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The Other Thing

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El’s stomach twisted inside her as the Blazer pulled up to the curb.  The grounds of Hawkins High were swarming with more people than she’d ever seen together in one place in her life--and they were all her age, which was even more unprecedented.  She’d seen teenagers in some of the movies Hopper had rented for them to watch over the last few years, of course… not that that helped with the anxiety.  If anything, it made it worse.

 

“El?” Hopper asked softly from the driver’s seat.  He was watching her with fatherly concern written all over his face, and El offered the best smile she could muster in return.

 

“It’s fine, dad,” she said.  “This is just… new.”

 

He nodded.  “Well, that’s sort of the point,” he said.  “It’s going to have to happen sometime, unless you want to spend the rest of your life holed up in the cabin.”  He reached across the seat and took her hand in his, grip gentle and warm. “That said, if anything happens… no, if you need me for anything at all, just call me.  I’ll drop everything and come running.”

 

“Dad!” El protested with a laugh, but his words were helping her stomach untwist itself.

 

“I’m serious, missy,” Hopper said with a grin.  “I promise. And you know how we feel about promises.”

 

“A promise is something you can’t break,” El intoned with a solemnity that was ruined by her dissolving into another peal of laughter.  She leaned over and put her arms around Hopper’s neck. “I’ll be okay, dad. Don’t worry about me.”

 

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” Hopper said as she pulled away from the hug.  “All right. Off with you.” He offered her a small wave as she popped open the passenger side door and slid out to the ground, and then the Blazer pulled away from the curb and he was gone, driving up the road.

 

Alone now in the scramble of students, El was hit by a fresh wave of anxiety.  It was even more disorenting being on the ground, in the middle of all of them.  She looked around, trying to discern from the movements of the people around her if there was somewhere that she should be going.

 

So many, the other thing whispered, stirring softly in the mindspace that they shared.  Small things.  Soft things.

 

Quiet, you, El responded firmly.  She spotted a doorway a distance away that a number of people seemed to be flowing into, and headed for it with a determined stride.

 

I do not understand why we are here, the other thing persisted as she walked.  I do not understand why your father-thing had us come to this ‘skool’.  What is the purpose?

 

The purpose is to learn, El said irritably.  She reached the door and, after a moment’s hesitation to figure out how to work her way into the flow of ingoing students, walked into the school building.

 

Learn by hunting, the other thing said.  See your prey.  Study it. Learn its movements, learn its taste.  Will we hunt here?

 

No, El snapped at it.  We’re here to learn normal people things, not freaky other-dimensional monster things.  Now will you just be quiet?

 

Pointless, the other thing said, but she felt it subside and breathed a sigh of relief.  This was going to be nerve-wracking enough without it chattering its bizarre alien thoughts at her all day.  Then again, there was an element of comfort to it--the other thing had been her only company outside of Hopper for those four years spent hidden in the cabin, and it was a bit relaxing to have a piece of the life she was used to that wouldn’t be taken from her.

 

That, by all indications, couldn’t be taken from her.

 

-    -    -

 

The interior of Hawkins High had been much as El had expected based on what she’d seen in the movies--sparse and functional in a way that reminded her uncomfortably of the lab, but worn and lived-in in a way that the lab would never be allowed to be, which took the edge off of the discomfort.  The disorientation from the number of people around El, on the other hand, had only gotten worse as the enclosed space pressed them in closer to her. For a few breathless minutes she’d been certain that she’d gotten hopelessly lost, but fortunately a helpful teacher with a kind voice had stepped in to help and, with a glance at the schedule El had been carrying folded in her breast pocket, directed her to the classroom she needed to be in for homeroom.

 

Now El was sitting at a desk that she’d picked more or less at random from the ones that had been available when she walked in, fidgeting and glancing nervously around at the other students.  They were grouped together in clusters, all chattering to each other about things like what their summer vacations had been like and which classes they had signed up for. Nobody was talking to her, or even sitting near her.  Was it just because nobody knew her? Or did she look… weird, somehow? She’d noticed that she was dressed differently from the other girls in the school--wearing one of Hopper’s too-large old flannel shirts over a plain t-shirt and slacks.  The other girls’ clothes were fancier than hers, prettier. Should she have made Hopper get prettier clothes?

 

Her train of thought came to a halt as movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention.  Somebody was sitting down at the desk to her left. El turned to get a better look at her new neighbor and found herself gawking at him.  The boy settling into the seat was tall , maybe even as tall as Hopper, but with nothing like Hopper’s bulk--he was long and lanky in a way that she’d only seen in movies before.  Seeing it in real life was completely different.

 

Then his head turned and their gazes locked.  Dark eyes blinked at her in surprise from beneath a fringe of dark hair, and El felt her stomach twist again.  Hopper had taught her that it was rude to stare at people, and yet she’d gone and done it within minutes of getting to her first class.  This boy was the first person who’d even come near her, and she’d probably already offended him--

 

But then he smiled at her, and she felt the fear fall away.  “Hi,” he said, his voice soft and friendly.

 

El found herself smiling back at him.  “Hi,” she said.

 

“I’m Mike.  Mike Wheeler.”  He held one hand out towards her.

 

Handshake.  Yes. El knew this one.  She grasped his hand in her own and pumped it up and down, firmly, twice.  Mike’s eyebrows raised, but the smile stayed on his face so she figured that she’d done all right.  “I’m--” El froze as her mind raced. Which of her names should she give to him? “Jane,” she said, coming to a decision.  Then, immediately changing her mind, she added, “Or El.”

 

Mike laughed.  “Okay. Nice to meet you, Jane-Or-El.”

 

El felt her face grow hot.  “Jane’s my, um…” What was the term Hopper had used?  “...legal name. But you can call me El. That’s what my dad--that’s what everyone calls me.”  She didn’t bother to clarify that ‘my dad’ and ‘everyone’ were basically the same thing in her world.

 

“El,” Mike said thoughtfully, as though testing to see how the name felt in his mouth.  El found herself irrationally hoping that he liked it. “Is that short for… what, Eleanor?  Like, your middle name?”

 

“Um.”  It was definitely going to be easier to let him assume that than to try and explain the truth.  “Yes.”

 

“Cool,” Mike said, giving her another small smile.  “Are you new here, then?”

 

El shrank into herself a little bit.  “Is it that obvious?” she asked shyly.

 

“Oh, no--I mean--just because I haven’t seen you around before!” Mike said, suddenly getting flustered for some reason.  “It’s fine--you’re fine--I mean, did you just move here, or?” He squeezed his eyes shut as though he couldn’t believe the words that had just come out of his mouth, though El couldn’t see why.  It seemed like a perfectly normal question to her.

 

“Yeah,” she said.  “I lived with my mom in Bloomington, but I came here to live with my dad in June.”  She was on firmer ground now; Hopper had made her practice the story over and over until she could recite it without thinking.  “I was having a hard time at my old school, and my dad hopes that being in a new environment will help.”

 

Mike’s expression twisted in sympathy.  “I’m sorry,” he said. “That sounds rough.”

 

“It was,” El said.  “Yeah.” Memories flickered unbidden over the surface of her mind: corpses strewn on the floor, blood splashed on the walls, her hands--she pushed them away, screwing her eyes closed and taking a deep breath to recenter herself the way Hopper had taught her.  Mike frowned at her, concerned, but before he could say anything, the classroom filled with the shrill tone of the bell ringing, making El jump slightly. Mike gave her one last smile, and the two of them turned to face the teacher, who had stood up at the front of the classroom.

 

“Greetings, students, and welcome to another exciting year of learning,” the teacher said in a completely flat tone.  “My name is Mr. Burton, and it is my privilege to guide you as you unfurl your sails and set off on a voyage of discovery…”

 

Interesting, the other thing whispered as Mr. Burton continued to talk.  Its attention was focused on Mike--El could feel it, in the way that she so often could with the other thing.

 

Leave it, she snapped, trying to focus on what Mr. Burton was saying.

 

You have not met it before? the other thing continued, undeterred.  No, I did not feel any recognition.  And it has not met you before. And yet… such an intriguing soft thing.

 

His name is Mike, said El, still struggling to focus.

 

Such an intriguing Mike-thing, the other thing amended.  It paused for a moment, then added, It looks stringy.

 

Shut up, ” El said.  It wasn’t until Mike glanced over at her in confusion that she realized that she’d muttered the words out loud.  “Oh, uh… I…” she whispered, flushing. “I… um… I have a song stuck in my head…?”

 

To her relief, Mike smiled.  “I hate that,” he whispered back, before turning his attention back to Mr. Burton.

 

All right, that is enough from you, El said to the other thing.  I have to focus and pay attention here, so do not ruin this for me.

 

She felt a pulse from it, a wave of indifferent acknowledgement, and it settled back into dormancy.  Sighing, she refocused herself back onto Mr. Burton, who was still talking in a monotone about the exciting opportunities that awaited them this year.

 

-    -    -

 

Morning classes passed in a whirl of papers, lectures, and notes for El.  It wasn’t as if the concept of studying was completely foreign to her. After all, she wouldn’t have been here to begin with if Hopper hadn’t buckled down and gotten her through enough homeschooling courses to test into the school.  Any hopes that the two experiences were comparable were quickly dashed, however; learning from Hopper’s patient, if insistent, one-on-one tutoring was completely different than learning when she was one of a few dozen students being talked at by the teacher, and El was starting to feel distinctly out of her depth.

 

At length, though, the bell rang to signal the end of her final morning class, and she found herself faced with an entirely different sort of challenge: lunchtime.

 

Clutching a tray, which carried a spread of food that reminded her vaguely of the microwaved dinners Hopper used to make for them before he taught himself how to cook, El surveyed the cafeteria with unease.  It echoed with the vague din of countless conversations, students sitting together at tables in distinct groups that El could perceive even if she didn’t understand the logic behind them, like all of her classrooms from that morning thrown together into one large, chaotic space.  She knew--from the movies, again--that at lunch you were supposed to sit and talk with your friends. The problem was, she didn’t seem to have any friends.

 

In fact, only one student in the entire school had bothered talking to her all morning.

 

Mike was sitting at a smaller table, tucked away in a corner.  Somewhat selfishly, El had hoped that he would be alone too, so that they could be alone together, but that wasn’t the case: he was surrounded by a group of friends who were happily chatting and laughing with him.  El faltered as she approached. She didn’t recognize any of the other people at the table--if any of them had been in her morning classes, she hadn’t noticed them. Mike, she felt sure, would accept her sitting at the table, but would they?

 

Before her second-guessing could lead to retreat, though, Mike caught sight of her, his expression shifting to surprise.  “El, hi!” he said, making the other heads at the table swivel in her direction as well.

 

“Hi,” El said, trying not to show how much she was quailing under the gazes of multiple strangers.  “Can I… I mean, is it okay with you if…?”

 

The question died in her throat, but Mike seemed to understand regardless.  “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, of course. You wouldn’t know anyone here, would you?  Guys, c’mon.” At his instruction, the others at the table shifted their chairs around, and an empty chair was produced and slid into place next to Mike, between him and a boy with a mop of curly brown hair.  El sat, timidly at first, but relaxing as Mike gave her a broad, welcoming smile. “Have you met any of the others?” he asked. She shook her head. “Okay. This is Lucas--” A black boy sitting to Mike’s other side nodded slightly at her “--and that next to him is Max.”  A girl with bright red hair waved casually. “They’re dating, and it’s, like, super gross.”

 

“You’re real mature, Wheeler,” replied Max, raising her middle finger in what El recognized as an obscene gesture.

 

“He’s just jealous,” Lucas said with a sly smile.  “Can’t stand the heat of our love for each other.”

 

“Oooh, baby,” Max cooed at him.  “Put your tongue in my mouth right now .”

 

“Okay, okay, jesus, don’t freak her out!” Mike said as the two began to lean towards each other, tongues wagging grotesquely.  He quickly redirected El’s attention to her other side. “Right, so this here is Dustin. He’s weird, but we like him anyway.”

 

“We’re all weird, I’m just the only one who’s proud of it.”  The boy with the curly hair--Dustin--offered his hand to El, who took it and gave it two firm shakes, as she had with Mike that morning.

 

“...and that over on Dustin’s other side is Will,” Mike finished.  Will was skinny, though in a way that made him look small and delicate in contrast to Mike’s solid lankiness.  He gave El a shy smile that she could identify all too well with, and she smiled at him in return.

 

“So your name was El?”  Max had stopped whatever it was she had been doing with Lucas, and was now looking directly at her.  “Are you new here, then?”

 

“Uh… yeah,” said El, picking up a piece of food from her tray and fidgeting with it.  “I moved here from Bloomington this summer.”

 

“Wow,” said Max, raising her eyebrows.  “That must be quite a change for you.”

 

“Yeah.”  El grimaced.  “It’s… kinda overwhelming, to be honest.”

 

“Wouldn’t moving to a small town from the city be less overwhelming?” Lucas asked, frowning.

 

El panicked for a moment--was that true?  Had she slipped up?--but before she could say anything, Max socked Lucas on the arm.  “ Obviously moving to a new town and school is going to be overwhelming, Lucas,” she said.

 

“Ow!” Lucas protested.  “Look, I’m just saying--”

 

Max rolled her eyes.  “You’re being an idiot, is what you’re doing.  Why are we dating?”

 

“So El,” Dustin’s voice came from her other side, and she turned her attention to him.  “What kind of things do you like? What do you do for fun?”

 

“Um…”  El tried to think of an answer that didn’t involve the other thing, or hiding in a cabin for four years.  “I… like movies?”

 

“Oh, yeah?”  Dustin leaned forward eagerly.  “What kind of movies?”

 

“I don’t know… all kinds.  My dad just rents me stuff he thinks I’ll like, and I think they’re all kind of interesting.”  She needed to redirect this conversation before it slipped out that those movies had been her only glimpse of the outside world before today.  “Um… do you all like to watch movies too?”

 

“Well, yeah, of course,” Mike said.  “We like Star Wars, Marvel, all of the obvious stuff… er, you’ve seen those, right?”

 

El nodded.  “I really like Star Wars.”

 

Mike grinned at her, looking weirdly… relieved, for some reason.  “Yeah, they’re good, aren’t they? Mind you, I don’t know about the new ones…”

 

“Are you kidding?” Lucas cut in.  “The new ones are great! Like the old ones are classics, can’t deny that, but the new ones take the story in a whole new direction.”

 

“I mean, they’re okay ,” Mike said, looking exasperated.  “But--”

 

“Rey kicks ass,” Max put in.  “Full stop, end of story.”

 

“I liked the new Godzilla movie,” Will said, speaking up for the first time.  Everyone turned to look at him. “Did you see that one, El?”

 

El frowned.  “I’ve seen… a few of those.  Which one are you talking about?”

 

“The one with all the different monsters, and they’ve got that device that can kinda control them, and the young girl… she actually kinda looks like you, come to think of it.  It just came out this year. Did you catch it in the theater?”

 

“I don’t ever see movies in theaters.”  Redirect, redirect! “What, um, what do you do besides watching movies?”

 

Mike shrugged.  “I don’t know. Hang out, go to the arcade sometimes… there’s not really a lot to do around here, to be honest.  We fill the time however we can…” He trailed off, sheepish.

 

“Whoa, okay, there’s one major thing you’re not mentioning, Mike,” Dustin said.  He puffed up with excitement, beaming at El. “Our heroic adventures!”

 

“Oh my god, Dustin,” Mike groaned.

 

“...adventures?” asked El.

 

“Yeah!” said Dustin.  “You know, vanquishing villains, protecting the innocent, proving our valor in battle and seeking glory and riches!”

 

El stared blankly at him.  What he was describing sounded like the plot of a movie or a book, but Hopper had told her that those were mostly made up, that they didn’t happen in real life.  Was he wrong? Had he lied to her?

 

“He’s talking about Dungeons and Dragons,” Mike sighed beside her.

 

“Dungeons and… Dragons?” she asked.

 

He waved a hand dismissively.  “It’s just… it’s a nerd thing.”

 

“But what is it?”

 

“It’s a role-playing game,” explained Lucas.  “Fantasy.”

 

“Role-playing…?  Fantasy…?”

 

“Um,” said Will.  “Like… swords and sorcery.”

 

“Yeah,” added Dustin.  “And elves, and dwarves, and orcs…”

 

That clicked.  “Oh!” cried El.  “You mean… it’s like Lord of the Rings?”  Hopper had brought those movies home from the rental store once, and they’d spent an entire weekend watching them.  El had adored them--Hopper had caught her more than once using a stick to reenact the big fight scenes.

 

“Yeah!” said Dustin.  “Yeah, it’s a lot like Lord of the Rings, except it’s a game.”

 

“What kind of game?” El asked, looking at Mike.

 

“Um,” Mike began.  He was smiling, but it was bashful, like he was embarrassed to talk about it.  El couldn’t imagine why--anything that was like Lord of the Rings had to be amazing.  “Well, it’s like… you’re telling a story, except that each person plays a role in that story, like their own character.  And then you have one person, they’re the Dungeon Master, and they tell you what you’re up against, and then you roll dice and stuff to figure out what happens, and act it out.  So it’s kind of like being in the story of Lord of the Rings yourself.”

 

El gazed at him in undisguised awe.  “That sounds amazing,” she said dreamily.

 

“Do… do you want to play?” he asked, all but blurting the words out.  “We have a regular game on Thursday nights…”

 

Excitement shot through El’s body at the idea, prompting a brief quizzical response from the other thing.  “Oh, yes! Yes!” she squealed, bouncing slightly in her seat. Her mood slipped, though, as she noticed the looks that everyone else at the table was giving Mike.

 

“Really, Mike?” asked Lucas, clearly annoyed.  “You’re gonna pull her into our campaign, just like that?” 

 

“What?” Mike said.  “You’re DMing, so with her that makes a party of five.  That’s still manageable.”

 

“Manageable, yeah,” grumbled Lucas.  “I’ll have to rebalance all of my encounters, but never mind that, I guess…”

 

“Aw, come on, Lucas,” Max said, leaning in and attaching herself to his arm.  “You saw how excited she was just now, right? Mike’s right, we should give her a chance to play.”

 

El stared down at the table.  “I mean, if it’s going to be too much trouble…”

 

“No!” Mike said.  “No, it’s not too much trouble.  Right, guys?” He looked around the table significantly.

 

“Right,” agreed Will, grinning at El.

 

“Always happy to have another addition to the party,” said Dustin.

 

“Well?  What do you say, Lucas?” Max asked in a sweet voice, snuggling into his shoulder.

 

“Fine,” Lucas groaned.  “Fine, I’ll figure it out.  But you’re playing dirty, Mayfield.”

 

“Love you too,” Max replied, kissing his cheek.

 

With that decided, the conversation turned to other topics, but El was only half listening as she picked at her food.  A soaring feeling of elation was filling her chest. She was excited to play this game they had talked about, sure, but there was something more than that, something fundamental that warmed her from the inside out.

 

Had she just made friends?

Chapter Text

“All right, kid,” Hopper said as they stood before the front door.  “If you need anything--”

 

“--call you, and you’ll drop everything and come running.”  El smiled over her shoulder at him. “Dad, it’s going to be fine.  These are my friends.”

 

At the word ‘friends’, Hopper’s expression softened noticeably.  He’d been taken aback that first evening, when El had come home from school already wanting to go over to someone else’s house later that week.  For a moment she’d been afraid that he was going to put his foot down on the matter, but when she’d argued that meeting people and making friends was a large part of the reason he’d sent her to school in the first place, he’d relented.  “Yeah, okay. Just promise that you will call if you need me, alright?  For your poor old dad’s sake.”

 

“Promise,” grinned El.  She leaned forward to ring the doorbell, then rocked back onto her heels, bouncing slightly in place as she waited for somebody to answer.

 

She didn’t have to wait long.  “Well, hello there! You must be El.  Mike told me to expect you.” Mrs. Wheeler had a mane of curly brown hair and a kind face; El could see traces of Mike in the lines of it.  “Jim, hello.”

 

“Hello, Karen,” Hopper replied, gruff but not unfriendly.  “Been a while.”

 

“It has, hasn’t it?  I didn’t realize that you had… well, another daughter.”

 

Hopper’s hand found its way to El’s shoulder.  “She just moved into town. She’d been living with her mother ever since… since Sara.”

 

Karen nodded, a look of sadness flickering onto her face and vanishing just as quickly.  “Well,” she said, looking back down at El. “We’re delighted to have you. The others are waiting for you down in the basement.  Jim, you’ll be by to pick her up around nine?”

 

“Count on it.”  Hopper’s hand squeezed El’s shoulder and then let go.  “Okay, kid. Behave yourself and have fun, in that order.”

 

“Yes, dad ,” El said, looking back at him and using her brattiest voice.  

 

She was rewarded by the twitch of a smile underneath Hopper’s moustache.  “All right. See you later.” With that, he turned and walked back up the drive to the Blazer.

 

Mrs. Wheeler led El inside, and El momentarily forgot herself, goggling at the house around her.  The first floor alone was bigger than the cabin, and there were stairs leading up to a second floor besides, not to mention that Mrs. Wheeler had mentioned a basement.  It was pretty, too; patterned wallpaper covered the walls and a soft layer of carpet covered the floors, and what exposed wood there was looked carefully sanded down and varnished.  She couldn’t remember ever being in a place like this before in her life, a sharp contrast to the lab’s sterility, the cabin’s rough pragmatism, and the school’s worn utility.

 

As usual, seeing it in the movies was nothing like living the reality.

 

“Mike!” Mrs. Wheeler called down the basement stairs.  “Your friend is here! Go on down, sweetie,” she added to El.  El gave her a shy smile in response and made her way down the stairs.

 

“El!”  The call had come from more than one person; five faces were grinning at her from around a table that had been set up in the middle of the basement.  Mike was giving her a welcoming smile, of course, but so was Max, and Dustin, and Will… even Lucas, for all his earlier complaining, looked happy to see her.  El stood at the foot of the stairs, smiling back at them in a slight daze. Where just three short days ago, their combined stares had made her want to turn and run away, now she was feeling like she could jump into the air and fly.

 

“El, here,” Mike said, patting an empty chair next to him.  Coming back to her senses, she ran over and plopped herself down.  “All right,” he said. “Lucas has the session ready, but before we do anything, we’ve got to create your character.”

 

“Create… my character,” El repeated, looking into his face with wide eyes.

 

“Yeah,” Mike said, grinning and--was his face turning a little bit red?  No, that couldn’t be right. “It’s a little bit of a process, but for starters you just need to pick a race and a class.”

 

“Race and class?”

 

“Yeah.  Race is just what it sounds like--you can be human, but you could also be an elf, or a dwarf, or--”

 

“I want to be an elf,” El said decisively.  The elves in Lord of the Rings had been captivatingly pretty, and she wasn’t going to pass up the chance to be one of them.

 

“Okay, cool,” Mike laughed.  “Here…” He slid a sheet of paper in front of her that was covered in boxes and lines.  El squinted down at it.

 

“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Mike said reassuringly.  “I’ll help you fill it out, and you’ll figure out what it means in no time.  Just ask me if you have any questions, okay?”

 

“Okay,” El said softly, smiling at him.

 

“Uh…” Mike blinked at her a moment, as though he were confused about something.  “O-oh, right… here.” He pointed at a line at the top of the page that read ‘RACE’.  “Write that you’re an elf in there.”

 

El dutifully picked up a pencil from the table and wrote, ‘ Elf ’.

 

“Right, maybe we should wait to figure out your subrace until… oh, I’ll explain that in a moment,” Mike said, seeing El’s look of confusion.  “Let’s get your class figured out first. Your class is… like your job, what you do in the party. You know, like Gandalf is a wizard, Legolas is an archer, Aragorn uses a sword…”

 

“Maybe she should play a fighter or something, since it’s her first time?” Lucas suggested.  “They’re not hard to figure out.”

 

“Yeah, but Mike’s already on frontline duty as our paladin,” Dustin said.  “She should play a class that adds something new to the party.”

 

“Paladin?” El asked, looking at Mike.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Mike said.  “A paladin is like… a holy knight.  I wear heavy armor, and I fight the bad guys head-on with a big sword and holy magic.”

 

El had a brief mental image of Mike as a knight in shining armor, standing strong against a horde of monsters.  It made her stomach tickle oddly. “What about the others?”

 

“Dustin’s our bard,” Mike said.  “He’s kind of like our support, he plays music to inspire us and has a bunch of different skills and knowledge.  Will’s a cleric, he has holy magic like me, but instead of fighting up front he stands back and hits enemies with ranged spells.  And Max…”

 

“I’m a rogue,” Max said.  “A thief with a heart of gold who can unlock any door, disarm any trap, pick any pocket, and steal any heart.”  She winked theatrically at El, making her giggle.

 

“You know, come to think of it, we don’t have a wizard or a sorcerer,” Dustin said.

 

“Those are two of the hardest classes for a new player, though,” Mike protested, looking at him.  “And besides, you’ve got utility casting covered.”

 

“I mean, kinda?  My spells are all party support, though.  She could do some really useful stuff with those spell lists.”

 

El was only half listening to the debate.  Being a wizard would mean she would be like Gandalf.  Except that she was an elf, so that would make her like… Galadriel?  She liked Galadriel. “I’ll be a wizard,” she said.

 

Mike looked back at her.  “You sure, El? The rules for magic are kinda complicated.”

 

El nodded.  “Yeah, I’m sure.  If… if you’re still okay with helping me.”

 

“Yeah, of course!”  Mike reached across the table and grabbed a book from the stack that was sitting in the middle.  “Okay, let’s see… wizard…”

 

All told, making her character took about an hour, and all the information and numbers involved made El’s head spin a little bit.  Mike and the others were patient with her, laying out the choices she had to make and answering all of her questions about them. She decided to be a ‘high elf’, which according to Mike meant she was more like Galadriel than Legolas, and according to Dustin would make her smarter and therefore a better wizard.  She decided to specialize in illusion magic, thinking that the subtlety and artistry fit the beautiful, graceful elf that was starting to take shape in her mind. Mike guided her through rolling her stats, and gave her suggestions for how to assign them. “You’re going to be kind of squishy,” he explained, “that is, you’re not going to be able to take a lot of damage before dying.  But that’s okay. Just stay behind me, and I’ll protect you so that you can cast your spells uninterrupted.”

 

El had another vision of Mike as the shining knight, only this time he was protecting her from the monstrous horde.  The tickling feeling in her stomach returned, stronger now.

 

“So are we ready?” Lucas asked.

 

Mike looked at El, who nodded at him.  “Yeah, looks like we’re ready,” he said.

 

“All right.”  Lucas flipped open a laptop computer that was sitting on the table in front of him.  He took a few moments to look at whatever was on the screen, nodding periodically to himself, then looked back up at everyone else.  “Last time, you had gone in search of the Key of Marinus and, having retrieved it, found yourself ambushed by a pack of gnolls--those are, like, demon-worshiping hyena people,” he added, looking at El.  “You bravely fought off the attack, but it cost you precious time; you can see the shadows lengthen, and the sun is beginning to dip behind the mountains in the west. What do you do?”

 

“Okay, he’s clearly trying to get us to set up camp for the night,” Dustin said.

 

“Whoa, bad idea,” Max said.  “We literally just got attacked here.  No way we’re going to make it through the night in peace.”

 

“I don’t know that trying to travel along the road in the dark is going to go much better,” said Will.

 

“Wait, is my character with them?” El asked, frowning.

 

“Not yet,” Lucas replied, holding up a hand.  “I’ll get to that soon, I promise.”

 

“Okay guys, look,” Mike said, and the other heads at the table turned to him.  “Max is right that this is a dangerous place to stay, but Will’s also right that we’re not going to make it back to the town before nightfall.  I say we use the remaining light to find somewhere safer to camp, then settle in for the night. We can do a watch shift just to make sure. Does that sound good to everyone?”

 

Dustin, Will, and Max all nodded.

 

“Cool.”  Mike smiled.  “We’ll do that, then.”

 

“All right,” said Lucas.  “One of you, roll a Survival check to find a campsite away from the road.”

 

“Oh.”  Mike blanched.  “Um, is anybody proficient?  Dustin?”

 

“Sorry, man, I went all in on party face skills,” Dustin said.

 

“Don’t look at me, it’s not a class skill for Rogues,” Max said.

 

“I’ll roll it,” Will said.  “It’s off of Wisdom, right? I have the best Wisdom of all of us.”

 

El blinked and looked down at her character sheet.  Mike had explained skills briefly--he had said that whenever there was something hard you had to do, you’d roll a die to see if you could do it, and that being proficient in skills made it more likely that you’d succeed.  She wasn’t proficient in the skill in question either, for all that mattered given that her character apparently wasn’t present.

 

Will took a die in hand--they had called it a d20?--and rolled it across the tabletop.  “Ooh,” he commented, wincing slightly. “...12?”

 

Lucas nodded.  “Okay. You go a little ways off the road and find a spot on the other side of a small hill that you think should be both comfortable and fairly well hidden.”

 

“So he succeeded, then?” El asked.

 

“Maybe,” Mike said, looking at her.  “Sometimes you don’t find out whether you succeeded or not until later.  If Will didn’t roll well enough, then we might get attacked during the night or something.”

 

“That sounds nerve-wracking.”

 

“Yeah,” said Mike with a smile.  “But that’s what makes it fun, too.”

 

“You light a small campfire, eat some rations, and settle down to rest for the night,” Lucas said.  “Which one of you is taking first watch?”

 

“I will,” Mike said.  “I’ll keep my armor on and keep an eye out for trouble.”

 

“All right.  The others lie down on their bedrolls and fall asleep.  It’s not very long until you hear something moving softly in the darkness.”

 

“I’ll stand up and ready my sword.”

 

“As you peer into the shadows, you see a humanoid figure draped in a cloak, walking directly towards you.”

 

“Who goes there?” barked Mike, his voice suddenly loud and authoritative.  El rocked back slightly in her chair, startled.

 

“El.  El?” Lucas was trying to get her attention.  “That’s your character he’s talking to. How do you respond?”

 

“Oh.”  This was it, she was about to join the game for real.  Butterflies filled El’s stomach. “I guess… she’s going to go up to him and say that--”

 

“Say it in character,” Lucas said.

 

“What?”

 

“In character.  You know, like… pretend that you are your character, and that she’s saying what you’re saying.  Like Mike did just now when he challenged you.”

 

El looked over at Mike, who smiled encouragingly at her.  “Okay,” she said. “Um…” She closed her eyes for a moment and focused her imagination, trying to picture herself as a beautiful, powerful elf wizard, graceful and sure.  “My name is Galwyn,” she said, opening her eyes again, trying to put the gentle imperiousness of Galadriel into her voice. “I have traveled long, and the hour is late. I would be glad of your company, and the safety of your campfire, if you are willing to have me.”

 

The others were staring at her, looking slightly stunned.

 

“Was that bad?” El asked, folding into herself slightly.

 

“No, no, that was really good, El!” Mike said.  “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?”

 

El tried to picture Hopper playing D&D with her; the mental image made her grin.  “Yeah, pretty sure.”

 

“All right,” Mike laughed.  “Well, anyway…” He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again it was in a slightly deeper, stronger tone.  “Apologies, my lady. I would never have raised my sword to you if I had known you were a fellow traveler.” He grinned.  “Then Davnan lowers his sword and removes his helmet, and that’s when you notice that he has bright red skin and horns.”

 

“Oh!”  El’s shocked reaction was genuine, even though on reflection it made sense for her character too.

 

Mike’s face fell theatrically.  “I hope that my appearance didn’t startle you, my lady.  I know that my kind are oft regarded as ill-favored, but I assure you, you have nothing to fear from me.”  He looked at her with an expression so plaintive that it made her heart ache a little bit.

 

“Oh.  Um…” She reached out and touched Mike on the shoulder, making him stiffen slightly in surprise.  “Noble sir, I apologize for my rudeness. You need not apologize for your appearance. I have always believed that it is what a person has inside them that they should be judged by.”  It was kind of an odd sentiment, given El’s own circumstances, but it felt like the right thing to say.

 

“So are we all still sleeping while they’re making eyes at each other?” Dustin asked.  Mike flushed and turned to stare pointedly at the table; El pulled her hand back from his shoulder, vaguely confused.

 

“...no,” replied Lucas, looking at them with a raised eyebrow.  “I’m going to say that the three of you get woken up by the sound of voices.”

 

“Cool,” Max said.  She stretched and yawned, then looked across the table at El, smacking her lips like cartoon characters did when they’d just woken up.  “Hi. Who the hell are you?”

 

“Huh?” El asked, trying to hold in her laughter.  “Oh, I’m… I am Galwyn.”

 

“Hey.  I’m Ravalynn.  Nice to meetcha.”  A grin flashed across Max’s face, and she spun a die across the tabletop.  “17 to pick her pocket while we’re trading greetings.”

 

“Max!” Mike protested.

 

“What?  I’m just saying hello.”  Max held a hand out to El, who realized that she was miming holding a coin purse.  

 

El scowled the best she could in response and snatched the imaginary purse back from Max.  “I would appreciate you keeping your hands to yourself in the future,” she said in her imperious elf voice.

 

“I’m sure you would,” Max grinned, and El had to fight not to laugh again.

 

“Hello, fair lady,” Dustin said.  “My name is Jamorin, bard by trade.”  He held up a die. “I--”

 

Mike turned to face him.  “So help me, Dustin, if your next words are ‘roll to seduce’...”

 

He was turned away from El, so she couldn’t see the expression on his face, but it was clearly fairly impressive given that Dustin was leaning back in his chair, away from Mike.  “Uh…” Dustin said. “I… roll to play a nice song to welcome our new friend?”

 

Mike turned back to the table, satisfied, but still scowling.  El’s lips twitched into a smile. “If everybody’s done being dicks to our new party member…” Mike growled.

 

“I haven’t had the chance to be a dick to her yet,” Will said mildly.

 

Everybody at the table turned to look at him.

 

Will looked back at them impassively, then broke into a grin.  “Kidding, I’m kidding. Greetings, Miss Galwyn; I am Trakas, cleric of Lathander.  It is a pleasure to meet you.” He inclined his head in a small bow.

 

“And you as well,” replied El, bowing back.

 

“If you all are done screwing around,” Lucas said, looking at them over the top of his laptop, “I do have a plot here…”

 

The group agreed that they all rested for the night, and set off towards the town the next day.  Lucas spun the scenery around them with his words, describing the lushness of the early morning in a way that put El in mind of some quiet sunrise moments she’d had on the cabin’s porch.  Upon arriving, the party took the Key of Marinus to the town elder (Mike explained that he had been the one who’d sent them in search of it last session), who told them that they needed to take it up to the old temple that stood atop the nearby mountain.  They stocked up on supplies before heading out again, only to run into a family of angry cave bears on the path up the mountain.

 

It was El’s first battle, and it was every bit as thrilling as she could’ve hoped.  Mike charged directly at the bears and kept them occupied in melee combat, while Dustin stood by to inspire him and keep him healed, and Max darted in and out of the fray to hit the bears in the flanks.  Will stood back and lobbed powerful, searing spells at the bears while they were occupied. El stayed back with him; her spells (chosen with Mike’s assistance) were more geared towards disabling and distracting the enemy, so she did so as best she could.  She even wound up giving Max the opening to land the final blow, by distracting one of the bears with an illusion at a critical moment.

 

“Yeah!” Max cheered.

 

“Great job, El!”  Mike held up his hand for a high-five, which El happily gave him, heart soaring.

 

Even Lucas couldn’t help but smile.  “Okay, are you continuing on, then?”

 

“Hang on,” Mike said.  “I want to use my knife to cut off one of the bear’s claws.”

 

“Okay…?  You can do that,” Lucas said.

 

Mike turned to El, clearing his throat.  “For you, my lady,” he said in his noble paladin voice.  “A trophy of our first victory together… may it be the first of many.”

 

“I do desire that it be so,” El said, not even bothering to hold back her grin.

 

Dustin looked across the table at Will and Max, sticking a finger down his throat and pulling a face.  They both snorted at that; El wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be about.

 

The group continued up the mountain until they reached the temple.  At this point, they called a halt to establish the order in which they’d be walking in.  It was generally agreed that Max should go first (“Old ruins have a lot of traps and stuff,” Mike explained, “and she’s the best at finding and disarming them.”).  Mike went next in his role as the party’s frontline, followed by Dustin, and then Will and El in the rear.

 

“The stone doors of the temple grind open,” Lucas said, “and you find yourselves in a vast antechamber.  On the far wall, you see a large relief that takes up nearly the entire wall. It depicts an ancient battle, the forces of good locked in a struggle with an army of demons.  In the center are two figures in single combat--a mortal champion, fighting against a demon lord you recognize as Demogorgon.”

 

There were soft exclamations from around the table.  “Ohhh shit,” groaned Dustin.

 

El frowned.  “What is… ‘Demogorgon’?”

 

Lucas looked at her.  “Your character would know this, El.  Demogorgon is like… he’s a powerful demon who commands a horde of other demons.  He rules in the Abyss--that’s the world of the demons--and sometimes attacks the world of mortals.”

 

“I see,” El said.  In their mindspace, she nudged the other thing slightly.  Hey look, it’s you .

 

What? said the other thing, rousing itself.  I am not out there.  I am in here, where I always am.

 

No, but, like… Demogorgon’s a powerful monster from another world that’s crossed over into the human world.  It’s totally like you, don’t you see it?

 

This is one of your make-believe things, the other thing said, somewhere between a question and a statement.

 

Uh-huh.  You’re in one of our make-believe things .

 

The other thing sent a pulse of disdain at her, but she could feel it lurking in the back of her consciousness, watching with wary interest.

 

“Okay,” Mike was saying.  “We got attacked by gnolls earlier, and we know that they worship demons.  If this temple has something to do with Demogorgon, we could be in for some trouble.”

 

“Don’t gnolls worship Yeenoghu, though?” Dustin asked.

 

“Maybe it’s like a splinter sect,” Will said.  “Or maybe they were trying to keep the key away from Demogorgon’s worshippers.”

 

Lucas was looking at all of them, his eyes glittering enigmatically.  “How do you all proceed?”

 

“Guess there’s nothing for it but to head deeper into the temple,” Mike sighed.

 

We’re totally going to get you, El teased the other thing.

 

You will not ‘get’ me , the other thing replied seriously.  I am the Demogorgon.

 

They pressed on into the temple, Max searching for traps as they went.  True to what Mike had said earlier, she excelled at it, easily finding and disarming all of them except for one (a spectacularly bad roll that had gotten a particularly vehement swear from Max when it came up).  She’d glared at Lucas when he took seemingly a little too much enjoyment from describing how Ravalynn took a burst of needles in the face, but Mike stepped in and patched up the damage with his paladin powers, allowing the group to continue on.

 

At last, they came to another massive set of stone doors deep in the temple.  A brief argument ensued when Dustin said that they should stop and prepare for what was obviously the final battle, and Lucas accused him of ‘metagaming’ (which, Mike explained to El, meant that he was using things that he knew but that his character wouldn’t).  Will ended the argument by rolling to have his character listen at the door, succeeding well enough that Lucas had to concede that he could tell that there would be trouble on the other side. A brief round of strategizing and preparations ensued, and then…

 

“As the door opens,” Lucas said, “you can see that the chamber within is lit eerily by a series of torches, burning with green light.  A group of cultists swathed in black robes have set up a magic circle in the center, and their chanting fills the air. You’ve arrived a moment too late to stop their ritual--as you watch, a sickly flash of light blinds you momentarily, and when you regain your sight, a great, apelike demon is standing in the center of the circle--a Barlgura!”

 

“Oh shit !” Dustin exclaimed, both hands on his head.

 

“We’ve got this, guys,” Mike said, confidently and forcefully.  “Don’t freak out!”

 

If El had thought the fight against the bears was exciting, this battle was all that and more.  A lucky roll put her turn early in the round, and reviewing the spells she’d chosen for her character, she found one that seemed useful--conjuring a large, sticky mass of webs.  With encouragement from the other party members, she cast it on the cultists and the Barlgura, entangling them all. The Barlgura, large and brutish, broke free almost immediately, but Mike stepped forward to engage it with Dustin and Will backing him up.  Meanwhile, with an almost disturbing amount of glee, Max darted forward and started picking off the cultists who were still tangled in El’s web.

 

Then, suddenly, a crisis.  With a wicked gleam in his eye, Lucas had the Barlgura take a mighty running leap, vaulting over Mike’s head to attack the far more vulnerable Dustin and Will.  One devastating flurry of attacks later, both were badly injured, in danger of being taken out on the Barlgura’s next turn in spite of their attempts to retreat and Mike’s frantic efforts to heal them as best he could.  Max was still on the other side of the chamber, too far away to intervene.

 

Then it was El’s turn, the last chance the party had to act before the Barlgura.

 

“El, if you’ve got something good up your sleeve, now’s a good time to bust it out,” Dustin said in a slightly panicked voice.

 

El bit her lip.  She had been saving her most powerful spells, so…

 

“I… I’m going to cast Major Image,” she said.

 

“Okay,” Lucas said.  “What kind of illusion are you summoning?”

 

“I…”  A sudden burst of inspiration sparked in El’s mind.  “I’m going to summon the illusion of a big, angry dragon--while I shout, ‘ You shall not pass! ’”

 

The table dissolved into laughter, and while El blushed helplessly, she couldn’t help smiling and giggling herself.  “Oh my god, I love it!” Max exclaimed between breaths.

 

“All right then,” Lucas said, sniggering.  “So it’s the Barlgura’s turn, and it’s obviously surprised at the sudden appearance of a big, angry dragon in its face.  It spends its turn trying to attack it, gawping as its fists pass right through it.” More laughter. “Mike, your turn.”

 

The party fell on the distracted Barlgura in turn--Mike, Dustin, Will, even Max managing to sprint across the chamber to get the final hit in.  The demon crashed to the ground, defeated, and a cheer went up around the table as the party celebrated their victory.

 

“Nice going, El!” said Max.

 

“Yeah, El!” Mike added.  “You totally saved us there!”

 

El squealed and wrapped her arms around him, her body singing with the excitement of what she had just pulled off.  Mike’s arms floundered for a few seconds before he awkwardly returned the embrace, and they stayed like that for a moment before El broke away, grinning like a loon.  “Thank you for inviting me, Mike,” she said.

 

“Y-yeah,” Mike stammered.  “Of course, El!”

 

“Man, if you’re this awesome every session, you can play with us anytime you like,” Dustin added.

 

The jubilant mood had only just begun to simmer down when Mrs. Wheeler’s voice came down the stairs.  “Mike, nine o’clock!”

 

Mike blew out a heavy sigh.  “Okay, mom!” he yelled back. In his normal voice, he added, “I guess that’s it for tonight, then,” looking regretfully around the table.

 

“It’s cool, we got through pretty much everything I had anyway,” Lucas said.  “We can figure out loot and stuff at the beginning of the next session.”

 

“Oh, yeah.”  Mike looked at El as the others around the table began to gather their things.  “We do this every week on Thursday… are you, uh, is that something that works for you?”

 

El blinked at him.  “Of course. Why wouldn’t it?”

 

“Well, I just didn’t want to assume, like, if there was something else that you had going on…”

 

El very nearly asked what else she would have going on, before remembering just in time that normal people didn’t spend most of their time hidden away in a remote cabin.  “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here,” she said instead, and apparently that was the right thing to say, because it made Mike’s face light up in a way that made her feel warm and fluttery inside.

 

Most intriguing, the other thing said.

 

Don’t start, El snapped back, turning away from Mike in the hopes that it’d hide the sudden irritation crossing her expression.

 

They piled up the stairs in a chattering stampede.  Hopper was waiting in the front room--El was sure he’d showed up precisely at nine, if not slightly before.  “Hey, kid,” he said.

 

“Hey,” El said back, grinning.  

 

Hopper’s guarded expression melted into a grin of his own to match, and he pulled her into a hug.  “Well, you look like you had fun,” he said. “Thanks for looking after her, Karen.”

 

Mrs. Wheeler laughed softly and rolled her eyes.  “Honestly, they disappeared into the basement shortly after you left and only just came back up.  I barely had to do anything.”

 

“Ideal teenagers, then.”  Hopper’s gaze fell on Will.  “Hey, you. Byers.”

 

“Huh?”  Will looked back at him, slightly startled.

 

“Say hi to your mom for me, will you?”

 

“Oh… okay, sure.”

 

Hopper nodded, apparently satisfied.  “Okay, El. Time for us to head home.”

 

“Okay.”  El turned to face the others.  “It was… really nice playing with all of you.  Lucas, thank you for running the game. I’ll see you all in school tomorrow?”

 

“Uh, yeah, of course,” Max said.  “Unless you were planning on skipping out on us, Hopper.”

 

“Saving the life of a party member means you’re in the party,” Dustin said, as though reciting from some sort of code.

 

Mike rolled his eyes.  “What these dorks are trying to say is that you’re our friend now, which means we can hang out whenever you want to.  Uh, if that sounds good to you.”

 

“I’d like that,” El said.

 

“Cool.”  Mike smiled, but there was a strange nervous edge to it.  “Well… goodnight, El.”

 

El smiled back at him, and oddly, it felt a little nervous as well.  “Goodnight, Mike.”

 

-     -     -

 

“So how were the dungeons and the dragons?” Hopper asked as the Blazer cruised down the road.

 

El smacked him lightly on the arm, grinning.  “It was a temple, although I guess it also counts as a dungeon?” she said.  “That’s what Dustin told me, anyway. And the only dragon was the illusion I conjured to trick the ape-demon thing.”

 

“Ape-demon thing?” Hopper asked, raising his eyebrows.

 

“Yeah.”  El filled him in as best she could on the party’s adventures from that night.  “It was amazing,” she concluded with a contented sigh. “I got to be an elf who was also a wizard, and we fought demons and cultists and bears, and I used my spells to save the party from certain defeat.”

 

“Huh, that does all sound very Lord of the Rings,” Hopper said.  “Well, it sounds like you’ve found yourself a good group there.”

 

“They are good,” El agreed.  “Especially Mike. He’s so nice to me.”  Hopper turned his head slightly and gave her a sidelong glance.  “They’re all nice,” she continued, oblivious. “I mean, it took Lucas a little while to warm up to me, and Dustin talks too much sometimes, and Will’s kind of quiet and shy, and Max seems like she enjoys getting into trouble… but they’re nice.  I like them a lot.”

 

Hopper said something else, but El didn’t hear it.  

 

A feeling suddenly shot through her like lightning riding up her spine, bringing every nerve in her body screaming to alertness.  It was danger and look out and run and fight all at once, slamming into her with the force of a hurricane.  Her head snapped around, gaze drawn automatically out the window to the darkness of the trees lining the road.

 

What was that?! she asked.

 

The other thing’s attention was also focused out the window; El could feel its sudden alertness, a close mirror to her own.  Something is out there, it said simply.  Hunting.

 

Hunting?  El’s mind whirled--first to Mike, but he was back at his house.  Safe, or so El hoped. Max and Lucas had left together in Max’s car, which probably meant that they were okay as well.  Dustin and Will, however, were biking home… easy prey for whatever was on the hunt.

 

“El?”  Hopper’s increasingly worried voice broke into her awareness.  “El? What’s wrong?”

 

“Stop the car,” she said.

 

“What?”

Stop the car!

 

The force of the outburst made Hopper react by instinct, stomping on the brakes and bringing the Blazer screeching to a halt.  “El, what the hell is going on?” Hopper demanded, but El was already unbuckling her seatbelt and shoving her way out of the passenger side door.  “El?! El!

 

El charged into the trees.  The other thing’s power was flowing into her, letting her pumping legs propel her with inhuman speed.  She reached out with its senses, and the forest surrounding her snapped into sharp relief, painting itself onto her awareness in a way that her eyes would never be able to achieve in the darkness.  She dodged around tree trunks and under branches, avoiding them with careless ease.

 

Something was moving, up ahead.  It was the same thing that had triggered El’s reaction in the car, the same sense of danger-fight-run crawling up her neck as she perceived it.  Through the other thing’s senses, El got the impression of a mass of shadow, cold and threatening.  There were six spidery legs, each ending in a wicked talon, and a prehensile neck ending in a large bud that opened like a flower into a mouth ringed with countless wicked teeth.  The spidery thing was crashing through the treetops with an agility that seemed at odds with its considerable size.

 

There was something else, too… something small and bright, blazing against the dark backdrop of the woods.  It was moving along the ground, fleeing the spidery thing, quickly but not quickly enough. It took a moment for El to translate the impressions from the other thing’s senses into something that her human brain could recognize.

 

Will.

 

He was on foot, having apparently abandoned his bicycle at some point in the pursuit.  He was stumbling over roots and blundering into branches, slowing him as the spidery thing closed in on him, a predator preparing for the kill.

 

He was going to die if El didn’t intervene.  She didn’t think twice.

 

She opened herself completely to the other thing, letting it flood into her.  There was a sickening shifting in her bones as her limbs began to lengthen. Her hands distended, stretching out into the other thing’s grasping claws.  She hunched forward as her torso lengthened, and the fabric of her clothes and her skin began to flow into each other, blending until they were the same sickly grey-green.  Her scalp prickled as her head bulged outward, deforming into a shapeless lump, and her mouth split open into a gaping maw, lined all the way down with teeth.

 

Transformed, she leaped into action.

 

Bounding across the ground and around the trees, she jumped and reached out for the spidery thing.  Her claws closed around one of its legs, and she hauled down with all her might. The spidery thing faltered and crashed through the branches to the ground, registering its displeasure audibly with a high-pitched screech, and mentally with a pulse of alien emotion that washed over El.

 

She dove down after it, pressing the attack, but one of its legs whipped out, raking a talon across her upper arm.  The talon pierced skin that was capable of deflecting bullets, drawing a line that leaked a gush of blood so dark it was almost black.  El’s and the other thing’s voices rang out together in a combined cry of surprise and pain.

 

Another talon whipped towards her, but El or the other thing or both of them reacted more quickly this time, speed born of the knowledge that the spidery thing could hurt them.  She--or they--ducked underneath the blow, surging forward and bringing both claws forward in a vicious attack that tore multiple gashes open on two of the spidery thing’s legs. The spidery thing howled again, its agony hammering into El’s psyche like a physical blow, but she pushed past it and raked another claw out, this one grazing along the side of its head.

 

The spidery thing gave another agonized shriek and convulsed, slamming its legs into El and sending her flying.  She hit a tree several yards away with enough force to shatter the trunk, but her unnaturally tough body weathered the blow as though it were nothing, and she was back on her feet within moments, stance low and claws splayed wide, ready for the spidery thing’s next attack.

 

The attack never came.  The spidery thing’s presence receded from El’s awareness, and soon was gone altogether.  She stood still for a few long moments, unsure if it had retreated or was preparing for a surprise attack.

 

It is gone, the other thing said.  We are too much trouble to be good prey.

 

El pulsed acknowledgement at it, and her attention turned to Will.  He’d fallen to the ground at some point during her fight with the spidery thing, and was staring at her wide-eyed, body quaking slightly, frozen in fear.  She wanted to speak to him, to tell him that it was okay, that she wasn’t going to hurt him, that he should go-- something , but if she spoke it would be her voice coming out of the monster he saw in front of him.  She didn’t know if he’d recognize it well enough to put the pieces together, but it was one risk too many.

 

Tell him to run, she told the other thing.

 

It opened their mouth.  “ Run, ” it grated in a guttural, snarling voice.  The sound snapped Will out of his paralysis, and he scrambled to his feet, running away as fast as his legs would carry him.  El watched him go for a little ways, then turned away with a sigh. Her body shivered and began to shrink as the other thing receded from her.

 

Footsteps made their way through the trees towards her as she changed back to her normal body, stopping to wait patiently as the transformation completed.  Clenching her jaw, El turned towards them. Hopper was glowering at her with an expression she recognized all too well.

 

“What the hell did you do, El?” he growled.

 

She willed herself to look him in the eye.  “I sensed something,” she said quietly. “Something like the other thing, out here in the woods--”

 

“And so your first instinct was to run towards it?!” Hopper snapped.  “Jesus, El--!”

 

“I had to stop it!” she protested.  “It was on the hunt, I couldn’t just leave it while there was someone in danger--”

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop,” Hopper held up a hand.  “Someone in danger? Are you saying that there was someone else out here too?  Someone human?”

 

“...yes,” El said.

 

“And did this person see you?”

 

El’s voice failed her, but her silence was answer enough.

 

“Jesus,” snarled Hopper.  “Jesus, jesus, jesus .  This is what I get?  Not even one week out of the cabin, and you’ve already let somebody see you like… like that?”

 

Anger surged burning hot through El.  “That’s not fair!” she yelled at Hopper.  “I saved his life!”

 

“Yeah, and now he’s going to run and tell someone what he saw, and people are going to start asking questions!” Hopper yelled back.

 

“Oh, and they weren’t going to ask questions if somebody just mysteriously dies in the middle of the woods?”

 

“That’s not the point!” snapped Hopper.  “The point is that you took a risk--a stupid risk!”

 

“So what, I was just supposed to let Will die?!”

 

Hopper reeled backwards slightly at the mention of Will’s name, briefly lost for words.

 

Your father-thing is foolish , the other thing murmured.  It lets its fear for your safety blind it.

 

The words were meant as an idle comment, but they were a bucket of water on the fires of El’s temper.  Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath to recenter herself. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “I know that it was a risk, and I’m sorry.  I just… I couldn’t let my friend die like that.”

 

Hopper took a deep breath of his own, using the same technique on himself that he had taught to El.  “No, kid,” he said. “You don’t need to be sorry. You were right, saving your friend was the right thing to do.  I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that, I was just…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

 

El stepped forward and into Hopper’s arms, and they embraced each other for a long moment, clinging tightly.  “What are we going to do now?” El asked quietly from where her face was buried in Hopper’s chest.

 

Hopper sighed.  “We’re going to go back to the car, and we’re going to go home, and we’re going to sleep on it,” he said.  “Then we’ll see what the situation is tomorrow, and deal with it however it comes.” He ran a hand over El’s hair.  “Okay?”

 

El nodded into his chest.  “Okay.”

Chapter Text

Friday morning dawned with a profound sense of uneasiness permeating the cabin.  El and Hopper got ready and ate their breakfast in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.  From time to time their eyes met and they offered each other their best attempts at reassuring smiles, but neither could think of anything to say.  The silence followed them out the door and into the Blazer, lasting the entire drive to Hawkins High, and only ending when Hopper said, “Have a good day, kid,” as El was unbuckling her seatbelt.

 

“Thanks, dad,” she said, going to open the passenger side door.

 

“El?”  She turned back to look at him; he was gazing at her with a soft, serious expression.  “It’s going to be okay.”

 

She sighed.  “Thanks for saying it, but… that doesn’t make it true.”

 

“I’m saying it because we will make it true.”  He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze.  “One way or another, we’re going to figure this out.  Whatever it takes.”

 

El just smiled at him, unable to put words to the feelings his reassurance put in her chest.  Hopper ruffled her hair the way he sometimes did, and she slipped down out of the Blazer’s door, heading to the school’s entrance.

 

Unease followed her around all morning like an unpleasant shadow.  The other thing didn’t help; though it didn’t say anything, the events of the previous night had made it restless, and that restlessness filtered through their mindspace, dovetailing with and amplifying her own.  Even seeing Mike in homeroom, all smiles and friendly conversation, only managed to slightly take the edge off her mood.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked after a few awkward minutes of her answering him in clipped sentences.  There was no annoyance in his face, only concern.

 

“I’m fine,” she lied, overriding a mad, momentary urge to drag him off somewhere private and confess everything.  “Just… tired.”

 

“I see.”  He smiled softly, comfortingly.  “Trouble sleeping?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I guess the game must’ve been pretty awesome if you were that excited afterwards,” he joked.

 

El couldn’t help but smile.  “Yeah, it was awesome,” she agreed, entirely truthfully.

 

Her classes spun by in a blur of lectures half-listened to, and before she knew it, it was time for lunch.  El’s unease deepened into a dull sense of dread as she approached the cafeteria and got into line. Lunch, inevitably, meant sitting with Mike and the others.

 

It meant seeing Will.

 

The others had, as usual, found an out-of-the-way table to claim as their own.  As usual, there was a seat left open next to Mike for her--though today, Max was the one sitting on her other side.  El sat and immediately began eating her food, eyes locked on her tray. She could feel Mike to her side, looking at her, but before he could say anything, Dustin said something about frog organs--apparently he was in the middle of a story about doing a dissection in Biology--and Max and Lucas both reacted with loud disgust, pulling Mike’s attention away.

 

How could they be acting so normally?  Unless… El raised her eyes from her tray, chancing a glance at Will.  He looked the same way she felt, slouched quietly over his food, eyes locked downwards, scarcely acknowledging the world around him.  El’s unease was pushed to the side by a sudden swelling of sympathy. Had he not told the others? Was he afraid to?

 

El wasn’t the only one who noticed Will’s mood.  “Hey, Will, you okay?” Mike asked in the lull following Dustin’s frog guts story.  “You’re… quiet today. More so than usual.”

 

“Huh?”  Will startled.  “Oh… no, it’s nothing.  I-it’s fine. I’m fine.”  The deflection came too late; the table’s attention was focused on him, and the others knew him too well to believe the unconvincing lie.

 

“You don’t look like it’s nothing,” Lucas said.

 

“Yeah,” Dustin agreed.  “You look like you’re expecting something to jump out at you.”

 

The comment, meant innocently, hit far too close to the mark.  El winced internally as she saw Will visibly shiver. The others didn’t miss it either.

 

“Seriously, Will,” Mike said, voice low and calming.  “Are you okay?”

 

Will stared at nothing in the middle of the table, thinking, then set his fork down on the table with a clatter.  “Last night…” he began in a shaky voice, only to stop short and shake his head. “You’re never gonna believe me.”

 

“Tell us anyway,” Mike encouraged him.

 

So Will told them, a story El already knew from a different perspective.  He told them how he’d been riding his bike home from the game last night. How something dark and terrifying had begun to follow him, moving through the treetops.  How he’d abandoned his bike and run into the woods in a blind panic. How the spidery thing had almost had him, until another monster came out of nowhere and attacked it.

 

“And then,” Will said, voice quivering slightly as it had throughout the entire story, “the other monster turned and looked at me.  I thought it was gonna kill me… but instead, it told me to run.”

 

“It spoke to you?” Dustin asked in awe.

 

Will nodded.  “And I ran. I just got up and started running and didn’t stop until I got to my house… my mom wasn’t home, so I locked the door behind me, went to my room, dove under the covers, and hid there until I finally fell asleep.”  He looked mournfully around the table. “I told you you wouldn’t believe me.”

 

El knew she should say something--that she should try and bury the story right here, tell Will he’d been seeing things.  But looking at the naked fear in his face, she couldn’t bring herself to say anything.  

 

“Holy shit, dude,” Dustin said.  “That’s… that’s wild, that’s bananas.  What do you think they were? Like, aliens, or--?”

 

“Dustin!” Lucas snapped.  His gaze shifted uneasily between Dustin and Will.  “I don’t think you should--”

 

“What, you don’t believe him?”  Dustin crossed his arms. “Come on, Lucas, would Will lie about something like this?”

 

“I don’t think he’s lying, exactly…”

 

“You just think I’m out of my mind,” Will said, looking so miserable that El’s heart squeezed painfully.  Poor Will. He’d suffered through so much last night--he deserved better than to have his friends doubting him like this.

 

“No!  Well, I mean…”  Lucas floundered for words.  “Look, I’m sorry, Will, but you gotta admit, freaky monsters out of nowhere?  In Hawkins, of all places? That’s pretty out there.” He looked over at Max. “Come on, back me up here.”

 

“Um.”  Max looked uncomfortably at Will.  “I mean, yeah… it is a pretty wild story.”

 

“Oh, come on, you dicks!”  Dustin gestured an appeal to Mike.  “Mike, what about you? You believe Will, right?”

 

El shifted her gaze over.  Mike was leaning heavily on his elbows, face solemn, eyes dark with thought.  “There’s… a lot we still don’t know about the universe,” he said slowly. “I don’t know.  I don’t think I’m going to just rule it out like that.”

 

Dustin snorted.  “Wow, okay, thanks for the vote of confidence in your friend, there.  Look, if you all want to be doubting Thomases, then there’s an easy fix for that: after school, we go out there and we investigate, see if any clues got left behind.”

 

Panic shot through El, startling her out of her thoughts.  “You’re crazy,” she blurted on reflex, regretting it instantly as the entire table turned to look at her in surprise.

 

“Uh… you got an opinion there, El?” Dustin asked.

 

El blushed furiously, but she forced herself to press on.  “Look, I, uh…” She glanced at Will. “...I have no idea what happened to Will last night.  But… if he’s right, and he did get jumped by a monster in the middle of the woods… you really want to go back there?”

 

Will paled, and El hated herself a little bit for what she’d just done to him.  “You know, she has a pretty good point,” Max said from her side. “Thinking about it that way… either it’s a complete waste of time, or we’re risking being attacked ourselves.”

 

“You suffer from a distinct lack of curiosity, Maxine Mayfield,” Dustin grumped.

 

“I suffer from a distinct desire to not get eaten,” Max shot back.

 

“Oh my god,” Mike snapped, pounding the table hard enough to make El jump.  “Will you guys just shut up?” He got up from his seat and circled around the table, coming to a stop next to Will.  “Hey, look,” he said softly, laying a hand on Will’s shoulder. “I don’t know what to think, here, but… really, are you doing okay?”

 

Will leaned forward, burying his face in his hands.  “I don’t know,” he groaned. “I mean, I’m about as okay as you can expect.  This morning’s been rough.” He laughed bitterly. “My mom even had to drive me to school because I ditched my bike.  It’s still lying out there by the road somewhere.”

 

Mike grimaced sympathetically.  “Oof, yeah, that’s… look, why don’t we all go look for it together after school.  That way you don’t have to go out there alone again. That sound good?” Will nodded, head still in his hands, and Mike looked up at the group.  “That’s okay with everyone, right?”

 

Dustin nodded enthusiastically; Max and Lucas traded a look but nodded their agreement as well.  Mike’s gaze shifted to El, hopeful, and she found herself frozen beneath it. Part of her was screaming to keep the others away from the woods at all costs, but… Will.  He was sitting there looking miserable, and exhausted, and scared, and… Mike was right. She couldn’t let him go back out there alone.

 

“Yeah,” she said.  “That’s fine.”

 

-    -    -

 

That afternoon, the group all assembled in the parking lot next to Max’s car.  “All right, dorks,” Max announced. “Lucas gets shotgun; the rest of you pile in the back.”

 

“Lucas always gets shotgun,” Dustin complained.

 

“That’s because he has boyfriend privileges,” Max said.  “Quit your bitching and get in, Henderson.”

 

“Oh, crap.  Um…” Mike was standing next to the open door to the back seat, looking awkwardly between it and El.  “There’s only three seats in the back. El makes four of us that have to sit back there.”

 

“I said pile in and I meant pile in, Wheeler,” Max said.  “El’s not going to tell her dad on us if we’re not all wearing seatbelts, right, El?”

 

“Um… no,” El answered.  Seatbelts were absolutely the last thing on her mind right now, anyway.

 

“I don’t know,” Mike said, peering critically at the back seat.  “It’s a tight fit even with just the three of us. Maybe--”

 

“Oh my god, Wheeler, just have her sit on your lap or something, Jesus!”

 

Mike’s head snapped up to look at El, his face turning bright red.  “Oh, um, well, I mean…” he babbled awkwardly. “I… guess that would work?  I mean, if you’re okay with it, El.”

 

“Yeah,” El said, bobbing her head, though she could feel herself blushing too.  They worked their way into the backseat--Will on the righthand side behind Lucas, Dustin sitting in the middle, and Mike on the left with El sitting in his lap, balancing her weight uncomfortably on his thighbones.

 

“Mike.”  Max looked sharply at him in the rearview mirror.  “Put your arms around her.”

 

“What?!” Mike all but yelped.  His arms, El noticed, were pressed firmly to his sides in a manner that couldn’t possibly be comfortable.

 

Max rolled her eyes.  “You’ve got to hold her steady, dumbass.  What if we get into a wreck and she’s thrown clear and dies because you were too busy being an awkward dork?”

 

“Are you planning on getting us into a wreck?” Mike asked, leaning around El to glare suspiciously at Max.

 

Max’s eyes glittered.  “Just do it, Wheeler.”

 

Mike let out a heavy sigh.  Leaning forward so that the curve of his body cupped El’s back a little bit, he wrapped his arms around her midsection, grasping his hands in front of her to secure them.  El’s blush deepened. Suddenly the position was a lot more comfortable than it had been moments before.

 

“Mike, you dog,” Dustin chuckled.

 

“One more word out of you,” Mike growled, “and I will make you regret it.”

 

The car rumbled as Max turned the key in the ignition and slid into gear.  “All right, Will. Where are we headed?”

 

“Um.  Mirkwood,” Will mumbled.  He hadn’t perked up much since lunch, still quiet and slightly pale.  “I think I was… fifteen minutes from Mike’s house, give or take, when--when it happened.”

 

“Gotcha.”  Max flashed him a smile, kinder than her usual teasing grins, and pulled the car out of the school’s parking lot.

 

‘Mirkwood’ turned out to be a stretch of road lined with trees--El figured it was the same patch of woods that had been the scene of the previous night’s incident.  Max pulled onto it from a road leading out of Mike’s neighborhood and cruised along its length as Lucas, Will, and Dustin watched the side of the road out of the windows.

 

“Sorry about Max’s driving,” Mike grunted as the acceleration pressed El back into him a little harder.  “There’s a reason we call her Mad Max.”

 

“My dad drives about the same as she does,” El said, truthfully.  She hadn’t actually noticed anything unusual about Max’s driving until Mike mentioned it.

 

“No kidding,” Mike laughed.  “Hey Max, you hear that? You drive like the chief of police.”

 

“You’re trying to tease me, but I think that just sounds badass,” Max shot back.

 

“There it is!” called Lucas, pointing out the window.

 

Max hit the brakes, making El lurch forward--though only slightly, Mike’s arms still firmly wrapped around her.  The car coasted over to the side of the road, where Will’s bike lay in a heap, hastily discarded the night before.

 

The group piled out of the car, and Will ran over to check on the bike.  “Everything okay?” Lucas asked as the others followed him over.

 

“Yeah, looks like it,” Will said, lifting the bike up onto its wheels.  He looked over at the rest of them, a smile crossing his face for the first time that day.  “Thanks, guys.”

 

“Awesome,” Dustin said.  “So now we’re gonna go investigate, right?”

 

El froze, heart sinking.

 

“Oh, come on, Dustin!” Lucas groaned.

 

“Come on yourself.”  Dustin crossed his arms and planted his feet at shoulder width, looking defiantly at the rest of the group.  “We’re already out here, aren’t we? And I know none of you have plans this afternoon, so what have we got to lose?”

 

Lucas sighed.  “We’re not gonna make Will go back--”

 

“I want to go,” Will interrupted.  The others turned to look at him; the smile had dropped off his face, but he was calm, radiating quiet resolve.  “I… I want to see it. I need to see it.  I need to know if… if I’m crazy or not.”

 

“I’m going too,” Mike said.  El’s heart sank even further.

 

“Seriously?” Lucas asked, turning to Mike.

 

“Hey, shove it, okay?” Mike snapped.  “We should see what we can find before we just go and write Will’s story off.  We owe him that much.” He turned to El. “Um, if you don’t want to be out here… I guess if Lucas and Max are gonna take off, they can--”

 

“I’m staying with you,” El said quickly, making Mike blink in surprise.  Truthfully, she didn’t want to be here… no, she didn’t want her friends to be here.  If they were intent on staying, though, then she wasn’t going to be anywhere else.

 

“Yeah, I’m sticking around too, so thanks for speaking for me, Wheeler,” Max said.  “He’s right, though. We owe this to Will.”

 

“Oh my god,” Lucas groaned.  “Okay, fine. I guess I don’t have anything better to do anyway.  Lead on, Dustin.”

 

The group moved off the shoulder of the road and into the trees.  Will was walking his bike at the head of the group, navigating as Dustin chattered excitedly next to him.  Max, Lucas, and Mike formed a loose clump behind them. El let herself drift at the back of the group, lost in her thoughts.

 

Do you think it’ll come back? she asked the other thing.

 

A ripple of ambiguousness came in answer.  I would, the other thing replied.  But it is not me.  I cannot say.

 

El swallowed.  If the spidery thing did come back… these five people were everything she had in the world, outside of Hopper and the cabin.  She’d be the only thing that could keep them safe, but it would come at the cost of revealing her secret to them, and whatever else came after that.

 

Not that it made a difference.  If it really came down to that, she knew with terrible inevitability what she would choose.

 

“El?”

 

Mike had stopped to let her catch up, looking at her with concern.  She shook her head. “Nothing. It’s, um. Just stuff.”

 

“Stuff, right,” he said.  “I hate stuff.” He waited until she drew level with him, and then began to walk alongside her.  “Look, I’m sorry that I dragged you out here like this,” he said. “I know that you didn’t want to come.”

 

“It’s okay,” El said quietly.  “We’re doing it for Will.”

 

“Yeah,” agreed Mike.  “But El? You don’t have to be afraid.  We’ll all stick together, and if something happens, we’ll… we’ll figure something out, okay?”

 

El smiled.  “Okay.” It was sweet of him to try and reassure her… even if he didn’t have a clue what she was actually afraid of.

 

They walked in silence for a minute.  “Um,” Mike said. “I’m sorry if the car ride was uncomfortable for you?  I think Max was trying to wind me up, or something. She can be pretty shameless about messing with people.”

 

“Why do you keep apologizing for everything?” El asked, frowning.

 

“Oh, sorr--” Mike clamped his mouth shut and grimaced.  “I mean, I just don’t want you to be uncomfortable, you know?  I don’t--I don’t want to do anything that you’re not okay with.”

 

“Mike.”  El turned her head to look him in the eye.  “If I wasn’t okay with it, I would’ve said something.”

 

“Oh.  Okay.”  Mike looked distinctly relieved.  “So that was… okay.”

 

“That was okay,” agreed El.  “I liked it. It was… comfortable.”

 

“Comfortable,” Mike repeated, as though contemplating the word.  “Cool.” They walked another minute in silence. “Hey, El?”

 

“Hm?”

 

“You like movies, right?”  Mike drew in a breath. “Would you… like to see a movie together sometime?”

 

“With the others?” El asked.

 

“Oh.”  Mike blinked.  “Well, I mean, we can if that’s what you want.  But I was kinda thinking… maybe just the two of us?  I just… I’d like to get to know you better, away from school and everything.  If… if that’s something that you’d be okay with.”

 

El stared at him, wide-eyed.  Her first thought, to her surprise, was how appealing the idea of spending time with just her and Mike sounded.  He said he wanted to get to know her better--well, she wanted to get to know him better too, very much so. Yet the thought of it also made her feel flustered and nervous, a reaction born from bits and pieces picked up from four years of movies and books.

 

He almost made it sound like--

 

“Holy shit ,” Dustin exclaimed.

 

They had arrived on the scene.

 

Part of El had been hoping that maybe, somehow, the traces of her battle with the spidery thing would be too subtle to notice and her friends would give up on their investigation, discouraged.  Those hopes were now thoroughly dashed. Even now, El could trace the path of the spidery thing’s fall when she had hurled it to the ground by the shattered branches it had left in its wake, the mark of its impact against the dirt.  Several trees nearby had massive gouges in their bark where the spidery thing’s talons had torn into them. Most damning of all, however, was the toppled tree several yards away--the trunk broken in two where El had been thrown into it.

 

“Okay, wow,” Dustin said, stepping forward to take in the sight.  “Wow, wow, wow .”

 

“Was there a storm…?” Lucas asked tentatively.

 

“A storm that only hit one tree and a few branches and nothing else?”  Max scoffed.

 

“Yeah, this wasn’t a lightning strike.”  Mike had jogged over to the fallen tree and was absorbed in examining it.  “No burn marks. And this side’s just a bit uprooted, see? It’s like something smacked into it, really hard.  Which lines up with…”  He looked up.

 

Will was standing in the middle of everything, his eyes flickering wildly from one detail to the next.  El had no doubt he was retracing his memories of last night, comparing them to the scene before him. “It all fits,” he said simply, sounding like he didn’t know whether to be relieved or horrified.

 

“Holy shit, guys,” Dustin grinned.  “This is so wild .  Do you realize what this means?  Guys?” His smile faltered as he noticed the somber expressions on everyone else’s faces.

 

“So… monsters?” Lucas asked.  He was looking around as though he was expecting something to charge out of the trees at any moment.  “That’s the explanation we’re going with here?”

 

“Maybe they were wild animals?” Max ventured.

 

“Not a chance.”  Mike was crossing back over to them.  “If an animal had hit that tree hard enough to shatter the trunk, there’d be blood and guts everywhere.  Whatever hit it was… tough. Unimaginably tough.” He shook his head. “Once you’ve eliminated the impossible…”

 

“...whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth,” Lucas finished.  “So… there are monsters in the woods around Hawkins. What do we do now?”

 

“Maybe we can find them.”  Dustin’s eyes were dancing.  “Can you imagine if we discovered--”

 

“Dustin!” snapped Mike, glaring at him.  “Calm down and think for a minute, okay? This isn’t a game.  One of these things almost killed Will. They might try to kill again.”

 

That brought on several moments of sober silence.  “Does anyone else feel like maybe we should be anywhere but here right now?” Max asked.

 

“Yes,” El said emphatically.  “Can we go? Please?”

 

“Yeah,” Mike said slowly.  “Yeah… that’s a good idea.”

 

They began trudging back the way they came.  “Okay, so one of them tried to kill Will, yeah,” Dustin said as they walked.  “But he said that the other one saved him. More than that, it spoke to him.  I’m just saying, clearly there’s more going on here than we understand.”

 

“Yeah, which is why we need to be smart and stop sticking our noses in,” Lucas said.  “This is clearly way above the heads of six teenagers. We need to tell somebody who actually stands a chance.”

 

Dustin snorted.  “What should we do, then, call the police?”

 

The words switched on a lightbulb in El’s head.  “Yes,” she said, trying not to sound too excited.  “Why not?”

 

“I was kidding!” Dustin said.  “Everyone knows that Hawkins PD is totally useless… um…”  He looked back at El, who had begun to glare fiercely at him.  “I mean, uh…”

 

“How’s your foot taste, Henderson?” Max said.

 

“Do you think your dad can help us?” Mike asked, glancing at El.

 

El remembered a warm, strong hand gripping hers as she ran through the pouring rain in a hospital gown.  The cabin, turned overnight from a storage shed into a home and a fortress. The stories she’d been told when she finally worked up the courage to ask about her rescuer’s past.  “Yes,” she said seriously. “He can help us.”

 

“I’ll talk to my mom,” Will said.  “She and him go way back, apparently.  She’ll believe me… and she’ll convince him to believe her.”

 

“I’ll talk to him too,” El said.  “If she can’t convince him, I can.”

 

“It’s settled, then,” Mike said, looking relieved.

 

El was relieved too.  She basked in the feeling of relief the entire time Max was driving them home, and all the way up the path that led to the cabin.  The others would leave the investigation to Hopper, and Hopper would make sure that word didn’t leak out. It was the perfect solution, all of her problems dealt with in a single stroke.

 

It wasn’t until she walked in the front door of the cabin that she realized she’d never given Mike an answer about seeing that movie.

 

-    -    -

 

The weekend passed by--El’s first real weekend, the first time those two days really stood out from any other.  After five days in a row of school, let alone what had happened outside of it, going back to spending entire days in the cabin felt comfortingly familiar, yet oddly out of place with El’s new life.  She wondered to herself what other people did with their weekends. Hopper had stayed holed up with her just about every spare moment of the last four years, so he didn’t seem like a good source of information on the matter.  Maybe people did stuff like hanging out and going to the arcade, like Mike had mentioned…

 

Of course, the thought of Mike reminded her of the unanswered invitation from that afternoon in the woods, and she was suddenly impatient for Monday so that she could talk to him again.  Briefly she considered trying to call him and talk to him that way, but she wasn’t sure if that would be considered weird, and anyway, the idea flooded her with anxiety for some reason.

 

Still, on the whole, the weekend passed pleasantly.  El was in a good mood following her resolution of the situation with Will, as was Hopper when she filled him in.  She’d been somewhat afraid that he’d be angry with her for returning to the site of the attack, but he’d listened patiently to the entire story, and then he’d ruffled her hair and told her that she’d done well and that he was proud to have such a clever daughter.  He’d even let her have an extra Eggo for dessert that night, which was how she knew he was really happy with her.

 

(“Let me worry about Will’s mom,” he’d said.  “I know how to handle Joyce Byers.” His tone of voice had spoken to… something, El wasn’t sure what.)

 

So the weekend passed in meals and movies and homework and waiting with just the slightest edge of impatience.  Then at last it was Monday morning; El rolled out of bed, got ready, had breakfast, gathered her things, and rode to school with Hopper in the Blazer.  

 

She was somewhat perturbed to feel her heartbeat speeding up as she made her way to homeroom.

 

Is something wrong? the other thing asked, stirring.  Is there danger?

 

No, she said firmly.  No danger.

 

But you are afraid, it said.  There was a contemplative pause.  You are thinking of the Mike-thing again.  Does the Mike-thing make you afraid? I had thought you liked it.

 

I do like Mike, El said, blushing in spite of herself.

 

Then why are you afraid?

 

It’s…   El didn’t know how to explain in a way the other thing would understand.  For that matter, she wasn’t sure she knew how to explain in a way she understood.  It’s just… a human thing.

 

Humans are very strange, the other thing commented as it settled back down again.

 

El had a hard time disputing the point.  She’d thought she was just afraid of calling Mike that weekend because she was worried that it would come across as weird.  Now it was seeming like talking to him at all was making her anxious. The whole thing was bewildering.

 

Apparently she wasn’t alone in those feelings.  When she got to homeroom, Mike was in his usual seat next to hers, but his demeanor was completely different.  He was staring straight ahead, looking very intently at nothing in particular, and his knee was bouncing up and down with a carelessness that suggested that it was unconscious.  Whatever was on his mind, he was so wrapped up in it that he didn’t even react when El came up and sat down next to him; it was only when she greeted him with a hesitant “Hi” that he startled to awareness with a sudden gasp.

 

“El!” he said a little too loudly, making some of their nearby classmates turn and look at him.  “Sorry. Hi,” he added at normal volume. He looked at El, and she looked back at him. There was a moment of awkward silence, and then they both started to speak at once.

 

“So, I--”

 

“Um, so--”

 

They both stopped.  “Uh, you first,” Mike said with a shy smile.

 

El’s anxiety had reached a fever pitch, tingling so strongly that the other thing prodded at her with annoyed confusion.  “You, um,” she began, trying to keep her voice steady. “The other afternoon, when we were in the woods, you asked if I wanted to see a movie with you?”

 

“Oh, uh, did I?  I mean, yeah, I guess I did,” Mike said with a casualness that didn’t match the look in his eyes.  “We got kinda distracted before… I guess that was kinda out of nowhere, wasn’t it? I mean--”

 

“Mike.”

 

“--we’ve only known each other a week and here I go springing this weird question on you when I’d just said I don’t want to make you uncomfortable--”

 

Mike .”

 

“--wha?”  Mike stopped short, sucking in a long-overdue breath.

 

El took a deep breath of her own.  “I would love to go see a movie with you.”

 

Mike stared at her blankly, as though he hadn’t quite comprehended the words that had just come out of her mouth.  Then, slowly, his lips parted and pulled upwards into a wide, brilliant grin. “You mean… like just the two of us?”

 

“Yeah.”  El smiled back, blushing.  “I mean… if that’s still what you want.”

 

“Yeah.  Yeah! It is, it really is.  Um… you want to talk about it and make plans after school today?”

 

“Yeah.”  El nodded at him.

 

“Cool.”  Mike was still grinning at her, his expression just a bit slack as though he were slightly dazed.  El could relate--the buzzing of her earlier anxiety had broken and transformed into a warm, glowing feeling that was running through her entire body, so strong as to be slightly intoxicating.

 

What is this? the other thing asked.  I do not understand.

 

She ignored it.

 

The glowing feeling carried her through the rest of homeroom, where for the first time she had trouble keeping her eyes off of Mike through the whole class--and based on the number of times she caught him looking back at her, he was having similar problems.  It carried her past a shy but heavily meaningful farewell as the bell rang to signal the end of class. It carried her to and through her next class, all fifty minutes of the lecture.

 

It was in the hallway on her way to Social Studies that she heard the commotion.

 

“Ow!  What the hell?”

 

Mike’s voice.

 

El followed the sound, the glow fading away to be replaced by worry.  Rounding a corner, she saw Mike several yards down the hallway, sprawled backwards on the ground as though he’d just been knocked over.  Standing above him was a stocky boy with dark, curly hair. “You were in my way, Frogface,” sneered the boy.

 

“Right, so you just shove me to the ground.  Totally reasonable. Fuck off, Troy.” Mike pulled himself up into a sitting position, gathering an armful of books and notebooks to himself.

 

Troy snorted, and his foot lashed out, planting itself into Mike and shoving him roughly back down to the ground with a gasp, sending his books scattering everywhere.  “You need to learn to watch that smart mouth of yours, Wheeler.”

 

Fury coiled in El’s gut.

 

This boy--Troy--had hurt Mike.

 

Mike, who had been kind to her.

 

Mike, who had given her friends.

 

Mike, who had asked her to see a movie with him.

 

For a brief, dizzying moment, El wanted nothing more than to rush at Troy and tear into him with all her might.  To take his fragile little body and just rip it completely to shreds. The way that she knew that she could.

 

--the bad men were sprawled around her, broken and shredded.  Their blood dripped from hands that both were and were not her own.  They’d hurt her, carelessly, thoughtlessly, until suddenly and unexpectedly she’d found the power to hurt them back, and--

 

Mike.  Mike needed her.

 

With every last bit of restraint she had available, El opened herself to the barest trickle of the other thing’s power, just enough to make her stronger and faster, if she needed it.  She stepped forward, towards Troy and Mike. “Get away from him,” she growled.

 

Troy turned.  “Who the fuck are you?”

 

“El…?” Mike said from the floor.

 

El glowered at Troy.  “I said, get away from him.

 

Troy gaped at her, an expression of astonishment that quickly turned into amusement.  “Seriously? You’re trying to protect this pathetic nerd?” He took a step towards El, squaring himself towards her in a challenging posture.  “You want me to ‘get away from him’? Make me.”

 

Small thing thinks it’s big, hissed the other thing.  Soft thing thinks it’s tough.

 

El just smiled, cold and predatory.  “Okay,” she said.

 

Her hand lashed out in the blink of an eye, palm planting itself squarely in Troy’s chest and shoving with unnatural might.  Caught off-guard by the sudden attack, Troy half-stumbled, half-flew backwards, slamming into the row of lockers behind him with a loud clatter and a cry of surprise and pain.  The crowd of students around them, who had been watching everything leading up to this with detached half-interest, were suddenly fixated on the scene with obvious shock.

 

El stepped forward to where Troy had crumpled at the foot of the lockers.  She was gratified to see him cower slightly as approached. “Leave,” she said, lacing the word with unspoken threat.  “Now.”

 

She moved back slightly to allow him to stumble to his feet, and he took a few unsteady steps away from her, towards the crowd around them.  His expression as he looked back at El was pure fear, but something in him seemed to rally slightly as he turned his attention back to Mike. “This is a new low for you, Wheeler!” he jeered.  “You seriously need a girl to stand up for you?”

 

“I mean, you’re the one who just got your ass kicked by a girl,” Mike said.  “Are you sure you want to go there?” He’d gotten back up to his feet and was standing just behind El.  Several of the other students broke out into titters, and with one last furious look, Troy elbowed his way past the crowd and left.

 

Once she’d watched long enough to be satisfied that he’d gone, El turned around.  “Mike…” she said, looking up at him. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” he grinned.  “Better than fine. That was… awesome, El.  That was so cool.”

 

“It was nothing,” El murmured, dropping her gaze to the floor.  With Troy gone, her anger was ebbing away, leaving a vague horrified shame in its place.  She was lying, it wasn’t nothing. And in spite of what Mike said, it wasn’t cool either. She’d been inches away from completely losing control--in school , in the middle of a crowd of people.

 

“Was that like some kind of self-defense thing?  Did your dad teach you that?” Mike asked.

 

Hopper.  Oh god, Hopper would be furious with her if he found out.  Using her powers against monsters was one thing.  Using them against a normal human? Even one as shitty as Troy?  “I--” El started to say, fishing for an excuse, but her voice broke, and she felt her throat ache the way it always did when she was about to cry.  Shit, was she about to cry? She dabbed at her eyes, trying to stop the tears before they could start.

 

“El?”  Mike frowned at her, concerned.  “El, what’s wrong? Hey, hey, come on now…”  Taking ahold of her by the arm, he gently guided her out of the hallway, into the nook of an emergency exit door.  El followed him without protest, slumping against the wall and sliding down into a sitting position.

 

“I shouldn’t have done that,” she said quietly.

 

Mike snorted.  “What, hitting Troy?  He’s a dick, El, a total mouth breather.  He’s had that coming for years. Don’t waste time feeling bad about it.”

 

El propped her elbows on her knees and buried her face in her arms.  How could she even begin to explain it to him? How dangerous her lapse of control had been?  What she had almost done, right in front of him?

 

After a moment, she heard Mike sit down against the wall next to her.  A moment after that, she felt his arm lay itself tentatively across her shoulders.  Feelings warred inside her, gratitude and comfort struggling against a sense of unworthiness, and she blinked against tears as they welled up again.

 

They stayed like that for a few minutes, sitting in silence save for the murmurs of other students walking up and down the hallway.  Then the quiet was shattered by the bell ringing.

 

“You’re late for class,” El mumbled.

 

“So are you,” Mike replied.  “If you’re late, I’m late.”

 

“Hm,” El said, lost for words.  The glowing feeling had returned, smaller than before, but distinct.

 

They stayed like that for a while longer.

 

-    -    -

 

Feelings still whirled through El later that night, as she ate dinner with Hopper.  She picked at her food, quietly trying to untangle an endless stream of thoughts. Finally, Hopper, who had nearly finished his meal, looked across the table at El’s half-eaten plate, and then up at her face.  “El? Hon? Is there something bothering you?”

 

El met his gaze.  There were so many things that she could say in response--questions, confessions--but one in particular forced its way onto her tongue and out of her lips before she could even think twice about it.

 

“Dad, how do you know when you’re falling in love with someone?”

 

Hopper stared back at her, his fork clattering onto the tabletop.

 

“Oh, jesus,” he said simply.

Chapter Text

“Mike asked you out ?”  El had never heard Max’s voice come so close to a squeal before, and the effect was disconcerting.

 

“He didn’t ask me out,” El said carefully, pulling on another of Hopper’s old overshirts on over her t-shirt.  PE had just let out a few minutes ago, and they were almost finished changing back into their regular clothes. “He just asked me if I wanted to go and see a movie with him.”

 

“Um, El, that’s what those of us here on Earth call asking you out,” said Max, shrugging on her hoodie.  “You and him, going out alone together? That’s a date, and you know it. Don’t think I can’t see you blushing.”

 

El was blushing, she couldn’t help it.

 

(“You’re going to be feeling a lot of, uh, feelings,” Hopper had said as part of what had turned out to be a very awkward talk.  “You’ve got to understand that that’s your brain swimming in, um, chemicals and such. It’s going to feel very intense, but you’ve got to keep your head and not go doing anything stupid, okay?”)

 

If this was her brain swimming in chemicals… well, she kind of liked it.

 

“I just can’t believe it only took that dork a week to get his nerve up,” Max continued as they headed for the locker room door.  “I was totally resigned to having to put up with him pining after you for, like, months .”

 

“Pining after me?” El giggled.  “What?”

 

“Oh, come on, you have to have seen those goopy eyes he’s been making at you every time you walk in the room,” Max said.  She laid her hands over her heart and gave a theatrically wistful sigh. “Oh El! Light of my life! You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met!  I would do anything for you! Come, let me kiss your hand!” She grabbed El’s hand from her side and leaned down towards it, smooching her lips loudly.

 

“Max!”  El snatched her hand back, laughing.  “He does not act like that!”

 

“Yeah, well, maybe you just had to know him before,” Max said with a grin.  “I mean, I love the guy--don’t tell him I said that--but he could just be so damn moody all the time.  Makes a pretty strong contrast, the way he lights up when he’s around you.”  She looked at El, and her smile softened from teasing to sincere. “Hey, I’m happy for you guys, really.  You’ll be really cute together, and I’m sure Mike will be a perfect gentleman. He knows I’ll kick his ass if he isn’t.”

 

“Max!” El protested with another laugh, but Max’s attention was suddenly drawn upwards.

 

“Whoa,” she said.  “Wiring must be on the fritz.”  

 

The fluorescent light above them had begun flickering wildly, emitting a harsh, uneven buzz.  A sudden sense of dread settled into El’s stomach. She looked down the hallway; every light had begun the same flickering dance, blinking erratically as students looked up in confusion.

 

“Okay, wow ,” Max said, watching the scene with wide eyes.

 

A horrifyingly familiar sensation shot down El’s spine.  Danger-fight-run .

 

The other thing surged to alertness.  It is here , it said simply.

 

“No,” El whispered, hands trembling.  “No no no no no no no no no --”

 

“El?” Max asked.

 

“Max, run,” El said.

 

“What?  I don’t--”

 

“I said run , Max!” El yelled, making the other girl flinch.  Without waiting for a response, she sprinted down the hallway, weaving around startled students as she went.  Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why had she assumed that school was safe? Why had she assumed that it wouldn’t attack here?  There was no reason to make those assumptions, and now, if she didn’t hurry, everybody was going to pay the price--

 

Screams echoed from somewhere deeper in the building, drawing concerned and confused murmurs from the people around El.  Where is it? she asked.  I need to find it now !

 

The other thing’s senses opened up in response, the crowd painting itself painfully bright on her awareness.  There, further ahead, movement--people were running, panic spreading outward in a wave, people tripping and shoving each other and stumbling in hallways that had suddenly gone dark.  The crowd began to flow against El, trying to flee what she was running toward, and she almost screamed in frustration as she had to slow down to force her way past people.

 

Finally, the crowd thinned out, and El was charging through an abandoned hallway, leaping to clear items that had been dropped on the floor in their owners’ haste.  The spidery thing’s presence pressed into the other thing’s senses, shadowy and massive, filling the entire hallway. It was screeching and pawing experimentally at something--El realized that there were two humans in front of it.  One, collapsed on the floor, was Will. The other, standing between him and the spidery thing, was--

 

Oh god.

 

Oh god no.

 

“Get away from him, you piece of shit!” Mike screamed.  He’d gotten his hands on a push broom somewhere, and was flailing it in front of him in a bid to keep the spidery thing at bay.  “Will, run! Get out of here!”

 

“Mike--!” Will started to say.

 

“Go, now! ”  At Mike’s urging, Will shoved himself to his feet and took off running, darting away down a side hallway.  El kept her attention focused on Mike and the spidery thing. He was managing to intimidate it through sheer audacity at the moment, but in a few moments it’d work out that he wasn’t actually a threat, and when that happened--

 

No I can’t let that happen.  I won’t let that happen!

 

Do you want to kill it? the other thing asked.

 

No, she said desperately.  I want to save him.

 

The other thing’s power slammed through her like water bursting from a broken dam.  She had never transformed this quickly before in the four years that it had been inside her.  Her bones wrenched themselves into new shapes; her flesh ran like putty. She opened a malformed mouth and screamed , pain and terror and defiance tearing their way out of her in a single sound that echoed down the hallways.

 

“Wha--?”  Mike whirled at the sound, inviting an immediate attack from the spidery thing in his distraction.  El barreled forward at full speed, shoving Mike to the ground with one hand and reaching out with the other to catch the spidery thing’s leg before it could finish slashing with its talon.  The leg cracked slightly beneath her grip, drawing a screech of pain from the spidery thing. El planted her feet and pushed, sending it stumbling back several feet down the hallway.

 

The spidery thing recovered and drew itself up as high as it could without bumping the ceiling.  Its flower-like maw opened and let out a terrible bellow, and El was assaulted with a stream of alien thought and emotion.  Filtered through the other thing, its meaning painted itself in her mind: Get out of my way.

 

“No!” she screamed, her unchanged voice at odds with the gaping, transformed mouth that was producing it.  “No, you can’t have him! I won’t let you have him!”

 

She heard Mike gasp beneath her, but there was no time to think.  The spidery thing surged forward again, two legs lashing out in a lightning-quick attack.  Unable to give ground while she was shielding Mike, El reached out to meet the blows, catching each leg in either of her hands.  Instead of pushing it back again, this time she squeezed as hard as she could and twisted .  Realizing its error, the spidery thing tried to pull away, but El’s grip didn’t give.  Two rapid snaps cut through the air, and the spidery thing screeched in agony, dark gore pouring from its ragged stumps.

 

El cast aside the severed legs and took the opening to bend down and grab Mike.  He made a strangled sound as her long fingers clasped him but didn’t resist; she quickly backed away from the spidery thing and set him down roughly behind the relative cover of a nearby trash can.  It was far from ideal, but it would do as long as she could keep the spidery thing busy.

 

An angry shriek announced that the few moments she’d bought were up, and she darted forward again to meet the spidery thing’s charge, keeping it a few paces away from where she’d put Mike.  She made another swipe, grabbing at another of its legs, but it had apparently grown wise to that tactic and danced back, away from her reach. Yet another leg swept in from the other side, too fast for El to react, and slammed into her, launching her sideways into a row of lockers.  The metal squealed as it bent and gave underneath her, and El flailed out in the spidery thing’s direction, fighting for the chance to recover from the disorientation.

 

A talon clipped her side, drawing blood and making her cry out in pain.  Instinctively, she kicked out and was rewarded with the feeling of the claws on her feet grazing something in return.  The victory was short-lived, however; another powerful slap from the spidery thing sent her sprawling down to the floor, and before she could recover, it was on top of her, slamming its talons down rhythmically in a bid to impale her.  El rolled left, then right, trying to buy enough time to rally for a counterattack--

 

The assault suddenly stopped, and the spidery thing shrieked again, its agony pressing down on El.  Mike burned bright in the other thing’s senses, only a couple of feet away, clutching something shadowy in his hands.  He’d grabbed one of the spidery thing’s severed legs and rammed the talon into its side like an improvised spear. With a cry, Mike hauled downward on the leg, the talon cutting a massive gash as it tore free, making the spidery thing rear up and howl with pain.

 

This was the opening El had been waiting for the entire fight.  Mustering all of her strength, she shoved her way up from the floor and as high as she could go, wrapping both hands around the fleshy tube that connected the spidery thing’s head to its body.  It bucked and flailed, trying to pull free, but she refused to let go. With a groan of effort that quickly crescendoed into a scream, El pulled with everything that she had.

 

There was a wet, tearing noise, and the spidery thing’s head pulled free, its body collapsing to the ground in a limp heap.

 

El flopped down onto all fours, panting hard.  As she watched, the spidery thing’s corpse twitched and began to crumble, dissolving away into flakes like drifting ash.

 

“Holy shit,” Mike said quietly.  He had stumbled back into the wall at some point and was now sprawled out against its base, watching the scene before him.  El turned to him and his posture stiffened, eyes going wide.

 

Do not be afraid, ” the other thing said through their mouth in its deep, rasping voice.  “ She said to protect the Mike-thing.  We will protect the Mike-thing. ”  It reached out towards Mike with one hand--was it trying to comfort him?  Mike flattened himself against the wall.

 

El took control of their other hand and grabbed the wrist of the reaching hand, forcing it back down.  “Stop that,” she said sternly. “You’re scaring him.”

 

Mike’s eyes went even wider, if that was possible.  “El?” he asked in a faint voice.

 

She looked at him.  “Yes, Mike. I’m in here too.  It’s okay, I won’t let it hurt you.”  Her body shivered and began to shift, the other thing’s power receding from her.  A few moments of transformation later, she was kneeling before Mike’s astonished gaze as the girl that he knew.

 

She sighed, deeply.  “I’m sure that you have a lot of questions right now.”

 

“Uh… yeah.  Yeah, I do.”  Mike swallowed.  “Are you okay?”

 

El blinked.  She didn’t know what question she’d been expecting first, but that hadn’t been it.  “Um, yeah, I’m… I’m fine,” she answered. Tentatively, she crawled toward Mike; when he didn’t protest or flinch away from her, she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Are you okay?”

 

“I… I guess so?” he said.  “I mean, I somehow got through all of that without wetting myself, so that’s pretty good, I guess.”

 

El gaped at him, and before she could stop it, a loud laugh forced its way out of her, making her double over.  Mike began to chuckle too, which escalated into a full-force laugh of his own, and their laughter mingled together, echoing in the dark hallway.

 

“So that thing… that was what attacked Will that night in the forest, wasn’t it?” Mike said when the laughter had died down.  “And you… you were the other, um…”

 

“The other monster, yes,” El finished for him, nodding.

 

Mike stared at her with a warm look that made her heart flutter.  “You saved Will,” he said.

 

She looked down bashfully.  “I only…”

 

“You saved Will,” Mike repeated firmly.  “ Twice .  And you saved me.”

 

You saved Will this time,” El countered, looking back up at him.  “And you saved me too, when you stabbed that thing. It almost had me.”

 

“Compromise and call it even, then?”  Mike grinned at her. “Really, El, that was awesome.  You’re just… you’re amazing.”

 

“Amazing?” El repeated, flushing.  “Is that what you call people when they turn into monsters in front of you?”

 

“I don’t know about everybody, but you?  Yeah. There’s no other word for it. You’re…”  Mike trailed off as their eyes locked, and El felt her breath hitch in her chest.  Some invisible, irresistible force pulled her in toward him. Mike must have felt it too, because he was also leaning in towards her.  Faces inches from each other, their lips parted in anticipation…

 

El?! ”  Hopper’s voice rang out distantly.

 

El gasped and pulled away, the moment shattered.  “Dad?!” she called in response, shooting up to her feet.

 

El! ”  Footsteps echoed through the hall, and within moments Hopper came around the corner into view, dressed in his police uniform, jogging toward them.  “El--oh. Oh, jesus.” He slowed to a stop as he saw the wreckage in the hallway, left over from the fight.

 

“Dad!”  El sprinted forward, and Hopper let out a whoof of breath as she buried herself in his midsection, arms wrapping around him.  His arms wrapped around her in reply, clutching her to him in a tight embrace.

 

“It’s okay, kid,” he said softly.  “You’re okay. You’re…” He trailed off, and El looked up to see him gazing straight ahead.  She turned and followed his gaze over to Mike, who had gotten up and followed El over to Hopper.

 

“Um.”  Mike lifted a hand awkwardly in greeting.  “Hi.”

 

Hopper frowned at Mike, and his grip on El tightened slightly.  “Come on, kid,” he said to her. “I’ve got my people sorting this out.  We need to get you out of here before anybody starts to get too nosy about what happened.”

 

“Mike should come with us,” El said, stepping away from him.

 

“El,” Hopper said, giving her a look that said he wasn’t interested in arguing.

 

“Dad,” El repeated meaningfully, “ Mike should come with us.

 

Hopper’s gaze flicked from El to Mike and then back to El.  She saw a sudden spark in his eyes--comprehension, quickly followed by anger.  “Fine,” he said in a tone that made it clear that it wasn’t. “Wheeler, with us.  Get moving.” He ushered El briskly down the hall, Mike falling in behind them as they headed out.

 

-    -    -

 

The Blazer bounced as it went over a particularly pronounced bump in the road, jolting its occupants.  El felt Mike squeeze her hand harder. She was strapped into her usual place in the passenger seat, while he had been unceremoniously dumped into the Blazer’s covered rear bed and was hanging through the window between it and the cab.  Hopper was fuming at the wheel, his eyes burning a hole in the windshield as he glared through it.

 

“Unbelievable,” he growled at length.  “What a goddamn mess. This is just… this is the biggest goddamn mess right now.”

 

“I mean, it could be worse,” Mike said, squeezing El’s hand again as they went over another bump.  “El killed the monster, and she didn’t get hurt… you’re not hurt, right?” he asked, turning to El just in time to miss Hopper’s incredulous look.  “It knocked you around pretty hard… didn’t it get you in the side, there, too?”

 

“It did, but…”  El lifted her shirt to show him.  There wasn’t even a scar. “Small wounds heal when I change,” she explained, replacing her shirt.

 

“Oh, neat, that’s handy,” Mike said.  “Wait, so what about bigger wounds? Like if you lost a limb, would it grow back, or…?”

 

El shrugged.  “Dunno. I’ve never tested it.  For obvious reasons.”

 

“Obvious, right.”  Mike nodded.

 

“Okay, hold on, back up here,” Hopper said, gesturing with one hand against the wheel.  “You’re taking this way too calmly here, kid.  Where’s the ‘oh god, what just happened’ or the ‘jesus christ, what was that thing’ or any of that?  Did I miss it?”

 

“What’s so hard to understand?  El can turn into… that other thing, and she fought off the monster that was attacking the school.  Seems pretty straightforward to me.”

 

“And it doesn’t, I don’t know, upset you or frighten you that she can turn into… that?”

 

Mike gave him a witheringly disdainful look.  “Have you even met El?  She’s like the sweetest person alive.  I don’t see why that would change just because she can, well, do that.”

 

El blushed furiously; meanwhile, Hopper looked like he didn’t know whether to be impressed or infuriated.  “Okay, fine,” he said. “You want to take this so despicably well, that’s your prerogative. But you’re in the know now, which means that there’s a few things we need to explain to you.”

 

Mike eyed him warily.  “Like what?”

 

“Like, I don’t know, did it occur to you to ask why she can transform like that?”

 

“Well, yeah.”  Mike glanced sideways at El.  “I figured it’d come up eventually, though.  There were… more pressing concerns at hand.”

 

“Right, well, it’s coming up now.”  Hopper adjusted himself in his seat, chewing thoughtfully on his lip for a moment.  “You know that old lab on the edge of town?”

 

“The one out near Will’s house?  Yeah, of course I do. It’s closed down, though, isn’t it?”

 

“It’s closed down now , yeah.  There was an… incident, a few years ago.”

 

--she was running through the hallways, skidding and slamming into walls in a body far larger than she was used to.  An alarm was blaring in the distance, and the sound of people shouting was everywhere. Some ran when they saw her; she left them alone.  Others tried to stop her, and she cut them down and threw them aside like ragdolls. She burst through the glass doors, and then the chainlink fence, as though they weren’t there, and then she was running through pouring rain, body slipping and shifting back into the form of a little girl--

 

“El?”  The sound of Mike’s voice startled her from her reverie.  She turned her head and met his eyes, dark and concerned.

 

“The lab, it’s… it’s where I grew up,” she said.  “Where I lived, until I escaped.”

 

“You lived there?”  Mike frowned.  “I… don’t understand.”

 

Wordlessly, El tugged off the wristband that always covered her left wrist.  She held the wrist up in front of Mike, letting him see the numbers printed on her skin in stark black font.

 

011.

 

“Eleven…?” Mike said.  He gasped softly, understanding.  “...El. Short for Eleven.”

 

El nodded.  “That was my name, in the lab.”

 

“They called you by a number ?”  Mike’s voice shook with indignation, and when he looked back at El, his eyes were filled with a swirl of anger and sadness on her behalf that made her heart swell in her breast.

 

“I was close enough to hear the commotion from the lab, and came to investigate,” Hopper said, looking distantly ahead.  “Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a little girl, lost in the woods in a rainstorm. I took her home with me, figured I’d at least give her a dry place to sleep while I figured out where she was supposed to be.  Everything else… came after that.” He sighed. “That was about four years ago, now. I put so much work into building a cover identity for her, something that would let her just go out and be normal …”

 

“But why would she need a cover identity?  And who was experimenting on…?” Mike trailed off, eyes going wide as the pieces clicked together in his head.  “Oh. Oh shit.”

 

“Starting to see the picture, kid?”  Hopper smiled humorlessly. “Let me tell you one thing I know for sure--the lab was not privately owned.”

 

“Which means government involvement,” said Mike.  “Oh, shit.

 

“You starting to understand the situation we’re in right now, then?”

 

“Yeah… yeah, I--”  Mike was interrupted by a sudden, insistent beeping that cut through the intense quiet inside the Blazer like a knife.  “ Shit ,” he said again, fumbling something out of his pocket.  “That’s me. It’s-- shit , I need to take this.”  He tapped a button on his phone’s screen and held it up to his ear.  “Mom--”

 

A burst of chatter came from the phone’s receiver, too quiet and distorted for El to make out the words.  “Mom-- mom --it’s okay, I’m okay,” Mike said quickly, frantically.  “No, I’m okay, I didn’t get hurt or anything… no, I’m not still at the school, I’m… uh…”  His eyes darted over to Hopper. “...I’m with Chief Hopper right now, actually. Yeah, he, uh, he said he… needed my help with something…?  Yeah, I’m just helping him out. Yeah, of course. No, I’ll come right home when we’re done, of course. Yeah--yeah--listen, mom, I gotta go, I love you, see you soon, bye!”  He hung up and let out a long, heavy breath.

 

“Kid,” Hopper grunted as he stared out the windshield.  “If we’re doing this--and we are doing this--you’re going to need to get a lot better at lying.”

 

Mike dropped his gaze, abashed.  “Sorry,” he muttered. “She took me off guard--”

 

“Don’t get me wrong,” Hopper said.  “You did okay there. But okay is not going to be good enough for what we’re dealing with here.  You understand?”

 

Mike nodded mutely.

 

“Good.”  Hopper’s eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror; El was sure that he was gazing at Mike’s reflection.  “I’m going to stop by the cabin to drop El off first. We can work out a story to tell your mom on the way back to your house.  Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Mike agreed.

 

The rest of the drive back to the cabin was made in thoughtful silence.  At length, the Blazer pulled up the dirt road that served as the cabin’s driveway, and Hopper threw it into park and turned off the ignition.  “All right,” Hopper said. “El, hon, this is your stop.”

 

El nodded, giving Mike a small smile.  “Bye, Mike.”

 

“Bye, El,” Mike said quietly, returning her smile.  “See you soon.”

 

“I’ll wait here in the car for you,” Hopper said.

 

“What?” asked Mike, frowning in confusion.

 

Hopper got a strained look on his face the El recognized as him physically restraining himself from rolling his eyes.  “I’m giving you two a minute to say goodbye properly. Go walk her up to the door, kid.”

 

Mike gaped at him for a moment before regaining his senses and climbing out the back of the Blazer’s bed.  El unbuckled her seatbelt and slid out the passenger door; Mike met her at the side of the Blazer and they walked quietly up to the cabin together.

 

As they climbed the steps to the porch, El turned to face Mike.  “Thank you,” she said.

 

Mike blinked at her.  “Why are you thanking me?” he asked.  “You’re the one who saved my life.”

 

“It’s not that,” El said, shaking her head.  “Thank you for… for what you said in the car.  Thank you for…” The words caught in her throat, and she had to take a breath to steady herself.  “Thank you for not looking at me like I’m a monster.”

 

Mike tilted his head slightly.  “You’re not a monster,” he said quietly.  “You’re El.”

 

El didn’t have the words to respond to that.  She settled for simply looking into Mike’s eyes, hoping that her gaze would manage to communicate all of the things she was feeling in that moment, the things that she couldn’t get out of her mouth.

 

Mike’s eyes were also heavy with emotion as he gazed back at her.  “Hey, El?” he asked.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Um…”  He swallowed.  “Look, I don’t… I mean, maybe this is… I don’t know if it was just me, or… but, like, back in that hallway, when we were talking?  Before your dad showed up, there was a moment where I thought… I mean it seemed like we were about to…”

 

El breathed in a soft gasp of surprise.  “Yes…?”

 

“Oh, well, I was just thinking… like, I don’t know if it was something you wanted to…?”

 

“Mike.”  El smiled shyly.  “Yes.”

 

From the look on Mike’s face, it took him a moment to figure out that that hadn’t been a question.  “...oh.”

 

El tilted her face up towards him.  Mike’s face came down towards her in response, and their lips met.

 

She had seen and heard a lot about people kissing before--it seemed like it happened in nearly every movie she watched and every book that she read.  This was nothing like what she had expected. The world didn’t turn upside down or spin around wildly, there was no burst of fireworks or swell of triumphant music.  Instead, it was as if everything else just faded away into unimportance for a bit, leaving El with nothing but the feeling of Mike’s lips on hers, the warmth of his body, his arms snaking around her shoulders to hold her closer, hers looping around his waist in response.  It was enough. In fact, El thought that she might like this better.

 

The spell was shattered by two sharp honks from the Blazer’s horn, and the two of them startled apart, breaking the embrace.

 

“Sounds like it’s time for me to go.”  Mike was looking at her, slightly stunned, as though he was having trouble comprehending what had just happened.  “I think technically I wasn’t supposed to do that until I’d taken you out on a date.”

 

“We killed a monster together,” El said, smiling.  “Does that not count as a date?”

 

“Fair point.”  Mike’s face broke into a grin.  “I still want to take you out to see that movie, though.”

 

“That might be… more complicated, now.”

 

“Probably.  Doesn’t mean we can’t make it happen.”  Mike’s gaze wavered over to the Blazer, then back to El.  “Uh… I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

“At school?” El asked.

 

“Yeah, at school… though come to think of it, they might cancel school tomorrow after what happened today.”  Mike shook his head. “No. You know what? Even if they do, I’ll just come over during the day tomorrow. I mean… if that’s okay with you.”

 

El flushed slightly.  “I’d like that.”

 

“Cool.  See you tomorrow no matter what, then.”  Mike nodded once, firmly. “Bye, El.”

 

“Bye, Mike.”

 

El watched Mike go as he sprinted--nearly skipped --back to the Blazer and climbed into the cab, and continued to watch as it pulled away and headed off down the road.  Only when it had pulled out of sight did she turn and walk through the door into the cabin.

 

Your emotions are confusing lately, the other thing said as she flipped on the TV and settled herself down on the couch.  Your father-thing indicates that the situation has grown quite serious.  Yet you are… happy?

 

It was true, El had every reason to be afraid right now, and those feelings were hovering around the edges of her consciousness.  Yet in this moment, she couldn’t bring herself to care about them.

 

Is it the Mike-thing? the other thing asked.  That thing you did with your mouths was strangely… intense.

 

Yes, El admitted, smiling to herself.  It’s Mike.   It wasn’t just that he had kissed her--although the other thing wasn’t wrong, that had given her all sorts of pleasant feelings.  No, it was that… ever since she’d escaped the lab, she’d been hiding. For four years, that meant literally hiding her existence from the rest of the world.  That had ended, but now she was hiding in a different way, keeping the truth of herself hidden away from people even as she called them friends.

 

Mike, though… Mike had seen her laid bare, all of her secrets revealed to him over the course of this afternoon.  And it hadn’t changed how he’d seen her at all. He hadn’t been afraid, or tried to run away, or worse, tried to hurt her to see how she worked.  He’d stood there on the porch and told her, with that softness of his that made her heart ache, that she was still El.

 

It was nice to have somebody else in her life, beyond Hopper, who was willing to accept her so completely.  The kissing was just a bonus. 

Chapter Text

“School’s been canceled,” Hopper told El as she came out of her room, rubbing her eyes blearily.  He was buttoning up the shirt to his police uniform. “I’m going to have to go in, of course--the good people of Hawkins are expecting me to sort this mess out for them.  Be nice if it were that simple. There’s breakfast on the stove when you want it.” He didn’t have to ask if El would be okay looking after herself--she’d been doing so by default every time he left the cabin for the past four years, and was quite good at it by this point.

 

“Thanks, dad.  Good luck.” El padded over to the small nook that served as the cabin’s kitchen, retrieved a plate and fork, and began helping herself to the scrambled eggs and toast that Hopper had left sitting out.  “Oh,” she said, remembering the previous night with a small flutter in her stomach. “Mike said he’d come by today if school was canceled…”

 

A loud clatter from the other end of the cabin made her turn her head.  Hopper was picking himself up from apparently having stumbled while pulling on his boots.  “Mike? Coming here? Today?” he repeated incredulously.

 

“That’s what I just said, yeah,” replied El, looking at him innocently.  “Is that a problem?”

 

Hopper finished tying his bootlaces and ran a hand over his face, pulling at a pained expression.  “No,” he grumbled. “No, I suppose that makes sense. Just… remember what we talked about before, okay?  Keep your head on straight and don’t go doing anything stupid.”

 

“Okay, dad,” El sighed.

 

“And if he tries to do anything that you don’t like, you stomp him into the ground with my blessing, you hear?”

 

“Dad!” El protested.  “Mike wouldn’t do anything like that.”

 

“I suppose he doesn’t really seem like the type, no,” Hopper agreed with a reluctant nod.  “Still, just in case he surprises both of us…” He pointed one finger downward, emphatically.  “Into the ground. You understand?”

 

Okay , dad.”

 

“Lord, you’re getting to be such a teenager.”  Hopper pulled his windbreaker on and set his favorite wide-brimmed hat on his head.  “Okay. I’m probably going to be buried in work today, but I’ll try to make it home for lunch anyway.  Take care, love you.”

 

“Love you too, dad,” sighed El with only a hint of exasperation.  Apparently satisfied, Hopper flashed her a smile and walked out the door.  El heard the thump of his footsteps on the porch, followed shortly afterward by the sound of the Blazer turning on and driving away down the road.

 

Alone in the cabin, El suddenly found herself unsure what to do with herself.  She had long been accustomed to boredom, of course, having invented countless little games and pastimes to fill empty hours over the years.  And there was always their little library of favorite books and movies to fall back on. What she was less used to was impatience, not just seeking to fill the time, but wanting it to go by faster .

 

After a bit of listless pacing around that, irritatingly, only managed to consume ten minutes, El settled into the couch with her lovingly worn copy of The Hobbit , hoping to manage to kill at least a couple of hours that way.  This soon proved frustratingly useless. El was too familiar with the story to really get sucked into it--she basically knew it backwards and forwards at this point--and all the stuff about hobbits and dwarves and wizards just reminded her of Dungeons and Dragons, which reminded her of Mike, which reminded her of just how damn slowly time was moving.

 

Setting the book aside with a frustrated groan, El decided to see if a movie might occupy her attention better.  She’d been rifling through their DVD collection for a couple of minutes when she suddenly realized that she was still dressed in her pyjamas--an old baggy t-shirt and flannel pants--and that she probably, almost certainly , wanted to be wearing something else when Mike did eventually show up.  She rushed back to her room and began tearing through her dresser, considering pieces of clothing and flinging them aside.

 

What is this? the other thing asked as she rejected another of Hopper’s old flannel overshirts.  You are oddly concerned with your artificial coverings today.

 

It’s because of Mike, El said distractedly as she paused to eye one of her newer, better-fitting t-shirts.

 

Yes, this is obvious, the other thing said as she threw the shirt onto her bed in tentative acceptance.  Most of your erratic behavior lately has been caused by the Mike-thing.  But I do not see the connection between the Mike-thing and your coverings.

 

I just… want to look nice when he comes over, okay? said El, holding up a pair of jeans.  Maybe I’m being silly, so sue me.

 

The other thing contemplated the point as she threw the jeans onto the ‘accepted’ pile.  There is much that I do not understand about humans, it said.  But from what I have observed, the Mike-thing seems to find you aesthetically appealing regardless of the state of your artificial coverings.

 

That got El blushing furiously.  Shut up, okay?  Just… be quiet and let me think.   

 

She’d just finished selecting her outfit and pulling it on when there was a knock at the door.

 

The sound sent a flutter of delight through her body, and she had to force herself to stop and take a breath, holding herself back from running full-tilt for the door.  She needed to maintain some dignity here, after all.  Instead, she went to the door slowly, deliberately, and answered it.

 

Mike was standing there on the porch, a fleeting expression of anxiety melting away to be replaced by a wide grin as he saw her.  “El, hey,” he said.

 

“Hi,” El said, with a grin of her own that had to look entirely too starstruck.  “Um, come on in.”

 

“Thanks.”  He stepped forward as she stepped back to allow him in.  “Wow, I wasn’t sure about this place looking at it from the outside, but… this is nice, it’s kinda cozy.”

 

“Thanks,” El said, still grinning.  “I mean… it’s home.”

 

“Oh, well, yeah,” Mike said, looking back at her.  “I mean, living here for, like, four years? Just you and Chief Hopper?  That’s… yeah, wow, that’s really something.”

 

They stared at each other in silence for a long moment.

 

“We definitely forgot to actually, like, figure out something to do today,” Mike said.

 

“We did, didn’t we?”  El giggled as Mike blushed and rubbed the back of his neck.  “Well… come on, I can show you how I pass the time around here.  Are you hungry? I think there’s still some leftovers from breakfast if you want them.”

 

“Oh, I already ate, but thanks.”  They’d moved haltingly into the portion of the cabin that served as the living room.  “Yeah, uh, sorry that I was so late getting here. It took forever to get my mom to calm down and let me leave the house.  I think she actually cried on me when I got home last night, it was kinda embarrassing…”

 

“She must have been worried about you.”  El glanced at the clock. It was just a little bit after eight o’clock.  The only way this could be considered ‘late’ was if Mike had intended to come directly over to the cabin after waking up… her stomach quivered pleasantly at the implications of that.

 

“Yeah, I guess.  I mean, it’s nice that she cares and all, but I’m not a kid anymore.  I wish…” Mike trailed off. “Sorry. Uh. Rambling, there. What did you want to do?”

 

“Well…”  El indicated the television and accompanying collection of DVDs with a sweep of her hand.  “There’s books, too, but that’s less of a two-person activity…”

 

“Oh cool!  Let me see what you have…”  Mike crouched, his long limbs folding in on themselves, and began to examine the DVD collection. 

 

I told you, the other thing said.  The Mike-thing’s behavior is just as erratic as yours.  I believe that it likes you as much as you like it.

 

Shut up, El said.

 

Do that thing with your mouths again, the other thing said.  It seems to like that.

 

Oh my god, shut up ! ”  Mike looked up from the DVDs, startled, and El clapped a hand over her mouth, face turning bright red.  “Oh no no no,” she moaned. “Mike, I’m so, so sorry, I wasn’t talking to you, that wasn’t…”

 

“I mean, that makes sense given that I wasn’t saying anything,” Mike said, raising an eyebrow.  “But what was that about?”

 

“Oh… um, well…”  For all that Mike had taken last night’s revelations better than she ever could’ve hoped, El still didn’t want their conversation turning towards her unique situation.  Unfortunately, she didn’t really have a choice at this point. “I was… talking to the other thing,” she mumbled.

 

“The other thing?” Mike asked, frowning.  “Wait, you mean like…?”

 

El nodded.

 

Mike’s eyes grew wide--not with horror, El realized, but with fascination .  “So you mean it’s like a seperate thing inside your head?” he asked.  “I mean, come to think of it, that makes sense--you said something to me in that other voice, and then talked in your normal voice like you were arguing with yourself--so you can talk to this ‘other thing’ even when you’re not transformed?  That’s really cool!”

 

‘Really cool’ wasn’t a phrase El had ever associated with the other thing, yet she felt herself flush with pleasure regardless.  “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, it’s dormant a lot of the time, but sometimes it likes to wake up to annoy me.”

 

I do not ‘wake up to annoy you’, the other thing said.  I say things that are true, and sometimes you get annoyed by them.   El responded by jabbing it with a stab of irritation.

 

“Really?  Huh,” Mike said, grinning.  “So what was it annoying you about this time?”

 

“Um.”  Was her face turning crimson again?  Yeah, it probably was. “It was… telling me that I should kiss you.”

 

Mike’s expression instantly shifted to blank confusion.  “Um. Oh?”

 

“Oh god, that sounds really creepy, doesn’t it?”  Was it even possible for her face to turn redder at this point?  It looked like they were going to find out. “It’s not, like, a--” what was the word again? “--a voyeur thing… or maybe it kind of is?  That is--well, I’ve just been kind of feeling a lot of things towards you that I’ve never felt before--” okay, now Mike was blushing “--and I think that that’s got it kind of, you know, interested.”

 

Mike’s blush faded only slightly as his eyebrows pulled together thoughtfully.  “So, wait, it knows what emotions you’re feeling? Can it, like, read your mind?”

 

“Sort of?  No, not really.  It’s like a…” El frowned, trying to remember something Hopper had taught her about during her homeschooling.  “You know about Venn diagrams?”

 

Mike nodded.  “Yeah, of course.”

 

“Right, it’s like that.”  El drew two overlapping circles in the air with her finger.  “So you’ve got this side over here that’s completely me, and then this side over here that’s completely it, right?  But there’s also this… kind of overlap here in the middle, that’s kind of a mix of both of us. And stuff gets passed between us through there… not thoughts, but impressions, sensations… and like you said, we can talk to each other.  Does that make sense?”

 

“Yeah, that makes sense.”  Something about the way Mike was looking at El made her tingle slightly.  He looked like he was studying her, trying to absorb her into his brain and understand her.  Unlike the cold, clinical looks she’d known all those years ago, though, his expression was warm and open.  He wasn’t looking at her like a specimen to be picked apart, but like a person that he wanted to know.

 

Mike was still crouching by the DVD shelf--had been for their entire conversation--so this time it was El who came down to meet him, planting her lips on his.  He looked pleasantly dazed for a moment after she pulled away, and then his eyebrows lifted and his lips twisted into a wry smile.

 

El flushed.  “I did that because I wanted to,” she said defensively.  “Not because it was telling me to.”

 

Either way, the outcome is the same, the other thing said.

 

And you can hush now, ” El shot back.  She looked at Mike bashfully--while saying the words out loud hadn’t been entirely deliberate, it hadn’t been entirely accidental this time, either.

 

Mike just winked at her.  “You tell it, El. Put that thing back in its place.”

 

The Mike-thing should be mindful of its own place, the other thing grumbled, but El felt it subside back into dormancy.

 

“It’s settling back down now,” she told Mike.  “So… do you see something you like?”

 

“Huh?” Mike said, looking at her.  “Oh, the movies. Yeah…”

 

So it was that they settled down on the couch to watch The Terminator .  It was one of Hopper’s more recent acquisitions, a sort of compromise between his and El’s tastes--it had the fighting and gunshots and explosions that marked the sorts of movies that he tended to like, and it also had the more fantastical elements that El tended to gravitate towards.  (Hopper told her they were fantastical, anyway; time-traveling robots didn’t seem all that far-fetched to El given that she was sharing her body with a monster from another dimension.)

 

On the screen, the titular Terminator advanced through the club where Sarah Connor was sitting, oblivious to what was hunting her.  El sucked in a gasp and, on reflex, reached over and squeezed Mike’s hand.

 

His head swiveled toward her.  “Are you scared ?” he asked, surprised.

 

“Shouldn’t I be?” she replied, eyes still fixed on the screen.

 

“Oh, well, I mean… it’s like, people are usually scared of monsters and stuff in movies because if they were real, they’d kill them, right?” Mike asked.  “But you can be, like, super strong and super tough. You’d be able to beat up the Terminator, if it was real.”

 

El frowned.  “I don’t know if I could beat the Terminator, it’s really tough.  It even gets blown up and keeps coming.”

 

“Well, okay, but you’d be able to put up a fight is my point.  You wouldn’t be helpless, which is what I think scares most people.”

 

El gazed thoughtfully at the screen.  The Terminator had spotted Sarah Connor and was advancing on her, a gun pointed square at her head.  She was sitting, frozen, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. “The people in the movie are, though.  Or at least, a lot more helpless than I would be. I think I’m afraid on their behalf.”

 

“Huh,” Mike said, turning his attention back to the movie.

 

They watched the movie through to the end, El clenching her fists in victory and whispering “You’re terminated, fucker!” along with Sarah Connor as she crushed the killer machine in a hydraulic press.  “That was fun,” Mike said as the credits rolled over the screen. “It’s been a while since I saw the original. I guess the sequels have stuff going for them too, but…”

 

“There are sequels ?” El asked, looking at him wide-eyed.

 

Mike blinked at her, then grinned.  “Okay, clearly I’m going to have to bring some movies over with me the next time I visit.”

 

El smiled back at him, her stomach fluttering again at the easy and assured way he said the next time I visit .

 

After a period of time spent sitting on the couch together and chatting aimlessly, El went over to the shelf where Hopper stored their board games and pulled out their battered old copy of Scrabble.  It was a game she and Hopper had played together almost from the beginning. He almost always beat her, but he would explain to her every time he made a word on the board that she didn’t recognize (which was often, in the beginning) and step in to help her make a word with her letters when she was stumped, helping her build up a vocabulary that had been stunted by twelve years of neglect in the lab.  El found herself quite keen on playing the game with Mike, to find out what sorts of words he knew.  Sure enough, he knew a lot of words that Hopper didn’t know--or at least that Hopper hadn’t used before--and their game wound slowly on as El made him stop and explain each of them to her.

 

They were in the middle of a second game when heavy footsteps came tromping up onto the porch.  Mike glanced up from the board, startled. “Oh,” El said. “Dad said he was going to try to make it home for lunch.  I guess that he managed to get away from the station.”

 

“Oh,” Mike said, looking vaguely stricken.

 

The door rattled and swung open, and Hopper fumbled his way in one-handed, his other hand occupied balancing a stack of papers in manila folders.  His gaze swept over the room and settled briefly on Mike, whose presence he accepted with a nod and a grunt.

 

“Hi, dad,” El said.  “What are all those papers?”

 

“Witness statements,” Hopper said, crossing over to the dining room table--or the table that served as the closest thing to one given that they didn’t have a dining room--and dropping the stack down on it.  “I’m going to have to go through them and figure out how I’m going to handle them all.”

 

“Anybody see anything, um…” Mike ventured.

 

“Substantial?” Hopper finished.  “Well, plenty of people caught sight of that spider whatever-it-was that attacked the school.  Fortunately, the lights were out and people were panicking, so the hard facts are getting buried in a lot of hysterical horseshit.  Extra fortunately, it seems like you were the only one who saw El… in her other form, anyway.” He sighed, moving into the kitchen nook and pulling food from the cupboards.  “It’s still going to draw attention that we don’t want, but with a little luck and a lot of clever thinking, we should be able to deflect that attention away from us.”

 

“That’s good,” Mike said, shooting a relieved smile at El.  “Truth be told, I’m not super crazy about the idea of government agents kicking in my door and hauling me away god knows where.”

 

“You’re in the best position of all of us, kid,” Hopper said, putting a frying pan on the stove.  A line of three ungrilled grilled cheese sandwiches sat on the counter beside it. “You’ve been involved in this mess for less than twenty-four hours.  Unless knowing El counts as involvement, I suppose, but that’s still under two weeks. As long as you watch your step and keep your nose clean, you should be able to avoid scrutiny.”  Having covered the bottom of the pan with a film of cooking oil, he dropped the sandwiches in, where they started to sizzle. “Now me, I’ve got four years’ worth of involvement to hide.  I’ve done my best to be careful, of course, and nobody else was around when I found El in the woods that night, so there shouldn’t be anything obvious connecting me to the incident at the lab.”

 

Mike nodded, still looking at El, but the smile had dropped off of his face.  “What about El, then?”

 

“Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it?”  Hopper took his eyes off of the grilling sandwiches to look over at them.  “I laid out enough of a paper trail for her that it should survive a cursory check, at least.  And as for somebody recognizing her… well, she’s grown, her hair’s not shaved down to the scalp anymore, and she’s not running around in a hospital gown.  People’s memories are spotty. It makes more of a difference than you’d think.”

 

“What about the people who were working directly with her at the lab?” Mike asked.  “They’d have been seeing her face every day for… years, potentially.”

 

“Ah.  Well.”  Hopper suddenly got very interested in making sure that the grilled cheese was coming out okay.  “I don’t think that’ll be a problem, either. Those people are… well…”

 

“They’re dead,” El said flatly.

 

“Huh?” Mike said, turning to her.

 

El held his gaze silently, not trusting herself to say anything more.

 

“Oh.”  Mike’s eyes widened.  “ Oh.

 

“Yeah,” El whispered.  She drew her knees up to herself, wrapping her arms around them and hugging them to her chest.

 

“Hey.”  Mike crawled over to be next to her.  “Hey. It’s, um… I mean, well…” He grimaced.  “Saying ‘it’s okay’ seems kind of weird, but… they were holding you prisoner in that lab, right?  They were bad people. They totally had it coming.”

 

“Yeah, totally,” El said, but her tone didn’t sound convinced, even to her.  Hopper shot her a sympathetic look from the kitchen.

 

Somebody pounded at the door, making all three of them jump.

 

“Hopper?!” a woman’s voice came from outside.  “Hopper, I know you’re in there! Open this door, I need to talk to you, right now !”

 

“Ohhhhh shit,” Hopper said.

 

“Is that…?” Mike said, frowning.

 

Hopper crossed to the door at just short of a run and cracked it open.  “Joyce, hey… look, I’m kind of busy right now, it’s really not--”

 

“Cut the crap, Hopper!”  The woman immediately stuck her body into the opening and forced her way through the door and past Hopper, which was an impressive feat given that she barely came up to his shoulder, with a slight build to boot.  Her hair was dark red and slightly frazzled, and there was a slender delicateness to her features that struck El as a little bit familiar, somehow. “You told me you were going to look into this monster business, and then next thing I hear, the monster you were ‘going to look into’ shows up at my son’s school ?  We are talking about this, and we are talking about this now .” 

 

“Mike?” said a boy’s voice from the doorway.  El shifted her gaze over to see Will standing there.

 

Oh, of course.  Joyce Byers. Will’s mom.

 

“Mike!”  Will dashed through the door and into the cabin, causing Joyce and Hopper both to take a startled step backward as he passed.  Mike shot to his feet just in time for Will to collide with him, wrapping himself around him in one of the most impressive bear hugs El had ever seen.  “Jesus, you’re okay!”

 

“Agh, Will!” Mike protested, trying in vain to pull out of the hug.  “Of course I’m okay, I told you I was okay!”

 

“Yeah, by text !  After the last I saw of you was you trying to fight off some nightmare monster thing with a fucking broom !  And now I find you just hanging out at El’s like nothing happened?”  Will stepped back from Mike, wiping at his eyes. “Hi, El,” he added as an afterthought.

 

“Hi, Will,” El responded, unsure what to make of the situation that had just barged into her home.

 

Mike let out another squawk of protest as Joyce swooped in to embrace him as well.  “You saved my boy,” she said, voice cracking slightly. “You risked your life to protect him--you brave, reckless boy--”

 

“Joyce--” Hopper began to say.  Joyce shot him a glare over Mike’s shoulder, and he immediately looked like he regretted speaking up.

 

“This is what I’m talking about, Hop!” she snapped, breaking the embrace and stepping around Mike to advance on him.  “Will almost died, twice !  Mike almost got himself killed protecting him!  What next, huh? What if it’s your daughter?” She stabbed a finger in El’s direction, making her flinch back in surprise.  “What is it going to take to get you to take this seriously?!”

 

“I am taking this seriously, Joyce!” Hopper fired back.  “What the hell do you expect me to do, just go out and arrest these--whatever the hell they are?”

 

“I expect you to figure out what the hell’s going on and how the hell we can stop it!”

 

“Mom,” Will said, tugging at Joyce’s sleeve.  “Mom, just leave it, it’s okay--”

 

“It is not okay, Will,” Joyce said, speaking more softly even though her tone still carried an edge of impatient frustration.  “Not when that… thing is god-knows-where, and could show up at any moment to--”

 

“It’s dead,” Mike said quickly.

 

Will and Joyce both stared at him in shock; Hopper and El also stared at him, with a very different flavor of shock.  “What do you mean, it’s dead?” asked Joyce.

 

“I mean it’s dead,” Mike said.  “The other, uh, the other monster, the more humanoid one?  I mean, I think it was the same one, uh, just, like, based on your description, Will--anyway, it showed up, and it fought the spider one, and it, uh, killed it.  That’s--that’s how I got away.”

 

El traded a wary glance with Hopper.  Wherever Mike was going with this, he was on his own--neither of them could say anything without giving the whole thing away.  Will and Joyce were still gaping at him. “And you’re--you’re sure it’s dead?” Joyce asked, voice suddenly small.

 

“Yeah, pretty sure.  I mean, its body, like, dissolved.  That’s usually a pretty good indication that something’s dead, right?”  Mike smiled weakly, as though he were expecting somebody to laugh. Nobody did.

 

“Okay,” Joyce said, breathing deeply.  “Okay, but this other monster is still out there--”

 

“I don’t think it’s dangerous,” Mike said.

 

Joyce stopped short, blinking repeatedly in disbelief.  “What?”

 

“I mean, it protected me, right?  And it could’ve come after me afterward, but it didn’t.”  El saw Mike’s head twitch microscopically in her direction, but he caught himself before he actually looked at her.  “It even spoke to me--told me not to be afraid.  Will, you said that it talked to you too, right?”

 

“Yeah, it did,” Will said.  “And it protected me as well… I think he has a point, mom.”

 

“I think,” Mike said carefully, “that we don’t really know what these things are, or why they’re doing what they’re doing.  But I think it’s a mistake to assume that they’re all hostile just because they’re… different, y’know?”

 

Joyce crossed her arms, a frown tugging at her lips.  “I still don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t like not knowing what these things are, or where they’re coming from, or any of it.”  She shot another glare in Hopper’s direction. “You need to look into this, Hop.”

 

“Joyce, I’ve got an entire town full of people clamoring for me to look into it,” Hopper said.  “Believe me, it’s got my full attention. Matter of fact, I was in the middle of working on it when you came in.”  He gestured to the stack of witness statements on the table. “I’m on the case, okay?”

 

“Hop,” said Joyce, tone full of warning.

 

“Joyce,” Hopper replied with exaggerated patience.  “I promise, you’ll be the first to know if I figure anything out, okay?  I just need you to trust me, here.”

 

“Fine,” Joyce sighed.  She turned to Mike and El.  “You two be careful, okay? It’s dangerous out there with these things running around.  Let’s go, Will.” The two of them were ushered back to the door by Hopper; Will waved a silent goodbye at Mike and El just before the door closed behind him.  The cabin’s three remaining occupants stood quietly, listening as the sound of Joyce and Will’s footsteps gave way to the sound of their car starting and driving away down the road.

 

“How was that?” Mike asked at length.

 

Hopper sighed, running a hand over his face.  “You tipped our hand more than I would’ve liked, there, but I’ll admit that you bought us some breathing room as well.  On the whole, not bad.”

 

Mike smiled, relieved.  “I just thought, if we can get people understanding that El’s not a threat…”

 

“Government won’t care if she’s a threat or not,” Hopper said shortly.  “They consider her their property. But you got Joyce off our backs for the time being, and if she goes talking about it… not that I think she will, but if she does… well, I don’t think too many people are going to be inclined to listen to her, her reputation being what it is.”

 

“She’s not crazy,” Mike said indignantly.

 

“No, she’s not,” Hopper agreed.  “She might come off as high-strung, but she’d move heaven and earth to protect her kids… an admirable trait, though extremely aggravating under the current circumstances.”

 

El moved beside Mike, gently wrapping her arm around his.  “I appreciated you sticking up for me, Mike,” she said. “It’s nice, having you on my side.”

 

“Always,” Mike said, grinning.

 

“Oh, dammit!” Hopper said from the kitchen nook.  “We let the grilled cheese get cold.”

 

-     -     -

 

School resumed the next day, though it seemed like a pointless exercise to El; nobody around her seemed capable of focusing on classes, not even the teachers.  A low buzz of unrest was filling the building, and by the time El found herself headed to lunch, it was starting to grate on her nerves something fierce.

 

The prey grows restless, the other thing said.  They have sensed the presence of the predator.

 

First of all, they’re not ‘prey’, they’re my classmates, El said.  Second, we killed the spidery thing, so the predator’s gone.

 

One predator is gone, the other thing said.

 

El stopped so suddenly that the boy behind her nearly walked straight into her.  “Sorry,” she said in a strangled whisper as he maneuvered around her with a dirty look.  To the other thing, she said, What do you mean, ‘one’ predator?  Are you saying that there are others out there?

 

Of course there are others, the other thing replied.  It and I were not the only ones living in the other place.

 

Yeah, but that was the other place.  How could they get to this world?

 

She felt the ripple of ambiguity that the other thing used as its equivalent of a shrug.  How did the spidery thing get here? it asked.  If it could do it, then so can the others.

 

A horrible pit formed in El’s stomach, and stayed settled there as she went through the line for her food.  Things were bad enough as it stood, with all the chaos that the spidery thing had caused in its attack and the unwanted attention that had drawn.  But if she was going to have to keep fighting monsters like that, again and again? She wasn’t sure if she could handle it.

 

She heard her usual table before she saw it--voices raised in what was clearly an animated argument.

 

“Come on, Mike, you’ve got to tell us everything!” Dustin was saying.

 

“I have told you everything,” Mike said in a voice that made it clear he wanted the conversation to be a lot quieter than it currently was.

 

“Bullshit!”  Dustin crossed his arms.  “Yeah, you told us what happened--like, the thirty-second outline version.  I want the details , dude.  Will told us all the details of what happened to him, didn’t you, Will?”

 

“I--” Will began, looking very much like he didn’t want to get involved.

 

“El!”  Max jumped up from her seat as El approached; El only barely had enough time to drop her tray down on the table before Max had her wrapped up in a hug.

 

“Um--?” El asked, brain failing her.

 

“I was so worried about you, god,” Max said, squeezing her.  “You just went charging off god knows where and then suddenly everything went crazy and I didn’t know where you were and I didn’t know what had happened to you and I didn’t know if you were okay and I had to text Mike to even find that out--”

 

“Max, breathe,” Lucas said, sounding vaguely alarmed.  Max obeyed, taking in a shuddering breath as she stepped back out of the embrace.  El saw the beginnings of tears shining in her eyes.

 

“I’m…” El began.  It hadn’t even occurred to her that Max would be this worried about her.  “I’m… sorry.”

 

“Hey, no worries,” Max said, smiling weakly.  “I’m just… really glad you’re okay.”

 

“Wait, so why did you go running off like that, El?” Dustin asked.

 

El froze.  She wasn’t ready for this, she hadn’t given any thought to the questions her friends might ask, she hadn’t finished absorbing the conversation she’d just had with the other thing.  “I--” she said, stumbling over her words. “I mean, everybody was running, right?”

 

“Well, yeah, but you started running before anyone else did.”  Dustin glanced over at Max. “And Max said that you went running deeper into the building--everybody else was running to get out.  It just seems kind of weird, that’s all.”

 

“Dustin,” Max said, looking like she wanted to strangle him.

 

Seriously , dude,” Lucas added.

 

“I--um--well--”  El cast about frantically for an explanation.  Her eyes met Mike’s, and her stomach sank as an idea occurred to her.  She hadn’t necessarily wanted to reveal that to their friends this quickly, this bluntly, but right now it was by far the lesser of the secrets that she was keeping.  “I was looking for Mike,” she said quickly. “I could tell something was wrong, and… well, I wanted to make sure that he was okay.”

 

The others stared at her, slightly dumbfounded.  “ That was why you went tearing off like that?” Max asked.

 

El nodded.  “Uh-huh. I found him after… after all of it had happened.”

 

“Mike didn’t mention that,” Dustin said, frowning at the person in question.

 

“Yeah--well--”  El met Mike’s eyes again; he was looking as panicked as she felt, but he nodded slightly, encouraging her to press on.  “The thing is… well, I was just so relieved that he was okay, and he was so relieved to see me and so… we kinda… kissed.”

 

Did she say ‘slightly’ dumbfounded?  Make that completely dumbfounded.  Even Dustin seemed lost for words, for once.  El felt a blush heating up her face--not a reaction that she had to fake.  “I asked him not to tell you guys just yet, because I was embarrassed,” she said.  “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how worried you were about us.”

 

Will nodded, no doubt fitting the pieces together in his mind regarding how he had found the two of them yesterday.  Lucas raised his eyebrows at Mike, looking vaguely impressed. Max, however, shot a glare at Dustin. “Nice going, Henderson,” she said.

 

“What did I do?!” Dustin protested.

 

“Oh, you know, you just embarrassed El in front of all of us because you don’t know when to stop talking,” Max snapped.

 

“Oh my god.”  Dustin raised both of his hands up in a gesture of frustration.  “What is wrong with all of you? None of you want to ask any questions, none of you want to figure out what’s going on!  We’ve got a mystery right here in front of us--”

 

“See, you say ‘mystery’,” Mike interrupted.  “I’m thinking you actually mean ‘game’.”

 

“I do not think this is a game--”

 

“No, but I think you kind of do,” Mike pressed on, face set in a stony expression.  “I think that all of this reminds you of D&D, or some video game, or something, and that gets you all excited and makes you want to go off chasing it.  But I already told you, it’s not a game, okay? Will almost died. I almost died.” He glanced briefly in El’s direction, as if silently adding her to the list of people who had been in danger.  “You just go charging off into this, you’re going to get yourself killed. Or drag somebody else into it and get them killed.  Do you hear me, Dustin?  Do you?”

 

Dustin apparently had no response to that, because he chose to start picking miserably at his food instead of saying anything.  An uncomfortable silence descended over the table, dragging on as each member of the group made their way through their lunches.  Finally finishing hers, El leaped to her feet, the swiftness of the motion drawing everybody’s eyes. “Mike, can I talk to you before class?” she asked, a little breathlessly.  “Like, somewhere private?”

 

“Oh--yeah, sure.”  Mike wasn’t quite finished with his food yet, but a quick glance at it seemed to make him decide that it wasn’t worth finishing, and he collected his tray as he rose to his feet.

 

“Have fun sucking face,” Dustin muttered as they left, earning him a sharp glare from Mike.  

 

They disposed of the remains of their lunches, and El led Mike out the cafeteria’s back door, around to an isolated spot housing the school’s gigantic dumpsters.  “So what’s up?” Mike asked as El came to a halt and turned to face him. “Is something wrong?”

 

“I don’t know.”  El quickly filled him in on the conversation she’d had with the other thing right before lunch.

 

“Oh,” he said, blinking.  “Oh, shit.”

 

“Yeah,” she agreed.  “I mean, it doesn’t seem like it knows how the spidery thing got to our world from the other place, but it seems to think that there might be others coming as well.”

 

Mike’s gaze grew distant.  “How did it get to our world…?” he asked.

 

“I don’t know,” El replied, frowning.

 

“Right--no--I mean, that was rhetorical, I didn’t actually think that you--”  Mike squeezed his eyes shut and pinched his lips together in the way he always did when he was trying to stop himself from rambling.  “What I’m saying is… well, it’s been four years since the other thing showed up, right? And there haven’t been any other monsters in all that time.”

 

“Not that I know of,” El said.

 

“Right, well, you said that you can sense them, and the Chief probably would’ve known about it if anybody went missing under unusual circumstances,” Mike said.  “So like, it’s been totally quiet for four years, and now suddenly something else from the other place shows up? And maybe more where it came from?”

 

“You think it’s happening for a reason?”

 

Everything happens for a reason,” Mike said.  “I mean, in a basic laws-of-physics kind of way.  But if there is a reason that these things are suddenly showing up now, after all this time… well, if we can figure out why that is, maybe we can figure out a way to stop them from coming.”

 

El stared at him.  “Mike?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I really want to kiss you right now.”

 

He flushed lightly as he grinned.  “Well, don’t let me stop you--” He’d barely gotten the sentence out of his mouth before her lips were on his.

 

“I’ll talk to my dad tonight,” she said after she’d pulled away.  “He knows more about what was going on at that lab than anybody. He might know where we can start looking for answers.”

 

“Cool,” Mike said, looking slightly dazed.  “Yeah, no, that’s a great idea. Are you free this weekend?”

 

El blinked.  “Huh?”

 

“Uh… sorry, that transition made more sense in my head.  I mean, if you want, we can have a look at what movies are playing this weekend, see if there’s anything that we want to see, say, Saturday afternoon…?”

 

“Oh.  Yeah.”  A smile was spreading itself across El’s face.  “Yeah, I’d like that.”

 

“Great.  Awesome.”  Mike was smiling back at her.  “We should probably be heading back to class right now--” he checked his phone “--make that definitely be heading to class right now, but I can call you later tonight and we can get it all nailed down?”

 

“Sounds good to me.”  El slipped her hand into Mike’s as they headed back into the building.

 

-     -     -

 

Hopper was still tied up dealing with the investigation into the spidery thing’s attack, so El wound up getting a ride home from Max.  “I’m really sorry about Dustin,” she said as they drove. “He means well, but he kind of lives in his own little world, and sometimes it can be a struggle to get him to remember that other people have, like, feelings and stuff.”

 

“It’s fine,” El said, watching the trees by the side of the road as they flashed past the window.  “I mean, I was kinda embarrassed, but you guys were gonna find out anyway, so…”

 

“Damn right we were.”  Max’s face split into a wicked grin.  “So is Mike a good kisser?”

 

El blushed.  “I don’t know,” she said.  It wasn’t as if she had any other people she’d kissed to compare it to.  “I mean, I like kissing him…?”

 

“Ah, yes.  The whole ‘all’s well with the world as long as his lips are on mine’ stage of things.”  Max’s hands jerked slightly on the steering wheel as she turned off the pavement onto the dirt road leading to the cabin.  “Yeah, that’ll carry you through the first little bit--maybe a couple of months or so?”

 

“Wait, does kissing stop being like that?”  El frowned. Now that she thought about it, most of the movies she’d seen ended soon after the first kiss.  She had almost nothing to go on for figuring out what came after that.

 

Max raised an eyebrow at her.  “I mean, it doesn’t really stop being pleasant--I still enjoy kissing Lucas plenty, even though we’ve been together for a couple of years.  But at some point you should think about if there’s, like, more stuff that you want to do…?”

 

“Oh.”  El nodded.  “Yeah, that’s… hormones, right?”  Hopper had told her about hormones during their talk.

 

Apparently that wasn’t the right thing to say, though, because Max was looking at her in open bewilderment.  “I mean, you’re not really wrong , but--”  She blinked and looked forward again.  “Hey, isn’t that your dad’s car? I thought he was still at the station.”

 

Max was right--the Blazer was parked out in its usual spot in front of the cabin.  “He works at home, sometimes,” El said. “Says that the station starts getting to him if he’s there for too long.”  They exchanged farewells as she got out of the car, and then Max was driving away back down the road, and El was mounting the steps up to the cabin’s front door.

 

“Hi, dad!” she said as she opened the door.  “How is the--” She froze. There was somebody else in the cabin with Hopper, sitting at their dining room table.  He was an older man in a black suit, with slightly curly dark hair that had started going grey at his temples.

 

“Well, hello!” the stranger said.  “Chief, I suppose this would be your daughter?”

 

“My daughter Jane, yes,” Hopper said.  His expression was unreadable, which was a warning in itself, not to mention his usage of El’s legal name.

 

“Pleasure to meet you.”  The stranger tossed off a casual salute of greeting.  “My name’s Sam Owens. I’m with the U.S. Department of Energy.” 

 

 

Chapter Text

El stood rooted to the spot, shock stealing her voice.

 

“You’ll have to forgive my daughter,” Hopper said, shooting her a significant look.  “I don’t think she was expecting to come home to find a government agent in her house.”

 

“Ah, of course not.  Why would she?” Owens winked at her.  “No need to worry, young miss, you’re not in trouble and neither is your dad.  I’m just here to help out. I hear that things have gotten a little out of hand around here.”

 

El’s brain finally started working again.  “Is this about the monsters?” she asked.

 

Hopper’s expression grew more strained, but Owens just grinned.  “Monsters, huh? Is that what they’re saying around school?”

 

“Yes,” El said.  “My classmates saw them.”

 

He laughed, as if she’d said something funny.  “Monsters… well, people will say all sorts of things, you know,” he said.  “As for what’s really going on… well, that’s the reason I’m here. No need to fret, your dad and I are hot on the case.  I get the feeling that he and I are going to make a good team. Wouldn’t you say, Chief-o?” he added to Hopper.

 

Hopper grunted something that might have been agreement.

 

“Well, there you have it,” Owens said, turning back to El.  “Here, I’ll let you have your dad back for the evening. You give those files a look-over, and let me know if any of the leads pan out, okay, chief?”

 

“Of course,” Hopper said.

 

Owens beamed, seemingly unrattled by Hopper’s gruff demeanor.  “All right, I think I hear my ride pulling up outside. Jane, good to meet you.”

 

El nodded, following him with her eyes until he’d passed through the front door and the sound of his footsteps had clomped down the porch stairs.  “What was he doing here?” she hissed, turning back to Hopper.

 

“Exactly what he said,” Hopper replied.  “He’s the government’s man for investigating the monster attacks.”

 

“But why was he here ?”  El gestured at the cabin around them.

 

“Basically invited himself over.  Said he had some sensitive info to discuss that he didn’t want anybody at the station overhearing.  I’d have gotten him to go somewhere else, but by the time I’d gotten my wits back together he’d already decided that we should go to my place.”  Hopper sighed. “I don’t think he suspects anything. Try not to worry about it.”

 

Unlikely, the other thing commented.  El ignored it. Her gaze fell on the table--Hopper’s hand was resting on a manila folder that seemed to be stuffed full of papers.  “What was this ‘sensitive info’ he wanted to discuss?” she asked.

 

“Well, funny, that,” Hopper said, noticing where she was looking and picking up the folder.  “It turns out that the government was running some sort of secret experimental project out in the old lab a few years ago, and Owens suspects that whatever it was that they were up to, it might be linked to the trouble we’re having now.  Did you know that? I didn’t have any idea.”

 

El gave him a dirty look.

 

He grinned ruefully.  “Right, sorry, bad joke.  Anyway, you understand that this information is all classified and I’m not allowed to share it with anybody, not even my own daughter.”

 

“Right.”  El snatched the folder from his hand and flipped it open.  A woman’s face stared back up at her, somber almost to the point of glowering.  “What is this?”

 

“Personnel files,” Hopper said.  “Kind of a who’s who of everyone who was a big deal in the lab.  The project was shut down after you escaped, and the government’s disavowed everything it couldn’t bury, but Owens seemed to think that somebody might be trying to carry on the work.”  He nodded at the folder. “Recognize anybody?”

 

“A little bit…” El said uncertainly, flipping through a few of the papers.  Some of the faces registered as faintly familiar, but none of them stuck out in her memories--until she turned over another sheet and found herself staring at someone she could never have forgotten.

 

“Papa,” she whispered.

 

“What?” Hopper asked.

 

This human is not familiar to me , the other thing said.  It is familiar to you?

 

“From before we joined,” El murmured aloud.  “He was…” How could she explain what he was to her, in a way that Hopper or the other thing could understand?  “He was Papa.”

 

“Martin Brenner,” Hopper said.  He had stood, and was reading the file over her shoulder.  “Head scientist at the lab. So he… appointed himself as your handler, then?”

 

Handler?  El frowned at the word.  “He… raised me,” she said.  “He was… my father? But not like you are,” she added, looking at Hopper.

 

Hopper looked back at her, something complicated in his eyes that El couldn’t quite interpret.  They didn’t talk much about the early days--how much Hopper had to teach her, not just things she would have learned in school, but things like being allowed to come and go from her room as she wanted, or being able to cry without getting told off for it.  Papa, she’d come to realize, had been a bad father.

 

She looked back at the paper, reading the words that were printed next to Papa’s--Brenner’s--picture.  “What does ‘MIA’ mean?” she asked.

 

“It stands for ‘missing in action’,” Hopper answered.  He traced a finger down the page, murmuring softly to himself as he read the words.  “Yeah. Looks like he disappeared the same night you escaped. Hasn’t been seen since.”

 

“Then he’s dead,” El said dully.  She didn’t remember killing him… but there were a lot of details from that night that had gotten lost in the blur.

 

“Probably,” Hopper agreed.  “If they marked him down as MIA, then that means that they didn’t find his body… but a lot of these people are marked down as missing.  I’m guessing that a lot of the bodies were really--um.”

 

El didn’t respond.  For a brief moment, a vision of somebody’s skull getting crushed in her distended hand flickered through her mind.  “That government man thinks that these people have something to do with the monster suddenly appearing?” she asked, pushing away the memory.

 

“Apparently,” Hopper said.  “Or maybe one of their associates, somebody trying to carry on their work.”

 

El pursed her lips thoughtfully.  “Mike said that the monster appeared for a reason,” she said.  “And that if we can figure out why, then we can stop others from appearing as well.”

 

“Others?”  Hopper’s eyes went wide.  “Wait, hold on a minute. You think there’ll be more of these things?”

 

“The other thing does,” she said.  

 

Hopper let out a soft sound, tugging slightly at his moustache.  “Well, if we are looking at more monsters,” he said, “then Mike’s right.  We need to figure out what’s going on, and we need to figure it out as soon as possible.”  Gently, he took the folder back from El, flipping it closed. “I’ll start looking into these.  If there’s anything to be dug up on them, I’ll dig it up. Your dad wasn’t always a small-town cop, you know.”

 

“I know,” El said, smiling.  He’d told her all about his time as a police detective.  “I never doubted you.”

 

“Psh, you’re going to give me a swelled head,” Hopper grumbled, but she could tell he was pleased.  “I suppose it’s useless to tell you not to go running off after these things, if any more of them show up?”

 

“I’m not going to stand by if people are in danger.”

 

“Of course not.  I raised you too damn well for that, apparently.  Just--”

 

“Be careful, and don’t go doing anything stupid?”

 

He blinked.  “Um… yeah. Am I really getting to be that predictable?”

 

“Only as long as I’ve known you.”  She wrapped her arms around his midsection, nuzzling her cheek into his chest.  “I’ll be careful, dad. Promise.”

 

He wrapped his hands around her shoulders in return and squeezed her softly.  “Okay. As long as you promise.”

 

-     -     -

 

The buzz of unrest was still running through the school on Friday, but it was muted compared to the previous day, the students and faculty seeming to settle in a little bit more than they had been.  El, on the other hand, was still feeling on edge, and when Mike suggested that they forget the cafeteria and go outside to eat lunch alone, she gratefully agreed.

 

(“Is something bothering you?” he had asked while they were sitting together, tucked against a wall on the back of the building.

 

“Just… thinking about something,” she’d answered.  Brenner’s face had been floating into her head all morning, unbidden.  “I’ll… tell you about it later.” Explaining Brenner had been difficult enough for her with Hopper; how much more so would it be with Mike?)

 

She’d said goodbye to Mike (with a quick farewell kiss for good measure) and was retrieving her things for her afternoon classes from her locker, when a voice pulled her out of her head.

 

“Hey, um… El?”

 

She turned.  Dustin was standing there, cap scrunched up in his hand, looking vaguely panicked.  Lucas and Max were standing just behind him, flanking him on either side--like bodyguards, El thought.  Or maybe a prison escort? She couldn’t quite decide.

 

“I… um… well…”  Dustin’s face contorted as he swallowed hard, and then with one sudden, swift movement, his torso hinged forward into a deep bow, coming down until it was nearly parallel to the floor.  “I’m really sorry! Like, really, really sorry!”

 

“I.  Um?” El said, train of thought grinding to a halt as she tried to process the scene in front of her.  “Why… are you bowing…?”

 

“I think he picked it up from, like, old samurai movies or something?” Max said.  “It’s Dustin, you can usually count on him being overdosed on pop culture.”

 

Lucas lightly nudged Dustin’s calf with an outstretched foot.  “And why are you sorry, Dustin?”

 

“Oh, right!”  Dustin straightened up just as fast as he had bowed, making El take an involuntary step backward.  “I was a dick. Like, you’re probably upset about what’s been going on, and Mike’s probably upset, and I know that Will’s upset, and I’ve just been going around running my mouth a whole bunch, and not thinking about how you all are feeling, and I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings--”

 

“--and breathe ,” Max said, laying a hand on his back.

 

El’s stomach squirmed uncomfortably.  She’d been lying to him--she and Mike both had been, to the whole group--and now Dustin was apologizing to her ?  It was necessary, of course, even a good thing that he was backing off… but it just didn’t seem right , somehow.  “It’s okay,” she said, quiet and flat.  “I’m not upset at you.”

 

“You’re not?”  Dustin’s face broke into a wide, relieved grin, faltering only when Lucas coughed lightly behind him.  “I mean--like, if there’s anything I can do to make it up to you--”

 

“Dustin,” El said.  “I’m not upset. It’s fine.”

 

“Okay.  Good. I mean, cool.  I’m glad.” Dustin’s grin broadened again back to its former size.  “Wow, yeah. Okay. That went well. Do you know where I can find Mike, by any chance?”

 

El shook her head.  “I don’t have class with him in the afternoon.”

 

“Right.  Yeah, I just figured I’d ask since you two are--” this time it was Max that coughed “--like, close to each other and all,” Dustin finished quickly.  “Come on, guys, let’s go find him.”

 

“You two go ahead,” Max said.  “I’ll catch up in a bit.” She waved Dustin and Lucas off as they hurried away, then turned back to El.  “So, yeah, like I said. It can be a bit of a struggle getting through to Dustin sometimes, but he really does mean well.  I hope you’re not too upset with him.”

 

“Max,” El replied, stepping back to her locker.  “When I say I’m not upset, that means I’m not upset.”

 

“Oh.  Okay, good.  I mean, it’s just…”  Max paused, looking at her critically.  “You seem a little bit… subdued today, is all?”  Her eyes narrowed and she stepped forward. “Wait, did Mike do something?”

 

“What?  No! Mike is--” El blushed at the possible endings to that sentence that were crowding into her brain.  “Mike’s fine. We’re fine. We’re actually going to see a movie, tomorrow.”

 

“Oh?  That’s great!” Max said, falling back into her more friendly demeanor.  “You looking forward to that?”

 

El smiled to herself as she closed her locker door.  “Yeah,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

 

-     -     -

 

Saturday found El standing in her room, desperately contemplating her clothes as they lay strewn where they had landed while she was tearing through her dresser and closet.

 

Not this again, the other thing grumbled.

 

The problem was that El didn’t have much variation to her wardrobe.  Until now, clothing had been entirely pragmatic, a matter of what Hopper thought she needed to have.  The result: t-shirts, jeans, plain slacks, and an amount of oversized hand-me-down overshirts from Hopper that El was just now starting to realize was a little bit excessive.

 

You worry so much about the Mike-thing finding you appealing, the other thing said.  Do you not realize how simple it is for you to keep it happy?

 

Say one thing about ‘that thing with our mouths,’ El replied as she shifted a pile aside, and I will find the most annoying song I can get my hands on and listen to it on repeat until you beg for mercy.

 

The other thing contemplated the point, then wordlessly subsided from their mindspace.

 

Selecting an outfit was only the first challenge.  El attempted several different styles of wearing the overshirt she’d picked--the one that looked the least worn out--before finally settling on leaving it completely unbuttoned and simply knotting the bottom corners together at her waist.  From there she proceeded from her bedroom to the bathroom, staring intently into the mirror as she experimented with different ways of wearing her hair.

 

“Dad,” she said at last, walking out from the bathroom.  “Hair up or down?”

 

“Hm?” Hopper asked, looking up from the papers he had scattered all over the dining room table.

 

“Hair up,” El repeated, demonstrating by gathering her hair together in her fist and holding it at the crown of her head, “or down?”  She released the fistful of hair, letting it fall freely to either side of her face as it usually did.

 

Hopper stared at her for a moment before breaking into a wry grin.

 

“What?” she asked defensively.

 

“Nothing,” he said, still grinning.  “You’re just acting like a teenager again.”

 

“I am a teenager, dad.”

 

“Yeah.”  His smile took on a wistful edge.  “Yeah, you are, aren’t you? Hair up,” he added, turning back to his paperwork.

 

“You think it looks better up?” El asked.

 

“You look good both ways,” Hopper replied.  “But you usually wear your hair down. Wearing your hair up is a change from that, which is going to make Mike stop and take notice.”  He tapped one finger against his temple. “Psychology, you see.”

 

“Psychology, huh?”  El bunched her hair back up into a high, messy ponytail, securing it in place with an elastic hair tie.  “Thanks, dad.”

 

She passed the remaining time by pacing restlessly, first in the living room until Hopper politely informed her that she was driving him crazy, and then in her room.  She felt the other thing’s attention creep back into their shared mindspace, but it didn’t seem inclined to offer any comment.

 

After what felt like an eternity of waiting, there was a knock at the door.

 

El burst from her room, rushing to the front door and throwing it open.  “Mike, hi!” she said.

 

“Hi!” Mike said.  He looked a little different than El was used to.  His hair had been… well, a valiant attempt to tame it had been made, at any rate, and he was wearing a button-down shirt in place of his usual t-shirt, tucked into his jeans and with the top few buttons left open to expose the color of his undershirt.  El flicked her gaze back up to his face and realized with a rush that his eyes had been roving over her as well. She grinned at him, feeling giddy even as her face heated up, and he grinned back, a flush playing red over his cheeks.

 

Humans are so hopelessly strange, the other thing commented.

 

“Mike,” El said, speaking through her grin.  “Do you, by chance, know any really annoying songs?”

 

“Huh?”

 

I am being quiet now.

 

“Hey kids,” Hopper called from the table.  “If you don’t mind, could you stop letting the cold in?”

 

“Oh, uh, sorry, Chief!”  Mike stepped back to allow El through the door.

 

“Bye, dad!” she called over her shoulder.

 

“Have fun,” he said, lifting one hand in a lazy wave.  “Just make sure you… well, you already know what I’m going to say, apparently.”

 

El laughed as she shut the door behind her, and then she and Mike were walking to his car together.

 

“You’re wearing your hair up,” Mike observed with a sideways glance that was almost shy.

 

“Yeah?” she said, feeling her stomach flutter.

 

“Yeah.  It looks good.”

 

Psychology , the other thing said.  Your father-thing is clever.

 

El was feeling too pleased to tell it off.

 

They drove in Mike’s car (a station wagon that he’d apparently borrowed from his mother for the afternoon, which he apologized for--though El couldn’t see what was wrong with that), down to the main road and then skirting around the edge of town.  Hawkins’ only movie theater was in Starcourt Mall, a place that El had heard Hopper mention offhand a couple of times.

 

“What’s the mall like?” she asked Mike as they drove.

 

“Oh, yeah, you’ve never been to one, have you?” he said, glancing at her.  “Well, it’s okay. I mean, it’s a good place if you like shopping or whatever.  I don’t know why people think hanging out there is so cool, though. I don’t really go there except to see movies in the theater, or when my mom drags me out clothes shopping.”

 

“Oh,” El said, deflating slightly.

 

“Oh--but hey,” Mike added, noticing her reaction.  “I mean, since this is your first time at a mall and everything, we can totally check it all out.  We can go over every inch of the place, if that’s what you want to do.”

 

El smiled shyly at him.  “You don’t have to…”

 

“Yeah, but I want to.  I mean… I want you to have fun.  Besides,” he added, flushing slightly, “I’m sure I’ll enjoy it too… as long as I’m with you.”  He shook his head. “Oh shit, that was really cheesy, wasn’t it?”

 

El reached across the divide between her seats, resting her hand lightly on his thigh, hearing him draw in a breath at her touch.  “No, it was…” she said, forming her mind around a word she hadn’t had a reason to use much before now. “It was… romantic.”

 

“Oh.”  Mike was grinning again.  “Cool.”

 

They pulled into the parking lot of Starcourt Mall, and El gaped up at the building as she got out of the car.  It was big, bigger than the school, maybe even bigger than the lab, and was lit by lines of colored light running along its edges.  More lights along the faces of a triangular projection jutting out over a bank of doors spelled out STARCOURT in bold letters.

 

“El, c’mon,” Mike said, pulling lightly at her sleeve.  “We should get to the theater so we can get good seats.”  She let him take her by the wrist and followed as he guided her along, though she was still gawking at the building, trying to take in the sheer spectacle of it.

 

“What movie are we seeing?” she asked absently.

 

“Oh, uh… it’s a movie about this guy, and he goes to space, and then… some other stuff happens, I guess,” Mike answered.  “I’ll be honest, I picked it because it was the only one out right now that looked at all interesting. I’m hoping it’ll be at least decent…”

 

The inside of the mall was, if anything, even more overwhelming than the outside.  It was a single massive space, probably the largest indoor space she’d ever seen, and the walls were lined with shops selling more different kinds of things than she’d ever imagined possible.  Only the insistent tugging of Mike’s hand and his promises that they could come back and look later kept her moving as they hurried along to the theater.

 

Mike got them into the theater (he had their tickets on his phone, somehow, which wasn’t something that El had known was possible) and stopped by the concession stand to get them a large bag of popcorn.  “They do popcorn with movies here too?” El asked as he turned back toward her with the tub in his arms.

 

“Yeah,” Mike said.  “Did Hopper make you popcorn when you watched movies together, then?”

 

“Yeah.  He said it was traditional.”

 

“He was right.  Good for him.”

 

They slipped into the theater together and found seats, Mike balancing the popcorn on his lap but placing it so that El could easily reach over and take as much as she wanted.  They watched a series of previews (“They’re movies that haven’t come out yet,” Mike explained. “They’re trying to convince you to watch them when they do come out.”), and then their movie began.

 

(“Put your phone on silent,” Mike whispered.  She did so.)

 

The movie was… different from the others that El had seen.

 

It was a space movie, certainly, but all of the space movies she’d seen with Hopper had been about being in space, about the adventures people had.  This one… sure, it had an adventure of a sort, but it moved slowly, with long, quiet stretches between the action.  More than anything, it seemed focused on the astronaut who was the main character, his feelings and thoughts as the movie’s story progressed.  El had certainly seen movies stop to consider their character’s feelings before, but this was the first one she’d seen where it seemed to be the entire point.  Hopper probably would’ve said it was boring.

 

At last, the final scene faded away, and the credits began to roll.  El and Mike stayed sitting in their seats, both staring at the screen.

 

“Whoa,” El said.

 

“Yeah,” agreed Mike.

 

“So that was not at all what I was expecting,” he added as they walked out into the theater’s main lobby.  “Like, I just knew that it was about a guy going to space. I wasn’t expecting it to get all cerebral like that.”

 

El frowned.  “Cerebral?”

 

“Cerebral--oh, that’s like the cerebrum, which is part of your brain.  It means, like, something that has a lot of ideas, where you really need to think about them to get them, you know?”

 

“Cerebral…”  El felt the word roll over her tongue as she repeated it.  It was an interesting word. “I don’t think my dad’s really into cerebral films.”

 

Mike let out a bark of laughter, clapping a hand over his mouth to stop any more from coming out.  “Sorry,” he said. “That just makes way too much sense.”  He paused, running a hand along the back of his neck.  “Hey, so… how do you feel about getting ice cream?”

 

El’s eyes went wide.  “We can get ice cream here?”

 

Laughing, Mike led her to a shop labeled SCOOPS AHOY in bright light-up letters, bringing her up to a counter that was being tended by a young man in a sailor’s outfit, a wave of unruly brown hair peeking out from beneath his hat.  “Ahoy there,” he greeted them in an extremely bored voice. “Welcome to--oh. Hey, Mike.” His eyes flicked over to El, who had been drawn to the tubs of ice cream on display like a magnet. “Wait, are you on a date?”

 

“Yes, I am,” Mike replied, sounding annoyed.  “You don’t have to sound so surprised, Steve.”

 

“You two know each other?” El asked, pulling her eyes away from the ice cream.

 

“Yeah, Steve used to date my sister,” Mike explained.

 

El frowned.  “Your sister?”

 

“Uh, yeah, my older sister--Nancy.  You wouldn’t have seen her around, she’s off at college.”

 

“Oh.”  El tried to picture Nancy Wheeler in her head.  If she was anything like Mike, then she was probably really nice and really pretty.  “Why did you stop dating her, Steve?”

 

Mike’s hand clapped to his mouth again as he just barely managed to hold in a snort of laughter, and Steve sputtered in confusion.  “Why did I--? What the hell kind of question is that?! You just met me like five seconds ago, and you’re just gonna go prying--”

 

He was interrupted by a small window in the wall behind the counter sliding open.  A young woman in a sailor’s outfit similar to his stuck her head out. “Poor Stevie got dumped because his girlfriend decided to move on with her life,” she said.  “And now he’s trying to figure his own life out, and we’re all very proud of him for the progress he’s made, aren’t we, Stevie?”

 

“Yeah, thanks, Robin,” Steve grumbled.  “Do you just, like, wait back there for an opportunity to pop out and make fun of me?”

 

“Yep!” Robin replied brightly before pulling her head back in the window and shutting it.

 

“...anyway,” Mike said.  “Steve, please get this young lady literally whatever she wants.  My treat, of course.”

 

“Mike!” El said, shooting him an embarrassed look.  “You already paid for the tickets. And the popcorn.”

 

“Did you bring money with you?”

 

“...no,” she admitted.  She hadn’t thought of it, and Hopper hadn’t reminded her.

 

Mike grinned.  “So, my treat then.”

 

She huffed out a small breath, defeated.  “Fine. But I’m going to treat you to something next time, just try and stop me.”  She watched him out of the corner of her eye, savoring the way his face lit up when she said the words ‘next time’.

 

Several samples and one purchase later, El followed Mike over to a table, carrying a large cup with five scoops of ice cream in it.  Each scoop was a different flavor; Mike had been thoroughly useless in helping her narrow her choices down, simply repeating that she could get whatever she wanted.  Getting it down to five had been a struggle, but she’d finally managed to come up with a list to give to an increasingly exasperated Steve.

 

“So, um,” Mike said as they sat down, “how is, uh…”  He glanced around, then resumed speaking in a slightly quieter voice.  “How is your first time being out in a mall?”

 

“It’s… amazing, honestly,” El said.  “Although I think my impression is a little biased.”

 

“Biased how?”

 

El blushed.  “Because I’m here with you.”

 

“Oh.”  Now Mike was blushing too.  “That’s really… I mean, I’m really glad you’re having a good time.”

 

They picked quietly at their ice cream for a while, occasionally catching each other’s gaze across the table and grinning helplessly at each other every time they did so.  El felt a vague ripple of confused disgust from the other thing, and she nudged it sharply in response, just enough to make the point.

 

“So I was thinking,” she said halfway through her ice cream.  “About the movie?”

 

“Oh.  Yeah?”

 

“Well, it’s like… there’s that scene where his dad’s about to fly off into space, and he keeps saying ‘you have to let me go’, right?  And he literally has to let him go so he doesn’t fly off into space with him. But also… like, not literally, he’s been carrying his dad around his entire life, right?  And he has to let him go so that he can move on. It’s like it… means two things at once?”

 

“Oh.  Well, yeah.”  Mike swallowed another spoonful of his ice cream.  “I think that was kind of the point.”

 

El frowned down at the tabletop.  Brenner’s face floated into her mind again; his voice murmured in her ear.

 

Don’t be afraid, Eleven.  We’re about to do something truly incredible.  This is much bigger than your fear.

 

“El?”

 

“I,” she said slowly, “have somebody that I need to let go of too.  From… before.”

 

“Before?”  Mike blinked.  “Oh, you mean like… before .”  His hand slipped across the table, laying itself softly over hers.  “I mean, I’m not a psychologist or anything,” he said, “but it seems to me like a good way to deal with bad memories is to make some good memories that you can hold on to as well.”

 

El smiled shyly at him.  “You mean like this one?”

 

“Yeah… yeah, like this one.”  Mike was grinning too. “Do you want to go and make some more?”

 

Mike was true to his earlier promise, following El with faint amusement as she darted between shops, gaping at the sheer variety of things on display.  There were so many things that there were entire stores devoted to selling just one kind of thing: an entire “book store,” where she and Mike traded their appraisals of the contents of the shelves, adding several titles to her wishlist; an entire “toy store,” where Mike couldn’t stop grinning at her delight over the variety of clever little playthings; and an entire “clothing store,” which Mike was visibly less enthusiastic about.

 

“I mean, it’s not a bad thing or anything,” he said as she shuffled curiously through a rack.  “It’s just, like, what is it with girls and clothes? First my mom and my sister, now… I didn’t really expect you to be that into them.”

 

“I’m not,” El said, moving to another rack.  “I mean… I wasn’t. It’s not like I had much reason to be, when it was just me and Hopper in the cabin.  But now I’ve been to school, and I’ve seen what other girls wear, and it’s all… I just want to look nice, you know?”  She didn’t quite have the courage to admit why she wanted to look nice, silly as that was.

 

Mike huffed out a small laugh as he lifted an eyebrow at her.  “I think you look nice regardless,” he said.

 

Told you, the other thing said as El blushed.

 

Shush ,” she replied.  “Not you,” she added quickly to Mike.  He just grinned.

 

Time slipped away from her, and by the time they were walking back through the parking lot to Mike’s car, hands shyly entwined, the sun had almost entirely disappeared behind the horizon.  “Thank you for bringing me out here, Mike,” she said. “The movie, the ice cream, all of it. I think this might be one of the best days of my entire life.”

 

“Uh-oh,” said Mike, laughing.  “Sounds like I’ve set the bar pretty high for next time.”

 

She snorted and, turning to him, tugged at the front of his shirt to get him to bend down towards her.  When he obliged, she put her lips to his, kissing him softly at first, then more and more vehemently as he kissed her back.  Butterflies danced in her stomach, and a familiar electric feeling shot down her spine.

 

Wait--

 

Danger-fight-run.

 

“NO!” she screamed, shoving herself away from Mike.  “No no no no no !  Why here ?  Why now ?!”

 

“El?!” Mike asked.  His eyes went wide. “Oh, shit.  Is it--?”

 

“Another one.  Somewhere nearby.”  Her breath was coming in deep gasps, her heart pounding against her ribcage.  “ Where?

 

In the ‘mawl’, the other thing replied.  Where the prey is.

 

The mall had been filled with people, more than El could count.  If this new monster emerged there, took them by surprise… El sprinted back for the mall entrance, her feet pounding against the parking lot pavement.  Another set of footsteps came running behind her--Mike was following her. “Mike, stay out here!” she said as they approached the doors. “Go back to the car and wait there.”

 

“What?!  No way!” Mike said.  “I’m not letting you fight this thing alone!”

 

She whirled on him with a ferocity that brought him to a dead halt.  “You are not getting mixed up in this, Mike!” she said.  “You were lucky that you didn’t get hurt last time--I’m not risking it this time!”

 

Rallying himself, he crossed his arms.  “As I remember, you said yourself that that spider thing would’ve gotten you if I hadn’t intervened.  I’m not willing to risk letting you go it alone if it could get you killed!”

 

El bit down, clenching her jaw to keep from screaming in frustration.  The monster’s rapid approach pressed in on her awareness. “I don’t have time to argue about this, Mike!” she snapped.

 

“Then stop arguing! ” he snapped back.

 

With an incoherent noise, she spun back around and burst through the doors.  The mall was still crawling with people, a couple of them giving her funny looks as she stood, paralyzed by rising panic.  “Too many,” she said, breathlessly. “Too many people. If they see--!”

 

“Wait--I have an idea.”  Mike brushed past her, running deeper into the mall.

 

“Mike!”

 

“Just trust me!”  He disappeared down a hallway that was tucked between two shops.

 

El opened her mouth to call his name again, then thought better of it, dabbing at the tears of frustration and panic that had welled up in her eyes.  She would chew Mike out for his recklessness later. Right now, she had to focus.

 

Her senses opened, dozens upon dozens of bright flares springing into her awareness as she took in all of the people going about their business.  She scanned through them, searching for the contrast. Where they were warm and bright, the monster would be dark and cold--

 

There.  On the mall’s lower level, in the food court, a nexus of roiling, shadowy power.  The monster still hadn’t emerged, but its essence seemed to be leaking through ahead of it.  El began to run, dodging around startled shoppers, her earlier panic subsiding under the cool logic of necessity.  If they saw, they saw. She wasn’t about to let them die just to keep her secret.

 

Suddenly, a piercing, ringing noise filled the air, sending a start through El’s already on-edge system.  The noise put her in mind of the bell that signaled the beginning and end of class at school, but there were no classes here.  Besides, that bell always stopped after a few seconds; this one just kept ringing and ringing. It was clearly having an effect, though--people were looking around and murmuring in concern, and before long they all began to move towards the mall’s exits.

 

Mike.  He must have done this, whatever it was, knowing that it would clear everybody out of the mall.  Begrudgingly, El felt a rush of gratitude towards him. She pressed on towards where the monster was emerging, picking up her pace as the lights overhead and around her began to flicker ominously.  For a moment, she thought she heard an unplaceably familiar voice calling out to her from the rush of people headed to the exit, but she dismissed it as unimportant. Stopping the monster was all that mattered now.

 

She bounded down the escalator to the food court and found herself standing beneath the incoming breach, its boiling energy growing more violent as the monster’s emergence grew nearer.  “Let’s do this,” she snarled.

 

We will do this indeed, the other thing agreed, and its power flooded into her.

 

She sprouted upwards from the floor, limbs elongating, flesh and clothes shifting, until the transformation was complete, and she stood ready in her monstrous form, crouched in a fighting stance.  “ Come on! ” she roared up at the breach.

 

Something erupted out of it, long and dark. 

 

The thing that emerged put El in mind of a snake, or possibly an eel--a long, sinewy band that rippled and bent as it slithered along the floor.  The front end of the band reared up, a familiar flower-like mouth opening up to reveal a maw lined with countless teeth, and the snake thing bellowed, a challenge, a warning, a general message not to mess with it.  

 

Fat chance of that.  There was no sense in waiting for it to come to her, so El darted forward and clawed at it probingly, careful not to overcommit to the attack.  The snake thing pulled its front end back and out of the way, simultaneously bringing its tail around in a powerful slap to her side. El rolled with the blow, tumbling sideways until her momentum was halted abruptly by one of the food court’s storefronts.  She shoved herself back up to her feet, pushing herself off of the wreckage of the counter she’d just plowed into. This thing could hit her from unexpected angles, just like the spidery thing. Were they all going to be this much of a pain to fight?

 

The snake thing slithered forward with surprising speed, lunging with its maw gaping open.  El threw herself aside as it collided with the spot where she had been a moment before. She took advantage of the momentary opening as it recovered to swipe at it, but only managed a shallow clip to its side, making it snarl as it pulled away and readied itself for the next exchange.

 

If we prove ourselves too troublesome, it will likely flee, the other thing said.

 

No, El said.  If it runs, it’ll come back eventually like the other one did.  We need to kill it now to make sure it can’t hurt anybody else.

 

“Hey, shithead!” somebody called from above.

 

Something large and shiny sailed down and struck the snake thing on the head, making it recoil.  Mike was up on the second level, bending down to retrieve something else from a pile of objects at his feet that he’d apparently grabbed to serve as makeshift projectiles.

 

“Mike, no!”  With a lurch of horror, El saw the snake thing gathering itself to lunge again--this time not at her, but up at Mike.  Without stopping to think, she dove forward, reaching out for it as it launched itself into the air and sinking her clawed fingers into its flank, hauling it back down with all her strength.

 

It shrieked, and its maw clamped shut just a foot or two short of Mike, making him yelp and fall backward.  Unfortunately, this also meant that it took a massive bite out of the edge of the balcony he was standing on, its teeth shearing through the metal and concrete like they were warm butter.  Mike gave another yelp, more panicked this time, as the floor beneath him tilted and gave way, sending him tumbling through the air.

 

With only a split second to react, El launched herself towards him, catching him in midair and pulling him to her in a protective embrace.  With a mighty twist of her torso, she managed to orient herself so that she impacted on her back, sparing Mike from being pulverized between her body and the floor.

 

The snake thing’s tail whipped through the air again, and El dumped Mike to the floor so that she could position herself between him and the incoming attack.  The tail beat out a repeated impact--one, two, three--and she arched her back against the blows, focusing above all else on preventing their force from driving her down on top of him.  The tail flicked away, and El saw--sensed--the snake thing’s head headed towards them in another lunging bite. With a scream that made Mike flinch beneath her, she pushed herself up to her feet and whirled around, meeting it head-on with a sideways blow.

 

Pain blossomed in her hand as the snake thing’s teeth cut gouges into her skin, but she’d been successful; her claws had penetrated all the way through one of the flaps on its maw, even over-penetrating to the point that they’d poked into the flesh of the neck behind it.  The snake thing shrieked again and gave a great convulsive shake of its head, dislodging El’s hand and sending her flying into a nearby pillar with enough force to blow a massive chunk out of its midsection.

 

She climbed to her feet, desperately fighting through the disorientation.  Mike. She’d been thrown clear, and Mike was vulnerable. She turned, ready to leap back in to protect him, but the snake thing was pulling back, and she could see the dark, boiling energy of the breach opening up again.

 

It is retreating, the other thing said.

 

“NO!” she cried.  With great bounding steps, she sprinted after it, but it was already wriggling its way back in, and she barely managed to clip the end of its tail before it was gone again, and the breach with it.

 

She stood staring helplessly at the spot where it had been moments ago.  Can I do that too?  Open a breach like that, go wherever it went?

 

I do not know, the other thing replied.  When I came to your world, it was through you, not like that.

 

Defeated, El slumped down to her knees, hunching over against the urge to cry, to scream.  She’d failed. The monster had escaped her, and when it came back--as she had no doubt that it would--it might very well kill somebody before she could stop it.  That would be her fault.

 

The other thing’s power ebbed out of her, slowly transforming her back to human.  She heard footsteps behind her, knew without looking that they were Mike’s. “El, what happened?” she asked.

 

“It got away, Mike, that’s what happened,” she snapped.  She heard him gasp slightly at the rebuke, and a storm of messy, contradictory emotions whirled inside her.  Part of her wanted to start kissing him and never stop because he was here , he was alive and he was okay ; part of her wanted to yell at him until she was hoarse for being so stupid as to put himself in danger in the first place.  It was all too much. She was so tired. “Just take me home, please,” she muttered.

 

She didn’t protest as he pulled her up to her feet, or as he placed his hand in the middle of her back, gently guiding her towards the exit.  From the corner of her eye, as they walked, she saw him glancing at her face, then away, then back at her face. He seemed to want to say something, but didn’t seem to know quite what.  She didn’t return the eye contact. All the energy had drained out of her, and all she seemed capable of feeling at the moment was a dull emptiness.

 

They drove out of the parking lot and away from the mall, Mike explaining that he was going to take a roundabout route back to the cabin so that they didn’t run into whoever was coming to investigate what had just happened.  El didn’t say anything in response to that. She didn’t say anything at all, not on the entire drive back, not as they pulled up in front of the cabin, and not as Mike stepped out of the car to walk her up to the door. The lights were off; Hopper was gone, no doubt called away to the scene of the battle.

 

“El, I…”  Mike started to say.  El finally turned to look at him, and he dropped his gaze away from her face, muttering, “Shit.”  In his expression, she could see feelings that didn’t seem that far removed from hers, and with a pang of sympathy, she was tempted to reach out to him, to try to talk to him, but she wasn’t sure if she could take it.

 

Mike had proven to have a way of getting into the softest, most vulnerable parts of her, and right now that just hurt too damn much.

 

The sound of an engine gunning tore through the quiet of the evening, and Mike and El both turned and squinted as a pair of headlights appeared at the end of the road and approached them at a speed that didn’t seem entirely advisable, bouncing slightly.  They screeched to a halt a few feet short of Mike’s car and switched off, revealing the form of Hopper’s Blazer.

 

The driver side door flew open, and Hopper emerged.  “Cameras,” he snarled, stomping over the ground towards the porch.

 

“What?” Mike asked.

 

“Cameras, Wheeler.”  Hopper came to a halt at the foot of the porch stairs.  “I’m talking about the video cameras that were covering every goddamn inch of that mall you just wrecked.  Did you even think about those?”

 

“Oh, fuck,” Mike breathed, and El felt her veins turn to ice.  “Did they catch--?!”

 

“No,” sighed Hopper, leaning heavily on the banister.  “No, whatever the hell it is those things do that make the lights go nuts, it apparently affected the cameras too.  The footage is completely scrambled, useless.”

 

“Oh.”  El heard Mike breathe a sigh of relief.  “Well, that’s all right then--”

 

“No, it is not all right!” Hopper snapped, glaring at him.  “It’s a goddamn fluke is what it is, and if you two hadn’t just happened to get lucky here, we’d be completely up shit creek right now!  I need you both to think about these things, because I’m not always going to be able to run around covering up for you!”  He dragged a hand over his face as Mike and El stared at him in stunned silence. “Just--just go home, kid.  We’ll talk about this later.”

 

“I… okay.”  Mike looked at El like he was about to say something more, thought better of it, and walked down from the porch over to his car.  The dirt ground under his tires as he pulled around the Blazer and away down the road; El turned and walked into the cabin with Hopper following behind her.

 

There was a long stretch of awkward silence before Hopper finally spoke.  “El--”

 

El felt something snap inside her, and all of the emotions she hadn’t been feeling since leaving the mall suddenly came pouring out of her like a waterfall.  “I know , okay?!” she yelled.  “I know that I screwed up!  I thought I could go in and help and stop that thing, but there were so many people and it was all happening so fast and Mike wouldn’t listen to me and--and--”  She fell to her knees, sobbing, tears beginning to stream down her face. “I let it get away! I let it get away and it’s probably going to come back and kill somebody and it’s going to be my fault and I’m sorry , I’m sorry that I screwed up and I’m sorry that--”

 

El! ”  Hopper’s voice broke through her rant and he dropped to the floor next to her, his arms wrapping around her and pulling her to him.  “Easy, kid, easy. It’s okay, it’s okay. Just let it out…” El couldn’t have stopped that even if she’d wanted to; she cried into his chest until the tears began to run dry and her sobs subsided down into sniffles.  “There you go, it’s okay,” Hopper said. “I’m sorry.”

 

A weak, shaky laugh escaped El’s mouth.  “What do you have to be sorry about?” she asked.

 

“I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that.  I shouldn’t have yelled at you, at either of you.  I told myself I was going to stop doing it, but I just get so--”  The fabric of his shirt shifted against El’s cheek as he shook his head.  “No. No excuses. I shouldn’t have done it, and I’m sorry.”

 

“I’m sorry too,” El said.  “The cameras--”

 

“You’ve been living in an isolated cabin for four years, how on earth were you supposed to think of something like security cameras?  Mike could’ve, maybe, but he’s a kid and he was panicking, just like you were.” He squeezed her reassuringly. “Listen, El. You did good tonight.  Not perfect , but good.  If you hadn’t jumped in like you did, then that thing would’ve materialized in the middle of a crowd of helpless people… it would’ve been a massacre.  You saved them, all of them. Don’t lose sight of that.”

 

El pulled gently away from him, hiccuping slightly.  “You think so?”

 

“I know so.”  Hopper studied her, gentle, concerned.  “What’s this with Mike? You two get into a fight?”

 

El blew out a breath.  “I tried to get him to stay away, but he wouldn’t listen to me.  He kept arguing about it. He rang some kind of alarm or something to clear everybody else out, which was good, but then he tried to step into the fight and it almost got him killed…”  She broke off as Hopper chuckled slightly. “What’s funny about that?”

 

“It’s not.  I’m--I’m sorry,” Hopper said, regaining his composure.  “It’s just, you’re saying that there’s this person who you care about deeply, and they keep jumping into dangerous situations because they want to help, and it drives you crazy because you’re worried about their safety… it just strikes me as a bit familiar, that’s all.”

 

El blinked at him, then laughed as she saw his point.  “What is this, then, payback?”

 

“No, not payback.”  Hopper was smiling softly.  “Listen, don’t get me wrong--what Mike did was stupid.  I mean, really stupid.  But if he feels anything like the way I feel when I think about you out there, fighting these things… well, then I guess I can understand why he did it.”

 

“Yeah,” sighed El.  “Yeah, I guess I can too.”  She rose to her feet. “Um, is it okay if I go in my room for a bit?  I kinda need to, um…”

 

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”  Hopper rose with her. “You take as long as you need.  I’ll get started on dinner.”

 

With one last hug, El walked into her room, shutting the door behind her as she pulled out her phone.  She had a couple of texts from Max--the other girl had been certain to trade numbers with her, after not being able to get in touch in the aftermath of the attack earlier that week.  El had apparently left her phone on silent after leaving the movie theater, explaining why she’d missed the texts.

 

heard something happened at the mall, u ok?

 

El smiled; it was kind of sweet how much Max had been worrying about her.  we’re fine, she texted back.  we left way before it happened.  Then she drew in a breath, steeled herself, and dialed Mike’s number.

 

He picked up in the middle of the first ring.  “ El?!

 

“Hi, Mike,” El said.  She sat down on the floor, propping her back against the side of her bed.  “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

 

No!  No. Actually, I was… well, I’ve kind of been staring at my phone for a bit, trying to work up the courage to call you.  So, uh… thanks for calling first, I guess?

 

El’s heart squeezed.  How on earth did he manage to be so hopelessly adorable?

 

There was a heavy pause, and then both of them spoke at once.

 

“Mike, I’m really--”

 

El, I’m so--

 

They stopped short, laughing a little in spite of themselves.  “ You first, ” Mike said.

 

“Okay,” El said.  “Mike, I’m… I’m really, really sorry for the way I treated you tonight.  I got freaked out, and I lashed out at you, and… it wasn’t okay. I’m sorry.”

 

A pause on his end of the line as he absorbed her words.  “ Why are you apologizing to me? ” he asked at last.  “ You were right, El, you were totally right.  I should’ve stayed out of it. If I hadn’t butted in, you wouldn’t have had to protect me, and maybe you could’ve killed that thing.

 

“Maybe,” El sighed.  “Who knows. Maybe it would’ve killed me.  But you did help, Mike. You did that… that thing, that got everybody to leave the mall.”

 

The fire alarm?  That wasn’t much.

 

“It was so much, Mike.  Thanks to you, I didn’t have to worry about anybody seeing me while I fought.  That means… it means…” Damn it, where were the words for what it meant to her?  “It helped more than you can realize,” she said.

 

Oh, ” Mike said.  He was quiet for a moment.  “ Well, you still had to protect me when I got in over my head.  I saw you taking those hits for me. So… I’m sorry. And thank you.

 

“I’d take worse than that if it meant protecting you, Mike,” El said.  “Anything would be better than having to watch you die. If that happened, I…”  Her voice cracked, and she found herself unable to finish the thought.

 

I… I don’t want to lose you either, ” Mike said.  “ Shit, El, I know you’re, like, a total badass and all, but--

 

“You worry about me putting myself in danger,” El said.  “Yeah, I know. Dad kind of helped me realize that.”

 

Wait, he did? ” Mike asked, sounding bewildered.

 

“Yeah,” El said.  “He’s not mad, by the way, not anymore.  He just kind of… let all the worry and fear carry him away, and it made him say things he shouldn’t have said.”  She huffed out a dry laugh. “Kind of like we did.”

 

Oh, ” Mike said.  Then, “ Don’t we make a fine trio, then.

 

El laughed again, more genuine.  “I guess we do, huh?”

 

Kinda therapeutic, isn’t it, dealing with these monsters?  Gets us to deal with all of our issues. If they don’t, like, kill everybody or whatever, then we’re going to be so well-adjusted by the time this is all over.

 

“Mike!” El giggled.

 

Sorry, ” Mike said, and she could hear the smile in his voice.  There was another pause, but this one wasn’t awkward; it was warm and comfortable, the way the breaks in their conversations usually were.  “ So I guess this isn’t exactly the best night of your life anymore, ” Mike said at last, “ but was the date okay?  Like, before the monster?

 

“The date was wonderful , Mike,” El said.  “That hasn’t changed.  Though I agree, we should try to avoid having a monster attack on our next one.”

 

Mike laughed.  “ Yeah, I’ll be sure to plan it that way next time.

 

“I’ll hold you to that.”  El could feel herself grinning like a loon, but she didn’t care in the least.  “Listen, I should probably go and have dinner, but do you want to talk tomorrow, or…?”

 

You have to ask?  No, dinner sounds like a good idea.  Take care, and I’ll talk to you soon.  Goodnight, El.

 

“Night, Mike.”  El ended the call and allowed herself a moment to bask in how full her heart was, before setting her phone down on her nightstand and heading back into the cabin’s main room.

 

Chapter Text

El was awoken by the sound of somebody pounding frantically at the door.

 

Blearily, she lifted her head, trying to get her bearings.  She’d essentially fallen into bed and passed out after dinner last night, sleeping hard and, based on the brightness of the morning light peeking around the edges of her curtains, late as well.  She didn’t hear Hopper moving to answer the door, so he must have already left.

 

El? ” a voice called, muffled by the two walls that stood between the speaker and her.  “ El-- ”  She couldn’t make out any of the words beyond the person calling her name, but she realized with a start that it sounded an awful lot like Mike.

 

Startled to full wakefulness by that realization, she burst out of her room and rushed to the front door, opening it so quickly that she caught Mike in mid-knock.  “El,” he gasped. “El, I’m so, so sorry, I tried to call but you weren’t answering your phone--” She cringed; she must’ve forgotten to take her phone off silent before falling asleep.  “--we have a problem,” he finished breathlessly.

 

“What problem?”  Fear coiled in El’s stomach.

 

“Well, uh…”  Mike licked his lips.  “So, um, I guess you told Max that we left the mall before any of the stuff last night went down?”  El nodded affirmative. “The thing is, apparently Steve spotted us on his way out while the fire alarm was ringing, and he texted Dustin to ask if we were okay, and Dustin said something in our group chat, and then Max got confused because of what you said to her, and uh, long story short they figured out we’ve been lying to them and they’re really, really mad.”  He sucked in a breath as his rambling sentence came to a close, looking like he was going to be sick.

 

El was feeling like she might be sick herself.  She’d fallen asleep secure in knowing that the fallout from last night was contained, only to be confronted with a fresh disaster this morning--

 

There was the noise of tires grinding down the road; Mike turned to look as a car pulled into view.  “Oh, come on ,” he groaned.  Max’s car came at them like an oncoming train, screeching to a halt in front of them.  All four doors opened, and the four other members of their group stepped out. Mike was right, they looked pissed.  Lucas and Max were glowering, Dustin’s lips were tight, and even quiet, gentle Will had his face set in a hard expression.

 

“Had a feeling we’d find you out here,” Lucas said.  “Having another secret meeting?”

 

“Hey, screw you, Lucas,” Mike snapped, stepping forward.  El reached out to try to stop him, to pull him back, but he’d moved out of her reach too quickly.  “What gives you the right to butt in like this?”

 

Butt in? ” Lucas asked, incredulous, as Max scoffed next to him.  “We were worried about you, man!  We heard something happened at the mall, and we wanted to make sure you two were okay, and apparently you decided to pay us back by giving us the runaround!”

 

“What runaround?” Mike asked.  “We were there, the thing happened, we got out.  That’s it.”

 

“Yeah, so why did El lie to me and say that you’d gotten out before the thing happened?” Max asked, shooting an accusing glare in El’s direction.  El dropped her eyes to the ground, unable to meet it.

 

“Yeah, and why did Steve say that he saw El running into the mall while the fire alarm was going off?” Dustin added.  “This is the second time that something’s gone down and somebody’s seen her go running towards the trouble.”

 

“And what about you, Mike?”  Will’s voice was softer, yet somehow all the more accusatory for it.  “The moment we pointed all this out to you, you stopped responding and went running over to El’s house.  That doesn’t sound like somebody who’s got nothing to hide.”

 

Why are you even trying to hide all this in the first place?” Lucas said.  “We’re not trying to get on your case or get you in trouble or anything.  We just want to know what the hell is going on with our friends!”

 

“Look, I…”  Mike crossed his arms over his chest, hugging himself nervously.  “I… I can’t tell you what’s going on, okay? It’s complicated.”

 

Complicated?! ” Max snorted.

 

“Yes, complicated!” Mike exploded, forcefully enough that all four of the others took a step backward in shock.  “It’s really complicated, and there’s so much going on here that you don’t understand, and I… I… I just need you guys to stay out of it , okay?!”

 

Lucas recovered first; he walked up until he was almost nose-to-nose with Mike.  “I cannot believe you,” he growled.

 

“What’s your problem?” Mike growled back.

 

“My problem is that friends don’t lie to each other! ”  Lucas punctuated the outburst by shoving Mike full in the chest, sending him stumbling backwards.  “That’s been our rule since we were in fucking kindergarten , Mike!”

 

Mike regained his footing and rushed forward, shoving Lucas in return.  The other three stepped forward in alarm, preparing to intervene in the fight that was clearly moments away from happening.

 

It was too much.

 

Fear, frustration, and anger coursed through El, burning nerves already tired and frayed from what had happened last night.  “That’s enough! ” she screamed.  “Stop it, all of you !”  The sharp crack of something breaking and splintering cut through the air; she’d been holding tight onto the banister next to her, and it had suddenly given way beneath her grip.  The other thing’s power was coursing through her limbs. She must have drawn on it unconsciously, without meaning to.

 

The sudden noise had drawn everybody’s attention, and they were staring at her, Mike in alarm, the others in shock.  El stared back at them for a handful of heartbeats before acting on the only impulse she could get out of her panicked brain.

 

She ran.

 

She ran away from the cabin, away from the dirt road, away from the others into the trees.  She heard Mike calling after her, the scramble of footsteps as the others began running after her, but they couldn’t outrun her, not when she was like this.  She hurtled over the uneven ground, not even bothering to duck out of the way of branches as they cracked harmlessly across her body. She didn’t know how long she intended to run, or where she intended to run to; all she could think was a single, overriding impulse to just get away .

 

Girl, the other thing said, insistent.  Girl.  El!

Leave me alone! ” she shrieked.  “ God damn you, just leave me alone, you ruin everything!

 

If it took offense at that, it gave no indication.  It is here, it said urgently.

 

What?   How could that be?  She hadn’t sensed--no, she realized with a jolt, the familiar electric sensation was singing through her body.  It had just been so similar to her distressed emotional state that she’d missed it.

 

How did these damn monsters keep managing to have the worst timing?

 

Her senses snapped open, showing her two things at once: first, the dark, roiling energy of another breach opening a few yards away from her, rustling the branches around it like a small windstorm.  Second, the bright forms of Mike and the others as they sprinted to catch up with her.

 

Shit.

 

“Mike!” she yelled, turning back to them and gesturing furiously.  “Mike, stop! Go back! Get them away!”

 

Mike skidded to a halt, throwing out his arms to block the others behind him.  Lucas, Dustin, and Will all stumbled and slid as they plowed into him, just barely managing to halt their momentum enough to avoid knocking him over altogether.  Unfortunately, his arms were only so wide, and Max darted past him, running straight for El.

 

“El!” she called.  “El, I’m sorry, I--”

 

Any other time, El thought to herself.  Literally any other time !  She felt a surge of power from the breach behind her and launched herself at Max.  The other girl let out a surprised huff of breath as El collided with her, knocking them both clear as the snake thing exploded out into existence.

 

Mike’s call of concern mingled with terrified screams from Lucas, Dustin, and Will.  El got to her feet, looking down to see Max looking back up at her with uncomprehending fear.  For her part, El felt oddly calm, even though she knew what was about to happen. Maybe this had all been inevitable, from the moment the monster attacks had begun, from the moment she had made friends.  It didn’t matter. Mike had understood, when he had seen; there was hope, and she could hold on to that.

 

She changed, crying out as her body wrenched itself into her monstrous form.

 

Max screamed--startled, afraid--but the snake thing was coming at them and there was no time to try and reassure her.  El spun and brought her fist hammering into its head, interrupting its lunge and knocking it aside. She followed up with another hammering blow, and then another, resolutely moving forward in an attempt to drive it back, away from her friends.

 

Behind her, another bright presence.  Mike had sprinted forward and grabbed Max beneath her arms, started to pull her clear of the fight.  One less immediate thing to worry about. Somewhere further behind, Dustin was yelling “holy shit holy shit holy shit holy shit holy shit--!”

 

The snake thing’s tail lashed out in a sideways slap.  El ducked the blow and leapt backward, out of its reach.  She had more room to give up ground now, thanks to Mike, but she couldn’t let it knock her aside or it’d have a clear path to the others.

 

The snake thing’s head darted forward, mouth unfurling for a bite.  El swiped, not a true counterblow, just enough to make it reconsider and draw back.  It seemed to have two forms of attack, she noted--lunging with the head, or striking with the tail.  Could she use that? Bait it into a pattern, then finish it?

 

As she considered her options, the snake thing undulated back and forth, left, then right, seeking for an opening.  Almost unconsciously, El adjusted her position, stepping to keep herself between it and the others. It paused, gazing curiously at her (at least as far as she could tell, given that it didn’t have eyes), then lunged at her again.

 

This one was full-bore, the snake thing’s entire weight thrown into the attack.  El wasn’t sure if she could take it head-on; if it knocked her to the ground and managed to pin her down, she’d be in serious trouble.  She sidestepped instead, turning to claw at the snake thing’s flank so that it would turn back to her instead of continuing on at the others, but it was already turning, ripples running along its flexible body as it coiled.

 

By the time she realized what it was doing, it had already wrapped itself around her, pinning her arms to her sides.

 

EL! ” Mike screamed.  She couldn’t respond, not with words; crushing pressure pushed in from all sides, and her voice mingled oddly with the other thing’s as they screamed in synchronized pain.  The snake thing’s coils shifted, keeping her wrapped as it brought its head up to hers, opening up its mouth to bellow in her face. Triumph, tinged with an edge of sadism, stabbed into her awareness.  It had her, and it was enjoying it. She struggled, desperately trying to squirm loose, but the pain and panic were taking their toll, making it hard to think--

 

A rock sailed through the air, striking the snake thing in the side of the head, and it snarled, whipping around in the direction of the projectile.  El felt its grip on her slacken just a bit. Mike?

 

“Hey, big ugly!” Max yelled.  Another rock flew through the air, this one striking it square on what passed for its snout.  “Leave her alone, shithead!”

 

The snake thing snarled again and moved, heading in Max’s direction and letting El go in the process.  She tumbled roughly to the ground. Somebody yelped in fear--Dustin? Lucas?--and she tried to regain her feet, but the world was spinning around her.  No…

 

Another rock struck it, from off to the side.  “Hey!” Mike called. “Hey, you! Over here! C’mon, look!”

 

The snake thing halted, its attention caught between its two assailants.

 

“Spread out!” Lucas yelled.  “Everybody spread out, keep it confused!”  His words jolted the rest of the group into action.  They split apart, scooping up rocks and stones from the ground as they ran; a hail of thrown projectiles rained down on the snake thing.  It spat and hissed, turning this way and that in response to the attacks, but every time it narrowed its focus down to one of the others, two or three stones struck it from completely different directions.

 

El collected herself.  The shock of finding itself under attack from the outside had made the snake thing momentarily forget about her.  She wouldn’t get a better chance than this, and she needed to take it.

 

She exploded up from the ground, throwing herself at the snake thing so quickly that it didn’t have time to react.  She sank her claws deep into its neck, grabbing a handful of its flesh and tearing it away with desperate violence, sending a gout of dark blood shooting into the air.  The snake thing shrieked and recoiled, but she didn’t let up, moving in and tearing away another chunk of flesh, and then another, and another--

 

It wasn’t until she felt the other thing tugging at her, almost like a rider tugging the reins of a runaway horse, that she stopped.  The snake thing lay dead at her feet, and as she watched, its corpse began to dissolve away just as the spidery thing’s had.  

 

It was over.  She dropped to her knees, body shrinking down to normal as the other thing’s power leaked away, leaving exhaustion in its wake.

 

“El!”  Mike was running for her, stumbling and fumbling over the uneven ground until he came up beside her.  “El, are you okay?! Please be okay, you’ve gotta be okay--”

 

“Mike,” she croaked, and he laughed in relief, pulling her into a hug.  She wrapped her arms around him in turn, her weight sagging gratefully against him.  There were soft footsteps around them as the others approached slowly, almost cautiously.  “Can we,” she mumbled, “can we go back to the cabin?”

 

“Yeah, of course.”  Mike shifted so that his shoulder was under her armpit; wordlessly, Max stepped forward and took up the same position on El’s other side.  Between them, they were easily able to pull her up to her feet, although Mike had to stoop a bit so that he wasn’t pulling his side of her completely off the ground.  Lucas, Dustin, and Will all fell in behind them, and together they headed back the way they had come.

 

The walk was long and quiet, and though El knew that her mind should be racing with the implications of what had just happened, she was just too tired.  She let herself space out instead, taking comfort in the solidity of Mike and Max’s support as they helped her walk along.

 

You did well, the other thing said.

 

I almost got us killed, she replied.

 

It happens, the other thing said.  We were fortunate to have the help of the Mike-thing and your other nice things.

 

Nice things…?   El let out a quiet breath of laughter.  You mean my friends?

 

Yes.  Friend-things.  Friends.

 

At last, they came back to the cabin.  Inside, Mike and Max worked together to ease El down onto the couch; she didn’t really need it at this point, some of her strength having returned on the walk back, but she wasn’t complaining, either.  “Is there anything you need?” Mike asked. “Anything I can get for you?”

 

“Um.”  El’s face flushed with the ridiculousness of the first desire that jumped into her mind, but it made it out of her mouth anyway.  “An Eggo? I really want an Eggo right now.”

 

“Sure.”  Mike smiled at her, as though a waffle were the most natural thing to crave after a life-or-death battle with an extradimensional monster.  “In the freezer?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“On it.”  Mike stepped away, into the cabin’s kitchen nook, the rustling and clattering as he retrieved things the only noise breaking the silence.  Max had settled herself onto the other end of the couch, and was staring at El as if there was something she desperately wanted to say but couldn’t form the words for.  The other three had taken up random spots in the cabin--Dustin and Will sitting on the floor, Lucas leaning against the wall--and were lost in thought.

 

“Okay, if nobody’s going to say anything, I’m just going to say it,” Dustin finally said.  “Holy shit, that was crazy .”

 

Max snorted, her expression breaking out of its fixed look.  “Yeah, thanks, Dustin. Your insight into our current situation is invaluable.”

 

Mike’s hand came down from behind El, placing a plate and fork into her lap.  He’d even found their whipped cream and had piled a generous amount on top of the freshly-defrosted waffle.  El smiled to herself and cut off a chunk with the side of her fork, savoring the simple pleasure of its sweetness as she put the bite in her mouth.

 

“So,” Mike said from where he was leaning on the back of the couch behind her.  “About those secrets we’ve been keeping from you…”

 

“Yeah, we kind of put the picture together.”  Lucas shook his head. “Not that it doesn’t raise all sorts of new questions.”

 

“So El turns into one of those things?” Dustin asked.  The question could have come off as pointed, but he was leaning forward, eager, his eyes shining.  “How does she do that?”

 

El swallowed the bite of Eggo that was in her mouth.  “The other thing,” she said.

 

“Huh?”

 

“It’s like… one of those things, but this one lives inside her, or shares her body, and they have kind of a mental connection too,” Mike said.  “And she can draw on its power to change into that other form, fight the other monsters on equal footing.” He looked down at El. “Did I get that more or less right?”  She nodded.

 

“Whoa.  So you’ve got one inside you?”  Dustin was looking at her with an expression of open awe.  “How does that even work?”

 

El shrugged.  “Dunno, it just does.  Everyone who would know the answer to that question is…”  She couldn’t quite bring herself to say the word dead .

 

“You saved my life,” Will said quietly.

 

Everyone’s gaze turned to him.  “That was you,” he continued. “That night in the forest, when I got attacked.  You were the other one, the one that protected me, weren’t you?”

 

El nodded.

 

“Thank you,” he murmured.

 

“I wasn’t about to just let my friend die,” El said, drawing a shy smile from him.

 

“Okay, so what about these other monsters?” Lucas asked.  “This was, what, the third attack in the last couple of weeks?”

 

“Fourth,” Max said.  She looked at El. “I mean, I’m assuming that the thing at the mall last night was an attack too, right?”

 

El nodded again.

 

“Four attacks, right,” Lucas said.  “So why have they started showing up all of a sudden?  Is it because of her?”

 

“No,” Mike said sharply as El’s stomach lurched.

 

“Mike,” Lucas sighed.  “Man, you’ve gotta set your feelings aside and look at the facts.  She just moved here, and now all of a sudden these things have come out of the woodwork--”

 

“I am looking at the facts,” Mike snapped.  “This isn’t my feelings, this is logic.  Look, El didn’t actually move here from Bloomington, okay?  She’s been right here this whole time, hiding out in this cabin for the last four years.  If she was the reason the monsters were showing up, they would’ve been showing up that whole time.  The fact that they just started means that there must be something else going on.”

 

“Wait, she’s been hiding?” Will asked.  “Why has she been hiding?”

 

El and Mike traded a look, but before either of them could say anything, somebody knocked at the door.

 

The entire group froze.  “Is that Hopper?” Dustin asked.

 

“Why would Hopper knock at his own door?” Max said.

 

“Hang on,” Mike said.  “I’ll just…” He crossed over to the door and opened it up a crack, just enough to stick his face through.  “Yeah?”

 

“Hey there,” said a familiar voice.  “I’m looking for the chief.”

 

“Hopper?  He’s not here right now,” Mike said.

 

“Really?  Huh. Well, I’ll talk to whoever’s home, I’m not picky.”

 

“Mike,” El said.  “Open the door.”

 

“Huh?  Oh, okay.”  Mike swung the door all the way open, revealing Sam Owens standing on the doorstep.

 

“Well hello there, Miss Jane,” he said, winking at her.  “Guess I caught you with your friends here. Mind if I come in?”

 

“Go ahead,” El said.  Owens stepped through the door; closing it behind him, Mike turned and mouthed Jane? in El’s direction.  She gave him a sharp look in response, and he nodded, seeming to take her meaning.  “You’re that guy from the government, right?”

 

“That’s me.  Dreadfully sorry to disturb you like this,” Owens said.  His eyes roved around the room, taking in its occupants with mild curiosity.  They’d all reacted when El had said the word government .  “It’s just that, well, some of my boys picked up some kind of disturbance up here, and I figured that I’d come up to make sure everything was okay.”

 

“Disturbance?” El said, trying not to look too alarmed.

 

“Well, you know.”  Owens smiled. “There’s been so much going on in this town--first the school, then the mall.  Just checking in, seeing if anything happened around here.”

 

Dustin shot to his feet.  “Holy shit, you would not believe it,” he said loudly.

 

“Dustin!” Max hissed.

 

“We were just walking out in the woods, and then out of nowhere this crazy monster thing just, like, exploded into existence.  It was like this big snake, and it had a mouth like a flower except that it was full of teeth. I couldn’t believe it.”

 

“Monster, eh?”  Owens put a hand to his chin, assuming an expression of mild interest that was belied by the light in his eyes.  “Please, by all means, go on.”

 

Everybody was subtly glaring daggers at Dustin, except for Mike, who was taking advantage of his position outside of Owens’ line of sight to mouth something that El was pretty sure was an expletive.  “I thought we were dead for sure,” Dustin continued, ignoring them. “We probably would have been if that other monster hadn’t shown up.”

 

“Other monster?” Owens asked.  Mike’s silent swearing grew more frantic.

 

“Yeah.  It came out of nowhere too, just boom, blindsided the first one,” Dustin said.  El blinked; he’d made the transition from telling the truth to lying so smoothly that she’d almost missed it.  “It just completely wrecked the snake monster’s shit, tore it to pieces.”

 

“Interesting.”  The light in Owens’ eyes was dancing now.  “And what happened then?”

 

“Dunno,” Dustin said.  He turned and gave El what Hopper would have called a ‘shit-eating grin.’ “I got distracted trying to calm, uh, Jane here down--she was so scared, just screaming and screaming.”

 

El’s brain caught up with what he was saying just in time to make herself look appropriately mortified.

 

“Jesus, Dustin,” Max snapped, playing up an edge of anger just the tiniest bit.  “Can you shut your mouth for just five minutes? There’s no way this guy is going to believe us.  He’s gonna think we’re crazy.”

 

“Now, now, don’t go making assumptions like that,” Owens said.  “I’m actually quite interested in what you have to say here. Did any of you happen to see where the other monster went?”

 

“I did,” Lucas said.

 

Everybody’s attention snapped to him.  “Yes?” Owens said.

 

Lucas looked nervously around the room.  “Well… there’s not a whole lot to say. It disappeared into nowhere, same way that the first one came out of nowhere.  Just into thin air, like--like it stepped through a hole in space, or something.” He shrugged, looking down at the floor.  “I’d wonder if I was seeing things, except I was already wondering that.”

 

“Do you need to know anything else?” Will asked.  “I’m sorry, it’s just that we’re all a little rattled, you know?  We could use a bit of space, to just… process it all.”

 

“Oh, yes, yes, of course,” Owens said.  “Sorry, I’ll leave you all be.”  

 

El drew in a breath, trying to keep her reaction from being too obvious.  They were covering for her. Presented with the situation, without even fully understanding what was going on, the others had decided as a group to take her side and lie to Owens.  The back of her throat itched slightly as tears threatened to come; she bit them back. She needed to look normal for just a few moments longer.

 

Owens turned towards the door, then looked back at them.  “Ah, of course, I’m going to have to ask you to be… discreet, about what happened here, while the investigation is ongoing.  You understand?”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Mike said quickly.  “Discreet. That’s us.”

 

“Good,” said Owens, smiling.  “Smart kid.”

 

He left, shutting the door behind him.  Before the group could let out a collective sigh of relief, though, his voice floated back in: “Oh, chief!  There you are! I’ve been trying to get ahold of you.”

 

Everyone froze again; Owens’ footsteps descended the porch steps, and a muffled conversation ensued between him and a lower voice.  After a minute, the conversation ended and another, heavier set of footsteps ascended to the porch and approached the front door.

 

The door opened, and Hopper took in the assembled kids with a pained, resigned expression.  “Do I want to know what happened here?” he asked.



Chapter Text

“Shit,” Max whispered.  She, like the others, was listening to Hopper, eyes wide.

 

“Yep.  Shit,” Hopper said.  “So you all can understand why it was so important for me to keep El hidden all this time.  The government would be only too happy to get its hands on her, and on top of that, if this Owens guy’s hunch is correct, we’ve got some rogue element out there trying to carry on the original experiment.”

 

“If he isn’t lying about them being a rogue element,” Lucas said.

 

“If he isn’t lying,” Hopper agreed.  “I don’t think he is, though, for whatever it’s worth.  Call it cop instincts. More importantly…” He leveled a glower at the group assembled on the floor in front of him.  “I hope I’ve impressed on you all just how damn important it is that you don’t go around blabbing about what you saw today.  Nod if you understand.”

 

They all nodded.

 

“Good,” he said.  “Because lately it seems like somebody else is in on the secret every time I turn around.”

 

El let out a soft hmph in response.  She and Mike had been implicitly exempted from the lecture and were sitting on the other end of the couch from Hopper, Mike’s arm looped around her as she curled up against his side.

 

“It wasn’t El’s fault,” Dustin said.  “We were the ones who stuck our noses in… uh, Mr. Chief, sir.”

 

“None of that,” Hopper said.  “It’s either just ‘Chief’ or ‘Hopper’, I don’t particularly care which.  And I don’t particularly care whose fault it was. That doesn’t mean that I’m mad,” he added, holding up a hand as Dustin opened his mouth to say something else.  “In fact, it’s probably for the best that you all know--it means Mike and El don’t have to worry about slipping up around you, and you know enough not to do anything that would draw attention.  Just… it has to stop here, okay? We’ve been lucky so far, and I don’t like relying on luck.”

 

More nods.  Max, Lucas, Dustin, and Will were all folded in on themselves in various ways, processing the weight of the secret they’d all been let in on.  El wanted to say something, to try and cheer them up, but her mind was still fuzzy with exhaustion, and she couldn’t summon the words.

 

It was Lucas who ended up breaking the silence.  “Okay, so… what are we going to do about the other monsters?” he asked.

 

“I don’t know,” admitted Hopper, leaning back into the couch.  “We don’t know anything substantial about them--what they are, where they’re coming from, how they’re getting from there to here…”

 

“We know they just suddenly started showing up,” said Mike.  “We went from four years without incident to multiple attacks per week.  That doesn’t happen for no reason--there must be something that happened just recently, that started letting them through.”

 

“That’s not much to go on,” Lucas said.

 

“It’s hope,” Mike said.  “If something started letting them through, then maybe we can reverse it to stop them.”

 

“Can’t these government guys handle them?” Max asked.

 

“No,” El said, the hard certainty in her voice drawing everybody’s attention to her.  “Stuff like guns and bullets, they don’t do any damage to me or to them. The other monsters are the only thing that can hurt me, and the other way around too.”  Her mouth narrowed into a serious line. “I’m the only one that stands a chance against them.” Mike’s arm squeezed into her.

 

Will murmured something, too quiet to hear.

 

“What was that, Will?” Max asked.

 

“A disturbance,” Will repeated, louder.  “That’s what that guy said, right? He came here because they’d ‘picked up a disturbance.’”

 

Lucas shrugged.  “Maybe he meant that somebody was close by enough to hear what was happening, and they called it in?”

 

“No, I think Will’s on to something here,” Max said.  “I mean, first of all, that’s a really weird way to phrase it, if that’s what he meant.  Second of all, they got here way too fast--and if somebody was reporting a disturbance, they’d probably call the police, right?  Not some shadowy government agency that they probably don’t even know is in town.”

 

“Nobody called us,” Hopper said, leaning forward.  “What, are we saying that they’ve got some way to detect when these things come through?”

 

“It’d make sense,” Will said.  “Punching through the walls between dimensions like that can’t be easy; there’s got to be some kind of side effects or something that you can pick up.”

 

“The lights,” Mike gasped.  “The cameras.”

 

“Huh?”  Everyone looked at him.

 

“You know--when that spidery thing attacked the school, it made all the lights flicker and go crazy,” Mike said.  “And then when the snake thing attacked the mall, the same thing happened with the lights, and Hopper said the security cameras got all messed up too.”

 

Dustin snapped his fingers, a look of dawning realization on his face.  “An electromagnetic pulse,” he said.

 

“Exactly,” agreed Mike.  “These dimensional breaches probably let off a series of weak electromagnetic pulses when they open--enough to gunk up any nearby electronics, and enough for the government people to detect when they open.”

 

“Does this mean that we can detect when they open, too?” Hopper asked.

 

“Maybe.”  Mike shrugged.  “I mean, to start with, we’d need to get our hands on a device that can measure electromagnetic fields…”

 

“An EMF meter,” Dustin said.  “Wait, no, that’s for AC, and I’m guessing this is probably DC… hang on one sec.”  He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed it while everybody else looked on in bewilderment, bringing the phone up to his ear and flashing them a cheerful smile as it rang.  “Hello?” he said. “Yeah, hey, Mr. Clarke. It’s Dustin--yeah, yeah. Listen, I need some advice. I kinda need to get my hands on a magnetometer or something that can measure natural electromagnetic fields--a good one, not a cheap one.  Uh, yeah, it’s… for a project I’m doing. Wait, you do? I can?! Oh man, you’re the best, Mr. Clarke! Yeah, I’ll come by after school tomorrow and grab it. Thank you--yes, thank you, my lord. See you!” The phone beeped as he dropped it away from his ear and ended the call.  “We have our magnetometer,” he announced.

 

“...you still have Mr. Clarke’s number in your phone?” Lucas asked, eyebrows arched high in disdain.

 

“Who’s Mr. Clarke?” El asked, frowning.

 

“He was our science teacher in middle school,” Dustin said.  “And he just totally saved our butts here, so I’ll thank you to keep your comments to yourself.”

 

Lucas and Max traded a look between them but didn’t say anything more.

 

“Right, so how does this magnet-meter thing work?” Hopper asked.  “Do you… I don’t know, scan the town, or something?”

 

Dustin laughed.  “No, no. Well, I guess a little?  I mean, you’d basically just point it at one of these dimensional breaches and it’d read the electromagnetic field coming off of it, give us the frequency and everything.  It’s probably, like, really distinctive, and it could end up telling us--”

 

“Point it at it?” Hopper interrupted.  “You mean, just stand right there and point the thing at the breach?”

 

“Yep,” Dustin said cheerfully.

 

“At one of the breaches that the monsters are coming out of,” Hopper said.

 

“Uh…”  Dustin looked around him, suddenly aware of the number of withering stares being directed at him.  “Yeah, that’s… that’s pretty much accurate.”

 

“And so we’re back to square one,” Max groaned, flopping backwards so that she was lying down on the floor.  “To get the readings we need to find the breaches, we just need to… find a breach.”

 

“Just follow me around for a few days,” El said dryly.  “They seem to like popping up near me.”

 

Max lifted her head up from the floor, looking at her with a startled expression.  “El Hopper, am I hearing you being snarky ?”

 

“I’ve got no idea where she gets it,” Hopper said, deadpan.

 

“Huh,” Mike said softly.  El craned her neck around to look at his face; his gaze met hers and a flicker of distress crossed his expression.  “Oh, uh, it’s nothing,” he said, eyes dropping down to the floor. “Just ignore me.”

 

“Mike,” El said.

 

He grimaced.  “Okay,” he said.  “It’s just… now that you say it, it is kind of weird that they keep showing up so close to you.  Like, we’re up to four attacks now, and every single one happened while you were nearby. That’s enough to make me question if it’s really just coincidence.”

 

El sucked in a breath, and Mike’s expression of distress deepened.

 

“This one kind of seemed like it was specifically looking for her?” Will said.  “Like, maybe it figured out that she was a threat and it was trying to take her out.”

 

“That leaves three attacks where she wasn’t specifically the target, though,” Lucas said.

 

“Now hold on,” Hopper said, frowning.  “You’ve got to be careful of drawing patterns that aren’t actually there.  How would these things even be finding her?”

 

“Well… you said that you can sense them from a distance, right, El?” Mike asked.  “Do you know if they can sense you back?”

 

El sat bolt upright, pulling away from him.  Can they? she asked, slightly frantic.

 

Yes , the other thing answered.  Obviously.

 

Why didn’t you tell me?!

 

I thought it was obvious.

 

“She, uh, talks to the other thing sometimes,” Mike was saying to the others.  “Hey, you okay?”

 

“Okay?!”  El hugged her arms to herself.  “All this time, I’m the reason they’ve been attacking people?!”

 

“No, El, you’re not--” Mike said, laying his hand on her shoulder at the same instant that Hopper laid a hand on her knee and said, “Listen, kid, don’t--”  They both halted and blinked at each other, looking vaguely startled.

 

El snorted out a small laugh.  She couldn’t help it.

 

“Uh…”  Mike regained his wits, smiling tentatively at her.  “Look, El--four years, remember? Something else is bringing them through.  I think they’re just kind of… homing in on you, like in some instinctive way.”

 

“Yeah, that makes sense.”  Hopper nodded. “In any case, this is not your fault, so don’t do that to yourself, okay, kid?”

 

A soft cough interrupted the moment.  Max had her hand in the air, as if she were wanting to ask a question in class.  “So, uh, bringing this back around to what got us on the topic in the first place,” she said, “if the monsters are homing in on El like that… maybe we could use that to bait one of them out?”

 

Everyone stared at her.

 

“What?” Hopper asked flatly.

 

“We need to get up close to one with the magnet… thingy, right?” Max said.  “So we have El draw one out, get the readings we need, and she beats it into the ground.  Easy.”

 

“...so what you’re saying is that we actually do just follow her around everywhere until one shows up?” Lucas asked.

 

“No!” snorted Max, shoving his shoulder.  “Well… okay, maybe? I don’t know. El, do you remember what you were doing right before each attack?  Anything, like, out of the ordinary…?”

 

“I was running away from everyone, this last time,” El said.

 

Lucas, Dustin, and Will all shifted uncomfortably, but Max looked thoughtful.  “Right, you were really upset,” she said. “The first attack… that was our D&D night the first week of school, right?”

 

“Yeah, it was.  I had a lot of fun.”  Looking at Max, El suddenly realized what the other girl was thinking.  “I was… really happy.”

 

“And the next one was at school--”

 

“We were talking about how Mike asked me out,” El said, blushing lightly.  “I was really happy then, too. And the one at the mall was right at the end of our date…”

 

“...so maybe they’re drawn to you when you’re feeling strong emotions?” Max finished.

 

“Or when she’s feeling hor-- whoof ,” Dustin wheezed as Max elbowed him in the stomach.

 

El wasn’t paying him any mind; something had just occurred to her.  “The monsters, they kind of project their emotions at each other,” she said.  “I’ve felt it when I fought them. I think it’s how they communicate with each other.  The other thing and I communicate that way too, inside our--my head.”

 

“It’s a good working theory,” Mike said.

 

“Wait, wait, wait.”  Hopper pressed a hand to his forehead.  “Back it up. We’re proposing luring another one of these things out into our world--on purpose?”

 

“What, do you have a better plan?” Dustin asked.

 

Hopper shot him a ferocious glare, making Dustin recoil.  After a moment, though, Hopper let out a heavy sigh, the expression dropping from his face.  “No,” he admitted. “I don’t. And I don’t have a lot of options open to me right now… this feels like the closest to figuring this thing out that I’ve ever been.”

 

-     -     -

 

The sun was starting to dip towards the horizon by the time the others piled out of the cabin.  With time running short in the current weekend, they agreed to meet up the morning of the following Saturday to carry out their plan.  “Jim Hopper, Hawkins chief of police,” Hopper mumbled to himself as they watched Max’s car disappear down the road, Mike’s bike crammed awkwardly in the trunk.  “Pinning all of his hopes on the schemes of a bunch of high schoolers… what has my life come to?”

 

El just squeezed his hand and grinned up at him.

 

That week, it quickly became clear that she hadn’t realized how much her secrets had affected the way she interacted with her friends, made her hesitant and timid around them, never mind the strain between them as the cracks in her excuses and stories had started to show.  Now that it was all out in the open, her time with them was a release, a precious opportunity to let her guard down and still feel safe. They didn’t talk about the situation with her and the monsters openly, of course (mostly, anyway; Dustin unsurprisingly had to be shushed a few times), but just looking around at them, knowing that they knew and it was still okay… El had never felt more at home than she did around all of them.

 

(Which wasn’t to say that she and Mike didn’t occasionally sneak off on their own to exchange soft words and kisses, because they absolutely did.)

 

As the weekend approached, El was surprised to find that she wasn’t dreading the task ahead of her.  If anything, she was looking forward to it, even if it meant another fight… but then, it would finally be a fight on her terms.  It was clear by now that the monsters were going to keep coming; in that case, she was more than ready to stop reacting to them as they appeared, and start going after them.

 

They’d decided not to put their plan into action too close to the cabin, as Owens and his people were likely still keeping an eye on the area following the snake thing’s attack.  Will proposed his house as an alternative staging area, since he lived on the edge of town, with easy access to the sort of empty, deserted areas they needed. The others were always coming over to his house anyway, so their presence wouldn’t arouse any suspicions, and his mother was working a shift during the day, so they’d have the area to themselves.  

 

That was how El and Hopper found themselves cruising down the road in the Blazer on Saturday morning, taking a path around the edge of Hawkins to the Byers house.  El drummed her fingers impatiently on the inside of the passenger door as she gazed out the window at the trees whipping past. The other thing was alert too; she could feel its excitement like a low buzz in the back of her skull.

 

“Nervous?” Hopper asked as he drove.

 

“Nervous,” she agreed.  “But excited. We both are.”

 

Hopper’s lips pursed and he let out a soft hmph .  “Just don’t get too excited.  You’re going to want to keep your head on straight--I know I keep saying that, but it’s really important now.”

 

“I know.”  She glanced over at him.  “I’ve fought them before.”

 

“Yeah, and they came very close to killing you.”  Hopper’s worry was subtle, a slight twist of his lips and a tension at the corners of his eyes, but El was practiced at reading him.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said, smiling at him.  “If something goes wrong, Mike and the others will be there to throw rocks.”  That got a laugh out of him, easing some of the tension from his expression.

 

El’s phone buzzed in her pocket, making her jump slightly in surprise.  Before, Hopper was the only one who had ever texted her, and then only when he was going to be late getting home.  Now she suddenly had five more people who texted her regularly, and she was still getting used to it. Her phone buzzed a couple more times as she retrieved it--whichever of the others it was, they were sending her multiple messages in rapid succession.

 

As it turned out, it was Dustin.

 

we have a problem

 

BIG problem

 

ABORT ABORT ABORT

 

“Something wrong?” Hopper asked as she frowned down at the screen.

 

“Not sure,” she said.  She went to send a text in response asking for more information, but a glance up through the Blazer’s windshield revealed that they were already pulling up in front of Will’s house.  The others were already there, standing on the porch in a disorganized group, along with… uh-oh.

 

“Hopper?” Joyce called as they exited the Blazer and started to walk up to the house.  “Oh, you brought El. I see.”

 

“Joyce?” Hopper asked.  El glanced sidelong at him; she was used to seeing him worried or tense, but right now, he seemed to be in the early stages of outright panic.  “What are you doing here?”

 

She fixed him with a look.  “What am I doing at my own house?”

 

“Um.  That is, I mean.”  Hopper swiped a hand anxiously over his chin.  “I-I was just given to understand that you were going to be working today.”

 

“I traded shifts with Alice--she needed Friday night off.”  Joyce stepped down from the porch, leaving the others shifting awkwardly as she walked towards Hopper and El.  “Then this morning, I find that not only did Will plan to host all of his friends here today without telling me, but they all apparently came over on the understanding that I wouldn’t be here.  And now you too?” She came to a halt in front of them, crossing her arms. “What is going on here, Hop?”

 

“Well, ah, you know.”  Hopper shrugged. “Teenagers.  They like to keep their secrets.”

 

Joyce shook her head.  “This is totally unlike Will, Hop,” she said, dropping her voice so that only the three of them could hear.  “I mean, a few secrets, sure, but he’s never tried to pull anything like this.  And what’s with you taking his side?  Sure, thirty years ago it wouldn’t have surprised me, but you’re chief of police now, you’ve got a kid of your own…”

 

A slight sound came from Hopper’s open mouth as he tried and failed to come up with words in response.  El sucked in a breath. Her brain had been working furiously as Joyce had been talking, and it had just spat an idea out at her.  “We have a project,” she said quickly.

 

“A project?”  Joyce frowned down at her.

 

El nodded.  “Yeah, it’s for… biology.  They wanted us to… go out and study… trees.”  She swallowed, forced herself to keep going. “Dad said… he didn’t want us wandering around all on our own, with everything that’s been going on.  He said that he would keep an eye on us.”

 

“Really?”  Joyce looked back at Hopper, looking almost impressed.  “Jesus, Hopper, why didn’t you just tell me that to begin with?”  She turned back towards the group on the porch, waving them into the house.  “Yes, all right, you can all work on your tree project here. Honestly, Will, if you had just asked me I would’ve said yes…”

 

Hopper turned and winked at El, relief evident in his expression.  She winked back and turned her attention to the others on the porch.  Mike was grinning at her, Lucas nodding approvingly next to him, and Max next to him giving her a thumbs-up.  Will was caught up in talking to his mother, while Dustin was gathering up his backpack from where it had been sitting on the porch, and Steve--

 

“--Steve?!” she said.

 

“Hey,” he replied, lifting a hand in greeting.  “Hi, Chief.”

 

“Harrington,” Hopper replied.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

 

Steve jerked a thumb at Dustin.  “Henderson’s mom was busy, so he asked me to give him a lift.  I don’t want to say that I didn’t have anything better to do, but…”  He shrugged, his gaze moving back over to El. “So… it was El, right?  You’re the Chief’s daughter, then?” She nodded. “And he never taught you that when a fire alarm goes off, you’re supposed to go out of the building?”

 

El froze.  “Huh?” she asked.

 

“The mall.  Remember? I saw you running back inside as I was clearing out.”  Steve leaned on one of the porch’s pillars, arching an eyebrow at her.

 

“Oh… right.”  How could she have forgotten?  That was the slip that had revealed her to Dustin and the others in the first place.  “I… forgot something inside.”

 

“...that’s a terrible reason.”  Steve shook his head.  “Chief, c’mon. You gotta be teaching your kid better about safety.”

 

“Yes, I am well aware of this,” Hopper said, giving her a wry look.

 

They all piled into the house, Joyce moving into the kitchen and beginning to rummage through cabinets.  “Let’s see here,” she said. “This is a lot of people on short notice, but if you all are hungry, I can probably pull something together…”

 

“O-oh, that’s okay, Mrs. Byers,” Mike said.  “We all ate already. We were basically planning on just meeting up here and then heading straight out…”

 

“Are we still doing this, then?” Lucas said quietly.

 

Mike looked uneasily at Hopper, but it was El who replied, softly but firmly, “Yes.”

 

“You sure, El?” Mike asked.

 

She nodded emphatically.  “The longer we wait, the more time there is for another monster to take us by surprise.  I’m not giving up, not for something as small as this.”

 

“Hey Chief,” Steve said.  He had parked himself on the other side of the room, at the entrance to the kitchen, where he was standing a little awkwardly.  “If you want to stay here and catch up… like I said, I don’t really have anything going on, I’d be happy to take the kids and--”

 

“No,” said Hopper, so abruptly that it made Steve blink.  “Sorry,” he added hastily. “I appreciate the offer. It’s just that I promised El that I’d help her out with this, and she’d be so disappointed if I backed out now; she’s been looking forward to it all week.”

 

El grinned, her amusement genuine.  He wasn’t exactly lying when he said that…

 

“If you want lunch before you go, Steve, I’ve got some leftovers that could use eating,” Joyce said, poking her head out.  “There’s too many for just me, if Will’s going to be out.”

 

“Oh, sure,” Steve said.  “Thanks, Mrs. Byers.”

 

“Okay, everyone!” Hopper called, looking around.  While the conversation had been going on, the others had been gathering up--Dustin in particular had been rearranging what looked like a staggering array of snacks in his bag.  “Let’s get going.”

 

“Be careful out there!” Joyce called as they filed to the door.

 

“Relax, Joyce,” Hopper said.  “They’ll be with me.”

 

She looked unimpressed.  “I remember high school too well for that to be reassuring, Hop.”

 

They piled back into the two cars they’d arrived in, Hopper and El reentering the Blazer.  There was a thump from behind them; Mike had climbed into the bed, sliding up so he could hang over the back of the front seats next to El.  Hopper rolled his eyes as the two teens bumped their foreheads together, then put the Blazer into gear and pulled away from the Byers house.

 

“You know where you’re going?” Mike asked as they headed down the road.  In the side mirror, El could see Max’s car following behind them.

 

“Yeah,” Hopper said.  “The old Winstead farm, not too far from here.  It’s been abandoned for years, should be just about ideal.”

 

The drive only took a few minutes; before long, they were pulling up to the remains of an old barn, fallen into ruin from long neglect.  A small house stood nearby, its battered screen door swinging in the breeze. The scene was dead and empty in a way that made a shiver crawl up El’s spine.

 

“Okay,” Hopper called as he stepped out of the Blazer.  “Henderson, you have the magento-thingy?”

 

“Yep!” Dustin called, holding the device aloft.  Beside him, Will was standing ready with a pen and notepad to take notes on the readings.

 

“Good,” Hopper said.  “Stay by the car. You, uh, Mayfield.”  He pointed at Max. “I want you behind the wheel at all times.  Things start going wrong, you all pile in and get right the hell out of here, you understand?”

 

Max frowned.  “But--”

 

“No buts,” snapped Hopper.  “I’m not taking any chances with you kids.  You were lucky to survive the last attack as it is.”

 

Max didn’t look particularly happy, her gaze shifting briefly over to El, but she got back into the drivers’ seat and waited, arms folded.

 

“Okay, kid,” Hopper said, turning to El.  “Your show now.”

 

El nodded.  She took a moment to look at Mike; he smiled at her and reached out to give her hand a squeeze before dropping again.  She returned his smile, then turned forward and walked out into the middle of the abandoned farm.

 

Are you ready for this? she asked.

 

Very ready, the other thing replied.  I am pleased to see you finally become a hunter.

 

Yeah… me too.   El stopped, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath as she stood amidst the ruins.  A light wind blew gently into her face. If Max was right, these monsters were drawn to her emotions… so she had to dig into herself and really feel something.

 

Her date with Mike, his smile as she gawked at the shops.  Kissing him in the parking lot. Their first kiss, on the porch of the cabin, his acceptance of her even after seeing her monstrous side.

 

Something light and warm filled her chest, bleeding outward from her heart.

 

Playing Dungeons and Dragons with the others, her first time being invited to anything.  Max’s laughter as they talked after PE. Dustin, talking about something gross with disturbing glee over lunch.  Will’s shy smiles, the beautiful doodles in the margins of his notebooks. Lucas rolling his eyes at the others’ antics to hide his amusement.

 

The feeling in her chest grew warmer, stronger.  Was this right? Would it be enough?

 

Do you remember the night we met? the other thing whispered to her.

 

She remembered.  Fear, pain, anger.  The shock of suddenly finding herself with strength she couldn’t have imagined, using that strength to lash out at the bad men who had been hurting her for all her life.  Running, tearing her way through the barriers that had always stood between her and freedom, no idea where she was going except for a driving need to get out .  A kind man finding her in the rain, taking her away from that darkness into a new life.

 

The darkness returning and reaching out into that new life, threatening everything and everyone she had come to love.  The warmth exploded into heat, a flame of anger burning inside El. She gritted her teeth and clenched her fist. She wouldn’t let it take them away, no matter what it took.  Even if she had to tear each and every monster to pieces herself--

 

Danger-fight-run .

 

“Holy shit, I’m getting something!” Dustin called.

 

“I said stay by the car!” Hopper snapped.

 

El reached out with the other thing’s senses.  A breach was boiling open in the middle of the farm, only a few yards away from her.  Hopper, Mike, and the others were beginning to edge forward, tensed up and ready for action.  She slid one foot back, planting her stance. This time, she’d be ready.

 

Something leaped out of the breach with uncanny grace.  Its body was long, and powerfully built. It had a multitude of legs, but unlike the spidery thing, these ones put El in mind of a horse’s legs, two joined to its body at each shoulder and each hip.  It pawed at the ground with a three-toed foot and let out a gurgle.

 

“Holy shit,” Will murmured behind her.  “Sleipnir.”

 

El frowned, momentarily distracted.  Sleep Near? Sleep near what?

 

The thing--Sleep Near--regarded El warily, its awareness brushing tentatively against hers.  Then, without warning, it turned and bolted, blasting a chunk of wood from the ruined barn as it clipped it on its way past.  A flurry of startled yelps and expletives came from behind El.

 

Skittish, the other thing commented.  This one is not as aggressive as the others.

 

El turned and sprinted for Max’s car, drawing on the other thing’s power to cross the distance in mere moments.  She yanked the passenger door open and slid into the seat. “Drive,” she said.

 

“Wha--” Max stuttered.

 

“Max!”

 

“Right, right!”  Max turned the ignition and shifted the car into gear.  As she did so, the two rear doors popped open, admitting Mike and Will as they slid into the back seat.  Dimly, El was aware of Hopper, Dustin, and Lucas heading for the Blazer, but the bulk of her attention was focused on Sleep Near.

 

The car’s engine roared, and there was a loud grinding as the rear wheels peeled out on the dirt.  Max cranked the steering wheel, whipping the car around and making Mike and Will yelp as they were thrown around the back seat.  “Which way?” Max asked.

 

“Left,” replied El.  “It’s following the road.”

 

The car half-turned, half-drifted to follow El’s instructions, aligning itself to the road and surging ahead after Sleep Near.  There were two sharp clicks from the backseat as Mike and Will collected themselves enough to buckle up their seatbelts.

 

“How are we for speed?” Max asked.

 

“Could use a little more,” El said.  “We’re gaining, but slowly.”

 

Max pressed down harder on the gas, face set in determination, and El felt herself getting pressed into her seat as the car accelerated even more.  Sleep Near loomed in her awareness, creeping closer as they began to catch up to it.

 

The road forked and it banked, feet scrabbling as it leaned into the turn.

 

“Right!” El called.  Max threw the car into a turn, tires squealing as it swerved to follow.

 

“Shit,” Mike hissed.  “Is it heading for the town?”

 

“Probably looking for prey,” Will said.  “If we don’t stop it before it gets there--”

 

“It wasn’t supposed to be this fast!”  Panic was starting to edge into Mike’s voice.

 

Max said nothing, but stomped down hard on the gas pedal.  The engine roared and the car’s occupants were thrown back in their seats.  Max clung to the steering wheel, trying to keep the speeding vehicle steady as they pulled up behind, and then alongside, the galloping form of Sleep Near.

 

In the background, El briefly noticed the Byers house flashing past.  Fear rose briefly inside of her, but Sleep Near ignored it, remaining focused entirely on them.

 

It was now running alongside the passenger side of the car.  She felt its awareness stab into hers, realizing its intent a split second before it threw its weight sideways, attempting to slam into the car.

 

El reacted on instinct, the sound of shattering glass filling the car as she put her hand through the window.  Long, grasping claws swiped at Sleep Near, managing to clip its side enough to draw blood. It screeched and pulled back, aborting its attempted assault.

 

“Holy shit,” Mike breathed.

 

Wind whipped in through the broken window, and El gaped at what she was seeing.  Her arm, hanging out, was distended and mottled grey, transformed into the other thing’s arm.  The transformation ran up to her shoulder, where it blurred together with the fabric of her shirt, joining the rest of her body--which was still distinctly human.

 

A partial transformation?

 

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Mike said.

 

“Neither did I,” El replied.

 

Will pointed out the window.  “Incoming!” Sleep Near had recovered and was taking advantage of their distraction to try and slam into them again.

 

Fuck that!” Max turned the wheel, sending the car careening sidelong back at Sleep Near.  The impact reverberated through the car, El and Mike flinching away as their side dented in towards them.  The sudden counter-attack caught Sleep Near off guard, and it stumbled away from the impact, falling to the ground off the side of the road.

 

Max cranked the wheel again, and El clung grimly to the side of the car with her transformed hand as it spun out impressively, Mike and Will screaming from the backseat.  The car came to a stop with its nose pointed just to the side of Sleep Near’s prone form. Max hit the gas, steering to point the car directly at it as the engine screamed in protest at the sudden acceleration.  “Max Max Max MAX MAX-- !!” Mike hollered.  El just sucked in a breath, bracing herself for the impact.

 

Sleep Near noticed their approach and tried to escape at the last moment, but it was too slow in getting to its feet and the front corner of the car caught it squarely in the hip, rattling the entire vehicle and sending it into another, slower spinout.  Sleep Near was knocked back to the ground and it let out an earsplitting screech, its agony washing over El like a sheet of hot needles.

 

Max let out a gasp as the car slid to a stop, whatever focus that had allowed her to pull off that stunt finally breaking.  Mike was babbling rapidly in the back seat, sounding like he was trying and failing to string words together into a coherent sentence.  Will, however, unhooked his seatbelt and moved forward, inserting himself into the space between Max and El’s seats. “Look!”

 

Sleep Near was struggling to its feet, favoring the leg that the car had hit.  As the four of them watched, it began to limp towards them, apparently unable to get anywhere near the speed that it had been moving at moments ago.

 

“Holy shit, Max,” Mike said.  “You hobbled it!”

 

“I am,” Max panted, “the motherfucking road warrior.”

 

El flung open her door.  “Stay here,” she said as she stepped out.  Sleep Near snarled at her as she moved towards it; she simply smiled in response, willing the rest of her body to shift to match her transformed arm, and the battle was joined.

 

Sleep Near’s two frontmost legs lashed out as El attempted to rush in, planting themselves in her chest and knocking her backwards with a force that would’ve knocked the breath from her in human form.  She heard Mike cry out in alarm, but the situation was still well in hand. She rolled as Sleep Near reared up and attempted to trample her, sliding out of the way and retaliating with a sharp upwards kick that caught the monster in the midsection.  Sleep Near barked in pain and stumbled back, giving El a moment to regain her feet.

 

Pressing the advantage, she advanced on Sleep Near, letting out a series of swipes, right-left-right.  The monster retreated away from the blows, crouching and maneuvering as though it were seeking an opening.  The other thing had been right, this one was a lot less recklessly aggressive than the others had been, more cautious and methodical.  It made for a bit less pressure in the fight moment to moment, but...

 

There was the sound of a gunning engine.  Whether because it wasn’t built for speed or because Hopper wasn’t willing to drive as recklessly as Max, the Blazer had fallen behind them and was only now heaving into view, tires squealing as it pulled off the road and came to a stop.  Its occupants spilled out, Dustin advancing with the magnetometer from one side and Hopper with a long object in his hands on the other. There was a flash of movement as Lucas jumped out and sprinted over to Max’s car--

 

Sensing El’s attention drifting, Sleep Near charged her.  With only a moment to react, she chose to brace herself against the attack, feet gouging furrows in the ground as it pushed her backwards, her claws digging into Sleep Near’s sides as she grappled it.  It snarled, and its maw unfurled, plunging scores of daggerlike teeth into her side. El screamed in pain and wrenched herself away, blood spurting as she pulled free, but the movement made her overbalance and she collapsed, catching herself half-prone on one arm.

 

An incredibly loud sound blasted through the area as Hopper leveled and fired his shotgun.  The shot didn’t penetrate Sleep Near’s unnaturally tough flesh, but it carried enough force to knock it slightly off balance, and it whirled to seek the source of the unexpected attack.

 

Hopper didn’t let up, methodically firing four more shots at the monster before dropping to one knee so that he could reload.  Each hit made Sleep Near flinch and stumble a little more, and from her position on the ground, El pushed herself forward for another attack.

 

Her hands closed around its frontmost legs, and she lifted up with all her might.  Sleep Near shrieked in panic and then pain, and El felt something snap and crunch beneath her hands, the monster’s bones--or whatever supported its body structure--breaking under the stress of its body weight being hoisted into the air.  She flipped it over her head, slamming it down hard on its back, and it began to kick, lashing out blindly.  

 

El drove a foot into its head to stun it.  With the kicking momentarily stopped, she lunged forward and sank her claws into its belly, plunging them in as deep as they would go.  It shrieked again, and she tore out to either side, opening it up with a gout of deep black gore.

 

It convulsed once, twice, and then went limp.  As El stepped back, breathing heavily from the exertion, the corpse began to dissolve away the same way the others had.

 

“Fatality!” Dustin cheered.

 

Dude ,” Lucas hissed.

 

“Hey,” Mike’s voice said from behind El.  He was walking towards her, worry and relief mixed in his expression.  “Are you okay? You’re bleeding.”

 

“I’m fine,” El said.  “It’ll heal when I change back.”  She couldn’t help but note that Mike didn’t seem even slightly bothered by the fact that she was still in her monstrous form, or by the mismatch between her body and her voice.  It made her heart flutter gratefully--or whatever the closest equivalent was with her current anatomy.

 

“That was badass.”  Max was walking towards her too, with Will just behind her.  She watched thoughtfully as the last of Sleep Near’s corpse drifted away on the breeze.  “I can’t decide if it’s a good or a bad thing that their bodies disintegrate like that after they die.”

 

Will shrugged.  “Easy cleanup, anyway.”

 

El was about to say something in reply when the noise of another car engine cut through the air.  As everybody turned towards it, a battered green car came barrelling down the road, swerved around as its driver spotted them, and lurched to a stop at the side of the road.

 

“Oh--” Will said.

 

“-- shit ,” Hopper finished.

 

The car’s doors burst open, and Joyce and Steve leaped out.  Steve was carrying a baseball bat that he held aloft, as though he were standing at the plate and waiting for a pitch, and Joyce was carrying what looked like some kind of hunting rifle.  “You get the hell away from my son!” she yelled as she leveled it at El.  

 

Voices rang out in a tangled mess as everybody began yelling at once, Hopper and the others trying to get Joyce and Steve to stop, while Joyce and Steve yelled at them to get away from the monster.  Mike jumped in front of El, spreading his arms as though he could shield her, calling, “Mrs. Byers, wait!”

 

He could be sweet but stupid sometimes.  El reached forward and gently pushed him aside with one arm, out of the line of fire.  Joyce, seeing the movement and interpreting it as aggressive--or possibly just panicking--pulled her trigger, and a gunshot rang out.

 

The yelling stopped as quickly as it had begun.  Slowly, everybody turned to look at El.

 

She looked down at her chest, poking where the bullet had struck her with one finger.  It had hurt, in the same way that someone throwing a small rock at her might have hurt in human form.  The bullet had glanced off her skin without leaving a mark, though.

 

“We can explain,” she said, looking back up at Joyce, “if you could please calm down for a moment.”

 

Joyce gaped.  “What?”

 

“Now hold on--” Hopper started to say, but El was already shifting, shrinking down to her human form.  She walked forward as the last bits of the transformation completed, ending up a couple of yards in front of Joyce.  Mike had followed behind her, standing just off her shoulder like a bodyguard.

 

“Hi,” El said.

 

Joyce stared at her as if--well, there wasn’t really a comparison that was any weirder than what El had actually just done.  “H-hi,” she said back.

 

Steve just made a small noise, bat dropping to the ground.

 

“It’s okay,” El said.  “I’m not going to hurt anyone, and the other monster’s gone.  Everybody’s safe.”

 

“Yeah, mom, we’re okay,” Will said.

 

The sound of her son’s voice seemed to snap Joyce out of her amazement, and she rushed over to him.  “Will!” she cried, wrapping him up in a hug. “Oh thank god, thank god--”

 

“Ack!” he said.  “Mom, really, it’s fine!  I wasn’t in any danger.”

 

That was not true, but El figured this wasn’t the right moment to point that out.

 

“Everything’s fine, Mrs. Byers,” Max said, stepping forward.  “We--ack!” One of Joyce’s arms had unexpectedly lashed out and pulled her into the hug.

 

“Rookie mistake,” Mike murmured as Will and Max squirmed in Joyce’s embrace.  “I’m pretty sure Mrs. Byers thinks we’re all her kids.”

 

“Yeah, I’m seeing that,” El murmured back.  Mike grinned at her, and she grinned back, and then they were both laughing, the stress and exhaustion of what they had just pulled off pouring out of them in an outburst of hilarity.  It traveled outwards from them, catching Dustin and then Lucas--even Hopper couldn’t resist grinning and letting out a slight chuckle.

 

Steve, who was distinctly not laughing, crossed over to Dustin and shoved him lightly on the shoulder.  “What the hell, man,” he grumbled. “You freaked me out.” Dustin just kept laughing in response.

 

Finally, as the laughter petered out, Joyce let go of Max and Will, straightening up with a deep breath and turning towards Hopper.  “Hop,” she said, her voice all the more unnerving for how calm it was. “Do you want to tell me just what the hell is going on here?”

 

“It’s, um…”  Hopper stepped forward.  “It’s a long story, Joyce.  I mean, a really long story.  I’ll tell you everything, but we should probably…”  The sound of another car engine drifted through the air, distant but quickly growing closer.  “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

 

El sucked in a breath, and instinctively reached out to grab Mike’s hand.  He tried to squeeze hers reassuringly, but she could feel the tension in his grip.

 

“Hey, let’s go, let’s go!” Hopper called.  When nobody moved, he clapped his hands twice, loudly, the noise startling them into motion.  “Come on, pack it up, move out, now, now, now!”

 

“What the hell?!” Joyce said.

 

“Listen, Joyce,” Hopper said, his voice strained with the tension of keeping his tone calm.  “I’m going to tell you everything, I promise, but right now we need to get out of here--”

 

“What’s the big rush?” Steve asked.  He shook off Dustin, who was tugging at his sleeve.  “Who exactly are you afraid is going to find us here?”

 

Hopper’s expression turned stormy, but before he could respond, the approaching vehicle pulled up the road and into view.  Vehicles, actually--two black cars, identical, coming directly for them.

 

“Oh god damn it,” Hopper growled as they pulled to a stop at the side of the road.

 

“Chief!” Sam Owens said as he stepped out of the back of one of the cars.  Others were stepping out as well--people dressed up in dark suits like his, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses.  El clutched Mike’s hand tighter.

 

“Owens,” Hopper replied, trying and failing not to sound like Owens was the last person he wanted to see right now.  “You here to investigate the commotion?”

 

“Of course, it’s only my job,” Owens chuckled.  He nodded in greeting at Joyce. “Mrs. Byers. Good to see you.  Sorry you seem to have gotten mixed up in all this again.”

 

Joyce nodded, flashing him a brief smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.  She took a tentative step closer to Hopper.

 

“So,” Owens said, ambling closer to them as the other agents spread out and began investigating the area with devices that looked like Dustin’s, only more sophisticated.  “What exactly are you all doing out here, anyway?”

 

“Trees,” Mike blurted.

 

Owens raised his eyebrows.  “Trees?” he repeated.

 

“Yeah,” Mike nodded.  “We were… studying trees.  For school.”

 

Owens looked around pointedly.  There were only a handful of trees in evidence in the immediate area.  “So you were out here studying trees… and you got jumped by another one of these guys?  Seems like pretty bad luck to me.”

 

“Oh, the worst,” Max said.  She and Lucas were sitting together on the battered roof of her car, cuddled up to each other.  “We were lucky that the Chief was here keeping an eye on us this time.”

 

“Oh?” Owens looked over at Hopper.  “So am I to understand that the Chief took the monster out, then?”


“Uh--”

 

“No,” Lucas interjected.  “No, of course not. That would be ridiculous.  He just, uh, held it off, until--”

 

“Let me guess.  Our mysterious humanoid monster made a reappearance?”

 

“Um.”  Lucas swallowed.  “Yeah.”

 

“Uh-huh.  And then after it had taken care of the monster that attacked you…?”

 

“It disappeared again,” Dustin said.  There was a quick yelp of pain from Steve; he had been frowning at Dustin in confusion, and gotten kicked in the shin in response.  Dustin was giving Owens what he clearly thought was a winning smile. “You know, just… gone. Poof.”

 

“Poof,” agreed Owens.  “Well, that’s unfortunate.  I really would’ve liked to get a look at it.”

 

Was it El’s imagination, or had his gaze flickered over to her as he said that?

 

“I’ll be sure to invite you the next time I’m planning to get jumped by an interdimensional monster, then,” Hopper said dryly.

 

“Ha!” Owens laughed.  “This guy, I swear.” He walked forward and clapped Hopper on the shoulder, making Hopper’s scowl twitch slightly.  “Gotta be more careful, Chief,” he said. “Monsters coming out of the woodwork like this, you can’t just let these kids go running around anywhere they want.”

 

Hopper snorted.  “These kids would get into trouble with or without my help.”

 

“Heh.  I know the type.”  Owens turned towards his agents.  “We got what we need here?” One of them flashed him a thumbs-up.  “I guess that means I’m done. See you around, Chief--I’ll give you a ring if I need anything else.”

 

“Phew,” Lucas sighed as the two black cars pulled away.  “That was close. I thought he was going to call bullshit on us for sure--why didn’t he?”

 

“Hard to say,” Hopper said, peering at the retreating vehicles.  “Government man, he’s playing his games just as surely as we are.”  He shook his head and looked at El. “You alright, kid?”

 

She nodded.

 

“Alright, I’m thinking we’re long overdue to get out of here, then.”

 

“My place?” Joyce said.  “I mean, since you’ve apparently got a really long story to tell me, I might as well give you somewhere to recover while you tell it.”

 

“That’s… thanks, Joyce.  We appreciate it.” Hopper glanced over at Max.  “Mayfield, does that car of yours still work?”

 

Max looked dubiously at her car’s battered frame.  “I guess we’ll find out. What am I going to tell my parents about this…?”

 

“We’ll figure something out.  Come on, everyone!”