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puddles and stains

Chapter Text

Mike meets Charlie at school, which is as good a place as any. It's raining, has been for the past week, which means the ground is covered in puddles, pipes are always dripping, and the air smells fresh: like pine needles. Mike prefers the indoors (has and always will), which is why he’s not too keen to be stuck outside, but once school ends there's no avoiding it. He’d rather die of hypothermia than stay in a classroom, anyway. So the moment the school bell rings, a sharp piercing sound, he moves to a nearby planter, right outside the school’s gates. The wood is wet, and cold, and soaks through his jeans.

Nine minutes later, the school is a deserted wasteland. Children gone, the last couple cars drive off with a puff from their exhaust pipes, and the few teachers remaining stay inside. It's quiet, and the rain has leveled off to a steady sprinkle. Mike is alone.

He supposes his parents haven't picked him up for two reasons, firstly being the weather: wet roads cause paranoia, and a buildup of traffic on the interstate. Mike reasons that if it is traffic, his mom would be here within twenty minutes. The second reason leaves a lump in his throat, and he doesn't like to think about it.

Instead, he grabs a stick off the ground, its end sharpened to a natural point. It's not five minutes later, poking at a worm, watching it squiggle across the ground in a confused line, he realizes there's someone watching him. Mike looks up. There's a kid, standing feet away. Charlie Bucket, Mike remembers instantly. He knows him from English class, he's quiet and sits in the back, but gets the answers right when called on. Mike can respect that, yet eyes him critically. The boy wears a coat a size too large for him, and holds a brown paper bag. Mike frowns.

“What do you want?” It comes out as a bark, louder than he intended it too. Charlie looks frightened, eyes wide, then sheepish, as if he didn't want to be caught staring.

“You shouldn't do that.” He says eventually.

Mike looks down at the worm, squirming wildly beneath his stick. He finds it hard to keep the amusement from his voice, squinting at the other boy through the rain. “Yeah?”

Charlie nods.

“Why not?”

Charlie pauses, as if considering his answer.

“You shouldn't pick on those smaller than you,” he says finally. His voice is quiet, but there's something laced beneath those words: a moral conviction. Mike glances down at the worm, stands suddenly. He lifts his boot, a shadow falls over the ground, and Mike is poised, ready to slam it down onto the creature and (maybe it's Charlie's face, the way he's watching him. Not quite judgement, perhaps curiosity, but whatever it is burns though Mike's jacket and into his skin and he) puts his foot down. The worm crawls away, ignorant.

“It's just a worm.” Mike says, shrugging, but Charlie’s eyes are glowing.

His eyes are glowing, and for a moment Mike wonders what he sees. Then it breaks, whatever he felt snaps with the crackle of the rain. Charlie reaches into his bag, digs around in it, and pulls out an apple.

“Want it?”

And so it begins, the uncalled tradition that comes close to friendship. After school, they meet, and Mike claims twice he'd never associate himself with Charlie in public. He eats the apple, though.

Chapter Text

On Sunday, Charlie’s cat runs away.

-

On Monday morning, Charlie comes to school late with puffy eyes and reddened cheeks, which sets off a giant, blaring alarm in Mike's head.

Charlie is never late for school, would rather lose a hand to frostbite than miss a day of his so-called sparkling education. (Mike still can't wrap his head around that, school was a prison with a guard as a teacher, one who only occasionally spouted something useful, and all other times had the wisdom of a limp fish.) The alarm doubles when Charlie slides into his desk and almost trips sitting down. The boy seemed to be on a five second delay: Charlie pulls out his notebook sluggishly, flips it open to a random page and just stares. Mike narrows his eyes, and at this point Ms.Reyes walks in and starts blabbering about last night's homework, and Mike has to scramble to write that stupid paragraph in the next five minutes. Suffice to say, his attention towards Charlie grows pretty thin.

He's completely forgotten about the whole late-to-school-thing by the time the bell rings hours later, high and shrill, because school is over (the prison gates are open). Mike bolts out of his seat, rushes out the door with his backpack slung over one shoulder, and is instantly swallowed by a sea of students. By the time he's pushed his way out of the throng, he spies Charlie, sitting on a planter. His eyes are red-rimmed, still, palms thrown in his lap, face blank.

Mike stops walking.

A slug-like Charlie Bucket did no one any good. Mike tells himself the only reason he's even walking towards Charlie now is to pick up an apple: the stance of a concerned, hungry citizen. This still doesn't explain why the first thing Mike does when he gets within range is give Charlie a punch on the shoulder, accompanied by:

“You good?”

Charlie looks up at him, then around, as if he didn't know where he was. Then he rises to his feet.

“Yeah.” Charlie says, and gulps. “Yeah. I'll see you, Mike.” So he leaves, and Mike watches his receding back and puts it out of his mind. He said he was fine, anyways.

-

On Tuesday afternoon, Charlie walks to the library.

It is snowing outside, and he tells himself that this is a good thing, carefully ignores the voice that says cold means freezing means death, it will make William easier to see. A black cat stood out a lot better in the snow than on cement.

Charlie trudges through this powdery white blanket, and feels a gush of relief when he spies the library up ahead. The snow cuts off abruptly at the buildings edge, as the roof juts out and catches the snow before it hits the ground. Charlie, who has memorized the library's timetable, knows he has an hour till closing time.

Ms.Cook smiles when he walks inside. “Charlie!” She coos, sounding very much like a pigeon, “Here to check out another book? I've got another one you'll like very much.”

Charlie turns his lips into a smile. It feels forced. “Not today, Ms.Cook.” He rummages in his backpack, then pulls out a single sheet of paper, handing it to her. The word MISSING is written at the top.

As Ms.Cook reads it, her face falls. “Oh, dear. I'm so sorry, Charlie. I assume you'd like me to make some copies?”

Charlie nods.

When he leaves the library ten minutes later, he's got fifty thin sheets of paper in hand and a role of duct tape in the other. The snow has leveled out, thankfully, but the sky is turning to a midnight blue at the edges. Charlie wants to go home, suddenly, but the paper is heavy in his hand, his thoughts (missing cat missing missing) even heavier on his mind. So he takes a sharp left for the nearest pole, and starts pinning papers down the streets.

-

On Wednesday night, Mike is being a bum. He wouldn't put it like that exactly, but could name five stuck-up adults, and two teachers, who would. Mike prefers the term vagabond rebel, which makes him seem like a vigilante with a cause, like he's out stopping crime or something. In reality, he's strolling on Helms Street.

No one goes on Helms Street. This is due to the very large construction project on the left side of the road, and the quality of the neighborhood in general (poor). The construction itself looks like this: there's a large, boxy framework filled with holes, gaps, and rods of metal sticking out in all directions. It's all dark, and smells of rotten wood. The project was said to, when finished, provide homes for around a hundred citizens. Mike isn't too sure what went south during its development, perhaps the fire in ‘05 or the lack of workers, but plans for finishing came to a standstill. The city was pretty happy to ignore it, and it's been left like this ever since.

If asked, Mike would boast that he's been inside twenty different times. This is a lie, but not for lack of trying. Plenty of people have told him not to go there, that it's dangerous, it could fall at any moment and take him with it. Mike ignores them all. He doesn't see what's so dangerous about a hunk of decaying cement, anyway.

He is almost at the end of the street when he sees it, posted on a lamp and fluorescent in the light: a flyer. It says MISSING in bold letters, and below there's a picture of a cat. It looks black, though Mike isn't too certain with the dim lighting. He squints, and reads the text below. It also says: If found, contact Charlie Bucket, and there's a home address scrawled beneath.

Everything falls into place at once, like someone returned the final piece of a puzzle. It makes sense. Charlie lost his cat, and of course he'd be hopelessly upset about that. Mike can't fathom any emotion towards a living thing beyond indifference, much less a small animal like a cat. He sighs, and the air freezes his cheeks. He curses under his breath, feeling peeved, for some reason.

He stands there for a moment longer. The shadows are longer now, darker, and Mike should really be getting home. Really. His feet don't move, though, and he ends up squinting at the poster once more. The cat was black, with a white stripe on its tail. He frowns, and, in one quick motion, yanks the paper from the lamp. He folds it up, and shoves it into his pocket before turning around and walking back into the night.

-

On Thursday, Charlie can't concentrate. He stares at the problem in front of him, an assignment that the class had five minutes to solve. It looks like a jumble of numbers on a page, but it should look more like math. He feels numb, on some level knows that this is because of William, because his cat of missing and it's his fault, but is also utterly detached from that right now. Halfway through class, he finds his gaze floating across the room, to Mike.

Mike had walked in on time that day, which was surprising. He seemed to be very hard at work, which was even more surprising, scribbling something intently on his paper, turning it this way and that. When the bell rings, Mike bolts from his seat without sparing anyone a second glance.

Charlie frowns. He stands up, only to see that Mike had left some papers on his desk. When he gets close enough, Charlie sees it's today's classwork. The page was blank, entirely empty, which meant Mike hadn't been doing school work after all. Charlie thinks about this while walking home, what could Mike might have been doing instead of learning? The options are endless, really. He gives up when he spots his house, and remembers, distinctly, that there is no cat inside.

-

On Friday, Mike ditches school. He sleeps through second period, and when he wakes up he's in the same clothes he'd slept in the night before (jeans and a t-shirt). Mike has no intention of going to class, and walks downstairs yawning. He grabs a bagel and slips out the door.

Outside, it's cold. Like freeze-to-death-hypothermia cold. His breath comes out in little white puffs and there are goosebumps on his arms. He wishes he brought a coat. The sun is already up, warming the ground and painting it a lighter grey, but Mike doubts it'll get any warmer than this. At least it wasn't snowing anymore. He walks down the street, rubbing his arms in a vain attempt to warm up. While he walks, he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a sheet of paper. Written inside was a series of equations, a description of a cat, and some coordinates.

He reaches said coordinates twenty minutes later. It's a neighborhood that's less sketchy than his own, and there's a small, triangular plot of land in the center of the road. A brown sign tells him he's at Sherwood park. There are a couple trash cans overflowing, a bench, and a large tree. It's branches are bare, and stretch out like twisted fingers.

Mike puts the paper back in his pocket. If he was correct, and he's pretty sure he is, Charlie's cat should be here. It took a bit of time to calculate the cat's original position relative to the snowy weather, and the average speed of a cat (30 miles per hour) but Mike is nothing if not persistent. Suffice to say, the black feline should show up any minute now, and Mike sits down on a metal bench and waits.

He’s still waiting two hours later, and by that point Mike’s patience is growing dangerously thin. Nothing has so much as moved inside the park, save for a lone jogger in shorts. A gust of wind blows by, overturning a pile of browning leaves, and Mike shivers violently. Great. Now all he needed to do was die of hypothermia. At least that would save him the trouble of explaining why he wasn't at school today.

He should leave. Get up and go home and pretend he never saw that flyer. Then he remembers Charlie's face, dazed in pain, and his chest grows tight. He can't leave.

He's contemplating this very situation when he sees it. Or thinks he does, a black blur that darts behind the tree. It looked very much like a cat. Mike stands up so fast his boots scrape muddy dents into the dirt. He breathes, and quietly, very quietly, approaches.

-

On Saturday, Charlie hears a sound. More specifically, the sound of knocking, hard and fast, on his door.

He opens it.

Mike stands there in large brown boots, looking insanely smug. He has his hoodie on, hair tinted white with frost. In his hands he holds a black cat.

Charlie can't breathe. He can't breathe and then he can, all at once his voice shudders into the air.

“William.” He says, but it comes out more like a croak, and as soon as his body has caught up with his brain he yanks the cat from Mike's arms and into is own.

William meows sharply, but immediately curls up in Charlie's arms. He seems immensely relieved to be out of Mike's arms, and Mike himself shudders, as if shaking off any imaginary dirt particles the feline might have left. Charlie feels a little light headed. There's a warm glow inside his chest that's filling him up from the inside out, and it burns like fire.

Mike is shifting off the steps when Charlie barrels into him, a second later, with a hug. He hears Mike intake a breath, quick with surprise, and releases him with an apologetic grin. He knows Mike doesn't do hugs, or any human contact beyond punching, but right now Charlie is too happy to care.

“Thank you.” Charlie says, as William squirms contently.

“You're welcome.” Mike replies. “I froze my ass off finding him.”

The grin he gets in response is blinding.

Chapter Text

November rolls around in a flurry of leaves and thickets of snow, falling sporadically at first, then heavier, till the ground is a solid, impenetrable sheet of white.

Mike observes this view from his bedroom window, pushing back the curtain to reveal a chunk of the street. It’s bright, sans pedestrians, and thankfully, no longer snowing. From here, Mike can see the yardstick planted outside his door, signifying the snow had stopped at a meter high. Despite himself, he sighs.

Mike hated cold weather. Hated it with a vehement passion, almost as much as he hated chocolate, which was saying something. Today, however, his lips twist into a genuine smile. Normally, he’d be fuming, cursing the weatherman on tv, the ice crystals in clouds that stick together, which is exactly what he had been doing when the principal called. Due to extreme weather conditions, the older man had said, school is cancelled for the day.

No school, a brilliant development that had made Mike freeze on the doorstep, and dump his backpack onto the floor with a smile. He had darted up to his room, thankful, for the first time in his life, for the whirwild of snow covering the city.

Still, this didn't mean Mike actually wanted to go outside, which explains his reaction when Charlie knocks on his front door five minutes later, beckoning Mike to come out.

“What,” Mike hisses, when he finally creeps downstairs and peels open the door, “Are you doing here?”

If Charlie was offended by Mike’s lack of welcome, he didn't show it. In fact, the boy seemed to be bustling with joy, a smile stretched from ear to ear and eyes gleaming.

“Hello, Mike. Want to go to the park?”

Mike freezes, blinks, and stares at Charlie as if the boy had just grown a second head. He takes a moment to assess Charlie’s clothes: his large green sweater, splitting feathers at the seams, his no doubt hand-woven hat, and the thick gloves covering his fingers.

“Are you seriously suggesting that I walk around outside?” Mike shakes his head, and then, as if suddenly aware of how cold it truly was, takes a step back into the warmth of his house. “I’d rather get chewed to death by starving piranhas. Or skinned alive.

Charlie’s face contorted at the thought, which Mike helpfully ignores. He considers slamming the door in Charlie’s face, and the ramifications of such actions, but then the boy pipes up yet again.

“Mike,” he says, his tone taking on a pleading whine, “Come on! It’ll be fun. Just for an hour.” He pauses, and then, as if in afterthought, adds, “Please.”

Please. Mike crosses his arms over his chest, and glares. Annoyance claws in his chest, sharp and twisting. He’s suddenly pissed at Charlie for coming all the way over here. Pissed that he’s got that stupid smile on his face. That Charlie would think Mike wants to willingly hang out with him. The answer was obviously no.

But Charlie stands there, waiting, hands pressed together with patience. He glances over Mike’s face, searching for any response, and gulps. Mike can see Charlie’s throat bob at the motion, can see his breath puff over his frosted cheeks. Please, Charlie had asked. Charlie, who gives Mike apples everyday, had asked.

Mike growls, hating himself for what he’s about to say, hating Charlie more for the joy that crosses over his face.

“Let me get my coat.” Mike twists inside, bolting up his carpeted stairs, and heading straight for the closet. He finds a jacket hanging in the far back, gifted to him three years and two days ago, some warmer pants on the bottom right. Quickly, mindful that he’s left Charlie standing outside, Mike funnels through his dad’s shelf, finding some gloves which he pulls on downstairs.

He opens the door once more, now in warmer wear, and walks onto the street. Almost immediately, cold air throws itself at Mike’s face, freezing his cheeks and fingers.

Fuck.” He hisses, rubbing his hands together as Charlie comes up besides him.

“What?”

“It’s freaking cold, that’s what.”

“I like it.” Charlie responds softly, sounding almost offended. “Everything's so clean, like someone just flipped over a new page in a diary. It’s like, like the world’s giving you a fresh start.”

Mike doesn't have anything to say to that, instead glances at Charlie out of the corner of his eye, surprised by the boy’s honesty.

“Makes sense.” He admits finally. “White’s a symbol for possibility, and new beginnings.” He shakes his head, then, because who would have thought Mike would ever be discussing the metaphorical meanings of snow with Charlie freaking Bucket.

When the pair gets to the end of the street, Mike pulls to a stop. “Which park?” Mike asks.

“Owens.”

Mike nods. Owens Park - dedicated to Owen Freedman, the man who first brought chocolate to their town. It makes Mike sick, sometimes, how dedicated this place was to chocolate, as if it revolved around it. Nevertheless, he runs through all possible ways to get to said park from their current position, and a millisecond later, nods towards the left.

“We aren’t taking Main Street?” Charlie asks when Mike veers left, and Mike shakes his head at Charlie’s confused tone.

“This way’s twenty two seconds faster.”

“How do you know that?”

“I memorized it.”

There’s a stagnant pause, in which Mike stares dutifully ahead, and ignores Charlie’s presence. His eyes flicker over anything but his companion, the leafless trees, the mailbox with peeling blue paint, a watery mound of snow. He swallows, and hates it, hates everything, he shouldn't have opened his mouth, and Mike can practically hear Charlie’s response, as cruel and disdainful as the taunts his own father gives him.

“Wow.” Charlie breathes, and Mike feels his fingers tighten, “That’s amazing.”

Mike does not trip over his own feet, instead comes to a careful halt besides an open patch of grass.

“We’re here.” He says redundantly, before glancing at Charlie with suspicion, then back at the park, which really wasn't a park at all, just a patch of soil masquerading as one. The rough rectangular square in front of them contained three benches and a swing, along with bronze monument in the center, presumably of Owen Freedman himself (Mike had never cared enough to check). There’s no place to sit except the snow covered benches, so Mike leans against a lone tree.

It’s silent save for the whispering wind, and Mike has grown bored of watching the icicles melt, Charlie speaks.

“Can you do that with anything?”

Mike frowns. “What?”

“The maps. Do you have every street memorized?”

Mike balks, twists around, and stares. Charlie stares back.

“Yeah.”

Charlie pauses. “How do we get to school?”

“Go down Les Avenue, that’s thirty minutes forty five seconds. If you pick Morse Road, that’s thirty nine minutes exactly.” His throat turns dry, which suddenly has nothing to do with the freezing weather. Mike attempts a gulp, staring at Charlie the entire time he speaks.

“How do we get to city hall?”

“Fifty two minutes and two seconds down East Way. Sixty seven minutes on Ridge.”

“The Capitol?”

Mike blinks. “Seven days, eleven minutes, four seconds. Is there a point to these stupid questions?”

Now it’s Charlie’s turn to balk. He stops to think while Mike defensively crosses his arms over his chest.

“I think that’s brilliant.” Charlie replies finally, eyes as bright as the day they first met. “I don't know anyone else who can do that.”

“Well,” Mike says carefully, his mind spinning, “that’s,” and he searches for the proper word, but can't come up with anything over the shock fogging his head. He settles eloquently on “good.”

Charlie nods. “I think so.”

It’s insane, Mike decided. Charlie was a good person straight down to his core, something that Mike despised, something Mike could not agree with, and yet. And yet here Mike was, standing in one meter of snow with him. And yet Mike’s fingers don’t twitch when Charlie speaks, all compliments and honesty. And yet Charlie’s eyes beam when they walk back, Mike spitting out street name after street name on practiced lips.

Above their heads, exactly one hour later, it starts to snow.