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maybe when we all get older (things will be fine again)

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If anyone had asked Will what he expected senior year to be like, he could’ve given them some pretty wild ideas. Hell on earth, would be his first one. A waking nightmare is another one of his favourite terms. The rest involve high amounts of swearing or are just long screams punctuated by periods of silence.

As he drives to school at the beginning of March however, Queen blasting through the opens windows and his best friend complaining in the passenger seat, he realises how wrong those phrases were.

His mom always says that what goes down must go back up again. He never believed her up until now.

“Can you turn it down?” El moans, pressing the coffee flask to her lips. Will debates ignoring her, because Freddie Mercury deserves to be played loud, but a particularly high not convinces him otherwise. He concedes and turns it down.

El smiles at him and turns her attention back to the window. He never thought silence could be this comfortable with another person. He was wrong.

It’s still weird to him, how quickly his life bounced back after he told El everything. There was the initial period where everything was still shaky. The morning after was the hardest, in his opinion. Having to sit down and talk to his mom and Jonathan. Calling Lucas and Dustin and Max. Finally putting middle school behind him.

It got easier after that. He got used to a certain comfortableness. Got used to talking to his mom. Got used to having friends in the hallway and at lunch. Got used to The Hopper’s being there more often than then not.

The bad days got few and far between. Now, as he pulls into the parking lot, he barely remembers what they felt like. They instead become like the dull throbbing of a distant headache.

Max is waiting for El, just like she always does. She accepts the flask gratefully and gulps the coffee down, only pausing to nod a greeting to Will. That’s their normal routine. After Will apologised, that day over the phone, they formed this sort of carefully considered alliance. They don’t speak much, but it goes unspoken that Max knows. Not only does she know, but she understands. She’s the only one who does, really.

El was right, he had realised when making those phone call apologies. They do care. It’s an odd feeling, a little intoxicating, but he tries hard not to let it get to his head.

The only apology yet to make is to Mike. Mike has always had a way of making him unravel and Will knows, he just knows, that any attempt at an apology to Mike would just end up with him apologising for everything: for the party, for the staring, for the fists and the words and everything in between. He knows if he starts talking he won’t be able to stop. Mike would crack him with his soft eyes and his gentle hands and his unknowingly deceptive ways.

He's still clinging on to Mike, and the idea that he doesn’t know just how wrong he is inside. Part of him knows Mike knows, that maybe he always knew. The soft way he said “come on guys,” when his friends had been harassing Will in sophomore year was enough of a tell. But still Will clings to the mortifyingly amazing idea that Mike had defended him because they were friends, somewhere deep down. Not because he was the schools walking AIDS poster.

El had suggested he told Mike, once. They were driving to school in amicable silence, an old Beach Boys tape filling the gaps, when she had twisted in her seat to look at him. Will kept his eyes on the road.

“Why don’t you just tell Mike how you feel?” she had asked, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Maybe to her it was. Something to do with not having to live in inconsolable fear with yourself.

When he had laughed her off, she had just shrugged and said, “you don’t know what will happen until you try.”

The whole thing was laughable, but for some reason, Will couldn’t stop thinking about it for nights afterwards. The idea of confessing his love like in a romantic movie. Mike, admitting it back. Mike, intertwining his fingers in his hair. Mike, kissing him.

The thought made his throat dry, panic rising like bile in the pit of his stomach.

No, Mike doesn’t know and Mike can’t know. No matter what El says.

 


 

 

The first half of the day is fine. He’s getting used to fine, the mediocre feel of it. Days are no longer bad, they are fine and sometimes they are good. More often than not they’re just okay.

Things still trip him up sometimes. An odd look or a question in class. One day, he vows to himself, they won’t. One day I’ll be nothing but happy. Just like everybody else.

Today it’s Mike that trips him up. He’s disposing of his copy of Grapes of Wrath after literature when he sees him. he’s used to seeing him out of the corner of his eye, but he’s so much more present now, a sturdy figure just ten lockers down.

He finds himself staring at Mike. He has an advantage, from where his locker is, not that he ever used to see it that way. He has a clear sightline to where Mike stands every day. He can see the casual way he slips texts books into the middle of the clutter. He sees when his friends from track, or film club, are there, forming a sort of semi-circle around him.

Now, however, he sees Mike lean forward and press his face against the cool metal of the locker. It’s a trick Will knows well. He used to do it on his particularly shaky days, when his body just couldn’t stay still. Mike struggles for a breath, seems to catch it in his lungs and pulls back. He looks vulnerable, a little unsure of himself. Like the Mike Will once knew, back before the words and the blood and eyes that had hardened under years of strain.

Maybe that’s why Mike slams his locker shut and casts a glance around the hallway to check if anyone saw his brief falter. They haven’t. No one has, except Will.

A year ago, Will would’ve ducked away from the intrusive gaze but now he lets Mike’s eyes land on him. They hold there, only for a moment, but it’s enough for Will to see. Mike looks small. Fragmented.

Back pressed to the floor. Breathless, panting. Eyes pleading with the tears collecting just in the corner. Will feels strong, body adrenaline, fists stinging. He doesn’t like feeling strong.

Mike pulls away from his gaze and melts into the sea of students. He heads north. Towards the track field. The gym. The car park.

Will heads north, like he normally does. North means the cafeteria. He used to hate it, ears ringing with the noise of voice clambering over one another. That was his outward excuse, his real one being the table in the corner that Mike occupied.

Mike is gone now. Will can’t recall the last time he saw him eat lunch in here. It feels like a flip has been switched, but Will doesn’t know why.

He likes the routine that has become usual. Locating the middle-left table and slotting himself into the vacant seat next to El. She smiles when she sees him, through a mouthful of apple, and presses her body into the side of his. It’s a half-hug. A welcome greeting.

Lucas sits opposite. He greets Will with words, a warm “Hey,” eyes full of conversation waiting to be had. It feels familiar, like putting on an old pair of shoes.

He nods his usual greeting to Max but finds no response. She’s bent over a book, pen flying across the paper, nose pressed to the pages. He wouldn’t be surprised if she couldn’t hear anything around her.

He turns to Lucas instead. “What’s she studying?”

“Physics,” Max answers bluntly, but doesn’t look up.

The answer doesn’t explain much, so Lucas fills in the blanks. “It’s for her final. She’s just now realised she needs straight A’s to get into Yale.” He breaks off the crust of his bread and slides it to El.

“You’re going to Yale?” he turns his attention back to Max. Sitting next to her, on that hill, bodies pressed together, she had told him about travelling. He had been so sure that Max would still be by his side next year. He didn’t expect that of Dustin, or El, or Lucas, with their plans and their preparations. He certainly didn’t expect that of Mike. No one would ever hold Mike back, Will had no doubt of that.

But if Max is going to college that leaves just him, and Hawkins.

She must hear something in his voice, because she lifts her head momentarily.

“Not if she doesn’t pass physics,” Lucas is joking, but Max’s stare doesn’t waver.

“Maybe?” her voice is soft. Unbelievably so. It makes Will want to cry. “I’d like to have the option. Who knows how I’ll feel when we graduate but right now I don’t want to-”

“Burn any bridges?” Will supplies. He gets it, he really does. He just wishes he hadn’t already burnt all of his.

Max turns back to his studying, though he brow is creased and her eyes keep flitting upwards. Will tries to ignore it.

“You okay?” El whispers but he bats her off. He doesn’t need pity; he has no use for it anymore. What he needs is to stop thinking about himself, sitting alone in his bedroom, knuckles stained red with someone else’s blood.

The distraction comes in the form of Dustin, who throws himself into the seat next to El and slings an arm around her shoulder.

“What did I miss?” He asks, as though it’s a secret society meeting and not lunch.

Will just shrugs and lets the conversation carry on without him. It quickly turns to the candy store and its untimely end.

“It’s a disgrace,” Dustin is declaring as El laughs at him. “Don’t laugh. That was my livelihood! I had a profitable little business going and it what? Gets shut down for no reason.”

“It is illegal,” Lucas supplies, “and very against school rules.”

“You’re only saying that because you’re the student president.”

“It would be the truth even if I wasn’t.”

Will tunes them all out in favour of picking at the sandwich in front of him. Food is still fear to him, but it’s a shameful one. It was fine when it was just him and El. Most of the time lunch would slip by and she wouldn’t even notice he hadn’t taken a bite. But now, there are eight scrutinising eyes instead of two and it would look suspicious, sitting in the lunch hall and not eating a thing. He doesn’t want the hushed whispers to return, nor the secrets they carried with them.

So now, he eats a few bites and tips the rest in the bin, waving goodbye to the table as he heads to his last lesson.

 


 

 

Time now feels weird to him. Sometimes it’s like sludge, and he’s dragging himself through it. Other times it barely passes and before he knows it he’s curled up in the bath, shivering, with no recollection of ever climbing under the shower fully clothed.

He sits down in American History and then he’s in the car, knuckles turning white against the steering wheel. He reconstructs the day in his head. Math, Chemistry, Lit, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike-

He tries again, and this time he recalls Lunch, and History and Climbing in His Car. He lets out a breath, then swerves right. It’s the medication, he knows it is. Time was never so sticky before his new dose. His mom had insisted on it, demanded he see a doctor right as he walked through the door.

He’s drowning. He’s drowning under the weight of Hopper’s raincoat and his mom’s arms that encircle him.

“Will, baby,” she’s crying, nails against back. Jonathan isn’t saying anything.

“He’s alright,” Hopper is reassuring, with the steady sound of his voice. He squeezes his shoulder a little too tight, “Him and El were just hanging out.”

It’s a half-lie. Would’ve been good, too, if Will wasn’t still crying and Hopper’s face wasn’t drawn with nerves.

“I’m calling the doctor. I’m calling the surgery right now and we’re gonna fix this, Will. I promise you we’ll fix this.”

He swerves again, and curses this time. Those damn meds. He’s fine, he doesn’t need them, he’s perfectly fine. Everything is fixed. He has El and Lucas and Jonathan doesn’t hate him and he can actually breathe now. Everything would be perfect if Mike would just listen to his apology. But it’s fine.

He doesn’t remember parking the car, or unlocking the front door, but he must have done because now his shaky fingers are fiddling with the child-proof cap of the medicine bottle. It finally gives under his hand and he empties it upside down, watching the tiny little capsules find their way down the plughole.

Once they’re gone he can feel his stomach unknotting. He slams the bottle down a little heavier than necessary and his whole hand vibrates.

One breath, then two breaths, until his lungs no longer feel like they’re concaving. He steps back, eyes focusing on his reflection. He looks more like himself then he has in years. His hair is neat, straight lines and edges, only just obscuring his eyes. His face isn’t pinched or drawn. He tries for a smile and it doesn’t feel foreign.

Inside is different, too. Recently he’s been feeling things he’d forgotten. Excitement. Expectation. That light-headed feeling when you’ve been laughing too much. They mix together with the anxiety and the dread in the pit of his stomach and make him feel human again.

He studies his reflection. Repeats his mantra.

I’m okay.

I’m okay.

“Am I okay?”

Chapter Text

The new routine quickly replaces the old one.

It’s strange, at first, to get used to having friends again. To feel a hand on his shoulder in the hallway and not instantly tensing, ready for a fight. To have someone to pass notes to, to study with, to have a group of friends who share lunches and quiz answers.

It takes some getting used to. For El, it seems natural. She had friends in Nebraska (how could she not) so it’s easy for her. As the only two girls in the group she seems to have a fiercely strong connection to Max, but she also has an easy friendship with Lucas and even Dustin, who seems to make her laugh like no one else can.

For Will it’s harder. He has to concentrate, to try not to trip up on simple things. “How are you?” throws him the most. Sometimes, he doesn’t want to answer it, not wanting them to really know. But their eyes are so kind and their so well intentioned that he can’t keep anything from them for too long.

He’s concentrating so hard on the new routine that he doesn’t even realise it’s his birthday until he’s surprised by his mom and Jonathan at breakfast.

He’s still half-asleep, fiddling with the buttons on his shirt, when he jumps at the sound of the first few words of ‘happy birthday’.

The noise is loud, for first thing on a morning, and it’s jarring. His mom is singing off key, clapping her hands to a non-existent beat, whilst Jonathan grins at him from behind a camera, mumbling a few words here and there.

Will doesn’t even have to look at himself in a mirror to know his grinning. He can’t remember the last birthday he felt so happy. Probably his eleventh, when they drove to Six Flags. When he held hands with Mike in the queue for hotdogs.

He doesn’t want to think about that, so instead he lets his mom pull him into a hug and doesn’t protest when she hugs him a little too tight. Jonathan reaches over to scrub his hair and he doesn’t duck away. It makes him feel like a kid again as he sits down opposite a stack of presents.

They’re predictable presents, but Will finds himself elated with each one, turning the books and shirts over in his hands and thanking his mom for every single one. After he’s finished with them, Jonathan reaches into the cupboard under the sink and slides a brown paper parcel over the table to him.

“This one’s from me,” he explains as Will pulls at the paper.

Inside sits a beautiful charcoal coloured sketch pad. He lifts the cover and holds the paper between his fingers, feeling the thick, rough quality. He casts a small glance up to Jonathan. “This must've been expensive.”

His brother waves him off with a dismissive gesture, then leans forward in his seat, “do you like it? I had to ask the woman in the shop what was the best. And you need the best for when you go to college.”

The air feels still, and Will can feel every second tick by. He turns the sketch pad over and inspects the back cover. It’s no different than the front but he needs to do something to stop thinking about college. Jonathan knows that Will’s been looking at the brochures, he’s seen him obsessively pouring over them at the kitchen table when he thought no one else was looking. What Jonathan doesn’t know is that Will isn’t good enough for art college, that he hasn’t even got a portfolio and he has missed the deadlines for college submission.

Instead he chokes down the rising panic and nods. “I love it. Thank you, Jonathan.”

And then he does something he hasn’t done since middle school. He sets the sketch pad down on the table and curls his arms around his brother’s neck, pressing his face against his brother’s shoulder. Jonathan doesn’t react for a minute, arms hanging limp at his side, but then they come up and rest on his back. He feels like he’s six again. He feels safe.

He regrets having to pull away, but he has to leave for school if he ever wants to get a parking space. If Will had known a year ago these would be his problems, he would’ve laughed. It’s all so normal.

He’s half-way out the door, grappling with the zip on his backpack, when his mom’s voice stops him. She’s been gnawing at her lip the whole morning, when she doesn’t think Will is looking. Will is always looking.

She appears in his line of sight, still holding a bowl and a dish cloth. The bowl is dripping, water droplets repeatedly splashing on the floor. Will watches them for a minute.

“Have a good day sweetie,” she smiles, tight-lipped and anxious. He returns the sentiment. “I’m working late tonight so you may not see me till tomorrow morning. But Jonathan will be in and you guys can order a pizza, or whatever you want.”

“Yeah,” Will finds himself replying, taking a step out of the door, “Sounds good, mom.”

“Okay, okay,” she’s about to shut the door, when she asks, “did you take your meds this morning?”

It’s a question of habit, one that she started asking at the beginning of his diagnoses, but right now it makes his chest tighten. He thinks of the medication, swirling down the drain, and the empty orange bottle buried at the bottom of the trash.

But he nods anyway, feet carrying him towards the car. “Yeah, of course. Bye mom!”

He feels guilty for lying, but he has to. He certainly can’t take that medication anymore.

 


 

 

He doesn’t know who told El it was his birthday, but someone must’ve because she’s singing to him as soon as she opens the car door. H

He’s laughing by the time she’s finished her rousing rendition, complete with added runs and the loudest shrieking he’s ever heard. “Wow,” is all he can manage, and then El is laughing too, head pressed against the dashboard.

It takes half the journey for him to catch his breath today, but when he does he glances sideways at El. “Who told you it was my birthday?”

El taps her nose, “a magician never reveals their secrets.” Then, prompted by an eye roll, she admits, “it was Dustin.”

The thought of Dustin remembering his birthday is odd to him. They were friends for a while, he supposes. A small, quiet part of himself reminds him that they’re friends now. That’s even odder to him.

“Oh!” El exclaims, as if she has suddenly surprised herself. “I got you a present.”

Will clasps his fingers tighter around the steering wheel as they veer left. “Now is maybe not the best time.”

“It’s okay, you don’t need your eyes,” she explains, reaching inside her coat pocket. He wants to ask what she means by that but then the crackly sound of the radio is replaced by the tinny sound of choral singing.

“Is that…?”

“Talking Heads, yeah!” El beams at him, resting her fingers on the car door and tapping out the rhythm.

The sound of Road to Nowhere fills the car. It is bigger than the space it occupies, but it belongs to the two of them in that moment; just him, and El, alone in his car, with the second song someone has ever given him.

They’ve listened to it countless times before. Stolen a tape from Jonathan and rewound it until it fizzled and died. Scoured radio stations for the sound of the first opening bars. And now he has it, on a tape that will live in his car stereo.

He wants to keep listening, but they’ve been sat in the parking lot for nearing two minutes by the time the song fades to a stop. He kills the engine and turns to El.

“Thank you,” he says, though that’s not enough. He can’t remember the last time a friend brought him a present. Well, yes, he can. He refuses too.

El just nods, like she already knows everything he wants to say, and swings her legs out the car.

 


 

 

He slips into his day, feeling a sort of excitement bubbling under his skin. It’s hard to concentrate on class when he knows there is a mixtape sat in his car, just for him. It’s even harder when Max looks over her shoulder in Literature and mouths, “happy birthday dumb ass”.

He makes a beeline for their table as soon as it’s lunchtime, and is greeted by a chorus of “happy birthday” s. He can feel his face heating, but not from being whispered about. It’s more like a sort of pride- he has friends who are willing to let people know that they like him. The feeling is exhilarating.

Dustin is late, as always, but throws himself into the vacant seat between El and Will with his usual gusto. He slings an arm around both of their shoulders, grinning at Will.

“Eighteen! You’re all grown up, Will the Wise.”

Lucas and Max share a laugh at the nickname, but Will ignores them and instead nods to Dustin. “I guess so. It doesn’t feel like it.”

“I remember playing DnD in Mike Wheeler’s basement like it was yesterday,” he sighs wistfully, a fake dramatic flair. What else does Will expect from a theatre kid.

“But then again,” he continues, lowering his arm from Will’s shoulder to grab an M&M from Max. She swats at his hand, but misses. “Maybe it was yesterday.”

Lucas is rubbing at his face with the palm of his hand, him and Max both staring at Dustin with a shared incredulous look. “What are you on about?”

“Science,” he says, like it’s that simple. “It’s this theory that we’re like ants, so one day to us feels like a year.”

Max shakes her head. “That’s not science.”

“Can you disprove it?”

“That’s so stupid-”

“No, it’s not-”

Will gives up on trying to decipher their bickering and turns to El, hoping to share a knowing “our friends are idiots look.” Instead, he notices that Dustin still has him arm slung around her shoulder. She’s picking at the crusts of her sandwich, like nothing is out of the ordinary.

He raises his eyebrow questionably, but she just turns beet-red and refuses to meet his eye again.

Huh, he thinks. This day is bringing all sorts of surprises.

 


  

He listens to the rest of the tape on the drive home.

It’s a good mix, all in all. The Clash comes immediately after Talking Heads, then Radiohead. There’s an odd mix of Tears for Fears and R.E.M but he doesn’t mind. The whole thing is so undoubtedly El, and reminds him of every car ride they’ve shared. It’s the closest thing he’s got to the real memories.

He leaves the tape in the car, not wanting to forget it the next morning, and heads inside. He knows, realistically, he should start on the mountain of schoolwork that’s been building up since January but the very thought makes him feel like drowning, and he wants to enjoy today.

So, instead he grabs his copy of Clockwork Orange and sprawls himself out on the sofa with a tub of ice cream and waits for Jonathan to get home.

He’s so absorbed in Alex’s deranged world that he doesn’t even notice it’s dark until he hears the blaring ring of the telephone. He blinks a little, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness of the room, and pulls the phone of the receiver.

“Hey, it’s Will,” he mumbles. He’s expecting Jonathan, calling to tell him he’s going to be late home. Or his aunt, maybe, wishing him a happy birthday and telling him there’s a card in the post. Maybe even his dad, who sometimes remembers it’s his birthday.

What he’s not expecting is the breathless sound of heavy breathing, followed by a rushed, “hey, Will, it’s me.”

He can feel his heart drop to the pit of his stomach the minute he hears Mike’s voice. He sounds like he’s just run a marathon, which maybe he has, but still Will feels uneasy. Track practise, he has to remind himself, he’s probably just at track practise.

“Uh, hi?” he returns cautiously. Some part of him is nervous. In fact, all parts of him are nervous.

Mike must sense this, because his frantic breathing seems to calm a little, and he says, “don’t worry, I’m fine. Coach just made us run ten miles. He’s a real son of a bitch.”

The conversation feels casual, all too casual, and Will has to remind himself that this is the Mike that hates him. He must be calling for a reason.

Will can’t think of what to say, so he doesn’t. He lets the silence sit for a few seconds, and tries not to tell the boy on the other end of the receiver that he loves him.

Mike clears his throat, and then he’s speaking again, stronger than before. “Anyway, I haven’t got home. I need to get home and- it doesn’t matter. I guess I just,” he trails off, voice quietening on the other end of the line. Will can hear other voices in the background, loud and undisguisable. When Mike’s voice returns, it’s more hushed than before. “I just wanted to say happy birthday, Will. I should’ve said it at school today… I should’ve said it a lot more times before that.”

Will doesn’t ask what he means because he knows. He knows the feeling of watching Mike from a distance as his friends croon a poor rendition of happy birthday, wishing he could be the one clapping him on the back.

He knows. He just doesn’t understand why Mike would know too.

“I should go,” Mike says, then adds, “I don’t know if you’re even still there.”

Will realises he hasn’t spoken since the beginning of the call.

“Well, whatever,” Mike’s laugh sounds bitter and sad. Will knows the sound well. “I guess you have no obligation to listen to me. Not anymore. Not after everything I did.”

Everything he did? Sometimes Will thinks he’s going crazy. He’s the one to blame, not Mike.

“Bye, Will,” he can hear the awkward fumble with the receiver, and is ready for the habitual click.

“Mike?” he hears himself calling. The rustling stops. The sound of gentle breathing fills the line again. “Thank you. For calling.”

“Anytime, Will.”

He’s still clutching the phone when he hears the click.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t stop thinking about the phone call all week.

It’s silly, really. It was just a phone call. One that lasted two minutes, tops. But still. It’s the most he’s heard from Mike since the party. It’s definitely the most he’s heard from him a long time before that.

He can’t stop thinking about the way he seemed to whisper the words into his ear. How gentle is voice was, and how much it speared Will straight in the heart.

The words circle his head for days after. “Anytime” seems like a promise, in a weird sort of way. Will wonders if he should take him up on it. He even picks up the phone a few times, fingers ghosting over the number he knows will put him straight through to the Wheeler’s house. It’s a silly thought though, so each time he puts the phone down again.

The conversation – if Will can even call it that – was strange too. Will spends the next few night laying on his bed, trying to decode the messages that were nestled within. The soft, yet harsh way Mike had confessed “Not after everything I did,” is hard to shake. Will trawls his memories for things Mike could’ve done, but each time his minds circles back to the other boy’s hand on his shoulder, and then his face coated in red.

And really, he knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t stop thinking about him. He got awfully good, back in Sophomore year, of not thinking of Mike Wheeler. It took a lot of hard work and practised but he had mastered the art of pushing that boy from his mind.

But now he’s back, and with a vengeance. With flitting eyes and a tightly drawn mouth that mirrors Will’s own. With head pressed against his locker and secretive phone calls.

Will can’t stop thinking about it. He really should stop thinking about it.

 


 

 

He doesn’t tell anyone about it. When Jonathan gets home that night, bearing pizza and an apologetic smile, he asks Will what he missed.

And while Will had vowed that he was going to be more honest with his brother, he finds himself shrugging as he takes a slice from the box.

He doesn’t know whether it’s the lie or Mike Wheeler’s voice that makes him so dizzy, but he has to suppress a smile for the rest of the night.

He doesn’t tell El either, when she gets in the car the next morning. She smiles at him as she slips a thermostat of coffee into his grip, before reaching forward to skip a track on the mixtape in the stereo. For a moment he wants to tell her, because she’s his best friend and he’s not had one of those in a long time, but he’s pretty sure they’re meant to share secrets with one another.

But then he thinks about Dustin’s arm resting around her shoulder and the way she avoided his eye and he thinks, maybe best friends do keep secrets.

Anyway, he likes having this secret. He is content in the knowledge that any passing glance in the corridor would be between just him and Mike, not a third party. Plus, he’s scared the butterflies in the pit of his stomach will go away if he does tell anyone, and he likes them. They make him feel nauseous, but alive.

So he doesn’t tell anyone about it. He’s used to holding things inside, but this is better than any of his other secrets. This secret doesn’t hurt anyone. Not even himself.

 


 

 

Like everything else in his life, it’s not long before it dissolves like paper in water.

Max is waiting for him after Literature. He’s not used to having the responsibility of someone lingering in the doorway, so he’s slow and clumsy as he slides his folder into his bag. Max doesn’t look mad though. She looks content to lean against the door, eyes flickering at the passing crowds. She never looks in a rush, and Will doesn’t think it’s ever more evident than when she’s waiting.

He apologises, slinging his bag over his shoulder, but she just shrugs. They don’t eat together on a Wednesday – Lucas has student council meetings and El managed to get the secretary position after some kid named Ben transferred. Max uses this as an opportunity to eat lunch with her other friends. Will would too, if he had any. He mostly just eats in the library.

Still, she always waits for him. He doesn’t know why, but he’s not complaining.

Today the corridors are crowded as Freshman weave their way to and from classes. Max walks through the midst of it with a confidence Will admires. She seems to command the school, whilst simultaneously demanding nothing from it.

“Why does he always set us so much work?” she’s complaining, hands wrapping round the straps of her bag in frustration. “I swear he thinks we’re robots.”

“Literature robots?” Will supplies. He can feel his mouth quirking into an involuntary smile. It’s always like that with her.

She parrots a robot, arms and all. “Must. Complete. Three. Sides. On. Frankenstein.” Then she laughs, with confidence, at her own joke. Will can’t help but laugh too.

It makes him think of El. The way she always has to stifle a laugh at every joke Dustin makes. He thought it was just her, at first, but he realised pretty quickly he’s never seen her laugh like that before. It’s untameable, and unashamed.

It makes him think of the way Mike used to make him laugh. No. Abort. Not now.

“What’s going on with El and Dustin?” he asks instead.

Max frowns, her eyes brows practically knitting together. “God knows.” It sounds a little like a joke, but this time, she doesn’t laugh. “I tried to talk to her, you know, girl to girl, but- nothing.”

The thought of Max doing girl talk is hilarious. He doesn’t say anything.

“She’s not the secretive type,” Max pushes on, and now Will can see actual tangible concern. It’s odd, to see it on Max. “I mean she’s quiet but she’s always been an open book.”

“Maybe she just doesn’t want you to murder Dustin and dump his body in the bottom of a lake?”

Some of the concern melts away from her face and she laughs. It’s short, a one syllable snort, but it’s undeniably there. The sound makes Will practically radiate. “It’s what any best friend would do.”

They round the corner, Max still grinning and Will still feeling something he can’t quite place in the centre of his chest.

They see it straight away. In some ways, it’s like a stage show. The way it’s laid out it would be easy to believe that they are trying to gather an audience.

The girl’s back is pressed against the row of lockers, leg cocked slightly, skirt barely covering her knee. It’s a little hard to identify her, but Will does. He could recognise Jennifer Hayes anywhere. In middle school, the boys used to fawn over her all the time, but Will could hardly see the appeal. He guesses it’s still there, judging by the way the boy is forcing his tongue down his throat.

The boy in question is at least a foot taller than Jennifer, but somehow he doesn’t loom over her. Instead he’s bent to her height, arms entangled, lips pressed together.

For how much Will thinks about him, he’s surprised he doesn’t recognise him straight away. It’s the letterman jacket that tips him off. The way the name ‘Wheeler’ spills across the back.

The butterflies are gone, and instead all Will can do is stare. He wants to stop watching, he really does, but his brain won’t let him. he supposes he deserves this torture. This is what you get, it’s saying, this is what you get for letting yourself be happy again.

He struggles but manages to catch his breath. Max is making a snarky comment, some biting remark about how El “dodged a bullet there. God, teenage boys are so disgusting.”

Will can’t hear her. He’s drowning. He’s really drowning. Mike’s hand ghosts over her face. God, he wishes that were his cheek, his locker, his lips. God, god, god.

They’re pulled apart in the end by some disgruntled and underpaid teacher. The entire hallway erupts into applause, and Jennifer is laughing. Mike is not, red and burying his face in his hands. His fingers are splayed, leaving a little space for his eyes.

Through the gaps between his fingers he locks eyes with Will. He looks unsure of himself, panicked, and so not like Mike. Will wants to pull him into his arms, away from Jennifer and the cheering and the stifling school corridor.

But Mike’s lips are still raw from making out with a girl and Will’s heart is still broken from falling like a fool, so instead he slips through the crowd and out, out, out.

He realises he still has class. That he left Max in that corridor with no explanation. That he was an idiot for ever thinking Mike Wheeler could like boys, and if he did he’d like him.

That can all wait, he reasons as he curls up in the cars passenger seat and just lets himself cry.

Chapter Text

He’s barely cracked an eye open the next day before the image is back in his head.

Mike, face flushed, lips wet. Mike, leaning down to press against someone’s body. Mike, Mike, Mike.

He groans and rolls over, pushing his face further into his pillow, like he will black out if he applies enough pressure. He feels achy, but in the wrong places. It’s his head that hurts, in the sockets of his eyes and the sharp intake of air through parted lips. It hurts to think. It especially hurts to think about Mike.

He hikes the cover over his face and chides himself for being so stupid. There’s a reason you and Mike aren’t friends, he tells himself. The reason has a few different names. His father’s favourite was always “fag.”

Maybe he can get back to sleep and forget for a little while longer. He’s barely slept two hours, really, with the piles of homework he had to plough through last night. When he finally did crawl into bed all he could think about was Mike, and Dustin and El, and the college broachers hidden under the sink. His mind feels busy again now, frantic and unstoppable.

But it’s only Thursday and no matter how much he wants to regain the hours of lost sleep, he can’t leave El waiting on her porch, or his mom anxiously gnawing on her lip at the breakfast table. That’s progress, he tells himself. A year ago he wouldn’t have been persuaded by anything. Now he’s all grown up.

He tries not to think of Mike as he gets dressed and shoves the scrawled pages of American History into his backpack. Tries not to think of Mike as he shovels cereal into his mouth, alone at the breakfast table. Tries not to think of Mike as he stares at the phone.

Why Jennifer Hayes? The question won’t leave him alone.

The answer is obvious; “Because she’s a girl.”

Jonathan is in the kitchen, pouring hot water into a thermos when Will heads for the door. He barely registers him as he starts for the door, only looking up when Will starts his usual parting spiel.

“Will,” his voice is soft, but he looks startled, coffee trailing down the side of the cup and pooling on the counter. “Check-up?”

Will just stares back at him blankly, readjusting the bag on his shoulder. His mind is reeling (Mike, Mike, Mike) and he can’t think straight. “What?”

Jonathan sets the kettle down, brows knitting together. “You have a check-up today. I’m driving you.”

“But you have work?” Will finds himself saying. He’s going to be later picking El up. She’s going to be mad if he’s late.

“No, I took it off. It’s been in the calendar for month,” Jonathan explains, slowly, like he used to do when Will was having one of his episodes. It’s helpful. It’s condescending.

He pulls at his sleeves; a habit he hasn’t resorted to for a while. He still can’t think straight. All he can think of is El, stood alone on her porch and Mike, with his arms around Jennifer fucking Hayes.

"I'll miss school?" It's not really a question, more of a statement, but he sounds so confused, even in his own ears.

Jonathan laughs. "Mom already called in. El is picking up your work for you."

“You okay buddy?” Jonathan’s voice is grounding, and Will forces himself to answer. He swallows the lump in his throat and nods, still gripping at his sleeves, pulling them to cover his knuckles.

“Yeah, just tired,” he explains, as though his body isn’t a live wire flitting around several different thoughts.

It’s been like this since he stopped taking his meds.

No, he can’t think that.

His brothers face is still laced with worry, but it dissipates a little when Will swipes his thermos and starts for the car.

 


 

 

He never used to forget an appointment here. He couldn’t. the very appearance of one in the family calendar used to make his throat close up for weeks on end. In the beginning, he refused to go. He would do anything to get those hands off his skin, to get away from the whitewashed walls and the clinical coldness of the staff.

Once, when he got home, he had scrubbed at his skin so hard he had bled all over the bathroom tiles. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get the stink of the place off him.

People talk, he had realised quickly. An out of town psych unit is good fuel for their fire. Good for their fists and their gossip.

Now, it doesn’t feel so bad. He sits on the brown plastic chairs and swings his legs, glancing up and down the small confines of the room. It’s not particularly exciting, similar to most doctors’ offices he’s been in with its desk and uncomfortable seats. The people of Hawkins would be disappointed to hear that.

The doctor is a thin woman, hair tightly pulled back, nose crooked. She’s different than last time. They’re always different than last time. Maybe that’s why they cost so much.

She asks him about school. Generic questions, but for once Will doesn’t lie. He mentions his friends, but leaves out Mike and Jennifer and that phone call. It’s his secret. She doesn’t seem to approve of his answer, tapping her pen against the desk, but Will tries not to care about it.

She asks him how he feels. Probes, prods. He shrugs off her questions, like he always does. If his mom was here, she’d tightly squeeze his hand and shake her head. She’d protest and tell the truth, desperate for someone to fix him. But she’s not here, and Jonathan has stayed outside, so he says he’s fine.

She weighs him. Frowns at the scales. It makes him wince, when her eyes travel down his torso and over his ribs. She says nothing.

She thrusts a prescription at him as he leaves. He smiles as he pockets it, and lies through his teeth about getting it filled out.

 


  

Jonathan is waiting outside. He’s wedged himself into a row of metal seats made to resemble a seating area, and he waves when he sees Will. He pulls himself out, hands thrust into his pockets, and together they walk to the car. It’s quiet, and peaceful and exactly what Will needs because his mind is still racing (Mike, Mike, El, Scales, Mike).

“Earth to Will?” Jonathan is teasing, as they pull down one of the quieter side streets near the hospital. Will doesn’t recount getting there. He doesn’t recount getting most places at the moment.

“What?” He’s saying, because his mouth hasn’t caught up with his brain yet. “Oh, yeah, sorry. I’m alive.”

Jonathan laughs at that. It sounds brittle. “What did they say?”

He shrugs. He can’t remember the whole appointment, just fragments. ‘Have you been sleeping?’ and ‘Have you had any reactions to the medication?’ and ‘Why did he call you if he’s dating Jennifer Hayes?’

Wait, that’s not right.

“Did you get a repeat prescription?” Jonathan is asking, and his voice sounds a little sharp, like he knows something Will doesn’t.

He just shrugs again. Swallows hard. Searches for his lie. “She said I don’t need it anymore.”

“Don’t need what?”

“The medication.” He feels static, on fire and unable to stop his brain from moving. He hates lying, he’s always hated. Once he cried for days after he took the blame when Lucas broke a lamp.

Jonathan says nothing. He focuses on the road, on the steady flow of traffic, sucking a breath through his mouth.

They drive in silence. Will focuses on the curve of the dashboard. Jonathan grips the steering wheel.

“Is that why you threw your meds away?”

The question draws all the air out of Will’s body. He doesn’t like lying, but he’s gotten good at it. Being caught slaps him in the face.

“How do you know about that?” he feels himself constricting inwards. He’s handling this. No one needs to know.

Jonathan keeps his eyes fixed forward, but they flicker slightly to the right with each word. “Who do you think takes out the bins?”

It’s so obvious, yet Will feels so ridiculously foolish. He had thought he had everyone convinced. Turns out secrets aren’t as easy to hide as they used to be in the Byers household.

He doesn’t answer Jonathans question. Instead he returns warily, “does mom know?”

His brother shakes his head a little. “Not yet. But she will soon. You’re a bad liar, and worse at doing your own chores.” It should be funny, but Will can feel his chest constricting and he’s going to suffocate in this fucking car on his way back from a stupid check-up he doesn’t even need.

“Hey,” Jonathan sounds so far away. “It’s okay. I won’t tell her.”

Good, Will wants to say. Instead he just nods, and presses the palms of his hands against his eyes.

“So long as you start taking your meds again.”

An ultimatum. Will wants to shake his head, demand that he doesn’t need them, not anymore. But he feels shaky again, and he can’t stop thinking about how disappointed mom will look if she finds the empty orange container buried at the bottom of the bin, or how Mike will start looking at him like the freaky fag he is-

He takes a sharp breath. “I don’t need them. I’m fine now.”

“I can feel your leg shaking. It feels like it’s going to vibrate through the roof of the car,” Jonathan says, his words quickly followed by a shallow sigh. “It’s not weak to admit you still need to take your meds, Will. Not after all the shit you’ve been through.”

He scoffs at that. Jonathan fixes him with a look that makes him reconsider.

“I know you want everything to be magically fixed but that’s not how it works.”

“How would you know?” Will counters. Jonathan lapses into silence. Then;

“I’ve watched you go through a lot of shit, Will.” His voice is quiet and measured. “And I know that’s not the same as actually going through it, but it’s made me realise a lot of things. The most important being that you’re stronger than anyone will ever fucking realise.”

Will swallows hard. “Strong people don’t fall apart like I do?”

“Says who?” Jonathan actually looks at him then, for a split second, before his eyes are back on the road. “There’s not a template for what a strong person should look like, Will. Us Byers? We’re all strong.”

His voice leaves no room for argument, so Will doesn’t argue.

Instead, he says in the strongest voice he can manage, “Okay, okay. I’ll take my meds.”

It’ll be worth it, he reasons, just to stop thinking about Mike.

Chapter Text

He makes himself as small as he can. The plastic chairs are uncomfortable, they don’t bend to his body quite right, but still he presses himself into a ball. Knees against chest, feet tucked underneath. It should feel safe but instead he feels like he’s suffocating. There’s nowhere for the air to go when he’s like this.

His knuckles sting. He presses them against his eyes, hard, until his vision dances with multi-coloured spots. It doesn’t make the images go away, nor does it make his knuckles stop hurting. He pulls them away and inspects them; a shining red. They’ll fade to blues and purples soon enough. The reminder will be there for a while.

The weight next to him shifts. He keeps his eyes trained on his knuckles, then on his feet, which he lowers until they’re just scraping the ground.

“Why the hell would you do that?” Lucas hisses from his right. Will doesn’t answer.

There’s a hitched sob that falls on him like a crushing weight. If he looks left, he’ll see Mike, curled into a ball on the seat furthest from him. He doesn’t look to his left.

He lightly taps his head against the wall behind him. It’s a different chair, a different hallway. A different principal’s office, but it feels overwhelming the same to middle school.

He’s never been here before; he notes as he peers at the row of faculty photos that line the walls. His eyes gloss over them, focusing instead on the clock. Time is moving sluggishly. 3:04. His mom should be here by now.

He shifts in his seat. They’re just as uncomfortable as any waiting room; hospital, shrink, police station. His feet are planted firmly on the floor, but as he shifts they squeak. El looks up from her book – a wrecked copy of Jane Eyre – and smiles warmly at him.

“You don’t have to wait with me,” he mumbles, clasping his hands in his lap.

El shrugs. “Joyce offered me a free meal and unlimited reruns of Happy Days.” She flips a page in her book, eyes refocusing on the words as Will sighs restlessly. The Chief is working late, and while El could’ve easily scored a lift from Dustin or Max, instead she chose to wait with him. She keeps saying it’s so she can have a girl night with his mom. Will thinks it’s to stop him running away.

 


 

 

His mom is late by another seven minutes. She’s flustered when she arrives, panting and red in the face, but she still smiles at El and pulls Will into the most bone crushing hug he’s ever felt. He tries to tell her they’re already late, but she just bats him off.

“What can a few more seconds hurt?” she cups his face and while he would love to protest, her smile is so reassuring that for a minute he feels his nerves dissipating.

They’re back the minute he’s sat in the principal’s office. The whole room has an intimidating aura to it. It’s immaculate, to start. The entire back wall is oak panelled and the window opens up into the school yard. It looks too shiny to belong in Hawkins, where all the broken things go. The chairs are padded and finished off with a gleaming brown leather. They’re still uncomfortable, though.

The principle shuts the door, sealing El out. He’d insisted she could come in, that he really didn’t mind if she heard, but she’d opted to stay curled up with her book, heading resting on her school bag in the seat next to her. The last thing he sees is her wipe her eyes and turn the page before the doors cast the room into a dark gloominess.

No one says anything at first. The principle commands authority here, it’s his territory, so Will waits, staring at his hands that sit intertwined on his lap. The principle doesn’t say anything either, just silently surveys the paper work in front of him.

His mom is bubbling, practically overflowing from the seat next to him. She radiates a nervous energy that seeps out through every inch of her small frame.

She breaks the silence first. “Why was I called in today?” she asks, although she knows. She’s known for a week, ever since Will brought that letter home. She just wants to hear someone else say it.

The principle sighs, pinching at his forehead. Will doesn’t envy him; having to tell an erratic mother her son is failing high school, has failed high school.

“Mrs Byers-” he starts, already sounding exhausted.

“Joyce, please.”

“I believe my secretary sent home a letter fully detailing the situation to you,” he finishes, voice hollow, eyes focusing on anything, anything, but Will.

“Oh, no, I did receive your letter,” she’s bubbling now, uncontainable, a live wire, standing up from her seat, “Which I thought was interesting because this school has not contacted me once the entire time my son has been here. Not once.”

“Mrs Byers-”

“Joyce.”

“I understand your concerns, but it seems William has flown under our radar for most of his time in this institution.” The principle leans back. Will admires him in that moment; his flippancy. He craves to be that carefree about his own life.

His mom crosses her arms tightly across her chest, fingers flexing like they’re itching for a cigarette. “flown under your radar? He’s been ill, for months at a time! How does no one notice that?”

“Here’s the situation-”

“No, I’ll tell you the situation. My son has been sick and none of you noticed, and now he’s not even going to graduate high school and walk with his friends because of it? It’s bullshit!”

He feels transparent, like a ghost everyone talks about but never acknowledges. A cold spot in the corner of the room. He got used to being talked about, by people in the hallways, by his mom and Jonathan, openly and unashamedly. It still makes his skin crawl.

So he tunes out. Fixes his eyes on the frame of the window and watches the way water droplets work their way into the woodwork. He thinks of nothing. He doesn’t think of Mike – it’s been easier since he started taking his meds again – and he certainly doesn’t think of flunking his senior year.

No, he's not thinking about Mike, or how his arm is almost constantly draped around Jennifer's shoulder or how he won't even talk to Lucas anymore. "He's being weird," is what Lucas had said, like there was anything weird with a track kid having his throat down a girl's throat.

He doesn't think about the completed NYU submission hidden under his bed either, or how utterly pointless it seems now.

The principles voice is distant. A foggy “son?” repeated a couple of times. Will blinks. Refocuses his eyes. The principle is closer than he was before, pressed against the desk, eyes on Will.

“Son? What do you think?”

His mind feels full, his mouth like cotton wool. He clears his throat, swivelling to his mom. She’s slumped back in her chair now, mouth pressed together, but considerably less flushed.

“Mom?” he asks, because what else can he ask? He feels like a child again, confused and lost in the maze at Halloween.

She treats him as such. Reaches forward and clasps his hands between hers, rubbing her fingers against his knuckles. “you’re still passing some of your classes. You’d only need a few extra credits and me and Bob figured-” she casts a smile towards the principle and shit, when did that happen? First Dustin and El and now this? Will really needs to start paying attention to other people.

“We figured you could pick up some extra classes,” the principle – bob? – intervenes. “We have some catch up classes, and if you went for an hour a night, you’d be able to graduate in May.”

Will’s throat feels thick with bile. All this time, he’s just been coasting through everything. Ever since middle school, he’s been nothing but a body in those classes, in this school. He’s been happy enough knowing he’s waking up every day without actually thinking about graduating.

It had hit him like a truck when he got that letter, how much he wanted to be out of this place. NYU is still calling him, no matter how much he tries to ignore it. It’s what makes his heart pound, his veins throb with blood.

He sees himself in the robe and cap, squashed into uncomfortable chairs between Lucas and Max. The last movie trips with Dustin. Him and El, enveloped on the hood of his car. Prom night, arms intertwined around-

He finds himself nodding. His blood coarses with how much he wants it. He wants his happy ending.

 


 

 

He had thought El would ride home with his mom. They’ve been talking the entire way to the parking lot, El tucked under her arm, whispering something Will can’t hear. They both keep laughing. It feels a little like they’re conspiring.

Still, when they reach the cars, El tugs open his door and slides into the passenger seat. Her feet are immediately up on the dashboard as he starts the car.

“You should really put your seatbelt on,” he instructs her, pulling out behind his mom.

She quirks an eyebrow. “Why? Planning on getting rid of me? It’s gonna take a lot more than a little car crash.” She leans forward and fiddles with the stereo. It’s been playing up for a while, but the sound of Billy Joel starts playing when she lightly taps the side.

“How did it go?” she asks, arms wrapping across her stomach, tapping along to the music on a phantom piano.

Will shrugs. Then retracts that answer with a sigh. “I’m taking after school classes to get my credits up.” He taps on the steering wheel. Waits.

El leans forward. “So… you’re gonna graduate with us?”

“If all goes to plan, yeah.” He feels shaky. Exhilarated.

And then El squeals. Actually squeals. “If you weren’t driving right now, I’d give you the biggest hug ever.”

He believes her. Let’s out a shaky laugh and then an actual, full-bodied, strong laugh. El’s fingers fly to the window, cranking it down and throwing her head out into the cold, spring air. “My best friend is graduating! He’s graduating!”

“Not yet,” he laughs, rolling his eyes and letting go of the wheel with one hand to tug her back inside. She falls into the seat triumphantly, red in the face.

“I’m just so excited to get to walk with you,” she says, with a certain sincerity.

“You wouldn’t’ve been alone,” he reasons, turning back to the road, “you’d have had Lucas and Max… and Dustin.”

She doesn’t rise to the bait. Just shrugs and says, “it wouldn’t have been the same without you,” before turning up the music, to wash away any sentimentality.

They drive the rest of the way in comfortable silence, Leonard Cohen crooning softly.

Chapter Text

His eyes are on the clock.

They should be on the book in front of him, open to a chapter on the civil war, but they’re not. Instead they’re focusing on the clock, just three inches away from the chalkboard, and the tiny hands inside that seemed to have stopped moving.

He should be grateful for these after school classes. Without them he wouldn’t be graduating in May. He’d be stuck in Hawkins High for another year, and maybe another after that. Without these classes, he wouldn’t have mailed off his NYU application. He wouldn’t be anxiously waiting for the results.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re boring. He finds his eyes shifting to the back of a classmate’s head. Someone he recognises, but doesn’t know. Someone from French, maybe? He looks just as bored as Will, head tipped back, fingers drumming along to an imaginary beat in his head.

Will refocuses on the chapter in front of him. it’s pretty rudimentary history, just copying out and answering a few questions. Part of him wishes the classes were harder. It’s only been a week and already he feels his mind wandering to unsavoury subjects when there’s nothing else to focus on.

He sighs and rubs at his eyes. The drumming boy strains to look at him, smirking slightly. It’s friendly, not in any way mocking, and it catches Will off-guard. He can’t remember the last time a school acquaintance smiled at him. Probably middle school.

But then again, didn’t everything change for him in middle school?

The boy turns back around and Will forces himself to copy out the chapter in front of him in neat print. He feels like he’s in detention, writing lines for a crime he didn’t commit.

“Why did you make me take the blame?” he’s been crying, and his voice is thick with it.

“I honestly didn’t think they’d believe you,” Mike’s eyes are wide, and sincere. He looks guilty, mouth downturned and eyes not meeting Will’s.

“They’re gonna call my mom!” he can feel the anger and fear vibrate through his tiny frame.

Mike slings an arm over his shoulder, “They won’t, Will. I promise.”

He believes Mike. He always believes Mike.

He feels a hand clap his shoulder. The guy from the desk in front hovers above him now, smiling easily, bag slung over his shoulder. Everything about him suggests ease, from the way his hair hangs in front of his face, to his ruffled appearance. “Class is over.”

He’s the last one out. The corridors are empty when Will finally emerges, bag slung messily over his shoulder, shoes squeaking on the shiny laminate floor. The boy who had shook him from his daydream is long gone, and now it’s just him and the school halls.

He dawdles a little, fingers tracing along the display boards. There’s no rush, really. The halls are empty but the janitors are in till late. His mom and Jonathan won’t be home for a while and he finished all his work at lunchtime. El had helped him with his calculus. She’s a genius with that sort of stuff.

He’d been tempted to talk to her, about how he can’t stop thinking about Mike. How he’s bypassed his meds now and is there, all the time. How it makes him feel a nervous excitement in the pit of his stomach. How he never wants it to go away.

But every time he tries to say something, he feels his words die on his lips. His heart wants to keep the secret, and Will is glad to oblige.

He turns a corner. It’s the home stretch to the exit, but he finds himself stopping mid-step. At first, he’s not sure whether his mind is playing tricks on him, but the boy in front of him looks solid and real and really pissed off.

He’s not wearing his Letterman jacket. It’s laying by his side, hung over his bag. The sleeves to his jumper are rolled up to his elbows, which are currently thrust into a bucket of water. He hauls his arm out, water trickling across the floor, and presses a wet sponge to the metal of his locker, scrubbing persistently.

Will takes a hesitant step forward. His hair obscures his eyes, but he would know that look anywhere. It was the one he used to see when they would ruin a campaign in DnD, or that time Lucas ‘pushed’ him out of the oak tree.

As he gets closer, Will realises Mike is cursing softly under his breath. He thrusts the sponge back into the water and tries again, scrubbing furiously. He looks nothing like the image of him in Will’s mind. In person he looks less solid. Thinner, face paler and eyes more sunken. Will wants to reach out and touch his face to check it’s not hollow. He resists that desire.

He hears a voice in his ears. Belatedly, he realises it’s his own.

“Are you okay?”

Mike practically jumps out of his skin. The sponge tightens in his grip and the floor is treated to a soapy bubble bath. He curses again, louder this time, eyes fixed on Will.

He tries not to wither under the strength of that glare. Instead, he takes a step forward, darting down to retrieve the sponge. “Sorry, shit, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you-”

He extends the sponge to Mike at arm’s length. Even so, they haven’t been this close since the party. Will feels like he’s getting high off the other boy’s presents.

Mike smiles slightly, and takes the sponge. His arm falls to his side, no longer scrubbing insistently. “Didn’t think anyone else would still be here,” he explains, gesturing to the emptiness around them.

“I have extra classes… after school,” he explains, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder.

“Oh, yeah… Lucas mentioned something about that. He said you were applying to NYU?” Mike looks genuinely interested and Will’s heart nearly bursts out of his chest. Mike, talking about him. Mike, thinking about him.

He doesn’t know how to answer, so instead he pushes himself forward to the bucket and sponges. “Do you want some help?”

Mike surveys him with a look of wary curiosity. Then he shrugs, dipping his own sponge into the water. “Be my guest.”

Will picks up a spare sponge and presses it to the cold metal. He can make out the faint ghost of a word scrawled across the surface.

“Dickwad?” he questions Mike, surprising a laugh. It’s odd, how easily they fall together. How natural Will feels by his side.

Mike nods solemnly. “That’s me.”

“what did you do?”

I thought you would have heard.”

“Nope,” he shakes his head. He’s good at dodging school gossip. You have to be, when you’re so often the subject of it.

“It’s a gift from Jennifer,” he sighs, swiping the sponge up, then down, again and again.

“She broke up with you?” That catches Will off-guard. they’ve been going steady for at least two weeks now. They seemed happy enough, sharing lunch under the bleachers. Will’s even seen her wearing his letterman jacket around school. It was so sickly sweet and it made him want to throw up.

“No, I broke up with her. This,” he gestures to the ruins of his locker, “is her payback.”

“What did you do?” Call it morbid curiosity, but in that moment, Will has to know.

Mike groans, rubbing his free hand across his face. “Nothing, I swear. Girls are just like that sometimes.”

“Like what? Crazy?” Will retorts incredulously.

Mike is quick to defend, shaking his head. “No, no. Just… emotional. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that with a girl.”

“Been with many?” Will quips. Mike swats at him with the sponge, but he dodges effortlessly.

“Fuck off, Byers.”

“How come it’s you? Cleaning it up?”

Mike shrugs. Lapses into silence. Then; “I just thought it was about time I started cleaning up after my own mistakes.”

The silence they fall into is comfortable, and Will allows himself to forget about middle school, or the party or the phone call or the way Mike’s brow furrows in concentration as he scrubs at the words scrawled across the metal. Instead he thinks about how it should’ve always been like this. The two of them slot together perfectly, like two halves.

They’re hauling the buckets of water outside when Will breaks the peace.

“You two seemed good together.” It’s a lousy attempt at conversation, but he has to try. Max will berate him later if he doesn’t at least attempt to find out the gossip.

Mike snorts, using his knee to butt open the door. “Really? Were you watching us?”

Will opens his mouth to protest, but Mike cuts in. “I’m joking. Yeah, I guess we were good together. My friends liked her, my mum loved her…”

“And what about you?”

Mike blinks, “what?”

“Did you like her?”

It’s a simple question, but it catches the other boy off –guard. He thinks, tips his head towards the wind, then shrugs. “Dustin used to have a major crush on her in middle school, remember?”

Will nods.

“She was never really my type,” Mike continues. “If I remember right she wasn’t yours, either.” His eyes fix on Will, hot with a certain type of intensity he can’t quite place.

Will looks away. Swallows. They’re outside now, and the cold is bracing. He hugs his coat tighter to his chest and allows his eyes to wander back to Mike.

He could say something, he realises. He could smooth over the cracks and start again.

“I’m sorry,” he blurts out. “For the party. And… for everything before then. I’m sorry.”

Mike doesn’t look at him. instead he focuses on emptying the buckets down the drain, watching the water swirl and disappear. When he does look up at Will he’s frowning.

“It’s not your fault, Will.” He sounds solemn when he says it, eyes clouded with something. “None of it was your fault. Sure, I’ve spent a long time trying to understand why you did it, but I never blamed you.”

“Why not?”

Mike places the bucket down gently. “Because I know you. You wouldn’t just do shit like that.”

Will watches the ground instead. He doesn’t know how to respond. He always knew Mike was the bigger person, but it’s so much more evident when said out loud.

“I punched you in the face,” he can hear someone that doesn’t sound like himself whispering. “I made you bleed.”

Mike laughs. It doesn’t sound bitter, just a little lost and confused. “Yeah. It hurt like a bitch. Not as much as you refusing to talk to me though.”

When Will doesn’t respond, he feels Mike clap him on the back. “Look, I gotta go. You gonna be alright getting home?”

He says it like it’s nothing. Like Mike didn’t just take years of hurt and fix it. Like his eyes aren’t burning into Will’s skin and his mouth isn’t an inch away.

Will nods distantly. He feels far away, somewhere underwater.

Mike forgives him.

No.

Mike never blamed him.

Mike blames himself?

 


 

 

Will nearly cries with relief as he drives home.

Instead he cries with some other emotions. He feels like he’s grieving, but he’s not sure what for. For Mike, maybe. For that poor boy with a broken nose and no explanation. Or he’s crying for himself. For the years he spent curled up in his bed, afraid of the world.

He cries for El, too. For the way she drifts off sometimes in the middle of conversations. For the way she can’t talk about her mom without crying.

He cries for his mom and Jonathan and Mike and how much his heart feels like bursting with the love he has for them all.

He cries for the way he craves to holds Mike’s hand in that empty corridor. For the way he wants to fill the gap left behind by Jennifer Hayes. To be the one to make the thin, pale boy feel.

He’s not crying when he gets home. He feels lighter.

Chapter Text

His heart beat has changed.

It’s been different since kindergarten, slightly off. If he were a hypochondriac, had say it’s an arrhythmia. That maybe he was born malfunctioning and that’s why he’s so different to everyone else. They all smile so easily, like they can breathe without this odd thumping inside their chest.

He presses his head against the window sill. Tries to ground himself in the swimming sheets and darkness of his bedroom.

He knows what it is. Knows why his heart makes him feel dizzy. It’s beating to the rhythm of one word. One name.

Mike.

Mike.

Mike.

It’s nauseating. He tips his head forward and scrubs at with his fingers. Presses his eyes shut and then opens them. They struggle to re-adjust to the gloom of the room. The door sits open slightly on its hinges, allowing a thin column of light to grace the room. There’s homework in his bag. Dirty dishes sat on the draining board. He can’t work up the courage to deal with any of it.

Instead he sifts through his memories of Mike. tries to work out the exact moment he became so all-consuming.

His eight birthday, Will decides. The cake was chocolate, with a dark blue icing, decorated with planets and constellations. Mike had scooped some off with his palm and wiped it across the bridge of Will’s nose. Mrs Wheeler told the two of them off, but neither cared.

Later they had hidden away in the attic, away from the other children. Mike didn’t even like them, he said. He didn’t even want them here. He just wanted Will.

He groans and pulls himself off his bed. He knows the drill; knows if he curls in on himself, in his bed on a Tuesday night he’ll never be able to unfold again. It’s happened before. He doesn’t want it to happen again.

He’s halfway to looking for a distraction, when he instead finds himself in front of the phone. He doesn’t know what he’s searching for here? Someone else to tear his mind away from Mike? Mike himself, to explain why everything had to end the way it did?

No, he knows why. He hit him until his face caved in. He made him bleed. It’s all his fault.

Is it?

His fingers move automatically, dialling a number he knows by heart. He presses the receiver and for a minute all he hears is his own breath now, heavy in his own ears.

There’s the dialling tone. A soft click. Then a voice he knows all too well.

“Hopper residence, El speaking,” she sounds cheerful but mechanical, and for some reason Will almost sobs into the receiver. He doesn’t know why he even called. Just knew he had to talk to someone before memories tore at his own skin.

“Hello?” she asks again, voice wary, and it makes Will laugh because he realises he hasn’t said anything.

“Hi, sorry, it’s me. Will.” He stumbles over his words awkwardly but it’s okay because El is smiling. He can hear it through the phone when she speaks.

“Will, hey! Thought I was in the start of horror movie then. You okay?” She sounds a little concerned and maybe that’s fair enough. They used to call all the time, but they’ve fallen out of it recently. The pressures of senior year, he presumes. The appearance of Dustin. Mike. Mike. Mike.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” his mouth functions of autopilot, his brain taking a little while longer to catch up. He stops himself before he distracts from why he called. He has to talk about this – about him – because he can’t stop thinking about all of it.

Plus, El cares. With her wide eyes and thoughtful nods and the way she presses him against her shoulder in easy, uncomfortable hugs.

She loves him, he thinks. Without any reservations. The thought makes him dizzy.

“I talked to Mike,” he says, voice blunt in a way he has mastered.

There’s a moment of silence. He can hear El breathing. She’s thinking, he knows that. Trying not to say something wrong and misstep. He winds the chord of the phone through his fingers, peering round into the living room. His mom is sat at the table, sifting through letters. Jonathan is just getting in, hanging his coat over a chair and unwinding his scarf. He bends down to peer over mom’s shoulder, eyes shifting across the pile of letters.

Will looks away. El finally sucks in a breath and asks the question. “About?”

Will shrugs like a reflex, before pressing his shoulder to the wall. “Everything, I guess.”

“Everything?” she probes. He can hear the phone shifting in her hand.

He knows what she means. Did you tell him you love him? Did you tell him your heart beats to the sound of his name? Did you tell him living without him is like someone standing on your chest without sign of relenting?

Neither of them say it, but they both know.

“No,” Will murmurs into the receiver. “No, I just… apologised for the party. And for the… blood.”

“How did he take it?”

Will breathes out. “He was weird. He said…” he closes his eyes. His heart thumps in his chest.

(Mike, Mike, Mike.)

“He said it wasn’t my fault.”

El laughs, short and staccato. Will wants to laugh with her but he can’t. His throat is stuck.

“Why is that weird?” she says, like she’s solving a riddle everyone else seems to think is impossible.

The answer is on the tip of Will’s tongue – “because it is my fault” – but he pushes it down. El would just disagree with him, and he doesn’t have the energy to argue back today. Not when everything is moving at a hundred miles an hour and all he can see is Mike, scrubbing at that word on his locker.

Instead, he thinks about Mike’s gentle eyes and the way they seem warped. He hasn’t looked into them for so long, and when he did properly for the first time today, everything had shifted. Mike isn’t invisible. He’s fractured.

Will tells her as such. “He seemed so sad, El.”

“You should talk to him,” she says decisively.

He groans, runs a hand over his face. “I just told you, I talked to him today after class.”

“No, actually talk to him. Listen to what he has to say.” She persists.

“He won’t want to talk to me.”

“He talked to you today, didn’t he?”

“Only because it was just the two of us. Things aren’t the same with other people around.”

“Bullshit,” he hears the chief shouting in the background. Hears El shout back an amused apology. “Look, Will, if you don’t talk to him, I’ll do it for you.”

“Oh yeah?” he can feel himself smirking involuntarily. “Maybe I’ll talk to Dustin for you then.”

El laughs. It’s warm and rushes straight to his gut. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“When are you two gonna give up already? It’s getting old.”

“I will when you do.” she says it teasingly, but it makes Will’s gut tense all the same. He can’t just ‘give up’. Can’t have the boy in his mind and heart. Even if Mike was like him, even if something had malfunctioned in his heart back when they were eight, he still can’t have him. That’s not how it goes.

Jonathan emerges from the kitchen just as Will is searching for a response. His face is pulled into a tight frown. “Dinners ready,” he says in the voice he reserves only for Will. Normally it would annoy him, but now he’s looking for an escape, so he’s grateful.

“I gotta go, El,” he says as Jonathan disappears back around the corner.

“We’re talking about this tomorrow, okay?” El says, voice laced with motherly concern.

Will rolls his eyes. “About you and Dustin?”

“Stop deflecting,” she scolds fondly. There’s a lapse of silence where no one speaks, and as soon as Will launches into a rambling goodbye, El cuts him off. “We’ll sort this out. You’re stronger than you think.”

The line goes dead. Will just hopes she’s right.

Chapter Text

The next morning, El squeezes into the passenger seat with a plate full of pancakes. When Will raises an eyebrow she simply sets them down on the dashboard and fastens herself in.

“Dad made them this morning,” she explains, tearing a chunk out with her fingers and offering it to Will. “Thought they might cheer you up.”

He takes a piece and shoves it into his mouth without thinking twice. It sits uncomfortably on his tongue for a second before he swallows, throat closing up at the abject idea of food. Still, it’s nice, buttery and slightly warm, and for once he doesn’t feel sick.

“Who said I needed cheering up?” he starts the car in reverse, stomach reaching out for more pancake but he resists. They still have to get to school. Then, he tells himself, he can eat.

El pulls a face. Her legs are pressed to her stomach, hand trailing out the open window, and Will’s heart clenches at the familiarity. “Okay, not cheering up,” she waves her hand dismissively, but she’s still smiling at him, a gentle smile that is reserved for car journeys such as these. “Just think of it is as a ‘high school sucks and I’m so proud of you for deciding to spend more time there’ sort of thing.”

“I didn’t really have a choice,” he returns but he’s smiling too. “It was take extra classes or stay for another year.”

“Any word from NYU?”

Will hums along to the radio, avoiding answering her. He’s still waiting for the brown envelope in the post, the definitive answer to the question ‘am I good enough?’ that won’t leave him alone. Max got hers. Lucas too, obviously. He doesn’t even know if Dustin has applied. El is still waiting. And Mike…

“No,” he answers, fingers clenching just a little harder on the steering wheel.

“Same,” she sighs, tilting her head back. “We’re twins.”

“Rejection twins,” Will mutters under his breath. El laughs, a full-gut laugh that shakes her whole body. Will feels the familiar heart clench again, and presses his foot down on the acceleration.

 


 

“Okay, so… Vampire or Werewolf.”

“Neither.”

“You have to pick one!”

“Well, I pick neither.”

“You’re no fun, you know that?”

“It’s just a stupid game.”

Will rests his forehead against the table in the cafeteria and focuses very hard on drowning out the noise around him. It’s only lunch and yet his bones ache with tiredness and he just wants to sleep forever. He wishes it were possible. Curses to senior year.

It’s just the boys at lunch for once – El is studying for Spanish in the library and when Will asks Max what she’s doing for lunch she stubbornly reminds him that she has other friends. She likes to do that, though Will has yet to meet them.

The table feels emptier without the other two. Lucas has spread out across two seats, feet up on the chair, sandwich practically disembowelled across the table. He’s eaten the ham, but left the bread. Dustin seems to be occupying more space too. He looks a little lost without El by his side. Will still isn’t sure what the two of them are, but it must be something because every time he brings it up, El changes the conversation. Dustin is scribbling notes into the margins of his copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, an activity that would look like study to an outsider. Will knows better than to think it’s anything that simple.

He's picking at his own lunch, eyes dancing around the cafeteria. He never expected to feel so comfortable here. There are some jocks in the corner, tipping water over each other and screaming. It doesn’t bother him at all.

He can’t see Mike.

“Will, dude,” Lucas is waving in front of his face, leaning across the table. “Earth to Will?”

“Huh?” Will replies eloquently. Lucas laughs and leans back into his seat.

“After school classes are really taking it out of you, huh?” Dustin looks up, scratching at his nose. His smile is warm and reassuring.

Will just shrugs. The classes are fine. Even the work is fine. It’s Mike that’s taking it out of him. The boy is all-consuming.

“How are they, anyways?” Lucas looks genuinely curious as he tears at a slice of bread. Will tries not to wrinkle his nose at the sight. Food is still unappetising to him at the best of time. He thinks back to the pancakes, and how he and El had eaten the rest of them in the car that morning, watching the crowds of school kids flood the carpark. God, he misses those pancakes.

He goes to shrug again but stops himself. “They’re alright, I guess. They’re long? And sometimes they set us work that is stupid easy but…” His voice trails into nothing. He’s still not good at talking, never will be really. Too much social interaction missed. Too much time spent in solitary silence.

Lucas and Dustin just listens. They’re good at that, for people so loud and confident. The latter boy nudges him playfully when he stops talking. “Just close your eyes and think about NYU, Will the Wise.”

“Please stop calling me that,” he tries to sound stern but his mouth quirks into a smile.

Lucas shakes his head. “Oh god, he’s never gonna stop now.”

“Why would I stop?” he retorts. “It’s a wicked nickname. I wish I had a nickname like that.”

“You vetoed all my ideas.”

“Your ideas sucked.”

Will likes them, he really does. But the crucial thing about being friends with them is learning how to switch out. If El and Max were here he’d share an eye roll with them. Instead, he presses his face into his folded arms and squeezes his eyes shut.

He could fall asleep, if it weren’t for the putrid smell of the cafeteria. Or the noise.

Or the way the seat next to him shifts with new weight.

He lifts his head up slightly and is greeted with the side profile of Mike Wheeler. He’s leaning forward in his seat, tilted towards Lucas, eyes focused in concentration.

Part of Will wants to push his face back into his arms and ignore his presence.

The other part of Will – the part that strains with the very thought of Mike – forces his head up, up and into the throw of the conversation.

It’s a quiet conversation. Something about student government that Will doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand. Mike is resting on his elbows, which are splayed on the table, letterman jacket creasing under the weight and fold. Lucas is laughing slightly, eyes crinkling, but Mike isn’t. Mike is concentrated, and serious.

Up close, he looks tired, eyes shadowed with blotches of black, lips quirking but shaking ever so slightly with the effort. Will wants to reach out and rub out all the tiredness. He resists.

Mike is raised slightly in his seat and keeps shifting. He doesn’t look comfortable here, which is odd. Through everything he never stopped being friends with Lucas. Will isn’t sure about Dustin, who seems to be pointedly refusing to look up from his book, but Mike and Lucas have always been thick as thieves.

But still, Mike looks uneasy, uneasily rising and rearranging his weight. His eyes flicker back to the centre of the cafeteria and oh- he’s looking at the table opposite them, filled with seniors Will recognises as the film club, where his bag is sprawled across the only empty seat. Will’s heart shouldn’t clench, but it does. What was he expecting? For Mike to come and sit with them?

Kindness has made him unrealistic. He was never this foolish when he didn’t have friends.

“Do you know where she is?” Lucas is asking when Will finally forces himself to pay attention.

Mike shakes his head, looking genuinely apologetic. “No, sorry. Just that she was looking for you.”

Lucas uses the palms of his hands to push himself out of his seat with a resigned sigh. “Guess I better try and find her. The burden of being student president.”

“What’s going on?” Will asks, eyes searching Lucas, who is throwing his lunch back into his bag. Mike startles, looking to Will as though he’s just realised he was there. Will does not look back, keep his eyes focused on Lucas instead.

“El said there was some sort of riot in the library. Some Sophomores getting riled up about banned books or something.”

At the mention of El, Dustin perks up, book already half-closed on his fingers. “Why are you dealing with it?”

“Because I’m student president, dipshit.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Dustin quips, making Will laugh slightly, under his breath. He can feel Mike’s eyes trained on the side of his face, watching him inscrutably, but he doesn’t react.

“Maybe I should come with you?” Dustin is saying, already slinging his backpack over his shoulder. “You know, for protection.”

Lucas snorts, but is already starting for the library, Dustin trailing behind him. They’re bickering as they leave, Will can tell by the way Lucas is gesturing with both arms, and he is intrigued by whatever news of El’s has pulled them both to the library. He would follow, if he weren’t bound to his seat by a certain Mike Wheeler.

“Uh, hey, Will,” Mike’s voice is soft, and he’s shifted in his chair so that while he’s sat next to Will he’s also looking directly at him.

“Why aren’t you with your track friends?” he spits, immediately regretting the velocity of his words. What right does he have to be angry? Something about Mike makes his brain short circuit. The last time they were this close, the last time he was this angry-

Mike cringes – probably with some sort of feigned embarrassment – and blurts out, “They’re practising. Big meet tonight. I should probably be out there too, but I look like shit and coach would pull me if he saw me like this.”

“You do look like shit,” Will says. He doesn’t mean it.

Mike laughs, so quietly that Will nearly doesn’t hear it. But it’s there unmistakably, in the way his eyes shift. “I knew I could always trust you to be honest with me, Will.”

Will wants to ask ‘what the fuck does that mean?’ but then Mike is changing the subject, hands clutching at the algebra book sat discarded in front of Will.

“You’ve got Ms Terry this year,” he says decisively, flicking through a few pages and scanning them.

Will shrugs. Forces words out of his throat. “Yeah.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

Mike clears his throat, eyes shifting as though watching his surroundings. Will recognises the trick from middle school, where they couldn’t get through one lunch without merciless teasing. It’s not like that anymore. No one teases Mike. people admire him.

Still, he scans the cafeteria, then leans forward in his seat. “I could help you study, you know. If you needed some help or anything. I only got a B last year, but-”

“Max is helping me,” he says, because it’s true. Still, he regrets it when he sees the way Mike’s face falls for just a second. “Sorry,” he adds, tone casual but stomach knotting. Shit, shit, shit. He always causes more damage. Why is he like this?

Mike waves him off, “don’t worry about it. The offer still stands, though, if you get sick of Max.”

“The door to Mr Wheelers office is always open?” Will replies with a smirk and Mike laughs, full bellied, rocking back in his chair with the effort of it all. Being with Mike is easy, it always has been easy. He just doesn’t deserve that.

“Couldn’t have you flunking algebra,” Mike returns and there’s a certain sincerity to his voice that makes Will advert his eyes. He wants to ask, wants to ask why Mike looks so tired all the time, why he dated Jennifer if he didn’t even like her, why he’s sat here with Will despite his seat at a table a few meters away.

He doesn’t though, because there’s someone else filling the vacant seat opposite Will, chair creaking slightly under the sudden shift of weight. Mike pulls back – when did he even lean in? – and presses his lips into a thin line, nodding to the person opposite.

“Hey Max,” he greets with a forced friendliness that makes Will frown. Aren’t they friends? His memories are hazy sometimes, but he distinctly remembers them together at Lucas’ party. Remembers her look in Literature, back in middle school, when Mike told her what he did.

“Wheeler,” she returns coolly, eyes glossing over him and onto Will. “Where did Lucas and Dustin go?”

Will shrugs, focusing instead on the algebra book Mike had been flicking through, now sitting discarded in front of the other boy. “Some sort of… Library riot?”

Max doesn’t answer, eyes still searching Will but he definitely doesn’t look up. His face is too flushed, his mouth dry, like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t.

Next to him, Mike is pulling himself up from the chair and folding himself out to full height. He clears his throat loud enough that Will looks up, catching the other boy’s eyes. They’re filled with a certain intensity that’s almost terrifying, and would be if it weren’t for the way his lips were quirked into a small smile, that focuses solely of Will. He fights down a tidal wave of longing, the way his heart is trying to pulse out of his body, and instead shifts his eyes away.

“Uh, bye Will,” he mumbles, body already moving back and away, away from Will. He doesn’t watch him go, too busy patching back up the tenderness around his heart where it has burst through the skin.

He meets Max’s eye instead. She quirks a brow, but says nothing, so Will speaks instead. “I thought you were having lunch with your friends?”

“You looked like you needed help,” she shrugs, eyes straining past him and presumably landing on Mike, who Will assumes has slumped down into the vacant seat. He’s probably leant against someone’s shoulder. He’s probably laughing at some joke, eye’s crinkling. He’s probably happy there, not awkward and stilted.

He doesn’t realise Max’s attention has shifted back on to him until she starts speaking. “You know you can tell him to get lost, right?”

Will nods, because he does know. One word – one fist – and Mike will leave him alone again. It’s easy enough to destroy the fragile bridges he’s rebuilt.

But something in his heart is stopping him. He’s better on his own, better without the yearning that fills his soul to just close the gap and brush the stray hair from Mike’s eyes, smooth over the cracks in his porcelain skin. Yet something, in the epicentre of his heart, beats to the rhythm of Mike.

He wishes he were strong enough to stop it.

Instead, he just nods, and murmurs, “yeah, I know.”

Chapter Text

For once in his life, Will is in a hurry. He has a place to be.

That place is home, in bed, with a mug of warm milk. His head is throbbing like someone has pounded it in with a mallet and he’s been stifling yawns all through the after school workshop. All he wants is to crawl into bed, in a dark room, and go to sleep.

He’s the first out of the door, backpack slung recklessly over one shoulder. Instead of his usual, sluggish walk he finds himself half-skipping to his car, surpassing any expectations ever held for him by his middle school gym teacher. He used to run behind them as they circled the field, hurling encouragement so close to insult that Will had been sure that he had some sort of vendetta against the two of them. Mike had just laughed it off, which made Will laugh too. He had gotten a stitch in his side.

He hasn’t thought of Mike since lunch, but now he’s back in full force, occupying every space in his mind. Maybe it’s because of the track meet that he had mentioned earlier. Will finds himself glancing towards the track the minute he’s out the school doors, but finds it vacant.

Instead he tugs at his car door and throws his stuff into the passenger seat. Normally he’d sit for a while, half-heartedly skipping the radio till he finds the track he wants. Or picking at his lunch in the privacy of his car.

Today though, the headache overtakes his need for good music, and he finds himself jamming the keys into the ignition while the door is still slightly open.

The car wheezes and splutters, failing to come to life. Will frowns. It’s old, the car, but faithful too. It never gives up without a fight. He traces a hand along the dashboard and tries again, waiting for the familiar hum of the engine. It never comes.

Again. Nothing. It seemingly chokes on its own fumes and goes quiet again. Will finds himself with tears in his eyes but doesn’t know whether it’s from the searing headache or the shame. The car never broke down on Jonathan. And if it had, he’d know how to fix it. He’s good with things like that. Knows how cars tick, how they run. Will knows nothing. For the first time in months, he longs a little for his bike, and wishes it was stowed in the boot for safekeeping.

He’s mournfully deliberating whether to walk home or find a payphone to call for help. Who would he call? Not his mom, who’s still at work, or Jonathan, who’s lacking the means to collect him. Dustin, maybe? Lucas would help, of course he would, but his schedule keeps him so busy, and he doesn’t owe Will anything anyways-

He swings his legs out the car and pulls himself up on autopilot. Instantly he collides with a sturdy something and stumbles a few steps, back pressing against the frame of the car. The something reaches out and grasps at his arms, steadying him in place.

Will blinks a little, astonished. He never thought to check for a person loitering outside his car. The idea seems laughable.

The something – someone – lets their hands drop and awkwardly shuffles back. The way their positioned, Will finds himself face to chest, but he can distinctly make out the curve of the school crest and the thin torso of his mysterious… stalker? Saviour?

“God, I’m sorry,” Mike is saying, hand batting at his hair which keeps falling in his eyes. He’s still wearing his track uniform, sports bag slung across his front like a badge of pride. His skin has a certain sheen to it, like sweat or sunlight.

“I thought you saw me,” he’s laughing a little, under his breath, and the sound only makes Will’s headache worse. “I was waving like crazy.”

“I was…” Will starts, but find excuses empty. Sure, he spent so many years avoiding Mike. He’s spent quite a lot of time watching him recently though. And yet he still isn’t looking when it’s most important. “Lost in thought,” he settles on, trying for a smile that probably looks as strenuous as it feels.

Mike just nods in response, eyes already leaving Will’s and flitting behind him instead. Will follows him, trying to regain his attention, but instead finds himself looking at the carcass of his car. Mike moves out, slowly, like approaching a wounded animal, and smooths his hand along the bonnet. “Car trouble?”

Will nods, even though Mike’s not looking at him. He clears his throat, “it just wouldn’t start.”

Mike looks almost sorrowful, eyes glazing over the dented sides and front. On anyone else, it would look ridiculous, but somehow, on Mike it looks beautiful.

“Probably just tired, the old thing,” Mike is murmuring, fingers tracing the wing mirror now, delicate and careful. He rounds on Will with a sudden intent, making him take a small step backwards. “Boy or a girl?”

“Sorry?” Will can hear the humour on his voice, but Mike’s face is anything but humorous. He watches Will with a careful consideration, head tilted, lips slightly parted. His fingers play with the strap of his sports bag.

“The car,” he says, like it’s simple. “Is it a boy or a girl.”

Will finds himself laughing, full laughing, which makes Mike smile with a baffled expression. It’s so cute, and the minute Will sees it, the air disperses from his lungs.

“It’s a car…” he says simply. Mike doesn’t move, focused in, frowning like Will is the odd one.

Will heaves a sigh and rests a hand against the car door, which still sits ajar. “I guess I never really thought about it. It’s Jonathan’s really. I’m just a temporary custodian.”

Mike drops his gaze. Will searches for it, the way he always does. Sometimes he wonders what he would do to capture Mike’s attention. The truth of the answers scares him.

“Since when were you such a big car person?” he says instead, which makes Mike huff out a half-laugh.

He shrugs non-committedly. “Guess I’m not really. I never cared for all that engineering stuff, that was all Dustin…”

He stops, eyes shifting, focusing now on the headlights, which are cracked slightly. He crouches down to inspect them.

“These things are alive, you know? They listen to us. They carry us. They put up with our music taste and our shitty friends and us crying in the early morning. The least we can do is give a shit about them.”

As he stops speaking, he glances up to Will for conformation. There’s something in his eyes, something shining but unspoken, and its intensity holds Will, if just for a second.

Mike pulls himself back up to full height. Straightens himself. Shrugs again and grins, “Looks like a girl to me.”

Will thinks that settles it, but Mike isn’t moving, just hovering by Will, who is hovering by the open car door. He’s already itching to climb back into the safety of the car, despite knowing it won’t start, just so he can hyperventilate in peace.

Instead, Mike claps his hands together, already starting back a few paces. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift.”

Will opens his mouth to protest but Mike is already cutting him off, raising a hand to silence him. “It wasn’t a question, Will.”

“What about my car?”

“Call a mechanic. What else are you gonna do, drag it home?”

He’s still walking backwards, and as much as Will wants to resist, his headache is still persistent enough to drive him forward, and after Mike Wheeler.

 


 

“How was the meet?”

The atmosphere in Mike’s car is amicable, windows rolled down, tinny pop drawling from the speakers. They’ve only be driving for a few minutes and already Mike is leant back comfortably in his seat, head reclined, tapping gently at the wheel. He looks in his element, surrounded by crumpled cans of Coke and Payday wrappers, scattered across the dashboard. The car is just as well-loved as Will’s (Jonathan’s) but in a different way. It gleams a little more in places, but the seat is worn threadbare from use and there are blankets – actual blankets – coating the backseat. Will had wanted to crawl in when he saw them.

Instead he sits awkwardly in the passenger seat, bag tucked in at his feet. He’s unsure what to do with his hands so they sit in his lap. He finds himself picking at the skin around his fingernails, a habit he had killed in middle school.

The past seems to be back to haunt him, in more ways than one.

Mike scoffs a little at the question, as though there’s some joke Will doesn’t quite understand. He’s a careful driver, eyes fixed on the road, but he does keep glancing at Will occasionally, as though expecting him to disappear. It’s new. It’s reassuring.

“It was… tiring,” he settles on, voice dimishing into nothing. Wil can hear the weariness laced into it. “But good, I guess. I didn’t throw up.”

A small laugh escapes Will. He feels the familiar throes of childhood encircling him. He can’t be quiet around Mike. He’s good at being quiet around everyone else, but he can’t, he can’t around Mike. “Do you usually throw up?” he teases.

Mike raises his eyebrows, head tilting slightly so he can survey both the road and Will. “You’d be surprised.”

Will wants to laugh again but he stifles it. it should feel odd, coiled up in Mike Wheeler’s front seat. He imagines this is what it feels like to Mike’s track friends, or his girlfriends. Did Jennifer tease him in the front seat of his car? Did El?

In a way it does feel odd. But in an even bigger way, it feels comfortable and easy.

Mike shakes him from his thoughts. “Do you want some drugs,” he asks in a low voice, then taking in Will’s mortified look, frowns. “For your head.”

“What?” Will blanches. He feels like his ears are full of water. One minute he felt like he was seven again, arms wrapped around Mike’s waist, clinging to the back of his bike, and now he’s been pitched through the windscreen of life. His stomach lurches a little. Mike. Drugs. He can’t comprehend the two.

Mike must sense his panic because his frown deepens and he slows the car a little. “You’ve got a headache, right?” and oh. Oh.

“How do you know that?” Will asks instead, defensiveness edging into his voice. He mentally curses himself out for running the brief casualness of the two of them, together and alone.

Mike doesn’t seem hurt by the vicious tone and instead just says, “you have this funny sort of pained expression.” He mimics Will’s face perfectly, contorted in mock-pain that makes the corners of Will’s lips curl.

“Maybe that’s how I always look,” he says curtly, folding his arms across his chest so he has something to do with them.

Mike lets go of the steering wheel with one hand to wave him off, “no, normally you just look confused. Your nose is scrunching up right now. You look like a kitten.” He mimics Will again and then laughs. Will tries for a scowl but finds himself grinning too hard to muster any kind of hurt.

He settles on, “fuck off” instead.

He turns to glance the window, but can feel Mike’s eyes trained on the side of his head. “What?” he gives in, with an irritated sigh. Really, he’s just curious about the way Mike is watching him.

“It’s weird. Hearing you swear. It looks odd on you.” Mike says, like it’s that simple. Like the last time they talked wasn’t in middle school, at Will’s locker, just before the worst day of his life.

Mike had always been the talker, anyway. Will was much better at listening.

He locates the pills in the glovebox and swallows them dry, like he’s gotten good at doing. Mike doesn’t even blink, concentrating fully on the road that stretches out in front of them.

 


 

Will doesn’t want to get out when they reach his house.

It looks cold, dark, all lights switched off and driveway empty. normally he would relish being home alone. Tonight, though he craves the warmth of Mike’s heated car and his undivided attention.

Mike doesn’t move either. He’s been picking at the sleeve off his jacket for a few minutes, casting occasional glances out the window, as though checking someone hasn’t snuck up on the two of them.

The radio crackles impatiently. Will breathes in. Opens his mouth to say something. Exhales.

Mike speaks for him instead. He hacks out an uncomfortable cough, then all at once says, “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.”

“You don’t have to,” Will is protesting. He doesn’t want to be Mike’s obligation. He doesn’t know quite what he wants to be to Mike, just that he doesn’t want his pity.

Mike forces himself to smile. It looks like it takes effort, like his face aches with the weight of it. “I know,” he shrugs, focusing his gaze on Will’s. Then, with more forcible joviality, “how else are you gonna get to school?”

Will reels at the insinuation and is tugging open the door to get away from Mike’s coy smile. “Jonathan could take me,” he says as he struggles with his bag. He finally manages to yank it free from the cars floor and wraps his arms securely around it.

“Will,” Mike protests firmly, leaning slightly out his seat so that he can properly see him. “It’s no trouble. Really.”

He wants to protest. Wants to put up a fight, demand he can do it alone, he can do everything alone, he doesn’t need Mike Wheeler anymore.

It’s a lie. Everything he’s tried to do without Mike has ended in flames.

“As long as you don’t mind picking up El too,” he says with a shrug.

He’s so fucked.

Chapter Text

“Uh, thank you, Mrs Byers-”

“Joyce, honey, seriously.”

“Sorry, Mrs- Joyce. Thank you, uh, again.”

Will is used to having strange dreams. Nightmares, most of the time. Twisting spectres and bone-chilling, make-up smeared clown faces that trail into a gush of blood. Just bizarre dreams about El having powers, and Lucas riding a Pegasus, and those falling dreams that make your stomach drop.

Mike, sat at his kitchen table, politely eating a plate of eggs is the weirdest dream of them all.

Will rubs at his eyes, but the image does not fade. Rationally, he knows it’s real. That Mike had insisted on picking him up this morning, his first morning sans car (he told his mom last night about the dodgy engine), but it still doesn’t sit quite right. He thought maybe Mike would forget. Not turn up.

He certainly didn’t expect Mike to knock on the door and take the breakfast offered. He’s too tall for the chair, legs hanging over the side, carefully shovelling the eggs and toast into his mouth. He doesn’t look at all out of place, which Will supposes he isn’t; he’s sat at this table enough over the years, smiling the same way at Will’s mom, eating the same eggs, fielding the same questions.

‘Yes, school is fine. Yes, my parents are well. Yes, it does feel cold today.’

Will’s dressed and ready to go, but somehow he feels exposed and out of place, hovering in the doorway to his own kitchen. No one has seen him yet. He could just sneak back to bed, or maybe climb out of the bathroom window.

“You know,” a soft voice says from behind him. He flinches involuntarily at the sound, bumping his shoulder against Jonathan’s chest. He’s still wearing his pyjama’s, toothbrush dangling from his mouth. “When you told me a friend was picking you up, I really didn’t expect it to be Mike fucking Wheeler.”

Will scoffs, which makes his brother laugh too, a small chuckle escaping his lips. He presses his weight against the doorway and says nothing, just watches as Mike reaches out for the jug of orange juice.

(“These eggs are lovely, M- Joyce.”

“Unfortunately I can’t take credit for them, they’re Jonathan’s speciality.”)

“You’re just jealous he didn’t bring Nancy,” Will retorts, and the small snort of indignation he receives in return makes him grin. Jonathan’s hand seeks his hair, but he ducks, weaving under his older brother’s and instead throwing himself fully into the kitchen.

He can hear the squeak of a chair as Mike shifts his weight to look at him. He’s too big for the chair, for the table, for the Byers house, for Will. He practically spills out, arm thrown over the chairs back as it creaks under the pressure.

His mumbled “hey” is lost as his mom scoops forward, gently smoothing his clothes. “There he is. Thought you were still asleep.” She pats anxiously at his hair, as though her touch will fix the mess it is currently. He wants to tell her to back off, that he’s not six, but that in itself sounds childish. Instead he settles for reaching around her and for the coffee jug. She watches him disapprovingly but says nothing.

Mike doesn’t say anything either. His eyes follow Will, mouth tilted slightly. Will can feel the eyes on his back as he focuses on the window, and on his scalding cup of coffee.

“Did you sleep well?” Mike asks, with a weight that suggests her really wants to know the answer. Will turns around and leans back against the counter.

“I guess,” is there a correct answer to that question, he wonders? Maybe the truth, but that’s too awful to tell – No, Mike, I spent most of the night sat on my window drawing you, again and again. there’s a whole sketch pad of just you, do you want to see?

He doesn’t hear Jonathan enter but he feels his presence as he clears the table and places the dishes in the sink for later. He can hear his mom humming, hunting for something just off in their lounge. He can’t hear Mike.

“Thanks for the eggs,” he’s saying to Jonathan, smiling with a genuine gratitude. He makes a move to stand up, plate in hand, but Will finds himself tearing it from his grasp. Their fingers brush together slightly, and Will feels the heat in the back of his neck. Mike shifts in his seat.

Jonathan’s not saying anything. He’s working on the juice now, slotting it back into the fridge, back turned in a way that means he can’t see either of them.

“They were really nice,” he tries again. still, no answer. For the first time this morning, Mike looks uncomfortable in the chair. He pushes himself up, wringing his hands, eyes skirting, looking for a clock.

Jonathan’s shoulders are set, and when he turns, Will can see the shadow of something in his eyes. He’s still holding the juice, fridge door slightly ajar, as he shrugs and murmurs, “they were meant for Will.”

“I didn’t want them anyway,” Will says too quickly, which is the truth, but decidedly the wrong thing to say. Both Mike and Jonathan are frowning at him, deep, concerned frowns creasing their faces.

“I’m… sorry?” Mike is saying, hurt etched in his face, but it doesn’t matter because Jonathan’s back is already turned, back to the fridge. Mike looks at him helplessly, but Will doesn’t know what to say. Mike’s not used to this; not used to people being so hostile. Will’s not used to Jonathan being like this, and he has a sudden desire to shake his shoulders and ask him why he chose now to be a douche.

But more than anything, he wants out the house, and into the safe – safe? – confines of Mike’s car. “Forget it,” he mutters, and in a moment of bravery, takes hold of Mike’s forearm, leading him out of the house.

“Thank you, Mrs Byers!” Mike manages to shout over his shoulder as Will practically wrestles him out of the house. The door closes before they hear her answer.

 


 

“What’s wrong with your brother?”

They’ve been driving for a while. Mike’s car is nicer than Will’s – more space, cleaner, and with an engine that doesn’t rattle. Mike’s careful with it (“Her, Will. It’s a girl.”) too, gently easing it around corners and over potholes. There are no wrappers in the backseats, no lost school work down the side of the door. The radio is blaring tinny pop that makes Will wish for just one of his cassettes. It’s nice.

It’s uncomfortable.

He’s leaning towards the window, legs pressed against the door. He’s avoiding looking at Mike, who looks so cute when he’s driving. His knee bounces involuntarily and he leans towards the round, carefully deliberating each turn. It shouldn’t captivate Will as much as it does, so he forces himself to look away.

He barely registers the question at first. He can feel Mike’s eyes shifting between him and the road, expectantly waiting for an answer, so he shrugs half-heartedly. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with Jonathan. There were plenty of eggs for everyone. Even if there weren’t, Will would gladly give his eggs to Mike. That’s what friends do, right? Not that either Byer’s sibling would know.

“Your mom hasn’t changed at all,” Mike continues, when he realises Will isn’t going to answer. He’s always been good at that. Filling in the gaps. Covering for Will when he just doesn’t have the energy to be a person. “I missed her calling me honey.”

“We can do a trade if you want,” Will suggest wryly. Mike chuckles. It’s officially the best joke Will’s ever made. “Swap families for a bit.”

“And live with Jonathan? He hates me.”

“He doesn’t hate you,” Will protests, even though it’s probably true. Jonathan hates a lot of people. It’s dad’s fault really. Maybe Will’s too. He doesn’t hate Mike though, he can’t hate Mike, not the little boy who was practically his second brother.

Mike rolls his eyes and presses his hands tighter to the steering wheel, but doesn’t argue.

“I could live with Nancy, I think,” Will muses, which makes Mike snort. He didn’t mean it like that, and tells Mike as such.

“No, no, she’s nice, and- sure, yeah, she’s pretty, but I’m not-”

Into girls? It would be so easy to admit that, in the front seat of Mikes car. Admit that he’s in love with a different Wheeler all together, and burn these bridges before they’re even rebuilt. So easy to just lean forward and kiss him. So easy to let the world know he’s gay.

“- I just think she’d be a good listener,” he finishes pathetically, heart racing because he’s got away with it, heart sinking because he’s a coward.

Mike doesn’t notice. “She’s not even around much, anyway. You’d be putting up with Holly instead.”

“Isn’t she in middle school now?”

“Yep.”

“Okay, pass.”

They’re pulling up next to El’s house now. She’s already waiting outside, bundled in a too-big jacket that Will recognises, legs bare and buckling against the wind. She doesn’t falter at the sight of Mike’s car – Will told her last night, so all teasing was done with. She just grins and waves through hair which mattes in her face.

She heads for the backseat and Will regrets his choice to sit in the front. She shouldn’t be pushed back there, he should. It feels all wrong in the front, with Mike’s head lolling in his direction, his eyes straining to look at the girl he should be with.

El clambers in the back, leaning forward temporarily to press the thermos into Will’s hand.

“Coffee?” he questions as she fumbles with her seatbelt, clicking it securely into place.

“Tea,” she answers, straining forward to retrieve it from him after he takes a sip. He’s never been fond of tea, and this is sweetened to an inch of its life.

“Can I have some?” Mike asks.

Will grimaces and shakes his head, murmuring “you don’t want to” as El says “sure!”

It feels awkward at first. Mike is driving smoothly, and El is sat forward in her seat, arms resting on Will’s legs. The morning car ride is theirs, a free space to discuss whatever, to be whatever, but now there’s someone else in the space, observing.

“Any news?” El asks, and Will tells her no without even asking what about. NYU is the dark shadow that hangs over him, haunting his nightmares, both asleep and awake.

“You?” he returns; to which she just shrugs. He gets it.

“What about you, Wheeler?” she turns her attention to him, hand pressed under her chin almost thoughtfully.

“Don’t call me Wheeler,” he groans, pressing his hand to his head before returning it to the steering wheel. “Only people I don’t like call me Wheeler.”

“That’s what Max’s calls you.”

“Exactly,” Mike says, but he’s grinning, eyes flitting to Will and holding there. He’d forgotten the power of that smile. God damn, that smile.

“Okay, Mike,” she tries again, flopping back against the backseats, legs splayed. “Have you heard from any college’s yet?”

He just shrugs, pressing his head against the headrest with an admirable ease. “Who cares? If they want me, they want me, and if not… well, that’s a separate adventure. College isn’t everything, you know. That’s just what teachers and parents tell us so we work hard. Life is about much more than some score on a piece of paper.”

“Easy for you to say. Bet you’ve already been accepted,” El mutters darkly, to which Mike just laughs.

Will can feel himself grinning, and instead forces himself to look out the window, away from Mike and into the dead air of Hawkins.

A separate adventure. He’d looked pleased when he said that, almost wistful at the prospect of being rejected from college. Mike, who runs track. Mike, who is on the honour roll. Mike, friends with the student president. Yet not caring for any of that. Yearning instead, for a different adventure, for a life away from numbers and ordered lists.

Maybe that’s what Will wants, too. He wants it if Mike wants it. He wants Mike’s hand slotted in his, and the cool air of somewhere on the coast. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

No. He wants to never leave this car, never to arrive at their destination. He wants to keep drinking El’s shitty tea and listening to the bad music, and to talk about life as though it doesn’t matter. He wants his best friend’s hands on his legs, and Mike’s on the steering wheel, and he wants to feel this okay forever.

“This is some crappy music, Mike.”

Yes. He wants this.

 


 

Mike tells him he’ll wait for him after school and give him a lift home. Will tells him no, that’s stupid. He tells him he has extra classes, that he’ll just call Jonathan, or walk. But Mike is stubborn, and clever, and in track so he’ll be there late anyway. They finish at the same time, he says.

Lucas offers him a lift after school, says him and El have a student parliament thing so will be in late anyway, but Will declines. He feels a giddy rush doing it, eyes glancing over to where Mike is sat in the cafeteria. If Lucas notices, he doesn’t say anything.

So Will waits by Mike’s car after class. He’s careful not to lean on the bonnet, not to dent anything, not to make himself a presence in Mike’s life permanently, because there’s no way Mike deserves that.

He’s sweaty, Will notices, as he approaches the car. He’s sheening with sweat, and he looks slightly uncomfortable – annoyed, maybe? Will’s seen the emotion of Max’s face before, and he recognises it from Jonathan’s eyes this morning. He’s lugging his sports kit, eyes overcast in a way Will has never seen in him before. Then again, it’s been a long time since they were this close, and this often.

 


 

“How was practise?” Will asks as they’re driving, almost tentatively. Mike doesn’t answer him.

Chapter Text

There’s mud streaked across his cheeks.

He’s never been a fan of the deep, earthy scent of playing savage, but he’s always been a fan of Mike, and the light way his fingertips had danced across Will’s face as he smeared it there.

“Keep still,” Mike had murmured, eyes downturned in concentration. For some reason, Will can’t. He shifts, legs twitching beneath him, back pressed against the wall of the fort.

“Keep still,” Mike repeats, surging forward, jabbing fingers pinning Will down, swiping furiously at his skin, lines of dirt trailing down like they’ve been rained on. Will sucks in a breath and tries not to move. Mike keeps working, strokes gradually becoming softer until he rocks back on his heels, eyes tracing over Will’s face.

Will feels his skin heating, as his hand cautiously flits up to wipe off the mud. Mike seizes his wrist, holding it back. Even pouting, he holds a command Will can’t ignore, so he stops.

Will reaches for the heat of the shower and turns it up, as though trying to wash the dirt from his skin, or trying to sear the memory from his mind. He hasn’t thought about that day in so long- Mike had been so determined back then, the leader of their games, And Will always willing to follow. He can still smell the ashen, earthy scent of the dirt, can feel Mike’s vice like grip.

The memory is half-remembered, like a dream fast fading. He can’t remember whether he did wipe the dirt off, or if Dustin and Lucas were there too. It’s foggy, a haze-like memory, fading quickly from view.

He finishes showering just as the memory slips fully away from him and leaves him feeling cold, and half-empty.

 


 

Mike is waiting outside. Will can’t see him, but he can see his car, pulled up behind the two cars that now fill their driveway. Will’s is just a husk – the mechanic had told them it was junk, practically unfixable and not worth anything but scrap metal. Still, Jonathan had insisted he could fix it, so now it sits on their drive, unloved and neglected, half-blocking the way.

Will makes a beeline for the kitchen table, stopping only to kiss him mom and offer a cheerful “morning”. She proffers a plate of toast to him, of which he takes two slices; gifts, for his carpool buddies. She’s saying something Will doesn’t register as he stops at the fridge, extracting a carton of juice and last night’s lasagne, tucking them safely into his bag. He’s pretty sure it’s about working late, so he nods and makes affirmation noises until she stands with a sigh, stopping his movements by gripping his face in her hands.

“Stop growing,” she whines, eyes fond, as she rubs his cheeks with her thumbs. “You’re two foot taller than me. Who knew I’d have such tall, grown-up boys?”

Jonathan chuckles at that as he enters the kitchen. He’s dressed for work, but holding a screwdriver, an implement that looks foreign in his hands, despite how many times Will has seen him use it. His appearance makes their mom relent, dropping Will’s face from her vice-like grip and instead straining to wrap her arms around his brother’s neck. She attempts to drag him down to her height as Jonathan bats her away, laughing about how he’s “gonna be late, seriously, I gotta go”.

Will tries to use her moment of distraction to sneak towards the front door, but he’s caught red-handed. She jabs a finger in his direction and he puts his hands up in mock surrender, which makes Jonathan smirk at him.

“Hey, not so fast you. Did you hear what I said?” She asks, reaching forward to straighten out his shirt. It’s an old navy one he can’t remember ever buying, but it fits well, even if it is crumpled beyond saving. Maybe it belonged to Jonathan? He doesn’t know.

He hazards a guess – “You’re gonna be working late?” – which makes her laugh and roll her eyes with an irritated fondness.

“Do you remember when you used to listen to me? Both of you? What times they were?” she laments jokingly, moving past Will to scoop up plates and dispose of them in the sink. It’s odd, the three of them joking again, laughing again- almost like a real family.

“Hey, I listen,” Jonathan protests, swiping a piece of toast from the table and eating it standing up. “She’s going on a date with the chief,” Jonathan informs Will, taking a few stumbling steps backwards when their mom turns on him.

“I am not!” she says at the same time as Will mutters “about time,” causing her to turn accusingly to him instead. Will ducks playfully, but she just reaches out to scrubs his hair. He doesn’t manage to evade her seeking hand, but tries instead to bat her away.

“It’s not a date,” she protests, but it sounds feeble to Will. “Just two friends swapping parenting tips. Jonathan, will you look after Will?”

“I don’t need looking after-”

“And Will,” she adds, hands trailing to his shoulders instead, holding him in place like she did on his first day of high school. “Look after Jonathan.”

He nods an affirmative as their mom ducks into the bathroom, which makes Jonathan shoot a scowl at him. It’s harmless though, lacking any malice. Not like the look Jonathan had given Mike. Mike, who waits outside in the car now to avoid Jonathan. He came in again once, the day after the first time he’d picked Will up. By the time Will had emerged from his room, the air was icy, and Mike seemed to be looking mainly at the floor. Jonathan had been leant against the counter, fingers tapping the surface impatiently.

“There he is,” he had said, tone light but eyes overcast. Mike hadn’t come back in since.

Will has already yanked the door open when Jonathan’s voice stops him.

“I could give you a lift, you know,” he says, so softly Will wonders if he imagined it.

“Huh?” he responds eloquently, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He can feel Mike watching from the car, even if he can’t see him, and so much of him itches to be there next to him, by his side.

“I’m just saying,” Jonathan continues. He looks uncomfortable, picking at the crust of his toast which Will notices is burnt. “You don’t have to put up with Mike Wheeler.”

Will bites his lip to stop himself from blurting out that he wants to put up with Mike Wheeler, forever if he can. Instead he shrugs, “He’s my friend, I don’t just put up with him.”

Jonathan scoffs, taking a step forward and Will has never felt so intimidated by his brother. They’re the same height now, but Jonathan holds an authority Will can’t, never will hold. It’s reminds him a little of their dad, but mostly of Chief Hopper, with his hands on his hips.

“He’s not your friend, Will. Friends don’t treat you that way.”

“He’s not treated me any way,” Will protests, throat thick. It’s true. Mike has been nothing but kind to Will. He’s not the bad guy here. Why can’t Jonathan see that.

“He abandoned you,” Jonathan’s voice is dry now, any trace of humour gone. Will wants his mom to charge out the bathroom and tell him to stop. He wants to be in Mike’s car, away from this bullshit.

But no one is coming to Will’s rescue. He’s not a damsel in distress, not a princess from a fairy tale. He’s not a child hiding behind his mother’s legs, and he’s certainly not Jonathan’s little brother anymore.

So he takes the matter into his own hands.

“Will you get off my back? I’m not a fucking child. Get out of my business,” he hisses, voice oddly steady as he starts down the porch steps and throws himself into the passenger seat of Mike’s car.

“You okay?” Mike asks distantly, leaning towards Will with a careful concern. Will can hear the voice swimming in his ears, feel his own breath in his head, but still he nods.

He’s fine.

He’s never fought with his brother before. Not through all of this. Never.

He’s fine.

“I’m fine.”

 

 


 

He doesn’t talk to Jonathan for the next few days. Nothing more than pleasantries, a simple “pass the milk” or “are you using the bathroom?” If their mom notices, she doesn’t mention it. She’s still high from her not-date-date, a simple Italian that seems to have made her feel more joyful than ever. She hasn’t mentioned another date yet, but Will is certain one will appear in her calendar soon. He’s not sure how he feels about the idea of his mom and the chief. He guesses he should feel happy about the idea of El as a potential step-sister, but mostly he already feels mournful of his tight little family unit which is already unravelling in his fingers.

It’s odd, not talking to Jonathan. He’s used to the two of them being close, functioning intrinsically in a way people don’t even seem to realise. Without his brother, he feels disjointed. He makes himself breakfast. He watches old tapes of horror movies alone. He feels like a half of him is missing.

He’d apologise too, if he had anything to apologise for. But he doesn’t. Jonathan was out of line, attacking Mike as though he’s capable of making mistakes.

He tells El this, as they watch scream for the fifth time in her house, sprawled across the sofa.

“He’s probably just concerned?” she suggests around a mouthful of popcorn. “He’s looking out for you.”

“Well, he could do it without taking it out on me,” Will replies. El snorts, but says nothing.

 


 

He learns a lot about Mike in a short space of time. It’s the proximity, he assumes, or maybe the effect of two friends drifting back together after so long. Will finds himself trying to keep the things straight in his mind, and instead sorts them into a lift which he christens his Mike List. He keeps it in his algebra notebook.

Mike is surprisingly soft. Will doesn’t know what he expected, really. His memories of Mike when he was younger were brash and bossy, the leader of their little party. He remembers Mike screaming at his mom when she disrupted their games, remembers the harshness of his ‘play-fights’ with Lucas, the righteousness of the way he acted because he was always right. He remembers the strong-willed, persistent and principled Mike, remembers the softness being an afterthought, the way his voice turned when Will’s face would droop.

Nothing prepares him for the new, gentle Mike. The one who asks “are you okay?” every morning, eyes fixed on Will before he even thinks about driving. The Mike who gently reaches to the backseat to readjust El’s collar when she buttons it in a rush. The Mike who learns of their coffee tradition and starts bringing an extra thermos for them all to share.

 

Mike doesn’t plan. Will is used to the trial of campaigns, the dedicated way Mike would methodically work through his physics homework, or intrinsically schedule his days. Mike trademarked the phrase “organised fun” when they were nine, so alike to his mother in the way he would organise himself, and, by effect, Will.

The new Mike doesn’t plan. Not for his day, or his future. When Will tries probing him about colleges, and application dates – cautiously, and mostly to soothe his own worrying – all he receives in return in a shrug.

“Who cares?” Mike had said, a secret smile spreading across his face. “Who needs college? I have the whole world, and I’m not planning on wasting it doing what adults suffering mid-life crisis’ want me to do.”

Will admired that, but El had been appalled when she found out. She insisted that he fill out the applications, just in case, which had made Mike roll his eyes and shoot Will a look. Will wishes he was brave enough to follow after Mike. He certainly knows he’s stupid enough.

 

Mike takes medication. A lot of it.

Will always thought he was the proud owner of the most orange cylinder, but Mike’s glove compartment puts him to shame. It’s lined with the small bottles, plastered with names Will can’t pronounce and won’t try to. He can discern some of them from his own medicine cupboard, but others he can’t recognise.

“Most are for track,” Mike explains when he fishes around for nurofen one day. “I get aches. Head, chest, leg, you name it. Teeth, that’s the worst. How do you get toothache from running?”

“The cold?” Will guesses. He doesn’t know. Mike had always been their leading scientist, but now that mantel falls to Dustin.

Mike shrugs, and swallows the pill dry with a composed ease.

There are ones he takes every morning. Thick, weighty pills, blue and red, capsules that make Will feel sick just with a glance.

“Beta blockers,” Mike had explained the first time he emptied two into his hand. Will had just nodded. He hadn’t asked what they were for. He wanted to know what they were for.

 

Mike-

 

“Will the Wise!”

Will’s stood by his locker. He doesn’t like it, doesn’t enjoy the pulsating rhythm of the corridor. Most of the time, he barely even comes here, and he certainly doesn’t like to loiter. At the beginning of the year he was leaving his books in his car, but now he’s a guest in someone else’s vehicle and increased workload means having to use his locker. It’s dreary, grey and undecorated, just a few hallways away from the cafeteria. It’s also two down from Dustin’s locker, which is covered with faded stickers and stuffed full of scrap papers.

“Stop calling me that,” he returns, slipping the notebook inside, closing the locker door and looking at his friend for the first time. He’s not wearing a hat, unlike usual, but his hair is pulled tightly into two small bunches which sit on the top of his hair. He should look ridiculous, but for some reason it suits him. “El?”

Dustin nods in response, hand trailing over the tufts of hair, almost self-conscious for a second. “She’s practising.”

“I’d say she’s pretty good already,” Will comments. Dustin is fiddling with his lock, and finally nudges the locker door open, an avalanche of what looks like blueprints and translation notes falling onto him. He shoves them back in, and instead retrieves a pack of batteries, which he slips into his coat pocket. Will pretends he doesn’t notice.

“Want to hear my next escapade?” Dustin asks Will eagerly, as the other boy presses his shoulder against his locker.

“Sure,” Will shrugs. It’s lunch, and even if it wasn’t, he’d always have time for Dustin. “It’s not studying for finals, is it?”

He casts a look up the corridor, then tilts his head towards Will, and excitedly murmurs, “I’m going to impeach Lucas”

Will’s not sure he’s heard right. He leans back slightly, brows furrowed, focusing on the way Dustin shifts with anticipation. “I’m sorry, what-”

“I’m gonna impeach him.”

“Like Nixon?”

“Yes. No. More successfully. Like Andrew Johnson.”

“I don’t think you can impeach school presidents…” Will tries, but Dustin is already shaking his head and slinging an arm over Will’s shoulder.

“No one’s tried it yet. I’ll be the first to try,” he insists, starting towards the cafeteria and dragging Will along with him.

Will wants to protest, wants to insist that Lucas is their friend and a good president, but the idea of an attempted impeachment sounds too exciting to dismiss, even if the targeted candidate is his friend since elementary school.

“They’ve got to have some sort of constitution to be a governing body,” Dustin is saying, mainly to himself. “I’m sure he’s violated that plenty of times.”

“Why don’t you just ask El?” Will asks, but Dustin shakes his head solemnly.

“She’d never betray her own cabinet,” he says mournfully.

They reach the cafeteria and Will is abandoned in favour of cafeteria pizza. He makes his way to their table alone, marvelling at the fact that no one even tries to stop him, or point out that he’s out of place. He slumps into a seat between El, who buries her face in his neck, and Lucas, who is engaged in a heated debate about something with Max. When he tries to ask El what they’re on about, she just shrugs and slides half her lunch towards him. In return he proffers out a half-stale quiche, which she takes eagerly.

His mom always says that what goes down must go back up again. That thought has never felt so right.

He picks up the sandwich offered by El, takes a bite, and tries not to focus on the vacant seat opposite him.

Halfway Happy.