Jonathan is the first to leave that summer of '89, finally heading to NYU after years of working and saving. Nancy is also going to New York, having been accepted into the medical school at Columbia. And Steve is...well, no one really knows what he's doing but apparently he's tagging along.
The Byers and the Wheelers have a joint going-away party at the latter's house the night before they take off, simple hor d'oeuvres and champagne for those over 21. By the end of the evening Ted is asleep in the Lazy-Boy, Karen and Joyce are giggling over baby stories of their oldest kids and Hopper is watching Brian chase poor Holly around the house.
The kids have retreated to the basement where Steve lies on the couch with a serious buzz and Jonathan sits on the steps taking a few shots of everyone chatting. Dustin and Lucas are there, of course, plates heavily filled with snacks. Mike tells the story of when he and Steve caught each other sneaking in/out and everyone laughs, mostly at Steve. Nancy smiles, thinking to herself how naive she had been that night, how she had no idea what was to come. She looks around the room and realizes that they are all there, all eight of them. She briefly thinks of Barb, the only one to not make it through, her heart clenching. El looks at her, seeming to read her mind, and gives her the tiniest of smiles.
Dustin is next, leaving for Caltech in early August for a pre-orientation workshop. They have a celebratory last D&D game, one of the grandest they've done, spanning 19 hours. Even Eleven is involved, brought in for guest parts. Mike promises to have the sequel ready for Christmas.
They sleep in the basement that night, all huddled close together, enjoying even the sound of each other's breathing. El asks them to tell the story of how they all met, knowing most of the details but never hearing it all together.
"Well my mom knew Mike's mom so she would bring me over there to play with him and..."
"In first grade, Mike and Lucas were playing tag around the playground and ran into me and knocked me over. And then..."
"I moved here at the beginning of fourth grade and decided I would take pity on these losers and eat lunch with them. So I..."
"We went out to the woods looking for Will and found you instead."
Lucas departs a week later, trekking up to the University of Chicago. They have one last night with the stars and Mrs. Sinclair makes them her special devil's food cake.
"Now, El, you better come and visit me because it's going to be so quiet here without the boys."
El beams; she's the favorite of all her friends' parents. The boys roll their eyes because it's not like El isn't quiet herself.
They lie on the grass and dig through old memories, allowing themselves to be sentimental.
"Remember when we made up that scavenger hunt for Eleven?"
"Remember in fifth grade when you had the biggest crush on Ms. Finley?"
"Remember when you would wear a camouflage bandana?"
"Remember when Dustin farted?"
Joyce, Hopper and Brian take Will up to Indiana University the last week of August. Eleven is allowed to stay behind because Mike won't leave for Ann Arbor until the next day. She, Mike and Will watch all three Star Wars together the day before, soaking up these last moments of being at ease in each other's company.
Joyce is already weepy at breakfast and goes on and on about how proud she is of her boy. Will pretends to be embarrassed but secretly loves it. All he's ever wanted to do was make her happy, ever since he was a toddler watching Lonnie make her cry. Hopper simply makes comments about traffic and packing logistics, hoping to balance out Joyce's emotions. El makes silly faces at Brian while she cuts up his sausage.
When the time comes for them to depart, Will hugs her tightly, telling how much he'll miss her. Joyce can barely keep it together, so she gets right into the car, and El gives Brian five kisses before he's convinced to get in as well. Hopper gives her a hard stare and tells her to be good. She smiles sweetly back.
Later, when she's in her room, she finds a drawing from Will, a beautiful portrait of her, with "my sister" written on the back. She has to be careful not to get her tears on it.
Mike leaves the next morning, his parents turning a blind eye to the fact that he never came home last night. He's supposed to stop home and load up the rest of his things, but he's leaning outside the car, dawdling, still not quite ready. Eleven stands before him, eyes roaming his face, his hair, trying to memorize every detail, every freckle.
"I'll call you every day. And if you ever have nightmares, call me. I'm serious, I don't care what time it is, you call me."
She nods and promises to write as well.
Her hair tumbles down her back nowadays and she's pulled it into a loose braid. He fingers the end of it softly, too overwhelmed to look her in the eye, thinking of the little girl with the shaved head.
"I'll come back. I'll come back like you did." His voice no more than a whisper, any louder and it will crack.
They both know it's a bit silly for them to be so distraught over parting for college, but this will be the longest they've been apart since El burst into infinite molecules in front of Mike's eyes. And neither of them has ever forgotten that period, the long dark days in another world, the sheer hysteria of trying to find her.
And even though it's been a long time, maybe years, since they've said it, she whispers, "Promise?"
He swallows hard and shakily smiles, eyes darting up to hers. "Promise."
He gets into the car and drives away and she watches until he's gone. Then she turns to walk back inside. She's alone now, the only one to stay behind. She knew this was coming and she made the choice, but it doesn't make it any easier.
Then she hears tires on the gravel and turns in confusion to see Mike already flying out of the car. She only has time to widen her eyes before he's lifting her in his arms, clutching her close and kissing her like it could be the last time. She quickly gets over her surprise and grasps his head and puts all of her feelings into the kiss, because it doesn't matter how much they kissed last night, or how much they kissed this morning, this...this is everything. After a few moments their lips separate and he leans his forehead against hers and closes his eyes, saving this memory for the lonely days ahead. Then he gently sets her back down and she looks at him with a question in her eyes but a smile on her lips.
"I promised," he says with a little shrug and her smile widens even further.
"Okay, but I do really need to go now."