and the lean muscles of her delicate shoulders are obviously tense, her neck rigid. Her hair is up this time, slicked back into a tight bun, and Mike misses the soft curls. They’d made her seem less untouchable, like a girl he could imagine himself saying hello to, and getting a smile in response.

“Yes sir,” Steve says evenly, just as controlled. “Come on, El, you can help me pack and we’ll figure out something.”

Mike watches them go. The pagoda is already bursting with chatter, every gossipy lady in the place itching to analyze the drama they just witnessed, and his mother has her icy PTA meeting smile on, her hand on Nancy’s shoulder white at the knuckles. Mike has one second to imagine what it would be like to go back to the cabin with them, where they’ll all either sit in miserable, tense silence or both of his parents will explode at Nancy, and knows the reckless decision he’s about to make.

“Come on, Michael, we’re leaving,” his mother is saying, but Mike is already walking in the opposite direction, following El and Steve to the staff cabins.

When he gets to the shabby building they've disappeared through, Mike hesitates, his palms suddenly sweating. He doesn't know what exactly he plans to do. To apologize on Nancy's behalf, to offer any help he can, to merely stand there and take in El’s prettiness just in case it's the last chance he has to see her—every justification seems stupid, like Mike is clinging to something that doesn’t belong to him at all. In the end, he lingers outside the door for a moment, listening.

"We'll find someone to fill in and you'll get your salary. I promise. It's all going to work out," Steve's saying, hushed and soothing.

“No, it’s not! You know perfectly well no one can fill in. Lucas is the only one of us who can dance at all, and he’s working the bar both performances, and if you think I’m going to beg Max’s asshole brother to dance with me and let him run his hands all over me, you have another thing coming.”

“We’ll find someone, everyone here adores you.”

“I appreciate what you’re doing Steve, but you really don’t have to.” Mike starts in surprise at Will Byers’ voice.

“Jonathan fucked up, and you shouldn’t have to take the fall for him, especially since you and El are both gonna suffer for it. He wouldn’t want that. You have an easily provable alibi, and you know Max will vouch for you.”

“He needs the money a lot more than me, and I’m not going to get him fired. The situation is more complicated you realize anyway, and if I did try to tell Wilson, he wouldn’t believe me. I came back at the wrong time. It looks suspicious.”

Mike actually gasps this time. So that’s who he saw Nancy with. Jonathan Byers, the quiet photographer Will said was crushing on her. It makes sense in a weird way. Jonathan's not bad looking and has an under-slept tortured artist vibe going that Nancy’s always kind of been into. It’s Will’s presence that gives Mike the courage to open the cabin door and make his presence known, as well as the knowledge that Nancy really has managed to screw a lot of people over, even if it was unintentional. Someone has to take responsibility for this, and he’s the only one willing to, even if Mike’s still unclear on if he can even make this better.

All three of them abruptly stop talking and look up at him when Mike enters the cabin, which is furnished with a threadbare couch, a foldout futon, and an Evil Dead poster. It’s hot as hell inside, the air steamy, and Mike knows instantly that none of the staff get air conditioning in their lodgings, which almost seems inhumane considering how sweltering the nights are. Steve has an arm around El, who’s glaring at him suspiciously, her back ramrod straight and her mouth pinched. She’s let her hair down, though it’s hanging stiffly down her back, still thick with whatever product she’d used to tame it. A few baby hairs are struggling to escape around her hairline. Mike desperately wants to brush them away from her face. Will is the only one who musters a smile for him, though it comes out as more of a confused grimace.

“Mike! What are you doing here?” he asks.

“Yes, what are you doing here? This is none of your business, and I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t eavesdrop on my private conversations,” El snaps, and Mike swallows, any vague formations of a plan immediately fleeing in the face of her obvious annoyance. Thankfully, Will comes to his rescue.

“Relax, El, it’s my cabin, and I’m sure Mike is here for a reason.”

It’s enough back up to give Mike the courage to speak up. He meets El’s gaze, a shiver going through him at the furious heat there. He can’t really blame her for hating the sight of him, not when his sister just proved how badly things can go when guests and staff mix, but she’s wrong on at least one front.

“I mean, she’s my sister, so it kind of is my business,” he says, his voice cracking slightly from nerves. “And I, I came to apologize on her behalf, I guess, and ask if there’s anything I can do.”

Silence. Mike knows he’s about to start babbling annoyingly, and he tries to bite it back, he really does, but El’s angry, intent stare on him is enough to give him even worse verbal diarrhea than usual, and before he can stop himself, Mike is rambling explanations and excuses like they’re a band-aid he can slap over the gaping wound his sister has created.

“What Nancy did was stupid, stupid and selfish, and it’s really unfair that it got both of you in trouble, but she, she didn’t mean to cause harm. She’s going to feel terrible about this, and I’m sure she’s going to do everything she can to try and talk Wilson out of firing you.”

“Oh, and a fat load of good that will do,” El snaps. “She already did, and you saw what happened. He’s not going to listen to a girl, even if she’s the daughter of one of his precious VIPs.”

“Then I’ll try to talk to him too. I saw her and your brother on the golf course last night,” Mike says, eyes drifting to Will, and when he says the words last night he can’t help but let his gaze snap right back to El again. He can’t help but remember the softness of her body and the perfect friction of her hips against him, the way she'd seemed to glitter like some otherworldly creature. An elf princess, maybe, or an alien, or even a siren—something created of unnatural grace and a touch of magic, every motion so hypnotic it almost seems an impossibility. He has to shake away the memory, his face hot and his stomach in knots. “I saw them,” he repeats, “and I can tell Wilson what I saw if you think it might help.”

El is quiet for a long moment, all three of them seeming to realize that it’s her Mike is asking. Finally, she shakes her head, an almost imperceptible gesture, and chews her lower lip as she thinks.

“No,” she finally says, decisive. “No, that wouldn’t do any good. Wilson probably won’t believe anyone at this point, and even if he did, Jonathan does need the money. I can’t even be that mad at him. He’s liked Nancy forever.”

“He’s going to NYU in the fall, you know,” Will says with obvious pride. “It’s his dream school. His dream school and his dream girl. Maybe he acted like a dumbass, but he deserves a break. We’ll just have to find someone to fill in. Surely there has to be somebody.”

“What, is that your next offer, Mr. Fix-It?” El asks waspishly, her smirk an unpleasant curl that still manages to shoot something molten and wanting right down Mike’s spine. God, he’s a lost cause. A small part of him can totally understand why Jonathan and Nancy did what they did. If El came up to him and…but no, there’s no use thinking about impossibilities like that, especially ones that would get people hurt if they were to ever come true. It’s not like El could ever like him like that in a thousand years, not when every single scrap of evidence outside of those stolen moments on the dance floor point to her hating Mike like fire.

“You want to do it?” she asks, obviously sarcastic, but Will actually startles, looking at Mike with sudden inspiration.

“Well, why not?” he asks, causing both El and Mike to look at him in shock. Steve just looks vaguely amused, and the look he gives Mike when he starts to protest is uncomfortably knowing.

“What? No, no, absolutely not. I can’t even walk in a straight line without tripping over my own feet, and I sure as hell can’t dance the merengue,” Mike says, waving his hands in front of him for emphasis. To his increased horror, Will only continues to look considering as he looks Mike over.

“Why couldn’t you do it? El’s a great dancer, she can teach anyone. And you wouldn’t be working, so you’d definitely be free for both performances. It seems like as good of an idea as any.”

“No, it does not,” El snaps, and her continued hostility starts to stir the beginnings of annoyance in Mike, underneath the layer of agitated hormones she always manages to summon. "He said it himself, he can't even do the merengue, and there’s no way I could teach him. He cannot do it, he cannot do it.”

Mike knows he’s always had a streak of competitiveness in him, something that stirs at a challenge and practically blossoms at derision and dismissal, something that urges him to prove people wrong. El’s total belief in his inability to do it is the only thing that makes Mike suddenly start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he could. After all, he’s a fast learner at some things, and he’d managed to not trip over his own feet dancing with her once before. Why couldn’t she teach him? And there’s also a small, guilty corner of his brain that is already wondering what it would be like to have the chance to spend so much time with El, some of it, maybe even most of it alone. To have her guiding his hands onto her body again, to know the heat of her skin, to have her pressed close with all of that blazing focus on him and him alone. To just get the chance to soak in her prettiness, to memorize every motion her body is capable of making and match it as best he can.

“Well, maybe I will,” he says suddenly and rashly, causing El’s eyebrows to shoot up. Mike shifts uncomfortably the second the words come out of his mouth, but he can’t get the fantasy out of his mind: him and El, working together, constantly touching, having an excuse to keep looking into those huge amber eyes and lose himself, over and over and over. “I mean, I want to help. I really do. It’s not fair that you won’t get paid. If I can do something to help at all, please let me.”

He can’t believe he’s actually pleading to this girl he only met a day ago. If there’s one thing Mike has just as much of as stubbornness and a fondness for a challenge, it’s pride, but swallowing it for El feels like the most natural thing in the world, even if it does still go down a little bitter.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” El says flatly, though some of the consideration on Will’s face has settled in the quirk of her eyebrows, her eyes now more thoughtful than hostile. “You can’t dance. I’d never be able to teach you enough in time.”

“You have until the end of the summer for the final performance,” Steve interjects, “And three weeks until the one at the Hilton, and that one doesn't have to be perfect. He can totally learn the basic moves by then with you as a teacher. You're the best damn dancer I've ever met. Will's right, it's as good of an idea as any."

For a long moment, El just stares him down, and it takes every ounce of will Mike can summon to stare back, his stomach churning with the kind of adrenaline he’s only ever gotten right before the biggest drop on a rollercoaster. He can almost see the tension hanging in the air between them, pulled taut with an electricity that shimmers. Maybe it's all in Mike's head, because yeah, he has a crush on her, but…but somehow Mike doesn't think he's imagining this. El is the first one to look away and almost sags against the couch, all that tough-girl swagger falling away as softly as mist from a morning climbing steadily towards its sunlit crescendo. She looks younger and almost vulnerable, and Mike knows she’s about to give in.

“I really do need my salary,” she says, too defensively, but Steve just shrugs, and Will grins openly, winking at Mike. “Okay. Fine. If it doesn’t work out, maybe I can find someone else. We start tomorrow at noon, Wheeler, and we're working every day until the first performance. Meet me in the biggest dance studio. I’m going to bed.”

She gets up abruptly, sweeping past Mike without so much as a glance at him, but that doesn’t stop his eyes from lingering on the delicate ridges of her shoulder blades, shifting into sharp relief from the smooth golden curve of her back. Her shadows are so stark she looks more sculpture than girl, a cold thing he wants to warm with his hands. The door clicks shut behind her, and Steve is the next to get to his feet. He actually claps Mike on the shoulder.

“Do you have an hour or so tomorrow?” he asks.

"Yeah, sure," Mike says, too quickly, because he’s a loser whose only real plans are avoiding gross group activities and complaining about the heat with Dustin.

“You know where the gym is?” Mike shakes his head. “Well, you can ask someone. Can you meet me there at, uh, at around 3 pm? I want to sleep in,” he says a bit sheepishly.

“Yeah, sure,” Mike says again, slightly baffled. Steve gives him a conspiring sort of smile, like they’re friends sharing an inside joke.

“Look, El’s a great teacher, and you definitely have potential. You’re tall, and that’s definitely a good thing. But all the dances we do involve lifts, and right now, you don’t look like you could lift a kitten.”

Mike scowls, tensing his arm muscles automatically. He knows he’s scrawny, but El is tiny. How hard can lifting her be?

Steve sighs like he’s read Mike’s mind.

“It’s harder than it seems. She looks all dainty and cute when you aren’t trying to haul her into the air, but the second you get her off the ground she turns into a sack of bricks. But it’s nothing we can’t fix with some weights and pushups. I’ll show you all the right stuff to do, and if you do it every day you should bulk up real quick. Bet it’ll give you good luck with the ladies too,” Steve says with a wink, giving Mike another brotherly clap on the back as he starts to leave. He turns back one more time, suddenly looking unsure.

“And um, if you could tell Nancy…” Steve trails off, opening and closing his mouth several times. Mike waits patiently. Normally he’d be annoyed to have to deliver a message to his sister, but after the favor Steve’s done her, Mike feels like he owes the guy something. Steve finally seems to make up his mind, nodding as he speaks. “Just tell her things are gonna turn out alright. If I know her at all, she’s going to be giving herself hell over this, and that’s not gonna do any of us any good.”

His departure is almost brusque. Mike quirks a wry brow at Will to conceal how nervous he suddenly is at all of this, now that the source of his motivation has swished out of the room in her skimpy black halter dress. Jesus fuck, dancing. He, Michael Theodore Two-Left-Feet Wheeler, is going to learn how to dance, and with a pretty girl who kind of hates him and moves like she learned how to in her dreams. A sluggish kind of terror, like looking out at an oncoming train and suddenly finding you are unable to move your legs from the tracks, starts to fall over him. He’s going to make a fool of himself. El is going to hate him even more. He’s going to ruin everything and…and fuck what was Mike thinking?

“Hey,” Will says, cutting through Mike’s mounting panic. “It’s gonna be okay. El’s a great teacher, and Steve will help get you into shape. Just think of it as a fun summer project.”

And then Mike is left alone, feeling somehow even more peeled back and exposed in the sudden vacancy of the space, nerves rubbed raw and body shaking with the dim remnants of whatever weird, hormone-fueled energy had prompted him to offer to do something so impossible in the first place.

He doesn’t actually make it back to the cabin until it’s close enough to dawn for strains of lavender to start bleeding up into the horizon. Nancy is sitting in the chair on the porch, her knees tucked against her chest. When Mike gets close enough, he sees that her eyes are red.

“Steve Harrington wants me to tell you that everything is going to work out,” he says, to no response. Nancy just wipes her nose with the back of her hand and stares at him, daring him to say something. Mike rises to the challenge like he always does. “Why, Nance? Why did you do it? You knew it could cost Jonathan his job.”

Nancy sniffles again, the set of her jaw stubborn. The Wheeler family features work a lot better on her, in Mike’s opinion. Nancy’s always been considered pretty, but no one except his mom ever calls Mike handsome. Normally he’s pretty okay with not being Harrison Ford, but the looming prospect of spending daily hours with El makes this renewed realization more depressing than usual.

“Mom and dad are getting divorced,” she says in lieu of an answer. Mike kind of rolls his eyes at the obvious diversion tactic, but still perches himself on the porch railing outside their cabin to hear her out. He’d seen the news coming for a while, with all the tense silences at the dinner table, the hushed arguments at night when he and Holly are sleeping, and his mom coming home smelling like cologne that’s not his dad’s. But even though Mike’s been expecting it, a secret, little-boy corner of his heart chips away a bit more at the realization that the love he was born from is not eternal, if it ever was there in the first place, and that any love he might find in the future could be just as ephemeral.

“Yeah, so?” he says with false bravado, not looking at her so she can’t see that his eyes are wet too. It’s easier to be angry than sad, and Mike focuses on that kernel of hot rage in the pit of his stomach, crossing his arms tightly. “I mean, you’re off at Yale for most of the year, Nance. It’s not like you even have to deal with it.”

"I know," she says softly. "That's why I was so surprised when I overheard them talking about it here. I guess I hadn't realized how bad things had gotten. I wanted to keep living in denial, and I was just, I dunno, mad that I couldn't be anymore or something. And Jonathan saw me being sad about it one day and started talking to me about it. His dad left him and his brother when he was pretty young, and he's still pretty fucked up about it. He was really nice and he really liked me and I just thought, fuck it, life is short and I’m probably gonna end up just like mom and dad, married to some Harvard graduate I don’t even like taking care of the house while he’s off doing what I want to do. I might as well have this, y’know? I might as well be with someone I really want before it all goes to shit.”

Mike sighs. Nancy is picking at her cuticles, something she's always done while nervous, and even though Mike is still furious at her selfishness on a deep level, he can understand. Nancy's always needed to be in control, and the older she got the less she seemed to think she had, and even though it's one of many things they never talk about, Mike remembers all the ways she's acted out over the years, trying desperately to convince herself she had a handle on her own life. Meals picked at and uneaten, long periods locked in the bathroom after dinner, and a year of therapy sessions they still don't discuss. He understands why, and another part of him, the part that still believes in love, is happy she's finally found a way to feel powerful without self-destructing. At least her and Jonathan Byers really do like each other.

"It doesn't have to be that way, you know," he says. "You don't have to do what they want you to." It sounds childish the second it comes out, the equivalent of telling her she doesn't have to eat her peas and can stay up past her bedtime if she really tries. He guesses that when you're an adult, you realize the rules are there for a reason.

“Yes, I do,” she asserts quietly, sniffling again.

“Why’d you let Steve take the fall?” Mike asks, changing the subject. “I know that Jonathan needs the money, or whatever, but it’s not fucking fair that Steve and El are gonna suffer for it.”

“It’s not as simple as you think, Mike,” Nancy sighs. “Steve, Jonathan and I…I dunno how to describe it, but we're all very close, and Steve would've found a way to take the blame for it anyway. He's like that." She has a fond, wistful expression on his face, and not for the first time, Mike wonders that it was Jonathan she chose to screw around with and not Steve.

“Mike,” she says when Mike pushes himself back off the railing and moves to open the door, suddenly exhausted in ways that go bone-deep, even past his still simmering anger, “Do you—do you know what Steve is going to do? Him and the girl? Are they going to work it out somehow?”

Mike pauses, looking back at her once more. Now she’s the one who looks painfully young, curled up on the chair and looking at him with wide eyes, imploring him silently to tell her that there’s a happily ever after to this mess.

“They’re going to try,” he says. “And I’m going to help them. I’m going to help them any way I can.”

“What are you going to do?” Nancy asks, incredulous. Mike doesn’t turn back again as he enters the cabin, newly determined and brimming with energy.

“I’m going to learn to dance,” he says, mostly to himself. “I don’t know how I’m going to manage it, but I’m going to learn to dance if it’s the last thing I do.”