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the only life i know.

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      Will felt like all his life he had been just waiting for something to happen. Waiting for his dad to leave, for high school to end, for Jonathan to get home, to leave Hawkins. Will was always just waiting for something to happen, some obscure event to tweak his life slightly while he let it happen. But this time, it was different. This time, he was waiting for his friends to leave him. Will was just counting down the days at this point.

      The saddest part was, it had been a long time coming. The party’s friendship with each other had an expiration date, as most childhood friendships do. A ticking time bomb that didn’t explode, just sort of fizzled out without anyone really taking notice. Except Will. He always noticed. To all of them, Will was just a remnant of their past, a nostalgic but fading memory of summers spent atop bicycle seats, D&D campaigns, crackling VHS movies in Mike’s basement, the sticky sweetness of those orange popsicles Dustin’s mom always bought. But they were more than just a sweet recollection of boyhood fun to Will; his friends were and are still his world. And he was being forced to watch helplessly as they slipped through his fingers, arm extended, trying and failing to keep them in his grasp. Will got to watch them grow up, mature and grow into themselves, while he watched from the sidelines. They got to be their own people, formed into men by no one but themselves and the maturity that comes with time. Whereas, Will was stuck painfully the same. Same boyish nescience about him, a sad kind of innocence he loathed, same unoffensive, uninteresting simplicity that had plagued him his entire existence. The boy was left still a boy, while his friends had become men.

      While all his friends all had made their own friends outside of Will and each other, and Will saw less and less of them, Will retreated further and further into himself. He had never been an extrovert, or entirely independent for that matter, but he had always had people to made it so that he wasn’t alone. That had changed recently, those people had fled his life so suddenly it almost felt physical, like a punch to the stomach. Now that Jonathan was away at school, he was left by himself a lot, and the expensive tuition only worsened it by forcing his mom to pick up more shifts at work. It was only intensified by his friends’ disappearance. They all had things outside of each other than consumed their time, he thinks. Dustin had joined the football team, and was now their second kicker, well loved by the whole team. Lucas was constantly busy with his girlfriend and his work as Student Council treasurer; he was set to become the president next year. Leaving Mike.

      Mike’s distance was who hurt Will that worst. He had fallen for a girl, a sweet girl by the name of El with curly brown locks and the innocent glint of love in her eyes, a girl who also happened to be Will’s recently made step-sister. Will liked her, her quick wit and quiet compassion, but something about her and Mike together made his blood boil. The way she looked at him. The way she stood on her tippy toes to peck his lips. The way Mike wrapped his arm around her, rubbing her shoulder affectionately and pressing a kiss to her hair, the same disgusting look of pitiful adoration mirrored in his own eyes. It made the hair on Will’s neck stand straight and raised bile in his throat.

      “Hey!” Mike said, snapping his fingers to get Will’s attention. “You look like you’re disassociating. All good?” Will blinked, taking in his surroundings again after zoning out again.

      They were in the Byers’ living room, watching TV while Mike and El curled up, cuddling, his arm wrapped around her, and Will sat a few feet away. He picked at the worn ends of the red, threadbare blanket on his lap.

      “Yeah, I’m fine.” He gave a weak smile. “Just a little tired… I, uh, couldn’t sleep last night.”

      “Wanna talk about it?” God damn you, Mike Wheeler, Will thought, struck by the look of genuine concern in the other boy’s eyes, the clear worry written plainly all over his face.

      “Not really, no.” He sighed, standing up and running a hand through his long hair, cut in the same fashion he had had it since he was four years old. “I’m fine. Think I’m actually just gonna go to bed now, if that’s all right.”

      “Oh, yeah!” Mike said loudly, jumping up and slapping an uncomfortable hand onto Will’s shoulder. “Yeah, no problem at all! Get some rest, bud!” He flinched at Mike’s awkward attempt to pretend like he wasn’t excited for Will to leave, like he hadn’t been waiting for it the entire night so he make out with El. Will knew he was only invited to their movie nights as a courtesy, seeing as they were in his and El’s house, but the awkward silence and discomfort of these forced, tagalong hangouts only served as a brutal reminder of the distance between them.

      “Ok, see ya.” He said, unsubtly jerking his right side out of the weight of Mike’s large palm, and fleeing for the releasing solitude of his bedroom. He could almost feel the two’s confusion at his sudden dash from their company, but for whatever reason, tonight he was painfully conscious of his own shortcomings and Mike’s inquisitive questions only made matters worse.

      After closing his bedroom door, he curled up onto his side on top of the mattress. He shoved the side of the worn red blanket he had taken from the couch into his mouth, and let out long, muffled sobs, his body shuddering from the force of them.

Chapter Text

       “Dude, you look like shit!” Dustin said on Monday morning, slamming his locker as he walked over to where Will struggling to get his own open. “Gee, thanks, Dustin.” He replied dryly, lack of sleep and emotional exhaustion preventing him from responding with his usual kindness. I haven’t seen you in four days. Why are you showing up now, pretending like you care? Will thought sourly.

       “No, seriously.” Dustin lowered his voice seriously, grabbing onto Will’s arm. “You look like you haven’t slept in a week and your shirt is buttoned on the wrong buttons. Are you okay?”

       Will genuinely thought on the question. It was true that he looked tired, and that was because he was. After the horrible night with Mike and El on Friday, Will was utterly exhausted, and the rest of the weekend hadn’t been much better. He had been forced to leave the sanctity of his bedroom only for Saturday dinner, to appease his perpetually-worried mother. Afterwards, feeling drained and hollow, he went out to the grass clearing a few hundred yards away from Castle Byers, where he laid a blanket out and lied on his back, staring blankly at the universe above him and feeling hopelessly small.

       So yeah, kind of a shitty weekend. But it’s not as if he’s going to tell Dustin that.

       “Yeah, I guess.” He shrugged. It didn’t go unnoticed by Dustin that he was avoiding making eye contact, and Will could tell he wasn’t really buying it but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

       “You’ll tell me if something’s up, right?” It was then that Will met his eyes, the irritation practically radiating off of him.

       “Why would I, Dustin? Not like any of you listen to me, anyways.” Will snapped, his annoyance finally getting the better of him. Dustin looked taken aback, his mouth hanging open at the normally docile and kind Will lashing out. He gave up on trying to open his locker, hitting it with his palm angrily and storming away. Dustin followed.

       “Woah, bro. That was uncalled for.” Will genuinely did feel bad, he was just annoyed and tired and, as much was Will hated to admit it, sad. Dustin’s not the one you’re mad at, he reminds himself. Not that he really knew who he was really mad at either. The world?

       “Sorry. I didn’t mean that.” He sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb. “I, I just, I’m. Ugh!” He stopped walking, stomping his left foot into the linoleum. He cringed at his loud, effeminate expression of his frustration, and lowered his voice again. “Yeah, sure. I’ll tell up if something’s, uh, up.” Dustin seemed to accept his response and nodded. He raised an affectionate hand to Will’s arm.

       “As long as you actually do. Okay?” Will grunted and walked away hurriedly, ready to get out of the conversation.

~

       The cafeteria was a mess. Navigating it was worse. It was a constant source of stress for Will. Some days he ate with the rotating members of the party actually sitting together that day—mainly Mike and El, where he always felt like a burden—or with a couple of kids he knew from his art class. Half of the time he ended up eating alone in the AV Club room. Mr. Clarke had given him the key to the largely abandoned room at the beginning of seventh grade, and he had never given it back.

       Today, however, he spotted El sitting alone at one of the long, faux wood tables and moved towards her. She was hunched over a book, curls pulled haphazardly into a messy bun, and her finger traced her reading pattern upon the page, whispering the words under her breath.

       “Hey.” Will breathed, his tray still in his hands, feet shifting under him. “Can I sit here?”

       “Of course.” She sat in her quiet way, shoulders still hunched over her book but her concentration broken. She looked blankly off, not really acknowledging Will. He sat down across from her.

       “What are you reading?” She lifted up the cover to show him wordlessly, her eyes still out of focus, looking outward. “Ah, Stephen King. Nice choice.”

       She blinked slowly, looking at him. She licked her lips, brows furrowed. “Are you-” She was interrupted by Mike’s sudden arrival at the table.

       “You remember my cousin, right, Will?” He said in place of a greeting, slightly out of breath, planting his hands on the table to ground himself.

       “What?”

       “My cousin. Richie. Do you remember him?”

       “Um, yeah? Did you run here?” Will said, confused by El’s strange behavior and Mike’s sudden arrival.

       “He’s here.” Mike said, exasperated, as a another boy followed up behind him.

       “What’s up, fucker?” The boy was so loud he was nearly shouting, wrapping a lanky arm around Mike. He looked at Will and El sitting at the table, his eyes zoning in on Will. He outstretched his hand. “I’m Richie, but we’ve met before?”

       “Yeah. Last summer, at Mike’s house.” They had. Richie and his mother had been in town for a few weeks during summer vacation to visit his aunt, Karen Wheeler. Will remembers him, albeit hazily. He hadn't spent a lot of the time with the party while he was in town, but Will remembers the barbecue at the Wheeler's house on their last night. He remembers the watermelon seed spitting contest Mike and Richie held, remembers how Dustin, who so infrequently smiled with his teeth showing due to his disorder, grinned widely when Richie shook his soda up, remembers the expression on Mike's face as he held his stomach, shaking from silent laughter, and remembers thinking to himself that he wished he spent more time with the boy who made Mike laugh like that while before he left. 

       “Well, William, my dear boy! It looks as if we’re going be getting to know each other even more!” Richie slipped into a British accent at that, winking and wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. Will giggled, a deep blush forming on his cheeks. 

       Lucas then approached the table, followed by Dustin a few yards back. They both had heard Richie’s loud entrance from their other tables, and had came to see what all the fuss was about.

       “Um, hi!” Lucas said. Richie turned. “Hey, I remember you!” He removed his arm from around his cousin’s shoulders and gave Lucas a bear hug, entangling his long limbs in a forceful hug that nearly knocked Lucas over. They both laughed, and Mike rolled his eyes fondly at his cousin.

       “What brings you to the school?” Dustin asked, smiling. Since he had arrived at the table, Richie had had a big, goofy grin on his face, but it faltered slightly, his eyes darkening at the question, before it returned in full force.

       Mike cleared his throat and shifted his weight. “He’s gonna go to school with us now!” He said slowly, nodding and smiling with closed lips. He looked at Will as he said it, uncertainty in his eyes. 

       “You’re living in Hawkins now?” Will asked. 

       “Yep!" He paused, making direct eye contact with Will, a vaguely challenging smirk on his face. "My dear ol’ dad recently found out that I’m a giant, raging queer, so I’ve been sent to live with Uncle Ted for a bit to get “fixed".” He said, the vaguely-sociopathic smile still on his face.

       Lucas perked an eyebrow. Dustin spit out the milk he had been drinking from the cafeteria carton. Mike looked visibly uncomfortable. Will blushed again. Richie laughed at them.

       “Yeaaaaah,” He said, running his tongue along his teeth and scanning the faces of the five teenagers in front of him. “This’ll be fun.” He locked eyes with Will, and smiled crookedly at him, a gleam in his eyes Will couldn’t quite place.

Chapter Text

         After school, still feeling tired and worn out, Will waited by Jonathan’s old Ford for El to get out of class. She arrived quickly, her head down, and wordlessly got into the car, curling up and resting her cheek upon her hand, the tips of her old stretched-out sweater sweeping past her fingertips. She seemed to Will like she had had just as bad a day as he had. It was rainy and dreary out, and the two drove home in thick-lipped silence, both distracted and lost inside their own thoughts.

         They arrived at home rather quickly, despite living on the outskirts of the town, and he let them in with his set of latchkey kid keys, him going to his room and she to hers. Will quickly changed out of his school clothes and into a pair of ratty gray sweatpants and an old NYU shirt Jonathan had left the last time he was visiting.

         He put a kettle of water onto the stove, intent on making some mint tea for himself. He went over to El’s room, but his knuckles faltered when he heard teary murmurings behind the door.

         He knocked softly, and opened the door a few inches. Sure enough, he laid eyes on El, hunched over the phone, face red and puffy. She turned away from him, wiping her eyes and facing the wall so he wouldn’t see her crying. “Hey,” he said, voice soft, “I’m gonna make some mint tea and maybe some popcorn, if you want some.”.

         “Um, sure.” She said, still facing away from him.

         “Okay.” There was a tense silence, neither of them really knowing what to do.

         “Are you okay?” He finally asked.

         “Yeah. I, um… I think Mike’s going to come over soon, if that’s okay.” She said, wiping her runny nose on her sweater paw. Will nodded.

         “Okay, that’s fine…” He paused, not quite knowing what to say. “I’ll call you when the tea’s ready, yeah?” She nodded.

         Twenty minutes later, Will heard the sound of a car crunch onto the gravel of his driveway, and a few moments later his front door opened, followed by two sets of long legs.

         “Hey, Will.” Mike said distractedly, seeing him on the coach in the corner of his eye. “Is El in there?” He said, pointing to Jonathan’s old room, where El had moved into after her adoptive father and Will’s mother had married.

         Will nodded, and Mike left to go talk to his girlfriend.

         Followed by Mike was Richie, still in the doorway and looking severely uncomfortable, a glass tray of something covered in Saran wrap in his hands.

         “Um, hi.” He said, shifting his weight between feet. “I have a, uh, casserole for you?”

          Will scoffed, a half grin on his face, and got up from his place on the couch to take it from him.

         “Want some popcorn?” He said as he walked to the kitchen, casserole in hand.

         “Sure.” Will heard the sound of Richie flopping down onto the couch from his place in the other room, follow by the loud chomping of the snack from the bowl Will had left on the coffee table.

         “A fucking casserole, Will. She sent me over with a fucking casserole! How domestic can you get?” Richie yelled to Will. Well, someone warmed up quickly! Will thought to himself, and laughed.

         “Why’d she send you?” He said, coming back into the TV room and finding Richie spread onto the couch, belly up and limbs covering seemingly the entire surface of the room.

         “Well, she heard Mike was coming over and she had extras from her book club or some shit like that. And I was forced to bring it with him because I’m a delinquent. And delinquents. Always. Deliver. Shitty. Casseroles. For their. Shitty. Aunt.” He wagged his finger around condescendingly as he said this, looking at Will dead-on with mock seriousness in his eyes.

         “I’m hoping it’s not actually shitty, that’s my dinner tonight.”

         “Don’t worry, Byers, it’s fine. Better hot, though. I used to cook from that same recipe book all the time in Derry.”

         “You ever cooked a casserole?” Richie laughed.

         “No, I fucking wish! Could you imagine me-” he was giggling with every word that made it out of his mouth, clutching his stomach at the thought. Will was laughing too, a real, genuine laugh that followed itself to his eyes. “-making a, a fucking macaroni casserole?”

         “Do you miss it?”

         “What, Derry?” Will nodded. “Yeah, a lot. I miss my friends. Not that you and Mike aren’t cool, but I still miss ‘em you know? I’ve known ‘em my whole life, it makes sense.” Will had since flopped down onto his back, and Richie rolled over to meet his eyes as they talked.

         “You would love the Losers. We’re all bitchy and high strung, just like you!” Will rolled his eyes mock-exasperatedly at the dumb joke.

         “Are you gonna stay for dinner?”

         “Not if it’s that fucking casserole.”  

~

         Richie did end up staying for dinner. The two boys ended up heating up that damn casserole in the microwave—a bright, shiny one that Hopper brought into the house tucked under his arm with a smile on his face and pride in his eyes— and wolfed it down hungrily.

        “I’m yours for the night, Willmerson. Que quieres hacer, mi amor?” Will rolled his eyes.

        “I don’t speak French.”

        “But I do! Well, Spanish, and because of this you will be flirted with in Spanish. Sorry! That’s the way it works.” Will laughed, blushing at his comment. “So what do you want to do? I don’t think they’re going to be coming out anytime soon.” He said, jerking his head to El’s room, where Mike and El still were. Will could hear snippets of their murmured conversation behind the closed door.

        “Movie? Or if you want to do something else, we can?”

        “What about cards?”

         Richie ended up teaching him a game he and his friends used to play back in Derry, something called Slapjack. They planted themselves down onto the small, round table in the kitchen as Richie began to lay out cards in front of the other boy, slipping into voices and waving his hands about frantically as he explained the game to him.

         Will really liked Slapjack. It was an intense game that they both got into. Will also really liked Richie. He was funny and passionate and made Will laugh real, genuine laughs, ones that bubbled up from the pit of his stomach and passed his lips without his meaning to. He screamed when Will won and flicked cards fondly at him, shaking his head and repeating “beginner’s luck, William!” over and over again. They only ended up playing for a few rounds, when they were interrupted by the sound of the door to El’s room opening, out stepping Mike, followed closely behind by El.

         “We’re gonna go get some ice cream, drive around for awhile.”  He said, his right hand intertwined with El’s. Will nodded, their presence suddenly making him shy; Richie said nothing, but scrunched up his nose and pushed his glasses farther up his nose, looking at them with an intensity Will couldn’t quite place.

         “Is she okay?” Richie asked when he heard the sound of the front door slapping closed.

         “Yeah, she is. She just has issues sometimes. From being adopted so late and all. Hopper, my stepdad, adopted her when she was eleven, and it messed her up a little bit.”

         “Oh. That’s shitty.” Will nodded.

         “Yeah, it is shitty.”

         “Fuck, now I’m depressed. And I don’t have a ride home! Guess you’re just stuck with me, Byers.” Will rolled his eyes.

         “Wanna watch a movie?”

         Richie grinned.  

~ 

         For the second time that night, Will found himself completely engrossed in an activity with Richie.

         Richie helped himself to the ice cream, making a general racquet and putting far too much of it into two chipped black coffee mugs, while Will set up the movie. Coming back into the room, Richie handed him one of the mugs, the outside sticky with chocolate ice cream, and planted himself down next to Will.

         They were so close that their thighs were touching, running from their knees to their hips. Will blushed at the contact, but it didn’t last long as Richie stretched, putting his long legs up onto the ottoman a yard or so in front of them. At the same time, he reached over and nudged Will a little closer to him, his arm lying slightly above the other boy on the couch.

         Will's heart rate somersaulted at the touch. Always uncertain and unknowing, he leaned awkwardly against his chest, before losing whatever hesitance he had about Richie. He pulled his feet up onto the couch, tucking them under himself, and leaned onto Rich’s chest. He looked up at him, and saw a quick, content smile flash onto the other boy’s face, before he looked back at the TV, endearingly embarrassed.

         They sprung apart when the front door opened.

         Richie mumbled a thanks to Will before hurriedly following Mike out the door and into the car, leaving Will sitting alone in his house’s empty living room, basking in the artificial light of the television, forgotten ice cream congealing in mugs on the coffee table. 

Chapter Text

         After the first night that Richie’d spent at Will’s at his aunt’s request, Will noticed that he began to stop by rather frequently, always with Mike as his excuse, until one day he just showed up by himself.

         These impromptu hangouts continued, to the point where he began to expect Richie over most nights. He had only been in town a few weeks, but him and Will had become fast friends. Will knew that the other boy hated spending time at the Wheelers’ house, but also knew that he didn’t really like to talk about it. Aside from the comment on his first day at the school, and from that he could infer a lot, Richie didn’t have a great relationship with his family. Will knew for a fact that, while not cruel, Ted Wheeler was simply not invested in his children, much less so in his wife’s sister’s delinquent son. Will didn’t know if he was homophobic or not, but, assuming from some of his comments he’s made while he’s been at their house, he’s not the most open minded of people and wouldn’t take well to Richie. A traditional man with a traditional wife, two kids, and a nice little house on the cul-de-sac. The exact opposite of Richie. He didn’t say so, but Will knew that Richie was bothered by it.

         Even Mike and him didn’t get along that well. While neither of them ever mentioned it, Will knew that Mike wasn’t receptive of Richie’s presence in his house and friend group, and he could see why. He was cocky, he was loud, he was vulgar. But, he was also compassionate, loving and cared about people a lot.

         And he was currently spread out dramatically on Will’s floor.

         “I’m booorrrred!” He screeched. Will scoffed from his place on the bed, ignoring him and continuing to flip through the comic book in his hands.

         Richie rolled over, screaming “Uggggghhh”.

         “I’m sorry, do you need something?” Richie said up, head perked at Will. “Some attention, maybe?”

         “William, I do not appreciate the snark. And it’s a Saturday! And we’re stuck inside your room, reading comic books!”

         “Actually, I’m the only one reading a comic book, you’re laying on the floor complaining.” Richie shuffled to the edge of the bed, looking up at Will with over the top puppy-dog eyes.

         “Can we pleeease go do something?”

         “You’re like a fucking golden retriever, you know that?”

         “Is that a yes?”

         Will got up, rolling his eyes, and shoved his feet into a pair of shoes that were already strewed haphazardly on the floor. “Where do you want to go?”

~

         “Richie, why the hell are we going to the quarry?” Will was already regretting letting Richie decide where they were to spend their afternoon.

         “It’ll be fun!” He protested, getting out of the drivers side and slamming the door, leaving Will sitting alone. Grumbling under his breath, he followed Richie. 

         “Rich, bud, I cannot for the life of me understand what goes through your mind when you make these decisions.” He shouted at Richie, who had already walked the distance to the shoreline. Will began to walk with small steps over to where the other boy was pulling off shoes. 

         “Why not?” Richie yelled back, hooking his t-shirt over his head and shedding it with one quick, fluid motion. 

         “But’s cold!” Will said, arms folded over his chest, nearing Richie. 

         He rolls his eyes dramatically. “It’s not that cold, Will. Come on. You know that when you’re 80 years old and all wrinkly and shit, you’re gonna want to say that you jumped off the quarry cliff with me. C’mon,” he whispered from his spot at the water’s edge, and splashed water onto where Will was standing, fully clothed on the edge. “Pussy.”

         Will's head whipped up to look at Richie. “Oh, fuck you!” He stood up, removed his shirt ungracefully, and waded into the water. It was only moments before he was next to Richie in the cold water. He looked up at him with his best puppy-dog, I’m-innocent-take-pity-on-me looks, before he full on tackled the other boy. Richie was caught egregiously off-guard, his eyes going wide as Will jumped onto him and pulled him into the water.

         It was a massacre. Richie, ever the little fucker that he is, grabbed onto Will’s outstretched arm, and took him down into the cold water with him. Will screamed in mock-offense, laughing as he and Richie laid intertwined in the opaque water of the quarry.

         “I can’t believe you just did that.” Will said, a smirk lifting the corners of his mouth as he shook the water out of his long hair.

         “Fuck, Will!” Rich wheezed, giggling and rubbing his eyes of the water. “Oh my god,” he stopped to laugh again “—you little shit!”

         Will grinned deviously at him, only his head above the water line, before slipping under, taking some of the cool liquid into his mouth, and spitting it at Richie.

         Richie screamed flamboyantly, twisting his body in a failed attempt to dodge the flying water of the reservoir. He fell into the water again, before he taking off at Will, who had began to swim away, yelling happily as his friend chased him. 

~

         “I heard something funny about you today.” Richie said later, poking Will’s side. After their swim, the boys had settled down to watch the sunset, and the sky had slowly faded from pastel blue to a fiery orange, and back to a dark blue while they laid there, heads tilted upwards towards the night as if hypnotized. The dark grass was wet and soaking through the blanket that Will had carefully set down for them. Richie was laid out on his back, his head in Will’s lap, an unlit blunt between his teeth and Will’s fingers in his hair.

         “Yeah?” Will said questioningly, as Richie shifted in his lap, searching his pockets for a lighter. “What was that?”

         “Mike told me that you’ve-” He paused with the sound of a lighter flicking open, and Will watched him shed his glasses—the smoke fogged them up—and cupped the joint between his palms. “that you’ve never kissed anyone before.” Will’s fingers stilled from where they had been stroking the other boy’s hair. There was a thoughtful pause as Will took in this information.

         “Yeah.”

         Richie shifted, propping himself up on my elbows and twisting his neck to look at Will. “Yeah?”

         “I mean, I don’t know why Mike would say that, because I’ve never talked about it with him, even less so recently. But, yeah. It’s true.” Will began to run his fingers through his hair again.

         “Why?”

         “Why? What do you mean why?” Richie seemed to think on this for a second, and settled back down into Will’s lap, returning his gaze to the night sky. A few moments went by. Will gently took the joint from Richie and raised it to his own lips.

         “I guess, why haven’t you talked about it with Mike?” Will shrugged, exhaling smoke into the crisp, night air.

         “Not sure. They just never really talked about girls with me.” He inhaled again. “Probably for the better, I suppose.” He said, the words settling sluggishly in the pit of his stomach, and he was suddenly caught with an ache for his old relationships with everyone now, before things has turned weird. Even Will was shocked at how easily the words slipped out of his mouth, the implication behind them thinly veiled.

         Richie took the blunt back from him. He looked up at Will, eyebrows raised earnestly at the boy, and said softly, “Am I correct in assuming that they don’t know you’re gay?”.

         No matter the context, those words still sucked the breath right out of Will. Even high, even as comfortable as he felt here, even though there was no malice behind Richie’s words, it still felt like a sharp jab to the stomach, quick and leaving his gasping for breath. His dad had left years ago, Troy and the other idiots who’d called him all those names had forgotten about him as they entered high school, but the subject still managed to make Will feel exposed. The mentioning of gay always left his heart stopping momentarily and seemingly shifting into overdrive, pounding audibly in his ears. Even when it wasn’t directed at him, he’d felt vulnerable. Like he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to, his heart and soul, deepest secret and source of constant shame, bared to everyone he knew without his permission.

         Except Richie wasn’t just anyone, right?

         He sighed, raising his eyes to the sky again. He flopped down onto his back, spread out like a starfish, displacing Richie from his lap and moving him to lay lengthwise beside the other boy. If I wasn’t nearing high right now, this conversation would be going very differently he thought to himself. He sighed again.

         “I’d really rather not talk about this, Rich.” he said softly. “Sorry.” Richie didn’t miss the croak in the other boy’s voice. He shrugged. Richie flipped onto his side, parallel to him and looking out at Will through his big, doe eyes hidden by the glasses he had recently put back on.

         “Of course.” He breathed, pausing and looking at Will again. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. “But you know you can, right? At least, with me.”

         Will turned his head, meeting the other boy’s eyes. Richie let out a forced kind of laugh, soft and under his breath; one that faded out and left them alone with a certain melancholy air hanging thickly between the two boys, an almost tangible kind of sadness akin to one Will had felt since he—fuck it, might as well admit it to myself, right?— realized he had begun to look at Mike differently than he looked back at Will. He didn’t answer Richie’s question.

         Several minutes passed, the only sounds being the rise and fall of their stomachs as they breathed, out of sync, the crickets from the surrounding woods interrupted by the flick of the lighter Richie used to start a second spliff.

         “Take this one.” He said, handing Will the longer one. “That way you won’t burn your fingers.” They switched cigarettes, and Will inhaled deeply into the new joint, enjoying the thoughtful silence between the two.

         “Do you believe in God?” He asked, interrupting the noises of fire sucking away at a cigarette, the musical melody of the crickets, in tune with the crinkling of the trees. Richie groaned.

       “Man, I don’t fucking know. I’m too high for that type of shit right now.” Will giggled.

         “Yeah, me too. Except, I don’t think I do believe in God. If he is real, why he’s been kinda shitty to me?" Will stopped abruptly, swatting his hand away. "What? Why are you laughing?” Will pouted, crossing his arms over his chest at Richie’s rambunctious laughter.

         “Do you realize you asked me that exact same question the last two times we’ve gotten high together?”

         “Shut up. I’m tired.” He said, smiling and closing his eyes, carefree and content to be spending time outdoors, with Richie.

         “Yeah, alright, buddy. Give me your keys. Let’s get you home.” Richie popped to his feet, offering an outstretched hand to Will.

         “What?

         “I’m taking you back to mine, so Joyce doesn’t see you high as a fucking kite.”

         “No! I don’t wanna moooove!”

         “You’re like a golden retriever, you know that?” Will flipped over, just to make sure Richie saw this eye roll.

         “Nice burn, padawan. Never heard that before.” He said sarcastically, accepting Richie’s hand and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet.

         “Let’s get going, Will.”

         He followed Richie back to the car, and climbed into the passenger seat. His head felt heavy and artificial sleepiness deriving from the joints he had shared settled like a cloud over his mind.

         “Are you okay to drive, Rich?” He mumbled.

         “Sure am, love. Go to sleep.” Will nodded, because he trusted in Richie’s answer. He curled up in his seat, and let his eyes be guided shut by the languor overtaking his features.

         It felt like only moments later when he felt himself being carried up the stairs to the Wheeler House, strong arms under him.

         “Mike?” He asked drowsily, peaking an eye open, his face nuzzled in the other boy’s neck subconsciously.

         “Yeah, it's me. Richie couldn’t carry you.”

         “Oh. Where, where are you going?” He asked as they passed what had recently become Richie’s bedroom.

         “No, you’re sleeping in my room tonight. I’m pissed at him for letting you get this high.” Will felt himself being laid down onto something —Mike’s bed— followed by the weight shifting as Mike sat down next to him. “I don’t want you hanging around him anymore.” Mike whispered. “He’s bad news, Will. Okay?”

         Will, who had been fighting sleep for the whole conversation, merely grunted affirmatively, uncomprehendingly, before allowing sleep to finally overtake him.

         Mike sighed, unsatisfied by Will’s answer, and laid out a sleeping bag on the floor to sleep on.

Chapter Text

         Will woke up groggily, his eyes opening to the piercing brightness of sun-rays pouring in between the blinds, drenching Mike’s room with light.

         He sat up suddenly, realizing where he was. “Mike?” He asked tentatively. There was no response.

         He swung his legs out of the bed, breathing deeply. He looked down at his feet dangling off the wooden frame, inches off the floor.

         “Fuck.” He whispered to himself, the word echoing around the empty room. He ran his fingers through his hair, and looked at the clock. 8:27 AM. Mom’s gonna be so mad at me he thought, and pushed himself off.

         He creeped out from Mike’s room, pushing open the door and padding slowly down the hallway in his socks from the night before.

         “Hello?” He asked again.

         “Down here, Will.” He heard a feminine voice from down the stairs say.

         “El?” He said, walking into the kitchen. She was sitting at the island counter, her back straight, her hair swept up gracefully, and a plate of half-eaten toaster waffles in front of her. “What are you doing here?” He asked.

         “This is my boyfriend’s house. Can I not be here?” She remarked, lips pursed and clearly unimpressed with Will.

         “Where’s Mike?”

         “He and Richie are at Church with Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler. It is a Sunday, after all.”

         Will laughed. “I forgot that Karen still made them do tha—” He was interrupted by the sound of El clearing her throat. She pushed her chair away from the counter, the hard sound of metal dragging across the floor filling the kitchen, and she swiveled it around to face him. She looked tired. “What happened last night, Will?”

         He shrugged nonchalantly. “I hung out with Richie. We went swimming. It was fun.” He said, walking to the Wheelers' cabinets, pulling out a bowl and the box of Frosted Flakes that was kept on top of the fridge.

         El followed him around the kitchen island, leaning up against the counter where he was making himself cereal, her arms crossed angrily over her chest. “Okay, I’m gonna tell you what this looks like to me. It looks like Richie took you swimming. In the quarry. In November. And then you waited around and the two of you got so high you couldn’t function. Sound about right?”

         “Wow, what the hell?” He said, throwing his hands up in defense.

         “Are you denying it?”

         “Jesus Christ, El, you’re not my mom. Not like your boyfriend’s a patron saint either. Chill the fuck out.”

         “The cussing too! That’s new too, since Richie got here. And, no, I’m not your mom, but you really freaked Joyce out last night.” He winched; he really did feel bad about not telling his mom where he was. He should’ve left her a note. “She came home and your car was gone. And Hopper said he hadn’t seen you either which meant you had been gone for hours. Nobody knew where you were!” She added shrilly.

         “What is this about, El?” He asked, crossing his arms over his chest. 

         “I’m not saying Richie’s not a good person, we just don’t think that he’s good for you.”

         “What is that supposed to mean? You don’t want me hanging out with him?” El didn’t answer, just looked at him with that same headstrong glare in her wide eyes. “Is this because he’s gay?”

         “No, this is not about how Richie’s gay. This is about Richie, but mostly it's about you. You’ve changed since he got here! Cursing, smoking, never spending time with us anymore…” Now, that statement made him mad. Are you fucking kidding me? He thought to himself. I'm the only one actually making an effort to conserve our friendship! “I mean, jeez, Will! You got stoned in a park last night! Do you really expect us to believe that that was your idea?”

         Will’s hand morphed into a fist in a fruitless attempt to contain his anger. “You know what, El? I really don’t need this right now. I’m 17 years old. I’m doing fine. So I don’t need you—” he stabbed a pointed finger at her chest. “—to decide who I can or can’t be friends with, or what I can or can’t do. I’ve already got a mother, I don’t need two.” With one long stride, he walked over to the sink, plopped his barely-eaten cereal bowl into it, offered a scathingly apathetic “Tell Mike I said thank you.” before bounding out the front door.

~

         He drove home, still seething with anger and gripping the steering wheels so hard his knuckles turned white.

         He pulled into his driveway fast, and approached the front door, putting the key into the lock with shaking hands. “Hey, Mom.” He said, entering the house.

         “Hey, Will.” She said from her place at the kitchen table, a cigarette burning between her fingers. Will was struck by how tired she looked.

         “I’m sorry for kinda disappearing last night, I didn’t mean for that to happen. I should've called.”

         “It’s all right, baby. It happens. Just give me a call next time, alright? You know I worry about you.”  From her frizzled hair, her voice and the purple bags drooping under her eyes, he knew that she was downplaying how much his momentary disappearance had frightened her.  All the anger that was still left in his system fled at that moment; guilt replaced it immediately.

         “El told me that Richie isn’t a good influence on you.” She murmured passively, eyes downward as she put out her cigarette in the glass ashtray sitting on the table. He kept silent, biting his tongue. “But I trust you, honey. You know how to make good choices.” She said, turning to look at him from her seat at the table.

         He hugged her from behind. “Thank you, Mom. I love you.” She tightened her grip on his shoulder, squeezing her eyes shut at the contact.

         “Love you too, Will.” She pulled away, looking into his face affectionately. “I just want you to be happy, baby. Never change yourself for someone else.”

         “Of course not, Mom. I would never.” 

         She hugged him again. “You are gonna have to explain yourself to Hopper, though.” She whispered in his ear, and laughed loudly, and devilishly. “Have fun with that!” Will rolled his eyes, smiling. He loved his mom.

Chapter Text

         “Will! Will, hey!” Will heard behind him as he walked through the hallway on Monday morning. He spun around, feeling a hand on his shoulder. He was met with Mike's concerned eyes. 

         “Are you okay?” Mike asked. Will still hadn't talked to him after Saturday night, when he had carried the passed-out Will up the stairs and let him sleep in his bed, and Will was caught off guard by him. Based on the conversation he had had with El Sunday morning, this was not going to be a fun talk, and he had not yet prepared himself for it. 

         “Yeah, I’m fine.” Will said under his breath, looking down at his feet. He shifted the weight of his backpack between shoulders, and fidgeted uncomfortably. 

         “Can we talk?” The other boy asked as more people passed them hurriedly in the hallway, scurrying their way to class. Will nodded, and Mike dragged them into the nearby empty boys’ bathroom.

         “El told me you’re mad at her.” Mike said, as he jumped up onto the restroom counter. He raised his eyebrows at Will, the expression on his face open, so clearly impatient and exasperated with the other boy. Will was shocked, and a little angry, to find himself the direction of that look.

         “Did she also tell you that she’s wrong?”

         “I don’t think she is, Will… Richie, he's not good for you.” Will threw up his hands, and angrily ran them through his hair, frustrated.

         “There you go again!” He yelled, but added quietly after realizing where he was. “Tell me, Mike, what right do you have to tell me who I can’t be friends with?”

         “I don’t, but I do know you. And Richie too.” He too lowered his voice, and twirled his thumbs together nervously. “You don’t know him that well, Will.”

         “I could say the same thing to you.” Will replied, arms tucked over his chest, eyes fleeting to look anywhere but at Mike. The other boy looked frustrated, almost desperate as he tried to convey his thoughts to Will.

         “It’s…” He rubbed his eyes wearily. “You know what? It’s your call, man. I don’t get to decide who you get to spend time with.” 

         “No. It’s not.” Will said, thin-lipped and annoyed, still refusing to meet Mike’s eyes.

         “It’s just, I care about you, Will! And Richie, well, Richie’s a tornado. He’s all energy and fun and eccentric and all that until he’s just not anymore. I’ve known him our entire lives. I know how he is. And-” He paused, licking his lips as he searched for words “-and I just don’t want to see you get hurt when he stops being everything you think he is.”

         Will opened his mouth, ready to defend his friend, but he then he saw Mike’s face—the genuine care in his eyes, how much he longed for Will to just listen to him—and he knew that Mike was wrong but, fuck, he couldn’t resist it when he looked at him like that. 

         It’s only because he cares about me. He just wants to protect me. he thought defeatedly to himself.

         Will closed his mouth, and looked back down at the dirty linoleum floor of the bathroom, his head hanging. He nodded.

         Mike clapped him on the shoulder, a smile spreading across his face. He moved to leave the restroom, already late for his next class.

         “But—” Will said, and Mike froze as he reached for the door-handle, before turning on his heel to face Will. Will stood up straighter, wanting once again to get Mike’s invasive eyes off of him. He cleared his throat again. “That doesn’t mean he’s not my friend anymore. That just means I’ll be careful with him.”

         Mike nodded solemnly, brow furrowed, before swiftly opening the door again and disappearing behind it, letting it fall close and leaving Will alone.

         Will waited a few moments before picking up his backpack off the floor, and following Mike out the door. He trudged the way to his next class, feeling tired and very manipulated.

         He walked into his English class, his teacher waving a hand at him when he tried to give an excuse as to why he was late. He walked down the aisles of bustling students consumed with too much energy, and collapsed in his seat next to Richie.

         “Are you okay, man?” Richie whispered over to him from across the table. Will nodded. “Why were you late?” He shrugged, not particularly wanting to talk about this with Richie of all people. He sighed.

         “What?” Richie said, a laugh escaping him, the sides of his mouth turned up at Will fondly. He poked Will’s side, and he flinched away from him.

         “It’s nothing.” Will said, pulling a textbook out of his bag and opening it up, brow furrowed.

         “What is it?” Richie asked again, his smile fading. Will put his down onto the table momentarily, before looking back up at Richie.

         “It’s just…” He started, before trailing off again. “Mike doesn’t want me hanging around you anymore. Thinks you’re a bad influence on me.” Richie’s face stayed completely neutral, no outward sign of surprise or even anger in his expression.

         “Well,” he said calmly, and it was clear to Will he was trying to choose his words articulately. “what do you think about that?”

         “I think that it’s not his decision, and he should mind his own fucking business.”  Will whispered sourly, tired of talking about this. Richie cocked his head, looking at Will inquisitively.

         “Are you in love with him?” He asked genuinely. Will whipped his head up, eyes full of venom.

         “Richie. Stop.” He said, the last syllable making a popping noise as he emphasized the word harshly amid the noise of the 30 other kids in the classroom. 

         Richie threw his hands up in casual defense. “Alright, touchy subject. Jeez. If I'd known that you're fucked for my cousin, I'd of ” It was then that, after a weekend of anger and irritation, Will finally lost his cool. 

         “RICHIE!" He said, raising his voice. "I'm serious. Drop it!”

         Richie's eyes went wide. "Woah." He whispered almost inaudibly. "Alright. Sorry."

         Will grunted in response, head down and brow furrowed, and turned back to his work. 

         Rich then turned to pull out his own book, frowning, and settled down to read angrily as Will was. But his eyes were unable to focus on the words in front of him, and it wasn’t long before he slammed the book shut, slung his backpack over one shoulder, and left out of the room.

Chapter Text

         A week later, Will found himself on a couch in Mike’s basement, mushed between a couple he didn’t know kissing lazily on his left and Dustin on his right. Music pounded and the air hung heavy with the prevalent heat of bodies and the faint scent of alcohol in Will’s nose.

         He hadn’t spoken to Richie since their fight in English class last Thursday, and had instead been spending more time with Dustin and Mike, individually. At lunch, he sat with Mike and El, though he was still angry at her, but he had more classes with Dustin and had sat with him and his friends during those, instead of Richie. By rare chance, Dustin had eaten with them on Tuesday, and Will had overheard him and Mike making plans, which had led to his presence at Mike’s house tonight.

         “Party? What party?” Will had asked, his head snapping up. Sometimes he really did think he had selective hearing.

         “Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you. We’re having a party at my house on Friday, for El’s birthday. You in?”

         “Will Richie be there?” Mike’s eyes turned dark.

         “He shouldn’t be.” He had said resolvedly. Will felt guilty under the weight of Mike’s prying eyes, and had looked back down at his food.

         “That could be you, man.” Dustin said with his typical shit-eating grin, snapping Will into the moment, back to the party. He raised his eyebrows at Will, and pointing obviously at the couple kissing next to him. Will felt the tip of his ears go red. He leaned over closer to his friend, yelling over the loud music spilling out of the boombox in the basement corner.

         “Who even is that?”

         Dustin looked over, squinting his eyes in an attempt to focus them. “Hell if I know. But, dude, there are so many chicks here. We could totally get you hooked up!” Will grimaced, but didn’t say anything.

         “What are you drinking?” Dustin yelled again, pointing to the half-drank cup in Will’s hands.

         “Beer from the keg.” Will answered, taking a half-hearted sip of the tepid liquid. The other boy nodded, conversation slowing.

         “Nice.” There was an awkward pause as Dustin tried to think of another thing to say, and Will scanned the room for Mike.

         “Where’s El?” He said, figuring Mike could not be far behind her.

         “Why? Are you looking?” Dustin gasped dramatically. “Do you like her?” Will barked a laugh, and patted Dustin’s arm affectionately, shaking his head.

         “You seem to have forgotten that she’s my sister, bud.”

         “Oh! Yeah.” Dustin said, and laughed too. He took a sip of his drink. “So if it’s not El, who’ve you gotten your eye on tonight?”

         “No one, really.” Will felt Dustin’s elbow in his ribs.

         “C’mon! I heard Linda Tzou is single, and she’s here tonight!” He followed Dustin’s eyes to a small Asian girl on the other side of the room, talking to Max. They had grown up with Linda, she was sweet and had kind eyes and a little button nose. Will had always liked her; the kind of girl you could bring home to your mom. “She’s cute, right?”

         “Yeah, she is.” Will said, dryly. He didn’t want to have to talk to Linda Tzou. Not tonight. It all just felt painfully… straight  forced.

         He let the subject drop despite Dustin’s insistence, and got up from the couch. “I’m gonna go get another drink, go find everyone. You okay on your own?” Dustin nodded.

         “Sure as shit am! Good luck on your misadventures, you miscreant!” He raised his cup at Will, and winked. Will laughed and rolled his eyes at his strange friend.

         “Alright, ‘Tin.”

         He traveled through the party, and was surprised at the amount of people that had shown up. It was impressive, even for Mike, who over the years had accumulated a lot of friends.

         “Have you seen Mike?” He asked Lucas as he passed him in the kitchen, talking to his friends from Student Government. Lucas shook his head.

         “Not in like, 20 minutes maybe?” Will nodded, placing a hand on Lucas’s waist as he slipped past him in the room packed with people. Will went up the stairs to where the house’s bedrooms were, getting concerned. Where could he have gone? This is his party!

         “Oh.” He said upon opening the door to Mike’s room.

         Mike and El scrambled away from each other, but the damage was already done for Will. The image of El wrapped around Mike as they kissed, his hands cupping her body, his mouth chasing hers, hands in his hair, the visible movement of his tongue in her mouth, already burned in Will’s brain.

         El looked sheepish as Mike put her back down on the ground. He laughed despite his girlfriend’s discomfort.

         “Hey, Will!” He was grinning. El ran a hand through her hair, an embarrassed smile on her face. She turned to Mike.

         “I’m gonna go downstairs. ‘K?” She said to him, and he nodded, smiling at her, and pecked their lips together in a quick kiss. She slipped past Will, who was still in the doorway with a frown on his face and a sinking weight in his chest. Fuck. he thought.

         He turned to Will, still smiling. “Close the door, will ya?” He motioned, and Will complied, coming over to sit next to Mike on the bed.

         “Sorry you had to see that.” Funny thing is, you can’t ever sound sorry with a smile on your face Will wanted to say.  “You good?” Will nodded, and swallowed.

         “Yeah. ‘M fine.” He said without sincerity.

         Mike leaned over into his bedside table and pulled a pre-rolled blunt out of the drawer, and lit up. He slipped off of the bed and onto the floor.

         “Fuck, Will. I’m so in love with her.” He said, his eyes hazy and unfocused, lost in appreciation of his girlfriend. He gazed lazily at the ceiling, smoking. Will felt a physical longing in his chest, one that he couldn’t begin to describe, even if he wanted to. Like someone had reached a hand into his chest, grabbed a handful of his organs and was twisting hard.

         “When we get married, we’ll actually be brothers, Will!” When. Will thought. Not if. When. He noticed Mike’s eyes on him, and smiled weakly. Mike sat up from his place on the floor. He took the blunt from his lips.

         “Look, I know this isn’t really your scene, but I’m glad you came. Thanks.” Mike’s eyes on him felt like they were burning. He crumpled from the pressure behind the look, and hunched over his hands.

         Mike moved up and sat next to Will on the bed. Will looked down at his fingers.

         Will noticed with a fluttering heart how close Mike had sat next to him. Their thighs were practically touching. Will still felt his eyes on him, and could smell the scent of marijuana on him and the beer on his breath. He was painfully conscious of his own heartbeat. He was hesitant to turn, scared to meet his prying eyes. “I’m glad you came.” He heard, and that was when he panicked.

         He violently pushed himself off the bed and landed on the carpet with a dull thud. He scrambled to his feet, away from Mike. “I’m gonna, uh, I’m gonna go back downstairs!”

         Mike laughed at Will’s oddness, and laid back on the bed, and raised the joint back to his lips. “Alright, Will.”

         Will hurried down the stairs, huffing for breath. He shoved through the people in the kitchen, desperate to get out of the party and away from the concerned eyes of his peers.

         He burst out the door and let it swing close behind him. He put his hands on his knees, trying to regain his breath and calm his heartbeat. What happened back there? He thought wildly.

         He looked up, taking in his surroundings. His eyes were drawn to light in the corner of the backyard, reflecting off of two thick lenses and big brown eyes behind them. Richie.

         He straightened his back, collecting himself, and walked over to the concrete bench upon which he was sitting.

         “Hey.” Richie nodded.

         “Hey.” Will pointed to the bench. He cleared his throat. “Can I sit here?”

         “I guess.” He shrugged. “How’s Mike?” Richie asked sharply, the tension and discomfort in his voice obvious. Will didn’t answer; he instead sighed defeatedly, unhappy to have his thoughts brought back to Mike, and leaned his head onto Richie’s shoulder. Music pumped distantly out of the Wheeler house and into the crisp, night air; the two boys could hear the voices and laughter of the people inside, but, sitting under the dark night, they could hear nothing except the faint noises from inside the house and the sound of crickets in the grass of the backyard. 

         Will plopped himself down next to Rich on the concrete bench near the edge of the backyard, their backs turned away from the house. Richie fiddled with his fingers. Will pulled his feet up to sit with his legs folded underneath him. The sound of their breaths tangled in with the relative silence of the night. Neither said anything.

         “You’re right, you know.” Will blurted out quietly. 

         “What?” Richie asked, turning his head sideways to look at Will. He didn’t hear me, Will realized. He swallowed.

         “You’re right, I said.” He repeated, louder this time and with false confidence, sucking in air and exhaling sharply. “I think I am in love w—I think I do like him. Mike.”

         Richie pulled him to his body perpendicularly, wrapping an arm around Will and bringing him to his side. His heart hurt for the boy as he began to silently cry next to him.

         “It hurts, ‘Chee.” Will whispered into his chest, fingers twisting into Richie’s sweater absentmindedly. “I have to sit there and watch them kiss, watch them be, be in love with each other!” He chuckled sadly, his face glistening with tear-tracks in the faint amber glow of the Wheelers’ backyard lights. “Fuck. I just hate it, Rich.” Richie flinched at the way Will’s voice broke, cracking with audible heartbreak.

         He opened his mouth to speak for the first time since Will had started talking; his voice was hoarse from disuse and the pity sitting low in his throat. “I know you don’t see this right now, but he’s really not all that, Will.” Will shook his head into Richie’s sweater, his arm still slung over the other boy huddled into his side. Richie rubbed his back with the palm of his hand in what Will assumed was meant to be a soothing gesture. Will closed his eyes, still huddled onto Richie, and willed his tears to stop.

         With the coming minutes, his ragged breathing became even, and the hand grazing his back ever so lightly soon slowed. He wasn’t even startled when he felt the comfortable weight of Rich’s chin resting on his head, and the following feeling of his lips as he pressed a kiss to Will’s hair. 

         Will looked up through wet lashes to find Richie’s eyes already on him. Will studied his face. The face that was so very similar to the one he had been thinking about for years, the face he had quietly loved for so long. And, feeling sedated, sad, and egregiously hallow, he laced a hand through the curls at the back of Rich’s neck, and quickly and firmly brought their lips together.

         It was off. A sloppy, messy, sad kiss done in a moment of confusion. Richie froze, his mouth falling open in surprise. Will moved his hand from Richie’s hair to his face, readjusting and continuing to kiss him.

         Will felt a hand on his shoulder gently pushing him away. “Will.” Richie whispered, as he broke the kiss.

         He hated the way Will’s face crumpled.

         “I’m sorry.” Will said.

         “Yeah.” Richie replied.

         A tense moment passed. Richie looked at his feet. Will looked anywhere but at Richie.

         “I think I better take you home.”

         “Okay.”

         Will allowed himself to be pulled up, and followed Richie around the side of the house to where Mike’s car was parked on the street. He didn’t ask where Richie had gotten Mike’s keys from.

         Will curled into a ball in the passenger seat, body contorted awkwardly around the seatbelt to face away from the driver’s side. He stared blankly out the window.

         He felt the car slow and heard the stick being moved into park. With a start, he realized they had already arrived at Will’s house. He got out of the car silently. He walked around to Richie’s door, and knocked for him to roll the window down.

         He cleared his throat, wanting Rich’s attention off him.

         “I’m sorry if I just made us weird.” Will said, his voice hoarse. Richie nodded weakly, feeling trapped in the car.

         “No, um, you were upset, and confused. I get it. ’Ts fine.” He murmured. Will noticed the way his fingers were wrapped so tightly around the steering wheel they had turned white.

         “Can we just never talk about it ever again?”

         “Okay.” Richie said curtly, eyes looking straight ahead through the windshield, his back straight.

         “Okay.” Will murmured. “I’ll see you soon, then?” He put a hand on the car in an effort to look more casual than he felt.

         “Okay.” Richie said again, his lips pursed. Quickly, he shifted the car into drive, and pulled out of the driveway and down the street, leaving Will standing in alone in front of his dark house, his hand still up in the place where Richie had been a few moments before.

Chapter Text

         Will woke up with a headache at half past 10 the next morning feeling tired and groggy. His mom was at work, El was still at Mike’s house, and Hopper would probably be out on a run at this time of the morning. Will rolled out of bed, still in his jeans from the night before, and got up to feed the dog.

         Feeling gross, he hopped in the shower. The hot water felt refreshing on his sore body and he relished in the heat of it on his skin. Too early, he was done, and he stepped into the cold air of the bathroom to towel himself off.

         He heard the doorbell followed by the sound of the front door opening. “Will?” A girl’s voice asked.

         He sidestepped out of the bathroom, wearing only his jeans and a towel in his hands. His long hair was wet and stringy from his shower. “Hello? Max?”

         The redhead stood awkwardly in the entryway of the house, her skateboard tucked under her arm. Will blushed when he realized that he was standing half-naked and exposed in front of her.

         “Hold on.” He said, and left to grab a t-shirt out of his room. He pulled it over his shoulders as he walked out to greet his friend.

         “What do ya need, Max?” He said, walking into the kitchen. Max followed.

         She shrugged. “I saw you leaving last night, with Richie.” Will flinched; she continued. “You looked upset. Figured I’d come and check on you, make sure everything’s all right.”

         “Did the others see?” She shook her head.

         “No, I don’t think they noticed. And I didn’t want to draw attention to it.” Will silently blessed Max for that. She cleared her throat. “Um, so, is it? Alright, I mean?”

         “Yeah, I guess.” He shrugged, his back away from her as he got out the materials to make himself a sandwich. “I’m fine.”

         “Really? You looked pretty upset…” He continued making his sandwich silently. He heard the scuffle of her hopping onto the kitchen counter. “It’s healthy to talk about things, Will.” She raised her eyebrows, and huffed. He said nothing.

         “Is El here?” She asked, changing the subject. Will shook his head.

         “No, I think she spent the night at Mike’s last night, after the party.”

         “Still not talking to her?”

         “Kind of. We had that fight a little while back, and I’m not angry about it anymore but we’re still not exactly on the best of terms.” He paused, turning around to point the mustard-riddled knife at her. “Want one?”

         “Sure. Ya got some peanut butter and jelly?” He nodded, and went to work making lunch for her as well.

         They slipped into conversation about the upcoming Presidential election, which meant Max talked about her dislike for both candidates while Will listened to her thoughtfully.

         She was halfway through her tirade when she was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening, and El walking into the room.

         Max turned on her place on the counter to see El. “Hey.” She said. El looked surprised to see Max, but smiled kindly at her.

         “How was your night?” Will asked. She grinned again, walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge, pulling out a bottle of Sunny D.

         “It was fun!” She turned back to Will and Max who were sitting atop the counter, but her eyes focused on something behind them, and she moved her neck to address it.

         “Richie! You can come in if you want!” She yelled, and Will whipped his head around and landed his eyes on a disgruntled Richie fidgeting in the doorway of the house. He had not noticed him.

         “Oh! Hi, Rich. Didn’t see you there!” Max exclaimed.

         “Um, hi, Max.” He cleared his throat, still not stepping into the house. “Will.” He nodded. “Can I, uh, talk to you? Outside?”

         Will’s heart dropped. He pushed himself off the counter, and crossed the short distance across the room to follow Richie out the door. He stopped on the porch, and turned to meet Will.

         “So, I, uhh, wanted to make sure that we’re cool? After last night?”

         “Yeah, about that. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I was tired and just, just not myself. Sorry.” Will looked at his feet, and kicked at the tearing wood of the porch.

         “Don’t stress it, I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. That I didn’t force you, or whatever, just because I’m gay.”

         Will snapped his head up, almost angry at the implication behind his remark, but joking nonetheless. “Who says I’m not?” Richie perked an eyebrow.

         “Are you?”

         “I don’t know!” And Richie laughed. Will cracked up too. He noticed that Richie had seemed to visibly relax, his shoulders straight and the familiar gleam back in his big eyes.

         He playfully shoved Will’s shoulder. “Nah, you’re fucking gay, Byers.” And Will’s heart dropped.

         It was one thing for him to joke about the uncertainty of his sexuality, but to have it confirmed, even jokingly, made his head hurt, his heart beat, and his lungs fail. He panicked.

         Richie noticed. “Ah, fuck, I’m sorry, Will. I didn’t mean anythi—” He was interrupted by Will holding up a hand.

         “Stop. It’s fine.”

         “I’m sorry. Really.”

         “It’s fine.” Will said firmly, and Richie tried unsuccessfully to read his closed off face. A moment of tense silence passed. Richie cleared him throat uncomfortably.

         “I’m gonna go then.”

         “Alright.”

         “See you on Monday?” Richie started to back up, exiting the porch backwards and crunching along the gravel of the driveway while still facing Will.

         “Okay. See ya.”

         Richie waved awkwardly, and got into his truck. Will turned back inside.

         “Richie left?” Max asked from her place next to the counter, mouth full of Will’s sandwich.

         “Yeah. El in her room?”

         “Yeah. What was that? That was…weird.” She asked, shoving more sandwich into her mouth. Will walked over, and picked up the other one from the plate.

         “Why do you say that?

         “Not sure, I’ve never seen him look so…not-Richie.”

         “How do you mean?”

         “I mean, he’s always so,” She prolonged o in so, “I don’t know, he’s always so put together, in his own way. He’s all—” She waved her hands around, “your mom jokes and, you know, look at me!” She slipped into an impression of Richie’s deep, nasal voice at that. “He just seemed different. Like he was sad, or disappointed, or whatever. I might be wrong.”

         Will said nothing, taking in her observations. He was snapped back after a moment of thinking by the weight of Max’s hand reaching to rest on his arms. He looked up, and met her big, doe eyes. “Did something happen last night?” She asked, kindness and worry for her friend in her voice. Will swallowed.

         Because he was seriously debating it, telling her everything. He genuinely was. Telling her about Richie, about Mike, about Dustin and the girl at the party, about how confused it all made him, about how it’s been making him feel that confused, so constantly and consistently lost, for his entire life; he wanted to tell her, well, everything.

         But he didn’t. Because she guessed.

         “Will, did he kiss you?” She whispered, and Will felt the air being sucked out of his lungs.  He was hypersensitive of Max’s eyes on him when he, unresolvedly and worn, nodded his head.

         “He did!” Will jumped at her unexpected squeal and the feeling of her hand gripping his arm excitedly.

         “You’re not, you’re not mad?” He stuttered, shocked at her reaction.

         “No,” her eyes darkened at the thought. “why would I be? I like Richie, even if he’s gay! It doesn’t matter to me.” She laughed to herself. “You forget that I’m not from here. No one gives a fuck who you fuck back in San Diego. I don’t care if he’s gay or not.” Will flinched as she spoke loudly, excitement dripping from her voice.

         “Max, can we go outside or something?” Will asked softly as a response. “El’s just in the other room, and, if we’re gonna keep talking about this, I’d rather she not…” He trailed off; Max seemed to understand, and lowered her voice.

         “Are you?” She asked, leveling her eyes at him intensely, her hand still on his arm.

         “Am I what?”

         “Gay.” He sighed, and lifted a hand to rub his eyes wearily.

         “That’s the second time I’ve been asked that in 10 minutes, and I can honestly say that I don’t know, Max.”

         “Well, did you like it? The kiss?” As always with Max, Will was struck by how equally playful and intense she could be, at the same time. He thought genuinely about her question before answering.

         “No. Well, yeah. I guess I did. I was the one that kissed him—” his voice lowered even more, “—in the first place, but I don’t think I really meant to. I think I was just confused, and sad.”

         “Oh, Will.”

         “It’s fine, Max. I’m fine.”

         “Can we talk about something else?”

         Max launched into a story about a vomiting girl at the party last night, and they slipped naturally into conversation after that. They were chatting and Will found himself enjoying himself until Max glanced at her digital watch.

         “Shit! Dude, I can’t stay long. I wasn’t planning on being here as long as I did.” She said, standing up and tucking her skateboard under her arm. “Are you good for me to leave?” He nodded.

         “Hey, Max?” She turned in the doorway.

         “What’s up?” He cleared his throat, trying to find his words.

         “Um, thanks. For all that.” He waved his hands vaguely. “I’m not really good with, you know, feelings, and all that. So, um, you know, thank you. For forcing it out of me.”

         Her eyes softened at the stuttering boy in front of her, and suddenly two arms were being wrapped around Will’s neck and big red curls filled his line of vision. He melted into the hug.

         “I know we’re not the closest of friends, Will, but thank you for trusting me. I’m always here if you want to talk about it.”

         “Love you, Mayfield.” He mumbled into her hair, his arms still wrapped around her. 

         “Love you too, Byers.” She pulled away from the hug—“Aw, shit, Will, you’ve got me all weepy now!”—and walked out the open front door. “See you tomorrow, Will!” She yelled as she walked down the gravel driveway to the street, set her board down, and powered down the street, away from the house.

Chapter Text

         “Good morning, lovebug.” Joyce said the next morning as Will entered the kitchen for the first time that day.

         “G‘Morning, Mom.” He said as he greeted her, kissing her on the cheek. She stood near the counter, stirring a bowl on her hip, her hair up in a bumpy ponytail, and a floral apron on.

         “How can you say good morning when it’s noon?” He heard a low voice say from the other room. He shrugged. Sunday mornings were always his lazy days. Guilty.

         “And good morning to you too, Hopper!” He yelled back.

         “Any plans for the day?”

         “Yeah. I think I’m gonna go over to Richie’s.” He said, faltering at his mother’s perched eyebrow at his comment. “—and, and Mike’s. The Wheeler house, you know.” He waved his hand around vaguely. She continued her mixing.

         “Alright, honey. Sounds good. I would say be back by 6, but since we’re going over there anyways, I guess it doesn’t really matter.”

         “What?” He asked, biting into a skinned carrot Joyce had left sitting out on the cutting

         “We’re having a bi-family dinner. We’re all having dinner at the Wheelers’, with all of them.” He heard, and turned around to find El walking into the room.

         “Why?” Sunday night dinners were a sacred thing in the Byers house. It was taken very seriously, a tradition that had been continued since his childhood. With Joyce working so much, and the children’s after-school activities, Sunday nights were the only nights where they got to eat together as a family. It was something Will had grown up with, had insisted on continuing through his adolescence and past Jonathan’s departure for college, when it was just him and his mom. They weren’t a particularly religious family, but Will and Joyce held onto their Sunday night dinners like it was part of theirs.

         And, while it was kind of necessary for El and Hopper to be a part of theirs, the addition of the Wheelers seemed way too much. You didn’t fuck with Will’s Sunday night dinners. Especially when the thought of Mike, Richie and his mom in the same room made Will dizzy.

         She scoffed “Why? Because Mike’s my boyfriend.” El responded, her hip jutted out and eyebrows raised. “And, by the looks of it, Richie’s just about yours too.” She looked directly at Will, her eyes challenging. His mouth fell open in shock, before his throat tightened with anger and it snapped close again. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. He thought heatedly.

         “Shut up, Eleven.” He said through gritted teeth, his voice cold and angry, not at all happy with the joke at his expense.

         “Jeez, defensive much? It was just a joke.” She said, putting her hands up defensively but smugness on her face. 

         “Yeah, well. Not a funny one.” He turned his head slightly, trying to gage his mom’s reaction to Eleven’s words. She said nothing, remaining tightlipped and focusing on her hand gripping the spoon. “Christ, Jane, really?”

         Severely irritated, and a little upset, Will grabbed the keys to his the old Ford off the counter, and angrily left with a shout of “I’m going to Richie’s!”.

         He could’ve imagined it, but he thought he heard a bitter “Exactly.” being said from the kitchen behind him.

~

         With knuckles grasped tightly around the steering wheel, Will drove to the Wheelers’ in quiet rage. However, as he got closer to Richie’s, the anger boiling in his blood slowly turned to a light simmer. By the time he had arrived and rung the doorbell, it was nearly nonexistent.

         “Hello?” The door swung open to reveal Mike, dressed in his typical sweater and khakis, his hair neatly combed, and a surprised look on his face. “Will?”

         “Hey, Mike. How are you?” He said automatically, and cringed at the formality of his voice. Mike nodded. “Sorry to drop by unannounced—”.

         “No, of course! You’re always welcome here.” He stepped aside to let Will into the house. “I can’t stay long though, I told El that I’d go over and help her get ready for the dinner tonight.” Oh, fuck. He thinks I’m here for him. Will thought panically, shifting his weight uncomfortably between his feet.

         “Oh. Uhh…” He toed the wood of the entryway with the rubber tip of his Converse, avoiding his childhood best friend’s eyes. “Don’t let me keep you, then, if you have to go. I have to, uh, talk to Richie.”

         Will’s guts wrenched when he saw Mike’s face fall.

         “Oh. Alright. Well, he’s upstairs.” He motioned to the staircase, his expression unreadable.

         “Okay. Um, I guess I’ll see you tonight then.” Mike nodded. “Alright. Bye, Mike.” Will said as he turned around and began to climb the stairs to Richie’s room.

         His knuckles grazed the door lightly when he reached it, and pushed it open with the tips of his fingertips. “Hello?” He said tentatively as he poked his head into the room. His eyes landed on Richie lying vertically on the bed, a book folded over in his hands.

         “Will?” Richie said, and moved into a sitting position on the bed.

         Will slipped slowly into the room, and quietly shut the door behind him. “Hey. Uhh, how are you?”

         “What kind of person comes into their friend’s bedroom unannounced and says uhhhhh how are you?” He laughed, slipping into an impression of Will’s voice. “Only you, Byers. Only you.” He paused, wiped his glasses on his shirt amid the momentary silence of the room. “What brings you over here, my good chap?”

         Will shrugged from his place leaned against the wall. His fingers picked on at the small, fraying holes of the pinstriped wallpaper left over from Nancy’s days living in the bedroom that Richie now claims.

         “Well, I, uh,” Goddammit Will. He thought to himself. Find your words. “Well, I just wanted to apologize for being weird yesterday.” He waved his hand vaguely, trying to articulate what he felt. “And all the other times I’ve made things weird. Like on Friday.” The when I kissed you part went unspoken between them. Richie nodded.

         “Can we—” Will started at the same time as Richie said “Let’s just—”. They laughed mirthlessly. “Sorry, you go.”

         “Can we just agree not to talk about it?” Richie practically leaped to his feet.

         “Oh god, yes, please!” His long legs carried him across the room quickly. “I hate it when things are weird. This town fucking sucks without you.” Will smiled as he felt his friend’s arms being wrapped around him as Richie pulled him in for a tight hug. “Though it’s your mom thats really doing most of the sucking.” Richie whispered in his ear before being shoved off Will defensively.

         “Jesus fuck, Richie!” Will said, laughing. “Christ!”

         “Seriously, though, I am glad we’re forgetting all this.” Richie put his arm around him, and looked him in the eyes. “I’m glad to have my best friend back.”

         Will looked back.

         “Before we do forget everything, can I ask you a question? Did you tell Mike?” Richie pulled away.

         “What?”

         “Did you tell Mike? About it?” Richie’s brow furrowed, his eyes dark behind his glasses.

         “No. I didn’t. Why do you ask?”

         “Nothing, I guess. He just acted sorta strange downstairs.” Richie waved his hand dismissively.

         “Oh, that’s nothing. He’s just all fucking tight because of this dinner with everyone tonight. He’s scared of Hopper.”

         Will laughed. “Isn’t everyone?”

         “True! This dinner, though. ‘Ll be kinda intense, right?”

         “Oh, completely. Ted doesn’t like us much.”

         “To be fair, Ted doesn’t like me much. And I’m his blood. Plus, Karen’s all stressed out about it.” Realization slowly drew across his face. “Oh, fuck!” He said, and walked out the room.

         “Rich?”

         Will waited a moment before following him out into the hallway and down the stairs. “Rich?”

         He found him in the kitchen, pulling out ingredients from the cabinet. “What are you doing?”

         “I fucking forgot! I’m supposed to make brownies for the dessert tonight.”

         “Richie, Jesus, calm down.”

         “Oh, I take brownies very seriously, Wilson.” Will rolled his eyes fondly, and propped himself up on the counter to watch Richie work.

         They slipped into a comfortable silence, Richie humming quietly while parading around the kitchen. Will’s head lifted to the ceiling at the creak in the wood frame, from Mike’s footsteps above. Richie noticed as well, and lowered his eyes back to Will, his expression neutral. 

         “Did you tell anyone?” He asked with a lowered voice.

         “About what?” He paused, and licked his lips. “Friday night?” Richie nodded. “No.” Will sighed. “I mean, yes? Kind of. Max guessed it.” To his surprise, they both cracked smiles.

         “Shoulda known.” Richie said, shaking his head with a grin. “That girl…She’s dope as hell, isn’t she?”

         “Obviously.” Will said, laughing to himself, before a comfortable silence fell upon them once again. Richie resumed his humming and continued preparing the brownie batter. Several minutes of content idleness went by as Will, with a fond smile, watched him focus endearingly on something so miniscule.

         His thoughts were interrupted by a panicked voice.

         “Holy shit, Will!”

         Will jumped from the counter, an unintended reaction to Richie’s loudness and the graveness in his voice. “What is it, ‘Chee?” He asked.

         Richie whirled around, his eyes wild and wide behind his glasses. “Will,” he started, his voice slow, deep, and serious. “We forgot the fucking chocolate chips.”

         Will huffed out a laugh. “Oh my god, you’re so dramatic. Jesus! I was actually worried for a second!” Richie giggled too, before slipping back into his mock-serious demeanor, his brow furrowed animatedly.

         “William, this is a very serious ordeal here.” He said, taking a step towards Will.

         “Oh, is it now?” Will perked an eyebrow and looked up to Richie with a sugary-sweet smile plastered across his features. Richie laughed again, before composing himself again.

         “Well, my dear.” He said, once again slipping into an accent. “We absolutely cannot allow a sweet lil fella such as yaself have a brownie without chocolate chips in it, now can we?”

         “Oh we’re Southern, are we now? Besides, chocolate chips aren’t even necessary for brownies.” Richie’s face fell and he stumbled across the room dramatically.

         “William, love, you wound me!” He said in a British accent, clutching his heart animatedly.

         “Pick a goddamn voice already and stick with it!” Will giggled and turned from Richie back to the half-made batter in front of him, picking up the spoon covered in chocolatey goop.

         “How is it even a question, Will? Chocolate chips are necessary for brownies. End of story.”

         “Sure, they make them better—” He was cut off by Richie’s excited cry.

         “Then we’re going to get some!”

         “What the hell? No?” Richie threw down the spoon, his eyebrows raised playfully.

         “How can I convince you so?” Will rolled his eyes, and started to say something before he was cut off by Richie, who had grabbed his hand and slowly sunk down on one knee.

         “William I-don’t-know-your-middle-name Byers, would you pretty please come get chocolate chips with me?” Will laughed. Richie smiled and dropped his hand, standing up. “C’mon, Will. Would you pleaaase come to Club Calamus—” He said, a grin lighting up his entire face as he slowly dipped his pointer finger into the wet batter, and brought it up to Will’s face. “—with me?” He said, and booped the bottom of Will’s nose with it.

         “You did not just quote Walt Whitman to me while covering me in brownie batter!” He breathed in between bouts of giggles, clutching his stomach as he sucked in air. “Holy shit, that was funny.” Will said, wiping giggly tears from his eyes with one hand and brownie batter with the other.

         Richie just grinned. “I am ecstatic you understood that reference.” He said evenly, before grabbing Will’s hand suddenly, planting a quick kiss onto the shorter boy’s forehead, and spinning on his heel, pulling Will behind him out the kitchen and into the front yard.

         Will, who was taken off guard by the sudden movement, and the unexpected contact with Richie—did that really happen…?—, just let himself be guided to the truck Richie was sharing, and, with an eye-roll, got inside.

         Richie started the car excitedly, turning the volume of the radio completely up to a David Bowie song; his fingers drummed the steering wheel to the beat as he sang loud and off-key. Will was not too familiar with the song, but bobbed his head along.

         After a short ride, Richie turned the car into an open lot that served as parking for a small, open aired mall. He opened the door and stepped out into the cold, late-November air. Will followed him out, and they walked into the Target side by side.

         Will, as always, loved Target. What’s not to like about Target?

         “Do you know where their food section is? I’ve only been here once since I moved here.” Richie asked, squinting behind his glasses to see the small signs above the aisles.

         Will shook his head. Joyce was the one who did the shopping in the family, and, above of that, Target was a luxury that was outside their capability while he was growing up with a single mother. Not that Richie, or Mike for that matter, had ever known what that was like for him. They’d grown up with large house and a doting mom and dads with cushy incomes. Will didn’t even have a dad to speak of, much less one who could provide for him and his family.

         That isn’t to say both of them didn’t have their parental troubles. Will knew from experience that Ted Wheeler was distant and non-involved when it came to their children. And Richie’s. Richie’s dad had disowned him for his queerness, and he knew that outside of Richie’s brashness when speaking about the events leading to his leaving home, he was deeply hurt by his father. But is to have a dad and lose him really worse than not having one in the first place? What is loss compared to the dull ache of never even having experienced it?

         “Will?”

         Will snapped back into the conversation. He shook his head. “What?” Rich raised his eyebrows, but bit his tongue.

         “I said, where would chocolate chips be? The baking section, right? Is that a thing?” He turned around, and his face softened as he locked eyes with Will. “You know what? We’ll just walk around and figure it out.” Sensing whatever had just happened with Will, that moment of nostalgic sadness, he grabbed Will’s hand, and squeezed.

         They wandered through the Target like that. Richie’s sweaty hand interlaced with his and Will’s gripping back. Grounding himself. What would Lonnie say if he could see me right now? Reverberated around his brain.

         Until someone came into their aisle. An old, slow-moving lady hunched over a cane who ruined it when Richie’s eyes landed on her and Will’s hand was dropped.

         Richie nudged him. “Are you okay?” He whispered softly, his lips barely moving around the words. Will nodded and smiled at him. At his thick glasses and his freckles and his kind eyes and the big ol’ stupid face of his best friend. God, I love you. He thought, and didn’t think about whatever that meant for him. How was it only this morning that Will was worried about seeing him? This man was his best friend.

         Richie smiled back at him, and ruffled his hair. He continued to walk down the aisle and through to a whole nother section, Will trailing behind. “Will! Holy shit. Come look at those glasses.” Will jogged over to where Richie was, standing out with his arm outstretched, pointing at something.

         “What?”

         “Look. At those glasses!” Will followed his finger to a rack of readers at the end of the aisle.

         “What about them?” Richie started walking over to them, and picked up a pair.

         “These ones! They look exactly like mine!”

         Will laughed brightly. “So?”

         “Oh my god, Will.” He turned his head, his grin so wide it crinkled his eyes. Will noticed the devious glint that was obvious in his expression.

         “No. No! Richie, whatever you’re thinking, the answer is no.” He said, as he felt a hand tugging on his and his body pulled over to the rack where Richie’s look-alike-glasses resided, and down to the bored teenager working as the cashier.

         “I have an idea.” He said devilishly to Will when they reached the check out area of the little shop, who rolled his eyes.

         “Yeah, no shit.” Will said as Richie paid for the glasses and a box of Mike & Ike’s—Will;s favorite—he had grabbed at checkout. “Are you gonna tell me what it is?” He followed Richie as he left the shop excitedly, trying to keep up with the taller boy as he dashed across the parking lot.

         “Where are you going?” Will shouted at Richie’s back, who in response grinned over his shoulder, but did not slow his pace. Will struggled to keep up with him but followed his line of sight to where he was running off to. “The thrift shop? Really?” 

         Will was met by the sound of the old metal door opening and closing shut behind Richie.

         “We’re turning you into me.” Richie whispered.

         “I really need to stop letting you drag me places, don’t I?” But, when Will looked at him, and eyes wide with excitement, well, really, who was he to say no to that smile?

         “Fine.” He murmured after a moment, trying not to grin at Richie’s endearing excitability. “But you’re not touching my hair.” He muttered into the rack of mismatched clothes.

         Richie’s head popped out from above the rack. “Oh yeah baby, we’re cutting that shit.”

         “No the fuck you’re not!” Will felt a hand grip his hair. “No!” He squealed. “No, Richie! You’re not cutting my hair!”

         “Yes the fuck I am!” Richie slung an arm over the other boy’s shoulder, and they walked through the thrift store together.

         “Who the hell would even gonna cut it? You?” Richie laughed, clear and high. “Oh, fuck. I just gave you an idea, didn’t I?”

         “Oh, most definitely. Now, tell me if you see a far too large, culturally-inaccurate, Hawaiian shirt so we can turn you into me.” With that, he ruffled Will’s hair, and they continued down the aisles of the store, teetering on each other. 

~

         “Richieeeeee.” Will whined from inside the fitting room of the thrift store, which was essentially just a blue curtain strung from a rod tied to the ceiling. “This looks absurd!” He said, pulling back the fabric and revealing his outfit of secondhand clothes to Richie.

         Black jeans, torn and fraying at the knee, an old white undershirt, and an oversized pink button-down hung loosely around his skinny frame. After handing him the new glasses from the pharmacy, Richie stepped back to examine his friend. Will shifted until the scrutiny of Richie and the strangeness of the clothes.

         After a moment of inspection, his eyes never leaving Will’s form, Richie smugly gave Will his opinion: “I’m weirdly turned on right now.”. Will sputtered. That was not the answer he was expecting.

         “Are you sure you don’t want me to cut that hair?” Will rolled his eyes.

         “I mean, I’ve been kinda wanting to for, like, years. I just never had the heart to tell my mom to do it differently.”

         “Wait, are you actually considering this? Will ‘Bowlcut’ Byers is finally shedding his signature look?”

         “Is Richie ‘Bullshit’ Tozier finally shedding his?”

         Richie roared with laughter. “Bold words for someone who’s about to have my scissors by your neck.” He said in a sing-song voice, wagging his finger around.

         “Are you actually being serious right now?”

         “Are you?” Will stuck his tongue out at him, teasingly, and pulled the curtain between them shut. Quickly, he changed back into his normal clothes, and went back into the main part of the store, Richie’s lookalike clothes in hand.

         He found Richie behind a large mannequin, his eyes scanning the racks expertly and his lips moving as he murmured to himself. Will’s eyes narrowed at the compile of sweaters and denim slung suspiciously across the other boy’s shoulder.

         “What’cha got there?” Richie’s head snapped up at the sound of Will’s voice.

         “Holy shit, look at this sweater!” He gushed excitedly, his hand twitching as he fumbled to get the sweater he had picked out. “We’re buying you this.” He said as he held up the cat imaged turquoise-pink monstrosity, an happy grin gracing his face. 

         “I’m not buying that.”

         “Oh, you sure are, William.”

         “Well, if I’m buying that, than you’re buying this!” Will said, tugging on something that had caught his eye from the rack. He pulled out a long, pink skirt complete with an embroidered poodle on it, and held it up to Richie’s lanky body.

         “Oh my god.” He said, giggling amusedly. “I’d rock that shit and you know it! We’re adding it to the pile.” He pulled the skirt out and flung over his shoulder with the other clothes he had picked out for Will.

         When this became a shopping opportunity in the thrift shop, Will couldn’t tell you. But, as he and Richie perused the racks, a comfortable silence between the two of them, he knew that it had.

         “You should get that.” A quiet voice said behind him. Richie had appeared behind him, and murmured softly. “I’d look good on you.” He motioned to the soft brown leather bomber Will had pulled and was looking at apprehensively.

         “You don’t dress super edgy so that’d suit you. Over your muted sweaters.” He cleared his throat, and raised his voice to a normal level. “Get it.”

         Will nodded. “Alright.” He noticed a large white plastic bag in Rich’s hand. He pointed to it.

         “Did you already ring up?” Richie nodded. “Oh. Okay. I better go do the same.” he said, and went to go pay for his brown jacket that was meant for someone who was cooler than he actually was.

         After paying, he and Richie walked back to the truck still parked in front of the Target. As he walked around to the shotgun side of the car, he felt a hand wrap around his wrist.

         “Here’s some other things. A bunch of things I thought you’d look good in. Stuff you’d like.” Richie said softly, his voice embarrassed as he pressed the bag into Will’s hand. He shrugged. Will opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out as he stared at the gift.

         He cleared his throat. “Thanks, Rich. That’s really nice. ‘Appreciate it.”

         “It’s really nothing. Do you wanna grab some dinner? It’s getting kinda late, I think.” He said, squinting at the sky. The sun had not set yet, but the sky had gotten the faded bluish tint it did as it did when nearly sunset.

         “Sure. McDonalds?” Richie nodded as they got into the car. Rich pulled out of the parking lot with expertise, and they drove in comfortable wordlessness through the neighborhood. Richie’s fingers beat on the steering wheel to the bass line of a rock song Will didn’t recognize playing on a cassette, but hummed along to nonetheless.

         They got to the rundown old McDonalds and ordered quickly. They talked about nothing in particular, but conversation flowed naturally between the two of them as Richie devoured his burger and Will ate more slowly, watching Rich tell stories and wave his grease-covered fingers around dramatically.

         “Want me to take you home or do you wanna come back to my place?”

         “No, I don’t really want to go home quite yet. And my car’s still at your place.”

         “Okay. Home it is then!” He said as he turned out of the parking lot. The radio was on low this time, and Richie hummed quietly as he drove. “Which one of the VHS’s do you wanna watch?” Richie asked, which turned into a discussion over which was a better series, Stars Wars, Ghostbusters or Indiana Jones, that lasted the entire car ride home. They were still arguing about it as Richie was inserting his keys into the front door.

         “They’re very different things, Richard! All I’m saying is that you can’t possibly make an accurate comparison of three different franchises that are incomparable.”

         “Will?” He heard a deep voice say.

         “Yeah? Mike?” He asked as he walked farther into the house, Richie following him, and, oh. Oh, fuck.

         Sat around the Wheelers’ dining room table was Mike, his parents, El, Will’s mother and Hopper. All staring at him. Will’s eyes widened in fear.

         Mike was clearly pissed, and he could practically feel the impact of the daggers his longtime friend was sending him. Mike was someone who he had loved—and, really, in a sense, idolized—for years, and was still shaken by the look on his face. Mike had seen it before, but this was the first time it had ever been wholly directed at him. It didn’t fit him, that ugliness written on his pretty face as he stared harshly at Will.

         The tension in the room was palpable and matched the silence in it, covered only by the sound of Richie hanging up his coat and walking down the hallway to the dining room where everyone was gaping. “Oh, shit.” He said as he followed Will’s wide-eyed gaze to the table. To Richie’s credit, Hopper laughed.

         Karen wiped her mouth with his napkin, and pushed the chair back, placing the napkin on the table. “May I see you in the kitchen?” She said to her nephew, pushing past him into the other room. Both him and Will followed her.

         Her back was facing them when they entered, as she fiddled with something in the sink. She sighed, rubbing her eyes tiredly. “What happened, Richie?”

         “I’m sorry. Will and I were making brownies when we realized that we didn’t have an ingredient. So we left to get some.”

         “And then what happened?” She didn’t sound angry, or even upset, she just sounded tired. And worn. Neither said anything.

         “Look, Rich, this was supposed to be a pleasant night.” She said, her voice even. “I just, I just really wanted a nice night. Get to know my son’s girlfriend, and her family, a little more.” She sighed, and turned away from the sink to face then, her hands still shining with from the dishwater and bright bundles of soapy bubbles lining up her forearm.

         “And instead we were all worried about where you two had gone.” Richie and Will shared a look, both knowing what she really meant by that. Joyce. Joyce was the one who had worried.

         “I’m trying, Richie, I am really am, but sometimes it’s—” She stopped herself, and pinched the bridge of her nose, shutting her eyes. “I know things haven’t been easy for you, and that, well, at the end of the day you’re my sister’s kid. And I don’t really know what to do it situations like this. It can be difficult because you’re, you know, different—” At that, Richie interrupted her, his brow furrowing. 

         “I know. I’m sorry, Auntie.” His voice shook a little, and Will really really wished he could grab his hand like Richie had done to him in the store. “I really am. We just lost track of time. It won’t happen again.”

         “Alright, Rich. I’m gonna go back to my dinner, then. The extras are in the fridge.” She turned to address Will for the first time that evening. “Feel free to help yourself too.” And she left. Leaving him and Richie standing alone in the white tile of their kitchen.

         “I bet we’re not Mike and El’s favorite people right now, huh?” Will laughed.

         “We didn’t even get the chocolate chips.” Richie said, his face contorted sourly.

         “What?”

         “We didn’t even get the chocolate chips, Will. What was even the point of that whole thing if we didn’t get what we needed out of it?”

         He walked away.

Chapter Text

         Will trudged out to his car, dragging his feet, arms crossed, through the evening cold of Indiana in November. The car itself had sat untouched in the hours since he had arrived at the Wheeler house for the first time that morning, and the door handle was cold to the touch. Upset and freezing, Will climbed into the driver’s side, and slumped over in his seat. His hands gripped his pant legs hard as he leant to rest his head against the wheel. He smushed his eyes shut. And thought of Mike.

         From an outside standpoint, Will knew he’d fucked up. He’d promised to be there to support his best friend. And his step-sister, even if they weren’t on the best of terms. But, really, is Mike his best friend anymore?

         The only time they’d hung out in months was when Mike came over to visit El, and Will was only added on because he was just there. He was just the awkward, unthought of third wheel. Dustin and Lucas too, for that matter. Were they even still friends? When was the last time he had had a conversation with Lucas?

         How can a friendship be properly maintained when the only thing holding it together is the nostalgia of childhood? Can you be friends with someone when the only thing you have in common is a crippling fear of loneliness and the guilt that comes with growing apart?

         And why was it that Mike’s distance hurt him more than Lucas and Dustin’s, even El’s?

         But he knew the answer to that question.

         Because, in reality, Will and Mike were never really friends. Mike was always the superhero and Will was his sidekick. Mike—confident, secure Mike—was Will’s protector. Will was the bird and Mike the mother who kept him under his carefully-maintained wing. Until Richie.

         But was it really Richie that prompted all of this? Will shook his head amongst these thoughts. Because, in reality, Richie hadn’t done any of this. He was just lying in the wake of what time and maturing had done to Will and Mike’s friendship. Even if he didn’t know it, for Mike, Richie was a just a physical manifestation of all of Will’s faults.

         Because he knows, doesn’t he?  Will asked himself. Of course he knows, thinking of the cruel words that Troy and his father had plagued him with throughout his upbringing. Even they had known.

         He thought of the past few years of his life. Thought of how he skipped going to see Back to the Future because the thought of sitting alone, while still sitting next to El and Mike, and Lucas and Max, made him sick to his stomach. Thought of how many times he’d excused himself to the bathroom during sleepovers when the topic of the girls came up. Thought of the jokes that were made at his expense, the especially vulgar ones to the “Jeez, Will, I’m starting to think you have the sex drive of a fucking potted plant!” and the “Hey, Dustin, what’s the male version of a spinster? That's what Will is!” that came with an affectionate ruffling of his hair. Thought of how the older he got, the less those jokes became funny. Thought of how they were supposed to be joking but how deeply they had stung him; how it was attributed to Will being a slow bloomer, the younger one that needed fussing over, and how slowly that excuse had slipped away. Thought of how, as that had happened, Mike had clung onto El even more tightly, and the others had made friends elsewhere. Thought of how Mike stopped returning his calls, had stopped coming over for him. Thought of himself, going to Castle Byers on their D&D nights instead and drawing until his finger-beds were raw and his hands turned black with careless ink because he couldn’t handle the thoughts swirling around in his head and being in the same room as Mike would only make it that much worse.

         Because he knew. They both did. Even if it wasn’t conscious, deep-down, he knew why Will was different. And in a small town in Indiana in 1988, suspicion was damning.

         And when Will was struggling, his friend swam towards El. If Will was drowning, Mike was content to float away, and Richie. Well, Richie was the lifeguard who barely knew how to swim himself.

         He knew what Max would say. He could imagine her voice in his head. Will, I think Mike just feels you slipping away. And it scares him. He doesn’t want to lose you!

         Yeah. He thought back angrily. Sure. Except that he had no issue slipping away from me. Same with Lucas. And Dustin. All of them had no problem making friends outside of me, ditching me. Why is it that I’m perpetually linked to them but they’re not to me? Why am I always Mike Wheeler’s friend when he’s not Will Byers’s friend? Why am I such a fucking loser that my own friends have started to think so too?

         “God, when did I get so resentful?” He remarked out loud, his face still against the steering wheel, his eyes closed.

         There was a brief knocking noise on the opposite window, followed by the sound of the passenger door being open and shut.

         Do you mind?  Will thought sourly. I’m reexamining my entire life right now. Kinda having a crisis. Could you shut the door? Thanks.

         “Will?” Will looked up. Mike was sat next to him in the passenger seat, a ratty, yellowed sweater pulled haphazardly over the button-up he wore to the dinner.

         “What happened tonight?” He asked, looking at Will with an open expression. Will said nothing. He didn’t have an answer for that question.

         Mike cleared his throat and tried again. “Where are you going?” Will shrugged.

         “Home. Or maybe Max’s house.”

         “Max’s house?” Will nodded.

         “I don’t know, we’ve gotten closer recently.” They hadn’t, not really. Aside from their conversation at his house, and the hug they’d shared afterwards, they hadn’t really spent much time together. But with everything that had happened today, and her kindness and patience with him, he really needed to talk to her.

         Instead, he shrugged, and tried to look nonchalant about it. “She’s just, she’s cool. I guess.”

         “Does Lucas know that you go over to her house?”

         “No? Why would…?” Mike sent him a look, lips pursed and eyebrows raised, and suddenly Will realized what he meant by that. “Oh. No. We’re not… No.” He laughed humorlessly—because, really, it was ridiculous—and shook his head. “I didn’t even consider—”

         “Let me guess. It’s not like that with her?” Will nodded, and jumped a little at the loud laugh that Mike let out.

         “Yeah. It wasn’t like that with me and El either, but look where we ended up.” He looked at Will out of the corner of his eye, and, despite his earlier anger, a small, fond smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “Except El didn’t have a boyfriend, Will.” His voiced sombered.

         “How did we get—?” He was interrupted by Mike, whose voice had become loud, but clear and low-pitched.

         “Are you gay, Will?” Bluntness was never Mike’s style. He had never been one to outright share what he was thinking, which is why it caught Will by such surprise when he blurted that out.

         “Wh—what?”

         Mike continued. “It’s just, it’s weird. That you hang out with Richie so much.” He wrinkled his nose. “I don’t get it.”

         “What is that supposed to mean?” Will asked harshly, defensiveness seeping into his body. Mike seemed to ignore his tone.

         “Not that he’s gay, I understand that, I just don’t get how you two are friends.” Will swallowed, his sweaty palms giving away his inner anxiety at actually discussing it, regardless of the hard exterior he was currently projecting. He could hear the sound of his heartbeat, pounding loudly in his ears. “You’re so cute and sweet and innocent. And he’s the opposite of it! And he’s—” His voice dropped an octave. “—well, you know.” Will resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

         “I don’t think you know him as well as you think you do, Michael.” Will said coldly, his fingers curling violently into the fabric of his pant leg. Mike rubbed his eyes with his pointer finger.

          “God, now you even sound like him.” Mike scoffed. 

          And Will snapped

         “So why are you even here?”

         “What?”

         “Why are you here?” Will spat out forcefully, his body facing forward in his seat. He heard Mike sputter beside him.

         “You’re my best friend, Will. Of course this is affecting me—”

         “Oh, shut up! That’s such a bullshit line.” Will turned in his seat to face him, his face contorted with anger. Frankly, he was done with this shit. Mike looked like he’d been slapped, his mouth hung open in shock at Will’s brashness. “We—” Will gestured between them wildly. “are not friends. At some point, yeah. But that stopped when we hit ninth fucking grade, man! The party hasn’t been a thing for longer than that. How long has it been since you and El got together? What, four years? That’s how long it’s been since we hung out as friends. You don’t talk to us anymore. You’re just pissed off because it took me four fucking years to realize it and move the hell on! Face facts, I’m not the person you’ve had me typecast as since kindergarten anymore. I'm not cute or innocent or whatever! I’m a real fucking person, and I’m tired of feeling like shit because you don’t care about me anymore. It doesn’t matter!”

         Mike snapped his mouth, opened in surprise, shut. His burrow furrowed and anger made its way onto his features. “Sure, yeah, we grew apart, but don’t you fucking dare try to pin that on me. You—” he stabbed his finger at Will “—were the one that stopped coming to shit. You were the one that shut down. That was all you. We couldn’t access you. We couldn’t talk to you. So, sorry! If I got a girlfriend when my own best friend stopped talking to me and just wanted to sit in his room, all sad and shit, and fuck around with crayons like a fucking two year old! Own your own shit before you try to come at me with mine, Will. Christ.

         “And then all of a sudden you’re friends with my cousin, and I can’t quite figure out why or how. Richie’s an ass! He’s rude and vulgar and horrible to be around. I can’t understand how you’re all buddy-buddy all of a sudden! Is it because he flirts with you? Is that what it is?” He raises his eyebrows and nods condescendingly at Will. “That you’re so fucking retreated into yourself and scared of talking to anyone in that manner that you’ll accept anyone’s interest in you? Because that’s fucked up, Will. He’s a guy. He’s my cousin. That’s otherworldly kinds of fucked up, if you’re gay for my fucking cousin, who looks just like me, Will. On another level kind of fucked up. So I’m gonna ask you one more time, are you gay?”

         Will’s eyes were hardened, his jaws locked as he stared murderously at Mike. “Get out of my car.” He said slowly, articulating the words as he let them roll off his tongue and through his gritted teeth. “Get out!” 

         Will flinched at the sound of the car door being slammed shut.

Chapter Text

         Will was pulled from sleep the next morning to the sounds of rapping knuckles on his bedroom door. “Will! Wake up!”

        He shoved his face into the pillow, exhausted and don’t ready to face the world after last night. “I’m not going.” He yelled, his words muffled.

        “You’re not going to school?” El yelled back through the door.

        “No!” He exclaimed, and heard the responding  grumblings under her breath and her footsteps padding down the hall. He could just barely hear the dialing of numbers into the phone on the wall and the whispers as El called Mike to ask him for a ride to school.

        Mike.

        Will was brought back to the look in Mike’s eyes when Will walked in late after missing the dinner the night before, to the fun and later fight had with Richie, to the cruel words exchanged between Mike and Will later that night that had left him deeply wounded.

        “Fuck.” He said into his pillow, and groaned. I wish I could be asleep for the next 17 years so I don’t have to deal with this. He thought, and fell back into bed for sleep to take him again. 

~

        “Hello?” Will heard a voice say from the entryway, followed by a knock on the door. He stood up from his place at his desk, hunched over his sketchbook and a set of charcoals. He glanced at the clock, its red letters reading 3:30 PM. He pushed his hair back as he went to answer the already open front door.

        “Hey.” Max said as she pushed inside the house, stopping to give him a quick hug before kicking off her green Pumas. “What’s goin’ on?”

        Will shrugged. “Do you want something to drink?”

        “Nah.” She said, and walked towards his room, throwing her backpack on the floor. “Why weren’t you at school today?”

        Will followed her as she rounded the corner into his bedroom, walking in casually before something caught her eye on the desk. He didn’t answer her.

          Her eyes lit up when they landed on the art scattered around his room.  “You drew these?” She asked, picking up one of the unfinished canvases laying on his desk, amongst the completed sketches and paintings done on thin paper scotch-taped to his wall. Will liked that one; he did it last year of a lemon tree he saw, and he rather enjoyed the contrast between the bright yellow and deep greens and blues of the dusk shedding light on the plant.

        “Well, it’s painted, but yeah. I guess I got more into painting since I started taking 2D Art sophomore year. Ever since then I haven’t really drawn much, besides doodles.”

        “Is this not a drawing?” She said, a knowing smirk on her face. In her hand was a slightly crumpled paper, charcoal smudges ruining the drawing, of a boy with thin lips and freckles and high cheekbones.

        “Richie? Or Mike?” She asked, a laugh bubbling up from her throat. Will flinched, and Max’s face fell. “I’m only kidding.”

        Will didn’t know what to say because, to be quite honest, he didn’t even know the answer to that. He meant to ask about something—anything—else to change the subject but his mouth betrayed him, and instead said what his brain was thinking.

        “Do you smoke?” He asked gingerly, not knowing the answer and fearful of her reaction.

        “Do you?” She asked in response. Will nodded. “When did that happen?” He shrugged, pulling out an old cigar box from behind his bookshelf. He flipped open the top, which fell open easily due to its old rusted hinges. Will had found a bunch of the old things while cleaning out Hopper’s cabin years ago. Hopper had shrugged nonchalantly when he asked if could have them, and now the old boxes that had once sheathed his step-father’s father’s cigars now held old joints and acrylics.

        Max plucked a pre-rolled blunt out of the box, putting it between her teeth, cupping it with the lighter in hand. “I never figured you the type, Byers.” She said, her mouth moving around it as she lit the cigarette.

        “Yeah, well.” He scratched the back of his neck. “There’s a lot you all don’t know about me.”

        “Touché, my friend.” She smirked, raising a pretend glass to him in Gatsby-esque fashion. Will rolled his eyes fondly at her, a grin spreading over her face as she chuckled at her own joke, smoke escaping her lips. Will took the blunt from her.

        “Are you gonna tell me about what happened?”

        “About what?”

        “Why weren’t you at school?” He shrugged again, blushing, before he flopped down onto the bed.

        “Mike and I had a fight.” He said, looking at the ceiling. Max perked an eyebrow.

        “You and Mike have a fight every goddamn day of the week.” He inhaled, the cigarette perched delicately between his lips.

        “I know, but this was different, Max. It was it was serious this time. You don’t come back from stuff like that.” He closed his eyes, and scrounged up his face, grimacing, and pinched the bridge of his nose.

        “What happened?” He said nothing. Max swung her legs down from their place on the desk, walking over to the bed where he laid on his back. “Will.” She said, receiving no response again. She took removed the cigarette from his hand, and extinguished it in the empty glass on his bedside table.

        Turning back to Will, her heart couldn’t help but hurt for him. Laying out on his back his face scrunched up to fight the possibility of an imminent breakdown he was so obviously in pain, and it hurt Max to see.

        She climbed onto the bed, wiggling her body until it was next to Will’s thin frame, and wrapped her arms around him.

        “What’s going on?” She asked quietly, her big eyes looking up at Will. He sighed, and let his hand drop.

        “He asked me if I’m gay. And I kinda lashed out and told him that we’re not friends anymore and he has no right to ask me that. And then he basically said I have no friends because I’m retreated into myself and that I’m fucked up, and so I told him to get out.”

        Max said nothing; her mouth had fallen open slightly as she tried to process what Will had just said to her. “Oh, Will.” From her place already wrapped around his side, she squeezed him tightly, burying her face into his chest.

        After a moment, he brought his hand up around her, and she felt him hug her back. “I’m sorry.” She whispered into his chest.

        “Me too.”

~

        “Um, Will?” Max jolted up at the noise. Cuddling on the bed, both tired and both sad, they had managed to fall asleep entangled in Will’s limbs and awoke to the darkness of Will’s bedroom after the sun had set. She nearly fell off the bed when her eyes landed on Joyce standing hesitantly in the open door.

        She shoved the still-sleeping Will. “Will!” He groggily opened his eyes as Max whipped her head around, back to Mrs. Byers in the doorway. This looks bad.

        And then she followed Joyce’s line of sight to the open cigar box on his desk, to the green lying nonchalantly in it. Seeing the look of panic on Max’s face, she stepped back and grabbed the doorknob.

        “I’ll give you two a bit of privacy, I think.” And closed the door behind her.

        Max practically shoved Will off the bed. “Get up!”

        “Ow, what the hell?”

        “Will.” She said through gritted teeth. “This looks bad.”

        “How so?” He paused at the look being shot at him from Max. “Oh. Ohh. I didn’t even think of it like that. Yes, it does.”

        “But it’s not like anything happened. I have a boyfriend. And you, well, you have your own shit.”

        He nodded, staring at his fingers. “Yeah.”

        “I’m gonna go, though. I shouldn’t been home awhile ago. Neil’s gonna be mad.” Will shot her a look, which she ignored. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?” He nodded, getting up to walk her to the door.

        “Probably.”

        He opened the door for her but was met only with arms appearing around him as Max launched him into a hug. “Love you, Byers.” She whispered into his ear, and disappeared out the door.

        “So, you and Max?” Will heard being said from behind him. He turned around as the door swung shut.

        “What?”

        “So, you and Max? You’re together?” Joyce yelled again. Will flinched at the loudness of her voice, and walked into the room where the noise was coming from. She was sitting at the kitchen table, a cheap magazine set in front of her that was shoved away when Will entered the room. “Sit down, honey.” She motioned to the chair next to her.

        “We’re not together, Mom.” She smiled warmly.

        “I didn’t really think so. You’re not the type of person to steal a boy-slash-girlfriend. Especially when that person is your friend, like Lucas is.” She shook her head and patted the chair next to her, signaling for him to sit again. With reluctance, he did.

        “But, this isn’t about that, not really. You’ve been acting so different. You skipped school today, which you didn’t tell me about. You and Jane don’t even talk anymore. Your friends aren’t over as much, and I’m not sure if that’s because you’re older and’ve grown apart, or something happened you didn’t tell me about. And then I come home and find a girl in your room—which, by the way, reeks of weed— it’s scary for me, as a mother. You’ve always been such a momma’s boy, Will, and now it’s like I don’t ever hear about your life. You don’t tell me anything anymore, and it kind of scares me.” She sighed, reaching out to take his hand and holding it in hers. “So, I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I just want you to know, that you can tell me anything. You can always come to me if you want to talk, you know, about Richie or anything. I’m here, and I love—”

        Will’s head whipped up at the name. “What?” He delivered harshly.

        “I said I’m here, and I love y—”

        “No, why did you mention Richie?” Joyce looked slightly taken aback at Will’s sudden anger, her eyes wide.

        “Well, I don’t know. You spent time with him all day yesterday, and because of who he is, and because of the comment Jane made, I thought that maybe you might’ve, I don’t know, maybe there’s something more—”

        “Jesus fucking Christ!” He shoved his chair away from the table angrily, ripping his hand out of her grasp. Joyce looked shocked. “What does El not ruin?”

        “Will? What’s going on?”

        “I’m so fucking tired of this!”

        “Will, sweetie, what does that mean?” His mom said gently, her eyes following him as he made angry circles around the room.

        “Just because of the way I act—the way I walk, the way I speak, the way I draw—everyone fucking assumes something about me! I hate it! I’m not gay, Mom! And I’m not into Richie! I’m not gay, Richie and I are not together and I’m not in love with Mike anymore!” He finished, his breath coming in huffs, fighting a losing battle against the hot, angry tears running down his face.

        Joyce looked taken aback, but pulled her mouth shut and took in what Will had just said. “No one said anything about Mike, sweetie.”

        Will, at that point, realized his mistake. “Holy shit.” He whispered.

        And he lost it. “Holy shit.” He said again, and scrunched his eyes shut, his fists curling subconsciously in on themselves as he willed himself just to stopcryingstopcyringstopcrying.

        Joyce continued to stare at him with wide eyes. She moved her hand slowly towards him, “Will…”

        He flinched away from her touch, looked up at her, turned around, and ran out the door.

        He grabbed his old bike, the handlebars rusted and the seat too small for him, and, with tears still leaking out of his eyes without permission, his vision blurred and mouth tasting like metal, his legs carried him to the Wheeler house.

        He shoved his bike aside onto the front lawn that Karen so prided herself on, and rapped on the door angrily in the false glow of the porch lights.

        Will was met with a familiar voice. “Will? What the fu—”

        He hadn’t gotten to finish the sentence yet when Will grabbed him by the lapels, shoved him against the outside wall of the house, and kissed him so hard and so violently their lips turned numb.

Chapter Text

         This was nothing like the soft kiss they had shared in the backyard, full of sorrow and deep sadness. This was a deep and guttural anger rearing his ugly head as Will gnashed his teeth against Richie’s.

         Backed between the side of the house and Will’s body, feeling hot and dizzy, Richie’s arm snaked under Will’s ass to his inside thigh, moving it around himself until Will finally took the hint. He jumped up onto him, his weight completely supported by Richie who angled his face up to follow the kiss, his hands lightly resting on either side of Will’s torso, unsure of themselves. Will’s arms entangled themselves around the other boy’s neck and knotted his hands in his hair, fingers playing with curls, the kiss hot and open-mouthed and all tongue and no sensitivity.

         Taking his hand and applying a light weight to Will’s shoulder, Richie rolled him off and broke their kiss with a light pop.

         “Can we take this upstairs?” Will whispered breathlessly, his hungry eyes never leaving Richie’s lips, his legs still wrapped around him. Richie grimaced; he sighed.

         “Will, hop down.” He said, patting the other boy’s side, where his hip bone met his torso. Will removed his hand from where it had snaked himself into Rich’s curls, and dropped his legs from around him, his scuffed-up old Converse hitting the cement of the porch floor unceremoniously. “Come sit.” Richie said as he sidestepped to the plastic lawn furniture that, Will recalled, Ted had brought home the summer before last for their 4th of July party. He took a seat in the dark green chair across from Richie, its plastic broken off in some places.

         “Remember the first time we met?” Will asked, quietly. His fingers played with the broken edges of the arm rest. “Two summers ago—or was it three? I don’t remember. It was the first time you came to Hawkins; we were all 14 or so. And we lit those sparklers for the 4th of July, and Mike—” Will faded off, realizing he was rambling without making much real sense, just trying to fill the silence for himself. He cleared his throat, staring at the pad of his right point finger as it grew red with the sharp flicking of broken plastic. He waited in silence for Richie to say what he needed to, holding onto the sound of crickets and of a far-off car alarm, of wind blowing lightly followed by the tinkling of a wind chime, of a faint TV somewhere reassuringly whispering to them the promise of low prices, and, of course, of Richie’s voice.

         “Will,” he said softly. “you can’t keep kissing me whenever you’re upset.” He paused, and reached a hand out to rest lightly atop his friend’s. Will looked up at him, his eyes big and wide with shame. Richie cleared his throat again in an ill-timed attempt at maintain a steady demeanor. “It fucks with me.” His voice finally betrayed him, cracking demonstratively despite his efforts. He lowered his voice once again, becoming serious as he licked his chapped lips, his eyes tired behind his large frames. “You get that, right, Will? Why that fucks with me?”

         Will said nothing.

         “I’m sorry.” He whispered after awhile.

         “No, don’t be.” Richie said, his composure and speaking voice both seeming to have returned as he tried to negate the night’s events nonchalantly. He stood up, and offered Will his hand. “Let’s get you inside. Sleeping here tonight?” Will nodded, and let himself be pulled inside the Wheeler house by the hand.

         Passing by the kitchen, where he had enjoyed countless meals with the family, the entrance to the basement where he had spent innumerable hours of his childhood, and Mike’s room where he had spent the night over more times than his own house during his parent’s divorce, Will looked down at his hand, connected with Richie’s, and a thought struck him.

         He’s the closest I’m ever going to get to Mike.

         It made him really fucking sad.

         And so he let himself be pulled into Nancy’s-turned-Richie’s bedroom, let his shoes be pulled off to be followed by his socks, let the other boy place a blanket and gently push him back onto the bed, let Rich kiss him again, chastely, as his thumbs rubbed away the silent tears that leaked from Will’s eyes, let him be held as Richie rubbed warm circles into his back, his lips pressed to his hair.

         “I’m just trying to figure everything out, Richie. I’m s-sorry.” He said through hiccups, fighting sleep, his lips wet and smushed against the pillow.

         “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” He heard Richie whisper almost-inaudibly as darkness overtook his senses. “I love you, Byers. Now go to bed.”

Chapter Text

          Will rolled over and groaned at the sunlight pouring between the gaps of the room’s blinds. He peaked an eye open and jerked up in the bed upon seeing the room he was in, one that was not his own, and the memories of last night flooded in. Of smoking with Max, of fighting with his mom, of kissing Richie, of falling asleep together in his bed. He looked to the bedside table and saw a scrap of paper lying on it. He grabbed it and brought it up to his crusty, sleepy eyes.

         Will,

I tried waking you up but you groaned and ignored me so I just let you sleep because you looked so cute snuggled up there and I figured you needed the sleep. I tried calling your mom to let her know where you were but El answered and I had to talk to her. Sorry. Karen takes Holly to school at 9, comes home and is here until around 2 when she goes to pick Holly up again. You can wait until she leaves to go or sneak out the window (please don’t die), assuming you wouldn’t want to explain why you were here to her. I’ll come check on you sometime, or if you come to school late come find me. You’re amazing and you’ve got this! Have a good day.

         ♡ Rich

         Will smirked at the cute note before he frowned at the situation he found himself in. He checked behind him to see the red glowing numbers of Richie’s alarm clock displaying 9:42 AM.

         “Shit.” He whispered to himself. He listened for signs of life downstairs and cursed when he heard the sounds of Karen Wheeler shuffling beneath him.

         He flipped the blue scratchy colors off of him and swung his bare legs onto the wooden floor. Tiptoeing across the room to where they sat in a rumpled pile, he pulled his jeans on over his boxers and pulled his arms through last night’s flannel.

         Will ran a hand through his messy hair and pondered his options. Well, I can either go downstairs and have to talk to Karen, or scale the side of the house after jumping out the window.

         He tiptoed to the window.

         Gently leveraging it open, he swung his leg out the window of the second story room and balanced it on the ledge below. He shoved himself down and ungracefully pummeled to the ground from there.

         “Oof. Shit!”

         “I might as well go to school.” He said to himself. I don’t have any of my stuff but I don’t really have a choice, do I? He thought to himself as he started down the road of the short walk to their high school.

         He dragged his feet along the sidewalk as he got closer to the school, kicking stones he came across and avoiding thinking about last night. He failed.

         After only fifteen minutes of walking that felt like five, he found himself at the looming gray doors of the school. He could hear the sounds of his classmates inside scuttling from one class to the next. Luckily, he had caught them in between periods and it was probable that no one would notice him arriving hours after school started. He slipped inside, and headed to what he calculated would be his third period class. Math. With Mike.

         He settled into his seat towards the back, and slipped down into it, his eyes straight onto the desk so as to avoid any unwelcome eye contact. He found a pen on the ground, and lost himself in the work placed in front of him, never having to talk to or lay his eyes upon his former best friend. Despite the brown eyes he felt gaping at the back of his neck.

         He rushed out of the class at the bell’s noise, his head down and hands buried in his pockets as he practically ran to his next class. He almost fell when he felt a hand grip his arm from behind. He whipped around and was met with the concerned face of Lucas.

         “Hey, Will.” Lucas gently pulled him along to the side of the hallway and turned to him before clearly his throat and speaking gently. “Uh, how are you, Will?” Will’s brow furrowed.

         “I’m good?” He asked, his eyes scanning the hallway behind him, his leg bouncing along the linoleum floor of the high school.

         “Oh. Okay.” He paused, licking his lips unsurely. “Okay, well if you need anything. Max told me you’re going through some stuff, and I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

         Will gulped. “I am.” He turned to leave but stopped when he felt Lucas’s hand on his arm keeping him back.

         “Dustin and I have a movie night every Thursday night. Max’s recently been coming and wanted me to invite you. Just us four, if you’d like.” Will nodded, a smile spreading across his face.

         “I’d love to.”

         Lucas grinned back. “Cool.”

~

         After his talk with Lucas, Will hurried through his next classes, feeling antsy and trapped in the school. He cornered Richie after the bell ended signifying the end of the school day, thinking of the note he had left for Will this morning.

         “Hey.” Will said. Richie turned, his face softening at the sight of Will.

         “Hey. Glad to see you rolled out of bed today.” Will rolled his eyes fondly and shoved his friend playfully, already in a better mood.

         “Can I have a ride home? I walked here from your house and I don’t have my car.”

         Richie shrugged. “Sure, no problem. Wanna go now?”

         Will followed him to his truck. “Do we have to go home now?” Richie stopped in his tracks, turned to him, and grinned.

~

         “How do you not like vanilla ice cream?” Richie asked, a mouthful of chocolate spilling out of his mouth and dribbling down his chin, a smile on his face.

         Will shrugged, his cheeks heating up. “I don’t know! It’s just so…bland?” Will extended a spoon to the glass bowl sitting between them in the ice cream parlor.

         “You know people say if you can tie a knot in a cherry stem with your tongue you’re supposed to be a good kisser.” Will smirked and wiggled his eyebrows jokingly at Richie, whose grin faltered and face sobered up at this.

         “Umm…” Will frowned at him. “Are we gonna talk about this?” Richie’s voice dropped as he whispered the last word, which was met with a grimace from Will.

         “I’d really rather not. Is that an option?”

         “Will. You’ve kissed me twice. That wasn’t me, that was you. I get it, with the whole Mike thing—” Will cringed. “—but I don’t think I can keep up with it. You,” Richie sighed, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. “you can’t just keep kissing me whenever you’re upset.”

         Will nodded, his cheeks burning as he stared downwards at the ice cream parlor’s vinyl table. “I’m sorry.”

         Richie turned his head around the room’s people to check no one was paying attention. He placed his palm on the table, upwards towards the roof, and extended it to Will, inviting but not pressuring. Will smirked, and dropped his hand down to set it atop Richie’s. They slyly smiled at each other, their fingers resting on each other’s, before they tore it away when the sound of the store’s door opening and slamming shut ripped them back to reality. They shared a nervous smile as they both reached for their spoons for more ice cream.

~

         Richie took him home in his truck after they finished their ice cream, and left Will standing at the end of his home’s gravel driveway as he rolled away.

         Feeling tired, spent, and alone, Will pondered what he could do. He thought back to the last time he had been at home, last night when he ran out during his fight with his mom. Fuck.

         I really don’t want to face her.

         He checked his watch. 4:13. He knew his mom would probably be leaving for work soon, if she hadn’t already, but he didn’t want to take any chances. Figuring the back door was probably unlocked because Hopper had a tendency to leave it hanging open, he crept around the side of his house. His thin cloth shoes protested and squeaked in the muddy grass.

         Crouching so as to avoid the possible sight of him from someone inside, he stopped when he heard voices coming out the window he was walking under.

         “He spent the night at the Wheeler’s last night…” He heard El say from inside. Shit.  “And it wasn’t with Mike.” He heard his mom affirmatively murmur. Double shit. He cringed as El continued. “Richie called the house this morning looking to tell you where he was, and it was… I don’t know. Weird?” He heard Jane sigh defeatedly. “It was weird, yeah. Plus, Mike and him had a giant fight on the night of the dinner but Mike refuses to tell me what it was about, but I think he probably confronted Will about him and Richie. And Will probably freaked out.”

         “That makes sense.” Joyce murmured, and Will heard the wood creek as she padded over to sit with El, followed by the sound of the headboard hitting the wall under his mom’s weight. “El, sweetie, I love you, but, I think both you and Mike are pushing him too far. I really think you should really leave it. Will’s obviously seriously struggling with something and acting out because of it. He’s not himself. Last night he yelled at me.” Will cringed again as his mom’s voice cracked. “That has never happened before, not from my sweet boy.” He heard a pause as Joyce pondered her words thoughtfully. “Honey, it’s just that, well, you’re overwhelming him. You’re putting too much pressure on him and causing him a lot of grief. Just don’t say anything about it. Leave him alone to come to terms with, uh, everything. Sweetie, I’m just asking you to let him be, and Richie too. You understand?”

         “Okay..." She trailed off at what Will could only assume was a disapproving look from Joyce. El cleared her throat. "I understand.” 

         Will let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. He crouched there a second longer, taking a moment to himself, his chest heaving heavily but he was relieved nevertheless. Turning again, he crept on alongside the house. He tiptoed up the small concrete stairs and let himself into the house quietly. Creeping down his hallway, he practically burst into his bedroom, excited to be home and alone, he locked the door behind him, and collapsed onto his bed.

Chapter Text

          It was several hours later when Will finally crept out of his room, driven by his stomach rumbling that reminded him the only thing he had eaten that day was the school lunch and two bites of vanilla ice cream with Richie earlier. He had heard Joyce leave for her shift almost directly after her conversation with El; Hopper wasn’t home yet either, likely at the cabin or still at work.

          He walked to El’s room slowly and with purpose, letting his feet fall against the padded gray carpet of the so as not to surprise El that he was at home.

          He rapped his knuckles softly on the door and swung it open. El was sitting at her faux wood desk, her knees pulled up under her as she stared at a paperback book laying open on the desk in front of her. She looked up, her brown curls that spilled over her shoulders moving with her.

          “Hey.” He tried to give off a warm smile but could see in her eyes that she could see how exhausted he was. Her eyes softened.

          “Hey.” She said softly. Light from the gray winter sky poured through the window blinds and illuminated her from behind.

          He cleared his throat. “Do you, uh, want some Kraft Mac n’ Cheese? I’m starving and gonna make some.”

          She blinked like she was trying to process the question, and it occurred to Will that she was surprised by his presence both at home and in her room. He shifted uncomfortably under her gaping gaze.

          “Okay. Sure.” She said, pulling her hair up away from her face into a slopping ponytail.

          Another moment passed in silence. Will cleared his throat.

          “Do you need my help or something?” She unfolded her legs out from under her and swiveled the chair to face him as she leveled her gaze at him.

          “No. I just thought maybe we could make it together?” His voice cracked and he tried not to cringe in front of his step-sister. She nodded.

          “Alright. Let’s do it, then.” She said as she got up from her seat, and in three bounding steps had passed Will in the doorway and into the hallway towards the kitchen. Will followed her and they worked in a tense silence to start dinner for themselves. El plucked a sauce pot spotted with age and overuse from the drying rack on the faux marble countertop and filled it with water from the tap while Will started the old gas stove with a match.

          He cleared his throat again. “What were you reading?”

          “Huh?” She looked up from the pot under the faucet and her hand around it shaking as the pan became heavier with water.

          “In your room, earlier? What were you reading?” She transferred the pot onto the stove to boil and wiped her hands on her jeans.

          She tucked a lock of hair that had escaped from her messy ponytail behind her ear, and a grin slipped onto her face as she thought of the gift. “Mike got me it. The Outsiders, I think it’s called?” Will couldn’t help but laugh at that. El looked at him, her eyes crinkling and the sides of her mouth turning up. “What’s so funny?”

          “Nothing, just that I've read that. I have a copy of it in my room!”

          “No way!”

          “Yeah. Ponyboy, right? And Sodapop, and Dally?”

          “Yeah! It’s kinda strange. I don’t know how I feel about it yet.” She said, turning back to the pot atop the stove.

          “I liked it.” So did Richie, he wanted to add, but bit his tongue in front of El. “It’s a cool story. Warm.” She laughed and the room fell into a comfortable silence.

          “Are you going to the Movie Night at Lucas’s tomorrow?” Will whipped his head up, and the comfort of the situation had suddenly fled.

          “Are you?” He asked.

          “Yeah. Mike and I are going together.” Her voice softened and she looked at the tile floor and her scuffed Chucks before she added. “You can invite Richie if you want.” She cleared her throat. “Max and Lucas are going together too.”

          Will opened his mouth but no words would form in his throat. “I—I don’t—”

          “Mom told me to be nicer to you but I just have to tell you—I don’t care that you’re with Richie—”

          “I’m not, El!”

          She waved her hand away dismissively. “I don’t care.” Will opened his mouth again to say something but was cut off. “No, stop. I don’t care about your weird thing with Richie. It’s whatever. But—” She emphasized the word and pointed her finger at him. “I do care that you’re pissed at Mike. So sort your shit out, and do it soon so Movie Night isn’t awkward.” She smiled weakly at him. “Oh shit, the water’s boiling. Hand me the macaroni?” She hummed to herself. “Now, tell me, why don’t I trust Dally at all?”

~

          A day later Will found himself sitting silently in the back of Mike’s car on the way to Lucas’s. The radio played faintly over the sound of the old car engine and wind whipping through the open windows. Will silently glared at El in the front seat for not letting him ride his bike over or drive himself as he had planned; she was to blame for getting him into her boyfriend’s car—Mike, who the last time Will had seen he had told him to fuck off. El shifted in the front seat and cleared her throat amongst the tense silence.

          “So, what’s the movie we’re watching tonight?” She asked. Mike jerked his head to look at her and grunted.

          “That new Nightmare on Elm Street. The fourth one.”

          “Oh.” There was a short pause as she tried to figure out something to say. “It’s already out on Laserdisc?”

          “I guess.” He said.

          “I’ve never seen any of the other movies, I don’t think.”

          “They’re good.” Mike glanced back at Will in the backseat and cleared his throat again, tossing his hair out of his eyes. Will glanced down and avoided meeting Mike’s eyes. “Uh, Will and I used to watch them a ton.”

          Will bit his tongue, remembering the hours they had spent convincing Nancy to to buy them the previous Elm Streets because Karen wouldn’t let them watch R rated movies. Mike’s movie phase had lasted longer than the other’s, and, as his best friend, it was Will’s duty to suffer through the horror movies he hated so much for Mike. They had always scared him but, in forts and with flashlights and popcorn, and the warmth of Mike’s body next to him, it wasn’t so bad until after he had to leave Mike’s house. He always rode home in the dark and flinched every time a dog barked or car honked, trying not to think about Freddy Krueger and the ways he could stay awake so he didn’t have to dream.

          Will twisted his fingers together in his lap and tried not to think about it.

          Before he knew it, Mike was pulling the emergency brake up and El was slamming the door shut and walking up the steps to Lucas’s house. Will scrambled after her. Mike bounded up the steps with his abnormally long legs and rang the doorbell.

          “It’s open!” A voice, presumably Lucas, called from inside as Mike twisted the doorhandle and stepped inside the house with the other two following. Lucas and Max were frying popcorn over the stove as Dustin shoved M&M’s in his mouth from where he was sat on the kitchen counter, his feet swinging.

          “Hey guys!” Dustin yelled, grinning, as Max looked up and yelped when she saw the three. “Will!” She yelled, running to Will and jumping on him. El blinked in surprise and Mike frowned, presumably thinking back to their previous conversation about Max and Will’s friendship.

          Will laughed as he caught her and was overwhelmed with orange tangled hair spilling everywhere. “You have shit to tell me.” She whispered in his ear, and grinned, her eyes dancing. He gave his best at a smile in return but his heart was beating and he could feel Mike’s eyes on him. He laughed nervously and set her down, but she stayed close to him.

          El cleared her throat. “So, Lucas, how’s Student Government been?” He sighed, still moving the popcorn around across the stovetop as the others took seats at the kitchen island stools. Max still hung off Will’s arm, taking a handful of Cheez Balls from a bowl on the tabletop.   

          “We’re in the off season after Homecoming—” Will cringed at memories of a too-tight suit and drinking punch in the corner with Dustin while the others danced with their dates. “—so we’re not really doing anything until Prom, and I just feel so unproductive…” Will started to tune him out and inside focused on Max’s arm draped over his shoulder and the proximity of her body to his.

          “So what’s been goin’ on, Will?” She asked him in a low voice while the others continued their conversation.

          “Can we talk about this, like, not here?” He whispered to her. She ignored him.

          “What happened with Mike?” He swiveled in his stool so she could see the what-he-hoped-was a stern look he was giving her.

          “Max, he’s literally right there.” He said to her.

          “Who’s literally right there?”

          Will whipped around to the voice behind him, and the room seemed to freeze in time.

          “Richie!” Max said with a smile. “Glad you could make it.” She gave him a small side hug as he walked around the kitchen island to Lucas, who was donning an equally shocked face as the rest of the room. “I didn’t want to come empty-handed, so I brought some Mr. Pibb.” He said, handing Lucas two two-liter bottles.

          “Uh, thanks, Richie.” Lucas said, accepting the drinks as Dustin laughed awkwardly.

          Richie spun on his heel theatrically and rubbed his hands together, drinking in the faces of those around him. “Well, this’ll be fun.” He remarked only semi-sarcastically, his eyes meeting Will’s briefly before flicking away as he grinned at the group in front of him.