“Oh,” Will says.
Mike Wheeler is standing, shifting on his feet and twisting his fingers around themselves, on his front porch.
“Hey,” he says, and there’s an undercurrent of something soft, and nervous, and apologetic in his voice. It’s a weird tone, and discomfort tucks itself into the curve of his shoulders and the gaps between his fingertips.
Will should say something, probably.
Anything, say or do anything that isn’t just staring, wide eyes and white knuckles on the doorframe.
Because Mike is standing right in front on him, and he’s at least a few inches taller than he was, and his shoulders are broader and his hair longer, curling around his ears and down towards his neck. But the twist of his mouth; the little furrow in his brow—
“Mike?” he says, and it’s so stupid because of course it’s Mike. It’s always been Mike.
“Will,” he says, and there it is again, the odd, kind gentleness.
“I thought…” Will starts, and trails off, losing track of his sentence to focus on the slope of Mike’s nose and the way his jawline seems so much sharper now. “You’re meant to be on a trip.”
“Yeah, well,” Mike says, one hand (pale and big and shaking ever so slightly) coming up to rub the back of his neck. “I… I wanted to see you.”
Will blinks at him.
“No, that’s not, that’s not it. Not really. I mean, of course I wanted to see you,” and Mike is rambling, a bit, words clumsily falling into each other just like they did when he was seven and scared of telling his parents that he’d crashed his bike and it was lying somewhere in the woods, little more than scrap metal. “I needed to see you. To… to apologise.”
It’s the first day of summer break, and Mike Wheeler is standing on Will’s front porch when he should be somewhere in Europe.
“Mike, you don’t need to—,” and he trails off, because, yes, Mike probably should apologise. Some small, aching part of Will won’t forgive him until he does, but that part of him is old and tired and cruel, and Will is trying so hard to tuck it away.
He’s already mostly forgiven Mike, even if he’d been ready to ignore his phone calls, throw away his letters.
Will wouldn’t have hurt him, or held a grudge. He’d fade, piece by piece, and ache, but it would be easier than telling the truth.
“No,” Mike says. “No, no, don’t do that. Stop forgiving me when you shouldn’t.”
“I’ve been awful to you, Will,” he says, and his voice breaks a little, and he sounds so young that, just for a moment, all Will can see is a smaller version of Mike holding out a hand in front of a swing set. “I— I’ve been selfish, and, and cruel, and I’ve taken you for granted for so long and then, well, then you left and I didn’t know how to do anything or even who I was because it’s always been us, not… not just me.”
Will is dimly aware that they are still on the doorstep, that his neighbours and the whole street can hear them. Mike, a year ago, would have ushered them inside well before this point.
“And I’m so sorry, Will. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t blame you at all if you didn’t forgive me, because I’ve said so much that I shouldn’t have, and I’ve not…” Mike carries on, and his eyes are glistening, a little, but they haven’t looked away from Will once. “I’ve not been here for you. At all. And it was so selfish, because I thought it would be easier to push you away completely than to deal with how much I miss you, and, and I’m still being selfish, now. Because after all of that, I’m still here, hoping that you’ll forgive me, because… because you’re my best friend, and I love you, and I’m so, so sorry.”
They used to exchange I love yous a lot, earlier. Back when they were ten and hiding away in blanket forts, back before Mike stopped saying it back because that’s girly, Will, boys don’t say that kind of stuff.
Will never did figure out what was so wrong with loving your friends. He never said it to Lucas or Dustin, though. Just in case.
“I—” Will starts, and then abruptly stops, because there’s something barbed and heavy in his throat, choking up his voice and making his eyes sting.
Mike waits. Waits, even as the tears start slipping, slow and quiet, down his pale, pale cheeks, even as the moments stretch into minutes. “I can… I can go, if you want me to.”
And Will is hit, suddenly, with how much he does not want that, absolutely not. “No! No, no. You don’t… you don’t need to go.”
And then, because Mike wilts just a bit, he adds, “I don’t want you to go.”
“I forgive you,” Will says. Lets the edges of his lips tilt up. “Of course I forgive you, you massive idiot.”
Mike makes an odd sort of noise, something that settles between a laugh and a sob. “You shouldn’t.”
“Probably not. And if you’re going to be a homophobic prick again, then I will kick you out.”
Mike’s eyes widen, just a bit. Right. Will forgot, briefly, what a small town Hawkins is. Homophobia seemed to be the resting state there, not an active choice.
“Will, I’m so sorry,” Mike says, again. It would probably be irritating, if that small, mean part of Will didn’t love it, didn’t think that Mike could apologise over and over and it would never be enough.
(Sometimes Will thinks that he must be an awful person, and buries the thought down, and tries even harder to be kind, even as it pulls him apart.)
“I was… I was a stupid kid, and mean, and I didn’t know how to deal with anything I wasn’t used to. Of course it’s fine that you like boys, and, and you don’t need me to tell you that, and it’s so late now, I know, but it doesn’t change… anything. I love you. And… I’d like to try again. At being a better friend, a better best friend, because you deserve so much, Will. So much more than what I was.”
Mike is still tense, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, tears still slowly falling down his cheeks. He looks like he’s waiting for Will to change his mind, to tell him to leave.
Will steps forward, onto his tiptoes (because somehow Mike keeps getting taller, and Will wishes he hated it), and wraps his arms around Mike’s shoulders.
Mike is frozen, for a moment.
And then he lets out a small, quiet sob, and brings his own arms up around Will, pulling him in so close, pressing them so completely together that Will can’t work out if it’s his heart thundering against his chest or Mike’s.
Mike is letting out a little stream of sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry above him, hands clutching at the back of Will’s jumper as though he’s scared he’ll leave, as though he doesn’t realise that Will knew from that very first day that this, this is the only thing he’ll never let go of.
“It’s okay,” he says, presses the words into the soft skin between his neck and shoulder, feels Mike’s fingers curl around his ribs and tuck him closer. “It’s okay, you’re here now.”
Mike’s words get whispered into his hair, lips brushing against Will’s temple. “I’m not leaving. I’m not, Will, I swear. Never again.”
Will smiles, just a little, and is sure that Mike can feel it against his skin. “I know.”
“I love you.”
A huff of laughter, soft and light, and Mike squirms a little as it brushes over his skin. “I know, silly. I love you, too.”
Mike nods, stepping into the room and putting his backpack down by the wall. “Woah. You drew all of these?”
“Oh. Uh, yeah.” Will’s walls are covered in drawings and paintings and odd little multimedia collages. They’re a bit, no, more than a bit strange, he knows. Something about the upside down had stuck to his art, and it lingers between pencil lines and strokes of paint.
El says his room looks scary, and his mum doesn’t step in here unless she desperately has to. She never says it, but he knows that it’s too much of a reminder, too much, too soon.
It’s hard to explain why he finds it… comforting, almost.
Maybe it’s because it feels a little like taking some control back. Like, yes, the upside down exists, but so does he. This is his upside down, his fears, his nightmares. He hates them, but they remind him of how real he is, how heavy he feels when he wakes up sweaty and shaking.
Will left a part of himself behind, in there.
The least he deserves is to take a part of it back.
Mike is staring, wide-eyed, eyes darting from wall to wall to ceiling. “You’re incredible. You know that, right?”
Will had prepared for a lot. Prepared for that's creepy and why would you want to have that up in your room and aren’t you too old to still waste your time drawing.
He’s not prepared for this, though. The way incredible had spilled out so easily from Mike’s mouth, the way his cheeks went a little pink straight after, as if he hadn’t meant to say that. Not out loud, at least.
He doesn’t take it back, or try and fix it to something less… less open.
“Uh,” Will says, and then scowls at how Mike’s half-smile widens into a grin. Glares, silently daring him to bring up the way he’s sure he’s gone bright red. “Thank you. Um.”
Mike is still smiling at him. He looks so soft here, so solid in Will’s room.
“You’re, um. You’re welcome to take the bed for now. I think the blow-up mattress is still packed away somewhere.”
It’s probably in the attic, crumpled in next to Will’s old sleeping bag.
“What? No, I’ll take the couch, don’t worry.”
“Mike, you’re a guest. You’re not sleeping on the couch.”
Mike outright frowns at him, folding his arms and glaring. “You’re sleeping here. I’m taking the couch.”
“Ohmygod. Whatever. We’ll sort it out later,” Will says, turning to leave the room. It’ll be easier to convince Mike when he’s tired, when it’s already dark out.
“Will, you are not sleeping on the couch.”
“I’m serious! If you sleep on the couch, I will sleep on the floor next to you,” Mike says, then goes red when Will turns to raise an eyebrow at him. “Then, uh. Then no-one will have the bed. And it’ll be a waste.”
Will sighs. Tries very hard to look exasperated, and not fond, and not pink at the idea of sleeping next to Mike again, after a year of barely talking.
“We’ll see. Do you want me to show you around or not?”
Mike lights up, then scowls, then goes through a very complicated looking set of emotions. It’s hard to hold in a laugh, because he’s so stubborn, even when it’s not a big deal at all.
Eventually, he huffs. “Ok, ok. Let’s go. Show me all your favourite things.”
Will freezes. Looks up at Mike, who has that soft expression again. His hands twitch like they want to pull Will back into a hug, and he’s chewing on his lower lip, like he’s nervous, again, and it’s an odd sort of role reversal, because Mike never used to be nervous around him.
The way he looks, now, though. Pink skin and careful smile. It’s almost as if—
“Yeah. Yeah, of course. Let’s go.”
(He had borrowed Jonathan’s bike, had laughed when it had ended up being just a little too small.
They’re growing up, Will had realised in a sudden, nausea-inducing lurch of thought.
“You okay?” Mike had asked, dropping the bike to inch closer towards him, hands awkwardly hovering as if he wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to touch, to offer comfort.
“Yeah,” Will had said, not sure if he was lying or not. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
He didn’t say I missed you or are you going to forget me or are we growing apart?
A week ago, he would have said yes. Yesterday, he would have said yes.
But Mike is here, now, sharp angles but soft hands, and that gentle look in his eyes when he turns to Will.
And now, he thinks maybe, maybe not.)
“It’s so different here, right?” Mike says, glancing over at him, flushed and warm in the evening sunlight. “There’s so much stuff.”
Will snorts, adjusting his grip on the handlebars. “I think Hawkins just has basically nothing. It’s loud around here.”
“Do you like it?”
It’s a question that Will seems to be asking himself a lot. “I don’t know. I think so? It’s big, and exciting, and I’m never bored but…”
Will glances over, realises Mike is already watching him. “I don’t know. It’s lonely, sometimes.”
“Oh,” Mike says, and the downwards tilt of his eyebrows and the muscle clenching in his jaw says guilt, guilt, guilt.
“It’s not,” Will starts, then realises he doesn’t really know what he wants to say. Because it’s nice here, yeah, but it’s not— It’s not the same. Wasn’t that the point, though? Weren’t they meant to be changing? “I mean, it’s just different.”
Maybe I’m the one that’s different, he doesn’t say. Maybe I’m never going to fit anywhere except with you. Maybe you’re all I have.
And it’s scary, because he has always loved Mike. Even through the months of not talking, the awkward time before that when he and El broke up and Will had felt like the only thread keeping all of them together, even through that moment, the one he tries so hard not to think about. (It's not my fault you don’t like girls. He’d said it, and then his face had done something weird, had pulled apart and shattered. Will hadn’t cared then, couldn’t care past the sharp burn in his chest, the way his stomach turned over and over and over.)
“Yeah,” Mike says, something wistful in his voice. “Hawkins isn’t the same. Not without you.”
“I don’t think I miss it.”
Mike glances over, a little sad, a little proud. “I don’t think you’re meant to.”
He sounds so sure.
Will goes quiet, stays quiet until they’re at his house, pushing their bikes past the car in the driveway.
“Hi, Mike,” his mum says, when she opens the door. Will wonders how she looks to the boy next to him. The lines around her eyes and her mouth are deeper, he knows. He also knows that it’s mostly his fault.
“Hi, Mrs Byers. It’s nice to see you.”
“Honestly,” his mum huffs, but it’s gentle, and she’s looking at Will, glancing between them like she’s trying to work out if she needs to be mad at Mike or if she should be hugging him. “It's Joyce. You’d think you would know that by now.”
Will leaves them to it, slipping through the door and tugging his shoes off in the hall, listening to the click of a door somewhere in the house.
“Hey, Mike,” El says.
It’s reflexive to look away. Will’s so used to being left behind around now, he’s almost waiting for it to happen again, even though he knows they’re not together anymore, knows some of the details. Knows that Mike said he’d never really felt like that about her in the first place. Knows, too, that El wasn’t sad, not really, just vaguely disappointed, vaguely confused.
“Hey,” Mike says, stepping forward to wrap an arm around her. “Been a while, huh.”
He steps back.
And back again, until he’s right next to Will, glancing down at him and smiling at him, and tilting so close towards him that Will can feel the heat radiating from his bare arms.
El watches them, and smiles.
Mike slots into their house like he’s meant to be there, like he’s just as familiar as the tie-dye blanket on the sofa or the picture frames on the walls.
He’s quieter than usual, though.
Mostly with Will.
Like he’s being careful, like he’s not sure how much he’s allowed. He says please and thank you when Will passes him the salt at dinner, flushes and looks away when Will catches his eye, even though Mike had been looking at him first.
His mum doesn’t stop talking, though.
It’s sweet, probably. Will is sure that she can sense the… not tension, not quite as uncomfortable as that, but. Hesitance, maybe.
Some part of Will wants to grab his friend, his best friend, and shake him, tell him that it’s okay, I’m here, didn’t I tell you that I forgive you.
He doesn’t, though.
It’s probably that mean little part of him. The one that says that Mike should feel awkward, he should feel sorry.
He tugs his chair closer to Mike’s and tells the voice to fuck right off.
Forget everything he said. Mike is not quieter. Mike is just as stubborn as he’s always been.
“Why can’t you just share the bed?” El says. His mum snorts from where she’s hidden away in the kitchen.
Mike goes pink.
“Oh,” Will says. “No, I don’t think…”
“I don’t mind.”
Will turns to look at him so fast that his vision spins for a moment, the darkness of Mike’s hair getting caught up in the light pooling in from the kitchen. “What?”
“I mean, unless you’re uncomfortable! Or anything. That’s, like, that’s totally fair. I just meant,” and there Mike goes again, rambling away like he’s not sure how to make his mouth stop moving. “I just meant that you don’t have to say no on my account. Not that I’m saying you are! Uh, just—”
He trails off. Will stares at him. El is hiding a laugh behind her hand (traitor) and Will can see his mum’s shoulders shaking by the sink.
“I—fine. Ok. Let’s go,” he says finally, mostly just to make the laughing stop. It doesn’t seem to work, because his mum lets out what is definitely a cackle, and that seems to be the final straw for El, who turns around and starts ‘coughing’ very, very violently.
Mike is still standing there, turning redder by the second.
“Ohmygod,” Will says. He hates this family. (He loves them.) He catches Mike’s sleeve between a finger and thumb, tugging him just a little. “I’m tired. Are you coming or not?”
“Yes,” Mike squeaks. “Yep. Here. Coming.”
Will side-eyes him, and then decides that everyone’s finally gone mad.
Five more minutes turned into an hour turned into but, mum, please can Will stay the night?
And it became commonplace to end up curled in opposite corners of the same bed, arms stretched across the mattress so their hands were aligned, or pinkies joined.
Will’s pretty sure his brother still has those pictures. Somewhere.
It mostly changed after Dustin and then Lucas and later El, and bed sharing turned into groups of sleeping bags all tucked away into the warm lighting of Mike’s basement. He didn’t mind it, mostly, because Mike used to moan and complain until they all shuffled around so he could tug his sleeping bag next to Will’s.
He’s not sure when it changed.
(Will has so much hate in him.
It pools in his lungs, festers in his veins. He hates everyone who has ever hurt him, hates his dad, hated Mike, for a bit, before he worked out that it wasn’t really his fault. Hated Mike’s parents after that, and hated the whole world even more.)
It’s different now, though.
It’s been almost years since they’ve slept in the same room, let alone the same bed. Will’s bed isn’t small, not really, but neither are they. Not anymore.
“Pick a side, I don’t mind.”
Mike looks over at him, tilts his head a little. He looks like he knows everything about Will, just for a moment. “You don’t like sleeping with something between you and the door.”
It should be weird that he knows that. It mostly just makes Will feel warm, feel known. “Well, no, but—”
Mike’s already nodding, settling into bed by the wall, leaving the side of the bed closest to the door empty. For Will.
Will sighs. Switches off the light and slips under the blankets, holding his arms and legs close to him, trying not to take up too much space.
“Night.” Mike’s voice is quiet. It falls heavy and warm in the still night air.
Will lays there, eyes following the curls of his ceiling. Flicking from dark corner to dark corner. He can see the light from El’s room trickling in under one corner of the door.
He stays very, very still, even though all he really wants to do is turn over and trace the lines of Mike’s face, his hands. Watch him, make sure he’s really here and not another thing that Will’s mind has made up.
Time passes in that slippery way it does in the late night.
“Will?” There’s shuffling next to him. Will tries not to think about whether Mike’s turned over to face him, tries not to think about how close they’d be if he turned over too.
Will has to look over now, just a small turn of his head until he’s eye to eye with Mike. He was right; there’s barely any space left between them. “Not really.”
Mike nods, then makes one of those little aborted movements again, the unsurehesitantcareful motions that he’s been making around Will all day.
“I already told you it’s fine. I already said I forgive you.”
Will huffs, turning back to look at the ceiling again. “Yeah, you’ve already said that too.”
There’s a sigh from next to him, a soft rush of air, and then he’s being tugged towards the other side of the bed, Mike’s arm wrapping around him until he’s on his side and facing the door with warmth spreading across his back and arms where he’s been tucked into Mike’s chest.
“Is this okay?”
Mike used to do this when they were younger, when Will would wake up crying from another nightmare. Back when his nightmares were still only about Lonnie.
“Yes,” Will says, just like he did when he was younger.
“Okay,” he hears, and then Mike’s forehead is pressed gently into his hair, and Will shivers as his breath fans across the back of his neck.
“Okay,” he says back.
It’s warm, and Will’s more comfortable than he has been in years, and it’s so, so easy to just close his eyes. To let himself drift off, to stop checking the corners of the room or the cracks in his ceiling.
Okay, he thinks, and falls asleep, curled up and calmer than he’s been in so long.
Mike looks like he wants to say something, but it’s very, very early, so Will scowls at him until he closes his mouth and tugs Will back into the curve of his shoulder.
It’s almost noon when Will finally stumbles out of his room.
“Hello,” Jonathan says.
“Don’t make that face.”
“What face. This is literally what I look like, Will.”
Will groans. “Why are you loitering in front of my room?”
“In the shower. That’s not an answer.”
“Hmm,” Jonathan says, which is just about the most ominous thing that he could possibly have said. “Do I need to beat him up?“
“I mean, there are multiple reasons, you know. You don’t have to clarify whether it’s because he was being a dick, or whether it’s a shovel talk, or—“
“Ohmygod, shut up,” Will hisses. “Go away.”
Jonathan cackles at him, sounding so similar to Joyce for a moment that Will almost smiles. “I’m just looking out for you, oh baby brother of mine.”
“Or,” Will says, finally pushing past him and into the kitchen. “Or, you could not do that.”
El is sitting at the table, eyes bright and amused when she looks up at them. Will glares at her.
“Do not start. Leave me alone.”
“Yeah,” and, seriously? Now?
Will sighs, resigned.
“Leave Will alone,” Mike continues, shuffling into the room and next to Will, close enough that their arms press together. See, Will’s very, very glad that Mike got over his awkwardness about whether or not he’s allowed to touch Will, whether it’s alright to be as comfortable as they always used to be (as if there was ever any other answer than of course, or maybe please), but he also really, really wants Jonathan to stop laughing at him.
“Thanks, Mike,” he sighs, again, and Mike either doesn’t notice his dry tone or chooses to ignore it, because he lights up a little and grins back at him. It’s completely idiotic, but also annoyingly cute, and Will almost forgets that he’s meant to be cross with him.
“Yeah,” Jonathan says. “Thanks, Mike.”
“Right!” Will cuts in before Mike opens his mouth because he is looking very confused and that can only end badly. “Are we having breakfast or not?”
“Will, it’s noon,” El says.
“Noon is brunch.”
Will huffs. His mum had introduced El to the concept of brunch a week or two ago, and she’s become a little obsessed with it, putting off breakfast until it’s past midday. Will had, of course, done the same, because El deserves everything, and that includes putting off breakfast just so he can eat with her. He’s never really hungry, anyway.
(They don’t talk about that, either.
His mum had tried to bring it up once, wide, concerned eyes, and the tired little frown that always soaks him in guilt. Had tried to talk about the food pushed around his plate before eventually being tipped into the bin, had tried to bring up Jonathan’s concern, and her concern, and, are you sure you’re okay, Will?
He’s fine, he’s just not hungry, much. Hasn’t been since the upside down.
His body feels too hollow, sometimes, and food settles like a harsh, solid weight in his stomach, so heavy, so out of place, that he sometimes ends up throwing it all up again.
He ignores Jonathan’s sad eyes, the hushed whispers at night when they think that Will is sleeping.)
It’s weirdly domestic, yet familiar all the same.
“Do you want something else, instead?”
Will blinks. He hadn’t realised how lost he’d gotten in the quiet clinks and taps of cutlery, the warmth of Mike’s fingers when he reached over to pass him a plate. “What?”
“You didn’t eat much at breakfast.”
Mike smiles a little, even as his eyebrows pinch down. “Sorry. Brunch.”
“No, I’m fine. I had a lot to eat last night.”
And Mike looks like he’s about to contest that, looks like he’s about to scowl and say no, no you didn’t, and call out all the food he’d left behind when he was too busy pushing it around the plate to actually eat it. There must be something in Will’s expression, something clipped or harsh or mean, because he only sighs a little, frowns a little more. “Okay.”
It’s quiet, again. A car alarm goes off somewhere in the distance, and Will tries not to flinch at the sound.
Mike looks over anyway. Catches his eye, offers a bashful little half-smile.
Will smiles back, lets the panic seep out of him and settle into the floorboards.
The first week passes just like the first day did.
They spend most of the days taking little trips, because somewhere along the way Mike got his driver's licence (another one of those growing up things that makes Will think he’s missing out on something, on everything), and walk through forests that look nothing like Hawkins, and buy odd little trinkets from market stalls.
(Well, it’s more that Will stays back to look at something for a moment too long, and then walks away, propelled forward by the guilt of his mum’s tired, tired eyes, and the fridge that seems to always be on the verge of slipping from half-full to half-empty. And then Mike disappears, at some point, and comes back with a little gift bag, hands it over to Will with one of those soft smiles.
“What—“ Will had said, the first time, trembling hands peeling away ribbons to find the leather bracelet that he’d spent far too long looking at, tracing his hands across the metal compass and the tight braids. “Mike.”
“You liked it, right?” And, the nerve of him. To still sound nervous, as if he doesn’t know everything about Will, as if he hasn’t been spending more time looking at him than the windows of shops and the tightly packed stalls in markets.
“I mean, yes, but—”
“Well, that’s all that matters then. Right?”
Will could only stare at him. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Absolutely not! No. It’s a present, Will. Here, do you want me to tighten the strap for you?”
And Will had to say yes to that, and then he was too distracted by the feather light brush of Mike’s fingertips against the inside of his wrist to keep trying to be mad.)
Mike insists on going everywhere that Will has written down on his maybe one day list, refusing to choose anything else, insisting that he doesn’t mind, that he likes everything that Will wants to do, that all he really wants is to spend all day with him.
And, really, how is Will meant to argue with that?
Because Mike is suddenly—
Fifteen-year-old Mike was kind, but only when other people couldn’t see. He wanted to be different, wanted to change, whilst all Will could think of was how to keep himself together after the upside down had almost torn him apart.
Fifteen-year-old Mike tended to leave Will behind, leaving him waiting around for something that wasn’t coming back. Something that got left behind when Mike went from ten to fifteen, something that got crumpled up and torn apart by the words of other people, something that was pushed down into something small and secretive and tucked away under layers of loud voices and distant hands.
This Mike, though.
Mike at seventeen is open with his words, with his hands, with the way his eyes seek out Will in every room and light up when they find him.
The way he says I love you and I want to see all of your favourite things and I just want to spend today with you.
Will’s almost dizzy from it, an elated sort of shock wrapping itself around his palms and sparking up towards the tips of his fingers. And maybe this is Mike growing up, and maybe this is him being a better friend, a better best friend, but maybe—
Maybe it could also be—
“Will, look, these fish light up!”
Will blinks, and he’s back in the darkness of the aquarium, staring at the pale pink trails that the jellyfish leave behind. He looks over at where Mike is pointing to some glowing yellow fish. They’re so small that Will thinks he could probably hold a dozen just in the palm of his hand. “Woah. That’s so weird.”
“Right?” and Mike sounds delighted, and honestly Will kind of hates fish, hates the deep sea because it’s so heavy, so layered with the unknown, with solitary, glimmering lights and swathes of seaweed wrapping around fins and tails, so similar to the things Will sees when he closes his eyes. He had only put the aquarium on his list because it’s apparently the biggest one in America, and, even when they hadn’t talked in months, all Will could think about was how much Mike would love it.
How his eyes would light up, how he’d grin and read Will stupid facts from the outdated flashcards.
“Hey, did you know that there’s a type of jellyfish that can live, like, basically forever?”
And Will had been right, of course.
He doesn’t like fish, or immortal jellyfish, or the dark edges of the aquarium, but he spends most of his time watching the way Mike looks awfully young again, grin wide and bright and eyes sparkling when he looks over at Will.
Tries not to think about the fact that, no matter how happy Mike looks, how tightly he wraps his arms around Will when he’s sleeping (because Will had forgotten to get out the mattress, and then forgotten over and over and ignored the soft, happy look in Mike’s eyes everytime he tucked himself into the side of the bed by the wall), no matter all of that, Mike isn’t going to want to spend all summer with him.
He’s going to go back to Hawkins, and Will won’t be able to do anything but hope that the phone will ring.
It’s halfway through the second week of Mike’s visit, and Will has been awake for hours, failing at not thinking about how Mike is going to leave soon, probably, and how big, how terrifying the world sometimes feels without him.
There’s shuffling behind him, and Mike’s fingers smooth over his ribs before settling again.
“Yeah?” he says, or at least he tries, because all that comes out is a choked off little sob, and he opens his eyes again except there’s nothing, there’s nothing all around him.
Quiet. He’s cold, all of a sudden.
When he looks over there is nothing, no-one behind him. Only a cool, damp wind that brushes over the skin of his lower back and sends prickles up his arms and neck.
“Mike?” he says again, and his throat is scraped raw, as if he’s been screaming for hours in an empty room. He sits up, and his vision blurs and spins.
It’s dark, and dull, and soft spores drift around him, slipping past his slowly adjusting eyes. There are heavy, twisting vines trailing over his legs, wrapping around his ankles.
“No,” he says, quiet. And then: “No. No, no, no. This isn’t real. This isn’t real. I’m dreaming. I’m in bed, and Mike is next to me, and I’m not in here, I’m not even in Hawkins, I’m…”
Except he can’t remember, suddenly, where he is, or where he was.
When did Mike find him?
How long has he…
It’s very dark in here, and there’s something about the way the floating dust settles into a hazy film over his eyes.
Maybe Mike’s not here.
Maybe it’s just Will, still stuck in that quiet, dark place, the one he tries to push under the warmth of light on his skin.
Maybe this is all there is.
An empty, open space, and him, screaming, over and over and over and—
He looks terrified.
His mouth is moving but Will can’t hear him, can’t hear anything over the ringing in his ears, can’t work out how to move his own mouth to reassure Mike that it’s fine, it’s okay, this just happens sometimes.
“—Will? Will, can you hear me? Should I get Joyce? I’m so sorry, I don’t, how can I help? Please, Will,” and Mike is rambling again, except it’s not so funny this time, not when he sounds like he’s being torn apart, like he’s going to break open just because Will is.
“I,” Will says, and his voice is raspy and slurred, as though his tongue hasn’t worked out quite how it’s meant to rest inside his mouth. He can taste copper. “Sorry.”
Mike deflates in front of him, shoulders slumping and fear spilling out over the edges of his limbs. “No, Will, don’t—Can, can I hug you?”
Will nods, closes his eyes against the way the motion makes him want to throw up.
He’s not sure how long they stay like that, a messy, haphazard pile of limbs and blankets on the floor by his bed, but Mike has his arms wrapped tightly around him, and one hand settles, warm and solid, against his lower back while the other runs through his hair, and he’s talking in a soft, low murmur, so quiet that Will can’t really make out what he’s saying anymore, can only feel the movement of his lips where they’re pressed against the top of his head.
Jonathan comes rushing in at some point, and Will eventually finds himself cocooned in the corner of the sofa, hands wrapped around a hot chocolate and head tucked against Mike’s shoulder.
Him and Jonathan are talking in quiet, worried voices, and Will thinks he should probably be cross that they’re talking about him like he’s not here at all, but.
But he doesn’t know if he is actually here, not really.
His limbs are heavy, and there is cotton wool in his head, and he falls asleep again, pressing his face into the sleeve of Mike’s t-shirt.
“Does this… happen a lot?” That’s Mike, he thinks groggily. Recognises the rise and fall of his voice, the way the consonants slip, loose, from the words.
There’s a long pause, and Will almost falls back asleep in the weighted gap in conversation.
“Not so much, anymore,” Jonathan says, eventually. He sounds old. Sad. “A few months back, he still couldn’t sleep through the night. It happens a few times a month, now. It’s better, at least, but I hate that—”
Another pause, and Mike’s arm has tightened ever so slightly around him.
“I hate that it still has a hold on him. He’s been through enough.”
“Yeah,” Mike says, and turns his head so it rests against Will’s own.
I’m sorry, he whispers, but Will’s already falling back asleep.
It’s a Sunday, and they’re lounging around on the sofa, Will’s legs stretched across the cushion with his feet resting in Mike’s lap. Mike has a warm hand wrapped around one of his ankles, and the gentle way he touches him, the look in his eyes—
It’s all another one of those maybe moments, and Will is steadfastly ignoring how warm his cheeks feel.
He blames the fuzziness of Sunday mornings for how long it take him to catch up with what Mike just said.
“Back to Hawkins?”
Mike nods, fingers tapping a quick rhythm against the raised bone of Will’s ankle. “Yeah. Figured you might want to see the whole party together again. We’ve all missed you.”
“Don’t ‘oh’ me,” Mike says, poking his foot and pulling Will back when he starts squirming away. “Of course we missed you, silly.”
Will slaps at his hands, scowls when Mike darts away. Tries not to smile at how gleeful he looks.
“Anyway,” Mike carries on once Will finally settles back into his side of the sofa. “We don’t have to go, obviously. We can just stay here. I mean, there’s still so much of summer left.”
“You mean…” Will starts, watching Mike with wide eyes. “You’d stay the whole summer?”
“‘Course,” Mike says, then frowns a little, looking back at Will. “I mean, if you wanted me to, of course. You don’t have to—”
“No, no!” Will yelps. “I was just asking. I thought you’d probably have to go back soon. Of course I want you to stay.”
“I like it much better here than in Hawkins, anyway, you know.”
“Right,” Will says, and then stops talking, feeling clunky and awkward. How is he meant to ask whether he likes it here because of the busy arcades, the long drives, or whether he likes it here because—
“I mean, you’re here. There’s not actually anything better than that.”
Will goes pink. He can feel it, the way heat soaks into his cheeks, and buries his face in the book that he's been failing to read.
The words jumble up on the page, and he can still feel Mike’s warm gaze on him even as he turns the pages.
“You didn’t answer.”
“Oh,” Will says, and the flush that’s been slowly, slowly fading is suddenly back. Why is he so embarrassing around Mike. “Yeah. Yeah, we should go. I think Jonathan wanted to go back anyway, to see Nancy and Steve.”
Mike gives him a small smile. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Will agrees, and turns back to his book. Wasn’t having a crush meant to be less embarrassing at age seventeen than at age twelve? His face still feels uncomfortably warm, and he’s trying to read the words on his page, but all that’s spinning through his mind is a chorus of maybe, maybe, maybe.
“Jonathan!” and Steve is running up to them, catching Will’s brother around the waist and spinning him around, ignoring his grumpy, scowling protests. He lets go, steps forward to ruffle Will’s hair. “Hey, dude. You… look so much older, holy shit.”
Will snorts. “Mm, time does seem to work like that.”
“Still snarky, though,” Steve laughs, swatting at his shoulder. It’s odd, because Will is only meant to have one older brother, but sometimes he really does feel like he has at least two.
“Right,” Mike says, catching Will’s elbow and tugging him towards the exit. “Are we leaving or what.”
Steve outright snorts at him, hiding a laugh behind his hand when he catches Jonathan’s eye roll.
“They’ve been like this all summer,” Jonathan sighs. “I guess you’re not the only oblivious one, Steve.”
“Yeah,” Steve agrees, still laughing. Then abruptly stops. “Wait, did you just insult me. Jonathan. Jonathan, come back, you’re meant to be the nice one. Nancy’s the mean one. Jonathan.”
As if someone, or something, has ripped into it, has pulled out everything bright and soft and warm from inside. Taken out everything that made it good and left an empty, crumbling outer case.
It’s all so familiar.
Sometimes Will thinks it must have been years since he was last here, years and decades, and then he sees a crack in the pavement, a particular peeling sticker on a lamppost, and it’ll feel as if he’s never left here at all.
Jonathan keeps glancing back at him.
Frowning, worried looks. Like he thinks this place is going to undo everything Will’s been trying so hard to fix. Like just stepping on the streets, breathing in the stale air, might break Will all over again.
It’s hard to be angry at him for it when Will’s not sure, either, about whether he should be here.
But then they’re at Mike’s front door, and it’s bursting open before Mike can dig out his keys, and then Dustin and Max and Lucas are tumbling out.
“Will!” He’s not sure who said it, and then it doesn’t really matter at all because there are warm arms and smiling faces all around him and he finds himself at the centre of a massive, teetering hug.
“Hi,” he starts, but they’re tipping, tilting, and Dustin is yelling about his hair, but they’re already on the floor, coughing up dust, and Will can’t stop grinning.
“Hi,” he says again, and thinks that there’s still some of him left in this place.
Well, they all do, Will thinks, but it’s most obvious on Dustin. He’s more settled too, calmer in his own skin, grinning big and wide and uncaring.
They all end up huddled together in Mike’s basement, again, because they’ve always ended up here. Even now, when their limbs stop them from fitting into the blanket forts, when their sleeping bags are fraying at the edges, the zips coming undone from where they’ve been tugged too hard too many times.
Mike huffs and puffs and grumbles until Dustin finally throws up his hands and swaps places with him so that Mike can sit next to Will.
It’s hard not to feel warm.
It’s like being ten again, talking about every little thing that has slipped past them in the year that Will’s been away.
(“It’s not the same,” Lucas says. “When you’re not around.”
“Yeah,” Max adds, “they’re all so much more annoying.”
“What! Max, you’re meant to love us!”
“I thought I was your boyfriend? And now, this slander?”
“Shut up, Lucas, more importantly, I thought I was your best friend. What happened to all of that!”
“See,” Max says, pressing her lips tightly together and raising an eyebrow at Will. “So annoying.”)
El has settled into the space on the other side of him, and he’s soothed, oddly, by how comforting it is to look over and find her smiling softly. Looking happy and warm and settled. It’s nice, Will finds himself thinking a lot these days, to have siblings. To love them with everything you have, and then yell at them for stealing the last of your hidden candy stash.
“So…” Lucas says at some point. “Mike.”
Mike immediately stiffens.
A very, very still moment of silence.
“Has he what?” Will asks.
“Nothing,” Mike squawks, except Dustin groans loudly at the same time, and Lucas has the most unimpressed expression on his face. Even Max looks over, for a moment, before turning back to El and saying something to her that makes her whole face light up with a bright laugh.
Will is pretty certain it’s not ‘nothing’.
He’s also very, very tired, so he just sighs, a bit, and lets Mike keep this secret. “Sure. How’s Suzie, Dustin?”
And then Dustin is talking for almost twenty minutes straight about how great Suzie is, and Will looks over, mouths a few words of that song at Mike and then they’re both giggling, and Mike looks at him, and mouths thank you, and Will grins, because of course. Always.
They have to leave at some point.
Still, Will’s hit by the childish urge to grab all of them, keep hold of their sleeves, because there’s still that little voice telling him that they’re never coming back, that if he lets them leave now, he’ll never get them back.
He lets it go, though.
Lets the familiar, sparking panic wash over him, and hugs all of them goodbye, and says he’ll see them later, because he will.
Except Mike puts the keys away and then turns to head up the stairs and says, “Coming?”
And they end up sharing Mike’s bed, even when the guest room is just down the hall and the sleeping bags are getting colder down in the basement.
Will looks at Mike’s closed eyes, the way his fingers settle around his wrist, and thinks maybe. Maybe soon.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Of course.”
“I can drive you to Lucas’s place, if you want?”
Will looks up from where he’s sorting his blueberries into a little tower. “Thanks, Mike.”
“‘Course,” Mike parrots back at him, flushing a little when Will meets his eyes.
They leave after breakfast, and Mike hands Will a stack of apples and oranges because somewhere along the way he’s figured out that Will still eats fruits without complaining, and then he’s parking in front of Lucas’s house and leaning over to Will with a half-smile and a dusting of pink across his nose.
“I’ll see you soon,” he says, one hand lifting up and hovering, unsure, before he tugs Will into a little half-hug across the console of the car.
“See you,” Will says, and steps out of the cat, hearing the door opening behind him but refusing to look away until Mike’s car can no longer be seen beyond the bend of the road.
It should probably be weird, he thinks, that they’ve spent over two weeks almost entirely in each other’s company.
And then he thinks about the years in between, the empty, awkward, quiet years, and thinks that maybe it’s not so strange after all.
“Don’t worry, dummy, your boyfriend will be back soon enough.
Will yelps and spins to glare at Erica, who has the most put upon expression he’s ever seen. “He’s not—”
“Oh, god, not again,” she says, and disappears back into the house and into the hallway. “You’re both idiots, I swear.”
Will doesn’t ask, even though he really, really wants to.
He goes inside, though, and finds Lucas in his room, and spends the morning with him, biking to the arcade. They both scowl at the leaderboards because, sure, it’s been a few years since they were last here, but what do you mean there are now other thirteen year olds beating their old high scores?
“Man, I swear we’re getting older so much faster than we’re meant to.”
“Yeah,” Will says. He ignores the uncomfortable prickle in his chest that always sparks up whenever the whole idea of growing up comes around, that prickle of confusion because he feels trapped, sometimes, somewhere between his tiny, sobbing, twelve-year-old self and someone much, much older than he actually is. Someone who has seen it all and found the world wanting.
Will has spent hours trying to work it out, but he can’t figure out whether that’s an old, jaded part of him, or whether it’s another one of those remnants of the upside down.
It’s lunchtime by the time they leave the arcade.
The sun is out, today, which is only weird because this is Hawkins, not California, and it might not rain all the time here, but it’s always, at the very least, cloudy. There is a bright blue nothingness stretching out above him that begs to differ, though.
They’ve only just stepped out the door when Lucas’s bag makes a suspicious crackle.
They both look at it.
“What was that,” Will starts to say, except it makes that noise again and Lucas looks wide-eyed and very, very guilty.
“I have to go to the bathroom?” Lucas says.
“What? Was that a question?”
“No! I mean, yes! I mean, I’m going to the bathroom,” Lucas says, clutching the bag tight against his chest when it starts making those crackles again.
“Is that… a walkie talkie?”
“No!” Lucas blurts out, and then almost runs to the bathroom, leaving Will standing by the door of the arcade, confused and slowly getting warmer in the midday sun.
“It was definitely a walkie talkie,” he mutters, and then goes to sit under the tree in the car park.
“What?” Will says. He’s been saying that a lot, today. “Where are we going? Who were you talking to?”
“Lucas,” he says, but Lucas is already biking away, so he huffs and gets on his bike to follow him.
“Lucas…you do know we sold the house, right?”
“Yep,” Lucas says.
Lucas looks over and groans a bit. Will must be looking exceptionally sulky and, honestly? Will thinks that’s justified. “You’re not very good at surprises.”
“Can you blame me?”
A sad, faraway sort of look clouds over Lucas’s face. Just for a moment.
“Sorry,” Will says. There he goes, ruining every nice thing people try to do for him.
“No,” Lucas says, and it’s so firm, so steadfast, that Will can’t help but listen. Maybe even believe him. “Don’t apologise. You don’t have anything to apologise for.”
Will sighs. Doesn’t say anything more and lets the moment pass.
“Yeah, we know you guys sold the house,” Lucas carries on after a few minutes of quiet and the creaking of the wheels on their bikes. They’re far too small, but none of them can bring themselves to buy new ones. “But the woods behind it are still public property, you know.”
Will stills remembers the splintering of the wood, the crumpled paper, the torn blankets. Can still feel the way the hurt had settled in his skin, had curled up inside his fists.
It’s dampened now, though.
A scar turned silver, fading away with every smile, every apology.
Lucas stops at the tree line, grins at Will, bowing ridiculously and waving an arm towards the woods. “You know the way.”
Will looks at him for a moment. Drops his bike, steps forward and wraps an arm around Lucas.
“Oh,” Lucas says, and brings his arms up too, squeezing Will tight for a moment.
“Thanks, Lucas. Although I’m not really sure what I’m thanking you for.”
Lucas snorts, ruffles his hair once and drops his arms when Will steps away. “Have fun, okay?”
Will narrows his eyes at him, but the other boy just grins and swings a leg back over his bike, halfway down the road before Will can work out what to say to that.
“Okay,” he says to the trees and the empty air around him.
The path is perfectly familiar, each step as well-worn as the creases in his sleeping bag, even though it all feels just a little smaller, now.
It doesn’t take long to reach the clearing where Castle Byers had once stood, even though it feels like that had been somewhere in a different life, or maybe a dream.
Or, at least, it’s meant to be a clearing.
Meant to be empty space, maybe some half-broken logs that Jonathon never got round to clearing up.
“Hey,” Mike says.
He’s standing outside the entrance to… to what looks just like his old fort used to, except it’s just a little bigger, a little brighter than it is in memories.
It has the hand-painted signs and everything, except Will knows that that’s Mike’s handwriting, not Jonathan’s, and he suddenly feels a little on the verge of tears.
“Hi,” Will says, and his voice is a little choked up, and Mike is twisting his fingers around themselves again, just like he did that first day on Will’s doorstep. He’s nervous, Will realises. Something about the thought makes him feel a little braver, a little more hopeful. Another maybe. “You… you built all of this?”
“Yeah,” Mike says. “I know it’s not exactly the same, and, well, I’m not anywhere near as good at woodwork as Jonathan is, so it’s like, a little clunky at the edges, I know. Sorry, I don’t know if—”
“Mike,” he says, and, oh, there are tears in his eyes.
“Wait, shit, I’m so sorry, was this awful? I just… I just wanted to make sure you knew that there’s, there’s always a place for you here. In Hawkins. With— with me. And you’re so brave, Will, and sometimes I wish I could make all of it go away, you know? All of it, the nightmares, the way that you sometimes still look at us like you’re not sure if we’re really here.
“But you don’t need me to. You don’t need any of us, not really, because you’re strong and brave and kind, but, god, we really need you, Will. I need you. And I’m always going to be here. For you. Because—”
Will hates a lot of things about the upside down.
He hates the way he’s always cold these days, the way the dark doesn’t go away even with the lights on. He hates that he feels feverish with panic sometimes and chokes on his own breath.
“Mike,” he says, again, and steps forward, and tilts his head just a bit, because Mike has always been taller than him, and he’s always tried to convince himself that he hates it.
“Because I love you. Because you’re my best friend, and I’d do anything for you, but I’m also really, really in love with you,” Mike says, and his voice is shaking, just a little, but his hands are warm and steady where they’ve come up to catch onto Will’s fingers, wrapping around his knuckles and the back of his hands. “And I’m sorry it took me so long to figure it out, and that even when I did, I pushed you away because I was so, so scared of losing you. It’s already happened once, and I don’t think I could deal with that, ever again.”
He sounds so young, standing in front of Will, trembling, as if he’s worried that Will is going to say no. As if Will would ever say no to him.
“Mike,” he says, and it’s barely a whisper. “Are you going to kiss me, now?”
Mike’s eyes go very, very wide, and then he’s grinning, hands tightening around Will’s palms. “Is that…”
“If you ask me if that’s okay, I’m leaving,” Will says, except he’s grinning just a bit, too. “Of course I’m in love with you. I don’t know how you haven’t noticed before now, honestly.”
“Well,” Mike says, and he looks so bright, pink and flushed and grinning, fingers soft and light on Will’s skin. “I didn’t even notice how much I loved you until you moved away.”
Will snorts. “That’s because you’re oblivious. And Hawkins sucks.”
“Yeah,” Mike says. “Except for the fact that I met you here.”
“Shut up,” Will says, and he’s bright red, but then it doesn’t really matter because Mike’s leaning down and his lips are pressing, gentle, against Will’s own, and he’s so, so warm, skin lighting up when Mike moves one of his hands to cup Will’s jaw.
He’s warm, and he can feel Mike’s smile against his own when he pulls back, just for a moment, and it feels, Will thinks, just like coming home, like he never left at all.
“Joyce sent them to me,” Mike says. “Said that they’d just been sitting around in the attic.”
The walls of the inside of the fort (although it feels like too childish of a word for this version of Castle Byers, this version which is almost double the size of the original so that both Will and Mike can fit in it easily, even though Will still ends up mostly in Mike’s lap for no reason other than it making Mike smile) are covered in Will’s old drawings.
They’re mostly old character designs, half-finished sketches and muted colours.
There are photographs, though.
Photos of all of them, the whole party tucked into sleeping bags or staring intensely at screens at the arcade.
There’s one, though, tucked away into a corner, of him and Mike. In the photo, Will is fast asleep, a tiny smile on his face, and his head is resting on Mike’s shoulder. Mike is smiling down at him, and the expression on his face is so soft, so open.
He smiles at it, leaning back into Mike, settling against his chest and tilting his head to look up at him, grinning when Mike leans down to press small kisses across his cheeks, swatting at Mike’s hair when it brushes across his nose.
Will hates a lot of things about the upside down.
But he’s had to learn to be brave because of it, and it’s bravery that took him to California. It’s bravery that made him hurt and ache and laugh, taught him how to forget all the things his father used to tell him and instead carve out a little space of his own.
A little world of his own.
Will turns to press his lips against the pale skin of Mike’s neck, laughing softly when he squirms away but immediately tugs Will closer.
A little world of his own.
He hates and loves Hawkins in equal, childish measure. Hates that he grew up here, loves it because he grew up here.
It’s easy to love, though, when he’s sitting here, Mike warm and solid and real against him, and all of his maybes have turned into yes, have turned into I love you, have turned into warm, soft smiles and the gentle press of Mike’s lips against his.