“Alright,” Mike said after a long silence, his leg bouncing against hers in nervous anticipation. His fingers were curled around her own so tightly they were starting to ache, but the last thing she wanted was for him to let go. “Alright,” he said again, grinning down at her. “Let’s do it. Let’s get married and move in together.”
El smiled back and laid her other hand against his cheek, desperately eager to kiss him, but before she could make the connection his face fell, and she felt his grip on her hand loosen slightly. “Fuck,” he muttered, looking at their knees pressed together on the bench seat of their booth. El bumped his shoulder with her own in silent question. “This, uh. This isn’t really… how I imagined this would happen,” he said finally, refusing to meet her gaze.
She looked around the McDonald’s, crowded with rowdy teenagers on a late April Friday night, and waited for Mike to realize what he’d just admitted. His hand tightened on hers again, and his face turned the color of the red plastic they were leaning against. Laughing, she laid her head on his shoulder - “Sometimes it’s easier,” Hopper had told her once, “to talk when no one is looking at you.” - and asked, “What did you imagine?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, gesturing vaguely in front of them. “Not this. Somewhere nice, outdoors maybe. A ring - holy shit, I have to get you a ring. I don’t even know if I can afford one. What do rings cost these days? Do you want a ring?”
“Do you have to have one to get married?” she asked, lifting her head to look at him.
He shrugged. “It’s tradition, but I guess not.”
She laid her head back down, saying, “I don’t need a ring,” but pulled away again when he made a soft noise of protest. Reaching for his other hand, which was picking idly through the cold, soggy remains of his french fries, El turned toward him. “I don’t need a ring,” she said with finality. “I need to marry you because I need to go with you. I don’t need a ring.”
Then, because she knew it would finish the conversation once and for all, she leaned forward and punctuated her statement with a short, hard kiss. He was smiling when she pulled away, but she didn’t get far before his hands were cupping her face and pulling her back in. It took a wolf-whistle from across the aisle to separate them this time.
El laughed, and pressed her forehead against Mike’s cheek, which was turning red again.
“Should we tell people?” she asked, voice uncertain, and muffled by the fabric of his sweater.
Mike hummed in response, and stroked the back of one hand up the exposed skin of her arm. “Not yet,” he said after a moment of silence. “I think we need - we need a plan, or something, first. I’m not even really sure how you… get married.”
El nodded, smiling. “You’re good at plans. We’ll figure it out.”
El had been very clear about what she wanted.
Mike had hemmed, and hedged, and danced around the issue for a few weeks before he’d realized how serious it was, how much it had meant to her - and, really, he should have known all along.
“I don’t want you to go,” she’d said, voice muffled by his shoulder. The hood of Lucas’ car, still warm, had been a pleasant contrast to the chilly air of the early spring evening. She hated the cold, and had climbed up to sit between his legs, curling into a ball and pulling her oversized sweater down over her knees. That was always his cue to unzip his jacket and fold her up in it when he put his arms around her.
“I know,” had been his reply. He'd gotten frustrated, at first, because she'd expressed the same sentiment every time she'd seen him since the acceptance letter had come in the mail, and had come close to snapping at her about it before he'd realized he didn't need to. She knew he was going, knew he had to, knew why - but there was nothing under the sun that said she had to like it. She wasn't even mad, really, so he'd bitten his tongue, because the last thing he’d wanted was to spend their last few months of high school and summer break arguing.
Truthfully, a part of him didn't want to go either. The thought of being away from her for so long - even knowing she was safe, knowing they would talk, knowing he’d see her again - was almost unbearable, so he dealt with it in typical Wheeler fashion: by not thinking about it all.
That night, though, he’d buried his face in her hair, inhaled deeply, and said the first stupid thing that had popped into his head. “I wish you could go with me.”
El had jolted back like she'd been shocked, and probably would have tumbled right off the car if not for his arms wound tight around her shoulders.
“Why can't I?” she’d demanded, eyes trained on his face. There was a smile creeping in at the corners of her mouth.
“Why… can't you go with me?” he'd repeated. His answering smile had died quickly, and he’d looked away. “To a college you didn't apply for?” Across the parking lot, Max had been attempting, for the third time in half as many years, to teach Lucas to skateboard. Dustin was the only one of them who'd ever gotten any good at it. Something approaching a laugh had crawled out of his throat. “El, it’s - that’s not how it works.”
Her brows had furrowed. “Why not?”
And when he’d stopped and thought about it, he really hadn’t been able to come up with a better reason beyond it’s not what people do - which he thought, very vehemently, was one of the shittiest reasons in existence, for anything.
“Mike?” she’d asked, laying a hand against his chest, right over his heart.
“Yeah,” he’d said slowly. “Why not?”
Several weeks, a few strategic phone calls, and one student code of conduct handbook had revealed a bevy of very valid reasons for why people didn’t do exactly what they were toying with doing. Mike had chosen to view those reasons more as stumbling blocks, because none of them seemed good enough to leave El alone in Hawkins.
(She wouldn’t be alone, not really. He and Lucas were the only ones going away to college, and she’d always have Hopper and Joyce, but he knew she felt the same almost-physical pain he did at the thought of their inevitable separation; more than he wanted to be with her, he wanted to spare her that pain.)
At the end of the day, it had come down to one thing: freshman had to live on campus.
Luckily for both of them, the school made exceptions.
“You’re getting what?!” Dustin demanded, completely drowning out Lucas’ loud exclamation of, “Holy shit!” Will’s mouth was hanging open, his eyes the size of saucers. His gaze kept darting between Mike and El, who were both sitting quietly across from their friends and waiting for the clamor to die down.
“Nothing?” Mike asked Max finally. She was leaning back against the arm of the couch and looking entirely unimpressed.
“I’m just trying to figure out why I’m the only person not surprised by this,” Max replied, fiddling with the ends of her hair. “We all knew you were gonna get married.”
El’s eyebrows drew down in confusion; it felt like she'd been making that face a lot lately. “You did?”
“Of course we did!” Dustin shouted, jumping off the couch to pace across the Byers’ living room. “In, like, five to seven years! Not senior year of high school! This is insanity!”
“We’re waiting until the summer,” Mike protested, grumbling, but his face was buried in his hands so no one heard him except for El. Her only response was to put a hand on his back.
Dustin was still mumbling and pacing, and on his next pass in front of the couch, Lucas’ arm shot out to slap him in the chest. “Pay up, asshole,” he said.
“Son of a bitch,” Dustin muttered, reaching for his wallet. “I’ve only got seven bucks right now. You’ll have to get the other three later.”
Mike lifted his head out of his hands. “What the hell?” he demanded, forehead wrinkling.
“Lucas bet Dustin ten dollars that you guys had slept together,” Max supplied with a gleeful grin.
“Seriously?” Mike yelled, though not loudly enough to cover El’s, “How do they know that?”
“You’re… pregnant, right?” Will asked finally, his quiet voice cutting through the sudden, clamoring laughter. “That’s… usually why people get married when they’re so young.”
The laughter cut off, and there was an awkward silence where everyone thought about Joyce Byers and her failed marriage, but the face El made in response had them all cracking up again within half a second. “Gross,” she muttered, reaching out to grab Mike’s hand. Her words were lost entirely beneath his shout of, “What the fuck, no! Seriously!”
“No?” Max prodded, leaning forward. She was looking very pointedly at El, and not Mike.
“No,” El said, shaking her head violently. “No.”
“Well then why-” Lucas started.
“If you jackasses would shut up, I’ll explain,” Mike interrupted. His neck was turning red with his rising ire, but his hand was warm and gentle around El’s.
So everyone shut up, and Mike explained, and the answering silence was almost deafening.
“Okay,” Dustin said slowly, ever the diplomat. “Okay, I, uh… I guess I can see why you think you should-”
“We’re not waiting,” El broke in firmly.
Lucas made a noise in the back of his throat. “But… do you have to get married?”
“Like Max said,” Mike replied. “It was going to happen eventually. It’s just happening a little sooner.”
“Something tells me your mom and dad aren't going to see it that way,” Will said gently.
Max snickered. “The chief definitely isn't going to see it that way.”
“Yeah, well.” Mike sighed tiredly, and ran his free hand over his face. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”
“Cross,” El corrected. “You cross the bridge when you come to it.”
“No, Mike’s right,” said Dustin, who was still pacing nervously. “Something is definitely gonna catch fire.”
(Later, when he dropped her at home, Mike had to explain that people could mix metaphors, and El was so annoyed by the knowledge that she nearly forgot to kiss him goodnight.)
That same night, while he was leaning over a copy of Terre Haute’s local newspaper, looking through the personals for apartment listings, his mother knocked on his bedroom door.
“Just a minute!” he called, scrambling to bury the newspaper beneath the map he’d been drawing for their summer D&D campaign and the other detritus on his desk. “Yeah?”
“I pressed your robe,” Karen said, hanging the dark blue monstrosity over the closet door. “Are you ready for Saturday? Where’s your tassel?”
Mike thought for half a second. “With the cap.”
His mother made an impatient noise. “Where’s the cap, honey?”
“It’s around here somewhere,” he said, unconcerned. Now that he had the map in front of him again, he was realizing it hadn’t turned out at all how he’d planned. In his peripheral, he watched Karen put one hand on her hip, while the other pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Find it, Michael?” she asked after a sigh. “Please? I don’t want to be late because we’re rushing around looking for it.”
“It’s Sunday, Mom,” Mike said, trying (and mostly failing) to mask the annoyance in his voice. He took a deep breath. “I’ll look for it before bed, okay?”
“Thank you,” Karen said, and came to stand behind him, laying both hands on his shoulders and leaning over to look at the map he was now absolutely planning to scrap. “One last hurrah for the summer?”
“If I can get this dungeon crawl to work,” he muttered as he pulled the whole thing closer across the desk.
Karen gave a little, huffing laugh, and pushed his hair back off his forehead like she’d done all the time when he was young. “Well let me know so I can buy enough pop. I got two cases last time, and you ran right through it. Are you getting a haircut this week?”
“Yes, Mom,” Mike sighed, swatting her hand away. “Friday.”
“Did you ask your dad to shine your shoes for you?”
He could feel his back teeth starting to grind. “Yes, Mom, he knows.”
“And you’re sure I don’t need to let out the hem on your slacks? I swear, you’ve grown six inches just in the last month…”
Karen laughed again, and leaned over to kiss the top of his head. “Okay, okay!” She wrapped both her arms around his shoulders, and pressed her face against his hair as she hugged him close. “I’m so proud of you, sweetie,” she said. “Don’t stay up too late. I know all your finals are done, but you still have class for three more days.”
“Senior skip day,” he said easily, turning to look her in the eye. Her gaze narrowed, mouth pursing as she looked at him while he continued, “Teachers aren’t even taking attendance. The whole class is getting lunch at the diner, then we’re going down to the river to swim, and start a fire, and stuff.”
He hoped the smile on his face was genuine enough. He wasn’t lying about the skip day, or the plans his classmates had made, but he had bigger fish to fry.
“Don’t drink too much,” his mom said finally before poking his side.
“Not planning on it,” Mike said to his empty room when she’d gone.
“Lucas is going to yell,” El said, her tone matter-of-fact as Mike roped an arm around her waist to pull her back against him. She kept a firm hold on the folder he’d handed her while they settled, his back against the passenger door of Lucas’ Cavalier, her back against his chest.
Propping one leg up on the bench seat, he said, “Lucas can bite me,” then stilled so she could wriggle closer, drawing her knees up to her own chest to rest the folder against them when she opened it.
They took a few deep, settling breaths together, and he pressed his lips into her hair, just behind her left ear. “We can do this later, if you want,” he said gently. “One day won’t matter at this point.”
El craned her head back to look at him. “You said July first was the cut-off date.”
Her face remained carefully neutral. “We need a marriage license.”
“That won’t take long.”
“Three day waiting period,” she replied. “We need an apartment.”
Mike could feel the frown starting to worm its way across his face. “I’ve been looking f-”
“It’s almost June,” she interrupted, pulling away so she could face him, her legs folded beneath her. Mike wondered, sometimes, if she knew how little she blinked, or how unnerving it could be to have her undivided attention.
“Okay,” he said finally, rubbing a hand over his eyes as he sat up. “So there’s a little bit of a time crunch. It’s not - I’m not…”
“Mike.” El’s voice was soft in the silence of the car. His eyes were closed, but he felt her shift closer, her legs pressing against his own as she moved back into his embrace. One of her small, cold hands - why were they always so cold? - touched his cheek. He tried to summon a smile, but felt it twist into a grimace, and she sighed, something sad twitching at the corner of her mouth.
“You're having second thoughts,” she said finally, dragging her thumb beneath his bottom lip as she cupped his jaw.
Mike sat up so fast he almost banged his head on the roof. “No,” he said quickly. His voice was loud - much too loud - in the confines of the car. “No, El, I’m not - I’m not having second thoughts.” He laid a hand over her own where it pressed against his cheek. “Definitely not.”
But the look she gave him was piercing, accusatory, and he could hear the words sitting behind her pursed lips. Friends don’t lie.
So he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and said, “I’m not having second thoughts. I’m just...”
“Afraid,” El offered when his silence stretched.
Mike opened his mouth to deny it, but her gaze pinned him again. “Yeah,” he said. Then he laughed a little. “Are we sure you can’t read minds?”
She shrugged, and Mike laughed again until he realized what a deliberate non-answer that had been. He mouthed for words, but she spoke before he could formulate a coherent response.
“Me too,” she said. She gave him a tremulous smile. “I’m afraid. It’s… big.”
“It’ll probably be the biggest thing we ever do together,” he said softly. Her fingers flexed against his jaw, and when she finally drew her hand back he took it in his own and pulled her into his arms. She went willingly, and settled against him like it was as easy as breathing.
“Tell me?” El asked after she’d tucked her head beneath his chin and both their heartbeats had slowed.
“Money’s going to be a big problem,” he started. “We need a security deposit to even think about getting an apartment, and I can cash in the bonds my dad bought when I was born, but that’s probably only gonna get us through the first month, and then there’s still rent and utilities, and… and groceries. And you’ll be alone a lot. Even when I’m not in class I'll be doing homework and projects. I’ll have labs. My parents are gonna lose it, and Hopper-”
El couldn't stop the amused snort that worked its way free from the back of her throat. She looked up just in time to catch the flash of hurt on Mike’s face.
“Well excuse me for being concerned,” he grumbled, and while his tone had been good-natured and teasing, the sullen, closed look that settled over his face was anything but, and El felt a little bad as she watched him stare out the rear window.
“You're not afraid of your parents,” she said. When he still wouldn't look at her, she grasped his chin in one hand and made him. “Not afraid of Hopper. We’ll find a way.”
He took a few deep breaths. The hand rubbing gentle circles into the small of her back slowed, then stilled. “What if,” he said finally, “what if we do this and you hate it? What if we both do? Neither of us know anybody in Terre Haute. What if I drag you out there and… and that’s it? Like, for us?”
The only thing that stopped El from laughing again was the heartbreaking look on Mike’s face. Despite her best efforts, she could feel herself starting to smile.
Mike sat up a little further, putting a few inches of space between them. “I’m trying not to be hurt that you’re not taking this seriously,” he said with a frown.
“Because you’re being stupid,” she said, and she did laugh then at the way Mike’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline. Putting both hands on his chest, she pushed him back against the car door and leaned in to kiss his forehead. “We’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know that,” Mike protested gently.
El kissed the corner of his mouth, still pulled down in a frown. “We’ll be fine.”
“El,” he sighed.
“We will,” she said with conviction.
His right hand cupped her neck, thumb pressing gently against her pulse point as his fingertips got lost in her hair. “How are you so sure?”
She smiled, soft and sweet, and said, “Because it’s us,” like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Then she wound her arms around his neck and kissed him, pressing in close.
After that, they hadn’t ended up accomplishing much more than some aggressive necking, and even that had been cut short by Dustin banging on the window near Mike’s head and hollering fit to wake the dead. Mike had scrambled out of the car, swearing colorfully, and El had spent the next ten minutes watching him and Dustin wrestle. Lucas had joined in after only a few seconds, and eventually so had Max.
(“Nice hickey,” Will had said, hands shoved into his pockets as he’d watched the ruckus.
Completely unashamed, El had replied, “Thank you.”)
They had, however, come to one agreement: El would take over looking for their new apartment.
Mike had tried, in vain, to argue that the task was better left in his hands, until El had pointed out that he really didn't know what he was doing any more than she did. He was already stressed about all of the usual preparations that came with going away to college for the first time, and, as she'd also pointed out, she had nothing on her plate nearly as pressing. So he'd handed over his copy of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, and the university newspaper, and given her some numbers on what he thought they'd be able to afford, and put it out of his mind.
Nancy and Jonathan both came home for the summer. The Party graduated, and Karen used three cartridges of Polaroid film documenting it (though Jonathan’s pictures would be the ones all their parents hung on their walls). They spent the night camped out in Dustin’s back yard and stayed up to watch the sunrise, surreptitiously passing around a bottle of peach vodka Max had stolen from her stepdad’s liquor cabinet. June dawned bright and misty, and Mrs. Henderson called them all inside for pancakes and omelettes and coffee. After breakfast, they all crashed in the living room, spread out over the couch and the recliner and the floor. El, relishing the peace and normalcy, was the last to fall asleep, curled securely into Mike’s side with her head pillowed on his shoulder.
That afternoon, after a late lunch of sandwiches and chips, also courtesy of Mrs. Henderson, Jonathan came to pick up Will. He had Nancy with him - a fact which Mike packed away for later, because as far as he knew they hadn’t been dating for over a year - and offered to drop El off at home too, so he and El and Will all piled into the back seat.
“I still think I should get to sit in the front,” Mike grumbled as they pulled out of the driveway. “I feel like I’m crammed into a sardine can. Are you sure you can’t scoot the seat up more?.”
“Shut up, Mike,” Nancy said breezily. “No one cares.”
El squeezed his hand and laid her head on his shoulder. Softly, her voice pitched not to carry, she murmured, “Joyce cleans the house and does laundry on Sunday.”
It took Mike longer than he was proud of to realize what she was driving at, but he blamed it on that fact that he’d only had four hours of sleep, and all of them while the sun was up. He would use the same excuse to justify it to himself later when trying to remember why he’d thought it was a good idea. They’d talked about who they would tell once they’d decided they were well and truly committed, and they’d planned telling their friends very carefully, right down to the timing. El had been adamant that she should tell Hopper on her own, and Mike had decided to do the same with his parents, but that still excluded Mrs. Byers and Nancy, both of whom they felt deserved to know.
So when El said, “We want to talk to Joyce,” over the radio, Mike was quick to jump in with, “We need to tell her something. And you, Nance.”
Jonathan gave them a look in the rearview mirror. Beside El, Will groaned and dropped his head against the window.
“Is everything okay?” Nancy asked, turning around in her seat to give Mike a concerned look.
“Yes,” El answered for him. The smile on her face was small but genuine.
“Jonathan, let's go back to our house,” Will said. He still had his forehead pressed to the glass, but Mike saw his reflection smile when El reached out and squeezed his hand gratefully.
Nancy was still giving them anxious looks over her shoulder, but Jonathan just shrugged and turned the car around.
“Will!” Joyce called from the back of the house when they all trampled inside. “I’ve got your laundry, honey. Come grab the hamper!”
“Mike and El are here!” Will yelled in reply. He disappeared through the kitchen, and returned with a basket of clean clothes balanced on one hip. He stopped long enough to wrap El in a one-armed hug, and gave both of them a pointed look before saying, “Come get me if you need me,” and retreating down the hallway to his room.
Nancy and Jonathan were both staring when Joyce finally appeared in the doorway. “Hi Mrs. Byers,” Mike said while she wrapped El up in a tight hug.
“Hey guys,” Joyce said warmly. One of her arms, still wound around El’s shoulders, reached out for Mike, clutching at the back of his head and pulling him in against El. “Did you have fun at Dustin’s? Are you hungry? I can throw something together.”
“Actually,” Mike started, “we need to talk to you. All of you.”
Joyce’s face changed from harried but happy to harried and concerned. “Is everything okay?”
Mike glanced down at El and found her looking back at him, biting her lip, her mouth poised in the same smile she’d given Nancy earlier in the car. “Everything’s fine,” he said, hoping the tremors in his voice would read as excitement.
“You should sit down,” El added in a way that was clearly meant to be comforting but only served to hitch Joyce’s shoulders up higher around her ears.
It was a strange thing, but all Mike could focus on was how precisely Joyce and Jonathan’s expressions matched as he and El laid out their plan; their brows drawn down, eyes concerned, mouths open but not slack. Nancy, sitting on the same side of the couch where Max had been barely more than a week before, was making their mother’s Are you serious right now? face, her eyes wide and her mouth pursed while her eyebrows tried to climb into her hair.
They got most of the way through before the first interruption, and even then it was a gentle, “Do you mind if I smoke?” from Joyce, though she lit up before either of them could really reply.
“What the actual hell, Mike?” Nancy said when they were finished, her voice quiet and her tone unexpressive. Her face had drifted from disbelief to bemusement, before finally settling in the neutral territory of one entirely overwhelmed - though her eyes were still comically wide. Jonathan bore the same affected look, but something dark and anxious was flashing behind Joyce’s carefully schooled expression.
She stubbed out her cigarette and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees as she clasped her hands together. Her gaze shifted back and forth between them a few times, and El tensed beside him. “Would you give us a few minutes, sweetie?” she said finally, breaking the silence with a tight smile aimed squarely at Mike, and before he could reply she’d crossed the room, maneuvered him gently but firmly up off of the couch, and nudged him down the hallway toward Will’s room. She knocked, but didn’t wait for a reply before throwing the door open, ushering him inside, and closing it again.
Mike stared at the door, trying to work out how tiny, gentle, 110-pounds-soaking-wet Joyce Byers had managed to man-handle him across the entire house.
Will was sitting at his desk, ignoring both his laundry basket and his friend’s plight in favor of a charcoal drawing. “I’m guessing you didn’t lead with the fact that you didn’t get her pregnant,” he said without raising his head.
“Could you not say it like that?” Mike snapped. “Holy shit, why is that where everyone’s mind goes?”
He shot the back of Will’s head a withering look before collapsing onto the bed and covering his face in his hands. “Oh god, is that what they’re talking about?”
“Probably,” Will answered easily. Then he sighed, and Mike heard the chair scraping across the carpet. When he opened his eyes, Will was gazing at him with equal parts sympathy and frustration.
“Mike,” Will said gently. “I’m not… trying to talk you out of this, or tell you you’re making a mistake, but - you get why this is sort of freaking us all out, right?”
“Not really, no,” Mike griped. He wanted to glare, but the urge withered beneath the tired look Will was giving him, and after a protracted silence he was forced to concede, “Okay, maybe a little.”
The tired look morphed into something closer to frustrated disbelief, and Mike groaned, flopped backwards to lay prone, and covered his face again. “Okay, maybe a lot. I just don't get why it's anyone else’s business.”
“You're basically still kids,” Will said unhelpfully.
“Not according to the state of Indiana.”
“Definitely according to your parents.”
“Look,” Mike said, voice tight with underlying anger. “We've already been through more together than most people twice our age.” He stood, agitated, and started pacing back and forth in front of the door. “And not just me and El, I mean everybody. It's a miracle we're all still alive, and in relatively decent shape.” He came to a halt, and his voice softened a little. “I know it's going to be hard, but I don't wanna look back at my life and realize I wasted time just because I was afraid.”
Will laughed. “I don't think anyone's stupid enough to accuse Mike Wheeler of being a coward.”
Mike eyed him suspiciously. “Thank you?”
“Is it exhausting,” Will went on blithely, “being so needlessly defiant all the time?”
“Screw you, Byers.”
“Jonathan, honey, can you go check the mail for me?” Joyce said when she settled back on the couch. El, still sitting across from them, resisted the urge to wring her hands together. She wasn’t sure what was coming, but her heart was climbing into her throat and that was usually a decent indication that things were going to be uncomfortable.
Jonathan gave his mom a look and said, “It’s Sunday,” but at her answering smile - which didn’t quite reach her eyes - he nodded. “Sure.”
El watched in confusion as he want straight down the hallway to his room. “Isn’t the mailbox outside?” she asked Joyce and Nancy, who were both gazing at her with concerned sympathy. She didn’t get a reply.
“El, honey,” Joyce said slowly.
“Yes?” El said when Joyce didn’t continue. Her stomach had joined her heart in her throat, and she could feel the first dregs of irritation - and fear - stirring there.
Nancy shifted and sat forward, mirroring Joyce’s posture. “El, are you-”
“I got married young,” Joyce broke in, and El felt herself nodding even as her brows drew together in confusion. She and Will had talked at length, that disastrous March when they’d been sixteen, and she knew more about Joyce and Lonnie’s failed marriage than she did about any of her other friends’ parents. Some of the social context was still lost on her, but she had gleaned two things from their numerous conversations. The first was that Joyce loved her sons more than anything else in the entire world, and the second - and probably much more relevant now - was that she regretted her marriage more than anything she’d ever done.
“It - it probably wasn’t the best idea,” Joyce said. “But - but I was five months pregnant, and I thought I was in love, and it… it felt like the right thing to do at the time.”
“I’m not you,” El said before she could stop herself. She regretted the words immediately when Joyce’s face fell a little, colored by shades of hurt.
“No you’re not,” Joyce said quickly, voice gentle. “You’re not me, and Mike isn’t my ex-husband. And the two of you have something that most people don’t get in their lifetime, but that doesn’t mean you have to get married right now, just… just because-”
It dawned on El, very suddenly, what Joyce was implying, and for the second time in not even as many minutes she fumbled with the conversation. “Not pregnant,” she said vehemently, and the words were right but her tone was angry and full of fight. “I’m not pregnant,” she reiterated firmly, hoping her voice sounded much more calm to their ears than it did to her own. The very thought made her skin crawl and her throat close up.
“Well that’s… probably good,” Nancy said with a sideways glance at Joyce, who was lighting up another cigarette.
Joyce took a deep drag, and said, “That’s definitely good,” smoke pouring from her mouth. “But… you still don't have to do this just because Mike asked you to. He loves you, sweetheart, and he'll love you even if you don’t want to go to Terre Haute with him.”
El couldn't even begin to fathom why Joyce was telling her something she already knew as a universal truth. Her chest had become a tangle of emotions so tight and chaotic that she was wholly incapable of picking them apart, much less putting them into words. Frustrated with herself, and then angry because she was frustrated, she felt tears gathering in the corners of her eyes, which began a vicious, familiar cycle wherein trying not to cry only made her cry harder because she was angry she was crying in the first place. It made her feel stupid, and childish, and while she knew logically (and had been told many times by the people she loved best) that she was neither of those things, she was often wholly incapable of convincing herself once she started spiraling.
(Will had taught her that word - spiraling - that same week in March, and together they'd worked their way through most of the book he'd learned it from, looking for solutions. “Coping mechanisms,” the book had called them - healthy coping mechanisms.)
So she latched onto what she knew was true. Mike loved her and would never leave her to face herself alone. What they were doing was big and scary, but not bigger or scarier than they were capable of facing together. Joyce loved her too, and looked after her, and everything she was saying came from a place of concern, not judgement.
Joyce was worried about them - Joyce was worried about her. El could work with that.
She took a deep, shaky breath just as Joyce moved to stand, and said, “No.”
But that wasn’t quite right either, because Joyce’s face contorted again. “Honey, yes he will. You don’t have to do this just beca-”
“No,” she said again, cutting Joyce off. “Mike didn’t ask.”
Nancy and Joyce shared another look, and Nancy, who’d been silent almost the whole time, said, “Mike didn’t ask you to marry him? Then what-”
“My idea,” El said. “I can’t stay here. Not again, not without him.” She started crying in earnest then, but her voice was steady and growing stronger. Joyce crossed the living room in the span of a heartbeat and took both of El’s hands in her own. El felt a smile forming, unbidden, and she pulled her hands out of Joyce’s grip so she could throw her arms around the older woman. “We’ll be fine.” Joyce made a noise that was halfway between a sigh and laugh, and El hugged her tighter. “We will. Mike is scared too.”
“And you’re not?” Nancy asked, and even though El wasn’t looking at her she could hear the smile in her voice. The couch dipped as Nancy sat down on her other side and slung her arms around both of them. El laughed and felt Joyce shift so she could clutch at Nancy’s shoulders.
“Okay,” Joyce said finally. She pulled back from them both and cupped El’s face in her hands, smiling. “I guess you’re getting married. When’s the wedding?”
“Next Tuesday,” El said, and Joyce blanched.
“Holy shit,” Nancy exclaimed. “You don’t think you’re maybe rushing this a little?”
El shook her head. “We decided in April. Housing paperwork is due July first.”
Nancy, concerned, said, “Jesus, maybe you’re not rushing enough,” and Joyce’s composure finally slipped when she dropped her face into her hands and groaned. She tapped another cigarette out of the pack laying on the coffee table, and stood to grab the lighter from the end table sitting by the other couch. El’s eyes tracked her as she paced back and forth across the open space in the living room.
“What, uh- oh, goddamnit, what does Hop think about all of this?” she asked finally, shoulders tense.
The carpet was suddenly the most engrossing thing in the room, so El looked down to give it the attention it deserved. Nancy, still sitting close beside her, said, “Oooooooh,” in the same tone El had heard her use frequently during dinner at the Wheelers’, usually right after Mike said something that got him grounded.
Joyce’s response was to take a deep drag on her cigarette and stalk into the kitchen.
In the sudden silence of the living room, Nancy put an arm around her and rubbed her shoulder comfortingly. “Are you sure about this?”
“Very,” El said, smiling.
Joyce made some gentle protests when Mike wanted to walk El home - it was almost two miles out to the cabin, and Mike had no way to get home without hitching a ride from Hopper - but they were both insistent on having some time alone together, and Mike could tell by the set of El’s shoulders that the walk would do her good.
Will gave him a brief, fervent hug in parting, and they had barely separated before El was throwing herself at Will. They clung together for a few long moments, and Will said something to her, his voice too low for anyone else to hear, but El smiled and nodded against his shoulder.
“So,” Nancy said casually from where she was standing at Mike’s side. “Mom and dad-”
“Don't know yet,” Mike cut her off sharply. “And you're not going to tell them.” He watched as her eyebrows pitched, an angry frown half-formed, and he reigned himself in with a sigh. “Please, Nance? I'm just waiting for the right time.”
“I don't think there's a right time for this, Mike,” Nancy replied, but she hugged him anyway, and when they parted El took his arm and pulled him to the front door.
They’d walked more than a quarter mile in complete silence, clasped hands swinging between them, when Mike said, “Hey.”
El cut him a warm but guarded glance, and Mike felt himself shrinking beneath the weight of her gaze. She’d started to relax the longer they’d walked, but her fingers, twined with his own, were clutching at him so desperately that his hand was starting to hurt.
He cleared his throat. “I, uh… I can tell them to back off. With all that - that pregnancy stuff.” El’s face went carefully blank - which was more of a tell than anything else - and her hand slackened in his. Mike rushed to continue, feigning nonchalance and failing miserably. “Not that I think they don't believe us or anything, but I can already see all the jokes coming down the pipeline, an-”
“It's fine,” she said, in a tone that indicated it was clearly anything but.
“I don't mind,” he said gently. “I can just say-”
“Mike,” she cut in again, her voice low and sharp. “It's fine.”
He stopped, and she walked on a few paces before their joined hands halted her as well. Her eyes travelled across the ground between them before she finally looked up at him. He wanted to press the issue, knew he would need to eventually, but instead he pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. She was still as stone, and just as quiet, for a few long seconds, but then she exhaled and her arms came up around his waist. She held on tight, burying her face in his t-shirt, and he felt her start to relax again.
“I love you,” he said, because he didn't know what else to do to soothe her. “Sorry.”
She shifted a little, craning her head back to look at him, and her smile, though small, was still enough to drive back the shadows hiding behind her eyes. “You’re just worried. I love you too,” she said softly. Mike returned the smile, and then El was reaching up to thread her fingers through his hair so she could pull him down into a deep kiss.
When they parted, she took his hand again and pulled him along. “Friday?”
“Friday,” he replied, smiling nervously at her. “You got everything?”
“Birth certificate and social security card. You?”
“Birth certificate, driver's license, twelve dollars in cash, every single bond my dad ever bought for me, and the promise of four hours with the station wagon.” Mike made a face. “I have to pick Holly up from swim practice though.”
El turned away, looking out into the woods as they walked. “I feel bad.”
“About Holly?” Mike asked. She nodded and he sighed, squeezing her hand a little. “Yeah, me too.”
“I understand,” El started before pausing to gather her words. She blew a frustrated breath out of her mouth, hard enough to ruffle her bangs. “I know why we can’t tell her yet, but it feels… wrong. She loves you.”
“She loves you too,” he said. For a few long moments the only sound was gravel churning under their feet, until Mike continued, “Maybe in twenty years we can ask her to be a flower girl at our vow renewal.”
“She’ll be twenty-nine,” El said, confused.
“Yeah she will.”
“Flower girls are usually… girls.”
Mike smiled. “Uh-huh.”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll love it anyways”
The week passed in the blink of an eye - which El found very suspicious, especially with the sudden absence of class - and before she knew it Friday had rolled around. Hopper had left for work, calling goodbye through her closed bedroom door, and after lunch Mike had been on the doorstep. He’d grabbed the documents he needed for the license, kissed her until she was a trembling mess, and taken off before she could coax him inside.
Then she’d made herself a cup of tea, thrown on some shorts and a t-shirt under the guise of getting dressed, and called the station. She’d been planning to leave a message with Flo, but Hopper had still been in the office, so she’d been put through right away. She almost never called Hopper at work, so Flo must have told him who was on the line because he picked up after barely half a ring.
“You okay?” he asked, voice gruff but just a tad breathless. El could picture the thinly veiled look of concern he was probably wearing.
“Fine,” she said, “but we need to talk.” He took a breath, clearly intending to speak, but El hurried on. “Important, but not an emergency. Be on time, please?”
There was silence on the other end of the line, and El knew they were both remembering the last time she'd made this request. She'd been frantic, then, and dangerously close to the tipping point where all the wonderful words she'd learned would flee, leaving her mute and powerless. She was calm now, and confident, and hoped he'd heard both those things in her voice.
(“On time” meant usually before 7:00 but almost always by 7:30 on Fridays, barring emergencies. Hop liked to rest up before the weekend, because it was almost guaranteed he'd be out past midnight on most Saturdays. El still wasn't sure what it was about the weekend that encouraged people to be stupid about breaking the law, but it was a universal constant, like death and taxes - or so Hopper had told her.)
“Sure,” he said after a beat. “I'll try my damnedest. You want me to pick up something for dinner?”
“Leftover casserole,” she reminded him, smiling even though he couldn't see it. It was a bad habit of his to spend money on takeout when they had perfectly decent food in the fridge. “I'll heat it up. Squash, too. And we still have cucumber salad.”
The line crackled when he laughed. “I can't believe you eat that shit now. Remember what happened the first time I tried to get you to eat broccoli?”
El made a face into the receiver. “Still better than peas.”
He laughed again, and said, “See you tonight. Love you, kid.”
She wanted to return the sentiment but the words got stuck in her throat - not because she didn't feel them, but because she knew, somehow, that she was going to hurt him when he came home - and before she could even breathe he'd hung up the phone.
There was nothing left to do but wait. She'd spent most of her free time that week making long distance phone calls to Terre Haute (Hopper was going to flip when he saw the phone bill), and had narrowed the search for their apartment to four choices, all within walking distance of the campus and in their price range. Without any actual money to spend there was nothing more to be done, so she settled in on the porch swing with her cup of tea and the copy of Watership Down that Will had lent her. The day had already warmed considerably, but she was comfortable in the shade of the porch, and the novel was engrossing, if a little violent for her tastes.
The afternoon passed as swiftly as the summer had seemed to, and before she knew it Hopper was trudging up the path. He had his hat in one hand, and a takeout bag in the other, which made her laugh in exasperation. The little hands on her watch read 5:42; he wasn’t just on time - he was early.
“Yeah, I remembered about the leftovers,” he said as he climbed the front steps. “But then I also remembered I like burgers and fries better than leftovers, so.”
El marked her place in the book and rose to loop her arms around his waist in a loose hug. “You can’t keep eating like you’re 20, Hop,” she said fondly as she opened the front door.
Hopper followed her inside and dropped both the takeout bag and his hat on their little kitchen table. “I’d be offended except I know you’re quoting Joyce. You wanna talk before or after we eat?”
He was already pulling french fries out of the bag and popping them into his mouth, and she realized suddenly that she was starving, and burgers sounded way better than casserole. “After.”
She’d barely answered before Hopper was turning toward the cabinets, pulling out plates and glasses. He filled one glass with water, then rummaged around in the back of the pantry and pulled out a can of generic brand cola. El froze.
“Where was that?” she demanded while he poured it into the second glass. He shrugged, and made a noise that meant “I don’t know” before setting the cola in front of her. She took a huge, greedy gulp of it while he plated the burgers and fries, and they spent the next twenty minutes talking sparingly about their separate days while they scarfed down their dinner.
When they’d finished El took both of their plates to the sink, then reached into the fridge to pull out a can of beer. “Come sit,” she said as she settled on the couch.
Hopper eyed her warily but did as she asked, and took the can when she offered it to him.
“So,” he said.
“So,” she echoed.
He sighed and gestured at her with his drink before popping the top. “You’re the one who wanted to talk.”
El took a steadying breath, and Hopper sat up a little more. “Hey,” he said, voice low and gentle. “Everything okay?”
She nodded, took another breath, and began with, “I’m not pregnant.”
The way Hopper froze was almost comical. He licked his lips nervously before saying, “Okay? That’s… good.”
El shrugged. “Everyone else thought I was.”
“Who is everyone else?” Hop demanded, and she could tell by his tone that he was already attempting to stomp down on the anger that wanted to rise. “Why do they think you’re pregnant? What happened?”
Like ripping off a bandaid, she thought. She wanted to pull her legs up onto the couch and tuck them underneath her, to curl up and make herself as small as possible. The corner of the couch felt safe and protected, and it took a startling amount of willpower to climb to her feet so she could stand in front of the TV. She wasn’t a child, and she wouldn’t hide like one. This was happy news, and if Hop was going to see that she had to show it to him. It was effortless to think of Mike and smile, and her stomach stopped churning. “I’m moving to Terre Haute in August.”
“Uh-huh,” Hopper said, face unimpressed but posture wound tight. He took a sip of his beer. “What’s in Terre Haute?”
El frowned. Hopper knew what was in Terre Haute; he knew who would soon be in Terre Haute. “Indiana State University.”
“Did you get in to Indiana State University?” he asked, infuriatingly calm, and El felt her frown deepening.
He hummed, and took another sip. “Sorta sounds to me like you’re staying right where you are.”
El felt her teeth clenching together over the urge to start shouting. Shouting at Hopper just made him shout back, and that wasn't how she wanted this to go. “I'm moving to Terre Haute,” she said firmly. “In August. With Mike.”
“You can't just show up at classes, kid,” Hopper said, not unkindly. “The admissions deadline was months ago, and I know you know that.”
“I'm not going to Indiana State,” she said slowly, enunciating every syllable. She hated when Hopper did this, when he chose to misunderstand her or read more into her words than she was trying to tell him. He’d freely admitted that he only did it when he was trying to get her to realize she was being completely ridiculous. “I’m going to Terre Haute. With Mike.”
Hopper ran a hand over his face, exasperated. “And then what? You’re just going to live in his dorm and eat off his meal plan? Help him with his homework?”
He wasn't quite shouting, but it was a close thing. El desperately wanted to yell back but she forced herself to contain the urge. She said, “We’re getting an apartment.”
The way his eyes widened would have been hilarious to her in any other situation. (In this one, it was only mildly amusing.) “You’re getting an apartment?” he demanded, and she thought she could hear the beer can crunching in his hand. “How are you getting an apartment? You don’t have a job!”
“Mike has some money saved,” El said stubbornly. “And scholarships. Bonds.”
“Of course he does,” Hopper muttered, climbing off the couch and stalking to the sink. He dropped the mostly-full beer can into it with a clatter, and turned back to her with both hands on his hips. “Did he talk you into this?”
“Other way around,” she said with a small, proud smile.
“Jesus Christ,” he groaned and rubbed a hand over his face again. He covered his mouth, like he always did when he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure about it, and gazed at her with hard eyes. “Okay,” he said finally. “All right, fine, you’re moving to Terre Haute. How are you getting there?”
“Mike’s parents are giving him the station wagon.”
Hop nodded. “When are you going?”
She shrugged and said, “After the tenth but before the twenty-fifth.” When he made a face she continued, “Depending on the move-in date.”
“Where are you moving?”
“Terre Haute,” she said before she could stop herself. She had to bite down on her bottom lip to keep herself from laughing at Hopper’s unamused glare. “An apartment.”
“El,” he said warningly.
She sighed. “An apartment near campus. Found four in our price range.”
Hopper crossed his arms over his chest, and El watched as his shoulders finally - finally - began to relax. Something uneasy crept up on her. “How are you looking for apartments in Terre Haute?”
“Local newspaper,” she said. Then, suddenly anxious about the distance he’d put between them and the calculating look he was giving her, she stepped away from the TV and knelt on the couch cushions, folding her arms across the back. “Mostly classifieds. Don’t be mad when you see the phone bill.”
“We’re so far past that point, kid,” Hopper said, shaking his head. El’s heart sank. The only thing worse than a Hopper who yelled was a Hopper who was calm. “How long have the two of you been planning this?”
“April,” she said, voice small, and then because she knew there wouldn’t be a good time (and because her hopes for this going well were beginning to fail), she took the plunge. “We’re going to get married.”
“Jesus,” Hop sighed. He rubbed a hand over his eyes like there was a headache forming behind them. “He didn’t get you a ring or anything? Seems like a thing he’d be all over.”
“Don’t need one,” El replied easily, because it was still the absolute truth. “And I said it was my idea.”
Hopper sighed again, and something changed in his face. The hard lines of anger melted into the softer lines of worry and sadness, and she was reminded, very suddenly, that in a world where no one had spoken to her, facial expressions had been her first language. She’d never had the words for what was happening on Papa’s face, (all drawn eyebrows and twitching lips, hard eyes and pursed mouth) but she’d always known what would follow: a gift or a frown, a caress or confinement. She’d been able to read people better than books, even when she didn’t know what they wanted in return.
“Kid,” Hopper’s voice broke in. “El. You see why this is - why this is stupid, right?”
The word ‘stupid’ made her straighten. Her feet carried her off the couch before her mind had even registered the action, and then she was standing across from him. She resisted the urge to mirror him, and willed her fists to unclench, her voice to calm, before she said, “It’s not stupid.”
“Oh no, it’s definitely stupid,” Hop countered. “Hitchhiking to Chicago stupid.”
She’d never know why those words always hit her so hard, or why he’d decided that was the new low for idiotic behavior . “I didn’t-“ she started, already shouting, but at the sound of her own raised voice her jaw snapped shut so fast her teeth clicked. She wasn’t going to yell. “I didn’t hitchhike to Chicago. I rode a bus.”
“I honestly don’t care how you got there,” Hopper said harshly. “Don’t split hairs with me while you’re trying to convince me to let you run off to the other side of the state so you can play house with your boyfriend.” Her brain tripped over the phrase so you can play house, and she wanted to retort, to tell him she didn’t need his permission, even if she desperately wanted his blessing - though “blessing” wasn’t the word her brain had supplied at the time - and when she paused for more than a second, Hopper kept up. “What if something happens to you or - what if something happens to Mike? You don’t know anybody! You won’t have any support! Who’s going to be there if shit blows up in your face? And I’m not just talking about someone finding you. What’s going to happen when you can’t pay your water bill? Or you have to eat cheese sandwiches for a week? What’s going to happen when you fight?”
He was yelling now, even if he was making some amount of sense; trying to rile her up, she knew, knock her off balance. Then it occurred to her that maybe Hopper was just as unnerved by her collectedness as she’d been by his, and she saw suddenly, with startling clarity, all the love and worry and fear hiding behind the anger. (He’d been better - they’d both been better - in the years since she’d closed the Gate. There’d been less yelling, and even when there had been yelling, the apologies had come hot on its heels. I’m trying, he’d said, so very many times, and she’d known it for the truth, just like she knew that he loved her the same way he still loved Sara.)
El felt the fight drain out of her. There was a smile twitching at one corner of her mouth when she said, “We fight now.”
Hop was still yelling. “Not like you’ll fight when you’re living together! What, are you gonna come running back to Hawkins every time you can’t stand to be in the same room with him?” He had one hand thrown out in front of him, fingers spread wide, and the other planted on his hip. “Why the hell are you smiling like that? What’s funny about this?”
“Nothing,” she replied. “If we fight I’ll take a walk. Or call you.”
“Who’s gonna pay for that phone bill, huh?”
El took a deep breath and looked at the floor. When she said, “We’ll be fine,” the words felt tried and true on her tongue. She’d said them to Joyce, she’d chanted them to Mike, and for all her own fears and worries she’d never been more certain of anything in her entire life.
Hopper shook his head at her. “You don’t know tha-”
“I’m not asking,” she said over him. In the ensuing silence she imagined she could hear both of their hearts beating. “I’m not asking you,” she said after another deep breath. “I’m… telling you. I’m going to Terre Haute.” Then, because she didn’t know what to do, and he clearly didn’t know what to say, she moved in and tucked herself up underneath his outstretched arm, hugging him tightly around the waist. His arm settled over her shoulders almost on instinct, and he pulled her tight against him so he could press a kiss into her hair.
“Maybe,” he said lowly, “maybe you could… wait until you two tie the knot to move out there. I don’t have any moral objections to you living in sin, but Mike’s gonna need some time to get settled, and-”
“Tuesday,” she interrupted, propping her chin against his arm so she could crane her head back and look at him.
His eyebrows knitted together and his jaw clenched. “Tuesday what?”
“We’re getting married on Tuesday,” she said. “Mike is getting the marriage license today.”
She didn’t have words for what happened on Hopper’s face once he’d processed her statement, but his voice was dangerously low when he said, “He’s what?” and El squeezed him once, tightly, before taking two big steps back. “I guess he got the license,” she said, more to herself than to him. “Office closed at five...” Half a breath later Hopper was stalking across the living room to pace a hole in the floor. She folded her hands behind her back and leaned one hip against the sink, watching as he mouthed for words.
“Fuck it,” he said finally. “Fucking - fuck. Fine. Fine! Here!” He fumbled for his wallet and pulled out a handful of bills. “Here’s,” he paused to count the money. “Here’s thirty-seven dollars. Go - go buy a fucking dress, or some flowers or something. Jesus.”
El took the money in one hand, and grabbed his wrist with the other so she could pull him down and press a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you,” she said, voice thick.
He laid a heavy hand on her head, ruffling her hair and knocking her headband askew in the process. “Yeah, yeah. Go on. Get out of here.”
She looked down at the money then back at him. “It’s after six. Nothing’s open.”
“Go see if Joyce needs help making dinner,” Hopper said quickly. “I need a drink and I can’t look at you right now.”
“That’s fair,” El conceded. “Can I take the Blazer? It’ll be too dark to walk home later.”
“Sure,” Hop said, tossing her the keys. “Fine. Why the hell not?”
She slipped on her shoes, not even bothering to tie the laces, and she was out the front door and down the steps before something occurred to her. Retracing her steps, she poked her head back through the door just in time to watch Hopper fill a small glass with whiskey. “You forget something?” he asked, voice raw.
“Yes,” she said. “Don’t be mad at Joyce.”
“Why the hell would I be mad at Joyce?” he demanded, but she’d closed the door and made it to the car before he’d even finished shouting.
“Are you sure you’re not sick, honey?” his mom asked for the third time in half as many hours. He tried to wiggle away from the hand she wanted to press against his forehead but the huge bowl of mashed potatoes she’d just passed him made it difficult.
“I’m fine,” he groused as he passed the potatoes to Nancy and leaned back in his chair.
Karen’s hand chased him across the table, but the distance was too far for her to reach without standing so she gave up almost immediately. “Are you sure?” she pressed. “You’ve been so quiet all weekend.”
“I’ve been working on our campaign,” Mike lied. Then, because he felt bad, he added the half-truth of, “and some stuff for college.”
“Good man,” Ted said perfunctorily around a mostly-chewed mouthful of pork chop, and it took everything Mike had in him not to roll his eyes. Nancy, sitting beside him, was doing her best not to make too much eye contact with anyone except Holly, and Holly was still talking - rather obnoxiously - about her desire to try out for the Hawkins Middle pep squad. She’d spent most of the summer with her friends working on the routine, she said, and it was “going to be awesome”. It was hard for Mike not to smile at his younger sister’s enthusiasm (especially when she kept interjecting with things like, “You’re not listening, Mikey!” and begging for him to promise that he’d watch a brief demonstration later), but Mike could tell how clear it was to everyone at the table that his heart wasn't’ really in it.
It took less than twenty minutes for Ted to finish his dinner, but that was only because he was going through his usual routine of obliviousness. He had the morning’s paper strewn out to the right of his plate, folded in quarters so he could read the Sports section. Karen finished almost as fast, though she ate maybe half the food on her plate despite consuming a glass and a half of wine. They made small talk while Mike pushed his food around and Holly prattled and Nancy pretended she didn’t know what was going on.
Holly paused around a particularly large mouthful of cheesy broccoli, and Mike saw his chance. Five more minutes, he knew, and his dad would migrate to the La-Z-Boy with the rest of the paper, where he would fall asleep. His mom would pour herself another glass of wine and wander upstairs, where she might or might not take a bath - after putting the kitchen back in order, of course. Holly would retreat to her room, Nancy’s old room, to run up the phone bill, and Nancy would disappear into the night (probably with Jonathan, though Mike still didn’t have any room for those thoughts).
It was just past 6:00 pm on Monday evening.
“Hey, uh,” he said - or started to say, because his voice cracked and the words got stuck in his throat. The whole table was looking at him while he groped for his water glass and took a long, soothing gulp, but his parents kept their peace while Holly laughed. Nancy’s shoulders hitched infinitesimally toward her ears.
He took a deep breath and tried again, his eyes trained on his mother’s face. “I need to tell you something.”
“Of course sweetheart,” Karen replied immediately. She sat up a little in her chair, face calm but concerned, her half-full wine glass still clutched between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. Mike cut his father a glance, and Ted jolted as though he’d been kicked under the table (which, Mike realized immediately, he probably had).
“Is everything okay?” his mom asked, and when he didn’t continue she reached across the table to lay her hand over his where it was still resting beside his plate, fork clutched in tense fingers. Mike let the fork go and turned his hand over so their palms touched, briefly, before pulling his hand off the table. He thought he saw a flash of hurt behind his mother’s tired eyes, but it was gone before he’d really even registered it. “You can tell us anything,” she said gently.
Well that’s just patently false. Mike couldn’t help thinking. Across the table Ted was scraping his fork through the little bit of gravy left on his plate. “Spit it out, son,” he said.
Mike sighed. “So, the housing applications are due on the first-”
“We already gave you the check for that, Mike,” Ted interrupted. “You haven’t sent it it yet?”
“No,” Mike said shortly. “And I’m not going to. I’m not gonna live on campus.” He clenched both hands into fists where they rested against his knees. Now or never, Wheeler. “El’s coming with me to Terre Haute. We’re getting an apartment-” Karen made an undignified squawking noise that was almost a word and he rode right over her. “- but freshmen have to live in the dorms unless they’re married so we’re going to the courthouse tomorrow. To get married.”
“Help me with the dishes, Holly?” Nancy asked as she climbed to her feet, just a split second before Karen dropped her wine glass into her plate. Of course, they didn’t bother to grab anyone else’s plate before Nancy pulled her protesting little sister out of her chair and into the kitchen. (“I wanna watch Mike get grounded!” Holly was almost shouting.)
There was a long moment where they played a strange game of chicken. His parents were both staring at him, and Mike stared back, unwilling to be the first to look away. His mother was mouthing for words, making almost no sound, and for the first time in a long time Mike knew he had his father's undivided attention.
“You’re doing what?” Ted asked finally, fork still poised over his empty plate.
“We’re getting married,” Mike said calmly. “Tomorrow morning, at the courthouse.”
Karen made a small noise that was some weird combination of a sigh and a laugh. “Michael,” she said, voice high and straining. “No. That’s - that’s crazy, honey. You’re joking. You have to be joking. You can’t just-“
“We can actually,” he cut in only to be immediately overridden by Ted’s clipped, “Don’t interrupt your mother.”
Mike resisted the urge to point out that Ted had interrupted him less than a minute ago, and settled for a healthy eye roll. “You can’t just ruin your life like this!” Karen continued right on her husband’s heels. Her voice had climbed a few more decibels, and there were tears gathering in the corners of her eyes as she looked at Mike. “Please tell me you’re joking, Michael!”
“No one’s laughing,” Mike said pointedly, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.
“Hey!” Ted snapped with more emotion than Mike could ever remember hearing out of him. “Watch your tone! I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but-“
“What’s gotten into me?” Mike demanded. “Nothing’s gotten into me! Mom’s the one who’s flying off the ha-“
“Are you in trouble?” Karen cut in suddenly. “Did you get her in trouble? Michael, sweetheart, you can tell us if she’s pre-“
“Holy shit!” Mike yelled, choosing to totally ignore his father’s cry of, “Language!” “Holy shit, no, no she’s not. Is it so crazy that I might just want to marry her because I love her?”
“You’re eighteen!” Ted exclaimed. “You have no idea-”
“Ted!” Karen cut him off sharply before shooting Mike a sympathetic, wavering smile. “We know you love her, honey. We get it, we really do-” and at that he couldn’t hold back the derisive little laugh that worked its way free, “-but your father’s right. You’re eighteen, Michael. Going away to college, it’s… it’s the start of the rest of your life-”
“And I’m starting it with El,” Mike interrupted. One of his hands, still clenched into a tight fist, had migrated rather violently to the tabletop. “She’s not just going to disappear because I go away to college. Is there something about that you’re having trouble understanding?”
“No one wants her to disappear,” Karen said at the same time Ted announced, “I’m calling Chief Hopper.” Neither Mike nor his mother paid Ted any attention as he left the room, and Karen’s frown deepened. “I just - where is this insanity coming from, Mike? If she’s not pregnant-”
“She’s not!” Mike yelled, and the dishes rattled when his fist came down on the table again.
“Then why?!” Karen demanded, her voice rising to match his. “Why are you doing this! Did she tell you she’d break up with you if you didn’t? What did she say that made-”
A ball of anger dropped suddenly into his stomach, hot and heavy as lead. Little black spots started dancing at the edges of his vision. “She didn’t say anything! She didn’t do anything except agree to move in with me!” He knew the statement wasn’t strictly true, because it had been El’s idea, but that was how they’d always worked. When El wanted something, Mike made sure she got it, and against all odds (to his complete and eternal bewilderment) she’d decided that what she wanted was to be with him in Terre Haute, whatever that took. In the kitchen he could just make out his dad’s voice. Ted was clearly yelling to whoever was on the other line (he hoped desperately it was Hopper instead of El) but all he could really hear was the distant, sonorous roar of his own blood thundering in his ears.
(“Look, Ted,” Hopper was saying from the other end of the line. “I understand where you’re coming from. I get it. But the law says they’re adults so there’s really nothing I can do to stop them.”
Then, when Ted had continued yelling, Hopper set the receiver down and walked away. El came out of her room carrying her backpack and a garment bag, saw the phone hanging off the hook, and made a move towards it. “Uh-uh,” Hopper said to her, shaking his head as he folded up his own copy of the same paper Ted had been reading across town. “You don’t need to hear that.”
“He told them,” El said.
“He did,” Hopper replied.
“They don’t like it.”
“No, kid,” he said as he set the paper down and reached into his pocket for the keys. “I don’t think they do. You ready to go?”
She nodded, and gave the still-warbling receiver one last look before following him out the front door.)
“You can’t do this.” Karen was shaking her head, the tears that had been gathering in her eyes finally spilling over. “You cannot do this to us! We’re - we’re not going to help you make this mistake!”
There it was. “You’re not going to help me get married or you’re not going to help me the same way you said you wouldn’t help Nancy?”
“You can't possibly think this the same thing!” Karen cried. She had a white-knuckled grip on her cloth napkin, which she was still using to mop up the wine that had sloshed over the edges of her plate, though she was really just pushing the mess around in front of her. Mike could see that the rim of the wine glass had cracked when she’d dropped it. “There’s a reason no one ends up with their high school sweetheart, Mike. Look what happened to Joyce Bye-“
“Dad!” Mike called into the kitchen. “Can you bring Mom another glass of wine?”
“Michael,” Karen said sharply as her other hand came down hard on the table. Mike couldn’t remember watching her stand, and then he realized that he wasn’t in his chair either - and hadn’t been for awhile. The hard lines of anger had replaced the sadness and disbelief in his mother’s face, even as she continued to cry (and he would hate himself for it later; he could count on one hand the number of times he’d made her cry, and most of them had been in the last four or five years).
There was obviously something else poised on Karen’s tongue but she was interrupted by a loud banging from the kitchen - Mike thought his dad had dropped the receiver - and then Ted was standing in the wide doorway and yelling, “You cannot talk to your mother like that!”
“Well I guess it’s good I was talking to you!” Mike yelled.
“That’s it,” Ted replied, his tone suddenly, depressingly neutral. “We’re done here. Whatever you and that girl-”
But Mike couldn’t really process much beyond those words - that girl. The anger in his stomach unfurled like all-consuming fire, darkening the edges of his vision until it tunnelled, and things went a little fuzzy after that. His dad said something about financial responsibility, and Mike brought up the bonds he’d already cashed in (for just enough money to cover a security deposit and the first month of rent, with a little left over for incidentals). The station wagon, and their rescinded promise of said vehicle, was also a topic at some point - or at least Mike thought it was. He wasn’t wholly aware of what was being said to him, or what he was saying in return.
He didn’t realize he’d crashed up the stairs to his room, or that his mother was following close on his heels, still talking at him. He would never remember throwing clothes into the same duffel bag he’d been using all summer for excursions and sleepovers, or how he’d had the presence of mind to grab the manila envelope that contained all the documents he’d taken with him on Friday, as well as the unsigned marriage license printed with both his and El’s legal names (Michael Theodore Wheeler in the blank labeled Husband, and Jane Hopper in the blank labeled Wife). It didn’t even register to him that he’d stormed out of his parents’ house and gone four and half blocks in no particular direction until Nancy was pulling up beside him, laying on the horn of the station wagon that should have (would have) been his.
“You forgot your suit, asshole,” she yelled out the passenger window. Mike blinked at her, and in his still-dissipating haze of anger wondered what he could possibly need the suit for, but then she continued, “unless you wanna get married in jeans and a polo,” and he froze.
“Shit,” he breathed, lifting his head to blink up into the light of the streetlamp above them.
“You want a ride?” Holly called from her place in the back seat of the car.
“They were still yelling,” Nancy said in response to Mike’s disbelieving look. “I didn’t wanna leave her there.”
Mike sighed, and made a motion that prompted Holly to roll the back window down as far as it would go. Leaning against the side of the car, he bent down to look at his little sister and said, “I’d love a ride, Baby Holly, but I’m not sure where I’m going.”
“We can take you to Will’s house,” Holly said as if by rote, and Mike and Nancy both laughed a little.
“We can take you to Will’s house,” Nancy intoned, leaning over to open the passenger door. Mike took a deep breath, blew it out noisily, and stowed his bag in the footwell before folding himself into the seat.
They drove along in silence for another few blocks. The only sound was the whistle of the windows rolling up before Holly asked, “What’s worse than being grounded?”
“I think you’re looking at it, Holls,” Nancy said gently. Holly hummed in response, but fell silent, and out of the corner of his eye Mike watched as Nancy looked at him.
“What?” he said finally, as they were passing out of the neighborhood.
Nancy shook her head. “Nothing.”
Mike groaned, and slouched a little further down in the passenger seat.
“It’s only just-” Nancy glanced at him again and then unloaded, “You realize you really fucked that up, right?”
From the back seat, Holly did her best impersonation of their dad by yelling, “Language!”
“I mean, you really fucked that up,” Nancy continued. “Like totally and completely.”
“Thanks Nance,” Mike mumbled, leaning his burning forehead against the cool glass of the window.
“If you’d given them more time they might have come around,” she said gently.
He shot her a look. “Just like they came around to NYU? How’d that work out for you?”
She frowned. “Don’t bitch at me because you’re mad at them. This is actually a huge deal, no matter how much you pretend it’s not.”
“No one’s pretending it’s not a big deal!” Mike said, voice rising. “I know it’s a big deal! We both do! We just..”
“Don’t care?” Nancy volunteered.
The irritation he was beginning to feel ebbed back a little, and he laughed. “I guess so,” he said with a shrug.
“I think it’s romantic,” Holly offered. “Like Romeo and Juliet.”
“Romeo and Juliet both die,” Nancy said over Mike’s continued laughter. “She’s right though. It is sort of romantic.”
“Yeah,” Mike agreed. “Well. We’ll see what El thinks when we’re freezing our asses off this winter because I walked out of my parents’ house,” and then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands. “Oh my god I walked out of my parents’ house.”
In the quiet that followed Nancy reached across the bench seat and laid a hand against his back, rubbing gently. The touch was so soothing and familiar that he was reminded instantly of their mom, how she’d always rubbed his back when she’d hugged him, and he felt the hot prickle of tears behind his closed eyelids. Holly’s voice, small even in the sudden stillness of the cab, spared him the embarrassment of crying in front of both his sisters when she said, “You must love her a lot. She’s the only thing you and Mom ever fight about anymore.”
“They’re not fighting about El,” Nancy corrected, glancing at Holly in the rear view mirror. “They’re fighting because our brother’s a dumbass.”
“It’s sort of the same thing,” Holly muttered loud enough for the entire car to hear. “Stuff like this is why people say love makes you crazy, yeah?”
“No,” Mike said sharply, but the retort was completely lost under Nancy’s laughing, emphatic, “Yes!”
Holly kept the teasing up all the way out to the Byers’ residence, and only let up when Nancy let out a low whistle and muttered, “Uh-oh.”
Mike, who’d turned in his seat so he could poke at Holly’s legs while she shrieked and tried to wriggle away without unbuckling her seatbelt, faced forward again and saw what had caused his sister’s reaction: Hopper’s Blazer was parked haphazardly behind Joyce’s Pinto in the driveway, and Mike felt his heart climb into his throat in a strange mixture of hope and trepidation. The truck’s presence meant there was a decent chance El was in the house, and he desperately wanted to hold her, but it also meant that Hopper was inside, and Mike was completely unprepared for whatever conversation (because there would be a conversation) was likely to happen.
“You wanna try Lucas?” Nancy asked as the car rolled to a stop.
“No,” he said with a sigh, and climbed out.
“Your suit’s in the back,” Nancy said before he could close the passenger door. “Did you get it dry-cleaned after prom?”
Mike blinked at her. “Did I what?”
Nancy rolled her eyes. “Nevermind. Mom probably did it. And if she didn’t you can get married with that huge punch stain on your jacket.”
“Goddamnit,” Mike muttered as he retrieved the garment bag from the trunk and made his way around to the driver’s side. Nancy rolled the window down, and for a long moment they just looked at each other. “You’ll, uh, you’ll be there tomorrow, right?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know,” Nancy said airily. “It’s really last minute, and I had plans to sit around the house and repaint my nails, but I guess I can move that to the afternoon.”
“I wanna come too!” Holly called, not bothering to roll her window down. “Am I invited?”
“Of course you are,” Mike said gently. “But you’re gonna have to ask Mom and Dad.”
Holly’s face fell. “Shit.”
“Hey!” Mike and Nancy snapped at the same time, and then they were both laughing. Leaning down, Mike reached into the car and wrapped one arm around Nancy’s shoulders while the other snaked between the headrest and the frame to clutch at the hand Holly was holding out to him.
“Thanks guys,” he said as he straightened. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Nancy nodded, smiling, and Holly gave him a determined look as she held up both her hands to show him she’d crossed her fingers.
The sun had barely begun to set, and the evening was alive with the sounds of summer insects, but the station wagon’s tires on the gravel drive were still deafening to Mike’s ears as he trudged up the front steps. He turned to watch the taillights disappear between the brush that lined the driveway, took a deep breath to steady himself, squared his shoulders, and faced the door-
-which was open now, the light from inside casting Hopper’s massive shadow across the already darkening porch from where he stood in the threshold, hat halfway to his head as if he’d frozen in place the same way Mike had.
He resisted the urge to swallow down the lump forming in his throat, even as his stomach started to turn. They’d been roughly the same height for the last year or so, though Hopper still dwarfed him in sheer mass, and there was nothing particularly angry or condemning about the expression on the man’s face as they stared at each other over the worn door mat. It had been years since Mike had felt anything resembling fear in Hopper’s presence, and even then it had been closer to the healthy respect where they were still settled. It was hard, Mike had found out, to be afraid of someone once you’d watched them flip a Monopoly board over in a fit just because you’d ganged up with their daughter to bankrupt them as the first order of play.
They passed a long, painful moment in silence before Hopper crammed his hat on his head, called, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” over his shoulder, and barreled right past Mike and to the Blazer without so much as a backward glance.
He was replaced by Joyce, who started when she saw Mike standing there, one hand clutched to her chest. “I knew I heard a car,” she laughed as she stepped aside to let him in. “I thought it was Jonathan. Everything okay? You look a little…” She made a vague gesture at his face as she closed the front door.
Mike grimaced. “Yeah, uh. Could I - would it be okay if I spent the night?”
Joyce eyed his duffel bag with thinly veiled concern, and it was only at that point that he realized he’d never zipped it up. There was an unfolded shirt hanging half-out of the top. When she smiled at him it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Mike, honey, of course. You’re always welcome.”
“Thanks,” Mike said as he dropped his bag on the couch.
“Do everyone a favor and don’t tell Hop I let you stay unless he asks?” Joyce said as she made her way into the kitchen.
He was halfway to slumping down onto the couch himself, but Joyce’s request made him pause, and he was forming the question he wanted to ask when a soft, sweet voice called out from the hallway.
“Can I make some more popcorn?” El said as she wandered into the living room. There was a scarf wrapped around her head, and she was wearing an overlarge henley and a pair of soffe shorts for pajamas. She had an empty bowl in one hand and an open book in her other - or so Mike thought before he realized her right arm was hanging by her side. The worn copy of The Princess Bride was floating freely about a foot from her face, and Mike smiled when a page turned itself. If she was bothering to carry it around then she either loved it or hated it.
“Sure,” Joyce replied, and El took two more steps before she lowered the book. The grin that broke on her face was bright enough to light up the room, and she dropped both bowl and book on the coffee table as she flung her arms around him with enough force to carry both of them down onto the couch. He let out a sharp, little, “Oof!” as she landed on him, still smiling against her mouth when she bent to kiss him.
“You’re here,” she murmured as her lips travelled across his cheeks and nose while her hands cradled his face. “Worried.”
“Why were you worried?” he asked, brushing his knuckles across the apple of one smiling cheek. Her face fell a little, and he traced the same path again with his lips while she combed one hand back through his hair and clutched the back of his head, pulling his face tightly against her neck
“Heard the phone call,” she said. “All the yelling.”
Mike’s heart, which had soared when she’d thrown herself at him, plummeted suddenly. He felt his fingers twisting into the material at the small of her back as he pulled her closer. “It doesn’t matter,” he said into her skin. He heard her breathe his name, lips moving against his hair. Her weight was warm and familiar in his arms, and he had to stamp down on the desperate urge to say more. He could feel the sweet nonsense bubbling up into his mouth - it doesn’t matter nothing matters as long as we get to be together I love you god I love you so much more than myself more than anything - and it wasn’t nonsense, not really, but if he said it out loud he’d start to cry, which would have been all right for just the two of them, but Mrs. Byers was in the kitchen, and Will was probably in his room.
So instead he cupped her cheek in his hand and kissed her soundly, his other arm roped tightly around her waist. She sighed against him, and moved to deepen the kiss before he pulled back. Her groan of protest drew a small, huffing laughing out of him.
“What’s happening here?” he asked, deflecting, one hand ghosting upwards to touch at the scarf wrapped around her hair. His fingertips had barely touched the silk-smooth surface before an invisible force pulled his hand gently away. “No?”
El, who’d been laying with one of her legs between his, sat up on her knees and patted the scarf. “Curlers,” she said. “So Joyce can do my hair tomorrow.”
Mike’s hands found her waist as he sat up with her. “I don’t know about that,” he said lowly, running a hand up her side to touch her shoulder. “Our friends already think you’re way too pretty for me.”
“They’re blind,” El said plainly, still working around the edges of the scarf, tucking in stray hairs. She laughed when he grimaced at her, and took his face in her hands when she kissed him again. They shuffled around, giggling together when he tried to flip their positions but only succeeded in turning them both on their sides and wedging himself between her body and the back cushions. She pressed on his shoulders with her palms, and choked down a shrieking laugh when he hauled her up against him and rolled again, attempting to press her back into the arm of the couch while she stage-whispered, “Mike! My hair!”
He kissed her, still trying to work one of his legs out from under both of hers, and it was only when the kitchen lights went out that he remembered Mrs. Byers, of whom he’d been so painfully aware when on the verge of tears, was, in fact, still there. The summer sun was just peeking over the horizon now, but with the blinds drawn the living room was dark, and Joyce passed them as a shadow in a cloud of cigarette smoke. The hall light was still on, and it fell conspicuously across the couch where they were still tangled.
“I’m turning in,” she said, facing them with her hand on the light switch. “Put a movie on or something, but don’t stay up too late.”
“Yes Joyce,” El said with a smile, still half pinned beneath him with one hand on his shoulder and the other fisted in his hair.
Mike pressed his face into her collar bone, shaking with laughter, and didn’t stop until the light had gone out and Joyce’s footsteps had retreated. After a few silent heartbeats, he asked, “Do you think Will’s wondering where you are?”
“Will’s asleep,” she said easily as her lips trailed along the line of his jaw.
Mike pulled away. “Seriously?” El shrugged. “It’s barely eight!”
One corner of her mouth tipped upward. “He said he was tired of your dramatics.”
“Wha- no he didn’t!” Mike exclaimed, glaring down at her, but when she returned the look, flat and implacable, he relented. “Did he?”
“He didn’t,” El said, “but he didn’t have to.” She smiled, bright and earnest, and then her expression dimmed a little, settling into something closer to contentment. “He sleeps better when I’m here,” she said finally. “Says he feels safe. He’s… he’s making the most of his time.”
“Making up for lost time?” Mike offered when the phrase didn’t quite work, and El nodded, leaning in to fit her mouth in the hollow below his right ear, humming in affirmation. A similar noise worked its way free from the back of his own throat, and he finally freed both of his legs from their tangle, but before he could settle again she’d turned the TV on with barely a tilt of her head. The bright light washed over both of them - a black and white rerun of the Dick Van Dyke show, already halfway done - and before he’d even realized what was happening she’d flipped them again. His back hit the cushions, and his head would have collided with the couch arm if not for the phantom fingers that cradled it. There was something witty poised on his tongue - he was almost certain there was - but there were real fingers carding through his hair, and a gentle mouth playing across his chin. There was a crocheted blanket thrown across the back of the couch, and she pulled it over both of them before settling against him, her head pillowed on her arms which were folded across his chest.
“It’s barely eight,” Mike said again in gentle protest even as he toed off his shoes.
“So watch TV,” El said as she began flicking through the channels. “I’m going to sleep. Say when.”
She whined unhappily when he made her flip back to Magnum, P. I. “Hey, you’re going to sleep,” he said, fingers dancing up one of her sides until she grabbed his wrist. “If you’re going to use me as a pillow then I get to watch Tom Selleck solve crimes and bust bad guys.”
She made another unhappy noise, but turned her face away from the glare of the TV screen and fell asleep in just a few minutes, but Mike, for no reason he could name, felt himself fighting sleep even as his eyelids started to droop. He’d been running on fumes all weekend, too anxious about telling his parents to get any proper rest, and he’d spent the last hour and a half keyed up on adrenaline, first from the fight and then from having El so close. When he crashed, he crashed hard. El’s back was rising and falling beneath his splayed hands, her deep, steady breathing like a lullaby, and he slipped under before the second commercial break.
He stirred briefly when Jonathan came home a little after midnight, but somehow managed to sleep clean through until around 6:30 am when Joyce (who’d never quite gotten the hang of sleeping in) wandered into the kitchen to make coffee. El had shifted in the night, wedging herself between his body and the back of the couch with most of the blanket wrapped tightly around her. Her scarf had miraculously stayed in place.
“Hi,” she mumbled around a yawn, smiling sleepily up at him. She made a shuffling attempt to roll back on top of him, but the quilt was hopelessly tangled with both their legs so she settled for resting her cheek on his shoulder and draping an arm across his waist, which she tightened until he was pressing her into the couch.
“Hi,” he said. “That can’t be comfortable.”
“S’fine,” she responded blearily as she pressed her face into him, yawning again. She made a sleepy, subdued noise in protest when he attempted to stand, her grip tightening on the back of his tee shirt. It was only after he’d peppered her face and neck with kisses and she’d started giggling that she finally let him go.
He used the bathroom, washed his hands, then stood for a long time braced against the sink, staring at himself in the mirror. He was still wearing yesterday’s clothes, the jeans and tee shirt he’d run out of the house with now a wrinkled mess. His hair was impossibly mussed from the couch arm, and there were still sleep lines pressed into his face - he realized he’d forgotten to grab a razor - but aside from the usual hallmarks of a good night’s rest, Mike was fairly pleased with the young man staring back at him. The anxiety and nerves he’d been expecting were nowhere to be found. Instead, in their place, he felt excited, and more than a little proud that they’d reached this moment together, against all odds (and all advice).
“I’m getting married today,” Mike said to his reflection. The words put a dopey smile on his face, so he said them again, a little louder. “I’m getting married today.”
“Are you getting married right this second?” Will’s voice called from the other side of the door. “Because other people in this house need to use the bathroom, and I’m pretty sure your bride is one of them.”
When he opened the door both El and Will were standing in the hallway, staring at him with similar expressions of fond amusement. Mike watched as they looked at each other knowingly before Will raised an arm and gestured toward the open door. El ducked her head in thanks, but Mike caught her around the waist before she could step into the bathroom, kissing her soundly with no care for the fact that neither of them had brushed their teeth in the last twelve hours.
“Weirdos,” Will breathed as he pushed past them, then planted both his hands against Mike’s shoulders and shoved him bodily out of the doorway. Mike pitched forward, carrying El with him, and barely caught himself on the opposite wall, arms bracketing her shoulders. She was laughing, and she let him kiss her again before she ducked under his arm and pushed him toward the common area.
“Help Joyce,” she said as he stumbled into the living room.
Mrs. Byers was in the kitchen smoking a cigarette over a skillet of what had to be at least a dozen beaten eggs. “Ooh,” she said when she saw him. “Mike, hon, you think you can keep these from burning?”
Mike shrugged and took the spatula she was waving at him. She set a small cup of black coffee down beside the stove, nudging it towards him, and then wrapped an arm around his shoulders in a brief hug - or tried to, anyways, because she was nearly a foot shorter than him now. “Sleep okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said as he stirred the eggs. “Yeah, I did.
She squeezed him close, laying her head against his arm, and said, “Good.”
They worked in silence, at least until Joyce turned the radio on so Neil Diamond could serenade them while Mike stirred the eggs and Joyce laid out bacon on a foil-lined baking sheet. He stepped aside so she could put bread in the broiler for toast, and then pretended not to watch when Will shambled into the kitchen, somehow more asleep then he’d been barely five minutes earlier, and embraced his mother like a small child. He was taller than her now, and had to bend to put his head on her shoulder, but Joyce just held him close, smiling as they mumbled their good mornings. Mike swallowed around the lump trying to work it’s way into his throat.
“Help Mike, honey,” Joyce said when she and Will parted. “He’s burning the eggs.”
“No I’m no- shit!” The pan was smoking a little when he turned back to it, but Will pushed him out of the way before he could really react, moving the skillet to an unlit burner as he stirred frantically.
“Go sit down,” Will said. “Drink some coffee.
Mike grumbled, but took his coffee to the dining room. El wandered in eventually, slumping into the chair beside him. She stole sips from his mug of black, half-warmed coffee while Will brought out a stack of plates and silverware. Jonathan must have ghosted past them at some point, because it felt like Mike had barely blinked and then they were all sitting around the table, shoveling eggs and bacon and toast down their throats. El tried to help Joyce clear the plates when the were done, but Joyce pushed her back towards the living room. “You’re getting married today, honey,” she said. “Go take a long shower - don’t get your hair wet!”
“You wanna play Swordquest?” Will asked once El had disappeared into the bathroom.
Mike didn’t even have to think about his answer, and they were still sitting on the living room floor forty-five minutes later, backs pressed against the coffee table, controllers firmly in hand, when Max threw the front door wide open. Mike and Will both jumped, whirling toward the noise with similar expressions of surprise.
“Oh my god are you playing video games?” Dustin exclaimed as he pushed past her. “It’s almost 8:30!”
Will answered before Mike could, turning back to the TV. “Steve’s not gonna be here until 9:30. He’s got an hour.”
“Why is Steve coming over?” Mike demanded.
“No reason,” four voices chorused.
“Will,” Dustin intoned, stepping around both of them to turn the TV off. “This is why we appointed you honorary best man. You’re supposed to make sure he’s ready on time.”
Will dropped his controller and stared up at Dustin impassively.
“It’s a courthouse wedding,” Mike pointed out. “I don’t think I get to have a best man.”
“He still drew the short straw,” Max said when she pulled Mike’s controller out of his hand and turned the TV back on. “That means he’s the unlucky person who has to handle you today.”
“Wow,” Mike said. Will, at least, had the good grace to look mildly ashamed.
Lucas, who’d sat down on the couch, said, “I thought we agreed we weren’t gonna tell him about drawing straws.”
“No, you agreed,” Max said as she grabbed the other controller from the floor and looped the cords around Dustin and over the coffee table so she could sit down beside Lucas and hand him one. “I, as usual, refused to be part of any pact or promise that would keep me from making Wheeler’s life miserable
“Traitors,” Mike muttered loud enough for the room to hear. “Every single one of you. Except you, Max. You’ve met my very low expectations.”
“Happy to be of service,” Max said as she flipped him off and restarted the game.
Dustin grabbed one of Mike’s arms and attempted to haul him up off the floor. Mike’s response was to go limp. “A little help please?” Dustin barked, glaring at Will.
Will sighed and folded his arms across his knees loosely. “You should probably go shower and get dressed.”
“Why is Steve coming over?” Mike asked as he latched onto Dustin’s arm with his free hand and yanked down.
“We’ll tell you after you shower!” Max exclaimed. “You’re blocking the TV!”
Mike let Dustin pull him to his feet, grumbling, “Fine, jeez, all right.”
“And for god’s sake comb your hair!” Dustin called after him.
“Can I borrow a comb?” Mike called back. Then, after a pause, “and a razor? And maybe a toothbrush?”
A wave of groans followed him into the bathroom, and it felt good - wonderful, playful, normal - to slam the bathroom door in response. There were clean, dry towels in the cabinets, and plenty of hot water despite El’s protracted shower. At some point Will pounded on the door and then opened it before Mike could respond, shouting, “Freeze!” as he dropped a comb, a fresh razor, and what Mike desperately hoped was an unused toothbrush into the sink. There was a dull thud as Will slipped and fell on the linoleum, and then the bathroom door was slamming again.
He spent longer than he intended to standing under the showerhead. The water was tepid, verging on cold, by the time he finally climbed out, and he spent a lot longer than he was proud of trying to get his hair to behave. When he tiptoed down the hallway to Will’s room, he stopped to press his ear to Mrs. Byers’ bedroom door, behind which he could hear the low murmur of voices. His hand strayed to the doorknob, but before he could do more than close his fist around it Lucas was barreling into him, carrying him violently away.
“What the fuck, man?” Mike yelled when Lucas shoved him into Will’s room and closed the door from the other side.
“Dustin won’t shut up about how you’re not going to be ready on time and I couldn’t listen to him anymore,” Lucas called from the hallway. “So you have to put some pants on because I genuinely think it’s the only way to get him to shut his mouth.”
“What am I getting ready for?” Mike asked again. “Why’s Steve coming over?”
“Max said she’d tell you when you showered.”
Mike made a pained noise but went to unzip the garment bag, and the sight that greeted him almost closed his throat. “Why can’t you tell me?” he pushed, tearing through the plastic dry-cleaning bag to rip the ticket off.
Lucas sighed. “Look could you just put on something other than a towel? I, uh-” He paused and cleared his throat, and Mike shot the closed door searching look. “I wanna talk to you about something.”
“Fine, fine,” Mike grumbled as he pulled the suit jacket off the hanger to get at the slacks. HIs dress shirt, which had also been hanging in the garment bag, was wrinkled more than his mother would probably have thought acceptable, and the tie was the same one he’d worn to prom; a bright, garish shade of pink - “Barbie pink,” the party had called it - that had matched El’s dress. Mike swore.
“Do you have pants on yet?” Lucas asked through the door.
Mike sighed as he pulled on his slightly-wrinkled dress shirt. “Yeah.” He watched out of the corner of his eye as Lucas closed the door and went to sit down on the bed before he seemed to think better of it and moved to lean against the wall.
“You wanted to talk,” Mike prompted.
Lucas, who’d been chewing on his bottom lip, pushed away from the wall again so he could stand up straight. He took a deep breath, met Mike’s eyes, and then held both hands out in front of himself and said, “Look, I don’t know how else to say this.”
Mike felt his shoulders hitch defensively, but the usual spark of anger was absent. “So say it.”
Lucas sighed. “You know all those times I bothered you about how far you’d gone with El, I wasn’t trying to be weird, or - or whatever you thought.”
Mike turned away to tuck his shirt in, hoping that Lucas wouldn’t notice the sudden color rising in cheeks. There was some weird combination of shame and indignation brewing in his stomach as he thought back to sophomore year, and how invested Lucas had suddenly seemed in his physical relationship with El. They’d bickered about it more than once, until Mike had lost his temper and they hadn’t talked for a week. “I didn’t think anything.”
“Yeah you did,” Lucas said with a derisive snort.
“I thought it was none of your business,” Mike huffed as he shrugged on his jacket.
Lucas’ voice hardened. “You’re right, it’s none of my business,” he agreed. “I wasn’t trying to make it my business. I wasn’t trying to be gross or creepy or - or whatever the fuck else was going through your mind when you kept brushing me off.”
“I wasn’t brushing you off!” Mike half-yelled, finally turning to face his friend.
Lucas’ shoulders squared, but he took a deep breath and his posture relaxed. “ You were,’ he said, and then rushed on before Mike could talk over him, “and that’s fine. You didn’t wanna talk about it. Whatever.”
They eyed each other over Will’s bed, Mike fiddling with the buttons on his suit jacket while Lucas’ thumbs threaded nervously through his belt loops.
“So,” Mike started, licking his lips nervously. “So what?”
“So I just wanted…” Lucas swiped a hand across his own face. “Shit, Mike. I just wanted someone to talk to. To… troubleshoot. It was… Jesus, sex is a lot weirder than health class made it seem.”
Mike felt the fight draining out of him at Lucas’ admission. “Yeah,” he agreed finally, turning away again. “Yeah it is.”
“I just- I needed a friend,” Lucas said. “And so I figured you probably did too. That’s it.”
Mike opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and for the first time in a long time found himself at a loss for words. There were things he wanted to say - complicated, nuanced things about trust and consent and personal agency, about how El had been denied all of those things for most of her life - but Lucas beat him to the punch again.
“I’m not looking for an apology,” he said. “I just wanted you to know where I was coming from, that’s all. We don’t have to talk about it. But, uh.” He paused and cleared his throat, fighting down a smile. “You know El tells Max everything, right?”
Mike froze. “Everything everything?”
“Everything,” Lucas confirmed with a nod. “In excruciating detail.”
Mike made a face. “Even-“
“Yes,” Lucas said. “Whatever’s making you make that face, even that.”
“Okay,” Mike said finally. “I don’t even know what to do with information. Could, uh… could you tie this for me?”
Lucas laughed and shook his head, but took the tie Mike was holding out to him. “Dustin’s never gonna let you wear this.”
“Last I checked Dustin wasn’t the boss of me,” Mike said with a grimace as he followed Lucas out into the living room.
Dustin, predictably, disagreed. “You can’t wear that,” he said, snatching the tie from Lucas’ hands and throwing it over the back of the couch. “Will, give him your tie.”
Will sighed, but pulled the still-loosened black tie over his head, and handed it to Mike, who went to slip it on before Dustin grabbed it.
“You’re hopeless,” he said as he undid the knot. “Where’s your belt?”
Mike was saved from responding by Steve banging through the front door in full force. “Hey losers,” he greeted as he took the tie from Dustin and looped it around Mike’s neck. “You ready for this, Wheeler?”
“Why are you here?” Mike demanded.
“You invited me,” Steve reminded him as he adjusted the length on the tie.
“Yeah, to the courthouse.” Leaning around Steve, Mike made eye contact with Max. “Why is he here?”
She smiled. “We’ll tell you in a few minutes.”
“You said you’d tell me after I showered!”
The smile grew smug. “Technically if I told you at all it would be after you showered.”
“We’re waiting for El,” Will cut in before Mike could retort. “We have a surprise for you.”
“El hates surprises,” he snapped.
“No, that’s you,” Dustin pointed out.
“Yeah,” Mike agreed as Steve yanked him back into place, “and since I’m the one getting married today-”
“For once in your life,” Will interrupted again, “could you just react like a normal person when your friends are trying to do something nice for you?”
“If my friends were normal people,” Mike muttered.
Steve folded the shirt collar down over his tie, straightened the knot a third time, then said cryptically, “You probably wanna turn around now.”
Mike wanted to say something, but before he could retort Steve grabbed his shoulders and spun him to face the hallway. Part of him thought it should have been alarming how quickly the rest of the world fell away, but a larger, louder part was too busy pushing out every thought he’d ever had that wasn’t in praise of the young woman before him.
El was standing in the doorway, her hands smoothing nervously over the skirt of her dress, which was a shade of pink so pale that for half a heartbeat he’d thought it was white. The skirt was knee-length, flowing but not full, and the straps left both her shoulders bare. There was no adornment: no lace or ruffles, no frills or fabric roses or bows or embroidery. It wasn’t at all the sort of dress he’d ever have imagined her picking (and it wouldn’t be until months later that he’d realize it bore a more than passing resemblance to the dress Jennifer Grey had worn in the final scene of Dirty Dancing, which he’d been made to sit through no fewer than six times when it had been in theatres). Her hair fell down around her shoulders in soft, carefully defined curls, and one side had been pulled back by a pearl-embellished comb.
His heart was going to batter it’s way out of his ribcage with how hard it was beating, and his mouth had gone dry. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and he felt small and terribly inadequate, standing there in the same charcoal-colored suit he’d worn to prom, unable to tie his own tie, but the feeling lasted only as long as it took him to realize she was watching him just as intently. She smiled softly at him, shy in a way he hadn’t seen her in years, her teeth worrying her bottom lip.
“Guys, someone help him pick his jaw up,” Max teased, only to be shushed by four voices.
“You’re like a kid kicking over sandcastles,” Dustin hissed at her. “Seriously, way to-“
“Dustin,” Will said gently. “Not helping.”
El’s smile brightened at their friends’ bickering, and before he could think to stop himself Mike had crossed the room, taken her face in his hands, and bent to kiss her. She made a small, pleased noise in the back of her throat and all but melted into him, curling an arm around his waist to pull him flush against her, one hand sneaking under his jacket so she could lay her palm over his heart.
“All right, save some for the courthouse,” Joyce said, and Mike broke away immediately, his face flaming. He’d been so entranced by El that he’d completely forgotten there were any parents in the room, but El just laughed, and pressed a fleeting kiss against his throat before stepping back and straightening his jacket.
Steve snapped his fingers amidst the ensuing laughter. “Who’s got the card?”
“Card?” Dustin and Lucas chorused, and Max’s responding eye-roll was almost audible.
“I’ve got it,” she said, digging through the bag she’d brought with her and then shoving an envelope at Will, which he handed wordlessly to El.
They shared a brief look, then El ripped the envelope open, and the card she pulled out was white and blue and gold. She held it up so Mike could read the front - “On your wedding day,” it read - and then caught the little bank envelope that fell out when she opened it. “Wishing you many years of joy and happiness,” she read out loud. “From Will, Lucas, Dustin, and Max. P. S. Buy some fucking wedding rings.”
“You couldn’t have just signed your name?” Steve asked Dustin, who was holding both hands up defensively.
“I did sign my name!” Dustin exclaimed. “And I didn’t write that!”
“Max wrote that,” Will admitted. “But only because I wouldn’t.”
El handed the bank envelope to Mike, and when he opened it there were three crisp, brand-new fifty-dollar bills sitting inside.
“It was Will’s idea,” Lucas said. “He was very distressed that you were getting married without rings.”
Will sighed. “No one was distressed,” he said, exasperated.
Max’s voice was serious when she said, “We thought he was gonna cry.”
“He yelled at me,” Dustin stage-whispered behind his hand.
“Okay, none of that is true,” Will said, voice raised.
Lucas shrugged one shoulder. “You did yell at Dustin.”
“I’m about to yell at all of you,” Will snapped. “Can’t we have one nice moment today?”
“Apparently not,” Mike muttered, though he was smiling so hard his face had started to hurt. “This is… really nice, guys. Thank you.”
“So!” Steve clapped his hands, then rubbed his palms together. “We ready to go?”
“I still don’t know where we’re going,” Mike reminded the room.
“To get weddings rings,” Will said with a smile. “You can’t get married without rings.”
“So we’re hitting up the pawn shop,” Steve said. “And the rest of these clowns are gonna meet us at the courthouse. Eleven on the dot, assholes, this isn’t the kind of thing you ca- Oh El, no, come on.”
El, who’d been silent through the entire exchange, turned to hide her face against Mike’s shoulder. He wrapped an arm around her, but it wasn’t until her shoulders started shaking that he realized she was crying. “Hey,” he said, laughing gently as he wrapped his other arm around her.
Steve was smiling when he laid a hand on her shoulder, his voice a low, soothing murmur - “hey, it’s okay, you don’t need to cry” - and El’s quiet sobs crescendoed as she turned and threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly. He met Mike’s eyes with a look that was equal parts panic, confusion, and amusement, and all Mike could do was shrug.
“I told you she’d happy-cry,” Will said softly, stepping up to wrap his arms around both Steve and El. Steve laughed, and patted Will’s back as best he could, while El just fisted a hand in the front of Will’s dress shirt and cried harder. Mike watched as the indecision flitted across Max’s face, but then she was plastering herself against El’s back, piling into the hug like her life depended on it, and it didn’t take more than a few seconds for Dustin and Lucas to follow.
Mike, who’d shoved his hands in his pockets, looked over the tangle of his friends to find Joyce smiling back at him, one hand clasped over her mouth to keep her laughter contained. “You should get in there,” he said to her, jutting his chin toward the mass of limbs.
Joyce laughed, smiling, and held her arms out to him. “I’m good,” he protested, but Dustin opened an arm and snagged him by his jacket pocket, pulling him into the huddle with a muttered, “Don’t be a douchebag.”
“Love you,” El said while they were all wrapped around her, her voice high and wavering. “All of you, so much.”
“Are we really not going to talk about how every single one of you babies cried?” Max teased, looking around the large, crowded table.
“I didn’t cry,” Nancy pointed out, twirling her fork in her noodles.
Max laughed. “I said babies, not grown women.”
“You’re awfully mouthy for someone who’s getting their lunch paid for,” Hopper said around a mouthful of steak and eggs.
“What we should be talking about,” Dustin broke in, “is the fact that El’s spreading butter on table crackers and no one’s tried to stop her. Mike, what’s happening here?”
Mike shrugged. “She does it all the time, and honestly at first I’d sort of assumed it was mayo.”
“That’s not better!” Dustin exclaimed.
Will made a face. “That’s way worse.”
“Hey!” Mike snapped, his harsh tone at direct odds with the beaming smile on his face. “My wife can do whatever the hell she wants with her table crackers. You can do whatever you want with your table crackers,” he said to El, leaning over to press a kiss to the corner of her mouth. His hand, which was laying on her knee up under her skirt, squeezed briefly, and she felt the warm metal of his wedding ring pressing into her skin.
Threading her fingers through his, she pulled his hand up onto the table and then placed her left hand over it so their rings clinked together. The not-quite-matching set of plain gold bands caught the early afternoon light, and El leaned her head against Mike’s shoulder as she rocked their hands this way and that, drinking in the sight.
“You okay?” he asked gently, lips moving in a half-kiss against her hair.
She swallowed against the sudden thickness in her throat, nodding, then added, “Doesn’t feel real.”
He took his hand back so he could wrap an arm around her shoulders. “It’s real,” he said, hugging her close as he pressed their foreheads together. “Promise.”
Jonathan, sitting between Nancy and Will across the table, said, “Hold that pose.” He’d graciously offered his services (“Mom basically voluntold him,” she’d overheard Will saying to Mike), and had been snapping pictures since they’d walked into the courtroom.
“And we thought they were insufferable before,” Lucas said with a sigh.
Mike’s response to this statement was to pick a french fry off of El’s plate and throw it across the table, which erupted into cheers when Lucas was able to catch it in his mouth.
It was a little after 2:00pm, and the diner was mostly empty of the usual lunch crowd. There were a few stragglers - all of whom were staring at their rowdy party - but otherwise it was just them and the waitstaff. They hadn’t planned the outing, but when they’d been standing outside the courthouse contemplating lunch options, Hopper had (grumpily, begrudgingly) offered to treat everyone at the diner. “I figure you’ll only have one first wedding,” he’d joked, and laughed at the way Mike had scowled.
When they’d arrived they’d pushed two tables together, ordered their food, and had spent the last hour and a half laughing and talking. Mike, who to her eternal delight had never been very good at keeping his hands to himself, hadn’t stopped touching her since he’d put the ring on her hand. That sort of thing usually earned them a lot more teasing, but their friends had been surprisingly silent on that front - because, she suspected, they were all just as happy as she and Mike were. There’d been an awful lot of crying going on when they’d said their vows, and for perhaps the first time in her life she hadn’t been doing the majority of it.
Sitting there, sandwiched between Hopper and Mike, surrounded by everyone she loved, everyone who loved her, El was happier than she’d ever been in her entire life. Her heart was so full with the perfection of the day that she thought it might burst out of her chest. Mike had been so worried that he was denying her something by getting married like this, but she’d been honest when she’d told him he was all she needed. The big white dress would have been nice, and she’d never have said no to a diamond ring, but truthfully the thought of so many people staring at her set her teeth on edge, and the idea of an entire evening where people would be trying to talk to her and hug her and demand her attention was enough to tie her stomach in knots.
Their little courthouse wedding had been perfect. She’d managed to hold it together long enough to get through her own vows (and she’d forever be grateful for the fact that the judge had led them), but when it had been Mike’s turn she’d cried so hard she could barely see. He’d been crying too, his hands had shaken when he’d slipped the ring onto her finger, and just thinking back on it was enough to make tears spring to her eyes. (Standing in the grass outside the building, Joyce had put an arm around her and whispered, “See? I told you mascara was a bad idea.”) It hadn’t been a very traditional wedding, but tradition had never meant much to her, and Mike had been quick to point out that they weren’t a very traditional couple anyway. In the end, she’d gotten exactly what she wanted.
There was soft music playing from the jukebox on the far wall - Roy Orbison, she thought, though she didn’t know the song. The tables around it had been pushed back to form a little semicircle of space, as if people had once crowded around the antiquated machine to gaze at the glassed-in records. There was, she thought, just enough room for a few couples to dance.
An idea came to her, half-formed, as she leaned around Mike to glance at the jukebox again. When she turned back to the table Hopper was holding a quarter up in front of her face, uncomfortably close.
“You keep looking at it,” he said, eyes still trained on his plate. “Go pick some songs.”
El stood and took the quarter, smiling as she wrapped both her arms around his massive shoulders. “Thank you.”
“I’m trying to eat, kid,” he grumbled, but he was fighting down a grin when he patted her arm.
Mike made a move to grab another french fry, but El intercepted his hand and pulled him out of his chair. He let her drag him over to the jukebox, and wrapped both his arms around her waist when she dropped the quarter into the slot and started flipping through the albums. Laying his chin on the top of her head, he said, “What are you doing?”
“We,” El corrected absently, skimming through record titles. “First dance.”
He tensed against her. “What?”
“First dance,” she said, turning in his arms and laying both hands against his chest. “As husband and wife.”
“Oh.” He cleared his throat, blinking rapidly while a deep red flush crept down his neck. “I don’t know, El, it’s - we’re in a diner, it’s sort of-”
She grabbed the lapels of his jacket and stood on her toes, pulling him down into a quick kiss. “Please? You can pick the song.”
His arms tightened around her, hugging her so close her feet almost left the floor. He kissed her nose, both her cheeks and temples, and then mumbled against her forehead, “Whatever you want.” The weight behind those words was staggering, and she was blinking back tears again when he released her.
She turned back to the jukebox and he tucked himself against her, watching silently as she flipped through the selection. “We get three songs for a quarter,” she said softly. “There’s no Pat Benetar.”
“I don’t think the records have been changed since it was installed,” Mike said, laughing, then his arm shot over her shoulder to grab her wrist. “Wait, hold on. Go back.” She pressed the back button once, then again, before he stopped her. “Still okay with me picking the song?”
She nodded, and let him turn her away from the jukebox while he made the selections. Piano and a gentle drumbeat filtered through the sound system.
“Hold on,” he said when she went to drape both her arms around his neck. “Here, just, uh…” The same blush was still creeping across his face when he shrugged her left hand over to rest on his shoulder and folded her right hand into his chest. Instead of letting his hands rest on her hips he settled one against her back, pulling her close against him, and laid the other over her hand on his chest. The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody drifted through the outdated speakers, and they started swaying together.
The tears were gathering again when she laid her head on his shoulder and said, “Good song.” She didn’t ask why he’d picked it, or why he’d suddenly decided they were going to dance like adults instead of high-schoolers, but he was holding onto her like she was the last living thing on the planet and all of the noise in the diner fell away. Their table had grown quiet, and everyone was looking at them, but El barely registered any of it.
“You promised to love me in good times and bad,” she said softly, her cheek still pressed against Mike’s jacket.
His arm tightened, holding her impossibly closer. “I did,” he said, fingers splaying across her back, and she knew they were sharing the same thought, remembering the same long stretch of moments; not the young man who’d stood before the judge’s bench and let the state of Indiana declare him married, but the little boy who’d opened his home, and his heart, to the strange girl he’d found wandering in the woods - for no other reason than because it was the right thing to do.
“You promised,” she said again, leaning back to look at him, blinking back tears and remembering every time - every single time - he’d said those words to her: as a child, hiding her in his closet; as an awkward fifteen year-old boy who’d had the words I love you choking up his throat for weeks, waiting for just the right moment to let them go (which El would steal by making the declaration first, to his eternal consternation); as a gangly sixteen year-old, who’d been too tall for her tiny bed but had folded himself around her every day for a week when the weight of her helplessness had left her nearly catatonic. All those different promises he’d made her, and they’d really all been the same - that whatever happened, they’d be together.
“I did,” he said, and bent to kiss her, soft and sweet, his lips moving against hers. “I do. I promise.”
And Michael Wheeler had never broken a promise.