Bad thing twice - Chapter 1 - idk_ilike5sos (2023)

Chapter Text

It was colder than it’d been in years.

The ground was covered in crisp brown leaves that’d been gliding in the breeze for the past few months - contrasting the swaying, bare branches of the trees in town - and a thick layer of murky slush gathered beside the curbs. Amongst thick clouds, patches of the sky pierced through in gloomy blue as the sun sank closer and closer toward the horizon.

Most people were inside - leaving the street to whisper encrypted messages in secret and trace the breeze with dead leaves - since no one had anything better to do on the last weekend before winter break ended. College students had already left town, high schoolers prayed someone had mismarked the calendar, and adults held in their sighs of relief for just a little longer. All the same, everyone sealed windows and relished in fluffy blankets.

It’d snowed the month prior, but the frosted windows and white-specked wind hadn’t reached Will like it did now: sat on his front porch beside a jittering El. The shards of ice slicing through the air scathed his knuckles until they bled a bright puddle of red over his skin, and his joints cemented in place. It was the kind of cold that’d cut through any amount of layers he wore, boring through his skin just to curl boney fingers around his heart and slowly squeeze tighter and tighter. Flakes of snow injected into his bloodstream and chilled him to the bone. It was the kind of cold he sat by fires to escape from, or grabbed the spare blankets to prevent at night. It was the kind of cold he ran from - because it was the kind of cold only he could really feel.

It was a side effect of The Mindflayer. When things got too much - a fast-beating pulse reforming the world into eerie-shadowed grayscale - the weather changed inside him and his body heat stripped away as days passed in the shape of forever. Sometimes, he got the masochistic gratification of a breakdown: all his emotions crashing into a brick wall that no amount of precautioned seatbelts and airbags could have saved him from. Other times, it simmered as slowly as it festered, and no weight lifted no matter how hard he might have screamed or cried.

Yet, there he sat: teeth-chattering-frozen on his front porch with only a lightweight jacket on. He’d learned it was best to conceal it sometimes - because the alternative in confessing what was on his mind was worse than the cold. So, his teeth buried into the inside of his cheek and he focused on the skyline between two houses across the road.

If he was around anyone other than El in that moment, he’d try harder to even his jagged breathing - but she was on an entirely different planet: bouncing her knees as her head batted from one end of the street to another with an uncontainable smile Will couldn’t tell if she was making his chest pound faster, the vice tightening as sharp fingernails dug in, or if her unwavering grin and starlight eyes brought ease to him. Maybe it was both.

When the pinks and oranges of the setting sun got tired - something that rarely happened on the good days - Will’s eyes drifted down to avoid all the thoughts beginning to seep in. He didn’t want to think about any of that. He didn’t. Though, that’s all he had been doing for the past three months.

Three months of a frozen touch that rippled through him in never-ending waves: aching his limbs and tearing him down each time he considered trying to get over what happened. So, get over it he didn’t.

He lived in an echo. Days were sewn together with sleepless nights of overlapping and interrupting voices. The pitch black hidden in the split-second of a blink turned into a voided space of closing-in darkness littered with flashes of red, hazy eyes holding back tears. The white noise in silence morphed into one of soul-crushing tension and reminiscences of a yellow-light bathroom in the middle of the night. He drowned in a messy folder of memories, writing what if’s in the margins as his hand slipped and drew hearts around Mike’s name: only to be crossed out after a moment's notice.

Mike left early the morning after the party and the twisted fortune had faded to reality. He didn’t remember. More than that, though, he’d grown quiet and closed off - like all of a sudden Will was a stranger he’d rather not talk to. A stranger he’d rather not be around.

There wasn’t much else to be said about it. Because there wasn’t much else to be said about them anymore. They’d become friends by association, despite them both denying any change.

When Will’s eyes landed on his pale hands, a rumbling came from down the street, and an excited gasp let out beside him.

“He’s here!” El beamed, standing at an instant and dusting down her clothes.

Will glanced up to meet a shiny red car pulling up to the pavement outside the house. Lucas grinned from the driver's seat, taking in the sunshine radiating off of El, then the signature melancholic state of Will. Lucas’ grin faltered slightly as his eyebrows pinched.

El hopped into the passenger seat as the door slammed behind her; all the while, Will remained uncomfortably on the porch, and no contemplation of following played in his mind. With pensive glances between the two, Lucas’ unreadable lips moved in a question to El, causing her brows to furrow as she looked back over at Will. She returned to Lucas with a response - a knife twisting in Will’s chest at the visible deflation of her joy.

An unspoken conversation flowed between them (the same conversation Will had been the subject of for years), then Lucas unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car. He approached in the calm and non-confrontational way he always did in times like this; his worrisome query twisted into kind eyes and a gentle smile.

“Hey,” he offered in a way that made responding sound optional, then sat on the porch where El had been moments ago.

Will’s eyes pulled away. His bottom lip slipped between his teeth with a deep inhale and his breath held on instinct. He knew it wouldn’t help, but let it remain anyway. His throat tightened and dried in the cold wrapping around his neck. An invisible hand dipped in red paint and squeezed around his throat as his skin flushed, an ounce of warmth in the promise of a pounding head that could explode at any moment.

As his teeth forced into his lip - pulsing while the skin begged to tear and spill into his mouth - his eyes glazed and a rough exhale let out of his nostrils. Without thought, his mouth opened and words fell from his heavy tongue, “I didn’t want to come today.”

It was said with the intention of an explanation, but it felt more like a lazy excuse: an “I know I’m being miserable and ruining it for everyone, but I didn’t want to be here anyway”.

Lucas didn’t get offended, though. He didn’t roll his eyes or groan. Instead, his eyes trained to the side of Will’s face and his voice softened, “why not? It’ll be fun.”

“I can’t–” Will’s voice strained, he cut himself off with a defeated sigh. “It doesn’t matter.”

“You can talk to me about anything, Will,” Lucas said, sincerity in his voice like it always was.

But Will’s head ducked, pulling away from Lucas’ stare, and his eyes squeezed shut.

Three months was a long time to pretend everything was okay. Three months of forcing smiles and blinking down tears. Three months of watching his step and second-guessing every word. Three months of isolation and wasted time as one of the people who meant most to him slipped through his fingers between their shared awkward glances and occasional meaningless conversation. Three months of getting colder, despite the sun shining brighter.

Through the lump in his throat, Will took in a shaky breath, his voice breaking, “would you be mad if I stayed home?”

“What– no, of course not!” Lucas said, his tone switching to something urgent. “What’s wrong? What happened - why don’t you want to go?”

Truth be told, Will hadn't wanted to go to any of the parties following that night, but he feared if he abruptly stopped all eyes would fall on him as they bombarded him with a list of unanswerable questions. So, he attended despite himself: stood quietly in the corner, nursing a single beer throughout the night, as his friends laughed and sang and didn’t acknowledge the sculpted facade that fit him like a second skin.

He wished he had the courage to turn them all down and stay lonely in his room each night - like Mike did. It was a gradual process of canceling last minute a few times into everyone eventually knowing he wouldn’t go without even asking.

“I just–” Will started, deceiving himself as his voice cracked again, “I don’t want to see Mike right now.”

Alas, winter break had neared its end. Jonathan and Nancy headed back to college, and Mike’s parents took Holly on their annual trip out of town to visit some distant relatives overnight. So, with a house to himself, Mike reluctantly agreed to join everyone at a party that night and let them all sleep over afterward. Everyone was thrilled - but all Will could see was a recipe for disaster.

“Why? What’d he do?” Lucas asked.

Will sighed at himself and shook his head.

“Nothing, he did nothing, but…” he frowned at the ground ahead of him, chewing on his bottom lip in thought - a thread of contemplation hidden in the concrete. He shrugged, the thread disappearing into nothingness, and cursed himself for opening this door for Lucas. “It’s stupid.”

He wondered if Lucas would pretend this never happened if Will stood up and got into the car without another word: plaster on a smile and force small talk through the night. He didn’t get a chance to test the theory. The stiff and unreliable rusted wire weaving a new plan was cut off too early.

“Clearly, it’s not,” Lucas interjected, eyes tense on their target in Will. “If it’s bothering you, it’s worth talking about.”

“No, I can’t, it wouldn’t be fair.” Will hesitantly glanced at Lucas, trying to assess which puzzle pieces might’ve fallen into his lap - and prayed it wasn’t enough to make out the picture. He still couldn’t bring himself to believe what Mike said had any weight to it, but that wasn’t a risk he was willing to take.

Thankfully, no match struck a flame, and Lucas’ narrowed eyes bat between Will’s.

“Would you rather say it to El?”

“God, no,” Will couldn’t help the small scoff.

El and Mike had broken up soon after they’d gotten back from Nevada, over two years ago, but it didn’t take long for them to adjust to being just friends. As far as Will could tell, El had only gotten happier single and feelings never resurfaced; but the idea of confessing everything to her, of all people, felt a little weird.

“Okay, then what–” Lucas abruptly cut himself off. His unblinking eyes locked with Will’s.

Then Will tore away, his skin tight and uncomfortable pinned under an unwavering stare. He watched ahead of him, his heart racing, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed through his dry throat. Passed the red car and across the road - through watery vision - naked branches on a nearby tree swayed gently in the pick-up of wind. On instinct, his stiff fingers curled into his palms, showing off the raw skin stretched over his knuckles.

As he once again considered abandoning the conversation - the muscles on his face twitching as they reminded themselves how to force a somewhat convincing smile - something settled in the air and Lucas breathed out quietly.

His voice got low: hesitant, “Will, does this, maybe, have anything to do with that thing you told me a while ago? About Mike?”

Will stilled at an instant. Part of him shut down, cold air prickled the tears in his eyes, and an automatic function forced him to keep breathing.

They hadn’t spoken about it since it happened, still. A piece of Will thought they never would, hoped even. But there they were: outside the Byers’ house on a random January evening. And, all at once, every single word Will couldn’t remember saying, and every single tear shed the day that followed was real. It had escaped the state of limbo it’d gathered twigs from and made a home in. The ghost had fabricated in front of them - suddenly human, and alive, and completely undeniable.

Then the weirdest thing had happened.

The world didn’t pause and stare. The sky didn’t transform into a whirlpool of dark reds and purples as it rained the blood of all the angels who hated him. Guns didn’t fire and nothing exploded in the distance. The wind just blew and leaves skated the ground like they had a minute ago.

It all felt sort of lackluster. But the smallest most unnoticeable weight lifted off Will’s back. Though he felt it nonetheless. And maybe, if the circumstances were different, he could almost say it felt good.

“Kind of,” he mumbled, letting the side of him that wanted to scream over and over and over again have some sense of relief.

“Did he…” Lucas considered his words. “Find out?”

“No,” Will said, though unable to shake the bubbling nerves coursing through his veins and holding his eyes away from Lucas. ”Or, at least, I think.”

He tried not to let himself get caught up in knots being un-tied with each word that left him.

“What do you mean you think?”

For the hundredth time that day, Will was hit by a wave of dread. Reality dawned on him and it didn’t matter that the world hadn’t ended when Lucas brought up Will’s feelings without a snide remark. Because the reason it’d been brought up was still in their twisted timeline.

The small weight came back to haunt Will. He was unbalanced and tripping over the tangling strings of relief too quickly to fall into his second nature of second-guessing.

“If I tell you, you have to promise you won’t tell anyone else.” Will’s gaze lifted to meet Lucas, darting between his eyes for a moment. “Not even Max.”

They’d finally gotten back together not long after that infamous night. Lucas had told him how it happened - something about her favorite flowers and conversations until midnight - but it’d been in the confined room of the Wheeler’s suddenly tight-spaced basement and Mike sat beside him, their arms momentarily brushing. So he hadn’t really been able to pay attention.

“I promise, I won’t.”

“Okay…” Will’s eyes shifted off of Lucas, but accidentally magnetized to El through the windshield instead.

She was staring back at him - as she likely had been since Lucas got out of the car - her eyes unblinking as her brows sat pinched and her jaw tight. One of her eyebrows raised in query, not exactly expecting an answer but maybe a small, reassuring smile. Will couldn’t bring himself to give one.

“Do you remember the party right before you and Max got back together? When there was that game of spin the bottle?” He continued to hold eye contact with El: partially because it was better than having to face Lucas, but something in him hoped El was a lot better at reading lips than he was. Maybe she’d have all the answers he and Lucas didn’t, since having dated Mike for over a year.

Mainly, it was because she was his sister and Mike was her ex-boyfriend. Will couldn’t help the guilt. He wanted her to find out and finally let him know if she’d never talk to him again or call him stupid for being so dramatic.

“Uh, briefly, I think,” Lucas said.

Inside the car, El's arm moved cautiously as she reached for the door. Will’s eyes darted away - the worst crossing his mind - and the car door didn’t open in response.

Then, with all the anxiety flooding through him, Will found himself at a fork in the road.

Backtrack with a small, nonconsequential lie - burying everything deeper inside him - or tell the truth.

His path split down the middle as two new ones evenly branched out of the end. To the left, the outskirts were littered with fresh grass and sprouted flowers with the brick road thin and a varnished white; but the closer he squinted, the more obvious the grimy brown lines between each brick were, and the flowers grew duller in his periphery. Whereas the right was overhung with naked branches, like hands creeping over to scathe whoever passed under with their sharp fingernails. Though, the path was smooth and colored in an out-of-place bright blue. He looked closer, but nothing warped with time. It remained dark, and dingy, and scary, and beautifully blue.

He cleared his throat and his eyes attached to the ground in front of him. He didn’t need to be swayed by flowers and brick roads. He knew to do the right thing already anyway. His good nature was what’d gotten him into this position in the first place.

“Mike got drunk, so he slept over, but when we got here he–” Will took in a deep breath, a moment more or prolonging before it was all out there and unretractable, “–he said he wanted to kiss me.”

Long enough passed without a word that part of Will wondered if Lucas had walked away without him noticing. He refused to check though, as a lingering presence filled up his periphery, and eyes continued to bore into the side of his head.

The only sound between them was Will’s shaky breathing and the cool breeze ghosting exposed skin. Well, that and the faint tik, tik, tik beating in the back of his head. Waiting. Taunting. It both counted the seconds as they passed and counted down the seconds until something - something terrible - happened.

“Oh,” was all Lucas could say, leaving more silence for about ten seconds, then continued with an air of confusion, “but that’s– is that bad?”

Will forced a small nod.

Another short pause, nodding back, then, “why?”

Will couldn’t help the small burst of frustration as he sighed with a roll of his watery eyes.

“Well, first, he doesn’t even remember saying anything. He was too wasted to even walk by himself, I couldn’t– I had to reject him,” his voice got a little higher - the way it always did when he was annoyed - as the words hurried out of him. Then his teeth sunk into the inside of his cheek, feeling the hiccups in his chest, and his skin flushed an overwhelmed shade of red. Pathetic tears smudged beneath his eyes and his hand quickly rose to swipe them away.

He wanted to shut up. He’d learned how to think about that night - that moment - without tearing up, but actually talking about it was more difficult. But to his own dismay, the cap had already been screwed off and the bottle was already knocked onto its side.

“And that’s without considering if any of it was even true,” he scoffed with another tear escaping his waterline. His heavy hand couldn’t lift to wipe it away this time - leaving it to trail down his hot cheek.

“But why would he lie?” Lucas’ frown deepened.

“I don’t know - maybe not lying, per se, but saying stuff he didn’t actually mean. Like, what if I got drunk one time and accidentally–” Will couldn’t help the hesitation: he was far from used to saying this type of stuff out loud, so his voice quietened slightly, “–told him how I feel? Maybe I interpreted everything wrong - I heard what I wanted to hear - and he was just trying to show his support or something.”

“I highly doubt Mike would say he wanted to kiss you to show support.”

Will sighed again, “I know it sounds stupid, but I was there and he clearly wasn’t thinking properly.”

Lucas returned the sigh, his mouth opening to speak, but the car door opened and pulled the two’s attention over to El. She stepped out of the car and her arms loosely folded atop the door. With furrowed brows, she looked between the boys - always lingering a second longer on Will - then an eyebrow quirked up.

“Are we going?” she asked, her voice gentle and younger than it’d been in years. It was directed at both of them, but they all knew it was actually only for Will.

Though, he stayed quiet, only moving to wipe the tear rolling down his cheek on the back of his hand as his shameful eyes attached to the ground.

Lucas scooted a little closer and his voice got low, but with El out of the car it’d be impossible for her not to hear, “you don’t have to - but it’s only gonna get worse if you stay home.”

It was true. The issue had proven to not be able to fix itself. That didn’t make tackling the problem any more appealing, though.

“And, if you choose to come, I promise to stay by your side the entire night. If someone tries to talk to you, I’ll interrupt and remind you that we have somewhere else we need to be.” He nudged their shoulders together, something a little more light-hearted in the air.

“I don’t know…”

And I’ll personally make sure you don’t get drunk and spontaneously confess anything to anyone,” a slight teasing smile could be heard in his voice.

Will resisted the urge to send a death glare at Lucas, all the while repressing the twitches at the corners of his mouth.

“You’re the worst,” he muttered through a faint smile, shaking his head as he stood from the porch.

“We’re ready.” Lucas grinned at El.

Her eyebrows pinched into confusion, her lips pursing, before she forced a nod and ducked back into the car.

Will got into the backseat - hyper-aware of El’s eyes glued to him through the rearview mirror - and stared out of the window as the vehicle came to life in the shape of a rumbling engine and trees passing outside.

Will shouldered through the tight doorway, bodies slipping past him like he wasn’t there as he did the same. His feet trudged across the sticky floor, leaving the outside winter breeze for a stuffy hallway with the undertone of sweat and alcohol. He glued to Lucas’ back, following him and El through the tight-knit crowd, as the music blared through the thin spaces between glistening bodies.

The house was busier than Will had anticipated it’d be. It was fuller than any of the other parties he’d been to during the winter period. Apparently, everyone else had made similar arrangements: one last big hurrah before school on Monday.

He didn’t recognize half the people he passed. Though, that might’ve been because he only skimmed occasionally, scanning faces for freckled skin, deep brown eyes, defined cheekbones, and dark curly hair. He knew who he was searching for. But only so much of himself was willing to believe it was to avoid him.

They’d seen each other for all of five minutes in the past few weeks. Mike was easy to miss.

“There’s Dustin!” El called over her shoulder. Even with the short distance - only Lucas stood between them - her voice reached Will slightly muffled.

Without another word, El’s pace picked up as she wormed between strangers with no remorse - disappearing in the maze of constantly rearranging walls. Lucas dove quickly after her, and Will remained as close behind as he could. But, between drunk stumbling and inpatient shoving, gaps closed and took their time at re-opening: leaving Will in the dust as the back of his friend's heads weaved in and out of sight.

“Will!” someone yelled behind him.

His brows furrowed, the voice unidentifiable when paired with the music beating his eardrums, then he twisted around to find familiar faces swerving through the crowd, toward him.

With flushed cheeks, Max smiled up at him as she squeezed through strangers, stopping with a short gap between them. Her pupils were already dilated in her hazy eyes, and a wobble intruded her steps. But Will’s focus easily shifted past her shoulder, to where a head of dark curly hair nudged past people through the same valley Max had steered them out of.

Mike stopped behind Max, his eye line lifting off the hard floor, meeting the wide eyes already on him.

Will’s stomach dropped.

Time slowed. The world faded away into a mass of blurred faces and white noise voices. The skin of strangers pressing against Will existed as sincerely as a broken promise. All that was real was the heavy pounding in Will’s chest and the glimmer of light reflected in Mike’s eyes.

Goosebumps traced Will’s arms, leaving red lines of sensitivity like nail marks. The hiccups in his chest overran the music he couldn’t hear, a vice squeezing tighter with each ever-increasing beat. His fingers retreated into his palms, disguising the way they trembled, and his chest rose with a long inhale. Jaw tightening, he swallowed despite the rising lump in his throat; Mike’s eyes flickered down at the movement, his dark eyelashes shielding his pupils as they fluttered.

Then Will’s teeth clamped the inside of his cheek and tore away from Mike - his cheeks already dusted pink - as he instead settled on Max.

“Hey!” she beamed, unaware of the blanket of tension they were being smothered in.

“Hi.” Will faked a smile, praying Max had drunk too much to realize.

“Where is everyone?” If she did notice anything, she didn’t let it show. Maybe everyone had finally grown accustomed to the new normal of the half-friendship Will and Mike lived in. They’d stopped asking questions, after all.

Max lifted onto her tip-toes and her neck craned to search past Will’s shoulders. Lips pursing, her brows pinched at the result of nothing.

Will took in a deep breath, his fingers stretching over the fabric on his thighs, as he tried to ground himself. In Hawkins, near his friends, in a living room, on a hardwood floor…

He didn’t have much to work off of: since he’d never been to this random kid’s house before. He didn’t know half the people trapping him inside the house, and the thing he was trying to escape from was a few feet away - still staring at him with beautiful, dark, unwavering eyes.

“Um,” he managed - a short glance at Mike, eyes locking, a perfect mixture of dread and electricity, Will pulling away - he cleared his throat and continued, “they just wandered off - El said she saw Dustin somewhere.”

It felt wrong that things kept going. That everything kept going. The world still spun, people danced around them: completely oblivious, and even Max continued to peer over Will’s shoulders. As much as Will wanted it all to wait a moment longer, a camera didn’t flash to pause time and feelings didn’t get a chance to gather themselves.

“Which way did they go?” Max asked.

“I don’t– um, somewhere–” Will vaguely motioned in the direction he’d last spotted El and Lucas, “–over there, I think. Sorry, I wasn’t really paying attention.”

“Eh, it’s fine.” Max shrugged a shoulder, sinking back onto flat feet as her attention landed on Will again. “They’ll eventually circle round when they realize they lost you.”

“Yeah.” Will forced a nod, training his eyes on Max and trying to ignore what took up his periphery.

“Anyway–” Max started with a devious glint in her eyes, “–tonight’s gonna be awesome. I can’t wait for everyone to get completely wasted– well, apart from Mike and Lucas, obviously.”

Will couldn’t help it. As much as he wanted to keep quiet, his eyes darted to Mike the first chance they got.

“You aren’t drinking?”

He wanted to curl up into a ball and die. Mike not drinking was a good thing - it worked in Will’s favor: lessened the chance of a spontaneous and ambiguously-true confession - why the fuck was he questioning it? Why was he even talking to Mike? God, where was Lucas when Will needed him?

“Uh, no,” Mike said like he was taken by surprise, shaking his head. “Designated driver.”

“Yeah–” Max said, “–it really doesn’t seem like a good idea for someone to sit on someone else's lap in a moving vehicle while we’re on the verge of throwing up. Besides, Lucas should not have to deal with five dumbasses on his own.”

“Oh, okay, makes sense.” Will nodded.

“Will!” A firm hand landed on his shoulder, jolting his body. “There you are!”

He turned to find Lucas, his face swarmed with panic that slowly attempted to ease. Then his attention shifted to meet Max and Mike.

“Oh– oh.” His eyes shot wide - then cleared his throat and blinked the expression down. “I didn’t realize you were here yet.”

“Hey to you too.” Max smiled, an eyebrow rising.

“Hey.” Lucas smiled back, his nerves simmering slightly, as he leaned in to kiss Max on the cheek.

“Boo! Get a room!” Dustin cupped his hands around his mouth as he approached.

“Yeah, get a room!” El echoed through a grin, her eyes batting between Dustin and the couple like an excited puppy.

“Oh, shut up.” Max rolled her eyes. Her arm slinked around Lucas’ waist as she sunk into his side. “You’re just jealous that I have a beautiful, loving boyfriend.”

“Hey, I have a beautiful loving girlfriend!” Dustin retorted.

“Oh, yeah - how many miles away again?”

Lucas’ arm nudged Will as everyone else got caught up in the usual teasing. He looked over as Lucas placed a hand on his shoulder to pull him closer and leaned in a little.

“You okay?” he whispered, then subtly nodded in Mike’s direction.

Will opened his mouth to answer, only to find he didn’t really have one. Did he feel good about being near Mike? No. Had he missed Mike anyway? Yes, more than he thought. There weren’t enough words to express how he felt; so he opted for a short, forced nod, hoping the action could convey what he was feeling better than words ever could.

And, from the looks of things, it did. Lucas looked no more relieved than he did a moment prior, but his hand slipped off of Will’s shoulder as they both turned back to the conversation flowing around them.

Cool steel against hot skin, Will clutched the handle and pushed the door open. Stepping out of the bathroom, a hallway lit in a blinding yellow light occupied backs pressed against almost every space on the wall. It was mildly less packed than the shadowed downstairs, and music didn’t threaten the longevity of their hearing as much.

“Oh– hi.”

Will looked at the wall beside him, where Mike was already watching him. Leaning against the wall, his face sat timid and uncertain. He pushed off the wall, showcasing the rough inch of height between them, and his shoulders rolled back with a deep breath.

“Hi,” Will replied, stepping away from the door as someone else went into the bathroom.

“I feel like I’ve hardly seen you all night,” Mike said, tip-toeing the line between a statement and an accusation.

They’d only been there for about an hour. But, yeah, Will had been doing his best at avoiding Mike every chance he got. If someone needed a drink: he’d get it for them or, at least, go with them. When he was with The Party, it’s not like he’d speak up much anyway - so it was easy to forget he was even there. Occasionally, someone would talk to him specifically, to make him feel included. Will did his best to act normal. With everyone’s eyes - Mike’s eyes - on him, it was a lot easier said than done.

And he couldn’t help noticing how it was everyone but Mike trying to include him. He’d be lying if he said it didn’t sting a little.

“Yeah, I’ve just…” Will shrugged a shoulder, his eyes fleeting to the floor for a split-second, then returning to Mike. “I don’t know, big house, I guess.”

“Yeah, totally.” Mike nodded, an accusatory look in his eyes - whether intentional or not.

Will blamed himself for what happened to them. Not the drunk confession - that was out of his control - but everything that followed. He’d been the one to set the tone for how things would play out afterward. He’d been the one to act weird the next morning, far too scared to just ask Mike a simple question. He’d been the one to continue acting just as weird every single day that followed. And he’d been the one creating distance between them: both metaphorically speaking and literally. He was still doing it, even. It hadn’t been an entirely purposeful effort to stay away from Mike at the party; he just needed to escape that feeling he was being buried in. It’d become second nature to turn the other way every time he saw Mike’s terrifyingly beautiful face approaching.

Maybe if he hadn’t worked so hard to tear down the walls of their friendship - things would be normal. Exactly how they used to be; exactly how they were meant to be. After all, it was kind of hard to die known as Mike Wheeler’s best friend if they weren’t even friends anymore. And wasn’t that supposed to be the one perk, with everything he was made to bear?

Yet, due to no one’s fault but his own, he couldn’t even have that.

“You enjoying the party?” Mike asked.

“It’s okay.” Will shrugged again, hyper-aware of every part of his body and suddenly not knowing how he was meant to hold it. Weight shifted between his feet, his hands taking turns pulling the lengths of his fingers. “What about– cause, I mean, I know that you haven’t– um, you know, with the past few…”

Will’s jaw slammed shut - deciding that shutting the fuck up was the better idea. His skin flushed red, heat rising above the collar of his shirt, and his eyes darted around in desperate search of anyone. At the opposite end of the hall, Lucas spoke to Max with matching dopey grins. Though, both of them were too distracted by each other to notice Will’s discomfort.

His attention re-met Mike as he was about to spurt out some lame excuse why he needed to leave immediately: only for his mouth to remain shut at the sight of a small smile pulling Mike’s lips. The muscles in Will’s stiff body relaxed a degree.

“Do you wanna try that again?” Mike teased, the smile growing as he spoke. He didn’t wait for an answer, standing up straight and clearing his throat. His eyes fell shut for a second like he was getting into character - causing a curve to twist on Will’s lips - then reopened with his eyebrows rising. “Are you having fun?”

Will suppressed the smile as much as he could. That being: not that much.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure this is the best party ever, actually.” Will nodded, also standing up straighter. “Are you having fun?”

Mike returned a theatrical nod, his eyes going wide. “Oh, yeah, definitely. This night has completely changed the trajectory of my life. I refuse to attend another party after tonight, because I just know it’ll never live up to how much fun I’m having right now.”

The two shared dopey grins.

Will’s face remained painted pink, but the knives scathing and twisting in his stomach were replaced with a delicate fluttering. He couldn’t help but feel Mike’s warmth through the few feet between them. It was nice - more than nice - after the coat of ice he’d been wearing for three months. He could almost see it melting.

“I missed you,” Will said, then sucked in a long breath as he bit his tongue to prevent saying anything else.

Mike’s body stiffened.

Well, fuck.

An invisible hand reached into Will’s chest and ripped his heart out, blood gushing from the wound as it traced letters on the wooden floorboards: I missed you - what a stupid thing to say. Acid coated his mouth and his stomach twisted. He hoped whoever was in the bathroom would come out soon because he was ninety percent sure he was about to throw up. Or cry. Or both.

Then pale fingers suddenly wrapped around Mike’s wrist, slowly pulling him away. Will looked to find Max, sparing cautionary glances at him as she tried to keep her focus trained on Mike. “El’s been looking for you everywhere - c’mon.”

“Oh, uh, yeah– okay!” Mike stumbled into following Max, then sent a short look over his shoulder. “Bye, Will.”

He continued with Max, stepping over awkwardly placed feet that held up the bodies against the walls. He forced an innocent smile at Lucas as they passed each other - the latter readily approaching a bemused Will - then disappeared down the staircase.

Will squinted after them, standing frozen by himself in a crowded hallway. He tried to be grateful for Max’s timely interruption, but it was difficult when she’d done it with such a peculiar urgency. The Party knew that Will and Mike weren’t really, well, close anymore: but it was more likely for them to give a standing ovation at the two finally getting along again than to cut it short and take one of them away. It was even weirder given how Max had been so happily talking to her boyfriend, then within a matter of seconds, quickly pulling Mike away as if she’d been searching the entire house for him.

The air around Will reshaped as Lucas stopped beside him.

“That was–” Will started, his brows pinching together, and turned to Lucas, “–weird, right?”

Lucas ignored the question though, his eyes wide and mouth hung open. His eyebrows rose as he took in a breath. “Mike remembers.”

Will’s heart stuttered.

His skin paled and a chill sent down his spine. His fingers flexed into tight fists - nails indenting his skin - then unfolded as his shaky hands wiped the sweat coating his palms on his jeans.

“What? No, he doesn’t.” Arms crossing, his weight shifted between his feet.

A floorboard creaked beneath his foot and reminded him that they stood in a stranger's busy hallway: not the safety of his front porch on a particularly empty evening. He was surrounded by drunk high schoolers almost shoulder-to-shoulder, not crisp leaves skating in the wind. A pounding intruded his heartbeat and his eyes scanned the faces around him - realizing half of which he went to school with. He expected to lock eyes with a stranger who’s been listening in but found no peace of mind when there wasn’t anyone.

“Uh, yeah, he does.” Lucas nodded, the intensity yet to leave his face. “He remembers and he told Max - and she’s helping him like how I’m helping you. Which is why she just interrupted and pulled him away.”

Once again, Will’s chest stuttered as it fell into a fast-beat pattern of skipping and hammering. His head thumped in his skull and his knees threatened to buckle. Jaw clenching shut, he swallowed through the scratchiness in his throat.

Oh.

He didn’t know what else to say.

For the second time, his eye darted around the room.

“And if Mike remembers–” Lucas continued, his voice lowered and an eyebrow arched, “–and he feels the need to have someone keep you two apart, then…

“No. No way.” Will’s brows snapped together, a dismissive frown molding his face.

“He was telling the truth, Will.”

All the eyes in the room bored into his skin in the shape of a thousand needles and stripped him of his humanity. The walls closed in as bodies pressed closer and closer together. The air thinned and someone’s arm knocked against Will’s, causing the skin to tingle in the heavy ghost of the accidental touch. The yellow light brightened and ached his head, while the pulsing music vibrated through the floor and voices bounced off the walls. A lump gagged his throat, acid filling his mouth.

“No, he wasn’t, there’s no–” he let out a breath, his shoulders slumping. “It’s probably just a coincidence.”

“Coincidence my ass,” Lucas scoffed.

The bathroom door behind them opened. They glanced over their shoulders to find a girl looking to get by. The two stepped apart. Will leaned against the space on the wall Mike had occupied minutes ago - feeling Lucas’ unwavering eyes on the side of his face - and the girl offered them a polite smile as she passed. Then Lucas crossed the gap, a little closer than they’d been a second prior.

Will’s head tipped back to rest against the wall. He sighed and peered at Lucas through the corners of his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter, okay?” he huffed, shrugging a shoulder. “If you’re right: Max isn’t gonna leave him alone - especially after I just told him I missed him - so there’s no point getting excited over nothing.”

“But this isn’t nothing,” Lucas insisted with desperate eyes. “I’ll distract her. I’ll– do something to get them away from each other, then you swoop in and talk to Mike.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Will's eyebrow quirked. “What - I just let things get ten times worse while completely embarrassing myself?”

Lucas shrugged. “Worst case scenario: you finally get a solid answer if Mike was telling the truth or not. And, if he wasn't, you get to find out why.”

In part, Lucas was right. All of the secrets could finally end tonight. But there was so much worse that could happen than just finding out whether Mike had been telling the truth or not. And Lucas knew that - even if he didn’t say as much. Will could lose Mike completely. He kind of already had, but there was a big difference between occasional small talk amongst the heaps of unresolved uncomfortable tension, versus if Will only ever saw Mike on accidental run-ins at the grocery store or when they’d turn the other direction to not cross paths at school.

If this all happened a year ago, Will would say they’d be able to get past it: because they were best friends, who cared about each other too much to let some stupid unrequited feelings get in the way. Now though, Will couldn't be sure. He’d endured those three months of isolation for a reason - it wasn’t out of the question for them to cut contact anymore.

Will’s bottom lip slipped between his teeth and his eyes drifted ahead of him. It wasn't entirely easy to think coherently with music beating in his ears as the voices in the hall overlapped with his stream of thought. The bottle and a half of beer he’d already drunk weren’t helping the case either.

“Fine,” he said reluctantly.

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