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UNBETA-ED!! Please forgive any small errors, this is already like a 15th of a novel, here.

 

 

Jim Hopper has become more than annoyed at his adoptive daughter’s obsession with one very obnoxious pop song, which could be heard floating through the hallways of the Byers-Hopper blended family home. Will had begged for earplugs a week after Eleven had received a boombox for her sixteenth birthday, and that was before she’d heard the song she currently blares at least twice an hour. Joyce had stuck up for her, reasoning that twelve years was a long time to go without music. She said it more than warranted a certain enthusiasm in discovering rhythm and meaningful lyrics. By week two, Joyce was running out for earplugs of her own.
Now, the Friday twenty days after her birthday party, Jim’s standing in the hardware store looking at rakes. He’s looking at rakes because at El’s party nearing three weeks ago he had fallen on his rake and broken it. He first tried duct-taping it together, but the handle had too much wobble and eventually, the tape unstuck itself and the rake was in two pieces again. Then he tried wood glue, but something in the cold, biting November air kept it from curing properly and it snapped in half as Hop was moving one leave pile into another. Third, he tried just using the bottom half of the rake but his back was aching after twenty minutes. His last effort had been a combination of wood glue and duct-tape. He smoothed the glue and wrapped a neat strip of tape around it, wanting it to look as nice as possible. He picked it up the next morning from his workbench in the garage and brought it outside, refreshed from his good night’s sleep and confident in his creation. He gently set it on the ground in front of some leaves, dragging it across the yard. He muttered a triumphant ha! as he noticed it was working and not bending like it had when he used only the tape. As he lifted it to drag it again, only the top half of the handle came up with his hands. The bottom half and the fan of prongs tipped down flat on the ground and Jim Hopper let out a very loud CURSE YOU, MICHAEL WHEELER because the idiot had been the first piece of the twisted Rube-Goldberg Machine that had ended in the demise of his ol’ reliable rake.

They had all been out in the driveway, waiting for the last two kids to get there. El was trying to teach Dustin how to use a skip-it and Will had just handed Mike his yellow boomerang. Will waved his hello as the final boy pedaled up and watched as he dismounted his bike and kicked out the stand. Mike had apparently not noticed his approach. Lucas had clapped his back in greeting as the freckled boy slung the boomerang in the air. Stupid Michael Wheeler forgot, somehow, that boomerangs sling back to you, and diverted his attention to chatting with his newly arrived friend. Three seconds later, stupid Michael Wheeler was knocked in the stomach by the overthrown boomerang. He landed on his ass, legs spread haphazardly and a stupid look on his stupid face. Max was skating in, as she’d trailed behind Lucas, and failed to notice the placement of stupid Wheeler’s stupid right foot. She rolled directly into it on her way to tell Eleven happy birthday, twisting stupid Wheeler’s foot with an unsettling snap and stopping her board. Now, if you know anything about the basics of physics, you know that objects in motion stay in motion, and that’s exactly what poor Max did. She stumbled, trying to regain footing and barreled square into a rake-wielding Hopper. They both tumbled to the ground with another sickening crack. Hopper groaned and Joyce ran to them.

“Oh my goodness, are you two okay?” She quickly looked them over but found no real signs of injury.

“Eugh, aargh,” Hop grumbled as he stood, “My god damn rake!” He held the two pieces in his hands, trying to fit them together again. He heard El gasp. “I know, my poor rake!” He whined, the rake had been the only one he’d ever owned for over three years that hadn’t lost a prong.

“No!” She cried, and Jim turned to see her dropping quickly to her knees (too quickly, he was sure she’d scraped them) in front of Mike. “My poor Mike!” And soon, the whole party had gathered around where Mike sat, clutching his ankle. Hop was left alone in the yard, clutching his rake and pouting over everyone’s lack of sympathy.
Wheeler’s cheeks were covered in angry red blotches and Jim could tell the kid was in some serious pain by the ugly, bloated look on his face. He did his best to shake the expression when he noticed the concern etched on his girlfriend’s normally relaxed features, brows knit closely together and mouth screwed up to one side. He smiled tightly and Hop was surprised to see it only slightly resembled a wince.

“Hospital!” El turned to Hopper. “He needs to go, now!”

“Really, El, it’s okay. Just a little sore. I’ll be fine in a day or two.”

“Not fine, I heard a sound. Friends don’t lie, Mike.” She chastised gently.

“If he says he’s okay, he’s okay. Back up a bit and let him stand.” Jim said, clearing a space for Mike to test his ankle out. The boy stood and Jim pretended not to hear his quiet grunt. He put pressure on it, only a little, and the older man saw the kid’s eyes widen sharply as he stood fully on it.

“See?” His voice was only minutely higher pitched than usual, “It’s alright.” And he did a bit of walking, just a small circle to prove his point. El didn’t seem fully convinced, but everyone else was content to move forward.

“Mike’s always a big baby about it when he’s really hurt, El. Don’t worry.” The curly one, Dustin, patted her on the shoulder. She appeared mildly sure of Mike’s health now and moved to grab his hand.

“Well!” Jim boomed, intentionally startling his de facto daughter, and she dropped the arm she had been reaching for her boyfriend’s hand with. “Want to go inside and open presents?” He raised his brows at El in question. Her eyes lit up and she nodded furiously, a wide smile on her face as she picked up Mike’s hand in stride, dragging him quickly into the house through the open garage. Joyce bit her lip as she watched him stumble and hop to avoid running on his right ankle. The crew filed inside after the duo and Mike’s injury was forgotten about in a haze of ribbons, wrapping paper, plastic cutlery, and cake.

Jim kept a hawk’s eye on Wheeler at all times during their living room showing of Stand By Me. Jim certainly didn’t laugh when one of the annoying twerps started talking at the end of the movie.

“I think it would have been better if the body they found turned out to be a dummy planted by shady government officials. Should have been a sci-fi romance!” Dustin cried out. Wheeler leaned forward and his hand rested on El’s mid-thigh, pushing her pale blue dress a little further up her thigh as he laughed. Jim didn’t miss how comfortable the little shit seemed doing it, and El didn’t even flinch. In fact, she shifted towards him slightly as his thumb stroked across her skin. Her cheeks flushed crimson when she peeked in Jim’s direction and caught him narrowing his gaze at them. She shut her eyes and Wheeler’s head turned to look at her quickly. He lifted his hand from her leg to scratch the side of his nose and he set it back down in his own lap. Jim only squinted further and made a note to ask her about that later.

The kids, aside from Mike, left at eight and the couple began cleaning the mess that had been abandoned in the living room. They shooed Joyce out, telling her that she should go relax after hosting a six-hour party. She did so, grudgingly, when Hop said he would even do the dishes if she would just please go fill the tub for herself. He’d gone to the kitchen to do his promised chore, and he was being extra careful in splashing the cups and plates in the water, keeping any noise minimal. He wanted to hear whatever was being said (or done) in the living room. He would never admit to being overbearing. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing for El. The girl had been through enough as it was, he was only making sure she didn’t hurt anymore.

“I have something else to give you, El.” The boy’s voice was faint, so he paused his scrubbing to tune his ears to the teens in the next room.

“A second present?” El sounded positively shocked and delighted at the prospect. “You didn’t need to.” She had been overjoyed at his earlier present - a bundle of mix-tapes. Joyce had given Mike their present idea so that he could coordinate. Jim had harrumphed and scowled when Joyce let it slip. He knew El adored music and would undoubtedly blare these cheesy songs from her boyfriend over and over. He’d been genuinely surprised when she’d opened the gift and Mike began raving about the great bands on the tapes. He snatched the song list to find that most songs were, in fact, not named things like ‘I Love You’ or ‘We’re Mad in Love’ or ‘Don’t Tell Your Dad I Touched Your Boob,’ even though he was sure the last one was not a song at all. He refocused himself on the teens’ current conversation and peeked over his shoulder to see Mike holding a long velvet box. He whipped his head straight back down to the dishes in a panic. Jewelry? They’re serious enough for nice jewelry? He felt his head lightening and forced himself to resume breathing.

“I wanted to,” Mike assured her, voice thick with excitement, “This one’s more special.”

“Why wait to open it?” She questioned.

“I didn’t want everyone around to bug us about it just yet.” He explained. Jim heard El gasp, and he knew it must be expensive. “I shoveled and mowed and raked all year to save.”

“Beautiful.” She breathed. “Can I put it on?”

“Let me.” There were a few moments of silence as he fastened the necklace just below her hairline. Jim stared at them openly now, he knew they wouldn’t pay him any attention at that point. Wheeler brushed her curls back into place and she turned around, beaming.

“Thank you, Mike!” She pounced on him and he stumbled onto the couch with a grunt of pain. “Mike,” She spoke as though he were in trouble, “Your ankle.”

“I promise it’s okay, I just have to be gentle driving, maybe use my left foot.” He kissed her forehead and smiled at her, love pouring from the gesture. They turned the TV on and Jim went on scrubbing his dishes, furiously now.

“Hey, guys, it's nine!” Jim tried not to take pleasure in breaking them up on the couch but found that to be entirely impossible. Wheeler got up and hugged El goodbye, looking at Hop like a deer caught in a pair of high-beams as she kissed his cheek. El sat on the bench by the windowsill, clutching a throw in one arm and watching him as he backed out of the drive and putted away, as usual. But this time, she had her hand to her collarbone where the pendant of her new necklace laid. She turned to face Hop and dropped it.

“Pretty, right? She said, catching him staring at the delicate chain and odd pendant made up of small, sparkling dots and thin wires connecting them.

“What is it?” He asked.

“Perseus, the con-stell-a-tion” She said slowly, making sure to pronounce the words right. “He’s the Medusa slayer. Mike says I’m like him, but on the Earth and in the upside down instead of in the stars.” Hopper was not a romantic person, by any means whatsoever, but even he had to admit that the sentiment was unparalleled in his experience.

“That’s beautiful. Very thoughtful.” Joyce said from the hall, hair still wet from her bath. She crossed the room to inspect it. “That boy must really, really love you to think about your gift so much.”

“I know.” El smiled softly. Jim knew it, too, the following Monday. El returned from school, Mike in tow with a cast on his right ankle and crutches tucked under his arms. That boy must really, really love his daughter to walk around on a broken ankle for hours just because he knows how much hospitals remind her of the lab. It was weird, knowing they had that level of devotion, and he was going to do his damnedest to forget it. Really, he cringed just thinking of it.

A familiar “hmhmhmhmhm,hmm” pulls Jim from his thoughts and returns him to the hardware store and the rakes he’s currently poring over. He only picks up on one word, but it’s plenty to send him into a paralyzing spiral of fatherly panic. He darts to the front of the store and aims his finger at the clerk.

“Turn up the song.” He demands.

“Sir, I’m not allowed to touch th-”

“Jesus, kid, just turn the damn song up for ten seconds!” Hopper’s voice is beginning to gain volume, and the pimply teen quickly pulls the tape off of the volume dial, turning it a few notches higher. Thankfully, the song is seriously repetitive and he only has to listen to another four seconds to hear, ‘I think we’re alone now,’ and this is when his mere annoyance with the recurrent tune blossoms into something much worse: anger. He storms out of the store, leaving the gobsmacked clerk to stare out the door for a moment or two before cautiously turning the music back down.
It’s a Friday and Jim knows that means Wheeler will be with El at the house. And he is, Hop thinks as he pulls up to the driveway. Thankfully for Mike and El, they were really, truly studying algebra today. Eleven is sitting on her bed, legs crossed and her book sat open in front of her. Mike has just finished explaining the answer to one of her questions for the second time.

“I’m so stupid.” El throws her head into her hands and closes her eyes.

“What?” Mike turns to her from his place at her desk, cast thwacking against the leg of the chair. He’s still not used to the clunky thing. “You are not stupid.”

“I don’t get any of this without you telling me how three times, Mike. I’m stupid.” She pulls her face from her hands.

“It doesn’t make you stupid because I have to explain things to you. You’re still learning how to learn, you didn’t get taught anything for a long time. You’re super smart.” She looks at him, a sad smile in place of the normal pursed lips of concentration she normally wears when they study.

“S’okay, they’re already talking about putting me in a lower math.”

“What? You do great on all the tests!”

“She thinks I cheat. Since she thought I was passing you notes but couldn’t find the paper. She thinks I have some special place to hide it.”

“Well we weren’t passing notes, so of course she wouldn’t find a paper. Though, if you didn’t want her investigating you shouldn’t have giggled in the middle of silent reading time.” Mike teases her. There’s a pause and it seems like her mind is on something else.

“Hop asked me about it.” She says after a few seconds.

“Wait, what? About the note thing?”

“No, about the not-note thing. After you left on my birthday and I was brushing my teeth for bed. He said, ‘Can you guys read each other’s minds?’ and Joyce was there and she spilled the peas.” El smiles. “Oh, you kind of figured it out!” She imitates Joyce.

“Woah. Did you explain how you think it works? How it happened?” Mike ignores her minor misuse of ‘spilled the beans’ like he always does when she mixes up a phrase. He gets what she means so why bug her about it?

“He wouldn’t shut up about how great it would be if we could. Had to tell him I was pretty sure it was ‘cause I visited you so much in the black. Hasn’t brought it up since.”

“Well, now whenever we’re quiet he’ll be bothering us, asking us what we’re gabbing about.”

“Gabbing?”

“It’s just another word for talking, but usually it means the conversation is dumb or pointless or annoying.”

“Oh,” El says, frowning. There are so many words that mean the same thing. “See, Mike. I’m stupid.”

“Stop it. There’s a big difference between being stupid and not knowing something. I hardly ever need to explain a word to you twice.” He looks at his wristwatch. “We should get back to math, though, or we’ll never finish. Don’t worry about Ms. Sullivan, I’ll talk to her tomorrow about how much I work with you outside of school.” He turned around in the desk to face his book. “Let’s just start from section 3b again, on page 68. In a linear function with-”

The door swings open wildly and Hopper, breathing heavily, stands in the doorway. He takes in their textbooks and thanks the deity he doesn’t really have faith in the existence of that they were keeping it G-Rated this afternoon.

“Play that stupid song you’re obsessed with.” He commands.

“Not stupid.” She furrows her brow. “We said you’d knock.”

“Extenuating circumstance.” He explains, which really doesn’t help El. She mouths the words to herself, trying to think of what they may mean. He purses his lips. “Just play it.”

“Don’t blame us if you don’t knock,” She crosses the room, going from her bed to her dresser, pressing play on her boombox. The tape was conveniently already inserted, “and you see something you don’t like.” Mike’s eyes shoot up to his hairline.

“Not that you ever would!” He panics. “We really do study and-”

“Shut it, Wheeler.” Hopper closes his eyes in discomfort and annoyance.

Children behave
That’s what they say when we’re together
And watch how you play

The music rings out, meaning clear. Hopper’s eyes open and zero in on Mike, who feels his mouth go dry. He swallows, trying to restart the glands, but damn his whole body is clenching in fear. Even the little spit-bits. His heart-rate soars and he’s frozen in place.

They don’t understand
And so we’re
Running just as fast as we can
Holding on to one another’s hand
Trying to get away into the night
And then you put your arms around me
And we tumble to the ground
And then you say
I think we’re alone now

“Turn it off.” Hopper is quiet, but Mike knows he is no less dangerous. El pushes the button before he is even done asking, waiting for the response she’s been expecting the whole time. For the yelling. “This door doesn’t shut anymore.” He says, still hovering in the doorway. “It stays open when Mike is here.”

“No.” She speaks, sure of herself. “My door.” She returns Hopper’s glare headily.

“Don’t escalate this, kid.”

“I’m punished for liking a song? Unfair and mean.”

“It’s not a punishment, it’s just a new rule.”

“New rules are for when you are bad, when you can’t follow the old ones. Good kids don’t need rules.” Her fists are beginning to clench.

“It’s not for you at all, it’s a reassurance for me.” Hopper is really trying to keep her telekinesis under control.

“What do you need to be sure of?” She challenges.

“That you’re not, that you don’t-” Hopper struggles to find words that will diffuse the situation. “That you don’t forget how young you are.”

“My life was worse than your bad dreams, harder than you know.” She’s darkening, eyes losing their light. It’s like she’s slinking back into 011, cradled too tightly against Papa’s bare chest.

“Equally as many everyday things you haven’t experienced.” Hopper seems to be forgetting the powers his teenage daughter holds, instead focusing on making his point.

“Things like what?” She says it like there’s nothing she could possibly have not experienced. Maybe there’s not.

“Loss.”

“I lost Mike. I lost Mama and Kali. Nothing else I could lose, all taken from me before I could see it was missing.” Tears well in her eyes. “What else, dad?” He doesn’t miss the bite in her voice or the sting in her eyes.

“Heartbreak.” He tosses a glance at Mike.

“Hey,” The boy defends, indignant at the insinuation and slightly annoyed at being dragging into the argument, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Of course that’s what you say, Wheeler.” Hopper rolls his eyes because that’s what everybody says in the peak of their relationship. “But what about college? What about the next pretty thing you stumble across?”

“She’s not just some pretty thing to me, Chief.” Mike tries to keep his voice even and kind, despite the attack on his character.

“Leave Mike alone.” El scowls.

“I will if you will.” Hopper returns. She’s stunned.

“What are you even trying to keep from happening?” El is bubbling up, dangerously close to exploding. “You are the one who is hurting me.”

“So that he can’t hurt you worse later? Fine by me.” Hop’s voice is a near shout.

Joyce peeks her head out from the master bedroom where she had been folding laundry and listens on in worry. Things haven’t been this volatile in a long time, not since they had just moved into the house, and the fights like this they used to have left both El and Hop drained and grumpy for two days. They are both intensely important to each other, and it creates friction when you factor in extra pieces that are important to one or the other, pieces like Mike. But it’s been a year or so since their last actual fight. Hopper had walked into El’s room without knocking: Mike was over and they were decidedly not studying. El had broken her window during that fight, Mike had scuttled away from the situation with his tail between his legs, and Joyce had to clean up the small cuts on Hopper’s skin from the flying glass. She convinced him that, yes, it was normal for Mike and Eleven to kiss and touch a little bit, and she reminded him that he was long-since not a virgin at Mike’s age and at least they were mostly clothed. Eleven had stubbornly slept in the cool nighttime air of early October for two nights before Hopper had gone in and apologized. Joyce had come up with the agreement that he would knock and wait for her go-ahead for twelve seconds (there was a little back and forth on the length of time he should pause, Jim thought three and El thought thirty, but Joyce convinced him that three was too short and told her that twelve would be enough) before coming in on his own. Joyce really doesn’t want to spend this weekend repairing their relationship and her home or stuffing towels along the bottom of the door to keep the heat in the house.

Will sits against the wall beside his door, listening in. He has to be a little less obvious about his eavesdropping because he doesn’t have the ability to wordlessly placate Hopper like his mother does. He loves his friends and he’s really growing to care for the chief but he can’t help feeling like an intruder in his own goddamn house when stuff like this happens. He wishes that Jonathan was still here, he would come into his room and joke with him about how stupid their argument is. Who cares if the door is open or closed? They all know Mike and Eleven won’t have sex when people are home, or at least when they think people are home. Will doesn’t even want to get into remembering that time he’d planned to go to dinner and a movie with Dustin but ended up skipping the movie portion because he felt sick. He only stepped inside for three seconds before he was biking to the Wheelers’ house, to Nancy. She pulled him inside quickly and fed him soup, sympathetically tucking him into the basement couch and turning on Star Wars for him. She’d offered to talk about it but highly appreciated when he said he felt no need to. She drove him home when the movie was over, strapping his bike to the top of her station wagon and she reversed out of his driveway with a commiserating wave. He couldn’t even look at Mike and Eleven as he untied his shoes. He raced past them and up the stairs to his room where he stayed ill the next day.

“How could he hurt me more with the door closed?” El is going to make him say it. He refuses.“

By doing things that he wouldn’t if the door were open.” She wants him to face his words, to admit what he’s afraid of.

“Like kissing? Touching?” Chief is silent, and it speaks volumes. He can’t say no because that is what he means, and he can’t say yes because the idea of it happening makes his eyelids sweat and forces his jaw to fix shut like a saltwater clam out of the sea. El can sense this, somehow. “Then you misunderstand. The parts of Mike I miss when he is gone are his voice and his smile. Anyone can kiss your mouth, only special people can kiss your heart.” Joyce, down the hall, is momentarily breathless at the simple eloquence of the statement. Even though she’s been living in a house with the girl for a year now, she will never get used to her wisdom and purity. She seems so far beyond her years and it really kills Hopper’s arguments as to why she should distance herself from her boyfriend. As far as Joyce is concerned, the kids have a far better idea of what love is than what she had when she first married Lonnie. They had sacrificed for each other and waited for each other and cried for each other. Three years they’d been dating, and they’re still nowhere near sick of each other. Let them kiss, let them hold each other, Joyce would always try to convince Hop. He never took her advice and he likely never will. He’s too stubborn and, truthfully, too much of a know-it-all.

Will closes his eyes and lays his head back on his blue, striped wallpaper. El’s statement strikes him right where he’s feeling doubt, where he’s vulnerable. He was the last one of his friends to get his first kiss. It was eight months ago, and the gorgeous Jennifer Hayes had been the one to deliver it. He could tell it was a well-executed kiss, the movements of it all fitting together perfectly, good pressure and varied rhythm. He could tell the kiss had been a good one because he had enjoyed it even though he wanted to gag when she pressed her chest tight against him. He stopped her, telling her she was beautiful, and she’d blushed. And he’d meant it, he could appreciate beauty. Will knows what El means by anyone. Anyone like Jennifer Hayes can kiss your mouth. And he knows what she means by someone special. Only someone special like Phillip Washington can make you feel butterfly kisses against your left ventricle when you brush past him at the pencil sharpener. He tears up, scared of his future. He knows his family will love him, regardless, but the public isn’t so generally accepting and they’ve only just gotten over calling him zombie boy. He doesn’t need the masses shoving him around in a circle, spitting in his face and calling him fag like they do to Roger Haynes. But, he thinks hopefully, Roger Haynes doesn’t have E.J. Hopper for a sister.

Hopper is silent for a while, thinking. Her words are beautiful, and it’s not the first (or the last) time he’ll be astonished by them. He knows she’s right about what she’s saying, and he’s almost convinced to let her keep door privileges. But he keeps cogitating about that damned song, how much it bugged him to think of them being alone. He knows it will be impossible to keep an eye on them constantly, especially with work and their freedom to go to the Wheeler house, but he doesn’t think can’t give up before he tries.

“So,” He says squaring his jaw and locking eyes with El, “You shouldn’t mind talking and laughing with the door open.”

“Your door stays open at night, then, too.” She huffs.

“You know that’s different.” Hopper sounds almost sorry.

“Because you’ve only been two years? Not like me and Mike and our three years, right?”

“Because we are older.” His tone is getting more annoyed again. “Mike is the first boy you ever laid eyes on, how could you know he’s the best for you?”

“Don’t need to explain anything to you, it won’t make a difference.” Her eyes lose their fire and her face loses all its tensity. “Conversation is done.” She sits back on her bed and waits for Hopper to leave.

“Jesus, El. Really?” He sighs, “Big girls finish their conversations instead of pretending they don’t have anything else to say.” He looks to Mike, expecting the boy to have the same bored expression on his face as he does. But he doesn’t, he looks perplexed.

“What is she doing?” He waves his hand in front of her face and she doesn’t move. “What does she mean, done? You clearly weren’t done talking.”

“She’s quitting.” Jim half-explains. “She’s really never done this to you?”

“We don’t argue.” Mike offers a simple response and a shrug. He doesn’t know what to say back.

“Listen, kid,” He says to El, “I’m just trying to make sure he doesn’t cross any boundaries of yours.” He tries to sound soft. Before he knows it, El’s head is swiveling to him at full tilt and she’s glowering at him.

“You’re scared of my boyfriend crossing my boundaries so you take them from me?” Jim is still, bewildered by her return. She had never once come back from that state of uncaring until hours later. “The door is a boundary for you!” She’s yelling now, pure spite spilling from her lips. “Mike and I have no boundaries. None. And we have sex!” She sneers and Mike’s eyes slam shut, fearful of what she might say next. “We have sex a lot and I love it! I feel it in my toes for hours after, after he fucks me over the table in the AV club room, behind the waterfall at the quarry, along the shores of Ossabaw Island, once even against the back of your truck-” Mike’s eyes fly open to see that Jim has crossed the room to silence El with a resounding smack of his palm against her cheek.

“Jesus, Hopper!” Mike is up from his spot in the chair and wrapping an arm around the dazed girl who begins to shake and cry in his arms.

“Get out!” The man shouts in his face, and he blinks in the force of the words.

“I think it’s better for her if-”

“Just get the fuck out of my house, Wheeler!” Jim looked crazed at this point, shocked at himself for laying a harsh hand on his daughter and growing increasingly angry watching her sleazeball boyfriend look at him like he was a beast.

“I’ll come tomorrow.” He whispers to her and she locks her arms behind him, shaking her head to the negative.

“Don’t go.” Her face is pressed into his chest and her words are muffled.

“I have to.” He strokes the back of her head and she sobs.

“No.” She whines, tears in her eyes as she looks up at him. He reaches behind his back and pulls her arms from around him.

“I’m sorry, El.” He chokes out, starting for the door as she frantically clutches at his arm.

“Please, bring me.” Mike wills the liquid pooling in his waterline to go away. She sounds so despondent, so broken and scared.

“I would, if I could promise we would both live.” He tries to laugh but it comes out as a sort of cough from trying so hard to hold his tears back. Her lip wobbles and her grip tightens on his arm. “Baby, I swear I will be back tomorrow and everything will be okay.” He pries her fingers from his skin. He looks like he’s going to say something else, but Hopper takes a step toward him and he turns.

“Love you.” Is all she can manage. When Jim strains his neck to watch the prick leave, he sees Joyce standing in the doorway reaching her arms out to him. Her eyes are dim with worry, cast down and desperately avoiding contact with his. He can handle Michael Wheeler looking at him like he’s a wild ape tossing his shit around in a fit but Joyce is a different story. He can’t stand her inability to look at him, like she wants to pretend it’s someone else standing there, someone else who had just hit their child.

“Come on, honey, let’s get you...” Her voice trails off but he can hear it shake slightly.

“El,” He says, voice soft. She just continues to cry, staring out the door like she’s willing Mike to come back. “El, please I’m sorry-” She flinches when he touches her elbow. She actually flinches and steps back, away from him.

“You are like Papa.” She spits.

“This again? We’ve been through th-”

“No, you are. You make me do what you want me to no matter how I feel or what I say and you hurt me when I don’t.” She draws her lips together in a mixture of a scowl and a pout. “You are like Papa.” Jim was stupefied and felt himself beginning to suffocate, felt the ceiling dropping down on him and the door becoming greater and greater lengths away from him. He needs to get out of this room, out of the stuffy air and away from the pale purple walls that seem to be staring in disapproval. He gives her one last look but her head is turned away from him.

“I’m sorry, I break every promise I make to you.” He walks out of her bedroom and shuts the door behind him, leaning up against it and closing his eyes.

“I know I’m smaller than you but I will come at you like a lion does to an elephant if you ever fucking lay your hand on her again.” He hears Will.

“I get it, kid.” He says, dismissively.

“You really don’t.” He opens his eyes and looks at the boy who’s standing down the hallway from him, feet shoulder-width apart and fists balled at his sides. “I like you, but, she’s my sister and Mike’s my best friend, they deserve happiness without you trying to rip it from them all the time.” With that, Will recedes into his room and Hopper realizes that he’s been so focused on Eleven and Mike that he hasn’t been trying to get to know Will like he’d planned to. He suddenly feels like he must be the shittiest dad in all the universes and slams the top of his fist against his forehead.

“Hey, Jim?” It’s Joyce beside him, now. She’s hesitant to approach him but knows he won’t hurt her.

“Hmm?” He asks, hands flying up to his face and fingers pushing against his eyelids, pressing his emotion back into place.

“Come to bed, yeah?” She tugs on his elbow and he steps away from El’s door, dropping his hands from his eyes.

“Yeah.” He affirms. Maybe his pillow will suffocate him while he sleeps and he won’t have to face the music of what he’s done. He goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth and avoids his reflection in the mirror. He can’t look at himself anymore today. He can’t look at the man who hit his daughter. He spits into the sink and rinses it out, tossing his toothbrush into the holder and heading back into the master bedroom. Joyce is in bed, book in hands and bedside lamp on. Jim flicks the switch for the overhead and strips into his underwear, climbing into bed.

“How are you doing?” She sets her book down and turns off the light. She knows it's easier for him to talk when he can’t see everything around him. It makes him feel less surrounded.

“I’m an idiot.” He responds, not really answering her question.

“Yeah?” She just encourages him to keep talking.

“I promised her I would never hurt her on purpose.” He can feel his heart clawing its way up his throat. “She told me I was like Papa.”

“You’re not, Hop.”

“She explained it perfectly. I am. I’m like him but I force her to not use her powers and other shit she doesn’t want to do. I’m Pops, two qwerty keystrokes away from him. An inch different, maybe.”

“You let things get out of control.” She says, pausing. “You didn’t walk in there with a plan to hit her as hard as you could, and you didn’t walk out of there feeling like she deserved it. That’s what that man would have done.”

“If the outcome for El is the same then what’s the real difference?”

“She gets to go to school, have a family and a boyfriend. She gets to blast music in her room and go to pointless school dances. She gets to have a life, and she knows you’ll mean it when you apologize.”

“I just-” Hop’s voice is muffled by his hands rubbing his eyes again, “I really fucked up, and I don’t know if she’s gonna forgive me this time.” Joyce grabs his hand and squeezes, not wanting to promise something she couldn’t guarantee.

“Do you ever watch them?”

“What?”

“Mike and Eleven. Do you ever just look? Not just at one or the other, both of them. How they interact.”

“Not really.”

“That’s why you don’t understand.” She says. She swears she can hear the cogs in his brain turning as they lay there in the dark. “I once watched them in the backyard, just sitting there with their legs crossed on the grass. They had their knees together and their foreheads were touching, hands held tight in the middle. They sat like that for two hours. It started raining and they didn’t move, didn’t even flinch. After a minute, I had to go out and shake El’s shoulder and it was like she snapped out of some kind of trance, she looked at me and her eyes were completely black for a second or two. That’s how I found out about their mind thing.”

“I can’t believe they can read each other’s minds.”

“They can send thoughts.” Joyce corrects. “But she can bring him with her into the blackness. The void, the lab called it. Time goes more slowly there, she says. After that thought for hours about how much time they already spend together and wondered how they really feel the need to go to some other place where time slows down. It blows my mind how often they want to be together. I guess I sort of get it, if I had someone who took that immense of care for me at that age I would never have left their side. She gives him purpose and makes sure he doesn’t kill himself with his martyr complex and he shows her the world, tells her what words mean and shows her how to catch fireflies. She thanks him for teaching her near everything she knows and he thanks her for teaching him everything he didn’t. She declares he’s the greatest thing in the universe and he proclaims she’s the best in all of them. She says he’s got the stars on his cheeks and he says she’s got the stars in her heart, tells her she’s like Perseus. This is just what I hear, you know? What do they say to each other when nobody is listening? Who knows the real extent of what they’re feeling?"

“Nobody.” He sighs. “And I took the most ignorant approach I could to that, I should have just talked to El. Alone.”

“You shouldn’t underestimate Mike, either.” Joyce reminds him. “He’s a great kid, he’s always stuck up for Will and made sure he felt included. He’s always been full in, with everything. Projects and games and emotions, all of it done to the hilt. And I think El came in, just as intense and they just clicked. Like, nobody could ever love them as fully as they love each other ‘cause they’re the only ones with that emotional capacity.”

“I just wish they could love each other without touching each other.”

“I’ll let you talk to Eleven about that one.” Joyce rolls over.

“Do you know something that I don’t?” Jim turns his head to face her, even though their room is blanketed in darkness. She can still feel the warmth of his questioning gaze on the back of her head, even if he can’t see it. She lets out a terrible sn-snort-shoooo, and Jim groans. “Both my wife and daughter enjoy ending conversations prematurely, I love it.” And he rolls over, too.

“I love you.” She murmurs into her pillow.

“We’ll see if you still feel that way in the morning after I let ‘er rip tonight.”

“Oh, god!” Hop grins at the revenge rumbling hotly in his belly.

“Hey, you’re the one who made bean casserole.” Joyce only groans in response.

Chapter Text

REWRITTEN ONCE AS OF DEC. 17 2017, GRAMMARLY IS STILL LIKE THAT FRIEND WHO TELLS YOU THAT THIS OR THAT PHRASE WOULD SOUND BETTER WHEN IT DEFINITELY WOULD NOT. Too bad I can't tell Grammarly or that stupid friend that I would not like my writing to sound like that of a freshman in high school who's just discovered a thesaurus.

Mike twists the faucet on, water gushing into the tub and filling it slowly. He leans against the side of the bath and pinches the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes and letting out a lengthy, tired sigh.

He gets why Hopper wants the door open but he just wishes there was some way to word what he wants to say without being too descriptive or weird. He can’t just tell him ‘ it’s not a problem ’ and leave it at that because El had already admitted that they have sex. Mike just can’t figure out a way to explain how they do, risk-free and all the more exhilarating. He really cannot believe Hopper hit El, though. His whole argument was about keeping her safe and unharmed, so why would he hurt her himself? The regret was painted on his face from the moment he did it, and maybe even just before his palm connected with her skim. Mike wouldn’t know when it had dawned on the older man the mistake he had made. His eyes had been shut like they are now.

Mike shoots up like a fully unwound Jack-in-the-Box and swivels off the water flow with terrific speed when he feels the water flood over the edge of the bathtub and cascade down the side, soaking the back of his sweater. He pulls the wet thing over his head, hanging it carefully over the towel rack to dry. He finishes undressing while the tub drains a little, and climbs into the water, careful to keep his right ankle over the surface. He doesn’t normally take baths but with his injury it’s a lot easier to rest his foot on the edge of the tub.

He knows he shouldn’t have promised Eleven that everything would be okay, he knows that’s not something he can truly control. He just hopes she knows that, too. He’s going to get up and head over there in the morning, he’s really gonna give that Jim Hopper a piece of his mind. A respectful piece of his mind, but still a piece! He closes his eyes, thinking of El, tuning in to her to see if she was seeking him out as well. He feels nothing and opens his eyes again, only to be surrounded by neverending, expansive blackness, a reflective layer of water under his feet. He looks around, beginning to panic, but no one is there. He can hear something, though. It sounds like a boys voice in the distance. He can hear the baritone words, hoarse as they may be, the date, the time and the year over and over again. Now he’s picking up on something else, a girl. It’s a girl and she’s crying.

“El?” His voice echoes in the emptiness. The girl is still crying and it’s getting louder, now, turning into desperate wails. His eyes swell when he realizes he can see a thin figure walking in his direction. “Hey!” He calls out to it, but he reasons it probably can’t hear him. The shape freezes and the voice stops repeating the date. He squints at what he believes to be that boy, trying to figure out if he can see him. He starts to back up, and the thumping of what sounds like a heavy heart is pounding in Mike’s ears, bouncing around in his head. “Hello?” He calls again, but nothing changes. Suddenly, something dark charges past Mike in a flash and knocks him forward roughly, letting out an unearthly screech at the retreating silhouette. The two beings disappear over the edge and Mike holds his hands over his ears as terrified shrieking and rippling screams tear through Mike’s chest. A mix of weeping howls are added to the cries, but all Mike can do is sit on the ground with his knees pulled tightly to his chest and his head between them.

“Mike!” Nancy’s muffled voice sounds through the locked door and Mike unbolts eyes, opening them to find himself back in the yellow walls of his bathroom.  “What the hell is going on in there?”

“Nothing, just having a bath!” He doesn’t even believe himself.

“Were you, crying?” Her voice is small, hesitant. Mike’s heart aches as he thinks she must believe he’s still struggling what they went through a few years ago. He knows she is, he goes into her room at least once a month after she wakes from her nightmares to hold her while she cries. He can’t bear the thought of telling her, No, Nancy, now I think I’m going through something entirely new.

“I just had a weird dream, that’s all Nance.” He says earnestly, wishing on the starless sky of the void that he was only dreaming.

“Get out of the tub, then!” She shouts and he flinches at her change in tone. “It’s dangerous to be falling asleep in there, you know. People drown!”

“Yeah, alright!” He dismisses, lifting himself out of the tub and patting himself dry. He rubs the towel over his hair and face and wipes a window in the steam on the mirror. He sighs at his tired eyes, knowing it wouldn’t be easy to close his eyes for bed tonight.

He really is glad that Nancy decided to stay in Hawkins for another year, it’s nice to have someone around the house that knows about all the events of 1983-4. He really can’t imagine how Dustin, Lucas, and Steve keep everything to themselves at home. If they have a dream, who do they go to? Who helps them breathe when they start to panic over their little sister waving a slug in their face? But, he does feel bad that their misadventures have stunted her ability to reach her goals, things she’s been working for since she first heard the words ‘college’ and ‘career.’ Her dreams are getting fewer and farther between but she still regularly has them, waking in the morning with heavy bags under her eyes and tangly hair from the tireless tossing. He knows some of them are about Jonathan, he hears his name in her sleep sometimes. Not totally surprising, some of them are about Steve, too.

A few minutes later, as he’s tucking under his covers and turning his light off, Nancy pushes his door open.

“Hey, Mike.” She pads across the carpet and sits at the foot of his bed. “You know you can talk to me about anything, right? Whatever you’re going through.” She smiles sadly at him. “You know you help me a lot. I want to help you, too.”

“Thanks, Nance, but I’m really okay.” He shoots her a dimpled grin, but she’s not buying it.

“Come on, Mike.” She pushes his leg lightly. “You didn’t sound okay, and we promised no secrets a while ago. What’s wrong? Are you alright?”

“I don’t know.” He admits honestly. “I won’t know if I’m okay until I talk to El tomorrow.”

“What?”

“I’m not sure if it was a dream or not, but... I think I traveled somewhere else in the tub. Like El did in the gym.”

“Doesn’t the buoyancy have to be just right for that?”

“I thought so, but I don’t know anymore. I was focusing on trying to find El’s mind but I ended up in the void.” He says, working himself up all over again. “It was weird, someone was crying and this thing ran past me and it made this insane noise and, and - I just don’t know.”

“Should I get my book and hang out in here ‘til you fall asleep?” She squeezes his knee, making the same offer he always does when she’s struggling to close her eyes.

“Yes, please.” He smiles at her as she glides from his bed and out the door.

“Have I ever told you that you’re the main reason I stuck around Hawkins?” She asks once she’s comfortable with her book and flashlight next to him.

“Great, I’m so glad I’ve held you from your dreams.” His pillow can’t muffle his sarcasm. She whacks him on the shoulder.

“I just mean, I stayed here because of what you do for me.” She bites her lip. “You make me regret it, sometimes, but usually I’m glad I didn’t leave.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just good to have someone who understands, someone who will just hold me and not try to tell me everything's okay because you know that it’s not. You just remind me that it’s all over instead, you’re don’t lie. Other people lie.”

“You mean like, Steve and Jonathan?”

“Not Steve anymore,” She pauses. “Never Steve, really. He always admitted that it sucked but I think he needed me to get over it faster than I could. He didn’t really care about Barb, no matter how much he thought he cared about me, so he didn’t really lose anything when it happened. And Jonathan, he just thought I needed it erased when I didn’t, he thought he could tell me it was fine enough times that it eventually would be. You’re the only person who just helps me deal with it myself, you know? And what would I tell my roommate if I went off to some state school? Sorry, I suffer from awful night terrors so I’ll be screaming and crying some nights, good luck sleeping! It’s hard enough trying to keep this from mom and dad who just think I’m terrorized from losing Barb and depressed that Jonathan moved away.”

“I get it,” Mike says, rolling onto his back and looking at the reflection of Nancy’s flashlight off the pages and onto the ceiling. “Why were you so mad about Jonathan going to NYU?”

Nancy wasn’t upset about Jonathan going away to university because she was staying at home. No, she didn’t think it was so important for them to be together all the time that he needed to throw his future plans out the window. She was angry that he could just leave his brother in the town that has done nothing but hurt him in a very sensitive time of his life. She knows they weren’t the most popular kids and she’d seen Mike come home in the eighth grade, scuttling straight up to his room with his head hung low and hiding the broken strap of his backpack. She knows those kids from her own class, the ones that everybody else treated like mutts because they were insecure and knew that if it wasn’t those kids it could very well be them. She knows that everyone called Will Zombie Boy and even if he tried to embrace it and turn it into a superpower or something, the other kids still said it with a bite. It would still sting. She’s looked at Will when he doesn’t think any of his friends are paying attention, she’s seen the smile fall from his face and the flame behind his irises puff out. She’s seen what he looks like when he’s just being himself, depressed like Mike was when he thought Eleven was gone. She doesn’t know how Jonathan couldn’t have seen it, or how he could move away knowing what new, dark thing his brother is facing.

So she broke up with him, telling him he was selfish and uncaring, that she couldn’t be with someone who held so little regard for family, for love. He hadn’t even looked sad when she unleashed her fury on him, hadn’t even flinched. He just looked at her, stone-faced, and walked out of her room when she was done. She had wept for three days at the loss of her young love. her mother would bring her food and snacks, begging her to come out of her room for a couple hours, to join her in the gazebo for a game of cribbage or gin rummy. She was trying so hard to mend the holes that had appeared in their family, that (to her, at least) seemed to atomize from nothing. She was also trying to fill the ones that her husband dug without care, ostracizing his son for having a serious girlfriend, no longer believing in his eldest daughter because she’s enrolled in community college and largely ignoring their youngest. This was another part of why Nancy couldn’t wrap her head around Jonathan’s decision to abandon ship. He’d just grown a full family, a new sister and a dad that could really give a damn about him, one that he could talk to without it leading to his college plans or grades. Parents that were in love, a couple to look up to.

Nancy resents her parents’ marriage, how it trapped her mother and destroyed anything caring in Ted Wheeler. She can remember before the yelling took over, when they would snuggle together and read her a bedtime story or when he spent two weeks building her a clubhouse in the backyard. He’d labored for hours just so she would have someplace she could spatter the walls with paint in childlike graffiti. But even the fighting was better than where they are now, somehow resigned to the fact that they will never again feel the flutter of affection, never enjoy the spark of attraction or the soft, consistent hum of being around someone that makes you feel happy and important and loved. Nancy is scared that this will become her reality, that she’ll be pushed out of love (or fall from it) when it’s too goddamn late and inconvenient to do anything about it.

Maybe this is part of why she broke things off with Jonathan, too. He was so much more serious than Steve ever was. He could joke around with her but when they fought it was real, not just some big-ego pissing contest. When he said he loved her, it was nervous, like he wasn’t sure what to think of it or if she was going to say it back. He told her the moment he realized it like he couldn’t stand to keep it from her. Maybe part of why she ended their relationship was because two weeks prior he had mentioned something like when we have kids and it had set her heart like quick dry concrete. She thought and thought about having children with him and she wasn’t excited like she knew she should be. She was nervous. She felt like a mouse who had suddenly realized the scrumptious peanut butter it had been heading for was spread across a deadly trap, and every time she was around him she couldn’t breathe. Maybe she terminated their relationship because she was absolutely fucking terrified to commit to someone. She decides that’s an egg to fry on another day, though.

“I guess I just couldn’t understand how he was so okay with leaving Will here, after what happened to him. Something that could very well happen again, ‘cause it’s not like the thing is dead. It didn’t even cross my mind to leave you here and you weren’t even it’s target. It just made me kind of see that he wasn’t the same person that I thought he was.”

“You know that Will made him, right?”

“What?” Nancy is stupefied.

“He submitted his application for him, they fought about it for like two weeks. Will just kept telling him that he didn’t need something else bad to come of those events, he couldn’t stand to be the reason that Jonathan didn’t do what he wanted with his life.”

“He never told me that.”

“Were you yelling at him?”

“Shit.” She hits her forehead with the flashlight. “Go to bed, Mike. I’ve got a letter to write.” Mike just shakes his head and rolls back to his side, the blackness of rest claiming him rather quickly.

As she watches her brother sleep, she wonders how he could have grown up so goddamn fast, so tall, strong, and mature. How can he be so sure of his path? You can ask him anything and he’ll respond with certainty, like whatever he’s saying is a fact and if it's not he’ll make it a fact. There never seems to be anything that he doesn’t have the answer to and Nancy envies that. She can’t even count on her fingers how many times she’s said or thought I don’t know today. It’s funny the different ways trauma affects people, especially people who had previously been on pretty similar trajectories. She feels like a satellite knocked out of orbit, floating around space, forceless and propelled purely by past ambitions. But Mike is like a stone rolling wildly down the riverbed. No matter how much the current tosses him he only gets more polished and refined. Maybe Mike can thrive as sediment because from the moment he was skipped across the water and sank below the surface he was greeted with her, the sand at the bottom of the crystalline depths, embracing him in the quiet moments and racing with him in the panic.

And she can’t believe how old he seems, particularly the way he is with Eleven. It’s like they’ve been together a lifetime instead of a few years. He’s not like sixteen-year-old Steve, he’s deeply considerate and always calm. He’ll let his arm fall asleep for hours if she’s napping on it, he always makes sure she gets her fill of dinner before he goes in for seconds and he never lets her wash her own plate. Her mother is in love with the man that Mike has become. She contributes his new qualities to the girl he brings home at least twice a week, so she dotes on her. El is so wonderful, her mother gushes, don’t you think so, Nancy? And of course she thinks that Eleven is great, she just wishes her the woman would give Mike a little more credit for the changes he’s been making. She’s seen the changes he makes in Eleven, too. Her mom doesn’t understand the profundity her brother now carries, she doesn’t know what he’s had to do or what he’s been through. She doesn’t know that her son has helped save Hawkins from evil twice, or that his girlfriend is a powerhouse. She’s got no clue that the girl she’s besotted with is a mental traveler with the ability to manipulate physics and move stationary objects, even break them if she wants. Nancy thinks that maybe it’s better that way, maybe her mother is happy in her oblivion.

~~~

“I’ll be right back out,” Joyce says to Jim in the morning, patting the side of his upper arm and knocking softly on El’s door. “Eleven?” She murmurs, knowing El would be listening. The door cracks open and Jim watches his wife slide in and click the door shut behind her. She’s in there for probably around fifteen minutes and all he can hear is whispers of their conversation, Eleven saying she is hurt and Joyce telling her I know .

Hop knows he has screwed up worse than he ever has before, that she might not agree to talk to him (maybe ever) and even if she does, their relationship could be tenuous through the foreseeable future. Will she keep things from him now because she thinks he’s going to get angry at her? Will she flinch every time he moves, when he brings his hand to an itch too quickly? And fuck, does Wheeler think he’s an abusive asshole, now? How can Jim tell him that he’s sorry about the way he treated him when he’s pretty sure the kid’ll never believe him again? Eleven is his second chance to be a father to a young girl and he may have just shoved it all in the incinerator. But shit, he really hopes not.

He’s just waiting and hoping that she’ll agree to talk to him, hoping that she’ll try to hear him out when Joyce comes sliding back out of the room and she looks blankly at him. His eyes are sparkling with nervous anticipation, his lips in a weird half smile, waiting for the news.

“She’s agreed to see you.” Joyce smiles tightly. “But she’s still really upset, you’re going to have a lot to make up for.” He nods excitedly. “Alright, wipe off that grin and get in there.” He turns the handle and all his giddiness jumps ship, all that’s left is the trepidation.

“Hey.” He says after closing the door behind him. She doesn’t respond, she just looks and waits for his apology. He sighs and pulls her desk chair out, turning it to face her bed but leaving it a few feet away. He runs his hand through his hair as he seats himself. “I know you don’t want me to just say I’m sorry, but I am. I don’t know what came over me, it was like all of the sudden I was twice as mad as I have ever been before. And I know you don’t want to hear my excuses, either, so I won’t make any. You’re right, you’re old enough to make a lot of your own decisions, and one of them is definitely whether or not your door is shut. Who you let in your life, who you tell all your secrets to and who you don’t. I trust you to be able to gauge the kind of person someone is, and I know I shouldn’t discount your boyfriend, either. He’s a hell of a kid and you could do a lot worse. I’m sorry for calling that song you love stupid and I’m sorry for making you feel like you always have to do what I want, like you have no say in the matter. I’m sorry for making you feel like you’re prisoner to that creep again, I’m sorry for then making Mike leave when you needed him, yelling at him like he was the reason I hit you.” His control is slipping, his eyes are wetting and threatening to pour. He closes them so they don’t have a chance. “I’m sorry for being so damn suspicious all the time, I’m sorry I can’t afford to get you and Will a car, and I’m sorry I always made you roll your shorts down when you left the house all the summer even though the only guy who matters to you would be holding your hand the entire time. I’m sorry for not letting you sleep over at Mike’s with everyone else when he used to do campaigns every Friday and I’m sorry for not even bothering to get you from the door when I would pick you up. I’m sorry fo-” And Jim is cut off by Eleven’s arms around his waist, her own tears hitting the side of his face when he kisses her cheek.

“It’s okay.” She cries. “It’s okay, you’re not like him. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, everything’s alright.” He says, squeezing her tightly and kissing her cheek again. Joyce smiles from outside the door and gives the thumbs up to a curious Will, whose head is poking out from his room. He shoots it back to her and happily trots back to his math homework.

~~~

Mike wakes up with the weight of his determination pressing on his lungs, swelling against his cerebral cortex. He sighs and rubs his temples, hoping to ease the aches. He supposes he must get out of bed and face his girlfriend’s father to lift the strain on his systems, to satiate the alpha buried in him for hurting his mate , or whatever that idiotic instinctual part of him thinks. Not to mention the ultimate backbreaker, what happened last night. He rubs his face, hoping to the Disappearing Corpses of the Demodogs that it was some pathetic nightmare he had, that they could laugh it off and forget about it. He rolls out of bed and into a t-shirt, his father has yelled at him plenty for walking downstairs in inappropriate dress , aka; only his plaid pajama pants. He rolls his eyes as he opens the door. Not like his mother hadn’t bathed him until he was five anyway.

Ted Wheeler had been a steadily decreasing character in Mike’s life since he was around eight when he said (unabashedly) he liked spaceships and aliens and nerdy stuff . He didn’t know this then, or for a long while after, but it was around that same time his father had lead a sloppy affair with the secretary at his office. Karen had elected not to mention it for a stretch, simply crying in her empty bed for the sake of familial peace. At first, it was easy for her to pretend that he really would be at the office that late because when she would tell her inquiring children they would believe it blindly. It was easy for her to smile at her youngsters’ innocent faith in her words, in their father’s integrity - in his goodness.

It became impossible for her to feign ignorance when Nancy had asked her who the red-haired lady was, and why was dad with her in the basement this morning? She’d told Nancy that she must have been dreaming because dad was in bed with me all night . Nancy had shrugged, yawning, and continued chomping on her Cheerios but Karen had clutched at her swelling stomach, at her unborn baby, and panicked. Nancy was thirteen, not six, and wouldn’t be fooled for long. Complicating things further, did she really want to fool her anymore?

Ultimately, she’d decided to confront Ted, to threaten divorce and dangle in the words sole custody . As a city council member and financial advisor, his life depended on his image. Who would trust him to keep their town or finances in order if he couldn’t even keep his family together? So he’d told the fiery secretary goodbye, and she’d egged Ted’s car. Karen assumed it was in petulant anger until a few weeks later when she’d found an ultrasound photograph taped to the underside of the drawer of her husband’s bedside table. It was a photograph she did not recognize from her own prenatal appointments.

She cried that afternoon, thankful that Nancy and Mike were at school, that Ted was at work with a brand new secretary. She cried for the woman he had destroyed, the woman that she had stood idly by and allowed him to ruin. She cried for the fatherless baby that would grow in stride with her own. She cried for her babies, too, for the sibling they would gain but never get to know. She cried for the woman again, for her lonely doctor’s appointments and silent nights, for her lack of supportive hand to squeeze numb during that painful home stretch of labor. Finally, she cried for the official loss of the man she had married. She mourned their wilted union and his absence of care, his emotional deficiency.

Ted had been incognizant of Karen’s knowledge until they’d needed to replace the fridge and a ten-year-old Mike had swept the tile where their broken appliance had sat. He’d picked up a small, square photograph of a ginger cherub and held it to his father in question. Ted had snatched the photograph from his hands and roughly yanked Karen to their room upstairs where Mike heard yelling for near an hour. If he’d have known the fight it would cause, he’d have stuffed the photograph in his pocket to give to his mother later. But even then, he held no real spite for his father’s anger. Now, Ted’s every word to Mike or Nancy is met with pettish comments and fractious eye rolls. He’s slowly stopped talking and has become a piece of furniture in the house. He’s sunken into the La-Z-Boy, his wrinkling skin hardening like a sun-aged leather. Mike hates to be, but he’s glad for it.

As he’s spooning his Cheerios into his mouth, he’s rethinking this whole confrontation. Should he just write everything down and drop it off? Is it even his place to say anything? Should he just stay out of their father-daughter business? Of course, he comes out of those questions shaking his head at his cowardice. He doesn’t want Hopper to think he’s a scared little boy incapable of protecting his daughter. But he also doesn’t want him to think he’s some kind of testosterone-pumped weirdo with a tiny penis complex.

While he’s brushing his teeth, he’s firing himself up, jumping nimbly like boxers do before a fight. He thinks of all the things he wants to say, what he wants to bring up and what he wants to put to bed. The jumping thing really works to pump him full of energy and anticipation until the bristles hit the back of his throat and he spits his toothpaste all over the mirror.

When he’s getting dressed he’s wondering if he’s made the right decisions leading up to now. If he had been more strong willed in front of Hopper, maybe he’d have been less likely to incite an argument. But he realizes that El is probably the most strong-willed person in the chief’s life, and he was clearly not hesitant to start something with her. Perhaps if he had silenced El during the fight it wouldn’t have escalated to the point that it did. But he knows that Hopper wouldn’t have just let it go and she would not have kept quiet. He doesn’t want to control her, either.

The clock hits 10:42 and he knows he should be getting downstairs and into his shoes. The dread is piling up in his chest and battling with the determination, he’s breathless. Ultimately it’s his sense of duty that wins his emotional war, the little voice that titters in the back of his head. If you don’t do this you’re going to regret it, it says, you promised her you would fix it all and you don’t even come close to deserving her if you can’t drive to her house and tell her dad you love her . So he takes a giant breath in as he walks out the door and doesn’t let it out until he’s turned the key and started his car.

The entire way there he’s forgetting every single thing he planned to say, trying frantically to remember but ultimately he just ends up scaring more of them away. The panic creeps back up his spine and settles at the base of his neck, pinching his nerves and compressing his vertebrae. The jitters settle back in his fingers and his toes while the restlessness tickles his tailbone. He pulls into the driveway at 10:59, mind completely blank aside from the neverending chain of worried thoughts sidling through his tunnels of consciousness. He gets out of his car anyway, deciding to just let his mouth do the talking.

“Mike, I-” Hopper opens the door within seconds of Mike ringing the doorbell.

“No, let me talk.” He sticks his hand out. “I’m not going to pretend like I understand your major problem with El and I being together because I’m not going to waste that effort.”

“Really, kid, it’s-”

“I’m sick of it! I’m sick of everyone thinking that they know more about El and me than we do, sick of everybody telling us what we should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do. I’m done with people treating us like what we are now is in any way comparable to what they were in their high school relationships. We’ve risked our lives for each other, saved each other in more ways than one. I’m sick of my dad shaking his head at me for being too focused on her , thinking I need to spend more time alone like she’s taking away from my future because he’s too blind and stupid to see that she’s adding to it. I’m over my mom looking at me like I have no real idea of what love is, like I only say I love her because I think I’m supposed to. I’m finished hearing people tell me that love at this age is mean and selfish, that it all ends in heartache. And you,” He points at the man at the door, “I’m through with you always turning me into something that I’m not, making me out to be some kind of feral dog who’s stumbled across your daughter and sniffed out something sweet to taste, like I’ll use her up and leave her empty and alone. Since I was thirteen years old you have treated me like I was malicious, looked at me like I was a threat.” The chief bristles at the accusations. “Even if a lot of it wasn’t spoken to my face, I caught every single intonation you ever said be careful in. D’you know how awful it is to hear that someone’s holding a gun to the base of your spine even though you haven’t done a single thing to deserve it and you’ve never given the person a reason not to trust you? All I’ve ever done was love her blindly, all I’ll ever be able to do is love her blindly ‘cause frankly, I can’t breathe when I don’t know where she is and if she’s okay. Thinking she could be dead or recaptured by the government was suffocating, by forcing her into the complete darkness you put a hand around my throat. You were drowning me for a year! You didn’t even apologize and now you repay me by acting like I’m the dangerous one! And how fucking dare you hit her, after spouting all this bullshit about keeping her safe and trying to keep me from hurting her. How fucking dare you -”

“Mike!” Hopper bellows, opening his eyes slowly. “I’m going to take all of that with a grain of salt because I know you’re upset, but I’m just going to stop you right there.” Mike gulps as he crosses his arms and leans in the door jam. “What I was trying to say that entire time, Casanova , is that I already apologized to Eleven. I know shouldn’t tell you guys what to do anymore, I need to let her live on her own terms.” Mike stands, blinking and speechless, on the stoop. “Do you wanna go up and talk to her, or...”

“Yeah- Yes.” He shakes the fog from his head, “And, about- about all of that, you don’t have to worry about what you think you do.”

“What do you mean?” Mike swears the man’s chin goes so far back it almost disappears.

“About me and El and the door,” Mike babbles nervously, “It’s literally impossible for anything bad to come of that ‘cause we don’t do all that stuff in the way you think we do and your actual, physical truck is untouched so don’t think about that either. Unless you’re in the void,” He laughs awkwardly but stops when he sees the blotches surfacing on Hopper’s face, “And I’m rambling. Sorry.”

“Anyway, um, I’m sorry I yelled at you and,” Jim coughs in embarrassment and steps out of the doorway, “You can go up and see her now if you want. Close the door behind you, alright?” And he steps past the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the den before Mike has even taken his first shoe fully off. Jim leans against the wall of the back room with his eyes shut, trying to force his disgust out of his stomach.

“Why do you look like you’re about to lose your breakfast?” Joyce says from her spot on the floor where she’s setting new photos to put in the frames along the staircase. Unfortunately, she’d ordered the wrong size prints and was currently trying to trim them to the right sizes without hacking them too badly. She winces at her crooked cuts and she’s glad that her past self had thought to order doubles.

“Because I am.” His lids don’t open at first, but she doesn’t say anything so he peeks out of his right eye. She’s just looking at him and waiting for him to explain so he moves to kneel beside her on the floor.

“What did Mike say to gross you out so bad?” She’s trying to hide the pile of pictures she’s destroyed by sweeping the clippings over top of them, but Jim sees anyway. He takes the scissors from her and starts trimming, his hand a lot steadier in comparison.

“Just some things about what they do, you know, that way .” He almost chokes on the words and glowers when Joyce starts laughing at him.

“You must have made the poor boy really nervous for him to bring that up.” She takes the resized photograph from him and starts putting it into the frame, handing Jim the next picture.

“I almost let him get through his whole speech of how he was sick of me before I interrupted him.” He admits with a grimace, looking into the photographed face of a smiling Mike Wheeler with his arms wrapped securely around a beaming El. Joyce is breathing funnily, trying to hold her amusement back, but it’s not working.

“You know, you’re an adult. You can say ‘sex,’ it’s not a bad word.” She teases him further. He glares at her, handing her his second finished photo.

“Well, then, you interrupted them having mind sex in the yard that one time.” There are no more giggles from Joyce on that subject, only uncomfortable sighs for the next thirty minutes.

Chapter Text

“El?” Mike pokes his head into his girlfriend’s room.

“Mike!” The door is pulled open all the way and he doesn’t even catch a glimpse of her face before she’s launching into his chest, squeezing him breathless. “You were right.” She hums into his shirt. “It’s all okay.” He leans to his left leg and wraps an arm around her. His crutch slams to the floor, making El jump back. She laughs when she realizes what fell, and she bends to pick it up, stuffing it back under his arm and gesturing him inside. She smiles as she closes the door behind him and hops onto her bed, patting the space beside her. Mike props his crutches at the end of her bed and maneuvers into the spot she’d been referencing.

“You could have told me this morning that Hop already apologized.” Mike pinches her side and she giggles, leaning into him and pushing him to lay down.

“What happened?” She asks once they fully settle into her bed. Mike looks at her with a grimace and she knows it must be bad. “What?” She pushes.

“I gave him a huge speech when I got here, yelling about how much I love you and all that,” He pauses while she ‘ aww ’s, “And I may have given him a tidbit of information that he did not need to know.”

“What?” She urges him to explain. “I can’t read your mind, you know.” He rolls his eyes at this.

“Well, I was trying to tell him why he doesn’t need to worry about the door and I sort of mentioned that it was impossible for you to get pregnant because we only do that in the void.” El’s mouth hangs open and she stares at Mike’s sheepish face for about six seconds before dissolving into peals of laughter.

“What was his face?” She asks, gleefully. “What did he say?” Mike shifts and scratches the back of his neck.

“He just got really splotchy and made some sound like he was maybe choking or holding back vomit? I don’t know, he just changed the subject really fast.” She giggles and rolls from laying beside him to sitting atop him, hands on either side of his neck. He looks up at her, curls dangling and pink lips formed into the sexiest smirk he’s ever seen.

“We only do that in the void.” She leans down. “Other things we do here , too.” And she presses her lips firmly to his, reveling in the warmth of his hands as one wraps around the back of her neck and the other slides up from her bent knee to rest on her hip. As their mouths dance, sweetly at first and heatedly now, Mike’s hand moves from her hip to cup her backside and she hums against his mouth, grinding into him. He pulls her chin to the side, his thumb slipping between her lips and hooking around her bottom teeth tightly, holding her in place as he nips at her neck. She can feel the buzz in her body begin to pool in her belly and hears her breath become shallow. She pulls up from him and pushes him fully back down, sliding her hands under the hem of his shirt and beginning to peel it off. KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK , they’re interrupted and El scrambles off of Mike, smoothing her hair and attempting to readjust her breathing. Mike pats at his clothing and swings his legs back over the side of the bed. He nods at El to get the door.

“Yes?” She asks Hop after pulling the door open. He squints at her puffy lips and the red spots dotted across her neck. He glances behind her at Mike who is leaned over the edge of the bed, fiddling with his cast and avoiding eye contact. He looks quickly back to El’s face and ignores the size of her pupils and the sorry, swollen state of her mouth.

“I was just coming to ask if you guys wanted to come out with us to lunch, but you seem busy so we’ll just take Will.” He scurries away and El shuts the door to her room once again. She turns to face Mike, bottom lip pulled into her mouth, pinched between her teeth. They fall into embarrassed chuckles and El makes her way back to her bed, flopping down next to him.

“Will we ever catch a break?” Mike asks.

“Don’t think so.” She grabs his hand and squeezes. “We’ll always have it hard. Complicated.”

“Speaking of complicated,” Mike looks at El, any trace of amusement wiped from his face. She sits up, tucking her legs underneath herself and facing him in concern. “Last night, when I got home, I took a bath. I closed my eyes and I think,” Mike pauses to lick his lips in anxiety, “I’m pretty sure I went to the void by myself.” El looks at him, eyes wider than the tires on his 79’ Corolla, lips tightly pursed.

“What time?” She asks.

“I’m not really sure, maybe around eight, eight-thirty?”

“Eight two three.” She whispers. “I felt it.”

“What?” Mike is shocked. He’d expected her to giggle at him and tell him he’d been dreaming. He was really hoping he’d been dreaming.

“At eight two-” El closes her eyes in irritation, “Eight- twenty -three I was getting into my pajamas, and I fell. I was weak for three minutes, maybe.”

“Are you okay?” He questions, putting his hand to her forehead. She bats it away and crinkles her nose.

“I’m fine, weirdo! Are you?” Her hand finds its way to his thigh and he places his over it.

“Yeah, I’m good.” He smiles softly and she scans his face, scrutinizing. “Okay, so I wish I hadn’t gone. That place is creepy without you.”

“Oh, Mike.” She pulls him into a tight hug, fingers curled in the fine hairs at the nape of his neck. “I’m sorry.” He abruptly leans out of her embrace.

“What the hell for?” There’s no malice, no ice. Just incredulous shock.

“I don’t know,” She’s at a loss for words, “For bringing you there, I guess. For dragging you into my life and-”

“Hey!” He interrupts. “Don’t ever apologize for stuff like that, ever. I love you more than anything. Don’t forget that.” She still looks somewhat crestfallen, so he continues. “And don’t give yourself so much credit, I dragged you into my life, remember?” He shoots her an arrogant look and she melts into giggles.

“You always know how to make me happy.” She kisses his speckled cheek. “But what do you think is happening? Why can you go to the black alone?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. We’ll have to do some trial and error tests.” He says, and her breath hitches, a hint of fear. She hates the word ‘test’ in any context other than when they’re seated at school. “You know what?” He says, and El looks to him with the light of one thousand questions burning in her eyes. “We need to unwind for once. Have some fun and stop worrying about everything.”

“Okay. What are you planning?”

“Will mentioned Phil Washington’s having a kegger tonight. Want to go?”

“Kay-ger?” El repeats curiously.

“A keg is a big container of beer, a drink that makes you light and fuzzy. A kegger is a party with a big container of beer that they usually hand out for free.” Mike explains.

“Oh, alright. Just us or everyone?”

“Dustin has that thing with his mom tonight but Lucas and Max should be up for it. Will was gonna go anyway.”

Every other Friday, Dustin’s mom drags him to the bowling alley. Not to bowl, to play bingo. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that she shows up right when it starts and plays until it’s over, one goddamn card at a time. She refuses to listen to Dustin’s advice about odds, no matter how many times he insists that instead of really low chances of winning for four hours she could just buy a lot of cards and have a high chance of winning for a shorter amount of time. Dusty, he closed his eyes at the hideous nickname, don’t you want to spend time with me? And he knew he wouldn’t be getting anywhere with her.

“Are keggers fun?”

“Usually.” He says honestly. “I don’t really know, I’ve only been to one. When you were sick with the flu.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, the music was loud and Lucas was so drunk it was hilarious.”

By drunk, Mike really means the boy was absolutely sloshed, falling over on everyone and even puking at Steve’s apartment on the kitchen floor. Should I call Max? She’s mad at me, should I call her? He’d asked over and over. Jesus, Lucas, Mike nearly made the mess worse as he tried to clean it, it’s fucking three in the morning. You can’t call her. Lucas just puked again, thankfully into the trash can this time. Take me to her house then? His eyes were closed and there were still blown chunks of his stomach contents stuck to his lips. Drink your water and sober the fuck up, I’ll take you tomorrow if you’re up to it. That had been the end of the arguing early that Saturday morning because Lucas had fallen asleep over the can, rubbing his hair into the vomit a little. Mike did not have the patience or energy to clean him off so he laid a garbage bag underneath him and left him on the kitchen floor. Steve had come out of his room to take a trip to the toilet and spotted Lucas twisted in the plastic on the tile. God damn his babysitter instincts because he really felt sorry for the kid. He swiped a soapy towel over his head, mouth, and hands and pulled him onto the recliner. He tossed a spare blanket over him and set a glass of water on the table beside his seat, two ibuprofen next to it. Lucas had not been up to visit Max that day until the sun had set.

"Drunk?"

“When you drink too much beer or other alcohol, it makes you uncoordinated and silly.”

“Oh. Think I’ve been drunk once.” Mike raises his eyebrows. “What? S’boring and lonely at the cabin. I found a dusty old bottle of...  Wine? Is that how you say it?”

“Yeah,” He smiles, “Apparently you’re more experienced than I thought you were. Any other confessions, Ms. Secretive?” He pokes her stomach.

“Hey!” She hits his hand for the second time that day. “I’m not secretive. Just didn’t think it was important.”

“It’s not, it’s just fun to know that kind of stuff. Was Hop mad when he came home?”

“No, he said it was okay because I didn’t know. Then I cried, ‘cause that’s all I needed. Another thing I didn’t know.”

“Look at you now!” He encourages. “Going to a kegger, knowing what drunk feels like.”

“I hope it’s more fun than I remember.”

“It’s never really very fun to drink alone. It will be much better this time, I promise.”

“Good.” She grins cheekily and her stomach rumbles. “I’m hungry, apparently.”

“Grilled cheese?”

“You are the best.” She smiles at him earnestly. Apparently, Karen Wheeler has some insane recipe that makes her grilled cheese taste a hundred times better than anyone else’s, and she has only hence far shared it with her eldest two progeny; Nancy and Mike. Apparently, Mike takes the secret very seriously and won’t even give hints to a frequently pleading Joyce. Please, Mike! She begs, I need all the help I can get to put edible food out for these savages! He never relents.

Fifteen minutes later the couple is sitting at the kitchen table, munching on his consistently delicious sandwiches, and El is very glad that she and Mike did not go out to lunch with the rest of her family. She’s thinking while she chews, and suddenly she comes to a very halting realization.

“Hold on.” She sets her sandwich down and looks at Mike. “You’re going to a kegger, tons of people drunk , with crutches?”

“I’m offended!” He places his hand over his heart and hangs his mouth open in false astonishment. El’s cheeks burn, anticipating what he’s going to say next, knowing the drill for when he dons this expression. “If you actually cared about me and my health,” He sniffs dramatically, “You would have remembered that I have a doctor’s appointment at one today and I’m getting a walking boot!” He huffs to finish his act, and even though she knows he is only joking with her, she always feels bad for forgetting these things.

“I’m sorry!” She says, contrite as she always is in these situations.

“I’m kidding,” He puts his fingers in his cup of water, taking them out and flicking them at her, “So quit being sorry.”

“Alright, Jesus.” She wipes the drops from her forehead and laughs at Mike’s endless antics. “What does a walking boot look like?”

“Do you wanna just come with to my appointment?” He bites into his grilled cheese.

“Is your mom going?”

“No, she’s taking Holly to see a movie.” Mike holds his hand in front of his mouth to say this, not sure what nasty sight El would get a load of if he moved it.

“Then sure.” She picks her own grill-wich up again and chomps.

“Wouldn’t you go if my mom was there?”

“I don’t want her to think I’m needy.”

“Karen loves you! Every time I come home without you there she asks where you are. I think Holly is the only one who’s more disappointed than her.”

Seriously, Karen Wheeler adores El. She bakes every time she comes for dinner and sets out the silver and china, complete with fabric napkins . She doesn’t even use fabric napkins when the extended family comes over for Christmas dinner. She just puts paper dishes and plastic silverware with cheap, printed napkins in piles on the counter, letting everyone grab their own helpings. She always brings her with when she takes Holly school shopping, insisting that she has some kind of astute understanding of what the cool kids are wearing. El uses this to Hopper’s advantage and brings money with for her own new set of clothing. Mike sort of wishes that Eleven had the heart to tell his mom they were really not that cool because he frequently gets pleaded to tag along to help her decide what to get for herself. Not that he minds too much because sometimes when his mom isn’t around he sneaks into the dressing room with her, to help with the fit of the clothes of course. It’s only sometimes that he helps her test how easy it is to take them off. She even fought with Mike’s dad when he’d mentioned how much time ‘the girl’ was at the Wheeler house. She’s got a name, Ted, she said, and she’s really special if you’d get to know her even a little . Of course, the obdurate Mr. Wheeler took no mind of his wife’s words, ignoring El whenever she would come over. Karen had knocked on Mike’s door that night as he was falling asleep, determined to make up for his father’s maligning speech. Now, she held something small in her hands, you don’t have to ask soon, by any means, and it doesn’t have to be El if you don’t want it to be but , she opened her fist and Mike choked at the sparkling item that lay there, this was your grandmother’s ring. When you’re certain that you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, and I mean absolutely certain, you can use this if you’d like. Mike had wept into his mother’s loving arms for twenty minutes and sworn her to secrecy about his tears for ten. He knows it’s not the safest place but he still has the ring wedged in the key pocket of his wallet in case the moment ever arises where he’s absolutely certain that she’s absolutely certain and they can be absolutely certain together, publicly.

El brazenly tosses her crust at Mike’s hair.

“It’s not about that.” He bats and swipes the crumbs from his chocolate strands. “Sometimes mothers like to be alone with their kids.”

“This is why Karen loves you.” He flicks the crust back over the table at her, and it slides quickly across the wood and into her lap. She picks it up and drops it into his glass. “Hey!” He yelps, pulling it from his cup, but the damage is done. Little flecks of bread swim around in his water.

“Wait, didn’t your mom say you weren’t getting one?”

“Yeah, our insurance doesn’t cover it.” Mike shrugs. “I just told her that I heard crutches can cause damage to your shoulders, and for the next couple days I made a big show about how much they ached ‘cause of my backpack. She gave in so fast, immediately made an appointment to take this plaster crud off and replace it with a shiny boot.”

“Michael Wheeler, you’re such an actor!” She shakes her head at her boyfriend.

“Hey! My mom thinks she’s helping me avoid another health issue which is way better than her thinking she just gave in to my whining. She’ll laugh when I’m thirty and I tell her.” He goes to take a sip of his water and spits it wildly over the table when one of the chunks hits his lips. “Shit.” El only blinks, thoroughly spattered.

10 hours, one shower, one appointment, one mobility assessment, two hot dogs, fourteen kisses and three games of tic-tac-toe later, El and Mike are in the front seat of Mike’s light yellow four-door sedan on their way to Phil’s house. Will, Lucas, and Max are packed in the backseat, and Mike turns into the driveway as he pulls out the tough question.

“Who’s sober-cab?”

“Come on, man, I thought you were!” Lucas whines, scowling.

“I drove us here and I drive us everywhere! Plus, this is El’s first party. I wanna join her.” Mike pouts while he puts the car in park.

“I’ll do it.” Max offers with a shrug.

“You are not driving my car.” Mike kills the engine and turns to her, sternly squaring his jaw. They all know she’s a wild motorist. She sticks her tongue out and El laughs.

“I don’t care, I will,” Will says from beside her.

“You’re a lifesaver, Willy-boy.” Mike tosses him the key. Will scowls.

“Do not call me that or I will catch a ride with someone else and strand you here.”

“Alright, alright, Sorry.” Mike swings his door open and the gang follows. He walks around the car and wraps his arm around El. He doesn’t trust the party guests enough to let her walk in by herself. Some fool may get the wrong idea, maybe think she was single (or maybe just not care). She looks straight out of a magazine tonight , Mike thinks.

She’s in skin-tight high-waisted white jeans with an even tighter baby pink sweater tucked in. She’d added a denim jacket last minute at Mike’s request, to keep herself warm in the November air. She’s strapped on her light yellow high-top Converse, courtesy of Nancy’s smaller feet of the past. Half of her hair is pulled into a small bun with the rest of it swirls down her shoulders. Mike notices the shine of gloss on her lips and resists the overwhelming urge to kiss them.

“You look fantastic.” He murmurs into her ear and she leans deeper into him.

“Third time you’ve said that, Wheeler.”

“It’s well past the third time I’ve realized it.” He smiles like an idiot.

“Let’s have fun tonight, yeah?” Max says from ahead of them, her hand resting on the knob of the door. El nods enthusiastically and her friend swings the door open. Will is before them with a twelve pack and Max is in the front cradling the vodka.

The music and the smell blast Eleven. She wants to rush in and dance at the same time that she wants to run away and vomit from the sweaty, musty STENCH wafting into her nostrils. Her eyes are wide in awe and she steps through the threshold, hesitant but thrilled at all the wonders around her. The music is louder than she’s ever heard it before, so loud she can feel it thumping in her stomach, vibrating through the caverns of her ribcage. There are people in a big group, thrashing around in a strangely coordinated chaos she could only assume was attempted dancing. Couples were everywhere, doing everything, and she’s mildly confused because all anyone has ever told her is that you should only do those things in private, with the door shut. Someone is upside down over a big metal barrel, chugging a foamy, gold liquid. There are people standing around a table with red plastic cups arranged, throwing white balls at each other.

“Welcome to the unofficial national sport of high schoolers,” Mike says, ushering her further inside so he can close the door on the cold percolating in. “Drinking, partying, and being all around no-good hooligans.” El knows what hooligans are.

She and Mike have been called innumerable names by their principal, mostly in the singular most offensive strand of inaccurate adjectives Joyce had ever heard at the time. Mike and El had been caught kissing in the hall for the third time in a week and Mrs. Weatherly’d had enough of their affections and called their parents to come and pick them up. She’d sat Joyce and Karen down to tell them that she thought their children were disgusting, boorish, arrogant, crass and rude and they’d been caught thrice this week engaging in an unsightly and terribly vulgar act and when she’d confronted them they responded with insolence, immodesty, and impertinence!

Karen Wheeler stormed out of the office, face looking light and exhilarated, and stole Mike’s hand from his lap.

“We have to go, now.” She said airily.

“Why?” Mike glanced at El’s startled expression.

“I’ve just flipped your principal the bird and called her a contemptuous, dried out HotPocket and I would like to leave before I have to pay the price.” She said, flashing El a scattery smile. “See you later, dear.”  And she fled, yanking her pleasantly shocked son behind her. Joyce came out with a similar windswept expression and El stood immediately, holding her hand out and smiling when the woman’s fingers intertwined with hers.

“Your fingers behaved, right?” She had asked her acting mother.

“Barely,” Joyce had replied, “But my tongue got her good.” And the two giggled the whole way to the car.

“Come on!” Max yells at the stationary couple.

El smiles at Mike, grabbing his hand and following her friend’s red head through the masses and into the kitchen. Mike pulls a few red cups from a stack, handing them out to everyone. He pours a few shots into El’s cup, telling her to take it slow.

“Sip that, we’re just pouring it out ‘cause there’s five of us and only one bottle, you know?” She nods, tasting the clear liquid. Her eyes squint and her mouth screws up. She sticks her tongue out after a second and Mike snorts at her discomfort. “It’ll get easier to drink, promise.” He slams the fluid in his cup and grabs a beer from Will.

“You said you don’t come to keggers,” She smirks at him, covering how impressed she is, “Seems like you do.”

“I’m just better at pretending than you are.” She rolls her eyes and takes another painful swig.

“Jesus, Phil.” Popular Miss Stacey Sugger saunters into the kitchen, her clueless lackey Christine in tow. “Did you invite horse-face Penny Gremwell and Roger the Fairy, too?”

“Relax, Stacey. This isn’t middle school. They’re cool.” Phil’s beside Will. El had been so focused on Mike that she hadn’t noticed him make a beeline for her brother as soon as he’d seen them all walk in the door.

“They’re a lot of things,” She looks Max up and down, “But they’re definitely not cool.” Max’s face hardens and El can see her eyes lock on Stacey like some kind of missile technology.

“Are you still in drama, Stace?” The redhead asks, sickly sweet venom pouring out of her mouth.

“Yes, Man-gene, I am. What’s it to you?”

Eleven remembers when Max beat Stacey at the four hundred in ninth grade on track and field day. Stacey, who had boasted of being the fastest footed girl in the school for weeks ahead of the race, threw an embarrassing tantrum at the finish line. To recover, she told everyone that she re-aggravated her ankle injury from middle school soccer during the run and scoffed at Max’s blowout win. Well, of course she won , she said in clear earshot of Max, she’s a man! And she circulated the worst poem Eleven had ever heard, but it caught on because it was Stacey Sugger’s and it was mean.

Man-gene Maxine

Too much protein

In a car? Sardine!

She needs a stretch limousine!

People teased Max with it for about a week before Will and El combined to make a rival poem. Max grinned from ear to ear when they presented it to her, calling it brilliant and immediately racing off to make a poster for the mean girl’s locker.

Spacey Stacey

The big crybaby

She’s just a wussy

With a gaping pussy!

The redhead was suspended for three days but was a legend when she came back, and Stacey swore that her revenge would come eventually, greater than you can imagine! El bites her lip, wondering if this could be the time.

“Hollywood films never run out of roles for shallow bitches who grow up to be nothing but a depressed stay at home wife and dog-lady with hard, plastic titties that are really just a last-ditch, desperate attempt at steering their disinterested husband’s attention away from his much younger secretary. Stick with it!” Stacey’s mouth is wide enough to shove a beer can in, and Max thinks about doing just that for a second.

“Seriously, Phil? You’re gonna let that nasty ape talk to me like that?” Lucas’s shoulders square and he moves forward with clenched fists but Max pulls him back into place.

“Speak like a bitch, get beat like a bitch.” Phil shrugs. “This is my house, Stacey, and if you don’t like my guests you can leave and take yours with you.”

“Fucking hell. Let’s go, Christine. Find Rachel and let’s go.” She leers at the gang before looking back to the party’s host. “This is some backwards shit, Phil,” Max smirks at her.

“This is good for you, Stace!” She feigns enthusiasm. “It’s best to start early when getting used to what life is like after graduation for stupid skanks who peak in high school.”

“At least I will have peaked .” Stacey spits. “You’re a freak and you’ll always be a freak.”

“Well, I’ll be a rich freak if Lucas keeps on the insanely intelligent engineer path. I’ll be sure to see what he can do about making the water cleaner in trailer parks. Or, depending on how lucky you get, I’ll have him invent some softer kind of breast implant.”

“You shut your pug face before I-”

“Before you what, bitch?” Max abandons her spot beside Lucas and closes the small distance between them. Stacey only blinks at the fiery girl. “Before you what?” Max lunges slightly at her and laughs hysterically when she jumps backward, tripping over a barstool and tipping over. “Aww,” She teases the downed girl, “Did you forget what a constipated toddler you are at fighting? Did you forget, Spacey?” The blonde girl wrenches her face up in a nasty scowl and springs to her feet, spitting in Max’s face. Max just wipes the goop from her forehead and laughs. “Cute.” She says before winding up and landing a nasty hook on Stacey’s schnoz. She cries out, pressing a hand to her nose and doubling over. Little drops of blood splatter to the floor and Christine chooses this moment to reemerge in the kitchen with a stumbling Rachel in tow.

“Jesus, what happened?” She rushes to Stacey, leaving the other girl to attempt standing on her own. She fails, and Will catches her under her arms to stop her from hitting her head.

“That psycho she-man fucking hit me out of nowhere!” Stacey points, shrieking.

“You spit in her face!” Lucas is puffing up, too. Mike pulls El tightly into his side, anxious at the swelling animosity.

“Get your hands off of her!” Stacey targets Will, who’s trying to pull Rachel into a dining chair.

“I’m just trying to keep her from hurting herself!” He nettles at her overgrown nerve. “She’s too fucking wasted to stand!” El spots Phil from across the room, looking like he’s going to throttle the bloody girl.

“Just get the fuck out!” He screams over everyone. “Get the fuck out, Stacey, you stupid fucking trout!” The entire party, who had been listening for some time now, start chanting.

“Get out, stupid trout! Get out, stupid trout! Get out, stupid trout!” They say, and Stacey releases an ugly wail. She looks an utter mess, blood and tears swirling together around the center of her features; her nose. It’s now a puffy, crooked, purple and red disaster on her face. Christine looks on the brink of a breakdown, too, but she holds it together to pull Stacey off the floor and grab Rachel from her slumped position against the chair Will had wanted to place her in. The trio slowly makes their way through the rallying crowd and all it takes is one person to spit at them before the whole line of people surrounding their path are hawking their saliva reserves at them and they’re running to the door. Tony Redding slams the thing behind them and lifts his red solo.

“Let’s fucking party!” And the masses cheer, resuming their happy disregard for normal life, like the fact that they just basically booed Stacey Sugger.

“I don’t think I like keggers.” El frowns to Mike from under his arm.

“C’mon, El!” Max overhears the candid comment. “She’s gone now, take a drink and let’s start the card table!” El sees how happy Will looks next to Phil, and Max beside Lucas, and she decides to delay her full judgments on keggers as she downs the rest of the contents of her cup.

Chapter Text

El has proven to be an excellent beer pong partner (whether it’s by cheating or not is unclear to Mike’s misty mind) and an equally amazing opponent at the card table. She spends most of the time at the tables attached to his hip, seated warmly on his lap, or with her arms wrapped around his middle. The tipsier she gets the more she seems to forget about the concept of privacy , Mike notices as she presses another hot kiss to his neck and turns around on his lap to straddle him.

“Babe,” He pulls her back a little, “I’m in the middle of the round and we are in the middle of the dining room.” He chuckles as she pouts, looking around. All she is granted by any of the straight faced players surrounding her is one tight-mouthed half-smile that really looks more like an uncomfortable curl of his lip. She harrumphs, bored, and glances over Mike’s shoulder to see Max and Lucas swaying carelessly in the living room, affection pouring out of them like the rain of the wet season in the Amazon.

“No more cards.” She decides for him, collecting his hand and slapping the cards face up on the table, bleeding Mike’s accrued four of a kind. “Let’s dance, please.” The others watch and their mouths drop as Mike laughs, taking El by the waist. (‘HOW COULD SHE WASTE A HAND LIKE THAT?’ and ‘ Holy shit I’m glad she just ended his round, I thought he was bluffing!’ and ‘Why is he smiling at her after that?’ they think)

“Okay,” He smiles and looks back at the guys seated at the table, “Good game, guys, but the lady wants to dance.” And El swirls and bounces away from him, hips swaying and eyes heavy as she turns to curl her finger in his direction, beckoning him to come closer and begging him to put his hands over her. Oh , the group at the table realize, I get it . Mike catches their faces. “I know.” And he goes to her, leaving the dining room in quiet awe.

“You guys finally ditched the card table!” Max is beaming widely, a little crooked if nothing else. Her cheeks are tinged pink and her speech is a little slower than usual.

“The guys over there were getting sick of Eleven groping me so they kicked us out.” El smacks Mike’s chest and crosses her arms, looking up at him with lowered brows.

“Good thing, guys, the dance floor was made for public groping.” Lucas tops his comment off with a sly grin and a quick squeeze of his girlfriend’s behind. Max is feeling warm enough, so she doesn’t slug him as hard as she can like she normally would.

“You’re treading in dark waters.” She warns instead, and Lucas puts his hands up in surrender. Mike shakes his head fondly at the couple’s silly antics as El giggles in his grip. His eyes widen as he hears a familiar beat stomp out of the speakers and he feels his girl tense up in his arms. It’s only a second longer until she’s pushing out of his grasp and walking away from him. “Where’s she going?” Max looks over to Mike, who is closing his eyes at the impending attention overload he was sure he was about to get.

“El loves this song.” He says simply, leaving Max to look back to Lucas. He just shrugs, equally as curious as to what was going on. Mike’s eyes reopen to see El stopped 15 feet ahead of him, back over by the card table. She turns to face him just before the first lyrics ring out.

I’ve got the moves, baby, you got the motion

If we got together we’d be causin’ a commotion

She’s singing and swaying, hips popping and rolling in ways that Mike is all too familiar with, having watched her obsess over her her tapes of Madonna for a month straight early this fall. She’d been enthralled by the way the singer moved and belted out since the first time she’d seen her on MTV in the days she hadn’t been allowed to leave the cabin. She didn’t have much to do besides copy the people she saw on television, and moving along to the daytime rerun of Madonna had been a heart pounding difference from the melodramatic soap operas she was usually stuck imitating. El immediately craved the hot, exhilarating feeling and scanned the channels every fifteen minutes for weeks after, hoping to catch more music television. Mike had only caught two or three second glimpses of her bedroom performances before she would stop the tape and run to the bathroom to shower, embarrassed to have been walked in on.

You met your match when you met me

I know you will disagree it’s crazy

The bitter liquor has apparently done its job suppressing her inhibitions because she’s moving at full capacity and throwing herself into every movement as she struts quickly to him.

But opposites attract, you’ll see

And I won’t let you get away so easy

She circles him and he can’t keep his eyes off of her as she runs her hands along his body, pulling at his clothes and grazing his skin. He’s got goosebumps and he’s fairly certain he’s just now developed asthma. He’s so completely focused on Eleven that he doesn’t even notice that literally every eye in the room is on them as she leans her back against him. She takes his hands in her own to run them from her thighs, along her hips and over her waist, almost to her chest before throwing them down to his sides again.

“It’s the perfect time,” Will hears a whisper in his ear as he watches his friends across the room, “Nobody’s paying attention.” He turns to look at Phil, who’s grabbing his hand now, dragging him towards his bedroom in the basement. His heart is pounding as he watches the boy in front of him, his perfect chocolate hair bouncing with each step.

Phil had come into Will’s life in the first week of September, as Will had been the new author of the sports column in the school newspaper. He’d asked Phil, the football team’s star receiver, if he’d be interested in having a feature. They’d shared quite a few laughs during the interview and when Will had mentioned offhand that his lunch buddy Dustin was out sick, Phil asked him if he’d like to join his friends at their table. The skinny nerd’s presence had originally been met with skepticism but the rest of the jocks in Phil’s circle soon came to accept and embrace the outcast boy as actually pretty cool. It had been just about perfect timing for Will to find a few new people to hang out with because he’d just spent the entire summer in his room lonelier than ever before. His brother was with Nancy, Dustin spent the break at his aunt’s with his mother and the rest of his friends were dating each other. He realized he’d probably begun to fall for his new pal when he quit the newspaper to spend more time with him and found himself clinging to every word he said. If Phil mentioned he liked the color red, Will would find himself at the mall with his allowance and a crimson shirt in hand. If Phil declared that hemmed pants were lame, he’d find himself trimming the stitching off the bottom of his jeans. However, he was content to ignore his alarming feelings for the boy in exchange for his company. He was far too lonely to throw away a good new friendship over a silly attraction that he was sure would go away on it’s own. The fact that people finally stopped calling him Zombie Boy was just a plus. He and Phil had just been like very, very tight friends, hanging out and laying close to each other, talking and talking. Five weeks ago, under the influence of a twelve pack of lite beer, they finally got to the topic of girls.

“I’m gonna tell you something I haven’t told anyone, I mean not even my parents or my sister or my own reflection in the mirror.” Phil rolled over in his bed to face Will, who copied him. “I don’t think I like girls.” There was silence as Will’s heart raced and his thoughts sprinted about the room. “I mean, I think they’re pretty and some of them are great, but I don’t want to take them out on dates or even kiss them.” He was desperately trying to reel his words to their place in his head so he could say something back, but it was like he was trying to fit a grand piano through a standard doorway. “Say something, Will, jesus I can’t breathe.” Instead of saying anything, because he figured the moment would be long gone before he would be capable of it, Will sucked in a giant breath of courage and grabbed his friend’s face, planting a close-mouthed kiss square on his lips. For a minute, Will feared the worst. The other boy just stared at him with wide eyes and his hand splayed over his mouth. Will sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, getting ready to leave.

“I’m sorry, Phil. I don’t know what I-” His words were cut short as Phil grabbed his wrist and pulled him back in, kissing him with a startling force that Will swore sent a tingling zing down his spine. Phil’s dad pounded on the door, shouting in that Will has to go home now, his mom called and said dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes . Will scrambled from beside Phil, straightened his twisted hoodie and looked back to the boy still seated on the bed. He watched his chest rise and fall too heavily and too quickly for a few seconds before turning to the door.

“Wait,” Phil climbed off of the covers and walked to Will. “Promise me that you won’t tell anyone. I’m not ready.” Will decided that he needed this friendship.

“I promise.” He affirmed, and was surprised to feel another sweet kiss pressed to his lips.

“Bye, Will.” Phil opened the door and Will stumbled out of the room, out of the house and onto his bike. He sped home faster than he ever had before, but his heart still felt like it was beating faster than it should have been. He’d spent the whole night in his bedroom ruminating on Phil’s lips, their kisses. And then the two of them spent a week and a half pretending that it didn’t happen, until Phil pushed him into the janitor’s closet after school one day.

“I can’t stop thinking about you, about us.” He confessed.

“Neither can I.”

“So let’s stop pretending. When it’s just you and me, let’s go wild.” And that had been the start of a breathless, whirlwind month for Will, the happiest he’s ever been and the most at home in his own skin he’s ever felt.

Now, as Phil pulls him to his room where it all began, he can’t help but think that it’s also the least happy and the least comfortable with himself he has ever felt. It’s the most intense form of torture he’s ever experienced, to know exactly who you are and precisely what makes you happy, and to have to block all of it out for your safety and social acceptance. To know that what makes you happy privately cannot make you happy publicly unless you want to face being called names and discriminated against. It’s worth it, he thinks, to be so happy is worth being uncomfortable sometimes. Even if it means that he’s been lying to his childhood friends. They wouldn’t understand, they aren’t like him. They’re not gay.

The crowd in the living room cheers as El finishes her dance leaning up against Mike, and he blushes as she pulls him in to kiss him deeply. The next song comes on and the party resumes its normal rhythm. Max, however, isn’t ready to leave the topic behind.

“What the hell was that?” She asks Eleven, who just laughs and takes another drink from her red cup she’d set on the side table. “I’m serious, Hopper! I’m supposed to be your best friend” She harrumphs, crossing her arm.

“Tell you later.” El waves her comment off and pushes her friend’s cup up towards her lips. “Right now I wanna forget that I even did that.”

“Alright!” Max cheers. “Now we’re talking, Ellie dear!”

Ten minutes later, Mike’s heading to the bathroom only after Max grabbed hold of Eleven’s hand and promised not to let go until he got back. Really, Max, he said, I’m not sure about all these freaks. Max had scoffed and held up their intertwined fingers, I’m latched on here like a boa constrictor, and she’d shaken their hands wildly to prove her point, now get lost!

All Mike can think on his way down the hall is how lucky he was to have stumbled into his entire future that rainy night in the woods. He didn’t even want to know how slim the chances were for them to have met. Perhaps if Brenner had been nicer or more fatherly or had stronger security she would still be in that lab being used like a tool, an unstoppable weapon. If Will hadn’t biked home alone that night then maybe he never would have gone missing and The Party wouldn’t have been in the woods looking for him. If the chief hadn’t lured her back with Eggos then she might not have been full and warm enough to search him out to know that he was still calling for her, that he still cared about her. Maybe she never would have known when it was safe for her to come out in the open - maybe she would have been plucked up by a clueless social worker and shoved into an overstuffed orphanage, never to see him again.

He’s lucky enough to wake up next to her some mornings, even if she has to tell Hopper she’s staying at Max’s and Mike has to sneak her into the basement. He gets to listen to her talk about how beautiful the stars are and how amazing the flowing water feels on her back when she stands beneath the waterfall at the quarries. He gets to watch her hair grow and he gets to see her smile every time she feels the breeze against her skin. He wants to take her picture every spring when she first sets her bare feet in the grass, when she closes her eyes and wiggles her toes - reveling in the sensation. He gets to hold her close and watch her cheeks redden in her focus on counting the freckles dusted over his skin, and he gets to laugh when she exclaims that one day she’ll really get through tallying them without losing track. He gets to stare at her every Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and Easter when she dons a dress and mingles with his ridiculous family. He gets to kiss her until he can’t breathe and he gets to talk to her and feel her even when she’s not around. Mostly, he gets to hear her say I love you over and over again, and he gets to know she really means it with all of her heart.

The first time she said it he choked on his peanut butter sandwich for a solid two minutes until he washed it down with an entire glass of milk. They’d been fourteen going on fifteen and she’d just gotten her curly hair to her collarbone. She was so proud when it hit that she’d begged Hopper to drive her over to Mike’s so she could show him. When the truck pulled into the driveway, she’d jumped out before her guardian could even put it in park. The man decided to linger in the driveway for a bit, just long enough to see the boy’s reaction to this tiny but extraordinary thing. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to have to drive back because Wheeler wasn’t excited about her hair like she was. He didn’t want a repeat of her first free summer when she’d wanted to show him her tan lines.

He hadn’t even taken his jacket off at the station after dropping her off when Florence sent him back out to pick her up again. When he pulled onto the street, he saw his daughter seated on the curb at the end of the Wheeler household’s driveway and the boy standing three feet away holding an umbrella over her with one hand and wiping the pouring rain out of his eyes with the other. It gave him a good laugh but he quickly lost all amusement with the situation when she started crying on their way back to his office. He’d spent forty-five minutes explaining to her that yes they are your first tan lines but Mike’s had them since he was a kid and I’m sure he’d be very excited if you told him why it’s important . Then he had to drive her back to the boy’s house where he was sitting, still soaked, on the front step and Hop’s eyes rolled in annoyance as he ran out to her in the rain. For christ’s sake, kid, he opened his window to shout out of as the young couple embraced, get inside before you both get sick!

So nobody could blame him for waiting outside this time, really.

“Look, Mike,” She said when he opened the front door for her, skipping the hello altogether, “My hair is long now!” And she beamed so brightly at him that he couldn’t help but pick her up and spin her around gleefully as she giggled loudly. Hop sped away quickly (wishing, Mike was sure, that he hadn’t stuck around to watch the sappy scene unfold) and he set her down.

“My dear, you certainly look beautiful with those long locks of yours.” He ran his fingers through them as she wrapped her arms around his middle. Whenever they knew they were being cheesy, they spoke in awful, fake, southern accents.

“Well then, love, won’t you be a doll and take my photograph?” El batted her lashes at him and he laughed.

“I would be most graciously honored, madam!” He stepped away from her and held his arm out to lead her into the house. He still has those photos hung in his locker at school.

When they finished with their impromptu shoot, they headed inside for a much needed snack. Mike smacked together some half sandwiches and he’d put a bit too much peanut butter on his own.

“You have some peanut butter on your face,” El smiled cheekily at him. She watched him wipe at the sides of his mouth for a few seconds.

“Did I get it?”

“Almost.” And she leaned in to press her lips to the corner of his, where the tiniest smudge of peanut butter stayed resilient after his attack. Her tongue made a quick appearance to clean it up for him and he caught her mouth fully with his for a minute.

“You taste like strawberry jam.” He said with a wrinkled nose, and they laughed. He hates jam, especially strawberry variations. He captured her lips again despite this, and she smiled into his kiss. Her heart was full of a feeling lighter than air and she didn’t ever want the moment to end, that’s when she was sure it could only be one thing.

“I love you.” She said as he took another bite, and he coughed. At first she laughed, but he coughed and coughed some more. She shoved her glass of skim milk over to him, watching worriedly as he chugged it down. She sighed in relief as he gasped when he pulled the cup from his lips.

“Are you trying to kill me?” His cheeks were red and she felt awful.

“Sorry, Mike.”

“Well, don’t be sorry,” He pulled her chair closer to his, “I just don’t want to die on you after you drop a major bomb like that.”

“I don’t want that either, just wanted to tell you as soon as I realized.” Her gaze fell to her lap.

“I love you, too.” He pulled her chin up and kissed her until her cheeks were just as red as his were. Both of their cheeks got redder still when they realized that Ted had stepped into the kitchen sometime during their moment to grab a glass of water and they’d both failed to hear him rustling about.

Mike’s brows draw together as he’s heading back into the living room to find the girl he can never get fully off of his mind. He doesn’t see her by Max’s distinct red head, and the closer he gets, the tighter his fists are at his sides. Lucas has his hands in that red hair, and the couple’s eyes are decidedly closed instead of on Eleven like the duo promised they would be.

“Guys,” He shouts over the music, trying to keep his temper down as they separate, “Where’s El?”

“She was playing beer pong with Stephanie Tiller when I looked up five minutes ago.” Lucas shrugs.

“She’s not over there.” Mike’s jaw is clenching and unclenching in anxiety.

“Shit,” Max mutters, “We better find her, then.”

“You guys look on this level and I’ll check upstairs. We’ll meet back here and if none of us find her we can head to the basement together.” Mike delegates.

“Aye, Fred. Let’s go find Daphne, Scoob.” And a saluting Max takes off before the frustrated boy can get mad at her for not taking things seriously, dragging an apologetic Lucas behind her.

Mike almost doesn’t know where to start when he gets up the stairs, worrying that there may be more couples in these rooms than he’d like to find. He starts with the first door he sees, and it’s an empty bathroom with vomit on the floor by the toilet and little droplets of blood in the sink. He gags at the smell and moves on, checking an office and an empty guest room with no inhabitants so far. He sees a light coming from the next door and preps himself for a revolting sight, pushing it open and walking down the hallway of what must be the master suite. He passes twin closets and a bathroom before the corridor empties into a rectangular room where he sees two people sitting on the edge of the bed, still clothed - thank goodness. The guy’s blonde and obstructing his view of the girl behind him, but he can see the small hand push his larger one off of her knee. It’s only when the blondie leans in to kiss her neck when he realizes the girl is in white pants.

“Hey!” He shouts, stomping over to the bed, and the guy pulls away to face him. “What the fuck’s going on in here?” And El comes into his line of sight, swaying in her seat.

“Mikey,” She smiles, her eyes half lidded, “There you are, baby.”

“I was just laying her down, she’s super wasted, man.”

“Do I look like I was born three days ago? Get the fuck out of this room before I flatten you.” Mike squares his jaw and sets his eyes on the guy, standing now. He can’t be more than five-foot-nine, Mike feels like he has a good three inches on him.

“Like you could, you’re a skeleton. And a cripple.” The idiot scoffs at him and puffs his chest up.

“Fuck’s sake, guy, I don’t feel like fighting right now. I just want to take my girlfriend home.” He walks past the kid to put his arm around El’s waist to help her walk and she giggles.

“I just was saying I have you.” She was clearly more drunk than he’d thought she was. “He said that doesn’t matter and I was saying yes, oh boy does it!” It was then he noticed their bottle of vodka, sitting empty on the side table.

“How much did you feed her?” He turns to the scumbag who’s glaring at him now.

“What are you saying, then?” Eleven closes her eyes and lifts her lip in discomfort.

“Too much yelling here.”

“I know, El, we’re going now.”

“I don’t need alcohol to get a girl.” The kid is pissed off, Mike can tell ‘cause a little vein is poking out of his oversized forehead and his jumbo mouth is hanging open with each breath.

“Gotcha, now move.” He ends up having to push forehead kid out of the way and into the closet. It’s more difficult than he would like to admit, supporting El and getting down the stairs. He’s halfway down when he hears the guy behind him again.

“C’mon, Mikey. Can’t finish the fight you started?”

“Fuck off, kid.” Mike ignores him until he yanks down on El’s arm and she slams backwards onto the stairs with a thud and a groan. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“She’s a big girl, she can make her own choices. And you don’t get to fucking walk away from me, Wheeler.” He steps on Eleven’s fingers to get in Mike’s face. She squeals in pain, even as drunk as she is, and Mike sees nothing but red, red, red as he finally gives in to instinct and pushes the pile of shit down the last half of the stairs.

“Randy!” He hears someone shout as he kneels to help El up again, kissing her fingers and examining them. Finding them pink but not yet swollen, he rises with his girl cradled in his arms now, sick of walking her. He winces as the extra weight strains his already sore ankle, but he wouldn’t even set her down again if the kid at the bottom of the stairs flipped upright and pointed a magic wand at his face. Truthfully, this Randy fucker could have been brain damaged from the fall and Mike would’ve given his head an extra stomp on the way out. He makes sure to step on the groaning fool’s fingers as he passes him on the landing and pays no attention to the staring eyes, as the whole party is stopped once again due to their group being in a fight. Max and Lucas race up to Mike, questions coming out of their mouths in a never ending flow. He answers them as quickly as he can, returning to them a question of his own - where’s Will ? Mike gives up on them when they just blink at him like he’s just asked them what the meaning of life is.

“Here,” He stands El up again and helps them take hold of her, “Get her outside for some air and wait by my car. I’ll be out in two minutes.” And the two diligently set out to follow their new orders, feeling mighty guilty for having not followed their first set. Mike turns to watch them go and sees Randy stumbling from the lower landing towards them. He wishes momentarily, sour in irritation, that the front door would swing open on his ugly face. Suddenly it does, breaking the trim around the knob and knocking the thoroughly bruised boy to his ass, once again. No one is standing outside of it and Mike’s eyes widen as he realizes El is far too slumped to have done it. Lucas and Max stop, turning to face him, but he’s already disappeared around the corner, dizzy and panicking on his way down the stairs to the basement.

What the hell was that? First the tub, and now this? Mike needs answers, answers to a million and two questions, but the only people who could even try to answer them were thrown out of Hawkins and would likely strap him to a table to prod him for years if he sought them out. And he can’t even think straight with this fuzzy interference in his brain, and jesus is his nose really running right now? He moves to wipe it on the hem of his jacket, and his whole body goes rigid when he sees the familiar deep crimson hue of blood staining the otherwise navy fabric. On top of the confusion and painful buzzing in his head, his heart feels like it’s running away from his body. His muscles feel like they’ve slipped inside his bones, mixing with the marrow and hiding from him, stealing his strength and steadiness. He stumbles weakly through the basement, barely keeping his eyes open, wanting only to find his friend and get the fuck out of this house. He has to get away from all these people he doesn’t know, these people who will never know him, who can’t know him. At this point he’s basically just throwing all the doors open, not even caring to look inside, knowing that Will is smart enough to figure out that it’s time to go when he sees him in this condition.

The lights are off in Phil’s room, making it all the more obvious when the door is heaved open and the light from the hallway swamps the room as it slams loudly into the dresser beside it. Exploring hands are ripped away from hot bodies and squinting eyes try to make out the thin figure in the doorway. Hearts are pounding in fear until -

“Mike?” Will implores the swaying silhouette as he turns on the light beside Phil’s bed.

“We need to leave. Be at the car in two minutes.” And the door closes behind him, shutting in the hysteria and insecurity he’d incited. Will stares at the door for a few seconds before turning to Phil, who is silent and completely still.

“He won’t tell. He won’t.” He reassures himself and his companion, reaching for his hand, for comfort. Phil jerks it away from him, pulling himself out of bed and staring at Will like he was a stranger. “Don’t worry, he won’t say anything. Not even to me.” Will pleads with him as he pulls his shirt back over his head. Phil just looks through him, breathing heavily and holding himself. Like he’s suffocating. “Phil, come on.” He stands to go to him, but Phil takes a step back, bumping into his closet door.

“You need to go.” His voice is low and quiet, and Will can’t help but feel like it’s a warning.

“I will in a minute, as soon as I know you’re good.”

“I’ll be good once you leave.” Will’s heart drops out of his chest and the hurt is etched in his brows, painted in his eyes and draped over his frown like soft lace.

“Don’t. Don’t do that.”

“What?” If Phil were a dog, Will knows his ears would be pinned back as he growled the word out.

“Act like you don’t know me, like you weren’t the one who lead me down here. Like you weren’t just kissing me!”

“Get out! Just get out!” Phil shouts, stepping forward. “Please.” The last word is broken and soft, and Will can see a sheen over the boy’s eyes.

“Fine.” He chokes, straightening his appearance before heading to the door.

“No!” Phil stops him, and Will turns hopefully, waiting for an apology or a please stay. Maybe the I need you he’s been hoping for. But he says nothing, he just points to the curtains above his bed. He’s going to make him crawl through the window and out of the muddy well into the yard.

“Fuck you.” And he stomps across the tangled sheets, shoes and all, rips the curtain rod off of the wall and tears the window open, being extra careful to kick some dirt inside as he climbs. And fuck me , he thinks as he swipes the stupid tears from his eyes, walking as quickly as he can to the car. To his only friends. Back at square one with a little less hope and a minus a piece of his heart.