Mike Wheeler never imagined he’d fall in love as early as 12 years old.
At first, he didn’t even know he was in love. All he knew was that the scared girl he found in the woods was a little odd but she understood him even without words. Standing on the train tracks, her walking beside him as they followed a trail to find Will, was the happiest and most content he’d ever been. In those moments he knew he wanted her to be a part of his life for a long long time.
He didn’t have time to realize it was love because soon after she disappeared. He watched as she was ripped to pieces along with the monstrous Demogorgan. At the same time an unending chasm opened in his chest, threatening to swallow him whole and it remained that way for a whole year until she was back with him again.
Everything he saw, felt and thought was clouded by intense grief. His heart broke itself over and over again as he tried to call her fruitlessly every night with no reply. He searched for her in the woods, knowing he could still feel her (she was close! ). He saw the looks his friends gave each other, he saw how his mom seemed to look helpless when he drew more and more into himself. He knew they thought he was going insane. (He wasn’t, He just wasn’t!)
But as much as convinced himself he wasn’t crazy, he was scared. Some days, with tear stained pillows, he did wonder if he was going insane. If what he felt was just a trick of his own mind. It terrified him how desperately he needed her to be alive. Because what if she wasn’t, (She is alive, she is! She is! SHE IS!), what would happen to him and that ravenous cavern that made its home in its chest and only grew bigger with each passing day?
He was being pulled by his emotions in different directions. They warped him and surrounded him until he didn’t even know who he was anymore. Grief, fear, anger, desperation and so many others were basically his new best friends. He didn’t even have time to consider and name the feeling that was the root of the others.
(Why was he so messed up about a girl he only knew for a week… especially when none of his friends missed her in the same way? She was their friend too. One kiss means little, doesn’t it?)
(Why was his grief so much more intense?)
The day she returned to him, his emotions were even more out of sorts. He was fearful of the Mind Flayer and its power. He was worried for Will. He had seen gruesome sights no child should have seen. Every second he let his overworked brain slip away he saw the blood again behind his eyelids, he could hear Will’s shouts in his ears and feel the slickness of the blood of the scientists at the bottom of his sneakers despite it having dried out much earlier. He missed El. Not because she could save them. (Never because of that. He couldn’t ever think to use her). He missed her because last year she was with them, but now she wasn’t. It seemed like she was gone for no reason. And that wasn’t fair.
But she was alive. She came back.
She walked through the Byer’s door looking like an MTV punk but to him she was a warrior princess who had just saved them all. A mage of the highest order, she was incredible. His heart stuttered through so many feelings in a single second. The cavern inside him collapsed and he sobbed into her shoulder while holding her tight. (She’s alive. She’s here.)
Before he knew it she had to leave again and the fear was back with a vengeance, reconstructing the cavern. He didn’t want to let her go. He just got her back after Hopper had kept her from him, for an entire year. “What if she doesn’t make it out a second time?” his fears whispered.
“You won’t lose me,” she promised in her soft voice.
He believed her. But that didn’t help the way his heart was tearing itself to shreds just having to see her leave. He had to help her so he did. It didn’t matter if they got hurt. All Mike could see in the lab was the Demodogs and Bob and he could feel himself slipping on the dried blood under his shoes again. His fear and adrenaline fueled him and his friends as they set the hub on fire.
At the end of it all they were all safe. She was safe. She came back as promised. They would be together. Hopper hadn’t even attempted to pretend to keep El away from Mike again and for that Mike was immensely relieved. It was a losing battle. He knew there was no way he could be successful in doing that the moment El had only asked for Mike after closing the gate-even in her half dead state-and the way Mike hadn’t left her side for a single second after the return to the Byers.
The few times saw Mike before the Snowball they had so much to catch up on. She told him about her Mama and Kali and Chicago. She told him her name was Jane but she wanted to use El. She felt like El. Mike had given her El, had given her the choice, the first one in her life. The whole time he was with her, Mike was on Cloud 9. He didn’t think too hard about his feelings. He didn’t need to. He was finally happy. He could finally sleep again without tear stained pillows and the guilt of her loss giving him an inability to breath and keeping him awake.
(No, now the inability to breath came from seeing mangled bodies and petaled carnivorous mouths on white tiled floors).
The Snowball was the best night of his life. It had started out with him feeling sad, missing her. He knew she couldn’t come and it was for good reason. But he felt sad because he knew she wanted to. She deserved to be happy, deserved to have promises kept.
She had walked in looking so stunning it took his breath away. His eyes stayed on her the whole night because he was unable to look away. She was beautiful and he kissed her because his heart was pounding and he couldn’t hold it back anymore. It was just like their first kiss but sweeter, because she kissed back this time. They both blushed and Mike only knew he felt content. In those moments he had everything he ever needed again.
It wasn’t until a few months later that he realized the content feeling he got when he was El had remained constant for more than a year, buried under the piles of grief and rage of her loss. He refused to let himself name it. He knew what it was called but… it wasn’t possible was it? He was so young. They were both so young. You can’t fall in love so fast, Mike reasoned to himself. And if it was true… then he would have been in love since he was 12 years old. So, he chose not to think about it. Chose not to name the feeling in his heart and the butterflies in his stomach and the aura he had whenever they were together.
It was late March of 1985 when Mike realized it, in its full intensity.
He was visiting El. It was a weekend morning. The rest of the party weren’t slated to come until much later. Mike always came early wanting to spend time with El as much as possible-wanting to spend a few quiet hours with her alone, just the two of them. Hopper was out getting groceries having left strict instructions to “Not be Stupid” as he always did before leaving the kids on their own.
El had recently taken up drawing as a hobby. It was Holly’s influence and partially Will’s. The little girl had only recently been introduced to Mike’s girlfriend although the Wheeler parents were still largely oblivious to El’s involvement in their son’s life and who she was. Holly had demanded El color with her and El had loved it, later asking Hop for her own coloring set. She had already made multiple drawings already, hanging some up on her wall. Most of them featured Mike in some way. A fact that had made the boy blush intensely the first time she had proudly shown him her drawing.
The sun was falling on her hair from the crack in the cabin’s window curtains. She looked so focused on her work, her eyes shining. She was clearly enjoying whatever she was making but she refused to let anyone see until she was finished. Mike watched her instead. There was quiet between them. They never needed words, only each other’s presence. Mike could only stare fondly at the girl who had captured his heart. “I’m so in love with her,” it whispered.
Before Mike could even reject that thought on the basis of his fears it had taken root. As much as he tried to convince himself it wasn’t true yet, his heart remained stubborn. It knew otherwise. Mike Wheeler was deeply and irrevocably in love with El Hopper. Accepting that realization made the air freeze in his lungs but as he looked at El again, he knew it was true and suddenly his fears melted away. It was El. Things were always ok when it was her with him.
The next few days he spent agonizing over whether he should tell her or not. He didn’t want to pressure her to repeat the phrase if she wasn’t ready but that was the lesser of his concern. Mike and El were always on the same page. He knew that he wouldn’t be disappointed if El wasn’t ready to say it back and he knew El wouldn’t feel pressured either. There were no barriers between them. It’s what made everything with El so easy. No, the larger of Mike’s concern was how he was going to tell her and when.
It had to be big, and romantic. “After all,” Mike reasoned with himself as he paced the basement brainstorming, “it’s a love confession. It has to be special, it’s for El!”
Mike wanted to make sure El knew how special she was. He knew the girl had seen little love in her life and Mike wanted to be sure she’d never have to question that emotion when it came to him. El would always have a space in Mike’s heart, home and arms and she never should have to doubt it. So, he got to work. His overactive imagination went through a thousand different scenarios on how best to confess his feelings.
Finally, he chose the 4th of July. It was cheesy, he knew. It was also a few months away. But Mike knew El would love it and the Carnival Mayor Kline had already started advertising boldly gave plenty of opportunity for romantic gestures.
Mike was confident Hopper would allow El to come to the Carnival with the rest of the party. Her year wouldn’t be up quite yet but Hopper had to eventually start integrating El into society; the large crowds of people busy with their own festivities would barely notice the party had an extra member anyway. If the Carnival plan failed, Mike knew he could still confess while the fireworks were going on. He wasn’t planning on making his confession a public thing anyway. It would be just their moment.
By the time the 4th of July rolled around Mike was more than ready.
He wolfed down his breakfast after spending an unnecessarily long amount of time getting ready in the morning. He spent the day with El as he usually did. She was bouncy and excited albeit for a different reason. This was the first time El was being allowed to go to a large public gathering since the Snowball. Hopper had agreed, albeit reluctantly, but he had agreed nonetheless even getting a stamp of approval from Owens who promised that the government was in no way planning on trying to find El at the Hawkins Carnival.
As the sun set and the evening started, Mike and El met up with the rest of the party. They enjoyed the stalls and the games. They went on each of the Carnival rides multiple times. The entire experience was novel for El who loved every bit of it.
Mike, for his part, was fulfilling his need for making El happy through romantic gestures. He knew El adored stuffed animals. They made her feel safe and loved because they were soft and secure, nothing like the cold sharpness of the lab she had grew up in. He especially knew that El loved every time he got her a new plush because she had told him she could feel like he was always with her. He had already won her a cute koala plush and a teddy bear. Most of the games were rigged, as expected. But Mike felt pretty pleased by managing to win the few that weren’t. His hand eye coordination wasn’t the best but he had managed.
El enjoyed her fill of funnel cakes, kettle corn and had stolen Mike’s nachos-not that he minded. They also got snow cones with the rest of the party. El had also tried a little bit of the rest of the party’s snacks; they had readily offered them to her wanting her to experience everything they had had years to experience. She liked the cotton candy and churros, her sweet tooth satiated. Warm pretzels tasted nice but they weren’t her favorite. It was only when her face turned into a grimace after taking a bite from Dustin’s candy apple that everyone started laughing.
“Candy doesn’t go with apples,” she said solemnly once she had gotten her teeth unstuck. “Opposite flavors.”
There was a round of cheering applause as the rest of the party agreed and Dustin huffed, deciding their collective dislike of caramel apples was a bigger offense than their collective dislike of nougat.
The fireworks were slated to start at 10 o clock so at nine thirty so Mike tugged on El’s hand, which had been intertwined with his for most of the evening, motioning for her to follow him. The party was still busy playing games. It had been pre decided that Cerebro’s hill was the best place to watch the fireworks. Since there was plenty of time before the fireworks, the party decided to come later merely granting Mike and El an eyeroll as the two slipped away from the group once again, this time to get a head start to get to the firework’s viewing site.
As Mike walked with El, her arms laden with two stuffed animals he had won her and a few other prizes she had won herself, he felt himself grow nervous. His heart squeezed painfully in his chest, knowing the moment of truth was here. He was nervous, but it was an excited nervous. After so many months, he was finally ready to say the words.
Once he had named the feeling, love, it only seemed to grow stronger every day. Every time he saw her, every time she laughed and her adorable dimple popped, every time her eyes sparkled, every time she scrunched her nose at him playfully while she teased him with her powers. Everything she did. It was perfect and he fell more in love. He knew he’d never be able to stop.
Finally, they reached the top of the hill. There were still ten minutes before the fireworks so Mike grabbed on to El’s other hand to grab her attention. He felt his breath catch in his throat. Her hair was frizzy due to the summer humidity; it was also mussed after going on the carnival rides multiple times and running around the fair. There was a thin sheen of sweat on her forehead and her breath was still coming out in pants because of their rigorous climb to the top of the hill. Her eyes were sparkling though, and her smile was radiant. To Mike, she was the most beautiful as always.
“El,” he started, gently squeezing her hand. She squeezed back as if encouraging him.
“You’re happy right?” He asked nervously. “With me?”
“Yes,” El nodded. Her voice was firm and Mike almost cried at the surety in her tone. She had no doubts and he believed her. He didn’t have any either.
“I- This past half a year has been… the best in my life. And the year you were gone was the worst. I never knew it was possible to be this happy but that was before I met you. When you were gone, it felt like there was a whole in my heart. I felt like I was going crazy, I missed you so much. I didn’t know why then or… I did, but I didn’t really know how to say it, I guess? I-um…”
He was getting flustered, despite having practiced his speech a million times and she could tell.
“Mike…” she said softly, she used her hand to lift his chin so he’d meet her gaze properly. “It’s ok.”
Mike sighed and took a deep breath. The love longing to burst out grew even more because of how easily she read him, how easily she knew what he needed.
“That year,” he continued. “I was so heartbroken. It was strange for me because, Dustin and Lucas also missed you but it wasn’t in the same way. I knew I liked you. I knew it from that day on the train tracks but… how much I liked you I never knew until you came back.”
Seeing El blush and smile at his words, Mike smiled too. He gently tugged her closer to him and she readily stood right near him just like they were at the Snowball.
“El… I’m so happy to have you and, I didn’t want to say it at first because I was scared. I didn’t want you to feel like you have to say it back cuz you don’t. Its ok because, I just want you to hear it. I know we’re young and that scared me too because well everyone says that it’s impossible to know what it’s really like until you’re older and experienced and everything. But El… I just…I’ve never felt like this with anyone before but I know how I feel and I know I’ve done some… pretty crazy stuff because of it and they do say it makes you crazy.” He chuckled at that last bit, remembering how his mom had looked at him like he was insane more than a few times while he was planning something for El in the past few months.
“What…makes you crazy?” El asked, adorably confused. Mike blanched a little.
“Oh! You… you don’t know the phrase? Like… Blank makes you crazy, like the word?” he asked.
“NO! No! Not girlfriends.” The last thing Mike needed was for El to think she was driving him crazy. He was more than a little surprised she hadn’t heard this phrase in any of her favorite soap operas yet.
“Boyfriends?” El still sounded confused.
“You know the feeling? Old people say it to each other sometimes and everything?” Mike knew he was rambling and El had a confused smile on her face. This was not at all on his practiced script but as nervous as he felt, Mike knew he’d have the courage to tell her. El never judged him. He took another deep breath.
“What I wanna say is that… I just… these feelings I have for you,” he repeated. “I know that I have never felt them before and it took me a long time to admit it even to myself but I know what it is now and I’ve felt it for a long time, ever since we were twelve.” Mike paused. “El… I love you.”
El’s eyes widened as Mike finally blurt it out. It was silent for a moment before Mike continued.
“You don’t have to say it back! Like I said, I just wanted you to know and you deserve to know because you haven’t heard that as much as you should but you’re amazing and deserve to hear it every day because it’s true. I love you, El. I love you.”
Every time he said it, it became easier and Mike saw the emotions flicker across El’s face. Her eyes became teary and Mike quickly raised his hand against her cheek, ready to wipe away any tears that fell.
“I love you too, Mike!” El sobbed before throwing herself against him. “I love you. I love you.”
Mike breathed a sigh of relief as his girlfriend crushed him in a hug, his arms wrapped around her as well as a happy tear slipped down his own cheek. El finally pulled away after a few moments, and looked up at him.
Behind them the fireworks were starting but neither of them cared. Not in that moment. Mike’s hand raised up to cup El’s cheek again. She was leaning up as well, her hands clutching his arms. He gazed into her gorgeous brown eyes that were alight with happiness. The reflection of the fireworks burst in her eyes, their light illuminating her making her look more radiant than ever.
“I love you,” he whispered once more before their lips met, the fireworks behind them the perfect backdrop to highlight their silhouettes.
They shared a few more kisses before finally lying down on the ground, side by side, hands clasped tightly in each other’s as they enjoyed the show.
The rest of the party arrived a few moments later, arguing about who made them late.
“It was Dustin’s fault obviously. If he hadn’t insisted on getting another one of those disgusting apples!”
“Hey! I wasn’t the one who wanted to go on Lightship one more time and had to sit down for ten minutes after cuz I was feeling nauseous and didn’t want to get sick!”
“We should have just gone with Mike and El!”
“Hah! As if they would have let any of us. Did you wanna be the third wheel Will cuz I certainly don’t.”
“Look they’re already there!”
Mike and El barely noticed as the rest of their friends collapsed around them, groaning in exhaustion from their hurried climb.
“See! We missed the first five minutes!”
“Shut up! We have like another half hour to enjoy them if you’d stop complaining!”
The rest of the party settled down few feet away but they didn’t disturb the two lovebirds. They had noticed something was different about them and were staying away until they figured out what. The couple were… sappier than usual, grins entirely too wide and eyes starrier which, granted, wasn’t unusual for Mike and El but there was a different air to the both of them and none of the party wanted to miss more of the show to figure out what it was. There would be time for that and the inevitable teasing later.
The fireworks didn’t last nearly as long as El wanted them too despite the show lasting for a solid 40 minutes. This was her first time seeing them in her life. They were beautiful as they lit up the sky with their bright colors and fiery patterns. She wished she could see them every night. But even as they ended, El felt content and happy. Mike told her he loved her. She hadn’t expected it but the moment he said it she knew that she felt the same. It was something she had been considering for a long time too, ever since the concept of love had first been introduced to her through her favorite soaps. As the night sky went back to its regular navy hue, El sat up, with Mike sitting up right next to her.
He smiled as he asked her if she enjoyed it. She did. The fireworks were amazing.
But as El leaned her head against Mike’s shoulder, smiling happily as he gently kissed her head, she couldn’t help but think that no matter how pretty the fireworks in the night sky were, they could never compare to the ones she felt whenever she was with Mike. And lucky for her, those fireworks lasted forever.