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Mike collapses back onto the basement sofa, blowing out a breath as the cushions dip from his weight. It makes him feel like he’s sinking, and he splays one hand across his stomach, the other nestled between the back cushions and his side, nails absently scratching against the material.

He watches Dustin with careful eyes, who bustles around the room and throws his hands out, gesturing wildly as he speaks.

“It’s going to be the best party of the year!”

“It’s October,” Will intones flatly. He’s sat on the floor with his back against the sofa, and Mike takes note of the way he could tangle his fingers in Will’s hair if he rotates his wrist with one clean move. He’s not sure why he notices it, but chalks it down to an observation.

He’s being doing that a lot lately.

A smile cracks along the length of his mouth at Will’s unimpressed response, because all Dustin has been able to talk about the whole way back from the arcade is Jennifer Hayes’ party.

Lucas makes a murmur of approval from the other side of the room, and Mike thinks it’s that shared pride that they must feel, because Will has begun biting back instead of keeping quiet all the time. In small ways, or sometimes big bursts, but Will is letting it be known whether he’s content or not, and it’s strengthened by the fact that he’s finally settled into his own skin after these past few years.

It’s just one of the many things Mike’s picked up on since all of the drama with the Mind Flayer.  Taking notice of the little things has given him what feels like his own version of true sight, for the attention to detail makes him hyperaware of the way things can change whether you could see it happening before, or whether it’s only just started.

The way Will feels is long overdue. They’re all sixteen now, with Lucas approaching seventeen in a few months, and they’ve grown into themselves in a way that they never thought possible when they were thirteen and battling their literal demons.

Will is more vocal, yet still softly spoken. He’s not afraid to speak out but only once he builds up the courage, because he’s learned that he can, and that he deserves to feel included. It’s not that they all haven’t changed. They have, and it’s for the better. It’s just that Will has been the most important person in his life since as long as he can remember, and so seeing the clouds part and the sun shine down on him is enough to fill Mike’s thoughts and give him tunnel vision, everything else around him fading to grey.

And that’s usually when Mike tries to shut off his brain. Will fills up his mind like a kaleidoscope, watery images full of colour, and the warmth that floods his face and tingles in his chest has him seizing up enough that he finds himself pulling away on more than one occasion. It gets too hard to be around Will sometimes, as if he’s an open flame that Mike continuously burns himself on, and he has to distract himself quick to stop from tumbling into the abyss, into the depths of why exactly he’s feeling like this.

It’s been happening for a long time now. Long before he broke up with El over a year ago, before the Mind Flayer, even before Will disappeared. Sometimes Mike is convinced that it dates back as far as his memories go, because he can’t remember a time that he didn’t feel like this, like at the end of the day Will is the only thing that matters.

It’s as natural as breathing, but it’s as intense as a forest fire. It’s something Mike knows he can’t avoid forever but he keeps running, legs aching and lungs screaming, and he’s determined to keep going ‘til he collapses. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be ready to face it, not quite, but it’s inevitable.

The way Will Byers makes him feel is terrifying.

The thought of letting him know makes Mike’s head spin.

Mike!

“Huh, what?” he asks, dazed. It takes his brain a second to catch up, soaking in the sight of his three friends all staring at him with varying facial expressions, before he blurts out his next words. “Yeah, sure.”

It’s evident he’s said the wrong thing, because Dustin smiles triumphantly and sends a superior glance towards Lucas, who simply shrugs. Will is still sat on the floor, but he visibly deflates, looking uneasy all of a sudden, and that’s how Mike knows he’s messed up.

The others know, too. Mike’s instinct to make Will happy is known by everyone, but at different volumes, because it’s obvious but nobody hears it quite as loud as Mike does. Nobody sees it with that same depth, or feels the way his skin blisters with goosebumps whenever Will does so much as brush against him.

They know Mike cares, but they don’t understand just how tightly he’s wrapped around Will’s finger. Not even he knows just how deep it runs, but he can hazard a guess. The lengths he’d go to make Will smile are far and wide, and it’s this thought that he always finds himself coming back to. It always clouds his mind, making his head all fuzzy, and then his heart kicks into overdrive because feeling like this about his best friend shouldn’t be like second nature, but it is.

Dustin says something then, but he doesn’t focus. He’s staring at Will’s side profile, the slight part of his lips as if he wants to say something. Mike feels guilt coil in his stomach. It’s been years and the dust might’ve settled, but Will still has internal battles that feel just as tiring as the ones he had when he was possessed.

He still gets anxious a lot, especially when it comes to big social things, and Mike reaches out. He threads his hand into Will’s hair, fingers toying with the strands, a silent apology that speaks louder than any words could. And as soon as he does so, Will seems to relax, features smoothing out and his lips shifting into a small smile, eyes occasionally fluttering shut with every tease of Mike’s fingertips.

“See? C’mon, guys, what’s the harm?”

“I mean, are the girls on board?” Lucas asks.

“They’d never pass up a party,” Dustin says breezily.

And it’s true. El and Max love to laugh and sing and dance more than the boys put together, finding it freeing. They let themselves fall into one another and sing themselves hoarse, their steel bones transforming into stardust matter, and the smiles that paint across their faces during times like those are brighter than any imploding stars found in space.

Will must be thinking the same as Mike, because he cranes his head back to meet his eyes. Mike’s hand gets caught between the sofa and Will’s head, but he still manages to move his thumb in soft strokes, and the pressure solidifies the burning beneath his skin, an itch he can’t scratch.

“That’s true,” Will says quietly, scanning Mike’s face.

He wonders if Will can tell just how much of an effect he has on Mike. They’ve always been able to read one another with ease, but Mike tries his best to cover up how powerless he can become. It’s not like Will would judge him or make fun of him or anything of the sort, but the thought of Will seeing right through him makes him feel ill.

Mike looks in the mirror sometimes and marvels at how transparent he is. His face flares at the mere thought of Will Byers, and the thing that blooms in his chest and spreads in his mind evades a name, a wonder so strong that it seems like it’s the first of its kind.

An electric current that crackles through him like a live wire, seconds away from blowing.

“It’s up to you,” Mike tells Will, low for his ears only. He knows Dustin and Lucas have stopped talking, that they’re listening in, but he doesn’t care. This isn’t for them. “We can do whatever you want.”

“What about what you want?”

“God, this is like when we went for ice cream earlier,” interjects Dustin, playful tone to his voice. “I’ll have whatever he’s having.”

“Shut up, idiot,” Mike retorts weakly, face flushing to the sound of Lucas’ snort, to the movement of Will’s mouth lifting into a small grin.

“We can go,” Will says then.

It looks as if he wants to say more, because his eyebrows twitch the way they do when there’s something else on his mind. Mike knows this, which is why he takes a moment to reassure Will.

“We can go for an hour max, and if you don’t like it, we’ll leave.”

Will perks up. “Yeah?” he asks, as if he’s unsure.

As if Mike hasn’t offered comfort like this to Will a thousand times over.

“Yeah,” Mike says. He watches Will move, turning his waist to look at Mike head on, and his hand falls from Will’s hair to rest against the sofa cushions, fingers outstretched and brushing the planes of his shoulder.

“Okay,” says Will, and Mike smiles as if he’s never heard a sweeter sound.

“Lame,” intones Dustin, but he’s grinning and his words have no bite. If anything, he’s buzzing, practically vibrating where he stands. “Tomorrow night at nine,” he reminds them.

“We’ll be there,” Lucas says. “All of us.”

“I’m telling you, it’s going to be great!”

“It better be after all this,” Will teases, and the four crack matching grins and release barking laughs that bounce off the walls.

And just like that, they’re jumping into a whole new discussion. Lucas and Dustin front it all, bickering back and forth that results in Lucas getting him into a headlock, and Will laughs delightedly as they squabble. His body faces Mike still, knees curled up underneath him, and he’s got his head turned to the side giving Mike a view of his jawline and the slope of his nose, the curl of his eyelashes against his cheeks.

Tomorrow night could be a shitshow and Mike would still think it to be a good time.

Like everything else, it’s because of the boy sprawled out in front of him.

It’s because of Will that Mike is consumed by flame, from soft sparks to towering bonfires, and he knows deep down that this doesn’t happen twice.

This is the one thing that could make or break everything.

 


 

And as it turns out, it might just be break.

The boys get dropped off by Steve, with Robin riding shotgun as they’re going for a drive straight after. The house is huge and vibrating with the thrum of bass and the bodies inside. They’re told to behave and that their curfew is no later than midnight, and that it won’t change no matter how much you whine, Henderson!

El and Max and Will are already waiting for them on the sidewalk, because Hopper dropped them all off with strict warnings against alcohol and fraternizing, as he put it. The guys hitched a ride with Steve as Hopper couldn’t take them all (and let’s be honest, he’d have probably left Mike behind anyway) and because he adores Dustin.

Mike wants to resent the way his heart leaps into his throat when Will waves at him, the twitch in his fingers to yank at the door handle and throw himself out of the car. He wants to, but he doesn’t. Partly because it’s Will, and partly because it’s the most alive he’s felt in a long time. He just wishes he could tame it sometimes, a slow release instead of being instantaneous, but he can barely put a name to it let alone control it.

They all start to tumble out of Steve’s car, freeing themselves from the mass of limbs they’d become in such a tight space, when Robin stops them from leaving by holding up a hand.

“Okay, listen up,” she starts, pinning them all with a warning look that’s accompanied by a twinkle in her eye. “If you’re gonna do the hard stuff, no more than two shots, and definitely no mixing any of them. You want it, you pick one. Vodka is probably your safest bet. You’ve got a half hour window to do them from now, ‘cause that way if you pace yourself for the rest of the night, you’ll still be passable as sober by the time we come and get you. Understand?”

“You’re my hero,” says Dustin softly, mouth open in awe, and the others simply nod to let him know that they’ve listened.

Steve cuts in, narrowing his eyes at Dustin through the wing mirror. “Have fun, stay safe, three drinks of punch max, and I want one of you to give me hourly updates.”

“How are we going to do that?”

Steve scoffs. “You use their home phone and let me know that you’re still alive!”

“Got it, I’ll be sure to phone you and let you know that I wandered off and that I ended up dead in a ditch,” Mike jokes.

A pause.

“That’s it, you’re all going home-”

“No, no, no!”

“We’re fine, we’re good!”

They scramble out of the car before Steve could think of pulling away from the sidewalk, and they merge with the other half of the Party waiting for them, talking excitedly. Their breath curls into the air from the cold and there’s a chill that runs every so often down the length of Mike’s spine that has nothing to do with the temperature, but because every so often Will smiles at him and it gives him goosebumps.

“Have fun, kiddos! Don’t be stupid!”

“Call me! I mean it!”

They wave off the words of Robin and Steve and start heading up the path that travels to the front door, shoulders knocking and a spring in their step, the thrill of their first high school party running through their veins like adrenaline.

All apart from Will, who gets called back for a moment by Steve, and so the rest of the Party trudge up to the door whilst Mike hangs back and waits halfway, feet itching to dart over and join him.

He can’t make out much, because Will is hunched over partially in front of the passenger window, his back blocking the snippets of Steve and Robin’s faces from Mike’s view, but Steve’s hands gesture wildly for a second before Will is pulling away and nodding, a bashful smile low on his face.

“What was that about?” Mike asks once he catches up, and Steve has driven off with a final threat for the group to ring him or so help me you’re all in deep trouble.

Will looks somewhat sheepish, glancing down. “He said that if there’s ever a time I want to go home, I’m meant to ring him so he can come and get me no matter when it is. Robin also warned me about people spiking my drinks, and so I’m not meant to take them from anyone and I’ve always gotta get my own.”

Mike doesn’t think he’s ever felt more grateful in his life. “Then do that,” Mike tells him, nodding. “You’re not ruining the night if you decide you want to head back, okay? And besides, I’ll leave with you, remember?”

“Okay,” echoes Will, and suddenly there’s a smile so bright on his face that Mike believes briefly that the sun is shining high in the sky as opposed to the moon. “I already got a similar talk from Hopper, but it was mainly about no drinking and always having someone with me.”

The light dims, and Will’s face becomes achingly sad in the next breath. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that so many people care. Especially when I always thought I was a bit of a nuisance, but… it’s as if everyone is treating me like glass, and I’m not – I used to be, but I’m not that fragile anymore.”

There’s an ache in Mike’s chest at his words, accompanied by a constant whisper in the corner of his mind, encouragement to tell Will everything he can’t even put into words. To spill years’ worth of emotion and turmoil and adoration, slipping past his mouth as easy as water in his hands.

Except his vocal chords are tightly strung, and his fear overshadows any possibility of letting his thoughts run free. Mike isn’t ready, because he’s too scared of what it all means, and he can’t take it back once it’s out in the open. There are too many repercussions that come with the risk of letting himself have this one moment, of finally understanding what this is.

His fingers itch to lean over, to hold Will’s hand and to never let go. It feels like the only plausible thing to do, like it’s the only thing Mike can let himself have.

And so he does.

Mike curls his fingers into the spaces between Will’s, treasuring the way their hands mould together as though they were meant for one another, the only key to this lock of a bond. His hand is clammy and he hopes Will can’t tell just how nervous he is. It’s something so simple and something they’ve been doing since they were five, but it’s become weighted over the past year or so (or a lifetime) from complex feelings that have only recently stepped into the daylight.

He’s pulled out of his own head when Will’s thumb brushes over Mike’s knuckles, and he’s hyperaware of the way Will taps his index finger against the back of Mike’s hand four times before squeezing his hand once in quick succession, and then taps again.

Mike turns his head, confusion threading his eyebrows together, and so Will stares at him pointedly and does it again. He grazes his thumb over Mike’s skin again, and his mouth quirks as he waits for Mike to understand. And he does, because it’s then that Mike counts the seconds that pass. Four seconds of taps, one squeeze, and then another tap, before Will smiles softly at him, tilting his head in silent question.

It’s morse code.

Actually, it’s their morse code. Sometimes things become too much for Will and he can’t quite vocalise why or whether he needs any help, and so the Party came up with Will using morse code like he did with the Mind Flayer. They went over several key phrases, demonstrated by tapping out the messages on table tops or walls or sometimes with clicks of their fingers, but Mike and Will would do it with their hands linked together.

More often than not, they’d grab for one another in a move that’s second nature, holding on to one another and giving their hands a reassuring squeeze. They used that and incorporated taps to spell out messages for the times that Will’s voice would die in his throat or he’d seize up, or those moments in which Mike would get overwhelmed or nervous and would need bringing back down to Earth.

Four taps, one squeeze, one tap. It spelled out OK, and they hadn’t used it in a couple of weeks, seeing as Will had been doing well lately and Mike had opted to keep his inner turmoil concealed from the group, with only himself to be reassuring.

Will is letting Mike know that he’s okay, that Mike helps him to be, and Mike wants to kiss him.

At that thought, he gets the urge to bolt. Any other time, he probably would’ve, but he’s holding Will’s hand and he’d never be the first to let go, and so he clings on tighter. Except now he’s sweating slightly and they’re ducking inside a house crammed with people and music and laughter, and it should be the time in which he can unwind but instead he feels himself getting wound tighter, like a jack in the box waiting to burst.

“You know, everyone is going to think that one of our moms dropped us off,” muses Will, unaffected but curious, and it breaks through Mike’s impending breakdown the way the early morning light cracks through the curtains.

“Well, they’re not wrong,” says Mike, grinning wide as Will cackles, and then they’re swept up into music and bodies, the thrum of the bass almost rivalling the ferocious beat of Mike’s heart.

He can deal with this, he thinks. Nobody is paying them any mind, wrapped up in the lyrics and the dancing and the alcohol they’re drinking, and it calms him. The sheer amount of people and their movement is enough to excuse Mike’s sweat sheened skin, and the anxiousness that vibrates his bones provides a reason to hold his best friend’s hand should anyone see a problem with it.

Except the problem itself lies in the fact that he holds his best friend’s hand because he always wants to, because he doesn’t want him to be just his best friend anymore. It’s going to be the end of him, he thinks, the constant tug of war that pulls him under every time. He’s torn between feeling secure in what he wants and being so afraid he refuses to let it in, to let it free.

He’s constantly battling between wanting and fearing, and he doesn’t know what’ll ultimately win once the bell for last call rings out.

“I love this song!”

El appears out of nowhere, barrelling into them, and it’s ironic that she comes flying into Mike’s sight when he’s having a crisis, when thinking about the fight inside he’s had for years.

He’s known for a while now that he never loved El in the way he wanted to, like guys and girls are supposed to. He’d explained it to her when he’d sat her down and they’d broken up over a year ago, and he’d apologised and expressed his guilt.  She’d been sad, of course, but she held him and told him it was okay that he was struggling, that he was feeling things that he couldn’t explain. She understood perfectly.

“I feel like that all the time,” she’d confessed. “I spent so long without anybody that I never even knew what it meant to have a friend. And then suddenly I had a group of them, and a family, and a boyfriend, and I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t know which feelings fit where, but I think I want to figure it out.”

Her last words hit him particularly hard, and he’d bitten down on his tongue harsh enough to draw blood. Mike wanted to tell her about Will and the way in which he feels set alight whenever he does so much as think of him, that he has suspicions that his feelings for Will aren’t entirely platonic.

The things he’d known for years but had choked down because he was scared, and that for a while, he didn’t want them to be real. He wanted to be in love with El, and he wanted Will to be his best friend.

Instead of what he wanted, he got shown the reality. It turned out that El was more like his best friend, and Will was the one he was –

A part of him is still too afraid to put the word against Will’s name, even though deep down Mike knows it to ring true. Whenever this happens, whenever Mike wants to curl in on himself and fight the feeling, he’s taken back to a definitive moment.

They’re in the basement and in their Ghostbusters costumes and Will has tears in his eyes, and Mike suggests crazy together like a vow, a promise to end all promises, a word associated so strongly with love that Mike doesn’t know how he’s fought it off for so long.

Except then he thinks of El, and the way he couldn’t even fathom the word love when trying to explain that phrase, the blank makes you crazy. He thinks of that, and thinks of how in a way he’s always known about Will Byers, that he’s felt it for years but is only just letting himself see it.

Mike lets the music finally hit his ears, the vocals of Freddie Mercury ricocheting off of every wall, and he’s transfixed on Will’s beaming face as he lets himself get tugged to the dancefloor by El, glancing back at Mike with a look so soft that it hits Mike like a freight train.

“…she drives me crazy. She gives me hot and cold fever, then she leaves me in a cool, cool sweat…”

He turns on his heel and takes off towards what he hopes is the direction of the kitchen, knowing that the advice Robin had given him is going to be abandoned.

He needs several drinks, and he needs them now.

 


 

At first, he paces himself.

He remembers Robin’s words of warning when he reunites with Dustin and Lucas and Max, who are all relaxed against a countertop, talking and laughing. When he entered, Dustin lit up and pointed to him, quirking an eyebrow in question.

“Pick your poison.”

It’s then he realises they mean shots, because Dustin wants to try it out as it’s part of the whole high school experience or whatever he ranted on about yesterday. Mike himself hadn’t been too bothered before, but he’s got a fever he can’t shake, rooted deep in his bones, and he figures that he can handle a burn of liquor since he’s already an inferno.

It might help, he also considers. He’s probably a lightweight, they all must be, and so the thought of his sight going blurry and the sheer volume of his feelings being lowered from a screech to a low thrum makes his chest loosen a little, and he figures that he’s not going to be alone doing it anyway.

They settle on vodka, and Dustin pours out a couple of shots once he snatches a bottle from a group of students that they vaguely recognise from the year above,  who are consumed in their own little world for the moment that they don’t even notice.

 “Alright,” Dustin cheers, beaming wide. “Here’s to us!”

“Here, here,” they all chirp goofily, before the four of them take their first shots ever, and subsequently grimace.

“I kinda liked it,” Max says through twisted lips.

“I didn’t,” Lucas says next, nose scrunching, but still nods when Dustin goes to pour him another. “Maybe it’s better the second time around.”

It isn’t, they learn, but Mike is used to burning, and so it sinks with ease.

Lucas waggles his tongue as the final tastes of vodka linger on his tastebuds, and then in the next moment, they’re clutching solo cups of the punch that’s been made up for anyone to have, and it’s a concoction that’s both fruity and deathly.

“I’m going to find El,” says Max, giving them a grin before she quite literally disappears into the sea of people, something that sets Lucas on edge and he tries to follow her instantly.

Mike leans against a nearby counter as he surveys the room, Dustin messing with some liquor to his left. Laughter rings out like a melody accompanying the music blaring from the speakers, and it feels calming in contrast to Mike’s fire, a downpour of rain in a relentless drought.

There’s suddenly someone in his face, a boy that looks vaguely familiar, and his face mirrors the buzz starting up in the back of Mike’s head. “Hey, we’re going to play Flip Cup,” he drawls. “Are you in?”

Mike contemplates getting what is undoubtedly going to be blackout drunk, because the group of people the guy gestures to seem to be draping over one another every so often, on the verge of their knees buckling to the floor.

It’s a way to pass the time, too. If he doesn’t, he’s going to gravitate towards the dancefloor as a result of Will’s magnetic force, and he’s going to get sucked up into the whirlwind that he’s been fighting hard to stay out of.

In the end, though, it isn’t his choice.

Dustin leans forward into his space, grinning. “Set it up,” he says, shooting a playful glance towards Mike as the guy hollers and bustles about the moderately busy kitchen, cups scattering across the island.

Mike narrows his eyes. “Do you even know who they are?”

“Not a clue, no,” replies Dustin instantly, shrugging. “It’ll be fine,” he adds, and then cuts Mike a look. “And yes, you are playing.”

“I distinctly remember Steve telling me not to give in to peer pressure.”

“I also remember Robin telling me to have fun. I think that vetoes Harrington just this once.”

At that, Mike caves. It’s better than the dancefloor, and Dustin’s all sunshine and restless energy, and he figures he can spare a while getting drunk instead of having to face Will Byers in all his glory, happy and free.

“One game,” Mike says. “And then we’ll see.”

It’s El who finds them later, three games in and absolutely gone, and it’s then that he realises the earlier decision to pace himself has been completely abandoned.

He’s had tequila and beer and whatever the hell is even in the punch, and his face is flushed and he can’t stop laughing, even though he can’t remember what it is he finds so funny. It’s almost as if he’s been cured of his social awkwardness and nervous tics, because he’s chatting away with people he doesn’t even know and he feels like he’s walking on clouds.

“What the hell happened to you two?”

“Flip Cup happened,” Mike tells her, grinning.

Dustin slings an arm around his shoulders. “And we won.”

El herself has a pink dusting glossing her cheeks, teeth on show, giggling at how stupid they are. “Aren’t you guys going to dance?”

Mike makes a face, and El rolls her eyes. She takes his wrist in her hand and tugs, gesturing for him to follow her.

“C’mon, it’s fun! Lucas and Max are there, too, and Will is having a great time!”

The emphasis on her words make Mike suspicious of her motives, as if she can tell that throwing Will into the equation would make Mike putty in her hands. And she wouldn’t be wrong, ‘cause the mere mention of Will has a burning blossoming in his chest again, right down to his fingertips, and he realises with a start that this is the longest he’s been without Will when they’re in the same space, and he hates it.

He misses him.

Mike thinks he shouldn’t miss him this much, though.

“Okay, okay,” he caves, the liquid courage splurging him on to brace the crowds and fall back into Will all over again. “Dustin, come on!”

El starts moving, already weaving her way through the clumps of people, and she pulls Mike with her who latches onto Dustin. They’re moving as one, a snake slithering through grass, and people seem to part out of the way like the red sea. It’s not so noticeable, not at first. Not until the third person stumbles dramatically and lets out a yelp of confusion, and they realise that El didn’t reach out to touch them once.

She turns casually, swiping at her nose, and the boys dissolve into laughter.

The world keeps spinning around them, long after they’ve stopped giggling, and its then he notices that Dustin slipped out of his grasp at some point. They’re in the main hall right now, inches away from the makeshift dancefloor that takes up the entire living room, and he cranes his neck to scan for him.

“You see him?”

“Phone,” El nods with her head.

Mike turns and sees Dustin leaning against the nearby wall with the home phone, one hand waving them off whilst he grips the phone in frustration with the other.

“Yes, we’re fine.” A pause. “No, we’re not doing drugs, dad!

El and Mike share a look, snorting at the thought of Steve Harrington babbling down the phone, before El catches Dustin’s attention and gestures behind her, getting a nod in response.

“Come on, he’ll catch up.”

The music is loud regardless of where you are in the house, but it’s most deafening in the front room. It’s the heart of the house and the soul of the party, with barely enough breathing room as people moved all around the space.

Mike tried to understand how there were so many people here anyway, because it was held by a girl in their year, but he figured the power of gossip and free alcohol brought along some extra students from other years, and so the number of bodies weren’t surprising at all.

They find the rest of the Party in a clump, dancing together and heads thrown back in euphoria. Max’s hair is like wildfire all around her, as loose and as free as she appears, twirling to the beat that blares through the room. Lucas is sat on a nearby sofa, grinning into his cup, eyes never leaving her once.

And then there’s Will.

Will, who is wearing his best look of happiness, bright and piercing through the late October night. His smile looks as if it’s permanent, a constant throughout his life as opposed to the rarity it’d been for a while before, and it fits him like the missing piece of a puzzle. The sight is pure, and Mike stills as he drinks him in, heart fluttering and chest seizing and heat pooling in his gut.

Will, who cackles loudly as he’s twirls, and it’s then Mike notices that someone is spinning him.

That’s the moment Mike feels the lava turn to ice.

The fight drains out of him in a whoosh of air, as easy as El’s hand slipping out of his as she squeals in delight, launching herself over to wind her arms around Max from behind, cheeks pressing together. It’s that feeling from earlier, the more he stares, that make or break atmosphere that was worn like a noose.

Only instead of loosening, it’s tightened, and Mike feels like he’s choking as Will spins in the arms of a guy Mike has never seen before. Or maybe he has. Everything is a haze of blurs and hues, but like every other day in his life, Mike only has eyes for Will Byers.

Who only has eyes for somebody else.

 


 

It irritates Mike as the night goes on, building in his chest with purpose, an itch that remains no matter how much he claws.

Once he’d regained control of his limbs, he’d cut through the remaining people separating him from his friends, going as far as to loop around to avoid being spotted by Will.

Not that it’d matter in that moment. Will is caught up in his own world with the guy he’s dancing with, and it’s an echo of the way Mike and Will would be sucked into their own heads as they grew up, with nothing but each other for miles.

It stings terribly, leaving a bitter taste in Mike’s mouth as he settles next to Lucas on the sofa, body sinking into the cushions the same way his heart sinks in his chest.

“Hey, man!” Lucas chirps. His eyes are glazed and his smile is genuine, and he tugs Mike into his side affectionately without a care in the world. “Where have you been? We missed you.”

It makes Mike smile, except it feels unnatural. His lips are elastic that’s been stretched too tight. He loves his friends but he can’t tear his eyes away from the dancefloor, from the sight that threatens to tear him in two.

Maybe he’s being dramatic. Maybe he isn’t. Maybe Mike doesn’t care how he’s coming across, because Will is his better half and seeing him fit seamlessly with someone else is just wrong. And he’s selfish, and bitter, and Will is smiling unapologetically wide in what feels like months, and all Mike can do is sit and stare and stew in the combination of excessive alcohol and growing distain.

The guy Will is wrapped up in looks vaguely familiar, probably seen around school for the briefest of moments. He’s got sandy hair that’s short on the sides and curls long on top, falling over his forehead, and his eyes are light and his lips are bright from where they’re constantly strained into a smile. His skin is pale and his face is defined by a strong jawline that’s exposed whenever he throws his head back and laughs throatily (which is a lot) and his shoulders are broad and he’s taking up all of Will’s time as if he’s been there for years, not seconds.

Mike sits for several minutes with narrowed eyes and a curled lip. He goes from trying to choke the guy out using the Force to trying to harness some of El’s powers, going as far as to tilt his head from time to time to try and throw him out of Will’s bubble.

It doesn’t work.

And so he finds himself drowning his sorrows more and more as time passes, glaring over the rim of his cup of punch (and he doesn’t even know when he went and got another, and he’s lost count of what number he’s on now, because everything else fades away as quick as a blink). The bitter taste in his mouth is much worse than any liquor, and the dark liquid sloshes around from the quake of his hand, and he has to curl his free fingers into the material of his jeans to stop himself from reaching out to yank Will away.

That might be the worst part, though. It might only be dancing, but Will is free. He’s living instead of surviving, as if he isn’t sitting pretty in scars that run deep like the ocean, worn heavy like second skin. He’s thriving like he’s never been hurt, as if his younger years weren’t determined by bullying and possession and what others thought of him, from his hair to his sexuality.

El and Max continue to dance wildly, and Lucas is pulled in by Dustin, and Will and the mouth breather keep up with the changes of song as if it’s nothing, and Mike is left alone and feeling as cold as frost.

His friends are daylight, and he’s the night, whose sour attitude and open wounds threaten to overshadow them like thick storm clouds.

Mike hates himself for it, but he’s powerless.

There are visions of a green eyed monster crawling up his spine, lurking over his shoulder, and Mike finishes the final dregs of his drink to turn down the volume of the party around him, to smother the whispers in his ear that urge him to explode.

Mike has visions of tripping over his feet, throwing himself into the fray, words tumbling out of his mouth. He can see him spilling his guts, telling Will everything he’s struggled to put into words for so long, and it twists low in his belly, exhilarating and terrifying all at once.

“Mike!”

It cuts through the haze, a sudden flare of a lit match, and then there’s warmth plastered against his side. He lets his head fall back, tilting to the side, and El’s rosy cheeks and matching smile come into view, hair framing her face as wild as this night itself.

“Are you okay?”

“Peachy,” he retorts, as dry as the liquor he can’t seem to get enough of. It’s then that he remembers he’s run out, and he glances down sadly into the empty cup.

“Aren’t you going to dance?” El asks gently. She’s calmed down now, chest still heaving but eyebrows furrowing in concern, lips parted in curiosity.

“I don’t really feel like it.”

She pouts jokingly at that. “Not even for me?” she sings out, a light cutting through his dark, and for a moment, it’s easier to breathe.

He doesn’t get to answer, because then Max is sticking herself to his other side, and he’s being flanked by the two girls wearing matching sulking expressions, chins tilted up to look at him as they lean into his space.

“Wheeler,” Max taunts. “Don’t be boring.”

He knows she’s joking. Her words are followed by a flash of her tongue poking playfully through her teeth, and she’s grinning. Mike tries his best to focus on the girls on either side of him, and them only, but Will is magnetic, and it doesn’t take long for his laugh to infiltrate Mike’s ears and for Mike to seek him out.

Will is still dancing. Will is still grinning. Will is still focused on the mouth breather and he hasn’t once noticed Mike.

Will is oblivious to the way Mike is crumbling, and the realisation makes his chest constrict.

“Mike!” he thinks that’s Max. Or maybe it’s El. It’s one of them, but he can’t even separate his left from his right at this point. “What’s wrong with you?”

He spits out a laugh, dry like the liquor.

There’s a lot that’s been wrong with Mike Wheeler, long before he even figured that out. He gets so emotional he bursts sometimes, and he gets nervous when talking about his feelings, and he gets worried every time he’s on his own for two minutes that El or Will is going to disappear into thin air, as if the Party is going to abandon him in his next breath.

Mike feels a little or a lot, never controlled and always one extreme or the other. It’s visible in the way he snaps at his friends when he gets too angry or too upset, and it’s audible in his relentless stutter that appears when there’s attention on him. It’s laced in the lies that he grinds out through his teeth, claiming that he’s fine, and it’s in the fight to appear as though he’s swimming gently through a body of water when in reality he can’t keep afloat.

His feelings are like waves, gentle or all consuming as they rise and fall with the tide, and nothing drowns him quite like Will Byers.

An impatient elbow digs into his side, and that’s how he knows for definite that it’s Max getting restless. “Mike,” she repeats, and his empty cup tumbles from his fingers and clatters out of his lap without so much as a sound.

“What?” he chokes out.

“Get out of your head for one minute and dance,” El counters cheekily, and they’re unaware of the edge Mike is swaying on, the impending fall as the ground seems to break apart beneath his feet. He’s not sure if he’s grateful for that or not.

Dancing means battling to stay afloat when he’s already sinking, water in his lungs. Dancing means he’s closer to Will, who glides on by him, oblivious to the way Mike is trying to gargle for help, pulled under as Will shrinks in size the further down he goes.

“I need the bathroom,” he blurts instead, flinging himself upright in the next second. The girls moan behind him from where they’d fallen together into the space he made, and he thinks they might be calling out to him, but he doesn’t stick around long enough to hear.

Mike staggers away from the Party, dizzy in the head and weak at the knees. His palms are sweaty and his eyes are flooding, and everything’s impossibly loud when he’s searching for quiet. And he hates that it’s come to this, that he’s fighting to put distance between himself and Will when usually he’s trying to defy all odds to get closer, but it’s too much.

Like the light against the dark, and how the night follows the day, Mike and Will are two sides of the same coin. Joined together since the first day they met, an invisible red string of fate woven around their pinkies, staying intact no matter how much it frays and tangles, no matter how far apart they are. And the more he pushes through the crowds, the more it hits him that he can run but he can’t hide, because Will is able to chase him to the ends of the earth.

They’re the sun and the moon, always one following the other yet always at a distance, but he doesn’t want it to be like that tonight. He wants them to be the stars, the constellation that they should be, interlinked and brightened by one another, before somebody else floated into their galaxy and shook up their solar system.

He doesn’t want to be the moon, because he has to watch the Earth orbit the sun as he hangs low in the shadows. There’s flashes of Will being circled by the mouth breather, shy smile tugging at his mouth and skin glowing, and Mike feels himself falling away.

He gravitates towards the black hole of being replaced and being abandoned and the things he’s never said. The feelings that’ve been consuming him for years, about how he projected how he felt about Will onto El and that Mike is coming to terms with the fact that there’s never been anyone else, that he’s gay-

The thought causes something to burst in his brain, as loud and as sudden as the pop of a balloon. He’s hurtling into the hallway and stumbling to the stairwell, numb all over. His foot slams against the first step with the same dull thud that signals the fact that Will isn’t going to stay the centre of his universe forever, not like how he’d thought it growing up, not like how he wants it to be.

Will is the only constant in Mike’s life, the only one that matters, and everything around him dims, becoming a sea of sound and a mesh of colour as the first of his tears fall from his eyes.

“Mike!”

He’s paused on the stairs, because he can’t quite move and there’s a couple blocking the way, leaning against the railing as they make out, and he doesn’t have enough energy in him to storm past them.

There are hands on his shoulders, and for a terrifying moment, he thinks it’s Will. Even worse, there’s a flash of the mouth breather behind his eyelids, and it’s like a kick to the teeth. He slouches, falling loosely against the wall as he waits for everything to slow down.

Mike,” he hears. An arm tugs him upright, another coiling around his waist, and there are fingertips curling supportively into the flesh of his hip. “Hey, asshole. You with me?”

Max is next to him, pulling one of his arms over her shoulders, kept there by her iron grip. Her hair frames her face like sunrays and it makes him feel ill.

Her face is decorated by a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and they look so much like constellations that it’s not fair, and he’s pulling away in fury and reeling back against the wall.

“Jesus, Mike! I’m trying to help you!”

Her voice matches the shade of her hair, crackling through the fog, but even when numb he can tell that she’s concerned. Mike can barely stand and he’s got the spins. He’s drank what feels like his body weight in alcohol and his world has been thrown off of its axis. He’s always figured there’d be a time that he’d get left in the dust but he never thought it’d be this bad.

Mike can’t feel his lips but he can feel the hurt, spreading through his chest like roots taking hold in the ground, sprouting prickly thorns between his ribs that cut him with every intake of breath.

“Right,” Max says, and he can tell she means business. He’s tugged flush against her right side, and his arm is yanked over the top of her back. “We’re getting you to a bathroom.”

“I need to go.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“No, I need to go,” he insists. “I don’t know where, but I need to go, Max.”

She’s distorted but he can see the conflict that flits across her face. “After you puke,” she settles on saying, followed by a gentle nudge to his side, a small encouragement to tackle the stairs.

“Don’t need to,” he lies.

He moves as if on autopilot, brain falling asleep and his legs absently filling in without instruction, spurred on by the fact it’ll be more distance between him and the dancefloor.

It doesn’t help like he thought it would. Mike realises this when they’re midway through clattering up the stairs, Max shouldering past the couple with a sneer and a challenging glint in her eyes, and he’s draping over her like a silhouette. They’re heading away from the noise, muffled by the walls as they go, and yet everything is still so loud.

He’s staggering away but the string is still wrapped around his finger. He’s wrapped around Will’s finger, and there isn’t a second that passes that Will doesn’t manage to cut through the haze of alcohol and self-hatred. It’s enough to make him dry heave, unbearably bittersweet.

“You puke on me and I’ll end your ass,” threatens Max, hoisting him up and over the final stair. The tip of his shoes scuffs the carpet as he stumbles forward, feet fumbling to rest flat against the floor, and the quietened hallway seems to go on forever.

The stretch of doors mirror the ones in his head, locked tight no matter how much he wants to kick them open, despite having the keys hanging loosely in his grip. They hide away the truths but he can still hear what’s inside, whispers of how Will makes his heart race and how he doesn’t like girls like he thought he did. The doors contain everything he’s tried to keep stored away for so long, and as Max drags him to one, he panics.

“You don’t have to be here,” Mike chokes out. You shouldn’t be here when everything comes tumbling out is what he really wants to say, but he’s clattering against a door in the next breath, and he barely has time to acknowledge the invisible hand that grips his throat before he’s falling.

Max loses her grip on him at the same time they push through into a bathroom that’s actually abandoned, and he’s crashing against the tiles the way a wave crashes against the shore.

“Shit,” he hears Max hiss, and then she’s falling to her knees beside him. Her hands scramble to find his sides and hoist him up, and she’s guiding him as he shuffles haphazardly forward, to hunch over the toilet that rests a little to his right. He does so with heavy limbs and an uneasy stomach and a pounding head, and his eyes relight all over again.

“You can go,” he repeats.

“Don’t be stupid,” she bites back, voice wavering with worry.

“I’ll go then.”

Except he doesn’t move. He’s got his elbows resting against the toilet seat and his head is bowed, seeing stars twirl in his head as a wave of nausea blossoms like a supernova.

“No, you won’t,” Max counters, tinged with warning, before he feels a hand on the curve of his spine. She’s gingerly rubbing his back, hesitant in a way that tells she’s unsure if this will do anything, uncertain if he’ll even let her.

And it helps. It comforts him in a way, that there’s someone beside him even as he’s sweltering and tongue tied.

It fades into something depressing just as quick, because his gratefulness is shaded in favour of the blinding light that’s missing. It’s pathetic, really.

He and Will have always been close, always intertwined even when apart, but he can’t remember being this co-dependent. At least not with this intensity.

Mike shouldn’t feel like he’s dying when he knows Will is downstairs, when he knows Will is having fun. He isn’t missing, and he’s not having his seventh panic attack of the week, and he’s smiling instead of screaming, and it should be enough.

Why isn’t it enough?

Mike heaves once, twice, before throwing up into the bowl. The hand that resides at the centre of his spine gives him a constant pressure, reminding him that he’s not alone as he chokes out alcohol that burns twice as much coming back up.

“You smell like a brewery,” Max chastises. It’s meant to be a distraction, a lighter shade cutting through the darker hues, but it triggers something nasty that emerges at the base of his spine.

He’s been fine until lately. He’s been content with pretending if it meant nothing changes. He’ll keep to the back of the line and stop his problems from pushing themselves to the front, from making himself seem more important than the others. He can’t afford to break when his friends have been through so much, like El and Will.

Except he is breaking, and the glue holding him together is wearing away the longer the minutes pass, and he isn’t sure if anyone would be able to catch the pieces when he finally splinters apart.

He isn’t sure if he wants to be caught.

All that he’d see is those he cares for bleeding from a single touch, slicing their fingertips open on his jagged edges. All he’d know is that they’d try with all they are to help him, the way they always do, and he’d be reminded that he’s not the same. His pieces won’t fit back together like before, because once something’s been broken, the cracks are permanent.

They’re visible to anyone, regardless of how well they know him, and the thought of someone being able to look at him and just know that they have him pegged makes his skin crawl.

“Y’know, people usually try and pace themselves.”

Mike tries to shrug, but he just bunches his shoulders to his ears, eyes flickering. He spits into the bowl and makes a guttural sound, low in his throat, stomach twisting uncomfortably.

“What happened, Mike?” asks Max quietly.

She’s closer now, shuffled closer so that she can see his face, and it’s like a light shining down on him in an interrogation room.

“What do you mean?”

“You tell me.”

And he could. He should, because he’s splintering apart and she can see it, so there’s no point in lying. It’s just that there’s that fear again, an uneasiness that isn’t from his sickness but something deeper, dating back to before the night began, and there’s flashes of Will’s smile and El’s eyes as he thinks it all over.

“Do you ever feel like you’re not enough?”

It cuts through the air like a knife, silencing them both. Mike’s left reeling and there’s drool dripping from his mouth into the toilet, the putrid smell of his bile clogging his nose. His stomach feels marginally lighter but his chest is just as heavy, and he wonders if it’s always going to be this way.

He wonders if he’s always going to give in to fear.

He waits because he can’t bring himself to speak again. There’s the faint thumping of music and bodies vibrating through the floorboards, but all that he can focus on is the sound of Max’s breathing. He waits because he wants to hear more.

Mike wants to know if he’s alone with this feeling. It feels unique but he hopes it’s common. It’s as if he’s always felt this way, but it can’t possibly be true.

“Sometimes.”

Mike almost smacks his head against the toilet seat when he jolts, elbows sliding and head snapping to the side. He’s dazed for a moment, brain still fuzzy and ears still reeling, but he’s looking at Max like she’s a lighthouse in the distance and he’s a ship seeking the shore.

Like she’s hope. Like Mike’s lonely voyage is going to end.

“When I first moved here, I felt like everything was my fault. Even if it was something small, like Billy being mad at me if I ran late after school. Like I was just – just a problem, without a solution.”

That hits Mike hard, rougher than the tequila slammers he vaguely recalls having, and the bile that threatens to creep up his throat is all too familiar.

“So how’d you deal with it?”

There’s an echo of a smile ghosting over Max’s mouth. “I met you guys,” she admits quietly. “And it was – it was still rough. Sometimes it still is. It just doesn’t bother me anymore, not like it used to.”

“But how?” Mike presses, grasping at straws.

“I learned that it was okay to feel like that. That sometimes, if I got so angry I couldn’t see or felt so alone, that it wasn’t my fault. There were reasons why I got like that, and I couldn’t help them, but I could help the way I blamed myself all the time.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

Max glances up from chipping away her nail varnish, pursing her lips. “It wasn’t,” she says. “Some days, it still isn’t. Like – like with Lucas. I feel like he’s going to turn around one day and not – not like who I am anymore. Like maybe I’m no longer enough. But he doesn’t, because it’s all in my head. It’s me thinking I don’t deserve something good when I do.”

There’s a fierce edge to her tone towards the end of her words, glazed eyes reminding Mike that she’s been through her own version of hell separate from the Demogorgons. They all have, but hearing one of the Party members hold themselves high when Mike feels like he’s only ever getting lower is both a marvel and a dream.

Mike doesn’t say anything, eyes slinking off to the side, and she continues in a low voice.

“Don’t you think?”

Max is asking if he agrees, if he thinks he deserves something good.

“Do you?”

And with Mike, it’s almost as if he’s seeking permission. He can’t even consider the thought of something good unless someone lets him know it isn’t just fantasy. That it’s something real he’s worthy enough to have.

“Yeah,” Max breathes out the word as if it’s the only one that fits. “You do.”

They’re silent for a few seconds, Mike’s heart hammering so loud he fears it might burst, and then he takes the plunge.

“I don’t feel like that.”

“Mike-”

“I mean, it seems like no matter how much I try, I’m always falling behind. My life’s just – it’s just passing me by, and I can’t keep up.”

She inhales sharply at his distraught tone. “How long have you felt like that?”

Too long.

“Are you telling me you don’t?” he asks, a hint of desperation seeping through.

He’s got one arm leaning on the toilet, the side of his face resting on top, and the hope in his eyes fizzles out the longer he stares at her. “Like – like you can’t change no matter how much you want to. That you want all these things and you have an idea of who you want to be but you just can’t.”

Max is stunned into silence, and Mike lets his eyes scrunch shut. There’s an image of a swing set and two pairs of legs kicking in the air, and when he opens his eyes again, it’s playing like a scene from a movie, a watery image with running colours that takes him back to simpler times.

Better times.

“I want to be better,” Mike admits miserably. “And I want to be enough for him, but I can’t be.”

There’s a ripple, a stone dropping into a pond, and the picture changes. A toothy smile stretched wide, laughter ringing out like wind chimes, and everything Mike Wheeler wants in life comes in the form of his best friend.

“Who says you can’t be?” Max asks suddenly, alight with anger. “Who says you aren’t enough? It’s all bullshit, Mike.” Somebody bangs on the door at that moment, asking to be let in, and Max is so fired up that she yells back without even tearing her eyes away from Mike. “Fuck off, occupied!”

“It’s not,” argues Mike weakly, and the tears are let loose like the words from his mouth, uncontrollable and unavoidable. “I see – I see him with other people and I think that every time is going to be the last time, like he’s going to disappear all over again because I’m not enough to keep him happy.”

He doesn’t mean to be, but he’s his own worst enemy. He wants good things but there’s a part of him that’s overbearing, that believes in nothing but the negative. He thinks of the way he falls apart in the dark and how his hands tremble in the day and how the seasons change but he never does, and he wonders how anyone is ever meant to be okay with that.

Mike doesn’t know how to let himself heal enough to have something worthwhile, and it halts all progress like a roadblock. Others are diverted away from him, and not only that, but so is he in a way. He wants to get back to the warmth of feeling alive but he’s been locked out in the cold, left standing helplessly on the porch with the key to the door sealed tight on the other side.

And because of that, he can’t be better, and he can’t be enough. He can’t break free when he’s stuck in a circuit and the electricity has fizzled out, nothing to keep him going.

The dark is his greatest friend and his worst enemy, relentless and thick and all consuming, and it’s himself.

All these voices that he can’t shake are his own. They tell him he’ll never be enough, and that he’ll never heal. He’s left with open wounds when he desperately wants stitches, and his heart has teeth that clash together menacingly instead of smiling whenever Will does so much as breathe his name, and his mind has had the company of shadows for so long that there’s no sunlight able to break through the shade.

He tries with all that he is, and it never seems to be enough.

“You aren’t alone, Mike,” says Max. “You’re far from it.”

She’s gentle, and honest, and there’s something sad about her voice that grips him like a feeling he can’t shake.

“Except I am,” he argues softly.

He’s alone with himself, because he’s the only one who can understand on such a level. It’s a different kind of trauma. Whilst he didn’t grow up in a lab and whilst he didn’t get trapped in the Upside Down or subsequently possessed, he had to live through it.

Mike had to learn of the burden El carried when she came into her life, and how to help her carry it on the days it became too heavy. He had to learn Will all over again, rereading his favourite book as if for the first time when it’s his dozenth, and the pages are worn and tearing and Mike has to examine it all again with fresh eyes. Analysing every breath Will takes and thinking over every little touch as it could be the final straw that tears Will apart.

He watched on in horror, hands clamped over his years, both times that two important people in his life had needed him the most. El vanished into thin air after fighting the Demogorgon in the school, and Will had thrashed violently in a hospital bed, screaming for release. Both times, he looked on and did nothing, drinking in the sights of those he cared for cry out for help and get nothing in return. Both times, he became cold with the knowledge that no matter how much they’d heal, the scars will never truly fade.

And then there’s the others.

Knowing he’d hurt Lucas by devoting his time to El when they first met her, making him feel outcasted, a silhouette instead of an equal. Letting Dustin get so distant from them and glue himself to Steve Harrington’s side, because he actually got given attention and felt included instead of putting up with Mike’s hyper fixation on relationships and being normal, desperate for the world he’d fabricated to stay the same. Treating Max like she was an inconvenience, a nuisance, when really she was new to town and there were boys trailing after her willing to be her friend (and more) whilst he wanted her gone without even getting to know her properly.

There are a lot of things Mike has done that he isn’t proud of. A lot of it he can’t take back. He can’t seal El’s wounds from her countless battles against Brenner. He can’t go back in time and hold Will’s hand like a lifeline as he flailed urgently, can’t reassure him as he goes under that Mike will always, always be there when Will wakes up.

He can make it up to Lucas, and Dustin, and Max, but in small steps. It’s tainted, too. They’d know he’s apologetic, that he’s trying to better himself and show them that he never meant to hurt them. Except he did, and it can’t be undone, and it looms over their heads like thick storm clouds. Mike can grow and they can all move past it, but it’ll always settle over Mike like thunder rumbling away above, a reminder that there’ll be outbursts that blister their skin like burns from a lightning strike.

And so regardless, nothing could ever change the fact that he’s caused hurt. He’s kicked them when they’ve been down, scuffing dirt in their faces when all they’ve done is be there for him. Any time the roles were reversed, they’d offered their hands without a second thought.

“I’m bad,” he murmurs, fog clearing for the first time that night. The throbbing softens to a dull ache, and his tongue feels loose when he speaks. “I’m one of the bad people.”

“Mike, no,” Max replies instantly. “You’re not. Why would you – don’t be stupid, Mike.”

It’s clear she doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t agree with him but doesn’t know how to make him see that. He doesn’t want to listen, though. They’ve never been all that close, usually caring for one another with a barbed edge, and his words most likely resonate as drunken ramblings instead of the harsh truths that they are.

“And because I’m bad,” he trails on. “I can’t – I can’t tell him. He’s the one that deserves good things, and that’s not me. No matter – no matter how much I hate seeing him with someone else, it’s better than me. It’s better for him, and isn’t that what caring about somebody is all about? When you want them to be happy, even if it’s not with you?”

He’s started, and now he can’t stop. It’s the things he’s been fighting back for years finally breaking free, and he thought he’d be relieved but it’s somehow even worse than before. Tears trickle down his cheeks, a flow as steady as a river, and every syllable rings out like a blow to the chest.

Will deserves the world. Mike just wishes he was the one giving him that.

 “You’re wrong, Mike. In so many ways, you’re wrong.”

“He deserves-”

“Isn’t he the one in charge of what it is he deserves?” Max asks him, but there’s no bite. It’s as if all the fight she usually has is hidden away, and her voice is gentle, impossibly so. “And it’s you that he wants, so he’s not going to be happy like you want him to be unless you sort yourself out.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Will has been obsessed with you for as long as I’ve known him. And I haven’t been here for all those years, but I know that it goes all the way back. There’s probably never been a day where he hasn’t felt the same way about you as you feel about him.”

The words make Mike’s head seize up slightly, and it sinks in that he never mentioned Will. It’s a cold realisation, one that has him clenching the toilet seat with weak fingers to keep the rest of his stomach down.

“I never – I never said a name.”

Out of the corner of his eye, she tilts her head, affectionate and exasperated as she answers him bluntly.

“You never had to.”

Mike wants the ground to swallow him whole. “So he knows?”

It’s terrifying for so many reasons.

“No,” says Max. “I think he’s the only one that doesn’t.”

It’s probably meant to comfort him, but it tugs at both sides. It’s confirmation that everyone can see it, written all over his face despite his efforts to smother it for months. It’s reassurance that Will himself is just as clueless as Mike felt once upon a time, those days where he was deep in denial and convinced that it was all just a phase.

And it stings all over, because he’s stuck in a bathroom feeling sorry for himself whilst keeping Will at arm’s length. He never meant to, but he pushed Will into the arms of another, who looks like he doesn’t suffer from night terrors or troubles and doubts.

Who Mike wishes he could be.

And he thought – he’d always thought he’d have time, at the end of the day. He’s terrified and he doesn’t know how to say what’s on his mind but he figured that he’d at least get the chance to. But that’s not the case, because Will is wrapped up in somebody else, and Mike is too late.

“Do you want me to go and get him?”

Mike blanches. “Are you crazy?” he chokes out, spitting.

It’s too late.

“You’re hurting, Mike. You’re hurting yourself because you’re too afraid to tell Will how you feel, and you’re jealous that he’s with somebody else right now. None of that is going to change unless you change it. You need to tell him before this gets worse, and you need to accept the fact that he’s not leaving you anytime soon.”

She’s right. He knows that, and he knows that this is the argument he’s had with himself countless times. Hearing someone else say it makes it more definitive, that the issues that have plagued him for a long time have finally seen the light of day.

That he can’t take them back, and that now, he’s got less of an excuse to do anything but go forward. Before was different, because he could pretend, but now he can’t.

It’s not just about fear anymore. It’s about Max, and how she cares about him, and that she doesn’t want to see him suffer. It’s about Dustin and Lucas and El, who want him to be happy. It’s about Will, like everything is, and how he’s never once doubted how good Mike is even if Mike is convinced that there’s nothing golden about him.

It’s his heart, and it’s on the line, and it’s making Mike tremble like he’s on a tightrope.

“What if it ruins everything?” Mike asks, barely above a whisper. “What if – what if things get weird, and they can’t be the same?”

“That won’t happen.”

“But what if it does?”

Max stays silent for several moments, deliberating. “Let’s put it this way,” she says after a while. “It’s already weird. You like to think that you’ve been okay with holding it all in, but you haven’t, and we can tell. And you can’t ignore Will forever, because soon enough he’s going to ask questions, and you’ve got to answer them.”

Mike nods wordlessly, mouth dry and tongue heavy.

“So you can answer those questions now, or you can wait until long after things have fallen apart.” A pause. “There isn’t anything that you could tell him that could make things difficult between you two. The most difficult thing is you, Mike. You aren’t happy, so neither is Will, and the longer you leave him thinking that he’s alone in this is the more he’s going to drift away.”

It helps, even if it aches. But he finds it’s a much needed pain, because Max is letting him know how it is without sugar coating anything, and it sinks in quick. He never wanted to lose Will, which is why he’s taken so long to come to terms with things. Except by doing that, Will has been getting further away from him, and he’s been left oblivious to the fact that Mike wants him as badly as his lungs need air.

He’s been moving on with his life whilst Mike’s been trying to figure out how to move forwards, and it’s all a mess and Mike’s head throbs and there’s only one person he wants sat beside him right now.

“What would you tell him, Mike?” questions Max delicately. “Right here, right now.”

And he finds he doesn’t even hesitate, because at the end of the day, there’s one thing he’s always wanted Will to know above all else.

“That I want to be with him.”

The smile that graces Max’s lips is comforting, almost ethereal. “Then start with that.”

There’s another bang at the door, loud and persistent, and it breaks them out of the moment. Mike finds he’s grateful for the distraction, opting to take the time to lean over and flush the toilet, watching the water swirl as Max yells at whoever is trying to get in.

“I said fuck off!”

“And I said that I need to pee!”

It’s Dustin, muffled through the door, and Max huffs whilst rolling her eyes.

“Find another bathroom!”

“I want this one!”

“It’s fine,” Mike waves her off. “I think I’m done in here anyways.”

“Are you sure?” Max asks sympathetically, gaze flickering all over his hunched form. He nods once, and pushes himself up, clambering to his feet.

“Yeah, pretty sure there’s nothing left in my stomach anyway.”

He’s still got the spins, and he feels a little queasy here and there, but he’s significantly lighter than before. Not only has throwing up helped, but talking has as well, and it settles over him as he stands still in the middle of the room, watching Max rifle through the mirror cabinet.

“Thanks.”

It’s dry, and hoarse, but it’s there. It makes Max pause in the middle of her search, and she glances back at him over her shoulder, eyes kind but firm.

“Don’t mention it,” she says lightly, giving him a small smile. And that’s probably literal, too. They’re so used to being in each other’s faces that he thinks if this gets mentioned outside of these four walls, she’ll berate him for it.

“Just – just take the plunge, Mike. It won’t be easy, and it’ll be scary, but it’ll be so much better if you do. If you’re worried about being left behind, you’ve got to let yourself keep up instead of watching it all happen in silence.”

She glances back into the cabinet, letting her words hang in the air, and Mike feels them bubble against his skin like goosebumps, like the truth is physically hitting him. Maybe it’s not too late like he’d thought. Maybe he still has time to catch up.

Max makes a pleased sound a second later, triumphant as she pulls out a bottle of mouthwash and waves it at him absently, and the moment is broken. He gets the hint and moves forward, taking the bottle from her with numb fingers and an uneasy breath, and he slowly untwists the cap as Max leans back.

“Max!”

“God, there’s probably a dozen bathrooms in this place but no, he has to use this one,” Max mutters, rolling her eyes, and the normalcy of it all makes him crack a smile, droplets of blue trickling down his mouth as he swishes.

The door gets unlocked a moment later and subsequently thrown open, and Dustin is there with his cheeks flushed and a grin on his face, twitching with the need to use the bathroom. “Oh, hey Mike!” he chirps, barrelling inside. “We wondered where you got to.”

Mike spits into the sink at the same time he hears a belt buckle, and then Max is crying out, “Whoa, whoa! Let us leave first!”

“I’ve been holding this in for hours,” counters Dustin dramatically, and that’s when Max and Mike make their exit, sniggering under their breath as they go.

And that’s when Mike walks right into Will.

 


 

Oh, right.

Dustin said we, and Mike didn’t clock until now. Not until he quite literally bumped into Will, whose got a dusting of pink high on his cheekbones and his bottom lip clamped between his teeth, and he’s frowning.

It’s as if everything goes blank, and Mike just screeches to a halt. His brain feels empty and his body is limp, and he wonders if he can blame it on the alcohol that’s still messing him up or if it’s too late.

“Hey, Will!” Max says brightly, moving further along the hallway.

Will still hasn’t moved, and neither has Mike, and nobody is saying a word.

“I thought you left.”

It’s small, barely audible, but Mike hears it as loud as a clap of thunder. Will looks worried, and his eyes won’t stop scanning Mike’s face as if he’s searching for something.

“I, uh,” Mike coughs. “I just wasn’t feeling great.”

His heart still hammers even though he hasn’t told a lie, because Will is inches away from him and he’d confessed to Max that he loves him, and that he wants to tell him that. And Will is gazing up at him, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth, and Mike wants to loosen it with his thumb and then tug Will in and kiss him with everything he has.

He doesn’t, though.

At least not yet.

“Do you want to go home?” Will asks, concerned.

“No, no. I’m good. You can go back to the dancefloor now.”

It’s the wrong thing to say. Will’s face becomes passive, a carefully blank canvas that makes Mike clamp down hard on his tongue. It seems like all he’s doing with Will lately is making all the wrong choices, like he can’t win, and there’s a frustrated scream bubbling in his throat that’s going to escape at any given moment, and Mike’s chest tightens slightly.

“I don’t – I mean, I-” Will fumbles.

“Don’t you want to dance with the mouth breather?”

Shit.

The alcohol and the talk with Max has loosened his tongue to new lengths, and it’s as if the muscle has a mind of its own. It’s not letting Mike choke down the words he’s been biting back all night, the bitterness and resentment and pure jealousy that now shines through.

Will frowns again, but there’s an edge to his eyes that wasn’t there before. “Do you mean Jason?” he tries.

“That’s what I said.”

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Mike says, waving him off as he glides past him. There’s the distant pounding of music that keeps rhythm to the equally heavy rattle of his heart, and Max is staring at him with wide eyes, and he’s feeling all the tension from the night roll out of him in waves.

Those waves, though, reach Will. He splutters, as if he’s genuinely choked on a lungful of water, and there’s footsteps following Mike as he approaches the stairs. “Okay, what the hell is up with you?”

Mike barks out a laugh, tumbling down the steps one by one, and doesn’t say another word.

Mike,” he hears Max cut in, laced with warning, but he ignores the signs and barrels on.

“Mike, wait.”

A hand grips his elbow, and he knows who it is without turning around. Even if he didn’t recognise the feel of the hand, he recognises the fire that ignites at that very moment, all consuming and only caused by one person.

“I need air.”

“Then I’m coming with you,” insists Will stubbornly.

Mike lets out a breath, bracing himself for everything to unfold like a car crash. He glances behind him, surpassing Will with more struggle than he’d like, to see Max quirking an eyebrow in silent question.

“I’ll be fine,” he says loudly, looking at her pointedly. You don’t have to come with me.

She relaxes, only just, shoulders dropping and her lips parting as if she wants to say something. She doesn’t, and she settles on a nod, but urges with her eyes for him to come find her if needs be.

There’s a swell in his chest at how much she’s helped him tonight, more than she knows. Mike hopes the smile he sends her way is enough, but it definitely doesn’t seem anywhere close.

Max nods in reply, mouth quirking, and then she’s gone.

Will’s hand has moved from his elbow to gripping Mike’s wrist, holding it with purpose. He’s already changed course from the living room, beginning to tug Mike the other way, and he follows without any effort to pull away.

He’s always been weak in times like these.

They find themselves exiting the front of the house, heading past people sprawled out on the front lawn and others messing around, and every stomp of feet has Mike’s throat closing up. The noise gets lower the further Will takes him, and they simply walk a bit down the street until they reach a decent quiet, and then they just stop.

“Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Who said anything was wrong?”

“Nobody has to say it,” Will says, exasperated. They’re stood in the middle of a sidewalk in the late October night and they’ve never felt this tense before. “I can see it, Mike. Don’t lie to me. Don’t shut me out.”

“Why do you care?”

“Are you serious?” Will bursts, voice rising. It’s not yet a yell but its close, scaling higher the more Mike continues his act.

“Go fucking – go enjoy your time with Jonah, or whatever. I’m fine.”

“Jason.”

“I don’t care.”

“What is your problem?”

This is it.

Mike finally snaps, an elastic stretched too thin. He’s stumbling, hair flying wild in untamed curls all around his head, and he’s paler than usual and his lips are chapped and he fucking hurts, so much so that he can’t help crowding into Will’s space, staring him down. Will has the nerve to lift his chin defiantly, an unspoken challenge glinting in his eyes, and it’s the final straw to break Mike’s back.

“You want to know what my problem is? There’s so much that I don’t even know where to start, and I’ve been wanting to tell you for months but every time I try, I pussy out.”

Will’s mouth falls open. Mike’s won’t stop running.

“I thought I was fine, but I’m not. And I’m – I’m fucking selfish, alright? ‘Cause I see you happy with some guy and I should be happy for you, but I’m not.”

“Mike-”

“I’m not, because I took too long and now I’m being left behind!”

The silence that follows is deafening.

“That’s what this is?” Will demands after a moment. “You’re mad because you think I’m – I’m what? Abandoning you?”

“Because you are!”

He’s just angry. He’s just hurt. He’s picking a fight with the most bullshit of excuses even though he knows deep down that none of its true. Will isn’t leaving him. He’s just scared that Will could, given a chance. That he’s going to see just how much of a mess Mike is and turn around and walk away.

“All I did was dance with the guy,” Will seethes. “Jason? From my art class? Jason, my friend, who actually danced with me tonight as opposed to some other guy I know.”

Fuck. “Well, it’s not like you missed me.”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“It’s the truth,” Mike insists. “You forgot all about me tonight.”

“Oh? ‘Cause that’s why I spent time with Dustin looking for your drunken ass, is it?”

“Maybe you were having a dance break.”

It’s so acidic that Will even reels back, shock and disbelief and hurt plastered all over his face.

Mike fights the urge to be sick all over again.

He drops his voice, anger making way for the hurt and the sorrow to take hold. “I just – fuck, I’m sorry. I just don’t want you to forget about me.”

Will stares at him for several moments, face blank, and Mike curls his fingers into fists to stop himself from bolting.

“Forget about you?” It’s quiet, but just as pained. “How could I ever forget about you?”

“I don’t want you to go,” Mike says, teary and raw. “I don’t – Will, please.”

“I would never,” he says, voice strained. “I – I could never. Why would you – why do you think of me like that? Like I don’t think you’re important?”

Mike’s chest constricts something horrible. “I just – when I see you happy like you were tonight, it reminds me that – that I’m not enough for you. It’s not me that’s making you happy. And you – you’re hanging out with someone else, and you don’t need me anymore. You could just – just forget me.”

The last thing Mike expects Will to do is hug him.

Will flings his arms around Mike’s neck and tugs him down, squeezing himself against his body and tucking his face into the curve of Mike’s throat. It makes him seize up momentarily, feeling cold and undeserving, but it’s not until he feels Will’s stuttered breathing against his skin that he lets himself move, to coil his arms around Will’s waist and grip both his hips and hold him tight.

Will is touching him. Will isn’t going anywhere. Will isn’t abandoning him, or forgetting who he is.

Will is still here.

“You’re so stupid sometimes, you know that?” Will breathes out shakily, lips snagging against Mike’s neck as he speaks, and it’s agonizing. “There isn’t – nobody is – you’re my favourite person in the world, Mike.”

Mike’s face bunches up, and he scrunches his eyes shut. He lifts one hand to cup the back of Will’s head and burrow his face into his shoulder, nose deep into the fabric of Will’s shirt, and he lets himself have this one moment.

“And I know you, okay? I know you get scared, and you’re worried that – that the Upside Down is going to take me away again, or that for some reason, I’d move on with my life without you, but – but it’s not happening, alright? I’m here, and I’m with you, because it’s not – not my life if you’re not in it, understand?”

Will knows him better than anyone. He always has. Hearing him counter all of Mike’s worst fears is a reminder of that, and it’s like a blanket being draped over him. And Mike starts to cry, because he’s been so stupid, and so scared, but he couldn’t help it.

Will wasn’t leaving. Mike’s bitterness and jealousy and everything in between was pushing him away. Or trying to, at least, because Will simply squeezes him tighter as if he’s trying to quite literally get through to Mike, and he’s on fire.

“I’m sorry,” he says thickly.

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not.”

“It will be, though,” says Will. He pulls away then, enough for Mike’s arm to fall back to his hip, both arms circling his waist. Will’s hands drag from the back of Mike’s neck to cup his face, to brush his tears away. “We’ll be okay, you and me.”

“I didn’t mean to be a dick,” Mike admits. “I just – I was jealous.”

“I told you, I’m not leaving you-”

“I was jealous because it should’ve been me.”

“Look-”

A frustrated noise rips from Mike’s throat. “You – you don’t get it.”

“We’ve just been over this,” Will whispers, and Mike’s shaking his head frantically in argument.

“No, not – not this.”

Will frowns, thumb brushing Mike’s jaw. “What are you talking about now?” he asks lightly, trying to relieve the tension that’s seeping back into the air at an alarming rate.

“I was too afraid.”

“Afraid of what, Mike?”

You. This. Us.

Mike doesn’t know how to say it. Mike doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to say enough to make it count. It’s burning away from inside, an itch he can’t scratch, and it’s as if all the time in the world couldn’t let him sum up just how much Will means to him.

“I can’t say,” Mike whispers. “I don’t know how to.”

Will’s frown deepens with concern, with confusion, and he’s slowly starting to edge out of Mike’s space, and Mike panics.

“Mike-”

It all unfolds as quickly as Mike had plummeted through the air, stepping off the edge of the quarry all those years ago. Mike darts forward, hands flying from Will’s hips to his face, and he’s tugging him into a kiss before he can let the fear take hold again.

There’s a painfully long moment where Will remains frozen, not even daring to breathe, and Mike feels tears come that are as hot as the pain that flares in his chest.

Mike pulls away, lips dragging against Will’s softly, and he opens his eyes to see a blurry Will still wearing a frown like before, his own gaze vulnerable.

“That,” Mike says, voice barely audible. “That’s what I’ve wanted to tell you.”

His hands are still cupping Will’s face, but the longer Will goes without saying anything, the more they begin to fall away. His fingertips graze the warmth of Will’s cheek, like he’s dragging them over hot coals, and he fights to swallow around the lump in his throat threatening to cut off his air.

The silence is deafening. Mike scrambles to fill it, even though he doesn’t know how.

“I want to be with you all the time. I want – I want more out of life than just being your friend, okay? I’ve been so scared, and I’ve tried hiding it all away, but seeing you tonight with someone else made me sick. I thought – I thought I’d missed my chance, and I got jealous and angry and I’m sorry, Will. I’m sorry I never said anything, but I couldn’t. I never knew how to.”

It’s not enough. It’s not even close. Mike’s thoughts are scrambling at a thousand miles per hour and he can’t slow himself down enough to pull it all together, to even think. All he can focus on is Will in front of him, gazing up at him with his lips parted, and how he wants to kiss him until they’re both breathless and Mike’s burning alive. He’s wasted so much time that he just wants to throw himself in at the deep end and never resurface.

“And I know – I know I’m selfish. I’ve hurt you and I pushed you away and tried to make it seem like you’d done something wrong when you didn’t. It was all me. I thought it’d be easier, but it wasn’t, and I wish I could take it back because I know now that I don’t want to run anymore.”

Will is still quiet.

Mike still can’t breathe properly.

“You-”

Will’s voice breaks, harsh against Mike’s ears.

“You – you’re –”

Will sounds just as lost as Mike has been feeling, fumbling for words that he can’t seem to find.

Mike tries again.

“It’s you. I want you.”

“I fucking hate you sometimes, you know that?” Will bursts vacantly, with eyes damp and a watery voice, and Mike leans down urgently into his space. Their noses bump painfully, but he doesn’t care, and he pushes his forehead against Will’s as if trying to let him into his mind, to give Will the thoughts that have only ever belonged to him.

“I’m so sorry-”

Will cuts him off with a kiss.

He turns his head and forces his mouth against Mike’s, frantic and bruising. His hands scrape up into Mike’s hair, tugging him close, and Mike’s lips part in shock, heart pounding as his fingers scramble to pull Will flush against him by his back.

And then Will’s tongue is diving into Mike’s mouth almost desperately, and it’s the sweetest moment Mike has ever tasted. He’s drunk off of Will in two seconds, who tastes like fruity alcohol and daylight, and Mike sighs into his mouth from the euphoria.

They part briefly, and Mike holds Will still with his thumbs against his jaw, stopping Will from diving back into his mouth even though it pains him to do so.

“I need you,” he fumbles to say. “I tried to fight it, but I can’t.”

Will’s chest heaves, eyes darting around wildly.

“Then don’t,” he bursts, and just like that, he’s tugging Mike back into him all over again.

It’s like gasoline, fuelling Mike’s raging fire, and he sinks into Will in the next breath. He’s gripping him tight, and he’s biting harshly at Will’s bottom lip, and Will’s hands are tugging his hair and they can’t stop. They’re burning bright in the late October night, standing at the side of a road without care for anything but each other, and Mike feels like he might burst.

Mike,” Will huffs out, and he kisses him lightly once, twice, three times before he’s diving back in, tongue grazing Mike’s bottom lip.

Mike tightens his grip, hoping it says enough.

Will pulls away, Mike chasing his mouth blindly with hooded eyes and a fever that not even the low temperature of the night can help him shake.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Will says. “You’ve got to know that, okay?”

He’s patient, and good, and everything Mike needs but feels he’s never deserved.

And he still thinks that. It’s hard not to sometimes because the scars run too deep, and he’ll always have his bad days. It’s just that he’s learning the difference now between the monsters and the truth. He’s not broken, so he can’t be fixed, but he can be helped.

Will is going to help him.

Mike knows that. He does.

And Mike is going to let himself be helped.

“Even if you wake up tomorrow and – and you don’t quite mean all this like you do tonight,” Will continues, voice hitching. “I’m still going to be here. I’m going to help you through everything.”

Mike shakes his head. “Will,” he starts.

“You’ve had a lot to drink,” says Will shakily. His eyes are glazed, like he’s close to tears himself, and the sight feels like knives piercing Mike’s skin. “You’re emotional, and you might not be thinking straight.”

“Will, no,” Mike bursts. “It’s not like that.”

Will tries to pull away, but Mike won’t let him, he can’t. He’s wasted too much time already in fear, and he wants to be brave.

He wants to hold Will close instead of letting him go again.

“It’ll be okay, Mike,” Will parrots, and his face is pinching the way it does when he’s on the verge of crying. “Trust me.”

“I mean this,” Mike tells him, and it’s the strongest his voice has sounded all night. “I want this.”

“For now, but maybe-”

“Forever,” he counters firmly, and he’s kissing Will again before he can respond.

It’s less frantic this time, deliberately so. Mike wants to savour everything – the way Will’s mouth moves gently against his own, and the way his breath never fails to hitch whenever Mike presses into his space, and the way he lights Mike up, keeping all the monsters at bay.

Mike wants to treasure the moment in which he finally stopped being frightened.

He wants stop the world and be with Will the way he should’ve been a long time ago.

Mike’s mouth falls away agonizingly slow, and he finds that after all this, he’s still not quite ready to vocalise those three words he’s wanted to say for years. The words he’s tried fighting, and hiding, and ignoring. The words that carry so much weight, that he’d convinced himself was a burden instead of the blessing it truly is. Mike can’t quite voice it, not when there’s still that tremor of paranoia that makes him feel like this isn’t real, like it can be taken away from him in the blink of an eye.

Mike can’t quite voice it, but he knows how he can say it.

The secret he’s been struggling to keep locked away for months finally comes loose in the form of taps and squeezes. Mike grabs both of Will’s hands in his, holding on tight, and he lets it out in morse code.

And when he’s finished, he knows he’s been heard, because Will’s breath hitches and he’s scrambling to cup Mike’s face all over again, pressing the most feather light of kisses to Mike’s mouth.

Mike doesn’t notice he’s crying until Will is thumbing away his tears.

Will is just as bad, sniffling as he gazes into Mike’s eyes. There’s a constellation of tears decorating his lashes, and his nose is red and he’s a little bit of a mess.

That’s okay, though. Mike knows he looks and feels exactly the same.

A small smile spreads across Will’s mouth, cutting through the haze, and Mike is left questioning why he was even worried in the first place.

Hey,” Will whispers, and it sounds like he’s returning the sentiment in a way of his own. The way he’s always been doing since he was younger, before Mike even knew that it ran both ways. “Let’s go home.”

Mike grips Will’s hand like a lifeline, and they’re stumbling at a leisurely pace back to the party, returning to the rest of reality.

They’re staggering, drunk for an entirely different reason, and Mike lets himself breathe again.

 


 

Will calls Steve to get him to pick them up, and they move to curl up on the sidewalk as they wait. It turns out that it’s only been under two hours when it feels like they’ve aged years.

They sit with interlocked hands and their sides glued together, and Mike doesn’t give a single fuck about any possible prying eyes, leaning into Will’s space and ghosting his mouth over his jaw, whispering words that’ve evaded him until tonight.

He’s warning Will one last time.

“I’m not exactly easy to – to be with,” he chokes out against Will’s skin. It’s a final reminder, ringing out like the bell for last call.

To love, is what he meant, but he figures Will can figure that out on his own.

A dry laugh startles out of Will, and he turns his head, letting their noses brush as he speaks.

“And you think I am?”

Yes, Mike wants to scream. Through everything, it’s the one thing he’s always been able to do, even if he couldn’t admit it or didn’t quite see just how much. Even if it was scary, or intense, or everything in between, it was there.

Instead, he says, “I just want you to be sure.”

“I am,” Will tells him, gentle and patient. “You know, you’re not the only one that’s scared of how you feel. You drive me crazy half the time.”

Mike swallows thickly, and he murmurs his next words into Will’s mouth, an echo of all those years ago. “Crazy together, right?”

“Yeah,” Will breathes out, and it sounds like a promise. “Crazy together.”

They meant it then, and they mean it now. Mike got through his younger years because of Will, and he knows now that this is it. Mike will get through the future years, too, because he’s going to be by Will’s side, the way he’s always been.

It’ll take time, but they’ll get there.

Together.

They cling to one another tighter than ever before as the minutes pass.

Maybe it’s that little murmur of concern that won’t go away in Mike’s brain, as if Will and this night will disappear into thin air the moment he lets go. And he’s learned more in these past few hours about how he worries too much, but he doesn’t want to risk it.

This is golden when he’s so used to rusting metal, and he intends to keep it.

Steve ends up driving them back to the Byers’ household, with Robin once again riding shotgun. Mike doesn’t want to be around his parents tonight and he doesn’t want to keep Will from Joyce, either.

It goes unsaid that they’re going back together.

After everything, they’re not sure they can be apart.

“Thanks, Steve,” they chorus to him, and Will helps Mike regain his balance after he stumbles out of the car, almost faceplanting the ground. He wants to blame the alcohol, but he knows it’s Will that’s got him feeling weak limbed and foggy headed.

“You’re a bit of a mess, kid,” Robin says to Mike, lips pursed thoughtfully. “You sure you’re alright?”

He can’t pry his eyes from Will when he answers. “I will be.”

Steve and Robin’s faces visibly soften, and an understanding dawns over both of them. Neither of them say anything else, sitting in silence as they wait for the boys to go inside, and then Steve’s peeling away into the night, not wanting to intrude any longer than he has to.

They make a bit of a racket once they duck into the house, because Mike latches to Will like a koala and Will’s giggles slip out of his mouth louder than he wants, but nobody comes out to tell them off. There’s no Jonathan coming in to check on Will, or Joyce flying in to scold them for coming back late even though they got her permission, and there’s no Hopper berating Mike for being tipsy.

There’s nothing but the two of them. There’s nothing out of place.

This is how it’s meant to be.

Will manages to get Mike into his room and unlatched long enough to force him onto the bed, pulling the sheets back so he can get under them. Will then makes work on toeing off his shoes and then gently easing off Mike’s, whose watching him with a soft gaze.

“Are you going to stare at me all night?” Will asks dryly. He doesn’t bother taking off his clothes, and neither does Mike, both too love drunk and drained from the nights’ events to care.

Mike blinks. “Yes,” he answers honestly.

Will snorts, dumping Mike’s shoes onto the carpet before crawling in next to him. It’s an automatic reaction, the way Mike lifts his arm up, and Will curls against his ribs like Mike is a pillow, nestling into his side with ease.

“You need to sleep,” Will tells him.

Mike’s fingertips trace loose patterns over Will’s shoulder, arm curled over the top of his back, and even with the weight of Will half on top of him, it’s the lightest he’s ever been.

“I don’t want to,” he counters stubbornly, even though he’s exhausted.

He just wants to bask in the afterglow of having Will all to himself like he’s been dreaming of for months. He wants to drink in his bravery that hangs high above him instead of the fear that would drag him down, forcing him to keep Will at bay.

He pulls Will tighter against him, mouth dropping to kiss the crown of his head.

He can do that now. He doesn’t have to pine over Will anymore. He can touch him whenever he wants, and he can be strong. Mike can let Will know everything over time, and he plans on it.

He’s still at a loss for words half the time, but he’s hoping he can make up for it.

Will cranes his head to look up at Mike, fondness visible all over his features. “I’ll be here when you wake up,” he murmurs delicately. A gentle reminder that counters Mike’s doubts of being left behind. “I always will be.”

Mike wonders if Will truly understands just how deep everything goes. That Mike is still lit up on the inside, full of warmth and flame that comes from being in Will Byers’ life. His skin is flushed and his head is fuzzy and there’s that thing again, that itch he can’t scratch.

It’s Will. It’s Will under his skin, and he doesn’t think he’s ever going to get him out.

(And he’s okay with that.)

It’s going to be a battle, because everything is. Mike will have his good days, just like Will, but it won’t mean that the bad times are completely gone. He’ll have Will by his side but sometimes he’ll question whether it’s permanent or fleeting, and it can’t be helped, because it’s rooted deep inside him and it’s beyond his fault. It doesn’t mean it can’t be fought, though, and he’s learning that fear doesn’t always have to win, not like he’s been used to.

Mike’s eyes start to droop, the weight of the love he feels pulling him under, but he’s calm. It’s not the same tug of a nightmare, or even a fantasy. It’s the kind that tells him he’s going to have a dreamless sleep, because everything he’d imagined is now his, and it’s in his arms.

It’s the kind that grounds him, that reminds him that no matter how dark things get, there’s a light that’s twice as strong fighting its way through to him.

Black fuzz creeps into his vision, and his eyelids flutter, slowly succumbing to the fatigue that’s been rooted right down to his bones for years.

The beat of Will’s heart and the sound of Will’s breathing is like a lullaby, and it soothes him into the shadows, a torch he can carry to accompany him through the darkness.

“I love you, too,” is the last thing Mike hears before he falls asleep, quiet but certain.

And when he wakes up, Will Byers is still with him.

The way he’ll always be.