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Thirteen

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Most people, they ask about the town.

They ask about the monster, about the science and the mystery and the trauma. “Start at the beginning,” they say with hunger in their eyes and hope in their voice. “Leave nothing out.”

But that's the funny thing about stories. The best adventures—the ones in comic books and fantasy films, the ones now prevalent in the very real wreckage of Hawkins, Indiana—they don't begin where you expect them to. The nature of an epic adventure tale means the structure is almost always shrouded in mystery, almost always set in motion before the hero recognizes the quest has begun. Stories don't begin when people start taking notice, they start before that, before there's a name, or a title, or even a summary. And that's what makes stories funny, and ironic, and bittersweet, because stories, they're not unique to one person, or one place. They're not objective, there's never just one.

Everyone has a different tale, Will thinks, and everyone has a different beginning.

Most people don't even realize their stake in the story unraveling around them, twisting and turning as decisions are made, as loyalties are tested, as people are killed, as battles are lost. There's a million different threads that could fall apart at a moment's notice, and it's only once the threat is over, looking back over the highlight reel that the odd tweak of fate is apparent, its guiding hand evident in the nooks and the cracks, omniscient and omnipresent all along.

The question, then, isn't a generic request for information, but a specific inquiry. It's less a tell us what you know as it is a narrow list of subjects, a rebuttal questionnaire of who and where and when. 

For Will, his story isn't really about him at all. And it's not about monsters or laboratories or science experiments, either. It's not about alternate dimensions, or telekinetic powers, or memory loss. Those things are all present, of course, but they're not the focus of Will's tale because it's his. Because they're not his support system when the world feels too large, and the room too small. They aren't his crutch when the room feels cold, too cold, and the blankets do nothing to keep him warm. They're not what stays with Will on the bad nights and the good ones, they weren't there at the real beginning, before there were dimensions or therapists at all.

They're not Will's constant. 

They are not, because there isn’t a them at all. Because his story involves a very different set of pronouns. Because his story is much simpler, and much more complex, than anything he's read in the comics under his bed, or in the pamphlets at the doctor's office. His story is more elaborate than any of the scientific facts that have been spouted at him over the years, but also sharper than any of the oblique imagery the newspapers have tried and failed to capture about a world on the other side. Will's story is all of these things and none of them at the same time, for one very simple reason—a reason overlooked and frowned upon by most, perhaps, except the ones who matter most. 

Because Will's story is about a boy.

And this is how it starts.

 


  

Part I

 

Will has always noticed Mike Wheeler.

It’s normal, Will thinks, that one person in a group always stands out. It’s normal to have someone who takes charge and makes decisions, a person who is steadfast and brave and decidedly good. There’s always one leader in a party, its role vital and distinctly lacking the laws and regulations adults impose with power and authority. The boys always shirked such inane, distrustful standards, and their choice of leader was no different: their paladin an instinctual choice, a natural selection no one consciously decided, but approved of just the same.

There’s never been any question that person is Mike Wheeler.

The thing about Mike, though, is he isn’t the typical leader Will reads about in stories, or sees drawn in comic books. He isn’t overtly powerful or assertive. He isn’t menacing, or big, or scary. Lucas is stronger, Dustin is mouthier, and Mike has always balanced somewhere between the two. One part stubborn, one part empathy and beneath that—an earnest, instinctual kindness the likes of which Will has never seen before, even from Jonathan. 

But then, that’s what makes Mike special. That’s why, when the chips are down and hope is lost, it’s Mike who writes a new ending. Not with sheer logic like Lucas, and not with mere flattery like Dustin, but with his own unique way of seeing the world. There are infinite possibilities at Mike’s fingertips, infinite variations of villains and heroes of epic proportions and Mike introduces them all with an enthusiastic flair and a twinkle in his eye that begs a brave lad to rise to the challenge. It’s impossible to resist the call, the charm—impossible and futile, where Will’s Dungeons and Dragons characters are concerned, but he falls anyway in every universe, with every character. There’s no explanation and no excuse, but there’s also no regrets, either, because the truth is there’s no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than precisely like this: watching Mike Wheeler unveil another campaign, bigger and more elaborate than the last, head bowed and brow furrowed in concentration as he regales another whimsical tale of dragons and princes and virtue, of impossible odds and unspeakable evil that is no match for the courage in their young, dear hearts.

Nothing could beat this.

It’s why Mike has always stood apart, Will thinks. To the bullies at school, to his parents at home, to Will every occasion in between. It’s why he admires Mike, why he trusts him, why he’s impossible to resist even on the worst of days. If Lucas and Dustin are inseparable counterparts, naturally drawn to each other’s oppositional pull, then Will and Mike are the inverse, balancing one another with a quiet camaraderie that feels—unique. Special. Different. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, maybe it’s less important than it seems, but either way it doesn’t change the way Will’s pulse flutters, the way his cheeks flush when Mike hits him at full force with that dorky, preteen smile, all hopeful vigor and unparalleled enthusiasm.

And maybe that’s why, when Will gets captured by a monster straight out of their most nightmarish D&D campaigns, it isn’t his mother’s name he calls. And it isn’t Jonathan’s or Dustin’s or Lucas’, either. It isn’t Mr. Clarke, or Nancy, or anyone else more qualified to deal with the threat in front of him with teeth for eyes and petals for lips. No, Will calls for a slender boy with brown eyes and shaggy hair, a boy with too-long limbs and crooked teeth. A boy who has yet to grow into himself, but has unknowingly grown more than enough into someone Will adores, someone he trusts with not just his safety, but with his life, too.

And when the monster grabs Will, when it snakes long, unnatural arms about his waist, when Will falls headfirst to a place that looks like home but isn’t home at all, he lets out one final scream for the boy he noticed from the very beginning, without ever being able to explain why.

In this version of the story, it turns out Will is the princess trapped in the tower, begging for a knightly prince to come and save the day. The reality doesn't feel so backwards from fiction, though, not when the focus isn't on the princess at all, but a monster guarding the exit and stalking its prey. Will hides in Castle Byers one night, in his house the next, in Mike's home a time or two, and somewhere between one cold, empty home and another Will can say with confidence he's glad to be a supporting character in this warped version of reality. He's never been more grateful to have a friend on the other side, to have comfort in the knowledge that a hero is on the way. And not just any hero, but a paladin, a most courageous knight who has more than enough leadership and willpower to piece the puzzle together, to gather the party and venture forth into the unknown.

To hear Will, when he calls.

 


 

In reality it’s his mother who finds him, and the sheriff who breathes life back into him, but that doesn’t diminish Mike’s part, not by a long shot.

Will’s grateful for his mother, of course he’s grateful. Her determination knows no bounds, he knows. But she also looks for cracks and scars when there are none, she also worries and fidgets and lingers well past what is considered normal. Will gets it, he does, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t wish for more space, either. Some part of him has always known he’s not normal, but this is a whole new brand of awkward, the uncomfortable silences that follow those worried dark eyes pouring over Will’s everything

Jonathan isn’t much better. His worry is in his tells and his stares more than outright acknowledgement and it’s breathing room, a pocketful of air, but it's still suffocating at long intervals. It still seeps under Will’s skin, making his eyes itch and his throat constrict. It’s still far too reminiscent of that thing lurking in the shadows, looking for movement, for life, for blood.

There’s something to be said, then, for Mike’s open affection, the way he doesn’t hesitate before reaching Will first, before the other boys. There’s a metaphor there somewhere, Will’s sure of it, and just like that he’s reverted to a younger, more naïve version of himself who daydreamed bits of poetry about a boy with shaggy brown locks, hair that is closer to falling in his eyes than Will remembers.

It’s been a week, but it feels like a lifetime.

When Mike holds him, he doesn't act like Will's fragile. When he asks if Will’s okay, it’s only after a cough. When he lingers it’s to sit, content and alone, with Will by his side.

And maybe that’s why, after the Upside Down, it’s Mike that Will turns to. It’s Mike he calls before sleep, it’s Mike he invites over for sleepovers. It’s Mike who answers, Mike who calls, Mike who visits.

It’s Mike who holds on.

Will could have this same comfort from just about anywhere, from just about anyone. There are people who care for him, Will knows, people who would envelope him the same way Mike’s arms encompass him now. There are even people who love him, but it’s just not the kind of love Will wants right now. And he’s allowed to have a preference, he thinks, he’s allowed to put this kind of solace above the rest. Eight months after the fact Will is finally taking Jonathan's advice, finally pursuing what he wants for no other reason than he wants it. And right now Will wants Mike Wheeler’s soft snores near his ear, and Mike Wheeler's arms wrapped around his waist. Maybe the trauma from the other side overrides all the carefully held restraint that always kept Will's desires at bay, or maybe it's Mike who makes Will a braver, happier person.

Tomorrow may be a different story, but tonight—tonight instead of sleeplessness Will has rest.

Tonight instead of nightmares, he has dreams.

 


 

Weeks pass, then months. The more time that passes, the more people fall into two categories: the ones who baby Will, and the ones who pretend everything is okay. Will's family falls into the former, his friends the latter.

Mike is the only one who fits in neither category.

Where Dustin and Lucas are near bursting with chatter and energy, with sheer, unbridled excitement, Mike is shy, sparse with words in a way he never is. There’s a look in his eye, a faraway glaze when someone whispers her name—Eleven—when they walk by the classroom still undergoing repairs from the place she disappeared. Dustin compensates where he can, Lucas redirects when he’s able, but none of them really know how to deal with the fallout, none of them know what should follow the long, painstaking silence after her name.

It’s pure selfishness maybe, but Will is grateful despite it all. Finally there’s a shred of un-normalcy in a town that’s well on its way to healing. Finally there is another person that feels the repercussions each and every day. Finally there is a person with otherworldly scars, with too-long stares and empty promises. Finally, there’s someone, and that someone is Mike Wheeler.

Still, the knowledge that there’s someone else doesn’t help the bigger, more pressing issue his mother has been steadily hinting at for the past month: connecting. Will doesn’t know how to ask, how to bring about the subject. He knows it’s his fault Eleven is gone and Mike is sad, so surely there’s a way he can fix at least one of those problems. Surely there’s a way to put a smile back on Mike’s face, even if it’s temporary. Surely there’s a way to be there for Mike, the way Mike has been there for him.

The problem isn't wanting to help. The problem is not knowing how.

In the end Will pays Mike a visit after school one perfectly ordinary Friday. It’s no different than any other occasion they’ve visited each other on a whim, except the nerves when Will knocks on the Wheeler front door are brand new. Will checks and rechecks his blue button-down, fidgeting with his sleeves.

Mrs. Wheeler answers the door, ushering Will inside with a smile. “Hello, Will. Here to see Mike?”

“Yes, Mrs. Wheeler.”

“How many times have I told you, Will,” she says with a shake of brown curls. “Call me Karen.” Her smile is sugar sweet, but Will thinks he senses something deeper lingering on the edges, something tense and worried, but unspoken just the same.

Will can't blame her, not really.

“Yes, Karen.” Will puts on his best happy face, if for no other reason than to assure her he's trying his best. And Will's best means more than just himself. His best means being there for Mike, a friend who gained one person just to lose another, a person who hides his hurt so as to not harm the rest of the party.

And that's just it. Will doesn't like not acknowledging the blanket fort in Mike's basement. He doesn't like ignoring Mike's withdrawal from the campaigns. He doesn't like not being able to say her name, he doesn't like pretending Mike's face doesn't fall when the Snowball comes and the Snowball goes. There's not much to like about the situation in general, but pretending there isn't a situation at all doesn't smooth the transition to their new version of normal, it just makes things more difficult, more...wrong.

Will may not be the bravest of the group, but he's always had courage to tell the truth, and the truth is they've all changed. The truth is, that change might be permanent. 

Will finds Mike in the basement, staring at his walkie-talkie with a face so vulnerable and sad it makes Will pause on the second to last step. In all his time with Mike, Will has never seen an expression quite like the one before him now. Come to think, he's never seen Mike display the full extent of his sadness at all, and Will has a moment to ponder if that's an attribute of being dungeon master, too, before Mike looks up, a perfectly formed teardrop in his eye.

“Hey,” Mike clears his throat, wipes his right eye on his sleeve. “Hey.” He tries to smile, but it's a weak attempt, a fraction of its usual wattage.

“Hi, Mike.” Will finishes his descent and sits beside Mike on the floor, stares at his shoes. He breathes out a long, unsteady breath.

“What uh, what brings you by?”

Mike sniffles.

Will pretends not to notice.

“I just—” Will thinks about how that sentence ends, forms every single word in his head the way the nurse told him to. But then he thinks about the last few months and the image in his head becomes something darker, something gloomier than the altruistic, hopeful version that appeared on Mike's doorstep. Will thinks about the classroom Mike never enters. He thinks about school dances and balances between worlds, thinks of demogorgons and monsters, of shadows that haunt the past and shape the future.

Will wants to think about Mike being happy, but right now all he can picture are Mike's tears.

“I just wanted to say—I'm sorry.”

Will clasps his hands together, stretches them out between his legs. Decidedly does not look at Mike's questioning stare.

“For what?” Mike asks so little of Will, always has, and this single, quiet request for information feels especially small, now. It sounds confused and dejected and so unlike the strong, heroic knight from Will's memory.

It's quiet for a long time, as Will processes what to say. “For Eleven being gone.”

Mike sniffs again. “It's not your fault.”

Will makes a face. Stares down at his shoes. “Yeah, well.” He shrugs. “It kind of feels like it is, in a way.”

There's silence for another moment or two before Will feels a hand on his arm. Except it's not comforting, like it so often is these days. This time Mike's grip is strong and urgent, surprising and vehement. It's still firm in that singular way Mike so naturally is: uncompromising and loyal to a fault, but it's also—different, somehow. He's still hurting, Will guesses, still bleeding not on the outside, but internally. The effects are visible to anyone who pays attention, but this close Will can see the knot of worry in Mike's brow, the sad curl of his lower lip. This close he can see Mike's bruised heart, too.

“Will,” Mike says, and the tone doesn't match the hand on Will's arm. This voice sounds broken in a way Mike never is. “It's not your fault.”

It's a way to convince himself, maybe. That's what Will thinks, what he believes. It's not the whole truth, but it's what Mike tells himself to carry on, to be some modicum of okay.

“You're not alone, you know,” Will says on autopilot, staring down at Mike's hand on his arm. He doesn't know what possesses him to quote his mother, doesn't know why the words come so naturally now, weeks after the fact.

“Yeah.” Mike releases a long exhale, and it sounds like some of his sorrow leaves with it, too. There's a pause, then Will feels a poke to his ribs. “I have you.”

Will isn't expecting the small chuckle to come tumbling from his lips, but he isn't complaining, either. “Yeah,” he says, smiling. “Yeah, that's right.”

Mike smiles back and it's such a sad sight, despite the glimmer of warmth reappearing in those brown eyes. Will has missed this, he realizes. He's missed this more than he ever knew he could.

“I'm really glad you're back.” Mike looks down at the floor. “I—I don't know what I would have done, if I would have lost you, too.”

Before today, Will didn't know what words he needed to hear to make the last three months okay. He didn't have a clue what magical words might make the past disappear but right now, sitting in Mike's basement, listening to Mike's words feels pretty damn close to perfect. Mike has a way of doing that, Will knows, of saying just the right thing at the right time in the right way. He has a way of making Will feel less like an off-brand version of normal, and more like a real, authentic version that fits right in when he's by Mike Wheeler's side. It's a version Will likes, a version he wants to keep.

“I—I don't know either,” Will says, and it feels like a confession, of sorts. It feels like the beginning to something, even if he doesn't know what that something is.

Will isn’t expecting the bone-crushing hug that follows, but maybe he should have. Mike has always been open with affection and tonight is no different, if a bit more intense than Will is accustomed to. Still, he won’t complain about the arms wrapped around his back, about the breath warming his cheek. He won’t complain and he won’t back away, not when everything finally feels right for the first time in half a year. 

“Thanks, Will,” Mike says, and his voice shakes a little.

When Mike pulls back, it’s to run a palm along his face and offer Will a flimsy, but genuine smile. Will smiles back, and he wants to offer the usual platitudes. The typical “it'll be okay” is on the tip of his tongue, except the usual remarks don't feel right. Nothing about Mike Wheeler is typical or okay and neither is Will, for that matter.

“I'm glad it's not just—” Mike sighs, like the words aren't quite right. “I'm glad it's not just me.”

Will isn't expecting a proclamation, not from Mike. Not that Mike isn’t usually forthcoming with feelings, it's just that, when it comes to hurt, Mike tends to withdraw in on himself rather than talk outright. It's not something Will can criticize, really, since he does the exact same thing.

But also, Will gets it.

“Yeah,” he says. “Me too.”

Once the words are off his tongue, the weight feels woefully short of what Will really wishes to say. It doesn't seem to capture every unspoken confession hung between them, stuck in the small tan sofa cushion between Mike's thigh and his. It doesn't feel like it expresses everything they've been through, everything they've seen, and fought and lost.

There's a moment there, an intake of air when Will almost says it. He almost admits the slugs clogged in the drain at home, almost says the long-lost words his mother begs and begs him to say.

But then Mike looks at him, a teardrop in his eye and an ache in his throat, and words don't seem to matter so much. Not when there's a whole wealth of meaning right here, between Mike's sofa cushion and his. In the space between heartbeats.

Maybe Will doesn’t know how to move forward, and maybe that's okay. Maybe he doesn't need isolation, or complacency. Maybe the therapists are wrong, maybe the doctors don’t have a clue. Maybe it’s not about growing up or moving on—maybe there isn’t a choice to be made, or a promise to be kept. Maybe it’s not about one moment, but about these spaces in between.

Maybe it's not about being normal at all. Maybe it's about finding someone to be un-normal with.

Maybe it's just about finding someone, and holding on.

 


 

The reason doesn't begin to hit Will until another six to ten months later.

He's never really given much thought to why Mike stands out. He's never delved too deep into Jonathan's advice, to his father's mockery, to the bullies' taunts. The explanation, the muse, the reason is right before his eyes, but Will just never—acknowledges it.

That is, until he can't anymore.

It starts off innocently enough. One day Will is living a blessedly peaceful existence, mostly normal with Mike by his side to help him along the way, when he starts picking up—details. It starts off innocuous, innocent: mere cataloguing of Mike's fine features that Will doesn't notice with the others. Will doesn't think much of it because it doesn’t take much effort. It's just keeping tabs, or so he thinks, until the day he starts drawing instead of just compartmentalizing.

It might have remained a mindless hobby, too, if it weren't for Dustin's too-prying eyes, catching Will at the exact moment he's finishing up a sketch of Mike's cheekbones between second and third period.

“Hey, what's this?” Dustin calls over Will's shoulder, and Will shrinks in on himself.

“N-nothing!” Will flips his sketchbook over, possibly wrinkling the papers in the process. He tries not to cringe. He's unsuccessful, if Dustin's devious smile is any indication.

“Doesn't look like nothing.” Dustin raises an eyebrow.

“Well, it is.”

Will doesn't even know why he's embarrassed. He could just as easily say he draws all his friends—which wouldn't be inaccurate, technically speaking—but Will also has this annoying habit of not being able to lie in any capacity, ever, and he's embarrassed, a little, about the transition of this once-innocent hobby to a treasured obsession to capture Mike's essence just right. Will doesn't even know the exact moment the motive shifted, just that somewhere between the first stroke of his pencil and Dustin's toothless smile it, somehow, did.

“Alright, let's see it, Byers. Hand it over.”

Will concedes, since he's already lost. He flips the sketchbook without glancing at Dustin once, so sure his fate is sealed. He’s going to be mocked, or questioned, or otherwise belittled for the rest of his middle school life. It's the sort of thing the boys mock each other for all the time in harmless little ways, it's just that Will—doesn't want that, for this sketch. For some...reason.

But then, just when Will expects the bard to rebuke the cleric for drawing the paladin, no questions come. And there's no laughter, or threats, or confusion, either. There's a distinct lack of anything, in fact, and it makes Will raise his eyes in trepidation.

“This is really good, William.” A pause. “Think you missed a freckle or two, though.”

Dustin shrugs and walks away, whistling horribly under his breath.

Will sits in confusion for another five minutes until the bell rings, wondering why, out of the two of them, he's the one stunned and short of words.

 


 

Will is half expecting his next encounter with Mike to be twelve different kinds of awkward.

It’s paranoia, Will tells himself, and he’s proven right after third period, when Mike and Lucas and Dustin are already set up in the cafeteria, eating and arguing away as per usual.

Will’s natural tendency toward awkwardness must be normal, because nobody bats an eye when he approaches the table.

“Here, allow me,” Dustin says, winking at Will out of the corner of his eye. He moves from his position sitting next to Mike and butts in next to Lucas, instead. Will nearly drops his food tray.

“What the hell, dude,” Lucas protests loudly, but Dustin just grins.

“What?” Dustin smiles. “I missed you, Lukey-bear.” He needles Lucas' side with jabbing fingers.

Lucas slaps his hands away. “Don’t do that, it’s creepy.”

“I think it’s cute.”

“It’s creepy, and it’s never cute.”

“Says you. Your sister and I, we have a connection.”

“Literally never say that again.”

“Ignore them,” Mike says loudly, giving the other side of the table his patented Mike Wheeler glare. “Come on, Will the Wise.”

It would be more weird to not follow instruction, so Will does as he's told. If he leaves an extra gap or two between Mike's body and his, then nobody but Dustin notices. Which is one person too many, in Will's opinion.

“Here.” Mike interrupts Will’s plan to transform Dustin into a pile of goo with an orange wedge from his plate.

“What’s this for?”

Mike shrugs. “No reason. I just know you like them.”

It doesn't mean anything, Will knows, but his fingers still shake anyway, made worse by Dustin's toothless smile becoming creepier by the second. Even Lucas takes notice, staring between Will and Dustin like they both grew two heads.

“What?” Mike asks when he looks up, a knot of confusion on his forehead Will refuses to admit is cute.

“Oh, nothing.” There's a moment of blissful silence in which Will actually believes he may get away with this incident with most of his pride intact. That is, until Dustin opens his mouth again. “Hey, by the way, did you see Will's latest artwork?”

Will doesn't choke on the remains of his sandwich, but it's a near thing.

Mike perks up. “No, I didn't.”

Will deflates.

“It's not a big deal,” Will protests, with a humble shrug. “Just a dumb work in progress. I don't even know if I'll keep it.”

“So? I'd love to see it, if you want.” There's a hopeful note in Mike's voice, and, when Will chances a glance, a look too: his entire body leaning forward in anticipation, broadcasting his genuine happiness at the prospect of a new work in Will's sketchbook. It's a look that's broken Will's defense more times than he can count, a look that is currently on the same sketchbook Mike is inquiring about. The thought of the figure in Will's imagination meeting the real life muse feels—daunting. Impossible.

Terrifying.

“Um, yeah, okay. Maybe later?”

Mike nods and goes back to his meal, but the smile stays. Will stares daggers at Dustin for the rest of his meal, Dustin who takes no offense to the mental attacks on his life and whistles horribly under his breath for the rest of the day. Will doesn't know what there is to be so proud of, exactly, or even happy about for that matter, but he also does not want to bring up this incident in any capacity, either, so he's willing to let Dustin's incessant needling slide.

Will walks back to class with his sketchbook in hand, decidedly shut and burning a hole in his right palm. When he gets home he heads straight for his bedroom and tears the pages out, all of them, not just one, and buries them under his pillow. He'll burn them tomorrow, he tells himself. He'll eliminate the evidence and pretend it never happened. No matter how happy Dustin was today, no matter how hopeful Mike's demeanor, it doesn't matter. He's already a freak, and he can't—he just can't.

Maybe later, he'd said.

Will throws himself back on the bed and stares at the ceiling. 

Maybe never.

 


 

The thing is, Will knows he’s setting himself up for heartbreak.

Will knows Mike views their interactions as platonic, he knows Mike hasn’t a clue at Will’s inner turmoil post-Shadow Monster. He knows and his pulse doesn’t stop hammering away anyway, his eyes don’t stop looking and his heart doesn’t stop hoping. Maybe Dustin is rubbing off on him, maybe someone else knowing gives Will that little bit of freedom to maybe, sort of, acknowledge the steadily growing stack of art under his pillow.

He knows and yet it still stings when Eleven reappears.

It’s not wholly unexpected, and Will should have seen this coming. He should have known dancing with a girl who approaches with “zombie boy” as a greeting was a mistake, too, but as usual Will’s desire for normalcy wins out, and his propensity for courage falls short.

And that’s not even the worst part.

No, the biggest mistake is watching the whole thing unfold like something straight out of those romantic comedies he catches his mother watching from time to time. She cries because she’s lonely, Will suspects, but maybe there’s longing in her tears, too. Will never really understood the impulse before, but looking at Mike and Eleven hold hands, watching their lips touch, Will thinks he gets the reason for his mother’s sadness, now.

The worst part is, he did this to himself.

“I need—I need to go,” Will stammers to the girl in front of him, realizing with a shock he doesn’t even know her name. Maybe she doesn’t know his either, maybe that’s why she used the horrific nickname, maybe her intentions weren’t so cruel, but Will doesn’t care either way because he doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to dance, he doesn’t want to watch, and he doesn’t want to be brave, either. He’s stuck between wishing he could be a better, braver person and being scared of what that person might look like. He’s scared of what that person might gain, and even more terrified of what that person might lose.

Will rushes to the bathroom and stares at himself in the mirror. It’s a familiar comfort at this point, even if the action doesn’t bring any kind of comfort at all.

The reflection stares right back, solid and firm in this world, but the image in front of him is cold, cold as ice. Will thinks the boy from a few years ago would barely recognize the figure gazing back at him now, and maybe that’s the most chilling part. Will stares at this new version of himself and wonders if he’ll ever have happiness, true happiness, in every sense of the word.

He wonders if he’ll ever be anything more than prudent.

He wonders if he’ll ever be brave.

 


 

It’s still worth it, though. No matter what does or doesn’t happen with the boy with intense brown eyes and steadily growing curly hair, Will enjoys every little piece of Mike Wheeler he does get to keep, and his puzzle collection grows with each passing day, no matter what—or who—settles in between.

Will may not be happy in the fullest sense of the word, but he is content. It’s not like he knows what true happiness looks like anyway, and how can he ever figure it out when there are mothers and brothers and doctors constantly peering at him sideways, searching for chips in the armor.

They never find anything because Will doesn’t allow them to. It’s cruel, maybe, but Will can’t allow that kind of vulnerability again, or at least right now. And besides, things are admittedly much better than a year ago, so it’s not like there’s much to report, anyway.

Nothing of substance, at least.

For now, Will ignores Dustin’s winks and sidelong stares, ignores Mike and Eleven’s hands brushing under the table. He ignores his mother’s needling, ignores Jonathan’s teaching, and most of all, ignores the disappointed glint in Mike’s eye when Will cancels one arcade trip, then two.

It’s better this way, Will tells himself.

Even if he never expects anything in return. Even if Mike never gets that wistful look in his eye. Even if there’s nothing more than friendship between them. Even if they don’t see each other as much these days, and when they do it’s never alone. It’s okay, Will thinks, it’s all okay.

Maybe if he repeats it enough times, he’ll convince himself, too.

 


  

Part II

 

There’s a while there where everything falls into a certain rhythm. Some people might call it normal.

Will calls it unnerving.

Maybe it's because Will doesn't know how to be normal anymore. Maybe he's not good at complacency. It’s good for him, that’s what the doctors keep saying, but for Will it feels less like a positive thing and more like an in between stage, an intermission before the final show.

Still, Will wouldn’t describe himself as discontent with this new reality. He’s perfectly happy to watch Pretty in Pink and Back to the Future with the gang, which now has two not-so-surprising female members. It’s fine, it’s all fine, it’s just that sometimes it feels more like a distraction rather than a genuine good time.

That is to say, it doesn’t come close to their D&D campaigns. 

Though, Will thinks wistfully watching Andie choose Blane over Duckie, maybe Will is the one that's stagnate. Maybe he's Duckie on the outside looking in, stuck in a loop of teenage angst. Maybe he should learn a lesson from the film in front of him, maybe he should offer his proverbial blessing and let go.

As much as part of him wants to adhere to what he had before, hours and hours of nights spent at Mike's table, speaking in their own private language of fantasy, maybe that's just not the reality anymore. Now instead of dice they have popcorn, now instead of players they have films, now instead of a party they have dates.

Maybe they've just grown up. Grown apart.

It's just hard, because Mike is still very much the Mike that Will remembers. He's still there, right in front of him, unchanged. He still laughs at terrible jokes, still gets that look in his eye when one of them is hurt. He still won't cut his hair, or give up his old toys. He still bickers with Max, and throws a sideways smirk Will’s way when he cracks a rare joke.

It'd be easier, Will thinks, if there was something to miss. Something to hate. But Eleven isn't annoying, she's lovely. And Mike isn't a rich prick from the other side of the tracks, he's still Mike. He's still there every time Will calls, and every time he doesn't.

Will watches Duckie lose his final chance at the girl and he wonders if this is who he is now, who he was always meant to be. He wonders if the future was already written, all the way back when he first disappeared and Eleven materialized out of thin air.

Maybe some things are as simple as that. Maybe destiny isn't always filled with prophecy and splendor. Maybe sometimes it's just the truth, and maybe the truth doesn’t have time for soft edges. Maybe it's just cold, harsh fact.

“This is bullshit,” Mike voice interrupts Will’s maudlin thoughts. “It was supposed to be Duckie all along.”

There's silence while the others take stock, pondering whose side they're on. But Will doesn't have to wonder, and maybe that's why he answers first without thinking. Maybe that's why he offers an adage he's heard from Jonathan a hundred times, a cliché trope Will never would have considered before, but seems to make more than perfect sense now.

“Nice guys finish last,” Will says, eyes glued to the screen.

He doesn't mean to be melodramatic about it, or even wistful. Will doesn't enjoy delving headfirst into self-pity, he doesn't want to play the victim on a situation that isn’t even a situation at all. Will isn't unhappy, and maybe that's the most frustrating part of all. There's no excuse for him to feel this way, but he also can't deny that some part of him keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the monsters to return from the darkness, for Eleven to disappear again, for Mike to revert back to their old ways of passing the time. Except it never happens, and the monotony keeps on coming until the false sense of security seeps under Will’s skin like a knife. It makes him nervous. It makes him belligerent and selfish and rude. Day in and day out Will's instinct is proven wrong over and over and over, and now—now of all times—Will feels like he's actually going crazy.

Now he feels empty.

Will can feel Mike's eyes on him, intense and questioning.

“It's not fair,” Mike grumbles at last, and Will almost smiles at his indignant tone. It's a reminder that Mike is still human, despite all his undeniably good qualities.

Sometimes it feels like Mike is the only one who speaks Will’s language, these days. And sometimes it feels like there’s a wedge there, too. Sometimes it feels like Will is all alone, even if his isolation is a choice. Sometimes it feels like Will is just destined to lose.

Mike nudges an elbow into Will’s arm, like an unspoken code, and maybe part of Will does want to wallow, after all. Maybe part of him relishes the pity, the sadness, the bitterness. Maybe he needs to harbor it, just for a little while, before he inevitably accepts his losses and moves on.

Will nudges back, and if he sinks further into the cushions and gravity brings him closer to Mike’s side, well.

No one can prove a thing.

 


 

Mike gives Will a hug in the Wheeler foyer before Jonathan picks him up.

He does this, sometimes, for no apparent rhyme or reason. Mike will appear out of thin air and give Will a moment to process the hand on his arm, or the fingers on his shoulder, to process dark hair and darker eyes before Will’s smaller body is being curled into a larger, leaner one in a firm embrace that’s warmer than anything Will’s ever felt, exorcism included.

Will doesn’t question it, and he certainly never refuses.

If he had to guess, Will would say it’s Mike’s way of dealing. They all have a thing they do, a near compulsive habit to check the locks, stow the keys, to dim the lights but leave one on. They all have demons of different shapes and sizes and for Mike, a way to banish those dark shadows is to hug Will.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then. And it shouldn’t feel electric and new, either, but some things never change. Some things feel good no matter how often the motion is repeated, and sometimes it even feels better because of it. Sometimes it’s more than just bad or good.

Sometimes it’s better than words.

It feels like a secret between them, maybe. It feels like a private event, and Will has the only ticket. It’s the most useful Will has felt in a long time, the best kind of un-normal for as long as he can remember. It feels good to be helpful, and to do so by something as simple as existing is unexpected, yes, but also invigorating.

Maybe Mike is still the glue that holds Will together. Maybe Will still feels that warmth even now, after he knows he shouldn’t. Maybe it always comes back to this between them, maybe that’s what makes it special. Or maybe it’s Mike, just Mike, who makes it so. Mike Wheeler, who is the bravest and gentlest person Will knows. Mike Wheeler, who inexplicably garners comfort from Will’s small body, from Will’s broken, aching heart.

Will wraps his hands around Mike’s body and squeezes, just enough to let Mike know he’s there, he’s listening, he’s present in every sense of the word. In this world, in this body, in this lifetime, Will thinks, he’ll always choose this. No matter the risks, no matter the pain, no matter the cost.

He’ll always choose this.

 


 

He still gets seizures, sometimes.

The doctors tell him it’s leftover from the monster’s influence, from the trauma of the paranormal. The truth is no one really knows what to call it, or how to heal it, because prior to Will and Eleven, there was no such thing as “the other side”. Eleven is helpful in explaining what she can, but even her expertise falls short of the real-time vernacular the scientists use, so most days end with Will interpreting the rest as best he can and decidedly not staring at the tattoo on Eleven’s wrist.

“It’s a form of epilepsy,” Doctor Owens tells him one afternoon with a sad twist of his lips. “Could be psychological, could be neurological. Could be something else entirely. Unfortunately, with our department closing doors, there’s not much we can do.” That’s the last Will’s hears of it, and when the hospital referral offers a form of shock therapy Joyce refuses to consider, the last they speak of it, too.

So, he deals.

Most days, it’s not bad. The episodes are short—and shorter still if there’s someone by his side, someone who knows the right words to say and the right comfort to give. Usually that person is his mother, or Jonathan. Sometimes, it’s the boys. In rare cases, it’s Eleven. Will was embarrassed, the first few times Eleven saw him like that, but then Mike told him how her nose bleeds, how “every superhero has a limit,” and suddenly Will’s side effect didn’t seem quite so bad.

Still, Mike’s comfort and Eleven’s quirks don’t stop Will’s firm no when the others ask if he’s going to the dance this year.

One look at his friend’s shocked faces, one glance at his mother’s worried eyes and Will knows he’s done for. He knows his friends want his company, and he knows Joyce wants him to try. Not to fit in, necessarily, but to have fun. To live, rather than just existing.

So, he compromises.

“I’ll go,” Will announces over breakfast, “but not with a date.”

Will pretends not to notice his mother and his brother exchanging quick glances over their toast.

“Okay,” Joyce says in a tone that is both a question and permission. “Going with your friends then, sweetie?”

“Yeah.”

“I can take you, buddy,” Jonathan offers. Then, to Joyce: “I’m volunteering again this year. Pictures.”

“Oh, good,” Joyce’s eyes light up when she glances between her two boys. She looks like she might cry again, but reins it in at the last second. “Good,” she says again, quiet, like she’s talking to herself.

No more dances are discussed, blessedly, until the awkwardness that is lunch the following day. Will caves within moments of feeling the tension bleeding the usually thriving conversation dry, confessing he changed his mind and will be attending the dance next weekend, so long as it’s sans date.

“Maybe we could go together,” Dustin offers, slinging an arm about Will’s shoulders. Will smiles and elbows him in the ribs. “Hey, that’s not a very nice thing to do to your date, Byers.”

Mike makes a face. “Dustin…”

“What? I think it’s a great idea.” Dustin sneaks his arm through Will’s elbow instead. “You jealous, Wheeler?”

Mike’s grimace becomes more of a frown. “No,” he says, only a little petulant. “I was just thinking—maybe we could all go together. No dates, like Will said.”

Mike’s voice gives a little pause at the end of the word, maybe, like everything that follows is unsure, like the others might laugh or refuse him outright. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that Mike is still human, still very much a fifteen year old boy who is plagued by insecurity, same as the rest of them. That despite his newfound height and deeper voice, there are moments when he’s just as unsure of what he wants and who he wants it with.

There’s silence as that particular suggestion settles.

Finally, Eleven steps forward. “Good,” she pronounces it.

Will pretends he doesn’t see Max and Lucas exchange looks behind Eleven’s back. “Uh, okay then,” Lucas says belatedly, and Max shrugs. Mike is decidedly looking at the ground, Eleven’s chin is sticking out in stubborn indignance, and Dustin is smirking like he’s just won the lottery.

“You always get what you want, Mikey,” Dustin whines, letting go of Will’s arm to rub Mike’s curly hair into disarray. “I guess I’ll be your date, too.”

Mike just ducks his head and rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling when a teenaged group of six makes their way through the door.

 


 

Their plan quickly dissolves into disaster, because of course it does.

Lucas offers for Will to dance with Max, Eleven looks awkwardly like she isn’t sure what she should offer, Mike stares at the ground and looks as though he’s just rediscovered what hands are, and Dustin keeps offering and offering and offering until Will finally snaps.

Stop it,” Will mutters as quietly as he can. “You don’t need to do this.”

Dustin stops trying to shove his fingers into Will’s ribs immediately. He looks like someone just punched him in the face. “What?”

This.” Will gestures at the floor, at himself, at Dustin. When Dustin’s eyes don’t lose their sharp-edged, confused quality, Will sighs. “You don’t have to pretend you didn’t see it,” he whispers, hoping the others are far enough away and Max’s superhearing doesn’t feel like eavesdropping.

Dustin holds up both hands in Will’s general direction. “Okay, you’re going to have to back up there, William. What are you talking about?”

Will rolls his eyes. “The art you saw.” Dustin narrows his eyes. “From my sketchbook?” Still nothing. Will pitches his voice low, as low as he can. “Mike?”

“Oh!” Dustin exclaims loudly, much louder than what is deemed appropriate during a slow song. Lucas whips around to stare at them, then rolls his eyes when he sees Dustin making his signature I remembered something dance with his hands. Dustin learns forward conspiratorially. “That drawing,” he whispers. Will wishes he would stop grinning like that.

There’s a second of blissful silence, then: “What about it?”

“I know you saw it, okay? You don’t have to pretend like you didn’t.”

Dustin stares at Will for a long, long moment. It’s just starting to feel awkward when Dustin glances down at the floor, releasing a sigh.

“Look, I wasn’t going to say anything, but since you brought it up, well.” Dustin reaches up to run a hand through his hair, then realizes he has five pounds of hairspray in it and drops his arm down to his waist, instead. When he looks back at Will again, his eyes are serious in a way Will only sees on rare occasions. Very, very rare occasions.

“You don’t have to pretend, either.”

Despite feeling in charge of this conversation not ten seconds earlier, Will feels all the color drain from his face.

“What?” he manages, coughing into his sleeve.

Dustin sighs again, except it sounds sad, this time. “I think you know what I’m talking about, Byers.”

Will stares at the floor for a long time until he can’t anymore, until he has to see exactly what expression is on his friend’s face. What Will expects to find there and what he sees are two different things, but both are perplexing. Both unsettle Will more than if he’d just found anger, or resentment there instead.

Because Dustin’s face just looks—sad.

“It’s okay,” Dustin says in a voice that sounds far too reminiscent of Jonathan, a firm hand landing on Will’s shoulder. “And I think if he knew, he’d think so, too.”

Dustin doesn’t give Will a chance to reply, he just walks away with a skip in his step and a smile on his face. He tugs on Eleven’s sleeve, he begs for her arm, until a relenting Jane and a bemused Mike offer their respective blessings. Dustin sweeps Eleven onto the dance floor, holding her like the pretty princess she was born to be, and together they try and fail their way through a musical number distinctly not matching the beat of their feet. Lucas and Max follow close behind in a much more orderly fashion, joining their friends with constructive criticism of their own, but their smiles are bright.

Mike and Will stand on the sidelines, watching their friends forget their troubles—really, actually forget—for the first time in weeks, maybe even months. Mike and Will who are decidedly not together, Mike and Will who are friends, best friends, and it’s okay, it’s more than okay, but Will can’t help the nagging, festering thought. He can’t help the deep, deep part of himself that he always keeps buried rising to the surface, egged on by Dustin’s goading. There's a part of Will that’s always wondered about the question Dustin just answered without even asking, and looking up at Mike through the fan of his lashes, Will wonders if he could ever voice the confession out loud.

Would you really be okay with it?

 


 

Naturally, Will has an episode.

It’s a hysterical way for his body to pass the time, laughable, almost, but at least it excuses the awkwardness rattling Will’s brain, an odd conglomeration of firm and black and lean taking up space near Will’s shoulder.

Will lapses out of consciousness, like always, and he wakes to someone touching his shoulders, like always. The difference, then, is the person’s face waiting to greet him when his eyes flutter open.

It’s Mike, of course. Mike with his dark hair and his even darker eyes, Mike in a black suit that is crisper than anything Will remembers being in his closet. Mike with his hands around Will’s shoulders like they’ve done a thousand times, except this time, they don’t move away. This time, they stay.

They’re in the hall outside the gymnasium, right next to the lockers belonging to Troy and his goons. It feels ironic, that Mike brought him here. It’s a little shove in the bullies’ face, maybe, a very Mike Wheeler thing to do to show them just how little he cares for their taunts and their opinions, all the while showcasing how much he cares for his friends, too.

“Hey there, Byers,” Mike says, and his little sideways smirk breaks Will’s heart. Maybe it’s Dustin’s words still ringing in his ear, maybe it’s the location in front of Troy's locker, but either way, it feels…momentous, somehow. It feels preordained, almost. Like the universe knew Will’s deepest secrets, so it overwhelmed him, naturally, but it also—gave him this. It gave him Mike Wheeler.

Mike pulls Will up slowly, and the minute he’s in a sitting position, wraps himself around Will in a full body hug.

The angle is awkward, but Will doesn’t much care if his elbow gets crushed between his ribs and Mike’s stomach. He doesn’t much care about anything except keeping this embrace for as long as he can, for as long as it lasts. Because it’s warm. Because he’s selfish. Because this is all he’s ever wanted since that first stroke of his pencil. Maybe before then. Maybe even—always.

And Mike, he pulls back just enough to pull Will up and up and up, to bring them both back to solid ground and then he’s back in Will’s arms, his long limbs snaking around Will’s back and spiraling all the way up to his neck.

“You want to get out of here?” Mike asks in a voice so low it’s nearly a whisper.

“Yeah,” Will answers, but he doesn’t let go.

Mike seems to understand the way he always does, and that’s when he begins to move. It’s slow at first, a gentle sway to and fro, then a little faster until he’s tipping them both in gentle, curving arcs to a tuneless rhythm that feels a bit like their own private dance.

It’s intimate, more intimate than anything Will has ever felt, but that just makes Will more inclined to say:

It’s the best damn dance he’s ever been to.

 


 

Nancy drives Will home.

Jonathan offers, of course, but he's taking pictures for the couples and Will knows it's a big deal. Will hates to take his brother away, especially for something as silly and selfish as his own personal self-pity, and that brief moment where his brain decided to have him convulse on the floor.

Nancy is a Wheeler, though, and that means she's just as stubborn as her brother, or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, Will soon finds himself in a car full of Wheeler genes, staring out the window marveling at how different the evening turned out than anything he could have dreamt up. He still feels babied, to an extent, or maybe it's just the spotlight shining on him again, reminding him what a freak of nature he really is. The only thing that eases the awkward silence is the memory of Mike's arms around his back not ten minutes earlier, his fingers on Will's spine, his breath near Will's ear.

“Thanks, Nancy,” Mike says as they pull into the Byers' driveway.

“Yeah, thanks Nancy,” Will repeats on autopilot. He's out of car and turning on his heel to say goodbye to Mike in a flash, except Mike's face isn't in the car anymore either. Will watches those long legs disappear from the backseat until there's no body part left to say goodbye to.

Will stands up, stares at Mike over the top of the car.

“Well, come on,” Mike laughs a little, like Will's face is doing something wonderfully hilarious.

“Um,” Will tries, but finds he doesn’t even know what to say. “Don’t you have to—get back?”

Mike’s face makes an aborted motion, like he wants to scoff but catches himself just in time. “No,” he eventually decides on. “None of us have dates tonight, remember? And besides, I told the others before we left.” He waves again with his arm, inviting Will toward his own house.

“Okay,” Will says more out of habit than because he actually understands the situation.

It’s not that he can’t comprehend Mike wanting to spend time with him. It’s that Will can’t comprehend Mike wanting to spend time with him tonight, when his girlfriend is some five miles away, possibly still standing with Dustin and definitely not anywhere near Mike himself. Will isn’t delusional, he knows how much these things mean to Mike, even if he’d never admit otherwise. Will is very fully aware of how much a romantic Mike really is, and Mike actively avoiding something as biannual as a school dance doesn’t seem—normal.

When Mike laughs again, it’s with decidedly more cheer. “Come on, Will the Wise,” Mike says, leaving his post at the door to reach for Will’s arm and steer him indoors. “Let’s go filter through your mom’s new collection of films, huh?”

Will smiles despite himself, and leaves logic at the door. Just for one night, he tells himself.

Just this once.

 


 

Will’s house feels different here, with no lights on and nobody home.

He’s so rarely alone anymore, if he ever really was at all, and that’s before Will had an attractive fifteen-year-old crush standing in his living room, bent over a coffee table, searching for a light switch on a lamp.

It feels private, dark and mysterious in a way his home hasn’t been in over a year. The air is thick and heavy, a tension in the air cutting at Will’s nerves, making him hyperaware of the sweat still drying at his temples, of his hands still shaking at his sides. He wants to run and hide, he wants to wrap himself in Mike’s arms and never, ever leave. He wants both and he wants neither at the exact same time. His heart is still pumping blood double time, his breath is still heaving tiny little gasps of air and Will has a sneaking suspicion as to why.

The thing is, Will has kept himself from really looking at Mike all night.

He’s made valid excuses, he’s looked the other way. But now Will is faced with the reality, now Will has nowhere else to look: not when Mike offers a quiet “aha” as an orange florescent lamp shines throughout the room, illuminating his fine, delicate features. The thing is Mike looks good, like an older version of himself Will can hardly reconcile to the boy he once knew. Somewhere between this year and last, somewhere between one day and the next Mike became more man than boy, and the black jacket lining his shoulders, the curl of his hair, the jut of those bold cheekbones only goes to show: somewhere between here and there, Mike Wheeler became something of a knockout.

Somewhere between the lamp and Mike’s smile, Will forgot how screwed he really is.

“Do you want anything to drink?” Will tries, with only a minor crack in his voice.

It's not awkward, Will tells himself. Regardless of the fact that they haven't been alone since Eleven returned, it's not awkward.

“I'm good, thanks.” Mike peers at the frames on the walls, their glass containers housing some of Will's drawings. “These are incredible. I mean—” Mike corrects with an embarrassed glance Will's direction. “They all are, but I really enjoy these. It's like—telling a story.”

“Like you did,” Will says without thinking.

“What?”

Will turns his back so his blush isn't so obvious in the kitchen light. Pours himself a glass of water to distract himself, ignores Mike's lean against the dining room wall, distracting and tall.

“With the D&D campaigns.”

“You think so?” When Will turns back around, Mike is gazing at the artwork with a puzzled look in his eye. “I mean, I guess. That stuff wasn't really conductive to real life, though. This is more than just a hobby. This is real life applicable and it's—it's amazing.”

Will looks down at the ground, scuffs his shoes along the floor. “Thanks.”

There’s a beat of silence in which Will feels that same tension drag and hold, like a rubber band ready to snap. Will doesn’t know what to say, or where to look: staring at Mike feels wrong, somehow, despite Mike’s knees bending to catch Will’s eye, his smirk when Will cracks and smiles back.

Mike just can’t stay away, and Will just can’t help himself.

“Do you—do you wanna watch a movie?”

“Sure!” Mike’s eyes are shining with something that looks a lot like mirth, and Will feels himself falling headfirst into every cliché he’s ever been told. Is this what it means, when someone says their heart breaks at the sight of someone? Can a heart be broken and whole at the same time?

“So long as it’s not Sixteen Candles,” Mike elaborates, winking. “I hate that movie.”

Will rolls his eyes and clears his throat, hoping against all logic it will clear some space in his head, too. He stares at the floor for a long moment, trying and failing to not blush. When he looks back up at Mike’s face he feels partially successful, which is better than none.

Mike just smiles back, as happy and carefree as you please, stepping forward and taking Will’s hand like nothing’s amiss. Something about the ease in which Mike takes the reins without any thought to himself makes Will feel like a boy he hasn’t been in a long, long time. It should be childish, maybe, but it reminds Will of a younger, more idealistic version of himself who understood that look in Dustin’s eye when he begged Will to try. To hope. It makes Will wonder if Mike Wheeler is his own personal medication: the thing that makes him nervous and scared, yes, but the thing that makes him human, too. Like a real boy, not just the tattered remains of one.

As it is, Will smiles when two fifteen year old boys nestle into the sofa cushions and share a blanket that is two sizes too small. He smiles when the opening scroll for Return of the Jedi comes and goes, and again when two teenaged voices overlap as two quotes of dialogue are belted out in the direction the TV—and each other.

They argue, briefly, over which character they would be in the Star Wars universe, both clamoring over Luke Skywalker until Mike relents, saying, “No, you’re right. You’re the real hero,” with a friendly ruffle to Will’s shoulder.

Will pretends to ponder this artfully, but he’s sure beaming pride is showing on every single pore of his face.

“Who will you be?” he asks, after the sarlacc pit.

“Hmm, I don’t know,” Mike says between bites of popcorn. “Leia, maybe? I need to be your sidekick somehow.”

“We’re not related, though,” Will rebuttals on instinct, and immediately regrets it. His mouth closes so fast he can hear his own teeth clack and he cringes, hoping his slip wasn’t too obvious.

Everything is quiet for a long, awkward minute. Will watches Boba Fett fall down a large, gaping hole in the sand and thinks he understands the feeling.

“No, we’re not.” Mike says it quietly, so quiet Will almost misses it over the sound of the TV.

Will thinks he’s ruined the vibe of the entire evening, somehow, with a barely restrained something that feels both over the line and not anywhere close at the same time. This is why Will doesn’t speak, why he’s terrified to admit what Dustin thinks is easy to say. Will isn’t brave like Mike, he isn’t firm like Lucas. He’s not full of hope like Dustin, he’s not cool like Max or Eleven.

He’s not like anyone, and the thought that someone could—like him like that, or at least understand is—it’s—

“Hey.” Mike nudges his shoulder. Will doesn’t know what emotion he expects on Mike’s face when he looks up, but he knows that Mike’s answering smile makes everything a little bit sharper, a little bit better. A little less—muddled, even if he’s the reason Will’s brain is a mess in the first place.

Or maybe it’s not Will’s brain at all. Maybe that’s the most terrifying thought.

“Come here,” Mike says, and lifts his arm up. It’s not a command but it’s not a request, either, and Will doesn’t think twice before he nestles beneath that long, lean body he’s been avoiding and breathes in deep.

“That’s it,” Mike whispers, and Will closes his eyes, thinks how different the advice sounds from Mike Wheeler’s lips than his mother's.

Just breathe.

 


 

The movie nights become a thing, of sorts.

Will doesn't love it, but he doesn't hate it, either. It's another one of those in betweens, another one of those items on a long list of things Will learns to accept without devoting much effort toward actively appreciating.

There's exemptions, of course, but they're rare. For the most part Will just ignores the double date portion of the evening, the kissing and the joking that inevitably comes with the territory, and excluding the occasional comment or two, it's not that different from their pre-teen way of passing the time.

Not quite the same, but almost.

It's one such Friday evening that Eleven corners Will when he excuses himself for a glass of water. He's dawdling in the kitchen because he doesn't want to watch another on-screen hook up that feels like a vague, off-hand slap in the face, an unwelcome persistent reminder of his own lack of date when he feels a brush of air on his neck, a trickle of fear down his spine. Will turns on his heel to find Eleven staring at him, a too-serious look on her long, pretty face.

“Holy—you scared me,” Will exhales a harsh breath, hands curling around the glass. “What's going on?”

“You love him,” she says simply. It's not a question.

Everything in Will's brain comes to a screeching halt. “What?

“You love him,” Eleven repeats, deadpan. There's a notch in her brow, a don't even bother in the shrug of her shoulder.

“No! Who? No!” Will rebukes, faster than necessary. He cringes, eyes closing at his inability to lie.

Sure enough, the next words out of Eleven's mouth: “Friends don't lie.” She says it in that tone, the one that's a mirror of the boy she learned it from, the boy still sitting in Lucas' living room no doubt wondering where his best friend and his girlfriend disappeared to. Will rolls his eyes, but it's not unkind. It's almost humorous, actually, how Mike's thirteen-year-old beliefs have become the baseline for all their friendships.

It's not all that surprising, though. Mike has a way of doing that—making a nook in your life you didn't even know was constructing a home there. Will knows all about nooks and homes, about boys who stay for a while but whose influence winds up lasting for a lifetime.

“Friends don't hurt each other, either,” Will says, shaking his head. “That would be hurting you.”

Will isn't expecting the frown that forms on Eleven's lips, the consternation of her brow. “Sometimes,” she says, looking back at the living room. She looks...sad, almost. Poignant. “Sometimes friends hurt to protect.”

Will feels a frown forming on his own face. “Um, sure,” he says, trying to get Eleven to turn back to him. “I'm not hurting you, though.”

That seems to do the trick. Eleven swirls back around, and her face lights up as she searches his. “No. You wouldn't hurt me.” A pause. “Or Mike.”

“Right.” Will smiles back, but he suspects it's a weak thing. Or at the very least mildly confused.

“You'll protect him.”

Once again it’s not a question but it’s not a statement, either. It's almost like a—command. Eleven has a way of doing that, Will has learned. Speaking in riddles and clues, with a forthright manner that still requires a dictionary. Mike is the best interpreter, of course, but Will comes in second best. At first he thought it was their shared connection to a world on the other side, but he’s reevaluated that claim in recent months. Now he wonders if it has more to do with an appreciation for silence, instead, or perhaps a mutual affection for the dark-haired boy in the living room.

Or both.

Except this moment, Will gauges. Eleven's gaze is fiercer than it's ever been, and he's heard tales of her in action. This seems more than that, somehow. Impatience flows off of her in waves, but Will senses determination there, too. It’s more than mere persistence, though—there’s something else happening here, a deeper meaning in Eleven’s words that is both evident and elusive at the same time.

It’s more unsettling than he lets on.

“Yes?” Will tries.

“No. Not good enough.” Eleven steps forward, lays a hand on his shoulder. It's not exactly a smooth motion—nothing about Eleven is quite smooth, yet—her brown eyes downright forceful when she looks at him dead in the eye. “There is no try. You must do.”

Will is so confused. “Did you just quote Star Wars really badly to me?”

Will.”

He clears his throat, nervous. “Yes?”

“You must protect Mike.”

“Okay!” Will raises his arms in surrender.

Eleven stares at him for a moment longer, then releases his shoulder. “Good.”

There's a moment when everything is stilted and awkward, tumultuous and weird before Eleven makes an aborted movement with her arm, almost like she was going to reach out. She turns her back at the last moment instead, standing sideways so Will can't see her face.

“Sorry,” she says under her breath.

“S'okay,” Will tries to wrap his mind around the last few minutes and falls overwhelmingly short. “I just don't understand.” 

“I know.” She says it so quietly, as though it's fragile, precious information. When she turns back to face Will head-on, her eyes are sparkling. “Just promise. Please.”

“Okay,” Will replies, even though she's scaring him a little. “I promise I'll protect Mike.” As if she ever had to ask.

His answer appears to satiate Eleven, at least for the moment. Her eyes lose that charged quality, transforming into something softer, gentler. More like her typical teenage self.

Except then she hits him with the strangest advice of all, long after the weirdness of their conversation had come and passed.

“When the time comes,” she says, “think of something in your life. Something that makes you angry, and use that. Channel it.” Her voice is firm like she's talking from experience.

Will hopes this isn't how she feels each time she uses her powers, but he isn't stupid enough to say it or assume otherwise. He doesn't have half a clue how her powers work, or what fuels them. But he knows how empty and broken it leaves you, to focus on the past day in and day out. He knows what it's like to be a freak.

Still, it seems important to Eleven that Will add this addendum to his list of promises, so Will doesn't ask questions.

“Okay,” he says, and nods.

Eleven nods back, a small, sad smile in her eye before she returns to the movie without a word.

Will watches Eleven walk back to Mike's side, watches the pair whisper to each other in the darkness, watches Mike turn around and catch Will's eye, a question reflected on his face before Eleven reassures him with a hand to his arm.

Will stands there for another ten minutes, wondering why it feels like they both just lied.

 


 

When Eleven leaves again—voluntarily this time—that’s when it hurts the most.

Will can see it happening in slow motion, he can recognize every minute detail of what Mike’s feeling as though it’s his own: the disbelief, the despair. The hurt, the pain. It’s all etched on the beautiful lines of Mike Wheeler’s face before it closes off entirely and something even worse takes its place: a blank mask of purposeful ambiguity, so as to give nothing away.

It’s different than the first time, when it was a sacrifice for love. It’s still the same in that it’s a love that’s gone away, except this time it’s not so much disappeared as it is ripped from a heart that’s still bleeding all over the floor.

When she’s gone, when they’re alone, Mike buries his head in the crux of Will’s shoulder and he weeps.

 


 

Will sees it happening before anybody else.

Maybe it's the influence the shadow monster once held over him. Maybe it's his own instinct to protect. Maybe he's read too many comic books. Whatever it is, Will sees the monster coming before Mike does; Mike who's still staring at the portal like he can't believe this is reality, but not because of the otherworldly tear in front of his face. And Will knows, surer than he's known anything in his life, that Mike thinks he's failed. That he's a failure. He's left bereft and alone, shattered and defenseless, and maybe it's that feeling, that fear that draws the tentacles in.

Will doesn't think before he rushes forward, gripping Mike's arm tight and tugging with all the strength a sixteen year old body can hold. Mike barely moves, struck dumb looking at Will with wide, wide eyes. Will has a moment to yell “run” before those long, black arms lunge forward to attach themselves to a scared pair of boys standing at the entrance of the deep, dark cavern it calls home.

Later, when the others ask him how it happened, he'll say he doesn't know. It's not a lie, but it isn't the full truth, either. Eleven told him to channel anger, but Will doesn't take her advice because he doesn't have to.

All he has to do is look at Mike.

It's no more simple and no more complicated than that: he looks at Mike's wide, uncomprehending eyes, watches the hurt and the betrayal play out in those dark eyes plain as day. He looks and he sees and he understands. All Mike ever wanted was to protect, not unlike Will himself, but he's failed every time. And that weighs on him, Will knows, because for all that Mike has been fighting on their behalf, he always seems to lose.

It's not fair to him, Will knows. It's not fair to any of them, but something about seeing Mike's bravery fall short, up close and shattered to pieces on the floor, something about seeing his charismatic leadership fall by the wayside because life takes more than it gives—makes Will angry, yes, but also fiercely protective. It's not right. Nothing about this entire situation is right, and if Mike is going to have everything taken away from him for the second time in his short teenaged life, then Will is going to be there, too. It's not about crushes, or affection, it isn't about Eleven or goodbyes. It's about a boy with such goodness in his heart, a goodness that should win against the darkness, no questions asked. It's about Bob and Barb, about the unsung heroes that solve puzzles and face terrors, it's about the underdogs who give and give and give, but never succeed.

Will grips Mike's hand. He tilts Mike's face toward his. He lifts his palm above them both, and he screams.

Bob told him once to tell the darkness to go away and it didn't listen. 

He'll make it listen, this time.

 


 

When they ask Will later what happened, he'll shrug his shoulders, he'll stare at the floor, he'll nudge the carpet with his worn hand-me-down boots. He'll blush and he'll smile, self-conscious at the attention and the fame. He'll say, “I don't know,” with all the usual humility that makes him shy and introverted, so unlike the boy who just stared the jaws of death in the face and said no.

It won't be a lie, but it won't be the truth, either.

The truth is, it feels less about the supernatural and more about a boy. A boy who noticed a lonely Will Byers on the playground and asked to be his friend. A boy Will noticed from the very beginning without being able to explain why. A boy named Mike Wheeler, who was Will's leader, mentor, friend and crush before he knew what any of those words meant.

A boy who, some four years later, is everything Will wants.

A boy he can't stand to lose.

 


 

“Holy shit dude, you really are our cleric!” Dustin claps him on the back, grinning a mile wide.

“It's true, man,” Lucas joins in, “you looked like Gandalf or something. Just, you know, younger. With less hair.” His elbow nudges Will, and Will offers a small grin.

“You just need a staff,” Max agrees with a nod.

Mike is silent. Will chances a look and expects to find sorrow painted on Mike's freckled face, but the sadness is replaced with awe, instead. His pain is still present, Will knows, but at the moment this temporary happiness has replaced all else and it feels good to have this victory, however small. Mike looks like he wants to say something, ask a question, but thinks better of it. Something is holding him in check, and Will feels flushed and anxious with the possibility of what that something is.

“Thank you,” Mike settles on, resting a hand on Will's forearm. “That was—incredible.”

“You're welcome.” Will blushes down at his shoes. It's a welcome feeling, despite the small crowd in front of him, that he still feels warm. It's a sign he's still in control, a physical testament that he fought off the Mind Flayer and survived, after all.

It's a victory, Will thinks, that Mike Wheeler still makes him feel warm.

 


 

Hopper lays out the plan the way he always does: straight and to the point.

When he’s finished executing his well-rehearsed speech, including a trip to the other side to deliver the killing blow and somehow make it out alive, he asks for volunteers.

Everyone is expecting silence, Will thinks. Everyone expects Hopper to do the heavy lifting, because he’s the small-town sheriff who just lost his second daughter for all intents and purposes. It makes sense that he’d be feeling extra protective, maybe even martyrdom-like.

What doesn’t make sense is Mike’s hand shooting up.

“I’ll do it.”

Will snaps around so fast his neck pops, but Mike isn’t looking at him. Mike isn’t looking at anyone except Hopper, whose own disbelief is evident in those deep, hazel eyes.

“Kid—” he starts, but Mike doesn’t let him finish.

“I’m not a kid anymore. Come with me if you want, but I’m going.” He says the final word with finality, like it’s a done deal. Like it was always going to end this way, like his volunteering makes sense.

Like Will’s heart didn’t just plummet ten thousand feet.

 


 

Will always assumed out of the two of them, he would be the one for self-sacrifice, for death at the hands of a trans-dimensional monster. But then, Mike walking headfirst into a dangerous situation with nothing but his wits and his heart to guide him is exactly why Will loves him.

He loves him.

Maybe that’s why he corners Mike as he’s getting ready, fastening a gun—a gun—to his hip and a lighter in his palms. Mike Wheeler looks like a hero straight out of an Indiana Jones spin-off and under normal circumstances Will would take a moment to appreciate the view, but now is decidedly not a normal circumstance, and Will is not in an appreciative mood.

“You can’t,” Will snaps, and Mike whirls around.

“Why?” Mike’s voice holds the same brusque quality, like he doesn’t understand why Will doesn’t, and somehow that is the bottom line. Somehow that’s the thing that makes Will break. Because Will doesn’t understand and he doesn’t want to, not if it’s just going to mean more hurt.

Because the options are clear: Mike’s going back for Eleven, or he’s going to die.

“Because there are people here who care about you!” Will all but shouts. He's tired of lies, tired of secrets, tired of coverups and speeches. It’s the one selfish thing he could never ask, the one immoral wish he could never claim. It’s the one thing that’s haunted him, in this world and the next, the one thing that broke his heart and put it back together. The one thing that isn’t a thing at all, but a person. A boy, with shaggy brown hair and dark brown eyes.

There’s an entire galaxy there, an ebony constellation shining bright—so bright—a black hole supernova staring at Will with so much intensity it goddamn burns.

There’s a lot Will would do for Mike Wheeler. It just so happens there’s a lot he wouldn’t do for him, either, and a voluntary suicide mission without bringing Will is one of them. Will refuses to sit this one out, refuses to step aside. No matter what—or who—is on the other side, he simply can’t let Mike go without a fight.

Will doesn’t even realize the interpretation of his words, so vehement on his rage, that is until Mike’s staring morphs from bewilderment, to puzzlement, to confusion. There’s a crease on Mike’s forehead growing deeper by the millisecond, a question forming on those plush pink lips and Will can see with perfect clarity the moment confusion morphs to understanding.

He’s still angry enough to not take it back, to not apologize. But he still isn’t brave enough to admit the undercurrent outright, he’s still not brave enough to stay, so in the end Will does what he does best: he flees.

He’s good at hiding, good at running. He’s good at everything that does not involve confrontations or confessions of feelings involving Mike Wheeler, the boy with his heart in another dimension. Will ignores the boy running after him, the boy calling for him, the boy who knows exactly what Will’s problem has been this past week, this month, hell—what’s been wrong with him all along.

Will runs toward freedom, except freedom doesn’t taste so sweet.

 


 

Mike reaches for his wrist, grabs his hand. He steers them away from the others, far enough they won’t be heard or seen. His grip loosens once they’re far enough away, circling on his shiny black shoes until they’re face to face.

“I’m sorry,” Mike says, a dark curl falling into his left eye, “that I didn’t realize sooner.”

Will fidgets with their joined palms, their intertwined fingers. They’ve been in this same position hundreds of times, but there’s a different air here, with the revelation still hanging heavy over them both. Part of Will wants to play stupid, wants to deny, but the truth has already been laid bare. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. No place to turn except face the truth head on.

“It’s okay,” Will says, when the silence carries on too long, heading toward something real and awkward.

“No, it’s not,” Mike retorts, voice firm, and then his palm is on Will’s cheek, framing his face. Mike tilts his face just enough to catch Will’s eye.

It’s a surreal moment, suspended and intense, when the boy in front of him is both the Mike he knows and the new Mike all at once, gentle and steely at the same time. Here they are one and the same, here they are reconciled. Here the difference doesn’t matter so much: face to face, skin to skin.

“Mike—” Will starts, but he doesn’t know where that sentence ends. He doesn’t know what exclamation might stumble out and as it turns out he never gets to know, because in the next breath Mike’s face is looming closer, leaning in, and in the next there is warm breath on his nose, and in the next there are chapped lips touching his.

Will is caught somewhere three steps back, confused and elated and concerned before Mike leans back, that soft affectionate look in his eye like he knows Will’s inner turmoil and he wouldn’t expect it any other way.

“I wish I could be someone you deserve,” Mike says, with a bittersweet smile.

Will watches in slow motion as Mike walks away, toward the portal still stuck in the wall, possibly toward the jaws of death itself, and just this once Will wishes he had the words to say. Brave words, selfish words, inspirational words, words to bottle this moment and keep it, harbor it, savor it—just like this with nothing amiss. He wishes there was a version of the story that ended with Mike staying, with Will confessing, with both of them, together in all the ways that mattered, in the same universe.

He wishes the words weren’t clogged in his throat the way they always seem to be these days. He wishes he could open his mouth and say just one word, the only word that matters. The word always seems to slip out of his reach no matter how he tries to tether it to the ground. The word that’s less a word and more a wish, a futile, foolish dream: because Lonnie still left, because the demogorgon still kidnapped, because the shadow monster still stole, because Eleven still abandoned.

Because the boy he loved still walked away.

Wait.

 


 

It takes hours.

Time always seemed to move differently in the Upside Down, and today is no different on the other side, too. Maybe it’s Will’s otherworldly connection to the forces that move within that place, maybe it’s his personal stake in the person currently fighting for their existence on the other side, but either way, time moves too damn slow no matter which plane he’s on.

The others keep casting glances his way, half concerned, half understanding, a thin smile on each of their faces before their eyes turn down to their feet. Whether their empathy is due to the tear in the side of his bedroom or the boy inside that tear, Will doesn’t know and doesn’t much care. No matter what the others think they know, none of them know the whole truth, all of it, every piece. Only Mike has close to the full story, and even he left before the chapter was complete.

Will bounces his foot, he plays with his fingers, he stares at the fibers in the carpet and starts counting each individual strand of brown. He gets to fifteen before he concludes it’s an awful color, bland and ugly, but even something as inane as the floor reminds him of Mike’s brown eyes, his curly hair. It’s not ugly on Mike, Will thinks. It’s an entirely different color on him, a new palette full of character and life, full of passion and warmth that somehow morphs something bland into something beautiful.

It’s been too long.

It’s times like these that Will wishes Eleven was here, even if a deeper, more selfish part of him distinctly doesn’t. It feels like he’s caught in a trap, stuck between one selfish thought and another, because if Eleven were here, Will wouldn’t be replaying the feel of Mike’s lips on his: chapped and dry, but warm, the warmest thing he’s ever felt. He’d be watching Mike’s goodbye to Eleven instead, watching a picture perfect image of a romantic relationship reach its natural conclusion. Maybe it was always going to end with a kiss, and the recipient is the only one who changes; maybe this reality is the one where Will gets lucky, the one in one thousand chance that he actually gets the boy. Maybe the only reason it’s not a faraway, poignant dream is because Eleven is decidedly not here. Even Mike’s presence on the other side is, at least in part, because of Eleven’s disappearance, and isn’t that the most ironic twist of all: what happened or didn’t happen is because of the same person, the same person Will both does and doesn’t wish was here.

But then, just when the chips are down and Hopper starts talking about evacuating the area, maybe even the town, just when Nancy starts to argue, “Over my dead body,” with that stubborn gleam in her eye that Will has seen precisely two times, the portal opens with a disgusting, slime-rubbery whoosh and Mike Wheeler comes barreling out, covered in blood and cobwebs and alien goo.

The portal closes behind Mike with surprising speed, and Will has a second to ponder how before Mike collapses at his feet.

 


 

Mike hoists himself off the ground as quickly as he fell, as though the sheer momentum might make everyone in the room forget he just teleported dimensions and collapsed of exhaustion.

Will touches Mike’s elbow in concern and wants to touch more, wants to crush his head against the hard planes of Mike’s chest—the chest that’s currently heaving with effort to breathe, Will can see the motion through Mike’s striped baseball tee—but he’s also hyperaware of the family and friends surrounding them. It’s something he wouldn’t have read too much into before, but now—now he feels every eye, every touch like it’s under a microscope.

“Are you okay?” A dumb greeting, but an important question nonetheless.

“Yeah.” Mike sighs a big gust of air, then looks Hopper in the eye once his chest stops heaving. “It’s done.”

Hopper nods, and it almost looks like admiration. “Good job, kid.” He hooks a long arm around Mike’s shoulder, resting his head atop Mike’s. “Good job.”

Mike smiles back, and there’s a moment of unspoken connection before Hopper breaks away, hugging Joyce and passing along the news.

Will expects Mike to pull away and join the others, but to he grabs Will’s arm, instead. “I need to tell you something,” Mike whispers as he stalks the halls, looking for privacy.

Will is still so stunned by physical contact with Mike Wheeler that he almost misses the topic of discussion entirely. “Jonathan’s room,” he says, belatedly helpful.

Mike ushers them in and shuts the door, though his hand stays on Will’s arm. “She—she was there,” Mike whispers, so quiet Will almost doesn’t hear him.

“What?” Will can’t help but ask, even though he has a guess as to who Mike means. It isn’t so much a can you repeat that, so much as a how is that possible?

Mike hesitates, runs his forefinger along his thumb. He kissed Will not five hours earlier, but now is the time Mike looks nervous, unsure. “Eleven. Jane. She was there.” Another pause. “With another girl.”

Will doesn’t even know how to process that sentence. “You mean…”

“Not like that,” Mike corrects, as though he just realized how that sounded. “At least, I don’t think so. It was just—I think maybe…this is why she left. She was always planning on fixing it, she just needed to do it alone, her own way. I think she had to leave.”

Will nods, but it’s not in understanding. “So does that mean…she’s coming back?”

“No,” Mike says, and the vehemence in his tone gets Will’s attention. There’s no hesitation, no remorse. For the first time since last winter, Mike looks like the answer doesn’t bother him, and maybe it’s as simple as that: maybe having an answer is all Mike needed. Maybe being stuck between hope and despair was worse than the actual rejection of reality.

Will thinks he understands that, in his way.

“She told me she couldn’t come back.” Mike brushes a dark curl away from his face, but it’s an absent-minded motion, lost in the train of thought. “I think it had to do with the girl she was with. I don’t quite understand it all, but…if this is what she needs to do then I—understand.”

Will nods again, because he doesn’t know what to say. What words are there, for a situation like this? He’s never really had words to get to the heart of something, to utilize language with finesse the way someone like Dustin or Steve might. Most of the time, it doesn’t bother Will too much, but moments like this, when he knows he should comfort somehow and winds up dreadfully inadequate, he wishes he had a fraction of that talent. He wishes he was smooth like Dustin, curt like Lucas, heartfelt like Mike. He wishes he was a combination of all three, instead of none.

“I’m sorry,” Will says lamely. He can hear his mother’s voice inside his head. Stop it with the sorry’s.

“Thanks.” Mike smiles, and it seems genuine. It’s still dim somewhat, but it’s there, right in front of him, shining despite the pain, and really, that’s all Will needs.

Mike sets his hand atop Will’s on the bed, and just like that Will is transported to another time when Mike did the exact same thing. It’s different this time, no shadow monster or demogorgon in sight, no girlfriend or mother to hover or think about.

Will curls his hand in on itself, intertwining their fingers, and it’s Mike who meets him halfway, it’s Mike who fits the mold.

Holding hands with Mike Wheeler in the dark, five minutes after the world was supposed to end, Will Byers realizes two things: it’s never been about boys in general, and it’s always been about one boy in particular.

The boy he can finally call his.

 


  

Part III

 

Things are different, after that.

There are the obvious changes, like the gate being closed, like the nightmare’s end, like Eleven’s sacrifice, and then there are the subtler changes, too. The changes between Mike and Will, the way their gazes tiptoe around each other and the way their eyes dance when they don’t.

“Okay,” Dustin announces over lunch one Wednesday, slapping his lunch tray on the table and setting his hands on his hips. Will thinks he’s been spending too much time with Steve Harrington. “What’s going on here?”

Lucas looks between Dustin and Will, confused. “What?”

“Not you.” Dustin rolls his eyes. “Them.”

Lucas looks again, but this time at the space between Mike and Will. His brow unfurrows. “Oh.”

“What?” Mike asks, looking unperturbed.

“Don’t play stupid, Wheeler.” Dustin points an accusatory finger. “Something is happening here and you’re not telling us what.”

“Happened. Something happened,” Will corrects, before realizing he just spoke out loud.

There’s an acute moment of utterly normal, decidedly non-monstrous teenaged horror that floods Will’s body when he glances up at the three pair of eyes staring at him.

Then Mike starts laughing.

“Oh man, your face.” Will pokes him in the ribs. “I’m sorry—ow—I said I’m sorry, it’s just—you—” Mike breaks down into another fit of giggles, and Will tickles him so hard he can barely breathe. Will gives one last poke, then settles down and studies his lunch. He refuses to blush about this, he absolutely refuses. He has been on the other side of an alternate dimension, he has been inhabited by a monster from said alternate dimension, he has stopped an attack from that same monster with his bare hands, and he’s kissed the boy he’s had a crush on basically forever.

There is no reason to blush.

Mike scoots closer to Will’s side, reaches an arm around Will’s shoulder. There are tears in his eyes and a smile on his lips. Will counts it as a win.

“I’m proud of you, Byers,” Mike whispers, leaning in so close a dark curl tickles Will’s ear.

“Oh my god. Lucas. It happened.” Dustin and Lucas loom over them both, Dustin with his mouth half open and Lucas rolling his eyes.

“I told you.”

For the first time in the history of Hawkins, Dustin looks speechless. He stands there, staring at the two of them before lunging across the table to hug Mike and Will, knocking half their lunches over in the process.

Three pairs of groans cry out.

“Dustin!”

“You’re spilling my milk everywhere.”

“Thanks, bud.”

Dustin just sighs happily.

“I’m so proud of you guys.”

If it were possible, Lucas rolls his eyes harder.

 


 

It’s on their way out of school that Mike offers a ride home.

He’s leaning against the door to Nancy’s hand-me-down vehicle when Will spots him halfway across the parking lot, because for all that Will has adapted to life in a post-supernatural world, there are still moments when Will can’t believe this is his life. He can’t believe they’ve won, he can’t believe it’s over.

But mostly, he can’t believe there’s a cute boy waiting to drive Will home.

He can’t even say the sentence in his head. It sounds like a line, like a cliché straight out of those romantic comedies he used to hate. Except now it’s real, now it’s right in front of his eyes and Will is a hypocrite for ever thinking this feeling was anything less than wonderful.

The things Will would like to do to this boy.

“Hey,” Will says when he’s close enough, because it’s creepy to stare at someone too long and not offer a greeting.

“Hey!” Mike's hands come out of his pockets, fidgeting with his keys. The wind whips through his dark curls, framing his face in a tousled, effortless sort of way. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah,” Will says, and smiles down at his feet.

The car ride is, in a word, awkward. Mike fidgets with the gearshift between their seats, close enough to Will’s thigh he can feel the proximity like a real, physical thing, and Will sneaks glances at Mike out of the corner of his eye, admiring the elegant ticking of Mike’s forearm when he drums his fingers along the steering wheel. There’s something here, Will thinks, something real in the air between them, something unspoken but heady. Will wonders if it’s selfish to want this, wonders if it’s too soon to yank Mike by the lapels of his fall jacket and bring him into Will’s orbit. He wonders if the force of the connection will make them crash and burn, or whether they’ll fly.

He wonders if it’s too soon to move on.

There’s still a long way left to go, Will knows: for Hawkins, for himself, for Mike. Things aren’t going to change overnight, but it feels like a good place to start, right here in this car. It still feels like the precipice to something new, instead of the epilogue. The difference then, is that Dustin and Lucas have given it a name, and Mike and Will haven’t.

Will gets his answer in the driveway to his house. Mike shifts the car into park, takes a deep breath, glances at Will. Smiles, dorky but sweet.

“Hi.”

Will can’t help but chuckle softly. “Hi.”

“So,” Mike draws out the word, lets out another exhale. Brushes his bangs back, never mind that the curls bounce right back into his eyes. “I was thinking.”

Seeing Mike’s nerves manifest right in front of him makes Will feel braver, somehow. “Yes?”

“Would you like to go on a date with me?”

How Mike can just say what Will harbors in the deep, deep recesses of his heart will never cease to amaze him. Or knock him off balance. Or charm him.

Mike’s brown eyes are alight with excitement in the fading autumn light, but this close Will can see more than a few nerves present, too. It’s something about the way his eyes shift from Will’s eyes to his hands, something about the way his mouth dims to a timid half-smile. The question filters through the air, raw and exposed, and it’s the best experience of Will’s life post-Hawkins because it’s real. It’s not a figment of his overactive imagination, it’s not one of those vague in betweens he couldn’t categorize into a single, neat classification. There’s nothing to question or pick apart because it’s concrete: Mike Wheeler just asked Will Byers on a date and looked nervous doing it. As though Will could ever say no to the singular boy sitting in front of him, as though there was ever a doubt in the universe the answer would be anything less than yes.

Dustin used to say Mike was oblivious, but it isn’t just that, Will thinks. It’s not that Mike didn’t know how Will felt, it’s that he didn’t know to look. It’s that Mike still doesn’t comprehend that someone would think the world of him. The invitation to inform Mike of just that sounds heavenly, in Will's opinion.

Will turns in his seat. “Um, sure. I mean—yes.”

Mike’s smile becomes infinitely more genuine, the lines around his cheeks forming twin crescent moons. The sun is blinding where it peeks behind Mike’s window, but Will doesn’t care. He’ll burn his irises right out if it means searing this moment forever into his memory.

“Great.” Mike looks like he wants to reach out, but keeps a hand on the gear shift, instead. “So, Saturday?”

Will reaches across the console to place his hand on Mike’s. He smiles.

“Saturday.”

It took them both the end of the world to realize what was in front of them, Will realizes, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe Will was scared, and Mike was oblivious. Maybe it was all meant to happen for a reason, and Will is just beginning to understand the magnitude of what that means. Maybe words like destiny or fate aren’t as daunting as Will once imagined them to be, maybe just looking at Mike in this light brings Will one step closer to accepting the path that brought them here. Good and bad, great and small.

Maybe Will can be brave, after all.

 


 

He doesn’t tell his mother.

Or rather, he tells her he’s going to the movies with Mike. What he doesn’t say is he’s going to the movies with only Mike.

It’s a lie of omission, technically speaking, but Will relishes this one little secret he gets to keep. The boys already know anyway, sort of, and that’s enough for Will. For now he enjoys the thrill, the chase, the almosts and the what-ifs; it’s a whole new game Mike writes in his winks and his smiles, in his touches and his glances and Will falls for the Mike Wheeler charm all over again in this rewrite—and this being the remastered, teenage addition with more intensity and intrigue than ever before.

Saturday night comes and Will relishes every tickle of nerves chasing up and down his spine when Mike knocks on his door. Mike is dressed in dark jeans and a Star Wars shirt like they aren’t going to the scariest movie of the season, but Will doesn’t mention it, nor does he complain. Not when he can appreciate the long lines of Mike’s torso instead, not when he can imagine that same fabric nestled between his palms. Will admires the line of Mike’s shoulder blades as they walk out to the car, then blushes all the way up to his ears when Mike opens the passenger’s door. Like a gentleman. Like a real date.

Will can’t believe this is his life.

It’s like a brand new mystery, except this time there are no monsters in sight. This time Will doesn’t fall through the floor to another dimension, this time he isn’t taken over by an otherworldly being. This time when Will reaches out Mike is right there, in the seat beside him, nudging Will’s arm and whispering in a smug voice that if Will gets scared it’s okay, he can hold Mike’s hand.

Mike is horrible at flirting, Will learns, and he loves it.

He loves it.

They chat all the way through Fright Night like they’ve seen it one hundred times before instead of just one, and throw popcorn at each other for not agreeing about which character is best. Mike argues for argument’s sake, Will thinks, but the effect is alarmingly attractive in that it gets Will riled up in his theater seat, earning them several hushes from the audience and more than one evil glare. Will doesn’t care, he just doesn’t care and that right there makes it the best night in recent memory, bar none.

They walk out hand in hand, Will balancing along the curb side and Mike with a hand on Will’s hip to catch him if he falls. If Will were smoother he would lose his balance on purpose, he thinks, but as it stands Will is a terrible liar so he practices no such trickery, grinning at Mike’s running commentary instead and enjoying the simple, distracting warmth of Mike’s hand near his waist.

The night is dark but the wind is warm, so they take their time getting home. They walk the circumference of the theater parking lot more than once until the manager tells them to get going, threatening to call Hopper if they don’t. They’re convinced, of course, but they still giggle their way across the parking lot back to Mike’s car. There they take the back way home to Will’s house, too, for no other reason than they can, and because the night is young and so are they.

When they arrive Mike walks Will to his door without going inside. It’s another of those unspoken somethings, another kind of threshold and they both know how the stories go. The keys jingle right on cue, their footsteps slow to a near halt, their gazes dance. They toe the line without crossing it and it’s wonderful, magical even, except for the burning desire in Will’s gut begging for more.

It makes things tense and awkward, sometimes. It makes things difficult for Will and his subconscious many times.

“Your hands are cold,” Mike points out, cradling Will’s palms. He brings Will’s fingers to his mouth, exhaling hot air. It’s moist and humid in a way that’s not entirely pleasant, but the effect more than makes up for the price. Will almost blurts out there’s no need, that Will’s body temperature is more than back to normal—better than, if the blush he can feel creeping up his neck is any indication—but he doesn’t want to deter future moments like this one. So he just stands there instead, dumbfounded and mute, staring at Mike. At least this time he has an excuse, even if the logic is flimsy at best.

“Better?” Mike asks, with a glint in his eye like he knows Will’s struggle. Like he finds it infinitely charming, like he’s doing it on purpose. Or maybe that's just Will's overactive imagination rearing its head again.

“Yes,” Will says, and doesn’t even know what he’s responding to. Mike’s entire person, probably.

Mike chuckles. “Do you want to go in?”

Will looks at the door once, shakes himself for letting his infatuation show. “No.”

Mike nods, knocks his toe against Will’s shoe once. The outside light puts Mike’s face in full focus, but part of Will wishes his mother would have forgotten to flip the switch. There’s something about the cover of darkness that makes Will freer with his words and his actions than he would be otherwise, some courage in the night that Will desperately needs, right now.

Or maybe Will has had enough of the darkness. Maybe when the lights are on but their eyes are shut, it doesn’t much matter which form courage takes.

He doesn’t know what possesses him to do it. Or maybe that’s the beauty of it, maybe he isn’t possessed at all: maybe it’s Will, all Will, who rushes forward, who closes the gap, who presses his mouth against Mike’s in a goodnight kiss. Mike is so wonderfully, fantastically tall and Will likes it, he likes tipping his chin and standing on tip-toe. He likes Mike’s hitch of breath, Mike’s hands frozen in surprise. But most of all he likes Mike’s lips, plump and dry but just as warm as he remembers. Still just as heady as the first.

It’s passionate in that it’s a hurried motion, but it’s otherwise lacking, Will suspects, the usual finesse attached to the word kiss. Mike is still and silent for the two seconds Will is in his space, his shoulders frozen in a stiff line until the realization sparks Will’s retreat, breaking off as fast as he charged.

Will doesn’t go far, leaning just far enough back that he can feel each shared breath between them. Mike’s breath is warm on Will’s lips, a tingling aftertaste.

“I—um—” Will starts, not sure where that sentence ends.

“Stop talking.” Mike slants his mouth over Will’s, finally, and it’s not a timid thing. It’s not held back, or restrained. Mike’s hand curls around Will’s hip, bringing him closer and closer still, until their bodies are two parallel lines connected in every way that counts.

Will would be happy to continue this exploratory mission between lips, but their current position on Will’s porch leaves something to be desired. Privacy, for one. Dimmer lights, for two.

Just one more, Will thinks once, twice, three times before breaking away. In another life his labored breathing would be an embarrassment, but in this life, in this story, it’s nothing short of thrilling. Mike looks equally unkempt, but maybe the flush along his cheeks is just as intoxicating to his organs, too. Maybe he’s just as tempted to continue this dance in another, more intimate fashion for as long as they can.

Maybe all Will has to do is ask.

“Come back tonight?”

In any other circumstance, Mike’s eyes widening in surprise would be a hilarious sight. “Um, yeah.” Mike shakes his head. “I’d love to.”

“Knock on my window twice,” Will says, and then he’s turning on his heel before it’s too late. Before he keeps Mike on his doorstep for another three hours, before he plunges his heart deep and never recovers. There’s time for these explorations, Will thinks, because there is time. Time to discover, time to dally. Time to pursue, to rush, to please, to draw out. There’s all the time in the universe because this is the only cosmos left with foreign terrain. For the first time in over three years, Will thinks, it’s the best kind of countdown because it’s not a war he has to win.

It’s a battle he can’t wait to lose.

 


 

“Can I kiss you?”

Will almost laughs. “You’ve been kissing me.”

Mike chuckles, his breath fanning Will’s neck in an alarmingly distracting way. “That’s not what I meant.”

Will shudders at the implication of those words. “Yes,” he answers as firm as he can muster, given the circumstances. Mike’s lips are hovering near Will’s ear, but he doesn’t give any indication he’s heard Will’s desperate, hopeless plea. His hand does the explaining for him, mapping out the back of Will’s neck, the shape of his skull before pulling ever so gently on the delicate hairs at the base of Will’s hairline.

Will doesn’t whimper, but it’s a near thing.

Given his inexperience, he can’t even put into words what he wants, specifically. All he knows for certain is that he wants Mike’s hands on him, everywhere and immediate. He wants Mike’s warmth branding him everywhere, holding him down, keeping him safe. He wants that physical reminder this is happening, that it’s real. That Mike means it, that he won’t let go. Will wants that promise etched into his skin, sinking deep into his bones. He doesn’t care if it’s fast or slow, heady or exploratory. He wants Mike. Nothing more simple or more elaborate than that. Sometimes it feels like he's all Will has ever wanted.

“I want…” Will tries, but his voice caves out.

“Yes?” Mike asks, like he has the patience of a saint. Maybe he does. Will is almost annoyed at Mike’s composure, the way his voice doesn’t so much as quiver when he speaks, but when Mike leans back to look Will in the eye, Will wonders if it’s not composure he’s seeing. Mike looks like he's cradling carefully restrained emotion, yes, but it appears less firm and more like holding himself in check.

Will almost shudders again at the thought that it might be because of him.

“I want—you.”

Once the words are spoken, it doesn’t feel so scary a thing to admit. It feels safe here, in their own private world. It feels serious, but not too serious. Personal, but not funny. Fact, not fiction.

“You have me,” Mike says, like it’s not even a thought. Like it’s a proclamation. A decree. “Any way you want.”

Will draws in his spare time, so it’s fair to say he has a vivid imagination. Will has imagined the way his life could go any number of times, but somehow kissing in his bedroom discussing the extent of said kissing was never one of them.

Maybe it should have been.

Will doesn’t mean to lunge forward and attack Mike’s mouth as suddenly as he does. It’s a planned motion, of course, and the surprised noise from behind Mike’s lips doesn’t sound like complaint. But it’s still an impulsive thing, a knee jerk reaction Will didn’t know existed to stop talking and take.

Will has been talking for the past six months: to counselors, to his family, to the boy in front of him. It isn’t that Will thinks this conversation wasn’t warranted, or even needed, it’s that now the dust has settled, and Will is ready for the next chapter to begin.

Now he’s ready to taste.

He just so happens to start with Mike’s face.

Will runs his tongue along Mike's plush lips, lips he’s thought about a fair amount since their first kiss. There’s something heady and addicting about the way Mike’s body full on convulses, moving away from Will entirely before rushing forward a heartbeat later to seal the connection permanently. So Will does it again, and again, and again for no other reason than he can, and he wants. He loves this version of Mike: caught off guard and breathless, eyes hazy with lust when they find Will’s lips and begin an attack of their own.

Mike kisses him deep, deeper than any they’ve shared thus far and Will knows he’s started a battle he can’t win but the best part is, he doesn’t mind at all. Finally this is a battle he can’t wait to lose, finally a war he can admit defeat and it doesn't matter. It's a glorious sense of losing control—finally an outlet for all the times he couldn't. Finally it's good instead of bad, finally it's winning when it's actually losing. Will doesn’t care that Mike has some semblance of experience and he doesn’t, Will doesn’t care what bit of innocence is lost in the process—he's already lost enough, and this time it's actually gaining, anyway. All he wants, all he needs is Mike’s hand at the base of his spine, is Mike’s wonderful ability to take charge in full effect right before him, in perfect execution. Mike takes Will apart at the seams and fills him back up again but fuller this time, with distinct Mike Wheeler taste, and Will has never tasted anything so good.

Mike pulls him closer, hands gripping Will's hips to tug his smaller body into Mike's larger one. It would be scary and intense, it would most definitely be a move with anyone else, but with Mike's it's decidedly less scary, with Mike it's not a choice at all but a need: Will scoots himself forward to meet halfway, all but falling in Mike's lap in an ungraceful heap but it doesn't thwart the moment at all, or even the kiss; Mike simply grabs one leg and helps reposition without breaking contact once. And Will loves Mike for it, for making things easy with that usual grace of his. Everything involving Mike Wheeler is done with intention, even as it's also simple, so blessedly simple, to crawl forward, to lean in, to fall headfirst into.

Will feels courageous and beautiful for the first time, maybe ever, and it makes him bold. It makes him a new person too, a person he doesn't recognize but appreciates just the same, a person who breaks the kiss to crawl along Mike's lap, to straddle his thighs, to look into those dark, dark eyes and say it. To finally, finally say it.

“I love you.”

Mike has never looked more beautiful either, Will thinks, laid out on Will's bed, hair tousled and cheeks more flushed than usual. He looks content and on edge at the exact same time, awed and fulfilled in equal measure. His hands run along the outline of Will's thighs, up to Will's hips and back up his arms before tugging at his shoulders, bringing him low enough to kiss, briefly, before sneaking his way to the same place he started, whispering in Will's ear.

“I love you, too,” Mike whispers, and Will cries. He cries.

For the first time in a long time, they're tears of joy.

 


 

They get caught within a week, because of course they do.

Turns out Mike is exuberant and Will is handsy, and this is how Joyce finds them, making out against Will's bedroom wall one Saturday afternoon.

His mother is surprised, naturally, and also unable to look Mike in the eye for the remainder of the afternoon. But when the awkwardness clears and the air is less stilted she sits them both down at the dining room table and tells them how happy—really, really happy—she is.

Mike, to his credit, thanks her profusely but also can't look Joyce in the eye for the entire rest of the week.

“I can never kiss you at your house again,” Mike laments, covering his eyes. “I'm so embarrassed, I cannot believe this happened. I had a speech prepared and everything.”

Will raises an eyebrow. “A speech.” He's only mocking a little bit.

Mike peeks at him between his fingers. “It was a good speech.”

“Lucky you then, that she likes you anyway. No matter what she saw behind closed doors.”

Mike squeezes his eyes shut again and covers his ears, instead. “Nope! No. Don't remind me, that is not an image I need to see again, ever.”

“Hey, remember that one time my mom came home while we were in my room—”

Mike opens one eye. “You know, it's very disconcerting that you're not more freaked out by this.”

Will shrugs. “Your torture is my amusement.”

Mike opens his other eye, frowning. “I knew it. It was never really love. This whole time, my life was a lie.”

Will plays along, looking as coy as he can. “Well, it was good while it lasted.”

Mike's face turns an especially charming shade of pink, those freckles he loathes standing out in stark contrast to his pale skin. There's a look on his face, part wistful, part planning a very serious something in Will's future, and Will loves every tantalizing second.

“Yeah,” Mike says, fidgeting with the hem of Will’s t-shirt. “It really was the best.”

There's a promise buried in the subtext there, Will knows there is.

Will drags Mike back to the depths of his room to see if the subtext is hidden in Mike's tongue.

It's not, but the reenactment is just as thrilling as the promise between lips.

 


 

“You could write a story, you know.”

Will’s head snaps up. “What?”

Mike trails his fingers along Will’s elbow. Mike’s parents don’t know he’s here, won’t allow him to stay the night anymore like he hasn’t a thousand times before, but they’ve found ways around that. They’ve found ways around a lot of things.

“You know,” Mike shrugs, like Will is just being humble, instead of just plain confused. “You say that I was the Dungeon Master, but I think you’re the real storyteller. It’s all a matter of perspective, see.” His long fingers twine between Will’s smaller ones and Will thinks, not for the first time, how beautiful this boy is.

Will didn’t know it was possible for him to feel so much, after everything.

“What would I—what would I write about?” Will finds himself asking. He’s never considered the prospect, never believed in his ability to write, of all things, but just the possibility of Mike believing the impossible can be achieved makes the daunting appear less so.

Mike smiles, the dim light of the lamp illuminating his laugh lines, the curl of his brow. He kisses Will’s neck, then along his jaw with just a hint of teeth.

“Anything you want.” Mike grins into Will’s neck before pulling back, sobering as he looks Will in the eye. “It could be the history of Hawkins, it could be about you and me. It could be littered with illustrations, it could be anything. That’s the beauty of it.”

“You think I should?”

“I think it might illuminate some things.”

“Like what?”

Mike repositions his precarious position on one elbow, moving back far enough for Will to see he's deep in thought. “Everything has a balance, right?”

Will isn't sure he follows. “Right...”

Mike looks at the ceiling, at Will's glow in the dark stars. “With everything that's happened, with the upside down, don't you think there's an element of—I don't know—destiny involved?”

Will hasn't thought about it, not really. But looking at Mike trace a constellation with his forefinger and his thumb, watching the way the lamp makes shadows of two boys cuddling in the dark, Will thinks he understands the appeal.

“I guess that's how I feel when I look at you.” Mike rests his head on Will's knee, relaxed and content like it's that simple.

Maybe it is. 

There are many things in the wreckage of Hawkins that don't make sense, many more things that don't seem fair, but Mike's right about one thing. No matter how much wreckage and pain the monsters left behind, no matter how much has changed and not all of it good, there's always some good mixed in with the bad, too.

For Will, there's no question who his shining star is.

 


 

Mike may be onto something, Will realizes.

That's no big surprise, he knows.

Mike always had the best ideas, Mike was always the best storyteller. It's why Will is nervous to try his own hand, maybe, to transition one familiar form of art for another newer, more personal one. But then, Mike has a way of making the complex simple, so the more he talks the more Will feels that familiar itch under his skin, that drive to create and speak in a way he's never been capable of face to face.

It's a wonder he's never tried it before, actually. Will's never had someone quite like Mike who understood his preferences, his quietness, his selective vocabulary so wholly and completely, and maybe that, right there, makes all the difference. Maybe it is that simple, maybe it's always been Mike who draws out the artist in Will, in every way, every time: from the poetry he hoarded under his bed, to the fantastical art in his spiral bound notebooks, to the dream of a boy Will now kisses each morning with the sunrise. It feels like that same bit of destiny that has followed Will for the better part of five years now, and maybe this is the final show.

Once Will starts, it's not so hard to keep going, and going, and going until there are pages and pages of Will's heart and soul on eight by eleven paper, neat and precise in a way art never is. It's simple in a way nothing about verbal communication is, even as it reveals some of the most poignant, personal depths of Will's existence on this plane—and the one beyond.

It reminds him of Bilbo, in a way, regaling his tales from The Hobbit. There's a part of Will that finds the process therapeutic, part of him that feels fulfilled from the simple closure writing brings.

Of course, at the end of the day, the story is a relatively simple one: the story of a boy Will noticed from the very beginning, a boy who was Will's constant even when he wasn't. The only difference is that it's no longer just a story, anymore. Now it's reality, now it's real: in this universe it's Mike who inspires him, Mike who encourages, Mike who edits. It's Mike who stays up late on the bad days, Mike who smiles so sweetly on the good ones. It's Mike who is Will's partner and friend, boyfriend and confidante, Mike who is the center of Will's own private gravity.

And when it's done, when the final word has been printed and set aside, Will takes a pen and writes an acknowledgement for the preface. It's a small thing, no more than two words, but its importance isn't derived from its length, but because of it. It's the sort of minute detail Will rarely understood from authors, before, something he could never apply to daily life no matter how he tried to crack the code. It's little more than a personal touch, an addendum understood by the recipient and the writer alone and only: an inside joke or a private testament—or both, perhaps, at the same time.

Maybe the puzzle of the thing is half the beauty of it. Maybe the things that matter in life are almost always thanks to a precious few who deserve it, who shaped it, who were there in all the ways that matter.

It's taken a long time for Will to understand a lot of things, but knowing Mike's due in his life was always the easy part. He's been Will's muse longer than he's been Will's boyfriend, a surprise to precisely no one except maybe Mike himself, but even then, the person who belongs in Will's preface is not, as some might expect, the subject of his novel. That honor goes to the last person Will's family and friends might expect, a person Will himself didn't understand at the time, a person he wrote off as a minor subplot in the overarching plot of his own life, a character who was more a misunderstood enigma than a real, flushed out person.

It was a mistake, plain and simple. To reduce Jane to her relationship with Mike was unfair, to equate her leaving as abandonment downright cruel. Will thinks he understands now what he didn't back then, and in the process realizes all the poets, philosophers, and ethicists aren't kidding when they say time heals wounds. Now Will knows, now Will sees, time does just that and more because for Will it teaches, too. Time corrects, it skews, it adds minutes and hours and days to a once lonely, hurting heart, until eventually, one day, an entirely different kind of heart takes its place. It isn't something that can be equated to a four letter word, it isn't just heal or not healed. It isn't just a new chapter, and it isn't just an ending.

It's a whole new start to a whole new story.

It's something the therapist would like, probably. It's something Joyce would appreciate, something Mike would ponder for the better part of a week. It's something Jonathan would get in that instinctual way of his, something Dustin, Lucas, and Max would pretend to comprehend like the good friends they are. It doesn't much matter though, because no matter what the others perceive, Will thinks it's something she would understand, and maybe that's the only person who needs to. Maybe that's how prefaces always worked, and this is just another thing Will never understood, before Mike or Jane came into his life.

Will looks at a town well on its way to healing—real healing, this time, not just slapping a band-aid over a bleeding wound—and thinks maybe this is what peace feels like. Maybe he finally gets the hype, maybe the world is a bit smaller than it used to be, and that's okay. Maybe Mike will convince him to publish this biography one day, and maybe she's still out there somewhere in this same universe where she can read it, too. Maybe she'll smile before she ever reaches the first chapter, maybe she'll recognize the name the lab gave her, the one that isn't her real name, not anymore, but something Will remembers her by, because the past—it may be long gone now, but it's never forgotten.

And maybe that isn't always such a bad thing.

Either way, it's a suiting beginning, Will thinks. And as he closes the page, as he takes Mike's hand, as he joins his favorite boy in the passenger seat and drives, windows down and music blaring, a perfect evening, Will thinks it's an even better ending.

For Eleven.