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Eleven is sprawled across the sofa in Mike’s basement, lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, chin resting on her hands. She is wearing the pink flannel pyjamas that Mrs. Wheeler bought her last month, a present ‘just because’, and they feel soft against her skin. In front of her is a stack of Mike’s old comic books, mostly X-Men, and for the past three hours she’s been carefully, though absently, flipping through their delicate pages. Eleven has been learning to read; Hopper has been teaching her. He’s a very good teacher, gentle and patient, but upon the pages of the comic books are several words that Eleven still doesn’t recognize. She wants to try reading them aloud, sounding out each letter with exaggeration, as Hopper does when they encounter a new word, but she also doesn’t want to disturb the boys, her friends, who sit gathered around the small table in Mike’s basement nearing the end of the Dungeons and Dragons game. Instead, Eleven takes in the colourful pictures of the strong men and pretty women. She pays special attention to the ones Mike has called Jean Grey and Emma Frost, one with fiery red hair and the other with light blonde that reminds her of the wig she used to wear. Mike once explained to her that these women, especially Jean, are like her. He calls it telekinesis and asks if she, like Emma, also has telepathy, explaining that it meant she could read people’s minds. Eleven had shaken her head.

“Can’t read,” she had said. This was why Mike had started teaching Eleven how to read. When Hopper dropped Will off a little earlier than expected one afternoon, he had noticed them, under the oak tree in Mike’s front yard, and offered to take up the lessons himself, as Mike ‘had his own schooling to worry about’.

Eleven wonders if she’ll ever be like Jean Grey or Emma Frost. Pretty, with long hair, and with friends who can do magical things. She loves her friends now; Mike, with his goofy smiles and the way he sometimes squeezes her hand when no one is looking; Dustin, who always brings her candy and snacks and tells jokes, trying to make her laugh; Lucas, whose smiles she values so much more because they were difficult to earn; and Will, the boy she helped rescue, just like Jean Grey; the boy whose thoughts she thinks she can sometimes hear, just like Emma Frost.

Her friends always ask her to join them in playing Dungeons and Dragons, but she always silently declines, enjoying instead listening. Mike is a good storyteller. As Eleven continues to carefully glance through the comic books, the half an ear she has open to the boys catches a shift in conversation, the campaign ending and the boys coming back to reality.

“Pretty excited for your mom’s Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday,” she hears Dustin say. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches him look over at Mike as they tidy the table-top, “I’m gonna eat so many potatoes…”

“Just stay away from the beans,” Lucas mutters, eliciting a guffaw of laughter from Will and an emphatic nod from Mike. Eleven grins. This is a joke she’s heard before. But she is curious…

“What’s Thanksgiving?” Eleven pipes up from her spot on the couch, tearing her eyes away from the spectacular scene on the comic book page and looking over to her friends.

“You don’t know about Thanksgiving?” Dustin is the first to speak, his voice incredulous, “How is that…How…?”

“Dustin!” Mike shoots him a glance and Eleven knows he is being protective of her feelings.

“She showed up right after Thanksgiving last year, dummy!” Lucas chimes in. El, who has watched the exchange in silence, focuses her warm brown eyes on Mike, as she always does when something needs to be clarified.

“Thanksgiving is a holiday,” Mike begins to explain, his voice taking on the soft encouraging tone it always does when he explains things, “You get together with your family and friends and…”

“Have a GIANT dinner,” Dustin interrupts him.

“With turkey,” Lucas adds, “And mashed potatoes, and…”

“Pumpkin pie,” Will chimes in merrily.

“Yeah,” Mike nods, “All those things.”

“And you eat until you’re ready to explode!” Dustin looks excited; “We come over for Thanksgiving every year. It's tradition.”

“And this year you’ll be there too,” Mike smiles at her.

“Don’t forget,” Will says, looking briefly at Mike before he settles his gaze on Eleven, and she’s almost certain she already knows what he’s going to say; that she can hear his words before they leave his mouth, “Mike’s mom makes us all say what we’re thankful for before we start eating.”

“I always say I’m thankful for her cooking,” Dustin grins, “Every year. That’s why your mom likes me so much.” Mike rolls his eyes and reaches over the table, gently shoving Dustin in the arm.

“This year,” Will is still looking at Eleven, “I’m going to say I’m thankful for you, if that’s okay…” his voice trails off, unsure. Eleven smiles, feeling warmth rise in her cheeks. It’s the same warmth she feels when Mike holds her hand.

“Okay,” her voice comes out softer than she had intended, but Will doesn’t seem to mind. There’s a lull in the conversation, a heavy silence. Lucas clears his throat and it’s broken. The boys go back to clearing off the table and Eleven returns to the comic books, distracted now because she wonders what she’s thankful for. There are so many people, so many things.

Hopper, for teaching her how to read.

The boys, for being her friends and lending her comic books.

Nancy, for teaching her to put on lip-gloss.

Mrs. Wheeler, for the flannel pyjamas she loves so much.

Ms. Byers, who always stops by with books and toys on her way home from work.

Mike, for explaining the world to her.

“Night, El!” Dustin calling to her from the bottom of the stairs draws her out of her distraction.

“See you tomorrow, weirdo,” Lucas smiles at her, the name now a term of teasing and endearment. Eleven likes this. It feels special.

“Night,” she replies, waving softly. There’s a mischievous smile on her lips, “Mouthbreathers.”

The two boys laugh and clomp up the stairs, making more noise than is necessary. Will follows at a distance; also stopping to wish her a goodnight before he heads up the stairs where she knows his brother is waiting. She had heard him come in an hour ago. Eleven focuses on Will's back as it retreats up the stairs, trying to be like Emma Frost. But she hears nothing.

Finally, it is only her and Mike. She gently closes the comic book in her hands and slides it back into the protective plastic that Mike calls a ‘dust jacket’. She shifts her body so that she is sitting up; scoots over so there is room for Mike next to her. He takes a seat, keeping a safe distance between them. This is their nightly routine. Mike looks at her and speaks.

“If you don’t wanna say anything at dinner, I’ll tell my mom so you won’t have to.”

Eleven considers this for a moment. It would be easy to choose not to say anything. If she can only be thankful for one thing, then all the people and things she doesn’t mention might feel hurt. But, she craves being normal, like Mike and the other boys. Saying what you're thankful for is normal, so she makes up her mind to do it.

“No,” she answers, taking care to parrot Will’s words from earlier, “I’m going to say I’m thankful for you, if that’s okay…because you hold my hand.”

Mike turns bright red. It’s a colour she’s seen in his cheeks before, when Nancy caught them holding hands under the dinner table one night and nudged Mike in the ribs knowingly. From this colour, Eleven knows it is not okay.

“That’s…uh…that’s sweet,” Mike speaks as though his mouth is full of cotton, “But maybe leave out that last part. Dustin would make fun of us forever. Nancy too...even though I could make fun of her back for that time I saw her kissing Jonathan in his car. Maybe you can say you’re thankful for all of us?”

“Yes,” Eleven likes this solution. It will make everyone feel special in the same way that they make her feel special.

“But El,” Mike continues, and now he reaches his hand out, letting it linger in the void between them, “I’m thankful for you too. Thankful you came back.”

Eleven feels warm on the inside and her hand closes the gap, her fingers intertwining with Mike’s. They sit, quietly for a moment, until the door to the basement begins to creak open. Mike pulls his hand back as Nancy appears at the top of the stairs.

“El,” she stoops to look down at them and a smirk spreads across her lips, “Mom’s just taken a practice pumpkin pie out of the oven and says you should be the first to try it.”

Eleven’s face perks up and she briefly glances at Mike, who nods with encouragement, before she bounds up the stairs, pausing to give Nancy a hug and a small thank you before moving into the kitchen. Mike trudges up the stairs behind her, still under the teasing eyes of his older sister.

“Don’t start,” he mumbles, scrunching up his face as he walks by her, also wanting a slice of pie.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Nancy grins, suddenly feeling very thankful herself.

Chapter Text

December 1984

Eleven stands by the window, gazing out towards the line of trees where the woods behind the Byers’s home begin, straining her eyes against the inky darkness to watch as the footprints Nancy and Jonathan had made slowly become buried by the lightly falling snow. Dinner ended an hour ago; El’s stomach is still full of honey ham, roasted potatoes, and green beans. She had, under Joyce’s instructions, even left room for dessert—cherry pie and vanilla ice cream. Though it was delicious, El still prefers Mrs. Wheeler’s pumpkin pie and its warm cinnamon flavours. She thinks autumn may be her favourite season, despite how much she has enjoyed all the activities that come with winter. Last week, Mike had Nancy had taken her skating for the first time. She had, without admitting it, used her powers to steady herself more than once.

After clearing the table and washing the dishes, Nancy and Jonathan had announced they were going to take a walk in the woods. A chorus of ‘be carefuls’ had echoed from around the table, where Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler sat playing a game called poker with Mr. and Mrs. Henderson, Joyce, and Hopper. Usually, according to the boys, Lucas and his parents joined in the festivities, except that they were in Florida for a family vacation.

“Hey El,” Dustin’s voice rings in her ears, “Come help us out over here!” Eleven turns away from the window and looks over to where Dustin and Will sit on the ragged blue carpet in the living room, Lego pieces from Will’s new Intergalactic Command Base set spread out around their legs. The toy had been a Christmas present from herself and Mike and Eleven feels great pride seeing Will enjoying it so much, seeing it bring her friends closer together. Will is thrilled with this gift; it is exactly what he had wanted, as Eleven had known it would be. When they had been seated around Mike’s table at the beginning of December, drawing names out of a hat for a game called Secret Santa, Eleven had made certain that Mike drew out Will’s name, simply because, since this was her first year participating, the boys had voted to have her paired with Mike as a gift-giver and she very much wanted to get Will a present. Eleven had paid extra attention to Will, attempting to hear something beyond the meek ‘it doesn’t really matter’ that came out of his mouth each time Mike asked for a hint as to what he wanted. She listened intently, learning that Will was nervous his gift for them wouldn’t measure up—perhaps she had also made sure that Will drew Mike’s name from the hat. She could get away with such small acts of manipulation now, learning to control her powers and consider them a gift rather than a curse.

Moving from her spot by the window, Eleven sets herself down next to Dustin on the carpet, the hem of her red dress settling around her knees. She steals what she assumes to be a quick glance over at the sofa, where Mike is sound asleep, his mouth slightly open and his hair falling over his eyes. She finds herself thinking that this is cute, a word Mike had taught her when she had called him pretty one afternoon as he was fussing with his messy hair in the hallway mirror. Mike had explained that pretty was only something you said about girls.

“What do you say about boys?” Eleven had asked, genuinely curious.

“I don’t know,” Mike shrugged, “Cute, I guess.”

“Cute,” Eleven repeated the word, trying it out on her lips.

“Can’t believe Mike’s already asleep,” Dustin sighs, noticing Eleven’s too-long-to-be-subtle look at the sleeping boy on the sofa, his gangly legs drooping off its edge. She feels as though Mike is growing taller each day. “Hey, how much do you want to bet I can land this Lego in his mouth?” He picks up a long, grey piece from the carpet.

“No way,” Will laughs, “You’ll totally miss.”

“Nu-uh,” Dustin insists, “Bet you the next issue of X-Men I can make the shot.”

“You’re on,” Will accepts the challenge, but Eleven can feel that he’s not sure about the odds; she senses his apprehension that Dustin will prove himself right. Dustin, giddy with the thought of a free issue of X-Men, bends his elbow back and arcs his arm, sending the tiny plastic piece flying through the air. It is on track to land in Mike’s mouth, but stops, hovering several inches from his lips. For a moment, there is silence while Dustin and Will stare at the seemingly miraculous intervention in front of them, as if they forget the immense power lurking inside the small, unassuming girl sitting next to them. The piece of Lego floats back to its original spot on the carpet and the spell is broken. Dustin and Will look at her and she looks back.

“I win!” Will cheers, a giant smile spreading across his lips.

“No fair,” Dustin insists, though he too is grinning widely, “El cheated.”

“She was only using her powers for good,” Will says, “That’s not cheating and technically you’re the bad guy here.” They both descend into laughter and Eleven smiles at Will’s words, at the feelings of admiration and relief behind them.

“So, El,” the laughter subsides and Will looks at her, a smirk on his face, “Are you ready for your first New Year’s countdown?” There’s something else on his mind, something behind his words, but El can’t focus on it. She can’t hear anything beyond what he says aloud.

“Don’t you mean her first New Year’s kiss?” Dustin amends, and the boys laugh again. Eleven feels her cheek turn the colour of her dress. She has often heard the boys teasing one another, she has even, sometimes, joined in on the laughter. But she has never been the object of these jokes. She doesn't know how to feel and her face, scrunched up, somewhere between sad and confused, reveals this to the boys.

“It’s just a joke, El,” Will reaches out a hand and pats her on the shoulder. She is hit with a wave of jumbled words and thoughts which are not her own: Please don’t let her be mad. Mike’s lucky to have a cool girlfriend. Dustin is such a butt. Kissing is weird, but I want to try it. I wonder what Lucas would think of all this.

It takes all of Eleven’s energy to push these invasive thoughts from her mind and not to flinch away from Will. She doesn’t want him to know she can hear him—feel him—inside her head. She especially doesn’t want Mike to know.

---

Nearing midnight, Mrs. Wheeler and Joyce come into the living room to wake the four sleeping children—Dustin and Will, who have somehow fallen asleep amidst a pile of Lego; Mike, still sprawled over the sofa and lightly snoring; and El, the newest addition to her home, curled up in a ball by Mike’s feet. Karen smiles at Joyce as they prod the children awake. She thinks about this strange girl her son is so clearly infatuated with. It worries her, given that El is not a normal girl. But, Karen reminds herself frequently, normal girls expect certain things from normal boys and she’d rather Mike not deal with that just yet. She moves to Will’s room, where Holly is sleeping on the bed. It’s unnecessary to wake her, so Karen simply looks lovingly at her youngest daughter.

---

In what feels like moments from the time her eyes float open, Eleven watches the entire group migrate into the living room from the kitchen. Nancy and Jonathan are back as well, their cheeks still kissed pink. Eleven assumes they’ve only just returned, that the rosy glow on their faces is from the cold outside, but she cannot be sure. One day, she thinks, she will ask Nancy about love.

The television is turned on. Champagne is poured into tall, thin glasses that rest on the coffee table.

Everyone around her begins to count, numbers echoing in her ears, but they’re going the wrong way. Eleven knows something special, something important, is set to happen at midnight, but she isn't sure what. She had wanted to ask Mike, but he had been sleeping. Now, from his spot by her side, he is counting, like everyone else, loud and excited. Eleven knows the feelings she has right now are not the correct ones. They do not match the joyousness in the voices around her.

Ten.

Nine.

Eleven feels her chest tighten, her stomach clench. Her vision blurs and she feels hot tears in the back of her eyes, but she resists the urge to cry. Sometimes, she feels afraid. Mike says this is normal, that everyone feels afraid sometimes. Nancy, Joyce, and Hopper have all told her the same thing. But, Eleven always thinks, I am afraid of different things. I am not normal.

Eight.

Seven.

Mike, from his place beside her, feels El grow tense, feels the clamminess of her palm in his hand, and knows she’s frightened. He stops counting and squeezes her hand, once, firmly, his signal that everything will be okay.

Six.

Five.

Dustin nudges Will in the ribs, gesturing a thumb towards Mike and El. To them, this looks romantic. And, it might be. But, in this moment, for Mike and Eleven, it is so much more than that.

Four.

Three.

Eleven’s breathing returns to normal. Her fingers respond to Mike’s and she delivers a reply to his own delicate squeeze with two of her own. It’s a code they practice every day. One squeeze earns a reply of two. Two squeezes earns a reply of one. No matter which way the pattern begins, it always ends with three soft squeezes. Mike invented this game. It’s his way of saying “I love you” without actually having to utter those terrifying words; the ones that he hears Nancy say on the phone every night to Jonathan before turning out her light. Squeeze. I. Squeeze. Love. Squeeze. You. Of course, Eleven doesn’t know this, but she participates all the same.

Two.

One.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

The voices ring out and there’s a clinking of glasses. Eleven quickly glances around her and sees genuine love. Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler are kissing. So are Mr. and Mrs. Henderson. So are Joyce and Hopper. So are Nancy and Jonathan, a bit more intensely than the adults in the room. Dustin has Will in a playful headlock and is rumpling his hair.

“Happy New Year El,” Mike’s whisper draws her eyes back to his face. Her mouth feels dry and she can’t quite find her stomach, but she leans forward and presses her lips gently against Mike’s, like he did to her on that night they don’t speak about. It’s over quickly. When she pulls back, Mike’s mouth is ajar once more, wider than it had been when he was sleeping. His cheeks are bright red.

“Happy New Year, Mike,” she smiles at him, keeping her eyes cast down at the floor. Somewhere behind her, Dustin is cheering and Will is laughing.

Chapter Text

January 1985

Eleven feels like her mind is shrinking, like her body is turning to Jell-O. She likes Jell-O, the yummy orange goop that Mrs. Wheeler sometimes serves for dessert when she’s had a busy day, but Eleven knows that one’s body shouldn't feel like dessert. Mike explained this feeling to her the first time she had asked about it.

“It’s called boredom,” he said, “It goes away when you find something to entertain yourself with.”

“Boredom,” Eleven echoed, “It’s not fun.”

“No,” Mike laughed, “Exactly. That’s basically the definition of boredom. But you can try reading a book, or watching a movie, or even doing a puzzle.”

“Okay,” Eleven felt this was a reasonable list of suggestions, “When you’re home I’m not bored.”

“I know,” Mike nodded, “I’m sorry I can’t be around all the time.”

Home alone on this cloudy Thursday morning—Mrs. Wheeler has brought Holly to preschool before her book club meeting—Eleven contemplates how to entertain herself. She has spent the morning trying to read a book, Mike’s well-worn copy of A Wrinkle in Time, but she finds it too difficult to follow. Most of the words are recognizable—Hopper says she’s a fast learner—and she likes that the main character is a girl, but she’s confused by the word tesseract and plans to ask Mike about it later. For now, Eleven needs something to do.

She migrates from her spot on Mr. Wheeler’s Lazy Boy recliner to the basement and rifles through the assorted boxes of games and puzzles, stacked against the far side of the sofa. One particular puzzle, in a bright yellow and white box, catches her eyes. It is called “Marvel’s Superheroes” and consists of 300 pieces. Eleven figures that this will be a good challenge. She settles into the chair Mike usually occupies as Dungeon Master and empties the contents of the box onto the bare tabletop.

Taking a moment to focus her energy, Eleven spreads the pieces across the table without using her hands; those she keeps tucked into the sleeves of her green sweater. She singles out the four corner pieces, as Dustin taught her to do, and begins shuffling through the pieces, looking for connections, all the while, her fingers warm within the cable knit garment that Mrs. Wheeler had made herself.

It is nearing lunchtime, the puzzle is almost completed, but Eleven abandons it, instead looking forward to Mike’s visit. Because there has been no snow since New Year’s Eve, Mike bikes home on his lunch break every day to visit and eat lunch with her. It is her favourite part of the day, with Hopper’s afternoon visits to check on her homework a close second. Eleven makes her way upstairs and goes to the fridge, where her peanut butter and jelly sandwich is waiting, wrapped in aluminum foil. Resting on top of it is a shiny green apple and a small can of butterscotch pudding. There is a matching set of food for Mike.

Eleven floats the food to the kitchen table and sets it down in two places, next to each other, the seats she and Mike always occupy at meals. A warm trickle over her lip reminds Eleven that she has used her powers more than usual today, so she makes her way to the bathroom upstairs and wipes the warm blood away from her nose. She also takes a moment to brush her hair, now an unruly version of what Nancy tells her is a ‘pixie cut.’

“It’s super cool, El,” Nancy assured her, as she looked over at Eleven, standing dejectedly in front of the mirror, home from her first trip to the barber’s.

“Not pretty,” Eleven sighed, “Too short.”

“No,” Nancy shook her head, “It's stylish. Like a rock star!”

“Rock star?”

“A famous person. Like Pat Benetar. Trust me, it’s cool. And I know Mike likes it.”

Eleven returns to the kitchen table and takes a seat. She drums her fingers impatiently on the table and counts to one hundred. It’s 12:13 and Mike is still not there. She gets up and walks over to the living room window that overlooks the front of the house. The street is empty. Eleven retreats to the Lazy Boy and picks up the novel she abandoned earlier, flipping through the pages absently, focused instead on listening for footsteps on the front porch.

It is 12:36 and Eleven returns to the window, knowing something is wrong. She wonders if it would be bad to go to Hawkins Middle School herself and see what is keeping Mike. He wouldn’t have forgotten about her. Were the bad men back? Did they take Mike? Eleven’s heart pounds rapidly in her chest and she sinks to the floor, her chest tight and blood ringing in her ears.

It is 12:49 when Eleven hears the doorbell ring. She is pulled out of her tears, but her body stiffens in fear. If the bad men had Mike, had they also come for her? She doesn’t move, preparing to defend herself if need be.

“El?” A familiar gruff voice accompanies another ring of the doorbell. It’s Hopper. Eleven is on her feet in seconds and opening the door. Hopper looks frustrated—angry—and Eleven steps back, unsure what to do now. She looks beyond him, outside, to where his cruiser is running in the driveway. There’s a figure in the back, but she can’t make out who it is.

“C’mon, kiddo,” Hopper doesn’t come inside, “Get your coat on. Do you have a key?”

---

In the back seat of the police car, Eleven pulls her seatbelt over her chest and looks over at Will, who is pointedly staring out the window, avoiding her gaze. Her frown deepens and she runs her tongue over the roof of her mouth, finding it very dry. She closes her eyes, attempting to hear something in his head, straining for an unspoken explanation, but Will’s mind is a mess and she can’t make sense of anything. She hears colours, sees sounds and is confused.

“Will?” Eleven gently reaches out to him with her voice as Hopper pulls out of the driveway in a hurry, tires squealing against asphalt. Will slowly turns toward her. His eyes are wet. He is crying. Once more, Eleven tries to hear him, but she cannot. However, she intuits that speaking would be painful for Will; that there is something he doesn’t wish to tell her. But she wants to know, she must know. This unspoken event is the reason Mike did not come home for lunch; the reason their peanut butter sandwiches sit unopened on the kitchen table. Eleven remembers with a growl in her stomach.

Gently, she reaches out and touches Will’s hand, a gesture that he perceives as meant to comfort him. It is not. Eleven wants to be connected to his thoughts, his feelings, and she knows from New Year’s Eve that touching is the fastest and clearest way to get what she wants. Eleven almost feels guilty for this deception, but she suppresses that emotion, her urgency to know what happened to Mike overwhelming any other thought or feeling.

Suddenly, Eleven is no longer in the car with Hopper and Will. She is in the snow-covered schoolyard, walking along beside Mike, who bundled in his green jacket and burgundy scarf. He is moving quickly, with purpose, away from the school towards the rack where his bike is locked. She falls behind.

“C’mon Will,” Mike’s words are accompanied by a cloud of fog coming out of his lips. It is cold and there is a rosiness spreading across his cheeks and bare knuckles.

Eleven realizes he is speaking to her. She has entered Will’s memories. She has become Will. This is the first time she’s ever been so deeply inside his mind; his defenses are down, she thinks, he’s upset and weak and that’s why I am here. She feels the body she has no control over pick up its pace and jog over to the bikes.

“Where’re you queers going?” The harsh voice is recognizable. It’s the boy who once tried to hurt Mike. The one who says mean things about Will; the one who she made pee himself.

“Get lost, Troy,” Mike says, his shoulders squaring defensively. Eleven feels the body she unwillingly inhabits grow tense, its palms sweaty in woolen black gloves.

“Bet they’re going to suck face behind the school,” Troy’s companion, a tall, fair-skinned boy Eleven doesn’t recognize, comments. Troy laughs cruelly.

“Is that it, Wheeler? You finally gonna give Byers what he’s always wanted? The fairy and the frog. Like some gay fairytale.”

Eleven feels hot tears well behind the eyes she looks out of. The eyes that aren’t hers.

“Ignore them, Will,” Mike mutters, unlocking his bike and pulling it away from the rack, arcing one leg over the seat and balancing himself there, “Let’s go.” There’s an urgent quality in his voice.

“Or maybe,” Troy continues, “Maybe he’s going to see his freakshow girlfriend.” Mike immediately tenses. His grip on the bike’s handlebars tightens. Eleven sees a look in his eyes she’s never seen before. There’s fire there, deep and dark.

“Is it even a girl?” the other boy asks, “Hard to tell with that hair.”

“Bet that’s why Wheeler likes it,” Troy replies, “It looks like a boy.”

“Shut up,” the voice that speaks is not Mike’s. The words come from Will’s mouth, in a meek voice, slightly cracking.

“What did you say, faggot?” Eleven feels Will’s breath hitch in his throat. This is a word she’s never heard before but she can tell by Mike’s reaction that it is a bad word. Troy makes a move towards Will, but Mike calls out.

“He said shut up, asshole.” Mike’s voice is raw with anger, “Maybe you should stop being so obsessed with him. Maybe you’re the queer one.”

In a sudden blur, Troy lunges towards Mike, his balled fist connects with Mike’s soft cheek and the boy she cares about so deeply begins to fall backwards.

But something goes wrong. His legs are tangled up in his bike. There is a sickening crack.

Eleven draws her hand away from Will’s rapidly, as if she’s been burned. Her breathing is quick and laboured. She stares at Will with an expression somewhere between vacancy and disbelief.

“Mike,” she breathes, “Hurt.” Will nods mutely, taking it as a question rather than the emphatic statement it is meant to be. “Bullies.” There’s no mistaking the knowledge behind Eleven’s words this time.

“How do you…” he stops mid-sentence as she puts a finger to his forehead, pressing lightly before bringing it back and tapping her own head, just above her right eye.

Will’s eyes widen. “How long?” he asks.

“You kids okay back there?” Hopper’s question, the quick glance through the rearview mirror, disrupts Eleven’s ability to answer and for that she is thankful. She doesn’t want to reply ‘since I’ve been back.’

“Yes,” she replies instead to Hopper, softly. Eleven now looks away from Will, suddenly ashamed. She sinks into the seat and stares away from him, watching Hawkins pass by her, anger and worry growing in the pit of her stomach. She longs to feel boredom again. It is safe.

---

It is 1:17 when they arrive at the hospital. Eleven latches on to Hopper, gripping his sleeve jacket as he leads her and Will through the sliding glass doors at the front of the building—pausing briefly to speak with a dark-haired woman behind a desk—to the elevator, up to the third floor, and down a long, sterile hallway, like the ones in the place she used to call home, the bad place.

But Eleven isn’t thinking about the dark and dangerous memories that lurk just beneath the surface of her consciousness. She is focused on reaching Mike. Near the end of the hall, Hopper knocks on a door that is ajar, and then opens it without waiting for a response. Mrs. Wheeler is there, sitting beside the small white bed in which Mike lays, his right leg wrapped in a hard white substance and slightly elevated over the rest of his body. Eleven immediately lets go of Hopper’s jacket, but she doesn’t move. Standing still, she feels tears begin to leak from her eyes and has no control to stop them.

“El,” Mike’s voice is playfully exasperated, though a little weaker than normal, “Don’t do that! It’s just a broken leg. I’ll live.”

“You’re broken?” Eleven sniffles, wiping her nose and realizing that there is some dried blood mixed with the clear liquid that always leaks out of her nose when she cries—from the car, she reminds herself.

Mrs. Wheeler, despite the immense weight of stress on her shoulders, lets out a small laugh. “No, honey,” she says, holding out her hand towards Eleven, who takes it gingerly, almost expecting that she will see all of Mrs. Wheeler’s memories the moment their skins touch. She doesn't. “The bone in his leg is broken,” Mrs. Wheeler explains, drawing Eleven closer and wrapping an arm around her shoulders, “But it will heal.” As an afterthought, she turns to Hopper, "In eight weeks."

“Until then,” Mike whispers, almost triumphantly, “I get to be treated like a King. I’m going to make Nancy do all my chores.” Eleven is confused by the tone Mike uses. He sounds happy, even though he is broken.

“Still Mike?” she asks. Mike grins widely.

“Of course it’s me,” his grin, if possible grows even wider, “Oh my god! Will!” Mike looks over her shoulder to where Will stands dejectedly behind Hopper, “Do you realize how easy it will be to be stuck in bed having a telekinetic girlfr…uh…best friend?”

Eleven smiles. If Mike is okay with this, then so is she. Their smiles do not change the look on Will’s face: confused, scared, and a little guilty.

“Sorry I didn’t make it home for lunch,” Mike turns his attention back to Eleven, “I’ll be home a lot for the next little while, so you’ll never be bored.”

“Mike,” Eleven suddenly remembers her pressing question from earlier, “Can you explain the tesseract?”

Chapter Text

February 1985

“Going to Mike’s!” Lucas calls out to his mother from the front door as he pulls on his new brown snow boots. His mother, unamused expression on her face, appears at the end of the hallway, from the kitchen, with a bright red bowl tucked under her arm. She is in the midst of making cookies for the Hawkins “Love for the Troops” Fundraiser taking place tomorrow evening.

“Pardon me?” she raises an eyebrow in her son’s direction and Lucas feels immediately penitent. He stands, straightens his posture, and looks at his mother with the puppy-dog expression she usually can’t resist.

“May I please go to the Wheeler’s house?” he asks, rephrasing his parting words. A playful smile spreads across his mother’s lips.

“Of course,” she nods, “But be home in an hour. You need to prepare for the dance. And I want to take some pictures before you leave.” Lucas fights the urge to roll his eyes at the idea of dressing up in a suit, but even more so at the idea of having to pose for pictures.

“Sure thing, Mom,” he answers instead, “I love you.”

“Love you too, honey,” his mother turns back to the kitchen as he heads out the front door, into the late afternoon of what has proven to be an unrelenting and bitterly cold February. A fresh but light layer of snow crunches underneath his feet as he treads over the grass and towards Mike’s house. As the wind whips across his exposed cheeks, Lucas is suddenly extra glad he lives only a couple doors down from his best friend, though it feels like an eternity until he reaches the shelter of the Wheeler’s front porch. His gloved hand reaches out to ring the bell. After a moment, an unexpected face answers the door.

“Hey Jonathan,” Lucas’s face lights up in a grin. Okay, maybe not that unexpected. Not anymore at least. Jonathan and Nancy have been dating for almost a year now. Lucas and Dustin make it a point of teasing Mike and Will that, one day, they will be brothers. “Is Mike home?” Lucas asks, already knowing the answer.

“No,” Jonathan grins, stepping out of the doorway so that Lucas may enter, “He went sledding with El and his broken leg.”

“Hah-Hah,” Lucas playfully scowls as he kicks off his boots and unzips his jacket. As Jonathan closes the door behind him, Lucas is enveloped in warm air and the smell of something delicious coming from the kitchen. “What’s cooking?” he asks.

“Nancy’s making us dinner tonight,” Jonathan answers, “It’s a surprise though so I’ve been banished from the kitchen.” Jonathan pauses and then jerks a thumb towards the basement door, “Mike is being a basement Gremlin.”

When Lucas gets downstairs he expects to see Eleven hanging out with Mike, perhaps to even catch them holding hands or, worse, kissing. Lucas is, however, slightly relieved to find that Mike is sitting alone, flipping through his Dungeon Master’s book and scribbling notes into a ratty old notebook. His broken leg rests on chair, the goofy cartoons Dustin painstakingly sketched onto the cast shining in the dim basement lighting.

“Where’s El?” Lucas can’t help but to ask as he jumps down at the fourth step from the bottom, landing with a soft thud and padding over to where Mike is seated. Admittedly, it has been difficult to see his best friend spend so much time with a girl, but Lucas feels he has done a good job of coming to accept it, even if he still doesn’t quite understand it.

Mike glances up from his book, “Hey man,” he greets Lucas with a smile, “She’s helping Nancy in the kitchen. She said she wanted to learn cooking.”

“Awww,” Lucas grins, putting on a teasing voice, “For when you marry her.”

“Gross Lucas,” Mike moves to swat at him, but Lucas steps out of his reach. Still bound to his cast, Mike can’t go after him, “Besides,” Mike opts for verbal retaliation instead, “I bet you’ll marry Kelly O’Neal before that.”

Lucas grimaces. Kelly O’Neal is his date to the Hawkins Middle School Valentine’s Dance tonight. She’s pretty, with big green eyes and fiery red hair, and smart in Math class. And, much to his eternal embarrassment, she had been the one to ask Lucas to the dance via a handwritten note stuck into his locker. A note with a whole bunch of big, puffy hearts drawn on to it.

Still, he thinks, Mike seems happy. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll understand soon enough.

---

Upstairs, Eleven is standing over the kitchen table, cutting red-skinned potatoes into four quarters, just as Nancy has requested. She is very careful to make sure that each of the pieces is relatively the same size. Nancy has not specified this detail, but Eleven thinks it will be prettier that way. Once she cuts them, the potatoes are added to a large bowl, where chunks of carrots and celery are already waiting.

“How’s it going, El?” Nancy asks, looking over from her spot by the oven, where she has just checked the pot roast that’s been cooking slowly for hours.

“Good,” Eleven answers with a smile, “Almost done.” And she is; there are only two more potatoes in her to-be-sliced pile.

“Amazing,” Nancy walks over to her, “Thanks for your help.”

“No problem.” These words still feel strange coming out of her mouth, forced almost. She has mastered ‘you’re welcome’ but Mike explained to her that she could say other things to mean the same thing; things that sounded “less robotic” and Eleven had been eager to learn such phrases.

“Nancy,” Eleven places the last of the potatoes in the bowl and wipes her hand on a dish towel, “Is Valentine’s Day important?”

---

“Mike,” Nancy’s voice sounds from the doorway as she peeks her head into the basement, then softly descends the stairs, “Can we talk for a second? Privately?” This last word is accompanied by a quick glance in Lucas’s direction.

“I’ve gotta go anyways,” Lucas mutters, not entirely lying, “If my mom doesn’t get some pictures of me and Kelly before the dance, she’s gonna flip her lid. See you Mike.” He claps his friend on the shoulder and wishes Nancy a happy Valentine’s Day before bounding up the stairs and heading home.

Nancy sits down on the sofa across from Mike’s Dungeon and Dragons table, fixing him with a deadpan look, as if she expects him to know exactly why she’s there. He doesn’t.

“What?” Mike’s voice verges on the incredulous, “What’d I do?” Nancy almost grins, thinking of how he sounds like their father, especially as his voice deepens with age.

“Mike, you’re so dumb sometimes,” Nancy shakes her head, “Haven’t you noticed El’s been acting weird these last couple of days?”

“I don’t know,” Mike replies, a hint of defensiveness creeping into his tone, “Maybe. I thought it was just...you know…girl stuff.” Nancy raises her eyebrows at him.

“It is girl stuff,” she sighs, “It’s Valentine’s Day, Mike. El’s first Valentine’s Day and all she knows about it is that it’s a day where girls are supposed to get flowers and chocolates from boys.”

“Is that what you told her?” Mike’s face grows paler than normal.

“Well,” Nancy answers matter-of-factly, “Not exactly. She’s observant, you know? She’s smart.”

“Oh god,” Mike’s voice is barely a whisper, “I'm such a dope.”

“Your words,” Nancy grins, “But I’ll help you out…just this once. I’m sending Jonathan to the store to pick up some last minute things for dinner. What can he get for you?”

---

By 8:00, the Wheeler house is empty. Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler have gone away for the weekend on a romantic getaway, dropping Holly off with Mike’s grandparents in the next town over. Nancy has just left the house with Jonathan to go skating, following their candlelight dinner in the kitchen. Eleven had carefully peeked in just once, proud of her contribution, and witnessed the two holding hands across the table, Nancy smiling easily and wholeheartedly.

Now, Eleven sits on the floor in the living room, drawing hearts in the margins of her notebook, decorating the area around her multiplication tables. She hears rustling and a thud, like a chair falling over, from downstairs and figures Mike is attempting, and failing, to move himself.

“Dammit,” she hears him curse before calling out to her, “El! I’m having a hard time down here! Could you come help me out?”

“Coming,” she calls back, pushing herself to her feet. It has been three weeks and one day since Mike failed to show up for lunch, since that odd white thing called a cast has been stuck on his leg. Eleven understands that this is helping Mike heal, become unbroken, but she is still dismayed by how much it hinders them; dismayed by the fact that Mrs. Wheeler wouldn’t let Mike go to the dance that evening because of it. If Mike couldn’t go to the dance, Eleven reasoned, then neither could she. They had promised each other to go to a dance together. The Valentine’s Day Dance wasn’t the Snow-Ball, she reasoned, so no promises had been broken.

Eleven makes her way down the basement stairs, two at a time, but stops about halfway down, her breath catching in her throat and her eyes unbelieving. On the Dungeons and Dragons table is a big bouquet of flowers; roses as she had only learned that afternoon.

“What are those?” Eleven asked, looking at the bundle of dark red flowers in Jonathan’s hands.

“These?” he held them out to let her look closer, “They’re roses. A special kind of flower for Valentine’s Day.”

“Why are they special?” Eleven tentatively brushed a fingertip against the soft petals of one of the roses.

“Because you get them for a girl you really like, the way I really like Nancy.”

“Love.” It was a statement, not a question. Eleven may not have been the best at speaking, but she was certainly good at feeling. Jonathan’s cheeks turned almost as red as the roses in his hand.

“Yeah,” he ran his fingers through his messy hair, “I guess so.”

“Pretty,” Eleven smiled. Jonathan reached into the bouquet and plucked one out, handing it to her.

“Careful,” he said, “Sometimes the stems have thorns.”

“But they’re not for me,” Eleven hesitated, her hand hovering over the stem.

“This one can be,” Jonathan assured her, “Like you said, they’re for girls you love. And I love you like you’re my little sister.”

Eleven takes in the rest of the details on the table. Beside the flowers is a big heart-shaped red box—these must be the chocolates. And there’s a teddy bear, like the ones Holly plays with, only this one is so large it is sitting on the chair where Mike normally sits. He stands beside it, balancing on his crutches, with a shy smile on his face. Eleven isn’t sure what to do so she slowly makes her way down to him.

“I hope this isn’t lame,” Mike mumbles, looking at the floor, “Girls like this kinda stuff usually and I just thought that it would…”

“Thank you,” Eleven interrupts him with a quiet whisper.

“You’re welcome,” Mike replies, clearing his throat. Eleven grins.

“Robotic,” she says, “No problem.” Mike laughs and then leans his crutches against the side of the table, taking a moment to regain his balance and distribute his weight between the cast and his good leg.

“There’s one more thing,” he tells her. Eleven looks at him, wondering what else there could possibly be; he has already done so much. After a moment of silence, Mike remembers she can’t read minds and explains himself. “A dance. Because we couldn’t go to the one at school.” Eleven feels her heart skip a beat as Mike takes a staggering step towards her. Not wanting him to exert himself too much, Eleven takes her own two steps forward.

The two stand a foot apart. Eleven looks at Mike and looks at anywhere but her face. She waits for instructions and he waits for the butterflies in his stomach to stop fluttering quite so much.

“So…uh…” Mike clears his throat, “What happens is…”

“Mike,” Eleven interrupts with a small smile, “Nancy taught me.” She can practically see the relief rush through Mike’s mind. His shoulders suddenly look much more relaxed and he takes another brave, but staggering, step forward. Eleven mimics his action. They are mere inches apart, their bodies separated but it’s unclear if this is because of Mike’s cast or the nervous anticipation that courses through both of their veins.

“Oh good,” he says, “So, I’ll just, um, I’ll just do this…” He reaches out and for a moment his hands hover nervously over her waist. She sees him swallow hard and wishes that she could read his feelings the way she can read Will’s, to see what she can do to make this easier. But the moment passes, and Mike’s hands come to rest gently, tentatively, on her waist. Her heart flutters. She scoots ever so slightly closer to him and snakes her arms around his neck, the way Nancy showed her that afternoon. There is silence.

“Mike?” Eleven is grinning and Mike feels cold sweat running down his back and prays that El can’t feel it on her fingertips. He feels as though this is the most intimate they’ve ever been.

“Yeah?”

“Music.” Her voice is light. He gives a small laugh, realizing he forgot to start the record player. And that it sits across the room, on top of the television that was installed last month, compensation from his father for his having to stay almost confined to home for eight weeks. He glances over his shoulder at it, then back at Eleven, making eye contact with her for the first time since his hands landed on her body.

“Do you mind?” he asks with a smirk. Her expression matches his own and after a brief moment, the sound of soft, slow saxophone music floats through the air.

“I can’t move much,” Mike mutters, “But maybe we can sort of just…”

“Sway,” Eleven finishes his sentence, “That’s what Nancy called it.”

“Sway,” Mike echoes, “Yeah.”

And so, they sway, gently, in time with the music and Mike feels the rest of the world melt away. Eleven feels nothing but Mike’s hands on her waist and his soft breathing hitting the top of her head; he’s grown so tall. There’s also a question, burning on the tip of tongue, but she’s not quite ready to utter it aloud, so she rolls it over in her mind, along with the beat of the music. Mike? she asks, but only to herself, Is this love?

Chapter Text

February 1985 (continued)

Dustin stands over the snack table, contemplating whether he wants to serve himself fruit punch or apple juice. He attempts to ignore the slow music drifting out of the speakers in the gymnasium and the itchy feeling being caused by the light layer of sweat that coats his back, under his crisp red dress shirt.

A slow song had started only moments ago and the circle of friends in which he had been dancing broke off into couples, much to his chagrin. Kelly O’Neal had dragged Lucas off to the center of the dance floor—Dustin still wasn’t sure how the most beautiful girl in the 8th grade could have a crush on a geek like Lucas—and Jennifer Hayes had taken hold of Will’s hand leading him off, though he didn’t necessarily look excited. Dustin more than suspects Will would have much rather remained hanging out with him.

So now, bereft of his friends, Dustin decides to spend some time with the snacks. As he considers the spread before him, neatly arranged on pink tablecloths decorated with weird-looking Cupids, he thinks about Mike at home with a broken leg and secretly wishes they could have traded places. It would have been a win-win situation—Mike would have gotten to take El to the dance and Dustin wouldn’t have to suffer through the next several minutes of loneliness. He would tell anyone who asked that he wasn’t bothered by this turn of events; that he wasn’t interested in dancing with a girl, but that would be lying through his teeth—his front teeth, which had grown in nicely sometime in December, giving him the straight, bright smile he had always wanted.

“Having fun, Dustin?”

Dustin looks over to his left, where the friendly female voice had come from and sees his English teacher, Miss Kennedy, pouring herself a glass of water. He shrugs nonchalantly.

“I guess,” Dustin replies over the music.

“Why aren't you dancing?” Miss Kennedy looks at him through her thick-rimmed black glasses with warm brown eyes and Dustin remembers why he had a crush on her when he first started at Hawkins Middle School. He thinks ahead to how much he’ll miss her and Mr. Clarke both once he starts high school in the fall.

“I don’t slow dance,” he says flatly, “I’m the funny guy.” Miss Kennedy frowns then takes a chocolate chip cookie from the refreshment table. She breaks it in half and hands him a piece; he takes it with thanks.

“Do you like being the funny guy?” she asks, this time looking at him over her glasses, the way she does when awaiting an answer about metaphors in English class. Dustin nods.

“Yeah, it’s who I am. But girls don’t want to dance with the funny guy.” Even as he speaks, Dustin isn’t sure why the words are coming from his mouth. He doesn’t normally talk about his feelings, but Miss Kennedy has always been so nice to him that it feels safe to do so.

“Hmm,” Miss Kennedy looks thoughtful for a moment, “Have you ever asked?”

“Pardon?”

“Have you asked any girls if they’d like to dance with the funny guy?”

“No,” Dustin replies after a moment, suddenly feeling very bashful. It had never occurred to him to ask someone to dance. He always just assumed that his reputation preceded him; that no girl would ever show interest in him until he left Hawkins and started school at MIT in a few years.

“You’re good at science, Dustin,” Miss Kennedy places a gentle hand on his shoulder and steers him around so that he can see a small cluster of girls standing and chatting away in the corner. Every so often they cast their eyes wistfully over the sea of couples on the dance floor. “Think of it as an experiment.” She smiles encouragingly and Dustin takes a deep breath.

“Wish me luck,” he mutters under his breath, banishing the fear from his mind and walking over towards a trio of girls he recognizes—Angela Day, Nancy Carter, and Beth Liszer. Dustin has always thought of Angela as especially pretty. Why not? he asks himself, steeling his heart against the fear of rejection, You can do this man. It’s your own personal Demogorgon and you can kick ass. Just ask.

Dustin stops in front of the girls and clears his throat, holding out his hand because it seems like the gentlemanly thing to do. He feels three sets of eyes rest on him, but he looks only into the pale hazel eyes of Angela Day.

“Want to dance?” he asks, keeping his voice steady. And, miraculously, Angela Day does not burst into a fit of laughter, nor does she look disgusted. Her face lights up in a bright smile and she nods, taking Dustin’s offered hand. As he leads her into the crowd of dancers, Dustin walks just a little bit taller and feels just a little bit stronger.

---

June 1985

Mike Wheeler, freshly fourteen years old, stands in front of the mirror in his bedroom, gazing with disdain at the unkempt hair that shoots out from his head at all angles, entirely unmanageable. He resigns himself to his genetic fate and, knowing his hair to be a lost cause, checks over the rest of himself one last time, feeling far more confident about the fitted jeans and striped blue t-shirt he has donned for the evening. A blue cardigan does a little by way of hiding the scrawniness of his arms and a pair of lightly worn Chucks finishes the look.

Staring into his own eyes, Mike takes a deep breath and stands tall. You’ve got this, he tells himself. With a determined nod, Mike pulls himself away from the mirror and leaves his bedroom, padding down the stairs and resolutely ignoring the giggles that he can hear coming from Nancy’s bedroom. Nancy will be off to college in September, attending NYU to study law while Jonathan studies photography. Jonathan had wanted to take a year off, to save money, but both he and Nancy had won scholarships and would be moving into a small New York City apartment together at the end of the summer. At this very moment, however, behind a closed door, Nancy is helping Eleven prepare for this evening; for the first official date Mike is taking her on.

Mike makes his way to the kitchen for a glass of water, his throat feeling dry all of a sudden. He recollects his birthday, which had passed two weeks ago. While celebrating, he realized that Eleven had been back nearly a year and there had been no consideration made for her birthday. So, the next morning he had immediately gone to work, crafting an invitation to Eleven’s anni-birth-sary, a term he proudly coined.

“We can celebrate your being back like it’s your birthday,” he said, handing Eleven the folded piece of pink construction paper, gold glitter (taken from Holly’s box of crafts) falling off of it as he did. Eleven took the invitation and opened it, reading the message inside.

“What’s an anni-birth-sary?” Eleven looked up from the card with confusion.

“It’s a word I made up,” Mike explained, “Anniversary because it’s been one year since you came home and birthday because everyone needs a birthday, so we can have them on the same day. What do you think?”

“Fun,” Eleven smiled happily, “Will there be a party?”

“Well,” Mike rocked back and forth on his heels, “I was thinking something for just the two of us…like a…a date.”

“Like what Nancy and Jonathan do?” Eleven was fairly certain this was what dating was, but wanted to be sure. Mike nodded.

“Exactly,” he said, “We can go see the Goonies and then maybe get a milkshake or something?”

“Yes,” Eleven leaned forward and quickly hugged him, taking a moment to plant a soft kiss on his cheek.

“Mike!” Nancy’s voice calls out from the front entryway, drawing him out of his memories. “Are you ready?” He hears her keys jingling as they’re pulled out of her purse.

“Coming,” Mike hollers back, exiting the kitchen and catching sight of Nancy and El waiting by the front door. Suddenly, it feels as though he is moving through quicksand. This is really happening; he is really taking Eleven on an official date, not just going for ice cream or to the comic book store with her and the boys.

And boy, Mike thinks, Does she look beautiful. She always looks so beautiful. Just act normal, Wheeler. Keep your eyes in your head. Say something. Open your dumb mouth.

“Hi El,” the words leave his lips before his brain can catch them. Nice one, dummy. Mike catches the ghost of a laugh on Nancy’s lips as she ducks out the front door.

“Hi Mike,” Eleven responds, unsure if this is how dates normally start. “You look handsome,” she compliments him, following Nancy’s advice from earlier.

“You too,” Mike’s lips are moving without his brain again, “I mean…you look really pretty. I, um, I got you this.” Mike pulls a small, slender box out of the pocket of his cardigan and hands it to Eleven. She blushes and opens it slowly, a small but audible gasp escaping her lips as she lays eyes on the delicate silver bracelet inside.

“I hope you like it,” Mike smiles. He had had to ask for two month’s advance on his allowance to afford that. Plus, his mother and father had each pitched in five dollars. "Happy anni-birth-sary."

“It’s beautiful!” Eleven gushes, “Thank you! Will you help me put it on?” Mike nods and takes the piece of jewellery from her, gently fastening it around her outstretched arm. He’s searching for something to say, some way to tell her just how incredible she looks in the navy blue dress and pale green sweater she is wearing, just as he hears the car horn from the driveway.

“Let’s go lovebirds,” Nancy calls to them from the car window, “You’re movie’s starting soon!”

---

“So,” Mike’s voice is hopeful, “Did you like the movie?” El nods enthusiastically as they leave the theatre, their arms linked.

“It was so good,” she smiles, “They’re all friends, like us.”

“I liked that too,” Mike replies, then takes a quick glance at his watch. “Do you want to grab a milkshake?” Mike asks, “We’ve still got an hour until Nancy’s picking us up.” Again, Eleven nods. The two young teens make their way out into the warm June evening, the sun just now beginning to sink into the horizon, turning the sky a pale pink colour. Two doors down is The Malt Shoppe; Mike leads the way there and holds the door open for Eleven. They order, Mike paying with more of his carefully negotiated allowance, and they find a seat in one of the booths by the window, each with a milkshake far too big for them after all the popcorn at the theatre.

“This was a nice anni-birth-sary,” Eleven struggles over this final word, which Mike finds adorable. He’s extremely glad that she’s had a good time.

Mike thinks about how much their relationship has changed since Eleven, tired, emaciated, and dirty, showed up on his doorstep a year ago, flanked by Joyce Byers and Will, falling into his arms with tears and gut-wrenching sobs. Mike’s knees had given out almost immediately, the pure shock too much for his body to handle. He and Eleven had gone tumbling down to the floor, wrapped in each other’s arms, tears mingling until Karen and Joyce gently pulled them apart so that Eleven could get some more food into her system.

That girl, the one whom he had kept safe from the bad men—the one who had saved him so many times—is not the girl who sits across from him now, sipping on a strawberry milkshake with a dot of whipped cream on the tip of her nose. She is taller now, her knees a little less knobby and her figure a little fuller—Mike still isn’t sure exactly how much he should be noticing such physical changes, but he can’t help it—and her hair a little longer, now almost hitting her shoulders. Eleven has also grown more independent. As each day passes, Mike feels that she asks fewer questions, needs less help with social cues. She’ll be starting high school with him in the fall, if all goes according to plan. She's proven herself to be extremely bright. Mike also isn’t sure how to feel about these changes. He’s happy she’s becoming so much more than the hurt, scared, and closed off person she was when they met on a rainy night in October 1983. Yet, part of him fears that one day Eleven will outgrow him; that she will no longer need him and he will be left behind. Can I keep up with her changes?

---

Eleven and Mike take a seat on the bench outside the malt shop in the now rapidly fading sunlight. Eleven rests her head on his shoulder, her fingers fiddling with the new silver bracelet adorning her wrist. Mike leans over, his head coming to rest on the top of hers. He resists the urge to wrap his arm around her shoulders, instead shoving his hands into the pockets of his cardigan.

“Mike?” Eleven’s tone is inquisitive and he smiles, remembering how often he’s heard his name come off her lips in that same tone, “Are you my boyfriend?” Mike grins, mostly to himself. Despite the fact that Eleven has grown and learned so much, she’s sometimes still very inept. Then again, Mike thinks, So am I.

“I guess I could be,” he replies softly, “If you want to be my girlfriend?”

“I do.”

Mike smiles at the fact that they’ve finally put their own label on this relationship, despite the fact that Dustin, Lucas, and Will have been referring to El as his girlfriend for months.

“I’ve never told you this, El,” he continues, letting his words leak out, throwing caution to the wind for a brief moment. Part of him dreads this, but Mike knows that eventually he’ll have to tell her; he should tell her. This feels like the right moment.

“What?” Eleven asks, even though she doesn’t have to. She doesn’t need to be able to read Mike’s mind to know exactly what’s coming next. It’s what she’s been waiting for. The anticipation makes her stomach bubble with excitement. Mike draws his head away from hers and looks her in the eye, his hands gently grasping her own.

“Iloveyou,” Mike says the words quickly, and immediately feels ten pounds lighter, like he could float on the air. Eleven feels fireworks go off inside her head. She prefers these mental and emotional flares to the real fireworks they lit last month to celebrate Lucas’s birthday.

“I love you too,” Eleven replies, suddenly feeling much older than fourteen. She feels like a grown-up, like a girl who will be starting high school in September, like Nancy, who will be leaving home soon with her own boyfriend. These are things Eleven looks forward to. “Promise.”

Chapter Text

September 1985

Eleven glances over at the syrupy mess that is Mike’s breakfast plate—Eggos, sliced strawberries, three strips of bacon, and a generous portion of scrambled eggs all glued together with gooey maple syrup. Eleven’s own breakfast is identical, save for the syrup, which she finds far too sweet and far too sticky. Mike had been astounded when she first expressed her distaste for what he believed to be a staple condiment, as important as ketchup. Eleven likes ketchup. There’s a small dollop of it sitting on the very edge of her plate, for dipping her eggs. She eats her breakfast, dubbed by Mrs. Wheeler as ‘The First Day of School Feast’, slowly, unlike Mike who has already scarfed down two waffles and is waiting for two more to come out of the toaster.

“It’s a good thing Nancy’s moved away,” Mrs. Wheeler jokes as the toaster dings and Mike jumps up from his seat to fetch his second helping of waffles, “Otherwise you’d eat us out of house and home.”

“I’m growing,” Mike smiles widely at his mother, a note of impishness in his voice, “I need energy.”

Eleven usually eats slowly out of habit. Mrs. Wheeler’s cooking is so delicious that, even after a year, Eleven takes delight in every flavourful bite. It is so much better than the bland, colourless food she remembers from the bad place. Today, however, Eleven eats slowly because there is other important business on her mind, namely the fact that in just over an hour she will be starting high school; her first day of any school, ever. She feels an array of emotions; her nerves run high, but her excitement runs higher. As normal as she’s become over the past year, this will be the ultimate test of her adjustment. She is afraid of failing; of revealing a truth that she fears lingers under the façade of her happy smile and regular laughter; a truth that she is nothing more than a science experiment, like a lab rat.

“You okay, El?” Mike asks, beside her again, his mouth full of waffle and bacon. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Eleven raises an eyebrow at him, mostly to show her amusement at his antics. Despite what she gathers about being feminine, she doesn't feel quite adverse to the grossness that apparently exudes from teenage boys.

“Michael,” Mrs. Wheeler’s voice floats a warning from her spot in the kitchen, “Don’t make her more nervous. And don’t speak with your mouth full.”

Mike flushes and closes his mouth tightly, making a point of chewing and swallowing very obviously. Eleven giggles at this display but her mind mulls over Mike’s question. Does she want to go through with this? If she fails, will she be able to face Mike? Or Hopper? Will she be able to call Nancy, now living with Jonathan in New York, and tearfully admit to this being a huge mistake? She is afraid of disappointing all the wonderful people who have given her so much of their time and energy in the last year. Like you were afraid of disappointing Papa. The voice that looms in the back of Eleven’s mind is dark and low, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end. No, she thinks, pushing the voice away. Not now. Not today.

“Don’t you worry about a thing, El,” Mrs. Wheeler’s voice, encouraging and earnest as always, interrupts the internal dialogue threatening to consume her, “You’re going to do so well today. And remember, I’ll be at home, so if you need me just call.”

---

Mike and Eleven stand just outside the front entrance of Hawkins High School having let Dustin, Lucas, and Will go ahead of them. Eleven plays nervously with a strand of hair that now falls to her shoulders in soft curls, styled by Mrs. Wheeler that morning. Her palms feel sweaty and her body feels warm, even in the cool breeze of this cloudy morning. Mike looks at her and they trade smiles—his is kind and encouraging, hers is nervous and meek. Above them, the bell rings, sounding the beginning of the school day; the beginning of Eleven’s new life.

“Here goes,” he says, squeezing her hand once then letting it fall between them, “Don’t worry, El. You’re gonna kick ass.” He leans forward and briefly brushes his lips against hers, before pulling back and casting his eyes around for witnesses. “I probably won’t do that much around here,” he explains, “I don’t want to embarrass you.”

“It’s okay,” she smiles, not really understanding Mike’s logic, but trusting it regardless.

“Shall we?” Mike offers his hand and she takes it, assuming that handholding doesn’t fall into the realm of embarrassing actions. Mike moves to take a step towards the front door, the entranceway now deserted as people move quickly towards their classrooms. Eleven, however, is rooted in place, her feet planted on the ground firmly. “El?” Mike looks back at her concerned, tugging at her arm gently to coax her forward.

“Am I…am I smart enough?” she whispers, her tongue darting out to lick her suddenly chapped lips. Mike gives a small, good-natured chuckle.

“Of course,” he nods, “You’re going to be smarter than most people in there! You can do this.” Eleven is still unsure of herself, but Mike’s voice suggests the immense amount of faith he has in her success. She fights against gravity and propels herself forward, following Mike into the school.

---

Eleven’s first class of the day is Ms. Cortes’s Science class, in which Dustin and Mike have also been placed. She is appreciative of this fact, feeling safe and confident sitting between them. Mrs. Cortes explains that their first unit of study will be the human body and she notices the way Dustin looks past her, over towards Mike with a playful, teasing smirk. She also notes the way Mike purposefully stares straight ahead, ignoring a joke that she doesn’t understand. What’s so funny about the human body?

After Science Mike and Dustin walk Eleven to her locker, Mike carrying her books and Dustin chatting happily about how he’s excited to join the Film Club. Eleven is scheduled to attend English next, but a wave of anxiety rolls through her when she realizes that Mike is not assigned to her class.

“It’ll be alright though,” he reassures her, “Lucas and Will are in your class and they’ll be there for you. Plus, you’re so good at reading so you don’t have to worry.”

Eleven meets Will outside the classroom and sits with him near the front. Lucas opts for a seat near the middle of the room, next to Kelly O’Neal, who became his official girlfriend sometime in the summer.

Their English teacher is Mrs. Mulligan, an old woman with grey hair and a hooked nose. Eleven thinks that she looks very much like a Halloween witch. But Ms. Mulligan is very nice and asks each of the students to share their name and their favourite book with the rest of the class. Eleven anxiously awaits her turn, not fully listening to the names and titles spoken by the other students; their voices sound like vague, distant humming in her ears. The girl to her left, whom Eleven does not recognize, finishes speaking and she can feel dozens of eyes, including the teacher’s, fall upon her.

Eleven takes a deep breath. “My name is El,” she says, careful to keep a steady voice, “My favourite book is A Wrinkle in Time.”

“A lovely book,” Mrs. Mulligan responds, “Thank you, El. It’s nice to meet you.” Eleven smiles gently, but keeps her eyes glued to her desk.

Will is up next. She can feel the anxiety radiating off of him, knowing that he hates speaking in front of groups of people. In that moment, she appoints herself the job of helping him through his fears this year. She begins by floating calm collectedness into her mind; a feeling she draws from inside herself and her relief at being finished introducing herself. Eleven notices Will’s shoulders relax and he glances over at her with suspicion. She simply nods a short encouragement. He breathes out heavily and looks back at the teacher.

“My name is Will and my favourite book is The Hobbit.”

Eleven smiles. Will the Wise.

At lunch, the cafeteria mills with people and Eleven tries not to feel overwhelmed. She’s never excelled in overly crowded places. In August, she had asked to leave the Hawkins Summer Festival early, her heart pounding in her chest as faceless, nameless people walked in every direction around her. Today, she works to conceal her nerves and steady her heart. Mike’s presence beside her, leading her to a more secluded table in the back of the large room, helps. She slips into a seat beside him. Across from them are Will and Dustin. Lucas is sitting with Kelly O’Neal and her friends closer to the center of the room.

“That better not become a regular thing,” Dustin says, “Or we’re gonna have to talk some sense into that boy.”

“I think it’ll be fine,” Will says, smiling, “Lucas mentioned that they were going to share the days between sitting with her friends and with us.”

“I’m just saying,” Dustin grins as he opens a can of chocolate pudding, “He better not forget us. We liked him when he was scrawny and lame.” Mike and Will laugh at this.

Following lunch, Eleven has Gym class, which, as Mike explains, is divided into different classes for boys and girls.

“Why?” Eleven asks.

“Because,” Mike looks uncomfortable and Eleven wishes that Will were still around, so she could pull the answer from his mind and save Mike the trouble of blushing so deeply, “Boys and girls have, uh, different...You should just call Nancy tonight and ask her.”

Eleven plans to do just that. Nancy has already given her advice on how to deal with other girls. It had been the one thing scarier than going to school itself.

“What do I talk to girls about?” Eleven asked, genuinely concerned. Nancy was the only friend she had who was also a girl but Nancy was more like her sister than a friend. Intuition told her that most girls didn’t talk about Dungeons and Dragons, Inter-dimensional travel, and the X-Men. This was a problem she needed to solve before school started.

“Girls can talk about a bunch of different things,” Nancy answered, “Barb always liked to talk about books—that’s what brought us together. You’ll probably find someone like that. But, most girls your age will probably want to talk about makeup and boys.” Eleven mulled this over in silence for a moment. Makeup and boys? That was easy enough. She had four good friends who happened to be boys.

“I can…can I talk about Mike?” Eleven corrected her word order automatically, proud of picking up on her mistake. Those were becoming rarer.

“No,” Nancy laughed, “Most girls probably won’t want to talk about Mike.”

“Then who?”

“Well, if you’re in doubt, just talk about Rob Lowe.”

“Who’s Rob Lowe?”

The gender split in Gym class, coupled with all the negative things she’s heard about it from Dustin, make her nervous. She stands awkwardly in front of the bleachers, awaiting instructions from the particularly menacing-looking teacher, Coach Kelly. Eleven finds that she is suddenly hyperaware of her body and unsure what to do with her arms so she folds them across her chest and tries to look at ease.

“Aren’t you friends with Dustin Henderson?” The question comes from a girl with curly dark hair and big front teeth standing next to her, looking, if Eleven is correct, just as uncomfortable as she is. Eleven nods.

“Don’t tell him I think so, but he’s so cute! You’re lucky!” The girls cheeks go red.

“I won’t tell,” Eleven says, her tone perhaps a bit too serious, she realizes. “Promise.” This she says in a lighter voice and it sounds friendlier. The girl smiles at her and holds out her hand.

“I’m Lucy.” Eleven smiles widely and takes the girl’s offered hand, shaking it gently.

“I’m El.”

“Gym class is the worst,” Lucy continues, “I hate running around. I’d much rather be reading.”

So, Eleven thinks, She will be like Barb. She will be my best friend.

Eleven’s last class of the day is History and she is relieved to once again have Mike by her side. Their teacher is Mr. Donaldson, a friendly looking man who reminders Eleven of Mr. Wheeler. They wear the same glasses and speak at the same slow pace. There aren’t enough textbooks for the entire class, so Mike and Eleven share. They sit, their shoulders barely touching, reading about a word that Eleven does not recognize: Gettysburg. The teacher has asked them to read silently, so Mike scrawls out a quick, simple explanation for Eleven in her notebook.

---

That evening, in New York City, Nancy and Jonathan have just finished dinner—Jonathan made spaghetti and meatballs—and are just about to settle in to watch a movie.

“Phone calls first,” Nancy reminds him.

“Good call. Wheeler house first?” Jonathan pulls the phone over from the living room table and Nancy nods. He dials the Wheeler’s house number and hands the receiver over to Nancy.

“Hey Mike,” she says, her voice bright, “How was it?”

“Good,” Mike answers, hundreds of miles away, “We had Science for first period and the teacher seems cool. I’ll still miss Mr. Clarke though. El’s in my class and she answered a question about…”

“How was her day?” Nancy interrupts him. Mike sighs playfully.

“I get it,” he mutters, “You really just called to talk to her.”

“Well, mostly,” Nancy admits, matching Mike’s tone. She hears shuffling and static as Mike places his hand over the mouthpiece. His voice, muffled, calls out for El. After a moment, Nancy hears her voice on the other end.

“Nancy!” El exclaims, “I did it!”

“You did,” Nancy laughs, “Congratulations! Tell me all about it!”

And with that, Eleven launches into an explanation about her day, making sure to save the part about the girl she believes will be her new best friend to the end.

Chapter Text

December 1985

At seven o’clock on a chilly Friday evening, Lucy Sullivan pedals up the Wheeler’s dimly lit driveway on her old silver bike, her backpack bouncing gently against the worn winter coat that protects her from the night air. At the top of the driveway, she hops off her bike and sets it gently against the Wheeler’s garage door, as she has done numerous times before. Lucy is thankful it’s still early enough in the month that the snow hasn’t started; otherwise her trip here would have taken twice as long—the transit in Hawkins is far inferior to that in Fort Wayne, where she and her mother had moved from at the beginning of that year. She happily trudges up the Wheeler’s front steps, catching sight of Mr. Wheeler asleep in front of the television through the warm glow of the front window, where the curtains are drawn open. Lucy hesitates for a moment, her hand hovering over the doorbell, before remembering that Mike has talked about what a heavy sleeper his dad is. Knowing this, she rings said doorbell with a blue-gloved finger. Mike is the one to answer, almost immediately. It appears that he is either coming or going; his coat is half on and he is wearing one glove.

“Hey Lucy,” he greets her, making space so that she can enter. Lucy steps in past him and immediately kicks off her tattered sneakers before shrugging off her jacket and hanging it up in the closet. She has spent plenty of time at the Wheeler’s house since befriending El in September and she has gotten used to this routine.

“What’s up Wheeler?” Lucy grins, “Where’s El?” Before Mike can answer her, Lucy sees Mrs. Wheeler pop her head out from the kitchen at the end of the hall.

“Lucy, is that you?” she calls out.

“Yeah, it’s me Mrs. Wheeler!” Lucy calls back, trying to keep her voice at a reasonable level, just in case Mr. Wheeler’s sleeping habits have changed. She doesn’t want to be the one to wake him.

“Hi honey,” Mrs. Wheeler fully emerges from the kitchen wearing a crisp red apron over her blue dress. Lucy thinks about how much she resembles the mothers in magazines and on TV. She thinks about how lucky Mike is. “Have you eaten dinner?” Mrs. Wheeler asks. Lucy shakes her head.

“No ma’am,” she admits, “My mom had to work a double shift today and...”

“That’s alright,” Mrs. Wheeler says brightly, cutting her off with tact. Lucy is thankful she doesn’t have to explain that her mother hardly ever has time to prepare her supper, how there is no food but some old bread and eggs in her fridge at home. “There’s some leftover meatloaf and potatoes in the oven.” Mrs. Wheeler smiles and then turns to Mike, who has been hovering awkwardly and silently by the front door, “We’ll leave in ten minutes, Michael.” Mike nods and Mrs. Wheeler returns to the kitchen.

“To answer your question, El’s upstairs,” Mike says, once his mother has disappeared, “Do you need some help with your bag?” He motions to the large backpack Lucy had shrugged off with her jacket.

“No, I’m good! Thanks though.” She surveys his state of disarray, noting that Mike also has a large backpack, nearly bursting at the seams with what she can only imagine are comic books and movies, laid down by his sneaker-clad feet. “Where are you going?”

“We’re all gonna go to Will’s for the night,” Mike replies, a smirk growing on his lips “So you and El can have your girl time. Should I tell Dustin you say hi?” At this last question, Mike wiggles his eyebrows in mock suggestiveness.

“You’re a dweeb, Wheeler,” Lucy flushes, her pale cheeks glowing red. She knows El has kept her secret, guarded it close, but since becoming friends with her, Lucy has also grown closer to El’s friends, her group of peculiar boys. Lucy is painfully aware that she laughs just a little bit harder than necessary at everything Dustin says, knows that to Mike, who seems pretty good at reading people, her feelings are probably obvious.

“Lucy?” El appears at the top of the stairs, a big grin on her face. Though Lucy doesn’t know it, this is her first sleepover and she is practically oozing excitement. Eleven remembers the suggestion Nancy had made a couple weeks ago during one of their regular phone calls, to invite her new friend for a sleepover. She had witnessed sleepovers before; when the boys would spend the night in the basement or when Mike would go away for the night with his backpack, usually to Lucas’s. Eleven had never been a part of that. She feels glad to be experiencing this new kind of friendship, a bond between herself and another girl, who has similar fears, problems, and feelings. Eleven is especially happy that this new friend is Lucy. Lucy is everything Eleven believes that she herself is not; loud, outspoken, and bossy (but never towards Eleven). Mrs. Wheeler says they compliment each other.

Eleven bounds down the stairs and wraps Lucy in a hug. This is the way they began greeting each other early in October and Eleven loves it. These hugs are different than the ones she gets from Mike; they don’t make her stomach flutter or her heart race, but they do give her the same warm and fuzzy feeling of belonging and love.

“Hiya El,” Lucy grins as her friend pulls away and gravitates towards Mike, who wraps an arm around her shoulder. Lucy notes that, as always, there is something protective in the way that Mike holds El, as if he secretly fears she will slip away from him and into thin air.

“Are you leaving soon?” Eleven asks Mike, looking up at him with eyes that still make Mike feel weak in the knees.

“Trying to get rid of me?” he asks, feigning hurt. Eleven playfully punches his shoulder and he wraps her in a bear hug. Lucy makes a show of covering her eyes and sighing loudly, but she is mostly ignored. She tries not to listen, but can’t help overhearing her friends whisper to each other in hushed tones.

“Have fun,” Mike tells her, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She hears the sound of one soft kiss, and then another.

“Are you two done?” she groans, peeking out from behind her fingers. Mike rolls his eyes amusedly at her and ruffles El’s hair before stooping to pick up his backpack. He slings it over his shoulder.

“Mooooom,” Mike shouts down the hall, into the kitchen. Mr. Wheeler shifts in his chair, but doesn't wake, “I’m starting the car!”

---

Eleven sits across from Lucy at the kitchen table while she hungrily eats the food Mrs. Wheeler saved for her. The embarrassment she would probably feel if Mike, or any of the other boys, were around is nonexistent when she’s alone with El. Though Lucy can’t quite place it, she knows there is something different about her friend, something that ensures a lack of judgement. Perhaps this is why Lucy had been drawn to El.

“Do you think it’s weird that I live with Mike?” Eleven asks suddenly, chewing her bottom lip, apprehensive about the answer she will receive. It had seemed perfectly natural to her to live with the Wheelers when she returned; not only was she most comfortable and at ease around Mike, but they were also well off enough to afford caring for another child. Joyce and Hopper had each offered to take her in, but Karen had insisted that the burden would be too great for Joyce and that Hopper wouldn’t be able to offer the maternal touch. This had been, of course, before Hopper had moved out of his trailer and into the Byers’s house. However, Eleven had recently grown aware that this was not necessarily a normal living arrangement. Such a label doesn’t particularly bother her, especially because she can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world, but she is curious to know what her friend thinks.

“I mean, I guess it’s a little weird,” Lucy shrugs, “But it doesn’t really matter what I think. And I’m pretty sure I understand.” She pauses for a moment, as if considering what to say next, or how to say it, “You had a tough time as a kid, right?” The question catches Eleven off guard. Eleven has never considered herself as someone who had a particularly difficult childhood. Rather, she feels as though such a time in her life never existed. She knows there is no comparing her own experiences to Lucy’s, but for the sake of simplicity she responds with a singular word.

“Yes.” Upon her answer, Lucy puts down her fork, her plate nearly empty, and looks at Eleven with her almond-shaped eyes.

“Me too,” Lucy says, her voice softer than Eleven has ever heard it before. She hesitates, pulling at one of her loose, dark curls the way Eleven has noticed she does when nervous. Eleven reaches out and places a hand on her arm gently, a signal that she can continue, but doesn't have it. “My dad died when I was only seven and we were broke. My mom married this guy, Tom, and he…well, he was…” Lucy stops, feeling the words stuck in her throat.

“A bad man?” Eleven offers the only description of evil that she feels she truly knows.

“Yeah,” Lucy nods, thankful for the description, “A really bad man. My mom decided to leave him this year and we moved away; here to Hawkins.”

“My pa…” Eleven cuts herself off, continuing her attempts to feign normalcy, “My dad was a bad man too,” she confesses, “Mike saved me from him.”

“You make him sound like a hero,” Lucy says.

“He is.”

---

Despite some difficult conversation over dinner, Eleven is enjoying her first sleepover. Once Lucy had finished eating dinner, the girls had made popcorn and watched a movie in the basement, huddled up under a pile of blankets. Now they sit on El’s bed, which used to be Nancy’s before she moved to New York.

“Let’s play truth or dare,” Lucy suggests. Eleven feels a bout of nerves course through her body. She has never played this game before, but Nancy explained it to her over the phone. She thinks she understands the basic concept, but is afraid of messing up, of revealing this is a new experience for her. Still, she nods.

“Okay. You first.” Eleven offers this by way of having Lucy play the leader. It’s safer that way.

“Okay,” Lucy grins, “Truth or Dare?”

“Truth,” Eleven says after a moment of hesitation. She is afraid of dares, of what Nancy told her they could consist of.

“I’ve always wanted to know something,” Lucy muses aloud, “What’s your real name, El? What’s that short for?”

Eleven feels her throat go dry. She hasn’t thought about her real name in a long time. In fact, she considers El to be her real name now, the one she’s been called since the beginning of this second life, her real life.

“It’s okay to tell me,” Lucy says, responding to El’s silence, “We’re friends. And the rules of Truth or Dare are that I can’t tell any secrets. I wouldn’t anyways, even if those weren’t the rules. Because we’re friends.”

“Eleven.” The word tumbles from El’s lips before she purses them closed, ashamed.

“What?” Lucy looks confused. Eleven begins to open her mouth to repeat her answer, shame rising on her cheeks, but understanding dawns on Lucy’s face. She furrows her brows momentarily but then smiles.

“El is way better,” she says brightly, encouragingly, “Way, way better! It suits you…Your turn!”

“Truth or Dare?” Eleven asks, glad that Lucy passes over the oddity with no questions, the way Mike did when they had first met.

“Dare.” A mischievous glint rises in Lucy’s eye. Eleven is not surprised this is what her friend has chosen. She considers her options for a minute, knowing she has many of them. Nancy had suggested eating something gross, like syrup and ketchup mixed together, or doing something silly, like a random dance. The perfect idea forms in El’s mind and an impish smirk draws itself upon her face.

“I dare you to do twenty push ups,” El grins, taking her inspiration from last month’s fitness unit in Gym Class. Lucy had complained endlessly about push-ups for the entire week. “They make my arms too sore,” Lucy had grumbled, “I hate this.”

“That’s the woooooorst,” Lucy moans. She dramatically rolls off the bed as if the bones in her body have disappeared and, after a pleading look at El proceeds to do twenty painstakingly slow push-ups, her thin elbows popping with each exertion. As Lucy’s body moves up and down, Eleven expresses concern for this strange bodily noise, but Lucy insists that it’s nothing, merely a symptom of her laziness.

The game continues, becoming more outlandish. Lucy dares Eleven to drink a ladle-full of maple syrup, which Eleven begrudgingly does, followed by a tall glass of cold water. Eleven dares Lucy to call Will’s house and ask Dustin to go sledding with her when it snows. With horror, Lucy picks up the phone and dials the number.

---

“Truth or Dare?” Lucy asks, sprawled on the floor of Eleven’s bedroom, her face flushed with victory. Dustin had seemed surprised at her invitation, but had agreed to it wholeheartedly. She had even heard Mike cackling with triumph from the other side of the phone.

“Truth,” Eleven chooses, lying on her stomach over her frilly pink sheets, looking downwards at Lucy.

“What’s your biggest secret?” Lucy asks, sitting up and fixing El with a pointed glare. It’s a big question, Lucy knows, but after that horrifying dare, El owes her.

“Promise not to tell?”

“Yeah, for sure.”

Eleven stands up and takes a deep breath. She grabs a pillow from the top of her bed and hands it to Lucy, who takes it with a questioning look. Eleven retreats towards the other end of the room and looks at her friend with a serious expression.

“Throw it,” she instructs, “At me.”

“What? Why?” Eleven doesn’t answer Lucy’s inquiries, giving her only an earnest look. Lucy shrugs and tosses the pillow in Eleven’s direction. It stops in the air and, before Lucy can react, the pillow has come flying back at her, hovering over her then dropping down over her head. Lucy’s eyes widen.

“Holy shit,” Lucy breathes. She looks at Eleven, who stands nervously by the door, “That was so cool.”

Chapter Text

April 1987

It’s raining in New York City; thick, cold drops of water pour from the sky in a deluge unlike anything Nancy Wheeler can remember ever experiencing. Dark thunderclouds roll overhead, ominously rumbling with suggestion as she runs through Central Park, clutching the hood of her red raincoat close about her neck, sneakered feet thoroughly soaked. Following closely behind her is her boyfriend, Jonathan Byers.

“I told you we should have brought an umbrella!” Nancy shouts over the sound of the rain hitting pavement, her words mixed with laughter.

“Nance, wait!” she hears Jonathan call out to her and skids to a halt, pivoting to face him. For some inexplicable reason, he has stopped in his tracks, the rain and wind battering him through the lightweight black jacket he is wearing.

“What are you doing?” she asks incredulously, striding back towards Jonathan, pushing sopping wet strands of hair out of her eyes.

“Do you remember when you made me watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s last year?” Jonathan asks. Nancy stares at him with disbelief, shaking her head.

“Jon, are you kidding?” She grabs at his sleeve and pulls with force, attempting to move him despite the awareness that she will be unable to make him budge. Jonathan, proving her correct, stands firm, his boots rooted to the ground.

“Do you remember?” he repeats, stubborn as usual. Nancy rolls her eyes, halfway between amusement and genuine frustration.

“Yes, of course,” she sighs, “You thought it was ridiculous. Now can we…”

“It is ridiculous,” Jonathan interrupts her with a grin—an expression she feels is totally out of place in such a moment, drenched to the bone in the middle of what must be a hurricane. “But,” he continues, “You thought it was romantic.”

“It is,” Nancy fires back, raising her eyebrows at him, “Is that what this is? Are you going to kiss me in the rain Jonathan Byers?” She can’t help the smirk that plays upon her lips.

“No,” Jonathan laughs, “Even better.” Nancy can barely believe her eyes, can barely contain the heart that pounds in her chest, as Jonathan kneels in front of her, his knee connecting with a particularly deep puddle, though he doesn't seem to notice. He reaches into the front pocket of his jacket and pulls out a small black box. Suddenly, Nancy can no longer feel the chill of the rain and wind; she can no longer hear the rumbling of the thunder. There is nothing, no one, except for Jonathan Byers, who looks up at her expectantly. Her hands move to cover her mouth, which has fallen open in surprise.

“Nancy Wheeler,” he says, “I never thought I’d meet a girl who’d make me want to do something as cheesy as this. Will you live at the end of a cul-de-sac with me?” He grins humouredly, hoping she remembers one of their first real conversations as vividly as he does.

“Shut up.” The grin Nancy returns is all the confirmation he needs. She reaches out her hand and helps pull Jonathan to his feet. He embraces her tightly, taking a moment to slide a modest ring onto her slender finger, before he kisses her deeply.

“So?” he asks, pulling away ever so slightly, “Are we getting married?”

“Yes!” Nancy laughs, feeling breathless, “As long as there’s no chance we live on a cul-de-sac.”

---

May 1988

Ted Wheeler has always taken pride in his sizable backyard, keeping the grass meticulously trimmed and the fence immaculately painted. Karen Wheeler has also always been quite dedicated to the rose bushes, tulip plans, and aged elms that are sprawled across the generous suburban property. As such, when their eldest daughter had announced, last summer while she was home from college, that she would be marrying Jonathan Byers, there had been no doubt about where the wedding should take place.

Now, an imposing white canopy is set up in that sizable backyard, its edges lined with pale blue and colourless Christmas lights for when it gets dark in a few hours. Until then, the day is cloudless; the sky a shocking blue and the sun warm, with just the right amount of breeze. It is a beautiful day for a wedding, and Nancy’s smiling face, as she exchanges vows with Jonathan, who—as his mother proudly notes—looks happier than he ever has before, indicates her belief that nothing could make this day more perfect.

The ceremony flies by and before Nancy realizes it, Jonathan’s lips are on hers in a chaste kiss, family and friends clapping, some crying, as she officially adopts the name Nancy Caroline Byers. Beside her, beaming, are both her sisters, El and Holly. El, now nearing seventeen has taken on the duty of maid-of-honour while Holly, having just turned nine, serves as flower girl, a bouquet brimming with white roses in her arms. Will, standing proudly by Jonathan is, of course, the best man. The ceremony slowly progresses into dinner, guests chatting and taking their seats at round tables lined with pale blue tablecloths and decorated with large glass vases of tall white lilies at their centers.

Seated by the head table, where the newlyweds preside, are their closest family and friends. Karen and Ted share a table with Joyce and Hopper—who, unbeknownst to all, has also been seriously contemplating weddings lately—as well as Dustin and Lucas’s parents. Mike, Dustin, and Lucas occupy another table, beside theirs, each dressed sharply in crisp, tailored suits—Mike and Dustin in black, Lucas in grey. Beside Dustin sits Lucy, her usually curly hair pulled into a sleek bun, her neck adorned with a golden chain, complete with heart-shaped charm, that Dustin had given her for her birthday a month earlier. Lucas is accompanied by his newest girlfriend, Cheryl—his third since high school started and co-captain of the cheerleading squad. Dustin, Mike, and Will have made it clear that she is definitely the best so far and Lucas ought to hold on to her. Cheryl, despite being ridiculously popular, can recite almost all of The Empire Strikes Back from memory.

Several times over dinner, Nancy looks out over the hundred or so people gathered to celebrate her wedding, her heart brimming with love and joy. Her eyes rest, most often, where her brother and his friends sit and Nancy finds herself amazed by how much they’ve all grown since she moved away three years ago. Mike is unbelievably tall, nearing six feet, she’s sure, and still lanky even though there’s slight, lean muscle forming on his arms and shoulders. Nancy is happy to note that his hair remains unruly and a trace of freckles still graces his cheeks; these things make her feel nostalgic, connected to her past in a way she can’t quite explain. Dustin has also grown, not quite as much as Mike, but tall nonetheless, noticeably slimming out. There’s evidence of a beard on his chin, but Nancy can tell he’s shaved for this occasion. His hair is also shorter, though it has retained its youthful curl. Lucas has grown to a height somewhere in between Mike and Dustin, and has muscled up most significantly, though as Nancy understands it, he’s playing football now and there’s a good chance he’ll get a scholarship for college. Like Dustin, there are traces of facial hair on his chin and upper lip, but Lucas keeps his hair buzzed short. She doesn’t recognize the girl sitting next to him, but she does recognize Dustin’s girlfriend, Lucy—El’s best friend, petite, having not grown much since they first met. Nancy has liked Lucy since the moment they first met, knowing how much she’s protected and guided El through the sometimes-terrifying journey that is high school. With a concealed grin, Nancy recalls the way she had sat both girls down the last time she had been home, in order to talk about boys and sex and safety. Lucy had looked mortified throughout the entire talk while El had just looked troubled and confused. She had gotten many follow-up phone calls in the weeks that succeeded that discussion.

---

Mike Wheeler, who is turning seventeen in one month, sits in his assigned spot at his assigned table and fiddles with one of the flowers from the centerpiece, rolling its petals between his fingers, his food rapidly cooling in front of him. Lucy looks at Mike over her plate of chicken and vegetables, nudging Dustin between the ribs and nodding her head in his direction. Dustin, following her line of sight, clears his throat loudly. Mike doesn’t notice.

“Look alive Wheeler,” Lucy teases. Upon hearing his name, Mike looks up at Lucy. “It’s not every day your sister gets married.”

“He’s just bummed because El’s been too busy for him all day,” Dustin smirks. Mike opens his mouth to respond, to defend himself, but he is cut off by the sound of silverware clinking against glass, at first from just one spot, then scattered throughout the tent, and finally raising to a crescendo that consumes the silence of the late afternoon. The guests want a kiss from their bride and groom.

At the head table, Jonathan and Nancy are the colour of the Coca-Cola logo. Still, they lean in toward one another and kiss gently, as they’ve been made to do six times already since the appetizers were served an hour ago. A cheer echoes from the crowd. Mike, of course, is only paying attention to El and to the way she looks giddily at Nancy and Jonathan, now technically her new brother-in-law.

“Speech!” Someone yells from the next table over. Mike recognizes the voice as belonging to Hopper and looks in his direction to see an impish grin lighting up the chief’s features. A few people repeat the sentiment, but none in a voice quite as loud as Hopper’s. Mike notices Nancy nod encouragingly at Jonathan, who stands and clears his throat.

“I guess I’ll start with our first date,” Jonathan says and everyone cheers.

“Do you remember our first date?” Mike hears Lucy whisper under her breath to Dustin.

“Hell yeah,” he whispers back with a grin, “You’d kill me if I forgot.”

---

January 1986

Dustin Henderson can barely believe his luck. Last month, Lucy Sullivan had called Will’s house, requested to speak to him, and had asked him to go sledding.

“Like…on a date?” Dustin asked. The boys, surrounding him with smirks and silent chuckles had collectively rolled their eyes. Lucas punched him in the arm.

“Well…yeah, duh,” Lucy laughed from the other side of the telephone. Dustin nodded vigorously, forgetting for a moment that Lucy was not there to see such an action of assent. Mike began laughing aloud.

“Sure,” Dustin said quickly, his cheeks reddening, “Yes. Definitely.”

Finally, after nearly a month of checking the weather forecast and waiting rather impatiently, it has snowed in Hawkins. Dustin drags his sled along Cherry Street, towards Hannety Park, where he will be meeting Lucy in only fifteen minutes. The walk to Hannety is, at most, five minutes from his house, but Dustin wants to arrive early, as his mother told him a gentleman should.

Once at the park, Dustin trudges up the admittedly steep hill and, upon reaching the top, is slightly horrified to realize Lucy is already there, eyes closed and lying sprawled out in the snow, an outline of a snow angel around her.

“You look like you’re dead,” he says loudly in her direction. Lucy’s eyes shoot open and she grins widely, jumping to her feet and shaking off the excess snow that’s gathered on her red scarf and blue gloves.

“I thought you were dead,” she laughs, “Took you long enough to get here!”

“What do you mean?” Dustin’s eyes go wide, “You said 2:00! I’m technically early!”

“I said 1:00!” Lucy insists. Dustin feels his heart sink; horrified at the thought that she’s been waiting here for nearly an hour. He opens his mouth, but finds that no words come out. Lucy bursts into laughter, “I’m kidding!” she grins, “I did say 2:00.”

“Unbelievable,” Dustin sighs playfully, secretly relieved, “I seriously can’t believe you though. Consider this the beginning of a prank war. Consider yourself warned.”

“Are you sure?” Lucy crosses her arms over her chest, “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself in to.”

And, in fact, at that moment, Dustin didn’t know that what he’d be getting in to was a lifelong relationship with a sometimes-brash, always bold girl who loved pineapple on her pizza even more than he did. This, of course, also meant that Dustin didn’t realize he was also entering into a lifelong prank war with a girl whose best and closest friend in the world had telekinetic powers.

However, even if he had known all those things, Dustin wouldn’t have changed anything about the direction his life was headed in.

---

May 1988

Dinner has progressed into dancing. Nancy and Jonathan share their very first dance as a married couple to Endless Love—Mike knows this was very likely Nancy’s choice. Jonathan and Joyce dance, as do Nancy and Ted, before the rest of the guests are invited to join. Immediately, El is by his side, her hand in his, pulling him to the dance floor. It feels just like a school dance as fast songs across genres play one after another, Mike dancing in a circle with El, Dustin, Lucy, Will, Lucas, and Cheryl.

“Alright folks,” the DJ, hired from the next town over, says as the final chords of Don’t Stop Believin’ fade out, “Let’s slow it down a bit for all you lovers. Gentleman, grab your ladies.” A slower song starts and groups dissipate into couples. Mike recognizes the song as With or Without You from this pretty cool Irish band, U2 that had recently become popular stateside. He shares this information with El has they dance, considering himself to have a fairly decent knowledge of music since getting a job at the record store at Christmastime.

El and Mike sway on the spot for the duration of this song, and another, an aching want to be with her building in the pit of his stomach. He’s barely gotten to spend any time with her today and she looks so beautiful in her light blue dress./p>

“Can you escape for a bit?” he whispers in her ear as another song starts up, its tempo faster. People begin flooding back onto the dance floor. Mike feels El grin against his cheek in response.

“Maybe,” she whispers back, “Just for a few minutes.” Mike nods and takes her hand, leading her away from the tent and towards the house. He passes Dustin and Lucy, who are engaged in some bizarre dance-off, limbs flailing in every direction, as he makes a beeline for the house.

The house is empty; everyone is outside in the rapidly fading light of this perfect summer evening, dancing and drinking. Once inside, Mike and Eleven slip upstairs into his bedroom and Mike wastes no time in drawing her over to his bed and sitting them both down. In his haste, he forgets to close the door behind him. He makes a motion to pull away, but El holds him in place. She lazily raises a hand and the door slams shut with force. A laugh escapes Mike’s lips as they embrace.

He kisses her, first like they used to kiss when they were younger, softly, tentatively; then with more passion, with open lips and eyes screwed shut. Mike’s hands, as they often do these days, want to wander, farther than they ever have before, away from the familiar areas of her waist and her hips; but he refrains, unsure how she will react, unsure how to ask what he’s allowed to do. Instead, he runs his fingers through her hair, once again cropped short since she’s learned to feel confident in her elfish cheeks and button nose. He kisses her hungrily, their lips moving in time. Mike can feel Eleven’s lips smiling against his as they kiss—it’s his favourite feeling in the world.

“I love you El,” he breathes heavily as they pull apart for air. His heart is racing in his chest and he can feel El’s doing the same, she’s pressed so close to him.

“I know,” she grins devilishly. This is a response she’s picked up from Lucy and Dustin; the response they always give each other when the other confesses their love.

“You’re the worst,” Mike laughs—then, “We should get back downstairs,” he suggests, “Before someone notices we’re missing.”

“Yeah,” El sighs as she stands, smoothing out her dress and checking her hair in Mike’s mirror, “You go first,” she instructs, “I have to fix my lipstick.” Mike, with something that feels oddly like a surge of pride, notices the red smudges around El’s lips. He kisses her gently one last time before opening the bedroom door.

“Mike,” she calls him as he steps out, making him stop and look back, “I love you too.”

Chapter Text

June 1989

Mike Wheeler wakes up early on the morning of his eighteenth birthday, rising before the sun and feeling as though nothing in his world could be better. In the past months he has officially accepted his offer of admission from MIT and graduated high school with honours, finishing top of his class in both Biology and Chemistry. Nancy and Jonathan have returned from a trip in the UK, and are spending some time in Hawkins before returning to New York—they brought him a bunch of records from up and coming bands. And, here in the dark of his bedroom, El lays beside him, still fast asleep in her favourite pair of flannel pyjamas. He remembers waking up to her crawling into bed with him last night and cuddling up against his body. It’s something she doesn’t do often; something he cherishes despite the knowledge that these sleepovers, as they’ve come to term them, stem from El’s nightmares, which, though infrequent, remain vivid.

“El,” he whispers softly, gently shaking her shoulder, “El.” Mike watches as her eyes flutter open and fall upon him, her lips spreading into a big smile.

“Happy Birthday Mike,” she says quietly. He smiles.

“Thanks,” Mike leans over her and places a soft kiss on her lips, “You had better get back to your own room though, before my dad wakes up for work and thinks we’re up to no good.”

El sighs, but nods her agreement, slowly rolling out of the bed and curling her feet on the soft green rug covering the bedroom floor. She uses her powers to mute the hinges as she opens Mike’s bedroom door and to float herself just barely half an inch over the ground, so as to avoid the creaking of the floorboards that could give them away. Mike watches El retreat across the hall, hears her door close and listens as she settles into her own bed for another couple hours of sleep. He smiles up at the ceiling of his bedroom. Yeah, things can’t be much better than this.

Mike’s not even upset that he has to get of bed soon and prepare for going to work today, on his birthday. He’s working a short shift, one he picked up from his co-worker Connor on purpose, having a sneaking suspicion that his friends have been planning a surprise party. Last week, El had declined his suggestion of going out for a birthday lunch, just the two of them.

“We can invite everyone then,” Mike suggested. El shook her head again.

“No,” she smiled, attempting (and failing) to look innocent, “I’ll make you dinner and we can watch whatever movie you want and snuggle. It’ll be sweet.”

“Sure thing,” Mike said, catching on, though acting none the wiser, “Let’s do that.”

Mike can’t wait to see what they have planned.

---

“Can’t you drive any faster?” Lucy groans from the passenger seat of Dustin’s Jeep, a green ’83 Cherokee inherited from his father. Her fingers move from tapping against the window impatiently to adjusting the large sunglasses that have slipped down her nose.

“If I get a second speeding ticket, my dad will literally murder me,” Dustin retorts, watching carefully so that the speedometer doesn’t go a tick above 30 miles an hour. His first had been given only two weeks earlier, when he was running late for school. Lucy dramatically smashes her head against the headrest and gasps for air.

“And you’re literally murdering me,” she laments, “We’re not gonna have time to do everything.” Dustin shakes his head with a mock grimace and quickly glances into the rear-view mirror to look at El, who’s quietly staring out the window at the passing scenery.

“El,” he says pleadingly, “Can you please tell Lucy that everything will be okay?”

“Lucy,” El grins, “Everything will be okay.”

“It better be,” Lucy smirks, “This is the first big prank El’s helping with.”

After ten minutes that feel like an absolute eternity to Lucy, Dustin pulls into the Wheeler’s driveway. She and El are out of the car before Dustin has even fully put it in park. Lucy rushes around the car and opens the trunk, grabbing one of the three large cardboard boxes resting there.

“Lighter than it looks,” she jokes, a devilish grin playing on her lips as El grabs another of the boxes and Dustin follows suite, picking up the third. They head inside and, unexpectedly, meet Mrs. Wheeler in the front hall as they are kicking off their shoes.

“What are those?” she asks, looking curiously at the boxes.

“Mike’s presents,” Dustin says a little too quickly, causing Mrs. Wheeler to narrow her eyes in his direction. She turns towards El.

“El, what’s in the boxes?” she asks pointedly. El, who has always found it nearly impossible to lie directly to Mrs. Wheeler’s face, flushes red.

“Peanuts,” she sighs, looking down towards the floor.

“Peanuts?” Mrs. Wheeler’s voice is confused, almost incredulous.

“Foam peanuts,” Lucy specifies, “For a prank…if that’s okay.”

Mrs. Wheeler is silent for a moment, her eyebrows knitted together as if she is considering whether or not to grant them permission. Finally, she cracks a large smile.

“Just keep them in Mike’s room,” she says, “And you’re all responsible for cleaning up.”

“Thanks Mrs. Wheeler,” Dustin smiles, “You’re the coolest.”

Permission granted, the three teens hurry up the stairs and unceremoniously drop the boxes and their backpacks just inside the door of Mike’s bedroom.

“I still can’t get over how clean Wheeler keeps his bedroom,” Lucy grimaces.

“No kidding,” Dustin laughs, “Yours is a shit-show.” Lucy rolls her eyes and bends down, opening her box and revealing a trove of small green foam peanuts; the same contents fill the other two boxes. Lucy and Dustin each make a move to lift and empty their boxes, but El interrupts them.

“Wait,” she instructs, “Watch.”

Dustin and Lucy do just that. They watch as the peanuts, two hundred of them at least, float out of their boxes and suddenly rain down all over Mike’s room, blanketing the floor, the bed, and the furniture in a layer of green foam. They take a moment to survey the damage, nodding approvingly.

“Wait,” Lucy says suddenly, bending low to pick up a small handful of peanuts from the floor, “There needs to be at least a few that are especially hidden. Somewhere where Mike won’t look for a while, at least until he’s cleaned up all this crap. Then, one day, when he least expects it, he’ll like, open a box or unfold a sweater or something, and there will be peanuts there and he’ll remember the moment he laid his eyes on this cataclysm.”

“My God, you’re an evil genius,” Dustin grins, playfully pinching Lucy’s ribs, “I love it.” Lucy grins widely at him, kissing him quickly on the nose before turning back towards El. “Any ideas?” El nods—she has the perfect idea.

She walks over to Mike’s closet and opens the door, bending low and reaching for something in the back of the small room in which she hid herself years ago. She pulls out a taped up cardboard box and uses her powers to gently unpeel the tape, so that the box may be resealed without suspicion.

“In here,” she gestures, as she opens the flaps of the box to reveal several items from Mike’s childhood; toys, blankets, pictures. Resting atop everything are his science fair trophies from middle school. Now on his dresser are more recent pictures, mostly of he and El, as well as trophies and mementos of his high school achievements. “He might grab some of this stuff when we move to Boston in August.”

“I stand corrected,” Dustin says, “You’re both evil geniuses. Mike and I are doomed.”

“Damn right,” Lucy nods and triumphantly places the foam peanuts in the crook of a trophy, a place of prominence that El is certain Mike will notice the moment he opens the box. As El reseals the box and floats it back to its place in the closet, Lucy turns to Dustin with a slightly apologetic smile on her face.

“I wouldn’t have rushed you if I knew El was going to do all the work,” she laughs.

“Not all the work,” Dustin replies, reaching for and opening his backpack. He pulls out a long rectangular box, “We’ve still got the Saran Wrap.”

---

October 1989

Mike’s first month of college goes by rather uneventfully, which, as Nancy has informed him, means it has been successful. Mike believes that to be true. There have been no bullies and no failed tests, which had been his biggest fear. He enjoys all his classes, sleeps a little bit less, and drinks coffee a little bit more. He’s attended a few parties, made a few new friends, and realized that he’s a fairly decent beer-pong player, though he doesn’t particularly enjoy beer. At any rate, Mike finds the changes are manageable, especially considering that he’s lucky enough to be living with three of his favourite people in the world.

At MIT, Mike is studying Biology, having somewhere along the line decided that he wants to be a doctor. Dustin is also at MIT, studying Mechanical Engineering. He wants to, one day, work for NASA and build rockets.

“If alternate dimensions and man-eating monsters are real,” Dustin had reasoned, “Aliens may as well be too. I’ll build the ships that’ll find them. Or establish human colonies on Mars.”

“Just don’t tell your professors that,” Mike grinned.

Dustin and Mike share a small two-bedroom house just off campus with their girlfriends. Lucy, after having been terrified of being unable to afford college, is studying History and English at Harvard, hoping to eventually become a high school teacher. After Mike had won a full four-year scholarship, his parents had agreed to split the money they had spent years saving between Lucy and El so that both girls would be able to attend their top choice of university. El, seemingly without any deliberation, had announced her desire to study Psychology, wanting to work as a speech pathologist.

“I want to help people who have trouble speaking,” she had confessed to Mike while they worked on their college applications at the Wheeler’s kitchen table, “The way you helped me.”

On the other side of the country, Lucas, having gotten a much-coveted football scholarship, is at Stanford studying Math while Will, following in his brother’s footsteps, is working on a Art degree at NYU. It’s weird not seeing two of his closest friends on a daily basis, but Mike is content in the knowledge that they are each doing what they love.

---

In October, the leaves begin to change colour and the temperature cools. The girls welcome the sweater weather and the crunching sound of leaves under their feet. It’s near two a.m. on a Wednesday morning sometime in the middle of the month when El is woken by the sound of a phone ringing, her eyes flying open. Beside her, Mike continues to snore softly; he’s become a heavy sleeper lately. She, on the other hand, is woken at dawn each morning by the sound of birds outside the window.

But this sound that has drawn her out of a lovely dream of a future house and future children is not the sound of birds. It is shrill and too loud. El squirms out from underneath Mike’s arm and reaches over him, to where the phone rests on his nightstand. A jolt of nerves rockets through her stomach and up her spine. The phone should not be ringing when it’s this dark. Gingerly, she picks it up, if for no other reason than to stop the noise.

“Hello?” El notes how alert her voice is, despite having just woken up. It is something retained from her childhood. On the other end of the phone is a familiar voice—Joyce’s—but it sounds anxious, too high-pitched. El can barely keep up with how quickly Joyce is speaking, but she latches on to two words, spoken together, because they confuse her—heart attack.

Heart attack? Hearts are good—it is her heart that flutters whenever Mike kisses her; whenever his hands explore her body. It is her heart that feels joy and warmth whenever she and Lucy sit down and share their secrets. But attack? Attacks are bad—dangerous, violent.

“El?” Joyce’s voice echoes in her ears, drawing her back to reality, “Are you there?” By this point Mike has woken and is propped up on his pillows, staring at her with a confused expression, wiping sleep out of his eyes. El glances at him and, for a moment, feels unsure how to proceed.

“Heart attack?” she asks into the receiver, hoping for clarification; praying that this is a good thing and she’s mistaken; that Joyce’s anxiousness is really just excitement. As those words leave her lips, Mike sits bolt upright, suddenly very awake. Joyce says something, but El doesn’t hear it because Mike is grabbing the phone out of her hand.

“Hello? Joyce? Yeah, it’s me. It’s Mike. What’s going on?” There’s panic in his voice and El thinks she can hear his heart pounding in his chest. She can sit still no longer and practically leaps out of bed, a nervous ball of energy forming in the pit of her stomach. She wants to run to the bathroom, sure she will be sick, but she can’t bring herself to move, knowing that Mike needs her, slowly putting the bits and pieces of what Joyce said together. Ted. Heart Attack.

She hears an ominous click echo in the room as Mike hangs up the phone. Then, complete silence. It’s too early for the birds to be singing, or maybe they can sense something is wrong. El looks over at Mike, at his stony face and shaking hands. She swallows.

“Mike?” El takes a step forward, her arm out in front of her. Mike looks up at her.

“My dad’s dead.” And suddenly his face crumples. El is by his side in a moment, her arms wrapped around him as his body shakes with sobs, his tears soaking her thin white t-shirt.

There’s a soft knock at the bedroom door.

“Mike?” It’s Lucy’s voice, quiet and concerned, “El? We, uh, we heard the phone and voices and…”

El opens the door without moving from the bed, without taking her eyes or hands off of Mike. In the doorway, Lucy stands in one of Dustin’s sweaters, swallowed up by it. Dustin stands behind her in sweatpants. They wear matching expressions of concern and confusion as they take in the scene on Mike and El’s bed.

Without a word, the two rush forward. El feels herself and Mike enveloped in the arms of their friends and knows that, somehow, everything will be okay.

Chapter Text

October 1989

Will Byers had not been expecting to return to Hawkins until at least Thanksgiving, but Jonathan had called him early that morning, before the sun rose, to deliver the sombre news of Ted Wheeler’s death. Will had been more than a little surprised, had sat in stunned silence for several seconds before asking Jonathan how Nancy was handling the news. Apparently, not very well, which made Will nervous. She and Jonathan are scheduled to pick him up in less than half an hour for the airport, where they will be catching a flight to Indiana. Will is anxious, unsure of what to say to Nancy when he gets to the car; he’s even more worried about seeing Mike later that afternoon—Will had never really had a father, though he supposes at this point, Hopper is technically filling that role; but he can’t imagine having grown up with a loving father and suddenly losing him. Better to have love and lost, was the saying, but Will sincerely doubts its veracity. This, at least, he knows he will not say to Mike. Will’s inner turmoil manifests itself in sweaty palms, grinding of teeth, and quick, forceful strides across his dorm room as he hastily packs a suitcase.

“Are you gonna be okay?”

Will pauses in mid-stride and looks over at the boy sitting on his desk, watching with concern from light brown eyes behind thick, square glasses.

“Yeah,” Will sighs, “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Sorry.” He sets back to his work of packing, rustling through a dresser drawer filled with t-shirts. This boy, Kevin Hernandez, hops lightly off Will’s desk and walks over to the closet on the side of the room opposite the dresser, its doors thrown open. He pulls out a smart looking navy blazer and holds it out for Will.

“Don’t be sorry,” Kevin says, “Shit like this sucks. I’m sorry I won’t be there for you.”

“You can’t be,” Will frowns, “They don’t know yet. And it’s not the right time.” He reaches out to take the blazer from Kevin’s still-outstretched arms and his face relaxes. “Thank you.”

“It’ll be okay, Will.” Will nods as he carefully tucks the blazer into his nearly full suitcase, knowing that Kevin is not only talking about Ted Wheeler’s death. Of course, Will is only being half-truthful when he claims that his friends don’t know about his sexuality, though it’s easier to conceal the truth than to explain it.

El had discovered his secret in August, at a graduation party that Lucas’s girlfriend, Cheryl, was hosting for the entire graduating class of Hawkins High. He remembered the moment clearly—he had been leaning against one of the basement walls, sipping at water while most everyone else indulged in the beer and wine Cheryl’s older brother had secured for her.

‘You don’t look happy,’ El’s voice sounded in his head. Will looked across the room and caught sight of her. She was resting her head on Mike’s shoulder as he chatted animatedly with Lucas, likely about the latter’s burgeoning football career. He noted, with a pang of something almost like envy, that Mike’s hand rested protectively on El’s upper leg, absently drawing circles across her skin.

‘I’m okay,’ Will made sure to keep the thought clear and prominent, so she wouldn’t have to sift through distractions to hear his response, ‘Just bored.’

This type of silent conversation was a fairly recent development in their friendship. Will had known for years now that El was somehow able to access his mind, believing it had something to do with the connection they’d established when she had come looking for him in the Upside Down. He knew for certain that El could read no one’s thoughts but his and, while it had bothered him at first, he had eventually grown to appreciate that he could always count on El to know what he was thinking. Of course, Will had been sure to ask her not to snoop around uninvited, and he trusted that she kept those promise, just as he had kept his to not tell Mike about this talent of hers.

‘Angela mentioned she wanted to dance with you.’ Even telepathically, El’s voice had a hint of teasing in it. Inwardly, Will groaned.

‘El, can you promise to keep a secret?’ He quickly stole a glance at her and saw that she was looking back at him, expressionless so as to preserve the secret of their conversation.

‘I can move things with my mind, Will. I’m good at keeping secrets.’

‘I like girls, usually. But sometimes I also like boys. And right now, I really think I like Peter Davis…so I don’t want to dance with Angela. Does that bother you?’

‘Of course not. I love you, Will. You’re my friend…my brother.’ El stood up from her spot next to Mike, causing him to look over at her with a confused expression. Will watched as she whispered something in his ear, gesturing towards where he stood on the opposite end of the room. Mike nodded and waved at Will as Eleven walked over to him, a caring smile on her face.

“I promise,” she said, reaching his side, “Want to go outside and talk?”

---

It has been an unbearably long day for Mike and, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, he feels as though it will never end. Mike turns the cold water on and lets it run for a moment before gently splashing it on his face. He’s somehow managed to slip away from the crowd milling about downstairs in the kitchen and the living room; his aunts and uncles, the family friends, and all the semi-familiar faces of his father’s co-workers, each telling him in passing how proud his father was of him, how he had always ‘talked so highly of his boy’—each staring at him with that same stupid expression of pity. Feeling like he was suffocating, Mike had quietly asked El to keep an eye on Nancy and Dustin to keep an eye on his mother so that he could slip away for a moment of peace. They had immediately obliged, El kissing him gently on the cheek and Dustin assuring him that he’d not leave Karen’s side.

Mike sidles out of the bathroom and into his bedroom, gently closing the door behind him before sprawling out over his bed and willing himself not to cry. He tries not to think too much about the image of a coffin being lowered into the ground or about the tearful expressions on his mother and sister’s faces. After a few minutes, Mike hears the door creak open behind him and he sits up just in time to see Lucy shuffle into the room. She is careful to close the door and makes her way towards the bed, sitting down tentatively on its edge, tucking her plain black dress in around her knees.

“How are you doing?” Lucy asks, watching Mike’s face carefully for a response. Mike shrugs.

“I don’t know,” he sighs, “It’s weird. It’s shitty. I can’t get over that I wasn’t there to say goodbye and all those people down there telling me what he used to say about me and how it’s okay to be sad…” Mike’s voice cracks, “It just fucking sucks, you know?”

“I get it,” Lucy nods gently, “And you don’t have to listen to anyone—you don’t even have to listen to me…” She pauses, searching for the right words, “Don’t beat yourself up over not being there, Mike. I got to say goodbye to my dad and it didn’t change shit.” Lucy reaches out and takes his hand, patting it gently. “I can barely remember my dad’s face or his voice. I only remember his hospital bed and sometimes the face of a dying man. Maybe this is a shitty thing to say, but you’re lucky that you got to grow up with him around. That you get to remember his smile the day you left town for MIT—to be a somebody.”

Silence falls over the room. Lucy chews her bottom lip, tugs at a loose, dark curl nervously.

“Thanks Lucy,” Mike squeezes her hand with a small smile. She returns the gesture.

“Can I show you something, Wheeler?” Lucy asks, standing up from the bed. Mike, curious, nods.

He watches with interest as Lucy walks over to his closet and opens the door, bending to reach towards the very back and nearly disappearing inside the small cavernous space, emptied of most of Mike’s belongings. In a moment, she emerges; dragging out an old cardboard box that Mike hasn’t laid eyes on in years.

“We thought for sure you’d find them while you packed for the move,” Lucy says, “But apparently not.” She motions for Mike to join her on the floor by the closet, which he does, setting himself down gently, long, lanky legs folded underneath him.

“Ready?” Lucy asks, looking up from the box.

“You’re so dramatic,” Mike grins, half-heartedly. Lucy nods in agreement as she unpeels the tape and unfolds the flaps of the box, letting them fall open. Mike’s eyes fall on four foam peanuts, resting on top of his Middle School science trophies. He starts to laugh and at some point his laughter turns to tears. Lucy is there to lend him her shoulder.

---

May 1990

El steps out into the cool darkness of the morning and quickly zips her green sweater up to her chin. She stretches her arms, and then her legs. This is her morning routine. Wake at sunrise, run five miles away from the house, then five miles back. Since beginning this regiment last September, she has cut her time down to just under an hour—Lucy has alternatively called this ‘insane’ and ‘impressive’. On more than one occasion, El has attempted to convince Lucy to run with her, but holding on to her high school habits, Lucy refuses. Instead, she takes boxing classes, insisting that it’s far more fun as she gets to try out newly learned moves on Dustin. El loves running. There’s freedom in running for pleasure, rather than for self-preservation.

By the time El returns home, the sun is almost fully risen and beginning to warm the Earth. She goes inside, locking the front door behind her and taking the stairs two at a time, though quietly and careful to skip over the eighth step, which creaks like it’s about to collapse. When she gets back to the bedroom she and Mike share, he is not there. In his place, is a small and well-worn yellow slip of paper, resting atop his pillow. El picks it up and unfolds it, seeing the word ROOF scrawled in Mike’s messy writing. She smiles. It’s the same note he leaves her every time he’s out there before she’s back from her run—though it’s been appearing more often than usual in the last few days. Usually, El acknowledges the note and continues on with her morning routine; a shower, making breakfast for the four residents of the house. But today she feels differently. Something tells her that Mike’s recent plethora of roof visits warrant an inquiry. El hurriedly changes out of her running clothes, into jeans and one of Mike’s MIT sweatshirts.

The roof of their rented house is accessible via a window at the end of the upstairs hallway. El creeps along the hall, not wanting to wake Dustin and Lucy as she passes their room. As she suspected, the window is open. El slides the upper half of her body out of the window first, grabbing at the ledge over her head and using it to pull herself up and onto the roof. Mike sits with his back to her, watching the sunrise.

“You’re up early,” El remarks as she walks over to him. Mike looks over his shoulder and smiles, though it is faint, almost forced. “What’s wrong?” El asks as she drops down next to him, her bare feet dangling from the side of the house, toes cold because she forgot to slip on a fresh pair of socks.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, El,” Mike’s voice sounds tired and far away. “Since my dad…I’ve been feeling so…I don’t know…afraid.”

“Of what?” El asks.

“Of leaving you behind,” he sighs, “Of losing you…again. Of building something together and then having to face it alone. I don’t know what I would do if you were gone.”

“You don’t need to worry about knowing that,” El tells him, her voice firm, “I’m not going anywhere. I fought through hell to come back to you. You're the reason I’m still here, Mike. You brought me back.” El pauses and looks out over the horizon, “You’re the reason we can watch the sun rise together.”

El returns her gaze to Mike’s face. His eyes rest on hers for a brief moment before she feels his lips crashing against her own, his hands tangling into her short hair. She wraps her arms around his neck, pulling him closer to her, pressing as much of her body as she can against his, where it fits so perfectly, deepening their kiss. After several moments, they pull their lips apart, foreheads still resting against each other, breathing heavier than usual.

“i love you,” Mike breathes.

“I love you more,” she replies, laughing gently against his lips, “Forever.” Mike kisses her again, one hand falling to the small of her back. His lips slide from her own, over her cheeks, and trace across her neck.

Chapter Text

June 1990

The first time Mike and El fight, really fight, it’s because of Will. Lucy had witnessed the two arguing in the past, though bickering was a more suitable term, over standard issues like what to cook for dinner, what movie to watch and, one time, the best way to take revenge on Dustin and herself for their orange juice prank. But this time is different. This is a fight with raised voices and tears; a fight like the one Lucy had had with Dustin when she discovered him smoking after promising to stop.

It happens when Will flies in from New York to spend a week of summer holidays in Boston with them, finally dropping in to inspect his friends’ living quarters before they all fly out to California to spend a few weeks on the West Coast with Lucas. Will brings Kevin with him and announces, over the several pizzas they had gotten delivered for dinner, that this is a serious relationship; his first. Lucy isn’t particularly shocked by the revelation, though she does read a flash of surprise and hurt run across both Mike and Dustin’s faces. She assumes, from Will’s relieved expression and the way his shoulders become unsquared after the revelation, that he had been expecting a more volatile reaction. She’s not sure why. Will has always been like everyone’s little brother.

That evening, after dinner, Dustin takes Kevin to the drugstore to pick up a few items, specifically toilet paper, which they had run out of after Mike and El had finally enacted their revenge for the orange juice incident. Though Will had offered to join them, Dustin insisted on bonding with the newest member of their group.

So now, Will sits at the kitchen table with El and Lucy while Mike tidies the counter and puts away the dishes. Lucy has her nose half-heartedly buried in a Jane Austen novel.

“This is literally the most cringy stuff I’ve ever read,” she sighs, “Enough is enough.” She tosses the book on to the counter. Mike looks over at Will.

“I can’t believe you never told us, man,” he says, “Why keep it a secret?”

“I don’t know,” Will smiles, feeling as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. In his happy state, he speaks more freely. “It didn’t feel like a secret especially since El…” his voice trails off, immediately aware of his misstep. Mike’s ears perk up.

“Since El what?” he asks, confused. Will shakes his head quickly but Mike repeats the question. El feels her heartbeat quicken and she clutches the edge of the table with white knuckles. She glances up at Will, slightly hurt. He’s wearing an apologetic frown, refusing to make eye contact with her.

‘I’m sorry,’ she hears Will’s voice in her head but doesn’t reply, focused instead on the expression on Mike’s face, lingering somewhere between apprehension and confusion. It makes El feel sick to her stomach for having kept the truth from him all these years.

“I knew,” she finally whispers; breaking a long, tense silence at the table. Lucy has picked up her book again and is nervously dog-earring the pages.

“What do you mean you knew?” Mike asks, looking incredulous. He rounds on Will, “You told her? But you didn’t tell me?” In his mind, he thinks back to that night, years ago, right before Will disappeared.

“The Demogorgon, it got me.”

Mike had always taken that to be a sign that Will respected him and trusted him. He could have easily lied about rolling a higher number, but he didn’t. So why lie about this? Will opens his mouth to respond, but El beats him to it. She senses his anxiety, his terror of arguing with Mike and, despite her own precarious position, she remains protective of Will.

“I could…I can read Will’s mind.” There’s no point in lying now. El feels all the eyes on the table fall to her face; Mike’s are hurt, Will’s are disbelieving, and Lucy’s are stunned.

“When were you going to tell me?” The question falls quietly from Mike’s lips.

El doesn’t know how to respond. Her mouth opens and closes wordlessly, trying to formulate something to say but she feels like she’s lost the ability to vocalize and this brings her back to her youth, when words were something that were kept from her. She feels darkness around the edges of her mind.

“I’m sorry,” she whimpers, finally finding her voice, though it cracks. Tears well in her eyes and she wipes them away. Lucy notes, from her spot at the head of the table, as silent observer, the way Mike’s hands ball into fists, the way his arms shake.

“Mike,” she says slowly, carefully, not wanting to worsen the situation. His hands unclench, but the shaking doesn’t stop.

“Fuck this,” Mike snaps, storming from the kitchen to the door, where he slides his sneakers on and grabs the keys to his car. And then, with the loud slamming of the front door, he’s gone.

When Dustin and Kevin get back, Lucy has to do all the explaining. Will’s sitting, nearly catatonic, on the sofa and El has refused to leave the bathroom. With difficulty, she sidesteps around the part where El revealed her telepathy, instead phrasing it, with a pointed look at Dustin, that Will revealed his secret because they are closer than anyone else. She is certain, from the way Dustin looks back at her and curtly nods, that he understands. After some coaxing, Kevin convinces Will to get up and the two make their way to the front door.

“We’ll get a hotel for the night,” he says, “Until things cool down.”

“Good idea, man,” Dustin says, “Sorry this all turned to shit.”

“It’s my fault,” Will pipes up and the other three immediately shake their heads.

“Mike’s just used to be the center of our world,” Dustin mutters, “Of El’s world. He’ll get over it.”

Dustin and Lucy give Will a big hug, shake hands with Kevin, and close the door behind them. For a moment, they gaze at each other in silence.

“Any idea where he went?” Dustin asks her finally. Lucy shakes her head.

“I’m worried,” she sighs, “About both of them.”

---

El sits up late into the night in the front bay window, her knees drawn up around her chest, wrapped in the blue blanket that usually covers her and Mike’s bed. At midnight, Lucy appears behind her.

“El,” she says, stifling a yawn, “You should get some sleep.”

“No,” El replies, “Mike.” She’s reverted back to single syllables and non-sentences, her heart heavy in her chest. El remembers, with sorrow, the day she waited for Mike to come home from lunch; the day he broke his leg defending Will from bullies; the day she saw the story from Will’s mind.

“He’ll come home,” Lucy insists delicately, “You sitting here won’t make it happen any faster.” She reaches out to touch El’s arm, to lead her up to bed, but El, with a quick motion of her wrist, stops Lucy’s advance. Lucy finds herself unable to move forward, unable to touch El.

“Okay,” Lucy’s voice is irritated, “Have it your way.” El listens as she turns on her heel and trudges up the stairs; she hears the significant creak of the eighth stair as Lucy pauses. “Wake me up if you need to, El.” This comes out softer, kinder, than her previous words.

“I will,” El replies, equally quietly, “Thank you.”

Mike doesn’t get home until almost two o’clock. El is slowly dozing off, her forehead pressed against the cool glass of the windowpane. As headlights pull into the driveway, her heavy eyes shoot wide open and she hurries to the front door, opening it as Mike is walking up the front steps, his arms covered in goose bumps in the chilly night time breeze. Mike, suddenly aware of her presence, looks up at her and freezes.

“Where were you?” El asks. Mike’s stomach twists at how fragile and broken she sounds. He quickly closes the gap between them, pushing her back inside the house and kicking the door closed behind him. Wrapped in his arms, knowing he’s safe, El feels her knees give out beneath her and they sink together to the floor, like they did all those years ago in the Wheeler’s front entryway when she had come back to him.

“I’m so sorry, El,” he whispers, “I’m sorry.” His cheeks are warm and wet against hers. She’s crying, but isn’t sure if he is as well.

“No,” El mumbles, “I should have told you. I’m sorry.” Mike pulls away from her slightly and gently takes her chin into his hand, tilting her head up to look at him. She notes that there are tears shining behind his eyes.

“Well, yeah,” he breathes, “You can tell me anything.” El nods, closing her eyes as Mike gently brushes the tears that have formed as drops on her long lashes. “I want to tell you why I got so mad, if that’s okay?”

“Yes,” she exhales softly. Her eyes open and rest on Mike’s face, perfect to her in every way. She watches as he takes a deep breath.

“You’re the only girl I’ve ever loved,” Mike begins and already her heart is racing, “We’ve always been together, for as long as we’ve known each other. I’ve never doubted that I love you. But,” he pauses, “Do you remember our first date?” El nods—it’s a day she’ll never forget; the day Mike first told her aloud that he loved her.

“I watched you drinking your milkshake,” Mike continues, “And I wondered what would happen if you outgrew me—if you got bored of me as you learned so much about the world. Because El, you are my world. And it hurts me to think that there’s something so…deep, so special that you share with someone who’s not me.”

“But Mike,” she whispers, “You’re my world…” her voice falters as she searches for the right words, “I would have nothing if you didn’t save me.” She buries her face in the crook of his neck and feels his arms wrap protectively around her.

“I love you more than anything,” El murmurs against his shirt. Mike’s hands reach for her shoulders and gently push her back. He runs his thumb across her cheek and kisses the tip of her nose.

“You asked where I went,” he says and she nods in response. “I was driving around and I went out to Avondale Point and I just parked my car and stared at the stars and thought.”

“About what?” El asks tentatively. Mike smiles down at her.

“About you,” he answers, “About how there’s no one in the world I’d rather spend my life watching the stars with.” El, despite the happiness welling in her chest, begins to cry again and Mike chuckles. “I know we’re young,” he continues, his voice hesitant, uncertain, “And we don’t have to do it right away. We can finish school first, or whatever you want…I was thinking maybe before I start med school, but it’s…”

“Mike?” El interrupts his rambling.

“Right. Sorry,” Mike bites his lip, his hand fishing into his pocket, “El,” he fixes his eyes upon hers, “Will you marry me…eventually?” He holds out his hand, open-palmed. There, in the center of his hand, rests a small golden ring with a diamond that shimmers in the moonlight streaming through the window. El blinks in disbelief, feeling as though her entire world has fallen away. For a moment, she feels as though she doesn’t deserve this happiness; that her early life precludes her from any such relationship. But, she reminds herself, she is not her childhood. She is not Eleven. She is El…soon to be El Wheeler. Her heart hammers in her chest.

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

June 1990

El feels the cozy glow of the bonfire kiss her cheeks and warm her fingertips, protruding ever so slightly from the long sleeves of Mike’s favourite hoodie, which has unofficially been adopted as her favourite article of clothing, hoodie or otherwise. The crisp smell of smoke and hotdogs fills the dark night air around her as she watches the delicate orange light of the blaze dance across the smiling expressions of her friends.

Early that morning, they had all piled into two trucks, Lucas’s and a rented one, with food, blankets, and alcohol, and had driven out to Pillar Point for a weekend at a cottage that Lucas had been able to rent from a friend of his. This entire week had been one of firsts for El, including this novel experience of roughing it amongst the aspens and alders that tower over her head and make her feel both small and unstoppable all at once. El has had a difficult time concealing, or at least controlling, the feelings of excitement and happiness that have filled her chest in the eight days since Mike, in the middle of night by the front door of their tiny house, had asked her to marry him. El gently twists the engagement ring on her finger as she reflects on the tour of the Stanford campus Lucas had given them, their visit to the Hollywood sign, and their two-day trip to Disneyland, where El had managed to snag photographs with all her favourite princesses, including Cinderella and Ariel.

“Let’s go swimming!” Lucy, from her place two spots over from El, stands suddenly, stretching out her petite frame. “Who’s in?” None of the boys move and Dustin makes a show of pretending to smother a laugh.

“Loner,” he grins, causing Lucy to reach out and playfully pinch his ear.

“I’ll come,” El stands as well, pulling away from Mike, who has had his arm wrapped tightly around her waist. She has never been swimming after dark before, but she imagines it could be fun, especially with Lucy who seems to have a talent for making anything enjoyable, even studying for finals.

“Be careful you two,” Dustin shouts after them, “And no skinny-dipping without us!” The boys hear Lucy laugh as she and El shuffle away from the fire and down towards the dock, some thirty feet away. Once she’s sure they’re out of earshot, El reaches out in the dim light of the moon and taps Lucy on the shoulder as she’s pulling off her old t-shirt.

“Lucy, what’s skinny-dipping?” El asks.

“Swimming naked,” Lucy answers without missing a beat. She’s no longer surprised when El, every so often, asks her a question about a concept that seems like common knowledge.

“But we have swimsuits on,” El purses her lips as she slips out of Mike’s hoodie and her jean shorts. She’s unsure if this bizarre naked swimming is some sort of tradition she’s missing out on.

“Dustin was just being a goof,” Lucy assures her, “Let’s go.” With a running start, Lucy whoops and leaps joyfully into the lake, followed closely behind by El, who uses her powers to levitate just a little bit higher than her normal jump before she crashes into the icy water.

---

“So,” Lucas leans back on his arms, his legs sprawled out in front of him on the grass beside Dustin. He picks up his can of beer and takes a long final swig, draining it before looking at Mike, sitting on the other side of Dustin. “You and El are seriously getting married?”

“We’re engaged,” Mike is quick to correct him, “We’ll get married when we’re ready, done school and all.”

“Man,” Lucas gives a long, low whistle. A grin plays on his lips. “Do you remember when we found her? What was that, like five years ago?”

“Almost six,” Mike replies.

“Wow,” Lucas exhales. Mike nods, despite the knowledge that Lucas is commenting on how quickly the time seems to have gone by while his own brain struggles to fathom that it has been only six years since that rainy night. He feels as though he’s known El for his entire life.

“Who would have thought you’d be marrying the weird girl that turned up in Mirkwood?” Dustin laughs as Lucas reaches out to heartily pat him on the back.

“Mirkwood?”

The question is posed by Kevin as he and Will re-join the group around the fire, having returned from the truck parked at the other end of the property with more blankets and all the ingredients for s’mores. “Like in The Hobbit?”

Mike catches a quick amused glance pass between Dustin and Lucas, certain that they are remembering their insignificant argument from the morning that Hopper had questioned them about Will’s disappearance. Mike suddenly found himself wondering just how much Kevin knew about all that business; he imagined it was very little.

“Yeah,” Will answers, “It was this codename we used for the woods behind my house when we were kids. I’ll show you when we’re in town next week.”

Kevin nods as he pulls five cans of beer out of the cooler resting next to him and passes them out to each of the boys. In unison, all five crack open their cans, a satisfying hiss echoing in the open air. Dustin raises his in the air and the others follow suite.

“To Kevin,” he says, “Welcome to our world, man.” They all drink with long gulps. Then Lucas, from his spot next to Dustin, raises his can and the others, again, follow.

“To Mike,” he laughs, “For being the first of us to take the plunge.” Amongst guffaws of laughter, the boys drink again. Kevin, seated on Lucas’s right, is now looked at with expectant eyes.

“Uh,” he hesitates, tapping his fingers along the side of his can, “To all you guys, I guess, for being so supportive of Will. And me.”

Drink.

“To El,” Will says without hesitation from his spot beside Kevin, “Even though she’s not here—none of us would be if it weren’t for her, I don’t think.”

Drink.

The circle has come around to Mike and he can feel four sets of eyes on him, four sets of ears listening for the next words that leave his mouth.

“What’re you toasting, Mike?” Dustin asks. Mike thinks for a moment, trying to grasp an idea that encompasses how he feels, what he believes is most important in this moment.

“To all of this,” Mike says after a moment, making a sweeping gesture with his free arm, “To escaping Hawkins, living life, and getting old together.”

“Hear, hear,” Lucas grins and the boys drink. Cans drained, silence settles for a moment around the campfire before Lucas laughs aloud, thinking about how much news his friends have dropped on him since their arrival.

“What about you, Dustin?” he asks as he rises to get another can, “Are you going to drop a relationship bombshell on me too?”

Dustin grins from ear to ear. “Well, Lucy and I were thinking of eloping to Vegas since we’re out West and all.”

“I can’t even tell if you’re being serious,” Mike laughs, “I wouldn’t put it past you two.”

“I’m obviously kidding…dumbasses,” Dustin shakes his head, “We’ll figure it out eventually. I don’t think she wants to get married though.”

“I t’ink I wanna get married one day,” Will says dreamily. There is another silence, punctuated only by the crackling of the fire.

“Will’s drunk!” Mike exclaims with a devilish smile, “You’re such a bad influence, Lucas!”

“Ahm note…not,” Will slurs. The boys laugh delightedly and nobody flinches as Kevin wraps an arm around Will.

---

July 1990

When he walks out of the stifling Friday afternoon heat of Hawkins and through the door of his childhood home, Mike notes two things in rapid succession. First is the miracle of air conditioning. Second is his sister, standing in the front entryway to greet them. What draws his attention is neither the dewy glow of her cheeks nor the bright floral pattern of her yellow dress. It is the extremely pronounced, rounded belly protruding from her otherwise slender frame. Mike’s travel bags fall to the floor, along with his jaw.

“What the fuck, Nance?” he gasps.

“Language, Michael,” his mother is there as well, looking tired and older than Mike can remember, but content, almost as if she’s happy again. El, who had been trudging up the driveway behind him after sleeping in the taxi from the airport, peeks her head over his shoulder, needing to stand on her tiptoes in order to do so. She looks confused for a moment before her face lights up into a huge smile.

“Surprise,” Nancy laughs, patting her stomach, “Baby Byers is on the way.”

“Nancy,” El squeals ecstatically, pushing past Mike and straight towards Nancy, who she greets with a strong, but careful hug.

“Can I…can I touch?” El asks timidly, her cheeks flushing as she gestures towards Nancy’s growing stomach.

“Of course,” Nancy smiles. Mike watches as El gently places her hands over Nancy’s belly, first one then the other, her eyes focused intently, her lips parted slightly in amazement.

“Will I feel it kick?” El asks curiously, knowing that this is something babies are supposed to do as they grow inside their mother’s body.

“Not likely,” Nancy shakes her head. El looks slightly crestfallen at this revelation.

“That will happen soon,” Karen pipes up with an affectionate smile, “Kicking will start in a couple of weeks. Maybe before you go back to Boston, if we’re lucky.”

“I can’t believe it,” Mike beams up at his sister, “Have you guys told Will yet?”

“No,” Nancy replies, “But he’s going to find out when we go over to Joyce’s place for dinner tonight.”

Mike smiles, knowing full well that Nancy and Jonathan aren’t the only ones delivering big news that evening. Will’s been planning to tell his mother and his soon-to-be stepfather about Kevin for weeks and Mike knows, at some point, he will have to reveal…

“El? Is that a ring?” Nancy’s voice draws Mike abruptly from his thoughts. She has pulled El’s left hand away from her stomach and is staring at it with glee. El is the colour of a late summer cherry as Nancy and Karen simultaneously turn their eyes on Mike.

“Michael Wheeler,” Nancy’s voice is higher than normal, its tone equal parts playful and surprised. “Are you kidding me?” For a brief moment, Mike imagines a gaping chasm opening up in the floor beneath him and swallowing him whole.

“We’re going to get married,” El takes the lead in the conversation before Mike can reply, “Not yet. But soon.”

In that moment, Karen Wheeler begins to cry and, for only the second time since her husband’s sudden death, they are tears of happiness.

Before dinner, as El helps Mrs. Wheeler set the table and dress the salad, Mike stands with Nancy by the front door.

“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” he asks her, unable to restrain a concerned expression from crossing his features. Nancy nods vigorously.

“Just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean I can’t drive,” Nancy insists.

“True,” Mike grins, “But I bet it hasn’t made you any better at driving.” Nancy rolls her eyes and musses up his hair. Mike swats her hand away as he steps forward and wraps her in a tight hug.

“You’re going to be a mom,” he whispers, “You’re so old.”

“And you’re going to be a husband,” Nancy laughs before her face draws into a more serious expression, “I’m proud of you, Mike.”

“Thanks,” Mike replies, though he’s not entirely sure what Nancy is proud of.

“I mean it,” she continues, as if reading his mind, “You’ve grown up so much and you’ve turned from a good kid into a good man. Dad would be proud too.”

---

That night, Mike is lying on his old bed, warm underneath his old blankets, reading his old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Downstairs, he hears the television playing Seinfeld, Nancy, returned from dinner, and his mother watching. When he had ventured downstairs for a can of pop, Mike had also seen Jonathan sprawled across the living room floor, working on a puzzle with Holly. This was the Wheeler residence now; Jonathan and Nancy having moved back from New York following his father’s death. Across the hall, Mike hears the water running.

El is drawing a bath for herself. She stares down at the tub, rapidly filling with pink-tinged bubbles. Since the start of her normal life six years ago, El has always felt somewhat tepid towards the bath, but she finds that bubbles help to make the experience relaxing and positive. Each year, Mike is sure to include a large bottle of bubble bath in her Christmas present, a sort of running gag that she secretly hopes will never end.

El dips a toe into the warm water and a scalding tingle runs up her leg. Perfect. When the water is hot, it’s easier to stay in the moment, to stay rooted in reality. El has learned to manage the fear that threatens to creep up on her whenever she enters the water. She is stronger than her fears. She has done this before. She has adjusted. Lowering herself into the tub, sinking down to her ears in the lavender scented bubbles, she focuses on Nancy; on the thought of a small life growing inside her.

But her eyes, heavy from a long day of travel, close of their accord and her mind wanders away from Nancy, away from the Wheeler’s house, away from her nineteen year old body and into that of her twelve-year-old self.

“Good morning, Eleven.” Papa sits down on the edge of her bed, reaching out and stroking her fingers with his own. She says nothing, instead keeping her gaze locked on her legs, hidden beneath the plain white sheets of her bed.

“Are you ready to see the doctor?” Papa continues, his voice as soft as always, lulling her into a sense of security she’d only realize was false later in her life. She nods, though she hates going to see the doctor—all the pokes and prods, the needles, the pills. She wants to ask Papa why he subjects her to such treatment, but questions are always dangerous. It’s much better if she nods and smiles and does whatever is asked of her. Otherwise, she faces the threat of the Black Room.

Besides, Eleven has learned from simply listening, observing carefully.

“She’s in perfect health,” the doctor tells Papa after each weekly visit, “If this pattern continues the secondary experiments can begin within a couple years, once she is post-pubescent.” Eleven doesn’t understand this word. She doesn’t know when she will be ‘post-pubescent’, but knows that if it means more experiments, she’d rather not ever reach such a stage.

“Excellent,” Papa smiles, his hand gripping her shoulder softly. He looks down at her, with what she had always mistaken for love at that time in her life, “Imagine it, Eleven,” he coos, “More like you.”

Those words echo in her ears. More like you. That was her value—a genetic anomaly to be passed on, passed down.

El opens her eyes, but it is completely dark. She knows this place, surrounded by blackness, full of emptiness. But she is not alone. In her arms, she holds a squirming bundle wrapped in white. She looks down at it and sees some of her own face in the soft contours of the baby’s skin.

And then there is only horror as blood streams from its nose, its ears, its eyes. El tears her own eyes away from the bundle and finds herself no longer In Between, but Upside Down, in a familiar landscape of decay and death. She glances back down, meaning to tuck the bundle protectively to her chest, but it is gone. She screams until her throat goes hoarse.

Mike, still sprawled across his bed reading about the Council of Elrond, hears her scream, feels his heart stop in his chest, feels his stomach sink into his feet. In a split second, he’s up and trying the bathroom door, yelling her name. There’s no answer, but he swears he can hear her whimpering, alone and afraid. There’s shuffling noises from downstairs. Nancy, Jonathan, and Karen are calling his name, but he can’t hear over the sound of blood pumping in his ears as he slams his body against the bathroom door. Once. Twice. Three times. On his fourth attempt, the frame gives way with a cracking noise and Mike stumbles over his own feet into the bathroom. El lays curled up in a half-full tub, bubbles around her and water strewn in puddles all over the room. Her eyes are closed though he can see tears leaking from them at the same steady pace that blood drips from her nose.

Mike grabs a bathrobe he recognizes as his mother’s from the rack that had been hanging on the back of the door moments ago. He drapes it around El’s shoulders and waist, closing it around her exposed body, hoping its warmth will help bring her back. Behind him, he hears footsteps and gasps.

“Mike is…” This first voice is Jonathan’s.

“Go away,” Mike says firmly, waving his hand behind him.

“But,” This time, Nancy speaks. Mike turns to her with a pained expression.

“Just go,” he whispers, turning back to El, not paying attention as two sets of footsteps recede down the hallway; not noticing that his mother still stands in the destroyed doorway, concern written on every inch of her person.

“El,” Mike grasps at her shoulders, gently, carefully, knowing full well that if he scares her now he could end up injured or dead, “El, it’s Mike. Can you hear me?”

“Mike?” El’s eyes open slowly. They’re bloodshot and bulging. “Mike,” she collapses her head against him weeping.

“It’s okay, El. I’m here. You’re here. You’re home.” he wraps his arms around her and rests his chin on the top of her damp head, holding back the sobs that are chocking his chest.

Two hours later, Mike has managed to calm El down to a point where her tears and nosebleed have both stopped and her breathing has returned to normal, save for a hitched gasp at odd intervals. On his bed, her head resting in his lap, his fingers massaging her scalp, El finally speaks—her first utterance since saying his name in the tub.

“I’m scared,” she mumbles. Mike’s heart clenches behind his ribs. His throat tightens painfully.

“Me too, El,” he breathes, “But we’ll be okay.”

“Promise?” Her hand reaches up to grasp at his.

“Promise.”

Chapter Text

September 1990

On the day that Lucy Sullivan learns about the Upside Down, the streets of Boston are so flooded that the bus she normally takes back from campus cannot make it up the hill on Glendon Avenue, at the top of which is Warley Road, at the end of which is the house she lives in with her best friends. As such, Lucy is forced to disembark and venture up the hill against the torrent of water that gushes down over her feet. She trudges through the rain, watching the sewers fail and soaked to the bone despite a raincoat and knee-high rubber boots. Vaguely, Lucy finds herself wondering if this is the beginning of the apocalypse—she had always imagined the end-of-days coming about with zombies, but a second Biblical flood would work just as well, she supposes.

Lucy half expects to see the house at the end of Warley Road come floating down the hill as she climbs and she focuses on that image, its ridiculousness making her smile despite the chill she feels as the wind whips against her face. It’s a happier thought than that of how the wind essentially ate her umbrella that morning and how the rain has soaked through her canvas backpack and wreaked havoc on the books packed closely inside it. Why couldn’t it be the Jane Austen? Lucy thinks to herself drearily. Instead, she’s carrying a meticulously annotated—and now certainly ruined— copy of Moby Dick as well as the collected works of her favourite poet, Emily Dickinson.

By the time Lucy rounds the corner onto Warley Road, she is forced to take her glasses off, partly due to the moisture gathering on the lenses and partly due to fogging as her warm breath mingles with the cool autumn air. Better to see blurry than to not see at all, she figures. Lucy is struggling to stuff her glasses, with their bright purple wire-rims, into the inner pocket of her raincoat when she turns up into the driveway of Number Twenty-Two Warley where Dustin’s old beat-up Jeep is parked next to Mike’s fairly new Mustang. Neither boy is home, she knows, having also decided to take the bus that morning in anticipation of the weather. Good luck getting home, she imagines their commute will be even more hellish than her own. Part of her cannot help but to be worried; it’ll still be a few more hours until they’re done classes for the day and Lucy wonders if there will be any bit of road or sidewalk remaining for them to walk on by the time they head home.

However, all concerns for Dustin and Mike immediately evacuate her mind as she hurries towards the porch, nearly tripping over the slight figure of her best friend, who sits on the front steps, hunched over in the rain, her grey hoodie drawn up around her head but soaked through, her once light blue jeans now the darkest shade of blue.

“El?” Lucy sputters incredulously, “What the hell are you doing out here?” El looks up at her with weary eyes and a pale face.

“I forgot my keys this morning,” she says quietly, “I’ve been locked out.” Lucy’s eyes widen with disbelief and she hurriedly fishes into her pocket for her own set of keys.

“Seriously?” Lucy asks with bewilderment. After one failed attempt to handle the keys, their slippery wetness causing her fingers to fumble, Lucy manages to unlock the door and shepherds El inside before her with little resistance. “El,” Lucy continues, “I’ve seen you bend metal with your mind,” —this had stemmed from a challenge issued by Dustin two summers ago— “And you’re telling me you couldn’t brain-warp the door to get inside?”

El watches blankly, silently, as Lucy pulls off her wet shoes and clothes in the front entryway, stretching them over the heater, which has been running regularly as the temperatures have continually dipped since August. Her mind feels incredibly numb, just like the tips of fingers and everything below her knees. El slowly unzips her hoodie, peeling it away from her soaking skin. Lucy wouldn’t understand; she hadn’t been there.

Since July, El has not used her powers at all. Not to open a particularly stubborn pickle jar for Lucy when Dustin isn’t home. Not to float a particularly heavy basket of clean laundry up the stairs to be put away. Not to multitask so that she can cook dinner, study, and mop the floor simultaneously. She’s been too afraid; scared of triggering another incident like the one that had necessitated a replacement of the Mrs. Wheeler’s bathroom door and had catalyzed an unending series of nearly-sleepless nights for Mike, who now instinctually wakes several times nightly to check on her. El always pretends to be asleep whenever this happens, knowing full well that if Mike were to become aware she isn’t sleeping much, he’d stay up with her.

She is afraid, terrified, of getting lost in her head so she avoids any action that could lock her inside her own mind.

Not even when she had arrived home from class that afternoon, standing in the pouring rain and kicking herself for leaving her keys in her other jeans, did she waver to telekinetically pick the lock. She had tried to shimmy open a few windows but, having no success, gave up and sat alone on the front porch, where Lucy had found her moments ago.

“El, you’re ridiculous,” Lucy sighs when she receives no response, bringing El back to the present, “If you want to learn to pick a lock just ask me.” El hangs her head, half ashamed of her fears, half-wondering how to voice them to Lucy, who continues to chatter about what she considers El’s erratic behaviour.

“You don’t know,” El finally says, her voice low. Lucy freezes in place, bent halfway over to inspect the damage to her books. A pained expression crosses her face as she straightens up and begins to chew anxiously on her bottom lip.

“You’re right,” Lucy replies. She’s never fully understood El—her habits, her fears, her past. She remembers a night, years ago, when she had learned about Eleven—a person she has always considered distinct from her slightly bizarre, entirely badass friend. But maybe that had been naïve of her. “I don’t know” Lucy continues in a soft voice, “So tell me…but first, go upstairs and change because Mike will literally kill me if he finds out I let you hang around in wet clothes. I’ll go put on a pot of tea.” She smiles warmly at El, who flashes a quick smile back as she begins to ascend the stairs.

“Oh,” Lucy calls after her, “And can you also bring me a pair of jammies?” El complies and in a few minutes the girls, now mostly dry save for their hair and Lucy’s books, sit across from each other at the kitchen table, steaming cups of Chai tea—El’s favourite because it reminds her of Mrs. Wheeler’s pumpkin pie—raised to their lips.

“So,” Lucy fixes her friend with an empathetic look, a look full of love and support, “I’m listening. I’m here.”

On the day that Lucy Sullivan learns about the Upside Down, she tries not to be bothered by the fact that all around her, though she cannot see it, is a horrific place that will haunt her best friend forever.

---

November 1990

An autumn of heavy rain and grey-green skies turns into an early winter of snowstorms, icy roads, and bitter cold.

There’s a tense silence filling the car as El and Mike return from the Harvard campus late on a Tuesday evening, the sun already sunk far below the horizon, the snow already piling up on the roads in advance of the plows that will be venturing out overnight. Mike had insisted on picking El up from class that evening, despite her objections, aware of how behind schedule the busses were and not wanting her to become stranded if something should happen to stop service altogether.

Now, driving home, Mike is intently focused on the road ahead of him, working hard and straining his eyes to see more than four inches outside of his windshield, high beams on and heat inside the car running at full capacity—the soft whir of air pumping from the vents the only sound punctuating the soft breathing of the car’s occupants. El keeps as quiet as possible so as not to distract him, her stomach in an anxious knot as she stares out her window, observing thick snowflakes accumulate on the passing tree branches.

Mike watches wearily out of the corner of his eye as a car approaches, headed in the opposite direction, crawling at a snail’s pace. And even though his periphery focus remains locked on that car, Mike is unprepared to see it skid over what could only be a large patch of black ice; terrified when, without warning, its headlights flash into his line of sight. Time seems to come to a standstill as his heart freezes in his chest. Mike goes in to autopilot mode, twisting the steering wheel to the right with more force than necessary, intending to swerve the car towards the ditch in an effort to reduce the impact of the other vehicle on his girlfriend, gripping the seat beside him, her face suddenly colourless and blank. Instinctually, Mike’s right arm jettisons out beside him, forming a protective barrier to keep El’s body in place. With closed eyes and bloodless lips, Mike braces for impact.

But there’s nothing. No crash. No pain. No sickening crunch of metal on metal. Mike opens his eyes slowly; unsure of the sight that awaits him. The first place he looks is to his right, over at El, whose expression is terse and focused. The blood gushing from her nose gives her away immediately. Apprehensively, Mike peers past El and outside the window, able to vaguely make out the tops of tall oak trees in the darkness.

Mike comes slowly to the startling realization that they are floating. His breath catches in his throat as he shifts his gaze, casting his eyes out his own window, downwards. He catches sight of the other car, the one that nearly hit them, with its front end wrapped gruesomely around the trunk of a particularly wide tree. A lump forms in his throat.

“El,” Mike manages to whisper despite the constricted feeling in his throat. His voice comes out sounding queasy. He reaches out and brushes his fingers over El’s sleeve then grasps her hand; the hand of the girl who, for the third time since they met, has saved his life. “You can put us down,” he says softly, encouragingly.

Mike feels the car lurch and his stomach drops, much like the way it does whenever he goes on a rollercoaster. Slowly, the car returns to the earth, landing with a soft bump on solid ground. For a moment, El and Mike sit in silence, neither daring to move or speak. Then, without a warning, Mike hastily exits the car, feeling slowly returning to his body.

He folds over and vomits on the side of the road, grasping his knees and willing them to stop shaking. El, having also quietly exited the car, stands by him for a moment; wiping her nose on one of the pale pink mittens he bought her for Christmas last year. The other mitten rubs calming circles against his back.

“Are you okay?” she asks. Mike straightens up and wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his coat, nodding.

“Yeah,” he breathes, “Are you?”

“Yes,” she says, her voice serious and calm in a way that almost frightens him. Without another word, she turns on her heel and walks away from him, her figure becoming obscured in the whirling snow as she stalks towards the other car. Mike watches in awe, still dumbfounded by the extent of what she’s capable of, as the car doors fly off and two unconscious bodies float out of the wreckage, dropping down softly into a snow bank.

Mike tears his eyes away from El as she leans over the people she’s just saved and walks back to his own undamaged car to dial 9-1-1 on his mobile. Though his head is swimming, his chest swells with pride. His fiancée is a superhero.

Later that night, laying in bed and snuggled up warmly against Mike’s body, El closes her eyes and sighs contentedly.

“You were so brave today,” Mike whispers in her ear; a response to her soft breathing, “You saved us. You saved those other people.” El smiles through her exhaustion.

“Mike,” she murmurs, “I’m not afraid anymore.” She sinks further into the curve of his arms, knowing that both of them will sleep well tonight, better than they have in months.

---

December 1990

“This is Teddy,” Jonathan says with a proud smile as he gently passes a small blue bundle into Mike’s arms. Mike, settling back into the sofa in the Wheeler’s living room, feels his eyes prickle with emotion as he looks down at the flawless face of his sister’s little boy—his nephew—and the namesake of his late father.

“And this,” Nancy grins, “Is Anna.” She places a small pink bundle in El’s outstretched arms. For the briefest of moments, El recalls the nightmare she suffered through that summer, but the happiness welling in her chest as she snuggles the baby close to her sends all those unwelcome thoughts to the back of her mind. Nancy steps back from the sofa as Jonathan snaps a few photos of Mike and El, beaming up at them, with the newest additions to the family.

“I can’t believe you guys had twins,” Mike laughs as Jonathan returns his camera to its case, “You’re so screwed.” He glances up at his sister, noting that she is still beautiful despite the dark circles under her eyes. He can’t remember seeing her so happy since her wedding day.

“Right?” Nancy shakes her head, “Except thankfully Mom kept most of Holly’s baby things so we have two of almost everything.”

“We wanted it to be a surprise,” Jonathan shakes his head, “And it definitely was.”

Mike turns his gaze towards El, watching her with loving eyes as she gently touches Anna’s nose with a soft fingertip.

“Don’t get any ideas, Mike,” Nancy raises her eyebrows in Mike’s direction and he rolls his eyes in response.

“As if,” he mutters.

---

At midnight, El rolls over in bed and gently prods Mike’s shoulder. His eyes slowly flutter open and he stifles a yawn.

“Something wrong?” he asks, his voice thick with sleep, though El can still hear the concerned tone it takes on.

“I’m hungry,” she says with a small smirk, “Let’s have milk and cookies.” Mike’s face cracks into a wide smile and in a moment he’s out of bed, leading her down the stairs towards the kitchen, like he used to when they were younger. El watches him intently from her seat at the table as he pours two glasses of cold skim milk and stacks a plate high with chocolate chip cookies. For a few minutes they snack in a silence broken only by the sloshing of milk and the crunching of cookies. El picks up her third cookie and turns it over in her hand before returning it to the plate, the thoughts racing in her mind a distraction from the enjoyment of this moment.

“Full?” Mike asks, licking cookie crumbs from the corners of his lips. El shakes her head.

“Do you want to have kids, Mike?” she asks. Mike tilts his head to the side and looks at her in the dim light that filters in from the lamps outside in the backyard.

“Yeah, I’d like that one day,” he replies.

“Okay.” El retakes that third cookie and dunks it absentmindedly into her glass.

“What’s wrong, El?” Mike asks gently. She feels tears well up behind her eyes, partly from gratitude. Mike can always tell when she’s not herself, when she’s keeping her feelings from him.

“Do you know what I saw that day in the tub?” El asks.

“The Upside Down,” Mike answers immediately and El nods. That was what she had told him, all she had told him, having left out the part about the lab and the baby; the parts that were too painful to share.

“I saw the lab too,” she confesses, “Nancy being pregnant reminded me of…” Her voices trails off, her gaze drifting towards the windows so she doesn’t have to look at Mike.

“Of what?” Mike prompts her to continue. She takes a deep breath.

“I think that they wanted to…breed me.” El isn’t sure if this is the correct word, if this is what Brenner really had in mind, but her instincts, coupled with what she's learned since her new life began, tell her that it’s accurate enough. Mike feels bile rise in his throat as those words leave his fiancée’s lips. His stomach curls with rage and for a moment he wishes he had gotten a chance, years ago, to kill Brenner with his bare hands. But Mike swallows those feelings. The rage, the hatred—they are useless now. They are not the emotions El needs from him.

“That’s over now, El,” Mike says, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her close. She resists the urge to sink her head against his chest.

“What if we have a baby and it…what if it’s like me?” El looks down at her hands, splayed across the table. Mike closes his eyes, searching for the right words.

“If our future kid is anything like you,” he assures her, “They’ll be strong, brilliant, and beautiful. Just like you—a total badass. And I won’t let anything bad ever happen to him or to you. I swear on my life, El, that I will keep you safe forever.”

“Him?” El asks, a hint of a smile on her lips. Mike’s glad she picked up on that, glad that, somehow, he still manages to make her smile that beautiful smile that enchants him every time.

“Well yeah,” he smirks, “A mini-Mike.”

“Luke,” El says softly, finally giving in to herself and resting her head against Mike’s warm chest.

“Luke?” Mike repeats, unsure what she means.

“As in Skywalker,” El clarifies and Mike’s face lights up with a small laugh.

“Luke,” he echoes again, “I like it.”

Chapter Text

February 1994

Lucy’s breath fogs in the February air as she opens the passenger door to Dustin’s new Ford pickup, her arms nearly overflowing with plastic tubs half-full of jellybeans, containers of pink-frosted cupcakes, and a large plastic bag brimming with red construction paper hearts, each signed with a message from the students of her third-grade placement class. She leans forward into the truck and lets these items tumble onto the seat. With an impressed glance, Dustin reaches over to sweep them out of the way as Lucy pulls herself up and into the truck.

“How was your day?” Dustin asks, grinning as he pops open the lid to one of the containers and grabs a cupcake, tossing it into his mouth in one bite.

“Pretty good,” Lucy laughs as she settles into the passenger seat and buckles her seatbelt. “There was obviously a bunch of stuff left over from what the kids brought in today. Oh! And…” she pauses for dramatic effect, “I even got a marriage proposal on one of these little hearts.” A crinkling sound fills the truck as Lucy shakes the plastic bag with the paper hearts.

“Oh really?” Dustin twists the key in the ignition, the engine roaring to life. He raises an eyebrow at her Lucy and, with a mock-serious face asks, “Who’s the little punk I have to fight for your hand?”

Lucy throws her head back in laughter again as she removes the lid from one of the plastic tubs and picks at the jellybeans, pulling out the red ones and popping them into her mouth. Dustin looks at her, for a moment unable to process anything outside of how beautiful she looks, with cold-kissed cheeks a rosy hue against the rest of her pale face.

“Off to dinner?” Lucy asks through a mouthful of jellybeans, drawing Dustin back to reality. He shakes his head and Lucy looks at him, confused.

“We have to swing by the house first,” Dustin informs her as he carefully pulls out of the school parking lot, “Mike asked if we could. He says it’s important."

“Sounds good,” Lucy nods, “I guess it’ll give me a chance to change and fix my hair. Pretty sure there’s glitter and glue in it from making those Valentines.”

“You always sparkle though,” Dustin smirks.

“Barf,” Lucy rolls her eyes playfully.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Goose,” he grins.

---

When Dustin opens the front door to Twenty-two Warley, the first thing he notes are the red and white streamers decked across the front hall, leading towards the kitchen where El is standing with an over-sized bouquet of pink balloons. She waves at him and Lucy as they kick off their shoes.

“It looks like Cupid threw up in here,” Dustin calls out to El, who playfully scowls at him.

“What’s the occasion?” Lucy asks, bounding over to El, holding out the container of cupcakes in offering.

“Valentine’s Day,” El says, her tone flat—almost sarcastic, which makes Lucy laugh.

“Are you having a party you forgot to invite us to?” Dustin asks, following his girlfriend down the hall.

“The opposite, actually,” Mike appears from the kitchen with a smirk lighting up his features, “We’ve decided on a date for our, uh, big party and we want you two goofs to help us plan it.”

“And be our guests of honour,” El adds with a pointed wink.

“What are you talk…” Dustin begins to ask but Lucy has already flown into El’s arms and wrapped her in a bear hug, the tub of cupcakes falling to the floor between them, pink icing smearing the tiles.

“Oh my god,” Lucy squeals, “YES!”

Dustin is a little slower on the uptake. He looks over the laughing—now nearly crying— girls towards Mike with a look that practically begs for an explantion.

“Sometimes,” Mike smirks, “Your total obliviousness just blows my mind.” Dustin holds up his arms in mock surrender and follows Mike as his friend beckons him into the kitchen. Mike leads Dustin to the table, at the center of which sits a small rectangular chocolate cake.

On its surface, in pink icing is written Maid of Honour? And, just below that in blue are the words Best Man? Dustin laughs as the realization hits him. Without a word, he turns to Mike and gives him, mussing up his hair as much as possible.

---

Lucy’s awake late into the night marking tests at the kitchen table. Across from her, Mike is hunched over a Pediatrics textbook, muttering under his breath as he makes notes in a creased and wrinkled notebook. Eventually, Mike sighs deeply and straightens up, his back cracking with the motion, causing Lucy to look at him with raised eyebrows.

“You’re out of shape,” she comments wryly. The two share a small laugh.

“I was thinking,” Mike stifles a yawn as he leans back in his chair, “About the wedding…about the theme.”

“Theme?” Lucy echoes with amusement, “Wheeler, you’re a sap. But let’s hear it then.” She caps her pen and slides it behind her ear, giving Mike her full attention, hands folded in front of her.

“Snow Ball.” Mike’s answer is, at least in his mind, perfectly self-evident. Lucy, however, furrows her brows.

“Like a snowball fight?” She fixes him with a lopsided grin and Mike rolls his eyes.

“No,” he replies, “I don’t know if they had these things at your middle school, but a long time ago I promised El that’d I’d take her to this cheesy school dance…”

“The Snow Ball?” Lucy interrupts.

“Exactly,” Mike affirms as recognition draws upon his friend’s face. El had, in recounting her tales of Hawkins Lab and the Upside Down a few years prior, mentioned something about such a dance. Lucy has still not forgotten a single detail of those stories.

“But she disap…” Lucy quickly catches herself and her voice stops flat. Mike nods absently, glossing over El’s disappearance. It seems almost trivial now that they’re older; almost married.

“I never got to take her,” Mike continues. Though he and El had attended other school dances together—homecoming, formal, prom—he still felt as though this would somehow be different. “I think it would mean a lot to her.”

“Say no more,” Lucy assures him, “You want a Snow Ball? I’ll give you the best damn Snow Ball you’ve ever seen.” There’s a determined fire behind her eyes that makes Mike sure he’s chosen the best person for the job.

---

December 1994

El stands in front of a full-length mirror, staring at her reflection, taking in the details that, a decade ago, she wouldn’t have been able to imagine in her wildest dreams. Looking back at her is a girl, a woman, tall and slender, with round eyes of the warmest brown and hair that falls to her pronounced shoulders in soft, honey-brown wisps. She sees a woman in a white gown, sleeveless, fitted at the waist, and flared out over her legs in an ocean of smooth silk. For a moment, she finds it difficult to believe that she was once a little girl in a patterned hospital gown with frightened eyes and no identity other than a number.

“You look beautiful, El,” Lucy stands behind her best friend, tucking a stray strand of hair back into its place behind the translucent veil that flows down her back, “Like a princess.”

“Princess,” El repeats softly, her hands playing gently over the intricate folds in her skirt. The fingers of her left hand move to graze over the small, delicate silver bracelet gracing her right wrist; a gift she had received from Mike on the day of their very first date. Her lips spread into a content smile as she turns away from the mirror to look at Lucy, who is sliding her feet into dark blue heels that match her fitted dress. “I can’t believe this is happening,” El grins, a soft giggle escaping her lips.

“Believe it,” Lucy smiles back, “You’re getting married!”

“To Mike.” El feels her cheeks flush at the thought of spending the rest of her life with Mike Wheeler. Of course, she had—since her return—never imagined any other outcome for herself. But they had almost not made it. More than ten years ago, their life together had almost ended before it even began. El is sure this will be the happiest day of her life; right up there with the day she came home to Mike, the day he held her in his arms and refused to let go, the day they cried and laughed and ate two boxes of Eggos in the blanket fort he had never even thought about taking down in her absence.

“He’s a lucky guy,” Lucy says, handing El her modest bouquet of white roses.

“Thank you,” El reaches out and hugs her best friend tightly, “You’ve done so much.”

“Ladies?” There’s a soft knock on the door, accompanied by Will’s voice, “It’s time.”

---

Mike stands at the front of the spacious room, where twenty or so of their closest family and friends are gathered. His mother and Holly are seated in the front row a few feet from him; Karen is already wiping at her eyes. Beside her, Joyce holds offers her comfort and a small pack of tissues she has on hand. Hopper, with his arm around Joyce’s waist, meets Mike’s eye and nods at him. Mike smiles meekly back. Kevin is there too, now a part of the Byers family, and flashes Mike a brilliant smile with a thumbs up.

Mike feels a hand clamp down on his shoulder and squeeze firmly. He turns his head to look at Dustin.

“You ready man?” Dustin asks. Mike nods once, curtly and surely.

“I’ve been ready for a long time,” he replies.

“Don’t be lame,” Dustin shakes his head, “And straighten your tie.” Mike complies, hearing Lucas, who stands just a foot or so away, stifle a laugh. Mike shoots him a look. For Mike, it had been a no-brainer to ask Lucas to officiate the ceremony. Lucas is his oldest friend—it just feels right. And having Lucas grow to accept El all those years ago had been crucial. It had been Lucas who insisted, that night in Hawkins Middle School’s gymnasium, that protecting El was the most important thing; Lucas who had spent long nights and nearly every weekend scouring the forest with Mike in hopes of turning up some clue as to El’s whereabouts; Lucas who had once had Mike walk in to his bedroom while he was switching through the channels on his walkie-talkie, trying to contact El all on his own, speaking to the static that she needed to return.

“Here we go guys,” Lucas grins as a soft music fills the hall. Mike watches as Teddy and Anna amble down the aisle first; his nephew carrying a basket in which Mike knows there are two simple silver wedding bands and his niece strewing white rose petals across the rich blue carpet. Nancy and Jonathan, holding hands, walk behind their children, prodding them along, especially when Anna decides she wants to pick up the petals she’s just thrown. Nancy’s pregnant again, her stomach just starting to show in the pale purple dress she wears. Mike wonders, almost unconsciously, if his first child will grow up with his sister’s third.

Once the children are settled, rings delivered safely to Dustin, Lucy enters the hall, practically skipping down the aisle with glee. Her excitement is infectious and causes Mike to smile widely.

“Oh my god” she mouths to the three men at the front of the room as she joins them, “Here she comes!”

Mike hears the first joyous notes of the Wedding March. For the briefest of moments, he’s afraid to turn around. What if this isn't real? What if the last ten years of his life have all been one big dream and he’ll turn around and El won’t be there because she never came back to him?

“Dude,” Dustin mouths, his expression emphatic as he jerks his head towards the other end of the hall. With a deep breath, Mike turns around and sees her standing there. El. It takes all his strength not to let his jaw fall to the floor. He swallows the lump forming in his throat as her eyes meet his over the sea of people seated there. A smile forms on her ruby red lips and Mike nearly melts as, arm linked with Will’s, she takes her first step down the aisle and towards the rest of her life with him.

Before Mike knows it, she’s standing across from him, their hands clasped together between them. El fixes him with the doe eyes that have always made his knees weak. A smirk, halfway between mischievous and loving plays upon her lips.

“Pretty?” she whispers, arching an eyebrow and Mike flashes back to the first time he saw her in a dress; the first time his heart leapt into his throat at the sight of a girl. He laughs.

“Pretty good,” Mike shoots back. El grins.

---

“Are you ready?” Mike squeezes her hand. They stand outside the dining hall, a room that El has been longing to peer into all day. Lucy had successfully prevented her so far, insisting that it was bad luck, though El knew for certain, having helped plan Nancy and Jonathan’s wedding, that this was entirely false. She wondered what waited for her behind those doors.

“For what?” El looks at him sideways, her face slightly anxious. Mike simply grins as he pushes open the door and leads her inside. He hears her breath hitch in her throat as twenty-something sets of eyes turn towards them.

El’s own eyes brim with tears as she takes in her surroundings. The room is dimly lit in a soft blue hue. Strands of hanging lights, like icicles, hang over their heads from an inky blue ceiling. Tables, covered in crisp white tablecloths, are topped with unbelievably sized bouquets of white roses and burning candles. Blue and white balloons float in groups scattered around the hall.

“Mike.” His name barely escapes her lips; he can barely hear it over the applause that meets their ears as they come together for their first dance as husband and wife. Her arms gently loop around his neck and his hands come to rest on her waist.

“It’s the Snow Ball,” she breathes into his ear.

“It is,” Mike chuckles, “I know it took a while, but I kept that promise.”

Mike had also picked their wedding song, Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper. It’s dated now, over a decade old; but it had been a logical choice for him.

“It came out in ’83,” he told Lucy when she gave him a questioning look, “That’s the year I met El.”

As the music starts, Mike and El begin to sway gently.

“Thank you Mike,” she whispers against his chest, just loud enough for him to hear, “For everything.”

“I love you, El Wheeler.”

They continue to sway in the dim light of the hall, the small gathering of friends and family melting away until it is only the two of them. Though they now move in silence, Mike, for the first time in his life, can hear El’s voice in his head, sure her lips have not moved.

I love you too, Mike Wheeler.

Chapter Text

May 1997

“Good morning, Robbie,” El smiles warmly, kneeling slightly, so that she is closer to eye-level with the small seven-year-old boy who has just entered her office, his bright blue eyes slightly downcast and a sheepish smile on his face.

“G-g-g-good m-morning Mrs. Wuh-Wuh-Wheeler,” Robbie replies quietly, his voice a nervous stammer—this being the reason he meets with El every Thursday morning following first recess. The smile he had entered the room with disappears from his lips, quickly replaced by a taut frown. El can see the tears beginning to well behind his eyes, but her expression does not falter from its welcoming smile as she pats the boy gently on the top of his mop of blonde hair and leads him by the hand to the big red chairs in the corner of room, opposite her desk. Usually, as she’s told Robbie on several occasions, these chairs are reserved for the big kids who come to visit her, but because he’s so brave and bright, he gets to share in this special spot. Robbie settles into the soft linen of the chair, the threat of tears slowly dissipating. El takes a seat next to him, tucking her pale pink dress in around her knees, clipboard in hand and a pencil tucked behind her ear. She reaches up and pulls down a life-like stuffed lion from the shelf that floats over their heads.

“Mr. Leo kept asking me when you were coming for another visit,” El grins, handing the toy to Robbie, who accepts it with beaming delight.

“Th-thanks Mrs. Wheeler,” Robbie hugs Mr. Leo close to his chest.

The stuffed lion had come with the office, provided by the elementary school where El has been working for almost two years, universally loved by students and faculty alike. She had, at first, contemplated getting rid of the thing, locking it away in an unused cabinet because of the memories that bubbled to the surface of her consciousness each time her eyes fell over its sandy brown fur. But something had kept her from doing so and the flashbacks had stopped quite some time ago. She no longer sees hints of Brenner’s leering eyes whenever her hand grips the soft plush. Instead, its softness calls to mind the faces of the children whom she helps; their proud smiles when they make progress, their trusting eyes when she speaks to them with encouragement and praise.

“Were you nervous when you came in today, Robbie?” El asks softly, taking the pencil from its spot behind her ear and rolling it over in between her fingers. The boy opposite her nods slowly and El notes how his hands grasp at the stuffed animal with ever so slightly more pressure. She smiles reassuringly. “Why’s that?”

“Th-th-the b-b-b-b,” Robbie stops and swallows. El can hear the panic building in his voice but doesn’t interrupt, letting the boy work at his own pace. She waits patiently, carefully watching as he goes through the motions that they’ve practiced over the past six months—the deep breathing, the visualizations.

“Toby and Daniel laughed at me,” he says, this time without a stuttered syllable.

“Well, that’s not very nice,” El clicks her tongue, “I’m sorry that happened.”

“It’s oh-k-kay,” Robbie says, gazing up at her with a dignity that goes beyond his years, “I’m getting b-better because of you.”

El smiles, her heart swelling with pride. “So, Robbie,” she continues, “Tell me what you had for breakfast this morning.”

At the end of their thirty-minute session, Robbie returns Mr. Leo to El and hugs her gently around the neck, skipping off happily, with a yellow lollipop in hand. El smiles and stands from her spot in chair, stretching out her arms and walking back to her desk. She sits down and waits for her computer to come out of sleep mode, eyes falling on the picture front and center on her desk—a picture of she and Mike on their wedding day, all smiles. With a small, content grin, El leans back in her chair and rests her hands over her pregnant belly.

---

July 1997

Luke Benjamin Wheeler is born on July 17th at 10:43 in the morning, perfectly healthy and with Mike’s dark hair already beginning to grace the top of his delicate head.

Mike is, even before then, at the hospital, having just finished his second of three surgeries for the day, the first of two routine tonsillectomies, preceded by a hernia removal earlier that morning. He’s changing into a clean pair of scrubs and downing a cold cup of black coffee when his beeper goes off. The coffee having not quite kicked in yet, Mike is momentarily confused as to why obstetrics is looking for him. He goes over to the phone and dials up to the sixth floor.

“This is Mike Wheeler from Pediatrics,” he says when the receptionist, Julie, picks up, “I got a page from up there?” Mike pinches the bridge of his nose as the post-procedure adrenaline coursing through his veins begins to dissipate and he remembers how tired he is. He’d been up late the previous night as El tossed and turned, unable to find a comfortable position in which to sleep, convinced that the baby would be arriving soon. El…baby…the realization hits Mike like a ton of bricks just as Julie’s bright voice meets his ear.

“Dr. Wheeler, you’re out of surgery? Perfect! We’ve just admitted your wife. She’s in labour!”

Lucy is holding El’s shaking hand when Mike, still in scrubs and no longer in need of coffee, dashes into the room, eyes wide and chest heaving. He rushes to El’s side, opposite to Lucy, and takes her other hand, running his fingers up and down her forearm.

“Did you take the stairs?” Lucy asks with a laugh. El, though her face is strained, joins the laughter and Mike shakes his head absently, entirely focused on his wife.

“Did I miss anything?” he asks breathlessly. El shakes her head.

“Good timing,” she mutters through pursed lips.

“We’d have killed you otherwise,” Lucy smirks—the expression quickly turning into a grimace as El’s grip tightens on her fingers and they simultaneously let out a groan of pain.

One hour and eighteen minutes later, Mike stands over El and the blue bundle that is Luke, not keen to return to work, not wanting to miss a single moment of this new life he’s just entered.

---

In September 1999, Mike and El will find themselves in this situation again. Only this time, the small bundle in El’s arms will be wrapped in pink and Mike will have, by some miracle, not been scheduled to work. Lucy won’t be there, having moved away from Boston with Dustin, but Nancy will take her place, squished fingers and all.

El will insist that Mike choose the baby's name and she’ll be thrilled when he reveals his idea. They will call their second child, their daughter, Tessa. Tessa Jean Wheeler—Tessa, adapted from the otherworldly tesseract in El’s favourite childhood novel and Jean, Mike’s favourite comic-book heroine since the day he met El. Tessa has her mother’s eyes and her father’s freckles.

---

Mike and El raise their family in a modest house in suburban Boston, where Mike keeps a garden and El bakes cookies on the weekends; where they teach their children to read; where Luke will learn to throw a ball and swing a bat; where Tessa will voraciously read through the Harry Potter series and eagerly await her Hogwarts letter, convinced her powers are magical.

There will be days when Mike comes home to that house, exhausted, angry, and emotional. Days when he’s operated on a child with terminal cancer. Days when he receives news a past patient has passed away.

On those days, El makes cocoa and toasts Eggos while Mike hugs their children closely, reading them bedtime stories and tucking them in to sleep. Afterwards, they sit at the kitchen table in seeming silence, chatting with closed lips.

You’re a good man, Mike Wheeler.

I wish I could do more.

You do what you’re able to. That’s all anyone can do.

But on most days, Mike comes home happy, knowing his family is safe and well.

---

June 2001

On the Saturday of Mike’s thirtieth birthday, El asks him to take the kids on a trip to Toys R Us, letting them each pick out something new. As always, when El is attempting to keep a secret, the corners of her lips are upturned with mischief. She’s always been terrible at hiding surprises, though Mike, as he follows his excited children through the aisles of their favourite place on earth, cannot imagine what El has in store for him. He never suspects, not for a moment, that upon arriving at home, he’d be met with a chorus of Surprises! from his oldest and closest friends. It’s been a while—too long—since they’ve all been in the same place at the same time.

The conversation flows for hours over dinner, cake, and coffee and it feels as though they were never apart. Some of this conversation is catch-up, but most of it is a fond trip down memory lane.

Lucy and Dustin are there, of course, having flown in from Florida, where Dustin works at the Kennedy Space Center and Lucy teaches high school, having taken on a job in a low-income area to work with underprivileged kids. Lucy and Dustin still haven’t married—they never will—but they will grow old together. A year after this reunion, they will adopt their first child, Stella, aged four, from a foster home in Miami. In 2010, their second daughter, Michelle, will join the family after an earthquake leaves her orphaned in Haiti. Until then, however, they are content with their slobbery, slightly dumb, golden retriever, Frodo, who is popular amongst their friends’ children.

Nancy and Jonathan are there as well, visiting from Indiana, where they’ve moved out of the Wheeler house once more and into their own place in Indianapolis. Nancy’s working as a clerk in a law office now that the children are in school and Jonathan’s taken on a job at one of the city’s larger newspapers. Teddy and Anna, now ten years old, take it upon themselves to look after the other children. Anna wants to be a teacher, like her Auntie Lucy, and bossily insists on sitting her cousins down for story-time. Teddy, as he does at most family gatherings, walks around with a disposable camera, snapping photographs of everyone present, mostly candid and some at ridiculously close range, including the one of Uncle Mike’s nostril from Christmas last year. David, their youngest, is one of the most precocious children Mike has ever met and he can’t help but wonder where on Earth the kid gets it from, Nancy and Jonathan both fairly reserved. At age six, David already insists he wants to be a musician.

“Just like David Bowie,” he says proudly, “I’m named after him, you know?”

Lucas and his wife Stefanie have arrived from California and Mike is most stunned to see them, aware of how tight their schedules are. He tries not to choke up when Lucas embraces him. Some years ago, Lucas decided he was no longer interested in football or in math and, instead, took on an interest in law. He’s building an impressive portfolio and will eventually go on to become a DA in the state of California while Stefanie, an environmental scientist, studies seismic behaviour beneath their now-home state. In the future, when Mike and El feel the call of the ocean, they will split their trips between California and Florida.

Will and Kevin have also made the trip to Boston from New York, where they are both freelancing—Will with his illustrations and Kevin with his photography. On July 25, 2011, the day after same-sex marriage becomes recognized in New York City, Will and Kevin will marry in a small civil ceremony. Quite sometime before then, Will hosts a gallery exhibition with his paintings and the gang is all invited. The art is well received and when asked by a reporter from the New Yorker where his inspiration comes from, Will shrugs ambiguously and offers an enigmatic answer about imagination. Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and El each listen to him give the interview with amusement, able to recognize elements of the Upside Down in Will’s work; happy that their friend has grown to live with his trauma and channeled it into something creative, something oddly beautiful.

---

The final present Mike opens that evening is a large box from Dustin and Lucy, who are the last to leave. Everyone else has gone back to their hotels and El has brought Luke and Tessa upstairs to bed, moving them from where they had been sprawled out on the living room floor, fast asleep.

Mike unfolds the flaps of the box and peers inside. A laugh escapes his lips.

It’s full of foam peanuts.

“You two will never change, huh?” Mike laughs, tossing a handful of peanuts in Dustin’s direction. The smiles he receives in return are equal parts loving and impish.

“Would you ever want us to?” Lucy asks, feigned indignation in her voice.

“Look closer,” Dustin instructs, gesturing Mike’s attention back to the box. Mike digs to the bottom, beyond the foam peanuts and pulls out a slim folder. Opening it, his eyes fall upon two airline tickets and hotel vouchers.

“Paris?” he sputters, “Seriously?”

“You bet bud,” Dustin grins, “Just you and El. Lucy and I will take the rugrats for the week.”

“As long as your promise not to turn them into little shits like you two were,” Mike remarks as he’s wrapped up in the arms of his friends.

---

July 2002

When Luke is five and Tessa is almost three, El discovers that, like her, her daughter isn’t destined to be normal.

El had only just specifically requested that Luke not eat any cookies until after dinner, placing the jar of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies baked earlier that morning on top of the fridge, out of his reach. He is seated at the kitchen table across from his sister, practicing his printing, a mopey frown on his face having been denied an early dessert. El leaves the room for no more than three minutes to go to the washroom and, when she returns, notices immediately that the cookie jar is set upon the table. Luke’s face is no longer dejected, but written over with guilt and covered in cookie crumbs. He glances up at his mother sheepishly.

“How did you get that?” El asks, somewhere between impressed and concerned—too unsure of his methods to be angry; not that she ever really angers towards her children.

“Tessie got it for me,” Luke answers simply, pointing towards his sister. El turns to look at her daughter, who still sits unassuming and quiet, fingers covered in marker as she scribbles onto construction paper in front of her.

“Tessie,” El approaches her, “How did you take the cookies down?”

“Float,” Tessa looks up and replies with a wide toothy smile.

“Float?” El echoes, her chest tightening in either fear or anticipation—she’s unsure; the feeling isn’t entirely clear or easy to decipher. Tessa nods vigorously.

“Like this Mommy,” she giggles. The cookie jar begins to levitate, first an inch off the table, then slowly higher and higher. El’s eyes grow wide and she snatches the cookie jar out of the air. Tessa’s bottom lip quivers, unsure if she’s in trouble.

“That was very nice, Tessie,” El says softly, “Let’s show Daddy.” Calmed, Tessa goes back to colouring and Luke returns to his printing, apparently unphased by the show his sister has just given. El wonders how long this has been going on. She navigates, as calmly as she can, to the other side of the table and opens the screen door that leads outside to the backyard, where Mike is tending the tomato plants.

“Mike!” El calls out to him, leaning partly out of the door, still watching her children from the corner of her eye. Mike lifts his head and looks up her as she gestures for him to come back inside.

---

El and Mike will teach Tessa everything she needs to know about her powers. El will teach her how to control them, how to use them safely, so that no harm will come to her or anyone around her, and how to keep them hidden. Mike will teach her when it’s okay to use them—lessons that will eventually be of great use.

And though they'll never admit it, though they will pretend not to notice when Tessa, years later at her brother’s baseball game, secretly redirects a ball to connect at just the right angle for the winning homerun, Mike an El will share a secret grin and squeeze each other’s hands knowingly.

Years after that, when Tessa breaks down into tears in front of her parents and older brother, admitting she broke the fingers of a guy at her homecoming party when he tried to grab at her after a firm no, El and Mike, despite their rage, are secretly thankful that normal was never part of their lives. Luke, angry that he doesn’t get the pleasure of breaking those bones himself, is nonetheless relieved that his kid sister can fend for herself in a way that no one else he knows, except his mother, can.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, Mike walks in from the backyard and watches in amazement as El instructs Tessa to put the cookie jar back on the top of the fridge. He laughs and wraps his arm around El’s waist; smiles as her head comes to rest on his shoulder as they look at their children, glowing with pride.

The End