Dustin glanced at the clock for the umpteenth time that afternoon, inwardly groaning when he saw that they still had twenty minutes before it was officially the weekend and they would be free. He leaned back in his chair and continued tracing squiggles on the piece of paper they were supposed to be taking notes on.
Don't get him wrong, he loved math and solving equations, but it was Friday afternoon and their algebra teacher was droning on and on as she worked out the problem on the board at the slowest pace he had ever seen. He almost turned to complain to Mike, who was sitting in the desk to his left, when he saw that his friend was actually paying attention and copying down the entire problem on his paper. Dustin huffed in frustration and started sketching out a dragon, wishing very much that he could fly out of the classroom on the back of a dragon right now.
At the front of the room, Ms. Harrison's voice raised up a few notches, signaling that she was almost to the solution.
"And then we divide two from both sides and we have our answer. X equals...eleven!" she said with excitement.
Dustin sucked in a breath and instinctively looked over at his best friend. He watched as Mike's body stiffened, his face contorting into an expression of pain. His pencil clattered to the floor and he made no move to pick it up. He saw Mike's throat go up and down as he swallowed, hard, and turned to stare out the window, his hands clenching into fists. Dustin bent down to pick up Mike's fallen pencil and kept an eye on his friend for the rest of class, pretending not to notice when he wiped angrily at his eyes.
When the bell rang, Mike sprang from his seat and rushed out of the classroom, with Dustin following closely behind. They walked in silence out to the bike rack as Dustin tried to figure out what to say to him. Finally, he settled on "Of all numbers, it had to be that number", which earned him a quiet nod and a sniffle from Mike. When Lucas and Will arrived, Dustin quickly motioned to them, warning them not to say anything about Mike's demeanor. They understood right away.
There wasn't much conversation as they pedaled home. As the Wheeler house came into view, Dustin took one last look at his best friend, who looked like he was thisclose to falling over the edge. "You gonna be okay?" he asked when they reached his street. Mike wouldn't meet his eyes when he replied with a shaky "Yeah..."
Mike dumped his bike outside his basement door and hurriedly unlocked it, rushing inside as the lump in his throat got bigger and bigger. He felt the first tear fall when he passed her fort.
He ran up to his room, shut the door, threw himself onto his bed and let his emotions come as he stared up at the ceiling. The tears slid silently down his temples and he wrapped himself in a hug as he began to shake.
Ten long, torturous, shattered, desperate months.
For ten months, he's been falling apart. For ten months, he's been sobbing every night until his voice is hoarse. For ten months, his friends have tried to pick him back up. For ten months, he's fallen right back down.
Somehow, with each passing day it gets worse. He wakes up every morning hoping today will be the day-today will be the day her absence doesn't weigh him down. But as soon as he gets out of bed, something catches his eye-the picture of Will she pointed to, the mirror in the hallway she stared at herself in, his sweatshirt she wore for the first few days-and he's thrown right back into the storm.
To say he misses her is an understatement. To say he can barely stand life without the girl he fell completely and utterly in love and grew a connection that cannot be put into words with is a little bit more accurate.
He's been crying in his room for a little more than two hours when Hopper pounds on their front door.
When his mom calls for him, he only grunts in response, not feeling up for social interaction. His body is shaky and his eyes feel puffy from the amount of tears they produced in the past couple of hours. The second voice that calls his name most definitely does not belong to his mom, however.
"Mike, this is Chief Hopper! I need to speak with you and your friends right now, this is extremely important" Hopper calls.
His sigh is reluctant and resigning as he picks himself off his bed, opens his door and makes his way downstairs. He's surprised to see Dustin and Lucas already sitting in his living room. Taking a seat beside them, he whispers "What's going on?" They both shrug. "I dunno dude" Dustin says, "but the chief wouldn't call us all here if this wasn't serious." Mike studies Hopper, who seems restless and won't stop checking his watch. Dustin was right...Hopper definitely wasn't messing around.
When Will finally arrives, Hopper motions for him to sit down next to his friends. Mike's knee is bouncing up and down as he feels worry starting to creep into him. What could possibly be so urgent that Hopper needed to see the four of them specifically right now, at this hour?
Hopper gets down on his knees, so he's eye level with them. The four kids lean in expectantly, holding their breaths in anticipation.
"I need you kids to believe me" Hopper begins. "I'm not playing games with you. What I'm about to say is the truth. Got it?" The boys nod their heads, urging Hopper to tell them what's so important.
His eyes scan across each boy's face, before finally landing on Mike's. The chief stares straight at him and he shifts uncomfortably, knowing his eyes are probably still red. Finally, he exhales, never breaking eye contact with Mike, and says
"Eleven is alive. We're going to get her tonight."
Mike's stomach drops. His thoughts scatter in every direction and his brain goes completely blank. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears as it speeds up and he suddenly can't take a full breath. He's only vaguely aware of his friends excitedly chattering away, but all he can do as his vision narrows is repeat one thought over and over again.
Eleven. Alive. El. His El. She's alive. She's alive!
Suddenly, he leaps to his feet and fires panicked question after panicked question at Hopper. "Where is she?! How do you know? Did she tell you? Did you talk to her?! How long have you known this? Have you been keeping this from us? Do you know exactly how to get to her? Is she okay? Is she safe?! Please, Hopper, tell me she's safe!"
The room sways the more frantic he becomes. He needs to know, he needs to know she's okay!
Hopper sees the disoriented look in his eyes and guides him back to the couch, so he doesn't pass out right then and there. "Look, I don't have time to explain right now. But you guys have to trust me. Now, let's move, we've got a lot of preparation to do and a girl to find" Hopper says with authority. When no one says anything, he commands one more time "Let's move!" They all scramble up from their chairs and follow Hopper out the front door.
They pile into his police car and once they're on the road, Hopper explains everything.
They boys...well, mostly Mike, were not happy when Hopper tells them about the box in the woods he's been leaving food in for a while. He admits he should've told them sooner, but he didn't want to get their hopes up.
"So, what happened that made you sure it was El taking the food?" Mike asks impatiently.
"I had to drop off the Eggos this afternoon, rather than tonight, because I was supposed to have a meeting right now," Hopper explains. "Once I closed the lid on the box, a big capital 'H' appeared in the dirt next to me." He leaves out the part where he screamed and fell backwards, more for his sake than the kids'. "It ended up spelling 'H E L P'. I asked who they were and the numbers '0 1 1' appeared underneath the 'HELP'". The boys gasp and Hopper can see Mike's grin from where he's sitting. He goes on to explain how an arrow was drawn in the dirt and when he followed its direction, he watched as a small pulsating hole opened at the base of the tree in front of him.
"I told her to stay where she was and I almost went through when I saw her starting to write something else on the ground." They've reached a stoplight and Hopper turns around to look directly at Mike. "She wrote out your name."
A lump forms in Mike's throat and he covers his mouth with his hand. Dustin pats his back and chuckles. "And you said you weren't her Prince Charming" he says. Mike blinks back tears and it seems like he can't stop smiling.
Lucas threw up his hands. "Did she forget about us already?" "No, I asked if she wanted her friends, to clarify, and she spelled out 'YES'. But right after, she underlined Mike's name several times. Guess you're really special to her, kid."
And she's really special to me, Mike thinks, the lump in his throat growing bigger. He fell back in his seat, a warm, fizzy sensation starting to overtake the ache in his chest that's been there for ten months.
"Um...Hopper?" Will speaks up. "Are we going-"
"We're here," Hopper declares, cutting him off. He cuts the engine and they all climb out of the car. Hopper walks around back, opens the trunk and pulls out three bright yellow suits.
Wasting no time, he throws one to Dustin, Lucas and Will. "These are hazmat suits. They're just for protection." He pulls out a fourth one and steps into it, watching the boys as they struggle into theirs.
"Uh, Hopper? Where's mine?" Mike asks hesitantly.
"Kid, you're not going in there" Hopper responds as he slides his arms into the sleeves. Mike's mouth drops open and his brows furrow. "Are you serious?! I'm coming with you! I need to help El! She needs me!" he shouts back.
"Exactly," Hopper says as he walks over to Mike. Putting his hands on his shoulders, he looks him dead in the eye. "She needs you. That's why you're going to stay out here. If anything happens to you, it'll destroy her." With that, he turns to Dustin to help him with his helmet. Mike opens his mouth to argue, but then closes it when he realizes Hopper is right. He's no good to Eleven dead.
Will catches Hopper's sleeve as he passes him. "Hopper, I can't go back in there," he says forcefully. That place still haunts me everyday, please don't make me go back!" he begs. "Don't you want to help your friend?" Hopper responds. Will's eyes turn downward and Hopper sighs. "Alright, you can stay with Mike. I know how hellish that week was for you."
"Thank you!" Will says and scrambles out of his suit. Mike rushes over. "Hopper, does that mean I can-" "NO."
Hopper briefs Dustin and Lucas on the plan while Mike and Will trail silently behind. It's simple-they stay behind Hopper and watch their backs until they find Eleven. Once they make sure she's okay and she knows Hopper means no harm, they get out of there as fast as they can.
"There it is!" Hopper says as soon as he spots the portal. "Alright you boys ready? "Absolutely" the duo responds. "Mike, Will? If anything were to...happen..." he pauses, trying to find the right words. "Just...don't do anything stupid." They nod and Hopper gets down on his knees. "Be careful!" Will calls as Hopper takes one last look at them and makes his way through the hole. "Thanks Will! And don't worry Mike" Dustin says, turning to his friend with a smile as Lucas follows Hopper. "We'll find her." With that, he drops to his knees and crosses into the Upside Down.
There's a well-worn path in the fallen leaves where Mike has been pacing since they went in there. His thoughts are racing and the anticipation is killing him, unaware of Will silently observing him.
"She'll be okay, Mike" Will says reassuringly. Mike shoots him a weak smile and continues to pace back and forth. Back and forth.
It's starting to worry him how long they've been in there. His nerves are getting the best of him and he plops down next to Will, making a sound of frustration. He takes to just staring at the portal, willing them to come back out.
"You love her, don't you" Will suddenly says.
He's trained himself to say no when his friends start to tease him about his relationship with El, but every time he denies it, inside he knows he's absolutely lying. And friends don't lie, he realizes with a start. Screw it, he thinks. I don't care if the entire world knows.
So, he turns to look Will straight in the eye as he responds, "Yeah. I do. I really do."
Mike's heart leaps when Lucas, ten minutes later, comes bursting through the portal, followed closely by Dustin. He springs to his feet and repeats "Did you find her? Is she okay?!" over and over. Lucas shoots him a thumbs up as he sprints past him and Will. Mike gives Dustin a confused look, who rips off his helmet. Fighting for breath, he manages to get out "She's alive, we have to get Hopper's car started, so we can get her to a hospital as soon as possible."
"A hospital?! What's wrong with her?" Mike yells, the tears already forming in his eyes. "Don't worry about it, she'll be fine," Dustin replies, jogging past Mike. "Oh, and dude," he says spinning on his heel. "You should probably know she won't stop asking for you."
He grins before turning and running after Lucas, leaving Mike with his mouth hanging open. His breathing is rapid as his brain attempts to process what Dustin said. His thoughts are a mess, each one bringing more emotion than the last. She's alive and he's gonna get to see her it's been ten months and tonight's finally the night and she's coherent enough to ask for him, to ask for HIM specifically, El wants him and gosh, he wants her she's alive and he's gonna get to see her-
Will's voice interrupts his string of thoughts. "Mike, look!" When he turns around
the world dissolves. All that is left is him, her and the person carrying her.
She's right there. She's right there. She's right there.
His emotions build. One right after another, they crash into each other, creating an overwhelming, swirling mess.
His guilt for not being strong enough. His fear for her safety that daily consumed his thoughts. His desperate longing to be by her side. His undying, fiery, fierce love for her.
All of it came out as one strangled, raw, emotional cry as he screamed her name for the last time.
At the sound of his voice, her head turns and when their eyes meet, she screams his name in return, stretching her arms out, reaching for the boy she cared for and loved so deeply.
Suddenly he's running and Hopper meets him in the middle, ready to hand her over. The tears pour down his face as he slips one arm under her legs and the other around her back. Her hands grasp onto his jacket and once she's secure in his arms, he sinks to the ground and cries like he's never cried before.
Their sobs are uncontrollable and covered in tears. Her arms are wrapped tightly around his shoulders as he buries his face in her hair, letting out all the grief that had been mounting since the day the universe ripped them apart. And she's shaking, every part of her is shaking so badly as she clings to him and sobs into his neck.
He becomes aware that he's repeating her name and she's repeating his as if they're still trying to convince themselves that the other is alive.
She's alive, she's breathing and she's holding him like she never wants to let go.
The only reason she pulls back after a while is to see his eyes. She places her hands on his cheeks and cradles his face as she soaks in every detail the best she can with tears swimming in her vision. She hasn't stopped whispering his name, amazed at how one syllable can feel so good against her tongue.
It's him. It's her Mike. He's alive, he's breathing and he's holding her like he never wants to let go.
Ten months of cold, empty, dark desolation and she's finally back in the warmth and the security of his arms, which are still wrapped tightly around her back and her legs as he gives her a wobbly smile.
They both let out a shaky, almost disbelieving giggle, and she embraces him one more time. "Can you stand?" she hears him ask. Her brows furrow and she looks down at her legs. She can tell he's following her gaze when he suddenly gasps and his body tenses.
It looks worse Right-Side Up, if that's even possible. For a little over a week, a deep gash running the length of her shin has been bleeding on and off and turning colors she's not even sure are natural. Not to mention she's pretty sure the texture it's become means it got infected somehow. It hurt like heck when she slipped in her attempt to climb a tree, where she was intending to stay until her mysterious wooden box was refilled, and a branch clawed through her skin. Moving around on it had only made it worse.
His voice is tinged with worry as he asks, "Does it hurt to walk?" She bites her lip and nods, not meeting his eyes. She didn't like the feeling of being a burden, but in her last few days in the Upside-Down, she had only gotten up and walked when she absolutely had to and even then, she couldn't do it for very long.
"Hey Hopper?" Mike calls and El looks over his shoulder to see that the chief hadn't left, but had turned his back to give them some privacy. Hopper makes his way over and raises his eyebrows expectantly. "I...I can't carry her..." Mike mumbles, his face turning a shade of red. The shame is clear on his face and El's heart aches for him. "It's okay Mike," she softly reassures him, squeezing his shoulders. He shoots her a small, grateful smile, before she feels Hopper's arms take the place of where Mike's had been. Her hand clamors for his and his thumb traces circles on her knuckles as Hopper carries her all the way back to the car.
She sees that Dustin, Lucas and Will have all squeezed into the front seats of the car when they finally get there. Mike lets go of her hand to open the back door and Hopper sets her down. She gingerly slides into the back seat, suddenly becoming aware of how little she's had to eat that day and how the emotional intensity of the last couple of hours hasn't helped at all. When Mike gets in, she slumps against him and her eyelids flutter closed when his arms wrap protectively around her.
She's about to drop into a deep slumber when she suddenly realizes he's trembling. She raises her head just enough to see that he's been watching her. A single tear falls over his lashes and she gazes into his eyes, finding the same emotion that's swirling around her chest. She doesn't think twice before gently kissing his cheek, causing him to grin. She settles her head back onto his shoulder and it isn't long before she succumbs to her exhaustion. She falls asleep curled up beside him and they don't leave each other's side for a very, very long time.