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Spring Break

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(reposted because technical issues)

 

Sun grows on the horizon, golden petals stretching ever outwards into the affluent blue. It’s the brilliant flower of the empyrean that’s an invitation to an incipient day, and Will watches it bloom through the elevating hem of the bed sheet curtain. A sliver of light cuts his face like a large scar, and if he stares long enough, he’s able to make out tiny specks of dust floating through it like molecular orbs. It turns his green-hazel into a molten chartreuse; almost transparent.

Right when Will is sure the world’s at placidity, an unknown force comes barrelling through the door, making him shoot up like a Jack-In-the-Box. The sheets wrinkle tight in his fists and make an indent from where he’d been laying. As he sucks in a long breath, his collarbone protuberances from under his skin.

“Rise n’ shine, sleepyhead,” the girl holds the doorknob and leans in the doorway, amusement lightening her pale irises and pulling the edges of her lips to speckled cheeks. Morning has grained her already charming voice, making it sound slightly deeper than usual. Will glances over at the digital clock, but Max announces anyway, “it’s nine o’clock. Everyone’s awake. We were going to wait for you, but they’re about to leave.”

Nine o’clock. He rarely ever sleeps in this late; though it is the break. He guesses now is an exception. Still, he feels sort of guilty for missing out on most of the morning in his slumber, when he could have been spending it with his friends before they leave. Subsiding from the shock, he nods, thanks her, and waits until she’s gone afore pushing himself out of bed. Stretching on a light sweatshirt, as well as loose pajama pants with the vertical indigo stripes, he wonders how much of his “sleeping in” had to do with dozing, instead of just persistently optically canvassing the window.

Meanwhile, across the hallway, two bodies are crouched in the bathroom. It’s a room that can be described as remotely dilapidated as an encumbering result of senescence and reiterated use. It wafts of cleaning chemicals and air freshener, which isn’t so much of a quandary once you get used to it.

Mike, even more pale-faced than last night, recuperates from his last gag by slumping against the wall, where he’d practically been glued afore. The lights hurt, so they’re turned off. Instead, the hall light is on, which makes it easier to see without the migraine.

The man sitting by his side asks in a deadpanned tone, “So who brought the booze?” Mike’s eyes widen comically, and his brows arch in a way that makes it seem as if he's spotted a two headed canine, “hey, don’t give me that. You can stay anonymous, I just… Want to know the culprit.”

A beat passes, and then Mike mumbles out, wiping the edge of his mouth and swallowing the acidic residue left in his throat and on his tongue, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You kidding me? Do you expect me to be sitting here all day? I have things to do. No, look, kid, no—” he says when Mike tries speaking over him, “I wasn’t born yesterday, I know a hangover when I see one.”

“This isn’t a hangover, this is- it’s the flu.”

“The flu—”

“Yes!”

There’s a second of trepidation as Mike cogitates the whereabouts of the bottles from yesterday. He left early, Will left early, El and Max came upstairs not long after, and Sam, Jennifer, and Becca had to have gone home eventually. So that leaves Lucas and Dustin. Mike had expected to see them in the morning with their sleeping bags on either side of his bed, but they were never there. Maybe they stayed in Will’s room, or maybe they never even made it upstairs.

Hopper looks like he’s seconds away from blowing up into a bunch of smithereens. He’s a bomb with a timer, a string lit by a match, set to go off at any moment. And Mike apprehensively waits for the mushroom cloud, until suddenly, something shifts. His expression intenerates- well, it doesn’t really; but it loses its vexation, supersedes it with something more calm and accumulated. He thinks, and in the process, absentmindedly taps his knee with his thumb. His other hand covers his mouth and presses hard onto his lip as he conjures up the right words.

Finally, “I understand. Okay?” He looks off to the side, “It’s just that when I tell you guys no funny business, I mean it. You do whatever you want. Hey, I’m not stopping you. I’m not your dad. I can’t tell you what you can and can’t do, unless you’re under my roof. My house, my rules. Got that?”

When Mike nods, he says, “I guess that’s sort of the thing, you know? Like… my dad doesn’t care what I do. Neither does my mom. They’re both caught up in their own lives, so… I don’t know. I guess, it’s just nice.” Jim knows exactly what he means. It’s a common occurrence in kids these days- he knows from his job as the chief officer. He’s seen it before, more times than he’d like to admit. Kid drowns in the pool because their parents were inside watching television, kid gets kidnapped at the park because their parents weren’t paying attention, the list goes on, dating all the way back to his first week on the job.

“It’s nice to have somebody watch out for ya?” though it comes out more like a statement than an actual question, and Mike nods again. Even in his gruff nature, Hopper’s tone is gentle, much like the rest of his family. Joyce, Will, Jonathon, and El all have rather consoling voices- a trait that is easy to inherit if you're exposed long enough, “yeah, I get that.” It was also nice to escape, but he doesn’t verbally express that. It would blow everyone else’s cover, and plus, it wasn’t all that nice anyways. It was frightening, not being in control. It sent him into more of a panic than anything, even if it didn’t seem like to it. Not so much in the moment, but afterwards. Remembering everything. What he said to certain people. What they said back. Also he feels like pure shit now, “I get that, kid,” he says again, “we’re a lot alike, you and me. But you’re dating my daughter, I’ve got to have some sort of hatred towards you.”

Mike huffs out a laugh of warranted agreement but promptly stops himself short. The neurons are fighting for their lives, anything not to wither away the scene from last night. The way El tried reaching him in his unobtainable headspace, two hands on his cheeks, then shoulders, before having him ripped away entirely. It comes back in tiny fragments, like he’s recounting a movie he watched while half asleep. “Actually…” He’s probably feeling more confident than he should, “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about us anymore. I’m pretty sure we broke up.”

And just like that, part of Hop’s soul leaves his body. Mike reckons it's through his eyes. They’re wide, whereas the irises are small. His mouth remains an uncharacteristic grim line amid stubble, and for a second, he looks like he’s apart of a frozen simulation. Until finally, “repeat that for me?”

The way the man verbalizes it has Mike cerebrating of about ten things at once, like last night was anything more than what it was. What was it exactly? All he remembers is an emotional conversation in the closet, and an outburst leading to an accidental break up that he subconsciously sort of wanted anyway, “we broke up.”

“For good?”

“Yeah, I guess.” He hopes.

Hopper blinks, astonished. Then, after a few moments, hoists himself up, promising a quick return. When he enters his and Joyce’s bedroom, he closes the door, as well as his fist, and chucks it through the air with a triumphant grunt. It’s a dawn of a new day indeed, and he feels like floating above the clouds. Of course, he cares for the boy in his own slightly menacing way. He wishes him happiness- same with El. But god, did he ever hate their relationship. Door slamming, skipping dinner for phone calls, last minute invites. Revolving her world solely around him. It was unhealthy. Corrupting. And now, finally over. He looks like he’s just won the lottery.

Then, gagging sounds from the next door down awakens him of his victory, and he remembers what he was initially put on Mike duty for. The celebration will have to wait until later.

 

Ambulating to the kitchen, Will shivers and rubs the early-morning goosebumps around his arms. In about five minutes, they should be soothed by the warm air emitting from the vents and insulating fabric of his attire, but still, it always feels longer. He wishes he could skip this part.

“Water for Mike, please.” Hop’s voice says, “He’s started puking.” Will continues walking on the cool tiles, looking similar to a newborn calf taking its first steps. Perhaps if he slept more last night, he’d be more energized, “he’s really not doing well.” He says softer when he approaches Joyce.

“What’s wrong?” Dustin asks, but the sound of a faucet running masks half of what she responds.

“Hangover. Wait, no. Sorry. Flu.” Will enters the kitchen then, and he immediately sees his mom, in all of her ragged, nighttime attire. Dustin’s filling up a glass of water for her, and Lucas is leaned up against the island, talking to Max and El, who are seated on the counter across from him. The only people who are properly dressed, are Lucas and Dustin.

When Joyce descries Will enter, she shoots him a smile and greets him out of instinct. But there’s something underlying about her expression that communicates something different. She’s worried.

He doesn’t ask what’s wrong- only because he can already conjecture. Instead, he stands contiguous to Lucas and coalesces into the conversation with Max and El, infrequently listening in on Dustin, Hopper, and Joyce’s conversation from afar.

There’s a container of strawberries separating the girls, and Will reaches forward to grab one. He pinches the stem and bites into the red part, feels the tangible sweetness soak his bottom lip before swiping it off with his sleeve.

“Taxi’s coming to pick Lucas and Dustin up,” El says to him, “Max is staying.”

Lucas explains, “My parents are making me look after Erica for their date night, and Dustin has a job interview later.”

Will swallows his bite and asks, “Job interview?”

“Yeah, at Family Video.”

Will’s surprised he even has to go in for an interview. With Steve and Robin working there, it should be easy to get away with just about anything, “Wow,” then, tossing the stem in the garbage a few feet away, “that sounds fun. He gets along well with those guys, doesn’t he?”

“Oh yeah,” Lucas crosses his arms over his chest. The conversation quickly changes topic after that, but Will doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s being said; just stands, thoughtlessly drowning in his own daydreams. He watches El and thinks back to Mike's confession. Their breakup. How she was ‘pissed’, but right now, appears anything but.  Laughing along to something incoherent, the girl sits with her legs dangling off the counter. If Will didn’t know any better, he wouldn’t suspect anything erroneous at all. She seems to be her mundane self, if not, scarcely livelier. Maybe it’s the exhilarated buzz from the company, or maybe it’s for some different reason.

An unknown amount of time passes before a familiar shadow emerges from the hall, into the kitchen entry. Joyce stands close behind him, worriedly asking over and over again is he’s sure, and that rest is probably the best medicine.

Lucas seems to notice as well, because he’s first to greet him in his typical mocking tone, “hey there, buddy.” Limply, Mike makes his way inside the kitchen, “how you doin’?”

His pale face accommodates an adequate answer. In juxtaposition of dark, unruly hair, it appears virtually ghost-like. Will’s eyes follow him the further he moves. He isn’t wearing the same thing he went to bed in- which is what he wore yesterday. It seems as though he’s transmuted into a dyad of loose joggers and a greyish-green tee.

Joyce answers, like they can’t already tell, “he isn’t feeling too well.”

“I’ll be fine,” Mike palliates, voice seemingly back to normal. Will didn’t like how distant he felt last night. Albeit the Mike from last night wasn’t all that lamentable. His drunken state was probably why he felt so easy to talk to. Like, it didn’t matter what he said, because Mike would just forget it in the morning. Now, he wonders if he has. Forgotten. “Don’t worry about me.”

“How many times have you thrown up?” Lucas asks out of pure inquisitiveness. Max’s ewes.  

Mike counts on his fingers, “Dry heave- once. Throw up- once.” Everyone makes the same sounds of disgust, and in return, Mike requires an unrepentant face that says, you asked. After they’ve all seemed to recover, the boy turns and eyes Lucas and Dustin, who are stood closer together now- Dustin must have been behind Joyce when he came in- and smiles at them. Perhaps ‘smile’ isn’t the right word for it- the top row of his teeth are showing, and there’s a faint curve to the lips, but there’s no real crease below the eyes, no real movement of the cheeks, “Guess, maybe, I should just catch a ride with you guys, huh?”

Joyce speaks up from the side, “Rest is what you need. Not a day full of travel. I can make you something to eat? Like soup? I can show you the ones that we have,” when he’s silent, she adds, “but I’m not stopping you from doing anything. If you want, I can call your mom and we can arrange something.” Mike looks over to El, who’s staring back at him with little to no expression at all. Then, at Will, who diverts his glance almost immediately.

The boy scratches the back of his head, the unwanted feeling stronger than ever now, “Um… I think…”

“Don’t go early.” Will says, then adds more quietly after feeling the pressure of everybody’s eyes on him, “Just stay here. It’ll probably pass soon.”

Dustin adds on, “Will’s right,” then crosses the room to pat Mike on the shoulder. To which, Mike, in all of his sensitivity, winces at the touch, “feel better soon, buddy.”

 

Soon enough, the taxi arrives, and everyone gathers up to say goodbye. Mike hugs Lucas extra hard, even after reminding him to be gentle, and silently promises to see him in a few days. El pulls Dustin into a firm embrace before passing him off to Will. And then they alternate again.

Watching the two climb into the backseat from the driveway, Will shamefully starts to tear up, because he doesn’t want to see them go. He wants them to stay right where they are. Every time he says goodbye, there’s this lurking trepidacious inclination that it’ll be the last. At any time, they could move on to better things than Zombie Boy. He wouldn’t blame them if they did.

Lucas rolls up the window after pecking Max’s lips, like he’s setting off for war. And before the driver can take off, Will runs up, gently knocks on the same window and waits for it to roll back down.

When it does, he asks, pointing a finger to Dustin, “Thursday?”

It’s their day to call. Thursday evenings have always been reserved for Dustin’s voice. “You know it.”

He shifts his finger in the direction of Lucas, “Saturday?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.” He smiles and steps back, allowing it to be rolled up again. He waves and says goodbye, refusing to turn his heel until they’ve driven clear out of vision. The sigh that passes his lips when they’re gone flutters on the winds like a butterfly decorated with a perfidy number of colours; leaping and strolling through the air like a roller coaster. And afterwards, disappointment immediately pounces to sour in the back of his throat. Residing there for the hours following, even after Max and El eventually resort back to her bedroom and Mike, to the guest room. Joyce made sure to feed him a bit before, notwithstanding his resentment attributable to the flashes of nausea he’d feel every couple minutes. And made sure he was carrying a full water bottle on his way. He should be feeling better soon, but in the meantime, Will is all alone.

There isn’t much to do now. Dustin and Lucas seemed to have cleaned the basement after all, so that checks off one of the boxes. Thus, he peregrinates to his bedroom too, and slumps down at his desk. He starts toying with the pencil crayons still spilled out all over the surface by watching them clamber against each other when he pushes on one. He revels in the way they magically become impossible to read once he endeavors thinking up creative titles for the distinctive colors.

Eyeing his phone for a while, he makes the decision to pick it up and hold it against his ear. He doesn’t press any numbers yet, just listens to the static and nothingness. It accommodates as white noise for the time being, and he doesn’t mind it all that much. It’s actually sort of comforting.

Minutes pass, and then his hand reaches up to impatiently fumble with the dial. Even without looking, he's able to enter in the right numbers. And then the white noise is replaced by ringing, and Will can feel the calmness evaporating into thin air.

“Hey.” Sam’s voice says on the other line after the third ring. Will doesn’t speak, just listens and thinks of what there is to say. He didn’t think much of this through, and now he's starting to regret it, “hello?”

“Hi.” He manages, leaning down to rest his chin on his arm.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing much. Bored.”

“Yeah. Same.” There’s a shuffling noise, and then Sam speaks up again, “last night was fun. Thanks.”

“Yeah, really fun…” He won’t hesitate. He won’t keep his silence. He promised himself he wouldn't. He will be brave. He’s endured a lot worse, “Hey, do you know what my favorite part was?”

“What?”

“Overhearing you. In the closet.” The silence between the two lines makes his blood as cold as the early-spring air that creeps through the open window. Bereft of any wind, the leaves outside hang limp until they fall of their own accord, there is no whispering noise or rustling. It’s as if nature conspired to keep him in the dark, not daring to whisper the reassurance he craves. It goes on, travels longer than what feels like a century. Will even wonders if his hair is beginning to grey yet. He turns the phone over his cheek for no real reason, and then returns it to the spot on his ear, “hello?”

“I’m here.”

“Okay. So…” He’s already losing his tolerance, “Do you have anything you want to say?”

Sam’s less sympathetic than Will expected. Instead, his voice is rather challenging- ready for a fight, “what do you want me to say? I’m sorry you had to hear all of that?” Words leave him, like someone had taken a vacuum to his mouth and suctioned his vocal cords dry. He stares into the blue pencil crayon in pristine anguishing lividity. It bubbles up in his chest and coerces him to sit up straight.

“What?”

“I like being your friend, Will. I promise, I do,” he reasons, “but it’s the truth.”

“You know what?” Will’s brows furrow, “the truth could’ve come out months ago. But you waited until now, because you liked the entertainment. That’s not- you’re not my friend! And all those things you said hurt, but telling Jenny about me? No—” He cuts Sam off when he tries speaking over him, “It wasn’t your place. It’s no one’s place but mine!” His shaky limps stand up from his chair, nearly knocking it over, “I get to choose when, and where, and how, and who, and you took that away from me! I thought I could trust you!” Sam silently whispers an exasperated oh my god, but Will doesn’t even hear it, “have you told anyone else?”

“Becca. A while ago.” Will breathes through his nose and closes his eyes, unsure of what to do with all the suppressed energy in his system, “look, I… I know it sounds bad. Okay? She asked.” It’s like sticking one of those cheap, shitty Band-Aids onto the massive wound that covers the entire surface area of his back and expecting it to all be okay.

“What have I done to you?”

“You didn’t do anything. I was bored. Listen, okay, it sounds terrible. And I said I was sorry. I’m sorry you won’t get to come out to them like you wanted to, but it’s not like I told any of your family. Jennifer and Becca obviously don’t care, or they would have said something by now.”

“That isn’t the point. I came here to start over. And right when it was starting to work, you put it all on the line. How would you like it if I did this to you? What if I told your dad about you?” He wants to vent, let it out, but he doesn’t want to say words he doesn’t mean, be hurtful. It's just so easy to be cruel in the moment and then the damage is done. So many times he’s wanted to unsay things, take it back. But now the threat is spoken out into the universe, and Will doesn’t bother reiterating.

It gets Sam to be more frantic, “No, Will, you wouldn’t—”

“You wouldn’t like it, would you?”

“Don’t even try to compare our friends to my dad. They aren’t the same.”

“I know that,” He says, “what I’m trying to say is, you can’t just spread this kind of stuff about people. You should know that. There’re so many ways this could have gone wrong. People like us are getting murdered, Sam! Murdered! It’s in the newspapers. It’s happening everyday.”

“Okay!”

“No! Not okay! If Jenny or Becca ever told anyone, that’s it. I’m done.”

“I didn’t have any bad intent—” but he slams the phone back in its place before he’s able to finish. It creates an awful sound- one that makes him question if he’d broken it. But regardless, he doesn’t look back. Just turns and heads out the door, breath stuttering in overwhelming anger.

 

Perhaps a little while ago he would have balked at the idea of biking so far and fast, now he relishes in the prospect. His lungs feel like they could bust, and his throat is as parched as a dead lizard in the desert sun, but he swallows the sting away. It’s only fuel to go even faster.

His long legs carry the bike past the abandoned car dealership, and then the church, and all the houses in between. The pounding noise of the front tire repeatedly kissing the ground matches the heart throbbing inside his chest, both cycling in grief and fear.

Will wheezes painfully through clenched teeth as he pulls the handlebars up again, hoists the front wheel off the ground, and then slams it back down. He stands up from his sitting position and glides, his peripherals turning invisible from the expeditious pace.

There wasn’t any time to change before he left. The boy had barely been given a moment to tie his shoes properly, nor answer his mom when she asked where he was going. That’s probably the reason why they’re partly coming undone on the pedals. The light sweatshirt and the striped bottoms stick to his body, instead of the many layers he usually stacks on whenever the weather’s cool like this. His bare hands redden under the winds, along with his ears and nose, but it only builds his adrenaline more, because it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair getting hurt again.

He hates Will Byers. Hates being him. Hates living this unfortunate life where everything goes wrong. It isn’t fair, he thinks, slamming the front tire again. He slams it again, and again, and again. Fuck him, fuck him, fuck him. He slams it out of anger, but also out of embarrassment. Jenny and Becca know now, and that’s two people too many. Three, including Sam. Now, he just wants to sink into nothingness. Fade away.

Blushing would have been no problem, but what he does go is red as a beetroot and radiate like a hot pan. Anyone could cook a three course meal on his face if they felt like it. He wishes he could pack up and move some place else, where he’d make sure to avoid this situation. But there’s no rescue from this embarrassment.

Fuck Sam for apostatizing him like this. Fuck Sam for leading him on to something that would never be real. Fuck Sam for not even being sorry about it. He slams on the handlebars, sweat-dampened hair whipping his forehead and tossing back. He has no idea where he’s going, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is he lets this energy out in any way that he can.

 

Mike wakes to a headache relievedly less splitting than the one he fell asleep to. The tenebrosity of the bedroom avails to assure he’s revived, like those glow-in-the-dark stars that people stick to their ceilings but reversed. For some reason, he develops the inundating urge to start moving. There’s a certain antsy feeling that sends him climbing out of bed and staggering towards the door, like an old man with a cane.

Stepping out into the hall, Mike follows the sound of voices, which ultimately leads to El’s room. He needs to talk her.

The boy knocks twice and waits for the door to open. And when it finally does, he’s comes face-to-face with Max. “Well, well, well. Look who it is.” She hums.

“Can I talk to El?” He sees the girl of question lift her head out of the corner of his eye.

Max squints, “I think you’ve done enough talking.”

Mike insists, “let me have some time alone with her.”

“No,” She argues, standing her ground, “you really hurt her feelings. I’m not letting you walk in here and try to swoop her under your arm again—”

“I just want two minutes.” He reasons with desperate eyes.

She hesitates, until El’s voice says, “come in,” and then she’s relinquishing the door, listlessly sanctioning Mike to open it wider and step in, and giving El a look, as though to say, what are you doing? To which the other girl timidly ignores and waits for Mike to take a seat on the bed. She’s sitting on the headboard with her legs drawn up to her chest, and a magazine splayed out by her feet. He sits contiguous to her feet.

Max huffs, shakes her head, and closes the door behind her as she walks out into the hallway, probably to indulge in some more of the strawberries downstairs. She’s already had a couple waffles but there’s always room for more.

Neither of the two say anything for a long time, and its mainly because Mike doesn’t quite know where to start. There’s a million different ways, and for all he knows, only one could be right. When he glances up at her, her eyes flicker up to meet his, and then she purses her lips and ushers him to speak. So he does, “Um…” or at least, almost does, “I feel terrible about last night. And… I’m really sorry.” She’s quiet, not even disposed to avail him, “I shouldn’t have yelled at you,” it’s frankly one of the only components he recollects.

“I don’t care that you yelled at me,” Of all the times she’s ever been yelled at, Mike’s the last person she’d ever hold a grudge towards. When something happens frequently enough, you start losing feeling for it. “You told me that… You don’t love me. Does that just make everything a lie?”

“No. Well, yeah. But I-I do love you.”

Her expression doesn’t change. She doesn’t seem angry, but she definitely doesn’t seem happy either, “but if you love me… why don’t you want to be my boyfriend?”

“You love your dad, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you love Will?”

“Yes.”

“Right. But you wouldn’t date them. They’re family. You have a family love for them.”

“Family love.” She echoes, taking in the incipient designation for a thing she already kenned existed. Family love makes sense. She’s felt it- she knows it well.

“And do you love Dustin?”

“Yes.”  

“So that would be a…?”

“A friend love?”

“Yeah. Exactly. What I feel for you… Isn’t romantic love. It’s friend love. It’s also something I’ve just recently figured out. So I didn’t mean to, like… Well, I mean, I did… But… I didn’t mean to…” Mike closes his eyes and tries starting over. But nothing emerges. His voice comes out in thoughtless jumbles, and he makes countless attempts to rearrange the words to create something more understandable, but it’s infeasible without perpetually making him seem like a bad person. He used her, capitalized on their relationship to make his other feelings evanesce, but he didn’t mean any harm from it. He didn't know what else to do. “I’m just sorry.”

“It’s probably for the best. I’ve thought a lot about what you said last night.”

“What did I say?”

“That we should have waited. That we weren’t ready. Or, that I’m not ready. I didn’t know my real name, or how old I was. You said that I need time to grow.” She’s ameliorated a significant amount so far, but there’s still a long way to go before her mind gains its true independence. Less influenced by the people around her. She will habituate her own mannerisms and apply them whenever the timing is compulsory. She will explore the world and find where she belongs. She’ll learn to trust her heart and her gut. To be genuinely Eleven Hopper. She’ll find it- but she needs to do it alone.

And Mike, on the other hand. He needs to listen to his heart more. “Yeah,” he starts, “you agree with that?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Then it's for the best. And again, I’m sorry. If I was thinking straight last night, I wouldn’t have been so harsh. That was really childish of me, and—"

“Mike,” Her tone is gentle and holds a tinge of what seems to be the commencement of a laugh, “It’s okay.” Inside, she isn’t really sure what he’s so contrite for. Break ups, in Max’s eyes at least, are designated to be celebratory. She’ll probably blast Madonna after this.

Mike holds out a hand for her to shake, “friends?”

And it's in the way her lips hoist upward and both dimples crinkle. The imperfect alignment of her teeth. The warm glow her jubilance gives, assures Mike that what he’s doing is the right thing. Finally. When she elongates her arm to clasp their hands together in a promising embrace, they shake on it thrice, and smile the whole way through. It was proximate. He virtually did it. But he figures all that matters is that the message came across.

“Friends.”

 

 

One Byers-Hopper kid down. One more to go. Core strung with tenaciousness, Mike sets out on a brainstorm. He needs a way to win over Will’s forgiveness without admitting to something he can’t. Lucas and El are different- they aren’t the person in question.

Twigs crunch soulfully under the torn soles. He’s now wearing a burgundy half-button down shirt with yellow stripes, paired with mud-stained sneakers and one of his larger jackets. He didn’t realize how warm his face was until the cool breeze hit it, simultaneously brushing his bangs back, like Mother Nature’s pat on the back.

Making peaceful amends with Eleven feels like the most liberating feeling in the entire world. He couldn’t have asked for it to go any different. It gives him this high- like his capabilities are illimitable. If he can fix things with El, he can fix them with Will. He’ll dedicate the whole day. All he needs are a few branches and blankets.

 

It doesn’t look proximate to the professionality Jonathan could’ve done. He doesn’t have paint to make a sign, or any special techniques, but what he does conjure up isn’t too deplorable. Its basic outdoor engineering.

He chooses to make it far out in the backyard where the trees start tangling together to engender a barrier from whatever’s behind. There isn’t as much space as the forest in Hawkins, so he figures what he’s been given will have to do.

At first, he tries a Lincoln Log style, but there aren’t enough similar-looking branches, so he scratches that and tries a tipi. It’s a lot easier, given his lack of experience, but it does look messier than what it would’ve been if he did the Lincoln Log. It’s really the only kind of fort he knows how to make that’s made of outdoor materials. Making an indoor one with furniture could’ve worked as well, but that would have meant having to clean it up after. And he wants this one to be preserved for as long as possible.

The bark leaves brown specks on his hands and tiny splinters in the growing scabs amid the crevasses. He winces slightly whenever unwanted friction irritates it but doesn’t make any attempt to aid it just yet. Instead just shakes it off and starts again, twists his hand in different positions, and curses whenever a branch falls, making the whole thing topple over again.

But nonetheless, he starts over once more and makes sure to alter his methods until he finally has it down right. And once its standing, balancing as a whole, he steps back and takes it all in.

It’s astronomical. Crawling inside and measuring it with his height, he finds that laying down, he’s able to stretch his legs to their full length. The ceiling is high up; not so much that he’s able to stand up, but sitting normally or crawling in and out, he doesn’t have to slouch or even worry about his head hitting the top, which speaks volumes to how tall he is.

Joyce must have seen him in the window, because she comments on it’s impressive structure when he meets her inside. And when he asks her for blankets and pillows with little value, she brings him to a closet and points out the ones with the ugliest patterns, as well as the ones that have been untouched for years. Tells him to knock himself out, so he does. He stacks the fabrics in his arms until he can barely see ahead and delivers them to the fort outside.

 

It turns out better than he expected it to be. After covering the bottom with drapes and layering some pillows on top, it turns into a comfortable haven of sorts. With some extra time, he recedes back inside to fetch some lanterns and flashlights for when it gets tenebrous and comes back to place them strategically where they wouldn’t get overheated. That would be a nightmare.

Finally, he’s finished.

“Will!” He jogs giddily to the boy’s room. Hair sweaty as a burdening result of logically preposterous travail, and eyes glistening with excitement, he knocks, “Will?” knocking again, “I’ve got a surprise for you, man.” He waits some more before knocking another two times, “Will? You in there?” Then, carefully takes the knob and opens it about an inch, “Will?”

But the room is vacuous. No movement whatsoever. So he closes the door and walks over to where he’d last seen Joyce- in the living room.

“Do you know where Will is?” He asks, but she doesn’t have an answer. Neither does Hopper, who’s sitting contiguous to her reading a newspaper. She mentions his exit, but that was almost two hours ago. And it's like Mike can see her heart drop, all by the telling of her falling expression.

She instantly raises to her feet, face paling, and asks under her breath to nobody in particular, “where is he?”

“Hey, let’s not lose our minds yet. Okay? I’m sure he’s at one of his friend’s places.” Jim intervenes.

“No…” Joyce shakes her head, “No… He tells me before. He always tells me before he leaves to go to somebody’s house.”

“You saw him go, right?”

“Yeah, but I just assumed he’d be gone for a few minutes. You know when he randomly goes in and out of town.” She turns her head to look down at him. And as if they both share the same instincts, or furtively have enigmatic mindreading potencies, they both bolt up concurrently, and head straight for El’s room. Mike steps back, not wanting to get in the way, suddenly feeling more frightened after watching their reaction.

“Girls!” Hopper’s voice reverberates through the hall. He doesn’t bother knocking- just swings the door open and asks, “do any of you know where Will is?” They both shake their head no, and Joyce all but sighs apprehensively. Hopper stands back and opens every single door in the hallway. “Shit.” He mutters under his breath, then looks over to Mike, “go look downstairs.”

And as Mike tramples down the stairs, feet tapping in rhythm to his pulse, Hopper’s voice is still audible from above. He’s consoling Joyce, trying to reassure her that everything’s okay. But all of that is questionable right now.

The boy travels the entire basement, calls out Will’s name, and opens all of the doors, like Hopper had done. But nobody answers back. Nobody is visible, even when he pulls on the light in the closet.

“No,” Hopper’s voice states when Mike returns upstairs, “we’re not calling the cops already.”

“Yes we are.”

“No we’re not, because I’m the cop. I’m the chief, actually. Let me handle this. We can keep on searching if you want, or we can wait a few more hours. We can ask around—”

And then, as if on cue, Will storms through the front door, and the world goes silent for a moment. He doesn’t even care that everyone’s staring him, all dazed and perplexed. Just pushes past them and enters the bathroom. Mike heaves out a mitigated sigh, because jesus… For a minute there, he genuinely thought he lost him again. His head is spiralling again, and he wonders if going into the other bathroom to relieve his nausea would be necessary or not. Joyce sighs too and holds her head in her hand. It's times like this when she ruminates her ways as a parent. Locking Will up and coercing rules down is throat would be erroneous, but if it means never having to worry about him again, its faintly considerable.

Hopper follows close behind him and knocks on the bathroom door, “Will?” He calls warningly.

“Go away.”

“Open this door and tell me where you were. Right now.” His voice is strong and firm, but Will doesn’t concede defeat.

“Just leave me alone!”

The pitter-patter sound of the shower running starts up then, and Hopper has no choice but to back off. When he returns to Joyce, he reassures her, “hey. He’s not lost. We got him,” wrapping her in a tight hug, “we got him." 

 

Mike doesn’t show Will the fort as soon as he hoped to. Once Will eventually emerges from the shower, he’s immediately taken by Joyce and Hopper into his bedroom with the door closed. Probably suffering a prolix lecture, which for him, only comes about once in a blue moon. It’s probably why it takes so long- Joyce and hopper don’t entirely know how to approach it.

The day passes by quick after that. Will locks himself in his bedroom for a majority of it, doing god knows what. And Mike finishes recovering from the “flu” and adding finishing touches to the fort.

It’s why he almost forgets about it until it’s brought up again at dinner. Joyce ruins the surprise, and Mike’s too bashful to talk about it for too long. But he notices the way Will’s face changes once he hears about the new fort waiting for him in the backyard.

“You made another one for me?” They’re walking side-by-side now in the dusky night. Will’s layered up again, the black toque making its second appearance thus far into the week. Ever since he’d first heard about the tipi’s existence, he’s been antsy to see it.

And Mike doesn’t even like using that name for it. It sounds almost insulting. Because it barely looks like one. A proper one, at least. Just a bunch of sticks messily balancing against each other- nothing special at all. But the way Will looks at it, proves differently. “Yeah,” He answers, shuffling his feet closer. Will drops down to his knees, moves inside, and Mike follows close behind, “I put camping lanterns in here.”

Will chuckles, “Yeah, we’re going to need one.” When they’re both sat down, Mike leans on his elbow to reach for one of the lanterns. And when he switches it on, the entire inside is pervaded with warm light. Will looks around, jaw going slack, “wow. You really built this.”

“Yeah.” If it helps make up for the one he caused Will to break down, that’s all that matters, “I know it’s no Castle Byers, but—”

“It’s great.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s really…” He trails off, and Mike reaches forwards to turn on another lantern, “thank you.” Sitting back, Mike watches as Will looks around some more, this time, taking in the smaller details, “you even got my sketchbook.”

“Yeah, just in case you wanted to, like, you know, draw or something.”

Will picks it up and opens to a fresh, blank page. He smooths a hand over the surface, relishing in the ambience of the moment. This is beyond anything he expected. “Wow,” he breathes, at a loss for words, “can you pass me a pencil?”

Leaning up against the pillows, he takes the pencil Mike hands over, and thinks for a minute, “what should I draw?”

“Oh, you actually wanted to- okay, yeah, sure. Um… I mean… I don’t know. You could draw me?”

The suggestion seems aberrantly intimate- especially in a setting such as this. Where they’re alone, crickets circumventing them, reminding them of the time. It’s peculiar, in the sense that he’s nervous to say yes. He’s overthinking. He knows he is. But still. A smile is pushing through though, unsure but genuine. He’s never done anything like this before- draw people in their presence. When he’s alone, it’s virtually second nature. He doesn’t feel anything. But now he can feel heat filling his neck and cheeks. Which is dumb. They've seen each other before. He should not be blushing right now, just because Mike asks him to draw a portrait, but despite all logic, he’s fighting down a goofy smile like he’s thirteen again. Like they’re sitting on the Wheeler’s couch again, Halloween candy spread out in front of them, heart beating hard at the words he hasn’t forgotten since. “Yeah, okay.” He agrees and starts lightly sketching out a circle.

Mike sits criss-cross in front of him, and awkwardly fumbles around with his hands and facial expressions. He hadn’t expected Will to just start sketching like that. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, “what pose do you want me to do?”

The other boy shrugs, “I don’t know. Just… Sit normally. And…” Mike makes some fine adjustments. Loosens the stiffness in his shoulders and looks straight on.

“Like this?”

“Yeah, like that.”

“Should I smile?” He stretches his mouth out in an aggrandized grin, even squints to make it wider. Will snorts.

“You can. But your face might hurt after a while.” Considering it to be true, Mike relaxes his face and settles back into the position he had before.

Will starts by cutting the circle into quarters using two slightly bent lines. He flickers his gaze upwards, ascertaining to fixate on Mike’s nose, and then looks back down to outline it on the paper.

It doesn’t get old- feeling Mike’s eyes on him, seeing them on him whenever he looks up. Every time he feels his temperature start to decrement, it elevates again, because Mike is staring at him. And he’s staring at Mike. And it’s allowed. They’re alone and Will’s drawing a picture- it’s the perfect excuse. But still, it somehow feels more than just that. There’s some tension between them, and it's making it hard to breathe.

When he’s done the nose, he moves on to the eyebrows, and Mike starts talking again.

“What should we call this?”

Will pauses, “what?”

“Castle Byers 2.0?”

“Oh… I don’t know.” He shrugs and turns back to his drawing, “I feel like your name should be in it too, since you built it.”

“Fortress… Will and Mike.”

“No… I like the fortress though.”

“Fortress Mill.”

“Ewe.”

“Fortress Wike?”

“No.”

“We’ll work on it.” Mike decides. If there’s gonna be a name, it has to be well thought out. Orchestrated. He watches Will draw some more, and thinks back to earlier, when he was gone. The fact that he was planning on exhibiting the fort to Will hours earlier, but never got around to it. It leads him to ask, “why were you so angry today?”

Will bites his lip, creeping embarrassment making his hand rattle, “Um… just stupid friend stuff.”

“Where did you go?”

“Around. Nowhere in particular.” He looks back up again and makes sure to erase some of the brows. He made them too long. Mike hums.

“We were all worried you were gone.”

“Yeah, I got the lecture already.” Will sketches out the outline of the eyes, making steady focus on Mike’s. It’s silent then, as he continues tracing out the different predominant features. Erasing, adding stuff in- its all a game of trial and error. Then, “sorry. I didn’t mean to take so long. Time got away from me.”

Mike nods his cognizance and absentmindedly lets his mind wander. He’s okay with silence at any other time, but not right now. Not when all he can cogitate is Will and the fact that he’s analyzing his whole appearance. The worry that something doesn’t look right- his nose is crooked, hair’s a mess, and that everything’s falling apart. So he tries diverting his mind some place else. The arcade. Lucas’s house. Anything.

Will outlines the lips, and then moves on to the jaw and bone structure. The cheekbones that make the rest of his face somehow seem hollower in the flattering glow of the lanterns. He’s in deep focus now, a stage he often gets disoriented in with all of his other drawings. Where he’s unable to stop, just invested and determined.

And Mike, despite his hatred for the silence, doesn’t say a word. Doesn’t even move. Doesn’t want to disturb this. Somehow, it feels so incredibly fragile.

Ten minutes go by, and Will’s starting to add in the details, like the irises, pupils, freckles, and hair. The freckles are his favorite part. He doesn’t need to use Mike for reference- usually it's better just to eye it. But he does anyway. If it makes this last longer, he’ll do anything. He’d reference every single strand of hair, but at that point, it’s just ridiculous. Not that counting freckles is any less ridiculous.  

Will starts filling in the shadows. He doesn’t have any colors, so he tries his best to accommodate with the edge of the graphite and stump of pink on the other side. And then, finally, when Mike’s unable to take it anymore, “do you remember the tent? And the camping trip?”

Will huffs through his nose, and smiles, “yeah.”

“I didn’t remember it until I accidently brought it up the other day.”

Will says what they’ve both been thinking, and Mike would have been anxious about it, had it not been for the cackle he lets out, “we had no clue what we were doing.”

“No clue at all.” Just thinking back to his eight-year-old self, testing the waters out to something unknowingly verboten makes him cringe. But it sort of makes him laugh at the same time. Not knowing which way to tilt his head, squeezing his eyes shut too early, pulling away as soon as he felt contact- and Will doing the same thing. Of course, they only realized how awkward it was later on. At the time, it was all the matter of "kissing is overrated".

“Please tell me you haven’t forgotten about kindergarten.”

“Our wedding?” Will wheezes in response, pausing his sketch to cover his face, “the wedding that never happened?”

“We made invites and handed them out to everyone and everything.”

“Lonnie went feral.”

“Tell me about it. Jonathon got a real kick out of it though.” Will says, calming down.

“Nancy too.”

“I miss him a lot nowadays. It isn’t the same without him here.” Mike feels that way too sometimes. Him and Nancy were never as close as Will and Jonathan, but they still had a bond despite the constant bickering. He still missed her when she went away. Still frowns whenever he sees her seat empty at the dinner table.

The tiny break allows Will to pick his pencil back up and begin again, but in a less tense way. His trick for sketching is to never focus on one point. Even if you’re drawing one thing, look at it from an outward perspective and make sure everything merges accurately. It saves you the hassle of having to go back and erase it, just to move it a smidge to the side. He’s actually really proud of what he has so far. It motivates him to continue even further, “we were best friends I think.”

“Did he reach out for your birthday?”

“He will.” Will answers surely. Mike feels a smidge of sympathy for him, how certain he is of other people’s actions. It’s what can get him disappointed. It’s probably what availed to get him hurt when Mike didn’t call. Yet despite all logic, the smile on Will’s face doesn’t wither away. Doesn’t grow either, but simply stays, “he gave me an early happy birthday last week over the phone. He’s super busy right now. I think he’s coming down to visit in a few weeks.”

Mike nods, “cool.” Glancing down at the sketchbook and trying to steal a glance, his eyes involuntarily pan up to Will’s face, and he notices how red he is. The poor boy’s sweating and pulling on his neckline, and Mike hasn’t even noticed until now, “oh. Dude. You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should take one of your layers off.” When Will doesn’t move, Mike takes the initiative to move forward and set the sketchbook down for him, “here, come on.”

“It’s fine, Mike.”

“No, you’re boiling.”

“If I take these off, I’ll be freezing, and that’s even worse.”

“Then you can just put them back on later. Here. Take this coat off at least. It isn’t winter anymore.” After hesitating for a few seconds, Will allows Mike to help him pull off the coat and place it off to the side. He also lets him take off the hat, and to be honest, it does feel a lot better afterwards. He mumbles out a quick thanks and takes his shoes off. It becomes ostensible to him then that maybe it wasn’t the tension making it hard to breathe. It was probably all the layers he had stacked on top of each other, cooking him from the inside. The blush sojourns, considering Mike doesn’t return to his spot right away. The curiosity of what’s on the paper is what drives him to stay put, as proximate to Will as he can get without it being too weird, “when can I see the picture?”

Even though he hasn’t yet decided whether he’s done, Will considers that since everything is technically there, it can’t hurt to call it a day now. “You can look at it now, if you want,” he answers, and picks the sketchbook back up, splaying it back out in his lap.

Mike crawls forward and sits by Will’s side, knocking their long limbs together gawkishly. And right when he sees the drawing, he’s taken aback, because he hadn’t expected it to be so good. It’s a representation of him in his best form. The shading in his neck, lips, cupid’s bow, and under-eyes, cut clean with light and gradient. The ridge of his jaw and cheekbones. The deep, bottomless pits framed by dark, short lashes. The curved waves in which his hair moves, loosely emulating a curl amid the collar of his shirt and larger jacket. Everything. There. On the page.

Will sees the boy’s face light up, “wow.” Mike whispers. His thin fingers raise to lightly trace over the sketch, caressing it softly. “It’s kind of creepy,” he laughs, catching Will’s eye for a moment before looking back down, “like I’m looking right at myself.”

He snickers and pinches the top, “You want it?”

“Sure.” He’s gonna bring it back home and laminate it. Or frame it. He can’t add it to the binder of drawings he has already. For some reason, this one feels more special. He doesn’t know why, it just does. He wants to keep it forever. Make sure its safe. Give it to a fucking museum, where everybody can see it on display.

Will tears the page out and hands it over to Mike, and he thanks him. Holding it closer, he’s able to recognize the smaller things, like the freckles. The more prominent ones on the edge of his jaw and shadow of his neck. And then, out of nowhere, it's taken away from him.

Looking around, stunned, he sees that it was Will. “Just one last thing,” he murmurs, writing something down on the corner and then handing it back to him.

TO: MIKE
FROM: WILL

Mike smiles and looks over the drawing once more. It’s about time he’s gotten another one of these.

“Do you like it?”

“Yeah. Wow. Thanks. You’ve gotten really good at this stuff.”

“I’ve been doing it a lot more lately. Donna said that when I start feeling bad again, it could be a good distraction method.”

“That makes sense.” A vision of the antidepressants bottle resurfaces, and Mike starts to understand a little more now. It feels weird. Being here, with Will, and knowing he isn’t in Hawkins. Knowing they aren’t in the forest and knowing that things will never be the same. Maybe it's because they’ve spent so much time apart, but now he’s starting to know how Will felt last year when he would perpetually beseech for a simple game of Dungeons. And it sucks.

Caressing the marks of graphite again, but being careful not to smudge it, Mike says, “I really missed this. You have no idea.” Breathing out, he places it carefully to the side and crawls over to the corner.

Will, in all of his curiosity, inches to where Mike is hunched over, and asks, “what are you doing?”

“I brought some more stuff.”

“Like what?”

Mike grabs different games and passes them over to Will, who sits criss-cross and takes them before setting them down in his lap, “we got… Snakes and Ladders, Dominoes, Monopoly, Life, cards, we got some Jacks and a bouncy ball… And yeah, that’s all I could carry.”

“Cool.” Will looks down at all of them.

“What one do you want to play?”

The boy bites his lip and eyes a few. Definitely not Snakes and Ladders. He’s learned his lesson for that one. After a long wait of deciding, he conclusively picks up the six Jacks and the bouncy ball, “Jacks.”

Mike looks around, “we’re going to need a flat surface.” Will looks around too for anything they could use. For a second, he considers using the cover of his sketchbook. But it’s too small. The Jacks would go everywhere, and it would turn into this big mess. So he pulls on the blankets, revealing the grassy area below them, “you think the ball will bounce?” Will picks it up and tries bouncing it, and unlike expected, it flies right back up, where he catches it in midair with a triumphant smile.

The game goes on for a long time. Neither go more than two seconds without grinning or laughing, and Mike has to admit; it’s nice, acting like a kid again. They may be growing up, but that should never mean leaving out time to laugh for a bit.

The two play until they’re able to pick up all six Jacks before gravity has the chance of pulling the ball back down again. And then they move on to the next game, and then the next, all in the span of an hour and fifteen minutes.

Now, they’re laying down, side by side, watching the starry night sky above them, peaking out in between the branches.

It’s gotten colder, so Will has his hat on again, but the coat is still off. Mike sure did make this fort a comfortable one. With the lanterns turned off, it’s almost easier to appreciate. You’d never even know that underneath, there’s soil and bugs and grass. If he thinks about that too much, he might even have to leave. But for now, he’s just letting himself enjoy it. Letting himself forget all about Sam and refocus his attention on who built this just for him.

“Who’s turn is it?” Mike’s voice asks from beside him.

“Yours.”

“Okay. Um…” There’s a weighted pause before he speaks up again, “here, I got a lame one. Would you rather have a dog or a cat as a pet?”

“Dog.” Will answers before Mike’s even able to finish his question.

“Really?”

“Oh yeah,” he confirms, “remember Chester?”

“God. Chester.” He breathes, provoking a chuckle out of Will. They both know the history of Chester. That damn dog who never knew when to quit. He never knew when to quit his barking, his slobbering or panting his rancid breath in everyone's face when he wanted his breakfast. When Mike first met him, he was only a puppy. Full of energy; always leaping up on somebody. Though he never really lost the energy as an adult, the amount was multiplied when he was young. He remembers walking in the Byers' front door one day and instantly having the canine pounce on him, knocking him back onto the floor and smothering him in kisses. It happened every single time he came over for a play date or sleepover. He showed up prepared, and after some time, Joyce stopped apologizing for the scratch marks he’d have afterwards. It became normal. “The shaggy mutt.” As annoying as the dog was, he made for a sufficient pillow, and entertainer on the rainier days. Mike had never owned a pet; his mom wouldn’t have tolerated the hair getting everywhere, and Mike was far too forgetful to take care of any fish. So in a way, Chester was sort of his too.

“I’d get a retriever, or one of those… Ugh, what’s the name...” He squints, trying to remember. It takes a few seconds, but eventually his eyes pop open, and he says, “Buff American Cocker Spaniel.” It’s so specific, that it makes Mike squeeze his eyes shut and snort out another laugh, “they’re so cute.”

“Okay, your turn.”

Will thinks, looking up above, “Um… Okay, here’s another lame one.”

The other boy’s mouth twitches into a smirk, “Okay.”

 “Would you rather be a famous actor or famous singer?”

“Singer.”

“Singer?” Will pushes up on his elbow and looks down at Mike questioningly, even though, in the dark light, his face is almost plenarily concealed by tenebrosity, “You like to sing?”

“No… I don’t know.” He’s smiling; Will can hear it through his voice.

“Oh my god.” He scoffs out another laugh. His stomach hurts from how much he’s already laughed so far, but now it just full on sears. In a good way. The edges of his eyes crinkle into another grin.

“Only when I mess around on the guitar.”

“Guitar?!” Will’s eyebrows raise. He always thought Mike sucked at instruments. He’s never seen him pick up anything, except for the triangle at their second grade band performance. Mrs. Wheeler has way too many photos of that night.

“Yeah. Sometimes when Steve would come over, back when him and Nancy were a thing, he’d show me a few chords on my dad’s old, shitty acoustic. And after a while, he stopped showing me, so I stopped learning it. But I’ve started picking it up again and teaching myself stuff.” Will slumps back in his spot, stares back up to the sky, baffled.

“What do you know?”

“Bob Segar, Starship, Tears for Fears, Bowie…”

“That’s cool.” Will smiles, turning his face to the side to catch his eyes.

“Yeah?” Mike smiles back.

“Yeah.”

 

The plan was to ineluctably go back inside and get ready for bed. But once Will stopped responding to Mike’s would you rather’s. he knew the night had ended. And he didn’t make any pursuit of starting it up again, mostly because he couldn’t possibly disrupt the serenity of the boy beside him. Turning on his side to face him, noses only a couple inches apart, he admires the way the fabric of the beanie is beginning to come off, exposing his messy hair underneath. It flicks steadily under the loose confinement as a result of the passing wind that seeps through the cracks between the branches.

Mike reaches abaft him to prehend a stray large blanket, which he carefully drapes over Will’s body. Ascertains it covers his feet, all the way up to his neck. Considering the boy's detestation for the cold, Mike doesn’t want to see what his reaction would be if he awoke to any sort of chill. He’d probably never come back to the unnamed fort again.

He pulls another blanket over himself and relaxes back into his spot. Pulls it up over his mouth and turns his head in the pillow, gaze fixed on Will again before finally closing. He wants to tell him so bad. Needs to. It’s the only way they can be one hundred percent. They’re making progress, but for everything to be okay again, for Will to confidently be able to call Mike his ‘best friend’ or even 'friend' again, he needs to know why. And even if it does happen, if Will doesn’t feel the same way, if he doesn’t find it adequate enough and prefers to have Mike out of his life for good, at least he’ll know it wasn’t his fault.

Mike just doesn’t know how to tell him the truth. Doesn’t know how to tell himself that what he’s feeling is even worth telling Will. Is it even worth it?