Michael Wheeler had, just a few hours earlier, risked his own life in an effort to draw a raging horde of fanged, clawed, flower-faced trans-dimensional demon dogs into an underground tunnel system with him by setting the whole network ablaze. It had, of course, been terrifying as fuck.
He didn't think it came remotely close to the nervousness he was feeling now. He was sitting in the backseat of Steve's car, with Lucas and Max at his side. Dustin rode up front with Steve himself (in a bizarre twist of fate that Mike tried and failed to understand, the two seemed to have spontaneously developed a strong, almost brotherly bond). Nobody was saying a word, which was perfectly fine with Mike. He doubted he'd be able to talk if he tried.
Three hundred and fifty three days.
And fifteen hours, twenty-seven minutes and approximately thirty-one seconds, assuming the count begins at seven a.m. the day after she disappeared, a little voice in the back of Mike's head chipped in helpfully. He ignored it.
Three hundred and fifty three days. And now he was going to see her.
Of course he had seen her earlier that night, but that had been different. For sure, he had felt about as joyful as he could ever remember feeling when he saw her walk through the Beyers' front door, hair (she had hair now!) slicked back, eyes dark with liner and looking, in Mike's opinion, like a million bucks. But then, they had had a task to focus on. The gate needed to be closed. The joy of their reunion had been dampened with that knowledge, and the realization that one or both of them was likely to die in the events that followed. They barely had a chance to exchange greetings and a long, long hug before they were split apart again.
But it was over now. Minutes of tense silence had passed after he, Dustin, Lucas, Max and Steve had climbed up out of the tunnels, none of them uttering a sound. Then Mike's Supercom had crackled, and he had grabbed at it frantically, hands trembling with equal parts hope and fear.
"This is the chief. Does anybody copy? Over," came Hopper's gravelly, distorted voice.
"Yeah — chief, it's Mike. We copy. We're all okay. Over," Mike had replied, heart pounding so hard he thought it might explode out of his chest. The others eagerly clustered around to hear Hopper's response.
"She did it. Gate's closed. Looks like all the dog things went with it. Eleven's passed out but she's alive. I'm taking her back to my place. Over and out," came the reply, and the line went dead.
A cheer went up from the kids. Lucas, Dustin, and Max exchanged a wild three-way hug, with a protesting Steve roped in by one of Dustin's burly arms ("Ow — Jesus, watch it, punk, I'm bruised as shit, if you haven't noticed!"). Mike felt like a huge blast of oxygen had been shot into his chest with a cannon; he realized he hadn't been breathing and took in several great lungfuls of air.
Eleven's passed out but she's alive, he repeated to himself, and felt a huge shameless grin spreading out over his face. She's okay and she's with the chief and I'm going to see her with no stupid monster in the way.
They had driven back to the Byer house, throwing up the door to greet a very tired and ill-looking Will and give Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy the good news. Mike, after ensuring Will was indeed alive, began to pace incessantly, thinking about Eleven. Now that the initial shock of relief had passed, jumbled nerves and paranoia came in its place. Would she be okay? What if closing the portal turned out to be too much after all, and she slipped into a coma or something? Would Hopper know what to do?
And what if, Mike chewed his lip nervously. What if she doesn't like me? As soon as he thought it he tossed his head angrily, shaking away the intrusive thoughts as a bull might shake off flies. Stupid, he chastised himself. That's not what you should be worrying about right now. Be grateful she's back. And that she's alive.
Suddenly his Supercom crackled again. Once more, Hopper's gruff voice came out.
"Alright," he said. "The kid woke up and she won't shut up about seeing all of you. You can drive on over if you want. Over."
Mike almost dropped the walkie-talkie in his haste to reply. "We'll be right there!" he promised. "Over and out."
Now, they were driving up the narrow road leading to Hopper's cabin. The little wooden house became visible through the trees. Mike had the door open and was running for the entrance before Steve had even stopped the car ("Hey, you little shit, don't get yourself killed now after all the monster crap!"). With Dustin, Lucas and Max at his heels, he barged through the unlocked front door and found himself facing the tall, beige-clad form of the chief, who had to grab Mike by the shoulders to prevent the excited teenager from colliding with him.
"Woah, easy, kid," Hopper warned. "Now, she's drained as hell and frankly I wouldn't have let you kids come if there was another way to stop her from nagging my ear off. So don't get her excited, huh? You can talk for a few minutes but I want you all out of here as soon was you've said your hellos. She needs rest. So keep it calm, keep it quick and keep it quiet." He looked from kid to kid. "Am I clear?"
The four teens nodded solemnly. Dustin snapped a comically rigid salute that clearly did little to amuse Hopper. After giving him a stoic glance, the chief nodded slightly, extending an arm to indicate Eleven's room. They surged forward, Mike walking just a little faster than the others, and opened the door.
Eleven's prone, black-clad form lay on a bed in the corner of the room. Mike walked toward her, not really feeling his legs, as her eyes turned toward him. They locked on his, and Mike felt his heart swell so suddenly and so powerfully that he almost gasped out loud. His final step toward the bed seemed to take a million years, his feet moving as though trapped in amber like one of those mosquitoes you would see at a museum. Her eyes were dark, dark pools.
Mike had to blink to make sure she was really there. She wasn't a mirage, she wasn't a dream like the countless ones he'd had in the past three hundred and fifty-three days. In them she would seem so real, so beautiful, so there, and she would talk to him and tell him she was back, that friends don't lie and she said she would come back so here she was, until he would touch her and she would vanish, dissolving into smoke before his eyes.
He completed the eternity-long step. One of her small, pale hands reached up toward him weakly. He took it in his own. It was warm. She didn't dissolve into smoke.
"El," Mike heard himself say, and suddenly he was leaning down over the bed and she was in his arms and he was in hers, and he felt tears coursing down his cheeks for the second time that evening.
"Mike," she whispered, voice muffled against his hair. He tried to respond but his voice wouldn't work. He had already told her that he had never given up on her, that he called every day for three hundred and fifty three days, hoping against hope for a response. He had so much more to say, but right now, he wasn't sure if he could get it out.
After either a decade or a second — Mike couldn't tell which — they broke apart, and Mike stepped back, suddenly very aware of the presence of his friends. "Uh," he stammered, wiping his face in a way that he hoped was surreptitious (it wasn't). "I — I'm really glad you're okay."
She gave him that small smile he remembered so well - lips closed, little dimples appearing in her cheeks. It was a breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful smile.
Dustin and Lucas surged forward to replace him.
"Good job, dude," Lucas said bracingly, leaning over to give her a tight hug. Her smile broadened a little and one hand reached up to squeeze Lucas's shoulder. It was a very Hopper gesture.
"Hell of a good job," Dustin agreed, grinning widely. His voice rose in excitement. "Man, you should've seen those demo-dogs, they just ran right past me and Steve and I thought—"
"Hey!" Hopper shouted warningly from across the cabin. "What'd I say about volume?"
"Sorry!" Dustin apologized. Then, more quietly: "Hypocrite." Mike, Lucas and Max sniggered. El didn't know a hypocrite was, but seeing her friends laugh made her laugh, too.
Max, seeing El's smile, felt emboldened enough to take a deep breath and step up alongside Lucas. "Hey, El," she greeted. "I, uh, introduced myself before. But, um…" She was suddenly unsure what to say. The introduction earlier in the evening had consisted of a very pissed-looking El shouldering past her without a word. "I just wanted to say good job, and, uh, thanks," Max finished lamely, and chewed her lip nervously.
Eleven's smile disappeared. She observed the red-haired girl through narrowed eyes, remaining dead silent. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin exchanged nervous glances, sensing the tension but not understanding it. After a couple seconds, Dustin, ever the diplomat, spoke up.
"So, El, what happened? What was the gate like?" he asked, grinning at her.
"Yeah, and did the Mind Flayer try to stop you from closing it?" Lucas added eagerly.
El bit her lip. "It was… dark. Cold. Red." She looked at Lucas. "He did try."
The group gasped and leaned forward as one. "How did you beat him?" Dustin asked in a hushed tone.
El shrugged. "I got angry. Thought about…" She glanced at Max. "Bad things."
"And it made you stronger than him?" Mike said. He chewed his lip, eyebrows contracting thoughtfully. El watched him, tired eyes suddenly alight with adoration. There was something about the way he would stare at nothing in particular and just think so visibly, gears grinding in his head for all the world to see, that made her feel warm inside. It was one of the things — one of the many things — she hadn't even realized she missed about him.
Lucas noticed her mushy expression and rolled his eyes.
"Like the Hulk," Dustin exclaimed in response to El's earlier statement. It was Max's turn to roll her eyes. Dustin didn't notice. "Man, that's so sick," he said. "You're like a bunch of superheroes all rolled into one."
El smiled tiredly. Mike suddenly noticed how drained she looked. There were dark circles under her bloodshot eyes, and her skin was pale and clammy. She had faint red smears running from her nose to her upper lip, and her ears down the side of her neck. Her eyeshadow (where the hell had she gotten eyeshadow from?) was smudged and runny. Her eyes themselves were heavily lidded, repeatedly drooping closed and then fluttering open again as the girl fought to stay awake even through the conversation. Mike cleared his throat.
"El, do you want us to leave you alone so you can get some sleep?" he asked. The last thing he wanted was to leave, of course, but her comfort and health were more important.
In response, she yawned hugely. Mike noticed her teeth, imperfect and a little crooked. They were very cute teeth, as teeth went.
"Don't want you to leave," she murmured. She yawned again. "Tired, though."
On cue, Hopper stuck his head through the door. "Actually, Wheeler's right. She needs rest. And you kids could probably do with some, too."
"Ah, come on, we just got here," Dustin protested. Hopper raised an eyebrow and Lucas rammed an elbow into Dustin's ribs. "I mean, yeah, we probably could," he added hastily, rubbing his side and throwing Lucas a reproachful glance.
The four teenagers rose from their crouching positions. El followed them with her eyes as Lucas, Dustin, and Max turned to leave. Mike hesitated, staying by the bed. He glanced between El and the others.
"Mike, come on—" Lucas began, but Dustin stepped on his foot. "Ouch! What the—"
Dustin jerked his head at Mike and El meaningfully.
"Oh," Lucas said, catching on. "Yeah, okay. Right." He exchanged a glance with Max, who shrugged. "Meet you outside, Mike."
"I'll be out in a second," said Mike. The three left, leaving him and El alone. For a long moment there was silence as the two stared at each other, greedily absorbing the other's presence.
"I'm really glad you're home," he said finally, quietly.
"Me too," El said, equally quietly. She reached out and took his hand. It was so much larger than hers, she realized. Mike had grown in the past three hundred and fifty-three days.
"I'll come right over tomorrow," Mike promised. "As soon I'm out of school. I'll bring Dustin and Lucas and Max and we'll do something fun, okay?"
El frowned momentarily at the mention of Max's name. She didn't like to hear it coming out of Mike's mouth. But the excitement of seeing him tomorrow — and Lucas and Dustin, of course — was far more prominent, and the frown quickly turned into a smile. "Okay, Mike," she said.
He stood. "See you tomorrow, then?
El nodded. "Three one five?" she asked.
She remembers, Mike thought. She remembers what time I get out of school. "Yeah, three one five," he told her. "Promise."
She smiled. Mike opened his mouth to say something more, then closed it, then opened it again.
"El, I…" He trailed off.
"Yes?" she prompted.
I think you're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and oh God I missed you so much but now you're back and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.
"Nothing," he said. "I—I missed you a lot." There was something different about his voice when he said it, something low and quiet that somehow sounded sorrowful and joyous at the same time. He looked at the floor, turning a light shade of pink.
"I missed you, too," she told him, and he smiled.
Eleven had his smile fixed in her mind when, minutes later, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. It was the first dreamless sleep she had had in three hundred and fifty three days.