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The rain from outside splatters across the stars on Will’s ceiling, connecting the distance between each one and making them look like shooting stars.

Or meteors, if he squints. Will tilts his head to the side, scrunching his face up so he can let his imagination run further. The stars transform into blurry blobs with tails and he smiles; shooting stars and meteors.

Will is five years old, and he is lying in bed listening to the rain patter against the roof and wondering what he would ever wish for if he saw a real shooting star. He drums his fingers against his blanket, wide awake despite it being nearly three AM. He has been tucked into bed (with a complementary forehead kiss from his mother) since 8 o’clock but he has yet to fall asleep, and he thinks maybe it’s a good thing that it’s a weekend. He can make out the sliver of light from the kitchen creeping underneath his door and he wracks his mind for whether he heard a door open within the last few minutes or not; he almost never misses it regardless, always acutely aware of the falls of specific footsteps, the crackling of a cabinet opening, the creak of the bathroom door. His eyes drift back up to his ceiling, allowing himself to get lost in the stars once again.

The real stars are hardly ever visible from where his bed sits, so Will had begged Jonathan to help him stick the glow in the dark stars to his ceiling a few months ago when his mother brought them home from work. He remembers both of them beaming, Joyce hovering safely near where Jonathan was standing on his tip-toes on a kitchen chair to reach the ceiling. Will had handed them off to him, one by one, and listened as Jonathan named off all of the constellations that he could remember. Will had spent that night glancing between the stars on his ceiling and his sketchbook, drawing out a neat rendition along with figures of his mother, himself, and Jonathan watching from a patchy blanket on the ground; the drawing is now hung up on the refrigerator.

Will tosses for what seemed like the hundredth time that night, now facing his door. He watches the sliver of light flicker dangerously, hands pressed underneath his pillow. He scrunches his eyes up as if that will help speed up sleep. Miraculously, he manages to doze off, the new position allowing his bones to settle in a light slumber—until, not even ten minutes later, he jerks awake with the unmistakable noise of glass shattering.

He sits up abruptly, his heart pitter-pattering dangerously in his throat. The blankets get thrown off of him halfway in his wake, allowing the cold air to settle around his shoulders. There’s a scuffle, a heavy thump, shouting that doesn’t allow for quietness to settle in the Byers house. Will’s heart leaps in his throat as he becomes aware of what exactly is happening—he hears his mother’s voice, a hushed thing from the back of her throat, and then, starker and much louder, his father’s. Dread sinks to the bottom of Will’s stomach like a stone, skips and turns inside him icily.

Will cannot make out exactly what they’re saying, but it doesn’t matter—never does. And it never will, because as the house shakes with the force of Lonnie slamming the door behind him, Will is up and out of bed and on the floor within a matter of seconds; just as he has done before. His bedroom door creaks open and his steps are hushed as he makes his way quietly to the kitchen, where he can hear the faint clink and clank of shards of glass on the linoleum floor.

The sight that welcomes him isn’t unfamiliar—Joyce, hunched over on her knees on the kitchen floor, the stove top light catching the fuzzy stray hairs around her on fire. Her face is casted in a dark shadow but the slight sniffle that Will hears is confirmation enough that his mother is crying, has been for a while. That always seemed to be a recurrence around Lonnie, and Will never thought it was okay—for his mother to seem this sad, for her to be kneeling on the cold kitchen floor night after night and nursing bruises and a battered heart. Will steps further into the kitchen, his own heart hammering against his ribcage, the knot within his stomach beating its own rhythm. It is only then that Joyce becomes aware of his presence, the slight shift that she does casting her further into the faint light.

“Oh, sweetheart,” she says, her voice thick. She holds out a hand, waving it in front of her slightly. “Don’t come in, there’s glass.” She pauses, the glass in her hand shimmering faintly. “Was a bit clumsy getting a cup out of the cabinet.”

She tries for nonchalant, falls somewhere far off as her voice becomes strangled at the end of her sentence. Will kneels on the floor where he stood, his knee barely touching the tip of a particularly menacing piece of glass. He had always wondered why his mother did that—tried to brush off what was happening when Will knew the truth, and had even experienced it himself a fair few times. He shakes the thought, reaching out his hand to help her pick up the large pieces first.

“It’ll be okay, Ma,” he says, shrugging up a shoulder. His touch is delicate as he gathers the last of the large pieces of glass and holds them within his small palm; all of the pieces are so much bigger than his hand and if he looks hard enough he can see his reflection staring back at him on the glossy surface.

Joyce chokes back another stifled sob, nodding her head resolutely. “It will be, baby,” she says. Will nods, because when his mother says it will be okay, who was he to argue with that?

Will shucks the pieces of glass into the trash bag and watches the glimmer of the smaller pieces as his mother sweeps them up and throws them away, too. He stands up from his kneel and rubs his knees; they’re sore and red and cold, but he sees Joyce rub her eyes at the kitchen sink and walks up behind her.

He wraps his arms around her, feeling the comforting weight of her arms around him as she returns the hug in kind. He feels as her body shakes with the remnants of her sobs, feels the shaky intake of breath as her belly expands beneath his ear. He holds his mother to the best of his ability, lets her pet his hair and kiss his head until her cries subside.

“What are you doing out of bed, baby?” she eventually asks, pulling him away from her. Will shrugs, as if it’s that simple.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he says truthfully. Joyce tries to smile but it turns into more of a grimace, her watery eyes still as kind and warm as ever as she folds a hand over his hair again. Will frowns. “You need some sleep too, Mom.”

Surprise etches itself onto Joyce’s worn features, eventually breaking and withering into a smile as she laughs. It’s deep and from her belly and Will feels himself shake with it, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what was funny.

“You’re very smart, honey,” Joyce says around another laugh. She ruffles his hair, pats his cheek gently. “Let’s go then. It’s way past both of our bedtimes.”

Will giggles at that, and he takes his mother’s hand and leads the both of them back to his bedroom. The stars are still ignited on his ceiling and he climbs into bed, scooting over to allow Joyce room to crawl in.

However, Joyce just waits for him to get settled, exhaustion written deeply across her face. She gives him a watery smile when he finally meets her eyes, and then she leans over and gives him another forehead kiss.

“Sweet dreams, honey,” she says against his hair. She rustles the blankets back over his shoulders, just as he likes, and her eyes are sad when she pulls away. Will frowns again.

“Where are you going?” he asks. Not back to him, he thinks absently. Will is a big boy, he is, and he never has to have his mother sleep with him anymore, but he thinks that maybe this one time, it would help erase the sadness from his mother’s eyes, even if just for a night. He scoots over again, more pointedly this time. Patting the spot next to him, he says, “Just in case we have nightmares.”

Joyce laughs again, but this time she simply nods her head. “Alright, alright,” she says, and then she crawls into bed next to him. She turns off his lamp and settles the blanket over the both of them, and Will lets her wrap her arms around him because he knows hugs always make him feel better when he’s sad.

In the quiet of his room, he hears his mother’s heartbeat slow and settle into a slumber. He feels the dread and the fear subside in his gut and he looks at his bedside clock first, and then the stars on his ceiling. He absently thinks maybe it wasn’t a good thing for it to be the weekend; weekends mean Lonnie, weekends mean picking up shards of glass and the shattered pieces of his mother off of the kitchen floor. It is nearly four AM when he dozes off this time, the green glow of the stars plastered against his eyes; he thinks that if he were to ever see a shooting star, he would wish for the absence of his father, cut out, curled and dripping like someone’s taken a candle to his presence in his family’s lives.

The sand is itchy underneath Will’s thighs.

He can feel it every time he shifts, grating against the exposed skin of his legs. He’s sitting in the sandbox, toys littered around him, but his focus is on the main one.

Will is seven and he just got a new Tonka truck.

It’s a bright yellow color, with black and red stripes painting the sides of it with the Tonka logo running against the door. He still feels giddy with excitement even though he has had the truck for a week now, officially. Joyce had bought it weeks ago, she told him as he ripped open the wrapping. His birthday was eight days ago, and now Will is sitting at the playground with Mike Wheeler and playing with both of their toys combined. Will thinks it’s the most fun he’s had in ages.

“My mom said you could come to dinner when we’re done here,” Will says, face tilted toward Mike. His freckles are scrunched against his cheeks and nose as the sun glints in his eyes. Mike nods fervently, baby curls bouncing rapidly against his forehead.

“That’ll be fun,” he says. He smiles and then he dumps the sand that he gathered in the back of his own truck back into the sandbox, all of it collapsing in a scattered pile. Will brushes it off of his legs and he giggles. “Can I spend the night, too?”

Will looks over at his mother, on the bench a few feet away with Jonathan. Her hair is piled at the back of her head in a bun, sunglasses propped on the top of her head. She catches his eyes and she waves, shoulders blurry against the hot afternoon sun. Will waves back and smiles, big and bright. It’s a Friday, and Mike normally sleeps over most Fridays; his father doesn’t stumble home until nearly four or five in the morning, reeking of something that upset Will’s stomach and passing out in the bed because Joyce frequently occupied the couch to avoid him. And besides, Will and Mike were normally tucked away in Will’s room no later than nine, toys scattered across his floor and blankets drawn over their shoulders in make-shift capes.

“Yeah,” he eventually answers. “That’d be fun.”

Mike grins over at him, cheeks burning bright red. Then, he drives his truck into the mound of sand that Will had been collecting.

Mike!” Will squeals, but he’s laughing. Mike laughs with him, and Will feels a sunburn starting on the back of his neck but he can’t really find it in himself to care. He feels happy, so giddy it feels like there’s a balloon expanding behind his ribcage.

Moments later, Will spots a pair of shoes from the corner of his eye—small, white, with rainbows running down the side. Will tilts his head and follow the shoes upward and is met with a squinted pair of puffy brown eyes, a small hand that comes up to wipe tears away.

“What are you guys playing?” the little girl asks. He sees Mike halt in his movements, his truck stilling from where it had been moving to dump off another pile of sand.

“Trucks,” Will answers simply, but then he furrows his eyebrows. “Why are you crying?”

The little girl plops down on the sand next to them, her knees crossing underneath her. She has two Hello Kitty Band-Aids right on top of each other on her left one. “Daddy didn’t bring me any toys to the park today,” she sniffles. She wipes her nose on her shirt. “And mommy is at work and couldn’t come with us.”

The balloon behind Will’s ribcage bursts, instead replaced by an ache that spreads. He frowns and looks over at Mike, the darker haired boy fidgeting with his truck nervously.

“You can have mine,” Will says definitively, rolling his truck over to the girl. The girl looks up at him with puffy eyes, her bottom lip wobbling. He can feel Mike’s wide eyed stare on him, but Will scoots forward on his knees so he can hug the little girl. He doesn’t say that he knows what it feels like to not have anything, watching the other kids playing with all of their shiny new toys; he certainly does not say that he knows what it’s like to have a less than great father. He glances over at Mike and he doesn’t say that he used to know what it felt like to be all alone on the playground with scuffed up knees.

“Really?” the girl asks, and there’s a fresh wave of tears coming down her cheeks. Will nods. The girl smiles again and leans forward, rolling the truck back and forth. Will is back in his original spot and he watches Mike flutter his hands nervously, looking between his truck and his other toys and then back to Will.

And then, with a loud scuffle of plastic on plastic, Mike is shoving a good number of his toys toward Will, including his truck. His hands fidget in his lap, and he smiles sheepishly at Will. Will feels the warmth of the sun on his back, feels the warmth of his friend’s care explode in his stomach. He gives Mike the biggest smile he can manage, his cheeks scrunching with it, and then he’s leaning forward and grabbing one of Mike’s toy cars, deciding that he will leave the truck for the other boy.

The girl’s name is Lily—like the flower, Will thinks—and the three of them play trucks and cars in the sandbox for an hour longer. Lily’s father eventually comes to get her and she takes Will’s Tonka truck with her, but Will is helping Mike pick up all of his toys and shaking the sand off of them at the same time that Jonathan comes up and gathers the two boys up.

Will clambers into the car behind Mike, the spring sun dipping onto the horizon in a wash of bright pink and electric purple, soft blue with the tinge of fluffy white. Will buckles himself into the seat, still gripping onto the car that Mike let him borrow, and he feels exhaustion as well as happiness gripping tightly onto his bones. Joyce rolls the windows down to save gas, and Jonathan’s mixtape floods from the speakers, and Will lets the cooling spring air ruffle his hair back from his forehead.

He doesn’t register that he falls asleep, but he is being shaken awake gently by Mike and opening his eyes to his driveway sometime later. Mike is bouncing out of the car in a mess of black curls, a tan line starting to show on the back of his neck. Will blinks a few times, unbuckling himself as he looks around his front yard. Joyce has wandered around to his side of the car, opening the door for him as Mike waits patiently behind her. Will’s feet meet the ground unsteadily, sleep still written in his bones.

“Did you kids have fun?” Joyce asks, smiling as Will tucks the car he’s holding further into his chest. Then, her features twist into a frown as she looks between the two boys. “Sweetie, what happened to your truck? Did you leave it?”

Will shakes his head, walking over to Mike and attempting to hand his car back to him. Mike shakes his head no, pushing the car gently back to Will’s chest. Will holds onto it even tighter. “I gave it to Lily, Momma,” Will says. Joyce’s eyebrows twist even further.

“Who’s Lily, sweetheart?”

“Her dad didn’t bring any toys, Mrs. Byers,” Mike pipes up, his tone holding so much sadness over the little girl’s dilemma, “She played with us and Will gave her his truck. It was…” He pauses, lips pursed as he mulls over his words. “Sweet!”

Joyce laughs absently, bringing her hand up to run over Will’s hair a few times. “It was very sweet. Honey, you know we can’t afford another one, right?”

Will nods; he knows. He always knows. “She’s sad, Mommy.” he offers, simple as that. Joyce laughs again, thick with emotion. She leans down and drops a kiss to Will’s head, and then another one, and then she gives one to Mike’s head too.

“Alright, you boys want pizza?”

The summer of 1982 is the hottest on the Hawkins record so far.

Will is eleven and his bare legs are sticking to the park bench, his polo shirt shifting uncomfortably on his back as sweat pools in the crescents of his shoulder blades. He wipes a hand across his forehead and groans.

“Where are they?” Dustin says, sitting uncomfortably close to him in the sticky summer heat. Will doesn’t have the heart to tell him that his thighs are dripping with sweat from how close they are to each other. “It’s hotter than hell, and I’m thirsty, and I’m starving.”

Will nods his head in agreement. “They probably got caught up, or something,” he offers. “They’ll be here.”

Dustin groans, rolling his head back on the bench dramatically. Will can’t help but smile at his antics; they have only been waiting for ten minutes, but with the unrelenting sun on the backs of their necks, it feels like two hours. Will has already started to develop a sunburn there, and his arms are angrily red as well. He scratches at them uncomfortably as he eyes the path to the park, anxiously awaiting for two all too familiar bikes to appear over the grass line.

His stomach dips as he sees hunched figures against the sunlight coming closer, already prepared to raise his arm in a wave, but what he’s met with instead isn’t exactly what he thought.

“Hey, freaks,” the taller figure croons, and Will’s heart jolts uncomfortably. The shaggy haired, angular face of Paul Davis and his friend are suddenly looming over the both of them; they just left middle school, prepared to enter their first year at Hawkins high. They have only crossed paths with each other a handful of times, but Will knows that the two frequently camped out at the park, sneering down their noses at kids younger than them; easier targets for their unrelenting torment. Will shifts, his shoes already pressing into the ground and prepared for a getaway. Dustin moves at the same time he does, but before he can stand up, Paul is clapping a hand to his back.

“Henderson.” Paul sneers, his mouth twisting cruelly. “Had a chance to go to the dentist yet?”

“No,” Dustin grumbles, struggling in Paul’s grip. Will’s shoulders slump.

“Leave him alone, Paul,” he says. Dustin’s face is twisted, his mouth clamped shut. Paul’s eyes flicker to him, a smile starting to creep on his face.

“Or what, Byers?” he counters. His hand loosens its grip on Dustin’s shoulder, and Will reaches out to touch his arm, a comforting placement of his palm against the sweat-slick skin of his friend’s arm. Paul’s eyes track the movement and Will’s heart lurches violently in his chest, something he doesn’t quite understand climbing up the sides of his ribcage. “Gonna banish me to fairyland?”

Will shakes his head and he stands up, dragging Dustin along with him. He keeps his hand on Dustin’s arm despite the evil churning he feels in his gut. He sees Paul and his friend moving quickly, obviously trying to step in front of the two to stop them from leaving, but at the same moment that Will digs his heels back into the dirt, he sees another figure in the distance, blurry against the lines of the swing set.

“Davis! William!” the figure booms, and then Paul’s movements are halted. Will watches as he grabs his friend’s shoulder and hurriedly walks off, hushed whispers exchanged between them. He shakes his head, eyes moving back over to Dustin; his face is red, a mixture of the sun’s heated gaze, and from what Will knows is embarrassment. His heart flutters and sinks.

“Don’t listen to them, Dustin,” he says. He pats his friend’s arm. “Your teeth are fine.”

Dustin grumbles something underneath his breath, and Will keeps his palm against the other boy’s skin. “They’ll grow in soon!” Will reassures. Dustin’s features crack into a smile, and the empty feeling in Will’s gut blossoms and blooms into something different. So, he keeps going. He glances around, looking for any sign of Mike and Lucas, and instead spots something all the boys were familiar with. He grins. “Besides, it just makes it a lot easier to eat ice cream right now.”

Dustin turns to him, eyebrows furrowed, and Will points to where his gaze has landed. “Oh, nice!” Dustin says, and then he’s pulling Will along with him to the colorful ice cream truck. Laughter blooms out of Will’s chest as he follows his best friend.

Dustin orders a double chocolate cone, and Will orders vanilla and strawberry, and Dustin wrinkles his nose at Will’s order, like he always does. Will playfully elbows him and counts it as a win that Dustin isn’t frowning anymore. They’re a quarter of the way through their cones when Dustin points out two figures running up to them, out of breath and sun flushed.

“Hey,” Mike wheezes. Will reaches an arm out, hovering over his back as he hunches over on his knees. He doesn’t touch him, but he lets the other boy know that he’s there. “Sorry we’re late.”

“About damn time,” Dustin grumbles. Lucas scoffs and reaches over to take his ice cream cone from him; Dustin guffaws and the two begin to playfully fight, Lucas holding the other boy’s ice cream out of his reach. Will smiles, feeling his own ice cream start to drip down his wrist.

“Hey,” Mike says again, softer this time. Will looks over at him, blinks; Mike got a new haircut last week, and his curls have disappeared for the most part, but Will eyes the ends at the back of his neck that have stuck and curled there from the humidity and sweat.

“Hey,” Will smiles, and he hands his ice cream over to Mike. Mike looks at it and then takes it, making sure not to touch the sticky parts of the cone.

Lucas eventually buys his own ice cream, and the four walk around the park until the sun starts to set. Will feels the happiness fizzing inside of him like a sparkler set loose, and he shares his ice cream with his best friend, and he feels okay.

Will turns twelve, and he grows another two inches.

Joyce had documented it on the door frame, beaming; Jonathan had snapped a picture and pinned it to the refrigerator. Will had groaned, and Joyce had smoothed his hair back and planted a kiss to the crown of his head.

The sun wakes him up early the week of his spring break and he groans, pulling the blanket higher as he blinked blearily at the alarm clock beside his bed; 8:37 AM. Mike was gone on vacation for the next two days, Dustin was at this grandparent’s house in the next town over, and Lucas had chores to do until the late afternoon; Will was alone and awake earlier than he wanted to be the very first day of spring break.

He turns over, shuffling the blankets so they fall around his shoulders, admitting defeat because he knows he won’t be able to fall asleep again. So instead, he traces his eyes against the stars on his ceiling. He hasn’t had trouble sleeping like he used to in a few years—Will suspects it had a lot to do with the disappearance of Lonnie from their lives—so he hasn’t had to use them as his own version of metaphorical sheep in just as long, but they stay stuck on his ceiling because he remembers how he felt all those nights. All the shouting matches digging a deeper hole in his gut night after night, waking up with a heavy feeling in his chest every morning, so often that he eventually learned how to perfect pushing the knot between his collarbones down, down until he didn’t have to worry about it resurfacing. He found solace in the green spots on his ceiling, and he found that he isn’t quite ready to part with them just yet.

So, he traces the familiar path of them with his eyes, and he strains his ears to try and decipher who was awake yet. When he finds the eerie silence, he turns his head towards his closed door; there are no lights flooding through the slit at the bottom and he frowns.

He knew his mother was at work, just as she always was during the weekdays; but Jonathan had come home from work last night, so why wasn’t he awake? He was normally puttering around the kitchen as early as six AM, waking up alongside Joyce as he helped her prepare for work, either getting ready for work himself or just up for an earlier start to his day. Will feels something seize in his throat and he swings his legs over the edge of the bed, rubbing his eyes with the palm of his hand as he shuffles over and out of the door.

The Byers house is buzzing with silence. Jonathan’s door is still shut and Will makes his way over to it, hand making a fist as he raises it to knock.

He taps lightly, so very lightly, and is met with no answer. He purses his lips, hand on his hip as he waits a few more beats. He decides not to knock again; instead, he turns the knob and lets the door open slowly so as to not make too much noise.

Will feels his brother’s name rising to the tip of his tongue as the door opens a sliver, but his eyes meet a view that stops him in his tracks: Jonathan’s room is littered with clothes and shoes, his desk piled high with books and papers, his camera lying beside the mess haphazardly. Photos are lined up on a string that lines the middle of his room, from one wall to another, and there, right in the middle of the mess, lies Jonathan—deeply asleep in the middle of his bed, sprawled out with the blankets pooled around his chest. Will’s heart sinks and he frowns, remembering the way the bags underneath his brother’s eyes had darkened the past few weeks; going from school to his part-time job, to coming home and helping with chores to going off to his night job, taking pictures for extra cash alongside everything else. Joyce doesn’t know about any of this, of course—if she did she’d convince Jonathan to take off, to let her worry about everything. Will thinks she does that enough on her own regardless, between her just being Joyce and with her taking more shifts to get caught up on bills, running herself ragged just like Jonathan was doing now.

And Will felt helpless—he sees his family come home everyday, limbs heavy and joints numb, bags underneath both of their eyes a permanent mark at this point, and all he can do is listen to them talk about their days, try to brush off the immense amount of stress that they are feeling. Will knows that someone to talk to helps more than anyone is ever willing to admit, but he just wishes there was something more he could do.

He shuts Jonathan’s door behind him, leaning against the wall next to it for a few beats. He sees sunlight shifting across the carpet by his feet and it dawns on him—maybe he could do something more, just this once.

Will has his own separate chores, of course, but he makes his way to the kitchen first. He opens the blinds, pushes the chairs back up to their spots at the table, and he turns the faucet on and puts the dish soap underneath the running stream so bubbles start to form. He picks up the stray articles of mail that litter the top of the table, stacking them up and placing them in the slots of the mail sorter.

Washing the dishes goes relatively fast, as there are never too many leftover dishes from the day before, as all three of them rotate with who has to wash them and whatever is left over is just from after dinnertime. Will unplugs the sink and dries his hands, and then he wipes down the countertops and the table, and he puts everything back into its respective place whenever he spots something out of the ordinary. By the time he’s done, it is nearly 9:30, and the creak of Jonathan’s door still has not been heard.

So, Will drags out the toaster and the juice he knows his brother likes best. He stares at the carton of eggs for a few beats, the hum of the refrigerator surrounding him, until he decides that he doesn’t know how to cook that well just yet. When he closes the door, he peers at the photo of him that Jonathan had snapped just a few weeks ago. He sees his own smile mirrored back at him, and he sees the scrawled text underneath the photo on the little white margin—Will, 12, 4’11, paired with the by: Jonathan Byers that so often accompany Jonathan’s work. Will feels something surge in his chest, something that feels a lot like gratitude, something that he knows is love and care toward his family. Jonathan has taken care of Will just as much as Joyce has, had distracted him during the many shouting matches between Joyce and Lonnie, arm wrapped around his shoulders as he blasted whatever playlist he recently made; he has let Will snap a few pictures with his expensive camera, not worried about Will dropping it or damaging it and instead just showing him how to work the many complicated features on it.

He pours the juice into the glass, and he fixes the toast like he remembers how Jonathan likes it best, and he hopes that it is all enough to say that Will is here for him, just like Jonathan has been here for him.

The creak of Jonathan’s door sounds through the house just as Will is placing the plates and the glasses on the table, the hurried sound of his footsteps coming just a few beats afterwards. Will looks up when he hears him stop. He blinks at Jonathan’s haggard appearance, waits for him to rub more sleep out of his eyes and brush the hair out of his face.

“I was supposed to be up hours ago,” he says, fighting off a yawn at the same time. He looks slightly panicked, slightly guilty; Will’s chest tightens. He pulls out a chair.

“No, you weren’t,” Will says. Jonathan seems to blink back into himself at the sound of his brother’s voice, looking around at the many points in the kitchen—the clean countertops and sink, the assortment of butter and jam spread on the table amongst the plates and cups. His shoulders slump and he finds Will’s eyes again.

“Did you do all this?” he croaks. Will nods. Jonathan nods resolutely, scratching the back of his neck. Will supposes it was more to hide his face than it was for anything else.

So, Will bites the bullet for him; he can’t imagine he would be very good at coming up with the right words when he had just woken up, on top of being disoriented because he woke up later than he planned.

“It’s gonna get cold,” Will chides, and he motions a hand at the chair he pulled out while he plops down into his own. Jonathan snaps back into himself, and he seems to mull something over for a few beats, before he ultimately decides that whatever it was isn’t important. He bounds over to the chair across from Will, and he grabs the newspaper that Will has purposefully left on the table and opens it to the crossword; Jonathan was nothing if not an elderly man in a teenager’s body. Will chuckles into his bread, and he talks to his brother as they both eat toast and drink juice. Jonathan reaches over and ruffles Will’s hair, smiling into his bite of buttery bread.

Will figures he did a good enough job at taking care of his brother after all.

If Will could tell his five year old self anything, it would be that the stars he decided to stick on his ceiling help with a lot more than just his father’s drunken late night yelling.

Will has been back home for six days now. Nearly two weeks since he held a shotgun to his chest and ached with the weight of it, since he felt the cold, slimy grip of a creature he was sure he still saw flashes of when he was alone; nearly two weeks since he was in the Upside Down, freezing and halfway gone already, mumbling to himself to keep himself awake, to keep the monsters away. Two weeks since fear had made a permanent home in the marrow of himself, tightening in his chest.

His stomach still hasn’t gotten familiar with holding food or water in the way that it used to—everything he eats he winds up throwing up, retching over the toilet in the middle of the night because I’m fine, Mom, and Yeah I’m okay, I promise.

Of course, when Will lies awake in the middle of the night, surrounded by the fluorescent glow of the neon stars (accompanied by four other new, separate night lights), he knows he is anything but. He throws up much more than the soup he had managed that specific day, much more than the sandwich he had tried to stomach—in the fuzzy darkness he makes out the shape of slimy blobs, night after night, the same exact shape of the monsters he managed to dodge, and when he looked up at himself in the mirror sometimes he was lost again, and he was cold and hungry and tired, so tired of running and hiding and fighting. He was frozen in fear and home was so close but so far away.

He doesn’t tell anyone of these discoveries, of course. They only just managed to get him back, after all—who would he be to make matters worse on everyone?

Joyce hovers. Jonathan spends every moment he can by his side, abandoning his upcoming photography projects in favor of taking Will out to the arcade or to the park to try and occupy both of their minds. And Will is grateful, he is—he was too scared and so alone for too long to not be, but it all is making his chest constrict painfully.

He suspects it’s because he wants them to believe he’s fine. When they go out of their ways to coddle him, Will knows that they don’t believe him. And he doesn’t know how to handle that—but he manages, he paints on a small smile and he spends the time with them, because he knows it’ll make them feel better knowing that Will is alive, and he’s safe, and he’s home.

Home. Will lies in his bed now, and home has felt like pins in his flesh the past two nights. He hasn’t slept because he keeps having the same nightmares, over and over again, and his skin has felt too tight and too hot all at once, and nothing seems to be helping.

Will had a therapy appointment a few days ago. It didn’t help much, and he never says a lot. Dr. Brenner is patient and never presses too far, but how can he tell the shape of what is inside of his chest to someone else?

Day six has been particularly hard; Will found himself far away in his own head more often than not, and he couldn’t get fully immersed in the new D&D campaign that Dustin proposed like he wanted to; they eventually just watched a film, sprawled across the couch in Mike’s basement just like they’ve always done. Will tries to bask in the familiarity of it all, shoulder pressing against Lucas’ in the space that they’re sharing, but his eyes won’t focus on the flashing images on the screen in front of him. He is sure that his friends notice, because of course they do, but they don’t say anything and Will finds himself grateful for it. The night is over before he wants it to be, and Dustin and Lucas are heading home, but Will stays planted on the couch.

“Will?” Mike asks. He’s sitting on the other side of Will, and their knees are brushing. He’s quiet for a few beats, mulling something over, mouth opening and closing a few times before he decides on what exactly he wants to say. “You wanna spend the night?”

Will blinks back into himself. The credits are still rolling on the screen. “Yeah, sure,” he answers. Mike beams. “I’ll go call my mom.”

“Alright!” Mike says. He gets up, slapping his knees in his lack of grace. It brings a smile to Will’s face. He bounds up the stairs, most likely to get blankets and pillows, and Will makes his way over to the telephone that’s hanging up on the side of the stairs. He feels a little bad for calling so late, but Mike’s mom was supposed to take Will home anyway in lieu of Jonathan and Joyce both being busy but still not wanting Will to bike home by himself, so Will figures it’ll be okay.

The line rings a few times, eventually turning into a sharp click as the other end is picked up. Will shifts against the wall, propping himself up with his shoulder.

“Hello?” Joyce’s voice rings out, fuzzy against the background noise Will recognizes as the faucet running.

“Hi, Mom,” Will says.

“Sweetie!” Joyce says brightly. And then she’s taking a breath, hurriedly getting out a “Is everything okay?” before Will can reassure her himself.

“Yeah, everything’s okay,” he answers patiently. He can imagine Joyce’s shoulders dropping with relief, the breath that she didn’t realize she had been holding being released. “I was going to just stay the night with Mike, if that’s okay?”

Joyce hums. There’s a shuffle and a rustle of fabric, most likely from the positioning of the phone in the crook of Joyce’s neck and shoulder. “Of course that’s okay, honey,” she says. “Are you going to be alright?”

Will nods at the same time as he says, “Yeah, I’ll be okay”, as if to convince himself as well as his mother. They wish each other good nights and then Joyce is hanging up to go attend to the nearly-overflowing sink, and Will nestles the phone back into its holder just as soon as Mike is bounding down the stairs once again.

His face is barely visible behind the mountain of blankets and pillows he deemed necessary to bring down, and Will smiles and reaches out to help him before Mike can get out a muffled “help”.

“I’m trapped,” he says, and Will pulls down the topmost blanket. Mike’s freckled face pops into view once again, and he’s grinning ear to ear. “Blanket monster got me.”

Will laughs; he can’t help himself. Mike’s hair is sticking up at the oddest angles, and the apples of the boy’s cheeks are rosy red in the dim yellow lighting of his basement. Will takes a pile of blankets from Mike’s hands and walks them over to the couch, setting them down gently. Mike comes up behind him and throws his respective pile on top of Will’s.

They both follow through the familiar motions of making their makeshift beds, piling blankets on top of each other until it’s as comfortable as it can be. Will finds himself wondering why they didn’t just go up to Mike’s room and bunk there like they often do, so he asks.

Mike pauses in his movements, fidgeting with the last blanket in his hands. He shrugs a shoulder up. “Figured it’d be nice to sleep down here again,” he offers sheepishly. “Like when we were kids.”

Something cracks and blooms within Will’s chest, lighting him up from the inside. He tries to hide his smile in his shoulder but knows he fails when Mike looks over at him and the boy is beaming. Will nods once, twice; he figures anything he could try and say would just get caught in his throat, so he doesn’t try. He just helps Mike finish his bed, and Mike is turning off the lamp and plopping down onto his many blankets and pillows.

The only light that remains is the one from the static of the television, still stuck on the loading screen of the movie they had been watching. Will fidgets restlessly in the darkness, fuzzy and uncomfortable around him. Silence swells around the two, but Will knows that Mike isn’t asleep yet because he keeps shifting and shuffling.

Then, Mike breaks the blooming silence. “I really missed you, Will.”

His voice is quiet and hesitant, and in the darkness it feels like a secret. Will turns his head to the left, looks at the velvety shadow that he figures is Mike's face.

“I missed you too,” Will says, and it is the truest thing he’s ever said.

Mike shuffles again. “I think if I had a do over, I’d have asked you to stay the night then, too,” he admits. His voice is tinged with sadness, and the words come out thick and strained. Something burns like a supernova in Will’s chest.

“There’s no way you could’ve known, Mike,” Will says quietly. He shifts closer and he can feel the warmth radiating from his best friend, and it helps unravel the knot within his chest. He swears he can feel Mike’s on him even in the darkness.

“I guess so,” Mike mumbles. “And you’re here now.”

Will nods, his hair scritch-scratching against his pillow. “I am,” he says. He’s here, with his best friend, lying on the basement floor just like they used to do when they were kids. The entire world feels universes away, the murmur of anyone else’s existence blipped out so only Mike and Will remain. Will’s heart is a hummingbird behind his ribs and he reaches out so his fingers brush against the fabric of Mike’s sleep shirt, something to comfort himself amidst the swelling darkness.

And then, the all-too familiar rising wave of nausea behind his teeth. He swallows heavily and sits up abruptly, alarming Mike who follows closely behind him.

“You okay?” he asks. Will nods and remembers that Mike can’t see him.

“Yeah,” Will says. He stands up and stumbles his way to the bathroom. “Forgot to brush my teeth.”

“Oh,” Mike says. There’s a tinge of skepticism behind his tongue, but Will is already halfway up the stairs. “The spare toothbrushes are where they always are.”

Will hums and starts walking a little faster. He had managed to keep down a lot more food today, but lying there, in the heavy darkness, his stomach had churned violently. He figured he could’ve kept it under control with Mike lying beside him—but Will opens the bathroom door just as quickly as he’s been doing the past few days, hunching over the toilet and retching before his knees even touch the floor.

The contents of his stomach don’t show—just the same blurry blob, wriggling around in the water. Will cringes, wipes his mouth. He blinks heavily to fight the sudden burning in his eyes. He brushes his teeth with the spare toothbrush, he rinses his mouth, and he makes his way back down the stairs and grips onto the staircase as he’s plunged in darkness again.

Except this time, the light from the television is accompanied by three other smaller lights, pinpointed at different places around the basement. Will stands at the very bottom step, blinking. Mike’s hunched figure is barely visible still, but Will can make out the slope of his nose as he turns at Will’s presence.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly, “Figured it’d be easier for you to see when you came back. I can turn them off.”

“No, no,” Will is saying, far too quickly. He stutters, opens and closes his mouth and hopes that Mike didn’t notice, “it’s fine. Can we keep them on?”

“Oh,” Mike gapes. “Yeah, ‘course,”

Relief breaks open and floods through Will’s entire being. He shuffles his way back over to the makeshift beds, gets underneath the blankets. He turns over so he’s facing Mike.

“‘Night, Mike,” he says quietly. Mike hums.

“Good night, Will.”

California has loneliness that runs through every road.

Will is fifteen, and he throws himself into painting and drawing to numb the ache of last summer.

Sleepless nights turn into deep blues and angry reds against canvas after canvas, Will hunched over until the rising sun begins to beat down on his back. He draws and he smudges the paint with the tips of his fingers, because although he has new, fancy brushes, old habits die hard; and anyway, he likes the look of paint splattered on his skin as he turns his palms over and over in the morning sun. He doesn’t show anyone his work although both Joyce and El want to see, but he claims he needs to finish them first, needs to add a finishing touch or two to this or that one. Will figures they forget to ask or simply are waiting for him to bring it up (which he knows he won’t do), but it’s nice to know that they care so much.

Mike doesn’t call, and he doesn’t write. Will catches the stack of letters that El brings to her room every week, and he hears the muffled conversation from her room down the hall every night. He doesn’t make a fuss. He doesn’t ask her how he’s doing. He shakes off the ugly feeling that gnaws at the bottom of his ribs, and he paints and paints.

Missing Mike felt a lot different than missing Lucas and Dustin and Max. Missing Mike felt a lot like someone had taken Will and separated the most important parts of him from himself—like his heart had been moved around a few inches, like his lungs were knotted up alongside his stomach. It felt a lot like someone had stuck their hands inside him like a car crash and Will hadn't fully picked up the pieces. He wasn’t fully able to put a name to the feeling until he started drawing it out on a canvas.

A week before spring break and Will is outlining a swing set. He’s outlining two figures against a clean, clear blue sky. He freckles the grass onto the canvas and he dodges El’s questions, and he waits for the day that he gets to see his best friend for the first time in nearly a year. The night before Mike’s flight leaves, Will finishes the painting and he rolls it up and stashes it away safely.

And then, just like everything else that has played out in Will’s life, it all crumbles in front of him.

His mother away on a business trip, Mike dodging him in favor of his sister, Jonathan distant and high all the times he’s not; El disappearing, blood splattered on his hands as their security guard dies in Argyle’s van; the hot, lonely stretch of California road. All the way back to Hawkins.

Hawkins appears the same way it shrunk in the rearview mirror, all those months ago: an ugly, tangled and disfigured clump that sinks to the bottom of Will’s stomach in a messy fit of terror. It always feels like this—the confusing mix of emotions that Will feels for his hometown; the place that housed him and his family for his entire life, the same place where he was bound to run into his father again one day, the place where his childhood was gripped with cold hands and crumpled up and tossed aside, the place where his friends still were.

His friends. His friends who were in danger. Hawkins was nothing if not consistent.

And this time, when Will catches sight of the WELCOME TO HAWKINS sign that greets everyone who dares step foot in the town, it feels different. The same type of dread, except Will’s head has a phantom pounding pain, right behind his eyelids.

He manages to push it aside for the most part, getting through the next few days fairly normally. The pain in his head grows exponentially the longer he stays in Hawkins, but Will swallows around the dangerous lump in his throat and moves on. He has to, can’t imagine any other option.

Hopper comes back, and his mother wraps him up in a hug and smooths his hair back when they finally see each other again. He holds El close, holds back the sob that threatens to wrack through him when he sees her shaved head and the sadness brimming in her eyes. Hopper hugs the both of them tight, so tight that Will’s frame aches with it. And for a second, everything feels okay. He’s being held by everyone he loves, and the pressure in his head can be ignored for a little while longer.

Vecna hasn’t made his appearance. Everyone knows it’s only a matter of time, but Max keeps her headphones on, and El is prepared and stronger than ever, strong because she’s back with the people she loves. Nancy has her own set of headphones as well, and Jonathan keeps her company. Everyone is back inside, devising a plan; they decided on the Byers’ old home, because it was still abandoned and what was Will’s old home good for, if not bad memories? Will’s headache only grew worse with the amount of chatter around him, so now he is staring into the dark night sky, eyes tracing the blurred tops of the treelines.

Spring air in Hawkins is the same as it always has been, and Will sits on the steps to his childhood home and breathes it in. California air is always brittle, always settles in his chest sharply. Hawkins is steeped in bad memories, but for now, Will allows himself to bask in the familiarity of it.

The door creaks open behind him, but Will doesn’t have to turn to know who it is—Mike’s lanky limbs sprawl out next to him, his knobby knees folding into Will’s own. Will doesn’t move away.

“Hey,” Mike says. Will peers over at him, the long crooked lines of his figure in the darkness. He tucks his cheek into his shoulder, smiles a bit.

“Hi,” he answers.

He sees Mike head bob in a nod. The light that pours out from inside through the window washes him in a golden hue, lights him on fire. Will takes the security of the darkness and he stares. He looks at him, and the blazing burn in his stomach roars and roars. Out of everything going on, Will’s mind flickers back to the painting, tucked away safely in the bag at his feet. He shifts the bag around with his feet, suddenly nervous.

When Will really thinks about it, he isn’t sure if he’ll make it out of this alive—he never is. And it’s terrifying, but it’s all he’s known for the past two years. The fear that swells like a balloon in his chest, expanding and growing until he feels as if he can barely breathe. It never went away when he was in California—if anything, it made it worse. Will was suddenly outside of his life, peering down at it and picking it apart. He was completely alone. He woke up with a scream lodged in his throat most nights, and on the nights he didn’t he would sob until his throat was raw and scratchy.

Will had shaken hands with death, with fear. But for everything—for the Upside Down, for the Mind Flayer, for being lost and alone and cold and scared—when he turns to look at his best friend, when their knees brush, when Will’s palm closes around the painting he spent nights poring over, he thinks that what he is about to do gives everything else a run for its money.

“Mike,” Will says. It’s nearly a whisper. He sees Mike’s curls bounce to him, fuzzy and mangled with the darkness.

“Yeah?” Mike answers, so soft. He hasn’t moved away from where Will is practically pressing up against him, an anchor amidst the waves of nausea that Will feels boiling in his belly. “Oh, your painting. I almost forgot.”

Will wheezes out a laugh. He nods. “Yeah, um,” he begins, “I spent a long time on it. I’m pretty proud of it.”

Mike shuffles out of his slouched position, suddenly closer than Will was ever aware of. The boy’s fingers brush against Will’s hand, meets Will’s palm where Will is still gripping onto the painting—creased and crumpled from its journey, from where Will had shifted it in his hands as he watched Mike promise El their day would be all about them. Will feels his stomach drop.

“Can I see?” Mike asks. He hasn’t pressed for the painting to be handed to him, his hands just a warmth against Will’s own. Will feels his heartbeat snatch against the ridges of his mouth as he answers

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

He sees the smile crack against Mike’s mouth as he pulls the painting, gently, carefully, away from Will’s grip. Will swallows heavily and shuffles over so their knees are no longer touching.

He hears the crinkle of the paper as Mike unravels it. He hears the thud of his heartbeat in his throat as Mike looks at it, illuminated by the kitchen light that shines over the porch.

Mike doesn’t say anything. His eyes are still traveling over the painting, still holding it so tenderly. Will feels as if he is seconds away from drowning within his own heartbeat.

“El said—” Mike finally starts. Will’s stomach lurches violently. “El said you were working on something. Something for a crush.” He doesn’t sound angry, doesn’t sound impatient or violent. He’s simply going through the steps, not looking at Will still. “She thought you liked someone.”

“It’s us,” Will says abruptly. “I—I haven’t let anyone see it. Until now. Until you.” Mike still won’t look at him, and maybe that is what propels Will forward, despite the violence in his stomach. “It’s the day that we met. She wasn’t wrong—El—about it being for someone I liked.”

That gets Mike’s attention—his eyes catch onto Will’s like a hook in Will’s stomach, pulling and pulling.

“Oh,” Mike says, so softly still. Will fidgets with the fingers in his lap, fighting the urge to take the painting, fighting the urge to cry. “Okay.” Mike breathes the word. Will feels confusion settle over him, amidst the panic and fear that gnash and claw at his insides, before he feels Mike settling closer to him.

“Oh,” It’s Will who says it this time. Mike’s face is split open in a grin, and he’s looking at Will so tenderly, reverently, and Will’s head is spinning. “Oh.”

Mike laughs, and it’s bubbly and bright and Will can’t help but smile. “Okay?” Will asks, parroting Mike’s earlier words. Mike is nodding, his curls bouncing.

“Yeah,” He runs his fingertips over the painting, catching on the ridges of the deep blues and the golden hue of the sun in the sky. “It’s really good, Will. I really love it.”

Will shrugs despite the fluttering in his stomach. He leans against Mike, just that much more, until he can feel the other boy’s body moving with every breath he takes. “It’s okay,” he mumbles.

He can feel Mike inhale to say something else when the sky that Will spent so long on is suddenly blooming with red. Will’s eyebrows furrow.

“Hey, woah,” Mike is saying, and his hands fidget as he contemplates whether to brush the blood off of the painting or to prevent the smear and leave it. Will looks up and meets the other boy’s eyes, panicked and wide. “Will, your nose is bleeding.”

Will makes an indignant noise in the back of his throat, but he brings his hand up regardless and swipes against the warmth on his lip. He pulls his hand away and is met with red. Mike has set the painting aside and is now hovering, hands held a few breaths away from Will’s face. Will feels the warmth pooling now, dripping from his nose faster and dripping down his throat and catching on his shirt.

“I’m sure it’s just the dry air,” he tries, but his voice is weak to his own ears. “Different Hawkins air, or something.”

Mike’s hands suddenly come up to cup Will’s face, dragging his gaze back up to look at Mike’s face directly. He’s flushed from the heat of the night and from the current situation, and his mouth is moving but Will can’t really hear him, millions of miles away from his own body. He hears the dull chime of a clock somewhere from inside and he blinks. Is he crying?

“Have you been having headaches?” Mike asks quickly, thumbs brushing the underside of Will’s jaw. A mix of blood and tears come away on his palm and Will catches sight of it and closes his eyes. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he finds himself realizing that he’s being held by the boy he loves, and it feels nice.

“How did you know?” Will asks, an echo. Was he too obvious?

“Oh, Will,” Mike is saying, but it’s mangled. His fingertips are tightening around the back of Will’s head, nails digging into the tender skin. Will shuffles, trying to back away.

“Mike,” he tries, “Mike, you’re hurting me, let go.”

Will blinks viciously against the tears in his eyes, everything around him blurry and distorted. Mike’s face isn’t Mike’s anymore—the freckles are disappearing, the curls are receding, and his bloody palm is descending into claws, right on Will’s cheek. Panic seizes Will’s entire body and he struggles against Mike’s—no—Vecna’s grip. Will balls his fists up, nails cutting into his palm as he tries to swing at Vecna. There’s a deep, grueling laugh that resonates in the air around them as Vecna finally shifts into view fully, the whole angry, red mess of him. His fingers are still tightened against the back of Will’s neck, and he’s so close that Will can barely make out the shift of atmosphere around them—the same angry red skies that he grew accustomed to all those years ago, the tight, cold air that fills his lungs. The chittering of Demogorgon and Demobat alike. Will’s chest hollows out.

“Let me go,” he tries again. Blood is still dripping steadily from his nose, dripping down his chin and pooling in his mouth. He spits the iron taste out, struggles against Vecna’s grip. Vecna stays resilient, unmoving, and he laughs and laughs.

“I’ve had my eye on you, Byers,” he rumbles. Nausea rises in the ridges of Will’s throat. He uncurls his fists and slaps his hand out, fingers catching in the dips of Vecna’s skin. “Tell me, have you seen daddy dearest lately?”

Will locks eyes with Vecna in a bout of panic, and suddenly Vecna isn’t Vecna anymore—he shifts and suddenly the hands around Will are those of Lonnie Byers, and Will screams. He tears his gaze away from the cold, cruel smile of his father and finally, finally rips the all too familiar hands of his father away from him. He stumbles in his struggle and catches himself with his palms on the rough gravel, and he pushes himself off on his knees and he starts to run.

“Why are you running, Will?” Lonnie says, his voice an echo. Will’s heartbeat is mingled with the crunch and crack of gravel and twigs, leaves and rocks. He runs and runs and suddenly he’s blinking back into a forest, and what was once a safe haven in the middle of the Upside Down is now nothing more than a pile of broken bark, Castle Byers painted in a red hue from the dirty, bleak sunlight.

The picture of him, Mike, Lucas and Dustin lies atop the ruins, ripped up and ruined from rainfall. A sob wracks through Will’s chest, and he is sinking to his knees just like he did the last summer and he revels in the sharpness of the twigs underneath his skin.

He feels the low hum of the atmosphere around him and sees red shadows wrapping around his skin. The clouds are swelled above him like they are capable of holding rainfall. Tears mix with the blood on Will’s face, and he can’t find it in himself to cover his cries. He knows Vecna is behind him, somewhere lurking, waiting and watching just like he said he always was, so what’s the point?

As if on cue, Vecna’s voice cuts through the throng of cotton swell in the air. “You can come home now, Will,” he echoes, voice mingled with a mix of his own voice and that of Lonnie. “You think you belong out there, with them? The people who could never hold you as near as you do them? The people who you give so much of yourself to, only to have it thrown back in your face?”

Suddenly, Mike is in front of Will again, and Will screams. His face isn’t quite right, glitched and warped like Vecna was caught between who to portray next. Will scrambles back on his knees, tears slipping down his face even faster now that he is no longer faced with someone who hurt him, but rather his friend—Mike, his best friend, the boy he loves.

“No,” Will manages weakly. “Please.”

It’s not my fault you don’t like girls. We’re not kids anymore—I mean what did you think, really? Will is frozen in place as if by an outside force, back against the rough bark of a tree. The same knot of fear that has had a permanent residence in the hollow of his throat for years chokes him now, and he hiccups around it. His head is fit to burst, a pain clawing at the sides of his head.

Vecna edges closer still, back to himself once again. His steps are purposeful, his fingers outstretched and growing, and Will feels his eyes roll back. He is still frozen against the tree, and his limbs start to ache and groan. The pain in his head worsens and then fades, and Will finds himself lost in white noise.

And then, white noise turns into a more decipherable tune—a melody, a rapid beat. The pressure releases Will and he slumps against the tree, Vecna turning to look over his shoulder—a tear in the sky, in the red-blue atmosphere, is Will’s childhood home. Except he not only sees the front porch, he sees his mother, he sees Hopper, he sees Mike and El and Lucas and Dustin and everyone else and they’re screaming, mouths open around silent shouts. Will looks up and sees himself, high above everyone else with his arms outstretched and his eyes rolled back, blood smeared across his mouth and his shirt.

In a sudden burst of noise, their voices become clearer, traveling all the way to where Will sits slumped against the tree. Joyce is in hysterics, El looks helpless, unsure of what to do as the worst has already happened, everyone is shouting his name over and over. Will looks to Mike, directly underneath him, sees his arm outstretched and reaching for Will’s unmoving hand. He’s saying something different, tears slipping down his freckled face, holding a cassette player in his other hand.

“Will,” he’s saying, and his voice blooms across Will’s chest in the darkness, “please come back, please. We need you—I need you. I can’t lose you again.”

Vecna turns, locking eyes with Will once again. He tightens his grip again and Will feels the pull, feels his limbs and eyes rolling, but he slips his own hand into the divots of Vecna’s skin, and he tugs. The low hum of the Upside Down has now been replaced by the uproar of the people who love him, who care for him, and with Vecna distracted, Will runs.

He runs toward the tear in the sky, and unlike all those years ago, he’s running toward something, not away; he’s running to safety, he’s running home.

Just as Will’s feet slip against the rocks, so, so close to his house, he hears Vecna’s booming voice, breaking through the chatter of his friends and family.

“How could you ever think that someone could love you, Will Byers,” he whispers, but Will’s feet are crashing against the pavement right outside of his home.

He’s screaming and sobbing as soon as he’s blinking back into his own body. He can’t hear anyone anymore, a buzzing in his ears, and he flails against the pressure around his torso. He got away, didn’t he? He had to, he was so close—

“Will, Will, it’s okay,” Hopper is saying, and Will realizes he’s the one who caught him. He looks up at the man and starts crying harder, smearing his blood and tears all over Hopper’s shirt. Hopper just holds him, rocks him back and forth. He’s got his lips against the crown of Will’s head, just like his mother always does, and Will sobs. “I got you. It’s okay, kid.”

Will has his eyes shut, but he hears when Mike comes up next to him—the whole lanky mess of him always knowable for Will, amidst everything. Hopper’s grip loosens and Will cracks his eyes open, everyone around him puffy and blurry except for Mike. Will sees him smiling weakly, tears staining his freckled cheeks, and Will’s stomach lurches violently when he feels the weight of Mike’s gangly limbs around him.

“No,” he says, without thinking—Mike immediately retracts back as if burned, blinking. Will is half-aware of himself, flashes of red cutting across his vision, nausea crawling up his throat, and he remembers the weight of Vecna-Mike’s palm against the back of his head, violent and tightening. He starts to cry again and Mike keeps his distance, and Hopper holds him.

Later, when Will looks at himself in the mirror, he barely recognizes himself.

He figures that isn’t anything new, remembers all those years ago when he came back home and threw up into his sink quietly and looked back up and there were vines on the walls, there was the achingly familiar hum of the Upside Down; but he also knows that this time, it’s different. He feels altered somehow, like Vecna succeeded in getting his hands inside of him and twisting and pulling, so everything within Will was off center and shaky. He swallows down the nausea that threatens to spill from his throat and grips the corners of the sink tightly—he knows it isn’t true, can’t be true. He made it out, just like he always has.

Everyone has sequestered into their respective sleeping places for the night and Will finds himself gazing into his reflection, alone in the quietness of the bedroom that had been reserved for him. Blood is still smeared across his face and his eyes are puffy and red. His entire being seems to swell against the dull backdrop of gray tiles, buzzing and aching so much that it almost burns. Will takes a deep breath, turns the faucet on, and grabs a stray rag and runs it underneath the running water. It’s turned to cold but it still burns his skin.

Will looks up into his reflection once again, only this time there’s a huddled figure someplace behind his head in the mirror—Will drags his eyes over and meets Mike’s nervous gaze. He’s fidgeting in the doorway, lanky limbs curled inwards. Will’s chest aches.

He hasn’t spoken to Mike since he pushed him away outside hours ago. He thinks that he’s calmed down enough now—the guilt that creeps in is evidence enough. He swallows a sigh, letting his hand thump heavily against the inside of the sink. The rag gives a wet plop.

“Hi,” Mike says sheepishly, catching Will’s eyes in the mirror. He doesn’t step any closer, just leans his bony shoulder against the doorframe.

“Hi, Mike,” Will says, gently, as if he’s talking to a scared animal; he figures he is. “You can come in. I promise I won’t bite.”

Mike huffs out a laugh but he steps inside regardless. He hesitates after the initial step, searching Will’s eyes for any trepidation, before he walks forward until Will can feel the heat radiating from the other boy. He ignores how his breath hitches in his throat.

“Are you okay?” Mike asks softly. Will turns away from the mirror and instead faces the boy head-on; looks into his concerned hazel eyes, imploring and gentle and beautiful. He’s still a breath’s space away, mostly out of respect, and Will thinks that if he could manage anymore tears, he’d certainly be crying now.

He doesn’t say anything verbally, just chooses a simple nod and hopes Mike will let it go, just like everyone else had. He doesn’t want to talk—he’s just so tired. He’s tired of fighting. He wrings out the rag and looks away from his best friend’s face, finding the other boy’s eyes a pressure against the swollen lump in his throat. He swipes the rag tenderly against his raw face, wincing against the roughness of it.

“Bullshit,” Mike says into the quiet. It startles Will—he halts his movement, turning back to face Mike. Mike’s face isn’t twisted in anger, in impatience—there is only concern and care scrawled against his freckled features. He fidgets under Will’s sudden gaze, but he presses on. “Bullshit. I’m not taking that, Will.”

“Come on, Mike,” Will says weakly. “I don’t wanna argue.”

“I’m—I’m not arguing,” Mike huffs. He wraps a hand around the sink, fingertips nearly touching Will’s and Will’s heart skips all the way up his throat. Despite the frustration that Mike is clearly feeling, he’s making sure not to raise his voice or upset Will further. “Will, I know you’re not okay—I know you haven’t been for a while.”

Will turns his face away, suddenly burning with the heat of Mike’s gaze and from his admission. He shrugs up a shoulder, trying for nonchalant even if he can hear the roar of his heart in his ears.

“Will,” Mike tries again, “you don’t have to if you don’t want, but I want you to talk to me. Please.”

“I’m fine, Mike,” Will manages, but his voice breaks and wavers. His hands shake around the rag he’s still holding, and he feels utterly disgusting—from the events that have happened tonight, from the way that Vecna-Mike had spoken to him that is still seared within Will’s brain, from the blood that has dried on him. He sees Mike’s freckled hand reaching out and he’s taking the rag away from Will’s unsteady hand, stepping closer, and that is all it takes for a sob to shake through Will’s entire being.

“Oh,” Mike whispers, and his lanky limbs are enveloping Will completely as he wraps him in a hug so tight Will thinks it could manage to piece him back together. “It’s okay, Will.”

Will fists his palms in the material of Mike’s shirt, silky soft and annoyingly bright between his fingertips. He shakes within his best friend’s arms, crying as if he is a child again, aware and confused of his own emotions. But he finds that it feels good, to be cared for like this—to be held as he falls apart, for Mike to wait patiently and help him piece himself back together again, because Will knows that this isn’t the end. He’s stepped out of the shaky shadows into a clear blue sky once before, and he knows he can do it again.

When he finally calms down, he’s the one to step away. He wipes his nose with his shirt, already dirty and too tired to care. Mike laughs, not unkindly. His palm is still enclosed around Will’s shoulder blade, holding him close. Guilt flares once again within Will’s chest.

“Vecna—” he begins, swallowing roughly. “Vecna made himself look like you. That’s why I figured I was safe, at first.”

Mike’s eyes flash momentarily, a foreign emotion crossing his features. Will can’t find it in himself to care that that was an admission in more ways than one. Mike doesn’t say anything; instead, he reaches for the abandoned rag, runs it underneath warm water again, and he brings it up to Will’s face.

Will watches him, sees him pause before he brings the cloth to Will’s face. Vecna-Mike flashes against Will’s mind, his fingers around Will’s jaw and the nape of his neck. He blinks roughly and grabs Mike’s hand himself, guides it to the blood he knows is still smeared underneath his nose. Mike’s touch is gentle, just as it was—or what Will thought was Mike’s touch—on the porch in the Upside Down. Only this time, Will knows that it’s Mike Wheeler who stands in front of him, and not some carbon copy. Will knows the slight dip in his nose, knows the gentle way he breathes as if he is afraid of disturbing the very air around him. He knows the bony wrist that moves underneath Will’s loose grip, not guiding but holding. He knows the warmth that radiates from the other boy, as if he’s holding the sun within his chest. Mike Wheeler, his best friend, the boy he’s painted, the boy he loves, is standing within Will’s bathroom and cleaning blood off of him, and this time it’s real. Will reaches out his hand and fumbles it around Mike’s waist, too tired to think too much about it. Mike doesn’t say anything, only steps closer.

“It was awful, being back there,” Will admits into the sudden quiet. Now that he has started talking, delving into how he feels, he fears he won’t be able to stop. Mike had opened up a dam inside of him. “Vecna said he had his eye on me for a while. I just—it was so cold. I never wanted to feel like that again.”

Mike has continued his movements throughout Will’s entire spiel, but his eyes have never left Will’s own. They’re still so close; Will wonders if it’s for Mike’s sake, just as much as it is for his own.

Mike slumps into himself, dragging the rag one final time over Will’s lips. His brows are furrowed. The entirety of his lanky limbs are a jumbled mess. Words keep spilling out of Will before he can even think about it.

“Vecna did this exact same thing, disguised as you,” he says. Mike’s face flashes with an undecipherable emotion and Will swallows heavily. “My nose started bleeding right after I gave you—Vecna you—” Will stops, clamps his mouth shut so fast he’s surprised it doesn’t start to ache. He drops his hand away from Mike’s waist. He shuffles backwards, his hip digging into the sink sharply.

“Will?” Mike breathes, still so soft, hesitant. Not as if he’s afraid of Will breaking if he speaks too loudly—no, that was reserved for everyone else around Will—but Mike has always said his name with reverence. Like it was something precious, like Will’s name had a home in his mouth. Mike’s voice a gentle tap on Will’s arm to bring him back from whatever was unfolding within his mind.

“It’s fine, Mike,” Will says. He feels defeated, he feels tired—so tired. He plucks the hem of his shirt, grimacing. “I’m gonna go change.”

He sidesteps Mike and enters the room once again, beelining it to his backpack. The painting is still sticking out haphazardly and Will swallows roughly, trying his best to shield it from Mike’s eyes that he can feel on his back as Mike stands in the doorway once again.

“Whatever else Vecna did to you, Will,” Mike starts, his voice barely recognizable in the quiet hum underneath the fluorescent bathroom lighting, “you can talk to me. I wanna be here for you, but I can only do that if you want me to be.”

Mike’s words punch a hole straight through Will’s gut. They’re not impatient, not drenched in the aftertaste of anger, but he sounds…sad. Will pauses in his motions, tugging a shirt out of his backpack. He stands up straight again, turning to Mike sheepishly as he waves the material around in his hand. Mike looks confused for a moment, before realization dawns on him and he’s turning to face the other way. Will pulls the shirt on hurriedly, and then he clears his throat. He gives Mike a stray smile before he shuffles over to sit on the bed, motioning for Mike to come further in the room.

Mike does with the ghost of a smile on his face. He sits next to Will on the bed, their knees nearly touching. Will stares at the crevice between them, outlining the fabric of the blanket with his eyes.

“I thought I was going to lose you, Will,” Mike says quietly. He flicks his hazel up to Will’s face, and Will finds himself drawn into the other boy’s gaze; Mike Wheeler, the entire magnetizing mess of him. “Again. I thought I was going to lose you again and I—” Mike chuckles weakly, running a hand down his freckled face. His voice sounds tight and unusual, like he’s holding his words close to his chest despite everything. Will doesn’t push or prod, just simply lets the other boy speak—besides, he isn’t quite sure what to do anyway. Mike was open with him back in California after everything, of course, but Will has known the boy for more than ten years. He knows every tick of him, knows that his frame is still straining with things he doesn’t dare speak about. Mike shrinks into himself so he feels safe.

“You’re my best friend, Will,” Mike continues, the words spilling from him so earnestly that it steals Will’s breath away. “I couldn’t get your favorite song right because—fuck,” Mike swipes angrily at his eyes, and Will sees the tears reflected on his palm in the moonlight. The urge to reach out fills him up so fast that Will almost doesn’t catch himself. “I couldn’t get it right because I didn’t fucking reach out. I should have reached out. I should have been there.”

“You’re here now,” Will says, hurriedly but gently. He cuts Mike off and he can’t find it in himself to feel badly, because Mike was. He was here now, and he was scrawled out in the moonlight next to Will, and it’s somehow the safest Will has felt in a long time. He used to seek refuge within plastic stars stuck to his ceiling, but he figures that Mike replaced those a long time ago—longer than Will had even realized. Will takes a deep breath and it rattles around the empty, aching center of himself. He stands up and shuffles the painting out of his backpack. Mike was here now—the real Mike. “I gave this to you. Vecna-you, I mean. Back there.”

He gave it to Vecna-Mike, and Vecna-Mike didn’t reject him—he did something worse. Lulled him into a false sense of security, of hope, before it all shattered around Will. As Mike grabs the painting, gently, so gently, from Will’s fingers, Will figures that real Mike couldn’t do anything worse than that.

Mike gazes up at him with big hazel eyes, and then he’s unraveling the painting. Will stays standing, fidgeting restlessly. Whatever happens, he’ll be prepared.

The crinkle of the painting is the only sound that surrounds them, but Will can barely register it over the roar of his heartbeat in his ears. Mike’s eyes trace the painting, over and over, and he isn’t saying anything.

Will is so close to just making up something, making up a story about painting it for someone else, someone in his class maybe, when Mike finally turns back to face him—within the violent lurch of Will’s heart, he sees that Mike’s eyes are watery.

“Is this—” he starts, swallowing thickly, “is this what El said you were working on?”

Will heart hammers and hammers against his ribs so violently that his voice shakes. “Yeah.”

“And it’s—us?” Mike questions, but he already knows. He’s staring back at the painting.

“First day of kindergarten,” Will says softly.

“The best thing I’ve ever done,” Mike repeats, and it shakes Will apart completely. He feels the familiar pressure behind his eyes, the burning in his throat. Hearing those words again, when he’s fully in control of his own body again, when he’s very aware of the way his heart is beating and the air that he’s breathing, is better than looking at any plastic star.

“I meant it, Will,” Mike says, and he has shifted so he’s facing Will fully now. The painting is still held in his tender grip. “I still do.”

“Mike, I—” Will starts, and he realizes that he has to make himself clear. He’s gotten this far, but Mike has to know. It can’t be for nothing. But before he can gather up the courage and the words, Mike is starting again, mouth going a mile a minute.

“I almost lost you and I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” he rushes. He stands up abruptly, placing the painting gingerly onto the bed. “I went through that before, of course, but this time it was—it was different, Will. I saw you paralyzed and it hit me that, like—I didn’t wanna do this without you. Anything, really, but I also realized this past year that I miss you. And—” He swallows, just a few steps away from Will at this point. “I pushed you away because that scared me—like, it was fucking terrifying. And then I saw you at the airport for the first time in months and I froze like an idiot. And I think—” Another pause. Mike is staring at a point somewhere above Will’s shoulder, but Will can’t move his own gaze away from Mike. He’s tracing the line between his eyes and then down his nose, down toward the slope of his mouth. He’s frozen in place, and it might be just as terrifying as being underneath Vecna’s control was. “I think that what El wanted me to be able to say for her, I wanna be able to say that kind of stuff to you.”

Mike heaves a sigh, and then his face splits in a motion of clarity, as if only now realizing what he’s just said. Will would laugh if he didn’t feel so nauseous.

“Mike,” Will says. Just his name, exhaled. It’s enough to make Mike’s gaze snap back to Will’s face. His eyes are big and bright and there’s a lining of terror underneath it all. “I drew that for you because I like you.”

It’s simple, so simple; just a combination of a few words that Will definitely didn’t rehearse in his head over and over, but they feel right. They must be right because he sees Mike take a sharp breath, exhaling shakily. Then, a smile breaks out on his face, dopey and bright and so Mike that Will’s chest aches.

“Yeah?” he says dumbly. Will giggles.

“Yes, idiot,” Will answers. Mike nods and purses his lips against his smile. In the moonlight, the curls around his ears are caught in a silver fire. Will reaches out and twirls one around his finger without really thinking about it. They’re so close now, toes nearly touching, and Mike’s hand reaches up to knock around Will’s elbow.

And then, Mike’s frame is encompassing Will’s in a hug. Will wraps his arms around Mike’s neck, stood on his tiptoes, and he dips his face into the crook of Mike’s shoulder.

“Can you stay in here tonight?” Will asks, despite the nerves that roil through his stomach. Mike laughs gently and Will can feel it from the other boy’s chest.

“‘Course,” he answers. Will smiles. Exhaustion has fully settled in now and he yawns. Mike laughs again, but then he’s yawning himself. He pats Will’s back gently, and Will eventually pulls away.

The only thing that’s any different from the times that either of them slept over the other’s house, is that now Mike nestles right next to Will in the bed. But Mike’s presence is there, solid and warm, and his breathing is steady and familiar, just like it always has been. Will turns over and sees the moon pouring in from outside, spilling over Mike’s freckled face. The painting lies next to them on the floor, rolled up and tucked away on the floor of Mike's side of the bed, and Will allows himself to bask in the safeness of it.

Will traces the stars from outside the window with his eyes momentarily, but then he pulls Mike’s hand to his chest and nestles his face back into the crook of his neck, and he closes his eyes and breathes.