Mike stares at the kitchen phone. It seems to taunt him and his nervousness as the off-white color gleams in the summer sun. He's been trying to work up the courage to call the cabin for what feels like four hours. Every time he's ready, with his fingers perched over the dial and the receiver pressed against his face, a new wave hits him.
What if this is only temporary? What if he's still just as mean as he was two years ago? What if he's never going to let me see her again? What if? What if?
Mike continues to spiral down his path of what ifs before finally righting himself as an image of El floats into his thoughts. Her beautiful hazel eyes, her chestnut hair which has grown significantly in her time since coming back from Russia, her soft lips which Mike repeatedly finds himself staring at every time he's with her.
I can be brave for her.
With one final deep breath, Mike picks up the phone and dials the number that has become so familiar to him. He places the receiver next to his ear and hears it ring. It rings once, twice, before finally—
“Hello?” A gruff voice that Mike is still scared of to this day answers the phone.
“Hey, Chief,” Mike greets. “It's me, Mike.”
“Wheeler.” Mike can’t see his face, but he knows Hopper is smirking. “Is everything okay, Mike?”
“Yeah, everything's fine.”
“Then why are you calling my house at 3:00 on the Fourth of July?”
“Because I was wondering...” Mike begins, trying to keep his voice steady. “Are you and El going to the Fourth of July festival tonight?” Hearing a second of silence, Mike panics and tries to fill it. “You know, like to see the fireworks and—”
“Of course we are, Mike.”
“Oh, okay.” Mike swallows and continues. “Can I speak to El real quick?”
“Sure, Mike.” Hopper pulls away from the phone and Mike hears him scream, “EL! Mike is on the phone!” Footsteps in the background get closer and closer, before finally Mike hears the phone get taken away from Hopper.
“Hi, Mike!” El’s voice comes beaming through the receiver. Mike’s face breaks out into a bright smile.
“Hey!” Mike says. “I heard you’re going to the festival tonight!”
“Yeah, I can’t wait!”
“Neither can I.”
“What do you want to do while we're there?” El asks. “I haven't been to one before.”
“I don't know,” Mike says. “I guess eat junk food and try to win prizes and then watch the fireworks together.”
“That sounds awesome!” El giggles, sending joy cascading through Mike’s body.
“Alright El, I have to go now,” Mike says as he hears his mom pull into the driveway. “I’ll see you there.”
“I’ll see you too,” El chirps back before hanging up.
Mike hangs up the phone and immediately lets out a breath he didn't even know he was holding in.
“And here we are,” Nancy says, gently squeezing her car in between the spray painted lines on the grass field that is the festival’s parking lot.
Mike sits up and begins to unbuckle his seatbelt. “Do you know when Mom and Dad are coming?”
“Mom said she and Dad are going to drive over in a little bit,” Nancy explains, while checking her makeup in the visor mirror. “They wanted to give us some ‘freedom.’” She raises her hands to add air quotes around the last word.
“Is Jonathan coming?”
“I talked to Jonathan last night. He and Will are supposed to be here in a little bit.” Nancy closes the visor. “What about the rest of the party?”
“Everyone else is coming later,” Mike says. “I just wanted to get some alone time first.”
“Alone time? With me?” Nancy jokes. “I'm touched”
“No.” Mike opens his door and steps out of the car.”
“I know, I know.” Nancy follows suit, joining Mike on the grass. “Come on,” she says, jerking her head toward the entrance to the festival. The two of them begin to walk side by side toward the brightly colored fairground before them.
The Hawkins Independence Day Festival, until two years ago, was always a spectacle. Mike remembers coming as a kid. He would run around, dragging Nancy and his mom through the field. He would eat funnel cake and cotton candy until he felt like he could explode and ride the shoddily built rides. Finally, at the end of the night, on a blanket out in the middle of Hawkins Park, he would look up at the fireworks that exploded over the night sky and have dreams of those fireworks for weeks after. Those dreams turned to nightmares two years ago, when the Mind Flayer wreaked havoc on Hawkins. Even though that battle is long over, Mike can still smell the fireworks and the blood. He can still see the grotesque flesh monster sprinting towards them. He can still hear the screams echo around him. It's the reason why, last year, the Party—or what was left of it—didn't go. Even though the festival was supposed to be a massive celebration by Mayor Jensen, to show that she's nothing like Kline, the Party instead spent the night in Mike's basement, hugging each other and crying as they relived the horrors of the year before. The wounds were still too fresh. El and Will were both still in New Mexico, and Hopper, as far as they knew, was dead.
But this is a new year and a new Party. The wounds have healed. Hopper came back, saved from a hellish Russian prison, and as a result, Joyce brought El and Will back to Hawkins. Since then, they've had a couple months to reunite and become the Party again.
Now, the two Wheeler siblings quickly make it to the front entrance and pay the admission, gaining entry into the festival. “So where do you want to go first?” Nancy asks, glancing around at the various booths and rides.
“I mean, we could go ride some rides—”
“Or we could go over there!” Nancy cuts him off and points in the direction opposite of where he’s looking.
“What’s over there?” Mike turns before seeing what Nancy is pointing at.
Sure enough, standing there in the middle of one of the many aisles of the fairgrounds is Hopper. He’s talking to someone Mike can’t see, but Hop looks pretty happy. Still, Mike forgets about him the instant he sees who’s standing next to him.
She’s so pretty.
Every time Mike sees El, he's blown away by how beautiful she is. El can't see him right now, so he can look at her without worrying about being too obvious. Her expressive eyes bounce with joy as she occasionally looks up at Hopper. Her hair blows in the slight afternoon wind, and she’s wearing a patterned romper that Mike remembers Max buying her.
“Come on!” Nancy's voice breaks Mike out of his trance. “Let's go!”
Nancy and Mike navigate their way through the crowd. When they get close enough, Mike yells out, “El!”
El whips her head toward him and, almost instantaneously, her hazel eyes widen as a grin breaks out across her face. “Mike!” She sprints toward him and nearly tackles him with a tight embrace.
“Hey, El.” Mike smiles, and they share a quick kiss.
“All right, you two.” Hopper’s booming voice interrupts their kiss. He stalks over to them, easily towering over El and looking Mike directly in the eye (thanks to a recent growth spurt). “Now, you have your money, right?”
“Yeah,” El says with a quick nod.
“Okay. Be safe.” Hop smiles as he looks over the couple. “I'll see you two before the fireworks.”
“Okay!” El bounces in excitement, her curls shaking as a result.
“Okay, sir.” Mike nods curtly, rigid with some leftover fear.
“Call me Hop.” Hopper grins. “Now go off and have fun.”
Mike and El interlace fingers and begin to walk the aisles of the fairgrounds.
"So what are you thinking about trying first?” Mike asks as him and El scan around the various booths with flashing lights and the enticing smells of cotton candy and hot dogs.
“I don't know.” El shrugs, a bright smile on her face. “Why don't we just walk around a little bit?”
“Sounds like a plan!” Mike smiles back.
The two of them kill a few minutes pacing up and down the festival, before El stops suddenly and points at a nearby booth. “What’s a funnel cake?” she asks.
“It’s basically a deep fried nest of dough covered in sugar.”
“That sounds incredible.” El’s face lights up with wide eyes and an even wider smile.
“You want to go get some?”
The two of them run hand in hand to the funnel cake booth, where they’re greeted by someone Mike swears he’s seen around school, though he can’t remember her name.
“Hi!” Mike says. “Can we get a funnel cake?”
“Sure!” The worker grabs a still warm funnel cake off a nearby rack and places it on a paper plate. “That’ll be one dollar.” She hands the cake to El as Mike fishes into his wallet and hands her the money.
The two of them quickly find a nearby bench and sit down. “How do I eat this?” El asks as she looks over the cake like a puzzle.
“You pick it apart with your fingers,” Mike says. “Like this.” He smirks before stealing a piece.
“Hey!” El swats his hand away before picking at the cake herself as a gentle snowfall of powdered sugar falls onto the plate. When she bites into the piece she picked off, her eyes immediately go wide and she begins to chew faster. “Holy crap, Mike,” she says, with a mouth still full of cake. “This is amazing.”
“Just like you,” Mike says. A blush spreads across El’s face.
“Oh my God.” El continues to take bites of her funnel cake, leaving Mike to stare at his girlfriend who's clearly on cloud nine because of the sugary ball of dough in front of her. “This is so good!”
“I'm glad you like it.” Mike can’t help but smile at his tiny girlfriend devouring the massive pastry. “What else do you want to do?”
El perks up. “I might want to go play some games. Hop told me about them in the car.”
“What did he tell you about them?”
“That they’re impossible to win and there's no point in playing them,” El states matter-of-factly.
“You know what?” Mike smirks. “I'll show Hopper. Come on, let's go play some games.” He stands and extends his hand to El, who quickly grabs it and rises to her feet.
“Let's go.” El smiles up at Mike with powdered sugar framing her mouth and a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Really?” Troy sneers as El and Mike approach the Milk Bottle game. They’ve been wandering the festival for a couple hours now, playing games and riding the gentler rides, since El is still too scared to ride the truly terrifying ones.
“A hot girl is with Frogface?” James adds, with a matching sneer of his own.
“Just ignore them, El,” Mike says as they take their places in front of the game.
“Hey, Wheeler!” Troy leans forward, shouting across Mike at El. “I'm talking to your girl!”
“Shut up, Troy!” Mike spits out, anger flashing behind his eyes. El slides in next to him and grabs his hand.
“Frogface hits his growth spurt,” James chuckles humorlessly, “and now he thinks he can take us on.”
“Whatever,” Mike huffs, before turning to El. “Are you okay? We can leave if you want. Everyone else should be here by now. We can go find them”.
“Mike,” El says calmly. She brings his face down for a kiss before leaning in and whispering into his ear, “Do you want me to take care of them?” She finishes the question with a quick head tilt towards James and Troy.
“I don't think they’re worth your powers,” Mike whispers back. “Plus, Hop might get mad.”
“Yeah, you're right.” El smiles and places her hand on Mike’s chest as she turns to face Troy and James.
“Aw,” Troy taunts. "Little Mikey got a kiss.”
El feels Mike tense under her touch. “I got it,” she says, before stepping forward to stare both of the other boys in the eyes. “How’s your arm?” She swings her gaze to Troy. “Mike, that was him, right?” she asks, without breaking eye contact.
“Yep” Mike grins, popping the p.
“IT’S… IT’S… IT’S HER!” the two boys stammer as their eyes grow wide with panic and their hands start pointing frantically.
“Go away.” El smirks, before hardening her face and snarling, “Before I do it again.”
The two boys scamper off into the festival, leaving the snickering couple behind.
“Alright,” El giggles and turns back to Mike. “You owe me.”
“Really?” Mike cocks an eyebrow while smiling. “I owe you for that?”
“Yeah, I scared them away.” El grins and boops Mike on the nose with her index finger. “So you owe me and I want that one” She points up at a large purple teddy bear hanging above the booth on the prize rack.
“You want me to win this milk bottle game for you?”
“‘Course I do.” El smirks.
“It's a deal.” Mike gives her a quick kiss before turning toward the booth. “Excuse me,” Mike says, finally addressing the employee who watched the entire exchange in amused silence.
“What do I have to do to win that?” Mike asks, pointing at the purple bear.
“To win that, you have to knock over all the bottles three times in a row,” the employee says. “By the way, two tickets please.”
“I can do that.” Mike hands over the tickets.
“Here you go.” The employee leans forward and places three hard rubber balls in Mike's hand.
Mike steadies his breath before throwing the first ball. He hits the stack of milk bottles in the center and all of them collapse, earning some excited clapping from El
“Good job. One down, two to go,” the employee taunts as he sets the milk bottles back up.
Mike throws his second ball and hits the stack again. However, when everything starts to fall, one bottle stays upright, wobbling. El concentrates for a few seconds on the shaky bottle and with a little help, it falls down.
“I'll count that. That's two of three. One more.” The employee sets the bottles up again and El decides to actually help Mike from the start. The second the ball leaves his hand, it's no longer under the control of anything but her mind. The ball flies forward into the stack, sending the bottles flying.
I did it a little too hard, El thinks to herself as she surreptitiously wipes the blood from her nose.
“EL!” Mike beams, turning to grab El in a tight embrace. “I did it!”
“That was awesome!” She smiles up at him before bringing him in for a kiss.
“Ahem!” The employee clears his throat, breaking their kiss. “Which prize would you two like?”
“That one.” El points up at the purple bear.
The employee stretches up and removes the bear from its hook before handing it El. She immediately hugs the plush bear tight to her chest.
“Thanks, Mike.” El looks up at him from behind the bear.
“You're welcome, El.” Mike smiles down at El, then gives her a brief kiss. “We should probably go find the others now.” He checks his watch. “The fireworks aren’t supposed to start for another thirty minutes but we should at least set up a blanket.”
“Okay!” El grabs Mike’s hand and follows him toward the center of Hawkins Park.
When El hugs the bear, she can’t help but feel loved. Stuffed animals used to be a reminder of her past trauma, as every time she saw one, she was reminded of the little lion she held during those cold and dark nights in Hawkins lab. Then, Hopper showed her that objects may carry bad memories, but they can also make new ones. After a little while, he got her a small teddy bear for her birthday. Once El was allowed to go out with Mike, Mike got her a plush cat, as well as a sparkly unicorn courtesy of Holly. When she moved out of Hawkins with Joyce, Joyce kept adding to the growing collection, eventually covering El's room in teddy bears and other stuffed animals. Now, El has another one to add to her heart.
As she holds the bear in one hand with her other hand wrapped around Mike's, El feels at peace. She feels like the world has, indeed, turned back to normal.
“Look who finally showed up,” Dustin says when he spots Mike and El walking hand in hand toward the Party’s spot. “Just in time.”
Suzie smiles, her fingers interlaced with Dustin’s. “Yeah, we’ve been waiting for you!”
“Were you two off making out somewhere?” Dustin jokes.
“That would be Max and Lucas,” Mike says. The others laugh while El picks up a nearby blanket and starts spreading it out to make a place for her and Mike to lie down and watch the fireworks.
El looks up from the blanket while Mike plops down next to her on the ground. “Where are they?” she asks.
“They went to go grab some food before the Mayor’s speech,” Suzie explains.
“Where's Will?” Mike asks. As he gets comfortable on the blanket, he wraps his arms around El’s shoulders while El cuddles into him.
“He's over there.” Dustin points as he and Suzie plop down on their own blanket.
Mike follows Dustin’s finger to a few feet away, where Will is standing hand in hand with a slightly taller, olive-skinned boy.
“He brought Aaron!” Mike says. “Nice!” Will and Aaron have been dating since March, and Aaron is universally beloved by the Party.
“What’s he doing over there?” El asks. She’s met Aaron a few times, but he still hasn’t been over to her and Will’s house.
“He's waiting for Joyce and Hopper,” Dustin says. “Will said it was time for him to meet the parents.”
“What's up, assholes!”
El whips around to see the familiar red hair of one Max Mayfield, hand in hand with Lucas, her beleaguered boyfriend currently carrying armfuls of various festival foods.
“Hey Max! Hey Lucas!” The four of them greet the newly-arrived couple.
“Come join us!” Mike waves them over. “We’re just waiting for the Mayor's speech.”
“I’m going to fall asleep during that.” Max rolls her eyes as she spreads out her own blanket before Lucas sets down the food. “Do you mind waking me up before the fireworks?”
“I think the first firework will do the job just fine,” Lucas says. He chuckles and wraps his arm around Max as she sits down next to him on their blanket.
“Lucas, if you let the fireworks wake me up...” Max boops him on the nose. “...I will kill you.”
“Nah.” Lucas smirks and gives Max a quick kiss. “You like me too much.”
Max ducks her head to try and hide her blush. “You're right about that.”
“Ladies and gentlemen of Hawkins!” A bored sounding voice echoes over the PA system set up around Hawkins park. “Mayor Jensen.”
The Party looks over to the main staging area set up in the front of the park as the Mayor takes her place at the podium. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” She begins to drone on as El ignores her in favor of resting her head against Mike's chest. El hasn’t told Mike, but she’s incredibly nervous. She’s never done the Fourth of July before. The one year she was supposed to was the year that everything ended in tragedy, and last year, she instead stayed home with Joyce and Will, the wounds of Starcourt still fresh in all of their minds. El honestly doesn't know what a firework even sounds like. She’s heard them on TV, but she knows from basic experience that TV may not be the best source. She asked Will a couple days ago how they sounded and all he could give her was that they were loud. The problem is that El doesn't really like loud noises. Something about loud bangs scare her, not to the point of sending her back to the lab, but enough to rattle her.
“Hey El, are you okay?” Mike’s voice and a slight shake of her shoulders brings her back into his arms.
“Yeah, I'm fine,” El shakily smiles at Mike. “Just that Jensen is never going to stop talking.” The Mayor’s speech is currently in its fifth minute, so she hopes the humor will distract Mike and herself away from her slight anxiety.
“Don't worry.” Mike’s wide smile is enough to settle some of El’s nerves. “We should see the fireworks pretty soon.” El rests her head back on his chest before his hand comes up to cup her cheek and bring her gaze back to his face, softened with concern. “If you get scared, just let me know.”
“Okay, Mike.” El nods with a slight smile. “I will.”
Mike stares into her eyes for a few seconds, before shifting his head forward and placing a gentle kiss on her lips.
“Hey!” El giggles as they break apart, much to the protest of her thundering heart. “Why did you do that?”
“I just wanted to.” Mike smirks before kissing her again.
The booming sound of a firework being launched turns the attention of both of them away from each other and to the night sky.
“Here it goes,” Mike says, bringing El closer into him. The first firework explodes in a hail of purple sparks and El immediately jumps at the sound of it. Then the next one hits, and she jumps again. She keeps jumping, each loud bang sending her heartbeat skyrocketing and causing her to jump ever so slightly in Mike's arms. Eventually, there's a brief moment of emptiness and Mike leans in next to El. “El, are you okay?” he whispers gently, allowing her to cuddle deeper into his chest.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” El spits out, though the shakiness in her voice and the slight tears in her eyes betray the opposite.
“You're not.” Mike kisses the top of her head and continues “But listen to me.” El’s eyes shift from the sky to Mike’s soft face. “I want you to focus on the colors, El. That's what my mom used to tell me when I got scared of loud noises.” He pauses as El nods in understanding. “I want you to focus on what color each firework is. Just focus on the color and the rest will fade away.” He ends his advice with another kiss on the top of El’s head.
“Okay. I will.” El nods, her heart still racing as more bangs sound around them. After closing her eyes for a brief moment, she looks back up to the black canvas of the night sky as two more fireworks explode against it.
“Red and gold,” she says gently as Mike smiles and pulls her in a little more.
Three more shoot up and El eagerly points out their colors. “Purple, green, blue!”
Pretty soon, she's actually enjoying the fireworks as each color lights up the night sky in a beautiful blaze of glory. She still jumps here and there, but with Mike's arms around her and her head against his chest, the once mighty booms of the fireworks simply turn into the quiet soundtrack of her love.
There are very few places on this Earth where El feels safe, and probably the most important place of all is Mike's arms. As a red firework explodes above her, El feels similar explosions in her heart. She feels so safe and so loved as she lies on a blanket in the middle of Hawkins Park watching explosions light up the night sky as the love of her life cradles her gently in his arms.
“Mike,” El says, her voice breathless.
“Yeah?” Mike looks down, with a smile still on his face.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Mike ducks his head down and El shifts up to meet him. As the world explodes around them, their lips meet with an explosion of love.
El used to be scared of a lot of things, but one by one, Mike is helping her knock them down and replace that fear with love.