The first night Eleven and the Byers were gone, Mike invited Max over to his house. It was weird being in his basement with her, alone. Eleven was the only girl who had ever been down here just with him.
But he knew it was right, because he knew she would be just as lonely and heartsick with El’s absence, and perhaps she got nightmares like he did. Losing Billy like she did... he could only guess the effect would be traumatizing at night.
His mom had been surprised, but she quickly hid that shock and greeted Max at the door warmly and enthusiastically. His father less so, but Mr. Wheeler had always been a man of few words encouraging words.
Nancy saved the poor girl from the both over and underwhelming mix since Mike was still thinking of what to say, and Max had gratefully hid under her wing as the two siblings led her to the basement. When Nancy gave Max a hug and then retreated to her own room, however, the silence between them grew large and awkward.
Whenever he had any member of his party over they usually played board games or snacked on junk food and tell stories and jokes well into the night. He had no idea what girls did at their sleepovers, or what a boy and girl, singular, were supposed to do.
“Do you like comics?” He asked, fighting to keep his body from fidgeting nervously.
“Um, yes, I do,” Max muttered in reply, her voice as quiet and on edge as his.
“Who’s your favorite superhero?” He inquired, fumbling for the basics.
Max paused in thought, her seafoam teal eyes flickering over the room and directly avoiding looking at his face. “Wonder Woman,” she decided and bit her nail. “She has an epic backstory and her badass needs more recognition. Also she loves ice cream.” The question and answer coaxed a smile from her, to Mike’s relief. Hopefully it wouldn’t sink back under, because he didn’t have any more topics to discuss.
The often overlooked fact about the goddess surprised him, though he knew it shouldn’t have. Max was constantly surprising him.
“What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” He asked next, letting a bit of tension leave his shoulders.
Max’s face grew thoughtful and she stopped playing with her brilliant red curls. “I love mint chocolate chip,” she answered with a coy smile, “but I’m a sucker for caramel, too.”
“Mint chip and caramel’s good,” Mike smiled back. “I’m more of a chocolate fan, but strawberry holds my regards.”
“Eleven loves strawberry, too,” Max agreed, a fond twinkle in her blue eyes. Then they dropped down and Mike felt the tension in the room shoot up 100 degrees as he picked at the fraying carpet.
El did love strawberry as they discovered after she tried all the flavors, but she was affectionate of whip cream on anything now. She loved spraying it on all her food and found enjoyment in filling up her mouth- and his -with the white cream as well.
“Do you miss El?” He blurted out with her giggle ringing in his ears, and then mentally kicked himself. No shit, Wheeler.
Max shifted, finding interest in her pink toenails. “Yeah,” she shrugged. “I’ve never really had a friend like her before. You know, telekinetic powers and all,” she added with a little laugh.
Telekinetic powers, which seemed to have deserted her. Their absence made Mike uneasy, but he was trying to reassure himself like he had done for her. They’ll come back. He hoped so. Not because they defined her, but because she had grown used them, and it would be a hard transition for her if they didn’t return.
“Same,” he said instead. “I’ve never met anyone like her before. Someone who cares so much about others.” Besides his party, most girls would avoid him like the plague, and the boys would taunt and bully him. It had only relented a bit now that they were in high school, but El had been loyal and kind to him from the start.
“Yeah,” Max agreed. “I can’t believe she’s actually friends with us.”
“Us” needed no detailed explanation. Some days he still struggled to grasp how in the world the stars had aligned in his favor and given him El as his girlfriend.
“Do you think she’ll find new friends at school?” Max asked, and the question jarred him.
He had spent a lot of time thinking about how lonely she would be that he had forgot to be concerned that the distance between them would cause rifts in their relationship. No way, he told himself firmly. They don’t have what we do.
“I hope so,” he shrugged with the half-hearted truth. “I don’t want her to be alone, but I know she would never abandon us.”
Max was quiet, and he shifted uneasily as her eyes bore into his.
El had vanished once. She had come close to death far too many more times. Was it too far fetched to wonder if she would grow closer to the kids at her new school?
Yes, it was.
She wouldn’t be able to forget about them, anyways. Not when she was now a sibling of the Beyers, and she had, undoubtedly, a kind of parallel relationship with Will that didn’t exist in any other pair of people. And he would be calling her every night.
“I’m positive,” he said firmly, answering both his own concerns and the burning question in Max’s eyes. “She wouldn’t leave us. We’ll always be her best friends.”
“Yeah. Best friends,” Max muttered, her tone going melancholic.
Mike could hear it in her voice, and it was also part of the reason why he had invited her over.
“I already apologized to El, but...” he took a deep breath, now incredibly aware that Max was now watching him with sharp interest. “I’m sorry for being a jerk about your guys’ relationship,” he apologized. “I was jealous. I just wanted El to myself, and I know that was unfair. I’m just... overprotective,” he decided. “But I want you to know that I’m happy you guys are friends.”
Max stared at him, and it electrified his already frazzled nerves. He dared to directly meet her eyes, and they were softer and kinder and more understanding than he had hoped. But then his stomach dropped as he fell into their deep blue depths and he saw the glimmer on their surface.
The feeling was unnervingly similar too...
It was like someone had swept the ground from beneath his feet and left him falling into abyss and unable to catch his breath. “El,” he whispered, now he couldn’t tear his eyes from her. “You- She- I-“ now he couldn’t form any sentences. His tongue was numb, his throat choked. He couldn’t think of anything except for Max’s smile and how bright it was on his girlfriend. Her best friend.
Max leaned back against the sofa, and her chuckle was brittle and sad, making his stomach flip and heat overcome his neck.
“I really, really like El,” Max confessed, her fingers twisting in the blanket.
The word “love” was crackling between them, unspoken and electric. He didn’t force her to say it. He could feel it. Something similar to another conversation he needed to have, but one that would come after this one.
“Is that why you kept breaking up with Lucas?” Mike finally asked.
Max winced, her blue eyes flashing with regret. “Yeah,” she confessed. “Lucas is great, don’t get me wrong. He’s genuine and brave, if not a bit oblivious.” Her mouth twitched up in a fond smile. “But I could never love him in the way he loves me.”
It made perfect sense now that it was spoken, and he could piece together Max’s soft eyes on El, the way she stuck to the girl like a red-haired, colorful shadow, the way she kept their fingers linked and how she jumped to El’s defense with the strength and power of a storm. She held their hugs close and long because she knew it was all that was allowed.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could think to mutter. He couldn’t even begin to understand the pain she must suffer through, only being able to watch and speak to the person she most desperately wanted to hold and be open with. It must hurt, having to witness the much closer and intimate relationship El had with him. The idea of never being able to hold El’s hand, to sweep her brown curls back with his hand or let her cuddle into his chest was unbearable. If he knew another guy was doing it with her... he felt downright murderous towards that shadowy stranger.
So he couldn’t blame Max for how defensive and sharp-tongued she had been towards him when he tried to make up with her. It was natural she had been desperate to keep El close to her for as long as she could.
“It’s kind of funny,” Max said with a little laugh. “I care about you too, actually.”
Mike’s eyes widened and heat tickled his neck. “Huh?” He frowned.
“Not in a let’s-make-out-way, but in a you’re-a-really-great-person way,” Max backtracked quickly, her smile tilted gently. “You’re really brave, Mike. I get why El loves you so much. You treat her like she’s the sun and the moon and stars. When you don’t lie to her, that is,” she added dryly, but he saw the teasing glint in her eyes when he opened his mouth to protest.
“She is my universe,” he admitted, his heart quickening like it always did when he remembered the gold in her hazel eyes and the taste of her kiss. “But I forgot there’s other planets in that universe too.”
He froze, realizing how stupid he sounded and heat slapped him in the face. “Agh, sorry,” he groaned, slumping forwards with his hands covering his eyes and his heart beating erratically.
“It’s okay,” Max reassured him, and then she was laughing. “See?” She grinned. “This is what I mean. You’re not quite as tough as nails as appear to be. You’re quite the dork, eh?”
“Alright, no need to demote me that far,” he glowered jokingly. For a moment he lost himself in her warm blue eyes and magnetic smile, and the feeling took his breath away.
“I’m sorry for being a dick to you,” he blurted out, and Max was already shaking her head.
“No, I get it,” she sighed, but she didn’t so Mike pressed, “no, I mean it. It’s just... I thought I lost Will, and then I got Eleven. Then she vanished and I got Will back, and...” he shrugged and looked down at his hands, flustered because he had never been the best in expressing his intimate emotions into words.
“I didn’t want anyone joining the party because bad things happen to us, and I fail to protect the people I care about.” He had excluded Dustin for his own interests, lied to El when he knew she would be hurt and confused, snapped at Will without any empathy, and acted extremely unfair to Max who had just wanted some friends to protect herself from an abusive family. It was no wonder Max had been so defensive on El’s behalf when she was concerned he would hurt her again.
Hurting El. He had felt so lost and overwhelmed without her, and it had been a hopeless, desperate feeling he never wanted to experience again. He had lost her too many times to slip up so carelessly.
He didn’t want to lose Max, either. He had grown to feel her emotions like he did El’s. He was attuned to her sea-blue eyes, fiery red hair, and freckled skin. He hated arguing with her and had thrown himself in harm’s way for her. Her smile reflected his, and her pain was one he wanted to ease. Despite the way they clashed with stormy tension, they worked together incredibly well as a strong-willed team.
And El had left her heart with both of them. He knew her soft, longing kisses and her unfiltered bravery and fear. Max knew her wide eyes on the world, her will to learn and unrivaled compassion to help others. And El knew something about them the other didn’t. There was no way he would try to steal her away for himself ever again.
He looked up, and she was watching him intently too, and he found that her observance didn’t make him uncomfortable this time. He cared about her with a frequency different than El’s, but with the same passion. He would’ve taken Billy’s punch a hundred times over if it meant she would stay safe.
“Do... do you think that El...” Max trailed off, her lashes casting shadows across her nervous blue irises. “That maybe...” she swallowed, and his heart tightened in sympathy.
Did El love Max? The two girls fit together like two halves of a heart. When Billy had been killed, Max had cried and lurched sideways into El for comfort while El held her, stroking her hair and whispering that it was going to be okay. He had heard El laugh and grow more confident with herself around Max than he had thought possible. Because he had been naive, and yeah, a bit possessive.
El kissed him. But her heart was so pure and powerful, maybe she didn’t realize society restricted the rules on who you could love. Maybe she wouldn’t care. If anything, she was the most intelligent and perfect person of them all.
“She loves you,” he told her, and there wasn’t any doubt in his consoling voice. And he found that the idea didn’t stir any envy in his chest. If anything, he felt more relaxed. “She’s just still... learning.”
Max smiled at him, and he could see the glimmer of tear in her eyes. “She’s the most beautiful girl in the world,” Max whispered, and he smiled back.
“I could live a hundred lifetimes and never deserve her,” he admitted.
“You and me both,” Max agreed wryly.
“Um, no,” he shot back, giving her a playfully hard look. “You’re amazing, Max. A one of a kind Zoomer.”
Max laughed, leaning back against the sofa with frizzy red curls framing her freckled face. “Don’t underestimate yourself,” she joked. “You’re no Ralph Macchio, but I guess we must see something in you to endure your dorkiness.”
Mike mocking scowled, causing Max to laugh again while he wondered what Ralph Macchio had anything to do with their conversation and at the same time feeling warmed by her use of “we.”
Because they were together.
Because he was lucky enough to have somehow gotten the two most bravest, gorgeous girls in the universe.
And they loved each other.
And it would all be alright as long as they had this.