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Spring Break

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When El invited Mike over for dinner earlier that morning over the phone, nothing could have prepared Will for the insufferably large lump wedged snugly in the hollow of his throat to churn the way it did. The coil twists in his esophagus, as well as his stomach, when he looks into those brown eyes for the first time in… Months. How many months? He remembers keeping track once, and then stopping somewhere along the way. 

It feels as painful as it sounds, is what he thinks to himself as he desperately tries to pinpoint his feelings – a tactic recommended by Donna, his therapist. Just Donna. Friendly first name instead of a more professional-sounding Dr. or Mrs. – supposed to sound less intimidating, but Will sees no difference either way. “Recognize what you’re feeling, accept it, and think of our session and what methods you learned.” Her timid voice rings in his ear, relaxing his nerves only slightly below the bar of actual effectiveness. With Donna’s voice, comes knitted sweaters, gentle touches on the arm or hand, apple-cinnamon scented candles, cheetah print cardigans, vanilla hand cream, and complimentary wool blankets, because she knows how strong Will’s detestation for the cold is. He talked about it in one of his earliest sessions. With Donna, comes peace and serenity. Safeness. Warmth.

And right now, staring eye-to-eye with none other than Mike Wheeler himself, the boy who only knows how to talk over the phone when its El’s voice coming through the other end, Will decides he feels pain. Then retreats his answer, replacing it with instead, nervousness, excitement, intimidation, anger, confusion, hurt… Cold. That’s it. Cold. Will feels cold looking at Mike. Like winter after a hot summer, Mike loses the warmth he once provided Will and instead replaces it with unpleasant goosebumps and shivers all over.

He’s not sure how long he’s stood there in the doorway without saying anything, but when he clues back in to the world around him, he finds that Mike’s eyes are wide, as though he’d expected someone else to answer the door. El, Joyce, hell, even Hop. Judging by his expression, Will ponders the thought of Mike possibly forgetting El wasn’t the only kid living in this house.

Could Mike have forgotten him? It isn'timpossible. How many months has it been, again?

Mike clears his throat dryly. He swallows his own spit, then coughs again before mumbling, “Hi.” The first thing Will notices is his voice. It’s deepened- the change is barely noticeable to anyone who’s not paying attention, but it’s there. He hasn’t changed much appearance-wise, except now, Will’s viewing him from a slightly different angle, having grown four extra inches since leaving Hawkins. Mike’s still taller, but not by much.

Will purses his lips, unsure of whether to yell at him – “Oh, look who it is! Fancy seeing you here, Wheeler, I was beginning to think you were dead!” – or envelope him into the tightest hug imaginable because no matter how angry and hurt he was, he still missed him more than anything. The silence between them is uncomfortable and tension filled, and different from the ones they used to share when they were younger. The kind that used to unleash a gate of butterflies in Will’s stomach, where they fluttered aimlessly in crowded, indecisive mobs, making his heart soar. Now, it’s as if someone has reached out and wringed his heart like a wet cloth. Twisting and squeezing until it oozes apart onto the front porch. Realizing now that looking at Mike is equivalent to looking at a stranger – someone he probably shouldn’t hug, now that he thinks about it – serves as a complimentary gab in the stomach for good measure.

Will skips the greeting, already feeling a bit to overwhelmed, and instead crooks a chin over his shoulder to call Joyce, who’s busy setting the table in the next room over. The clang of plates and silverware is loud from the entryway; echoing down the hall, making his mother’s presence prominent. “Mike’s here,” He says loud enough for everyone to hear, including El, who’s room, which had been once booming with Madonna, goes silent. Will opens the door wider and steps back with it, hand firm against the knob, white at the knuckles. “come in.”

 

Everyone is gathered around the table, except, of course, Jonathan, who’s away for school. Will wishes they could switch places, swap identities, just for a little bit. At least until this dinner is over. Jonathan would be better at filling in the silent, awkward gaps between every conversation. He’d play the field instead of sitting on the bench. Will just knows he would.

He doesn’t speak for a majority of dinner, until his name is spoken by his mother, who sits by his right, with Hopper on the other side of her. El sits by Hop’s side, with Mike close enough to nudge against her other elbow. Will fights the urge of glancing to his left with the knowledge of what he’d see making him even more annoyed than he already was.

Over the course of seven months – they moved to Michigan in September, it’s March now, he did the math – El, his sister, and El, the girl who stole his best friend, have become easier to tell apart, except for when El occasionally declares she’s visiting the Wheeler’s for a few days and vice versa, or her giggly voice is loud enough to hear outside her bedroom door - Oh Mike, I love you, Mike, I miss you, Mike!  - It’s times like that when their sibling companionship slowly withers away, and Will’s pettiness comes creeping in. 

Hearing their whispers, feeling Mike’s feet shuffle under the table to bump against El’s, and not even having to look to know their hands are interlocked, El is less than likeable.

She stole him, he thinks. She took him away from me. And now everything’s weird.

If El hadn’t forgotten to tell everybody he was coming for the week of Spring Break before it was too late, Will would have made plans before Mike arrived. He’s able to set some arrangements for the rest of the break, but for the time being, he’s forced to sit and pretend Mike’s not there, sitting right beside him. Five inches to his left instead of an agonizing four hundred and sixty miles away.

“Isn’t that right, Will?” Joyce asks, smiling at him with those glimmering, coffee-coloured eyes. His name sparks his attention once more, and silence descends over the table. Everyone stops what their doing, waiting for Will to respond, even the giddy couple in the corner. And somehow, it takes him back to World History class, when he zoned out during a lesson and Mr. Dobson quizzed him for several minutes onward, in front of the entire class, with every intent of embarrassing him.

Will thinks hard for a moment. Yes or no? “Yes.”

Joyce seems satisfied with that answer, so he breaths a heavy sigh of relief. The rest of dinner is slow and agonizing. Mostly catching up with Mike about school, home, and how the rest of the party is doing. Max and Lucas are apparently still a thing, which despite their constant bickering have a bond that’s “stronger than it’s ever been”. Dustin’s moved on from Suzie and is now dating this new girl from choir. She’s a year older and described to resemble a hotter version of Heather Locklear- Dustin’s words, Mike adds when he notices El’s stare.

“They open for assemblies and stuff like that. They also have their own concerts but not many people go to them. It’s usually just me, Max, Lucas, and the parents of whoever’s in it.” Mike explains. He catches Hopper’s eye, then falters his gaze back down to the take-out Chinese food on his plate, Joyce’s go-to for last minute guests. Mike knows his appearance was unexpected, and it’s not his fault, but it still doesn’t help the fact that Hopper’s stare is burning holes in his skull from across the table.

It’s not a secret that with the move, Jim had been hoping El would move on and find someone new – A more respectable boy with manners and thoughtfulness. Shit. Anything.

So, to have that vision shattered, was annoying. Having Mike stay for days at a time, overnight, at any time he pleases, isn’t something he particularly finds enjoyment in. Will feels the same way, and it’s made pretty clear when the only people looking even remotely interested in his stories are Joyce and El.

They pack up soon after. Will hurries washing his plate before running up the stairs to his room, desperate to get his hands on the cream-coloured rotary phone sitting on his desk, next to the scattered pencil crayons and paper.

Quickly, his fingers fumble with the dial. Then he’s pressing the phone flat against his cheek and waiting impatiently for the opposing side to pick up.

Please, please, please. He repeats faintly under his breath. He’s gripping the desk, steadying himself as though he were two seconds from toppling over. Please pick up, please

“Hello?”

Will's chest caves from the long, relieved sigh that leaves it. How long have I been holding it? Since Mike showed up at the door? Has it been that long? Then they quirk into a smile, and Will breathes, “Hey you,” He finally slumps down sideways on the chair next to his desk as though a puppeteer had cut his strings. Joyce and Jim's voices have drowned into soft murmurs from the kitchen, loud enough to hear but not enough to understand. Multiple footsteps trample the stairway, on their way to El’s room, no doubt. He doesn’t care. “Spring break. You up to anything?”

The other line shuffles a bit, “Nope.”

Will waits a few moments, fiddling with the orange coloured pencil between the sky-blue and magenta. He pushes them gently with his fingers before catching them near the edge, just in time. “Is it cool if I come over or something?”

“Sure, yeah,” Then, “is everything okay?”

Will sits up straight, somewhat shocked by the concern. Which, he shouldn’t’ve been. Him and Sam are close. Really close. They're not dating, but they're not not dating, in a sense. They feed off of each other’s affection. They’re friends at heart, but with their shared loneliness in regards to their sexuality - which may as well make them the two four-leaf-clovers of the town, except not as lucky - they often exchange in comfort and companionship when one – or both – of them needs it. Their labelless relationship was born out of desperate longing and solitude. Bittersweet. “Yeah,” He says hastily. Then, “No. I don’t know.”

Sam’s patient, though. His voice is gentle and calm. “What’s going on?” And from that simple phrase alone, Will can picture the dark, combed-out curls, carelessly dispersed freckles, the immense deepness in his big, brown eyes, and how the brows sitting just above them are furrowed in the front. He's probably fidgeting with something right now, the hem of his shirt maybe- that, or he's standing completely still, nervous for what's to come next.

“Well, you know Mike?” The question was rhetorical. There was no question that Sam knew who Mike was. When you have Will ranting in your bedroom about stupid homophobes, stereotypes, liking boys, liking one boy in particular... After a while, the name becomes fairly familiar.

"It’s so frustrating. He used to be so nice, but now he’s just acting like a complete asshole. Do you think he knows? Do you think that’s why he's started avoiding me? Oh, God, what if he knows, and is freaked out by me or something?"

Will glances around his room, at the different bookshelves and sketches plastered over the wall. Some from when he was younger, others from just days ago.“He’s here,” His mouth hangs open for a moment, his voice barely catching up to his lips, “I can’t be here right now. Not with him around.” 

"He's there? Right now?" 

"Yes." 

"And... You're avoiding him?" Though it sounds less like a question, and more like an observation. "After spending months complaining about him avoiding you?" 

Will groans, "Look, it's just... It's not that I'm avoiding him, okay?" 

"Every time he visits, you come over to my house," He points out. "Dude, this is your chance to talk to him. I thought that was what you wanted." 

"It is," Will argues. "But I can't with El around. At least, not in private." 

There's a long pause as Sam thinks over what to say next. Will almost thinks he's hung up, until he finally murmurs, "I'll let you come over, if you promise to sort things out with him tomorrow. That means figuring out a way to get him in private and really talking it out with him."

And Will hesitates. Tomorrow seems so soon, and honestly, the thought of saying more than he did in the doorway is nerve-wracking; terrifying, even. Seven months apart with little to no communication is a long time; long enough for both parties to accept that they've drifted apart. There's no way he can jump into Mike's life so abruptly after the seven months of just nothingness

"Fine." 

Sam's triumphant smirk on the other end is almost identical to Mike's, whose sitting against El's wooden headboard, knees drawn tightly against his chest. El's showing him videos from the family videocamera onto the small TV on her dresser, flipping through different recordings of her friends smiling, waving, laughing, and posing for the camera. El's voice can be heard from behind it for the majority of the videos, whether she's narrating or laughing, or both. There's many new faces that pop up, but there's a few recurring ones. 

A blonde girl with crazy, curly hair, like cotton candy. Sandy, her name is. Then, Melissa, a short brunette with cute, chubby cheeks; most videos that include her, show her standing next to Jess, a taller brunette with striking, blue eyes. Their height difference makes both Mike and El chuckle a bit. 

The video with Melissa and Jess cuts to a close up of El, now centre screen. Her eyes are closed and Sandy's swiping blue eyeshadow over her right eyelid with a foamy applicator. Mike knows it's Sandy when the camera pans outward and a lock of yellow hair comes into frame from the far left side. They're in the same bathroom he passed by on his way dropping off his suitcase in the guest room, he realizes, before Sandy turns to look at the camera and announces, "And now, the final step," She reaches for something out of frame, and then pulls back with a tube of hot pink lip gloss. Meanwhile, El's face is slack, submitting to anything Sandy says. Suck in your cheeks, close your eyes, rub your lips together. It's not long before she's given permission to look in the mirror, and then she's grinning wide with Sandy's cheek pressed against hers and her hands clasped around her shoulders. 

Watching her on the TV screen, it's almost impossible to picture who she was until just short of three years ago. Over and over again, he has to remind himself of what she's done; killed, stolen, opened and closed the gate to an alternate universe- a parallel to their world. Fought off vicious, deadly creatures using her mind.

He pays attention to Sandy, who now stands behind El, fixing a few wavy strands out of place, then to Jess who stands beside El in the mirror and asks if she should cut her hair shorter, then to Melissa's finger that accidently blocks the top left part of the camera, and wonders if they know. If Eleven told them about her history, the meaning behind her name. How her and Mike met. That her family is less biologically related than they appear. 

He doubt she has, hence the whole point of the move being the fresh start and a chance to finally be normal.

Besides, even if she did decide to tell anyone, he's not sure they would believe it anyway. He knows that if he hadn't have been there for the ride, there's no way in hell he'd believe it either. 

She turns the volume down a little bit by spinning one of the dials on the TV, "Last time Max visited, she fit in well. The girls liked her. They still talk about her," She exclaims over the more hushed laughs and giggles coming from the recording. She then mimics their voices, "When will Max be back? We miss Max!" Mike huffs out a laugh. "She's gonna spend part of the summer up here. Did you know that?" His dark waves tousle when he shakes his head no, "If we had more than one guest room, I'd invite the whole party. I miss Dustin. And Lucas. A lot." 

He nods, "You'll see them. They're dying to see you again." 

"And Will?" 

"Hm?" 

"Are they dying to see Will again too?" 

The name takes him by surprise. He doesn't know how to respond at first, "Uh... Yeah. Yeah, him too. Of course." She smiles, seemingly content with that answer. "And, you know, just because there's only one guest room, doesn't mean there's not enough space. That's what sleeping bags are for," He doesn't know about Max, but the boys of the party, the "core four", all had their own sleeping bags from when they used to sleepover at each other's houses in middle school. "We could share your room, Lucas and Max can take the guest room, and Dustin can sleep on Will's floor."

She snickers, "Or... Max and I share my room, and you guys figure out the rest." He rolls his eyes playfully in response, already knowing Hopper would never let him and El share a bed for the night anyway. Deep down, he wasn't too attached to the idea. He doesn't care who he roomed with, just as long as it's with either Lucas or Dustin, or both, if Will rathers sleeping alone. 

Her dimples dig deeper into her cheeks the more she thinks about it: the party back together again. All of her favourite people in the same place at the same time.

"Summer." She settles. And she can't wait to tell Max about it over the phone. 

 

The bike ride was all thunder but no rain. His hoodie flapped mercilessly in the wind at the same time his bangs flew back, exposing his bare forehead to every passing vehicle. At any second, the clouds could break and a heavy crash of water could come barreling down on him, soaking him until he was shivering by Sam's doorstep, like a stray dog or a rat you'd expect to find in a sewer. That luckily wasn't the case, when he missed it by only a few minutes.

Now, he lays, sprawled out on Sam's bed while Sam sits by the edge, head hung low as he finishes the chapter he was in the middle of reading when Will first arrived. Raindrops slam against the windows of the empty house and had them both questioning whether or not the power was going to go out. 

"I hope it doesn't. I don't have anything battery powered to get me through these last couple pages." 

"You don't have a flashlight?" 

"Maybe. Somewhere. I'd have to look, but even if we did have one, I doubt it works." 

Will just hums as he fumbles with the rubix cube he found on the nightstand, not really knowing what else to say. Sam can tell he's a bit too focused to care about the power from the way his teeth catch his bottom lip and his eyes stare into the cube, as though he were trying to use his mind to make the puzzle solve itself. And Will doesn't think or care too much about anything else besides those little distractions until they've called it a night and Sam's arms are wrapped firm around small of his waist. In the darkness of the bedroom that doesn't belong to him, he stays awake thinking... Thinking about the boy he redirected his thoughts from whenever he caught them landing back on him.

Mike doesn't like you like that. Even before you moved out of Hawkins, it was obvious. Remember Castle Byers? Sure, you were the one who struck it with the bat, but who really destroyed it? 

That was my home, Will thinks. My safe space. Mike was my safe space. And then one day, they were both gone. 

He clenches his jaw, feeling an odd ache in his chest from the memory. Mike's words - "It's not my fault you don't like girls!" - He had to have known then.There's not a single doubt in his mind that Mike suspected something and then somehow figured it all out. 

No wonder he's kept his distance. 

Intractably negative thoughts and scenarios crowd Will's brain, sending it into overdrive. He's shaking, and can physically feel the anxiety of it all shivering down his nape until Sam's breath warms it, momentarily anchoring him back down to Earth. 

Then he's asking the question, What would I even say?

Why haven't you... Is there a reason for... Did I do something... He shakes his head slightly against the pillow. Everything he comes up with sounds so stupid and... Desperate. 

Sure, he could lie to Sam. He could make up this big, long story about how him and Mike are cool now and everything's back to normal. But that's sounds too easy. Something so quintessentially simple sounding is bound to end in regret. And even if he did decide to do it- to lie, his conscious would force him to retreat, saying "no wait, listen, what actually happened is..."

And if he ever lied to Sam, ever betrayed his trust, well, he'd lose this. Cuddling during thunderstorms, kisses, hugs- the warm ones, always. He can't lose this. Even though he knows it would be hard for Sam to give it all up so easily, he still can't risk it. Like holding painite over the edge of a balcony overlooking a big city. 

He gives Sam's hand a gentle squeeze and closes his eyes, even though he's not all that tired. The warmth the other boy radiates relieves the tenseness of his muscles, and the more he lets himself sink into the embrace, the heavier his eyelids become.

He wonders to himself if they'll ever grow up to find people like them. He wonders if Sam will find someone. He deserves a boyfriend- someone kind and into books as much as he is. Maybe they could share a favorite author or series, even recommend some to each other sometimes.

Will could totally picture it. Sam in a coffee shop with another guy, probably bickering over what book series is better. Sam probably making a list on the nearest napkin with a pen he found in his coat pocket as to why his argument is the most valid. He's stubborn like that; adorable, and sweet beyond words, but stubborn.

He opens his eyes to squint at the cover of the book Sam had placed on the nightstand before settling in bed next to Will, titled, Bridge of Birds. Littered on the floor, below him, Carrie by Stephen King. He recalls seeing the same book in El's room once.

He slips his eyes shut once more as he thinks back to Sam and his future boyfriend. And before he can worry about any of that happening before he's had the chance of finding a relationship of his own, leaving him all alone with no cuddle-buddy to fall back onto, Will falls asleep, unaware that the exact scenario was already set in place, but not in the way he thinks.

Chapter Text

 

The sleepy abyss holds his mind captive miles from reality. Its as if he’s floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean under spatters of blinking white in a sky of raven, with the wind and current as his only paddle.

The weight of his head is one of a bowling ball from the way it caves in the pillow and pulls on the skin of his forehead and cheek. He’s only slightly aware of his senses; just being able to point out the scent of detergent from the bedsheets and the morning pine coming from the window they forgot to close the night before.

Right now, he's comfortable. Everything’s at the perfect temperature; the heat of Sam’s arms wrapped around his middle, his breath that had once been pointed to Will’s neck, but had shifted at some point during the night to his shoulder, their legs tangled like vines, overlapping each other under the covers… Even the pressure of Sam’s chest against his back, though covered with the fabric of his boxy t-shirt, is grounding and comforting in itself.

It’s so perfect, that in the little moments before the rude and abrupt awakening, Will would say with confidence that he had completely forgotten about the stress back at home.

Until, the arms that once held him, and the legs that once wrapped themselves with his, slide away and instead, start pushing on him. Sam pushes fast and hard until Will’s toppling over the edge and slamming against the hardwood with a brutal smack, his body barely given time to adjust. His breath catches behind clenched teeth against the floor as an invigorating spike of pain hits his hip, resulting in a throat-curdling groan of pain, to which Sam quickly conceals with a loud, exaggerated, “Uhhhh,” And Will winces, turning over to look up at the ceiling, initially to ask Sam what the hell that was for, but stops when he sees the comforter in midair directly above him. “y-yeah, just give me a second, dad.”

And suddenly, he's surrounded in darkness.

His reaction to the name, the one-word explanation for what just happened, is caught underneath the thick barrier.

Dad. Sam’s dad isn’t supposed to be back yet. Did he take the morning off? What day is it?

The door is on the left side of the bed and Will is laying on the right side. All it would take for them to be caught would be for Mr. Reynolds to pace the room and spot the comforter.

"How many times" he would say, "do I have to tell you to stop leaving your shit around?"

Then, he would pick it up, probably meaning to throw it back on the bed or in the closet or something, but instead finding a scrawny, pale, half-naked boy curled up on his son’s floor.

The thought of it makes him shudder. What he would do in that situation, he’s not even sure. What could you do?

He relaxes on the floor, accepting his fate. He tries to loosen his muscles a bit, to let go of some of the tension, but doing so would mean lying flat against the cold floor. And that would lead to chills for hours, constant discomfort, memories of... 

Don't think about it. Don't think about it.

God, why doesn't Sam have carpets? Even a stray piece of clothing would do. Anything to lie on that isn't the floor. Why didn't I wear a shirt to bed? 

He wants to sit up and wrap the comforter around himself like he did with the towel, that time the boys chose to go swimming at the quarry when they were eleven. Lucas and Mike jumped off the high part, while him and Dustin stayed on the lower level. He remembers Lucas's flip and how impressed Mike was by it. So impressed, in fact, that he became determined to learn it himself. 

Will remembers the three of them sauntering off to the same spot once they got tired, bored, cold, or all of the above- a sandy part next to the water, by the cliff. They filtered in one by one over the course of three hours (or maybe it was closer to two-and-a-half), but Mike, on the other hand- Mike stayed by the same damn ledge the whole time. And he retreated back to it every time another helpless attempt failed. And whenever he looked up at them for confirmation after having immediately broken through the surface of the water, all he got were shakes of heads and the odd, "Come on Mike!" or "Can we go now?" 

But he persisted - "Just wait! I think this one is the one! I know what to do now, I promise!"  - and even when Lucas and Dustin eventually lost the last of their patience and biked home, he replayed Lucas's instructions in his head- altered his body in different ways every time, just hoping that one of them would turn out to be the lucky winner.

And although Will's body was painted a glimmering gold from the summer sun and had long since air dried, he still clung to the striped towel. He tugged it tighter around his shoulders, tilted his head to the side, and squinted his eyes at a particular light ray shining down on him.

He'll still never forget when Mike finally got it. Before he even had the chance to reach the air, Will's screams blubbered through the water, "You did it! You did it!"  And when he splashed out and turned around, he saw the boy jumping up and down from a distance with his fists high up in the air. The towel was thrown somewhere on the ground, completely forgotten about, but Will didn't care,"It was just like Lucas's!" 

"Really?!" 

"Yea-hah!" 

And suddenly, the door creaks open. Sam shifts on the bed- Will can tell by the slight squeaking sound the headboard makes.

“Dad... I said, give me a second- “

A tattered voice speaks over him, “You’ve just woken up?”

From Will’s spot on the floor, whatever’s occurring above is left to his own interpretation. Right now, he pictures Sam scrambling to make his bed, finger-comb his hair, and find a decent looking pair of pants to throw on before his father walks in. 

He swallows thickly, hearing Sam stutter out an answer before being cut off again, “You know what? Save it. You have five minutes. Five minutes to be packed, dressed, and in the car, ready to go."

"But-"

"No buts!" The man gruffs, causing even Will to flinch. Listening to him now, Mr. Reynolds and Lonnie's voices sound almost exactly the same. The only difference is the slurring between words. Lonnie's voice was practically made up of slurs, considering the only times he really got mad were when he was shit-faced drunk. Mr. Reynolds, however- his words are sharp and narrow. Cutting if you're not careful. "All I asked of you last night was to be ready by eight-thirty. Eight-fucking-thirty and you can't even do that!"

"I'm sorry." It comes out in a trembled whisper. 

It's as if Sam had never said anything. His father responds finally, this time with more steadiness, "Five minutes." 

Moments of agonizing silence go by and Will wonders if they're able to hear his heaves. For a moment, he questions if Mr. Reynolds had figured it out. If the stutter in his breath gave away his hiding spot. He clasps his hand over his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut. 

Please don't pull off the blanket, please don't pull off the blanket. 

And then, the door slams. Angry footsteps lead out into the hall. 

And they're finally safe. 

Before Will can push the blanket off for some much-needed fresh air, someone else takes it, and throws it on the bed. Then, a sheet of light pours through the window and hits him square in the eye.

After he shifts his head to the side, dodging the ray, he realizes it's Sam, and he doesn't make time for conversation.

He's rushed- almost as if he’s in fast motion, "I'm sorry, man," He murmurs, tugging open his dresser drawers. Hair, the color of black coffee, hangs in his face when he stacks a pile of folded sweatshirts in his arm, "I thought that if I put the blanket over you, he wouldn’t see you- I... I don't know," He breathes, "I just thought you'd be less visible if you were down there." 

Will lifts himself up, using the bed for balance. He winces but swallows it down. "It's fine." 

The other boy pauses and turns around when he hears the strain in his voice, "You're hurt."

"No, no," He stops him hastily, "I mean, your bed isn't that high up. I'm more... Caught off guard. It's fine, Sam, don't worry about it," When the other boy nods and turns back around, he turns too. He reaches for his jeans from yesterday, which had been carelessly left on the floor, unfolded. 

After several moments of Sam anxiously rummaging through his drawers and Will fastening his belt, Will asks, "Where are you going anyway?" 

"My uncle's," He answers, throwing the pile into his backpack. He strides back to his dresser to open another drawer, full of jeans and sweatpants. Denim on the left, sweats on the right. He tugs a random pair of light wash jeans on without sparing it one lackadaisical glance. "it's for a couple nights, but he lives pretty close. Apparently, he owns the motel here. The small, cheap one that gets all the complaints? That's where we're staying." Will knows that place. He doesn't recall the name, but he passes by it on his route to school everyday.

It's intimidating, and not just by virtue of the visibly poor living conditions - chipped paint, insects crawling everywhere, unfinished construction - but because of the people who stay there.

They always have that same angry look on their faces, like if you look at them the wrong way, they'll stab you with anything they can find with zero hesitation or remorse. The women wear heavy, black eyeliner and the men oil their hair till it looks wet, and they all smell like cigarette smoke- a fact you'd know immediately if you stepped within ten-feet of them.

He looks at Sam in the corner, tugging on his plum crewneck overtop of the white tee he slept in, and thinks to himself, how is he going to survive in that place

It's as if he's freshly adopted and has yet to adapt to his own surroundings. His family is nothing but a bunch of strangers, who don't seem to match him at all. 

He's a black sheep in a flock of snowy white. A rose in a field of daisies. A swan in a pond full of ducks. 

He doesn't belong. And sometimes... Will feels that way too. 

"Actually, half the family's staying there. It's supposed to be a bonding experience, but" Sam turns to his backpack, making sure he's packed everything. "I'm pretty sure it's just an excuse for the adults to meet up at night to get high while the kids are sleeping." 

And Will finds himself frozen still in the centre of his bedroom, not sure of what to say back. He's never heard anybody say something so dark in such a nonchalant way, and yet, here Sam is, desperately trying to fit as many novels as he possibly can in his backpack before finally zipping it closed, like nothing was ever said at all. 

Will eyes the alarm clock on the dresser- 8:29. 

"I should get going," He says, half-turning to look out the window. The road look so gloomy. The rain must've hit it hard. "you should too." 

Sam slings the backpack over his shoulders and nods. "Make sure to close the window on your way out. I don't want any bugs coming in," Will snickers. One time! It was one time! Sam's smiling too. He shifts on his feet and his hands come up to grip his backpack straps, and then after a few seconds pass, his expression falls back to neutral, "and Please, just... Talk to him. This whole immature, mutual-silent-treatment thing has gone on long enough." Will's face turns serious too, then. 

And suddenly, all the thoughts and scenarios that have played in his head like a horror montage come rushing back. Because for a fleeting second, Will would have liked to say he forgot. 

He eyes the clock again- 8:30.

Then, he nods, “I will.” But what he would’ve said, if they were given more time to argue and bicker, would have been, I can’t promise anything. 

 

 

Mike stands alone by the kitchen sink, his sleep-filled eyes focused on the glass he holds underneath the running tap. The water is nearing the brim, but his mind’s so far gone, he holds it in place anyway.

A murder of crows are to blame for why he’s up so early. He stares at them through the window just above the sink with a jarring lack of emotion. They're in the trees, and then they're in the grass- constantly moving, yet his eyes remain locked on the bark. 

The intricate, vertical patterns unravel behind raven feathers, opening a gateway to every single one of his daydreams- arranging them, displaying them, like it's his pick for movie night. 

No, he thinks. Focus on the birds. They're what you should be looking at. Who stares at bark instead of birds?

And when he does, it's as if there's something missing- a certain satisfaction from before. The bark, though more complex and studious, helped to tap into his subconsciousness, and now, its as if his thoughts are scattered like groceries falling out of the bottom of an outstretched plastic bag.

Something doesn't feel right looking at the crows. Somehow, the bark seems more exciting. But not everyone would agree.

"Good morning."

The voice shocks him out of his skin, harshly pulling him back down to Earth.

He blinks and breathes out a short puff of air. The glass is overflowing with water and soaks his hand, so he turns the faucet off and hastily dumps the first quarter back down the drain. 

He knows who it is almost instantly. It's in the way their voice cracks unintentionally, their feet pad among the floor, barely making a sound, and the way they hesitate mid-sentence, as if they suddenly regretted saying anything at all before it was already too late.

And they don't use the greeting as some sort of passive, casual thing either. They don't run up the stairs, unexpectant of a response. They stand still, watching him from behind his shoulder, not only waiting for a response, but a conversation too. Almost as a, hey, we're both awake, so why not? sort of talk, where you talk about nothing and everything at the same time, and then later on, completely forget about. 

All it takes is for the voice to pipe up again, for him to remember that it was his turn to talk, and that he had completely missed it, "I guess mom and dad already left. Their cars weren't in the driveway," Then, "uh- when I checked through the window. I wasn't in the driveway." 

They both have early shifts this morning, that is true. Still, Mike doesn't expect them to be gone this early. The house is so quiet, it's easy to assume they're both sleeping in their bedroom, like their daughter. You’d think all the magazines and sappy romance movies on VHS would get old after a while. But it turns out, they’re just enough to turn her nocturnal.

Mike takes a timid sip of his water, watching the morning sun cast its ray through the window. It turns his obsidian eyes into a golden, chestnut color and he squints at the burn, which is so bright and intense, he’s forced to turn around, place the cup on the counter, and rub his eyes with the back of his palm. 

He winces, “Yeah,” Then waits a few seconds to open his eyes. When he does, he blinks widely at the floor by Will’s foot, “yeah, guess so.” He’s fully aware that this is their first encounter since the day they left for Michigan in September, and the more he thinks that over, the faster his heart beats with anxiety.

It’s been so long. I should be excited.

But instead, he feels adrenaline pump viciously through his veins, urging him to run away. Only, he wouldn’t know where to go if he did- he’s barely learned his way around the house yet, having only slept over a few other times.

In this house, every hallway is like a maze- much different from their old house’s layout, which was pretty straightforward for the most part. Kitchen, living room, and then the hallway leading to all the bedrooms. He misses it. It had all the memories, and all this one has to offer is stale paint smell and the sound of car engines from down the road.

Eyes slightly watered from blinking so much, he notices Will shift a bit, “So… What are you doing up so early?”

Guilt sours in the back of his throat when he realizes. His eyes immediately snap onto Will’s, “Shit, I didn’t wake you up, did I?”

The other boy shakes his head, scrunching his eyebrows reassuringly, “No, no.” Mike nods, relaxing a bit. He watches Will’s lips quirk up into a soft smile, shy-like. That, along with his tousled hair is enough for Mike’s eyes to dart back to the floor, panicked, “I was just curious.”

The urge doesn’t go away. In fact, it’s even stronger now.

Answering his question from before, “I just needed some water,” Then he clears his throat, “I think I’m good now.” Will barely gets a word in before Mike hurriedly trails the kitchen, brushing past his shoulder as he does.

“Wait- “

But he’s already gone. And Will’s heart aches in his chest, because he just knows somethings wrong.

Mike knows about me. He knows, and he’s grossed out. I knew it.

And to be honest, he doesn’t know how to feel. Angry, upset? How can he be upset when it’s the most expected reaction? Anyone would feel the same; it’s the reason why he’s kept it to himself for so long.

But on the other hand, Mike isn’t just anyone. He’s his best friend. They’ve established their closeness a long time ago. And what? Is that all supposed to change now? For something this minor? 

It’s not a big deal, he thinks. Why does everybody treat it like it’s some sort of disease? 

And if that really is the reason he's acting weird... If Mike really does believe all the shit from the media, enough to turn on his own friend... Well then, he's lost him completely. Because now, Will's angry. No, not angry. That's not the right word. Fuck. 

Think of Donna. Recognize your feelings.

Indignant, hurt, betrayed, offended- so many words that make up the same meaning, yet somehow, fail to express it well enough. 

It's not very often he snaps.

"You're destroying everything, and for what?! So you can swap spit with some stupid girl?!" 

But the repressed frustration boiling down, deep in the pit of his stomach, is nearing its breaking point. Steam trickles out his ears, a shade of red washes over his face, and it becomes clear to him then, that this conversation - which is 100% happening now, he's decided - will be anything but calm and regulated. 

 

Chapter Text

For so long, he’s been pushing the idea of Will’s existence away, unaccepting of the fact that they are (or were once) considered inseparable.

He hates the way Will’s image has burned itself into his mind. Smooth, brown hair with matching eyes, framed by dark eyebrows, a mole just above his lip, and the sharp edge of his jaw just below the shells of his ears- everything, every single feature on that boy’s face contributes to Mike’s only perception of the epicentre of everything morally good in the world.

And still, he refuses to acknowledge it.

Because if someday, Mike somehow works up the courage to glance up and really take a good look at the boy, he’s afraid he’ll never be able to look away. That the sheen of sweat coating the back of his neck would thicken, and his awkward shyness would intensify to the point where it becomes noticeable.

Whenever Will crosses his mind again, he doesn’t know how to feel. All he knows, is it’s not normal. It isn’t normal to think about someone other than his girlfriend, let alone a boy, as often as he does- at school, biking to the arcade with Lucas, Dustin, and Max, in bed during sleepless nights, and all the times in between… it just isn’t.

So, instead of facing them, he tunes them out by internally chanting, he doesn’t existhe doesn’t exist. Because maybe- just maybe- if he says it frequently enough, it’ll start to become true.

He doesn’t exist, yet-

Here he is. Existing. With this… New life.

His face, his hair, his smile, his voice… It was all just becoming fuzzy. And now it's not anymore. 

Mike had even intentionally shoved a box full of pictures and drawings away in a closet at some point, and now, he finds himself trying to remember where it is.

Before stashing it away, he’d stared at everything long enough to memorize. Pages and pages of lined paper full of crayon markings and written on the same edge every time: TO: MIKE FROM: WILL. There were even a few with MW+WB doodled on the side, before either of them knew what it meant. Photographs- some just of Will, Will and Mike, Will and Mike and the party… Everything centred around Will, Will, Will, Will…

Stop it, he thinks to himself as he presses another kiss to the side of El’s cheek.

She squirms under him, scrunching her face in annoyance, “What time is it?” her voice heavy with exhaustion. He doesn’t respond, only continues pecking her face in response to the alarms that have been blaring mercilessly in his ears since the moment he reached the first step of the staircase.

He’s felt it before; the wrongness that flashed shades of red in his eyes like a broken light bulb. And he knows the only way to make it go away is to focus on El, and only El.

She chuckles, “Mike, stop.”

Despite her order, she winds her hands up to his pink cheeks, and pulls him close enough to kiss him on the lips.

Incorporating quickly, Mike takes the lead, without giving one fuck about how early it is. He presses his lips firmly against hers, just needing to feel something. It remains chaste, but the eagerness is more than present.

“I love you,” He mumbles in between kisses. He ignores how loose and hollow the statement feels against his tongue, even when she returns it back. He sneaks a few more pecks to the side of her cheek before she’s squirming away.

It takes a few seconds for him to wonder where she even went before he confusedly ducks his head and sees her sliding underneath his arm to the edge of the bed. Messy, honey-coloured curls bounce against her shoulders as she stands, white shorts with different coloured polka dots visible for barely a second before lime green covers it in the form of an oversized t-shirt.

“Woah, where are you going?” Mike asks, twisting his body around to face her.

She stills and turns her chin to look back. Then, her fingers thread through her hair as she answers, as if it were obvious, “The kitchen.”

He sighs. Always hungry. But so is he, so he responds, “Wait up.”

 

 

It’s silent at the table except for the clinging of silverware and soft nudges of cups against wood.

 El looks up at her agitated brother when a particular exasperated huff sparks her attention.

He’s seated a whole two chairs away from the couple, too busy spearing one of his waffle pieces and tugging it off his fork with his teeth bitterly to notice their staring.

He hasn’t said a word yet, except for the mumbled, thanks, at the beginning, and she hesitates asking if everything’s alright, in fear of somehow making whatever it is worse.

So, she turns her glance to Mike. And much to her misfortune, he’s not much help. Just stares into space and chews like a unprogrammed robot would.

Finally having turned back to her plate, defeated and off put, the girl jumps when a voice cuts through the silence like a sharpened blade, “Do you have any plans today, El?”

She looks up with those sparkling eyes, the brightening morning light making them look alive. Their light brown colour is soft; the exact shade of sunbaked soil. A ring of gold hangs inside her iris, adding another layer of depth to the already beautiful windows, which are framed by the longest and finest lashes. She thinks over her plans for the day, tucking a piece of cinnamon-coloured ocean waves behind her ear, “No.”

Will half-menacingly prods the inside of his cheek with his tongue, looking rather exasperated already. Her typically busy schedule is of course cleared for the week, and it would be impossible to get her out of the house while Mike’s visiting. He nods judgingly, quirking his eyebrow as a way to say without speaking aloud, it was worth a shot.

He’s about to say something else, when El beats him to it, “But… I was thinking, Mike,” Her hand comes up to rest against his wrist on the table. Will watches, eyes steadying on the small gesture of affection with a new layer of annoyance clenching itself around his lungs.

Mike seems to be just as aware of it as he is. He looks down at their hands, then wraps his hand around hers without further question.

Ugh, Will rolls his eyes.

A sip of water is all it should take for the worsening temper to subside, so he takes one- and then another, and then another, before the silence is stretched far too long and his curiosity drags his vision back to its original place.

El, with her cupped hand as a barrier between their world and his. She’s whispering something meant for Mike’s ears only. And Will doesn’t know what to do- doesn’t know what to say. He’s only ever seen them do this with other people; outsiders of the party, like Hopper. But that’s only ever to piss him off.

And now, they’re doing it to him.

They’re shoving the fact that he’s worthless in his face like a pie at a fundraiser event, except it hits him square in the chest, and it’s not a pie, it’s something harder- shaper. Something painful.  

El notices out of the corner of her eye, says one last thing, then pulls away.

She watches Will. Lets their pupils melt into each other before smiling sweetly, “I was just saying, maybe Mike and I can go shopping while you stay here. You can invite Becca, Sam, or Jennifer over if you’d like.” Flabbergasted to be excluded, and so forwardly, Will looks over to Mike, who only nods in agreement with El.  

“What?” He looks back to El, at a complete loss for words. His heart aches with rejection.

“March 22nd,” She says simply, brows raised in her innocent way, “that’s in three days, and we need to get you something. We can’t have you there with us.”

Oh. Right.

His own birthday – how could he have forgotten?

It does help him to feel better, and the idea of having Becca or Jennifer over actually does sound kind of fun. However, knowing that Mike and El will be together without him – on a date, basically – tugs on his heartstrings in a way he vaguely remembers from just short of a year ago. And even though it’s for him, it still hurts.

Also, Mike just got here. And no matter how paltry the chances are of him admitting to himself, he's missed him. He just wants five minutes.

"You guys can go tomorrow." 

“Will- “

“No, really. You can stay here, and… And- “He doesn’t know how to put what he wants to say into words without it coming out wrong and making him seem like a hypocrite. He wants Mike- just Mike. He wants a conversation, but mostly he just wants to know why. He needs to know why. If he doesn’t, insanity will consume him, more than it already has.

El smiles reassuringly, “We won’t be long,” She stares at the wall clock above Will’s head, “It’s 9:15. We’ll probably leave in an hour, so…” A silence descends over the three as she thinks over the math in her head. It’s not often she’s able to calculate problems without a sheet of paper and pencil, though she has made progress lately. The fuchsia flesh of her lips lightly brush against each other when she mumbles under her breath, “9 + 1 is 10. So that’s…” Then, louder with more confidence, “We’ll leave at 10:15 and be back by 11:45. Roughly,” She then adds with a soft smile, before glancing at Mike for a nod of confirmation.

Will sits back in his chair. She’s right- it’s not long at all. He still has plenty of time. Plus, with how proud she seems of herself for calculating it correctly; he can’t help but comply to her plan.

“Okay.”

 

 

The taller boy eyes the shops on either side of him like he’s just entered a theme park for the first time. His eyes are wide and open and more than anything, alert. It’s felt like forever since he’s stepped foot in a mall, and now that he has, it’s like last year all over again.

He remembers loving it- the people, the different sounds and smells, the discounts at Scoops, the cinema, and how everywhere you looked, a new exciting thing appeared. It was beautiful, and although it was outside of his comfort zone, which had previously been the arcade – a small, safe environment meant for people like him – it served just as much distraction and escape, which is what he often craved for.

But it’s different now.

With every person that passes by him, his stomach sinks a little more. There are children everywhere, wailing and screaming. Teenagers laughing. Adults bickering, either on the phone or to each other.

Everything’s happening all at once. And it’s too much.

Soon, every sound merges into one big bundle of chaos, sending him whirling into a separate, blurrier world. The rhythm of his pulse quickens and hammers against his chest and temples like an internal bass drum.

There’s no time to dwell on where they’re headed. El’s sneakers are moving so fast, she might as well be racing with a motorbike. Her voice wavers in and out of his consciousness, along with the lights, which have distorted themselves to shift and bend in the pace in which he’s walking.

“El,” He speaks breathlessly, grabbing her arm in the process. He’s dizzy. She stops.

People continue to walk past them, muttering incoherent chirps, but they pay no attention.

“Let’s just choose a store and get out of here.”

She blinks up at him, “Okay…” That was originally the plan. She’s not sure what he’d had in mind, “Where do you wanna go?”

The boy thinks for a moment; what does Will like?

Sure, he likes art, but that’s… Boring. Everyone’s going to get him something art related. Either it’s utensils, canvases, or sketchpads… He’s already got it all anyways, so why bother?

There’s gaming. Arcade or board games; Will has a love for them all. He could get him a new D&D, but who would he play with? His new friends? No, D&D is the party’s thing.

If Will ever wants to play, he’s free to stop by Hawkins and use Mike’s anytime, like he said he would the day he left. But not once has he paid him one visit, so it’s obvious he doesn’t care that much anymore.

He shrugs, a bit frustrated that he isn’t able to come up with anything, “I don’t know, what’s he into?”

She smiles, as if he made a joke, “He’s your best friend.”

“He’s your brother.”

Touché. There’s a moment of silence as she thinks. Then, finally, as the third person pushes past Mike’s shoulder, “He likes drawing and those X-Men comics.”

Puzzle pieces align in his brain, “Comics! Yes! You’re a genius!” He grabs her hand, “Let’s go!”

 

 

Meanwhile, at the Byers-Hopper house, blue sapphire meets camouflage-print in a stare to the death.

Jennifer – or Jenny, as Will calls her – has her plump lips pursed to the side; a quirk she’s had since middle school whenever she’s in deep thought. Will knows, since they went to the same one, and had coincidentally moved to the same state, town, and school at the same time.

She was the first friend he made in Michigan. They found each other almost immediately in the halls before first class, and in a frantic, impulsive state of exhilaration, vowed to spend lunch together everyday from that day moving forward, without even thinking to look at when the other’s lunch period was. Luckily, though, by some grace of God, they found each other, and kept each other company until eventually Becca and Sam joined their table and the group was formed.

Surely, if Will were to tell his younger self that he’d someday be best friends with Jennifer Hayes, there’s no way he’d believe it. He barely believed it when he heard about her attendance at his funeral, let alone that she was crying- and now she’s sitting on his living room floor beside an unfinished Snakes and Ladders game.

Most would say she's downgraded since Hawkins; that she's insane for destroying her reputation by hanging out with zombie boy and the two other nerds. And though all of that may be true, Will's noticed one thing about her drastic drop in the high school food chain and its that now, she actually smilesWrinkles around the edges of her eyes, full teeth kind of smile. She shares her ideas and interests with this rich enthusiasm that's so captivating to watch. 

She likes puzzles. And problem solving. Who knew? 

She gets better grades in math than anyone he knows; even Dustin, who can solve equations in a matter of seconds without having to think twice about it. Everything morally complex and intricate flows naturally in the winding gears of her brain, like it's being told to her by some unknown voice in the back of her head. It’s incredible.

That's why it doesn't come as much of a shock to him when she rolls a two, "Yes! I win! Third time in a row!" 

"Oh," He groans, leaning down to lay against the carpet, "you're just lucky." She snickers as she moves her piece two spots, landing on the hundredth square. Her sleek blonde ponytail, secured with a green scrunchie, turns to cover part of her face when she reaches over to collect Will's.

"Rematch?"  She asks as she juggles the dice in her hand. "I'll let you win this time." 

His eyebrows scrunch together as he stares up at the textured, cream-coloured ceiling. One hand rests against his striped stomach, the other by his head, as he pouts, "I don't need a girl to let me win,” Then, “Agh!” when she kicks him sharp in the leg.

"Ever listened to Bad Reputation?" She asks, as though nothing ever happened.

He rubs his sore calf over the fabric of his beige khakis, "I dunno- who sings it?" 

"Joan Jett." 

"No, I don't think I have." 

"It goes like... I don give a damn bout ma reputation," She sits back on her ankles and plays her air guitar with furrowed brows, "de ne de ne ne ne ne de ne de ne de" 

"I don't think so." 

The girl shrugs, "Figures. Remind me to make you a tape sometime. She's the baddest chick out there. She'll make you think twice before underestimating girls."  

“I was only joking," He grimaces, sitting up. But inside, a hot wave of guilt floods his body. He hadn't meant for it to come out like that- it was a stupid misconception he'd grown up with.

Lonnie's voice, gravelly insistent in his ear, "Be a fuckin' man. Don't be some... Girley boy. Girls are weak, and men are tough, and the sooner you learn that, the fuckin' better. Now, stop chasing after the damn rabbit, and pick up your gun. I didn't teach you to load it for nothing."  

He shivers at the thought of still bearing the same mindset that had been crafted by the very man who continues to haunt his dreams at night. He knows the strength women have- he's seen it first hand. His mother - Gosh, he could write a book with infinite chapters explaining how powerful she is - Nancy, Robin, El

If only Jennifer knew what Will knows, what El is capable of- well... Joan Jett would no longer be "the baddest chick out there". El surpasses everyone. By a long shot. Even Max.

Will loves girls; they’re strong and powerful and capable of anything. But at the same time, he doesn’t really. There’s a piece of him that’s angry at girls- angry because he’s supposed to be attracted to them and isn’t. And sometimes, it comes out in small, passive aggressive misogynistic remarks like that one; Lonnie’s words that had embedded themselves into his brain like yarn in a scarf.

"Yeah, yeah," She juggles the dice unbothered, "rematch?" 

He eyes the board, then the clock. He's bored out of his mind, but what else is there to do? "Sure." 

 

 

The trip took less time than they expected. By the time they arrived at the comic book store, potential was thrown at them like asteroids in outer space. X-Men galore. Will’s heaven.

They were expensive- mostly because Mike and El’s money combined was only a dollar and a few nickels. Still, they were able to get the X-Men comic and a few other cheaper ones. And during the bike ride home, Mike feels more than satisfied, which he figures is all that matters.

He can't wait to see Will’s face when he sees them in three days. He can’t wait to see his face in a few minutes. He’s excited to see him, but he’s also excited to finally be leaving the mall. In it was suffocating. He never knew something that should have felt so familiar could strangle him with as much fear as it had. And now, it’s like he can finally breathe again.

His legs burn with urgency when he pushes harder on the pedals, barely giving El a chance to catch up.

He’s only forced to slow down once he realizes he doesn’t know where he’s going. When his sneakers skid against the concrete and he turns to look behind his shoulder, El’s so far away, the only telling that the person behind him is her, is the vibrant purple of her headband. When she eventually catches up to him, she’s gasping for air, “You missed the turn… All the way… That way…”  

“Oops.”

 

 

“We’re home!” El calls as she strides through the front door. Mike walks in close behind, backpack strapped over one shoulder, where Will’s presents are planned to stay until the 22nd. After taking off his shoes, Mike peers past the wall separating the kitchen and living room while El heads for the stairs.

Chances are, Will's upstairs in his bedroom doodling in a notebook or listening to music from the radio. But then a shuffle catches his eye, and he steps closer, staring hard into the centre where both walls barely meet. A part of him wants it to be Will, even though if it is, he knows he'd leave immediately with some lousy excuse. 

"I have to sign your card!" He would say, and then not leave the guest room until Jim eventually swings the door open, as though to catch him doing something he shouldn't be doing, to tell him bitterly that dinner is ready. 

Shit. I didn't get him a card. 

He watches intently, letting his socked feet carry him forward. Then, without warning, a face pops out from behind the wall, nearly giving him a heart attack. 

He jumps back in shock, “Jesus!” And it takes a few seconds for him to comprehend the fact that Will is standing a mere three feet away from him before he’s able to say, “Sorry, I... I didn’t see you there.”

And as Will takes his own half-step backwards, Mike’s lips turn into a smirk, and his shoulders relax in the sort of act cool way, that only ever comes out awkward.

“My bad.”

Mike’s mouth opens- he’s about to say something else before another face covers Will’s. A girl’s face.

He remembers the conversation at breakfast, but still, it comes as a surprise when he sees he actually invited somebody over.

She smiles politely; similar to how you would at family functions or first days of school. Though, something about her expression seems rather open. She didn’t rehearse this in her head; she looks genuinely excited. Then, it hits him. She looks familiar.

Mike’s eyes blow wide, “Jennifer Hayes?” They were never close friends. Calling them friends at all seems like a reach, but he remembers admiring her in school, and then noticing one day she wasn’t there anymore. He only connected the dots when he heard her friends talk about it in Science class, after having talked all this shit about her, as if they hadn’t been balling their eyes out the day she left, just the week before. 

He remembers telling Will about his ‘crush’ on her.

 “Do you think she likes me back?”

“Gosh, I don’t know.”

The easy answer is no. She did not have a crush on him, in fact, a few weeks later, word got out that she actually had feelings for Will.

“I won’t date her, Mike, I promise. I don't even like her like that."

Looking back on it now, Mike reckons he could’ve been a little melodramatic when it came to Jennifer. But he was convinced that his love for her was deep and real. Something you only found in sappy, romance films. They were going to date one day, and then get married, and then have a ton of kids, or something. All because he looked at her one day and thought she was pretty. They never actually interacted unless she was around for James and Troy's little gimmicks. 

"Fairy! Midnight! Frog-" 

"Will you just shut up already? Geez, you guys can be so immature!" 

"Oh, come on! We’re just messing around! Right, frog face?" 

"Leave them alone, Troy." 

"Or what?" 

"Or I'll tell the principle it really WAS you who vandalized the bathroom stalls last Tuesday." 

Well, that did it. In less than a second, Troy and James were both out of sight. And it isn't long before the bell rings to back inside, and as she turns her shoulder, Mike catches up to her.  

"Hey, uh- thanks. For that."

"It's no problem. They're total assholes." 

"Yeah." He smirks. 

"You shouldn't listen to them. Your face is far from frog-like. It's quite handsome, actually." 

He stares unblinkingly at her for a few seconds after that, as though processing her words before looking down bashfully. 

It was the first time a girl had ever complimented him in a way that wasn’t a dare or joke. Because most of the time, girls were grossed out by him. They would laugh at Troy's insults, and gossip about him in the halls.

It caused him so much anxiety, that some days he would just stand in the mirror and cry.

So when Jennifer said that, he thought for sure what he was feeling was love. That is, until El had showed up a year later. El- the second girl who didn't feel grossed out by him. It was then that the spotlight turned on her, and the whole thing started all over again. 

He hasn't even thought about Jennifer since middle school. What is she doing here?

“Hi,” She waves. Which is what’s best. They aren’t close enough for a hug, so a wave settles just fine.

She’s matured. Pretty- no, beautiful- no, gorgeous. She looks like she belongs on the front of a magazine cover or in one of the movies Max and El watch whenever they’re together.

And he should feel something besides reluctance… But he doesn't. Because all he can think about is the massive crush she used to have on the boy standing behind her. And now, here the two are, reunited and seemingly close. 

Are they dating? He feels bad for thinking it. Of course, boys and girls can have platonic relationships, but it's what his mind instantly leads to. 

His face sterns a bit as he stammers out a forced, “Hi,” Then catches Will’s eye behind her shoulder briefly before heading toward the stairs. “I-uh… Have to hide your present, Wi-Will. For your- uh… Yeah.”

Then, there he goes- disappearing again.

And he isn’t seen again until Jennifer’s gone and dinner’s ready.

He talks less tonight, Will’s noticed. Even when Joyce asks him questions about his day and makes observations like, this is the longest you will have spent here! He responds dully with either nods or shaking of the head, or a single-word response that’s solely for the reassurance that he’s still listening and acknowledging the conversation.

Even when she asks him if he has any movie suggestions for that night, he only shrugs, and stares blankly down at his plate.

And once he’s sandwiched in between El and Joyce on the couch when the sky’s long since faded black, light contours his face in the darkness of the living room. The smell of popcorn suffocates him, but he pays no mind to it. All he can focus on is the moving little pictures on the screen.

He’s lost track of the story a long time ago.

The Outsiders, Eleven suggested. Of course, with her Ralph Macchio poster hung up beside her bed- another parting gift from Max. Thank you Max.

Though, watching the film now, Mike thinks to himself, I don’t blame her.

His eyes belong to one particular character who isn’t Johnny, though. He’s older; not burly like some of the others, but definitely built nice. He’s cute. Really cute. Charming. His smile… Holy shit. Mike’s never seen anybody so physically appealing in real life before. It takes his breath away for a second, as cliché as that may sound. He actually has to sit up a bit straighter on the cushions to make sure his lungs have enough airway. 

Woah, is all he thinks, watching him. Woah… What the fuck?

“Who’s that actor?” He whispers to El, nudging her elbow with his.

She leans into him, eyes still glued to the television screen, “Rob Lowe.”

Rob Lowe.

His face softens, and he lets himself relax into the couch then.

I’m just watching a movie, is what he convinces himself shamelessly. Though he knows deep down, he isn’t watching the movie, he’s watching Rob Lowe.

If he were watching the movie, he wouldn’t have to convince himself of it so many times.

His pulse flutters every time he appears on screen. Everything about him sends Mike spiraling into a daze, and all it takes is for him to walk out of a bathroom with no shirt on for Mike to realize he’s finally at his breaking point.

It starts with a wide-eyed expression. Then, his jaw starts clenching, knowingly. Then, his lips begin to purse. And then, he swallows, having desperately to look away in both anguish and embarrassment.

The distraught boy doesn’t even remember the events that had led to him standing in the kitchen with a glass of water in one hand and a clump of his hair in the other. His fingers grip the strands so tight against his scalp, they feel as if they might break off at any moment.

He feels sick to his stomach. Nothing feels right- or maybe it does. Maybe that’s the problem.

No amount of water can flush this out of this system. He knows that. But regardless, he downs the entire glass in less than ten seconds before refilling another. A part of him wants to go back to the couch, to finish the movie with the others. But every time his feet move so much as an inch towards the opening leading out into the living room, he shuffles back against the counter again like a scared puppy with its tail caught between its legs.

This can’t be happening.

From the pitch black of the kitchen, a weak glow makes it just bright enough for him to barely navigate his surroundings. There’s the staircase by his right leading up to the guest room. Somehow, that seems like the safest place to be right now. So, with a lazy, “Hey, uh- I’m probably gonna call it a night," he jogs up the stairs and speed walks to the safe haven. 

Mike's stressed paces are audible from the living room; at least in Will's ears. It's in the way the ceiling creaks in different places, over and over and over again, that has him antsy in his chair. Now is the perfect time. Everyone's distracted, and Will has an easy passage to get Mike alone. 

But it isn't a good time. He's clearly in a bad mood, which only ever reflects bad things. And he might freak out and say things he doesn't mean, which will do nothing but ruin the night, as well as the rest of Mike's stay. 

But he wants to try anyway. There may not be too many other opportunities like this, so he'll take whatever he can get. 

Hesitantly, he rises from his spot on the rocking chair and tip toes into the kitchen on the way to the stairs. Slowly but surely, he makes his way up to the end of the hallway- feels the cold tile against his feet and the frigid bite of spring wind against his arms when he notices an opened window on the other side of the hall.

He winces. This time, he's remembered socks, though somehow the coldness finds its way to his spiking nerves like it always does. It's almost like it's chilling him from the inside out, unraveling him until every part is frozen. The shivering boy wraps his arms around himself to salvage whatever heat he can find, but gains little relief. 

The muffled voices from the television downstairs become more and more distant the longer he waits outside the door. 

You can do this. You can do this. It's just Mike. 

But, can I? Like, really. Putting it all into perspective, can I really do this? 

Of course I can. 

No I can't. 

Yes I can. 

No I can't. 

His hand is reaching up for the doorknob, and with a slight jerk of the handle, cracks it ajar. His heart's beating at rapid speed, and doesn't slow down when Mike turns to face him. 

Apparently, he can. 

"Hi," He whispers shakily under his breath. Now that he stands in the door, Mike has nowhere to escape. Nowhere to run off too. He's got him cornered. And Mike knows that too. 

He backs himself into a corner and rests against the wall there. Something he tries to play off as casual, but fails miserably. Will can see how much he's panicking- how he tries to make himself appear smaller than he actually is. He's done it before, but only in high level stress situations.

"Hi." 

"Is... Everything ok?" 

He nods, saying a little too loudly, "Yeeah!" he tangles a hand through his hair, "I'm just, you know..." Then, stifling a fake yawn, "Just tired."

Will almost laughs out loud, "You don't look tired." 

Mike gestures a thumb toward the messy bed and shrugs, "I was just about to get into bed." 

"Well, wait," He intervenes, stepping forward. His arms remain locked against his chest. "I was wondering if we could talk..." Will stops once he's a reasonable distance away. Almost behind the bed but not quite- sort of to the side. A good seven-ish feet away. Their eyes meet, but they both pull away at the same time, "Before you go to sleep. If that's okay." 

"I-" 

"It'll only take a second. I just..." His mouth opens and closes aimlessly like a fish out of water. The words are caught right on his tongue. It's like he's being strangled by something- a feeling. A feeling of fear and intimidation, but most of all, confusion- because this is someone who he considered a best friend, and right now, they feel like anything but. They're standing in the same room, but yet they feel oceans apart. 

This wasn't supposed to happen to them. 

They weren't supposed to grow apart like this. They weren't supposed to get to the point when looking into the other's eyes felt equivalent to staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. 

MW+WB should have equaled forever. But it didn't. They lost it. 

And to lose something that should have been immortal, is something almost impossible to properly comprehend. There's no words to describe it. Will truly has no words to explain how deeply hurt he is by it all. 

He tries, and tries- stammering between II just, and like, but never really going anywhere. And Mike just stands awkwardly, having shuffled a few feet forward unintentionally, letting him go on and on. 

Until finally, the boy in the corner whispers just under his breath, "Dude," and Will stops, heart sinking to the floor, "It's really nice to see you again. Okay? I missed you, man. A lot. But- I'm really tired," The silence that follows next is excruciating. Will stands still, frozen in the middle of the room as if he's an ice statue, "would it be okay if I went to sleep now?"

No, he wants to scream. No, no, no, no!

"Yeah," He breathes, "yeah. Sorry," He all but smirks at himself, "It was stupid anyways. No, no, it was, I swear," Will says when Mike tries to protest. So stupid. "Anyways," He waits. Though not sure what for- he guesses he just wants to spend as much time with Mike as possible before leaving to his own empty, cold bedroom, "I'll see you in the morning. I guess." 

"See you then." 

He should've left then. He should've just walked out the door, but he doesn't. He stays still, as though his feet are superglued to the hardwood. He doesn't want to leave- he's only just got here. And he didn't even get to say what he'd put himself under all that mental stress for. He wants to make it at least a little bit worthwhile. 

So, Will musters up the courage to cross the second half of the room.

Mike, as stiff as a board, only blinks at him as he nears closer and closer. For a second, he wonders if he's hallucinating, but as Will throws his arms around him, he knows it's real. To start, he nearly falls over from the impact. The arms that hold him are soft, yet strong. They squeeze him so tight, it's as if they're trying to stop him from flying away somehow. 

There's something so warm, so comforting, so right about it. Mike peers past Will's shoulder at the semi-closed bedroom door and the window, checking for audience. When he sees that there is none, he lets his body sag into the embrace. Lets his chin fall against Will's shoulder. Lets his hands find their way to Will's shoulder blades, where he swears angel wings could sprout, if it weren't for the confinement of his sweatshirt. And squeezes back. 

His eyes press firmly shut, and he curls his face into the warm crook of Will's neck when he feels a hand come up to comb through his hair. 

The hug is filled with so much passion; unlike the quick ones they often share with relatives or even the other members of the party. They've always been so gentle with each other, like, if I touch you light enough, it'll barely count. And then, it won't be weird.  But this is different. Not in the sense that its weird, but that it's just...  Different. There's quite simply no other word for it. 

It's in the fact that Mike doesn't want to leave. That he can feel his pain melting away in the warmth of Will's body. All of his frustration. And he almost cries from how good it feels. To finally have a weight lifted, even if it's only until the hug is over.

It's a start, and Will's happy with it. 

And it's then, that he thinks, for the first time in so, so long, I think we're going to be okay. 

Chapter Text

Outside the windows, trees dance to the songs of singing birds. Somehow, the morning silence amplifies it, echoing it through the lonely streets.

Will would have preferred waking up from that, or the sun, or something else a little more peaceful than the rambunctious blaring of the small alarm clock by his bedside. The rude, inanimate object, who’s only purpose is making noise without granting the courtesy of an apology, rotates between five annoying noises varying pitch and volume.

He jolts up and smashes it with his hand as hard as he can, snapping bitterly as he does, “Ugh- shut up!”

It’s Tuesday today, which means him and El need to be ready and out the door by nine.

If it were any other week, he’d be less agitated. He’d look out the window and be okay with getting up, because it would mean no school for the entire day. Just him, El, and his mom. They’d get something to eat, and then go to their appointments, and sometimes share a bit about what they talked about and what progress they’d made.

But today is nothing short of a dreadful weight on his shoulders. Because though school stops for the break, therapy doesn’t. It goes on, and on, and on.

Every. Single. Tuesday. At 9am.

Regardless of how much he’s improved since going, it still sucks having to answer questions about the most traumatizing period of his life, when he’d much rather just forget about it all and never have to speak of it again. He hates how every time he goes, he cries, even though Donna assures him it’s good. That it’s “a natural way to relieve stress” and that “it takes a strong person to cry.”

And perhaps she’s right. But still, it’s weird. Being vulnerable and opening up about everything. Being told to cry, rather than not. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it.

It isn’t until there’s a knock on his door, a reassurance that he’s awake and in his bedroom, where she’s last seen him – that he actually gains the composure to get out of bed and unsteadily trail the room to open it.

His voice is hoarse with sleep, “I’m up,” when he comes face-to-face with his mom. And for a moment, she’s frozen- because, wow. It’s little times like this when her boy looks so grown up. She doesn’t have to look down at him anymore. She does for a second, out of habit, but only to be met with the expanse of his chest.

Her brown eyes pan up to his matching ones soon enough though, as if she’s searching for some indication that the deep, manly voice that had just spoken to her wasn’t from her youngest.

Gosh, if he’s getting old, that means she is too. Where has the time gone?

It isn’t fair that way sometimes. The way time speeds up unexpectedly, pulling you along with it as though you’re some stubborn dog on a leash. It’s not fair, and she just wishes she could tell it to go back, before all the damage. When Will’s purity was still at it’s prime.

If only she could take the pain away… Shit, it’d be gone in an instant. An instant. She’d exchange her life for Will’s to be redeemed back to the way it was, any day.

And unfortunately, therapy is the closest she can get to that. Therapy, and the small container of pills he keeps next to his comic stack on his bedside. She wishes he didn’t have to take those - but he does. And that’s the harsh reality of the aftermath of everything that’s happened thus far.

Before he can detest, Joyce presses a kiss to the side of his cheek. Her lips are warm and firm. She feels the muscle tighten when he smiles, and warn when she pulls back, “Mom.”

She snickers, poking his sides when she mumbles playfully, “Okay, sorry!”

“Mom!” The boy squirms, laughing as he tries to get away. His body contorts against the door and the muscles in his arms tighten against his chest. His sides jerk every time her finger comes to lightly gab at the flesh, and before he knows it, he’s hysterically begging for mercy. It takes a few minutes – or a few seconds – to be honest, Will doesn’t even know – before she finally smiles and retreats, complying to his breathless orders.

And as the boy leans against his door, letting himself regain his breath, their eyes lock for a second. A moment of understanding- I needed that, it says. Early mornings suck, especially when its for something nobody really looks forward to. But it’ll be okay- they have each other to get through hard times, and more often than not, that’s enough. Will wonders then, “Is dad working?”

“Yes, he is.”

Will’s brows scrunch together then, changing the entire atmosphere in less than a second, “So we’re just leaving Mike here until we come back?”

“I left a note, so he should be fine. We won’t be gone for too long,” Her hand places itself on his shoulder as she speaks, and guides him further into the bedroom, “Now, get dressed, grab something quick to eat in the car, and then meet me outside. Okay?”

The boy nods, watching as she descends back into the hallway. She grabs the knob and closes the door with a click, smiling as she does. And then she’s gone, though the immediate knocking makes her presence known again, as she turns a full 180 to Eleven’s door.

How anyone manages to be in as good of a mood as his mom, he’ll never understand. Lately, her smile seems to never disappear. And he likes to think it’s because she’s genuinely happy now, but there’s this sickening, underlying fear that maybe she’s just afraid to frown.

She acts as though her experience with the Upside Down is so miniscule to everyone else’s. She’s always the one to check up on everyone- call them every few weeks, claiming its only to say hi, but then eventually saying things like, how’ve you been holding up? Or you know I’m always here to talk if you need to.

She’s scared to admit that the big move was pointless. The whole purpose of moving was to start fresh, but after seeing and experiencing what she and everyone else had, starting fresh feels impossible. Because even though she’s not living in it anymore, Hawkins has seemed to follow her regardless, everywhere she goes. Whether it be mid cross-section down Main Street, or the subconsciousness of her nightmares, visions of monsters, her own son’s eyes rolling to the back of his head, Alexei’s blood spilling through the thin fabric of his button-up, Bob’s violent, fatal attack, Christmas lights, government spies – the list goes on until almost infinity – everything still haunts her the same it would if she were living anywhere else.

For almost three years, it’d been no secret that Joyce Byers is a psycho. Yet, it’s only now that she’s beginning to believe it, herself. Maybe they’re all right, the brunette woman thinks more often than she’d openly admit.

And she would get help- she would sit down and talk to someone like Donna if it meant a little more tranquility in her everyday life. If only money wasn’t so short nowadays. Hopper’s job has a better salary than Jonathan’s old book stocking job at Hawkins’ library, but still, it’s only just enough to barely get by. And with a large chunk of it gone to Jonathan’s education in New York, it’s been extra difficult keeping on top of bills.

So, she smiles. She smiles truthfully most of the time, but other times, not. And it’s what works.

“I know, I’m sorry, honey,” He hears her coo outside his door as he tugs on a pair of blue jeans, “I know how much you hate early mornings.”

“Will there be one tomorrow?”

“Nope. Tomorrow, you can sleep in all you want,” He fastens his zipper and button, blearily blinking down to the floor, “bout’ time, isn’t it?”

He hears El’s soft snicker, “Yeah,” Then, when his eye catches on a particular crewneck in his closet with geometric patterns decorating the front, “is dad working today?”

“Yes, until around dinner time.”

It feels like forever, but eventually Will and El find themselves meeting in the kitchen. Eleven’s wearing a crewneck too, though its brighter and baggier on her than his is on him. It’s a cross between magenta and hot pink, and for some reason, Will can’t picture any other person wearing it. It compliments her rosy, unfreckled cheeks beautifully. It looks like it was made solely for her.

When’s the last time she’s worn pink? He wonders mindlessly to himself as he watches her open one of the cupboards. Then, turns toward the fruit bowl, where he pulls a banana off the stem, as well as a green, red-spotted apple from off the side.

She fumbles through the different options on the shelf before finally stepping back with a granola bar and one of those packaged gummy things she sneaks in her lunches for school. Jim doesn’t like her taking too much of those, which means Joyce often needs to be cautious of her intake as well. Mostly because whenever El finds them, they tend to vanish within the first forty-eight hours or less.

Carefully, she lifts the hem of her sweater until it reaches the waistband of her jeans, then tucks it in the small space there. When she looks back up to see him watching, her mouth falls into a wide grin and she lets out a quiet, mischievous chuckle.

Will can’t help his smirk when she pulls a finger to her lips and shushes- even when they’re stood side-by-side in front of the bathroom mirror with toothpaste foaming in their mouths, and her fingers stretch and mold her cheeks into funny faces like a child would.

Her unbrushed hair knots at the bottom and falls dimly against her cheeks. Now that Will notices it in the mirror, he looks to his own, and sees it ten times more dishevelled. Bedhead is a running issue in the Byers-Hopper household, it seems.

And when he’s running a comb through it, he reckons it’s El’s turn to watch him, because when his eyes senselessly fall on the small bottle of nail polish in the counter, hers do too. It’s a deep, royal-blue color; similar to the early morning sky that basks the outside world he’s yet to feel and touch. He wonders if it’s as cold as it looks out there- if throwing a coat overtop of his undershirt and sweater would be a foolish thing to do or not.

The worst of winter has already passed; now, there’s no snow on the ground or frost on the windows, but the crispness in the air remains strongly present. The kind that flares every goose bump, freezes every piece of exposed skin, chaps every lip, and so on and so forth.

He stares down at the tube with a certain curiousness, like a dog being introduced to a chew toy for the first time. It’s not the first time he’s seen it. Almost everyday, it’s in the same spot, unless El chooses to use it sometime. She rarely paints her nails as deep and rich of a color as this one, though- mostly just pinks, sheer whites, purples, and shimmery blues. Red is the boldest she’s ever done. But this color- it’s almost bolder than red.

It’s captivating, and hypnotic in the way that Will can’t find it in himself to look away. Even when El, out of the corner of his eye, glances back and forth between him and the bottle, obviously taking notice of his unusual attraction towards it. Him, a boy.

He could never dream of actually ever wearing something like that. He’d be better off writing “GAY” across his forehead in big, black ink.

But even though he’s not allowed to wear it, he can still look at it. He can still fantasize about what it would look like on his own fingers. He can still imagine rubbing his thumb over it and feeling how much smoother it is compared to when its bare.

A muffled voice breaks him out of his temporary trance, “Max gave it to me a while ago,” Then, “I never use it, though,” He nods his acknowledgment and looks back up to the mirror, scrubbing his teeth with a stronger surge of rigorousness as if it’s an eraser for the mistake he’d made of staring too long, “Do… You want it?”

All of a sudden, the walls of his throat clench together and he sputters, almost comically, in the sink. The comment had come out of absolutely nowhere. He knows it meant no harm, but it still implied exactly what he feared. His actions weren’t as subtle as he thought. He let his curiosity get the best of him, once again. And now, he’s in deep shit.

Because the idea of him having an interest in something perceived as feminine is now drilled into the girl’s mind, which means it’s highly unlikely to fade any time soon. She may not be as academically advanced as she should be for her age yet, but she’s getting there. Everyday she gets a bit closer, and it’s all thanks to that damn memory.

NO! He wants to scream, but it’s too late. Joyce is already barrelling inside the bathroom, claiming to have forgotten something but really just politely telling the kids to hurry up. And before he knows it, he’s looking out the window of the backseat after El’s called shotgun.

He sighs helplessly, watching the golden sun reach its peak through the slightly scratched glass.

Why am I so bad at this? He thinks to himself as ads play over the radio. Why is it so hard for me to keep this a secret?

Probably because he isn’t used to keeping anything a secret. If there’s something going on, he often confides in Jonathan or his mom. But this is different than anything else- this, he can’t just go flaunting to his family members, or anybody else for that matter.

He knows they’ve had suspicions since he was little. It was in the way his mother’s body stiffened every time Lonnie called him a little (you know what). She knew it was true, Jonathan probably knew it was true, Mike knows it’s true, everyone at school knew it, and now they’re just waiting for him to confirm it himself.

Two words.

Two words that could potentially take his entire life and rip it to shreds. Words, of which, you’d expect him to take better care of, given the amount of power they have.

As the rusty car engine sings to the lone woodsy roads, and the three relish the roaring winds that twirl their hair and whistle in their ears, Joyce spins the volume dial when she hears the intro to When Doves Cry, one of her favourite songs. Her thumb taps against the wheel, and her lips whisper over the melody, and Will cherishes it; the moment in all it’s preciousness. The serenity and love that radiates off the simple word: family, and hopes that his will last forever, even after the secret comes out one day. Because he knows it will. Secrets always come out one way or another. It’s only the matter of how and when that fills his nerves with anticipation, paranoia, and anxiety. He doesn’t want to do it yet- he isn’t ready. But something tells him it isn’t up to him; not with El, now having this brand-new hint to add to the speculation. Sure, it’s small, but it’s a sign, nonetheless. A sign that after all this time, everyone has been right about him.

And beyond his thoughts, which are so loud it feels as though his skull might shatter, the radio hums its senseless tune, “They feel the heat, the heat be- “

“-tween me and you…” Mike murmurs along to the melodies coming from the radio they left on in the living room.

He uses his elbows to lean against the counter, and his nose is just barely three inches above the note when his eyes shift through the words written in messy, blue-inked handwriting. A mix of exhaustion and confusion jumbles the letters together, disorganising them like scrambled puzzle pieces.

Mike,
Good morning! Sorry we aren’t here; I was going to let you know last night after the movie- it’s a shame you couldn’t finish it. Sad ending!
We’ll be back for lunch. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen.
Donna’s home phone number is on the counter in case of an emergency.
Joyce

He blinks several times, stands up straight, circles the kitchen, rubs his face until its flushed pink, and lightly slaps his puffy cheeks before it finally starts to make sense. And at first, it comes as a bit of a shock.

He’s home alone… In a home that isn’t even his?

He hadn’t expected waking up to complete silence- apart from the music, which is easy to drown out, given the lowness of the volume; he just assumed everybody was still asleep. And now, with this new knowledge, Mike stands stiffly in the middle of the kitchen, unsure of what to do with himself.

Embarrassment creeps its way up his spine when he remembers absentmindedly calling Will’s name, expectant of a response but never getting one. The feeling only increases when he realizes he must have forgotten what day it is.

Tuesday. Of course, no one’s home.

He’s known about Donna for as long as anybody else has. He knows that her and Joyce first clicked in the school parking lot on the first day. She was dropping off her daughter, coincidentally Becca, one of Will’s friends, and Joyce was dropping off El and Will. They talked for what felt like forever, leaned up against their old Fords with cigarettes pinched between their middle and ring fingers and breathing clouds of smoke into the humid summer air.

Topics came left and right like shooting asteroids. When asked what brought them to Michigan, Joyce only shared the basics of the story without adding the bits involving the Upside Down. She knew better than to overshare, especially with someone she just met.

She vaguely explained Will’s kidnapping, the abuse of his father, the bullies at school, and how El grew up in an extremely abusive and secluded environment, limiting the skills she was supposed to have been acquiring all that time.

And Joyce would’ve been annoyed for arriving late to her shift if Donna hadn’t offered unlimited free weekly counselling sessions for both kids. Donna happening to be a licensed mental health professional was nothing short of pure luck. Joyce will never forget the feeling that washed over her when the woman insisted on helping in some way.

“I really can’t afford- “

“Joyce, don’t you worry about it.”

“I can’t possibly accept- “

“Come on- think of it as… Friends helping friends. Please, Joyce, let me help.”

They’d only known each other for an hour and a half then. An hour and half and their shatterproof bond had already been established mutually.

Simmons and Byers blood just naturally work well together- especially when Will and Becca first started hanging out at school. Of course, the extra ties drew their families even that much closer, resulting in annual barbeques, Donna’s son, George’s, baseball tournaments that the Byers make sure to attend every time without fail, dinners, birthday parties…

Of course, every person is nothing but a name to Mike. There are no faces to match them to. Only stories and vague descriptions from El. They look different, she says; darker hair, paler skin, almond-shaped eyes. Different from what she’s seen before, but beautiful, nonetheless. Learning about different races hadn’t been too hard for El to wrap her head around- it’s actually what sparked her interest the most after becoming accustomed to the world outside of the lab she’d lived in for so many years. People simply fascinate her. Heritages, languages, cultures. All of it; how diverse everything can be. She loves it.

When she grows older, she plans to travel the world- to experience life to its utmost potential and make up for all the time she lost under Brenner’s power. It makes sense. Mike knows that if he were in her shoes, he’d probably be the same way.  

Returning his focus towards the note, Mike registers the line: We’ll be back for lunch, and blankly assumes she means noon. That gives him three hours- three hours of absolutely nothing to do.

He hadn’t packed much for entertainment- only some cards and an old Walkman he rarely ever uses, unless he’s sitting in the back of the waiting room at the dentist’s office or unable to fall asleep. It helps to drown out not only his own thoughts, but everything around him too. Listening to it feels equivalent to transporting to a simpler world. One of which he’d much rather be in than the one he is now.

And even with the weighted dread that boredom will soon overcome him, Mike decides to make the most of the situation, without reaching into his suitcase for distractions just yet. There’s something better. Something he’s been meaning to do for a while now but had never been granted the proper opportunity.

He decides to explore.

His timid footsteps tap against the creaky hardwood as he rounds the corner leading out into the hall. As he walks, he’s reminded of what he hates most about this house.

There’s a certain foreign atmosphere to it; an unwelcomeness. Like if Chester were still around, he’d be barking at him the same he would for an intruder. It doesn’t feel friendly enough to be a Byers residence- with its wooden pictures, hung in perfect rows amongst the mustard-yellow wallpaper. It all seems too put-together.

Joyce has never been this way, contrary to his own mother; her untidiness makes up about eighty percent of her reputation (at least, in Hawkins). Even if she were given time in the morning to do her hair and makeup, a strand would always be out of place and a smudge mascara would still decorate her bottom lash line. She’s never been perfect, and that’s part of what makes her so special. Unique in its most pulchritudinous form.

He remembers the first time he met Joyce- Will had invited him over for a sleepover- the first of their many famous sleepovers. He doesn’t remember much from it, being five years old at the time, but he does recall the stained apron tied around Joyce’s slender waist and the intimidating nature Jonathan gave off, being four years older than the two.

He looks back on that younger, more curious Mike, and feels connected to him somehow. He’s exploring Will’s house again, only ten years later. During the seven months he’s known this place, the only routes he knows off by heart are the main entrance-kitchen, kitchen-living room, kitchen-guest room, guest room-Eleven’s room, and the bathroom. Everywhere else is new territory.

The only difference is ten years ago, Mike was holding hands with his overly energetic tour guide, and now, he isn’t. He walks alone, in his inquisitively feeble way.

The path leads him to a room with a washer and dryer, along with a shelf full of soaps, detergents and cleaning chemicals. Across from it, a closet. And above, the attic. None of it’s exciting, though he isn’t really sure what he was expecting. It’s just a house; no different from his, or Dustin’s, or Lucas’s.

So, the boy turns on his heel and continues, clicking his tongue as he does. He lets his feet take him wherever they please, which coincidentally enough, is the staircase leading up to the bedrooms.

He knows this is where he’d end up one way or another, the unknown of what’s to make up of Will’s new bedroom ultimately getting the best of him. He’s always wondered what it looks like- what color the walls are painted, if he still has his art supplies, whether or not there’s carpet on the floors;

The tall length of his legs allow him to stretch all the way to the fourth stair with one and pull himself up with the other, so that’s what he does the rest of the way.

Narrowing down his options after taking into consideration the fact that there are three bedrooms on the right side (two of which he knows are the guest room and El’s room) and one on the left side, Mike settles on turning right.

This is weird, He thinks repeatedly, shuffling up the stairs. It is weird going into your friend’s bedroom when they’re not home. And he justifies it in the only way he able to: it’s all apart of the tour. Or, like the hug from last night stated, I’ve missed him a lot. We’ve missed each other. I want to see what he’s been up to without actually asking him, because that’s too scary.

It’s when his foot trips over his ankle, and then his knee comes crashing down against the stair, that an injured groan interrupts all of his worried thoughts. How he even manages to trip up the stairs, he doesn’t know. If it hadn’t been for his hand, which grabbed the railing just in time, his body would have been sent toppling down the stairs, no doubt. And thank god no one else is here to witness it. He takes a minute to recover before carrying on, just as galvanized as before. His uncouthness clumsiness doesn’t stand a chance against him; it can try to get in the way of things, but in the end, Mike always remains undefeated, especially when motivated.

There are a million doubts flying through his mind when he finally approaches the door, swarming like butterflies, until the door creaks open and the sight in front of him catches his attention like a net would.

He notices the curtains first; or should he say, bedsheet. The same from his old room: a light-beige plaid that barely blocks out any sun. Mike blushes reticently at the nostalgia from it all- how Will has placed everything. It’s almost the exact same as his old bedroom, only, instead of yellow painting the walls, it’s light green; similar to what you’d find inside a grape. Drawings cover it in no real sense of order. There are no sectioned rows- only jumbled pages in random spots, as if Will taped them to the first direction his eyes went in. It’s messy and disorganised, but the drawings are done so well, it’s hard to care.

The room looks nice, he settles. But at the same time, childlike.

It looks like a ten-year-old’s room, the boy thinks bitterly to himself, though it’s probably closer to twelve or thirteen. Why can’t he just grow up?

It’s a weakness of Will’s he’s noticed since last year. Constant pleads for another campaign, his obvious detestation for girls, and not to mention the night of their last day of eighth grade- their ‘Celebration Sleepover’ as the six of them called it- and how Will cried into his palms when he should have been spinning the wheel for Twister, because in two months they would all be entering high school and everything would ‘change’.

Boy, was he right. Things did change. He walks further into the bedroom, his eyes inching every surface. Back then, no one had a clue he’d be sent off to Michigan in September, or else they would have spent more time making the most out of their days together before the whole rat thing happened in July.

Mike approaches the dresser first, eyes glued to the picture frames sat on the top of it. There are two; one, showing three people, and the second, showing two. Finally, what he’s been looking for: faces to match names. The boy leans in closer, his face reflecting in the glass as he squints to get a better look.

They’re all standing against a wall with Will in the middle. There’s a boy on his right, and two girls. One, he recognizes as Jennifer, on his left. He pinpoints Becca thirdly by default, and silently acknowledges that El was right; she is beautiful. Her smile is the cutest he’s ever seen. Dimples, like El’s.

And then, Sam. Mike almost has to do a double take, because had he not known any better, he would’ve thought it was himself standing next to Will. Though now, looking closer, it’s obvious that the resemblance isn’t too prominent. Their noses are different.

His eyes linger on the curly haired boy, and for some completely unfathomable reason, he gets the overwhelming desire to meet him. To see what his relationship with Will looks like- how they interact with each other. If they’re close enough for Mike to deem himself replaced or not. Surely, ten years has nothing on seven months… Right?

His eyes move to the next picture, to see Will and Becca hugging each other tight enough for their cheeks to press against each other as they look gleefully towards the camera. And he smiles too, acknowledging how happy Will looks. He’s moved on from the party back at Hawkins. He went against his own word and found a new one, here in Michigan. And that’s okay. Mike couldn’t have expected any different.

If the boy hadn’t had been bullied and tormented most of his life with his family not having the most sumptuous reputation, most people would be able to see that Will’s an actually fairly likeable person. Getting a new start is probably the best thing to have ever happened to him.

He deserves happiness, no matter what form it comes in. He deserves the entire world. And as Mike dwells on that, he notices a stack of comics out of the corner of his eye. And a pang of panic strikes him suddenly at the thought of a copy of one of the comics nestled in his backpack just down the hall, possibly existing somewhere within the stack.

So, he departs from the dresser and sits carefully on the bed, as if he’s scared putting all his weight on it could cause it to break somehow. For some unknown reason, everything seems so fragile, like it’s apart of a museum. He reaches for the stack and holds it in his hands, flipping through the covers with his thumb like they’re cards, and finds that there are thankfully no matches, though Will does have some cool ones. He might have to steal a few for himself to bring back home for safekeeping.

He puts them back, and then notices another thing. Everywhere he looks, a new thing jumps out and catches his eye, as if all the objects in the room are competing for Mike’s attention simultaneously. Only this thing, he wishes he hadn’t seen.

It’s a small, semi-transparent container with a white label wrapped around it, reading a bunch of tiny words he doesn’t even need to read to know what they are. His breath catches in his throat, and suddenly, the walls feel like they’re caving in. The initial lighthearted ambience of the bedroom vanishes quicker than he can blink.

I shouldn’t have come in here. Why did I come in here? This was a stupid idea.

He feels like such an asshole. And not just because of the obvious reasons, but because he hasn’t been here sooner. He should have been here. Will needed him; he tried getting his attention over and over again, only to be completely shut out with no explanation. Could I have contributed to this? The boy thinks anxiously as his cheeks ablaze with red.

Somehow, the idea of his best friend taking antidepressants seems impossible. Will can’t be depressed. The pictures were supposed to be an indication that he’s okay now. That he’s finally being a fifteen-year-old.

He knows he’s given him a hard time in the past for not being able to mature as fast as the rest of them, but this- he didn’t mean this. He didn’t even know it was possible for kids to get depression. He’s always thought it to be more of an adult thing. Mostly, because the only other person he knows, who takes them, is his mother, after he accidentally found the same bottle in her purse instead of the loose change he was searching for, for the arcade that night.

He glances around one last time with a new hint of empathetic tenderness. He overstepped a boundary, and he feels like shit for it, along with every other unfair thing he’s done. And no matter how shocked and guilty he still feels, he forces himself to get out of there.

The minor details mock him as the boy rounds the corner of the bed and towards the door; eyes, staring from all different angles, whether it be the stuffed frog sitting in the corner next to the teddy bear, or the shark in Will’s “Jaws” poster. They chant and whisper loud obscenities at him, chirping ruthlessly until he’s out of sight.

He knows he shouldn’t blame himself; after everything, he can’t have been the root of it. Yet, he’s still feels partially to blame. He made things harder for Will, instead of easier. And by some means, that’s enough.

Chapter Text

Half the day goes by quicker than anyone can process.

Before she knows it, El’s leaned up against the headboard in her bedroom, twirling the phone wire between her two fingers. After returning home, she couldn’t be bothered staying in her clothes, so she sits comfortably in her go-to pajamas, all cozied up with the comforter hugging her bottom half. The room smells faintly of green apples, all thanks to the air freshener hanging in the corner. It was given to her as apart of the move, which happened to have taken place just before autumn- and something tells her the scent would have been better fit for that season, rather than spring, when everything’s so muddy and gloomy.

She remembers autumn vividly; mostly because it fell within the most difficult time period in regards to coming to terms with the brand-new environment. Everywhere she'd look, she’d be reminded of the girl she left back in Hawkins; the girl whose hair matched the colors of the leaves that hung on nearby trees, eyes as blue as the clear skies, attitude as cold as the frequent chilly breezes and touch as warm as apple cider. Everything was Max. And more often than not, El reckons it still is.

“No, seriously!” The voice on the other line cries out playfully, causing a bashful smile to plaster itself on the girl’s face, making just the white of her teeth visible behind pink lips, “It was, like, real shit. I cannot make it up,” The voice scoffs in disgust, “so gross!”

“Yeah,” El replies, a line forming itself between her eyebrows, “gross.”

“And get this: after the principal found out, he was furious. I mean, you should have heard his voice when he walked into the classroom,” Her voice is fast and rushed, motivated by something close to excitement. She mimics the principal’s voice by lowering hers down an octave, “Mr. Hatfield, I need you in my office, right this very second!” El’s eyebrows raise as she imagines the scenario in her head, “the look on his face- “She erupts in laughter, causing El to giggle a bit to herself too, “priceless!”

“Did Tammy get in trouble too?” She asks.

“Probably. By her parents, I bet,” Then, “He’s totally fired, though. And thank God. Now I don’t have to write that stupid assignment. Our sub is totally cool. And really pretty, too,” El smiles, playing with the hem of the same green shirt (though Max argues it's turquoise) she wore to bed the other night. It’s soft, and warm, and smells like if the word home had a scent, “she has brown hair, and like, these blue eyes… And she’s new. Young. All the guy teachers visit her all the time, asking if she needs help with anything, it’s hysterical.”

The brunette laughs again softly. Almost every phone call with Max has these moments; laughter, and then tiny gaps of silence as both girls bask in the comfort of each other’s presence, regardless of whether or not its in person. El finally says then, “You leaved your shirt here last time you visited, you know,” There’s more silence on the other end; not lasting long enough for her to wonder if she’s hung up, but long enough to allow the subject to shift into something a little more deep and personal, “I kept it here.”

“Left,” Max corrects her, gentle, almost apologetically, “I left my shirt there. That's the proper past tense.”

“Left.”

“And yeah, I know.” The girl replies, brushing it off as fast as it came. She sounds like she’s smiling, or shrugging, or both, “I left it on purpose.”

“On purpose?” El echoes in genuine confusion.

“Yeah, for you,” She exclaims, “I figured you might want it.”

“Oh,” El says, brushing her fingers lightly over the seams at the bottom. The rigid thread ties together and bumps faintly along her fingertips.

“I can take it back, if you don’t- “

“No,” She stops her, momentarily panicked at the thought of losing one of the only permanent pieces she has of Max. She probably owns a thousand more parting gifts, but the t-shirt is the only thing that feels and smells like her, “No, I want it. I’m…” She takes a minute to gather herself by squeezing her eyes shut and thinking over what she wants to say. She’s thankful that Max can’t see her right now- if she did, she’d be able to see how much of a blushing mess she is, “I’m actually wearing it right now.” She chuckles out, slightly embarrassed.

“Really?” Max asks in disbelief. El hums in response. Then there’s another silence, indicating the exact weight of Eleven’s words and the effect they have on Max. Clearly, she didn’t expect Eleven to actually wear the shirt. Sure, she left it for that purpose, but she really just expected her to wash it and wait until her next visit to return it. The thought of El wearing it at this very moment ignites a certain flame hidden deep inside the pit of her stomach she’s never quite felt before, “Isn’t Mike over there?” She changes the subject before she lets herself smile too hard, then, tucks her scorching and fiery red hair behind her pink-tinged ear. Orange sunset locks, capturing the light in vibrant golden hues; flows in gentle, warm waves of lava to her upper-back and presses against the patterned wall of the Mayfield house. 

“Yeah.”

“I bet he’s happy to see you.”

“Yeah,” She says again, a bit more distant, “We talked the other day… About- “She swallows nervously, scrunching her eyebrows as she does, “about summer?”

“Oh, really?” Max’s soft voice asks, careful to not sound jealous when she remembers their plans for the summer. She draws out the ‘w’ when she asks, “What do you mean?”

“We thought it would be cool if everyone came in the summer,” When Max doesn’t respond, she continues, pulling her fingers out from the wire and twirling them in her hair instead when she turns her head to side to look at the Ralph poster taped on her wall, “And then after, you can stay for longer, if you want.”

She reiterates, “Everyone-everyone?”

“Yeah.”

Max furrows her brows in confusion and looks to the side, half crossing her arms just enough so she can still hold the phone to her ear. To be honest, she loves the idea. Having everyone together again sounds like a dream. She’s been wanting it for what feels like forever now, but it’s always been strictly one person visiting at a time- a rule that’s been clear between every party member- and she doesn’t want El giving her hopes up if it's not for certain, “I thought you said you didn’t have enough space.”

El’s smile only grows with anticipated excitement, “That’s what sleeping bags are for,” Then, wondering if Max has ever been to a sleepover with anyone else before, or camping, or any other situation that would involve a sleeping bag, “you have one, right?”

“No.”

El ponders the response for a moment, pursing her lips to the side as she thinks. After a rather awkward pause passes, it occurs to her that it shouldn’t be a problem, “That’s okay. You don’t need one anyway. Just take my bed, like you always do.”

The other’s response comes out in a light chuckle, “Okay,” Then, “Wait- holy shit!”

“What?”

“Isn’t it Will’s birthday tomorrow?”

“Yeah?”

“… Is he doing anything?”

“No. Why?”

Max’s face lights up. It’s difficult to suppress her emotions as she says excitedly, “Well-why wait for the summer, then?”

“Huh?”

“Your phone’s going to be ringing all day, you might as well just…” She trails off, and Eleven’s eyes widen comically at the idea. Her fingers pause in her hair and her entire body stiffens, “Lucas and Dustin have been complaining nonstop about how they never see you guys. And summer’s so far away… El, please say yes. Please say yes!”

She asks, still in shock, “Tomorrow?” Tomorrow is way closer than summer. It’s short notice, especially for three extra guests. She remembers the lecture Hopper gave her, about letting either him or Joyce know about overnight visitors enough time in advance before inviting them over, after she told them about Mike just barely an hour before his arrival.

“Yeah. Come on, it’ll be so much fun,” And Max is way too excited now. Her hopes are completely given up- the image has already painted itself in her mind, “Ooh! And it could be a total surprise, too! He doesn’t have to suspect a thing.” The more El thinks about it, the more accustomed and thrilled she is to the idea. It sounds fun; having all her friends together and a surprise party. Way more exhilarating than what they originally had planned; dinner, cake, presents... 

“You really think that’ll work?”

“Hell yeah. You just need to make sure he’s distracted when we set everything up.”

“Distracted. Got it. Okay.” She doesn't get it. How would they manage to distract him enough for him to not notice three people coming in? Gosh, Dustin would blow their cover right away. His boyish squeals and giggles never fail to make an entrance along with him. 

She can hear Max’s grin through the phone, “I’ll call up the boys and let them know. I don’t think they have anything planned.”

“Okay.”

“Call me later and we can sort out the plan. Make sure your parents are okay with it, okay?”

“Okay.”

Max pulls off the wall to set the phone back in place, “Okay- love you.”

“Love you too.” El says back, internally hating how dismissive the words feel, but loving the way Max’s voice sounds saying them. And when she hears the other line go silent, the girl lets out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and lets the phone fall against her chest. Her brown, honey-flecked eyes squeeze shut, a smile creeping its way to her lips: tomorrow.

 

And so, she dedicates today to tomorrow, cornering every single person besides Will to let them in on the secret. Mike loves the idea. He gushes over how fun it will be, saying, “Oh, wait, that actually makes sense. Yeah, okay! Let’s do it! You’re a genius!”

El raises her brows amusedly, “It was Max’s idea.”

To which, then, the boy falters, his smile fading when he rolls his eyes. He realizes now that he’s trapped himself into giving the intolerable girl a compliment, “Ugh… She can be smart sometimes. Don’t tell her I said that.” Eleven smiles fondly at him after that, despite the irritating rivalry between the two people she considers her best friends. It’s a dynamic she’s accepted to never quite understand or agree with. She’s not exactly sure what one did to piss the other off, or how it all started, but its definitely a daily struggle between the two and everyone who’s forced to listen to their silly banters. After a while, El just figured that some people are naturally less compatible with others, and sometimes those pairs are placed in the same friend group. It was all just one big, weird coincidence. So, she doesn’t let herself care, because there’s no point. If she cared every time one of them insulted the other, she’d be insane by now.

This time, however, he complimented her. Maybe not in the nicest way, but its still a step toward potential progress. And she’s definitely telling Max he said that.

The next people she tells, are of course, the wardens of the house. So, at the dinner table, when Will excuses himself to the bathroom, El reveals the plan to them with a pleading demeanor, “I promise, I’ll make sure we clean up after ourselves and… I just… It’s for Will’s birthday. And… They really want to see them, and…” She really hopes it isn’t too short notice- as she continues to make the poor attempt of convincing them, Joyce seems to consider it, though Hopper is more hesitant.

“What, are you just gonna cram them all in that one guest room?” He asks, digging his fork into some mashed potatoes.

“Lucas and Dustin have sleeping bags and Max can sleep in my room.” He thinks it over, chewing silently as he pictures six teenagers in the house all at once. It’ll be absolute madness, and he’s not entirely sure if he’s ready for it. He’s familiar with the kids, which means he knows how chaotic they can be, and he also knows who the troublemakers are- which, pretty much makes up the majority. However, his trust lies the most with Will, and if the birthday party were centered around anyone else, his decision would probably be more tentative.

So, “I…” He starts, thinking of how to word what he wants to say without running the risk of a possible misunderstanding, “Will be making hourly checkups. And I swear,” He says, raising his voice and pointing a finger when El squeals in excitement, “if I see anyone doing anything they wouldn’t do if I were in the room with them, I’m buying them a bus ticket, they’re on their way back home, do you understand? And then… They have to pay me back, " He nods, satisfied, "next time they see me. That includes you, Wheeler.”

Joyce smirks and nudges his elbow, “Hop…” and the man shrugs, as though to say, what do you expect me to say?

El, on the other hand, can’t fight a smile when she squeezes Mike’s hand above the table. She looks at him triumphantly: it’s happening! And he smiles back, equally excited, until his obsidian eyes shift to hallway behind her, where footsteps tap in a steady, rhythmic beat. The shadowy figure from within the darkness fills with color the closer it draws to the kitchen light.

Will’s eyes initially scan the floor, until he feels the heat only a stare can provide. It's then that he glances up, completely unsuspecting to actually see four heads turned in his direction. The silence doesn’t help, in fact, it adds a whole new layer of discomfort, and pressure settles itself deep within his gut from the weighing uncertainty of it all. The unknown shakes his nerves erratically. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he just freezes like a deer caught in the headlights would, tonguing at the roof of his mouth, which had dried up like a shriveled raisin within the moments leading up to his panic.

Why are they looking at me? He wonders perturbedly to himself. They all have this same look on their face; one that his mind easily misinterprets as teasing. And he doesn’t like it. It fills him with this gross feeling- like he’s being judged in his own home. He’s back at Hawkins, walking down the halls and avoiding the eyes of every single student in sight.

Then, remembering that morning, and what El had taken notice to, he looks at her, and sees that she’s hiding the biggest smile of them all. And it proves his theory right there on the spot. She did suspect it. She did tell them. They do know now. They’re hiding it now, but only so that when he finally gathers the courage to tell them himself, they can finally let out their bursts of laughter at how pathetic he is. 

His breathes in, preparing to say something, but not entirely sure where to start. So, he stands still, mouth gaping open like a fish out of water, suffocating in his own doleful humiliation. 

"What are you doing over there?" His mother's soft voice calls from the other side of the kitchen. Mike's head pokes out from behind El, then. Will watches the boy look at him, and then give him a smile that just seems so genuinely sweet with the right touch of shyness that an unexpected rush of warmth rushes through his body, prompting him to take timid steps toward the kitchen table, “You never answered my question,” She exclaims, watching as the boy stiffly takes his seat beside El, “I can get you a vanilla one? You know, the ones from the bakery that you like?”

He stares hard into his untouched plate, blocking himself off from everyone until it’s time to pack up. He dismissively agrees to “whatever works”, not really caring at all about what happens on his birthday. It’s not like he’s done anything deserving of such a serenade, though most people would probably beg to differ. It’s a trait that's been passed down from his mother; a certain humbled selflessness, though the only thing that drives it is pure dread and insecurity.

 

The night is long.

After dinner’s finished, and Joyce says her goodnight to him, Will's reminded of how late it is before he takes a quick shower. And when he clicks the bathroom door shut and strips down, the boy steps slowly into the tub, turning the water on high and letting it beat over his head in steamy rivulets.

Scorching drops darken his hair and trickle down his back, smothering him in solacing heat. He doesn’t remember feeling cold before, but now that he’s standing directly under the running shower head, its like every goose bump is soothed instantaneously; his eyes fall closed in both relief and gratitude from the relaxing sensation it brings.

The water pours down, drips to his side, as his mind fades into dullness. He’d been so paranoid and stressed lately, and he reckons a shower is just what he needed. It’s an escape, in which he’s imagining himself someplace else- like the Tropical Rain forest, underneath an everlasting waterfall. He wouldn’t mind living there; being able to make friends with all the animals, not having to worry about what anyone thinks of him; it sounds like a dream. One that he can find himself easily getting lost in.

He stands, lost in the artificial scenarios of his own mind until the water turns from hot to lukewarm, and lukewarm to ice cold.

Then, he steps out, towels off, redresses, and heads back to his room, where he’ll stay for the rest of the night. There's a part of him that feels bad for staying as long as he did, never really liking the idea of making his mother's water bill worse than it already is. He’s tried getting jobs in the past, to do his part in helping out, starting with lawn work for the neighbours, though it only lasted for a few months before winter came, and he wonders to himself, as he enters his bedroom, if he should start asking around again, now that the snow is gone. It couldn’t hurt.

He sits on the edge of his bed and breathes out a long sigh. Through the thin material of his shirt, the boy’s shoulder blades poke out and move in sync with his breathing.

Maybe it was all just a big misunderstanding. Dinner. If El had told them he wanted the stupid nail polish, Joyce would have been attached to his hip all night, making sure he knows he can tell her anything and that she loves him so much. She’s done it before- last time she caught him dwelling on a picture he found while unpacking. Him and Mike when they were younger- Mike’s arm around him and they’re both grinning at the camera, though you can tell its genuine and not just for the picture. They were laughing before it was taken, and just happened to glance up at the camera at the right time.

She saw the way he stared at that picture with a sense of longing and solitude. It was no different than the way he’d been staring at him for years, only that time, it was tinged with a certain melancholy that surpassed heartache. And the woman understood; she knew something was different with those two from the moment Will told her about the boy on the swing-set back in kindergarten. To be honest, when she heard that Mike had a gotten girlfriend, she was a little taken aback. But then, simply shrugged it off and carried on with her day. But she knew her son. She could tell how he felt- about everything.

It’s eerily silent; the only sounds coming from the faint thuds of water hitting the floor from where they fall off the strands of his bangs.

Fifteen tomorrow.

Somehow, it feels like a milestone he never knew he’d hit. So many times, he risked his life for everyone else’s. He was so ready to just be gone. William Byers: Found Dead at Twelve Years Old, the newspaper would say. But here he is, minutes shy of fifteen. How did he get this far? How did he defeat that thing? He’s just Will. The smallest and most vulnerable of the group- or, at least, was the smallest. Now, he shares the title of second tallest with Lucas.

It baffles him every time he lets himself think about it. How did he do it?

Before he can jump too far down the rabbit hole of his past, two knocks wake him out of his daydream. And for a split second, panic lights his nerves on fire. Here it comes: “You can tell me anything.”

“I love you so much.”  

He twists in his spot on the mattress and says weakly, “It’s open,” already preparing for the worst. But when the door opens, it reveals not who he expects. It’s not his mom, it’s Mike. And he doesn’t come in. Instead, he stays in the door frame with his hand still loosely on the knob, like he’s ready to leave at any moment.  

“I just came to say goodnight,” The boy murmurs, noticing Will’s damp, tousled hair. He thought he heard the shower running, though he wasn’t sure, given how late it is. Most of the lights in the house are turned off and everyone’s long since returned to their rooms. And he thinks to himself as he stands in the doorway, Will looks nice. His cheeks are still dusted with that shade of rose, and there’s a drop or two on his forehead that he forgot to towel off. And somehow- he isn’t sure how- but somehow, he reminds him of Rob Lowe. Their facial features are similar under the dim glow of the old lamp in the corner, and Mike can’t help but take a little, silent gasp at the discovery. It only makes him that more nervous in front of the boy, as he shifts his weight awkwardly between two feet.

“Goodnight.”

And Will should have known.

Mike doesn’t leave; he doesn’t even budge from his spot, even after a solid ten seconds has passed. He didn’t come to say goodnight; he came because he wanted to see Will one last time before he went to bed.

He stays, frozen, tapping his thigh with his middle and pointer finger. Yesterday, it seemed so easy for Will to just get up and pull him into his arms like he did. It feels stupid and childish to ask for something like that again. Especially when they’ve barely interacted his entire stay thus far.

And Will watches him from the bed, almost teasingly. Because from where he’s sitting, Mike’s body language is obvious. He looks so shy and unsure, and it’s actually rather comforting, knowing that he isn’t the only one feeling that way. The darker-haired boy is looking for an excuse to stay longer but failing to actually come up with anything.

Until his eyes light up, “Do you know what time it is?” Will doesn’t have the guts to tell him that he has a watch right there on his wrist, so he looks at his anyways, twisting further on the bed to sit properly when his back starts to hurt from the strain, and sees that it’s-

“11:59,” It takes a few seconds for it to sink in before he looks back at the time and realizes that his birthday is in twenty seconds. His head raises back to look at Mike, and their eyes meet in a half-soulful stare. Will’s expression falls into a sheepish grin, the corners of his mouth stretching to either ear, as he asks, “Wanna count down with me?”

Mike stays still for a few seconds, as though processing what Will had said before stepping backward and looking sideways down the empty hall. When he doesn’t see any movement or hear any sounds, he holds the knob behind him and closes the door with a click, “Sure.”

“Let’s use my watch; it has the seconds hand on it.” Will’s voice exclaims when he approaches the bed. His knees hit the side, and then he’s crouching to sit cross-legged beside him. Mike tries not to act embarrassed that Will had noticed his watch. Asking what the time is? How stupid can I be?

Their shoulders and knees are just barely brushing each other when Will announces, “10… 9…” He waves his words with an open hand, prompting him to join in. When Mike leans into his shoulder, Will shows his watch to give a better view, and points to the seconds hand as an indication of where to look. Though, Mike doesn’t move away, in fact, he leans closer until their sides are pressed firm together and Will’s cheeks erupt in a vibrant flush, “6… 5…” Their voices join together in the silence of the bedroom. Mike leans on the hands he places against the bedding behind him, with one behind Will’s back. It allows him to crook his head to side and feel Will’s shoulder nudge against the side of his chest, “2… 1…”

And in perfect unison, Mike chirps up, a little too loud for how late it is, “Happy birthday!” popping like a Jack in The Box above bed before sinking back down, and Will raises fists against his chest, scared to move too much with the way Mike’s so close to him, and cheers, “Yaaay!” Its as if they’re watching their favorite football team score a winning touchdown. Mike pulls away far enough to face Will, and they immediately latch eyes.

“Do you feel any older?”

“No.”

“I guess that makes sense,” He shrugs. It’s only been one second. One second older than he was when he was still fourteen. No shit he doesn’t feel any different; barely any time has passed. Yet, at the same time, so much has. Because even though fifteen is still young, it's still mind blowing watching his best friend grow, especially when he had been waiting for this moment for so long… That torturous week that Will had went missing, Mike started off rather confident that they would find him.

“And tomorrow night, we go back out. And this time, we find Will.”

It wasn’t until they watched the men pull the body out of the water on that stupid, little life raft, had doubt finally surfaced his mind. He thought for sure he lost him then. He vaguely remembers the bike ride home after he’d snapped at Eleven with the red and white ambulance lights flickering down on their moonlit complexions. Adrenaline took him most of the way, but by the time it’d worn off, he could barely pedal on his own. All he felt was pain from the inside-out, spreading all the way to his fingertips. He didn’t know how to breathe, and the world around him had become cloudy from the hot tears that masked it. Not even his mother’s affection could rid him of the endless despair. And all he wished for in that devastating night, with his breath releasing in shuttering gasps against the tear-soaked pillowcase, was to have Will back. To watch him grow up, like he always deserved.

And now here he is, growing up, and within arms reach.

The pills don’t matter, the fact that he's in therapy doesn’t matter, how he’s probably forgotten about him since moving hours away doesn’t matter; what matters, is that he’s here. With that golden glow illuminating his smile in such a way Mike wonders if he’s the one in heaven.

“I can’t believe you’re really fifteen, man,” Older than him by eight months- how is that fair? It’s always been a common joke within the party since they can remember, how the youngest looking is actually the oldest of the four. Will would tease the others about it, often by using it as an excuse for his bossy-ness or as a way of getting what he wanted. He’d remind them that he’d get his driver's license first, and that he’d legally be able to drink first, though when asked if he’d ever do it, vowed to “never ever”. Which, at the time, the others didn’t question, given as they heard enough stories about Lonnie to understand Will’s detestation.  

Falling back onto what he had been thinking before Mike showed up, Will’s smile fades into a sigh, “Yeah, me neither.”

It’s been a while since they looked into each other’s eyes like this. In Mike’s eyes is his humanity, the person he really is. There are times, more often than not, it gets lost, when he becomes the boy the world demands of him. But Will sees it in the pools of basalt; he sees the undeniable love that burns there too, the sort that lasts for an eternity. There is something in his spirit that dances when they’re in each other’s company, regardless of the tension, like a fire giving just the right amount of warmth. Will has seen it die too, the flames almost extinguished, when he is under the gun of shame, guilt and fear. Will knows that isn't him, not the real version. Behind the closed door, Mike is his raw self; not afraid to get close to Will, not afraid of staring into his eyes, his brows frowning slightly, as though to say, I really am sorry for being such an asshole to you.

Will recognizes in that moment that Mike knows what he’s done wrong. He feels genuine sympathy, and for now, it’s what Will settles for, figuring that it's better than nothing. He could start the entire conversation now, but he knows it’ll only change what’s supposed to be happy moment into something that’s not. And right now, he really just wants to be happy in Mike's presence. So, he saves it for another time, when he can hear it in Mike’s voice. He needs to hear it, or else he’s afraid he might never get the closure he’s been so desperately chasing for months. The boy half-accepts Mike’s nonverbal apology with a clench of the jaw and a timid nod of the head, unintentionally flickering his gaze down to where he knows he shouldn’t.

He notices Mike stare at his lips also, with promise scrawled on his own cupids bow, but only for a second before glancing back up, and then back down again, and then back up. The boy swallows- Will sees the bob of his Adam’s apple- and then murmurs, sounding a bit strained, “I’ll see you in the morning?”

“See you then,” He lets him go, quite frankly needing some air himself.

Mike waits before rising to his feet, “Happy birthday, Will.”

And then, so quiet, it accidently comes out in a squeak, “Thanks.”

 

 

As Mike rounds the corner to the kitchen after practically jumping down the last four stairs, his throat feels more parched than the Sahara Desert. What was that? He thinks. He let himself become so vulnerable to Will without even meaning to. How did that even happen?

He enters the kitchen on a journey for some much-needed water, somehow too caught up in his own head to notice the light already on. So, when he sees a tall figure in the way of the glass cupboard, an embarrassing shriek leaves his lips, cutting the silence like a sharpened steel blade.

“Je-sus!” The man jumps and turns around to find the culprit, holding a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a glass in the other. When he sees Mike, his sterned expression falls into an exasperated sigh. The man lifts his left hand, tipping some of the liquid copper into the glass, whining comically as he does, “What do you want?”

Recognizing that it’s only Hop, Mike’s shoulders relax, and suddenly, the water isn’t so important anymore. The younger boy crosses his arms, finding a new rush of confidence, and tilts his chin up after sixty seconds of uncomfortable silence, “Why do you drink so much?”

It’s terrible timing; the man has his glass millimetres from his lips, and before he can take one sip, freezes, as though he’s on a video screen that had just been paused, "What did you just ask me?" He asks, his eyes finding their way to Mike’s through the distorted reflections of the glass. He says it not in an intimidating way, but in more of a careless, -why are you speaking to me right now- sort of way.

"I said, why do you-"

"No-I heard what you said, kid,” He says, raising his hand to silence to him, and then finally taking the whiskey all in one mouthful. After he’s swallowed and turned back around, he mumbles out, his gruff voice still harbouring the same carelessness from before, "I guess, that entails me to ask, why do you want to know?"

"Just wondering,” Mike shrugs innocently. He not quite sure why he loves messing with Hopper as much as he does; probably because it's so easy to get him mad. And when he’s mad, he’s funny to watch, “I see you doing it almost everyday."

"Only the days you're here."

"Am I that much of a bother to you, old man?"

Old man. There it is- the extra poke to get the grizzly bear angered up. He pours himself another glass, "Yes. Yes. You are,” From the way Jim’s tone shifts into something a little less calm, Mike can tell whatever he’s doing is working, "Now is there anything you want from me, or are you just trying to get on my nerves?"

"I’m just curious."

"You want to know why I drink? Fine- I do it because it helps me to escape,” He takes a sip, back facing Mike, “I'm not as reliant on it as I was in the past, because Ms. President of the Household has been trying to wean me off, but I indulge some nights. Sue me."

The younger boy shrugs, nonchalant, "Fair enough, man."

Jim turns at that, his scent wafting with him. His icy eyes are stern and sharp, "It isn't 'man'."

"What?"

"I'm not one of your buddies. You address me by 'sir'. Got it?"

Excuse me” it’s said in the most sarcastic way possible, which only makes the man tighten his whitened knuckles against the already abused glass, “Fair enough, sir.”  

And when fun and games eventually come to an end, as all things do, Mike dwells on what Jim had told him. He stares up at the ceiling fan of the guest room and thinks of his parents’ liquor cabinet in the living room, untouched and unmonitored; but most of all, he thinks of the word escape.

Chapter Text

“There he is!” Joyce squeals as soon as she sees Will enter the kitchen. Her apron is on, wrapped snugly against the oversized material of her striped tee- untidy bangs obscure her eyes, the rest being pulled into a ponytail with random, wavy strands sticking out. Her impecunious appearance contrasts to the sumptuousness of the kitchen, like she’s working in a place that doesn’t truly belong to her. Everything looks so clean- all except for her, given the amount of flour residing on her face and hands (everywhere but the apron). Will sees it now, especially when she takes a step forward with her arms stretched out, implying a hug. To which the boy hastily declines by tittering to the side- but she catches him anyway, squeezes him tight, and then clasps the sides of his head to pull him down for a peck on both cheeks. The entire time, he squints and grimaces, just knowing that by the end of it, he’ll be covered in the exact same mess.

“Mom- “

“My birthday boy, all grown up- “

“Maw-hom! -“

“Fifteen!”

“Eugh- “

“Before I know it, you’ll be headed off to college!” She's been saying the exact same thing since he's learned to tie his own laces. 

“Can you please- erg! - let me go?”

“Okay, okay,” She sighs, pulling back. Her hands, however, remain on his shoulders, as though to pull him back down to the height of the boy she remembers taking to beach to build sandcastles over the summers. To argue with over whether hand-me-down swimsuits were sufficient enough for swimming. Will always had to tie the string until the loops were about the size of his hand, and even then, the bottom hems touched his mid-calf instead of his kneecap (where they typically reached on Jonathan, the primary owner). Though over time, he learned to keep his mouth shut about that kind of stuff. Just like how Jonathan learned to keep his mouth shut when Joyce took on extra shifts when Lonnie left, and he was put on breakfast duty.

“I made you some breakfast. Everyone’s at the table. Why don’t you go join them?” She offers, her thumb coming up to rub some of the powder off his cheek.

He nods, then makes his way over to the table. It’s behind a wall- a thin one that doesn’t close off all the way- just enough to make everyone just barely visible from where he’s standing. Sure enough, the moment he steps into view, Hopper’s voice is the first to holler, “Buddy!”

Will looks up at him, a bit startled, and sees that the man’s face lit like a lightbulb. The blue part of his eyes are able to blind anyone awake from a mile away.

Will’s not completely sure how he and Jim both bonded in the first place, but what he does know, is it that it doesn’t really matter. There are several moments worth considering the moment they clicked as father and son. They’ve known each other for less time than he and Eleven have but get along together just the same.

It’s taken awhile for Will to figure out what the true definition of father is. Before, it meant: the man who teaches you how to be a man. But now, it’s: the man who never gives up on you- who doesn’t force you love normal things and encourages you to be yourself. That’s what a father is, and he’s learned that all thanks to the man beaming back at him from across the table as he takes his seat beside Mike. It’s then that he realizes Mike and El switched spots the day before, and that this is where Mike sat the day he arrived.

Something’s off. El did seem more excited than usual around him yesterday. What does she know?

Speaking of El being excited around him, she seems to be even more so today. Once he sits down, she springs up, and immediately goes to stand behind his chair. It doesn’t take very long for her knitted-sleeved arms to wrap themselves around his chest and squeeze from behind, to which he then lets out an embarrassed chuckle and reaches up to hold on to the unexpected grasp.

“Happy birthday, Will.”

“Thanks.”

“Happy birthday,” Mike voice echoes from the side, and when Will turns his face to look at him, he sees that he’s smiling in that dorky way of his, looking right back at him. He appears paler in the mornings- almost ghostlike. Of course, his dark hair and freckles don’t necessarily help, but even his lips lack color. He looks like he just rolled out of bed, or a coffin.

Knowing what he’s about to say next, Mike’s dimples- godthosedimplesiwoulddieforthosedimpleswhyaretheysocutetheyreliterallyjustindentsintheface- dig deeper into his cheeks, around the corners of his mouth as he teases, knocking his socked foot against Will’s under the table, “Will the Wise.”

:to which Will, hiding a knowing smirk, mumbles back with, “Shut up,” then, “thank you.”

He doesn’t know if they’re at the stage where saying shut up is considered “appropriate” yet. The obvious tension between them has been so real, and for a split second, Will somehow managed to forget the existence of it at all. Looking at Mike, and his smile; it was like nothing had ever changed. He sees the four-year-old in him, and the eight-year-old, the eleven-year-old who finally mastered Lucas’s flip off the quarry, and the twelve-year-old who often caught his eye over the table during D&D campaigns. He sees it all, and helplessly falls back into their old nature without even thinking twice about it, at least until the moment’s long gone and Eleven’s back in her seat, asking Joyce to please pass the maple syrup.

Silence descends over the table- the comfortable kind. El appears to be deep in thought. It seems as though she’s too focused on whatever she’s thinking about to show any sort of affection towards Mike, who in return, doesn’t seem to take any notice anyway. His eyes settle on her, linger for a few seconds, then to Hopper, then Joyce, and then back down to his plate.

Uncertainty washes over the surface of what’s supposed to be Will’s birthday breakfast in the form of exchanged stares and frequent glances toward the clock above his head. The first time Will notices it, he simply brushes it off as a coincidence. But by the fourth or fifth time, he becomes impatient, “Is everything okay?”

Everyone looks up in sync. If the atmosphere had been any different, Will would’ve acted as freaked out as he felt. But instead, he keeps a straight face, and alternates his gaze expectedly at the people around him. El speaks up first after she’s swallowed her bite, though her voice still comes out a bit groggy, “You should go to the store today, Will.”

“What?” He twists his face in confusion.

She uses her knife to cut another piece of Joyce’s homemade pancake for her fork spear, “For dinner. You should pick out what you want to have.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Jim joins in, “I’ll give you a few bucks if you’d like.”

Joyce is next, “Just don’t go alone.”

Then Mike, “I’ll come with.”

Will is barely able to even get a word in as he sits back in his chair, puzzled. They all seem so sure- so quick on each other’s responses, it’s almost as if they were reading off a script.

“Go around five o’clock.”

His mouth opens, as though to say something, but then closes when he thinks it over some more. There’d be less hesitation if they all didn’t seem so eager about him going. Grocery runs are something he and El do all the time together and it’s weird that she’s pushing someone else to go with him, especially when they just went a few days before. If he looked hard enough, he’d probably be able to just find something in the cupboards, but nonetheless, “Okay,” He blinks, “I guess.”

His words seem to satisfy them enough to start acting normal again, which serves as some sort of relief. Will’s able to slip into the background again instead of feeling like the centre of attention, which eases his nerves enough to continue eating until the food on his plate has disappeared.

The hours leading up to five o’clock are empty and unexciting. After breakfast, they all played board games, which Joyce won every time, until Jim eventually pulled out the deck of cards and mercilessly beat everyone’s sorry asses. The few seconds of pride were enough for him to drag the card playing until the one-hour mark (for everyone else- not for Mike, who stayed, kneeling in his chair with his elbows propped up on the table for about two hours longer, though, nobody was really timing, until he finally won a match). During that time, El and Will watched some movie Joyce recommended- one they don’t really know the name of, but enjoyed it enough to stay till the end, which is all that really matters. Afterwards, the siblings decided to take Mike around the block for a tour. El narrated most of it, unlike Will, who stayed behind and participated along with Mike in listening to her speak. The only times he did talk were when Mike had any questions:

“What do you guys do for fun around here?”

“There’s the mall. We don’t go there a lot, though. Mostly just go to each other’s houses, or the park.”

“Is the traffic ever loud?”

“We live in one of the more quieter towns, so no.”

“Is your school big?”

“Not any bigger than Hawkins.”

“How long does it take to get to school, normally?”

“Fifteen minutes. Or something- I don’t really know.”

“Does it get boring here?”

“Yeah.”

“Are the people nice?”

“Most.”

It’s sort of funny, how Mike brought his bike with him. It’s like he knew this sort of thing would happen. It must have been a bitch to carry inside the taxis and train, though. And for almost seven whole hours, too. Apparently, Nancy was supposed to drive him, but had some unexpected plans come up, so she couldn’t. So far, its planned for her to pick him up this Sunday, and he hopes she doesn’t cancel on Mike, for his own sake. Sitting in a seat surrounded by strangers for seven hours doesn’t sound like a very enjoyable ride, (or affordable, for that matter) (does Mike have a job to pay for his trips?) (he must) especially when you’re not necessarily good at making conversation.

He snorts, feeling the cool wind against his teeth, and imagining Mike’s awkward questions and fidgeting- a habit he’s had since he was younger, which he typically uses whenever he’s stressed. For somebody the party has considered a “leader” for years, the boy sure is bad at basic human communication.

El’s still talking; something about the post office they’re approaching. It’s a small building made of brick. It’s usually surrounded by adults and elderly ranging in appearances; some drop by in tight-fitted work clothes with their hair all done up, while others show up in pajamas, having not bothered getting ready in the morning before they’ve had their morning cup of coffee. There’s a willow tree beside it that she normally sits with Will under, often accompanied by various animals, like birds, grasshoppers, and squirrels. She likes to listen to music through the Walkman Jonathan left behind, while Will draws silently. Sometimes, he chooses one of the critters to sketch, and other times he asks for requests. So far, the most popular suggestions he’s gotten from El is herself, Hopper, Max, dogs, and sunflowers.

It surely is a peaceful place to be; one of which is coincidentally placed in just the right spot for the golden hues of the sun to easily manipulate it into appearing as though it were engraved into a first-place trophy. Which is why it comes as a shock when Eleven skids to an abrupt stop, forcing Mike and Will to brake as well. She shushes them when they try asking what’s wrong and tilts her head slightly to the side in order to get a better look at something. That’s when Mike and Will hear it too; voices. Angry ones- anything but peaceful.

“Guys, stop calling me that!”

“Q*eer!”

“Quit it!”

“F*g-boy!” It’s a group of teenagers emerging from the mall about a block away. They’re far, but close enough for it to be recognizable that a boy’s in front, followed by two girls and one other boy. They’re singing and chanting rude remarks at him like children in a playground, even though they’re visibly older than the three. Mike internally guesses a little younger than Nancy, senior year of high school maybe.

The boy in front turns his head, “Will you guys stop? I wasn’t even looking at it, I was looking past it!”

A buffer one speaks up with an amused chuckle, accidently tipping his baseball cap up in the process a little bit past his hairline, “It was a poster, dickweed. You can’t look past a poster!” The boy in front turns his head back, and if El can see correctly from where she’s standing, it seems as though there’s a slight, re-occurring quiver in his bottom lip, “You were staring straight into that guy’s abs!”

Then, a girl with more freckles than skin and deep, auburn hair, “Yeah, I saw you. You were totally drooling too,” The brunette alongside her laughs, agreeing with an irritatingly exaggerate nod of the head, “You oughtta be careful,” she nods to the other guy friend who spoke before, “you don’t wanna get AIDS!”

Will looks at the other two and sees them completely entranced, only- in different ways. There’s a line of confusion centering the girl’s brows, with her lips are puckered in disgust, meanwhile, Mike’s eyes are huge and knowing. He sucks in whatever air he can find through his slightly agape mouth, almost as if he’s the one being made fun of- he’s the one looking down towards the sidewalk with a scorching flush of pink heating his cheeks.

Will’s about to ask if they can move on to the next street, until El speaks first, “What’s qu- “

“Don’t say it. It’s bad,” Mike interrupts, then retreats his answer with a shake of the head, “not what it means- the way they used it. It’s a slur. A word you don’t use. They’re being a bunch of dumb idiots.”

She knows the meaning of slur already but decides not to comment on it. Instead, she cocks her head to the side without removing her eyes from the scene, and asks, “What’s fa- “

“Stop,” He interrupts again, a little more agitated.

“But what do they mean? What’s AIDS? Like First Aid?”

“No- ugh.”

Mike’s silent then. He doesn’t want to explain it, for the same reason everyone else hasn’t yet. Who wants to be the one to teach someone else about the darker, hateful parts of the world? Who wants to voluntarily plant the idea of not being able to be your true self into a someone else’s head? And who wants to recite the painful names that float around in their own brain, out loud into the already malevolent universe?

There’s a fleeting second where he opens his mouth to answer, only to exhale with a defeated sigh. No. He can’t.

No longer wanting to be apart of the uncomfortable silence or any of the other nicknames the teenagers come up with– how are there so many? - Will presses down on his peddle and pushes off, to which he begins to smoothly glide down the sidewalk, tilting the handlebars slightly to form a zig-zag pattern, “Come on, let’s go to the coffee shop now.” It serves as an easy exit for Mike to take out of an uneasy conversation with the person he’d least want it with, so he uses it to his full advantage. Once El looks to the side, she sees that he has vanished.

Instead of following the two, which is really what she should be doing instead of possibly losing track of them, she stays behind and follows her eyes to the moving conversation, trying hard to make sense of it all. She’s heard these words before; what do they mean? Why won’t anyone explain them to her? It’s all so frustrating, how often she feels like a child compared to everyone else. Like she’s being coddled into a world that isn’t truly real. People only tell her what they want her to know- nothing else. It fuels a certain fire deep below her lungs that becomes overwhelming to the point where she feels the only way to breathe normally again is to physically do something. She needs to do something in order to relieve the aching ball of manifesting energy coiling in her nerves.

So, her grasp tightens on the handlebars, and honey-brown curls obscure her eyes when she slowly tilts her head downwards. And with a whiplash-threatening haste, she flicks her chin up and watches the baseball cap fly off of the buffer guy’s head, to which it then flutters down towards the road, where it’s stamped against the concrete by a passing car. As if she couldn’t have picked better timing, the car tires skid in a poor attempt of dodging the hat (way too late), which accidently splashes a dirty puddle onto both of the girls. The entire havoc makes their annoying giggles quickly morph into high-pitched shrieks that reverberate throughout the entire town.

It’s an impressive shot, and she probably would have taken the time to appreciate her chances if the boys weren’t already so far ahead.

She slightly twists her lips in a poor attempt of hiding the mischievous grin climbing its way to the surface. The Willow tree is all that’s keeping the group from noticing her, and even if they did, there’d be no explanation as to why she was staring at them with as much concentration as she had been, before creating a bloody line on the back of her hand from swiping it absentmindedly against her left nostril. Except for maybe her being an absolute psycho.

So, she heads out, hoping to be gone before they’ve walked their way away from the tree, and calls after Mike and Will, “Guys! Wait up!”

 

The coffee shop isn’t as exciting as it would have been if they came with any cash. Will knows he could have definitely gone for some hot chocolate while they’re passing. The smell that place wafts has the power to make any stomach growl, which he guesses is all apart of business.

He wonders why it’s considered a coffee shop when coffee isn’t even the only thing on the menu. There’s plenty of options, actually; pastries, muffins, sandwiches (the grilled cheese is terrible), soup, hot chocolate (they add extra whipped cream if you ask nicely), brownies, cookies, little bite-sized cupcakes, tea, and every kind of scone you can think of. It’s another place adults and the elderly use up pretty well, but there is the odd time after school you’ll see someone under the age of seventeen also sitting in one of the wooden booths.

“Oh,” Will says, once they’ve hit a dead end at the end of the street. The boy looks to the side to get the others’ attention, “Um,” then, slowing to a stop, he nods to the sign above his head: Glen Street. “We should show you the motel too.”

“Why?” El asks, brows furrowing.

He shrugs, “It’s on the way to our school.”

Chestnut curls tousle slightly when she shakes her head, “I don’t like that place.”

“We pass by it everyday.”

“I don’t like passing by it.”

“Come on, please?” He pleads, “It’ll only be a second.”

“No way! That place gives me the creeps!”

Will lets out a breath, “I wanted to visit Sam. His family’s staying there right now.”

Sam. Alarms sound in Mike’s brain for what feels like the millionth time thus far. For some unknown reason, he’d forgotten he even existed for a moment.

“Are they nice?”

“Yeah, they’re nice,” For how untrue the statement is, he sure does say it with confidence. But he just can’t push his curiosity aside: How’s he holding up? For all Will knows, Sam could emerge from one of the doors with a tattoo on his face- a gang sign or curse word, or something vulgar of the sorts. Something unlike him. He knows it’s only been two days, but who knows what can happen in that time? “You know Sam.”

“Well okay,” She finally agrees, nodding to Mike and pointing in the direction they’re headed, “but only if its quick. What time is it?”

Will looks down at his watch, “1:30.”

“That’s plenty before five,” Then, “Okay. Straight ahead down Glen, I guess.” And with that, takes off down the sidewalk in the direction of the sign. Will pushes off second, then Mike, who’s still trying to process the fact that he’s actually about to physically see Sam - the real Sam – in person instead of just a photograph.

This is what I wanted, he thinks. Yesterday. This is what I wanted, and now, I don’t want it anymore.

It doesn’t take long for his brain to make up a bunch of I wonder’s:

I wonder if he’s taller than me. I wonder if his voice is deeper than mine. I wonder if Will smiles more with him. I wonder if Will…

His eyes glance up at the boy in front him, only the back of his jacket and hair in sight, and tells himself again, “he doesn’t exist,” when all of a sudden, the image changes. Now, Will’s side profile comes into view and he murmurs a confused, huh?  “What?”

Who doesn’t exist?”

“N-nobody.”

He still looks confused, and Mike almost raises his hand to slap it against the bare part of his forehead, when Will turns forwards again and notices the motel coming closer. He points a finger to it, his full arm extending to its very length, “There.” And when they draw close enough to see the parking lot, Will quickly puts it down, because outside, sitting outside of several rooms on stained lawn chairs, are about seven or eight (who’s counting?) pale skinned, dark haired men with cigarettes dangling from the crusty edges of their mouths. The distance between them doesn’t undermine the building glares and raised tension, especially when they start to notice the three slowing down.

Once they’ve come to a full stop, nobody talks for a solid twenty seconds. At first, it was just El and Will silently fighting over who asks about Sam’s whereabouts first, and the rest watching them in an uncomfortable silence, before it somehow drifts into something more threatening. One man stands and crosses his arms, the thick hairs in his brows tying in a knot as he growls, “You three selling something?” The appearance of the man is a bit tarnished, like an old teacup you’d expect to find in your dead grandmother’s bedroom. There are a few scars here and there, and a couple grey hairs on the top of his head too, but Will doesn’t judge. In fact, he thinks, this is clearly someone who’s lived. And in some way, he respects that. It’s a cool concept- living. And not just being alive, but actually living. Not for other people- for yourself. Doing what you want to do and living it.

Still, it doesn’t weaken the intimidating energy he gives off just by standing there. Will and El face him in sync, their expressions matching the other. Their bikes are still wedged in between their legs and Will tries not to wince at the pedal scraping the backside of his calf, leaving chalky, white marks on the skin there. His voice comes out in a series of several squeaks, “No sir,” Then, after a hard swallow, “Is Sam here?” He finds that the more he looks at the man, the bigger his tattooed biceps become. He could probably step on Will and squish him like a bug- that is, if he wanted to. It also doesn’t help that the men sitting around him look like they’re all apart of the same litter.

“Sam?” The man with a beard next to him echoes. It’s whether he’s asking for clarification or calling Sam to come out of somewhere- Will’s not really sure; he’s known Sam long enough to know that his family can be pretty loud. Their normal speaking voice is loud on its own, but when they want to be loud, they have the power to make even the moon shake. It’s like, whenever they speak, they’re giving trouble to somebody, which is pretty unfortunate, considering all Sam’s ever been is good.

A pause follows, of which Will’s not entirely sure if he should acknowledge or not. He’s about to apologize and head towards the school, when out of no where, a door opens on the second floor and Sam walks out, muttering something incoherent under his breath. He’s wearing a checkered sweater and his hairs a mess, and Will’s not even completely sure if it’s really him- but when he waves, and sees him wave back, he knows it is.

The men seem to go back to their old conversation without much problem, which fills in the gap of time it takes for Sam to make his way down the stairs and out towards the sidewalk where the three are parked. Will and El wait patiently, meanwhile, Mike’s more than ready to leave. He can feel his pulse everywhere- can hear it even, ringing sporadically in his temples. He feels too awkward to be here; too lanky, too shaky… Every step Sam takes forward, Mike tenses up a bit more, because the boy hasn’t even spoken a word yet, and Mike already feels his competitive side bubbling up to the surface. Sam’s skinny too but has muscle in all of the places he doesn’t. He’s also about the same height as Mike, which makes it harder to intimidate him if he ever tried.

Why do I want to intimidate him?

Once he’s close enough, Sam asks Will, anxiously scratching the back of his head and knotting the hair there, “What are you doing here?” It’s hushed- that’s how Mike knows it’s only for Will’s ears to hear, and something about that irks him to his very core.

“Just came to say hi.” Will’s voice matches his volume. Mike wonders if they know he can still hear them.

“You know I’m coming back today, right? You didn’t have to come here.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. You could’ve visited later if you wanted.”

“I- uh… Yeah sorry,” He shakes his head, “I just didn’t know what a couple nights meant when you said it.”

“It means two nights.”

“Right.”

“Uh- happy birthday, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

“They didn’t say anything to you…” He says it like a statement, but there’s something hanging off the end of it that makes it seem more like a question, “My uncles?”

“No.”

“Okay, good.”

Will’s voice then becomes a bit louder, “This is Mike.”  He motions towards the boy behind him with an open palm to the sky. And Mike isn’t ready for the introduction; his eyes become wide, and his air escapes him from the small opening of his slacked mouth.

He looks dumb, he realizes as soon as Sam turns to look at him. So, he stands up straight, being careful not to lose balance, and clenches his jaw, “Hey,” It’s a little sterner than he intended, and a bit deeper too, but he doesn’t pay much attention to it.

And there’s a certain glint in the other’s eyes- a smile, that sends chills down the back of Mike’s spine, “Hi,” Then, “Sam,” He extends his hand forward, and Mike takes it in a firm grip, shakes it once, and then drops it, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Haven’t heard much about you, he wants to say. But he knows he can’t. From the small amount of time he has talked to Will, or about Will, he’s heard more about Sam than anyone. Or maybe its Sam he chooses to pay the most attention to.

“How are you liking it here in Michigan so far?”

“I haven’t been to the whole state,” He says, shrugging a shoulder, “but St. Ignace’s pretty cool.”

Sam nods, “I’ve never been to Hawkins, but it sounds pretty cool too-”

“It’s not,” Mike responds a little too fast and harsh- enough to leave Sam silent for a few seconds at least, “I mean. It’s pretty boring. Nothing ever really happens. Right El?” The girl turns her chin over her shoulder, and then looks at the Sam, “My girlfriend,” He murmurs when Sam exchanges her glance with a weak point of the finger. And when Will looks at him, he uses it to gauchely swipe against his nose and purse his lips to the concrete.

“Yeah,” She responds finally, “boring.”

“I think every town’s like that. Especially the small ones.”

Will didn’t tell him, did he? Isn’t it, like, confidential, sworn to government secrecy type stuff?

“Yeah, we’re just showing him around right now.”

“Oh, like we did when you first moved here?”

Will laughs- what’s so funny? “Yeah. Yeah, I guess.” Mike’s heart stops then. He wants to look back up but finds himself simply unable to do it. Once his eyes find their way to the ground, they stay helplessly glued to it.

“Remember we went swimming because it was so hot out, and we had to bike back to my house completely soaked?” Will nods, “I don’t think I ever got my sweatpants back… Or sweater… Or socks.” Mike scrunches his eyebrows and looks to the side, squinting his eyes just slightly. There’s something; a feeling of some sort that’s making his palms tighten against the handlebars until his knuckles turn white. He hates it.

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Eh, maybe it’s for the best. They look better on you than they do on me. No, really, I mean it,” He says when Will begins to protest. Then, he throws his focus on Eleven and sighs, “Anyways. How’s it going in El’s world?”

“Good.”

“Yeah? You do anything exciting lately?” God, he sounds like an old man. Like some distant relative that shows up to some random family reunion and acts like they know everybody.

“Not really.”

“Wha- It’s Spring Break! I thought for sure you’d be going to some parties, or something.”

“I don’t think there’s been many lately. If there has, I haven’t been invited.” Since when does El go to parties?

“Oh, you don’t always have to be invited. Just show up, and if anyone asks who you are, say you’re Sandy’s friend. They totally, like, respect her for some reason.”

El raises her eyebrows, “Because she’s pretty.”

“Yeah,” He chuckles, “I guess that’s what it all boils down to, huh? It’s pretty messed up,” When El contorts her lips into a smile, Sam looks back at Will, and smiles too, “We just have to get Will the Wise here into parties. Then we’d be set.”

And Mike can’t help it- he looks up in utter shock, his jaw almost slacking against the ground. “Will the Wise” is his thing. The party’s thing. Sam has no right to stand here, and just take it like it was his to begin with.

“Please address me by my full name!”

“What?!”

“My full name!”

“Oh my god, okay- Will the Wise?”

He can’t recall any other time in his life he’s felt so defensive over a name. One of which, he’s had no desire of using until just this morning over breakfast. Still, it eats at his sanity and spikes his nerves on fire, giving him the overwhelming craving to pitilessly cram his fist into the side of Sam’s cheekbone.

Judging by the way he and Will are acting right now, he can’t help thinking one thing.

He’d be lying if he said he never had some sort of suspicion over whether or not Will’s particularly straight or not, not that it’s something he should have ever wondered about. His sexuality is his business- nothing meant for someone else to dwell over, because it simply doesn’t concern them. But still, growing up, and constantly having homophobic remarks thrown at them, having to walk down the halls of middle school with Will in the middle so he wasn’t thrown into some locker- it was hard not to question whether or not any of it was actually true, given how Will never actually denied any of it.

It was always an unspoken rule in the party: Don’t talk about it. No matter what circumstance you’re in, unless Will brings it up himself, don’t say anything. And Will never did, so neither did they. At least, not until that night in Mike’s garage under the pouring rain.

And now, watching the two, he finds himself wondering again… What if Will was telling the truth? What if he really didn’t like Jennifer like that? What if he was using her as a metaphor for girls in general? Looking back on it now, there had been plenty of instances like that.

“Hey,” He cuts into the conversation by nudging his front tire against Will’s back tire, “remember when we went camping together?” He can feel Sam’s eyes on him as he continues his memory, “We roasted marsh mellows, and you accidently dropped yours in the fire, and so I made one for you, and as I was passing it over on the end of my stick, I accidently bumped your nose because it was so dark, and you had marsh mellow shit all over your face, and-“

“Yeah, yeah, Mike, I remember- “

“and we laughed so hard we nearly pissed ourselves, and- oh, we were eight by the way. We’ve been best friends since we were, like, five. Oh, and we shared a tent, and- “

They both know how the sentence is meant to end before Mike can finish it.

But he doesn’t say that; he stops himself short, because he doesn’t recall them ever actually talking about it after the fact. Actually, he’s not entirely sure if the whole thing was a dream or not, had it all seemed so surreal at the time. It was quick too- barely a second, though to Mike, it felt more like a lifetime. They were both stupid and curious and wanted to see what kissing was like. If you could even call what they did, a “kiss’. It was more like a peck, if anything. And to think, Will was the one who initiated it, and who suggested they do it again- which they did, for about a second longer that time before deciding to play with the flashlights again like nothing had ever happened. Still, he remembers the euphoric sensations buzzing through him afterwards, perhaps for the entire rest of the night, driven purely by those few seconds of silence- their surroundings dulled into slow motion, black and white, timeless and forgotten…

All except for the boy whose knees are just barely holding him up anymore on either side of his bike. Whose chest has stopped moving to the beat of his pulse, and thinks the way a broken record would sound- the two questions repeating over and over again in his brain: he remembers? That wasn’t just a dream?

And just by judging Mike’s facial expression through those stern-set brows he often uses to guard all of his sporadic feelings and emotions alone, the answer is clearer than the shiniest crystal on planet Earth.

“The mosquitos,” Mike continues, figuring there needs to be some type of artificial ending to wrap up his story, “they were really bad, so… Uh… Hey, let’s go check out the school now.”

“Okay,” Will agrees hastily, his chest suddenly now heaving from the utter lack of oxygen. He presses his foot against the pedal and gets ready to push off, “See you, Sam.”

“Bye,” The boy puts a weak hand up, before shoving it back in his pocket, “Nice to meet you, Mike.”

El doesn’t budge though, and as Mike and Will impatiently wait for her to start moving, she says to the side, “You guys go, I’ll catch up.”

 

“What’s up?” Sam asks once they’ve rounded around her and taken off down the sidewalk. She doesn’t say anything more; just watches them until they’re out of earshot, and then looks to the boy standing beside her.

She swallows, thinking for a second longer before clarifying, “You’re coming back today?”

“Yeah.”

Her brown-sugar eyes depart from his obsidian for a moment, and Sam almost asks if everything’s okay, before she states firmly, “We’re having a party for Will tonight. He doesn’t know about it,” and Sam can’t help it- his tongue moves to poke the inside of his cheek, because it should have been obvious from the start. Of course- if El isn’t attending any parties, she’s throwing them. It’s always been sort of a surprise, too; her interest in them. El’s a fairly quiet girl, even in school. Though her laugh is distinct- whenever you walk the halls of their school, you can often hear it if you listen close enough. It’s no secret that if she didn’t hang out with Sandy, Melissa, and Jess, she’d be the one to skip every party if it meant staying at home to watch Spanish soap operas or catch up on some last-minute studies, almost always accompanied with a bowl of ice cream. Her demeanor matches her brothers, “you’re welcome to come. Let Jennifer and Becca know too- I don’t know they’re phone numbers, but I think he would really appreciate it if you guys came,” He already knows his answer is yes, especially with the famous Mike’s name added to the attendance list, he wouldn’t mind seeing more of the interesting shit that comes out of his mouth tonight, “If you do, come at five thirty.”

“Five thirty,” Sam repeats after her like a parrot would, “see you then.”

Her dimples dig into the sides of her cheeks, as they typically do in Sam’s presence, when she pushes off her pedals and leaves him at the end of the motel parking lot. Which is almost small enough to consider a large driveway of sorts. And Sam watches the wind sweep her away, along with the lighthearted atmosphere her and the other two had brought with them. He can only hope he provides the same energy for them- that he has the ability to make someone’s day better without even trying. It’s probably a contributing factor as to why he tends to cling to their family so much- Will doesn’t even have to be included. Sometimes, Joyce will ask him to stay for dinner for no reason. No special occasion, no nothing. And she won’t let him leave until he’s full and packed with a bunch of tin foiled leftovers to bring home. She buys him gifts for his birthday and Christmas, with a card and everything, signed Joyce. Not Ms. Byers- friendly first name instead of the formal honorific. And for some reason, it makes all the difference. Considering how if his own father’s in a bad enough mood, he demands to be called sir, and nothing else.

If circumstances were any different with Will, Sam would be confident to call Joyce the parent figure he’s never had. Same goes for Jim: even when the old man’s tired from a long day at work and half asleep on the couch, he still manages to ask Sam how school’s going and if the book he’s reading right now is any good. He reckons that’s why he prefers going to Will’s house rather than the other way around. It’s more peaceful there- less worrisome.

Realizing that he’d be there tonight, the boy turns back to the stairs with a dopey grin despite his uncles’ discourteous remarks as he walks past- because he just knows that soon enough, he’ll be home again, and things will be okay. And the gift he already has planned for Will is certain to make sure of that. At least, he hopes.

Chapter Text

He knew the store would be cold before he even had to step in. That’s why he came prepared- shielding his ears and forehead from the lingering bite of post-winter air, a black toque drapes itself around the top part of Will’s head. It’s too big and long, being yet another hand-me-down (thank you Jonathan) so it folds at the bottom, just above his eyebrows while obscuring most of his hair. He can’t complain, though- it does its job and that’s all he can ever really ask for.

To everyone else, including Mike, who’s wearing sweaters and pants, Will reckons he looks pretty silly. Along with the toque, he’s wearing a thin, graphic pullover underneath an unbuttoned jacket, underneath an even larger, vibrant, blue winter coat. His hands are stuffed snugly inside his coat pockets, even though the thin, cotton material of his gloves warm them well enough. It seems like no matter how many pairs of clothing he has on, he still unable of salvaging a sufficable amount of heat.

“Aren’t you sweating in that?” Mike asks, looking to his right without having to tilt his head down anymore. His eyes catch Will in a downwards glance before transferring momentarily to the person walking past them. They spare a glance to Will, linger for a second too long, and then continue walking as if they hadn’t seen anything. Except, it’s that look of judgement in their eyes- the judgement they don’t outwardly show, that flashes Mike with the heat of embarrassment. The kind you get as a child when your mother licks her thumb and rubs your cheek with it in public. 

The answer is, yes, he is sweating. But that’s the point- sweating is better than feeling chills and goosebumps everywhere and not being in control of your own body. Will doesn’t say that, though- in fact, he doesn’t answer at all. His eyes dart through the shelves, feet stepping in rhythm to the clanging of loose change in Mike’s pocket, as he wonders to himself what it is, he actually wants. He hasn't thought about it all day, though it probably would have been smart to. Now, they’ve been walking around for about twenty minutes with no luck. Just mindless wandering and listening to whatever songs playing through the speakers.

They pass the grains, then the meat, and then the dairy. And Will wonders if it would be stupid, stopping in the ice cream section. It’s his birthday- he could probably get away with it. But then again, it sounds rather childish for a fifteen-year-old. Ice cream for dinner. Mike would roll his eyes to the back of his head, and if there’s anyone out of the two who should have the right to do that, its Will. And he doesn’t know why, but ever since walking out the front door with Mike by his side just thirty-five minutes earlier, he’s felt this odd twinge of anger inside of him. Like everything Mike says is just another poke until he snaps.

He hasn’t yet. So far, he’s kept calm, which ultimately means not talking at all. And judging by the exasperated huffs coming from the other boy whenever another one of his questions goes unanswered, it becomes clear that it perhaps isn’t the most sufficient plan.

Its sort of mind boggling how just days ago he had been itching to get Mike alone, and now that he finally has him, his lips are sealed. Approaching the conversation is the hardest part- choosing where to start. It’s like science class, when Mr. Clarke made them assemble protective covers for a raw egg they’d be dropping from the window of the top floor. They’d rush down the stairs, pass classes as they ran through the halls, and would hurry outside to fetch their eggs, all in the matter of seeing if theirs had survived or not. Will’s not sure if he’s ready to find out if whatever he says will be the death or survival of their friendship. It all seems too risky, so he stays silent. But inside, he’s so mad. So mad, he’s not even sure if keeping it below the surface is even possible. Because no matter how many times he’s let himself indulge in the feeling of missing Mike so far, he can’t leave everything unspoken. He can’t let himself appear okay with being treated poorly, only for it to keep happening again and again.

Seven months.

“Forty-five dollars,” Mike announces, “forty from doofus and five from me. Use it wisely, remember. Don’t go blowing it on something stupid.”

Will shakes his head, “Don’t call him that.”

“What?” It’s the first time he’s spoken so far. For some reason, Will’s voice surprises him.

Will spits out bitterly then, eyes focused on the end of the aisle, “He’s not a doofus, he’s my dad,” Everything he could ever ask for in a dad in fact. Debatably the best thing to have ever happened to him. Mike has a lot of nerve for insulting him like that to Will’s face. Maybe if Mike had stayed more in touch with him, he’d know to say only good things about Hopper in his presence.

Will can’t see Mike’s face, but he’s got a clear idea of what it looks like. Right about now, he’s wearing that awkwardly-look-to-the-side expression resembling a toddler getting in trouble for a reason they don’t particularly understand, as he murmurs under his breath, “I was just joking, dude. Relax.”

“And what’s so stupid that I shouldn’t buy?” Will goes on.

“I don’t know,” He shrugs, somehow feeling already tired of the conversation, “like, a bunch of loafs of bread?”

They turn the corner into the next aisle over, and Will whispers confusedly, “Loafs of bread- “then, “What?”

“You asked what a stupid thing would be, that- Ugh. Never mind,” He waves his words away with a flimsy hand, “just trying to make conversation with you, man. We haven’t talked in, what, like, a million years.”

And who’s fault is that? He’s about to say until he remembers where they are. Getting into an argument with other people around doesn’t feel like something he wants to do at the moment. So, he breathes- in and out. Doesn’t respond, but instead picks up his pace so that he’s walking in front of Mike instead of beside him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop the taller boy from talking, however. Will even considers grabbing the first thing he sees on the shelf just to get this grocery trip over with.

“So hey… Are you in any new clubs or anything?”

No answer.

“Is there an AV club?”

No answer.

“Any science fairs?”

No answer.

“I guess that’s all middle school stuff anyway. Right?”

No answer.

“I don’t know. I guess not. I haven’t checked if there’s anything like that at my school. It doesn’t really sound that fun anymore. Especially now that Dustin’s always busy with choir and Lucas is in every sport you can think of.” He laughs, but Will isn't sure what exactly about that is so funny, “I’ve been to all of his games. He’s incredible.” Will then walks over to the first semi-appealing thing he sees; steak. The family will probably like it, and they’re able to afford it with the cash they’ve got, “Of course, that’s a given. I’m sort of the water boy. It sucks.” Most of it sucks. Carrying the tank to the game, supplying the water to the players, and sitting for so long his ass gets numb sucks. Watching, on the other hand, doesn’t suck. Seeing all the boys in their uniforms- running, shouting, sweating. He’s surprised none of them have cursed him out yet for staring at them like such a creep the entire time.

As Will picks it up and examines it, Mike towers over him, “If you’re gonna get that, grab two.”

“Why?”

“Your mom said.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” He’s lying, and it's almost obvious from the way he looks to the side and stares at the other products as if they’re the most interesting things in the world. He shrugs, “just get two.”

 

 

“Hold still,” Eleven murmurs. A four-color eyeshadow palette rests flat in the palm of her hand with her thumb keeping it in place; a bright blue, green, purple, and white. She paints Max’s eyelids with the blue, and smokes it out with her finger the way she remembers Kali doing.

The redhead retorts, “It’s kind of hard when you’re jabbing me with that thing.”

El blows into the pan once before dipping back in with the blue shade, “It helps put the eyeshadow on.”

“Still, it’s pointy.” 

El turns to look in the mirror, her reflection staring back at her through the glass. Her hairs done half-up with a scrunchie, and her cheeks look rosier with the pink blush she added to them, “No it’s not,” She says, spreading it onto her own eyelids, “It’s soft,” She fills her entire eyelid, smokes it out, examines it, and then looks at Max. A frown tugs on the corners of her lips, then, as she mumbles, “It looks better on you.”

Max transfers her glance from El, to the bathroom mirror and examines her own eyes. It does enhance her blue irises beautifully, in a way that El’s aren’t able to achieve with their darker pigment. Still, not liking how El's face looks with a frown, she takes the palette from her hand, “Here,” El turns, “I bet you’d look amazing with the purple shade,” and after El wipes her eye off with a cotton pad and water, Max uses the cleaner side to brush against the purple, “close your eyes,” and carefully applies the pigment to her eyelids, following the methods El had used on her. She holds her head in place with her other hand, her thumb resting just above the other girl’s eyebrow with the rest of her fingers pressed along her hairline.

Remembering that El’s eyes are closed, Max absentmindedly pauses for a second to look down at her lips. They haven’t touched them yet, but she doesn’t think they’ll need to. Their natural colour is pink enough. They look soft. Like two flower petals put together. She knows she shouldn’t be looking, but ever since she walked in through the front door, they’re all she can think about, “Do you think Jennifer and Becca wanted their makeup done?” Max jumps when El speaks, her eyes immediately darting back to her eyelids. She continues what she was doing before with great speed.

“Yeah,” She says dismissively, without even hearing the question.

El sighs, “I just wish they got here earlier. We would have had time. Will and Mike should be here any minute.”

"We should get back out there."

 

The bag rustles on his way out and taps absentmindedly on his knee. Will’s walking ahead again, still having not said a word, no matter how many times Mike attempted to fill in the awkward silences. He didn’t even talk to the cashier- only stayed by the side momentarily while Mike handed over the cash before completely taking off out the door in the middle of the purchase. Worried, and then antsy with the thought of Will leaving him behind, Mike had quickly reached for the bag, took the extra change, popped it in the bag, and then jogged out the sliding door.

Blue, he thinks to himself, gazing out into the parking lot. Blue coat. Where could he be?  It hasn’t been long enough for Will to get too far ahead. He walks around, trying desperately to catch sight of any landmark that could perhaps lead him someplace safer, with the certainty that he’d be led home instead roaming the streets of St. Ignace for God knows how long. The wind blows in his hair as he calls out- “Will!”

No fucking answer.

He huffs. What do I do now?  His body rattles with fear and vulnerability. Will’s his only guide home. Without him, he’s stuck here. Stranded.

Mike walks to the side of the store in a state of hopelessness, and right away, there he is. Walking out the back-parking- lot. And immediately, something springs in his step, causing him to jump up and run toward the blob of blue with the grocery bag slamming against his side. He’s not quite sure whether he’s happy or angry- but what he does know, is the fact that he’s currently first place in a marathon, and Will’s the finish line. He needs to get to him.

As soon as the boy’s features are more distinguishable and certain, Mike slows to a steady walk, and then a stop, all while breathing out breathless gasps of air. Angry. He swallows, then lets out another breath, "Hey, what's your problem!?"

In an instant, Will spins around, rage flashing his face already, "What's my problem?" His voice is so aggressive, Mike’s thankful nobody else is around to hear it. Will never argues with his fists, but his words sure do pack a powerful punch- it’s the reason why he still flinches whenever he hears it. What follows is never good.

There’s no reason for Mike to be setting the bag down on the concrete against the brick wall, but he does so anyway to avoid any possible interference. He doesn’t back down, his competitive side already kicking in, "Yeah, why are you acting so weird? I mean, one minute you're happy to see me, and the next, it’s like, you totally hate my guts!"

Will’s brows furrow, his head tilting to the side as he steps forward. He takes silent amusement in the way Mike steps back at the same time, "You wanna know what my problem is, Mike?" Somehow, the way his lips are formed around his words make them sound all the more acrimonious- tight and narrow, as though he’s sipping out of a straw. Tight in the jaw, like it pains him to even express all that he’s feeling, because there’s just too much.

"Yeah-"

"Do you really want to know?"

"Yes!"

Then, finally, like it had been trapped in his vocal cords for ages, “It’s you!” he belts out, so loud, a few nearby seagulls fly up, “You're my problem!" And there’s something in that shout, the pain behind it. Mike watches- watches the fire in his eyes. And he knows just by watching the flame burn and flicker, that its nothing but a shield for pain, like a cornered soldier randomly throwing out grenades, scared for his life, desperate.

"What?!"

Everything’s being poured out now, out of his control, "Have you ever thought that just maybe there's other people in the world besides El?!"

A moment of silence passes as Mike digests what is said, then, "What's that supposed to mean?" Will turns around and starts walking again, but Mike follows, determined, "Hey, what do you have against El anyway? What has she ever done to you?"

"She took you away.”

"Took me away?” He says in a joyless laugh, “Will, she's my girlfriend!"

Then, with even more lividity than before, Will turns around again, causing Mike to make an abrupt stop before accidentally stumbling back. They’re a lot closer now- faces almost a foot away from each other, "Oh right! You know, I almost forgot! Thank God I have you here, Mike, to remind me and everyone else, yet again, that you have a fucking girlfriend!” And just like that, Mike’s blood turns cold. Not only because Will just said fucking, but because of how jealous he’s sounding. Perhaps it’s only in his mind, some made-up fragment of his imagination, but there’s something in Will’s words that’s making his heart pound, “We get it! Okay?"

Mike’s quick to fire back, "Why do you care so much?! Lucas and Dustin can have girlfriends! Why can't I?!"

Again, time seems to stand still for a moment. Will stops talking, and his condescending hand drops to his side. He can say it right now. It’s so simple- just three words. Three words. Mike’s waiting for a response, but Will doesn’t know how to say what’s been on the tip of his tongue for years. So instead, he dodges it, "You only payed attention to her. I picked up the phone, and you never wanted to speak to me. You always dismissed me like I wasn't even worth your time! At least to Lucas and Dustin, I still exist! You've completely shut me out! You've replaced me with her!" Mike’s expression softens, an image of Sam from earlier tracing back in his mind, you’ve replaced me with him, "You want to be left alone with your girlfriend so bad, fine! I don't care! I'm not gonna beg on my knees for your stupid attention!"

"Ugh- You don't get it!" Mike promptly gains his broad demeanor back, frustration contorting his face, "I've never had someone in my life before, Will! you think I know what I'm doing?! You can’t expect me to-"

"Me!!" Will screams even louder than before, overcoming Mike in an instant, pointing to himself helplessly, "You've- god, you've ALWAYS had me! Since the first day of kindergarten, you came up to me, and you asked if I wanted to be your friend- that was supposed to be the best thing you ever done! Remember?!" If Will’s words were visible, they’d be reaching over the air, strangling the life out of him. As they get angrier, it’s possible to see why he gasps for breath. The fact that Will remembered… That he was present at that time. After he’d ordered them to let him go that final time, Mike assumed he’d been talking to the Mind Flayer. But Will heard. He heard, and he remembers still, "You can't tell someone that, and then be mean!" Mike’s heart aches, “Commenting on… Me… Not liking girls, or whatever…”

“Will—” It was a stupid mistake.

“When you knew how I felt about that. You knew. And you said it anyway. And then you didn’t talk to me for half a year afterwards…” There’s a moment of silence as Will swallows the lump in his esophagus that’s causing his voice to squeak. From where he’s standing, Mike can almost see the shine in his eyes reflecting off the sunlight as he takes in a shuttering breath, "You’ve become one of them. It’s like I don’t even know you anymore. Using that against me in a fight-? Who does that?... No, I was the stupid one,” Will speaks over Mike, “maybe it's best I moved away. You know-" his voice wavers with the tears he's fighting to hold back, Adam’s apple bobbing painfully in his throat. It feels like his airways are swelling up with every inhale, "Maybe we should just go back to me staying at my friends' houses whenever you come to visit. Because we obviously don't work well together anymore. You shouldn't have to be a professional to know that being in a relationship doesn't mean forgetting your best friend, like- like he never even mattered in the first place.”

"You do matter." If only Will knew just how much he matters. Deep down, how many nights he’s stayed awake thinking about him. Loving him, unspoken, unshown, hundreds of miles away.

An unhappy, rather unsettling smile pushes through, "You have a real funny way of showing it, then." Then, more fervent, "Listen, if I did something… Or, if it’s because… Because… I’m…”

Mike's face goes hot, “No, it’s not like that—”

"Well then, I don't get it! Why did you- why-" Will throws his hands to his sides, breathless in the anxiety that consumes him. All of the reasons he’s illustrated in his mind over the months wither away, for the same reason that they all had stemmed from it being his fault. What other reason could there be?

And for some other unknown reason, Mike gets the overwhelming desire to take the one step forward and kiss him. Just to somehow get the message across without having to form it into words.

"I can't tell you."

“I need to know. You have to tell me why.”

“I can’t.”

The sheen that coats Will's eyes becomes even glossier as he stands still, waiting for Mike's batteries to start working again. For him to be Mike again. He doesn't want to admit it to himself: They’re growing up. Changing incompatibly. Whatever innocent childhood romance they once hypothetically had before is gone. And soon, the boy turns into nothing but a blurred image, and then Will's nodding and turning back around before Mike can see the shiny trickle down his cheek, only this time, without conforming to any of the pointless calls that follow.

 

 

Chapter Text

The walk home was silent after Mike had come to terms with the fact that Will wouldn’t talk to him again for the rest of the night. He wished they had taken their bikes instead- it would make the journey back home quicker by a thousand. Right now, it’s all he wants.

Feeling like an asshole is an understatement. He doesn’t know how he can ever make up for what he did. From Will’s perspective, his reasoning to be frustrated is completely valid. But it’s a tough spot- giving him what he deserves- an explanation would also mean saying it out loud. And saying it out loud means accepting it. And he’s not sure if he’s capable of doing that just yet.

Mike stays behind, respecting Will’s need for space and kicking pebbles against his sneakers along the sidewalk. After the fight, the air had somehow shifted to a much colder temperature- cold enough to make him envy Will’s winter attire. Maybe then, the goosebumps would quit biting his arms like millions of minuscule piranhas.

Everything’s quiet, like the calm after a storm. Except, there’s no rainbow. In fact, the ache in his heart hasn’t subsided- if anything, only worsened. The soft taps against the concrete, wind rustling the grocery bag, sniffles coming from Will as his arm reaches up and wipes his face against the sleeve. He’s sad, he’s angry, he’s hurt- and those reasons alone are enough to tug on Mike’s heartstrings- but the fact that he's the reason why Will is feeling those things. He brought him that pain. He’s making him cry. That changes everything.

“It isn’t good when you bottle things up,” Will remembers Donna saying, “it always leads to bad things.” Will reckons this is one of them. It all should have been said earlier. He knew that the longer he waited, the harder the outcome will hit. And, well, it’s hit.

His adrenaline is still on a high, and he can’t wait to get home, just to lock himself in his bedroom until it’s all simmered down. Jonathan’s tapes always help with that. Some are on the calm side, while others are on the head-banging, jump-up-and-down-on-your-carpet side.

He would start running, just to burn off some of the energy, but it’s difficult to move in all of his layers- plus, once he starts running, he won’t be able to stop.

It happened once in PE while running laps. Him and his classmates were out on the field, when all of a sudden, he glanced down and saw a shadow beneath him. Following him. He remembers the way his heart sank in his chest, and how afterwards he threw his head up and pushed his legs to go faster. He remembers the feeling of being chased, the aching need to go faster and faster. Crossing busy streets, car horns, turning street corners, and then finally, stopping after hearing someone scream after him.

“William Byers!” Turns out, behind him wasn’t some dimension-shifting, deadly, possessing monster, but instead, his red-faced PE teacher, all the way on the other side of the street. He stared at her, heaving from lack of oxygen, sweat matting his bangs to his forehead and clothes to his trembling body, and hearing her holler, “Principal’s office! Now!!”  

So, he walks. Faster than he normally would, but still moderately fast- still enough to feel the stretch in his limbs. He feels Mike’s eyes on his back, hears the scuffing of his shoes behind him. He doesn’t know what happens after this- where they go from here. But thinking about it causes his lips to tighten and another dreaded tear to fall out despite his aching attempt to keep it in.

Despite how sick he feels inside, there’s no denying how light everything feels now. Now that he’s said everything- that Mike knows his place. It’s an achievement. Mike isn’t asking any more questions or even trying of matching his pace- which he isn’t sure if he’s frustrated or relieved about. There’s still two missing pieces to the puzzle, which is the explanation and apology. Will wishes he could have at least been given the latter- its what he deserves, anyway.

Once his house is in view, Will puts his gloves in his coat pocket and wipes his eyes one last time. He blinks and sniffles, and hopes his cheeks aren’t too red. The last thing he wants for his birthday is for his family to see him upset. To interrogate him about what exactly happened. To which, he would then have to make something up, like- “I have something in my eyes” or “allergies”. Out of all days, why does his birthday have to fall on today?

 

"Guys! Everyone! Stay on target! Mike and Will should be here any second, which means we’ve got to haul our asses to the closest hiding spot we can find ASAP!” Dustin yells from on top of the couch, arms stretched wide to get everyone’s attention. Little does he know, he’s had it since the first blast of the air horn he grips tightly in his left hand.

Lucas stands by the side, hands clamped around his ears, “Will you please cut that out?!” And grimaces when Dustin blasts it again.

Max yelps behind him, “Dustin, come on! Get down from there!”

He jumps down, then, “Fine!” landing behind the couch, he squeaks the horn again, “I’ve got dibs on the couch!" And he wastes not a second before plunging to the ground and disappearing like a gopher and a hole in the ground. Meanwhile, Sam, Becca and Jennifer all watch from the sidelines, hands around their ears as well and grimacing at the silence- more so at the untrustworthiness of it. At any given moment, the horn could blast again and leave them all completely deaf in both ears. Where did he even get that thing?

Lucas springs up, "No, I got dibs!" 

"I called it first!" Dustin jumps back up. 

"You know the couch is big enough for the both of you, right?"

Lucas turns to face Max, "But that means I have to crouch down more, and that's not good on my sore, athlete's bod." 

She winces with a sarcastic fake-sympathy, "You poor thing."

"If you're so sore, hide behind the lamp. You're skinny enough." Dustin points to the lamp in the corner, almost tall enough to reach the ceiling.

"Shut up. I’ve got muscle." Lucas retorts, and pulls the sleeve of his t-shirt up to flex his bicep.  

"Look, can you guys just sort it out already?" Max calls, already tired of their bickering, "We don't have all day." 

"Yeah guys," El agrees while crossing her arms, "We don't have all day."

 

Will’s approaching the front porch now as Mike watches sadly from a few feet away. He doesn’t want to go in there without saying what he should have said almost a year ago.

So he speaks up, “Will,” standing still in the driveway. Will turns around on the steps. And when Mike sees his tear-stained face, his heart leaps right into his throat. There’s one single tear in the middle of his right cheek- one he seemingly doesn’t notice or else it would have been wiped away by now- staring at him in the face, which for some reason makes it so much worse to watch, “I never meant to hurt you.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry.” There’s less voice than there is breath, and just by hearing it, the pain is inevitably clear, “I’m really sorry.”

Will sighs deep and slow, not really knowing how to respond. He’s relieved, having finally heard the two words he’s been anticipating. Nonetheless, he just can’t bring himself to say it’s okay. There’s still an agonizing piece left missing, and it may be selfish, it may seem unnecessary to anyone else, but he just needs to know- he needs to know it isn’t because Mike had figured him out. He needs reassurance that it isn’t his fault for being born the way he is. That he isn’t losing his best friend because of something out of his control.

So, he tightens the edges of his lips into sad smile, responds, “I know,” again, and then ducks his head bashfully, jumping up the extra few steps to reach the door.

 

The sound of the creaking door has everyone frozen in an instant. In the span of a single second, Lucas manages to jump behind the couch and plummet to the floor beside Dustin, along with El and Max, who crouch behind the side of the television against the wall. Meanwhile, Sam, Jennifer, and Becca hide behind the other couch, as Joyce and Hopper stand flat against the wall by the opening.

Will feels it now- the tickle on his cheek. He uses the back of his hand to smear the droplet, lets it soak in the rest of his skin. He takes his shoes off, and strips his coat and jacket, along with his hat and gloves, purposely tossing them on the vent to warm them for next time.

After he’s done, he steps further inside the house, reveling in its ghost-like silence. He then spins on his heel to see Mike holding the doorknob behind his hip and closing it with a click. The boy looks up at him through dark, fanned lashes, waiting for him to say something.

“Um… Where is everyone?”

Mike takes his time unlacing his shoes, focusing on the laces now, instead of Will’s face. He clears his throat before reading from the script El had given him before they left for the groceries, “Check living- check the living room.”

Will blinks, then eyes the bag Mike had set on the floor, “In a second. Let me—”

“No,” Mike interjects, placing a hand on the bag, claiming it first, “it’s fine, I got it.”

Breathing out and accepting his defeat, Will looks around the empty house before making his way over to the living room. And within milliseconds of stepping in the room, he’s met with abrupt sound. Screaming, singing, streamers and different coloured balloons on the floor.

Everything, even the visible things are so lurid- he winces, inhales sharply and covers his ears out of instinct. He’s never been good with anything loud, especially anything of the sorts happening so suddenly. And he’s about to react- about to yelp, or scream, or worse: cry out Mike’s name. But then, a pair of arms wrap around him and squeeze tight. They pull him out of whatever fearful daze he had been caught in for a second, and before he even knows who it is, he’s throwing his arms around their neck and shoulders, using them as his anchor back down to safety. They’re warm, and strong, and pull away almost as soon as they came.

When they do, Will’s instantly met with Lucas’s beaming face. He wastes no time to trap him into another firm hug before holding Will’s neck into the crook of his arm, pressing him flush against his side as the others flood in. Eight other faces fill his vision, and he finds himself unable to process them all at once. It’s all so overwhelming.

Dustin rolls in next, pushing through the sea of people (which he’s able to do quite easily with his air horn), and immediately latches onto Will’s other side, “Willard!”

“What’s going on?” Will asks when he’s pulled into a group hug.

Lucas answers in the small space between the three of them, “You think we would miss your fifteenth birthday?”

He doesn’t know what he thought. He sure hadn’t expected them to do this, though. What were they all doing here? And at the same time?

Their gazes all divert to the space in between Lucas and Dustin, where a girl with ginger hair and sky-blue eyes, accentuated with matching eye shadow, squirms through, “Can I join?” Lucas and Dustin answer by opening their circle and giving her space to move inside.

“Oh my gosh,” Will breathes, seeing all the faces of the people he’s missed painfully over the months, particularly sticking to Max. It’s all starting to process now, “am I dreaming?”

“You’re not dreaming.” She confirms. With grounding, reminiscent warmth, she gives him the smile not many people are so easily gifted. It softens once she notices the rose-colored speckles of watercolor decorating the sensitive skin around his eyes.

He lifts his chin up and sees his other three friends smiling and watching the reunion. His parents by the side. And he waves to them without letting his Hawkins friends go.

He looks so happy, Mike thinks from the kitchen. The bag is on the counter, and he’s leaned up against the wall now, watching the surprise from afar. He does; look happy. He’s smiling and laughing and hugging everyone in the room- goes back in for seconds to some: Lucas, Dustin, Sam. It’s a drastic change from what he saw in the parking lot, and Mike’s thankful for that. Seeing Will upset is one of the most excruciating things in the world- it should never have to last long.

And now that he’s looking, it becomes apparent to him that when Will’s happy, he’s pretty. Really pretty. Mike wonders how he gets the light to shine on him like that when he’s smiling. He also wonders if its selfish, looking at him the way he is now.

The way he did the night before, when they were counting down on Will’s watch. The way he’s been trying to avoid but somehow keeps falling back onto, like a default.

Will’s angry at him. He did something wrong, and he fucked everything up. He lost something that should have been immortal, and he didn’t mean to do it.

There’s no denying it anymore; at least not while he’s staying here. Will Byers exists, and he just has to deal with it. Has to deal with hearing his name, seeing his face, and missing him whenever he’s in another room. Staring at his door from his bed in the middle of the night with the hopes of it opening- for a familiar silhouette to come creeping in for one last goodnight. Has to deal with all of it.

The party doesn’t start right away. At least, the real party doesn’t.

Dinner was more exciting with Lucas and Dustin there. They entertained everyone while everyone ate silently, occasionally scoffing into their drinks when something particularly funny happened. There was barely enough space at the table for all eleven of them, and Mike had a hard time moving in between El and Lucas, but after some time, it became unnoticed, because Sam was seated directly across from him, and beside him, sat Will. And when he realized that, it was the only thing he could pay attention to for the rest of dinner.

When the cake comes out, it’s like Sam and everyone else has been vanished into thin air, because it’s only Will. When everyone sings Happy Birthday to him, their melodies slowly morph into something more angelic sounding around Will’s dimly lit face in the darkness of the room.

Before, it was only stolen glances between him and his plate, but now Mike’s full-on staring, and he knows he is. From the other end of the table, tiny flames illuminating his face, Will pauses before blowing them out, and looks up at Mike- Mike, who doesn’t put in the effort to look away.

And then, without breaking eye contact, Will blows out enough air to extinguish the 1 and the 5 at the same time. Everyone claps, but Mike stays still in his trance.

I really don’t want to lose him. I have to get him back. I have to fix this mess I made, he thinks- he almost doesn’t notice Eleven’s hand finding his under the table. The boy takes it out of instinct, rubs her knuckles with his thumb, turns it over to press it into her palm, and finds Will’s eyes again.

And suddenly, something happens- something that’s never happened before. Because typically, Eleven takes the thought of Will away. But now, it’s the entire opposite. Now it’s no longer her hand; its Will’s. And he hates how comforting it feels telling himself that. He hates how much he loves it- the shift in allowing himself to give in to his thoughts instead of pushing them away. He doesn’t know what prompted him to do it, if it’s the determination of getting him back, but now that he has, he finds himself enjoying it so much more.

She presses closer to him, her breath warm in his ear, “I have a new present for Will. You don’t mind, do you?”

He shakes his head, and whispers when she pulls back a bit, “What’d you get?”

“Secret,” She smiles, biting her lip, “you’ll see.”

 

The cake was okay- Mike probably would’ve liked it better if he had the proper appetite for it. But everyone else seemed to love it. Despite the sickness in his stomach still carried over from the argument in the parking lot, he allowed himself to laugh a bit, and to engage in some of the conversations.

Soon enough, it’s time to give out presents- Will’s favorite part.

“Our apologies,” Dustin starts off, on behalf of Max, Lucas, and himself, “we did not arrive with any gifts.” Hopper throws his hands up in an exaggerated defiance, which only multiplies Dustin’s energy by two, “Hey, I didn’t even know I was coming until yesterday! --”

“Yeah, that’s Max’s fault.” Lucas joins in, earning a trivial glare from the redhead across the table.

Will swallows his water and exclaims, “It’s okay. You guys being here is more than enough,” earning a series of awe’s, but it’s the truth. He hopes they know how much love he has for them and how happy he is to have them all here. It's one of those things you can't quite put into words, because words diminish them- words shrink things that seemed limitless when they're brought out. He wishes it were visible so he could paint a mural of it and just show them upfront.

 

 

He liked his art set. He also liked his new socks, the card from Sam, Becca, and Jennifer, and the complimentary mixtape full of Joan Jett songs.

“Sorry about the packaging,” Mike sighs when Will pulls on the zipper of the backpack. Everyone’s invested, and it almost makes him feel a little embarrassed, because it really isn’t all that interesting. Just a couple of comics. But when Will turns the flap over, revealing the four covers, his face lights up, “there’s no card--“

“X-Men,” He reads, ignoring Mike’s comment and awing at the cover, “The Uncanny. I don’t have this one.”

“It just came out.”

“No way!”

“Way,” Mike grins, sighing in relief. He likes it, “there’s a couple more in there” Will looks back at the other three. He sets the one down, and carefully, as though they’re fine pieces of art, picks them up and looks through them like a stack of cards, “but… Yeah, I don’t know. I hoped you would like them. Sorry.” He wants to say it over and over: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

He knows that if him and Will had been alone, his reaction would’ve been different. It’s awkward; going from yelling at each other to smiling like everything leading up to this moment had been some crazy, twisted dream.

He wants to talk about it more; there are so many things that were left unsaid, and he just hopes that Will’s patient enough to wait for him. For him to be okay enough with himself before having to explain it out loud. The reason. He knows things won’t be the same until he does.

He can’t run away from it anymore; watching Will from the other side of the table, he knows what his true desires are. No matter how much he wants to punch himself for having them.

“I love them,” Will confirms, eyeing the covers some more before handing the backpack back to him over the table, “thank you.” But his eyes are on something else, distant, unmeaningful, dismissive. Thank you is a lot to say after demanding a sorry, and that in itself is rather embarrassing- like an exchange for power. The fact that losing his temper was done at such a horrible time.

And before Mike can respond with a, “No problem,” Eleven jumps up and rounds the table.

“Okay,” She starts, placing her right hand behind her back, turned away from the table, “so this is really last minute. But it looked like you would want it, so…”

Will’s so caught up in the excitement of his other gifts, and quite frankly by the unexpected presence of his friends from Hawkins, that the words flowing out of her mouth accidentally jumble with the rest of his thoughts. Voices everywhere, speaking on top of each other, music, balloons, smiles, colors, faces.

He wasn’t listening to a single word she was saying. And he wishes now that he had been; because maybe then, he’d be prepared for what she hands out next.

The room goes silent. Or perhaps, it’s his brain that goes silent. Either way, his body completely shuts down- because what El holds in her hand is none other than the tiny bottle of royal-blue nail polish from yesterday morning. And what makes the whole thing worse, is the fact that she doesn’t stop talking, “I figured I’d just give it to you. It looks like it’d suit you more.”

Max asks, “Hey, didn’t I get you that?”

And El blushes, “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” She smiles, looking over at Will, who appears as though he’s just spotted a ghost, “I’m… Glad it’s going to a good cause.”

El looks back at his expression, sits in the uncomfortable silence, and wonders to herself what exactly the problem is. He doesn’t take it, doesn’t even look at it. Just sits there under everybody’s stare, wide-eyed and humiliated, mortified, “Um…” She hums awkwardly, placing it on the table in front of him, “It’s a cool color. I can understand why you liked it so much,” She looks around and sees everyone glancing between the glossy bottle and Will’s paling face. Joyce looks at it, gives a sympathetic smile, and rests her chin on her weaved hands that are held up by her thin elbows against the table, “I was going to give you the comics with Mike, but I thought this would be more personal.”

The silence goes on, Will not quite knowing what to say. Thank you would be confirming all that she’s said: that he liked it. Wanted it. But being defensive, and not accepting of the gift, would come off as snobby and rude. It would make him into somebody he doesn’t want to be around El, who respectively doesn’t know any better.

Becca talks, and Will wishes someone other than a girl would say something already, “I think it’s really pretty.” Pretty. A word that he hates more than anything right now. A feminine praise meant for a feminine product. A feminine gift for a boy who wishes to be seen as more masculine so that everyone would stop slapping the same label on him.

“Yeah,” Jennifer joins, nodding against her hand. Will looks around and sees Dustin and Lucas are exchanging looks. Mike’s staring at the bottle, and Sam’s fidgeting under the table. He doesn’t even dare look at his mom- he already knows what’s coming. The same old lecture. You can tell me anything. I love you so much.

But I can’t tell you this, he thinks. I can’t tell anyone this.

Will’s afraid of coming out to the world, and the boy on the other side of the table, with empathy frowning his eyebrows, jaw slacked and open at the scene unraveling in front of him, is afraid of coming out to himself. That’s where they differ yet collide on the same spectrum of understanding.

Mike watches, cringing at Eleven’s innocent mistake, and wanting nothing more than to take all of Will’s embarrassment away. Because he gets it. He wouldn’t want to be in that situation either, yet here he is, standing up from his spot in the table, and willingly submerging himself in it. Because he owes it to him. If he wants Will back, he needs to work for it. Let him know he cares, at least.

Will watches through fogged vision as Mike reaches for the nail polish and examines it.

“This is awesome,” He exclaims, turning it over without reading the label, “it’s like, if you were transformed into a color. Isn’t it?” He looks at Lucas for his opinion.

“Totally.”

“Like Will in a bottle.” Dustin pitches in.

“Yeah.”

“Hold on to this, dude,” He hands it back to Will, who takes it in a trembling hand, “if not for you, for me. Okay?” He can’t believe what he’s saying. What’s prompting him to do this. It works though, because now, people aren’t looking at Will anymore.

Max helps to diffuse it some more, “Well, I’m glad everyone loves my present!”

With a sheepish smile, El pushes her shoulder, “It can be both our present.”

The redhead leans into the table, her eyes wide at Dustin and Lucas, “Ha! Get on my level, losers!”

“No, you can’t do that! You can’t just--“Dustin retorts, “She can’t just claim a gift! No, you can’t do that! That bypasses every single law of birthdays and friendship- you take that back!”

“You guys are bad friends!” Max argues in between his rants, “You didn’t get Will anything for his birthday!”

“You know what, fine!” He throws his hands up, “I got him those comics over there!”

Lucas points to the socks, “I got him the striped ones.”

Will breathes out steadily in attempt to calm down from the situation as the voices of his friends go on their tangents in the background. He thanks Mike with a half-smile, to which he soulfully returns with a few pats to the shoulder before returning to his seat.

Mike listens to Will thank Eleven and slowly begin to blend back in to the conversation. He did the right thing, he thinks. It’s a step in the right path.

 

 

“What’s the backpack for?” Will asks Sam once they’ve descended downstairs. The basement is large- about half the size of Mike’s, but still roomy. There’s a big, navy green couch, a record player, and tons of carpets put down. Picture frames of various films and bands decorate the walls.

Sam looks back, his body moving with him, and Will watches the way his beige khakis and button up wrinkle against the burgundy wall he leans against. The others are further inside, far enough to give them some privacy, which makes it so that they don’t have to whisper, “I’ve got another present for you.”

“Another present?” He points his thumb toward the set off stairs behind him, “Why didn’t you give it to me up there?”

Sam snickers, the nature of his smile coming off a tad uneasy, “I’m not really sure it’s something you want your parents seeing.” Then, Will’s brows furrow, and he examines Sam’s face for any signs that he’s joking- but there is none. He’s completely serious, and he’d be lying if he said it didn’t frighten him a bit. The rebellion etched on his face, “You’ll have to wait though. Till they go to bed.”

“My dad’s making hourly check ups.”

“No he’s not,” he argues, “give it till midnight. No parent stays up past midnight to make some stupid hourly check up.”

“Sam, this is a bad idea.”

“How?”

“I don’t like sneaking around. You know that.”

Sam twists his lips into an awkward, toothy smile, but his cheeks are not so compromising. He can feel their reluctance to be molded falsely at Will’s annoying devotion to innocence, “You don’t even know what it is yet, and you already expect the worse from me.” He awes, and the frustrated undertone to his voice must have been more obvious than he intended it to be, because the other boy suddenly freezes up and stares hard into the floor- similar to a child being chastised by a condescending father. So, to lighten up the mood, Sam chuckles a bit, and tilts his head to the side until he gets Will’s attention, “Hey, relax, alright? You won’t be the only one sneaking around. It’ll be everybody.”

Green-hazel irises flicker from the dark hardwood to the teenagers behind Sam’s shoulder. Dustin, Jennifer, and Lucas are crouched by the TV, flicking through channels, Max is talking to Becca, and El’s sitting with Mike’s arm wrapped around her on the couch- Will unexpectedly catching Mike’s gaze for a moment.

Despite the awkward, silent encounter, he finds himself lingering, whereas Mike reverts his eyes almost immediately in panic. And he’s about to look away too, until Mike timidly looks back, and holds eye contact until Will speaks again, drifting his attention toward Sam, “Everybody?” He hates not knowing what it is, and he hates even more the fact that it’ll take three hours to know for sure, “You mean the present’s for everybody?”

“Yeah.”

“What?” How does that make sense?

“Hey, Will!” Will looks back up to see Mike staring at him still. Except now, it isn’t just his eyes- it’s everyone else’s too. He shrinks at the sudden pressure being thrown at him, “You coming?”

He hesitates for a moment before answering, “Yeah.” And then his feet move on their own, pulling themselves closer to the couch, until a firm hand stops him by the shoulder.

When he looks back, Sam murmurs, “Relax. It’ll be fine.”

Will shrugs, “I’m relaxed.”

“You sure?”

“Of course.”

“Doesn’t look it.” All of a sudden, Sam stands behind him and digs his thumbs into the soft parts of his shoulders, causing him to grit his teeth and squirm away.

He winces, “Ow!” and Mike watches tentatively from the couch as Will continues walking, keeping mindful distance from Sam now.

Their energies aren’t matching. Maybe Sam has good intentions, but Will definitely isn’t seeing it the same way, and neither is Mike, who’s eyebrows are pinching closer together by the second. His fingers tighten on El’s shoulder, hugging her closer- not so much for her comfort, but for his own. That, and to hold himself back from jumping up and making a scene out of what could be nothing. He’s wanted to punch Sam ever since that morning and the urge isn’t weakening much.

Will hunches his shoulders to stretch the pain away at the same time Sam chuckles, shrugging his backpack off to place beside the couch and taking a seat on the arm beside El.

The majority of the night afterwards is spent making fun of infomercials and playing random board games. Despite his questioning behavior before, Sam acted like his normal self. A bit shy, stubborn, joking, and as always, kind. Mike still kept a good eye on him, though. Like, the entire time.

“Red,” Dustin calls out, pointing to the spinner. Everyone’s in different poses on the Twister mat, and things seemed to be going well for the most part. Well, until now.

Mike looks up, his bangs shielding his eyes, “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

The curly haired boy reads it again and shakes his head, “Not shitting you.”

Sighing out, Mike tilts his chin down, and sees that his legs are already spread as far as they can go on either side of the mat, as well as his left-hand pressed flat in front of his left foot on the green circle. Will is in almost the exact mirror image of that, all crouched down and not looking to be struggling all that much yet. Reluctantly, Mike bends down to his level, and places his hand on the red circle.

As Dustin spins again for Max, Will takes the initiative to glance up and realize how close they are. If one of them leans any closer, their noses will be close enough to touch. And when Mike realizes this too, their eyes go wide together, because now their noses are touching. Mike can barely feel it- its like some distant itch or tickle that he’s too nervous to pull away from. And at first, he doesn’t want to, until Lucas breaks out in a cackling fit.

“Oh my god, do you see Mike and Will?” El is first to turn her head at the pair, “Hurry up on that spinner and save them!”

“Yeah,” Mike agrees, looking to the side as to not embarrass himself any longer, “come on, Dustin. No more splits.”

“Can both of you calm down for a second? I’m trying my best here.”

Will joins in on the bicker-fest, “How long does it take to spin a spinner? I’m after Max, remember?”

“Yes, I know that,” Dustin responds dully, propping his legs up on the couch, “Will- right hand on yellow."

It doesn’t help Will’s situation, given the harder position he’s forced to adjust to, but it does give their faces some space, which serves as some sort of relief. Enough for the unforeseen giggles to roll out of both boys as they look back at each other afterwards, like the waves on a long shallow beach. The chittering laughter seems to disappear for a while only to build up and break to the surface once more.

 

After the fourth or fifth checkup from Hopper, Sam brings out his backpack and pulls the zipper and Will’s face goes hot from what he pulls out.

One by one, Sam passes around a bottle of beer to every person in the room. Max stops him once he approaches El, gesturing to her and exclaiming passively, “We’ll share.” Even though she’s planning on hogging it all night long. She doesn’t care if El’s been to other parties before. Anything that involves any kind of impairment to the brain is one that’s best to keep her away from. Who knows who she could end up hurting when she’s not completely in control of her powers?  

Jennifer, Dustin, Becca, Mike, and Lucas seem equally surprised as they are intrigued, especially Mike, who for some reason, can’t pull his eyes away from his bottle or the backpack, which is visibly full of loads more. It looks as though Sam emptied out all of  his books just to fit as many bottles as he possibly could before it became too heavy.

Meanwhile, Will stands in complete shock, finally understanding Sam’s description from earlier, which at the time, seemed impossible to imagine.

We were just playing Twister, he thinks. Watching his friends hold out their beers for Sam to open is like going from elementary school to high school in a span of two seconds.

“Gnarly.” Dustin admires, watching him prick the cap off.

It’s only when Will blinks, does he finally grasp what’s happening.

Faintly, in the distance, Lucas’s mocking voice chastises, “GnArLy.” And then Mike’s laughing along, and Will just can’t help it anymore. He lunges forward, captures Sam’s sleeve in a tight fist and pulls him to the other side of the room. Before Sam’s pulled away entirely, Becca manages to steal the opener from his hand and finish the rest herself, earning a few snickers from the rest.

And when they reach the other side of the room, rage flashes Will’s face immediately. He’s almost had it to his breaking point for the second time today. Most of the time, the two are pretty compatible and find it rather easy to get along, but there are other times, like this one, when it’s the complete opposite.

"Sam. You know how I feel about alcohol." He starts. Sam nods, following along, "So why the hell did you bring those here?"

"It's not good to hold on to the past, Will.” He lectures, as if he’s Donna, or one of his school teachers, or even his mother, “Look, I get it. Okay? I have a shit dad too. I mean, you've seen him. Always angry at something. It sucks. But you shouldn't let him ruin this sort of stuff for you. You're at the prime of your youth! Enjoy it. Have a beer.”

"I don't want one. You knew I would have never wanted this. You have to understand- we're not the same. We can sit here, and pretend we are, just because we're both- we both like guys” He passes a subconscious glance to his friends, making sure they can’t hear, “but we're not. I like comics, you like novels. I like drinking water, you like stealing from your dad's liquor cabinet-"

Sam sighs, the pupil-concealing irises doing a full somersault, "You don’t put beers in the cabinet, you put them in the fridge. And plus, everyone has their differences, Will."

"You don't respect ours, though. If you did, you would have never brought those with you."

"You don't have to have any if it's really that important to you."

"Look at my friends," Sam turns to look behind his shoulder, only to see Mike, Lucas and Dustin reciting a scene from Star Wars. Anyone could be able to tell just from watching Mike dorkily attempt a Yoda impression, with his cheek pressed against Lucas’s (Luke’s) temple and arms wrapped around the back of his shoulders, pulling a series of giggles from Jennifer and Becca.

“A Jedi uses the force for knowledge and for defense, never for attack… Clear your mind of questions!”

Sam looks back at Will when he hears him utter the question, "Do you think they've ever had a drink in their life?” The answer is left unsaid, but they both know well enough, “They're sleeping over tonight, and I don't want to be responsible for them after you leave. That wouldn’t be fair.”

"You really think a beer is enough to make them drunk?"

"I don't know how many they're gonna have." He argues, raising his arms limply in defiance. To be honest, he doesn’t know the exact science behind stuff like this. He doesn’t understand alcohol percentages and what it takes to get drunk because he’s never had to endure that lesson.

"Look. Will. You're overreacting." He furrows his brows in confusion and frustration, "Can you at least try and have some fun? Why does everything have to be so serious with you all the time?"

Will’s about to react- he’s about to lose his absolute shit, until he swallows it down, mindful of his surroundings and the fact that his parents have just gone to bed. He doesn’t want to wake them up, never mind ruin the party and make it awkward for everybody. That, and he isn’t sure he has the energy to fight with somebody else today. So, he considers the empathetic route, "Look, I don't know what's gotten into you, if it's because of the motel thing or what, but it's not cool."

Sam snarks back, "What does the motel have to do with this?"

"I don't know! Bad influence, I guess?"

"You think my family's a bad influence." All it is now is two teenagers with defensive mentalities going at each other. There’s no sign of progress whatsoever from where they stand. With Sam’s doggedness, there’s almost never progress unless the latter apologizes first.

"I know they are, Sam. Don't become all defensive over them now, you've told me about how badly they treat you before."

Sam takes a deep breath, slowly falling down from his high. Will is right, "Look, I didn't have any bad intentions. Okay? I genuinely just wanted to see you having a good time." His voice sounds strangely melodic. It’s sweet but venomous, like cupcakes sprinkled with poison.

"Will!" Eleven calls.

"Coming!"

Leaning slightly to the right in attempt to block El from Will’s line of vision, Sam says exasperatedly, "Look, I'm sorry, alright?"

Will stands straight, "If you're sorry, put everything back in your backpack."

"I think it's a bit too late for that." He replies, and sure enough, straining a bit to catch a glance, Will sees his friends now having a chugging contest, and then Dustin pulling away to gag at the floor. Mike hasn’t even finished his first one, and Becca’s already teaching him how to open a second. The real party has just started.

Well shit.

 

 

“Okay,” Jennifer staggers, tucking a piece of her blonde hair behind her ear, “I think” She swallows thickly, “that we should play a game.”

Dustin’s face lights up as he yells, “Yes!” causing Lucas to throw a palm over his mouth in attempt to silence him, muttering a hushed shut it.

Her radiant smile shines like the stars in the sky, with no bright artificial lights to dim them. It’s like the sun has opened its eager light to shine about her, only brightening her slightly crooked teeth as she thinks up an idea, “I haven’t seen you guys since middle school, so why don’t we play a middle school game?”

“Elaborate.” Lucas says, pulling away.

“How bout’ Spin the Bottle?”

“Or better,” Max pitches before anyone has time to react, “Seven Minutes in Heaven.”

There’s an equal ratio of groans and noises of agreement. Jennifer, looking a little nervous, nods her head and subconsciously glances around the room for a closet she already knows exists. It’s in the far-left corner of the room, perpendicular to the set of stairs, “That could work.” It’s been awhile, so sitting alone in a room with a someone from Hawkins could be a little awkward. The chances are 6/8 (3/4), which isn’t all that assuring.

Sam fidgets with his empty backpack resting upon his lap, and cranes his neck to look at Will, who sits on the other side of the couch beside Lucas, and asks, “What do you say, Will? It’s your party.”

And Will thinks for a moment before coming to the ultimate conclusion that if its what his friends want, then that’s what they’ll do. He can’t ask them to play Twister all night, and he’s certain Mike didn’t bring his D&D, so there’s no harm in trying something else. Besides, he’s sure that the kissing part is optional, so it shouldn’t be too awkward, “Okay.”

 

They have the radio playing now- some song is playing, but Will’s never heard it before. It’s got a girly vibe to it, and El bops her head to the beat, so he figures it must be good. Her taste in music is pretty decent- not his style, but bearable enough to dance along to in her bedroom during some of the rainier days. The organically shaped bottle in his pocket fumbles between his fingers subconsciously as he listens.

Meanwhile, Mike finishes his third bottle and places it in the centre of the circle they’re sat in, grimacing at the awful taste but loving the way it fuzzes his thoughts. He then looks around, taking in the order in which everyone is placed: Beside him is El, then on her right side, Max, then Lucas, Will, Sam, Becca, Dustin, and Jennifer- who’s sitting on his left. And counts them off in his head.

Four girls and five guys- even enough.

“Someone go first.” He directs dismissively, letting anyone take it. The rest of the thrilled teenagers share a look that says the same thing: do you want to go? And Will ensures that he avoids any eye contact, because he knows that if he doesn’t, someone will surely call on him.

And though it wouldn’t be the end of the world, he still doesn’t want to get lost in the discomfort of having eyes on him if he does make it into the closet. Nothing may happen, but it’s the implication that something will, that puts him out of ease. The sounds his friends would make- Will with a girl! or worse, Will with a boy! He regrets not turning down the offer to play now. He’d much rather be playing Twister.

Before he can really worry, Lucas is spinning. And then after about ten seconds of silence, he’s looking up at Jennifer.

Will immediately looks over to Max, suddenly intrigued, and sees that she’s staring at the bottle with her brows raised and lips pursed. Lucas turns to her apologetically, uttering out, “Nothing will happen, I swear.”

Max’s lips eventually curve into a forced smile, then she kisses her palm and smacks his cheek with it before saying teasingly, “Stay true to your word, and you’ll be spared, Don Juan.” And as the group watches the two walk into the closet, Lucas blows out one final kiss to Max and closes it.

Settling back in her initial position, Max’s eyes focus on the wall clock, and she listens intently as the second hand ticks. It’s all apart of the game, and Lucas is loyal, so she logically has nothing to worry about. Still, it doesn’t stop her from hoping the seven minutes go by quick. Which they don’t, considering how it’s basically spent listening to Sam and Will speak to each other and watching Mike scarf down his fourth beer. After a few minutes, Becca praises her and Lucas’s relationship by calling it adorable, which Max finds hard to believe but accepts anyway.

Then it’s Dustin’s turn, and he lands on Becca. And after they emerge from the closet, she looks almost exactly how they all expected her to, seeing how everything he said during the seven minutes was audible from where they sat. They must have laughed for the entire seven minutes straight, because all Dustin talked about was his choir girlfriend- listing the pet names they have for each other and how she taught him to roller blade last fall. It’s annoying when he does it to them but hearing him do it to someone else is hysterical.

Mike catches notice of the way Sam throws a hand on Will’s shoulder- the way their laughs sound together. He hates it to his very core, and now that he knows the reason why, he gulps another sip down.

Next is El and Max. Once they make it into the closet, Max sits down and leans her head up on the wall. It’s cold in there, the frosty air biting her bare arms. Its quiet for a minute before El reaches for the chain and tugs it, beaming the small room full of color. Now, the shelves and everything are visible. Wine glasses, an electric mixer, two bottles of whiskey, a gingerbread house box, a green jack-o-lantern basket for trick-or-treating, bunny ears attached to a furry headband, presumably for Easter, and a small stack of coupons.

El looks down at her, her legs looking freakishly long from this angle, “Hi.”

Max smiles warmly, “Hi.”

El looks beside her, and then sits down, mirroring her position- head leaned back, arms wrapped around her legs that are held up to her chest, “I don’t understand the point of this game,” She says softly, staring into the wall in front of her, “you go into the closet, and you talk?” It’s sounds like she was expecting there to be more to it.

Max shrugs, “Most people just make out and stuff. But talking is also an option.” El pauses for a second before nodding, figuring to take her word for it, “So how are you? I don’t think I ever got to ask. After everything that happened over the summer, have you been holding up okay?” El looks beside her, taking in how close they are, and nods timidly.

“I was sad for a while. A long while. But I’m doing better now. I feel happy.”

“That’s the most important thing.” She exclaims, “As long as you’re happy, right?”

Eleven’s eyebrows raise, the sparkle in those doe eyes captivating in all their purity, “I’d probably be happier if you lived here. We could see each other every day again. It sucks it took us so long to become friends. We wasted a lot of time, didn’t we?”

“Yeah. Yeah, we sure did. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying it here. Your new friends, they’re really awesome. You’re super lucky to have them.”

Its mute again for a moment, the only sounds coming from outside of the closet. Then, without looking away, El asks, “Hey, Max?”

“Yeah, El?”

“Some teenagers earlier were saying these words, and I didn’t know what they meant. Nobody will tell me. Will you? Tell me what they mean?”

“I think I can do that. Shoot.”

El’s delicate eyebrows furrow in an expression almost resembling fright, “Shoot?”

“Tell me what they are.” She clarifies.

Frowning, Eleven exclaims, “Mike told me not to say them.”

“Well, now you have to tell me.” After a beat of hesitation, El leans closer into her ear, cups her hand to block out an imaginary audience, and repeats the two words that have been replaying in her mind nonstop, “Woah!” Max gasps, causing her to flinch away, “Okay, wow.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t worry. It’s just- I didn’t expect to hear your voice say things like that.” Max swallows, trading eye contact before looking away, “So… They basically mean the same thing. Gay.”

“Gay?”

“You can say gay. It isn’t a bad word. But those other two are. They’re really offensive to gay people. Like, really offensive.”

“What’s gay?”

Max sighs before starting, “Basically… It’s like, when two people of the same sex love each other. Gay’s mostly used for boys, though. Lesbian’s for girls.”

Lesbian?”

“Yeah. Girls who love girls.”

I love girls.”

“No—”

“I really love girls.”

“Not like that. Like, you would date a girl. Or kiss a girl.” Her ocean eyes wander off to the side, “I think you can also like both.”

Both? Both boys and girls?”

“Sure.”

“What’s that called?”

“Bisexual.”

El lets the new words digest for a second before asking, “How can you tell who’s who?”

“You can’t, really. Not unless they tell you. But people like to make assumptions on other people. Certain things, like what they do or how they act. That’s why Will reacted the way he did when you gave him the nail polish. Because boys don’t wear it. Not unless they want to be totally mauled for being gay.”

“What’s mauled mean?”

“Viciously attacked.”

“Oh.” She settles back into the wall, tonguing the roof of her mouth for a second before asking, “Is gay bad?”

“To most people, yeah. To others, not at all.”

“Do you think it’s bad?”

“No. I think people should love whoever they want. It’s not really anybody else’s business. It’s not like its hurting anybody.”

“Oh,” She sits up again, almost eagerly, “and they also said something else. They said… Something like AIDS?”

“Shit, El.” Max breathes, “Where were you today?”

“Just in town with Will and Mike.”

“They weren’t saying these things to them, were they?”

“No, it was some other boy. I’ve never seen him before.”

“Okay, well all you need to know about AIDS, is that it’s a deadly disease that’s rumored to be spread through gay people. But I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t think it is.”

Eleven’s tone becomes more anxious, “I thought you said it isn’t hurting anybody.”

“Because it isn’t, I think. I don’t know. I’m not super educated in this topic.” Max says defensively.

“It’s okay. Thanks Max.”

“Anytime.”

“And Max?”

“Yeah, El.”

She points to her chest, “How do I know if I’m ga-lesbian? Or bisexual?”

“Um… I guess it all depends on what you feel inside. But I don’t think you’re really at that point yet. You’ll figure it out eventually but give it time. Okay? You may not even have to worry about it.”

“Okay.” She pipes up again, “Max?”

“Yeah, El.” Max smiles.

“Are you lesbian or bisexual?” And just like that, it disappears as fast as it came.

She stammers, “Um… I… If I tell you, will you promise not to tell anyone? Because the thing about identifying as one of these is that it has to be a secret. No one can know. When a person tells you, it’s a big deal. Then you have to keep their secret until its out and everyone knows.”

She purses her lips, looking into Max’s eyes with a certain determined energy, “Promise.”

“Okay…” She sighs, subconsciously rubbing her legs that are full of goosebumps from the cold. And thinks about Lucas. Her jealousy when he went into the closet with Jennifer, and how she likes calling him weird nicknames and feeling his kiss on her cheek. But then, she thinks about El, and what she’s recently started feeling for her. She remembers standing in the shower the night before and being torn over what it is she wants exactly. She loves Lucas, so why is she starting to look at El in this new light?

Maybe it isn’t romantic attraction in the sense that she’d be willing to drop everything to date her, but it certainly is in the way she likes bringing her gifts- likes seeing the look on her face when she receives one of them. Likes how she sounds over the phone and likes how she looks when she’s wearing her shirts. Then, she says what’s been on her mind for what's felt like ages, for the first time, out loud, “Um… I’m pretty sure I’m bi.”

“Bisexual?”

“Mhm.” She hums shakily.

“So you like boys and girls?”

“Yeah.” There’s a long pause, and Max feels like running away or even digging a hole to crawl into, until she sees Eleven start grinning from ear to ear. And then she finds herself breaking into a toothy smile too, which quickly manifests into uncontrollable laughter. There’s no reason why any of it should be funny, but they simply can’t help themselves. It’s in their nature. When it comes to them, seriousness is unheard of.

 

 

When the two girls come out and sit back down, Lucas and Mike are next up. Mike pulls the string, flooding the room with light, and sits across the room from Lucas. Their ankles meet in the middle of the unswept floor.

For some reason, Lucas’s smile is gone, and if Mike isn’t mistaken, he looks a bit pissed off. It could also be because it’s so late- everyone’s tired, and its been a long day for them in terms of travelling here. Choosing not to mention it, Mike sighs and straightens his left leg while bending his right one. He looks around the room, as if it interests him at all, breathing in its stale scent.

“Hey, you,” Lucas speaks up, “Water boy.”

Mike breathes out a chuckle, which makes Lucas laugh a bit too, “Shut up.” He expects him to make some stupid remark over the fact that Jennifer’s here, or the fact that the gingerbread house box has been in Joyce’s storage room since they were little kids- not used once. The gingerbread and icing must be stale and moulding by now. But he doesn’t.

Instead, he asks, a bit slurred, “What’s going on with you, man?” Mike looks up.

“What’s going on with me?”

“Yeah.”

He snickers, shaking his head in confusion, “Nothing.”

“You’ve been acting weird.”

“How?”

“All night, you’ve been giving Sam the death glare. It’s making all of us uncomfortable.” The way Lucas says the last part, no longer joking, turns Mike’s mind into a surging perplexity. He wears a puzzled expression, because honestly, he can’t remember doing anything of the sort.

His brows crease when he squeezes his eyes closed, shakes his head and lifts a steady hand, as though to stop Lucas from talking any more, “M’… Not following.” He could have closed is eyes to reflect on the allegation being thrown at him, but it could also have been a lousy attempt to keep the walls from transforming into a fun house, changing figure every time he blinked.

“What’s your problem with him?” He asks.

“I don’t have a problem with him. Sam’s… Cool.”

The expression on the latter’s face is exactly what Mike would imagined giving himself after hearing those words leave his mouth. The lie just slipped out, smooth and easy like melted butter running down toast- but Lucas doesn’t buy it.

He repeats after Mike in a dissatisfied tone, “Cool.”

“Yeah.” He shrugs, opening his tired eyes again.

“Is it because you’re jealous?” Mike isn’t tired anymore. His eyes snap open and stare hard into Lucas’s. His calm has been replaced by a carousal of ideas, each one more worrying than the last.

Mouth dry, Mike swallows and breathes out another nervous laugh, “Why would I be jealous of Sam? That’s, like, the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Is it?”  

“Yea—”

“Come on, Mike.” He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose exasperatingly.

Still partially calmed by the warmth from his last beer, Mike continues longer than he would’ve if he were his normal, sober self. The way he speaks is almost dismissive and carefree, tired again, “Swear to god. You’re being delusional, dude.”

“No,” He argues, “you’re the delusional one for thinking none of us can notice you ogling Mr. Bowlcut in the corner with the Wheeler clone attached to his hip.”

“Wha—” Mike stammers, pulled out of his tired state for the second time. It’s then that he starts to wonder if he’d been that obvious, if anyone else has noticed, “I’m dating Eleven.” He states firmly, making sure his words are clear.

“I really hope you don’t take this the wrong way.” Then, “Do you actually love El?”

Right away, Mike answers, “Yes.” As if the answer were obvious, “Of course I do. She’s my girlfriend.”

“But... Do you think about her when she’s not around?”

Mike thinks it over for a minute, “No.”

“Do you ever actually want to kiss her?”

“I don’t know.”

And despite the dirtiness of the floor, Lucas scoots over until he’s sat beside Mike and looking at his side profile. Mike doesn’t dare exchange it- only swallows and tries desperately to keep his thoughts in order. If he hadn’t been morphing into complete drunkenness, he’d probably have a stiffer guard right now. But Lucas is breaking away, piece by piece, like it’s made of bricks with no cement.

It’s scary for him- he doesn’t want to tell anyone. But something tells him he’s going to anyway.

It’s scary to find out that someone else, even a friend, knows just how things are with you.

Lucas’s voice is smoother now, less rough around the edges, like a cool summer breeze, “To be honest,” He starts, “it doesn’t really sound like you love her.” Mike’s throat stings- from the leftover taste of alcohol or creeping anxiety, he’s not completely sure, “I’m just saying all of this because I know you, Mike. You are my best friend. I know you. I can tell when you’re struggling.”

“You don’ know me. You don’ know jack shit, Lucas.”

“Y—”

“No, if you know me so much, you’d know that even if I was struggling, its best just to leave me alone.” He says angrily.

“Anyone who knows you, knows that being left alone isn’t how you cope, Mike. You’re the complete opposite.” He says, “Just tell me your true feelings for El. I don’t know if I can watch you guys be all overly touchy anymore. It’s so painful watching you.”

Mike’s silent for a minute, feeling his dam start to crack and break. He parallels his hands in front of each other. And utters out, “I love her… I just don’t know if it’s… girlfriend. Okay? Is that what you wanted to hear?” There it is. The start of it all. The only question now is: will he go through with it? He squeaks like a vulnerable child before Lucas has time to answer, “And I don’t know what to do.”

After a knowing sigh, Lucas exclaims in a soft, melodic voice, “You sure do have it bad. This thing for Will.”

Air automatically leaves him. He stares hard into the floor, his heart falling silent. No matter how much he knows he need to, he can’t will his lips to move. As if stuck underwater, everything is slow and warbled as Lucas continues, “I see the way you act around him compared to El. How you stare at him? You know, we all kind of thought… But then, she… and… Is it true? Do you like him back?”

Do you like him back?

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

And suddenly, Mike’s walls, the walls that hold him up, make him strong, just… Collapse. The dam breaks, billions of gallons of water pushing through at rapid speed. He puts up a good fight, but the tears still manage to push through his red rimmed eyes and spill out past his waterline, and he knows that there’s no saving himself now.

More nervous laughter as he squeaks, “I don’t know.” But he knows well enough.

“It’s okay if you do.” Lucas assures him, still as gently as before.

“Lucas, dude.” It comes out ragged and broken.

“Hey, come on,” He stretches his arm to wrap around Mike’s shoulder, “I don’t care.”

And that’s when Mike breaks down. When he cries, there’s a rawness to it, like the pain is still an open wound, all of his defenses washing away in beer and those salty, pearl-shaped tears. As much as he tried to hold it in, the agony of loneliness, self-guilt and ridicule comes out like an uproar in his throat in the form of a silent, tattered sob, “Please don’t hate me, man.”

“Hey…” He coos, rubbing his shoulder with his thumb, “Stop! Alright? I don’t hate you, Mike, I could never hate you.” He waits for the shuttering gasps and hitches of breath to subside before he speaks up again, “I get it. I know what its like to be judged for something you can’t control. You remember my nickname in school? Midnight. Do you remember that?” Mike nods, “What about Toothless?” Lucas finishes, “You think Dustin chose to have that- that thing? Crane… Crane something?”

“Cleidocranial Dysplasia.” He croaks. 

“Yeah, that. You think he chose that? You think anyone would willingly choose to have something different about them? That brings them discrimination?”

“No way.”

“Hell no! What I’m saying is, we're all born a certain way. None of us are the same. It'll all work out, man, I promise. You don't have to be scared. All of us- we love you. And we'll stick by your side no matter what." Mike nods, wiping his eyes and sniffling. He can’t believe this is happening, "And who you love is such a small fraction of what makes you who you are. You're still Mike." Mike hitches his breath and hiccups another small sob before sniffling again, “I mean it,” Lucas tightens his grasp on his shoulder, holding him close, and Mike almost starts crying all over again, because it’s exactly what he’s needed this whole time. Through this whole agonising journey of finding himself and not accepting the truth for what it is, all he’s really needed is for someone to hold him. Reassurance that things aren't turning to shit. Like Will did, that night after The Outsiders, “Nothings changed. And you can tell me things, you know. I'm always here for you, man, always." 

"Thanks." 

"Sure." 

“So…” He croaks, trying his best to keep his breathing steady. Still, his voice comes out shaky and unstable, “So what do I do?”

“Do what you feel is right. You're given one life. All you gotta do with it, is live it. Live the hell out of it before it’s taken away from you. And do it happily.” Mike’s sigh inflates and deflates like a balloon, the tension and melancholy evaporating from his aura as calmness and relief settle in. He licks his flushed lips and finally looks at Lucas, smiling at him through wet eyes, before Lucas mumbles,

 

“Our time’s almost up.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The walk upstairs is rushed, to say the least.

Mike keeps his head down and lets his feet take him where he needs to go. Thoughts accelerate inside his head, making everything spin incandescently. He hunches his back, almost enough to knock his kneecap off the next stair, but he pushes on; just trying to make everything slow to something his brain and body can properly cope with.

He shouldn’t have taken advantage of the stupid beer. It was a bad idea- an irresponsible one. But he saw a chance to make everything disappear for a little bit- the guilt, the aching want, all the crazy mess of emotions- and he took it.

Now, he’s feeling the full effects of it. The stairs aren’t straight, and it feels like he’s walking on jelly. He wishes he didn’t have to take these, but there’s no bathroom downstairs. Only the main level and top. He chooses the main level.

When he finally reaches the top of the stairs, Mike stumbles into the dark hallway. With the distortion of objects, as well as lack of any light, it’s as though an entire sense has been shut off. He’s blind to everything around him, and his shitty balance doesn’t make moving around any easier.

He told Lucas. Someone knows.

But he isn’t in the head space to comprehend that right now. The only thing that makes sense is bathroom.

His hands roam the walls, desperately searching for a knob to hold on to. It takes some time and trial and error, but eventually, he finds one and twists it open. And when he flicks the light on, it’s bright and sterile, lacking even a trace of warmth. The freckles and imperfections on his skin shine like a beacon, and he finds difficulty in standing upright in the mirror without feeling like falling over.

He breathes through his mouth, chapping his plump, colorless lips, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that his hair’s a mess and he doesn’t care that tears clump his lower lashes together, making it hard to blink without obscuring his vision even more. Instead, he grips the sink and twists the cold faucet on. The water doesn’t flow, but splutters, spitting out in chaotic bursts. Mike reaches forward to feel it against his finger tips, and after grimacing at the frigidness, figures it’s the perfect temperature. He cups his hands together and fills it up to the rim before splashing it on his face. He does it a second time, then a third, and then gulps down the fourth.

Getting Will back is going to be a lot more difficult than he thought.

 

He’s in the kitchen now, having climbed up the stairs while Mike was in the closet with Lucas. Skipping out on the next round didn’t seem like too much of a loss, and he’s hungry for more cake, so it works out.

The cake is a triumph of sugar, chocolate and flour, towering with buttercream and chocolate shavings. It’s not his favorite, but it certainly does taste good enough to lick the knife afterwards before placing in the cluttered sink. When he announced he was making a trip to the kitchen for a slice, Dustin asked for one too, so he makes sure to grab a second plate.

But about two minutes later, when Will steps carefully down the stairs with both plates in hand, feeling similar to a waiter at a restaurant, voices are faintly audible from inside the closet door.  But it isn’t Lucas and Mike anymore. It’s a girl and a boy, and Will recognizes them right away.

“I mean, am I wrong, though?” Sam.

“Come on—” Jennifer.

“What?”

“Come on, you know what. stop.”

“Stop-stop what?”

“You’re being an asshole.”

“I’m an asshole for speaking the truth?”

Will slows, his heart immediately sinking into the pit of the Earth. Not for any reason specifically; its just a default his body falls into whenever he hears arguing of any sort. It happens fairly often, being in the same house as Joyce and Hopper and all. Even though, with them, it’s almost always playful bickering, and not the serious kind that makes you want to hide in your bedroom with the radio turned up as high as it will go.  

Sam speaks again, “He’s in way over his head. I mean, seven months. Seven months! Shouldn’t that be a no brainer? If someone doesn’t talk to you for seven months, chances are, they don’t like you.” Jennifer sighs, “At first, I thought it would be funny. But now, it’s just annoying. He expects so much of the guy, and all he wants to do is hang out with his girlfriend.”

“Are you sure he even likes Mike like that? From what I remember, they’ve always just been good friends.”

“I’m positive. He even told me himself.”

“Wow.” And if the cutting edge of the sword wasn’t sharp enough against Will’s bubbling spine, now it’s even sharper, digs even deeper into the flesh when he hears what she says next, “That actually makes sense.”

And Will doesn’t notice it at first, but his entire body’s shaking violently with anxiety. The forks that rest on the plates jangle loudly against white porcelain, and he wonders if they can hear it from the closet.

“I bet you ten bucks Mike laughs in his face, and he comes crawling back to my place crying, like he always does.”

“That’s probably what you want.”

“I mean… I just like having someone there. You know? I don’t care who it is. With my dad being a dick all the time, it’s nice to have some attention for once. He’s great, and I care about him and everything, but he’s just annoying sometimes. I like being with his family more. Like, pretend they’re mine, sort of thing. This whole thing with convincing him to talk to Mike was just for my own fun. I mean, you could put a bee in front of him and convince him to eat it. He’ll do anything. He’s like a little puppet.”

There’s a slapping sound, “There you go again! Stupid asshole!”

“What?”

“You’re at his birthday party! Do you not realize that? You’re talking shit about Will at his own birthday party.”

Will knows he’s anxious when he feels the air more keenly in his eyes; it’s that tearless stage when the eyes take on a sheen of water and a tension builds behind them. He needs to shake it off. Now isn’t the time or place for tears. Today is a day for gallows humor, false confidence, and nothing else.

It feels like he’s a character in a movie. The girl in the public bathroom, who lets her friends cut her bangs. They gush the entire time over how beautiful it looks, only to turn her around in the end and force her to see what’s really in the mirror. It isn’t beautiful- the bangs are too jagged and short. It was a joke the entire time.

He doesn’t want to be here anymore. He feels like the laughing stock of the whole party.

After what’s felt like forever, Will finally gathers the courage to transfer his building adrenaline into hurriedly moving down the remainder of the stairs. He rushes to Dustin with his plate, accidently dropping the fork along the way. When he bends down to pick it up, his fork drops, and then he’s grunting in frustration. “I got it,” Dustin lowers to his level and takes his plate, along with the fork, “thanks, Will.” The frantic boy nods in response and feels the wind of El passing him briskly.

 

Mike’s exhausted. He’s in such an odd daze, that when someone knocks on the other side of the bathroom door, he nearly jumps out of his own skin, “Don’ come in here!” He yells out, slurred.

“Mike?” A small, quiet voice calls on the other side, and it takes him a few moments to recognize who it is before she speaks again, “Are you okay?”

He groans audibly, slacking his weight on the sink and shutting his eyes in exasperation. It’s just the person he doesn’t want to see, yet for some reason, he allows them passage.

When the door cracks and creaks open, Mike isn’t surprised to see Eleven appear in her typical nervous nature. She explains after taking in the image in front of her, of Mike, who makes no effort to remove himself from his position against the sink, “I just wanted to check on you. I heard you fall.”

“It’s those stupid stairs,” he grumbles, and then looks at her from under hooded eyelids, “M’ fine.”

El purses her lips and nods, the scent of alcohol pungent in his breath, “Okay. You’ll be out soon?”

He stands and straightens his back. The floor is crooked, much like the stairs, and he nearly falls against the wall as he breathes out, “Yeah.”

“Okay,” She repeats, and then leans up to press a chaste kiss to his lips. Sure enough, his eyes close, and he submits with a sigh, though it doesn’t take long for his face to scrunch up before he pulls away and turns toward the mirror again, “Mike?” She asks in confusion, tilting her head and placing a hand on his cheek, “What’s going on?”

He sighs out heavily again, almost deep enough to be considered another groan. Determinedly, she holds his other cheek, now forcing him to look at her. But he’s so lost. When he does look at her, he’s so dizzy, so confused, so distant, that staring into his eyes is like staring into two black voids. Her expression instantly turns more concerned.

Mike suddenly whines out helplessly before she has the chance to speak again, “What’re we doing?”

“Huh?”

“I mean- like- us? Why do we…? Why…” He trails off, unsure of how to word everything on his mind, leftover from the conversation with Lucas.

“What are you talking about Mike?” She asks, brows frowning, “Are you okay?” her thumbs rub his cheekbones like windshield wipers.

“All we do is pretend.”

“Pretend?”

“Yeah, pretend, like… Y’know… like everything’s okay, and our entire relationship makes any sense at all... Like, it's great. Like-like we're in love, and everything's just great—” She isn’t following, so he starts again, “You got out of the lab, and… You didn’t even know your real name. You didn’t know how old you were, you could barely talk, n’ you were thirt-teen years old.” He raises his hands to count thirteen fingers, but drops them after becoming confused and even more frustrated, “Listen, what I’m saying is, if you didn’t know any of those things, how could you know that you loved me? You should’ve- we should’ve waited. Or something. I don’ know. Then, maybe things woulda been better. Everything wouldn’t feel so… Bullshit.”

He watches as Eleven’s face crumbles. She holds on to his face tighter, looking into his eyes desperately, as though searching for the real Mike, “Bullshit? Like we’re in love? What are you saying, Mike?”

“I just feel weird, cause’ like- you… You just need time to grow. You need time to grow, n’ I need to stop… Stop pretending.”

“I love you. You know that—”

“No—”

“We love each other—”

“No—” He whines like a child, squirming in her hold.

“But Mike—”

“You’re only saying that because you feel like you have to! You don’t have to—”

“I mean it—”

He breaks free from her grasp, stumbles back, and yells, “well I don’t love you!” it comes out louder than he expected, and he immediately regrets it, because it wasn’t worth it. Looking at El’s face afterwards and knowing that Joyce and Jim probably aren’t sleeping anymore, he needs to take a minute to compose himself, to settle his breathing.

Great. Now both of the Byers-Hopper kids hate me, he thinks. At this point, he’s not even sure if its right to stay for the entire spring break. Maybe it's best to just go home with Dustin and Lucas tomorrow. What’s the point if he’s not wanted by anyone anymore?

The only person he can think of that might care, is Joyce, and even lately, it’s felt like everything she does is out of pity or by default of having an unexpected guest. She’s the one who’s watched him grow up; he reckons she must be fairly disappointed to see how he’s turned out. Lashing out at people close to him, saying the wrong things, being the only one drunk at his own best friend’s birthday party. Hell, if he were in some separate body, he’d be disappointed too.

Mike reiterates, slurring out, “I didn’t mean it like that. Of course, I love y- I just… I can’t do this anymore. It’s over. We’re done.”

When he looks up, he finds that El lacks the mellow sadness he expected. Instead, her face is smoldering underneath a stony expression. Her eyes are narrowed, rigid, cold, hard, and her fingers curl into tight fists. It's amazing how her face can do that- be soft one minute, and sharp the next. For a fleeting second, Mike wonders if she’s getting ready to throw him at the wall, or smash him against the mirror, but she only purses her lips and breathes fiercely through her nose, like an angry bull.

“Fine!” She snaps, turning on her heel and muttering on her way out, “Screw you, Mike.”

And then, it’s over. Just like that, in a matter of seconds. Done.

Nausea immediately claws at his throat, and he tries to force down the bile, but it’s too late. He sputters, finally dropping to the ground next to the open toilet bowl and throws up his fifth beer. Maybe even fourth. He doesn’t know.

 

After handing his plate over to Lucas, no longer feeling any appetite, Will moves through the dark hallway diligently. Anger would be consuming him right now if it weren’t for the blanket of unnerving heartbreak making chills up the lengths of his arms and legs. Huffing out his anxiety, he runs up the stairs, hoping to get to the bathroom so that he can breathe again.

When he finds it, internally thanking whoever it was before him that left the light on, he walks in and instantly slumps on the door to click it closed. He can’t believe what he just heard, and the fact that he probably missed out on so much more, makes him feel even sicker to his stomach.

This isn’t fair. This was supposed to be his day, and so far, he’s experienced the same crippling anguish twice. Betrayal from a friend. Then, suddenly, his heart races at a tremendous speed when he sees Mike’s body leaned up against the side of the tub, crouched beside the toilet. He screeches, as though he’d just seen the world’s biggest, deadliest spider, and Mike flinches up almost a beat too late.

“What are you doing in here?” He asks in a condescending voice. Mike flinches again, and tries standing up, but his legs give out. He feels so weak and dizzy and exhausted from lurching over the toilet for so long, that his legs just simply don’t have the strength in them anymore. He struggles, grunting under his breath and failing to push his sweaty bangs out of his eyes at the same time he grips the edge of the tub.

The lights pierce his eyes and make tiny shapes in his vision. He hadn't even noticed he was sleeping until Will woke him up. Most of the drunkenness in his system is gone now, having thrown up- and napped, apparently. So all that's left now is the delirium that comes with exhaustion and early hangover. 

After a few moments of watching Mike, Will sighs exasperatingly and crosses the other side of the room.

This is the last thing he wants to be doing right now. With everything that just happened, he’d much rather be in his bed with the covers pulled up over his head or walking downtown with a Walkman shoved in his pocket. But instead, he’s slinging Mike’s limp arm around his shoulder and hoisting him up gauchely. With Mike’s slacked body weight straining his back, a low, frustrated grunt is pulled out of him, “Come on. Work with me here.”

“M’ trying.” Mike whinges, moving his feet with Will’s until they’re out of the bathroom.

Two silhouettes stagger slow and uncouthly through the pitch black. Will tries his best to keep Mike’s arm steady around his shoulder, especially when he ducks his head and gravitates toward the stair in front of him. To which he’d then have to pick him up again and drag him further.

When they finally reach the hallway at the top, Will brings him into the guest room. The only light source is the moon beaming down from the small window by the side, but even then, its still hard to see. Regardless, he manages to drop the taller boy on the bed and pull the covers out from under him. And Mike whines, adjusting his body to rest more comfortably. He slacks his head against the pillow, closes his eyes and let’s Will pull the blankets over him like a mother would.

“Will,” He mumbles after a minute, eyes cracking open to stare lazily at the boy above him. Will looks down at him. Mike’s mouth is so dry, but it's hard to notice when he’s surrounded in menacing warmth spreading all the way to his toes. He holds on to Will’s forearm, and even in his dazed state, the earnest in his eyes is clear, “I’m so, so, so sorry.”

“So you’ve said.” He answers, quiet and dismissive. Because right now, it’s the last thing he’s worried about, “It’s fine.”

Mike grouses again, his face scrunching up in irritation, “No, it’s not fine. And you know it- you’re still mad at me.”

“Yeah, I am.”

“But you’re helping me.”

Will sighs, unable to believe it himself, “Yeah, I am.”

“Why?”

“Because… I couldn’t just leave you in there.”

Mike breathes shallowly up at the ceiling, the edge of his jaw and cheekbones gleaming particularly brighter than the rest of his face against the dim moonlight, “This was your party, and I’m ruining it.”

“No, you’re not.” Will argues, “Sam should have never brought the beer.”

I should’ve never drunk as much as I did. I was irresponsible. He just wanted you to have a good time. Plus, alcohol isn’t the worst thing in the world, Will. I know you might think it is, because of Lonnie, but that’s on him, not the drink. Don’t blame the drink, blame the person... drinking… the drink. I mean. No. Blame their actions. Like... Nevermind. I don't know what I'm talking about.” Will watches the finger Mike points at him. If he tries making sense of it in his head, it starts to become a bit more understandable, “I’m just dealing with a lot right now, y’know? N’ I know it’s not an excuse- this won’t happen again. It’s just, seeing you again… Has started to make me realize some things.”

Will shifts on his feet, feeling somewhat interested in what Mike has to say now, “Like what?”

“Like…” He trails off, “I can’t stop thinking about you no matter what I do. N’ I feel weird whenever I’m around you. But not in a bad way. I think I… I’m—”

“You’re drunk” Will finishes for him, fixing the blanket at his chest, “is what you are.” No matter how much he wants to hear the rest of that sentence, he knows Mike isn’t being completely rational. Anything he says now, could be far from truthful. So, he leaves it at that.

On the outside, Will is straight-faced; calm even. But inside, something turns his blood ice cold, and he just knows- he knows that he’ll be repeating those words over in his head all night. If only Mike knew how much of an effect he has on him, even when he’s angry.

Mike sees his face, maybe stares at it too long, and asks, “Is everything okay?” There must have been something obvious in the way he was acting before that indicated such a possibility being true. He has been on edge, and Mike, no matter the situation, has always made it his job to check in.

And he would’ve responded with the typical yeah, but it feels as though this whole day as fallen apart and taken him with it, and all he can do now his wave his flag, signalling his surrender. So, instead, he shrugs and turns away. But Mike insists.

“What’s wrong? Did something happen?”

“I just—” Will starts, his voice turning strained. He avoids Mike’s eyes, just looks up at the ceiling, “I’ve had a rough day. And I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed is all.”

Mike’s face softens, “it looked like you were having a lot of fun.”

“Because I was. But it all kinda started with you being an asshole, and then everyone was here at once, and then Sam talking about me in the closet to Jenny. And I can’t take it. It’s too much.” His patience is running low, especially with the sting that eating its way up his throat with every breath he takes.

Mike slurs out, gesturing to the spot by his feet, “maybe you should sit down,” and sitting up when Will takes a seat. Its apparent just from hearing him that his breathing is irregular and heavy, “breathe.”

“I can’t.”

“Yes you can. Listen to me,” Mike sucks in a long inhale, holds it for a few seconds, and then blows it out steadily, “See? Easy. Now do it with me on the count of three. One… two… Three.” Both boys breathe in together, and when they eventually reach their capacity, Mike counts down three fingers before gesturing for them to breathe out. Will’s breath is staggered at first, and wet, but he quickly gets into the hang of things after the fifth or sixth try. It doesn’t help the situation at all, but it does help to calm him down a bit, which is good, “So what did Sam do?”

“Talked about me in the closet.”

“I’m guessing in a bad way?”

“He called me a puppet.”

“What?”

“Because apparently I do anything anyone says. Which isn’t true, I mean, I turned down his beer. He was the one who convinced me to talk it out with you, but apparently he only did it because he thought the outcome would be entertaining for him. He bet that I’d show up to his doorstep crying because of you. He also called me annoying and that he’s only associated with me because he likes to pretend that my family is his. And he outed me to Jenny and—” All of a sudden, Will pauses. He didn’t mean to say that last part. It just came out like all the rest of the string of emotions flying around indecisively in his head. His eyes blow wide and he looks at Mike as though he’s a deer caught in headlights, and Mike stares back him in the exact same expression, “I mean. Forget that—”

“Okay—”

“Just forget I said that—”

“Okay. It's okay, I mean, I am t--”

“How drunk are you, Mike?”

“I won’t remember it, I promise.” He will. He most definitely will.

“Okay.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.” Will rubs his face with his hands until it’s pink and flushed, “Gah." He’s already cringing at himself and they’ve only been talking for a few minutes, “anyways.”

“Anyways.” Mike repeats, dwelling on the last bit instead of forgetting it, like he should’ve been.

“I don’t usually care for birthdays, but… God, I shouldn’t be saying this. You guys worked so hard to plan this for me, and I’m just being ungrateful. Again.”

“No, I mean, I get it, man. Bad days come. We can’t control when they come, they just do.” Will can still hear the slur in his voice, and it reminds him of how unstable Mike was when he brought him up the stairs. He’s so exhausted, and so sick, but he pushes himself to speak, word after word, “Tomorrow will be better.”

Will looks off to the side and hopes that he’s right on that one, “Yeah.”

The other boy nods in agreement and turns on his side, tucking his arms in the blanket and pulling it up to his chin, “M’ still listening. Just tired.” He knows it well- the blanket. It’s art, a creation in vibrant cream wool, an expression of Will’s grandma's love. In their younger days, when Mike and Will watched television, Mike could see his emotions by the way Will held it, the sensations of pleasure and tension told in how he either held it softly in his hands or pushed his fingers through the holes, twisting and grasping. When they were happy, it was their covering for games of “ghost” or else it was their invisibility shield. Some days, when it rained, it was their indoor picnic blanket. Other times it was their cape when there was superhero work to be done. It was one of their best toys, shared comfort, their woven rainbow and keeper of memories. And as they grow, becoming less and less attached to the mindless object, they remember it being bigger, and wonder if it’s shrunk somehow. If Mike were any wider, it wouldn’t fit him now.

“I’m going anyway.” He’s going before he can be outed to anyone else tonight, “Night.”

Mike’s black eyes remain on Will, who turns around and heads for the door, about to pull it closed behind him, until he speaks up again, interrupting the soft taps against cold hardwood. “Please,” softness lilts his voice in a childlike manner. Will looks over his shoulder. It’s a wishful plea for one last goodnight. “Please, can you stay?” When Will hesitates, he quickly adds, “Just, like, until I fall asleep or something?”

As much as he wants to be hard on his demand for the reason (how hard is it to just give a simple answer?) Will actually thinks it over for a minute. Mike seems pretty exhausted already, so it shouldn’t be for too long. And as cliché as it sounds, after the experience with Sam, being with Mike feels like a breath of fresh air that he, himself, doesn’t feel quite ready to let go of yet.

Mike adds again in the lengthy silence, “You don’ have to. Nevermi—”

“I’ll be right back.” And with an awakened hurry, Will disappears. Meanwhile, Mike stays frozen, watching the door and waiting for him to come back. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he doesn’t find himself dwelling too hard on it. Just stares and waits.

When he returns, Mike sees that he’s carrying a flashlight and the X-Men comic from earlier.

This. This is what he should have been spending his energy on tonight. Not stupid Seven Minutes in Heaven. Will smiles, shuts the door closed behind him, trails the room and sits on the edge of the bed. Leaning against the foot-board, he rests the comic on his lap and passes a glance over to Mike, who absentmindedly stares his way in return.

His expression is hard to read; Will isn’t sure if he’s confused or intrigued. Regardless, he switches the flashlight on and turns the first page, just taking in the scent of fresh paper. New. Not a hand-me-down; new. Just for him. The excited boy suddenly looks up again when he hears Mike mumble something.

“What?”

“I broke up with Eleven.” He says more clearly. And Will’s frozen. His jaw nearly slacks to the floor and he stares, at a loss for words, “In the bathroom. She’s pissed.”

When he finally gathers the drive to speak, he asks in the silence of the bedroom, “Why would you do that?”

“M’ just not into her.”

“I thought you were in love with her.”

Mike shakes his head, eyes wandering off to the window, “I was never in love with her.”

“Is this just another one of those temporary breakups? A sub-concern?” Asks Will, brow quirking conceivably. He's unwilling to devote himself to such an idea lacking promise.

But Mike seals it, “No. It’s over. For real. Trust me.”

The boy sits for a minute, as though processing his words. He tries returning his glance to the first page, but they both know he isn’t reading anything. He also takes notice in the way Mike doesn’t move or even close his eyes to go to sleep- just watches from under those heavy eyelids as he stares hard into the comic on his lap.

Finally, in the aching midst of silence, “that isn’t what I meant, you know. Breaking up with her isn’t going to make me any less mad.”

“That’s not why I did it.”

“Oh. Okay. Good. I mean, not good. I’m sorry that you’re breaking up. That sucks.”

Mike remains quiet, but if anyone were looking hard enough, they’d be able to spot the small smirk that pushes through, matching the one Will wears shamefully on the other side of the bed.

He nudges Will’s knee with his foot to grab his attention again, “M’ really tired.”

“Okay. Go to sleep then.”

"I don' wanna, though. Wanna just stay up with you." 

"I'm probably going to go to bed soon too." 

When Mike finally nods after the weighted pause of disappointed lip chewing, Will feels him turn over again and sink into the mattress, mumbling out a passive “night”. To which he echoes after him before quickly refocusing on the words scrawled the first page.

Realistically, there’s really no way in hell he’s going to sleep soon. Instead, he thumbs the ink with his right hand, holding the flashlight with his left, and just soaks everything in. The colors, details, lines, dots. For him, the illustrations always come first. Then the words. Its more enjoyable that way.

Will hears Mike’s breathing level out about two minutes later, but he continues reading anyway. It’s oddly peaceful here. Every couple pages, he steals a glance off to the side and revels in how the shadows contour the sharpened edges of Mike’s face. The way his hair messes in a bundle of loose waves, all splayed out on the pillow. He seems less uncomfortable like this; less agitated, worried, sad-looking. His mouth is slightly agape, which allows a steady stream of breath to pass through and fill up the quiet spots that the crickets outside are unable to seal on their own. And when Will finds that his thoughts are wandering somewhere more anxiety-inducing again, he tries matching Mike’s breathing pattern like before. It works.

There’s even a point when he reaches into his pocket again, eyes still trained on the paper on his lap, and pulls out the nail polish from earlier. He doesn’t look at it straight away- just feels the glass in his hand and the weight that comes along with it. As he finishes page after page, he alternates between playing with it in between his fingers, rolling it, and shaking it loosely, until its warm and sticky in his palm. And then he finally stops looking at the page and holds it directly in front of his face.

It’s been opened, but never used. Or maybe, it’s been used once. Not enough to make any noticeable difference. Shining the flashlight through it and seeing the molecular sparkles glow, he stares at it as if it’s a secret potion, or something more alien. Then, flickers his gaze to the sleeping Mike. He looks back and forth for what feels like forever before finally forcing himself to stop.

He can’t look at Mike like that; like he’s having some sort of revelation all because of a birthday present and the fact that him and El are broken up now. But he can’t help it. Mike was the first person he ever liked- first boy- and seeing him framed next to the nail polish- the symbol of acceptance in terms of his own sexuality, is nothing short of absolutely breathtaking. It fuels him with this feeling that was never there with Sam.

Has he ever thought, maybe…? Well it only makes sense. The only two gay guys in a small town are meant to be together, right? Maybe that’s why Sam’s words hurt as bad as they did. Maybe that’s why they keep playing back like a broken record in his head. Because there was an assumed fate involved. An assumed end to the story that now seems less probable.

But nonetheless, even if things had worked out with Sam, there would always be something missing. And that’s this feeling right now. The swelling in his chest, flush in his cheeks, longingness in his eyes. It’s always been there, since he was a little kid. But it’s even stronger now. And then, as suspected, those words from earlier return in the form of a faded whisper, “I can’t stop thinking about you no matter what I do.

Maybe he hasn’t forgotten me, he thinks. Maybe he knew I was here this whole time.

He doesn’t know what this means. He doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to tell himself the obvious, because he’s supposed to be angry. What Mike did was terrible. It’s kept him awake for days on end. What Mike did hurt the most, because it was Mike. Not Sam, Dustin, nor Lucas. Mike. His safe place. His embodied Castle Byers.

And no matter what happens in the future; if they grow up and reach the point where not talking for seven months is considered their new normal, or they meet new people and form a closer bond, a new partner… Mike will always carry that title and will until the end of time.

And what Will’s realizing now, is that he’s starting to feel that sense of safeness again, as if he’s twelve and hiding out in the tiny log fort, nose deep in some other comic. As if all the bad stuff had never happened. There’s something so peaceful about the end of this day that somehow makes everything that’s led them up to it, feel worth it.

After shoving the nail polish back in his pocket, he doesn’t stop reading until consciousness starts taking turns with sleep. And for the rest of the night- brushing his teeth, stripping down to his boxers, laying in bed with his pillow hugged tight against his chest, he needs to pinch himself in order to avoid thinking back to what happened with Sam.

If this is them having a falling out, the uncertainty of what Sam chooses to do with the vital information, which he was so precariously handed over, sends Will spiraling into a widespread panic. Because if he’s already told Jennifer, who knows how many other people know?

He also thinks back to Mike and El, and how it’s really over this time. He knows better than to believe something Mike’s says- in all of his indecisiveness and lack of sobriety- but still, his hopes are high with this one. It’s a terrible way to think, but he can’t help it.

Needless to say, he doesn’t sleep very well tonight. The giggles from across the hall don’t help either.

“Oh shit,” Max laughs. Her and Eleven sit side-by-side on El’s bed, the covers already pulled up to their waists. Their makeup is off, their teeth are brushed, and their t-shirts are on. And that should have been the end of it. They should have been all set for bed, but instead, they stay awake in the darkness, “I forgot to close the door.” El checks, and sure enough, it’s wide open, revealing Will’s door directly on the other side. Max asks lazily, “Can you do it?”

Obediently, El raises her arm, opens her hand, and spreads her fingers evenly apart. She tilts her chin downwards, keeps her eyes trained on the door and lets her peripherals vibrate together to form superfluous material around the main object of question. Then, a book suddenly tumbles off her shelf. It catches itself midair, limply keeps itself afloat, before finally dropping to the floor. And it must have been the funniest thing in the world, because Max bursts out into laughter.

“I said the door!”

“I’m trying!” El chuckles.

“Try harder!” So, she makes a second attempt. And as expected, the door doesn’t close, but instead, opens wider, creaking loudly as it does. The sound reverberates throughout the entire hall.

“It’s not working!” On the third attempt, a pen rolls across the surface of her dresser before dropping to the ground.

It suddenly occurs to Max that she forgot to keep an eye on El for most of the night after their turn in the closet, “Have you been drinking?” She suddenly asks, fearing the answer.

El shrugs, “I just had what everyone else was having.”

“El!” Her mouth flies open, but there’s something about the wideness of her eyes and tightness of her lips that implies a lighthearted smile.

“What?” She asks in the same tone.

“I mean, you haven’t hurt anyone, so I guess I’ll let it slide just this once,” She smiles and holds her hands out in a playful surrender. Then, lifts the covers up and trails the room to close the door manually. Meanwhile, El lowers herself to rest against the pillow and turn over on her side and wait for Max’s weight to dip the other side of the bed again. She’s missed how much warmer it all feels with her around.

When they’re settled together, Max lays so that she’s facing El’s backside. She doesn’t know why she keeps her eyes open, but she does. Not in a creepy way, but in a way that suggests a certain admiration. Moving from California to Indiana was hard, but in result of that, she’s met a lot of people. And none of them even begin to compare to the girl laying beside her right now. El truly is the strangest person she’s ever come across, and not just for her powers. She’s just overall this mysterious person; the way her brain works. How she radiates so much love, peace, and serenity with everything that she does. She’s different from anyone she’s ever met, and maybe that’ll go away with time, but for now, it’s the one thing Max loves most about her. She hopes she never loses her. This. Whatever this is.

“Night El.” She whispers.

“Night Max.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

(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?

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hey,” a single whisper snaps the boy back into consciousness, but he doesn’t open his eyes right away. Everything feels so heavy, and his brain feels like it’s running on five percent. Barely even operating. “Hey,” the voice from above whispers once more, “Mike.” Mike whines, turns over and shuts his eyes tightly. A beat of light has unwillingly turned his vision a shade of red beneath his eyelids- a color far more difficult to fall asleep to than black, “Mi-ike.” Will sings louder, less soft and endearing. When Mike doesn’t move again, he rattles his shoulder diligently, less merciful, “Michael!”

“Wha—” Mike tries pushing Will’s hand away with his eyes still closed, but it’s weak and half-assed, barely even making any contact, “just five more minutes!”

“No!”

“But it’s so early!”

“Come on,” Will pulls the blanket off of him and tosses it in the other corner, provoking another whine as Mike tries to curl up into nothing. Then, crawling to the exit, Will explains, “breakfast is waiting for you. Mom and dad are both at work today and since El made it last time, it’s my turn today.”

“Wait,” Mike finally opens his eyes and turns over to look at him, “you made breakfast already?”

“Yeah. I woke up, like, an hour ago.” He says, crouched on the damp grass outside.

Mike blinks, having not expected such a turn of events. For some reason, he pictured them waking up together. Or at least, him waking up a bit before Will. Anything but him waking up an hour late. He squints at his watch, tries hard to focus on the tiny, blurry numbers, and reports, “it’s almost eight-thirty.” But when he finally sits up, dishevelled from sleep and the wind, looks to the side to see Will already gone.

It takes a lot of self urgency and motivation, but eventually, he’s able to get on all fours and crawl outside, where the other boy is unexpectedly waiting for him a few feet away. Will sees him, nods his head to the house, and starts walking, and Mike quickly follows until they’re standing side by side.

The misty air chills him, but the smell of morning frost makes up for it. It’s always a good feeling; being outside in the morning. There’s this odd, refreshing feeling that drapes over it like a large, happy rain cloud. It sprinkles them with the assurance that today is a new day. A day for new beginnings.

He asks, looking over to Will, “were you warm enough last night?”

“Yeah,” then, “did you get enough sleep?”

“Yeah.”

Will catches his eye incredulously, “you sure?”

“Yeah.” A smirk pushes through then; and it isn’t until Mike’s sat with everyone at the table, does the realization set in that Will didn’t ask because he cared. He asked because he was making fun of him for sleeping in so late. A whole hour late. But who can blame him? Last night made up for all the hours he’s missed thus far into the visit. It’s exactly what he needed, and it makes room for later tonight. He’ll be able to stay up a little longer if he wants.

The menu isn’t long nor complicated. There’s a few boxes of cereal placed in a row, as well as the milk carton, fresh out of the refrigerator. Everybody has bowls and spoons, but Mike’s is the only one that’s empty.

El has poured a ridiculous amount of colored, sugary cereal in hers, right to the very top; Mike isn’t entirely sure if she even left any room for milk. All you can hear when she stirs is the swishing and banging of her spoon against the sides of the bowl. Will eats the same kind- brother, like sister, meanwhile, Max munches down on some Cheerios. It’s those two, or the bran kind that’s undeniably for either of the adults.

Deciding quick, Mike reaches forward for the box of Cheerios. Of course, he can’t do such a thing without any input from the redhead across from him, “morning hotstuff. Glad you could make it.”

Before sitting down, he had felt a little gross in his clothes from yesterday, so he quickly ran upstairs, only to return five minutes later with cleaner teeth, looser pants and a random striped shirt he found stuffed in his suitcase. The ends of his hair are curled with the moisture that coats his lungs- souvenirs from the outside air. He knows he looks rough, but it’s morning. There’s an exception there.

Thinking of a witty comeback statement feels close to impossible at the moment; being tired as hell and weary with the burden of long-closed eyes. Right now, he could easily pull off being a walking zombie, dead on the inside but subconsciously awake. It isn’t ideal, but it gives Max the dissatisfaction from the lack of response. Which, for what it's worth, serves as an accomplishing win on his part.

“Um” Will starts, stirring his cereal, “we were talking this morning, and. Later, we’re all going to take turns on Max’s skateboard.”

Mike turns his attention to Max, “you brought your skateboard?”

Her face contorts to match his judging expression, “you brought your bike?”

Fine. She wins this time. They’re both lunatics for hauling something like a bike or a skateboard all the way to Michigan from Indiana. Maybe Mike's a little bit more psycho. But it’s in everyone’s interest. In a town like this, debatably smaller than Hawkins, you have to bring some form of entertainment, “what do you mean take turns? Like… Lessons?”

“Yeah, if you want.”

“I already know how to do it.” El says.

“Yeah,” Will agrees, “I don’t, though. And you definitely don’t,” he nods to the boy sitting beside him, “unless that’s another secret hobby of yours.”

“Secret hobby,” Max repeats like a parrot would, intrigued.

Face lighting up, Will exclaims, as though he’s been antsy to talk about it ever since last night, “Mike plays guitar,” the boy in question cringes when pouring the milk and shakes his head in embarrassment. “Oh, and he sings.”

“Guitar, and you sing?!” Max’s face lights up like a Christmas tree, eyes wide with amusement. New material to tease and make fun of Mike for is like finding a treasure chest full of diamonds and gold. She’s gonna eat this up and talk about it until the end of time, “oh, you’re a full package.”  

“Alright, okay, can we just please. Stop. talking about this now?” Mike’s hands are up in defeat. Picking up the spoon and sticking it in the bowl.

“So wait, what songs can you do?” Max asks.

“None of your business.”

“Can I hear one?” then, when he protests, “oh come on, just a little demo. Acapella style.”

“No, absolutely not. Look, what I’m more concerned about is the fact that it took Will an hour to make this. This-this luxurious breakfast. All do respect.” He motions with his free hand and uses the other one to shove the spoonful in his mouth. It’s a distraction from the last topic, and that’s obvious, but frankly, he doesn’t care. And judging by the way everybody quickly melts into the new issue like its nothing, neither do they.

“And I didn’t even get a thank you.”

“Thank you, Will,” they all say together.

“Besides,” he shrugs, “it wouldn’t have taken so long if I wasn’t distracted.”

“Yeah,” El says, “we were talking a lot. Mostly about Max’s skateboard.”

“So what do you say? Is that a yes to the lessons? Or are you too grown up for that silly kid stuff?” Max squints, and Mike feels everyone’s eyes stick to him like magnets to metal. The bottom half of Will’s face disappears in the hollow of his cup filled with opaque orange, but his eyes stay planted on Mike too, and there’s something about that look that makes it impossible to say no. Not that he was going to, anyway. Staying inside all day, alone, when he could be with his friends, doesn’t sound all that appealing.

So he shrugs, “Yeah, sure. Whatever,” and watches how the green-hazel eyes squint slightly; it implies a smile, and that alone is rewarding enough.

 

After they’re finished, El insists on cleaning the dishes, and Max happily joins. It helps to kill time. Also- Joyce has left a note on the counter, encouraging them to clean as much as they can anyway, so that’s probably what they’ll end up doing for most of the day, apart from the skateboard lessons.

El hates getting her hands wet and soggy, so she wears a pair of blue rubber gloves that are entirely too big for her, and Max dries them with a dry cloth. Logically, trading spots seems most reasonable, but if Max were to clean the dishes, she’d rush them, and none would get clean. El takes her time; makes sure every single spot is erased. It takes entirely too long, and the urge to tell her to hurry up is always strong, but again, it helps to kill time. So nothings ever said.

Light from outside sheds onto their features and glows their irises into much paler colors. They’re silent for the most part, just enjoying the sounds of birds out in the backyard, when El glances up to see a murder of crows on the grass outside. A piece of hair sticks to her face, but she doesn’t have an extra hand to pull it behind her ear, so it’s left hanging, ticking her nose.

She watches them speak to each other in their own language, unknown to anybody else, and it’s beautiful. Sometimes she wishes she could be a crow. It seems much simpler than being a human. With humans, there are so many rules and regulations. So many things she hasn’t even found out about yet.

Sometimes she feels like she’s got it figured out. That she’s learned all there’s left to learn. But deep down, she knows that’ll never be the case. She’ll always be learning new things, the same as everybody else, but still, she didn’t even know two people of the same gender could potentially be together until yesterday. And that seemed so obvious to Max when she brought it up. Now she can’t stop thinking about it; me with a girl. Dating may not be for right now, but in the future, when she’s ready for a real relationship: me with a girl. It doesn’t sound too crazy. She can picture herself with just about anyone, no matter how they identify themselves. If they’re nice, that’s all that really matters, right?

So she figures: bisexual. But then, that doesn’t feel quite right either. She feels different from that label, but also different from the other labels. So she settles on none for now, until she finds a new word that means something more accurate. For now, she’s just El. That sounds okay enough.

Max snaps her out of her thoughts, making her jerk her head away from the crows, “I guess you and Mike are okay now?” She stares for a moment too long, thinking of a way to answer, before nodding, and looking back down to the soapy silverware she holds in her hand. Max purses her lips and sighs. She forces out a sarcastic, “cool,” and clinks a dried bowl on top of another.

“He said he’s sorry.” The other girl explains softly, voice almost too light and low to be heard.

“Yeah,” then, “everybody says that.”

“He said he friend-loves me.” Max pauses at this. Her hand freezes with the cloth, and the crease between her eyebrows deepens. Maybe she’s misunderstanding. “He said… I’m not ready for a relationship.” The redhead’s eyes dart in different directions, taking in the new information.

“Do you agree with that?”

“Yes.”

“… Oh,” she slowly starts moving her hand again. She means to say something else, but for some reason, lacks the courage to actually say it. So they sit in silence, which for some reason, feels excruciating in the way acid burns on the skin.

Max hates that’s she can’t argue with it, hates that she’s disappointed and even angry because of it, when Mike nor El are to blame. Hates that the thought has never occurred to her before. Of course El is emotionally stunted, but since her relationship with Mike, she’s always assumed dating wasn’t an issue. What does this mean, then, if it wasn’t the this she pictured?

 

On Will’s way inside his bedroom, the phone is already ringing, so he makes his way over to his desk and holds it to his ear, “hello?”

“Hey,” the voice is awfully familiar, and he knows who it is the second he hears it.

“Hi,” he says again, and sits down.

The speaker takes a deep breath, and Will can hear it hitting off of the other end, “Sam talked to me. He said you’re super pissed at him, and…” the words spill out quick and jumbled, clearly distressed, and Will has to pay extra attention just to make some sense out of it, “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, but you haven’t been picking up. I’m really glad to hear your voice.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jenny,” he reasons. There’s still leftover embarrassment adding defensive tension onto his words, “whatever’s going on, is between me and him. Just leave it alone. I appreciate you checking in but I have to go. I’m fine—”

“No, Will,” it’s firm, almost intimidating. It shuts him down almost immediately. Logically, she can’t do anything from across the street, but something about the tone of her voice makes him almost scared to put the phone down. Like her hand is seconds away from reaching through the receiver and grabbing him in a chokehold, “this isn’t fair. You deserve to have good friends and you know, I just wish… I wish I could’ve been there for you when you needed it. If I had known…” Will’s silent, eyes squeezing closed. It’s in Jennifer’s typical nature to pass the blame on herself, especially when it comes to her friends’ struggles. He wishes she wouldn’t do that, “I don’t know. I’m sorry. You just deserve better, okay?”

“Okay,” he agrees helplessly.

“I mean it. I’m… I’m over this shit. I love you, Will, so much, and everybody else does too,” Will can feel his heart tug in his chest, but in the best way. He swallows the lump in his throat, “and it wasn’t his place to tell me, and I gave him shit for it over the phone, and I know you probably don’t need to hear this but… I don’t care who you like or don’t like. Sure, the twelve-year-old me is crying a little bit, but—” from deep inside his chest comes a great shaking motion and his face muscles grow tight at the laugh he chuckles out, “I’m fine!”

“I love you too,” He assures her, more quietly. If there were a word stronger than lucky, that’s probably what he’d consider himself right now. To have this all come out, and not completely go to shit, is something that deserves some sort of medal.

“Are you fine?” She asks.

“Yeah. I’m good.”

With a relieved sigh, “good.” Then there’s a shuffling noise, and the girl’s saying, “ugh, I’ve got company over. I’m gonna have to let you go.”

“What company?”

“My mom invited her friends over to gossip. It’s fancy, though, for some reason. She even gave me a dress to wear.”

Will smiles, “Cool. Have fun.”

“Yeah, shut up. I have to get ready now. I should’ve had this on ten minutes ago. Talk to you later?”

“Yeah,” he stands up, and murmurs a quick, “okay, bye,” before clicking it back into place and breathing out long and slow. His legs give out and his whole body slumps in his chair again as though a puppeteer has cut his strings, but when he’s sitting again, his body turns to ice.

Despite how relieved he feels after talking to Jennifer, there’s a tenseness to his muscles that makes him more like a mannequin than a boy of flesh and bone. He wants so much to cross the other half of the room, to melt onto the soft foam of his bed, wrapped in eider-down, and drift into the world of dreams. The safer world. Yet his brain is a violent whirl of stupidity, trying to organize all the chaos going on. He combs a hand through his bangs and keeps it there- the moisture coming off of his forehead emulates his feelings in a physical form- one that he can feel and recognize that its time to take a step back and breathe.

He releases his hand and replaces it over his mouth, begins picking at his lip and staring out the window, lost in thought. Eyes wide, fixed on some imaginary point. Until someone knocks on the door.

The teenager turns in the chair and calls out permission to whoever it is that wants in, only to find that once the door opens, its Mike. His hair is combed now, and his face looks a bit fuller of color- more awake. Will adjusts his spot so that he’s sitting sideways now, “hey.”

“Hi.” Then, once the pause passes, “are you doing anything?”

“No. Why?”

“Um… I was wondering if maybe you wanted to hang out or something.”  

“Yeah,” he answers right away, “sure.” When a smile pushes through, he asks, “in Fortress Mike and Will?”

Mike smirks, “I thought you didn’t want to call it that.”

He shrugs, “I mean. I don’t know. Um… Fortress...” He tries but trails off. His eyes pan somewhere else, “Fortress…”

“Man, we suck at this.” Will scoffs and Mike continues, “and no. I mean, unless you want to.”

“I’m fine anywhere.” He says, watching as Mike makes his way over to the edge of the bed. He sits down, twiddles his thumbs, looks down to the floor, and then back up to Will.

There’s a moment of hesitation, before he finally admits, “El and I are okay now, by the way.”

“What?” Will’s face goes white, and he swears he loses feeling in his arms and legs for a second.

He knew this would happen. It always does. To even think that it could happen for real is stupid in itself. He shouldn’t have let himself get his hopes up.

“We talked it out.” Will blinks, confused. Is this what Mike had come in here for? To break him? “I guess you could’ve already guessed from breakfast.”

He tries his best to recount what had just taken place in the kitchen. What El and Mike looked like at the table, and then comes to the realization, “you guys weren’t holding hands. You weren’t even sitting together.”

“What?” Then, “no, no, no. We’re still broken up, we’re just not fighting anymore.”

Will breathes out, “oh.”

“Yeah dude,” he laughs weakly, “I told you, it’s over for real this time.”

Okay, so, not the end of the world. Hope has made it’s peak once again, and Will’s holding onto it like it’s a life raft in the middle of the sea. He doesn’t even care that Mike’s called him “dude” again, for, like, the thousandth time. What he does sort of care about, though, is the fact that Mike remembers telling him about the breakup. If he remembers that, then chances are, he remembers… Other things.

A silence descends over the both of them, like it always does, and he can’t help but notice that it reaches the kitchen as well, causing the entire house to go into complete ghost town. It isn’t eerie, just full of tension. Both of them want to say something, but neither have the guts to say it.

He notices Mike watching the shelves. There’s a stack of cassettes sitting on one, and the boy stands back up to go through them. Will just smirks and turns back to the desk.

The boy’s hands move to take a slip of paper and one of the colored pencils, but he doesn’t draw anything right away. Just twirls the orange one in between his fingers like a tiny baton. For now, it serves as some sort of distraction so that he isn’t staring at Mike the whole time. When he does look back up, though, Mike’s sitting on his bed again, flipping through the different mixtapes like a stack of cards. Will continues twirling the colored pencil between his middle, ring finger and thumb, only this time, watching Mike curiously behind his shoulder. He looks so interested in everything, it’s sort of endearing.

All of a sudden, he asks without lifting his head, “Who’s JJ?”

Will sets it down gently and adjusts the way he’s sitting so that his arm falls overtop of the backside, “Joan Jett?”

“… Is that… One of your friends? Or…”

“She’s a singer,” then, “it’s the mixtape Jenny gave me for my birthday.”

“Oh,” The boy nods and looks up, meeting Will’s gaze, “is she any good?” Will shrugs, “well aren’t you, like, fan of her?”

“I’ve never heard any of her stuff. She gave me that to teach me about feminism or something.” Mike looks back down and smirks, then shoots up and traces the room towards the stereo that Will spent the entire fall and winter seasons building. After loads of yard sales and dog walking, he was finally able to afford the parts. Whenever Eleven isn’t using it, it’s in his room, just sitting in the corner playing Ramones or The Clash. Tired of turning different ways in his chair, Will stands up and makes his way towards the stereo as well. His arms hang limply by his sides as Mike fumbles with the decks, buttons, and dials. He asks, “what are you doing?”

And that’s when the music blares. Will swears he can feel part of his soul leave his body, and right away, his hands fly up to cover his ears. When Mike recognizes his state, he immediately turns the volume dial down to mute, murmuring repeated apologies. Once the punch softens, Will’s able to open his eyes and loosen his grasp on the sides of his head. Shock presents itself in the form of a marvelled stare, mouth agape as Mike slowly turns the dial up a few ticks. Once Will gives the nod of permission, Mike turns it up one more time, lets go and turns to him.

They’re standing in front of each other now. Will’s hands still ghost his ears, because even though the volume is softer now, the electric guitar is still piercingly strong. Normally, he’s into rock. But this is rougher than most of the stuff he’s used to. It’s badass, and Mike seems to be enjoying it so far.

The boy’s beams at him, taking his forearms and bringing them down. It’s a safety guard, and at first, it’s hard to throw away so easily. He resists Mike’s hold, keeps his hands flat against his ears instead of taking them off, before eventually complying to Mike’s reassurances. And comes to realize that once they’re gone, it makes no difference. The music is still loud. It’s still uncomfortable. The only thing that changes is how muffled everything had been. It’s like putting on glasses and finally being able to see everything clear.

Face burning, Mike lets go of his wrists and smiles, though it’s more hopeful than of genuine glee. Hopeful that Will’s okay with this. That maybe this will be a new way to make him feel better- to disperse all of the stress and anxiety and anger. What it boils down to, he supposes, is the fact that he doesn’t want to feel that sink in his gut again. From yesterday. Doesn’t want to hear somebody tell him, whether it be to his face or over the phone, or implied through something else, that Will’s gone missing again.

He nods his head to the beat- a silent encouragement to get into it. And Will follows- hesitantly, but surely. “I think I like it,” Mike reports.

“What?!” Will shouts over the music.

“I said I think I like it!”

“Oh!” Will says back, confused. He has no idea what Mike just said, but he’s too nervous to ask again, so that’s the first response he came up with. It seems like it may have been the right one though, because Mike doesn’t bat an eye, just steps back and says:

“You gotta get into it!”

“I’m trying!”

“No you’re not!” The boy starts jumping, body loose and boneless, “come on!”

“I’m really not feeling it right now—” Will shakes his head and puts a hand up in surrender. There’s still a sickly feeling in his stomach, leftover from the call with Jennifer. Anything to remind him of that night is sure to nauseate him to some sort of extent, and jumping doesn’t feel like the right medicine.

“Come on!” Mike reaches forward to take his hand again, the introduction to You Drive Me Wild whirling around them.

“What happened to being tired?!” But Mike doesn’t answer- instead, takes Will’s other hand and moves them around. And Will's smile is one of happiness growing, much as a spring flower opening. Mike can see how it comes from deep inside to light his eyes and spread into every part of him. A person smiles with more than their mouth, and Mike hears it in his voice, in the choice of his words and the way he relaxes.

You drive me wild! Yeah, yeah! you know you do! Aa-ha!

Will’s feet pick up.

You drive me wild! You know what you do!

Mike lets him go- spins around and jumps some more. And Will follows. He mirrors exactly what Mike’s doing on the opposite side of the room, yet there’s something about it that feels so organic. Like they aren’t just dancing, but more less letting all their energy out.

He’s slow danced before- once, at the snowball. Twice, including the quick lesson in the living room as they waited for the car to warm up outside.

He thought that night was the night. He was finally going to ask Mike to dance- he wouldn’t be a pussy about it. If being trapped and controlled by the Upside Down taught him anything, it was that you only live once. And the second he recovered from the exorcism, the one thing he had his mind set on, was exactly what he knew he wouldn’t ever be able to die in peace without. And that was at least trying to get Mike on the same boat. Even if it ended in his worst nightmare, at least he could say that he tried.

Of course, if only it were that simple.

He was going to do it. The song started playing, and everyone was pairing up, and he had the perfect chance. Mike was alone, Dustin looked about ready to strode towards any girl that caught his eye. If only he didn’t take so long preparing his lines… Hey, Mike. Follow me out into the hallway. Yes, I know nobody’s out there. No, nothing’s wrong. No, it won’t be long. I’ll tell you when we get there, just come on.

But by the time he inhaled for the first word, a girl approached them and asked him to dance. Him! Will Byers! The biggest freak in school at that point. He remembers recognizing her face immediately as one of Jennifer's friends but forgetting her name. And he wanted to say no, he wanted to shut her down, but in the midst of finding a nice way to put it, Mike was nudging his shoulder, and nodding him on. And then the only answer was yes.

He remembers seeing them together for the first time. The moment Will spotted them on the dance floor during the same slow dance, him and Mike were on opposite sides of the gym. Yet Will’s eyes still found and stuck to him. It was like something had taken over him- a feeling. No matter which angle he spun, he would make sure to tilt his head every so often to look at Mike and El. He told himself not to worry, because they just need to finish this song, and then he can walk over to him again. He’ll ask him to dance for the next slow song. It’ll all be okay, he just needs to stick this out and get to Mike.

Until they kissed. He can still feel the dry ice that shot down his spine in that very moment. The way his body stiffened, even more than it already was (he hadn’t expected to lead; Joyce taught him both ways, but he only payed attention to the one that relied on Mike’s taller frame). How the girl had to ask him if everything was alright, and how he couldn’t even answer, because it felt like every organ in his body had shut down concurrently. It was like in that moment, someone had reached into his chest and ripped his heart right out. And when they touched foreheads, showcasing their disgustingly cute romance to the rest of the students watching, the person smashed it against the floor and shattered it into billion of tiny pieces.

He spent the entire rest of the night kicking himself. Squirming into the bedsheets with his face stuffed in the pillow. Throat burning with jealousy and regret- unknown to the fact that that night would be the first of many.

So yes: he’s slow danced before, but never like this. Usually, there are steps and rules, like who leads, and where to put your feet and hands, but right now, their movements are equivalent to the rustling leaves spiraling outside. Dancing helps to wear him out, much like running does. And it feels good. Now that he’s moving along with it, something shifts in the way he can feel it inside of him, writhing his veins, conjoining to become whole.

“He’s in way over his head.”

Will spins on his heel, twisting his back. The motion creases Jonathon’s shirt, one of the few hand-me-down items that weren’t worn out or too small when it was given to him. More like a souvenir to remember him by while he’s gone. Like he’s dead or something, instead of in school somewhere else.

“If someone doesn’t talk to you for seven months, chances are they don’t like you.”

He jumps and moves his arms, almost punching the air but not quite. It’s flailed and bent, going in all different directions.

“At first I thought it would be funny. But now it’s just annoying.”

Will jumps some more, and nods his head, hair thrashing up and down.

“I'll let you come over, if you promise to sort things out with him tomorrow. That means figuring out a way to get him in private and really talking it out with him.”

He gulps down a breath and keeps going, eyes squeezed shut. To anybody watching, he must look like a complete idiot. But he doesn’t care. This is helping. He can feel it helping. And after opening his eyes for a second, it’s apparent to him that Mike can feel it helping too, because he’s just as lost.

and it's beautiful.

The way he moves is clumsy and obnoxious, and so beautiful that Will has to pause for a second. He exhales long and slow through the sliver of space between his chapped lips, taking a minute to gain his balance. Mike isn’t doing anything too special; just jumping the same way Will was, with his eyes closed and arms gently punching the air. His freshly combed, black coffee hair hits his face and flies through the air, creating new tangles by the second. There’s no pattern to it- but there are visible rushes of emotion. Maybe that’s why it feels so captivating to watch. How much happiness he emits through his smile alone, sunshine seeping through every pore.

There are moments when he takes breaks to play the air guitar or the drum set and Will can’t possibly push down the smile that creases his sweaty face. He’s so gangly and awkward, it’s awful but amazing at the same time.

Being in a fight with your best friend sucks. Being in that weird stage between a fight and un-worrisome solidarity sucks. Everything sucks so fucking bad, especially lately. He just… doesn’t want this to suck anymore. He wants to go back to the way things were. And if Mike’s putting in the effort to make this something that could be good again, well then he’s willing to try and do the same. And if it also means letting go of the unknown details and accepting the apologies for what they’re worth, he’s willing to do that too.

Maybe he was standing for too long, or Mike just has a good sense, but he turns around and pauses, out of breath. Cracking out a laugh, “what’s wrong?!”

Will’s cheeks redden, sheepish of his own slip, “nothing!”

The next song plays. I Hate Myself for Loving You.

“I can turn it off if you want!”

“No, it’s fine!”

“Hold on, just wait there for a second!”

“What?!”

“I have an idea!”

Midnight, getting’ uptight. Where are you?

You said you’d meet me, now it’s quarter to two.

Mike steps forward, and with a surge of confidence, takes Will’s hand and twirls him around. It’s a small gesture, but it means the world to Will. It’s crazy to think that after two years, he’s finally getting his dance. Maybe not the way he envisioned, but, nonetheless. This counts. This so counts. He grins.

I know I’m hangin’ but I’m still wantin’ you.

He has to reach up high, and in the middle of it, Will wheezes, “what are you doing?!”

“I don’t know, I just thought— Oh, okay,” when Will takes his hand and twirls him around. Now that they’re facing each other again, Mike accidentally stumbles forward- way too close. Alarms sound in both brains for a few seconds before he stumbles back again. Looking straight ahead into Mike’s eyes now, it catches Will’s breath for a second, stutters his pulse at the same time.

I hate myself for loving you!

And before he can comprehend anything else, he’s pushing his fist right into Mike’s stomach. Because if they stood for any longer like that, he would have definitely done something spontaneously irrational that would’ve sent them both delving deeper into the crisis they’re trying so hard to mend first. It causes the boy to hunch over, and Will cackles out again, until Mike recovers and punches him back in the exact same spot.

It’s no stronger than what Will’s had been, but still, he yelps and doubles over in pain, forgetting all about the moment before. The atmosphere instantly changes after that, as Will clutches his stomach and winces excruciatingly under his breath.

The music goes silent when Mike drops to his side in a state of incomprehensible panic and Will looks somewhere else, purposely refraining from giving him the attention he begs for. All of it is hysterical, and it’s so hard to keep a straight face, until Mike rattles his shoulder and sounds moments away from asking for help- and then his eyes pan upwards to meet his, and a smile forms again.

“Son of a bitch!” Mike slaps his shoulder and sits back, relieved but angry. Will rolls onto his spine and hollers out in laughter. He can’t even get up; just lays there, looking up at Mike, who digs his hand into his side, a ticklish spot that’s been there for ages. It bends him in half. “You scared the daylights out of me!”

Between wheezes, “that’s… the point!”    

 

 

The skating lessons went okay for some people. Will needed to hang onto Max for the first part until he figured out his balance, but he got the hang of it eventually. El wasn’t lying when she said she already knew how. She excelled in the gliding part and learned a few tricks pretty easily, like The Ollie and hippie jump. Mike on the other hand, was a mess. There aren’t many tasks he gives up in, but skateboarding is one of them. His unsteady legs tripped and sent him in all sorts of directions, and for the first few tries, he didn’t know how to stop, which made everything ten times funnier. All of his mistakes were, of course, excused with the fact that everybody has their thing, skateboarding just isn’t his.

Max and El acted slightly different the entire time. Well, not really. They were still their usual selves, just less bright. Max seemed annoyed at something and El recognized it sooner than Mike and Will did. She’d try to find ways to make her feel better, but none of them seemed to work longer than five seconds.

She wasn’t mad. But even when smiling, anyone could tell that there was something off. And every time El asked her about it, she’d blow it off, saying something like, “it’s nothing” or “everything is fine.”

It lasts all the way to nighttime.

She doesn’t try staying up any later with El. Right when she lies down in her bed, she turns over, opposite to the girl beside her, and closes her eyes without a single goodnight. El turns too and gently rests her face against the pillow.

She looks with sad eyes across the dark room, unsure of what to say. In all the months they’ve been friends, there’s never been a moment like this- where one of them is so clearly frustrated with the other. She wishes Max would just come out and tell her what the problem is. It’s so hard to read her sometimes.

“Max?” She whispers, turning her head to the side, behind her shoulder. The other girl remains silent, as still and stiff as something abiotic. She then twists her body so that she’s facing the back of her, “Max, I know you’re awake. You snore.”

“I do not,” a few moments pass, before she lets out a sigh. The only reason she turns to face El, is because of how foolish she looks now that she’s fallen for something like that.

“What’s wrong?” She asks immediately.

“Nothing's wrong. I told you.”

“You’re lying.”

“No I’m not.”

“I thought we tell each other everything.”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Eleven’s silent, looking expectedly at Max. Even in the darkness, her face is visible, especially the whites of her eyes. Her eyebrows are raised, and Max raises hers back, as though to say: what?

“I don’t believe you.”

Max breathes out, exasperated, “come on.”

El’s tone becomes louder, more desperate. It’s still quiet, but not enough to be considered a whisper anymore, “am I not understanding something?” When she receives no answer, she pushes on, “Am I?”

“No. I mean, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess,” then, before Eleven can say anything else, “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

“Fine,” she mumbles, “tomorrow then?”

“Sure.”

It’s half-genuine. She wants to tell El the truth, of course she does. But she’s also leaving in two days, and by then, there’ll be no point. Besides, she’s not even entirely sure how to explain what it is she wants to say. I like you, but I also like my boyfriend. What could El do with that information? Nothing.

The thing is, is that she’s just confused. Not confused about her sexuality; she knows she likes girls and guys, as much as she knows her name is Max… Or “Maxine” as it says on her birth certificate. There’s no questioning that. If she wasn’t comfortable with her sexuality, she wouldn’t have shared it with El in the closet. There’s just… one particular girl and one particular guy who makes her so muddled. And she feels like an asshole for it, and she doesn’t want El to feel guilty, so that’s why she cuts the conversation short and turns over again, mumbling out a passive, “night, El.”

She may have already broken up with Lucas seven times thus far into the relationship but breaking up with him for El- deciding to wait for her- is different. It would mean breaking up for good, and not just to feed into the commitment issues. It would mean actually waiting and being completely single until El gives her the green light.

If it turns out El likes her back, and is willing to allow her to wait, then yeah. She would do it.

It just sucks, because she loves Lucas so much, even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes. But there’s always been something different with El. Something more intriguing- infatuating. It captures her and draws her in, and she doesn’t want to be let go.

Besides, it could give her a chance to better herself too. Maybe she isn’t ready for a relationship. Maybe she needs to work on her commitment and trust in others first. Lucas probably deserves someone better anyway. Someone who doesn’t walk out on him all the time. Someone he can trust. Maybe El’s path is the right one to go towards after all. For everybody.

But who is she to decide El’s fate? Only time will tell. And El herself.

 

 

“You know, I’ve always thought about writing one of these,” Mike’s nestled up in the corner, freshly showered and still full from dinner. The dull wind dries his damp hair, making it curlier and frizzier than usual. He wears clean clothes instead of the sweat infused ones from earlier with pavement rocks and mild blood stains now permanently embedded into the wool. The cool air soothes the skin around the patches that cover his legs and arms. Underneath the patches is antibiotic cream to ensure a quicker healing process for the scrapes and cuts. Shining a flashlight down onto one of Will’s comics, 2000 A.D., the boy explains, “when I’m older, obviously. Like, make a job out of it, sort of thing.”

“You should,” Will hums from the other side of the fort. He swipes a hand forward and then grunts when he misses two Jacks. The ball knocks off his knee, and he reaches in front of him to grab it, “you’re good at writing. Your campaigns were always the best.”

Mike’s eyes lift from the cover, “you really think so?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I really do,” Will says simply, and sets the Jacks down again, “you have the perfect writing prompt too. Bestseller material.”

“I guess you’re right. Just as long as I don’t end up getting murdered by the government for spilling all of their dirty secrets. I’m surprised they haven’t wiped all of our memories by now.”

“Even if the secrets do get out, no one’s going to believe it. The most people would do is steal the idea and do exactly what you’re doing. Make a book out of it.”

“Yeah,” Mike opens to about halfway into the book and scans the inside, “does Donna believe you?”

“No.”

“So what do you talk about then?”

“Just how to deal with stuff,” he says so simply, Mike looks up again, “like… Depression, anxiety, paranoia, PTSD... coping habits and stuff. I don’t think she knows a whole lot about it, but it's better than going to the doctors. Being strapped to a chair. That was awful.”

“But it’s over,” Mike says, and catches Will’s eye. He stops playing with the Jacks and sets the ball down gently, “it’s over.”

The other boy’s expression is unreadable. He presses his lips in a straight line, nods, and begins fidgeting with the Jacks again. Picks one up and examines the shape of it in his fingers. There’s a beat of silence before he utters, “I just don’t feel that way sometimes, you know?”

Mike’s brow furrow, “what do you mean?”

“I’m scared that it isn’t over. For all we know, a portal could open next week. Tomorrow. A few hours. Right now. I’ll start sensing it again, and then I’ll have to tell everybody,” He sighs, “I’m always going to be stuck with it. Always. Even if it really is the end, and I’m eighty in a rocking chair. I’ll be stuck with this until the day that I die. No medication or counselling can make it go away.”

“Hey,” Mike sets the comic and flashlight down. He pushes up to crawl beside him, “that isn’t true. No, Will, seriously,” when Will shakes his head, “do you know how many people benefit from those sorts of things? I mean, sure, medication and counselling or therapy won’t make it go away. But they make it easier to handle. Eventually.” Softness lilts his voice, beckoning his intention to put Will at ease. And the sound of it works more so than what he’s actually saying. He likes it when Mike talks to him like this- there’s just enough edge to it to not be considered babying, but just enough gentleness to calm him down. It’s like throwing out a friendly helping hand. “You have to give it more time. It hasn’t even been a year.”

“I know.”

A smirk tugs on the corners of his lips, “I know it might sound cheesy, but… time heals. It does.” Will looks beside him, into Mike’s eyes again. He doesn’t think Mike knows how much he needed to hear that, “And you have people who love you, who are here for you whenever you need it. We all understand. Especially El. I know you two aren’t all that close, but… she gets it. You could try talking to her.”

“We’re close,” he nods, “I’ve just been on edge. We have talked about it here and there. It’s nice, but…We normally rather talk about things like animals or one of her soap operas.” Mike breathes out a grin, and Will continues with a light smile, “there’s this one that I’ve never even seen, but I know all of the characters and drama, because once you get her talking about it, she just goes on and on,” then, with a chuckle, “and never stops.” Mike laughs too, but it’s soft and short-lived, before both of them are looking away and smiling at the ground again. Will looks to side, and murmurs a quiet, “thanks.”

“Yeah. Anytime,” he whispers back before placing his hand on Will’s and squeezing once. Heart immediately jumping to his throat, Will feels the heat seep from Mike’s skin and pour into his knuckles. It floods the entirety of his arm, as well as the rest of his body, and warms him better than any coat or blanket or hot shower.

And then it’s gone. Mike sits up to move back to the comic and abandoned flashlight, leaving Will dizzy and stunned. The fact that Mike penitentiaries so much heat- the feeling he’s been chasing this whole time- and he never knew. He’s been so obsessed with touching the thermostat and layering clothes on top of each other, victualing more, doing whatever he can. When all he needed was just a simple touch from Mike.

It’s stupid how flustered he is from just two seconds of that. During his stay, they’ve hugged and held hands momentarily while dancing, but none of that compares to now. Mike’s becoming warmer. The sensation is so vibrant, he shrugs his coat off, as well as some other things, until he’s equally as dressed as the other boy.  

After going back to his game of Jacks, the two fall into a comfortable silence for about an hour- just doing their own thing. And then it’s time for bed.

They stay up playing more rounds of Would You Rather. It only goes on for so long, though, before they run out of ideas and fall into yet another silence that makes each of them think the other had fallen asleep. It isn’t until Will finally turns over from where he’s laying down, so that he’s laying on his stomach instead of his back, cheek pressed against the pillow and eyes tiredly on Mike’s side profile, are they both proven wrong. Mike tilts his chin toward him as a silent acknowledgment, though it takes longer for his eyes to catch up. 

When they finally do latch onto Will’s, he whispers, “hey, Mike?” Mike hums in response. “If you do make a comic… Count me in. I’ll illustrate.”

“Really?” he whispers back.

“Yeah.”

“… Okay,” he smiles.

Will smiles back, “night.”

“Night.”

 

At first there is music, a choir of sorts as in church… then he hears God and he tells him to go to the other part of his brain, to go through the doorway to a place he’ll be safe… the dream changes and he feels a sense of falling, as if he’s entering a part of himself that’s hidden. Perhaps he went the wrong way, or perhaps it is now safe for him to go the wrong way, now that he’s grown up, to see what he was saved from.

Will finds himself stepping outside, except it doesn’t look like the real world. It’s brighter, redder- and then a flash of lighting strikes, and everything’s blue. There’s no curious part of him that wants to go any further, but something makes him, in the sense that he has no control over his body. It’s moving for him, driven by some unknown force. Slowly but surely.

Specks of what appear to be snowflakes float around him, and he trembles at the familiarity. As soon as he’s far enough into the alternate world, he’s let go. Dropped onto the ground. Gasping, as though he’d been held by the neck and dragged there, Will sputters against the wet ground and cries.

Noises surround him. The voices, he’s able to point out. But what they’re saying is completely undistinctive. He recognizes Jonathan, his mom, Hopper, El, Lonnie, Sam, and Mike. They take turns saying things, but it's like they’re speaking in reverse, or just straight gibberish.

This was supposed to be over. Mike lied to him.

He looks around, terrified and vulnerable. With no light source, it’s difficult, but he’s able to make out some vines and movements out in the distance.

“Mom!” He calls desperately, voice so loud, it cracks halfway through, “Mom!” he stands to his feet, breathing rapidly, “Jonathan?!” the boy looks around once more. Panic begins like a cluster of spark plugs into his abdomen. Tension grows in his face and limbs, his breathing becoming more rapid, more shallow.

He calls for Mike, no answer. He calls again, his heart racing faster – no answer. Again – no answer. Again – no answer. Will’s eyes scan his surrounds once more before looking down at himself. He can feel more than he can see, but something slimy covers him head to toe. It chills his bones, mats everything down to his slicked skin. He shivers like a wet dog, in an odd state of disbelief, like it hasn’t really hit him yet, where he is. In seconds, he’s sitting down again, curled into a ball, his only movements being the trembling of his limbs and salty tears cutting pathways down his cheeks. There he stays, until a shadow descends over him…