Eleven shows up suddenly that next July, huddled in the woods next to Hopper's box, hoping he'll come back soon. She's not sure how she got here, her memory of everything is hazy at best, but she recognizes the spot. He'll come back soon, she just knows it. And he still scares her a little, but maybe he'll bring her to Mike or Joyce. Somewhere safe.
Later that day, with the shadows of the trees growing longer, there finally comes the faint crunching of twigs under boots. Hopper's not quite paying attention, thoughts lingering on the day's events, but then he rounds the bend and sees her. She's curled up, dirt everywhere, wearing the same pink dress but stained and torn. Her hair is a little longer but he knows those eyes. They're wide and wary and tired. He only lets his shock last a moment before he launches back into sheriff form and coaxes her into letting him carry her back to the truck. She's exhausted enough that she doesn't fight and he tells her that they'll go right to Joyce. She'll know what to do.
Joyce turns her head as she hears the door creak open and is about to greet Hopper when she sees the bundle in his arms.
"Is that –"
"Yeah. I found her in the woods – she was practically asleep. Hasn't said a word."
"Here, bring her to the couch."
He gently sets her down and El turns her head toward Joyce, eyes brightening just a bit. The older woman is thinking of running a bath, of where she has clean pajamas, but upon seeing her eyes pulls the girl into her lap. She cradles her softly, stroking her head and murmuring words she's mostly used for Will these past months.
"Oh sweetie – you're ok. You're safe. You're safe. I won't let anything happen. You're safe. Oh my brave girl! You found us didn't you? We'll keep you safe," she whispers and El curls her fingers into Joyce's shirt. It's a half hour before she can get the girl in the bath and then fresh clothes. Hopper makes her macaroni and cheese – if there's ever a moment for comfort food, it's now. After wolfing it down, she finally speaks.
Joyce immediately calls the Wheeler house and gets Nancy, who tells the boys that they all need to go to Will's house, right away. Will is scared for his mom at first, but the other three each have a small hope that they'll find their lost friend there. No one dares share that hope aloud. The bike ride over is quick but silent.
Meanwhile, it's decided that Eleven will stay with the Byers, Joyce adamant that she "cannot let that little girl go another day without a real home." She and Hopper are discussing the details when they hear hurried footsteps on the porch. The door bangs open to reveal Will, who runs to his mom, and Mike, who freezes in the doorway because he can't believe the sight before him. This girl on the couch, this girl whose face has become gaunt and hair has started to grow, but has the same eyes he sees in his sleep. Lucas is trying to push him forward and Dustin is yelling from the back, "What's going on? Go already!"
Mike stumbles forward as the other two run right over to the couch to embrace El. Joyce and Hopper quickly stand, worried that they're scaring her, but she has a small smile when the boys release her. They're asking question after question, directing them to El, Joyce, Hopper, anyone.
"Where were you?"
"How did you get back?"
"Did you kill any more monsters?"
Joyce starts to explain everything to them, while Mike finally edges toward Eleven until he's sitting next to her. She only has to whisper his name and he's hugging her tightly, tears prickling his eyes because even though he believed she was out there, even though he kept the blanket fort and spent months screaming into the replacement Heathkit and walking the perimeter of the Hawkins Lab property and checking his compass every morning, he was so scared he wouldn't find her. She's clutching him back, nose pressed into his neck and eyes scrunched shut, and it's not until the chatter dies down that they disengage. Will is hesitantly standing before them, waiting to be properly introduced.
Nancy brings over boxes of old clothes for Eleven to pick through. El gravitates toward the soft colors and fabrics – pink sweaters and grey leggings and pale dresses. Mike gives her his blue sweatshirt, the one she originally wore, thinking it might comfort her (she sleeps in it every night). Her hair could almost be a stylish pixie now, except for the stubborn cowlick in the back.
She gets cold easily, as if she was never warm enough. She loves thick socks and wrapping herself in blankets in the living room and Mike's basement. Nancy notices and gets her leg warmers, pink of course. She insists that they're really fashionable. The boys tease El about them but she loves them and always wears them around the house.
They move Will into Jonathan's room, and put bunk beds in there, which Will thinks is awesome. Jonathan feels better knowing that his brother is just above him at night, even though it's been months since he returned. Hank takes to sleeping next to El's bed, having quickly grown attached to the girl. Will gives her his walkie-talkie, with an intuition that she might need it more than him. They live too far out for it to reach the other boys' homes, but on nights where she wakes up in a panic, heart racing worse than ever, she'll give the connection an extra push and whisper for Mike. He keeps his in his bed while he sleeps and always wakes up when she calls.
"Did you have a nightmare?"
He'll tell her she's ok and remind her that Joyce is just down the hall (and usually so is Hopper). And if she really needs him, he always says, he'll hop on his bike right now. Then he'll try to think of random things, something to explain to her, get her mind off the scary dream.
"Do you know what a Happy Meal is?"
"Did I tell you about trick-or-treating?"
"Have you ever seen snow?"
And he'll ramble until her heart slows back down to match the thumping of Hank's tail next to the bed.
Eleven doesn't go to school with the boys. They figure out she's at a second grade reading level, with holes here and there. She had very few books back then, back in the before. Joyce patches together an education from old workbooks and extra copies of Mr. Clarke's lessons and the set of encyclopedias at the Wheeler house. She especially loves learning new words and keeps a battered copy of Webster's Dictionary by her bed. And even though it's for babies, she learns a lot from Sesame Street.
Still, she sometimes wishes she could be with her friends during the schooldays. Mike comes home with Will every day, until El starts meeting them in the field behind the school on nice days, often anxious to share the new words she's learned or ask a science question. But mostly she's just happy to be surrounded by them as they jabber on about their day.
The boys are quick to give her their own version of an education, explaining the long and tangled mythology of Batman and the X-Men and the Flash, just to name a few. They hold their breath during the first Star Wars viewing, but are relieved when she loves it and wants to rewind the tape and rewatch immediately. El and Lucas start up "shooting practice" with his wrist rocket. She lifts cans and toys for him to aim at, moving them a little quicker each round. He swears up a storm, but loves the challenge. Dustin tries and fails miserably, much to Lucas' delight.
Mike looks at her sometimes like he's trying to commit her to memory, as if she could disappear again at any second. They hold hands sometimes when they walk or when they all squeeze together on his couch to watch movies. But it's a long time before they kiss again.
She gets her first period six months in, finally at a healthy weight. Luckily it's the middle of a school day and only Joyce is home. El is in the bathroom, feeling a little ill, when she sees the blood and realizes it's coming from her. She starts to panic and calls for Joyce,
"Bad. Bad. Blood."
The fear has her reverting to single words instead of sentences. All she can see is the red and feels like it's dripping from her ears, from mice, from the eyes of the bad men. Joyce barges in, expecting a deep cut or gash, and almost laughs in relief once she realizes what's going on.
"Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. I never had to do this with the boys, I just didn't think about it."
Joyce helps her clean up and explains everything. "The same thing happens to me. It happens to Nancy. It'll happen to baby Holly someday. It's normal and healthy."
El spends the rest of the day curled up on the couch and the boys are told that she's just under the weather. Somehow she understands that this is only for girls, and doesn't bring it up to her friends.
Eleven is the first to know, the first to detect. When Joyce brushes by her in the kitchen, when she holds her on the couch… there's something different there. Something new, an extra humming in the air. El keeps it secret, but Joyce notices the look in the girl's eyes and wonders…maybe…maybe she knows.
Three months in, after everyone knows, the family sits around the table after dinner, Hopper having officially moved in at last. They're talking about the new baby and taking guesses at the sex. Will thinks it's a girl, because what are the odds of having a third boy? Jonathan agrees and they look at El next to hear her guess.
"It's a boy"
Jonathan chuckles and Will leans forward to ask, "Wanna take a bet?"
She says it so seriously that everyone pauses, realizing that she probably does know. Then Joyce smiles, her eyes crinkling, and laughs, "Well good, because you're the only girl for me."
Hopper smiles, secretly happy because he isn't sure he can do another baby girl.
They let Eleven pick her birthday, and she chooses April 11, because Mike told her that's when everything starts to grow again after the long cold winter.
The first birthday they throw her is the most magical. The boys take her on a scavenger hunt around town where she finds trinkets and candy and even a special drawing from Will. He's drawn the whole group as their D&D personas, but added El with a cape, because he still thinks of her as a superhero. No one is exactly sure of her age (although Joyce and Hopper can guess) so they put just one candle in the center of the cake. Nancy brings over pink and white streamers and they decorate the dining room and make a crown for the birthday girl to wear.
Joyce gives her a fluffy blanket and Nancy gives her an array of chapsticks in all different scents, because "you never know when you might need them." Jonathan gives her a framed photo, one he took months ago when no one was looking. In it, the kids are all running in the leaves, Dustin throwing up a whole handful. El is laughing like she's never known unhappiness.
Hopper gives her a bike, her very own with a headlight and even a basket, which he tells her is for her snacks. When he first tells Joyce about the idea, he adds that he's not too keen on El always riding with Mike on his bicycle. Joyce lightly reprimands him with a smack, but secretly is delighted by such a fatherly instinct. She thinks of the little one who's soon to come and knows he'll always be looked after.
The kids run around the yard with sparklers after, Hank chasing and barking. El stares at the lights with glee and Will tells her all about the big fireworks she'll see on the 4th of July. When Will goes inside to the bathroom, and Dustin and Lucas are on the other end of the yard using their sparklers as lightsabers, Mike stands next to El as her sparkler dies down.
"Yeah. El? Did you have a good birthday?"
She nods enthusiastically and goes in for a hug, but his mouth meets hers on the way. It's quick like the first time, but softer and she knows to kiss back. Mike's glad it's too dark for the others to see his blush when they wander back over.
Brian James Hopper is born on July 26, 1985, a year to the day after Eleven's return.
The kids are at the movie theater, seeing Back to the Future for the second time. It's all they've talked about for the past weeks, ever since they originally went. Mike and Lucas debate the fact that the DeLorean seems to travel through both time and space, Dustin wonders if Eleven could somehow use her powers to time travel, El is fascinated by the 50s setting and Will harbors a secret crush on Michael J. Fox. They're sitting in the last row and Dustin keeps mumbling to himself in awe until Lucas throws popcorn at him to shut up. Mike holds Eleven's hand, because he knows that sometimes the volume in the theater overwhelms her. And because he uses any excuse to hold her hand. Will stares wide-eyed at the screen, but is interrupted by Jonathan sneaking in to grab his shoulder. It's time. They have to go to the hospital.
It's a long day of waiting and Mike, Lucas and Dustin are called home to their families. Eventually Hopper comes out to announce that it's happened, he's here, their brother is here. He's sweaty and his hair is a mess, but El can feel the happiness radiating out of him. It bounces around her and she's tempted to reach her hand out to grab it.
It's another wait before they're allowed into the room, where Joyce is propped up in bed with a tiny mewling bundle in her arms. It doesn't escape her that a year ago she was holding Eleven this way on the couch. Hopper stands next to the bed, unable to take his eyes off the baby. Will runs right up to take a look and Jonathan has a flashback of being very young but seeing Will for the first time.
El hangs back by the door. She's never seen a real baby this close before ahd is worried she'll do something wrong. But Joyce beckons her closer and Hopper picks her up to sit next to Joyce on the bed. She carefully shows El how to place her arms and then gently places Brian in them. He'd cried for Will, cried for Jonathan, but immediately calms with her. It's been scary day for him, suddenly out in the air and light, but right here he feels warm and safe.
The end of summer will come soon with all its changes – the boys will start high school, Nancy will cross the country for college, Jonathan will move in with Steve (of all people) and work two jobs saving for school, Will won't be able to keep his problem a secret much longer – but in this moment, Eleven has never been calmer.