The warmth from the coffee cup pleasantly heated El's hands. She was staring out of the window in the living room at the ground outside. The snow was gone and the trees were bare. Tiny sprouts of grass were now pushing through the barren looking ground. Spring was here. She took another sip of the coffee as she tuned out the usual morning background noises of Mike in the kitchen. It was french vanilla flavoured.
Mike had bought a new coffee machine and they were trying out a new flavour every day. This one was okay she supposed but nothing beat straight up black in her mind. Her mind continued to wander as she observed the arrival of Spring. Maybe she could convince Mike to put in a pizza oven next. She would really like that. El then began to think about the really cool pizza ovens that were made out of bricks and were outdoors like in a backyard or some place like that. It would mean that her and Mike would probably have to get a house but not in Queens. It would be too expensive. Maybe somewhere out on Long Island where it would be cheaper. Or maybe upper state New York.
El drank the last of her coffee and smiled to herself. She was actually planning a future with someone. She was actually thinking about settling down and getting pizza ovens together. In a couple of months she would've been in New York for a year. Twice as long as she had anticipated. But Mike just came into her life and turned everything upside down so to speak.
An arm slipped around El's waist, holding her close against a tall lean body. Speak of the devil.
"Can I get a kiss goodbye?"
El turned her head so that Mike could plant a kiss on her lips. It had become their morning ritual of sorts as Mike left for the day. One that El was more than happy to indulge in.
Mike smiled as he pulled away from her. It made El smile too. They were two idiots smiling at each other.
Mike ran his hands through El's hair as he walked away. "Have a good day. And remember to give Pal the kibble. He has had enough wet food for the week." Mike opened his mouth as if he was about to say something else but bit his bottom lip and smiled bashfully at El before leaving.
El had turned back to the window but she felt another pair of eyes on her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Paladin leaning over the arm rest glaring at her. She knew that look.
She went to the kitchen and rinsed out her coffee cup and then poured the kibble into Paladin's food bowl and refilled his water bowl.
She then sat on the couch, flipped the television on and her new favourite show Pawn Stars was on.
Paladin was back. And he didn't look too pleased. He meowed several times in an obviously distressed tone. El would've bet anything that if Paladin was a human, he would be cussing her out.
"Paladin you have to eat the kibble. You heard Mike. No more wet food for you."
The cat stopped meowing and then suddenly sprung onto to El's lap. He purred and rolled over. Softly butting his head against El's torso.
"That's not going to work this time." El did admire the cat's gumption. "You have to eat the kibble."
Paladin continued rubbing himself on El for a few more minutes but when El didn't get up, the cat hopped down to the floor as if he was offended. Paladin came upon his own remote on the floor and used his front left paw to press a button. Suddenly the channel changed in front of El's eyes. El looked down at the cat who narrowed his eyes at her and walked off with its head high and tail in the air. El laughed as she changed the channel back. That cat was a diva and she loved it.
"El, it's wet."
"It's just some dew you crybaby."
"I'm not a crybaby. I just don't want to sit on grass."
"That's why I brought a blanket."
"Is that the one that I use at Christmas?"
"What difference does it make?"
El giggled as she spread the blanket on the ground underneath a bare oak tree. They were at the park. It was night time and the air was sharp and crisp. The sky was clear and dusted with stars. It was a perfect night. She sat on the blanket and then patted the spot next to her. Mike reluctantly sat next to her but El immediately leaned against his chest and Mike's arm instinctively went around his shoulder.
They remained in the peaceful silence of the night for a while. Quietly inhaling the cold air but being comforted by the warmth of each other's bodies. El was playing with Mike's fingers while she spoke up.
"How come you're in New York?"
"Hmm?" Mike had been gazing heavenwards at the constellations. "What do you mean?"
"I mean," El decided to lace her fingers through the hand that was hanging over her shoulder. "You're not from here originally and you're not dying to be based in Manhatten for work, I mean there are lots of nicer places to live."
"Ummm..." El could hear a slight nervousness in Mike's voice and gave him a chance to speak. "Well let me put it this way. New York was the furthest away from Hawkins that I could afford to go."
"Why did you have to leave?" El turned her head slightly so that she could look at Mike while he spoke.
"Because my family no longer wanted me around." Mike's voice dropped and El could clearly hear the hurt in his voice.
She turned around completely so that her chest was against Mike's and her arm slipped around his waist. Her fingers slipping underneath his t-shirt to touch his bare skin in a comforting gesture. "Why?"
Mike took a deep breath before he started. He allowed the cold air to fill his lungs and it refreshed him a bit. He didn't like talking about his past but El had a to right to know. It was inevitable at some point really.
"I... uh... Went against my parents expectations of me. I knew that I had a very different career plans in mind for myself than what my parents had of me and a big part of me knew that they wouldn't have approved of my choices. So when I graduated I knew that I had to come clean about what it was that I wanted to do with my life." Mike paused for a bit and El kissed his cheek. She wouldn't push him. Just let him get it out in his own time.
Mike slipped his arm down to El's waist and gave her a squeeze. "So I told them the summer after I graduated that I wouldn't be joining the family accounting business that I preferred IT. In the grand scheme of things it didn't strike me as that bigger deal, however my dad told me that I was a disappointment to him and didn't speak to me for the rest of the summer and my mom eventually became cold as well, I think she was exhausted playing buffer between me and my dad. I had been working during the summer so I saved the money and booked a one way ticket to New York and that was it. The only people who still talk to me are my sisters Nancy and Holly."
"Is that their picture that you have on the table near the front door?" El inquired.
"Yeah." Mike nodded his head. "So I came to New York and had enough money to stay in a decent hotel for a week but after that I had no idea what I was going to do. I had one day left when I met Jen at the clothing store and I ended up staying with her and her roommate for a month while I found a job at an IT firm. And I've been in New York ever since."
"So you've never gone back to Hawkins?"
Mike shook his head. "Nope. Nancy and Holly have visited me though a few times. They said that they might come up this year." He rubbed El's side through her jacket. "I would like you to meet them. I think you guys would get along great."
"I think I would like that." El murmurred into Mike's chest.
Mike tugged on El's arm. El lifted her head and Mike kissed her softly. "I want to know about you too El. Why you move around so much. Why you are the way that you are."
El fidgeted a bit, obviously uncomfortable. But eventually she calmed down and nodded. "Okay."
El shifted a bit so that she was completely between Mike's legs, resting right up against him. Her back to Mike's chest but she placed both of Mike's arms around her waist and settled in.
"Well I told you about my dad and I'm sure the irony of him being a cop and me a career criminal isn't lost on you. It might surprise you though that my mom was a secretary at a law firm in downtown Chicago. After dad died mum tried her best. On the outside everything looked nice. Nice house. Nice car. But she used to date so many losers. A lot of them used to deal drugs as well. My mom, she stayed clean until I was like ten. Then she started using and that was it. I was in and out of foster homes only really back with her when she was clean which wasn't often. By the time I was twelve she had lost her job, the house and was driving some piece of shit. We lived in a bad neighbourhood and I had to learn how to survive.
It was okay I guess, until one day when I had been sent back to her she relapsed. I came home and there was nothing no food no water no electricity nothing. I decided that survival required money. I went out that next day and tried to get some money. Unfortunately the guys whose pocket I tried to pick was Brenner." El paused for a bit. She had never told anyone else this, not even Max. But if Mike wanted to know the truth about her, then he had to know. "So instead of handing me over to the cops he drove me home and spoke to my mum, next thing you know he is telling me to pack a bag and we left. My mum didn't even blink. He told me on the way to what would become my home for the next few years that he bought me for $500, told me I would now answer to him and do what he says if I knew what was good for me. So I did and I am still doing it now."
"Oh god El." Mike dipped his head and kissed El's forehead. He had no idea that El's past had been so tainted. "I'm so sorry."
At least he didn't laugh at her , El thought. "It wasn't your fault."
"I know but," Mike planted a kiss on El's temple. "That was so wrong. You shouldn't have to go through that."
"I guess." There were lots of things that she shouldn't have had to go through but when life deals you a shitty hand, all you can do is play and hope for the best. "I thought it might end when I turned 18 but no, he had trained me, ensured I knew how his criminal enterprise ran, he owns me and he doesn't ever stop reminding me."
"Oh El." Mike squeezed her tightly as if he was trying to protect her.
"I mean don't get me wrong I am not the only one, I have certainly been with him the longest but there are others that joined over the years, you know about most of them Mick, Dotty Axel Funshine, Kali. There were others that had been part of his crew but tried to leave, there weren't so lucky" El paused "It wasn't until I was seventeen that I realized how fucked up it was. My mom never got clean and I found out she died shortly after I left. It was then I realised I was on my own. I didn't get to graduate from high school, so I had to make some money however I could." El sighed and threw her hands up in the air. "And that's basically how I am, how I am."
"El, I'm so sorry." Mike cradled her head against his chest. El was a lot stronger than he gave her credit for. "I shouldn't have asked."
"No it's okay. You wanted to know. And I told you." El picked at her jacket.
"But now I'm hurting for you." Mike hoarsely whispered.
El paused. No one had ever hurt for her before. "Why?" Her question sounded timid and uncertain.
Mike kept a firm hold on El as he rested his chin on El's shoulder. "Because I love you."
It felt as if the entire universe stilled in that moment. The wind dropped. The crickets stopped chirping. The only thing El could feel was Mike's breath on her cheek.
El slowly turned her head to look at him. "Do you really mean that?"
Mike's eyes didn't break away from her face. "I do."
El believed him.
"I guess this is the right time to tell you that I'm completely in love with you too." Mike smiled brightly. "Oh god," El grumbled. "Please don't make this into a big deal."
Mike laughed softly. "You're so cute when you're being romantic." He softly pressed his lips against El's. El kissed him back. That was a lot easier than she had expected. It had just felt like the right time and space to tell Mike how she felt about him. It was a relief to know that all of the anxiety she had about it, was all in her head. As the kiss deepened she felt her phone vibrate in his pocket. It was just a text message. She would check it later. Her arm curled around Mike's neck. She was busy right now.
The next day, Mike was at home. El was in the bedroom dressing when she picked up her pants from last night. She remembered that her phone had vibrated and she fished it out of the pocket. It was a text message from Kali.
When Mike walked into the bedroom, he noticed El staring at the phone in her hand but her mind seemed far away.
"Hi. Is everything all right?"
El looked at him as if she didn't recognize him at first. He watched as El forced a smile to a her face. "Um yeah."
She slowly walked towards Mike while keeping her eyes focused on him as if she was trying to memorize him at that point in time. She wrapped her arms around Mike's neck and kissed him deeply much to Mike's surprise. El took her time, sucking on Mike's lips and tongue as if she was savouring the taste. She pulled back from Mike, her fingers still in her boyfriend's silky black hair. Her eyes locked on Mike's brown orbs. "I love you."
Mike seemed a bit puzzled but replied nonetheless. "I love you too."
El shoved the phone into her pocket. "I have to go help Max run an errand. She just text me." She smiled at Mike apologetically as she left the room. "I'll be back."
El was acting strange. Well stranger than usual.
But it wasn't in an obvious way and sometimes Mike wondered if she was just imagining things. El seemed quieter than usual and sometimes Mine would catch her staring and she would quickly look away. Mike would ask her what was the matter but El would just brush him off so Mike decided to let her be even though it did bother him a bit.
Right now he was observing El sitting cross legged on the couch and Paladin was in her lap. She was absentmindedly petting the cat while she watched television. She seemed normal at that moment. In front of her on the coffee table was a plate that held the edge of a crust of a sandwich that El has eaten. He had given up on getting El to use any form of cutlery and just handed her a broom whenever she finished eating to clean up after herself. But lately El seemed to have discovered the use of plates and this concerned Mike. This wasn't his El.
Mike eased on to the couch next her. Paladin immediately sprang from El's lap into Mike's making himself comfortable. El followed suit resting her head on Mike's shoulder as he slid his arm around his girlfriend's waist.
Maybe he just needed to relax. El wasn't doing anything wrong. She was just being a bit quieter and being considerate of her messes. Maybe his El was just growing up a bit.
He felt soft kisses being pressed into his neck. A warm breath tickling his neck. Mischievous fingers underneath his t-shirt, caressing his skin. This was his El. He just needed to relax and go with the flow.
El was sprawled across him and was sound asleep. He had let El take control. Their lovemaking was as intense as usual. El kept on repeating how good he felt inside of her and how perfect he was. It seemed as if El was trying to drill the words into Mike's head. So that they would play forever on repeat in his brain. But then again we all say some intense things in the throws of passion Mike reasoned. However there was just a hint in El's golden eyes, from how she had looked at him, that made Mike think that it had to be more than just endorphins speaking.
Even now while El slept, it felt different. El's head was on his chest. One arm over Mike's shoulder and a leg between Mike's thighs. Nothing about the position itself was unusual but it was how it felt. Normally El's body would be relaxed. Her limbs floppy like rubber. Now he could feel the tension in El's body. She was asleep but it felt as if El was still holding on to something. Or someone. Him.
He could feel El's fingers pressing into his shoulder leaving marks. Her leg firmly planted in between his thighs. It seemed as if El didn't want to let go of him. As if she was afraid of losing him. Mike stroked El's messy hair fondly. He had half a mind to wake her up and tell her that she would never lose him. That he would always be here for her. The love that he had for El was stronger than any love he had for anyone that he had previously dated. El had her annoying tendancies that frustrated him but deep down he knew that it would never break this bond. El was brash, stubborn and impulsive. All qualities that Mike loathed on paper but when embodied by El, he loved them. Endeared him even more to her. But on the other hand, he could completely relax around her. Be free to be himself and to be listened to with an open mind and not be judged. They laughed, ate pizza and fought over what to watch on TV. El was closer to him than anyone had ever been, she was his best friend. But in bed, El was his lover. Mike didn't think that it would ever be possible to be tired of making love to El. No experience was exactly the same as the one before. El kept on finding new spots on his body that seemed so innocent before that turned him on so much whenever El kissed or caressed them.
Mike dipped his head down and pressed his lips to El's forehead. No, El didn't have anything to worry about. He would never leave her. Ever.
A couple days later Mike came home from work and found El sitting on the couch. As soon as El saw him a mischievous smile formed on her lips. Golden eyes twinkling. Mike relaxed. This was El that he was used to.
"What are you up to?" Mike asked as he sat next to El on the couch only for his girlfriend to immediately stretch all over him to kiss his lips.
Mike didn't believe her for a second. He eyed her suspiciously. "What do you want?"
El pretended to think about the question but Mike could tell that she already had her answer. "Well, now that you mention it," El was trailing her finger down the front of Mike's chest. "I want to go to Coney Island."
"Really?" Mike definitely didn't see that one coming.
"Yep." El rolled off of him and tugged Mike's hand. "Now go take a shower and get ready."
"But I don't think that the rides start back up yet until next month."
However, it seemed as if El was not listening to him as she pulled him along into the bedroom. "Go get ready. I'll shower at my place."
Before Mike could question El on what had bought this on, she was out of the bedroom. Mike started to strip to prepare for the shower. At least a trip to Coney Island would get them out of the apartment. Even though the last time that they went there it didn't end pleasantly. But maybe this time around, it could be something special.
The brisk sea salt laden air whisked around the couple as they walked holding hands down the boardwalk. Mike inhaled deeply and released it quietly through his lips. As he had said, the rides were still closed for another month and the area had light traffic due to it being a week night. But the night felt fresh and magical as if anything was possible and if you believed, it would come true.
Mike stopped for a moment and leaned against the railing, pulling El towards him. His girlfriend took the hint and pressed her body against Mike, wrapping her arms around his neck. Now this was the kind of public display of affection that felt more natural. More authentic to El.
She tilted her head to the side and Mike kissed her gently on the lips. His fingers locked together resting on El's lower back in a loose embrace.
"So what brought this on?" Mike inquired.
"I don't know," El glanced around before settling her gaze back on Mike's face. "I just wanted to come here I guess."
"Oh. I guess it's kinda surprising since the last time that we were here it didn't go too well."
El bit his bottom lip and gave a nervous laugh. " Um, yeah. That's kinda why I wanted to come here. I... uh..." she glanced up to the night sky as if she was seeking an answer. Her eyes refocused on Mike. "I didn't want to leave it tainted."
Mike raised an eyebrow in curiousity. "Tainted how?"
El exhaled sharply and repositioned herself a bit so that her body was pressing right up against Mike's. "The last time that we were here I just wasn't in a good place. This thing that we had I was… " El's cheeks reddened a bit. "I was feeling it a bit more than I cared to admit and I didn't want that. So I tried to push you away." El's fingers curled into the loose hair at the back of Mike's neck, twirling them around her fingers. "You were getting close to me in a way that no one has ever done before and what made it worse is that I just let you. It messed me up a bit so I had to get away from you. But then I saw you at the bar with that girl and I was so jealous." El's face tightened a bit at the confession. Mike could tell that she was replaying that night in her eyes.
"God Mike!" El's right hand fisted Mike's t-shirt in the center of his chest. Her eyes were hard and full of an emotion that Mike just couldn't put his finger on. "I really really love you. You get that right?" When Mike didn't answer fast enough, El gave his shirt a hard tug almost causing their foreheads to clash. "You get it right?" Her eyes desperately searching her boyfriend's face for an answer.
Mike swallowed a bit. "Yes I get it." El was being really intense right now. But he didn't question it. It seemed as if El needed to get this out of her system and he would let her.
El closed off the distance between them and kissed Mike hard. "You have got to understand that this is a big deal for me. I've never told anyone that I loved them before." A brief smile appeared at the corner of El's lips as he shook his head. "So this is all a bit new to me, so forgive me if I'm not doing this right."
Mike's smile mirrored El's. "It's been perfect so far."
El's smile got bigger and she kissed Mike again but far gentler this time. She rested her forehead against Mike's. "I just want you to know that no matter what happens that I love you with every party of me."
It was Mike this time who made the move and gave El a soft kiss that made her lips tingle a bit even when Mike had pulled away. "And I love you so fucking much that I can't even explain it." He confessed.
"Even if I leave crumbs everywhere?" An impish grin appeared on El's face.
Mike sighed melodramatically. "Yes even if your lazy ass leaves crumbs everywhere." He kissed El's jaw. "But you're still gonna have to clean that up though."
Mike watched El as she slept next to him. Half of El's body was on top of him and the other half was on the bed. She wasn't as tense as she had been lately but she wasn't as fully relaxed either. They had made love twice since they got home from Coney Island that evening. Both times were hot and passionate. God, how he loved it. It was amazing to him after learning about El's background how a woman who was shown so little love growing up tried so hard to show her love for him. El wasn't the typical romance type. She didn't always get it right like going and threatening his clients who wouldn't pay him but her heart was in the right place. That was what mattered most of all to Mike. El's heart was in the right place and Mike's heart was right next to it. He pressed a kiss to the top of El's bare shoulder and secured his arm around his lover's waist. As he drifted off to sleep the one thing that he was certain of was the love that they had for each other.
Some time in the early morning when Mike was barely conscious he felt El moving his arm and placing it on his own body. His first thought was that El was probably going to the bathroom. He rolled over and pulled the blanket up. He was really tired and needed every precious minute of sleep that he could get. He was barely cognizant of the kiss that El placed on top of his head.
When Mike fully woke up a couple hours later, the first thing he realized was that the bed was empty. But that was nothing unusual as El was surprisingly an early riser when she wanted to be and would be in the living room watching television with Paladin.
Mike pulled on a pair of boxers that he found on the bedroom floor and padded out to the living room to see if El was out there. The television was on and the volume was barely up but he only found Paladin curled up on the floor. As soon as the cat spotted him he got up and came towards him meowing as if he was trying to tell him something. He scooped the cat up and petted him as he walked into the kitchen.
"Have you seen El, boy?" Mike asked as he looked around. The coffee machine was still clean. El hadn't even bothered to start the machine. Mike sat on a stool as he glanced around. It was obvious that El wasn't in the apartment. He wondered where she could've possibly gone. He figured that she probably went down to the bodega to get some breakfast which she did occassionally. He would just wait until he got back.
Mike was starting to get a bit worried. Over half an hour had passed and El wasn't back yet. He was trying not to panic but a nervous feeling was fluttering in his stomach. He put Paladin down on the floor and went back into his bedroom to get his cellphone. He tapped the screen and he could feel his heart thumping in his chest as the phone just rang and went to El's voicemail. He sank down on his bed staring at the phone. He was totally panicking and worried now. Where the hell was El?
He called eight more times in the next two hours and all ended with the same result. He left voicemails telling El to call him immediately because he was worried about her. He paced around his apartment, unable to keep still. He was so fucking scared. A feeling of dread was washing over him. He was praying that El hadn't gone and done anything stupid.
By midday, Mike had cancelled all of his appointments for the day and was going stir crazy in his apartment. He had to go look for her. He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and the t-shirt from the night before. He shoved his feet in a pair of sneakers and grabbed his car keys.
As his apartment door closed soundly behind him, Mike stood in front of it wondering where to go. Where the heck would he start looking for El? Geez, he didn't even know where Max lived.
Mike glanced to his left and saw El's apartment door. Fuck, for all he knew his girlfriend could be in her own place fast asleep or something. He went over and knocked on the door and waited but he got no response. He tried the knob and surprisingly it turned easily in his hand. He opened the door and stepped inside. His heart dropped and a huge lump rose in his throat. El didn't have much furniture in her apartment but as he surveyed the scene even that was gone. Every thing was bare. All he could see was empty white walls and a wooden floor.
No, this couldn't be happening. Mike rushed to El's bedroom. The mattress was stripped clean. The sheets were gone. He threw open the closet doors and opened up the drawers. He felt as if his eyes were deceiving him. Everything was gone. All of El's clothing, shoes and personal effects were gone. It was as if she had never even lived there. Mike even searched the bathroom looking for something, anything that said that El was there but not even a toothbrush was left behind.
A heavy weight filled Mike's chest as he dragged his feet back to the living room looking around, his body was actually quivering in disbelief and he wrapped his arms around himself to stop the shaking. His eyes became glassy and tears threatened to spill over his eyelashes. Every thing was gone and so was El.
Mike dry heaved as his hand wiped his face again for the umpteenth time. He couldn't believe that he still had tears running down his face. It was late afternoon and he was still in shock. El had left him. So many questions ran through him and no one could answer them for him. Paladin was resting his head on his left thigh and he looked as melancholy as Mike felt. He knew that his master upset and he had stayed right next to him from the time that he had returned from El's empty apartment.
The only person that Mike had managed to call was Dustin. He had barely managed to blurt out that El had left him before Dustin promised to be over as soon as he was finished with his client.
What had he done? Did El get into trouble? Why would El leave without telling him good bye? He remembered the night that he found El in the park. It had been her birthday. He had joked about El leaving him without telling him and El had told him that she would never do that. That she wasn't an asshole. It was a goddamn lie. It just hurt so damn much. There was this dull ache in the middle of his chest as if something had been snatched out of his body leaving him incomplete. The only thing or person rather who could fill it was El. Mike would've given anything to see her walking through that door. To have her back monopolizing the couch and television and leaving her crumbs all over the place. It just hurt so fucking much to know that he wasn't even worth a goodbye. That El could've just up and leave and not even call him to explain. Just yesterday he would've sworn that El had truly loved him but today he couldn't help but to think that everything that happened between them wasn't more than a giant con. Mike shook his head. No. El loved him. She couldn't fake that emotion that she had in his eyes for him whenever they were close or made love. El was in love with him. Then how the fuck could she leave him just like that?
Mike didn't even hear when Dustin had come in. He had left the door unlocked.
Dustin sat next to him on the couch and immediately Mike's head was on Dustin's shoulder and Dustin gave him a hug.
"I'm so sorry. What happened?"
So Mike told him about waking up and not seeing El, to calling her and finally discovering that her apartment was empty.
"That's so messed up." Dustin rubbed Mike's shoulder in a comforting motion. "She probably moved all of her stuff out when you were at work so that you wouldn't notice."
Mike hadn't even considered that and he felt a new hurt rising in his chest and an uncomfortable lump in his throat. El looked him in his face day after day and told him that she loved him when all the while she was making her plans to leave him.
"I'm such an idiot." Mike mumbled into his hands.
"No Mike. Don't blame yourself. You couldn't have seen this coming and to be honest neither did I. She really had me fooled. I didn't think that she would ever hurt you." Dustin paused for a bit. "Maybe something came up and she had to leave town." Dustin tried to sound hopeful.
"If she had to leave then she could at least have told me goodbye. Don't I deserve at least that much?" Mike was shouting but not really at Dustin. He was getting angry. It hurt him so much to be so callously treated like a piece of trash by the woman who had captured Mike's heart like no other. He had never asked El for much. Only for some respect and in the end she couldn't even give him that.
"You deserve that and more." Dustin said ruffling his hair. "You're a great guy Mike and if I was into guys, you would be at the top of my list."
For the first time during this long, horrible day, Mike cracked a smile.
When Mike woke up the following morning he immediately turn to his side expecting to see El but of course she wasn't there. He ran his palm over the empty space, the sheets cool beneath his skin. El was gone. He was still processing it. He felt as if he was physically ill. His throat hurt, his eyes felt weary, his stomach was queasy. He just wanted to go back underneath the covers and shut out the rest of the world.
Just as he was about to do that he smelled something like food wafting in through his bedroom door. It smelled like scrambled eggs and bacon. As soon as his brain identified the scent, his stomach growled. He then realized that he hadn't eaten anything at all yesterday.
So resisting his basic urge to remain in bed he shuffled out his bedroom in his rumpled sweatpants. In his kitchen he found Dustin turning off the heat under the pan of bacon. His hair was a mess and his clothes looked slept in. Well of course they were. He knew that Dustin wouldn't have left him after the state he was in yesterday. Dustin was truly his friend in every since of the word.
Dustin jumped a bit when he felt Mike's arms wrap around him and his day old beard prickling his shoulder. "What gives dude?"
"You're a great friend Dustin. I really mean that."
Dustin tried to shrug as he plated the food. " Don't mention it. It's just what friends do."
"No it's what great friends do." Mike corrected him.
"Well since I'm such a great friend then I think you should get a better couch. I think my neck is crooked now."
Mike laughed and immediately it felt like such a long time since he had done that. He grabbed one of the plates Dustin had made up and sat next to him at the bar so that they could eat together. It felt nice having someone there for him but still it couldn't fix the void that El had left behind. He needed some answers.
Dustin would kill him if he knew where he was right now. Mike pulled up the collar of his coat around his neck as he eyed the townhouse across the street. Central Park behind him. Brenner's place. He had followed El here the first night that he had tailed her and now he was hoping to get some answers. It was after one o' clock in the morning and the familiar black van had driven into the underground parking lot about half an hour ago. Mike was hiding behind a tree across the street. His own car was parked further down the street. Yes Dustin would certainly wring his neck if he knew what he was up to.
Finally, the girl whom he had been waiting on had appeared. It was the girl that used to pick El up and did the drop offs with her. Mike darted out from behind the tree and sprinted across the street. He just felt that the reason that El had left had something to do with Brenner.
The girl had already started to walk down the street when Mike caught up to her. "Kali!"
Immediately the girl turned around, narrowing her eyes at Mike. She was way more intimudating up close. Taller than El with dark eyes that felt like they pierced right through you.
"Do I know you? Why are you yelling my name?"
Mike walked right up to Kali, shoulders hunched forward. "Sorry." He apologized but Kali remained unmoved. "My name's Mike. I am El's...well, I was her...uh..."
"You were El's dude?" Kali finished the sentence for him.
"Yeah." Mike was a bit embarrassed. He didn't know why he found it so hard to say what he was to El just now.
"Oh Jesus." Kali sighed and shook her head. "El always said that you had more looks than brains." Kali crossed her arms. "What are you doing here? Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"I'm not dumb." Mike was a bit offended that El would describe him that way. While it was true that he was a bit implusive, he didn't do it irrationally.
"Didn't say you were." Kali cocked her head to a side as if she was already getting bored of this conversation.
Mike was beginning to feel a bit nervous as he spoke to Kali, hoping that she was a reasonable he continued . "El left yesterday. She took all her stuff and …" Mike could feel his throat starting to choke up but he'd be dammed if he was going to cry in front of Kali. " … and she didn't even say goodbye. I just woke up and she was gone. No note or anything and she won't answer her phone. I just need to know what happened. Why did she leave me?"
"Oh Jesus." That seemed to be Kali's favourite expression. She glanced behind them and then tilted her head. "Let's go talk this out in the park. It isn't safe to be talking like this out in the open."
Mike nodded. They quickly crossed the empty street and made their way into the park. They found a bench and Kali sat on one end and Mike on the other.
"So do you know why El left?" Mike couldn't wait for an answer. He needed to know everything now.
"Kind of." Kali stared off into the dark distance. "El always works for Brenner under contracts, has done since she was young. One of the terms of the contract is that when the job is over, El has to leave town. It's how Brenner has remained undetected by the police for so long. No one works for him long enough in one place for the cops to build a case to connect the person to him."
She glanced at Mike and in that moment she saw how broken the man was over El's abandonment. " Look, El didn't really say it in so many words but she really was into you. She asked Brenner to extend her contract so that she could remain in New York and I knew that she was doing it just so that she could stay with you. She then tried for a second extension but Brenner didn't give it to her, so El should've left town. But she didn't." Kali was looking directly at Mike this time as she spoke. "I guess that she was trying to keep a low profile out in Queens but Brenner has eyes everywhere and I guess he found out that El was still in town. To cut a long story short, to say Brenner was furious was an understatement. In all the time El has worked for him. She has never once broken the rules. Brenner is not a guy you cross. He was going to send a couple guys out to rough her up a bit and scare her out of town and if that didn't work, well..."
Kali didn't have to finish the sentence. Mike knew where it was going. He swallowed hard around the lump in his throat. "How did El find out?"
"I told her. I'm loyal to Brenner but I considered El my friend so I warned her."
"So that's why she left? Because of what Brenner would've done to her? She could've told me and we would've worked something out." Mike tried to sound hopeful.
"You don't get it. Brenner's men wouldn't have just attacked El . Brenner knew that El was seeing someone and she was probably still staying because of that person. They would've gone after you too." Kali hated having to spell it out to him but Mike had to understand the gravity of the situation.
A shiver ran down Mike's spine. Brenner would've come after him even though he was essentially an innocent party in all of this. "So El left to protect me?"
"That's what I'm thinking."
"But why didn't she tell me? We could've gotten through it together. Why did she keep it to herself?" The questions just kept pouring out of him. So many whys and no solid answers.
Kali shook her head regretfully. "I'm afraid that I can't answer that but be honest with yourself would you have let her leave."
"Do you at least know where she is?"
Mike didn't quite buy it. "Are you telling me the truth?"
Kali immediately took offence. "Why would I lie to you now after I just told all of that?" Kali got up from the bench. "Look, I'm sorry that El left you. I truly am. But I already told you too much already. So I'd appreciate not getting called a liar."
Mike instantly rethought what he had just said. That had definitely been a bad move on his part. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"You're right you shouldn't."
Mike let her have that. "You didn't have to tell me anything but I'm grateful that you did." Mike got up and dusted off his jeans. "Thank you. At least I have some answers now."
Mike nodded politely at her and walked away. Kali remained watching his retreating figure. She pulled her cellphone out of her backpocket and tapped the screen a couple of times before putting it up to her ear. The operator immediately clicked in and told him that the number she dialed was no longer in service. "Fuck, El! ." Kali ended the call.
Three weeks later
Life had returned to pretty much what it had been before El had arrived in his life. Although every evening when he turned the knob on the door, he hoped that he would walk in and find El sitting on the couch watching television but of course that didn't happen.
As Mike walked in, he did his usual thing of scratching Paladin behind the ears and then going into the bedroom to put down his bag. He missed El terribly. Hardly a minute of the day went by when he didn't think of her in some way. He missed talking to her. Kissing her. Holding her. Making love to her. He just missed El being El. So many times he replayed their sex over in his head. He had never had it better then when he was with El. That final night at Coney Island. It was only now that he realized that El was telling him goodbye in her own way. But a part of Mike was still angry about it. It didn't have to go down like that. They could've worked something out even if it had to be long distance for a while. But just to leave him coldly like that was possibly the worst way that El could've hurt him.
Mike changed into comfortable old shorts and a t shirt . Just as he was about to sit on the couch the doorbell rang. It was probably either Dustin or Lucas.
However much to his surprise when he opened the door he found Jenny Hayes standing on the other side.
"Jenny! What are you doing here?" Mike definitely hadn't expected to see his old friend.
" Hey Hot Wheels, I ran into Dustin in the mall today. He told me what happened." He could see Jenny examining his face. "I had to come and see if you were alright."
"I'm doing okay J."
"I don't believe that Mikey." She said tenderly. Jenny stepped inside the apartment and closed the door.
Just from the way that Jenny was looking at him, Mike felt the strong facade crumbling. "She left me J. I should've listened to you."
"Hey it's okay." Jenny embraced him and Mike's arms tightened around her waist. "You didn't know that she would do this."
Mike heaved heavily. His breath shuddering as he desperately tried to keep the tears from running down his face. " Sorry. I thought that I was done getting upset by now."
"It's okay Mikey." Jennykissed his cheek as she rubbed Mike's back gently. "Let it all out. I'm here for you."
"You promise that you won't leave me too?"
Jenny's heart nearly broke for him. "Of course not Mike. I will always be here for you."
Jenny pulled back so that Mike could see her face and see how serious she was. "I promise."