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it's dangerous to go alone!

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Some days are worse than others.

Some days are yellow, bright and sparkling, tinged with green and orange and his friends' smiling faces. They are good days. They are becoming more common as the months turn into years. Will likes these days best, because they remind him of Before. They are sunshine and summer bike rides and successful campaigns. They are his mother’s cooking and the mixtapes that Jonathan mails home for him. They are hugs from Lucas and gaming sessions with Max that last for hours. They are the days when Dustin lets him copy his homework, because he could not move himself out of bed the night before to finish it. They are the days when he and El practice card games together, full of hushed giggles and muffled shouts, so they can team up and beat everyone else at the next sleepover. They are the days that he ends up next to Mike on the couch during a movie night, and he gets to spend a whole two hours pressed against his side. They are good days.

Some days are blue, cool and muted and dim. They are not good days, but they are not bad days. They simply are. They are easy to hide from, because it is not so hard to pull himself from his bed on blue days. He knows that blue days end. He knows if he gets himself to school, he can get Dustin to tell him a joke or he’ll see Mike smile at him and things will be better, just a little bit. He still might cry himself to sleep that night, but it will be better. Just a little bit.

Some days are gray. They are nothing.

Some days are red, burning and furious. They are the rarest, and sometimes Will thinks they are the worst. It will hit him all of a sudden, how unfair everything was, and is, and always will be. He would never wish anything ill upon his friends, but why was it him? Why wasn’t it them? Why is he the one that had to suffer, that always will suffer, that will always bear the horrible scars on his body and on his mind? Why couldn’t his mother afford a house closer to Mike’s? Why couldn’t Jonathan have been home that night? Why doesn’t anyone understand? Why doesn’t anyone UNDERSTAND?

Red days are often followed by several gray days. They are exhausting. Will does not like them at all.

Some days are black. They are darkness surrounding his every action, creeping from the shadows and smothering him. They are the void of the Upside Down, the terrifying familiarity of nothingness. They are Demogorgons and Mind Flayers and monsters that he used to pretend to fight, but he knows better than to try anymore. They are the blank space of now-memories, the chilling gap between what is real and what is not and what might be. They are the harsh reminder that he is not free, that it’s still watching him, that it always will, and oh God, it’s happening again, it’s coming, Mike, help, it’s coming, we have to stop it, please don’t let it get me—

Red days are bad days, but black days are the worst days.

When he wakes up on Saturday, he knows he is not going to Mike’s that night.

He overslept. He meant to wake up to see Jonathan and his mother off. They said their goodbyes the night before, knowing they would have to be up early to make it to the airport in time for their flight, but Will had planned on getting up to give them both one last hug. Jonathan was moving back to New York for his junior year, and his mother was flying with him to help him move in.

Last year, all three of them had gone. But airline tickets were pricey, and Will was not particularly eager to get back on an airplane anytime soon. It had taken a lot of convincing, but he had managed to persuade his mother to let him stay at home while she was gone for a short weekend.

Staying at home really meant staying at the Wheeler’s, but Will had been looking forward to his mandatory sleepover all week, even though it came with the bittersweet aftertaste of the fact that Jonathan would be gone until Thanksgiving. He had helped pack the suitcases with a heavy heart.

Mike had been similarly thrilled, because he would not shut up about the new game his parents had gotten him for his NES. “It’s incredible,” he’d declared over the phone while they worked out the details. “It’s gonna blow your mind. Dustin and Lucas and Max are gonna be pissed when they find out I let you play it first, but I don’t care. You’re gonna love it.”

He probably would, too. But there’s no way he’s making it out of the house today.

The first thing he feels is the heat. It is that alone that pulls him from his dream, wrenching him out of the darkness and into the living world. He’s sticky when he shakes off the covers, doused in sweat, a combination of the late summer humidity and his nighttime terrors. He peels his shirt over his head and throws it into a corner of his room. His bedroom fan oscillates from on top of his dresser. It sends a sharp chill down his spine when it passes over him. He regrets undressing. He regrets waking up.

His cheeks are wet, which means he had been crying. That is not new. His throat is also scratchy, which made him think he had been screaming in his sleep. Jonathan says he doesn’t do that too often anymore. He’s pretty sure Jonathan is lying.

He tries to breathe, but the air never seems to make it to his lungs. Each inhale is a sharp pain in the side of his ribs, ripping at him from the inside out. It brings him no relief to continue. It brings him no relief to stop. His choices do not seem to matter. He takes another breath.

Will Byers is in his bedroom. It is 10:34am. He is going to take a shower. He is not in the Upside Down. He is not possessed.

He tells himself these things like a mantra, as though they will bring back some semblance of sanity. His chest hurts. His lungs still do not work. He is used to it. It still hurts.

The water in the shower is scalding. He does it on purpose. It is a reminder that he is still alive, he is still here, he can still feel. It is a reminder that he is still Will. The Mind Flayer would not let him take a hot shower, so he knows he is not possessed by the Mind Flayer. He does not know if he is possessed by anything else.

Will does not close his eyes in the shower, not even when he rinses his shampoo and it runs down his face in stinging tracks. He cannot allow himself to be that vulnerable for that long. Before getting in the shower, he checked to make sure both the front and back doors were locked. He is certain that there is no way his mother would have left them open. It does not matter, because a locked door would not stop a Demogorgon. A locked door did not stop the last Demogorgon. He double checked the locks anyway.

By the time he finishes his shower, Will cannot remember which dream he had. There are only a few different ones. His mind seems to be lacking in creative ways to torture him. He’s not too bothered by that. He is already afraid of middle school football fields, arcades, Loch Nora, pumpkin patches, empty hallways. He does not need to think of more things to be helplessly terrified by.

It doesn’t matter where the dreams take place, anyway. They all end the same.

His mother left a note on the kitchen counter, meticulously detailed. It has their flight numbers, arrival and departure times, hotel name and phone number. At the bottom, there is a note saying that she will call the Wheeler’s when she is back at the hotel that evening. Below that, a large, hand-drawn heart and a reminder that she loves him dearly. The note makes him smile. The smile makes his cheeks hurt.

He is not hungry. He never is on these days. He is grateful his mother is not here, because he does not have to make a plate and take it into his room to pretend he is eating, nor does he have to sneak it back into the kitchen trash can a few hours later. He knows it is wasteful, but it gives his mother peace of mind. She deserves that much.

He stalls for as long as he can, but by mid-afternoon, he knows he needs to call Mike. He should have been over there by now, but showing up an hour late wouldn’t cause much suspicion. He figures not showing up at all would.

Will does not want to risk using the phone, because he does not want to speak to either of Mike’s parents. He reaches for his radio instead.

“Mike, come in. Over.”

He’s almost hoping that Mike does not respond, at least not at first. It would not be surprising, because it’s been a while since they’ve used the walkie talkies. Mike’s might be out of batteries, or maybe shoved in a closet somewhere. He does not really want to have this conversation. He hates cancelling plans because he’s being stupid and having a rough day. His friends deserve better than that. But he hasn’t been a good friend in a long time, not really. Not since Before.

The walkie crackles to life almost immediately. “Will, I copy. Over.

Mike must have been waiting by it. It’s possible it was just sitting on his bedside table, but Will gets the feeling that Mike already knew something was up. He always seems to. “I…I don’t think I’m going to make it tonight,” he says, and he hates himself for it. “I’m not feeling very well. Over.”

Are you okay? What’s wrong? Over.

“I’m just not feeling great. I don’t know. I don’t want to get you sick. Over.” Will cringes. He does not even sound convincing to himself.

There is a long pause before Mike responds. “I don’t care about getting sick, Will. You shouldn’t stay there by yourself. Why don’t I bring everything over there? So you don’t have to leave the house? Over.

Will does not answer. He hates that he is going to be a burden on his friend yet again. Barely a minute passes before the static from the radio is back.

Will, I’m packing the stuff up now. I’m gonna be over there soon. Okay? Over.

Will knows it is not a question. He is grateful. He doesn’t think he could come up with an answer if he tried. “Okay. Over.”

It is less than twenty minutes before Will hears the telltale crunch of gravel under tires that meant Mike was here. He is laying on the couch, but he does not find the energy to get up and unlock the door until Mike is knocking on it.

“Hey,” Mike says, a soft smile on his lips and several bags thrown over his shoulders. “How are you feeling?”

Will steps to the side and allows him to enter, watching as he immediately drops his sleeping bag and another of his totes to the ground. He twists and reaches into a third while it is still on his back, digging for something. He does not appear to be having a lot of success.

“I’ve been better,” Will says, turning the lock again. “You probably shouldn’t be here.”

“I’m not leaving you here alone. That’s ridiculous,” Mike says, giving up and placing his bag on floor. He pulls a plastic container from it, grinning proudly. “My mom made soup. Oh, I told her you were throwing up, and that you didn’t want to get everyone sick, so that she’d let me come. But she made me bring soup, so you’d feel better.”

Will blinks. “It’s August,” he says. It is the only response he can think of. It sounds rude.

“Yeah, and she already had it made.” Mike shrugs, unoffended by his bluntness. “We don’t have to eat it, though. Oh yeah, she also sent a bottle of Pro—Propo—Proco—uh, this thing. Anti-nausea medicine. Here,” he says, tossing a bottle at Will as he stands.

“Pro-chlor-per-a-zine,” Will reads slowly, squinting at the label.

“Yeah,” says Mike, sounding mildly impressed. “Have you heard of it?” Will shakes his head. “Neither have I, but my mom said it like I should. Like everyone’s heard of propane-chlorine-whatever and I’m and idiot for not knowing it. But whatever. You don’t have to take it, since you’re not actually throwing up.” He pauses, frowning. “Are you throwing up?”

“No.”

“Okay, yeah, don’t take it, then. It sounds kind of dangerous. It might just make you throw up. That’d be kinda messed up, right? If you took anti-nausea meds and they made you throw up?”

Will is not an idiot. He knows what Mike is doing, because Mike is also not an idiot. Mike knows Will is going to insist he leaves. He is trying to distract Will from ever getting to that topic. “Mike,” he says, and he tries to sound firm. “Thank you. I mean it. But you really don’t have to—”

“I’m not leaving,” Mike says, walking to the kitchen with the soup container. His tone does not leave it open for discussion. Will doesn’t follow him, but he hears the refrigerator open. “You’re not gonna get me sick, and I’m not letting you stay here by yourself.”

Mike speaks with such certainty that Will knows he saw right through his lie. He wants to feel embarrassed, but he doesn’t feel like much of anything right now. Besides, he’s pretty sure he could have had the bubonic plague and Mike would probably still be here. Trying to convince him not to come was laughable.

“Okay,” Mike says, walking out of the kitchen with purpose. “I brought the NES, and I brought a couple movies too. Do you wanna play first?” He looks eager, like he isn’t at all upset about the fact that Will has yet again thrown their plans into the garbage. Will does not know what he did to deserve Mike as a friend, but it makes his chest ache.

“Not, um, not right now,” he says quietly. Playing a brand-new game would take a lot of concentration and energy. Will feels exhausted just thinking about it.

“Okay, would you rather watch a movie?” Mike says, undeterred. He grabs one of his bags and begins rummaging through it, pulling out several tapes. “I know I brought all the Star Wars films, which was kinda stupid, since you own all of them. Uh, there’s Beetlejuice?” Will pulls a face without meaning to. “Right, good point,” Mike mutters. “How about...Dirty Dancing? I’ve never seen it. I think Nancy brought it home with her one time.”

“I don’t care,” Will says, trying to sound flexible instead of bored. “Whatever you want, Mike.”

“Oh!” he gasps, pulling out another tape. He turns over his shoulder to grin at Will before showing him the cover. Will squints but can’t make it out. “The Princess Bride. Have you seen it?”

“Don’t think so.”

Mike’s jaw drops, his expression somewhere between shocked, outraged, and personally offended. “What? You haven’t seen it? We’re watching it. We have to watch it.” He stands, determination clearly etched on his face as he marches to the TV. Will watches with a slightly bemused look and makes his way over to the couch.

Mike is about to insert it into the VCR when he stops. “You’re okay with this, right? Or would you rather watch something else?”

Will raises an eyebrow. “Am I allowed to say no?” he asks, a small smile finding his lips.

Mike does not appear to get the joke. “Of course you are.” He frowns, looking at Will with careful concern. “Would you rather do something else? We don’t have to watch this.”

“What? No,” Will says, shaking his head. “This is fine. Let’s watch this.” There’s a strange friction to the moment. They’re rarely that out of sync. Will can’t help feeling as though it’s his fault.

“Okay, good.” Mike smiles again, and something about it makes Will’s stomach twist. “I can’t believe you haven’t seen this movie.”

They settle in on opposite sides of the couch, reveling in the luxury of sharing it between two people instead of four, as they usually have to during get-togethers with the Party. Just as the movie is about to start, Mike jumps back up, having remembered that he needs to call his mom to let her know everything is okay.

Will tries his hardest to focus on the film, he really does, but everything is moving so fast. Every time he blinks, twenty minutes seem to pass, and it’s not long before he has no idea what is happening in the movie. Mike came back to the sofa at some point, and Will can feel him on the other side, the warmth of his half-outstretched legs radiating and grounding him just a little bit. He sort of feels like he’s not even in his body anymore, just floating somewhere above it, an observer with no control over anything. It is disconcerting, but easier, somehow.

Five minutes go by and the movie is over. Mike gets up to rewind it. “What’d you think?” he asks, glancing over his shoulder at Will.

Will did not think anything of it, at all. “It was good,” he says.

The expression on Mike’s face tells him he was nowhere near convincing, and the crestfallen look that appears for half a second makes Will’s chest pang. It’s gone almost as soon as it appears.

“Do you want to watch something else?” he asks, sounding a little tentative. Will shrugs. “We could do Dirty Dancing? Or there’s Ferris Bueller? What do you think?”

“Whatever you want, Mike.”

Mike’s face scrunches, and he looks like he wants to push an answer out of him, but eventually reaches into his bag and pulls out a tape. He understands, even if he doesn’t understand. Will thinks it’s what he likes best about him.

Matthew Broderick appears on the screen, and Will allows himself to lose himself in the drone of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s seen this movie more than once, he knows what’s going on, and somehow that makes it all the easier to close his eyes and allow it to fade into nothingness.

Something about falling asleep next to Mike on the couch is different than last night; it’s warmer, louder, lighter. He can hear the movie playing somewhere in the back of his dreams, he can feel Mike near him, solid as a stone at his side. The light from the slowly setting sun reflects in through the curtains and warms him to his core. He’s safe here, he knows it somehow. It coaxes him into a soft slumber.

The sharp ring of the phone jolts him out of his doze (the same way it told him where he was when he was tied in the shed, the same way the shadow monster found out, invaded his mind, crept into the recesses, took and took and took). He does not move to get it. Mike is there by the second ring.

“Hello?” There’s a short pause before, “Hi, Mrs. Byers!”

Will’s stomach sinks.

“You talked to my mom? Oh, good. Yeah, everything’s alright. He’s fine. He’s asleep on the sofa right now.”

Will’s mom was probably freaking out. God, she must be out of her mind. He hopes she didn’t freak out on Mrs. Wheeler, but knowing his mom, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption.

“Yeah, uh, no. No, he’s not. He’s fine, though, really. He hasn’t—I mean, I don’t know for sure, but…” Mike trails off.

Mike’s chatter fades into the background, as he somehow manages to calm the brewing storm that was Will’s mom. Talking to adults was never Mike’s specialty—they typically left that to Dustin—but his mom had always been fond of Mike, and she was probably so worried that she’d take any news about Will’s wellbeing.

“Uh, yeah, sure, if you think that’s best. I think we’re fine, though. So it’s not a big deal if he can’t.”

Mike’s tone changed at some point, becoming something rougher than his I’m-sucking-up-to-an-authority-figure voice. Will frowns, tuning back in, and listens closely.

“Yeah, so do I,” Mike says. It sounds a little defensive. “Bacon, mushroom, and onion from Giovanni’s.”

The Italian restaurant near the library was hardly a topic that Will was expecting to come up, and he cannot figure out why Mike is discussing Will’s preferred pizza order with his mother. The thought of food brings on the sudden realization that Will has not eaten all day. His stomach growls as if on cue.

“Okay, well, if you think that’s best. That’s fine. We’ll just be here. Yep. Yep. Yeah, no problem. I’ll let him know.”

The ceiling, which Will has chosen to focus all his attention on, looks exactly the same as it has his entire life. There’s a strange feeling he can’t place, but it rests like a weight on his stomach as he shakes his after-nap grogginess off, listening to Mike’s words float around him. They’re comforting, even though they’re not directed at him. They’re a reminder he’s not in the Upside Down. They’re a reminder he’s not alone.

“Of course. I wasn’t gonna just leave him. Yeah. It’s no problem at all.”

There’s something in Mike’s voice that Will doesn’t recognize, as it drops lower and softer for just a moment. A small twinge twists through Will. He steadfastly ignores it.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do. Thanks, Mrs. Byers. We’ll take care of each other. Tell Jonathan I said hi. I will. Okay, bye.”

Mike hangs the phone up, and a few moments later appears above Will, leaning over the armrest to stare down at him. “Hey, you’re awake!” he says, a goofy looking grin appearing. Will smiles back. He can’t help it. “Your mom called. If you didn’t pick up on that.”

“I did,” says Will, a little drier than he means to.

“Oh, good. I told her you were asleep. She says if you don’t call her first thing in the morning, she’s going to hijack a plane and fly it back here herself to make sure you’re okay.”

Will tries his hardest to keep a straight face, but the corners of his mouth give him away. “Word for word?” he asks.

“Word for word,” Mike says, nodding solemnly. Will can’t help it; he giggles just a little, feeling ten times lighter than he did before his nap. Mike looks thrilled. “Do you wanna call her back now?”

The thought of talking to his mother right now immediately makes him feel tired again, despite just waking up. “Not really,” he says.

“Okay,” says Mike without question. “She’s super stressed about us being here instead of my place, by the way, so she’s sending Hopper to come check on us.” His face twists. “I told her he didn’t need to, but…”

“There’s nothing you could’ve said to change her mind.” Will sits up, moving to the other side to make room on the sofa for Mike.

“Yeah, but it’s not like we’re doing anything,” Mike says, throwing a leg over the couch to climb onto it. Will watches with mild amusement as his gangly limbs clamber around him, folding into themselves.

“So it doesn’t matter that Hopper’s coming, since we have nothing to hide.” Will shrugs. “She’s only doing it because she thinks I’ll die if I’m left alone for longer than twenty seconds. It’s not like she thinks we’re throwing a party or something.” He tries not to sound bitter when he says it. Will loves his mother more than anything, knows that she’s sacrificed so much for him, to keep him safe and healthy and alive. But sometimes she could be so much.

“But you’re not alone,” Mike points out, a tinge of hurt coloring his voice. The I’m here went unspoken.

Will shrugs again, because he doesn’t quite know what to make of that. “You think that matters to her?” he says, and his resignation seeps out through his sigh.

It takes a moment for Mike to answer, because he is clearly choosing his words carefully. “Who would we invite to a party, anyway?” he finally asks, a sardonic grin playing on his lips. The sudden subject change does not go unnoticed or unappreciated by Will. “We talk to a grand total of four other people.”

A quick laugh finds Will’s lips. “We could invite Steve. He could get the alcohol.”

“Steve wouldn’t give us alcohol if his life depended on it. ‘Underage drinking is bad’ my ass. He’s such a hypocrite.”

“He’s trying to keep us safe,” says Will fairly.

“Whatever, he’s still a hypocrite,” Mike says, rolling his eyes. “Doesn’t matter, though. We still wouldn’t have anyone come.”

“They’d come if Steve was there,” Will says, reveling in the warm way that Mike chuckles. “Besides, we talk to some other people. What about your study group last year? With Stacy and Taylor and Jacob?”

“What, the AP Lang group?” Mike asks, eyebrows scrunching together. “We’re barely friends.”

“You guys hung out all the time last semester!” Will says, giving him a disbelieving look. “I had three different people ask me if you and Stacy were dating.” He puts on an absolutely neutral face after that statement, and he focuses on rolling up his sleeves very deliberately instead.

“Stacy Benson, are you kidding? Who asked that? I don’t even think she likes me as a person, let alone romantically.”

“But you were together all the time.”

“Yeah, ‘cause AP Lang is impossible. They only wanted me in the study group because I’m good at English, but that class still kicked my ass. We were together because we needed all the study time,” says Mike, shaking his head. “Plus, she’s a pretty good proofreader.”

“So, she’s not coming to our party?”

“She wouldn’t even if we wanted to invite her.”

“Well, what about Lucas’s basketball teammates?”

Mike gives him a concerned look. “Do you want to hang out with them?”

“No, not at all,” says Will almost immediately. “Max and Dustin hang out with the kids in their programming class sometimes.”

“I can’t imagine Ian Rhode or Samantha Johnson at anything called a party, though, can you?” Will shakes his head, smiling a little. “What about your art friends? Heather Lawson and Jennifer Hayes?”

Mike says her name like he always does, full of implication, like there’s something going on between them and everyone knows it except Will. Except Will does know what everyone thinks is happening, he just doesn’t know why they think it. “Oh, stop it,” Will groans, throwing his head back on the armrest. “You know it’s—it’s not like that.”

“Like what?” says Mike, raising an innocent eyebrow. Will scowls, because they’ve had this conversation a million times. Or, he’s had it with Dustin, and Mike and Lucas and Max had thrown in unhelpful comments every now and then. Either Mike is just teasing, or he really doesn’t believe Will, and Will’s not sure which one is worse. He and Jen became closer in high school, once they had the opportunity to take art electives. She’d always been nice to him, even before he went missing, but she was pretty and well-liked and too popular to ever be good friends with him. Still, he had fun working on projects with her, and sometimes they even sat next to each other when they had other classes together. He heard she cried at his funeral. It was sort of weird to think about, but sort of comforting, too.

“Jen would come,” Will says, which isn’t an answer, but he sits up and looks at Mike defiantly and says it anyway.

Jen—?” Mike starts, but Will cuts him off quickly.

“She’d invite her friends, too. Then you could hang out with Stacy all night.”

Mike looks shocked for half a second, clearly not expecting Will to go on the offensive, but it soon morphs into a small grimace. “Okay, no, I’m not interested in Stacy yelling at me all night. Jen,” he says, shooting a significant look at Will, “is uninvited.”

“Uninvited to the fake party we’re never gonna have. It’s gonna break her heart when I tell her.” Will sighs, shaking his head in exaggerated disappointment. Mike snickers beside him.

“Can you believe we’re about to be seniors and we still have the same group of friends?”

“Ugh, don’t bring that up.”

“What, that we still talk to the same five people? That’s a good thing, it means—”

“No, no, that we’re gonna be seniors,” says Will. “I don’t wanna think about it.”

“Have you thought about where you’re gonna apply?”

“Mike!” Will says, somehow sharp and whiny at the same time. “What did I just say?”

“Okay, but listen!” Mike says, laughing and sitting up straighter. “We gotta figure it out at some point, right? I know you’ve talked about going to New York, since Jonathan’s there and all, but there’s a ton of schools in New York, so I gotta know which ones.”

Will frowns. Something about his phrasing doesn’t make sense. “What do you mean?”

“Which ones you’re applying to,” Mike says simply, looking a little confused that Will doesn’t understand. “So I know where to apply.”

Will stares for a second, dumbfounded, before the weight of the statement even begins to hit him. “Mike,” he says, with absolutely no idea what direction he’s going to go. “Mike. You can’t just go to school in New York because I want to. Besides, I don’t even know if my mom would let me leave the state.” And then, before he knows it, he’s rambling. “Plus, I’d have to get a pretty big scholarship to go to school there, and my grades really weren’t good freshman year because of—well, because of everything, and college is a huge decision, Mike, you can’t just make it based on where I might want to go, and—”

“Hey, hey, relax,” Mike says, flicking Will a reassuring smile. “I’ve thought about going to school in New York for a while now, ever since I visited with my family the other summer. It’s not a big deal, like, I’m still gonna apply to IU and Purdue and everything. Maybe some schools in California, too, I don’t know. I don’t think Nancy wants me in the same state as her. And then Michigan and Illinois have good engineering programs, too, so probably there.” He shrugs, pausing, before glancing off. “I mean, if you don’t want me to, that’s fine, I won’t. And like, I’m not gonna apply anywhere that doesn’t have a good program for me.” And there’s a thrumming in Will’s ears but he doesn’t miss the way Mike hesitates, just for a second, before he smiles and asks, “But New York could be fun, right?”

“Oh.” Oh. Mike has thought about this. Actually, really thought about it. He’s sat down, made plans for the future with Will in mind. He’s made plans for their future. It takes Will a long while to remember how to speak. “Yeah,” he says finally. “Yeah, New York could be fun.”

They share a brief, brilliant smile that feels almost like a promise, and Mike launches into a monologue of the different majors he’s considering. Will settles into the couch, half-listening, half-daydreaming about the suddenly real possibility of going away for college. He’d thought about it before, of course, but he’d always just dismissed it as a pipe dream, something not even worth hoping for. His mother would never let him go, and he wouldn’t be able to afford an out of state school without a scholarship, and he wasn’t really sure he could handle living in a dorm. How would he explain his night terrors, anyway? Hey, I know we just met, but just so you know, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night screaming and crying because I was taken to another realm on our plane on existence when I was twelve and it scarred me for life. Hope you don’t mind! Do you want the top or the bottom bunk?

He couldn’t see it going over well.

But Mike understood. He could room with Mike. Mike wouldn’t ask why he still needed a nightlight or why he wouldn’t (couldn’t) go out alone after dark or why a flickering lamp would cause him to start hyperventilating. Mike would, well, he would be Mike. Understanding, loyal, unfailingly kind.

He doesn’t let his mind wander too often. It feels too dangerous to allow, supercharged with some undercurrent of life-ruining energy, so he keeps his thoughts under tight lock and key. But something about the way Mike had said all of that, the way his eyes lit up, sends Will’s imagination into overdrive. The idea of sharing an apartment with Mike dances around his head, late nights sprawled across their sofa, take out and cans of soup for dinner, since neither of them knew their way around a kitchen. Lazy afternoons spent playing video games, drawing out on the balcony while Mike works on a new campaign, Lucas and Dustin and Max and El coming to visit. And maybe—

Will blushes, stopping the thought in its tracks, and chances a glance at Mike, who was still debating the pros and cons of engineering versus computer science versus English. He shoots Will an easy grin, continuing his ramble, and Will sinks back into the sofa, a soft, unbidden smile reaching his lips.

Yeah, New York could be fun.

A sharp series of knocks at the door breaks Will from his trance—one-two, one, one-two-three—a familiar pattern that translates to safety. “Hopper,” says Mike, standing to get the door.

“Hey, boys,” Hopper says as he enters, turning sideways to fit through the doorway while carrying a large pizza box. He’s still in his uniform, hat and all, and he appears less than thrilled to be there.

“Hi,” Will and Mike chorus. They follow Hopper’s path to the dining room table, where he places the pizza. The familiar scent of bubbling cheese and warm cardboard hits Will as he hovers behind a chair.

“How ya feeling, kid?” Hopper asks, looking at Will.

“Better,” he says honestly.

“Better than…?”

“Better than this morning.”

Hopper sighs. “You know your mom’s never gonna let you stay by yourself again because of this. She’s worried out of her mind.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Look, kid, I understand why you did what you did. But your mom…she’s always worried about you. You know how she is. You can’t stress her out like this.”

“Well, what was he supposed to do?” Mike interjects, before Will even has a chance to think of an answer. “He couldn’t have come to my house. You know how my parents are.”

“I know that. But listen—”

“He did the only thing that made sense.” Will doesn’t know why Mike is so indignant over this. He and Hopper had never really been on good terms after everything that happened with El, but that didn’t really explain why Mike was glaring so intently at him, arms in a stubborn cross against his chest.

“Look, kid, I get it,” he says, his dangerous gaze trained on Mike. “I understand. But next time, if there ever is a next time, just call me, okay? At the very least, call me. Your mom trusts me, and she’d just feel better if there was an adult involved. Okay?”

Will knows he will not. “Okay.”

“Good. Your mom’s probably still awake.” Will grimaces without meaning to. “So here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna eat some pizza, and then you’re going to call her, so she can sleep peacefully tonight. Got it?”

As draining as that sounds, Will can’t help but agree. “Got it.”

Will grabs plates from the kitchen, setting them down on the table as Mike pulls the box open. They settle in around the table, though Hopper leaves his plate untouched, leaning back in his chair.

“Thanks for bringing the pizza,” Will says after a few moments.

“Thank your mom, not me,” Hopper replies. “She’s the one that insisted on it.”

The ease of the day seems to dissipate as the last leaks of light disappear from the window. There’s a tenseness to the air that Hopper brought with him, a subtle reminder that the afternoon he and Mike had hidden in was not allowed. It sits oddly in his stomach. They eat their pizza in silence.

Three slices later, he sits back, stretching his arms above his head. “Done?” Hopper asks. Will nods. “Good,” he says, with a significant look at the phone. “She’s room 207.”

Will retrieves his mother’s note from the kitchen and makes his way towards the phone, dialing the number for the hotel and punching in her room extension.

She picks up after the first ring. “Hello?”

“Hi, Mom,” Will says, voice low. He knows Mike and Hopper will be able to hear everything.

“Oh, hi, sweetie! I’m so happy you called. How are you feeling?”

“Okay. Better, really. A lot better. I took a nap and it helped.”

“Good, good.” It does not sound like she thinks it is good. “That’s good, sweetie.”

“How’s Jonathan? And his new apartment?”

“Oh, he loves it. We got him all settled in today. He’s excited, it’s close to most of his classes, so he won’t be walking as much as last year. There’s a grocery store beneath it, too, so he won’t have any excuses for not eating real food this time.”

He lets his mother ramble, tell him about the city and her day, and he realizes with a pang that he misses her. He saw her less than a day ago, but he feels relief at the sound of her voice, just a little bit.

“But really, how are you feeling, honey? You’re sure you’re okay?” And his stomach drops again, and this is why he didn’t want to speak to her right now. He hates having to justify himself, especially to his mother.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. It was—” It was just a stupid dream that ruined my entire day, because I’m a freak that can’t just handle things like a normal person. It was just me being annoying and upsetting everything for everyone, even though I tried not to. It was just a waste of your time and Hopper’s time and Mike’s time over nothing. “It was nothing. I’m really okay.”

“Okay, sweetie.” Judging by her voice, he was not very convincing. “You’re sure?”

“Yep. Hopper brought pizza,” he says, an unsubtle way of changing the topic. “He said you forced him to, so thank you.”

“He brought it because he cares about you, too.” She doesn’t seem pleased about it, but she goes with the new conversation anyway.

He glances over to the table where Hopper sits. “Yeah, I know.”

“How’s Mike? Are you two okay?”

“He’s good. We’re good. Everything’s been fine over here.”

“Okay, sweetie. You two take care of each other, okay? I know you always do.”

Will wants to ask her exactly what she means by that, but now doesn’t feel like the right time. “Yeah, we will. Thanks, Mom.”

“Alright,” she says, and there’s a warm pause that says everything else for her. “Alright, I’ve got an early flight tomorrow, so I’m gonna head to bed. Thanks for calling, sweetie.”

“No problem. Good night, Mom.”

“Good night, sweetie. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Will collapses back in his chair, avoiding both Hopper and Mike’s gazes. “She’s gonna sleep a whole lot better tonight, kid. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

“Alright, I’ve got to go pick Jane up from her tutor, so I’m gonna head out. Everything okay here?”

“Yeah, we’re good,” says Mike.

“Thanks for the pizza,” chimes Will.

“Alright. Call if you need anything else,” he says, grabbing his hat before he heads to the door. Mike stands up to lock it behind him. Will feels like he can breathe again.

“I’m surprised he didn’t make us come home with him,” he muses as he turns back towards Will.

“He doesn’t want us in his house. He doesn’t have room for us, and he hates having me and El together for sleepovers. Says we keep him up ‘til two in the morning.”

“Do you?”

“Yes,” says Will, and Mike laughs, sliding back into his chair at the table. A soft silence falls between them before Will speaks again. “Do you want to play? Your new game, I mean.”

Mike’s eyes come alive. “You want to play?” he asks, jumping right back up.

“Yeah, I’ll try it.”

“Okay, just let me get it set up.” He grabs his plate to take it to the kitchen, but Will holds his hand out for it instead. Passing it off, Mike darts out to hook the NES up to the television while Will tucks the leftover pizza into the fridge and places the plates into the dishwasher.

When he enters the living room, Mike is sitting on the carpet, back propped against the couch. “The controller doesn’t reach the sofa, I tried. Sorry.”

“It’s fine, really.”

“Okay, here. You can sit.” Mike hands off the controller.

He takes Mike’s spot on the floor, grabbing a throw pillow from the sofa and using it as a cushion to make things a little more comfortable. Mike flicks the console on. “Okay, you just press start when you get to the menu. Uh, it tells you. You’ll just—you’ll see it. You’ll figure it out.”

Will smiles at his enthusiasm. He gets like this sometimes, endlessly excited to share something with the Party. Mike never seems able to simply like something by himself. He has to make sure everyone gets a chance to experience it, unwilling to let anyone else miss out on something that he enjoyed. Back when Ghostbusters had come out, Mike had gone with his family before the rest of the Party and had come home insisting they all go see it together the next day. Will, having no money left from his allowance, had said he would just catch it the next week. Slightly offended that Will would even consider not coming with them, Mike bought his ticket and handed it to him without discussion. “It won’t be good if you don’t come,” he’d said. “We all have to see it. You’re gonna love it. You have to see it.”

(Two weeks later, Will had tried to pay Mike the $4 for his ticket, but he firmly pushed it back into Will’s hands and told him not to worry about it. Will has never been too sure what to make of that. He tries not to think about it too often.)

Mike climbs onto the seat behind him, propping his head up on a pillow and spreading out the length of the sofa. Will tilts his head back until he can see Mike, though upside down and off-center. Mike glances at him, and Will lifts the corners of his mouth in a small, playful smile, probably looking ridiculous. Mike laughs outright. “Pay attention,” he says, nudging Will’s shoulder. “Your life’s about to change.”

The Legend of Zelda appears against a light pink screen with a swell of dramatic music and, just as Mike had said, PUSH START BUTTON blinks below.

A scroll of text begins, filled with a slew of words Will doesn’t recognize. “Should I know what this is talking about?”

“Nope, just read,” Mike says brightly. “I’ll explain anything you don’t understand. I mean, I haven’t beaten it yet, but I understand most of it. I think.”

Will shrugs, turning back to the game. An old man in a cave gives him a sword. Giant hopping spiders attack him. He’s completely lost.

Mike throws out helpful tips every now and then, but mainly keeps quiet, allowing him to explore. Before he knows it, he’s completely engrossed in this world, in finding the Triforce shards and defeating Gannon and saving Zelda. Mike wasn’t lying when he said it was good. It’s good. He’s only been at it for an hour and he’s already wrapped up in it, forcing Mike to explain what every little detail means.

Their chatter is warm, lighthearted, and for the first time all day, Will feels like himself again. He’s not surprised that Mike knew this would work. Of course it did. Mike’s ideas always worked.

He makes his way through the first dungeon, where he defeats a horned dragon that Mike is convinced is named Aquamentus, despite no reference to it in the game.

“It’s in the guide,” Mike insists.

“You sure?” Will asks. “Sounds made up to me.”

“It is made up,” Mike says, “by the creators of the game.”

Will loses his fight to keep from laughing, pausing the game in order to properly toss his head back and clutch his stomach. They peel off into chuckles, but Will keeps his head against the sofa, allowing himself to bask in the moment.

His eyes fly open when he feels fingers in his hair, and he twists around to look at Mike, whose hand darts back to him. “Sorry!” he says, blushing a deep red. “Sorry, I just, um.” He looks away, searching for an answer.

“It’s fine,” Will says automatically, even though his brain is whirring overtime. “I just, uh—I just wasn’t expecting it.”

“Yeah, sorry, I should’ve asked. It’s, uh, I mean—my mom used to do that to me. When I was younger. Run her fingers through my hair, I mean. When I wasn’t feeling good. It always helped me. I just thought that, you know, it might help. For you. Sorry. It was probably stupid.”

“No, it’s fine,” Will says. “I didn’t mind. I was just surprised.”

“Oh. Okay.” Mike’s eyes dart around the room. “Um, do you want me to? Keep doing it, I mean?”

“I, uh—” Will pauses, considering how to answer. “Yeah. It felt nice.” He turns back towards the television so that Mike cannot see his blush.

“Okay.”

And then Mike’s hands are back in his hair, stroking a soothing rhythm into his scalp. It really did feel nice, like a massage for his head, and Will leans back into it, allowing himself to relax. It’s strange, it’s not really something friends do, but Mike never seemed to care about that sort of thing, so Will tried not to, either.

It becomes a comforting rhythm as Will continues to play, not distracting, but still a warm reminder of Mike’s company. The gentle motion of his hands calms him, keeps him present, tells him he’s still here. He’s still here.

“You know, Nancy taught me how to braid hair,” Mike says casually after a while.

The thought makes Will grin. “Really? Did you just tie her hair in a knot?”

“No, asshole,” he says, shoving Will’s shoulder slightly. “She didn’t let me practice on her, anyway. We used her dolls.”

Will has a feeling he knows where this is going. “Mike,” he says, very seriously. “I don’t want my hair braided.”

“Oh, come on,” Mike says, a bit of a whine to his voice. He sits up, placing one foot on either side of Will, and leans forward. “I still remember how. I’ve never done it on a real person before.”

“Why would you tell me that? Now I definitely don’t want you anywhere near my hair.” Will pauses the game before twisting to look at him, but Mike keeps one hand wrapped around a lock, limiting his range of motion a little. He ends up leaning against Mike’s leg, shooting him an wary look.

“Will,” he says, tugging gently at his hair. “Come on! This is what you’re supposed to do at sleepovers. Braid each other’s hair and talk about boys.” He laughs, but Will blinks at him, wide eyed. “That’s what Nancy told me, at least.”

It takes Will a minute to remember how to speak. “How old were you when you asked?”

“Like, seven,” he says, shrugging. “Not the point. Point is, we’ve had a shit ton of sleepovers and we’ve never braided hair or talked about boys, so we’re obviously doing something wrong. Come here,” he says, tugging again.

Will slides pliantly back against the sofa. “Okay,” he finally gets out, voice small. He can practically feel Mike’s victorious smile as he starts to section Will’s hair.

“You hair’s kinda short, so I’m just gonna do a bunch of little braids, okay?”

“Okay,” Will says again, because talk about boys! talk about boys! talk about boys! is playing on a loop in his head and he can’t manage anything else.

He unpauses the game and returns to slicing monsters with his sword, steadfastly focusing on that instead of the feeling of Mike all around, his fingers in his hair and his legs on either side of him. He manages well enough until there’s a sharp tug at his scalp, and he gasps in pain.

“Sorry!” Mike says, drawing his hands back. “Sorry, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” says Will, rubbing the spot with a sigh.

“Sorry. You had a knot.” Mike runs his fingers gingerly over where it was, combing the hair until the tangle is out.

“It’s fine,” Will reassures him, but it comes out sounding exasperated.

“Sorry,” Mike says again, returning to his braiding.

Will can’t help himself. “Are you satisfied?” he asks. “Now that we’re having a real sleepover?”

“We haven’t talked about boys yet,” Mike points out, and he’s testing the waters, seeing if Will is being playful or petulant.

“We already talked about Steve,” Will says quickly, diverting the subject with something close to desperation.

“Talked shit about Steve,” Mike says with a laugh. “That counts, I guess, because I was just gonna talk shit about Dustin.”

“What did Dustin do?” Will asks without looking away from the screen, taking out two more enemies.

“Tried to beat my high score in Q*bert,” Mike says darkly, as though there was no greater offense.

“Why? You’re the only person who still plays that game.”

“Maybe he thought it’d be easy, because there’s no other competition.”

A shudder runs up Will’s spine. “I hate that game.”

“You just hate the sounds he makes.”

“They’re creepy, Mike.”

“Don’t worry, if it turns out video games are the next thing to try and kill us, I’ll protect you.”

The laugh that bubbles out of Will is genuine, because sometimes Mike just gets it. He needs to be able to joke around like that, to make fun of what happened to him and just laugh every once in a while. Even now, years after the fact, it still feels like his friends and family are walking on eggshells around him. Mike makes him feel normal. Will doesn’t know how to thank him enough. “My hero,” he says instead, earning a flick on the side of his head. “That’s your only problem with Dustin?”

“Yeah, he’s still just Dustin. Anyone else?”

“I already miss Jonathan,” Will says, which is true, but it’s also a safe topic to stick to.

“Really? I never miss Nancy when she’s gone. But you actually like Jonathan, so I guess that makes sense.”

Will tilts his head back to give Mike a knowing look. “You like Nancy, too.”

Mike shrugs. “I guess. But I don’t really miss her.” He sighs, finishing a small braid and starting a new one. “But I’m always kinda glad when she’s back.”

“Do you think they’ll get back together? After college?” They had broken up just before the start of their freshman year, because they were going to schools on opposite sides of the country, Jonathan on the east coast, and Nancy on the west. They hadn’t wanted to be held back by each other, or something. But they still called each other all the time and they still spent every summer together and Jonathan still played their stupid song on repeat whenever he was home, so Will didn’t really know what breaking up did in the first place. Relationships sounded exhausting.

“I don’t know,” Mike says. “I always thought it was kinda weird, didn’t you? That they were dating.”

“What do you mean?” Will asks.

“I mean—I don’t know, just that…they only really started dating because of us, right? Like, that’s why they became friends. Because she was trying to be nice to him when you were, well…when you were missing.” There’s a pause, and Mike is probably gauging Will’s reaction. When he realizes Will is not going to tailspin into a sudden breakdown, he continues. “But she only really did that because we were friends, right? So it’s just kinda weird. Like we brought them together, or something.”

“I guess,” Will says, considering his words. “But they were dating for a while. They were good together, I think. Jonathan was always really happy with her.”

“Yeah, I mean, I guess I get why they stayed together, but it’s still weird that they got together in the first place. I tried telling Nancy one time, but she didn’t get it.”

Will frowns, not quite sure what he means. “What’d she say?”

“Nothing, really. I was just trying to explain it to her. I was like, ‘What if you and Jonathan were friends, but then me and Will started dating. That’d be weird, right?’ but she just, I don’t know, didn’t get it. She just started laughing. Then she kicked me out of her room.” He chuckles, a little humorlessly, and runs his hands through Will’s braids.

Will’s laugh does not even sound real to his own ears. “Yeah,” he says, a beat too late. “That would be weird.”

“You think they’re still in love?” Mike says suddenly.

“Huh?”

“Jonathan and Nancy. Do you think they’re still in love? They still hang out when they’re both home.”

“Oh.” Will blinks. “I don’t know. They both hang out with Steve, too. Do you think she’s still in love with him?”

“I mean, that’s not really fair. She’s been in love with Steve since like, first grade. Everyone’s kinda in love with Steve,” Mike says, sounding a little bitter.

Will rolls his eyes. “Okay, fine, maybe Steve’s not a good example. But it makes sense they’re all still friends. After you go through something like that, it—I mean, it brings you closer.”

Mike’s gaze on him is palpable, even though he can’t see it. “Yeah. No one else understands.”

“Yeah.” Will fidgets with the controller. He doesn’t really want to say it, but he feels like he has to. “Besides, you and El are still friends.”

Mike is quiet for a moment. Will does not look away from his hands. “I love El,” he finally says, and it doesn’t hurt any more than all the other times he’s said it. It doesn’t hurt less, either. “And she loves me. But I don’t think we were ever in love, you know? So it’s different.”

He doesn’t want to ask. He doesn’t want to ask. He doesn’t want to ask. “How?”

“Because it wasn’t—” Mike stops, sighing. “I mean, it’s not that it wasn’t real, ‘cause it was. But we were both really young, and El…she didn’t know. She’d spent her whole life in that place, and she’d never even had a friend before, let alone a relationship. It just wasn’t…we weren’t ready. But we’ll always love each other, I think.”

A long moment passes. “Well, good,” Will finally says, but it comes out smaller than he means it to. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Mike chuckles. “I know.” Will smiles, because they both owe her their lives, and because they both love her in their own ways, and because he knows he’s lucky to have El as a friend. He really does not know what he would do without her.

Mike tries to suppress a yawn, and Will turns to look at him. “You’re tired,” he says, frowning.

“I’m fine,” Mike replies.

“No, you’re not. You’re tired.”

“I’m fine,” Mike repeats. “I could stay up all night.”

“Last time you said that,” Will starts, trying not to grin, “you were out twenty minutes later and Lucas drew a penis on your forehead.”

“That’s because Lucas is a dick.”

“It’s because you said you weren’t tired when you really were.”

“I’m not tired,” Mike insists.

“Okay, well, I’m tired.”

“Okay, let's go to sleep,” he says, entirely too quickly. Will smiles.

“Sure,” Will says, “but you have to take these braids out first.”

“You know, if you sleep in them, you’ll wake up with wavy hair.”

Mike.”

“Okay, okay,” he says, fighting back a laugh, and goes to work undoing each of the tiny plaits.

They gather themselves up a few minutes later, Will’s hair now braid-free, and migrate into his room. Mike dumps his sleeping bag on the floor before kneeling down himself, digging through another of his bags. Will slips away to head to the bathroom, brushing his teeth and washing his face quickly. He grabs himself a glass of water and checks the locks twice before heading back to his room.

When he makes his way back into his room, Mike is not wearing a shirt. He is still on the floor, rummaging through his bag, but now changed into pajama pants, so he must have gotten up at some point. Will quickly forces himself to look anywhere else, feeling shameful.

“I can’t find my shirt,” Mike says, “but I know I packed it.”

“Did you look in your other bags?” Will asks, opening his dresser drawer and steadfastly refusing to face him.

“Not yet, good idea,” he says, and Will hears him exit the room. Will grabs his pajamas and changes, feeling somewhat more hurried than normal, still pointed towards his wall.

When he turns around, Mike is back in his room, shirt on and staring at him with an odd expression that Will doesn’t recognize. His stomach twists. He doesn’t think about why.

Will gives him a tentative smile. It seems to break Mike out of his daze, because he smiles back and moves towards his things on the floor. “You were right,” he says. “It was in the bag with the movies and games. I don’t know why, but whatever.”

“You can sleep in Jonathan’s room,” Will says in reply, eyeing the sleeping bag Mike picked up. “Or my mom’s, if you want. You don’t have to sleep on the floor when there’s two open beds here.”

“That’s okay,” Mike says, continuing to unroll the bag. “I don’t mind.”

“Why? You can have a bed to yourself. And that way you don’t have to sleep with a nightlight.”

“Nightlights don’t bother me,” he says with a shrug. “And besides, what’s the point of a sleepover if we don’t even sleep in the same room?”

Will sighs. “Mike.”

“I’ve slept on your floor plenty of times. I don’t care.”

“But you don’t have to.”

“But I want to.”

Will huffs again, knowing there is no way he’s winning this battle. “You’re gonna have back problems by the time you’re twenty,” he says, and Mike takes it as the invitation it is to finish spreading out his sleeping bag. Will quickly darts into Jonathan’s room to grab extra pillows, tossing them onto Mike’s nest, while Mike goes and turns off the rest of the lights in the house. Will hears him check the locks. Neither of them look at each other as they climb into bed.

“’Night, Will,” Mike says, wrestling his pillow into a comfortable shape.

Don’t be here, Will wants to say. Save yourself.

“Good night, Mike,” comes out instead.

He rolls over and lets his blanket and the muted glow of the nightlight wrap over him. Mike wouldn’t listen, anyway.

***

He’s screaming when he wakes.

He doesn’t know what he’s screaming, he’s not even sure if it’s words or just an unintelligible shriek of terror. There are hands on his shoulders, too large to be his mother’s, and he’s clawing at them, trying to get them off, because he’s not letting it get him again, he’s not

“Will!” it’s yelling at him. He’s not going to listen, he’s not going to let it get him. His throat is covered in knives, but he keeps screaming, arms flying wildly. The hands have not left his shoulders. They shake him roughly. “Will, it’s just me!”

The hands keep speaking to him, but he can’t focus on their words, because they’re still on him. Will yanks at them with all of his force, and they finally, for one blessed moment, disappear. He’s still screaming.

And then they’re back, this time on his face, and they’re forcing his head to turn and he’s tugging at them, pulling and scratching and screaming, screaming, screaming.

“Will, look at me!” they yell, but he can’t, he can’t. “Will, look! It’s just me. It’s just me, Will. Look.” They shake him again, gentle but insistent. “Look.” And then they leave him. His face burns where the fingers once were.

Will did not realize his eyes were closed. He opens them, blinking the wetness away, and finds Mike kneeling at the side of his bed with mussed hair and panicked eyes. “Hey,” Mike says softly, relaxing visibly.

Will bursts into tears.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Mike says, alarm tinging his quiet voice. His hands find Will’s elbows, and he holds them with a soft touch. “Hey, Will, it’s okay. You’re okay.” The tears run down the wet tracks that already stain his face. Will wonders how long he’s been crying. He wonders if he’ll ever stop. “Shh, you’re safe now. You’re okay.”

Will can’t find words. He’s not sure he’d know how to use them if he could. He flings his arms around Mike’s neck instead.

Mike’s arms snake their way around him in return, an uncomfortable angle from their position. He must notice it too, because, without breaking contact, he moves from his place on the floor and slides into Will’s bed. He lays face up, pulling Will half on top of his chest, and runs his hands up and down his back while he whispers soothing words into his ear. “You’re okay, Will. You’re here. You’re with me. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

A long time passes before Will manages to do anything but sob into Mike’s arms. When he finally moves to sit up, the clock on his bedside table reads 3:27am. He barely reaches for the cup of water next to it before Mike is shoving it in his hand. He downs the entire thing in one go. “Do you want more?” Mike asks, taking the glass back.

He does, but he doesn’t want to get out of bed, and he doesn’t want Mike to leave, either. He shakes his head. Mike places the cup on the nightstand and lays down, pulling Will back against his chest. Will lets himself melt into it. He doesn’t have the energy to pretend he doesn’t want to.

Mike’s hand resumes stroking his back, and he continues to whisper soft reassurances into Will’s hair. He does not ask Will if he wants to talk about it. He knows the answer.

Will does not know what time it is when he regains the power of speech. It has been long enough. He has ruined enough of Mike’s day already. He doesn’t need to ruin anymore of his night. “Mike,” he says, voice raw. “You don’t—you don’t have to—”

“Be here?” Mike finishes, a playful lilt to his soft tone. “So you’ve said.” It might be his imagination, but it almost feels like he grips Will tighter.

“I-I-I-I’m sorry,” he chokes out. “I didn’t mean to—” He doesn’t know how to finish the sentence. He didn’t mean for any of this.

Mike sighs, shifting a little underneath him. “It’s okay, Will. Don’t you get it? It’s not—I’m not just—you’re not some charity case that I’m putting up with. You’re my friend. I’m here because I want to be.” His fingers draw a long line up Will’s spine. “Do you understand?”

He doesn’t, but he wants to.

“Not really,” he answers.

Mike lets out a short, breathy laugh. “We all have bad days, Will. Every single one of us had nightmares for weeks, for months after you came back. It’s okay. One bad day doesn’t mean—it doesn’t mean anything. A hundred bad days don’t mean anything. You’re still my best friend.” He shifts again, tilting his head down so he can look directly at Will. “And it helps, doesn’t it? Having someone there?”

Will nods against his chest without hesitation. Mike twists his arms to pull him closer.

“We have to be there for each other, you know? No one else is ever gonna understand. So we have to look out for each other.” And Will knows, deep down, that we means the entire Party. That doesn’t stop the small part of him that hopes he really just means me and you. “You’re always there for me,” Mike says, quieter than before. There’s a pause, and Will is so flooded with warmth that he doesn’t know what to say. “So obviously I’m gonna be there for you. You’re always there, for everything. Even back in like, eighth grade, when I wouldn’t shut up about El.”

Will buries his smile in the tear stains he’s left on Mike’s shirt. “You were just worried about her.”

“Just like I worry about you,” he says, strikingly honest. “And I know you don’t need me to. But shit, Will. You’ve been through so much. No one else could’ve survived what you went through. No one blames you for having nightmares, or whatever. You’ve been through so much.” A great sigh passes his lips, and Will rises and falls with his chest. “And, look, I know you can handle it, okay? If anyone can handle it, it’s you. I’m just here because I want to help. I’m here because I want to be. Okay? You’re pretty much the toughest person I know. I know you could handle this yourself. But you don’t have to. You’re not alone. You don’t have to be alone.”

Fuck. Fuck Mike Wheeler and his stupid, incessant need to be the best person in the entire world, because it was making Will tear up again. “Mike,” he says, half pleading, half exasperated as he wipes his eyes. “Come on.”

“What?” Mike says, fighting back a laugh. “I’m serious. I thought I lost you twice. I’m not losing you again. I’m gonna be here for every shitty day, as long as you need me to.”

Mike,” he says, more insistently this time. “Stop making me cry.”

Mike grins, a little teasing, and wraps his arms firmly around Will’s waist. “You can cry as much as you want. That’s my whole point.”

“I don’t want to cry. I want you to stop making me cry.” He sounds like a child, he knows he does, but he’s tired and exhausted and his cheeks are stinging from all the tears.

“I’m just telling you the truth! What do you want me to do, lie?”

Will wiggles out of his grasp, huffing, and turns to face him. “I want you to learn when to stop.”

“Stop what?” Mike asks, jokingly incredulous. “Being nice? Being honest?”

“Being so...so…” The word dances on the tip of his tongue, but he holds it back. Mike reaches out and places a hand on his side, tugging Will back just a little bit closer.

“So what?” They’re lying side by side and face to face, and Mike is wearing that fond smile he only seems to get around Will, the one that makes him think maybe, just maybe

“So perfect.” He spits it out like an insult instead of the compliment that it is.

Mike’s thumb, which had been drawing a languid line over Will’s hip, stutters to a stop. It occurs to Will suddenly how intimate that had been. A more sudden, more stupid thought follows: Friends don’t touch each other like that.

Mike blushes lightly in the low light, looking at Will so gently that it makes him want to scream. “I’m not perfect,” he says, a mix of modest and something else that Will can’t place. “Just being a good friend.”

Right. Friends might not touch each other like that, but good friends do. If they’re perfect like Mike Wheeler, at least.

Will closes his eyes, allowing his exhaustion to catch up to him, and lets a slow, genuine smile spread across his face. “Thanks, Mike,” he says. “I don’t know how I ended up with you as my best friend.”

“You were the only one willing to talk to me in kindergarten.” His eyes are still closed, but he can hear the smile in Mike’s voice.

Will lets out a little laugh, but he doesn’t know how to explain that that wasn’t really what he meant. He remembers clear as day how he and Mike became friends. He just doesn’t know how he managed to keep Mike in his life, even after everything Will’s put him through. He could’ve walked away years ago, gotten fed up with Will and his issues, his nightmares and his panic attacks and all of his cancelled plans. He could’ve found new friends, normal ones that didn’t have breakdowns every other day or get pushed into lockers for being a freak. He could’ve given up after they pulled the body from the lake, declared him dead and stopped looking across two universes for him. Mike could’ve left Will a thousand different times. He never did. Will’s not sure he’ll ever understand why.

“Yeah,” Will says, fighting back a yawn, “lucky me.”

Mike chuckles. His thumb moves along Will’s hip again. “Bedtime?”

“Yes,” he says immediately, tired and desperate to focus on anything other than Mike’s hand.

“Do you want me to stay?” It’s a question this time. He knows if he refuses, Mike will go back to his sleeping bag, no hesitation.

I want you to want to stay, he thinks, but that feels like a stupid thing to say. Besides, as hard as it is to believe, he knows Mike wants to stay. Hasn’t he made that clear enough? All he’s done, all day, is make sure Will knows he wants to be here.

He speaks clearly when he answers. “Yes.”

“Alright,” Mike breathes, and there’s something in his voice that makes Will’s heart skip (and it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t). “C’mere.” He wraps both hands around Will, pulling him back against his chest. Will makes a small noise of surprise that sounds embarrassingly like a squeak. “In case, um, in case you have another nightmare,” Mike says by way of answer, glancing off. “This way you know I’m here.”

Will knows he’s here.

There’s not a lot of room for two seventeen-year-old boys in a twin bed. Will slots one of his legs between Mike’s, wraps his arms around his chest, and tucks his head underneath his chin. At one point in time, he probably would have been too embarrassed by the entire situation to even move, but his throat is raw and his eyes are heavy and all he wants to do is bury himself in Mike, wrap up in the boyish scent of his cologne, and maybe sleep peacefully for the first time in years. The steady thrum of Mike’s heart beats underneath him, a soft melody that seems to echo his words: You’re okay. You’re here. You’re safe. You’re with me. More than anything, Will wants to believe him.

“Thanks, Mike,” he murmurs, eyes shut and voice low. “I’m glad you’re here.”

He must already be asleep, because Will is sure he dreams the feeling of Mike pressing his lips onto the top of his head. It almost feels real. “Of course,” Mike whispers back. “I wouldn’t leave you alone.”

Will lets the darkness envelop him. He’s had worse days.